Is reality just an illusion? Films reviewed: Petite Maman, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Stanleyville

Posted in Comics, Depression, Family, Fantasy, France, Games, Horror, Reality, Super Villains, Super-heroes, Supernatural, Time Travel by CulturalMining.com on May 7, 2022

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

Spring festival season is on now, with Hot Docs, entering its final weekend with tons of great documentaries still playing. Check it out while you still can.

But this week, I’m looking at three new movies, where reality, time and space are just illusions. There’s a magical doctor trapped in a parallel universe; a disillusioned office worker caught up in a deadly reality show; and a little girl who encounters another little girl in the woods… who is actually her own mother.

Petite Maman

Dir: Céline Sciamma

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is a little French girl who is visiting her grandmother’s house with her parents. It’s where her mother grew up. But grand-mere isn’t there anymore. She died recently in a nursing home.  Rather, they’re there to go over old possessions and letters and to spend a night there before they close it up for good. But the family is in a crisis with her parents not getting along. And Nelly’s mom (Nina Meurisse) flees the house without even saying goodbye to her. Meanwhile, Nelly explores the house and the woods behind it where she encounters another little girl named Marion (played by her twin sister, Gabrielle Sanz). They play in a fort she built in an old tree. She follows her home to a house that looks exactly like grand-mère’s… except it’s prettier, with a warm glow all about it. And there she meets grande-mère, alive again, when she was still her mother’s age. That would make Marion her mother when she is just a girl, going through another crisis of her own. Can this new understanding of her mother’s past help hold her family together?

Petite Maman is a very simple, very short story, which is at the same time, quite moving and sentimental. It’s all about memory, loss and mother-daughter relationships. Although there’s a magical, time-travel element to it, this is no Harry Potter — it doesn’t dwell on the supernatural, that’s just a matter-of-fact element of a child’s life. Petite Maman is a wonderfully understated drama — cute but not cutesy, sentimental but never treacly — that leaves you feeling warm inside.  I saw this last year at TIFF, and I put it on my best 10 movies of the year list in January, so I’m really glad it’s finally being released.

This is a tiny, perfect movie.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Dir: Sam Raimi 

Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a former medical doctor who has changed his practice from surgeon to sorcerer. He lives in an enormous mansion in New York City. He is friends with Wong (Benedict Wong) and another doctor Christine (Rachel McAdams) who is the love of his life, but also a love lost. She couldn’t stand his hubris and self-centred nature. And he is forced to confront his rival Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). But when he dabbles with the dark arts, the universe is turned into chaos and he finds himself in another universe. 

There he encounters the Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) who dreams each night of a suburban housewife named Wanda. She wants to rule the world so she can return to this lost life. But the one person with the power to transcend parallel universes is a naive young girl in sneakers and a bluejean jacket named America (Xochitl Gomez). She wants to return to her own universe so she can see her two moms again. Doctor Strange rescues her just in time and they end up hurling through dimensions and realities, before landing on a topsy-turvy New York where green means stop and red means go. Can Doctor Strange fight the witch, break the spells, and make the multiple universes all safe again? 

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the latest instalment in a seemingly endless number of movies and TV shows. While I recognized the parade of various minor superheroes and villains as they appeared in different guises, I have to say I don’t quite get it. What is the point of this movie and why should I care? It’s directed by horror great Sam Raimi, so I was expecting some chiller-thriller elements, but I wasn’t ever scared, not even a tiny bit. It’s much too tame for that. It is fun to watch: there’s a cool psychedelic sequence in the middle along with a brilliant house of mirrors and some old -school Hong Kong kung-fu mid-air battles that I liked, but in general, I found the movie not great… just good enough.

Stanleyville

Dir: Maxwell McCabe-Lokos

Maria (Susanne Wuest) is a woman who works at a pointless office job in a high-rise tower. One day she is disturbed by an omen — a noble bird flying in the sky that crashes into her office window. Though married with a teenaged daughter and a full-time career, she gives it all top in an instant. She empties her pocketbook, including money, phone and credit cards and wanders aimlessly into a shopping mall. There she encounters a geeky man with glasses, named Homunculus (Julian Richings) who tells her matter of factly, that she’s been chosen from 100s of millions of people to participate in a contest with four others. The winner gets an orange-coloured SUV (in which she has no interest), but more than that she can find her true self. In an abandoned warehouse called The Pavilion the five contestants are given tasks to complete, with one winner declared at the end of each round, recorded on a large blackboard. 

Her ridiculously-named fellow contestants are Manny Jumpcannon (Adam Brown), a fearful snivelling man in a leopard-print shirt;  Felicie Arkady (Cara Ricketts) a conniving woman who will stop at nothing for a free SUV; Bofill Pacreas (George Tchortov) a muscle-headed obsessive body-building; and Andrew Frisbee, Jr (Christian Serritiello) an insufferable corporate executive with daddy issues.  Their tasks start as simple as blowing up a balloon, but gradually become more and more difficult, some of which threaten their lives. And deprived of cel phones, their only contact with the outside world is an electrified conch shell that  Maria somehow rigged up. As the alpha-types fight each other, possibly to death, only Maria seeks to get in touch with her inner self. Will they ever leave the pavilion? Will somebody win? Or is it all just an illusion?

Stanleyville is a mystical, comedy/horror movie, with echoes of Lord of the Flies, Squid Game, and other life-or-death dystopian survival stories. But this one is intentionally absurd, quirky and ridiculous. The characters all play to stereotypes but in a humorous way. So if you’re looking for something completely different, you might enjoy Stanleyville.

I did.

Petite Maman, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, and Stanleyville all open this weekend 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

Oscar Redux. Movies reviewed: Girlhood, Duke of Burgundy, Elephant Song

Posted in Cultural Mining, Drama, Elephants, Experimental Film, France, Gangs, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on February 27, 2015
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Do you have the post-Oscar blues? Tired of the same-old, same-old? We’ve got Boyhood, but what about Girlhood? There’s Birdman, but how about an Elephant Song? And how about 50 Shades of Gray… with an all-female cast? This week I’m looking at three new movies, that provide a twist to some you’re more familiar with. I have a coming of age movie from France, an erotic art-house flick from the UK and a psychological drama from Canada.

a8b59ceb4619ab826971f3dcde96647bElephant Song
Dir: Charles Binamé

It’s a Canadian mental hospital in the 1960s. Michael (Xavier Dolan) a patient there is summoned to a therapy session. but his regular doctor isn’t there — he’s missing. In his place is a new face, a certain Dr Green (Bruce Greenwood). He’s read the files and listened to the reel to reel tapes. Now he’s there to set things straight, and has no time for Elephant Song/Melennypsychological games. But games are exactly what Michael loves.

Dr Green is a greenhorn in that office, but Michael knows every nook and cranny. He decides to take the doctor (and the movie’s audience) on a grand tour of his own life, but on his own Elephant Song/Melennyterms. And just outside the office door, always listening, is Miss Peterson, a nurse (Catherine Keener). He reveals his hidden past – he says he’s the son of a famous opera singer who toured the world as a child. Even as he uncovers hidden treasures around the office, which fit together like the missing pieces from a jigsaw puzzle. These include a stuffed animal, a box of treats, and some hidden photographs – that may be related to the doctor’s disappearance.Elephant Song/Melenny

Dr Green is convinced everything Michael says is a lie. He thinks Michael has alterior motives — possibly an escape plan to escape the high security facility. But what about the doctor’s real reason for this question/answer session? And how does Nurse Peterson fit into this puzzle?

Elephant Song is not bad at all. It’s a genuine psychological drama, a chess game between two equal players — sort of like the movie Sleuth, but shot with a soft focus lens. The acting is credible. But the whole film has a slightly clunky, wooden feel to it. It’s like a stage play still in previews that hasn’t yet found its rhythm.

WnmKlv_girlhood_03_o3_8550274_1424455177Girlhood (Bande de Filles)
Wri/Dir: Céline Sciamma

Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a 15-year-old Parisian schoolgirl. She’s shy, neat and conscientious, making sure her younger sisters are fed and put to bed… and careful not to antagonize her abusive older brother. She likes school, and is on the girls’ tackle football team. She keeps her long braids tied back and wears American Apparel jeans and hoodies. She just wants to live a normal life. But everything changes when her guidance counsellor says she’s being channeled to the vocational stream. But why? She wants her bac, she wants a chance at a better life, not cleaning RgwKrK_girlhood_02_MAIN_o3_8550228_1424455174offices like her mom.

It’s like her life is over. Mortified, she runs out of the building, but is called over by some tough girls cutting class outside the school. Lady, Adiatou and Fily (Assa Sylla, Lindsey Karamoh, Marietou Touré) are not like her. They use lots of makeup, have their hair ironed straight, dress in leather jackets, and carry switch blades. They’re a gang of three and want a fourth member to complete their crew. But she’s not like them… is she?

662xyV_girlhood_01_o3_8550183_1424455173Soon enough she’s shaking down girls for cash, going on trips into the city, away from the desolate banlieus. She goes by the name Vic now, short for Victoire. And they get into fist fights with rival girl gangs. The losers are publicly shamed by getting their clothes pulled off in from of a crowd holding up their cameras. The four friends’ rules? Stand up for yourself, don’t let boys push you around, and only do what you want to do, not what others expect of you. But how much of a future does this gang have? Will she fall into organized crime? Drugs or the sex trade?

This is a great coming-of-age story, told from the viewpoint of a young black Parisian woman living in the suburban public highrises. It’s a slice of life drama, not one with easily solved problems. But the cast – all first time actors — is incredible, and the story touching and realistic.

5309faf2-5d03-4414-981b-7e53495d63acThe Duke of Burgundy
Wri/Dir: Peter Strickland

Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a single woman who lives on an estate somewhere in Europe, surrounded by fields and trees. She has auburn hair, long eyelashes and a severe demeanor. She’s a lepidopterist, and her mansion is filled with items from her collection: thousands of butterflies and moths – including the Duke of Burgundy – all carefully pinned and mounted 81446793-1628-423e-b85d-9d11a95dfbacin glass-covered wooden cases. She’s a perfectionist. Each day she spends her time drawing precise diagrams on white charts and typing her observations using a manual Underwood typewriter. And every so often she ventures outside on her bicycle to give lectures to row after row of smart looking women in smart dresses.

f05dea49-f6b6-4dab-b557-6ff715419284Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) works for her as a maid. She’s late for work and a bit confused about her duties, but Cynthia doesn’t cut her any slack. She scolds her, and warns her to do what she’s told… or suffer the consequences!

But she’s given strange tasks for a cleaning woman, made to crawl around on her hands and knees, while scrubbing the floor. When she asks for a toilet break, Cynthia cruely says no, not until I say you can. Meanwhile she’s polishing Cynthia’s knee-high black leather boots, kneeling on the floor massaging her feet or washing her 5c01d1ab-d84c-4354-ab08-77064e39e976boss’s undergarments… by hand. Though Evelyn always wears a meek and baffled look on her face, she doesn’t seem bothered by her boss’s eccentricities. She almost seems to want to be punished.

What’s going on? And why is Cynthia guzzling glass after glass of water for some unkown future punishment? Soon we discover its all a fantasy — complete with wigs and costumes — a role-playing exercise between two lovers: dominant Cynthia and submissive Evelyn.

And these scenes, down to the tiniest detail are repeated day after day, as almost an exercise in absurdity. These episodes are alternated with love-making in the bedroom at night, discretely shot reflected in convex mirrors, faded triple exposures or shot through tiny peepholes in closed doors.

Is this a parody of 70s soft core porn? Or an homage to it? I’m not sure which, but a director like Peter Strickland would never include footage just for titillation. He’s somewhere between Quentin Tarantino and Peter Greenaway, with a distinctive 70s style. Duke of Burgundy is beautiful to watch and listen to… but it’s clearly not for everyone.

Elephant Song, the Duke of Burgandy, and Girlhood all open today in Toronto – check your local listings. And this weekend lookout for  the Canadian Screen Awards, our own Oscars.

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

%d bloggers like this: