Adapted from plays. Films reviewed: The Whale, Matilda

Posted in College, comedy, Disabilities, Fairytales, Family, Gay, Kids, Musical, School, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 17, 2022

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

With holiday season upon us, it’s a time when students and their parents have a chance to take some time off. And if you can’t afford a ticket, there are lots of Christmas movies playing for free at the Hot Docs Cinema at Bloor and Bathurst. So in honour of Christmas break, this week I’m looking at two new movies adapted from plays, with an educational theme. There’s a college professor who is ashamed to show his face to his students, and a little schoolgirl who dares to talk back to her headmistress.

The Whale

Dir: Darren Aronofsky

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a college teacher who conducts his classes on his computer. And he never shows his face. He says it’s because he’s technologically inept but the real reason is he weighs 600 pounds and doesn’t want to show himself on camera. He works out of his home, and gets everything delivered to his door. And he’s visited daily by a nurse named Liz  (Hong Chau) who takes care of him, drops off food and keeps him company each day. They’re friends but also share a common history. She constantly warns him that his extreme weight pushes his blood pressure to dangerous levels — he may be dead in a matter of weeks — but Charlie refuses to make any changes to his diet or habits; it’s almost as if he wants to die. 

But his usual life is interrupted by some unexpected visitors. First a stranger, a young Christian missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins). Thomas walks through the door uninvited just as Charlie, who is masturbating to gay porn in his living room, has a blood pressure incident. Barely able to speak, he hands Thomas a piece of paper and tells him to read it aloud: it’s an essay on Moby Dick which is the only thing that can calm his racing heart, and possibly save his life. Later, another visitor comes by, a rude and foulmouthed  teenaged girl named Ellie (Sadie Sink). She is his daughter, who he hasn’t seen since he walked out of his marriage a decade earlier. She wants to know why he left her and why he never visits. Can Charlie reconcile with his daughter? How does he know Liz? Why is the missionary there? Why is one bedroom of his home kept permanently locked? And why is he so depressed that he’s committing slow suicide by overeating?

The Whale is an extremely moving drama about a day in the life of an isolated gay man who punishes himself for something from his past. It deals with his extreme physical disabilities;  in his 50s Charlie is less mobile than an old man, but his brain is as sharp as ever. Adapted from his own play by Samuel D. Hunter, it’s told theatrically in a series of acts all within his home, almost as if it were on a stage, with the players entering and exiting in turn. Each character has a history and a secret, eventually revealed, which adds great dramatic tension to the story. And the acting is superb, most of all Brendan Fraser. 

At the same time, the Whale Was clearly made to win prizes. I’ve seen enough movies to know when an actor uses prostheses (Charlie is portrayed wearing a “fat suit”) and plays someone with a disability — whether a mental or physical illness or handicap — you know it’s Oscar bait. The thing is, Fraser is clearly a good actor and has a natural heft to his body, so I don’t think he needed all this extra elaborate makeup and costume. What is disturbing is the degree if Charlie’s self-loathing: he practically begs other people to call him hideous, grotesque and ugly. The thing is, it’s all in his mind. He’s actually a kind and pleasant guy, not the monster he’s trying to be. Don’t confuse the character’s psychology with the point of the film. And aside from a truly gross binging scene, The Whale  is really a beautiful and tender film. 

Matilda

Dir: Matthew Warchus

Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is a little girl who has never been to school. Her parents consider her a burden, so she lives in a tiny room in the attic, and educates herself at the local mobile library, where the kindly Mrs Phelps (Sindhi Vee) gives her a pile of books to read each day along with sage advice. But everything changes when a truant officer shows up at her door ordering her parents to send her to school. She starts her classes the next day at Crunchem Hall, a scary gothic structure behind a foreboding metal gate. It’s ruled by the cruel Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (an unrecognizable Emma Thompson), who treats it as somewhere between a boot camp and prison, not a place for fun and games or learning. Her strict rules are enforced by older students who serve as her henchmen. And woe to any student who is caught, or even accused of, disobeying. They might have their ears stretched, or their pigtails pulled by Miss Trunchbull herself. Or worst of all, they could be sent to The Chokey, a miserable, one-person jail, a dark, wooden shack festooned with chains and locks. No, not the Chokey! Luckily, there is hope.  Her teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) is as kind as the Headmistress is cruel. She quickly recognizes Matilda’s genius, and takes her under her wing. But the headmistresses is out to get her: she vows to break Matilda’s spirit and put her in her place. Will Matilda defy the Headmistress? And can she she outsmart her? Or will she end up in the Chokey?

Matilda is a fantastic kids’ musical, full of catchy songs and dances and a plethora of quirky characters within the huge ensemble cast, in the manner of Oliver! or Annie, but funnier. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, it’s full of Dickensian references but without Victorian morality to weigh it down: Matilda is a naughty girl who gets back at her tormenters with tricks of her own (She turns her father’s hair green and puts crazy glue on his hat brim.) Though it’s a timeless story, the art direction suggest a campy retro 1980s setting. Weir is a good Matilda, and Emma Thompson plays Miss Trunchbull to the hilt as an olympic hammer thrower, an intimidating fascist dictator, bedecked in khaki from head to toe. And Lashana Lynch is very sweet as Miss Honey. There’s also a story within the story, a fairytale about an acrobat and an escapologist; Matilda tells a chapter of that story to the librarian each day, like a modern-day Scheherazade. It’s very English, but with a nicely multi-racial cast. My only criticism is they occasionally get carried away with CGI effects, but not enough to spoil the film.

Kids will adore Matilda: the Musical, and I think grown-ups will too.

The Whale opens next weekend; check your local listings. Matilda is now playing theatrically in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and will start streaming on Netflix on Christmas Day. 

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

Unexpected adversaries. Films reviewed: White Noise, Violent Night, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Posted in 1980s, Addiction, Art, Christmas, comedy, Conspiracy Theory, Crime, documentary, drugs, Family, Horror, Mental Illness by CulturalMining.com on December 3, 2022

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

It’s December now with snow on the ground, time for movies to get your blood boiling. This week I’m looking at three new movies about unexpected adversaries: there’s an artist vs a philanthropist, Scrooge vs Santa… and Elvis vs Hitler?

White Noise

Wri/Dir: Noah Baumbach,

It’s the 80s in a small rustbelt college town.  Jack (Adam Driver) is a professor in the new field of Hitler studies. Along with his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) they raise their children, from babies to teens, in a modern, blended family. The kids Denise, Heinrich, Steffie and Wilder, are inquisitive  and precocious, and come from various marriages. At work, Jack lectures to worshipful students, and has intellectual discussions with his colleagues. His closest is Murray (Don Cheadle), a prof who specializes in cinematic car crashes, wants to raise Elvis studies to the level of Hitler studies. 

But there is trouble at home. Babette is obsessed with death and dying, and suffers from memory loss and unexplained absences. Denise suspects she’s on prescription drugs — she found a hidden bottle of Dylar, an unheard of medicine.  Meanwhile Jack is terrorized by nightmares and at times actually thinks he’s going to die. All these troubles are pushed aside when a real disaster happens: a truck crashes into a train carrying dangerous chemicals. The result? A toxic cloud floating above the area with unknown effects. The town is evacuated, the family forced to flee by station wagon to Camp Daffodil a weirdly-named military base. Rumours abound at the camp, and no one knows for sure what is happening. Can life return to normal? Will the toxic cloud blow away? Is Babette an addict? Will Jack’s academic secrets be revealed? And where does Dylar come from?

White Noise is a satirical look at dread, suspicion and alienation within an academic setting. It also looks at pop culture, art and the omnipresent consumer economy. I read Don Delillo’s novel when it first came out and I was captivated by the way it captured the dark mood at the time. Noah Baumbach takes a different path, treating the film as a comical period piece where people dress in funny 80s clothes and use obsolete technology. It looks for laughs in scenes like Jack getting tangled up in a kitchen phone cord. I have mixed feelings about this movie. Some parts just seem like running gags about those wacky 80s, turning serious scenes into absurdist jokes. Other parts are brilliant — like the pas-de-deux between Jack and Murray in a joint Hitler-Elvis lecture. Or an actual dance sequence down the aisles of a supermarket in the closing credits. And a cameo by the great Barbara Sukowa as a German nun in a hospital, should not be missed. While I couldn’t get emotionally into the characters or plot — Driver and Gerwig are both good actors but never seem real in this movie — and I felt detached from the film, I did find it interesting and visually pleasing. 

Violent Night

Dir: Tommy Wirkola

It’s Christmas Eve, and the Lightstone family are  gathered on their vast, private estate. Gertrude (Beverley D’Angelo) their autocratic matriarch, puts on an elaborate dinner each year with servants dressed as Nutcracker Suite characters. Her adult two adult children Cam and Alva, their spouses, and the grandkids Gertrude and Bertrude, (known as Trudy and Bert)outdo one another sucking up to her, to get their share of the family’s wealth. Everyone, that is, except little Trudy (Leah Brady), who doesn’t want any money or presents from Santa. She just wants her estranged parents back together again. 

This year, though, something goes terribly wrong: the costumed caterers turn out to be highly-trained paramilitary criminals, there to murder everyone and steal millions from the safe. They’re headed by a bitter man, nicknamed Scrooge (John Leguizamo) who hates Christmas. Little Trudy escapes from the family, hides in the attic, and calls to Santa Claus by walkie-talkie for help. And, to everyone’s shock, a drunken, bearded man in Christmas gear (David Harbour) comes to their rescue. He’s the real thing, but only Trudy believes in him. Can Santa and Trudy fight off dozens of ruthless killers? Can her parents overcome their differences? And can a worn-out, depressed and alcoholic Santa hang on for one more year… or is this the end of Christmas for everyone?

Violent Night is a comedy/action movie about a good little girl and a hard-ass Santa fighting cruel killers using horrific violence of their own. It’s a combination of two Christmas classics: Home Alone and Die Hard, but with the gore-level pumped up a few notches. Trudy’s booby traps turn out to be deadly, while Santa channels his past life as a Viking to wreak havoc with a hammer named Skullcrusher. Does this movie work? Totally! David Barbour (from Stranger Things) is great as a nasty Santa who pukes and pisses off his sleigh. He takes a licking but keeps on kicking. Newcomer Leah Brady as Trudy is cute — maybe too cute — but good enough. And most of the rest of the characters are sufficiently unlikeable to keep the story going. So if you’re looking for a fun and twisted action movie in time for Christmas, Violent Night fits the bill. 

All the Beauty and The Bloodshed

Dir: Laura Poitras

Nan Goldin is an artist known for her photographic portraits of the demimonde, with louche images of drugs, sex, and self-destruction. She rose to fame in the 1980s with her ever-changing performances of “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”, which combined music and a slide show of her pictures. But far from being a dispassionate observer of the lives of strangers or, worse, an ogler of outcastes, Goldin explicitly documented the lives of her closest friends and herself, including drag queens, junkies, artists and musicians, in various stages of undress. This was also the era of AIDS, which decimated the NY City art scene. Goldin recorded this, too. It was also the start of Act Up and other movements demanding attention from the government and Big Pharma.

Flash forward to the 2000s, when pharmaceutical corporations, through doctors, were strongly pushing prescriptions of opiates as non-addictive relief from the worst levels of pain. In fact they’re highly addictive, and one addict was Goldin herself. Though she kicked the habit, many were still dying from overdoses of opioids. And she noticed something strange. A major sponsor of the galleries and museums that displayed her work were sponsored by noted philanthropists The Sackler Family. And the Sacklers made their fortune through Purdue Corporation, peddling drugs like Oxycontin.  We’re talking the Louvre, the Met, Tate Modern, and the Guggenheim, among others. So she started a protest group called P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) which stages protests in the Sackler wings of museums world-wide.

All the Beauty and The Bloodshed is a fantastic documentary that records Goldin’s life and art, and her battle with the Sacklers. It’s engrossing and revealing, a work of art in its own right. The film includes contemporary footage as well as snapshots and films from Nan Goldin’s own personal history. She’s the cinematographer while the director is Laura Poitras, responsible for the world-changing doc Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a rare case of a political documentary that is also respectful of art. It’s visually and audibly stunning and though almost two hours long, it’s totally engrossing; one of the best documentaries of the year.

White Noise is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto; All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, is playing there and at Hot Docs cinema; while Violent Night opens this weekend across North America; 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.

Hollywood movies. Films reviewed: Glass Onion, The Fabelmans

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, comedy, Coming of Age, Family, Hollywood, Movies, Mystery, Secrets by CulturalMining.com on November 28, 2022

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

It’s Thanksgiving weekend south of the border, so movies are being released midweek. This week I’m looking at two new, big-ticket Hollywood movies, you might want to watch this weekend. There’s a mystery/comedy set on a private Greek island, and a coming-of-age drama set in postwar America.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Wri/Dir: Rian Johnson

Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is a conceited, ultra-rich tycoon who made his fortune in the tech sector. Now he amuses himself by throwing elaborate parties on his private Greek Island, where his select guests try to solve a mystery during their stay. But this year, there’s a surprise visitor — the famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). He’s there on the invitation of one of the party guests — Bron’s former business partner — who was secretly murdered, with her identical sister (Janelle Monáe) a meek introvert, impersonating the flamboyant victim. (She invites Benoit as her guest to find her sister’s killer.)

Benoit Blanc, of course, is the famous gay private investigator known for his dapper suits, southern drawl, and legendary detective skills. Other guests include a flaky fashion designer (Kate Hudson), an insufferable online celebrity (Dave Bautista), a devious politician (Kathryn Hahn), and a shady scientist (Leslie Odom, Jr.), among others. But the week-long game is spoiled when Benoit guesses the answer almost immediately, to the host’s displeasure. But, soon after, the real mystery begins, when one of the guests is murdered in plain sight without anyone knowing whodunnit. It becomes a race against time, as other guests start to disappear, one by one. Can Benoit identify the killer, uncover their motive, prevent any more murders, and solve the bigger mystery of why these particular people were invited to this party?

The Glass Onion is a brilliant sequel to Ryan Johnson’s Knives Out from a few years ago, with Daniel Craig repeating the role of Benoit Blanc. It’s hard to review a mystery without giving away the plot, but I’ll do my best. This movie is very cleverly done: like any good Agatha Christie-style mystery, all the different characters — both potential killer or killers and victims — are introduced at the beginning, with no surprises

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). (L-R) Jessica Henwick as Peg, Kate Hudson as Birdie, and Janelle Monáe as Andi. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix © 2022.

parachuting onto the Island. It’s also good because each character has their own quirks, back stories, secrets and motives, all of which are gradually revealed.  It’s even more fun because many of them are satirically modelled after certain celebrities. On top of that, there are a number of intricate clues hidden within clockwork-type devices featured in the film. 

I’ve been watching Rian Johnson’s work since his first film, Brick, came out almost 20 years ago, as he gradually honed his skills. I loved Knives Out, but was worried that a sequel might be a let down. But have no fear, Glass Onion is as good as or better than Knives Out. It’s hard to find movies these days that are there just for the viewers’ pleasure without ever pandering, dumbing down a plot, trying to sell you stuff or stealing ideas. Glass Onion avoids all that, concentrating instead on giving you a really fun night out. 

The Fabelmans

Dir: Steven Spielberg 

Written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner.

It’s Christmastime in the 1950s. Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) is a little boy who lives with his parents and sisters in New Jersey. Mitzi his mom (Michelle Williams) is a former concert pianist forced to adjust to suburban family life. But she manages to keep her sense of creativity front and centre. She refuses to do dishes, insisting instead on paper plates and plastic forks.  She’s the kind of woman who doesn’t hide from tornados, she chases them… and reads music scores in bed. She has a blonde pixie haircut and loves diaphanous white gowns. 

Burt (Paul Dano) his dad, is an engineer and part-time inventor who works for RCA and repairs old TV sets as a side job. He thinks science is superior, while art and movies are just for fun… but he worships the ground Mitzi walks on. And always close at hand is Burt’s best friend and workmate Bennie (Seth Rogan) who the kids all call Uncle.

The story begins with the parents taking Sammy to his first movie, Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Sammy is frightened but also mesmerized by a trainwreck in the movie where circus cars are derailed and wild animals run free. Sammy wants to film it. He manages to duplicate it on 8 mm film, repeatedly using his model train set seen from all the angles used in the movie. Sammy’s love of film is ignited — now he’s making silent monster movies at home starring his sisters. Later the family moves to Colorado, where Burt has a new position developing computers for General Electric.

And Uncle Bennie moves with them.

Teenage Sammy is now a boy scout, and, with his new friends, starts shooting and editing elaborate westerns and war movies to everyone’s delight. But in editing family films he discovers a hidden secret that threatens to pull them apart. 

Years later, they move to northern California where Burt now works for IBM. But Mitzi feels depressed and alienated and Sammy is bullied at school by guys who, he says, look like giant Sequoia trees. Can he still find solace making films? Will Mitzi adjust to a strange new environment? Or is the family heading for disaster?

The Fabelmans (meaning storytellers) is Steven Spielberg’s first fictionalized, semi-autobiographical look at how his childhood and adolescence led to his career as a filmmaker. I usually dislike movies about movies — they tend to be overly nostalgic and sentimental, and mainly there as Oscar-bait, to get people in the industry to vote for them. But this one is surprisingly good. And while there are many scenes of people staring at movie screens, there’s way more to it. It’s a bittersweet coming of age story, it’s a family story, and it’s a rare mother-son story: Sammy and Mitzi are both obsessive artists driven by their craft, but facing constant roadblocks put up by the conventional world. The film also incorporates the southwest, circuses, evangelism, folk singing, secular Judaism, family camping trips, and baby boom youth culture.

Michelle Williams is excellent as Mitzi, a complex character with many regrets. Canadian newcomer Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy is also great. And Judd Hirsch totally steals the scene as crazy Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a lion tamer who wants Sammy to understand that following your artistic dreams is like sticking your head into a lion’s mouth: it takes guts, drive and determination… and might hurt a lot.

The Fabelmans is a very enjoyable movie. 

Glass Oinion is on at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for one week only, while The Fabelmans is playing across North America; 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.

Fall dramas. Films reviewed: The Swearing Jar, The Wonder, Armageddon Time

Posted in 1800s, 1980s, Canada, Catholicism, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, Ireland, Kids, Music, New York City by CulturalMining.com on November 5, 2022

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

Fall Festival Season continues in Toronto with Cinefranco showing the latest films from France, Belgium and Quebec, and Reelasian with movies from East and South Asia, and the Asian diaspora. 

But this week I’m looking at three great new movies, all worth seeing. There’s a phenomenon in Victorian Ireland, a pregnancy in Ontario, and a friendship in Flushing, Queens.

The Swearing Jar

Dir: Lindsay MacKay

(Wri: Kate Hewlett)

Carey and Simon (Adelaide Clemens, Patrick J. Adams) are a couple in their thirties living in Carey’s large childhood home in in an unnamed Canadian city. She’s a school teacher who would rather be a musician, and he’s a writer who loves Shakespeare. They enjoy drinking, cussing and having fun. But when, after years of trying, Carey is finally pregnant, they decide to change their lives for the better, to be good examples for their upcoming baby (hence the swearing jar of the title). But for some reason, communication is breaking down. And when Bev, Simon’s alcoholic mom (Kathleen Turner) drops by unannounced, the tension grows. She repeatedly tells Carey that Simon is just like his dad — he’s gonna leave you, she says, they always leave you. Later, Carey sees Simon’s novel in the window of a bookstore, and makes friends with the guy who works there. Owen (Douglas Smith) is a musician like Carey once was… maybe they can write and play music together? But would that amount to cheating on her husband? 

The Swearing Jar is a delightful musical-romance about a couple dealing with her pregnancy along with an unexpected twist (no spoilers here).  The story is told through a series of vignettes alternating with related songs performed on stage by Carey and Owen in honour of Simon’s 40th birthday. The music is great with some catchy tunes, and the script (originally a play) is generally engaging and funny. Adelaide Clemens has a lovely voice — she and Douglas Smith show real chemistry — and I had no idea she’s actually Australian! This is good one.

The Wonder

Dir: Sebastián Lelio (Based on the story by Emma Donoghue)

It’s rural Ireland in the 19th century, not long after the Great Famine. Lib (Florence Pugh) is a respected nurse from England who trained under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War. She is hired to oversee an unusual patient. Her name is Anna, an 11-year-old girl who has stopped eating. She hasn’t taken a bite for months, but somehow she’s still alive. How is this possible? People arrive from all over, both penitents and tourists, to gawk at or be blessed by the saintly girl. So a local committee, headed by a doctor and a priest (Toby Jones, Ciarán Hinds), appoints a nun and a nurse (Lib) to take turns watching over Anna, one to make sure it’s a miracle, and the other that she’s not in physical danger. But something smells fishy here. So she joins with an investigative journalist from London, William Byrne (Tom Burke). But will their snooping around put the girl’s life on the line? And if so, what can they do to save her?

The Wonder is a wonderful historical drama, beautifully made. Pugh plays Lib as a modern woman who is serious about her career, but also takes recreational drugs and has casual sex for the pleasure of it, probably not typical in the Victorian era. But it also exposes dark and hidden secrets, which gives the movie a serious and disturbing undertone. It’s directed by Chilean Sebastián Lelio, who brought us other great movies with dynamic female characters like Gloria (my review here) and A Fantastic Woman (my interview with Daniela Vega). The Wonder doesn’t quite reach that level of angsty, subversive excellence (it’s more conventional), but still very good.  

Armageddon Time

Wri/Dir: James Gray (my review of The Lost City of Z)

It’s Flushing, Queens, NY City in 1980. Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is a little guy with red hair and blue eyes who wants to be a famous artist when he grows up. He lives in a small house with his bullying brother, his plumber dad, (Jeremy Strong) and Home-Ec teacher mom (Anne Hathaway). Encouraged by her and his beloved Liverpool-born grandpa (Anthony Hopkins) Paul devotes himself to reading Jansen’s History of Art and drawing everything he sees. But he has a short attention span — often drifting into daydreams — and acts up at home. On his first day of sixth grade, Paul manages to get into trouble even before his teacher, Mr Turtletaub, finishes taking attendance. His crime? Accurately drawing his teacher’s face. He’s soon relegated to chalkboard-cleaning at the front of the class alongside perpetual trouble-maker Johnny Davis (Jaylin Webb). Johnny, who lives with his grandmother, is into NASA, space ships, and Grandmaster Flash. He is repeating sixth grade for disobedience. They soon become best friends, with Johnny introducing Paul to hiphop and rockets, and the much shyer Paul standing up for his friend. Paul is white and Jewish, while Johnny is one of the only black kids in class.

They are both bright but are labelled as “slow”. Rejected by the school, they increasingly turn to rebelliousness to fight back. Soon the pre-teens are cutting class to smoke pot in the boys room. But when events escalate, Paul is sent to a strict, conservative prep school favoured by the Trump family, while Johnny finds himself homeless and on the run. Will their new situation make their friendship impossible?

Armageddon Time is an autobiographical, coming-of-age drama about a rebellious kid growing up in Flushing Queens, his family and his friends. It’s also a glimpse at the period, its music, attitudes and politics. Ronald Reagan is running for President, the subways are covered in graffiti and punk and hiphop are pushing disco away. Closely based on James Gray’s own childhood, it deals with racism, class, corporal punishment and loss, but also friendship, kinship and family. I can’t help comparing it to Stephen Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, coming out later this year, another great autobiographical movie about a future filmmaker’s childhood; but while Spielberg’s is cinematic and full of gushing music, Armageddon Time is much grittier, less idealized. This one is more about the not-so-nice aspects of growing up. Banks Repeta and Johnny Davis are both remarkable as the two kids — they don’t bother learning Flushing accents, concentrating instead on their performance. Hathaway, Hopkins and Strong were also excellent.

I was really moved by Armageddon Time.

The Wonder is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox;  The Swearing Jar and Armageddon Time also 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.

Wives and Moms. Films Reviewed: Ticket to Paradise, My Policeman, Till

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, African-Americans, Family, Indonesia, LGBT, Mississippi, Racism, Romantic Comedy, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 22, 2022

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

With Halloween approaching, Toronto After Dark is here until Sunday night to scare your pants off. And ImagineNative continues through the weekend with in-person screenings, followed by online movies till the end of the month.

This week I’m looking at three new movies — two historical dramas and one rom-com — about wives and mothers. There’s a wedding in Bali, a love triangle in Brighton… and a lynching in Mississippi.

Ticket to Paradise

Co-Wri/Dir: Ol Parker

David and Georgia Cotton (George Clooney, Julia Roberts) are a power couple. He’s a celebrated architect, while she directs a famous art gallery. They met in University, married and brought up their only child Lily (Kaitlyn Dever). She’s 24 now, but her parents? They’ve been divorced for two decades. They rarely see one another, and when they do, their conversation consists of put downs, and oneupmanship. But Lily loves both her parents, and is excited when they turn up for her law school graduation. And loves the fact they both accompany her to the airport. She’s flying with her best friend Wren (Billie Lourd) for a one-in-a-lifetime vacation at a fancy resort in Bali, before starting her job at a law firm in the fall. 

Once there, Lily is loving their vacation, until everything changes, when she’s stranded in the ocean far from shore. She’s rescued by a Balinese guy in a boat named Gede (Maxime Bouttier, the French/Indonesian actor/model). It’s love at first sight, and a few weeks later Lily has ditched her plans to be a lawyer and wants to live on the beach forever with a seaweed farmer. David and Georgia are invited to the wedding, and fly over together, bickering all the way. Tension rises when David discovers the jet is piloted by Georgia’s much younger boyfriend Paul (Lucas Bravo, Emily in Paris). 

But the ex-couple can agree on one thing. Lily is making a terrible mistake and they must do everything they can to stop it from happening. You see, Georgia gave up a promising career at an LA art gallery when David proposed to her — but their marriage fell apart after just a few years. So they owe it to their daughter to stop her from making the biggest mistake of her life. Will their plans succeed? Or will they alienate the only one they both love? And can David and Georgia ever get along? 

Ticket to Paradise is a traditional rom-com set in an “exotic” locale with big stars and some real laughs. The plot is threadbare and ridiculous — seriously, can you imagine grown- ups thinking they can stop a marriage merely by hiding the wedding rings? And it’s shot in Australia, not Bali; there’s no Kuta beach or Denpasar or Ubud, or anywhere else that evokes the island, aside from a few location shots That said, if you’re a fan of Clooney and Roberts — and they are fun to watch — and if you’re just looking for some ultra-light entertainment, and if rom-coms are your thing… well, you’ll probably like this one a lot. And even if you don’t like any of those (like me) it’s still totally watchable.

My Policeman

Dir: Michael Grandage (Genius: my review here)

Marion and Tom (Gina McKee, Linus Roache) are a retired couple living a quiet life in a seaside home in Brighton. But their marriage hits a rocky period when an invalid elderly boarder recovering from a stroke (Rupert Everett: The Happy Prince, review here) moves into their home. Marion feels they should take care of him, since he has no living relatives, while Tom is very disturbed by the notion. Who is he to us? He asks. What do we owe him? The answer lies in the journals he brought with him. Because, in fact, way back in the late 1950s, the three of them were very close. 

Tom (Harry Styles) is a young policeman dating Marion, a schoolteacher (Emma Corrin). It’s a tender courtship and the two are deeply in love. Tom introduces her to Patrick (David Dawson) who works at the local art museum: He’s smart and sophisticated. They met at the museum when Patrick asked Tom to model for his drawings. Will Marion fall for the sophisticated Patrick over the simple, but handsome policeman? No! There is a love triangle brewing here, but Marion isn’t the fulcrum, Tom is. He’s having a secret affair with Patrick. And when Tom says he’s travelling with him to Italy to work as his personal assistant, Marion gets suspicious. Thing is, being gay (or having gay sex) was a serious crime in the UK at the time. Somehow word gets out, and Patrick is arrested. Are Patrick and Tom in love? How about Marion? Who will vouch for Patrick if he goes to trial? Can Tom remain a policeman if his connection to Patrick gets out? And over 50 years later what will happen now that old secrets are being uncovered? 

My Policeman (based on the novel by Bethan Roberts) is a low-key, bitter-sweet drama about a menage a trois, and the fallout that comes from it. It’s told in flashforwards and flashback, following both periods simultaneously. It’s a compelling story but with a weak ending. The problem is the 50s section is much more interesting and moving, while the present day is dull and uneventful, which drags down the whole story. Harry Styles — the hugely popular pop singer — surprisingly, is not bad at all as an actor. Emma Corrin is great as the young Marion, likewise David Dawson who plays Patrick like a young Alan Cumming. I like the mood and the music and all, but as a whole My Policeman is easily forgettable. 

Till

Co-Wri/Dir: Chinonye Chukwu

It’s 1955 in Chicago.

Emmet Till (Jalyn Hall) — known as Beau to his Mom and Bobo to his friends — is 14 years old. He’s a happy, middle-class kid, who likes listening to music on the radio and playing with toys . He lives with his mom and grandparents. He’s getting ready for a train trip to visit his cousins in Mississippi, and he’s dressed in his Sunday best. But his mother, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler) doesn’t want him to go. She warns him that Black people down there aren’t treated the same way. You have to make yourself “small”. You can’t look a white person in the eyes. Emmett does a Steppin Fetchit imitation, but Mamie says this is no joke. She comes from there, it’s a dangerous place and she never wants to go back.

On the train heading south, Emmett starts to feel Jim Crow. He and all the other black passengers are forced to leave their seats and move to segregated cars. In Mississippi, all his relatives are share- croppers who pick their plantation managers’ cotton, even the kids, and spend all their money in the company store. Emmett, though, still doesn’t really get it. But when he buys some candy and whistles at the pretty white cashier, things turn from bad to worse. Three days later men bang at the door in the middle of the night and take Emmett away in a pickup truck. His lynched body, mutilated and swollen, is found floating in a river.

His mother is crushed, devastated, but, she buries her son in an open casket. It gets nationwide attention when his photos are featured in Jet magazine. And with the urging of the NAACP, she decides to return to Mississippi to seeking justice.

Till is an accurate and moving drama about this awful crime and the travesty of justice that follows. The lynching of Emmett Till served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement, but it’s also a symbol of the pervasive violence of anti-black racism. Danielle Deadwyler is stupendous as Mamie; and it’s her performance that makes this movie worth seeing. It’s told through Mamie’s eyes: before the killing, at the funeral, in the trial that follows and its aftermath.  What doesn’t work so well are the dozens of historical figures with walk-on parts. Their lines are dutifully recited but lack Deadwyler’s passionate acting; they just seem flat, and there are too many characters to keep track of. Stand-out exceptions include Darian Rolle’s powerful portrayal as Willie Reed, a surprise witness at the trial; and, of course, Jalyn Hall playing Emmett himself. Till is an important historical record that must not be forgotten.

My Policeman opens at the Tiff Bell Lightbox, with Till and Ticket to Paradise playing across North America 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.

Smiles and frowns. Films reviewed: Smile, Triangle of Sadness

Posted in Class, Horror, Mental Illness, Psychiatry, Psychological Thriller, Psychology, Supernatural, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on October 8, 2022

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

Weather changes with the seasons and so do our moods: one minute it may be sunny, the next dark and overcast. So this week I’m looking at two new movies about changing emotions. There’s a comedy about a frown and a horror movie about a smile.

Smile

Wri/Dir: Parker Finn

Dr Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) is a therapist who works in the emergency psych ward at a large New Jersey hospital. She’s always prim and proper, wearing buttoned shirts, with her hair neatly pulled back from her face. She spends most of her time at work, up to 80 hours a week, but on her free time she likes nothing better than sipping white wine in her bungalow, cuddling her fluffy cat Moustache or just chatting with Trevor, her nondescript fiancé. She is devoted to helping her patients, having survived her own mother’s mental illness and suicide when she was a little girl.

It’s just a normal day when she examines a new patient in intake. Laura is a grad student showing signs of paranoid delusions. She is terrified that someone is out to get her. “I’m not crazy, I’m a PhD candidate!” says Laura (as if the two were mutually exclusive).  She’s not sure whether it’s an evil spirit, a ghost or a satanic possession, but whatever it is, it’s been haunting her since she witnessed her prof commit suicide just a few days earlier. It takes the form of people closest to her, that only she can see. And worst of all, it has a horrible smile. And before Rose can do anything, Laura violently kills herself right in front of her… with that awful smile plastered on her face. And from that moment on things feel different for Rose. 

Her nightmares turn into daydreams. She begins to hallucinate — with figures from her past, including a dead patient, reappear before her, smiling. She has very few people to talk to outside of the hospital: Trevor, and her older sister Holly, who only talks about family and real estate. She visits her own former therapist, who refuses to prescribe anti-psychotics, saying it’s just stress and overwork. But Rose knows it’s something more. Everything that happened to Laura — and her professor before her — seems to be inflicted on Rose now. She finally turns to her ex-boyfriend Joel (Kyle Gallner) for help. He’s a police detective now, investigating Laura’s death; perhaps he can find out what’s causing these suicides. Because Rose is sure she’s either going insane, or is controlled by an evil entity… or both! And if she doesn’t do something fast, she’ll be dead in three days. Can Rose figure out what’s happening to her, and stop her impending, smiling suicide? Or is she out of time?

Smile is a good psychological thriller/horror. While it’s occasionally predictable — with some dubiously freudian plot turns — it’s mainly a gripping, scary flick. Great spooky music and some cool visuals, like disorienting, upside down drone shots of a cityscape, and a delightful scene change using the camera’s iris. And lots of cute, smiley-face images popping up everywhere in the background. I’ve never seen Sosie Bacon before, (she’s second generation Hollywood, the daughter of Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick) but she’s quite good as Rose, gradually transforming from uptight doctor to terrified heroine. 

If you’re in the mood for a good screamer, check out Smile. 

Triangle of Sadness

Wri/Dir: Ruben Östlund

Yaya and Carl (Charlbi Dean, Harris Dickinson) are a millennial power couple. Carl is a fashion model who is featured shirtless in perfume and underwear ads. He is known for his looks. But he still has to show up for cattle-calls. Yaya, though, is an influencer — her posts and selfies are followed by millions, and sponsors are constantly sending her money and goods to promote. But their unequal status spurs an argument. Why does he have to pick up the cheque when they go out to dinner? He’s the man in the relationship but Yaya is much more famous and earns way more money than Carl. It’s just not fair. So she invites him to join her on an elite cruise ship, all expenses paid.

The boat is an exclusive luxury liner, and the passengers are some of the richest people in the world. One couple made billions selling bombs and landmines. Another oligarch, named Dimitri (Zlatko Buric) proudly says he earned his fortune selling shit — literally. He cornered the market in fertilizer. And the staff are trained by Paula, the head of the crew (Vicki Berlin), to fulfill any whims or demands of the passengers no matter how outlandish or nonsensical. And Carl and Yaya soon find out that any casual complaint or criticism of a staff member they might make may lead to their instant dismissal. But the ship hits trouble on the high seas, and the captain (Woody Harrelson), an alcoholic communist, can’t stay sober long enough to prevent a disaster. 

Later, the passengers and staff regroup on a tropical isle, situated somewhere between Gilligan’s Island and Lord of the Flies. But with a new power structure in place, who will make it out of there alive?

Triangle of Sadness — the title refers to that part of the face from the brow to the bridge of the nose that supposedly conveys happy or sad emotions — is a scathing satire about the state of the world. Told in three chapters — in the city, on a ship, and on a remote island — it follows a young couple as they navigate life among the powerful and super-rich. It also shows what could happen if existing power structures (and the money that reinforces them) ceased to exist. Did I mention this is a comedy? I found it bitingly and bitterly hilarious, though at times disgusting. For humour’s sake, it reverses many presumptions: by presenting men — not women — as sexual objects subject to exploitation; and by pulling away the curtains hiding  the transgressions of the rich and powerful.

The acting in this dark comedy — especially by the late Charlbi Dean and Harris Dickinson, as well as Zlatko Buric and Dolly De Leon as Abigail a former toilet cleaner who suddenly finds herself as the big fish in a small pond — is excellent all around. The story is told as a comic fable, intentionally never realistic, with settings, costumes, and music, all reinforcing its farcical nature. This is not Swedish director Ruben Östlund first dark comedy — he previously directed such great movies as The Square and Force Majeure — but Triangle of Sadness is the most extreme of all his films, one that takes his themes beyond the expected limits. Though not universally loved, in my opinion this is one great movie.

Smile is now playing and Triangle of Sadness, which played at #TIFF22 earlier this year, opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this weekend.

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 #TIFF22

Posted in Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 30, 2022

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for Cultural Mining and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Photos by Jeff Harris.

TIFF is now finished, and the stars are long gone, but the movies live on. I spoke with Jeff Harris about this year’s festival: the changes — good and bad — the movies, the celebrities and their fans, audience reactions, standing ovations, prize winners, Oscar bait, sleepers, clunkers, and more.

 
Harry Styles Fans At TIFF22

A massive crowd turned up for the premiere of My Policeman starring Harry Styles. A sea of cell phones tried to catch a glimpse of rock star.

In Part One, we talk about these movies:

  • In Conversation With Taylor Swift
  • Gutsy (TV series)
  • Sidney
  • My Policeman (pictured)
  • Triangle Of Sadness

 

 

 

Some Weird Al super-fans showed up to the Midnight Madness premiere of Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. One arrived with a homemade puppet of Al – who has become perhaps the most recognizable (or funniest) accordion player in the world.

In Part Two, we discuss:

  • Catherine Called Birdy
  • The Son
  • The Fabelmans
  • Aristotle & Dante Discover Secrets…
  • Good Night Oppy
  • Brother
  • Bones Of Crows
  • The Colour Of Ink
  • Ever Deadly
  • Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (pictured)
  • Bros
  • The Whale
  • The Banshees Of Inisherin
 
 

I spoke with Jeff Harris in person after TIFF22.

Buffalo bros. Films reviewed: Bros, Dead for a Dollar, Butcher’s Crossing

Posted in 1800s, comedy, Guns, History, Horses, LGBT, New York City, Romantic Comedy, Western by CulturalMining.com on September 30, 2022

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

This week I’m talking about three guy movies — two westerns and a rom-com. There’s a bounty hunter searching in Mexico for a buffalo soldier; a young adventurer in the old west who joins a team hunting buffalo; and a gay man in New York City who falls for a guy from upstate… though probably not from Buffalo. 

Bros

Co-Wri/Dir: Nicholas Stoller

Bobby Leiber (Billy Eichner) is a 40 year old, gay New Yorker who hosts a popular podcast. As an undergrad he was discouraged from becoming an actor because he walked “too gay”. In journalism school, he was told his voice sounded too gay to be a newscaster. But his career is finally taking off. He’s on the board of directors of a soon to open LGBTQ+ history museum. His sex life is active — he has frequent sex with men he hooks up with online, but his love life is non-existent. He has never been in a relationship, or even had a second date. Until he meets a guy at a dance club, who is way better-looking than he’s used to. 

Aaron Shepard (Luke Macfarlane) is fit, handsome and very masculine — the ideal gay image. So the average-looking  Bobby is very surprised that Aaron knows who he is and likes his show. They have sex, but even more surprising, they actually go on a date afterwards. Bobby discovers that Aaron (who is a probate lawyer) is not just a dumb, boring jock. And Aaron is attracted to Bobby’s manner, sense of humour and self-confidence. Can a small-town, straight-acting bro and a sophisticated gay guy shake free of their preconceptions and prejudices and form a relationship? Or is that just a pipe dream?

Bros — co-written by Billy Eichner — is a laugh-out-loud funny romantic comedy. It satirizes gay life, politics and sex in unexpected ways. The dialogue is hilarious (well at least the first two-thirds, before it gets more serious) and is full of clever cultural asides, some of which I couldn’t follow, but enough to keep me laughing non-stop. There’s even an ongoing parody of conservative Hallmark TV movies. This isn’t your usual rom-com where opposites are kept apart until they eventually fall for each other and end with their first kiss. In this one, the nudity and sex come first, while dating is the hard part. I was unimpressed by the trailer, so was very happy to find the actual movie much, much better than I expected.

I like this one. 

Dead for a Dollar

Dir: Walter Hill

It’s the late 19th Century in Albuquerque, New Mexico territory. Max Borlund (Cristoph Waltz) is a gun-slinging bounty hunter whose current assignment is to rescue a rich man’s wife who was kidnapped and smuggled south of the border. Elijah the kidnapper (Brandon Scott) is a Buffalo Soldier in the US Army who deserted his post. Borlund  heads south with another Buffalo soldier, Sgt Poe as his guide. (“Buffalo soldier” was an informal term given to the all-Black regiments formed in the west after the civil war.) All he has to do is rescue Mrs Kidd and arrest Elijah in order to collect the very large bounty. But there are a few obstacles in his way.

Joe Cribbens (Willem Dafoe) a notorious card shark Borland arrested five years earlier, is about to be released from jail, and he wants to settle their differences using a gun. Tiberius, a dangerous jefe in Chihuahua, wants his cut of any money Borlund might make — and he has a posse of gunmen to support him. And finally there’s the kidnappee herself. Rachel Kidd (Rachel Brosnahan) tells Borlund, in no uncertain terms, that she’s with Elijah voluntarily. They fled to Mexico because they’re a mixed-race couple, and it’s her estranged husband, Mr Kidd, who is the real criminal here: he actually wants to kill her, not rescue her. But now Max is in a fix: Who can be trusted? And will justice be served?

Dead for a Dollar is a classic western done in the style of the 1960s spaghetti westerns. It’s filmed in sepia tones, giving it a weathered, almost nostalgic look. It has shootouts, posses, gunfights and ghost towns — the usual stuff — but with a few twists: sympathetic Black and Mexican characters, a tough-as-nails woman who is handy with a gun, and the first showdown I’ve ever seen between two players armed only with horsewhips! Director Walter Hill was huge in the ’80s (with movies like 48 Hours, The Warriors, and a lot of westerns) and he still seems to know what he’s doing.

Does it work? Occasionally the dialogue veers toward the corny, especially with Willem Dafoe, but Christoph, Brosnahan and the rest are understated just enough to keep it a believable western and not just a farce. 

Butcher’s Crossing

Co-Wri/Dir: Gabe Polsky (Based on the novel by John Williams)

It’s the 1870s in Kansas. 

Will (Fred Hechinger) is an idealistic son of a Boston minister, heading west in a covered wagon. He left Harvard to have some real experiences in the wild west. He arrives at Butcher’s Crossing a small frontier town, to visit JD McDonald (Paul Raci), an old family friend who his father had rescued when he was down and out. Now he has made his riches cornering the buffalo skin market in the area. But far from being grateful or kind, he rudely tells Will to go back where he came from — this was no place for a pampered city boy like him. So Will turns to a local legend instead. Miller (Nicholas Cage) is a big guy with a shaved head, a bushy black beard and an abrasive manner. But he agrees to take Will with him on the greatest buffalo hunt ever — if he agrees to finance it. Miller knows of a secret valley in Colorado, with untouched beasts just waiting to be slaughtered. Charlie (Xander Berkeley) a bible-thumping old souse, will serve as the cook, and Fred, (Jeremy Bobb) a man with a mercenary mind-set will be the all-important skinner, cutting the pelts off the carcasses.

The four set out into the bush,  and to everyone’s surprise Miller’s legendary Colorado valley does actually exist. The men dig in and start their gruesome massacre. The herd is untouched, so has no fear of humans. But the enormity of the mass slaughter starts getting to all of them. Except, that is, the obsessive Miller who is determined to kill every last one. Can the four of them stay together without going crazy? Can they leave the valley before they’re trapped by winter snow? And what will they do with the untold wealth their pelts will bring?

Butcher’s Crossing is a moving western about the mass slaughter of buffalo. The scenery and cinematography is stunning – they were given access to shoot among actual buffalo herds. It mainly deals with the brittle relationships amongst the four men. The acting Is good, especially Fred Hechinger, reprising his role in the White Lotus TV series as an earnest rich kid trying to find the meaning of life. And Nicholas Cage is allowed to do his requisite I’m going mental! scenes, but mercifully with the sound turned off. 

The story is similar to Ken Lum’s recent controversial Edmonton bronze sculpture which shows a buffalo hunter, sitting on a mountain of pelts, confronted by a stoic bison. What both imply (but never explicitly show) is the catastrophic effect the decimation of the buffalo populations had on countless indigenous nations. But that’s where the hidden force of this movie comes from — you can’t help but wonder: what are these men doing and why? The senseless slaughter of millions of buffalo in a very short period of time completely changed North American history. And the film leaves you feeling the heavy weight of our ancestors’ actions. 

Bros and Butcher’s Crossing both had their world premieres at TIFF this year. Dead For a Dollar and Bros both open across North America 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

Gems at #TIFF22. Films reviewed: The Hummingbird, Will-o’-the-Wisp, Unruly

Posted in 1930s, 1970s, 1980s, Dance, Denmark, Disabilities, Family, History, Italy, LGBT, Mental Illness, Portugal, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 24, 2022

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

TIFF is finished and after viewing 45+ movies I feel pretty good about it. You’ll be hearing a lot more about TIFF movies like The Fablemans, The Whale, The Glass Onion, Women Talking, The Wonder and The Banshees of Inisherin  by the end of the year, but there are also a lot of movies, gems and sleepers, that get left by the wayside, without all the studios promoting them. So this week I’m talking about some of the other movies I saw there — from Italy, Denmark and Portugal — that deserve to be noticed. There’s a rebellious girl trapped on a remote island; a little prince seeking the facts of life in a firehouse; and a man called hummingbird whose fate is guided by a series of unusual events.

The Hummingbird

Dir: Francesca Archibugi

Marco Carerra is a man who places great importance on seemingly random occurrences. Take a fatal plane ride, for example.  When he’s a student in Florence in the early 1980s he starts winning big at poker.  But when he boards a plane heading for Yugoslavia with his gaming partner, Duccio, that man begins to freak, shouting hysterically at other passengers that they all are “dead” and the seats on the plane are ruined and decrepit. Marco is eventually forced to pull Duccio off the plane, thus missing the flight and their big card game. But it crashes, killing everyone on board. And Marco, with his deep belief in the significance of ordinary events, ends up marrying the flight attendant who also missed that flight. It’s just fate.

Another important date happened at their summer home on the beautiful Tyrhennian shoreline. The Carrera’s summer home is right next door to the Lattes’ house. And Marco has a huge crush on the beautiful Luisa, their daughter. But the night he thought he would lose his virginity to Luisa (for whom he would hold a torch forever) was also the night when his quarrelling parents went out for the evening, his brooding brother Giancarlo got so drunk he passed out, and their sorely neglected sister Adele committed suicide, turning all their worlds upside down. 

The Hummingbird — Marco’s nickname as an unusually small child until a sudden growth spurt in his teens after his father enrols him in hormone treatment — is a wonderful, novelistic  movie that traces the intricately woven story of Marco’s life, his love, his family, his wife, his daughter and eventually his granddaughter. But not in any obvious order. The story jumps back and forth between his childhood, his adolescence, and his middle and old age, keeping you guessing as to why he did what he did. When I say novelistic, I mean literally, with multiple characters coming in and out of his life making shocking revelations along the way, and calling into question his fundamental beliefs. It’s based on the novel Il colibrì by Sandro Veronesi which won the Strega Prize, Italy’s greatest fiction award, and it does feel like a classic story. What’s really surprising is it was published in 2020, during the pandemic, and the film must have been made since then. The movie stars Pierfrancesco Favino  as the adult Marco, Berenice Bejo as Luisa Lattes, Nanni Moretti as Marco’s friend, a psychiatrist (no spoilers here), and Kasia Smutniak as his tempestuous wife.

Keep an eye out for this sleeper and be sure watch it when it comes out.

Will o’the Wisp

Dir: João Pedro Rodrigues

It’s present-day Portugal. Prince Alfredo (Mauro Costa) is a pale young prince with curly blond hair.  heir to the crown. He lives in a palace full of statues and paintings recalling his family’s colonial history. (Though the country gave up its monarchy in 1910, his mother still considers Republican and Castilian the two worst insults in their language.) But with Alfredo coming of age his father, the king, decides to tell him what’s what. He takes him for a walk through the royal forest to admire the tall pine trees there. But his father’s description of tumescent tree trunks throbbing with sap so excites the lad, that he is forced to rethink his future. He doesn’t want to be king anymore, now he wants to be a fireman — specifically one who will protect those trees, about which he has an erotic attachment. 

At the fire station, Afonso (André Cabral) a handsome black student is tasked with introducing the prince to the firehouse and the forest. He introduces him to the other fireman, they practice exercises, search and rescues, recussitation, fireman carries, and sliding down poles, but for Alfredo, everything has a sexual subtext. Soon the subtext turns to out-and-out sex, with the two young fireman rolling around on the forest floor while shouting pornographic and racist epithets in the throws of ecstasy. But can the the little prince find happiness in the arms of a fireman? Or are his regal responsibilities too heavy a burden to bear?

Will o’the Wisp is one of the strangest, least classifiable films you’ve ever seen. It’s an historical  romantic science fiction comedy, and an arthouse-modern dance- musical satire. It’s only 67 minutes long, but in that short time you’ll see The-Sound-of-Music kids in school uniforms singing weird songs as they pop their heads out from behind trees; homoerotic exercise montages, and elaborate dance routines on the firehouse floor. I can’t say I understood all the cultural references that had the Portuguese viewers in the audience howling with laughter, but I could experience the beauty, ridiculousness and shock running throughout the picture. 

Unruly 

Co-Wri/Dir: Malou Reymann

It’s the 1930s in a working-class Copenhagen neighbourhood. Maren (Emilie Kroyer Koppel) is a free-thinking teenaged girl who knows what she likes and what she hates. She likes getting drunk, dancing to jazz and hooking up with guys. And she hates authority figures — including her mom —  telling her what to do. But when her family cuts her off and she becomes a ward of the state, she doesn’t realize her past actions will have grave consequences. She refuses to cooperate with a doctor (Anders Heinrichsen) trying to diagnose her “ailment”. He declares her unruly and out of control, and sends her off to a remote island known for its hospital for mentally handicapped women. Sprogø island is festooned with pretty flowers and picturesque homes where the patients are taught to be submissive, cooperative, quiet girls, under the watchful eye of Nurse Nielsen (Lene Maria Christensen). They are schooled in sewing, cooking and cleaning on the all-female island (though Marin is able to secretly meet with a young repairman). It’s a hospital, not a prison, she is told, but there’s no way to escape. And if you disobey, or even spread bad attitudes, you are strapped to a table and kept in solitary confinement.

Her roommate, Sørine (Jessica Dinnage) acts as the rat, reporting on any woman who disobeys the rules. But as Maren gets to know her better she soon discovers the real reason for Sørine’s behaviour: she just wants to be reunited with the child they took away from her. Will Maren learn to accept her fate? Will she find a way to escape the island? Or is she stuck there forever?

Unruly is a deeply moving drama based on an actual hospital that operated in Denmark until the 1960s. Its many crimes included involuntary sterilization, mis-diagnoses, torture and authoritarian rule. Instead of having a series of stock characters, with easy to categorize heroes and villains, all the women develop over the course of the film, giving it an unexpected profundity. This film is a lovely and tragic look at a terribly flawed institution and the people it affected.

Will-o’-the-Wisp, The Hummingbird, and Unruly all premiered at TIFF.

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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