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

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

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

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

Saint Omer

Wri/Dir: Alice Diop

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

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

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

This is a great movie. 

The Son

Wri/Dir: Florian Zeller

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

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

Living

Wri/Dir: Oliver Hermanus

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

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

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

I recommend this movie.

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

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

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.

Filming the Impossible. Movies reviewed: Fire of Love, Come Back Anytime, Nope

Posted in 1970s, Cooking, documentary, Food, France, Horror, Japan, Romance, Science by CulturalMining.com on July 23, 2022

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

You know how I’m always talking about big-screen movies, how they show you things that you don’t get on a TV, device or phone? Well, movies don’t just walk to your cinemas, they take a hell of a lot of work to get there. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to get them on the screen. 

So this week I’m looking at three beautiful movies, two of which are about filming the impossible. There’s a ramen chef who reveals his secret recipes; brother-and-sister ranchers who try to take pictures of a UFO; and husband-and-wife scientists who try to film volcanos, up close, as they erupt.

Fire of Love

Dir: Sara Dosa

It’s the early 1960s in France. Katia and Maurice Krafft meet at a scientific conference, and never part. Katia is a petite geochemist with a pixie haircut, while Maurice is a geologist, twice her size, with a face like John C Reilly. The two are so fascinated by volcanoes. That they call themselves Volcanologists. They go to anti-war protests and eventually marry, honeymooning on Santorini island in Greece (an active volcano, naturally). They form a team of two, investigating and recording on film, volcanoes around the world. Dressed in metallic space suits, they measure everything from the arcs that volcanic bombs (large chunks of molten lava) take as they are expelled into the air, to the degree if acid in water pools nearby. And most of all, the volcanoes themselves. Each volcano has a unique personality and should be approached in a different way. But they make one distinction. Red volcanoes are safe if you take precautions. They’re caused by tectonic plates pulling apart, exposing the magma beneath. Molten lava spills out and flows in a clear path, and can be filmed from a relatively close distance. Grey volcanoes, though, are caused by tectonic plates crashing into each other, expel ash into the sky. When they explode, they can be more powerful than an atom bomb, leading to landslides and widespread death and destruction. The power of the earth, the Kraffts say, dwarfs anything mankind can attempt. But they photograph and film it all, providing much of the images of volcanoes the world sees. The Kraffts died in 1991 while following their passion at the eruption of Mt Unzen, a grey volcano in Japan. Their bodies were never found.

Fire of Love is a stunningly beautiful documentary about Katia and Maurice in their search for active volcanoes around the earth. It is illustrated by their own extensive footage, including surprising and breathtaking images from Iceland to Zaire to Krakatau, Indonesia. They went where no one else dared. Wistfully narrated by Miranda July, the film also looks at their long-lasting love affair, devoted to each other and volcanoes. Beautifully illustrated by animated drawings it delves into their private thoughts including Maurice’s fantasy of rowing a canoe down a river of molten lava as it spills into the open sea. You’re probably familiar with the volcanoes in movies and TV shows, but this doc takes you right into the middle of them, like nothing you’ve seen before. Spectacular. 

Come Back Anytime (また いらっしゃい)

Dir: John Daschbach

Over the past decade, ramen has become popular worldwide with dozens of restaurants opening everywhere. It’s considered a classic Japanese dish, but in Japan it’s thought of as Chinese food. Ramen first gained popularity in Yokohama’s Chinatown. It consists of noodles in a hearty broth made of pork or chicken bones — typically flavoured with salt, miso, or soy sauce — and topped with roast pork and vegetables. 

After WWII, it became wildly popular in Japan, with ramen stalls opening on every street corner. This documentary follows Ueda, the chef, along with his wife, of a particular ramen shop. It shows us, season by season, one year of its existence, including a behind the scenes look at what goes into that bowl of ramen you’re probably craving right now. (My mouth started watering about five minutes into the film.)

Come Back Anytime is a very low-key, realistic look at a ramen shop — not one that’s famous or prize-winning, not a chain or a corporation, not one that uses fancy or unique flavours like dried sardines — just an ordinary ramen place. But its devoted clientele — some of whom have been going there for 30 years — would argue that this place is something special. It consists of scenes in the restaurant, up at his farm where he grows vegetables, and interview with customers, family and friends. While nothing remarkable, this gentle, ordinary doc leaves you with a nice warm feeling inside, like after eating a hot bowl of ramen.

Nope

Wri/Dir: Jordan Peele

OJ Haywood and his sister Emerald (Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer) are unsuccessful horse wranglers who live in a huge wooden house on a dry-gulch ranch somewhere in southern California. Em is outgoing, selfish and spontaneous; she loves listening to LPs full blast. OJ is a monosyllabic cowboy, prone to pondering, and is more comfortable with horses than with people. While he’s on the farm taming mustangs, she’s out there trying to get rich and famous in LA.Their dad built up a big business in Hollywood, providing horses for westerns, but they’ve fallen on hard times, especially since Pops died in a freak accident. Now they’re forced to sell their horses, one by one, to Ricky (Steven Yuen) who runs a tacky cowboy theme-park nearby. Ricky is a former child-actor whose hit sitcom was cancelled, years earlier, when his co-star (a chimpanzee) ran amok on set. 

But something else is happening on the ranch. Power turns off spontaneously, metallic objects seem to fly around, and what might be a UFO keeps appearing in the distance. Em thinks they can get rich if they can just capture on film a clear, “Oprah-quality” shot of the UFO. Problem is their security cameras fizzle out whenever the flying saucer appears. So they make a trip to a big box store to buy some better quality equipment. And that’s when they meet Angel (Brandon Perea) a cashier there who is totally into both electronic surveillance and UFOs. He volunteers to help them . But have they bit off more than they can chew?

Nope is a weirdly excellent western / mystery / horror movie with a good amount of humour. It bombards you with shocking, seemingly unrelated events, but eventually they all make sense. While Peele’s previous movies, Get Out and Us, were small, drawing room horror, this one is grand and expansive, with sweeping skies and rolling hills, horseback chases and terrifying attacks from above. Daniel Kaluuya is great as the almost mute cowboy, Keke Palmer hilarious as Em, with Steven Yuen as a slimy actor-turned-entrepreneur and Brandon Perea as an enthusiastic third wheel rounding off a great cast. It has wonderful cinematography and art direction: your eyes are flooded with bright oranges, greens and reds. There’s a bit of social commentary — how blacks were erased from Hollywood westerns, as well as just the general ersatz creepiness of American pop culture;  and there are also the meta aspects — after all, this is a movie about making a movie — but Nope is mainly just entertainment. And that’s what it did. I saw it on an enormous IMAX screen and enjoyed every minute of it. 

Come Back Anytime is now playing at the Toronto Hot Docs cinema; you can see Fire of Love at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Nope opens on IMAX this weekend worldwide; 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

Still looking. Films reviewed: Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, The Gray Man, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Posted in 1960s, Action, Animation, CIA, Class, comedy, Fashion, France by CulturalMining.com on July 16, 2022

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

Summer is here and so is TOPS, Toronto Outdoor Picture Show. This festival lets you watch new or classic films for free, sitting on the cool grass on a warm dark night in a city park. Locations include Christie Pits, the Corktown Commons and Bell Manor Park, showing open-air movies weekly through July and August. Or if you’d rather stay home or watch things on your phone you should check out this year’s Prism Prize winners, a collection of cinematic music videos by and about Canadian artists. Surprisingly good.

This week I’m looking at three new, big-screen movies. There’s a woman in Paris looking for a dress, a hitman in Bangkok looking for a way out, and a talking sea shell looking for his family.

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris

Dir: Anthony Fabian

It’s London in the 1960s. Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) is a hardworking house cleaner, who always goes out of her way to help other people. But her employers, including an aspiring movie star and an extremely rich family, don’t seem to appreciate what she does, often forgetting to pay her wages. Her husband was shot down in WWII so she has supported herself ever since waiting in vain for him to come home.  On her free time she goes to the pub or bets on dog races with her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas) and her bookie Archie (Jason Isaacs). But everything changes when she spots a beautifully flowered dress in her employer’s wardrobe. It’s a Christian Dior, and it cost £500 in Paris. Five hundred pounds…!

Suddenly, Ada has a goal: save up all her money and spend it on a dress like that one. And, through a series of fortuitous events she finds herself in Paris quicker than she thought. But buying the gown is another matter entirely. She faces roadblocks at every turn — the idea of a cleaning woman buying such a dress. It’s Haut couture, but Mrs Harris  is neither haut nor a part of their couture. We sell to princesses and heiresses not to the likes of you, says Mme Colbert (Isabelle Huppert). Are Ada’s hopes and dreams nothing but a fantasy? Or will her optimistic nature win out in the end?

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is a wonderful bitter-sweet drama about a working-class woman in the mid-20th century. Based on the novel by Paul Gallico, it shows how an ordinary woman — through the power of will, sincerity and common sense — can open the tightest doors, but can never transcend her class. The movie’s not just about her — there’s a Marquis (Christopher Lambert); a shy young executive (Lucas Bravo — you may recognize him from the dreadful Emily in Paris); and Natasha (Alba Baptista), an existentialist  model — but Lesley Manville as Mrs Harris is really the star. She manages to convey, perfectly and subtly, Ada’s innermost thoughts and emotions. Parts of the movie did seem like a non-stop ad for Christian Dior, but, other than that, it was a pleasure to watch.

The Gray Man

Dir: Anthony and Joe Russo

It’s a night-club in Bangkok. 6 (Ryan Gosling) is there for a job: murder. He’s a hitman who works undercover for the CIA in the top secret Sierra division. Recruited as a young man doing hard time for murder, he’s been a loyal member for two decades, eliminating with precision  whatever bad guys (no women or children) they assign him to kill. He chases the target into a dark alley, and after a violent confrontation, on his deathbed, the guy says, Wait! I have something to tell you! You’re 6, right? I’m 4. You’re killing a member of your own unit… they’re getting rid of Sierra, and you’re next. He hands him a tiny memory disc drive, and says, They’ve gone bad, and this proves it. Hold onto it and get the hell out of here. Then the guy expires.

So begins an intercontinental chase, with 6 vs the entire CIA, and a  team of mercenary assassins bankrolled by the Agency under the guidance of Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans). He’s  a ruthless, sadistic contractor who will kidnap, torture and kill anyone who gets in his way. The whole world is potential collateral damage… including a little girl with a heart condition that 6 had promised always to protect. (Giving 6 a reason to pursue Lloyd.) Who will triumph? 6, a regular-guy hitman in a track suit with a heart of gold?  Or Lloyd, an evil elitist with a douchey moustache and an expensive gold watch?

The Gray Man is a fast-moving action/thriller made for the big screen. It follows 6 from Thailand to Turkey, from Vienna and Prague to an isolated castle in Croatia, complete with a convenient hedge maze. There are some spectacular fights — like a battle in mid-air as a cargo plane blows up; fistfights in a hospital and shootouts aboard a a rolling streetcar. On the negative side, there is absolutely nothing original in this action movie — it’s all been done a thousand times before. And there’s product placement for a brand of gum in the first lines of the script. That said, it’s great to see Ryan Gosling again — he’s always worth watching; and Chris Evans is a nicely hateable villain. Ana de Armas, though, is wasted as a dull CIA agent. The good lines all went to other characters. And there are some clever ones. Like You can’t make an omelette without killing people.  Is the Gray Man a good movie? I won’t say it’s “good” but I actually like watching good actors in pretty settings with lots of buildings blowing up. 

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Dir: Dean Fleischer-Camp

Marcel (Jenny Slate) is a  naive, inquisitive little boy who lives in a large deserted house with just his grandma to keep him company. The rest of his family mysteriously disappeared one day, and he hasn’t seen them since. He likes listening to Brahms on a record player and watching 60 Minutes. But he’s not human — he’s actually a tiny seashell with one big eye, two legs with pink running shoes and a little mouth. He gets around using Rube Goldberg-esque  contraptions, powered by an electric blender blender attached to pieces of string. And he can move quickly on the floor by climbing into a tennis ball and rolling around. But everything changes when a filmmaker named Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp) moves in. He’s fascinated by the strange little talking shell, so he starts to film Marcel — with his permission —  and puts the clips on YouTube, which, of course, eventually go viral. Soon he’s in the NY Times, and people on TikTok are copying his funniest phrases and moves. He’s a minor celebrity, but still hasn’t found his family. And Nana (Isabella Rosselini) is getting old. She loves gardening and can talk to insects but she’s having trouble remembering things, and her shell is pock-marked and cracked. Will his new-found fame bring Marcel a better life?

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a totally delightful treat of a movie made in the form of a live-action documentary. Marcel is portrayed using stop-motion photography incorporating his (or actually Jenny Slate’s) hilarious, improvised comedy. It’s 90 minutes long, but flies by in a second, despite its simple style. It’s full of wisdom and humour and speaks to both kids and adults (a lot of the funniest lines appeal to grown ups with Marcel’s unintentionally hilarious observations.) You may be familiar with him from Youtube, and when I first saw the poster, I thought, why in hell would anyone want to watch this? But, view it and you’ll understand why it’s so good. 

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is now playing all across Canada, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris opens this weekend; check your local listings; The Gray Man is playing in Toronto 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

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

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

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

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

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

Apples

Wri/Dir: Christos Nikou

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

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

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

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

I like this one.

Moloch

Co-Wri/Dir: Nico van den Brink

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

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

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

Passengers of the Night

Dir: Mikhaël Hers

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

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

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

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

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

Urban chaos. Films reviewed: Crimes of the Future, The Divide

Posted in Art, Canada, Corruption, France, Horror, LGBT, Meltdown, Police, Politics, Protest, Sex, Uncategorized, violence by CulturalMining.com on June 4, 2022

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

Spring film festival season continues in June, when the idea of sitting in an air-conditioned movie theatre starts sounding better and better. The Female Eye film fest is on next Thursday through Saturday at the TIFF Bell Lighbox, showing films by female directors. Look out for Go On and Bleed about an American draft-dodger in 1971 — it’s directed by J. Christian Hamilton, host of Dementia 13, playing psychedelic music at this station. And if you’re down California way, catch the 3rd Annual Blue Water Film Festival, celebrating the United Nations World Oceans Day, with movies about Antartica, whales, oceans.

But this week I’m looking at two new movies — both opening this weekend in Toronto — about urban chaos and society in decline. There’s a film from France about an artist and a protester seeking refuge in a hospital; and another one from Canada about an artist who treats radical surgery as performance.

Crimes of the Future

Wri/Dir: David Cronenberg

Picture a future where you don’t just sit in a chair, it latches onto you with grotesque bone-like appendages. It’s a world that diverged away from ours in the 1980s or 90s. People still carry huge clunky portable phones, they keep files in filing cabinets, and everything’s analogue.  But technology has taken an unexpected turn — humans have “evolved”… drastically so. Pain and pleasure sensations have mainly disappeared, so people seeking sexual fulfillment might slice pieces of flesh of their lovers’ bodies… and then snack on it in a non-lethal, cannibalistic orgy.  Government has largely collapsed, and police operate undercover in cels of corruption. 

In this future world, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Lèa Seydoux) are a celebrity couple known for their artistic performances. Fans flock to events where Caprice records Tenser cutting open his belly to excise fully-grown, tattooed organs from his body, organs that developed spontaneously. Afterwards they visit a clandestine quasi governmental office where two dry bureaucrats Timlin and Wippet (Kristen Stewart and Don McKellar) file their cases in the appropriate folders. 

But there are complications. An undercover cop wants Tenser to be his informant. A young father named Lang (Scott Speedman) is also seeking out Lang and Caprice. He recently lost his son when his ex-wife murdered the boy because she didn’t like the way the boy ate plastic trashcans.  He’s also stalking Tenser; but why?

Crimes of the Future is an extremely strange movie, maybe Cronenberg’s weirdest yet. Its full of sex, art and cringe-worthy gross-outs. Things like after Tenser gets a living-flesh zipper sewn into his belly, Caprice unzips it to performs oral sex on his gaping wound.  It’s grotesque, but I’m not even revealing any of the most crucial horrific scenes. The costumes and special effects are terrific, and the locations (the movie was shot in Greece) are appropriately seedy and falling apart.

Does any of this make sense? Well it does, kinda.

It fools around with our fear of Big Pharma and the physical changes it could make to our bodies. It also deftly satirizes the worlds of art, celebrity and government. There’s an otherworldly feel to the whole movie, the stuff of dreams (or nightmares). It’s slow moving and very creepy but this isn’t a screamer-type horror movie, more of a constant supply of shock and yuck. Viggo Mortensen acts like a vampire or an unwrapped mummy, always shrouded in hoods  and shawls, while Lèa Seydoux as Caprice is equal parts model and body-modification fanatic. Do I like this movie? Not exactly, it creeps me out and occasionally slides into the ludicrous, but I’m glad I saw it — with some of its images permanently burned into my brain’s synapses. 

The Divide (La fracture)

Wri/Dir: Catherine Corsini

Raf (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is a middle-aged, middle-class liberal cartoonist in Paris.  She’s also a neurotic, relentless  nag, given to sending  countless text messages  at 3 am. The recipient of the texts is her lover Julie (Marina Foïs), an editor and publisher who shares her bed. They live together along with Julie’s teenaged son.  And Julie has had it — she wants to break up. And despite Raf’s pleas, she refuses to budge. They take their fight onto the street, but when Julie stomps away in anger, Raf slips and falls, ending up in hospital. But this is no ordinary day.

It’’s 2019 in Paris, and France is angry. Macron’s corporate and wealth taxes cuts, are making people angry. So are his austerity measures, cutting unemployment insurance and the general social Gas prices are rising, and surveillance cameras are appearing on the streets…So a huge coalition of truckers, precarious workers, and anarchists converge on the Champs Elysée to stop traffic and get noticed.

But the police crack down on the Yellow Vest protesters, sending dozens to hospital. So doctors and nurses are overworked and overwhelmed with patients. One is Yann (Pio Marmaï) a trucker in Paris just for the afternoon to check out the protests. He has shrapnel in his leg, and if he doesn’t get home by morning he’ll lose his job. Kim (Aïssatou Diallo Sagna) is a nurse in the hospital, dealing with the sudden influx of injured patients… and he own baby is not doing well. Meanwhile the police are trying to break in to arrest the injured protesters. And Raf and Julie’s teenaged son — who went to the demonstrations — is still missing. Can the chaos of the hospital bring these very different people together? Or is the divide too great?

The Divide is a terrific, realistic day in the life of a group of Parisians stuck in a crisis. I like the French title, La Fracture better, because it’s about Raf’s broken arm, but also about the huge divisions in French society. In its really warm and quirky view of diametrically opposed people forced to confront one another and work together,  it humanizes all sides of the conflict. And there were lots of revelations — the yellow vests protesters were not right-wing followers of Le Pen… but they were angry at Macron. And while all this is going on, the on again, off again relationship of Raf and Julie, is resolved, one way or another by the end. The direction, script and acting are all just fantastic — Aïssatou Diallo Sagna won a César for best supporting actress and the film won the “Queer Palm” award as well. And after I watched it I remembered I‘ve seen this director’s work before, back in 2015; Summertime (La Belle Saison)  was one of my favourite films that year. Which made me realize that this was no fluke, Corsini is a genius. The Divide is a wonderful warm human drama.

The Divide is playing at the Inside-Out film festival through Sunday; and Crimes of the Future opens 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

Witches and Poets. Films reviewed: Benediction, Lux Æterna

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Drama, Feminism, France, LGBT, Movies, Poetry, UK, WWI by CulturalMining.com on May 28, 2022

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

Spring film festival season is in full swing this week in Toronto, with ReelAbilities, Inside-out and the Toronto Arab Film festival all on right now. TAF is a pan-Arab film festival; featuring movies from 19 countries, including dramas, docs, animation and experimental, and it’s on through Sunday. ReelAbilities has films by for and about people from disabled and deaf communities and it’s running through June 10th in a hybrid format. And Inside out, Toronto’s LGBT festival is on now through Sunday June 5th, featuring many world premieres, and presenting at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

Some of the movies at Inside-out I’m looking forward to seeing include a stunning-looking musical from Rwanda called Neptune Frost, Camilla Comes Out Tonight, an Argentinian coming-of-age drama,  So Damn Easy Going a Scandinavian story of the messy relationships of a young woman with ADHD, and The Divide, about the breakup of a couple in France during the “yellow vest” protests

But this week, I’m looking at two new movies both opening this weekend in Toronto that handle narratives in an experimental way. There’s a film from France about a burning witch, and a biopic from the UK about a war poet. 

Benediction

Wri/Dir: Terrence Davies

Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) is a Lieutenant in the British Army at the western front in WWI, known for his bravery and valour. He’s also famous as a war poet. An aristocrat, he’s a descendent of the Sassoon clan, late of Baghdad, Bombay and Shanghai. But by 1917, he is sickened by the war and the death of his men, so he writes and publishes a formal letter protesting it. Instead of being courtmartialed, he is diagnosed as shell-shocked and sent to a psych ward near Edinborough. There he befriends a young soldier named Wilfred afflicted with night terrors, and together they write poetry for the hospital’s literary magazine, the Hydra.

After the war he joins other writers, musicians and artists around London. One evening, while reciting his dark poetry at a soiree, he meets Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), a hugely famous celebrity whose sentimental songs — like Keep the Homefires Burning  kept up morale during the war. By that evening they are sleeping together with Ivor unceremoniously dumping his previous boyfriend Glen. But while Siegfried is a passionate romantic, Ivor is cold and cruel; he cares more about his looks and career than love or commitment. So after a messy break up, Siegfried has a series of relationships with various bright young aristocrats like Stephen Tennant in the 1920s-30s. But will he ever find true love?

Benediction is an impressionistic biopic about the life of Siegfried Sassoon and his friends and lovers between the two wars. This means he’s as likely to see Edith Sitwell reciting her doggerel as running into Lawrence of Arabia at a wedding rehearsal. But you never forget that this is a Terrence Davies movie, his unique style always apparent. Like singing — whether it’s soldiers breaking into song, actors on a west-end stage or just sitting by a piano at a party. And Sassoon’s own voice recites his poetry over photos of war dead. Flashbacks might fade from one to the next then back again reflecting the thoughts of a character, often with black and white newsreels projected in the background. There’s a lush, dark look to the whole film, in its music, images and sets. The acting — especially Lowden and Irvine but also Calam Lynch as Stephen Tennant and Gemma Jones as his ultimate wife Hester — is terrific all around. (The movie flashes forward to a reclusive and bitter Sassoon (Peter Capaldi) with a wife and adult son in post WWII England.) Benediction is romantic in the classical sense, more like a Wagnerian opera than a rom-com. The script is exquisitely written, with almost every line a bon mot, a witty observation or a cutting insult. Benediction is experimental and idiosyncratic in style but with a deeply moving story.

I really like this film.

Lux Æterna

Wri/Dir: Gaspar Noé 

Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg (played by themselves)  are two French famous actresses making a film together. Beatrice is trying her hand as director and Charlotte is the star. The film they’re shooting, on set, is a feminist reboot of accused witches being burned at the stake by religious zealots in the manner of the Inquisition. They chat about the meaning of burning witches as a misogynistic crime.  But all is not well. 

The producers of the film, are plotting to get Beatrice fired, so a young man named Tom is ordered to follow her everywhere and record it on film, with the hope of catching an error. Meanwhile, an American actor, Karl (Karl Glusmann) is trying to have a meeting with Charlotte, various models are desperately looking for the proper costumes and hair, and all of the personal assistants are incompetent. Worst of all, though, something is wrong with the lighting system, which begins generating as series of multi-coloured strobe lights, the kind that can induce a tonic-clonic seizure. Can the scene be shot? Or will panic destroy everything before it’s caught on film?

Lux Æterna is simultaneously an experimental piece of art, and a satirical look at the film industry, the Me Too Movement and the backlash that followed it. Gaspar Noe is the enfant terrible of French filmmakers, all of whose films somehow provoke and torture its viewers. In the past it was through extreme violence, horror, drugs or explicit sex. This time, it’s (theoretically) supposed to induce tonic-clonic seizures among epileptic viewers of the film. Why? Because the aura leading up to as seizure is said to be the ultimate psychedelic experience. (Not sure who said it because I can assure you there’s nothing pleasant about having a seizure!) Anyway, about a quarter of the film consists of the gorgeous multicoloured strobe effect projected over the crucified bodies of the witches. Another portion is in the titles themselves (Gaspar Noe is the master of creative titling — no font is accidental in any of his films) with old Roman capitals used to advance the plot. All the characters use their real names, and the shooting takes place on a movie set, just in case you need more meta. 

If you like Gaspar Noe — I love his stuff but it’s certainly not for everybody —  well, Lux Aeterna is his latest artistic experiment. A large part of it resembles Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, beautifully done, as if photographed on Calvary. And the strobe light effect is hypnotic though irritating. There’s very little plot or acting involved, with lots of gratuitous nudity, but, hey, it’s only about an hour long. I like everything he does, but this is not a major work, more like him fooling around. If you like art, you might enjoy this experiment, just don’t expect a normal movie. 

Benedction is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and you can see Luxe Aeterna at the Revue Cinema 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

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

Leaving a mark. Films reviewed: Charlotte, Marvellous and the Black Hole, The Bad Guys

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, Action, Animals, Animation, Art, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Crime, France, Heist, Magic, WWII by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 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, Toronto’s international documentary film festival, right around the corner. 

But this week, I’m looking at three new movies, one live and two animated, about people trying to leave a mark on society. There’s a gang of criminal animals offered a chance to go straight; an angry 13-year-old girl who looks for solace in magic tricks; and a young artist who decides to chronicle her life in Nazi Germany in the form of hundreds of paintings. 

Charlotte 

Dir: Tahir Rana, Éric Warin

It’s the 1930s in Nazi Berlin. Charlotte Salomon , known as Lotte, is a young woman living with her father and stepmother. On a trip to Rome with her grandparents she meets a a kindly American heiress named Ottlie. She liked Lotte’s drawings and invites her to stay in her expansive villa in Cote D’zur in southern France. But Lotte is accepted at the prestigious art academy, despite the fact she is Jewish, so doesn’t want to leave Berlin. But under the harsh rules,  only symmetry and precision are acceptable in art, while “deviant artistic expression”, like Charlotte’s, was considered degenerate. She is eventually expelled, and when her father is arrested and tortured by the Gestapo she decides it’s time to leave her home. She joins her grandparents at Ottlie’s mansion. And she’s delighted to learn there is a studio set up for her so she can create her paintings.  She also finds love, in the form of Alexander, a refugee from Austria who works as a groundskeeper on the estate. But she has to put up with her deeply disapproving and domineering grandfather, who has become bitter in his old age. But as the Nazi’s encircle southern France, she knows her time is limited. So she starts to document her life in a series of hundreds of gouache paintings on paper. Will Lotte and her lover survive the war? And what about her art?

Charlotte is an exquisitely made animated historical drama, based primarily on the stories told in the actual paintings of Charlotte Salomon, titled Life or Theatre, that included both memories she witnessed and things she thought about. Some describe her art as the first graphic novel, since her paintings (there were over a thousand) often include words and ideas. The movie is quite troubling in parts, as people are forced to do terrible things under the stress of war. But it’s set in such beautiful locations — the Vatican in Rome, her home in Berlin, swimming in lakes, or nestled among the rolling hills of southern France — that its beauty mitigates its tension.  And the paintings themselves appear on the screen in blobs of coloured paint that gradually transform into her own art. Keira Knightly provides Charlotte’s voice, with Brenda Blethyn, Jim Broadbent as her grandparents. I’ve seen it twice now, and still find it moving, tragic, and inspiring, and visually very pleasing. 

Marvellous and the Black Hole

Wri/Dir: Kate Tsang

Sammy (Miya Cech) is a moody and truculent 13 year old girl who lives with her domineering father and computer geek sister. Ever since her mother died she lashes out at anyone who comes near her. She smokes cigarettes, talks back, and uses a needle to secretly tattoo herself. But her busy father gets tired of her anger and attitude, and tells her if she doesn’t pass a class in entrepreneurship at the local community college he’ll send her off to summer camp (which Sammy considers a fate worse than death.) So she takes the course which she hates. One day, while sneaking a smoke in the college washroom, she meets Margot the Marvellous (Rhea Perlman), a professional magician with a hidden past. She press-gangs Sammy into serving as her assistant at a kids’ birthday party. She is secretly impressed by Margot’s ability to make flowers bloom on her sleeves, and somehow can grab a real, live white rabbit out of thin air. So they make a pact: Sammy will help Margot with her show in exchange for teaching her magic tricks and helping her pass the course. But will Sammy ever learn to control her anger and escape from the black hole she’s been stuck in since the death of her mother?

Marvellous and the Black Hole is an excellent coming-of-age story about a troubled girl taken under the wing of a sympathetic magician. Miya Cech is terrific as tough-girl Sammy, and Rhea Perlman (best known for playing Carla, the surly barmaid on Cheers) shows a softer side here. There’s a real beauty to this film — from the integration of classic silent film, to the jerky stop-motion animation used for special effects, to the nicely compact sets used in class, at home, and on a stage — that gives it an extra oomph you don’t find in your usual teen drama.  This is a good, indie YA movie.

The Bad Guys

Dir: Pierre Perifel

It’s a time like the present in a city like Los Angeles where a criminal gang (known as the “Bad Guys”) runs rampant, robbing banks, wreaking havoc and scaring the hell out of locals. The group consists of five members: Wolf, their charismatic leader; Snake, his second in command; Shark, a master of disguises; Piranha, a crazed tough guy; and Tarantula, a computer geek who can break into anything. Together they’re unbeatable. But they’re finally caught when a difficult heist at a gala event goes wrong. The police want to send them to prison, but a local pundit and inventor — a guinea pig named Prof Marmalade — says he can turn them from bad guys into good guys using his powers of persuasion. But can a leopard change its spots?

The Bad Guys is a very cute and enjoyable animated crowd-pleaser, aimed primarily at kids, but interesting enough that grown-ups can enjoy it, too. It’s also a feel-good movie about the value of friendship and the pleasure we can get from doing good things for others. And there are cool subplots involving a meteorite, lab tests, computer-operated zombies, and much more. But mainly, it’s an action-packed comedy thriller, with lots of chase scenes, twists and turns, and a fair amount of suspense. 

One quibble: all the main characters (except the chief of police) are animals — including fish and insects — and have all the best lines. Most of the humans rarely speak. But there are also pets — like cats and guinea pigs — that don’t talk either. Which makes the logic a bit confusing, but enjoyable nonetheless. It stars the voices of Sam Rockwell, Awkwafina, Anthony Ramos, Zazie Beetz, Alex Borstein,  and the inimitable Richard Ayoade as Prof Marmalade.

The Bad Guys is a very cute, fun movie that’ll leave you smiling.

The Bad Guys and Charlotte both open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Marvellous and the Black Hole is opening in select cities; look out for it. 

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

In the shadows. Films reviewed: Hellbender, Cyrano

Posted in 1600s, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, France, Horror, Musical, Supernatural, Swashbuckler by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2022

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

February, always the worst moth of the year, is finally coming to an end, and the theatres are all opening up again. This week, I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a horror story. There’s a French wordsmith who hides in the shadows, and an American hellbender who never leaves her home.

Hellbender

Wri/Dir:John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser

Izzy (Zelda Adams) is a typical teenaged girl. She’s 

a vegetarian, wears  hoodies and converse sneakers, and is in a goth rock band called Hellbender (she plays the drums). She lives with her mom  (Toby Poser) in a big wooden house on top of a small mountain surrounded by lush forests and a bubbling brook. So what’s so special about Izzy? She’s never seen or spoken to anyone except her mom since she was five years old. She suffers from a rare disease and outside contact could kill her. 

But one day she wanders to the edge of their property and sees another young woman in a backyard swimming pool.

Amber (Lulu Adams)  who is brash and outspoken, invites Izzy to join her.  Why, Amber wants to know, have they never met before (Izzy says it’s because she’s home schooled.) She returns the next week for a swimming party, where she meets a guy who says her disease doesn’t match her symptoms (he’s a pre-med student). So she won’t die from getting to close. Then he dares her to drink a shot of tequila and swallow the worm — but he puts a live worm into her glass. The results are surprising. Everything starts to blur, voices whisper in her ear, and she’s filled with lust, anger and a strange new power. She wakes up at home, and has lots of questions. 

Her mom apologizes. There is no illness, she says. You’re not in danger, other people are. We are Hellbenders, people with great power. When you ate that worm, you gained power from its fear of death. And the bigger the animal you consume, the more power you have, and the more dangerous you become. That’s why I’ve been keeping you isolated she says. So you can live like a human. But now that she knows who she is, what will become of Izzy?

Hellbender is a cool low-budget supernatural horror movie. It has a very small cast and I think (just going by names) they’re all related and maybe all in the band Hellbender. It has a good “look” to it, too: there are jagged black rocks on the mountainside, and nice leafy woods. The trippy, psychedelic dream sequences are short but very well done. One part I didn’t like was the opening sequence — a Salem village-type hanging of a witch — it felt unnecessary, but, other than that, this is a tight mother-daughter, drama that combines horror with a coming-of-age of a young woman discovering her power.

Cyrano

Dir: Joe Wright

It’s 17th century France. Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage) is a decorated soldier, a champion fencer in the King’s guard, as well as an exceptionally eloquent poet. He wows the crowds at a theatrical performance where he takes down the awful lead actor through the use of verbal barbs and comical swordsmanship. There he catches the eye of a woman named Roxanne (Haley Bennet). She’s a beautiful aristocrat but also a penniless orphan, destined to marry an aristocrat. They get to know each other and she comes to adore and admires him. Likewise, Cyrano swears he’ll be her lifelong protector. He’s actually in love with her…but never expresses that love because of his appearance. You see, he is a little person. And he is resigned to failure when she tells him she’s in love, but not with him, with a handsome, but inarticulate musketeer named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr). Cyrano is forced to support Roxanne by helping his rival, to the extent where he expresses his love for her in letters that are sent by Christian.  Later he even hides in the shadows feeding lines to Christian wooing Roxanne on her balcony. Will she ever discover his true love for her? And that the love letters are from Cyrano, not Christian? Can she escape the wicked aristocrat she is meant to marry? And who will survive the coming wars?

Cyrano is a new musical version of the classic French play. In the original, Cyrano has such a big nose that he thinks his true love will never desire him. This time it’s that he’s too short. Does this new version work? Sadly no. Dinklage was fantastic in Game of Thrones and various movies; and Kelvin Harrison Jr is one of the best young actors around (in movies like Waves, Luce, and It Comes at Night). But this is a musical, and there’s an old theatrical term called a “triple threat” — an actor who can also sing and dance. Dinklage and Harrison are single threats. Great actors but not so great as singers and dancers. (Haley Bennet as Roxanne does have a good voice) And the music is terrible. Fans of the band The National might like these songs but I found them tedious, repetitive, and totally uninspiring. Not a catchy tune anywhere. The dance scenes have the lead characters standing still surrounded by weirdly dressed dancers who twist all around them, so you don’t notice. The sad parts aren’t really sad, the funny parts aren’t  that funny, and the story is so famous that there are no surprises anywhere. It’s based on an earlier stage version but they didn’t do much to make it cinematic — it was almost like watching a filmed play. I wanted it to be good, but sad to say, this Cyrano sucked.

Cyrano opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend; check your local listings. Hellbender is currently streaming on Shudder.

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

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