Adapted from plays. Films reviewed: The Whale, Matilda

Posted in College, comedy, Disabilities, Fairytales, Family, Gay, Kids, Musical, School, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 17, 2022

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

With holiday season upon us, it’s a time when students and their parents have a chance to take some time off. And if you can’t afford a ticket, there are lots of Christmas movies playing for free at the Hot Docs Cinema at Bloor and Bathurst. So in honour of Christmas break, this week I’m looking at two new movies adapted from plays, with an educational theme. There’s a college professor who is ashamed to show his face to his students, and a little schoolgirl who dares to talk back to her headmistress.

The Whale

Dir: Darren Aronofsky

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a college teacher who conducts his classes on his computer. And he never shows his face. He says it’s because he’s technologically inept but the real reason is he weighs 600 pounds and doesn’t want to show himself on camera. He works out of his home, and gets everything delivered to his door. And he’s visited daily by a nurse named Liz  (Hong Chau) who takes care of him, drops off food and keeps him company each day. They’re friends but also share a common history. She constantly warns him that his extreme weight pushes his blood pressure to dangerous levels — he may be dead in a matter of weeks — but Charlie refuses to make any changes to his diet or habits; it’s almost as if he wants to die. 

But his usual life is interrupted by some unexpected visitors. First a stranger, a young Christian missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins). Thomas walks through the door uninvited just as Charlie, who is masturbating to gay porn in his living room, has a blood pressure incident. Barely able to speak, he hands Thomas a piece of paper and tells him to read it aloud: it’s an essay on Moby Dick which is the only thing that can calm his racing heart, and possibly save his life. Later, another visitor comes by, a rude and foulmouthed  teenaged girl named Ellie (Sadie Sink). She is his daughter, who he hasn’t seen since he walked out of his marriage a decade earlier. She wants to know why he left her and why he never visits. Can Charlie reconcile with his daughter? How does he know Liz? Why is the missionary there? Why is one bedroom of his home kept permanently locked? And why is he so depressed that he’s committing slow suicide by overeating?

The Whale is an extremely moving drama about a day in the life of an isolated gay man who punishes himself for something from his past. It deals with his extreme physical disabilities;  in his 50s Charlie is less mobile than an old man, but his brain is as sharp as ever. Adapted from his own play by Samuel D. Hunter, it’s told theatrically in a series of acts all within his home, almost as if it were on a stage, with the players entering and exiting in turn. Each character has a history and a secret, eventually revealed, which adds great dramatic tension to the story. And the acting is superb, most of all Brendan Fraser. 

At the same time, the Whale Was clearly made to win prizes. I’ve seen enough movies to know when an actor uses prostheses (Charlie is portrayed wearing a “fat suit”) and plays someone with a disability — whether a mental or physical illness or handicap — you know it’s Oscar bait. The thing is, Fraser is clearly a good actor and has a natural heft to his body, so I don’t think he needed all this extra elaborate makeup and costume. What is disturbing is the degree if Charlie’s self-loathing: he practically begs other people to call him hideous, grotesque and ugly. The thing is, it’s all in his mind. He’s actually a kind and pleasant guy, not the monster he’s trying to be. Don’t confuse the character’s psychology with the point of the film. And aside from a truly gross binging scene, The Whale  is really a beautiful and tender film. 

Matilda

Dir: Matthew Warchus

Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is a little girl who has never been to school. Her parents consider her a burden, so she lives in a tiny room in the attic, and educates herself at the local mobile library, where the kindly Mrs Phelps (Sindhi Vee) gives her a pile of books to read each day along with sage advice. But everything changes when a truant officer shows up at her door ordering her parents to send her to school. She starts her classes the next day at Crunchem Hall, a scary gothic structure behind a foreboding metal gate. It’s ruled by the cruel Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (an unrecognizable Emma Thompson), who treats it as somewhere between a boot camp and prison, not a place for fun and games or learning. Her strict rules are enforced by older students who serve as her henchmen. And woe to any student who is caught, or even accused of, disobeying. They might have their ears stretched, or their pigtails pulled by Miss Trunchbull herself. Or worst of all, they could be sent to The Chokey, a miserable, one-person jail, a dark, wooden shack festooned with chains and locks. No, not the Chokey! Luckily, there is hope.  Her teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) is as kind as the Headmistress is cruel. She quickly recognizes Matilda’s genius, and takes her under her wing. But the headmistresses is out to get her: she vows to break Matilda’s spirit and put her in her place. Will Matilda defy the Headmistress? And can she she outsmart her? Or will she end up in the Chokey?

Matilda is a fantastic kids’ musical, full of catchy songs and dances and a plethora of quirky characters within the huge ensemble cast, in the manner of Oliver! or Annie, but funnier. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, it’s full of Dickensian references but without Victorian morality to weigh it down: Matilda is a naughty girl who gets back at her tormenters with tricks of her own (She turns her father’s hair green and puts crazy glue on his hat brim.) Though it’s a timeless story, the art direction suggest a campy retro 1980s setting. Weir is a good Matilda, and Emma Thompson plays Miss Trunchbull to the hilt as an olympic hammer thrower, an intimidating fascist dictator, bedecked in khaki from head to toe. And Lashana Lynch is very sweet as Miss Honey. There’s also a story within the story, a fairytale about an acrobat and an escapologist; Matilda tells a chapter of that story to the librarian each day, like a modern-day Scheherazade. It’s very English, but with a nicely multi-racial cast. My only criticism is they occasionally get carried away with CGI effects, but not enough to spoil the film.

Kids will adore Matilda: the Musical, and I think grown-ups will too.

The Whale opens next weekend; check your local listings. Matilda is now playing theatrically in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and will start streaming on Netflix on Christmas Day. 

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

Fall dramas. Films reviewed: The Swearing Jar, The Wonder, Armageddon Time

Posted in 1800s, 1980s, Canada, Catholicism, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, Ireland, Kids, Music, New York City by CulturalMining.com on November 5, 2022

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

Fall Festival Season continues in Toronto with Cinefranco showing the latest films from France, Belgium and Quebec, and Reelasian with movies from East and South Asia, and the Asian diaspora. 

But this week I’m looking at three great new movies, all worth seeing. There’s a phenomenon in Victorian Ireland, a pregnancy in Ontario, and a friendship in Flushing, Queens.

The Swearing Jar

Dir: Lindsay MacKay

(Wri: Kate Hewlett)

Carey and Simon (Adelaide Clemens, Patrick J. Adams) are a couple in their thirties living in Carey’s large childhood home in in an unnamed Canadian city. She’s a school teacher who would rather be a musician, and he’s a writer who loves Shakespeare. They enjoy drinking, cussing and having fun. But when, after years of trying, Carey is finally pregnant, they decide to change their lives for the better, to be good examples for their upcoming baby (hence the swearing jar of the title). But for some reason, communication is breaking down. And when Bev, Simon’s alcoholic mom (Kathleen Turner) drops by unannounced, the tension grows. She repeatedly tells Carey that Simon is just like his dad — he’s gonna leave you, she says, they always leave you. Later, Carey sees Simon’s novel in the window of a bookstore, and makes friends with the guy who works there. Owen (Douglas Smith) is a musician like Carey once was… maybe they can write and play music together? But would that amount to cheating on her husband? 

The Swearing Jar is a delightful musical-romance about a couple dealing with her pregnancy along with an unexpected twist (no spoilers here).  The story is told through a series of vignettes alternating with related songs performed on stage by Carey and Owen in honour of Simon’s 40th birthday. The music is great with some catchy tunes, and the script (originally a play) is generally engaging and funny. Adelaide Clemens has a lovely voice — she and Douglas Smith show real chemistry — and I had no idea she’s actually Australian! This is good one.

The Wonder

Dir: Sebastián Lelio (Based on the story by Emma Donoghue)

It’s rural Ireland in the 19th century, not long after the Great Famine. Lib (Florence Pugh) is a respected nurse from England who trained under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War. She is hired to oversee an unusual patient. Her name is Anna, an 11-year-old girl who has stopped eating. She hasn’t taken a bite for months, but somehow she’s still alive. How is this possible? People arrive from all over, both penitents and tourists, to gawk at or be blessed by the saintly girl. So a local committee, headed by a doctor and a priest (Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds), appoints a nun and a nurse (Lib) to take turns watching over Anna, one to make sure it’s a miracle, and the other that she’s not in physical danger. But something smells fishy here. So she joins with an investigative journalist from London, William Byrne (Tom Burke). But will their snooping around put the girl’s life on the line? And if so, what can they do to save her?

The Wonder is a wonderful historical drama, beautifully made. Pugh plays Lib as a modern woman who is serious about her career, but also takes recreational drugs and has casual sex for the pleasure of it, probably not typical in the Victorian era. But it also exposes dark and hidden secrets, which gives the movie a serious and disturbing undertone. It’s directed by Chilean Sebastián Lelio, who brought us other great movies with dynamic female characters like Gloria (my review here) and A Fantastic Woman (my interview with Daniela Vega). The Wonder doesn’t quite reach that level of angsty, subversive excellence (it’s more conventional), but still very good.  

Armageddon Time

Wri/Dir: James Gray (my review of The Lost City of Z)

It’s Flushing, Queens, NY City in 1980. Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is a little guy with red hair and blue eyes who wants to be a famous artist when he grows up. He lives in a small house with his bullying brother, his plumber dad, (Jeremy Strong) and Home-Ec teacher mom (Anne Hathaway). Encouraged by her and his beloved Liverpool-born grandpa (Anthony Hopkins) Paul devotes himself to reading Jansen’s History of Art and drawing everything he sees. But he has a short attention span — often drifting into daydreams — and acts up at home. On his first day of sixth grade, Paul manages to get into trouble even before his teacher, Mr Turtletaub, finishes taking attendance. His crime? Accurately drawing his teacher’s face. He’s soon relegated to chalkboard-cleaning at the front of the class alongside perpetual trouble-maker Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb). Johnny, who lives with his grandmother, is into NASA, space ships, and Grandmaster Flash. He is repeating sixth grade for disobedience. They soon become best friends, with Johnny introducing Paul to hiphop and rockets, and the much shyer Paul standing up for his friend. Paul is white and Jewish, while Johnny is one of the only black kids in class.

They are both bright but are labelled as “slow”. Rejected by the school, they increasingly turn to rebelliousness to fight back. Soon the pre-teens are cutting class to smoke pot in the boys room. But when events escalate, Paul is sent to a strict, conservative prep school favoured by the Trump family, while Johnny finds himself homeless and on the run. Will their new situation make their friendship impossible?

Armageddon Time is an autobiographical, coming-of-age drama about a rebellious kid growing up in Flushing Queens, his family and his friends. It’s also a glimpse at the period, its music, attitudes and politics. Ronald Reagan is running for President, the subways are covered in graffiti and punk and hiphop are pushing disco away. Closely based on James Gray’s own childhood, it deals with racism, class, corporal punishment and loss, but also friendship, kinship and family. I can’t help comparing it to Stephen Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, coming out later this year, another great autobiographical movie about a future filmmaker’s childhood; but while Spielberg’s is cinematic and full of gushing music, Armageddon Time is much grittier, less idealized. This one is more about the not-so-nice aspects of growing up. Banks Repeta and Johnny Davis are both remarkable as the two kids — they don’t bother learning Flushing accents, concentrating instead on their performance. Hathaway, Hopkins and Strong were also excellent.

I was really moved by Armageddon Time.

The Wonder is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox;  The Swearing Jar and Armageddon Time also open this weekend; check your local listings.

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

Journeys to redemption. Films reviewed: Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon, Bullet Train, We Are Living Things 

Posted in Action, Aliens, Amazon, Animation, comedy, Crime, Drama, Fairytales, Indigenous, Japan, Kids, Migrants, Trains by CulturalMining.com on August 13, 2022

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

TIFF is back on track again, after two makeshift years, bringing you the world’s best movies, showing only in theatres. King street will be open for celebrity spotting once again, along with free concerts and other spectacles. And the discount ticket packages are on sale only till Sunday, that’s tomorrow, with individual tickets starting as low as eleven dollars each if you’re 25 or younger.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about desperate journeys toward redemption. There’s one girl on a quest to save her Amazon village; two alienated migrants in America on a search for the truth behind alien abductions; and a half-dozen killers on a bullet train trying to kill all the other killers… before they get killed themselves.

Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon
Dir: Richard Claus, Jose Zelada

It’s present-day in the Kundamo nation of the Amazon. Ainbo is a 12 year old girl who calls herself a legendary hunter but hasn’t quite mastered the bow and arrow. She’s an orphan who lives with her best friend, Zumi, who is next in line for chief. But a dark shadow has fallen on her community, with fish dying and people turning ill. So she sets out on a quest: to talk to the giant mama turtle for direction, discover a powerful weapon, find the source of the poison, and defeat the evil demon Yakaruna.

Fortunately, two odd-looking animals appear beside her to help her on her way. Strangely enough, she can understand everything they say. Dillo and Vaca are her spirit guides but also tricksters, who can only be believed some of the time. Meanwhile, Attak, a mighty hunter, blames the disease on Ainbo, and chases her through the jungle to keep her away. Can Ainbo summon enough inner strength to realize her spiritual goals? Or will her people all die from this mysterious ailment?

Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon is a delightful, high-quality animated kids movie about a 12 year old girl’s attempt to save her people from destruction. Its told in the manner of a classic folktale, but with modern twists: perhaps their problems come from European developers trying to usurp their land. This is clearly aimed for little kids but I found it totally watchable, including a scene with day-glo psychedelia. I like this one.

Bullet Train
Dir: David Leitch

Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is a freelance criminal who carries out complex thefts around the world. But somehow bad things happen to people around him. Dying of poison, falling off rooves — there seems to be no end to the misery all around him. Luckily, his current job, is a piece of cake: board a bullet train in Tokyo, steal a briefcase full of cash, and get off at the next stop before anyone notices. Simple, right?  Not quite.

He doesn’t realize he’s not the only criminal on board. A well-dressed pair of twins, code-named Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry), are professional hitmen and the holders of said briefcase.  Prince (Joey King) is a ruthless and mysterious young woman dressed in a pink, snug-fitting school uniform, with her own agenda. Then there’s Kimura and his dad, both of a yakuza clan, a mysterious killer named The Hornet, and a man named Wolf (Bad Bunny) with vengeance on his mind. And of course the ruler of the underworld himself, White Death. Who will survive this fatal journey?

Bullet Train is a fast-paced, violent action comedy set aboard a Japanese high-speed train. It has a punchy soundtrack and an A-list cast, including Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, with cameos by Michael Shannon and Sandra Bullock. And it’s based on a book by critically-acclaimed Japanese novelist Kôtarô Isaka. Unfortunately, this big budget movie feels like a third-rate Tarantino knock-off. The screenplay is crap, filled with unfunny jokes and two-dimensional caricatures. It feels like the director has never been to Japan or set foot on a bullet train — he doesn’t even know they’re on raised platforms not normal tracks, or that Japanese vending machines never malfunction. Even the sound recording is poor — I couldn’t make out some of the dialogue in the first scene. While not bad enough to put you to sleep, Bullet Train never rises above the mediocre.

We Are Living Things 
Co-Wri/Dir: Antonio Tibaldi

It’s present-day New York, where two immigrants live very different lives. Solomon (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) lives completely off the grid. Born in Mexico, he crossed the Arizona border as a young man in search of his mother. She completely disappeared and Solomon believes she was abducted by aliens. Now he works as a jack-of-all- trades,  good at plumbing, wiring and carpentry. He likes non-digital devices, like metal detectors and industrial dryers and stays away from computers and cel phones.  He rents a hidden space inside a recycling plant, where no one can find him; he’s undocumented and knows how to make himself invisible. His main objective is to listen to aliens — the ones in outer space — through their radio waves, using a complex device made of a satellite dish and a piece of a magnetic meteorite.

Chuyao (Lü Xingchen) works in a mani-pedi salon. She holds a legal ID, its just not hers. She has cut her hair short and changed her name in an attempt to match the ID, but she looks nothing like the photo. It doesn’t matter, says Tiger (Wang Zao), the man who got it for her; white people think we all look the same. Tiger is a sleazy criminal and her de facto boyfriend, but behaves more like her pimp. He makes her attend private parties for rich clients, sometimes just singing karaoke, but often leading to sketchy or even dangerous after-hour meetings. Worse than that, Tiger has implanted a chip in her neck so he always knows exactly where she is. After a chance meeting, where Solomon discovers Chuyao shares his obsession (she was abducted by aliens back in China), he begins to follow her around, a guardian angel to protect her when she’s in trouble.  Eventually they end up fleeing the city together in an attempt to uncover aliens in Arizona… and perhaps discover each other.

We Are Living Things is a bitter-sweet, art-house drama about the lives of two alienated migrants in America, trying to regain their sense of self-worth. It’s filled with dreams and surveillance footage woven into the narrative. And while there is an undercurrent of sci-fi themes, the real dangers they face are the omnipresent police and ICE agents who permeate their lives. The cinematography is strikingly beautiful, capturing Chuyao’s louche glamour, Solomon’s low-tech machinery, and the glory of the American west. And Guerrero and Lü both have cinematic faces that look great on the screen. Strange and impressionistic, this film will stay in your mind long after it’s over.

You can catch We Are Living Things at the Carlton cinema in Toronto; check your local listings. Ainbo opens in theatres this weekend; and Bullet Train is now playing across North America.
 
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com. 

Family matters. Films reviewed: I Love My Dad, Easter Sunday, The Innocents

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Family, Horror, Kids, L.A., Norway, Supernatural by CulturalMining.com on August 6, 2022

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

There’s lots to see in Toronto this week, but here’s a few films you might not know about. The 15th edition of The8Fest small-gauge film festival, showing super 8s, loops, zoetropes and their kin, is on till August 11th. It’s National Indigenous Peoples’ month and the NFB has posted over 200 indigenous-made films on their website.  There’s  a new collection of short docs on CBC Gem, called Mi’kma’ki, showing the indigenous experience in Newfoundland and Labrador, beginning August 19th. And the Japan Foundation Toronto is screening the film Ainu: Indigenous People of Japan for free online, on August 9-11th.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about families.  There’s a divorced dad who drives his estranged son to meet a non-existent girlfriend; another divorced dad who drives his estranged son to attend a wacky family reunion; and four little kids who discover they have secret powers.

I Love My Dad

Wri/Dir: James Morosini

Chuck (Patton Oswalt) is a bad dad. Franklin (James Morosini), his son grew up with constant disappointments and false promises.  Later, Chuck  missed his high school graduation and crucial birthdays. Worst of all, when Franklin contemplated suicide and needed someone to talk to, Chuck was just too busy. Now divorced, Chuck lives in another state, his only contact through social networks. Franklin, now an adult in his twenties, having just finished his psychological recovery from self harm and depression, as a final gesture, he blocks his father from his site. Chuck is shocked — his own son severs all ties. What can Chuck do to solve this problem? Send an apology? Explain his pathological lies?

No!

Ever the grifter, he takes the easy way out by joining Franklin’s Facebook page, not as himself, but as Becca (Claudia Sulewski) a friendly young waitress at his local diner. He uses her photos he steals online, and changes her last name. Franklin, who is lonely and depressed, enters a long-distant relationship with Becca, confessing his problems and professing his love via texts. And as things heat up and he decides to meet her in person, Chuck volunteers to drive his son there (Frank can’t drive), in hope of some father/son bonding.  But how long will this catfish scheme last? What will happen if Franklin finds out the truth? And can Chuck ever change?

I Love My Dad is a dark, indie comedy about fathers and sons, depression and deception as told by way of texting. It’s written and directed by Morosini who also plays the son. And in an interesting sleight of hand, he alternates the focus between him and his dad, because reading texts on a movie screen is boring. Instead, Chucks texts turn into face-to-face conversations — and eventually sex — between Franklin and the imaginary Becca. You see them together on the screen, while Chuck is lurking somewhere else thumbing away on his cel, which reaches its extreme in a motel room. This is a deeply uncomfortable comedy that makes you squirm as you watch this untenable situation heading for disaster, but you still want to know what’s going to happen next.  I Love my Dad is a pretty good movie, both funny and clever, but hard to watch.

Easter Sunday

Dir: Jay Chandrasekhar

It’s springtime in LA. Joe Valencia (Jo Koy) is a successful stand-up comic waiting for his big break. So far he’s most famous for a beer commercial he did. He’s divorced but still cares about his son, Junior (Brandon Wardell), a high school student and camera buff. But Joe never seems to have enough time to spend with him. Like missing an important school meeting to attend an audition for a leading role in a sitcom pilot. The reading goes great, except they want him to put on a funny Filipino accent… which he refuses to do. He needs to clear this up with his agent But it’s also Easter weekend, time to get together with his extended family. So to mend relations with his alienated son, he offers to drive Junior up north to Daly City, outside San Francisco. There they encounter all their wacky relatives, the people Joe grew up with. There are eccentric uncles, ne’erdowel cousins, and feuding aunties. They go to a picnic in the park, and services at church, all culminating at his Mom’s (Lydia Gaston) Sunday dinner. But before that can happen, he has to help his cousin Eugene return a wad of cash he borrowed from a petty gangster… or heads will roll. Can Joe handle his family, clear things up with his agent and pay back the thug? Or has everything gone to hell?

Easter Sunday is a warm and fuzzy family comedy similar to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but with Filipino-appropriate jokes… the first such American movie I’ve ever seen. There are cameo appearances by Lou Diamond Phillips, Tiffany Haddish, and Jimmy O Yang, and there’s also a car chase, a fistfight, a teenaged romance and a song or two to perk things up. But it doesn’t really work. The problem is Joe isn’t very funny, and as the main character, he pulls down the whole movie. The side characters are great — especially Tia Carrera and Lydia Gaston; they are hilarious as the feuding sisters, both, ironically, with the same put-on accents Joe is complaining about. But you know what? I saw it in a theatre with a largely Filipino audience and they seemed to laugh way more than I did, so maybe I just didn’t get a lot of the jokes.

The Innocents

Wri/Dir: Eskil Vogt

Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) are sisters. Their family recently moved to a new home, an apartment building in a woodsy part of Norway. Ida is around 5, with blond pigtails and a mean streak. She steps on worms to see what will happens and pinches her big sister Anna, who never seems to react; Anna has ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and can’t speak. She meets an older boy Ben (Sam Ashraf) at the playground who amazes Ida with what he can do, He can make small objects fly away just by using his mind! But he has a dark side, too.

Anna meets a friend of her own. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Ashei) is a kind and gentle girl, with vitiligo, white patches on her skin. She also has special powers. She can read minds and have silent conversations, even with Anna. To test this out, Ida whispers a word into Anna’s ear, and Aisha repeats it from the bottom of a hill. It’s not just the new friends who are special — Ida and Anna are too. And the more they use their powers the stronger they get. Soon Anna can actually speak with Aisha’s help. But as Aisha get’s nicer, Ben gets meaner, starting with experiments on stray cats, and leading to ever-more-terrible deeds. As the kids choose sides, a big battle looms. 

The Innocents is a stunning dramatic horror  about the supernatural and the cruelty of some children, existing alongside the adult world. The acting is terrific and special effects are kept to a minimum. I saw this movie with zero advanced knowledge and it turned out to be quite powerful. Afterwards I discovered the director, Eskil Vogt, has long worked with one of my favourite Norwegian filmmakers Joachim Trier, co-writing all his screenplays, including Thelma, Oslo, August 31st, and others. The Innocents is no run-of-the-mill horror hack-job; it’s an excellent — and quite disturbing — movie.

You can catch I Love My Dad in Toronto at the Tiff Bell Lightbox; The Innocents is streaming on Shudder; and Easter Sunday is opening across North America; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Jake Wachtel about Karmalink

Posted in Adventure, Buddhism, Cambodia, Drama, Dreams, Housing, Kids, Neuroscience, Poverty, Science Fiction, VR by CulturalMining.com on July 16, 2022

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

It’s the future in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Leng Heng is a teenaged boy who lives with his family in a poor section of town. He has strange dreams, centred on a small, seated buddha made of gold. He believes his dreams are evidence of his past lives. 

Meanwhile, unscrupulous developers are trying to kick his family — and all his friends and neighbours — out of their homes and relocated far from the city. And his Grandma, who suffers from dementia and memory loss,  is visited by a prestigious doctor testing a new sort of therapy. So he asks some of his friends — and a girl named Srey Leak — to help him find the golden Buddha. It’s a fun adventure, and they could all use the money. More than that it would prove his vivid dreams are real, and represent a link to the karma of his past incarnations. But he soon suspects there’s more powers at work here than just his dreams.

Karmalink is a new film out of Cambodia that looks at poverty, history, reincarnation and Buddhism, as well as neuroscience, memory, computer algorithms and virtual reality set against a futuristic Phnom Penh. It’s in Khmer, and stars first- time actors in realistic settings. Unusual, intriguing and a pleasure to watch — you’ve probably never seen any movie quite like it —  Karmalink is Cambodia’s first science fiction film. It’s also the first feature by American filmmaker Jake Wachtel. Originally from the Silicon Valley, he is known for his short documentaries set in the Global South, and his work has been featured in the NY Times, NPR and Wired.

I spoke with Jake Wachtel in Los Angeles via ZOOM.

Karmalink opens in select theatres and on VOD on July 15th.

Tough older women. Films reviewed: The Lost Daughter, June Again

Posted in Australia, Dementia, Depression, Drama, Family, Greece, Kids, Secrets, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 8, 2022

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

Well, as I’m sure you know, we’re under lockdown, and all the movie theatres are closed. It’s like Groundhog Day all over again. But that doesn’t mean you can’t watch movies at home on streaming networks or VOD.  So this week I’m looking at two such movies about tough older women. There’s a professor who finds a lost child as she interacts with a family of strangers; and a former matriarch who finds her missing past as she interacts with her own lost family.

The Lost Daughter

Dir: Maggie Gyllenhall

Leda (Olivia Coleman) is an established author and Harvard professor specializing in comparative literature. She has two adult daughters but she’s on vacation alone at a Greek beachside resort for some “me time”. Since she arrived, two men are already flirting with her: Will (Paul Mescal), an Irish lad working there for the summer, and Lyle (Ed Harris) an American old-timer who has been there for thirty years. Though flattered, she’d rather just lie on the beach (she describes herself a selfish person.) But her peace and quiet is broken by a noisy American family, who tell her to move down so they can sit together. She refuses, earning her a chorus of dirty looks. Later, she sees Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother from the same family, struggling with her little daughter who is chewing contentedly on a baby doll. The little girl disappears and panic sets in. And to everyone’s surprise it’s Leda who finds the missing girl, and the family is now grateful to her. But the girl’s doll is still missing, and she is driving Nina crazy with her constant crying. 

Later we discover it’s missing because Leda stole it for herself. Huh….? You see, like young Nina, she has her own checkered history of dealing with her daughters. Can neurotic Leda find happiness on the beach in Greece? Will she sleep with Will or Lyle (or neither)? Can Nina learn to deal with a cranky child? And what about the doll?

The Lost Daughter — based on the novel by Elena Ferrante — is an uncomfortable drama about a middle-aged woman coming to terms with her past. Her younger self is played by Jessie Buckley in a series of extended flashbacks. The “doll” aspect of the story, makes it seem like a psychological thriller… but it’s not. Rather it’s an intense character study of Leda, past and present. The acting is superb, especially Olivia Coleman as a woman dealing with an internal crisis. But the movie itself is hard to watch. Leda is not that sympathetic a character — we see all her faults and terrible decisions, because we’re inside her mind.  It’s mainly about her internal struggles, something harder to convey in a movie than in a novel.  It does have other parts I haven’t talked about — her poetry, her love affair, her time with her daughters — that make it richer and more complex than I described. It’s not a simple film. But it’s mainly about fear, suspicion, guilt and regret. Does it work? I guess so. It’s well-made but largely uncomfortable and unpleasant to watch.

June Again

Wri/Dir: JJ Winlove

It’s a normal day in New South Wales, Australia. June (Noni Hazlehurst) is an older woman living in a nursing home. Ever since a stroke, five years earlier, she has suffered from vascular dementia and aphasia — she can’t finish a sentence, and barely recognizes her own family when they come to see her. She just sits there in a semi-comatose state. Until, one morning, she wakes up as a whole new June. Or rather the old June. Suddenly she can complete a cryptic crossword, and responds to staff inquiries with a witty riposte. She is disturbed to see where she’s living. What are these hideous clothes she’s wearing, why is this place so tacky, and why is she there? They tell her she has dementia, and although she’s back to normal now, it’s only temporary. But June decides to use her time wisely.  She engineers an escape from that “prison”, zooming away in a taxi, and stealing some brightly-patterned clothes on the way. But everything has changed. 

Her home is no longer hers — there’s another family living there, and all her possessions are gone, including a prized wooden wardrobe.  The company she founded — a prestigious manufacturer of hand-printed wallpaper — has gone to seed, and is headed by a douchey manager who calls her former colleagues “girls”.  They‘re printing on low-grade paper now and have lost al their prestigious clients.  And her two adult children aren’t on speaking terms. When she last saw her son Dev (Stephen Curry) he was studying architecture and raising a family. Now he’s divorced, spends little time with beloved her grandson Piers (Otis Dhanji) and is working as a clerk in a copy shop. Her daughter Ginny (Claudia Karvan) has completely abandoned the factory, June’s life work. And June’s finances are a mess.  But what can she do — with the limited time she has left — to make everything right again?

June Again is a funny and heartwarming story of a woman given a second chance. The early scenes of Dementia June are similar to the movie The Father (starring Anthony Hopkins) where time sudden’y jumps forward to signify her frequent memory loss. But most of the movie is about Normal June, a brash, funny and bossy matriarch who won’t take no for an answer. Noni Hazlehurst is wonderful as June — the whole movie revolves around her, and luckily she’s marvellous to watch. June again is fun to watch, and though dealing with a sad topic is upbeat all the way. 

I liked this one a lot. 

June Again is now available on VOD, and The Lost Daughter is now streaming on Netflix. 

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

It’s Halloween! Films reviewed: Last Night In Soho, Antlers, Locke & Key

Posted in 1960s, Bullying, Comics, Coming of Age, Family, Fashion, Ghosts, Halloween, Horror, Indigenous, Kids, Monsters, Time Travel, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 30, 2021

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

Awooooooo…!
It’s Hallowe’en again — the perfect time to watch some spooky and scary movies!

This week, I’m looking at a fashion student in London who travels back in time from her attic apartment; a family in Massachusetts who find keys that open locked doors; and a school boy in the Pacific Northwest who always keeps his father’s door locked… from the outside.

Last Night In Soho
Co-Wri/Dir: Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs the World)

Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is an idealistic young student at a fashion college in North London. Though raised in remote Cornwall, she already sews her own dresses and wants to follow in her grandmother and mom’s footsteps as a designer. She’s also obsessed by the early 1960s — the fashions, the people and the music — and she constantly listens to her grandma’s old discs on a portable record player. But she can’t stand the condescending attitude of her roommate Jocasta and most of the other students. So she rents an attic bed-sit flat in Soho, and gets a job at a local pub to pay for it. But everything changes on her first night in her new home. She awakens to find herself in Soho, circa 1964!, experiencing life through the eyes of young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy: Queen’s Gambit)! Where Ellie is shy with mousy brown hair, Sandie is blonde, brash and self-confident. She marches into the Cafe de Paris and declares she’ll be the next singer on that famous stage. When Ellie wakes up in the morning, things are back to normal, but she feels. different. She starts sewing a 60’s style dress based on what she wore the night before in Soho. And she starts mimicking Sandie’s look and lifestyle — dying her hair, wearing makeup and sticking up for herself. But gradually she realizes 60s Soho wasn’t the fun place she imagined — it was actually full of exploitation, violence and organized crime. And the separation between the two worlds starts to blur… with the ghosts of Sandie’s far-off dangers appearing in her real life in modern London. Is Eloise losing her mind? And can she ever escape from this dual existence?

Last Night in Soho is a cool, fun and sometimes scary coming-of-age story loosely wrapped in a time-travel theme. Throw in life in London, 60s girl groups, fashion, Soho burlesque and seedy organized crime, and you have a fascinating and unique world to explore. Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) gives a terrific performance as a young woman trying to hang on to her sanity, while Anya Taylor-Joy (you might recognize her from the TV series The Queen’s Gambit) is a dynamo as her alter ego. Throw in some real ’60s stars — Terrence Stamp as a sleazy barfly, and an almost unrecognizable Diana Rigg as a curmudgeonly landlady — and you’re left with a lot to watch.

Great movie.

Antlers
Co-WriDir: Scott Cooper (Hostiles)

Julia (Keri Russell) is a school teacher in a mining town in the Pacific northwest. She lives with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff. She fled to California 20 years earlier to escape her abusive father. But now that he’s dead, she feels safe to move back again. Little does she know there are other dangers in this small town. In any case, she’s having trouble fitting in. None of the 12 year olds in her class participate, or even seem interested, in what she’s teaching. And one kid in particular, Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas) looks malnourished, bullied and fearful. And he draws terrifying pictures at his desk. She reaches out to help him, but though needy, he rejects her. You see, his dad ran a meth lab in an abandoned mine where something terrible happened.

Now his dad and his seven-year-old brother are ill with a strange disease — the can only eat raw flesh. Lucas keeps them locked up in the attic, bringing them small animals he traps and any roadkill he can find. But it’s not enough. So here we have a do-gooder teacher who wants to save what she sees as an abused and neglected child, while he’s trying desperately to keep his family alive. But when Lucas’s dad tries some human flesh, he really starts to change, both physically and mentally. Can a little boy keep a monster at bay? Or will it take a schoolteacher to stop this cannibal killer?

Antlers is a bloody and gory — though not all that scary — horror movie set among the gorgeous lakes and mountains of Western Canada. Strangely, the monster in the story — modelled on the Windigo, a rapacious half-human, half-animal creature — is part of the Anishinaabe culture in the east, not the Pacific Northwest. And aside from Graham Greene (as a walk-on indigenous explainer), everyone else is white. That said, I like the acting, and the fact the characters are not all strictly good or bad, more nuanced than in your typical scary movie. Antlers is a chilling — though slow-paced — horror-thriller with enough blood and guts to keep you satisfied on Hallowe’en.

Locke & Key
Developed by Meredith Averill, Aron Eli Coleite and Carlton Cuse, based on the graphic novel by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

It’s the present day in small-town Mathesen, Massachusetts. The Locke family — eldest son Tyler (Connor Jessup: BlackbirdCloset Monster ), Middle sister Kinsey (Emilia Jones) and the youngest Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) — and their mom (Darby Stanchfield) have just relocated from Seattle. Their dad died in a terrible incident so maybe a new environment will help them get over it. They move into the stately family home, a huge, but crumbling, mansion known as the Key House. It’s been in the family for generations. While the Lockes know next-to-nothing about their history, everyone in this town knows exactly who they are. The two eldest enroll in the local prep school — Tyler joins the hockey team while Kinsey falls in with a crowd of amateur filmmakers — while Bode is left to explore the mansion. And what he discovers is magical — a series of keys, each with its own properties. One lets you walk through a door and emerge wherever you want to be. Another lets you enter someones mind and explore their memories. Soon Tyler and Kinsey join in, but their mother and their uncle Duncan (Aaron Ashmore) can’t comprehend anything magical, even when they experience it themselves. Only kids can remember it. But all is not just fun and games, There’s an evil shape-shifting demon, a beautiful woman known as Dodge, who covets these keys for her own nefarious purposes. Who will triumph in the end?

Locke & Key is a wonderful TV series that’s part adventure, part horror, part psychological thriller and part family drama. I’m purposely revealing very little because I don’t spoil the plot, but it’s well acted — with a mainly Canadian cast — and lots of unexpected plot turns and cool special effects. And the series was shot right here, just outside CIUT’s broadcast studios in the gothic hallways of Hart House (pre-Covid, of course.) So if you’re looking for something Hallowe’en-y to binge on, you have to check out Locke & Key.

Locke & Key seasons 1 and 2 are streaming now on Netflix; Antlers and Last Night in Soho both open this weekend; check your local listings.

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

Summer movies. Films reviewed: Summer of Soul, The Boss Baby: Family Business, Black Conflux

Posted in Animation, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Kids, Newfoundland by CulturalMining.com on July 3, 2021

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

Summer is here and it’s hot, hot, hot! Normally I’d say go sit in an air conditioned movie theatre and go watch something, anything, right now. But as of today, (I’m recording early because of the holiday weekend) the indoor theatres are still closed. But here’s a selection of films to please almost everybody who wants to watch at home.

This week, I have a music doc, a family cartoon and an art house drama. There are musicians in Harlem in the ’60s bringing the house down, babies around the world trying to bring the government down, and a girl in ’80s Newfoundland trying to stop her life from crumbling all around her.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Dir: Questlove

It’s the summer of ’69 in Harlem, where 50,000 people are crowded into Mt. Morris Park for a series of six outdoor concerts all summer long. The images and music were captured on film for TV, but were never broadcast; they sat in a vault for 52 years until now. This new documentary replays some of the best songs of that summer, and talked to the performers and the fans about how they remembered it. What’s remarkable is the array of talent and the enormous peaceful crowds in Harlem, a neighbourhood vilified as a violent ghetto. But it was actually a safe, black neighbourhood, beloved by its residents as their home, and as a centre of culture, commerce and political foment.

This film is a time machine, showing fashion, hair styles, and faces in the crowd — one viewer remembers the pervasive aroma of AfroSheen. There are incredible performances on the stage, in a wide range of styles: soul, R&B, gospel, pop, jazz and psychedelic. There’s an amazing moment when young Mavis Staples shares a mic with the great Mahalia Jackson for the first time to sing Oh Happy Day. There’s Nina Simone at the piano, reminding the crowd they are “Young, Gifted and Black.” Motown stars like Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight and the Pips alternate with salsa bands. It’s really surprising to see mainstream groups like The Fifth Dimension, letting loose on stage — their top 40 hits were always classified as “white pop music” — I never even knew they were black. Luminaries like Sly and the Family Stone and Hugh Masakela from South Africa light up the stage.

Summer of Soul works as both a documentary and as an excellent concert film; what a shame it was never shown until now.

The Boss Baby: Family Business
Dir: Tom McGrath

It’s a suburb, somewhere in America. Tim is a stay-at-home dad, who takes care of his two daughters Tabitha and Tina, while his wife is at the office. Tabitha is in grade 2 at an elite private school, while Tina is still just a baby. He tells them stories, sings songs and plays games. But he’s worried that he’s losing his bond with Tabitha — the 7-year-old spends all her time studying and says she doesn’t need childish things anymore. Alone in the attic Ted wonders how things ended up this way disconnected from his kids and no contact with his little brother Ted. If only he could go back in time and fix things. Next thing you know, Ted arrives at their doorstep by helicopter (he’s a rich CEO now) and the two of them are magically transformed into their childhood selves. Who engineered all this? It’s little Tina, the new Boss Baby, behind it all. Still in diapers she talks like a grown up with a brain to match. She works for Baby Corp, a secretive organization that keeps the world safe. But there are evil villains working all around the world at schools just like the one Tabitha goes to. It’s up to Tim and Ted, in their new kid and baby forms, to infiltrate the school and stop their fiendish plans. But are they too late?

The Boss Baby: Family Business is a funny family film, aimed at kids, but equally enjoyable by grown-ups. It’s animated, and features the voices of Alec Baldwin as Ted, the original Boss Baby, James Marsden as Tim, Ariana Greenblatt as Tabitha and
Amy Sedaris as Tina. I tend to avoid sequels, because they’re usually second rate, but never having seen the original Boss Baby I have nothing to compare it to. And (though clearly not a cinematic masterpiece) I was fully entertained by this one.

Black Conflux
Wri/Dir: Nicole Dorsey

It’s the 1980s in a small town in Newfoundland. Jackie (Ella Ballentine) is a 15-year-old girl with ginger hair and a good singing voice. And she’s seeing a new boyfriend. She’s bright, pretty and optimistic: she believes people are basically good. But her upbeat nature is threatened by reality. She has lived with her alcoholic aunt since her mom went to jail for DUI (her dad’s out of the picture). She spends most of her time hanging with Amber and her other two best friends, smoking behind the school, shoplifting makeup at the mall, or going to bonfire parties. They get around by hitchhiking along the single highway that passes through the town. But Jackie is forced to deal with the increasingly bad and gritty aspects of her life which keep intruding on the fun of growing up.

Dennis (Ryan McDonald) is an introvert in his late twenties with a fetish for porn. He’s also a firebug who gets off on lighting matches. He lives with his adult sister and works loading and delivering 24s at a local brewery. He’s also a brooding loner with anger and resentment building up deep inside. He has no social skills to speak of and his occasional dates always seem to end up as disasters. He prefers to peer at women at night through their open bedroom windows over actually speaking to them face to face. He spends most of his time with a bevy of imaginary women he fantasizes are living in the back of his delivery truck. Sometimes he can’t tell the difference between reality and his hallucinations. Is he just a misunderstood guy or a nascent serial killer?

Black Conflux is a slow-building drama that follows these two characters in their separate but parallel lives, like two rivers that eventually merge. For Jackie, it’s a coming-of-age story, while for Dennis it’s a brooding drama. They come close to meeting throughout the movie, but it’s kept till the very end to reveal what happens when they do. Ella Ballentine and
Ryan McDonald both give remarkable performances as two alienated people in rural Newfoundland in the 1980s. Beautifully shot, and skilfully directed by Nicole Dorsey (her first feature), I first saw Black Conflux at TIFF two years ago, and like it even better the second time through.

Boss Baby, and Summer of Soul opened this weekend on VOD and digital platforms with Black Conflux now at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Reasons. Films reviewed: Silent Night, Sun Children

Posted in Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, Iran, Kids, UK by CulturalMining.com on June 25, 2021

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

Toronto is finally opening up — well, kinda. Now you can see movies away from home, just not yet in theatres.  The Lavazza Drive-In Film Festival is coming to Ontario Place, showing a huge selection of crowd-pleasing international films. It also incorporates the wonderful annual Italian Contemporary Film Fest, now celebrating its 10th year. It starts this Sunday and continues through July 17th, featuring, on Canada Day, the North American premier of Peace By Chocolate — based on the inspiring, true story of a family of Syrian refugees  who start a chocolate factory in Nova Scotia.

And for those of you without cars, the Toronto Outdoor Picture Show (or TOPS & Friends, for short) is showing outdoor movies  in person at Old Fort York, incorporating special features selected from a year of Toronto film festivals, including the Geothe Institute, Real Asian, Toronto Palestine, Inside-Out film fests,  Viewers can sit on the grass, physically distanced, while watching a whole bunch of movies — for free! Details and showtimes will be released in July.

But this week I’m looking at two new movies you can watch at home: a crime flick and a coming of age story, one from the UK the other from Iran. There’s a gangster in London who agrees to kill someone in order to save his young daughter; and a 12-year-old kid in Teheran who agrees to break the law in order to save his mother.

Silent Night

Wri/Dir: Will Thorne

London in the present day. Mark (Bradley Taylor) is just out of a London prison, and looking for work. His six-year-old daughter Daisy is overjoyed tp see her dad again, but his ex-wife Rosey is skeptical. Mark insists he’s a different man now, and wants nothing to do with the gangsters he used to pal around with. He just wants to carve a wooden hobby horse to give to Daisy for Christmas. But when he gets a job trimming trees in a forest, who is the first guy he runs into? Alan (Cary Crankson) a truly sketchy character if he’s ever met one who is also his former cell-mate. More former “friends” start gathering around him, including Pete and Seamus a friendly pair of pot dealers; Toni, the gang’s matriarch; Nicky, girlfriend of the boss; and Caddy (Frank Harper), the gruff and paranoid kingpin. 

They urge, cajole, pressure and threaten Mark offering a carrot and a stick, for this, they promise will be his final job. The carrot is enough money to keep his family secure and stable (the government jobs pay terribly). The stick is they’ll kill Daisy if he doesn’t follow through. What does he have to do? Catch and kill a rival mob boss who Caddy thinks is threatening his business. But when the bodies start piling up, with no end in sight, Mark has to make some heavy decisions. Can he complete the job, save his daughter, and figure out who is really behind this scheme… before getting killed or sent back to prison first?

Silent Night — it’s set during the days leading up to Christmas — is a heavy-duty London crime drama. There’s lot’s of death and violence — some quite explicit, others comical — as Mark tries to navigate his life as a former criminal gone straight despite all the forces working against him. No spoilers, but there’s also a major twist that caught me totally by surprise, and raised my enjoyment level considerably. The acting is good and the script is punchy and fast-moving, without being stupid (like so many crime dramas.)

I like this one.

Sun Children

Co-Wri/Dir: Majid Majidi

Ali (Rouhollah Zamani) is a 12-year old boy in Teheran. His father died in an accident and the shock sent his mother to a psychiatric hospital, where she lies tied to a bed, unresponsive. He has no money and nowhere to live, but does work for a pigeon-keeper and petty criminal named Hashem, who is like Fagin in Oliver Twist. Ali is the head of a group of four young guys, with Abolfazl, Reza, and Mamad.  They make money stealing hubcaps. They also look out for Zahra, a little girl who sells trinkets on the subway. Some of them are Afghan refugees, others have fathers in prison, on drugs or dead. So when the boys are offered a chance to go back to school, and get paid for it, they jump at the opportunity. Ali and his gang may be street smart but they’re uneducated. And he’s promised a safe place to live so he can take his mom out of hospital. 

There’s just one catch. He has to enrol in a specific school — the Sun School — and do a bit of side work without getting caught. When they’re not in class, they’re supposed to be secretly digging a long underground tunnel using a pickaxe and their bare hands. At the end of the tunnel,  beneath a cemetery, there’s buried treasure beyond their wildest dreams.  So begins their new lives, studying full time but also doing hard labour between classes. Abolfazl proves to be a great math student, and Reza excels at soccer. Ali has his own skills: he head-butts two classmates and scares off a third for insulting his mother. He still has to avoid the cops and the self-important school principal, while looking after the others, and relentlessly digging, digging, digging through the walls. What lies at the other end?

Sun Children — that’s what all the boys in the school are called — is a marvellous, realistic, entertaining and deeply-moving look at the lives of street kids. (If this film doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, I don’t know what will.) The children are all non-actors but pull off amazing performances, including Rouhollah Zamani, who won a top prize at Venice. This coming-of-age drama looks at political corruption, poverty, child labour and the duplicitous  and exploitative nature of grown-ups as seen through the eyes of children.

I strongly recommend this movie.

Sun Children and Silent Night both open today on VOD and digital platforms.

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

Issues. Films reviewed: Minari, Test Pattern, The Mauritanian

Posted in 1980s, 2000s, Africa, Courtroom Drama, Family, Kids, Korea, Prison, Romance, Sexual Assault, Terrorism, Texas, Thriller, Torture, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2021

Movies are entertainment, but they can also inform. This week I’m looking at three new American movies that look at important issues. There’s a Korean-American family living the immigrant experience in Arkansas, a black woman dealing with sexual assault in Texas, and a young man enduring prison life in Guantanamo Bay.

Minari

Wri/Dir: Lee Isaac Chung

It’s rural Arkansas in the 1980s. Young David (Alan Kim) just moved there from California with his small family, just his sister Anne and his parents. He’s not allowed to run and play because of his heart murmur. His Dad  (Steven Yuen) spent their life savings on a plot of land and an old mobile home. He wants to start a new life there, growing vegetables for the burgeoning Korean-American market, immigrants like themselves. He’s sure they’ll make a fortune. In the mean time, Mom and Dad (Yeri Han) have to continue working at a poultry factory where they sort newly-hatched chicks. The girl chicks go to poultry farmers, while the boy chicks are incinerated and belched out of a sinister-looking chimney behind the plant. The problem is, despite Dad’s relentless enthusiasm, Mom hates it there and wants to move back to California. She’s a city girl. So they’re fighting all the time adding to their kids’ anxiety. To calm the waters they get Grandma, Mom’s mother (Yuh-jung Youn), to come live with them. 

She shares a room with David who doesn’t know what to make of her. She cracks foul-mouthed jokes and ogles pro-wrestlers on TV. When he wets his bed, she tells him his ding-dong is broken. You’re not a real grandmother, he says.  Mom is unhappy, and Dad is increasingly on edge — farming isn’t as easy as it looks. Will the family business go bust? Can David and Grandma learn to get along? What about his heart murmur? And can a dysfunctional family learn to like one another?

Minari (the title refers to a leafy vegetable grandma plants by a stream in the woods) is a warm, tender and funny look at the lives of an immigrant family trying to make it. It’s told through the point of view of an anxious little kid observing the strangeness of rural Arkansas. Things like diviners renting themselves out to find wells, and their grizzly old farm hand (Will Patton),  prone to bursting into prayers and exorcisms at a moment’s notice. The storytelling is rich and colourful, the locations are warm and rustic, the acting is terrific, and while the plot is bittersweet, it leaves you with a good feeling.

Test Pattern

Wri/Dir: Shatara Michelle Ford

It’s Austin Texas. 

Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is a beautiful young black executive originally from Dallas. She’s starting her new job as a manager at a pet-rescue charity. She lives with Evan (Will Brill) a scruffy, white tattoo artist. They met at a nightclub and are deeply in love.   And to celebrate her new position, Amber (Gail Bean) takes her on a “girl’s’ night out” at a local bar. She promises Evan she’ll be home early to get a good night’s sleep. But she wakes up, hungover, dizzy, disoriented and in pain, in the bed of a strange man. What happened?

Evan can tell, it was something bad. She was sexually assaulted by a stranger, a rich, e-commerce guy they met at the bar who plied her with drinks and strong drugs. Momentary flashbacks start appearing in her head, adding to her unease. Renesha just wants to shower and sleep, but Evan insists they go to a hospital to pick up a rape kit. What follows is a gruelling exercise in medical incompetence, legal boundaries, and an unsympathetic system, as the two of them travel from hospital to hospital trying to get the tests done. What effect will that night have on Renesha? Can she go back to work? Can their relationship survive? And will justice be served?

Test Pattern is a dark look at the results of a sexual assault on one woman and the ripple effects on her boyfriend. The story alternates between a study of that one awful day after, and of the much nicer times in their relationship leading up to it. It also chronicles the indignities a woman has to endure — things like not being allowed to urinate before she takes the tests — at the worst possible time, as they try to preserve evidence of the assault.  Test Pattern is not a happy movie, but rather a sympathetic and realistic view of trauma.

The Mauritanian

Dir: Kevin MacDonald

It’s November, 2001, on the western edge of the Sahara Desert. Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) is a young man, from engineering student in Mauritania.  He’s celebrating with family and friends in a huge tent, when black limos pull up. It’s the corrupt local police force.  The US authorities, they say, are going crazy since 9/11. They just want to talk to you about something. That’s the last his family saw him. Five years later, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) a successful partner at an Albuquerque, law firm, decides to investigate his case. With the help of a young associate named Teri (Shailene Woodley) she discovers Mohamadou is being held without charge, in Guantanamo. The government is going to try him in court, under the prosecution of a military lawyer named Crouch (Benedict Cumberbatch). They agree to be his pro bono defence attorneys because that’s how trials work. But the cards are stacked against them. He is one of Al Qaeda’s main recruiters, a close friend of Osama Bin Laden, personally connected to one of the hijackers on 9/11, and responsible; for the deaths of more than 3000 Americans. (Or so they say.) 

But when they fly out to Gitmo to meet the defendant, his story seems quite different. In a series of redacted letters, he records his experiences over the past 5 years, at the hands of CIA and military interrogators. Is Mohamadou a terrorist, or just a random guy they arrested? Is the evidence against him real? What did they do to him at Guantanamo? And will he ever be released from that hell hole?

The Mauritanian is a harrowing legal drama based on the true case of Mohamadou Slahi. The film deals with torture, corruption, secrecy and a flawed legal system. French actor Tahar Rahim is terrific as Mohamadou, the main character of the movie, as he records what life is really like in that notorious complex. Foster, Woodley and Cumberbatch (with a very believable southern accent) support him well, though in less exciting roles.

Test Pattern is now playing digitally at the Revue Cinema; Minari starts today; and the Mauritanian opens on Tuesday.

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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