Daniel Garber talks with Robert Osborne and Brooke Mullins about Malcom is Missing

Posted in Canada, Corruption, Crime, documentary, Family, Mexico, Police by CulturalMining.com on January 28, 2023

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

Brooke Mullins is a woman raising her two daughters in Port Hope, Ontario. She grew close to her divorced Dad as an adult. A few years ago, Malcom  moved to Mexico to spend his retirement winters relaxing amid the lush palm trees and sparkling beaches of Puerto Vallarta. He remained in close contact with Brooke, until suddenly… all contact disappeared. And when she tried to reach him, she received little help from his live-in girlfriend, Marcela. The authorities were indifferent and the police were no help at all. So, taking things in her own hands, she flew down to Mexico to try to find her dad or at least find out what was happening to him. And what she found was shocking. 

Malcom is Missing is a personal documentary that traces Brooke’s search for her father and some sense of justice, amidst the crime and corruption lurking just beneath the surface. It follows her investigation including interactions with journalists, lawyers, the police and prosecutors, along with Malcom’s friends and colleagues. The film is directed by Robert and Jari Osborne, and features Brooke Mullins as its principal subject.  Robert is an award-wining journalist and documentary filmmaker with over 30 years experience at The Nature of Things, CBC POV and CBC Docs, along with CTV’s W5, Global’s National News and National Geographic, among many others. 

I spoke with Robert Osborne and Brooke Mullins via Zoom from Toronto.

Malcom is Missing  is having a special screening followed by a Q&A at Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto on January 29, 2023, and will be broadcast on CBC’s Documentary Channel in March.

Oscar contenders, 2023. Films reviewed: Saint Omer, The Son, Living

Posted in 1950s, 2000s, Courtroom Drama, Death, Drama, Family, France, Mental Illness, TIFF, UK by CulturalMining.com on January 21, 2023

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

This week, I’m looking at three potential Oscar contenders opening this weekend. There’s a writer in Paris attending a trial, a bureaucrat in London whose life is a trial, and a Dad dealing with the trials and tribulations of a mentally ill son.

Saint Omer

Wri/Dir: Alice Diop

It’s the early 2000s in a Parisian suburb. Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) is on trial for murder. She admits to leaving the infant on a beach to be washed away with the tides one moonlit night, but why she did it is not so simple. She’s a Senegalese-French woman from Dakar, in Paris as a student. She is beautiful, articulate, poised and intelligent; not your usual murder suspect. As her mother (Salimata Kamate) told her, education and politesse are the two most important traits. But after a series of events she ends up living in a small apartment as a grey-haired, married man’s mistress — no longer in university, with no friends, no job, no future. And virtually no one knows she was pregnant nor that she gave birth at home. She existed in a strange limbo world.

All of this is taken in by Rama (Kayije Kagame) a novelist and university prof in Paris. She is following the trial in person, for a new book she’s writing about Medea. Like Laurence, she’s a French intellectual, and a black woman of West African background. More than that, she’s estranged from her mother and is in her first trimester of pregnancy. In a sea of white faces in the courtroom, she feels both a connection and a revulsion toward Laurence. Could this be me on trial? she wonders. And will I be a fit mother?

Saint Omer is a devastatingly powerful courtroom drama as seen through an observer’s eyes. It’s the opposite of a Law & Order episode — no smoking guns or pot twists. Rather it’s Laurence’s retelling of her story before judge and jury Rama’s reactions that carries all the power. It’s intentionally filled with subtle ambiguity so you’re never quite sure whether Laurence is lying and being coached to do so, or if she’s completely sincere. With women holding most of the key roles — including the judge and the defence council —  it strips away some misconceptions. The acting (by actress Malanda and artist/performer Kagame) is superb, and the filmmaking amazing. This is documentary filmmaker Alice Drop’s first drama.  Somehow, she takes the drab wooden panels of a classroom and a courtroom and turns them into something pulsing with emotion. 

This is a great movie. 

The Son

Wri/Dir: Florian Zeller

Beth and Peter (Vanessa Kirby, Hugh Jackman) are a newly married, upper-middle class couple with a new baby. All I going well until they get an unexpected knock on the door. His teenaged son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) says he can’t take living his mom anymore (Laura Dern) a full-time nurse whom Peter divorced and abandoned a few years earlier. What a dilemma! He can’t turn away his own flesh and blood, can he?  But Nicholas is difficult to live with. It seems he stopped going to school months ago — without telling his parents. And Beth finds him scary. What if he does something to our baby— how can I trust him? So they check him into a psych ward without his consent. But what can they do in the long run with this troublesome teen?

The Son is an overwrought  melodrama about divorced parents forced to care for their troubled son. It deals with anguish, anger and regret but only from the parents’ perspective, never from the son’s. He’s just a pain in the ass… and possibly a threat! This movie falls in that sub-genre of sympathetic parents forced to deal with sons who “selfishly” choose to become drug addicts or mental ill. How dare they! Despite what the parents try, those bad sons are criminals and liars at heart who can never be trusted. This dreadful collection of never-watch movies  includes Beautiful Boy, with Timothy Chalamet and Ben is Back, starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges. This one has equal star power, and is just as hard to watch. It’s especially disappointing because it’s Florian Zeller’s follow-up to The Father a few years back about an elderly man slipping into dementia (Anthony Hopkins, who also appears in this film), as its unreliable narrator. But don’t be fooled. The Son has no redeeming features and is truly one of the worst movies of 2022.

Living

Wri/Dir: Oliver Hermanus

It’s Londin in the 1950s. Williams (Bill Nighy) is a mundane municipal bureaucrat, the head of public works at County Hall.  He spends most of his time at his desk — along with his subordinates Rusbridger, Middleton and Hart — keeping busy by ignoring piles of files and requests. Whenever troublesome locals appear, like a group of mothers requesting they build a tiny playground in a vacant lot, they’re quickly disposed of by sending them to another department in the endless bureaucratic labyrinth of city hall. The newly-hired Wakeling is quickly discouraged from working too hard — an empty inbox means you’re doing something wrong. The sole woman, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), is thinking of quitting to take a managerial job at a local restaurant. Since his wife died, Williams has lived a humdrum existence sharing his home with his adult son and daughter-in- law. But everything changes when his doctor brings him some terrible `news: incurable cancer, 6 months left to live. Suddenly everything takes on new meaning as he decides to start enjoying life and making things better for others. But is it too late?

Living is a period drama about life in post-war London. It captures the spark that can be reawakened in even the most humdrum person’s existence. It follows the night Williams spends in the demimonde led by an alcoholic bohemian he meets in a cafe; the days spent helping  Margaret, for the chance to share in her youth and vitaity; and a project he hoped to complete in his final days.

I approached this movie with trepidation, because it’s a remake of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, one of my favourite movies of all time, which I didn’t want to see ruined. Happily, Living it is wonderful film in its own right. Maybe only a writer like UK novelist Kazuo Ishiguro could transport a story from Tokyo to London, while staying true to its original meaning and structure, even while giving this very Japanese film a distinctly English feel. Bill Nighy (who usually plays silly characters in crap movies) is wonderfully understated in this one. And South African director Oliver Hermanus, who brought us the great Moffie, again puts his all into the film he’s making. 

I recommend this movie.

Living, Saint Omer, and The Son all open this weekend in Toronto, with the latter two playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; check your local listings.

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

January movies. Films reviewed: Plane, Adult Adoption

Posted in Action, Canada, comedy, Disaster, Drama, Family, Philippines, Terrorism, Thriller, Toronto, Travel by CulturalMining.com on January 14, 2023

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

This week, I’m looking at two new movies opening this weekend:  an action/thriller and a dramedy.  There’s an airline pilot trying to escape from a tropical island; and an adult orphan trying to find new parents.

Plane

Dir: Jean-François Richet

Brodie (Gerard Butler) is an airline pilot based in Singapore.   With two decades of experience you’d think he’d be helming jumbo jets by now, but ever since his wife died, his uncontrollable anger has relegated him to shorter flights for a cut-rate airline. Today he’s heading to Honolulu to visit his daughter, working with a rookie co-pilot, Dele (Boson An) and his usual crew, headed by Bonnie (Daniella Pineda).

There are supposed to be only 14 passengers on board but two surprise guests show up at the last moment: an armed policeman and a man in handcuffs.  Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter) is being extradited to Toronto to stand trial for an unknown crime. He looks very strong… is he dangerous? But Brodie has bigger fish to fry– they’re heading into an electrical storm because the cheap-ass airline won’t buy enough jetfuel to keep them above the clouds.

Then comes the turbulence. Wires blow and all communication is lost. He’s forced to make an emergency landing on the only visible island in the vast Pacific Ocean, without a runway or ground crew to help him out. The good news is Brodie manages to land safely. The bad news is the cop guarding the alleged criminal was killed in the turbulence. The worse news is they landed in Mindanao on an island held by Moro  rebels, a place where the Philippine government dare not go. And even worse the local warlords plan to hold them for ransom and kill them, one by one. Can Brodie get them out of this mess? And who can he turn to for help?

Plane is a credible, international action thriller , filled with disaster scenes, fist fights, and last-minute escapes. Butler plays his usual grizzled action hero in the mold of Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies — he takes the hits but keeps on fighting. Blood seems to be dripping down his unshaven face at every possible opportunity. Pure cheese. And who ever heard of an airline pilot with stubble? Butler is teamed with the other big star in this movie Mike Colter, who you may have seen as Luke Cage. Two action heroes vs the bad guys.

Despite the cheese, Plane is fast-moving and generally fun to watch. It’s made by a credible French director who proved his chops with some real crime flics, like Mesrine, Public Enemy No. 1. This one shares its rough-hewn quality. And, with its international cast and setting, it manages to avoid the one of the worst Hollywood afflictions; I’m talking about obligatory “patriotism”. You’ll find no flag-waving here.

Yes, Plane is a B-movie, nothing deep,  but still enjoyable to watch.

Adult Adoption

Dir: Karen Knox

Rosie (Ellie Moon) is a 25 year old woman who works in a bank office in Toronto’s financial district. She’s efficient, hardworking and diligent and never takes a day off. Her boss is like a mother to her and her coworkers are her family. In her spare time she tries to have sex with a guy she meets on an online dating site (Donald McClean, Jr). But her comfortable life is shaken when a new boss — a guy about her age — takes over.  Her surrogate mother is gone and she doesn’t know what to do.  Things get worse when Helen (Leah Doz), her workmate and closest friend, keeps telling her not to worry, just ask her real parents for advice. The thing is, Rosie doesn’t have any parents. She’s been an orphan since she was three and was never adopted. Now that she’s aged out of the foster program, she has no one left to turn to for help, or love or support. No one to ask about her day or just brush her hair. What’s an adult orphan supposed to do?

Rosie decides to take a different approach using an online site for adult kids seeking new parents.  She meets two possibilities at the site, a middle aged man and a woman named Jane (Rebecca Northan) who has estranged relations with her daughter. While things seem to be going well, but will she ever find a new family that works? And by doing so, can she emerge as a normal person?

Adult Adoption is comedy drama about a neurotic woman trying to create the family she never had, and the indifferent or exploitative people she encounters along the way. It concentrates on the quirky main character Rosie as envisioned by Elie Moon who not only plays her but who also wrote the screenplay. She’s really great. She wears little-girl clothes with pink polkadots and knitted strawberries. And alternates between an independent,  sexually-active woman with grown-up desires, and that of a clinging, naive child. While Adult Adoption deals with serious topics like loneliness and depression, it manages to stay funny enough never to become depressing itself.

I liked this one.

Plane and Adult Adoption both 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

New Year Movies. Films reviewed: Babylon, Broker

Posted in 1920s, Corruption, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Hollywood, Korea, Sex by CulturalMining.com on December 31, 2022

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

This week I’m looking at two new movies to bring in the new year. There’s an abandoned baby in Busan, and excessive abandon of 1920s Hollywood.

Babylon

Wri/Dir: Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash)

It’s a hot day in Santa Ana, near LA, in the 1920s. Manny (Diego Calva) has a strange job. He has to get an elephant through the desert to a mansion in time for a huge Hollywood party that night. There he meets Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie) an aspiring young actress who claims to be a movie star. She’s never actually been in anything yet but she says in Hollywood if you say you’re a star you are a star. The doorman is unimpressed but Manny, now in a sweaty tux, gets her through the door. Inside it’s a jazz-filled mayhem of half-naked dancers snorting cocaine as they prepare for their next writhing orgy. The guest of honour is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), Hollywood’s top moustachioed movie star.

Manny stays relatively sober but Nellie goes whole hog, successfully transforming herself into a wild-child party animal. Manny saves the day when he manages to sneak a dead body out of the party on behalf of the studio, without the gossip rags — including Photoplay’s notorious columnist (Jean Smart) —  noticing. A woman died in a back room with a Fatty Arbuckle lookalike. By morning, both Manny and Nellie are invited to work on location on some movies being shot there; she as a starlet and he as a fixer, helping out in emergencies. 

The movie follows the three of them — Manny, Nellie and Jack — as they make their way up and down Hollywood’s precarious ladder. Nellie is a smash hit — she can cry on cue in a tragedy, and minutes later turn herself into a laughing floozie in a western bar. Manny works behind the scenes, doing the dirty things the top producers shy away from. Jack is still the top star, but is gradually slipping at the box office, acting in one flop after another. has a meteoric rise but faces trouble when the talkies arrive. Manny makes his way to executive level, but likes himself less and less. Will Jack find a wife who loves him? Can Nellie lose her Jersey accent in time for the talkies? Which one of them will survive the dog-eat-dog world of the movie industry?

Babylon is a very long but frenetically-paced movie about the early days of the motion picture industry. It recreates a version of that world with exquisite attention to detail — the music, the costumes, and incredible reenactments of the filming of war scenes and dance numbers using hundreds of extras. It gives you an uncommon, behind-the-scenes look at the silent movie era. Scenes in Babylon melt one into the next with cameras that lead you through tunnels, up staircases, from room to room in seemingly endless long shots. The story is part myth, part history. I’m guessing Chazelle found his inspiration in books like Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, about the excessive and scandalous depravity that rocked the industry before the restrictive Hays code came into effect in the mid 1930s. He frequently quotes other famous movies set in LA about the movies themselves, everything from Sunset Boulevard to A Star is Born, to Singin’ in the Rain. (See how many you can spot.) And the over-the-top acting, especially Margot Robbie, is a lot of fun.

Is Babylon a good film? I had trouble identifying with the main characters — they all seem like pawns in the director’s hands as he tells his epic story. It features some non-white, non-conventional characters, from a female movie director, to a lesbian singer from Shanghai, and a black Jazz musician showing off his trumpet skills. Ironically they all seem to be inserted more to demonstrate the director’s commitment to historical diversity rather than as central characters. But it’s not really about the characters, it’s about the city of Los Angeles. Chazelle puts in lots of things meant to shock — nudity, defecation, urination, projectile vomiting, even characters who die as punchlines to jokes — that don’t quite fit.  But all that didn’t stop me from loving the movie-making on display.

If you’re a movie-lover, this epic deserves to be seen.

Broker

Wri/Dir:  Kore-eda Hirokazu (Shoplidters, After the Storm, Our Little Sister, Like Father Like Son)

It’s nighttime at a church in present-day Busan, South Korea. A young woman, a sex worker named So-young (Lee Ji-eun) is carrying her newborn infant which she leaves in a “baby box”, a small door where unwed mothers can leave their unwanted infants, knowing that they’ll be taken care of. What she doesn’t realize is there are two men on the other side of the door: Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a younger guy who works at the church; and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) a middle aged man who owns a tiny hand laundry shop. Right after So-young leaves, they erase the surveillance video and make off with the infant. Their plan? To sell it to a young married couple with fertility problems and keep the profit. But these two men don’t realize that Detective Ji-Sun (Bae Doona) and her subordinate (Lee Joo-young) are watching the whole thing from their police car parked just down the hill. They’re excited that what they see tonight might solve the baby trafficking case they’ve been working on for a long time. But they can’t prove anything until a transaction takes place.

But nothing is as simple as it seems. After a few days, So-young wants her baby back. She left a note saying the arrangement was only temporary. But she can’t involve the police. So she tracks down the two brokers. Turns out Sang-hyun grew up in an orphanage, so finding loving parents will spare the baby from growing up within the bleak institution he lived through. And Dong-soo has both monetary reasons — he’s deeply in debt — and personal reasons why this has to go through. So the three of them form an easy alliance of brokers looking for a permanent home for the infant. And when they discover Hae-jin (Lim Seung-Soo) a feisty kid from an orphanage they’re dealing with stowed away in their car, they suddenly become a makeshift family. But how long will it last? 

Broker is a wonderful, multifaceted movie about love, kinship and makeshift families. It’s also a murder mystery, a romance, a police procedural, and a road movie. Each of the characters has a rich background full of secrets and motives all of which a are gradually revealed. It’s directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, one of favourite directors who always finds a way to make dramas with unforgettable characters who are deeply flawed but still sympathetic. He made Shoplifters a few years ago, and this one picks up on some of his themes. Kore-eda is Japanese, but everything else in this film is Korean — from the language to the locations and the fantastic cast. You’ll recognize some of them: Song Kang-ho starred in Parasite, Bae Doona has been in everything from The Host to Cloud Atlas. So Broker is both a Korean movie, and unmistakably Kore-eda. I saw it four months ago at TIFF, but it really is stuck in my head.

I strongly recommend this movie.

Babylon is now playing; check your local listings. Broker opens this weekend in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lighbox.

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

Adapted from plays. Films reviewed: The Whale, Matilda

Posted in College, comedy, Disabilities, Fairytales, Family, Gay, Kids, Musical, School, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 17, 2022

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

With holiday season upon us, it’s a time when students and their parents have a chance to take some time off. And if you can’t afford a ticket, there are lots of Christmas movies playing for free at the Hot Docs Cinema at Bloor and Bathurst. So in honour of Christmas break, this week I’m looking at two new movies adapted from plays, with an educational theme. There’s a college professor who is ashamed to show his face to his students, and a little schoolgirl who dares to talk back to her headmistress.

The Whale

Dir: Darren Aronofsky

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a college teacher who conducts his classes on his computer. And he never shows his face. He says it’s because he’s technologically inept but the real reason is he weighs 600 pounds and doesn’t want to show himself on camera. He works out of his home, and gets everything delivered to his door. And he’s visited daily by a nurse named Liz  (Hong Chau) who takes care of him, drops off food and keeps him company each day. They’re friends but also share a common history. She constantly warns him that his extreme weight pushes his blood pressure to dangerous levels — he may be dead in a matter of weeks — but Charlie refuses to make any changes to his diet or habits; it’s almost as if he wants to die. 

But his usual life is interrupted by some unexpected visitors. First a stranger, a young Christian missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins). Thomas walks through the door uninvited just as Charlie, who is masturbating to gay porn in his living room, has a blood pressure incident. Barely able to speak, he hands Thomas a piece of paper and tells him to read it aloud: it’s an essay on Moby Dick which is the only thing that can calm his racing heart, and possibly save his life. Later, another visitor comes by, a rude and foulmouthed  teenaged girl named Ellie (Sadie Sink). She is his daughter, who he hasn’t seen since he walked out of his marriage a decade earlier. She wants to know why he left her and why he never visits. Can Charlie reconcile with his daughter? How does he know Liz? Why is the missionary there? Why is one bedroom of his home kept permanently locked? And why is he so depressed that he’s committing slow suicide by overeating?

The Whale is an extremely moving drama about a day in the life of an isolated gay man who punishes himself for something from his past. It deals with his extreme physical disabilities;  in his 50s Charlie is less mobile than an old man, but his brain is as sharp as ever. Adapted from his own play by Samuel D. Hunter, it’s told theatrically in a series of acts all within his home, almost as if it were on a stage, with the players entering and exiting in turn. Each character has a history and a secret, eventually revealed, which adds great dramatic tension to the story. And the acting is superb, most of all Brendan Fraser. 

At the same time, the Whale Was clearly made to win prizes. I’ve seen enough movies to know when an actor uses prostheses (Charlie is portrayed wearing a “fat suit”) and plays someone with a disability — whether a mental or physical illness or handicap — you know it’s Oscar bait. The thing is, Fraser is clearly a good actor and has a natural heft to his body, so I don’t think he needed all this extra elaborate makeup and costume. What is disturbing is the degree if Charlie’s self-loathing: he practically begs other people to call him hideous, grotesque and ugly. The thing is, it’s all in his mind. He’s actually a kind and pleasant guy, not the monster he’s trying to be. Don’t confuse the character’s psychology with the point of the film. And aside from a truly gross binging scene, The Whale  is really a beautiful and tender film. 

Matilda

Dir: Matthew Warchus

Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is a little girl who has never been to school. Her parents consider her a burden, so she lives in a tiny room in the attic, and educates herself at the local mobile library, where the kindly Mrs Phelps (Sindhi Vee) gives her a pile of books to read each day along with sage advice. But everything changes when a truant officer shows up at her door ordering her parents to send her to school. She starts her classes the next day at Crunchem Hall, a scary gothic structure behind a foreboding metal gate. It’s ruled by the cruel Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (an unrecognizable Emma Thompson), who treats it as somewhere between a boot camp and prison, not a place for fun and games or learning. Her strict rules are enforced by older students who serve as her henchmen. And woe to any student who is caught, or even accused of, disobeying. They might have their ears stretched, or their pigtails pulled by Miss Trunchbull herself. Or worst of all, they could be sent to The Chokey, a miserable, one-person jail, a dark, wooden shack festooned with chains and locks. No, not the Chokey! Luckily, there is hope.  Her teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) is as kind as the Headmistress is cruel. She quickly recognizes Matilda’s genius, and takes her under her wing. But the headmistresses is out to get her: she vows to break Matilda’s spirit and put her in her place. Will Matilda defy the Headmistress? And can she she outsmart her? Or will she end up in the Chokey?

Matilda is a fantastic kids’ musical, full of catchy songs and dances and a plethora of quirky characters within the huge ensemble cast, in the manner of Oliver! or Annie, but funnier. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, it’s full of Dickensian references but without Victorian morality to weigh it down: Matilda is a naughty girl who gets back at her tormenters with tricks of her own (She turns her father’s hair green and puts crazy glue on his hat brim.) Though it’s a timeless story, the art direction suggest a campy retro 1980s setting. Weir is a good Matilda, and Emma Thompson plays Miss Trunchbull to the hilt as an olympic hammer thrower, an intimidating fascist dictator, bedecked in khaki from head to toe. And Lashana Lynch is very sweet as Miss Honey. There’s also a story within the story, a fairytale about an acrobat and an escapologist; Matilda tells a chapter of that story to the librarian each day, like a modern-day Scheherazade. It’s very English, but with a nicely multi-racial cast. My only criticism is they occasionally get carried away with CGI effects, but not enough to spoil the film.

Kids will adore Matilda: the Musical, and I think grown-ups will too.

The Whale opens next weekend; check your local listings. Matilda is now playing theatrically in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and will start streaming on Netflix on Christmas Day. 

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

Unexpected adversaries. Films reviewed: White Noise, Violent Night, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Posted in 1980s, Addiction, Art, Christmas, comedy, Conspiracy Theory, Crime, documentary, drugs, Family, Horror, Mental Illness by CulturalMining.com on December 3, 2022

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

It’s December now with snow on the ground, time for movies to get your blood boiling. This week I’m looking at three new movies about unexpected adversaries: there’s an artist vs a philanthropist, Scrooge vs Santa… and Elvis vs Hitler?

White Noise

Wri/Dir: Noah Baumbach,

It’s the 80s in a small rustbelt college town.  Jack (Adam Driver) is a professor in the new field of Hitler studies. Along with his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) they raise their children, from babies to teens, in a modern, blended family. The kids Denise, Heinrich, Steffie and Wilder, are inquisitive  and precocious, and come from various marriages. At work, Jack lectures to worshipful students, and has intellectual discussions with his colleagues. His closest is Murray (Don Cheadle), a prof who specializes in cinematic car crashes, wants to raise Elvis studies to the level of Hitler studies. 

But there is trouble at home. Babette is obsessed with death and dying, and suffers from memory loss and unexplained absences. Denise suspects she’s on prescription drugs — she found a hidden bottle of Dylar, an unheard of medicine.  Meanwhile Jack is terrorized by nightmares and at times actually thinks he’s going to die. All these troubles are pushed aside when a real disaster happens: a truck crashes into a train carrying dangerous chemicals. The result? A toxic cloud floating above the area with unknown effects. The town is evacuated, the family forced to flee by station wagon to Camp Daffodil a weirdly-named military base. Rumours abound at the camp, and no one knows for sure what is happening. Can life return to normal? Will the toxic cloud blow away? Is Babette an addict? Will Jack’s academic secrets be revealed? And where does Dylar come from?

White Noise is a satirical look at dread, suspicion and alienation within an academic setting. It also looks at pop culture, art and the omnipresent consumer economy. I read Don Delillo’s novel when it first came out and I was captivated by the way it captured the dark mood at the time. Noah Baumbach takes a different path, treating the film as a comical period piece where people dress in funny 80s clothes and use obsolete technology. It looks for laughs in scenes like Jack getting tangled up in a kitchen phone cord. I have mixed feelings about this movie. Some parts just seem like running gags about those wacky 80s, turning serious scenes into absurdist jokes. Other parts are brilliant — like the pas-de-deux between Jack and Murray in a joint Hitler-Elvis lecture. Or an actual dance sequence down the aisles of a supermarket in the closing credits. And a cameo by the great Barbara Sukowa as a German nun in a hospital, should not be missed. While I couldn’t get emotionally into the characters or plot — Driver and Gerwig are both good actors but never seem real in this movie — and I felt detached from the film, I did find it interesting and visually pleasing. 

Violent Night

Dir: Tommy Wirkola

It’s Christmas Eve, and the Lightstone family are  gathered on their vast, private estate. Gertrude (Beverley D’Angelo) their autocratic matriarch, puts on an elaborate dinner each year with servants dressed as Nutcracker Suite characters. Her adult two adult children Cam and Alva, their spouses, and the grandkids Gertrude and Bertrude, (known as Trudy and Bert)outdo one another sucking up to her, to get their share of the family’s wealth. Everyone, that is, except little Trudy (Leah Brady), who doesn’t want any money or presents from Santa. She just wants her estranged parents back together again. 

This year, though, something goes terribly wrong: the costumed caterers turn out to be highly-trained paramilitary criminals, there to murder everyone and steal millions from the safe. They’re headed by a bitter man, nicknamed Scrooge (John Leguizamo) who hates Christmas. Little Trudy escapes from the family, hides in the attic, and calls to Santa Claus by walkie-talkie for help. And, to everyone’s shock, a drunken, bearded man in Christmas gear (David Harbour) comes to their rescue. He’s the real thing, but only Trudy believes in him. Can Santa and Trudy fight off dozens of ruthless killers? Can her parents overcome their differences? And can a worn-out, depressed and alcoholic Santa hang on for one more year… or is this the end of Christmas for everyone?

Violent Night is a comedy/action movie about a good little girl and a hard-ass Santa fighting cruel killers using horrific violence of their own. It’s a combination of two Christmas classics: Home Alone and Die Hard, but with the gore-level pumped up a few notches. Trudy’s booby traps turn out to be deadly, while Santa channels his past life as a Viking to wreak havoc with a hammer named Skullcrusher. Does this movie work? Totally! David Barbour (from Stranger Things) is great as a nasty Santa who pukes and pisses off his sleigh. He takes a licking but keeps on kicking. Newcomer Leah Brady as Trudy is cute — maybe too cute — but good enough. And most of the rest of the characters are sufficiently unlikeable to keep the story going. So if you’re looking for a fun and twisted action movie in time for Christmas, Violent Night fits the bill. 

All the Beauty and The Bloodshed

Dir: Laura Poitras

Nan Goldin is an artist known for her photographic portraits of the demimonde, with louche images of drugs, sex, and self-destruction. She rose to fame in the 1980s with her ever-changing performances of “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”, which combined music and a slide show of her pictures. But far from being a dispassionate observer of the lives of strangers or, worse, an ogler of outcastes, Goldin explicitly documented the lives of her closest friends and herself, including drag queens, junkies, artists and musicians, in various stages of undress. This was also the era of AIDS, which decimated the NY City art scene. Goldin recorded this, too. It was also the start of Act Up and other movements demanding attention from the government and Big Pharma.

Flash forward to the 2000s, when pharmaceutical corporations, through doctors, were strongly pushing prescriptions of opiates as non-addictive relief from the worst levels of pain. In fact they’re highly addictive, and one addict was Goldin herself. Though she kicked the habit, many were still dying from overdoses of opioids. And she noticed something strange. A major sponsor of the galleries and museums that displayed her work were sponsored by noted philanthropists The Sackler Family. And the Sacklers made their fortune through Purdue Corporation, peddling drugs like Oxycontin.  We’re talking the Louvre, the Met, Tate Modern, and the Guggenheim, among others. So she started a protest group called P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) which stages protests in the Sackler wings of museums world-wide.

All the Beauty and The Bloodshed is a fantastic documentary that records Goldin’s life and art, and her battle with the Sacklers. It’s engrossing and revealing, a work of art in its own right. The film includes contemporary footage as well as snapshots and films from Nan Goldin’s own personal history. She’s the cinematographer while the director is Laura Poitras, responsible for the world-changing doc Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a rare case of a political documentary that is also respectful of art. It’s visually and audibly stunning and though almost two hours long, it’s totally engrossing; one of the best documentaries of the year.

White Noise is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto; All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, is playing there and at Hot Docs cinema; while Violent Night opens this weekend across North America; check your local listings.

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

Hollywood movies. Films reviewed: Glass Onion, The Fabelmans

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, comedy, Coming of Age, Family, Hollywood, Movies, Mystery, Secrets by CulturalMining.com on November 28, 2022

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

It’s Thanksgiving weekend south of the border, so movies are being released midweek. This week I’m looking at two new, big-ticket Hollywood movies, you might want to watch this weekend. There’s a mystery/comedy set on a private Greek island, and a coming-of-age drama set in postwar America.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Wri/Dir: Rian Johnson

Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is a conceited, ultra-rich tycoon who made his fortune in the tech sector. Now he amuses himself by throwing elaborate parties on his private Greek Island, where his select guests try to solve a mystery during their stay. But this year, there’s a surprise visitor — the famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). He’s there on the invitation of one of the party guests — Bron’s former business partner — who was secretly murdered, with her identical sister (Janelle Monáe) a meek introvert, impersonating the flamboyant victim. (She invites Benoit as her guest to find her sister’s killer.)

Benoit Blanc, of course, is the famous gay private investigator known for his dapper suits, southern drawl, and legendary detective skills. Other guests include a flaky fashion designer (Kate Hudson), an insufferable online celebrity (Dave Bautista), a devious politician (Kathryn Hahn), and a shady scientist (Leslie Odom, Jr.), among others. But the week-long game is spoiled when Benoit guesses the answer almost immediately, to the host’s displeasure. But, soon after, the real mystery begins, when one of the guests is murdered in plain sight without anyone knowing whodunnit. It becomes a race against time, as other guests start to disappear, one by one. Can Benoit identify the killer, uncover their motive, prevent any more murders, and solve the bigger mystery of why these particular people were invited to this party?

The Glass Onion is a brilliant sequel to Ryan Johnson’s Knives Out from a few years ago, with Daniel Craig repeating the role of Benoit Blanc. It’s hard to review a mystery without giving away the plot, but I’ll do my best. This movie is very cleverly done: like any good Agatha Christie-style mystery, all the different characters — both potential killer or killers and victims — are introduced at the beginning, with no surprises

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). (L-R) Jessica Henwick as Peg, Kate Hudson as Birdie, and Janelle Monáe as Andi. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix © 2022.

parachuting onto the Island. It’s also good because each character has their own quirks, back stories, secrets and motives, all of which are gradually revealed.  It’s even more fun because many of them are satirically modelled after certain celebrities. On top of that, there are a number of intricate clues hidden within clockwork-type devices featured in the film. 

I’ve been watching Rian Johnson’s work since his first film, Brick, came out almost 20 years ago, as he gradually honed his skills. I loved Knives Out, but was worried that a sequel might be a let down. But have no fear, Glass Onion is as good as or better than Knives Out. It’s hard to find movies these days that are there just for the viewers’ pleasure without ever pandering, dumbing down a plot, trying to sell you stuff or stealing ideas. Glass Onion avoids all that, concentrating instead on giving you a really fun night out. 

The Fabelmans

Dir: Steven Spielberg 

Written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner.

It’s Christmastime in the 1950s. Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) is a little boy who lives with his parents and sisters in New Jersey. Mitzi his mom (Michelle Williams) is a former concert pianist forced to adjust to suburban family life. But she manages to keep her sense of creativity front and centre. She refuses to do dishes, insisting instead on paper plates and plastic forks.  She’s the kind of woman who doesn’t hide from tornados, she chases them… and reads music scores in bed. She has a blonde pixie haircut and loves diaphanous white gowns. 

Burt (Paul Dano) his dad, is an engineer and part-time inventor who works for RCA and repairs old TV sets as a side job. He thinks science is superior, while art and movies are just for fun… but he worships the ground Mitzi walks on. And always close at hand is Burt’s best friend and workmate Bennie (Seth Rogan) who the kids all call Uncle.

The story begins with the parents taking Sammy to his first movie, Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Sammy is frightened but also mesmerized by a trainwreck in the movie where circus cars are derailed and wild animals run free. Sammy wants to film it. He manages to duplicate it on 8 mm film, repeatedly using his model train set seen from all the angles used in the movie. Sammy’s love of film is ignited — now he’s making silent monster movies at home starring his sisters. Later the family moves to Colorado, where Burt has a new position developing computers for General Electric.

And Uncle Bennie moves with them.

Teenage Sammy is now a boy scout, and, with his new friends, starts shooting and editing elaborate westerns and war movies to everyone’s delight. But in editing family films he discovers a hidden secret that threatens to pull them apart. 

Years later, they move to northern California where Burt now works for IBM. But Mitzi feels depressed and alienated and Sammy is bullied at school by guys who, he says, look like giant Sequoia trees. Can he still find solace making films? Will Mitzi adjust to a strange new environment? Or is the family heading for disaster?

The Fabelmans (meaning storytellers) is Steven Spielberg’s first fictionalized, semi-autobiographical look at how his childhood and adolescence led to his career as a filmmaker. I usually dislike movies about movies — they tend to be overly nostalgic and sentimental, and mainly there as Oscar-bait, to get people in the industry to vote for them. But this one is surprisingly good. And while there are many scenes of people staring at movie screens, there’s way more to it. It’s a bittersweet coming of age story, it’s a family story, and it’s a rare mother-son story: Sammy and Mitzi are both obsessive artists driven by their craft, but facing constant roadblocks put up by the conventional world. The film also incorporates the southwest, circuses, evangelism, folk singing, secular Judaism, family camping trips, and baby boom youth culture.

Michelle Williams is excellent as Mitzi, a complex character with many regrets. Canadian newcomer Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy is also great. And Judd Hirsch totally steals the scene as crazy Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a lion tamer who wants Sammy to understand that following your artistic dreams is like sticking your head into a lion’s mouth: it takes guts, drive and determination… and might hurt a lot.

The Fabelmans is a very enjoyable movie. 

Glass Oinion is on at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for one week only, while The Fabelmans is playing across North America; check your local listings. 

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

Humans and machines. Films reviewed: L’homme Parfait, Pinocchio

Posted in 1930s, Animation, comedy, Fairytales, Family, Fantasy, France, Italy, Robots, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on November 11, 2022

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

In these troubled times, many feel daunted by quickly-changing technology, and wait with trepidation the eventual coming of the Singularity: the day robots and artificial intelligence become smarter than humans. What will happen to us after the Singularity?

This week I’m looking at two new movies about the increasingly thin line separating people from machines. There’s a woodcutter in Italy who creates a puppet that acts like a boy; and a woman in France who buys a robot that acts like a man. 

L’homme parfait

Co-wri/Dir: Xavier Durringer

It’s the near future, somewhere in France.

Franck and Florence (Didier Bourdon, Valérie Karsenti) are a happily unmarried middle-aged couple with two kids, Max and Victoire. Florence has an office job, while Franck works from home. He’s an actor who is writing that blockbuster screenplay which will turn his career around. But it’s been three years now with no sign of progress, and his agent isn’t exactly banging on his door with acting jobs. And even though Franck is at home all day, it’s Florence who ends up cooking, cleaning and taking care of the kids. But enough is enough. She puts in an order and two days later a large box arrives at their door. Meet Bobby (Pierre-François Martin-Laval): a realistic-looking male robot: strong, smart and friendly. He has artificially blue eyes and speaks in a monotone. With a variety of built-in options, from Salsa dancing to Krav Maga, soon Bobby is whipping up boeuf bourgognon, ironing their sheets and telling bedtime stories to the kids. And his artificial intelligence means, like Siri, he listens to — and remembers —  everything he hears. 

But there are side effects.  Florence may love all the free time she has now, but Franck feels stripped of all his fatherly duties. Bobby is better at bowling. Bobby can fix a broken car engine in a flash. Bobby can select the best wine, say the right thing, buy the right gift. Franck feels increasingly left out. And when he accidentally sees Bobby’s “standard equipment” he feels second-rate and useless. Meanwhile, Florence feels sexually neglected and doesn’t understand why. Is Bobby ruining their marriage? Will Florence ever activate Bobby’s forbidden love-love button? Or can Franck reactivate their relationship?

L’homme parfait is a French comedy about robots, technology and middle-age crises. It’s also a clear knock-off of last year’s German hit I’m Your Man (they actually give it a nod by saying Bobby is manufactured in Germany). It’s conventional, predictable, and anything but subversive, in the style of those cheap-ass Hollywood comedies in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  That said, it did make me laugh more than once. What can I say — no one will call L’homme parfait a great movie, but it is a funny, low-brow sex-comedy in an emerging sub-genre: humanoid robots. 

Pinocchio

Dir: Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson

Geppetto is a wood carver who lives with his beloved son Carlo in a small village in Tuscany. He carves everything in town from wooden clogs for Carlo, to Christ on the Cross in their local church. But when a WWI bomb drops on the village killing his son, Geppetto becomes a reclusive alcoholic, spending all his time crying by Carlo’s grave. Two decades later, in drunken rage, he chops down a knotty pine tree that grew from a pinecone Carlo found on his last day alive, and roughly carves a new boy — with wobbly knees and elbows, rough-hewn hair and a long piece of wood for a nose —  all modelled on his son. He calls him little pine, or Pinocchio. What he doesn’t realize is a blue cricket  (the story’s narrator) lives inside a hole in the wood the boy is made of.

After Geppetto passes out, a magical wood sprite, out of sympathy for the old man, brings Pinocchio to life. She gives the cricket responsibility of taking care of the kid and teaching him right from wrong. The new-born boy is clumsy and dangerous, a tabula rasa taking in all around him. He exalts in learning and gleefully smashes everything he sees. Soon the discovers Pinocchio with different reactions. Some call him an abomination, the work of the Devil. Podesta, a member of Mussolini’s Fascist Party, thinks Pinocchio can be the ultimate weapon, a soldier who cannot die. And a sleazy carnival barker named Count Volpe, and his sinister sidekick, a monkey named Spazzatura, see him as a money-maker, a living puppet he can exploit at his circus.  Being pulled in all directions, can Pinocchio ever find his way back to his father and creator Gepetto?

Pinocchio is a dark retelling of the 19th century Italian classic. It’s masterfully-made using stop-motion animation of dolls and puppets, in the style of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or A Nightmare Before Christmas. Gone are the cutesy Disney costumes and hats; this Pinocchio is bare-bones wood all the way, with clothing hacked onto his body. The naughty boy is made of knotty pine. It’s partly a musical, with characters spontaneously breaking into song (some good, some not), especially at the circus. But it’s also, like all of del Toro’s movies, dark, sad and scary. It deals with theft, alcoholism and death. And by transplanting the story into fascist wartime Italy (similar to Spain in Pan’s Labyrinth), he makes it even darker. 

In addition to Gregory Mann, David Bradley and Ewen McGregor — as, Pinocchio, Geppetto and the cricket — other voices include Tilda Swinton, Kate Blanchett, Rob Perlman, and Finn Wolfhard as Candlewick, Pinocchio’s frenemy. But it’s the characters themselves, animated on the screen, that really make this movie. If I saw this as a little kid, I guarantee, Pinocchio would have given me nightmares. But as a grown-up, I found it a sad and very moving story, beautifully made. 

Pinocchio is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and L’homme parfait is one of many films screening at Cinefranco till Tuesday and then digitally till the end of the month. 

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 Ema Kawawada about My Small Land

Posted in Family, High School, Japan, Kurds, Migrants, Movies, Refugees, Romance, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on November 5, 2022

Edited version

Long version, 日本語 付き

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

Sarya is a typical Japanese high school girl in her graduating year. She is studying hard to pass her university entrance exams, and hopes to become a school teacher. She likes playing badminton, and hanging with her best friends. And she’s starting to flirt with a guy, Sota, who works with her, part-time, at a convenience store. But her whole life falls apart overnight when her father is turned down for asylum, and all their ID cards are taken away.  Sarya and her family are Kurdish refugees, and have been waiting for proper visas since she was just a little girl. But suddenly she’s undocumented, can’t travel, can’t go to university, can’t take paid work or even cross the invisible border into Tokyo. What has happened to her small land?

My Small Land is a thoughtful, touching and deeply moving coming-of-age story about a girl’s life in Japan whose identity is called into question. It deals with family, culture, refugees, assimilation, and how a young woman handles a double life as a Kurd in Japan.  The film is produced by Hirokazu Kore-eda and written and directed by Ema Kawawada, her first feature. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival to great acclaim and opens soon in Canada.

I spoke with Ema Kawawada in Tokyo from Toronto via Zoom. 

Interpretor: Aki Takabatake

My Small Land is playing in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Nov 9th and 16th.

Fall dramas. Films reviewed: The Swearing Jar, The Wonder, Armageddon Time

Posted in 1800s, 1980s, Canada, Catholicism, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, Ireland, Kids, Music, New York City by CulturalMining.com on November 5, 2022

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

Fall Festival Season continues in Toronto with Cinefranco showing the latest films from France, Belgium and Quebec, and Reelasian with movies from East and South Asia, and the Asian diaspora. 

But this week I’m looking at three great new movies, all worth seeing. There’s a phenomenon in Victorian Ireland, a pregnancy in Ontario, and a friendship in Flushing, Queens.

The Swearing Jar

Dir: Lindsay MacKay

(Wri: Kate Hewlett)

Carey and Simon (Adelaide Clemens, Patrick J. Adams) are a couple in their thirties living in Carey’s large childhood home in in an unnamed Canadian city. She’s a school teacher who would rather be a musician, and he’s a writer who loves Shakespeare. They enjoy drinking, cussing and having fun. But when, after years of trying, Carey is finally pregnant, they decide to change their lives for the better, to be good examples for their upcoming baby (hence the swearing jar of the title). But for some reason, communication is breaking down. And when Bev, Simon’s alcoholic mom (Kathleen Turner) drops by unannounced, the tension grows. She repeatedly tells Carey that Simon is just like his dad — he’s gonna leave you, she says, they always leave you. Later, Carey sees Simon’s novel in the window of a bookstore, and makes friends with the guy who works there. Owen (Douglas Smith) is a musician like Carey once was… maybe they can write and play music together? But would that amount to cheating on her husband? 

The Swearing Jar is a delightful musical-romance about a couple dealing with her pregnancy along with an unexpected twist (no spoilers here).  The story is told through a series of vignettes alternating with related songs performed on stage by Carey and Owen in honour of Simon’s 40th birthday. The music is great with some catchy tunes, and the script (originally a play) is generally engaging and funny. Adelaide Clemens has a lovely voice — she and Douglas Smith show real chemistry — and I had no idea she’s actually Australian! This is good one.

The Wonder

Dir: Sebastián Lelio (Based on the story by Emma Donoghue)

It’s rural Ireland in the 19th century, not long after the Great Famine. Lib (Florence Pugh) is a respected nurse from England who trained under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War. She is hired to oversee an unusual patient. Her name is Anna, an 11-year-old girl who has stopped eating. She hasn’t taken a bite for months, but somehow she’s still alive. How is this possible? People arrive from all over, both penitents and tourists, to gawk at or be blessed by the saintly girl. So a local committee, headed by a doctor and a priest (Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds), appoints a nun and a nurse (Lib) to take turns watching over Anna, one to make sure it’s a miracle, and the other that she’s not in physical danger. But something smells fishy here. So she joins with an investigative journalist from London, William Byrne (Tom Burke). But will their snooping around put the girl’s life on the line? And if so, what can they do to save her?

The Wonder is a wonderful historical drama, beautifully made. Pugh plays Lib as a modern woman who is serious about her career, but also takes recreational drugs and has casual sex for the pleasure of it, probably not typical in the Victorian era. But it also exposes dark and hidden secrets, which gives the movie a serious and disturbing undertone. It’s directed by Chilean Sebastián Lelio, who brought us other great movies with dynamic female characters like Gloria (my review here) and A Fantastic Woman (my interview with Daniela Vega). The Wonder doesn’t quite reach that level of angsty, subversive excellence (it’s more conventional), but still very good.  

Armageddon Time

Wri/Dir: James Gray (my review of The Lost City of Z)

It’s Flushing, Queens, NY City in 1980. Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is a little guy with red hair and blue eyes who wants to be a famous artist when he grows up. He lives in a small house with his bullying brother, his plumber dad, (Jeremy Strong) and Home-Ec teacher mom (Anne Hathaway). Encouraged by her and his beloved Liverpool-born grandpa (Anthony Hopkins) Paul devotes himself to reading Jansen’s History of Art and drawing everything he sees. But he has a short attention span — often drifting into daydreams — and acts up at home. On his first day of sixth grade, Paul manages to get into trouble even before his teacher, Mr Turtletaub, finishes taking attendance. His crime? Accurately drawing his teacher’s face. He’s soon relegated to chalkboard-cleaning at the front of the class alongside perpetual trouble-maker Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb). Johnny, who lives with his grandmother, is into NASA, space ships, and Grandmaster Flash. He is repeating sixth grade for disobedience. They soon become best friends, with Johnny introducing Paul to hiphop and rockets, and the much shyer Paul standing up for his friend. Paul is white and Jewish, while Johnny is one of the only black kids in class.

They are both bright but are labelled as “slow”. Rejected by the school, they increasingly turn to rebelliousness to fight back. Soon the pre-teens are cutting class to smoke pot in the boys room. But when events escalate, Paul is sent to a strict, conservative prep school favoured by the Trump family, while Johnny finds himself homeless and on the run. Will their new situation make their friendship impossible?

Armageddon Time is an autobiographical, coming-of-age drama about a rebellious kid growing up in Flushing Queens, his family and his friends. It’s also a glimpse at the period, its music, attitudes and politics. Ronald Reagan is running for President, the subways are covered in graffiti and punk and hiphop are pushing disco away. Closely based on James Gray’s own childhood, it deals with racism, class, corporal punishment and loss, but also friendship, kinship and family. I can’t help comparing it to Stephen Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, coming out later this year, another great autobiographical movie about a future filmmaker’s childhood; but while Spielberg’s is cinematic and full of gushing music, Armageddon Time is much grittier, less idealized. This one is more about the not-so-nice aspects of growing up. Banks Repeta and Johnny Davis are both remarkable as the two kids — they don’t bother learning Flushing accents, concentrating instead on their performance. Hathaway, Hopkins and Strong were also excellent.

I was really moved by Armageddon Time.

The Wonder is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox;  The Swearing Jar and Armageddon Time also open this weekend; check your local listings.

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

%d bloggers like this: