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

It’s Halloween! Films reviewed: Last Night In Soho, Antlers, Locke & Key

Posted in 1960s, Bullying, Comics, Coming of Age, Family, Fashion, Ghosts, Halloween, Horror, Indigenous, Kids, Monsters, Time Travel, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 30, 2021

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

Awooooooo…!
It’s Hallowe’en again — the perfect time to watch some spooky and scary movies!

This week, I’m looking at a fashion student in London who travels back in time from her attic apartment; a family in Massachusetts who find keys that open locked doors; and a school boy in the Pacific Northwest who always keeps his father’s door locked… from the outside.

Last Night In Soho
Co-Wri/Dir: Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs the World)

Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is an idealistic young student at a fashion college in North London. Though raised in remote Cornwall, she already sews her own dresses and wants to follow in her grandmother and mom’s footsteps as a designer. She’s also obsessed by the early 1960s — the fashions, the people and the music — and she constantly listens to her grandma’s old discs on a portable record player. But she can’t stand the condescending attitude of her roommate Jocasta and most of the other students. So she rents an attic bed-sit flat in Soho, and gets a job at a local pub to pay for it. But everything changes on her first night in her new home. She awakens to find herself in Soho, circa 1964!, experiencing life through the eyes of young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy: Queen’s Gambit)! Where Ellie is shy with mousy brown hair, Sandie is blonde, brash and self-confident. She marches into the Cafe de Paris and declares she’ll be the next singer on that famous stage. When Ellie wakes up in the morning, things are back to normal, but she feels. different. She starts sewing a 60’s style dress based on what she wore the night before in Soho. And she starts mimicking Sandie’s look and lifestyle — dying her hair, wearing makeup and sticking up for herself. But gradually she realizes 60s Soho wasn’t the fun place she imagined — it was actually full of exploitation, violence and organized crime. And the separation between the two worlds starts to blur… with the ghosts of Sandie’s far-off dangers appearing in her real life in modern London. Is Eloise losing her mind? And can she ever escape from this dual existence?

Last Night in Soho is a cool, fun and sometimes scary coming-of-age story loosely wrapped in a time-travel theme. Throw in life in London, 60s girl groups, fashion, Soho burlesque and seedy organized crime, and you have a fascinating and unique world to explore. Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) gives a terrific performance as a young woman trying to hang on to her sanity, while Anya Taylor-Joy (you might recognize her from the TV series The Queen’s Gambit) is a dynamo as her alter ego. Throw in some real ’60s stars — Terrence Stamp as a sleazy barfly, and an almost unrecognizable Diana Rigg as a curmudgeonly landlady — and you’re left with a lot to watch.

Great movie.

Antlers
Co-WriDir: Scott Cooper (Hostiles)

Julia (Keri Russell) is a school teacher in a mining town in the Pacific northwest. She lives with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff. She fled to California 20 years earlier to escape her abusive father. But now that he’s dead, she feels safe to move back again. Little does she know there are other dangers in this small town. In any case, she’s having trouble fitting in. None of the 12 year olds in her class participate, or even seem interested, in what she’s teaching. And one kid in particular, Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas) looks malnourished, bullied and fearful. And he draws terrifying pictures at his desk. She reaches out to help him, but though needy, he rejects her. You see, his dad ran a meth lab in an abandoned mine where something terrible happened.

Now his dad and his seven-year-old brother are ill with a strange disease — the can only eat raw flesh. Lucas keeps them locked up in the attic, bringing them small animals he traps and any roadkill he can find. But it’s not enough. So here we have a do-gooder teacher who wants to save what she sees as an abused and neglected child, while he’s trying desperately to keep his family alive. But when Lucas’s dad tries some human flesh, he really starts to change, both physically and mentally. Can a little boy keep a monster at bay? Or will it take a schoolteacher to stop this cannibal killer?

Antlers is a bloody and gory — though not all that scary — horror movie set among the gorgeous lakes and mountains of Western Canada. Strangely, the monster in the story — modelled on the Windigo, a rapacious half-human, half-animal creature — is part of the Anishinaabe culture in the east, not the Pacific Northwest. And aside from Graham Greene (as a walk-on indigenous explainer), everyone else is white. That said, I like the acting, and the fact the characters are not all strictly good or bad, more nuanced than in your typical scary movie. Antlers is a chilling — though slow-paced — horror-thriller with enough blood and guts to keep you satisfied on Hallowe’en.

Locke & Key
Developed by Meredith Averill, Aron Eli Coleite and Carlton Cuse, based on the graphic novel by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

It’s the present day in small-town Mathesen, Massachusetts. The Locke family — eldest son Tyler (Connor Jessup: BlackbirdCloset Monster ), Middle sister Kinsey (Emilia Jones) and the youngest Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) — and their mom (Darby Stanchfield) have just relocated from Seattle. Their dad died in a terrible incident so maybe a new environment will help them get over it. They move into the stately family home, a huge, but crumbling, mansion known as the Key House. It’s been in the family for generations. While the Lockes know next-to-nothing about their history, everyone in this town knows exactly who they are. The two eldest enroll in the local prep school — Tyler joins the hockey team while Kinsey falls in with a crowd of amateur filmmakers — while Bode is left to explore the mansion. And what he discovers is magical — a series of keys, each with its own properties. One lets you walk through a door and emerge wherever you want to be. Another lets you enter someones mind and explore their memories. Soon Tyler and Kinsey join in, but their mother and their uncle Duncan (Aaron Ashmore) can’t comprehend anything magical, even when they experience it themselves. Only kids can remember it. But all is not just fun and games, There’s an evil shape-shifting demon, a beautiful woman known as Dodge, who covets these keys for her own nefarious purposes. Who will triumph in the end?

Locke & Key is a wonderful TV series that’s part adventure, part horror, part psychological thriller and part family drama. I’m purposely revealing very little because I don’t spoil the plot, but it’s well acted — with a mainly Canadian cast — and lots of unexpected plot turns and cool special effects. And the series was shot right here, just outside CIUT’s broadcast studios in the gothic hallways of Hart House (pre-Covid, of course.) So if you’re looking for something Hallowe’en-y to binge on, you have to check out Locke & Key.

Locke & Key seasons 1 and 2 are streaming now on Netflix; Antlers and Last Night in Soho 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.

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

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

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

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Dir: Michael Showalter

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

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

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

France

Wri/Dir: Bruno Dumont

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

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

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

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

Spencer 

Dir: Pablo Larraín

It’s Christmas Eve in 1990.

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

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

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

All three of these movies played at TIFF. Spencer opens in November, The Eyes of Tammy Faye starts this weekend — check your local listings.

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

Weird. Films reviewed: Rare Beasts, The Night House, Cryptozoo

Posted in 1960s, Animals, Animation, comedy, Feminism, Ghosts, Horror, Mysticism, Pop Art, UK by CulturalMining.com on August 21, 2021

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

Are you getting tired of the same old thing? Have you watched all the conventional stuff you can handle for one summer? Well, fear not, faithful listeners, there are really unconventional and unexpected movies out there, you just have to know where to look. This week I’m talking about three weird films, a ghost story, a love story and an uncategorizable animated picture. There’s a schoolteacher who thinks her house is haunted, a single mom in London dating a rare beast, and a zoo filled with mythical creatures.

Rare Beasts

Wri/Dir: Billie Piper

Mandy (Billie Piper) is a millennial writer who works at a TV production company in London. She’s clever and pretty with ginger hair and a toothy grin. Mandy is partial to bright colours and leopard-skin patterns. She still lives with her Mom and Dad (Kerry Fox, David Thewlis) and her 7-year old-son, Larch (Toby Woolf).  Larch is a lovable handful — he suffers from tics and is prone to screaming at the top of his lungs and rolling around on the floor when he doesn’t get his way. And despite her beauty and sharp, sarcastic wit, Mandy has yet to find a suitable mate. She’s currently dating a workmate named Pete. He’s a conservative dresser with wispy blond hair and a caterpillar moustache. He says he hates kids. Mandy’s own parents are a piece of work, with Dad constantly dashing off to Thailand for a bit of fun, while Mom is dying of cancer. But Pete’s family is even stranger — deeply religious, frequently praying, and getting into shouting matches over nothing. Then there’s work. Her douchey boss is lecherous, sexist and not so bright. Despite all this, Mandy and Pete are giving it a go. He hits it off with Larch, and Mandy makes friends with some of his family members. Do opposites attract? Or is she better off single?

Rare Beasts is a clever comedy about life as a single woman in the big city. It stars Billie Piper who is also the writer-director. She’s great. It’s a well-written script — almost too well-written. Every character is quirky, every line is witty, but for a comedy it isn’t all that funny. It inspires nodding chuckles but few genuine laughs. The movie is highly stylized, where a serious scene can shift into a fantastical, dance-like performances for no apparent reason. That said, the central characters are appealing and it’s an amusing story.

So if you want to see an unromantic Rom-Com that is never dumbed down, and told from a woman’s perspective, you’ll probably like Rare Beasts.

The Night House

Dir: David Bruckner

Beth (Rebecca Hall) is a high school English teacher in upstate New York. She has lived with her loving husband Owen, an architect, in a beautiful lakeside house he designed. It’s full of grass and wood, with built-in bookshelves and workshops, and splendid views of the water. Then tragedy strikes. Seemingly for no reason, Owen commits suicide one night aboard a row boat on the lake.  Beth is devastated. Her best friend and fellow-teacher Claire (Sarah Goldberg) offers a shoulder to cry on and her elderly neighbour Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) gives some much-needed advice. All alone in her house, she starts having terrifying nightmares, combines with sleepwalking, waking up in strange places each morning. The dreams seem to be completely real. And she feels there is someone watching her… has own come back?

And as she sorts through his possessions, she comes across some things that just don’t make sense. On his computer and phone she finds photos of women who look almost exactly like her… but aren’t her. And in his architectural drawings, there are plans to build a house on the other side of the pond, that is a mirror image of the one they live in. Was Owen insane… or did he know something? Will he come back to help her? Or is something sinister coming by each night?

The Night House is a very scary ghost story about a haunted house. It takes an entirely new approach to the idea of ghosts possession and parallel universes, and is full of strange Celtic images and paranormal dreams. The special effects are amazingly rendered. British actress Rebecca Hall is superb as Beth, which is crucial because the entire movie is seen from her point of view. You should watch this film in a theatre beside someone you know, but never all alone, at home, late at night!

Cryptozoo

Wri/Dir:  Dash Shaw

It’s the late 1960s. Crystal and Matt are a pair of flower children wandering through the woods. After making love beneath the stars, they climb a fence to see what’s on the other side. And what they find is unbelievable… a unicorn! Sadly it gores Matt to death with its single horn. Crystal has wandered into a crypto zoo, still under construction, a place where mythical creatures (known as “cryptids”) can gather in peace. There are ancient Greek animals like the Minotaur,  magical humanoids, and terrifying monsters like the Kraken. The park was started by Joan, a grey haired woman who has a carnal lust for cryptids. Her lover is a semi-human. Her first commander is Lauren, an army brat who grew up in Okinawa. She’s an expert at capturing cryptids and transporting them to safety. She’s assisted by Phoebe, a gorgon with snakes for hair and eyes that can turn anyone to stone. But Phoebe wants to pass as human and have a normal life, so she keeps her powers under wraps using contact lenses and a wig.  Joan is building a theme park to normalize Cryptids among the public, and also to generate income to keep the place running. But they face terrible opponents — private bounty-hunters like the demi-god Gustav, a pervy player of pan pipes; and the US military who want to disect these creatures to make powerful weapons. Can these three brave women keep the cryptids safe? Or is it doomed from the start, a Jurassic Park for fictional beasts?

Cryptozoo is a brilliant animated arthouse feature brimming with gratuitous sex and violence. I loved Dash Shaw’s first movie, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, and this one goes even further.

It has tarot card mysticism and Japanese mythology alternating with cheap-ass amusement parks and secretive orgies.  Images are hand-drawn or painted in a variety of genres, and animated in an endearing, old-school jerky style. It’s a perfect blend of ancient fantasy and adolescent humour.  There’s a wonderful soundtrack by John Caroll Kirby, and the voices feature actors like Lake Bell and Michael Cera.

If you like base humour mixed with exquisite home-made art and indie music, don’t miss Cryptozoo!

Look for Cryptozoo on VOD and digital formats., including the digital TIFF bell Lightbox;  Rare Beasts and The Night House open theatrically in Toronto 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.

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