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

Class divide. Films reviewed: Sundown, Ambulance, Mothering Sunday

Posted in Action, Clash of Cultures, Class, Crime, Depression, Drama, Heist, L.A., Mexico, Sex, UK by CulturalMining.com on April 9, 2022

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 — from the UK, Hollywood and Mexico — about the class divide. There’s a penniless orphan having a passionate affair with an upper-class Englishman; a London billionaire who intentionally disappears in Acapulco; and a bank robber who commandeers an ambulance on the streets of LA to protect 16 million dollars.

Sundown

Wri/Dir: Michel Franco

Neil (Tim Roth) is an Englishman on holiday in Acapulco with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two teenaged kids. They’re staying at a luxury resort , the kind of place where you never have to leave your private infinity pool, as waiters will bring martinis directly to your suite. They can watch locals diving off the cliffs in exchange for small tips — let them eat cake! Neil and Alice are the heirs to a vast fortune worth billions. But a shocking telephone call upsets their plans, forcing them to fly back to London immediately.  But Neil, claiming he left his passport at the hotel, doesn’t get on the plane. Instead, he disappears, checking into a cheap local guesthouse. His days are spent drinking beer on Mexican beaches, and he soon hooks up with a beautiful woman named Berenice (Iazua Larios).  But all is not well. Acapulco is a dangerous city with drive-by killings invading even his beachfront. His hotel room is robbed and he finds himself surrounded by petty criminals. Meanwhile his sister is frantic with worry. Why has he not returned to London? What sort of a game is he playing? Is he trying to bilk her out of her share of the family fortune?  Or, as he says, he has no interest in money at all? And why is he withdrawing from life?

Sundown is a disturbing Mexican film about the class divide and how one man deals with it in his own way. Tim Roth plays Neil as an introverted trying to escape from everything. He barely speaks or makes decisions as his world collapses all around him. He endures crime, violence, and even jail with barely a reaction. But internally he is plagued with bizarre hallucinations, with giant hogs invading his mind-space. While not nearly as upsetting as his previous film, New Order, in Sundown Michel Franco once again probes the fear, corruption and violence permeating the class divide in contemporary Mexico. 

Ambulance

Dir: Michael Bay

Danny and Will Sharpe are best friends and brothers (Will was adopted). They group up together on the streets of LA, but took different paths as adults. Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) stuck to the straight and narrow, joining the military and is now married with a small child. Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) took after their dad, a notorious bank robber who left many dead bodies in his wake. But good guys seem to finish last. Will’s wife needs complex surgery something he can’t afford — he van barely feed his family. So he goes to Danny, cap in hand, asking for help. Danny agrees as long as he participates in what he calls a simple bank robbery that’ll leave them both rich beyond their wildest dreams. But the robbery goes south, and they are forced to flee in an ambulance with a wounded cop and a paramedic named Cam (Eliza González) trying to keep him alive. Can they escape with the money without killing the cop?

Ambulance is a two hour chase scene disguised as a movie. As they race through the streets of LA they are pursued by helicopters, police cars and the FBI, trying to kill the bank robbers without killing the cop. Michael Bay is known for his trademark enormous explosions and spectacular car crashes, and he doesn’t disappoint. There are also some cool new camera tricks, like a drone camera hugging the side of a police station as it plunges many storeys straight down to the sidewalk (it almost made me carsick!). But fancy camerawork and lots of crashes does not a movie make.  And with cookie-cutter characters and ultra-simplistic storylines like this, why go to a movie when you can find the same thing on a game like GTO?

Ambulance is not boring, it’s just totally pointless.

Mothering Sunday

Dir: Eva Husson

It’s England between the wars. Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is a teen orphan who earns her living as a maid. As her name shows, she was abandoned by her mother as a child. Her upper-class employer (Colin Firth and Olivia Coleman) give her a a holiday on Sundays every so often when they go for a picnic with their friends. This gives Jane the chance to sneak away to spend time with her secret boyfriend Paul (Josh O’Connor) whose maid is also given the day off. It’s a passionate relationship full of unbridled sex all around the family mansion. Is this love or infatuation? Either way it’s no coincidence Jane and Paul both have free time on the same day. Paul’s parents and Jane’s employers are meeting at the same picnic, where Paul is heading too, to make an important announcement. But something shocking happens on the way. 

Mothering Sunday is a beautiful film about a woman whose status gradually rises as she makes her way from house servant to independent writer. It’s also about the lovers and partners she meets along her way. Although it starts slowly the film becomes more and more interesting as details and secrets of her life are gradually revealed. Odessa Young is amazing as Jane Fairchild, someone you can really identify with. Eva Husson is French director and this is the first thing I’ve seen by her, but she’s really good — she knows how to subtly set up a scene, and then turn it on its head with a shocking revelation. This is a relatively simple, low-budget movie, but something about it out really grabbed me, and left me thinking about months after I saw it.

I really like this one.  

Ambulance and Mothering Sunday both open this weekend; check your local listings. Sundown is now playing 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.

Crime. Films reviewed: The Noise of Engines, The Last Mark, The Outfit

Posted in Canada, Chicago, Crime, Iceland, Mystery, Organized Crime, Satire, Sex, Thriller, TIFF, UK by CulturalMining.com on March 19, 2022

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 — one from the UK and two premiering at this year’s Canadian Film Fest — that look at ordinary people pulled into the world of crime. There’s a customs official accused of sexual misconduct; a dominatrix targeted by a deranged hitman; and a mild-mannered English tailor pulled into the Chicago mob.

The Noise of Engines (Le Bruit des Moteurs)

Dir: Philippe Grégoire

Alex (Robert Naylor) is a young man from a small Quebec town near the US border. It’s a village with a mothball factory a formula 1 race track, and not much else. In this post-9/11 world, the government wants formerly boring customs officers to become ruthless killers in the war on terrorism. So  to get away from his town, he takes a job as a firearms instructor at an isolated Canada Customs training school. But when he is caught in flagrante delicto with a large breasted employee he is dragged before the directrice for an interrogation. Though their sex was consensual, his co-worker had a heart attack from  a lack of oxygen due to the anti-covid face shield she was wearing (he ended up saving her life.) And when the much older Directrice’s invites him to sleep with her and her husband, he turns her down. She is furious and exiles him back to his village for punishment. But his troubles don’t stop there. The local police, in a series of Kafka-esque events, label Alex as a sexual deviant, and accuse him of increasingly absurd crimes, such as leaving lascivious drawings on post-it notes in the local church. However life isn’t all bad. At least he has one friend in the village, an Icelandic drag-racer (Tanja Björk) who wants to practice her  French and see the local sites. Can Alex survive a two week leave in small-town Quebec? Will the police ever leave him alone? And what will  become of his relationship with new Icelandic friend?

The Noise of Engines is an absurdist drama about the stultifying effect corrupt bureaucrats and policemen have in small-town Quebec. Aesthetically beautiful — from its stark scenery and retro settings to its modernistic music and elegant titles — this debut feature is a pleasure to watch. The while film is almost dreamlike (and sometimes nightmarish) to the point where you’re never quite sure whether anything is real or if it’s all in Alex’s imagination. Shot both in Quebec and in Iceland it swerves between comedy and horror, settling somewhere in between. I like this movie.

The Last Mark

Dir: Reem Morsi 

Peyton (Alexia Fast) is an escort and a professional dominatrix. One night, in a seedy motel room with a client she hears unexpected intruders entering the room. Hidden under the bed she witnesses two professional killers shoot the man she was just having sex with.  She escapes but not before they see her. It’s up to the killers to silence the unfortunate witness. Keele (Shawn Doyle) volunteers to catch and kill the witness. He is an older professional reaching the end of his career, while Palmer (Bryce Hodgson) is his new replacement, a psychotic murderer who chops off his victims heads just for the fun of it. But there’s a twist. Peyton left her ID behind, and Keele recognizes her last name — the same as a woman he had a fling with decades earlier. Is it possible that she’s his daughter? He asks Eli (Jonas Chernick)  his longtime fixer to do a bit of research — is she related to him, or just another target? In the meantime, Keele kidnaps her and locks her in an isolated cabin, far from the eyes of his head-chopping partner. Can the two if them learn to get along? Do they have anything in common? Can they trust one another? And will he save her or kill her? 

The Last Mark is a classic typical, crime dramady, about an odd couple pulled together by coincidence. This is the director, Reem Morsi’s first full-length feature, and it holds together well. The cast is good all-around, even the smaller roles, especially Bryce Hodgson as a psycho-killer. This is a Canadian production and cast, but the story is set somewhere vaguely outside of Detroit (though it was shot in Sudbury). It’s violent but not gory, and even moving at times. It’s never slow or boring, and the characters are just quirky enough to keep you interested but still believable. This movie’s pretty good.

The Outfit

Co-Wri/Dir: Graham Moore

It’s the mid-1950s in Chicago. Leonard (Mark Rylance) is a bespoke tailor, originally from London. He apprenticed on Saville Row before opening his own shop. Now in Chicago he works with his assistant Mable (Zoey Deutsch), an ambitious ginger-haired young woman from the neighbourhood. She collects exotic snow globes with the idea of someday living in the cities in her glass souvenirs. And she’s dating Richie (Dylan O’Brien) a brash young gangster, on the sly. And that’s trouble. You see, the whole neighbourhood is under the thumb of Richie’s dad, a local kingpin, who is also Leonard’s best customer.  He doesn’t want Richie to mess things up. As a favour, he lets them use his shop as a safe house, leaving important messages in an innocuous wooden drop box at the back. But one day, a recorded cassette mysteriously appears in an envelope. Apparently it was recorded by the Feds… but how did it get there? Was it a secret plant in the FBI? A rival gang? Or the Outfit (a syndicate for organized crime groups) And how did they record it — is there a rat within their own ranks? Francis (John Flynn) first lieutenant in the gang, is sent in to investigate, soon followed by the kingpin himself, along with his bodyguard. As suspicion grows, and bullets start to fly, it’s up to Leonard to try to smooth the waters… but is he too late? And who is the rat? The kingpin, his son Richie, his lieutenant, or possibly even Mable or Leonard himself?

The Outfit is a clever suspense drama about loyalty, suspicion and lies within a crime gang and how it effects the people all around it. Mark Rylance is terrific as the stiff-upper-lip “cutter” (he doesn’t want to be a called a tailor)  and his behind-the-scenes machinations. Like a stage play, the whole film is set within the three rooms of his shop over the course of a single day, but doesn’t feel claustrophobic, just precisely made, like the hundreds of pieces of cloth Leonard sews together to make a single suit. Graham Moore who wrote The Imitation Game also directed this excellent period drama. No spoilers here, but this film has more twists and turns than you can shake a stick at. It’s more clever than emotional, which makes for a fun — though at times violent — mystery/drama. I like this one, too.

The Outfit opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. The Noise of Engines has its Toronto premiere on March 23rd and The Last Mark its Canadian premier on April 1st, both at the Canadian Film Festival.

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

Career change. Films reviewed: Nightride, Jockey

Posted in Animals, Crime, Drama, drugs, Horses, Movies, Northern Ireland by CulturalMining.com on March 6, 2022

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

Professions don’t necessarily last forever. Some people retire early or change jobs. This week, I’m looking at two new movies — a realistic drama and a thriller — about men leaving their longtime professions. There’s a jockey in Phoenix pondering his final ride, and a drug dealer in Belfast trying to complete his last deal

Nightride
Dir: Stephen Fingleton

Budge (Moe Dunford) is a small-time drug-runner in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who wants to change his life. He has a Ukrainian girlfriend and a teenaged daughter, both of whom he loves dearly. He plans to get out of the drug trade entirely but needs a bit of cash — 60 thousand quid, to be exact — to start a new business. He and a friend are signing the lease in the morning to open a new body shop. He got his share from a loan shark, and the borrowed balance has to be returned by midnight. Before that, he just has to pick up 50 kilos in a white van, and drop them off with the buyer. He’s done it dozens of times, and nothing ever went wrong before, so he’s not really worried.

Famous last words…

Something does go wrong — he’s being tailed by someone, probably a cop. He has to pass the pickup to an underling so he won’t get caught with the evidence. But the loan shark’s thug is on his back, the buyer is getting cold feet, and his teenaged daughter is seeks real-time advice about her date. And then the worst possible outcome — the van with the drugs goes missing. The cops are circling, and loaded guns enter the picture. Are his future plans ruined? Will he live or will he die? And has he unwittingly pulled his daughter, best friend and the love of his life into a dangerous world he’s always kept separate?

Nightride is not-bad thriller, with a bunch of twists and turns that keep you interested. It’s a single-shot movie, with no cuts and and recorded by a single camera. And I like Moe Dunford as the main character. Good thing, because he’s basically the only one in the movie! Why? you may ask. Because the whole thing was shot during a Covid lockdown, so all we see — aside from a few crucial scenes —  is him driving his car around while talking on his phone to various invisible voices. I know, we have to pull together in these troubled times, blah, blah, blah, but this doesn’t make for a good movie. I’ve seen a number of these lockdown films: Jake Gyllenhaal as a 911 cop in the bad The Guilty; Naomi Watts as a jogger-mom in the awful Lakewood; and KJ Apa as a bike courier in the atrociously laughable Songbird. So in that company, Nightride is fantastic by comparison. But in the wider world of action thrillers, a movie about a guy driving a car while on the phone… just doesn’t do it.

Jockey
Dir: Clint Bentley

Jackson (Clifton Collins Jr) is an ordinary man in Phoenix, Arizona. He likes fishing, playing poker and waking up early in the morning. What’s special about him is his skill as a jockey — he has ridden many prize-winning racehorses to victory. He may be a bit long in the tooth now, but he’s still legendary at the race tracks. He works alongside Ruth (Molly Parker) a horse trainer. She raises the animals and handles relations with the owners, — Jackson has little time for those dilletantes. And the two of them are like white on rice. They never keep secrets.

Their relationship changes when Ruth becomes an owner herself. She’s raising a filly that’s perfect for Jackson to ride, and could be a real prize-winner. He feels the same way, and would love to take her all the way to the top.

But he is keeping one secret: his spine is severely damaged from years of accidents at the racetracks. The only doctor he’s seen about it is a veterinarian. And a twitch he first noticed on one side starting with his fingers is getting worse. And there’s a second problem. A young jockey named Gabriel (Moises Arias) seems to be following him around. What does the kid want? Is he trying to take over? He confronts him, and Gabriel blurts that Jackson is his father the result of a fling he had with his mom 20 years ago. Is he telling the truth? Will Jackson retire after riding his last great horse? Can he pass his secrets to his new-found son? Or will his back injury cut everything short?

Jockey is a beautifully-made film about a legendary jockey in his declining years. The storyline is fictional, and the three main characters are played by actors, but it’s shot semi-documentary-style in the midst of a real world we rarely see. And it’s a rough life. Actual jockeys share their battle scars and injuries with their chums, and the dangers they face each day. Cameras are placed right under the horses as they speed away at the start of a race. And most scenes are shot right at dawn, capturing the vast glowing Arizona skies. Clifton Collins Jr gives a subtly perfect performance as Jackson; if I didn’t know he was an actor I’d have thought they found a jockey and made a film about him.

This is a great picture that deserves to be seen on a big screen.

Nightride is now available on VOD, and Jockey opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend 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

 

Get away. Films reviewed: The Jump, See For Me

Posted in Blindness, Canada, Cold War, Crime, documentary, Lithuania, Politics, Thriller, USSR by CulturalMining.com on January 15, 2022

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

Today is CIUT’s 35th anniversary and we plan to  be around for at least 35 years more.  

This week I’m looking at two movies — one from Lithuania and one from Canada, now playing in virtual cinemas or Video on Demand. There’s a sailor who jumps off a ship to escape Soviet domination, and a blind cat-sitter who uses a phone app to escape from a gang of thieves.

But first, to celebrate CIUT’s 35th anniversary, here’s a clip of two of my earliest reviews, originally broadcast in January, 2010, where I talk about two films by Québec directors Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve, early in their careers.  

(listen)

And now back to the future in 2022!

The Jump

Dir: Giedre Zickyte

It’s November, 1970.  Simas Kudirka is a Lithunian sailor who is married with children. He works aboard a huge ship, the Sovetskaya Litva. Simas has been enchanted by the idea of going to sea since he was young man, picturing swaying palms and exotic tropical climes. Instead he ends up in the drab grey, north Atlantic.  But his life turns upside down when the ship, seeking shelter from bad weather, anchors near Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts. They are approached by the Vigilant, a US Coast Guard boat, and in a sudden, spontaneous decision, Simas jumps from the deck of his ship onto the Coast Guard boat. He says he’s defecting from the Soviet Union and seeking asylum in the US. But in a surprising decision, when KGB officers board the Vigilant, the Americans turn down his plea and hand him back. Remember this is during the cold war, when relations between the US and the USSR are tenuous at best, with both countries fighting proxy wars in countries around the world. And both have enough ready-to-launch nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over. 

Simas is sentenced to prison for treason. But that’s not the end of the story. He becomes a political hot potato in the US, where widespread protests by Lithuanian Americans turn him into a cause celebre about the Baltic states. Will he be released from prison? And will he ever reach the United States?

The Jump is a Lithuanian documentary that revisits the case 50 years later. It incorporates contemporary news stories, footage from a TV movie made about him (played by Alan Arkin) and new interviews with all the main people involved; from former KGB agents to Henry Kissinger, retired coast guard sailors, politicians and the American women who tirelessly worked toward his release. And of course, Simas Kudirka himself. The Jump is a fascinating story about how one man can lead to monumental changes. It doesn’t go deeply into political critiques; this is more of a personal story coloured with a nationalist point of view. But it’s a good story.

See For Me

Dir: Randall Okita

Sophie (Skyler Davenport) was once a young, competitive alpine skier with Olympic ambitions. But her athletic career was cut short when she lost her vision. Now she now lives with her mother and earns a meagre living as a cat-sitter. She’s angry and frustrated. But she takes a job in a remote glass and wooden house deep in a forest. It’s luxurious and well paying, because the recently-divorced owner is heading abroad on vacation. It’s also her first time using a new app on her phone her overprotective mom gave her. It’s called  See for Me, and it hooks up visually-impaired people with random helpers around the world. The user holds up the phone and the helper tells her which way to turn, where to pickup a lost item, or read directions on a table. And when Sophie finds herself locked out and alone on a cold winter’s day, it proves invaluable.

The helper, Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy) is a former marine and video game enthusiast. She teaches Sophie how to break in through a sliding door. But that’s small potatoes compared with what happens that evening. She awakens to strange voices in the house. They’re professional thieves trying to break into a safe, in a building they assumed would be empty. And it turns out they’re armed and dangerous. And escape is impossible — there’s nowhere to go in the middle of a snowy forest. It’s up to Kelly to to help Sophie navigate her way around the house away from danger. But can a far-off ex-marine help a blind woman shoot to kill?

See for Me is a good Canadian thriller about a seemingly helpless woman in a battle with nefarious criminals. It has a fair level of tension with a few unexpected twists. And the two main characters — Sophie and Kelly, played by Davenport and Kenedy — are great. My biggest problem with it is, it reduces much of the conflict down to a series of shootouts like in an old western. Guns to the rescue! Even a blind woman (gasp!) can kill mean men as long as she has a handgun. Kelly seems really eager to kill people, even by proxy, and Sophie is less than blameless herself (no spoilers). Still, if you’re itching to see a wintertime, cabin-in-the-woods thriller, this one’s not bad. 

See For Me is now available on VOD, and The Jump opens this weekend in virtual cinemas in cities like Sudbury, Montreal, and London — 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

Potential explosions. Films reviewed: House of Gucci, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, Drive My Car

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, Acting, Action, Crime, Family, Fashion, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Theatre, video games, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on November 27, 2021

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

With all the stress in people’s lives these days, movies are a good place to purge personal tensions by watching other people’s explosive disasters. This week I’m looking at three new movies about potential explosions.

There’s a zombie-infested city about to be bombed to oblivion, a Hiroshima theatre festival facing an explosive personal conflict; and a bombshell in Italy who threatens a powerful family.

House of Gucci

Wri/Dir: Ridley Scott

It’s the 1970s in northern Italy. Gucci is a major luxury brand specializing in leather goods. Founded 50 years earlier, it is now in the hands of the second generation. Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons), an ailing but piss-elegant man who surrounds himself with priceless art, works behind the scenes, He is grooming his smart but nerdish son Maurizio (Adam Driver) to take over. But the law school student shows little interest in the company or the family. The other half is headed by Aldo (Al Pacino) a hands-on guy who heads the company’s American branch, and wants to expand into the Asian market. But he considers his hapless son Paolo (Jared Leto) an idiot. Enter Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). She’s an accountant at her dad’s trucking business, but has greater ambitions. She meets Maurizio at a party, when she mistakes him for the bartender, but when she hears the name Gucci, her ears perk up. She wants in. After a few dates it’s true love, but Rodolfo doesn’t want his family name besmirched by a trucker’s daughter (forgetting that his own father who founded the company was not a rich man.) So Maurizzio marries into her family gives up his inheritance, and starts hosing down trucks — the best job he’s ever had, he says. But not for long. Following her TV psychic’s instructions Patricia manipulates and manoeuvres Maurizzio’s family to bring him back into the fold (with her at his side) to claw his way back to the top. And she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants. But can they survive the troubles yet to come?

House of Gucci is a true crime/corporate family drama about the rise and fall of a rich family… which isn’t that interesting on its own. And I can’t stand an entire movie of American actors putting on vaguely foreign euro accents — we’re supposed to imagine them speaking their native Italian — why the awful accents? But that’s not why the movie is so much fun. What makes this movie work are two things. One is the amazing fashion and design of the whole movie. Everyone is constantly dressing up— more dresses and purses and tuxes and jewelry than you can shake a stick at.. Even more than this are all the campy, over-the-top characters, chewing the scenery as each one tries to out-do the others. Effete Jeremy Irons, a dazed Salma Hayek, a wonderful Al Pacino, and best of all, Jared Leto, as the hilarious Paolo. Lady Gaga is OK, but can’t compare to the masterful performers all around her. And Adam Driver is the dull straight man who steps back and lets the others shine. House of Gucci is a very enjoyable feast of high-fashion schlock.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

Wri/Dir: Johannes Roberts

It’s the 1990s, somewhere in the US. Chris and Claire Redfield are an estranged brother and sister.  They grew up in the Racoon City Orphanage, a creepy place filled with weird dolls and strange creatures that appear late at night. It is run by the Umbrella corporation the worlds largest pharmaceutical company. But Claire (Kaya Scodelario) runs away when she sees something terrible, while Chris (Robbie Amell) joins the local police force. But now she’s back… to warn Chris that something terrible is about to happen. A leak at the lab has let loose a horrible epidemic infecting nearly everyone in the town. But rather than getting sick, this virus makes your eyes bleed, your hair fall out and you turn into a flesh eating zombie. Or worse (no spoilers). They have until 6 am to fight off these monsters and escape from this hell-hole, or else they, and the rest of the town will be wiped off the face of the earth. They split up; Chris, and fellow cops Wesker and Valentine (Tom Hopper, Hannah John-Kamen) investigate the Spencer mansion, while Claire, the Police Chief, and Leon, a newby on his first day of work (Avan Jogia) set out from the police station. Will they ever get together? Who will live and who will die? And what secrets do these labs hold?

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is a movie based on a video game, plain and simple. There are some good laughs, and a threadbare plot line, but it’s mainly reenacting the game, from the long dark hallways where zombies run towards you, to the dark and scary Spencer mansion. Even some of the camera angles and pans duplicate the game itself.  But it’s very cool to see on the big screen scary pitch-black scenes lit only by a lighter and the flash of gunfire revealing zombie faces. That said, it’s more eerie than scary, more action than horror. Not bad, but not much to it.

Drive My Car

Dir: Hamaguchi Ryusuke

Kafuku and Oto are a happily married couple in Tokyo. Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an actor and director in theatres, while Oto (Reika Kirishima) is a famous scriptwriter for TV and film. Oto’s ideas come to her at an unexpected time — while they’re having sex. Her bizarre stories are generated in the throws of orgasmic bliss, recited aloud to her husband, so it’s up to him to listen and remind her the next morning of what she said. But everything changes one day when he comes back early from a cancelled flight to Vladivostok. He catches sight of her making love to another, much younger, man in their bedroom. He sneaks away instead of barging in, but before they have a chance to talk about it, she dies of an unexpected cerebral hemorrhage.  

Years later he’s invited to direct a play — Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya — for a festival in Hiroshima. Kafuku’s trademark method is to cast his plays with actors who speak other languages and can’t understand each other. In this one the actors speak Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and even signs language. So they practice under his exacting direction, forced to keep each line perfectly timed. But there’s a twist: the most famous actor in the play is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) a handsome and arrogant star who says he idolizes Kafuku and his late wife Oto. And he’s the one Kafuku thinks he saw having sex with his wife before she died. Meanwhile, in line with the theatre company’s rules, all directors must be driven to and from the theatre each day. So Kafuku gets to know the introverted Misaki (Tôko Miura), a young female driver from Hokkaido with a strange story. But as the production nears its premier date something terrible happens, forcing all the main players to reevaluate their priorities. 

Drive My Car is a beautiful drama about love, loss, jealousy, and guilt. The movie builds slowly in an exacting manner, as the director and the various actors get to know one another. And the excerpts from Uncle Vanya we see as they rehearse exactly mirror the feelings and thoughts of the characters in the movie. That’s not the only story. There’s also Oto’s own stories she told her husband, and the personal confessions from the driver herself about her dark past. The acting is superb, and the panoramic views, ranging from drives on causeways and through tunnels to footage of a vast municipal incinerator, are breathtaking. The film is based on a Murakami story, with all the weird quirky fantasy combined with mundane realism you’d expect from him. Drive My Car is a long movie but one that is deeply, emotionally satisfying.

House of Gucci and Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City are now playing theatrically in Toronto; check your local listings; and Drive My Car has just opened 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.

Gangsters and gangstas. Films reviewed: Yakuza Princess, Mogul Mowgli

Posted in Action, Brazil, Crime, Family, Fighting, Islam, Japan, Music, Yakuza by CulturalMining.com on September 4, 2021

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

TIFF starts in less than a week, but it’s a bit different this year. The press is under a total embargo, even for capsule reviews. But I can tell you about some of the changes. Unlike last year which was totally digital, this year they’re showing movies both on the big screen and digitally (at home). They also claim there will be no tickets, no badges, and no line-ups. No line ups? Unless they’ve mastered the art of teleportation, I’m not sure how they’ll get people into theatres without queues… but we shall see.       

This week I’m looking at two new movies — an action thriller and a musical drama. There’s a young woman in Brazil pursued by Japanese gangsters; and a Pakistani-British rapper in London chased by visions in his head.

Yakuza Princess

Co-Wri/Dir:Vicente Amorim

(based on the graphic novel by Danilo Beyruth)

Liberdade is the Japanese-Brazilian section of Sao Paolo, one of the largest communities of ethnic Japanese in the world, outside of Japan.  Akemi (Masumi) is there to improve her Portuguese. She has a part-time job selling LED lighting at a booth in the market working for a strict boss. In her free time, she practices Kendo, a martial art using bamboo swords. She’s devoted to her sensei, who stresses the importance of these lessons. And she loves singing at the local karaoke bar. 

But due to an unexpected turn of events, she meets a strange man with no name (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). He has total amnesia — he doesn’t know who he is ,where he’s from and why he’s there. His face is covered with scars; he recently evaded a police-watch at his hospital bed where the cops wanted to question him about a certain sword, found beside his nearly-lifeless body. He also wants to know about the sword — he recognizes its importance — the only thing he can remember. Akemi has to fight off three aggressive young punks who cat-call her as she performs her song. They stalk her home and threaten and break into her apartment. She fights them off using her latent skills in self-defence, but it’s three-to-one, until the sword-wielding scarface steps in to help. Then a third player enters the picture and joins in the fight. Takeshi (Ihara Tsuyoshi) is a highly ranked member of a powerful Yakuza clan. (The Yakuza refers to organized crime groups and their devoted members who are both powerful but also outcasts  within Japanese society.) He’s in Brazil on a mission: to track down Akemi, the only surviving member of a faction wiped out in a power struggle 20 years earlier when she was just a little girl. She knows nothing about any of this. Which of these two men is her ally… and which one is her killer? Takeshi, the ruthless Yakuza or the scar-faced swordsman with amnesia? And where did his strangely alluring Katana sword come from?

Yakuza Princess, as the title suggests, is an action/thriller about an ordinary young woman who discovers she’s the heiress to a faction of gangsters whose rivals are trying to kill. This is a Brazilian movie, and the script is in three languages English Japanese and Portuguese. It’s also pretty kitschy in its fetishistic version of Japanese culture, filled silent ritual bows and singing swords. But movies like this are allowed to be kitschy — they’re all about the fights: sword fights, fist-fights, jiu jitsu matches, gun battles and chase scenes. All of which are nicely choreographed. Ihara Tsuyoshi is a former stuntman, Masumi is a singer-actress, and Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers has been playing dangerous pretty-boys in TV series and movies for many years. In this one though, his face is so covered in scars and blood he’s barely recognizable (probably so stuntmen can play him in the fight scenes.) Yakuza Princess may be super-cheesy and bloody with a convoluted plot,  but it’s a fun action thriller. With an ending that suggests many more sequels yet to come.

Mogul Mowgli

Dir: Bassam Tariq

Z (Riz Ahmed) is a rising South-Asian English rapper. He just finished a sold-out American tour and he’s flying high, hanging with his American girlfriend Bina and his British manager. And now he’s slated to go on a world tour, as the opening act for a superstar. This is the big break he’s been waiting for. So he decides to spend a week in London’s East End with his family who he hasn’t seen for two years. But nothing has changed.  The new dishwasher is still sitting there in a box. His bedroom is full of the  cassette tapes he rapped to as a teenager. His dad (Alyy Khan) is a failed entrepreneur full of get-rich -quick schemes that never get off the ground. And his mom (Sudha Bhuchar) has her own quirks. When the chilli peppers she chars over a burner gives off no aroma — she says it’s a bad sign. Turns out she’s right. Z is suddenly afflicted by an unidentified ailment. 

Within a day or two his muscles cease to function. He can’t walk, can barely  even stand up. But his world tour is leaving in a couple days! IN the hospital a doctor had worse news. It’s an autoimmune disorder of unknown origin. Luckly there’s a new tincture they can try on him — it just might work. But among many possible side effect is the loss of fertility.  And even worse, his manager wants to replace him own the world tour with an awful rapper wannabe. Suddenly the famous performer is emasculated and immobile, deserted by his friends and depending on his eccentric parents’ superstitions to get through the day. Under the influence of the experimental meds he slips into a twilight zone of dreams, visions and hallucinations. Will he live or will he die? Will his former powers be restored? Can his career and reputation be rescued? And will his self-confidence ever return?

Mogul Mowgli is a brilliant showcase for the great young British actor Riz Ahmed. It’s hilarious surprising, and filled with sharp self-criticism. It chronicles the fall of a famous rapper — Riz Ahmed wrote his own versus — and the loss of face that entails. It also reveals the inner-workings of the London Pakistani  community — at home, in the mosque and in the wider world. And how the children of immigrants navigate their split identities. Everything Z sees and hears makes its way into the versus he’s constantly composing in his head. It’s told in an almost surreal manner, through the inner workings of a possibly dying man’s mind. Z is haunted by a groom whose face is covered with garlands of flowers, while his hospital gown morphs into a sequinned suit.

I really liked this movie. 

Mogul Mowgli and Yakuza Princess are both opening theatrically and/or digitally across Canada this weekend — check your local listings.

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

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

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

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

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

Flag Day

Dir: Sean Penn

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

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

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

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

499

Co-Wri/Dir: Rodrigo Reyes

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

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

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

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

Candyman

Dir:  Nia DaCosta

It’s present-day Chicago. 

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

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

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

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

I liked this one a lot.

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

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

 

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.

Reasons. Films reviewed: Silent Night, Sun Children

Posted in Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, Iran, Kids, UK by CulturalMining.com on June 25, 2021

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

Toronto is finally opening up — well, kinda. Now you can see movies away from home, just not yet in theatres.  The Lavazza Drive-In Film Festival is coming to Ontario Place, showing a huge selection of crowd-pleasing international films. It also incorporates the wonderful annual Italian Contemporary Film Fest, now celebrating its 10th year. It starts this Sunday and continues through July 17th, featuring, on Canada Day, the North American premier of Peace By Chocolate — based on the inspiring, true story of a family of Syrian refugees  who start a chocolate factory in Nova Scotia.

And for those of you without cars, the Toronto Outdoor Picture Show (or TOPS & Friends, for short) is showing outdoor movies  in person at Old Fort York, incorporating special features selected from a year of Toronto film festivals, including the Geothe Institute, Real Asian, Toronto Palestine, Inside-Out film fests,  Viewers can sit on the grass, physically distanced, while watching a whole bunch of movies — for free! Details and showtimes will be released in July.

But this week I’m looking at two new movies you can watch at home: a crime flick and a coming of age story, one from the UK the other from Iran. There’s a gangster in London who agrees to kill someone in order to save his young daughter; and a 12-year-old kid in Teheran who agrees to break the law in order to save his mother.

Silent Night

Wri/Dir: Will Thorne

London in the present day. Mark (Bradley Taylor) is just out of a London prison, and looking for work. His six-year-old daughter Daisy is overjoyed tp see her dad again, but his ex-wife Rosey is skeptical. Mark insists he’s a different man now, and wants nothing to do with the gangsters he used to pal around with. He just wants to carve a wooden hobby horse to give to Daisy for Christmas. But when he gets a job trimming trees in a forest, who is the first guy he runs into? Alan (Cary Crankson) a truly sketchy character if he’s ever met one who is also his former cell-mate. More former “friends” start gathering around him, including Pete and Seamus a friendly pair of pot dealers; Toni, the gang’s matriarch; Nicky, girlfriend of the boss; and Caddy (Frank Harper), the gruff and paranoid kingpin. 

They urge, cajole, pressure and threaten Mark offering a carrot and a stick, for this, they promise will be his final job. The carrot is enough money to keep his family secure and stable (the government jobs pay terribly). The stick is they’ll kill Daisy if he doesn’t follow through. What does he have to do? Catch and kill a rival mob boss who Caddy thinks is threatening his business. But when the bodies start piling up, with no end in sight, Mark has to make some heavy decisions. Can he complete the job, save his daughter, and figure out who is really behind this scheme… before getting killed or sent back to prison first?

Silent Night — it’s set during the days leading up to Christmas — is a heavy-duty London crime drama. There’s lot’s of death and violence — some quite explicit, others comical — as Mark tries to navigate his life as a former criminal gone straight despite all the forces working against him. No spoilers, but there’s also a major twist that caught me totally by surprise, and raised my enjoyment level considerably. The acting is good and the script is punchy and fast-moving, without being stupid (like so many crime dramas.)

I like this one.

Sun Children

Co-Wri/Dir: Majid Majidi

Ali (Rouhollah Zamani) is a 12-year old boy in Teheran. His father died in an accident and the shock sent his mother to a psychiatric hospital, where she lies tied to a bed, unresponsive. He has no money and nowhere to live, but does work for a pigeon-keeper and petty criminal named Hashem, who is like Fagin in Oliver Twist. Ali is the head of a group of four young guys, with Abolfazl, Reza, and Mamad.  They make money stealing hubcaps. They also look out for Zahra, a little girl who sells trinkets on the subway. Some of them are Afghan refugees, others have fathers in prison, on drugs or dead. So when the boys are offered a chance to go back to school, and get paid for it, they jump at the opportunity. Ali and his gang may be street smart but they’re uneducated. And he’s promised a safe place to live so he can take his mom out of hospital. 

There’s just one catch. He has to enrol in a specific school — the Sun School — and do a bit of side work without getting caught. When they’re not in class, they’re supposed to be secretly digging a long underground tunnel using a pickaxe and their bare hands. At the end of the tunnel,  beneath a cemetery, there’s buried treasure beyond their wildest dreams.  So begins their new lives, studying full time but also doing hard labour between classes. Abolfazl proves to be a great math student, and Reza excels at soccer. Ali has his own skills: he head-butts two classmates and scares off a third for insulting his mother. He still has to avoid the cops and the self-important school principal, while looking after the others, and relentlessly digging, digging, digging through the walls. What lies at the other end?

Sun Children — that’s what all the boys in the school are called — is a marvellous, realistic, entertaining and deeply-moving look at the lives of street kids. (If this film doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, I don’t know what will.) The children are all non-actors but pull off amazing performances, including Rouhollah Zamani, who won a top prize at Venice. This coming-of-age drama looks at political corruption, poverty, child labour and the duplicitous  and exploitative nature of grown-ups as seen through the eyes of children.

I strongly recommend this movie.

Sun Children and Silent Night both open today on VOD and digital platforms.

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

%d bloggers like this: