Is reality just an illusion? Films reviewed: Petite Maman, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Stanleyville

Posted in Comics, Depression, Family, Fantasy, France, Games, Horror, Reality, Super Villains, Super-heroes, Supernatural, Time Travel by CulturalMining.com on May 7, 2022

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

Spring festival season is on now, with Hot Docs, entering its final weekend with tons of great documentaries still playing. Check it out while you still can.

But this week, I’m looking at three new movies, where reality, time and space are just illusions. There’s a magical doctor trapped in a parallel universe; a disillusioned office worker caught up in a deadly reality show; and a little girl who encounters another little girl in the woods… who is actually her own mother.

Petite Maman

Dir: Céline Sciamma

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is a little French girl who is visiting her grandmother’s house with her parents. It’s where her mother grew up. But grand-mere isn’t there anymore. She died recently in a nursing home.  Rather, they’re there to go over old possessions and letters and to spend a night there before they close it up for good. But the family is in a crisis with her parents not getting along. And Nelly’s mom (Nina Meurisse) flees the house without even saying goodbye to her. Meanwhile, Nelly explores the house and the woods behind it where she encounters another little girl named Marion (played by her twin sister, Gabrielle Sanz). They play in a fort she built in an old tree. She follows her home to a house that looks exactly like grand-mère’s… except it’s prettier, with a warm glow all about it. And there she meets grande-mère, alive again, when she was still her mother’s age. That would make Marion her mother when she is just a girl, going through another crisis of her own. Can this new understanding of her mother’s past help hold her family together?

Petite Maman is a very simple, very short story, which is at the same time, quite moving and sentimental. It’s all about memory, loss and mother-daughter relationships. Although there’s a magical, time-travel element to it, this is no Harry Potter — it doesn’t dwell on the supernatural, that’s just a matter-of-fact element of a child’s life. Petite Maman is a wonderfully understated drama — cute but not cutesy, sentimental but never treacly — that leaves you feeling warm inside.  I saw this last year at TIFF, and I put it on my best 10 movies of the year list in January, so I’m really glad it’s finally being released.

This is a tiny, perfect movie.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Dir: Sam Raimi 

Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a former medical doctor who has changed his practice from surgeon to sorcerer. He lives in an enormous mansion in New York City. He is friends with Wong (Benedict Wong) and another doctor Christine (Rachel McAdams) who is the love of his life, but also a love lost. She couldn’t stand his hubris and self-centred nature. And he is forced to confront his rival Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). But when he dabbles with the dark arts, the universe is turned into chaos and he finds himself in another universe. 

There he encounters the Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) who dreams each night of a suburban housewife named Wanda. She wants to rule the world so she can return to this lost life. But the one person with the power to transcend parallel universes is a naive young girl in sneakers and a bluejean jacket named America (Xochitl Gomez). She wants to return to her own universe so she can see her two moms again. Doctor Strange rescues her just in time and they end up hurling through dimensions and realities, before landing on a topsy-turvy New York where green means stop and red means go. Can Doctor Strange fight the witch, break the spells, and make the multiple universes all safe again? 

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the latest instalment in a seemingly endless number of movies and TV shows. While I recognized the parade of various minor superheroes and villains as they appeared in different guises, I have to say I don’t quite get it. What is the point of this movie and why should I care? It’s directed by horror great Sam Raimi, so I was expecting some chiller-thriller elements, but I wasn’t ever scared, not even a tiny bit. It’s much too tame for that. It is fun to watch: there’s a cool psychedelic sequence in the middle along with a brilliant house of mirrors and some old -school Hong Kong kung-fu mid-air battles that I liked, but in general, I found the movie not great… just good enough.

Stanleyville

Dir: Maxwell McCabe-Lokos

Maria (Susanne Wuest) is a woman who works at a pointless office job in a high-rise tower. One day she is disturbed by an omen — a noble bird flying in the sky that crashes into her office window. Though married with a teenaged daughter and a full-time career, she gives it all top in an instant. She empties her pocketbook, including money, phone and credit cards and wanders aimlessly into a shopping mall. There she encounters a geeky man with glasses, named Homunculus (Julian Richings) who tells her matter of factly, that she’s been chosen from 100s of millions of people to participate in a contest with four others. The winner gets an orange-coloured SUV (in which she has no interest), but more than that she can find her true self. In an abandoned warehouse called The Pavilion the five contestants are given tasks to complete, with one winner declared at the end of each round, recorded on a large blackboard. 

Her ridiculously-named fellow contestants are Manny Jumpcannon (Adam Brown), a fearful snivelling man in a leopard-print shirt;  Felicie Arkady (Cara Ricketts) a conniving woman who will stop at nothing for a free SUV; Bofill Pacreas (George Tchortov) a muscle-headed obsessive body-building; and Andrew Frisbee, Jr (Christian Serritiello) an insufferable corporate executive with daddy issues.  Their tasks start as simple as blowing up a balloon, but gradually become more and more difficult, some of which threaten their lives. And deprived of cel phones, their only contact with the outside world is an electrified conch shell that  Maria somehow rigged up. As the alpha-types fight each other, possibly to death, only Maria seeks to get in touch with her inner self. Will they ever leave the pavilion? Will somebody win? Or is it all just an illusion?

Stanleyville is a mystical, comedy/horror movie, with echoes of Lord of the Flies, Squid Game, and other life-or-death dystopian survival stories. But this one is intentionally absurd, quirky and ridiculous. The characters all play to stereotypes but in a humorous way. So if you’re looking for something completely different, you might enjoy Stanleyville.

I did.

Petite Maman, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and Stanleyville all open this weekend 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

Sagas. Films reviewed: All My Puny Sorrows, The Northman

Posted in Adventure, Canada, Family, Iceland, Music, Religion, Secrets, Suicide, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 16, 2022

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

If you’re looking for new opportunities to see movies in Toronto, there are a lot of opportunities coming up. This coming Wednesday is the annual Canada Film Day, with great Canadian movies playing for free across the country, and at embassies around the world. Whether you’re in Arviat, Saskatoon, or downtown Toronto, go to canfilmday.ca to find the movie closest to you. Also free, if you’re under 25, is the Next Wave Festival at TIFF with workshops, competitions and a well-curated slate of screenings for you to watch. 

This week, I’m looking at two new movies — one from the US, the other from Canada. There’s a brooding Mennonite drama, and a swashbuckling Icelandic saga.

All My Puny Sorrows

Co-Wri/Dir: Michael McGowan (Based on the novel by Miriam Toews)

Elf and Yoli are sisters who grew up in a small Mennonite community in Canada. Elf (Sarah Gadon) is a world-renowned concert pianist, rich famous and glamorous. Her loving husband is always there to lend a hand. Yoli (Alison Pill), the black sheep of the family, was pregnant at 18, and lives with her daughter in Toronto. She’s a published writer but her last novel sold just a few hundred copies. And now she has writer’s block, her husband is divorcing her, and she’s sleeping with a lawyer named Finbar she doesn’t even like. So when their  Mom (Mare Winningham) gets a late night phone call that her daughter had attempted suicide, she’s not surprised. The thing is, it’s Elf, not Yoli, who wants to die. 

So Yoli flies back to her hometown to visit Elf in hospital and to convince her that life is worth living. But the visit awakens lost memories of their childhood, including gossipy small-town life, and various encounters with the repressive church leadership. They never wanted Elf to study music or for their father to open a public library. And she’s not the first one in the family with suicidal tendencies — the movie starts with their dad walking in front of a train a decade earlier.

All My Puny Sorrows is a literary look at the lives of two sisters. By “literary” I mean they literally talk like characters in a book, with witty bon mots spilling off their tongues. I mean, why say hey Elf, how’s it going? when you can quote Coleridge and Virginia Woolf instead? The problem is some of the dialogue and voice-overs come across as stilted and wooden, not how real people talk.  There are some great scenes in the movie — like a flashback, where their mom expresses her anger at the Elders’ interference by loudly pounding a chicken breast in the kitchen while Elf plays Rachmaninoff on the piano, full blast, to drown out their voices. And I also liked some of the interactions among Elf, Yoli, their mom and their aunt.

But as a whole, the movie doesn’t quite cut it, with too many parts that fall flat. 

The Northman

Co-Wri/Dir: Robert Eggers (read my 2019 interview with Eggers here)

It’s the middle ages in Scandinavia. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a little prince who lives a quiet life with his mother, the Queen (Nicole Kidman) in a seaside village. But when his father the king returns home, everything changes. He leads the prince into a secret cave to perform sacred rituals. Between farts and belches, Amleth becomes an adult, receives an amulet, and is inducted into the order of the wolves by howling at the moon. But his new status is interrupted by his insidious uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). He witness his uncle murdering the king, kidnapping the queen, and ordering the prince’s death, too. His father’s last words: avenge my death by killing my brother and rescuing the Queen. The little boy fights off his killer by slicing off his nose, and flees in a small boat across the seas. 

Years later, he’s a fierce warrior, raiding coastal and riverside towns dressed as a wolf berserker, massacring, looting and pillaging as his team passes through. But a mystical soothsayer orders him to fulfil her predictions and leave the vikings for a new voyage. So he disguises himself as a slave, and climbs aboard a ship destined for Iceland. On board he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) the blonde slave warrior from his visions, and together they make a pact. But will he ever fulfill his destiny?

The Northman is a brilliant new Icelandic saga about a hero’s wars, battles, magic and family lines. It blends pre-christian legends and rituals with sacred swords, Dwarves, animism and nordic gods. It’s also about reclaiming masculinity, including a spectacularly homoerotic sword fight fought in the nude over flowing lava. (Not joking.) It also has proto-football matches, magical crows and wolves, and psychedelic mushroom. 

In order to appreciate The Northman you have to buy into the whole concept, otherwise you’ll reject it as ludicrous (there are a few moments where you wonder what the hell are you watching.) But it’s so beautifully done and carefully crafted that it’s much more than a Game of Thrones episode. This one has depth and meaning. And knowing Robert Eggers, I’m sure he and his crew deeply researched the film — his other ones used things like dialogue taken directly from a 19th century diary. It also includes incredible images you’ve never seen before, like a three-dimensional family tree that appears to him in his visions, that looks like a cross between a Japanese ghost story and a mediaeval tapestry. Just amazing. It’s extremely violent and harshly amoral, so if that upsets you, don’t see this movie. But if you like sword fights, vikings and authentic mediaeval adventures, you’ll probably love The Northman as much as I did.

All My Puny Sorrows is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings; and The Northman opens next Friday.

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.

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

Advances in Technology. Films reviewed: The Automat, Dope is Death, After Yang

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, Addiction, Adoption, Androids, Canada, documentary, drugs, Eating, Family, New York City, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on March 12, 2022

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

Technology, whether we find it good or bad, always affects our lives. This week, I’m looking at three movies — two documentaries and a science fiction drama — that look at advances in technology. There’s a new type of restaurant a hundred years ago that sells hot food out of metal and glass dispensers; a clinic 50 years ago that uses acupuncture to detox heroin addicts; and a future world where androids serve as siblings.

The Automat

Dir: Lisa Hurwitz

It’s the 1920s in New York and the city is booming. 300,000 women work as stenographers and they — along with everyone else — all need to eat lunch. And one modern restaurant chain, Horn & Hardart’s Automat, is serving them all. Art Deco palaces welcome anyone with a nickel to buy a slice of pie or a cup of steaming French-press coffee expelled through shiny brass dolphin heads. Customers share marble topped tables with whoever sits down beside them.  And behind stacks and rows of pristine glass and metal drawers, a nickel or two dropped in a slot opens the door to a single servings of macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, baked beans, or Salisbury steak all made at a central commissary and shipped out that very same day. At its peak they served 800,000 diners each day in NY and Philadelphia (where the chain was founded). But what goes up must come down. I wandered into an automat just once as a teenager and never went back. It was disgusting, the food looked unpalatable and aside from the novelty of buying a stale, egg salad sandwiches behind a little glass door, I couldn’t see why anyone would go there. But its fans from earlier generations remember it well, swearing by their specialties like strawberry rhubarb pies. 

The Automat is a fun and breezy look at this fabled restaurant chain, and its rise and fall. It interviews former owners, staff and customers, including celebrities like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. And although the doc was shot pretty recently, many of the featured interviewees — like Ruth Bader Ginzburg and Colin Powell — have sadly passed away. This is an interesting doc about an almost forgotten phenomenon.

Dope is Death

Wri/Dir: Mia Donovan (Inside Lara Roxx)

It’s the early 1970s in the South Bronx, NY and heroin use is rampant. Nixon has declared a war on drugs, devoting money to incarceration and maintenance programs (like methadone), but nothing for detoxification and ending addiction. So black, brown and white activists in groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords decided to take action. They occupied Lincoln Hospital and managed to open a detox clinic there. The program was led by Dr Mutulu Shakur, (that’s Tupac Shakur’s step-father, and a separatist activist in the Republic of New Afrika movement.) who tried something new — acupuncture! A half dozen medics went up to Montreal and returned a couple years later as medically-trained acupuncturists, staffing the new clinic, specifically to relieve drug addicts from their need for heroin.

Dope is Death is a brilliant, politically-informed historical documentary that looks at all the people involved in this movement— interviewing former addicts, acupuncturists and political activists. Sadly many were jailed or went underground following a brutal FBI crackdown. This film includes pristine colour footage from the era, along with period posters, photos, and audio  and video interviews. Although most of the film is set in NY city, the story takes us exotic locales from Montreal to Beijing. Sadly this fascinating doc was released during covid, but it’s finally showing on the big screen one day next week in Toronto.

After Yang

Dir: Kogonada

It’s the near future somewhere in the world. Kyra and Jake (Jodie Turner-Smith, Colin Farrell) are a happily married couple with a daughter named Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). To help Mika cope with differences (Mika is Black and English, Jake white and Irish, and she was adopted as an infant from mainland China)  they purchase an android named Yang. He is programmed to help Mika discover fun facts about her heritage and learn to speak Chinese. Yang  (Justin H Min) is like a gentle adult brother, there to explain and comfort her while her parents are away (mom works in an office, while dad sells tea leaves   — his obsession — out of a small shop). But when Yang malfunctions and stops working altogether,  that is, he dies, little Kyra is devastated, sending the family on a downward spiral. It’s up to Jake to try to bring them back together by preserving Yang’s thoughts and memories. But in trying to save him, Jake discovers new things about their lives, and Yang’s, things he knew nothing about.

After Yang is an unusual science fiction movie, without space ships, laser beams, or violence of any kind. In this future world people (or at least this family) live in stunning glass and wooden houses and dress in colourful hand-sewn clothing. They hilariously compete as a family in online dancing competitions (this has to be seen to be believed). Jake’s investigations uncover Yang’s hidden past lives, before he lived with them, including a woman he was in love with. This is a very low-key and visually-pleasing look at a future just like our present but prettier… and where artificial intelligence plays a crucial  part in our lives. It also deals with privacy, death, technology and everyday middle class problems. The director incorporates experimental film techniques in the movie, things like multiple repetitions of some of the lines to convey the way we — or an android — might remember things. Characters rarely show strong emotions; everything is repressed.  And to tell you the truth, not much happens. So while not completely satisfying, After Yang is still a pleasure to watch.

After Yang opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Hot Docs Cinema is featuring special screenings of The Automat and Dope is Death next week, with the directors present for Q&As; go to hotdocs.ca for details.

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.

Tagged with: ,

In the shadows. Films reviewed: Hellbender, Cyrano

Posted in 1600s, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, France, Horror, Musical, Supernatural, Swashbuckler by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2022

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

February, always the worst moth of the year, is finally coming to an end, and the theatres are all opening up again. This week, I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a horror story. There’s a French wordsmith who hides in the shadows, and an American hellbender who never leaves her home.

Hellbender

Wri/Dir:John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser

Izzy (Zelda Adams) is a typical teenaged girl. She’s 

a vegetarian, wears  hoodies and converse sneakers, and is in a goth rock band called Hellbender (she plays the drums). She lives with her mom  (Toby Poser) in a big wooden house on top of a small mountain surrounded by lush forests and a bubbling brook. So what’s so special about Izzy? She’s never seen or spoken to anyone except her mom since she was five years old. She suffers from a rare disease and outside contact could kill her. 

But one day she wanders to the edge of their property and sees another young woman in a backyard swimming pool.

Amber (Lulu Adams)  who is brash and outspoken, invites Izzy to join her.  Why, Amber wants to know, have they never met before (Izzy says it’s because she’s home schooled.) She returns the next week for a swimming party, where she meets a guy who says her disease doesn’t match her symptoms (he’s a pre-med student). So she won’t die from getting to close. Then he dares her to drink a shot of tequila and swallow the worm — but he puts a live worm into her glass. The results are surprising. Everything starts to blur, voices whisper in her ear, and she’s filled with lust, anger and a strange new power. She wakes up at home, and has lots of questions. 

Her mom apologizes. There is no illness, she says. You’re not in danger, other people are. We are Hellbenders, people with great power. When you ate that worm, you gained power from its fear of death. And the bigger the animal you consume, the more power you have, and the more dangerous you become. That’s why I’ve been keeping you isolated she says. So you can live like a human. But now that she knows who she is, what will become of Izzy?

Hellbender is a cool low-budget supernatural horror movie. It has a very small cast and I think (just going by names) they’re all related and maybe all in the band Hellbender. It has a good “look” to it, too: there are jagged black rocks on the mountainside, and nice leafy woods. The trippy, psychedelic dream sequences are short but very well done. One part I didn’t like was the opening sequence — a Salem village-type hanging of a witch — it felt unnecessary, but, other than that, this is a tight mother-daughter, drama that combines horror with a coming-of-age of a young woman discovering her power.

Cyrano

Dir: Joe Wright

It’s 17th century France. Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage) is a decorated soldier, a champion fencer in the King’s guard, as well as an exceptionally eloquent poet. He wows the crowds at a theatrical performance where he takes down the awful lead actor through the use of verbal barbs and comical swordsmanship. There he catches the eye of a woman named Roxanne (Haley Bennet). She’s a beautiful aristocrat but also a penniless orphan, destined to marry an aristocrat. They get to know each other and she comes to adore and admires him. Likewise, Cyrano swears he’ll be her lifelong protector. He’s actually in love with her…but never expresses that love because of his appearance. You see, he is a little person. And he is resigned to failure when she tells him she’s in love, but not with him, with a handsome, but inarticulate musketeer named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr). Cyrano is forced to support Roxanne by helping his rival, to the extent where he expresses his love for her in letters that are sent by Christian.  Later he even hides in the shadows feeding lines to Christian wooing Roxanne on her balcony. Will she ever discover his true love for her? And that the love letters are from Cyrano, not Christian? Can she escape the wicked aristocrat she is meant to marry? And who will survive the coming wars?

Cyrano is a new musical version of the classic French play. In the original, Cyrano has such a big nose that he thinks his true love will never desire him. This time it’s that he’s too short. Does this new version work? Sadly no. Dinklage was fantastic in Game of Thrones and various movies; and Kelvin Harrison Jr is one of the best young actors around (in movies like Waves, Luce, and It Comes at Night). But this is a musical, and there’s an old theatrical term called a “triple threat” — an actor who can also sing and dance. Dinklage and Harrison are single threats. Great actors but not so great as singers and dancers. (Haley Bennet as Roxanne does have a good voice) And the music is terrible. Fans of the band The National might like these songs but I found them tedious, repetitive, and totally uninspiring. Not a catchy tune anywhere. The dance scenes have the lead characters standing still surrounded by weirdly dressed dancers who twist all around them, so you don’t notice. The sad parts aren’t really sad, the funny parts aren’t  that funny, and the story is so famous that there are no surprises anywhere. It’s based on an earlier stage version but they didn’t do much to make it cinematic — it was almost like watching a filmed play. I wanted it to be good, but sad to say, this Cyrano sucked.

Cyrano opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend; check your local listings. Hellbender is currently streaming on Shudder.

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

Deliveries. Films reviewed: Dog, Parallel Mothers PLUS BTFF!

Posted in Animals, Army, Family, History, LGBT, Movies, photography, Road Movie, Spain, War by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2022

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

It’s Black History Month and The Toronto Black Film Festival is on now through Monday, February 21st celebrating its 10th anniversary. It’s showing — get this! — 200 movies, including features, shorts, documentaries, and more, from Canada and around the world. It features the Canadian premier of Krystin Ver Linden’s Alice, starring Common and Keke Palmer. There are also panel discussions, and if you’re an emerging black filmmaker, check out the Fabienne Colas Foundation’s Being Black in Canada program, with films geared specifically to cities like Montreal and Halifax. There’s also a special tribute to the late Sidney Poitier. That’s at the Toronto Black Film Festival – TBFF for short — all happening through Monday. 

This week, I’m looking at two new movies, one from the US, the other from Spain. There’s a war vet delivering a dog, and a fashion photographer delivering her baby.

Dog

Dir: Reid Carolin, Channing Tatum

Jackson Briggs (Channing Tatum) is a vet with a dog. Nothing so unusual about that. Except he’s a veteran, not a veterinarian. And the dog isn’t his. And he’s driving it down the West coast to attend a funeral — the dog is invited, not Briggs. Huh? You see, Briggs wants to reenlist — he’s an Army Ranger. He spent the past three years in a fog of alcohol and drugs, but he’s all dried out now and ready to ship off. But his Captain isn’t so sure. So they make a deal. Briggs drives Lulu, a decommissioned army dog, to the funeral of a member of their company who recently died. Lulu was an important part of his life, so it’s only fitting she should attend his funeral. In exchange, the Captain agrees to look again at Briggs reenlisting.

Lulu, despite her name, is no French poodle. She’s a Belgian Malinois. She looks like a German Shepard but smaller with a charcoal face and pointy ears. They are specially bred for security forces and trained to defend, attack and track. And Lulu has PTSD, she goes crazy if you touch her ears, or if she hears loud noises like thunder, guns or bombs. These are fiercely loyal dogs but they have to trust their owners. And Lulu and Briggs don’t like each other, so she’s muzzled and stuffed into a tiny kennel on the back seat. Soon enough though, she has completely destroyed her plastic prison and is chewing up the carseats. Can Briggs get Lulu to the funeral in time? Or will the two of them tear each other apart first?

Dog is a nice road movie about a man and his dog, and the people they encounter on their journey. People like two beautiful women who practice tantric sex; a dangerous hippie who runs a grow-op; a dog trainer, a psychic, and Briggs’ long-lost daughter.  They wind up in a luxury hotel, in abandoned barns, a night in jail and hitchhiking in the desert. And all along the way, we have Briggs’s non-stop monologue as he talks to Lulu. Luckily, the dog and the actor are interesting and appealing enough to keep your attention with the point of view shifting back and forth between Briggs and Lulu. Dog is a low key comedy-drama, but with enough surprises, laughs — and a few sad parts — to make it a worthwhile watch. 

Parallel Mothers

Dir: Pedro Almodóvar

Janis (Penelope Cruz) is a high-profile photographer  in her late 30s. She’s in a Madrid hospital about to give birth for the first time. There she meets a teenaged girl, also single and pregnant, named Ana (Milena Smit). She comes from a rich family — her dad’s a businessman, her mom an actress — but they are divorced and Ana is less than enthusiastic about raising a kid. Janis, on the other hand, can’t wait. 

Her baby is the result of a fling with a man she photographed once, named Arturo (Israel Elejaide). He’s a forensic anthropologist who works with an organization that disinters, identifies and reburies many of the lost victims of Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco. More than 100,000 people are still missing, many killed by Franco in the Spanish civil war and afterwards. This includes Janis’s own great grandfather and others from her ancestral village. Arturo says he’ll look into her village, but he can’t promise her anything. 

But back to the two mothers. After a few years, one of their babies dies, and the two bond together to raise the surviving kid. But both mothers hold deep dark secrets they have yet to reveal. Can Janis and Ana make it as a couple? What about the child? And then there’s Arturo… and her village?

Parallel Mothers is a wonderful, tender, surprising and moving drama set in Madrid. Like all of Almadòvar’s recent movies, it has an amazing story, told in an eye-pleasing manner, from the opening line to the closing credits. They all share recognizable styles and images, as well as his troop of actors, including Rossy de Palma, but Parallel Mothers is also a unique stand-alone film. If you’re already a fan of Almadòvar, you will love this one and if you’ve never seen his films before, this is a gapped place to start.

Dog opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend; check your local listings. Parallel Mothers 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

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

%d bloggers like this: