Thursday, February 04, 2021

Seen in January 

No ordinary Joe, in Pixar's Soul. Image via The Movie Db.

Almost a year into a pandemic and I'm still not out of stuff to watch. Every time you turn on the television there's something new (or old) to stream. A stream of content conjures a beautiful cool creek flowing o'er your tired feet (or maybe something naughtier, I'm not the boss of your imagination). In any event, I threw myself before the glowing screen and I share with you here what I saw. Make of it what you will.

What is your purpose in life? What's it all mean? What happens when you die? All classic cartoon themes. Well, for Pixar anyway. In their latest film, Joe, voiced by Jamie Foxx, is a jazz pianist and grade school band leader who has finally landed the gig of a lifetime. Unfortunately, he's also landed in a coma after falling through an open manhole. Now he finds himself in some kind of purgatory afterlife trying to find a way to get back to the world he left. He teams up with a soul named number 22, played by Tina Fey, who, unlike her soul peers has rejected the idea of ever going down to earth to be born. This becomes a bit of a buddy travel movie with someone who refuses to die paired with someone who refuses to live. Like their films Wall-e, Up, and Inside Out, Pixar finds a story that is funny, very beautiful and surprisingly moving. I'm glad I have a large screen television but this film's visuals and music would have been spectacular to see in a theatre.

Kiki takes to her broom. Image via The Movie Db.

Kiki’s Delivery Service
This is one of the simpler Studio Ghibli stories. Kiki is a young witch who, by some witch decree, has at thirteen, reached the age when young witches must leave home to hone her witch skills. With her only skill being able to fly on a broom, Kiki soon finds a job in her new home as a courier, making deliveries by broom. She meets a young boy who is fascinated with her ability to fly and though she rejects him at first, she slowly befriends him. It's a basic story of a young girl who loses then regains her confidence. The animation of Kiki floating above a charming city is really pretty delightful. For at least a couple of nights after watching this movie, I dreamt of flying over Lake Ontario or sitting high atop a downtown rooftop.

Gary Oldman as Mank holding court. Image via The Movie Db.

If you know anything about movies, you know Orson Welles' Citizen Kane was for many years, considered one of the greatest films ever made. Side note, Welles was only 24 when he was given carte blanche to create a film by the studio. All he needed was a script. Despite being a raging alcoholic and an argumentative social critic, Herman Mankiewicz delivered the script Welles needed as the foundation of his masterpiece. This Netflix film is a biography of Mankiewicz, focussed at the time of his creating the script, mostly apparently, from his bed. Much of the friction of the plot comes from how Mankiewicz used the opportunity to create a script that was a scathing and unflinching portrait of American tycoon William Randolph Hearst, thinly veiled as Charles Foster Kane. The risk is made palatable. Imagine a brutal portrayal of someone like Rupert Murdoch or Jeff Bezos being made today. It was even riskier for Mankiewicz as he personally knew Hearst and his longtime mistress, both targets of the film. As much as I enjoyed Gary Oldman as Mank, particularly a scene when he punctuates a long socialist lecture to a room of Hollywood's elite by vomiting profusely, I can't say I recommend it to anyone other than hardcore film fans. While it is insightful, beautifully filmed, and well acted, it's also very "talky" and hard to grasp the urgency or risk of writing a screenplay.

Raised by Wolves
A group of children raised on another planet by a de-weaponized android (perhaps a sheep in wolf’s clothing?) are caught between their devotedly atheist android caretakers and a group of religious devotees who worship Sol and Romulus, one of the founding brothers of Rome, so the story goes, who was raised by a wolf. Which, I suppose sort of explains the title and sums up this dark and grey sci-fi series from Ridley Scott.

His Dark Materials S02
Do you remember a film from over a decade ago called The Golden Compass? It was planned to be the first of a fantasy trilogy, but sadly was a flop and no other films were made. The source material was a series of books called His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. Instead of 3-part film series, HBO has decided on a three season series. The first season introduces a parallel world where people's souls are actually an animal daemon that accompanies them where ever they go. This world is also dominated by a dangerous power hungry conservative religious orthodoxy called the Magisterium. Against this background we meet Lyra Silvertongue, a 12-year-old girl who turns out to be part of a prophecy that would spell the end of the Magisterium. In season two we meet the other part of the same prophecy, a boy about the same age as Lyra, named Will. Yet Will isn't from Lyra's world, he's from ours. It turns out, Lyra and Will's fathers were both explorers who individually found a way to move between parallel worlds. There are a lot of themes of religion, spirituality, personal freedoms, science as magic and magic as science but in the end, the steampunk technology of Lyra's world and the adventure of it all is a lot of fun.

Crip Camp
The US may lag the rest of the world in many metrics: education, affordable and accessible health care, democracy and yes, even happiness, but where it leads is civil rights advocacy. For one generation it was women's voting rights, for another it was civil rights for African Americans, for another it was gender equality and for another it was the fight for Americans with disabilities. This documentary is about a summer camp in upstate New York, for kids and teens with disabilities. Camp Jened was a pretty normal summer camp, which is exactly what made it so extraordinary for kids with a wide diversity of abilities. It turned out, the camp wasn't just a place for slow pitch and pitching woo but also a place where the campers discussed the problems they face every day. A surprising number of these teens would become the passionate activists that worked for years to get legislation that would recognize people with disabilities as fully formed people with rights and needs who can lead fulfilling lives. You will laugh with the people in this film, be inspired by them and be moved by their story.

Disenchantment pt 3
This fantasy comedic animated series from the creator of The Simpsons and Futurama about a princess cursed by her evil mom and trying to find her way in the world with a friendly elf and demon by her side is a hoot.

Lebowitz looms large in Pretend It's a City. Image via The Movie Db.

Pretend It’s a City
This documentary series is really a wide-ranging (or maybe rambling) conversation between filmmaker Martin Scorsese and his friend, author and humorist, Fran Lebowitz. Lebowitz grew up in New Jersey and moved to New York as a teenager to become a writer but some 50 years later she is somehow more like an embodiment of New York itself. Over the years, partly due to being around so long but mostly by being an insufferable wit she moved among New York's celebrities from publishing, the visual arts, film, and theatre. How many people could have worked for Andy Warhol, befriended the punk band, New York Dolls, musicians like David Bowie and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee? The series is also a bit of a love note to one version of fairy tale New York. As Scorsese says, Lebowitz has an opinion on any topic, many of which you may not agree with, but at least it's fun following her logic.

The Trial of  the Chicago 7
The summer of 1968 would not be unfamiliar to us today. America was in turmoil. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, two of America's most progressive voices were gunned down. After the Summer of Love, people were protesting police brutality, civil rights for African Americans and an unpopular foreign war in Vietnam. One target of these protests was the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Protesters planned to target the DNC as at the time, the Democrats represented the party of establishment that was doubling down on the draft and the war in Vietnam. The mayor of Chicago and the Chicago police were not going to let that protest happen. Inevitably, the police clashed violently with the protesters. Later that year, Nixon won the White House and while the previous administration found no reason to charge protesters, Nixon's attorney general had a bone to pick and decided to arrest eight leaders of the protests with conspiracy to incite a riot. Those charged were the voices of their generation and were chosen to be examples. The trial judge, Julius Hoffman, was clearly biased against the defendants and at times was openly hostile such as when he ordered Black Panther leader Bobby Seale to be gagged and bound in the court to prevent his objections. The trial appeared transparently tilted against the defendants and for many was a symbol of an aging establishment versus a modern generation. Much of what transpires in the court is based on transcripts and is sometimes hard to believe but screenwriter and director, Aaron Sorkin, shows a deft hand even with some of the more greatly dramatized parts of the story. This is worth watching, particularly in the context of the last four years and especially given the violence that met peaceful protesters and the peaceful approach that met violent ones. Also worth noting is the dramatic performance of Sacha Baron Cohen in his portrayal of one of the protest leaders Abbie Hoffman.

Black Monday S01
A fictitious and comedic accounting of what led to the stock market crash of 1987. Don Cheadle plays Mo Monroe, a cocaine-snorting head of the less than ethical Jammer Group investment firm. The story revolves around Mo's convoluted plan to take over the perennially outdated Georgina Jean company (it's real value is its prized real estate holdings). Yet, the "Georgina Play" is really only the plot point to a showcase of biting satire of the politics, financial shenanigans, pop culture and social norms of the 1980s.

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