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Late August Views and Reviews

 

I’m headed west tomorrow (Saskatoon and Calgary) until mid-September so am sending this now.  On TV, recently the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel showed some classic films by the Japanese master Yasujirô Ozu including Tokyo Twilight (1957) and the greatest Tokyo Story (1953).   TCM is a great channel to have for catching up on older movies.

To add to the growing list of documentaries examining the Covid-19 pandemic, HBO has aired In the Same Breath (A) by director Nanfu Wang (One Child Nation), a Sundance premiere that went on to win an audience award at the South By Southwest Festival.    This is an incisive look at how Chinese authorities dealt with the Wuhan outbreak, the propaganda effort of the Chinese Communist party and also American government failures. [For more comment see: https://www.indiewire.com/2021/01/in-the-same-breath-review-nanfu-wang-sundance-1234612411/.]

            The “Crave” TV channel has presented the haunting historical drama The World To Come (A) directed by Mona Fastvold.   The story set in mid-19th century upstate New York stars one of my favorite actors Casey Affleck (no one does soulful brooding better) as a farmer named Dyer.  However, after the loss of a child, the main focus becomes the passionate relationship that develops between his wife Abigail (Katherine Waterston), who narrates diary entries in voiceover, and another farm wife Tallie (Vanessa Kirby).  They endure as kindred spirits finding more than comfort in each other’s embrace.  [More comment at: https://variety.com/2020/film/reviews/the-world-to-come-review-a-lyrical-exploration-of-female-desire-in-19th-century-america-1234760969/.]  

            As ever the amount of streaming content available is vast and growing.  Netflix alone has announced release dates for many new movies: https://variety.com/2021/film/news/netflix-film-release-dates-dont-look-up-power-of-the-dog-1235046867.   This includes some prime titles from the upcoming September Toronto film festival selection.   Netflix deserves credit too for presenting a lot of fine documentary work.  A recent addition is Fantastic Fungi (U.S. 2019, https://fantasticfungi.com/, A) which delves into everything you would ever want to know about the world of mushrooms (including magical to medicinal) and mycelium.

            Of course not everything on Netflix is great and the following is a case in point.

Beckett (Italy/Brazil/Greece 2021, Netflix)  C

Directed by Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, this thriller stars John David Washington as the titular “Beckett”, an American tourist in Greece travelling with his girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander). The trip turns into a nightmare when Beckett falls asleep at the wheel of their rental car which crashes into a house, killing April and setting off further potentially lethal consequences.  When Beckett, his arm in a cast, returns to the scene of the accident police start shooting at him.  Who knows why.  Then anyone who tries to help him also becomes a target. Beckett is helped by several German political activists to get to Athens where he seeks help from the American embassy.  But the American diplomat he deals with also proves to be treacherous. And as Beckett is being pursued he becomes caught up in a tangle of extremist politics and conspiracy.   Why are so many nasty people after him?  Beats me.  Apparently this baffling affair was shot before the pandemic lockdown that shut down a lot of Greek tourism.  If nothing else it could be an advertisement for staying safe by just staying home. 

             I was also able to get an advance look at a fascinating new documentary to be released soon in North America.

The Savior for Sale: Da Vinci’s Lost Masterpiece? (France 2021)  A

There are actually two current documentaries on the story behind the world’s most expensive art work—the ‘Salvator Mundi” (Saviour of the World) associated with Leonardo Da Vinci—which famously sold to a Saudi prince for the record sum of $450.3 million in 2017. [I have not seen the other one “The Lost Leonardo” (https://www.thelostleonardodocumentary.com/), a Denmark/France coproduction directed by Andreas Koefoed which premiered at the Tribeca festival to strong reviews.] This one directed by Antoine Vitkine premiered on French television in April.  The story begins years ago when the painting was bought at a New Orleans auction for little more than a thousand dollars. The after being acquired by an art dealer it underwent several years of cleaning and restoration. The true origin and provenance, notably the exact role of the hand of Leonardo and his workshop, remains tangled in controversy.  Nonetheless the work gained prominence (it was included in a 2011 Da Vinci show at London’s National Gallery). Acquired by a Monaco-based Russian billionaire, it was put in storage in a Singapore free port. More questions and accusations swirled as the painting, dubbed the “male Mona Lisa”, went to auction, purchased by the controversial Mohammed bin Salman, with Christie’s earning a cool $50 million commission.  MBS refused to lend the work to the Louvre for a 2019 Da Vinci exhibition because he insisted it be exhibited beside the Mona Lisa.  Indeed the painting has not been seen in public since.  Add to that the irony that in this affair of the ultra-rich, it’s the crown price of a fundamentalist Islamic dynasty who now owns the most famous image of the Christ figure. What about the Saviour’s gospel that proclaimed good news to the poor, the meek and the oppressed?  Verily the details of these transactions are stranger than fiction!

            There is some good news that theatres have been gradually reopening to limited capacity. So I have been able to see the following on the big screen.

Respect  (U.S./Canada 2021) B+

This uneven biopic of the late great singer Aretha Franklin, directed by Liesl Tommy, begins in Detroit in my birth year of 1952 when Aretha as a young girl (affectionately called “Ree-Ree”) is asked by her preacher father (Forest Whitaker) to perform for a house full of guests.  Her talent was apparent and recognized from an early age. At the same time Aretha’s turbulent life story included sexual assault and pregnancy in girlhood, alcoholism, a controlling abusive first husband Ted White (Marlon Wayans), and squabbles with record producers.  The “queen of soul” demanded hits as well as respect. She found her successful groove with the famed Alabama-based Muscle Shoals recording studio.  Jennifer Hudson has the voice to portray Aretha’s gift over a span of decades. The film also acknowledges Franklin’s contribution to the civil rights movement, though leaving out a lot when it comes to her later life.  While the movie includes an “amazing grace” moment, it doesn’t have the power of Aretha’s actual gospel performance at a Los Angeles church in 1972, the documentary recording of which was only released in 2018.  A respectful tribute isn’t a substitute for listening to the real Aretha.

Stray (U.S. 2020, https://www.straymovie.com/) A

In 2016 a wonderful award-winning film Kedi was made about the large stray cat population of Istanbul.  This one by writer-director Elizabeth Lo accomplishes a similar feat for the large stray dog population of the Turkish capital.  Filmed over several years from 2017 to 2019, it focuses on several animals at dog-eye level as they roam the streets, find scraps of food, and take shelter in places often shared by the homeless, addicts and refugees.   The main canine character followed by a roving camera is called “Zeytin”, a large tan-coloured mutt that is clearly a akilled survivor in this urban environment.   It is illegal to euthanize or trap strays so they seem to move about freely.  The film opens with a quote from the classical Greek philosopher Diogenes: “Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.”  There are several more Diogenes aphorisms sprinkled through the 72-minute runtime including: “Dogs and philosophers do the greatest good and get the fewest rewards.”   You do not have to be a dog lover to appreciate the merits of this rewarding film that brings an inquiring perspective to the lives of these animals on society’s margins.  As the review in Variety puts it: “Throughout the mostly wordless “Stray,” we wonder with compassion and considerable self-critique whom the society uplifts and supports vs. whom it chooses to disregard and deem invisible.”

Free Guy  (U.S. 2021) B

Director Shawn Levy’s videogame parody casts Ryan Reynolds as a rather dweeby guy, also named Guy, who has a pet goldfish, is a clerk at the Free City bank, and for his standard attire becomes known as the “blue-shirt guy”.  Our mild-mannered coffee-loving guy gets caught up in the loopy simulated world of a superhero action-thriller videogame as designed and programmed by a couple of goofs.  Guy regularly interacts with a bank security guard (played by Lil Rel Howery) and a gamer female character played by Jodie Comer. There’s also Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi hamming it up as the nutty corporate boss of the gaming operation.  The harmlessly silly and freaky antics deliver some fair entertainment value as long as you switch off your rational brain.  [If curious to know more check out: https://www.indiewire.com/2021/08/free-guy-review-1234655686/.] 

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