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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Career change. Films reviewed: Nightride, Jockey

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

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

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

Nightride
Dir: Stephen Fingleton

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

Famous last words…

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

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

Jockey
Dir: Clint Bentley

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

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

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

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

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

Nightride is now available on VOD, and Jockey opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; check your local listings.

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

 

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Shasha Nakhai about Scarborough

Posted in Canada, Drama, Education, Ensemble Cast, Family, Indigenous, LGBT, Poverty, TIFF, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on February 2, 2022

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

It’s typical day at a literacy clinic in eastern Toronto. Three new kids are there with their parents trying to find a place for them in the complex school system. Sylvie’s there with her mom —  her dad is in hospital and her 4-year-old brother Johnny is hard to handle. Bing is bullied by other kids, who questions his sexuality even as his mom works all day in a mani-pedi and his dad’s in a mental hospital. And little Laura was abandoned by her abusive mom, forcing her dad to raise her — someone who knows nothing about taking care of kids. Luckily, a kindly teacher named Ms Hina is there to smooth out the bumps and care for the kids even when it look like nothing can help them. And Bing, Sylvie and Laura become good friends. But can they overcome the obstacles in their precarious lives at a public school in Scarborough?

Scarborough is a wonderful, new, feature-length drama that premiered lat fall at TIFF and the ReelAsian film festivals to rave reviews and appreciative audiences. Using an ensemble cast and first-time actors, it explores life in a working class, multicultural neighbourhood in  Scarborough, where people struggle with poverty, homelessness, racism,  and a largely indifferent social system.   Based on the award-winning book by Catherine Hernandez, it’s directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson. Shasha Nakhai is a Toronto-based filmmaker whose work has aired on the BBC, CBC, ZDF and Arte and screened at the Museum of Modern Art. She has worked on documentaries like The World Before Her (2012), Driving with Selvi (2015), and League of Exotique Dancers (2015).

I spoke with Shasha Nakhai in Toronto via Zoom.

Scarborough is opening in Toronto on February 25th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Tough older women. Films reviewed: The Lost Daughter, June Again

Posted in Australia, Dementia, Depression, Drama, Family, Greece, Kids, Secrets, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 8, 2022

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

Well, as I’m sure you know, we’re under lockdown, and all the movie theatres are closed. It’s like Groundhog Day all over again. But that doesn’t mean you can’t watch movies at home on streaming networks or VOD.  So this week I’m looking at two such movies about tough older women. There’s a professor who finds a lost child as she interacts with a family of strangers; and a former matriarch who finds her missing past as she interacts with her own lost family.

The Lost Daughter

Dir: Maggie Gyllenhall

Leda (Olivia Coleman) is an established author and Harvard professor specializing in comparative literature. She has two adult daughters but she’s on vacation alone at a Greek beachside resort for some “me time”. Since she arrived, two men are already flirting with her: Will (Paul Mescal), an Irish lad working there for the summer, and Lyle (Ed Harris) an American old-timer who has been there for thirty years. Though flattered, she’d rather just lie on the beach (she describes herself a selfish person.) But her peace and quiet is broken by a noisy American family, who tell her to move down so they can sit together. She refuses, earning her a chorus of dirty looks. Later, she sees Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother from the same family, struggling with her little daughter who is chewing contentedly on a baby doll. The little girl disappears and panic sets in. And to everyone’s surprise it’s Leda who finds the missing girl, and the family is now grateful to her. But the girl’s doll is still missing, and she is driving Nina crazy with her constant crying. 

Later we discover it’s missing because Leda stole it for herself. Huh….? You see, like young Nina, she has her own checkered history of dealing with her daughters. Can neurotic Leda find happiness on the beach in Greece? Will she sleep with Will or Lyle (or neither)? Can Nina learn to deal with a cranky child? And what about the doll?

The Lost Daughter — based on the novel by Elena Ferrante — is an uncomfortable drama about a middle-aged woman coming to terms with her past. Her younger self is played by Jessie Buckley in a series of extended flashbacks. The “doll” aspect of the story, makes it seem like a psychological thriller… but it’s not. Rather it’s an intense character study of Leda, past and present. The acting is superb, especially Olivia Coleman as a woman dealing with an internal crisis. But the movie itself is hard to watch. Leda is not that sympathetic a character — we see all her faults and terrible decisions, because we’re inside her mind.  It’s mainly about her internal struggles, something harder to convey in a movie than in a novel.  It does have other parts I haven’t talked about — her poetry, her love affair, her time with her daughters — that make it richer and more complex than I described. It’s not a simple film. But it’s mainly about fear, suspicion, guilt and regret. Does it work? I guess so. It’s well-made but largely uncomfortable and unpleasant to watch.

June Again

Wri/Dir: JJ Winlove

It’s a normal day in New South Wales, Australia. June (Noni Hazlehurst) is an older woman living in a nursing home. Ever since a stroke, five years earlier, she has suffered from vascular dementia and aphasia — she can’t finish a sentence, and barely recognizes her own family when they come to see her. She just sits there in a semi-comatose state. Until, one morning, she wakes up as a whole new June. Or rather the old June. Suddenly she can complete a cryptic crossword, and responds to staff inquiries with a witty riposte. She is disturbed to see where she’s living. What are these hideous clothes she’s wearing, why is this place so tacky, and why is she there? They tell her she has dementia, and although she’s back to normal now, it’s only temporary. But June decides to use her time wisely.  She engineers an escape from that “prison”, zooming away in a taxi, and stealing some brightly-patterned clothes on the way. But everything has changed. 

Her home is no longer hers — there’s another family living there, and all her possessions are gone, including a prized wooden wardrobe.  The company she founded — a prestigious manufacturer of hand-printed wallpaper — has gone to seed, and is headed by a douchey manager who calls her former colleagues “girls”.  They‘re printing on low-grade paper now and have lost al their prestigious clients.  And her two adult children aren’t on speaking terms. When she last saw her son Dev (Stephen Curry) he was studying architecture and raising a family. Now he’s divorced, spends little time with beloved her grandson Piers (Otis Dhanji) and is working as a clerk in a copy shop. Her daughter Ginny (Claudia Karvan) has completely abandoned the factory, June’s life work. And June’s finances are a mess.  But what can she do — with the limited time she has left — to make everything right again?

June Again is a funny and heartwarming story of a woman given a second chance. The early scenes of Dementia June are similar to the movie The Father (starring Anthony Hopkins) where time sudden’y jumps forward to signify her frequent memory loss. But most of the movie is about Normal June, a brash, funny and bossy matriarch who won’t take no for an answer. Noni Hazlehurst is wonderful as June — the whole movie revolves around her, and luckily she’s marvellous to watch. June again is fun to watch, and though dealing with a sad topic is upbeat all the way. 

I liked this one a lot. 

June Again is now available on VOD, and The Lost Daughter is now streaming on Netflix. 

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

Christmas Movies! Films reviewed: Sing 2, Licorice Pizza

Posted in 1970s, Animals, Animation, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, L.A., Movies, Musical, Romance by CulturalMining.com on December 24, 2021

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

It’s Christmas today, with time off for most of you, meaning lots more time to spend at the movies, whether in theatres or at home.  So this week I’m looking at two new movies opening this Christmas weekend. There’s a cute cartoon about musical animals trying to put on a show, and a coming-of-age story about two young people in California trying to get to know each other.

Sing 2

Wri/Dir: Garth Jennings

Buster Moon is a producer-director who runs a small-town theatre. His current production, Alice in Wonderland, is a smash hit, selling out each night.  The performers, young and old, are singing and dancing their hearts out.,

And audiences love it. So now they’re ready to make it big… they just have to be “discovered” first. But when a talent scout from the big city is uninterested, they decide to take their show to the big city, and show up for the auditions anyway. They disguise themselves as janitors and sneak onto the stage, and to their great surprise, the big boss, Mr Crystal, who has rejected dozens of acts before them… likes them! He signs them on the spot under certain conditions. One: they must bring a celebrity  — specifically the reclusive rock singer Clay Calloway — into their show. And two, if anything goes wrong that might embarrass Crystal, he will literally throw them off the roof of his high-rise. 

Sing 2 is a sequel and in case you never saw the first one, this is an animated movie, and all the characters are animals. Moon is a koala (with the voice of Matt McConaughey), Crystal (Bobby Cannavale) is a wolf, the faded rock star is a lion (Bono) along with various other pigs, gorillas, and elephants  (Reese Witherspoon, Taron Egerton) as well as a cute porcupine named Ash , voiced by Scarlet Johannson unfortunately dressed in what looks like a fake indigenous headdress. (Why…?)

Although it has a kiddy plot meant for three-year-olds, Sing 2 is a consistently entertaining, highly watchable and fast-moving cartoon movie suitable  for kids and adults alike. There are some great scenes, like Johnny the break-dancing gorilla being forced to learn broadway dancing from a cruel choreographer, and a long audition sequence like a fast-motion American idol This is a musical, where the characters sing a huge selection of popular contemporary songs (mainly from the last decade or so), plus a few new ones written for the movie. But always as performers on a stage or in rehearsal, never spontaneously breaking into song in real life (like in a traditional musical). So if you’re looking for a cute and fun family Christmas pic, a film you can leave the theatre humming in your head, you’ll probably like Sing 2.

Licorice Pizza

Wri/Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson

It’s 1973 in Encino, California in the San Fernando Valley. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a teenager who lives with his single  mom, a business woman and entrepreneur. Gary’s an actor, part of a. song-and-dance kids troupe known as the Tiny Toes.  Today is photo day at the local High School. Gary sees a young woman in the hall who takes his breath away. It’s Alana Kane (Alana Haim) He approaches her point blank and asks if she’ll go out for dinner with him. She flatly rejects him. Turns out she’s not a student, she’s in her twenties, she works for the school photographer, and she wants nothing to do with this aggressive, chubby kid. But he is nothing if not persistent. So they end up having non-alcoholic drinks at a local bar & grill where Gary is a regular. She adamantly tells him they are not and will never date. But she agrees to be his chaperone to a TV appearance in NY city along with his Tiny Toes colleagues. She ends up dating his rival, an older and better-looking singer- dancer-actor, but it doesn’t last. 

They form a sort of a friendship and business partnership, trying out Gary’s various get-rich-quick schemes, some of which work, others that don’t. Gary wants fame and fortune, while Alana wants to support political causes (US Soldiers are still in Vietnam and Nixon is embroiled in the Watergate scandal.) Can the two of them get along, and will they ever take it to a higher level? 

Licorice Pizza is a stupendous, period comedy-drama, a coming-of-age story about a largely unrequited romance. It’s set within the rapidly-changing social and sexual mores of southern California in the turbulent ’70s.  It has cameo appearances by celebs playing other celebs, like Sean Penn as a movie star who seduces Alana and an unrecognizable Bradley Cooper as a wild-eyed Jon Peters (Barbra Streisand’s husband at the time) in an unforgettable scene where he’s a customer at their fledgling waterbed business. Because they’re in the Valley, Alana and Gary are constantly interacting with semi-famous people in their daily lives, but not quite making it big themselves.

Aside from these cameos, the movie is based on real people, or at least previously unknown actors in their first movie roles, and they are unbelievably good. Gary is played by Cooper Hoffman (son of the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Kane is played by Alana Haim  a musician/singer from the eponymous trio Haim. And if you look at the cast list, everyone is related to someone famous, with a Spielberg kid here, a Demme there, and more Hoffmans, Haims and Andersons than you can shake a stick at. And maybe that’s what makes this movies seem so incredibly real, even though it’s clearly just a movie. Everyone’s acting and playing scripted roles in costumes from a different era, but it just seems so honest, so true. And Hoffman and Haim have amazing chemistry.

I don’t usually gush over movies, but Licorice Pizza is so very entertaining, delightful, surprising, funny, sad, and moving, from beginning to end, that I walked out of that theatre thinking, wow, this is a movie everyone should see. It’s got direction, acting, music, locations, costumes, dozens of unforgettable characters,…I’m telling very little about what happens because I saw it blank, knowing nothing about it, and I think you should too. This is one of the best movies of the year.

This Christmas weekend Sing 2 and Licorice Pizza open theatrically across Canada with Licorice Pizza playing at the TIFF Bell Lighbox; 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

Men on the Run. Films reviewed: Flee, Red Rocket, Nightmare Alley

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1990s, Afghanistan, Animation, Circus, Clash of Cultures, comedy, documentary, Drama, melodrama, Movies, Refugees, Sex Trade, Texas, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on December 18, 2021

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

With Award Season quickly approaching — from the Golden Globes to the Golden Turkeys — the studios are releasing a lot of its big ticket movies in hopes of being considered for some of the major prizes up for grabs. This week I’m looking at three potential Oscar nominations, all stories about men trying to flee from their dark pasts for a potentially better future. There’s a man who leaves a burning house to join the circus, a middle-aged porn star who leaves LA to find a job in small-town Texas, and a young man who runs for his life from Afghanistan in hopes of finding a better one in Europe.

Red Rocket

Co-Wri/Dir: Sean Baker

Mikey Sabre (Simon Rex) is down on his luck. He was an LA porn star in his heyday, along with his wife, 

Lexi (Bree Elrod). But the good times are long gone. Now he’s back home in Texas City, Texas, with no money, no possessions, no reputation, the prodigal husband knocking at his ex-wife’s door. Naturally she and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss) want nothing to do with him, but he manages to sweet talk his way into letting him sleep on their couch. And after an exhausting search for employment — no one will hire a former sex worker — he falls back on his teenage job as a pot dealer. And soon enough, with the help of his blue happy pills, he’s sleeping wth Lexi again each night.  But everything changes when he meets a beautiful naive young woman with red hair, who works at the local donut shop. Her name is Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who loves pink hearts and everything sweet. Mikey becomes infatuated by her, both as a focus of his lust and his imagined ticket to wealth. He tells her he’ll take her away from this dead-end town and introduce her to the top names in Hollywood porn, after, of course, she turns 18. Wait… what?

Red Rocket is an outrageous  comedy about the misadventures of a former male porn star, including an extended across town by a panicking naked Mikey brandishing his Sabre. This is Sean Baker’s third such film — Tangerine about two black transwomen in LA, and The Florida Project, told through the eyes of kids in Orlando — shot, guerilla-style, on location on a budget using mainly first-time actors (who, I have to say, are all great!) And he helps normalize marginal sex workers by defying the usual stereotypes. At the same time, a movie about a predatory 40-year-old guy seducing a Lolita-like teenaged girl is not the same as rambunctious kids in Florida or wisecracking transwomen in LA. Don’t worry, everyone gets their comeuppance in the end, but Red Rocket will make you squirm and cringe uncomfortably along the way.

Flee

Co-Wri/Dir: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Amin is born in Kabul where he grows up under communist rule, watching Bruce Lee movies and dancing to pop music on his walkman. Now he lives in Copenhagen with Kasper, his lover — they’re thinking of buying a house in the countryside. After that is, he finishes his post-doctoral work at Princeton. But how did he get from Afghanistan to Denmark? When the US-backed Mujahideen invaded Kabul his family is forced to flee. Russia is the only place offering a tourist visa — but Moscow is a mess; the the Soviet Union has just collapsed and is now run by oligarchs and corrupt police. Now they’re stuck in limbo, supported by his older brother a janitor in Sweden. Can the family stay together? Can they ever make it to somewhere safe? Or will unscrupulous human traffickers lead them to disaster?

Flee is a deeply moving drama about one man’s journey as a refugee from danger to sanctuary, and all the moral compromises he is forced to make along the way. It’s sort of a documentary, in that it’s a true story told by the man it happened to, even though it’s voiced by actors using animated characters. And by animation, I don’t mean cute animals with big eyes, I mean lovely, hand-made drawings that portray what actually happened. Far from being the heavy, ponderous lesson I was dreading, Flee has a wonderfully surprising story, elegantly told.

Nightmare Alley

Co-Wri/Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s the dustbowl during the Great Depression. Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a bright and fit young man with great ambitions and a shady past. Leaving a dead man in a burnt house behind him, he sets out to find his fortune He comes upon a circus, and makes his way through the tents to Nightmare Alley, the area where the carnies do their work out of sight. He gets hired as a roustabout, hammering nails, pitching tents, but soon rises quickly within the circus ranks. Zeena  the Seer (Toni Collette) seduces him, and in return she provides access to her partner Ezra (Richard Jenkins) an aging alcoholic. Ezra holds a little black book outlining exactly how to con strangers out of their money by convincing them you can read their minds and talk to the dead. But he warns Stan, don’t fall into the trap of believing you it’s real — that can kill you. Meanwhile, Stan only has eyes for the beautiful and innocent Molly  Cahill (Rooney Mara), the electric woman. She’s fiercely defended by the other carnies, but they let her go when she says they’re in love. 

They move to the big city where they find great success in their psychic act. Stan loves their new rich lifestyle, while Molly pines for her previously life at the circus. But trouble brews in the form of a femme fatale, a beautiful blonde woman with an ivory-handled gun who attends one of their acts. Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) is a successful psychoanalyst who listens to — and records — the confessions of the richest and most powerful men in the city… and she is intrigued by Stan’s psychic abilities. (She completely ignores Molly). Perhaps they can combine their resources for even greater success? 

Nightmare Alley is a dark movie about an ambitious but ruthless man in his quest for success. Bradley Cooper is credible in the lead, but even better are all the supporting actors, from Willem Dafoe to Cate Blanchett. It has a novelistic storyline with a plethora of characters, almost like a classic Hollywood film, which makes sense.  Based on a novel, it’s a remake of the 1949 film noir of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. And it fits perfectly in del Toro’s body of work, with his love of freaks, legerdemain, underdogs, young women with pageboy haircuts, and of course many actors who appeared in his previous films. Guillermo del Toro (who shoots his movies in studios and locations around Toronto) has a troupe of actors he uses over and over, like Ron Perlman, dating back to his earliest movies. NIghtmare Alley is quite long — two and a half hours — but kept my attention all the way to a perfectly twisted finish. It’s a good, classic drama.

I quite like this one.

Red Rocket, Flee and Nightmare Alley all theatrically in Toronto this weekend; check your local listings.

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

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