Talking, listening, fighting back. Films reviewed: No Bears, Puss in Boots, Women Talking

Posted in 2000s, Animals, Animation, Fairytales, Fantasy, Iran, Movies, Religion, Turkey, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 24, 2022

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

It’s holiday time with lots of new movies for people of all ages. This week I’m looking at three new movies opening on Christmas weekend. There are women in a barn, talking; a movie director in a village, listening; and a cat in a hat, fighting. 

No Bears

Wri/Dir: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian  filmmaker from Tehran. His current project is about a glamorous middle-aged couple trying to escape to freedom in Europe. But Panahi is forbidden by law from making movies or leaving the country. So he’s doing the next best thing: directing his film in long-distance using his cellphone and laptop. It’s being shot in a picturesque city in Turkey, while he’s renting an apartment in a tiny Azerbaijani village in Iran. It’s close to the border an area rife with black market smugglers. Panahi can speak some Azeri but is unfamiliar with local traditions. So he likes talking pictures of the locals. And here’s where he runs into trouble.

A young couple wants to get married and leave the village. But the woman was promised to another man at birth. Now everyone thinks Panahi caught the young couple in a photograph. The couple want him to destroy the photo, while the groom’s family want a copy to prove her dishonour. Meanwhile, across the border, another crisis is threatening the film movie. As he gets pulled deeper and deeper into the world of local politics and feuds, his work — and possibly his life — is at risk. Will he ever finish his film? And what will happen to the two couples — the actor-lovers in Turkey and secret lovers back home?

No Bears is a neorealist movie about making a film, the film he’s making, and how real life gets in the way. It’s about honour, revenge and identity. It also exposes the image of “the director as a dispassionate observer and documentarian” as a myth. Panahi’s very presence in a small village disrupts their lives and leads to unforeseen consequences. He plays himself, who in real life is forbidden from making films — accused of propaganda against the system. Any movie that’s against the system is one I want to watch. But this means it was shot openly in Turkey but secretly in Iran. No Bears  is a clever, humorous and complex film with an unexpected conclusion. I liked this one.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Co-Dir:  Joel Crawford, Januel Mercado

Puss in Boots is a cat in a hat who wears boots, and carries a sword. He’s known for both his fencing skills and his rapier-like wit. He lives a fairytale life — literally. He exists in a world where those stories are real. He’s both a hero and an outlaw, sought by bounty-hunters everywhere. But as a cat with nine lives he has no fear of death and will fight monsters and villains, alike. Until one day his doctor tells him he’d better slow down because he’s on his last life. If he is killed again, that’s the end, no more Puss in Boots.  So he reluctantly decides  to retire. He gives up his identity, and becomes an ordinary orange cat named Pickles in a home for abandoned cats. Now he has to use a litter box, eat cat chow and say “meow”.  How humiliating! But his past catches up to him with some surprise visitors: Kitty Softpaws, another outlaw he left standing at the altar; and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. They all want him to help find a map to a fallen star that can grant a wish. Goldilocks wants a proper family, Kitty is looking for her future, and Puss in Boots wants his 9 lives back. Accompanied by a little dog named Perro he sets out to steal the map from the evil Little Jack Horner (who is now quite big and bakes pies for living). But he must fight off his rivals, journey through a mystical forest, and find the magic star if he wants to stay alive. And he is being pursued by a truly scary villain, the Big Bad Wolf, a huge killer carrying a sickle in each hand.

Puss in Boots is a kids’ cartoon comedy set in the world of Shrek, where nursery rhymes and fairytales coexist with Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz. It’s somehow simultaneously a spaghetti western and medieval Europe.  It features the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Florence Pugh. What’s good about it? I’ll watch any cartoon, especially one with cool psychedelic images. This one has a few funny bits, along with a neat journey-adventure story. On the negative side, it’s not very funny, the lines are predictable and the story is both unoriginal and forgettable. And I’m not sure why they switch to two-dimensional jerky animation whenever there’s a fight scene. But I still enjoyed it, even if it’s just glowing bright colours on a giant screen. 

Women Talking

Dir: Sarah Polley

It’s summertime at an Anabaptist colony somewhere in the US. It’s 2010, but it could be 1910; forget about cel phones and computers. There are no cars, radios, no electric lights — they still use lanterns. Even more unusual, there are no men around, only women and kids. What’s going on?

One of the women woke up in the middle of the night to find a man physically attacking her. She fought him off and beat him with a stick. Suddenly everything made sense. Countless women in the colony had woken up in the past with bruises and blood, but up till now, the men had insisted out was just a dream, her imagination or the work of Satan. Turns out the men have been raping women for years now and denying it, using cow tranquilizers. Now they are at the police station baling out one of their attackers. So all the women face an enormous decision: should they stay and fight back? Or should they just pack up the kids and go, leaving the place forever?

They designate the women and girls from three families to decide for all of them. Now they’re gathered in a barn to debate the issues and make the big decision. And one man, a school teacher named August — not part of the colony; his family was excommunicated  — is there to record it all on paper; the women were never taught to read or write. What will their decision be?

Women Talking is a movie about women talking, but it is much deeper than that. It’s a devastating story, a scathing indictment of endemic physical and sexual violence against women in their own homes. Though it’s never shown on the screen, nor are its perpetrators, its results are always apparent. One woman has a scar on her face, one woman is mysteriously pregnant, others have missing teeth or black eyes, and another has panic attacks, seemingly for no reason. And now they’re really angry, not just for the violence, but because they’ve been lied to for so many years. There’s a spontaneous wellspring of grassroots feminism suddenly bursting loose.

The storytelling is very simple — it sticks to the barn, the fields, their houses and horses and buggies; it’s all they’ve experienced. At the same time, perhaps because they can’t write, they are amazingly eloquent speakers. It’s based on the novel by Canadian author Miriam Toewes who grew up in a Mennonite community. (The film never specifies their denomination or location, giving it a timeless, universal feeling.) It provides an internal view of life in the colony, with different opinions expressed passionately by each character. And it’s very well-acted by an ensemble cast, including Rooney Mara, Jesse Buckley, Claire Foy, Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy, Ben Whishaw. And despite the grave topic, the movie itself is more fulfilling than depressing. I’ve seen it twice, and appreciated it much more the second time — Women Talking is a subtle movie that deserves your attention. 

Puss n Boots: The Last Wish, No Bears and Women Talking, all opened 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.

On the media. Films reviewed: A Wounded Fawn, Spoiler Alert, Empire of Light

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, Death, Depression, Disease, Feminism, Gay, Greece, Horror, Mental Illness, Movies, Racism, Revenge, Romance, Theatre, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 10, 2022

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

It’s December, but not everything is about Christmas. This week I’m looking at three new movies with themes set in the arts: there’s a woman who works at a cinema but never watches movies; a serial killer who finds himself part of an ancient greek play, and a writer for TV Guide who thinks his life is like a sitcom.

A Wounded Fawn

Co-Wri/Dir:Travis Stevens

It’s a fine art auction in NY City, and the collectors and dealers are in fighting mode tonight. The prized item is a small bronze sculpture from ancient Greece showing the Furies seeking revenge on a prone man. Kate (Malin Barr) gets the high bid and returns home triumphant with the piece  in hand. So she’s surprised to see Bruce (Josh Ruben) a rival bidder, show up at her door. His boss still covets the statue and is willing pay double. Doubling her money in 24 hours seems like a good deal. She invites him in for a glass of champagne. But before long, she is dead on the floor in a pool of blood, and the sculpture — and Bruce — are long gone.

Later, Meredith, another beautiful young woman (Sarah Lind) is excited over an upcoming weekend in the country with her latest paramour. Her last boyfriend was abusive, but her new one seems nice, generous and attractive.  And he’s into fine art just like Mer (she works in a museum).They set off for a fun filled adventure at his isolated cottage in the woods. She is thrilled to see the cabin is actually a finished home overlooking a dense forest, and decorated with modern art. But something is strange: she hears a woman’s voice in her ear warning her to leave. And she recognizes the Greek sculpture of the Furies on his coffee table — she authenticated it for an auction just a few weeks ago. (It’s just a copy, says Bruce) What she doesn’t know is that Bruce is a serial killer… and she might be his next victim. (Bruce is waiting for directions from a gigantic man-owl with blood red feathers who tells him who he should kill). Can Mer fight him off? And where do those strange voices come from? 

A Wounded Fawn is a low budget, exquisitely-crafted art-house thriller horror. What starts as a simple slasher, soon turns into a revenge pic about halfway through, where Meredith, Kate and a third victim return as the Furies to visit punishment upon Bruce. What’s really remarkable is how it incorporates greco-roman aesthetics, mythology and theatre into what could have been a simple scary horror movie, to turn it into something totally original. While it’s not always clear whether something happens for real, or just inside Bruce’s damaged brain, it doesn’t matter.  A Wounded Fawn is weird and fascinating, either way.

Spoiler Alert

Dir: Michael Showalter

It’s the 1990s. Michael Ausiello (Jim Parsons) is a nerdy gay guy who lives in NJ but works in Manhattan. He grew up obsessed by TV, living his life as if he were a character on an 80s sitcom. Now he’s a writer for TV Guide, where he devotes himself to work and remains perpetually single. Until he meets Kit Cowan (Ben Aldridge) at a dance club — he’s handsome, fit and popular and says Michael is just his type —a tall geek. Kit’s also in the media — he’s a professional photographer. They hit it off, but keep certain secrets to themselves. Kit lives a free-wheeling sex life — he’s not one to settle down. And Michael never came out to his small-town parents (Sally Field and Bill Irwin); he’s afraid they won’t accept him. And he’s afraid to show Kit his apartment. What is he hiding there? His Smurf collection; a veritable fuzzy blue tsunami filling every nook and cranny. But after settling their deferences, they eventually move in together. Most of the Smurfs are packed away, Michael comes out to his parents (they still love him) and they settle into domestic bliss. 

Flash forward 15 years, and their relationship is on the rocks; the spark has died and they’ve grown a bit distant toward each other. But everything changes when — spoiler alert! — Kit discovers he has terminal cancer. Can they handle his imminent death? Will their love be rekindled? And how will they spend what might be their last year together? 

Spoiler Alert is a touching dramady about love and loss, based on a true story — Michael Ausiello’s own memoir of his life with Kit. Like the book, the movie begins with the death of Kit in Michael’s arms, hence “spoiler alert”. The director Michael Showalter, previously made The Big Sick, also about a couple and their family facing a serious illness. So is this the gay Big Sick? Not exactly — it’s a new story with a different style, like his version of Michael’s childhood as a sitcom, complete with laugh-track. And there are lots of funny parts. The bigger question is, is Jim Parsons up to playing a dramatic role, or is he forever stuck in peoples’ minds as Sheldon on the Big Bang? In this case, I think he pulls it off. He fits the role and manages to make him quirkily sympathetic. So if you’re into terminal illness comedies, here’s a good one to try on for size. 

Empire of Light

Wri/Dir: Sam Mendes

Its the winter of 1981 in a sea-side city in southern England. Hilary (Olivia Coleman) is a middle-aged woman who works at the Empire Theatre as the front of house manager. It’s an art-deco movie palace, but like the town, it’s long past its prime. Half the screens are closed and the third floor ballroom has been taken over by pigeons. Hilary is lonely and depressed, on meds, recovering from a hospital stay. Her social life consists of ballroom dancing with old men, and her sex life is furtive encounters with her sleazy, married boss (Colin Firth) in his darkened office.

But her life changes when a young man, Stephen (Michael Ward) is hired to work there. She finds him attractive, ambitious (he wants to study architecture at university)` and compassionate: he nurses a wounded pigeon back to health. He’s mom’s a nurse, from the Windrush generation, but he wants more. Hillary may be his mom’s age but there’s something there. After a few intimate moments they start a clandestine relationship. But Michael’s real ambition is to leave this town — to escape increasingly racist street violence (he’s black), and to become more than just an usher.  Can their relationship last? And if they break up, can the fragile Hilary handle it?

Empire of Light is a romantic time capsule of life in Thatcher’s England. It’s also about the joy and troubles of an intergenerational, mixed-race love affair.  And it’s also about sexual harassment and anti-black racism in everyday life. And it’s also about Hillary’s mental illness, including her sudden, manic episodes. And it’s also about the rise of skinheads and the National Front, and the concurrent anti-racist ska revival.  And it’s also about the collective friendship that develops among the people working at the Empire theatre. (Maybe too many ands for one movie?)

Like many of Sam Mendes films (which I generally don’t like), it’s pandering and emotionally manipulative and has a  meandering storyline, that keeps you watching while it’s on, but leaves you feeling vaguely unsatisfied afterwards. But the acting is really good, especially Olivia Coleman and Michael Ward, who rise above the movie’s many flaws. Maybe even good enough to make Empire of Light worth a watch, despite all its problems.  

Empire of Light and Spoiler Alert both open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And A Wounded Fawn is now streaming on Shudder. 

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

Hollywood movies. Films reviewed: Glass Onion, The Fabelmans

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, comedy, Coming of Age, Family, Hollywood, Movies, Mystery, Secrets by CulturalMining.com on November 28, 2022

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

It’s Thanksgiving weekend south of the border, so movies are being released midweek. This week I’m looking at two new, big-ticket Hollywood movies, you might want to watch this weekend. There’s a mystery/comedy set on a private Greek island, and a coming-of-age drama set in postwar America.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Wri/Dir: Rian Johnson

Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is a conceited, ultra-rich tycoon who made his fortune in the tech sector. Now he amuses himself by throwing elaborate parties on his private Greek Island, where his select guests try to solve a mystery during their stay. But this year, there’s a surprise visitor — the famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). He’s there on the invitation of one of the party guests — Bron’s former business partner — who was secretly murdered, with her identical sister (Janelle Monáe) a meek introvert, impersonating the flamboyant victim. (She invites Benoit as her guest to find her sister’s killer.)

Benoit Blanc, of course, is the famous gay private investigator known for his dapper suits, southern drawl, and legendary detective skills. Other guests include a flaky fashion designer (Kate Hudson), an insufferable online celebrity (Dave Bautista), a devious politician (Kathryn Hahn), and a shady scientist (Leslie Odom, Jr.), among others. But the week-long game is spoiled when Benoit guesses the answer almost immediately, to the host’s displeasure. But, soon after, the real mystery begins, when one of the guests is murdered in plain sight without anyone knowing whodunnit. It becomes a race against time, as other guests start to disappear, one by one. Can Benoit identify the killer, uncover their motive, prevent any more murders, and solve the bigger mystery of why these particular people were invited to this party?

The Glass Onion is a brilliant sequel to Ryan Johnson’s Knives Out from a few years ago, with Daniel Craig repeating the role of Benoit Blanc. It’s hard to review a mystery without giving away the plot, but I’ll do my best. This movie is very cleverly done: like any good Agatha Christie-style mystery, all the different characters — both potential killer or killers and victims — are introduced at the beginning, with no surprises

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). (L-R) Jessica Henwick as Peg, Kate Hudson as Birdie, and Janelle Monáe as Andi. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix © 2022.

parachuting onto the Island. It’s also good because each character has their own quirks, back stories, secrets and motives, all of which are gradually revealed.  It’s even more fun because many of them are satirically modelled after certain celebrities. On top of that, there are a number of intricate clues hidden within clockwork-type devices featured in the film. 

I’ve been watching Rian Johnson’s work since his first film, Brick, came out almost 20 years ago, as he gradually honed his skills. I loved Knives Out, but was worried that a sequel might be a let down. But have no fear, Glass Onion is as good as or better than Knives Out. It’s hard to find movies these days that are there just for the viewers’ pleasure without ever pandering, dumbing down a plot, trying to sell you stuff or stealing ideas. Glass Onion avoids all that, concentrating instead on giving you a really fun night out. 

The Fabelmans

Dir: Steven Spielberg 

Written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner.

It’s Christmastime in the 1950s. Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) is a little boy who lives with his parents and sisters in New Jersey. Mitzi his mom (Michelle Williams) is a former concert pianist forced to adjust to suburban family life. But she manages to keep her sense of creativity front and centre. She refuses to do dishes, insisting instead on paper plates and plastic forks.  She’s the kind of woman who doesn’t hide from tornados, she chases them… and reads music scores in bed. She has a blonde pixie haircut and loves diaphanous white gowns. 

Burt (Paul Dano) his dad, is an engineer and part-time inventor who works for RCA and repairs old TV sets as a side job. He thinks science is superior, while art and movies are just for fun… but he worships the ground Mitzi walks on. And always close at hand is Burt’s best friend and workmate Bennie (Seth Rogan) who the kids all call Uncle.

The story begins with the parents taking Sammy to his first movie, Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Sammy is frightened but also mesmerized by a trainwreck in the movie where circus cars are derailed and wild animals run free. Sammy wants to film it. He manages to duplicate it on 8 mm film, repeatedly using his model train set seen from all the angles used in the movie. Sammy’s love of film is ignited — now he’s making silent monster movies at home starring his sisters. Later the family moves to Colorado, where Burt has a new position developing computers for General Electric.

And Uncle Bennie moves with them.

Teenage Sammy is now a boy scout, and, with his new friends, starts shooting and editing elaborate westerns and war movies to everyone’s delight. But in editing family films he discovers a hidden secret that threatens to pull them apart. 

Years later, they move to northern California where Burt now works for IBM. But Mitzi feels depressed and alienated and Sammy is bullied at school by guys who, he says, look like giant Sequoia trees. Can he still find solace making films? Will Mitzi adjust to a strange new environment? Or is the family heading for disaster?

The Fabelmans (meaning storytellers) is Steven Spielberg’s first fictionalized, semi-autobiographical look at how his childhood and adolescence led to his career as a filmmaker. I usually dislike movies about movies — they tend to be overly nostalgic and sentimental, and mainly there as Oscar-bait, to get people in the industry to vote for them. But this one is surprisingly good. And while there are many scenes of people staring at movie screens, there’s way more to it. It’s a bittersweet coming of age story, it’s a family story, and it’s a rare mother-son story: Sammy and Mitzi are both obsessive artists driven by their craft, but facing constant roadblocks put up by the conventional world. The film also incorporates the southwest, circuses, evangelism, folk singing, secular Judaism, family camping trips, and baby boom youth culture.

Michelle Williams is excellent as Mitzi, a complex character with many regrets. Canadian newcomer Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy is also great. And Judd Hirsch totally steals the scene as crazy Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a lion tamer who wants Sammy to understand that following your artistic dreams is like sticking your head into a lion’s mouth: it takes guts, drive and determination… and might hurt a lot.

The Fabelmans is a very enjoyable movie. 

Glass Oinion is on at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for one week only, while The Fabelmans is playing 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 Winnie Jong, Connie Wang and Ryan Allen about Tokens

Posted in Acting, Canada, comedy, Movies, Racism, TV, Web Series by CulturalMining.com on November 19, 2022

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

Acting is a tough profession in Toronto, what with agents, auditions, and landing roles. But it’s even harder when all the parts out there are white… and you’re not. You end up taking stereotypical roles like “Gang Member” if you’re Black, “Taxi Driver” if you’re South Asian, or “Angry Dim Sum Customer” if you’re Chinese. Sometimes it seem like they only call you is when they have to fill a quota. But things seem to be changing, with big-budget Hollywood action movies and rom coms featuring Black and Asian casts. Is this a sea change? Or will most actors remain just tokens?

Tokens is a satirical web series about actors of colour and what they have to go through just to get a role. Now in its second season, it brings in new controversial topics like white fragility, diversity quotas, and BLM protests, but dealt with in a humorous, tongue in cheek manner. With a large cast and just 8 minutes per episode, this fast-moving series keeps you guessing between laughs. The series was created by Writer/Director Winnie Jong, and stars Connie Wang as Sammie, a woman trying to make it big, and Ryan Allen as DeMar, her friend, competitor and erstwhile romantic interest. Winnie is an award-winning filmmaker and alumna of the Women In the Director’s Chair, and is known for TV shows like Coroner. Connie has had multiple screen nominations including the Canadian Screen Award for Best Lead Performance, and TV roles in shows like the The Boys. And Ryan is a star of stage and screen, with a leading part on Broadway in The Book of Mormon, and on TV in Titans, Star Trek and Between. 

I spoke with Winnie, Connie and Ryan in Toronto via ZOOM.

Tokens Season 2 will be launched on iTunes on Nov 29th, 2022.

Daniel Garber talks with Ema Kawawada about My Small Land

Posted in Family, High School, Japan, Kurds, Migrants, Movies, Refugees, Romance, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on November 5, 2022

Edited version

Long version, 日本語 付き

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

Sarya is a typical Japanese high school girl in her graduating year. She is studying hard to pass her university entrance exams, and hopes to become a school teacher. She likes playing badminton, and hanging with her best friends. And she’s starting to flirt with a guy, Sota, who works with her, part-time, at a convenience store. But her whole life falls apart overnight when her father is turned down for asylum, and all their ID cards are taken away.  Sarya and her family are Kurdish refugees, and have been waiting for proper visas since she was just a little girl. But suddenly she’s undocumented, can’t travel, can’t go to university, can’t take paid work or even cross the invisible border into Tokyo. What has happened to her small land?

My Small Land is a thoughtful, touching and deeply moving coming-of-age story about a girl’s life in Japan whose identity is called into question. It deals with family, culture, refugees, assimilation, and how a young woman handles a double life as a Kurd in Japan.  The film is produced by Hirokazu Kore-eda and written and directed by Ema Kawawada, her first feature. The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival to great acclaim and opens soon in Canada.

I spoke with Ema Kawawada in Tokyo from Toronto via Zoom. 

Interpretor: Aki Takabatake

My Small Land is playing in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Nov 9th and 16th.

Daniel Garber talks with Sam Soko and Lauren deFilippo at #TIFF22 about their new doc Free Money

Posted in Africa, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Economics, Education, Movies, Poverty by CulturalMining.com on September 17, 2022

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

Photos of Lauren DeFilippo and Sam Soko by Jeff Harris.

Kogutu is a poor, east African village in Kenya. Some of the villagers have kids who can’t afford schooling, while others have a bleak future ahead of them. Various foreign NGOs have come and gone over the years, leaving poverty and disappointment in their wake. But the latest one tries a different tact: They’re offering a monthly stipend paid to all adult members of the village for over a decade, to see if this transforms their lives. But what’s the catch? And what do they mean by “free money”?

Free Money is a new documentary that looks at the effects of UBI, Universal Basic Income, on the people who receive it, and those who don’t. The film was made over many years tracing changes in the villagers, concentrating on the lives of three villagers. The film is directed by two award-winning documentarians. Lauren DeFilippo’s film acclaimed doc Ailey played theatrically in Toronto and across North America. and Nairobi-based Sam Soko’s film Softie was a big hit at Toronto’s Hot Docs International documentary film fest.

Free Money had its world premiere at TIFF. 

I spoke with Lauren and Sam on-site at #TIFF22.

Ambitions. Films reviewed: Minions: The Rise of Gru, Ennio, Mr Malcolm’s List

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, 1970s, Animation, documentary, Italy, Kidnapping, Movies, Music, Romantic Comedy, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 2, 2022

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

Summer is definitely here, and this long holiday weekend is the perfect time to take in some new movies. This week I’m talking about three of them: — a rom-com, a cartoon and a documentary — about people with ambitions. There’s a spinster in Victorian England who wants revenge on the man who has scorned her; a spaghetti western composer in 1960s Italy who wants to be taken seriously; and a little boy in San Francisco in the ’70s who wants to become a super villain.

Minions: The Rise of Gru

Dir: Kyle Balda, Brad Ableson, Jonathan del Val

It’s the late 1970s, and Gru is a little kid in elementary school. While his classmates say they want to be a fireman or a ballet dancer when they grow up, Gru wants to be a super villain. And he has a basement filled with strange mechanical devices to prove it. They were built with the help of his minions. The minions are bright-yellow, lozenge-shaped creatures with googly eyes. Dressed in matching denim overalls, they speak their own incomprehensible dialect, a mishmash of all the world’s languages. Gru idolizes a gang of six supervillains, who are now one villain short of a pack (since they did away with their leader) and are looking for a replacement. But when he shows up for an interview at their secret hideaway they dismiss him as just a kid. To prove them wrong, he steals their prize possession, a Chinese jade-green amulet. He gives it to a minion to keep it safe, who soon loses it in exchange for a pet rock. (The minions aren’t always the brightest bulb in the chandelier.) Gru is kidnapped by the villains’ former leader, and threatened with torture and death. Can the minions find the amulet, bring it to San Francisco, and save their best friend, Gru?

Minions: The Rise of Gru is a funny, easy-to-watch kids’ movie, where the villains are the good guys, even though they’re evil. It’s a prequel to the surprise hit from 2010, Despicable Me. The voice actors are mainly American or British, but the animated film is actually from France. The catchy soundtrack, groovy 1970s characters, the San Francisco setting, the fast-moving plot and the very colourful graphics make it a fun watch. It stars the voices of Steve Carell as Gru, Pierre Coffin as all of the minions, and Alan Arkin, Taraji P. Henson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jill Lawless, Danny Trejo, Dolph Lundgrin as the six villains. I enjoyed Minions, but the five-and-under set that filled the theatre absolutely loved it. 

Ennio

Dir: Giuseppe Tornatore

Ennio Morricone is born in Rome in 1928 to a professional trumpet player. He enters a music conservatory at the age of 12 and studies under Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi. (He spends most of his life yearning to be taken seriously by Petrassi and the rest of the traditional music establishment.) At an early age, he’s already composing and arranging pieces which include both melodic themes and counterpoint, an oft repeated characteristic of his music.  He writes the tunes for a number of pop songs, and eventually gets a job working for RCA. From there he goes on to compose the soundtracks — always anonymously — for the new film genre known as Spaghetti Westerns. But when he recognizes a director’s name from his elementary school, he becomes a close friend and life-long collaborator with Sergio Leone. He quickly rises to fame writing the distinctive musical scores of films like A fistful of Dollars and The Good the Bad and the Ugly, using harmonicas, whistling, electric guitars, and sound effects in place of the more common symphony orchestras. (Today those films remain his most recognizable works.) He also forms an experimental group that makes improvisational music out of non-musical sounds, influenced by avant-garde composer John Cage.

Morricone goes on to compose the scores of over 500 films, working with Italian masters like Pasolini, Wertmüller and Bertolucci, the giallo horror/thriller director Dario Argento, and Giuseppe Tornatore director of Oscar winner Cinema Paradiso (who also directed this doc).

Ennio died in 2020, and this film is as much a loving tribute to the composer as it is a documentary. While it reveals Morricone’s personality quirks, there are no scandals or salacious secrets of his private life. It’s told using film clips, period footage, audio tracks and many talking heads commenting about him, including fellow composers, John Williams and Hans Zimmer, stars and directors he worked with like Quentin Tarantino Terrance Mallick and Clint Eastwood. (Eastwood says something like Morricone’s music provided the emotions that he never could) Then there are also a bunch of celebs — Bruce Springsteen, Pat Metheny, Wong Kar-Wai — who probably never worked with him, but just felt like praising him or commenting on how he influenced them. Ennio is an informative and fascinating doc, and I liked it a lot, but… couldn’t Tornatore  have told this story in 90 minutes, instead of the two and a  half hours he took?

Mr Malcolm’s List

Dir: Emma Holly Jones

It’s England in the early 19th century. Julia and Selina were best friends at boarding school, but haven’t seen each other in years. Which is why Selina the pure and virtuous daughter of a country vicar (Freida Pinto) is surprised to receive an invitation to visit Julia an upper-class city woman (Zawe Ashton), after all these years. But she does have a reason: she was slighted by a man who took her to the opera once and never called back. The man is Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), who is also the most eligible bachelor in town, not least because he inherited a lot of money. And Julia can’t bear being slighted in public (made even worse when it was depicted in a widely circulated cartoon pamphlet). First Julia turns to her cousin Cassy (Oliver Jackson Cohen) who happens to be Malcolm’s best friend and wingman, who knows all of his secrets. Somehow he leaks the biggest secret of all: that Mr Malcolm keeps a list of 10 characteristics a woman must have for him to consider marrying her — things like talent, poise, intelligence, a knowledge of politics, literature and the arts and one who easily forgives small offences. 

Enter Selina. Would she go along with Julia’s scheme — to date Mr Malcolm, knowing what was on that list, and afterwards to dump him — so Julia can get her sweet revenge? Selina is hesitant but agrees at least to meet him. And wouldn’t you know it? It’s love at first sight. This is further complicated by another man, a dashing military officer (Theo James), who likes Celina a lot, and happens to be in town on the same day. Which one will she choose? And if it’s Mr Malcolm, what will become of Julia’s nefarious revenge plot?

Mr Malcolm’s List is a classic, Jane Austen-style light romantic comedy, complete with a masquerade ball, a hidden scheme, whacky relatives,  and star-crossed lovers. There are also some modern twists. The most obvious is the colour-blind casting, with Black, Indian, White and East Asian actors playing the various roles, without ever bringing up questions of race or ethnicity. Like the musical Hamilton, the film The Personal History of David Copperfield, and, most recently, the Netflix series Bridgerton, this film shows that race on the screen doesn’t need to have any special significance — it just is. Family bloodlines and facial resemblances are not part of the plot. I think it works great in this movie, and I hope to see more of it. The mansions are all stately, the costumes — though a bit odd-looking — are all pretty. And the actors and the characters they play are quite delicious.  They’re clearly having a good time doing this. You can revel in their ludicrous scheming without ever taking it too seriously. Even the credits — accompanied by quaint hand-coloured drawings — are delightful. Rom-coms are not my cuppa tea, but if I have to watch one, I like it when they‘re like this.

Ennio is one of many films playing at the ICFF;  Mr Maxwell’s List, as well as  Minions: the Rise of Gru 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

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

Hot Docs 22! Films reviewed: Hunting in Packs, Midwives PLUS other docs to look out for

Posted in Canada, documentary, Movies, Myanmar, Politics, UK, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 30, 2022

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

Hotdocs, Canada’s International Documentary Festival is on now, showing more than 200 selected movies, many having their world premier. Filmmakers are now in Toronto from all around the world, and so are many of the films subjects. And as always daytime screenings are free for students and seniors: go to hotdocs.ca for details and restrictions. 

And — unlike with mainstream motion pictures — a large number of the directors are women. This year they’re featuring films by the legendary documentarians Janis Cole and Holly Dale, whose films P4W: Prison for Women and Hookers on Davie (about sex workers in Vancouver) are not to be missed. I saw both of these many years ago, and they’re unforgettable.

This week I’m looking at two more movies — both directed by and about women — playing at hotdocs. There are midwives in Myanmar and politicos in Parliaments and Congress.

But before that I’m talking about some of the movies playing at Hotdocs that I haven’t seen yet but look like they’re worth checking out 

Movies at Hotdocs.

One is Jennifer Baichwal’s newest doc Into the Weeds. It’s about a groundskeeper who stood up to the agro-chemical giant Monsanto when he (and tens of thousands of others) got sick after using the herbicide Roundup. Baichwal has won numerous awards for her breathtakingly beautiful documentaries like Manufactured Landscapes and Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, so I’m sure this one is worth seeing too.

Reg Harkema has a new documentary all about the Kids in the Hall, the great Toronto comedy group. They’re getting back together, and three of them — Scott Thompson, Bruce McCulloch, and Mark McKinney — will be at Hotdocs premier in person. Can’t wait to see that.

Another celeb in town is Abigail Disney (of the Disney family) who is now a social activist and filmmaker, She co-directed The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, which talks about the great class divide and economic inequality in the US, using her own family as the starting point. 

Atomic Hope: Inside the Pro-Nuclear Movement talks with scientists campaigning for nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels in slowing climate change. This sounds very interesting. 

In the Eye of the Storm: The Political Odyssey of Yanis Varoufakis is about the former Finance Minister of Greece who fought against the brutal austerity measures imposed by European banks.

Riotsville, USA tells the true story of two fake towns built in the 1960s to train military troops to crack down on demonstrations and civil disobedience.

On a lighter note, Her Scents of Pu Er looks at the first female tea master in China’s history, who shares the secrets of that fragrant and much sought after tea.  And Patty vs Patty tells the bizarre true story of Toronto city hall trying to force sellers of Jamaican beef patties to call them something else, because they’re not hamburger patties. This actually happened.

All of these movies are playing at Hotdocs, right now.

Hunting in Packs

Dir: Chloe Sosa-Sims

Michelle Rempel is a conservative MP from Calgary, who is an ardent supporter of building more pipelines and encouraging the fossil fuel industry.  Jess Philips is an MP from Birmingham from the Labour Party. An ardent feminist, she opposes the leftist Jeremy Corbyn, veering toward Keir Starmer on the party’s centre-right. And Pramila Jayapal is a congresswoman from Seattle. Born in Chennai, India, she is a longtime advocate for immigrant rights and represents the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. So what do these three very different people have in common? They’re all outspoken politicians with firm beliefs… who are also women.

Hunting in Packs is a great, behind-the-scenes look at women in politics over the course of a few years, and the particular abuse they face, up to and including recent elections. It takes you to political “war rooms”, TV appearance, door-to-door canvassing, and the daily drudgery of a politician’s life. It shows them dealing with hecklers and potentially violent protesters (Jess Philips brings up the terrible murder of another Labour MP, Jo Cox, by a politically motivated killer, just a few years ago.) It also reveals some hidden aspects of these women’s personalities. Rempel can curse a blue streak that would make a sailor blush. Philips keeps her cool passing in-your-face protesters. And Jayapal, while the most polished of the three, sticks to her guns and faces down abusive comments on the floor of the House. And regardless of your politics, the three women are each likeable in her own way. This is an entertaining look at the game of politics in the US, UK and Canada.

Midwives

Dir: Hnin Ei Hlaing (Snow)

Hla is an established midwife in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, where she functions as the local doctor, caring for women, not just when they’re giving birth. She notices that a lot of women in her village receive no medical care at all, with some forced to give birth, alone, in the middle of their fields. This is unheard of. So Hla decides to hire a young woman named Nyo Nyo as her apprentice so she can care for this underserved population.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

No!

Rakhine is a deeply troubled area with rebels fighting the central government, as well as ethnic strife within. This is where a million Rohingya were forced to flee to squalid refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh following brutal violence, rape and arson directed against  them. And what do we have here? Hla (Rakhine and Buddhist) hiring Nyo Nyo  (Rohingya and Muslim) as her apprentice. And nationalists, soldiers, and rebels are not happy about this. Can two very different women work together as midwives? Or will ethnic strife tear their arrangement apart?

Midwives is a fascinating, observational-style documentary that gives us a glimpse of two women as out follows them over several years. It shows the raw and rough aspects of their lives — including an actual childbirth on camera — as Nyo Nyo gradually learns her profession. It also exposes the casual racism — from rude, everyday comments about Nyo Nyo’s darker skin, to pop songs on the radio inciting violence against the Rohingya, that shapes the attitudes in that region. All this set against a tumultuous political climate, with a violent military that eventually overthrows the democratically elected government. It’s not unusual to hear missiles and bombs exploding outside the village. But it also gives us an intimate view of the two women and their families as they navigate their uncertain futures, through assimilation, learning languages, and opening a new business. You learn to love and laugh with these two unusual women. It gives an honest and realistic look at this troubled area, as rarely seen on film. 

Midwives and Hunting in Packs are both premiering at hotdocs. Go to hotdocs.ca for tickets.

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 Jeff Harris about Oscars 22!

Posted in Academy Awards, Acting, Hollywood, Movies by CulturalMining.com on March 26, 2022

Oscar interview

(Interview continued)

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

Photo of Jeff Harris by Jeff Harris.

Yes, it’s Oscar time again, but are you ready for more pomp circumstance, the swimming pools and movie stars, the red carpets and fancy clothes?

Or are you just going to give it a miss?

Either way, you’ll hear all about after this year’s awards this weekend, on Sunday, March 27th.

Did you notice anything different this year? Have you seen any of the movies yet? Do you want to see them? How many could be considered Oscar Bait?

Well to answer some of these questions, to look at the nominations, and to give you a taste of what’s to come, I’m going to join today’s guest in a discussion about the Oscars. Jeff Harris is a Toronto-based photographer, former photo editor at Maclean’s, and is continuing a twenty five year art project of self portraits taken each day. You may also know him for taking the pics that accompany my interviews each year at Hot Docs and TIFF (which he has been covering since 2002).

Jeff Harris is back again for the fifth year as resident cinephile to add his voice to our annual  Oscar rundown.

I spoke with Jeff via Zoom.

The Oscars air on March 27, 2022.

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