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.

Life changes. Films reviewed: Dating Amber, No Hard Feelings, Keyboard Fantasies: the Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story at #InsideOut30

Posted in African-Americans, Canada, Coming of Age, documentary, Germany, High School, Iran, Ireland, LGBT, Music, Trans by CulturalMining.com on October 10, 2020

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

Fall festival season continues with Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT festival playing now both digitally and at drive-ins through the weekend. So this week I’m looking at three movies playing at Inside Out. There’s love amongst refugees in present-day Germany, an odd-ball relationship in Ireland in the 90s, and a Canadian musician whose fantasies finally come true in his seventies.

Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn Copeland Story

Dir: Posey Dixon

Beverly is a musician who grows up in a comfortable middle class home in post-war Philadelphia. Her father is a classical pianist and her mother sings spirituals at church. They send her to McGill in the early 1960s, where she is one of the first black students in her discipline, and where she comes out as a lesbian, virtually unheard of at the time, when homosexuality was still illegal in Canada. Later, she moves to Toronto where the Yorkville scene is nurturing folk musicians like Joni Mitchell. She cuts an eponymous record album with famous players on backup, in a unique style, combining jazz with blues and classical music. Unfortunately it disappears without a trace. She finds work as a musician and on TV – she is a regular on Mr Dressup! – but eventually moves into an isolated house in Muskoka with her lover.

In the 1980s she discovers computer-generated electronic music and self-produces a cassette of beautiful passionate songs. It sells maybe a few dozen copies. But in the 2000s, two big things happen: First Beverly realizes he’s trans, and begins transitioning female-to-male; and in the 2010s his album Keyboard Fantasies from the mid-80s is rediscovered in a tiny record shop in Japan. The owner requests more copies – all of which sell out in a day or two. The record is remastered and re-released and goes viral, and Beverly in his mid-seventies, is sudden’y a star with a devoited following. He embarks on a European tour backed up by a band of millennial hipsters and adoring young fans.

Keyboard Fantasies is a fascinating documentary about Beverley Glenn Copeland’s life, music and career. It’s filled with unusual psychedelic imagery, and upside-down and negative-coloured camera work reflecting the sudden reversals of Beverly’s own gender and career. His music is captivating, his voice sublime, and his life story like none other. This tale of rebirth in old age is a beautiful history not to be missed.

No Hard Feelings (Futur Drei)

Dir: Faraz Shariat

Parvis (Benny Radjaipour) is a young, gay German with dyed blond hair who lives in his family home in Hannover. He’s into sex, dancing and Sailor Moon. His Iranian parents sought asylum there 40 years earlier, to give their kids a better life, but he feels unmotivated, cut-off and trapped in limbo between two worlds. Raised within German pop-culture he knows nothing about Iranian dance or music. At home he speaks Farsi with a German accent, but the men he meets in gay bars constantly ask “where are you from?” (He’s from there!) But his life changes when, after being caught shoplifting, he is sentenced to community service as a translator at a refugee centre.

There he meets an adult sister and brother, a pair that seem almost joined at the hip, who eventually become his friends. They live together almost like lovers. Banafshe (Banafshe Hourmazdi) is outgoing and savvy, fluent in German, but facing deportation back to Iran. Her brother Amon (Eidin Jalali) is a nice guy but a bit stand-offish. He tells the flamboyant Parvis not to be seen with him at the refugee centre; his friends told him gayness is contagious. But the situation changes when the brother and sister spend the night at Parvis’s home. Parvis and Amon become lovers but are forced to keep it on the down low, constantly searching for secret places they can meet undetected. Will their love last? Can Amon and Bana gain refugee status in Germany or will she be deported? And can Parvis find his identity both within his family and in the larger German gay community?

No Hard Feelings is a touching and realistic drama about cultural and sexual alienation set within the vast and lethargic bureaucracy of the country’s immigration machine. It’s a distinctly German story, but one told mainly in Farsi and from that point of view. Good acting with some beautiful cinematography as well as occasional experimental, stylized footage. This is a great story about a subculture rarely represented on film. And it won the Inside Out prize for Best First Feature.

Dating Amber

Wri/Dir: David Freyne

It’s Ireland in 1995. Homosexuality was decriminalized just two years earlier, divorce is still against the law, and sex education is taught by nuns. Eddie (Fionn O’Shea: Handsome Devil) is a student at a rural high school outside of Dublin near an army base. He’s wants to become a cadet to please his dad but he’s not the right type; he’s frail, naïve and skittish. And he has a crush on his (male) math teacher. Amber (Lola Petticrew) is a plain-talking girl with blue streaks in her hair, who walks like she’s wearing army boots. She lives in a trailer with her mom since her father died. She’s saving up enough money to move to London after graduation to open an anarchist bookstore. She likes punk rock, but hates penises – they make her “vom” she says. Like Eddie, she’s bullied on a daily basis. Why? Because they’re both gay (though Eddie won’t admit it). So Amber comes up with a plan. Let’s pretend to be a couple until we graduate, so they’ll leave us alone. Will it work? Will it last? And what will it lead to?

Dating Amber is a terrific coming-of-age comedy about an unusual relationship in rural Ireland. It draws on a wry nostalgia for the 90s – fashion, hairstyles, pop music and attitudes — to construct some very real, funny characters. It’s romantic, hilarious, and deeply touching. This is a great movie.

Dating Amber, No Hard Feelings, and Keyboard Fantasies: the Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story are all playing at the Inside Out Festival which continues through the weekend. Go to insideout.ca for details.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Sophie Deraspe about Antigone

Posted in Canada, Disguise, Drama, Family, High School, Montreal, Prison, Protest, Quebec, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 6, 2019

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Antigone is a straight-A high school student in Montreal. She lives with two brothers and a sister, raised by ther grandmother. They immigrated from North Africa when she was still a child. She’s heading for university and is dating Hémon, the son of a prominent politician. But her normal life is shattered when the police kill one brother and jail the other. She comes up with a scheme to take her brothers place in prison. But what will become of Antigone?

Antigone is the title of a fantastic new film from Québec, about a strong young woman willing to confront the government and risk everything for the love of her brother. The film transplants the classic Greek play into modern day Montréal, incorporating contemporary cinema, drama, literature, and music. The film is written and directed by Sophie Deraspe who also served as cinematographer and editor. Antigone is her first feature and has won countless prizes, including best Canadian Film at TIFF and is Canada’s choice for Best Foreign Film Oscar.

I spoke with Sophie at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Antigone opens today in Toronto.

Exploding. Films reviewed: Atlantics, The Mystery of Henri Pick, Waves

Posted in Africa, African-Americans, Books, Death, Drama, France, High School, Movies, Mystery, Poverty, Romance by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 2019

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

Toronto Fall film festivals this weekend include Blood in the Snow, featuring Canadian horror and genre films, with the festival’s first short film from Newfoundland called New Woman. And CineFranco features French-language films from Ontario and around the world.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about metaphoric explosions. There’s a literary explosion in France, spontaneous combustion of a marital bed in Senegal, and a highschool wr3stle4 in Florida who feels ready to explode.

Atlantics

Wri/Dir Mati Diop

It’s Dakar, Senegal.

Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is a pretty young woman set to marry a guy named Omar. He drives a swank car, lives in an expensive apartment and comes from a rich family. So why isn’t she happy? Because she’s in love with Suleiman (Traore) a handsome construction worker, building a monstrous tower in the city. She made out with him in the sand just yesterday – they’re a committed couple. Ada wants to hang with her friends Fanta and Dior at a beachside bar, not cooped up in a kitchen as a good pious wife.

But what she doesn’t realize is Suleiman has disappeared. None of the construction workers ever got paid, so they all hopped aboard a sailboat for a chance at better work in Europe. This means the kiss on the beach may have been their last one. So she goes ahead with the wedding, until… weird things start to happen. Their marital bed burst into flames. Strange-looking people appear inside high-security condos demanding retribution. And a diligent police inspector thinks Ada and Suleiman are behind it all. Will Ada marry her true love or the arranged marriage? And what is the cause of these supernatural events in downtown Dakar?

Atlantics is a fascinating study of life in urban west Africa seen through the eyes of a young woman. It combines contemporary problems – wealth distribution, the spread of viruses, and migrant workers – with a dose of magic realism. It’s shot around the Atlantic beaches of Dakar giving it all a glowing and haunting feel, an entirely new image unseen in west African films.

Atlantics is Senegal’s choice for best foreign film Oscar.

The Mystery of Henri Pick

Wri/Dir: Rémi Bezançon

Daphné and Fred are a young couple in Brittany with a literary bent. Daphné works for a major publisher and Fred is promoting his first novel. They have high hopes. So when Jean Michel Rouche (Fabrice Luchini) – the hugely popular TV literary critic – skips the promised review of his book (sorry, we’re out of time) they are both deeply disappointed. To pull herself out of the dumps, she visits a unique bookstore only for the “refusée”. That is, manuscripts that have been rejected by publishers.

And after looking at shelf after shelf of terrible writing she finds a masterpiece, a passionate love story about the dying days of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin! It’s erotic and sublime, a literary gem. She rushes it to her publisher, an instant bestseller. What’s especially intriguing is it was written by a certain Henri Pick, a pizza maker who died two years earlier. To promote the book, Daphné brings Henri’s widow and his adult daughter Joséphine (Camille Cottin) to Paris for an interview with the book critic, live on TV.

But things go awry when Rouche says he doesn’t believe a pizza maker – who owns no books and has never written a word in his life – could have penned such a masterpiece. In the mayhem that ensues he’s fired from the TV show and his wife leaves him. But he won’t let it drop. Soon he’s travelling across the country to find out who really wrote the novel. Was it Henri Pick? And will Jean Michel’s obsession lead to his ruin?

They Mystery of Henri Pick is a light comedy with a literary twist. It’s cute, somewhat funny, and well acted, with lots of cameos by greats like Hanna Schygulla. And it gives you a peek into the complex and arcane world of the French literary obsession.

Entertaining movie.

Waves

Wri/Dir: Trey Edward Shults

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is a Florida high school senior headed for glory. He’s a champion wrestler, a top student and in love with his girlfriend Alexis. He lives in a beautiful upper middle class home with his father (Sterling K Brown) his mom (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and his sister Emily (Taylor Russell). Hhis doctor tells him to take it easy – he’s straining his body to the point of permanent injury, and the pain is getting worse. But his dad is pressuring him to win! win! win! for ultimate success. And the opiates he’s popping to stop the pain are messing up his mind. Until…he can’t take it anymore and it all explodes in a terrible event.

But wait… the movie is only half over!

Waves is basically two short films played back to back. The second film takes place later on, this one focussing on Tyler’s sister Emily. Emily is still at a school where her brother’s name is a pariah. She’s pursued by the sympathetic Luke (Lucas Hedges), one of Tyler’s wrestling teammates. What does he want from her?

Meanwhile her father finally opens up to his neglected daughter: was everything his fault for pushing his son too hard?

Waves is an unusual family drama, told in two related stories. Does its two-part structure work? Ultimately yes, though at first it left me feeling confused and puzzled. Beautifully shot with nice music, Waves also has a uniformly good cast, but Kelvin Harrison Jr in particular is terrific. Following his great performances in It Comes at Night and Luce, Harrison is once again playing a teenaged boy with a dark side, each time creating an entirely different (and almost unrecognizable) new character.

Shults with Harrison is a force to be reckoned with.

Waves opens today in Toronto; check your local lostings; Atlantics starts at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and The Mystery of Henri Pick is playing at the Hotdocs Cinema as part of Cinefranco.

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

Rivals. Films reviewed: Hobbs & Shaw, Luce PLUS Canadian films at #TIFF19

Posted in Action, Adoption, African-Americans, Canada, Cars, CBC, comedy, Drama, Family, High School by CulturalMining.com on August 2, 2019

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

The Toronto International Film Festival has just announced its upcoming Canadian film programme, so I’m going to talk about that. I’m also looking at two new movies: an action thriller and a psychological drama. There’s a rivalry between a respected teacher and a prize pupil that threatens their futures; and a futuristic rivalry between two secret agents fighting a threat to world destruction.

Canada at #TIFF19

If you’re looking for some brand new, home-grown movies, docs and short films, there’s lots to see at TIFF this September. I haven’t seen anything yet, but I’ve been looking around and there are a few that caught my attention. The program features many indigenous directors who have made great movies so, chances are, these will be great too. In Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger, Alanis Obomsawin continues to document – started in We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice – the struggle of First Nation kids on reserves to get the same medical treatment as in the rest of Canada. Zachariah Kunuk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner) brings us One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, a drama set in the 1960s when the government was forcing nomadic Inuit hunters to assimilate and give up their way of life. And, in a totality different take, Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum pits a Mi’gmaq nation against a new zombie-like plague… that only infects white people.

Sometimes it’s just the title that attracts, so listen to some of these Canadian movies coming to TIFF: The Last Porno Show (Kire Paputts) This is Not a Movie (Yung Chang); Tammy’s Always Dying (Amy Jo Johnson); And The Birds Rained Down (Il pleuvait des oiseaux); and The Body Remembers when the World Broke Open.

Conversely, there are some short films whose titles are very long. Like I am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain; or how about Speak Continuously and Describe your Experiences as They Come to You. I bet you’ll remember those.

And finally you can look at some of the big names of Canadian cinema, with new work by Alan Zweig, who has a documentary about the police called Coppers; Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour, starring David Thewlis as a food inspector; Albert Shin’s Clifton Hill, a psychological thriller set in Niagara Falls; and a new doc co-directed by Ellen Page, about environmental racism in Nova Scotia called There’s Something in the Water.

I just flooded you with more names than anyone can absorb, but maybe some of it will stick. Tickets are on sale now, including the cheaper packages, so check them out.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Dir: David Leitch

Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is a hugely muscled single dad in LA formerly with the CIA. Shaw (Jason Statham) is a well dressed wiry assassin from a family of London criminals, headed by his mother. But when Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) an MI6 agent goes rogue, the two men are ordered to work together to bring her in.

The problem is Hobbs and Shaw loathe each other, and would rather die than be in the same room. But there’s a bigger issue at stake: Hattie absconded with a terrible man-made virus which, if activated, could wipe out every human in a week.. and she carries it imbedded in her body. Even worse, they have to beat Brixton (Idris Elba), Shaw’s former partner, who is now an unkillable cyborg who works for a criminal organization that controls the world’s media. Can the two agents overcome their differences, capture Hattie, recover the virus, defeat Brixton, and save the world?

Hobbs and Shaw is a silly, comic-book-like action movie in the style of the Fast and Furious series, and though ridiculous, it’s a lot of fun to watch. It doesn’t take itself very seriously, instead just provides endless chase scenes – we’re talking cars, motorcycles and helicopters here — extended fistfights against nameless enemies, and epic battles with guns, missiles and spears (but without any visible death or blood).

As I said, it’s ridiculous, concerned purely with the images. There’s a chase scene at a Chernobyl-like nuclear reactor, but the characters blast at each other not caring about meltdoen. The towers are just there for decoration. The story takes you from an amazing vertical chase scene involving ropes and an elevator on the side of a glass and steel skyscraper in London… to an eventual battle royal in Samoa!

The banter between Johnson and Statham is silly, almost to the point of boredom, but there is some humour and, most important, the movie is loaded with superior special effects. Take it for what it is – a simple action movie – and you’ll probably love it. I gave up on the Fast and Furious series after Number 3 or 4, but I would probably watch another Hobbs & Shaw. With Idris Elba, and cameo roles by a sinister Helen Mirren and a campy Ryan Reynolds… what more can you ask for for 14 bucks?

Luce

Dir: Julius Onah

Based on the play by J.C. Lee

It’s an middleclass suburb in the Midwest. Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is the school’s golden boy. He’s a star athlete, manager of the track team, head of the debating club. He’s handsome, popular, athletic and very bright. So much so, he’s invited to give inspirational, Obama-style speeches to the school. His white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) couldn’t be happier. They adopted him as a refugee from war-torn Eritrea, and moulded him into their idea of the perfect all-American son, with a new name, history, and identity. His friends may have troubles, but not Luce. Everyone, even his ex, Cynthia (Andrea Bang: Kim’s Convenience) loves Luce. Everyone except his teacher Ms Wilson (Octavia Spencer).

She is suspicious of his motives. She is disturbed enough by an essay he wrote (about Marxist anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon) to search his school locker, where she finds an unmarked bag of firecrackers. She calls his mother in to talk, leaving Luce out of the equation for now. But it plants a seed of doubt in his parents’ minds. Luce isn’t stupid; he knows something is going on. And so begins a hidden game of cat and mouse between pupil and teacher. Is he just a normal, nice guy… or a psychopath? And is Ms Wilson honestly concerned? Or is she just jealous and wants to bring him down?

Luce is a complex, multifaceted and ultimately ambiguous drama about identity, history and blackness. (Interestingly, another work by Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, was surely lurking at the back of Luce’s mind). It’s also about parents digging too deeply into their kid’s private lives, without realizing they’ll expose facts they didn’t want to know about. It brings in other issues, too – mental health, sexual consent, and drug use. Tim Roth and Naomi Watts are appropriately annoying as the well-meaning but namby-pamby parents. Octavia Spencer just gets better and better, and Kelvin Johnson Jr  (though he doesn’t look even vaguely Eritrean!) is great as Luce. He also a very different son in another movie, It Comes at Night, which, in retrospect, adds even more dimensions to this role. Can’t wait to see what he does next

Luce, though not perfect, is a very well-done indie movie that leaves you with a lot to think about.

Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Luce opens next week (August 9th). And for more information on TIFF go to tiff.net.

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

Bustin loose. Films reviewed: Ma, Rocketman PLUS ReelAbilities Film Festival

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Disabilities, drugs, High School, Horror, Music, Musical, Psychological Thriller, Thriller, UK by CulturalMining.com on May 31, 2019

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

Spring festival season continues in Toronto with Inside Out and Reelabilities playing through Sunday. ReelAbilities is a film festival showing shorts and features (along with panel discussions) dealing with disabilities. They are made by actors and filmmakers with disabilities, and the characters or topics of the films touch on issues relevant to people with a wide range of abilities. This includes physical disabilities, deafness, and many others areas, ranging from Tourette’s to one of the most segregated and discriminated groups: people with intellectual disabilities. And the festival itself is designed and planned to make the movies accessible to all viewers, with subtitles on the screen and locations fully accessible to people who use wheelchairs.

This week I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a thriller/horror. There’s a man who turns to music to overcome his stodgy and repressive upbringing; and some teenagers who turn to a surrogate mom to escape their restrictive parents.

Ma

Dir: Tate Taylor

It’s winter in small town America. Maggie (Diana Silvers) is a 16-year- old girl from San Diego starting at a new school. She just moved there so her single mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) could start a job as a cocktail waitress in a nearby casino. Luckily she quickly makes friends with the popular kids at school, a clique that includes the take-charge girl Haley (McKaley Miller), and their designated driver Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). A typical Saturday night consists of convincing a random adult to buy them alcohol, and then getting drunk at an abandoned rock pile on the outskirts of town. (Lots of fun.)

But things take a turn for the better when they meet Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a middle-aged assistant at a veterinary hospital. She says they can use her basement as their party headquarters, a place to listen to music, dance and get drunk. Word spreads quickly until every kid in town knows that’s the place where they can par-tay without grownup supervision — except Sue Ann, of course, whom they all call “Ma”. It’s a kids’ paradise. Or is it?

Maggie feels something is not quite right.

What they don’t realize is that all of their parents, even Maggie’s mom, went to high school together back in the 80s. Sue Ann went there too, something bad happened, and she wants payback. Is Sue Ann just lonely and enjoys reliving her teenaged years with local kids? Or is there something more sinister going on? And will the sins of the parents fall on their children?

Ma is a pretty good psychological thriller / teen horror movie. The casting is good, not just the main roles but even the small parts, like Allison Janney as the foul-mouthed animal doctor, Dominic Burgess as a flamboyant casino manager, and Luke Evans as Ben, a dickish security exec. But the story is a bit muddy, with the point of view shifting from Sue Ann, to Maggie to Erica. It’s not a spoiler to say this is a thriller/horror, so you know something bad is going to happen, but most of the movie is suspense leading up to the violence rather than the violence itself. Is it scary? More creepy than scary. Is it gory? A little, toward the end. And the story seems a bit lopsided, almost as unbalanced as Sue Ann herself.

While Ma is not perfect, I did enjoy watching it.

Rocketman

Dir: Dexter Fletcher

It’s England in the 1950s. Little Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) lives with his standoffish RAF dad, his self-centred mum and his kindly grandmother. He’s an ordinary kid until the day his fingers touch the keys of a piano, and suddenly everything changes. He discovers he can play perfectly, by ear, any song he hears on the radio. He enrolls in the Royal Academy of Music and starts on the path to be a professional musician.

Later, in his twenties, he works as a backup musician for a touring American soul band. He learns about rock and roll and gets his first kiss… from a guy! And he learns to reinvent himself. Reginald Dwight becomes Elton John (Taron Egerton), and the pudgy, shy boy gradually becomes the flamboyant pop star. Together with his writing partner and platonic best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) they head to London and then on to Los Angeles.

There he meets the handsome manager John Reid (Richard Madden), who takes Elton under his wing, promising incredible fame, fortune and success. But is it true love? Soon Elton John rises to the top, becoming the world’s biggest pop star playing to stadium-sized audiences… even as his personal life spirals into a decadent morass of depraved sex, drugs, alcoholism. Will Elton ever find peace with his parents, overcome his self doubt, come out publicly as gay, and find true love?

Rocketman is a biopic about Elton John from his life a a child until a low point midway through his career at a drug rehab centre. It’s also a musical. By musical, I mean an actual, old-school musical, one where the characters at any moment might burst into song accompanied by elaborately choreographed dance numbers. The dance scenes include everything, from 50s rock’n’roll dance routines, to abstract modern dance in a swimming pool, to writhing bodies at a 70s sex orgy.

The songs they sing tell Elton’s life by singing his (and Bernie Taupin’s) actual hit songs, rearranged chronologically to fit the storyline. I’m not a fan, to say the least, of most music biopics, and had very low expectations for Rocketman, but I actually really liked it. It’s a beautifully produced, seamlessly directed and highly stylized movie that moves without pause from start to finish. It has outrageous costumes, and great music – with the actors doing their own singing. And they’re really good at it, especially Taron Egerton.

If you like Elton John’s music – and even if you don’t – you won’t be disappointed by Rocketman.

Rocketman (which opened Inside Out) and Ma both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. ReelAbilities and Inside Out are both on through Sunday.

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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