Gems at #TIFF22. Films reviewed: The Hummingbird, Will-o’-the-Wisp, Unruly

Posted in 1930s, 1970s, 1980s, Dance, Denmark, Disabilities, Family, History, Italy, LGBT, Mental Illness, Portugal, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 24, 2022

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

TIFF is finished and after viewing 45+ movies I feel pretty good about it. You’ll be hearing a lot more about TIFF movies like The Fablemans, The Whale, The Glass Onion, Women Talking, The Wonder and The Banshees of Inisherin  by the end of the year, but there are also a lot of movies, gems and sleepers, that get left by the wayside, without all the studios promoting them. So this week I’m talking about some of the other movies I saw there — from Italy, Denmark and Portugal — that deserve to be noticed. There’s a rebellious girl trapped on a remote island; a little prince seeking the facts of life in a firehouse; and a man called hummingbird whose fate is guided by a series of unusual events.

The Hummingbird

Dir: Francesca Archibugi

Marco Carerra is a man who places great importance on seemingly random occurrences. Take a fatal plane ride, for example.  When he’s a student in Florence in the early 1980s he starts winning big at poker.  But when he boards a plane heading for Yugoslavia with his gaming partner, Duccio, that man begins to freak, shouting hysterically at other passengers that they all are “dead” and the seats on the plane are ruined and decrepit. Marco is eventually forced to pull Duccio off the plane, thus missing the flight and their big card game. But it crashes, killing everyone on board. And Marco, with his deep belief in the significance of ordinary events, ends up marrying the flight attendant who also missed that flight. It’s just fate.

Another important date happened at their summer home on the beautiful Tyrhennian shoreline. The Carrera’s summer home is right next door to the Lattes’ house. And Marco has a huge crush on the beautiful Luisa, their daughter. But the night he thought he would lose his virginity to Luisa (for whom he would hold a torch forever) was also the night when his quarrelling parents went out for the evening, his brooding brother Giancarlo got so drunk he passed out, and their sorely neglected sister Adele committed suicide, turning all their worlds upside down. 

The Hummingbird — Marco’s nickname as an unusually small child until a sudden growth spurt in his teens after his father enrols him in hormone treatment — is a wonderful, novelistic  movie that traces the intricately woven story of Marco’s life, his love, his family, his wife, his daughter and eventually his granddaughter. But not in any obvious order. The story jumps back and forth between his childhood, his adolescence, and his middle and old age, keeping you guessing as to why he did what he did. When I say novelistic, I mean literally, with multiple characters coming in and out of his life making shocking revelations along the way, and calling into question his fundamental beliefs. It’s based on the novel Il colibrì by Sandro Veronesi which won the Strega Prize, Italy’s greatest fiction award, and it does feel like a classic story. What’s really surprising is it was published in 2020, during the pandemic, and the film must have been made since then. The movie stars Pierfrancesco Favino  as the adult Marco, Berenice Bejo as Luisa Lattes, Nanni Moretti as Marco’s friend, a psychiatrist (no spoilers here), and Kasia Smutniak as his tempestuous wife.

Keep an eye out for this sleeper and be sure watch it when it comes out.

Will o’the Wisp

Dir: João Pedro Rodrigues

It’s present-day Portugal. Prince Alfredo (Mauro Costa) is a pale young prince with curly blond hair.  heir to the crown. He lives in a palace full of statues and paintings recalling his family’s colonial history. (Though the country gave up its monarchy in 1910, his mother still considers Republican and Castilian the two worst insults in their language.) But with Alfredo coming of age his father, the king, decides to tell him what’s what. He takes him for a walk through the royal forest to admire the tall pine trees there. But his father’s description of tumescent tree trunks throbbing with sap so excites the lad, that he is forced to rethink his future. He doesn’t want to be king anymore, now he wants to be a fireman — specifically one who will protect those trees, about which he has an erotic attachment. 

At the fire station, Afonso (André Cabral) a handsome black student is tasked with introducing the prince to the firehouse and the forest. He introduces him to the other fireman, they practice exercises, search and rescues, recussitation, fireman carries, and sliding down poles, but for Alfredo, everything has a sexual subtext. Soon the subtext turns to out-and-out sex, with the two young fireman rolling around on the forest floor while shouting pornographic and racist epithets in the throws of ecstasy. But can the the little prince find happiness in the arms of a fireman? Or are his regal responsibilities too heavy a burden to bear?

Will o’the Wisp is one of the strangest, least classifiable films you’ve ever seen. It’s an historical  romantic science fiction comedy, and an arthouse-modern dance- musical satire. It’s only 67 minutes long, but in that short time you’ll see The-Sound-of-Music kids in school uniforms singing weird songs as they pop their heads out from behind trees; homoerotic exercise montages, and elaborate dance routines on the firehouse floor. I can’t say I understood all the cultural references that had the Portuguese viewers in the audience howling with laughter, but I could experience the beauty, ridiculousness and shock running throughout the picture. 

Unruly 

Co-Wri/Dir: Malou Reymann

It’s the 1930s in a working-class Copenhagen neighbourhood. Maren (Emilie Kroyer Koppel) is a free-thinking teenaged girl who knows what she likes and what she hates. She likes getting drunk, dancing to jazz and hooking up with guys. And she hates authority figures — including her mom —  telling her what to do. But when her family cuts her off and she becomes a ward of the state, she doesn’t realize her past actions will have grave consequences. She refuses to cooperate with a doctor (Anders Heinrichsen) trying to diagnose her “ailment”. He declares her unruly and out of control, and sends her off to a remote island known for its hospital for mentally handicapped women. Sprogø island is festooned with pretty flowers and picturesque homes where the patients are taught to be submissive, cooperative, quiet girls, under the watchful eye of Nurse Nielsen (Lene Maria Christensen). They are schooled in sewing, cooking and cleaning on the all-female island (though Marin is able to secretly meet with a young repairman). It’s a hospital, not a prison, she is told, but there’s no way to escape. And if you disobey, or even spread bad attitudes, you are strapped to a table and kept in solitary confinement.

Her roommate, Sørine (Jessica Dinnage) acts as the rat, reporting on any woman who disobeys the rules. But as Maren gets to know her better she soon discovers the real reason for Sørine’s behaviour: she just wants to be reunited with the child they took away from her. Will Maren learn to accept her fate? Will she find a way to escape the island? Or is she stuck there forever?

Unruly is a deeply moving drama based on an actual hospital that operated in Denmark until the 1960s. Its many crimes included involuntary sterilization, mis-diagnoses, torture and authoritarian rule. Instead of having a series of stock characters, with easy to categorize heroes and villains, all the women develop over the course of the film, giving it an unexpected profundity. This film is a lovely and tragic look at a terribly flawed institution and the people it affected.

Will-o’-the-Wisp, The Hummingbird, and Unruly all premiered at TIFF.

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 Gail Maurice about Rosie at #TIFF22

Posted in 1980s, Adoption, Canada, Drag, Family, Homelessness, Indigenous, LGBT, Métis, Montreal by CulturalMining.com on September 3, 2022

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

It’s the 1980s in a working-class neighbourhood of Montréal. Fred is an artist whose day job is working at a sex boutique. Adopted as a child, she ran away from home at 16 and never looked back. Now she’s best friends with Flo and Mo, two gay streetwalkers who make up her current family. But she’s thrown for a loop when a social worker shows up at her door with a six-year-old girl, who says Fred is her closest living relative.  What??

She tries to explain she’s close to eviction, living hand-to-mouth, she’s a Francophone while Rosie only speaks English, and knows absolutely nothing about raising a child. But who can resist a cutie-pie like Rosie?

ROSIE is a new, feel-good comedy/drama about life on the edge in 1980s Montreal. It deals with chosen families, marginalized groups, homelessness, and indigenous and queer people in urban settings. (Both Rosie and Fred were adopted  as indigenous kids into white families)

The film is directed by actor and filmmaker Gail Maurice. It may be her first feature, but you’ve probably seen her unforgettable roles on TV shows like Trickster, and in movies like Night Raiders.

I spoke to Gail in Toronto via ZOOM.

ROSIE is having its World Premiere at #TIFF22 on Sept. 9th.

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Humans and other animals. Films reviewed: We Are As Gods, Beast

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Africa, Animals, Climate Change, Conservation, documentary, drugs, Family, Hippies, psychedelia, South Africa, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on August 20, 2022

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

This week I’m talking about two new movies, about humans and other animals. There’s a man who wishes he’d never met a lion face to face, and another man who wishes woolly mammoths walked the earth again. 

We Are As Gods

Wri/ Dir: David Alvarado, Jason Sussberg

Stewart Brand is a man who was at the centre of many of the 20th century’s biggest changes, including psychedelic drugs, environmentalism, personal computers, hacking, and The Whole Earth Catalog. Born in a small city in the midwest he liked playing with wild animals as a child, making friends with squirrels, ‘possums and ducks. He studied biology at Stanford, but by the early 60s wound up in San Francisco, around the time of Ken Kesey’s experimentation with psychedelic drugs. He joined the Merry Pranksters, dropping acid, dancing around and generally having a wild hippie good time.

This was during the Space Race, when the US and USSR were competing at the exploration of outer space. But what Stewart wanted was a photograph of the earth from up there. He publicly and loudly demanded such a photo, and eventually someone took it. It became the cover of a technologically friendly, do-it-yourself guidebook called the Whole Earth Catalog, which embraced environmentalism and conservationism through DIY tools and simple technology. Filled with geodesic domes and quonset huts, it showed how to co-exist in a natural setting. A huge bestseller, it inspired many within the baby boomers’ burgeoning youth culture.

He was also around in the earliest stages of Apple computers, inspiring both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Fast forward to the present: Stewart Brand is back in the spotlight, attempting to change the world by “de-extincting” long-lost plants and animals. He points out how entire species that used to dominate North America — from the American chestnut tree to the passenger pigeon — which were wiped out over the course of a few decades about 100 years ago. But their DNA remains, and, he says, with some genetic tweaking, they could be restored. Why is this so important?  Because our system is made up of complex, intertwining and interdependent species and when even one disappears it causes a major natural reorganization.

But that’s not all. Building on the work of Pleistocene Park in Siberia (the subject of another doc), he promotes the reintroduction of large animals (like wooly mammoths) into our biosphere. Maybe new flocks of pre-historic elephants, camels, wild horses and buffalo now missing from these areas will help stop global warming by allowing the permafrost to survive. 

We Are As Gods is a documentary about Brand, his life and his ideas. The title comes from an epigraph from the Whole Earth Catalogue. Yes, some his ideas sounds ridiculous at first listen, but the film makes a believable argument for a real-life Jurassic Park (Pleistocene actually) — despite the dangers it could pose. He’s also a really interesting character, both smart and ridiculous — he admits to mistakes such as inhaling a tank of laughing gas (nitrous oxide) each week for a couple of years. The movie includes period footage, TV videos, still photos and new interviews with friends, his ex-wife, family members and various scientists. Lots of  interesting stuff, packed into one documentary.

Beast

Dir: Baltasar Kormákur

It’s summertime in South Africa. Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) a well-off physician from New York, arrives in a remote game park with his two daughters, Mer and Norah. Mer (Iyana Halley) is angry at her father, but but is swept away by the beauty and grandeur of the African bush. Her little sister Norah (Leah Jeffries), is more innocent and naive. This visit is a homecoming of sorts. Their late mom (she died of cancer in New York) came from a nearby Tsonga village where she met their dad. They were introduced by Uncle Martin (Sharlto Copley), as the kids call him. He’s a game ranger who helps stop poachers from killing the animals, and he’s their host. He shows them giraffes and wildebeests and introduces them to a pride of lions one of whom he raised — they all run to him like playful pups. Lions are social animals, he explains. The lionesses hunt for food, while the lions protect the pride if threatened. Otherwise they don’t attack people.

Which is why all of them — including Martin — are shocked and frightened when, later, another lion violently attacks their jeep. It seems poachers had killed his entire pride except him, leaving only the rogue beast looking for vengeance — and they’re not his first target. But can a middle-aged doctor and his two teenaged girls fight off a lion three times their size? Or are they all doomed?

Beast is a dramatic thriller set amidst the spectacular beauty of South Africa. After a mundane start, it quickly turns into a heart-thumper, as one impossible situation follows another as the four of them try to escape this monster. Idris Elba portrays Nate as a neglectful dad but a caring doctor, devoted to saving patients not killing animals. But he also has to connect with his daughters who don’t completely trust him. (He was never around when their mother — his wife — was dying).

I assume the animals were all CGI, but they’re believable enough that you can’t tell. The music spans the continent with tunes from Nigeria to South Africa. I have to admit I saw the trailer and the movie looked pretty bad — a rich American going to Africa to shoot lions? But that’s not what it’s about at all. Though not deeply moving,  it’s actually a fun movie with a compact story and all-around good acting. It’s directed by the under-appreciated Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur; I’ve seen a few of his movies (like Contraband, 2 Guns, The Deep), and he’s always really good at manipulating sympathetic characters through enormous disasters. He’s not afraid of moving the viewer deep into swampy water, up trees, on top of small mountains or through disorienting tunnels, so you feel you’re a part of it all. So if you’re looking for some well-made thrills, check out Beast.

You can catch Beast this weekend across Canada, check your local listings; and We Are As Gods opens today in select US theatres, and on VOD in September. 

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

Family matters. Films reviewed: I Love My Dad, Easter Sunday, The Innocents

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Family, Horror, Kids, L.A., Norway, Supernatural by CulturalMining.com on August 6, 2022

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

There’s lots to see in Toronto this week, but here’s a few films you might not know about. The 15th edition of The8Fest small-gauge film festival, showing super 8s, loops, zoetropes and their kin, is on till August 11th. It’s National Indigenous Peoples’ month and the NFB has posted over 200 indigenous-made films on their website.  There’s  a new collection of short docs on CBC Gem, called Mi’kma’ki, showing the indigenous experience in Newfoundland and Labrador, beginning August 19th. And the Japan Foundation Toronto is screening the film Ainu: Indigenous People of Japan for free online, on August 9-11th.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about families.  There’s a divorced dad who drives his estranged son to meet a non-existent girlfriend; another divorced dad who drives his estranged son to attend a wacky family reunion; and four little kids who discover they have secret powers.

I Love My Dad

Wri/Dir: James Morosini

Chuck (Patton Oswalt) is a bad dad. Franklin (James Morosini), his son grew up with constant disappointments and false promises.  Later, Chuck  missed his high school graduation and crucial birthdays. Worst of all, when Franklin contemplated suicide and needed someone to talk to, Chuck was just too busy. Now divorced, Chuck lives in another state, his only contact through social networks. Franklin, now an adult in his twenties, having just finished his psychological recovery from self harm and depression, as a final gesture, he blocks his father from his site. Chuck is shocked — his own son severs all ties. What can Chuck do to solve this problem? Send an apology? Explain his pathological lies?

No!

Ever the grifter, he takes the easy way out by joining Franklin’s Facebook page, not as himself, but as Becca (Claudia Sulewski) a friendly young waitress at his local diner. He uses her photos he steals online, and changes her last name. Franklin, who is lonely and depressed, enters a long-distant relationship with Becca, confessing his problems and professing his love via texts. And as things heat up and he decides to meet her in person, Chuck volunteers to drive his son there (Frank can’t drive), in hope of some father/son bonding.  But how long will this catfish scheme last? What will happen if Franklin finds out the truth? And can Chuck ever change?

I Love My Dad is a dark, indie comedy about fathers and sons, depression and deception as told by way of texting. It’s written and directed by Morosini who also plays the son. And in an interesting sleight of hand, he alternates the focus between him and his dad, because reading texts on a movie screen is boring. Instead, Chucks texts turn into face-to-face conversations — and eventually sex — between Franklin and the imaginary Becca. You see them together on the screen, while Chuck is lurking somewhere else thumbing away on his cel, which reaches its extreme in a motel room. This is a deeply uncomfortable comedy that makes you squirm as you watch this untenable situation heading for disaster, but you still want to know what’s going to happen next.  I Love my Dad is a pretty good movie, both funny and clever, but hard to watch.

Easter Sunday

Dir: Jay Chandrasekhar

It’s springtime in LA. Joe Valencia (Jo Koy) is a successful stand-up comic waiting for his big break. So far he’s most famous for a beer commercial he did. He’s divorced but still cares about his son, Junior (Brandon Wardell), a high school student and camera buff. But Joe never seems to have enough time to spend with him. Like missing an important school meeting to attend an audition for a leading role in a sitcom pilot. The reading goes great, except they want him to put on a funny Filipino accent… which he refuses to do. He needs to clear this up with his agent But it’s also Easter weekend, time to get together with his extended family. So to mend relations with his alienated son, he offers to drive Junior up north to Daly City, outside San Francisco. There they encounter all their wacky relatives, the people Joe grew up with. There are eccentric uncles, ne’erdowel cousins, and feuding aunties. They go to a picnic in the park, and services at church, all culminating at his Mom’s (Lydia Gaston) Sunday dinner. But before that can happen, he has to help his cousin Eugene return a wad of cash he borrowed from a petty gangster… or heads will roll. Can Joe handle his family, clear things up with his agent and pay back the thug? Or has everything gone to hell?

Easter Sunday is a warm and fuzzy family comedy similar to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but with Filipino-appropriate jokes… the first such American movie I’ve ever seen. There are cameo appearances by Lou Diamond Phillips, Tiffany Haddish, and Jimmy O Yang, and there’s also a car chase, a fistfight, a teenaged romance and a song or two to perk things up. But it doesn’t really work. The problem is Joe isn’t very funny, and as the main character, he pulls down the whole movie. The side characters are great — especially Tia Carrera and Lydia Gaston; they are hilarious as the feuding sisters, both, ironically, with the same put-on accents Joe is complaining about. But you know what? I saw it in a theatre with a largely Filipino audience and they seemed to laugh way more than I did, so maybe I just didn’t get a lot of the jokes.

The Innocents

Wri/Dir: Eskil Vogt

Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) are sisters. Their family recently moved to a new home, an apartment building in a woodsy part of Norway. Ida is around 5, with blond pigtails and a mean streak. She steps on worms to see what will happens and pinches her big sister Anna, who never seems to react; Anna has ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and can’t speak. She meets an older boy Ben (Sam Ashraf) at the playground who amazes Ida with what he can do, He can make small objects fly away just by using his mind! But he has a dark side, too.

Anna meets a friend of her own. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Ashei) is a kind and gentle girl, with vitiligo, white patches on her skin. She also has special powers. She can read minds and have silent conversations, even with Anna. To test this out, Ida whispers a word into Anna’s ear, and Aisha repeats it from the bottom of a hill. It’s not just the new friends who are special — Ida and Anna are too. And the more they use their powers the stronger they get. Soon Anna can actually speak with Aisha’s help. But as Aisha get’s nicer, Ben gets meaner, starting with experiments on stray cats, and leading to ever-more-terrible deeds. As the kids choose sides, a big battle looms. 

The Innocents is a stunning dramatic horror  about the supernatural and the cruelty of some children, existing alongside the adult world. The acting is terrific and special effects are kept to a minimum. I saw this movie with zero advanced knowledge and it turned out to be quite powerful. Afterwards I discovered the director, Eskil Vogt, has long worked with one of my favourite Norwegian filmmakers Joachim Trier, co-writing all his screenplays, including Thelma, Oslo, August 31st, and others. The Innocents is no run-of-the-mill horror hack-job; it’s an excellent — and quite disturbing — movie.

You can catch I Love My Dad in Toronto at the Tiff Bell Lightbox; The Innocents is streaming on Shudder; and Easter Sunday is opening 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

Lost Souls. Films reviewed: Apples, Moloch, Passengers of the Night

Posted in 1980s, Archaeology, comedy, Covid-19, Depression, Disease, Drama, Family, Feminism, France, Ghosts, Greece, Homelessness, Horror, Netherlands, Radio by CulturalMining.com on July 10, 2022

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

It’s Nunavut day, so what better time is there to catch up on Inuit movies. Slash/Back, a brand-new movie about aliens in a small arctic town, is playing right now. The Grizzlies is a feel-good film about a high school lacrosse team. And if you’ve never seen Zacharias Kunuk’s movies — including The Journals of Knud Rasmussen and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner — well… you’d better.

But this week I’m looking at three new European movies — from Greece, the Netherlands and France — about lost souls. There’s a lonely guy in Athens who loses his memory in a pandemic; a divorced mom in Paris who seeks solace in late night talk radio; and a widowed mom in the Netherlands who is haunted by the lost souls… in a peat-moss bog. 

Apples

Wri/Dir: Christos Nikou

Aris (Aris Servetalis) lives by himself in Athens, Greece. One day while going for a walk he forgets where he lives. Also his family, his identity, even his first name. He has acute amnesia, the symptom of a strange pandemic, sweeping across the planet. He’s taken to hospital, with the hope a family member will arrive to identify him. But no one comes. About the only thing he knows is he likes apples. The hospital arranges for him to move into an apartment, where they hope he can regain his memory, or at least achieve some level of self worth and identity.  To achieve this they put him into an experimental program. He’s given a series of mundane tasks, all of which he is expected to record, using a polaroid camera. Ride a bike, go to a movie, attend a party, drink alcohol, meet a new friend. It also includes things like picking up a woman in a bar (he accidentally goes to a strip bar with embarrassing consequences) But during his recovery, while viewing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he encounters another alienated, memory-deficient person.   

Anna (Sofia Georgovasili) is clearly on the same program. Two is better than one, so they begin to see one another, if in a detached, alienated way. But as time progresses, Aris begins to remember things, including sad memories he wants to suppress. Will Anna be his soul mate? Will he ever find his original home? And is there any meaning to his life?

Apples is a satirical look at modern urban alienation in a time of pandemic. Interestingly, this film was completed in 2019 BC, (before Covid). But somehow it captures the mundane, seemingly meaningless medical obsessions, the injections, the tests,  the isolation, loneliness and self-doubt that we all experienced over the past two years.

Writer-director Christos Nikou worked with the now famous Yorgos Lanthimos, on his earliest film, Dogtooth, and like that movie, it’s funny, weird and extremely awkward, with adults behaving like children, and people blindly obeying seemingly nonsensical rules. It takes place in the present day but it’s filled with obsolete gadgets like polaroid cameras, and cassette tape players not a cel phone or a laptop in sight. Aris Servetalis is excellent as the main character, who fits perfectly within the film’s minimalist feel.

I like this one.

Moloch

Co-Wri/Dir: Nico van den Brink

Betriek (Sallie Harmsen) is a woman in her thirties who lives in an isolated home with her parents and her young daughter, in northern Netherlands. Her home is in a forest, surrounded by peat moss bogs. Her daughter goes to public school but Betriek likes the isolation — she thinks her family is cursed so it’s best to keep to herself. Easier said than done. Especially when a strange man appears in her living room! He can’t stop it, he says, they won’t let him! And his voice seems to be an unworldly chorus of a thousand souls. And then he tries to kill them all. Turns out he worked at a nearby archaeological dig, headed by Jonas (Alexandre Willaume) a Danish man.

Peat moss is a natural preservative and they’re digging up mummified bodies from ancient times. And when they examine them, they discover they are all victims of the same sort of ancient ritual sacrifice to some primeval god. By disturbing the graves they may have let loose ancient demons, possessing her friends and family. Meanwhile, her mother is going through another difficult period with her brain — is it related? Her father says they’d better leave the place and never come back. And when Betriek encounters strange visions of a little girl sending her a message, she realizes things are very wrong. Will Jonas ever believe there’s something evil going on? Can Betriek break her family’s curse? Will they fall in love? And together can they fight off an ancient evil god?

Moloch is an excellent Dutch horror movie about life in a remote village built over secrets that never should have been disturbed. It sounds like a simple story, but actually it’s a multi-layered drama. The film even incorporates a school Christmas pageant where small children innocently reenact an ancient pagan tribute even while mayhem is happening outside. The movie’s in Dutch, but because of the multiplicity of languages, much of the dialogue is in English. And remarkable for a horror movie, the cinematography is gorgeous, as warm and grainy as any 70s Hollywood movie. I liked this one, too.

Passengers of the Night

Dir: Mikhaël Hers

It’s the mid-1980s in Paris. Elisabeth (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lives with her two teenaged kids high up in an apartment tower. Her daughter Judith, is outspoken and into politics, while her son Matthias (Quito Rayon- Richter) is more introspective — he gets in trouble for writing poems in history class. The dad, though, is nowhere to be seen. He moved in with his girlfriend and pays no child support. So Elisabeth is forced to search for a job to keep her family afloat.  She finds solace listening to a late-night radio talk show, and applies to work there. She lands a job at the switchboard vetting callers and guests for the host, Vanda (Emmanuelle Béart). She invites a young woman to the show based on a touching letter she wrote. Tallulah (Noée Abita) is 18 but has lived on the streets of Paris for years, sleeping under bridges and in squats. She has raven hair, pale skin and doe eyes. 

Elisabeth can’t stand the thought of her sleeping in the rough, so she invites Tallulah to stay, temporarily, in a spare room tucked away far above their apartment. She wants to keep her separate from her kids, but they soon meet up. She’s street smart, and teaches them how to live on nothing and tricks like how to get into a movie theatre without a ticket. Matthias is smitten by her and longs to take it further. But after a late night tryst, she flees the apartment and disappears, leaving the family shocked and saddened. Four years later, things have changed. The kids are growing up, Elisabeth has gained self-confidence and she has a day job and a much younger boyfriend named Hugo.  But when her ex says he’s selling the home, it’s time for major changes. That’s when Tallulah reappears again at their door in a bad state. Can Elisabeth save Tallulah from her spiral into darkness? And what will the future bring?

Passengers of the Night is a beautiful and heartfelt look at a Parisian family navigating its way through unexpected shifts in their lives, and how a visitor can change everything. The film is set in the 80s (from 1981 through 1988), not just the costumes, music, and Talulah’s big hair but also the tumultuous political and social changes from that era. And it’s punctuated by views of Paris from that era — high-rises, sunsets and views through commuter train windows — shot on a narrower bias, to give it a realistic feel. While more gentle than a sob story, it still brings tears to your eyes.

Passengers of the Night and Apples are both playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. And Moloch is now streaming on Shudder.

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

Mind Games. Films reviewed: Spiderhead, Chess Story, In the Wake

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

Spring film festival continues through June with Toronto’s Japanese Film Festival and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival showing films for another week.  Also on now is the Future of Film Showcase, Canada’s premiere festival for short films. It also has panels, coffee sessions and workshops, covering everything from casting to funding, from locations to issues like equity.  

This week, I’m looking at three new movies about people forced to play games. There’s a prisoner playing chess in WWII Vienna, another prisoner forced to play mind games in a secretive American facility; and a detective playing cat-and-mouse with a murderer… ten years after an earthquake in Japan.

Spiderhead 

Dir: Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick) 

Jeff (Miles Teller) is an inmate in a remote, high-security prison. Located inside a brutalist cement building on a placid lake, it can only be reached by boat or pontoon prop plane. But inside it’s a virtual paradise. Doors are kept unlocked, prisoners chat on colourful sofas while eating canapés, and are free to pursue their favourite pastimes. They can even become friends  with other prisoners — like Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett). No violence or distrust here; the benevolent warden Steve (Chris Hemsworth) makes sure of that.

So what’s the catch? 

All prisoners are kept placid by a little gadget attached to their bodies, which — through remote control — releases chemical serums directly into their bloodstreams which controls their moods. They are also forced to attend sessions — controlled by Steve and his assistant behind a glass wall — where they test the potency of their pharmaceuticals. Sometimes it’s as simple as making them laugh at deliberately unfunny jokes. Other times they’re placed in the room with a stranger — a female prisoner in Jeff’s case — to see if drugs can make them so thirsty and the other seem so attractive  (like “beer goggles” times 1000) that they can’t help having sex on the spot. But things take a sinister turn when Jeff is taken behind the glass wall and ordered to remotely inject painful drugs into other prisoners’ bodies. Can Jeff resist the psychological and chemical pressures put on him? What is Chris’s motive behind these experiments? And is there anything Jeff can do to stop him?

Spiderhead — the title is the name of the prison — is a sci-fi psychological thriller,  about the dangers of pharmaceuticals and whether we can resist authority if it goes against our beliefs. The film is partly based on the Milgram experiment of the 1960s, where volunteers behind a glass wall were ordered to send increasingly painful electric shocks to actors pretending to be patients. In Spiderhead it’s taken to even greater extremes.

Is this movie good? It’s not too bad — I actually enjoyed it, loved the location and sets (it’s shot in Australia), the cheesy 1980s soundtrack, and the fun concepts, along with some huge movie stars… but the ending is as predictable as it is implausible. The concept is much better than the story. But if you just want be entertained for a couple hours, you could do worse.

Chess Story (Schachnovelle)

Dir: Philipp Stölzl

It’s 1939 in Vienna, and Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) is living the high life. He always dressed in formal black and white, and only the finest scotch and the best cigarettes ever pass through his lips. He loves telling jokes with his friends, and waltzing with his beloved wife Anna. As long as the Viennese keep dancing what could go wrong? But that night German soldiers march into Austria declaring Anschluss; it’s all one Reich now. Jacob springs into action, scanning through his ledgers and memorizing the codes before throwing them into a blazing fire. You see, his job is to keep the riches of the Austrian royalty safe from the Nazis in numbered Swiss bank accounts. Hours later he is arrested, but not killed, by the Gestapo and locked in a hotel room. If he tells them the numbers they say they’ll let him go — they just want the money. But solitary confinement can play tricks on your brain. He stays alive by studying a chess book he smuggled into the room.

Later, he is on a ship with Anna heading to America and freedom. But he can’t resist playing chess against Mirko, an unusual world chess champion, who is illiterate and can barely form a sentence. But as reality begins to warp, he can’t help wonder if he’s on a ship or still a captive of the nazis. And where is this chess game really taking place?

Chess Story is an historical drama based on a story by Stefan Zweig, the last thing he wrote. He died during the war, in Brazil not Austria, but clearly he was damaged before he left. Everything you see in this film is filtered through Josef’s mind, so you’re never quite sure what is real and what is imaginary. Oliver Masucci who plays him is excellent, portraying a man’s descent from carefree joker to broken soul. It feels almost like an episode of The Twilight Zone episode, but with the emphasis on the characters, not on the twist. 

In the Wake (Mamorarenakatta mono tachi e)

Dir: Zeze Takahisa

Det. Tomashino (Abe Hiroshi) is a policeman in northeastern Japan. He is investigating the mysterious death of two middle-aged men, both found starved death in different locations. Is there a serial killer out there, and if so, what are his motives? Turns out they both worked out of the local welfare office. He turns to a young welfare case worker Mikiko (Kiyohara Kaya) to help him put the pieces together. This is also the site of a mammoth earthquake and tsunami,  ten years earlier. The detective remember it well, as he lost both his wife and his young son. Now he’s a loner who has yet to deal with his losses. 

Meanwhile, Tone (Satoh Takeru) a troubled young man, just out of prison for arson, gets a job in a welding factory. And he wants to get in touch with his makeshift family former after the earthquake: a little kid, and an elderly woman  named Kei (Baishô Mitsuko) who cared for the two lost orphans. But things have clearly changed. Could they have driven him… to murder?

In The Wake is a Japanese drama set immediately after an earthquake and a decade later. While it’s ostensibly a police procedural, about a detective trying to catch a killer, it’s also a surprisingly powerful and moving drama, that takes it much deeper than your usual mystery. It shifts back and forth between the two periods, as all the major characters were also survivors of the quake. And it delves into the terrible inadequacies of Japan’s  austerity cutbacks to to their already inadequate welfare state. The movie features Abe Hiroshi, a huge star from Kore-eda’s films;  Baishô Mitsuko , who was in movies by  the most famous Japanese Kurosawa and Imamura; and Satoh Takeru best known for the Rurouni Kenshin series. I was expecting something simple, and lucked into a really good movie instead.

Spiderhead is now streaming on Netflix; Chess Story is now playing digitally at TJFF, The Toronto Jewish Film Festival; and In the Wake is playing at the other TJFF, the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, on one day only, June 25th, at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Petite Maman

Dir: Céline Sciamma

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

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

This is a tiny, perfect movie.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Dir: Sam Raimi 

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

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

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

Stanleyville

Dir: Maxwell McCabe-Lokos

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

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

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

I did.

Petite Maman, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and Stanleyville all open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All My Puny Sorrows

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

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

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

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

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

The Northman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Garber talks with Wendy Hill-Tout about her new film Marlene

Posted in Canada, Drama, Family, Journalism, Prison, Trial, True Crime by CulturalMining.com on April 9, 2022

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

It’s 1959 in Clinton, Ontario near a Canadian Air Force Base. The body of Cheryl Lynne Harper, a 12-year- old girl, is found brutally raped and murdered in the woods nearby. And Steven Truscott, a 14 year old classmate is charged and convicted with first degree murder and sentenced to death by hanging. This despite the fact the police hid or destroyed evidence, and failed to pursue other, more likely, suspects. Truscott spends a decade in prison, often in solitary confinement, the victim of psychological torture. And when eventually set free, he is forced to change his name and live with the shadow of the conviction still hanging over his head. But a crusader takes up his case and plays a crucial role in both his personal life and in his eventual exoneration. Her name is Marlene.

Marlene is a new drama based on this true story, as told through the eyes of an unsung hero, Marlene Truscott, who started working on Steven’s behalf even while he was still in prison. They eventually marry and raise a family, but it is Marlene’s dogged pursuit of the truth that led Steven to freedom. The film is made by noted Calgary-based writer/producer/director Wendy Hill-Tout, a member of the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers and known for her documentaries, dramas, TV and genre pics.

I spoke with Wendy Hill-Tout in Calgary via Zoom.

The film opens in select theatres this weekend across Canada.

Home sweet home. Films reviewed: Spider-man: No Way Home, Family Squares

Posted in comedy, Comics, Coming of Age, Covid-19, Drama, Family, High School, New York City, Super-heroes by CulturalMining.com on April 2, 2022

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

You may have heard my interview on the Oscars last week, so no reason to rehash all that. And I can’t think of anything new to say about “the slap”. They ended up handing out oscars like party favours, one or two each to most of the nominees, though often to the wrong ones. But I do find it strange that some vague new category for a quasi-oscars, known as a fan favourite, chose a second-rate Zach Snyder zombie flic over Spider-Man last year’s top grossing film. I don’t think it deserved an Oscar, but  Zach Snyder?

In any case, this week I’m looking at two movies about going home that you can view at home. There’s a large dysfunctional family that get together on a Zoom call; and a superhero trapped in a parallel universe with two other versions of himself.

Spider-man: No Way Home 

Dir: Jon Watts

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is a 17 year old at a prestigious public high school in midtown Manhattan. He’s also the superhero Spider-man, a secret shared only with his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya) his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his aunt May (Marisa Tomei) who raised the orphaned boy. Peter, MJ and Ned have top marks and hope to attend MIT after they graduate. But all their plans are scotched when a local tabloid, The Daily Bugle, exposes Peter Parker as Spiderman and doxes his home address. Soon he’s swamped by government agents, paparazzi, and news helicopters. Worse still, the three friends are rejected by universities who are afraid of potential controversy.

So Peter turns to Doctor Strange, a wizard, for help. Can’t he come up with a spell to make the world forget he’s Spider-man? But the spell goes awry, opening a portal to alternate realities, letting loose a bevy of long-dead supervillains, including Doc Ock and The Green Goblin, that this Peter Parker has never heard of. Luckily, it also unleashed parallel Peter Parkers (Andrew Garfield, Tobey Maguire) from earlier movies. Can the three Peter Parkers save the world by curing the super villains of their villainy before sending them back to their alternate universes? Or will the bad guys triumph in the end?

Spider-man: No Way Home is a fun, escapist superhero movie that manages to avoid most of the Marvel Universe while still satisfying comic book fans with new versions of traditional favourites. It also takes a nod from the underrated animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, by showing that there could be an infinite number of Peter Parkers, of any gender, race, age or ethnicity. This movie though sticks within it’s own mini-universe of Sony Pictures Spiderman movies, and the same actors who played them. Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, and Jamie Foxx  are back as bewildered bad guys, and JK Simmons as the Daily Bugle’s editor J Jonah Jameson, but no Kirsten Dunst or James Franco here. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Doctor Strange… or was he a just a CGI replica? To be honest I don’t think it would have made a difference one way or the other. He clearly doesn’t want to be in this movie. It was enjoyable seeing all the Peter Parkers together in one place, the special effects were good, and it had enough comedy and pathos to work as a real movie. And that’s good enough for me.

Family Squares

Co-Wri/Dir: Stephanie Laing

Mable (June Squibb), the matriarch of four generations, is dying. So she rallies her boomer son and daughter Bobby and Diane, Diane’s adult children Brett, Chad, Rob, Dorsey and Katie, and some of their kids to gather by her bedside to hear her last words. Unfortunately there’s a pandemic ravishing the country, so she tries the next best thing instead: a zoom call. But this family is dysfunctional, with long-standing grudges, and secrets lurking just below the surface. Brett (Timothy Simons) is a failed entrepreneur trying to raise his teen daughter since his wife died, Chad (Scott MacArthur) is an unsuccessful writer with just a scraggly covid beard and a self-published novel to his name. Rob (Billy Magnussen) is a self-styled hacker who think’s he’s Edward Snowden,  and has fled to Russia. Katie (Casey Wilson) is a conceited self-centred mother of two whose husband has locked himself in the garage. And Dorsey  (Judy Greer) is a total wreck, living in a camper with her son Max. 

So to try to get them all back together, in a pre-recorded message, Mable urged the family to open up, and dangled some intriguing secrets, like: Mable is filthy rich, someone was never told they were adopted, and someone else embezzled money. Hmm… Diane and Bobby (Margo Martindale Henry Winkler) are brother and sister yet she has a Texas drawl while he sounds like a native New Yorker. And observing everything is Judith (Ann Dowd), great grandma Mable’s lover! Will the family learn to tell the truth and stop all their fighting?

Family Squares is a quintessential pandemic comedy-drama that actually works. It’s filmed ensemble-style on a nine-panel split screen, just like a group zoom call or the old game show Hollywood Squares. It seems to have been shot early on before issues like masks and vaccinations became politicized. While there are too many characters to delve deeply into any one of them, they were all interesting and unique enough to carve out their own space. Especially good are Judy Greer as the insecure Dorsey and Martindale as Diane. While it doesn’t tie up every loose end, Family Squares does accomplish the unthinkable: putting out a low-budget movie during a total lockdown that’s actually funny, intriguing and well-acted.

Family Squares and Sider-man No Way Home are both available now digitally / VOD.

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

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