In depth. Films reviewed: The Velvet Underground, Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, The Power of the Dog

Posted in 1920s, 1960s, Addiction, Canada, drugs, Indigenous, LGBT, New Zealand, Uncategorized, Western by CulturalMining.com on November 20, 2021

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

We are all flooded each day with new images and stories, both broadcast and online, but don’t they all seem to be fleeting and ethereal, lasting no longer than the average news cycle or two. Rarely do we get in-depth examinations of anything. But movies can do that, opening your eyes to deeper thoughts. So this week I’m looking at three new movies — a western and two feature-length docs —that look at things up close. There’s cowboys in Montana, First Nations in Alberta, and avant-garde rockers in Greenwich Village.

The Velvet Underground 

Wri/Dir: Todd Haynes

It’s the early 1960s. Lou Reed is a Brooklyn-born teenager who lives in suburban Long Island.  He’s depressed and his parents send him for electroshock therapy. He teaches himself guitar listening to doo-wop and rockabilly on the radio. Later at university in Syracuse, he studies under Delmore Schwartz. He goes to Harlem with his girlfriend to buy hard drugs and writes poems about furtive sex with men he meets in dark alleys. John Cale is the son of a coal miner in Wales who studies classical music in London. They meet in the Village and start a band within the  exploding world of avant-garde film, music, art and poetry. Velvet Underground plays long, drawn-out tones with a dark drone grinding in the background, combining Reed’s dark lyrics and Cale’s musicality (he plays viola in a rock band!) They perform at Andy Warhol’s Factory and Nico, the enigmatic European actress, completes their sound. Though never a huge success and breaking up after a few years, the Velvets influenced generations of musicians.

This two-hour doc looks at the band itself (Reed and Cale, along with Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison) and where it fit within New York’s burgeoning underground scene. Aside from the usual suspects, it talks about or interviews unexpected faces, musicians Jonathan Richman and Jackson Browne, and experimental  filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Jack Smith. Aside from its meticulous retelling of group’s history, it’s the look of this doc that really blew me away.  Todd Haynes exploits that era’s avant-garde film techniques, from split screens to three-quarter projections, along with a good dose of 60s pop culture. And there’s a constant stream of music from start to finish, including rare tracks of early songs before they found their groove. I had to watch The Velvet Underground on my laptop but this beautiful documentary deserves to be appreciated on a movie screen.

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy

Dir: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

It’s the mid-2010s and opioids are ravaging the Kainai Blackfoot First Nation in Alberta (that’s the largest reserve in Canada). Families are torn apart, and hundreds of lives are lost. The abstinence and cold-turkey programs just aren’t working, especially for the most marginalized, who end up homeless in cities.  So instead they start up harm reduction centres like those pioneered on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. This highly-personal documentary follows a number of addicts — of both opioids and alcohol — as they enter harm-reduction treatments and through its various stages. It’s spearheaded by the filmmaker’s own mother, Dr Esther Tailfeathers, a physician, but also includes Social workers, EMS, nurses and councellors, in drop ins, detox centres, hospitals and clinics, both on the reserve and in nearby cities like Lethbridge.

As the title suggests, caring and empathy saves more lives than punishment, threats or abstinence. Rather than kicking people out, it embraces them while standing by to treat overdoses, and on a bigger scale helping them find purpose and meaning, along with food, shelter and medical care. The doc also looks at the intergenerational causes that led to these addictions, from broken treaties to residential schools. Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is gruelling in parts — and not an easy film to watch — but it is one that turns despair into hope.

The Power of the Dog

Wri/Dir: Jane Campion

It’s the 1920s. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is durned mean cuss. He owns a ranch in Montana with his brother George (Jesse Plemons), and regularly drives cattle with his posse of young cowboys. They always stop by a roadhouse run by the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her skinny sensitive son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil went to one of them Ivy League schools in the east, but they don’t know nuthin about the life of a cowboy. He learned everything from an older buckaroo when he was just a lad, and now keeps a shrine to him in his stables. But like I said, Phil is a mean bastard who directs his venom all around him. He calls his brother fatso, and when George marries Rose, Phil torments her and drives her to drink. And he calls her son Pete a pansy. Until… Pete discovers Phil’s secret. He finds his illicit porn stash and catches him in a hidden grove luxuriating in mud-covered self-love. That’s when Phil changes his mind and decides to mentor Pete in the old cowboy ways. But is that what Pete is really after?

I walked into The Way of the Dog at TIFF expecting a conventional Western, but I saw something much bigger than that. It’s a subversive twist on a classic genre. It’s set in the 1920s, avoiding the blatantly racist portrayals of indigenous people in most Westerns (the “Indians” in “Cowboys and Indians”) which take place in the 19th century when settlers were slaughtering them with impunity in their western migration. This one is set 50 years later.  There are also no hold-ups or show-downs; guns don’t play a major war in this Western. It’s directed by Jane Campion who won big time awards for The Piano thirty years ago, but I hadn’t heard much about her for a long time. So I wasn’t expecting much. But this film really shocked me with its gothic tone, complex characters and twisted plot. The interplay between Cumberbatch and Cody-Smit is fascinating. All of this played out against the wide, western skies (it was actually filmed in New Zealand) makes The Power of The Dog a really great movie.

The Velvet Underground  is playing theatrically in Canada for one night only, Sunday, Nov 28th at 8 pm, at the Rogers Hot Docs cinema in Toronto; and Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy opens today, also at Hot  Docs; and The Power of the Dog 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.

Troubles. Films reviewed: Vicious Fun, Inbetween Girl, Belfast

Posted in 1960s, 1980s, Canada, Comics, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Feminism, High School, Horror, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Secrets, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 13, 2021

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

Fall Film Festival Season continues in November. ReelAsian is on now, and Blood in the Snow (aka “BITS”) with new made-in-Canada horror movies — both features and shorts —  showing on the big screen at Toronto’s beautiful Royal Cinema starting next week.

So this week I’m looking at three movies showing at Toronto film festivals. There’s an 8-year-old boy in Belfast at the start of the Troubles, a high school girl in Texas who learns having secret boyfriend can lead to trouble, and a film critic in Minnesota whose 12-step self-help group turns out to be nothing but very big trouble.

Vicious Fun

Wri/Dir: Cody Calahan

It’s the 1980s in Minnesota.

Joel (Evan Marsh) is a film critic who writes reviews for a horror movie fanzine. He’s a real devotee of slasher pics and is well versed on all the details. He lives with his apartment-mate Sarah, who he has a huge crush on. So he doesn’t like her new douchey boyfriend, Bob, at all. So he follows him to an isolated Chinese restaurant and bar where he tries to entrap him using hidden mic as the unfaithful boyfriend he thinks Bob is. But he ends  drunk as a skunk and passed out in the restaurant bathroom. He wakes up a few hours later to the voice if a motivational speaker coming from the next room. He wanders into a sort of a self-help group, a twelve step… but for whom? He takes his place in the circle and the confessions begin. Turns out they’re not alcoholics, they’re all serial killers! The worst in the world! Carrie (Amber Goldfarb) slices and dices men. Fritz (Julian Richings) enjoys paralysing victims with a hypodermic then torments them dressed as a clown. Mike, a bearded giant in a iron mask (former pro wrestler Robert Maillet) chops up coeds while having sex with them. Hideo (Sean Baek) is sushi chef-slash-cannibal who uses Ninja like skills to trap his prey. Zachary is the group leader (David Koechner) who looks like a used car salesman but had killed more than any of the others — there’s a sort of a competition going on. So Poor Joel — who they think is new serial killer who didn’t show up to this first meeting — has to squirm his way out of it. But his cover is blown when guess who arrives late? It’s Bob (Ari Millen) the douchey sociopath he met earlier! 

The group turns into a mad orgy of killing and violence once they discover his deception. But luckily, Carrie, for reasons all her own, decides to protect him from the other serial killers. What’s her secret? Can they escape these ruthless deranged serial killers? And can Joel warn Sarah in time to protect her from the evil Bob? 

Vicious Fun is a comedy  horror movie about a horror movie enthusiast who discovers it’s not as much fun in real life. It’s full of lots of blood and gore, as expected, but also a heavy dose of retro-80s camp, from moustachioed cops, to vintage drive in, pay phones and a seedy bar. The characters are all played to the max with the appropriate excess a group of weird serial killers demands, with Marsh as the fish-out-of-water film critic and Goldfarb as the killer with a heart off gold — as well as Millen as arrogant evil incarnate, are especially good. 

Vicious Fun (just like the title says) is a very entertaining, low-budget, over-the-top movie with a clever premise that carries it through to the very end. It’s funny, bloody, and bloody funny.

I like this one a lot.

(I interviewed Cody in 2013.)

Inbetween Girl

Wri/Dir: Mei Makino

Angie Chen (Emma Galbraith) is a high school girl at St Michael’s a posh private school in Texas.  It’s also very white. But as a mixed race kid (white Mom, Chinese dad) she feels both self-conscious and ignored. So she’s surprised that Liam (William Magnuson) the most popular guy in the school says he likes her. He drives her home everyday, and later climbs through her window to spend time with her. They hang out, make out, have sex, and share their thoughts in addition to an occasional joint. So what’s the problem? He’s dating Sheryl (Emily Garrett), an equally popular girl, who has millions of followers on Instagram. She’s an influencer. So Liam keeps their relationship a secret. Sheryl’s too fragile, he says, not a battleship like you. if she finds it out it could kill her. (I’m a Battleship? Angie wonders.) She goes along with Liam’s game but doesn’t quite get it. 

Meanwhile, there’s trouble at home. She’s disconnected from her recently divorced parents.  Mom’s always busy with work and dad has a new family, including a daughter who speaks Chinese. What’s the point of it all? But when she is assigned a school project with Sheryl, Liam’s girlfriend, Angie realizes it can’t go on like this. They’re in love… how can they keep it a secret? Will Liam choose her over Cheryl? Does Angie even want him anymore? And what will Sheryl do if she finds out the truth?

Inbetween Girl is a delightful and quirky coming-of-age story. Though the plot seems run-of-the-mill, it’s told through Angie’s art (she loves drawing comics and taking analog photos) her video monologues along with the normal story. It covers family relationships, first love and deceit, along with questions of cultural identity she has no control over. It has lots of picturesque settings in and around Galveston, giving it a view of modern cosmopolitan Texas you don’t always see. 

I like this movie.

Belfast 

Wri/Dir: Kenneth Branagh

It’s Belfast in the last 1960s. Buddy (Jude Hill) is a little boy who lives with his brother Will, his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and his grandparents, Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). His Pa (Jamie Dornan) is off in England somewhere earning a living as a joiner. He can only come home every couple weeks. Buddy misses him but spends his time studying at the Grove Park elementary school. While the classrooms never change, the seating arrangements do, where kids with the top marks move to the front each week. That’s his main motivation to study — so he can be bumped up beside the girl he wants to meet.

But things take a turn for the worse. Barricades appear on street corners patrolled by the military, while paramilitary thugs throw rocks through windows to get the Catholics to move out of their street. Buddy’s family is Protestant but he can’t tell the difference among his friends and neighbours. And as violence and intimidation increases, so does the push to join Pa in England till the Troubles are over. 

Money troubles, taxes, Pop’s illness and the friction between Ma and Pa all threaten the family. Will they stick by their beloved Belfast and the little street they’ve lived on for so long? Or will they be forced to move to England till the Troubles blow away?

Belfast is a touching look at life in Belfast during the Troubles as seen through the eyes of a small boy. Well-known actor/director Kenneth Branagh grew up there, and presumably it’s based on his memories. As such, there’s a misty-eyed sentimentality to much of the film, as would any adult thinking back to his childhood. It’s nicely shot in black and white, and the acting is generally good, though the characters seem straight out of central casting — no big creative leaps here. The best parts are the unusual and realistic childhood memories that are totally separate from the Troubles. Things like kid gangs and shoplifting happening simultaneously with the looting, intimidation and riots. But there’s also a disjointed feel to the film itself. Van Morisson’s music is great but it doesn’t fit the mood. And there’s a strange music video inserted into the movie, for no apparent reason other than providing footage for a trailer. Gimmicks — like having people filmed in black and white watching a movie in colour — are just embarrassing.  Even so, there are enough surprising plot turns and beautiful images that linger after the movie. While flawed, Belfast is still a touching, bittersweet look at one boy’s childhood in an historical moment.

Vicious Fun is the opening film at B.I.T.S., the Blood in the Snow Film Festival; In-between Girl is now screening at ReelAsianfilm Festival, and Belfast — which won the people’s choice award at TIFF this year, opens this weekend in Toronto 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

Two Thimothées. Films reviewed: Dune, The French Dispatch

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Art, Canada, Food, France, Journalism, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Writers by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2021

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

Nostalgia is an interesting phenomenon that changes with the times, where past events are coloured by present-day attitudes. This week, I’m looking at two new movies: one set in the future but based on a novel from the 1960s; and the other set in the past but based on American perceptions of a Europe that never was.

Dune

Dir: Denis Villeneuve (Based on the book by Frank Herbert)

It’s the future. The universe is divided up by ruthless feudal planets looking to increase their wealth and power through extraction of precious minerals. One prize planet is Arrakis, seemingly inhospitable and covered in sand dunes, with gigantic killer worms living just beneath the surface. However the sand yields “spice” a highly coveted group of elements that make intergalactic travel possible. But the planet is populated by the fiercely independent Fremen. Paul (Thimothée Chalamet) the son of a Duke, is sent there after a cruel leader is forced to leave. Paul’s dad is a decorated military hero  (Oscar Isaac) and his mom is a sorceress (Rebecca Ferguson). So the multilingual young man has been trained from an early age both in martial arts and complex mental powers. He can predict the future through his dreams. He hopes to secure the planet while leaving the Fremen unharmed. But various international forces are working against him and his family— was he sent to the planet merely to be eliminated? 

Dune is a science fiction, space movie with a complex novelistic plot and many characters. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, done in the style of the cover art of 1970s paperbacks. I’m talking gorgeous costumes with the Fremen dressed like multi-ethnic saharan Tuareg, and concrete beige spaceships rendered in a brutalist style. And it’s shot in IMAX, meaning it’s a tall movie not a wide movie. I saw it at TIFF at the Cinesphere, where 50-foot sandworms lunge at you from the screen, like they’re about to swallow you up. That said, while I loved the movie aesthetically, it didn’t move me emotionally at all. Maybe because I read the book in junior high so I knew what was going to happen, or maybe because it’s the first of a three part series and doesn’t really end, or maybe because science fiction isn’t supposed to make you cry. Whatever the reason, I think Dune is a fantastic, though unfulfilling, movie to see.

The French Dispatch 

Dir: Wes Anderson

It’s the Twentieth Century, Newspapers are revered, and even smaller cities have foreign correspondents. One such paper, based in Liberty Kansas, opens a bureau in France, known as the French Dispatch, to replace their usual colour Sunday supplement. They spare no expense, hiring the finest writers to ruminate on topics of their choice, including Berensen (Tilda Swinton) on art, Krementz (Frances McDormand) on politics, and Wright (Jeffrey Wright) on food. At its peak it has more than half a million subscribers, but when the editor (Bill Murray) dies, it publishes its final issue. This film dramatizes three of its best stories. In the first chapter, Berensen looks at Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) a killer locked away fin a prison for the criminally insane. He paints abstract canvases of his prison guard Simone (Lea Seydoux) who poses nude for him. But can a shady art dealer (Adrian Brody) save him from obscurity? In the second story, seasoned journalist Krementz covers the student uprisings of the 1960s, where she befriends young Zefirelli (Timothée Chalamet) who calls for revolution. But will her carnal attraction to the much younger student compromise her neutrality as a journalist? In the third story, ostensibly a look at a chef who works at the police station, turns into an action thriller, as a detective’s young son is kidnapped by a hardened criminal. Can a food critic write a credible eye-witness report on organized crime?

The French Dispatch is, of course, total fiction. These exciting stories are set not in Paris, but in a tiny town called Ennui-sur-Blasé. And the magazine is not the New Yorker — its from Liberty, Kansas, pop: 123. What it is is a highly-stylized, funny and quirky look at old school journalists and the stories they told. It’s loaded with in-jokes and thousands of obscure cultural references. Camera work is as precise as a graphic novel moving from panel to panel. Scenes vary between sharp black and white, faded colour or the garish tones of the 70s. Styles cover everything from animated comics, to stage plays, to old tabloid flash-photos. It’s almost overwhelming in its visual impact. French Dispatch is a brilliant illustration of mid-century, middle-class culture… and wonderful to watch.

Dune and The French Dispatch both open 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

Disturbed or unusual boys and men. Films reviewed: Halloween Kills, Mass, I’m Your Man

Posted in 1970s, Christianity, Death, Family, Germany, Horror, Religion, Romance, Satire, Science Fiction, Sex, Terrorism, Vengeance, violence by CulturalMining.com on October 16, 2021

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

Spring Film Festival season continues in October, with ImagineNATIVE showing wonderful indigenous films and art from here and around the world beginning next week; and Toronto After Dark, bringing us the best new horror, sci-fi and action movies, now through Sunday.

This week I’m looking at three new movies — a slasher horror, a serious drama, and a romantic comedy — about disturbed or unusual boys and men.

There’s a dangerous man with a knife and a mask; two sets of parents mourning the death of their boys; and a woman whose perfect date isn’t exactly human.

Halloween Kills

Dir: David Gordon Green

It’s 2018 in Haddonfield, Illinois. This town is notorious for a series of murders beginning in the late 1970s, by Michael Myers, a mysterious man in a white mask. Michael has brutally killed countless people using a sharp knife on Halloween. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) was a babysitter who survived this attack and the many others that followed. When he reappeared at this year’s Halloween, 40 years later, Laurie was not that surprised. Together with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and grand-daughter Allyson (Andi Matichek) they managed to finally defeated this monster by leaving him trapped in a burning house. Or have they? You see, Michael is virtually indestructible, with the mind of a disturbed six-year-old boy combined with the strength of a supernaturally strong man.  Turns out — surprise, surprise, surprise, — Michael is not dead. He’s back and ready to kill more people. So three groups set out to stop him: a posse of costumed competitors at a talent show at a local dive bar; a frenzied mob of vigilantes shouting Trump-like slogans; and Laurie Strode’s own crew. But can anyone defeat Michael Myers?

Halloween Kills is a classic, almost nostalgic, reboot of the 1970s slasher. This one takes up immediately after the 2018 version ends. But unlike that darkly humorous take, this one is more of a campy bloodbath filled with non-stop gruesome violence. It also includes flashbacks to the 70s, introducing a group of characters from that night and where they are now, 40 years later. There’s not much of a plot, per se, more just scene after scene of people being murdered by Michael. Which is not to say I didn’t like it. The music (by John Carpenter) the camerawork, the design and art direction, the whole feel of it provides a wonderful counterpoint to the disgusting blood and guts.  Halloween Kills is a delightfully pointless salute to the original 70s slasher. 

Mass

Wri/Dir: Fran Kranz

An Episcopal church in a small town is preparing for a meeting. It’s not the usual choir practice or AA meetings. This one is different. Four people — two middle-aged married couples — have never met face to face but know a great deal about each other. Their sons went to school together. Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs) are filled with dread, and seething with anger. They almost can’t bear to enter the building. Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney) are desperately trying to make a connection and to mend  — not burn — the bridges that bind these two couples. What is it that ties them together? Linda and Richard’s son gunned down a dozen people in his school, including Gail and Jay’s boy, before turning the gun on himself.

Gail and Jay’s lives are ruined and they are still trying to recover from the massacre. But Linda and Richard’s lives are even worse. They can’t publicly mourn the loss of their only child, and are bombarded by hate mail. They are filled with guilt and remorse — is what their son did their fault? Were they bad parents? Did they pay too much attention, or not enough? Through an open and unmoderated discussion, including the showing of photos and telling of stories, the two couples are there to better understand the feelings of the others, and ultimately, to look for forgiveness.   But will they find it at a small table in a spartan church room?

Mass is a highly emotional look at four fragile adults. It’s basically a long, slow-paced conversation, especially between the two mothers. The acting is great, and the topic is supercharged. You have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate Mass. I found it a bit hard to watch, with zero eye candy or external flashbacks, basically nothing to look at other than their faces. it’s visually dead, except for the raw emotions expressed by the four characters… but if you stick with it, you’ll find the most emotional moments are cleverly inserted, almost incidentally, near the end.

I’m Your Man

Co-Wri/Dir: Maria Schrader

Alma (Maren Eggert) is a single woman, a noted academic at a famous Berlin museum. She specializes in Sumerian cuneiform tablets. She also spends one day a week with her angry father who is suffering from dementia. Her life, and career, are satisfying but uneventful. Until she becomes a reluctant participant in an unusual experiment: to spend three weeks living with and observing, a perfect lover. This man, they say, is handsome, smart and courteous, there to address and satisfy all her wants and needs. But who is this mysterious date? It’s Tom (Dan Stevens). Tom’s hair teeth and body, are always perfect. He never gets angry, and speaks with an oddly alluring foreign accent. And he goes out of his way to make her life more romantic, dropping rose petals in her bubble bath by the light of flickering candles. He likes to dance the Rumba, And he is highly skilled in bed, precisely trained on how to give a woman the ultimate orgasm. But Alma recoils from him, refuses to sleep with him, and treats him like dirt. She gives him a small cot to sleep on in a windowless storage room.

What’s Alma’s problem?

Tom is a robot. And one designed especially for her. But while 82% of German women in her age bracket say they desire candles and rose petals, Alma is not one of them. She hates that stuff. And she feels put upon by this machine. Where is his sense of humour? Where is his spontaneity? Where is his humanity? But the thing is, Tom is not just a machine, he has artificial intelligence. He can learn, adapt and change… as long as she lets him into her life. Can the two of them ever understand each other? Will their relationship become sexual? And is love possible between humans and machines? 

I’m Your Man is a surprisingly romantic story, wonderfully told. It explores concepts of love, reality and what people really look for in a relationship. It’s funny, quirky, tender and surprisingly easy to believe, despite the science-fiction premise. While there are some special effects, most of the stranger stuff is handled by the actors themselves.  I’m Your Man uses a simple idea to explore unexpected places.

This movie really grabbed me — I liked it a lot.

Halloween Kills, Mass, and I’m Your Man all open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Innocent children. Films reviewed: Lamb, The Rescue, Squid Game

Posted in Animals, Class, Docudrama, documentary, Fairytales, Family, Farming, Gambling, Games, Iceland, Korea, Rural, Thailand, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on October 9, 2021

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

In movies, little kids and innocent animals are the perfect way to gain our sympathies. But what about adults who have fallen on hard times?

This week I’m looking at two new movies and a miniseries from around the world all about the innocent. There’s a childless couple on an Icelandic farm who adopt a baby lamb; a teenaged Thai soccer team trapped in a cave; and Korean ne’er-do-wells forced to compete at childish games… in a kill-or-be-killed arena. 

Lamb

Co-Wri/Dir: Valdimar Jóhannsson

Maria (Noomi Rapace) and  Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) are a married couple who live on a sheep farm in rural Iceland at the base of a snow-capped mountain, beside a twisting brook. Their  lives are content but lonely, with just a cat, a dog and each other to keep them company.  Their only child died, leaving a gap that can’t be filled. If only they could go back in time… or somehow bring their lost child back to life. Until, one of their sheep gives birth to an angelic baby lamb. And there’s something different about this one. They immediately bring it into their home, feed it milk from a bottle and put it to sleep in their baby’s crib. They name it Ada, after their own child. 

What’s so different about Ada? Their face, shoulders and one arm are like any other lamb, but the rest of their body is human. It’s a gift from the gods, they say. They teach Ada nursery rhymes, take them for walks, and dress them like any other child. Ada can’t speak, but understands Icelandic and can nod or shake their head in response to questions. But  not everybody is happy with the new arrangement. Ada’s mother, a ewe,  wants her baby back. She waits outside their window each day longing for her lamb. And Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), Ingvar’s brother, returns to the farm after decades living in Reijkjavik as a rock musician. Can this unusual family stay to gather? Or will outside forces tear them apart?

Lamb is a very unusual movie, a combination, fairytale, love story and haunting family drama with all the complications that entails. It’s pace is slow-moving and rustic — like life on a farm — but not boring, even though the people don’t talk very much. It’s beautifully shot amidst Iceland’s stark scenery, and the acting is good and understated. (You probably recognize Noomi Rappace — best known for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) And though not much happens, the ending is certainly a surprise. Lamb is a nicely understated film..

The Rescue

Dir: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

It’s June, 2018 in Northern Thailand near the Burmese and Laotion borders.  12 young soccer players — age 11-16 — and their coach go for a day trip to explore the popular local caves. Tham Luang is a miles-long twisting tunnel filed with beautiful limestone rock formations. They are always closed during monsoon season in July, as it’s prone to flooding. But this year the rains came early, and the entire team was trapped, surrounded by rushing water, deep inside the caves. The Thai Navy seals were sent in to rescue them and bring them food, but they were trapped there too. They also recruited some of the best cave divers — a very obscure area of expertise — from

the UK, Belgium, the US, and elsewhere. But as days turn to weeks, time is running out, and the waters keep rising. Can the boys be saved?

This documentary looks in detail at the story — which held the world’s attention for weeks —  of the miraculous rescue and the hundreds of people involved in it. It uses archival TV footage, news animation, and brand new interviews. It also re-enacts many of the crucial scenes — never captured on film for obvious reasons, they were too busy saving lives — using the original divers, and some actors. The film is made by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, known for their breathtaking docs following mountain climbers — films like Free Solo. The Rescue (which won the People’s Choice award at TIFF this year) is also exciting and gripping, but not as much as the mountain climbing. This is mainly underwater and in near darkness, plus the fact that nearly everyone still remembers the story from just 3 years ago, no spoilers needed. I would have liked to have heard more from the Thai rescuees and a bit less from the British rescuers, but I guess they didn’t want to give interviews. I enjoyed The Rescue, but I wasn’t blown away by it.

Squid Game

Wri/Dir: Hwang Dong-hyuk

It’s present day Korea. 

Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) is a compulsive gambler who grew up in a working-class neighbourhood. He is constantly compared with his best friend from childhood Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), who made millions as a top financier, while Gi-hun spiralled deeper and deeper into debt. His wife divorced him and he rarely sees his 10 year old daughter, whose step father is taking her to The States. On top of this his elderly mother is suffering from diabetes. How can he get some cash — quick? At the racetrack, of course, But his winnings are stolen by a stealthy pickpocket (Lee Jung-jae). And that’s when he receives a mysterious card from a strange man. He is invited to play some games to earn a lot of money. He — and 500 others — say yes, and wake up in a strange uniform at an unspecified place. He remembers the games from childhood, like Freeze or Statues where you try to cross the line, but have to freeze when the caller tells you too. The difference is, if you move, you get gunned down by snipers! These games are deadly and there’s no way out. But the winner will get all the cash in a giant glass globe suspended overhead. Who will survive? Who is behind this perverse game? And why are they doing it?

Squid Game is an engrossing nine-part Netflix dramatic thriller about a group of people down on their luck forced to play a deadly game. Aside from Gihun, his pickpocket is also there — she’s a defector from North Korea; as is his childhood best friend who was caught with his hand in the till. Other characters include an elderly man with cancer, a disbarred doctor, a migrant worker from Pakistan, a petty gangster, and an aging, foul-mouthed sex worker with lots of moxie to spare. And an undercover cop, trying to infiltrate the organization to discover what happened to his missing brother. And they’re supervised by ruthless, nameless and faceless guards dressed in pink hooded jumpsuits. What keeps you watching this bloody and violent drama are the characters — they’re funny, quirky each with their own stories to tell.  Squid Game is an incredibly popular series out of Korea, one of Netflix’s top TV shows to date. And I can see why.  It seems silly, but it’s a great binge-watch, each chapter ending with enough of a cliff hanger to keep you hooked till the end.

This is a good one.

The Rescue and Lamb open this weekend; check your local listings. Squid Game is now streaming on Netflix.

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

Opening and closing nights at TIFF. Films reviewed: Dear Evan Hansen, One Second

Posted in 1960s, Bullying, China, Communism, Depression, Drama, Family, High School, Movies, Musical, Poverty, Prison, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 25, 2021

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

The ending of summer and TIFF marks the beginning of Toronto’s Fall Film Festival season. And first in line is the TPFF, Toronto’s Palestine Film Fest on now through Sunday, with films, workshops, exhibitions and feasts, both here and digitally across the country. Go to TPFF.ca for details.

But this week I’m tying up loose ends by looking at the opening and closing night features at TIFF. In a show of solidarity and togetherness in the face of increasing worldwide tension, the festival opened with a film from the US and closed with one from China. And, coincidentally, both films are about underdogs and outcasts. There’s a suburban high school student whose life is changed by a letter, and an escapee from a labour camp in China whose life is changed by a movie.

Dear Evan Hansen 

Dir: Stephen Chbosky

Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a high school student in suburban USA. He’s depressed, painfully shy and insecure. His broken arm is in a cast. He lives with his mom, a nurse (Julianne Moore) who sends him to a therapist to handle his difficulties. His summer assignment? To write optimistic letters to himself in the third person — “Dear Evan Hansen” to help raise his spirits. And his Mom suggests he get all his friends to sign his cast. But the first day of school turns out so dismal that he rewrites his letter into one of despair. An angry loner named Connor (Colton Ryan) offers veto sign his cast — so we can both pretend we have friend. But after a tussle, Connor snatches the letter from his hands and runs away. And the next day Connor is dead from suicide, with no note except Evan’s sad letter they find in his pocket. Connor’s Mom and Dad  (Amy Adams, Danny Pino)

turn to Evan — thinking they’ve found their late son’s secret pal. Evan, who barely sees his mother is so happy to have anyone pay attention to him, that he decides to brighten their day by talking about Connor and himself — all imaginary of course but anything to make them happier. And it doesn’t hurt that Evan has a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). 

Alana, the most popular kid at school (Amandla Stenberg) urges Evan to form a group to remember Connor. He can hardly say no since he says they were once friends. The deception grows and grows, until he gives a moving speech captured on other people’s phones, which immediately goes viral. Donations pour in to commemorate Connor, his family is happy again, and tens of thousands feel their lives have been improved, even saved, because of Evan’s talk. But it’s all a deception. Will he come clean? And will he get the help he needs/ And what about Zoe?

Dear Evan Hansen is an emotionally moving, constant tear-jerker that doesn’t let up until the end. It’s bases on the hit Broadway musical, and stars Ben Platt who originated the role and who sings with a sublime angelic tenor. It’s filled with songs and dances punctuated by wistful gazes at the sky, a tree, a window or into other people’s eyes. I’m not a big fan of Broadway musicals but I really liked this one. It’s poignant more than depressing, and you really feel for the main characters. So if you want to break your heart over and over, and listen to some songs, don’t miss Dear Evan Hansen.

One Second 

Dir: Zhang Yimou

It’s China’s Cultural Revolution. A man (Zhang Yi) who escaped from a labour camp in the Gobi Desert is walking across the sand dunes. His mission: to watch a movie. There are very few movies you’re allowed to watch during the Cultural Revolution, and he’s desperate to see one in particular. But there’s someone else also looking for a film. A street urchin with dirty face and unkempt hair, known as Orphan Liu (Liu Haocun) is intent on stealing a reel for his own nefarious purposes (we find out later she’s a girl, not a boy). The two engage in a cat-and-mouse chase until the reel is returned to its rightful place: in the hands of the town projectionist known as “Mister Movie” (Wei Fan). He’s an arrogant perfectionist, highly revered in the village because he’s the only source of entertainment. Tonight’s show? Heroic Sons and Daughters, an operatic drama about the anti-Japanese War decades earlier. But when the dust settles Mister Movie  realizes one of the reels has been damaged — it’s just a pile of tangled film covered with sand and dust. He cancels the screening. Whaaaat?

The townspeople are mortified, and none more that the escaped prisoner. He, and everyone else, agree to communally rescue the damaged reel, wiping clean each frame and rolling it back into its spool. The escapee  especially needs to view it that night. Why? Because of the newsreel. His daughter — whom he hasn’t heard from since he was arrested and sent away for punching a Red Guard — appears in it for one second. It’s his only chance to see her. And he’ll stop at nothing so he can see it. Will the films be shown? Will he get to see his daughter? And will Orphan Liu get what she’s looking for?

One Second is a lovely and touching look at the personal effect of movies on the people who watch them. It’s well crafted and historically evocative. It’s set during the Cultural Revolution, with Mao’s quotations painted on every wall. Though it’s portrayed lightly, it does reveal the poverty, oppression and unfairness of that period. People are hungry, children are bullied, police beat up the wrong person, and everyone — including  Mister Movie —is in constant fear of losing their job due to corrupt or indifferent party members.  But there are happy times too, like when the whole village bursts into song, along with the soldiers on the screen. No spoilers, but the storyline of the movie they watch — Heroic Sons and Daughters, about a soldier separated from his daughter — is reflected in the real lives of all the main characters in One Second.

This is a beautiful, nostalgic, and ultimately feel-good movie. 

Dear Evan Hansen opens this weekend — check your local listings; One Second should be opening later this year.

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 Jeff Harris about #TIFF21!

Posted in Interview, Movies, TIFF by CulturalMining.com on September 18, 2021

(Short version) 

(Extended version)

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

Photo by Jeff Harris.

TIFF is the one of the world’s biggest film festivals, where independent filmmakers from around the world show their latest work young actors give breakaway performances, and forgotten names try for their come-backs. Celebrities, publicist, the press and autograph seekers live in a weird symbiotic relationship. And movie lovers have a chance to see the best new movies of the year before they are released. But what’s it like during a pandemic when people are still tiptoeing around? How is TIFF right now? What is working, what isn’t? What’s surprising, and what movies are good, bad, or indifferent?

Well to answer some of these questions — and many more — I’m discussing this year’s festival with a long-time collaborator, marking his fifth time on this show.

Jeff Harris is an award-winning photographer and a freelance journalist who for 20 years has been covering TIFF for Macleans and The Walrus.  Next week he’s launching TIFF Tok on Tik Tok brand new TikTok reviewing 30 films in 30 days. 

I spoke with Jeff in Toronto, in person.

The Rise and Fall of Female Celebrities: Films reviewed: The Eyes of Tammy Faye, France, Spencer

Posted in 1980s, 1990s, Biopic, Corruption, France, Journalism, Religion, Royalty, UK, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 18, 2021

TIFF is almost over now, but there’s still one day left to see some films. And although there aren’t many famous people appearing on King St this year, there are a lot of movies about celebrities. How they rise to fame and how they are often brought down again by the voracious papparazzi-fueled press. So this week I’m looking at three TIFF movies — two biopics and one dramedy — about female celebrities who just want to be loved. There’s a newscaster in Paris who is part of the news; a princess in England who is part of the royals; and a televangelist who is the target of the mainstream press.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Dir: Michael Showalter

Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastaine) is a televangelist. Born in International Falls, Minn, a small town on the Canadian border, she is raised by a strict mother (Cherry Jones) who calls her a harlot. She is born again in a Pentecostal church where she is speaking in tongues at an early age. At bible college she meets her future husband, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). He rejects the dour talk of sin and instead subscribes to a charismatic evangelism, one where all are welcome, regardless of belief or denomination. Wealth, not poverty, is desirable. Tammy loves his ideas and him. But she wears makeup and bright colours, and they end up in bed together and eventually married. 

They are expelled from the school, but bounce back. Tammy makes an ugly little puppet out of a bubble bath container to attract kids to revival meetings. Their popularity takes off and before you know it, they’re regulars on Pat Robertson’s Christian TV show. They break away to form their own satellite-powered TV network, attracting viewers and followers worldwide — people who enthusiastically send tons of cash to keep the show going. Tammy’s songs hit the Christian music charts while Jim expands their financial holdings, opening theme parks and other ventures. Tammy and Jim love the wealth and luxury their show brings in — the mink coats and fancy homes. Their sex life, however, takes a dive. Neglected by her husband, Tammy is attracted to handsome men — and, so it seems, is Jim. She turns to Ativan and Diet Coke to keep her engine running. But they’re facing trouble. The mainstream press exposes scandal after scandal. And lurking in the background is the Christian Right, led by the notorious Jerry Fallwell (Vincent D’Onofrio). Can their marriage last? Will their financial empire stay afloat? Will Tammy’s mom ever respect her? And will the people always love her?

The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a stylized, tongue-in-cheek biopic about the rise and fall of a televangelical superstar. The title refers both to her gaudy false eyelashes as well as the trademark tears she could generate on command. Jessica Chastain creates an unforgettable character  through the use of facial prosthetics and heavy-duty makeup as she ages. She mainly plays Tammy for the laughs — there’s a wide streak of camp running through the whole film — but there is some heart behind it. And on the serious side, it points out her advocacy of AIDS patients, just when Falwell was publicly attacking them. I quite enjoyed the movie, it’s a lot of fun with tons of flashy colour and splashy music. It’s clearly Oscar bait — this is Jessica Chastain looking for golden statues — but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of watching it.

France

Wri/Dir: Bruno Dumont

France de Meurs (Léa Seydoux) is a TV news reporter in Paris like none other. One day she’s flying off to a war front in the Sahel, the next she’s mediating between two political commentators. She’s beautiful, talented and loved by millions. At a presidential press conference she can upstage Macron. Her husband Fred is a novelist, and they live with their son Jojo in a flat thats more of an art museum than a home. And with the constant help of Lou (Blanche Gardin), her assistant and manager, she navigates from one success to the next. She’s untouchable. Until something throws her off kilter. Her car, caught in traffic, accidentally bumps a young man on a motorbike hurting his leg. Baptiste is working class, the son of Algerians. France is mortified and goes out of her way to  visit his family, showering them with gifts. But a deep-down depression has taken hold.

Her self confidence is fading and she’s prone to breaking into tears at the first provocation. Fred finally sends her to an alpine spa to recover, where she meets a guileless young man named Charles (Emanuele Arioli) who has never heard of her. Is he the answer to her prayers? Or just her latest obstacle as she falls deeper and deeper into her abyss?

France is a satirical dramedy about France (the country) its politics, celebrities and news media. Like the 1987 film Broadcast News it exposes the falsity and contrivedness of the news industry — their posing, re-shooting of answers in interviews, and the staging of news scenes during a war. But just as the film exposes the tricks and manipulation of reporting, Bruno Dumont (the filmmaker himself) relies on his own contrived story. Poor France! She’s subject to Dumont’s morbidly humorous plot turns, inflicting more and more calamities on his poor hapless character. France de Meurs is Dumont’s Job. 

The film kept me interested all the way through, and Lea Seydoux is really good in her role as a manipulative but likeable celebrity, but it goes on way too long — one of those movies that feel like they’re about to end, but don’t.

Spencer 

Dir: Pablo Larraín

It’s Christmas Eve in 1990.

Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) is late for lunch. She’s driving to Sandringham Castle and and has lost her way. She grew up on a country home nearby. Eventually she is rescued by Darren the palace chef (Sean Harris) who runs his kitchen like a military battalion. But Diana doesn’t want to be there. She hates the weird family traditions she’s forced to follow. Things like sitting on a scale when you enter to see how many pounds you’ll gain feasting over Christmas. Not much fun for someone with Bulimia. She dreads the clothes and jewels she’s forced to wear, and can’t stand the family dinners — she thinks the royals can all read her mind. Her only allies are her young sons William and Harry, with whom she can act like a normal mom; and her dresser and confident Maggie (Sally Hawkins) whom she can tell anything.

Why is she so distraught? Because she knows her husband is having an affair. The constant hounding by the dreaded cameramen is deadly, but even worse are the palace rules, enforced by a cryptic royal military officer. Major Alistar Gregory (Timothy Spall) feels it’s his duty to police everything she does — and she despises him for it. He sews her curtains shut — to stop the photographers, he says — and banishes Maggie from the castle. And as the three days around Christmas come to pass, her depression and anger makes way for paranoid delusions. Is she a princess or a prisoner? And can she ever get away from this awful, gilded life?

Spencer is an experimental film that looks at three days of Diana’s life, her last ones spent as a member of the royal family. It’s beautifully done, but in a highly interpretive way. She is constantly haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn who was killed by Henry VIII. She seeks solace in a scarecrow she finds on her father’s estate next door. And her dreams, fantasies and realities start to blend.  This is a beautiful movie, marvellously made. At certain angles Kristen Stewart does look like Diana, but this is really a fictional interpretation of the character she creates. She doesn’t try too hard to match her class and accent, just her thoughts  and mood. If you’re a stickler for historical accuracy and stodgy characters, this one’s not for you. But if you approach it instead as an experimental and surreal character-study of a troubled woman, I think you’ll love it like I do

All three of these movies played at TIFF. Spencer opens in November, The Eyes of Tammy Faye 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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Bretten Hannam about Wildhood premiering at #TIFF21!

Posted in Canada, Family, Friendship, Indigenous, Interview, LGBT, Mi'kmaq, Movies, Road Movie by CulturalMining.com on September 4, 2021

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

Photos of Bretten Hannam by Jeff Harris.

Link and Travis are half-brothers who live with their physically abusive dad in a trailer park down east. Link hates it there, but it’s the only life he’s known since his mother died when he was three. But when he finds a birthday card his dad has hidden from him, he realizes his mother might still be alive. So the two brothers run away. On the road they meet Pasmay, a Mi’kmaq who was kicked out of his home because of his sexuality. Together the three embark on a journey down a twisted path where mi’kmaw and two spirited cultures meet. For Link, it’s an education and an initiation into a world he finds both frightening and alluring. Can this mismatched threesome become a makeshift family? And will they ever find out what happened to Link’s mother?

Wildhood is a wonderful new film that’s a romantic drama, a coming-of-age story, and a picaresque adventure all in one. It encompasses brotherhood, family and identity — all told from an indigenous and queer point of view. It’s written and directed by Bretten Hannam and it’s their first feature film.

I spoke with Bretten Hannam from Toronto via Zoom.

Wildhood had its world premiere at TIFF21. 

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