Sagas. Films reviewed: All My Puny Sorrows, The Northman

Posted in Adventure, Canada, Family, Iceland, Music, Religion, Secrets, Suicide, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 16, 2022

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

If you’re looking for new opportunities to see movies in Toronto, there are a lot of opportunities coming up. This coming Wednesday is the annual Canada Film Day, with great Canadian movies playing for free across the country, and at embassies around the world. Whether you’re in Arviat, Saskatoon, or downtown Toronto, go to canfilmday.ca to find the movie closest to you. Also free, if you’re under 25, is the Next Wave Festival at TIFF with workshops, competitions and a well-curated slate of screenings for you to watch. 

This week, I’m looking at two new movies — one from the US, the other from Canada. There’s a brooding Mennonite drama, and a swashbuckling Icelandic saga.

All My Puny Sorrows

Co-Wri/Dir: Michael McGowan (Based on the novel by Miriam Toews)

Elf and Yoli are sisters who grew up in a small Mennonite community in Canada. Elf (Sarah Gadon) is a world-renowned concert pianist, rich famous and glamorous. Her loving husband is always there to lend a hand. Yoli (Alison Pill), the black sheep of the family, was pregnant at 18, and lives with her daughter in Toronto. She’s a published writer but her last novel sold just a few hundred copies. And now she has writer’s block, her husband is divorcing her, and she’s sleeping with a lawyer named Finbar she doesn’t even like. So when their  Mom (Mare Winningham) gets a late night phone call that her daughter had attempted suicide, she’s not surprised. The thing is, it’s Elf, not Yoli, who wants to die. 

So Yoli flies back to her hometown to visit Elf in hospital and to convince her that life is worth living. But the visit awakens lost memories of their childhood, including gossipy small-town life, and various encounters with the repressive church leadership. They never wanted Elf to study music or for their father to open a public library. And she’s not the first one in the family with suicidal tendencies — the movie starts with their dad walking in front of a train a decade earlier.

All My Puny Sorrows is a literary look at the lives of two sisters. By “literary” I mean they literally talk like characters in a book, with witty bon mots spilling off their tongues. I mean, why say hey Elf, how’s it going? when you can quote Coleridge and Virginia Woolf instead? The problem is some of the dialogue and voice-overs come across as stilted and wooden, not how real people talk.  There are some great scenes in the movie — like a flashback, where their mom expresses her anger at the Elders’ interference by loudly pounding a chicken breast in the kitchen while Elf plays Rachmaninoff on the piano, full blast, to drown out their voices. And I also liked some of the interactions among Elf, Yoli, their mom and their aunt.

But as a whole, the movie doesn’t quite cut it, with too many parts that fall flat. 

The Northman

Co-Wri/Dir: Robert Eggers (read my 2019 interview with Eggers here)

It’s the middle ages in Scandinavia. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a little prince who lives a quiet life with his mother, the Queen (Nicole Kidman) in a seaside village. But when his father the king returns home, everything changes. He leads the prince into a secret cave to perform sacred rituals. Between farts and belches, Amleth becomes an adult, receives an amulet, and is inducted into the order of the wolves by howling at the moon. But his new status is interrupted by his insidious uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). He witness his uncle murdering the king, kidnapping the queen, and ordering the prince’s death, too. His father’s last words: avenge my death by killing my brother and rescuing the Queen. The little boy fights off his killer by slicing off his nose, and flees in a small boat across the seas. 

Years later, he’s a fierce warrior, raiding coastal and riverside towns dressed as a wolf berserker, massacring, looting and pillaging as his team passes through. But a mystical soothsayer orders him to fulfil her predictions and leave the vikings for a new voyage. So he disguises himself as a slave, and climbs aboard a ship destined for Iceland. On board he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) the blonde slave warrior from his visions, and together they make a pact. But will he ever fulfill his destiny?

The Northman is a brilliant new Icelandic saga about a hero’s wars, battles, magic and family lines. It blends pre-christian legends and rituals with sacred swords, Dwarves, animism and nordic gods. It’s also about reclaiming masculinity, including a spectacularly homoerotic sword fight fought in the nude over flowing lava. (Not joking.) It also has proto-football matches, magical crows and wolves, and psychedelic mushroom. 

In order to appreciate The Northman you have to buy into the whole concept, otherwise you’ll reject it as ludicrous (there are a few moments where you wonder what the hell are you watching.) But it’s so beautifully done and carefully crafted that it’s much more than a Game of Thrones episode. This one has depth and meaning. And knowing Robert Eggers, I’m sure he and his crew deeply researched the film — his other ones used things like dialogue taken directly from a 19th century diary. It also includes incredible images you’ve never seen before, like a three-dimensional family tree that appears to him in his visions, that looks like a cross between a Japanese ghost story and a mediaeval tapestry. Just amazing. It’s extremely violent and harshly amoral, so if that upsets you, don’t see this movie. But if you like sword fights, vikings and authentic mediaeval adventures, you’ll probably love The Northman as much as I did.

All My Puny Sorrows is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings; and The Northman opens next Friday.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Robert Eggers about The Lighthouse

Posted in 1800s, Art, Drama, Dreams, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Nova Scotia, Sex by CulturalMining.com on October 17, 2019

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

Photo of Robert Eggers by Jeff Harris

It’s the 19th century on a rocky Atlantic island. An old salt and a young jack tar share threadbare lodgings. Their job? Keep a lighthouse burning to warn all passing boats of potential danger. The old man is there for the long haul, while the younger one seems to be a temporary replacement. But as the isolation grows they become increasingly unhinged as they try to keep their senses… in the lighthouse.

The Lighthouse is a new film about life in a lighthouse as seen through the fantastical minds of the two men living there. It’s written and directed by Robert Eggers, his second feature after The VVitch.

This interview was recorded onsite during TIFF 19.

The Lighthouse opens next Friday (Oct 25, 2019) in Toronto.

Religion in remote places. Films reviewed: The Witch, the Club, Embrace of the Serpent

Posted in Anthropology, Catholicism, Chile, Cultural Mining, Drama, Dreams, Indigenous, Movies, Mysticism, Supernatural, Suspicion by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2016

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

Religion can take a strange turn in remote places; this week I’m looking at three such movies. There are defrocked priests in a tiny fishing town in Chile, a shaman in the Columbian rainforest, and a preacher’s family in the woods near Salem village.

12357191_658718044294625_522435059894350027_oThe Witch
Dir: Robert Eggers

“A New England Folktale.”

It’s the 1630s in the New England colonies. Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is a firebrand preacher in Salem Village. He doesn’t like the way things are going there, with all the suspicion, accusations and trials about witchcraft. So he packs up his wife and kids and settles in a clearing near the woods. But witchcraft may have followed them there.

It starts with little things. A wild boar destroying crops and the farm animals behaving in a strange way. Pretty teen Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is annoyed by the bratty little twins – they look like devilish imps. So to scare them she pretends to be a witch. But her brother takes it all very seriously. He goes looking for an old witch in the woods. And now he’s gone.xGjG7n_witch_01_o3_8778312_1439860966

Caleb is baffled by the events, but goaded on by his shrewish, pregnant wife, he looks deeper into the troubles. What does that satanic goat want? What’s happening to the milk cow? And is there a devil’s child on its way? Are there witches in the woods? Is Thomasin one of them? Or is it all just paranoia brought on by their isolation?

This is not your average horror movie. It’s an art house flic that’s more strange and creepy than scary. The images are spooky but beautiful/grotesque, and the music is great. Apparently the script is based on actual diaries from that era. So the dialogue is full of thees and thous… but don’t expect Shakespeare.  Just first-hand accounts of witchery 400 years ago.

The_Club_-_4The Club
Dir: Pablo Larraín

Four priests and a nun live in a house together in La Boca, a remote fishing village in Chile. The men are there by order of the Vatican in penance for their suspected crimes and misdemeaners. Sister Monica (Antonia Zegers: No) is their de facto jailer. But in fact they live comfortable lives. The gamble, they drink, they cuss. Father Vidal (Alfredo Castro: Desde allá, No) even has a hobby:  a greyhound he bets on at dog races.

But then something happens. A new priest arrives at their sanctuary, pursued by a strange young man named Sandokan (Roberto Farías).

Sandokan parks himself by their front gate and begins reciting things in a sing-song voice. He tells in graphic detail all the horrible sexual abuse he suffered as an altar boy by a Catholic priest. This leads to a shocking incident.

The Vatican sends an investigator – with a handful The_Club_-_6of secret files – in the person of Father Garcia (Marcelo Alonso). Garcia is a hard-ass Jesuit stickler who demands the truth from the priests. This is not a spa, he says. They must confess everything.

But the priests and the nun are no pushovers. So it becomes a tug of warThe_Club_-_5 between the stubborn but suspect priests, and their powerful interloper. What are their secrets? Which of them is really guilty? And what will become of the mentally damaged Sandokan?

The Club is another excellent – but disturbing — movie from the great Chilean director who brought us “No”. He uses many actors from his previous films. This one’s a dark comedy but with a very serious undertone about the intersection of politics and religion, crime and punishment.

EMBRACEOFTHESERPSENT_01_o3_8681619_1439859054Embrace of the Serpent (El abrazo de la serpiente)
Dir: Ciro Guerra

It’s the early 20th Century. Theo Koch-Grunberg is a German Ethnologist living among the indigenous peoples of the northern Amazon rainforest. Theo (Jan Bijvoet: Borgman) is scraggly-looking man with a bony face and a long white beard who speaks the local language. He’s trying to find a shaman to show him the way to find a rare flower with mystical and medicinal properties. So with the help pf his student Manduca (Yauenkü Migue) he turns to Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) of the Arekuna nation to be his guide. Karamakate is a strong proud man who is one of the last of his people still living free in the traditional way. He walks through the forest basically naked except for a Embrace of the Serpentceremonial necklace. He carries no possessions. Everything he needs — the history, laws, medicine, geography, and stories of his people – are in his head. And he imposes strict rules that Theo has to follow if he wants Karamakate to lead him in canoe and on foot to the secret plant. He must starve himself in order to experience its power.

Flash forward half a century. Another foreign ethnographer, Evan (Brionne Davis) is back on the same path with the same goal: find pgBEVm_EMBRACEOFTHESERPSENT_04_o3_8681707_1439859084that flower! And he turns again to a much older Karamakate (Antonio Bolivar) to guide him. But Karamakate now says he’s forgotten everything.

The movie jumps back and forth between the two journeys, 40 years apart. And what they see and experience is amazing, stunning, frightening and spectacular. There are missionaries who dress up indigenous kids as altar boys and forbid them to speak their own language (shades of Canada’s residential schools.) Adults are turned into slaves to fuel the short-lived Amazon rubber boom in Manaus. And the jungle is full of false messiahs, drug addicts, jaguars and boas, marching soldiers and fleeing crowds… They see it all.

The whole movie is shot in some of the most spectacular black and white footage you’ve ever seen. This is an amazingly breathtaking film. It’s emotional, tragic, absurd and realistic. It’s based on the notebooks of those two explorers, which contain some of the only recorded records of indigenous people of the North Amazon. I recommend this movie

The Club, The Witch and Embrace of the Serpent all open today in Toronto; 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.

%d bloggers like this: