Family matters. Films reviewed: I Love My Dad, Easter Sunday, The Innocents

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Family, Horror, Kids, L.A., Norway, Supernatural by CulturalMining.com on August 6, 2022

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

There’s lots to see in Toronto this week, but here’s a few films you might not know about. The 15th edition of The8Fest small-gauge film festival, showing super 8s, loops, zoetropes and their kin, is on till August 11th. It’s National Indigenous Peoples’ month and the NFB has posted over 200 indigenous-made films on their website.  There’s  a new collection of short docs on CBC Gem, called Mi’kma’ki, showing the indigenous experience in Newfoundland and Labrador, beginning August 19th. And the Japan Foundation Toronto is screening the film Ainu: Indigenous People of Japan for free online, on August 9-11th.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about families.  There’s a divorced dad who drives his estranged son to meet a non-existent girlfriend; another divorced dad who drives his estranged son to attend a wacky family reunion; and four little kids who discover they have secret powers.

I Love My Dad

Wri/Dir: James Morosini

Chuck (Patton Oswalt) is a bad dad. Franklin (James Morosini), his son grew up with constant disappointments and false promises.  Later, Chuck  missed his high school graduation and crucial birthdays. Worst of all, when Franklin contemplated suicide and needed someone to talk to, Chuck was just too busy. Now divorced, Chuck lives in another state, his only contact through social networks. Franklin, now an adult in his twenties, having just finished his psychological recovery from self harm and depression, as a final gesture, he blocks his father from his site. Chuck is shocked — his own son severs all ties. What can Chuck do to solve this problem? Send an apology? Explain his pathological lies?

No!

Ever the grifter, he takes the easy way out by joining Franklin’s Facebook page, not as himself, but as Becca (Claudia Sulewski) a friendly young waitress at his local diner. He uses her photos he steals online, and changes her last name. Franklin, who is lonely and depressed, enters a long-distant relationship with Becca, confessing his problems and professing his love via texts. And as things heat up and he decides to meet her in person, Chuck volunteers to drive his son there (Frank can’t drive), in hope of some father/son bonding.  But how long will this catfish scheme last? What will happen if Franklin finds out the truth? And can Chuck ever change?

I Love My Dad is a dark, indie comedy about fathers and sons, depression and deception as told by way of texting. It’s written and directed by Morosini who also plays the son. And in an interesting sleight of hand, he alternates the focus between him and his dad, because reading texts on a movie screen is boring. Instead, Chucks texts turn into face-to-face conversations — and eventually sex — between Franklin and the imaginary Becca. You see them together on the screen, while Chuck is lurking somewhere else thumbing away on his cel, which reaches its extreme in a motel room. This is a deeply uncomfortable comedy that makes you squirm as you watch this untenable situation heading for disaster, but you still want to know what’s going to happen next.  I Love my Dad is a pretty good movie, both funny and clever, but hard to watch.

Easter Sunday

Dir: Jay Chandrasekhar

It’s springtime in LA. Joe Valencia (Jo Koy) is a successful stand-up comic waiting for his big break. So far he’s most famous for a beer commercial he did. He’s divorced but still cares about his son, Junior (Brandon Wardell), a high school student and camera buff. But Joe never seems to have enough time to spend with him. Like missing an important school meeting to attend an audition for a leading role in a sitcom pilot. The reading goes great, except they want him to put on a funny Filipino accent… which he refuses to do. He needs to clear this up with his agent But it’s also Easter weekend, time to get together with his extended family. So to mend relations with his alienated son, he offers to drive Junior up north to Daly City, outside San Francisco. There they encounter all their wacky relatives, the people Joe grew up with. There are eccentric uncles, ne’erdowel cousins, and feuding aunties. They go to a picnic in the park, and services at church, all culminating at his Mom’s (Lydia Gaston) Sunday dinner. But before that can happen, he has to help his cousin Eugene return a wad of cash he borrowed from a petty gangster… or heads will roll. Can Joe handle his family, clear things up with his agent and pay back the thug? Or has everything gone to hell?

Easter Sunday is a warm and fuzzy family comedy similar to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but with Filipino-appropriate jokes… the first such American movie I’ve ever seen. There are cameo appearances by Lou Diamond Phillips, Tiffany Haddish, and Jimmy O Yang, and there’s also a car chase, a fistfight, a teenaged romance and a song or two to perk things up. But it doesn’t really work. The problem is Joe isn’t very funny, and as the main character, he pulls down the whole movie. The side characters are great — especially Tia Carrera and Lydia Gaston; they are hilarious as the feuding sisters, both, ironically, with the same put-on accents Joe is complaining about. But you know what? I saw it in a theatre with a largely Filipino audience and they seemed to laugh way more than I did, so maybe I just didn’t get a lot of the jokes.

The Innocents

Wri/Dir: Eskil Vogt

Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) are sisters. Their family recently moved to a new home, an apartment building in a woodsy part of Norway. Ida is around 5, with blond pigtails and a mean streak. She steps on worms to see what will happens and pinches her big sister Anna, who never seems to react; Anna has ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and can’t speak. She meets an older boy Ben (Sam Ashraf) at the playground who amazes Ida with what he can do, He can make small objects fly away just by using his mind! But he has a dark side, too.

Anna meets a friend of her own. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Ashei) is a kind and gentle girl, with vitiligo, white patches on her skin. She also has special powers. She can read minds and have silent conversations, even with Anna. To test this out, Ida whispers a word into Anna’s ear, and Aisha repeats it from the bottom of a hill. It’s not just the new friends who are special — Ida and Anna are too. And the more they use their powers the stronger they get. Soon Anna can actually speak with Aisha’s help. But as Aisha get’s nicer, Ben gets meaner, starting with experiments on stray cats, and leading to ever-more-terrible deeds. As the kids choose sides, a big battle looms. 

The Innocents is a stunning dramatic horror  about the supernatural and the cruelty of some children, existing alongside the adult world. The acting is terrific and special effects are kept to a minimum. I saw this movie with zero advanced knowledge and it turned out to be quite powerful. Afterwards I discovered the director, Eskil Vogt, has long worked with one of my favourite Norwegian filmmakers Joachim Trier, co-writing all his screenplays, including Thelma, Oslo, August 31st, and others. The Innocents is no run-of-the-mill horror hack-job; it’s an excellent — and quite disturbing — movie.

You can catch I Love My Dad in Toronto at the Tiff Bell Lightbox; The Innocents is streaming on Shudder; and Easter Sunday is opening across North America; 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.

Around the World. Films reviewed: Memoria, Downton Abbey: A New Era, Confessions of Felix Krull

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

Toronto’s spring film festival season is on its way, with ReelAbilities Film Fest starting on Monday through June 10, bringing films by and about people with disabilities and deaf people. There’s a comedy night, workshops, panels and lots of films. This is a hybrid festival, with both digital and in-person events. And Inside-Out is just around the corner , starting on May 26th, featuring world premiers of films with 2SLGBTQ+ themes, actors and filmmakers. And tickets are going fast.

But this week I’m taking you around the world with new movies from the UK, Germany and Thailand There’s an aristocratic family on the Riviera looking at a villa, an ambitious young man in Paris seeking his fortune, and a woman in Colombia looking for an explanation to a strange noise she thinks she heard.

Memoria

Wri/Dir: Apichatpong Weerasathakul 

Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton) is a middle-aged Scottish professional living in Bogota, Colombia. She’s helping out her married sister, Karen, who is in hospital after being struck by a mysterious ailment. But one night, she is awakened by a loud BOOM!, a noise that no one notices except her. So she decides to investigate. She is referred to a young man named Hernán Bedoya (Juan Pablo Urrego) who is a sound engineer in a recording studio. Hernan says he can locate and synthesize the exact sound she remembers based on her description alone. Sparks fly, and it seems like their professional relationship may turn personal. Jessica knows what the sound she heard was but not what it means, and she needs to learn more. So she leaves Hernan and travels inland toward Medellin. On the way she meets an older man (Elkin Díaz) who lives in an isolated cabin and does nothing all day except scaling fish. He’s not just off the grid, he avoids it like the plague, won’t go near a radio, TV or cellphone — the noise is too much for him. You see, he’s blessed or cursed with a unique ability: he hears every story from the beginning of time just by touching a stone where it took place. And what’s his name? Hernán Bedoya!

Memoria is a hauntingly beautiful art-house film about storytelling,  mysticism and perception. Like all of Apichatpong’s movies (I interviewed him here in 2015) it’s not mainstream, so don’t go expecting a Hollywood fantasy. Scenes are long and pensive, often with no dialogue or camera movement for long stretches, and it’s full of mundane hospital rooms, and institutional hallways. But despite the mundane images and slow pace, it is still fascinating, with exquisite cinematography, amazing soundscapes, and terrific acting — Tilda Swinton, of course but many others you’ve never seen before. With lots of strange unexplained scenes you can just enjoy, even if you don’t understand them all. Apichatpong is a Thai master-director, and this is his first film outside his country with much of the dialogue in Spanish, but it doesn’t matter, it fits so clearly within his work.

What a lovely film Memoria is.

Downton Abbey: A New Era

Dir:  Simon Curtis

It’s 1930 in Yorkshire England, and the aristocratic Crawley family, along with their many relatives, inlays and servants, are celebrating the marriage of a daughter to their former chauffeur., bridging the gap between upstairs and downstairs for the first time. Aside from the wedding, two other big changes occur at Downton Abbey, their manor: the family matriarch Violet (Maggie Smith) discovers she has inherited a villa in the south of France, possibly from the estate of a long-lost lover; and a producer wants to use their home as a location for a film he’s shooting — and even really rich people need money to keep the house in a good state. So half the family travels to the French Riviera to investigate their possible new property, while the other half stays home while a movie is being shot in their hallowed hallways. 

But there are complications. It’s revealed that Violet may have had an affair there and her son, now the patriarch of Downton Abbey, may have been illegitimate! Meanwhile, the film they’re shooting has to turn into a talkie, halfway through. This is fine for the dashing male lead who speaks “Received Pronunciation”, but not for the beautiful female star with her shrill, working class accent. (Exactly like in Singin’ in the Rain). And many of the family and the staff are involved in clandestine love affairs on their own. What new changes are afoot at Downton Abbey?

Downton Abbey: A New Era is an anodyne soap opera that feels like two TV episodes linked loosely together and projected onto the silver screen. While the previous movie version of Downton Abbey (which I liked) was cinematic — with a royal visit, assassins, intrigue and and a passionate love affair — this one seems to exist only for  diehard fans can catch up on all their favourite characters. It’s very predictable with few surprises. At the same time, the acting is great (including Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Tuppence Middleton, and too  many others to mention) the dialogue is smooth, the stately home setting is fun, and the characters enjoyable. If you’re a fan of the TV series (personally,  I hated it) I’m sure you’ll find lots to enjoy in this latest instalment. Otherwise, it’s just a comfortable, if uneventful, 90 minutes.

Confessions of Felix Krull

Co-Wri/Dir: Detlev Buck

Based on the novel by Thomas Mann 

It’s 1900 at a grande hotel in Paris. Felix Krull (Jannis Niewöhner) is a handsome, charming, and eloquent young man with great ambitions. But he is not a guest in the hotel, he’s the elevator Boy. Though raised in a middle class family in Rhineland, he was left penniless and fatherless when the family wine business went bankrupt. So — after avoiding the draft, with the help of a beautiful woman named Zaza (Liv Lisa Fries), his only true love — he makes his way to Paris to seek his fortune. But though beautiful on the outside, the hotel is a den of corruption and inequity, though and through. Worst of all is Stanko, the Maitre d’with his hand in everyone’s pocket. He’s a combination pimp, extortionist, blackmailer and thug, who arranges trysts for all the young employees, male and female, to meet the rich and powerful guests carnally, keeping a large percentage for himself. And though Felix (now known as Armand the elevator boy) resists at first, he soon recognizes this side work as the only way to rise up in status.

He has secret affairs with a number of people simultaniously, including Madame Houpflé, a lonely woman married to an Alsatian toilet mogul, who pays him with her seemingly endless supply of pearl necklaces. He also meets a French Marquis, a Scottish Lord, an eccentric professor, and various other members of the upper crust.  But though he becomes increasingly rich and well-dressed, can material wealth ever help him rise within the rigid class system? Or is he trapped in his class? Can he hold into his morals? And when Zaza reappears in Paris beside the same Marquis… things get complicated.

Confessions of Felix Krull is a wonderful adaptation of Thomas Mann’s unfinished coming-of-age-novel. When I was a teenager, I carried a hardcover copy of that book as I travelled across Europe, so I’m thrilled to see it on the big screen as a big budget movie. Most of the story is told by Felix to the Marquis, as part confession, and part con job — or so it seems. But Felix is not an immoral criminal;  he is the most just and upright character in the story. All the actors, but especially, David Kross (Krabat, The Reader) as the Marquis, Liv Lisa Fries (Babylon Berlin) as Zaza, and newcomer Jannis Niewöhner, are just so much fun to watch. It’s an historical period piece about a long-gone world, but still feels so fresh, never turgid. I recommend this one.

And it’s playing as part of the Goethe Films series called The Art of the Con.

Memento just opened in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; Confessions of Felix Krull is playing one night only, on May 19th, also at TIFF; and Downton Abbey a New Era, opens next week 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

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

Home sweet home. Films reviewed: Spider-man: No Way Home, Family Squares

Posted in comedy, Comics, Coming of Age, Covid-19, Drama, Family, High School, New York City, Super-heroes by CulturalMining.com on April 2, 2022

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

You may have heard my interview on the Oscars last week, so no reason to rehash all that. And I can’t think of anything new to say about “the slap”. They ended up handing out oscars like party favours, one or two each to most of the nominees, though often to the wrong ones. But I do find it strange that some vague new category for a quasi-oscars, known as a fan favourite, chose a second-rate Zach Snyder zombie flic over Spider-Man last year’s top grossing film. I don’t think it deserved an Oscar, but  Zach Snyder?

In any case, this week I’m looking at two movies about going home that you can view at home. There’s a large dysfunctional family that get together on a Zoom call; and a superhero trapped in a parallel universe with two other versions of himself.

Spider-man: No Way Home 

Dir: Jon Watts

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is a 17 year old at a prestigious public high school in midtown Manhattan. He’s also the superhero Spider-man, a secret shared only with his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his aunt May (Marisa Tomei) who raised the orphaned boy. Peter, MJ and Ned have top marks and hope to attend MIT after they graduate. But all their plans are scotched when a local tabloid, The Daily Bugle, exposes Peter Parker as Spiderman and doxes his home address. Soon he’s swamped by government agents, paparazzi, and news helicopters. Worse still, the three friends are rejected by universities who are afraid of potential controversy.

So Peter turns to Doctor Strange, a wizard, for help. Can’t he come up with a spell to make the world forget he’s Spider-man? But the spell goes awry, opening a portal to alternate realities, letting loose a bevy of long-dead supervillains, including Doc Ock and The Green Goblin, that this Peter Parker has never heard of. Luckily, it also unleashed parallel Peter Parkers (Andrew Garfield, Tobey Maguire) from earlier movies. Can the three Peter Parkers save the world by curing the super villains of their villainy before sending them back to their alternate universes? Or will the bad guys triumph in the end?

Spider-man: No Way Home is a fun, escapist superhero movie that manages to avoid most of the Marvel Universe while still satisfying comic book fans with new versions of traditional favourites. It also takes a nod from the underrated animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, by showing that there could be an infinite number of Peter Parkers, of any gender, race, age or ethnicity. This movie though sticks within it’s own mini-universe of Sony Pictures Spiderman movies, and the same actors who played them. Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, and Jamie Foxx  are back as bewildered bad guys, and JK Simmons as the Daily Bugle’s editor J Jonah Jameson, but no Kirsten Dunst or James Franco here. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Doctor Strange… or was he a just a CGI replica? To be honest I don’t think it would have made a difference one way or the other. He clearly doesn’t want to be in this movie. It was enjoyable seeing all the Peter Parkers together in one place, the special effects were good, and it had enough comedy and pathos to work as a real movie. And that’s good enough for me.

Family Squares

Co-Wri/Dir: Stephanie Laing

Mable (June Squibb), the matriarch of four generations, is dying. So she rallies her boomer son and daughter Bobby and Diane, Diane’s adult children Brett, Chad, Rob, Dorsey and Katie, and some of their kids to gather by her bedside to hear her last words. Unfortunately there’s a pandemic ravishing the country, so she tries the next best thing instead: a zoom call. But this family is dysfunctional, with long-standing grudges, and secrets lurking just below the surface. Brett (Timothy Simons) is a failed entrepreneur trying to raise his teen daughter since his wife died, Chad (Scott MacArthur) is an unsuccessful writer with just a scraggly covid beard and a self-published novel to his name. Rob (Billy Magnussen) is a self-styled hacker who think’s he’s Edward Snowden,  and has fled to Russia. Katie (Casey Wilson) is a conceited self-centred mother of two whose husband has locked himself in the garage. And Dorsey  (Judy Greer) is a total wreck, living in a camper with her son Max. 

So to try to get them all back together, in a pre-recorded message, Mable urged the family to open up, and dangled some intriguing secrets, like: Mable is filthy rich, someone was never told they were adopted, and someone else embezzled money. Hmm… Diane and Bobby (Margo Martindale Henry Winkler) are brother and sister yet she has a Texas drawl while he sounds like a native New Yorker. And observing everything is Judith (Ann Dowd), great grandma Mable’s lover! Will the family learn to tell the truth and stop all their fighting?

Family Squares is a quintessential pandemic comedy-drama that actually works. It’s filmed ensemble-style on a nine-panel split screen, just like a group zoom call or the old game show Hollywood Squares. It seems to have been shot early on before issues like masks and vaccinations became politicized. While there are too many characters to delve deeply into any one of them, they were all interesting and unique enough to carve out their own space. Especially good are Judy Greer as the insecure Dorsey and Martindale as Diane. While it doesn’t tie up every loose end, Family Squares does accomplish the unthinkable: putting out a low-budget movie during a total lockdown that’s actually funny, intriguing and well-acted.

Family Squares and Sider-man No Way Home are both available now digitally / VOD.

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 Agam Darshi about her new film Donkeyhead

Posted in Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Death, Denial, Drama, Family, LGBT, Punjab, Religion, Saskatchewan, Sikh by CulturalMining.com on March 12, 2022

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

Mona is a youngish woman in Regina, Saskatchewan who is living the life of Reilly. She lives rent free in a big old house, received a whopping advance on her first novel, she’s dating a successful lawyer, and  she sees her dad regularly. So why is she such a mess? Because she still lives in her crumbling, childhood home, her lover is married with kids, she has perpetual writer’s block and never wrote the book,  she spends all her time taking care of her bed-ridden, cancerous father downstairs, and they seem to hate each other’s guts. But when his health takes a turn for the worse she realizes she has to call her siblings to come see him before he dies. But a happy reunion it ain’t.

Donkeyhead is the name of a great new tragicomic movie about a dysfunctional Sikh-Canadian family reunited around their dying father’s bed. It’s funny, it’s moving and always surprising. It’s written, directed and produced by Agam Darshi who also performs in the lead role of Mona. Agam is a successful actress and also the co-founder of the Vancouver South Asian Film Festival, but as a director Donkeyhead is her first feature. It deals with family issues, childhood grudges, assimilation vs tradition, and impending death, all set within Regina’s Punjabi Sikh community.

Donkeyhead opened theatrically this weekend in Regina, Saskatoon and Toronto.

I spoke with Agam Darshi from Toronto via ZOOM.

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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

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

Organized religion. Films reviewed: Hand of God, Agnes, Benedetta

Posted in 1600s, 1980s, Breasts, Catholicism, Coming of Age, Horror, Italy, Lesbian, LGBT, Nun, Religion, Sex, Supernatural, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 4, 2021

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

It’s December and we’re entering holiday season, so I thought it’s time to talk about movies involving religion. So this week I’m looking at three new movies with (small c) catholic themes. There’s an adolescent boy in 1980s Naples who witnesses the “Hand of God”, a lesbian nun in renaissance Tuscany who is in love with God, and another nun in the US who may be possessed by the Devil.

Benedetta

Co-Wri/Dir: Paul Verhoeven

It’s the 1600s in Tuscany Italy. Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is a beautiful young  nun with blond hair and a quick wit. She was placed in small town convent as a young girl, paid for by a rich dowry her parents gave the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling). Now Benedetta is married to God, both metaphorically, and literally, in her mind. She goes through vivid spells, where she has sex with a violent Jesus after he slays all her attackers with a sword. She also has a streak of cruelty since she was told that suffering, by oneself and others,  brings one closer to God. The cynical Abbess thinks Benedetta’s trances are just an elaborate hoax. But everything changes when Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) a gorgeous young novice, appears at their doorstep. 

She is illiterate, and the victim of horrific abuses from her father and brothers. Benedetta takes her under her wing, nurtures her and schools her in divinity, reading and math. In exchange, Bartolomea sleeps with her, awakening hidden desires. Could this be love? Benadetta says she’s having chaste, spiritual sex with Jesus himself, not carnal passion with the young novice. And her spontaneous stigmata — bleeding that appears in her hands and feet like Jesus on the cross — attracts pilgrims and followers from far and wide seeking advice and cures. But when she’s caught using a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary as a sex toy, things take a turn for the worse. A cruel Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) arrives from plague-ridden Florence for an inquisition. Will he manage to wring a confession from the two women? Or will Benedetta’s spiritual powers protect her from being burned at the stake?

Benedetta (based on  actual historical records)  is a bittersweet and passionate look at the life and love of a lesbian nun in Northern Italy. It’s sexually explicit with lots of matter-of-fact nudity throughout the film as well as some horrific violence  (remember, this is a movie by the great Paul Verhoeven who knows well how to keep bums in seats). This is a visually stunning film, with sumptuous views of sunlit cathedrals, long-flowing costumes, diaphanous bed curtains and beautiful faces and bodies. Never has a convent looked so erotic. But it’s also a fascinating look at faith in the face of cynical religious practices. Benedetta is a beautiful and shocking film.

Agnes

Wri/Dir: Mickey Reece

Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) is a young nun in a convent whose birthday celebration turns into a disaster. Now he’s tied to her bed, foaming at the mouth and speaking in strange otherworldly voices. What is going on?Enter Father Donoghue (Ben Hall). He’s a grizzled priest with a shady past, but also many successful exorcisms under his belt.  And he takes a newby with him, the devout Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) a divinity student who has yet to take his vows. Father Donoghue doesn’t believe that they’re actually possessed, just that they think they are. And only the elaborate song and dance of an exorcism will allow them to give it up. At the convent, Mother Superior (Mary Buss) a stickler for rules, is much less enthusiastic. She’s not comfortable with men under her roof, especially a young one without a priest’s collar. But she allows it to proceed. And the routine exorcism takes an unexpected turn.

The story picks up with Sister Agnes’s friend Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn). She left the convent after the incident. Now she works at two jobs — a convenience store and a laundromat, —and is trying to live a normal life. But she doesn’t know what to do or how to act. Can she keep the faith? Matters aren’t helped when she meets a cynical stand up comic at a local dive bar (Sean Gunn). Can he teach her what she needs to know?

Agnes is a look at faith, and self-doubt within the church. It starts as a genre pic, a conventional, low-budget horror, but it ends up as a deeper and darker melodrama propelled by scary undertones. It’s called Agnes, but it’s actually in two acts, the second part mainly about Sister Mary. It’s unpredictable and uncomfortable, and sometimes a bit bloody. This may be the first Mickey Reece film I’ve ever watched but I can see why this indie filmmaker has such an avid following. The film has an interesting mix of experimental film and conventional, even kitschy, horror, comparable to avant-garde filmmakers like Ben Wheatley and Peter Strickland. Not for everyone, but I enjoyed it — and I think want to see more Mickey Reece.

Hand of God 

Dir: Paolo Sorrentino

It’s 1984. Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) is a young man at Don Bosco high school in Naples, Italy. He is precocious and well-read, — constantly quoting classic verse — but has neither friends nor sexual experience. He gets most of his advice from his big brother (who shares a room with him) and his parents. Dad (Toni Servillo) is a self-declared communist while his mom (Teresa Saponangelo) is a inveterate practical joker. Then there are all the odd-ball neighbours in their apartment building (including a former countess) and his even stranger family members. But foremost in Fabio’s eyes is his aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). She suffers from delusions which cause her to innocently expose her flawless naked body at unusual times — which provide fodder for the sexually-starved Fabio’s fantasies. 

It’s also the year when rumour has it that international soccer star Maradona may start playing for the local team — an obsession of most of his family. Third on Fabietto’s list — after sex and football — are the movies. Fellini is casting extras in Napoli — he goes to the audition —  while another up-and-coming director is shooting his latest film downtown. That director is also dating the very actress Fabio is dying to meet. Will he ever fulfill any of his wishes? And how will this pivotal year affect the rest of his life?

Hand of God (the title refers to a legendary goal scored by Maradona) is a coming-of-age story based on the filmmaker’s own recollections. It seems like the straight version of the popular Call Me By Your Name, another Italian feature. Set in the 80s, it’s also about a precocious adolescent’s first sexual experiences, situated within a quirky but loving family. There’s lots of 80s music, fashion and hairstyles to look at. Filippo Scotti also happens to looks a hell of a lot like Timothée Chalamet. That said, it is its own film, and fits very firmly within Sorentino’s work, including his fascination with celebrities as characters,

perennial actors like the great Toni Servillo  hapless men, as well as the requisite “naked woman with perfect breasts” who manages to turn up, in one form or another, in all his movies. Although Hand of God isn’t that original, and a bit contrived, it does have some very funny and a few honestly shocking scenes that should not be missed. I liked this one.

Hand of God and Benedetta both open theatrically in Toronto this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; check your local listings; and Agnes starts next Friday at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto.

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

Troubles. Films reviewed: Vicious Fun, Inbetween Girl, Belfast

Posted in 1960s, 1980s, Canada, Comics, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Feminism, High School, Horror, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Secrets, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 13, 2021

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

Fall Film Festival Season continues in November. ReelAsian is on now, and Blood in the Snow (aka “BITS”) with new made-in-Canada horror movies — both features and shorts —  showing on the big screen at Toronto’s beautiful Royal Cinema starting next week.

So this week I’m looking at three movies showing at Toronto film festivals. There’s an 8-year-old boy in Belfast at the start of the Troubles, a high school girl in Texas who learns having secret boyfriend can lead to trouble, and a film critic in Minnesota whose 12-step self-help group turns out to be nothing but very big trouble.

Vicious Fun

Wri/Dir: Cody Calahan

It’s the 1980s in Minnesota.

Joel (Evan Marsh) is a film critic who writes reviews for a horror movie fanzine. He’s a real devotee of slasher pics and is well versed on all the details. He lives with his apartment-mate Sarah, who he has a huge crush on. So he doesn’t like her new douchey boyfriend, Bob, at all. So he follows him to an isolated Chinese restaurant and bar where he tries to entrap him using hidden mic as the unfaithful boyfriend he thinks Bob is. But he ends  drunk as a skunk and passed out in the restaurant bathroom. He wakes up a few hours later to the voice if a motivational speaker coming from the next room. He wanders into a sort of a self-help group, a twelve step… but for whom? He takes his place in the circle and the confessions begin. Turns out they’re not alcoholics, they’re all serial killers! The worst in the world! Carrie (Amber Goldfarb) slices and dices men. Fritz (Julian Richings) enjoys paralysing victims with a hypodermic then torments them dressed as a clown. Mike, a bearded giant in a iron mask (former pro wrestler Robert Maillet) chops up coeds while having sex with them. Hideo (Sean Baek) is sushi chef-slash-cannibal who uses Ninja like skills to trap his prey. Zachary is the group leader (David Koechner) who looks like a used car salesman but had killed more than any of the others — there’s a sort of a competition going on. So Poor Joel — who they think is new serial killer who didn’t show up to this first meeting — has to squirm his way out of it. But his cover is blown when guess who arrives late? It’s Bob (Ari Millen) the douchey sociopath he met earlier! 

The group turns into a mad orgy of killing and violence once they discover his deception. But luckily, Carrie, for reasons all her own, decides to protect him from the other serial killers. What’s her secret? Can they escape these ruthless deranged serial killers? And can Joel warn Sarah in time to protect her from the evil Bob? 

Vicious Fun is a comedy  horror movie about a horror movie enthusiast who discovers it’s not as much fun in real life. It’s full of lots of blood and gore, as expected, but also a heavy dose of retro-80s camp, from moustachioed cops, to vintage drive in, pay phones and a seedy bar. The characters are all played to the max with the appropriate excess a group of weird serial killers demands, with Marsh as the fish-out-of-water film critic and Goldfarb as the killer with a heart off gold — as well as Millen as arrogant evil incarnate, are especially good. 

Vicious Fun (just like the title says) is a very entertaining, low-budget, over-the-top movie with a clever premise that carries it through to the very end. It’s funny, bloody, and bloody funny.

I like this one a lot.

(I interviewed Cody in 2013.)

Inbetween Girl

Wri/Dir: Mei Makino

Angie Chen (Emma Galbraith) is a high school girl at St Michael’s a posh private school in Texas.  It’s also very white. But as a mixed race kid (white Mom, Chinese dad) she feels both self-conscious and ignored. So she’s surprised that Liam (William Magnuson) the most popular guy in the school says he likes her. He drives her home everyday, and later climbs through her window to spend time with her. They hang out, make out, have sex, and share their thoughts in addition to an occasional joint. So what’s the problem? He’s dating Sheryl (Emily Garrett), an equally popular girl, who has millions of followers on Instagram. She’s an influencer. So Liam keeps their relationship a secret. Sheryl’s too fragile, he says, not a battleship like you. if she finds it out it could kill her. (I’m a Battleship? Angie wonders.) She goes along with Liam’s game but doesn’t quite get it. 

Meanwhile, there’s trouble at home. She’s disconnected from her recently divorced parents.  Mom’s always busy with work and dad has a new family, including a daughter who speaks Chinese. What’s the point of it all? But when she is assigned a school project with Sheryl, Liam’s girlfriend, Angie realizes it can’t go on like this. They’re in love… how can they keep it a secret? Will Liam choose her over Cheryl? Does Angie even want him anymore? And what will Sheryl do if she finds out the truth?

Inbetween Girl is a delightful and quirky coming-of-age story. Though the plot seems run-of-the-mill, it’s told through Angie’s art (she loves drawing comics and taking analog photos) her video monologues along with the normal story. It covers family relationships, first love and deceit, along with questions of cultural identity she has no control over. It has lots of picturesque settings in and around Galveston, giving it a view of modern cosmopolitan Texas you don’t always see. 

I like this movie.

Belfast 

Wri/Dir: Kenneth Branagh

It’s Belfast in the last 1960s. Buddy (Jude Hill) is a little boy who lives with his brother Will, his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and his grandparents, Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). His Pa (Jamie Dornan) is off in England somewhere earning a living as a joiner. He can only come home every couple weeks. Buddy misses him but spends his time studying at the Grove Park elementary school. While the classrooms never change, the seating arrangements do, where kids with the top marks move to the front each week. That’s his main motivation to study — so he can be bumped up beside the girl he wants to meet.

But things take a turn for the worse. Barricades appear on street corners patrolled by the military, while paramilitary thugs throw rocks through windows to get the Catholics to move out of their street. Buddy’s family is Protestant but he can’t tell the difference among his friends and neighbours. And as violence and intimidation increases, so does the push to join Pa in England till the Troubles are over. 

Money troubles, taxes, Pop’s illness and the friction between Ma and Pa all threaten the family. Will they stick by their beloved Belfast and the little street they’ve lived on for so long? Or will they be forced to move to England till the Troubles blow away?

Belfast is a touching look at life in Belfast during the Troubles as seen through the eyes of a small boy. Well-known actor/director Kenneth Branagh grew up there, and presumably it’s based on his memories. As such, there’s a misty-eyed sentimentality to much of the film, as would any adult thinking back to his childhood. It’s nicely shot in black and white, and the acting is generally good, though the characters seem straight out of central casting — no big creative leaps here. The best parts are the unusual and realistic childhood memories that are totally separate from the Troubles. Things like kid gangs and shoplifting happening simultaneously with the looting, intimidation and riots. But there’s also a disjointed feel to the film itself. Van Morisson’s music is great but it doesn’t fit the mood. And there’s a strange music video inserted into the movie, for no apparent reason other than providing footage for a trailer. Gimmicks — like having people filmed in black and white watching a movie in colour — are just embarrassing.  Even so, there are enough surprising plot turns and beautiful images that linger after the movie. While flawed, Belfast is still a touching, bittersweet look at one boy’s childhood in an historical moment.

Vicious Fun is the opening film at B.I.T.S., the Blood in the Snow Film Festival; In-between Girl is now screening at ReelAsianfilm Festival, and Belfast — which won the people’s choice award at TIFF this year, opens this weekend 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

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