In the shadows. Films reviewed: Hellbender, Cyrano

Posted in 1600s, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, France, Horror, Musical, Supernatural, Swashbuckler by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2022

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

February, always the worst moth of the year, is finally coming to an end, and the theatres are all opening up again. This week, I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a horror story. There’s a French wordsmith who hides in the shadows, and an American hellbender who never leaves her home.

Hellbender

Wri/Dir:John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser

Izzy (Zelda Adams) is a typical teenaged girl. She’s 

a vegetarian, wears  hoodies and converse sneakers, and is in a goth rock band called Hellbender (she plays the drums). She lives with her mom  (Toby Poser) in a big wooden house on top of a small mountain surrounded by lush forests and a bubbling brook. So what’s so special about Izzy? She’s never seen or spoken to anyone except her mom since she was five years old. She suffers from a rare disease and outside contact could kill her. 

But one day she wanders to the edge of their property and sees another young woman in a backyard swimming pool.

Amber (Lulu Adams)  who is brash and outspoken, invites Izzy to join her.  Why, Amber wants to know, have they never met before (Izzy says it’s because she’s home schooled.) She returns the next week for a swimming party, where she meets a guy who says her disease doesn’t match her symptoms (he’s a pre-med student). So she won’t die from getting to close. Then he dares her to drink a shot of tequila and swallow the worm — but he puts a live worm into her glass. The results are surprising. Everything starts to blur, voices whisper in her ear, and she’s filled with lust, anger and a strange new power. She wakes up at home, and has lots of questions. 

Her mom apologizes. There is no illness, she says. You’re not in danger, other people are. We are Hellbenders, people with great power. When you ate that worm, you gained power from its fear of death. And the bigger the animal you consume, the more power you have, and the more dangerous you become. That’s why I’ve been keeping you isolated she says. So you can live like a human. But now that she knows who she is, what will become of Izzy?

Hellbender is a cool low-budget supernatural horror movie. It has a very small cast and I think (just going by names) they’re all related and maybe all in the band Hellbender. It has a good “look” to it, too: there are jagged black rocks on the mountainside, and nice leafy woods. The trippy, psychedelic dream sequences are short but very well done. One part I didn’t like was the opening sequence — a Salem village-type hanging of a witch — it felt unnecessary, but, other than that, this is a tight mother-daughter, drama that combines horror with a coming-of-age of a young woman discovering her power.

Cyrano

Dir: Joe Wright

It’s 17th century France. Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage) is a decorated soldier, a champion fencer in the King’s guard, as well as an exceptionally eloquent poet. He wows the crowds at a theatrical performance where he takes down the awful lead actor through the use of verbal barbs and comical swordsmanship. There he catches the eye of a woman named Roxanne (Haley Bennet). She’s a beautiful aristocrat but also a penniless orphan, destined to marry an aristocrat. They get to know each other and she comes to adore and admires him. Likewise, Cyrano swears he’ll be her lifelong protector. He’s actually in love with her…but never expresses that love because of his appearance. You see, he is a little person. And he is resigned to failure when she tells him she’s in love, but not with him, with a handsome, but inarticulate musketeer named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr). Cyrano is forced to support Roxanne by helping his rival, to the extent where he expresses his love for her in letters that are sent by Christian.  Later he even hides in the shadows feeding lines to Christian wooing Roxanne on her balcony. Will she ever discover his true love for her? And that the love letters are from Cyrano, not Christian? Can she escape the wicked aristocrat she is meant to marry? And who will survive the coming wars?

Cyrano is a new musical version of the classic French play. In the original, Cyrano has such a big nose that he thinks his true love will never desire him. This time it’s that he’s too short. Does this new version work? Sadly no. Dinklage was fantastic in Game of Thrones and various movies; and Kelvin Harrison Jr is one of the best young actors around (in movies like Waves, Luce, and It Comes at Night). But this is a musical, and there’s an old theatrical term called a “triple threat” — an actor who can also sing and dance. Dinklage and Harrison are single threats. Great actors but not so great as singers and dancers. (Haley Bennet as Roxanne does have a good voice) And the music is terrible. Fans of the band The National might like these songs but I found them tedious, repetitive, and totally uninspiring. Not a catchy tune anywhere. The dance scenes have the lead characters standing still surrounded by weirdly dressed dancers who twist all around them, so you don’t notice. The sad parts aren’t really sad, the funny parts aren’t  that funny, and the story is so famous that there are no surprises anywhere. It’s based on an earlier stage version but they didn’t do much to make it cinematic — it was almost like watching a filmed play. I wanted it to be good, but sad to say, this Cyrano sucked.

Cyrano opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend; check your local listings. Hellbender is currently streaming on Shudder.

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 Jim Shedden about Moments of Perception: Experimental Film in Canada

Posted in Animation, Art, Books, Canada, Experimental Film, History, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2022

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

Photo of Jim Shedden by Brody White.

Since motion pictures took the world by storm, Canadian mainstream movies have been dominated by Hollywood. But avant-garde, independent and experimental films have a very different history. Pioneers like Norman MacLaren and Arthur Lipsett at the NFB, and artists like Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland established Canadian films on the world’s stage. And creativity exploded after 1967 in a surge of national expression. But what makes a film experimental, what makes it Canadian, and how have these criteria changed over the past century? 

Moments of Perception: Experimental Film in Canada is a monumental, landmark book released this week, accompanied by a series of screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The screenings are curated by — and the book edited by — Barbara Sternberg and Jim Shedden. It includes a meticulous history of experimental film by Mike Zryd, a series of filmographies and profiles of the major players by Stephen Broomer, shorter bios compiled by Jim and Barbara who also wrote the preface, and it’s beautifully illustrated with contemporary photos of the filmmakers and stills from the films themselves. 

Jim Shedden is a curator of inter-disciplinary exhibitions and head of the publishing program at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I spoke with Jim via Zoom in Toronto.

Moments of Perception: Experimental Film in Canada is now available from Goose Lane Editions.

Deliveries. Films reviewed: Dog, Parallel Mothers PLUS BTFF!

Posted in Animals, Army, Family, History, LGBT, Movies, photography, Road Movie, Spain, War by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2022

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

It’s Black History Month and The Toronto Black Film Festival is on now through Monday, February 21st celebrating its 10th anniversary. It’s showing — get this! — 200 movies, including features, shorts, documentaries, and more, from Canada and around the world. It features the Canadian premier of Krystin Ver Linden’s Alice, starring Common and Keke Palmer. There are also panel discussions, and if you’re an emerging black filmmaker, check out the Fabienne Colas Foundation’s Being Black in Canada program, with films geared specifically to cities like Montreal and Halifax. There’s also a special tribute to the late Sidney Poitier. That’s at the Toronto Black Film Festival – TBFF for short — all happening through Monday. 

This week, I’m looking at two new movies, one from the US, the other from Spain. There’s a war vet delivering a dog, and a fashion photographer delivering her baby.

Dog

Dir: Reid Carolin, Channing Tatum

Jackson Briggs (Channing Tatum) is a vet with a dog. Nothing so unusual about that. Except he’s a veteran, not a veterinarian. And the dog isn’t his. And he’s driving it down the West coast to attend a funeral — the dog is invited, not Briggs. Huh? You see, Briggs wants to reenlist — he’s an Army Ranger. He spent the past three years in a fog of alcohol and drugs, but he’s all dried out now and ready to ship off. But his Captain isn’t so sure. So they make a deal. Briggs drives Lulu, a decommissioned army dog, to the funeral of a member of their company who recently died. Lulu was an important part of his life, so it’s only fitting she should attend his funeral. In exchange, the Captain agrees to look again at Briggs reenlisting.

Lulu, despite her name, is no French poodle. She’s a Belgian Malinois. She looks like a German Shepard but smaller with a charcoal face and pointy ears. They are specially bred for security forces and trained to defend, attack and track. And Lulu has PTSD, she goes crazy if you touch her ears, or if she hears loud noises like thunder, guns or bombs. These are fiercely loyal dogs but they have to trust their owners. And Lulu and Briggs don’t like each other, so she’s muzzled and stuffed into a tiny kennel on the back seat. Soon enough though, she has completely destroyed her plastic prison and is chewing up the carseats. Can Briggs get Lulu to the funeral in time? Or will the two of them tear each other apart first?

Dog is a nice road movie about a man and his dog, and the people they encounter on their journey. People like two beautiful women who practice tantric sex; a dangerous hippie who runs a grow-op; a dog trainer, a psychic, and Briggs’ long-lost daughter.  They wind up in a luxury hotel, in abandoned barns, a night in jail and hitchhiking in the desert. And all along the way, we have Briggs’s non-stop monologue as he talks to Lulu. Luckily, the dog and the actor are interesting and appealing enough to keep your attention with the point of view shifting back and forth between Briggs and Lulu. Dog is a low key comedy-drama, but with enough surprises, laughs — and a few sad parts — to make it a worthwhile watch. 

Parallel Mothers

Dir: Pedro Almodóvar

Janis (Penelope Cruz) is a high-profile photographer  in her late 30s. She’s in a Madrid hospital about to give birth for the first time. There she meets a teenaged girl, also single and pregnant, named Ana (Milena Smit). She comes from a rich family — her dad’s a businessman, her mom an actress — but they are divorced and Ana is less than enthusiastic about raising a kid. Janis, on the other hand, can’t wait. 

Her baby is the result of a fling with a man she photographed once, named Arturo (Israel Elejaide). He’s a forensic anthropologist who works with an organization that disinters, identifies and reburies many of the lost victims of Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco. More than 100,000 people are still missing, many killed by Franco in the Spanish civil war and afterwards. This includes Janis’s own great grandfather and others from her ancestral village. Arturo says he’ll look into her village, but he can’t promise her anything. 

But back to the two mothers. After a few years, one of their babies dies, and the two bond together to raise the surviving kid. But both mothers hold deep dark secrets they have yet to reveal. Can Janis and Ana make it as a couple? What about the child? And then there’s Arturo… and her village?

Parallel Mothers is a wonderful, tender, surprising and moving drama set in Madrid. Like all of Almadòvar’s recent movies, it has an amazing story, told in an eye-pleasing manner, from the opening line to the closing credits. They all share recognizable styles and images, as well as his troop of actors, including Rossy de Palma, but Parallel Mothers is also a unique stand-alone film. If you’re already a fan of Almadòvar, you will love this one and if you’ve never seen his films before, this is a gapped place to start.

Dog opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend; check your local listings. Parallel Mothers is now playing 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

Valentine’s Day Rom-Coms. Films reviewed: Marry Me, The Worst Person in the World

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Movies, Music, New York City, Norway, Romance, Romantic Comedy by CulturalMining.com on February 12, 2022

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

It’s Valentine’s Day weekend and the movie theatres are open. Wanna go on a date? There’s lots of stuff to see. So this week, I’m looking at two new romantic comedies. There’s a pop star who meets a schoolteacher in New York City; and a student who meets a comic book artist in Oslo. 

Marry Me

Dir: Kat Coiro

It’s present-day New York City. Charlie (Owen Wilson) is a math teacher and divorced dad in Brooklyn. He is trying to win the affection of his only daughter Lou (Chloe Coleman), who is now a student at his school. He coaches the math club, but Lou doesn’t want to join it.   But when his best friend and fellow teacher Parker (Sarah Silverman), says she has three tickets to a big event, he reluctantly agrees to come with his daughter. The concert features pop superstars Kat Valdez and Bastian (Jenifer Lopez and Maluma). The two are deeply in love and plan to marry on stage as part of the release of a new ballad version of their latest smash hit, Marry Me. Lou and Parker are very excited because they are huge fans, but Charlie has never even heard of them. Then, at the show, something goes terribly wrong. Immediately before singing the Marry Me song before tens of millions of online viewers, Kat discovers Bastian has been cheating on her. In a fit of rage, she refuses to marry him and instead points to a random man in the audience — Charlie! A few minutes later, on stage before the cameras, she asks him to marry her… and he says OK. Of course it’s just a publicity stunt, but, after consulting with her kindly manager, she decides to make a go of it. After all, her previous three marriages didn’t work out, who’s to say a marriage to a random guy couldn’t work? But can an ordinary man and a fabulously wealthy and famous woman become a happily married couple? Or is it just an impossible dream of separate worlds?

Marry Me is a cute rom-com with a few twists: the ordinary guy is white, while the rich and powerful woman is Latin; then there’s the fact that the romantic leads are both in their fifties — especially unusual for female leads.   Owen Wilson is still projecting his perpetual dumb-boy energy, and J-Lo is just being J-Lo — a large portion of the film is devoted to music. Acting is not the main point here. It’s also pretty predictable, but that’s why people go to rom-coms, a once-popular genre that has fallen by the wayside.  Will Marry Me be its comeback? Probably not. I’m not a fan of the music or the stars, but despite all that I still found it watchable and cute. 

The Worst Person in the World

Co-Wri/Dir: Joachim Trier

Julie (Renate Reinsve) is a middle-class woman in her 20s in Oslo, Norway. She’s bright, pretty, confident and opinionated, but can’t quite figure out what she wants in life, both professionally and personally. She studies a number of disciplines — medicine, psychology, photography — and is very good at whatever she does… but can’t quite find her niche. She does find love, though. She hooks up with a guy named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) an underground comic artist. He created a Fritz the Cat-type character named Bobcat. He’s 15 years older than her, but she decides to put her own life on hold and move in with him. But she gets restless.

One night she crashes a party and meets a guy named Elvind (Herbert Nordrum). They hit it off immediately and have an intimate verbal encounter, without technically cheating on their respective spouses. They don’t exchange names and swear to never meet again. Thing is, Oslo’s a big city, but not that big. They do meet again, in a bookstore where Julie works. Is Elvind the one she’s always been looking for? Or is Aksel? And will she ever find happiness?

To call The Worst Person in the World a rom-com doesn’t do it justice. It’s more of a long, complex dramatic comedy. It’s told in 12 chapters, and the prologue alone could have been its own movie. It’s also a social satire, dealing wth diverse issues — family, relationships,  pregnancy, politics, selling out to the man, sexism, psychedelic drugs, “cancel culture” — even death. And I really love Joachim Trier’s movies (Thelma, Oslo, August 31st ). I guess that’s why I found this one disappointing. It’s not bad, or cheesy or cheap —he doesn’t make movies like that.  It’s well-made, and well acted, nice design and music. And there’s tons of fascinating ideas and content, but it’s thrown at the viewer, almost indifferently, chapter after chapter after chapter. There’s a superficial melancholy to the whole thing, which makes it hard to sympathize with Julie. She’s not the worst person in the world by any means, but she’s not a heroine either. Is it worth seeing? Certainly, there’s lots to chew on, and it made me think. It’s just not as funny, sad, moving or romantic as I might have liked. Just more of that empty, Scandinavian hollowness. It’s actually less of a rom-com than a romantic tragedy… without the tears.

Marry Me just opened and The Worst Person in the World is now playing at the Tiff Bell Lightbox 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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Shasha Nakhai about Scarborough

Posted in Canada, Drama, Education, Ensemble Cast, Family, Indigenous, LGBT, Poverty, TIFF, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on February 2, 2022

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

It’s typical day at a literacy clinic in eastern Toronto. Three new kids are there with their parents trying to find a place for them in the complex school system. Sylvie’s there with her mom —  her dad is in hospital and her 4-year-old brother Johnny is hard to handle. Bing is bullied by other kids, who questions his sexuality even as his mom works all day in a mani-pedi and his dad’s in a mental hospital. And little Laura was abandoned by her abusive mom, forcing her dad to raise her — someone who knows nothing about taking care of kids. Luckily, a kindly teacher named Ms Hina is there to smooth out the bumps and care for the kids even when it look like nothing can help them. And Bing, Sylvie and Laura become good friends. But can they overcome the obstacles in their precarious lives at a public school in Scarborough?

Scarborough is a wonderful, new, feature-length drama that premiered lat fall at TIFF and the ReelAsian film festivals to rave reviews and appreciative audiences. Using an ensemble cast and first-time actors, it explores life in a working class, multicultural neighbourhood in  Scarborough, where people struggle with poverty, homelessness, racism,  and a largely indifferent social system.   Based on the award-winning book by Catherine Hernandez, it’s directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson. Shasha Nakhai is a Toronto-based filmmaker whose work has aired on the BBC, CBC, ZDF and Arte and screened at the Museum of Modern Art. She has worked on documentaries like The World Before Her (2012), Driving with Selvi (2015), and League of Exotique Dancers (2015).

I spoke with Shasha Nakhai in Toronto via Zoom.

Scarborough is opening in Toronto on February 25th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

%d bloggers like this: