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

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

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

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

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

Crimes of the Future

Wri/Dir: David Cronenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Divide (La fracture)

Wri/Dir: Catherine Corsini

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

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

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

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

The Divide is playing at the Inside-Out film festival through Sunday; and Crimes of the Future opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Witches and Poets. Films reviewed: Benediction, Lux Æterna

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

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

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

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

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

Benediction

Wri/Dir: Terrence Davies

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

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

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

I really like this film.

Lux Æterna

Wri/Dir: Gaspar Noé 

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

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

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

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

Benedction is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and you can see Luxe Aeterna at the Revue Cinema in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Kevin Hegge about TRAMPS!

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, Canada, documentary, Fashion, Interview, LGBT, Music, UK, Underground by CulturalMining.com on May 21, 2022

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

Photo by Jeff Harris.

It’s the late 1970s in a Covent Garden, London nightclub with an exclusive policy. To get in you have to look amazing in some way. An older man in blue jeans gets turned away at the door. The man is Mick Jagger, the place is Bowie Night at the Blitz Club and the doorman and organizer is Steve Strange. And so a new movement, born out of the ashes of punk, is dubbed the New Romantics by the mainstream press. But who were these tramps, really?

Tramps! Is a new documentary that looks in depth at East London in the early 1980s, along with the art, fashion, film, music, hats, makeup, hair, magazines, sexualities, aesthetics  and lifestyles that grew out of it. It’s a stunningly beautiful kaleidoscope of colour, a collection of period photos and footage combined with new interviews with the main players. And it talks about the celebrities who emerged from it, like Boy George, Leigh Bowery, Derek Jarman, Phillip Sallon, Judy Blame, and many others.

Tramps is the work of award-winning Toronto filmmaker Kevin Hegge, whom I last interviewed on this show back in 2012 about  his documentary She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column.

I spoke with Kevin Hegge in Toronto, via Zoom.

Tramps! is premiering in Toronto at the Inside Out film festival on May 31st, 7 pm, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Daniel Garber talks with Ry Levey about Out in the Ring

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Canada, documentary, Fighting, LGBT, Pop Culture, Sports by CulturalMining.com on May 21, 2022

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

Picture this: scantily clad men and woman grope each other in same-sex displays. Over-the-top performers dressed in outrageous costumes , wigs and makeup, posture  before shrieking crowds. What are we talking about here: gay and lesbian porn? Or maybe Rupaul’s Drag Race? No! This is the world of pro-wrestling, known for both it’s outright campy behaviour and its homo-erotic displays, along with a deep-seated record of discrimination against LGBT wrestlers. That was the past, and things have changed. But what is it like now to be “out in the ring”?

Out in the Ring is a new documentary, over four years in the making that traces the history of LGBT people in and around the world of pro-wrestling. It talks with athletes, present and past, famous and infamous. It also meticulously traces their history, giving both an insiders’ visceral view and an outsiders’ critical stance. And it delves deep into the sometimes shady business of pro-wrestling.  It’s the work of producer/ director Ry Levey — a labour of love.

I spoke with Ry Levey in Toronto via ZOOM.

Out in the Ring is having its world premier at the Inside Out film festival on June 3rd, at 4:45 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Chase Joynt about Framing Agnes at Hot Docs

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, documentary, L.A., LGBT, Mystery, Queer, Secrets, Trans, UCLA by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2022

Garber-April-23-22-interview

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

It’s the late 1950s in Los Angeles. While the world’s attention is on Christina Jorgensen, the charismatic transgendered celebrity who flew back from Copenhagen as a new woman, a much quieter clinic at UCLA was also conducting treatment and surgery of transgendered patients. And into this office stepped a young woman named Agnes who said despite being a cis male she grew breasts spontaneously upon reaching puberty — a celebrated case. But later Agnes admitted she made it all up so she would qualify for gender reassignment surgery. Why did Agnes have to lie to get much-needed treatment?

Framing Agnes is a new and unusual documentary based on newly uncovered medical files that look at Agnes and her other unsung contemporaries from that era. Made in the style of a 1950s talk show, it includes reenactments, off-screen conversations, period footage as seen through a present-day filter. Using trans actors, it meticilously presents interviews as “real”, immediately followed by footage showing that they’re only acting. It deals with hot topics, ranging from gender, sexuality and identity, to trans youth, and visibility vs invisibility. This first feature is the work of  prize-winning writer and filmmaker Chase Joynt, who co-directed No Ordinary Man, about jazz musician Billy Tipton, and co-authored You Only Live Twice with Toronto artist Mike Holboom.

I spoke with Chase Joynt in Chicago, via Zoom.

Framing Agnes is premiering in Toronto at Hot Docs on Sunday, May 1, 8:30pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

Daniel Garber talks with Agam Darshi about her new film Donkeyhead

Posted in Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Death, Denial, Drama, Family, LGBT, Punjab, Religion, Saskatchewan, Sikh by CulturalMining.com on March 12, 2022

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

Mona is a youngish woman in Regina, Saskatchewan who is living the life of Reilly. She lives rent free in a big old house, received a whopping advance on her first novel, she’s dating a successful lawyer, and  she sees her dad regularly. So why is she such a mess? Because she still lives in her crumbling, childhood home, her lover is married with kids, she has perpetual writer’s block and never wrote the book,  she spends all her time taking care of her bed-ridden, cancerous father downstairs, and they seem to hate each other’s guts. But when his health takes a turn for the worse she realizes she has to call her siblings to come see him before he dies. But a happy reunion it ain’t.

Donkeyhead is the name of a great new tragicomic movie about a dysfunctional Sikh-Canadian family reunited around their dying father’s bed. It’s funny, it’s moving and always surprising. It’s written, directed and produced by Agam Darshi who also performs in the lead role of Mona. Agam is a successful actress and also the co-founder of the Vancouver South Asian Film Festival, but as a director Donkeyhead is her first feature. It deals with family issues, childhood grudges, assimilation vs tradition, and impending death, all set within Regina’s Punjabi Sikh community.

Donkeyhead opened theatrically this weekend in Regina, Saskatoon and Toronto.

I spoke with Agam Darshi from Toronto via ZOOM.

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Deliveries. Films reviewed: Dog, Parallel Mothers PLUS BTFF!

Posted in Animals, Army, Family, History, LGBT, Movies, photography, Road Movie, Spain, War by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2022

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

It’s Black History Month and The Toronto Black Film Festival is on now through Monday, February 21st celebrating its 10th anniversary. It’s showing — get this! — 200 movies, including features, shorts, documentaries, and more, from Canada and around the world. It features the Canadian premier of Krystin Ver Linden’s Alice, starring Common and Keke Palmer. There are also panel discussions, and if you’re an emerging black filmmaker, check out the Fabienne Colas Foundation’s Being Black in Canada program, with films geared specifically to cities like Montreal and Halifax. There’s also a special tribute to the late Sidney Poitier. That’s at the Toronto Black Film Festival – TBFF for short — all happening through Monday. 

This week, I’m looking at two new movies, one from the US, the other from Spain. There’s a war vet delivering a dog, and a fashion photographer delivering her baby.

Dog

Dir: Reid Carolin, Channing Tatum

Jackson Briggs (Channing Tatum) is a vet with a dog. Nothing so unusual about that. Except he’s a veteran, not a veterinarian. And the dog isn’t his. And he’s driving it down the West coast to attend a funeral — the dog is invited, not Briggs. Huh? You see, Briggs wants to reenlist — he’s an Army Ranger. He spent the past three years in a fog of alcohol and drugs, but he’s all dried out now and ready to ship off. But his Captain isn’t so sure. So they make a deal. Briggs drives Lulu, a decommissioned army dog, to the funeral of a member of their company who recently died. Lulu was an important part of his life, so it’s only fitting she should attend his funeral. In exchange, the Captain agrees to look again at Briggs reenlisting.

Lulu, despite her name, is no French poodle. She’s a Belgian Malinois. She looks like a German Shepard but smaller with a charcoal face and pointy ears. They are specially bred for security forces and trained to defend, attack and track. And Lulu has PTSD, she goes crazy if you touch her ears, or if she hears loud noises like thunder, guns or bombs. These are fiercely loyal dogs but they have to trust their owners. And Lulu and Briggs don’t like each other, so she’s muzzled and stuffed into a tiny kennel on the back seat. Soon enough though, she has completely destroyed her plastic prison and is chewing up the carseats. Can Briggs get Lulu to the funeral in time? Or will the two of them tear each other apart first?

Dog is a nice road movie about a man and his dog, and the people they encounter on their journey. People like two beautiful women who practice tantric sex; a dangerous hippie who runs a grow-op; a dog trainer, a psychic, and Briggs’ long-lost daughter.  They wind up in a luxury hotel, in abandoned barns, a night in jail and hitchhiking in the desert. And all along the way, we have Briggs’s non-stop monologue as he talks to Lulu. Luckily, the dog and the actor are interesting and appealing enough to keep your attention with the point of view shifting back and forth between Briggs and Lulu. Dog is a low key comedy-drama, but with enough surprises, laughs — and a few sad parts — to make it a worthwhile watch. 

Parallel Mothers

Dir: Pedro Almodóvar

Janis (Penelope Cruz) is a high-profile photographer  in her late 30s. She’s in a Madrid hospital about to give birth for the first time. There she meets a teenaged girl, also single and pregnant, named Ana (Milena Smit). She comes from a rich family — her dad’s a businessman, her mom an actress — but they are divorced and Ana is less than enthusiastic about raising a kid. Janis, on the other hand, can’t wait. 

Her baby is the result of a fling with a man she photographed once, named Arturo (Israel Elejaide). He’s a forensic anthropologist who works with an organization that disinters, identifies and reburies many of the lost victims of Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco. More than 100,000 people are still missing, many killed by Franco in the Spanish civil war and afterwards. This includes Janis’s own great grandfather and others from her ancestral village. Arturo says he’ll look into her village, but he can’t promise her anything. 

But back to the two mothers. After a few years, one of their babies dies, and the two bond together to raise the surviving kid. But both mothers hold deep dark secrets they have yet to reveal. Can Janis and Ana make it as a couple? What about the child? And then there’s Arturo… and her village?

Parallel Mothers is a wonderful, tender, surprising and moving drama set in Madrid. Like all of Almadòvar’s recent movies, it has an amazing story, told in an eye-pleasing manner, from the opening line to the closing credits. They all share recognizable styles and images, as well as his troop of actors, including Rossy de Palma, but Parallel Mothers is also a unique stand-alone film. If you’re already a fan of Almadòvar, you will love this one and if you’ve never seen his films before, this is a gapped place to start.

Dog opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend; check your local listings. Parallel Mothers is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Shasha Nakhai about Scarborough

Posted in Canada, Drama, Education, Ensemble Cast, Family, Indigenous, LGBT, Poverty, TIFF, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on February 2, 2022

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

It’s typical day at a literacy clinic in eastern Toronto. Three new kids are there with their parents trying to find a place for them in the complex school system. Sylvie’s there with her mom —  her dad is in hospital and her 4-year-old brother Johnny is hard to handle. Bing is bullied by other kids, who questions his sexuality even as his mom works all day in a mani-pedi and his dad’s in a mental hospital. And little Laura was abandoned by her abusive mom, forcing her dad to raise her — someone who knows nothing about taking care of kids. Luckily, a kindly teacher named Ms Hina is there to smooth out the bumps and care for the kids even when it look like nothing can help them. And Bing, Sylvie and Laura become good friends. But can they overcome the obstacles in their precarious lives at a public school in Scarborough?

Scarborough is a wonderful, new, feature-length drama that premiered lat fall at TIFF and the ReelAsian film festivals to rave reviews and appreciative audiences. Using an ensemble cast and first-time actors, it explores life in a working class, multicultural neighbourhood in  Scarborough, where people struggle with poverty, homelessness, racism,  and a largely indifferent social system.   Based on the award-winning book by Catherine Hernandez, it’s directed by Shasha Nakhai and Rich Williamson. Shasha Nakhai is a Toronto-based filmmaker whose work has aired on the BBC, CBC, ZDF and Arte and screened at the Museum of Modern Art. She has worked on documentaries like The World Before Her (2012), Driving with Selvi (2015), and League of Exotique Dancers (2015).

I spoke with Shasha Nakhai in Toronto via Zoom.

Scarborough is opening in Toronto on February 25th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Organized religion. Films reviewed: Hand of God, Agnes, Benedetta

Posted in 1600s, 1980s, Breasts, Catholicism, Coming of Age, Horror, Italy, Lesbian, LGBT, Nun, Religion, Sex, Supernatural, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 4, 2021

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

It’s December and we’re entering holiday season, so I thought it’s time to talk about movies involving religion. So this week I’m looking at three new movies with (small c) catholic themes. There’s an adolescent boy in 1980s Naples who witnesses the “Hand of God”, a lesbian nun in renaissance Tuscany who is in love with God, and another nun in the US who may be possessed by the Devil.

Benedetta

Co-Wri/Dir: Paul Verhoeven

It’s the 1600s in Tuscany Italy. Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is a beautiful young  nun with blond hair and a quick wit. She was placed in small town convent as a young girl, paid for by a rich dowry her parents gave the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling). Now Benedetta is married to God, both metaphorically, and literally, in her mind. She goes through vivid spells, where she has sex with a violent Jesus after he slays all her attackers with a sword. She also has a streak of cruelty since she was told that suffering, by oneself and others,  brings one closer to God. The cynical Abbess thinks Benedetta’s trances are just an elaborate hoax. But everything changes when Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) a gorgeous young novice, appears at their doorstep. 

She is illiterate, and the victim of horrific abuses from her father and brothers. Benedetta takes her under her wing, nurtures her and schools her in divinity, reading and math. In exchange, Bartolomea sleeps with her, awakening hidden desires. Could this be love? Benadetta says she’s having chaste, spiritual sex with Jesus himself, not carnal passion with the young novice. And her spontaneous stigmata — bleeding that appears in her hands and feet like Jesus on the cross — attracts pilgrims and followers from far and wide seeking advice and cures. But when she’s caught using a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary as a sex toy, things take a turn for the worse. A cruel Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) arrives from plague-ridden Florence for an inquisition. Will he manage to wring a confession from the two women? Or will Benedetta’s spiritual powers protect her from being burned at the stake?

Benedetta (based on  actual historical records)  is a bittersweet and passionate look at the life and love of a lesbian nun in Northern Italy. It’s sexually explicit with lots of matter-of-fact nudity throughout the film as well as some horrific violence  (remember, this is a movie by the great Paul Verhoeven who knows well how to keep bums in seats). This is a visually stunning film, with sumptuous views of sunlit cathedrals, long-flowing costumes, diaphanous bed curtains and beautiful faces and bodies. Never has a convent looked so erotic. But it’s also a fascinating look at faith in the face of cynical religious practices. Benedetta is a beautiful and shocking film.

Agnes

Wri/Dir: Mickey Reece

Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) is a young nun in a convent whose birthday celebration turns into a disaster. Now he’s tied to her bed, foaming at the mouth and speaking in strange otherworldly voices. What is going on?Enter Father Donoghue (Ben Hall). He’s a grizzled priest with a shady past, but also many successful exorcisms under his belt.  And he takes a newby with him, the devout Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) a divinity student who has yet to take his vows. Father Donoghue doesn’t believe that they’re actually possessed, just that they think they are. And only the elaborate song and dance of an exorcism will allow them to give it up. At the convent, Mother Superior (Mary Buss) a stickler for rules, is much less enthusiastic. She’s not comfortable with men under her roof, especially a young one without a priest’s collar. But she allows it to proceed. And the routine exorcism takes an unexpected turn.

The story picks up with Sister Agnes’s friend Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn). She left the convent after the incident. Now she works at two jobs — a convenience store and a laundromat, —and is trying to live a normal life. But she doesn’t know what to do or how to act. Can she keep the faith? Matters aren’t helped when she meets a cynical stand up comic at a local dive bar (Sean Gunn). Can he teach her what she needs to know?

Agnes is a look at faith, and self-doubt within the church. It starts as a genre pic, a conventional, low-budget horror, but it ends up as a deeper and darker melodrama propelled by scary undertones. It’s called Agnes, but it’s actually in two acts, the second part mainly about Sister Mary. It’s unpredictable and uncomfortable, and sometimes a bit bloody. This may be the first Mickey Reece film I’ve ever watched but I can see why this indie filmmaker has such an avid following. The film has an interesting mix of experimental film and conventional, even kitschy, horror, comparable to avant-garde filmmakers like Ben Wheatley and Peter Strickland. Not for everyone, but I enjoyed it — and I think want to see more Mickey Reece.

Hand of God 

Dir: Paolo Sorrentino

It’s 1984. Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) is a young man at Don Bosco high school in Naples, Italy. He is precocious and well-read, — constantly quoting classic verse — but has neither friends nor sexual experience. He gets most of his advice from his big brother (who shares a room with him) and his parents. Dad (Toni Servillo) is a self-declared communist while his mom (Teresa Saponangelo) is a inveterate practical joker. Then there are all the odd-ball neighbours in their apartment building (including a former countess) and his even stranger family members. But foremost in Fabio’s eyes is his aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). She suffers from delusions which cause her to innocently expose her flawless naked body at unusual times — which provide fodder for the sexually-starved Fabio’s fantasies. 

It’s also the year when rumour has it that international soccer star Maradona may start playing for the local team — an obsession of most of his family. Third on Fabietto’s list — after sex and football — are the movies. Fellini is casting extras in Napoli — he goes to the audition —  while another up-and-coming director is shooting his latest film downtown. That director is also dating the very actress Fabio is dying to meet. Will he ever fulfill any of his wishes? And how will this pivotal year affect the rest of his life?

Hand of God (the title refers to a legendary goal scored by Maradona) is a coming-of-age story based on the filmmaker’s own recollections. It seems like the straight version of the popular Call Me By Your Name, another Italian feature. Set in the 80s, it’s also about a precocious adolescent’s first sexual experiences, situated within a quirky but loving family. There’s lots of 80s music, fashion and hairstyles to look at. Filippo Scotti also happens to looks a hell of a lot like Timothée Chalamet. That said, it is its own film, and fits very firmly within Sorentino’s work, including his fascination with celebrities as characters,

perennial actors like the great Toni Servillo  hapless men, as well as the requisite “naked woman with perfect breasts” who manages to turn up, in one form or another, in all his movies. Although Hand of God isn’t that original, and a bit contrived, it does have some very funny and a few honestly shocking scenes that should not be missed. I liked this one.

Hand of God and Benedetta both open theatrically in Toronto this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; check your local listings; and Agnes starts next Friday at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto.

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

In depth. Films reviewed: The Velvet Underground, Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, The Power of the Dog

Posted in 1920s, 1960s, Addiction, Canada, drugs, Indigenous, LGBT, New Zealand, Uncategorized, Western by CulturalMining.com on November 20, 2021

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

We are all flooded each day with new images and stories, both broadcast and online, but don’t they all seem to be fleeting and ethereal, lasting no longer than the average news cycle or two. Rarely do we get in-depth examinations of anything. But movies can do that, opening your eyes to deeper thoughts. So this week I’m looking at three new movies — a western and two feature-length docs —that look at things up close. There’s cowboys in Montana, First Nations in Alberta, and avant-garde rockers in Greenwich Village.

The Velvet Underground 

Wri/Dir: Todd Haynes

It’s the early 1960s. Lou Reed is a Brooklyn-born teenager who lives in suburban Long Island.  He’s depressed and his parents send him for electroshock therapy. He teaches himself guitar listening to doo-wop and rockabilly on the radio. Later at university in Syracuse, he studies under Delmore Schwartz. He goes to Harlem with his girlfriend to buy hard drugs and writes poems about furtive sex with men he meets in dark alleys. John Cale is the son of a coal miner in Wales who studies classical music in London. They meet in the Village and start a band within the  exploding world of avant-garde film, music, art and poetry. Velvet Underground plays long, drawn-out tones with a dark drone grinding in the background, combining Reed’s dark lyrics and Cale’s musicality (he plays viola in a rock band!) They perform at Andy Warhol’s Factory and Nico, the enigmatic European actress, completes their sound. Though never a huge success and breaking up after a few years, the Velvets influenced generations of musicians.

This two-hour doc looks at the band itself (Reed and Cale, along with Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison) and where it fit within New York’s burgeoning underground scene. Aside from the usual suspects, it talks about or interviews unexpected faces, musicians Jonathan Richman and Jackson Browne, and experimental  filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Jack Smith. Aside from its meticulous retelling of group’s history, it’s the look of this doc that really blew me away.  Todd Haynes exploits that era’s avant-garde film techniques, from split screens to three-quarter projections, along with a good dose of 60s pop culture. And there’s a constant stream of music from start to finish, including rare tracks of early songs before they found their groove. I had to watch The Velvet Underground on my laptop but this beautiful documentary deserves to be appreciated on a movie screen.

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy

Dir: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

It’s the mid-2010s and opioids are ravaging the Kainai Blackfoot First Nation in Alberta (that’s the largest reserve in Canada). Families are torn apart, and hundreds of lives are lost. The abstinence and cold-turkey programs just aren’t working, especially for the most marginalized, who end up homeless in cities.  So instead they start up harm reduction centres like those pioneered on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. This highly-personal documentary follows a number of addicts — of both opioids and alcohol — as they enter harm-reduction treatments and through its various stages. It’s spearheaded by the filmmaker’s own mother, Dr Esther Tailfeathers, a physician, but also includes Social workers, EMS, nurses and councellors, in drop ins, detox centres, hospitals and clinics, both on the reserve and in nearby cities like Lethbridge.

As the title suggests, caring and empathy saves more lives than punishment, threats or abstinence. Rather than kicking people out, it embraces them while standing by to treat overdoses, and on a bigger scale helping them find purpose and meaning, along with food, shelter and medical care. The doc also looks at the intergenerational causes that led to these addictions, from broken treaties to residential schools. Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is gruelling in parts — and not an easy film to watch — but it is one that turns despair into hope.

The Power of the Dog

Wri/Dir: Jane Campion

It’s the 1920s. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is durned mean cuss. He owns a ranch in Montana with his brother George (Jesse Plemons), and regularly drives cattle with his posse of young cowboys. They always stop by a roadhouse run by the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her skinny sensitive son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil went to one of them Ivy League schools in the east, but they don’t know nuthin about the life of a cowboy. He learned everything from an older buckaroo when he was just a lad, and now keeps a shrine to him in his stables. But like I said, Phil is a mean bastard who directs his venom all around him. He calls his brother fatso, and when George marries Rose, Phil torments her and drives her to drink. And he calls her son Pete a pansy. Until… Pete discovers Phil’s secret. He finds his illicit porn stash and catches him in a hidden grove luxuriating in mud-covered self-love. That’s when Phil changes his mind and decides to mentor Pete in the old cowboy ways. But is that what Pete is really after?

I walked into The Way of the Dog at TIFF expecting a conventional Western, but I saw something much bigger than that. It’s a subversive twist on a classic genre. It’s set in the 1920s, avoiding the blatantly racist portrayals of indigenous people in most Westerns (the “Indians” in “Cowboys and Indians”) which take place in the 19th century when settlers were slaughtering them with impunity in their western migration. This one is set 50 years later.  There are also no hold-ups or show-downs; guns don’t play a major war in this Western. It’s directed by Jane Campion who won big time awards for The Piano thirty years ago, but I hadn’t heard much about her for a long time. So I wasn’t expecting much. But this film really shocked me with its gothic tone, complex characters and twisted plot. The interplay between Cumberbatch and Cody-Smit is fascinating. All of this played out against the wide, western skies (it was actually filmed in New Zealand) makes The Power of The Dog a really great movie.

The Velvet Underground  is playing theatrically in Canada for one night only, Sunday, Nov 28th at 8 pm, at the Rogers Hot Docs cinema in Toronto; and Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy opens today, also at Hot  Docs; and The Power of the Dog just opened at the Tiff Bell Lightbox.

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

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