Oscar contenders, 2023. Films reviewed: Saint Omer, The Son, Living

Posted in 1950s, 2000s, Courtroom Drama, Death, Drama, Family, France, Mental Illness, TIFF, UK by CulturalMining.com on January 21, 2023

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

This week, I’m looking at three potential Oscar contenders opening this weekend. There’s a writer in Paris attending a trial, a bureaucrat in London whose life is a trial, and a Dad dealing with the trials and tribulations of a mentally ill son.

Saint Omer

Wri/Dir: Alice Diop

It’s the early 2000s in a Parisian suburb. Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) is on trial for murder. She admits to leaving the infant on a beach to be washed away with the tides one moonlit night, but why she did it is not so simple. She’s a Senegalese-French woman from Dakar, in Paris as a student. She is beautiful, articulate, poised and intelligent; not your usual murder suspect. As her mother (Salimata Kamate) told her, education and politesse are the two most important traits. But after a series of events she ends up living in a small apartment as a grey-haired, married man’s mistress — no longer in university, with no friends, no job, no future. And virtually no one knows she was pregnant nor that she gave birth at home. She existed in a strange limbo world.

All of this is taken in by Rama (Kayije Kagame) a novelist and university prof in Paris. She is following the trial in person, for a new book she’s writing about Medea. Like Laurence, she’s a French intellectual, and a black woman of West African background. More than that, she’s estranged from her mother and is in her first trimester of pregnancy. In a sea of white faces in the courtroom, she feels both a connection and a revulsion toward Laurence. Could this be me on trial? she wonders. And will I be a fit mother?

Saint Omer is a devastatingly powerful courtroom drama as seen through an observer’s eyes. It’s the opposite of a Law & Order episode — no smoking guns or pot twists. Rather it’s Laurence’s retelling of her story before judge and jury Rama’s reactions that carries all the power. It’s intentionally filled with subtle ambiguity so you’re never quite sure whether Laurence is lying and being coached to do so, or if she’s completely sincere. With women holding most of the key roles — including the judge and the defence council —  it strips away some misconceptions. The acting (by actress Malanda and artist/performer Kagame) is superb, and the filmmaking amazing. This is documentary filmmaker Alice Drop’s first drama.  Somehow, she takes the drab wooden panels of a classroom and a courtroom and turns them into something pulsing with emotion. 

This is a great movie. 

The Son

Wri/Dir: Florian Zeller

Beth and Peter (Vanessa Kirby, Hugh Jackman) are a newly married, upper-middle class couple with a new baby. All I going well until they get an unexpected knock on the door. His teenaged son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) says he can’t take living his mom anymore (Laura Dern) a full-time nurse whom Peter divorced and abandoned a few years earlier. What a dilemma! He can’t turn away his own flesh and blood, can he?  But Nicholas is difficult to live with. It seems he stopped going to school months ago — without telling his parents. And Beth finds him scary. What if he does something to our baby— how can I trust him? So they check him into a psych ward without his consent. But what can they do in the long run with this troublesome teen?

The Son is an overwrought  melodrama about divorced parents forced to care for their troubled son. It deals with anguish, anger and regret but only from the parents’ perspective, never from the son’s. He’s just a pain in the ass… and possibly a threat! This movie falls in that sub-genre of sympathetic parents forced to deal with sons who “selfishly” choose to become drug addicts or mental ill. How dare they! Despite what the parents try, those bad sons are criminals and liars at heart who can never be trusted. This dreadful collection of never-watch movies  includes Beautiful Boy, with Timothy Chalamet and Ben is Back, starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges. This one has equal star power, and is just as hard to watch. It’s especially disappointing because it’s Florian Zeller’s follow-up to The Father a few years back about an elderly man slipping into dementia (Anthony Hopkins, who also appears in this film), as its unreliable narrator. But don’t be fooled. The Son has no redeeming features and is truly one of the worst movies of 2022.

Living

Wri/Dir: Oliver Hermanus

It’s Londin in the 1950s. Williams (Bill Nighy) is a mundane municipal bureaucrat, the head of public works at County Hall.  He spends most of his time at his desk — along with his subordinates Rusbridger, Middleton and Hart — keeping busy by ignoring piles of files and requests. Whenever troublesome locals appear, like a group of mothers requesting they build a tiny playground in a vacant lot, they’re quickly disposed of by sending them to another department in the endless bureaucratic labyrinth of city hall. The newly-hired Wakeling is quickly discouraged from working too hard — an empty inbox means you’re doing something wrong. The sole woman, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), is thinking of quitting to take a managerial job at a local restaurant. Since his wife died, Williams has lived a humdrum existence sharing his home with his adult son and daughter-in- law. But everything changes when his doctor brings him some terrible `news: incurable cancer, 6 months left to live. Suddenly everything takes on new meaning as he decides to start enjoying life and making things better for others. But is it too late?

Living is a period drama about life in post-war London. It captures the spark that can be reawakened in even the most humdrum person’s existence. It follows the night Williams spends in the demimonde led by an alcoholic bohemian he meets in a cafe; the days spent helping  Margaret, for the chance to share in her youth and vitaity; and a project he hoped to complete in his final days.

I approached this movie with trepidation, because it’s a remake of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, one of my favourite movies of all time, which I didn’t want to see ruined. Happily, Living it is wonderful film in its own right. Maybe only a writer like UK novelist Kazuo Ishiguro could transport a story from Tokyo to London, while staying true to its original meaning and structure, even while giving this very Japanese film a distinctly English feel. Bill Nighy (who usually plays silly characters in crap movies) is wonderfully understated in this one. And South African director Oliver Hermanus, who brought us the great Moffie, again puts his all into the film he’s making. 

I recommend this movie.

Living, Saint Omer, and The Son all open this weekend in Toronto, with the latter two playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Kenneth Feinberg about Playing God at Hot Docs 2017

Posted in Courtroom Drama, Crime, Disaster, documentary, Legal, Morality, Politics, Terrorism, Trial, US by CulturalMining.com on August 7, 2021

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

The world reacted in horror when New York’s twin towers were knocked down. But after the dust settled the question was how to compensate its victims and their families. Enter US Attorney Ken Feinberg, who volunteered to handle that monumental task.

Following this, he went on to handle other disasters, in both the private and public sectors, including the BP oil spill and the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school. Are the results always fair? How do the victims –  and Feinberg himself — deal with the enormity they face? And is this a case of one man playing God?

Playing God is a new feature length documentary that had its world premier at Toronto’s Hot Docs International documentary festival. It was directed by filmmaker Karin Jurschick and features US attorney Kenneth Feinberg.

I interviewed Kenneth Feinberg on location at Hotdocs in April, 2017.

Issues. Films reviewed: Minari, Test Pattern, The Mauritanian

Posted in 1980s, 2000s, Africa, Courtroom Drama, Family, Kids, Korea, Prison, Romance, Sexual Assault, Terrorism, Texas, Thriller, Torture, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2021

Movies are entertainment, but they can also inform. This week I’m looking at three new American movies that look at important issues. There’s a Korean-American family living the immigrant experience in Arkansas, a black woman dealing with sexual assault in Texas, and a young man enduring prison life in Guantanamo Bay.

Minari

Wri/Dir: Lee Isaac Chung

It’s rural Arkansas in the 1980s. Young David (Alan Kim) just moved there from California with his small family, just his sister Anne and his parents. He’s not allowed to run and play because of his heart murmur. His Dad  (Steven Yuen) spent their life savings on a plot of land and an old mobile home. He wants to start a new life there, growing vegetables for the burgeoning Korean-American market, immigrants like themselves. He’s sure they’ll make a fortune. In the mean time, Mom and Dad (Yeri Han) have to continue working at a poultry factory where they sort newly-hatched chicks. The girl chicks go to poultry farmers, while the boy chicks are incinerated and belched out of a sinister-looking chimney behind the plant. The problem is, despite Dad’s relentless enthusiasm, Mom hates it there and wants to move back to California. She’s a city girl. So they’re fighting all the time adding to their kids’ anxiety. To calm the waters they get Grandma, Mom’s mother (Yuh-jung Youn), to come live with them. 

She shares a room with David who doesn’t know what to make of her. She cracks foul-mouthed jokes and ogles pro-wrestlers on TV. When he wets his bed, she tells him his ding-dong is broken. You’re not a real grandmother, he says.  Mom is unhappy, and Dad is increasingly on edge — farming isn’t as easy as it looks. Will the family business go bust? Can David and Grandma learn to get along? What about his heart murmur? And can a dysfunctional family learn to like one another?

Minari (the title refers to a leafy vegetable grandma plants by a stream in the woods) is a warm, tender and funny look at the lives of an immigrant family trying to make it. It’s told through the point of view of an anxious little kid observing the strangeness of rural Arkansas. Things like diviners renting themselves out to find wells, and their grizzly old farm hand (Will Patton),  prone to bursting into prayers and exorcisms at a moment’s notice. The storytelling is rich and colourful, the locations are warm and rustic, the acting is terrific, and while the plot is bittersweet, it leaves you with a good feeling.

Test Pattern

Wri/Dir: Shatara Michelle Ford

It’s Austin Texas. 

Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is a beautiful young black executive originally from Dallas. She’s starting her new job as a manager at a pet-rescue charity. She lives with Evan (Will Brill) a scruffy, white tattoo artist. They met at a nightclub and are deeply in love.   And to celebrate her new position, Amber (Gail Bean) takes her on a “girl’s’ night out” at a local bar. She promises Evan she’ll be home early to get a good night’s sleep. But she wakes up, hungover, dizzy, disoriented and in pain, in the bed of a strange man. What happened?

Evan can tell, it was something bad. She was sexually assaulted by a stranger, a rich, e-commerce guy they met at the bar who plied her with drinks and strong drugs. Momentary flashbacks start appearing in her head, adding to her unease. Renesha just wants to shower and sleep, but Evan insists they go to a hospital to pick up a rape kit. What follows is a gruelling exercise in medical incompetence, legal boundaries, and an unsympathetic system, as the two of them travel from hospital to hospital trying to get the tests done. What effect will that night have on Renesha? Can she go back to work? Can their relationship survive? And will justice be served?

Test Pattern is a dark look at the results of a sexual assault on one woman and the ripple effects on her boyfriend. The story alternates between a study of that one awful day after, and of the much nicer times in their relationship leading up to it. It also chronicles the indignities a woman has to endure — things like not being allowed to urinate before she takes the tests — at the worst possible time, as they try to preserve evidence of the assault.  Test Pattern is not a happy movie, but rather a sympathetic and realistic view of trauma.

The Mauritanian

Dir: Kevin MacDonald

It’s November, 2001, on the western edge of the Sahara Desert. Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) is a young man, from engineering student in Mauritania.  He’s celebrating with family and friends in a huge tent, when black limos pull up. It’s the corrupt local police force.  The US authorities, they say, are going crazy since 9/11. They just want to talk to you about something. That’s the last his family saw him. Five years later, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) a successful partner at an Albuquerque, law firm, decides to investigate his case. With the help of a young associate named Teri (Shailene Woodley) she discovers Mohamadou is being held without charge, in Guantanamo. The government is going to try him in court, under the prosecution of a military lawyer named Crouch (Benedict Cumberbatch). They agree to be his pro bono defence attorneys because that’s how trials work. But the cards are stacked against them. He is one of Al Qaeda’s main recruiters, a close friend of Osama Bin Laden, personally connected to one of the hijackers on 9/11, and responsible; for the deaths of more than 3000 Americans. (Or so they say.) 

But when they fly out to Gitmo to meet the defendant, his story seems quite different. In a series of redacted letters, he records his experiences over the past 5 years, at the hands of CIA and military interrogators. Is Mohamadou a terrorist, or just a random guy they arrested? Is the evidence against him real? What did they do to him at Guantanamo? And will he ever be released from that hell hole?

The Mauritanian is a harrowing legal drama based on the true case of Mohamadou Slahi. The film deals with torture, corruption, secrecy and a flawed legal system. French actor Tahar Rahim is terrific as Mohamadou, the main character of the movie, as he records what life is really like in that notorious complex. Foster, Woodley and Cumberbatch (with a very believable southern accent) support him well, though in less exciting roles.

Test Pattern is now playing digitally at the Revue Cinema; Minari starts today; and the Mauritanian opens on Tuesday.

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

Daniel Garber talks with writer and lawyer Jay Paul Deratany about Foster Boy at the Toronto Black Film Festival

Posted in African-Americans, Chicago, Corruption, Courtroom Drama, Family, Movies, Orphans, Resistance, Secrets, Thriller, violence by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2021

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

Jamal is an angry 19-year-old who finds himself back in a Chicago courtroom once again. He’s a product of the deeply- flawed foster care industry, a privatized system which left him physically and mentally scarred, and in and out of prison. But this time he’s before a judge voluntarily; he’s suing the corporation that put him through hell. His lawyer? An unsympathetic corporate shill assigned to his case, pro bono, by a sympathetic judge. Jamal sees a “three-piece” supporter of the system he’s fighting, and the lawyer sees Jamal as a “thug” he’s ordered to represent. Can the two of them fight the power of an abusive system that made him a foster boy?

Foster Boy is the name a new courtroom drama and legal thriller inspired by true events, that was the opening night feature at the Toronto Black Film Festival. It’s produced by Shaquille O’Neal directed by Youssef Delara and stars Shane Paul McGhie, Matthew Modine, and Louis Gosset, Jr.

The script is by Jay Paul Deratany, a screenwriter who is also an accomplished Chicago lawyer and a foster youth advocate.

I spoke with Jay Paul Deratany in Chicago, via ZOOM, on February 17, 2021.

Foster Boy is available across North America at the Toronto Black Film Festival through Sunday, and online VOD.

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