Gems at #TIFF22. Films reviewed: The Hummingbird, Will-o’-the-Wisp, Unruly

Posted in 1930s, 1970s, 1980s, Dance, Denmark, Disabilities, Family, History, Italy, LGBT, Mental Illness, Portugal, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 24, 2022

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

TIFF is finished and after viewing 45+ movies I feel pretty good about it. You’ll be hearing a lot more about TIFF movies like The Fablemans, The Whale, The Glass Onion, Women Talking, The Wonder and The Banshees of Inisherin  by the end of the year, but there are also a lot of movies, gems and sleepers, that get left by the wayside, without all the studios promoting them. So this week I’m talking about some of the other movies I saw there — from Italy, Denmark and Portugal — that deserve to be noticed. There’s a rebellious girl trapped on a remote island; a little prince seeking the facts of life in a firehouse; and a man called hummingbird whose fate is guided by a series of unusual events.

The Hummingbird

Dir: Francesca Archibugi

Marco Carerra is a man who places great importance on seemingly random occurrences. Take a fatal plane ride, for example.  When he’s a student in Florence in the early 1980s he starts winning big at poker.  But when he boards a plane heading for Yugoslavia with his gaming partner, Duccio, that man begins to freak, shouting hysterically at other passengers that they all are “dead” and the seats on the plane are ruined and decrepit. Marco is eventually forced to pull Duccio off the plane, thus missing the flight and their big card game. But it crashes, killing everyone on board. And Marco, with his deep belief in the significance of ordinary events, ends up marrying the flight attendant who also missed that flight. It’s just fate.

Another important date happened at their summer home on the beautiful Tyrhennian shoreline. The Carrera’s summer home is right next door to the Lattes’ house. And Marco has a huge crush on the beautiful Luisa, their daughter. But the night he thought he would lose his virginity to Luisa (for whom he would hold a torch forever) was also the night when his quarrelling parents went out for the evening, his brooding brother Giancarlo got so drunk he passed out, and their sorely neglected sister Adele committed suicide, turning all their worlds upside down. 

The Hummingbird — Marco’s nickname as an unusually small child until a sudden growth spurt in his teens after his father enrols him in hormone treatment — is a wonderful, novelistic  movie that traces the intricately woven story of Marco’s life, his love, his family, his wife, his daughter and eventually his granddaughter. But not in any obvious order. The story jumps back and forth between his childhood, his adolescence, and his middle and old age, keeping you guessing as to why he did what he did. When I say novelistic, I mean literally, with multiple characters coming in and out of his life making shocking revelations along the way, and calling into question his fundamental beliefs. It’s based on the novel Il colibrì by Sandro Veronesi which won the Strega Prize, Italy’s greatest fiction award, and it does feel like a classic story. What’s really surprising is it was published in 2020, during the pandemic, and the film must have been made since then. The movie stars Pierfrancesco Favino  as the adult Marco, Berenice Bejo as Luisa Lattes, Nanni Moretti as Marco’s friend, a psychiatrist (no spoilers here), and Kasia Smutniak as his tempestuous wife.

Keep an eye out for this sleeper and be sure watch it when it comes out.

Will o’the Wisp

Dir: João Pedro Rodrigues

It’s present-day Portugal. Prince Alfredo (Mauro Costa) is a pale young prince with curly blond hair.  heir to the crown. He lives in a palace full of statues and paintings recalling his family’s colonial history. (Though the country gave up its monarchy in 1910, his mother still considers Republican and Castilian the two worst insults in their language.) But with Alfredo coming of age his father, the king, decides to tell him what’s what. He takes him for a walk through the royal forest to admire the tall pine trees there. But his father’s description of tumescent tree trunks throbbing with sap so excites the lad, that he is forced to rethink his future. He doesn’t want to be king anymore, now he wants to be a fireman — specifically one who will protect those trees, about which he has an erotic attachment. 

At the fire station, Afonso (André Cabral) a handsome black student is tasked with introducing the prince to the firehouse and the forest. He introduces him to the other fireman, they practice exercises, search and rescues, recussitation, fireman carries, and sliding down poles, but for Alfredo, everything has a sexual subtext. Soon the subtext turns to out-and-out sex, with the two young fireman rolling around on the forest floor while shouting pornographic and racist epithets in the throws of ecstasy. But can the the little prince find happiness in the arms of a fireman? Or are his regal responsibilities too heavy a burden to bear?

Will o’the Wisp is one of the strangest, least classifiable films you’ve ever seen. It’s an historical  romantic science fiction comedy, and an arthouse-modern dance- musical satire. It’s only 67 minutes long, but in that short time you’ll see The-Sound-of-Music kids in school uniforms singing weird songs as they pop their heads out from behind trees; homoerotic exercise montages, and elaborate dance routines on the firehouse floor. I can’t say I understood all the cultural references that had the Portuguese viewers in the audience howling with laughter, but I could experience the beauty, ridiculousness and shock running throughout the picture. 

Unruly 

Co-Wri/Dir: Malou Reymann

It’s the 1930s in a working-class Copenhagen neighbourhood. Maren (Emilie Kroyer Koppel) is a free-thinking teenaged girl who knows what she likes and what she hates. She likes getting drunk, dancing to jazz and hooking up with guys. And she hates authority figures — including her mom —  telling her what to do. But when her family cuts her off and she becomes a ward of the state, she doesn’t realize her past actions will have grave consequences. She refuses to cooperate with a doctor (Anders Heinrichsen) trying to diagnose her “ailment”. He declares her unruly and out of control, and sends her off to a remote island known for its hospital for mentally handicapped women. Sprogø island is festooned with pretty flowers and picturesque homes where the patients are taught to be submissive, cooperative, quiet girls, under the watchful eye of Nurse Nielsen (Lene Maria Christensen). They are schooled in sewing, cooking and cleaning on the all-female island (though Marin is able to secretly meet with a young repairman). It’s a hospital, not a prison, she is told, but there’s no way to escape. And if you disobey, or even spread bad attitudes, you are strapped to a table and kept in solitary confinement.

Her roommate, Sørine (Jessica Dinnage) acts as the rat, reporting on any woman who disobeys the rules. But as Maren gets to know her better she soon discovers the real reason for Sørine’s behaviour: she just wants to be reunited with the child they took away from her. Will Maren learn to accept her fate? Will she find a way to escape the island? Or is she stuck there forever?

Unruly is a deeply moving drama based on an actual hospital that operated in Denmark until the 1960s. Its many crimes included involuntary sterilization, mis-diagnoses, torture and authoritarian rule. Instead of having a series of stock characters, with easy to categorize heroes and villains, all the women develop over the course of the film, giving it an unexpected profundity. This film is a lovely and tragic look at a terribly flawed institution and the people it affected.

Will-o’-the-Wisp, The Hummingbird, and Unruly all premiered at TIFF.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Love My Dad

Wri/Dir: James Morosini

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

No!

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

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

Easter Sunday

Dir: Jay Chandrasekhar

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

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

The Innocents

Wri/Dir: Eskil Vogt

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

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

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

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

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

Hope? Films reviewed: The Matrix Resurrections, Try Harder, American Underdog

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

New Year’s Day is a good time to look toward the future and make plans. So this week I’m looking at three new movies, a drama, a documentary, and a science fiction action /thriller, about looking forward. There’s a football player who dreams of playing for the NFL, a group of high school students who dream of going to Stanford, and a video game creator who dreams of a world completely different from our  own. 

The Matrix Resurrections

Co-Wri/Dir: Lana Wachowski 

Tom Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a video game maker and programmer in Chicago. His baby is a series called The Matrix —0 there have been three versions so far and the company is thinking of creating a fourth. The game — created and programmed by Tom and financed by his business partner (Jonathan Groff) — is about two fighters named Neo and Trinity who fight in a parallel world against a villain named Smith. At a cafe Tom frequents, he notices a woman named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), and she notices him, too. Have they met? No, but Trinity and Neo, the characters in the game, look very similar to Tiffany and Tom. And Tom has been having weird dreams and deja vu, so his analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) gives him meds  — blue pills — to keep his mind from wandering. That is, until one day glitches start to appear on his computer matrix, unexplained activity within his own designs. These soon morph into changes in real life: people, (actually characters he created) are appearing in the office! And they know who he is… Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a fighter, and Morpheus (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) are their to explain it all. 

You’re not Tom, they say, you’re Neo. And it isn’t your dreams that are false, it’s your daily life that’s made up. You can pass through mirrors, climb walls, jump off roofs and fly! And if he just stops swallowing those blue pills he’ll see what the world is really like — a futuristic dystopia of people kept alive in rusty pods guarded by scary bots. Will he stay in his current world or break free? What awaits him in the other world? And will Tiffany/Trinity come with him if he goes?

The Matrix Resurrections is the long awaited sequel to the famous Matrix trilogy that has permeated our popular culture. People still use the terms “swallowing the blue pill” to refer to those who go about their daily lives ignoring a darker reality. It incorporates older footage in the forms of dreams and flashbacks, while introducing new characters as well as new actors playing older roles. It’s two and half hours long, much of which is gun fights, chase scenes, and endless SGI images.

Does it work? I’m not a Matrix fanboy, so I have no deep, vested interest in finding out what happens to these characters. I like the new plot twists, and the whole meta-aspect of it (it initially presents the previous episodes as existing in this universe but only as video games). And it’s fun just to watch (though a bit too long). I enjoyed this final version of the Matrix, but it didn’t change my life.

Try Harder

Dir: Debbie Lum

San Francisco’s Lowell School, known for its exceptional test scores and a graduation rate of nearly 100%, is one of the most famous public schools in California. Students there are under pressure — from their parents, other students, and themselves, to achieve high marks, SAT scores and ultimately to get into a prestigious university. This documentary looks at five students as they try to navigate the stress of senior year. 

The film follows the students at school, in their classes, at teams and clubs, and at home. The school — like the city — has a large Asian-American population, mainly of Chinese origin, but explores the stark differences as well, of class race and culture. Some are the kids of recent immigrants, while others are a part of the city’s long history. It also looks at differences in attitudes and stereotypes. This film doesn’t try to dig too deeply or uncover surprising turns; rather it observes and talks to the subjects and lets nature take its course — as they apply to universities and change their expectations over the course of the year. Try Harder is an intimate look at how teenagers handle what many consider the most important year of their lives. 

American Underdog

Dir: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin

Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) is born in small-town Iowa and raised by his divorced mom. Ever since he was a kid he has always wanted to be a pro football player. He practices religiously, till his arm can throw balls like a howitzer. After  high school he makes the team  at Northern Iowa University, but spends most of his time on the bench. One night, at a roadhouse bar, a certain woman catches his eye. Brenda (Anna Paquin) is a no-nonsense former marine who likes line dancing and Country & Western music. But she won’t give Kurt her number. How come? She has two small kids, including one with disabilities, and she doesn’t have the time to waste on guys like him. But Kurt is persistent. He brings her flowers, and more important, just it off with Zach (Hayden Zaller) her legally blind and disabled son. So they start dating. Meanwhile his career is advancing nicely, until he is asked to try out for the Green Bay Packers. Is this his big chance? Nope, he only lasts one day. 

Now he has to work as a stock boy at the local grocery store. Eventually he is recruited to play pro football… well, kinda. It’s a new sport called Arena Football: played indoors on smaller fields, with fewer players and is much faster than the usual game. The years pass, and he’s spotted by someone who wants him to play on for the St Louis Rams — that’s NFL. But can someone who is way too old to be a rookie, and too green to be a pro  ever make it in the NFL? And can he win and keep Brenda’s heart?

American Underdog is a moving family drama and sports biopic based on a true story.  It’s no spoiler to say that Warner ended up taking his team to the Super Bowl and was awarded Most Valuable Player and is now in the NFL Hall of Fame. But this film tells us what led up to it and how he got there.

This is what’s known as a “Christian” or “faith-based”  movie,  a particular American genre, with no nudity, sex, drugs or even cussing. It’s all about cornfields and country music… not my usual cup of tea. Nor am I football fanatic. But you know what? It’s a compelling story, with real situations and interesting characters. It’s not sappy or corny or cheesy, nor is it cringe-worthy (unlike your average Hallmark movie). No. This is an honestly good, nice film. OK, there’s no way — even in a dark room — that you would ever mistake a 40-year-old Zachary Levi for a college student. No way. But that’s beside the point. He’s good, and so is Paquin, and Hayden Zaller as the kid Zach is adorable without ever being cutesy. I saw the Erwin brothers previous Christian film, “I Still Believe” and there’s no comparison — this one is a cut above. 

American Underdog, is now playing theatrically, check your local listings. You can find the Matrix Resurrections in theatres and certain streaming services, while Try Harder is playing at Hot Docs cinema and on VOD.

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

Films to look out for at #TIFF21 + Titane!

Posted in Disabilities, Disguise, Feminism, Fetish, Horror, Thriller, Torture, Trans by CulturalMining.com on September 11, 2021

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

TIFF has just started, in a half digital, half in-person sort of way, and it looks like it’ll be fun… kinda. There are screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Roy Thomson Hall, Scotibank Theatre, the Princess of Wales and at Cinesphere at Ontario Place, along with various drive-ins. And for those who fear the virus, you can watch it at home… but the selection is not identical. Some filmmakers don’t want their films premiering on your TV or phone.

Seats are all reserved, so no need to line up. And thinking of munching popcorn? Think again. Nothing will come between you and your mask, even during the movies. Scotiabank Theatre has even issued a diktat that they may be searching your bags — not for firearms, but for cameras and potential munchies. They even issued restrictions on the size of shoulder bags, purses or knapsacks!

This is serious stuff, people.

Because of press embargoes at the time I’m recording it, I can only review one non-embargoed film — a story of a woman who is really into cars. But I can also tell you, for your edification — not reviewing, just telling — about some of the movies coming to the festival that I think look good or interesting.

Here are some of the movies I’m looking forward to seeing at TIFF this year:

Saloum

Saloum is a supernatural action thriller set in West Africa. It’s about about a small team of mercenaries known as the hyenas who escape from a coup d’etat in Guinea Bissau only to land their prop plane in a remote part of Senegal only to encounter supernatural dangers. It’s written and directed by Jean Luc Herbulot and comes out of Lacme studios in an innovative outfit based in Dakar. and it’s having its premiere next week as part of Midnight Madness.

Benediction

Benediction is biopic about Siegfried Sassoon, an aristocrat celebrated for his poems about WWII. I think the movie delves into his personal life, including his lovers. And it’s written and directed by the great Terence Davies — that’s the main reason I want to see it. He has an amazing style of filmmaking like no one else.

Attica

Attica is a documentary feature about the notorious prison in New York State, and the uprising there 50 years ago, where dozens of inmates and guards are killed. I want to see this both for the topic, also for the director. It’s made by Stanley Nelson, who has documented crucial parts of American history, including the civil rights movement, the black panthers, and many others His docs are always great.

Alanis Obomsawin

And speaking of great documentary filmmakers, they’re celebrating Alanis Obomsawin this year and playing many of her films at the festival. If you’re a regular listener of this show, you’ve probably heard some of my many interviews with her over the years — but even if you haven’t, you really should catch some of her films playing at TIFF. Working at the National Film Board she’s the one who’s been documenting indigenous history from the inside, since the 1960s.

Dune

I don’t believe I can call any movie a guilty pleasure, but I am actually mildly excited by Dune. It could be dreadful or it could actually be good. I’m sure you’ve heard of it —it’s based on Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel about a royal family on a sand-covered planet. It’s directed by Denis Villeneuve and it stars Timothee Chalamet… I dunno, could be good, could be terrible.

There are so many other movies I’m l’m hoping to see.
There are adaptations of Canadian novels like Maria Chapdelaine and All My Puny Sorrows based on Miriam Toews’ book. And international directors like Norway’s Joachim Trier called The Worst Person in The World; and Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s film set during the Cultural Revolution, called One Second.

Anyway, despite what some people are saying, there are a lot of great — or potentially great — movies out there, and many have tickets still on sale.

Titane
Wri/Dir: Julia Ducournau

The south of France 20 years ago. Alexia, a bratty little girl who doesn’t wear her seatbelt, is in a terrible car accident. She recovers from brain surgery but is left with a prominent scar on one side of her head covered with a titanium plate. Many years later (Agathe Rousselle) she’s as foul tempered as ever, but now is tall, lean and long limbed with blonde hair. She’s a successful model who specializes in car and boat shows — the type of model who wears skimpy revealing clothing as they pose beside and caress in a the vehicles on display. She has many devoted fans but refuses to sign autographs. And she has a sharp metal knitting needle always tucked in her hair.

For unexplained reasons, but maybe because of the childhood car wreck, she is infatuated by cars. I mean really infatuated, She finally fulfills her fantasies by literally having sex with a Cadillac. They don’t show it, but it’s clear from the bouncing fender and flashing headlights that the caddy is as much into her as as she is into it. But something changes after that, and she starts killing people with her knitting needle. First a rabid fam, and later every other human at a beachside sex orgy. Soon the police are tracking her and she has to get away. At a train station she spots a poster for a little boy named Adrien who disappeared more than a decade earlier and presumed dead. Thinking fast, she hides in a \washroom, smashes her nose flat, dyes her hair brown and cuts it short, and uses cloth tape to flatten her breasts. Now she resemble what the poster boy Adrien might look like today. Sure enough, the dead boy’s dad Vincent (Vincent Lindon) says he’d recognize his son anywhere. He drives her home and puts her to bed in the boys room kept intact since he disappeared. But that’s not all.

Vincent, her new dad, is a super macho guy who lifts weights and injects steroids into his bum. He’s the dictatorial head of an all-male fire station. And Adrien/alexia’s room is inside the firestation. So suddenly she’s trapped in the form of a man in an intensely homoerotic workplace where the men all drink beer and rub against each other to disco music. And… she’s pregnant, and the most likely father is the cadillac. Will Vincent discover she’s not his kidnapped son? Will she ever get out of there alive? Or has she finally found her home?

Titane is a stylized, and surreal, totally off-the-wall fantasy, seen through the eyes of an involuntary transgendered anti-hero who has sex with machines. It’s also about the deluded Vincent who will do practically anything to protect his only family member. It plays with concepts of gender, sexuality, self-identity and family. Lots of gratuitous extreme violence, nudity, and weird, weird sex — this movie is not for the squeamish or the sensitive. Agathe Rouselle and Vincent Lindon are both amazing in their roles. I think this movie is strange but brilliant. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, only the second film directed by a woman to win that. Great movie.

Titane and the other movies I mentioned are all playing at TIFF. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

Secrets and Lies. Films reviewed: The Secret Garden, She Dies Tomorrow, The Burnt Orange Heresy

Posted in Art, Depression, Disabilities, Disease, Fantasy, Horror, India, Italy, Kids, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on August 7, 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 about secrets and lies. There’s a little girl with a secret garden, an art critic with a secret past, and a woman whose future night be ending tomorrow.

The Secret Garden

Dir: Marc Munden

Based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett

It’s 1947. Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is a little English girl raised by servants in India. They dress her, feed her and bring her whatever she wants. She likes telling stories and playing with dolls. But when her parents both die, she’s shipped back to England to live in the stately Misselthwaite Manor. It’s a huge mansion with secret rooms and passageways, haunted each night by scary voices eachoing in the halls. It’s owned Mary’s uncle, the reclusive Lord Craven (Colin Firth) and strictly supervised by the housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters). who warns Mary, keep quiet, eat your porridge, and stay away from forbidden rooms or Lord Craven will send you off to boarding school! Needless to say Mary hates it there.

But things take a turn when she discovers she’s not the only kid there. Colin (Edan Hayhurst) is the source of the wailing cries she hears each night. He’s pale and bedridden and never leaves his room – he’s her first cousin. And there’s young Dickon (Amir Wilson) who knows his way around the estate grounds and the misty moors beyond. When a little bird leads Mary to an ivy covered gate, she‘s delighted to find a walled garden, full of sunlight, flowers, butterflies and a bit of magic. It’s a wonderful place where she can play with Dickon, and tell stories. Can Mary keep her beloved garden? Will Colin ever leave his room? Will Lord Craven come out of his shell? And what other secrets does Misselthwaite Manor hold?

The Secret Garden is a new adaptation of the famous children’s book written more than a hundred years ago. It’s definitely a kids’ movie, but the children aren’t cutesy they’re interesting, argumentative and rude… and their characters develop over the course of the film. The acting is good all around. It deals with issues like death, loss and depression within the exciting adventure story. I wasn’t crazy about the excessive use of CGIs reflecting Mary’s internal thoughts, but, like I said, it’s a kids’ movie. And its multi-racial cast provides a nice break from the traditional, lily-white British historical dramas.

I enjoyed this movie.

She Dies Tomorrow

Wri/Dir: Amy Seimetz

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is a young woman who has it all: a lover, a devoted friend, and her first house – she just moved in today. She’s happy, healthy and financially secure, and hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol for months. So why is she so depressed? Because she just found out she’s going to die. Really soon. And there’s nothing she can do about it. There’s no medical report, or threatening letter or anything… she just knows, deep down inside. How should she spend her last 24 hours? Making love? Saying goodbye?

Instead, Amy grabs a bottle of liquor, puts on her favourite sequined gown, and goes into the backyard to do some gardening. That’s where her best friend Jane (Jane Adams) finds her a few hours later. She tries to understand Amy’s feelings of fear and dread and calm her down, talk some sense into her. But a few hours later, it’s Jane who is sure she’s going to die. And she passes it on to her brother at a birthday party where it spreads to others throughout the building. Is this mass delusion? A psychological virus? And can it be stopped?

She Dies Tomorrow is an uncategorizable movie, with equal parts dark comedy, horror, fantasy and satirical social drama. It’s about a highly contagious virus that makes people believe they’re about to die and then (maybe) kills them. It’s also about what we choose to do in our last 24 hours. It dramatizes the infection using a series of intensely coloured flashes of light – red, blue, green – accompanied by murmuring voices inside characters’ heads. And it alternates the scary parts with inane conversations about the sex lives of dolphins and dune-buggy rides, all set in a southwestern American desert town. Although She Dies Tomrrow was made before the current pandemic, its surreal and impressionistic feel perfectly captures the current malaise infecting everyone right now.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Dir: Giuseppe Capotondi

Based on the novel by Charles Willford

James (Claes Bang) is a handsome but cynical art critic who lives in northern Italy. He earns his living selling his books and giving lectures to American tourists. His theme? it’s not the artists who make art great it’s the critics. Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) is a strikingly beautiful woman with an acid tongue. She mysteriously appears at one of his lectures and calls his bluff. It’s art, truth and beauty that’s important, not criticism and spin. They end up making passionate love in his apartment.

James invites her on a trip to Lac Como, to visit Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) a dilletente who married into money and is famous as an art collector. Cassidy supports eccentric artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland) who lives on his estate, with the hope he will someday create a masterpiece. Although critically acclaimed, all of his paintings were destroyed in a series of fires, and he allows no one, not even his benefactor to look at his work. Cassidy offers James a deal – you can have an exclusive interview with Debney if you bring me one of his paintings… And I don’t care how you get it. Will James get the painting? Will his relentless ambition lead to unforeseen ends? And what is Berenice’s role in all this?

The Burnt Orange Heresy is a taut, tense noir thriller about deceit and lies within the rotten world of fine art. It’s full of twists and surprises throughout the film. The beautiful settings, clever dialogue and attractive cast stand in sharp contrast to its dark – and sometimes violent – theme. Debicki and Bang are fantastic, like a modern day Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, shifting from lovers to friends to potential rivals. I liked this one a lot, but beware: it’s anything but a romantic comedy.

The Secret Garden, She Dies Tomorrow, and The Burnt Orange Heresy, all open today in Toronto, theatrically or VOD – 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.

Different from the norm. Films reviewed: Blood Machines, The Roads Not Taken, Code of the Freaks

Posted in Disabilities, documentary, Drama, Dreams, Family, Hollywood, Science Fiction, Space by CulturalMining.com on May 22, 2020

Audio: unedited, no music

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

I’m still recording at home in the midst of this pandemic, but movies are still being released, just not theatriclly. So this week I’m looking at three new indie films that celebrate the unusual. There’s a psychedelic pilot in outer space, a man with dementia retreating into his innermost thoughts, and a radical re-look at the disabled in film.

Blood Machines

Dir: Seth Ickerman

It’s the distant future on a desolate planet in outer space. The spaceship is headed by Vascan (Anders Heinrichsen) with second-in-command Lago (Christian Erickson), along with a glowing metallic robot as its brain. It’s a ramshackle outfit, held together with nuts, bolts and duct tape. But they are surprised one day by a huge, snakelike machine that crash-lands nearby. Vascan ventures outside to neutralize it, but he’s stopped by a small group of all-women warriors, their hair dyed bright red. Don’t hurt her they say, referring to the AI-powered machine. Her? And when Vascan attacks the machine, something remarkable happens. A naked woman emerges from the wreck and flies up into the sky. She has a flawless body with the image of a glowing, upside down crucifix covering her groin and lower torso. What is she, a friend or foe? And why is she there?

Blood Machines is a surreal, psychedelic science fiction fantasy, told in three short chapters. The lines are delivered in comic book fashion, accompanied by brilliant electronic music (by Carpenter Brut). Vascan looks like an angry Jared Kushner in a tailored suit with Members Only epaulettes, while Lago is more like the original Scotty (on Star Trek) with a hangover. They are later joined by Corey (Elisa Lasowski) who adds rivalry and sexual tension to the mix –the giant laser gun Vascan likes to brandish, keeps malfunctioning when Corey’s around. There are holograms, fight scenes and writhing naked bodies. There’s not much of a story to speak of, but it doesn’t matter – It’s saturated with hot pinks, violets and acid greens, powered by constant musical thrumming, and loaded with endless science fiction tropes, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Beautiful to watch and to listen to.

The Roads Not Taken

Wri/Dir: Sally Potter

Leo (Javier Bardem) is a middle aged man who is not all there. He lives in a spartan NY apartment beside the El-train. His daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), a career woman in her twenties, has the morning off to take him to the dentist and the eye doctor. But when she arrives he’s almost comatose. He barely responds to her questions. Is he just a hollow vessel with no spark inside? In fact his mind is elsewhere, caught between two other lives progressing simultaneously.

In one alternate reality, he lives with his first love Dolores (Salma Hayek) in an adobe home in the desert with rose coloured walls and bars on the window. She wants him to come with her to a Day of the Dead celebration to communicate with someone they lost. In a second life he’s a novelist on a picturesque Greek island where he writes and chats with tourists in open-air tavernas. But back in the present day his life is miserable. He’s prone to wander at night, barefoot and unaware. He drinks the dentist’s mouthwash and wets his pants, and calls strange women Dolores. Can Molly get through to her dad? And can he accept reality or will he retreat permanently into the recesses of his mind?

The Roads Not Taken is a grim look at the miserable life of a man suffering from dementia living a life he regrets, mitigated by the kindness of his daughter and the vibrant world he lives in inside his head. I have mixed feelings toward this movie. On the positive side, it has a stellar cast: Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek and Laura Linney as his ex-wife. But the narrative is fragmented among the three worlds, and not entirely satisfying. Elle Fanning is sympathetic, but how many times can a character have tear-streaked cheeks in one movie? She never turns off the waterworks. The musical score is great, and the cinematography is really effective, with a constant movement – trains, taxis, pickup trucks – that neatly ties together disparate scenes. Still, this movie just didn’t deeply move me. Sally Potter may be a great director, but this film is not one of her best.

Code of the Freaks

Dir: Salome Chasnoff

Are disabled people hideous villains or saintly, childlike freaks who need to be rescued? People with secret superpowers? Or ones who desire either to die or to be “cured”? All of the above, if you go by Hollywood movies. This new documentary looks at 100 years of film portrayals of people with disabilities and finds it sorely lacking in real-life characters.

The doc consists of movie clips – everything from The Miracle Worker, to Rain Man, to My Left Foot — alternated with brilliant commentary by artists, writers, academics and activists. There’s no group-think here, more of a cross-section of ideas from the community. And it covers very wide ground. Like the portrayal of sex and disabilities. White women are eroticized by upping their vulnerability, while black men are neutered, made non-threatening and asexual. And, as one commentator points out, you virtually never see two disabled people having sex with each other.

Blind people have “super-power hearing abilities” (Daredevil) or a carnal need to touch other people’s faces (!? ). If you have a mental illness or disability, you have no self-control, and are liable to explode… so you have to be either institutionalized, or killed, before you “hurt someone” (eg Of Mice and Men). Little people are turned into figures of fun. Wheelchairs are made symbols of limitation, not the vehicle they use to get around. (Are drivers ever described as “confined to cars”?)

The doc pinpoints some of the most offensive movies of all, skewering the hateful Million Dollar Baby, in which the heroine valiantly chooses death over living with a disability. It’s a running theme in this documentary – a happy ending in a drama with a disabled character means they’re either “cured”, institutionalized, or killed. Even worse are the dreadfully insipid “inspirational movies” where people are congratulated for their “bravery” just for existing, instead of portraying them as real people. The one thing you almost never see are disabled characters portrayed by disabled actors (though that’s gradually improving). Probably because roles like this are too valuable as Oscar Bait for the stars.

Code of the Freaks is a scathing look at Hollywood’s portrayal of disabilities and a radical rethink of the genre. This is a must-see documentary for all moviegoers everywhere.

The Roads Not Taken is available now on VOD; Code of the Freaks was the opening night film at the RealAbilities Film Festival; and Blood Machines is now streaming on Shudder.

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

Quirky films at TIFF 19. Entwined, Parasite, 37 Seconds, Love Me Tender

Posted in Class, Disabilities, Fairytales, Fantasy, Greece, Japan, Korea, Manga, Mental Illness, Poverty, Switzerland by CulturalMining.com on September 6, 2019

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

TIFF – the Toronto International Film Festival – started last night with over 300 movies to see. There’s more glamour and celebrity than you can shake a stick out down on King St. West. But this week I’m going to talk about some of the unusual, odd or quirky movies you might otherwise miss. There’s a woman in the woods in Greece, a poor family in a Korean mansion, a disabled manga artist in Japan, and a house-bound woman in Switzerland.

Entwined

Dir: Minos Nokolakakis

Panos (Prometheus Aleifer) is a young doctor starting a practice in a remote Greek village. But on a drive through the forest, his car hits a beautiful young woman, all dressed in white. Though injured, she flees into the woods. He follows enchanted music until he finds her cabin. It’s an old place built around an ever burning hearth, with music coming from an ancient windup Victrola. But to his horror, he finds her under the spell of a violent, old man who keeps her as his bride. He defeats the ogre, drives him to a hospital and comes back for the woman, Danae (Anastasia Rafaella Konidi).

He intends to bring her to the city for counselling and medical care (she has a strange skin disease). But Danae refuses to leave – she owes it to the trees, earth and sky to keep the hearth burning. Instead she gives him strange potions that make him sleep for days, or possible months. And whenever he tries to leave the forest the trees seem to lead him back to the cabin. Who is this strange woman? What does she want? How old is she? What is she hiding behind her locked door? And is he her lover…orher victim?

Entwined is a contemporary take on classic fairytales, with a bit of mythology thrown in. Though somewhat predictable, it’s pretty to watch, well-acted and… well, I like fairytales.

Parasite

Wri/Dir: Bong Joon-ho

Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) lives with his family in a desolate basement apartment in Seoul. They’re destitute but clever; Ki-woo earns money writing exams for rich but stupid college applicants. So when Min offers him his parttime job tutoring a highschool girl, he smells bucks. Big Bucks. She lives in a beautiful home built by a famous architect, along with her bratty little brother, vapid mother and absentee Dad, a CEO. Through some skillful manoeuvring Ki-woo manages to find jobs for his sister, father and mother in the same house, as, respectively, art therapist, chauffeur and housekeeper without ever letting on they are all related. Only the youngest notices they “all have the same smell”. They’re the sort of people who take the subway, explains the father. They all have a disgusting smell that never comes off…

Now that they all have well-paid employment they can turn their lives around, and leave their apartment. Until… something awful happens which sends their lives spinning in a new direction. [No Spoilers: this movie depends on its surprises].

Parasite starts as a knock off of last year’s Shoplifters, about a poor family making do. But once they’re in the rich house, the plot spirals outward in ever-more shocking, funny, and impossible directions, until it becomes a bizarre fantasy.

Brilliant.

Parasite won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

37 Seconds

Wri/Dir: Hikari

Yuma (Kayama Mei) is a woman in her twenties who lives with her single mom (Misuzu Kanno). She was born with Cerebral Palsy, and depends on her mother for basic functions, including bathing, dressing herself and getting around in her electric wheelchair. Though she can’t walk, she’s a gifted manga artist who works for an instagram star named Sayaka. Sayaka passes Mayu’s work as her own, and pretends she doesn’t know her at book signings. But when Maya tries to publish work under her own name, she gets snubbed.The only publisher who will consider her work is a comic book porn publisher. But when they meet, Maya is told the sex scenes just aren’t real enough. Come back after you get some sexual experience. Now Mayu has a goal, which opens a new world to her, and uncovers some secrets from her past. But can she get what she wants under the ever-watchful eye of her over-protective mother? And can an inexperienced and naïve disabled woman find independence and happiness?

37 Seconds (the title refers to the amount of time she was deprived of oxygen in childbirth) is a wonderful and warm, feel-good movie. It’s a bittersweet coming-of-age story about a disabled woman in a big city, as she encounters aspects of adult life – including sex work, porn and sex toys – she knows nothing about. No spoilers, but the story also takes her on an unexpected journey, unrelated to the other plot line.

First-time actor Kayama Mei is both touching and adorable as Yuma, and breaks new boundaries as a disabled actress. 37 Seconds is an unexpected treat.

Love Me Tender

Wri/Dir: Klaudia Reynicke

Somewhere in Italian-speaking Switzerland. Seconda (Barbara Giordano) is an adult woman who lives with her parents in an apartment overlooking a courtyard. She likes to dance in a green leotard and stare at passersby outside her window. Life is uneventful until two things happen: her mother suddenly dies and her father disappears leaving just a post-it note on the fridge. At first she feels free to do what she wants and eat what she wants. She throws her meds out the window. But she finds she also has adult responsibilities: feeding the cat and the fish, — at which she fails miserably – keeping the house in order and, most important, feeding herself.

And she encounters a rude debt collector who leaves threatening voicemail messages, and a hapless young man Santo (Antonio Bannò) who collects deposit bottles. But when she runs out of food, she realizes she has to go shopping. Problem is, she’s never been outside her home – she has acute agoraphobia. But rather than starve to death, she dresses in protective blue armour – a zippered jumpsuit – and ventures into the outside world for the first time.

Love me Tender is a fantastical comedy abut an unusual woman living with mental illness. Klaudia Reynicke’s style feels a bit like Yorgos Lanthimos’ early films, with the simplistic tone and the childlike behaviour of adult characters… but she does it in a manner all her own. And Barbara Giordano is just so good, imaginative and full-body-expressive as Seconda… she totally owns the role.

Entwined, Parasite, 37 Seconds and Love Me Tender are all playing at TIFF. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

Bustin loose. Films reviewed: Ma, Rocketman PLUS ReelAbilities Film Festival

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Disabilities, drugs, High School, Horror, Music, Musical, Psychological Thriller, Thriller, UK by CulturalMining.com on May 31, 2019

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

Spring festival season continues in Toronto with Inside Out and Reelabilities playing through Sunday. ReelAbilities is a film festival showing shorts and features (along with panel discussions) dealing with disabilities. They are made by actors and filmmakers with disabilities, and the characters or topics of the films touch on issues relevant to people with a wide range of abilities. This includes physical disabilities, deafness, and many others areas, ranging from Tourette’s to one of the most segregated and discriminated groups: people with intellectual disabilities. And the festival itself is designed and planned to make the movies accessible to all viewers, with subtitles on the screen and locations fully accessible to people who use wheelchairs.

This week I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a thriller/horror. There’s a man who turns to music to overcome his stodgy and repressive upbringing; and some teenagers who turn to a surrogate mom to escape their restrictive parents.

Ma

Dir: Tate Taylor

It’s winter in small town America. Maggie (Diana Silvers) is a 16-year- old girl from San Diego starting at a new school. She just moved there so her single mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) could start a job as a cocktail waitress in a nearby casino. Luckily she quickly makes friends with the popular kids at school, a clique that includes the take-charge girl Haley (McKaley Miller), and their designated driver Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). A typical Saturday night consists of convincing a random adult to buy them alcohol, and then getting drunk at an abandoned rock pile on the outskirts of town. (Lots of fun.)

But things take a turn for the better when they meet Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a middle-aged assistant at a veterinary hospital. She says they can use her basement as their party headquarters, a place to listen to music, dance and get drunk. Word spreads quickly until every kid in town knows that’s the place where they can par-tay without grownup supervision — except Sue Ann, of course, whom they all call “Ma”. It’s a kids’ paradise. Or is it?

Maggie feels something is not quite right.

What they don’t realize is that all of their parents, even Maggie’s mom, went to high school together back in the 80s. Sue Ann went there too, something bad happened, and she wants payback. Is Sue Ann just lonely and enjoys reliving her teenaged years with local kids? Or is there something more sinister going on? And will the sins of the parents fall on their children?

Ma is a pretty good psychological thriller / teen horror movie. The casting is good, not just the main roles but even the small parts, like Allison Janney as the foul-mouthed animal doctor, Dominic Burgess as a flamboyant casino manager, and Luke Evans as Ben, a dickish security exec. But the story is a bit muddy, with the point of view shifting from Sue Ann, to Maggie to Erica. It’s not a spoiler to say this is a thriller/horror, so you know something bad is going to happen, but most of the movie is suspense leading up to the violence rather than the violence itself. Is it scary? More creepy than scary. Is it gory? A little, toward the end. And the story seems a bit lopsided, almost as unbalanced as Sue Ann herself.

While Ma is not perfect, I did enjoy watching it.

Rocketman

Dir: Dexter Fletcher

It’s England in the 1950s. Little Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) lives with his standoffish RAF dad, his self-centred mum and his kindly grandmother. He’s an ordinary kid until the day his fingers touch the keys of a piano, and suddenly everything changes. He discovers he can play perfectly, by ear, any song he hears on the radio. He enrolls in the Royal Academy of Music and starts on the path to be a professional musician.

Later, in his twenties, he works as a backup musician for a touring American soul band. He learns about rock and roll and gets his first kiss… from a guy! And he learns to reinvent himself. Reginald Dwight becomes Elton John (Taron Egerton), and the pudgy, shy boy gradually becomes the flamboyant pop star. Together with his writing partner and platonic best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) they head to London and then on to Los Angeles.

There he meets the handsome manager John Reid (Richard Madden), who takes Elton under his wing, promising incredible fame, fortune and success. But is it true love? Soon Elton John rises to the top, becoming the world’s biggest pop star playing to stadium-sized audiences… even as his personal life spirals into a decadent morass of depraved sex, drugs, alcoholism. Will Elton ever find peace with his parents, overcome his self doubt, come out publicly as gay, and find true love?

Rocketman is a biopic about Elton John from his life a a child until a low point midway through his career at a drug rehab centre. It’s also a musical. By musical, I mean an actual, old-school musical, one where the characters at any moment might burst into song accompanied by elaborately choreographed dance numbers. The dance scenes include everything, from 50s rock’n’roll dance routines, to abstract modern dance in a swimming pool, to writhing bodies at a 70s sex orgy.

The songs they sing tell Elton’s life by singing his (and Bernie Taupin’s) actual hit songs, rearranged chronologically to fit the storyline. I’m not a fan, to say the least, of most music biopics, and had very low expectations for Rocketman, but I actually really liked it. It’s a beautifully produced, seamlessly directed and highly stylized movie that moves without pause from start to finish. It has outrageous costumes, and great music – with the actors doing their own singing. And they’re really good at it, especially Taron Egerton.

If you like Elton John’s music – and even if you don’t – you won’t be disappointed by Rocketman.

Rocketman (which opened Inside Out) and Ma both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. ReelAbilities and Inside Out are both on through Sunday.

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

When I grow up… Films reviewed: Fighting With My Family, Never Look Away

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, Art, Biopic, comedy, Communism, Disabilities, Germany, Nazi, Sports, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 22, 2019

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

One question every kid hears is What do you want to be when you grow up? When I was three I wanted to be a fire truck. But how many stay true to their earliest ambitions? This week I’m looking at two movies about people who stick to their childhood passions. There’s an historical drama from Germany about an aspiring artist and a biopic from the UK about a perspiring wrestler

Fighting with My Family

Wri/Dir: Stephen Merchant

Saraya Knight (Francis Pugh) is a thirteen-year-old girl in a working-class neighbourhood in Norwich. Her mom and dad (Lena Headey, Nick Frost) run a business: the WAW, or World Association of Wrestlers. But like everything else in that world, it’s a bit of an exaggeration. They have one gym where they train local kids to wrestle, and take their family’s matches on the road in their shiny white van. Her life is fully immersed in the sport. Black haired and petite, Saraya uses black eyeliner and dresses in heavy metal gear. She has posters of her wrestling heroes on her wall and even made her own championship belt out of cardboard. But she has one problem: she chokes under stress.

So her big brother Zack (Jack Lowden) takes her into the ring and teaches her how to wrestle. He is her sparring partner, and they soon become an accomplished tag team. She’s a natural. But they have bigger ambitions: to be make it to the top. So when the WWE is coming to the UK they sign up for the tryouts. This is Zack and Saraya’s one chance to make it big. The auditions are led by Coach (Vince Vaughan) a hard-boiled veteran who takes no prisoners. Will Zack get in? And will he take Saraya with him? Turns out, Coach chooses her, not him!

Suddenly she finds herself in Florida surrounded by palm trees, suntans and bikinis while Zack is left in Norwich taking care of his new baby. Saraya — now called Paige — is overwhelmed by the gruelling, boot-camp workouts and the loneliness she faces. Zack feels abandoned so he cuts her off. And the fledgling wrestlers she’s paired with are all former models, dancers and cheerleaders… who don’t know how to wrestle. Professionals finesse their jabs, throws and punches so they don’t hurt so much.

Her parents and all the kids at the gym back home are rooting for her, but Paige is filled with doubt. Can the little “freak from Norwich” ever make it in pro-wrestling?

Fighting With My Family is a very cute, palatable and easy-to-watch comedy biopic, about the real female pro wrestler known as Paige. I have to admit I knew next to nothing about pro wrestling before I watched it.

What did I learn? That this sport is “fixed”, but it’s not “fake”… the wrestling part is real, and it can really hurt. That it’s a theatrical performance, much like a circus. That you have to win over an audience if you want to make it. And that your persona, while a big exaggeration, has to have some truth in it or no one will believe it. The movie is filled with salty language but no sex or violence (except in the ring). Pugh and Lowden are great as the brother and sister. Yes, it’s predictable and sentimental and I’m not going to call it a “great movie”, but I had a good time watching it.

Never Look Away (Werk Ohne Autor)

Wri/Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

1937, Germany.

Little Kurt, with his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), visits an exhibition in Dresden filled with avant-garde art. He loves the beautiful colours of fauvism, the strange distortions of cubism, and challenging images by Grozs, Kandinsky, Mondrian. But is he too young to understand the art show was put on by the Nazi government to condemn this art as bad and “degenerate”? No, he understands perfectly what they’re saying, and rejects it all.

But he listens to his aunt when she warns him to keep his drawings secret. Later, when the lovely but eccentric aunt has a strange episode they lock her up in a mental hospital. While she is there, top-ranked Nazi doctors decide to throw away not just “degenerate” art but imperfect people. Anyone with a mental illness, physical disability or a developmental handicap is sent to the gas chambers. Doctors write either a blue “minus” (keep) or a red “plus” (kill) on their files. This includes Elisabeth, condemned to death by a top Nazi gynecologist (Sebastian Koch).

Later, after the war, Kurt (Tom Schilling) is accepted into the Dresden Art Academy. But now his talent is stifled by the communist government who only want him to paint socialist realism: stern men and rosy-cheeked women harvesting wheat as they stare toward a brighter future. At the academy he meets the kind and beautiful Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), and wins her heart. Even under communism, Ellie is a “golden pheasant” from a rich, high-ranked family. They fall in love and meet for secret trysts. But when her parents come home they have to be extra cautious. While her mother is sympathetic, her father, Professor Karl Seeband, tries his best to break them up. But what no one realizes, this professor is the same doctor who sent Kurt’s aunt Elizabeth to her death!

Kurt and Ellie eventually make it to West Germany, where he joins the prestigious art academy in Düsseldorf, and lands a private studio to create the art he really wants to make. The art professor tells him his work is good but not yet special, but he still detects the talent hidden there. Will Kurt ever find his true calling? Will Seebald’s hidden war crimes be exposed? Can Ellie emerge from beneath her oppressive father’s shadow?

Never Look Away is an epic, fictionalized drama about the life of a well- known artist, spanning German history from the Nazi era, to the communist east, and to the changes in the west in the 50s and 60s. It stars some of Germany’s biggest names: tiny Tom Schilling with his high-pitched voice is still playing young men in his late thirties (and he’s great as Kurt). Paula Beer (Transit) is sweet as Ellie, Sebastian Koch is suitably sinister as the hidden Nazi Zeebald, and Saskia Rosendahl (who was amazing in Lore) once again wins as Elisabeth. The cinematography and music are all wonderful. But something seems missing from this huge drama.

At one point Kurt makes an interesting point: Take six random numbers. On their own they have no meaning. But if they are the winning numbers on a lottery ticket suddenly they become important and beautiful. I went into this movie blind, knowing nothing about it. While watching it, I kept thinking what’s the big deal about Kurt? But when he starts experimenting with smeared, black-and-white, photorealist paintings, I thought, wait a minute, those look like Gerhard Richter’s paintings! And suddenly the movie makes sense. It becomes a winning lottery ticket. Not a perfect movie – not as good as this director’s Lives of Others – but definitely worth watching.

Oscar nominee Never Look Away and Fighting With My Family both open today in Toronto; 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.

Need help. Films reviewed: Capernaum, The Upside

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Drama, Kids, Lebanon, Migrants, Movies, Poverty by CulturalMining.com on January 11, 2019

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

If January has left you broke or in debt, but you still want to see some movies, there are free alternatives out there. Kanopy – free for anyone with a Toronto library card, is an online streaming service with a huge selection of incredible movies and documentaries you can sign out digitally for free. Workman Arts and Rendezvous with Madness is showing a selection of cool movies about mental illness, for free later this month — reserve tickets online. And the Japanese Consulate in Toronto and the Japan Foundation are sponsoring three Japanese movies, first come, first serve. Both of these series are playing at the Hot Docs cinema in January.

This week I’m looking at two movies about people who need help. There’s a homeless kid in Beirut trying to help a motherless toddler, and a homeless ex-con in New York trying to help an extremely rich man who is paraplegic.

Capernaum

Wri/Dir: Nadine Labaki

Beirut, right now.

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is a foul-mouthed, poor kid who doesn’t go to school – his parents never registered him when he was born. He shares a bed with his three sisters, including Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam) the oldest. When she has her first period, Zain senses danger. He’s afraid their parents will marry very young Sahar to their predatory middle aged landlord Assaad. His fears turn out to be true, and she’s carried out of their home kicking and screaming. Zain has had enough… so he runs away. On a bus he meets an elderly man in a knockoff superhero costume – I’m cockroach man – and follows him to a rundown carnival. There he meets Tigest (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian woman fluent in Arabic with a baby named Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). She uses a fake ID – she draws a beauty spot on her face each morning, but without she could be deported. She’s poor too, but takes Zain under her wing; he takes care of the baby while she’s at work. Everything’s going fine until… She doesn’t come home one day. What happened to her? Now 12 year old Zain has to serve as 1-year-old Yonas’s dad, searching the streets for milk and diapers for the baby, food and water. Zain is forced to pose as a Syrian refugee to get any help. But how long can a homeless child – taking care of a baby – last in a big cruel city?

Capernaum (the Lebanese word for chaos) is a funny, delightful and fascinating drama that’s also brimming with pathos. It’s a genuine tearjerker, I cried at least three times – couldn’t help it – but despite the tears, surprisingly this is not a depressng movie. It’s told in a series of flashbacks based on testimony in a courtroom. Zain is there suing his own parents for giving birth to him. The trial serves as the backdrop, but it’s mainly about Zain’s journey as an undocumented kid. Most of the characters are played by non-actors, but all of them, especially Zain al Rafeea are superb and real-seeming. It deals with very heavy topics – including human trafficking, refugees, poverty, child neglect and abuse – but this film manages to handle it with just the right degree of sadness, punctuated with enough humour to stop it from sliding into misery

This is only the second film I”ve seen by Nadine Labaki. I still remember Where do We Go Now (2011) a simple story about the women in a village trying to stop the conflict between Christians and Muslims. That was a cute movie, but this one is 100 times more clever, sophisticated, and skillfull.

I liked this film a lot.

The Upside

Dir: Neil Burger

Phillip (Bryan Cranston) is a billionaire widower who lives in a penthouse suite in New York City, He hasn’t large live in staff, including Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), his kind but prudish financial manager. He loves opera, poetry, fine art…, and paragliding. Or at least he did until a terrible accident left him paralyzed except for his neck and head. Now he’s despondent and ready to die. But Yvonne insists on hiring a new caregiver.

Dell (Kevin Hart) is a deadbeat dad with a teenaged son and an ex wife he can’t support. He’s a ne’erdowell on parole with a long prison record, and if he can’t prove he’s looking for work he’ll be back behind bars. Somehow he ends up in Phillip’s penthouse just when they’re hiring. To everyone’s surprise Phillip hires the extremely rude and unqualified Dell, mainly because he wants to die, the sooner the better. Dell is just as shocked to get the job, especially when he sees the first paycheque. But somehow the two hit it off, and little by little, Phillip crawls out of his shell and learns to live again. But how long can it last? Will Dell’s prison record come back to haunt him? And can Phillip ever recover from the loss of his one true love?

The Upside is a Hollywood remake of Intouchables, the French comedy that was a box office smash. I’ve never seen the original – apparently based on a true story – but I doubt this one will be a big hit. It’s very predictable, with some godawful jokes. Faking a tonic-clonic seizure to avoid a speeding ticket? (Please don’t.) Uneducated Dell mispronouncing famous names and three sylable words? Of course he panics at the idea of touching another man’s penis, even inserting a catheter. (Really?) Dell’s black, you see, but don’t worry white people, he likes Aretha Franklin not that newfangled hip hop stuff. (Sigh).

That said, there are some funny scenes; Hart and Cranston are likeable in their roles and together make a good buddy movie, and Nicole Kidman is unusually understated.

Is The Upside a great movie? No, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Capernaum and The Upside both open today in Toronto; 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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