Humans and machines. Films reviewed: L’homme Parfait, Pinocchio

Posted in 1930s, Animation, comedy, Fairytales, Family, Fantasy, France, Italy, Robots, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on November 11, 2022

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

In these troubled times, many feel daunted by quickly-changing technology, and wait with trepidation the eventual coming of the Singularity: the day robots and artificial intelligence become smarter than humans. What will happen to us after the Singularity?

This week I’m looking at two new movies about the increasingly thin line separating people from machines. There’s a woodcutter in Italy who creates a puppet that acts like a boy; and a woman in France who buys a robot that acts like a man. 

L’homme parfait

Co-wri/Dir: Xavier Durringer

It’s the near future, somewhere in France.

Franck and Florence (Didier Bourdon, Valérie Karsenti) are a happily unmarried middle-aged couple with two kids, Max and Victoire. Florence has an office job, while Franck works from home. He’s an actor who is writing that blockbuster screenplay which will turn his career around. But it’s been three years now with no sign of progress, and his agent isn’t exactly banging on his door with acting jobs. And even though Franck is at home all day, it’s Florence who ends up cooking, cleaning and taking care of the kids. But enough is enough. She puts in an order and two days later a large box arrives at their door. Meet Bobby (Pierre-François Martin-Laval): a realistic-looking male robot: strong, smart and friendly. He has artificially blue eyes and speaks in a monotone. With a variety of built-in options, from Salsa dancing to Krav Maga, soon Bobby is whipping up boeuf bourgognon, ironing their sheets and telling bedtime stories to the kids. And his artificial intelligence means, like Siri, he listens to — and remembers —  everything he hears. 

But there are side effects.  Florence may love all the free time she has now, but Franck feels stripped of all his fatherly duties. Bobby is better at bowling. Bobby can fix a broken car engine in a flash. Bobby can select the best wine, say the right thing, buy the right gift. Franck feels increasingly left out. And when he accidentally sees Bobby’s “standard equipment” he feels second-rate and useless. Meanwhile, Florence feels sexually neglected and doesn’t understand why. Is Bobby ruining their marriage? Will Florence ever activate Bobby’s forbidden love-love button? Or can Franck reactivate their relationship?

L’homme parfait is a French comedy about robots, technology and middle-age crises. It’s also a clear knock-off of last year’s German hit I’m Your Man (they actually give it a nod by saying Bobby is manufactured in Germany). It’s conventional, predictable, and anything but subversive, in the style of those cheap-ass Hollywood comedies in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  That said, it did make me laugh more than once. What can I say — no one will call L’homme parfait a great movie, but it is a funny, low-brow sex-comedy in an emerging sub-genre: humanoid robots. 

Pinocchio

Dir: Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson

Geppetto is a wood carver who lives with his beloved son Carlo in a small village in Tuscany. He carves everything in town from wooden clogs for Carlo, to Christ on the Cross in their local church. But when a WWI bomb drops on the village killing his son, Geppetto becomes a reclusive alcoholic, spending all his time crying by Carlo’s grave. Two decades later, in drunken rage, he chops down a knotty pine tree that grew from a pinecone Carlo found on his last day alive, and roughly carves a new boy — with wobbly knees and elbows, rough-hewn hair and a long piece of wood for a nose —  all modelled on his son. He calls him little pine, or Pinocchio. What he doesn’t realize is a blue cricket  (the story’s narrator) lives inside a hole in the wood the boy is made of.

After Geppetto passes out, a magical wood sprite, out of sympathy for the old man, brings Pinocchio to life. She gives the cricket responsibility of taking care of the kid and teaching him right from wrong. The new-born boy is clumsy and dangerous, a tabula rasa taking in all around him. He exalts in learning and gleefully smashes everything he sees. Soon the discovers Pinocchio with different reactions. Some call him an abomination, the work of the Devil. Podesta, a member of Mussolini’s Fascist Party, thinks Pinocchio can be the ultimate weapon, a soldier who cannot die. And a sleazy carnival barker named Count Volpe, and his sinister sidekick, a monkey named Spazzatura, see him as a money-maker, a living puppet he can exploit at his circus.  Being pulled in all directions, can Pinocchio ever find his way back to his father and creator Gepetto?

Pinocchio is a dark retelling of the 19th century Italian classic. It’s masterfully-made using stop-motion animation of dolls and puppets, in the style of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or A Nightmare Before Christmas. Gone are the cutesy Disney costumes and hats; this Pinocchio is bare-bones wood all the way, with clothing hacked onto his body. The naughty boy is made of knotty pine. It’s partly a musical, with characters spontaneously breaking into song (some good, some not), especially at the circus. But it’s also, like all of del Toro’s movies, dark, sad and scary. It deals with theft, alcoholism and death. And by transplanting the story into fascist wartime Italy (similar to Spain in Pan’s Labyrinth), he makes it even darker. 

In addition to Gregory Mann, David Bradley and Ewen McGregor — as, Pinocchio, Geppetto and the cricket — other voices include Tilda Swinton, Kate Blanchett, Rob Perlman, and Finn Wolfhard as Candlewick, Pinocchio’s frenemy. But it’s the characters themselves, animated on the screen, that really make this movie. If I saw this as a little kid, I guarantee, Pinocchio would have given me nightmares. But as a grown-up, I found it a sad and very moving story, beautifully made. 

Pinocchio is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and L’homme parfait is one of many films screening at Cinefranco till Tuesday and then digitally till the end of the month. 

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

Journeys to redemption. Films reviewed: Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon, Bullet Train, We Are Living Things 

Posted in Action, Aliens, Amazon, Animation, comedy, Crime, Drama, Fairytales, Indigenous, Japan, Kids, Migrants, Trains by CulturalMining.com on August 13, 2022

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

TIFF is back on track again, after two makeshift years, bringing you the world’s best movies, showing only in theatres. King street will be open for celebrity spotting once again, along with free concerts and other spectacles. And the discount ticket packages are on sale only till Sunday, that’s tomorrow, with individual tickets starting as low as eleven dollars each if you’re 25 or younger.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about desperate journeys toward redemption. There’s one girl on a quest to save her Amazon village; two alienated migrants in America on a search for the truth behind alien abductions; and a half-dozen killers on a bullet train trying to kill all the other killers… before they get killed themselves.

Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon
Dir: Richard Claus, Jose Zelada

It’s present-day in the Kundamo nation of the Amazon. Ainbo is a 12 year old girl who calls herself a legendary hunter but hasn’t quite mastered the bow and arrow. She’s an orphan who lives with her best friend, Zumi, who is next in line for chief. But a dark shadow has fallen on her community, with fish dying and people turning ill. So she sets out on a quest: to talk to the giant mama turtle for direction, discover a powerful weapon, find the source of the poison, and defeat the evil demon Yakaruna.

Fortunately, two odd-looking animals appear beside her to help her on her way. Strangely enough, she can understand everything they say. Dillo and Vaca are her spirit guides but also tricksters, who can only be believed some of the time. Meanwhile, Attak, a mighty hunter, blames the disease on Ainbo, and chases her through the jungle to keep her away. Can Ainbo summon enough inner strength to realize her spiritual goals? Or will her people all die from this mysterious ailment?

Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon is a delightful, high-quality animated kids movie about a 12 year old girl’s attempt to save her people from destruction. Its told in the manner of a classic folktale, but with modern twists: perhaps their problems come from European developers trying to usurp their land. This is clearly aimed for little kids but I found it totally watchable, including a scene with day-glo psychedelia. I like this one.

Bullet Train
Dir: David Leitch

Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is a freelance criminal who carries out complex thefts around the world. But somehow bad things happen to people around him. Dying of poison, falling off rooves — there seems to be no end to the misery all around him. Luckily, his current job, is a piece of cake: board a bullet train in Tokyo, steal a briefcase full of cash, and get off at the next stop before anyone notices. Simple, right?  Not quite.

He doesn’t realize he’s not the only criminal on board. A well-dressed pair of twins, code-named Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry), are professional hitmen and the holders of said briefcase.  Prince (Joey King) is a ruthless and mysterious young woman dressed in a pink, snug-fitting school uniform, with her own agenda. Then there’s Kimura and his dad, both of a yakuza clan, a mysterious killer named The Hornet, and a man named Wolf (Bad Bunny) with vengeance on his mind. And of course the ruler of the underworld himself, White Death. Who will survive this fatal journey?

Bullet Train is a fast-paced, violent action comedy set aboard a Japanese high-speed train. It has a punchy soundtrack and an A-list cast, including Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, with cameos by Michael Shannon and Sandra Bullock. And it’s based on a book by critically-acclaimed Japanese novelist Kôtarô Isaka. Unfortunately, this big budget movie feels like a third-rate Tarantino knock-off. The screenplay is crap, filled with unfunny jokes and two-dimensional caricatures. It feels like the director has never been to Japan or set foot on a bullet train — he doesn’t even know they’re on raised platforms not normal tracks, or that Japanese vending machines never malfunction. Even the sound recording is poor — I couldn’t make out some of the dialogue in the first scene. While not bad enough to put you to sleep, Bullet Train never rises above the mediocre.

We Are Living Things 
Co-Wri/Dir: Antonio Tibaldi

It’s present-day New York, where two immigrants live very different lives. Solomon (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) lives completely off the grid. Born in Mexico, he crossed the Arizona border as a young man in search of his mother. She completely disappeared and Solomon believes she was abducted by aliens. Now he works as a jack-of-all- trades,  good at plumbing, wiring and carpentry. He likes non-digital devices, like metal detectors and industrial dryers and stays away from computers and cel phones.  He rents a hidden space inside a recycling plant, where no one can find him; he’s undocumented and knows how to make himself invisible. His main objective is to listen to aliens — the ones in outer space — through their radio waves, using a complex device made of a satellite dish and a piece of a magnetic meteorite.

Chuyao (Lü Xingchen) works in a mani-pedi salon. She holds a legal ID, its just not hers. She has cut her hair short and changed her name in an attempt to match the ID, but she looks nothing like the photo. It doesn’t matter, says Tiger (Wang Zao), the man who got it for her; white people think we all look the same. Tiger is a sleazy criminal and her de facto boyfriend, but behaves more like her pimp. He makes her attend private parties for rich clients, sometimes just singing karaoke, but often leading to sketchy or even dangerous after-hour meetings. Worse than that, Tiger has implanted a chip in her neck so he always knows exactly where she is. After a chance meeting, where Solomon discovers Chuyao shares his obsession (she was abducted by aliens back in China), he begins to follow her around, a guardian angel to protect her when she’s in trouble.  Eventually they end up fleeing the city together in an attempt to uncover aliens in Arizona… and perhaps discover each other.

We Are Living Things is a bitter-sweet, art-house drama about the lives of two alienated migrants in America, trying to regain their sense of self-worth. It’s filled with dreams and surveillance footage woven into the narrative. And while there is an undercurrent of sci-fi themes, the real dangers they face are the omnipresent police and ICE agents who permeate their lives. The cinematography is strikingly beautiful, capturing Chuyao’s louche glamour, Solomon’s low-tech machinery, and the glory of the American west. And Guerrero and Lü both have cinematic faces that look great on the screen. Strange and impressionistic, this film will stay in your mind long after it’s over.

You can catch We Are Living Things at the Carlton cinema in Toronto; check your local listings. Ainbo opens in theatres this weekend; and Bullet Train is now playing across North America.
 
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com. 

Still looking. Films reviewed: Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, The Gray Man, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Posted in 1960s, Action, Animation, CIA, Class, comedy, Fashion, France by CulturalMining.com on July 16, 2022

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

Summer is here and so is TOPS, Toronto Outdoor Picture Show. This festival lets you watch new or classic films for free, sitting on the cool grass on a warm dark night in a city park. Locations include Christie Pits, the Corktown Commons and Bell Manor Park, showing open-air movies weekly through July and August. Or if you’d rather stay home or watch things on your phone you should check out this year’s Prism Prize winners, a collection of cinematic music videos by and about Canadian artists. Surprisingly good.

This week I’m looking at three new, big-screen movies. There’s a woman in Paris looking for a dress, a hitman in Bangkok looking for a way out, and a talking sea shell looking for his family.

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris

Dir: Anthony Fabian

It’s London in the 1960s. Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) is a hardworking house cleaner, who always goes out of her way to help other people. But her employers, including an aspiring movie star and an extremely rich family, don’t seem to appreciate what she does, often forgetting to pay her wages. Her husband was shot down in WWII so she has supported herself ever since waiting in vain for him to come home.  On her free time she goes to the pub or bets on dog races with her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas) and her bookie Archie (Jason Isaacs). But everything changes when she spots a beautifully flowered dress in her employer’s wardrobe. It’s a Christian Dior, and it cost £500 in Paris. Five hundred pounds…!

Suddenly, Ada has a goal: save up all her money and spend it on a dress like that one. And, through a series of fortuitous events she finds herself in Paris quicker than she thought. But buying the gown is another matter entirely. She faces roadblocks at every turn — the idea of a cleaning woman buying such a dress. It’s Haut couture, but Mrs Harris  is neither haut nor a part of their couture. We sell to princesses and heiresses not to the likes of you, says Mme Colbert (Isabelle Huppert). Are Ada’s hopes and dreams nothing but a fantasy? Or will her optimistic nature win out in the end?

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is a wonderful bitter-sweet drama about a working-class woman in the mid-20th century. Based on the novel by Paul Gallico, it shows how an ordinary woman — through the power of will, sincerity and common sense — can open the tightest doors, but can never transcend her class. The movie’s not just about her — there’s a Marquis (Christopher Lambert); a shy young executive (Lucas Bravo — you may recognize him from the dreadful Emily in Paris); and Natasha (Alba Baptista), an existentialist  model — but Lesley Manville as Mrs Harris is really the star. She manages to convey, perfectly and subtly, Ada’s innermost thoughts and emotions. Parts of the movie did seem like a non-stop ad for Christian Dior, but, other than that, it was a pleasure to watch.

The Gray Man

Dir: Anthony and Joe Russo

It’s a night-club in Bangkok. 6 (Ryan Gosling) is there for a job: murder. He’s a hitman who works undercover for the CIA in the top secret Sierra division. Recruited as a young man doing hard time for murder, he’s been a loyal member for two decades, eliminating with precision  whatever bad guys (no women or children) they assign him to kill. He chases the target into a dark alley, and after a violent confrontation, on his deathbed, the guy says, Wait! I have something to tell you! You’re 6, right? I’m 4. You’re killing a member of your own unit… they’re getting rid of Sierra, and you’re next. He hands him a tiny memory disc drive, and says, They’ve gone bad, and this proves it. Hold onto it and get the hell out of here. Then the guy expires.

So begins an intercontinental chase, with 6 vs the entire CIA, and a  team of mercenary assassins bankrolled by the Agency under the guidance of Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans). He’s  a ruthless, sadistic contractor who will kidnap, torture and kill anyone who gets in his way. The whole world is potential collateral damage… including a little girl with a heart condition that 6 had promised always to protect. (Giving 6 a reason to pursue Lloyd.) Who will triumph? 6, a regular-guy hitman in a track suit with a heart of gold?  Or Lloyd, an evil elitist with a douchey moustache and an expensive gold watch?

The Gray Man is a fast-moving action/thriller made for the big screen. It follows 6 from Thailand to Turkey, from Vienna and Prague to an isolated castle in Croatia, complete with a convenient hedge maze. There are some spectacular fights — like a battle in mid-air as a cargo plane blows up; fistfights in a hospital and shootouts aboard a a rolling streetcar. On the negative side, there is absolutely nothing original in this action movie — it’s all been done a thousand times before. And there’s product placement for a brand of gum in the first lines of the script. That said, it’s great to see Ryan Gosling again — he’s always worth watching; and Chris Evans is a nicely hateable villain. Ana de Armas, though, is wasted as a dull CIA agent. The good lines all went to other characters. And there are some clever ones. Like You can’t make an omelette without killing people.  Is the Gray Man a good movie? I won’t say it’s “good” but I actually like watching good actors in pretty settings with lots of buildings blowing up. 

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Dir: Dean Fleischer-Camp

Marcel (Jenny Slate) is a  naive, inquisitive little boy who lives in a large deserted house with just his grandma to keep him company. The rest of his family mysteriously disappeared one day, and he hasn’t seen them since. He likes listening to Brahms on a record player and watching 60 Minutes. But he’s not human — he’s actually a tiny seashell with one big eye, two legs with pink running shoes and a little mouth. He gets around using Rube Goldberg-esque  contraptions, powered by an electric blender blender attached to pieces of string. And he can move quickly on the floor by climbing into a tennis ball and rolling around. But everything changes when a filmmaker named Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp) moves in. He’s fascinated by the strange little talking shell, so he starts to film Marcel — with his permission —  and puts the clips on YouTube, which, of course, eventually go viral. Soon he’s in the NY Times, and people on TikTok are copying his funniest phrases and moves. He’s a minor celebrity, but still hasn’t found his family. And Nana (Isabella Rosselini) is getting old. She loves gardening and can talk to insects but she’s having trouble remembering things, and her shell is pock-marked and cracked. Will his new-found fame bring Marcel a better life?

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a totally delightful treat of a movie made in the form of a live-action documentary. Marcel is portrayed using stop-motion photography incorporating his (or actually Jenny Slate’s) hilarious, improvised comedy. It’s 90 minutes long, but flies by in a second, despite its simple style. It’s full of wisdom and humour and speaks to both kids and adults (a lot of the funniest lines appeal to grown ups with Marcel’s unintentionally hilarious observations.) You may be familiar with him from Youtube, and when I first saw the poster, I thought, why in hell would anyone want to watch this? But, view it and you’ll understand why it’s so good. 

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is now playing all across Canada, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris opens this weekend; check your local listings; The Gray Man is playing in Toronto 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

Ambitions. Films reviewed: Minions: The Rise of Gru, Ennio, Mr Malcolm’s List

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, 1970s, Animation, documentary, Italy, Kidnapping, Movies, Music, Romantic Comedy, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 2, 2022

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

Summer is definitely here, and this long holiday weekend is the perfect time to take in some new movies. This week I’m talking about three of them: — a rom-com, a cartoon and a documentary — about people with ambitions. There’s a spinster in Victorian England who wants revenge on the man who has scorned her; a spaghetti western composer in 1960s Italy who wants to be taken seriously; and a little boy in San Francisco in the ’70s who wants to become a super villain.

Minions: The Rise of Gru

Dir: Kyle Balda, Brad Ableson, Jonathan del Val

It’s the late 1970s, and Gru is a little kid in elementary school. While his classmates say they want to be a fireman or a ballet dancer when they grow up, Gru wants to be a super villain. And he has a basement filled with strange mechanical devices to prove it. They were built with the help of his minions. The minions are bright-yellow, lozenge-shaped creatures with googly eyes. Dressed in matching denim overalls, they speak their own incomprehensible dialect, a mishmash of all the world’s languages. Gru idolizes a gang of six supervillains, who are now one villain short of a pack (since they did away with their leader) and are looking for a replacement. But when he shows up for an interview at their secret hideaway they dismiss him as just a kid. To prove them wrong, he steals their prize possession, a Chinese jade-green amulet. He gives it to a minion to keep it safe, who soon loses it in exchange for a pet rock. (The minions aren’t always the brightest bulb in the chandelier.) Gru is kidnapped by the villains’ former leader, and threatened with torture and death. Can the minions find the amulet, bring it to San Francisco, and save their best friend, Gru?

Minions: The Rise of Gru is a funny, easy-to-watch kids’ movie, where the villains are the good guys, even though they’re evil. It’s a prequel to the surprise hit from 2010, Despicable Me. The voice actors are mainly American or British, but the animated film is actually from France. The catchy soundtrack, groovy 1970s characters, the San Francisco setting, the fast-moving plot and the very colourful graphics make it a fun watch. It stars the voices of Steve Carell as Gru, Pierre Coffin as all of the minions, and Alan Arkin, Taraji P. Henson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jill Lawless, Danny Trejo, Dolph Lundgrin as the six villains. I enjoyed Minions, but the five-and-under set that filled the theatre absolutely loved it. 

Ennio

Dir: Giuseppe Tornatore

Ennio Morricone is born in Rome in 1928 to a professional trumpet player. He enters a music conservatory at the age of 12 and studies under Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi. (He spends most of his life yearning to be taken seriously by Petrassi and the rest of the traditional music establishment.) At an early age, he’s already composing and arranging pieces which include both melodic themes and counterpoint, an oft repeated characteristic of his music.  He writes the tunes for a number of pop songs, and eventually gets a job working for RCA. From there he goes on to compose the soundtracks — always anonymously — for the new film genre known as Spaghetti Westerns. But when he recognizes a director’s name from his elementary school, he becomes a close friend and life-long collaborator with Sergio Leone. He quickly rises to fame writing the distinctive musical scores of films like A fistful of Dollars and The Good the Bad and the Ugly, using harmonicas, whistling, electric guitars, and sound effects in place of the more common symphony orchestras. (Today those films remain his most recognizable works.) He also forms an experimental group that makes improvisational music out of non-musical sounds, influenced by avant-garde composer John Cage.

Morricone goes on to compose the scores of over 500 films, working with Italian masters like Pasolini, Wertmüller and Bertolucci, the giallo horror/thriller director Dario Argento, and Giuseppe Tornatore director of Oscar winner Cinema Paradiso (who also directed this doc).

Ennio died in 2020, and this film is as much a loving tribute to the composer as it is a documentary. While it reveals Morricone’s personality quirks, there are no scandals or salacious secrets of his private life. It’s told using film clips, period footage, audio tracks and many talking heads commenting about him, including fellow composers, John Williams and Hans Zimmer, stars and directors he worked with like Quentin Tarantino Terrance Mallick and Clint Eastwood. (Eastwood says something like Morricone’s music provided the emotions that he never could) Then there are also a bunch of celebs — Bruce Springsteen, Pat Metheny, Wong Kar-Wai — who probably never worked with him, but just felt like praising him or commenting on how he influenced them. Ennio is an informative and fascinating doc, and I liked it a lot, but… couldn’t Tornatore  have told this story in 90 minutes, instead of the two and a  half hours he took?

Mr Malcolm’s List

Dir: Emma Holly Jones

It’s England in the early 19th century. Julia and Selina were best friends at boarding school, but haven’t seen each other in years. Which is why Selina the pure and virtuous daughter of a country vicar (Freida Pinto) is surprised to receive an invitation to visit Julia an upper-class city woman (Zawe Ashton), after all these years. But she does have a reason: she was slighted by a man who took her to the opera once and never called back. The man is Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), who is also the most eligible bachelor in town, not least because he inherited a lot of money. And Julia can’t bear being slighted in public (made even worse when it was depicted in a widely circulated cartoon pamphlet). First Julia turns to her cousin Cassy (Oliver Jackson Cohen) who happens to be Malcolm’s best friend and wingman, who knows all of his secrets. Somehow he leaks the biggest secret of all: that Mr Malcolm keeps a list of 10 characteristics a woman must have for him to consider marrying her — things like talent, poise, intelligence, a knowledge of politics, literature and the arts and one who easily forgives small offences. 

Enter Selina. Would she go along with Julia’s scheme — to date Mr Malcolm, knowing what was on that list, and afterwards to dump him — so Julia can get her sweet revenge? Selina is hesitant but agrees at least to meet him. And wouldn’t you know it? It’s love at first sight. This is further complicated by another man, a dashing military officer (Theo James), who likes Celina a lot, and happens to be in town on the same day. Which one will she choose? And if it’s Mr Malcolm, what will become of Julia’s nefarious revenge plot?

Mr Malcolm’s List is a classic, Jane Austen-style light romantic comedy, complete with a masquerade ball, a hidden scheme, whacky relatives,  and star-crossed lovers. There are also some modern twists. The most obvious is the colour-blind casting, with Black, Indian, White and East Asian actors playing the various roles, without ever bringing up questions of race or ethnicity. Like the musical Hamilton, the film The Personal History of David Copperfield, and, most recently, the Netflix series Bridgerton, this film shows that race on the screen doesn’t need to have any special significance — it just is. Family bloodlines and facial resemblances are not part of the plot. I think it works great in this movie, and I hope to see more of it. The mansions are all stately, the costumes — though a bit odd-looking — are all pretty. And the actors and the characters they play are quite delicious.  They’re clearly having a good time doing this. You can revel in their ludicrous scheming without ever taking it too seriously. Even the credits — accompanied by quaint hand-coloured drawings — are delightful. Rom-coms are not my cuppa tea, but if I have to watch one, I like it when they‘re like this.

Ennio is one of many films playing at the ICFF;  Mr Maxwell’s List, as well as  Minions: the Rise of Gru both open 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

Cults and kidnappers. Films reviewed: The Black Phone, One Summer Story

Posted in Animation, Coming of Age, Death, Horror, Japan, Kidnapping, Magic, Manga, Religion, Suspense, Thriller, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on June 25, 2022

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

Spring film festival season continues in Toronto with the Japanese and Jewish film festivals coming to a close, while ICFF — the Italian contemporary film festival — and Lavazza IncluCity are just beginning. The festival features film composer Ennio Morricone, Giuseppe Tornatore (who won an Oscar for Cinema Paradiso), and Allesandro Gassmann, the son of star Vittorio Gassman, and an accomplished actor in his own right. Movies at this festival are being shown both in theatres and outdoors in open air screenings.

This week, I’m looking at two new movies. There’s a thriller-horror about a boy who is kidnapped in 1970s Colorado; and a girl who discovers her biological father was a member of a religious cult in Japan.

The Black Phone

Dir: Scott Derrickson

It’s the late 1970s in Denver, Colorado. Finney (Mason Thames) is a kid in junior high who lives with his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), and their angry and depressed dad, a widower. Finney is into rocket ships and baseball — he’s the pitcher on his team. But he’s bullied at school. Luckily his best friend Robin is always looking out for him.

But all is not well in Denver. Teenagers are disappearing, one by one, with no bodies ever found. But when Robin disappears, he turns to Gwen for help — she has psychic dreams that might tell them where he is. But before they can do anything, Finney finds himself locked in a basement cell, somewhere in the city. theres just a toilet, a mattress, and a barred window way up near the ceiling. And an old black phone mounted on the wall, but with all the wires cut. The guy who kidnapped him — known as the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) — is a freelance magician who always covers his face with hideous masks reflecting changes in his warped psyche.  Before long, Finney is in despair and figures he’s going to be killed soon, just like the other boys before him. Until… the black phone starts to ring! And coming from somewhere is the voice of one of the previous victims, who says he can tell Finney how to escape.

Is this real or just his imagination?  Can the dead really speak? And will Finney ever get out of there?

The Black Phone is a fantastic thriller about a kid vs a deranged serial killer. Though billed as a horror movie,  and there are some very scary scenes here and there, it’s miles ahead above most of the gory schlock passing for horror movies these days.  This one is more about suspense, mystery and adventure than meaningless, gratuitous violence. There is violence, but it fits within the movie. The characters are all well-rounded with complex back stories. There are lots of red herrings to lead you astray, but the whole movie leaves you with a sense of satisfaction, not dread. And it avoids the cheap scares typical of many horror flicks. The film perfectly captures the feel of the 1970s, through the rock soundtrack, costumes and locations. The acting — especially heroes McGraw and Thames, as well as the villains including the creepy killer and the brooding father, and the many school bullies —  is really well done. The Black Phone  is based on a story by Joe Hill, who also wrote the graphic novel the great TV series Locke & Key was based on. He’s an amazing storyteller… who also happens to be Stephen King’s son.  (I mention that because he’s of the same calibre). And writer-director Scott Derickson has done some good stuff himself.

If you don’t want to be scared — stay far away. But if you’re looking for a good chiller-thriller, you’re really gonna like this one.

One Summer Story (Kodomo ha Wakatteagenai)

Dir: Okita Shûichi

It’s present-day Japan. Minami (Kamishiraishi Moka) is a teenaged girl who lives with her Mum, stepfather, and little brother. Backstroke is her thing — she’s on the school swim team. And she’s obsessed with a TV anime series called Koteko, about a Count who is literally a royal sack of cement and his two gloopy sons Concrete and Plaster. One day she’s at a swim practice when she sees something unbelievable on the roof of their school: a boy is painting something on a large easel. could it be true? she runs over to take a look.  A boy is painting a character from her favourite anime series. They hit it iff immediately.

Moji-kun (Chiba Yûdai) comes from a long line of Japanese calligraphers.  But when she visits his home, she sees a paper talisman with the exact writing as one she always carries with her. The words come from an obscure religious cult, a client of Moji’s father. After some investigation, they discover Minami’s birth father is somehow associated with the cult… and perhaps is why she never knew him. So she decides to secretly show up at his door to find out the truth. Will she find out about her missing history? Or is she just opening a can of worms?

One Summer Story is an extremely cute coming-of-age drama about a girl discovering her birth father with unexpected results. Its also about her new friend — and his unusual family — who helps her on her way.

Based on a manga, it also incorporates a non-existent, animated TV show within the story line. Lots of quirky but likeable characters and an unpredictable plot make it a pleasure to watch. And with much of it set at a beachside home or a swimming pool, it gives  off a nice cool energy on a hot summer’s day.

The Black Phone opens this weekend; check your local listings; One Summer Story’s is playing at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival for its Canadian premiere on Sunday, June 26th at 7:00pm, at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

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

Leaving a mark. Films reviewed: Charlotte, Marvellous and the Black Hole, The Bad Guys

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, Action, Animals, Animation, Art, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Crime, France, Heist, Magic, WWII by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2022

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

Spring festival season is on now, with Hot Docs, Toronto’s international documentary film festival, right around the corner. 

But this week, I’m looking at three new movies, one live and two animated, about people trying to leave a mark on society. There’s a gang of criminal animals offered a chance to go straight; an angry 13-year-old girl who looks for solace in magic tricks; and a young artist who decides to chronicle her life in Nazi Germany in the form of hundreds of paintings. 

Charlotte 

Dir: Tahir Rana, Éric Warin

It’s the 1930s in Nazi Berlin. Charlotte Salomon , known as Lotte, is a young woman living with her father and stepmother. On a trip to Rome with her grandparents she meets a a kindly American heiress named Ottlie. She liked Lotte’s drawings and invites her to stay in her expansive villa in Cote D’zur in southern France. But Lotte is accepted at the prestigious art academy, despite the fact she is Jewish, so doesn’t want to leave Berlin. But under the harsh rules,  only symmetry and precision are acceptable in art, while “deviant artistic expression”, like Charlotte’s, was considered degenerate. She is eventually expelled, and when her father is arrested and tortured by the Gestapo she decides it’s time to leave her home. She joins her grandparents at Ottlie’s mansion. And she’s delighted to learn there is a studio set up for her so she can create her paintings.  She also finds love, in the form of Alexander, a refugee from Austria who works as a groundskeeper on the estate. But she has to put up with her deeply disapproving and domineering grandfather, who has become bitter in his old age. But as the Nazi’s encircle southern France, she knows her time is limited. So she starts to document her life in a series of hundreds of gouache paintings on paper. Will Lotte and her lover survive the war? And what about her art?

Charlotte is an exquisitely made animated historical drama, based primarily on the stories told in the actual paintings of Charlotte Salomon, titled Life or Theatre, that included both memories she witnessed and things she thought about. Some describe her art as the first graphic novel, since her paintings (there were over a thousand) often include words and ideas. The movie is quite troubling in parts, as people are forced to do terrible things under the stress of war. But it’s set in such beautiful locations — the Vatican in Rome, her home in Berlin, swimming in lakes, or nestled among the rolling hills of southern France — that its beauty mitigates its tension.  And the paintings themselves appear on the screen in blobs of coloured paint that gradually transform into her own art. Keira Knightly provides Charlotte’s voice, with Brenda Blethyn, Jim Broadbent as her grandparents. I’ve seen it twice now, and still find it moving, tragic, and inspiring, and visually very pleasing. 

Marvellous and the Black Hole

Wri/Dir: Kate Tsang

Sammy (Miya Cech) is a moody and truculent 13 year old girl who lives with her domineering father and computer geek sister. Ever since her mother died she lashes out at anyone who comes near her. She smokes cigarettes, talks back, and uses a needle to secretly tattoo herself. But her busy father gets tired of her anger and attitude, and tells her if she doesn’t pass a class in entrepreneurship at the local community college he’ll send her off to summer camp (which Sammy considers a fate worse than death.) So she takes the course which she hates. One day, while sneaking a smoke in the college washroom, she meets Margot the Marvellous (Rhea Perlman), a professional magician with a hidden past. She press-gangs Sammy into serving as her assistant at a kids’ birthday party. She is secretly impressed by Margot’s ability to make flowers bloom on her sleeves, and somehow can grab a real, live white rabbit out of thin air. So they make a pact: Sammy will help Margot with her show in exchange for teaching her magic tricks and helping her pass the course. But will Sammy ever learn to control her anger and escape from the black hole she’s been stuck in since the death of her mother?

Marvellous and the Black Hole is an excellent coming-of-age story about a troubled girl taken under the wing of a sympathetic magician. Miya Cech is terrific as tough-girl Sammy, and Rhea Perlman (best known for playing Carla, the surly barmaid on Cheers) shows a softer side here. There’s a real beauty to this film — from the integration of classic silent film, to the jerky stop-motion animation used for special effects, to the nicely compact sets used in class, at home, and on a stage — that gives it an extra oomph you don’t find in your usual teen drama.  This is a good, indie YA movie.

The Bad Guys

Dir: Pierre Perifel

It’s a time like the present in a city like Los Angeles where a criminal gang (known as the “Bad Guys”) runs rampant, robbing banks, wreaking havoc and scaring the hell out of locals. The group consists of five members: Wolf, their charismatic leader; Snake, his second in command; Shark, a master of disguises; Piranha, a crazed tough guy; and Tarantula, a computer geek who can break into anything. Together they’re unbeatable. But they’re finally caught when a difficult heist at a gala event goes wrong. The police want to send them to prison, but a local pundit and inventor — a guinea pig named Prof Marmalade — says he can turn them from bad guys into good guys using his powers of persuasion. But can a leopard change its spots?

The Bad Guys is a very cute and enjoyable animated crowd-pleaser, aimed primarily at kids, but interesting enough that grown-ups can enjoy it, too. It’s also a feel-good movie about the value of friendship and the pleasure we can get from doing good things for others. And there are cool subplots involving a meteorite, lab tests, computer-operated zombies, and much more. But mainly, it’s an action-packed comedy thriller, with lots of chase scenes, twists and turns, and a fair amount of suspense. 

One quibble: all the main characters (except the chief of police) are animals — including fish and insects — and have all the best lines. Most of the humans rarely speak. But there are also pets — like cats and guinea pigs — that don’t talk either. Which makes the logic a bit confusing, but enjoyable nonetheless. It stars the voices of Sam Rockwell, Awkwafina, Anthony Ramos, Zazie Beetz, Alex Borstein,  and the inimitable Richard Ayoade as Prof Marmalade.

The Bad Guys is a very cute, fun movie that’ll leave you smiling.

The Bad Guys and Charlotte both open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Marvellous and the Black Hole is opening in select cities; look out for it. 

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.

Christmas Movies! Films reviewed: Sing 2, Licorice Pizza

Posted in 1970s, Animals, Animation, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, L.A., Movies, Musical, Romance by CulturalMining.com on December 24, 2021

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

It’s Christmas today, with time off for most of you, meaning lots more time to spend at the movies, whether in theatres or at home.  So this week I’m looking at two new movies opening this Christmas weekend. There’s a cute cartoon about musical animals trying to put on a show, and a coming-of-age story about two young people in California trying to get to know each other.

Sing 2

Wri/Dir: Garth Jennings

Buster Moon is a producer-director who runs a small-town theatre. His current production, Alice in Wonderland, is a smash hit, selling out each night.  The performers, young and old, are singing and dancing their hearts out.,

And audiences love it. So now they’re ready to make it big… they just have to be “discovered” first. But when a talent scout from the big city is uninterested, they decide to take their show to the big city, and show up for the auditions anyway. They disguise themselves as janitors and sneak onto the stage, and to their great surprise, the big boss, Mr Crystal, who has rejected dozens of acts before them… likes them! He signs them on the spot under certain conditions. One: they must bring a celebrity  — specifically the reclusive rock singer Clay Calloway — into their show. And two, if anything goes wrong that might embarrass Crystal, he will literally throw them off the roof of his high-rise. 

Sing 2 is a sequel and in case you never saw the first one, this is an animated movie, and all the characters are animals. Moon is a koala (with the voice of Matt McConaughey), Crystal (Bobby Cannavale) is a wolf, the faded rock star is a lion (Bono) along with various other pigs, gorillas, and elephants  (Reese Witherspoon, Taron Egerton) as well as a cute porcupine named Ash , voiced by Scarlet Johannson unfortunately dressed in what looks like a fake indigenous headdress. (Why…?)

Although it has a kiddy plot meant for three-year-olds, Sing 2 is a consistently entertaining, highly watchable and fast-moving cartoon movie suitable  for kids and adults alike. There are some great scenes, like Johnny the break-dancing gorilla being forced to learn broadway dancing from a cruel choreographer, and a long audition sequence like a fast-motion American idol This is a musical, where the characters sing a huge selection of popular contemporary songs (mainly from the last decade or so), plus a few new ones written for the movie. But always as performers on a stage or in rehearsal, never spontaneously breaking into song in real life (like in a traditional musical). So if you’re looking for a cute and fun family Christmas pic, a film you can leave the theatre humming in your head, you’ll probably like Sing 2.

Licorice Pizza

Wri/Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson

It’s 1973 in Encino, California in the San Fernando Valley. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a teenager who lives with his single  mom, a business woman and entrepreneur. Gary’s an actor, part of a. song-and-dance kids troupe known as the Tiny Toes.  Today is photo day at the local High School. Gary sees a young woman in the hall who takes his breath away. It’s Alana Kane (Alana Haim) He approaches her point blank and asks if she’ll go out for dinner with him. She flatly rejects him. Turns out she’s not a student, she’s in her twenties, she works for the school photographer, and she wants nothing to do with this aggressive, chubby kid. But he is nothing if not persistent. So they end up having non-alcoholic drinks at a local bar & grill where Gary is a regular. She adamantly tells him they are not and will never date. But she agrees to be his chaperone to a TV appearance in NY city along with his Tiny Toes colleagues. She ends up dating his rival, an older and better-looking singer- dancer-actor, but it doesn’t last. 

They form a sort of a friendship and business partnership, trying out Gary’s various get-rich-quick schemes, some of which work, others that don’t. Gary wants fame and fortune, while Alana wants to support political causes (US Soldiers are still in Vietnam and Nixon is embroiled in the Watergate scandal.) Can the two of them get along, and will they ever take it to a higher level? 

Licorice Pizza is a stupendous, period comedy-drama, a coming-of-age story about a largely unrequited romance. It’s set within the rapidly-changing social and sexual mores of southern California in the turbulent ’70s.  It has cameo appearances by celebs playing other celebs, like Sean Penn as a movie star who seduces Alana and an unrecognizable Bradley Cooper as a wild-eyed Jon Peters (Barbra Streisand’s husband at the time) in an unforgettable scene where he’s a customer at their fledgling waterbed business. Because they’re in the Valley, Alana and Gary are constantly interacting with semi-famous people in their daily lives, but not quite making it big themselves.

Aside from these cameos, the movie is based on real people, or at least previously unknown actors in their first movie roles, and they are unbelievably good. Gary is played by Cooper Hoffman (son of the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Kane is played by Alana Haim  a musician/singer from the eponymous trio Haim. And if you look at the cast list, everyone is related to someone famous, with a Spielberg kid here, a Demme there, and more Hoffmans, Haims and Andersons than you can shake a stick at. And maybe that’s what makes this movies seem so incredibly real, even though it’s clearly just a movie. Everyone’s acting and playing scripted roles in costumes from a different era, but it just seems so honest, so true. And Hoffman and Haim have amazing chemistry.

I don’t usually gush over movies, but Licorice Pizza is so very entertaining, delightful, surprising, funny, sad, and moving, from beginning to end, that I walked out of that theatre thinking, wow, this is a movie everyone should see. It’s got direction, acting, music, locations, costumes, dozens of unforgettable characters,…I’m telling very little about what happens because I saw it blank, knowing nothing about it, and I think you should too. This is one of the best movies of the year.

This Christmas weekend Sing 2 and Licorice Pizza open theatrically across Canada with Licorice Pizza playing at the TIFF Bell Lighbox; 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

Men on the Run. Films reviewed: Flee, Red Rocket, Nightmare Alley

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1990s, Afghanistan, Animation, Circus, Clash of Cultures, comedy, documentary, Drama, melodrama, Movies, Refugees, Sex Trade, Texas, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on December 18, 2021

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

With Award Season quickly approaching — from the Golden Globes to the Golden Turkeys — the studios are releasing a lot of its big ticket movies in hopes of being considered for some of the major prizes up for grabs. This week I’m looking at three potential Oscar nominations, all stories about men trying to flee from their dark pasts for a potentially better future. There’s a man who leaves a burning house to join the circus, a middle-aged porn star who leaves LA to find a job in small-town Texas, and a young man who runs for his life from Afghanistan in hopes of finding a better one in Europe.

Red Rocket

Co-Wri/Dir: Sean Baker

Mikey Sabre (Simon Rex) is down on his luck. He was an LA porn star in his heyday, along with his wife, 

Lexi (Bree Elrod). But the good times are long gone. Now he’s back home in Texas City, Texas, with no money, no possessions, no reputation, the prodigal husband knocking at his ex-wife’s door. Naturally she and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss) want nothing to do with him, but he manages to sweet talk his way into letting him sleep on their couch. And after an exhausting search for employment — no one will hire a former sex worker — he falls back on his teenage job as a pot dealer. And soon enough, with the help of his blue happy pills, he’s sleeping wth Lexi again each night.  But everything changes when he meets a beautiful naive young woman with red hair, who works at the local donut shop. Her name is Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who loves pink hearts and everything sweet. Mikey becomes infatuated by her, both as a focus of his lust and his imagined ticket to wealth. He tells her he’ll take her away from this dead-end town and introduce her to the top names in Hollywood porn, after, of course, she turns 18. Wait… what?

Red Rocket is an outrageous  comedy about the misadventures of a former male porn star, including an extended across town by a panicking naked Mikey brandishing his Sabre. This is Sean Baker’s third such film — Tangerine about two black transwomen in LA, and The Florida Project, told through the eyes of kids in Orlando — shot, guerilla-style, on location on a budget using mainly first-time actors (who, I have to say, are all great!) And he helps normalize marginal sex workers by defying the usual stereotypes. At the same time, a movie about a predatory 40-year-old guy seducing a Lolita-like teenaged girl is not the same as rambunctious kids in Florida or wisecracking transwomen in LA. Don’t worry, everyone gets their comeuppance in the end, but Red Rocket will make you squirm and cringe uncomfortably along the way.

Flee

Co-Wri/Dir: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Amin is born in Kabul where he grows up under communist rule, watching Bruce Lee movies and dancing to pop music on his walkman. Now he lives in Copenhagen with Kasper, his lover — they’re thinking of buying a house in the countryside. After that is, he finishes his post-doctoral work at Princeton. But how did he get from Afghanistan to Denmark? When the US-backed Mujahideen invaded Kabul his family is forced to flee. Russia is the only place offering a tourist visa — but Moscow is a mess; the the Soviet Union has just collapsed and is now run by oligarchs and corrupt police. Now they’re stuck in limbo, supported by his older brother a janitor in Sweden. Can the family stay together? Can they ever make it to somewhere safe? Or will unscrupulous human traffickers lead them to disaster?

Flee is a deeply moving drama about one man’s journey as a refugee from danger to sanctuary, and all the moral compromises he is forced to make along the way. It’s sort of a documentary, in that it’s a true story told by the man it happened to, even though it’s voiced by actors using animated characters. And by animation, I don’t mean cute animals with big eyes, I mean lovely, hand-made drawings that portray what actually happened. Far from being the heavy, ponderous lesson I was dreading, Flee has a wonderfully surprising story, elegantly told.

Nightmare Alley

Co-Wri/Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s the dustbowl during the Great Depression. Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a bright and fit young man with great ambitions and a shady past. Leaving a dead man in a burnt house behind him, he sets out to find his fortune He comes upon a circus, and makes his way through the tents to Nightmare Alley, the area where the carnies do their work out of sight. He gets hired as a roustabout, hammering nails, pitching tents, but soon rises quickly within the circus ranks. Zeena  the Seer (Toni Collette) seduces him, and in return she provides access to her partner Ezra (Richard Jenkins) an aging alcoholic. Ezra holds a little black book outlining exactly how to con strangers out of their money by convincing them you can read their minds and talk to the dead. But he warns Stan, don’t fall into the trap of believing you it’s real — that can kill you. Meanwhile, Stan only has eyes for the beautiful and innocent Molly  Cahill (Rooney Mara), the electric woman. She’s fiercely defended by the other carnies, but they let her go when she says they’re in love. 

They move to the big city where they find great success in their psychic act. Stan loves their new rich lifestyle, while Molly pines for her previously life at the circus. But trouble brews in the form of a femme fatale, a beautiful blonde woman with an ivory-handled gun who attends one of their acts. Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) is a successful psychoanalyst who listens to — and records — the confessions of the richest and most powerful men in the city… and she is intrigued by Stan’s psychic abilities. (She completely ignores Molly). Perhaps they can combine their resources for even greater success? 

Nightmare Alley is a dark movie about an ambitious but ruthless man in his quest for success. Bradley Cooper is credible in the lead, but even better are all the supporting actors, from Willem Dafoe to Cate Blanchett. It has a novelistic storyline with a plethora of characters, almost like a classic Hollywood film, which makes sense.  Based on a novel, it’s a remake of the 1949 film noir of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. And it fits perfectly in del Toro’s body of work, with his love of freaks, legerdemain, underdogs, young women with pageboy haircuts, and of course many actors who appeared in his previous films. Guillermo del Toro (who shoots his movies in studios and locations around Toronto) has a troupe of actors he uses over and over, like Ron Perlman, dating back to his earliest movies. NIghtmare Alley is quite long — two and a half hours — but kept my attention all the way to a perfectly twisted finish. It’s a good, classic drama.

I quite like this one.

Red Rocket, Flee and Nightmare Alley all theatrically in Toronto 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

Weird. Films reviewed: Rare Beasts, The Night House, Cryptozoo

Posted in 1960s, Animals, Animation, comedy, Feminism, Ghosts, Horror, Mysticism, Pop Art, UK by CulturalMining.com on August 21, 2021

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

Are you getting tired of the same old thing? Have you watched all the conventional stuff you can handle for one summer? Well, fear not, faithful listeners, there are really unconventional and unexpected movies out there, you just have to know where to look. This week I’m talking about three weird films, a ghost story, a love story and an uncategorizable animated picture. There’s a schoolteacher who thinks her house is haunted, a single mom in London dating a rare beast, and a zoo filled with mythical creatures.

Rare Beasts

Wri/Dir: Billie Piper

Mandy (Billie Piper) is a millennial writer who works at a TV production company in London. She’s clever and pretty with ginger hair and a toothy grin. Mandy is partial to bright colours and leopard-skin patterns. She still lives with her Mom and Dad (Kerry Fox, David Thewlis) and her 7-year old-son, Larch (Toby Woolf).  Larch is a lovable handful — he suffers from tics and is prone to screaming at the top of his lungs and rolling around on the floor when he doesn’t get his way. And despite her beauty and sharp, sarcastic wit, Mandy has yet to find a suitable mate. She’s currently dating a workmate named Pete. He’s a conservative dresser with wispy blond hair and a caterpillar moustache. He says he hates kids. Mandy’s own parents are a piece of work, with Dad constantly dashing off to Thailand for a bit of fun, while Mom is dying of cancer. But Pete’s family is even stranger — deeply religious, frequently praying, and getting into shouting matches over nothing. Then there’s work. Her douchey boss is lecherous, sexist and not so bright. Despite all this, Mandy and Pete are giving it a go. He hits it off with Larch, and Mandy makes friends with some of his family members. Do opposites attract? Or is she better off single?

Rare Beasts is a clever comedy about life as a single woman in the big city. It stars Billie Piper who is also the writer-director. She’s great. It’s a well-written script — almost too well-written. Every character is quirky, every line is witty, but for a comedy it isn’t all that funny. It inspires nodding chuckles but few genuine laughs. The movie is highly stylized, where a serious scene can shift into a fantastical, dance-like performances for no apparent reason. That said, the central characters are appealing and it’s an amusing story.

So if you want to see an unromantic Rom-Com that is never dumbed down, and told from a woman’s perspective, you’ll probably like Rare Beasts.

The Night House

Dir: David Bruckner

Beth (Rebecca Hall) is a high school English teacher in upstate New York. She has lived with her loving husband Owen, an architect, in a beautiful lakeside house he designed. It’s full of grass and wood, with built-in bookshelves and workshops, and splendid views of the water. Then tragedy strikes. Seemingly for no reason, Owen commits suicide one night aboard a row boat on the lake.  Beth is devastated. Her best friend and fellow-teacher Claire (Sarah Goldberg) offers a shoulder to cry on and her elderly neighbour Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) gives some much-needed advice. All alone in her house, she starts having terrifying nightmares, combines with sleepwalking, waking up in strange places each morning. The dreams seem to be completely real. And she feels there is someone watching her… has own come back?

And as she sorts through his possessions, she comes across some things that just don’t make sense. On his computer and phone she finds photos of women who look almost exactly like her… but aren’t her. And in his architectural drawings, there are plans to build a house on the other side of the pond, that is a mirror image of the one they live in. Was Owen insane… or did he know something? Will he come back to help her? Or is something sinister coming by each night?

The Night House is a very scary ghost story about a haunted house. It takes an entirely new approach to the idea of ghosts possession and parallel universes, and is full of strange Celtic images and paranormal dreams. The special effects are amazingly rendered. British actress Rebecca Hall is superb as Beth, which is crucial because the entire movie is seen from her point of view. You should watch this film in a theatre beside someone you know, but never all alone, at home, late at night!

Cryptozoo

Wri/Dir:  Dash Shaw

It’s the late 1960s. Crystal and Matt are a pair of flower children wandering through the woods. After making love beneath the stars, they climb a fence to see what’s on the other side. And what they find is unbelievable… a unicorn! Sadly it gores Matt to death with its single horn. Crystal has wandered into a crypto zoo, still under construction, a place where mythical creatures (known as “cryptids”) can gather in peace. There are ancient Greek animals like the Minotaur,  magical humanoids, and terrifying monsters like the Kraken. The park was started by Joan, a grey haired woman who has a carnal lust for cryptids. Her lover is a semi-human. Her first commander is Lauren, an army brat who grew up in Okinawa. She’s an expert at capturing cryptids and transporting them to safety. She’s assisted by Phoebe, a gorgon with snakes for hair and eyes that can turn anyone to stone. But Phoebe wants to pass as human and have a normal life, so she keeps her powers under wraps using contact lenses and a wig.  Joan is building a theme park to normalize Cryptids among the public, and also to generate income to keep the place running. But they face terrible opponents — private bounty-hunters like the demi-god Gustav, a pervy player of pan pipes; and the US military who want to disect these creatures to make powerful weapons. Can these three brave women keep the cryptids safe? Or is it doomed from the start, a Jurassic Park for fictional beasts?

Cryptozoo is a brilliant animated arthouse feature brimming with gratuitous sex and violence. I loved Dash Shaw’s first movie, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, and this one goes even further.

It has tarot card mysticism and Japanese mythology alternating with cheap-ass amusement parks and secretive orgies.  Images are hand-drawn or painted in a variety of genres, and animated in an endearing, old-school jerky style. It’s a perfect blend of ancient fantasy and adolescent humour.  There’s a wonderful soundtrack by John Caroll Kirby, and the voices feature actors like Lake Bell and Michael Cera.

If you like base humour mixed with exquisite home-made art and indie music, don’t miss Cryptozoo!

Look for Cryptozoo on VOD and digital formats., including the digital TIFF bell Lightbox;  Rare Beasts and The Night House open theatrically in Toronto 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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