Women around the world. Films reviewed: Nina Wu, White Elephant, French Exit

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

Spring is here and so is Toronto’s film festival season, even with all the theatres still closed. First up is the Canadian Film Fest which is on now.

This week I’m looking at three new dramas about women around the world. There’s an actress haunted by an audition in Taipei; a high school girl crushing on a white guy in Scarborough; and an insolvent socialite retiring in Paris.

Nina Wu
Dir: Midi Z

Nina Wu (Wu Kexi) is an aspiring actress in Taiwan. Originally part of a rural theatre company, she moved to Taipei to make it big, but so far, six years on her big break has yet to show itself, So when her agent offers a possible role in a festival-type feature looking for an unknown actress to play a complex character in a psychological drama, she jumps at the chance. But there’s always a catch: the part calls for full frontal nudity and explicit sex. That’s not all — there’s a gruelling, and highly competitive hiring process she has to past through first. Luckily she lands the lead role. Unluckily, the director, in order to get a “real” performance out of her, treats her like hell on set and off. He works her into a frenzy, slaps her face, insults her and puts her very life in danger. She understands what an actor has to go through to deliver a spectacular performance. But that’s not all. A dark, hidden secret from the recent past, still haunts her, and is gradually pushing her to the edge. Someone is stalking her. She has disconnected memories of walking down endless narrow corridors in a red gown, passing identically dressed women at every corner. What is happening? What does it all mean? And can she survive?

Nina Wu is an exquisitely beautiful mystery-thriller about the life of an actress suffering from PTSD. It’s about her, her dreams and hallucinations, as well as the movie in the movie. So at any given moment she could be acting her role, having a nightmare, or experiencing a hallucination — and you don’t always know which one it is. Nina Wu is a collaboration between the director, Midi Z, originally from the Shan State in Myanmar, and Wu Kexi a stunning and emotionally powerful Taiwanese actress, based on her own experiences. With haunting music, striking costumes and set, beautiful cinematography and a fascinating story, Nina Wu shows the dark side of the movie industry coated with a vibrant and flashy gloss.

White Elephant
Dir: Andrew C

Its the mid-nineties at a Scarborough high school. Puuja (Zaarin Bushra) is a
16-year-old Toronto-born girl who doesn’t quite fit in. She’s too Canadian for her Indian-born friends Preet and Amit (Gurleen Singh, Dulmika Kevin Hapuarachchi), too Indian for Indo-Caribbeans, and too brown for the white kids. Her main pastime is going to movies and hanging at Tim Horton’s. But when a random encounter at a theatre with a white guy she thinks is cute, things start to change. Trevor (Jesse Nasmith) doesn’t go to her school, but he’s from the neighbourhood, and hangs with his friends nearby. He seems to like her, at least as a friend. Pujaa starts lightening her hair, changing her style and wearing green-tinted contact lenses to fit in. But can a brown girl date a white guy in Scarborough? Or is their Romeo and Juliet friendship bound to fail?

White Elephant is a look at the racial division, rivalry and prejudice among kids in a multi-cultural community, as seen through the eyes of Puuja. It’s a shorter than average-film, just one hour long, but it covers a lot of ground.

There are some strange details. I’ve never heard of Canadians putting their hands on their hearts during the national anthem — that’s an Americanism. And why would Pooja’s Calcutta-born Dad scolds her for not speaking Hindi. (Wouldn’t he speak Bengali?) But these are minor quibbles. Acting was good all around, the costume design was fun, and the film gave a voice to groups rarely seen on the screen.

French Exit
Dir: Azazel Jacobs
(Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt)

Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a Park Avenue socialite known for her attitude. She can cut down the fiercest critic with a withering glance, and if snubbed by a waiter she’s apt to set her table on fire. She’s not one to be underestimated. When her husband died she withdrew her nondescript son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) from prep school and brought him home. Eight years later, the coffers run dry, and she’s insolvent. So she sells her jewelry and paintings and pulls a “French exit” —an unannounced getaway — on an ocean liner with a satchel full of Euros. She’s accompanied by Malcolm and their cat. Malcolm is sad because his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots) refuses to follow him to Paris. (Oh to be young-ish and in love-ish again, says Frances.) They set up house in her best friend Joan’s pied à terre and start to enjoy life in Paris. And they soon have a motley crew of friends dropping by: Madame Reynard, a lonely fan, Madeleine, a psychic, Julius, a private detective, and others. Frances is spreading the wealth, handing off wads of cash to everyone she meets. It’s almost as if she’s trying to use it all up before she says goodbye. But first she must find her runaway cat, whom she believes is a reincarnation of her late husband. Can Malcolm adjust to life in Paris? Will he ever see Susan again? What is the real reason Frances came to Paris? And what will happen when her money runs out?

French Exit is a leisurely-paced, whimsical story, based on a novel. Lucas Hedges as Malcolm is so low key and introverted, you can barely notice him; while Michelle Pfeiffer Frances is a fantastical creation. It feels like a modern-day version of Auntie Mame. It’s written by Canadian novelist Patrick DeWitt based on his own recent book, which gives it lots of room to develop characters and supply funny lines. It may be light and inconsequential, but it’s a pleasure to watch.

French Exit and Nina Wu both open today; and White Elephant is playing at the Canadian Film Festival.

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 writer and lawyer Jay Paul Deratany about Foster Boy at the Toronto Black Film Festival

Posted in African-Americans, Chicago, Corruption, Courtroom Drama, Family, Movies, Orphans, Resistance, Secrets, Thriller, violence by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2021

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

Jamal is an angry 19-year-old who finds himself back in a Chicago courtroom once again. He’s a product of the deeply- flawed foster care industry, a privatized system which left him physically and mentally scarred, and in and out of prison. But this time he’s before a judge voluntarily; he’s suing the corporation that put him through hell. His lawyer? An unsympathetic corporate shill assigned to his case, pro bono, by a sympathetic judge. Jamal sees a “three-piece” supporter of the system he’s fighting, and the lawyer sees Jamal as a “thug” he’s ordered to represent. Can the two of them fight the power of an abusive system that made him a foster boy?

Foster Boy is the name a new courtroom drama and legal thriller inspired by true events, that was the opening night feature at the Toronto Black Film Festival. It’s produced by Shaquille O’Neal directed by Youssef Delara and stars Shane Paul McGhie, Matthew Modine, and Louis Gosset, Jr.

The script is by Jay Paul Deratany, a screenwriter who is also an accomplished Chicago lawyer and a foster youth advocate.

I spoke with Jay Paul Deratany in Chicago, via ZOOM, on February 17, 2021.

Foster Boy is available across North America at the Toronto Black Film Festival through Sunday, and online VOD.

Daniel Garber talks with Barry Stevens about his new documentary The World’s Biggest Family on CBC Docs POV

Posted in Canada, Corruption, documentary, Family, Secrets, UK by CulturalMining.com on September 25, 2020

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

Did you ever consider you might share ancestry with someone you’ve never met? Now, what if that person that shares your ancestry turns out to be more than just one? Imagine doing a DNA test and finding out you have over 600 half-siblings spread across the Atlantic, and you’re a part of the biggest family in the world?

The World’s Biggest Family is the name of a new documentary. It tells the story of the offspring of an anonymous and unusually prolific sperm donor, and the secrets and lies that surround artificial insemination. The movie’s subject and its director is multiple-award-winning filmmaker Barry Stevens who has worked on films like The Diary of Evelyn Lau, Offspring, Souvenir of Canada and History TV’s War Story.

The World’s Biggest Family premiers on Oct 1 on CBC Docs POV and CBC Gem.

I spoke with Barry Stevens in Toronto via ZOOM.

Some Antipodean Directors. Films reviewed: The Assistant, Come to Daddy

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

February is the worst month of the year, full of overcast skies, slush on the ground and a general malaise. So I thought: why not look at movies from a place where our winter is their summer? At least the directors, if not the stories. This week I’m looking at two films by directors from the antipodes, one from Australia, another from New Zealand. There’s a thriller/horror about a young man searching for his father’s secrets; and a tense drama about a young woman uncovering horrible secrets in her office.

The Assistant

Wri/Dir: Kitty Green (Interview: Ukraine is not a Brothel)

Jane (Julia Garner) is a young woman trying to make it in New York City. Hired straight out of Northwestern,  she’s currently at the bottom of the ladder, but hopes to work her way up. She’s an assistant at a medium-sized movie industry corporation with offices in New York, London and LA. She’s the first one to arrive, the last one to leave, the sort who eats her fruit loops standing up in the office kitchen.  All the grunt work falls to her — order lunch, sort head shots, distribute memos, serve coffee, book hotel rooms, tidy up her boss’s office. And deal with angry abusive people blaming everything on her. She brushes it all off in exchange for the promise of future work.

But something doesn’t seem quite right. A newly hired assistant, a pretty aspiring actress, has just arrived from Boise, Idaho, fresh out of high school, who has only worked as a waitress in a diner. Jane commutes from remote Astoria while the newest assistant is staying at a first-class hotel. She finds a woman’s earring  under a cushion in the boss’s couch. Why do actresses leave the boss’s office in tears? Why is she sending out blank cheques to unnamed people? And what will happen to the new assistant who thinks she’s here for an audition? Although she doesn’t face sexual abuse from her boss, it’s becoming increasingly clear that other women do. Why isn’t anyone talking about it? And is she to blame of she doesn’t speak up?

The Assistant is a cold, hard look at the rampant sexual harassment and abuse women face. It’s set at some point in the past, before the #MeToo movement broke, when everybody knew what was going on, but nobody ever did anything about it. Or if they did, they would be paid hush money to keep it away from the public. Male assistants laugh nervously, making jokes about which pieces of the boss’s furniture you should never sit in. Older women take it as a given: don’t worry dear, you’re not his type. The movie just lays its out before the audience in all its horribleness… without ever showing it.

Julia Garner gives a stunning performance as Jane, conveying a succession of unspoken emotions over the course of one day through facial expressions and body language: dread, distrust, realization, horror, and fear. There’s a terrific scene where she wraps herself up in a winter coat and a big scarf – like a suit of armour – to somehow shield her from the bad stuff happening all around her. This film gives a realistic look at a widespread problem reduced to a single day in one unnamed office.

The Assistant is a subtly, powerful movie about a difficult and uncomfortable topic that has to be told.

Come to Daddy

Dir: Ant Timpson (Turbo Boy)

Norval Greenwood (Elijah Wood) is a privileged, 35-year-old guy from LA. He loves fashion, celebrity and the big city. His prize possession is a limited edition, solid gold cel phone designed by Lorde. But something is missing from his life. His father walked out when he was five and Norval was raised by his mother in a Beverley Hills mansion. So when he receives a cryptic, letter from his long-lost Dad telling him he wants to talk to him, he decides to do it. He follows a handwritten map to a rocky beach in the pacific northwest until he finds an isolated, wooden house decorated with christmas lights clinging to the edge of a cliff. He knocks on the door, and a dessicated, grizzled old man opens it. “Hi Dad, Here I am…”

But this is not the kindly father he remembers. Gordon (Stephen McHattie) is a mean drunk, staggering around swilling plonk as he shoots insults at his son. His beady eyes look like dried out raisins. Norval wants to get the hell out of there but only after his dad tells him why he asked him to come in the first place. But when the old man threatens to chop him up with a cleaver, he knows something is not right.

Come to Daddy is a nihilistic thriller/horror as seen through a darkly comic lens. Elijah Wood is great as a nervous, self-centred guy whose First World problems are dwarfed by real life dangers… involving a killer, an eccentric policeman, a coroner, a swingers convention at a nearby motel, and the unexplained noises, that echo — clang clang clang —  around the nearly empty house. The vintage Thai soundtrack helps balance the blood and gore. This is a particular genre; either you like it or you don’t, but I love darkly twisted movies like this, with the quirky characters and constant surprises that keeps me glued to my seat till the final revelation.

The Assistant and Come to Daddy both 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 Toronto filmmaker Erin Berry about Majic, premiering at B.I.T.S.!

Posted in 1950s, 2000s, Conspiracy Theory, Internet, Mental Illness, Movies, Politics, Psychological Thriller, Republican Party, Secrets, US by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 2019

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

It’s 2008. Pippa Bernwood is a skeptical Vlogger who posts her views on youtube. She’s there to counter all the crazy conspiracy theories that pop up. She wants truth backed by evidence. But her world is turned upside down when a crazy old man named Anderson approaches her with an outlandish theory… and his theory turns out to be true. Now she’s in a quandary. Go with her gut, or believe the new story? Is it a vast conspiracy involving aliens, the government and secret societies? Or is it all smoke and mirrors, just a bit of birthday party “Majic”?

Majic is also the name of a new film about a secretive project called Majestic 12. It’s a combination mystery, sci-fi and conspiracy- theory thriller, all in one.

Majic is co-written and directed by Toronto-based filmmaker Erin Berry, his third feature, and the first made by his production company, Banned for Life.

I spoke with Erin in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Majic has its Canadian premier Sunday, 4:30 pm at the Royal Cinema at the Blood in the Snow Film Festival.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Samuel Kiehoon Lee about Gyopo

Posted in Canada, Clash of Cultures, Drama, drugs, Eating, Ensemble Cast, Korea, Secrets, Sex, Sex Trade by CulturalMining.com on November 1, 2019

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

It’s a typical day in Seoul, Korea. Young people lift weights, have a picnic in the park, go to work, move out of their apartment, sing karaoke, go drinking, have sex. They meet, interact, and drift apart. The interesting thing is none of these people are actually Korean. They may look Korean, they may speak Korean, they may have Korean names, but they’re not Korean Koreans. They’re Gyopo.

Gyopo is also the name of a new feature film that chronicles the ups and downs of gyopo millennials over the course of one day in Seoul. It’s fresh, filthy and fun. The film was directed by award-winning Toronto-based filmmaker Samuel Kiehoon Lee. Samuel is a grad of CFC Director’s Lab and is currently doing his MFA at York University.

I spoke with Samuel Gyopo Lee in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Gyopo is having its world premier at Toronto’s ReelAsian Film Festival on Saturday, November 9th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Daniel Garber talks with director Sameh Zoabi about Tel Aviv on Fire

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Israel, Movies, Mystery, Palestine, Satire, Secrets, TV, War by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2019

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

Salem is an ordinary Palestinian from Jerusalem who is down on his luck. No job, no money, no girlfriend. So he jumps at the chance to work on a popular TV soap shooting in Ramallah. It’s about a beautiful Palestinian spy seducing an Israeli officer in the days leading up to the 1967 war.

The problem is Salem has to pass through Israeli checkpoints between Jerusalem and Ramallah each day to get to work and back. And after a mixup with an Israeli guard at the checkpoint, the officer starts using his position to pressure Salem to change the soap opera’s plot. Will the TV series end with a happy wedding… or with Tel Aviv on fire?

Tel Aviv on Fire is a new comedy about relations between Israelis and Palestinians under occupation. It’s directed and co-written by Sameh Zoabi, the award-winning Palestinian filmmaker. Tel Aviv on Fire played at Venice and TIFF and many other festivals.

I spoke with Sameh in May, 2019 in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Tel Aviv on Fire opens today in Toronto.

Daniel Garber talks with Oscar-winning filmmaker László Nemes about Sunset

Posted in 1910s, Drama, Dreams, Hungary, Mysticism, Secrets, Women, WWI by CulturalMining.com on April 5, 2019

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

Photos of László Nemes by Jeff Harris

Irisz is a pretty, young milliner from Trieste who is visiting a grand hat shop in Budapest celebrating its 30th Jubilee. She is there to apply for a job, but the owner hands her a first class ticket home the moment he hears her name.

It’s Leiter, a name both famous and infamous. It’s the  name of the hat store, suppliers to the royal family, and founded by her own parents who died in a fire. But it’s also the name of a man who started the fire and murdered a count. Is he a madman… or a revolutionary? Irisz vows to find out who he is. But will the visit lead to a happy anniversary? Or is it the final sunset for the famous millinery house?

Sunset is also the name of a new film from Hungarian director Lázsló Nemes, who created the Oscar-winning Son of Saul. Sunset gives a multifaceted impression of pre-WWI Budapest, using sound, light, motion, colour and voices as experienced by Irisz. It shows the decadent Austro-Hungarian empire teetering on the brink, even as the new shining city arises. Sunset is a film filled with chaos, confusion and conflagration.

I spoke to Lázsló Nemes on location at TIFF in September, 2018. 

Sunset opens today in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Point of collapse. Films reviewed: Rojo, The Good Girls, Climax

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Argentina, Dance, Economics, France, Mexico, psychedelia, Queer, Secrets, Sex, violence by CulturalMining.com on September 14, 2018

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

At a festival the size of TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival which continues through the weekend) I try to carefully select which movies to see, based on reputation, subject and word of mouth. But even occasionally wandering into a movie at random can be a pleasant surprise.

This week I’m looking at three movies at TIFF set right before — and during — the point of collapse or disaster.

There’s a noir drama set in Argentina before the 1976 military coup, a social drama set in an upper class Mexico neighbourhood before the Peso crash of 82; and a dance, sex and drug fuelled  horror movie set in France in the 90s..

Rojo

Dir: Benjamín Naishtat

It’s the mid 1970s in a small provincial town in Argentina. The military has divided the country into war zones to fight guerrillas in the jungle. All is quiet but something is not right. Whole families are suddenly disappearing from their homes – are they kidnapped? Or just on vacation? Whatever, locals are enriching themselves by plundering whites left behind.

Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) a mild-mannered lawyer with bald head and a trim moustache, is not bothered by the tension — he is solidly middle class.. He joins a close family friend in a real estate scam to take over one of these empty homes. Claudio’s daughter and his scam partner’s son are dating though she seems less than eager – she’s more interested in the school’s dance club. But Claudio’s own life is disrupted by a disturbing incident at a restaurant: a man, a stranger in this town,  starts a loud argument over a reservation. Later, the argument turns violent, and Claudio secretly dumps the man’s body in the desert. And a famous private detective arrives from Santiago, Chile to investigate a missing person. Could this somehow be related to Claudio? Will this tension – and Claudio’s secret – ever go away? Or is Claudio – and Argentina — entering a terrible new phase of violent oppression?

Rojo is a dark mystery-drama about life in small-town Argentina before the US-backed military coup. It shows the stress uncertainty and violence affecting everyone in the town – from high school kids to the town’s leaders. Rojo nicely mixes politics, history, and noir-ish drama with a stylized, almost surreal 70s look — like an episode of Colombo.

I like this movie.

The Good Girls (Las Niñas Bien)

Dir: Alejandra Márquez Abella

It’s the summer of 1982 in a posh neighbourhood in Mexico City. Sofia (Ilse Salas) is riding high. She’s an elegant and beautiful woman from an upper-middle-class family, married to an investor. And she belongs to an exclusive country club where she and her friends meet daily to play tennis and gossip. Sofia is more interested in bags, shoes and facial creams than local politics. Her birthday party went flawlessly, ending with a wonderful present – a new cream-coloured car from her devoted husband Fernando (Flavio Medina). And with the kids at camp in the US– don’t talk to Mexicans! she tells them — she can devote herself to tennis, shopping and spending times with her friends.

But all is not well. Tell-tale signs are turning up – the taps run dry as the water utility runs into trouble. Oil prices are crashing and so is the Mexican economy. One of her best friends stops coming to the club, and a nouveau riche woman – named Ana Paula –  has taken her place on the ladder. Sofia continues to spend lavishly, but her cheques are starting to bounce. The creditors are moving in. And the servants are leaving, one by one. Is this a momentary lapse? Or – as one of her kids ask – are we poor now, mommy?

The Good Girls is a subtle and nuanced movie about the turning point, the exact moment when a woman realizes her carefully crafted life might crumble in an instant once the money goes away. When dignity disappears – and pettiness takes over – she realizes it could all be finished.

This is a spectacular movie – from the costumes, to the acting – and one I would have missed if I didn’t wander into the theatre at random when the movie I planned to go to was full.

Climax

Dir: Gaspar Noé 

It’s 1996 in an isolated building in rural France. A dance troupe — multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi-sexual  — is perfecting their dance routine. There’s It’s the dress rehearsal before heading off to New York and they do it without a single problem. The celebratory afterparty is just starting, with the Daddy is playing tunes, David scouting a sexual partner, and psyche is pouting. as the choreographer sends her son up to bed. But something is wrong. Somebody has spiked the sangria with halucinegenic drugs! And the dancers are reacting in very strange ways. Dance turns to uncontrolled sex, and unchecked violence, as the dancers run through the red-lit halls in panic  escape. Others form impromptu gangs attacking skapegoats. Will anyone survive?

Gaspar Noé is one of my favourite directors and Climax does not disappoint. This is an amazing and unusual combination of contemporary dance, sex, drugs and extremely disturbing violence. The film starts with interviews of the dancers on old videotape, introducing themselves directly to the audience. Then theres a non-stop dance performance filmed from above, shot in what looks like a single take. Then comes the spiked punch and the horror begins, turning the world upside down. Its erotic, disturbing entertaining and extremely creepy and troublesome.

You also get Gaspar Noes amazing camerawork and design with upside down shots, titles appearing midway through the movie, non-stop music and some very funny lines before everything goes terrible.

Climax is amazing and disturbing.

Rojo, The Good Girls, and Climax are all playing at TIFF right now. Go to tiff.net for details. And don’t forget to show up at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sunday around 3 or 4 pm for free tickets to all the winning movies at TIFF selected by the audiences. There are four free screenings around 5-6 pm on Sunday.

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 Daniela Vega about A Fantastic Woman

Posted in Bullying, Chile, Drama, Family, Movies, Music, Secrets, Trans, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 9, 2018

(The second track is unedited, for Spanish speakers)

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Marina Vidal is a happy woman. Her career as a singer is taking off, and her relationship with her lover, Orlando, is at a new stage. They are living together. He gives her a perfect birthday: dinner, dancing, and a trip to a resort. But her luck takes a turn for the worse when he wakes up feeling strange. She rushes him to hospital but it’s too late. He’s dead. And suddenly everything changes.

The authorities, police, doctor, and Orlandos family swoop down upon her. She is called a thief, a prostitute, a murderer. She is attacked emotionally and physically and told to stay away. All of this because she’s a trans woman. They say her relationship with Orlando was not “normal”.

But why should a woman settle for normal when she can be fantastic?

A Fantastic Woman is the name of a new film directed by Sebastián Lelio and starring Daniela Vega. Vega is a popular Chilean singer and actor who plays Marina in a remarkably powerful performance.

I spoke with Daniela on location at TIFF17 in September.

A Fantastic Woman has been nominated for an Academy Award: Best Foreign Language Film.  It opens today in Toronto.

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