Monday, June 22, 2020

Seen in May 

Famous plane attack scene from North by Northwest
Cary Grant in the most cinematic way to try to kill someone in North by Northwest. Image via The Movie DB
It turns out, the merry month of May was spent on the couch watching the world go by through many panes of glass (windows, monitors, televisions). Yet it was also a good month. Snacks were snacked and television streamed directly into my head. What can I say? Times like this require a diversion or two. Here's what diverted me in May.

North by Northwest

One of my favourite films and a huge hit for Hitchcock, this story starts as a case of mistaken identity and kicks of a road trip, cross country chase with Cary Grant as a cad of an advertising executive desperate to find out the identity of George Kaplan, a cipher whom James Mason wants dead. It all leads to more famous non sequitur set pieces like Grant being lured to a corn field where someone tries to kill him with a crop duster. Why? Because it’s fantastic cinema that’s why. Oh and why not through in the world’s most glamorous industrial designer, Eva Marie Saint while you’re at it because Hitch had a fetish for platinum blondes. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen this but only this time did I realize the title of the film comes from the moment Grant finally is told everything and plans to film northwest from Illinois to South Dakota leaving from the Northwest Airlines airport gates. Is it convoluted? Of course. Is it complicated? Sure. It’s pure Hitchcock in Technicolor with one of the best damn movie scores of all time by Hitchcock regular Bernard Herrmann.

Westworld S03
HBO on Crave

Fans dumped on this Sci-fi series about a bunch of androids who self-actualize and work to save themselves by infiltrating human society for being too slow and cerebral but HBO persevered and added plenty of action sequences to keep the energy up. In general, this show does suffer from alluding to a great secret that will blow our minds, only to hold out so long that by the time the secret is revealed we forgot why we wanted to know. In season two we discover the park known as Westworld was nothing more than a way to harvest data from the human guests. In this season we discover the humans are as programmed as the robots. We’ve given so much of ourselves to the apps that dominate our lives that now those apps dominate us! Well d’uh. Several recent and important elections manipulated data and misinformation so effectively that a failed real estate developer/reality game show host became president of the United States. Yet, with this plot point aside, seeing Dolores work her technical mastery throughout our very connected future lives was a lot of fun. Though I really doubt exposing people to their own data would cause an anarchistic collapse of society.


Another Hitchcock classic filmed to give the perception of single take which gives the whole film a surprisingly stagey feel. The film opens when two college chums reveal they’ve just killed another old classmate solely for the kicks. He was a mediocre person. They were superior people. Why shouldn’t they create their own moral universe. The film seems to take this as some kind of valid argument that any intelligent person couldn’t dismiss in minutes yet it plays out throughout the film as the killers stash the body in the very apartment where they are hosting a soirée. Their old college professor played by Jimmy Stewart senses something is awry and spends the evening trying to pry out what has happened to the missing colleague. Despite some clumsy moments it’s a pretty incredible set up with the lighting changing from afternoon to dusk and a giant nearby neon sign suggesting the word “strangle” burning just outside the apartment window.

Donald Glover and Zazie Beetz in Atlanta. Image via The Movie DB
Atlanta S01

Donald Glover’s intelligent, challenging and funny series set in Atlanta of two cousins try to make it in their own way. Glover, who created and produces the show, plays Earn, the often homeless, couch surfing Princeton educated guy who manages his cousin Alfred’s (aka Paper Boi) rap career. The show is not a straight up comedy, but is tinged with some very stinging reminders of what is to be black in America. Its character leads are also some of the brightest young talents on screen including Glover himself who has an equally successful music career as Childish Gambino, Brian Tyree Henry as Paper Boi, Lakeith Stanfield as the enigmatic Darius and the luminous Zazie Beetz as Earn’s ex and mother of his baby girl. The show occasionally verges on the surreal namely by reframing real life characters (a black Justin Beiber, Drake as secretly Cuban or Mexican), or with an exacting and beautifully crafted parallel social media universe (the creators spent months creating social media accounts around characters in the show). If you know how smart the British show Fleabag is, then this is almost like an American equivalent.

Legion S01

Another Marvel television series that kind of co-exists with other Marvel shows, yet doesn’t. This is the story of David, played by Dan Stevens, who has long believed he has mental health and addiction issues which lead to his suicide attempt and ultimately his institutionalization. In fact, David is a very powerful mutant with clairvoyant and telekinetic abilities. HIs journey to health and realization of his powers is a trippy and psychedelic one. It is this play on reality and the confrontations with authority that give this show something more than other superhero genre stories have; humanity.

Meat the Future

This documentary explores our consumption of animals and the damage industrialized agro-business has done to the planet which leads a physician to explore the idea of laboratory cultured meat grown and harvested in much the same way we create skin for burn patients. What are the implications of culturing protein from muscle tissue samples of cows or chickens? What if you could eat meat, that wasn’t a vegetarian knock-off but actual meat? Would you eat it? Would vegetarians eat it? After all, no animal has perished in its production. Could you have halal or kosher versions? Would there need to be? A cow needs two to three years to mature and thousands of litres of water and kilos of feed to be ready to be slaughtered for the market. In six months the same amount of meat could be cultured and packaged with none of the environmental or health impacts. The only problem is, even after months of work it still costs hundreds of dollars to produce a pound of meat. This beautiful and well paced documentary whets the appetite but unfortunately ends with us waiting for all the answers to the questions it raises.

They Call Me Dr. Miami

This is a wild, wild documentary about a cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Michael Salzhauer, based in Miami who pushes the boundaries of ethics and good taste through his social media self-promotion via Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat. His various social media output includes rap videos, daily updates during surgery and other outlandish stunts. More surprisingly, the good doctor is a practicing Orthodox Jew. At some point during a conversation with his rabbi he twists himself in a DNA style helix of logic to convince himself that what he’s doing as a profession is good and right. Keep in mind, he isn’t correcting soft palettes or cleft lips but giving young women bigger breasts and rounder butts. What’s probably harder to watch and understand are the women themselves who believe that they can pay for such surgery by how much they will make as an “Instagram influencer” or whatever. It’s strange and completely foreign to me that someone’s aspiration for fame, is fame itself and their goal is to “live that lifestyle” that apparently only involves dancing by a pool to crappy music while sipping a sugary cocktail and being admired for your surgery acquired booty.

Home S01
Apple TV+

This documentary series isn’t just beautifully filmed extraordinary houses but a thoughtful exploration of the ideas of home and place. Each episode focuses on a different idea, be it the home as an environmental statement or an expression of identity and place.

Assholes: A Theory

There’s never been a better time to explore the unfortunate growth of “asshole culture”, that primarily male domain where an individual feels entitled to leverage a common good to their own advantage, without remorse. The discussion is focusses around philosopher Aaron James’ bestselling book and looks at plenty of contemporary examples.

famous scene from Vertigo
Under the bridge in Vertigo. Image via The Movie DB

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film about a murderer who manipulates a man’s psychological failings to create a bizarrely convoluted alibi to cover his wife’s death. Jimmy Stewart plays Scottie Ferguson, a retired acrophobic police detective who is asked by an old friend to follow his wife who he fears is suicidal. Unfortunately Scottie becomes obsessed with woman he’s hired to tail and after witnessing what he thinks is her death his mind unravels until he discovers another woman who is remarkably similar. All of Hitch’s fetishes are on display here and a Freudian could have a lot of fun discussing them. It’s also the film when Hitchcock and his director of photography perfect a famous technique in which a camera zooms in on a subject while tracking or dollying back (or vice versa) widely known as the “Vertigo effect” or dolly zoom. The effect creates the feeling of unease like the swoon you might experience when feeling faint. The movie has a disturbing creepiness embodied by Stewart’s fascination with Kim Novak and was a commercial flop at the time of its release. The film has since been considered a classic with so many remakes or films that it inspired you could almost program an entire film festival with it as the primary theme.

Image of Michael Jordan
You know who. Image via The Movie DB
The Last Dance

The ten part documentary series about the Chicago Bull’s and Michael Jordan’s last NBA Championship season. With plenty of previously unseen footage, all released with Jordan’s blessing, this is less a documentary than a hagiographic exercise intended to cement Jordan’s legacy as the Greatest Of All Time. Still, with no pro sports being played anywhere due to the pandemic shutdown of every league, seeing 25 year old footage of one of the greatest teams of all time was a pretty good way to pass the time in quarantine. Many of the famous stories of how the Bulls were dismantled, where Dennis Rodman went when he disappeared, how Isaiah Thomas was left off the Olympic Dream Team, the impact of Jordan’s father’s murder and the famous “flu game” were explained to the liking of Jordan fans and Jordan himself. On the other hand, the Bulls’ GM Jerry Krause seemed unduly besmirched while Jordan’s ability as a father and husband and his gambling habit were ignored or dismissed. Still, I, like many, enjoyed the nostalgic footage of one of basketball’s greatest teams roll through their best years. I also loved seeing the zen of Phil Jackson and one of the most skilled, creative and graceful athletes of all time, Scottie Pippen, slice through defenders and glide to the basket in an artistic glory so rarely seen in any sport.


In a future where time travel is invented but banned, criminals send their enemies to the past to be ‘disappeared’. The killers in the past time line are at some point are given enough cash to retire, live out their lives in luxury until they themselves are sent back to their past selves to be killed, thus closing the loop. Thus the name, loopers. What happens if a looper doesn’t kill his future self? Don’t think about it too much. Time travel isn’t real but a magical device to explore lives lived, decisions made and regrets faced. Joseph Gordon Levitt with the addition of carefully placed prosthetics does a fine job acting as a young Bruce Willis.

Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours to Kill

Jerry Seinfeld is 65 but does not look it. He’s as vigorous and annoyed as ever in what he has claimed will be his last stand-up special. Oddly, I realized even young Jerry Seinfeld was really a complaining and annoyed old man. While his carefully honed and finely crafted stand-up set is to be admired it also seemed to be at an end. I can’t really explain it, but even his new bits seemed strangely dated. Everyone knows pop-tarts are weird, wonderful and inherently funny but so what? Pop-tarts have never been “relevant” but they seem even less relevant than ever.


This 1939 version of the George Bernard Shaw play opens with an almost brazenly experimental shot with a camera that follows a man through a Covent Garden crowd that becomes an overhead crane shot of the busy market. Then immediately becomes a more standard filmed play. There is an imaginative montage sequence to show us the months of Eliza Doolittle’s study that again feels like real innovation but that moment passes too. The story of course, is of the linguist Henry Higgins’ bet with a friend that he could take the unformed and impoverished flower seller, Eliza Doolittle and through a strict regimen of instruction, turn her into a lady of refinement and culture. During that time the arrogant professor, played with aplomb by Leslie Howard, and his upstart student would fall in love with one another, you know like Richard Gere and Julia Roberts did in Pretty Lady. The idea of changing someone to become an ideal/better person is as old as stories themselves; think of Pip in Great Expectations, Frankenstein’s Monster, or how Jimmy Stewart is obsessed to transform Kim Novak in Vertigo or the creation of Ava in Ex Macchina. You could probably go hella deep into race, culture, sexual and gender identity if you did this film today. Oh wait, like Pedro Almodóvar did in The Skin I Live In or Bad Education. I’m guessing Almodóvar was very influenced by Vertigo. The theme of transformation can take many shapes and has been a constant one in cinema for decades.

Hot Docs Online

From “fake news” to the Russia information warfare, what we used to think of as “spin” has become far more dangerous and no public relations firm has weaponized “disinformation” (why we just can’t say “lying”, I’m not sure) more than the British firm of Bell Pottinger. Led by co-founder Tim Bell, who helped Margaret Thatcher come to power (say no more), the firm essentially went from selling beer to selling revolution with a particular penchant for helping dictators stay in power. Luckily for the makers of this documentary, no one loves the attention more than Bell, who talks proudly and candidly of the nasty campaigns he was a part of, including fomenting racial tensions in South Africa to divert the media from the government’s many misdeeds.

In the Shadow of the Pines

A sweet animated short about a woman’s remembrances of her father.

The Condom King of Newfoundland

A documentary short about Indian immigrant, Madhukar Parab. His family and friends recall his life, his art, his many ambitions, including producing condoms locally. Any one from India who immigrated to Newfoundland in the 70s probably faced more than their share of challenges but none faced with Parab’s aplomb and character.

Hot Docs Online

This is a unique thing; a sort of magic realism documentary. What if a Conquistador from 1499 washed up on the shores of modern Mexico on the 500th anniversary of the Spanish conquest of the new world. We see this soldier from the past recall his memories of first arriving on those shores, confronted with all of the contemporary ramifications that European colonization has wrought on these people 500 years later. It is a painful truth.

The Forum
Hot Docs Online

A behind the scenes documentary of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland where we witness candid, awkward and obsequious conversations between the world’s most influential and affluent leaders, thinkers and industrialists. It’s a place where environmental activists hope to shake the tree and where leaders like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro want to burn all the trees. The documentary does a fair job of showing the theatre of the elites wanting to be seen doing something good, while also showing just how difficult that can be no matter how earnest the participants are.

Honest Ed's
Honest Ed's famous marquee. Image via Spoonifur on Flickr
There’s No Place Like This Place, Anyplace
Hot Docs Online

There once was a businessman who sold cheap goods at low prices and his store, Honest Ed’s became an icon of Toronto by creating a place where you could find almost anything at the lowest price anywhere. From theatre impresario to the guy who gave out free turkeys at Christmas, “Honest” Ed Mirvish not only found success in retail but by buying almost all of the real estate surrounding his store (originally to create a parking lot) created a community of small storefronts ranging from art galleries, video stores to book shops that became known as Mirvish Village. Now that the golden age of retail is behind us, Mirvish’s son David planned to close the store and tear down the neighbouring properties to erect a condo development. This documentary made by filmmaker Lulu Wei, who herself was displaced by the plan, shows the community engagement that led to the re-imagining of Bloor and Bathurst and beautifully reflected the ripples of tearing out a little piece of Toronto’s cold black heart.

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