End of summer movies. Films reviewed: Flag Day, 499, Candyman

Posted in 1500s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Art, Chicago, Crime, documentary, Family, History, Mexico by CulturalMining.com on August 28, 2021

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

I know, everyone’s still thinking about Covid-19, vaccinations and Delta, Delta, Delta… but it’s also beastly hot and horribly humid. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in an air-conditioned movie theatre, (safely spaced away from the other moviegoers?) This week I’m talking about three new films that open this weekend — a documentary, a family drama and a horror movie. There’s a Spanish conquistador recording notes in a book; a ghostly killer whose hand is a hook; and a grifter who vows to help out his daughter… by hook or by crook. 

Flag Day

Dir: Sean Penn

It’s the 1970s in the US  midwest. Jennifer and her little brother Nick lived with both their parents, until mom (Katheryn Winnick) kicked dad (Sean Penn) out of the house. He’s a liar and I won’t put up with him anymore! But after watching their mom spiral into alcoholism, the kids only have fond memories of their dad. So they ask to spend time with him. They move into his ramshackle hut by a lake, alongside his new, young girlfriend. He teaches 11-year-old Jennifer to drive, and they spend crazy times by the lake and on the highway. It’s all like an exciting adventure… until the motorcycle gang he works for — and owes money to — start visiting the home. Dad gets beaten up and the kids move back in with mom.

Later, in the 80s they’re back in school. Jennifer (Dylan Penn) is a goth rebel and Nick (Hopper Penn) is a withdrawn teen. Mom has remarried to a creepy guy, and the kids suffer for it. But when the stepdad starts crawling into bed with Jen, that’s the last straw — she has to get out of there. She travels across the country until she finds her father. He is not in great shape — neither mentally nor financially. And his criminal tendencies start to re-emerge. Can Jennifer reconcile with her dad and mom and pursue her goal to become a journalist? Or is she doomed to follow in their footsteps?

Flag Day is a family drama (based in a true story) about the ups and downs of a father-daughter friendship. It stars a real father and daughter, Sean and Dylan Penn. The movie starts on Flag Day (an unofficial,  patriotic US holiday), with the father — an accused counterfeiter — is being pursued down a highway by a line of police cars with a helicopter overhead. The rest of the movie is about what led to this point: mainly Dad trying to get away with his crimes to help his beloved daughter.

I have mixed feelings about this film. I’ve seen enough to know that if it’s bad in the first 10 minutes, it will probably only get worse. (Flag Day feels wooden and slow.) But I decided to give this one a chance… and you know what? It gets much better. There’s way too much crying — every scene of the movie involving Jennifer or one of her parents leaving or coning back is punctuated by more tears. And voice-over narration  can ruin any connection you might feel to the characters on the screen. On the other hand, the whole movie is nicely shot on grainy video filled with beautiful fireworks, bonfires, flaming BBQs — (lots of fire and water!); the characters develop and get more and more interesting as you get to know them; and the whole thing (nearly) pulls together by the end. It’s set mainly in Minnesota but was shot in Manitoba, giving it an “authentic” feeling of working-class, white America. Flag Day isn’t perfect but it’s not bad either, once you give it a chance.

499

Co-Wri/Dir: Rodrigo Reyes

In 1521, Cortez and a few hundred conquistadors  invade the Aztec kingdom. They overthrow Montezuma and slaughter countless people, laying waste to the beautiful capital of Tenochtitlán in their insatiable search for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Later, one of the conquistadors (Eduardo San Juan) survives a shipwreck and washes to shore, complete with armour, helmet, pantaloons and sword. He walks from the beach to Tenochtitlan, but it’s not how he remembers it. Somehow he has skipped the past 499 years and is now near Mexico City, circa 2020.

499 is a documentary with a twist. It’s a travelogue through modern day Mexico as seen through the eyes of a relic from the past, a man mired in 16th century Christian morality and Spanish Imperialism. He feels he can slaughter local “Indios” with impunity. But, gradually,  as he sees what’s become of Mexico today — the drug cartels and corrupt police forces, along with the relentless crime, torture and death they bring — he is forced to rethink his beliefs. He becomes less of a soldier, and more of a passive observer, speaking with Mexicans and writing down what they say as they tell him their harrowing stories.

But it’s not all sad stuff. We also see the beauty, the splendour, the weirdness and the wonder all around him. Dance, music, acrobatics, art, culture and history are all shown in glorious panoramic cinematography.  There are bullfights and strip bars, and interviews with actual masked gangsters… as well as their victims.

499 is an eye-opening doc about contemporary Mexico disguised as a time-travel movie. 

Candyman

Dir:  Nia DaCosta

It’s present-day Chicago. 

Brianna and Anthony (Teyonah Parris, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are a rising young power couple in Chicago. They live in a luxury high-rise. She’s a curator at a local art gallery, and he’s an artist. But when he wants his paintings included in a group show, his gallerist says his work is getting stale. Find something new. So he sets out to explore a local urban legend to incorporate it in his work. It’s the story of Candyman, a ghostly serial killer who operated out of a public housing project called Cabrini–Green. It was a sorely neglected area, populated mainly by poor blacks, located just across a street from one of Chicago’s richest and mainly white neighbourhoods, the Gold Coast. (Looks like Bree’s apartment was built over the remains of the project.) 

Candyman tempts victims by offering  them candy, and kills them surrounded by a swarm of honeybees, using a sharp hook he has for a hand. And he can be summoned by saying his name 5 times while looking into a mirror. Anthony’s latest work is called Call My Name, a mirror that dares its viewers to summon Candyman. It gets little notice until people associated with his art start turning up dead. Suddenly, he’s a hot property and art critics say he’s important. But Anthony knows the truth. Candyman is real, he’s dangerous, and he’s Anthony’s to blame for letting him loose on the world. Can he and Bree stop the Candyman before he kills more people? Or is it too late?

Candyman is a sequel to the Wes Craven’s horror movie from the 90s, and it turns conventional slasher-horror movies on their head.  Bree’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett)  is flamboyantly gay but also a credible character with a life all his own, not just a victim to be laughed out. Black characters don’t exist merely in reaction to whites — they’re the focus of the movie. Killings are usually shown from a distance or off-camera — while there’s blood, it’s not excessively gory (compared to most slasher movies). Scary but not terrifying. 

Aesthetically, Candyman is deeply satisfying with art direction way above what you normally see: minimalist composed sets, breathtaking cityscape views of Chicago filmed upside-down in black and white, and shadow puppets used to illustrate the story within the story… so cool. The filmmakers — producer Jordan Peele and co-writer/directer Nia DaCosta  — are black, as are the main characters… but not most of the victims. DaCosta skewers the cut-throat world of fine art, using razor-sharp political satire. Candyman is not a conventional slasher/horror movie, and probably won’t scare your pants off, but it offers lots of eye candy to look at and even more to think about. 

I liked this one a lot.

Candyman and Flag Day just opened this weekend in Toronto — check your local listings. And you can catch 499 at the Paradise Theatre for two days only: Aug 28-9th. 

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

 

Movies Made by Women. Films reviewed: What Will People Say?, Zama

Posted in 1500s, Argentina, Clash of Cultures, Drama, Family, Indigenous, Kidnapping, Norway, Slavery, Spain, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 20, 2018

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

Spring festival season is on right now, with two or three new ones popping up each week. There are established festivals like Hot Docs, celebrating its 25th anniversary, as well as some new ones. Reelabilities is only in its third year, but already programs a full international slate of dramas and docs – and even a comedy night — for and about people with deafness, mental illness, autism, down’s syndrome, and many others. And they’re dealing with important topics like sexuality and disabilities and disability rights. This week I’m looking at two movies directed by women and that played film festivals in Toronto (TIFF, Human Rights Watch Film Fest). There’s a coming-of-age drama about a Norwegian schoolgirl whose parents come from Pakistan, and an historical drama about a colonial Argentine whose ancestors came from Spain.

What Will People Say?

Dir: Iram Haq

Nisha (Maria Mozdah)is a high school student living in a snow-swept Oslo housing project. She has beautiful long hair, dark eyes and a shy but winning smile. Nisha is a typical Norwegian girl. She hangs with a tight-knit group of friends for partying, listening to music, texting. At night, though, she’s the grudgingly loyal daughter to her traditional Pakistani parents. She is the apple of her fathers eye. Mirza (Adil Hussein) piles money and gifts on his smart and beautiful daughter whom he dreams of becoming a doctor or an engineer. But Her mother is more strict, always wondering what other people – meaning people from Pakistan – will say, if they see Nisha doing outrageous things like… dancing? Little does she know. she’s dating a guy named Daniel who looks like Archie Andrews. But when her dad catches them in her bedroom, flirting, all hell breaks loose.

Before she knows what’s happening she’s on a plane to Pakistan on her way to a relative’s home in a remote town. They take away her phone, burn her passport, and forbid her from using the internet. Mirza says he’s doing it for her own good, but Nisha feels betrayed, lost and abandoned. And then there’s the physical dangers. She can’t just put on a hoodie and explore the streets alone like she did in Norway. Only a young cousin who idolizes her, and Amir, a boy she likes, make her life worth living. But her eyes and tastebuds are awakening to new sights and flavours she never encountered in cold, grey Norway.  She gradually adapts to her new home…. until a big change threatens her life and her future. Will she ever regain her old life and friends? Can she achieve success as a woman? And will she and her family learn to accept each other?

What Will People Say is a great coming-of-age drama that’s a bit of a thriller, too. It gives a multi-faceted look at a teenaged girl, partly self-centred and spoiled, partly facing a miserable life not of her own making. Pakistan is portrayed as a scary and violent place but also a vibrant and beautiful one, filled with both kindness and terror. The director (herself of Pakistani/ Norwegian background) eschews what could have been a one-sided kidnapping thriller in favour of a realistic and touching drama. She avoids easy stereotypes opting instead for a nuanced and loving look.

Zama

Wri/Dir: Lucrecia Martel

It’s 300 years ago in imperial Spain in South America.

Don Diego Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a low- level magistrate decked out in a white wig and three cornered hat, with a bright reddish jacket and a shiny sword. He’s there to provide justice and compassion in disputes among the colonists, their slaves and the indigenous peoples in the remote colony of Asunción. But he soon discovers his rulings are ignored, his requests disregarded, and his status questioned. He’s far from his wife in Buenos Aires, and his native mistress in Asunción doesn’t like him much, even after she gives birth to his son.

His life depends on the indulgences of a king in far off Spain, and a corrupt and decadent local Governor who spends most of his time gambling to win obscene tokens of power. He covets worthless geodes and decrepit ears sliced off a dead convict’s head. Colonial landholders slaughter Indios with impunity. As his life gets worse and worse, Zama feels trapped in a cesspit he can’t climb out of.

He finally gets his chance by joining a posse searching for Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele) a villainous criminal terrorizing the locals. But his search seems equally pointless and circuitous, achieving nothing, waiting for a Godot who may never arrive.

On his journey he faces dangers and fascinations both real and imagineary: small boys with psychic abilities, hidden ghosts and potergeists infecting his lodges. People appear and disappear, seamingly at random, dying and coming back to life, in a colourful whirlwind of unexplained phenomena.

Zama is a fantastic, non-linear adventure based on an Argentinian novel. It explores name and identity, position and class, and race and ethnicity in Colonial Spain. Indigenous languages are spoken without subtitles – we hear it all through Zama’s ears.

I’m not going to pretend I completely understood this movie, but like Embrace of the Serpent (which I reviewed here), the images and exotic scenes in Zama are so engrossing I didn’t worry too much about the plot. Picture a group of women on a riverbank covering their naked bodies with thick brown mud. And the scenery in Argentina’s northeast Formosa province — green moss, sweeping hills, twisting rivers and impossibly tall bare tree trunks — is like seeing those Dr Seuss books I read as a kid again but in real life.

What a great movie.

Zama opens today in Toronto. check your local listings.What will people say is playing at Human Rights Watch film fest.  This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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