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Mid-Summer Viewing Post

Although the global theatrical box office fell by 80% in 2020 due to Covid there’s still plenty of screening content being created.  Of course the thing about streaming is that you do have to turn on an electronic device to select from the tens of thousands of hours available on various platforms.  (On the streaming wars see: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/07/05/streaming-services-compared-revenue-arpu-for-netflix-disney-more.html.) 

Netflix alone seems to add a new series almost every day.  There’s now a bunch on medical themes; also one for dog lovers and one for cat lovers; two seasons of one on human babies.  There’s even a new 6-episode series How to Become a Tyrant. [*On the Kanopy platform (free linked to a public library card) one can find the 2018 documentary Active Measures which covers the deep ties between Putin’s corrupt regime as Russian overlord and the deeply corrupt Trump empire and campaign.  Fortunately Trump’s strongman ambitions were halted though he continues to be a malign influence on the American body politic.]  A new true crime series Heist making effective use of reenactments is hopefully also not a source of inspiration.  Several episodes concern a brazen robbery by Cuban expats at an airport.  Protests in Cuba are currently making news.  So maybe that’s why Netflix has just added the 8-episode 2016 docuseries The Cuba Libre Story.  It’s a good introduction to Cuban history (including the fact that Fidel Castro was the illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner).

The proliferation of streaming choices is not always time well spent (a better choice might be unplugged with a good book) but becomes habit forming given so much added video content accessible at any time of one’s choosing.  Not to forget older material.  I’m a big fan of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) TV channel, recently watching two of the best offerings—Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and from Preston Sturges The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek  (1943). 

            The Cannes film festival, cancelled last year, did go ahead earlier in July, and of particular note was its premiere of another documentary series The Story of Film: A New Generation by the cinephile scholar Mark Cousins who previously created two epic series—the 15-part The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011) and the 14-part Women Make Film: A New Road Movie through Cinema (2018). This new docuseries covers the past decade of global filmmaking and I can’t wait to see it. [See also: https://variety.com/2021/film/global/mark-cousins-the-story-of-film-a-new-generation-1235011727/.  For more on the offerings at Cannes see this Indiewire podcast featuring Eric Kohn and Anne Thompson: https://www.indiewire.com/2021/07/cannes-2021-movies-hype-1234651907/.]

            And coming in August and a must for cinephiles, the platform Hollywood Suite (https://hollywoodsuite.ca/) will present the Canadian premiere of the superb six-part CNN docuseries The Movies (A+).   Not to be outdone, Netflix has added a 2019 series The Movies that Made Us and also The Holiday Movies that Made Us.

            Harking back to Hollywood musical song-and-dance fantasies of yesteryear is a new series on Apple TV+ called Schmigadoon! (A-) which is the name of a magical place that a young couple find themselves in. (I had to laugh because “schmig” was the first part of my former parliamentary email address.)  Early episodes are being added to weekly.  It is light-hearted fun that deserves good reviews such as this one: https://www.rogerebert.com/streaming/apple-tvs-schmigadoon-puts-on-a-dazzling-self-aware-show.

Now read on for my take on some other summertime views, starting with the best.

Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised) (U.S. 2021, Disney +) A+

The summer of 1969 is best known for the Apollo moon landing and in terms of music culture the legendary Woodstock festival.  Overlooked for decades was the third Harlem Cultural Festival that took place on successive summer weekends.  It was all recorded but the video footage languished in a basement for a half century.  Is it because the artists and the audiences were African American?  In any event, thanks to director Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson we can now experience the highlights that include mesmerizing performances from the likes of Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, and many others—a range of soul, blues, jazz, pop, gospel and more.  Recall the febrile atmosphere of the times in the wake of assassinations, the intensity of civil rights and Vietnam war protests.  There was also the moon landing though the huge sums spent on the space race didn’t impress many African Americans. As Variety critic Owen Glieberman comments: “It’s a music documentary like no other, because while it’s a joyful, cataclysmic, and soulfully seductive concert movie, what it’s really about is a key turning point in Black life in America.”  [*Interestingly, Jimi Hendrix never performed at this “Black Woodstock” while at the other Woodstock his searing rendition of the American national anthem ranks among its most indelible moments.  For the reasons why and a video see: https://www.moviemaker.com/summer-of-soul-why-jimi-hendrix-didnt-play-the-black-woodstock/.]

McCartney 3,2,1 (U.S. 2021, Disney +, see also https://www.paulmccartney.com/)  A+

The year’s most anticipated documentary is Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back scheduled for release in late November.  This 6-episode Hulu production is a wonderful warm up to why The Beatles songs made such an impact in the 1960s.  The set-up is deceptively simple, filmed in black and white before a recording console as a conversation between producer Rick Rubin and McCartney, now in his late 70s.  What we get is insight into the creative musical and songwriting genius that McCartney brought to the best work by this legendary group. Let the Beatlemania begin.

Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain (U.S. 2021)  A+

I was delighted to be able to see this on the big screen, a first in many months.  And master documentarian Morgan Neville’s portrait of the celebrity chef and world traveler does not disappoint. Although it opens with a brief reflection by Bourdain on death it barely mentions his suicide in 2018.  Instead we get a full course of his sometimes troubled and always fascinating adult life.  Bourdain was a complex and contradictory character, a chain-smoking former heroin addict, who shot to fame with the publication of Kitchen Confidential.  The documentary is produced by CNN Films and I became aware of his culinary prowess and curiosity via the CNN series “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”.  [For further comment see: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/roadrunner-a-film-about-anthony-bourdain-movie-review-2021.  A controversy has arisen over a brief use of synthesized audio of Bourdain’s voice, about which more here: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-gastronomy/the-ethics-of-a-deepfake-anthony-bourdain-voice. I don’t think this detracts from the film’s excellence.]

Beans (Canada 2020, https://www.emafilms.com/en/film/beans/, in theatres) B+

Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer was the same age as the 12-year old Mohawk girl who goes by the nickname “Beans” during the 1990 Oka crisis that erupted when the town of Oka wanted to transform a forested Mohawk burial ground into a golf course.  The Mohawks of Kanehsatake south of Montreal joined the protest in solidarity and blockaded the Mercier bridge leading into the metropolis. Before a settlement was reached blockades produced armed standoffs and even the spectacle of the Canadian army being brought in.  It was a very ugly and volatile situation.  There were infamous racist incidents such as the stoning of cars carrying Mohawk women and children.  Although Deer inserts a number of archival sequences of the conflict, this is more a fictionalized coming of age story focused on first-timer Kiawentiio who excels in the title role.  Her mom Lily (Rainbow Dickerson), who gives birth in the film, wants Beans to attend a private school while her dad (Joel Montgrand) joins the armed protest group.  That apparent parental difference is never explored however.  Indeed the family lives a very middle-class Anglophone lifestyle, with no dialogue in the Mohawk language.  What we get instead are lots of crude taunts, as well as Mohawk teens hanging out while indulging in underage drinking.  None are seen engaging in acts of resistance or on the barricades.  It’s hardly an inspiring picture.  The effects of the crisis as seen through Beans’ eyes don’t really illuminate any of the issues involved in the ongoing assertion of Indigenous land rights which is touched on only tangentially. So while her experience of this summer is dramatically compelling it is also a missed opportunity.

                                                                       

            I was also delighted to see the following fine films on the big screen of Ottawa’s currently sole repertory cinema, the Mayfair.  (The beloved ByTowne Cinema, now closed, will be opening under new management this fall.) 

The Specials (France 2019, in theatres)  A

Vincent Cassel excels in the role of Bruno Haroche who operates “La Voix des justes”, a service for severely autistic adults.  Government inspectors see an uncertified and underfunded organization.  We see a labor of love that takes those whom no one else wants.  Some of the actors are themselves autistic and several make a strong impression.   Bruno, a Jewish bachelor, goes on occasional blind dates, all the while remaining completely devoted to those in his care. It’s that connection that makes this movie, directed by Olivier Nakache and Ėric Toledano, so special.

Gunda (Norway/UK/US 2020, https://www.gunda.movie/, in theatres)  A

Director Viktor Kossakovskiy’s meditation on the barnyard lives of farm animals, filmed in black and white with no narration, opens with a long-held shot of the titular subject, a large snoozing sow looking out from a wooden enclosure. Gradually some of her newborn piglets emerge stumbling over the straw and Gunda rouses herself to maternal duty with low grunts and snorts.   We see other creatures as well, including a chicken hopping on one leg and a bunch of cows.  I grew up on a farm that had pigs, chickens, and cattle and loved being with animals. But one doesn’t need to have farm experience or be a vegan (like executive producer Joaquin Phoenix) to appreciate this sentient life that sometimes looks back at you. Of course the piglets grow.  And at the end, when we see Gunda’s brood being loaded and shipped off, it’s as if the intrusion of a mechanical device operated by an unseen human breaks the spell, leaving behind an agitated and bereft Gunda pacing the empty yard.  The empathetic effect shifts from scenes that are entrancingly observational to one that is disturbing. Such is the cycle of life on the farm.  

Minari  (U.S. 2020, in theatres and on demand through Amazon Prime Video) A

Since this semi-auto-biographical fourth feature from director Lee Isaac Chung premiered many months ago at the January 2020 Sundance festival it has received deserved accolades.  A Korean family of four—dad Jacob (Steven Yeun), mom Monica (Yeri Han), pre-teen daughter Anne (Noel Cho) and little brother David (Alan Kim)—move from California to a small farm in Arkansas (actually filmed in Oklahoma) where they try to grow Korean vegetables. They seem to fit in, attending a Christian church with a helpful neighbour Paul (Will Patton) who is a Christian fanatic.  The parents have been supplementing their income by sexing chicks at a hatchery.  It’s no easy life. David wets his bed and has a heart ailment.  He complains when Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn) comes to live with them.  The title comes from the seeds of “minari”, a herbaceous plant used in Korean cusine, that she has brought with her and plants successfully beside a creek. The family is severely tested when the grandmother has a stroke and the fruits of much farm labour go up in smoke.  It’s an affecting immigrant family drama that doesn’t gloss over the hardships that come with their American dream.  

The Map to Paradise (Australia 2018, Sundance Now)  A

This excellent documentary explores the global movement to safeguard ocean ecosystems and marine species.  It’s available on Sundance Now which, like BBC Earth, is a channel that can be added through Amazon Prime Video.  Check out the film’s website at: https://www.themaptoparadise.com/#indexpg1.  [*Sundance Now offers a number of great series, especially the five seasons of the outstanding French drama The Bureau.]

No Sudden Move (U.S. 2021, on Crave)  B+

Director Steven Soderbergh supposedly quit filmmaking some years back but the hiatus didn’t last long.  This passable crime drama, set in 1950s Detroit, was even filmed during the pandemic with Soderbergh using pseudonyms to serve as his own cinematographer and editor. The story includes a tangle of convoluted tangents but the main thread involves skullduggery and corruption inside the automotive industry.  A mob boss named Frank (Ray Liotta) gets hired to track down a missing secret document containing a game-changing prototype design.  (Hint: something to do with exhaust pollution control.) Frank engages some thugs (played by Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro) who hold at gunpoint the family of auto executive Matt (David Harbour) with access to the company safe.  Matt is also having an affair with his secretary, which may or may not be relevant. Then there’s Jon Hamm making an appearance as detective Joe trying to get to the bottom of the scheme. No worries if the stolen document plot is sometimes secondary to the pleasures of appreciating the evocative period production design and watching and ensemble of fine actors inhabit their roles.   

Joji  (India, 2021, Amazon Prime Video)  B

This drawn-out drama directed by Dileesh Pothan is intermittently absorbing without leaving much of a lasting impression.  The titular central character of Joji (Fahadh Faasil) is the son of a wealthy family. An engineering drop-out lacking ambition he is seen as a loser.  That sets up the narrative of Joji’s dim prospects within a context of strained family dynamics.  For the details of these see this commentary: https://moviesofthesoul.com/2021/04/08/joji/.   

A Quiet Place Part II (U.S. 2021, Amazon Prime Video)  C+

This sci-fi horror sequel is from director and co-writer John Krasinski who also takes the role of the dad of the Abbott family as planet earth is overrun by rampaging clicking multi-tentacled aliens triggered by sound.  Hence the deaf have the advantage of communicating through sign language.  Krasinski’s dad role disappears early on without explanation.  But the family soon chances upon another male protector Emmett (a bearded Cillian Murphy).  Mom Evelyn (Emily Blunt) is holding a baby (no wailing please!) and accompanied by kids Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Regan (Millicent Simmonds, who is actually hearing impaired).  The horrible aliens are a constant danger though apparently not invulnerable to a well-aimed shotgun blast and it seems they may not be able to swim, leading to a late survivor-possible plot twist.  They are very sneaky stowaways, however, worse than a spreading Covid plague; also vaccines won’t help.   Very creepy and completely bonkers as dystopias go, just so you know what to expect.  

The Tomorrow War (U.S. 2021, Amazon Prime Video)  C

Serving up more fact-free fears for the future is this egregious waste of $200 million.  Maybe the excess of noisy explosive nonsense would look more awesome on the big screen.  Spectacle is all this lunatic dystopia has to offer. Chris McKay helms a ridiculous sci-fi tale of present-day humans being chosen through a global draft and then thrust (via a “jump link”) to serve a tour of duty on the battlefield of a future war (circa 2051).  No pressure.  It’s only an extinction-level event to save humanity from annihilation from a deadly invasion by ghastly ravening multi-tentacled alien hordes known as “white spikes” (computer-generated of course).  Anyway, the leading character among the draftees is an Iraq war vet turned school teacher named Dan Forester, fitted with a tracking device and played with grim resolve by Chris Pratt.  A commander of some sort, Col. Muri Forester is played by Yvonne Strahovski (best known for her role as “Serena” in The Handmaid’s Tale TV series).  Throw in some dad-daughter and son-dad issues (J.K. Simmons is the grandad).  Also, as befits the genre lots of stuff get blown up. If monstrous aliens are going to come after us, why panic over pandemics or worry about parts of the planet becoming uninhabitable from climate change by mid-century?  Or just forget the questions and turn off one’s brain.  Watch at your own risk.

Bliss (U.S. 2021, Amazon Prime Video)  C-

From writer-director Mike Cahill (who showed some promise with his debut feature Another Earth) this is an even sillier sci-fi fantasy.  The leading man Greg Wittle (Owen Wilson, shifting hair colour between brown and blonde) is a doodling divorced office drone who gets fired and accidentally kills his boss at “Technical Difficulties”. Thereafter he encounters a very weird street dweller Isabel (Salma Hayek) with telekinetic powers that Greg also seems to acquire.  There’s some nonsense about druggy coloured crystals and matrix-like questioning over what is real and what is a computer simulation.  There’s a utopic sequence, holographic apparitions, even an appearance by Bill Nye “the science guy” which unfortunately doesn’t help any of it to make sense.  Or maybe, instead of blissed out we’ve just been inside Greg’s head having a very bad trip?  So much for bliss.

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