Oscar contenders, 2023. Films reviewed: Saint Omer, The Son, Living

Posted in 1950s, 2000s, Courtroom Drama, Death, Drama, Family, France, Mental Illness, TIFF, UK by CulturalMining.com on January 21, 2023

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

This week, I’m looking at three potential Oscar contenders opening this weekend. There’s a writer in Paris attending a trial, a bureaucrat in London whose life is a trial, and a Dad dealing with the trials and tribulations of a mentally ill son.

Saint Omer

Wri/Dir: Alice Diop

It’s the early 2000s in a Parisian suburb. Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) is on trial for murder. She admits to leaving the infant on a beach to be washed away with the tides one moonlit night, but why she did it is not so simple. She’s a Senegalese-French woman from Dakar, in Paris as a student. She is beautiful, articulate, poised and intelligent; not your usual murder suspect. As her mother (Salimata Kamate) told her, education and politesse are the two most important traits. But after a series of events she ends up living in a small apartment as a grey-haired, married man’s mistress — no longer in university, with no friends, no job, no future. And virtually no one knows she was pregnant nor that she gave birth at home. She existed in a strange limbo world.

All of this is taken in by Rama (Kayije Kagame) a novelist and university prof in Paris. She is following the trial in person, for a new book she’s writing about Medea. Like Laurence, she’s a French intellectual, and a black woman of West African background. More than that, she’s estranged from her mother and is in her first trimester of pregnancy. In a sea of white faces in the courtroom, she feels both a connection and a revulsion toward Laurence. Could this be me on trial? she wonders. And will I be a fit mother?

Saint Omer is a devastatingly powerful courtroom drama as seen through an observer’s eyes. It’s the opposite of a Law & Order episode — no smoking guns or pot twists. Rather it’s Laurence’s retelling of her story before judge and jury Rama’s reactions that carries all the power. It’s intentionally filled with subtle ambiguity so you’re never quite sure whether Laurence is lying and being coached to do so, or if she’s completely sincere. With women holding most of the key roles — including the judge and the defence council —  it strips away some misconceptions. The acting (by actress Malanda and artist/performer Kagame) is superb, and the filmmaking amazing. This is documentary filmmaker Alice Drop’s first drama.  Somehow, she takes the drab wooden panels of a classroom and a courtroom and turns them into something pulsing with emotion. 

This is a great movie. 

The Son

Wri/Dir: Florian Zeller

Beth and Peter (Vanessa Kirby, Hugh Jackman) are a newly married, upper-middle class couple with a new baby. All I going well until they get an unexpected knock on the door. His teenaged son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) says he can’t take living his mom anymore (Laura Dern) a full-time nurse whom Peter divorced and abandoned a few years earlier. What a dilemma! He can’t turn away his own flesh and blood, can he?  But Nicholas is difficult to live with. It seems he stopped going to school months ago — without telling his parents. And Beth finds him scary. What if he does something to our baby— how can I trust him? So they check him into a psych ward without his consent. But what can they do in the long run with this troublesome teen?

The Son is an overwrought  melodrama about divorced parents forced to care for their troubled son. It deals with anguish, anger and regret but only from the parents’ perspective, never from the son’s. He’s just a pain in the ass… and possibly a threat! This movie falls in that sub-genre of sympathetic parents forced to deal with sons who “selfishly” choose to become drug addicts or mental ill. How dare they! Despite what the parents try, those bad sons are criminals and liars at heart who can never be trusted. This dreadful collection of never-watch movies  includes Beautiful Boy, with Timothy Chalamet and Ben is Back, starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges. This one has equal star power, and is just as hard to watch. It’s especially disappointing because it’s Florian Zeller’s follow-up to The Father a few years back about an elderly man slipping into dementia (Anthony Hopkins, who also appears in this film), as its unreliable narrator. But don’t be fooled. The Son has no redeeming features and is truly one of the worst movies of 2022.

Living

Wri/Dir: Oliver Hermanus

It’s Londin in the 1950s. Williams (Bill Nighy) is a mundane municipal bureaucrat, the head of public works at County Hall.  He spends most of his time at his desk — along with his subordinates Rusbridger, Middleton and Hart — keeping busy by ignoring piles of files and requests. Whenever troublesome locals appear, like a group of mothers requesting they build a tiny playground in a vacant lot, they’re quickly disposed of by sending them to another department in the endless bureaucratic labyrinth of city hall. The newly-hired Wakeling is quickly discouraged from working too hard — an empty inbox means you’re doing something wrong. The sole woman, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), is thinking of quitting to take a managerial job at a local restaurant. Since his wife died, Williams has lived a humdrum existence sharing his home with his adult son and daughter-in- law. But everything changes when his doctor brings him some terrible `news: incurable cancer, 6 months left to live. Suddenly everything takes on new meaning as he decides to start enjoying life and making things better for others. But is it too late?

Living is a period drama about life in post-war London. It captures the spark that can be reawakened in even the most humdrum person’s existence. It follows the night Williams spends in the demimonde led by an alcoholic bohemian he meets in a cafe; the days spent helping  Margaret, for the chance to share in her youth and vitaity; and a project he hoped to complete in his final days.

I approached this movie with trepidation, because it’s a remake of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, one of my favourite movies of all time, which I didn’t want to see ruined. Happily, Living it is wonderful film in its own right. Maybe only a writer like UK novelist Kazuo Ishiguro could transport a story from Tokyo to London, while staying true to its original meaning and structure, even while giving this very Japanese film a distinctly English feel. Bill Nighy (who usually plays silly characters in crap movies) is wonderfully understated in this one. And South African director Oliver Hermanus, who brought us the great Moffie, again puts his all into the film he’s making. 

I recommend this movie.

Living, Saint Omer, and The Son all open this weekend in Toronto, with the latter two playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; 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.

Adapted from plays. Films reviewed: The Whale, Matilda

Posted in College, comedy, Disabilities, Fairytales, Family, Gay, Kids, Musical, School, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 17, 2022

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

With holiday season upon us, it’s a time when students and their parents have a chance to take some time off. And if you can’t afford a ticket, there are lots of Christmas movies playing for free at the Hot Docs Cinema at Bloor and Bathurst. So in honour of Christmas break, this week I’m looking at two new movies adapted from plays, with an educational theme. There’s a college professor who is ashamed to show his face to his students, and a little schoolgirl who dares to talk back to her headmistress.

The Whale

Dir: Darren Aronofsky

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a college teacher who conducts his classes on his computer. And he never shows his face. He says it’s because he’s technologically inept but the real reason is he weighs 600 pounds and doesn’t want to show himself on camera. He works out of his home, and gets everything delivered to his door. And he’s visited daily by a nurse named Liz  (Hong Chau) who takes care of him, drops off food and keeps him company each day. They’re friends but also share a common history. She constantly warns him that his extreme weight pushes his blood pressure to dangerous levels — he may be dead in a matter of weeks — but Charlie refuses to make any changes to his diet or habits; it’s almost as if he wants to die. 

But his usual life is interrupted by some unexpected visitors. First a stranger, a young Christian missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins). Thomas walks through the door uninvited just as Charlie, who is masturbating to gay porn in his living room, has a blood pressure incident. Barely able to speak, he hands Thomas a piece of paper and tells him to read it aloud: it’s an essay on Moby Dick which is the only thing that can calm his racing heart, and possibly save his life. Later, another visitor comes by, a rude and foulmouthed  teenaged girl named Ellie (Sadie Sink). She is his daughter, who he hasn’t seen since he walked out of his marriage a decade earlier. She wants to know why he left her and why he never visits. Can Charlie reconcile with his daughter? How does he know Liz? Why is the missionary there? Why is one bedroom of his home kept permanently locked? And why is he so depressed that he’s committing slow suicide by overeating?

The Whale is an extremely moving drama about a day in the life of an isolated gay man who punishes himself for something from his past. It deals with his extreme physical disabilities;  in his 50s Charlie is less mobile than an old man, but his brain is as sharp as ever. Adapted from his own play by Samuel D. Hunter, it’s told theatrically in a series of acts all within his home, almost as if it were on a stage, with the players entering and exiting in turn. Each character has a history and a secret, eventually revealed, which adds great dramatic tension to the story. And the acting is superb, most of all Brendan Fraser. 

At the same time, the Whale Was clearly made to win prizes. I’ve seen enough movies to know when an actor uses prostheses (Charlie is portrayed wearing a “fat suit”) and plays someone with a disability — whether a mental or physical illness or handicap — you know it’s Oscar bait. The thing is, Fraser is clearly a good actor and has a natural heft to his body, so I don’t think he needed all this extra elaborate makeup and costume. What is disturbing is the degree if Charlie’s self-loathing: he practically begs other people to call him hideous, grotesque and ugly. The thing is, it’s all in his mind. He’s actually a kind and pleasant guy, not the monster he’s trying to be. Don’t confuse the character’s psychology with the point of the film. And aside from a truly gross binging scene, The Whale  is really a beautiful and tender film. 

Matilda

Dir: Matthew Warchus

Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is a little girl who has never been to school. Her parents consider her a burden, so she lives in a tiny room in the attic, and educates herself at the local mobile library, where the kindly Mrs Phelps (Sindhi Vee) gives her a pile of books to read each day along with sage advice. But everything changes when a truant officer shows up at her door ordering her parents to send her to school. She starts her classes the next day at Crunchem Hall, a scary gothic structure behind a foreboding metal gate. It’s ruled by the cruel Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (an unrecognizable Emma Thompson), who treats it as somewhere between a boot camp and prison, not a place for fun and games or learning. Her strict rules are enforced by older students who serve as her henchmen. And woe to any student who is caught, or even accused of, disobeying. They might have their ears stretched, or their pigtails pulled by Miss Trunchbull herself. Or worst of all, they could be sent to The Chokey, a miserable, one-person jail, a dark, wooden shack festooned with chains and locks. No, not the Chokey! Luckily, there is hope.  Her teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) is as kind as the Headmistress is cruel. She quickly recognizes Matilda’s genius, and takes her under her wing. But the headmistresses is out to get her: she vows to break Matilda’s spirit and put her in her place. Will Matilda defy the Headmistress? And can she she outsmart her? Or will she end up in the Chokey?

Matilda is a fantastic kids’ musical, full of catchy songs and dances and a plethora of quirky characters within the huge ensemble cast, in the manner of Oliver! or Annie, but funnier. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, it’s full of Dickensian references but without Victorian morality to weigh it down: Matilda is a naughty girl who gets back at her tormenters with tricks of her own (She turns her father’s hair green and puts crazy glue on his hat brim.) Though it’s a timeless story, the art direction suggest a campy retro 1980s setting. Weir is a good Matilda, and Emma Thompson plays Miss Trunchbull to the hilt as an olympic hammer thrower, an intimidating fascist dictator, bedecked in khaki from head to toe. And Lashana Lynch is very sweet as Miss Honey. There’s also a story within the story, a fairytale about an acrobat and an escapologist; Matilda tells a chapter of that story to the librarian each day, like a modern-day Scheherazade. It’s very English, but with a nicely multi-racial cast. My only criticism is they occasionally get carried away with CGI effects, but not enough to spoil the film.

Kids will adore Matilda: the Musical, and I think grown-ups will too.

The Whale opens next weekend; check your local listings. Matilda is now playing theatrically in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and will start streaming on Netflix on Christmas Day. 

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

Wives and Moms. Films Reviewed: Ticket to Paradise, My Policeman, Till

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, African-Americans, Family, Indonesia, LGBT, Mississippi, Racism, Romantic Comedy, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 22, 2022

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

With Halloween approaching, Toronto After Dark is here until Sunday night to scare your pants off. And ImagineNative continues through the weekend with in-person screenings, followed by online movies till the end of the month.

This week I’m looking at three new movies — two historical dramas and one rom-com — about wives and mothers. There’s a wedding in Bali, a love triangle in Brighton… and a lynching in Mississippi.

Ticket to Paradise

Co-Wri/Dir: Ol Parker

David and Georgia Cotton (George Clooney, Julia Roberts) are a power couple. He’s a celebrated architect, while she directs a famous art gallery. They met in University, married and brought up their only child Lily (Kaitlyn Dever). She’s 24 now, but her parents? They’ve been divorced for two decades. They rarely see one another, and when they do, their conversation consists of put downs, and oneupmanship. But Lily loves both her parents, and is excited when they turn up for her law school graduation. And loves the fact they both accompany her to the airport. She’s flying with her best friend Wren (Billie Lourd) for a one-in-a-lifetime vacation at a fancy resort in Bali, before starting her job at a law firm in the fall. 

Once there, Lily is loving their vacation, until everything changes, when she’s stranded in the ocean far from shore. She’s rescued by a Balinese guy in a boat named Gede (Maxime Bouttier, the French/Indonesian actor/model). It’s love at first sight, and a few weeks later Lily has ditched her plans to be a lawyer and wants to live on the beach forever with a seaweed farmer. David and Georgia are invited to the wedding, and fly over together, bickering all the way. Tension rises when David discovers the jet is piloted by Georgia’s much younger boyfriend Paul (Lucas Bravo, Emily in Paris). 

But the ex-couple can agree on one thing. Lily is making a terrible mistake and they must do everything they can to stop it from happening. You see, Georgia gave up a promising career at an LA art gallery when David proposed to her — but their marriage fell apart after just a few years. So they owe it to their daughter to stop her from making the biggest mistake of her life. Will their plans succeed? Or will they alienate the only one they both love? And can David and Georgia ever get along? 

Ticket to Paradise is a traditional rom-com set in an “exotic” locale with big stars and some real laughs. The plot is threadbare and ridiculous — seriously, can you imagine grown- ups thinking they can stop a marriage merely by hiding the wedding rings? And it’s shot in Australia, not Bali; there’s no Kuta beach or Denpasar or Ubud, or anywhere else that evokes the island, aside from a few location shots That said, if you’re a fan of Clooney and Roberts — and they are fun to watch — and if you’re just looking for some ultra-light entertainment, and if rom-coms are your thing… well, you’ll probably like this one a lot. And even if you don’t like any of those (like me) it’s still totally watchable.

My Policeman

Dir: Michael Grandage (Genius: my review here)

Marion and Tom (Gina McKee, Linus Roache) are a retired couple living a quiet life in a seaside home in Brighton. But their marriage hits a rocky period when an invalid elderly boarder recovering from a stroke (Rupert Everett: The Happy Prince, review here) moves into their home. Marion feels they should take care of him, since he has no living relatives, while Tom is very disturbed by the notion. Who is he to us? He asks. What do we owe him? The answer lies in the journals he brought with him. Because, in fact, way back in the late 1950s, the three of them were very close. 

Tom (Harry Styles) is a young policeman dating Marion, a schoolteacher (Emma Corrin). It’s a tender courtship and the two are deeply in love. Tom introduces her to Patrick (David Dawson) who works at the local art museum: He’s smart and sophisticated. They met at the museum when Patrick asked Tom to model for his drawings. Will Marion fall for the sophisticated Patrick over the simple, but handsome policeman? No! There is a love triangle brewing here, but Marion isn’t the fulcrum, Tom is. He’s having a secret affair with Patrick. And when Tom says he’s travelling with him to Italy to work as his personal assistant, Marion gets suspicious. Thing is, being gay (or having gay sex) was a serious crime in the UK at the time. Somehow word gets out, and Patrick is arrested. Are Patrick and Tom in love? How about Marion? Who will vouch for Patrick if he goes to trial? Can Tom remain a policeman if his connection to Patrick gets out? And over 50 years later what will happen now that old secrets are being uncovered? 

My Policeman (based on the novel by Bethan Roberts) is a low-key, bitter-sweet drama about a menage a trois, and the fallout that comes from it. It’s told in flashforwards and flashback, following both periods simultaneously. It’s a compelling story but with a weak ending. The problem is the 50s section is much more interesting and moving, while the present day is dull and uneventful, which drags down the whole story. Harry Styles — the hugely popular pop singer — surprisingly, is not bad at all as an actor. Emma Corrin is great as the young Marion, likewise David Dawson who plays Patrick like a young Alan Cumming. I like the mood and the music and all, but as a whole My Policeman is easily forgettable. 

Till

Co-Wri/Dir: Chinonye Chukwu

It’s 1955 in Chicago.

Emmet Till (Jalyn Hall) — known as Beau to his Mom and Bobo to his friends — is 14 years old. He’s a happy, middle-class kid, who likes listening to music on the radio and playing with toys . He lives with his mom and grandparents. He’s getting ready for a train trip to visit his cousins in Mississippi, and he’s dressed in his Sunday best. But his mother, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler) doesn’t want him to go. She warns him that Black people down there aren’t treated the same way. You have to make yourself “small”. You can’t look a white person in the eyes. Emmett does a Steppin Fetchit imitation, but Mamie says this is no joke. She comes from there, it’s a dangerous place and she never wants to go back.

On the train heading south, Emmett starts to feel Jim Crow. He and all the other black passengers are forced to leave their seats and move to segregated cars. In Mississippi, all his relatives are share- croppers who pick their plantation managers’ cotton, even the kids, and spend all their money in the company store. Emmett, though, still doesn’t really get it. But when he buys some candy and whistles at the pretty white cashier, things turn from bad to worse. Three days later men bang at the door in the middle of the night and take Emmett away in a pickup truck. His lynched body, mutilated and swollen, is found floating in a river.

His mother is crushed, devastated, but, she buries her son in an open casket. It gets nationwide attention when his photos are featured in Jet magazine. And with the urging of the NAACP, she decides to return to Mississippi to seeking justice.

Till is an accurate and moving drama about this awful crime and the travesty of justice that follows. The lynching of Emmett Till served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement, but it’s also a symbol of the pervasive violence of anti-black racism. Danielle Deadwyler is stupendous as Mamie; and it’s her performance that makes this movie worth seeing. It’s told through Mamie’s eyes: before the killing, at the funeral, in the trial that follows and its aftermath.  What doesn’t work so well are the dozens of historical figures with walk-on parts. Their lines are dutifully recited but lack Deadwyler’s passionate acting; they just seem flat, and there are too many characters to keep track of. Stand-out exceptions include Darian Rolle’s powerful portrayal as Willie Reed, a surprise witness at the trial; and, of course, Jalyn Hall playing Emmett himself. Till is an important historical record that must not be forgotten.

My Policeman opens at the Tiff Bell Lightbox, with Till and Ticket to Paradise playing across North America 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.

Atypical locations. Films reviewed: My Old School, Ali & Ava, Vengeance

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Class, Disguise, documentary, drugs, High School, Podcasts, Realism, Romance, Scotland, Texas, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 29, 2022

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

Toronto is alive again, but for those uncomfortable showing up in person, there are still lots of ways to enjoy the arts at home. DanceWorks presents But Then Again, Human Body Expression’s, a new documentary, streaming online through July 31st. Shot in crisp black and white during the pandemic, the film features the choreography of Danceworks’ founder Hanna Kiel, and eight great Canadian dancers each of whom creates their own character. And Images Festival of  experimental film and video art is celebrating its 35th year with a new “Slow Edition”, offering 50 films over a four month period, with lots of time to catch everything, including digitally.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies set away from typical locations. There’s an unusual newcomer at a Glasgow high school, a new friendship in Bradford, and an out-of-place visitor in a small town in Texas.

My Old School

Dir: Jono McLeod

It’s 1993, and a new kid has just arrived at Bearsden Academy, a posh secondary school in Glasgow, Scotland. Brandon Lee is a bit of an oddity. Not just his clothes. hair, glasses and accent… there’s something different about him. Like how he seems to know everything they’re studying and can answer teacher’s questions with confidence. He’s not afraid to speak up. He’s not intimidated by bullies, either, and rescues one kid from a life of misery. Maybe it’s because his mother is a famous opera singer who travels around the world. Or the fact he’s from Canada — people look different over there. Whatever the reason, the teachers and principal love him, and he becomes popular among the kids, too. He eventually lands a  key role in the school play, South Pacific, and is accepted into a prestigious medical school after graduation. But Brandon has a secret: he’s not 16… he’s in his 30s!

My Old School is a mind-blowing documentary that has to be seen to be believed. It’s about how one man managed to recreate his identity and correct his past mistakes, without anyone realizing what he did. It’s also very funny. The story is narrated by Brandon himself, flawlessly lip-synched by Glasgow actor Alan Cumming — Brandon did not want his face to appear in the movie. His former classmates — including the director —  fill in the blanks 30 years later. There are some talking heads, but it’s mainly told through simple cartoon versions of the people involved. There’s 90s music, quirky characters, and a potentially serious topic but done in a hilariously, twisted way. And oh, what a story it is. I’m purposely  leaving out most of the twists because that’s what makes this movie so good, but believe me when I tell you, it’s one hell of a story.

Ali & Ava

Wri/Dir: Clio Barnard

It’s rainy season in Bradford, Yorkshire. Ava (Claire Rushbrook), is a kind-hearted blonde woman of Irish Catholic ancestry in her 50s. She’s warm funny and bursting with love. She works as a teacher’s aid at a local elementary school. Her late husband abused her so she kicked him out, but she’s still close to her many children and grandkids, especially her youngest son Callum (Shaun Thomas). She helps him take care of his newborn still unnamed baby.

Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a youngish guy who works as a kind-hearted landlord (they must exist somewhere!) who loves helping out his tenants. He has a vibrant personality, and sports a black beard, hoodies and earphones, constantly free-styling raps to the music in his head. Of South Asian Muslim background, Ali lives with his extended family. His wife is a beautiful intellectual, a student at the university, but their marriage fell apart after a miscarriage. They still live together, in separate rooms, keeping up appearances. Ali and Ava meet for the first time when he carries a shy little girl, Sofia, to school on his shoulders. She’s his tenant and her student, and something clicks. Their friendship grows as he starts driving her around, sharing tunes on the car radio. Ava’s more into country music and Irish folk, while he likes punk and rock, but somehow they find common ground. He even teaches himself Bob Dylan songs on his ukulele.

Some neighbourhoods in Bradford are separated by class and race — little kids throw rocks at Ali when he drives her home. The little kids get charmed by his personality, but not Callum. He hates his guts and is furious to see his mom with “someone like him”. Ali gets grief from his little sister, who says he’s cheating on his wife and with a poor white woman, no less. Can their romance overcome forces trying to keep them apart? Or will friendship and love triumph?

Ali & Ava is a very sweet, realistic, romantic drama about life in a working- class neighbourhood. It’s full of  pathos and joy. It looks at a relationship over the course of one rainy month, as the moon waxes and wanes. Bradford is a post-industrial city where most of the factories have closed down, but in this film it’s filled with fireworks and music, colour and song. The story is told in an impressionistic manner, but it’s not hard to follow. It’s about love more than sex, feelings over dialogue, held together by its music and images. And the acting is very good, both the main characters and the many first time actors cast in minor roles.

Ali & Ava is a sweet and joyful film.

Vengeance

Wri/Dir: BJ Novak

Ben (B.J. Novak) is a successful freelance writer in his 30s, living the high life in Manhattan. By day he writes pieces for the New Yorker, and at night he’s at parties and clubs, serving as wingman for his base, vapid best friend. His low-level celebrity makes him a desirable commodity, and has slept with dozens of women who otherwise wouldn’t give him a second glance. But everything changes when he receives a late-night phone call from a stranger telling him his “girlfriend” is dead. Not the woman lying beside him in bed, she’s breathing normally. It’s another woman he barely remembers sleeping with. Her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) tells him he was Abilene’s one true love, and she never stopped talking about “Ben from New York” after her career as a musician never took off. Ty shames him into flying to a small town in Texas for her funeral. There’s a photo of Ben with Abilene on her coffin, and like out of a nightmare, he’s asked, without warning, to give the eulogy.

Later, Ty tells him the real reason he wants him there. Though the coroner says Abilene died from an overdose, she was actually murdered. And Ty and Ben are the only two who care enough to track down her murderer… and kill him! Ben explains he doesn’t do guns, and he’s not into killing, but he does agree to stay on for a few weeks to find out what happened. And he convinces Eloise (Issa Rae) his New York boss to approve his podcast-in-the-making, involving real people, in the style of the true crime podcast Serial.

He records interviews with Abilene’s sisters — Paris and Kansas City — and her little brother nicknamed El Stupido. Later he meets Quentin, a slick record producer (Ashton Kutcher), who shares his tantric wisdom, and a local drug dealer, who has secrets of his own. But the more he uncovers the less certain Ben is over what happened to Abilene.

Vengeance is a satirical drama and dark comedy about appearances vs reality. Writer, director and star BJ Novak (this is his first time directing a feature) portrays Ben as a fish out of water, an aloof city slicker with a big mouth who soon discovers all his assumptions do not apply in rural Texas. Inundated by unfamiliar views on family, police, guns, drugs, religion, sports, and red states vs blue states, he’s soon wearing ten gallon hats and cowboy boots. Vengeance is a fun — and sometimes harrowing — movie with a totally unexpected ending.  This is a good one.

You can catch My Old School at the Toronto Hot Docs cinema; Ali & Ava at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Vengeance in cinemas across North America; 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

Ambitions. Films reviewed: Minions: The Rise of Gru, Ennio, Mr Malcolm’s List

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, 1970s, Animation, documentary, Italy, Kidnapping, Movies, Music, Romantic Comedy, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 2, 2022

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

Summer is definitely here, and this long holiday weekend is the perfect time to take in some new movies. This week I’m talking about three of them: — a rom-com, a cartoon and a documentary — about people with ambitions. There’s a spinster in Victorian England who wants revenge on the man who has scorned her; a spaghetti western composer in 1960s Italy who wants to be taken seriously; and a little boy in San Francisco in the ’70s who wants to become a super villain.

Minions: The Rise of Gru

Dir: Kyle Balda, Brad Ableson, Jonathan del Val

It’s the late 1970s, and Gru is a little kid in elementary school. While his classmates say they want to be a fireman or a ballet dancer when they grow up, Gru wants to be a super villain. And he has a basement filled with strange mechanical devices to prove it. They were built with the help of his minions. The minions are bright-yellow, lozenge-shaped creatures with googly eyes. Dressed in matching denim overalls, they speak their own incomprehensible dialect, a mishmash of all the world’s languages. Gru idolizes a gang of six supervillains, who are now one villain short of a pack (since they did away with their leader) and are looking for a replacement. But when he shows up for an interview at their secret hideaway they dismiss him as just a kid. To prove them wrong, he steals their prize possession, a Chinese jade-green amulet. He gives it to a minion to keep it safe, who soon loses it in exchange for a pet rock. (The minions aren’t always the brightest bulb in the chandelier.) Gru is kidnapped by the villains’ former leader, and threatened with torture and death. Can the minions find the amulet, bring it to San Francisco, and save their best friend, Gru?

Minions: The Rise of Gru is a funny, easy-to-watch kids’ movie, where the villains are the good guys, even though they’re evil. It’s a prequel to the surprise hit from 2010, Despicable Me. The voice actors are mainly American or British, but the animated film is actually from France. The catchy soundtrack, groovy 1970s characters, the San Francisco setting, the fast-moving plot and the very colourful graphics make it a fun watch. It stars the voices of Steve Carell as Gru, Pierre Coffin as all of the minions, and Alan Arkin, Taraji P. Henson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jill Lawless, Danny Trejo, Dolph Lundgrin as the six villains. I enjoyed Minions, but the five-and-under set that filled the theatre absolutely loved it. 

Ennio

Dir: Giuseppe Tornatore

Ennio Morricone is born in Rome in 1928 to a professional trumpet player. He enters a music conservatory at the age of 12 and studies under Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi. (He spends most of his life yearning to be taken seriously by Petrassi and the rest of the traditional music establishment.) At an early age, he’s already composing and arranging pieces which include both melodic themes and counterpoint, an oft repeated characteristic of his music.  He writes the tunes for a number of pop songs, and eventually gets a job working for RCA. From there he goes on to compose the soundtracks — always anonymously — for the new film genre known as Spaghetti Westerns. But when he recognizes a director’s name from his elementary school, he becomes a close friend and life-long collaborator with Sergio Leone. He quickly rises to fame writing the distinctive musical scores of films like A fistful of Dollars and The Good the Bad and the Ugly, using harmonicas, whistling, electric guitars, and sound effects in place of the more common symphony orchestras. (Today those films remain his most recognizable works.) He also forms an experimental group that makes improvisational music out of non-musical sounds, influenced by avant-garde composer John Cage.

Morricone goes on to compose the scores of over 500 films, working with Italian masters like Pasolini, Wertmüller and Bertolucci, the giallo horror/thriller director Dario Argento, and Giuseppe Tornatore director of Oscar winner Cinema Paradiso (who also directed this doc).

Ennio died in 2020, and this film is as much a loving tribute to the composer as it is a documentary. While it reveals Morricone’s personality quirks, there are no scandals or salacious secrets of his private life. It’s told using film clips, period footage, audio tracks and many talking heads commenting about him, including fellow composers, John Williams and Hans Zimmer, stars and directors he worked with like Quentin Tarantino Terrance Mallick and Clint Eastwood. (Eastwood says something like Morricone’s music provided the emotions that he never could) Then there are also a bunch of celebs — Bruce Springsteen, Pat Metheny, Wong Kar-Wai — who probably never worked with him, but just felt like praising him or commenting on how he influenced them. Ennio is an informative and fascinating doc, and I liked it a lot, but… couldn’t Tornatore  have told this story in 90 minutes, instead of the two and a  half hours he took?

Mr Malcolm’s List

Dir: Emma Holly Jones

It’s England in the early 19th century. Julia and Selina were best friends at boarding school, but haven’t seen each other in years. Which is why Selina the pure and virtuous daughter of a country vicar (Freida Pinto) is surprised to receive an invitation to visit Julia an upper-class city woman (Zawe Ashton), after all these years. But she does have a reason: she was slighted by a man who took her to the opera once and never called back. The man is Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), who is also the most eligible bachelor in town, not least because he inherited a lot of money. And Julia can’t bear being slighted in public (made even worse when it was depicted in a widely circulated cartoon pamphlet). First Julia turns to her cousin Cassy (Oliver Jackson Cohen) who happens to be Malcolm’s best friend and wingman, who knows all of his secrets. Somehow he leaks the biggest secret of all: that Mr Malcolm keeps a list of 10 characteristics a woman must have for him to consider marrying her — things like talent, poise, intelligence, a knowledge of politics, literature and the arts and one who easily forgives small offences. 

Enter Selina. Would she go along with Julia’s scheme — to date Mr Malcolm, knowing what was on that list, and afterwards to dump him — so Julia can get her sweet revenge? Selina is hesitant but agrees at least to meet him. And wouldn’t you know it? It’s love at first sight. This is further complicated by another man, a dashing military officer (Theo James), who likes Celina a lot, and happens to be in town on the same day. Which one will she choose? And if it’s Mr Malcolm, what will become of Julia’s nefarious revenge plot?

Mr Malcolm’s List is a classic, Jane Austen-style light romantic comedy, complete with a masquerade ball, a hidden scheme, whacky relatives,  and star-crossed lovers. There are also some modern twists. The most obvious is the colour-blind casting, with Black, Indian, White and East Asian actors playing the various roles, without ever bringing up questions of race or ethnicity. Like the musical Hamilton, the film The Personal History of David Copperfield, and, most recently, the Netflix series Bridgerton, this film shows that race on the screen doesn’t need to have any special significance — it just is. Family bloodlines and facial resemblances are not part of the plot. I think it works great in this movie, and I hope to see more of it. The mansions are all stately, the costumes — though a bit odd-looking — are all pretty. And the actors and the characters they play are quite delicious.  They’re clearly having a good time doing this. You can revel in their ludicrous scheming without ever taking it too seriously. Even the credits — accompanied by quaint hand-coloured drawings — are delightful. Rom-coms are not my cuppa tea, but if I have to watch one, I like it when they‘re like this.

Ennio is one of many films playing at the ICFF;  Mr Maxwell’s List, as well as  Minions: the Rise of Gru both open this weekend: check your local listings.

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

Witches and Poets. Films reviewed: Benediction, Lux Æterna

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Drama, Feminism, France, LGBT, Movies, Poetry, UK, WWI by CulturalMining.com on May 28, 2022

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

Spring film festival season is in full swing this week in Toronto, with ReelAbilities, Inside-out and the Toronto Arab Film festival all on right now. TAF is a pan-Arab film festival; featuring movies from 19 countries, including dramas, docs, animation and experimental, and it’s on through Sunday. ReelAbilities has films by for and about people from disabled and deaf communities and it’s running through June 10th in a hybrid format. And Inside out, Toronto’s LGBT festival is on now through Sunday June 5th, featuring many world premieres, and presenting at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

Some of the movies at Inside-out I’m looking forward to seeing include a stunning-looking musical from Rwanda called Neptune Frost, Camilla Comes Out Tonight, an Argentinian coming-of-age drama,  So Damn Easy Going a Scandinavian story of the messy relationships of a young woman with ADHD, and The Divide, about the breakup of a couple in France during the “yellow vest” protests

But this week, I’m looking at two new movies both opening this weekend in Toronto that handle narratives in an experimental way. There’s a film from France about a burning witch, and a biopic from the UK about a war poet. 

Benediction

Wri/Dir: Terrence Davies

Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) is a Lieutenant in the British Army at the western front in WWI, known for his bravery and valour. He’s also famous as a war poet. An aristocrat, he’s a descendent of the Sassoon clan, late of Baghdad, Bombay and Shanghai. But by 1917, he is sickened by the war and the death of his men, so he writes and publishes a formal letter protesting it. Instead of being courtmartialed, he is diagnosed as shell-shocked and sent to a psych ward near Edinborough. There he befriends a young soldier named Wilfred afflicted with night terrors, and together they write poetry for the hospital’s literary magazine, the Hydra.

After the war he joins other writers, musicians and artists around London. One evening, while reciting his dark poetry at a soiree, he meets Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), a hugely famous celebrity whose sentimental songs — like Keep the Homefires Burning  kept up morale during the war. By that evening they are sleeping together with Ivor unceremoniously dumping his previous boyfriend Glen. But while Siegfried is a passionate romantic, Ivor is cold and cruel; he cares more about his looks and career than love or commitment. So after a messy break up, Siegfried has a series of relationships with various bright young aristocrats like Stephen Tennant in the 1920s-30s. But will he ever find true love?

Benediction is an impressionistic biopic about the life of Siegfried Sassoon and his friends and lovers between the two wars. This means he’s as likely to see Edith Sitwell reciting her doggerel as running into Lawrence of Arabia at a wedding rehearsal. But you never forget that this is a Terrence Davies movie, his unique style always apparent. Like singing — whether it’s soldiers breaking into song, actors on a west-end stage or just sitting by a piano at a party. And Sassoon’s own voice recites his poetry over photos of war dead. Flashbacks might fade from one to the next then back again reflecting the thoughts of a character, often with black and white newsreels projected in the background. There’s a lush, dark look to the whole film, in its music, images and sets. The acting — especially Lowden and Irvine but also Calam Lynch as Stephen Tennant and Gemma Jones as his ultimate wife Hester — is terrific all around. (The movie flashes forward to a reclusive and bitter Sassoon (Peter Capaldi) with a wife and adult son in post WWII England.) Benediction is romantic in the classical sense, more like a Wagnerian opera than a rom-com. The script is exquisitely written, with almost every line a bon mot, a witty observation or a cutting insult. Benediction is experimental and idiosyncratic in style but with a deeply moving story.

I really like this film.

Lux Æterna

Wri/Dir: Gaspar Noé 

Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg (played by themselves)  are two French famous actresses making a film together. Beatrice is trying her hand as director and Charlotte is the star. The film they’re shooting, on set, is a feminist reboot of accused witches being burned at the stake by religious zealots in the manner of the Inquisition. They chat about the meaning of burning witches as a misogynistic crime.  But all is not well. 

The producers of the film, are plotting to get Beatrice fired, so a young man named Tom is ordered to follow her everywhere and record it on film, with the hope of catching an error. Meanwhile, an American actor, Karl (Karl Glusmann) is trying to have a meeting with Charlotte, various models are desperately looking for the proper costumes and hair, and all of the personal assistants are incompetent. Worst of all, though, something is wrong with the lighting system, which begins generating as series of multi-coloured strobe lights, the kind that can induce a tonic-clonic seizure. Can the scene be shot? Or will panic destroy everything before it’s caught on film?

Lux Æterna is simultaneously an experimental piece of art, and a satirical look at the film industry, the Me Too Movement and the backlash that followed it. Gaspar Noe is the enfant terrible of French filmmakers, all of whose films somehow provoke and torture its viewers. In the past it was through extreme violence, horror, drugs or explicit sex. This time, it’s (theoretically) supposed to induce tonic-clonic seizures among epileptic viewers of the film. Why? Because the aura leading up to as seizure is said to be the ultimate psychedelic experience. (Not sure who said it because I can assure you there’s nothing pleasant about having a seizure!) Anyway, about a quarter of the film consists of the gorgeous multicoloured strobe effect projected over the crucified bodies of the witches. Another portion is in the titles themselves (Gaspar Noe is the master of creative titling — no font is accidental in any of his films) with old Roman capitals used to advance the plot. All the characters use their real names, and the shooting takes place on a movie set, just in case you need more meta. 

If you like Gaspar Noe — I love his stuff but it’s certainly not for everybody —  well, Lux Aeterna is his latest artistic experiment. A large part of it resembles Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, beautifully done, as if photographed on Calvary. And the strobe light effect is hypnotic though irritating. There’s very little plot or acting involved, with lots of gratuitous nudity, but, hey, it’s only about an hour long. I like everything he does, but this is not a major work, more like him fooling around. If you like art, you might enjoy this experiment, just don’t expect a normal movie. 

Benedction is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and you can see Luxe Aeterna at the Revue Cinema in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Kevin Hegge about TRAMPS!

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, Canada, documentary, Fashion, Interview, LGBT, Music, UK, Underground by CulturalMining.com on May 21, 2022

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

Photo by Jeff Harris.

It’s the late 1970s in a Covent Garden, London nightclub with an exclusive policy. To get in you have to look amazing in some way. An older man in blue jeans gets turned away at the door. The man is Mick Jagger, the place is Bowie Night at the Blitz Club and the doorman and organizer is Steve Strange. And so a new movement, born out of the ashes of punk, is dubbed the New Romantics by the mainstream press. But who were these tramps, really?

Tramps! Is a new documentary that looks in depth at East London in the early 1980s, along with the art, fashion, film, music, hats, makeup, hair, magazines, sexualities, aesthetics  and lifestyles that grew out of it. It’s a stunningly beautiful kaleidoscope of colour, a collection of period photos and footage combined with new interviews with the main players. And it talks about the celebrities who emerged from it, like Boy George, Leigh Bowery, Derek Jarman, Phillip Sallon, Judy Blame, and many others.

Tramps is the work of award-winning Toronto filmmaker Kevin Hegge, whom I last interviewed on this show back in 2012 about  his documentary She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column.

I spoke with Kevin Hegge in Toronto, via Zoom.

Tramps! is premiering in Toronto at the Inside Out film festival on May 31st, 7 pm, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Hot Docs 22! Films reviewed: Hunting in Packs, Midwives PLUS other docs to look out for

Posted in Canada, documentary, Movies, Myanmar, Politics, UK, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 30, 2022

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

Hotdocs, Canada’s International Documentary Festival is on now, showing more than 200 selected movies, many having their world premier. Filmmakers are now in Toronto from all around the world, and so are many of the films subjects. And as always daytime screenings are free for students and seniors: go to hotdocs.ca for details and restrictions. 

And — unlike with mainstream motion pictures — a large number of the directors are women. This year they’re featuring films by the legendary documentarians Janis Cole and Holly Dale, whose films P4W: Prison for Women and Hookers on Davie (about sex workers in Vancouver) are not to be missed. I saw both of these many years ago, and they’re unforgettable.

This week I’m looking at two more movies — both directed by and about women — playing at hotdocs. There are midwives in Myanmar and politicos in Parliaments and Congress.

But before that I’m talking about some of the movies playing at Hotdocs that I haven’t seen yet but look like they’re worth checking out 

Movies at Hotdocs.

One is Jennifer Baichwal’s newest doc Into the Weeds. It’s about a groundskeeper who stood up to the agro-chemical giant Monsanto when he (and tens of thousands of others) got sick after using the herbicide Roundup. Baichwal has won numerous awards for her breathtakingly beautiful documentaries like Manufactured Landscapes and Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, so I’m sure this one is worth seeing too.

Reg Harkema has a new documentary all about the Kids in the Hall, the great Toronto comedy group. They’re getting back together, and three of them — Scott Thompson, Bruce McCulloch, and Mark McKinney — will be at Hotdocs premier in person. Can’t wait to see that.

Another celeb in town is Abigail Disney (of the Disney family) who is now a social activist and filmmaker, She co-directed The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, which talks about the great class divide and economic inequality in the US, using her own family as the starting point. 

Atomic Hope: Inside the Pro-Nuclear Movement talks with scientists campaigning for nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels in slowing climate change. This sounds very interesting. 

In the Eye of the Storm: The Political Odyssey of Yanis Varoufakis is about the former Finance Minister of Greece who fought against the brutal austerity measures imposed by European banks.

Riotsville, USA tells the true story of two fake towns built in the 1960s to train military troops to crack down on demonstrations and civil disobedience.

On a lighter note, Her Scents of Pu Er looks at the first female tea master in China’s history, who shares the secrets of that fragrant and much sought after tea.  And Patty vs Patty tells the bizarre true story of Toronto city hall trying to force sellers of Jamaican beef patties to call them something else, because they’re not hamburger patties. This actually happened.

All of these movies are playing at Hotdocs, right now.

Hunting in Packs

Dir: Chloe Sosa-Sims

Michelle Rempel is a conservative MP from Calgary, who is an ardent supporter of building more pipelines and encouraging the fossil fuel industry.  Jess Philips is an MP from Birmingham from the Labour Party. An ardent feminist, she opposes the leftist Jeremy Corbyn, veering toward Keir Starmer on the party’s centre-right. And Pramila Jayapal is a congresswoman from Seattle. Born in Chennai, India, she is a longtime advocate for immigrant rights and represents the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. So what do these three very different people have in common? They’re all outspoken politicians with firm beliefs… who are also women.

Hunting in Packs is a great, behind-the-scenes look at women in politics over the course of a few years, and the particular abuse they face, up to and including recent elections. It takes you to political “war rooms”, TV appearance, door-to-door canvassing, and the daily drudgery of a politician’s life. It shows them dealing with hecklers and potentially violent protesters (Jess Philips brings up the terrible murder of another Labour MP, Jo Cox, by a politically motivated killer, just a few years ago.) It also reveals some hidden aspects of these women’s personalities. Rempel can curse a blue streak that would make a sailor blush. Philips keeps her cool passing in-your-face protesters. And Jayapal, while the most polished of the three, sticks to her guns and faces down abusive comments on the floor of the House. And regardless of your politics, the three women are each likeable in her own way. This is an entertaining look at the game of politics in the US, UK and Canada.

Midwives

Dir: Hnin Ei Hlaing (Snow)

Hla is an established midwife in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, where she functions as the local doctor, caring for women, not just when they’re giving birth. She notices that a lot of women in her village receive no medical care at all, with some forced to give birth, alone, in the middle of their fields. This is unheard of. So Hla decides to hire a young woman named Nyo Nyo as her apprentice so she can care for this underserved population.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

No!

Rakhine is a deeply troubled area with rebels fighting the central government, as well as ethnic strife within. This is where a million Rohingya were forced to flee to squalid refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh following brutal violence, rape and arson directed against  them. And what do we have here? Hla (Rakhine and Buddhist) hiring Nyo Nyo  (Rohingya and Muslim) as her apprentice. And nationalists, soldiers, and rebels are not happy about this. Can two very different women work together as midwives? Or will ethnic strife tear their arrangement apart?

Midwives is a fascinating, observational-style documentary that gives us a glimpse of two women as out follows them over several years. It shows the raw and rough aspects of their lives — including an actual childbirth on camera — as Nyo Nyo gradually learns her profession. It also exposes the casual racism — from rude, everyday comments about Nyo Nyo’s darker skin, to pop songs on the radio inciting violence against the Rohingya, that shapes the attitudes in that region. All this set against a tumultuous political climate, with a violent military that eventually overthrows the democratically elected government. It’s not unusual to hear missiles and bombs exploding outside the village. But it also gives us an intimate view of the two women and their families as they navigate their uncertain futures, through assimilation, learning languages, and opening a new business. You learn to love and laugh with these two unusual women. It gives an honest and realistic look at this troubled area, as rarely seen on film. 

Midwives and Hunting in Packs are both premiering at hotdocs. Go to hotdocs.ca for tickets.

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

Class divide. Films reviewed: Sundown, Ambulance, Mothering Sunday

Posted in Action, Clash of Cultures, Class, Crime, Depression, Drama, Heist, L.A., Mexico, Sex, UK by CulturalMining.com on April 9, 2022

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 — from the UK, Hollywood and Mexico — about the class divide. There’s a penniless orphan having a passionate affair with an upper-class Englishman; a London billionaire who intentionally disappears in Acapulco; and a bank robber who commandeers an ambulance on the streets of LA to protect 16 million dollars.

Sundown

Wri/Dir: Michel Franco

Neil (Tim Roth) is an Englishman on holiday in Acapulco with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two teenaged kids. They’re staying at a luxury resort , the kind of place where you never have to leave your private infinity pool, as waiters will bring martinis directly to your suite. They can watch locals diving off the cliffs in exchange for small tips — let them eat cake! Neil and Alice are the heirs to a vast fortune worth billions. But a shocking telephone call upsets their plans, forcing them to fly back to London immediately.  But Neil, claiming he left his passport at the hotel, doesn’t get on the plane. Instead, he disappears, checking into a cheap local guesthouse. His days are spent drinking beer on Mexican beaches, and he soon hooks up with a beautiful woman named Berenice (Iazua Larios).  But all is not well. Acapulco is a dangerous city with drive-by killings invading even his beachfront. His hotel room is robbed and he finds himself surrounded by petty criminals. Meanwhile his sister is frantic with worry. Why has he not returned to London? What sort of a game is he playing? Is he trying to bilk her out of her share of the family fortune?  Or, as he says, he has no interest in money at all? And why is he withdrawing from life?

Sundown is a disturbing Mexican film about the class divide and how one man deals with it in his own way. Tim Roth plays Neil as an introverted trying to escape from everything. He barely speaks or makes decisions as his world collapses all around him. He endures crime, violence, and even jail with barely a reaction. But internally he is plagued with bizarre hallucinations, with giant hogs invading his mind-space. While not nearly as upsetting as his previous film, New Order, in Sundown Michel Franco once again probes the fear, corruption and violence permeating the class divide in contemporary Mexico. 

Ambulance

Dir: Michael Bay

Danny and Will Sharpe are best friends and brothers (Will was adopted). They group up together on the streets of LA, but took different paths as adults. Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) stuck to the straight and narrow, joining the military and is now married with a small child. Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) took after their dad, a notorious bank robber who left many dead bodies in his wake. But good guys seem to finish last. Will’s wife needs complex surgery something he can’t afford — he van barely feed his family. So he goes to Danny, cap in hand, asking for help. Danny agrees as long as he participates in what he calls a simple bank robbery that’ll leave them both rich beyond their wildest dreams. But the robbery goes south, and they are forced to flee in an ambulance with a wounded cop and a paramedic named Cam (Eliza González) trying to keep him alive. Can they escape with the money without killing the cop?

Ambulance is a two hour chase scene disguised as a movie. As they race through the streets of LA they are pursued by helicopters, police cars and the FBI, trying to kill the bank robbers without killing the cop. Michael Bay is known for his trademark enormous explosions and spectacular car crashes, and he doesn’t disappoint. There are also some cool new camera tricks, like a drone camera hugging the side of a police station as it plunges many storeys straight down to the sidewalk (it almost made me carsick!). But fancy camerawork and lots of crashes does not a movie make.  And with cookie-cutter characters and ultra-simplistic storylines like this, why go to a movie when you can find the same thing on a game like GTO?

Ambulance is not boring, it’s just totally pointless.

Mothering Sunday

Dir: Eva Husson

It’s England between the wars. Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is a teen orphan who earns her living as a maid. As her name shows, she was abandoned by her mother as a child. Her upper-class employer (Colin Firth and Olivia Coleman) give her a a holiday on Sundays every so often when they go for a picnic with their friends. This gives Jane the chance to sneak away to spend time with her secret boyfriend Paul (Josh O’Connor) whose maid is also given the day off. It’s a passionate relationship full of unbridled sex all around the family mansion. Is this love or infatuation? Either way it’s no coincidence Jane and Paul both have free time on the same day. Paul’s parents and Jane’s employers are meeting at the same picnic, where Paul is heading too, to make an important announcement. But something shocking happens on the way. 

Mothering Sunday is a beautiful film about a woman whose status gradually rises as she makes her way from house servant to independent writer. It’s also about the lovers and partners she meets along her way. Although it starts slowly the film becomes more and more interesting as details and secrets of her life are gradually revealed. Odessa Young is amazing as Jane Fairchild, someone you can really identify with. Eva Husson is French director and this is the first thing I’ve seen by her, but she’s really good — she knows how to subtly set up a scene, and then turn it on its head with a shocking revelation. This is a relatively simple, low-budget movie, but something about it out really grabbed me, and left me thinking about months after I saw it.

I really like this one.  

Ambulance and Mothering Sunday both open this weekend; check your local listings. Sundown is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Crime. Films reviewed: The Noise of Engines, The Last Mark, The Outfit

Posted in Canada, Chicago, Crime, Iceland, Mystery, Organized Crime, Satire, Sex, Thriller, TIFF, UK by CulturalMining.com on March 19, 2022

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 — one from the UK and two premiering at this year’s Canadian Film Fest — that look at ordinary people pulled into the world of crime. There’s a customs official accused of sexual misconduct; a dominatrix targeted by a deranged hitman; and a mild-mannered English tailor pulled into the Chicago mob.

The Noise of Engines (Le Bruit des Moteurs)

Dir: Philippe Grégoire

Alex (Robert Naylor) is a young man from a small Quebec town near the US border. It’s a village with a mothball factory a formula 1 race track, and not much else. In this post-9/11 world, the government wants formerly boring customs officers to become ruthless killers in the war on terrorism. So  to get away from his town, he takes a job as a firearms instructor at an isolated Canada Customs training school. But when he is caught in flagrante delicto with a large breasted employee he is dragged before the directrice for an interrogation. Though their sex was consensual, his co-worker had a heart attack from  a lack of oxygen due to the anti-covid face shield she was wearing (he ended up saving her life.) And when the much older Directrice’s invites him to sleep with her and her husband, he turns her down. She is furious and exiles him back to his village for punishment. But his troubles don’t stop there. The local police, in a series of Kafka-esque events, label Alex as a sexual deviant, and accuse him of increasingly absurd crimes, such as leaving lascivious drawings on post-it notes in the local church. However life isn’t all bad. At least he has one friend in the village, an Icelandic drag-racer (Tanja Björk) who wants to practice her  French and see the local sites. Can Alex survive a two week leave in small-town Quebec? Will the police ever leave him alone? And what will  become of his relationship with new Icelandic friend?

The Noise of Engines is an absurdist drama about the stultifying effect corrupt bureaucrats and policemen have in small-town Quebec. Aesthetically beautiful — from its stark scenery and retro settings to its modernistic music and elegant titles — this debut feature is a pleasure to watch. The while film is almost dreamlike (and sometimes nightmarish) to the point where you’re never quite sure whether anything is real or if it’s all in Alex’s imagination. Shot both in Quebec and in Iceland it swerves between comedy and horror, settling somewhere in between. I like this movie.

The Last Mark

Dir: Reem Morsi 

Peyton (Alexia Fast) is an escort and a professional dominatrix. One night, in a seedy motel room with a client she hears unexpected intruders entering the room. Hidden under the bed she witnesses two professional killers shoot the man she was just having sex with.  She escapes but not before they see her. It’s up to the killers to silence the unfortunate witness. Keele (Shawn Doyle) volunteers to catch and kill the witness. He is an older professional reaching the end of his career, while Palmer (Bryce Hodgson) is his new replacement, a psychotic murderer who chops off his victims heads just for the fun of it. But there’s a twist. Peyton left her ID behind, and Keele recognizes her last name — the same as a woman he had a fling with decades earlier. Is it possible that she’s his daughter? He asks Eli (Jonas Chernick)  his longtime fixer to do a bit of research — is she related to him, or just another target? In the meantime, Keele kidnaps her and locks her in an isolated cabin, far from the eyes of his head-chopping partner. Can the two if them learn to get along? Do they have anything in common? Can they trust one another? And will he save her or kill her? 

The Last Mark is a classic typical, crime dramady, about an odd couple pulled together by coincidence. This is the director, Reem Morsi’s first full-length feature, and it holds together well. The cast is good all-around, even the smaller roles, especially Bryce Hodgson as a psycho-killer. This is a Canadian production and cast, but the story is set somewhere vaguely outside of Detroit (though it was shot in Sudbury). It’s violent but not gory, and even moving at times. It’s never slow or boring, and the characters are just quirky enough to keep you interested but still believable. This movie’s pretty good.

The Outfit

Co-Wri/Dir: Graham Moore

It’s the mid-1950s in Chicago. Leonard (Mark Rylance) is a bespoke tailor, originally from London. He apprenticed on Saville Row before opening his own shop. Now in Chicago he works with his assistant Mable (Zoey Deutsch), an ambitious ginger-haired young woman from the neighbourhood. She collects exotic snow globes with the idea of someday living in the cities in her glass souvenirs. And she’s dating Richie (Dylan O’Brien) a brash young gangster, on the sly. And that’s trouble. You see, the whole neighbourhood is under the thumb of Richie’s dad, a local kingpin, who is also Leonard’s best customer.  He doesn’t want Richie to mess things up. As a favour, he lets them use his shop as a safe house, leaving important messages in an innocuous wooden drop box at the back. But one day, a recorded cassette mysteriously appears in an envelope. Apparently it was recorded by the Feds… but how did it get there? Was it a secret plant in the FBI? A rival gang? Or the Outfit (a syndicate for organized crime groups) And how did they record it — is there a rat within their own ranks? Francis (John Flynn) first lieutenant in the gang, is sent in to investigate, soon followed by the kingpin himself, along with his bodyguard. As suspicion grows, and bullets start to fly, it’s up to Leonard to try to smooth the waters… but is he too late? And who is the rat? The kingpin, his son Richie, his lieutenant, or possibly even Mable or Leonard himself?

The Outfit is a clever suspense drama about loyalty, suspicion and lies within a crime gang and how it effects the people all around it. Mark Rylance is terrific as the stiff-upper-lip “cutter” (he doesn’t want to be a called a tailor)  and his behind-the-scenes machinations. Like a stage play, the whole film is set within the three rooms of his shop over the course of a single day, but doesn’t feel claustrophobic, just precisely made, like the hundreds of pieces of cloth Leonard sews together to make a single suit. Graham Moore who wrote The Imitation Game also directed this excellent period drama. No spoilers here, but this film has more twists and turns than you can shake a stick at. It’s more clever than emotional, which makes for a fun — though at times violent — mystery/drama. I like this one, too.

The Outfit opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. The Noise of Engines has its Toronto premiere on March 23rd and The Last Mark its Canadian premier on April 1st, both at the Canadian Film Festival.

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

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