Opening and closing nights at TIFF. Films reviewed: Dear Evan Hansen, One Second

Posted in 1960s, Bullying, China, Communism, Depression, Drama, Family, High School, Movies, Musical, Poverty, Prison, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 25, 2021

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

The ending of summer and TIFF marks the beginning of Toronto’s Fall Film Festival season. And first in line is the TPFF, Toronto’s Palestine Film Fest on now through Sunday, with films, workshops, exhibitions and feasts, both here and digitally across the country. Go to TPFF.ca for details.

But this week I’m tying up loose ends by looking at the opening and closing night features at TIFF. In a show of solidarity and togetherness in the face of increasing worldwide tension, the festival opened with a film from the US and closed with one from China. And, coincidentally, both films are about underdogs and outcasts. There’s a suburban high school student whose life is changed by a letter, and an escapee from a labour camp in China whose life is changed by a movie.

Dear Evan Hansen 

Dir: Stephen Chbosky

Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a high school student in suburban USA. He’s depressed, painfully shy and insecure. His broken arm is in a cast. He lives with his mom, a nurse (Julianne Moore) who sends him to a therapist to handle his difficulties. His summer assignment? To write optimistic letters to himself in the third person — “Dear Evan Hansen” to help raise his spirits. And his Mom suggests he get all his friends to sign his cast. But the first day of school turns out so dismal that he rewrites his letter into one of despair. An angry loner named Connor (Colton Ryan) offers veto sign his cast — so we can both pretend we have friend. But after a tussle, Connor snatches the letter from his hands and runs away. And the next day Connor is dead from suicide, with no note except Evan’s sad letter they find in his pocket. Connor’s Mom and Dad  (Amy Adams, Danny Pino)

turn to Evan — thinking they’ve found their late son’s secret pal. Evan, who barely sees his mother is so happy to have anyone pay attention to him, that he decides to brighten their day by talking about Connor and himself — all imaginary of course but anything to make them happier. And it doesn’t hurt that Evan has a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). 

Alana, the most popular kid at school (Amandla Stenberg) urges Evan to form a group to remember Connor. He can hardly say no since he says they were once friends. The deception grows and grows, until he gives a moving speech captured on other people’s phones, which immediately goes viral. Donations pour in to commemorate Connor, his family is happy again, and tens of thousands feel their lives have been improved, even saved, because of Evan’s talk. But it’s all a deception. Will he come clean? And will he get the help he needs/ And what about Zoe?

Dear Evan Hansen is an emotionally moving, constant tear-jerker that doesn’t let up until the end. It’s bases on the hit Broadway musical, and stars Ben Platt who originated the role and who sings with a sublime angelic tenor. It’s filled with songs and dances punctuated by wistful gazes at the sky, a tree, a window or into other people’s eyes. I’m not a big fan of Broadway musicals but I really liked this one. It’s poignant more than depressing, and you really feel for the main characters. So if you want to break your heart over and over, and listen to some songs, don’t miss Dear Evan Hansen.

One Second 

Dir: Zhang Yimou

It’s China’s Cultural Revolution. A man (Zhang Yi) who escaped from a labour camp in the Gobi Desert is walking across the sand dunes. His mission: to watch a movie. There are very few movies you’re allowed to watch during the Cultural Revolution, and he’s desperate to see one in particular. But there’s someone else also looking for a film. A street urchin with dirty face and unkempt hair, known as Orphan Liu (Liu Haocun) is intent on stealing a reel for his own nefarious purposes (we find out later she’s a girl, not a boy). The two engage in a cat-and-mouse chase until the reel is returned to its rightful place: in the hands of the town projectionist known as “Mister Movie” (Wei Fan). He’s an arrogant perfectionist, highly revered in the village because he’s the only source of entertainment. Tonight’s show? Heroic Sons and Daughters, an operatic drama about the anti-Japanese War decades earlier. But when the dust settles Mister Movie  realizes one of the reels has been damaged — it’s just a pile of tangled film covered with sand and dust. He cancels the screening. Whaaaat?

The townspeople are mortified, and none more that the escaped prisoner. He, and everyone else, agree to communally rescue the damaged reel, wiping clean each frame and rolling it back into its spool. The escapee  especially needs to view it that night. Why? Because of the newsreel. His daughter — whom he hasn’t heard from since he was arrested and sent away for punching a Red Guard — appears in it for one second. It’s his only chance to see her. And he’ll stop at nothing so he can see it. Will the films be shown? Will he get to see his daughter? And will Orphan Liu get what she’s looking for?

One Second is a lovely and touching look at the personal effect of movies on the people who watch them. It’s well crafted and historically evocative. It’s set during the Cultural Revolution, with Mao’s quotations painted on every wall. Though it’s portrayed lightly, it does reveal the poverty, oppression and unfairness of that period. People are hungry, children are bullied, police beat up the wrong person, and everyone — including  Mister Movie —is in constant fear of losing their job due to corrupt or indifferent party members.  But there are happy times too, like when the whole village bursts into song, along with the soldiers on the screen. No spoilers, but the storyline of the movie they watch — Heroic Sons and Daughters, about a soldier separated from his daughter — is reflected in the real lives of all the main characters in One Second.

This is a beautiful, nostalgic, and ultimately feel-good movie. 

Dear Evan Hansen opens this weekend — check your local listings; One Second should be opening later this year.

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 Jeff Harris about #TIFF21!

Posted in Interview, Movies, TIFF by CulturalMining.com on September 18, 2021

(Short version) 

(Extended version)

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

Photo by Jeff Harris.

TIFF is the one of the world’s biggest film festivals, where independent filmmakers from around the world show their latest work young actors give breakaway performances, and forgotten names try for their come-backs. Celebrities, publicist, the press and autograph seekers live in a weird symbiotic relationship. And movie lovers have a chance to see the best new movies of the year before they are released. But what’s it like during a pandemic when people are still tiptoeing around? How is TIFF right now? What is working, what isn’t? What’s surprising, and what movies are good, bad, or indifferent?

Well to answer some of these questions — and many more — I’m discussing this year’s festival with a long-time collaborator, marking his fifth time on this show.

Jeff Harris is an award-winning photographer and a freelance journalist who for 20 years has been covering TIFF for Macleans and The Walrus.  Next week he’s launching TIFF Tok on Tik Tok brand new TikTok reviewing 30 films in 30 days. 

I spoke with Jeff in Toronto, in person.

The Rise and Fall of Female Celebrities: Films reviewed: The Eyes of Tammy Faye, France, Spencer

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, Biopic, Corruption, France, Journalism, Religion, Royalty, UK, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 18, 2021

TIFF is almost over now, but there’s still one day left to see some films. And although there aren’t many famous people appearing on King St this year, there are a lot of movies about celebrities. How they rise to fame and how they are often brought down again by the voracious papparazzi-fueled press. So this week I’m looking at three TIFF movies — two biopics and one dramedy — about female celebrities who just want to be loved. There’s a newscaster in Paris who is part of the news; a princess in England who is part of the royals; and a televangelist who is the target of the mainstream press.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Dir: Michael Showalter

Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastaine) is a televangelist. Born in International Falls, Minn, a small town on the Canadian border, she is raised by a strict mother (Cherry Jones) who calls her a harlot. She is born again in a Pentecostal church where she is speaking in tongues at an early age. At bible college she meets her future husband, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). He rejects the dour talk of sin and instead subscribes to a charismatic evangelism, one where all are welcome, regardless of belief or denomination. Wealth, not poverty, is desirable. Tammy loves his ideas and him. But she wears makeup and bright colours, and they end up in bed together and eventually married. 

They are expelled from the school, but bounce back. Tammy makes an ugly little puppet out of a bubble bath container to attract kids to revival meetings. Their popularity takes off and before you know it, they’re regulars on Pat Robertson’s Christian TV show. They break away to form their own satellite-powered TV network, attracting viewers and followers worldwide — people who enthusiastically send tons of cash to keep the show going. Tammy’s songs hit the Christian music charts while Jim expands their financial holdings, opening theme parks and other ventures. Tammy and Jim love the wealth and luxury their show brings in — the mink coats and fancy homes. Their sex life, however, takes a dive. Neglected by her husband, Tammy is attracted to handsome men — and, so it seems, is Jim. She turns to Ativan and Diet Coke to keep her engine running. But they’re facing trouble. The mainstream press exposes scandal after scandal. And lurking in the background is the Christian Right, led by the notorious Jerry Fallwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). Can their marriage last? Will their financial empire stay afloat? Will Tammy’s mom ever respect her? And will the people always love her?

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a stylized, tongue-in-cheek biopic about the rise and fall of a televangelical superstar. The title refers both to her gaudy false eyelashes as well as the trademark tears she could generate on command. Jessica Chastain creates an unforgettable character  through the use of facial prosthetics and heavy-duty makeup as she ages. She mainly plays Tammy for the laughs — there’s a wide streak of camp running through the whole film — but there is some heart behind it. And on the serious side, it points out her advocacy of AIDS patients, just when Falwell was publicly attacking them. I quite enjoyed the movie, it’s a lot of fun with tons of flashy colour and splashy music. It’s clearly Oscar bait — this is Jessica Chastain looking for golden statues — but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of watching it.

France

Wri/Dir: Bruno Dumont

France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) is a TV news reporter in Paris like none other. One day she’s flying off to a war front in the Sahel, the next she’s mediating between two political commentators. She’s beautiful, talented and loved by millions. At a presidential press conference she can upstage Macron. Her husband Fred is a novelist, and they live with their son Jojo in a flat thats more of an art museum than a home. And with the constant help of Lou (Blanche Gardin), her assistant and manager, she navigates from one success to the next. She’s untouchable. Until something throws her off kilter. Her car, caught in traffic, accidentally bumps a young man on a motorbike hurting his leg. Baptiste is working class, the son of Algerians. France is mortified and goes out of her way to  visit his family, showering them with gifts. But a deep-down depression has taken hold.

Her self confidence is fading and she’s prone to breaking into tears at the first provocation. Fred finally sends her to an alpine spa to recover, where she meets a guileless young man named Charles (Emanuele Arioli) who has never heard of her. Is he the answer to her prayers? Or just her latest obstacle as she falls deeper and deeper into her abyss?

France is a satirical dramedy about France (the country) its politics, celebrities and news media. Like the 1987 film Broadcast News it exposes the falsity and contrivedness of the news industry — their posing, re-shooting of answers in interviews, and the staging of news scenes during a war. But just as the film exposes the tricks and manipulation of reporting, Bruno Dumont (the filmmaker himself) relies on his own contrived story. Poor France! She’s subject to Dumont’s morbidly humorous plot turns, inflicting more and more calamities on his poor hapless character. France de Meurs is Dumont’s Job. 

The film kept me interested all the way through, and Lea Seydoux is really good in her role as a manipulative but likeable celebrity, but it goes on way too long — one of those movies that feel like they’re about to end, but don’t.

Spencer 

Dir: Pablo Larraín

It’s Christmas Eve in 1990.

Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) is late for lunch. She’s driving to Sandringham Castle and and has lost her way. She grew up on a country home nearby. Eventually she is rescued by Darren the palace chef (Sean Harris) who runs his kitchen like a military battalion. But Diana doesn’t want to be there. She hates the weird family traditions she’s forced to follow. Things like sitting on a scale when you enter to see how many pounds you’ll gain feasting over Christmas. Not much fun for someone with Bulimia. She dreads the clothes and jewels she’s forced to wear, and can’t stand the family dinners — she thinks the royals can all read her mind. Her only allies are her young sons William and Harry, with whom she can act like a normal mom; and her dresser and confident Maggie (Sally Hawkins) whom she can tell anything.

Why is she so distraught? Because she knows her husband is having an affair. The constant hounding by the dreaded cameramen is deadly, but even worse are the palace rules, enforced by a cryptic royal military officer. Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall) feels it’s his duty to police everything she does — and she despises him for it. He sews her curtains shut — to stop the photographers, he says — and banishes Maggie from the castle. And as the three days around Christmas come to pass, her depression and anger makes way for paranoid delusions. Is she a princess or a prisoner? And can she ever get away from this awful, gilded life?

Spencer is an experimental film that looks at three days of Diana’s life, her last ones spent as a member of the royal family. It’s beautifully done, but in a highly interpretive way. She is constantly haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn who was killed by Henry VIII. She seeks solace in a scarecrow she finds on her father’s estate next door. And her dreams, fantasies and realities start to blend.  This is a beautiful movie, marvellously made. At certain angles Kristen Stewart does look like Diana, but this is really a fictional interpretation of the character she creates. She doesn’t try too hard to match her class and accent, just her thoughts  and mood. If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy and stodgy characters, this one’s not for you. But if you approach it instead as an experimental and surreal character-study of a troubled woman, I think you’ll love it like I do

All three of these movies played at TIFF. Spencer opens in November, The Eyes of Tammy Faye starts 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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Bretten Hannam about Wildhood premiering at #TIFF21!

Posted in Canada, Family, Friendship, Indigenous, Interview, LGBT, Mi'kmaq, Movies, Road Movie by CulturalMining.com on September 4, 2021

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

Photos of Bretten Hannam by Jeff Harris.

Link and Travis are half-brothers who live with their physically abusive dad in a trailer park down east. Link hates it there, but it’s the only life he’s known since his mother died when he was three. But when he finds a birthday card his dad has hidden from him, he realizes his mother might still be alive. So the two brothers run away. On the road they meet Pasmay, a Mi’kmaq who was kicked out of his home because of his sexuality. Together the three embark on a journey down a twisted path where mi’kmaw and two spirited cultures meet. For Link, it’s an education and an initiation into a world he finds both frightening and alluring. Can this mismatched threesome become a makeshift family? And will they ever find out what happened to Link’s mother?

Wildhood is a wonderful new film that’s a romantic drama, a coming-of-age story, and a picaresque adventure all in one. It encompasses brotherhood, family and identity — all told from an indigenous and queer point of view. It’s written and directed by Bretten Hannam and it’s their first feature film.

I spoke with Bretten Hannam from Toronto via Zoom.

Wildhood had its world premiere at TIFF21. 

Gangsters and gangstas. Films reviewed: Yakuza Princess, Mogul Mowgli

Posted in Action, Brazil, Crime, Family, Fighting, Islam, Japan, Music, Yakuza by CulturalMining.com on September 4, 2021

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

TIFF starts in less than a week, but it’s a bit different this year. The press is under a total embargo, even for capsule reviews. But I can tell you about some of the changes. Unlike last year which was totally digital, this year they’re showing movies both on the big screen and digitally (at home). They also claim there will be no tickets, no badges, and no line-ups. No line ups? Unless they’ve mastered the art of teleportation, I’m not sure how they’ll get people into theatres without queues… but we shall see.       

This week I’m looking at two new movies — an action thriller and a musical drama. There’s a young woman in Brazil pursued by Japanese gangsters; and a Pakistani-British rapper in London chased by visions in his head.

Yakuza Princess

Co-Wri/Dir:Vicente Amorim

(based on the graphic novel by Danilo Beyruth)

Liberdade is the Japanese-Brazilian section of Sao Paolo, one of the largest communities of ethnic Japanese in the world, outside of Japan.  Akemi (Masumi) is there to improve her Portuguese. She has a part-time job selling LED lighting at a booth in the market working for a strict boss. In her free time, she practices Kendo, a martial art using bamboo swords. She’s devoted to her sensei, who stresses the importance of these lessons. And she loves singing at the local karaoke bar. 

But due to an unexpected turn of events, she meets a strange man with no name (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). He has total amnesia — he doesn’t know who he is ,where he’s from and why he’s there. His face is covered with scars; he recently evaded a police-watch at his hospital bed where the cops wanted to question him about a certain sword, found beside his nearly-lifeless body. He also wants to know about the sword — he recognizes its importance — the only thing he can remember. Akemi has to fight off three aggressive young punks who cat-call her as she performs her song. They stalk her home and threaten and break into her apartment. She fights them off using her latent skills in self-defence, but it’s three-to-one, until the sword-wielding scarface steps in to help. Then a third player enters the picture and joins in the fight. Takeshi (Ihara Tsuyoshi) is a highly ranked member of a powerful Yakuza clan. (The Yakuza refers to organized crime groups and their devoted members who are both powerful but also outcasts  within Japanese society.) He’s in Brazil on a mission: to track down Akemi, the only surviving member of a faction wiped out in a power struggle 20 years earlier when she was just a little girl. She knows nothing about any of this. Which of these two men is her ally… and which one is her killer? Takeshi, the ruthless Yakuza or the scar-faced swordsman with amnesia? And where did his strangely alluring Katana sword come from?

Yakuza Princess, as the title suggests, is an action/thriller about an ordinary young woman who discovers she’s the heiress to a faction of gangsters whose rivals are trying to kill. This is a Brazilian movie, and the script is in three languages English Japanese and Portuguese. It’s also pretty kitschy in its fetishistic version of Japanese culture, filled silent ritual bows and singing swords. But movies like this are allowed to be kitschy — they’re all about the fights: sword fights, fist-fights, jiu jitsu matches, gun battles and chase scenes. All of which are nicely choreographed. Ihara Tsuyoshi is a former stuntman, Masumi is a singer-actress, and Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers has been playing dangerous pretty-boys in TV series and movies for many years. In this one though, his face is so covered in scars and blood he’s barely recognizable (probably so stuntmen can play him in the fight scenes.) Yakuza Princess may be super-cheesy and bloody with a convoluted plot,  but it’s a fun action thriller. With an ending that suggests many more sequels yet to come.

Mogul Mowgli

Dir: Bassam Tariq

Z (Riz Ahmed) is a rising South-Asian English rapper. He just finished a sold-out American tour and he’s flying high, hanging with his American girlfriend Bina and his British manager. And now he’s slated to go on a world tour, as the opening act for a superstar. This is the big break he’s been waiting for. So he decides to spend a week in London’s East End with his family who he hasn’t seen for two years. But nothing has changed.  The new dishwasher is still sitting there in a box. His bedroom is full of the  cassette tapes he rapped to as a teenager. His dad (Alyy Khan) is a failed entrepreneur full of get-rich -quick schemes that never get off the ground. And his mom (Sudha Bhuchar) has her own quirks. When the chilli peppers she chars over a burner gives off no aroma — she says it’s a bad sign. Turns out she’s right. Z is suddenly afflicted by an unidentified ailment. 

Within a day or two his muscles cease to function. He can’t walk, can barely  even stand up. But his world tour is leaving in a couple days! IN the hospital a doctor had worse news. It’s an autoimmune disorder of unknown origin. Luckly there’s a new tincture they can try on him — it just might work. But among many possible side effect is the loss of fertility.  And even worse, his manager wants to replace him own the world tour with an awful rapper wannabe. Suddenly the famous performer is emasculated and immobile, deserted by his friends and depending on his eccentric parents’ superstitions to get through the day. Under the influence of the experimental meds he slips into a twilight zone of dreams, visions and hallucinations. Will he live or will he die? Will his former powers be restored? Can his career and reputation be rescued? And will his self-confidence ever return?

Mogul Mowgli is a brilliant showcase for the great young British actor Riz Ahmed. It’s hilarious surprising, and filled with sharp self-criticism. It chronicles the fall of a famous rapper — Riz Ahmed wrote his own versus — and the loss of face that entails. It also reveals the inner-workings of the London Pakistani  community — at home, in the mosque and in the wider world. And how the children of immigrants navigate their split identities. Everything Z sees and hears makes its way into the versus he’s constantly composing in his head. It’s told in an almost surreal manner, through the inner workings of a possibly dying man’s mind. Z is haunted by a groom whose face is covered with garlands of flowers, while his hospital gown morphs into a sequinned suit.

I really liked this movie. 

Mogul Mowgli and Yakuza Princess are both opening theatrically and/or digitally across Canada 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

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