Oscar contenders, 2023. Films reviewed: Saint Omer, The Son, Living

Posted in 1950s, 2000s, Courtroom Drama, Death, Drama, Family, France, Mental Illness, TIFF, UK by CulturalMining.com on January 21, 2023

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

This week, I’m looking at three potential Oscar contenders opening this weekend. There’s a writer in Paris attending a trial, a bureaucrat in London whose life is a trial, and a Dad dealing with the trials and tribulations of a mentally ill son.

Saint Omer

Wri/Dir: Alice Diop

It’s the early 2000s in a Parisian suburb. Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) is on trial for murder. She admits to leaving the infant on a beach to be washed away with the tides one moonlit night, but why she did it is not so simple. She’s a Senegalese-French woman from Dakar, in Paris as a student. She is beautiful, articulate, poised and intelligent; not your usual murder suspect. As her mother (Salimata Kamate) told her, education and politesse are the two most important traits. But after a series of events she ends up living in a small apartment as a grey-haired, married man’s mistress — no longer in university, with no friends, no job, no future. And virtually no one knows she was pregnant nor that she gave birth at home. She existed in a strange limbo world.

All of this is taken in by Rama (Kayije Kagame) a novelist and university prof in Paris. She is following the trial in person, for a new book she’s writing about Medea. Like Laurence, she’s a French intellectual, and a black woman of West African background. More than that, she’s estranged from her mother and is in her first trimester of pregnancy. In a sea of white faces in the courtroom, she feels both a connection and a revulsion toward Laurence. Could this be me on trial? she wonders. And will I be a fit mother?

Saint Omer is a devastatingly powerful courtroom drama as seen through an observer’s eyes. It’s the opposite of a Law & Order episode — no smoking guns or pot twists. Rather it’s Laurence’s retelling of her story before judge and jury Rama’s reactions that carries all the power. It’s intentionally filled with subtle ambiguity so you’re never quite sure whether Laurence is lying and being coached to do so, or if she’s completely sincere. With women holding most of the key roles — including the judge and the defence council —  it strips away some misconceptions. The acting (by actress Malanda and artist/performer Kagame) is superb, and the filmmaking amazing. This is documentary filmmaker Alice Drop’s first drama.  Somehow, she takes the drab wooden panels of a classroom and a courtroom and turns them into something pulsing with emotion. 

This is a great movie. 

The Son

Wri/Dir: Florian Zeller

Beth and Peter (Vanessa Kirby, Hugh Jackman) are a newly married, upper-middle class couple with a new baby. All I going well until they get an unexpected knock on the door. His teenaged son Nicholas (Zen McGrath) says he can’t take living his mom anymore (Laura Dern) a full-time nurse whom Peter divorced and abandoned a few years earlier. What a dilemma! He can’t turn away his own flesh and blood, can he?  But Nicholas is difficult to live with. It seems he stopped going to school months ago — without telling his parents. And Beth finds him scary. What if he does something to our baby— how can I trust him? So they check him into a psych ward without his consent. But what can they do in the long run with this troublesome teen?

The Son is an overwrought  melodrama about divorced parents forced to care for their troubled son. It deals with anguish, anger and regret but only from the parents’ perspective, never from the son’s. He’s just a pain in the ass… and possibly a threat! This movie falls in that sub-genre of sympathetic parents forced to deal with sons who “selfishly” choose to become drug addicts or mental ill. How dare they! Despite what the parents try, those bad sons are criminals and liars at heart who can never be trusted. This dreadful collection of never-watch movies  includes Beautiful Boy, with Timothy Chalamet and Ben is Back, starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges. This one has equal star power, and is just as hard to watch. It’s especially disappointing because it’s Florian Zeller’s follow-up to The Father a few years back about an elderly man slipping into dementia (Anthony Hopkins, who also appears in this film), as its unreliable narrator. But don’t be fooled. The Son has no redeeming features and is truly one of the worst movies of 2022.

Living

Wri/Dir: Oliver Hermanus

It’s Londin in the 1950s. Williams (Bill Nighy) is a mundane municipal bureaucrat, the head of public works at County Hall.  He spends most of his time at his desk — along with his subordinates Rusbridger, Middleton and Hart — keeping busy by ignoring piles of files and requests. Whenever troublesome locals appear, like a group of mothers requesting they build a tiny playground in a vacant lot, they’re quickly disposed of by sending them to another department in the endless bureaucratic labyrinth of city hall. The newly-hired Wakeling is quickly discouraged from working too hard — an empty inbox means you’re doing something wrong. The sole woman, Margaret (Aimee Lou Wood), is thinking of quitting to take a managerial job at a local restaurant. Since his wife died, Williams has lived a humdrum existence sharing his home with his adult son and daughter-in- law. But everything changes when his doctor brings him some terrible `news: incurable cancer, 6 months left to live. Suddenly everything takes on new meaning as he decides to start enjoying life and making things better for others. But is it too late?

Living is a period drama about life in post-war London. It captures the spark that can be reawakened in even the most humdrum person’s existence. It follows the night Williams spends in the demimonde led by an alcoholic bohemian he meets in a cafe; the days spent helping  Margaret, for the chance to share in her youth and vitaity; and a project he hoped to complete in his final days.

I approached this movie with trepidation, because it’s a remake of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, one of my favourite movies of all time, which I didn’t want to see ruined. Happily, Living it is wonderful film in its own right. Maybe only a writer like UK novelist Kazuo Ishiguro could transport a story from Tokyo to London, while staying true to its original meaning and structure, even while giving this very Japanese film a distinctly English feel. Bill Nighy (who usually plays silly characters in crap movies) is wonderfully understated in this one. And South African director Oliver Hermanus, who brought us the great Moffie, again puts his all into the film he’s making. 

I recommend this movie.

Living, Saint Omer, and The Son all open this weekend in Toronto, with the latter two playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; 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.

Talking, listening, fighting back. Films reviewed: No Bears, Puss in Boots, Women Talking

Posted in 2000s, Animals, Animation, Fairytales, Fantasy, Iran, Movies, Religion, Turkey, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 24, 2022

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

It’s holiday time with lots of new movies for people of all ages. This week I’m looking at three new movies opening on Christmas weekend. There are women in a barn, talking; a movie director in a village, listening; and a cat in a hat, fighting. 

No Bears

Wri/Dir: Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi is an Iranian  filmmaker from Tehran. His current project is about a glamorous middle-aged couple trying to escape to freedom in Europe. But Panahi is forbidden by law from making movies or leaving the country. So he’s doing the next best thing: directing his film in long-distance using his cellphone and laptop. It’s being shot in a picturesque city in Turkey, while he’s renting an apartment in a tiny Azerbaijani village in Iran. It’s close to the border an area rife with black market smugglers. Panahi can speak some Azeri but is unfamiliar with local traditions. So he likes talking pictures of the locals. And here’s where he runs into trouble.

A young couple wants to get married and leave the village. But the woman was promised to another man at birth. Now everyone thinks Panahi caught the young couple in a photograph. The couple want him to destroy the photo, while the groom’s family want a copy to prove her dishonour. Meanwhile, across the border, another crisis is threatening the film movie. As he gets pulled deeper and deeper into the world of local politics and feuds, his work — and possibly his life — is at risk. Will he ever finish his film? And what will happen to the two couples — the actor-lovers in Turkey and secret lovers back home?

No Bears is a neorealist movie about making a film, the film he’s making, and how real life gets in the way. It’s about honour, revenge and identity. It also exposes the image of “the director as a dispassionate observer and documentarian” as a myth. Panahi’s very presence in a small village disrupts their lives and leads to unforeseen consequences. He plays himself, who in real life is forbidden from making films — accused of propaganda against the system. Any movie that’s against the system is one I want to watch. But this means it was shot openly in Turkey but secretly in Iran. No Bears  is a clever, humorous and complex film with an unexpected conclusion. I liked this one.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Co-Dir:  Joel Crawford, Januel Mercado

Puss in Boots is a cat in a hat who wears boots, and carries a sword. He’s known for both his fencing skills and his rapier-like wit. He lives a fairytale life — literally. He exists in a world where those stories are real. He’s both a hero and an outlaw, sought by bounty-hunters everywhere. But as a cat with nine lives he has no fear of death and will fight monsters and villains, alike. Until one day his doctor tells him he’d better slow down because he’s on his last life. If he is killed again, that’s the end, no more Puss in Boots.  So he reluctantly decides  to retire. He gives up his identity, and becomes an ordinary orange cat named Pickles in a home for abandoned cats. Now he has to use a litter box, eat cat chow and say “meow”.  How humiliating! But his past catches up to him with some surprise visitors: Kitty Softpaws, another outlaw he left standing at the altar; and Goldilocks and the Three Bears. They all want him to help find a map to a fallen star that can grant a wish. Goldilocks wants a proper family, Kitty is looking for her future, and Puss in Boots wants his 9 lives back. Accompanied by a little dog named Perro he sets out to steal the map from the evil Little Jack Horner (who is now quite big and bakes pies for living). But he must fight off his rivals, journey through a mystical forest, and find the magic star if he wants to stay alive. And he is being pursued by a truly scary villain, the Big Bad Wolf, a huge killer carrying a sickle in each hand.

Puss in Boots is a kids’ cartoon comedy set in the world of Shrek, where nursery rhymes and fairytales coexist with Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz. It’s somehow simultaneously a spaghetti western and medieval Europe.  It features the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Florence Pugh. What’s good about it? I’ll watch any cartoon, especially one with cool psychedelic images. This one has a few funny bits, along with a neat journey-adventure story. On the negative side, it’s not very funny, the lines are predictable and the story is both unoriginal and forgettable. And I’m not sure why they switch to two-dimensional jerky animation whenever there’s a fight scene. But I still enjoyed it, even if it’s just glowing bright colours on a giant screen. 

Women Talking

Dir: Sarah Polley

It’s summertime at an Anabaptist colony somewhere in the US. It’s 2010, but it could be 1910; forget about cel phones and computers. There are no cars, radios, no electric lights — they still use lanterns. Even more unusual, there are no men around, only women and kids. What’s going on?

One of the women woke up in the middle of the night to find a man physically attacking her. She fought him off and beat him with a stick. Suddenly everything made sense. Countless women in the colony had woken up in the past with bruises and blood, but up till now, the men had insisted out was just a dream, her imagination or the work of Satan. Turns out the men have been raping women for years now and denying it, using cow tranquilizers. Now they are at the police station baling out one of their attackers. So all the women face an enormous decision: should they stay and fight back? Or should they just pack up the kids and go, leaving the place forever?

They designate the women and girls from three families to decide for all of them. Now they’re gathered in a barn to debate the issues and make the big decision. And one man, a school teacher named August — not part of the colony; his family was excommunicated  — is there to record it all on paper; the women were never taught to read or write. What will their decision be?

Women Talking is a movie about women talking, but it is much deeper than that. It’s a devastating story, a scathing indictment of endemic physical and sexual violence against women in their own homes. Though it’s never shown on the screen, nor are its perpetrators, its results are always apparent. One woman has a scar on her face, one woman is mysteriously pregnant, others have missing teeth or black eyes, and another has panic attacks, seemingly for no reason. And now they’re really angry, not just for the violence, but because they’ve been lied to for so many years. There’s a spontaneous wellspring of grassroots feminism suddenly bursting loose.

The storytelling is very simple — it sticks to the barn, the fields, their houses and horses and buggies; it’s all they’ve experienced. At the same time, perhaps because they can’t write, they are amazingly eloquent speakers. It’s based on the novel by Canadian author Miriam Toewes who grew up in a Mennonite community. (The film never specifies their denomination or location, giving it a timeless, universal feeling.) It provides an internal view of life in the colony, with different opinions expressed passionately by each character. And it’s very well-acted by an ensemble cast, including Rooney Mara, Jesse Buckley, Claire Foy, Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy, Ben Whishaw. And despite the grave topic, the movie itself is more fulfilling than depressing. I’ve seen it twice, and appreciated it much more the second time — Women Talking is a subtle movie that deserves your attention. 

Puss n Boots: The Last Wish, No Bears and Women Talking, all opened 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.

A donkey and a wolf. Films reviewed: Eo, She Said

Posted in Animals, Experimental Film, Journalism, New York City, Poland, Sexual Assault, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 19, 2022

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

Fall Film Festival Season continues in Toronto with the EU film festival, offering free screenings from across Europe from now till Dec 2 at the Alliance Française. The Ekran film festival is also on now, showing the latest Polish movies at the Revue Cinema on Roncevalles; and Blood in the Snow or B.I.T.S. features made-in-Canada horror movies next week at the Elizabeth Bader Theatre from November 24-26th.

But this week I’m looking at two new movies about animals. There’s a defenceless donkey in Poland, and a dangerous wolf in Hollywood.

EO
Co-Wri/Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski

Eo is an adorable miniature donkey who works at a one-ring circus. He is lovingly cared for by a woman dressed in red, who performs with him on stage. But when animal rights activists close the circus down, Eo finds himself pulling a wooden cart full of scrap metal at a junk yard. Later he is trucked off to an elegant estate that raises championship horses. From there he’s sold to a farmer, wanders through a wolf-filled forest on his own, and fights off dangerous football hooligans. His journeys take him across Europe, among the rich and poor, the kind and cruel, but will he ever be reunited with his long lost love?

Eo is an incredibly beautiful and tender film about an adorable donkey and the people — both good and bad — he encounters. Oe never speaks, but conveys his emotions through tear-filled eyes, cuddling gestures and loud angry wails. This is not a cutesy animal movie, it’s about adult emotions — like lust, betrayal, cruelty and violence. Stunningly cinematic, the film tells its story in an impressionistic manner, as seen through a donkey’s eyes. Periodically the entire screen is blood red; but there are also breathtaking, panoramic views of palazzi in Italy, manors in Poland, magnificent white horses, ancient, arched bridges, green fields, flowing rivers, and dark skies: gorgeous images that can only be appreciated on a big screen. There’s very little dialogue, in Polish, English, French and Italian, with most of the meaning conveyed visually. There are cameo appearances by actors like Isabelle Huppert, but Eo (and the donkeys who play him) is the real star.

Jerzy Skolimowski, who attended the Łódź Film School, is not as well known as fellow alumni Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieślowski, but I think his films are just as amazing, with a dream-like quality.

OE must not be missed.

She Said
Dir: Maria Schrader

It’s 2015, in New York City. Meghan Twohey and Jodi Kantor are two investigative reporters within the juggernaut of that Gray Lady, the New York Times. Meghan (Grey Mulligan) is following a string of women all of whom say the Republican candidate for president, Donald Trump, sexually harassed them in the past. But they are all afraid to come forward in public. When she finally does get a woman willing to reveal her name in print, she suffers terribly, sent packages of human excrement in the mail, while Meghan gets death threats. So she takes maternal leave to care for her first baby.

Meanwhile, cub reporter Jodi Kantor (Zoe Kazan), also married with two young kids, is pursuing a very different story. Hollywood actress Rose McGowan is hinting that someone at Miramax, that extraordinarily successful independent movie studio, sexually harassed her in the past. Jodi wants to find out whodunnit — Rose isn’t saying — and to get her to commit to details on the record. So she turns to Meghan for help. How do I get women to talk? The two of them join forces, doing extensive research stretching back decades, using legal documents, withdrawn lawsuits, secret payments, and clandestine Non-disclosure agreements. They discover there are women as far away as London and Hong Kong who suffered from horrible incidents of bullying, abuse, and sexual assault, all of which were later covered up. And the arrows pointed toward one man: Harvey Weinstein. Can the reporters get even one woman to commit using her name in an article against the formidable and frightening Hollywood powerbroker? Or will the paper be forced to retract it’s allegations?

She Said is a fascinating retelling of two journalists pursuing a major story just a few years ago. It takes us deep into the weeds of investigative journalism. And it’s told like a police procedural, as the journalists slowly uncover the facts. The thing is, computer screens and cel phones do not make for good cinema. Hollywood seems to churn out these newsroom dramas every couple years, including Spotlight about the Boston Globe’s revelation of pedophile priests, and The Post about the Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers. This is one is about the New York Times. So we sit through lots of dull editorial meetings.

Luckily, most of the story takes us out of the office and into the real world, with the reporters knocking on doors and approaching victims who haven’t spoken of the incidents for 30 years. This — and the victims’ own stories, always spoken verbally, never reenacted— is where it gets interesting and moving. The film faces problems telling a history that’s still happening (Although convicted and in prison, Weinstein has yet to be tried for many other alleged crimes.) And it’s all about real, living people, so it runs the risk of anodyne (if truthful) portrayals of the characters. Luckily the acting is terrific, and the characters — not just the reporters, but the sources — are believable. And Maria Schrader is an excellent German director (she did last year’s I’m Your Man), who knows how to avoid those excessive blubbery, gushing “Hollywood moments” that ruin so many movies. She Said might not be a great movie, but it is the first one about this major issue, and projects it on a wider screen. As they keep saying in the movie, it’s not about one man, it’s about an entire system that protects and supports the powerful and persecutes their victims.

EO is playing tonight at Ekran, Toronto’s Polish film festival, and opens next Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. She Said 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.

Lost Souls. Films reviewed: Apples, Moloch, Passengers of the Night

Posted in 1980s, Archaeology, comedy, Covid-19, Depression, Disease, Drama, Family, Feminism, France, Ghosts, Greece, Homelessness, Horror, Netherlands, Radio by CulturalMining.com on July 10, 2022

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

It’s Nunavut day, so what better time is there to catch up on Inuit movies. Slash/Back, a brand-new movie about aliens in a small arctic town, is playing right now. The Grizzlies is a feel-good film about a high school lacrosse team. And if you’ve never seen Zacharias Kunuk’s movies — including The Journals of Knud Rasmussen and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner — well… you’d better.

But this week I’m looking at three new European movies — from Greece, the Netherlands and France — about lost souls. There’s a lonely guy in Athens who loses his memory in a pandemic; a divorced mom in Paris who seeks solace in late night talk radio; and a widowed mom in the Netherlands who is haunted by the lost souls… in a peat-moss bog. 

Apples

Wri/Dir: Christos Nikou

Aris (Aris Servetalis) lives by himself in Athens, Greece. One day while going for a walk he forgets where he lives. Also his family, his identity, even his first name. He has acute amnesia, the symptom of a strange pandemic, sweeping across the planet. He’s taken to hospital, with the hope a family member will arrive to identify him. But no one comes. About the only thing he knows is he likes apples. The hospital arranges for him to move into an apartment, where they hope he can regain his memory, or at least achieve some level of self worth and identity.  To achieve this they put him into an experimental program. He’s given a series of mundane tasks, all of which he is expected to record, using a polaroid camera. Ride a bike, go to a movie, attend a party, drink alcohol, meet a new friend. It also includes things like picking up a woman in a bar (he accidentally goes to a strip bar with embarrassing consequences) But during his recovery, while viewing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he encounters another alienated, memory-deficient person.   

Anna (Sofia Georgovasili) is clearly on the same program. Two is better than one, so they begin to see one another, if in a detached, alienated way. But as time progresses, Aris begins to remember things, including sad memories he wants to suppress. Will Anna be his soul mate? Will he ever find his original home? And is there any meaning to his life?

Apples is a satirical look at modern urban alienation in a time of pandemic. Interestingly, this film was completed in 2019 BC, (before Covid). But somehow it captures the mundane, seemingly meaningless medical obsessions, the injections, the tests,  the isolation, loneliness and self-doubt that we all experienced over the past two years.

Writer-director Christos Nikou worked with the now famous Yorgos Lanthimos, on his earliest film, Dogtooth, and like that movie, it’s funny, weird and extremely awkward, with adults behaving like children, and people blindly obeying seemingly nonsensical rules. It takes place in the present day but it’s filled with obsolete gadgets like polaroid cameras, and cassette tape players not a cel phone or a laptop in sight. Aris Servetalis is excellent as the main character, who fits perfectly within the film’s minimalist feel.

I like this one.

Moloch

Co-Wri/Dir: Nico van den Brink

Betriek (Sallie Harmsen) is a woman in her thirties who lives in an isolated home with her parents and her young daughter, in northern Netherlands. Her home is in a forest, surrounded by peat moss bogs. Her daughter goes to public school but Betriek likes the isolation — she thinks her family is cursed so it’s best to keep to herself. Easier said than done. Especially when a strange man appears in her living room! He can’t stop it, he says, they won’t let him! And his voice seems to be an unworldly chorus of a thousand souls. And then he tries to kill them all. Turns out he worked at a nearby archaeological dig, headed by Jonas (Alexandre Willaume) a Danish man.

Peat moss is a natural preservative and they’re digging up mummified bodies from ancient times. And when they examine them, they discover they are all victims of the same sort of ancient ritual sacrifice to some primeval god. By disturbing the graves they may have let loose ancient demons, possessing her friends and family. Meanwhile, her mother is going through another difficult period with her brain — is it related? Her father says they’d better leave the place and never come back. And when Betriek encounters strange visions of a little girl sending her a message, she realizes things are very wrong. Will Jonas ever believe there’s something evil going on? Can Betriek break her family’s curse? Will they fall in love? And together can they fight off an ancient evil god?

Moloch is an excellent Dutch horror movie about life in a remote village built over secrets that never should have been disturbed. It sounds like a simple story, but actually it’s a multi-layered drama. The film even incorporates a school Christmas pageant where small children innocently reenact an ancient pagan tribute even while mayhem is happening outside. The movie’s in Dutch, but because of the multiplicity of languages, much of the dialogue is in English. And remarkable for a horror movie, the cinematography is gorgeous, as warm and grainy as any 70s Hollywood movie. I liked this one, too.

Passengers of the Night

Dir: Mikhaël Hers

It’s the mid-1980s in Paris. Elisabeth (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lives with her two teenaged kids high up in an apartment tower. Her daughter Judith, is outspoken and into politics, while her son Matthias (Quito Rayon- Richter) is more introspective — he gets in trouble for writing poems in history class. The dad, though, is nowhere to be seen. He moved in with his girlfriend and pays no child support. So Elisabeth is forced to search for a job to keep her family afloat.  She finds solace listening to a late-night radio talk show, and applies to work there. She lands a job at the switchboard vetting callers and guests for the host, Vanda (Emmanuelle Béart). She invites a young woman to the show based on a touching letter she wrote. Tallulah (Noée Abita) is 18 but has lived on the streets of Paris for years, sleeping under bridges and in squats. She has raven hair, pale skin and doe eyes. 

Elisabeth can’t stand the thought of her sleeping in the rough, so she invites Tallulah to stay, temporarily, in a spare room tucked away far above their apartment. She wants to keep her separate from her kids, but they soon meet up. She’s street smart, and teaches them how to live on nothing and tricks like how to get into a movie theatre without a ticket. Matthias is smitten by her and longs to take it further. But after a late night tryst, she flees the apartment and disappears, leaving the family shocked and saddened. Four years later, things have changed. The kids are growing up, Elisabeth has gained self-confidence and she has a day job and a much younger boyfriend named Hugo.  But when her ex says he’s selling the home, it’s time for major changes. That’s when Tallulah reappears again at their door in a bad state. Can Elisabeth save Tallulah from her spiral into darkness? And what will the future bring?

Passengers of the Night is a beautiful and heartfelt look at a Parisian family navigating its way through unexpected shifts in their lives, and how a visitor can change everything. The film is set in the 80s (from 1981 through 1988), not just the costumes, music, and Talulah’s big hair but also the tumultuous political and social changes from that era. And it’s punctuated by views of Paris from that era — high-rises, sunsets and views through commuter train windows — shot on a narrower bias, to give it a realistic feel. While more gentle than a sob story, it still brings tears to your eyes.

Passengers of the Night and Apples are both playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. And Moloch is now streaming on Shudder.

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

Hot Docs 22! Films reviewed: Hunting in Packs, Midwives PLUS other docs to look out for

Posted in Canada, documentary, Movies, Myanmar, Politics, UK, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 30, 2022

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

Hotdocs, Canada’s International Documentary Festival is on now, showing more than 200 selected movies, many having their world premier. Filmmakers are now in Toronto from all around the world, and so are many of the films subjects. And as always daytime screenings are free for students and seniors: go to hotdocs.ca for details and restrictions. 

And — unlike with mainstream motion pictures — a large number of the directors are women. This year they’re featuring films by the legendary documentarians Janis Cole and Holly Dale, whose films P4W: Prison for Women and Hookers on Davie (about sex workers in Vancouver) are not to be missed. I saw both of these many years ago, and they’re unforgettable.

This week I’m looking at two more movies — both directed by and about women — playing at hotdocs. There are midwives in Myanmar and politicos in Parliaments and Congress.

But before that I’m talking about some of the movies playing at Hotdocs that I haven’t seen yet but look like they’re worth checking out 

Movies at Hotdocs.

One is Jennifer Baichwal’s newest doc Into the Weeds. It’s about a groundskeeper who stood up to the agro-chemical giant Monsanto when he (and tens of thousands of others) got sick after using the herbicide Roundup. Baichwal has won numerous awards for her breathtakingly beautiful documentaries like Manufactured Landscapes and Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, so I’m sure this one is worth seeing too.

Reg Harkema has a new documentary all about the Kids in the Hall, the great Toronto comedy group. They’re getting back together, and three of them — Scott Thompson, Bruce McCulloch, and Mark McKinney — will be at Hotdocs premier in person. Can’t wait to see that.

Another celeb in town is Abigail Disney (of the Disney family) who is now a social activist and filmmaker, She co-directed The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, which talks about the great class divide and economic inequality in the US, using her own family as the starting point. 

Atomic Hope: Inside the Pro-Nuclear Movement talks with scientists campaigning for nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels in slowing climate change. This sounds very interesting. 

In the Eye of the Storm: The Political Odyssey of Yanis Varoufakis is about the former Finance Minister of Greece who fought against the brutal austerity measures imposed by European banks.

Riotsville, USA tells the true story of two fake towns built in the 1960s to train military troops to crack down on demonstrations and civil disobedience.

On a lighter note, Her Scents of Pu Er looks at the first female tea master in China’s history, who shares the secrets of that fragrant and much sought after tea.  And Patty vs Patty tells the bizarre true story of Toronto city hall trying to force sellers of Jamaican beef patties to call them something else, because they’re not hamburger patties. This actually happened.

All of these movies are playing at Hotdocs, right now.

Hunting in Packs

Dir: Chloe Sosa-Sims

Michelle Rempel is a conservative MP from Calgary, who is an ardent supporter of building more pipelines and encouraging the fossil fuel industry.  Jess Philips is an MP from Birmingham from the Labour Party. An ardent feminist, she opposes the leftist Jeremy Corbyn, veering toward Keir Starmer on the party’s centre-right. And Pramila Jayapal is a congresswoman from Seattle. Born in Chennai, India, she is a longtime advocate for immigrant rights and represents the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. So what do these three very different people have in common? They’re all outspoken politicians with firm beliefs… who are also women.

Hunting in Packs is a great, behind-the-scenes look at women in politics over the course of a few years, and the particular abuse they face, up to and including recent elections. It takes you to political “war rooms”, TV appearance, door-to-door canvassing, and the daily drudgery of a politician’s life. It shows them dealing with hecklers and potentially violent protesters (Jess Philips brings up the terrible murder of another Labour MP, Jo Cox, by a politically motivated killer, just a few years ago.) It also reveals some hidden aspects of these women’s personalities. Rempel can curse a blue streak that would make a sailor blush. Philips keeps her cool passing in-your-face protesters. And Jayapal, while the most polished of the three, sticks to her guns and faces down abusive comments on the floor of the House. And regardless of your politics, the three women are each likeable in her own way. This is an entertaining look at the game of politics in the US, UK and Canada.

Midwives

Dir: Hnin Ei Hlaing (Snow)

Hla is an established midwife in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, where she functions as the local doctor, caring for women, not just when they’re giving birth. She notices that a lot of women in her village receive no medical care at all, with some forced to give birth, alone, in the middle of their fields. This is unheard of. So Hla decides to hire a young woman named Nyo Nyo as her apprentice so she can care for this underserved population.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

No!

Rakhine is a deeply troubled area with rebels fighting the central government, as well as ethnic strife within. This is where a million Rohingya were forced to flee to squalid refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh following brutal violence, rape and arson directed against  them. And what do we have here? Hla (Rakhine and Buddhist) hiring Nyo Nyo  (Rohingya and Muslim) as her apprentice. And nationalists, soldiers, and rebels are not happy about this. Can two very different women work together as midwives? Or will ethnic strife tear their arrangement apart?

Midwives is a fascinating, observational-style documentary that gives us a glimpse of two women as out follows them over several years. It shows the raw and rough aspects of their lives — including an actual childbirth on camera — as Nyo Nyo gradually learns her profession. It also exposes the casual racism — from rude, everyday comments about Nyo Nyo’s darker skin, to pop songs on the radio inciting violence against the Rohingya, that shapes the attitudes in that region. All this set against a tumultuous political climate, with a violent military that eventually overthrows the democratically elected government. It’s not unusual to hear missiles and bombs exploding outside the village. But it also gives us an intimate view of the two women and their families as they navigate their uncertain futures, through assimilation, learning languages, and opening a new business. You learn to love and laugh with these two unusual women. It gives an honest and realistic look at this troubled area, as rarely seen on film. 

Midwives and Hunting in Packs are both premiering at hotdocs. Go to hotdocs.ca for tickets.

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

Balkan stories. Films reviewed: You Won’t Be Alone, Întregalde, The White Fortress

Posted in Bosnia, Class, Fairytales, Folktale, Roma, Romance, Romania, Witches by CulturalMining.com on March 26, 2022

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

Movie theatres are finally open again, for real. I mean munching-popcorn-and-seeing-silly-movies-on -the-big-screen real. I went to a preview of The Lost City, sort of a remake of the 80s hit Romancing the Stone, starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum. It’s totally goofy, but I really liked seeing a movie I could watch  and enjoy without my critical eye. It’s what I call a popcorn movie.

This week we’re escaping to the Balkans, for three stories set in Romania, Macedonia and Bosnia–Herzegovina. There are three do-gooders stuck in the mud, two teenagers falling in love, and one girl promised to an evil witch on her 16th birthday.

You Won’t Be Alone

Wri/Dir: Goran Stolevski

It’s 19th century Macedonia, a time when people still believed in witches and  folklore. In particular there’s a wolf-like witch who terrorizes a village by devouring their babies. One woman dares to talk back. She appeals to Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca) a hideously ugly woman covered in scars, not to killer her infant. In exchange she can have her when she’s a young woman, someone to take care of her in her old age. The witch agrees, but first marks her and takes away her tongue. But the next 16 years are neither  childhood nor girlhood. Mother keeps her isolated in a deep dark cave, hoping the witch will never find her. But of course she does and takes her away. Says the witch — this world is a terrible place, peopled by liars and killers. So you must learn to kill. But the girl is overwhelmed by the beauty of blue skies and green fields. She loves living, from rabbits to fish, and cherishes them all. IN frustration the witch sets her free, vowing she will soon learn how awful people are. Turns out the watch is partly right — people can be cruel. And learn she does. Her long claws frighten them until she realizes she can change her appearance… but first she must find someone who just died, be they male or female, young or old, and put their beating heart into her chest. Thus begins her search for love in this hideous and wondrous world. 

You Won’t Be Alone is a highly impressionistic retelling of a classic folktale, filled with sex, nudity, violence. The characters rarely speak, rather a constant voiceover tells the girl’s thoughts using childlike stilted words. The camera drifts in and out, changing point of view from  human to witch to wolf. The film was shot in Serbia with an international cast, including the Swedish Noomi Rapace  (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, and Lamb), The French Carloto Cotta (Diamantino)  and many others. But don’t expect a traditional supernatural fairytale, cause it’s not. It’s more of a poetic, feminist art-piece about witchery, ignorance and nature. If you look at it that way, you’ll probably love it.

Întregalde

Co-Wri/Dir: Radu Muntean

(I previously interviewed Radu about One Floor Below).

It’s a food bank in big-city Romania where volunteers are happily putting together care packages for the needy. Three of them — Maria, Dan and Iliac (Maria Popistasu, Alex Bogdan, Ilona Brezoianu) are ready for an adventurous and rewarding day. But they’re not visiting poor families in the city; rather, they’re heading for a remote town deep in the woods, where relief is needed most. But where the paved roads end, trouble begins. They meet an old man named Kente (Luca Sabin) on the road and offer him a ride. He tells strange and disgusting stories about the local area (is he a visionary or merely demented?) But when their car gets stuck in the mud, frustration turns to anger and none of them car get the car back to the main road. When they get hungry they are forced to dig into the supplies meant for the poor. They finally decide to split up and look for help at a local wood mill. But it’s getting darker and colder as night-time approaches. Will they ever find their way out of this strange forest?

Întregalde — I’m guessing the title is a pun on Transylvania — is a social satire about how good intentions don’t always lead to good results. It’s told like a fairytale, set in a complex, polyglot world, but there are no vampires here. The only monsters are issues like elder abuse, homophobia, marital problems and anti-Roma prejudice. But don’t worry, it’s not a heavy-issues movie — although there are some shockingly realistic scenes — rather it’s a humorous look at our own preconceptions. 

The White Fortress 

Wri/Dir: Igor Drljaca

(I previously interviewed Igor about KrivinaIn Her Place,  and reviewed his film The Stone Speakers.)

Faruk (Pavle Cemerikic) is a teenaged boy with pale blue eyes in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzogovina. He has no memory of his dad, and his mom — a concert pianist — died when he was young. He lives with his grandmother in a housing block. He earns pocket money working with his uncle selling scrap metal for a few bucks. But he wants more. So he takes on small jobs for a local crime boss. He wants Faruk to find a girl and trick her into working as a prostitute. He builds up his courage and approaches a stranger in shopping mall and gives her his telephone number. And to both their surprise, she actually calls him back.

Mona (Sumeja Dardagan) is a young woman from a privileged family, the only daughter of a corrupt politician. She studies English but can’t stand what her parents represent. They are still strangers, but they soon fall in love, together exploring the hidden spaces of Sarajevo. But how long can it last? Mona’s parents plan to send her off to Toronto. The crime boss has cruel intentions, while her family is even more dangerous. Is their love destined for failure? Or like a fairytale will they both live happily ever after?

The White Fortress is a coming of age drama about young lovers from different planets and the obstacles they face. Its beautiful cinematography caresses Sarajevo’s cityscapes and lingers on Faruk and Mona’s eyes, faces and bodies. Pavle Cemerikic is outstanding as Faruk; we really see inside his soul. The White Fortress is a lovely but melancholy romance.

The White Fortress is now available at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox; Întregalde opens in Toronto at the beautiful Paradise Cinema on March 29th; and You Won’t Be Alone starts theatrically on April 1st; 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

Advances in Technology. Films reviewed: The Automat, Dope is Death, After Yang

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, Addiction, Adoption, Androids, Canada, documentary, drugs, Eating, Family, New York City, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on March 12, 2022

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

Technology, whether we find it good or bad, always affects our lives. This week, I’m looking at three movies — two documentaries and a science fiction drama — that look at advances in technology. There’s a new type of restaurant a hundred years ago that sells hot food out of metal and glass dispensers; a clinic 50 years ago that uses acupuncture to detox heroin addicts; and a future world where androids serve as siblings.

The Automat

Dir: Lisa Hurwitz

It’s the 1920s in New York and the city is booming. 300,000 women work as stenographers and they — along with everyone else — all need to eat lunch. And one modern restaurant chain, Horn & Hardart’s Automat, is serving them all. Art Deco palaces welcome anyone with a nickel to buy a slice of pie or a cup of steaming French-press coffee expelled through shiny brass dolphin heads. Customers share marble topped tables with whoever sits down beside them.  And behind stacks and rows of pristine glass and metal drawers, a nickel or two dropped in a slot opens the door to a single servings of macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, baked beans, or Salisbury steak all made at a central commissary and shipped out that very same day. At its peak they served 800,000 diners each day in NY and Philadelphia (where the chain was founded). But what goes up must come down. I wandered into an automat just once as a teenager and never went back. It was disgusting, the food looked unpalatable and aside from the novelty of buying a stale, egg salad sandwiches behind a little glass door, I couldn’t see why anyone would go there. But its fans from earlier generations remember it well, swearing by their specialties like strawberry rhubarb pies. 

The Automat is a fun and breezy look at this fabled restaurant chain, and its rise and fall. It interviews former owners, staff and customers, including celebrities like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. And although the doc was shot pretty recently, many of the featured interviewees — like Ruth Bader Ginzburg and Colin Powell — have sadly passed away. This is an interesting doc about an almost forgotten phenomenon.

Dope is Death

Wri/Dir: Mia Donovan (Inside Lara Roxx)

It’s the early 1970s in the South Bronx, NY and heroin use is rampant. Nixon has declared a war on drugs, devoting money to incarceration and maintenance programs (like methadone), but nothing for detoxification and ending addiction. So black, brown and white activists in groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords decided to take action. They occupied Lincoln Hospital and managed to open a detox clinic there. The program was led by Dr Mutulu Shakur, (that’s Tupac Shakur’s step-father, and a separatist activist in the Republic of New Afrika movement.) who tried something new — acupuncture! A half dozen medics went up to Montreal and returned a couple years later as medically-trained acupuncturists, staffing the new clinic, specifically to relieve drug addicts from their need for heroin.

Dope is Death is a brilliant, politically-informed historical documentary that looks at all the people involved in this movement— interviewing former addicts, acupuncturists and political activists. Sadly many were jailed or went underground following a brutal FBI crackdown. This film includes pristine colour footage from the era, along with period posters, photos, and audio  and video interviews. Although most of the film is set in NY city, the story takes us exotic locales from Montreal to Beijing. Sadly this fascinating doc was released during covid, but it’s finally showing on the big screen one day next week in Toronto.

After Yang

Dir: Kogonada

It’s the near future somewhere in the world. Kyra and Jake (Jodie Turner-Smith, Colin Farrell) are a happily married couple with a daughter named Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). To help Mika cope with differences (Mika is Black and English, Jake white and Irish, and she was adopted as an infant from mainland China)  they purchase an android named Yang. He is programmed to help Mika discover fun facts about her heritage and learn to speak Chinese. Yang  (Justin H Min) is like a gentle adult brother, there to explain and comfort her while her parents are away (mom works in an office, while dad sells tea leaves   — his obsession — out of a small shop). But when Yang malfunctions and stops working altogether,  that is, he dies, little Kyra is devastated, sending the family on a downward spiral. It’s up to Jake to try to bring them back together by preserving Yang’s thoughts and memories. But in trying to save him, Jake discovers new things about their lives, and Yang’s, things he knew nothing about.

After Yang is an unusual science fiction movie, without space ships, laser beams, or violence of any kind. In this future world people (or at least this family) live in stunning glass and wooden houses and dress in colourful hand-sewn clothing. They hilariously compete as a family in online dancing competitions (this has to be seen to be believed). Jake’s investigations uncover Yang’s hidden past lives, before he lived with them, including a woman he was in love with. This is a very low-key and visually-pleasing look at a future just like our present but prettier… and where artificial intelligence plays a crucial  part in our lives. It also deals with privacy, death, technology and everyday middle class problems. The director incorporates experimental film techniques in the movie, things like multiple repetitions of some of the lines to convey the way we — or an android — might remember things. Characters rarely show strong emotions; everything is repressed.  And to tell you the truth, not much happens. So while not completely satisfying, After Yang is still a pleasure to watch.

After Yang opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Hot Docs Cinema is featuring special screenings of The Automat and Dope is Death next week, with the directors present for Q&As; go to hotdocs.ca for details.

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

Get away. Films reviewed: The Jump, See For Me

Posted in Blindness, Canada, Cold War, Crime, documentary, Lithuania, Politics, Thriller, USSR by CulturalMining.com on January 15, 2022

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

Today is CIUT’s 35th anniversary and we plan to  be around for at least 35 years more.  

This week I’m looking at two movies — one from Lithuania and one from Canada, now playing in virtual cinemas or Video on Demand. There’s a sailor who jumps off a ship to escape Soviet domination, and a blind cat-sitter who uses a phone app to escape from a gang of thieves.

But first, to celebrate CIUT’s 35th anniversary, here’s a clip of two of my earliest reviews, originally broadcast in January, 2010, where I talk about two films by Québec directors Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve, early in their careers.  

(listen)

And now back to the future in 2022!

The Jump

Dir: Giedre Zickyte

It’s November, 1970.  Simas Kudirka is a Lithunian sailor who is married with children. He works aboard a huge ship, the Sovetskaya Litva. Simas has been enchanted by the idea of going to sea since he was young man, picturing swaying palms and exotic tropical climes. Instead he ends up in the drab grey, north Atlantic.  But his life turns upside down when the ship, seeking shelter from bad weather, anchors near Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts. They are approached by the Vigilant, a US Coast Guard boat, and in a sudden, spontaneous decision, Simas jumps from the deck of his ship onto the Coast Guard boat. He says he’s defecting from the Soviet Union and seeking asylum in the US. But in a surprising decision, when KGB officers board the Vigilant, the Americans turn down his plea and hand him back. Remember this is during the cold war, when relations between the US and the USSR are tenuous at best, with both countries fighting proxy wars in countries around the world. And both have enough ready-to-launch nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over. 

Simas is sentenced to prison for treason. But that’s not the end of the story. He becomes a political hot potato in the US, where widespread protests by Lithuanian Americans turn him into a cause celebre about the Baltic states. Will he be released from prison? And will he ever reach the United States?

The Jump is a Lithuanian documentary that revisits the case 50 years later. It incorporates contemporary news stories, footage from a TV movie made about him (played by Alan Arkin) and new interviews with all the main people involved; from former KGB agents to Henry Kissinger, retired coast guard sailors, politicians and the American women who tirelessly worked toward his release. And of course, Simas Kudirka himself. The Jump is a fascinating story about how one man can lead to monumental changes. It doesn’t go deeply into political critiques; this is more of a personal story coloured with a nationalist point of view. But it’s a good story.

See For Me

Dir: Randall Okita

Sophie (Skyler Davenport) was once a young, competitive alpine skier with Olympic ambitions. But her athletic career was cut short when she lost her vision. Now she now lives with her mother and earns a meagre living as a cat-sitter. She’s angry and frustrated. But she takes a job in a remote glass and wooden house deep in a forest. It’s luxurious and well paying, because the recently-divorced owner is heading abroad on vacation. It’s also her first time using a new app on her phone her overprotective mom gave her. It’s called  See for Me, and it hooks up visually-impaired people with random helpers around the world. The user holds up the phone and the helper tells her which way to turn, where to pickup a lost item, or read directions on a table. And when Sophie finds herself locked out and alone on a cold winter’s day, it proves invaluable.

The helper, Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy) is a former marine and video game enthusiast. She teaches Sophie how to break in through a sliding door. But that’s small potatoes compared with what happens that evening. She awakens to strange voices in the house. They’re professional thieves trying to break into a safe, in a building they assumed would be empty. And it turns out they’re armed and dangerous. And escape is impossible — there’s nowhere to go in the middle of a snowy forest. It’s up to Kelly to to help Sophie navigate her way around the house away from danger. But can a far-off ex-marine help a blind woman shoot to kill?

See for Me is a good Canadian thriller about a seemingly helpless woman in a battle with nefarious criminals. It has a fair level of tension with a few unexpected twists. And the two main characters — Sophie and Kelly, played by Davenport and Kenedy — are great. My biggest problem with it is, it reduces much of the conflict down to a series of shootouts like in an old western. Guns to the rescue! Even a blind woman (gasp!) can kill mean men as long as she has a handgun. Kelly seems really eager to kill people, even by proxy, and Sophie is less than blameless herself (no spoilers). Still, if you’re itching to see a wintertime, cabin-in-the-woods thriller, this one’s not bad. 

See For Me is now available on VOD, and The Jump opens this weekend in virtual cinemas in cities like Sudbury, Montreal, and London — 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

Potential explosions. Films reviewed: House of Gucci, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, Drive My Car

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, Acting, Action, Crime, Family, Fashion, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Theatre, video games, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on November 27, 2021

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

With all the stress in people’s lives these days, movies are a good place to purge personal tensions by watching other people’s explosive disasters. This week I’m looking at three new movies about potential explosions.

There’s a zombie-infested city about to be bombed to oblivion, a Hiroshima theatre festival facing an explosive personal conflict; and a bombshell in Italy who threatens a powerful family.

House of Gucci

Wri/Dir: Ridley Scott

It’s the 1970s in northern Italy. Gucci is a major luxury brand specializing in leather goods. Founded 50 years earlier, it is now in the hands of the second generation. Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons), an ailing but piss-elegant man who surrounds himself with priceless art, works behind the scenes, He is grooming his smart but nerdish son Maurizio (Adam Driver) to take over. But the law school student shows little interest in the company or the family. The other half is headed by Aldo (Al Pacino) a hands-on guy who heads the company’s American branch, and wants to expand into the Asian market. But he considers his hapless son Paolo (Jared Leto) an idiot. Enter Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). She’s an accountant at her dad’s trucking business, but has greater ambitions. She meets Maurizio at a party, when she mistakes him for the bartender, but when she hears the name Gucci, her ears perk up. She wants in. After a few dates it’s true love, but Rodolfo doesn’t want his family name besmirched by a trucker’s daughter (forgetting that his own father who founded the company was not a rich man.) So Maurizzio marries into her family gives up his inheritance, and starts hosing down trucks — the best job he’s ever had, he says. But not for long. Following her TV psychic’s instructions Patricia manipulates and manoeuvres Maurizzio’s family to bring him back into the fold (with her at his side) to claw his way back to the top. And she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants. But can they survive the troubles yet to come?

House of Gucci is a true crime/corporate family drama about the rise and fall of a rich family… which isn’t that interesting on its own. And I can’t stand an entire movie of American actors putting on vaguely foreign euro accents — we’re supposed to imagine them speaking their native Italian — why the awful accents? But that’s not why the movie is so much fun. What makes this movie work are two things. One is the amazing fashion and design of the whole movie. Everyone is constantly dressing up— more dresses and purses and tuxes and jewelry than you can shake a stick at.. Even more than this are all the campy, over-the-top characters, chewing the scenery as each one tries to out-do the others. Effete Jeremy Irons, a dazed Salma Hayek, a wonderful Al Pacino, and best of all, Jared Leto, as the hilarious Paolo. Lady Gaga is OK, but can’t compare to the masterful performers all around her. And Adam Driver is the dull straight man who steps back and lets the others shine. House of Gucci is a very enjoyable feast of high-fashion schlock.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

Wri/Dir: Johannes Roberts

It’s the 1990s, somewhere in the US. Chris and Claire Redfield are an estranged brother and sister.  They grew up in the Racoon City Orphanage, a creepy place filled with weird dolls and strange creatures that appear late at night. It is run by the Umbrella corporation the worlds largest pharmaceutical company. But Claire (Kaya Scodelario) runs away when she sees something terrible, while Chris (Robbie Amell) joins the local police force. But now she’s back… to warn Chris that something terrible is about to happen. A leak at the lab has let loose a horrible epidemic infecting nearly everyone in the town. But rather than getting sick, this virus makes your eyes bleed, your hair fall out and you turn into a flesh eating zombie. Or worse (no spoilers). They have until 6 am to fight off these monsters and escape from this hell-hole, or else they, and the rest of the town will be wiped off the face of the earth. They split up; Chris, and fellow cops Wesker and Valentine (Tom Hopper, Hannah John-Kamen) investigate the Spencer mansion, while Claire, the Police Chief, and Leon, a newby on his first day of work (Avan Jogia) set out from the police station. Will they ever get together? Who will live and who will die? And what secrets do these labs hold?

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is a movie based on a video game, plain and simple. There are some good laughs, and a threadbare plot line, but it’s mainly reenacting the game, from the long dark hallways where zombies run towards you, to the dark and scary Spencer mansion. Even some of the camera angles and pans duplicate the game itself.  But it’s very cool to see on the big screen scary pitch-black scenes lit only by a lighter and the flash of gunfire revealing zombie faces. That said, it’s more eerie than scary, more action than horror. Not bad, but not much to it.

Drive My Car

Dir: Hamaguchi Ryusuke

Kafuku and Oto are a happily married couple in Tokyo. Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an actor and director in theatres, while Oto (Reika Kirishima) is a famous scriptwriter for TV and film. Oto’s ideas come to her at an unexpected time — while they’re having sex. Her bizarre stories are generated in the throws of orgasmic bliss, recited aloud to her husband, so it’s up to him to listen and remind her the next morning of what she said. But everything changes one day when he comes back early from a cancelled flight to Vladivostok. He catches sight of her making love to another, much younger, man in their bedroom. He sneaks away instead of barging in, but before they have a chance to talk about it, she dies of an unexpected cerebral hemorrhage.  

Years later he’s invited to direct a play — Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya — for a festival in Hiroshima. Kafuku’s trademark method is to cast his plays with actors who speak other languages and can’t understand each other. In this one the actors speak Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and even signs language. So they practice under his exacting direction, forced to keep each line perfectly timed. But there’s a twist: the most famous actor in the play is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) a handsome and arrogant star who says he idolizes Kafuku and his late wife Oto. And he’s the one Kafuku thinks he saw having sex with his wife before she died. Meanwhile, in line with the theatre company’s rules, all directors must be driven to and from the theatre each day. So Kafuku gets to know the introverted Misaki (Tôko Miura), a young female driver from Hokkaido with a strange story. But as the production nears its premier date something terrible happens, forcing all the main players to reevaluate their priorities. 

Drive My Car is a beautiful drama about love, loss, jealousy, and guilt. The movie builds slowly in an exacting manner, as the director and the various actors get to know one another. And the excerpts from Uncle Vanya we see as they rehearse exactly mirror the feelings and thoughts of the characters in the movie. That’s not the only story. There’s also Oto’s own stories she told her husband, and the personal confessions from the driver herself about her dark past. The acting is superb, and the panoramic views, ranging from drives on causeways and through tunnels to footage of a vast municipal incinerator, are breathtaking. The film is based on a Murakami story, with all the weird quirky fantasy combined with mundane realism you’d expect from him. Drive My Car is a long movie but one that is deeply, emotionally satisfying.

House of Gucci and Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City are now playing theatrically in Toronto; check your local listings; and Drive My Car has just opened at the Tiff Bell Lightbox.

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

End of summer movies. Films reviewed: Flag Day, 499, Candyman

Posted in 1500s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Art, Chicago, Crime, documentary, Family, History, Mexico by CulturalMining.com on August 28, 2021

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

I know, everyone’s still thinking about Covid-19, vaccinations and Delta, Delta, Delta… but it’s also beastly hot and horribly humid. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in an air-conditioned movie theatre, (safely spaced away from the other moviegoers?) This week I’m talking about three new films that open this weekend — a documentary, a family drama and a horror movie. There’s a Spanish conquistador recording notes in a book; a ghostly killer whose hand is a hook; and a grifter who vows to help out his daughter… by hook or by crook. 

Flag Day

Dir: Sean Penn

It’s the 1970s in the US  midwest. Jennifer and her little brother Nick lived with both their parents, until mom (Katheryn Winnick) kicked dad (Sean Penn) out of the house. He’s a liar and I won’t put up with him anymore! But after watching their mom spiral into alcoholism, the kids only have fond memories of their dad. So they ask to spend time with him. They move into his ramshackle hut by a lake, alongside his new, young girlfriend. He teaches 11-year-old Jennifer to drive, and they spend crazy times by the lake and on the highway. It’s all like an exciting adventure… until the motorcycle gang he works for — and owes money to — start visiting the home. Dad gets beaten up and the kids move back in with mom.

Later, in the 80s they’re back in school. Jennifer (Dylan Penn) is a goth rebel and Nick (Hopper Penn) is a withdrawn teen. Mom has remarried to a creepy guy, and the kids suffer for it. But when the stepdad starts crawling into bed with Jen, that’s the last straw — she has to get out of there. She travels across the country until she finds her father. He is not in great shape — neither mentally nor financially. And his criminal tendencies start to re-emerge. Can Jennifer reconcile with her dad and mom and pursue her goal to become a journalist? Or is she doomed to follow in their footsteps?

Flag Day is a family drama (based in a true story) about the ups and downs of a father-daughter friendship. It stars a real father and daughter, Sean and Dylan Penn. The movie starts on Flag Day (an unofficial,  patriotic US holiday), with the father — an accused counterfeiter — is being pursued down a highway by a line of police cars with a helicopter overhead. The rest of the movie is about what led to this point: mainly Dad trying to get away with his crimes to help his beloved daughter.

I have mixed feelings about this film. I’ve seen enough to know that if it’s bad in the first 10 minutes, it will probably only get worse. (Flag Day feels wooden and slow.) But I decided to give this one a chance… and you know what? It gets much better. There’s way too much crying — every scene of the movie involving Jennifer or one of her parents leaving or coning back is punctuated by more tears. And voice-over narration  can ruin any connection you might feel to the characters on the screen. On the other hand, the whole movie is nicely shot on grainy video filled with beautiful fireworks, bonfires, flaming BBQs — (lots of fire and water!); the characters develop and get more and more interesting as you get to know them; and the whole thing (nearly) pulls together by the end. It’s set mainly in Minnesota but was shot in Manitoba, giving it an “authentic” feeling of working-class, white America. Flag Day isn’t perfect but it’s not bad either, once you give it a chance.

499

Co-Wri/Dir: Rodrigo Reyes

In 1521, Cortez and a few hundred conquistadors  invade the Aztec kingdom. They overthrow Montezuma and slaughter countless people, laying waste to the beautiful capital of Tenochtitlán in their insatiable search for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Later, one of the conquistadors (Eduardo San Juan) survives a shipwreck and washes to shore, complete with armour, helmet, pantaloons and sword. He walks from the beach to Tenochtitlan, but it’s not how he remembers it. Somehow he has skipped the past 499 years and is now near Mexico City, circa 2020.

499 is a documentary with a twist. It’s a travelogue through modern day Mexico as seen through the eyes of a relic from the past, a man mired in 16th century Christian morality and Spanish Imperialism. He feels he can slaughter local “Indios” with impunity. But, gradually,  as he sees what’s become of Mexico today — the drug cartels and corrupt police forces, along with the relentless crime, torture and death they bring — he is forced to rethink his beliefs. He becomes less of a soldier, and more of a passive observer, speaking with Mexicans and writing down what they say as they tell him their harrowing stories.

But it’s not all sad stuff. We also see the beauty, the splendour, the weirdness and the wonder all around him. Dance, music, acrobatics, art, culture and history are all shown in glorious panoramic cinematography.  There are bullfights and strip bars, and interviews with actual masked gangsters… as well as their victims.

499 is an eye-opening doc about contemporary Mexico disguised as a time-travel movie. 

Candyman

Dir:  Nia DaCosta

It’s present-day Chicago. 

Brianna and Anthony (Teyonah Parris, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are a rising young power couple in Chicago. They live in a luxury high-rise. She’s a curator at a local art gallery, and he’s an artist. But when he wants his paintings included in a group show, his gallerist says his work is getting stale. Find something new. So he sets out to explore a local urban legend to incorporate it in his work. It’s the story of Candyman, a ghostly serial killer who operated out of a public housing project called Cabrini–Green. It was a sorely neglected area, populated mainly by poor blacks, located just across a street from one of Chicago’s richest and mainly white neighbourhoods, the Gold Coast. (Looks like Bree’s apartment was built over the remains of the project.) 

Candyman tempts victims by offering  them candy, and kills them surrounded by a swarm of honeybees, using a sharp hook he has for a hand. And he can be summoned by saying his name 5 times while looking into a mirror. Anthony’s latest work is called Call My Name, a mirror that dares its viewers to summon Candyman. It gets little notice until people associated with his art start turning up dead. Suddenly, he’s a hot property and art critics say he’s important. But Anthony knows the truth. Candyman is real, he’s dangerous, and he’s Anthony’s to blame for letting him loose on the world. Can he and Bree stop the Candyman before he kills more people? Or is it too late?

Candyman is a sequel to the Wes Craven’s horror movie from the 90s, and it turns conventional slasher-horror movies on their head.  Bree’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett)  is flamboyantly gay but also a credible character with a life all his own, not just a victim to be laughed out. Black characters don’t exist merely in reaction to whites — they’re the focus of the movie. Killings are usually shown from a distance or off-camera — while there’s blood, it’s not excessively gory (compared to most slasher movies). Scary but not terrifying. 

Aesthetically, Candyman is deeply satisfying with art direction way above what you normally see: minimalist composed sets, breathtaking cityscape views of Chicago filmed upside-down in black and white, and shadow puppets used to illustrate the story within the story… so cool. The filmmakers — producer Jordan Peele and co-writer/directer Nia DaCosta  — are black, as are the main characters… but not most of the victims. DaCosta skewers the cut-throat world of fine art, using razor-sharp political satire. Candyman is not a conventional slasher/horror movie, and probably won’t scare your pants off, but it offers lots of eye candy to look at and even more to think about. 

I liked this one a lot.

Candyman and Flag Day just opened this weekend in Toronto — check your local listings. And you can catch 499 at the Paradise Theatre for two days only: Aug 28-9th. 

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

 

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