End of summer movies. Films reviewed: Flag Day, 499, Candyman

Posted in 1500s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Art, Chicago, Crime, documentary, Family, History, Mexico by CulturalMining.com on August 28, 2021

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

I know, everyone’s still thinking about Covid-19, vaccinations and Delta, Delta, Delta… but it’s also beastly hot and horribly humid. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in an air-conditioned movie theatre, (safely spaced away from the other moviegoers?) This week I’m talking about three new films that open this weekend — a documentary, a family drama and a horror movie. There’s a Spanish conquistador recording notes in a book; a ghostly killer whose hand is a hook; and a grifter who vows to help out his daughter… by hook or by crook. 

Flag Day

Dir: Sean Penn

It’s the 1970s in the US  midwest. Jennifer and her little brother Nick lived with both their parents, until mom (Katheryn Winnick) kicked dad (Sean Penn) out of the house. He’s a liar and I won’t put up with him anymore! But after watching their mom spiral into alcoholism, the kids only have fond memories of their dad. So they ask to spend time with him. They move into his ramshackle hut by a lake, alongside his new, young girlfriend. He teaches 11-year-old Jennifer to drive, and they spend crazy times by the lake and on the highway. It’s all like an exciting adventure… until the motorcycle gang he works for — and owes money to — start visiting the home. Dad gets beaten up and the kids move back in with mom.

Later, in the 80s they’re back in school. Jennifer (Dylan Penn) is a goth rebel and Nick (Hopper Penn) is a withdrawn teen. Mom has remarried to a creepy guy, and the kids suffer for it. But when the stepdad starts crawling into bed with Jen, that’s the last straw — she has to get out of there. She travels across the country until she finds her father. He is not in great shape — neither mentally nor financially. And his criminal tendencies start to re-emerge. Can Jennifer reconcile with her dad and mom and pursue her goal to become a journalist? Or is she doomed to follow in their footsteps?

Flag Day is a family drama (based in a true story) about the ups and downs of a father-daughter friendship. It stars a real father and daughter, Sean and Dylan Penn. The movie starts on Flag Day (an unofficial,  patriotic US holiday), with the father — an accused counterfeiter — is being pursued down a highway by a line of police cars with a helicopter overhead. The rest of the movie is about what led to this point: mainly Dad trying to get away with his crimes to help his beloved daughter.

I have mixed feelings about this film. I’ve seen enough to know that if it’s bad in the first 10 minutes, it will probably only get worse. (Flag Day feels wooden and slow.) But I decided to give this one a chance… and you know what? It gets much better. There’s way too much crying — every scene of the movie involving Jennifer or one of her parents leaving or coning back is punctuated by more tears. And voice-over narration  can ruin any connection you might feel to the characters on the screen. On the other hand, the whole movie is nicely shot on grainy video filled with beautiful fireworks, bonfires, flaming BBQs — (lots of fire and water!); the characters develop and get more and more interesting as you get to know them; and the whole thing (nearly) pulls together by the end. It’s set mainly in Minnesota but was shot in Manitoba, giving it an “authentic” feeling of working-class, white America. Flag Day isn’t perfect but it’s not bad either, once you give it a chance.

499

Co-Wri/Dir: Rodrigo Reyes

In 1521, Cortez and a few hundred conquistadors  invade the Aztec kingdom. They overthrow Montezuma and slaughter countless people, laying waste to the beautiful capital of Tenochtitlán in their insatiable search for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Later, one of the conquistadors (Eduardo San Juan) survives a shipwreck and washes to shore, complete with armour, helmet, pantaloons and sword. He walks from the beach to Tenochtitlan, but it’s not how he remembers it. Somehow he has skipped the past 499 years and is now near Mexico City, circa 2020.

499 is a documentary with a twist. It’s a travelogue through modern day Mexico as seen through the eyes of a relic from the past, a man mired in 16th century Christian morality and Spanish Imperialism. He feels he can slaughter local “Indios” with impunity. But, gradually,  as he sees what’s become of Mexico today — the drug cartels and corrupt police forces, along with the relentless crime, torture and death they bring — he is forced to rethink his beliefs. He becomes less of a soldier, and more of a passive observer, speaking with Mexicans and writing down what they say as they tell him their harrowing stories.

But it’s not all sad stuff. We also see the beauty, the splendour, the weirdness and the wonder all around him. Dance, music, acrobatics, art, culture and history are all shown in glorious panoramic cinematography.  There are bullfights and strip bars, and interviews with actual masked gangsters… as well as their victims.

499 is an eye-opening doc about contemporary Mexico disguised as a time-travel movie. 

Candyman

Dir:  Nia DaCosta

It’s present-day Chicago. 

Brianna and Anthony (Teyonah Parris, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are a rising young power couple in Chicago. They live in a luxury high-rise. She’s a curator at a local art gallery, and he’s an artist. But when he wants his paintings included in a group show, his gallerist says his work is getting stale. Find something new. So he sets out to explore a local urban legend to incorporate it in his work. It’s the story of Candyman, a ghostly serial killer who operated out of a public housing project called Cabrini–Green. It was a sorely neglected area, populated mainly by poor blacks, located just across a street from one of Chicago’s richest and mainly white neighbourhoods, the Gold Coast. (Looks like Bree’s apartment was built over the remains of the project.) 

Candyman tempts victims by offering  them candy, and kills them surrounded by a swarm of honeybees, using a sharp hook he has for a hand. And he can be summoned by saying his name 5 times while looking into a mirror. Anthony’s latest work is called Call My Name, a mirror that dares its viewers to summon Candyman. It gets little notice until people associated with his art start turning up dead. Suddenly, he’s a hot property and art critics say he’s important. But Anthony knows the truth. Candyman is real, he’s dangerous, and he’s Anthony’s to blame for letting him loose on the world. Can he and Bree stop the Candyman before he kills more people? Or is it too late?

Candyman is a sequel to the Wes Craven’s horror movie from the 90s, and it turns conventional slasher-horror movies on their head.  Bree’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett)  is flamboyantly gay but also a credible character with a life all his own, not just a victim to be laughed out. Black characters don’t exist merely in reaction to whites — they’re the focus of the movie. Killings are usually shown from a distance or off-camera — while there’s blood, it’s not excessively gory (compared to most slasher movies). Scary but not terrifying. 

Aesthetically, Candyman is deeply satisfying with art direction way above what you normally see: minimalist composed sets, breathtaking cityscape views of Chicago filmed upside-down in black and white, and shadow puppets used to illustrate the story within the story… so cool. The filmmakers — producer Jordan Peele and co-writer/directer Nia DaCosta  — are black, as are the main characters… but not most of the victims. DaCosta skewers the cut-throat world of fine art, using razor-sharp political satire. Candyman is not a conventional slasher/horror movie, and probably won’t scare your pants off, but it offers lots of eye candy to look at and even more to think about. 

I liked this one a lot.

Candyman and Flag Day just opened this weekend in Toronto — check your local listings. And you can catch 499 at the Paradise Theatre for two days only: Aug 28-9th. 

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 Troy Ruptash about They Who Surround Us

Posted in 1940s, 1980s, Canada, Depression, Family, Meltdown, Mental Illness, Rural, Ukraine by CulturalMining.com on August 21, 2021

It’s 1987 on a farm in Vegreville, Alberta, east of Edmonton. Roman is a happily married farmer with a young son. But their world is torn apart when his wife is killed in a terrible accident (which he blames on himself), leaving Roman and Mykola unprotected and alone. The son turns inward, not eating or speaking, while Roman lashes out. He has a total meltdown, revealing deeply hidden memories of his childhood in war-torn Ukraine. He directs his rage and frustration at everyone he once relied on – his sister, his neighbours and the Church. Can Roman handle on his own what God hath wrought? Or does he need to embrace “they who surround us”?

They Who Surround Us is a moving drama about one man’s struggle with death, mourning, history, family and religion. It’s set within the Ukrainian-Canadian community of east-central Alberta, where the prairies meet the bush, a land replete with grain elevators, onion-dome churches, and a railway line cutting right through it. This film is produced, directed, and written by the well-known Canadian actor Troy Ruptash, who also plays the lead role.

I spoke with Troy in Vegreville, Alberta from Toronto via ZOOM .

They Who Surround Us opens theatrically in Toronto and across western Canada on August 27th.

Heroes? Films reviewed: Lorelei, Stillwater, The Green Knight

Posted in Adventure, Fairytales, Family, Fantasy, France, Medieval, Mysticism, Poverty, Prison, Road Movie, Romance, Trial, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 31, 2021

Heroism is not just a thing of the past; it can still be found in unexpected places. So this week I’m looking at three new movies about flawed men on heroic journeys. There’s a man straight out of prison looking for his long-lost lover; an American in France who wants to rescue his daughter; and a medieval knight who wants to prove his valour.

Lorelei
Wri/Dir: Sabrina Doyle

Wayland or “Way” (Pablo Schreiber) is fresh out of prison. He’s tall and muscular with a goatee. He served 15 years for armed robbery, taking the fall for his motorcycle gang. Way’s on parole now, living at a local church, run by the kindly Pastor Gail. There he happens upon a single mom’s support group where he sees a blast from the past. Dolores (Jena Malone) is pretty and petite with blonde hair and an uplifting spirit. She was his high school sweetheart, a champion swimmer, the love of his life. The dreamed of moving to LA together but his incarceration ended all that. Now she has three kids, all from one night stands. She named them each after colours she likes. Dodger Blue (Chancellor Perry) is a 15-year old with attitude; Periwinkle Blue, or just Perry, (Amelia Borgerding) is 11 or 12 and starting to rebel; and Denim Blue, who is 6 (Parker Pascoe-Sheppard) is adorable but gets bullied at school for wearing girls’ clothes.

Wayland’s first night with Delores is a disaster — he says he has forgotten how to do it. But things get better. She cleans rooms at a motel while he gets a job demolishing vehicles at a junkyard. And since he can’t afford a car, he fixes up a run-down ice cream truck and uses that to get around. But things look risky. He earns extra money transporting drugs for the gang. And his parole officer keeps showing up at the worst possible times. Then there’s the kids. Wayland’s not looking for commitment, but expectations change over time. Can the relationship last? Is it a package deal? Will he be sent back to prison? And can people living a life of poverty hang onto their sense of self-worth?

Lorelei is a bittersweet drama about a passionate and loving couple trying to overcome the enormous problems they face. The characters are real, not just Hollywood stereotypes, and that makes it all the more moving. (It’s a real tear jerker.) And it keeps defying what you think would happen in a more formulaic version. Schreiber and Malone have great chemistry, and the kids, all played by first-time actors, are really good. For a first feature, the director did an amazing job.

I really like this one.

Stillwater
Co-WriDir: Tom McCarthy

Bill (Matt Damon) is good at fixing things. He likes guns, praying and country music. He’s from Stillwater, Oklahoma where he worked as a roughneck at the oil wells until he spent time in jail. Now he does whatever he can find. So what is he doing in the south of France? He’s there to try to get his adult daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) out of prison. She was a college student in Marseilles when her roommate was found brutally murdered. She was convicted and sentenced for the killing but continues to protest her innocence. She says she knows who really killed her, but he has disappeared. The police and lawyers refuse to do anything so Bill decides to track down this guy, get his DNA and free his daughter.

In the meantime, he’s staying at a cut-rate hotel, where he comes to the rescue of a little girl named Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) who is locked out of the room next door. In gratitude, Virginie, an actress and Maya’s mom (Camille Cottin), helps him with some translations. (Bill doesn’t speak any French.) Eventually they become friends, he moves in with them, and he lands a demolition job in Marseilles. Will there be a relationship in the future? Can a conservative redneck American get along with a liberal French woman in the arts? Is there love in the horizon? Can he catch the real killer and free his daughter? Or will it all come to naught?

Stillwater is the slow telling of a story about a flawed, middle-aged guy trying to do right by his estranged daughter. It’s also about polarized American politics in the age of Trump, transplanted onto a French setting. It’s billed as a thriller, but a thriller it ain’t. There are a few thrilling parts, and some unexpected plot twists, but it’s mainly too long, too slow and pretty bleak. It moves like still water.

The Green Knight
Wri/Dir: David Lowery

It’s Christmastime in the era of King Arthur, chivalry and magic. Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) is an aristocratic layabout more comfortable rolling in the hay at the local brothel than appearing in the royal court. But he’s the nephew of the King and Queen, and his mum (Sarita Choudhury) is a powerful sorceress. So when their feast is interrupted by an unexpected visitor, Gawain pays attention. The Green Knight, a huge and imposing creature who looks like he’s made of a tree, challenges anyone to a special game. A one-on-one fight, to be revisited one year later at the Green Knight’s home. The trick? Whatever the winner does it will be revisited upon him next year. Gawain volunteers — for a good chance to prove his valour and bravery and to become a knight. Without considering the consequences, he quickly beheads the Green Knight. But one year later he must visit his castle and get his head chopped off. He sets off on a journey encountering many unexpected challenges, including a highwayman, (Barry Keoghan), a red fox, a ghost (Erin Kellman) a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and a beautiful and mysterious, woman (Alicia Vikander). Will Gawain show valour or cowardice on his long journey? And will he survive his meeting with the Green Knight?

The Green Knight is an ingenious retelling of the ancient myths and stories of the British Isles and France. It’s not a straightforward adventure, but one loaded with dreams, magic and alternate realities. At times it’s unclear whether what you’re seeing is real or imaginary. It’s highly stylized, with gorgeous costumes and settings, which look simultaneously contemporary and medieval. It also uses unusual media – from puppet shows to tapestries and paintings – to advance the story. Dev Patel is great  (he carries the entire movie) but so are most of the others. Surprising phenomena are presented without comment, like a parade of naked giants lumbering past, or Gawain’s own semen serving as a shield of immortality. You might walk out of this movie thinking huh? What did I just see?, but if you think back to director David Lowery’s previous work, like A Ghost Story, you can accept his surreal mysticism at face value. This is a beautiful and fascinating film, a new, bold take on an ancient tale.

Lorelei is now available on VOD and digital formats. Stillwater and The Green Knight opens theatrically or digitally 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.

Death and Life. Films reviewed: Broken Diamonds, Old, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters

Posted in Dance, Dementia, documentary, Family, Fantasy, Horror, LGBT, Mental Illness by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2021

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

Movies in Toronto are taking off. I saw a press screening in a movie theatre this week for the first time in 16 months! It felt a little bit strange and awkward but I can already feel myself adjusting to it. TIFF has announced its first batch of movies, including the world premier of the musical Dear Evan Hansen to open the festival (I’m reviewing another movie starring Ben Platt today). The ICFF is now running a series of outdoor movies including the 1911 silent classic, L’Inferno from Danté’s Divine Comedy. And actual, indoor movie theatres are also open now, even in Toronto, showing new, trashy popcorn movies.

This week, I’m looking at three “deadly” American movies – a drama, a doc and a fantasy/horror – all opening this weekend on various platforms. There’s a brother and sister brought together after a death, a dance performance inspired by a death, and tourists at a beach resort facing death.

Broken Diamonds

Dir: Peter Sattler

Scott (Ben Platt) is a young writer with a goal. He’s quitting his day job, selling all his possessions and flying off to Paris to write his first novel. At least that was his plan until his estranged father suddenly dies. Which brings him together with his sister Cindy (Lola Kirke). Cindy was once the big shot in the family, pretty, smart, an aspiring actress. She was the apple of her father’s eye while Scott was always an afterthought. But she’s been living in a mental institution on and off since high school. But, perhaps because of the turmoil of losing her dad, she acts out and gets kicked out and now she’s suddenly homeless.  She moves back into the empty family home. Now it’s up to Scott to take care of his big sister… or at least until he moves to Paris.

But it’s not that simple. They have a long history to work out. And when Cindy goes off her meds, things start to spiral out of control.  Can Scott act like a grown up and take responsibility for once? Can he help Cindy adjust to life outside of institutions? Is he his sister’s keeper? And will he ever get to Paris?

Broken Diamonds is a touching movie about a few weeks in the lives of adult siblings. It deals with family issues like death and inheritance, living with mental illness, and other people facing their own hidden demons. Though largely told through Scott’s eye’s, it’s sympathetic toward Cindy’s plight. The acting is good and the tone is light. That said, I found the story overly simplistic — neither Scott not Cindy seem to have any friend, lover or relative in their lives other than each other, but they haven’t spoken in years. And did they have to portray schizophrenia as a disease where “split personalities” with different names and voices start to appear as soon as she’s off meds? It also has a painfully awful and unnecessary denouement tacked onto the credits,  so if you decide to see this movie — and it’s seriously not bad, it’s watchable, it’s touching, and well-acted — run out of the theatre when the closing titles start to roll!

Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters

Dir: Tom Hurwitz, Rosalynde LeBlanc

It’s the 1980s in New York City. Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane have a dance company in which they both perform. They’re also lovers. They met in the apex of gay culture and abandon in the late 70s. But now it’s the 80s and the AIDS epidemic is decimating the gay community, including the world of dance. Many of the people they work with, including Keith Haring who does their sets, and Alvin Ailey who commissions their work, are dying. Then Arnie dies too, throwing their company into disarray. As part of the grieving process, Jones decides to create a totally different kind of dance. The dancers are multiracial, men and women, gay and straight, and people with different body types, not just the stereotypical “look” dancers usually have. It incorporates athleticism and the Aids crisis within a fusion of elements of traditional ballet and modern dance. He calls it “post-modern” dance.

This spectacular dance opens to rave reviews and packed audiences. And over the past 30+ years it’s been performed in hundreds of productions. And what a performance — bodies being tossed into the air;  diving off one dancer’s back into another’s arms. And despite it’s modernity, it’s set to 19th century music by Mendelsohn. 

The film shows footage from the original production in the late 1980s, and interviews with many of those dancers. It also follow a young group at a university, going through the process of auditioning, rehearsing and putting together a new version of the same dance. Bill T Jones is present both in the original production and visiting this new one to offer advice during their rehearsals. 

Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters is a documentary that traces the genesis and meaning of the original production and how it retains its relevance and dynamism today.  It’s both an historical document and an important work of art. Personally, I would rather have seen more dancing and less talking, but found it interesting nevertheless. 

Old

Wri/Dir:M. Night Shyamalan

Prisca and Guy (Vicky Krieps and Gael Garcia Bernal) are a married couple with two precocious kids: daughter Maddox, age 7 and Trent who is 6.  Guy is an actuary and Prisca is a museum curator. They’ve just arrived at a luxury resort, for what might be their last time together. Prisca is facing a medical condition and  their marriage is on the rocks. Maybe a few days on a beautiful tropical island can solve all their problems? Soon they’re in a minibus headed for a private beach for a day of sun and fun. The resort has even packed huge picnic hampers of food for them to enjoy. And it’s a stunning beach with white sand and crystal waters, surrounded by steep cliffs, reached only through a passageway in the rocks. Joining them on this excursion are an angry doctor with his elderly mother, his model-like wife and their little girl; another couple — she’s a psychologist and he’s a nurse; and a famous rapper with his girlfriend.But strange things start happening. A dead body washes up on shore. And something’s wrong with the kids — they’re growing up. As in puberty! In just an hour they’ve turned into teenagers with Trent and the other former 6-year-old sneaking away to make out in a tent. They’re in love, and before you know it she’s pregnant! What is going on?

It seems that on this beach they’re all aging at the rate of 10 years an hour, which means they could all be dead of old age by the end of the day. Their cel phones don’t work, and anyone who tries to leave becomes dizzy and faint at the border of the beach. What is happening… and why? And will anyone escape?

Old — based on a graphic novel — operates on a really neat sci-fi fantasy premise. It’s not just horror, there are lots of intriguing and unexpected parts. There are some impossible missteps, most of which I can’t mention without revealing the ending. For example, a psychologist with epilepsy has a tonic clonic seizure at the hotel but doesn’t bother bringing her anti-seizure meds with her on a trip the next day? Lot’s of little errors like that. But even so, I found it a surprising and fascinating story, beginning to end. M Night Shyamalam has been churning out a series of not-so-great movies since The Sixth Sense (1999), but maybe Old means he’s getting better again.

Old and Broken Diamonds both open this weekend, either theatrically or VOD check your local listings; and you can now watch Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters at the Digitall TIFF Bell Lightbox and at Virtual Hotdocs. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Boss Baby: Family Business
Dir: Tom McGrath

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

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

Black Conflux
Wri/Dir: Nicole Dorsey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wife of a Spy

Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

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

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

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

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

Great movie.

Mio’s Cookbook

Dir: Haruki Kadokawa

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

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

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

The Brightest Roof in the Universe

Dir: Fujii Michihito

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tricks, Tracks, Traps. Films reviewed: The Killing of Two Lovers, Deliver Us From Evil, In the Earth

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

Spring Film Festival Season is on in Toronto, digitally speaking. Coming in the next few weeks are the Toronto Japanese Film festival, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Inside Out, Toronto’s LGBT film festival, and events organized by the Toronto Palestine Film Festival.

Starting in two weeks is the ReelAbilities film festival with shorts, features and docs about deaf and disability cultures, including a comedy night. All screenings are pay-what-you-can. Go to reelabilities.org/toronto for more info. 

This week I’m looking at three new movies, from the US, the UK and Korea. There’s  a husband who feels tricked by his wife, a hitman tracked by a killer; and an earth scientist trapped in a psychedelic forest.

The Killing of Two Lovers

Wri/Dir: Robert Machoian

David (Clayne Crawford) lives in a small-town in the southern US. He used to have ambitions to be a singer-songwriter, but now he works as a handyman doing odd jobs to keep his family afloat. He married Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) straight out of high school, and they now have four kids. But the spark is gone. David is living with his Dad now — he and Nikki are on a trial separation. It’s meant to help fix their broken relationship. But when he finds her in bed sleeping with another man, he feels lost and angry, and starts to carry a gun. 

Meanwhile he wants to bond with his kids and keep the family together. His oldest daughter is furious with them both. And the younger ones (played by real-life siblings) are just getting by. Can Nikki and David ever get back together? Or will David’s brooding anger finally explode into violence?

The Death of Two Lovers is a relationship movie done in the style of a high-tension crime pic. It’s told through David’s eyes, so we feel his boiling rage and inner turmoil. He takes out his anger on a boxing dummy, and practices shooting with an old pistol. The soundtrack is full of repeating sounds — slamming car doors, creaking noises — unrelated to the actual images you see. And his encounters with Derek (Chris Coy) his moustached rival looks like it’s headed for disaster. No spoilers, but this is not a crime drama; it’s a movie about the (potential) collapse of a family. The acting is great and bit of a it’s tear-jerker, but it seems trapped within an unclassifiable and misleading genre. 

Deliver Us From Evil

Wri/Dir: Hong Wan-Chan

In-Nam (Hwang Jung-min) is a Korean hitman who kills for money, but only targets organized criminals. His assignment: a ruthless yakuza boss in Tokyo who exploits sex workers. It’s his final assignment; once complete, he plans to retire somewhere with warm beaches and lax banking laws where he can enjoy his blood money in peace…somewhere like Panama? But his dreams are shattered with a blast from the past. His ex-girlfriend he hasn’t seen in 9 years is trying to reach him. Her nine-year-old daughter Yoo-min has been kidnapped. He drops everything and flies to Bangkok to investigate. He’s too late to save her but maybe little Yoo-min is still alive. He hires a local Korean woman named Yoo-Yi (Park Jeong-Min) to translate for him and serve as his guide. She works at a Patpong bar, and needs the extra cash to pay for sex-reassignment surgery. Together they uncover a terrible truth: a ruthless Thai operation that kidnaps small kids, especially Japanese and Koreans in Thailand, to sell their organs to rich people back home! 

What In-Nam doesn’t realize is that he’s a marked man… the hitman is on a hit-list. The Yakuza boss he assassinated had a brother named Ray aka The Butcher (Lee Jung-jae). This guy is ruthless and deranged, and can do terrible things with his very sharp knives. Can In-min rescue Yoomin (and the other kidnapped kids) before their organs are yanked from their innocent bodies? Is little Yoomin — who he’s never met — his own daughter? And who will survive the fight to the death: Ray who is out for vengeance; or In-Min?

Deliver us from Evil is an intense crime action/thriller set in in the underworlds of Korea, Japan and Thailand. The first half hour is a bit dull: too much talk, talk, talk, and not enough action. It’s a complicated plot that needs a lot of explaining. But once it starts going it never let’s you down, with lots of fistfights, marital arts, knives, guns and cars. It’s a world where everyone’s corrupt: competing criminal gangs, local con artists, international syndicates and cops on the take. If you’re disturbed by violence, blood and awful situations— stay away. But if you like action, suspense, intense fighting, and some interesting characters, Deliver Us From Evil is a good watch.

In the Earth

Wri/Dir: Ben Wheatley

It’s England in the near future, where an unknown  virus pandemic is wiping out the population. The country is a mess with food shortages and strange new laws. Martin (Joel Fry), is a mousy scientist who arrives at a nature preserve to study the soil there. (He also has a hidden agenda, to contact Alma another scientist who disappeared, leaving a puzzling diary.) After passing the medical tests,  he sets out into the woods  accompanied by a guide. Olivia (Hayley Squires) is a no-nonsense forest ranger with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She can assemble a pop tent in a couple minutes and knows every inch of the woods.  But while they slept a stranger  attacked them, stealing their shoes, clothes and Martin’s crucial radio equipment. Luckily they encounter Zach (Reece Shearsmith), an eccentric, bearded, back-to-the-land type who is shacked up nearby. He tends to their wounds, makes them some food and gives them comforting elderflower tea. Unluckily Zach is a lunatic who drugged their tea and tied them up. He says all nature is connected, and we must listen to a common brain to find out her wishes. And this includes using Martin and Olivia in bizarre rituals and possible sacrifices. They must escape!  But a natural mist has settled all around them generating  microscopic mushroom spores and unbearable sounds. What is the truth in these woods? And can Olivia and Martin overcome its allure?

In the Earth is a weird, science-fiction/horror/ fantasy about humans fighting nature — and the earth fighting back. It was filmed just a few months ago during the height of the pandemic in the UK. And it’s full of psychedelic visions and creepy sounds. Ben Wheatley’s movies are unique and either you like them or you don’t. But I thought it was fantastic. There’s a fair amount of violence and gross-outs, but it’s all done in an art-house style, not your typical Hollywood horror. If you’re in the mood for a freaky, indie movie, this one’s for you.

The Killing of Two Lovers Starts today on all major platforms, In the Earth also opens today at the Virtual TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Deliver us From Evil will be available on VOD, digital and on disc on May 25th.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Yung Chang about Wuhan, Wuhan

Posted in Canada, China, Depression, Disaster, documentary, Family, Realism, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 14, 2021

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

Photo by Jeff Harris.

It’s February and the city is under a lockdown. The streets are deserted for all but essential workers. New, makeshift hospitals and quarantines are popping up to deal with the thousands of infected patients… and the death toll is frightening. The government has instituted harsh restrictions to stop the corona virus, and people forced to stay at home are volunteering just to have something to do. Is this Toronto? LA? Or New Delhi? No, it’s February, 2020 and the city is Wuhan.

Wuhan Wuhan is a new documentary that takes you onto the scene of the first-known pandemic of COVID-19. It’s upbeat, real and very moving. It talks to doctors, patients and ordinary people showing first hand how they handle the early stages of this previously unknown virus. It’s the latest film by award-winning Canadian documentarian Yung Chang, known for Up the Yangtze, China Heavyweight and many others. Wuhan Wuhan premiered at Hot Docs, Canada’s International Documentary Festival.  I interviewed him in 2012 about The Fruit Hunters and in 2013 about This Is Not a Movie.

I spoke to Yung Chang in Toronto via Zoom.

Wuhan Wuhan premiered at #Hot Docs21.

Northern Europe. Films reviewed: The Good Traitor, Boys from County Hell, About Endlessness

Posted in comedy, Denmark, Diplomacy, Experimental Film, Family, Horror, Ireland, Religion, Sweden, Vampires, WWII by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2021

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

I don’t care what they tell you, movies are not the same without the whole movie experience — going out, choosing a movie, standing in line, eating popcorn… and sitting in a large space beside a crowd of strangers laughing, booing or screaming to the same things you are. You can’t get that watching a laptop or a flat screen TV.

Remember TimePlay? That movie trivia game you used to play before the film starts? Well, they’re about to launch a TimePlay app, replicating the movie experience, where you get to compete against other movie buffs in real time (The winner gets Cineplex Scene card points). I tried it out this week in a trial run for media, and it’s goofy but a lot of fun.

This week I’m looking at three very different movies, all from northern Europe; an existential arthouse film, a comedy/ horror, and an existential arthouse film, and an historical drama. There’s a Swedish storyteller, a Celtic vampire, and a Danish diplomat.

The Good Traitor

Dir: Christina Rosendahl

It’s 1939 in Washington DC, on the brink of WWII. Henrik Kauffmann (Ulrich Thomsen) is the Danish Ambassador, who lives with his brilliant wife Charlotte (Denise Gough) and their two young daughters. It’s a pleasant life, drinking champagne by the swimming pool or mingling at a cocktail party… but beneath the surface, everyone knows Hitler is going to invade Denmark. Should they just let it happen? Or should they do what they can to stop it? The Nazis march in and the Danish government declares  nothing bad is happening here. But Henrik and an earnest young Danish lawyer (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) decide to do something drastic. They declare themselves representatives of the Free Danish Government in exile. And they’re joined by a dozen other Danish Embassies around the world. But can they do for money? And will they get US government support them. (The US stayed out of the war until Pearl Harbour in late 1941).

This is where the real power comes to play. It’s Charlotte, his brilliant wife. Her family has been friends with the Roosevelts since long before she met Henrik. But can she convince FDR to side with her husband? But there’s a twist;  Henrik had a fling with Zilla, Charlotte’s vivacious younger sister (Zoë Tapper) a decade earlier in Beijing. And now she’s sure they’re sleeping together again in Washington. Will Charlotte and Henrik’s troubled relationship influence the geopolitical fate of the world?

The Good Traitor is a fascinating WWII drama viewed from afar, within the safe confines of Washington’s diplomatic corps. It gives hints at the importance of diplomacy and politics in world events, and how much of it takes place behind closed doors. And so do their personal relationships. This is a very tame retelling of true events, with no battles, no death, no violence, except for a shocking twist (no spoilers). But I liked it.

Boys from County Hell

Dir: Chris Baugh

Eugene (Jack Rowan) is a youngish guy who lives in a small Irish town called Six Mile Hill. Its main claim to fame is its association with Dracula author Bram Stoker, and an ancient cairn (that’s a pile of stones) on a field. It’s said to be the burial place of a legendary vampire known as the Abhartach. When he’s not cleaning up an old house his mother left him,  Eugene is probably hanging at the local pub with his best mates William (Fra Fee) his girl friend Claire (Louisa Harland) and SP (Michael Hough) the bearded maniac. They earn extra bucks as tour guides for gullible tourists. But one night, in the dark, William is brutally slaughtered near the cairn. Is there something to this vampire myth? Things are brought to a head when Eugene’s dad Francie, a hard-ass contractor, hires him to tear down the cairn, to make way for a development plan, damn the possible  consequences. But someone, or something, doesn’t like that. Have they gone to far? And is the entire village in danger if the Abhartach returns?

Boys from County Hell is a horror comedy, with an emphasis on the horror, but told in a lighter style. That means lots of blood, in the most disgusting way  possible (when a vampire gets close, blood starts to flow spontaneously from the eyes and noses of anyone nearby.) But there are also a lot of over-the-top violence of the dark humour type, and quite a few surprises — there’s a mystery element. This is a very Irish movie, meaning you may have to turn on the subtitles to understand what some of them are saying. I haven’t seen a good vampire movie in quite a while, and this one varies from a lot of the cliches. The cast is appealing and the pace never drags. I quite liked this one, too.

About Endlessness

Wri/Dir: Roy Andersson

A middle-aged man and woman are sitting on a park bench on a hillside overlooking a vast grey city. They tell each other interlocking stories, about men or women they saw — either in a dream, in a fantasy or in reality (it’s never made clear) People like an awkward virginal young man staring longingly at a busty hairdresser watering a dying potted palm. Or a  man who gets increasingly frustrated by a stranger who ignores him passing by on an outdoor staircase, who he recognizes as someone he had bullied years ago in public school. And a catholic priest having a nervous breakdown because he lost his faith while preparing the communion — with a psychiatrist who refuses to see him because he doesn’t want to miss the bus home. Add to this Hitler in his bunker, a father killing his daughter in an honour killing, prisoners in a Siberia trudging toward a gulag, and an ethereal couple in their nightgowns floating far above a city.

If you’ve ever seen a Roy Andersson movie, you’ll understand that there’s no linear narrative, no main characters, or plot, per se. Rather it’s a series of vignettes that together share a theme.  In this one this Ione the theme seems to be about the unrelenting melancholy, frustration and futility, passing from generation to generation. Everything is ordinary, sepia toned and middling in its regularity. People wear plain, dumpy clothes, with average bodies and faces, People rarely speak and the camera hardly moves.

It sounds like I hated this movie, but I actually loved it.  About Endlessness avoids prettiness like the plague, and is never twee. And it somehow manages to imbue common, depressing thoughts with an ethereal majesty. 

The Good Traitor is now playing in VOD, Boys from County Hell starts streaming today on Shudder, and Beyond Endlessness opens next Friday at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox. And Timeplay is now running online every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday at 8:30 pm ET.

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

Women around the world. Films reviewed: Nina Wu, White Elephant, French Exit

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

Spring is here and so is Toronto’s film festival season, even with all the theatres still closed. First up is the Canadian Film Fest which is on now.

This week I’m looking at three new dramas about women around the world. There’s an actress haunted by an audition in Taipei; a high school girl crushing on a white guy in Scarborough; and an insolvent socialite retiring in Paris.

Nina Wu
Dir: Midi Z

Nina Wu (Wu Kexi) is an aspiring actress in Taiwan. Originally part of a rural theatre company, she moved to Taipei to make it big, but so far, six years on her big break has yet to show itself, So when her agent offers a possible role in a festival-type feature looking for an unknown actress to play a complex character in a psychological drama, she jumps at the chance. But there’s always a catch: the part calls for full frontal nudity and explicit sex. That’s not all — there’s a gruelling, and highly competitive hiring process she has to past through first. Luckily she lands the lead role. Unluckily, the director, in order to get a “real” performance out of her, treats her like hell on set and off. He works her into a frenzy, slaps her face, insults her and puts her very life in danger. She understands what an actor has to go through to deliver a spectacular performance. But that’s not all. A dark, hidden secret from the recent past, still haunts her, and is gradually pushing her to the edge. Someone is stalking her. She has disconnected memories of walking down endless narrow corridors in a red gown, passing identically dressed women at every corner. What is happening? What does it all mean? And can she survive?

Nina Wu is an exquisitely beautiful mystery-thriller about the life of an actress suffering from PTSD. It’s about her, her dreams and hallucinations, as well as the movie in the movie. So at any given moment she could be acting her role, having a nightmare, or experiencing a hallucination — and you don’t always know which one it is. Nina Wu is a collaboration between the director, Midi Z, originally from the Shan State in Myanmar, and Wu Kexi a stunning and emotionally powerful Taiwanese actress, based on her own experiences. With haunting music, striking costumes and set, beautiful cinematography and a fascinating story, Nina Wu shows the dark side of the movie industry coated with a vibrant and flashy gloss.

White Elephant
Dir: Andrew C

Its the mid-nineties at a Scarborough high school. Puuja (Zaarin Bushra) is a
16-year-old Toronto-born girl who doesn’t quite fit in. She’s too Canadian for her Indian-born friends Preet and Amit (Gurleen Singh, Dulmika Kevin Hapuarachchi), too Indian for Indo-Caribbeans, and too brown for the white kids. Her main pastime is going to movies and hanging at Tim Horton’s. But when a random encounter at a theatre with a white guy she thinks is cute, things start to change. Trevor (Jesse Nasmith) doesn’t go to her school, but he’s from the neighbourhood, and hangs with his friends nearby. He seems to like her, at least as a friend. Pujaa starts lightening her hair, changing her style and wearing green-tinted contact lenses to fit in. But can a brown girl date a white guy in Scarborough? Or is their Romeo and Juliet friendship bound to fail?

White Elephant is a look at the racial division, rivalry and prejudice among kids in a multi-cultural community, as seen through the eyes of Puuja. It’s a shorter than average-film, just one hour long, but it covers a lot of ground.

There are some strange details. I’ve never heard of Canadians putting their hands on their hearts during the national anthem — that’s an Americanism. And why would Pooja’s Calcutta-born Dad scolds her for not speaking Hindi. (Wouldn’t he speak Bengali?) But these are minor quibbles. Acting was good all around, the costume design was fun, and the film gave a voice to groups rarely seen on the screen.

French Exit
Dir: Azazel Jacobs
(Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt)

Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a Park Avenue socialite known for her attitude. She can cut down the fiercest critic with a withering glance, and if snubbed by a waiter she’s apt to set her table on fire. She’s not one to be underestimated. When her husband died she withdrew her nondescript son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) from prep school and brought him home. Eight years later, the coffers run dry, and she’s insolvent. So she sells her jewelry and paintings and pulls a “French exit” —an unannounced getaway — on an ocean liner with a satchel full of Euros. She’s accompanied by Malcolm and their cat. Malcolm is sad because his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots) refuses to follow him to Paris. (Oh to be young-ish and in love-ish again, says Frances.) They set up house in her best friend Joan’s pied à terre and start to enjoy life in Paris. And they soon have a motley crew of friends dropping by: Madame Reynard, a lonely fan, Madeleine, a psychic, Julius, a private detective, and others. Frances is spreading the wealth, handing off wads of cash to everyone she meets. It’s almost as if she’s trying to use it all up before she says goodbye. But first she must find her runaway cat, whom she believes is a reincarnation of her late husband. Can Malcolm adjust to life in Paris? Will he ever see Susan again? What is the real reason Frances came to Paris? And what will happen when her money runs out?

French Exit is a leisurely-paced, whimsical story, based on a novel. Lucas Hedges as Malcolm is so low key and introverted, you can barely notice him; while Michelle Pfeiffer Frances is a fantastical creation. It feels like a modern-day version of Auntie Mame. It’s written by Canadian novelist Patrick DeWitt based on his own recent book, which gives it lots of room to develop characters and supply funny lines. It may be light and inconsequential, but it’s a pleasure to watch.

French Exit and Nina Wu both open today; and White Elephant is playing at the Canadian Film Festival.

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

 

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