Indigenous films at TIFF22. Movies reviewed: Ever Deadly, We Are Still Here

Posted in Australia, Canada, documentary, Drama, History, Indigenous, Inuit, New Zealand, Nunavut by CulturalMining.com on September 10, 2022

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

TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival is back again with guns ablazin’, after a two-year hiatus. Yes, TIFF didn’t actually stop over the past two years — there were some great films online in 2020 and some in-person shows during last-year’s hybrid version, but very few people were in actual attendance. No celebs, no parties, no volunteers, no lineups, and no red carpets. When the anti-piracy laws popped up on your home screen, there was no crowd there to say Grrrrr. You couldn’t turn to the stranger sitting beside you and ask what did you think of this movie. It felt more like a simulacrum than an actual event.

Well, this year it’s on again, 

They’re sticking a toe in the water to see how it feels. It’s called the TIFF Experience (whatever that means) and you can experience it right now, if you go down to King Street West in Toronto, between Peter and University. Even if you’re not up to going indoors yet, they’re showing outdoor screenings of classic movies. On stage, there are free concerts, and there are always sponsors handing out free samples to munch on, street performers, people dressed up, fans waiting to photograph arriving celebrities, the whole kit and kaboodle. This is pre-recorded so I can’t promise that’s what it will be but that’s prediction. It’s actually fun. That’s just on this weekend, so if you’re in Toronto, you should drop by.

This week I’m talking about two new movies playing at TIFF, both on indigenous peoples in the two antipodes. There’s throat singing in the far north and a new telling of history,  far, far south of the equator.

But first here are a few other TIFF movies I can’t wait to see. 

MOVIES AT TIFF

Chevalier (Stephen Williams) is about a little-known Guadaloupe-born composer in Paris during Mozart’s era. I want see it because it stars Kelvin Harrison Jr, one of the best new actors around who creates an entirely new character for each movie he’s in to the point he’s virtually unrecognizable.

Steven Spielberg has a world premier at TIFF with The Fablemans, his first autobiographical movie. Why do I want to see it? I’m just really curious to see what he did.

Women Talking is based on a book by Mirriam Toews about a Mennonite-type colony. It stars Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Sheila McCarthy, Frances McDormand, but I really want to see it because it’s directed by Sarah Polley.

The Kingdom Exodus is about a weird Danish hospital. It’s a TV show, something I rarely bother to watch at TIFF, and I know nothing about it, but the reason I want to see it is it’s directed by Lars von Trier, and I’ll watch anything he makes, no matter how painful.

And finally I hope to catch The Hotel, about a bunch of Chinese people stranded in a hotel in Thailand during 2020’s Spring Festival, just as the pandemic lockdown hit. I want to see it because it’s directed by Wang Xiaoshuai, who is an under-appreciated but skilled and thoughtful filmmaker.

Ever Deadly

Dir:Tanya Tagaq and Chelsea McMullan

Tanya Tagaq is an Inuit throat singer and performance artist from Nunavut. Ever Deadly documents a performance accompanied by musicians and singers. It’s experimental, avant-garde music interspersed with stories and poems recited as part of the concert. Throat singing is a traditional Inuit art form, but she also experiments with it, in a unique, highly sexual, sensual, visceral, animalistic and at times even supernatural voice. If you’ve seen her before you’ll know what I mean. The film is also about her family’s history, and that of Canada. Her nomadic grandparents were forcibly relocated to a barren arctic area, with nowhere to hunt or fish, in order to claim sovereignty of the land along the northwest passage. Chelsea McMullan also includes stunning scenes of the stark arctic landscape, polar bears, migrating birds, aurora borealis. And not just the visuals but also the sounds like the unique squeaking crunch of walking on pebbles on a beach. There are vintage footage and photos contrasting lawmakers in parliament with Inuit kids gleefully eating bloody raw seal meat. And grotesque, highly-sexualized animated drawings.

If you’ve ever seen Tagaq perform you’ll know exactly why you should see this, but if you haven’t, it’s time for you to experience it.

We Are Still Here

Dir: (Various)

At the height of the British Empire maps were coloured pink on every continent, showing both colonies and the so-called Dominions, areas, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand that were settled by Europeans who make up most of their populations. But these places weren’t empty when the British arrived. 

This film rewrites the history of Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific as seen from an indigenous point of view. It’s made by eight filmmakers, four each from Australia and Aotearoa, and it consists of a number of scenes set in the past, present and future. The first British ships appear on the horizon to a mother and daughter catching fish. A settler lost in the bush demands an aboriginal guide show him the way back to his town. A Maori village debates whether to go to war against settlers, ending in a Haka war dance. And a soldier in the trenches of Gallipoli, has an unusual conversation with his enemy, a Turkish soldier. There’s also a dystopian view if the future, and a number set in the present day, including a clandestine graffiti artist and a young protestor. One of the most moving ones is about an ordinary guy, a tradesman, just trying to buy a bottle of wine from a grog shop (liquor store), who is stopped each time by an abusive cop because he’s indigenous, and it’s Northern Territory where, apparently, it’s legal to routinely treat some people as second-class citizens.

I shy away from reviewing short films because they’re too short and there are too many of them. But We Are Still Here functions as a feature film, telling all the stories not as individual short films, but interwoven into a common coherent thread, jumping back and forth between then and now. It’s nicely done and relevant, very moving, and made by indigenous filmmakers. And it helps restore parts of history that have up to now been erased.

We are Still Here and Ever Deadly are both playing at TIFF;  Festival Street is open all weekend.

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

Journeys to redemption. Films reviewed: Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon, Bullet Train, We Are Living Things 

Posted in Action, Aliens, Amazon, Animation, comedy, Crime, Drama, Fairytales, Indigenous, Japan, Kids, Migrants, Trains by CulturalMining.com on August 13, 2022

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

TIFF is back on track again, after two makeshift years, bringing you the world’s best movies, showing only in theatres. King street will be open for celebrity spotting once again, along with free concerts and other spectacles. And the discount ticket packages are on sale only till Sunday, that’s tomorrow, with individual tickets starting as low as eleven dollars each if you’re 25 or younger.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about desperate journeys toward redemption. There’s one girl on a quest to save her Amazon village; two alienated migrants in America on a search for the truth behind alien abductions; and a half-dozen killers on a bullet train trying to kill all the other killers… before they get killed themselves.

Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon
Dir: Richard Claus, Jose Zelada

It’s present-day in the Kundamo nation of the Amazon. Ainbo is a 12 year old girl who calls herself a legendary hunter but hasn’t quite mastered the bow and arrow. She’s an orphan who lives with her best friend, Zumi, who is next in line for chief. But a dark shadow has fallen on her community, with fish dying and people turning ill. So she sets out on a quest: to talk to the giant mama turtle for direction, discover a powerful weapon, find the source of the poison, and defeat the evil demon Yakaruna.

Fortunately, two odd-looking animals appear beside her to help her on her way. Strangely enough, she can understand everything they say. Dillo and Vaca are her spirit guides but also tricksters, who can only be believed some of the time. Meanwhile, Attak, a mighty hunter, blames the disease on Ainbo, and chases her through the jungle to keep her away. Can Ainbo summon enough inner strength to realize her spiritual goals? Or will her people all die from this mysterious ailment?

Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon is a delightful, high-quality animated kids movie about a 12 year old girl’s attempt to save her people from destruction. Its told in the manner of a classic folktale, but with modern twists: perhaps their problems come from European developers trying to usurp their land. This is clearly aimed for little kids but I found it totally watchable, including a scene with day-glo psychedelia. I like this one.

Bullet Train
Dir: David Leitch

Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is a freelance criminal who carries out complex thefts around the world. But somehow bad things happen to people around him. Dying of poison, falling off rooves — there seems to be no end to the misery all around him. Luckily, his current job, is a piece of cake: board a bullet train in Tokyo, steal a briefcase full of cash, and get off at the next stop before anyone notices. Simple, right?  Not quite.

He doesn’t realize he’s not the only criminal on board. A well-dressed pair of twins, code-named Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry), are professional hitmen and the holders of said briefcase.  Prince (Joey King) is a ruthless and mysterious young woman dressed in a pink, snug-fitting school uniform, with her own agenda. Then there’s Kimura and his dad, both of a yakuza clan, a mysterious killer named The Hornet, and a man named Wolf (Bad Bunny) with vengeance on his mind. And of course the ruler of the underworld himself, White Death. Who will survive this fatal journey?

Bullet Train is a fast-paced, violent action comedy set aboard a Japanese high-speed train. It has a punchy soundtrack and an A-list cast, including Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, with cameos by Michael Shannon and Sandra Bullock. And it’s based on a book by critically-acclaimed Japanese novelist Kôtarô Isaka. Unfortunately, this big budget movie feels like a third-rate Tarantino knock-off. The screenplay is crap, filled with unfunny jokes and two-dimensional caricatures. It feels like the director has never been to Japan or set foot on a bullet train — he doesn’t even know they’re on raised platforms not normal tracks, or that Japanese vending machines never malfunction. Even the sound recording is poor — I couldn’t make out some of the dialogue in the first scene. While not bad enough to put you to sleep, Bullet Train never rises above the mediocre.

We Are Living Things 
Co-Wri/Dir: Antonio Tibaldi

It’s present-day New York, where two immigrants live very different lives. Solomon (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) lives completely off the grid. Born in Mexico, he crossed the Arizona border as a young man in search of his mother. She completely disappeared and Solomon believes she was abducted by aliens. Now he works as a jack-of-all- trades,  good at plumbing, wiring and carpentry. He likes non-digital devices, like metal detectors and industrial dryers and stays away from computers and cel phones.  He rents a hidden space inside a recycling plant, where no one can find him; he’s undocumented and knows how to make himself invisible. His main objective is to listen to aliens — the ones in outer space — through their radio waves, using a complex device made of a satellite dish and a piece of a magnetic meteorite.

Chuyao (Lü Xingchen) works in a mani-pedi salon. She holds a legal ID, its just not hers. She has cut her hair short and changed her name in an attempt to match the ID, but she looks nothing like the photo. It doesn’t matter, says Tiger (Wang Zao), the man who got it for her; white people think we all look the same. Tiger is a sleazy criminal and her de facto boyfriend, but behaves more like her pimp. He makes her attend private parties for rich clients, sometimes just singing karaoke, but often leading to sketchy or even dangerous after-hour meetings. Worse than that, Tiger has implanted a chip in her neck so he always knows exactly where she is. After a chance meeting, where Solomon discovers Chuyao shares his obsession (she was abducted by aliens back in China), he begins to follow her around, a guardian angel to protect her when she’s in trouble.  Eventually they end up fleeing the city together in an attempt to uncover aliens in Arizona… and perhaps discover each other.

We Are Living Things is a bitter-sweet, art-house drama about the lives of two alienated migrants in America, trying to regain their sense of self-worth. It’s filled with dreams and surveillance footage woven into the narrative. And while there is an undercurrent of sci-fi themes, the real dangers they face are the omnipresent police and ICE agents who permeate their lives. The cinematography is strikingly beautiful, capturing Chuyao’s louche glamour, Solomon’s low-tech machinery, and the glory of the American west. And Guerrero and Lü both have cinematic faces that look great on the screen. Strange and impressionistic, this film will stay in your mind long after it’s over.

You can catch We Are Living Things at the Carlton cinema in Toronto; check your local listings. Ainbo opens in theatres this weekend; and Bullet Train is now playing across North America.
 
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 filmmaker Jake Wachtel about Karmalink

Posted in Adventure, Buddhism, Cambodia, Drama, Dreams, Housing, Kids, Neuroscience, Poverty, Science Fiction, VR by CulturalMining.com on July 16, 2022

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

It’s the future in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Leng Heng is a teenaged boy who lives with his family in a poor section of town. He has strange dreams, centred on a small, seated buddha made of gold. He believes his dreams are evidence of his past lives. 

Meanwhile, unscrupulous developers are trying to kick his family — and all his friends and neighbours — out of their homes and relocated far from the city. And his Grandma, who suffers from dementia and memory loss,  is visited by a prestigious doctor testing a new sort of therapy. So he asks some of his friends — and a girl named Srey Leak — to help him find the golden Buddha. It’s a fun adventure, and they could all use the money. More than that it would prove his vivid dreams are real, and represent a link to the karma of his past incarnations. But he soon suspects there’s more powers at work here than just his dreams.

Karmalink is a new film out of Cambodia that looks at poverty, history, reincarnation and Buddhism, as well as neuroscience, memory, computer algorithms and virtual reality set against a futuristic Phnom Penh. It’s in Khmer, and stars first- time actors in realistic settings. Unusual, intriguing and a pleasure to watch — you’ve probably never seen any movie quite like it —  Karmalink is Cambodia’s first science fiction film. It’s also the first feature by American filmmaker Jake Wachtel. Originally from the Silicon Valley, he is known for his short documentaries set in the Global South, and his work has been featured in the NY Times, NPR and Wired.

I spoke with Jake Wachtel in Los Angeles via ZOOM.

Karmalink opens in select theatres and on VOD on July 15th.

Lost Souls. Films reviewed: Apples, Moloch, Passengers of the Night

Posted in 1980s, Archaeology, comedy, Covid-19, Depression, Disease, Drama, Family, Feminism, France, Ghosts, Greece, Homelessness, Horror, Netherlands, Radio by CulturalMining.com on July 10, 2022

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

It’s Nunavut day, so what better time is there to catch up on Inuit movies. Slash/Back, a brand-new movie about aliens in a small arctic town, is playing right now. The Grizzlies is a feel-good film about a high school lacrosse team. And if you’ve never seen Zacharias Kunuk’s movies — including The Journals of Knud Rasmussen and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner — well… you’d better.

But this week I’m looking at three new European movies — from Greece, the Netherlands and France — about lost souls. There’s a lonely guy in Athens who loses his memory in a pandemic; a divorced mom in Paris who seeks solace in late night talk radio; and a widowed mom in the Netherlands who is haunted by the lost souls… in a peat-moss bog. 

Apples

Wri/Dir: Christos Nikou

Aris (Aris Servetalis) lives by himself in Athens, Greece. One day while going for a walk he forgets where he lives. Also his family, his identity, even his first name. He has acute amnesia, the symptom of a strange pandemic, sweeping across the planet. He’s taken to hospital, with the hope a family member will arrive to identify him. But no one comes. About the only thing he knows is he likes apples. The hospital arranges for him to move into an apartment, where they hope he can regain his memory, or at least achieve some level of self worth and identity.  To achieve this they put him into an experimental program. He’s given a series of mundane tasks, all of which he is expected to record, using a polaroid camera. Ride a bike, go to a movie, attend a party, drink alcohol, meet a new friend. It also includes things like picking up a woman in a bar (he accidentally goes to a strip bar with embarrassing consequences) But during his recovery, while viewing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he encounters another alienated, memory-deficient person.   

Anna (Sofia Georgovasili) is clearly on the same program. Two is better than one, so they begin to see one another, if in a detached, alienated way. But as time progresses, Aris begins to remember things, including sad memories he wants to suppress. Will Anna be his soul mate? Will he ever find his original home? And is there any meaning to his life?

Apples is a satirical look at modern urban alienation in a time of pandemic. Interestingly, this film was completed in 2019 BC, (before Covid). But somehow it captures the mundane, seemingly meaningless medical obsessions, the injections, the tests,  the isolation, loneliness and self-doubt that we all experienced over the past two years.

Writer-director Christos Nikou worked with the now famous Yorgos Lanthimos, on his earliest film, Dogtooth, and like that movie, it’s funny, weird and extremely awkward, with adults behaving like children, and people blindly obeying seemingly nonsensical rules. It takes place in the present day but it’s filled with obsolete gadgets like polaroid cameras, and cassette tape players not a cel phone or a laptop in sight. Aris Servetalis is excellent as the main character, who fits perfectly within the film’s minimalist feel.

I like this one.

Moloch

Co-Wri/Dir: Nico van den Brink

Betriek (Sallie Harmsen) is a woman in her thirties who lives in an isolated home with her parents and her young daughter, in northern Netherlands. Her home is in a forest, surrounded by peat moss bogs. Her daughter goes to public school but Betriek likes the isolation — she thinks her family is cursed so it’s best to keep to herself. Easier said than done. Especially when a strange man appears in her living room! He can’t stop it, he says, they won’t let him! And his voice seems to be an unworldly chorus of a thousand souls. And then he tries to kill them all. Turns out he worked at a nearby archaeological dig, headed by Jonas (Alexandre Willaume) a Danish man.

Peat moss is a natural preservative and they’re digging up mummified bodies from ancient times. And when they examine them, they discover they are all victims of the same sort of ancient ritual sacrifice to some primeval god. By disturbing the graves they may have let loose ancient demons, possessing her friends and family. Meanwhile, her mother is going through another difficult period with her brain — is it related? Her father says they’d better leave the place and never come back. And when Betriek encounters strange visions of a little girl sending her a message, she realizes things are very wrong. Will Jonas ever believe there’s something evil going on? Can Betriek break her family’s curse? Will they fall in love? And together can they fight off an ancient evil god?

Moloch is an excellent Dutch horror movie about life in a remote village built over secrets that never should have been disturbed. It sounds like a simple story, but actually it’s a multi-layered drama. The film even incorporates a school Christmas pageant where small children innocently reenact an ancient pagan tribute even while mayhem is happening outside. The movie’s in Dutch, but because of the multiplicity of languages, much of the dialogue is in English. And remarkable for a horror movie, the cinematography is gorgeous, as warm and grainy as any 70s Hollywood movie. I liked this one, too.

Passengers of the Night

Dir: Mikhaël Hers

It’s the mid-1980s in Paris. Elisabeth (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lives with her two teenaged kids high up in an apartment tower. Her daughter Judith, is outspoken and into politics, while her son Matthias (Quito Rayon- Richter) is more introspective — he gets in trouble for writing poems in history class. The dad, though, is nowhere to be seen. He moved in with his girlfriend and pays no child support. So Elisabeth is forced to search for a job to keep her family afloat.  She finds solace listening to a late-night radio talk show, and applies to work there. She lands a job at the switchboard vetting callers and guests for the host, Vanda (Emmanuelle Béart). She invites a young woman to the show based on a touching letter she wrote. Tallulah (Noée Abita) is 18 but has lived on the streets of Paris for years, sleeping under bridges and in squats. She has raven hair, pale skin and doe eyes. 

Elisabeth can’t stand the thought of her sleeping in the rough, so she invites Tallulah to stay, temporarily, in a spare room tucked away far above their apartment. She wants to keep her separate from her kids, but they soon meet up. She’s street smart, and teaches them how to live on nothing and tricks like how to get into a movie theatre without a ticket. Matthias is smitten by her and longs to take it further. But after a late night tryst, she flees the apartment and disappears, leaving the family shocked and saddened. Four years later, things have changed. The kids are growing up, Elisabeth has gained self-confidence and she has a day job and a much younger boyfriend named Hugo.  But when her ex says he’s selling the home, it’s time for major changes. That’s when Tallulah reappears again at their door in a bad state. Can Elisabeth save Tallulah from her spiral into darkness? And what will the future bring?

Passengers of the Night is a beautiful and heartfelt look at a Parisian family navigating its way through unexpected shifts in their lives, and how a visitor can change everything. The film is set in the 80s (from 1981 through 1988), not just the costumes, music, and Talulah’s big hair but also the tumultuous political and social changes from that era. And it’s punctuated by views of Paris from that era — high-rises, sunsets and views through commuter train windows — shot on a narrower bias, to give it a realistic feel. While more gentle than a sob story, it still brings tears to your eyes.

Passengers of the Night and Apples are both playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. And Moloch is now streaming on Shudder.

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

Witches and Poets. Films reviewed: Benediction, Lux Æterna

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Drama, Feminism, France, LGBT, Movies, Poetry, UK, WWI by CulturalMining.com on May 28, 2022

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

Spring film festival season is in full swing this week in Toronto, with ReelAbilities, Inside-out and the Toronto Arab Film festival all on right now. TAF is a pan-Arab film festival; featuring movies from 19 countries, including dramas, docs, animation and experimental, and it’s on through Sunday. ReelAbilities has films by for and about people from disabled and deaf communities and it’s running through June 10th in a hybrid format. And Inside out, Toronto’s LGBT festival is on now through Sunday June 5th, featuring many world premieres, and presenting at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

Some of the movies at Inside-out I’m looking forward to seeing include a stunning-looking musical from Rwanda called Neptune Frost, Camilla Comes Out Tonight, an Argentinian coming-of-age drama,  So Damn Easy Going a Scandinavian story of the messy relationships of a young woman with ADHD, and The Divide, about the breakup of a couple in France during the “yellow vest” protests

But this week, I’m looking at two new movies both opening this weekend in Toronto that handle narratives in an experimental way. There’s a film from France about a burning witch, and a biopic from the UK about a war poet. 

Benediction

Wri/Dir: Terrence Davies

Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) is a Lieutenant in the British Army at the western front in WWI, known for his bravery and valour. He’s also famous as a war poet. An aristocrat, he’s a descendent of the Sassoon clan, late of Baghdad, Bombay and Shanghai. But by 1917, he is sickened by the war and the death of his men, so he writes and publishes a formal letter protesting it. Instead of being courtmartialed, he is diagnosed as shell-shocked and sent to a psych ward near Edinborough. There he befriends a young soldier named Wilfred afflicted with night terrors, and together they write poetry for the hospital’s literary magazine, the Hydra.

After the war he joins other writers, musicians and artists around London. One evening, while reciting his dark poetry at a soiree, he meets Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), a hugely famous celebrity whose sentimental songs — like Keep the Homefires Burning  kept up morale during the war. By that evening they are sleeping together with Ivor unceremoniously dumping his previous boyfriend Glen. But while Siegfried is a passionate romantic, Ivor is cold and cruel; he cares more about his looks and career than love or commitment. So after a messy break up, Siegfried has a series of relationships with various bright young aristocrats like Stephen Tennant in the 1920s-30s. But will he ever find true love?

Benediction is an impressionistic biopic about the life of Siegfried Sassoon and his friends and lovers between the two wars. This means he’s as likely to see Edith Sitwell reciting her doggerel as running into Lawrence of Arabia at a wedding rehearsal. But you never forget that this is a Terrence Davies movie, his unique style always apparent. Like singing — whether it’s soldiers breaking into song, actors on a west-end stage or just sitting by a piano at a party. And Sassoon’s own voice recites his poetry over photos of war dead. Flashbacks might fade from one to the next then back again reflecting the thoughts of a character, often with black and white newsreels projected in the background. There’s a lush, dark look to the whole film, in its music, images and sets. The acting — especially Lowden and Irvine but also Calam Lynch as Stephen Tennant and Gemma Jones as his ultimate wife Hester — is terrific all around. (The movie flashes forward to a reclusive and bitter Sassoon (Peter Capaldi) with a wife and adult son in post WWII England.) Benediction is romantic in the classical sense, more like a Wagnerian opera than a rom-com. The script is exquisitely written, with almost every line a bon mot, a witty observation or a cutting insult. Benediction is experimental and idiosyncratic in style but with a deeply moving story.

I really like this film.

Lux Æterna

Wri/Dir: Gaspar Noé 

Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg (played by themselves)  are two French famous actresses making a film together. Beatrice is trying her hand as director and Charlotte is the star. The film they’re shooting, on set, is a feminist reboot of accused witches being burned at the stake by religious zealots in the manner of the Inquisition. They chat about the meaning of burning witches as a misogynistic crime.  But all is not well. 

The producers of the film, are plotting to get Beatrice fired, so a young man named Tom is ordered to follow her everywhere and record it on film, with the hope of catching an error. Meanwhile, an American actor, Karl (Karl Glusmann) is trying to have a meeting with Charlotte, various models are desperately looking for the proper costumes and hair, and all of the personal assistants are incompetent. Worst of all, though, something is wrong with the lighting system, which begins generating as series of multi-coloured strobe lights, the kind that can induce a tonic-clonic seizure. Can the scene be shot? Or will panic destroy everything before it’s caught on film?

Lux Æterna is simultaneously an experimental piece of art, and a satirical look at the film industry, the Me Too Movement and the backlash that followed it. Gaspar Noe is the enfant terrible of French filmmakers, all of whose films somehow provoke and torture its viewers. In the past it was through extreme violence, horror, drugs or explicit sex. This time, it’s (theoretically) supposed to induce tonic-clonic seizures among epileptic viewers of the film. Why? Because the aura leading up to as seizure is said to be the ultimate psychedelic experience. (Not sure who said it because I can assure you there’s nothing pleasant about having a seizure!) Anyway, about a quarter of the film consists of the gorgeous multicoloured strobe effect projected over the crucified bodies of the witches. Another portion is in the titles themselves (Gaspar Noe is the master of creative titling — no font is accidental in any of his films) with old Roman capitals used to advance the plot. All the characters use their real names, and the shooting takes place on a movie set, just in case you need more meta. 

If you like Gaspar Noe — I love his stuff but it’s certainly not for everybody —  well, Lux Aeterna is his latest artistic experiment. A large part of it resembles Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, beautifully done, as if photographed on Calvary. And the strobe light effect is hypnotic though irritating. There’s very little plot or acting involved, with lots of gratuitous nudity, but, hey, it’s only about an hour long. I like everything he does, but this is not a major work, more like him fooling around. If you like art, you might enjoy this experiment, just don’t expect a normal movie. 

Benedction is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and you can see Luxe Aeterna at the Revue Cinema in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

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

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

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

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

Memoria

Wri/Dir: Apichatpong Weerasathakul 

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

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

What a lovely film Memoria is.

Downton Abbey: A New Era

Dir:  Simon Curtis

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

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

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

Confessions of Felix Krull

Co-Wri/Dir: Detlev Buck

Based on the novel by Thomas Mann 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Garber talks with Wendy Hill-Tout about her new film Marlene

Posted in Canada, Drama, Family, Journalism, Prison, Trial, True Crime by CulturalMining.com on April 9, 2022

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

It’s 1959 in Clinton, Ontario near a Canadian Air Force Base. The body of Cheryl Lynne Harper, a 12-year- old girl, is found brutally raped and murdered in the woods nearby. And Steven Truscott, a 14 year old classmate is charged and convicted with first degree murder and sentenced to death by hanging. This despite the fact the police hid or destroyed evidence, and failed to pursue other, more likely, suspects. Truscott spends a decade in prison, often in solitary confinement, the victim of psychological torture. And when eventually set free, he is forced to change his name and live with the shadow of the conviction still hanging over his head. But a crusader takes up his case and plays a crucial role in both his personal life and in his eventual exoneration. Her name is Marlene.

Marlene is a new drama based on this true story, as told through the eyes of an unsung hero, Marlene Truscott, who started working on Steven’s behalf even while he was still in prison. They eventually marry and raise a family, but it is Marlene’s dogged pursuit of the truth that led Steven to freedom. The film is made by noted Calgary-based writer/producer/director Wendy Hill-Tout, a member of the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers and known for her documentaries, dramas, TV and genre pics.

I spoke with Wendy Hill-Tout in Calgary via Zoom.

The film opens in select theatres this weekend across Canada.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Spider-man: No Way Home 

Dir: Jon Watts

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

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

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

Family Squares

Co-Wri/Dir: Stephanie Laing

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Garber talks with Agam Darshi about her new film Donkeyhead

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

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

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

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

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

I spoke with Agam Darshi from Toronto via ZOOM.

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