O Canada! Films reviewed: Jump Darling, Underplayed, Death of a Ladies’ Man

Posted in Addiction, Canada, comedy, documentary, Drag, Drama, Family, Ireland, LGBT, Montreal, Music, Uncategorized, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 19, 2021

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

There are tons of great movies finally opening up this week, including Night of the Kings which I reviewed last fall, one of my favourite movies of the year, at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

This week I’m looking at three new Canadian movies ready to be seen There are female DJs who want to be noticed, a Toronto drag queen who who wants to see his grandmother, and a Montreal poet who wonders why he keeps seeing his dead father.

Jump, Darling

Wri/Dir: Phil Connell 

Russell (Thomas Duplessie) is an aspiring actor whose career is going nowhere. His only role? As Fishy Falters, a drag queen gig he landed at a Toronto gay bar called Peckers. And even that falls apart when he trips on his way to the stage in a symphony of disaster. His husband, a successful Bay Street lawyer who bankrolls his acting career, rubs salt in the wound: take some acting courses or go to. auditions, but no more drag, it embarrasses me. 

Russell takes this as an ultimatum, packs up a suitcase and heads out the door. He lands up at his grandmother’s place in Prince Edward County to borrow her car os he can drive off to unknown parts..    She greets him at the door with a scream and a knife. Margaret (Cloris Leachman) lives alone. She was once a figure skater (I was hired by the Ice Capades! she says) and a formidable bridge player, but since her husband died she’s been frail, forgetful and depressed.  Russel’s mom (Linda Kash) wants to send her off to an old-age home, but Margaret would rather die. So Russel agrees to stick around and help take care of her. Meanwhile he starts frequenting a tiny bar in town, where he thinks his drag act could catch on. Will he pull Margaret out of the dumps? And will hr return to Toronto, triumphant? 

Jump, Darling is a bittersweet family drama about a young gay man trying to express himself in the inly way he knows, and an elderly woman dealing with old age and loss. (The title Jump Darling refers to her husband’s suicide) This is a first time feature both for the director and Thomas Duplessie as Russell, and they pull it off quite nicely. The characters are three-dimensional not cookie-cutter. Of course it helps having the late, great Cloris Leachman in her final role, and Linda Kash who ties the two sides firmly together. This is a good movie. 

Underplayed

Dir: Stacey Lee

The music business is vast and diverse, but not equitable. Did you know that of Billboard’s top 100 DJs, only 7 are women? Same holds true in the electronic music sector, even fewer studio producers are women. And only a tiny fraction of these are women of colour. Why are there so few and why don’t we ever hear about them? This documentary looks at the industry and its history, and follows a handful of female DJs, electronic musicians and producers as they play their music in clubs, concerts and festivals over the course one summer. 

Many trailblazers in electronica — from Wendy Carlos to Daphne Oram — were women, but names like Moog dominate the collective memory. And in the electronic DJ world, at raves and festivals, women find it nearly impossible to get their proverbial feet in the door. The filmmakers talk to stars like Tokimonsta, musician Alison Wonderland, Toronto-based superstar Rezz, and newcomers like Tygapaw out of Brooklyn. The documentary shows both their professional lives — at concerts and in studios — and also gives them a soapbox to talk about the troubles they face on the road and in the workplace. Underplayed is an informative look at under-representation and equity in the electronic music world, with some cool digital graphics and great beats playing in the background. 

Death of a Ladies’ Man

Wri/Dir: Matthew Bissonnette

Samuel O’Shea (Gabriel Byrne) is a Canadian poetry prof at McGill and a notorious philanderer. He sees his ex-wife Geneviève (Suzanne Clément) at Thanksgiving and Christmas along with his adult children. Josée (Karelle Tremblay) is a foul-mouthed artist who hangs out with a junkie, and his son Layton (Antoine Olivier Pilon) is a brawler for a minor league hockey team who is also gay. He meets them each once a week for lunch. But his life is falling apart. He drinks heavily and his creative output — he’s a writer — is zero. And when he catches his second wife in bed with another man, he is deeply offended — How dare she… he’s the adulterer, not her! But that’s not all.

His father (Brian Gleeson) is frequently visiting him at home. Problem is, he died in Ireland decades ago when Samuel was just a boy. Other hallucinations come and go: a female bodybuilder with a tiger’s head, and the grim reaper himself. Is he going crazy? Turns out Samuel has an inoperable tumour pressing on his brain. So he decides to turn his life around. He packs up and heads to Ireland, to write his novel. There he meets Charlotte (Jessica Paré) a Quebecoise former model who works in a corner.  Is third time the charm? Will he beat his tumour? Will he ever stop boozing? And will he reconcile with the ones he loves?

Death of a Ladies Man, is a densely-packed, mood-heavy saga about an Irish-Canadian man in his sixties dealing with his life.  Although it’s set in present day Montreal and Ireland, the movie has a very nostalgic feel, and it’s brimming with Canadiana.. The title comes from a Leonard Cohen song, whose music appears throughout the film.  Samuel feels like equal parts Duddy Kravitz and Ginger Coffey, a Montreal everyman… all grown up. His son is named Layton (Irving Layton was Leonard Cohen’s poetry mentor.) When he leaves Canada the soundtrack instantly switches to Un Canadien Errant. He hallucinates figure-skating hockey players and fur trappers… Could he possibly be any more Canadian?

The movie — a Canadian-Irish co-production — runs into trouble with all the “meta” elements: it’s hard to tell whether you’re watching the character’s hallucinations, the plot of the book he’s writing, or the writer-director’s own fantasies. Everything centres on Samuel, and though Gabriel Byrne (who is great) is surrounded by some of Quebec’s best actors, they’re all only background figures. 

Does it work? I think it does — it’s delightful to watch, wonderfully photographed and redolent with great Canadian music — just don’t mistake art for reality.

Underplayed and Jump, Darling are now playing, and Death of a Ladies’ Man opens today.

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

International Women’s Day! Films reviewed: True Mothers, The World to Come, My Salinger Year

Posted in 1800s, 1990s, Adoption, Family, J.D. Salinger, Japan, LGBT, New York City, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 5, 2021

Monday is International Women’s Day, so this week I’m looking at three new movies that celebrate women. There’s a woman who encounters her adopted son’s birth mother; an aspiring writer in 1990s Manhattan; and two women in 19th century, upstate New York. 

True Mothers

Wri/Dir: Naomi Kawase

Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) is a married professional woman in Western Japan. She and her husband enjoy their kids-free lifestyle — fine dining, travel, and a high-rise luxury condo. But they long for a family of their own, and so far, it isn’t working., despite various medical interventions. Then one day on a talk show they see a woman telling about her organization. It’s called Baby Baton because the infant is passed on like a baton from the birth mother to its new parents. Adoptees have to pass rigorous requirements, including that one parent must quit their job and become a full-time house parent. Unsurprisingly, Satoko takes that role. And they bring home the newborn baby of a 14-year-old junior high girl named Hikari (Aju Makita). That was five years ago. Now they are devoted to their adorable adopted son, Asato. But their world is turned upside down by a knock on the door by a woman who claims to be the boy’s mother. And, she says, she wants him back.

True Mothers is a touching intimate story of two women’s lives. The movie is divided in half, The first part is all about Satoko and her husband and son, the trials and tribulations of raising a child. The second half is about Hikari the birth mother, and her life since giving up the baby. It explores her time on a misty remote island off Hiroshima (at the Baby Baton headquarters), where she spends the final months of her pregnancy, but also the dark turn her life takes afterwards. Naomi Kawase is one of very few female directors in Japan, and as in all her movies, the story is gently told but full of pathos. Well-acted and very moving with lovely cinematography, True Mothers pulls no punches when dealing with the reality of fertility, unplanned pregnancy, and the other side of adoption. 

Very nice movie.

The World to Come

Dir: Mona Fastvold

It’s the 1850s in rural upstate New York. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is a morose young woman with a stern demeanour and long black hair. She lives in a farmhouse with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck). They have a flock of sheep, chickens and milk cows. They used to have a little daughter, the light of their lives, but she died before she was five. Since then, it’s been a loveless marriage and the two barely speak to each other, just coasting through life without a purpose. Dyer records financial records in his ledger, while Abigail writes her thoughts and observations in a black-bound diary. But everything changes when they meet their new neighbours who rent a farm over the hill. Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) has ginger hair and fiery eyes, and she swooshes past in elegant gowns. Her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) has a dark side carrying bitter grudged just waiting to explode. Abigail and Tallie become instant friends, sharing thoughts, sharp observations, secrets. Their husbands notice the change — why are they smiling? Why are they so happy? Could these two friends like each other more than their husbands? 

The World to Come is a passionate and poetic romance, about two women who find love along the harsh frontier. It’s narrated by Abigail’s diary entries and love letters from Jan to July of the same year, and the story is told in a literary style, like the turning pages of a book. But it’s not all talk, it’s a beautifully shot movie full of burnished wood, wrought iron, fireplaces, cotton dresses and candlelight. It’s filmed on location, with harsh winter blizzards and beautiful spring days. And while not explicit, there are sensuous scenes of Abigail and Tallie kissing furtively in dark doorways, or sneaking off into the woods. Very famous cast: Vanessa Kirby plays Princes Margaret in The Crown, and Katherine Waterston is in Fantastic Beasts and Inherent Vice. And the husbands, Christopher Abbot and Casey Affleck, are very well known, as well. While I wasn’t deeply moved by this movie, I did care about what happens to the characters, and the film itself is visually very nice to look at.

My Salinger Year

Wri/Dir: Phillippe Falardeau (Based on the Memoir by Joanna Rackoff) 

It’s the 1990s in Manhattan. Joanna (Margaret Qualley) is a young grad student and aspiring poet, who is visiting the city to experience literary New York. She has a boyfriend back in Berkeley, but in the meantime she’s camping out in her best friend Jenny’s cramped Village apartment. Her “room” is a tiny space in the corner separated by a folding paper screen. And she lands a plumb job; not as a a writer or working for a publisher, but in the office of a venerable agency. The company is headed by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) who looks like a stately Susan Sontag. Margaret’s biggest client is JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, whom she calls Jerry. He hasn’t published anything since the ’60s, but he’s still wildly popular. As Margaret’s assistant, Joanna’s main job is dealing with the bags of fan mail delivered each day. Salinger is a recluse, and never sees any mail — they shred each letter, but not before reading it, and sending out a hand-typed — we’re talking typewriters here, no computers allowed in the office — form letter, saying thank try for your kind letter, unfortunately JD Salinger won’t see it. 

Meanwhile Joanna is luxuriating in the literary life: having lunch at the Waldorf, rubbing shoulders with famous authors (though never Salinger). She goes to poetry readings at the right cafes and moves in with her handsome new boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth), a working-calls writer who’s also a bit of a dick. Will Joanna stay on in Manhattan or return to California? Can she forge a career as a literary agent? And will she ever meet Salinger?

My Salinger Year is a true memoir based on the writer’s own early career. It’s delightful to watch —who would have guessed we could feel nostalgic for the 90s? She experiences the city, wandering into places like the New Yorker magazine’s offices. And it’s full of wonderful vignettes about the quirky people she meets in her office (played by Colm Feore, and others.) It also shows us the writers of the fan mail, each of whom addresses the audience directly, reciting the texts of their letters. The film is made by Quebec director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and is shot around Montreal. As always, his movies are full of warm, funny characters and lots of  detail; he doesn’t gloss over what’s going on. Falardeau also has some weird trademarks — characters break into music videos or start dancing — which I don’t quite get, but luckily it doesn’t detract from the story. You can tell Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley loved making this movie, and if you’re into writing or reading books, or the whole literary milieu, you’ll enjoy it, too. 

True Mothers, The World to Come, and My Salinger Year are all playing today on VOD or streaming sites.

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

Family Crises. Films reviewed: Our Friend, Phobic, Falling

Posted in 1960s, 2000s, Disease, Drama, Family, Friendship, Horror, LGBT, Mental Illness, Mystery, Police, Psychological Thriller by CulturalMining.com on January 29, 2021

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

It may be cold, but February is offering some film festivals to enjoy in your own warm homes. TBFF Toronto Black Film Festival is coming mid-month, showing unique and dynamic black voices in Canada. JFF Plus is showing Japanese features shorts and anime, all free beginning in a week. And Hot Docs is running its annual Podcast Festival right now. But this week I’m looking at three new movies that explore family troubles. There’s a police detective chasing a serial killer; a journalist taking care of his dying wife; and an airline pilot dealing with his father’s dementia.

Our Friend

Dir: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

(Based on an article in Esquire by Matthew Teague)

It’s the early 2000s. Matt (Casey Affleck) is a print journalist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He’s married to Nicole (Dakota Johnson) a stage actress starring in musicals. They have two  young kids. Matt’s career is taking off, and while he’s a foreign correspondent covering wars in Pakistan and the middle east, Nicole has stayed home to care of the kids. But both their lives are disrupted by shocking news: she has cancer. They soon find the two of them can’t handle the triple threat of job, kids and cancer, never mind their own relationship. So they call for help from a good friend. Dane (Jason Segal) is an actor and a comic who has known them with for ages. His relationship is shaky and so is his job status. So he agrees to bunk at their home and help ease the burden. He soon becomes a part of the family, a second mom and dad to the kids, and a comfort to Matt and Nicole dealing with the pains of illness and the threat of death.

Our Friend is a dramatization of Matthew Teague’s personal memoir of a decade living with his wife’s cancer with the help of their friend. It’s told in flashbacks explicitly dated by the number of years before or after Nicole Teague’s diagnosis. As such, it holds very few surprises. Even when she’s healthy we all know that in a year a two she’s going to get sick and eventually die. Almost preordained. So there’s a melancholy inevitability to the story, as we’re walked through anger, denial, and stages of diagnosis, chemo, remission,  metastasis, psychosis, palliative care and finally death. This is a sentimental and sad movie told in a clean, palatable way. It’s all about family relationships and friendships. Surprisingly though it’s not a tearjerker so it didn’t give me the deep emotional purge I was expecting. Apparently, the magazine article it was based on was amazingly popular, and the acting is good enough, but this movie didn’t move me.

Phobic

Wri/Dir: Bryce Clark

Riley Sanders (Jacque Gray) is a police detective in Utah. She has blonde hair a svelte body and a stern expression on her face. She’s rejoining the force after recovering from a violent incident. Her new partner is Paul (Devin Liljenquist) has a lantern jaw and soap opera looks. Is there a spark between them? They’ve never met but their fathers worked together in the past; they’re both second-generation cops. Their first case? A serial killer with a strange M.O. The victims are all found chained to a chair in a locked room. One is in a place painted red. Another with snakes writhing around his feet. What do they have in common? They were scared to death.

Turns out the victims are all patients of the same psychiatrist, a certain Dr Holden (Tiffani DiGregorio) who uses new techniques to cure “phobics” of their darkest fears. First she diagnoses them using Rorschach inkblot tests, then, through therapy and the use of a strobe light, unlocks her patients’ inner strength to conquer their irrational phobias. But she’s highly protective of her files and won’t let the detectives see them. Meanwhile, Riley has a phobia of her own, a fear of the dark. What is Dr Holden’s role in these grisly deaths? What is her connection to Riley? Are Riley and Paul a thing? And can they catch the elusive killer before the killer kills them?

Phobic is ostensibly a psychological thriller about  a serial killer that preys on the victims’ worst fears. An interesting concept. The problem is, it’s not thrilling.  It’s about as scary as an old episode of CSI. It’s too slow, clumsily directed, and badly edited. Even the props seem to be done on the cheap. The story looks promising at first but goes totally off-kilter toward the end. Sorry to say, this movie is a mess.

Falling

Wri/Dir: Viggo Mortensen

It’s the early 1960s. Willis (Sverrir Gudnason) is young man from Boonville, NY, who lives on a farm with his wife Gwen (Martha Gross). He likes hunting, horses and fishing, but not much else. On the day his son Johnny is born he says he’s sorry he brought the little stinker into this world. Fifty years later, John (Viggo Mortensen) is an airline pilot happily married to his husband Eric (Terry Chen) with their inquisitive daughter. He lives in sunny California, not far from his younger sister Sarah (Laura Linney). Willis is old now (Lance Henricksen), and Gwen is long gone, so his adult children are trying to find him a place near them to live out his final years. The problem is he’s still the same rude, angry  and violent sonofabitch they remember from their childhood. If not worse. He’s a smoker and a drinker. He’s xenophobioc, paranoid, racist, misogynistic and homophobic. He’s rude and lecherous, ogling women and swearing at men. He says all women are whores, and calls his adult son, an airforce vet, a fairy. On top of that, he’s losing it — prone to wandering away, forgetting where he is or why he’s there. How long can John keep calm and put up with his father? And will Willis ever make peace with the world… and himself?

Falling is a drama about a father and son, set in the past and the present. It jumps back and forth through memories shared by John and Willis, as their stories, and how they ended up how they are, are gradually revealed. This is a great movie, directed and written by actor Viggo Mortensen who plays John, but it’s really about Willis. It’s a fascinating and realistic character study about this hateable, but totally watchable, man and his cringeworthy but funny behaviour and motives. It’s a character study but not  a caricature. Gudnason is great as the young Willis, but Henricksen as the old Willis fighting dementia is stupendous. It’s beautifully shot among nature at a wintry, snow covered farm, and beneath the hot pacific sun. Falling is harshly funny, cruel, constantly surprising and quite touching. This is an excellent movie.

Our Friend and Phobic are now playing, and Falling opens next Friday.

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

Travelling for love. Films reviewed: Make Up, Identifying Features, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Posted in Coming of Age, Corruption, Crime, Family, Hungary, LGBT, Mexico, Obsession, Psychology, Romance, Rural, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2021

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

They say love is true, and some people travel far and wide to keep that love alive. This week I’m looking at three new movies, directed by women in Hungary, England, and Mexico, that explore this theme. There’s a teenaged girl who moves to Cornwall to spend time with her boyfriend; an American surgeon who moves to Budapest to be reunited with her lover, and a Mexican farmer who crosses the country in search of her missing son.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Dir: Lili Horvát

Marta (Natasa Stork) is a 39-year-old, successful surgeon from New Jersey.  So what is she doing at a run-down hospital in Budapest? She moved there, spontaneously to join up with a man she met a conference. They shared a night of passion and swore to meet up again  on a bridge in Budapest at a specific time and date. (Marta is originally from Hungary but immigrated to the U.S.) But when she sees her bearded lover Janos (Viktor Bodó) he says he has ever seen her before in his life. She faints on a downtown street, where a young man named Alex (Benett Vilmányi) comes to her rescue. Marta is overcome with emotions. Is she going crazy? Was it all a dream? Or is Janos gaslighting her for some unknown reason? 

She gets a job at the hospital where Janos works to be close to him. Meanwhile Alex turns out to be a young medical student who develops an infatuation with Marta. So this turns into a three way stalk fest with Marta spying on Janos and Alex following her. Where is love? IS it real or imaginary? And can Marta come to terms with her new strange life?

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is an intriguing mystery-romance-psychological drama about passion and illusion, alienation and obsession. Marta deals with sexist colleagues and petty bureaucrats, as she  tries to navigate a culture she’s not quite familiar with. It’s filmed on the lovely streets of Budapest with a fair amount of unexpectedly strange sex (no spoilers). The movie is a bit confusing in its tone, with, rather than a huge dramatic turning point, it culminates in an oddly absurdist, anticlimactic finish. Preparations is a good movie, but probably not what you expect. 

This is Hungary’s nominee for best Foreign Language  Film Oscar.

Make Up

Dir: Claire Oakley

It’s winter in Cornwall, England. Ruth (Molly Windsor) is an 18 year old woman, staying at a deserted summer holiday park so she can spend time with her boyfriend. She’s been dating Tom (Joseph Quinn) for 3 years. But rather than a romantic getaway, she’s staying in a grey, gloomy collection of jerry-built cottages near the sea. Everything is covered in plastic sheeting. And her relation with Tom is fraught with tension and jealousy. When she finds a hair in her sheets, that clearly isn’t hers, she takes the bedding to the laundry to wash it clean. There she meets an older taller woman named Jade (Stephanie Martini). Jane makes hair pieces for a local hospital — it takes 30,000 knots to make a single wig, she says. 

Now Ruth has someone she can hang around with, talk to, and tell her secrets, none of which she’s getting from Tom. But her obsession with her boyfriend’s possible mistress drives Ruth into an unexpected situation. Can her relationship last? Or will she find a new path among the windswept sand dunes?

Make Up is an impressionistic coming-of-age story about a young woman looking for love while trapped in an almost surreal setting. It’s full of the screeching foxes, detached sexual sounds and  blurry vistas set against the banality of service jobs. Molly Windsor is really good as the bewildered Ruth. The movie itself is a straightforward drama but shot almost like an eerie ghost story. This is an excellent first feature from a young filmmaker.

Identifying Features

Dir: Fernanda Valadez

Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra) is a farmer in Guanajuato, Mexico. She’s a single mom who’s raising her teenaged son Jesus in a small farmhouse. But when he suddenly tells her he’s heading north with his best friend to take a job in Arizona, she packs his bag and says goodbye. And that’s the last she hears from him and his friend. Are they kidnapped? Lost? Or dead? She reports it to the police to no avail. His best friend is found but nothing is found of Jesus except the bag Chuya had packed.  And when a woman she meets tells her not to give up, she sets out on a journey to try to find her son, or else confirmation that he’s dead.

On the way she falls in with a young man named Miguel (David Illescas)  who was recently deported from the US. He is looking for his mom who lives in Ocampo a region plagued with crime. It’s also where Chuya thinks she can find the answers to her son’s disappearance. Will she ever find out what happened to him? And can an ordinary, kind woman survive in a society filled with greed, suspicion, and murder? 

Identifying Features is a deeply moving and gripping mystery/drama that looks at the lives of Mexicans, trapped within larger forces — el migra, organized crime, and a corrupt police force — over which they have no control. It takes you into fascinating places, rarely portrayed — like indigenous villages, hostels for migrants — that tell an unforgettable story with a shocking ending.  Stunning cinematography, and natural acting combined with compelling drama, makes for a terrific film.

Make Up just opened on VOD across North America.  Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, and Identifying Features both open today 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

Against the Grain. Films reviewed: Judy vs Capitalism, Monkey Beach, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted in 1960s, Canada, Depression, documentary, drugs, Ghosts, Indigenous, Magic, Police, Politics, Poverty, Protest, Resistance, Trial, War by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2020

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

Toronto’s Fall Film Festival Season continues with ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival, the world’s largets indigenous film festival, and Rendezvous with Madness, the first and largest arts and mental health festival in the world, both running through Sunday, the 25th.

This week I’m talking about three new movies – a doc, a drama and a courtroom pic – about people who go against the grain. There’s a young woman resisting ghosts, another woman fighting anti-abortion activists; and boomers protesting the war in Vietnam.

Judy vs Capitalism

Dir: Mike Holboom

Judy Rebick is a well-known activist and writer in Toronto. As a former Trotskyite revolutionary turned writer and TV commentator, she’s a pro-choice feminist and socialist known for slogans like “Radical is Practical”. She can be seen everywhere, from CBC panels to tent-city protests. A new documentary looking at her life divides it into six stages: Family – her dad was a baseball player quick to pick fights; Weight – she says she has a pair of hips “like two battleships”; Feminism – women’s bodies and the violence they face; Abortion – her hands-on role in legalizing reproductive rights in Canada; Others – her struggles with depression and mental health; and End Notes – her views on various political topics, like the rise of neo-liberalism, the war in Gaza, and as head of NAC, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

Did you know she single-handedly fought off a man trying to stab Dr Henry Morgantaler with a pair of garden shears? This film includes footage of that in slow motion. Each section begins with a speech – some mundane talks in lecture halls, others shouted through a bullhorn at a rally. Judy vs Capitalism is directed by artist/filmmaker Mike Holboom in his patented style: clear sound and straightforward narration, combined with avant-garde images: slow motion, high speed, underwater photography, blurred and melting visuals, random faces… basically Holboom’s interpretations of Rebick’s moods, memories, thoughts and ideas rather than the typical clips you might expect in a conventional biography.  Judy vs Capitalism is an experimental look at a Canadian icon.

Monkey Beach

Dir: Loretta Todd (Based on the novel by Eden Robinson)

Lisa (Grace Dove) is a young woman who lives in East Vancouver. She’s been there for the past two years with nothing to show for it but a bad hangover. Till her friend Tab tells her it’s time to go home, back to her family in the Haisla community in Kitimat. So she does. Her family is shocked but delighted to to see her – they weren’t even sure she was still alive. There’s her mom and dad, her little brother Jimmy (Joel Oulette) a swimming champ, and her Uncle Mick (Adam Beach) who told her at an early age to say “f*ck the oppressors!” Then there’s her grandma Ma-Ma-Oo (Tina Lameman) who taught Lisa everything she knows… including things she doesn’t want to know. Like why a little man with red hair keeps appearing. A crow talks to her, and ghosts (people who should be dead) appear to her in real, human form. (Tab, for example, was murdered but she’s still around.) Worst of all are the dreams and premonitions she keeps having – that her brother Jimmy, the swimmer – is going to drown. Are her powers a gift or a curse? Can she ever live normally? And can she keep Jimmy out of the water?

Monkey Beach is a good YA drama filmed in the gorgeous forests and waters of Kitimat in the pacific northwest, with a uniformly good indigenous cast. It incorporates traditional Haisla culture and practices with contemporary, realistic social problems, sprinkled with the supernatural. And it flashes back and forth between the present day and Lisa’s childhood. I like this movie but I can’t help but compare it to the CBC TV series Trickster, which is edgier, faster-moving and more complex. They’re both based on Eden Robinson’s novels – Monkey Beach was her first, showing many of the themes later explored in Son of a Trickster. That said, if you’re a fan of Trickster, you’ll want to see Monkey Beach, too.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Wri/Dir: Aaron Sorkin

It’s the summer of ‘68 in the USA, and the youth are restless. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had just been killed, with demonstrations springing up across the country. The US is embroiled in an increasingly senseless war in Vietnam and it’s an election year. So droves of young people converge on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, to have their voices heard. The protests are brutally crushed by police and state troopers. Nixon is elected in November, and the protest leaders, known as the Chicago 7, are arrested and put on trial. The defendants are from the SDS – Students for a Democratic Society, a radical group that sprung out of the labour movement – led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the Yippies, founded by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin who use performance and pranks to forward their agenda; anti-war activist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch);  and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) co-founder of the Black Panther Party, known both for its militant image and progressive social programs. The charge? Conspiracy, even though these group leaders had never met one other.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is two-hour film that manages to condense hundreds of days of testimony into a few key scenes. This includes a shocking re-enactment of the binding and gagging of Bobby Seale in the courtroom. The script’s pace is fast, the production values excellent, and the acting is superb, especially Baron-Cohen in an unusual funny-serious role, Mark Rylance as their lawyer, William Kunstler, Frank Langella as the unjust judge Julius Hoffman, and Lynch as the veteran pacifist. Women are invisible in this film, except as receptionists, wives-of and one undercover FBI agent. I was glued to the screen the entire time. Still, it leaves me with an uneasy feeling Aaron Sorkin has done some subtle, historic slight of hand. He portrays the anti-war movement as mainly about honouring and saving the lives of American soldiers, not Vietnamese civilians. It buries the aims of the defendants beneath petty squabbles. And somehow he takes a protest aimed squarely at Democratic politicians — the hawks and conservative Democrats in a city and state run by that party — into a Democrats vs Republican division…!

Hmm…

Judy vs Capitalism is at Rendezvous with Madness; Monkey Beach is at ImagineNative, both through Sunday; and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now streaming on Netflix.

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

Lost Boys. Films reviewed: Stage Mother, Summerland

Posted in 1940s, Adoption, Canada, comedy, Gay, Lesbian, LGBT, Music, Romance, UK, WWII by CulturalMining.com on August 21, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at two new movies – a comedy and an historical drama. There’s a Texas mom who inherits a San Francisco drag bar from her late son; and a reclusive Englishwoman during WWII dragged out of isolation to care for someone else’s son.

Stage Mother

Dir: Thom Fitzgerald (Cloudburst)

It’s a conservative small town in Texas. Maybelline (Jacki Weaver: Animal Kingdom) is a woman in her 70s who lives with her husband Jeb, a good ol’ boy. She spends most of her time as the choirmaster at a local Baptist church, or sharing gossip with her sister Babette. One day, her quiet life is disrupted by a phone call from San Francisco. Their adult son Ricky is dead. So she hops on a plane to attend the funeral and sort out his affairs. They’ve been estranged for many years but she’s still the next of kin. But when she visits his apartment an angry man named Nathan (Adrian Grenier: Entourage) slams the door in her face. And the funeral service itself is full of salacious double-entendres and drag queens vamping on the church stage. What’s going on?

Luckily, she meets Sienna (Lucy Liu: Kill Bill) a bleach-blonde single mom with a cute little baby who was Ricky’s friend (the baby was named after him) She explains it all to Maybelline: Ricky was not just gay, but also a drag performer who owned a bar in the Castro district called Pandora’s Box. Nathan was his lover, and the club’s manager, but since they weren’t married he’s left high and dry. Hence his anger and bitterness. So she visits the club to see what’s what. It’s a sad, depressing place with few patrons. And the lipsynch act is tired. She decides to turn the business around as a tribute to her late son.

She’s used to dealing with divas and wigs at her Baptist church choir; how different can this be? So she takes the three drag queens – Joan of Arkansas (Alister MacDonald), Cherry (Mya Taylor: she was amazing in Tangerine), and Tequila Mockingbird (Oscar Moreno) under her wing to teach them how to sing for real. Turns out they all have great voices. But each has baggage to sort out. Joan has a drug problem, Cherry is dealing with her transition, and Tequila has been rejected by his family. Meanwhile, Maybelline meets a man in a hotel who is everything her husband Jeb is not – kind, elegant and sophisticated. What should she do? Can she save the bar and turn her own life around? Or will she just give it all up and move back to Texas?

Stage Mother is a musical/comedy about an older woman who finds her new mission in a San Francisco drag bar. It’s a very camp romp, cute but not so funny, and extremely predictable. About a third of the film consists of the traditional drag performances themselves, with all the songs, dances, and lipsynching, as well as the elaborate costumes and makeup, the torch songs and jokes… everything you want if you’re into drag. Australian actress Jacki Weaver makes for a great Texas mom, Lucy Liu is almost unrecognizable as Sienna, and the drag trio – Cherry, Joan and Tequila – are totally believable as performers. Drag is very popular these days, with lots of TV shows devoted to it, so if that’s your thing and you can’t get enough of it, you’ll probably like Stage Mother.

But it didn’t do much for me.

Summerland

Wri/Dir: Jessica Swale

It’s WWII in Kent County, England. German bombs are falling on the big cities, but it’s peaceful in the countryside. Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton: Byzantium; Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters) is a recluse who lives alone in a cliffside house. Locals call her a witch and schoolkids torment her with practical jokes. She’s a writer, not a witch, and earns her living researching folktales and magic from a scientific bias. She’s currently obsessed with Fata Morgana – mirages of ships or castles that sometimes appear over the ocean. She’s been living on her own since a painful breakup in university.

But her solitude is broken when a boy is left at her door. Frank (Lucas Bond) is an evacuee, the child of an unnamed airforce pilot and a government bureaucrat sent to the town to escape the Blitz. He’s a sociable boy who likes playing and asking questions. It’s hate at first sight. She rejects him categorically, but is forced to take care of him for a week, until they find somewhere else to place him. Can Alice and Frank somehow learn to get along?

Summerland is an elegantly constructed and touching film about people forced to live together in extreme times. The main storyline alternates with flashbacks to Alice’s passionate love affair with a woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Free State of Jones) that left her with a broken heart. It also looks at Frank’s growing friendship at school with a free-spirited girl (Dixie Egerickx: The Secret Garden) who lives with her grandmother in the town. The backstories of all these characters are gradually revealed, along with a few unexpected, exciting twists. There have been so many movies about life in WWII that references here can be reduced to quick tropes – a toy airplane, a burning building – without seeming clichéd. The acting is good, the characters endearing, and the beautiful scenery and wardrobe make it a pleasure to watch. I cried at least twice over the course of the movie.

So if you’re looking for a romantic historical drama, artfully told, this is one for you.

Summerland and Stage Mother both open today digitally and VOD.

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

Kick-Ass Women! Movies reviewed: Ravage, Lucky Grandma, Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Posted in Action, comedy, Crime, documentary, Drama, Gambling, Jazz, Music, New York City, Thriller, Torture, violence by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three movies – an action/thriller, a musical documentary, and a dark comedy – all featuring kick-ass women. There’s a photographer in the Appalachians pursued by killer rednecks, a grandma in Chinatown pursued by Red Dragon gangsters; and a parade of jazz singers in Rhode Island pursuing musical bliss.

Ravage

Wri/Dir: Teddy Grennan

Harper Sykes (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) is a professioinal photographer who travels the world looking for rare wildlife. She’s in the Watchatoomy valley in Virginia searching for an endangered species when she stumbles on something she isn’t supposed to see: a group of men brutally torturing a stranger in the woods. She is shocked and sickened but pauses long enough to record the awful event from behind a tree. Then jumps in her pickup and rushes to the nearest police station. But things don’t go as planned. She’s kidnapped and dragged by tow truck to a barn, and awakens to find herself barefoot, tied up and suspended from the rafters. Ravener (Robert Longstreet) is a nasty evil redneck with a gang of meth-head henchmen. (He’s a lot like the character Negan in Walking Dead, only not as menacing.) In this valley, they don’t trust outsiders. So anyone who ventures in gets tortured and fed to the hogs. And there’s no way out.

The thing is, they don’t know Harper. She’s a regular G.I. Jane, a female McGuyver who can get out of any tight situation, using whatever’s close at hand. She gradually turns herself from victim to killer, taking down her opponents one by one. She thinks she’s safe when she takes refuge in an isolated home, where a kindly old man lives (Bruce Dern). But he turns out to be as obsessed with evil torture as the rest of them. Can she ever escape from this hell-hole?

Ravage, as the title suggests is an action/vengeance/horror flick, and it’s a B-movie at best. There are plot holes, weird editing, and a silly ending. But it doesn’t matter. Dexter-Jones is great as the kick-ass Harper, who escapes from tight spaces, makes rafts out of empty barrels, drops bullets into campfires and sabotages her pursuers in ingenious ways. Really cool. The gross-outs and shock scenes are silly, but – if you don’t mind extreme violence – this is a fun flick, perfectly suitable for drive-ins.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Dir: Bert Stern

It’s 1958 in Newport Rhode Island. There’s a jazz festival set up in a vast field with an outdoor stage and wooden folding chairs in neat rows. On stage are some newcomers plus big names like Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, and Chuck Berry, playing jazz, blues and R&B. But it’s the women who really stand out. Anita O’day sings scat in Tea for Two, Big Maybelle rumbles her voice, Dinah Washington soars and Mahalia Jackson hushes the crowd whith her heartfelt gospel. This is all taking place at the Newport Jazz Festival in a posh summer resort with the Americas Cup – sailboats and yachts – floating past in the water.

The concert is captured on film without commentary, playing songs we’ve all heard before, but the camera doesn’t stick to the stage. Equal time is given to the audience: girls in pearls, boys in nautical ware, middle aged men in black knee socks, women in straw hats and cardigans, all unconsciously cool. College kids drinking Rheingold beer and making out in the shadows, couples dancing in the grass and hipsters nodding their heads on the off-beat. Model T Fords carrying a Dixieland jazz band sputters past, with experimental musicians jamming in the attic of an old wooden house. Everything’s captures on film, now completely restored with glowing orange klieg lights, bright red lipstick, rippling blue waves. It’s a concert and also a documentary that perfectly captures this slice of time. Something to watch and relax to on a hot summer’s day…

Lucky Grandma

Co-Wri/Dir: Sasie Sealy

Grandma (Tsai Chin) is a retired and elderly widow who lives alone in a cramped apartment in New York’s Chinatown. She likes aqua fitness, smoking cigarettes, and sipping congee. Her son wants her to move to their house in the suburbs and spend time with her noisy grandkids. It’s not safe living alone in the city, he says. But she’s stubborn, and wants to stay on familiar ground. Life’s tough but at least it’s hers. And things change when her fortune teller insists there’s a huge streak of good luck coming her way on the 28th. And when she wins an unexpected sweepstakes, she knows the odds really are on her side.

So she withdraws all her cash and goes to a casino to wager everything on number 8. She wins and wins and wins again. Until, at a game of blackjack she loses it all – tens of thousands – to old Mr Lin. It doesn’t make sense. But when Lin drops dead in her lap on the bus back home, luck is on her side again. She takes back the duffel bag of cash and sneaks home. Looks like she can finally retire in luxury.

But word gets out and Red Dragon gangsters start dropping by uninvited in her apartment to intimidate her. But she won’t give in their tactics. Instead she hires Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha) a huge but simple-minded bodyguard from a rival gang. But things start to heat up, bullets fly and now everyone seems to be after Grandma’s cash (which she insists she doesn’t have). IS this old lady stubborn enough and tough enough to fend off deadly killers? Or has she bit off more than she can chew?

Before I saw Lucky Grandma, judging by the poster I was expecting a cute, slapstick, throwaway comedy. So I was pleasantly surprised by how good a movie this actually is. It’s a low-key, but funny, realistic and poignant picture of life in Chinatown. And this is because of the star Tsai Chin, who gives a nuanced, perfect performance. Every line is just right. Who is Tsai Chin? She’s been a star since the late 50s with a hit single in HK in 1961, was a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice, appeared in Antonioni’s Blow Up, starred in countless plays in London’s west end, and was Auntie Lindo in the Joy Luck Club. Now, in her late eighties, she’s as good as ever. Don’t miss Tsai Chin in this really good, Chinese-language American movie.

You can watch Jazz on a Summer’s Day on virtual cinema at Hot Docs, Lucky Grandma is now on digital and VOD, and you can see Ravage at drive-ins across Ontario; check your local listings.

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

Secrets and Lies. Films reviewed: The Secret Garden, She Dies Tomorrow, The Burnt Orange Heresy

Posted in Art, Depression, Disabilities, Disease, Fantasy, Horror, India, Italy, Kids, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on August 7, 2020

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 about secrets and lies. There’s a little girl with a secret garden, an art critic with a secret past, and a woman whose future night be ending tomorrow.

The Secret Garden

Dir: Marc Munden

Based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett

It’s 1947. Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is a little English girl raised by servants in India. They dress her, feed her and bring her whatever she wants. She likes telling stories and playing with dolls. But when her parents both die, she’s shipped back to England to live in the stately Misselthwaite Manor. It’s a huge mansion with secret rooms and passageways, haunted each night by scary voices eachoing in the halls. It’s owned Mary’s uncle, the reclusive Lord Craven (Colin Firth) and strictly supervised by the housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters). who warns Mary, keep quiet, eat your porridge, and stay away from forbidden rooms or Lord Craven will send you off to boarding school! Needless to say Mary hates it there.

But things take a turn when she discovers she’s not the only kid there. Colin (Edan Hayhurst) is the source of the wailing cries she hears each night. He’s pale and bedridden and never leaves his room – he’s her first cousin. And there’s young Dickon (Amir Wilson) who knows his way around the estate grounds and the misty moors beyond. When a little bird leads Mary to an ivy covered gate, she‘s delighted to find a walled garden, full of sunlight, flowers, butterflies and a bit of magic. It’s a wonderful place where she can play with Dickon, and tell stories. Can Mary keep her beloved garden? Will Colin ever leave his room? Will Lord Craven come out of his shell? And what other secrets does Misselthwaite Manor hold?

The Secret Garden is a new adaptation of the famous children’s book written more than a hundred years ago. It’s definitely a kids’ movie, but the children aren’t cutesy they’re interesting, argumentative and rude… and their characters develop over the course of the film. The acting is good all around. It deals with issues like death, loss and depression within the exciting adventure story. I wasn’t crazy about the excessive use of CGIs reflecting Mary’s internal thoughts, but, like I said, it’s a kids’ movie. And its multi-racial cast provides a nice break from the traditional, lily-white British historical dramas.

I enjoyed this movie.

She Dies Tomorrow

Wri/Dir: Amy Seimetz

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is a young woman who has it all: a lover, a devoted friend, and her first house – she just moved in today. She’s happy, healthy and financially secure, and hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol for months. So why is she so depressed? Because she just found out she’s going to die. Really soon. And there’s nothing she can do about it. There’s no medical report, or threatening letter or anything… she just knows, deep down inside. How should she spend her last 24 hours? Making love? Saying goodbye?

Instead, Amy grabs a bottle of liquor, puts on her favourite sequined gown, and goes into the backyard to do some gardening. That’s where her best friend Jane (Jane Adams) finds her a few hours later. She tries to understand Amy’s feelings of fear and dread and calm her down, talk some sense into her. But a few hours later, it’s Jane who is sure she’s going to die. And she passes it on to her brother at a birthday party where it spreads to others throughout the building. Is this mass delusion? A psychological virus? And can it be stopped?

She Dies Tomorrow is an uncategorizable movie, with equal parts dark comedy, horror, fantasy and satirical social drama. It’s about a highly contagious virus that makes people believe they’re about to die and then (maybe) kills them. It’s also about what we choose to do in our last 24 hours. It dramatizes the infection using a series of intensely coloured flashes of light – red, blue, green – accompanied by murmuring voices inside characters’ heads. And it alternates the scary parts with inane conversations about the sex lives of dolphins and dune-buggy rides, all set in a southwestern American desert town. Although She Dies Tomrrow was made before the current pandemic, its surreal and impressionistic feel perfectly captures the current malaise infecting everyone right now.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Dir: Giuseppe Capotondi

Based on the novel by Charles Willford

James (Claes Bang) is a handsome but cynical art critic who lives in northern Italy. He earns his living selling his books and giving lectures to American tourists. His theme? it’s not the artists who make art great it’s the critics. Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) is a strikingly beautiful woman with an acid tongue. She mysteriously appears at one of his lectures and calls his bluff. It’s art, truth and beauty that’s important, not criticism and spin. They end up making passionate love in his apartment.

James invites her on a trip to Lac Como, to visit Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) a dilletente who married into money and is famous as an art collector. Cassidy supports eccentric artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland) who lives on his estate, with the hope he will someday create a masterpiece. Although critically acclaimed, all of his paintings were destroyed in a series of fires, and he allows no one, not even his benefactor to look at his work. Cassidy offers James a deal – you can have an exclusive interview with Debney if you bring me one of his paintings… And I don’t care how you get it. Will James get the painting? Will his relentless ambition lead to unforeseen ends? And what is Berenice’s role in all this?

The Burnt Orange Heresy is a taut, tense noir thriller about deceit and lies within the rotten world of fine art. It’s full of twists and surprises throughout the film. The beautiful settings, clever dialogue and attractive cast stand in sharp contrast to its dark – and sometimes violent – theme. Debicki and Bang are fantastic, like a modern day Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, shifting from lovers to friends to potential rivals. I liked this one a lot, but beware: it’s anything but a romantic comedy.

The Secret Garden, She Dies Tomorrow, and The Burnt Orange Heresy, all open today in Toronto, theatrically or VOD – check your local listings.

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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