Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. Films reviewed: Body Parts, Drinkwater, Happy FKN Sunshine

Posted in Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, documentary, Feminism, High School, Hollywood, Music, Sex, Sexual Harassment, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 31, 2023

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

Have you ever seen an actual performance of Kabuki? There’s a new monthly series opening in Cineplex theatres across Canada, including one playing tonight called Fortress of Skulls. If you’re in Milton right now, check out the Milton Film Festival, featuring Go On and Bleed, a short film by CIUT’s own Christian Hamilton. And if you’re in Toronto, you can catch Canada’s Top Ten at TIFF, featuring fantastic movies like Bones of Crows and Brother, as well as fun flicks like Rosie and  Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future.

This week, I’m looking at three new, indie movies, one from LA and two from Canada. There are actors in Hollywood, runners in BC, and rockers in Northern Ontario.

Body Parts 

Dir: Kristy Guevara-Flanagan 

Is nudity in movies a good thing or a bad thing? How does it affect the actors and the viewers? And is it shown from a male or a female perspective? These are some of the questions talked about in a new documentary that takes a look at nudity and sex in Hollywood and it’s films. And it does so in a new and unusual way. Talking heads from the industry and academics, narrate the story, but it’s illustrated with a barrage of well-known movie clips, manipulated, pixilated and animated to both emphasize and obscure women’s bodies. By “barrage”, I mean a phenomenal number of images often just a second long, where what you see is what the interviewees are talking about. It deals with contemporary issues, like the #metoo movement, but makes it clear that Harvey Weinstein isn’t unusual or unique, just its epitome. Women reveal how as young actresses they were coerced into filming topless scenes never mentioned in the script. Bikini auditions were commonplace, completely unrelated to a part they’re trying out for, basically just for the titillation of male movie execs. It also traces the entire history of Hollywood, dating back to the libertine, pre-Code 1920s and 30s where female scriptwriters flourished, and subversive sex was common. Later a prudish America hid sexual transgressions off-camera. 

Stars and filmmakers interviewed in this movie include Jane Fonda, Karyn Kusama, Rose McGowan, and Rosanna Arquette among many others. But this is not a confessional reality-show-type exposee. It also includes on-set recreations of what the people describe; and fascinating types you never hear from, like the intimacy coordinators, sex choreographers, and body doubles — the nameless ones whose bodies replace A-list stars in nude scenes.  It also celebrates a taboo even bigger than nudity in Hollywood: a positive portrayal of sex and nudity involving people with disabilities, trans bodies and actors who aren’t proportioned like Barbie dolls.

If you’re a movie lover, a film student, a young actor or anyone in the industry, Body Parts is a must-see, a crucial, insiders’ look at the rapid changes involving sex, nudity, consent and the male gaze.  It’s a feminist reimagining of what movies are, and what they should be. This film might deserve a place alongside Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself in the pantheon of great documentaries about Hollywood.  

Drinkwater

Dir: Stephen S. Campanelli (Indian Horse)

It’s present day in Penticton, BC. Mike Drinkwater (Daniel Doheny) is a high school student who lives with his selfish, layabout father. Mike is into Rubik’s cubes, Bruce Lee, and drives a Gremlin. He’s smart and creative but his head is in the clouds. He’s infatuated with Dani, the most popular girl in his school. Hank Drinkwater (Eric McCormack) used to work at the mill but is on paid medical leave due to an accident. He wears a fake neck brace so he won’t have to go back to work. Mike wants to go to U Vic but Hank would rather spend his money on toys and model trains than cough up for his son’s education.

Luckily there is a way out. If he wins the annual cross-country race, the prize will cover his tuition. And Wallace (Louriza Tronco) the orphan-girl next door who lives with her grandparents, agrees to help Mike train for the race. She has a secret crush on him, just as Mike loves Dani. But Dani’s dating Luke (Jordan Burtchett) the homecoming king, a rich kid whose dad owns the paper mill, where Mike’s dad works. Luke is Mike’s main rival in the race, just as their fathers competed years back in the same contest — a grudge spanning generations. Who will win the race? Who will Dani choose to date? Will Hank ever start caring about life? And will Mike ever realize that Wallace is the one he should crush on, not Dani?

Drinkwater is a coming-of- age comedy about growing up in a BC lumber town. The story is conventional, but told in a stylized way, incorporating 70s and 80s looks with a retro rock soundtrack. It also celebrates local culture and lore. The director is best-known for his camerawork, and the film is full of breathtaking aerial views of scenic lakes and forests. Very few surprises, but it’s still cute and easy to watch.

Happy FKN Sunshine

Dir: Derek Diorio

It’s the 2000s in a pulp and paper mill city in Northern Ontario. Will (Matt Close) is a high school student and aspiring musician. He has styling hair and slacker clothes. He plays the guitar, loves music and wants to form a rock band — it night be his ticket out of this place. So he tries to recruit a motley crew to join the band. Vince (Connor Rueter) an arrogant bully can be the lead singer; River (Maxime Lauzon) the blasé friend of his sister on drums; and Artie, a long-haired, heavy metal enthusiast on bass. Artie, who lives with his brain-dead father, invents fantasies of his secret jam sessions  with famous rockers… which drives Vince insane.

Times are tough, and there’s a strike at the mill where all their parents’ work. Will’s abusive, hard-ass father refuses to spring for an electric guitar. Fortunately, Will’s tiny-but-tough sister Ronnie (Mattea Brotherton) is the local pot dealer, so she steps up to buy him the instrument. And Artie’s Newfoundland uncle Eddie, a former musician (famous stage actor/pianist Ted Dykstra), promises to introduce them to some big names in Toronto, if they ever making some good music. Can the band become famous before it breaks up?  And can Will ever make it out of this place?

Happy FKN Sunshine (the title is also the name of their band, and reflects the constant foul language all the characters use) is a realistic, bittersweet coming-of-age story about a group of mismatched friends who form a band. It’s shot on location in North Bay and in the Canadian Shield forests around it. The acting is generally quite good, turning stereotypes into well-rounded characters. And it deals with the harsh realities of living in a declining economy. The pace is a bit slow, with too much time spent making music, but the multiple side plots will keep you interested. 

I like this movie.

Look for Drinkwater and Happy FKN Sunshine both available on VOD; Body Parts opens next week in select theatres and on VOD; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Robert Osborne and Brooke Mullins about Malcom is Missing

Posted in Canada, Corruption, Crime, documentary, Family, Mexico, Police by CulturalMining.com on January 28, 2023

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

Brooke Mullins is a woman raising her two daughters in Port Hope, Ontario. She grew close to her divorced Dad as an adult. A few years ago, Malcom  moved to Mexico to spend his retirement winters relaxing amid the lush palm trees and sparkling beaches of Puerto Vallarta. He remained in close contact with Brooke, until suddenly… all contact disappeared. And when she tried to reach him, she received little help from his live-in girlfriend, Marcela. The authorities were indifferent and the police were no help at all. So, taking things in her own hands, she flew down to Mexico to try to find her dad or at least find out what was happening to him. And what she found was shocking. 

Malcom is Missing is a personal documentary that traces Brooke’s search for her father and some sense of justice, amidst the crime and corruption lurking just beneath the surface. It follows her investigation including interactions with journalists, lawyers, the police and prosecutors, along with Malcom’s friends and colleagues. The film is directed by Robert and Jari Osborne, and features Brooke Mullins as its principal subject.  Robert is an award-wining journalist and documentary filmmaker with over 30 years experience at The Nature of Things, CBC POV and CBC Docs, along with CTV’s W5, Global’s National News and National Geographic, among many others. 

I spoke with Robert Osborne and Brooke Mullins via Zoom from Toronto.

Malcom is Missing  is having a special screening followed by a Q&A at Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto on January 29, 2023, and will be broadcast on CBC’s Documentary Channel in March.

Oscar contenders, 2023. Films reviewed: Saint Omer, The Son, Living

Posted in 1950s, 2000s, Courtroom Drama, Death, Drama, Family, France, Mental Illness, TIFF, UK by CulturalMining.com on January 21, 2023

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

This week, I’m looking at three potential Oscar contenders opening this weekend. There’s a writer in Paris attending a trial, a bureaucrat in London whose life is a trial, and a Dad dealing with the trials and tribulations of a mentally ill son.

Saint Omer

Wri/Dir: Alice Diop

It’s the early 2000s in a Parisian suburb. Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) is on trial for murder. She admits to leaving the infant on a beach to be washed away with the tides one moonlit night, but why she did it is not so simple. She’s a Senegalese-French woman from Dakar, in Paris as a student. She is beautiful, articulate, poised and intelligent; not your usual murder suspect. As her mother (Salimata Kamate) told her, education and politesse are the two most important traits. But after a series of events she ends up living in a small apartment as a grey-haired, married man’s mistress — no longer in university, with no friends, no job, no future. And virtually no one knows she was pregnant nor that she gave birth at home. She existed in a strange limbo world.

All of this is taken in by Rama (Kayije Kagame) a novelist and university prof in Paris. She is following the trial in person, for a new book she’s writing about Medea. Like Laurence, she’s a French intellectual, and a black woman of West African background. More than that, she’s estranged from her mother and is in her first trimester of pregnancy. In a sea of white faces in the courtroom, she feels both a connection and a revulsion toward Laurence. Could this be me on trial? she wonders. And will I be a fit mother?

Saint Omer is a devastatingly powerful courtroom drama as seen through an observer’s eyes. It’s the opposite of a Law & Order episode — no smoking guns or pot twists. Rather it’s Laurence’s retelling of her story before judge and jury Rama’s reactions that carries all the power. It’s intentionally filled with subtle ambiguity so you’re never quite sure whether Laurence is lying and being coached to do so, or if she’s completely sincere. With women holding most of the key roles — including the judge and the defence council —  it strips away some misconceptions. The acting (by actress Malanda and artist/performer Kagame) is superb, and the filmmaking amazing. This is documentary filmmaker Alice Drop’s first drama.  Somehow, she takes the drab wooden panels of a classroom and a courtroom and turns them into something pulsing with emotion. 

This is a great movie. 

The Son

Wri/Dir: Florian Zeller

Beth and Peter (Vanessa Kirby, Hugh Jackman) are a newly married, upper-middle class couple with a new baby. All I going well until they get an unexpected knock on the door. His teenaged son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) says he can’t take living his mom anymore (Laura Dern) a full-time nurse whom Peter divorced and abandoned a few years earlier. What a dilemma! He can’t turn away his own flesh and blood, can he?  But Nicholas is difficult to live with. It seems he stopped going to school months ago — without telling his parents. And Beth finds him scary. What if he does something to our baby— how can I trust him? So they check him into a psych ward without his consent. But what can they do in the long run with this troublesome teen?

The Son is an overwrought  melodrama about divorced parents forced to care for their troubled son. It deals with anguish, anger and regret but only from the parents’ perspective, never from the son’s. He’s just a pain in the ass… and possibly a threat! This movie falls in that sub-genre of sympathetic parents forced to deal with sons who “selfishly” choose to become drug addicts or mental ill. How dare they! Despite what the parents try, those bad sons are criminals and liars at heart who can never be trusted. This dreadful collection of never-watch movies  includes Beautiful Boy, with Timothy Chalamet and Ben is Back, starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges. This one has equal star power, and is just as hard to watch. It’s especially disappointing because it’s Florian Zeller’s follow-up to The Father a few years back about an elderly man slipping into dementia (Anthony Hopkins, who also appears in this film), as its unreliable narrator. But don’t be fooled. The Son has no redeeming features and is truly one of the worst movies of 2022.

Living

Wri/Dir: Oliver Hermanus

It’s Londin in the 1950s. Williams (Bill Nighy) is a mundane municipal bureaucrat, the head of public works at County Hall.  He spends most of his time at his desk — along with his subordinates Rusbridger, Middleton and Hart — keeping busy by ignoring piles of files and requests. Whenever troublesome locals appear, like a group of mothers requesting they build a tiny playground in a vacant lot, they’re quickly disposed of by sending them to another department in the endless bureaucratic labyrinth of city hall. The newly-hired Wakeling is quickly discouraged from working too hard — an empty inbox means you’re doing something wrong. The sole woman, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), is thinking of quitting to take a managerial job at a local restaurant. Since his wife died, Williams has lived a humdrum existence sharing his home with his adult son and daughter-in- law. But everything changes when his doctor brings him some terrible `news: incurable cancer, 6 months left to live. Suddenly everything takes on new meaning as he decides to start enjoying life and making things better for others. But is it too late?

Living is a period drama about life in post-war London. It captures the spark that can be reawakened in even the most humdrum person’s existence. It follows the night Williams spends in the demimonde led by an alcoholic bohemian he meets in a cafe; the days spent helping  Margaret, for the chance to share in her youth and vitaity; and a project he hoped to complete in his final days.

I approached this movie with trepidation, because it’s a remake of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, one of my favourite movies of all time, which I didn’t want to see ruined. Happily, Living it is wonderful film in its own right. Maybe only a writer like UK novelist Kazuo Ishiguro could transport a story from Tokyo to London, while staying true to its original meaning and structure, even while giving this very Japanese film a distinctly English feel. Bill Nighy (who usually plays silly characters in crap movies) is wonderfully understated in this one. And South African director Oliver Hermanus, who brought us the great Moffie, again puts his all into the film he’s making. 

I recommend this movie.

Living, Saint Omer, and The Son all open this weekend in Toronto, with the latter two playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Lewis Cohen about his new TVO documentary series Truth & Lies

Posted in Canada, documentary, Germany, History, Journalism, Medieval, Religion, TV by CulturalMining.com on January 14, 2023

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

Our current media are filled with reports of a new threat to democracy — conspiracy theories, misinformation, disinformation and “fake news” — due to the power of social networks, contemporary devices and digital communication. But is it really that new? Or have these lies been challenging the truth for thousands of years?

Truth & Lies is the title of a new six-part documentary series that takes a new look at contemporary issues through a historical perspective. It deals with scandals and rumours, conspiracies and wars, and the power of wealth and religion in influencing our opinions. Illustrated with period news footage, animation, and brand new interviews by journalists and historians from Vietnam to France, Germany to Turkey and North America, it delves deeply into our preconceived notions of what we consider true and false. The series is written and produced by Emmy Award-winning documentarian Lewis Cohen, whose previous series include the Vice Guide to Film, Fighting Words, a doc on artists against political polarization, and The Beat, on police in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

I spoke with Lewis in Montreal via Zoom.

Truth & Lies has its broadcast premier on January 17th, 2023 on TVO at 9 PM, and is also available on tvo.org,  roku, youtube, and the TVO Today mobile app.

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January movies. Films reviewed: Plane, Adult Adoption

Posted in Action, Canada, comedy, Disaster, Drama, Family, Philippines, Terrorism, Thriller, Toronto, Travel by CulturalMining.com on January 14, 2023

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

This week, I’m looking at two new movies opening this weekend:  an action/thriller and a dramedy.  There’s an airline pilot trying to escape from a tropical island; and an adult orphan trying to find new parents.

Plane

Dir: Jean-François Richet

Brodie (Gerard Butler) is an airline pilot based in Singapore.   With two decades of experience you’d think he’d be helming jumbo jets by now, but ever since his wife died, his uncontrollable anger has relegated him to shorter flights for a cut-rate airline. Today he’s heading to Honolulu to visit his daughter, working with a rookie co-pilot, Dele (Boson An) and his usual crew, headed by Bonnie (Daniella Pineda).

There are supposed to be only 14 passengers on board but two surprise guests show up at the last moment: an armed policeman and a man in handcuffs.  Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter) is being extradited to Toronto to stand trial for an unknown crime. He looks very strong… is he dangerous? But Brodie has bigger fish to fry– they’re heading into an electrical storm because the cheap-ass airline won’t buy enough jetfuel to keep them above the clouds.

Then comes the turbulence. Wires blow and all communication is lost. He’s forced to make an emergency landing on the only visible island in the vast Pacific Ocean, without a runway or ground crew to help him out. The good news is Brodie manages to land safely. The bad news is the cop guarding the alleged criminal was killed in the turbulence. The worse news is they landed in Mindanao on an island held by Moro  rebels, a place where the Philippine government dare not go. And even worse the local warlords plan to hold them for ransom and kill them, one by one. Can Brodie get them out of this mess? And who can he turn to for help?

Plane is a credible, international action thriller , filled with disaster scenes, fist fights, and last-minute escapes. Butler plays his usual grizzled action hero in the mold of Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies — he takes the hits but keeps on fighting. Blood seems to be dripping down his unshaven face at every possible opportunity. Pure cheese. And who ever heard of an airline pilot with stubble? Butler is teamed with the other big star in this movie Mike Colter, who you may have seen as Luke Cage. Two action heroes vs the bad guys.

Despite the cheese, Plane is fast-moving and generally fun to watch. It’s made by a credible French director who proved his chops with some real crime flics, like Mesrine, Public Enemy No. 1. This one shares its rough-hewn quality. And, with its international cast and setting, it manages to avoid the one of the worst Hollywood afflictions; I’m talking about obligatory “patriotism”. You’ll find no flag-waving here.

Yes, Plane is a B-movie, nothing deep,  but still enjoyable to watch.

Adult Adoption

Dir: Karen Knox

Rosie (Ellie Moon) is a 25 year old woman who works in a bank office in Toronto’s financial district. She’s efficient, hardworking and diligent and never takes a day off. Her boss is like a mother to her and her coworkers are her family. In her spare time she tries to have sex with a guy she meets on an online dating site (Donald McClean, Jr). But her comfortable life is shaken when a new boss — a guy about her age — takes over.  Her surrogate mother is gone and she doesn’t know what to do.  Things get worse when Helen (Leah Doz), her workmate and closest friend, keeps telling her not to worry, just ask her real parents for advice. The thing is, Rosie doesn’t have any parents. She’s been an orphan since she was three and was never adopted. Now that she’s aged out of the foster program, she has no one left to turn to for help, or love or support. No one to ask about her day or just brush her hair. What’s an adult orphan supposed to do?

Rosie decides to take a different approach using an online site for adult kids seeking new parents.  She meets two possibilities at the site, a middle aged man and a woman named Jane (Rebecca Northan) who has estranged relations with her daughter. While things seem to be going well, but will she ever find a new family that works? And by doing so, can she emerge as a normal person?

Adult Adoption is comedy drama about a neurotic woman trying to create the family she never had, and the indifferent or exploitative people she encounters along the way. It concentrates on the quirky main character Rosie as envisioned by Elie Moon who not only plays her but who also wrote the screenplay. She’s really great. She wears little-girl clothes with pink polkadots and knitted strawberries. And alternates between an independent,  sexually-active woman with grown-up desires, and that of a clinging, naive child. While Adult Adoption deals with serious topics like loneliness and depression, it manages to stay funny enough never to become depressing itself.

I liked this one.

Plane and Adult Adoption both open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Almost human. Films reviewed: Shin Ultraman, M3GAN plus the best movies of 2022!

Posted in AI, Fantasy, Horror, Japan, Monsters, Robots, Science, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on January 7, 2023

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

Happy New Year, everybody!

As we move closer to an uncertain future, we’re finding it harder to tell the difference between a human and a robot, or human thoughts vs artificial intelligence. This week, I’m looking at two new movies about almost humans. There’s a semi-human superhero who comes from outer space, and a cute little robot doll with a very dark side.

But before that, I’m going to run through what I think were some of the best movies of 2022.

Best movies of 2022

Every year, I see hundreds of movies so it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few, for that reason only I don’t include documentaries, like Laura Poitras’s fantastic All the Beauty and the Bloodshed; nor cartoons, like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinnochio, only movies that I saw on a movie screen and reviewed last year. There are many  other good, or even great movies I saw, but here are what I think are the best movies of 2022, in alphabetical order:

All Quiet on the Western Front, Dir: Edward Berger

Armageddon Time, Dir: James Gray

Broker, Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu

EO, Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski

The Innocents, Dir: Eskil Vogt

Memoria, Dir: Apichatpong Weerasathakul

Nope Dir: Jordan Peele

The Northman, Dir: Robert Eggers

Tár, Dir: Todd Field

Triangle of Sadness, Dir: Ruben Östlund

The Whale, Dir: Darren Aronofsky

 

 

Shin Ultraman

Dir: Shinji Higuchi

It’s present-day Tokyo, and things are not going well. Previously unknown monsters  — or “S-Class Species” — keep appearing from nowhere and wreaking havoc across Japan. They’re drilling holes, smashing dams and sucking up electrical power like slurpees. Luckily, there’s a government body that handles cases like this. They’re the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol, or SSSP. The head guy, Tamura, gives the orders, while the scientists investigate. Strategist Kaminaga (Saitoh Takumi) is a nerdy, introvert who speaks with no inflections or emotions. He works with newcomer analyst Asami (Nagasawa Masami) his exact opposite, an assertive woman who wants Kaminaga to be her buddy. And two more members round up their team.

Fortunately, whenever the Kaiju monsters appear, a strange giant man, dressed in a silver and red suit, arrives to save the day. He is dubbed Ultraman, protecting Japan from these strange invaders. But why does Kaminaga always disappear when Ultraman arrives? And is he human, alien, or somewhere in between?

The Japanese government — and the rest of the world — takes notice. They want to find out where Ultraman comes from and what his secret powers are. Things get more complicated when a benevolent-seeming alien arrives on earth, saying he will handle international relations from now on. But no one realizes his real aim — to take over and kill all the homo sapiens on the planet… unless Ultraman and the SSSP stop him first.

Shin Ultraman is a purist reboot of the classic Japanese 1960s TV show. I remember seeing reruns as a kid, and really liking it. This new version is a re-creation set in present-day Japan, but with nothing particularly contemporary or different from the original. It does include some political content — government politicians and bureaucrats who repeatedly make the wrong decisions — and the other characters are modernized.  Watching this movie — which I enjoyed! — it seemed identical to what I remembered, until I re-watched bits of the original, and was shocked at how bad and campy the special effects had been. Here the CGI and costumes are much, much better. But it preserves the sombre and earnest tone that geeky, sci-fi devotees demand. If you’re a fan of Ultraman, or of Japanese kaiju movies in general, you won’t be disappointed — this is the real thing.

M3gan

Dir:  Gerard Johnstone

Gemma (Allison Williams) is an inventor who, as part of a team, develops toys at a conglomerate called “Funki”. Their last big success was a Furby knock-off, but it’s losing market share, so they need a new hit. All their hopes lie on a project she’s been secretly working on for a long time, but it’s not quite ready yet. It’s code-named M3gan — Model 3 Generative Android — and is a robot in the form of a smart and pretty little girl. With a titanium core and sophisticated AI memory, she can talk, walk and act like a real human. 

More than that, Megan’s artificial intelligence lets her learn and change as she grows up. By bonding with her primary owner, she’s not just a toy, she’s a friend for any little girl. But she wouldn’t come cheap — she’s priced more like a car than a toy. Gemma’s boss is pushing her to finish Megan’s prototype, ASAP, to attract new investors, when, suddenly, disaster strikes. In a freak accident, her sister and brother-in-law are killed by a snowplow on a ski trip, leaving their 10-year-old daughter — Gemma’s niece — an orphan.  Cady (Violet McGraw) needs someone to turn to in her hour of grief, and Gemma, as her closest living relative, is appointed her guardian. But she knows nothing about parenting;  she lives alone and devotes all her time to her career.

So, to kill two birds with one stone, she brings M3gan home to take care of Cady, even while she works on the toy’s programming in time for the big launch. She observes them interacting through a one-way mirror in a glassed-in playroom at the company. Megan has only one overriding rule: to protect Cady from any danger, both physical and emotional. Cady loves M3gan, who is very protective of her best friend. But when she allows them outside of the lab, things turn dark. And when the dead bodies start piling up, Gemma realizes something is terribly wrong with her design. Can she fix Gemma before she goes rogue? Or is it too late?

M3gan is a thriller-horror take on the classic story — dating back to Frankenstein — about the bad things that can come out of a benevolent scientist’s experiment. It’s also about bad grown-ups and evil kids — in addition to M3gan — facing their comeuppance. For a movie that doesn’t ever take itself top seriously,  it succeeds in being both kinda scary and funny. It has lots of kitschy, fake toy ads, and your usual stock characters, like grumpy boss, noisy neighbour, spoiled kids. Beware: there is a fair amount of violence, including a disturbing scene where a boy assaults M3gan thinking she’s a doll, so definitely not suitable for everyone, but I liked it. Allison Williams is excellent as Gemma, and Megan (composed of actor Amie Donald, the voice of Jenna Davis and lots of CGI) is a doll villain that’s weird enough that I think we’ll be seeing lots more of her.

M3gan opens this weekend; check your local listings. And you can see Shin Ultraman on January 11th and 12th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

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

New Year Movies. Films reviewed: Babylon, Broker

Posted in 1920s, Corruption, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Hollywood, Korea, Sex by CulturalMining.com on December 31, 2022

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

This week I’m looking at two new movies to bring in the new year. There’s an abandoned baby in Busan, and excessive abandon of 1920s Hollywood.

Babylon

Wri/Dir: Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash)

It’s a hot day in Santa Ana, near LA, in the 1920s. Manny (Diego Calva) has a strange job. He has to get an elephant through the desert to a mansion in time for a huge Hollywood party that night. There he meets Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie) an aspiring young actress who claims to be a movie star. She’s never actually been in anything yet but she says in Hollywood if you say you’re a star you are a star. The doorman is unimpressed but Manny, now in a sweaty tux, gets her through the door. Inside it’s a jazz-filled mayhem of half-naked dancers snorting cocaine as they prepare for their next writhing orgy. The guest of honour is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), Hollywood’s top moustachioed movie star.

Manny stays relatively sober but Nellie goes whole hog, successfully transforming herself into a wild-child party animal. Manny saves the day when he manages to sneak a dead body out of the party on behalf of the studio, without the gossip rags — including Photoplay’s notorious columnist (Jean Smart) —  noticing. A woman died in a back room with a Fatty Arbuckle lookalike. By morning, both Manny and Nellie are invited to work on location on some movies being shot there; she as a starlet and he as a fixer, helping out in emergencies. 

The movie follows the three of them — Manny, Nellie and Jack — as they make their way up and down Hollywood’s precarious ladder. Nellie is a smash hit — she can cry on cue in a tragedy, and minutes later turn herself into a laughing floozie in a western bar. Manny works behind the scenes, doing the dirty things the top producers shy away from. Jack is still the top star, but is gradually slipping at the box office, acting in one flop after another. has a meteoric rise but faces trouble when the talkies arrive. Manny makes his way to executive level, but likes himself less and less. Will Jack find a wife who loves him? Can Nellie lose her Jersey accent in time for the talkies? Which one of them will survive the dog-eat-dog world of the movie industry?

Babylon is a very long but frenetically-paced movie about the early days of the motion picture industry. It recreates a version of that world with exquisite attention to detail — the music, the costumes, and incredible reenactments of the filming of war scenes and dance numbers using hundreds of extras. It gives you an uncommon, behind-the-scenes look at the silent movie era. Scenes in Babylon melt one into the next with cameras that lead you through tunnels, up staircases, from room to room in seemingly endless long shots. The story is part myth, part history. I’m guessing Chazelle found his inspiration in books like Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, about the excessive and scandalous depravity that rocked the industry before the restrictive Hays code came into effect in the mid 1930s. He frequently quotes other famous movies set in LA about the movies themselves, everything from Sunset Boulevard to A Star is Born, to Singin’ in the Rain. (See how many you can spot.) And the over-the-top acting, especially Margot Robbie, is a lot of fun.

Is Babylon a good film? I had trouble identifying with the main characters — they all seem like pawns in the director’s hands as he tells his epic story. It features some non-white, non-conventional characters, from a female movie director, to a lesbian singer from Shanghai, and a black Jazz musician showing off his trumpet skills. Ironically they all seem to be inserted more to demonstrate the director’s commitment to historical diversity rather than as central characters. But it’s not really about the characters, it’s about the city of Los Angeles. Chazelle puts in lots of things meant to shock — nudity, defecation, urination, projectile vomiting, even characters who die as punchlines to jokes — that don’t quite fit.  But all that didn’t stop me from loving the movie-making on display.

If you’re a movie-lover, this epic deserves to be seen.

Broker

Wri/Dir:  Kore-eda Hirokazu (Shoplidters, After the Storm, Our Little Sister, Like Father Like Son)

It’s nighttime at a church in present-day Busan, South Korea. A young woman, a sex worker named So-young (Lee Ji-eun) is carrying her newborn infant which she leaves in a “baby box”, a small door where unwed mothers can leave their unwanted infants, knowing that they’ll be taken care of. What she doesn’t realize is there are two men on the other side of the door: Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a younger guy who works at the church; and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) a middle aged man who owns a tiny hand laundry shop. Right after So-young leaves, they erase the surveillance video and make off with the infant. Their plan? To sell it to a young married couple with fertility problems and keep the profit. But these two men don’t realize that Detective Ji-Sun (Bae Doona) and her subordinate (Lee Joo-young) are watching the whole thing from their police car parked just down the hill. They’re excited that what they see tonight might solve the baby trafficking case they’ve been working on for a long time. But they can’t prove anything until a transaction takes place.

But nothing is as simple as it seems. After a few days, So-young wants her baby back. She left a note saying the arrangement was only temporary. But she can’t involve the police. So she tracks down the two brokers. Turns out Sang-hyun grew up in an orphanage, so finding loving parents will spare the baby from growing up within the bleak institution he lived through. And Dong-soo has both monetary reasons — he’s deeply in debt — and personal reasons why this has to go through. So the three of them form an easy alliance of brokers looking for a permanent home for the infant. And when they discover Hae-jin (Lim Seung-Soo) a feisty kid from an orphanage they’re dealing with stowed away in their car, they suddenly become a makeshift family. But how long will it last? 

Broker is a wonderful, multifaceted movie about love, kinship and makeshift families. It’s also a murder mystery, a romance, a police procedural, and a road movie. Each of the characters has a rich background full of secrets and motives all of which a are gradually revealed. It’s directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, one of favourite directors who always finds a way to make dramas with unforgettable characters who are deeply flawed but still sympathetic. He made Shoplifters a few years ago, and this one picks up on some of his themes. Kore-eda is Japanese, but everything else in this film is Korean — from the language to the locations and the fantastic cast. You’ll recognize some of them: Song Kang-ho starred in Parasite, Bae Doona has been in everything from The Host to Cloud Atlas. So Broker is both a Korean movie, and unmistakably Kore-eda. I saw it four months ago at TIFF, but it really is stuck in my head.

I strongly recommend this movie.

Babylon is now playing; check your local listings. Broker opens this weekend in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lighbox.

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

Talking, listening, fighting back. Films reviewed: No Bears, Puss in Boots, Women Talking

Posted in 2000s, Animals, Animation, Fairytales, Fantasy, Iran, Movies, Religion, Turkey, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 24, 2022

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

It’s holiday time with lots of new movies for people of all ages. This week I’m looking at three new movies opening on Christmas weekend. There are women in a barn, talking; a movie director in a village, listening; and a cat in a hat, fighting. 

No Bears

Wri/Dir: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian  filmmaker from Tehran. His current project is about a glamorous middle-aged couple trying to escape to freedom in Europe. But Panahi is forbidden by law from making movies or leaving the country. So he’s doing the next best thing: directing his film in long-distance using his cellphone and laptop. It’s being shot in a picturesque city in Turkey, while he’s renting an apartment in a tiny Azerbaijani village in Iran. It’s close to the border an area rife with black market smugglers. Panahi can speak some Azeri but is unfamiliar with local traditions. So he likes talking pictures of the locals. And here’s where he runs into trouble.

A young couple wants to get married and leave the village. But the woman was promised to another man at birth. Now everyone thinks Panahi caught the young couple in a photograph. The couple want him to destroy the photo, while the groom’s family want a copy to prove her dishonour. Meanwhile, across the border, another crisis is threatening the film movie. As he gets pulled deeper and deeper into the world of local politics and feuds, his work — and possibly his life — is at risk. Will he ever finish his film? And what will happen to the two couples — the actor-lovers in Turkey and secret lovers back home?

No Bears is a neorealist movie about making a film, the film he’s making, and how real life gets in the way. It’s about honour, revenge and identity. It also exposes the image of “the director as a dispassionate observer and documentarian” as a myth. Panahi’s very presence in a small village disrupts their lives and leads to unforeseen consequences. He plays himself, who in real life is forbidden from making films — accused of propaganda against the system. Any movie that’s against the system is one I want to watch. But this means it was shot openly in Turkey but secretly in Iran. No Bears  is a clever, humorous and complex film with an unexpected conclusion. I liked this one.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Co-Dir:  Joel Crawford, Januel Mercado

Puss in Boots is a cat in a hat who wears boots, and carries a sword. He’s known for both his fencing skills and his rapier-like wit. He lives a fairytale life — literally. He exists in a world where those stories are real. He’s both a hero and an outlaw, sought by bounty-hunters everywhere. But as a cat with nine lives he has no fear of death and will fight monsters and villains, alike. Until one day his doctor tells him he’d better slow down because he’s on his last life. If he is killed again, that’s the end, no more Puss in Boots.  So he reluctantly decides  to retire. He gives up his identity, and becomes an ordinary orange cat named Pickles in a home for abandoned cats. Now he has to use a litter box, eat cat chow and say “meow”.  How humiliating! But his past catches up to him with some surprise visitors: Kitty Softpaws, another outlaw he left standing at the altar; and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. They all want him to help find a map to a fallen star that can grant a wish. Goldilocks wants a proper family, Kitty is looking for her future, and Puss in Boots wants his 9 lives back. Accompanied by a little dog named Perro he sets out to steal the map from the evil Little Jack Horner (who is now quite big and bakes pies for living). But he must fight off his rivals, journey through a mystical forest, and find the magic star if he wants to stay alive. And he is being pursued by a truly scary villain, the Big Bad Wolf, a huge killer carrying a sickle in each hand.

Puss in Boots is a kids’ cartoon comedy set in the world of Shrek, where nursery rhymes and fairytales coexist with Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz. It’s somehow simultaneously a spaghetti western and medieval Europe.  It features the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Florence Pugh. What’s good about it? I’ll watch any cartoon, especially one with cool psychedelic images. This one has a few funny bits, along with a neat journey-adventure story. On the negative side, it’s not very funny, the lines are predictable and the story is both unoriginal and forgettable. And I’m not sure why they switch to two-dimensional jerky animation whenever there’s a fight scene. But I still enjoyed it, even if it’s just glowing bright colours on a giant screen. 

Women Talking

Dir: Sarah Polley

It’s summertime at an Anabaptist colony somewhere in the US. It’s 2010, but it could be 1910; forget about cel phones and computers. There are no cars, radios, no electric lights — they still use lanterns. Even more unusual, there are no men around, only women and kids. What’s going on?

One of the women woke up in the middle of the night to find a man physically attacking her. She fought him off and beat him with a stick. Suddenly everything made sense. Countless women in the colony had woken up in the past with bruises and blood, but up till now, the men had insisted out was just a dream, her imagination or the work of Satan. Turns out the men have been raping women for years now and denying it, using cow tranquilizers. Now they are at the police station baling out one of their attackers. So all the women face an enormous decision: should they stay and fight back? Or should they just pack up the kids and go, leaving the place forever?

They designate the women and girls from three families to decide for all of them. Now they’re gathered in a barn to debate the issues and make the big decision. And one man, a school teacher named August — not part of the colony; his family was excommunicated  — is there to record it all on paper; the women were never taught to read or write. What will their decision be?

Women Talking is a movie about women talking, but it is much deeper than that. It’s a devastating story, a scathing indictment of endemic physical and sexual violence against women in their own homes. Though it’s never shown on the screen, nor are its perpetrators, its results are always apparent. One woman has a scar on her face, one woman is mysteriously pregnant, others have missing teeth or black eyes, and another has panic attacks, seemingly for no reason. And now they’re really angry, not just for the violence, but because they’ve been lied to for so many years. There’s a spontaneous wellspring of grassroots feminism suddenly bursting loose.

The storytelling is very simple — it sticks to the barn, the fields, their houses and horses and buggies; it’s all they’ve experienced. At the same time, perhaps because they can’t write, they are amazingly eloquent speakers. It’s based on the novel by Canadian author Miriam Toewes who grew up in a Mennonite community. (The film never specifies their denomination or location, giving it a timeless, universal feeling.) It provides an internal view of life in the colony, with different opinions expressed passionately by each character. And it’s very well-acted by an ensemble cast, including Rooney Mara, Jesse Buckley, Claire Foy, Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy, Ben Whishaw. And despite the grave topic, the movie itself is more fulfilling than depressing. I’ve seen it twice, and appreciated it much more the second time — Women Talking is a subtle movie that deserves your attention. 

Puss n Boots: The Last Wish, No Bears and Women Talking, all opened this weekend; check your local listings.

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

Adapted from plays. Films reviewed: The Whale, Matilda

Posted in College, comedy, Disabilities, Fairytales, Family, Gay, Kids, Musical, School, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 17, 2022

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

With holiday season upon us, it’s a time when students and their parents have a chance to take some time off. And if you can’t afford a ticket, there are lots of Christmas movies playing for free at the Hot Docs Cinema at Bloor and Bathurst. So in honour of Christmas break, this week I’m looking at two new movies adapted from plays, with an educational theme. There’s a college professor who is ashamed to show his face to his students, and a little schoolgirl who dares to talk back to her headmistress.

The Whale

Dir: Darren Aronofsky

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a college teacher who conducts his classes on his computer. And he never shows his face. He says it’s because he’s technologically inept but the real reason is he weighs 600 pounds and doesn’t want to show himself on camera. He works out of his home, and gets everything delivered to his door. And he’s visited daily by a nurse named Liz  (Hong Chau) who takes care of him, drops off food and keeps him company each day. They’re friends but also share a common history. She constantly warns him that his extreme weight pushes his blood pressure to dangerous levels — he may be dead in a matter of weeks — but Charlie refuses to make any changes to his diet or habits; it’s almost as if he wants to die. 

But his usual life is interrupted by some unexpected visitors. First a stranger, a young Christian missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins). Thomas walks through the door uninvited just as Charlie, who is masturbating to gay porn in his living room, has a blood pressure incident. Barely able to speak, he hands Thomas a piece of paper and tells him to read it aloud: it’s an essay on Moby Dick which is the only thing that can calm his racing heart, and possibly save his life. Later, another visitor comes by, a rude and foulmouthed  teenaged girl named Ellie (Sadie Sink). She is his daughter, who he hasn’t seen since he walked out of his marriage a decade earlier. She wants to know why he left her and why he never visits. Can Charlie reconcile with his daughter? How does he know Liz? Why is the missionary there? Why is one bedroom of his home kept permanently locked? And why is he so depressed that he’s committing slow suicide by overeating?

The Whale is an extremely moving drama about a day in the life of an isolated gay man who punishes himself for something from his past. It deals with his extreme physical disabilities;  in his 50s Charlie is less mobile than an old man, but his brain is as sharp as ever. Adapted from his own play by Samuel D. Hunter, it’s told theatrically in a series of acts all within his home, almost as if it were on a stage, with the players entering and exiting in turn. Each character has a history and a secret, eventually revealed, which adds great dramatic tension to the story. And the acting is superb, most of all Brendan Fraser. 

At the same time, the Whale Was clearly made to win prizes. I’ve seen enough movies to know when an actor uses prostheses (Charlie is portrayed wearing a “fat suit”) and plays someone with a disability — whether a mental or physical illness or handicap — you know it’s Oscar bait. The thing is, Fraser is clearly a good actor and has a natural heft to his body, so I don’t think he needed all this extra elaborate makeup and costume. What is disturbing is the degree if Charlie’s self-loathing: he practically begs other people to call him hideous, grotesque and ugly. The thing is, it’s all in his mind. He’s actually a kind and pleasant guy, not the monster he’s trying to be. Don’t confuse the character’s psychology with the point of the film. And aside from a truly gross binging scene, The Whale  is really a beautiful and tender film. 

Matilda

Dir: Matthew Warchus

Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is a little girl who has never been to school. Her parents consider her a burden, so she lives in a tiny room in the attic, and educates herself at the local mobile library, where the kindly Mrs Phelps (Sindhi Vee) gives her a pile of books to read each day along with sage advice. But everything changes when a truant officer shows up at her door ordering her parents to send her to school. She starts her classes the next day at Crunchem Hall, a scary gothic structure behind a foreboding metal gate. It’s ruled by the cruel Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (an unrecognizable Emma Thompson), who treats it as somewhere between a boot camp and prison, not a place for fun and games or learning. Her strict rules are enforced by older students who serve as her henchmen. And woe to any student who is caught, or even accused of, disobeying. They might have their ears stretched, or their pigtails pulled by Miss Trunchbull herself. Or worst of all, they could be sent to The Chokey, a miserable, one-person jail, a dark, wooden shack festooned with chains and locks. No, not the Chokey! Luckily, there is hope.  Her teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) is as kind as the Headmistress is cruel. She quickly recognizes Matilda’s genius, and takes her under her wing. But the headmistresses is out to get her: she vows to break Matilda’s spirit and put her in her place. Will Matilda defy the Headmistress? And can she she outsmart her? Or will she end up in the Chokey?

Matilda is a fantastic kids’ musical, full of catchy songs and dances and a plethora of quirky characters within the huge ensemble cast, in the manner of Oliver! or Annie, but funnier. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, it’s full of Dickensian references but without Victorian morality to weigh it down: Matilda is a naughty girl who gets back at her tormenters with tricks of her own (She turns her father’s hair green and puts crazy glue on his hat brim.) Though it’s a timeless story, the art direction suggest a campy retro 1980s setting. Weir is a good Matilda, and Emma Thompson plays Miss Trunchbull to the hilt as an olympic hammer thrower, an intimidating fascist dictator, bedecked in khaki from head to toe. And Lashana Lynch is very sweet as Miss Honey. There’s also a story within the story, a fairytale about an acrobat and an escapologist; Matilda tells a chapter of that story to the librarian each day, like a modern-day Scheherazade. It’s very English, but with a nicely multi-racial cast. My only criticism is they occasionally get carried away with CGI effects, but not enough to spoil the film.

Kids will adore Matilda: the Musical, and I think grown-ups will too.

The Whale opens next weekend; check your local listings. Matilda is now playing theatrically in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and will start streaming on Netflix on Christmas Day. 

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

On the media. Films reviewed: A Wounded Fawn, Spoiler Alert, Empire of Light

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, Death, Depression, Disease, Feminism, Gay, Greece, Horror, Mental Illness, Movies, Racism, Revenge, Romance, Theatre, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 10, 2022

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

It’s December, but not everything is about Christmas. This week I’m looking at three new movies with themes set in the arts: there’s a woman who works at a cinema but never watches movies; a serial killer who finds himself part of an ancient greek play, and a writer for TV Guide who thinks his life is like a sitcom.

A Wounded Fawn

Co-Wri/Dir:Travis Stevens

It’s a fine art auction in NY City, and the collectors and dealers are in fighting mode tonight. The prized item is a small bronze sculpture from ancient Greece showing the Furies seeking revenge on a prone man. Kate (Malin Barr) gets the high bid and returns home triumphant with the piece  in hand. So she’s surprised to see Bruce (Josh Ruben) a rival bidder, show up at her door. His boss still covets the statue and is willing pay double. Doubling her money in 24 hours seems like a good deal. She invites him in for a glass of champagne. But before long, she is dead on the floor in a pool of blood, and the sculpture — and Bruce — are long gone.

Later, Meredith, another beautiful young woman (Sarah Lind) is excited over an upcoming weekend in the country with her latest paramour. Her last boyfriend was abusive, but her new one seems nice, generous and attractive.  And he’s into fine art just like Mer (she works in a museum).They set off for a fun filled adventure at his isolated cottage in the woods. She is thrilled to see the cabin is actually a finished home overlooking a dense forest, and decorated with modern art. But something is strange: she hears a woman’s voice in her ear warning her to leave. And she recognizes the Greek sculpture of the Furies on his coffee table — she authenticated it for an auction just a few weeks ago. (It’s just a copy, says Bruce) What she doesn’t know is that Bruce is a serial killer… and she might be his next victim. (Bruce is waiting for directions from a gigantic man-owl with blood red feathers who tells him who he should kill). Can Mer fight him off? And where do those strange voices come from? 

A Wounded Fawn is a low budget, exquisitely-crafted art-house thriller horror. What starts as a simple slasher, soon turns into a revenge pic about halfway through, where Meredith, Kate and a third victim return as the Furies to visit punishment upon Bruce. What’s really remarkable is how it incorporates greco-roman aesthetics, mythology and theatre into what could have been a simple scary horror movie, to turn it into something totally original. While it’s not always clear whether something happens for real, or just inside Bruce’s damaged brain, it doesn’t matter.  A Wounded Fawn is weird and fascinating, either way.

Spoiler Alert

Dir: Michael Showalter

It’s the 1990s. Michael Ausiello (Jim Parsons) is a nerdy gay guy who lives in NJ but works in Manhattan. He grew up obsessed by TV, living his life as if he were a character on an 80s sitcom. Now he’s a writer for TV Guide, where he devotes himself to work and remains perpetually single. Until he meets Kit Cowan (Ben Aldridge) at a dance club — he’s handsome, fit and popular and says Michael is just his type —a tall geek. Kit’s also in the media — he’s a professional photographer. They hit it off, but keep certain secrets to themselves. Kit lives a free-wheeling sex life — he’s not one to settle down. And Michael never came out to his small-town parents (Sally Field and Bill Irwin); he’s afraid they won’t accept him. And he’s afraid to show Kit his apartment. What is he hiding there? His Smurf collection; a veritable fuzzy blue tsunami filling every nook and cranny. But after settling their deferences, they eventually move in together. Most of the Smurfs are packed away, Michael comes out to his parents (they still love him) and they settle into domestic bliss. 

Flash forward 15 years, and their relationship is on the rocks; the spark has died and they’ve grown a bit distant toward each other. But everything changes when — spoiler alert! — Kit discovers he has terminal cancer. Can they handle his imminent death? Will their love be rekindled? And how will they spend what might be their last year together? 

Spoiler Alert is a touching dramady about love and loss, based on a true story — Michael Ausiello’s own memoir of his life with Kit. Like the book, the movie begins with the death of Kit in Michael’s arms, hence “spoiler alert”. The director Michael Showalter, previously made The Big Sick, also about a couple and their family facing a serious illness. So is this the gay Big Sick? Not exactly — it’s a new story with a different style, like his version of Michael’s childhood as a sitcom, complete with laugh-track. And there are lots of funny parts. The bigger question is, is Jim Parsons up to playing a dramatic role, or is he forever stuck in peoples’ minds as Sheldon on the Big Bang? In this case, I think he pulls it off. He fits the role and manages to make him quirkily sympathetic. So if you’re into terminal illness comedies, here’s a good one to try on for size. 

Empire of Light

Wri/Dir: Sam Mendes

Its the winter of 1981 in a sea-side city in southern England. Hilary (Olivia Coleman) is a middle-aged woman who works at the Empire Theatre as the front of house manager. It’s an art-deco movie palace, but like the town, it’s long past its prime. Half the screens are closed and the third floor ballroom has been taken over by pigeons. Hilary is lonely and depressed, on meds, recovering from a hospital stay. Her social life consists of ballroom dancing with old men, and her sex life is furtive encounters with her sleazy, married boss (Colin Firth) in his darkened office.

But her life changes when a young man, Stephen (Michael Ward) is hired to work there. She finds him attractive, ambitious (he wants to study architecture at university)` and compassionate: he nurses a wounded pigeon back to health. He’s mom’s a nurse, from the Windrush generation, but he wants more. Hillary may be his mom’s age but there’s something there. After a few intimate moments they start a clandestine relationship. But Michael’s real ambition is to leave this town — to escape increasingly racist street violence (he’s black), and to become more than just an usher.  Can their relationship last? And if they break up, can the fragile Hilary handle it?

Empire of Light is a romantic time capsule of life in Thatcher’s England. It’s also about the joy and troubles of an intergenerational, mixed-race love affair.  And it’s also about sexual harassment and anti-black racism in everyday life. And it’s also about Hillary’s mental illness, including her sudden, manic episodes. And it’s also about the rise of skinheads and the National Front, and the concurrent anti-racist ska revival.  And it’s also about the collective friendship that develops among the people working at the Empire theatre. (Maybe too many ands for one movie?)

Like many of Sam Mendes films (which I generally don’t like), it’s pandering and emotionally manipulative and has a  meandering storyline, that keeps you watching while it’s on, but leaves you feeling vaguely unsatisfied afterwards. But the acting is really good, especially Olivia Coleman and Michael Ward, who rise above the movie’s many flaws. Maybe even good enough to make Empire of Light worth a watch, despite all its problems.  

Empire of Light and Spoiler Alert both open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And A Wounded Fawn is now streaming on Shudder. 

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

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