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 to director Mahmoud Sabbagh and stars Hisham Fageeh and Fatima Al Banawi about Barakah meets Barakah at #TIFF16

Posted in Class, comedy, Cultural Mining, Islam, Movies, Music, Romantic Comedy, Satire, Shakespeare, Social Networks by CulturalMining.com on September 16, 2016


Hi, This is Daniel Garber at the movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Barakah is a municipal civil servant in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He drives a tiny white truck and gives tickets to people defying city bylaws. He lives in a rundown flat with his shrieking aunt (a midwife), and his complaining uncle (a down-and-out former musician).

Bibi is a hugely popular culture critic and fashion plate with a unnamed-1million followers on Instagram. She shares her opinions and photos…but only from the lips down (to keep her identity a secret). She’s rich, famous and single.

After a series of chance meetings, Bibi and Barakah realize destiny is at play, and the two of them just might belong together. Problem is: how do you date in a country where unmarried men and women can’t kiss, hold hands… or even appear together in public without an escort? Will Bibi and Barakah ever get to know each other? And how can two people of different backgrounds bridge the gap between them?

Mahmoud Sabbagh at TIFF16, photo © Jeff Harris for Cultural MiningBarakah meets Barakah is a cute romantic comedy having its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a humorous look at the troubles of dating inside restrictive Saudi Arabia. But it’s also a lament for the loss of the once vibrant Saudi culture. It’s directed by Mahmoud Sabbagh, and stars Hisham Fageeh and Fatima Al Banawi, as the star-crossed lovers.

Barakah meets Barakah is only the second contemporary Saudi film to screen in Canada. I spoke with Mahmoud, Hisham and Fatima on location at TIFF16.

Photos by Jeff Harris.

October 28, 2011. Hallowe’en! Films Reviewed: Paranormal Activity 3, Rabies, Anonymous PLUS Guillermo del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone & Cronos, NFB, Face-Off 40th Anniversary re-release, and Stop Concussions!

Posted in Canada, Darkness, Drama, Dreams, Hockey, Horror, Israel, Mexico, Shakespeare, UK, Uncategorized, US, violence by CulturalMining.com on October 30, 2011

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference

I’m going to dive right with some movies to watch this Hallowe’en weekend ’cause there’s lots to cover.

Now, I know about the weird phenomenon of Holiday Creep (where one day celebrations get stretched into month-and-a-half long marketing seasons) and that hallowe’en has been totally commercialized and stolen from kids so the grown-ups can have a good time, but I’m not complaining. We get to act like idiots, eat poorly, imbibe substances in excess, and disguise our identities. Anonymity rules the day. So get ready to stuff your faces with peanut-free snacks, put on your zombie blood and stripper outfits, and swarm out, en masse, to some hallowe’en movies. Go with someone who can handle a nails-in-the-palm hand squeeze. Because they’re scary. This week I’m talking about a ghost story caught on tape, a horror story in the woods of Israel, and a historical drama about anonymity and disguise. Plus some movie classics.

Paranormal Activity 3

Dir: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Julie, her two kids, and her boyfriend Dennis have moved into a new suburban, California home. Dennis likes video cameras – he works as a wedding photographer, so he’s always in a room editing VHS tapes. But when they try to film a provate sex tape, something scary appears on the footage. And her youngest daughter Kristie Rey’s imaginary friend Toby… might not be imaginary. So Dennis sets up cameras around the house to try to catch some paranormal activity on tape. But he might uncover some stuff he shouldn’t mess with.

This is the third of the Paranormal seres, and it’s pretty scary, with little surprises, shocks, and lots of red herrings. The idea is, the two little girls will grow up to be the young women of the first two pictures. And that this whole movie is just excerpts of found footage from a box of old 1988 VHS tapes. So it jumps around, sometimes even in mid sentence, to the next tape, or fast forwards in the middle of scene, like we’re watching the private videos but someone else holds the remote control. Lots of things are never explained they’re just there and they’re scary. But, strangely enough, it’s completely understandable, even though it’s all over the place, like watching youtube. It’s the building tension that’s great, and wondering what’s happening just off camera that you can hear but not see. The scenes shot by a camera taped to a slow moving oscillating fan, that pans left and right, left and right, are really good and scary. If you want to have nightmares on Hallowe’en, this is the one to see.

Rabies

Wri/Dir: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado

Two young men in tennis shorts clothes and two women in track suit tops and white skirts drive down some out-of-the-way road as they look for tennis courts. They meet up with a guy named Ofer – after hitting him with their SUV — who is trying to rescue his sister who is trapped in a hole – possibly an animal trap –underground. Meanwhile, a middle- aged forest ranger is out inspecting the reserve when his German Shepard disappears. And a truly sinister killer in a green jumpsuit is doing various bad things.

So the three guys go out to search for the missing girl and the women stay behind to wait for the cops. But one of the cops is a skeeze-bag molester who insists on a full-body search, which puts the girls in a- uncomfortable position. From there, most of the characters end up splitting-up and and gradually either getting killed or doing the killing in various gruesome ways, involving things like bear traps, explosions, knives and rocks. Is it the woods, or the blood, or is it something in the air? I’m not saying. But they all seem driven to extreme behaviour. In between, everyone communicates using static-y walkie-takies, adding to the surreal feel.

The killings are mainly off-camera, but they spare no expense on blood splashes and missing body parts. Afterwards you get to see people so mushed-up they look like extras in a zombie movie… but no zombies here.

Rabies is a comic mystery/horror/ slasher movie, apparently the first of its kind ever made in Israel. Like most horror movies, it’s partly for the thrill and the shock and the tension, and partly just to show attractive, scantily dressed actors running into trouble on screen. It’s more gross than it is scary – but it’s shot in the daytime which gives it a good, creepy and eerie tone. Its great, all-star cast includes Henry David (Restoration) as Ofer, Ania Bukstein (Secrets) as the tough-assed tennis player Adi, and Ran Danker (Eyes Wide Open) as Mikey.

Anonymous

Dir: Roland Emmerich

This movie is about a rich nobleman, Edward De Vere of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (played by Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter Joely Richardson as the old and young Queen) who, because of his status, must disguise his writing talent. He gets a commoner, playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), to anonymously mount the plays Edward writes. Johnson, in turn, passes them on to a talentless, greedy, bumbling and illiterate actor named… William Shakespeare!

Edward has to deal with an evil, manipulative father-and-son team of the puritanical and art-hating Cecil family who are the Queen’s closest advisors, and his biggest rivals. IN his youth, he has an affair with the so-called Virgin Queen and unknowingly leaves an illegitimate child. Will a pretender succeed Queen Elizabeth? Will he be able to continue his writing undetected? Or will the Globe theatre be closed down for it’s political plays? And will the nefarious Cecils or the good Edward emerge triumphant?

So it sounds like a good movie – there are a few good scenes, and I’ll admit, it kept me interested, more or less, for the whole movie. Enough not to walk out. Problem is, it’s just a hard movie to watch. It has flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, with tons of similar-looking characters (the men all seem to have little black van-dyke moustaches) emerging during different time periods, with different actors playing the same role. Especially for a movie about Shakespeare, the lines are not particularly beautiful or clever – they often sounds like ESL; the plot’s muddled, the score is intrusive, the motivations are confusing, and it is one of the gaudiest movies I’ve ever seen: Every pole has a vine around it, every wall has distracting tapestries, every crowd scene has extras in tableaux from Breughel or Hals, every outdoor shot has to have a bit of mist or fog floating past, every chimney has CGI smoke… Give it a rest! It made me long for a scene without neck ruffles and flickering candles. You’ve heard of minimalism? This movie is maximalism.

Anonymous is historically revisionist. It says a common person like Shakeseare could never have been so great — only a member of the nobility. And women in power (even a Queen) were all helpless biddies who can be easily manipulated by men.

It does have some shockingly unexpected plot twists, but not enough. You should leave this movie to an anonymous fate.

The Devil’s Backbone and Cronos

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

In Devil’s Backbone, Carlos, is a kid placed in an old orphanage during the 1930’s Spanish civil war, who meets a strange boy in a closed off part of the building. He might be a ghost who holds the untold secrets of the place, and he caries a warning.

In Cronos, a kindly old antique dealer finds a mechanical gold bug that can bring eternal life, but at a frightening cost – the bug attaches itself to a person and makes him do bad things.

If you’ve seen Pan’s Labrynth, you’ll recognize a lot of the character types from these movie– the stern but beautiful middle-aged woman, the kindly grey-bearded older guy, the cruel but handsome fascist soldier, and the quiet, observant child – a boy in Backbone, a girl in Cronos. I loved both these movie, and they rarely play on the big screen. They’re on Sunday night as a double feature at the Bell Lightbox. Go to tiff.net for details.

Also on, this weekend only, at the NFB is a free animated film show, showing New short cartoons. It’s on everyday this weekend. For more information go to www.onf-nfb.gc.ca.

And coming next week, right after the release of the sequel to Goin’ Down the Road, is the first release on dvd of another Canadian classic, Face-Off, about a small-town player who joins the Maple Leafs. Tagline: He’s a Rookie, She’s a Rocker! It’s especially apropos now with all the controversy about hockey goons and head injuries. The message now is avoid head trauma at all costs. Speaking from personal experience, the last thing you want is to injure your brain in any way. So there’s a special charity screening of this movie next Thursday at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Go to stopconcussions.com for more info.

Paranormal Activity is playing now, Anonymous opens in Toronto today, check your local listings, and Rabies is playing one show only, on Sunday, October 30th at 8pm at Innis College. For more information go to www.tjff.com.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining.com.

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