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.

Daniel Garber talks with Will Bowes about CBC Gem’s new series Hey Lady!

Posted in Canada, comedy, Meta, Music, Toronto, TV by CulturalMining.com on February 14, 2020

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

What do you call a rude, audacious and incorrigible senior citizen who has inflicted her idiocyncracies on her adult chidren and absolute strangers alike? What do you call a woman who shoplifts, puts lipstick on random babies and rants at everyone around her? What do you call a possibly demented and definitely insulting woman who named her three children after famous dogs? A woman who desperately needs you to pay attention to her? If you’re like most people, you probably just call her “hey lady”.

Hey Lady! is the name of a new web comedy series, premiering on CBC Gem on February 14, 2020. It stars the legendary actress Jayne Eastwood, is written by playwright Morris Panych, and is co-directed by actor, singer, songwriter Will Bowes.

I spoke to Will at CIUT 89.5 FM. His new single The Devil I Know is on Youtube.

Hey Lady starts streaming today in Canada on CBC Gem.

October 12, 2012. Revisionist History? Films reviewed: Argo, Stories We Tell

Posted in 1980s, Canada, CIA, Clash of Cultures, Diplomacy, documentary, Drama, Espionage, Family, Iran, Thriller, TIFF, Toronto, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on October 13, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

History is always changing: it depends a lot on who the storyteller is. And, often, the most recent storyteller owns the story, for the moment at least, and controls that history. This week I’m looking at two movies that retell events in Canadian history. One’s a thriller that retools a famous story of Canadian heroism in Iran; the other is a personal story about a woman who wants to find out what happened when her mother went to Montreal… in order to be in Toronto.

Argo

Dir: Ben Affleck

It’s late 1979 – the Shah of Iran who fled the country, has been allowed into the US, and, because of this, back in Tehran, angry, anti-American demos are in full swing. Furious students storm the walls of the American Embassy even while the staff on the inside are busy shredding all the files. A few manage to escape through a side street and are secretly rescued by Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador, but the rest are all held as hostages inside the occupied US Embassy. The escaped six are safe in the basement of the Canadian diplomat’s home, but for how long? Meanwhile, those darn hostage-takers are sorting through the shredded documents and will eventually discover that there are six missing diplos hiding somewhere, and what they look like.

Meanwhile, back in the States, a young CIA agent named Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan to get them out of Iran – he’ll pretend they are Canadian filmmakers! So he goes to Hollywood and arranges the whole thing with the help of funny and obnoxious industry-types (John Goodman and Alan Arkin), then flies off to Iran with Canadian passports to save his countrymen. Will they pass as Canadians? Will they be able to leave the country? And will the whole Hollywood back-story hold up before the Revolutionary Guards?

Argo is a fun, exciting movie with a cool, unbelievable plot, and lots of thrills and suspense to keep you captive. Audiences were cheering when I saw it at TIFF, and I left feeling good. The acting is fine, the early 80’s look of the film is cool (though I doubt conservative diplomats were dressed like San Franciscans) and the story is exciting.

(Personal connection: in an earlier TV version of the Canadian Caper starring Gordon Pinsent as Ken Taylor they used Toronto’s Polish Cultural Centre on Beverley Street — just down the street from where I lived at the time — as the stand-in for the Canadian Embassy in Tehran.)

It has a few problems though. It makes the CIA into the heroes! Remember, they’re the ones who overthrew the democratically-elected PM Mossadegh in the 50’s when he nationalized their oil industry. They also helped found the Shah’s dreaded SAVAK – whose torturous methods was one of the biggest reasons for the demonstrations and hostage-taking. The movie never makes clear the CIA the skullduggery that led to this crisis.

Second, it falsely makes Ken Taylor and Canada in general into a funny side-kick to the supposed heroism of a low ranked CIA agent (though I understand they’ve changed the very offensive final titles from the version I saw.) Anyway, I shrugged that off when I saw it – it’s just a movie.

But most of all I was disturbed by the way it made all Iranians in 1979 look like evil villains out to destroy a besieged America – a hell of an image to present in an election year when there’s a big political push to bomb that country.

But… whatever, it’s a good movie anyway, well worth seeing.

A very different kind of revisionist history is

Stories We Tell

Dir: Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley’s wild, blonde actress mother Diane died when she was a child, so she was raised by her kindly, stiff-upper-lip dad, Michael. So to find out more about her past and that of her mother, she enlists her brothers, sisters, family friends and relations to tell their versions of their past, and illustrates it all with found Super-8 footage from her dad’s collection. He narrates the story from a recording booth and Sarah documents her own search for history. But… during this search she discovers that, not long before she was conceived, her mother went away to Montreal to act in a play there called “Toronto” (by David Fennario). And while she was there, rumour has it, had an affair with someone from the cast – maybe Sarah’s father isn’t her biological parent!

I am not going to give away Sarah Polley’s family secrets – but, that’s just part of what makes the film so fascinating.

This is an amazing family story told by an unreliable narrator and with lots of misleading half-truths, myths, lies and legends. One of the characters produced the classic Canadian film “Lies My Father Told Me” which sort of sets the tone for this doc. What’s real? What’s a trick? You discover that the big happy family you assume you’re watching at first never really exists as a single unit. Off-the-cuff narration is gently exposed as scripted and directed. And even the found footage is revealed as part genuine, part manufactured.

This is a fantastic blend of truth and re-creation that Sarah Polley keeps small. She does everything right: stays largely off-camera and concentrates on the story. And she’s carefully to occasionally expose the artifice of filmmaking, including docs. This isn’t one of those awful celeb stories with teary revelations and maudlin music. It’s a clever and funny — but still very touching — meditation on Canada, Sarah’s history and the meaning of family.

Great doc!

Argo and Stories We Tell both played at TIFF and are opening tonight in Toronto. Also opening this week is Ira Sach’s Keep the Lights On, an epic drama of love, addiction and gay life in Manhattan.

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

June 29, 2012. Family Secrets. Movies reviewed: People Like Us, Take This Waltz

Posted in Canada, Cultural Mining, Drama, Family, Movies, Toronto, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on June 30, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Till death do us part they say, but it’s not always as simple as that. For, when it happens, parting is such sweet sorrow… This week I’m looking at two family dramas. One’s a Canadian movie about a Toronto woman who has to choose between staying with her stay-at-home husband or parting to live with the guy across the street; and an American movie about a man who finds out that his late father faced a similar choice many years earlier.

People Like Us
Dir: Alex Kurtzman

Sam (Chris Pine – Star Trek’s new Captain Kirk) is a wheeler-dealer sales exec in the rarified profession of commodity barter trading. But on the same day he makes a grave shipping error, and he also finds out his estranged, music exec father has died. So, under protest, he flies out to Los Angeles or the funeral. And he discovers he’s inherited a zippered dop kit, with 150K in cash, and a note – saying he has to find a woman and give her the money.

But he needs the money, hasn’t a moral bone in his body, and hates his father Gerry. No reason to do it. Gerry was a record company dude whose claim to fame was discovering Kajagoogoo. But Sam soon discovers this woman Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), in fact, is his sister. He gradually makes friends with  bartender, AA veteran, and single mom, without telling her who he is. And also becomes a sort of a mentor for the jaded Josh, her 11-going-on-65-year-old son. Josh (Michael Hall D’Addario) talks like a 65 year old blues singer, and is caught blowing up his school swimming pool.

It’s up to Sam to try to make things right again, even as his job is on the line, his girlfriend is fed up with his lies, and he has yet to accomplish anything worthwhile with his life.

Will Sam ever come clean as to why he’s hanging out with Frankie and Josh? Will he give them the money? Will Frankie stop bartending and pursue her dream — landscape architecture? Will Sam’s mean, bitter mom (Michelle Feiffer) — she’s not passive aggressive she’s active aggressive! – ever answer some of his questions? And will this confusing, hidden family ever be a single entity?

People Like Us is a surprisingly engaging movie, even though its story is nothing more than a typical Movie of the Week. The dialogue is witty, the acting is good, and the plot turns, though predictable, keep the story going. (And it even has a walk-on role for Mark Duplass as Frankie’s casual sex partner. That’s surely a record: three Duplass movies in 3 weeks, plus the DVD release of Jeff who Lives at Home.) This is a good movie if you like dysfunctional family dramas.

Take this Waltz
Wri/Dir: Sarah Polley

Margot and Lou (Michelle Williams and Seth Rogen) wake up each morning saying how much they love each other – so much s0 they’d gladly poke each other’s eyes out. Such love you seldom see. It’s a happy but boring relationship. They sleep in the same bed, and live and work beside each other in the same house in Parkdale, downtown Toronto… basically they’re together 24/7. He does cookbooks, she’s a freelance writer. And they get together with Lou’s loud extended family, including his sister recovering alcoholic Geraldine (Sarah Silverman).

But things start to change when Margot goes on a trip to a colonial village in Louisburg to write a pamphlet for Parks Canada. Watching a reenactment of a colonial punished for adultery, she meets a flirty, obnoxious guy named Daniel (Luke Kirby). Sparks fly. And when they’re back in Toronto, turns out the rickshaw driver and secret artist… lives right across the street from her.

What’s a lady to do? The right thing or the lustful thing?

Take This Waltz is a daring movie. It’s filled with some very funny scenes – like an aqua fitness class – and some images that will stick with you, like an amazing psychedelic ride at an amusement park on Toronto’s Centre Island to the tune of “Video Killed the Radio Star”. She also takes risks – like an extended nude scene with Michelle Williams and Sarah Silverman in a women’s shower room, that shows real bodies of all ages and types.

And it has countless, wonderful locations all around this city – Kensington Market, Lakeshore, the Royal Cinema… A beautiful view of Toronto. So I wanted to love this movie, her second picture, following her great debut Away From Her. But I just couldn’t. The last twenty minutes or so are just excruciatingly awful and completely incongruous with the rest of the movie.

It shifts from an uncomfortable marriage to an extended sequence – possibly a fantasy montage – of what happens to her once she makes her decision. I guess that’s there to tie up various loose ends, but it leaves the viewer scratching his head and squirming at this uncomfortable addition to a lackluster family drama.

There are lots of good reasons to see this movie, but I can’t say it worked.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that People Like Us is a “better” movie than Take this Waltz. Take This Waltz is a potentially great film that tried but failed, while People Like Us is an ordinary M.O.W.-style family drama with a clever script, likeable stars and a watchable, if unoriginal, plot. It was capably done and worked well. The thing is, I’ll long remember scenes from the failure, while I’ve already forgotten most of the one that worked.

Take this Waltz and People Like Us both open this weekend — as does Todd Solandz’s excellent Dark Horse — check your local listings; the ICFF Italian Contemporary Film Festival continues through this weekend, closing with the Toronto Premier of Woody Allen’s latest film, To Rome, With Love. Also check out the Toronto After Dark series on Wednesday nights at the Bloor, for lots of gore, shocks, found footage. Next show: July 11th.  And the very cool Japanese anime and cult movie fest called Shinsedai starts in mid-July this year.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, with podcasts and complete reviews available on my web site CulturalMining.com.

%d bloggers like this: