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.

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

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

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

Lorelei
Wri/Dir: Sabrina Doyle

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

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

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

I really like this one.

Stillwater
Co-WriDir: Tom McCarthy

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

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

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

The Green Knight
Wri/Dir: David Lowery

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

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

Lorelei is now available on VOD and digital formats. Stillwater and The Green Knight opens theatrically or digitally this weekend — check your local listings.

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

Reasons. Films reviewed: Silent Night, Sun Children

Posted in Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, Iran, Kids, UK by CulturalMining.com on June 25, 2021

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

Toronto is finally opening up — well, kinda. Now you can see movies away from home, just not yet in theatres.  The Lavazza Drive-In Film Festival is coming to Ontario Place, showing a huge selection of crowd-pleasing international films. It also incorporates the wonderful annual Italian Contemporary Film Fest, now celebrating its 10th year. It starts this Sunday and continues through July 17th, featuring, on Canada Day, the North American premier of Peace By Chocolate — based on the inspiring, true story of a family of Syrian refugees  who start a chocolate factory in Nova Scotia.

And for those of you without cars, the Toronto Outdoor Picture Show (or TOPS & Friends, for short) is showing outdoor movies  in person at Old Fort York, incorporating special features selected from a year of Toronto film festivals, including the Geothe Institute, Real Asian, Toronto Palestine, Inside-Out film fests,  Viewers can sit on the grass, physically distanced, while watching a whole bunch of movies — for free! Details and showtimes will be released in July.

But this week I’m looking at two new movies you can watch at home: a crime flick and a coming of age story, one from the UK the other from Iran. There’s a gangster in London who agrees to kill someone in order to save his young daughter; and a 12-year-old kid in Teheran who agrees to break the law in order to save his mother.

Silent Night

Wri/Dir: Will Thorne

London in the present day. Mark (Bradley Taylor) is just out of a London prison, and looking for work. His six-year-old daughter Daisy is overjoyed tp see her dad again, but his ex-wife Rosey is skeptical. Mark insists he’s a different man now, and wants nothing to do with the gangsters he used to pal around with. He just wants to carve a wooden hobby horse to give to Daisy for Christmas. But when he gets a job trimming trees in a forest, who is the first guy he runs into? Alan (Cary Crankson) a truly sketchy character if he’s ever met one who is also his former cell-mate. More former “friends” start gathering around him, including Pete and Seamus a friendly pair of pot dealers; Toni, the gang’s matriarch; Nicky, girlfriend of the boss; and Caddy (Frank Harper), the gruff and paranoid kingpin. 

They urge, cajole, pressure and threaten Mark offering a carrot and a stick, for this, they promise will be his final job. The carrot is enough money to keep his family secure and stable (the government jobs pay terribly). The stick is they’ll kill Daisy if he doesn’t follow through. What does he have to do? Catch and kill a rival mob boss who Caddy thinks is threatening his business. But when the bodies start piling up, with no end in sight, Mark has to make some heavy decisions. Can he complete the job, save his daughter, and figure out who is really behind this scheme… before getting killed or sent back to prison first?

Silent Night — it’s set during the days leading up to Christmas — is a heavy-duty London crime drama. There’s lot’s of death and violence — some quite explicit, others comical — as Mark tries to navigate his life as a former criminal gone straight despite all the forces working against him. No spoilers, but there’s also a major twist that caught me totally by surprise, and raised my enjoyment level considerably. The acting is good and the script is punchy and fast-moving, without being stupid (like so many crime dramas.)

I like this one.

Sun Children

Co-Wri/Dir: Majid Majidi

Ali (Rouhollah Zamani) is a 12-year old boy in Teheran. His father died in an accident and the shock sent his mother to a psychiatric hospital, where she lies tied to a bed, unresponsive. He has no money and nowhere to live, but does work for a pigeon-keeper and petty criminal named Hashem, who is like Fagin in Oliver Twist. Ali is the head of a group of four young guys, with Abolfazl, Reza, and Mamad.  They make money stealing hubcaps. They also look out for Zahra, a little girl who sells trinkets on the subway. Some of them are Afghan refugees, others have fathers in prison, on drugs or dead. So when the boys are offered a chance to go back to school, and get paid for it, they jump at the opportunity. Ali and his gang may be street smart but they’re uneducated. And he’s promised a safe place to live so he can take his mom out of hospital. 

There’s just one catch. He has to enrol in a specific school — the Sun School — and do a bit of side work without getting caught. When they’re not in class, they’re supposed to be secretly digging a long underground tunnel using a pickaxe and their bare hands. At the end of the tunnel,  beneath a cemetery, there’s buried treasure beyond their wildest dreams.  So begins their new lives, studying full time but also doing hard labour between classes. Abolfazl proves to be a great math student, and Reza excels at soccer. Ali has his own skills: he head-butts two classmates and scares off a third for insulting his mother. He still has to avoid the cops and the self-important school principal, while looking after the others, and relentlessly digging, digging, digging through the walls. What lies at the other end?

Sun Children — that’s what all the boys in the school are called — is a marvellous, realistic, entertaining and deeply-moving look at the lives of street kids. (If this film doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, I don’t know what will.) The children are all non-actors but pull off amazing performances, including Rouhollah Zamani, who won a top prize at Venice. This coming-of-age drama looks at political corruption, poverty, child labour and the duplicitous  and exploitative nature of grown-ups as seen through the eyes of children.

I strongly recommend this movie.

Sun Children and Silent Night both open today on VOD and digital platforms.

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

Self-reflexive. Films reviewed: Akilla’s Escape, Truman & Tennessee, Censor

Posted in 1950s, 1980s, Canada, Crime, documentary, drugs, Gay, Horror, Jamaica, Toronto, UK, Writers by CulturalMining.com on June 18, 2021

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies — a crime drama, a horror movie and a documentary. — that also look at themselves. There’s a possible killer named Akilla, a horror movie about horror movies, and a doc about two famous gay writers… who write about themselves.

Akilla’s Escape

Co-Wri/Dir: Charles Officer

It’s present-day Toronto. Akilla (Saul Williams) is a smart and well-read guy, who was born in Jamaica, grew up in Queens NY, and ended up in Toronto as a teenager. He has built a career with a successful grow-op he calls “the farm” for twenty years, but feels it’s time for a change. There’s been a rash of gang violence and he wants out. But on the same day, he interrupts a robbery gone wrong, leaving dead bodies in its wake. Most of the remaining local gangsters get away with two bags full of cash and drugs which should be in the hands of organized crime. But one of them — whom Akilla knocks out during the robbery — is still lying unconscious on the floor. And when he pulls off his mask, he sees young Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana), a 15-year-old boy who reminds him of himself at that age. He doesn’t want to hand him over to the mob because they’ll kill him… but he also needs to recover the stolen cash and drugs — otherwise he’ll be the one to suffer.  Can he get Sheppard to confess, avoid a hitman from the Greek mob, and catch a fugitive killer… without dying himself?

Akilla’s Escape is a complex and engrossing crime drama set within Toronto’s Jamaican community. Through a series of flashbacks, it’s told in three parallel stories about people dragged into a life of crime largely against their own will: young Akilla in Queens, Sheppard in Toronto, and adult Akilla in the present day. It’s nicely shot in a distinctive style coloured with reds and yellows to differentiate the different time periods. Saul Williams is really good as Akilla, both thoughtful and intense; and, in a twist, Sheppard and the 15-year-old Akilla are both played by the same actor, Thamela Mpumlwana! 

Interesting movie — I like this one.

Truman & Tennessee: an intimate conversation

Dir: Lisa Immordino Vreeland 

Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams first met in the 1940s when they both were rising stars.  Capote was still a teenager while Williams was in his late twenties. And they both were gay authors.  Tennessee was a compulsive writer dedicated to his craft, while Truman yearned for celebrity, not just success. Tennessee wrote a series of incredibly successful plays, most of which were later turned into hit movies, all about the lives, loves  and tragedies of southern woman. You’ve probably seen at least some of them: The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, to name just a few. Truman Capote wrote novels, memoirs and true crime reports, like In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Other Voices, Other Rooms. They went on vacations together, along with their long-term lovers, to exotic locales in Italy and Morocco.

They both drank heavily and popped pills supplied by the notorious “Doctor Feelgood”. But by the 1970s their fractious friendship ended in bitter rivalries.  Truman wrote a story with a character based on Tennessee, whom he described as “a chunky, paunchy, booze puffed runt with a play moustache glued above laconic lips who has a corn-pone voice.” In response, Truman is said to have “gone so far in his shtick that all his work will be seen now in the shimmer of a poised stiletto”. 

This documentary is composed of scenes from their films, still photos (by photographers like Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton), and a few key TV interviews (with David Frost and Dick Cavett). Visually it’s experimental, with lush green leaves, trees and rippling water superimposed kaleidoscopically on much of the period footage, giving the film a drifting, ethereal feel.

It’s narrated by the authors themselves, as voiced by actors Zachary Quinto (Star Trek) as Tennessee Williams and Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) as Truman Capote. It’s full of personal details of their superstitions, phobias, addictions, jealousy, loneliness and lust. Did you know that Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe, not Audrey Hepburn, to play Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which was based on an actual friend of his)? And Tennessee Williams tells all his viewers to walk out of his movies just before they’re over, because, he says, Hollywood’s happy endings ruin them all. These just give you a taste of all the secrets revealed in this movie.

If you like these two writers, you must see this doc.

Censor

Co-Wri/Dir: Prano Bailey-Bond

It’s the mid-1980s in Thatcher’s Britain. Enid (Niamh Algar) works for the censor board. In teams of two they rate, classify, cut or ban the many videos flooding the country. She’s meticulous in her work, logging frame by frame any images she thinks show too much. Scenes that don’t make the grade include a gouged eyeball that “looks too realistic”, or “excessively visible genitalia”. Pressure is especially strong these days because the tabloid press blames a rise in crime on the prevalence of “video nasties” — low-budget horror movies washing up on the sacred shores of Albion.

Things get worse when a gruesome real-life murder seems to mimic a scene from a horror movie she once approved. And once the papers print her name, she is inundated by paparazzi, journalists and non-stop anonymous obscene phone calls to her home. Meanwhile, at work, she is visited by a particularly sleazy and salacious film producer, who says she would be perfect to star in his next movie. Turns out his past video nasties include a film about two teenaged sisters, one of whom was violently killed. Thing is, Enid’s own sister disappeared after a walk in the woods when they were both still little girls, and she has made it her life-long goal either to find her or find out what happened to her. Is this film somehow related to her and her sister? Is the film studio a murder machine, making snuff films? Or is it all in her head?

Censor is a psychological horror pic that traces a bureaucrat’s slide from proper office worker into the depths of violence and depravity. It’s about the making and censoring of those low-budget horror movies in the 80s, but it’s also a horror movie in its own right. Its style matches the videos it’s sampling —  the music, sound effects, costumes — giving the whole film a surreal feeling.

This is good, over-the-top horror.

Akilla’s Escape is now playing on VOD; Truman & Tennessee: an intimate conversation opens today digitally at the Rogers HotDocs cinema; and Censor also opens today on your favourite VOD platform.

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

Tricks, Tracks, Traps. Films reviewed: The Killing of Two Lovers, Deliver Us From Evil, In the Earth

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

Spring Film Festival Season is on in Toronto, digitally speaking. Coming in the next few weeks are the Toronto Japanese Film festival, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Inside Out, Toronto’s LGBT film festival, and events organized by the Toronto Palestine Film Festival.

Starting in two weeks is the ReelAbilities film festival with shorts, features and docs about deaf and disability cultures, including a comedy night. All screenings are pay-what-you-can. Go to reelabilities.org/toronto for more info. 

This week I’m looking at three new movies, from the US, the UK and Korea. There’s  a husband who feels tricked by his wife, a hitman tracked by a killer; and an earth scientist trapped in a psychedelic forest.

The Killing of Two Lovers

Wri/Dir: Robert Machoian

David (Clayne Crawford) lives in a small-town in the southern US. He used to have ambitions to be a singer-songwriter, but now he works as a handyman doing odd jobs to keep his family afloat. He married Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) straight out of high school, and they now have four kids. But the spark is gone. David is living with his Dad now — he and Nikki are on a trial separation. It’s meant to help fix their broken relationship. But when he finds her in bed sleeping with another man, he feels lost and angry, and starts to carry a gun. 

Meanwhile he wants to bond with his kids and keep the family together. His oldest daughter is furious with them both. And the younger ones (played by real-life siblings) are just getting by. Can Nikki and David ever get back together? Or will David’s brooding anger finally explode into violence?

The Death of Two Lovers is a relationship movie done in the style of a high-tension crime pic. It’s told through David’s eyes, so we feel his boiling rage and inner turmoil. He takes out his anger on a boxing dummy, and practices shooting with an old pistol. The soundtrack is full of repeating sounds — slamming car doors, creaking noises — unrelated to the actual images you see. And his encounters with Derek (Chris Coy) his moustached rival looks like it’s headed for disaster. No spoilers, but this is not a crime drama; it’s a movie about the (potential) collapse of a family. The acting is great and bit of a it’s tear-jerker, but it seems trapped within an unclassifiable and misleading genre. 

Deliver Us From Evil

Wri/Dir: Hong Wan-Chan

In-Nam (Hwang Jung-min) is a Korean hitman who kills for money, but only targets organized criminals. His assignment: a ruthless yakuza boss in Tokyo who exploits sex workers. It’s his final assignment; once complete, he plans to retire somewhere with warm beaches and lax banking laws where he can enjoy his blood money in peace…somewhere like Panama? But his dreams are shattered with a blast from the past. His ex-girlfriend he hasn’t seen in 9 years is trying to reach him. Her nine-year-old daughter Yoo-min has been kidnapped. He drops everything and flies to Bangkok to investigate. He’s too late to save her but maybe little Yoo-min is still alive. He hires a local Korean woman named Yoo-Yi (Park Jeong-Min) to translate for him and serve as his guide. She works at a Patpong bar, and needs the extra cash to pay for sex-reassignment surgery. Together they uncover a terrible truth: a ruthless Thai operation that kidnaps small kids, especially Japanese and Koreans in Thailand, to sell their organs to rich people back home! 

What In-Nam doesn’t realize is that he’s a marked man… the hitman is on a hit-list. The Yakuza boss he assassinated had a brother named Ray aka The Butcher (Lee Jung-jae). This guy is ruthless and deranged, and can do terrible things with his very sharp knives. Can In-min rescue Yoomin (and the other kidnapped kids) before their organs are yanked from their innocent bodies? Is little Yoomin — who he’s never met — his own daughter? And who will survive the fight to the death: Ray who is out for vengeance; or In-Min?

Deliver us from Evil is an intense crime action/thriller set in in the underworlds of Korea, Japan and Thailand. The first half hour is a bit dull: too much talk, talk, talk, and not enough action. It’s a complicated plot that needs a lot of explaining. But once it starts going it never let’s you down, with lots of fistfights, marital arts, knives, guns and cars. It’s a world where everyone’s corrupt: competing criminal gangs, local con artists, international syndicates and cops on the take. If you’re disturbed by violence, blood and awful situations— stay away. But if you like action, suspense, intense fighting, and some interesting characters, Deliver Us From Evil is a good watch.

In the Earth

Wri/Dir: Ben Wheatley

It’s England in the near future, where an unknown  virus pandemic is wiping out the population. The country is a mess with food shortages and strange new laws. Martin (Joel Fry), is a mousy scientist who arrives at a nature preserve to study the soil there. (He also has a hidden agenda, to contact Alma another scientist who disappeared, leaving a puzzling diary.) After passing the medical tests,  he sets out into the woods  accompanied by a guide. Olivia (Hayley Squires) is a no-nonsense forest ranger with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She can assemble a pop tent in a couple minutes and knows every inch of the woods.  But while they slept a stranger  attacked them, stealing their shoes, clothes and Martin’s crucial radio equipment. Luckily they encounter Zach (Reece Shearsmith), an eccentric, bearded, back-to-the-land type who is shacked up nearby. He tends to their wounds, makes them some food and gives them comforting elderflower tea. Unluckily Zach is a lunatic who drugged their tea and tied them up. He says all nature is connected, and we must listen to a common brain to find out her wishes. And this includes using Martin and Olivia in bizarre rituals and possible sacrifices. They must escape!  But a natural mist has settled all around them generating  microscopic mushroom spores and unbearable sounds. What is the truth in these woods? And can Olivia and Martin overcome its allure?

In the Earth is a weird, science-fiction/horror/ fantasy about humans fighting nature — and the earth fighting back. It was filmed just a few months ago during the height of the pandemic in the UK. And it’s full of psychedelic visions and creepy sounds. Ben Wheatley’s movies are unique and either you like them or you don’t. But I thought it was fantastic. There’s a fair amount of violence and gross-outs, but it’s all done in an art-house style, not your typical Hollywood horror. If you’re in the mood for a freaky, indie movie, this one’s for you.

The Killing of Two Lovers Starts today on all major platforms, In the Earth also opens today at the Virtual TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Deliver us From Evil will be available on VOD, digital and on disc on May 25th.

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

Canadian Film Day! The Courier, Bloodthirsty, The Marijuana Conspiracy

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Cold War, drugs, Espionage, Lesbian, Mental Illness, Music, Toronto, UK, USSR, Werewolves by CulturalMining.com on April 16, 2021

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

Hey, did you know next Wednesday is Canadian Film Day? Yeah, I know all the theatres will be closed but you can still attend Canadian movies all across the country. Things like 11 new short films from emerging filmmakers, called Light(s) at the End of the Tunnel; online discussions, and lots of films you can watch on TV or streaming online. Go to canadianfilmday.ca for details.

This week I’m looking at three new movies, two of which are Canadian. There’s tokes in Toronto, Spooks in the Soviet Union, and lycanthropes in Alberta.

The Courier

Dir: Dominic Cooke

It’s 1960 in Moscow and the space race, the arms race and the cold war are in full swing. Oleg Pankovsky (Merab Ninidze) is a high-ranked officer in Soviet military intelligence. He has access to secret documents,  and knows something big and potentially dangerous is coming. And he doesn’t like Kruschev’s inflammatory speeches. It feels like the USSR and the USA are heading toward all out nuclear war. So he decides to do something. He leaks a bundle of documents to the American embassy with a promise of more to come. But Oleg is too important for the  CIA and the MI5 to risk exposing him by using one of their own agents.

So, instead, a CIA agent named Emily (Rachel Brosnahan) and her MI5 counterpart approach a mild-mannered British businessman who already conducts trade behind the Iron Curtain. Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is just an ordinary fellow, who lives in a modest London home with his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and their young son. And he wants nothing to do with it. He’s untrained and uninterested. But when he learns that the fate of the world may be at stake, he agrees. All he has to do is continue what he was always doing — making deals and signing import and export contracts. And regular meeting with Oleg to carry secret documents back to London. Heh’s a courier. But as tensions rise moles on both sides are revealing secrets. Wynne and Oleg both face growing suspicion, and their home lives suffer (Wynne’s wife thinks he’s having an affair). And when something goes wrong both Oleg and Wynne are in grave danger. Will they be discovered? Can they safely make it to the west? Or is their fate already sealed?

The Courier is a gripping historical spy thriller set at the height of the Cold War, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s exciting and mysterious, filled with quirky realistic characters. It’s also based on an actual case. On the other hand, it regurgitates Cold War politics as if it’s still 1960.  The KGB was surely a nasty agency, but so were the CIA and the MI5. They were all busy assassinating leaders, supporting coups, installing dictators and thwarting democratic elections worldwide. But in this movie it’s “Russians bad, Anglo-Americans good”.

Keep that in mind, but it doesn’t detract from the gripping story, and excellent acting. I liked this one.

Bloodthirsty

Dir: Amelia Moses

Grey (Lauren Beatty) is a singer-songwriter in Edmonton, Alberta. She’s a vegan and an animal lover who treats everyone, even the four-legged, with love and respect. She lives with her long-time girlfriend  Charlie, an artist (Katharine King So).  Her first album was a smash hit, but now she’s facing two problems: First she has writer’s block and sophomore blues — she’s afraid her second album will suck. She’s also  on prescription meds to battle a strange phenomenon: frequent, realistic nightmares about gorging on raw flesh, dripping with blood, and similar hallucinations when she’s awake.

So, when a famous but reclusive record producer named Vaughn Daniels (Greg Bryk) invites her to his home to record her next album, she jumps at the chance. Charlie is less enthusiastic. Why does he live in a house in the woods. And isn’t he a convicted murderer? (Actually he was charged but never convicted.) So they drive up north. He takes Grey under his wing, so she can let her mind free. It’s not writer’s block it’s your inhibitions that are holding you back, he tells her. He takes off her meds, plies her with hard liquor and tries to get her to eat raw meat.  And Grey notices she’s changing — she’s creating good, dark music,  but her head is filled with violent ideas. Why did Vaughn choose her? What is he after? And why do dead animals and humans — ostensibly killed by wolves — keep turning up near his home?

Bloodthirsty, as the title suggests, is a dark and brooding, horror movie about werewolves and music.  It’s spooky but not all that scary. It’s a low-budget movie with a very small cast and low-rent special effects. And it could have used a bit more humour… and a scarier-looking house. (Vaughn’s lair just looks strange.)

What’s great about this movie is the way it combines the creative process of composing and writing lyrics with supernatural bloodlust! That is totally original, and and Lauren Beatty as Grey does it really well (with a beautiful voice, too). 

The Marijuana Conspiracy 

Wri/Dir: Craig Pryce

It’s 1972 in downtown Toronto. Trudeaumania has swept across Canada but here in True Blue Ontario, the Tories are worried. Rumour has it that Trudeau — Pierre, not Justin — might legalize marijuana. So they commission a study of the dangers of the demon weed. 20 young women, age 18-25 are paid subjects at the Addiction Research Foundation, (later merged with CAMH). They’re given rooms to live in, food and recreation for three months. What’s the catch? They’re not allowed to leave the premises and  have to smoke cannabis every day. The doctors observe the results but don’t interfere. And to measure the long term effects the patients weave macrame wall hangings out of hemp and beads, and they’ll be paid upon completion of the study for each one they successfully finish (that measures motivation.)  What they’re measuring is whether smoking grass impedes work production. (There’s also a control group in the study identical in every way except they don’t smoke.)

The movie focuses on a few of the subjects. One is homeless, another is upper middle class, a third is hippy who wants to move to a commune in Vancouver, and one whose father is serving time for drug possession. There’s also intrigue, sex, humour music, and friendship. And it touches on sexuality, race, psychiatry, politics and many other issues. Here’s the biggest twist: This is not a documentary! It’s base on the actual study but this is character-driven drama about the the young volunteers, and the doctors, nurses, and grad students they interact with.

This is such an unusual movie, it really grabbed me, both for the characters and drama and surprises, but also the weirdness of it all — and because it actually happened right here in Toronto.

The Courier is released today on PVOD; The Marijuana Conspiracy opens across North America on Tuesday, April 20th, and you can pre-order Bloodthirsty beginning next Friday.

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

Guys doing stuff. Films reviewed: Nobody, Six Minutes to Midnight, Judas and the Black Messiah

Posted in 1930s, 1960s, Espionage, FBI, Nazi, Resistance, Suburbs, Thriller, UK, Uncategorized, WWII by CulturalMining.com on March 26, 2021

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

A few weeks ago. I did International Women’s Day, so this week I’m looking at three new movies about guys doing stuff. There’s a WWII drama about a spy in a school for Nazi girls, a ‘60s drama about an FBI rat in the Black Panther Party, and an action-thriller about an ordinary, middle-aged man who decides to fight against the Mafia.

Nobody

Dir: Ilya Naishuller

Hutch (Bob Odenkirk) is a ordinary guy who lives in the suburbs with his wife and two kids. He works at a dull desk job in a nondescript factory, a life that, while not perfect, is what he wants. But when his house in broken into by a pair of amateur burglars., everything falls apart. His his son no longer respects him and his wife seems bored by his very existence.  She married a wimp. Something has got to change. So Hutch sets out to channel his anger and aggression. 

He gets his chance when a pack of hoods boards a city bus and begin harassing and threatening a teenaged girl. So he decides to pick a fight. They’re younger, stronger and meaner than he is, and there’s six of them. Is there something about Hutch we don’t know? The good news is he beats all six to a pulp, sending them to hospital. The bad news is one of them dies. Worse news is he’s the younger brothers of a notoriously powerful Russian mob boss named Yulian (Aleksey Serebryakov). Yulian is cruel, sadistic and vengeful, with a veritable army of supporters. Can Hutch face down an entire Russian mob? Or is he, and his family, doomed to die?

Nobody is a great action thriller, extremely violent but quite entertaining. There are car chases and excellent fight scenes — many without guns — and a pace that is constantly moving.  You might know Odinkirk from the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul, not your average action hero, but he pulls it off perfectly. And Serebryakov as the villain is also fascinating — he’s actually a famous Russian actor, in movies like Leviathan.  Also Christopher Lloyd as an elderly action hero, and RZA, of Wu Tang fame, rounding out the slate. This is actually a Russian movie (though it’s mainly in English and shot in Winnipeg) and the director, Ilya Naishuller, does really cool stuff with his camera, eliding entire days into just a few seconds on the screen. I like the look and feel and mood and music he uses. There’s nothing deep or socially relevant or meaningful about this film, it’s just a fun and exciting action movie about fights, explosions, guns and cars, skillfully done.

Six Minutes to Midnight

Dir: Andy Goddard

It’s the summer of 1939 in Bexhill-on-Sea, a small coastal town in southeastern England. The girls at Augusta-Victoria College, a prestigious boarding school, are out for their morning swim. They’re excited because a new English teacher is coming that day. The school is run by a stern headmistress (Judi Dench) who is adamant about teaching girls poise, grace and maybe a bit of knowledge. And while she’s suspicious of the new “gentleman teacher” Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard), she likes the fact he plays the piano. And the girls — including Ilsa (Carla Juri), their leader, Astrid the rebel, and Gretel the bullied girl with glasses — all enjoy singing in class. But what’s so special about this school?  All the young women there are Germans. And not just ordinary Germans, but the daughters and granddaughters of the Nazi elite.

Mr Miller knows all about this before he arrives. He’s a British spy on a secret mission: to find out what’s going on behind closed doors. But when his handler, a Colonel, is assassinated before his very eyes, things get dangerous. He’s blamed for the killing, labeled a German spy, and has no way to contact headquarters to clear his name. Meanwhile,  German sympathizers are everywhere — who can he trust? Europe is on the brink of war, and something major is about to happen to the girls in the academy. Can Miller free himself, save the girls, and stop the German war effort? Or is he doomed to failure?

Six Minutes to Midnight is an enjoyable WWII thriller. It’s filled with classic skullduggery, like hidden cameras, double crossers and political intrigue. Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench are good, along with James D’Arcy as a police captain, Jim Broadbent as a bus driver, plus a bevy of talented German and Swiss actresses.

I guess I’m a sucker for British historical dramas, but… they do them so well!

Judas and the Black Messiah

Dir: Shaka King

It’s the summer of ’68 in Chicago. Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is the young local head of the Black Panther Party. They supply meals for poor kids and plan to open a medical centre. He takes up with Deborah (Dominique Fishback) a young idealistic poet. Fred is also known for his rabble-rousing speeches, done without a mic, calling for revolution, instead of just posturing: Political power doesn’t flow from the sleeve of a dashiki, he says. You have to do something, don’t just talk about it. Because 1968 is a time of change, with  the war in Vietnam, the Democratic convention, and massive marches and demos going on in downtown Chicago. 

Naturally, J Edgar Hoover and the FBI don’t like it at all. They label the Panthers “dangerous extremists” and decide to go all out to stop them, with their notorious and illegal operation known as COINTELPRO. They plan to infiltrate, jail or kill the Panthers, whom they call a subversive criminal group. 

Meanwhile, there’s Wild Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) a petty grifter  and car thief who poses as an FBI agent to rob other blacks. He’s caught, threatened with prison or worse, and forced to work as a rat for the FBI. It’s a carrot and stick operation. His handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), possibly the whitest guy in the world, shares the wealth — cigars, expensive alcohol, and envelopes of cash. He just has to betray the panthers, incite violence, and draw maps of their headquarters for illegal break-ins and assassinations. 

Judas and the Black Messiah is a fantastic historical dramatic thriller about major social movements and the the US government’s attempt to stop it. The title suggests it’s about two clashing forces, Hampton and O’Neal, the revolutionary and the traitor, facing off. But actually they seldom interact. It’s actually a story divided into two points of view, the FBI, and the Black Panther Party. It’s full of stuff I hadn’t heard about — things like Hampton organizing working-class whites, Puerto Ricans and Blacks in order to form a united front based on class, not race. Kaluuya and Stanfield were in the movie Get Out together and they’re both unrecognizable; they totally get into their roles here. It’s an important issue told in a cinematic way… and it’s nominated for for academy awards this year.

Great movie.

Nobody and Six  Minutes to Midnight are available starting today, and Judas and the Black Messiah is coming soon.  

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

 

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

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

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

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

Nomadland

Wri/Dir: Chloe Zhao

(Based on the book by Jessica Bruder)

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

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

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

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

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

Supernova

Wri/Dir: Harry Macqueen

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

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

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

Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Wri/Dir: Adam Curtis

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

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

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

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

Younger. Films reviewed: Cowboys, Night of the Beast, Saint Maud

Posted in Colombia, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Horror, Kids, LGBT, Metal, Music, Thriller, Trans, UK, Western by CulturalMining.com on February 12, 2021

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

February is the ugliest month of the year, but you can escape the misery of frigid cold and overcast skies with lots of festivals accessible from your home. The Toronto Black Film festival is on now, as is the TIFF Next Wave festival, offering free films, made by and for the quaran-teens and quartan-twenties among us. (Free digital screenings if you’re under 25). This week I’m looking at movies about children and youth. There’s a transgendered kid in Montana, two metalheads in Bogota, and a religious young nurse in Yorkshire.

Cowboys

Wri/Dir: Anna Kerrigan

It’s summertime in Flathead, Montana. Troy (Steve Zahn) is on a camping trip through the wilderness in a state park near the Canadian border. He’s with his young son Joe (Sasha Knight) who is kitted up like a true cowboy in boots, denim and a big belt buckle. They follow trails and eat beans right out of the can. And they’re riding a white horse they borrowed from Troy’s friend Robert (Gary Farmer). What they don’t know is their faces are appearing statewide on TV and in newspaper headlines. It’s an amber alert, and Troy is accused of kidnapping Joe. What’s going on?

The problem is Joe was born as Josie, and raised by his mother Sally (Jillian Bell) as a girl. Joe hates the dresses his mom makes him wear and the barbie dolls she gives him to play with. He secretly changes from dresses to jeans at school and wears his hair tied into a ponytail. Sally says she gets it, you’re a tomboy. Joe says, not a tom boy, I’m a boy. And only his father accepts it. Problem is Troy is on parole, separated from Sally, and heavily medicated to handle his erratic mood changes. He thinks he’s helping Joe escape. They’re heading for safety across the Canadian border, pursued by an armed SWAT team and Faith (Ann Dowd) a hardboiled local police detective. Who will be captured, who will survive, and can father and son stay together?

Cowboys is a nice, gentle  family drama and adventure story about a trans boy struggling with his identity and how his parents treat him. It’s shot on location against breathtaking scenery in Montana. The acting is good all around (though Steve Zahn almost overdoes it in one of his trademark meltdown) and I’m not sure of young actor Sasha Knight’s gender, but he plays the part of a trans kid very believably.

Night of the Beast

Dir: Mauricio Leiva-Cock

Chuki and Francisco are best friends. Chuki is round faced with long curly hair, and lives with his deeply religious mom. He has a crush on the waitress at a local coffee shop. Francisco is more suave mature and streetwise — he has a girlfriend named Vale. His mom died, so he lives with his depressed dad. The two of them are metalhead who live in the city of Bogota, Colombia. They go to high school together, but not today. Today they’re playing hooky to attend the greatest concert ever by the greatest band in the world, Iron Maiden! And they stan that band to the umpteenth degree. They have tickets but the  concert doesn’t start till tonight, so they spend the day exploring the city, its parks, record stores, and darker corners. But over the courseof their journeys they get mugged at knifepoint and lose their tickets. This leads to fights between the two fast friends, sending them off on separate paths. Will Chuki and Francisco ever make up? And will either of them get to see the concert?

Night of the Beast, (La Noche de la Bestia) is a short (70 min) coming- of-age story about a day in the life of two urban teenaged boys. It’s a simple story but a really interesting one, spanning family generations set against a a really cool city. It packs in tons of stories over the course of their picaresque journey, spanning railroad tracks, a planetarium, a stadium, and encounters with frat boys, police, and rock bands. And the film is punctuated by animation where black and white  quivering lines, like the intricate pen-and ink doodles they write on their schoolbooks, appear at times around the people and places they see, adding rocker energy to their memorable day.

Saint Maud 

Wri/Dir: Rose Glass

Maud (Morfydd Clark) is young a nurse who lives in a seedy seaside resort town in Northern England.  She used to work in a local hospital but left after an incident. She lives in a tiny, spartan flat at the top of a twisting narrow alley. Maud lives a monastic life of penitence to address the sins from her past, guided by the voice of God inside her head. She works for a private company which sends out nurses to provide care for the terminally ill. Her latest patient is Amanda (Jennifer Ehle), who lives alone in a stately brick house. 

She’s a celebrated middle-aged dancer and choreographer, whose days of glory are gone. Now she sits idly by dressed in an elegant turban, smiling like a chimney,  surrounded by the paintings and posters of her youth. Amanda’s life is still saturated in her devil-may-care attitude, with past lovers, both men and women, appearing at her bedside to share laughs. Maud disapproves. She believes she was sent to save Amanda from eternal damnation before she dies. And she’ll do whatever’s necessary to set her on the right path. What is the root of Maud’s strange beliefs? Is she a potential killer or a saint sent from heaven? And are darker forces at play? 

Saint Maud is a shocking and scary horror movie set in Yorkshire, England. There’s violence and blood, and it’s saturated in religious iconography and images. Morfydd Clark is stupendous as the monastic Maud, and the very different past personality she’s trying to escape from. Jennifer Ehle is also amazing as the cynical, world-weary dancer. As I said, this is a horror movie, but rather than slashers and screams, it’s shot like a softly glowing Rembrandt painting, viewed through Maud’s eyes. The costumes, hair, music, art direction, everything is absolutely perfect not what you expect from a boiler plate scary movie. And — no spoilers — be prepared for a shocking finish.

Saint Maud is one great horror movie.

Cowboys and Saint Maud both starts today, and Night of the Beast is part of the Next Wave film festival playing this weekend at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

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