Heroes? Films reviewed: Lorelei, Stillwater, The Green Knight

Posted in Adventure, Fairytales, Family, Fantasy, France, Medieval, Mysticism, Poverty, Prison, Road Movie, Romance, Trial, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 31, 2021

Heroism is not just a thing of the past; it can still be found in unexpected places. So this week I’m looking at three new movies about flawed men on heroic journeys. There’s a man straight out of prison looking for his long-lost lover; an American in France who wants to rescue his daughter; and a medieval knight who wants to prove his valour.

Lorelei
Wri/Dir: Sabrina Doyle

Wayland or “Way” (Pablo Schreiber) is fresh out of prison. He’s tall and muscular with a goatee. He served 15 years for armed robbery, taking the fall for his motorcycle gang. Way’s on parole now, living at a local church, run by the kindly Pastor Gail. There he happens upon a single mom’s support group where he sees a blast from the past. Dolores (Jena Malone) is pretty and petite with blonde hair and an uplifting spirit. She was his high school sweetheart, a champion swimmer, the love of his life. The dreamed of moving to LA together but his incarceration ended all that. Now she has three kids, all from one night stands. She named them each after colours she likes. Dodger Blue (Chancellor Perry) is a 15-year old with attitude; Periwinkle Blue, or just Perry, (Amelia Borgerding) is 11 or 12 and starting to rebel; and Denim Blue, who is 6 (Parker Pascoe-Sheppard) is adorable but gets bullied at school for wearing girls’ clothes.

Wayland’s first night with Delores is a disaster — he says he has forgotten how to do it. But things get better. She cleans rooms at a motel while he gets a job demolishing vehicles at a junkyard. And since he can’t afford a car, he fixes up a run-down ice cream truck and uses that to get around. But things look risky. He earns extra money transporting drugs for the gang. And his parole officer keeps showing up at the worst possible times. Then there’s the kids. Wayland’s not looking for commitment, but expectations change over time. Can the relationship last? Is it a package deal? Will he be sent back to prison? And can people living a life of poverty hang onto their sense of self-worth?

Lorelei is a bittersweet drama about a passionate and loving couple trying to overcome the enormous problems they face. The characters are real, not just Hollywood stereotypes, and that makes it all the more moving. (It’s a real tear jerker.) And it keeps defying what you think would happen in a more formulaic version. Schreiber and Malone have great chemistry, and the kids, all played by first-time actors, are really good. For a first feature, the director did an amazing job.

I really like this one.

Stillwater
Co-WriDir: Tom McCarthy

Bill (Matt Damon) is good at fixing things. He likes guns, praying and country music. He’s from Stillwater, Oklahoma where he worked as a roughneck at the oil wells until he spent time in jail. Now he does whatever he can find. So what is he doing in the south of France? He’s there to try to get his adult daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) out of prison. She was a college student in Marseilles when her roommate was found brutally murdered. She was convicted and sentenced for the killing but continues to protest her innocence. She says she knows who really killed her, but he has disappeared. The police and lawyers refuse to do anything so Bill decides to track down this guy, get his DNA and free his daughter.

In the meantime, he’s staying at a cut-rate hotel, where he comes to the rescue of a little girl named Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) who is locked out of the room next door. In gratitude, Virginie, an actress and Maya’s mom (Camille Cottin), helps him with some translations. (Bill doesn’t speak any French.) Eventually they become friends, he moves in with them, and he lands a demolition job in Marseilles. Will there be a relationship in the future? Can a conservative redneck American get along with a liberal French woman in the arts? Is there love in the horizon? Can he catch the real killer and free his daughter? Or will it all come to naught?

Stillwater is the slow telling of a story about a flawed, middle-aged guy trying to do right by his estranged daughter. It’s also about polarized American politics in the age of Trump, transplanted onto a French setting. It’s billed as a thriller, but a thriller it ain’t. There are a few thrilling parts, and some unexpected plot twists, but it’s mainly too long, too slow and pretty bleak. It moves like still water.

The Green Knight
Wri/Dir: David Lowery

It’s Christmastime in the era of King Arthur, chivalry and magic. Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) is an aristocratic layabout more comfortable rolling in the hay at the local brothel than appearing in the royal court. But he’s the nephew of the King and Queen, and his mum (Sarita Choudhury) is a powerful sorceress. So when their feast is interrupted by an unexpected visitor, Gawain pays attention. The Green Knight, a huge and imposing creature who looks like he’s made of a tree, challenges anyone to a special game. A one-on-one fight, to be revisited one year later at the Green Knight’s home. The trick? Whatever the winner does it will be revisited upon him next year. Gawain volunteers — for a good chance to prove his valour and bravery and to become a knight. Without considering the consequences, he quickly beheads the Green Knight. But one year later he must visit his castle and get his head chopped off. He sets off on a journey encountering many unexpected challenges, including a highwayman, (Barry Keoghan), a red fox, a ghost (Erin Kellman) a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and a beautiful and mysterious, woman (Alicia Vikander). Will Gawain show valour or cowardice on his long journey? And will he survive his meeting with the Green Knight?

The Green Knight is an ingenious retelling of the ancient myths and stories of the British Isles and France. It’s not a straightforward adventure, but one loaded with dreams, magic and alternate realities. At times it’s unclear whether what you’re seeing is real or imaginary. It’s highly stylized, with gorgeous costumes and settings, which look simultaneously contemporary and medieval. It also uses unusual media – from puppet shows to tapestries and paintings – to advance the story. Dev Patel is great  (he carries the entire movie) but so are most of the others. Surprising phenomena are presented without comment, like a parade of naked giants lumbering past, or Gawain’s own semen serving as a shield of immortality. You might walk out of this movie thinking huh? What did I just see?, but if you think back to director David Lowery’s previous work, like A Ghost Story, you can accept his surreal mysticism at face value. This is a beautiful and fascinating film, a new, bold take on an ancient tale.

Lorelei is now available on VOD and digital formats. Stillwater and The Green Knight opens theatrically or digitally 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.

Love and Death. Films reviewed: Riders of Justice, Trigger Point, Undine

Posted in Action, Berlin, Canada, CIA, Denmark, Espionage, Germany, Horror, Mermaids, Romance by CulturalMining.com on May 21, 2021

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies — two action/thrillers, one from Canada and another from Denmark; and a love story from Germany. There’s death on a commuter train, shoot-outs in a small town, and eternal love… deep underwater.

Riders of Justice

Wri/Dir: Anders Thomas Jensen

Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) is a hard-ass officer in the Danish army, happily married with a teenaged daughter named Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). But his job keeps him apart from his family for months at a time. So when he hears his wife has been killed in a rare commuter train accident, he rushes home. He has to take care of Mathilde now, but summarily refuses all offers of counsellors or psychologists — he doesn’t believe in that mumbo-jumbo. But he clearly has a lot of anger inside — he punches Mathilde’s blue-haired boyfriend, Sirius, in the face the first time he meets him. (He’s been away so long he doesn’t even know she has a boyfriend.)

But their lives are further disrupted by an unexpected knock on the door. Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is a number-crunching computer nerd. He was on the same train, and says it can’t be a coincidence that a key witness in an upcoming trial of a criminal biker gang — called Riders of Justice — was also killed in that explosion. And the police clearly don’t care. Can we punish them ourselves? Otto enlists his two frenemies: Emmenthaler, an enormous man with a man bun who is also a facial-recognition expert (he has a  terrible temper from a lifetime of being bullied); and Lennaert, a hacker without any social skills whatsoever (he’s been in therapy for 25 years.) This motley crew sets up camp inside Markus’s barn to prove the biker gang is to to blame. And Markus, after a lifetime of military training, knows how to fight back. But is their conspiracy theory correct? Can they catch the villains and avenge the deaths? Can one soldier and three untrained, anti-social intellectuals beat a heavily-armed criminal gang? And can Markus ever learn to communicate with his only daughter?

Riders of Justice is a brilliantly funny, satirical look at self-proclaimed vigilantes. It deals with probability, death, and retribution all wrapped up in the language of psychology, technology, sexuality and social networks. It does have a Christmas theme — which is odd to watch in a late-spring movie –  but that hardly detracts from the main story. It’s also quite violent, with a lot of blood, pain and death. What’s great about it is all the well-rounded portrayals of disparate, odd-ball characters who learn to live together in a make-shift, highly  dysfunctional family. 

This is a fantastic movie.

Trigger Point

Dir: Brad Turner

Lewis (Barry Pepper) is a nice guy. Ask everyone in the small town where he lives. He found a kitten for Janice (Nazneen Contractor) a waitress at the local diner, and he fixed the electric tea kettle — no charge! — at Irene (Jayne Eastwood) ’s bookstore using just a paper clip. That guy can fix anything, he’s a regular MacGyver! He lives alone on the outskirts of town in a huge wooden farmhouse. But when outsiders with big city ways come to town snooping around, things start to change.

Dwight (Carlo Rota) says he wants to talk with him. Elias (Colm Feore), his former boss, has a job for him to do: track down and free Elias’ kidnapped daughter Monica (Eve Harlow). You see, Lewis used to be a top agent at The Corporation (aka the CIA), but went underground when a mysterious assassin  — known only as “Quentin” — started knocking off everyone else on his team. And lots of people think Lewis is the actual killer. Now he has to follow the trail, question the suspects, and uncover the evidence before he becomes Quentin’s next  target. But who can be trusted and who’s a turncoat?

Trigger Point is a good, traditional shoot-em-up action movie. It’s an apolitical look at the spy trade, concentrating instead on corruption and greed. Shot in small-town Ontario, it’s full of open fields, greenhouses and some stunning lakeshore landscapes, with lots of famous Canadian faces popping up. And it keeps up the pace. Sadly, it has a weird, unfinished quality to it, as if the final 30 pages of the script blew away, so they decided to end it early. What’s going on? Why did they introduce new characters in the last few minutes? Why don’t they bother capturing the villain? Is this actually just a pilot for an unproduced TV series?

Whatever. If you don’t mind turning off your brain, you’ll enjoy this fast-moving action/thriller.

Undine

Wri/Dir: Christian Petzold

Undine (Paula Beer) is a young woman in a Berlin cafe.  She’s crushed because her true love Johannes has just revealed he’s married to another woman. She says, if you leave me, I will have to kill you! But their conversation is cut short because her unusual job at the museum across the street starts in five minutes. She works as a guide to an enormous 3-D physical model of the city’s map. When she returns to the cafe after her shift, Johannes is gone. But a strange voice calls to her, from behind a decorative fish tank. It’s Christoph (Franz Rogowski) a boyish and clumsy man. The two collide, breaking the tank, and sending shards of glass and a flood of water on top of the two of them. And as Christoph pulls broken glass from Undine’s body, it’s love at first accident. He works out of town in a scenic lake as an engineer, repairing broken machinery and welding it back together… underwater! Undine follows him to the lake and joins him in scuba gear. They spend all their time together, making love on land and in the water. But, although they share a psychic bond, the elements seem to pull them apart.  And when Johannes reappears, Undine’s relationship with Christoph seems to be at risk.

Undine is an incredibly beautiful romance, wonderfully acted and elegantly shot. Like in all of Petzold’s films, while the story seems simple, its characters and ideas are intense. His style is spare. Every scene in the movie — a spilled glass of wine, a glance at a passerby — is there for a reason, essential to the story. Nothing wasted. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but Undine shares her name with a classical figure — a water nymph, from the Greek Myths — and leaves open the suggestion that this Undine is also supernatural. The film plays with the themes of eternal love, destiny, tragedy and life both underwater and on land, sort of an adult mermaid story. Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski also played star-crossed lovers  in Petzold’s last movie, Transit, and they ‘re back again sharing the same tension and electricity. 

I strongly recommend this amazing love story. 

Trigger Point is now playing, Riders of Justice starts today, and don’t miss Undine opening in two weeks.

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

International Women’s Day! Films reviewed: True Mothers, The World to Come, My Salinger Year

Posted in 1800s, 1990s, Adoption, Family, J.D. Salinger, Japan, LGBT, New York City, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 5, 2021

Monday is International Women’s Day, so this week I’m looking at three new movies that celebrate women. There’s a woman who encounters her adopted son’s birth mother; an aspiring writer in 1990s Manhattan; and two women in 19th century, upstate New York. 

True Mothers

Wri/Dir: Naomi Kawase

Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) is a married professional woman in Western Japan. She and her husband enjoy their kids-free lifestyle — fine dining, travel, and a high-rise luxury condo. But they long for a family of their own, and so far, it isn’t working., despite various medical interventions. Then one day on a talk show they see a woman telling about her organization. It’s called Baby Baton because the infant is passed on like a baton from the birth mother to its new parents. Adoptees have to pass rigorous requirements, including that one parent must quit their job and become a full-time house parent. Unsurprisingly, Satoko takes that role. And they bring home the newborn baby of a 14-year-old junior high girl named Hikari (Aju Makita). That was five years ago. Now they are devoted to their adorable adopted son, Asato. But their world is turned upside down by a knock on the door by a woman who claims to be the boy’s mother. And, she says, she wants him back.

True Mothers is a touching intimate story of two women’s lives. The movie is divided in half, The first part is all about Satoko and her husband and son, the trials and tribulations of raising a child. The second half is about Hikari the birth mother, and her life since giving up the baby. It explores her time on a misty remote island off Hiroshima (at the Baby Baton headquarters), where she spends the final months of her pregnancy, but also the dark turn her life takes afterwards. Naomi Kawase is one of very few female directors in Japan, and as in all her movies, the story is gently told but full of pathos. Well-acted and very moving with lovely cinematography, True Mothers pulls no punches when dealing with the reality of fertility, unplanned pregnancy, and the other side of adoption. 

Very nice movie.

The World to Come

Dir: Mona Fastvold

It’s the 1850s in rural upstate New York. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is a morose young woman with a stern demeanour and long black hair. She lives in a farmhouse with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck). They have a flock of sheep, chickens and milk cows. They used to have a little daughter, the light of their lives, but she died before she was five. Since then, it’s been a loveless marriage and the two barely speak to each other, just coasting through life without a purpose. Dyer records financial records in his ledger, while Abigail writes her thoughts and observations in a black-bound diary. But everything changes when they meet their new neighbours who rent a farm over the hill. Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) has ginger hair and fiery eyes, and she swooshes past in elegant gowns. Her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) has a dark side carrying bitter grudged just waiting to explode. Abigail and Tallie become instant friends, sharing thoughts, sharp observations, secrets. Their husbands notice the change — why are they smiling? Why are they so happy? Could these two friends like each other more than their husbands? 

The World to Come is a passionate and poetic romance, about two women who find love along the harsh frontier. It’s narrated by Abigail’s diary entries and love letters from Jan to July of the same year, and the story is told in a literary style, like the turning pages of a book. But it’s not all talk, it’s a beautifully shot movie full of burnished wood, wrought iron, fireplaces, cotton dresses and candlelight. It’s filmed on location, with harsh winter blizzards and beautiful spring days. And while not explicit, there are sensuous scenes of Abigail and Tallie kissing furtively in dark doorways, or sneaking off into the woods. Very famous cast: Vanessa Kirby plays Princes Margaret in The Crown, and Katherine Waterston is in Fantastic Beasts and Inherent Vice. And the husbands, Christopher Abbot and Casey Affleck, are very well known, as well. While I wasn’t deeply moved by this movie, I did care about what happens to the characters, and the film itself is visually very nice to look at.

My Salinger Year

Wri/Dir: Phillippe Falardeau (Based on the Memoir by Joanna Rackoff) 

It’s the 1990s in Manhattan. Joanna (Margaret Qualley) is a young grad student and aspiring poet, who is visiting the city to experience literary New York. She has a boyfriend back in Berkeley, but in the meantime she’s camping out in her best friend Jenny’s cramped Village apartment. Her “room” is a tiny space in the corner separated by a folding paper screen. And she lands a plumb job; not as a a writer or working for a publisher, but in the office of a venerable agency. The company is headed by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) who looks like a stately Susan Sontag. Margaret’s biggest client is JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, whom she calls Jerry. He hasn’t published anything since the ’60s, but he’s still wildly popular. As Margaret’s assistant, Joanna’s main job is dealing with the bags of fan mail delivered each day. Salinger is a recluse, and never sees any mail — they shred each letter, but not before reading it, and sending out a hand-typed — we’re talking typewriters here, no computers allowed in the office — form letter, saying thank try for your kind letter, unfortunately JD Salinger won’t see it. 

Meanwhile Joanna is luxuriating in the literary life: having lunch at the Waldorf, rubbing shoulders with famous authors (though never Salinger). She goes to poetry readings at the right cafes and moves in with her handsome new boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth), a working-calls writer who’s also a bit of a dick. Will Joanna stay on in Manhattan or return to California? Can she forge a career as a literary agent? And will she ever meet Salinger?

My Salinger Year is a true memoir based on the writer’s own early career. It’s delightful to watch —who would have guessed we could feel nostalgic for the 90s? She experiences the city, wandering into places like the New Yorker magazine’s offices. And it’s full of wonderful vignettes about the quirky people she meets in her office (played by Colm Feore, and others.) It also shows us the writers of the fan mail, each of whom addresses the audience directly, reciting the texts of their letters. The film is made by Quebec director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and is shot around Montreal. As always, his movies are full of warm, funny characters and lots of  detail; he doesn’t gloss over what’s going on. Falardeau also has some weird trademarks — characters break into music videos or start dancing — which I don’t quite get, but luckily it doesn’t detract from the story. You can tell Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley loved making this movie, and if you’re into writing or reading books, or the whole literary milieu, you’ll enjoy it, too. 

True Mothers, The World to Come, and My Salinger Year are all playing today on VOD or streaming sites.

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

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

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

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

Minari

Wri/Dir: Lee Isaac Chung

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

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

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

Test Pattern

Wri/Dir: Shatara Michelle Ford

It’s Austin Texas. 

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

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

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

The Mauritanian

Dir: Kevin MacDonald

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

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

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

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

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

Older. Films reviewed: Nomadland, Supernova, Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Posted in Death, Dementia, documentary, Drama, Gay, Poverty, Road Movie, Romance, UK by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2021

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

As the baby boomers age, so do the characters in their movies. This week I’m looking at two dramas and a documentary about travelling around. There’s an older woman exploring the western US in her dilapidated mobile home; two older men driving through northern England in their old camper; and an intense documentary series that takes you across the twentieth century and back again.

Nomadland

Wri/Dir: Chloe Zhao

(Based on the book by Jessica Bruder)

Fern (Frances McDormand) is an ornery, older woman with short grey hair who lives in Empire, Nevada, a company town that processes gypsum. She likes wearing overalls and reciting Shakespeare. She followed her beloved husband to Empire decades earlier with the promise of lifetime employment.  It proved true for him — he died at work. But the empire has fallen. Now she’s a widow, the plant is closed,  the company has pulled up its stakes, and the town itself no longer exists; it’s been wiped off the map, literally. She’s broke with no prospect of work, so she packs up all her stuff, piles it into a ramshackle RV, and sets out on the highway. She’s not homeless, she’s houseless. Her home is on wheels. 

She encounters a group of people like her,  camping in RVs in the desert, like old war horses put out to pasture. They’ve got no money — instead they share goods at a trading post, sing songs around a campfire, and do each other favours like fixing flat tires. They live entirely off the grid. (You’ve heard of Burning Man? This is Burning Van.) Fern meets Dave, a friendly guy with a greying beard (David Strathairn), and she begrudgingly shack up with him. They go their separate ways looking for work where they can find it. But she meets up with him again in the Badlands as she travels across the American west. Will they live together permanently? Can Fern settle down? Or will she stick to her nomadic life and the freedom of the open road?

Nomadland is an engrossing, gritty drama about an older woman on the road trying to make it on her own. It’s all about finding friendship and hope amidst loneliness and poverty. Frances McDormand is remarkable as Fern, acting alongside non-actors, ordinary people playing themselves. 

This is Chloe Zhao’s third feature, and like her earlier films, it feels part documentary, part drama, slow paced and very real.

It’s all shot on location, against magnificent and stark scenery, the desert, the mountains, the sterile interior of an Amazon warehouse and the rustic kitchen of the famous Wall Drugs. Nomadland isn’t a Hollywood feel good movie — its even mildly depressing in parts, but on the whole it’s a magnificent and moving picture. Just Great

Supernova

Wri/Dir: Harry Macqueen

Sam and Tusker are a middle aged couple who have lived together in England for decades. Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is a successful American novelist, bald-headed with a sharp tongue. He loves staring at the night sky and thinking about distant galaxies. Sam (Colin Firth) is an English concert pianist who likes wooly sweaters and old friends. Together they used to travel the world on long trips exploring Paris, Italy, and Kyushu, Japan. Now they’re on a drive in an old  rundown camper through the rocky hills and steep green ravines of the Lake District. They’re heading for a concert hall where Sam is giving a recital after a long hiatus. Tusker is working on his latest novel. On the way, they stop to celebrate a birthday in Sam’s childhood home. Surrounded by closest friends and family, driving on a scenic highway,  snuggling up together in their camper with their shaggy dog… what could be bad?

The bad is Tusker’s early-onset Alzheimers. He was diagnosed a while back and it’s starting to reveal itself. Everything still works normally but he dreads the day when he can no longer control himself. I’ll always be there for you, says Sam. But Tusker doesn’t want that to happen. He wants to be the driver, not Sam’s passenger. Will 

Supernova is a tender  and loving drama about dying and loss. It’s full of profundities about destiny and memory, picturesque stone houses, and music on the car radio. It’s nicely acted and subtly carried out. But maybe too subtle, by half. It didn’t really move me.  There’s a single idea — Tusker doesn’t want to lose control, Sam doesn’t want to lose Tusker — but it feels repetitive,  exploring the same conflict over and over. I like the intimacy and familiarity of the characters, but the movie is too simple and Tucci’s portrayal of someone with dementia didn’t quite ring true.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Wri/Dir: Adam Curtis

What do Jiang Qing, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Red Army Faction, a London slumlord, the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, Petrodollars, and Appallachian coal miners,all have in common? They’re all part of the documentary series directed by Adam Curtis, on the history, economy, psychology and politics of the twentieth century. He explores the fall of empires, but also the failure of revolutions. He also looks at the origins of false conspiracy theories, as well as actual conspiracies, like the CIA’s use of LSD on unsuspecting patients. Basically, he looks at what movements, schools of thought, and major changes going on today, and what inspired them.

If you’ve never seen his documentaries before, now — with all the recent confusion and strangeness and unprecedented changes — is a perfect time to start. Curtis has a unique filmmaking style, that manages to tell its story without ever shooting any new footage. Virtually all his visuals are taken from meticulously researched material from the BBC’s archives. They’re edited together in a constantly changing, almost convoluted way but that all makes sense in the end. And all his docs are narrated, relentlessly, by the filmmaker’s own distinctive voice. And they have such an unusual look, as if they are made of long-forgotten, dusty film spools he dug up in someone’s basement  but that also somehow explains what you heard on the news  news three days ago. You may or may not like his style, but I guarantee he will tell you things you never knew before.

Nomadland opens today, Supernova is playing at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox and you can find episodes of  Can’t Get You Out of My Head for free on YouTube. 

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

Separated. Films reviewed: Dear Comrades!, A Glitch in the Matrix, Two of Us

Posted in 1960s, documentary, Family, France, Lesbian, LGBT, Protest, Psychology, Romance, Russia, TIFF, USSR, video games, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 5, 2021

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

Festival and award season has begun, so this week I’m looking at three new movies – from the US, Russia and France – now playing at Sundance or already nominated for upcoming awards. There are people who believe perception is separate from reality; a Communist official separated from her daughter; and an elderly woman separated from the love of her life.

Dear Comrades!

Co-Wri/Dir: Andrey Konchalovskiy 

It’s summer in a small Russian city on the Don River, and the people are angry. Food prices are soaring while wages are going down. Thousands of factory workers take to the streets carrying red flags and pictures of Lenin. Is this the Russian revolution of 1905? Or is it 1917?

Neither… it’s the Soviet Union in 1962!

Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya) is a single mom who lives with her and her daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova) who works in a train factory, She’s an ardent Stalinist. And because she’s an apparatchik — a high-placed local official and member of the Communist Party — she lives a good life. This means access to hair salons, nylon stockings, negligees, and Hungarian salami. She’s having an affair with a married official. 

The food shortages and wage cuts don’t really affect her.

But her life is shaken up by the  walkout at a locomotive factory (where Svetka works) and spreading across the city of Novocherkassk. And their meetings — they’re trying to figure out how to handle this — end up with bricks through the window and Lyuda and the rest forced to sneak out through a sewer tunnel. In comes the KGB who want to bring guns ammunition into the equation: the instigators must be stopped. Mayhem and killings ensue. Lyuda is a hardliner, but when her daughter disappears she has to decide whether her loyalty is to the state or to her kin.

Dear Comrades is a moving drama about a real event and the massive cover-up that followed it. It’s shot in glorious, high-contrast black and white, similar to Polish director Pawilowski’s Ida and Cold War, but with magnificent, classic cinematic scenes involving hundreds of rioters and soldiers in the public square. Yuliya Vysotskaya’s  performance as Lyuda runs the gamut from cold official to angry mother to disillusioned and drunken party member as her entire existence and beliefs are called into question.

This is Russia’s nominee for best foreign film Oscar and definitely deserves to be seen.

A Glitch in the Matrix

Dir: Rodney Ascher 

Have you ever had the sensation that everything around you — other people, your job, what you see and hear — is an illusion, that you’re living in a programmed reality? If so, you’re not alone. A new documentary talks to people who are convinced they are trapped in a world like the Wachowskis’ 1999 movie The Matrix, where everything they perceive is just a computer simulation. And anyone else — other than one’s self — is either a part of this conspiracy, or a victim of it, or they don’t even exist outside of your head. And it is only detectable by paying attention to weird glitches in the system, like odd examples of deja vu, or coincidences that are too absurd or fantastical to be merely random events. 

The doc interviews people rendered into 3-D animated avatars who tell about their own experiences. It also gives a full history of these beliefs, dating back to Plato’s concept of shadows on the wall of a cave, through Descarte’s  epistemological example of an “Evil Demon” deceiving us, all the way to the present. This includes a rare recording of a speech given by author Phillip K Dick in the 1970s, who says the ideas in his books are not science fiction but science fact. His stories inspired movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall.

A Glitch in the Matrix is a fascinating, informative and bizarre documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival a couple days ago. Aside from the animated interviews and narration, it presents a veritable tsunami of visual references to movies and TV shows video games that deal with these topics. I’m talking hundreds of clips, from the game Minecraft, to The Truman Show, to the kids’ book Horton Hears a Who, all of which propose that there are worlds or universes who don’t know they are just tiny self-contained units within much larger realities.

Do I believe I’m living in a glass dome or floating in a sensory deprivation tank? No. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying this mind-warp of a documentary.

Two of Us

Co-Wri/Dir: Filippo Meneghetti

Nina and Madeleine (Barbara Sukowa, Martine Chevallier) are two elderly women who live in Paris (Nina’s originally from Berlin). They first met as children in a public park in Rome, and kept in touch ever since. And for the past 20 years they’ve been passionate lovers who share one floor of an apartment building, floating back and forth between the two homes separated by a hallway. And they’re planning on selling them leaving Paris and retiring somewhere in Rome. The only thing holding them back are Madeleine (or Made as Nina calls her)’s two adult children and her Anne and Frédéric and her grandson Théo.

She was married to an abusive husband for Amy years until he died, though her actual relationship was with her lover Nina. But she’s never told her family the truth — she’s too worried about what they’ll think. But when Mado has a sudden stroke rendering her speechless, Nina is suddenly separated from her de facto wife. Mado’s family just think of her as the kindly neighbour Mme Dorn who lives down the hall. They bring in a paid caregiver who blocks her entry into the other apartment. When Nina demands to spend time with her lover, Anne and Frederic begin to regard Nina as a crazy woman who won’t leave their mother alone and cut off all contact. Will Nina and Mado ever see each other again?  And can their relationship be saved?

Two of Us is a wonderful and passionate drama about two elderly lovers. It’s the young, Paris-based Italian director’s first feature, but it feels mature and masterfully done. And it co-stars the great Barbara Sukowa (If you’re into German cinema, you may remember her from movies in the 70s and 80s by Fassbinder and more recently by von Trotta), Sukowa is just as good now as she’s ever been.  And Chevalier conveys volumes even when she can’t speak. The movie is full of pathos and tears and frustration and joy, you feel so much for both of them.

Two of Us is France’s nominee for best Foreign Oscar, and it’s definitely worth seeing.

A Glitch in the Matrix starts today, and Dear Comrade and Two of Us are both opening at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Travelling for love. Films reviewed: Make Up, Identifying Features, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Posted in Coming of Age, Corruption, Crime, Family, Hungary, LGBT, Mexico, Obsession, Psychology, Romance, Rural, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2021

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

They say love is true, and some people travel far and wide to keep that love alive. This week I’m looking at three new movies, directed by women in Hungary, England, and Mexico, that explore this theme. There’s a teenaged girl who moves to Cornwall to spend time with her boyfriend; an American surgeon who moves to Budapest to be reunited with her lover, and a Mexican farmer who crosses the country in search of her missing son.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Dir: Lili Horvát

Marta (Natasa Stork) is a 39-year-old, successful surgeon from New Jersey.  So what is she doing at a run-down hospital in Budapest? She moved there, spontaneously to join up with a man she met a conference. They shared a night of passion and swore to meet up again  on a bridge in Budapest at a specific time and date. (Marta is originally from Hungary but immigrated to the U.S.) But when she sees her bearded lover Janos (Viktor Bodó) he says he has ever seen her before in his life. She faints on a downtown street, where a young man named Alex (Benett Vilmányi) comes to her rescue. Marta is overcome with emotions. Is she going crazy? Was it all a dream? Or is Janos gaslighting her for some unknown reason? 

She gets a job at the hospital where Janos works to be close to him. Meanwhile Alex turns out to be a young medical student who develops an infatuation with Marta. So this turns into a three way stalk fest with Marta spying on Janos and Alex following her. Where is love? IS it real or imaginary? And can Marta come to terms with her new strange life?

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is an intriguing mystery-romance-psychological drama about passion and illusion, alienation and obsession. Marta deals with sexist colleagues and petty bureaucrats, as she  tries to navigate a culture she’s not quite familiar with. It’s filmed on the lovely streets of Budapest with a fair amount of unexpectedly strange sex (no spoilers). The movie is a bit confusing in its tone, with, rather than a huge dramatic turning point, it culminates in an oddly absurdist, anticlimactic finish. Preparations is a good movie, but probably not what you expect. 

This is Hungary’s nominee for best Foreign Language  Film Oscar.

Make Up

Dir: Claire Oakley

It’s winter in Cornwall, England. Ruth (Molly Windsor) is an 18 year old woman, staying at a deserted summer holiday park so she can spend time with her boyfriend. She’s been dating Tom (Joseph Quinn) for 3 years. But rather than a romantic getaway, she’s staying in a grey, gloomy collection of jerry-built cottages near the sea. Everything is covered in plastic sheeting. And her relation with Tom is fraught with tension and jealousy. When she finds a hair in her sheets, that clearly isn’t hers, she takes the bedding to the laundry to wash it clean. There she meets an older taller woman named Jade (Stephanie Martini). Jane makes hair pieces for a local hospital — it takes 30,000 knots to make a single wig, she says. 

Now Ruth has someone she can hang around with, talk to, and tell her secrets, none of which she’s getting from Tom. But her obsession with her boyfriend’s possible mistress drives Ruth into an unexpected situation. Can her relationship last? Or will she find a new path among the windswept sand dunes?

Make Up is an impressionistic coming-of-age story about a young woman looking for love while trapped in an almost surreal setting. It’s full of the screeching foxes, detached sexual sounds and  blurry vistas set against the banality of service jobs. Molly Windsor is really good as the bewildered Ruth. The movie itself is a straightforward drama but shot almost like an eerie ghost story. This is an excellent first feature from a young filmmaker.

Identifying Features

Dir: Fernanda Valadez

Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra) is a farmer in Guanajuato, Mexico. She’s a single mom who’s raising her teenaged son Jesus in a small farmhouse. But when he suddenly tells her he’s heading north with his best friend to take a job in Arizona, she packs his bag and says goodbye. And that’s the last she hears from him and his friend. Are they kidnapped? Lost? Or dead? She reports it to the police to no avail. His best friend is found but nothing is found of Jesus except the bag Chuya had packed.  And when a woman she meets tells her not to give up, she sets out on a journey to try to find her son, or else confirmation that he’s dead.

On the way she falls in with a young man named Miguel (David Illescas)  who was recently deported from the US. He is looking for his mom who lives in Ocampo a region plagued with crime. It’s also where Chuya thinks she can find the answers to her son’s disappearance. Will she ever find out what happened to him? And can an ordinary, kind woman survive in a society filled with greed, suspicion, and murder? 

Identifying Features is a deeply moving and gripping mystery/drama that looks at the lives of Mexicans, trapped within larger forces — el migra, organized crime, and a corrupt police force — over which they have no control. It takes you into fascinating places, rarely portrayed — like indigenous villages, hostels for migrants — that tell an unforgettable story with a shocking ending.  Stunning cinematography, and natural acting combined with compelling drama, makes for a terrific film.

Make Up just opened on VOD across North America.  Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, and Identifying Features both open today at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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.

Delivering the Message. Films reviewed: Songbird, Modern Persuasion, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

Posted in Advertising, Brooklyn, China, Covid-19, Disease, documentary, L.A., Romance, Romantic Comedy, Science Fiction, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on December 11, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies – a rom-com, a thriller, and a documentary – about people delivering messages. We’ve got a romantic ad executive in Brooklyn, a courier in pandemic LA, and peasant-writers in northern China.

Songbird

Dir: Adam Mason

It’s 2022, a year in the future, and Nico (K.J. Apa) is the happiest guy in LA. He’s a courier who spends his days zooming around the city’s almost-deserted streets on his motorbike delivering packages. You see, COVID-19 has wiped out almost everyone, and those still left alive are under permanent lockdown. Rich people cower behind high-security walls while in the poor parts of town, conditions are barbaric. Everyone is under constant surveillance, forced to submit daily digital “temp tests” to prove they’re not infected. Helicopters hover overhead looking for anyone disobeying the lockdown, enforced by “Sanitation Officers”, paramilitary thugs dressed in bright-yellow Hazmat suits.

So how come Nico gets to ride around unhindered? He wears a precious plastic bracelet proving he’s immune to the virus. The one sad note is he can’t get together with his girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson). They’re forced to press hands on either side of closed doors and communicate only by texts. And he’s always on the look out for the evil head of the Sanitation Bureau (Peter Stormare) an immune serial killer who murders with impunity. Will the virus ever end? And will Nico and Sara ever get to kiss?

Songbird is a science-fiction romantic thriller about life under COVID.  Apparently it is the first such movie conceived, shot and released during the pandemic. Aside from Sara and Nico (KJ Apa is the kiwi heart-throb from Riverdale, who regularly takes off his shirt to reveal his abs) the story also follows  William and Piper Griffin (Bradley Whitford, Demi Moore) a crafty rich family who secretely keep their infected daughter Emma alive; a young woman who works as a youtube singer and part-time sex-worker; and some lonely and depressed war vets abandoned by their government but still ready to save the day. Songbird does an OK job at capturing the pandemic in cinematic form (up to now we’ve had to rely on old movies like Contagion, Outbreak, 28 Days) but it’s not great. And with our constantly-changing news cycle, how can any movie like this keep up with Covid-19?

Modern Persuasion

Dir: Alex Appel, Jonathan Lisecki

Wren (Alicia Witt) is an advertising executive who lives in Brooklyn with her cat. She’s pretty and smart, but in her thirties and still single (gasp!). She broke up with her college sweetheart Owen when he moved to the Bay Area and made a fortune in tech. The agency – owned by brother-and-sister rich diletantes – is not doing well, so she has to land a new account soon. Luckilly, a social networking giant is interested in hiring them. It’s called “Blipper” (as in twitter… get it?) Luckilly she has two millennial assistants to help her navigate these strange waters. But when the potential client shows up, she’s shocked to see it’s Owen (Shane McRae), her lost love. And he treats her like she’s not even there, flirting with her younger assistants instead of her. It’s not like she doesn’t have suitors of her own. There’s Sam, Owen’s best friend, a middle-aged emo who listens to sad music from the 80s; and Tyler, a London hotshot who owns a rival ad agency. Her impromptu dates with Tyler are set up by her scheming aunt Vanessa (played by the great Bebe Neuwirth). But secretly, in her heart, she still pines for Owen. Does he still love her? Does she still love him? And which is more important – her career or her love life?

Modern Persuasion – as the title suggests – is a contemporary take on the Jane Austen novel. Parties in the Hamptons replace balls in stately mansions, but the story seems essentially the same (I say “seems” because I haven’t read Persuasion, but I have seen a lot of Jane Austen movie knock-offs.) Beautiful women, especially Wren, dress in modern versions of romantic gowns, while the brooding / aloof / duplicitous men are all handsome, too. Appearance – clothes, hair, shoes, bags, looks – seems to be the great determiner in this movie. It’s cute and occasionally funny, but the plot is totally predictable, and some of the lines, especially the fake millennial-talk, are excruciating: Hashtag: Justshootme.  That said, if you’re looking for some light, shallow and inconsequential entertainment, you could do worse than Modern Persuasion.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue 

Dir: Jia Zhangke (past interviews here and here)

In 1942 under Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party held talks in Yan’an on the role of writers and artists in a future Peoples’ Republic. They declared that literature should be written by educated peasants about their lives for other peasants to read. Fiction should serve the people and the Party, and foreign influences avoided. In Jia Zhangke’s new documentary, he looks at the effect this had on Chinese writers, by looking at four authors in chronological order: Ma Feng, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong. The documentary interviews the writers themselves but also has random villagers reciting lines from the works directly toward the camera, in the style of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

Ma Feng was a writer in early Communist China. Born a peasant, he later became a writer lauded by the party. Locals in the model community Jia Family Village still talk about his innovations, like freedom to marry for love (rather than arranged marriages) and communal work teams that tackled major problems like making salty soil fit to grow crops. He was a fruit of the Yan’an Talks and studied at the Lu Xun Academy, where Western styles were frowned upon and a number of writers were purged. Ma Feng brought his learnings back to his village.

 Jia Zhangke next looks at Jia Pingwa (no relation). His ambitions were thwarted in the 1960s because his dad once attended an opera in Xi’an registered through a local warlord (before liberation). Because of this record, he was declared a spy for the KMT, and his children were also labeled counter-revolutionaries. Jia Pingwa finally broke from his tainted background by painting 8-character slogans on a stone cliff beside a reservoir (he had good handwriting.)  He’s now a noted writer.

Yu Hua is a popular novelist who used to be a dentist, a profession he hated. Although born in the beautiful city of Hangzhou, his family moved to a backwater, and lived near a morgue (an early influence). He talks about his first published stories (in the 1980s) in the prestigious magazine Harvest, and how the caring editor explained that while his writing was good, one story was too gloomy, and required a happy ending. He quickly obliged.

And Liang Hong, who was a PhD student in the 2000s tells harrowing memories of her childhood

on a farm, including spouse abuse, hunger and suicide.

Altogether, Jia Zhangke subtly reveals modern Chinese writers and how they weathered the Cultural Revolution, censorship, anti-foreign sentiments, and conformity of thought while still producing great works of literature. (I have’t read any of these authors.)

Like all of Jia Zhangke’s documentaries, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is slow-paced and subtle, but profound. I found it quite moving, especially the authors’ own recollections. Beautifully shot, it’s divided into 18 short chapters, each one beginning with a written text. While academic in tone, and aimed more at those interested in Chinese art, politics and history than regular fans of Jia Zhangke’s movies, I quite enjoyed it.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue opens today exclusively at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Songbird and Modern Persuasion both open digitally and theatrically 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.

The Fathers and the Mothers. Films reviewed: The Goddess of Fortune, Zappa

Posted in 1960s, Cold War, documentary, Family, Gay, Italy, L.A., LGBT, Music, Romance by CulturalMining.com on November 26, 2020

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

In Toronto, we’re locked up at home, while in the States they’re huddled around Covid-lit fires eating turkey as Rome burns. This week I’m looking at an two new movies, an Italian drama and an American documentary. We’ve got impromptu fathers in Rome, and the mothers of invention in LA.

The Goddess of Fortune

Wri/Dir: Ferzan Ozpetek

Arturo and Allesandro (Stefano Accorsi, Edoardo Leo) are a happy Italian couple in a long-term relationship. Arturo is an academic translator who works at home, while Allesandro is a plumber. There relationship is strong but missing some of it’s original pizzazz. They still sleep together in the same bed, but the don’t “sleep together”. Allesandro settles for quickies on the sly, while Arturo is celibate. But they still have their friends and neighbours, a close-knit family that spans the straight and LGBT world in all its aspects, ethnicities and languages.

But their lives are disrupted by an unexpected arrival. Annamaria (Jasmine Trinca: The Son’s Room, The Best of Youth) is a single mom with two kids, the stern Martina and the innocent Sandro. She was dating Allesandro when he met Arturo, but remains close after they broke up. Now she’s visiting Rome for medical tests – she suffers from extreme migraines – and is leaving the kids with them for a few days. Allesandro takes Sandro on his plumbing trips, teaching him how to fix pipes, while Arturo serves as a temporary teacher for Martina. But the idyllic relationship begins to fade as jealousies and suspicions rise to the surface. Is Arturo having a secret affair? Is Sandro Allesandro’s biological son? Is Annamaria’s ailment more dangerous than they thought? And if things get worse, who will take care of the kids?

The Goddess of Fortune is a warm-and-fuzzy gay family drama with great characters and some surprising plot turns. With an attractive cast, it’s beautifully shot amidst the decaying palaces and frescos of Palermo, Sicily, which gives parts of the film a spooky feel. The director, Ferzan Ozpetek, is well known to Toronto audiences – originally from Istanbul, he’s been making romantic dramas in Italy, usually with a gay theme, for 20 years now. If you like his films, or just feel-good dramas in general, let The Goddess of Fortune shine bright on you.

Zappa

Dir: Alex Winter

Frank Zappa was an American composer, musician and prominent counter-culture figure. He is known for his driven personality, his prolific output, and his innovations in the field of experimental music, as well as for his hit singles and albums. His music is uncategorizeable, but is simultaneously both frenetic and precise, with a subversive feel, far outside the mainstream. This new documentary looks at his entire life and career, using largely unseen super-8, video, TV and film from Zappa’s vast collection.

Frank Zappa was born into an Italian-American family in Baltimore during WWII. His dad worked in an arms factory making nerve gas and chemical weapons. The beakers and gas masks his dad brought home for the kids to play with instilled in young Frank a love of explosives and both a fascination with and repulsion toward the macabre US arms industry, a view that stayed with him for most of his life. (He was also a fan of Spike Jones and Ernie Kovacs.) The family moved to small-town California in his teens where he started composing and performing music. His entry into the avant-garde was spurred by a Look magazine article mentioning Edgard Varese, described as an unlistenable composer (reason enough for him to want to hear more). He later worked as a greeting card artist, and wrote the scores for low-budget films. He was driven out of Cucamonga in a vice-squad sting that accused him of making porn movies.

But when he arrived in LA in the 60s, he found his stride. He began performing at the Whiskey a Go Go, where he met his wife Gail. And with his band, The Mothers of Invention, began recording and touring his music. Classic songs like Dynamo Hum, placed him within the “sexual revolution”. He was also a hero within the psychedelic drug movement, though he said he didn’t touch the stuff. While never a huge hit, his albums sold well, he had a devoted fan base, and was respected by other musicians. To give you an idea of his eclectic nature, Zappa performed with or alongside people like Lenny Bruce, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Flo and Eddie of The Turtles, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and conductor Zubin Mehta. The members of The Mothers changed over the years, but all were accomplished musicians whom Zappa directed with an iron grip. He was not known for showing emotions and had no tolerance of imprecise performances. (He was a mean mofo.)

In the 1980s he left the establishment and formed his own independent record company. Ironically, he hit his first commercial success and had his only top 10 hit with a novelty song, Valley Girl, where his daughter, Moon Unit Zappa, provided a perfect imitation of the San Fernando dialect.  Later he became an outspoken critic of government censorship, including the classifying of popular music using warning labels. He was also invited to perform in Prague just as Czechoslovakia (where he was considered a national hero) threw off Soviet control. He died of cancer in the early 1990s.

This documentary film by Alex Winter is an overwhelming panoply, a barrage of audio and visual images, both public and private, as well as new interviews with musicians he worked with. It’s less concerned with Zappa’s private life than his astoundingly prolific career and his innovations in experimental music. It’s produced by his son Ahmet and features a lengthy interview with his late wife Gail, so, while not a white-washed hagiography, it’s not a scandal-doc, either.

Whether or not you’re a fan of his music, Zappa is a must-see documentary, an unforgettable look at the man, the era he lived in, and the influence he had.

Zappa is available on VOD and in selected theatres starting today; and The Goddess of Fortune is on VOD beginning next week. 

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

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