Issues. Films reviewed: Minari, Test Pattern, The Mauritanian

Posted in 1980s, 2000s, Africa, Courtroom Drama, Family, Kids, Korea, Prison, Romance, Sexual Assault, Terrorism, Texas, Thriller, Torture, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2021

Movies are entertainment, but they can also inform. This week I’m looking at three new American movies that look at important issues. There’s a Korean-American family living the immigrant experience in Arkansas, a black woman dealing with sexual assault in Texas, and a young man enduring prison life in Guantanamo Bay.

Minari

Wri/Dir: Lee Isaac Chung

It’s rural Arkansas in the 1980s. Young David (Alan Kim) just moved there from California with his small family, just his sister Anne and his parents. He’s not allowed to run and play because of his heart murmur. His Dad  (Steven Yuen) spent their life savings on a plot of land and an old mobile home. He wants to start a new life there, growing vegetables for the burgeoning Korean-American market, immigrants like themselves. He’s sure they’ll make a fortune. In the mean time, Mom and Dad (Yeri Han) have to continue working at a poultry factory where they sort newly-hatched chicks. The girl chicks go to poultry farmers, while the boy chicks are incinerated and belched out of a sinister-looking chimney behind the plant. The problem is, despite Dad’s relentless enthusiasm, Mom hates it there and wants to move back to California. She’s a city girl. So they’re fighting all the time adding to their kids’ anxiety. To calm the waters they get Grandma, Mom’s mother (Yuh-jung Youn), to come live with them. 

She shares a room with David who doesn’t know what to make of her. She cracks foul-mouthed jokes and ogles pro-wrestlers on TV. When he wets his bed, she tells him his ding-dong is broken. You’re not a real grandmother, he says.  Mom is unhappy, and Dad is increasingly on edge — farming isn’t as easy as it looks. Will the family business go bust? Can David and Grandma learn to get along? What about his heart murmur? And can a dysfunctional family learn to like one another?

Minari (the title refers to a leafy vegetable grandma plants by a stream in the woods) is a warm, tender and funny look at the lives of an immigrant family trying to make it. It’s told through the point of view of an anxious little kid observing the strangeness of rural Arkansas. Things like diviners renting themselves out to find wells, and their grizzly old farm hand (Will Patton),  prone to bursting into prayers and exorcisms at a moment’s notice. The storytelling is rich and colourful, the locations are warm and rustic, the acting is terrific, and while the plot is bittersweet, it leaves you with a good feeling.

Test Pattern

Wri/Dir: Shatara Michelle Ford

It’s Austin Texas. 

Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is a beautiful young black executive originally from Dallas. She’s starting her new job as a manager at a pet-rescue charity. She lives with Evan (Will Brill) a scruffy, white tattoo artist. They met at a nightclub and are deeply in love.   And to celebrate her new position, Amber (Gail Bean) takes her on a “girl’s’ night out” at a local bar. She promises Evan she’ll be home early to get a good night’s sleep. But she wakes up, hungover, dizzy, disoriented and in pain, in the bed of a strange man. What happened?

Evan can tell, it was something bad. She was sexually assaulted by a stranger, a rich, e-commerce guy they met at the bar who plied her with drinks and strong drugs. Momentary flashbacks start appearing in her head, adding to her unease. Renesha just wants to shower and sleep, but Evan insists they go to a hospital to pick up a rape kit. What follows is a gruelling exercise in medical incompetence, legal boundaries, and an unsympathetic system, as the two of them travel from hospital to hospital trying to get the tests done. What effect will that night have on Renesha? Can she go back to work? Can their relationship survive? And will justice be served?

Test Pattern is a dark look at the results of a sexual assault on one woman and the ripple effects on her boyfriend. The story alternates between a study of that one awful day after, and of the much nicer times in their relationship leading up to it. It also chronicles the indignities a woman has to endure — things like not being allowed to urinate before she takes the tests — at the worst possible time, as they try to preserve evidence of the assault.  Test Pattern is not a happy movie, but rather a sympathetic and realistic view of trauma.

The Mauritanian

Dir: Kevin MacDonald

It’s November, 2001, on the western edge of the Sahara Desert. Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) is a young man, from engineering student in Mauritania.  He’s celebrating with family and friends in a huge tent, when black limos pull up. It’s the corrupt local police force.  The US authorities, they say, are going crazy since 9/11. They just want to talk to you about something. That’s the last his family saw him. Five years later, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) a successful partner at an Albuquerque, law firm, decides to investigate his case. With the help of a young associate named Teri (Shailene Woodley) she discovers Mohamadou is being held without charge, in Guantanamo. The government is going to try him in court, under the prosecution of a military lawyer named Crouch (Benedict Cumberbatch). They agree to be his pro bono defence attorneys because that’s how trials work. But the cards are stacked against them. He is one of Al Qaeda’s main recruiters, a close friend of Osama Bin Laden, personally connected to one of the hijackers on 9/11, and responsible; for the deaths of more than 3000 Americans. (Or so they say.) 

But when they fly out to Gitmo to meet the defendant, his story seems quite different. In a series of redacted letters, he records his experiences over the past 5 years, at the hands of CIA and military interrogators. Is Mohamadou a terrorist, or just a random guy they arrested? Is the evidence against him real? What did they do to him at Guantanamo? And will he ever be released from that hell hole?

The Mauritanian is a harrowing legal drama based on the true case of Mohamadou Slahi. The film deals with torture, corruption, secrecy and a flawed legal system. French actor Tahar Rahim is terrific as Mohamadou, the main character of the movie, as he records what life is really like in that notorious complex. Foster, Woodley and Cumberbatch (with a very believable southern accent) support him well, though in less exciting roles.

Test Pattern is now playing digitally at the Revue Cinema; Minari starts today; and the Mauritanian opens on Tuesday.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Older. Films reviewed: Nomadland, Supernova, Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Posted in Death, Dementia, documentary, Drama, Gay, Poverty, Road Movie, Romance, UK by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

As the baby boomers age, so do the characters in their movies. This week I’m looking at two dramas and a documentary about travelling around. There’s an older woman exploring the western US in her dilapidated mobile home; two older men driving through northern England in their old camper; and an intense documentary series that takes you across the twentieth century and back again.

Nomadland

Wri/Dir: Chloe Zhao

(Based on the book by Jessica Bruder)

Fern (Frances McDormand) is an ornery, older woman with short grey hair who lives in Empire, Nevada, a company town that processes gypsum. She likes wearing overalls and reciting Shakespeare. She followed her beloved husband to Empire decades earlier with the promise of lifetime employment.  It proved true for him — he died at work. But the empire has fallen. Now she’s a widow, the plant is closed,  the company has pulled up its stakes, and the town itself no longer exists; it’s been wiped off the map, literally. She’s broke with no prospect of work, so she packs up all her stuff, piles it into a ramshackle RV, and sets out on the highway. She’s not homeless, she’s houseless. Her home is on wheels. 

She encounters a group of people like her,  camping in RVs in the desert, like old war horses put out to pasture. They’ve got no money — instead they share goods at a trading post, sing songs around a campfire, and do each other favours like fixing flat tires. They live entirely off the grid. (You’ve heard of Burning Man? This is Burning Van.) Fern meets Dave, a friendly guy with a greying beard (David Strathairn), and she begrudgingly shack up with him. They go their separate ways looking for work where they can find it. But she meets up with him again in the Badlands as she travels across the American west. Will they live together permanently? Can Fern settle down? Or will she stick to her nomadic life and the freedom of the open road?

Nomadland is an engrossing, gritty drama about an older woman on the road trying to make it on her own. It’s all about finding friendship and hope amidst loneliness and poverty. Frances McDormand is remarkable as Fern, acting alongside non-actors, ordinary people playing themselves. 

This is Chloe Zhao’s third feature, and like her earlier films, it feels part documentary, part drama, slow paced and very real.

It’s all shot on location, against magnificent and stark scenery, the desert, the mountains, the sterile interior of an Amazon warehouse and the rustic kitchen of the famous Wall Drugs. Nomadland isn’t a Hollywood feel good movie — its even mildly depressing in parts, but on the whole it’s a magnificent and moving picture. Just Great

Supernova

Wri/Dir: Harry Macqueen

Sam and Tusker are a middle aged couple who have lived together in England for decades. Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is a successful American novelist, bald-headed with a sharp tongue. He loves staring at the night sky and thinking about distant galaxies. Sam (Colin Firth) is an English concert pianist who likes wooly sweaters and old friends. Together they used to travel the world on long trips exploring Paris, Italy, and Kyushu, Japan. Now they’re on a drive in an old  rundown camper through the rocky hills and steep green ravines of the Lake District. They’re heading for a concert hall where Sam is giving a recital after a long hiatus. Tusker is working on his latest novel. On the way, they stop to celebrate a birthday in Sam’s childhood home. Surrounded by closest friends and family, driving on a scenic highway,  snuggling up together in their camper with their shaggy dog… what could be bad?

The bad is Tusker’s early-onset Alzheimers. He was diagnosed a while back and it’s starting to reveal itself. Everything still works normally but he dreads the day when he can no longer control himself. I’ll always be there for you, says Sam. But Tusker doesn’t want that to happen. He wants to be the driver, not Sam’s passenger. Will 

Supernova is a tender  and loving drama about dying and loss. It’s full of profundities about destiny and memory, picturesque stone houses, and music on the car radio. It’s nicely acted and subtly carried out. But maybe too subtle, by half. It didn’t really move me.  There’s a single idea — Tusker doesn’t want to lose control, Sam doesn’t want to lose Tusker — but it feels repetitive,  exploring the same conflict over and over. I like the intimacy and familiarity of the characters, but the movie is too simple and Tucci’s portrayal of someone with dementia didn’t quite ring true.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Wri/Dir: Adam Curtis

What do Jiang Qing, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Red Army Faction, a London slumlord, the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, Petrodollars, and Appallachian coal miners,all have in common? They’re all part of the documentary series directed by Adam Curtis, on the history, economy, psychology and politics of the twentieth century. He explores the fall of empires, but also the failure of revolutions. He also looks at the origins of false conspiracy theories, as well as actual conspiracies, like the CIA’s use of LSD on unsuspecting patients. Basically, he looks at what movements, schools of thought, and major changes going on today, and what inspired them.

If you’ve never seen his documentaries before, now — with all the recent confusion and strangeness and unprecedented changes — is a perfect time to start. Curtis has a unique filmmaking style, that manages to tell its story without ever shooting any new footage. Virtually all his visuals are taken from meticulously researched material from the BBC’s archives. They’re edited together in a constantly changing, almost convoluted way but that all makes sense in the end. And all his docs are narrated, relentlessly, by the filmmaker’s own distinctive voice. And they have such an unusual look, as if they are made of long-forgotten, dusty film spools he dug up in someone’s basement  but that also somehow explains what you heard on the news  news three days ago. You may or may not like his style, but I guarantee he will tell you things you never knew before.

Nomadland opens today, Supernova is playing at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox and you can find episodes of  Can’t Get You Out of My Head for free on YouTube. 

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Daniel Garber talks with writer and lawyer Jay Paul Deratany about Foster Boy at the Toronto Black Film Festival

Posted in African-Americans, Chicago, Corruption, Courtroom Drama, Family, Movies, Orphans, Resistance, Secrets, Thriller, violence by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Jamal is an angry 19-year-old who finds himself back in a Chicago courtroom once again. He’s a product of the deeply- flawed foster care industry, a privatized system which left him physically and mentally scarred, and in and out of prison. But this time he’s before a judge voluntarily; he’s suing the corporation that put him through hell. His lawyer? An unsympathetic corporate shill assigned to his case, pro bono, by a sympathetic judge. Jamal sees a “three-piece” supporter of the system he’s fighting, and the lawyer sees Jamal as a “thug” he’s ordered to represent. Can the two of them fight the power of an abusive system that made him a foster boy?

Foster Boy is the name a new courtroom drama and legal thriller inspired by true events, that was the opening night feature at the Toronto Black Film Festival. It’s produced by Shaquille O’Neal directed by Youssef Delara and stars Shane Paul McGhie, Matthew Modine, and Louis Gosset, Jr.

The script is by Jay Paul Deratany, a screenwriter who is also an accomplished Chicago lawyer and a foster youth advocate.

I spoke with Jay Paul Deratany in Chicago, via ZOOM, on February 17, 2021.

Foster Boy is available across North America at the Toronto Black Film Festival through Sunday, and online VOD.

Younger. Films reviewed: Cowboys, Night of the Beast, Saint Maud

Posted in Colombia, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Horror, Kids, LGBT, Metal, Music, Thriller, Trans, UK, Western by CulturalMining.com on February 12, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

February is the ugliest month of the year, but you can escape the misery of frigid cold and overcast skies with lots of festivals accessible from your home. The Toronto Black Film festival is on now, as is the TIFF Next Wave festival, offering free films, made by and for the quaran-teens and quartan-twenties among us. (Free digital screenings if you’re under 25). This week I’m looking at movies about children and youth. There’s a transgendered kid in Montana, two metalheads in Bogota, and a religious young nurse in Yorkshire.

Cowboys

Wri/Dir: Anna Kerrigan

It’s summertime in Flathead, Montana. Troy (Steve Zahn) is on a camping trip through the wilderness in a state park near the Canadian border. He’s with his young son Joe (Sasha Knight) who is kitted up like a true cowboy in boots, denim and a big belt buckle. They follow trails and eat beans right out of the can. And they’re riding a white horse they borrowed from Troy’s friend Robert (Gary Farmer). What they don’t know is their faces are appearing statewide on TV and in newspaper headlines. It’s an amber alert, and Troy is accused of kidnapping Joe. What’s going on?

The problem is Joe was born as Josie, and raised by his mother Sally (Jillian Bell) as a girl. Joe hates the dresses his mom makes him wear and the barbie dolls she gives him to play with. He secretly changes from dresses to jeans at school and wears his hair tied into a ponytail. Sally says she gets it, you’re a tomboy. Joe says, not a tom boy, I’m a boy. And only his father accepts it. Problem is Troy is on parole, separated from Sally, and heavily medicated to handle his erratic mood changes. He thinks he’s helping Joe escape. They’re heading for safety across the Canadian border, pursued by an armed SWAT team and Faith (Ann Dowd) a hardboiled local police detective. Who will be captured, who will survive, and can father and son stay together?

Cowboys is a nice, gentle  family drama and adventure story about a trans boy struggling with his identity and how his parents treat him. It’s shot on location against breathtaking scenery in Montana. The acting is good all around (though Steve Zahn almost overdoes it in one of his trademark meltdown) and I’m not sure of young actor Sasha Knight’s gender, but he plays the part of a trans kid very believably.

Night of the Beast

Dir: Mauricio Leiva-Cock

Chuki and Francisco are best friends. Chuki is round faced with long curly hair, and lives with his deeply religious mom. He has a crush on the waitress at a local coffee shop. Francisco is more suave mature and streetwise — he has a girlfriend named Vale. His mom died, so he lives with his depressed dad. The two of them are metalhead who live in the city of Bogota, Colombia. They go to high school together, but not today. Today they’re playing hooky to attend the greatest concert ever by the greatest band in the world, Iron Maiden! And they stan that band to the umpteenth degree. They have tickets but the  concert doesn’t start till tonight, so they spend the day exploring the city, its parks, record stores, and darker corners. But over the courseof their journeys they get mugged at knifepoint and lose their tickets. This leads to fights between the two fast friends, sending them off on separate paths. Will Chuki and Francisco ever make up? And will either of them get to see the concert?

Night of the Beast, (La Noche de la Bestia) is a short (70 min) coming- of-age story about a day in the life of two urban teenaged boys. It’s a simple story but a really interesting one, spanning family generations set against a a really cool city. It packs in tons of stories over the course of their picaresque journey, spanning railroad tracks, a planetarium, a stadium, and encounters with frat boys, police, and rock bands. And the film is punctuated by animation where black and white  quivering lines, like the intricate pen-and ink doodles they write on their schoolbooks, appear at times around the people and places they see, adding rocker energy to their memorable day.

Saint Maud 

Wri/Dir: Rose Glass

Maud (Morfydd Clark) is young a nurse who lives in a seedy seaside resort town in Northern England.  She used to work in a local hospital but left after an incident. She lives in a tiny, spartan flat at the top of a twisting narrow alley. Maud lives a monastic life of penitence to address the sins from her past, guided by the voice of God inside her head. She works for a private company which sends out nurses to provide care for the terminally ill. Her latest patient is Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), who lives alone in a stately brick house. 

She’s a celebrated middle-aged dancer and choreographer, whose days of glory are gone. Now she sits idly by dressed in an elegant turban, smiling like a chimney,  surrounded by the paintings and posters of her youth. Amanda’s life is still saturated in her devil-may-care attitude, with past lovers, both men and women, appearing at her bedside to share laughs. Maud disapproves. She believes she was sent to save Amanda from eternal damnation before she dies. And she’ll do whatever’s necessary to set her on the right path. What is the root of Maud’s strange beliefs? Is she a potential killer or a saint sent from heaven? And are darker forces at play? 

Saint Maud is a shocking and scary horror movie set in Yorkshire, England. There’s violence and blood, and it’s saturated in religious iconography and images. Morfydd Clark is stupendous as the monastic Maud, and the very different past personality she’s trying to escape from. Jennifer Ehle is also amazing as the cynical, world-weary dancer. As I said, this is a horror movie, but rather than slashers and screams, it’s shot like a softly glowing Rembrandt painting, viewed through Maud’s eyes. The costumes, hair, music, art direction, everything is absolutely perfect not what you expect from a boiler plate scary movie. And — no spoilers — be prepared for a shocking finish.

Saint Maud is one great horror movie.

Cowboys and Saint Maud both starts today, and Night of the Beast is part of the Next Wave film festival playing this weekend at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Separated. Films reviewed: Dear Comrades!, A Glitch in the Matrix, Two of Us

Posted in 1960s, documentary, Family, France, Lesbian, LGBT, Protest, Psychology, Romance, Russia, TIFF, USSR, video games, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 5, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Festival and award season has begun, so this week I’m looking at three new movies – from the US, Russia and France – now playing at Sundance or already nominated for upcoming awards. There are people who believe perception is separate from reality; a Communist official separated from her daughter; and an elderly woman separated from the love of her life.

Dear Comrades!

Co-Wri/Dir: Andrey Konchalovskiy 

It’s summer in a small Russian city on the Don River, and the people are angry. Food prices are soaring while wages are going down. Thousands of factory workers take to the streets carrying red flags and pictures of Lenin. Is this the Russian revolution of 1905? Or is it 1917?

Neither… it’s the Soviet Union in 1962!

Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya) is a single mom who lives with her and her daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova) who works in a train factory, She’s an ardent Stalinist. And because she’s an apparatchik — a high-placed local official and member of the Communist Party — she lives a good life. This means access to hair salons, nylon stockings, negligees, and Hungarian salami. She’s having an affair with a married official. 

The food shortages and wage cuts don’t really affect her.

But her life is shaken up by the  walkout at a locomotive factory (where Svetka works) and spreading across the city of Novocherkassk. And their meetings — they’re trying to figure out how to handle this — end up with bricks through the window and Lyuda and the rest forced to sneak out through a sewer tunnel. In comes the KGB who want to bring guns ammunition into the equation: the instigators must be stopped. Mayhem and killings ensue. Lyuda is a hardliner, but when her daughter disappears she has to decide whether her loyalty is to the state or to her kin.

Dear Comrades is a moving drama about a real event and the massive cover-up that followed it. It’s shot in glorious, high-contrast black and white, similar to Polish director Pawilowski’s Ida and Cold War, but with magnificent, classic cinematic scenes involving hundreds of rioters and soldiers in the public square. Yuliya Vysotskaya’s  performance as Lyuda runs the gamut from cold official to angry mother to disillusioned and drunken party member as her entire existence and beliefs are called into question.

This is Russia’s nominee for best foreign film Oscar and definitely deserves to be seen.

A Glitch in the Matrix

Dir: Rodney Ascher 

Have you ever had the sensation that everything around you — other people, your job, what you see and hear — is an illusion, that you’re living in a programmed reality? If so, you’re not alone. A new documentary talks to people who are convinced they are trapped in a world like the Wachowskis’ 1999 movie The Matrix, where everything they perceive is just a computer simulation. And anyone else — other than one’s self — is either a part of this conspiracy, or a victim of it, or they don’t even exist outside of your head. And it is only detectable by paying attention to weird glitches in the system, like odd examples of deja vu, or coincidences that are too absurd or fantastical to be merely random events. 

The doc interviews people rendered into 3-D animated avatars who tell about their own experiences. It also gives a full history of these beliefs, dating back to Plato’s concept of shadows on the wall of a cave, through Descarte’s  epistemological example of an “Evil Demon” deceiving us, all the way to the present. This includes a rare recording of a speech given by author Phillip K Dick in the 1970s, who says the ideas in his books are not science fiction but science fact. His stories inspired movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall.

A Glitch in the Matrix is a fascinating, informative and bizarre documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival a couple days ago. Aside from the animated interviews and narration, it presents a veritable tsunami of visual references to movies and TV shows video games that deal with these topics. I’m talking hundreds of clips, from the game Minecraft, to The Truman Show, to the kids’ book Horton Hears a Who, all of which propose that there are worlds or universes who don’t know they are just tiny self-contained units within much larger realities.

Do I believe I’m living in a glass dome or floating in a sensory deprivation tank? No. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying this mind-warp of a documentary.

Two of Us

Co-Wri/Dir: Filippo Meneghetti

Nina and Madeleine (Barbara Sukowa, Martine Chevallier) are two elderly women who live in Paris (Nina’s originally from Berlin). They first met as children in a public park in Rome, and kept in touch ever since. And for the past 20 years they’ve been passionate lovers who share one floor of an apartment building, floating back and forth between the two homes separated by a hallway. And they’re planning on selling them leaving Paris and retiring somewhere in Rome. The only thing holding them back are Madeleine (or Made as Nina calls her)’s two adult children and her Anne and Frédéric and her grandson Théo.

She was married to an abusive husband for Amy years until he died, though her actual relationship was with her lover Nina. But she’s never told her family the truth — she’s too worried about what they’ll think. But when Mado has a sudden stroke rendering her speechless, Nina is suddenly separated from her de facto wife. Mado’s family just think of her as the kindly neighbour Mme Dorn who lives down the hall. They bring in a paid caregiver who blocks her entry into the other apartment. When Nina demands to spend time with her lover, Anne and Frederic begin to regard Nina as a crazy woman who won’t leave their mother alone and cut off all contact. Will Nina and Mado ever see each other again?  And can their relationship be saved?

Two of Us is a wonderful and passionate drama about two elderly lovers. It’s the young, Paris-based Italian director’s first feature, but it feels mature and masterfully done. And it co-stars the great Barbara Sukowa (If you’re into German cinema, you may remember her from movies in the 70s and 80s by Fassbinder and more recently by von Trotta), Sukowa is just as good now as she’s ever been.  And Chevalier conveys volumes even when she can’t speak. The movie is full of pathos and tears and frustration and joy, you feel so much for both of them.

Two of Us is France’s nominee for best Foreign Oscar, and it’s definitely worth seeing.

A Glitch in the Matrix starts today, and Dear Comrade and Two of Us are both opening at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Family Crises. Films reviewed: Our Friend, Phobic, Falling

Posted in 1960s, 2000s, Disease, Drama, Family, Friendship, Horror, LGBT, Mental Illness, Mystery, Police, Psychological Thriller by CulturalMining.com on January 29, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It may be cold, but February is offering some film festivals to enjoy in your own warm homes. TBFF Toronto Black Film Festival is coming mid-month, showing unique and dynamic black voices in Canada. JFF Plus is showing Japanese features shorts and anime, all free beginning in a week. And Hot Docs is running its annual Podcast Festival right now. But this week I’m looking at three new movies that explore family troubles. There’s a police detective chasing a serial killer; a journalist taking care of his dying wife; and an airline pilot dealing with his father’s dementia.

Our Friend

Dir: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

(Based on an article in Esquire by Matthew Teague)

It’s the early 2000s. Matt (Casey Affleck) is a print journalist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He’s married to Nicole (Dakota Johnson) a stage actress starring in musicals. They have two  young kids. Matt’s career is taking off, and while he’s a foreign correspondent covering wars in Pakistan and the middle east, Nicole has stayed home to care of the kids. But both their lives are disrupted by shocking news: she has cancer. They soon find the two of them can’t handle the triple threat of job, kids and cancer, never mind their own relationship. So they call for help from a good friend. Dane (Jason Segal) is an actor and a comic who has known them with for ages. His relationship is shaky and so is his job status. So he agrees to bunk at their home and help ease the burden. He soon becomes a part of the family, a second mom and dad to the kids, and a comfort to Matt and Nicole dealing with the pains of illness and the threat of death.

Our Friend is a dramatization of Matthew Teague’s personal memoir of a decade living with his wife’s cancer with the help of their friend. It’s told in flashbacks explicitly dated by the number of years before or after Nicole Teague’s diagnosis. As such, it holds very few surprises. Even when she’s healthy we all know that in a year a two she’s going to get sick and eventually die. Almost preordained. So there’s a melancholy inevitability to the story, as we’re walked through anger, denial, and stages of diagnosis, chemo, remission,  metastasis, psychosis, palliative care and finally death. This is a sentimental and sad movie told in a clean, palatable way. It’s all about family relationships and friendships. Surprisingly though it’s not a tearjerker so it didn’t give me the deep emotional purge I was expecting. Apparently, the magazine article it was based on was amazingly popular, and the acting is good enough, but this movie didn’t move me.

Phobic

Wri/Dir: Bryce Clark

Riley Sanders (Jacque Gray) is a police detective in Utah. She has blonde hair a svelte body and a stern expression on her face. She’s rejoining the force after recovering from a violent incident. Her new partner is Paul (Devin Liljenquist) has a lantern jaw and soap opera looks. Is there a spark between them? They’ve never met but their fathers worked together in the past; they’re both second-generation cops. Their first case? A serial killer with a strange M.O. The victims are all found chained to a chair in a locked room. One is in a place painted red. Another with snakes writhing around his feet. What do they have in common? They were scared to death.

Turns out the victims are all patients of the same psychiatrist, a certain Dr Holden (Tiffani DiGregorio) who uses new techniques to cure “phobics” of their darkest fears. First she diagnoses them using Rorschach inkblot tests, then, through therapy and the use of a strobe light, unlocks her patients’ inner strength to conquer their irrational phobias. But she’s highly protective of her files and won’t let the detectives see them. Meanwhile, Riley has a phobia of her own, a fear of the dark. What is Dr Holden’s role in these grisly deaths? What is her connection to Riley? Are Riley and Paul a thing? And can they catch the elusive killer before the killer kills them?

Phobic is ostensibly a psychological thriller about  a serial killer that preys on the victims’ worst fears. An interesting concept. The problem is, it’s not thrilling.  It’s about as scary as an old episode of CSI. It’s too slow, clumsily directed, and badly edited. Even the props seem to be done on the cheap. The story looks promising at first but goes totally off-kilter toward the end. Sorry to say, this movie is a mess.

Falling

Wri/Dir: Viggo Mortensen

It’s the early 1960s. Willis (Sverrir Gudnason) is young man from Boonville, NY, who lives on a farm with his wife Gwen (Martha Gross). He likes hunting, horses and fishing, but not much else. On the day his son Johnny is born he says he’s sorry he brought the little stinker into this world. Fifty years later, John (Viggo Mortensen) is an airline pilot happily married to his husband Eric (Terry Chen) with their inquisitive daughter. He lives in sunny California, not far from his younger sister Sarah (Laura Linney). Willis is old now (Lance Henricksen), and Gwen is long gone, so his adult children are trying to find him a place near them to live out his final years. The problem is he’s still the same rude, angry  and violent sonofabitch they remember from their childhood. If not worse. He’s a smoker and a drinker. He’s xenophobioc, paranoid, racist, misogynistic and homophobic. He’s rude and lecherous, ogling women and swearing at men. He says all women are whores, and calls his adult son, an airforce vet, a fairy. On top of that, he’s losing it — prone to wandering away, forgetting where he is or why he’s there. How long can John keep calm and put up with his father? And will Willis ever make peace with the world… and himself?

Falling is a drama about a father and son, set in the past and the present. It jumps back and forth through memories shared by John and Willis, as their stories, and how they ended up how they are, are gradually revealed. This is a great movie, directed and written by actor Viggo Mortensen who plays John, but it’s really about Willis. It’s a fascinating and realistic character study about this hateable, but totally watchable, man and his cringeworthy but funny behaviour and motives. It’s a character study but not  a caricature. Gudnason is great as the young Willis, but Henricksen as the old Willis fighting dementia is stupendous. It’s beautifully shot among nature at a wintry, snow covered farm, and beneath the hot pacific sun. Falling is harshly funny, cruel, constantly surprising and quite touching. This is an excellent movie.

Our Friend and Phobic are now playing, and Falling opens next Friday.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Daniel Garber talks with Peter Kuplowsky about Psycho Goreman

Posted in Aliens, Canada, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Coming of Age, Horror, Kids, Super Villains, Super-heroes, Supernatural, violence by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Mimi and Luke are young siblings in a nondescript town. They’re both typical and atypical. Mimi’s the younger one, but she’s more aggressive, They spend their time playing games they invent like “crazy ball”. But after a game one day they uncover a strange glowing stone buried deep in the ground. And when Mimi removes it she unknowingly activates a hideous monster, the epitome of evil, a creature responsible for the deaths of millions. He can casually tear his victims apart in an orgy of blood and gore.  But since Mimi holds the gem, she soon discovers he’s in her power. What will a little girl do with her newfound strength — will she use it for good or for evil? Will they save the planet or destroy it? And can she and her brother control the powerful demon they call Psycho Goreman.

Psycho Goreman is also the name of a new comedy/horror movie about kids and alien beings. Science fiction, family comedy and first love are set against a potential universe-shattering apocalypse. The film is written and directed by Steven Kostanski  who brought us twisted, over-the-top genre classics like The Void and Manborg.  Peter Kuplowsky, who worked on Steven’s other films and is also notable as the curator of TIFF’s Midnight Madness series, co-produced it.

I spoke to Peter Kuplowsky from home via ZOOM.

Psycho Goreman opens digitally on January 22, 2021 across North America.

Travelling for love. Films reviewed: Make Up, Identifying Features, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Posted in Coming of Age, Corruption, Crime, Family, Hungary, LGBT, Mexico, Obsession, Psychology, Romance, Rural, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

They say love is true, and some people travel far and wide to keep that love alive. This week I’m looking at three new movies, directed by women in Hungary, England, and Mexico, that explore this theme. There’s a teenaged girl who moves to Cornwall to spend time with her boyfriend; an American surgeon who moves to Budapest to be reunited with her lover, and a Mexican farmer who crosses the country in search of her missing son.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Dir: Lili Horvát

Marta (Natasa Stork) is a 39-year-old, successful surgeon from New Jersey.  So what is she doing at a run-down hospital in Budapest? She moved there, spontaneously to join up with a man she met a conference. They shared a night of passion and swore to meet up again  on a bridge in Budapest at a specific time and date. (Marta is originally from Hungary but immigrated to the U.S.) But when she sees her bearded lover Janos (Viktor Bodó) he says he has ever seen her before in his life. She faints on a downtown street, where a young man named Alex (Benett Vilmányi) comes to her rescue. Marta is overcome with emotions. Is she going crazy? Was it all a dream? Or is Janos gaslighting her for some unknown reason? 

She gets a job at the hospital where Janos works to be close to him. Meanwhile Alex turns out to be a young medical student who develops an infatuation with Marta. So this turns into a three way stalk fest with Marta spying on Janos and Alex following her. Where is love? IS it real or imaginary? And can Marta come to terms with her new strange life?

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is an intriguing mystery-romance-psychological drama about passion and illusion, alienation and obsession. Marta deals with sexist colleagues and petty bureaucrats, as she  tries to navigate a culture she’s not quite familiar with. It’s filmed on the lovely streets of Budapest with a fair amount of unexpectedly strange sex (no spoilers). The movie is a bit confusing in its tone, with, rather than a huge dramatic turning point, it culminates in an oddly absurdist, anticlimactic finish. Preparations is a good movie, but probably not what you expect. 

This is Hungary’s nominee for best Foreign Language  Film Oscar.

Make Up

Dir: Claire Oakley

It’s winter in Cornwall, England. Ruth (Molly Windsor) is an 18 year old woman, staying at a deserted summer holiday park so she can spend time with her boyfriend. She’s been dating Tom (Joseph Quinn) for 3 years. But rather than a romantic getaway, she’s staying in a grey, gloomy collection of jerry-built cottages near the sea. Everything is covered in plastic sheeting. And her relation with Tom is fraught with tension and jealousy. When she finds a hair in her sheets, that clearly isn’t hers, she takes the bedding to the laundry to wash it clean. There she meets an older taller woman named Jade (Stephanie Martini). Jane makes hair pieces for a local hospital — it takes 30,000 knots to make a single wig, she says. 

Now Ruth has someone she can hang around with, talk to, and tell her secrets, none of which she’s getting from Tom. But her obsession with her boyfriend’s possible mistress drives Ruth into an unexpected situation. Can her relationship last? Or will she find a new path among the windswept sand dunes?

Make Up is an impressionistic coming-of-age story about a young woman looking for love while trapped in an almost surreal setting. It’s full of the screeching foxes, detached sexual sounds and  blurry vistas set against the banality of service jobs. Molly Windsor is really good as the bewildered Ruth. The movie itself is a straightforward drama but shot almost like an eerie ghost story. This is an excellent first feature from a young filmmaker.

Identifying Features

Dir: Fernanda Valadez

Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra) is a farmer in Guanajuato, Mexico. She’s a single mom who’s raising her teenaged son Jesus in a small farmhouse. But when he suddenly tells her he’s heading north with his best friend to take a job in Arizona, she packs his bag and says goodbye. And that’s the last she hears from him and his friend. Are they kidnapped? Lost? Or dead? She reports it to the police to no avail. His best friend is found but nothing is found of Jesus except the bag Chuya had packed.  And when a woman she meets tells her not to give up, she sets out on a journey to try to find her son, or else confirmation that he’s dead.

On the way she falls in with a young man named Miguel (David Illescas)  who was recently deported from the US. He is looking for his mom who lives in Ocampo a region plagued with crime. It’s also where Chuya thinks she can find the answers to her son’s disappearance. Will she ever find out what happened to him? And can an ordinary, kind woman survive in a society filled with greed, suspicion, and murder? 

Identifying Features is a deeply moving and gripping mystery/drama that looks at the lives of Mexicans, trapped within larger forces — el migra, organized crime, and a corrupt police force — over which they have no control. It takes you into fascinating places, rarely portrayed — like indigenous villages, hostels for migrants — that tell an unforgettable story with a shocking ending.  Stunning cinematography, and natural acting combined with compelling drama, makes for a terrific film.

Make Up just opened on VOD across North America.  Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, and Identifying Features both open today at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Two Ladies and a Gentleman. Films Reviewed: Love Sarah, Promising Young Woman, Lupin

Posted in Crime, Disguise, Family, Food, France, Movies, Mystery, Psychology, Thriller, UK, US, Vengeance by CulturalMining.com on January 15, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Doug Ford’s latest rules  to fight the pandemic say don’t leave home… except when you do But don’t worry, there’s lots to see without going outside. This week I’m looking at two new movies and a TV series. There’s three woman in London opening a bakery, a Parisian thief who’s a master of fakery, and a vengeful woman exposing predators by pretending to be drunk when she’s actually wide-awakery.

Love Sarah

Dir: Eliza Schroeder

It’s present-day London, in Notting Hill (before the pandemic). Sarah is a chef who comes from a family of very talented women. Her daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) is a professional dancer, and her mum, Mimi (Celia Imrie), is a retired trapeze artist. She plans to open a gourmet bakery/cafe  with her best friend Isabella (Shelley Conn). They studied cooking together in Paris. But right after they secure the property, Sarah is killed in a bicycle accident, and her whole family is in disarray. Depressed Clarissa can’t dance anymore, and her dancer-boyfriend kicks her out. Mimi was already estranged from Sarah before she died. And Isabella without a real chef, is forced to go back to her office job. The three manage to overcome their differences and open the cafe in Sarah’s name. But where will they find a baker? In walks Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones). He’s a two star Michelin chef who studied with Sarah and Isabella in Paris and slept with each of them (he’s a notorious womanizer.) Perhaps he’s also Clarissa’s birth father… And does he still carry a torch for Isabella? 

Love Sarah is a charming, low-key drama about the joys and trepidations of running a business in honour of someone who died. It’s full of vignettes about cooking and baking in a quaint and colourful neighbourhood. There are also chances of romance for each of the three women. The plot is threadbare but the characters — and the actors who portray them —  are quite endearing, in that understated English way. Love Sarah is a cute, but inoffensive, picture.

Promising Young Woman

Wri/Dir: Emerald Fennell

Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is a promising young woman at med school with her best friend Mimi. They’ve planned to become doctors since they were kids. But then something terrible happens. Mimi gets drunk at a party and is raped by another student and the university sides with the man. Mimi commits suicide and a despondent Cassandra quits school, moves in with her parents   and drops out of life. She works by day at a dead end job, while her nights are spent in a drunken stupor at tawdry pick-up bars, going home with whatever guy asks her. But things aren’t what they seem. Whenever her “date” inevitably throws

Carey Mulligan stars as “Cassandra” in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

himself on this seemingly drunken woman, she jumps into action to teach the predator a lesson. This secret heroin will never be a victim. But can she single-handedly avenge all the people to blame for Nina’s suicide? And will she ever start living a normal life again?

Promising Young Woman is a vengeance thriller that’s full of shocks surprises. Carey Mulligan is fantastic as Clarissa, a multi-leveled character who is both depressing, and funny with a dark, deranged streak running through her. Bo Burnham plays a self-effacing nerd — and potential boyfriend — who challenges her theory that all men are douches; and comic relief is provided by Jennifer Coolidge as her mom, and Laverne Cox as her boss. Promising Young Woman is shocking and deeply disturbing while also reassuringly moralistic. This movie keeps you guessing — and your heart pumping — till the very end.

Lupin

Assan Diop (Omar Sy) is a young boy who lives with his Senegalese father in  a palatial estate in Paris. His dad’s a chauffeur for the Pellegrinis, a very rich  but ruthless family. He gives Assan a book — classic stories of Arsene Lupin, the eponymous gentleman thief and master of disguises — and tells him to read it carefully and learn from it. Lupin is ingenious and conniving but always a gentleman (they use the English word in this French drama) But when his father is arrested for stealing priceless jewels, Assan is left alone, penniless and orphaned. Luckily an anonymous donor pays for his education at an elite academy. Years later he emerges as a modern day Lupin, reenacting his most audacious thefts and reaping its rewards. He’s married now and has a teenaged son. But when the jewels his father was accused of stealing reappear at an auction, he is determined to get the necklace, prove his father’s innocence and get revenge on Pellegrini, whom he believes set his dad up. But to do this he must outsmart the police, evade Pellegrini’s hired killers, even while he continues to carry out his intricately planned heists.

Lupin is a delightful new TV series full of capers and adventures, a new take on a classic character. It follows multiple sub-plots: his relationship with his wife and son; his various capers; his war against Pellegrini, and the cat & mouse game he plays with the police. Omar Sy is wonderful in the main role, so much so that there’s little screen time given to the supporting actors — the buffoonish cops and naive millionaires are mainly there as foils for his exploits. Yes, it’s an unbelievable fantasy, and yes, it’s purely light entertainment, but I like it a lot. And after one week with only 5 episodes, it is already trending at #1.

Lupin is now streaming on Netflix. And Love Sarah and Promising Young Woman both open today digitally and on VOD.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Dissidents. Films reviewed: The Dissident, The Chicago 10

Posted in Animation, Chicago, documentary, Hippies, History, Politics, Protest, Resistance, Saudi Arabia, War by CulturalMining.com on January 8, 2021

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for cultural mining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

I’m recording this on Wednesday (January 6th), when the Q Anon army, red-pilled and red-capped, at the behest of a certain, soon-to-be-former President, has just stormed the (widely anticipated but strangely unguarded) Capitol building and many state government buildings, too. Sort of a reverse-coup, an attempt to block regime change? The mob has dispersed and Trump has temporarily been stripped of his Twitter account, a fate worse than impeachment. But if you’re listening to this on Friday morning, things may have changed so much that these comments are already old hat.

Either way, I think it’s as good a time as any to talk about political unrest and dissent. So this week I have two new movies, both documentaries. There are antiwar radicals who disrupt the Democrats in Chicago; and a Saudi journalist who disappears in Istanbul.

The Dissident
Dir: Bryan Fogel

Jamal Khashoggi is a successful journalist born into an illustrious family in Medina, Saudi Arabia. For thirty years he works tirelessly for the government, and is part of the country’s elite. But in a sudden about face, he divorces his wife, and leaving his family behind, relocates in Washington DC. He is hired by The Washington Post to write columns, some of which criticize the Saudi government and its royal family. But in the authoritarian monarchy this is a no-no. He becomes a dissident.

Later, he falls in love with a young Turkish woman — a scholar who speaks Arabic — he met at a conference. He travels to Turkey to meet his fiancee’s family. In order to marry, they need a document from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, proving he has divorced his first wife. But this is where things get weird; after entering the consulate a year ago, he is never seen again.

After widespread outrage, Turkish detectives are allowed into the building. Based on the evidence they find — in addition to wiretaps, recordings and external video footage — they came to a shocking conclusion: Khashoggi was murdered in cold blood by a hit team of Saudi team of special ops flown in especially for that purpose. He was suffocated in front of a diplomat=, his body dismembered by a pathologist and burned to ashes in a barbecue pit

The Dissident is a detailed documentary — in Arabic, Turkish and English — that traces Khashoggi’s life and death from inisder to dissident to victim. Using new interviews with most of the key players — though no one inside the Kingdom — it solves many of the mysteries dogging his case. It rarely veers from its central topic, Khashoggi and freedom of speech, and stays away from important issues like women’s rights, the war in Yemen, never mind cultural expression and sexual liberation. But the one area the doc does explore is an insider’s look at dissidents across the Arab world. The film is narrated by Omar Abdulaziz, a young Saudi who sought asylum in Canada. He helped guide Khashoggi when he becomes a dissident. And this is where the movie gets really interesting. It explores a government-sponsored troll army that silences dissent on social networks like Twitter — a site used by 80% of Saudis; and the work Omar has done to counter it. While some of the doc is a bit dry, it shines when it digs deep into cyber warfare, political activism and and newly revealed secrets of the Kingdom.

The Chicago 10 (2007)
Wri/Dir: Brett Morgen

It’s the summer of ’68, and the youth of America, the product of the baby boom, is revolting. LBJ has plunged the country into war in Vietnam; civil rights leaders, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy have been assassinated. People are sitting in, dropping out, fighting back. It’s also an election year, and the DNC (Democratic National Committee) is holding its convention in Chicago. To confront this and to have their voices heard, radical political action youth groups converge on Chicago from across the country. The Yippies, from the east coast, headed by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and poet Allen Ginsberg, are humorous, media savvy, sex-positive masters of performance art.

Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden fight against war, poverty and racism. David Dellinger is a long-time anti-war activists. They plan a massive be-in, a festival of life, based in Lincoln Park, full of speeches and music culminating in a march to the Hilton Hotel to confront the Democratic convention. But they are met by riot police, ordered by Mayor Daley, and the national guard who violently attack the largely unarmed peace activists. Loads of people were arrested and injured, and a key few — including Davis, Hoffman, Rubin, Heyden, and Dellinger — are put on trial in 1969 by the feds and charged with conspiracy. For some reason they throw Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party into the group, when he was only in Chicago for a few hours that summer. And thus begins the lengthy show trial.

The Chicago 10 is an excellently researched documentary on that famous trial and the demonstrations that led to it. The film jumps back and forth, chronologically, between the trial and the summer demos. No cameras were allowed into the courtroom, so the trial scenes are 3-D animated using the actual transcripts, and the voices of actors like Nick Nolte, Leiv Schrieber, Hank Azaria, Roy scheider, Mark Ruffalo,Jeffrey Wright and many others. The voices are occasionally cartoonish, because, well, its a cartoon, but generakky feel like the r eal thing. The demonstations are taken from beautifully restored contemporary footage and news clips, as well as radio recordings, and onstage performamces all done while the trial was actually taking place. (none of the accused were locked away during the trial so they were constantly on the media.

It’s full of revelations. Allen Ginsberg is called in as a witness, and the prosecutor makes him recite his most salacious erotic poems, presumably to shock the jury. There are great news stories, like little kids in Chicago seen playing cops and protesters, instead of cops and robbers, where in this game activists get clubbed by police.

You may have seen the much lauded the Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s star-studded take on the story. While the production values and acting are great in that one, Chicago 10 is much more historically accurate than Sorkin’s revisionist drama.

If the topic interests you, Chicago 10 is definitely worth a watch.

The Chicago 10 is now available online, and The Dissident opens today across North America, check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 fm and on my website culturalmining.com.

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