For most of us, David Attenborough is the voice of nature. His soothing narration has taken us across the globe, from the coldest arctic waters to the hottest deserts to the wettest rainforests. The 93 year old Attenborough has spent his whole adult life exploring the world and documenting nature. During that time, he has seen drastic changes, and he has taken it upon himself to try to help us avoid an impending disaster.
Themes of conservation are not new to Attenborough’s documentaries but Netflix’s new A Life on Our Planet has no time for subtlety. Clearly, Attenborough feels he has no time to waste, which is less a function of his age and more an indication that catastrophe is imminent. Wisely, Attenborough’s warnings are interspersed with the beauty of our world, to show what is at stake and what could be saved or lost depending on which path we choose. Even better, Attenborough lays out a plan for saving ourselves, which he presents clearly and sells by pointing out that our planet is going to keep spinning, but our place on it is not guaranteed.
Unfortunately, Attenborough’s pleas will probably be dismissed by those who deny the changes that Attenborough, and all self-respecting climatologists, are documenting. Instead of ignoring the problem, I wish the deniers would be honest in their selfishness, and admit they don’t want to make sacrifices to preserve the future for coming generations. Of course, that would require them to admit they’re bad people, so I’m not holding my breath.
It is up to the rest of us to take action. A Life on Our Planet shows us how to do it, and more importantly, Attenborough reassures us that we can still undo the damage we have caused. A Life on Our Planet manages to be hopeful without minimizing the problems we face. It is a nature film that is about us, and it is a fitting capstone for Attenborough’s life work.
Since I snuck Babe: Pig in the City onto our recent Quarantine top ten list I figured I should re-watch it, and in the process, have Jay watch it for the first time. That was a mistake. I had forgotten that the tone of Babe: Pig in the City is startlingly dark for a kids’ movie, and in particular there are several scenes of dogs in distress. As you may know, we lost our little Gertie recently so the last thing we need right now is a scene where a dog goes to heaven!
Assuming you are not grieving a little puppy right now, Babe: Pig in the City remains a really incredible movie. Following directly from the events of Babe, Farmer Hoggett is installing a water pump when tragedy strikes. Bedridden from his injuries, it’s up to Mrs. Hoggett to keep the farm afloat as the bank comes calling. Being a champion sheep-pig, Babe has plenty of offers to appear at state fairs for generous appearance fees, and off Mrs. Hoggett and Babe go to take advantage of Babe’s new celebrity. Unfortunately, the two get hung up in security and miss their connecting flight, and then get separated on their layover in the city while waiting to head home. With all that trouble, how will they possibly find a way to save the farm?
As I said, the subject matter in Babe: Pig in the City is very dire at times, but through it all Babe never loses his sunny disposition. In turn, his good nature charms everyone he comes in contact with, and helps them be better animals (because naturally, Babe only talks to animals not people, though he does understand human speech perfectly). With the ground rules having been well-established in Babe, Pig in the City is free to jump right into frenetic chase scenes, and wastes no time in doing so. In that respect, the non-stop action in Babe: Pig in the City evokes director and co-writer George Miller’s other big franchise, Mad Max.
Babe: Pig in the City is not quite the masterwork that Fury Road is, but it’s a great film in its own right, and a worthy addition to Miller’s catalogue that towers over all but the best kids fare (as well as most “grown-up” action films).
Martin Scorsese has finally married the two sides of his personality: the one who delights in showing us the excess of sin (think: Wolf of Wall Street) and the one who is concerned about the state of our souls (think: Silence). It has taken him some 25 films and 77 years to get here, which is possibly why this film lacks the verve of his other gangster movies. The Irishman is mournful – perhaps even an elegy.
The films revolves around Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) in his position as hitman for the Bufalino crime family. There are three distinct timelines in the film: 1. old man Sheeran recounting his crimes at the end of his life; 2. middle aged Sheeran on a road trip with mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) and their wives; 3. “young”ish Sheeran as he meets Russell, befriends Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), starts a family and makes a living putting bullets through people’s heads. Scorsese navigates between these timelines with relative ease (shout-out to editor extraordinaire Thelma Schoonmaker!), though it does take some time and attention to get used to. He keeps the camerawork clean and businesslike, almost as if the camera were just a fly on the wall, observing unobtrusively.
De Niro et al are given the “de-aging” CGI treatment so they can play the parts in all 3 timelines, which is not my preference. I’ve seen de-aging used well (meaning sparingly, like Carrie Fisher in Star Wars) but De Niro always looks a little off, and the trouble doubles when he’s got his shirt off. Plus it’s startling when De Niro is meant to be doing something more physical. When Frank is meant to be stomping on someone lying in the street, De Niro may have a young face but his kicks are that of an old man (the actor is 76). But his performance is quite good, and complex, and possibly the least showy of his career. Which is polar opposite to what Al Pacino does in the film, and I’m still not certain what to think of that. On the one hand, I do believe Hoffa was a bit of a ham himself. On the other hand, Pacino’s acting seems to have devolved into an over-the-top impression of himself. I’m not even sure it’s conscious. I’m not even sure he could stop. Although I confess I could watch him scrape the bottom of an ice cream sundae while screaming “cocksucker!” all day long, and at 3.5 hours, I pretty much feel like I did. His volume’s turned up to 11, and when it crashes into De Niro’s coiled repression, gosh, what a sight. What a symphony.
Scorsese seasons the story with all kinds of various wiseguys and goombas (Bobby Cannavale, Jesse Plemmons, Stephen Graham, Ray Romano, and not least of all, Harvey Keitel) and it makes a fair point about how Frank views the world: there are friends, and there are acquaintances. He can make peace with having to whack a mere acquaintance. But tighter ties would be a problem. He keeps people at a distance, or at least that’s the justification. The truth is, Frank is a sociopath and throughout the film we watched as his humanity is leeched from him. The money might be good, folks, but the job does take its toll. But Sheeran is such a stoic, melt into the background guy that we never see it. He is scary because we don’t ever know what makes him tick, what motivates him. If he has any inner life at all, we can only guess.
Meanwhile, mortality emerges as Scorsese’s other major theme, and it’s one we imagine hits quite close to home for him. Frank is looking back on his life, confessing his sins – but does he feel remorse? Can he feel anything at all? Frank has four daughters but at the end of his life, he’s fixated on Peggy (Anna Paquin), the one who won’t speak to him. Peggy is one of the few female characters in the film (sure there are “wives” but they’re about as important and present as background actors) and she says almost nothing. Her silence is judgment, revulsion. She has seen her father for who he is and she wants nothing to do with him. Even as a small child she has always felt the same about Russell Bufalino no matter how hard he bribe her with gifts; Peggy is in many ways the moral centre of the film, alarming since she’s on screen for about a total of 4 minutes out of the film’s 209. Speaking of Bufalino, Pesci does a startlingly good job of portraying a man who has completely blurred the boundaries between work and evil that he is absolutely, coldly, rotten to the core and doesn’t even seem to know it. This may be the stand-out performance of the film for me.
This all sounds like some pretty epic, pretty heavy stuff, and it is, but at times it’s also funny, surprisingly so. Most of the characters are introduced to us with one important statistic: the date and manner of their death. On their own it’s often quite comedic, but time after time, bullet after bullet, death clearly stalks them all. And when the bullets run out, time starts cutting them down, and old age is often more brutal than violence. It’s slower, and crueler. In the end it’s coming for Frank too, and he’s left to face it alone, everyone else either dead or just done with him. Does he regret his choices? Does he even believe they were choices? The story is based on a memoir that’s fairly contested in terms of facts, but Scorsese isn’t interested in the history, he’s interested in the allegory, and, at this stage of his career it must be said, the legacy. Whereas his earlier gangster movies left a more glamourous impression, The Irishman leaves no room for doubt: mob life is no life at all.
Marriage Story picks up long after most romances have wrapped up. Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) were once in love, but as disagreements piled up, they grew apart. Now, as the film begins, they can barely tolerate each other, and they now have to figure out how to uncouple. Of course, since Charlie and Nicole have had trouble agreeing on day-to-day things, agreeing on terms of separation is next-to-impossible.
My synopsis might make the film seem dry, boring, or depressing. Marriage Story is none of those things. Certainly, it is often sad and difficult, but just as often, it is sweet and funny, and all the while, it is insightful and real.
There are many wonderful moments in Marriage Story, and the starting point for all of them is that neither Charlie nor Nicole is a bad person. Director Noah Baumbach never asks the audience to choose sides and never assigns blame for this breakdown. Charlie and Nicole are simply two people who have grown apart and who are being pulled in different directions.
Many films try to gloss over these stresses or claim that love will overcome them. But sometimes love is not enough. Marriage Story tackles that reality in a way that will ring true to anyone who has ever been in a serious relationship.
Marriage Story is one of those rare films that transcends genre. More than that, it is a film that is remarkably relatable and has something to offer for everyone. It is one of the best films of the year, and one you should watch as soon as it becomes available on Netflix on December 6. And if you have the chance to catch Marriage Story sooner (a limited theatrical release is scheduled for November), take it. It’s that good.
If you love documentaries, you may already know Orlando von Einsiedel’s work from conflict zones, where he throws himself into dangerous situations; he won an Oscar for The White Helmets.
He seems more nervous about this one though. It’s about the death of his brother, Evelyn. The suicide of his brother, in fact. It happened a number of years ago but his family rarely talks about it. They’ve hardly said his name in a decade.
The 3 remaining siblings, Orlando, Gwennie, and Robin go on a walk together through Scotland’s Cairngorn National Park with their mother, giving them the chance to reflect on their grief and share the feelings they’ve been bottling up for a long time. Evelyn’s absence has fractured his family in so many ways, and their grief has prevented them from reassembling themselves.
And then they do it again through the Lake District of Cumbria with their father. In fact, they are often joined by family members and close friends, who help them broach the memories that have been too painful for them to revisit. The youngest brother, Robin, confesses that he’s “struggling just to hold it all together” and you sort of want to reassure him that in fact, it’s okay to fall apart. It’s clear their brother’s suicide was a major trauma for them. He’d been depressed for a number of years and made previous attempts, which had the family walking on eggshells. His diagnosis as schizophrenic threw them into a tailspin and perhaps they’ve never really recovered.
Mental illness is a difficult thing to talk about. Suicide is a terribly difficult thing to talk about. There’s clearly still a stigma there that this family feels, perhaps for their own peace of mind, that it’s better to repress the memories.
The great thing about this movie is, belated or not, this family has created a safe space for itself to unleash their loss. It’s been a long time coming. But that doesn’t make it easy. Revealing yourself, your inner heart, your deepest wounds – that’s not meant to be easy. Nor is it a cure all. But it’s a start. Courage, folks.
***If you’ve been thinking about suicide, please reach out. In Canada you can call 1.833.456.4566, 24/7 In the USA you can call 1.800.273.8255 In the UK you can call 116 123 In Germany you can call 030-44 01 06 07
Feel free to add additional phone numbers in the comments.
If you’ve lost someone to suicide, big hugs. I’m sorry.
As the trade war between the US and China escalates, American Factory arrives on Netflix and shows why this war is one that China is likely to win. The US is at a severe disadvantage in this war that it started, because the American Dream now belongs more to China than to the endangered American middle class, and because idyllic post-war America was built in large part on cheap imports from China and now the pendulum is swinging the other way.
American Factory is the first Netflix film from the Obamas’ production studio, and its release is perfectly timed. China and the US continue to threaten each other higher and higher tariffs, announcing another round of increases to take effect this fall. Of course, these threats are not really to the countries themselves; they are threats to consumers, who will inevitably bear all these increases in the form of higher priced goods.
While American Factory isn’t really about tariffs, the tariffs are still an important part of the story. That’s because the tariffs were instigated by the US in order to bring manufacturing back to the American heartland, which has been decimated by the loss of factory jobs as more and more of those jobs elsewhere to take advantage of cheaper labour and lower safety standards.
One of those shuttered factories is a former GM plant in Dayton, Ohio. Its closure in 2008 put thousands out of work, but in 2015 Fuyao Glass America, a Chinese-backed company, reopened the plant and brought hope back to Dayton. However, we quickly see that the reality is not quite as rosy as the fantasy, because the workers have taken a 30% pay cut, safety standards are not enforced, and management uses every dirty trick in the book to prevent the workers from unionizing.
Chinese workers are brought in to show the Americans how to operate the plant, and managers from the US are trained in China to help them better motivate the workers. American Factory captures the remarkable contrast between the workers’ attitudes in the two nations, and the attitudes of the nations as a whole. The Chinese are willing to work harder for less, sacrificing their bodies and family lives for the benefit of the company. The Americans, on the other hand, feel entitled to earn more money than their Chinese counterparts without making any of the same sacrifices.
Something has to give there. In both the Fuyao factory and in the larger trade war, the Americans can’t possibly get everything they want but are oblivious to that reality. Working-class Americans seem not to have realized that their consumer-centric society only exists because of other countries’ cheap labour, and that unskilled labourers will never again be “middle class”. If these American factory workers want to achieve their desired standard of living, they need to acquire marketable skills. Labour is no longer marketable on its own, and China and the rest of the world are eager to live the American Dream. China and the rest of the world also clearly want to realize that dream so much more than the Americans do, so in any head-to-head battle the Americans are going to lose out. The only question is whether the Americans will realize that before it’s too late.
Tig Notaro is one of my favourite comedians. Although always an amazing, deadpan comedian, she hit the popularity rocket when she did a ground-breaking set the day after she was diagnosed with cancer. She just stood on the stage and bravely free-associated her new reality, and people were floored. Floored.
I mean, if you know her story at all, cancer was just the cherry on top. Weeks before, she’d been in the hospital in crazy pain with a life-threatening diagnosis of C-Diff. She got out of the hospital just in time to make her mother’s funeral, who’d died suddenly after a freak accident, falling in her own living room and hitting her head, a seemingly benign incident that killed her 24 hours later. Then Tig went through a break up, though moments before they’d been considering starting a family. And then: breast cancer. So it was a tumultuous few weeks, and you can only imagine her frame of mind when she wandered on stage that famous night. Although, technically you don’t have to: Louis C.K. was in the audience that night, and helped her put out an album of that set, which for obvious reasons could never be recreated.
So in the wake of her having a double mastectomy, she was suddenly very famous and a very sought-after comedian, one who now had no material since she could never re-perform the cancer bit. Crazy. Tig (the documentary) is a clever reflection upon that crazy time in her life, with the help of similarly funny, famous friends like Bill Burr and Sarah Silverman.
I love stand-up comedy. Like, LOVE love. I love how accessible comedy has become thanks in part to Netflix, but also satellite radio and Spotify – I listen to lots of podcasts in my car these days. Tig is among my favourites, and Sean and I meant to see her at Just For Laughs last year, only she cancelled her set at the last minute, but we saw other favourites of mine, like Maria Bamford, Fortune Feimster, and Carmen Esposito. This year we’re seeing Marc Maron and Fred Armisen. But as much fun as it is to see a live set, it’s such an exciting time to be able to supplement those with bonuses, of which I’d say that this documentary is most definitely one. It’s an incredible story either way, but she’s also a comedian that you just need to get into. She has a very watchable, very bingeable show as well, called One Mississippi. Maria Bamford had one called Lady Dynamite. Jim Gaffigan had one less inventively titled The Jim Gaffigan Show (do you suppose men just reflexively have to slap their names all over things?). Anyway, it tickles me to no end when comedians pop up in things, and I will continue to seek them out, because to my mind, comedy is the absolute hardest thing to get right. Comedies are largely underappreciated and downright ignored by critics and award-givers, but that’s absurd. When humour works, it unites us all in such a base, instinctual way. It’s glorious. But as you know, a lot of humour comes from pain. It takes a special talent to extract the funniness from a horrible situation.
And maybe that’s what makes Tig so special. That she was willing to use her own personal hell, her own heartbreak, not only to entertain us, but to make us whole. Comedy is healing. Laughing is medicinal. Give yourself a Tig injection; it keeps the doctor away.
How many times in your life have you called 911? I hope the answer is none, but for some of you it will be higher than that, and chances are, it wasn’t exactly a happy occasion. Even if you’re calling on behalf of a stranger, you must believe that it’s an emergency situation, and those tend to be adrenaline-filled and on the harrowing side. I call 911 on a very regular basis, and I’m always grateful for the patient expediency of the person on the other end. Mining someone’s abject panic for important, potentially life-saving information, is not an easy thing to do. Distilling that information into its most salient components while managing someone’s fear and distress takes precision and control. Dispatchers will sound cool and confident on the phone, but that doesn’t mean their job isn’t getting to them. They assist people through the darkest of circumstances. They experience vicarious trauma. The Guilty is one of their stories.
Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is working what seems like a normal shift when he gets a call from what seems like a wrong number. A woman named Iben (Jessica Dinnage) is calling, pretending to be on with her young daughter. Because of his training, Asger manages to ask the right questions in the right way. Iben is making this phone call in front of her abductor, and trying to do it stealthily.
Asger gets more and more attached to the case as he speaks to Iben, to her abductor, to her daughter Mathilde who is not even 7 but home alone covered in someone else’s blood after having seen her mother be dragged violently away. He goes beyond the bounds of his position in order to fulfill a promise to Mathilde to get her mother home safely.
How do you think you’d stack up as a 911 dispatcher? They test for inductive (using specific observations to make broader generalizations) and deductive (using the info you’ve collected to come to a logical conclusion) reasoning, plus memory recall and the ability to read maps and a good old fashioned psych evaluation. And then there’s just necessarily personality quirks like the ability to be still in the face of chaos.
Asger is a flawed hero and not necessarily the best at his job. But he cares about this woman. Tonight, his job goes from hard to nearly impossible. It’s disturbing. The movie will break your heart in a million ways. But if you think it’s hard to watch, imagine how hard it is to live, to take these calls for 12 hours or even 24 hours at a time, day after day, weekends and holidays. It’s a lot to ask of anyone, and Asger is pure proof of the toll this job can take.
Jakob Cedergren is excellent, as he must be, acting almost exclusively against voices over the phone. Through the arc of one telephone call, he experiences a major shift, and almost every high and low on the human spectrum. Director Gustav Moller keeps things very simple and straight-forward, allowing the story’s natural tension to take centre stage.
Lisa (Regina Hall) is the hard-working manager of a tittie bar. She’s a little defensive about it; you might hear her call it a family sports bar “with curves,” but the uniforms leave little room for debate.
On this one day in particular, Lisa is dealing with a thief stuck in the vents after a robbery goes wrong, an undocumented worker in her kitchen, TVs that aren’t working minutes before a big game, an employee who’s dating a customer, a revolt over a missing pool table, and a half dozen new girls who show up for interviews and training. Plus there’s the impromptu car wash she’s organizing to raise money for another employee dealing with a DUI, which she has to hide from her boss, who’s an asshole. Oh, and her marriage is falling apart.
Despite the fact that she’s undervalued and underpaid, Lisa clearly cares about her job, and about doing her best. And she definitely cares about her girls. Usually when your employer starts calling you ‘family’ it’s because they’re about to ask you to do something for nothing. But when Lisa says it, she means it. She’s got misplaced optimism coming out the wazoo but on a day like this, even Lisa’s perky sunshine demeanor will be tried.
Support The Girls is a workplace comedy, but it tackles bigger themes than that. You just might not notice because writer-director Andrew Bujalski has such an impressively light touch. He manages to keep everything witty and bright. His biggest asset is of course Regina Hall, who never stops shining her light. Lisa is doing her best to sell the American Dream, even though it’s not her dream and she’ll never see the profits. Bujalski clearly has compassion for Lisa though Lisa never asks for any. Hall makes sure that her unending kindness is seen as strength, not weakness. These are perhaps tough to pull off amid a cacophony of T&A, but that’s why you buy them. Because integrity is not what you expect to find at your local Hooters, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The smartest thing Bujalski does is that he never, ever underestimates the women in his film.
Early in the documentary Far From The Tree, Andrew Solomon says of the book he wrote by the same name “In telling these stories, I was investigating the very nature of family itself.” What he researched, and what the film explores, is children who are very different from their families, and the impact this has in their homes. Solomon grew up gay in a household that believed homosexuality was a sin. He was rejected by his mother.
The documentary, by Rachel Dretzin, visits with 5 families. Jason is a 41 year old man who loves Frozen and has Down Syndrome while his parents of course do not. He lives with a couple of roommates (the Three Musketeers, they call themselves) and a caregiver, but spends a lot of time with his mother. He grew up something of a celebrity, the poster child for “retarded” kids who could learn to read and write and socialize beyond what was normally credited to them. Jack is a 13 year old kid who has severe autism. He doesn’t speak but he’s clearly very intelligent. Though he has little control over his body, he has overcome numerous obstacles just to communicate with his parents. Loini is a bubbly 23 year old woman with dwarfism whose only wish is to be more independent. A convention where she’s finally able to meet other little people is like a welcome eye-opener; finally, someone understands. Leah and Joe are a married couple, both with dwarfism, who give birth to a baby with normal stature. What will parenting be like with a child who quickly outgrows you?
Though these “differences” in the children are nothing more than anomalies of nature, many parents originally blame themselves or feel some sort of guilt – was it a medication taken during pregnancy? a lack of sleep? the bed rest? The film, however, doesn’t give blame any space. Instead it shows parents going to great lengths just to connect with children they don’t necessarily relate to. The paths to love are in many ways the same (Jason’s mom recalls being told that her newborn was a “mongoloid” and that it was best to remove him to an institution immediately, “before a bond could occur” – while of course Jason’s mom had loved him since the moment she learned she was pregnant). In order to thrive as a family,these parents have become devoted to finding ways to connect with children they don’t necessarily relate to but love nonetheless. Love just as much. Leah and Joe talk about how they love each other for their “isms” (dwarfism) not despite them. I can see how this would be a balm to Solomon, who never got that from his own mother. That we can indeed have meaningful relationships with people who are not like us.
The last family (have you realized yet that I’ve only listed 4 of 5?) is a bit different. Their son, Trevor, murdered an 8 year old boy when he was just 16 himself. Can we still apply the lessons we’ve learned from the previous families to him? Can we accept that this is just how he was born, can we not blame his parents for who is he? Certainly, his situation is much different. Perhaps he was born with violent tendencies. Psychopathy may even be hereditary. But murder is still a choice, while Down Syndrome is not. The documentary takes up the same position though: that Trevor’s parents are not to blame. They’re still his mom and dad, they still love him, they still struggle to keep their family intact. But after falling in love with Jason, and having your heart melt over Jack, Trevor is a challenge. Can we, the audience, find the same empathy? Are we meant to?
I like a documentary that challenges me, and lining up Trevor besides these other individuals is indeed a test. I don’t believe it’s pass or fail, but we’ve all got room for improvement, and if this kind of confrontation leads to more empathy, it can’t be a bad thing.