Look Out, It’s Murderville!!!
By Anne Brodie
Black History Month kicks off with a plethora of essential documentary series tracing the Black experience in North America from the first shipload of enslaved Africans arrived in New England in 1619 to today. The Smithsonian Channel premieres One Thousand Years of Slavery – The Untold Story, a four-part docuseries narrated and produced by Courtney B. Vance and Angela Bassette that details the ways Blacks were enslaved in America, as early as the 14th century. The story of the next hundreds of years in a white supremacist colony – stolen from First Nations – is tragic, the true story of repression, state-sanctioned murder, identify theft and egregious laws meant to keep Black people down, as we see once again today in the US. The four-parter launches Feb 7 and features interviews and readings by among others, Debbie Allen, Valerie Jarrett, Lorraine Toussaint, Soledad O’Brien, CCH Pounder, Senator Cory Booker, Marc Morial and Dulé Hill, as they look at their personal and cultural legacies and connection to the slave trade. We learn about enslaved people’s rebellions, uprisings, and violence towards captors after years of torture and oppression, and swift, deadly retribution, from the Amistad slaving ship rebellion to Haiti, New Orleans and across the south. We learn about Matilda McCrear, the last known survivor of the slave ship Clotilde which in 1860 was the last ship to bring slaves from Africa to America. McCrear later demanded reparation for being stolen from Africa. And folks, this is just the first episode. Rivetting and necessary viewing.
On Feb 4 HotDocs Toronto, and theatres in Vancouver and Montreal open Who We Are: A Chronicle of RacismIn America, from documentary filmmakers, Emily and Sarah Kunstler (daughters of Chicago Seven lawyer William Kunstler). Jeffery Robinson, lawyer and former ACLU Deputy Legal Director weaves his documentary around a speech he gave at New York’s Town Hall on Juneteenth 2018. He begins with the idea that claiming we were not slave owners denies who we are. He visits Memphis’ Lorraine Motel where civil rights Martin Luther King was shot to death, speaks with Confederate flag-waving civil war re-enactors who say the war wasn’t about ending slavery, it was about money – money created by slavery. He visits historic sites, a slave market site on Wall St., plantations whose wealth was measured not in land, buildings or produce but by the number of enslaved persons, from newborns to the elderly, where laws were passed enshrining slavery, hanging trees, names insurances companies that uninsured enslaved people as goods. He takes us to statues and memorials to oppressors like KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forest, to Hollywood’s white supremacist history in The Birth of a Nation, the first film to be shown in the White House, the practice of breeding new slaves when transatlantic slave ships were outlawed, a shameful litany of systemic cruelty and legal genocide. Meet Lessie Benningfield, the sole remaining survivor of the 1921 massacre or “ethnic cleansing” of 4000 people in Greenwood, Oklahoma when locals openly bombed the black part of town and no one was arrested. John Ehrlichman’s quoted as saying the government purposely made enemies of Blacks and hippies in a strategy called the War on Drugs in the seventies and the deadly effects are still in play now. President Bill Clinton passed restrictive laws! Has there been progress? Robinson notes that statues of white supremacists have been removed, but police still kill young black men walking down the streets. It can be dangerous for Black people to make others uncomfortable. Robinson’s deep wealth of knowledge, charisma and eloquence drive these hard truths home – for good reason.
Writer-director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s extraordinary Drive My Car almost hits the three-hour mark, but what three hours they are. It doesn’t take long for the film about a stage actor and his screenwriter wife to reveal its true nature. It’s not what we think at first – a domestic drama exploration of a domestic and artistic union – it is a work of art in and of itself. It takes its time to offer us a rich, multi-layered experience, stupendous in its subtlety and seeming simplicity. We meet them in their apartment as they thrash out her TV screenplay about an obsessed young woman, who repeatedly breaks into her beloved’s home. He’s off to a film festival in Vladivostok, Russia but turns back home when bad weather grounds transportation. He comes home and sees his wife making love to another man and leaves. A week later he’s partially blinded in an accident but still drives. They attend a service for their late daughter and resume work on the teleplay. It won’t be finished – his wife dies. He’s stricken and decides to do a residency in Hiroshima and stage Uncle Vanya, hoping it might invigorate him. Striking cinematography emphasises the theme of secret suffering, mourning and isolation, in apartments, hotel rooms or inside ever-present cars, his refuge where he can think. He refuses a driver at the festival but eventually allows a young woman to take charge and an astounding new chapter begins. The emotional density is a constant pressure, relieved by what he sees, fields and forests and nature, from inside the car. There’s so much packed into this deceptively simple tale and the unfolding of its mysteries and layers is our rich reward. Arresting and original, three hours whip by. Stars Hidetoshi Nishijima, Reika Kirishima and Tôko Miura. Select theatres including TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Uma Thurman’s chilly, elegant business tycoon Katherine Newman is the face of corrupt capitalism in Apple TV+ pulse pounder Suspicion. The eight-episode conspiracy thriller begins with the kidnapping of Newman’s son Leo from a New York residential hotel by thugs wearing masks of the Royal Family – funny not funny. Because Newman is prominent and in line to become US Ambassador to the UN, the kidnapping is immediate media fodder. The UK’s National Crime Agency and the FBI unite in London to find him focusing on an Asian man, a teacher, two sisters, a woman and her daughter and an Oxford student all of whom stayed in the same New York hotel the night the boy was taken. They’re rounded up, one of the sisters from her wedding, and realise they’re in serious trouble. A masked man kidnaps them and flies them to New York. Meanwhile, the US Senate has been hacked, with a public message to Newman, to Tell the Truth. Suspicion is fun and fast-paced, and a cut above, and it’s great to see Thurman in all her icy evil majesty. Interesting touches add to the series’ realism and expansive humanity but nothing gets in the way of the electrifying pace. Co-stars Kunal Nayyar, Noah Emmerich, Georgina Campbell, Elyes Gabel, Elizabeth Henstridge, Tom Rhys-Harries and Angel Coulby and is based on the award-winning Israeli series False Flag.
At the opposite end of the entertainment, spectrum comes the hysterically funny new Netflix series Murderville, starring Will Arnett, Annie Murphy, Conan O’Brien, Ken Jeong, Kumail Nanjiani, Marshawn Lynch, and Sharon Stone. Arnett is Detective Terry Seattle and Haneefah Wood Chief Rhonda Jenkins – Seattle, his ex. A new murder occurs in each episode and each case brings a newbie dick to help Seattle. The stars listed above are his interns, and the actors know nothing about the episode. they must catch on, improvise and ultimately name the perp. Half-hours of squirmy fun are gold with shades of total brilliance. The pressured stars come through, and it’s fun to see their puzzled, priceless expressions as they maybe come unglued or deliver a zinger. Expect a magician’s assistant to be completely sawn in half, triplet suspects, a Mr. Octavio Shitwagon, Dr. Eva Braun, a soup drowning (Mary Hatman, Mary Hartman), a heart ripped out and stomped upon, and Seattle’s memorial to Jennifer Aniston. You can’t make this stuff up. Or maybe you have to. Bears repeating. Hysterical.
Also innovative and hilarious, Apple TV+ eight-part murder mystery comedy The Afterparty, featuring, according to the handout, “10 different genres, four original Xavier (Dave Franco) songs as heard in Franco’s album Imma Live Forever, two unexpected cameos ( think all cameos are unexpected, but I quibble) twelve Comedic Heavy Hitters (including Tiffany Haddish, Sam Richardson, Zoë Chao, Ben Schwartz, Ike Barinholtz, Ilana Glazer, Jamie Demetriou and Franco), and actor Zoe Chao, Countless Clues to Find: From Morse code to Rebus puzzles, from David Kwong and Dave Shukan and the thing took writer/director Chris Miller 10 Years to Make.” Okay, so Franco’s rock star Xavier takes an unexpected plunge over the cliff and onto the rocks below during a party at his spectac LA area house and dies. Partygoers attended a high school reunion before helicoptering into Xavier’s place and they are all under suspicion. Detective Danner (Haddish) questions each guest privately through the night, gets her own eppie and learns two suspects have been listening in the whole time. Plenty of action – a related murder, a love match between Richardson and Chao as her psycho husband and Xavier elbow in and there is an unkind act upon a sleeping man.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Oyelowo lead Crave‘s intense gaslighting drama series The Girl Before, a thriller about an obsession with … a house? Mbatha-Raw’s newly single Jane is captivated by an ultra-modern, smart home designed by Oyelowo’s precise and controlling architect Edward. The residence in Bristol is startlingly sharp-edged, glass and concrete an example of extreme modernism, to keep it that way Edward requires Jane to sign an agreement forbidding objects on tables and floors, and artwork. She is also required to correctly answer moral questionnaires on omnipresent house screens before she can access utilities. She protests that a house should serve occupants not the other way around, his anger flares and she fears for her life. Added to the tension of the prior female tenant who fell to her death down the rail-less concrete stairs, Jane’s forced to agree to it all but won’t leave. Instead, she investigates the house’s history and the couple that lived there (Jessica Plummer and Ben Hardy), Edward’s affair with the woman – and then with her – to gauge danger. Terror sets in when she discovers hidden security cameras everywhere (obvs) and news that the woman before was raped there by an unknown assailant. And Edward’s wife and child are buried in the garden. Brrrr… Interesting picture of the kinds of obsession and behaviours that went into this WIP stew that will hold your attention make you happy care more for people than houses.
A better-than-average romcom A Grand Romantic Gesture, starring a number of well-known English actors was shot in Sault Ste Marie, which looks look like Anyplace, Ontario. What fun! BAFTA winner Gina McKee is Ava, an English suburban wife and mother just fired from her high-powered job and she’s at loose ends. Her husband and pregnant daughter see she’s bored and tell her sternly to take a cooking class; she hates cooking so secretly signs up for drama class and is paired with Simon (Tony Winner Douglas Hodge) to star in an “older person” version of Romeo and Juliet. They have chemistry and as time goes on, that chemistry bubbles up. Her family mocks her thespian ambitions, but Simon encourages and cheers her. Turns out they do a bang-up job on opening night to the surprise of everyone. And the leads discover that they might be in love which doesn’t escape his obnoxious wife (cream cheese Angel Linda Kash). This is a better-than-average romcom packed with witty dialogue, humour, and subtlety plus Edit Wharton quotes and loads of Shakespeare. Great good fun. TVOD.
On the other hand, we have the rom-com Book of Love starring Sam Claflin shot in London and Mexico. Relationship author Henry Cooper’s “practical” look at love, his first published work, is a flop. One person shows up at his instore reading just as it ends and he must face the bitter truth that his new book is going four for the price of one. But his agent advises him that the book is Mexico’s number one bestseller; someone translated it into Spanish et presto! So off he goes to promote it and attends a reading – in Spanish. The mostly female audience swoons with delight and gives him looks he doesn’t quite understand. He discovers the local rep (Verónica Echegui ) who’s squiring him around translated his dull tome and made certain “improvements” – it’s now an erotic potboiler. Naturally, he’s furious but can’t stay mad because of his attraction to her. Unique twists but underperforms on, like how could Henry be so blind to reality? and a sunny kind of artifice. TVOD.
Also on Prime Video, the series Reacher, based on the veteran military police investigator played in five Jack Reacher films by Tom Cruise. Alan Ritchson takes on Cruise’s mantel in this eight-episode outing in which Reacher’s walking through Georgia on a mission, with no visible means of support. He arrives in dusty Margrave and is immediately challenged by thugs. He dispatches them in moments. This apparent martial artist/hulk with fighting skills and snappy comebacks raises eyebrows and is arrested on suspicion of committing murder just outside of town; witnesses say it was him. Truth is, he has just entered civilian life after several tours in the Middle East is walking across the US, dropping by Margrave where his favourite blues musician died. He’s jailed, manhandled and humiliated until he steps up, mightily. His only allies are the Black police chief, an outlier in this part of the world and a female officer who is willing to listen. Bit by bit Reacher uncovers a conspiracy extending through law enforcement, business and local politics and decides to take it all on, “250 pounds of frontier justice”. It’s unique macho fun featuring a kid who just might make it in Hollywood and frankly does better than Cruise. Canada’s Kristen Kreuk co-stars. Season One is based on Lee Child’s first Jack Reacher novel Killing Floor.
Globi, the free streaming service specialising in international film and television, has added the biopic Ottilie von Faber-Castell. Set in 19th century Germany, 16-year-old Ottilie von Faber inherits her grandfather’s global pencil manufacturing business and lands in the middle of the male patriarchy. They challenge her new position and power as they would have done back then but Ottilie is remarkably resourceful and talented and she grew up alongside her father in business. She might have a shot – and then under her management, the business breaks all expectations to become powerful and successful. Feeling good about her accomplishments, she marries and has children, but something niggles at her from the past. Stars Kristin Suckow, Martin Wuttke and Johannes Zirner under the direction of co-writer Claudia Garde.