Tough older women. Films reviewed: The Lost Daughter, June Again

Posted in Australia, Dementia, Depression, Drama, Family, Greece, Kids, Secrets, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 8, 2022

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

Well, as I’m sure you know, we’re under lockdown, and all the movie theatres are closed. It’s like Groundhog Day all over again. But that doesn’t mean you can’t watch movies at home on streaming networks or VOD.  So this week I’m looking at two such movies about tough older women. There’s a professor who finds a lost child as she interacts with a family of strangers; and a former matriarch who finds her missing past as she interacts with her own lost family.

The Lost Daughter

Dir: Maggie Gyllenhall

Leda (Olivia Coleman) is an established author and Harvard professor specializing in comparative literature. She has two adult daughters but she’s on vacation alone at a Greek beachside resort for some “me time”. Since she arrived, two men are already flirting with her: Will (Paul Mescal), an Irish lad working there for the summer, and Lyle (Ed Harris) an American old-timer who has been there for thirty years. Though flattered, she’d rather just lie on the beach (she describes herself a selfish person.) But her peace and quiet is broken by a noisy American family, who tell her to move down so they can sit together. She refuses, earning her a chorus of dirty looks. Later, she sees Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother from the same family, struggling with her little daughter who is chewing contentedly on a baby doll. The little girl disappears and panic sets in. And to everyone’s surprise it’s Leda who finds the missing girl, and the family is now grateful to her. But the girl’s doll is still missing, and she is driving Nina crazy with her constant crying. 

Later we discover it’s missing because Leda stole it for herself. Huh….? You see, like young Nina, she has her own checkered history of dealing with her daughters. Can neurotic Leda find happiness on the beach in Greece? Will she sleep with Will or Lyle (or neither)? Can Nina learn to deal with a cranky child? And what about the doll?

The Lost Daughter — based on the novel by Elena Ferrante — is an uncomfortable drama about a middle-aged woman coming to terms with her past. Her younger self is played by Jessie Buckley in a series of extended flashbacks. The “doll” aspect of the story, makes it seem like a psychological thriller… but it’s not. Rather it’s an intense character study of Leda, past and present. The acting is superb, especially Olivia Coleman as a woman dealing with an internal crisis. But the movie itself is hard to watch. Leda is not that sympathetic a character — we see all her faults and terrible decisions, because we’re inside her mind.  It’s mainly about her internal struggles, something harder to convey in a movie than in a novel.  It does have other parts I haven’t talked about — her poetry, her love affair, her time with her daughters — that make it richer and more complex than I described. It’s not a simple film. But it’s mainly about fear, suspicion, guilt and regret. Does it work? I guess so. It’s well-made but largely uncomfortable and unpleasant to watch.

June Again

Wri/Dir: JJ Winlove

It’s a normal day in New South Wales, Australia. June (Noni Hazlehurst) is an older woman living in a nursing home. Ever since a stroke, five years earlier, she has suffered from vascular dementia and aphasia — she can’t finish a sentence, and barely recognizes her own family when they come to see her. She just sits there in a semi-comatose state. Until, one morning, she wakes up as a whole new June. Or rather the old June. Suddenly she can complete a cryptic crossword, and responds to staff inquiries with a witty riposte. She is disturbed to see where she’s living. What are these hideous clothes she’s wearing, why is this place so tacky, and why is she there? They tell her she has dementia, and although she’s back to normal now, it’s only temporary. But June decides to use her time wisely.  She engineers an escape from that “prison”, zooming away in a taxi, and stealing some brightly-patterned clothes on the way. But everything has changed. 

Her home is no longer hers — there’s another family living there, and all her possessions are gone, including a prized wooden wardrobe.  The company she founded — a prestigious manufacturer of hand-printed wallpaper — has gone to seed, and is headed by a douchey manager who calls her former colleagues “girls”.  They‘re printing on low-grade paper now and have lost al their prestigious clients.  And her two adult children aren’t on speaking terms. When she last saw her son Dev (Stephen Curry) he was studying architecture and raising a family. Now he’s divorced, spends little time with beloved her grandson Piers (Otis Dhanji) and is working as a clerk in a copy shop. Her daughter Ginny (Claudia Karvan) has completely abandoned the factory, June’s life work. And June’s finances are a mess.  But what can she do — with the limited time she has left — to make everything right again?

June Again is a funny and heartwarming story of a woman given a second chance. The early scenes of Dementia June are similar to the movie The Father (starring Anthony Hopkins) where time sudden’y jumps forward to signify her frequent memory loss. But most of the movie is about Normal June, a brash, funny and bossy matriarch who won’t take no for an answer. Noni Hazlehurst is wonderful as June — the whole movie revolves around her, and luckily she’s marvellous to watch. June again is fun to watch, and though dealing with a sad topic is upbeat all the way. 

I liked this one a lot. 

June Again is now available on VOD, and The Lost Daughter is now streaming on Netflix. 

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

Organized religion. Films reviewed: Hand of God, Agnes, Benedetta

Posted in 1600s, 1980s, Breasts, Catholicism, Coming of Age, Horror, Italy, Lesbian, LGBT, Nun, Religion, Sex, Supernatural, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 4, 2021

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

It’s December and we’re entering holiday season, so I thought it’s time to talk about movies involving religion. So this week I’m looking at three new movies with (small c) catholic themes. There’s an adolescent boy in 1980s Naples who witnesses the “Hand of God”, a lesbian nun in renaissance Tuscany who is in love with God, and another nun in the US who may be possessed by the Devil.

Benedetta

Co-Wri/Dir: Paul Verhoeven

It’s the 1600s in Tuscany Italy. Benedetta (Virginie Efira) is a beautiful young  nun with blond hair and a quick wit. She was placed in small town convent as a young girl, paid for by a rich dowry her parents gave the Abbess (Charlotte Rampling). Now Benedetta is married to God, both metaphorically, and literally, in her mind. She goes through vivid spells, where she has sex with a violent Jesus after he slays all her attackers with a sword. She also has a streak of cruelty since she was told that suffering, by oneself and others,  brings one closer to God. The cynical Abbess thinks Benedetta’s trances are just an elaborate hoax. But everything changes when Bartolomea (Daphné Patakia) a gorgeous young novice, appears at their doorstep. 

She is illiterate, and the victim of horrific abuses from her father and brothers. Benedetta takes her under her wing, nurtures her and schools her in divinity, reading and math. In exchange, Bartolomea sleeps with her, awakening hidden desires. Could this be love? Benadetta says she’s having chaste, spiritual sex with Jesus himself, not carnal passion with the young novice. And her spontaneous stigmata — bleeding that appears in her hands and feet like Jesus on the cross — attracts pilgrims and followers from far and wide seeking advice and cures. But when she’s caught using a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary as a sex toy, things take a turn for the worse. A cruel Nuncio (Lambert Wilson) arrives from plague-ridden Florence for an inquisition. Will he manage to wring a confession from the two women? Or will Benedetta’s spiritual powers protect her from being burned at the stake?

Benedetta (based on  actual historical records)  is a bittersweet and passionate look at the life and love of a lesbian nun in Northern Italy. It’s sexually explicit with lots of matter-of-fact nudity throughout the film as well as some horrific violence  (remember, this is a movie by the great Paul Verhoeven who knows well how to keep bums in seats). This is a visually stunning film, with sumptuous views of sunlit cathedrals, long-flowing costumes, diaphanous bed curtains and beautiful faces and bodies. Never has a convent looked so erotic. But it’s also a fascinating look at faith in the face of cynical religious practices. Benedetta is a beautiful and shocking film.

Agnes

Wri/Dir: Mickey Reece

Sister Agnes (Hayley McFarland) is a young nun in a convent whose birthday celebration turns into a disaster. Now he’s tied to her bed, foaming at the mouth and speaking in strange otherworldly voices. What is going on?Enter Father Donoghue (Ben Hall). He’s a grizzled priest with a shady past, but also many successful exorcisms under his belt.  And he takes a newby with him, the devout Benjamin (Jake Horowitz) a divinity student who has yet to take his vows. Father Donoghue doesn’t believe that they’re actually possessed, just that they think they are. And only the elaborate song and dance of an exorcism will allow them to give it up. At the convent, Mother Superior (Mary Buss) a stickler for rules, is much less enthusiastic. She’s not comfortable with men under her roof, especially a young one without a priest’s collar. But she allows it to proceed. And the routine exorcism takes an unexpected turn.

The story picks up with Sister Agnes’s friend Sister Mary (Molly C. Quinn). She left the convent after the incident. Now she works at two jobs — a convenience store and a laundromat, —and is trying to live a normal life. But she doesn’t know what to do or how to act. Can she keep the faith? Matters aren’t helped when she meets a cynical stand up comic at a local dive bar (Sean Gunn). Can he teach her what she needs to know?

Agnes is a look at faith, and self-doubt within the church. It starts as a genre pic, a conventional, low-budget horror, but it ends up as a deeper and darker melodrama propelled by scary undertones. It’s called Agnes, but it’s actually in two acts, the second part mainly about Sister Mary. It’s unpredictable and uncomfortable, and sometimes a bit bloody. This may be the first Mickey Reece film I’ve ever watched but I can see why this indie filmmaker has such an avid following. The film has an interesting mix of experimental film and conventional, even kitschy, horror, comparable to avant-garde filmmakers like Ben Wheatley and Peter Strickland. Not for everyone, but I enjoyed it — and I think want to see more Mickey Reece.

Hand of God 

Dir: Paolo Sorrentino

It’s 1984. Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) is a young man at Don Bosco high school in Naples, Italy. He is precocious and well-read, — constantly quoting classic verse — but has neither friends nor sexual experience. He gets most of his advice from his big brother (who shares a room with him) and his parents. Dad (Toni Servillo) is a self-declared communist while his mom (Teresa Saponangelo) is a inveterate practical joker. Then there are all the odd-ball neighbours in their apartment building (including a former countess) and his even stranger family members. But foremost in Fabio’s eyes is his aunt Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri). She suffers from delusions which cause her to innocently expose her flawless naked body at unusual times — which provide fodder for the sexually-starved Fabio’s fantasies. 

It’s also the year when rumour has it that international soccer star Maradona may start playing for the local team — an obsession of most of his family. Third on Fabietto’s list — after sex and football — are the movies. Fellini is casting extras in Napoli — he goes to the audition —  while another up-and-coming director is shooting his latest film downtown. That director is also dating the very actress Fabio is dying to meet. Will he ever fulfill any of his wishes? And how will this pivotal year affect the rest of his life?

Hand of God (the title refers to a legendary goal scored by Maradona) is a coming-of-age story based on the filmmaker’s own recollections. It seems like the straight version of the popular Call Me By Your Name, another Italian feature. Set in the 80s, it’s also about a precocious adolescent’s first sexual experiences, situated within a quirky but loving family. There’s lots of 80s music, fashion and hairstyles to look at. Filippo Scotti also happens to looks a hell of a lot like Timothée Chalamet. That said, it is its own film, and fits very firmly within Sorentino’s work, including his fascination with celebrities as characters,

perennial actors like the great Toni Servillo  hapless men, as well as the requisite “naked woman with perfect breasts” who manages to turn up, in one form or another, in all his movies. Although Hand of God isn’t that original, and a bit contrived, it does have some very funny and a few honestly shocking scenes that should not be missed. I liked this one.

Hand of God and Benedetta both open theatrically in Toronto this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; check your local listings; and Agnes starts next Friday at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto.

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

Films reviewed: Swan Song, Beyond Monet, Respect

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, Art, Biopic, Black, France, Gay, Immersive Cinema, LGBT, Music, Ohio, Old Age, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2021

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

With the end of lockdowns finally reaching Toronto, people are itching to catch up on what they’ve been missing — from getting their hair cut, going to an art gallery, or listening to a concert on the big screen. This week I’m looking at two movies and one experience. There’s soul in Detroit, hairdressing in Ohio, and French impressionism in downtown Toronto.

Swan Song 

Wri/Dir: Todd Stephens

Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) was once known as the Liberace of Sandusky Ohio, known for his gaudy jewelry, his pastel pantsuits and his flamboyant style. The richest women in town flocked to his hair salon where he could accomplish miracles with just his fingertips and a can of hairspray. But now he’s long-forgotten, a penniless  old man living in a nursing home with puke-green walls and fluorescent lights. What happened?  

His protege Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge) opened up a larger salon across the street from his, poaching his longest clients, including Rita Sloan a millionaire and his oldest patron. Then his lover David died of AIDS. And since this was before same-sex marriage, their shared house was inherited by a distant relative, leaving him homeless. So for Pat,  Sandusky is just history. Until a lawyer named Mr Shamrock arrives at his room with a new development. Rita has died, and in her will she insists Pat be the one to style her hair in her coffin. And if he does he’ll inherit 25,000 clams. So Pat sets out on a long journey back to long-lost Sandusky, encountering strange people and places along the way. Will he get there in time for Rita’s swan song? And can he finish the job without any beauty supplies? 

Swan Song is a very gentle, low-key, and slow- moving homage to the gradually fading world of small town gay life in America. Though nostalgic, it doesn’t present a white-washed version. It features Pat (loosely based on a real person) as an inveterate shoplifter, Eunice his best friend who is known for loitering in public toilets, as well as the seedy gay bar where they used to lip-synch torch songs. Udo Kier, the great German actor, has fun with his role, injecting his own trademark campiness. Swan Song is a cute and gentle, (though too slow-moving) LGBT comedy.

Beyond Monet

Claude Monet was a fin-de-siècle French painter who daubed his canvases with bright spring colours. Critics at the time referred to his work derisively as impressionism, thus providing a name for the movement. But as his fame grew, his eyesight faded, and by the end his works veered to the nearly abstract. Today, though, his paintings of fields, gardens, water and most of all waterlilies are among the most famous of that era. Beyond Monet is an exhibition, not of his art, but rather an immersive experience. His works are projected on a circular, 360 degree wall and ceiling, about the size of a football stadium. The works themselves are constantly rising, falling, or gradually turning around inside the exhibition space, so you can see all of it without moving from your area. It’s constructed around a large wooden cupola in the centre, along with shiny, round landing pads spread all around to sit on. The images are softly animated: waves in his paintings rise and fall; in his winter scenes, snow seems to blow against the landscapes, while flowers and lillies bloom before your eyes. And a constantly-shifting — and at times quite lovely — original soundtrack of music and sound effects (like birds, crickets or waves) adds to the mood.

The exhibition is in three parts. The first consists 0f a few curved wooden bridges and some gossamer sheets hanging from the tall ceilings. It also has a series of bilingual signs explain the art. You pass through a hallway festooned with cheap mylar strips, into the main room where the actual show takes place.  

Is seeing an original canvas by Monet the same as a projection, however well-rendered and animated, in a large space? No… not even close. This isn’t art, it’s about art. It reminds me of those parks with miniature versions of the Eiffel tower and the Taj Mahal. 

What it is, though, is a pleasantly relaxing experience for those who want to appreciate Monet without the trouble of seeing his actual stuff. Interestingly, the entrance features an assortment of empty wooden canvas frames, to remind us, I suppose, that the real art is still on museum walls. But with the pandemic on, perhaps Beyond Monet is a way to get the feeling of his work without travelling far. And the show is well- ventilated, well-spaced and with a limited number of guests at any one time. 

Respect

Dir:  Liesl Tommy

It’s 1952. 10-year-old Aretha Franklin, known as “Ree”, lives in a middle class Detroit neighbourhood. Her father (Forest Whitaker) is a firebrand baptist preacher with a huge congregation.  He is a colleague of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King, who Ree calls Uncle Martin. He holds Saturday night get-togethers where little Ree is the featured performer in a musical household. Still a child, she has the voice of a full-grown woman, and performs be-bop and scat singing, not just gospel. Her father intends to make her a star. By the late 50s he gets Aretha (Jennifer Hudson) signed with John Hammond at Columbia Records where she records old jazz standards with a full orchestra. But without any hits. 

Then everything changes in the late 60s when she is taken under the wing of producer Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, the man who coined the term Rhythm and Blues. He introduces her to the back-up players at Muscle Shoals, men who know how to feel the music. Aretha brings in her sisters as back up singers, and the rest is history. She becomes the queen of soul and her songs internationally famous. 

This music biopic follows her career over a 20 year period, from 1952 to 1972. And it’s not a smooth and steady ride. It’s called Respect partly because of her hit single but also to point out the lack of it she experiences from both her domineering father and her tempestuous relationship with the often violent and manipulative Ted (Marlon Wayans) her sometime husband and manager. It also exposes the harsh underbelly of her stable, middle-class life. She is raped at an early age (this is implied not shown) and gives birth to a number of sons while still in her teens (her grandma takes care of them.) Her father says she has “demons” inside, but maybe it’s just her trying to break free, whether through her music or alcoholism, from the relentless disrespect and physical and mental abuse she suffers for much of her young life.  

Respect is part performance, part melodrama, alternating between a near constant flow of music interspersed with re-enactments with her family, business, and love life. We see her ups and downs (mainly her downs), along with many — maybe too many — fights, tantrums and meltdowns. Biopics have two choices: either hire great actors with mediocre or dubbed voices, or great singers. Hudson is the latter. She has a fantastic voice, featured here in so many genres — gospel, jazz, soul and pop — which holds the movie together. The melodramatic scenes are a mixed bag, some very moving, others cringe-worthy. Whitaker is really good as CL Frankin, and Hudson is in nearly every scene.  While Respect is not a great movie, I greatly enjoyed watching it.

Look for Swan Song on VOD and digital formats.  Respect opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend — check your local listings. And Beyond Monet is exclusively showing at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre now.

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 Tracey Deer about Beans

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

It’s the summer of 1990.

Tekehentahkhwa or “Beans” for short (Kiawentiio) is a typical, innocent 12-year-old girl who lives near Montréal with her Dad, her ambitious mom, and her little sister. Her biggest worry is getting into a posh private school to guarantee a successful future. But her life is totally changed when the town of Oka tries to grab Mohawk burial grounds to expand a golf course. Protests erupt and her family, being Mohawk, joins in. But when it turns into a blockade and a stand off involving police and the military, it reveals acts of violence and virulent racism she has never witnessed before. Now she has to make a decision: should she toughen up like her dad? Or keep to the straight and narrow like her mom? And how will she emerge from these life-shattering events?

Beans is a fantastic new drama – told from an indigenous point of view – that combines the historical record with a highly personal and intimate coming-of-age story. Since it premiered at TIFF last fall, it has garnered dozens of awards for filmmaker, Tracey Deer who has created a work of personal and national importance.

I spoke with Tracey Deer via Zoom.

Beans is now playing in Toronto and all across Canada, from Victoria to Halifax.  

Pigs. Films reviewed: Alice, Gunda, Pig

Posted in Animals, documentary, Drama, Feminism, Food, France, Russia, Sex Trade, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 17, 2021

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

Pigs.

In ancient Greece they were considered monsters — Theseus defeats a sow that terrorizes a village. They’re banned by various religions, and considered unclean and selfish. But did you know people keep pigs as pets, and some say they’re more intelligent than dogs?They’re more than just bacon for your eggs, they’re an important part of our culture — think Animal Farm, Miss Piggy, Spirited Away, Charlotte’s Web, and Babe, to name just a few.

So this week, I’m looking at three new movies about pigs, from Russia, the US and France. There’s life as  a pig on a bucolic farm in Europe; a truffle pig  kidnapped in Oregon; and a happily married woman in Paris… who discovers her husband is a pig. 

Alice

Wri/Dir: Josephine Mackerras

Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier) lives the prefect life in Paris. She has a good job, a loving husband François, a writer, (Martin Swabey) and together they own a very nice apartment — she put all her money into the mortgage. Together they are raising their three-year old son Jules. Until one day, out  of the blue, all her credit cards are rejected her bank account is empty, her insurance is cancelled, her husband is nowhere to be seen. What’s going on? Turns out François has been withdrawing money from their join account for more than a year and stopped paying bills. The bank manager says he’s been warning them for six months to make payments or lose their home. But what about me, asks Alice That’s my money in the flat — why didn’t you contact me?

After a bit of sleuthing Alice discovers François spent it all at a high-priced escort service. And when she visits the place undercover, to find out more… she’s offered a job there. And it may be the only way she can come up with the 7,000 euros needed to save her home.  

Alice is a great, unexpected drama about a young woman entering the sex trade, how she takes care of her young son, and the friendship she develops with another escort from New Zealand named Lisa (Chloe Boreham).  It’s funny, quirky and quite moving, including some hilariously awkward encounters with clients. Unusual for movies about sex workers and “fallen woman” this one is about the sense of empowerment Alice gains from her new line of work. The dangers she faces are not from the job itself but from a disapproving, moralistic public and possibly François, who reappears, tail between his legs asking for forgiveness. 

Piponnier is excellent as Alice as she changes from a naive and nervous mom to a woman who sticks up for herself. And Swabey is also great as the self-centred, needy François. 

I like this movie a lot.

Gunda

Co-WriDir: Viktor Kosakovskiy

What’s it like to live as a pig? This black and white documentary follows seven piglets and their mom over the course of their lives, from birth until the end. Squirming in the hay, fighting for their turn at the sow’s nipples, or playing in the fields. The enormous mom takes care of all of them, herding them from place to place with nudges from her snout. We also encounter cows, lying down for a rest, or standing side by side, in sort of a 69, using their tails to whisk flies of each other’s faces. And some majestic chickens jauntily walking around outside of their coop.

This is not an exposé of factory farming; instead it shows the contrast of life in traditional farms and animal sanctuaries. Humans don’t appear on camera, but they react to the camera’s presence staring right at you the viewer. Gunda is 90 minutes long, and not much happens. But it’s not boring… more relaxing than anything else. It’s shot in gorgeous black and white and you can really feel the animals’ emotions. I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, but it did make me think about where my food really comes from. So if you want to lean back and watch life on a farm, Gunda is for you. 

Pig

Co-Wri/Dir:Michael Sarnoski

Rob (Nicholas Cage) is a hermit who lives in a cabin deep in the Oregon woods along with a furry pig. He’s  totally off the grid: no phone, electricity, or running water. He washes and drinks fro a nearby stream, and cooks with a wood-burning stove. And he listens to old cassette tapes on his battery operated boom box. The truffles the pig digs up  provides him enough money to survive. He sells them to Amir (Alex Wolff), a young hot shot who pays cash. Amir is a truffle broker from Portland with an un-ironic moustache who drives to the cabin in a yellow sports car. But Rob’s world is turned upside down when someone knocks him out in the middle of the night, and steals his pig. He orders Amir to drive him into Portland too find the pig-napper. No pig = no truffles, and the end of Amir’s only source. But he has a reputation to uphold. How can he drive to  Portland’s most exclusive restaurants with this filthy, monosyllabic hobo in rags, his face half covered with dried blood, a man who can barely take care of himself?

But it soon becomes clear that this hermit was once well known in the Portland restaurant scene. So famous that the mere mention of his name will open all doors. Who is this mysterious man? Why did he disappear? Who stole his pig?  And how can he get her back again?

Pig is a wonderfully dark, picaresque journey through hidden Portland. It takes you from a secret fight club to wine cellar hidden in a cemetery, to a power-broker’s mansion. It’s told in three chapters, each with a cryptic title referring to a particular dish. Pig is a film about foodies, but it’s not food porn — it rarely dwells on cooking and eating. Nicholas Cage is terrific as this brooding man with deep thoughts who takes every punch but always gets up again, hiding a deeper pain somewhere inside. He always looks like about to explode in violence. And I’ll watch Alex Wolff in anything he does, I’ve never seen a bad performance from him. Pig is intense, surprising and all-around great. 

I recommend this movie.

Alice will be available VOD on Tuesday; Gunda is now playing digitally and on VOD;  and you can see Pig in theatres nationwide (though not yet 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 Kourtney Jackson, Max Shoham and Ella Morton about their films at FOFS

Posted in 1940s, Animation, Beauty, Black, Canada, Indigenous, Inuit, Movies, Trans, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on July 10, 2021

What do the following three stories have in common? An Inuk recalling her history, language and culture amidst the ice floes of Nunavut; three diverse black women in Toronto sharing the unique hair problems they faced during the pandemic; and a young, Jewish-Romanian couple meeting aboard a ship burgeoning with refugees adrift at sea during WWII. These stories are all films featured in The Future Of Film Showcase — or FOFS. In its eighth year, FOFS has selected 11 new short films made by Canadians under 40. 

Kourtney Jackson is a Toronto-based experimental filmmaker whose hybridized, storytelling transcends the physical body. Her film Wash Day looks at three black women talking about  bodies, hair, skin, beauty and self-love as they each cleanse themselves in a shower.

Max Shoham, an award-winning, prolific maker of animated short films in diverse genres, has been obsessed with movies since Grade 3.  Sophie and Jacob is an animated retelling of Max’s own grandparents’ story about how they met aboard a ship. 

Ella Morton is an artist whose still and moving images incorporating obsolete techniques have taken her across Canada and through Scandinavia. Her film Kajanaqtuq combines manipulated analog formats along with recordings of an Inuk’s recollections of her life so far in Nunavut.

I spoke with Ella, Max and Kourtney via Zoom.

You can watch all films playing at FOFS on CBC Gem for free until July 22nd.

Japanese women. Films reviewed: Wife of a Spy, Mio’s Cookbook, The Brightest Roof in the Universe

Posted in 1800s, 1940s, Cooking, Drama, Espionage, Family, Fantasy, Feminism, Friendship, Japan, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on June 11, 2021

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

Toronto’s spring Film festival season continues. Toronto Jewish Film Festival finishes this weekend, with two great French films, Summer of 85 a gay mystery romance set in the 80s and directed by Francois Ozon; and The Specials, a crowd pleaser by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, best known for the hugely popular Intouchable. It’s about a makeshift social services centre in Paris for hard-to-handle kids with autism. 

But this week, I’m talking about another TJFF, the Toronto Japanese Film Festival. This one is also digital, but each film plays for the duration of the festival, until June 27th. And as always, it’s deftly programmed, with movies ranging from samurai to Yakuza to family dramas, romance, comedies, action, anime, and even some movies adapted from manga.

This week, I’m looking at three new Japanese features told from a female point of view. There’s a  cook trying to capture the flavours of her childhood,  a high school girl who seeks answers on top of a roof, and a wife who can’t decide whether her husband is an adulterer… or a spy.

Wife of a Spy

Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

It’s the 1940s in Kobe Japan where Satoku and and Yusaku are a happily married couple. Satoku (Aoi Yu) is a movie actress and Yusaku (Takahashi Issey) a rich businessman who owns an import-export corporation. Japan is at war, but they continue live a western-style life of peaceful luxury. But everything changes when Yusaku and their nephew Fumio return from a business trip in. Manchuria. a Japanese puppet state in Northeastern China. There they witnessed unspeakable atrocities and war crimes committed by the notorious Kwantung Army (aka Kantogun), an elite branch of the Japanese military. And they brought a young Japanese woman back with them.

Satoku sees only the young woman and knows nothing of the war crimes — is her husband cheating on her?. Meanwhile, a childhood friend named Taiji relocates to Kobe. She remembers him as a kind young man. But now he’s a member of the dreaded Kempeitai, the Japanese Gestapo. He criticizes her for wearing dresses instead of kimonos and for drinking foreign whiskey not Japanese. He’s also secretly in love with her. And he suspects Fumio and possibly even Yusaku, are traitors spreading Japanese war secrets to the enemy. Or is he just trying to break up their marriage?

But when she discovers the truth about the horrors of war, she confronts her husband — does he have proof? Eventually she has to decide whether to become a spy herself or turn in her husband to the police. 

Wife of a Spy is great WWII thriller, full of jealousy, intrigue and numerous unexpected plot twists. Japan is not like Germany where filmmakers have produced hundreds or thousands of movies about their dark past. Rarely do you see Japanese films like this one. This movie is made for TV so everything is on a smaller scale with a more compact feel than a theatrical film, but under the direction of Kurosawa Kiyoshi and with its really good acting and script, (along with costumes, sets and music), it keeps the suspense building till the very end. 

Great movie.

Mio’s Cookbook

Dir: Haruki Kadokawa

It’s 1801. Mio and Noe are two 12 year-old girls in Osaka. They vow to be best friends forever. One day they encounter a fortune teller who says Noe is destined for great success, while Mio will have to pass through dark clouds before she reaches blue skies. The same night a huge flood sweeps away both their houses. Mio is an orphan adopted by a woman, and Noe completely disappears. Fast forward ten years.

Now Mio (Matsumoto Honoka) lives in Edo (Tokyo) and works as a cook in a small restaurant. But her love of the sweeter, subtler flavours of Osaka that she’s used to are not popular in her customers in Edo who prefer stronger, saltier tastes. So after much experimentation and hard work she comes up with a perfect blending of the two cuisines. She creates the perfect chawan-mushi egg custard, and her fickle customers love it. Soon, there are lineups around the block. Word reaches Yoshiwara, the red light district, where a mysterious courtesan who never shows her face in public and is known only as Asahi (played by Nao), sends an emissary to bring one back for her to taste. Meanwhile two men are also interested in her cooking: an aristocrat (Kubozuka Yusuke) and a doctor who frequents both the restaurant and the Yoshiwara district. But evil forces — in the form of competing restaurant owners — are working against her. They steal her recipes, send bullies to scare away customers and even set fire to her workplace. Can a woman become a famous chef in Edo? Will Mio ever find her childhood friend? And will she find love in the confines of her restaurant?

Mio’s Cookbook is a lovely drama about friendship, cooking, class, religion, sex work, and the floating world of the pleasure district. It’s full of fascinating details about Japanese cuisine — each new dish she creates is displayed and labeled for you to see — and tons of period touches about life 200 years ago. It’s directed by Kadokawa Haruki, the notorious former movie producer, once heir to the Kadokawa publishing empire but who fell from grace in a cocaine scandal in the 1990s. A Japanese Spielberg, he knows how to craft a complex plot with many characters by pressing all the right buttons to keep the crowd wanting more. This is an enjoyable film that left me feeling… well, very hungry afterwards.

The Brightest Roof in the Universe

Dir: Fujii Michihito

Tsubame (Kiyohara Kaya) is a high school girl in a town somewhere in Japan. She has a crush on her next door neighbour Toru (Ito Kentaro) a banjo-playing dude who thinks of her more as a younger sister. She recently split up with her boyfriend after he posted cruel anonymous texts about her on everybody’s cel. And at home, her parents (her dad and step-mom) are preparing for a new baby. But will it take her place in the family? Tsubame has lots to worry about, which she does on the roof of a building where she takes Japanese calligraphy classes. Until one day she realizes she’s not alone up on that roof. There’s a tough-as-nails old lady up there, too, who rides around on a kids’ scooter.

This strange granny is outspoken and opinionated and makes Tsubame feel uncomfortable. There’s something about her she just doesn’t get. But eventually they become friend and confidants. Turns out Hoshi-ba (Momoi Kaori)  — meaning granny from the stars — has special powers. She says she can fly and can solve almost any problem.  In exchange for Hoshi-ba’s favours, Tsubame starts doing things for her — like finding her long-lost grandson who lives somewhere amidst all the rooftops in the town. Is Hoshi-ba real or imaginary? And can she fulfil Hoshi-ba’s wish?

The Brightest Roof in the Universe is a sweet and absorbing coming of age story that touches on family, friendship and love.  It also deals with more obscure topics like ink brush painting, jellyfish and astronomy It’s slow paced but not boring, and told in a series of revelatory chapters, some of which are total surprises.

It’s also a sentimental tear-jerker, but in a nice way. I like this movie, too.

Wife of a Spy, The Brightest Roof in the Universe, and Mio’s Cookbook are all playing, now through June 27th at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Yung Chang about Wuhan, Wuhan

Posted in Canada, China, Depression, Disaster, documentary, Family, Realism, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 14, 2021

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

Photo by Jeff Harris.

It’s February and the city is under a lockdown. The streets are deserted for all but essential workers. New, makeshift hospitals and quarantines are popping up to deal with the thousands of infected patients… and the death toll is frightening. The government has instituted harsh restrictions to stop the corona virus, and people forced to stay at home are volunteering just to have something to do. Is this Toronto? LA? Or New Delhi? No, it’s February, 2020 and the city is Wuhan.

Wuhan Wuhan is a new documentary that takes you onto the scene of the first-known pandemic of COVID-19. It’s upbeat, real and very moving. It talks to doctors, patients and ordinary people showing first hand how they handle the early stages of this previously unknown virus. It’s the latest film by award-winning Canadian documentarian Yung Chang, known for Up the Yangtze, China Heavyweight and many others. Wuhan Wuhan premiered at Hot Docs, Canada’s International Documentary Festival.  I interviewed him in 2012 about The Fruit Hunters and in 2013 about This Is Not a Movie.

I spoke to Yung Chang in Toronto via Zoom.

Wuhan Wuhan premiered at #Hot Docs21.

Implanted ideas. Films reviewed: Held, Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide, Moffie

Posted in 1980s, Art, Cold War, Coming of Age, Drama, Gay, H.I.V., Horror, New York City, Psychological Thriller, South Africa, Suspicion, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 9, 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 doc, a war drama and a thriller horror — about ideas implanted into our minds. There’s an eighties artist digging up TV images from the sixties; a soldier in eighties South Africa with Cold War racism and homophobia drilled into his head; and a married couple forced to re-enact outdated sexual roles by the orders of a device… drilled into their skulls.

Held
Dir: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing

Emma and Henry (Jill Awbrey and Bart Johnson) are a married couple, both professionals. They plan to meet at a remote luxury resort in order to bring the spark back into their relationship. Eight years ago they had an amazing vacation in Monterey, just the two of them; but lately, they’ve been drifting apart. Emma arrives first, driven by a vaguely suspicious-looking guy named Joe (Rez Kempton). Why does he ask so many personal questions? She’s relieved to see the house is protected by a large wall. She checks out the digs — it’s a minimalist wonder, all glass and white walls, and incredibly safe from intruders. There are alarms and code systems everywhere, a modern kitchen, and a lovely orchard just outside. And Henry left her some flowers on the doorstep — red roses… how romantic!

When Henry arrives, they share a toast over glasses of whiskey. But then things get weird. They both start to feel dizzy — are there roofies in their drinks? They wake up the next morning in a daze. Their cel phones are gone. Emma is dressed in an old-school negligee. Did someone do this to her in her sleep? And the roses? Henry says they weren’t from him. Their clothes have all disappeared, replaced by 6os-style dresses for her and suits for him, and large TV screens that play old-school songs urging them to dance a foxtrot. Dance?

The doors are all locked, and a strange detached voice starts giving them orders. Obey us! If you follow our directions you will not be harmed! Mr Creepy Voice wants them to stick to traditional sexual roles — men open doors for women, who respond by thanking them. If they disobey, they get zapped by a high-power, hugely painful device that’s been implanted into their heads the night before. And now they’re expected to make love under a watchful eye. Who is this maniac and what’s his agenda? Is it Jordan Peterson? Or an incel? Why does he cling to outdated sexual norms? And will they ever escape from this bizarre house of horrors?

Held is a heart pounding , psychological thriller about a couple held hostage for no known reason. There’s a big revelation about two-thirds of the way through (no spoilers) which I predicted… but even so, it gripped me till the very end. It is quite violent and disturbing, so not for the faint of heart, but I found Held a super-twisted and scary movie, just the thing for late-night viewing.

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide
Wri/Dir:Max Basch, Malia Scharf

Kenny Scharf is born into post-war LA, the land of artificial smiles, perma-tans, non-stop TV and brightly coloured plastic. He grows up in a nuclear family amidst the prefab suburbs of the San Fernando valley. He likes art and design and has a steady hand that can draw a perfect line without a ruler. But Andy Warhol and New York City beckons and he ends up a student at SVA (the School of Visual Arts) beside Keith Haring with whom he eventually shares an apartment in Times Square. It’s the early 1980s, and together with the younger Jean-Michel Basquiat, the three start spreading their art all over the city: on subways, toasters, TV sets, and crumbing tenement walls. Kenny can’t stop putting painting on everything he sees.

Eventually people with money start to notice, and the East Village art scene explodes. Kenny Scharf’s work incorporates found art, day-glo colours, and cartoonish TV images of George Jetson, Barney Rubble and 1950s suburban housewives. These figures are vomited across canvas in a cosmic orgy of detailed mayhem, the work of spray paint and fine brush strokes. Grotesque smiles and googly-eyed faces adorn his prolific paintings and sculptures, like a Peewee’s Playhouse of fine art. The East Village art scene spills over into the world of performance, music, fashion and nightclubs, blurring the lines. Kenny is doing it all. Next comes money and fame, one-man shows and installations,…until it finally crashes and burns. Many of the artists die in the AIDS epidemic, but Kenny survives, moving back to LA with his Brazilian wife and kids and continuing his work.

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide (the title is from one of his massive paintings) is a documentary look at his life and art, from childhood to the present, presented using never-seen period footage, video, recordings and art. It’s an amazing story brought to life. To be honest, I’m always suspicious of docs on living artists — did they make this film just to raise his recognition and pump up the value of his work? Who knows?  But life as an artist is never easy. This film is co-directed by another artist, Kenny’s own daughter Malia, which lets us look into his private life and thoughts, and his never-ending outflow of colour and plastic… while steering clear of any stories of sex, drugs and debauchery. It’s her dad… what do you want?

I liked this movie.

Moffie
Wri/Dir: Oliver Hermanus

It’s 1982 in Apartheid South Africa. All white boys and men are required to serve in the army for two years starting at age 16. Nick (Kai Luke Brümmer) is still wet behind the ears and doesn’t want to go. But his mother and boorish step-father send him off with a big celebration. His father slips him a porn mag to keep him company. But Playboy centrefolds are not his thing. The train to the camp is loud and rough, filled with oafs drinking till they puke, picking fights and shouting racist abuse at any African they pass. Nick makes one friend on the way, Michael (Matthew Vey), an anglo and a nice guy to boot. At the base, they are spat on, kicked, punched and made to repeat inane slogans by an especially sadistic sergeant. All hatred is aimed toward the three enemies of the state — Africans, communists, and homosexuals. And heaven help anyone caught supporting any of them, or worse being one of them. The sleeping quarters are filled with testosterone-fuelled idiots, spouting racist nonsense but exuding a constant masculine sexuality that clouds Nick’s thoughts.

But war is war (there’s a longstanding border conflict with neighbouring Angola) and they’re expected to fight. When Nick finds himself sharing a sleeping bag in a foxhole with a friendly soldier named Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) he’s forced to reassess his sense of desire and sexuality. But will he survive this two year ordeal?

Moffie (the title is an Afrikaans anti-gay slur), is a realistic internal look at the unrelenting racism and paranoia drilled into the psyche of white South Africans’ during Apartheid. (Unspoken, but implied, is the the violence that this visited upon the non-white South African majority on a daily basis) It’s also an intensely moving story, full of lust and longing, regret and horror. Dialogue alternates between Afrikaans and English. It has stunning cinematograpy, and a great soundtrack. The acting is fantastic, with a largely unknown cast, many on screen for the first time. Moffie is a powerful war film.

I recommend this movie.

Moffie opens today on VOD on Apple TV and in the summer on IFC Films Unlimited; Held also starts today on VOD on AppleTV, iTunes and other platforms; and Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide will open next Thursday.

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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