By Anne Brodie
Most of us were raised on Sesame Street, one of the most inventive, influential and popular children’s television programmes, next to Mister Rogers Neighbourhood, in history. Marilyn Agrelo and Michael Davis’ documentary Street Gang How We Got to Sesame Street goes back to the show’s unlikely roots and traces its flowering, the characters and ideas along the way and the reasons for its existence. The creators, artists, writers, and educators who planted the seed in 1969 offer unique insights into the rich life of Sesame Street featuring Joan Ganz Cooney, Jim Henson and The Muppets, Carol Spinney, Jon Stone, Gordon Robinson, James Earl Jones Grace Slick, Buffy Ste. Marie, and many of the greatest stars of the day, and thousands of celebrities and friends who dropped by over the years. Sesame Street was funny, poignant, moving, satirical, warm-hearted and completely addictive to children and adults. It was “what TV would do if it loved people and wasn’t trying to sell to people”, a place of learning and fun, deep thinking, meant to educate and inform. It never talked down to its audience and dealt frankly with issues including death (shopkeeper Mr Hooper), divorce, difference, poverty, broken families, culture, and used Madison Avenue techniques to teach the alphabet to preschoolers. It showed the way forward on so many levels. Co-founder, iconoclast and activist Jon Stone was against the Vietnam War, pro-Black rights and knew TV could be socially valuable; Sesame Street is his legacy. There was also much going on behind the scenes, as we learn, and much to absorb and appreciate. On TVOD including digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.
For Mothers Day, we have Duty Free, a documentary on a crucial and life-changing year for British-born Bostonite Rebecca Danigelis. She’s 75, energetic, intelligent and still working as a hotel executive housekeeper, living in an apartment provided by the management. Rebecca is precise, formal and productive and respected in her work. She cares for her schizophrenic son Gabriel and occasionally sees her NY-based entertainment TV journalist Sian-Pierre Regis. Rebecca came from Britain in the ’60s looking for the American dream and settled in Detroit where she and her Black boyfriend had two sons. Sadly he abandoned her, leaving her to raise them alone and in a foreign place. Cut to 2016 when her ordered life comes crashing down; she’s fired for being “insubordinate” but she suspects it was ageism and must give up the rent-free apartment. Son Sian-Pierre travels to be with her and finds her devastated; he begins a documentary looking at the aftermath of the firing to shed light on ageism. He also launches a crowdfunder to take her on a Bucket List tour – skydiving, milking a cow, a hip hop class and to be reunited with the daughter she had and sent away to live in the UK. Rebecca’s emotional journey is challenging and Sian-Pierre gives up his career to support her; it’s a tough spot. Still, she’s a stiff upper lip Brit and withholds but she’s a terrific subject and her struggle’s real. What a treat for Mother’s Day. Stream via the Vancouver International Film Festival (viff.org).
Prince Edward County never looked so beautiful on film. Drifting Snow, a meditation on mourning and kindred spirits offers a bracing, heartbreakingly beautiful dive into mid-winter there, off Lake Ontario. Howling winds and hard snow are the gorgeous backdrops for Ryan Noth’s simple story of connection. Sonja Smits is Joanne, recently widowed from her life companion and true love(Colin Mochrie). She rarely leaves their hilltop home, the car can’t make it to the top in snow, and she dislikes driving. One night she ventures out to an art show and drives home through a snowstorm and meets a young filmmaker Chris (Jonas Bonnetta) by accident. Ironically his eyesight is failing but Joanne drives him off the road. She takes him home to sort out his vehicle and they pass the time swapping stories. Things become intimate; he shares his feelings about selling his late mother’s farm, his girlfriend who is not willing to move to the country and she hers as she processes widowhood and isolation. Never sentimental or overbearing, this is writer-director Ryan Noth’s love letter to rural Ontario and the people there. Lots of fun poked at PEC’s citified cafes and stores and people “trying out” country living but it mostly leads with the heart. A wonderful experience. TVOD.
What Lies West is a deceptively simple story of a college grad and the 16-year-old she babysits for a summer; it looks at the problems of helicopter parents who teach their children that the world is a dangerous place, dealing with that negativity, the awkwardness of being a teen and doing what one must do. Writer-director Jessica Ellis’ debut is a winner, digging into things that have to be said and done, and holding one’s ground as a skill that must be learned in order to grow. Sonoma CA grad Nicolette (Nicolette Kaye Ellis) an aspiring Hollywood actor, is desperate for work and takes a job babysitting Chloe (Chloe Moore) – and it’s not easy. Chloe is uncommunicative and stays in her room, but one day runs out of the house and up into the hills. Nicolette follows her and their hike around the lake becomes a daily event. Turns out Chloe has a secret plan and she must convince Nicolette to join her. Chloe’s been under her toxic, anxiety-driven single mother’s (Anna Peterson) thumb long enough and she’s desperate for air. When the mother leaves for a four-day yoga retreat, the girls carry out the plan to walk from Sonoma to the ocean through forests, not by roads, a plan that complicates things but frees them both. This debut feature is a breath of fresh air, on many levels. TVOD.
Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, born Princess Marie of Edinburgh in 1875, entered an arranged marriage with Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania, the heir apparent of King Carol I, in 1892. Marie was Crown Princess and on the monarch’s death, became Queen Marie. She dedicated herself to helping the people of Romania, devastated by the German invasion and genocide during World War One. Marie had the support of her husband the king, but not of her son, Prince Carol; he attempted to sabotage her at every turn. It is against this backdrop the film takes place. Marie, played by Roxanna Lupu, was wildly popular in her country, she saw through the reunification of Romania in order to provide her people with greater opportunities and wealth. Marie attended the 1919 Peace Conference in Paris but was ignored by Woodrow Wilson, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and British PM Lloyd George, and others who were dismayed that Romania signed a treaty with the Germans during the War. She explained that they had no choice as they were under occupation and soon George fell in line after a word from Winston Churchill. Her personal charm and passion helped pave the road to success. It’s a complex story told simply, that pings the intense misogyny of the times, but celebrates Marie’s early feminism and bravery, and tireless efforts on behalf of a country not her own. I’d like to know more about the divide between Marie and her son Carol. Also stars Daniel Plier, Anghel Damian, Adrian Titieni, Iulia Verdes, and Emil Mandanac TVOD.
Oxygen, a sci-fi thriller starring Mélanie Laurent and directed by Alexandre Aja opens with overhead footage of a mouse trapped in a massive maze. Then a disturbing scene of a woman waking up inside a darkened pod, tightly wrapped from head to toe. “Elizabeth” lets out muffled screams for help as she struggles to tear off the wrap, as we wonder how on earth she got into this mess. She is connected to a computer voice that tells her the pod’s oxygen system has failed and is at 35% capacity, and that she is Bioforme Omicron 267. It asks if her cryogenic reanimation is complete. She remembers scenes from ordinary life, playing in the countryside and ocean waves. She finds the serial number of the pod and is told it was destroyed three years ago, and if she disables the palliative care needle that is coming at her on a robotic arm, she will be imprisoned for ten years. Moot point. She can’t believe that someone has done this to her. Nothing but shocks lie ahead – news that humanity will die out in two generations, that authorities feared she would leak information she has as a cryogenic scientist. Oxygen is at 5%. Oxygen thy name is INTENSE. Netflix.
Topic’s German true crime mini-series, Dark Woods is a complex missing persons mystery based on the real-life disappearance of a woman in the “dark woods” of Lower Saxony, a place that has inspired literary chills over the years. In 1989 a paper goods manufacturer’s wife Barbara disappears in the midst of an unwanted divorce from her husband; he’s living with his an employee and keen to unload his unstable wife. Barbara is the sister of Thomas, one of Hamburg’s highest-ranking police officials but he is unable to investigate as the search is concentrated in Weesenborg, another jurisdiction. The bodies of two couples are found in the woods there, both found under tents of twigs, both shot at close range. Local police believe the same man is responsible for Barbara’s disappearance and the four killings. A female homicide investigator, new to the staff the day of the gruesome discoveries finds herself in a hidebound environment of 80’s sexism and earns fellow officers’ disdain by revealing her keen instincts for the job. There seems to be no shortage of suspects, a woodsman living in the firest who collects weapons, a cemetery gardener whose narcissistic egotism may distract from his private life, and a serial killer in whose basement the bodies of several women are found. Now, remember this is a true story! Yikes. The case went unsolved for decades with incredible twists and turns. Stars Matthias Brandt, Karoline Schuch, August Wittgenstein, Silke Bodenbender, Nicholas Ofczarek, Jenny Schily and Hildegard Schmahl, and directed by Sven Bohse. Streaming May 13.
More interesting roles and cameos than you can shake a stick at in writer/director Ivo Raza’s self-help mockumentary Reboot Camp. “David Lipper, Keli Price, Maya Stojan, Ed Begley Jr., Lindsey Shaw, Maxim Roy, Pierson Fodé, Ja Rule, David Koechner, Chaz Bono, Eric Roberts, Shar Jackson, Eddie McClintock, plus more movie stars, tv stars, soap stars, rock stars, reality stars, internet stars, and one porn star”. David Lipper and Keli Price play brothers in LA who come up with a unique idea for a documentary, following guru Gordon St. Pierre (from Quebec!) as he establishes Reboot Camp, a self-improvement, awareness and cleansing place/experience for seekers. Acolytes line up for a kick at the wellness can; they’ll improve themselves until St. Pierre reveals that he is not a guru, he is merely filmmaker Seymour and its all been a fake. He will show them behind-the-scenes footage. Note: he doesn’t charge money or separate people from their families. All to prove that if you wear the right costume (sarong and scarves for Seymour), you can make people believe anything. Reboot Camp is a total success and takes on a life of its own. Hilarious, insightful and really indicative of what we are are as a species. TVOD.
The documentary Set! is a surprisingly satisfying study of a cult-like pocket of the population that competes in Table Setting. Yes. Setting the table. Scott Gawlik covers the US to paint portraits of folks who time their lives out in accordance with the next Tablescaping competition. And yes, they exist, either as standalone events or as part of the annual Toronto Blooms exhibition. Who knew? These competitive individuals tend to be older women, who may “rope in” their families, there’s an ageing Hollywood actress, a Comic-Con enthusiast, newcomers to the US. Tablesetters are everywhere! Few of those we meet are wealthy but one competitor was so keen that she paid $6K to gold plate butter knives. She won. While enthusiasts sing the praises of artistic expression, soothing work and reward, others complain of sleeplessness and anxiety as the Day draws near. Says one observer “Competitors are out for blood”, so table setting is a full-throated contest akin to wrestling, racing and the Oscars. TVOD.
The film that had the nerve to press screen in an actual theatre last pandemic summer is available now on HBO Max. Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi, time and space-shifting thriller Tenet didn’t quite meet the hype mark, even if it did win Oscar’s Best Achievement in Visual Effects award. Here’s what I thought last summer and it hasn’t changed. “Tenet … depends upon the plastic nature of time and space, as our protagonists time travel to find, hide, and fix things. Denzel’s son John David Washington is The Protagonist in this ambitious sci-fi intelligence thriller; he and his partner, Robert Pattinson traverse seven countries and innumerable time frames under the effects of the inversion of energy. A bullet fired shoots back into the gun, a horrific car crash undoes itself and they come face to face with themselves in different universes in an upside-down world where the laws of physics don’t apply. This complicates the Protagonist’s efforts to stop a depraved Russian arms dealer from ending the world out of FOMO and saving the wife he tortures (Elizabeth Debicki). Nolan used 70mm film and IMAX to create an arresting look that seems to take up all the brain’s space and thundering noise – like the sustained rumbling bass notes of that irritating car that keeps driving by your house. The first two chapters are marvels but as sometimes happens in overambitious projects, the third act collapses. under its own weight.