Opening and closing nights at TIFF. Films reviewed: Dear Evan Hansen, One Second

Posted in 1960s, Bullying, China, Communism, Depression, Drama, Family, High School, Movies, Musical, Poverty, Prison, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 25, 2021

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

The ending of summer and TIFF marks the beginning of Toronto’s Fall Film Festival season. And first in line is the TPFF, Toronto’s Palestine Film Fest on now through Sunday, with films, workshops, exhibitions and feasts, both here and digitally across the country. Go to TPFF.ca for details.

But this week I’m tying up loose ends by looking at the opening and closing night features at TIFF. In a show of solidarity and togetherness in the face of increasing worldwide tension, the festival opened with a film from the US and closed with one from China. And, coincidentally, both films are about underdogs and outcasts. There’s a suburban high school student whose life is changed by a letter, and an escapee from a labour camp in China whose life is changed by a movie.

Dear Evan Hansen 

Dir: Stephen Chbosky

Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a high school student in suburban USA. He’s depressed, painfully shy and insecure. His broken arm is in a cast. He lives with his mom, a nurse (Julianne Moore) who sends him to a therapist to handle his difficulties. His summer assignment? To write optimistic letters to himself in the third person — “Dear Evan Hansen” to help raise his spirits. And his Mom suggests he get all his friends to sign his cast. But the first day of school turns out so dismal that he rewrites his letter into one of despair. An angry loner named Connor (Colton Ryan) offers veto sign his cast — so we can both pretend we have friend. But after a tussle, Connor snatches the letter from his hands and runs away. And the next day Connor is dead from suicide, with no note except Evan’s sad letter they find in his pocket. Connor’s Mom and Dad  (Amy Adams, Danny Pino)

turn to Evan — thinking they’ve found their late son’s secret pal. Evan, who barely sees his mother is so happy to have anyone pay attention to him, that he decides to brighten their day by talking about Connor and himself — all imaginary of course but anything to make them happier. And it doesn’t hurt that Evan has a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). 

Alana, the most popular kid at school (Amandla Stenberg) urges Evan to form a group to remember Connor. He can hardly say no since he says they were once friends. The deception grows and grows, until he gives a moving speech captured on other people’s phones, which immediately goes viral. Donations pour in to commemorate Connor, his family is happy again, and tens of thousands feel their lives have been improved, even saved, because of Evan’s talk. But it’s all a deception. Will he come clean? And will he get the help he needs/ And what about Zoe?

Dear Evan Hansen is an emotionally moving, constant tear-jerker that doesn’t let up until the end. It’s bases on the hit Broadway musical, and stars Ben Platt who originated the role and who sings with a sublime angelic tenor. It’s filled with songs and dances punctuated by wistful gazes at the sky, a tree, a window or into other people’s eyes. I’m not a big fan of Broadway musicals but I really liked this one. It’s poignant more than depressing, and you really feel for the main characters. So if you want to break your heart over and over, and listen to some songs, don’t miss Dear Evan Hansen.

One Second 

Dir: Zhang Yimou

It’s China’s Cultural Revolution. A man (Zhang Yi) who escaped from a labour camp in the Gobi Desert is walking across the sand dunes. His mission: to watch a movie. There are very few movies you’re allowed to watch during the Cultural Revolution, and he’s desperate to see one in particular. But there’s someone else also looking for a film. A street urchin with dirty face and unkempt hair, known as Orphan Liu (Liu Haocun) is intent on stealing a reel for his own nefarious purposes (we find out later she’s a girl, not a boy). The two engage in a cat-and-mouse chase until the reel is returned to its rightful place: in the hands of the town projectionist known as “Mister Movie” (Wei Fan). He’s an arrogant perfectionist, highly revered in the village because he’s the only source of entertainment. Tonight’s show? Heroic Sons and Daughters, an operatic drama about the anti-Japanese War decades earlier. But when the dust settles Mister Movie  realizes one of the reels has been damaged — it’s just a pile of tangled film covered with sand and dust. He cancels the screening. Whaaaat?

The townspeople are mortified, and none more that the escaped prisoner. He, and everyone else, agree to communally rescue the damaged reel, wiping clean each frame and rolling it back into its spool. The escapee  especially needs to view it that night. Why? Because of the newsreel. His daughter — whom he hasn’t heard from since he was arrested and sent away for punching a Red Guard — appears in it for one second. It’s his only chance to see her. And he’ll stop at nothing so he can see it. Will the films be shown? Will he get to see his daughter? And will Orphan Liu get what she’s looking for?

One Second is a lovely and touching look at the personal effect of movies on the people who watch them. It’s well crafted and historically evocative. It’s set during the Cultural Revolution, with Mao’s quotations painted on every wall. Though it’s portrayed lightly, it does reveal the poverty, oppression and unfairness of that period. People are hungry, children are bullied, police beat up the wrong person, and everyone — including  Mister Movie —is in constant fear of losing their job due to corrupt or indifferent party members.  But there are happy times too, like when the whole village bursts into song, along with the soldiers on the screen. No spoilers, but the storyline of the movie they watch — Heroic Sons and Daughters, about a soldier separated from his daughter — is reflected in the real lives of all the main characters in One Second.

This is a beautiful, nostalgic, and ultimately feel-good movie. 

Dear Evan Hansen opens this weekend — check your local listings; One Second should be opening later this year.

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 Tracey Deer about Beans

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

It’s the summer of 1990.

Tekehentahkhwa or “Beans” for short (Kiawentiio) is a typical, innocent 12-year-old girl who lives near Montréal with her Dad, her ambitious mom, and her little sister. Her biggest worry is getting into a posh private school to guarantee a successful future. But her life is totally changed when the town of Oka tries to grab Mohawk burial grounds to expand a golf course. Protests erupt and her family, being Mohawk, joins in. But when it turns into a blockade and a stand off involving police and the military, it reveals acts of violence and virulent racism she has never witnessed before. Now she has to make a decision: should she toughen up like her dad? Or keep to the straight and narrow like her mom? And how will she emerge from these life-shattering events?

Beans is a fantastic new drama – told from an indigenous point of view – that combines the historical record with a highly personal and intimate coming-of-age story. Since it premiered at TIFF last fall, it has garnered dozens of awards for filmmaker, Tracey Deer who has created a work of personal and national importance.

I spoke with Tracey Deer via Zoom.

Beans is now playing in Toronto and all across Canada, from Victoria to Halifax.  

Pigs. Films reviewed: Alice, Gunda, Pig

Posted in Animals, documentary, Drama, Feminism, Food, France, Russia, Sex Trade, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 17, 2021

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

Pigs.

In ancient Greece they were considered monsters — Theseus defeats a sow that terrorizes a village. They’re banned by various religions, and considered unclean and selfish. But did you know people keep pigs as pets, and some say they’re more intelligent than dogs?They’re more than just bacon for your eggs, they’re an important part of our culture — think Animal Farm, Miss Piggy, Spirited Away, Charlotte’s Web, and Babe, to name just a few.

So this week, I’m looking at three new movies about pigs, from Russia, the US and France. There’s life as  a pig on a bucolic farm in Europe; a truffle pig  kidnapped in Oregon; and a happily married woman in Paris… who discovers her husband is a pig. 

Alice

Wri/Dir: Josephine Mackerras

Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier) lives the prefect life in Paris. She has a good job, a loving husband François, a writer, (Martin Swabey) and together they own a very nice apartment — she put all her money into the mortgage. Together they are raising their three-year old son Jules. Until one day, out  of the blue, all her credit cards are rejected her bank account is empty, her insurance is cancelled, her husband is nowhere to be seen. What’s going on? Turns out François has been withdrawing money from their join account for more than a year and stopped paying bills. The bank manager says he’s been warning them for six months to make payments or lose their home. But what about me, asks Alice That’s my money in the flat — why didn’t you contact me?

After a bit of sleuthing Alice discovers François spent it all at a high-priced escort service. And when she visits the place undercover, to find out more… she’s offered a job there. And it may be the only way she can come up with the 7,000 euros needed to save her home.  

Alice is a great, unexpected drama about a young woman entering the sex trade, how she takes care of her young son, and the friendship she develops with another escort from New Zealand named Lisa (Chloe Boreham).  It’s funny, quirky and quite moving, including some hilariously awkward encounters with clients. Unusual for movies about sex workers and “fallen woman” this one is about the sense of empowerment Alice gains from her new line of work. The dangers she faces are not from the job itself but from a disapproving, moralistic public and possibly François, who reappears, tail between his legs asking for forgiveness. 

Piponnier is excellent as Alice as she changes from a naive and nervous mom to a woman who sticks up for herself. And Swabey is also great as the self-centred, needy François. 

I like this movie a lot.

Gunda

Co-WriDir: Viktor Kosakovskiy

What’s it like to live as a pig? This black and white documentary follows seven piglets and their mom over the course of their lives, from birth until the end. Squirming in the hay, fighting for their turn at the sow’s nipples, or playing in the fields. The enormous mom takes care of all of them, herding them from place to place with nudges from her snout. We also encounter cows, lying down for a rest, or standing side by side, in sort of a 69, using their tails to whisk flies of each other’s faces. And some majestic chickens jauntily walking around outside of their coop.

This is not an exposé of factory farming; instead it shows the contrast of life in traditional farms and animal sanctuaries. Humans don’t appear on camera, but they react to the camera’s presence staring right at you the viewer. Gunda is 90 minutes long, and not much happens. But it’s not boring… more relaxing than anything else. It’s shot in gorgeous black and white and you can really feel the animals’ emotions. I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, but it did make me think about where my food really comes from. So if you want to lean back and watch life on a farm, Gunda is for you. 

Pig

Co-Wri/Dir:Michael Sarnoski

Rob (Nicholas Cage) is a hermit who lives in a cabin deep in the Oregon woods along with a furry pig. He’s  totally off the grid: no phone, electricity, or running water. He washes and drinks fro a nearby stream, and cooks with a wood-burning stove. And he listens to old cassette tapes on his battery operated boom box. The truffles the pig digs up  provides him enough money to survive. He sells them to Amir (Alex Wolff), a young hot shot who pays cash. Amir is a truffle broker from Portland with an un-ironic moustache who drives to the cabin in a yellow sports car. But Rob’s world is turned upside down when someone knocks him out in the middle of the night, and steals his pig. He orders Amir to drive him into Portland too find the pig-napper. No pig = no truffles, and the end of Amir’s only source. But he has a reputation to uphold. How can he drive to  Portland’s most exclusive restaurants with this filthy, monosyllabic hobo in rags, his face half covered with dried blood, a man who can barely take care of himself?

But it soon becomes clear that this hermit was once well known in the Portland restaurant scene. So famous that the mere mention of his name will open all doors. Who is this mysterious man? Why did he disappear? Who stole his pig?  And how can he get her back again?

Pig is a wonderfully dark, picaresque journey through hidden Portland. It takes you from a secret fight club to wine cellar hidden in a cemetery, to a power-broker’s mansion. It’s told in three chapters, each with a cryptic title referring to a particular dish. Pig is a film about foodies, but it’s not food porn — it rarely dwells on cooking and eating. Nicholas Cage is terrific as this brooding man with deep thoughts who takes every punch but always gets up again, hiding a deeper pain somewhere inside. He always looks like about to explode in violence. And I’ll watch Alex Wolff in anything he does, I’ve never seen a bad performance from him. Pig is intense, surprising and all-around great. 

I recommend this movie.

Alice will be available VOD on Tuesday; Gunda is now playing digitally and on VOD;  and you can see Pig in theatres nationwide (though not yet 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

Movies from Africa! Films reviewed: Dachra, Lift Like a Girl, Running Against the Wind

Posted in Coming of Age, documentary, Drama, Egypt, Ethiopia, Feminism, Horror, photography, Sports, Supernatural, Tunisia, Witches by CulturalMining.com on July 9, 2021

This week, I’m looking at three movies from north and northeast Africa: a horror movie from Tunisia, a documentary from Egypt, and a drama from Ethiopia. We’ve got inner-city weightlifters, a forest full of witches, and two childhood friends… who can’t wait, but don’t know which way to go.

Dachra

Dir: Abdelhamid Bouchnak

Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi) is a journalism student at a university in Tunis. She was raised by her kindly grandfather; ever since her mother left her in his care when she was still a child. At school she hangs out with two friends: the very serious Bilel (Bilel Slatnia) and the  rude, crude and funny Walid (Aziz Jebali), who is always on the lookout for a sexual innuendo. The three team up to complete an assignment due soon: to report on a unique story, one that’s never been covered in the mainstream media before. Bilel is the cameraman, Walid the sound guy, and Yassmine — who is beautiful and likes to take charge — is the reporter. The story they’re chasing? A woman in a mental hospital named Mongia who is rumoured to be a witch. She has attacked medics in the past, and is said to perform supernatural acts. She’s been there ever since she was discovered at a village in the woods with her throat cut but still alive. 

After some bribes and subterfuge, they manage to arrange an interview with her, so they can track down the mysterious village where all the events were said to have taken place. But are these cub reporters biting off more than they can chew?

Dachra is a scary, gory and sometimes disgusting horror movie from Tunisia.  It’s beautifully shot in colour, but so spare it almost seems like black and white at times. It uses little or no CGI special effects — the horror is in the creepy characters and situations. These include an always-laughing little girl, an overly solicitous middle-aged man, and a village populated only by women who don’t seem to speak Arabic or French, and who only eat “meat”. Certain parts are predictable — it’s a variation on the classic Cabin in the Woods-type movie — but it also has enough twists and surprises, both supernatural and earthly, to keep you staring at  (or cringing away from)  the screen. 

Dachra is great classic horror in a brand new setting.

Lift Like a Girl

Zebiba seems like an average 14-year-old girl with glasses and ponytail in Alexandria, Egypt. So what’s so special about her? She’s a competitive weightlifter, training for international competitions. And her coach is the famous Captain Ramadan who brought his own daughter international glory a generation earlier. He’s an exuberant man, exuding enthusiasm with every breath. He’s also a one-man cheerleader, ready to break out in chants, songs and dances for his best lifters. And right now, Zebiba is his prize. She specializes in a three part lift. First bringing up the barbell from a squat, then raising it to her upper chest, then turning her hands around to lift it above her head. Her daily practice takes place in a dusty field surrounded by a fence on a street corner in an industrial section of the city. As a competitor she’s equally concerned about how many kilos she lifts as she is about how many she weighs (which determines whom you’re competing against) so she has to follow a strict diet, complete with fasting. to win. But as she grows older, and her medals add up, something unexpected happens, totally changing the dynamics of her life. Can Zebiba continue as a champion weightlifter… or is the magic gone?

Lift Like a Girl is a verité-style documentary about a young girl training in a traditionally masculine sport. It follows Zebiba over four years as she matures. Coach Ramadan is an unforgettable character, a man who rejects religious piety, external pressure, and traditional gender stereotypes (“if a man can belly dance, why can’t a woman lift weights?” he asks.) Zebiba, on the other hand, rarely speaks. She’s followed as an athlete but we rarely see her home life or innermost thoughts, only what the camera catches in her face. Lift Like a Girl is an informative and occasionally interesting examination of a previously unexplored sport. While it definitely has its moving moments, this doc is best suited for those who find competitive weightlifting a fascinating spectator sport.

Running Against the Wind

Co-Wri/Dir: Jan Philipp Weyl

Abdi and Solomon are two young boys who live in the desert like Gand Abdi area of Ethiopia. They don’t go to school, instead spending their time playing or herding goats. But one day a surprise visitor send both their lives on a new course. Abdi discovers he loves running… and can do it faster than anyone he knows. Solomon discovers what a camera is, and decides to devote his life to taking photos. Within a few tears, Abdi is in training with a coach in Addis Ababa, while Solomon has completely disappeared. In fact he isn’t dead, he has taken up a new life in the capital. His photo dreams quickly fade as he falls in with a crowd of homeless kids who make their living begging, stealing and doing hard labour. 

Years pass and Abdi (Ashenafi Nigusu) is now a celebrity runner appearing on billboards, with more prize money than he can spend. Solomon nicknamed photo (Mikias Wolde) is now living with a girl he met as a child in the gang, and they have a two year old daughter. But they still live hand to mouth in a shanty-town shack. Worse, his friends get him involved in organized crime, leaving him under the sway of a genuine villain. Is Solomon permanently stuck in a life of poverty or can he fulfill his dream? Will Abdi adjust to big city life, forgetting his roots in the countryside? And will the two best friends ever be reunited in Addis Ababa?

Running Against the Wind is an engaging, Dickensian story about friendship and brotherhood. While it has a somewhat boilerplate storyline, there is so much stuff happening it can’t can’t help but be interesting. There are dozens of memorable characters, from Solomon’s ne’er-do-well friend Kiflom who keeps getting him into trouble, to Solomon’s loving partner Genet, Abdi’s hard-ass coach with a heart of gold;  Paul, an Amharic-speaking European-Ethiopian photographer; and an evil, bulging-eyed gangster kingpin who oozes cruelty from every pore. Running Against the Wind is the first Ethiopian movie I’ve ever seen, and I can’t wait to watch more.

Lift Like a Girl and Running Against the Wind may be playing in cinemas in your area — check your local listings — or you can find them on VOD;  Dachra  is opening theatrically in the US, and later on VOD. 

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

Summer movies. Films reviewed: Summer of Soul, The Boss Baby: Family Business, Black Conflux

Posted in Animation, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Kids, Newfoundland by CulturalMining.com on July 3, 2021

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

Summer is here and it’s hot, hot, hot! Normally I’d say go sit in an air conditioned movie theatre and go watch something, anything, right now. But as of today, (I’m recording early because of the holiday weekend) the indoor theatres are still closed. But here’s a selection of films to please almost everybody who wants to watch at home.

This week, I have a music doc, a family cartoon and an art house drama. There are musicians in Harlem in the ’60s bringing the house down, babies around the world trying to bring the government down, and a girl in ’80s Newfoundland trying to stop her life from crumbling all around her.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Dir: Questlove

It’s the summer of ’69 in Harlem, where 50,000 people are crowded into Mt. Morris Park for a series of six outdoor concerts all summer long. The images and music were captured on film for TV, but were never broadcast; they sat in a vault for 52 years until now. This new documentary replays some of the best songs of that summer, and talked to the performers and the fans about how they remembered it. What’s remarkable is the array of talent and the enormous peaceful crowds in Harlem, a neighbourhood vilified as a violent ghetto. But it was actually a safe, black neighbourhood, beloved by its residents as their home, and as a centre of culture, commerce and political foment.

This film is a time machine, showing fashion, hair styles, and faces in the crowd — one viewer remembers the pervasive aroma of AfroSheen. There are incredible performances on the stage, in a wide range of styles: soul, R&B, gospel, pop, jazz and psychedelic. There’s an amazing moment when young Mavis Staples shares a mic with the great Mahalia Jackson for the first time to sing Oh Happy Day. There’s Nina Simone at the piano, reminding the crowd they are “Young, Gifted and Black.” Motown stars like Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight and the Pips alternate with salsa bands. It’s really surprising to see mainstream groups like The Fifth Dimension, letting loose on stage — their top 40 hits were always classified as “white pop music” — I never even knew they were black. Luminaries like Sly and the Family Stone and Hugh Masakela from South Africa light up the stage.

Summer of Soul works as both a documentary and as an excellent concert film; what a shame it was never shown until now.

The Boss Baby: Family Business
Dir: Tom McGrath

It’s a suburb, somewhere in America. Tim is a stay-at-home dad, who takes care of his two daughters Tabitha and Tina, while his wife is at the office. Tabitha is in grade 2 at an elite private school, while Tina is still just a baby. He tells them stories, sings songs and plays games. But he’s worried that he’s losing his bond with Tabitha — the 7-year-old spends all her time studying and says she doesn’t need childish things anymore. Alone in the attic Ted wonders how things ended up this way disconnected from his kids and no contact with his little brother Ted. If only he could go back in time and fix things. Next thing you know, Ted arrives at their doorstep by helicopter (he’s a rich CEO now) and the two of them are magically transformed into their childhood selves. Who engineered all this? It’s little Tina, the new Boss Baby, behind it all. Still in diapers she talks like a grown up with a brain to match. She works for Baby Corp, a secretive organization that keeps the world safe. But there are evil villains working all around the world at schools just like the one Tabitha goes to. It’s up to Tim and Ted, in their new kid and baby forms, to infiltrate the school and stop their fiendish plans. But are they too late?

The Boss Baby: Family Business is a funny family film, aimed at kids, but equally enjoyable by grown-ups. It’s animated, and features the voices of Alec Baldwin as Ted, the original Boss Baby, James Marsden as Tim, Ariana Greenblatt as Tabitha and
Amy Sedaris as Tina. I tend to avoid sequels, because they’re usually second rate, but never having seen the original Boss Baby I have nothing to compare it to. And (though clearly not a cinematic masterpiece) I was fully entertained by this one.

Black Conflux
Wri/Dir: Nicole Dorsey

It’s the 1980s in a small town in Newfoundland. Jackie (Ella Ballentine) is a 15-year-old girl with ginger hair and a good singing voice. And she’s seeing a new boyfriend. She’s bright, pretty and optimistic: she believes people are basically good. But her upbeat nature is threatened by reality. She has lived with her alcoholic aunt since her mom went to jail for DUI (her dad’s out of the picture). She spends most of her time hanging with Amber and her other two best friends, smoking behind the school, shoplifting makeup at the mall, or going to bonfire parties. They get around by hitchhiking along the single highway that passes through the town. But Jackie is forced to deal with the increasingly bad and gritty aspects of her life which keep intruding on the fun of growing up.

Dennis (Ryan McDonald) is an introvert in his late twenties with a fetish for porn. He’s also a firebug who gets off on lighting matches. He lives with his adult sister and works loading and delivering 24s at a local brewery. He’s also a brooding loner with anger and resentment building up deep inside. He has no social skills to speak of and his occasional dates always seem to end up as disasters. He prefers to peer at women at night through their open bedroom windows over actually speaking to them face to face. He spends most of his time with a bevy of imaginary women he fantasizes are living in the back of his delivery truck. Sometimes he can’t tell the difference between reality and his hallucinations. Is he just a misunderstood guy or a nascent serial killer?

Black Conflux is a slow-building drama that follows these two characters in their separate but parallel lives, like two rivers that eventually merge. For Jackie, it’s a coming-of-age story, while for Dennis it’s a brooding drama. They come close to meeting throughout the movie, but it’s kept till the very end to reveal what happens when they do. Ella Ballentine and
Ryan McDonald both give remarkable performances as two alienated people in rural Newfoundland in the 1980s. Beautifully shot, and skilfully directed by Nicole Dorsey (her first feature), I first saw Black Conflux at TIFF two years ago, and like it even better the second time through.

Boss Baby, and Summer of Soul opened this weekend on VOD and digital platforms with Black Conflux now at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Reasons. Films reviewed: Silent Night, Sun Children

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

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

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

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

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

Silent Night

Wri/Dir: Will Thorne

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

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

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

I like this one.

Sun Children

Co-Wri/Dir: Majid Majidi

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

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

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

I strongly recommend this movie.

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

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

Japanese women. Films reviewed: Wife of a Spy, Mio’s Cookbook, The Brightest Roof in the Universe

Posted in 1800s, 1940s, Cooking, Drama, Espionage, Family, Fantasy, Feminism, Friendship, Japan, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on June 11, 2021

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

Toronto’s spring Film festival season continues. Toronto Jewish Film Festival finishes this weekend, with two great French films, Summer of 85 a gay mystery romance set in the 80s and directed by Francois Ozon; and The Specials, a crowd pleaser by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, best known for the hugely popular Intouchable. It’s about a makeshift social services centre in Paris for hard-to-handle kids with autism. 

But this week, I’m talking about another TJFF, the Toronto Japanese Film Festival. This one is also digital, but each film plays for the duration of the festival, until June 27th. And as always, it’s deftly programmed, with movies ranging from samurai to Yakuza to family dramas, romance, comedies, action, anime, and even some movies adapted from manga.

This week, I’m looking at three new Japanese features told from a female point of view. There’s a  cook trying to capture the flavours of her childhood,  a high school girl who seeks answers on top of a roof, and a wife who can’t decide whether her husband is an adulterer… or a spy.

Wife of a Spy

Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

It’s the 1940s in Kobe Japan where Satoku and and Yusaku are a happily married couple. Satoku (Aoi Yu) is a movie actress and Yusaku (Takahashi Issey) a rich businessman who owns an import-export corporation. Japan is at war, but they continue live a western-style life of peaceful luxury. But everything changes when Yusaku and their nephew Fumio return from a business trip in. Manchuria. a Japanese puppet state in Northeastern China. There they witnessed unspeakable atrocities and war crimes committed by the notorious Kwantung Army (aka Kantogun), an elite branch of the Japanese military. And they brought a young Japanese woman back with them.

Satoku sees only the young woman and knows nothing of the war crimes — is her husband cheating on her?. Meanwhile, a childhood friend named Taiji relocates to Kobe. She remembers him as a kind young man. But now he’s a member of the dreaded Kempeitai, the Japanese Gestapo. He criticizes her for wearing dresses instead of kimonos and for drinking foreign whiskey not Japanese. He’s also secretly in love with her. And he suspects Fumio and possibly even Yusaku, are traitors spreading Japanese war secrets to the enemy. Or is he just trying to break up their marriage?

But when she discovers the truth about the horrors of war, she confronts her husband — does he have proof? Eventually she has to decide whether to become a spy herself or turn in her husband to the police. 

Wife of a Spy is great WWII thriller, full of jealousy, intrigue and numerous unexpected plot twists. Japan is not like Germany where filmmakers have produced hundreds or thousands of movies about their dark past. Rarely do you see Japanese films like this one. This movie is made for TV so everything is on a smaller scale with a more compact feel than a theatrical film, but under the direction of Kurosawa Kiyoshi and with its really good acting and script, (along with costumes, sets and music), it keeps the suspense building till the very end. 

Great movie.

Mio’s Cookbook

Dir: Haruki Kadokawa

It’s 1801. Mio and Noe are two 12 year-old girls in Osaka. They vow to be best friends forever. One day they encounter a fortune teller who says Noe is destined for great success, while Mio will have to pass through dark clouds before she reaches blue skies. The same night a huge flood sweeps away both their houses. Mio is an orphan adopted by a woman, and Noe completely disappears. Fast forward ten years.

Now Mio (Matsumoto Honoka) lives in Edo (Tokyo) and works as a cook in a small restaurant. But her love of the sweeter, subtler flavours of Osaka that she’s used to are not popular in her customers in Edo who prefer stronger, saltier tastes. So after much experimentation and hard work she comes up with a perfect blending of the two cuisines. She creates the perfect chawan-mushi egg custard, and her fickle customers love it. Soon, there are lineups around the block. Word reaches Yoshiwara, the red light district, where a mysterious courtesan who never shows her face in public and is known only as Asahi (played by Nao), sends an emissary to bring one back for her to taste. Meanwhile two men are also interested in her cooking: an aristocrat (Kubozuka Yusuke) and a doctor who frequents both the restaurant and the Yoshiwara district. But evil forces — in the form of competing restaurant owners — are working against her. They steal her recipes, send bullies to scare away customers and even set fire to her workplace. Can a woman become a famous chef in Edo? Will Mio ever find her childhood friend? And will she find love in the confines of her restaurant?

Mio’s Cookbook is a lovely drama about friendship, cooking, class, religion, sex work, and the floating world of the pleasure district. It’s full of fascinating details about Japanese cuisine — each new dish she creates is displayed and labeled for you to see — and tons of period touches about life 200 years ago. It’s directed by Kadokawa Haruki, the notorious former movie producer, once heir to the Kadokawa publishing empire but who fell from grace in a cocaine scandal in the 1990s. A Japanese Spielberg, he knows how to craft a complex plot with many characters by pressing all the right buttons to keep the crowd wanting more. This is an enjoyable film that left me feeling… well, very hungry afterwards.

The Brightest Roof in the Universe

Dir: Fujii Michihito

Tsubame (Kiyohara Kaya) is a high school girl in a town somewhere in Japan. She has a crush on her next door neighbour Toru (Ito Kentaro) a banjo-playing dude who thinks of her more as a younger sister. She recently split up with her boyfriend after he posted cruel anonymous texts about her on everybody’s cel. And at home, her parents (her dad and step-mom) are preparing for a new baby. But will it take her place in the family? Tsubame has lots to worry about, which she does on the roof of a building where she takes Japanese calligraphy classes. Until one day she realizes she’s not alone up on that roof. There’s a tough-as-nails old lady up there, too, who rides around on a kids’ scooter.

This strange granny is outspoken and opinionated and makes Tsubame feel uncomfortable. There’s something about her she just doesn’t get. But eventually they become friend and confidants. Turns out Hoshi-ba (Momoi Kaori)  — meaning granny from the stars — has special powers. She says she can fly and can solve almost any problem.  In exchange for Hoshi-ba’s favours, Tsubame starts doing things for her — like finding her long-lost grandson who lives somewhere amidst all the rooftops in the town. Is Hoshi-ba real or imaginary? And can she fulfil Hoshi-ba’s wish?

The Brightest Roof in the Universe is a sweet and absorbing coming of age story that touches on family, friendship and love.  It also deals with more obscure topics like ink brush painting, jellyfish and astronomy It’s slow paced but not boring, and told in a series of revelatory chapters, some of which are total surprises.

It’s also a sentimental tear-jerker, but in a nice way. I like this movie, too.

Wife of a Spy, The Brightest Roof in the Universe, and Mio’s Cookbook are all playing, now through June 27th at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival.

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

Implanted ideas. Films reviewed: Held, Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide, Moffie

Posted in 1980s, Art, Cold War, Coming of Age, Drama, Gay, H.I.V., Horror, New York City, Psychological Thriller, South Africa, Suspicion, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 9, 2021

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies — a doc, a war drama and a thriller horror — about ideas implanted into our minds. There’s an eighties artist digging up TV images from the sixties; a soldier in eighties South Africa with Cold War racism and homophobia drilled into his head; and a married couple forced to re-enact outdated sexual roles by the orders of a device… drilled into their skulls.

Held
Dir: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing

Emma and Henry (Jill Awbrey and Bart Johnson) are a married couple, both professionals. They plan to meet at a remote luxury resort in order to bring the spark back into their relationship. Eight years ago they had an amazing vacation in Monterey, just the two of them; but lately, they’ve been drifting apart. Emma arrives first, driven by a vaguely suspicious-looking guy named Joe (Rez Kempton). Why does he ask so many personal questions? She’s relieved to see the house is protected by a large wall. She checks out the digs — it’s a minimalist wonder, all glass and white walls, and incredibly safe from intruders. There are alarms and code systems everywhere, a modern kitchen, and a lovely orchard just outside. And Henry left her some flowers on the doorstep — red roses… how romantic!

When Henry arrives, they share a toast over glasses of whiskey. But then things get weird. They both start to feel dizzy — are there roofies in their drinks? They wake up the next morning in a daze. Their cel phones are gone. Emma is dressed in an old-school negligee. Did someone do this to her in her sleep? And the roses? Henry says they weren’t from him. Their clothes have all disappeared, replaced by 6os-style dresses for her and suits for him, and large TV screens that play old-school songs urging them to dance a foxtrot. Dance?

The doors are all locked, and a strange detached voice starts giving them orders. Obey us! If you follow our directions you will not be harmed! Mr Creepy Voice wants them to stick to traditional sexual roles — men open doors for women, who respond by thanking them. If they disobey, they get zapped by a high-power, hugely painful device that’s been implanted into their heads the night before. And now they’re expected to make love under a watchful eye. Who is this maniac and what’s his agenda? Is it Jordan Peterson? Or an incel? Why does he cling to outdated sexual norms? And will they ever escape from this bizarre house of horrors?

Held is a heart pounding , psychological thriller about a couple held hostage for no known reason. There’s a big revelation about two-thirds of the way through (no spoilers) which I predicted… but even so, it gripped me till the very end. It is quite violent and disturbing, so not for the faint of heart, but I found Held a super-twisted and scary movie, just the thing for late-night viewing.

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide
Wri/Dir:Max Basch, Malia Scharf

Kenny Scharf is born into post-war LA, the land of artificial smiles, perma-tans, non-stop TV and brightly coloured plastic. He grows up in a nuclear family amidst the prefab suburbs of the San Fernando valley. He likes art and design and has a steady hand that can draw a perfect line without a ruler. But Andy Warhol and New York City beckons and he ends up a student at SVA (the School of Visual Arts) beside Keith Haring with whom he eventually shares an apartment in Times Square. It’s the early 1980s, and together with the younger Jean-Michel Basquiat, the three start spreading their art all over the city: on subways, toasters, TV sets, and crumbing tenement walls. Kenny can’t stop putting painting on everything he sees.

Eventually people with money start to notice, and the East Village art scene explodes. Kenny Scharf’s work incorporates found art, day-glo colours, and cartoonish TV images of George Jetson, Barney Rubble and 1950s suburban housewives. These figures are vomited across canvas in a cosmic orgy of detailed mayhem, the work of spray paint and fine brush strokes. Grotesque smiles and googly-eyed faces adorn his prolific paintings and sculptures, like a Peewee’s Playhouse of fine art. The East Village art scene spills over into the world of performance, music, fashion and nightclubs, blurring the lines. Kenny is doing it all. Next comes money and fame, one-man shows and installations,…until it finally crashes and burns. Many of the artists die in the AIDS epidemic, but Kenny survives, moving back to LA with his Brazilian wife and kids and continuing his work.

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide (the title is from one of his massive paintings) is a documentary look at his life and art, from childhood to the present, presented using never-seen period footage, video, recordings and art. It’s an amazing story brought to life. To be honest, I’m always suspicious of docs on living artists — did they make this film just to raise his recognition and pump up the value of his work? Who knows?  But life as an artist is never easy. This film is co-directed by another artist, Kenny’s own daughter Malia, which lets us look into his private life and thoughts, and his never-ending outflow of colour and plastic… while steering clear of any stories of sex, drugs and debauchery. It’s her dad… what do you want?

I liked this movie.

Moffie
Wri/Dir: Oliver Hermanus

It’s 1982 in Apartheid South Africa. All white boys and men are required to serve in the army for two years starting at age 16. Nick (Kai Luke Brümmer) is still wet behind the ears and doesn’t want to go. But his mother and boorish step-father send him off with a big celebration. His father slips him a porn mag to keep him company. But Playboy centrefolds are not his thing. The train to the camp is loud and rough, filled with oafs drinking till they puke, picking fights and shouting racist abuse at any African they pass. Nick makes one friend on the way, Michael (Matthew Vey), an anglo and a nice guy to boot. At the base, they are spat on, kicked, punched and made to repeat inane slogans by an especially sadistic sergeant. All hatred is aimed toward the three enemies of the state — Africans, communists, and homosexuals. And heaven help anyone caught supporting any of them, or worse being one of them. The sleeping quarters are filled with testosterone-fuelled idiots, spouting racist nonsense but exuding a constant masculine sexuality that clouds Nick’s thoughts.

But war is war (there’s a longstanding border conflict with neighbouring Angola) and they’re expected to fight. When Nick finds himself sharing a sleeping bag in a foxhole with a friendly soldier named Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) he’s forced to reassess his sense of desire and sexuality. But will he survive this two year ordeal?

Moffie (the title is an Afrikaans anti-gay slur), is a realistic internal look at the unrelenting racism and paranoia drilled into the psyche of white South Africans’ during Apartheid. (Unspoken, but implied, is the the violence that this visited upon the non-white South African majority on a daily basis) It’s also an intensely moving story, full of lust and longing, regret and horror. Dialogue alternates between Afrikaans and English. It has stunning cinematograpy, and a great soundtrack. The acting is fantastic, with a largely unknown cast, many on screen for the first time. Moffie is a powerful war film.

I recommend this movie.

Moffie opens today on VOD on Apple TV and in the summer on IFC Films Unlimited; Held also starts today on VOD on AppleTV, iTunes and other platforms; and Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide will open next Thursday.

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

O Canada! Films reviewed: Jump Darling, Underplayed, Death of a Ladies’ Man

Posted in Addiction, Canada, comedy, documentary, Drag, Drama, Family, Ireland, LGBT, Montreal, Music, Uncategorized, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 19, 2021

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

There are tons of great movies finally opening up this week, including Night of the Kings which I reviewed last fall, one of my favourite movies of the year, at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

This week I’m looking at three new Canadian movies ready to be seen There are female DJs who want to be noticed, a Toronto drag queen who who wants to see his grandmother, and a Montreal poet who wonders why he keeps seeing his dead father.

Jump, Darling

Wri/Dir: Phil Connell 

Russell (Thomas Duplessie) is an aspiring actor whose career is going nowhere. His only role? As Fishy Falters, a drag queen gig he landed at a Toronto gay bar called Peckers. And even that falls apart when he trips on his way to the stage in a symphony of disaster. His husband, a successful Bay Street lawyer who bankrolls his acting career, rubs salt in the wound: take some acting courses or go to. auditions, but no more drag, it embarrasses me. 

Russell takes this as an ultimatum, packs up a suitcase and heads out the door. He lands up at his grandmother’s place in Prince Edward County to borrow her car os he can drive off to unknown parts..    She greets him at the door with a scream and a knife. Margaret (Cloris Leachman) lives alone. She was once a figure skater (I was hired by the Ice Capades! she says) and a formidable bridge player, but since her husband died she’s been frail, forgetful and depressed.  Russel’s mom (Linda Kash) wants to send her off to an old-age home, but Margaret would rather die. So Russel agrees to stick around and help take care of her. Meanwhile he starts frequenting a tiny bar in town, where he thinks his drag act could catch on. Will he pull Margaret out of the dumps? And will hr return to Toronto, triumphant? 

Jump, Darling is a bittersweet family drama about a young gay man trying to express himself in the inly way he knows, and an elderly woman dealing with old age and loss. (The title Jump Darling refers to her husband’s suicide) This is a first time feature both for the director and Thomas Duplessie as Russell, and they pull it off quite nicely. The characters are three-dimensional not cookie-cutter. Of course it helps having the late, great Cloris Leachman in her final role, and Linda Kash who ties the two sides firmly together. This is a good movie. 

Underplayed

Dir: Stacey Lee

The music business is vast and diverse, but not equitable. Did you know that of Billboard’s top 100 DJs, only 7 are women? Same holds true in the electronic music sector, even fewer studio producers are women. And only a tiny fraction of these are women of colour. Why are there so few and why don’t we ever hear about them? This documentary looks at the industry and its history, and follows a handful of female DJs, electronic musicians and producers as they play their music in clubs, concerts and festivals over the course one summer. 

Many trailblazers in electronica — from Wendy Carlos to Daphne Oram — were women, but names like Moog dominate the collective memory. And in the electronic DJ world, at raves and festivals, women find it nearly impossible to get their proverbial feet in the door. The filmmakers talk to stars like Tokimonsta, musician Alison Wonderland, Toronto-based superstar Rezz, and newcomers like Tygapaw out of Brooklyn. The documentary shows both their professional lives — at concerts and in studios — and also gives them a soapbox to talk about the troubles they face on the road and in the workplace. Underplayed is an informative look at under-representation and equity in the electronic music world, with some cool digital graphics and great beats playing in the background. 

Death of a Ladies’ Man

Wri/Dir: Matthew Bissonnette

Samuel O’Shea (Gabriel Byrne) is a Canadian poetry prof at McGill and a notorious philanderer. He sees his ex-wife Geneviève (Suzanne Clément) at Thanksgiving and Christmas along with his adult children. Josée (Karelle Tremblay) is a foul-mouthed artist who hangs out with a junkie, and his son Layton (Antoine Olivier Pilon) is a brawler for a minor league hockey team who is also gay. He meets them each once a week for lunch. But his life is falling apart. He drinks heavily and his creative output — he’s a writer — is zero. And when he catches his second wife in bed with another man, he is deeply offended — How dare she… he’s the adulterer, not her! But that’s not all.

His father (Brian Gleeson) is frequently visiting him at home. Problem is, he died in Ireland decades ago when Samuel was just a boy. Other hallucinations come and go: a female bodybuilder with a tiger’s head, and the grim reaper himself. Is he going crazy? Turns out Samuel has an inoperable tumour pressing on his brain. So he decides to turn his life around. He packs up and heads to Ireland, to write his novel. There he meets Charlotte (Jessica Paré) a Quebecoise former model who works in a corner.  Is third time the charm? Will he beat his tumour? Will he ever stop boozing? And will he reconcile with the ones he loves?

Death of a Ladies Man, is a densely-packed, mood-heavy saga about an Irish-Canadian man in his sixties dealing with his life.  Although it’s set in present day Montreal and Ireland, the movie has a very nostalgic feel, and it’s brimming with Canadiana.. The title comes from a Leonard Cohen song, whose music appears throughout the film.  Samuel feels like equal parts Duddy Kravitz and Ginger Coffey, a Montreal everyman… all grown up. His son is named Layton (Irving Layton was Leonard Cohen’s poetry mentor.) When he leaves Canada the soundtrack instantly switches to Un Canadien Errant. He hallucinates figure-skating hockey players and fur trappers… Could he possibly be any more Canadian?

The movie — a Canadian-Irish co-production — runs into trouble with all the “meta” elements: it’s hard to tell whether you’re watching the character’s hallucinations, the plot of the book he’s writing, or the writer-director’s own fantasies. Everything centres on Samuel, and though Gabriel Byrne (who is great) is surrounded by some of Quebec’s best actors, they’re all only background figures. 

Does it work? I think it does — it’s delightful to watch, wonderfully photographed and redolent with great Canadian music — just don’t mistake art for reality.

Underplayed and Jump, Darling are now playing, and Death of a Ladies’ Man opens today.

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

Older. Films reviewed: Nomadland, Supernova, Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Posted in Death, Dementia, documentary, Drama, Gay, Poverty, Road Movie, Romance, UK by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2021

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

As the baby boomers age, so do the characters in their movies. This week I’m looking at two dramas and a documentary about travelling around. There’s an older woman exploring the western US in her dilapidated mobile home; two older men driving through northern England in their old camper; and an intense documentary series that takes you across the twentieth century and back again.

Nomadland

Wri/Dir: Chloe Zhao

(Based on the book by Jessica Bruder)

Fern (Frances McDormand) is an ornery, older woman with short grey hair who lives in Empire, Nevada, a company town that processes gypsum. She likes wearing overalls and reciting Shakespeare. She followed her beloved husband to Empire decades earlier with the promise of lifetime employment.  It proved true for him — he died at work. But the empire has fallen. Now she’s a widow, the plant is closed,  the company has pulled up its stakes, and the town itself no longer exists; it’s been wiped off the map, literally. She’s broke with no prospect of work, so she packs up all her stuff, piles it into a ramshackle RV, and sets out on the highway. She’s not homeless, she’s houseless. Her home is on wheels. 

She encounters a group of people like her,  camping in RVs in the desert, like old war horses put out to pasture. They’ve got no money — instead they share goods at a trading post, sing songs around a campfire, and do each other favours like fixing flat tires. They live entirely off the grid. (You’ve heard of Burning Man? This is Burning Van.) Fern meets Dave, a friendly guy with a greying beard (David Strathairn), and she begrudgingly shack up with him. They go their separate ways looking for work where they can find it. But she meets up with him again in the Badlands as she travels across the American west. Will they live together permanently? Can Fern settle down? Or will she stick to her nomadic life and the freedom of the open road?

Nomadland is an engrossing, gritty drama about an older woman on the road trying to make it on her own. It’s all about finding friendship and hope amidst loneliness and poverty. Frances McDormand is remarkable as Fern, acting alongside non-actors, ordinary people playing themselves. 

This is Chloe Zhao’s third feature, and like her earlier films, it feels part documentary, part drama, slow paced and very real.

It’s all shot on location, against magnificent and stark scenery, the desert, the mountains, the sterile interior of an Amazon warehouse and the rustic kitchen of the famous Wall Drugs. Nomadland isn’t a Hollywood feel good movie — its even mildly depressing in parts, but on the whole it’s a magnificent and moving picture. Just Great

Supernova

Wri/Dir: Harry Macqueen

Sam and Tusker are a middle aged couple who have lived together in England for decades. Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is a successful American novelist, bald-headed with a sharp tongue. He loves staring at the night sky and thinking about distant galaxies. Sam (Colin Firth) is an English concert pianist who likes wooly sweaters and old friends. Together they used to travel the world on long trips exploring Paris, Italy, and Kyushu, Japan. Now they’re on a drive in an old  rundown camper through the rocky hills and steep green ravines of the Lake District. They’re heading for a concert hall where Sam is giving a recital after a long hiatus. Tusker is working on his latest novel. On the way, they stop to celebrate a birthday in Sam’s childhood home. Surrounded by closest friends and family, driving on a scenic highway,  snuggling up together in their camper with their shaggy dog… what could be bad?

The bad is Tusker’s early-onset Alzheimers. He was diagnosed a while back and it’s starting to reveal itself. Everything still works normally but he dreads the day when he can no longer control himself. I’ll always be there for you, says Sam. But Tusker doesn’t want that to happen. He wants to be the driver, not Sam’s passenger. Will 

Supernova is a tender  and loving drama about dying and loss. It’s full of profundities about destiny and memory, picturesque stone houses, and music on the car radio. It’s nicely acted and subtly carried out. But maybe too subtle, by half. It didn’t really move me.  There’s a single idea — Tusker doesn’t want to lose control, Sam doesn’t want to lose Tusker — but it feels repetitive,  exploring the same conflict over and over. I like the intimacy and familiarity of the characters, but the movie is too simple and Tucci’s portrayal of someone with dementia didn’t quite ring true.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Wri/Dir: Adam Curtis

What do Jiang Qing, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Red Army Faction, a London slumlord, the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, Petrodollars, and Appallachian coal miners,all have in common? They’re all part of the documentary series directed by Adam Curtis, on the history, economy, psychology and politics of the twentieth century. He explores the fall of empires, but also the failure of revolutions. He also looks at the origins of false conspiracy theories, as well as actual conspiracies, like the CIA’s use of LSD on unsuspecting patients. Basically, he looks at what movements, schools of thought, and major changes going on today, and what inspired them.

If you’ve never seen his documentaries before, now — with all the recent confusion and strangeness and unprecedented changes — is a perfect time to start. Curtis has a unique filmmaking style, that manages to tell its story without ever shooting any new footage. Virtually all his visuals are taken from meticulously researched material from the BBC’s archives. They’re edited together in a constantly changing, almost convoluted way but that all makes sense in the end. And all his docs are narrated, relentlessly, by the filmmaker’s own distinctive voice. And they have such an unusual look, as if they are made of long-forgotten, dusty film spools he dug up in someone’s basement  but that also somehow explains what you heard on the news  news three days ago. You may or may not like his style, but I guarantee he will tell you things you never knew before.

Nomadland opens today, Supernova is playing at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox and you can find episodes of  Can’t Get You Out of My Head for free on YouTube. 

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

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