October 22, 2020

“The Social Dilemma” – A Must-See Doc on Netflix

Two different people urged me to catch “The Social Dilemma,” an informative and frightening documentary on Netflix. Following their advice, I spent around 90 minutes watching social media insiders warn about the pernicious effects of our electronic devices.

High-level executives from Instagram, Google, Pinterest and other tech companies seemed almost apologetic that they have helped unleash this beast that consumes our time and our brains.

Dramatic scenes are interspersed with talking head confessions. We are told that Silicon Valley moguls discourage their own children from using the apps and hardware from which they derive profit. FaceBook and ilk are highly addictive and encourage people to become myopic in their view of the world. You are only shown material which coincides with what you have already viewed. This selective sharing of information partially explains why we are so divided in our view of truth and governmental policy.

I can’t say this film will be a fun ride, but you will certainly be better informed after catching “The Social Dilemma.” If you feel similarly enlightened after viewing the doc, please spread the word. This might be essential to watch before the election.

More Reality Shows of Note on Netflix

How is Netflix getting me to consider programs I would not normally watch? When I open the app, a show trailer starts playing above the list of selections. The clips are engaging, upbeat and often pique my curiosity. How else to explain my current viewing selections: “Love On the Spectrum,” “Restaurants on the Edge” and “Sugar High.”

I have been a fan of “Sugar Rush,” a cooking competition using sweet ingredients. When I exhausted those episodes, Netflix automatically cued up a related show from the same producers, “Sugar High.” Stone-cold professionals compete to make sugar creations that delight the tastebuds and the eyes. Much like sculptors and glassblowers, the chefs skillfully fashion shapes using ingredients like sugar, isomalt and paper wafers. I would not have the heart to destroy these artistic creations by eating them, however.

“Restaurants on the Edge” is a bit sleepy in its pacing, but features scenic restaurants in different countries that need help with their menus, decor and promotion.

Three restaurant gurus arrive in the area and find local beverages, food stuffs and decorating ideas to refresh the dining establishment in question. The show tries to defy the adage that the better the view, the worse the food.

“Love on the Spectrum,” an Australian documentary series, introduced me to young people who are autistic and in search of what we all want: love and romance. Cian O’Clery, the series’ creator and director, films men and women as they openly discuss being “on the spectrum.” We watch them go on first dates and interact with their families. The show accomplishes something rare as we feel genuine empathy for young couples who have found love and for those still searching for romance. “Love On the Spectrum” finds the balance between documentary and reality show which impels you to keep watching. At just five episodes, the series leaves you wanting progress reports on all of these endearing people.

During these stressful times, Netflix has carried many serious scripted shows, but I am keeping my streaming subscription because they are offering fun, reasonably intelligent programs that emphasize food, fashion, art, travel and love.

“The Vote” on PBS

As a country, we are marking the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that gave women the right to vote in the 1920 elections.

If you want to learn more about this historic anniversary from the comforts of home, “American Experience” on PBS is featuring a fine documentary, “The Vote,” about the suffragettes and their march toward becoming voting members of our democracy. The show’s tag line provides the theme —“Women were not given the vote. They took it.”

“The Vote” painfully describes the initial coalition and ensuing separation of African-Americans and women to both be awarded the vote after the Civil War. Women were told they had to wait and 43 years elapsed before they were nationally accorded voting rights.

I learned that the Illinois delegation in the Washington, D.C. Women’s March shamefully bowed to racial pressure and denied Ida B. Wells and her group the right to march with white women from “the land of Lincoln.”

Archival photos and film footage are punctuated with short interviews with current-day writers and historians. This is timely information as we examine issues of equality in race, gender and economic status.

The almost four-hour series is separated into Part One and Part Two. Viewing is free now, so catch the programs before they revert to the paid membership catalogue. With that said, a paid Passport membership would not be a waste of money.

The Elephant Queen doc on Apple +

I try to keep my streaming services to a very limited number, but I recently was given a year free of Apple + with the purchase of an iPhone. I must be honest, not much appealed to me at first perusal. Too many kiddie shows and programs aimed at family entertainment.

A photo of a mother elephant with her offspring caught my eye, however. To be honest, nature programs are almost never on my “to watch list”, but something called to me when I saw the documentary entitled “The Elephant Queen.”

Directed by husband and wife Victoria Stone and Mark Deeble, the cinematography is amazing with up-close filming of mammals, birds, insects and weather conditions.

The tag line says it all: “A story of love, courage and coming home.” There truly is a story line with a 50-year-old matriarch leading her Kenyan elephant tribe to water, food and safety, with joys and sadness along the journey. Chiwetel Eijiofor is the resonant narrator.

I am still not generally a fan of nature shows, but this lovely and engaging production may be the ticket if you want to take a vicarious trip to the wild.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Fred Rogers Doc on HBO

I watched a church service on Easter morning, cooked some festive dishes and had two virtual parties with friends and family in the afternoon. As evening approached, I tried to think of something to watch in keeping with the Easter spirit. That ruled out murder dramas, Covid-10 news and political pundits.

Suddenly, a recommendation from last Easter popped into my head. A friend had raved about the 2018 American documentary currently streaming on HBO, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I had never watched Mr. Rogers when his show was on PBS, mistakenly thinking it was strictly for kiddies. The documentary points out social consciousness always played a part in his programming.

It was with wonder I watched him share bare feet in a kiddie pool with his African-American postman, a not so subtle counterbalance to the fights over whites and blacks using the same public swimming pools. Through fairy tale stories and realistic conversations between puppets and humans, Fred Rogers tackled difficult issues of the day.

One of the most moving segments of the doc is when Rogers interviews a disabled boy in a wheel chair. There is no pity on either side of the conversation, just a positive exchange of ideas between two individuals.

First and foremost was Mr. Rogers’ reverence for the feelings and education of children. He views television as a medium to create more than just cheap entertainment for kids. (On a personal note, my husband interviewed someone from the cast and was given a ticket to see Mr. Rogers live at the Auditorium in Chicago. He related how the venue was jam-packed with kids shouting and laughing until Mr. Rogers appeared on stage. A dead hush occurred before one little voice called out in awe, “Rogers,” only to be joined by hundreds of devoted fans yelling his name. Sadly, I never got to see the man in person, but I do recall this vivid description from my spouse.)

As an ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers chose to wear a sweater and comfortable shoes instead of a white collar but his spirituality is apparent in his songs, his speech and his very demeanor. The documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, directed by Morgan Neville, captures the essence of Mr. Rogers. Watch it with people you love.

P.S. I may yet watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the 2019 movie starring Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers, but the the footage of the real man is gonna be hard to beat.

The Last Czars on Netflix

The Last Czars, a six episode series which premiered on Netflix July 3, 2019, uses dramatic re-enactment scenes interspersed with very animated scholars weighing in on documentary-style questions.

We continue to be fascinated by royal families, as the popularity of the shows Victoria and The Crown would attest. One hundred years have elapsed since the murder of the last Imperial Russian royal family so this seems a propitious time to re-examine the downfall of this storied monarchy.

Robert Jack portrays Tsar Nicholas, the final royal ruler of Russia, as a man who was incapable of changing with the times, which were turbulent indeed with starvation, strikes, riots, a disastrous war with Japan and the run-up to World War I being some of the problems during his reign. On a personal level, he was madly in love with his wife, Empress Alexandra (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and father to four daughters who were ineligible to rule. Joy at the eventual birth of his son and heir, Alexei turned to sorrow when it was discovered that he suffered from an inherited family illness, hemophilia.

We see Alexandra, played by Susanna Herbert, fall under the spell of mystic and possible madman, Grigori Rasputin, mesmerizingly embodied by British actor, Ben Cartwright. Both Nicholas and Alexandra came to believe that only Rasputin could keep the young Tsarevitch in good health.

The series delves into how the family was executed and the possibility of survivors, most notably that of daughter, Anastasia.

If you are a fan of European history, the Imperial Russian family in particular, this docu-drama has good enough acting, cinematography, costume and production values. Some of the dialogue in The Last Czars may annoy you as stating the obvious however.

DNA testing has taken away some of the mystery surrounding the final chapter of the Emperor and his family, but historical interest remains high. I may just go google the current price of a Fabergé egg and take a virtual tour of the Hermitage Art Museum.