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

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

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

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

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

The Swearing Jar

Dir: Lindsay MacKay

(Wri: Kate Hewlett)

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

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

The Wonder

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

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

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

Armageddon Time

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

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

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

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

I was really moved by Armageddon Time.

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

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

Women in trouble. Films reviewed: Halloween Ends, Tár

Posted in Berlin, Drama, Horror, LGBT, Music, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on October 15, 2022

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

Toronto Fall Film Fest season continues with ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival from the 18th to the 23rd for in-person movies, with online screenings continuing till the end of the month. ImagineNative, celebrating indigenous works from Canada and around the world, features 19 full-length films and over a hundred shorts.

And there are some real goodies to watch; here are four I really like: Slash/Back is about a group of teenaged girls who fight back against mysterious zombie aliens in Nunavut. We Are Still Here tells eight stories from Australia and Aotearoa; Rosie, set in Montreal in the 1980s, looks at a 6-year-old indigenous girl adopted by an aunt she’s never met; and Bones of Crows is an epic, 100-year-long drama about the life of a Cree woman who barely survives a residential school as a piano prodigy, later becomes a code operator in WWII, and what happens in the years to follow. Bones of Crows, Rosie, We Are Still Here, and Slash/Back or just four of the many fantastic films, videos, games and art at ImagineNative.

This week, I’m looking at two new movies about women in trouble. There’s a Berlin conductor facing increasing setbacks, and a small-town woman in Illinois facing a serial killer… and decides to fight back.

Halloween Ends

Co-Wri/Dir: David Gordon Green 

It’s Halloween night in a small town in Illinois. Haddonfield is famous for all the wrong reasons: it’s the site of repeated attacks by a demented and violent serial killer. He has terrorized the locals for half a century, wearing a white mask and carrying a long blade. But Michael Myers has disappeared, possibly forever, and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) — who survived his first incarnation as a young babysitter, and has fought him off countless times since then — is glad to see him gone. Now she lives with her granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) who works as a nurse at a local medical centre. With her parents (Laurie’s daughter) gone (both killed by Michael Myers, along with dozens of others) Alyson sticks around to keep her grandma company. Laurie spends her time writing a book about the essence of pure evil, based on her own experiences fighting the monster. And she also wants to stop this malaise from infecting the whole town. 

But there’s a new factor in the equation. Former college student Corey Cunningham (Canadian actor Rohan Campbell) also experienced bad times as a babysitter in this benighted town. But unlike Laurie and Allyson who emerged as fighters and survivors, Corey has a different reputation. The kid he babysat was killed one halloween night in a terrible accident that locals blame on him. Now his life is confined to working in his dad’s junkyard on the edge of town. But Laurie recognizes him as a kindred spirit and introduces herself to Corey. (Dubbed Psycho meets Freakshow by a gang of high school bullies.) Allyson and Corey hit it off — could they build a future together? But when the bullies throw Corey off a bridge and leave him for dead, and an unknown man drags him into a drain pipe, something changes in his psyche… signalling the return of the notorious Michael Myers. Can Corey be saved and will he and Laurie escape this town forever? Or has he been infected by the same evil that drives the monster? And who will triumph in their final showdown: Laurie or Michael Myers?

Halloween Ends is the final chapter in David Gordon Green’s trilogy, after Halloween, and Halloween Kills, based on John Carpenter’s original classic. This one is missing much of the humour of the first chapter and the unbelievable hysteria of crowds in the second film. This one is extremely dark, violent, bloody and gory. That said, I liked the introduction of Corey and his nihilistic, crash-and-burn relationship with Allyson. Myers plays a much smaller role, almost a cameo, this time. It also lets Jamie Lee Curtis have her final, final, FINAL Halloween showdown… well, at least in this trilogy. 

The entire film takes place in the present, but is firmly set in a retro environment: cars, houses, clothing, hair — even the soundtrack, titles, art direction, and camerawork — all come from decades past, giving it a very cool look. If you’re craving a dystopian, nihilistic “burn-it-all-down!” thriller/horror then Halloween Ends will probably satisfy your urges, but otherwise, you may find the pessimistic violence and gore too much to handle.

Tár

Wri/Dir: Todd Field

Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) is a musician at the peak of her career. Not only is she one of the world’s only female conductors — Leonard Bernstein was her mentor — but she’s also a noted composer. She conducts the Berlin symphony orchestra, and is working on her magnum opus — a recording of Mahler’s fifth symphony, the only one she hasn’t yet tackled — to complete her legacy. Lydia enjoys jetting around the world in a private plane, always accompanied by her assistant. Francesca (Noémie Merlant) is a doe- eyed young woman who worships the ground Lydia walks on, making sure her complex life is run smoothly. There is no husband in the picture — she calls herself a U-Haul lesbian — but she does have a family life. In Berlin,  she lives with her partner Sharon (Nina Hoss) and their young daughter. She sees Sharon at home and at work — she’s First Violin, who holds a special bond with a conductor without which a symphony can’t operate. 

But things start to go wrong when Lydia becomes infatuated with a new cellist in the orchestra. Olga (Sophie Kauer) is a 25-year-old Russian with a fiery temperament and dark hair; she’s a passionate player. She wears green suede boots and Lydia can’t stop staring at her. She wants to get to know her better. But Lydia is a conductor with all eyes on her, all the time; Francesca, Sharon, and even the entire orchestra can clearly see what’s going on. Ghosts from her past misdeeds start to appear again. A former protege commits suicide. A music student she insulted at a Julliard master class accuses her of racism. Is Lydia’s carefully-constructed image and career just a house of cards waiting to collapse?

Tár is a stunning movie that explore the labyrinthine world of classical music and the people who inhabit it. Cate Blanchett gives a nuanced portrayal of a character that walks the fine line between confidence and arrogance, creativity and uncontrolled behaviour.

Is she a free thinker or a sexual predator? A natural-born leader or an authoritarian dictator? And would she be in hot water if she were a man? The supporting actors — Merlant, Hoss, and Kauer, as well as Mark Strong and Zethphan Smith-Gneist — all portray characters as deeply developed as Blanchett’s. Tár is an uncomfortable movie but a fascinating one to watch. 

TAR and Halloween Ends both open in theatres 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.

Daniel Garber talks with Buffy Sainte-Marie about Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On at #TIFF22

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Academy Awards, Canada, Cree, documentary, FBI, Folk, Indigenous, Music, Protest by CulturalMining.com on September 17, 2022

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

Buffy Sainte Marie was born to Cree parents on a reserve in the Qu’Apelle valley Saskatchewan but was adopted and raised by a  family with Mi’kmaq roots in Massachusetts. She grew up musically-inclined and sang folk songs in Yorkville and Greenwich Village coffee houses. Her dynamic guitar style and distinctive vibrato set her apart.

The songs she wrote and performed climbed the charts and were covered by hundreds of other musicians, from Elvis to Donavan, Joni Mitchell to Barbra Streisand. Her song Universal Soldier became an anthem of the anti-war movement while Now That the Buffalo’s Gone did the same for the American Indian Movement. She starred in movies and on TV, became a regular on Sesame Street, won countless awards, and was the first — and for many years only — indigenous person to win an Oscar.

Her story is told in a new documentary by Madison Thomas called Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On. Narrated by Taj Mahal, Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell and others, and Buffy Ste Marie herself, it combines period footage and personal photos,  dramatizations, and lots of music and concerts, both vintage and new.

I spoke to Buffy Sainte-Marie on site at TIFF22.

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On had its world premiere at TIFF and is opening at the Hot Docs Cinema later this month.  

Non-TIFF movies. Films reviewed: Nightclubbing, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul

Posted in African-Americans, Christianity, comedy, documentary, Music, New York City, Punk, Religion, Satire, Sexual Harassment by CulturalMining.com on September 3, 2022

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

TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival starts in less than a week, and kicks off fall film festival season in Toronto. 

I‘ll be bringing you lots more about TIFF later, but don’t forget the other festivals on this month. Caribbean Tales International Film Festival runs from Sept 7th through the 23rd; The Toronto Independent Film Festival is on from September 14 – 17; and the Toronto Palestine Film Festival opens on September 22nd.

But this week I’m talking about a couple movies not playing at festivals. There’s a documentary about the rise of punk rock in New York City, and a mocumentary about the fall of a Baptist preacher in Atlanta. 

Wri/ Dir: Adamma Ebo

It’s springtime in Atlanta, Georgia, and churchgoers are preparing for Easter. It will also be the date of the triumphant re-opening of a Baptist megachurch, under the direction of Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown). Along with his wife, “First Lady” Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall) are looking forward to the triumphant return of their flock. But he has important issues to deal with  — like what suit should he wear — his pink Prada, his purple Prada or his periwinkle Prada. Presentation is important. Trinitie, likewise, has been shopping for a particular beaded church hat, the perfect combination of beauty, wealth and reserve. But so far the response has been less than stellar; only a handful of true believers show up for the first Wednesday night service. 

The Pastor is known for his fiery, passionate preaching, about things like the “sins of homosexuality” and other such vices. But he fell from grace after his own sexual dalliances came to light. Nothing illegal — “consenting adults” and all that — but his reputation as a trusted guide and healer is in tatters. Meanwhile a rival church has sprung up down the road. Run by a younger couple, Keon and Shakura Sumpter (Conphidance, Nicole Beharie), their church has no dark clouds hovering overhead. A few of the faithful have stuck with the Pastor, but most of them switched churches. Can Lee-Curtis and Trinitie convince their flock that all is well and it’s time to come home? Can Trinitie stand by her husband after what he did? Or is this the beginning of the end?

Honk for Jesus, Save your Soul is a satirical social comedy about hypocrisy in religion. The title refers to one of their many attempts to get people to come back to the mega-church’s reopening. The film is done in the form of a documentary, an invisible crew that follows them around, unwittingly exposing their embarrassing or horrible behaviour. (Through no fault of her own, the “First Lady” suffers the effects of his misdeeds.) This alternates with off-camera moments, like Lee-Curtis and Trinitie attempting to have sex in bed (apparently, for a man with a mission, he doesn’t want anything missionary-style just from behind with his eyes closed, to her great disappointment.) 

Does this movie work? Only partly. It’s a comedy but it’s rarely funny. The camerawork is well done — from their gaudy suits and the royal thrones they sit on, to poignant images like a tiny black Jesus statue wheeled out in a last attempt. And the acting is very good: Sterling K. Brown perfectly plays the pastor as a conceited show-off, bearing his near-naked body whenever possible. Regina Hall as the always suffering Trinitie — who has to face the vitriol of her former friends — gives a nicely  sympathetic performance. But the movie itself drags. There are few surprises. It feels way too long, and it’s not very funny… it just makes you squirm uncomfortably. Honk for Jesus all you want, but don’t rush to see this one.

Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in New York City

Wri/Dir: Danny Garcia

Its the 1960s in a rough neighbourhood in Manhattan. Max’s Kansas City is a restaurant with an upstairs bar and lounge, where musicians perform before small audiences. Its down the street from Andy Warhol’s factory whose denizens hang out there along with writers and artists. But everything changes when the Greenwich Village mainstay, The Gaslight, loses its lease. Its manager moves to Max’s and starts booking bigger and bigger acts. Velvet Underground, establishes its rep there, as a place for independent bands. Iggy Pop meets David Bowie at Max’s and start to collaborate, and the New York Dolls set up camp there. As its fame grows, punk becomes a phenomenon with lots of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Max’s washrooms double as a notorious site for quickies. Someone in the film says they everyone there was high all the time, with heroine the drug of choice. Malcolm McLaren shows up after Sid Vicious leaves the Sex Pistols and becomes the Doll’s manager, bankrolling their rehab in exchange for them wearing his clothes on the stage. Though CBGBs ends up more famous, it’s Max’s that really starts the punk scene in NY.

Nightclubbing is an oral history of the early days of the NY punk scene told by the musicians themselves, their fans and followers, staff at the clubs, family and friends. Featured artists include Billy Idol, Alice Cooper, Penny Arcade, Sylvain Sylvain, and many many others.

Illustrated with still photos and archive footage, it is meticulously researched and edited into a continuous seamless narrative. And the music never stops.  Some people are on the screen for just a few seconds, with maybe a simple line or two, while others, like Jayne County, provide the funniest and juiciest bits.  And it’s a pretty juicy story. Like did you know Deedee Ramone’s girlfriend tried to pull a Lorena Bobbitt on him when she discovered he was hustling on 53rd st? Or that Max’s owners were busy counterfeiting hundred dollar bills in the back room? The club closed forever in 1981, but its legend lives on. If you’re into the history of early NY punk, Nightclubbing is a must-see.

Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in New York City will be playing at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto on September 16th-18th; and you can catch Honk for Jesus, Save your Soul across North America starting 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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Mark James about Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, documentary, Jamaica, Music, Reggae by CulturalMining.com on August 13, 2022

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

It’s the 1960s in Kingston, Jamaica.

Randy’s is a legendary record store, a place where fans of music — and the musicians themselves — could listen to the latest hits. And upstairs, on the second floor, there’s a studio, a place where new tunes are being recorded, and their music — ska, reggae and dub — is being released worldwide. All the greats — people like Sly and Robby, Dennis Brown, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Lee Scratch Perry, Bob Marley and the Wailers — all spend time there, with some songs climbing to the top of the charts. The studio is run by husband-and-wife Vince and Pat Chin. But when the mood in Kingston changes from peace and calm to violence and gun wars, the studio is forced to close, the Chins move to New York, and the building is battered by storms and robbed by looters… but what happened to all those recordings?

Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes is a new documentary that looks at that recording studio, the people who made it work, and the music itself, boxes and boxes of rare, reel-to-reel tapes that somehow survived until now… when the tapes are being faithfully restored, archived and rereleased. The film includes interviews with many musicians, and the Chins, illustrated with hundreds of period photos and video clips, along with non-stop music taken from those legendary recordings. This feature documentary is the work of award-winning director and cinematographer, Mark James. A student of fine arts at London’s Goldsmiths College, and film production at the Royal College of Art, he has made docs about Damien Hirst, and Bryan Ferry, as well as horror films like Vampire Diary.

I spoke to Mark in Montreal, via ZOOM.

Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes is having a special Toronto screening on August 15th at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, as part of a national tour.

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

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.

Sagas. Films reviewed: All My Puny Sorrows, The Northman

Posted in Adventure, Canada, Family, Iceland, Music, Religion, Secrets, Suicide, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 16, 2022

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

If you’re looking for new opportunities to see movies in Toronto, there are a lot of opportunities coming up. This coming Wednesday is the annual Canada Film Day, with great Canadian movies playing for free across the country, and at embassies around the world. Whether you’re in Arviat, Saskatoon, or downtown Toronto, go to canfilmday.ca to find the movie closest to you. Also free, if you’re under 25, is the Next Wave Festival at TIFF with workshops, competitions and a well-curated slate of screenings for you to watch. 

This week, I’m looking at two new movies — one from the US, the other from Canada. There’s a brooding Mennonite drama, and a swashbuckling Icelandic saga.

All My Puny Sorrows

Co-Wri/Dir: Michael McGowan (Based on the novel by Miriam Toews)

Elf and Yoli are sisters who grew up in a small Mennonite community in Canada. Elf (Sarah Gadon) is a world-renowned concert pianist, rich famous and glamorous. Her loving husband is always there to lend a hand. Yoli (Alison Pill), the black sheep of the family, was pregnant at 18, and lives with her daughter in Toronto. She’s a published writer but her last novel sold just a few hundred copies. And now she has writer’s block, her husband is divorcing her, and she’s sleeping with a lawyer named Finbar she doesn’t even like. So when their  Mom (Mare Winningham) gets a late night phone call that her daughter had attempted suicide, she’s not surprised. The thing is, it’s Elf, not Yoli, who wants to die. 

So Yoli flies back to her hometown to visit Elf in hospital and to convince her that life is worth living. But the visit awakens lost memories of their childhood, including gossipy small-town life, and various encounters with the repressive church leadership. They never wanted Elf to study music or for their father to open a public library. And she’s not the first one in the family with suicidal tendencies — the movie starts with their dad walking in front of a train a decade earlier.

All My Puny Sorrows is a literary look at the lives of two sisters. By “literary” I mean they literally talk like characters in a book, with witty bon mots spilling off their tongues. I mean, why say hey Elf, how’s it going? when you can quote Coleridge and Virginia Woolf instead? The problem is some of the dialogue and voice-overs come across as stilted and wooden, not how real people talk.  There are some great scenes in the movie — like a flashback, where their mom expresses her anger at the Elders’ interference by loudly pounding a chicken breast in the kitchen while Elf plays Rachmaninoff on the piano, full blast, to drown out their voices. And I also liked some of the interactions among Elf, Yoli, their mom and their aunt.

But as a whole, the movie doesn’t quite cut it, with too many parts that fall flat. 

The Northman

Co-Wri/Dir: Robert Eggers (read my 2019 interview with Eggers here)

It’s the middle ages in Scandinavia. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a little prince who lives a quiet life with his mother, the Queen (Nicole Kidman) in a seaside village. But when his father the king returns home, everything changes. He leads the prince into a secret cave to perform sacred rituals. Between farts and belches, Amleth becomes an adult, receives an amulet, and is inducted into the order of the wolves by howling at the moon. But his new status is interrupted by his insidious uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). He witness his uncle murdering the king, kidnapping the queen, and ordering the prince’s death, too. His father’s last words: avenge my death by killing my brother and rescuing the Queen. The little boy fights off his killer by slicing off his nose, and flees in a small boat across the seas. 

Years later, he’s a fierce warrior, raiding coastal and riverside towns dressed as a wolf berserker, massacring, looting and pillaging as his team passes through. But a mystical soothsayer orders him to fulfil her predictions and leave the vikings for a new voyage. So he disguises himself as a slave, and climbs aboard a ship destined for Iceland. On board he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) the blonde slave warrior from his visions, and together they make a pact. But will he ever fulfill his destiny?

The Northman is a brilliant new Icelandic saga about a hero’s wars, battles, magic and family lines. It blends pre-christian legends and rituals with sacred swords, Dwarves, animism and nordic gods. It’s also about reclaiming masculinity, including a spectacularly homoerotic sword fight fought in the nude over flowing lava. (Not joking.) It also has proto-football matches, magical crows and wolves, and psychedelic mushroom. 

In order to appreciate The Northman you have to buy into the whole concept, otherwise you’ll reject it as ludicrous (there are a few moments where you wonder what the hell are you watching.) But it’s so beautifully done and carefully crafted that it’s much more than a Game of Thrones episode. This one has depth and meaning. And knowing Robert Eggers, I’m sure he and his crew deeply researched the film — his other ones used things like dialogue taken directly from a 19th century diary. It also includes incredible images you’ve never seen before, like a three-dimensional family tree that appears to him in his visions, that looks like a cross between a Japanese ghost story and a mediaeval tapestry. Just amazing. It’s extremely violent and harshly amoral, so if that upsets you, don’t see this movie. But if you like sword fights, vikings and authentic mediaeval adventures, you’ll probably love The Northman as much as I did.

All My Puny Sorrows is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings; and The Northman opens next Friday.

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

Valentine’s Day Rom-Coms. Films reviewed: Marry Me, The Worst Person in the World

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Movies, Music, New York City, Norway, Romance, Romantic Comedy by CulturalMining.com on February 12, 2022

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

It’s Valentine’s Day weekend and the movie theatres are open. Wanna go on a date? There’s lots of stuff to see. So this week, I’m looking at two new romantic comedies. There’s a pop star who meets a schoolteacher in New York City; and a student who meets a comic book artist in Oslo. 

Marry Me

Dir: Kat Coiro

It’s present-day New York City. Charlie (Owen Wilson) is a math teacher and divorced dad in Brooklyn. He is trying to win the affection of his only daughter Lou (Chloe Coleman), who is now a student at his school. He coaches the math club, but Lou doesn’t want to join it.   But when his best friend and fellow teacher Parker (Sarah Silverman), says she has three tickets to a big event, he reluctantly agrees to come with his daughter. The concert features pop superstars Kat Valdez and Bastian (Jenifer Lopez and Maluma). The two are deeply in love and plan to marry on stage as part of the release of a new ballad version of their latest smash hit, Marry Me. Lou and Parker are very excited because they are huge fans, but Charlie has never even heard of them. Then, at the show, something goes terribly wrong. Immediately before singing the Marry Me song before tens of millions of online viewers, Kat discovers Bastian has been cheating on her. In a fit of rage, she refuses to marry him and instead points to a random man in the audience — Charlie! A few minutes later, on stage before the cameras, she asks him to marry her… and he says OK. Of course it’s just a publicity stunt, but, after consulting with her kindly manager, she decides to make a go of it. After all, her previous three marriages didn’t work out, who’s to say a marriage to a random guy couldn’t work? But can an ordinary man and a fabulously wealthy and famous woman become a happily married couple? Or is it just an impossible dream of separate worlds?

Marry Me is a cute rom-com with a few twists: the ordinary guy is white, while the rich and powerful woman is Latin; then there’s the fact that the romantic leads are both in their fifties — especially unusual for female leads.   Owen Wilson is still projecting his perpetual dumb-boy energy, and J-Lo is just being J-Lo — a large portion of the film is devoted to music. Acting is not the main point here. It’s also pretty predictable, but that’s why people go to rom-coms, a once-popular genre that has fallen by the wayside.  Will Marry Me be its comeback? Probably not. I’m not a fan of the music or the stars, but despite all that I still found it watchable and cute. 

The Worst Person in the World

Co-Wri/Dir: Joachim Trier

Julie (Renate Reinsve) is a middle-class woman in her 20s in Oslo, Norway. She’s bright, pretty, confident and opinionated, but can’t quite figure out what she wants in life, both professionally and personally. She studies a number of disciplines — medicine, psychology, photography — and is very good at whatever she does… but can’t quite find her niche. She does find love, though. She hooks up with a guy named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) an underground comic artist. He created a Fritz the Cat-type character named Bobcat. He’s 15 years older than her, but she decides to put her own life on hold and move in with him. But she gets restless.

One night she crashes a party and meets a guy named Elvind (Herbert Nordrum). They hit it off immediately and have an intimate verbal encounter, without technically cheating on their respective spouses. They don’t exchange names and swear to never meet again. Thing is, Oslo’s a big city, but not that big. They do meet again, in a bookstore where Julie works. Is Elvind the one she’s always been looking for? Or is Aksel? And will she ever find happiness?

To call The Worst Person in the World a rom-com doesn’t do it justice. It’s more of a long, complex dramatic comedy. It’s told in 12 chapters, and the prologue alone could have been its own movie. It’s also a social satire, dealing wth diverse issues — family, relationships,  pregnancy, politics, selling out to the man, sexism, psychedelic drugs, “cancel culture” — even death. And I really love Joachim Trier’s movies (Thelma, Oslo, August 31st ). I guess that’s why I found this one disappointing. It’s not bad, or cheesy or cheap —he doesn’t make movies like that.  It’s well-made, and well acted, nice design and music. And there’s tons of fascinating ideas and content, but it’s thrown at the viewer, almost indifferently, chapter after chapter after chapter. There’s a superficial melancholy to the whole thing, which makes it hard to sympathize with Julie. She’s not the worst person in the world by any means, but she’s not a heroine either. Is it worth seeing? Certainly, there’s lots to chew on, and it made me think. It’s just not as funny, sad, moving or romantic as I might have liked. Just more of that empty, Scandinavian hollowness. It’s actually less of a rom-com than a romantic tragedy… without the tears.

Marry Me just opened and The Worst Person in the World is now playing at the Tiff Bell Lightbox 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 documentary filmmaker Joanne Belluco about Stuck, premiering at Cinefranco

Posted in Art, Canada, Covid-19, documentary, Language, Music, Theatre by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2021

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

What do these people have in common?

A writer and storyteller in Toronto; a dancer in France; a stand-up comic in New Brunswick; a theatre director in Sudbury; a cinematographer in Winnipeg; an electronic musician in Northern Ontario; and a brother/sister musical duo in Montreal? 

They’re all francophone Canadians who work in the performing arts. And during the pandemic they all find themselves stuck! Stuck à la maison, stuck at home.

Stuck is also the name of a  new documentary feature  that looks at the effect of the coronavirus — and the restrictions it brought — on these people’s lives and careers.

Stuck was directed by Joanne Belluco, a French-born, Toronto-based documentary filmmaker, producer, writer and journalist.

I spoke with Joanne in Toronto via ZOOM.

Stuck is having its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs Cinema on November 1, at 7:30 pm at Toronto’s CineFranco film festival.

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