After 11 years of bringing you local reporting, the team behind the Vancouver Observer has moved on to Canada's National Observer. You can follow Vancouver culture reporting over there from now on. Thank you for all your support over the years!

Disney wildlife times two, a blast at American politics and a traumatic teen drama

Also a couple of small but amiable comedies, one of them Canadian

Another week to get your movies by streaming. Some very recent releases have been rushed out, like Onward (at Disney+) and Portrait of a Lady On Fire, one of the best from last year. Several that were to open theatrically today are now streaming too. I cover several of those, including …

Elephant: 3 ½ stars

Dolphin Reef:  3

Slay the Dragon: 4

Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always: 4 ½

James VS His Future Self: 2 ½

Phoenix, Oregon:  2 ½

ELEPHANT: is the most enthralling of the now several of these annual Disney wildlife documentaries that I’ve seen. As usual there is sentimentality and a cutesy story but there are also spectacularly beautiful images and a couple of extremely scary sequences. And best of all, a lot to learn. It’s good for kids, though I’d be careful with the very young. Oh, and there’s even a fart joke.

“Family is everything,” says the narrator, “Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex” who was briefly a BC resident. It’s a bearable statement because it’s based on observation. There are other lines that are just too anthropomorphic to feel real. “Time for a pool party.” And how do the filmmakers know what elephants dream about when they sleep?


Their central character is a one-year old named Jomo who is playful, easily distracted and by the end of the film must learn the ancient ways of his species. He gets that from mom and her sister, the matriarch who leads the herd on a 1,000 mile trek. The route takes them from a delta that dries up annually in Botswana to Victoria Falls with its plentiful water. Along the way, and back, they trudge through a long dry saltpan, through windstorms, awfully close to crocodiles and hyenas and in a most tense sequence through an attack by lions. There’s high drama and danger (as when a baby has to be rescued from a mud pit) and impossible pictures (like swimming elephants photographed from below in the water).  Ms. Markle’s reading of a rather stiff script can’t match the majesty of those visuals. (Disney+) 3 ½ out of 5       

DOLPHIN REEF: This one follows the same story arc as Elephant. There's a playful child who has to learn to grow up, a family group that has to live within the particular rules of its environment and an attack by predators. There's even more dazzling colour than usual because this family lives at a coral reef among a sparkling array of plants and creatures. It's "like one big carnival" according to narrator Natalie Portman. They're Pacific bottlenose dolphins; the child is named Echo and those are orcas that come attacking. Also sharks and cuttlefish.


Echo gets lost at one point, wastes his time playing with a shell at another and ultimately has to learn a lot, especially about co-operation. Dolphins make allies of humpback whales. Every creature on the reef has to contribute to keep it alive and healthy. Parrotfish, for instance, keep it clean, gardener fish eat the excess plants. Sometimes we get a swirling mass of fish; other times a slow motion ballet, in crisp and beautiful underwater cinematography. There's high tension when Echo wanders off and is alone in the dark. That's when the sharks prowl. The highlight though is an amazing fishing scene. The dolphins get the fish to leap out of the water and literally catch them out of the air. Again, enlightening; though I would have liked more about the workings of the reef and the threats it faces. (Disney+) 3  out of 5

SLAY THE DRAGON: The Canadian distributor figures this powerful documentary wouldn’t be of much interest here because it is so American. Have they never heard of the long Gracie’s Finger controversy here in Vancouver? Or how many of us wonder how in the American system politicians can get fewer votes than their opponents and still win an election? One answer is gerrymandering, an old tactic named after a state governor back in the 1800s and used spectacularly just 10 years ago. Re-draw the voting districts, “pack” your opponents’ supporters in just a few, and ensure your own voters are the majority in most, and you win. Modern data mining makes it easier than ever to identify those people.

A Republican strategist named Chris Jankowski pushed it, through his Project Red Map, as a response to Obama’s election. He’s in the film talking proudly about how cheap and effective it was in key states. Businessmen like the Koch brothers and a lobby group The American Legislative Exchange Council supported it and the new maps were drawn in lawyers’ offices. “An assault on democracy,” says a Mother Jones reporter. “A fixed system,” says Arnold Schwarzenegger.


More in New Movies

More streaming ideas take you to Brazil, low-life China and two Jesse Eisenberg films

As well as a cleverly-plotted trip to Barcelona thanks to Netflix

Movie theatres are shut down, so what’s streaming?

Some modest recommendations and stay for the last one, an alarm about what has happened to the internet.

Three women lead off a long line-up of new movies in town

Note also new ones from Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Annette Bening with Bill Nighy, a forgotten Canadian tragedy and China’s rush to tear down some of its heritage
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.