Two Thimothées. Films reviewed: Dune, The French Dispatch

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Art, Canada, Food, France, Journalism, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Writers by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2021

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

Nostalgia is an interesting phenomenon that changes with the times, where past events are coloured by present-day attitudes. This week, I’m looking at two new movies: one set in the future but based on a novel from the 1960s; and the other set in the past but based on American perceptions of a Europe that never was.

Dune

Dir: Denis Villeneuve (Based on the book by Frank Herbert)

It’s the future. The universe is divided up by ruthless feudal planets looking to increase their wealth and power through extraction of precious minerals. One prize planet is Arrakis, seemingly inhospitable and covered in sand dunes, with gigantic killer worms living just beneath the surface. However the sand yields “spice” a highly coveted group of elements that make intergalactic travel possible. But the planet is populated by the fiercely independent Fremen. Paul (Thimothée Chalamet) the son of a Duke, is sent there after a cruel leader is forced to leave. Paul’s dad is a decorated military hero  (Oscar Isaac) and his mom is a sorceress (Rebecca Ferguson). So the multilingual young man has been trained from an early age both in martial arts and complex mental powers. He can predict the future through his dreams. He hopes to secure the planet while leaving the Fremen unharmed. But various international forces are working against him and his family— was he sent to the planet merely to be eliminated? 

Dune is a science fiction, space movie with a complex novelistic plot and many characters. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, done in the style of the cover art of 1970s paperbacks. I’m talking gorgeous costumes with the Fremen dressed like multi-ethnic saharan Tuareg, and concrete beige spaceships rendered in a brutalist style. And it’s shot in IMAX, meaning it’s a tall movie not a wide movie. I saw it at TIFF at the Cinesphere, where 50-foot sandworms lunge at you from the screen, like they’re about to swallow you up. That said, while I loved the movie aesthetically, it didn’t move me emotionally at all. Maybe because I read the book in junior high so I knew what was going to happen, or maybe because it’s the first of a three part series and doesn’t really end, or maybe because science fiction isn’t supposed to make you cry. Whatever the reason, I think Dune is a fantastic, though unfulfilling, movie to see.

The French Dispatch 

Dir: Wes Anderson

It’s the Twentieth Century, Newspapers are revered, and even smaller cities have foreign correspondents. One such paper, based in Liberty Kansas, opens a bureau in France, known as the French Dispatch, to replace their usual colour Sunday supplement. They spare no expense, hiring the finest writers to ruminate on topics of their choice, including Berensen (Tilda Swinton) on art, Krementz (Frances McDormand) on politics, and Wright (Jeffrey Wright) on food. At its peak it has more than half a million subscribers, but when the editor (Bill Murray) dies, it publishes its final issue. This film dramatizes three of its best stories. In the first chapter, Berensen looks at Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) a killer locked away fin a prison for the criminally insane. He paints abstract canvases of his prison guard Simone (Lea Seydoux) who poses nude for him. But can a shady art dealer (Adrian Brody) save him from obscurity? In the second story, seasoned journalist Krementz covers the student uprisings of the 1960s, where she befriends young Zefirelli (Timothée Chalamet) who calls for revolution. But will her carnal attraction to the much younger student compromise her neutrality as a journalist? In the third story, ostensibly a look at a chef who works at the police station, turns into an action thriller, as a detective’s young son is kidnapped by a hardened criminal. Can a food critic write a credible eye-witness report on organized crime?

The French Dispatch is, of course, total fiction. These exciting stories are set not in Paris, but in a tiny town called Ennui-sur-Blasé. And the magazine is not the New Yorker — its from Liberty, Kansas, pop: 123. What it is is a highly-stylized, funny and quirky look at old school journalists and the stories they told. It’s loaded with in-jokes and thousands of obscure cultural references. Camera work is as precise as a graphic novel moving from panel to panel. Scenes vary between sharp black and white, faded colour or the garish tones of the 70s. Styles cover everything from animated comics, to stage plays, to old tabloid flash-photos. It’s almost overwhelming in its visual impact. French Dispatch is a brilliant illustration of mid-century, middle-class culture… and wonderful to watch.

Dune and The French Dispatch both open this weekend; check your local listings.

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

The Rise and Fall of Female Celebrities: Films reviewed: The Eyes of Tammy Faye, France, Spencer

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, Biopic, Corruption, France, Journalism, Religion, Royalty, UK, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 18, 2021

TIFF is almost over now, but there’s still one day left to see some films. And although there aren’t many famous people appearing on King St this year, there are a lot of movies about celebrities. How they rise to fame and how they are often brought down again by the voracious papparazzi-fueled press. So this week I’m looking at three TIFF movies — two biopics and one dramedy — about female celebrities who just want to be loved. There’s a newscaster in Paris who is part of the news; a princess in England who is part of the royals; and a televangelist who is the target of the mainstream press.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Dir: Michael Showalter

Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastaine) is a televangelist. Born in International Falls, Minn, a small town on the Canadian border, she is raised by a strict mother (Cherry Jones) who calls her a harlot. She is born again in a Pentecostal church where she is speaking in tongues at an early age. At bible college she meets her future husband, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). He rejects the dour talk of sin and instead subscribes to a charismatic evangelism, one where all are welcome, regardless of belief or denomination. Wealth, not poverty, is desirable. Tammy loves his ideas and him. But she wears makeup and bright colours, and they end up in bed together and eventually married. 

They are expelled from the school, but bounce back. Tammy makes an ugly little puppet out of a bubble bath container to attract kids to revival meetings. Their popularity takes off and before you know it, they’re regulars on Pat Robertson’s Christian TV show. They break away to form their own satellite-powered TV network, attracting viewers and followers worldwide — people who enthusiastically send tons of cash to keep the show going. Tammy’s songs hit the Christian music charts while Jim expands their financial holdings, opening theme parks and other ventures. Tammy and Jim love the wealth and luxury their show brings in — the mink coats and fancy homes. Their sex life, however, takes a dive. Neglected by her husband, Tammy is attracted to handsome men — and, so it seems, is Jim. She turns to Ativan and Diet Coke to keep her engine running. But they’re facing trouble. The mainstream press exposes scandal after scandal. And lurking in the background is the Christian Right, led by the notorious Jerry Fallwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). Can their marriage last? Will their financial empire stay afloat? Will Tammy’s mom ever respect her? And will the people always love her?

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a stylized, tongue-in-cheek biopic about the rise and fall of a televangelical superstar. The title refers both to her gaudy false eyelashes as well as the trademark tears she could generate on command. Jessica Chastain creates an unforgettable character  through the use of facial prosthetics and heavy-duty makeup as she ages. She mainly plays Tammy for the laughs — there’s a wide streak of camp running through the whole film — but there is some heart behind it. And on the serious side, it points out her advocacy of AIDS patients, just when Falwell was publicly attacking them. I quite enjoyed the movie, it’s a lot of fun with tons of flashy colour and splashy music. It’s clearly Oscar bait — this is Jessica Chastain looking for golden statues — but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of watching it.

France

Wri/Dir: Bruno Dumont

France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) is a TV news reporter in Paris like none other. One day she’s flying off to a war front in the Sahel, the next she’s mediating between two political commentators. She’s beautiful, talented and loved by millions. At a presidential press conference she can upstage Macron. Her husband Fred is a novelist, and they live with their son Jojo in a flat thats more of an art museum than a home. And with the constant help of Lou (Blanche Gardin), her assistant and manager, she navigates from one success to the next. She’s untouchable. Until something throws her off kilter. Her car, caught in traffic, accidentally bumps a young man on a motorbike hurting his leg. Baptiste is working class, the son of Algerians. France is mortified and goes out of her way to  visit his family, showering them with gifts. But a deep-down depression has taken hold.

Her self confidence is fading and she’s prone to breaking into tears at the first provocation. Fred finally sends her to an alpine spa to recover, where she meets a guileless young man named Charles (Emanuele Arioli) who has never heard of her. Is he the answer to her prayers? Or just her latest obstacle as she falls deeper and deeper into her abyss?

France is a satirical dramedy about France (the country) its politics, celebrities and news media. Like the 1987 film Broadcast News it exposes the falsity and contrivedness of the news industry — their posing, re-shooting of answers in interviews, and the staging of news scenes during a war. But just as the film exposes the tricks and manipulation of reporting, Bruno Dumont (the filmmaker himself) relies on his own contrived story. Poor France! She’s subject to Dumont’s morbidly humorous plot turns, inflicting more and more calamities on his poor hapless character. France de Meurs is Dumont’s Job. 

The film kept me interested all the way through, and Lea Seydoux is really good in her role as a manipulative but likeable celebrity, but it goes on way too long — one of those movies that feel like they’re about to end, but don’t.

Spencer 

Dir: Pablo Larraín

It’s Christmas Eve in 1990.

Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) is late for lunch. She’s driving to Sandringham Castle and and has lost her way. She grew up on a country home nearby. Eventually she is rescued by Darren the palace chef (Sean Harris) who runs his kitchen like a military battalion. But Diana doesn’t want to be there. She hates the weird family traditions she’s forced to follow. Things like sitting on a scale when you enter to see how many pounds you’ll gain feasting over Christmas. Not much fun for someone with Bulimia. She dreads the clothes and jewels she’s forced to wear, and can’t stand the family dinners — she thinks the royals can all read her mind. Her only allies are her young sons William and Harry, with whom she can act like a normal mom; and her dresser and confident Maggie (Sally Hawkins) whom she can tell anything.

Why is she so distraught? Because she knows her husband is having an affair. The constant hounding by the dreaded cameramen is deadly, but even worse are the palace rules, enforced by a cryptic royal military officer. Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall) feels it’s his duty to police everything she does — and she despises him for it. He sews her curtains shut — to stop the photographers, he says — and banishes Maggie from the castle. And as the three days around Christmas come to pass, her depression and anger makes way for paranoid delusions. Is she a princess or a prisoner? And can she ever get away from this awful, gilded life?

Spencer is an experimental film that looks at three days of Diana’s life, her last ones spent as a member of the royal family. It’s beautifully done, but in a highly interpretive way. She is constantly haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn who was killed by Henry VIII. She seeks solace in a scarecrow she finds on her father’s estate next door. And her dreams, fantasies and realities start to blend.  This is a beautiful movie, marvellously made. At certain angles Kristen Stewart does look like Diana, but this is really a fictional interpretation of the character she creates. She doesn’t try too hard to match her class and accent, just her thoughts  and mood. If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy and stodgy characters, this one’s not for you. But if you approach it instead as an experimental and surreal character-study of a troubled woman, I think you’ll love it like I do

All three of these movies played at TIFF. Spencer opens in November, The Eyes of Tammy Faye starts 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

Films reviewed: Swan Song, Beyond Monet, Respect

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, Art, Biopic, Black, France, Gay, Immersive Cinema, LGBT, Music, Ohio, Old Age, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2021

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

With the end of lockdowns finally reaching Toronto, people are itching to catch up on what they’ve been missing — from getting their hair cut, going to an art gallery, or listening to a concert on the big screen. This week I’m looking at two movies and one experience. There’s soul in Detroit, hairdressing in Ohio, and French impressionism in downtown Toronto.

Swan Song 

Wri/Dir: Todd Stephens

Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) was once known as the Liberace of Sandusky Ohio, known for his gaudy jewelry, his pastel pantsuits and his flamboyant style. The richest women in town flocked to his hair salon where he could accomplish miracles with just his fingertips and a can of hairspray. But now he’s long-forgotten, a penniless  old man living in a nursing home with puke-green walls and fluorescent lights. What happened?  

His protege Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge) opened up a larger salon across the street from his, poaching his longest clients, including Rita Sloan a millionaire and his oldest patron. Then his lover David died of AIDS. And since this was before same-sex marriage, their shared house was inherited by a distant relative, leaving him homeless. So for Pat,  Sandusky is just history. Until a lawyer named Mr Shamrock arrives at his room with a new development. Rita has died, and in her will she insists Pat be the one to style her hair in her coffin. And if he does he’ll inherit 25,000 clams. So Pat sets out on a long journey back to long-lost Sandusky, encountering strange people and places along the way. Will he get there in time for Rita’s swan song? And can he finish the job without any beauty supplies? 

Swan Song is a very gentle, low-key, and slow- moving homage to the gradually fading world of small town gay life in America. Though nostalgic, it doesn’t present a white-washed version. It features Pat (loosely based on a real person) as an inveterate shoplifter, Eunice his best friend who is known for loitering in public toilets, as well as the seedy gay bar where they used to lip-synch torch songs. Udo Kier, the great German actor, has fun with his role, injecting his own trademark campiness. Swan Song is a cute and gentle, (though too slow-moving) LGBT comedy.

Beyond Monet

Claude Monet was a fin-de-siècle French painter who daubed his canvases with bright spring colours. Critics at the time referred to his work derisively as impressionism, thus providing a name for the movement. But as his fame grew, his eyesight faded, and by the end his works veered to the nearly abstract. Today, though, his paintings of fields, gardens, water and most of all waterlilies are among the most famous of that era. Beyond Monet is an exhibition, not of his art, but rather an immersive experience. His works are projected on a circular, 360 degree wall and ceiling, about the size of a football stadium. The works themselves are constantly rising, falling, or gradually turning around inside the exhibition space, so you can see all of it without moving from your area. It’s constructed around a large wooden cupola in the centre, along with shiny, round landing pads spread all around to sit on. The images are softly animated: waves in his paintings rise and fall; in his winter scenes, snow seems to blow against the landscapes, while flowers and lillies bloom before your eyes. And a constantly-shifting — and at times quite lovely — original soundtrack of music and sound effects (like birds, crickets or waves) adds to the mood.

The exhibition is in three parts. The first consists 0f a few curved wooden bridges and some gossamer sheets hanging from the tall ceilings. It also has a series of bilingual signs explain the art. You pass through a hallway festooned with cheap mylar strips, into the main room where the actual show takes place.  

Is seeing an original canvas by Monet the same as a projection, however well-rendered and animated, in a large space? No… not even close. This isn’t art, it’s about art. It reminds me of those parks with miniature versions of the Eiffel tower and the Taj Mahal. 

What it is, though, is a pleasantly relaxing experience for those who want to appreciate Monet without the trouble of seeing his actual stuff. Interestingly, the entrance features an assortment of empty wooden canvas frames, to remind us, I suppose, that the real art is still on museum walls. But with the pandemic on, perhaps Beyond Monet is a way to get the feeling of his work without travelling far. And the show is well- ventilated, well-spaced and with a limited number of guests at any one time. 

Respect

Dir:  Liesl Tommy

It’s 1952. 10-year-old Aretha Franklin, known as “Ree”, lives in a middle class Detroit neighbourhood. Her father (Forest Whitaker) is a firebrand baptist preacher with a huge congregation.  He is a colleague of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, who Ree calls Uncle Martin. He holds Saturday night get-togethers where little Ree is the featured performer in a musical household. Still a child, she has the voice of a full-grown woman, and performs be-bop and scat singing, not just gospel. Her father intends to make her a star. By the late 50s he gets Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) signed with John Hammond at Columbia Records where she records old jazz standards with a full orchestra. But without any hits. 

Then everything changes in the late 60s when she is taken under the wing of producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, the man who coined the term Rhythm and Blues. He introduces her to the back-up players at Muscle Shoals, men who know how to feel the music. Aretha brings in her sisters as back up singers, and the rest is history. She becomes the queen of soul and her songs internationally famous. 

This music biopic follows her career over a 20 year period, from 1952 to 1972. And it’s not a smooth and steady ride. It’s called Respect partly because of her hit single but also to point out the lack of it she experiences from both her domineering father and her tempestuous relationship with the often violent and manipulative Ted (Marlon Wayans) her sometime husband and manager. It also exposes the harsh underbelly of her stable, middle-class life. She is raped at an early age (this is implied not shown) and gives birth to a number of sons while still in her teens (her grandma takes care of them.) Her father says she has “demons” inside, but maybe it’s just her trying to break free, whether through her music or alcoholism, from the relentless disrespect and physical and mental abuse she suffers for much of her young life.  

Respect is part performance, part melodrama, alternating between a near constant flow of music interspersed with re-enactments with her family, business, and love life. We see her ups and downs (mainly her downs), along with many — maybe too many — fights, tantrums and meltdowns. Biopics have two choices: either hire great actors with mediocre or dubbed voices, or great singers. Hudson is the latter. She has a fantastic voice, featured here in so many genres — gospel, jazz, soul and pop — which holds the movie together. The melodramatic scenes are a mixed bag, some very moving, others cringe-worthy. Whitaker is really good as CL Frankin, and Hudson is in nearly every scene.  While Respect is not a great movie, I greatly enjoyed watching it.

Look for Swan Song on VOD and digital formats.  Respect opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend — check your local listings. And Beyond Monet is exclusively showing at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre now.

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.

Pigs. Films reviewed: Alice, Gunda, Pig

Posted in Animals, documentary, Drama, Feminism, Food, France, Russia, Sex Trade, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 17, 2021

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

Pigs.

In ancient Greece they were considered monsters — Theseus defeats a sow that terrorizes a village. They’re banned by various religions, and considered unclean and selfish. But did you know people keep pigs as pets, and some say they’re more intelligent than dogs?They’re more than just bacon for your eggs, they’re an important part of our culture — think Animal Farm, Miss Piggy, Spirited Away, Charlotte’s Web, and Babe, to name just a few.

So this week, I’m looking at three new movies about pigs, from Russia, the US and France. There’s life as  a pig on a bucolic farm in Europe; a truffle pig  kidnapped in Oregon; and a happily married woman in Paris… who discovers her husband is a pig. 

Alice

Wri/Dir: Josephine Mackerras

Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier) lives the prefect life in Paris. She has a good job, a loving husband François, a writer, (Martin Swabey) and together they own a very nice apartment — she put all her money into the mortgage. Together they are raising their three-year old son Jules. Until one day, out  of the blue, all her credit cards are rejected her bank account is empty, her insurance is cancelled, her husband is nowhere to be seen. What’s going on? Turns out François has been withdrawing money from their join account for more than a year and stopped paying bills. The bank manager says he’s been warning them for six months to make payments or lose their home. But what about me, asks Alice That’s my money in the flat — why didn’t you contact me?

After a bit of sleuthing Alice discovers François spent it all at a high-priced escort service. And when she visits the place undercover, to find out more… she’s offered a job there. And it may be the only way she can come up with the 7,000 euros needed to save her home.  

Alice is a great, unexpected drama about a young woman entering the sex trade, how she takes care of her young son, and the friendship she develops with another escort from New Zealand named Lisa (Chloe Boreham).  It’s funny, quirky and quite moving, including some hilariously awkward encounters with clients. Unusual for movies about sex workers and “fallen woman” this one is about the sense of empowerment Alice gains from her new line of work. The dangers she faces are not from the job itself but from a disapproving, moralistic public and possibly François, who reappears, tail between his legs asking for forgiveness. 

Piponnier is excellent as Alice as she changes from a naive and nervous mom to a woman who sticks up for herself. And Swabey is also great as the self-centred, needy François. 

I like this movie a lot.

Gunda

Co-WriDir: Viktor Kosakovskiy

What’s it like to live as a pig? This black and white documentary follows seven piglets and their mom over the course of their lives, from birth until the end. Squirming in the hay, fighting for their turn at the sow’s nipples, or playing in the fields. The enormous mom takes care of all of them, herding them from place to place with nudges from her snout. We also encounter cows, lying down for a rest, or standing side by side, in sort of a 69, using their tails to whisk flies of each other’s faces. And some majestic chickens jauntily walking around outside of their coop.

This is not an exposé of factory farming; instead it shows the contrast of life in traditional farms and animal sanctuaries. Humans don’t appear on camera, but they react to the camera’s presence staring right at you the viewer. Gunda is 90 minutes long, and not much happens. But it’s not boring… more relaxing than anything else. It’s shot in gorgeous black and white and you can really feel the animals’ emotions. I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, but it did make me think about where my food really comes from. So if you want to lean back and watch life on a farm, Gunda is for you. 

Pig

Co-Wri/Dir:Michael Sarnoski

Rob (Nicholas Cage) is a hermit who lives in a cabin deep in the Oregon woods along with a furry pig. He’s  totally off the grid: no phone, electricity, or running water. He washes and drinks fro a nearby stream, and cooks with a wood-burning stove. And he listens to old cassette tapes on his battery operated boom box. The truffles the pig digs up  provides him enough money to survive. He sells them to Amir (Alex Wolff), a young hot shot who pays cash. Amir is a truffle broker from Portland with an un-ironic moustache who drives to the cabin in a yellow sports car. But Rob’s world is turned upside down when someone knocks him out in the middle of the night, and steals his pig. He orders Amir to drive him into Portland too find the pig-napper. No pig = no truffles, and the end of Amir’s only source. But he has a reputation to uphold. How can he drive to  Portland’s most exclusive restaurants with this filthy, monosyllabic hobo in rags, his face half covered with dried blood, a man who can barely take care of himself?

But it soon becomes clear that this hermit was once well known in the Portland restaurant scene. So famous that the mere mention of his name will open all doors. Who is this mysterious man? Why did he disappear? Who stole his pig?  And how can he get her back again?

Pig is a wonderfully dark, picaresque journey through hidden Portland. It takes you from a secret fight club to wine cellar hidden in a cemetery, to a power-broker’s mansion. It’s told in three chapters, each with a cryptic title referring to a particular dish. Pig is a film about foodies, but it’s not food porn — it rarely dwells on cooking and eating. Nicholas Cage is terrific as this brooding man with deep thoughts who takes every punch but always gets up again, hiding a deeper pain somewhere inside. He always looks like about to explode in violence. And I’ll watch Alex Wolff in anything he does, I’ve never seen a bad performance from him. Pig is intense, surprising and all-around great. 

I recommend this movie.

Alice will be available VOD on Tuesday; Gunda is now playing digitally and on VOD;  and you can see Pig in theatres nationwide (though not yet 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

Daniel Garber talks with Chris McKim about his new doc Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker

Posted in 1980s, Art, documentary, France, Gay, H.I.V., New York City, Protest, Punk, Sex, Sex Trade by CulturalMining.com on March 19, 2021

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

It’s the 1980s in New York, a city in decay, nearly bankrupt and crumbling, with the AIDS epidemic looming just around the corner. David is the son of an abusive dad who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen. He’s a rebel, in a punk band and into transgressive writers like Genet and Rimbaud. He earns money selling sex in Times Square. He expresses himself through murals in abandoned piers, and stencil graffiti spray-painted on city sidewalks. He samples found images, photocopying and rephotographing them. But suddenly he’s at the epicentre of a new art movement in the East Village. His paintings appear at the Whitney Biennial and people are paying money for his art. Eventually he becomes a central voice in both the art and gay rights movements before he died in his thirties in 1992.

 

 

Who was this David Wojnarowicz, anyway?

Wojnarowicz: F**k You F*ggot F**ker is the name of a new documentary about the life and work of the artist, writer and activist. The film incorporates voice recordings, film, video and stills as well as new interviews with his contemporaries. It follows the events of his life where art, culture, sexuality and politics interacted. The doc is produced by WOW Docs / World of Wonder’s Randy Barbato & Fenton Bailey and directed by award-winning filmmaker Chris McKim, known for his wide range of projects from co-creator of RuPaul’s Drag Race to the Emmy-winning documentary Out of Iraq.

I spoke with Chris McKim in L.A., via ZOOM.

Wojnarowicz opens today in Toronto at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox

 

Separated. Films reviewed: Dear Comrades!, A Glitch in the Matrix, Two of Us

Posted in 1960s, documentary, Family, France, Lesbian, LGBT, Protest, Psychology, Romance, Russia, TIFF, USSR, video games, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 5, 2021

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

Festival and award season has begun, so this week I’m looking at three new movies – from the US, Russia and France – now playing at Sundance or already nominated for upcoming awards. There are people who believe perception is separate from reality; a Communist official separated from her daughter; and an elderly woman separated from the love of her life.

Dear Comrades!

Co-Wri/Dir: Andrey Konchalovskiy 

It’s summer in a small Russian city on the Don River, and the people are angry. Food prices are soaring while wages are going down. Thousands of factory workers take to the streets carrying red flags and pictures of Lenin. Is this the Russian revolution of 1905? Or is it 1917?

Neither… it’s the Soviet Union in 1962!

Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya) is a single mom who lives with her and her daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova) who works in a train factory, She’s an ardent Stalinist. And because she’s an apparatchik — a high-placed local official and member of the Communist Party — she lives a good life. This means access to hair salons, nylon stockings, negligees, and Hungarian salami. She’s having an affair with a married official. 

The food shortages and wage cuts don’t really affect her.

But her life is shaken up by the  walkout at a locomotive factory (where Svetka works) and spreading across the city of Novocherkassk. And their meetings — they’re trying to figure out how to handle this — end up with bricks through the window and Lyuda and the rest forced to sneak out through a sewer tunnel. In comes the KGB who want to bring guns ammunition into the equation: the instigators must be stopped. Mayhem and killings ensue. Lyuda is a hardliner, but when her daughter disappears she has to decide whether her loyalty is to the state or to her kin.

Dear Comrades is a moving drama about a real event and the massive cover-up that followed it. It’s shot in glorious, high-contrast black and white, similar to Polish director Pawilowski’s Ida and Cold War, but with magnificent, classic cinematic scenes involving hundreds of rioters and soldiers in the public square. Yuliya Vysotskaya’s  performance as Lyuda runs the gamut from cold official to angry mother to disillusioned and drunken party member as her entire existence and beliefs are called into question.

This is Russia’s nominee for best foreign film Oscar and definitely deserves to be seen.

A Glitch in the Matrix

Dir: Rodney Ascher 

Have you ever had the sensation that everything around you — other people, your job, what you see and hear — is an illusion, that you’re living in a programmed reality? If so, you’re not alone. A new documentary talks to people who are convinced they are trapped in a world like the Wachowskis’ 1999 movie The Matrix, where everything they perceive is just a computer simulation. And anyone else — other than one’s self — is either a part of this conspiracy, or a victim of it, or they don’t even exist outside of your head. And it is only detectable by paying attention to weird glitches in the system, like odd examples of deja vu, or coincidences that are too absurd or fantastical to be merely random events. 

The doc interviews people rendered into 3-D animated avatars who tell about their own experiences. It also gives a full history of these beliefs, dating back to Plato’s concept of shadows on the wall of a cave, through Descarte’s  epistemological example of an “Evil Demon” deceiving us, all the way to the present. This includes a rare recording of a speech given by author Phillip K Dick in the 1970s, who says the ideas in his books are not science fiction but science fact. His stories inspired movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall.

A Glitch in the Matrix is a fascinating, informative and bizarre documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival a couple days ago. Aside from the animated interviews and narration, it presents a veritable tsunami of visual references to movies and TV shows video games that deal with these topics. I’m talking hundreds of clips, from the game Minecraft, to The Truman Show, to the kids’ book Horton Hears a Who, all of which propose that there are worlds or universes who don’t know they are just tiny self-contained units within much larger realities.

Do I believe I’m living in a glass dome or floating in a sensory deprivation tank? No. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying this mind-warp of a documentary.

Two of Us

Co-Wri/Dir: Filippo Meneghetti

Nina and Madeleine (Barbara Sukowa, Martine Chevallier) are two elderly women who live in Paris (Nina’s originally from Berlin). They first met as children in a public park in Rome, and kept in touch ever since. And for the past 20 years they’ve been passionate lovers who share one floor of an apartment building, floating back and forth between the two homes separated by a hallway. And they’re planning on selling them leaving Paris and retiring somewhere in Rome. The only thing holding them back are Madeleine (or Made as Nina calls her)’s two adult children and her Anne and Frédéric and her grandson Théo.

She was married to an abusive husband for Amy years until he died, though her actual relationship was with her lover Nina. But she’s never told her family the truth — she’s too worried about what they’ll think. But when Mado has a sudden stroke rendering her speechless, Nina is suddenly separated from her de facto wife. Mado’s family just think of her as the kindly neighbour Mme Dorn who lives down the hall. They bring in a paid caregiver who blocks her entry into the other apartment. When Nina demands to spend time with her lover, Anne and Frederic begin to regard Nina as a crazy woman who won’t leave their mother alone and cut off all contact. Will Nina and Mado ever see each other again?  And can their relationship be saved?

Two of Us is a wonderful and passionate drama about two elderly lovers. It’s the young, Paris-based Italian director’s first feature, but it feels mature and masterfully done. And it co-stars the great Barbara Sukowa (If you’re into German cinema, you may remember her from movies in the 70s and 80s by Fassbinder and more recently by von Trotta), Sukowa is just as good now as she’s ever been.  And Chevalier conveys volumes even when she can’t speak. The movie is full of pathos and tears and frustration and joy, you feel so much for both of them.

Two of Us is France’s nominee for best Foreign Oscar, and it’s definitely worth seeing.

A Glitch in the Matrix starts today, and Dear Comrade and Two of Us are both opening at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Two Ladies and a Gentleman. Films Reviewed: Love Sarah, Promising Young Woman, Lupin

Posted in Crime, Disguise, Family, Food, France, Movies, Mystery, Psychology, Thriller, UK, US, Vengeance by CulturalMining.com on January 15, 2021

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

Doug Ford’s latest rules  to fight the pandemic say don’t leave home… except when you do But don’t worry, there’s lots to see without going outside. This week I’m looking at two new movies and a TV series. There’s three woman in London opening a bakery, a Parisian thief who’s a master of fakery, and a vengeful woman exposing predators by pretending to be drunk when she’s actually wide-awakery.

Love Sarah

Dir: Eliza Schroeder

It’s present-day London, in Notting Hill (before the pandemic). Sarah is a chef who comes from a family of very talented women. Her daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) is a professional dancer, and her mum, Mimi (Celia Imrie), is a retired trapeze artist. She plans to open a gourmet bakery/cafe  with her best friend Isabella (Shelley Conn). They studied cooking together in Paris. But right after they secure the property, Sarah is killed in a bicycle accident, and her whole family is in disarray. Depressed Clarissa can’t dance anymore, and her dancer-boyfriend kicks her out. Mimi was already estranged from Sarah before she died. And Isabella without a real chef, is forced to go back to her office job. The three manage to overcome their differences and open the cafe in Sarah’s name. But where will they find a baker? In walks Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones). He’s a two star Michelin chef who studied with Sarah and Isabella in Paris and slept with each of them (he’s a notorious womanizer.) Perhaps he’s also Clarissa’s birth father… And does he still carry a torch for Isabella? 

Love Sarah is a charming, low-key drama about the joys and trepidations of running a business in honour of someone who died. It’s full of vignettes about cooking and baking in a quaint and colourful neighbourhood. There are also chances of romance for each of the three women. The plot is threadbare but the characters — and the actors who portray them —  are quite endearing, in that understated English way. Love Sarah is a cute, but inoffensive, picture.

Promising Young Woman

Wri/Dir: Emerald Fennell

Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is a promising young woman at med school with her best friend Mimi. They’ve planned to become doctors since they were kids. But then something terrible happens. Mimi gets drunk at a party and is raped by another student and the university sides with the man. Mimi commits suicide and a despondent Cassandra quits school, moves in with her parents   and drops out of life. She works by day at a dead end job, while her nights are spent in a drunken stupor at tawdry pick-up bars, going home with whatever guy asks her. But things aren’t what they seem. Whenever her “date” inevitably throws

Carey Mulligan stars as “Cassandra” in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

himself on this seemingly drunken woman, she jumps into action to teach the predator a lesson. This secret heroin will never be a victim. But can she single-handedly avenge all the people to blame for Nina’s suicide? And will she ever start living a normal life again?

Promising Young Woman is a vengeance thriller that’s full of shocks surprises. Carey Mulligan is fantastic as Clarissa, a multi-leveled character who is both depressing, and funny with a dark, deranged streak running through her. Bo Burnham plays a self-effacing nerd — and potential boyfriend — who challenges her theory that all men are douches; and comic relief is provided by Jennifer Coolidge as her mom, and Laverne Cox as her boss. Promising Young Woman is shocking and deeply disturbing while also reassuringly moralistic. This movie keeps you guessing — and your heart pumping — till the very end.

Lupin

Assan Diop (Omar Sy) is a young boy who lives with his Senegalese father in  a palatial estate in Paris. His dad’s a chauffeur for the Pellegrinis, a very rich  but ruthless family. He gives Assan a book — classic stories of Arsene Lupin, the eponymous gentleman thief and master of disguises — and tells him to read it carefully and learn from it. Lupin is ingenious and conniving but always a gentleman (they use the English word in this French drama) But when his father is arrested for stealing priceless jewels, Assan is left alone, penniless and orphaned. Luckily an anonymous donor pays for his education at an elite academy. Years later he emerges as a modern day Lupin, reenacting his most audacious thefts and reaping its rewards. He’s married now and has a teenaged son. But when the jewels his father was accused of stealing reappear at an auction, he is determined to get the necklace, prove his father’s innocence and get revenge on Pellegrini, whom he believes set his dad up. But to do this he must outsmart the police, evade Pellegrini’s hired killers, even while he continues to carry out his intricately planned heists.

Lupin is a delightful new TV series full of capers and adventures, a new take on a classic character. It follows multiple sub-plots: his relationship with his wife and son; his various capers; his war against Pellegrini, and the cat & mouse game he plays with the police. Omar Sy is wonderful in the main role, so much so that there’s little screen time given to the supporting actors — the buffoonish cops and naive millionaires are mainly there as foils for his exploits. Yes, it’s an unbelievable fantasy, and yes, it’s purely light entertainment, but I like it a lot. And after one week with only 5 episodes, it is already trending at #1.

Lupin is now streaming on Netflix. And Love Sarah and Promising Young Woman both open today digitally and on VOD.

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

More festival films. Ammonite, Labyrinth of Cinema, La Belle Époque

Posted in Dinosaurs, France, Japan, Lesbian, Meta, Movies, Romance, Science, Time Travel, UK by CulturalMining.com on November 13, 2020

https://danielgarber.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/garber-november-13-20-review-1.mp3Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Toronto is a Red Zone and movie theatres are closed, but the fall film festival season continues with ReelAsian, featuring films from East, Southeast and South Asia and the diaspora; and Cinefranco showing new, French-language films from Europe, Africa, and Quebec.

This week I’m looking at three new festival movies. There are three young Japanese guys sent back in time; an English woman who digs up dinosaur bones; and a grumpy French artist who wants to go back in time… so people will stop treating him like a dinosaur.

Ammonite

Wri/Dir: Francis Lee

It’s the 1840s in Lyme Regis, a small town in Dorset, England. Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) lives with her mother Molly in a small house attached to a tourist shop. She sells seashells by the seashore. Fossils, to be exact, the remains of ancient dinosaurs. Her archaeological findings are on display in the British Museum, but, as a woman, she gets no credit for her discoveries and is blocked from joining the male scientists. But she continues her dogged work each day on the cliffs and pebbled beach. Which is why she is uninterested when Murchison, a rich London dilettante, knocks on her door, unannounced. Mary is gruff and headstrong and has no time for fools. But he persists. He loves her work and wants her to mentor him. And he’ll pay her well for her time. He’s accompanied by his young wife Charlotte (Saoirise Ronan) who suffers from melancholia. But when he takes off for the continent, Mary is stuck taking care of the depressed woman. She’s uninterested in frail, pale Charlotte until she takes ill and almost dies. She nurses her back to health, and the two women discover an unknown connection. Is it love, lust or just a passing fantasy? And what will happen when Murchison comes back?

Ammonite is a beautiful historical drama, a romance based on real-life characters. Kate Winslet and Saorise Ronan play the passionate pair, in a relationship riddled with jealousy, class-differences and misunderstandings… but also friendship as they explore new grounds, both emotionally and sexually. With really great performances set against a stark, cold world of water, pebbles and bones, Ammonite is an exquisite love story.

Labyrinth of Cinema

Wri/Dir: Nobuhiko Obayashi

A movie theatre near Hiroshima, Japan is closing down after many years, so everyone in town shows up. There’s Noriko – an innocent young girl in a sailor suit (Rei Yoshida) who says she learns about history by going to movies; Mario, a nerdy film buff (Takuro Atsuki); Hōsuke – a war movie fanatic with little round glasses (Takahito Hosoyamada); and Shigeru – a flashy-dressed, son of a buddhist monk (Yoshihiko Hosoda) who moonlights as a debt collector for the Yakuza. But as the movie starts, they step into the actual film and find themselves transported to the past. They’re in the Tokugawa era, the days of the samurai, feudal Japan ridden with uprisings and civil war. Later they’re soldiers in the Japanese Imperial army, invading China. And they end up trapped in Hiroshima on the day of the atom bomb. And at each stage of history, despite their efforts, they witness young Noriko in danger – whether as a Chinese spy, a sex slave, or a starving Japanese girl. Can they protect innocent Noriko without being killed themselves? Or will they fall into the trap of senseless, nationalistic war?

Labyrinth of Cinema is a highly-stylized retelling of modern Japanese history through movies. It starts out at a confusing, frantic pace, jumping from scene to scene recreating silent films with comical overacting. Later it slows a bit as the scenes get darker and more troubling. Over the course of this three hour epic, it uncovers aspects of Japanese history – war atrocities, women-led armies, the Kenpeitai, the slaughter of Okinawans – shown in the manner of films in each era: jerky movements in the 19th century; melodramatic scenes in the 30s and 40s.  It’s narrated by the poems of Nakahara Chuya, and the screen is kept busy with superimposed, sidebar quotes. The various characters are played by the same group of actors alternating roles in a theatrical style. This is director Obayashi’s last film – he died of cancer after completing it this summer – who was known both for his TV commercials and his horror movies. Labyrinth of Cinema is a long, devastating survey of history and war. If you want to really understand Japan, you should watch this experimental film.

La Belle Époque

Wri/Dir: Nicolas Bedos

Victor (Daniel Auteuil) was once a successful cartoonist known for his graphic novels and editorial cartoons. But when his newspaper goes digital he loses his job, and no one reads his comics anymore. Now in his sixties he’s unemployed, bitter and depressed, a dinosaur who can’t keep up with the times. He’s been married to Marianne – a beautiful Freudian psychoanalyst (Fanny Ardant) – for decades, but the spark is gone. She can’t stand his constant complaining anymore. So one night she kicks him out with just his clothes, a portfolio of drawings, and a small paper card he received at a dinner party.

It’s an exclusive invitation issued by Time Travellers, a high-priced service that lets you revisit the past. In their vast studio, they recreate clients’ own memories, using actors and scripts, accurate down to the smallest detail.  Victor goes back to that day in the 70s when he first met his wife in a bar called La Belle Époque. The Time Travellers CEO Antoine (Guillaume Canet) is an arrogant perfectionist, a tyrant who treats his actors like trash. He views each scene with hidden cameras and, using tiny mics, shouts directions into his actor ears. He hires his tempestuous on-again, off-again girlfriend Margot (Doria Tillier) to play Marianne, because he wants this recreation to be flawless – he feels he owes Victor a personal debt. But she’s too good, and Victor thinks he’s falling in love again… and not with his wife. Can the marriage be saved? Or will this hi-tech re-creation lead to disaster?

La Belle Époque is a satirical French comedy about romance, nostalgia, and second chances. It deals with French stereotypes: the men are either insensitive boors or intellectual bores, the women moody harridans. His re-created memories are funny and surprising but still just a simulacrum.  But as the story develops, you begin to care about the characters, and join in with their laughs, tears and surprises. La Belle Époque uses a fascinating concept to make a very entertaining movie

La Belle Époque will play at Cinefranco film festival which starts next Friday;  Labyrinth of Cinema is showing at  ReelAsian film festival from November 12th through 19th; and Ammonite which premiered at TIFF, opens theatrically today across Canada (check your local listings), and digitally on December 4th.

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

 

Decline and Fall. Films reviewed: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, The Strain, The Humorist

Posted in Action, Communism, Cooking, Disaster, Disease, documentary, Food, France, Horror, New York City, Russia, TV, USSR, Vampires by CulturalMining.com on May 29, 2020

Unedited, no music

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

It’s Spring Film Festival Season in Toronto, without cinemas but with exciting new movies still being shown online. I’m recording at home via CIUT, from my house to yours, so I apologize for the sound quality. This week I’m looking at three films, one each from TJFF and Hot Docs, as well as a TV series. There’s decadence in Versailles, pandemic and mayhem in New York, and decline in 80s Moscow.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

Dir: Laura Gabbert

Yotam Ottolenghi is a London-based chef, restauranteur and cookbook author. A few years ago he receives an unusual offer from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”): to pull together an event recreating the desserts of the Palace of Versailles, from Louis XIV till Louis XVI. He contacts five chefs from around the world to fly in and show their stuff. But these are no ordinary chefs; they each have an unusual style all their own. Dinara Kasko, a young woman from Ukraine, assembles architecturally-inspired cakes with gravity-defying minimalist structures on the outside, and fantastic layers on the inside. Dominique Ansel – inventor of the Cronut – features new takes on classic French patisseries at his Manhattan restaurant. Sam Bompas of London’s Bompas and Parr, injects life into that much-neglected cooking form: jellies and moulds. Ghaya Oliveira is a multi-talented Tunisian chef who evokes her grandmother’s ideas while creating French pastries; and Janice Wong, a Cordon Bleu-trained Singaporean culinary artist who paints and sculpts using chocolates.

This wonderful documentary shows the chefs at work behind the scenes at The Met, recreating the splendour, decadence and opulence of Louis XIV’s Versailles. The unique works they create especially for the show are really amazing, suggesting the architecture, the formal gardens, and the open-court style of that palace, where ordinary people, if elegantly dressed, were allowed to enter the palace grounds, a space traditionally fenced off from the public. The film also provides much needed historical context: Starving Parisians stormed the palace in 1789, while the documentary is set in an ostentatious Manhattan not too long before the pandemic lockdown. Parallels anyone?

The Strain (Season 1)

Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Dr Goodweather (Corey Stoll) is a NY epidemiologist who works for the CDC. He’s separated from his wife and son because he’s always on call for emergencies. He works alongside Nora (Mia Maestro) an Argentinian-born doctor. They are called into action when a 747 lands at JFK. Everyone on board – including the pilots – are dead. Is it a terrorist hijacking? No, it’s a highly contagious virus. Called to action, the doctors attempt to stop its spread before it infects everyone in the city. But they are thwarted by corrupt officials who allow an intricately-carved wooden box (a coffin?) out of the protected area. And it turns out that the infected passengers are really dead, just temporarily comatose. They’re actually still alive, or perhaps undead. Once infected, people change into zombie-like vampires under the thrall of an unseen master.

What’s unusual about this virus is how it spreads. A red, phallic piece of flesh, like a blind moray eel, shoots out from the infected person’s neck and sucks their victim’s blood. The disease carriers cluster in colonies underground and only come out at night. Manhattan quickly collapses into chaos with widespread crime, looting and mayhem due to the pandemic. But still no quarantine to stop its spread. Luckily, a Scooby Gang of mismatched players form a team. There’s Mr Setrakian (David Bradley) an old man with secrets fro the past who carries a silver sword; Vassily (Kevin Durand) is a public rat catcher who knows his way through all of Manhattan’s dark tunnels; Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas) a champion hacker who disables the internet. They face a cabal of powerful men who want the infection to continue for their own nefarious purposes. But can the doctors and their allies stop the infection? Or is it too late?

The Strain is a great action/horror/thriller TV series about an uncontrolled pandemic, corrupt billionaires amd politicians, and the frontline medical workers trying to stop them. It has mystery, romance, sex, and violence with a good story arc, gradually revealed. It’s uncannily appropriate now, and for Toronto residents it’s fun to spot the localations – it was shot here. So if you’re looking for a good pandemic drama, and don’t know where to find it, look for The Strain.

The Humorist

Wri/Dir: Mikhail Idov

It’s 1984 in the Soviet Union. The Soyuz T-12 is in the sky, Chernenko heads a geriatric government, and Ronald Reagan casually talks about dropping atomic bombs on Russia. Boris Arkadiev (Aleksey Agranovich) is a successful comedian who has it all, adored by fans and government officials alike. He travels across the nation with a stand-up monologue called The Mellow Season, a tame routine about a trained monkey. Born in Byelorussia, he now lives in a nice Moscow apartment with his lawyer wife Elvira, and his two kids, his adoring six-year-old Polina and his rebellious teenage son Ilya. In public, he’s a national icon. But behind the scenes he’s an arrogant alcoholic, a prolific womanizer, and an all-around prick. Aside from himself, he worships the two Russian idols: vodka and the space program. He left religion behind but is conscious of anti-Jewish murmurs wherever he goes. And he’s a total sell-out. Once a serious but unsuccessful novelist, he went on to be a TV writer with his friend and rival Simon. Boris gave in to the official censors, while the less-successful Simon resisted. Now Boris is like the trained monkey in his monologue, performing on cue whenever ordered to do so.

But a series of events change his outlook. An unexpected encounter with a cosmonaut makes him rethink destiny, God and existence. And when he learns about the audacious black comics working in LA from his actor pal Maxim (Yuri Kolokolnikov) he realizes how dull and tired his own comedy has become. Will he stay a depressed, trained monkey for his corrupt masters in the army and KGB? Or will he risk his job, family and reputation by speaking from the heart?

The Humorist is an excellent dark comedy, set in the last days of the Soviet Union. Agranovich is great as a troubled, over-the-hill comic, like a Soviet Phillip Roth anti-hero. It’s brilliantly constructed starting with a garden party in Latvia, but degenerating into a soiree at a high-ranked party-member’s villa. It’s peak-decadence, where sagging old generals in formal wear dine with American porn playing elegantly on a TV in the background (they think it’s high society). The men later retreat to a banya wearing Roman togas, in a scene straight out of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The Humourist has an absurdist, almost surreal tone, where a midnight knock on the door could mean interrogation or the exact opposite. It’s filled with disturbing scenes of long underground corridors and empty Aeroflot planes. It kept me gripped — and squirming — until the end.

Great movie.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is now streaming at Hotdocs; The Humourist is playing online at TJFF, and you can find The Strain streaming, VOD, or on DVD.

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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