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

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

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

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

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

Spider-man: No Way Home 

Dir: Jon Watts

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

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

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

Family Squares

Co-Wri/Dir: Stephanie Laing

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

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

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

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

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

Female saviours. Films reviewed: The 355, The King’s Daughter, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Posted in 1600s, Action, Espionage, Fairytales, France, High School, Mermaids, Porn, Roma, Romania, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 29, 2022

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

Movie theatres are re-opening on Monday, at 50% capacity. That means the movies they’ve been banking are all coming out in the next little while — brace yourselves. So this week, I’m looking at three new movies about women: an action-thriller, a historical romance, and a social satire. There’s a teacher who wants to save her job, a princess who wants to save a mermaid, and a group of spies who want to save the planet.

The 355

Co-Wri/Dir: Simon Kinberg

In a Colombian jungle a drug lord is handing off a major sale to an international criminals, when something goes wrong. In the scuffle a computer drive disappears. It’s the hard drive, not the drugs that’s so valuable. It holds the ultimate hack: a device that can penetrate and control any computer or system in the world. So Mace (Jessica Chastain) a CIA agent flies to Paris with. Her partner, in and out of bed, to purchase the program. She enlists a former colleague named Khadija (Lupita Nyong’o), a British Mi6 agent to help her out.  Khadija doesn’t want to spy anymore. She’s an academic now, with a lover. But she grudgingly agrees. Meanwhile a Colombian desk agent named Graciela (Penelope Cruz) with no fieldwork experience, is flown in to make sure the hand-off goes as planned. But it doesn’t, partly because of a clash with an unknown  woman, named Marie (Diane Kruger). Turns out she’s not a criminal, she an allied spy who works for the German government. And Mace’s erstwhile lover – and partner – is killed.

So now we have four agents, none of whom trust one another, but are forced to work together when they are all declared rogue by their respective agencies. Meanwhile, jet planes are crashing, systems are imploding — just a taste of what the master criminals can do with this hard drive. It’s cyber warfare and the bad guys hold all the cards. So it’s up to them to find the device, save the world, restore their tarnished reputations and be taken off the most wanted list. 

The 355 is a typical, run-of-the-mill action movie. Lots of fights, chases, narrow escapes and shootouts, against exotic locations in Europe, Morocco and Shanghai. I was worried at first that Jessica Chastain would pull another disgusting Zero Dark Thirty glorifying CIA torture in the so-called War on Terror.  But that’s not what this movie is about at all.  It’s a classic James Bond-style movie, but with four agents not one. What’s good about it is the incredible cast — these aren’t female Sylvester Stallone or Vin Diesels. They’re top tier actors — Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Us, and Queen of Katwe; Diane Kruger is a major European actor (In the Fade, The Host, Unknown) best known in North America for Inglourious Basterds, Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz (Pain and Glory, Zoolander 2, To Rome with Love) and everyone knows Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Fae,  The Zookeeper’s Wife, Crimson Peak, The Martian,  Mama, Lawless, Take Shelter,, etc). Plus top Chinese star Fan Bingbing (Buddha Mountain, Wheat,) appears in the movie, too (no spoilers). Take it for what it is, great female actors playing kick-ass roles in an enjoyable (through totally forgettable) action flick.

The King’s Daughter

Dir: Sean McNamara

It’s the 17th century in Versailles. Louis XIV, the Sun King (Pierce Brosnan) lives a life of luxury confessing his excesses to priest and confident Père Lachaise (William Hurt). But he realizes his mortality when he is wounded by a bullet.  And France itself is deeply in debt following a long expensive war. So on the advice of an evil doctor (Pablo Schreiber), he orders the dashing Captain Yves (Benjamin Walker) to search for the lost continent of Atlantis and to capture a mermaid there. If he kills the mermaid during a total eclipse he will become the king of France forever — immortal. Meanwhile, Marie Josephe (Kaya Scodelario) has lived since birth in a remote convent, cloistered by nuns. She still manages to learn music, sneaking outside to hone her horseriding and ocean swimming skills. She is suddenly called back to Versailles. Why? Of course, she is the King’s daughter, but only the king knows this. She soon makes friends with the mermaid (Fan Bingbing), communicating telepathically and using music to bring them together. She also falls for to the handsome sailor Yves. But the king has other ideas — to marry her off to a rich duke. Can Marie Josephe marry the man she loves? Will the King ever listen to his daughter? And will he kill the innocent mermaid for his own glory?

The King’s Daughter is a second-rate Disney- princess-type movie, set in a gilded royal palace. It borrows liberally from Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and virtually any of princess-centric fairytales (its narrated by Julie Andrews.) Lots of CGI — generally mediocre, though I like the underwater scenes —  and way too much gilded ornate settings. This is Louis Quatorze, but you wouldn’t know it from the sets. The makeup and costumes don’t even attempt to look like Versailles. We’re talking the era of the Three Musketeers but you wouldn’t know it; it’s so sterilized and dumbed down that it ends up as a  gold-leaf bowl of pablum. Which isn’t surprising from a director of such masterpieces as 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain and Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite. I liked Kaya Scodelario she’s very good, but the script and direction are uninspired. If you are a little girl or boy into supernatural princess romances, you just might love this movie, otherwise, for the rest of you, the movie’s not terrible, it’s bearable, it’s just not very good.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Dir: Radu Jude

Emi (Katia Pascariu) is a teacher  at a prestigious school in Bucharest, Romania. She’s well respected in her profession, and dresses in a conservative grey skirt and jacket. But when her husband takes their laptop into the shop for repairs, some of their private footage is leaked online. And that’s when everything falls apart. They made a sex video for private viewing only, but now it’s everywhere, on tabloid news sites, Facebook and her students’ smartphones. Even after it’s been taken down by Pornhub, copies still circulate. And the parents are angry. She asks the schoolmistress (Claudia Ieremia) to take her side but to no avail. She’s forced to attend a humiliating parent/teacher meeting, held out of doors, to defend her reputation, and explain that a sex tape made by consenting adults in the privacy of their own home is not a crime. But the mob at the meeting disagrees. They insist on showing the tape again right in front of her at the meeting, complete with lewd commentary from some,  and pillorying by the rest. Will she lose her job, or can she emerge from this ordeal unscathed?

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is a scathing indictment of contemporary Romania, in the form of an absurdist comical farce. The movie is divided into three sections. The first part follows Emi on a walk around Bucharest , as she tries to fathom what happened. On the sway she observes random street conversations ranging from obscene to mundane. The camera lingers on signs, billboards and shopwindow, emphasizing the omnipresence of sex there. The second part is a long montage of a series of images — ranging from century old porn, to wartime photos, fascist memorabilia, Patriotic songs, kitschy poetry, nationalistic quotes, Holocaust denial, the persecution of the Roma, and much more. Each image is accompanied by unspoken comments in the form of subtitles. The third part is the outdoor tribunal as Emi is put on the stand before angry parents who want her fired.

The whole film is set within the current pandemic, with everyone in masks for the entire film, whether indoors or out. (This includes the absolutely explicit sex tape, where Emi’s face is sometimes covered but never her or her husband’s rampant genitalia. If you are bothered by explicit sex, do not watch this movie.) That said, it’s hard to watch a movie where people’s faces are covered. That’s a drawback, no matter how you look at it. On the other hand its funny, shocking and eye-opening. And it’s presented as a darkly satirical comedy. I would have liked to have seen more faces; I expect to see lips move when I watch a movie. But at least the middle montage section helps break up the Covid protocols into more digestible parts.

The 355 and the King’s Daughter open in theatres in Toronto on Monday; check your local listings. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is now playing at the Digital Bell Lightbox.

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

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

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

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

The Matrix Resurrections

Co-Wri/Dir: Lana Wachowski 

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

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

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

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

Try Harder

Dir: Debbie Lum

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

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

American Underdog

Dir: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Troubles. Films reviewed: Vicious Fun, Inbetween Girl, Belfast

Posted in 1960s, 1980s, Canada, Comics, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Feminism, High School, Horror, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Secrets, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 13, 2021

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

Fall Film Festival Season continues in November. ReelAsian is on now, and Blood in the Snow (aka “BITS”) with new made-in-Canada horror movies — both features and shorts —  showing on the big screen at Toronto’s beautiful Royal Cinema starting next week.

So this week I’m looking at three movies showing at Toronto film festivals. There’s an 8-year-old boy in Belfast at the start of the Troubles, a high school girl in Texas who learns having secret boyfriend can lead to trouble, and a film critic in Minnesota whose 12-step self-help group turns out to be nothing but very big trouble.

Vicious Fun

Wri/Dir: Cody Calahan

It’s the 1980s in Minnesota.

Joel (Evan Marsh) is a film critic who writes reviews for a horror movie fanzine. He’s a real devotee of slasher pics and is well versed on all the details. He lives with his apartment-mate Sarah, who he has a huge crush on. So he doesn’t like her new douchey boyfriend, Bob, at all. So he follows him to an isolated Chinese restaurant and bar where he tries to entrap him using hidden mic as the unfaithful boyfriend he thinks Bob is. But he ends  drunk as a skunk and passed out in the restaurant bathroom. He wakes up a few hours later to the voice if a motivational speaker coming from the next room. He wanders into a sort of a self-help group, a twelve step… but for whom? He takes his place in the circle and the confessions begin. Turns out they’re not alcoholics, they’re all serial killers! The worst in the world! Carrie (Amber Goldfarb) slices and dices men. Fritz (Julian Richings) enjoys paralysing victims with a hypodermic then torments them dressed as a clown. Mike, a bearded giant in a iron mask (former pro wrestler Robert Maillet) chops up coeds while having sex with them. Hideo (Sean Baek) is sushi chef-slash-cannibal who uses Ninja like skills to trap his prey. Zachary is the group leader (David Koechner) who looks like a used car salesman but had killed more than any of the others — there’s a sort of a competition going on. So Poor Joel — who they think is new serial killer who didn’t show up to this first meeting — has to squirm his way out of it. But his cover is blown when guess who arrives late? It’s Bob (Ari Millen) the douchey sociopath he met earlier! 

The group turns into a mad orgy of killing and violence once they discover his deception. But luckily, Carrie, for reasons all her own, decides to protect him from the other serial killers. What’s her secret? Can they escape these ruthless deranged serial killers? And can Joel warn Sarah in time to protect her from the evil Bob? 

Vicious Fun is a comedy  horror movie about a horror movie enthusiast who discovers it’s not as much fun in real life. It’s full of lots of blood and gore, as expected, but also a heavy dose of retro-80s camp, from moustachioed cops, to vintage drive in, pay phones and a seedy bar. The characters are all played to the max with the appropriate excess a group of weird serial killers demands, with Marsh as the fish-out-of-water film critic and Goldfarb as the killer with a heart off gold — as well as Millen as arrogant evil incarnate, are especially good. 

Vicious Fun (just like the title says) is a very entertaining, low-budget, over-the-top movie with a clever premise that carries it through to the very end. It’s funny, bloody, and bloody funny.

I like this one a lot.

(I interviewed Cody in 2013.)

Inbetween Girl

Wri/Dir: Mei Makino

Angie Chen (Emma Galbraith) is a high school girl at St Michael’s a posh private school in Texas.  It’s also very white. But as a mixed race kid (white Mom, Chinese dad) she feels both self-conscious and ignored. So she’s surprised that Liam (William Magnuson) the most popular guy in the school says he likes her. He drives her home everyday, and later climbs through her window to spend time with her. They hang out, make out, have sex, and share their thoughts in addition to an occasional joint. So what’s the problem? He’s dating Sheryl (Emily Garrett), an equally popular girl, who has millions of followers on Instagram. She’s an influencer. So Liam keeps their relationship a secret. Sheryl’s too fragile, he says, not a battleship like you. if she finds it out it could kill her. (I’m a Battleship? Angie wonders.) She goes along with Liam’s game but doesn’t quite get it. 

Meanwhile, there’s trouble at home. She’s disconnected from her recently divorced parents.  Mom’s always busy with work and dad has a new family, including a daughter who speaks Chinese. What’s the point of it all? But when she is assigned a school project with Sheryl, Liam’s girlfriend, Angie realizes it can’t go on like this. They’re in love… how can they keep it a secret? Will Liam choose her over Cheryl? Does Angie even want him anymore? And what will Sheryl do if she finds out the truth?

Inbetween Girl is a delightful and quirky coming-of-age story. Though the plot seems run-of-the-mill, it’s told through Angie’s art (she loves drawing comics and taking analog photos) her video monologues along with the normal story. It covers family relationships, first love and deceit, along with questions of cultural identity she has no control over. It has lots of picturesque settings in and around Galveston, giving it a view of modern cosmopolitan Texas you don’t always see. 

I like this movie.

Belfast 

Wri/Dir: Kenneth Branagh

It’s Belfast in the last 1960s. Buddy (Jude Hill) is a little boy who lives with his brother Will, his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and his grandparents, Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). His Pa (Jamie Dornan) is off in England somewhere earning a living as a joiner. He can only come home every couple weeks. Buddy misses him but spends his time studying at the Grove Park elementary school. While the classrooms never change, the seating arrangements do, where kids with the top marks move to the front each week. That’s his main motivation to study — so he can be bumped up beside the girl he wants to meet.

But things take a turn for the worse. Barricades appear on street corners patrolled by the military, while paramilitary thugs throw rocks through windows to get the Catholics to move out of their street. Buddy’s family is Protestant but he can’t tell the difference among his friends and neighbours. And as violence and intimidation increases, so does the push to join Pa in England till the Troubles are over. 

Money troubles, taxes, Pop’s illness and the friction between Ma and Pa all threaten the family. Will they stick by their beloved Belfast and the little street they’ve lived on for so long? Or will they be forced to move to England till the Troubles blow away?

Belfast is a touching look at life in Belfast during the Troubles as seen through the eyes of a small boy. Well-known actor/director Kenneth Branagh grew up there, and presumably it’s based on his memories. As such, there’s a misty-eyed sentimentality to much of the film, as would any adult thinking back to his childhood. It’s nicely shot in black and white, and the acting is generally good, though the characters seem straight out of central casting — no big creative leaps here. The best parts are the unusual and realistic childhood memories that are totally separate from the Troubles. Things like kid gangs and shoplifting happening simultaneously with the looting, intimidation and riots. But there’s also a disjointed feel to the film itself. Van Morisson’s music is great but it doesn’t fit the mood. And there’s a strange music video inserted into the movie, for no apparent reason other than providing footage for a trailer. Gimmicks — like having people filmed in black and white watching a movie in colour — are just embarrassing.  Even so, there are enough surprising plot turns and beautiful images that linger after the movie. While flawed, Belfast is still a touching, bittersweet look at one boy’s childhood in an historical moment.

Vicious Fun is the opening film at B.I.T.S., the Blood in the Snow Film Festival; In-between Girl is now screening at ReelAsianfilm Festival, and Belfast — which won the people’s choice award at TIFF this year, opens this weekend 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

Daniel Garber talks with Canadaland’s Jesse Brown about The White Saviours

Posted in 1990s, Africa, Canada, Charity, Corruption, documentary, High School, Journalism, Podcasts by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2021

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

It’s the mid-1990s. A 12-year-old boy in Thornhill, Ontario grabs the headlines for his advocacy of exploited and enslaved kids around the world with the simple words: Free The Children.

Craig Kielberger, along with his brother Mark, started an international charity which grew exponentially. Eventually, as the WE organization, it became one of Canada’s biggest and most famous charities, educating young people in developing countries around the world, as well as forming a wildly popular, self-empowerment youth movement in schools across North America.

But by the summer of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, it started to collapse. The WE charity’s  name  became tarnished with accusations of conflict of interest within the government, when they were awarded a $900 million student grant contract. This led to the resignation of Minister of Finance Bill Morneau… and the eventual shutdown of the WE charity in Canada. What happened?

A new six-part investigative documentary called The White Saviours takes a look at the Kielbergers and We Charity, delving into the dark underbelly of this Canadian icon. And what they find isn’t always nice.

The White Saviours is a fascinating and at times shocking examination filled with new interviews with anonymous insiders, along with public recordings of the main players themselves. The White Saviours is now available as a podcast on Canadaland, the platform known for its rabble-rousers, whistleblowers, mudslingers, and all-around shit disturbers. Canadaland was founded by publisher and editor-in-chief Jesse Brown, whom you’ve probably heard on CIUT on Tuesdays from 9-10 am. They produce excellent podcasts like The Commons, The Backbench and the eponymous Canadaland itself.

I spoke to Jesse Brown in Toronto, via ZOOM.

You can listen to The White Saviours here.

Opening and closing nights at TIFF. Films reviewed: Dear Evan Hansen, One Second

Posted in 1960s, Bullying, China, Communism, Depression, Drama, Family, High School, Movies, Musical, Poverty, Prison, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 25, 2021

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

The ending of summer and TIFF marks the beginning of Toronto’s Fall Film Festival season. And first in line is the TPFF, Toronto’s Palestine Film Fest on now through Sunday, with films, workshops, exhibitions and feasts, both here and digitally across the country. Go to TPFF.ca for details.

But this week I’m tying up loose ends by looking at the opening and closing night features at TIFF. In a show of solidarity and togetherness in the face of increasing worldwide tension, the festival opened with a film from the US and closed with one from China. And, coincidentally, both films are about underdogs and outcasts. There’s a suburban high school student whose life is changed by a letter, and an escapee from a labour camp in China whose life is changed by a movie.

Dear Evan Hansen 

Dir: Stephen Chbosky

Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a high school student in suburban USA. He’s depressed, painfully shy and insecure. His broken arm is in a cast. He lives with his mom, a nurse (Julianne Moore) who sends him to a therapist to handle his difficulties. His summer assignment? To write optimistic letters to himself in the third person — “Dear Evan Hansen” to help raise his spirits. And his Mom suggests he get all his friends to sign his cast. But the first day of school turns out so dismal that he rewrites his letter into one of despair. An angry loner named Connor (Colton Ryan) offers veto sign his cast — so we can both pretend we have friend. But after a tussle, Connor snatches the letter from his hands and runs away. And the next day Connor is dead from suicide, with no note except Evan’s sad letter they find in his pocket. Connor’s Mom and Dad  (Amy Adams, Danny Pino)

turn to Evan — thinking they’ve found their late son’s secret pal. Evan, who barely sees his mother is so happy to have anyone pay attention to him, that he decides to brighten their day by talking about Connor and himself — all imaginary of course but anything to make them happier. And it doesn’t hurt that Evan has a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). 

Alana, the most popular kid at school (Amandla Stenberg) urges Evan to form a group to remember Connor. He can hardly say no since he says they were once friends. The deception grows and grows, until he gives a moving speech captured on other people’s phones, which immediately goes viral. Donations pour in to commemorate Connor, his family is happy again, and tens of thousands feel their lives have been improved, even saved, because of Evan’s talk. But it’s all a deception. Will he come clean? And will he get the help he needs/ And what about Zoe?

Dear Evan Hansen is an emotionally moving, constant tear-jerker that doesn’t let up until the end. It’s bases on the hit Broadway musical, and stars Ben Platt who originated the role and who sings with a sublime angelic tenor. It’s filled with songs and dances punctuated by wistful gazes at the sky, a tree, a window or into other people’s eyes. I’m not a big fan of Broadway musicals but I really liked this one. It’s poignant more than depressing, and you really feel for the main characters. So if you want to break your heart over and over, and listen to some songs, don’t miss Dear Evan Hansen.

One Second 

Dir: Zhang Yimou

It’s China’s Cultural Revolution. A man (Zhang Yi) who escaped from a labour camp in the Gobi Desert is walking across the sand dunes. His mission: to watch a movie. There are very few movies you’re allowed to watch during the Cultural Revolution, and he’s desperate to see one in particular. But there’s someone else also looking for a film. A street urchin with dirty face and unkempt hair, known as Orphan Liu (Liu Haocun) is intent on stealing a reel for his own nefarious purposes (we find out later she’s a girl, not a boy). The two engage in a cat-and-mouse chase until the reel is returned to its rightful place: in the hands of the town projectionist known as “Mister Movie” (Wei Fan). He’s an arrogant perfectionist, highly revered in the village because he’s the only source of entertainment. Tonight’s show? Heroic Sons and Daughters, an operatic drama about the anti-Japanese War decades earlier. But when the dust settles Mister Movie  realizes one of the reels has been damaged — it’s just a pile of tangled film covered with sand and dust. He cancels the screening. Whaaaat?

The townspeople are mortified, and none more that the escaped prisoner. He, and everyone else, agree to communally rescue the damaged reel, wiping clean each frame and rolling it back into its spool. The escapee  especially needs to view it that night. Why? Because of the newsreel. His daughter — whom he hasn’t heard from since he was arrested and sent away for punching a Red Guard — appears in it for one second. It’s his only chance to see her. And he’ll stop at nothing so he can see it. Will the films be shown? Will he get to see his daughter? And will Orphan Liu get what she’s looking for?

One Second is a lovely and touching look at the personal effect of movies on the people who watch them. It’s well crafted and historically evocative. It’s set during the Cultural Revolution, with Mao’s quotations painted on every wall. Though it’s portrayed lightly, it does reveal the poverty, oppression and unfairness of that period. People are hungry, children are bullied, police beat up the wrong person, and everyone — including  Mister Movie —is in constant fear of losing their job due to corrupt or indifferent party members.  But there are happy times too, like when the whole village bursts into song, along with the soldiers on the screen. No spoilers, but the storyline of the movie they watch — Heroic Sons and Daughters, about a soldier separated from his daughter — is reflected in the real lives of all the main characters in One Second.

This is a beautiful, nostalgic, and ultimately feel-good movie. 

Dear Evan Hansen opens this weekend — check your local listings; One Second should be opening later this year.

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

The Twentieth Century. Films reviewed: Escape from Mogadishu, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, 12 Mighty Orphans

Posted in 1930s, 1990s, Action, Coming of Age, Germany, High School, Korea, Orphans, Poverty, Refugees, Sports, Switzerland, Texas by CulturalMining.com on August 7, 2021

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

Some movies have titles that tell you a lot about what you’re going to see. This week I’m looking at three such movies, all set during the 20th century. We’ve got Koreans in Mogadishu in the 1990s; child refugees from Nazi Germany in the early 30s; and Texan orphans playing football in the Great Depression.

Escape from Mogadishu

Dir: Seung-wan Ryoo

It’s 1990 in Mogadishu Somalia, and the country is on the verge of collapse. Its authoritarian President Barre is still in power but rebel forces are gaining strength. It’s also the year when both North and South Korea are joining the United Nations, and are in heavy cold-war competition to build up more allies than their rival in vote-rich Africa. And the two ambassadors, Ambassador Han from the south (Kim Yoon-seok) and Ambassador Rim (Heo Joon-ho) from the north are in constant competition to curry favour with Barre’s government. And they each have heavy-hitters to help them. Kang (In-Sung Jo) is a recent arrival from the notorious Korean CIA. He’s arrogant and rude, but effective. Likewise, his counterpart from the north. They each run underhanded schemes against the other side, from planting fake news reports, to hiring thugs to steal embassy materials. But the Somali government is losing its grip, and there’s mayhem on the streets. And when all communications cease, both sides realize they have to get the hell out of Mogadishu. And due to strange circumstances, the North and the South are forced to cooperate, and try to escape together.

But will it work?

Escape from Mogadishu is a Korean action/thriller set in a Somalia teetering on the brink of civil war. There are child soldiers shooting rifles at random, corrupt police, and mobs of looters running rampant. Both North and South Koreans loathe their rivals — the countries are technically still at war, with a 40-year-old ceasefire at their shared border. When they encounter each other face-to-face, the ROKs thinks the DPRKs are trained as killers since they were kids; while they’re sure the South Koreans are either trying to poison them or force them to defect. And neither country can let it be known they’re doing anything that might help the other side. 

This is a fun movie about rivals caught in an apocalypse. It includes an amazing, 30-minute chase scene as they try to escape. It’s set in Somalia (and shot in Morocco) but it’s really about Koreans — rivalry, suspicion, with the underlying hope of brotherhood and peace. The Somalis are there as decoration, mainly portrayed as corrupt, violent, crazy, untrustworthy, or else  as silent, nameless victims — typical of most war movies. The Korean characters are more rounded but not always favourable either. Escape from Mogadishu has a hardboiled, cynical tone, but with a great streak of ironic humour and an underlying message of good will. This movie was just released in South Korea and it’s the years first blockbuster. So if you like action thrillers, you should check this one out.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

Co-WriDir: Caroline Link

It’s 1933 in Berlin. The Kempers are an upper middle class family living in a nice neighbourhood. Dad (Oliver Masucci) is a leading theatre critic, also known for his radio broadcasts. Mom (Carla Juri) is a pianist. Their son, Max (Marinus Hohmann) is into Zorro, while little Anna (Riva Krymalowski) likes drawing pictures of animals at the zoo. And they all adore their housekeeper Heimpi. But with elections a week away, and Hitler’s Nazis likely to prevail, Dad is worried. As a committed socialist and an unsparing critic, he’s prominent on Hitler’s enemy list. If the Nazis win he will likely be jailed or killed. So the family packs up a few suitcases for a quick trip to Switzerland. They plan to come back after the election. No such luck. Hitler triumphs, and they’re stranded in Zurich. The government seizes all his possessions and furniture, brown shirts burn his books, and newspapers stop publishing his work. Suddenly they are refugees, and Jewish intellectuals, no less, an exceedingly unpopular category.

So they settle into country life in a tiny alpen village near lake Zurich. Anna is baffled by the strange accent, their melted cheese and odd customs. Girls are separated from boys and kept at the back of the classroom, and boys throw rocks at girls they like.  She soon adjusts and makes local friends. But their  parents must keep a low profile. Dad is a wanted man, with a price on his head, and Nazi sympathizers are everywhere. Eventually they movie to Paris, where antisemitism is rife. As they sink deeper into poverty, they are forced to choose between necessities (like food, pencils and lightbulbs) and luxuries (like books and meat). Will the tide ever turn in their favour?

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a realistic and poignant story about a young girl’s life as a refugee in the 1930s. It’s about the whole family but seen through Anna’s eyes. It’s also about her internal trauma — her drawings turn from cute animals to people drowning in the ocean or crushed in an avalanche. It’s based on the semi-autobiographical novel by the late British author and illustrator Judith Kerr. So, as a film, it’s not the kind that builds to big climax and denouement; rather it’s episodic storytelling, a collection of vivid memories taken from the author’s childhood. The movie is filled with the wonder and disillusionment of a girl growing up in an unkind world, but it never loses its optimism. 

This is a very nice and engrossing film.

12 Mighty Orphans

Dir: Ty Roberts

It’s the 1938 in the Texas panhandle dustbowl, where starving farmers are abandoning their land and their children. Rusty Russel (Luke Wilson) is a renowned high school football coach starting a new job. He has taken many teams statewide championships. But his newest school is an exception. The kids here are barefoot, undernourished and illiterate. And they’re all orphans. But the coach is determined to change all that. So he tries to put together a football team, the school’s first, from among the orphans. They’re regularly flogged by Frank Wynne (Wayne Knight) who runs a for-profit printing press on school grounds and who treats the kids as virtual slaves. Rusty offers an enticement — when you’re training on the football field, you won’t be working on the fields.

Rusty pulls together a ramshackle bunch of scrawny, gap-toothed kids with low-esteem. And a newcomer, Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker) a 17-year-old seething with anger. With the help of the school’s medic, the kindly alcoholic Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), they manage to get the boys to resemble something like a team. Through pep-talks, motivation and intensive training, they’re ready to play ball — but against whom? The other schools want nothing to do with them. And they’re so much smaller than the average football player they don’t stand a chance even if they do play. But the Mighty Mites persevere, and make it into the league. But can they ever win? And will they learn to call themselves orphans with pride not shame?

12 Mighty Orphans is a wonderful, heartwarming sports movie about a team of underdogs trying to make it. I have no interest whatsoever in high school football, and yet I found this movie captivating. It’s a traditional-style movie — it could have been made in the 1940s — but still feels fresh. Each kid has his own personality, with names like Snoggs (Jacob Lofland), Fairbanks, Wheatie, and Pickett — all based on actual players. With clear-cut villains, and bittersweet heroes, it’s simple and easy to follow but moving, nonetheless. 

This is a good one.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is now available on VOD and other digital formats.  12 Mighty Orphans and Escape from Mogadishu both open theatrically in Toronto 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

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

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

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

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

Nina Wu
Dir: Midi Z

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

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

White Elephant
Dir: Andrew C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Off. Films reviewed: Save Yourselves!, Max Cloud, Another Round

Posted in 1990s, Action, Brooklyn, comedy, Denmark, Games, High School, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 18, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three indie comedies about characters who find themselves in odd situations. There’s middle aged school teachers going off the wagon, a Brooklyn couple going off-grid, and a teenage girl going off this planet.

Save Yourselves!

Wri/Dir: Alex Huston Fischer, Eleanor Wilson

Su and Jack (Sunita Mani, John Reynolds) are a Brooklyn couple in their early 30s. They love each other but something seems to be missing. It could be because they spend their lives glued to smart phones for texting, social networks and search engines. They can’t answer a simple question without googling it first. So when a friend at a wedding party offers them the use of his grandparents’ cottage in the woods, they decide it’s now or never. They cut the cords and take a week off-grid. That means no schedule, no email, no listicles, and no phone. Their lives will be authentic and spontaneous. So they pack their bags – along with ample arugula and kale – and drive up north, At the cottage they notice new things. Meteors falling from the sky. And have frank conversations. Jack tries to become more manly by chopping wood while Su resists pulling out her phone. It’s difficult but they can manage. Until things start to get strange. Loud bangs n the background. And an auburn pouffe —  sort of a fluffy Ottoman –  they find in the cottage. Why does it keep moving… by itself. Are they crazy? Or is something going on.

Turns out these adorable tribbles are actually dangerous aliens taking over the world. They devour all ethanol, and send out smelly waves disabling their enemies. Su and Jack don’t know any of this because they’re offline. But they also unknowingly fled chaos in the cities just in time. Can they survive this alien invasion? Or will they just be its latest casualty?

Save Yourselves is a cute, satirical comedy about ineffectual millennials trying to make it in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s funny, goofy and silly. Reynolds does Jack as an insecure dude in a moustache while Mani is an alienated Su who misses her mom. They’re a good comedy duo who play off each other well.

I like this low-budget comedy.

Max Cloud

Dir: Martin Owen

It’s Brooklyn in 1990.

Sara is a teenaged girl who loves video games – she’s glued to her TV set 24/7. And it looks like she’s about to reach the top level of her space exploring game where Max Cloud and his sidekicks fight off the bad guys invading his spaceship. But her dad Tony is worried about her — she’s not doing her homework. So he grounds her and takes away the joy stick. But that’s not fair! Sara wishes she could play this game all the time… Little does she know, her wish is someone else’s command, and she is magically transferred into the game itself. Only they’re real people now, not 16-bit game avatars.

There’s the hero, the devilishly-handsome chowderhead Max Cloud (Scott Adkins), the cynical Rexy (Sally Colett) and Jake, the wise-cracking young cook (Elliot James Langridge). And wouldn’t you know it, Sara takes the form of Jake not Max. They’ve crash-landed on the prison planet Heinous, and have to escape before the evil  villains, Shee and Revengor, take over. Now it’s real life, not a game. How can Sara escape? Luckily her best friend, Cowboy (Franz Drameh) is in her bedroom holding the controls. If he can win the game, she can get back to the real world. But if not she’s trapped theer forever.

Ok, when I started watching Max Cloud, it felt weird. The game characters spoke larger than life, the sets looked tacky and cheap, and the whole concept felt too over-the-top to be taken seriously. Why are they talking so strangely? Then it hit me.

They’re all British actors, playing cartoonish Americans, using a high camp sensibility. Like a low-budget episode of Peewee’s Playhouse invaded by characters from Mystery Science Theatre 3000. When looked at that way, it’s actually quite cute and funny. The plot is basically non-existant, but the characters are enjoyable, and I really loved the 16-bit style computer animation, especially when used on live human actors in a jerky, 90’s-style Street-fighter battle scene. Very cool.

If you’re into mullets and vintage games you’ll love Max Cloud.

Another Round

Dir: Thomas Vinterberg

Martin (Mads Miklelsen) is a history teacher at a Copenhagen highschool who feels like something is missing from his life. He used to be funny, handsome and vibrant – he was a ballet dancer doing a PhD for God’s sake! But now, his home life is dull, his job even worse. His wife works nights – he rarely sees her. Somewhere along the way, his get up and go got up and went. Even his students are revolting over his  unimpressive classes.  What can he do?

One night at a birthday dinner with his three best friends –  Tommy the gym coach (Thomas Bo Larsen), Nikolaj the psychology teacher (Magnus Millang) and

Peter who heads the school choir (Lars Ranthe) – propose a scientific experiment to change their lives. Based on the writings of Norwegian psycholgist Finn Skårderud who says humans work best at an alcohol level of 0.05, they decide to maintain that level of drunkenness every day, except for nights and weekends. They carry personal breathalyzers to reach the exact level, and take careful notes of its effect. The initial results? Life is more fun, people laugh more, work seems easier, and their self-confidence is growing. It’s like wearing beer-goggles all the time. On the negative side there’s slurred speech, clumsiness and bad judgement. And when they raise the level to 0.1 things get really interesting. But other people are starting to notice  with potentially terrible consequences. Have they taken their experiment too far?

DRUK

Another Round is a very clever comedy about the good and bad points of alcohol. It’s all done tongue-in-cheek of course – Danish director Thomas Vinterberg loves poking at the bourgeoisie. Obviously, I’m not shouting three cheers for alcoholism, but after decades of Calvinistic Hollywood movies about the evils of hooch, reefer madness, and various other addictions, it’s refreshing to see something from the other side, taking the point of view of the guy with the lampshade on his head, rather than the finger-waving Mrs Grundys. Mads Mikkelsen is superb as a man whose life is reawakened by drinking, including an amazing dance sequence toward the end. This isn’t a light, easy movie – parts will definitely make you squirm – but  Another Round is definitely something different, and something that you should see.

You can watch Save Yourselves beginning on Tuesday, while Another Round, and Max Cloud both open today digitally and VOD; check your local listings

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

Wood, Bricks and Rocks. Films reviewed: Black Bear, 18 to Party, Rocks

Posted in 1980s, Cabin in the Woods, Coming of Age, Family, Friendship, High School, Homelessness, Poverty, Suicide, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 4, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three new indie movies. We’ve got alienated teens in the 1980s standing by a wall of bricks, a homeless high school girl in London named Rocks, and a fractious ménage a trois in a cabin made of wood.

Black Bear

Wri/Dir: Lawrence Michael Levine

It’s summertime in upstate New York. Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is an actress, a director and a writer. She’s staying in a beautiful wooden house, completely off the grid as she tries to write a new screenplay. But she’s easily distracted from her work: there’s a ramp running down from the house into a wide wooden doc on a placid lake. Then there’s the attractive couple who own the house and live there: Blair (Sarah Gadon), a feminist and former dancer, pregnant with their first child; and Gabe (Christopher Abbott) her bearded husband who holds antediluvian views. But freindy banter over wine and dinner turns to bitter bickering, with Allison caught between the two. Blair is convinced that Gabe is cheating on her with Allison. Tension builds until it explodes… leading to a dangerous outcome.

But wait! It’s not over.

We now watch the same scene again, but this time Allison and Gabe are married and own the cabin and Blair is the visiting actress. And they’re no longer alone: they’re actually shooting a movie, which Gabe is directing, surrounded costumes, makeup, camera, script, continuity, ADs and everyone else. And Allison (the actress playing the role) thinks Gabe – the director not the character “Gabe” (played by a bearded lookalike) – is fooling around with Blair, both in the script they’re shooting and off-set. So Allison is guzzling Jack Daniels straight from the bottle, the crew is all stoned on cannabis, and a big black bear is lurking outside. Can they finish making the movie? Which part is real, the first act or the second act? Or is it all just a meta illusion?

Black Bear is a fascinating study of brain-twisting double-think, as well as a slapstick comedy and living room drama. But does it work? I think it does, and that’s because of the great acting by the three. Aubrey Plaza is the queen of indies, always great, and in this film playing a slinky and sly independent woman almost losing it. Abbott and Gadon are equally good, each playing two very different versions of the same role, almost like an exercise in acting school.

Black Bear is a marvelous intellectual exercise that’s also fun to watch.

18 to Party

Wri/Dir: Jeff Roda

It’s September in the mid-1980s in a small town in New York. A group of 14-year-old friends are gathering outside a club where a big party is supposed to happen that night. But the doorman says no entry until the older teens are there. So they meet around the corner in a vacant lot, to catch up after summer vacation. They don’t have to worry about being out late; all the grownups in town are at a meeting about UFOs. There are two computer nerds, two former best friends, Kira and Missy (Ivy Miller, Taylor Richardson), an introverted artist, and best buddies Shel and Brad. But these friendships are built on strict hierarchies. Shel (Tanner Flood) is self-conscious kid who idolizes Brad (Oliver Gifford) a star soccer player. But a girl has a crush on Shel not Brad. Will they make out? Kira and Missy both hold festering grudges. And one friend is missing from the picture: Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson). Something major happened over the summer, and rumours abound. Is he in prison? Reform school? Or is everything just like it used to be? And hanging over them all is a suicide epidemic, with half a dozen kids at their school dead. There’s bullying, sexual insecurities, internalized anger and alienation. And a gun someone brought that night. Can these fragile friendships last through the evening? And will they actually get into the party?

18 to Party is a social drama that draws on movies from the 80s, sort of a combination of The Breakfast Club (but not as commercial and retrogressive) and River’s Edge (but not as creepy).  It’s dressed up with the hairstyles, clothes and music from that era, but the story is all it’s own. It’s shot in a very small area, like a play, where people exit and enter and cross the stage, but the camera seldom leaves the brick-wall area. The characters work, because while some of them fit classic stereotypes, they’re all multi layered. And the film deals with prejudices and themes unique to that era. I haven’t seen any of the actors before but they play their parts very well, especially Ivy Miller as the rebel, Tanner Flood as the main character and James Freedson-Jackson as the loose cannon.

This film’s worth seeing.

Rocks

Dir: Sarah Gavron

Rocks (Bukky Bakray) is a young woman who goes to an all-girl London highschool. She’s warm, funny, clever and buoyant, with a close circle of friends. Her bestie Sumaya (Kosar Ali) helps her with her first tampon – they’re that close. She lives with her little brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) and their mom, originally from Lagos, Nigeria. (Their dad died years earlier.) But one day, her mom doesn’t come home from the bakery where she works. Turns out she was fired two weeks earlier.  Then Emmanuel notices the food in the fridge has gone bad – the power was cut off. And when, coming home from school, she notices some officials at their door, she realizes it’s time to get out of there.

So she heads out, exploring London while asking her school friends for sleepovers. She brings her brother everywhere, who, in turn, carries a little frog in a terrarium that he got from school. She takes care of Emmanuel he protects his friog. But as her money runs out and stress grows, she’s increasingly alienated from her friends. Will the social workers track her down? Will her mother ever come back? And what about Emmanuel?

Rocks – which debuted at TIFF last year – is an excellent high school drama told in that super-realistic European style.  It’s a different sort of coming-of-age drama, with kids facing much harsher conditions than you usually see in movies. But it’s not depressing. While there are some heavy tear-jerk scenes, its mainly funny, surprising and upbeat. It explores underground contemporary London, like sketchy hoods, makeup artists, pompous school teachers, and a fascinating portrayal of a Somali family. And Bukky Bakray is really, really good as Rocks.

I liked this movie.

Rocks, 18 to Party, and Black Bear are all playing theatrically in select theatres today – check your local listings, or are available digitally or Video on Demand

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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