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 documentarian Dugald Maudsley about Inside the Great Vaccine Race

Posted in Canada, Covid-19, documentary, Science by CulturalMining.com on November 6, 2021

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

It’s news to nobody that our planet has been ravaged by a pandemic since early 2020, and that more and more people in the developed world are being vaccinated to stop the effects of the Covid-19 corona virus. But where this vaccine came from, how it was developed, and who made it happen is less well known.

Inside the Great Vaccine Race is the name of a new documentary that looks at the corona virus itself, how the vaccines were developed, how they work… and why. It follows scientists in China, Brazil, Thailand, Canada, Germany and the UK at a time when many of these countries were already locked down. It’s produced and written by Dugald Maudsley, the multi-award-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker, known for TV series like Myth or Science and Ancestors in the Attic, as well as documentary features like Jumbo: The Life of an Elephant Superstar.

Inside the Great Vaccine Race is the opening episode of The Nature of Things celebrating its 61st season, and is now streaming on CBC Gem.

I spoke to Dugald in Toronto via Zoom.

 

Daniel Garber talks with documentary filmmaker Joanne Belluco about Stuck, premiering at Cinefranco

Posted in Art, Canada, Covid-19, documentary, Language, Music, Theatre by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2021

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

What do these people have in common?

A writer and storyteller in Toronto; a dancer in France; a stand-up comic in New Brunswick; a theatre director in Sudbury; a cinematographer in Winnipeg; an electronic musician in Northern Ontario; and a brother/sister musical duo in Montreal? 

They’re all francophone Canadians who work in the performing arts. And during the pandemic they all find themselves stuck! Stuck à la maison, stuck at home.

Stuck is also the name of a  new documentary feature  that looks at the effect of the coronavirus — and the restrictions it brought — on these people’s lives and careers.

Stuck was directed by Joanne Belluco, a French-born, Toronto-based documentary filmmaker, producer, writer and journalist.

I spoke with Joanne in Toronto via ZOOM.

Stuck is having its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs Cinema on November 1, at 7:30 pm at Toronto’s CineFranco film festival.

Delivering the Message. Films reviewed: Songbird, Modern Persuasion, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

Posted in Advertising, Brooklyn, China, Covid-19, Disease, documentary, L.A., Romance, Romantic Comedy, Science Fiction, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on December 11, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies – a rom-com, a thriller, and a documentary – about people delivering messages. We’ve got a romantic ad executive in Brooklyn, a courier in pandemic LA, and peasant-writers in northern China.

Songbird

Dir: Adam Mason

It’s 2022, a year in the future, and Nico (K.J. Apa) is the happiest guy in LA. He’s a courier who spends his days zooming around the city’s almost-deserted streets on his motorbike delivering packages. You see, COVID-19 has wiped out almost everyone, and those still left alive are under permanent lockdown. Rich people cower behind high-security walls while in the poor parts of town, conditions are barbaric. Everyone is under constant surveillance, forced to submit daily digital “temp tests” to prove they’re not infected. Helicopters hover overhead looking for anyone disobeying the lockdown, enforced by “Sanitation Officers”, paramilitary thugs dressed in bright-yellow Hazmat suits.

So how come Nico gets to ride around unhindered? He wears a precious plastic bracelet proving he’s immune to the virus. The one sad note is he can’t get together with his girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson). They’re forced to press hands on either side of closed doors and communicate only by texts. And he’s always on the look out for the evil head of the Sanitation Bureau (Peter Stormare) an immune serial killer who murders with impunity. Will the virus ever end? And will Nico and Sara ever get to kiss?

Songbird is a science-fiction romantic thriller about life under COVID.  Apparently it is the first such movie conceived, shot and released during the pandemic. Aside from Sara and Nico (KJ Apa is the kiwi heart-throb from Riverdale, who regularly takes off his shirt to reveal his abs) the story also follows  William and Piper Griffin (Bradley Whitford, Demi Moore) a crafty rich family who secretely keep their infected daughter Emma alive; a young woman who works as a youtube singer and part-time sex-worker; and some lonely and depressed war vets abandoned by their government but still ready to save the day. Songbird does an OK job at capturing the pandemic in cinematic form (up to now we’ve had to rely on old movies like Contagion, Outbreak, 28 Days) but it’s not great. And with our constantly-changing news cycle, how can any movie like this keep up with Covid-19?

Modern Persuasion

Dir: Alex Appel, Jonathan Lisecki

Wren (Alicia Witt) is an advertising executive who lives in Brooklyn with her cat. She’s pretty and smart, but in her thirties and still single (gasp!). She broke up with her college sweetheart Owen when he moved to the Bay Area and made a fortune in tech. The agency – owned by brother-and-sister rich diletantes – is not doing well, so she has to land a new account soon. Luckilly, a social networking giant is interested in hiring them. It’s called “Blipper” (as in twitter… get it?) Luckilly she has two millennial assistants to help her navigate these strange waters. But when the potential client shows up, she’s shocked to see it’s Owen (Shane McRae), her lost love. And he treats her like she’s not even there, flirting with her younger assistants instead of her. It’s not like she doesn’t have suitors of her own. There’s Sam, Owen’s best friend, a middle-aged emo who listens to sad music from the 80s; and Tyler, a London hotshot who owns a rival ad agency. Her impromptu dates with Tyler are set up by her scheming aunt Vanessa (played by the great Bebe Neuwirth). But secretly, in her heart, she still pines for Owen. Does he still love her? Does she still love him? And which is more important – her career or her love life?

Modern Persuasion – as the title suggests – is a contemporary take on the Jane Austen novel. Parties in the Hamptons replace balls in stately mansions, but the story seems essentially the same (I say “seems” because I haven’t read Persuasion, but I have seen a lot of Jane Austen movie knock-offs.) Beautiful women, especially Wren, dress in modern versions of romantic gowns, while the brooding / aloof / duplicitous men are all handsome, too. Appearance – clothes, hair, shoes, bags, looks – seems to be the great determiner in this movie. It’s cute and occasionally funny, but the plot is totally predictable, and some of the lines, especially the fake millennial-talk, are excruciating: Hashtag: Justshootme.  That said, if you’re looking for some light, shallow and inconsequential entertainment, you could do worse than Modern Persuasion.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue 

Dir: Jia Zhangke (past interviews here and here)

In 1942 under Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party held talks in Yan’an on the role of writers and artists in a future Peoples’ Republic. They declared that literature should be written by educated peasants about their lives for other peasants to read. Fiction should serve the people and the Party, and foreign influences avoided. In Jia Zhangke’s new documentary, he looks at the effect this had on Chinese writers, by looking at four authors in chronological order: Ma Feng, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong. The documentary interviews the writers themselves but also has random villagers reciting lines from the works directly toward the camera, in the style of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

Ma Feng was a writer in early Communist China. Born a peasant, he later became a writer lauded by the party. Locals in the model community Jia Family Village still talk about his innovations, like freedom to marry for love (rather than arranged marriages) and communal work teams that tackled major problems like making salty soil fit to grow crops. He was a fruit of the Yan’an Talks and studied at the Lu Xun Academy, where Western styles were frowned upon and a number of writers were purged. Ma Feng brought his learnings back to his village.

 Jia Zhangke next looks at Jia Pingwa (no relation). His ambitions were thwarted in the 1960s because his dad once attended an opera in Xi’an registered through a local warlord (before liberation). Because of this record, he was declared a spy for the KMT, and his children were also labeled counter-revolutionaries. Jia Pingwa finally broke from his tainted background by painting 8-character slogans on a stone cliff beside a reservoir (he had good handwriting.)  He’s now a noted writer.

Yu Hua is a popular novelist who used to be a dentist, a profession he hated. Although born in the beautiful city of Hangzhou, his family moved to a backwater, and lived near a morgue (an early influence). He talks about his first published stories (in the 1980s) in the prestigious magazine Harvest, and how the caring editor explained that while his writing was good, one story was too gloomy, and required a happy ending. He quickly obliged.

And Liang Hong, who was a PhD student in the 2000s tells harrowing memories of her childhood

on a farm, including spouse abuse, hunger and suicide.

Altogether, Jia Zhangke subtly reveals modern Chinese writers and how they weathered the Cultural Revolution, censorship, anti-foreign sentiments, and conformity of thought while still producing great works of literature. (I have’t read any of these authors.)

Like all of Jia Zhangke’s documentaries, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is slow-paced and subtle, but profound. I found it quite moving, especially the authors’ own recollections. Beautifully shot, it’s divided into 18 short chapters, each one beginning with a written text. While academic in tone, and aimed more at those interested in Chinese art, politics and history than regular fans of Jia Zhangke’s movies, I quite enjoyed it.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue opens today exclusively at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Songbird and Modern Persuasion both open digitally and theatrically across North America; check your local listings

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

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