Almost human. Films reviewed: Shin Ultraman, M3GAN plus the best movies of 2022!

Posted in AI, Fantasy, Horror, Japan, Monsters, Robots, Science, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on January 7, 2023

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

Happy New Year, everybody!

As we move closer to an uncertain future, we’re finding it harder to tell the difference between a human and a robot, or human thoughts vs artificial intelligence. This week, I’m looking at two new movies about almost humans. There’s a semi-human superhero who comes from outer space, and a cute little robot doll with a very dark side.

But before that, I’m going to run through what I think were some of the best movies of 2022.

Best movies of 2022

Every year, I see hundreds of movies so it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few, for that reason only I don’t include documentaries, like Laura Poitras’s fantastic All the Beauty and the Bloodshed; nor cartoons, like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinnochio, only movies that I saw on a movie screen and reviewed last year. There are many  other good, or even great movies I saw, but here are what I think are the best movies of 2022, in alphabetical order:

All Quiet on the Western Front, Dir: Edward Berger

Armageddon Time, Dir: James Gray

Broker, Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu

EO, Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski

The Innocents, Dir: Eskil Vogt

Memoria, Dir: Apichatpong Weerasathakul

Nope Dir: Jordan Peele

The Northman, Dir: Robert Eggers

Tár, Dir: Todd Field

Triangle of Sadness, Dir: Ruben Östlund

The Whale, Dir: Darren Aronofsky

 

 

Shin Ultraman

Dir: Shinji Higuchi

It’s present-day Tokyo, and things are not going well. Previously unknown monsters  — or “S-Class Species” — keep appearing from nowhere and wreaking havoc across Japan. They’re drilling holes, smashing dams and sucking up electrical power like slurpees. Luckily, there’s a government body that handles cases like this. They’re the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol, or SSSP. The head guy, Tamura, gives the orders, while the scientists investigate. Strategist Kaminaga (Saitoh Takumi) is a nerdy, introvert who speaks with no inflections or emotions. He works with newcomer analyst Asami (Nagasawa Masami) his exact opposite, an assertive woman who wants Kaminaga to be her buddy. And two more members round up their team.

Fortunately, whenever the Kaiju monsters appear, a strange giant man, dressed in a silver and red suit, arrives to save the day. He is dubbed Ultraman, protecting Japan from these strange invaders. But why does Kaminaga always disappear when Ultraman arrives? And is he human, alien, or somewhere in between?

The Japanese government — and the rest of the world — takes notice. They want to find out where Ultraman comes from and what his secret powers are. Things get more complicated when a benevolent-seeming alien arrives on earth, saying he will handle international relations from now on. But no one realizes his real aim — to take over and kill all the homo sapiens on the planet… unless Ultraman and the SSSP stop him first.

Shin Ultraman is a purist reboot of the classic Japanese 1960s TV show. I remember seeing reruns as a kid, and really liking it. This new version is a re-creation set in present-day Japan, but with nothing particularly contemporary or different from the original. It does include some political content — government politicians and bureaucrats who repeatedly make the wrong decisions — and the other characters are modernized.  Watching this movie — which I enjoyed! — it seemed identical to what I remembered, until I re-watched bits of the original, and was shocked at how bad and campy the special effects had been. Here the CGI and costumes are much, much better. But it preserves the sombre and earnest tone that geeky, sci-fi devotees demand. If you’re a fan of Ultraman, or of Japanese kaiju movies in general, you won’t be disappointed — this is the real thing.

M3gan

Dir:  Gerard Johnstone

Gemma (Allison Williams) is an inventor who, as part of a team, develops toys at a conglomerate called “Funki”. Their last big success was a Furby knock-off, but it’s losing market share, so they need a new hit. All their hopes lie on a project she’s been secretly working on for a long time, but it’s not quite ready yet. It’s code-named M3gan — Model 3 Generative Android — and is a robot in the form of a smart and pretty little girl. With a titanium core and sophisticated AI memory, she can talk, walk and act like a real human. 

More than that, Megan’s artificial intelligence lets her learn and change as she grows up. By bonding with her primary owner, she’s not just a toy, she’s a friend for any little girl. But she wouldn’t come cheap — she’s priced more like a car than a toy. Gemma’s boss is pushing her to finish Megan’s prototype, ASAP, to attract new investors, when, suddenly, disaster strikes. In a freak accident, her sister and brother-in-law are killed by a snowplow on a ski trip, leaving their 10-year-old daughter — Gemma’s niece — an orphan.  Cady (Violet McGraw) needs someone to turn to in her hour of grief, and Gemma, as her closest living relative, is appointed her guardian. But she knows nothing about parenting;  she lives alone and devotes all her time to her career.

So, to kill two birds with one stone, she brings M3gan home to take care of Cady, even while she works on the toy’s programming in time for the big launch. She observes them interacting through a one-way mirror in a glassed-in playroom at the company. Megan has only one overriding rule: to protect Cady from any danger, both physical and emotional. Cady loves M3gan, who is very protective of her best friend. But when she allows them outside of the lab, things turn dark. And when the dead bodies start piling up, Gemma realizes something is terribly wrong with her design. Can she fix Gemma before she goes rogue? Or is it too late?

M3gan is a thriller-horror take on the classic story — dating back to Frankenstein — about the bad things that can come out of a benevolent scientist’s experiment. It’s also about bad grown-ups and evil kids — in addition to M3gan — facing their comeuppance. For a movie that doesn’t ever take itself top seriously,  it succeeds in being both kinda scary and funny. It has lots of kitschy, fake toy ads, and your usual stock characters, like grumpy boss, noisy neighbour, spoiled kids. Beware: there is a fair amount of violence, including a disturbing scene where a boy assaults M3gan thinking she’s a doll, so definitely not suitable for everyone, but I liked it. Allison Williams is excellent as Gemma, and Megan (composed of actor Amie Donald, the voice of Jenna Davis and lots of CGI) is a doll villain that’s weird enough that I think we’ll be seeing lots more of her.

M3gan opens this weekend; check your local listings. And you can see Shin Ultraman on January 11th and 12th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

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

Talking, listening, fighting back. Films reviewed: No Bears, Puss in Boots, Women Talking

Posted in 2000s, Animals, Animation, Fairytales, Fantasy, Iran, Movies, Religion, Turkey, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 24, 2022

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

It’s holiday time with lots of new movies for people of all ages. This week I’m looking at three new movies opening on Christmas weekend. There are women in a barn, talking; a movie director in a village, listening; and a cat in a hat, fighting. 

No Bears

Wri/Dir: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian  filmmaker from Tehran. His current project is about a glamorous middle-aged couple trying to escape to freedom in Europe. But Panahi is forbidden by law from making movies or leaving the country. So he’s doing the next best thing: directing his film in long-distance using his cellphone and laptop. It’s being shot in a picturesque city in Turkey, while he’s renting an apartment in a tiny Azerbaijani village in Iran. It’s close to the border an area rife with black market smugglers. Panahi can speak some Azeri but is unfamiliar with local traditions. So he likes talking pictures of the locals. And here’s where he runs into trouble.

A young couple wants to get married and leave the village. But the woman was promised to another man at birth. Now everyone thinks Panahi caught the young couple in a photograph. The couple want him to destroy the photo, while the groom’s family want a copy to prove her dishonour. Meanwhile, across the border, another crisis is threatening the film movie. As he gets pulled deeper and deeper into the world of local politics and feuds, his work — and possibly his life — is at risk. Will he ever finish his film? And what will happen to the two couples — the actor-lovers in Turkey and secret lovers back home?

No Bears is a neorealist movie about making a film, the film he’s making, and how real life gets in the way. It’s about honour, revenge and identity. It also exposes the image of “the director as a dispassionate observer and documentarian” as a myth. Panahi’s very presence in a small village disrupts their lives and leads to unforeseen consequences. He plays himself, who in real life is forbidden from making films — accused of propaganda against the system. Any movie that’s against the system is one I want to watch. But this means it was shot openly in Turkey but secretly in Iran. No Bears  is a clever, humorous and complex film with an unexpected conclusion. I liked this one.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Co-Dir:  Joel Crawford, Januel Mercado

Puss in Boots is a cat in a hat who wears boots, and carries a sword. He’s known for both his fencing skills and his rapier-like wit. He lives a fairytale life — literally. He exists in a world where those stories are real. He’s both a hero and an outlaw, sought by bounty-hunters everywhere. But as a cat with nine lives he has no fear of death and will fight monsters and villains, alike. Until one day his doctor tells him he’d better slow down because he’s on his last life. If he is killed again, that’s the end, no more Puss in Boots.  So he reluctantly decides  to retire. He gives up his identity, and becomes an ordinary orange cat named Pickles in a home for abandoned cats. Now he has to use a litter box, eat cat chow and say “meow”.  How humiliating! But his past catches up to him with some surprise visitors: Kitty Softpaws, another outlaw he left standing at the altar; and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. They all want him to help find a map to a fallen star that can grant a wish. Goldilocks wants a proper family, Kitty is looking for her future, and Puss in Boots wants his 9 lives back. Accompanied by a little dog named Perro he sets out to steal the map from the evil Little Jack Horner (who is now quite big and bakes pies for living). But he must fight off his rivals, journey through a mystical forest, and find the magic star if he wants to stay alive. And he is being pursued by a truly scary villain, the Big Bad Wolf, a huge killer carrying a sickle in each hand.

Puss in Boots is a kids’ cartoon comedy set in the world of Shrek, where nursery rhymes and fairytales coexist with Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz. It’s somehow simultaneously a spaghetti western and medieval Europe.  It features the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Florence Pugh. What’s good about it? I’ll watch any cartoon, especially one with cool psychedelic images. This one has a few funny bits, along with a neat journey-adventure story. On the negative side, it’s not very funny, the lines are predictable and the story is both unoriginal and forgettable. And I’m not sure why they switch to two-dimensional jerky animation whenever there’s a fight scene. But I still enjoyed it, even if it’s just glowing bright colours on a giant screen. 

Women Talking

Dir: Sarah Polley

It’s summertime at an Anabaptist colony somewhere in the US. It’s 2010, but it could be 1910; forget about cel phones and computers. There are no cars, radios, no electric lights — they still use lanterns. Even more unusual, there are no men around, only women and kids. What’s going on?

One of the women woke up in the middle of the night to find a man physically attacking her. She fought him off and beat him with a stick. Suddenly everything made sense. Countless women in the colony had woken up in the past with bruises and blood, but up till now, the men had insisted out was just a dream, her imagination or the work of Satan. Turns out the men have been raping women for years now and denying it, using cow tranquilizers. Now they are at the police station baling out one of their attackers. So all the women face an enormous decision: should they stay and fight back? Or should they just pack up the kids and go, leaving the place forever?

They designate the women and girls from three families to decide for all of them. Now they’re gathered in a barn to debate the issues and make the big decision. And one man, a school teacher named August — not part of the colony; his family was excommunicated  — is there to record it all on paper; the women were never taught to read or write. What will their decision be?

Women Talking is a movie about women talking, but it is much deeper than that. It’s a devastating story, a scathing indictment of endemic physical and sexual violence against women in their own homes. Though it’s never shown on the screen, nor are its perpetrators, its results are always apparent. One woman has a scar on her face, one woman is mysteriously pregnant, others have missing teeth or black eyes, and another has panic attacks, seemingly for no reason. And now they’re really angry, not just for the violence, but because they’ve been lied to for so many years. There’s a spontaneous wellspring of grassroots feminism suddenly bursting loose.

The storytelling is very simple — it sticks to the barn, the fields, their houses and horses and buggies; it’s all they’ve experienced. At the same time, perhaps because they can’t write, they are amazingly eloquent speakers. It’s based on the novel by Canadian author Miriam Toewes who grew up in a Mennonite community. (The film never specifies their denomination or location, giving it a timeless, universal feeling.) It provides an internal view of life in the colony, with different opinions expressed passionately by each character. And it’s very well-acted by an ensemble cast, including Rooney Mara, Jesse Buckley, Claire Foy, Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy, Ben Whishaw. And despite the grave topic, the movie itself is more fulfilling than depressing. I’ve seen it twice, and appreciated it much more the second time — Women Talking is a subtle movie that deserves your attention. 

Puss n Boots: The Last Wish, No Bears and Women Talking, all opened 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.

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

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

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

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

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

L’homme parfait

Co-wri/Dir: Xavier Durringer

It’s the near future, somewhere in France.

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

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

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

Pinocchio

Dir: Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer entertainment. Films reviewed: Three Thousand Years of Longing, Alienoid, The Good Boss

Posted in Australia, comedy, Fairytales, Fantasy, Korea, Magic, Science Fiction, Spain, Thriller, Time Travel, Turkey by CulturalMining.com on August 27, 2022

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

This week I’m talking about three entertaining summer movies from around the world. There’s a British academic who meets a djinn in Istanbul; an ambitious businessman forced to “weigh his options” in Spain; and some alien, time-travelling prison guards trying to catch mutant convicts in medieval Korea.

Three Thousand Years of Longing

Co-Wri/ Dir: George Miller (Based on the short story by A.S. Byatt)

Dr Alithia Binney (Tilda Swinton) is a British academic in Istanbul for a conference. She’s a narratologist, someone who studies the structure of stories and how they’re told. She’s been obsessed by stories since she was a kid, when she even had an imaginary friend. She’s still more comfortable reading than talking to other people. But these imaginary friends seem to be reappearing more often lately. A small man in a lambskin coat talks to her in the airport — but no one else sees him. And when giving a lecture a strange man in Mesopotamian garb appears in the audience. But she really starts to worry when one of them doesn’t go away. This all started when a glass bottle she found in an Istanbul antique store let loose a gigantic genie (Idris Elba)  — or Djinn as he calls himself. To no one’s — surprise since we all know this narrative structure — he grants her three wishes. But to the Djinn’s shock she says she doesn’t want anything. She’s content with what she has, and besides, these sort of stories always go wrong in the end. So the Djinn tells her his 3000-year-long story instead, and what will happen if she doesn’t use those wishes. And an amazing tale it is, with characters like Solomon and Sheba, and the sultans of Ottoman Arabia. There’s a sluggish prince locked in a fur-lined chamber with a dozen huge-breasted Rubenesque consorts. And a woman genius in the Renaissance who just wants to study. Like a story within a story, these talks are told by the djinn as they both sit in her hotel room, dressed in white terrycloth robes and towel turbans. Is this all in her mind, or is it real? And if so, what will her wishes be?

Three Thousand Years of Longing is the retelling of stories within stories, in the style of The Thousand and One Nights, but told from a contemporary perspective. These are framed by Alithia’s own stories, and contemporary events. George Miller, of Mad Max fame, directed this, and spares no special effects — there is a mind-boggling plethora of CGIs in every scene: with non-stop, lush magical images. Idris Elba is fun as the Djinn with his pointy ears and the blue-green scales on his legs; and Tilda Swinton is great as always, this time bedecked in rose-coloured skirts, with a red pageboy haircut and academic glasses. Nothing deep here and it’s not terribly moving, but I always love a good story, well-told. 

Alienoid

Wri/Dir: Choi Dong-hoon

It’s Korea six centuries ago, when a metal object tears through the sky, killing a woman with its tentacles. But, believe it or not, the tentacles are from the good guys, and the medieval Korean woman is actually an escaped mutant killer from another planet. You see, Guard (KIM Woo-bin) and Thunder are alien prison guards who lock the mutant prisoners inside human brains… and if they try to escape, earth’s atmosphere will kill them in a few minutes. But the humans with the alien prisoners locked inside them have no idea.

The woman they killed has a newborn baby girl, so they take her with them back to 2022 and raise her like she’s their own child (yes, little Ean has two daddies!) But they’re neither human nor mutants — Guard is a sophisticated robot and Thunder is a computer program, but they both can take on human form. Now in 2022 things are going bad. Alien mutants have arrived on earth to free the prisoners and turn the earth’s air toxic for humans but breathable by them. And they’re winning the battle.

But back to 600 years ago, things aren’t as bad. Muruk (RYU Jun-yeol) is a young Dosa, or spell caster, who earns his living as a bounty hunter. Now he’s after something more valuable — a legendary crystal knife called the divine blade for its strange powers. He tracks it down to a wedding and impersonates the groom to steal it. What he doesn’t know is his “bride” is also an imposter seeking the same prize. So are Madame Blue and Mr Black, veteran sorcerers who make their living selling magic trinkets, as well as some evil killers, one of which dresses like a man from 2022. Who are all these people? What’s going on here? Will the world be destroyed? And what’s the connection between then and now?

Alienoid is a Korean movie about science fiction time travel that spans all genres. It’s part action, superhero, fantasy, romance, drama, and comedy. It deftly incorporates the time-travelling robots from Terminator; HK style airborne fighting, and the funny, soapy characters of Korean historical TV dramas all pulled together in a way I’ve never quite seen before. It has a huge budget — 33 billion won — but it’s not a superhero movie. That’s another great thing about Alienoid: unlike superheroes, all the main characters may have some special powers but they also have major flaws: they mess up a lot, lie, cheat, steal, and behave like grifters. One warning (not a spoiler) the movie finishes, but it doesn’t end, with the next sequel coming out next year. So if you’re looking for a highly entertaining two hours, you can’t go wrong with Alienoid.

The Good Boss

Dir: Fernando León de Aranoa 

Julio Blanco (Javier Bardem) is the owner of Blanco Scales, a factory in a small Spanish town — he inherited the company from his Dad. They make everything from bathroom scales to enormous steel balances that can weigh a whole cow. He knows he’s a successful businessman and a good boss by the way his smiling employees applaud him whenever he makes a speech. They’re like his children, he says beneficently, and when they have a problem, he has a problem — his door is always open to help them out. Then there’s his industry trophy wall, directly across from his marital bed, that recognizes him for his business accomplishments. There’s just one prize he hasn’t won yet, the official regional award, which could open huge doors in government contracts. He’s one of three nominees and he really wants to win it.. All he has to do is make everything run perfectly and all his employees content  within one week — that’s when the inspectors are coming. 

The problem is, not everything is as perfect as he imagines. Production is weeks behind schedule, because Miralles — whom he’s known since childhood — is not paying attention. He’s too busy stalking his wife who he thinks is cheating on him. Won’t Blanco help him catch her in flagrante delecto? Jose, a laid-off employee, doesn’t want to leave; he’s camped out in front of the factory demanding to be rehired. And long-time mechanic Fortuna’s son has been arrested for assaulting strangers in the park — won’t Blanco behave like a role model and get the kid a job somewhere? And then there’s problems of his own creation: he’s flirting with a beautiful new intern, Liliana (Almudena Amor) who seems equally attracted to him. She even has the scales of Libra tattooed on her neck. Little does Blanco know, she’s the daughter of his wife’s best friend, the same one he coddled as an infant. Can he solve all his company’s problems in just one week? Or is he just digging deeper into a hole?

The Good Boss is a biting social satire dealing with class, race, and gender in contemporary Spain. Javier Bardem is terrific as the smarmy Blanco, a big fish in a small pond who loves his glassed-in office where he can lord over all the little people beneath him. A comedy, it’s full of every possible pun about scales — the blind justice statue, the Libra sign, tipping the scales… to name just a few. And though a light comedy, it looks at very dark issues with a jaundiced eye.

I enjoyed this one, too.

Three Thousand Years of Longing and Alienoid both open this weekend across North America; check your local listings; and you can catch The Good Boss now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. 

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

Hope? Films reviewed: The Matrix Resurrections, Try Harder, American Underdog

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

New Year’s Day is a good time to look toward the future and make plans. So this week I’m looking at three new movies, a drama, a documentary, and a science fiction action /thriller, about looking forward. There’s a football player who dreams of playing for the NFL, a group of high school students who dream of going to Stanford, and a video game creator who dreams of a world completely different from our  own. 

The Matrix Resurrections

Co-Wri/Dir: Lana Wachowski 

Tom Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a video game maker and programmer in Chicago. His baby is a series called The Matrix —0 there have been three versions so far and the company is thinking of creating a fourth. The game — created and programmed by Tom and financed by his business partner (Jonathan Groff) — is about two fighters named Neo and Trinity who fight in a parallel world against a villain named Smith. At a cafe Tom frequents, he notices a woman named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), and she notices him, too. Have they met? No, but Trinity and Neo, the characters in the game, look very similar to Tiffany and Tom. And Tom has been having weird dreams and deja vu, so his analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) gives him meds  — blue pills — to keep his mind from wandering. That is, until one day glitches start to appear on his computer matrix, unexplained activity within his own designs. These soon morph into changes in real life: people, (actually characters he created) are appearing in the office! And they know who he is… Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a fighter, and Morpheus (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) are their to explain it all. 

You’re not Tom, they say, you’re Neo. And it isn’t your dreams that are false, it’s your daily life that’s made up. You can pass through mirrors, climb walls, jump off roofs and fly! And if he just stops swallowing those blue pills he’ll see what the world is really like — a futuristic dystopia of people kept alive in rusty pods guarded by scary bots. Will he stay in his current world or break free? What awaits him in the other world? And will Tiffany/Trinity come with him if he goes?

The Matrix Resurrections is the long awaited sequel to the famous Matrix trilogy that has permeated our popular culture. People still use the terms “swallowing the blue pill” to refer to those who go about their daily lives ignoring a darker reality. It incorporates older footage in the forms of dreams and flashbacks, while introducing new characters as well as new actors playing older roles. It’s two and half hours long, much of which is gun fights, chase scenes, and endless SGI images.

Does it work? I’m not a Matrix fanboy, so I have no deep, vested interest in finding out what happens to these characters. I like the new plot twists, and the whole meta-aspect of it (it initially presents the previous episodes as existing in this universe but only as video games). And it’s fun just to watch (though a bit too long). I enjoyed this final version of the Matrix, but it didn’t change my life.

Try Harder

Dir: Debbie Lum

San Francisco’s Lowell School, known for its exceptional test scores and a graduation rate of nearly 100%, is one of the most famous public schools in California. Students there are under pressure — from their parents, other students, and themselves, to achieve high marks, SAT scores and ultimately to get into a prestigious university. This documentary looks at five students as they try to navigate the stress of senior year. 

The film follows the students at school, in their classes, at teams and clubs, and at home. The school — like the city — has a large Asian-American population, mainly of Chinese origin, but explores the stark differences as well, of class race and culture. Some are the kids of recent immigrants, while others are a part of the city’s long history. It also looks at differences in attitudes and stereotypes. This film doesn’t try to dig too deeply or uncover surprising turns; rather it observes and talks to the subjects and lets nature take its course — as they apply to universities and change their expectations over the course of the year. Try Harder is an intimate look at how teenagers handle what many consider the most important year of their lives. 

American Underdog

Dir: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin

Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) is born in small-town Iowa and raised by his divorced mom. Ever since he was a kid he has always wanted to be a pro football player. He practices religiously, till his arm can throw balls like a howitzer. After  high school he makes the team  at Northern Iowa University, but spends most of his time on the bench. One night, at a roadhouse bar, a certain woman catches his eye. Brenda (Anna Paquin) is a no-nonsense former marine who likes line dancing and Country & Western music. But she won’t give Kurt her number. How come? She has two small kids, including one with disabilities, and she doesn’t have the time to waste on guys like him. But Kurt is persistent. He brings her flowers, and more important, just it off with Zach (Hayden Zaller) her legally blind and disabled son. So they start dating. Meanwhile his career is advancing nicely, until he is asked to try out for the Green Bay Packers. Is this his big chance? Nope, he only lasts one day. 

Now he has to work as a stock boy at the local grocery store. Eventually he is recruited to play pro football… well, kinda. It’s a new sport called Arena Football: played indoors on smaller fields, with fewer players and is much faster than the usual game. The years pass, and he’s spotted by someone who wants him to play on for the St Louis Rams — that’s NFL. But can someone who is way too old to be a rookie, and too green to be a pro  ever make it in the NFL? And can he win and keep Brenda’s heart?

American Underdog is a moving family drama and sports biopic based on a true story.  It’s no spoiler to say that Warner ended up taking his team to the Super Bowl and was awarded Most Valuable Player and is now in the NFL Hall of Fame. But this film tells us what led up to it and how he got there.

This is what’s known as a “Christian” or “faith-based”  movie,  a particular American genre, with no nudity, sex, drugs or even cussing. It’s all about cornfields and country music… not my usual cup of tea. Nor am I football fanatic. But you know what? It’s a compelling story, with real situations and interesting characters. It’s not sappy or corny or cheesy, nor is it cringe-worthy (unlike your average Hallmark movie). No. This is an honestly good, nice film. OK, there’s no way — even in a dark room — that you would ever mistake a 40-year-old Zachary Levi for a college student. No way. But that’s beside the point. He’s good, and so is Paquin, and Hayden Zaller as the kid Zach is adorable without ever being cutesy. I saw the Erwin brothers previous Christian film, “I Still Believe” and there’s no comparison — this one is a cut above. 

American Underdog, is now playing theatrically, check your local listings. You can find the Matrix Resurrections in theatres and certain streaming services, while Try Harder is playing at Hot Docs cinema and on VOD.

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

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

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

Secrets and Lies. Films reviewed: The Secret Garden, She Dies Tomorrow, The Burnt Orange Heresy

Posted in Art, Depression, Disabilities, Disease, Fantasy, Horror, India, Italy, Kids, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on August 7, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies about secrets and lies. There’s a little girl with a secret garden, an art critic with a secret past, and a woman whose future night be ending tomorrow.

The Secret Garden

Dir: Marc Munden

Based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett

It’s 1947. Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is a little English girl raised by servants in India. They dress her, feed her and bring her whatever she wants. She likes telling stories and playing with dolls. But when her parents both die, she’s shipped back to England to live in the stately Misselthwaite Manor. It’s a huge mansion with secret rooms and passageways, haunted each night by scary voices eachoing in the halls. It’s owned Mary’s uncle, the reclusive Lord Craven (Colin Firth) and strictly supervised by the housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters). who warns Mary, keep quiet, eat your porridge, and stay away from forbidden rooms or Lord Craven will send you off to boarding school! Needless to say Mary hates it there.

But things take a turn when she discovers she’s not the only kid there. Colin (Edan Hayhurst) is the source of the wailing cries she hears each night. He’s pale and bedridden and never leaves his room – he’s her first cousin. And there’s young Dickon (Amir Wilson) who knows his way around the estate grounds and the misty moors beyond. When a little bird leads Mary to an ivy covered gate, she‘s delighted to find a walled garden, full of sunlight, flowers, butterflies and a bit of magic. It’s a wonderful place where she can play with Dickon, and tell stories. Can Mary keep her beloved garden? Will Colin ever leave his room? Will Lord Craven come out of his shell? And what other secrets does Misselthwaite Manor hold?

The Secret Garden is a new adaptation of the famous children’s book written more than a hundred years ago. It’s definitely a kids’ movie, but the children aren’t cutesy they’re interesting, argumentative and rude… and their characters develop over the course of the film. The acting is good all around. It deals with issues like death, loss and depression within the exciting adventure story. I wasn’t crazy about the excessive use of CGIs reflecting Mary’s internal thoughts, but, like I said, it’s a kids’ movie. And its multi-racial cast provides a nice break from the traditional, lily-white British historical dramas.

I enjoyed this movie.

She Dies Tomorrow

Wri/Dir: Amy Seimetz

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is a young woman who has it all: a lover, a devoted friend, and her first house – she just moved in today. She’s happy, healthy and financially secure, and hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol for months. So why is she so depressed? Because she just found out she’s going to die. Really soon. And there’s nothing she can do about it. There’s no medical report, or threatening letter or anything… she just knows, deep down inside. How should she spend her last 24 hours? Making love? Saying goodbye?

Instead, Amy grabs a bottle of liquor, puts on her favourite sequined gown, and goes into the backyard to do some gardening. That’s where her best friend Jane (Jane Adams) finds her a few hours later. She tries to understand Amy’s feelings of fear and dread and calm her down, talk some sense into her. But a few hours later, it’s Jane who is sure she’s going to die. And she passes it on to her brother at a birthday party where it spreads to others throughout the building. Is this mass delusion? A psychological virus? And can it be stopped?

She Dies Tomorrow is an uncategorizable movie, with equal parts dark comedy, horror, fantasy and satirical social drama. It’s about a highly contagious virus that makes people believe they’re about to die and then (maybe) kills them. It’s also about what we choose to do in our last 24 hours. It dramatizes the infection using a series of intensely coloured flashes of light – red, blue, green – accompanied by murmuring voices inside characters’ heads. And it alternates the scary parts with inane conversations about the sex lives of dolphins and dune-buggy rides, all set in a southwestern American desert town. Although She Dies Tomrrow was made before the current pandemic, its surreal and impressionistic feel perfectly captures the current malaise infecting everyone right now.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Dir: Giuseppe Capotondi

Based on the novel by Charles Willford

James (Claes Bang) is a handsome but cynical art critic who lives in northern Italy. He earns his living selling his books and giving lectures to American tourists. His theme? it’s not the artists who make art great it’s the critics. Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) is a strikingly beautiful woman with an acid tongue. She mysteriously appears at one of his lectures and calls his bluff. It’s art, truth and beauty that’s important, not criticism and spin. They end up making passionate love in his apartment.

James invites her on a trip to Lac Como, to visit Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) a dilletente who married into money and is famous as an art collector. Cassidy supports eccentric artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland) who lives on his estate, with the hope he will someday create a masterpiece. Although critically acclaimed, all of his paintings were destroyed in a series of fires, and he allows no one, not even his benefactor to look at his work. Cassidy offers James a deal – you can have an exclusive interview with Debney if you bring me one of his paintings… And I don’t care how you get it. Will James get the painting? Will his relentless ambition lead to unforeseen ends? And what is Berenice’s role in all this?

The Burnt Orange Heresy is a taut, tense noir thriller about deceit and lies within the rotten world of fine art. It’s full of twists and surprises throughout the film. The beautiful settings, clever dialogue and attractive cast stand in sharp contrast to its dark – and sometimes violent – theme. Debicki and Bang are fantastic, like a modern day Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, shifting from lovers to friends to potential rivals. I liked this one a lot, but beware: it’s anything but a romantic comedy.

The Secret Garden, She Dies Tomorrow, and The Burnt Orange Heresy, all open today in Toronto, theatrically or VOD – check your local listings.

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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