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

Daniel Garber talks with Agam Darshi about her new film Donkeyhead

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

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

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

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

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

I spoke with Agam Darshi from Toronto via ZOOM.

Tagged with: ,

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

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

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

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

Benedetta

Co-Wri/Dir: Paul Verhoeven

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

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

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

Agnes

Wri/Dir: Mickey Reece

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

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

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

Hand of God 

Dir: Paolo Sorrentino

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disturbed or unusual boys and men. Films reviewed: Halloween Kills, Mass, I’m Your Man

Posted in 1970s, Christianity, Death, Family, Germany, Horror, Religion, Romance, Satire, Science Fiction, Sex, Terrorism, Vengeance, violence by CulturalMining.com on October 16, 2021

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

Spring Film Festival season continues in October, with ImagineNATIVE showing wonderful indigenous films and art from here and around the world beginning next week; and Toronto After Dark, bringing us the best new horror, sci-fi and action movies, now through Sunday.

This week I’m looking at three new movies — a slasher horror, a serious drama, and a romantic comedy — about disturbed or unusual boys and men.

There’s a dangerous man with a knife and a mask; two sets of parents mourning the death of their boys; and a woman whose perfect date isn’t exactly human.

Halloween Kills

Dir: David Gordon Green

It’s 2018 in Haddonfield, Illinois. This town is notorious for a series of murders beginning in the late 1970s, by Michael Myers, a mysterious man in a white mask. Michael has brutally killed countless people using a sharp knife on Halloween. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) was a babysitter who survived this attack and the many others that followed. When he reappeared at this year’s Halloween, 40 years later, Laurie was not that surprised. Together with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and grand-daughter Allyson (Andi Matichek) they managed to finally defeated this monster by leaving him trapped in a burning house. Or have they? You see, Michael is virtually indestructible, with the mind of a disturbed six-year-old boy combined with the strength of a supernaturally strong man.  Turns out — surprise, surprise, surprise, — Michael is not dead. He’s back and ready to kill more people. So three groups set out to stop him: a posse of costumed competitors at a talent show at a local dive bar; a frenzied mob of vigilantes shouting Trump-like slogans; and Laurie Strode’s own crew. But can anyone defeat Michael Myers?

Halloween Kills is a classic, almost nostalgic, reboot of the 1970s slasher. This one takes up immediately after the 2018 version ends. But unlike that darkly humorous take, this one is more of a campy bloodbath filled with non-stop gruesome violence. It also includes flashbacks to the 70s, introducing a group of characters from that night and where they are now, 40 years later. There’s not much of a plot, per se, more just scene after scene of people being murdered by Michael. Which is not to say I didn’t like it. The music (by John Carpenter) the camerawork, the design and art direction, the whole feel of it provides a wonderful counterpoint to the disgusting blood and guts.  Halloween Kills is a delightfully pointless salute to the original 70s slasher. 

Mass

Wri/Dir: Fran Kranz

An Episcopal church in a small town is preparing for a meeting. It’s not the usual choir practice or AA meetings. This one is different. Four people — two middle-aged married couples — have never met face to face but know a great deal about each other. Their sons went to school together. Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs) are filled with dread, and seething with anger. They almost can’t bear to enter the building. Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney) are desperately trying to make a connection and to mend  — not burn — the bridges that bind these two couples. What is it that ties them together? Linda and Richard’s son gunned down a dozen people in his school, including Gail and Jay’s boy, before turning the gun on himself.

Gail and Jay’s lives are ruined and they are still trying to recover from the massacre. But Linda and Richard’s lives are even worse. They can’t publicly mourn the loss of their only child, and are bombarded by hate mail. They are filled with guilt and remorse — is what their son did their fault? Were they bad parents? Did they pay too much attention, or not enough? Through an open and unmoderated discussion, including the showing of photos and telling of stories, the two couples are there to better understand the feelings of the others, and ultimately, to look for forgiveness.   But will they find it at a small table in a spartan church room?

Mass is a highly emotional look at four fragile adults. It’s basically a long, slow-paced conversation, especially between the two mothers. The acting is great, and the topic is supercharged. You have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate Mass. I found it a bit hard to watch, with zero eye candy or external flashbacks, basically nothing to look at other than their faces. it’s visually dead, except for the raw emotions expressed by the four characters… but if you stick with it, you’ll find the most emotional moments are cleverly inserted, almost incidentally, near the end.

I’m Your Man

Co-Wri/Dir: Maria Schrader

Alma (Maren Eggert) is a single woman, a noted academic at a famous Berlin museum. She specializes in Sumerian cuneiform tablets. She also spends one day a week with her angry father who is suffering from dementia. Her life, and career, are satisfying but uneventful. Until she becomes a reluctant participant in an unusual experiment: to spend three weeks living with and observing, a perfect lover. This man, they say, is handsome, smart and courteous, there to address and satisfy all her wants and needs. But who is this mysterious date? It’s Tom (Dan Stevens). Tom’s hair teeth and body, are always perfect. He never gets angry, and speaks with an oddly alluring foreign accent. And he goes out of his way to make her life more romantic, dropping rose petals in her bubble bath by the light of flickering candles. He likes to dance the Rumba, And he is highly skilled in bed, precisely trained on how to give a woman the ultimate orgasm. But Alma recoils from him, refuses to sleep with him, and treats him like dirt. She gives him a small cot to sleep on in a windowless storage room.

What’s Alma’s problem?

Tom is a robot. And one designed especially for her. But while 82% of German women in her age bracket say they desire candles and rose petals, Alma is not one of them. She hates that stuff. And she feels put upon by this machine. Where is his sense of humour? Where is his spontaneity? Where is his humanity? But the thing is, Tom is not just a machine, he has artificial intelligence. He can learn, adapt and change… as long as she lets him into her life. Can the two of them ever understand each other? Will their relationship become sexual? And is love possible between humans and machines? 

I’m Your Man is a surprisingly romantic story, wonderfully told. It explores concepts of love, reality and what people really look for in a relationship. It’s funny, quirky, tender and surprisingly easy to believe, despite the science-fiction premise. While there are some special effects, most of the stranger stuff is handled by the actors themselves.  I’m Your Man uses a simple idea to explore unexpected places.

This movie really grabbed me — I liked it a lot.

Halloween Kills, Mass, and I’m Your Man all open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

The Rise and Fall of Female Celebrities: Films reviewed: The Eyes of Tammy Faye, France, Spencer

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, Biopic, Corruption, France, Journalism, Religion, Royalty, UK, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 18, 2021

TIFF is almost over now, but there’s still one day left to see some films. And although there aren’t many famous people appearing on King St this year, there are a lot of movies about celebrities. How they rise to fame and how they are often brought down again by the voracious papparazzi-fueled press. So this week I’m looking at three TIFF movies — two biopics and one dramedy — about female celebrities who just want to be loved. There’s a newscaster in Paris who is part of the news; a princess in England who is part of the royals; and a televangelist who is the target of the mainstream press.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Dir: Michael Showalter

Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastaine) is a televangelist. Born in International Falls, Minn, a small town on the Canadian border, she is raised by a strict mother (Cherry Jones) who calls her a harlot. She is born again in a Pentecostal church where she is speaking in tongues at an early age. At bible college she meets her future husband, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). He rejects the dour talk of sin and instead subscribes to a charismatic evangelism, one where all are welcome, regardless of belief or denomination. Wealth, not poverty, is desirable. Tammy loves his ideas and him. But she wears makeup and bright colours, and they end up in bed together and eventually married. 

They are expelled from the school, but bounce back. Tammy makes an ugly little puppet out of a bubble bath container to attract kids to revival meetings. Their popularity takes off and before you know it, they’re regulars on Pat Robertson’s Christian TV show. They break away to form their own satellite-powered TV network, attracting viewers and followers worldwide — people who enthusiastically send tons of cash to keep the show going. Tammy’s songs hit the Christian music charts while Jim expands their financial holdings, opening theme parks and other ventures. Tammy and Jim love the wealth and luxury their show brings in — the mink coats and fancy homes. Their sex life, however, takes a dive. Neglected by her husband, Tammy is attracted to handsome men — and, so it seems, is Jim. She turns to Ativan and Diet Coke to keep her engine running. But they’re facing trouble. The mainstream press exposes scandal after scandal. And lurking in the background is the Christian Right, led by the notorious Jerry Fallwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). Can their marriage last? Will their financial empire stay afloat? Will Tammy’s mom ever respect her? And will the people always love her?

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a stylized, tongue-in-cheek biopic about the rise and fall of a televangelical superstar. The title refers both to her gaudy false eyelashes as well as the trademark tears she could generate on command. Jessica Chastain creates an unforgettable character  through the use of facial prosthetics and heavy-duty makeup as she ages. She mainly plays Tammy for the laughs — there’s a wide streak of camp running through the whole film — but there is some heart behind it. And on the serious side, it points out her advocacy of AIDS patients, just when Falwell was publicly attacking them. I quite enjoyed the movie, it’s a lot of fun with tons of flashy colour and splashy music. It’s clearly Oscar bait — this is Jessica Chastain looking for golden statues — but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of watching it.

France

Wri/Dir: Bruno Dumont

France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) is a TV news reporter in Paris like none other. One day she’s flying off to a war front in the Sahel, the next she’s mediating between two political commentators. She’s beautiful, talented and loved by millions. At a presidential press conference she can upstage Macron. Her husband Fred is a novelist, and they live with their son Jojo in a flat thats more of an art museum than a home. And with the constant help of Lou (Blanche Gardin), her assistant and manager, she navigates from one success to the next. She’s untouchable. Until something throws her off kilter. Her car, caught in traffic, accidentally bumps a young man on a motorbike hurting his leg. Baptiste is working class, the son of Algerians. France is mortified and goes out of her way to  visit his family, showering them with gifts. But a deep-down depression has taken hold.

Her self confidence is fading and she’s prone to breaking into tears at the first provocation. Fred finally sends her to an alpine spa to recover, where she meets a guileless young man named Charles (Emanuele Arioli) who has never heard of her. Is he the answer to her prayers? Or just her latest obstacle as she falls deeper and deeper into her abyss?

France is a satirical dramedy about France (the country) its politics, celebrities and news media. Like the 1987 film Broadcast News it exposes the falsity and contrivedness of the news industry — their posing, re-shooting of answers in interviews, and the staging of news scenes during a war. But just as the film exposes the tricks and manipulation of reporting, Bruno Dumont (the filmmaker himself) relies on his own contrived story. Poor France! She’s subject to Dumont’s morbidly humorous plot turns, inflicting more and more calamities on his poor hapless character. France de Meurs is Dumont’s Job. 

The film kept me interested all the way through, and Lea Seydoux is really good in her role as a manipulative but likeable celebrity, but it goes on way too long — one of those movies that feel like they’re about to end, but don’t.

Spencer 

Dir: Pablo Larraín

It’s Christmas Eve in 1990.

Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) is late for lunch. She’s driving to Sandringham Castle and and has lost her way. She grew up on a country home nearby. Eventually she is rescued by Darren the palace chef (Sean Harris) who runs his kitchen like a military battalion. But Diana doesn’t want to be there. She hates the weird family traditions she’s forced to follow. Things like sitting on a scale when you enter to see how many pounds you’ll gain feasting over Christmas. Not much fun for someone with Bulimia. She dreads the clothes and jewels she’s forced to wear, and can’t stand the family dinners — she thinks the royals can all read her mind. Her only allies are her young sons William and Harry, with whom she can act like a normal mom; and her dresser and confident Maggie (Sally Hawkins) whom she can tell anything.

Why is she so distraught? Because she knows her husband is having an affair. The constant hounding by the dreaded cameramen is deadly, but even worse are the palace rules, enforced by a cryptic royal military officer. Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall) feels it’s his duty to police everything she does — and she despises him for it. He sews her curtains shut — to stop the photographers, he says — and banishes Maggie from the castle. And as the three days around Christmas come to pass, her depression and anger makes way for paranoid delusions. Is she a princess or a prisoner? And can she ever get away from this awful, gilded life?

Spencer is an experimental film that looks at three days of Diana’s life, her last ones spent as a member of the royal family. It’s beautifully done, but in a highly interpretive way. She is constantly haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn who was killed by Henry VIII. She seeks solace in a scarecrow she finds on her father’s estate next door. And her dreams, fantasies and realities start to blend.  This is a beautiful movie, marvellously made. At certain angles Kristen Stewart does look like Diana, but this is really a fictional interpretation of the character she creates. She doesn’t try too hard to match her class and accent, just her thoughts  and mood. If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy and stodgy characters, this one’s not for you. But if you approach it instead as an experimental and surreal character-study of a troubled woman, I think you’ll love it like I do

All three of these movies played at TIFF. Spencer opens in November, The Eyes of Tammy Faye starts 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

Northern Europe. Films reviewed: The Good Traitor, Boys from County Hell, About Endlessness

Posted in comedy, Denmark, Diplomacy, Experimental Film, Family, Horror, Ireland, Religion, Sweden, Vampires, WWII by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2021

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

I don’t care what they tell you, movies are not the same without the whole movie experience — going out, choosing a movie, standing in line, eating popcorn… and sitting in a large space beside a crowd of strangers laughing, booing or screaming to the same things you are. You can’t get that watching a laptop or a flat screen TV.

Remember TimePlay? That movie trivia game you used to play before the film starts? Well, they’re about to launch a TimePlay app, replicating the movie experience, where you get to compete against other movie buffs in real time (The winner gets Cineplex Scene card points). I tried it out this week in a trial run for media, and it’s goofy but a lot of fun.

This week I’m looking at three very different movies, all from northern Europe; an existential arthouse film, a comedy/ horror, and an existential arthouse film, and an historical drama. There’s a Swedish storyteller, a Celtic vampire, and a Danish diplomat.

The Good Traitor

Dir: Christina Rosendahl

It’s 1939 in Washington DC, on the brink of WWII. Henrik Kauffmann (Ulrich Thomsen) is the Danish Ambassador, who lives with his brilliant wife Charlotte (Denise Gough) and their two young daughters. It’s a pleasant life, drinking champagne by the swimming pool or mingling at a cocktail party… but beneath the surface, everyone knows Hitler is going to invade Denmark. Should they just let it happen? Or should they do what they can to stop it? The Nazis march in and the Danish government declares  nothing bad is happening here. But Henrik and an earnest young Danish lawyer (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) decide to do something drastic. They declare themselves representatives of the Free Danish Government in exile. And they’re joined by a dozen other Danish Embassies around the world. But can they do for money? And will they get US government support them. (The US stayed out of the war until Pearl Harbour in late 1941).

This is where the real power comes to play. It’s Charlotte, his brilliant wife. Her family has been friends with the Roosevelts since long before she met Henrik. But can she convince FDR to side with her husband? But there’s a twist;  Henrik had a fling with Zilla, Charlotte’s vivacious younger sister (Zoë Tapper) a decade earlier in Beijing. And now she’s sure they’re sleeping together again in Washington. Will Charlotte and Henrik’s troubled relationship influence the geopolitical fate of the world?

The Good Traitor is a fascinating WWII drama viewed from afar, within the safe confines of Washington’s diplomatic corps. It gives hints at the importance of diplomacy and politics in world events, and how much of it takes place behind closed doors. And so do their personal relationships. This is a very tame retelling of true events, with no battles, no death, no violence, except for a shocking twist (no spoilers). But I liked it.

Boys from County Hell

Dir: Chris Baugh

Eugene (Jack Rowan) is a youngish guy who lives in a small Irish town called Six Mile Hill. Its main claim to fame is its association with Dracula author Bram Stoker, and an ancient cairn (that’s a pile of stones) on a field. It’s said to be the burial place of a legendary vampire known as the Abhartach. When he’s not cleaning up an old house his mother left him,  Eugene is probably hanging at the local pub with his best mates William (Fra Fee) his girl friend Claire (Louisa Harland) and SP (Michael Hough) the bearded maniac. They earn extra bucks as tour guides for gullible tourists. But one night, in the dark, William is brutally slaughtered near the cairn. Is there something to this vampire myth? Things are brought to a head when Eugene’s dad Francie, a hard-ass contractor, hires him to tear down the cairn, to make way for a development plan, damn the possible  consequences. But someone, or something, doesn’t like that. Have they gone to far? And is the entire village in danger if the Abhartach returns?

Boys from County Hell is a horror comedy, with an emphasis on the horror, but told in a lighter style. That means lots of blood, in the most disgusting way  possible (when a vampire gets close, blood starts to flow spontaneously from the eyes and noses of anyone nearby.) But there are also a lot of over-the-top violence of the dark humour type, and quite a few surprises — there’s a mystery element. This is a very Irish movie, meaning you may have to turn on the subtitles to understand what some of them are saying. I haven’t seen a good vampire movie in quite a while, and this one varies from a lot of the cliches. The cast is appealing and the pace never drags. I quite liked this one, too.

About Endlessness

Wri/Dir: Roy Andersson

A middle-aged man and woman are sitting on a park bench on a hillside overlooking a vast grey city. They tell each other interlocking stories, about men or women they saw — either in a dream, in a fantasy or in reality (it’s never made clear) People like an awkward virginal young man staring longingly at a busty hairdresser watering a dying potted palm. Or a  man who gets increasingly frustrated by a stranger who ignores him passing by on an outdoor staircase, who he recognizes as someone he had bullied years ago in public school. And a catholic priest having a nervous breakdown because he lost his faith while preparing the communion — with a psychiatrist who refuses to see him because he doesn’t want to miss the bus home. Add to this Hitler in his bunker, a father killing his daughter in an honour killing, prisoners in a Siberia trudging toward a gulag, and an ethereal couple in their nightgowns floating far above a city.

If you’ve ever seen a Roy Andersson movie, you’ll understand that there’s no linear narrative, no main characters, or plot, per se. Rather it’s a series of vignettes that together share a theme.  In this one this Ione the theme seems to be about the unrelenting melancholy, frustration and futility, passing from generation to generation. Everything is ordinary, sepia toned and middling in its regularity. People wear plain, dumpy clothes, with average bodies and faces, People rarely speak and the camera hardly moves.

It sounds like I hated this movie, but I actually loved it.  About Endlessness avoids prettiness like the plague, and is never twee. And it somehow manages to imbue common, depressing thoughts with an ethereal majesty. 

The Good Traitor is now playing in VOD, Boys from County Hell starts streaming today on Shudder, and Beyond Endlessness opens next Friday at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox. And Timeplay is now running online every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday at 8:30 pm ET.

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

Red and Green. Films reviewed: Wild Mountain Thyme, Sing Me a Song

Posted in Bhutan, Buddhism, documentary, Family, Farming, Ireland, Realism, Religion, Romance by CulturalMining.com on December 25, 2020

Hi, this is Danel Garber at the movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

This year – with it’s school-closings, rampant unemployment and a province-wide lockdown – surely won’t be remembered as a great Christmas. Especially not for movies. I can barely remember the last movie I saw in a theatre. But on the bright side, this means there’s lots more time watch them, at least at home.

This week, I’m talking about two new movies, a documentary and a comedy romance, that reflect the seasonal colours of red and green. There’s a lovesick Buddhist monk draped in maroon robes, and rural courtship on the emerald isle.

 

Wild Mountain Thyme
Wri/Dir: John Patrick Shanley

Once upon a time in county Mayo, Ireland, there were two farms. They belong to two families, the Muldoons and the Rileys, and the Rileys, to get in and out of their own farm must cross a strip of land belonging to the Muldoons, with an iron gate on it. So the two families are forever tied. Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt) is a strong willed girl who loves riding horses. She is tall and elegant with long ginger hair and will dance a jig whenever shes happy. . Her father tells her you can do anything you want, you’re like the swan in the ballet Swan Lake. But where’s her handsome prince?

Across the hill lives Anthony Reilly (James Dornan). He’s clumsy, tongue-tied and shy. He likes smelling the wild flowers but gets nervous around girls. . He’s secretly in love with Rosemary but is too shy to tell her. Falsh forward a few decades, and nothing has changed. Anthony practices proposing to Rosemary by talking to a donkey, thus reinforcing the local lore that he’s more like a Kelly than a Riley, meaning hes stupid and prone to madness.

Finally, his father (Christopher Walken) has had enough. He invites his nephew Adam (John Hamm), a stock trader from Manhattan who drives a Rolls Royce, to come and see the farm… and their still-unmarried neighbour Rosemary. Is this her prince come to rescue her? Or should she keep waiting for Anthony to propose.

Wild Mountain Thyme is a comedy romance that just doesnt work. Its set — I imagine – in the 1990s or 2000s but seems frozen in time. No music except Swan Lake on a phonograph and celtic singalongs at the local pub. as if the radio and TV have yet to be invented and the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80… never happened. Would a headstrong woman really wait decades for a man who lives next door to propose? This was originally a Broadway play that won a Tony, but it clearly doesn’t translate well to the screen. The make up is weird, but so are the fake Irish accents and ridiculous plot. Even the art direction is awful — bright red shutters on a white-washed house, artificial looking CGI.  Everything looks false and contrived. Emily Blunt is a good actress, but what the hell is this? Shanley wrote and directed the very good Doubt, and Dornan made his fame as a “sexual” movie star with the 50 Shades of Grey series, but this movie is a weirdly nostalgic American simulacrum of an Ireland that never existed. This movie is not entirely without merit; there is one good part – when Anthony reveals his totally unexpected secret fantasy (no spoiler), but its not enough to save this dud.

Sing me a Song
Dir: Thomas Balmès

Laya is a town built around a buddhist monastery in the remote, mountainous kingdom of Bhutan. Peyangki is a teenager studying there to become a lama, or a buddhist priest. This means lighting oil lamps, and memorizing sutras and mantras with the other novices. He tries hard, but is not a great student. But he owes it to his single mom (his father was frightened to death by a bear the day he was born) to pray for her when she dies. He earns some extra money foraging for wild mushrooms with his sister. But while he’s training there, the country is electrifying (joining the power grid) for the first time. This means sattelite dishes, TV, cel phones and social networks. All entirely new conceots in Bhutan. Soon, the former novices are glued to their cels playing video games instead of meditating.

He meets a woman on Snapchat named Ugyen, when he asks her to sing him a love song. He thinks she’s pretty and nice and has a good voice. But what he doesn’t know is she’s a hostess who works at a karaoke bar in the capital. And that she’s divorced with a kid. And when they meet for the first time in person, both of them are very disappointed. Ugyen is the urban sophisticate, who is aware of the outside world and longs for the bounty money can buy. For Peyangki, even the capital is new to him, — he has no desire for money.  But he soon adjusts to the thrills of arcades, fashions and virtual reality. Can this relationship work? Will Peyangki leave the monastery? And what about Ugyen’s goals and desires?

Sing me a Song is a fascinating documentary about the modernization of Bhutan as seen through the eyes of the two main characters. Its told as a narrative, with the audience following both of the characters. So we know their secrets, but they don’t… that’s revealed on camera. The director Balmès — he made the wonderful movie Babies — has a way of enteringthelives of his subjects. Its beautifully shot,often in darkness only lit by candlelight or the flashing glow of video screens. Some of the scenes seem planned or contrived, so you womder would this have happened the way it did without the camera there? And as a westerner — he’s a French film maker — is he also an influence on his subjects lives? — but you cant lie about the look and the faces and the feelings of the subjects. You really feel for them. This wonderful doc gives a rare inside look at the people in the remote kingdom of Bhutan.

Wild Mountain Thyme is now playing and Sing Me a Song starts on January 1st across North America; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Ali Weinstein about #Blessed

Posted in Australia, Canada, Christianity, Conservatism, documentary, LGBT, Religion, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on July 17, 2020

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

Pastor Sam is not what you expect to see at a Pentecostal revival meeting. He sports a ginger beard, skinny jeans and half-sleeve tattoos. The sermons are accompanied by slick lighting, sound and music, and the results are posted online. And his Toronto sermons attract a younger flock of millennial hipsters searching for friendship, self-actualization or just something to do. Where did he come from? What does his church believe in? And why is evangelical Christianity making inroads into Canada?

#Blessed is a new documentary that looks at the rise in Canada of C3, an Australian megachurch, its leaders, its followers and its critics. It follows the stories of some of its young members as they adjust to a new world that doesn’t exactly fit with their lifestyles. It’s directed by acclaimed Toronto-based filmmaker Ali Weinstein, whose quirky doc Mermaids has been shown around the world.

I spoke to Ali Weinstein via ZOOM in Toronto

#Blessed had its broadcast premier on July 18 at 8 pm on CBC Docs POV and is streaming on CBC Gem.

Good not good. Films reviewed: Bombshell, A Hidden Life, Cats

Posted in 2000s, Acting, Animals, Austria, Dance, Farming, Journalism, Movies, Musical, Nazi, Religion, Sexual Harassment, Theatre, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 20, 2019

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

Ever watch something that’s bad, but still has good parts? Or a beautifully rendered piece of art that doesn’t live up to its potential? This week, I’m looking at three new films, that I liked but didn’t like, or hated but still enjoyed. There’s one farmer in wartime Austria, three women at Fox News, and a hundred cats in London.

Bombshell

Dir: Jay Roach

It’s Fox News studios in New York City. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is a top TV journalist and news anchor, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is co-host of Fox & Friends, Donald Trump’s favourite show, and newcomer Kayla Pospisal (Margot Robbie) is a committed conservative evangelical, trying to advance her career. What do these three women have in common? Theyre all smart, conservative and attractive (Carlson is a former Miss Minnesota.) And they were all hired by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Ailes is the highly profitable Fox News CEO, the man who singlehandedly shifted cable journalism from neutral news-source to a font of blatantly partisan right-wing talking points, leaving CNN in its dust. He’s also paranoid and hideously ugly, called Jabba the Hut behind his back.

The Fox News he runs is a place where cameras are positioned to show off female newscasters’ legs. Male employees advance because of their work. Female employees are also judged on looks, and work in a blatantly sexist office culture. And Ailes is the centre of it all, using his position power to exploit, harass and sexually assault young women. Kelly shares her concerns with her husband and Pospisal with her lesbian lover and Fox News staffer (Kate McKinnon) who says she doesn’t want to hear about it. But Carlson refuses to take this lying down. She launches a lawsuit against Ailes and Fox News. But will other journalists, like Kelly and Pospisal (a composite character based on real people) join her struggle, or stay loyal to Ailes?

Bombshell is a fast-paced news drama based on recent real-life events. It’s told in a light, punchy and easy-to-digest format, which makes the few dramatic scenes showing sexual harassment all the more powerful. Theron, Kidman and Robbie are all terrific and believable in their roles. On the ther hand, the movie barely touches on the awfulness and deceit of Fox News itself. And while it skewers Ailes it leaves the notorious Rupert Murdoch strangely untouched. Bombshell tells a great story, as seen by three strong women, around sexual harassment, but doesn’t concern itself with other political matters.

A Hidden Life

Wri/Dir: Terrence Malick

It’s WWII in Austria. Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is a simple farmer deeply in love with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). They live with his mother, her sister and their three little girls inthefoothills of a dramatic mountain range. Together with their neighbours they till the fields, harvest the grain and carry it, on the back of a donkey, to the miller. They go to church on Sunday and dress up in masks and costumes to honour the harvest. Their life is idyllic until… Franz gets drafted for army duty a second time. Enough, he says. I’m not going. No more Heil Hitler’s, no more military uniforms, no more separation from my wife and kids. Enough! Neighbours and government officials try to convince him to sign a loyalty oath, but he refuses. He is sent to prison, leaving his wife and sister-in-law to plow the fields among neighbours who aren’t friendly anymore. Only their constant letters keep them sane and I love. Will Franz sign the oath, or will he stay steadfast to his beliefs, even at risk of death?

A Hidden Life is a lush and beautiful rendering of a simple act of resistance in wartime anschluss Austria. It’s directed by Terrance Mallick, and is instantly recognizable by its swirling images, breathy voiceovers, lush music and stunning camerawork. People clutch earth in their fingers, and reap fields with scythes. Good passionate acting, featuring cameo performances by Matthias Schoenaerts, Franz Rogowski, and the late, great Bruno Ganz.

On the other hand… it’s three hours long. Three hours!  Why does it take so long to tell such a simple story? Why? It’s not exactly boring or tedious since it’s done so beautifully, but similar stories have already been told (and in a more dramatic fashion, like Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes/Elser – Er hätte die Welt verändert). As a movie critic, I try to avoid terms like “self-indulgent”, but this movie is strictly for fans of Terrence Mallick.

Cats

Dir: Tom Hooper

It’s nighttime in a fantastical, pre-gentrified London, where abandoned alley cats rule the streets. The Jellicle Cats are gathered for their annual meeting, presided over by Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench), who will choose one cat to be reborn. Each contestant performs before the queen: There are dancers (Francesca Hayward, Steven McRae) singers (Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson), comics (Rebel Wilson, James Corden), a magician dressed in black and white (Laurie Davidson) and even an old theatre cat (Ian McKellen). But the age-old ceremony is challenged by the evil Macavity (Idris Elba) who is kidnapping each cat after their performance. Who will be chosen to ascend to the skies? Will peace and order return to the Jellicle cats? And can newbie Victoria join the gang?

Cats is a strange hybrid of theatre, and movie special effects. Each act is performed on a vast soundstage, keeping close to how it would look before a live audience. The cat people’s faces and bodies are human, but augmented, using CGI, with cat ears, moving tails and furry bodies. Some of them wear elaborate costumes, while others run around “naked”, covered in sleek fur. But they’ve all been digitally neutered, with no sign of breasts or genitals anywhere. The script is abysmally bad, almost babyish, with “jokes” like cat got your tongue? and relentless fat jokes. Fat jokes? Really?

Music ranges from torch songs to chorus lines. There are a few great scenes, like cockroaches doing elaborate Busby Berkeley formations as Rebel Wilson eats them, one by one; and impressive dance routines, along with some good songs… but I can’t figure out who the movie is trying to appeal to? Small children? Theatre buffs? Taylor Swift fans? I don’t think it knows, either.

Still… I kinda liked it, if just for the spectacle of it all. It’s bad, but it’s watchable and loaded with great singers dancers and prize-winning actors all of whom are far, far more talented than the material they’ve been given.

And I think these weird cat people will haunt my sexual nightmares for years to come.

Bombshell, A Hidden Life and Cats all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with producer Robert Lantos about The Song of Names

Posted in 1940s, 1970s, Holocaust, Hungary, Judaism, Mental Illness, Morality, Movies, Music, Mystery, Poland, Religion, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on December 13, 2019

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

Photo of Robert Lantos by Jeff Harris.

Martin is an aspiring youg musician, the only son of a concert impresario in prewar London. Then Dovidl, a Jewish-Polish boy his age – who is also a violin prodigy – is left in the care of his family. As war rages across Europe, the two boys grow up together, first as rivals, best friends and almost like brothers. Then, on the evening of his solo debut in a sold out concert, Dovidl just disappears. Where has he gone, Is he living or dead, will Martin ever see him again, and what is this “Song of Names” that may be the reason behind his disappearance?

The Song of Names is the title of a new film that looks at identity, family, friendship, memory, and mourning. It’s directed by Francois Girard, stars Tim Roth and Clive Owen, and its producer is Robert Lantos.

Robert Lantos is one of Canada’s most famous producers – he founded and ran Alliance Communications and later Serendipity Point Films. His production credits are a veritable history of Canadian cinema: Atom Egoyan’s Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter; David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises; Jeremy Podeswa’s Fugitive Pieces, Istvan Szabo’s Sunshine; an adaptation of Mordechai Richler’s Barney’s Version, among many many others.

I spoke with Robert Lantos in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Song of Names opens in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver on Christmas Day.

%d bloggers like this: