A More Perfect Union. Films reviewed: The Big Sick, The Beguiled, In the Name of All Canadians

Posted in 1800s, Canada, Disease, documentary, Indigenous, Romantic Comedy, Rural, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 30, 2017

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

With the 150th anniversary of Confederation in Canada and the 4th of July south of the border, this is a long weekend with lots of movies to watch. This week I’m looking at two comedy/dramas from the US and a documentary from Canada. There’s a comedian coping with blind dates, a girls’ school dealing with a wounded soldier, and a country coming to terms with a new constitution.

The Big Sick

Dir: Michael Showalter

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a stand-up comic who wants to make it big. He’s a self-described numbers geek, who is into the X-Files and corny horror movies. He’s dating Emily (Zoe Kazan), a young woman he met at the comedy club, and their relationship is getting serious. But Kumail has a secret. His Pakistani-American parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff) insist their son marry a Muslim-Pakistani woman, and constantly surprise him with blind dates. His parents don’t know about Emily and she doesn’t know about his arranged dates. Everything goes well until Emily uncovers Kumail’s “X File”, a cigar box filled with photos of all the women he secretly dates and rejects. She is livid and never wants to see him again. But the next time he hears from her she is in hospital on her deathbed with a mysterious ailment, the “big sick” of the title. He stays by her bedside as she falls into a coma. Things get complicated when her parents Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) arrive. They know all about his secrets and lies and don’t trust him. But their relationship grows as they cope with Emily’s troubles together. Will Emily recover? Can she forgive Kumail? And can he tell the truth to his family?

The Big Sick is a very sweet romantic comedy mainly about the relationship of a young man and his true love’s parents. Spoiler Alert: it’s based on Kumail and Emily’s real life story, so obviously she didn’t die. I liked that it doesn’t succumb to crass toilet humour but instead finds jokes in the normal life of a standup comic. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are especially good as the parents. A good date movie.

The Beguiled

Dir: Sofia Coppola

It’s rural Virginia during the US Civil War, where a school for young ladies remains untouched by the war raging all around them. There, beautifully dressed women study literature, French, music and the bible, seemingly oblivious to the mayhem outside the school’s wrought-iron gates. There’s the imperious Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman); dowdy Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst); the recently grown-up Alicia (Elle Fanning) and nature-loving little Amy, among many others. They live in harmony in an old plantation house with two-storey, ionic columns, but no slaves, mind you – they all ran away. No one has breached the gates so far. Until one day, young Amy is out picking mushrooms and she finds a wounded yankee soldier. Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) says he joined the Union army straight off the boat from Dublin. Now he’s a deserter. Can the ladies help him?

Miss Martha sews up his wounds lets him stay, but only as a prisoner. That’s when the corporal turns the charm level to high and begins beguiling and seducing all the girls and women. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met, he tells one. You’re the one I like the best, he tells another. We have a special bond he says to a third. Soon, the women are fighting one another to spend time alone with the handsome young soldier. This culminates at a dinner where all of the women are all gussied up, each hoping he will choose her. But something unexpected happens that turns the smiling charmer into a violent ogre. What will the women do with him now?

The Beguiled is a dark comedy, a remake of Don Seigel’s movie from the 1970s, told from the women’s point of view. It includes lots of twists and turns for a simple ninety minute movie. I thought the acting was good, and the looks of the movie itself is fantastic. I’d describe it as over-the-top subtlety, with oak trees groaning with Spanish moss and a constant mist covering everything. I liked this one.

In the Name of All Canadians

It’s Canada’s Sesquicentennial, 150 years since confederation, so Hot Docs commissioned a multipart documentary made any a number of filmmakers. I dreaded watching this because I was afraid this would be yet another treackly look at toques, poutine, multiculturalism, our health system and Tim Hortons. But I was way off the mark. It’s actually a reality check, a hard look at the all the egregious errors Canada’s governments have made over the past 70 years or so. Did you know Frenco-Manitoban school teachers were forbidden from teaching in French for 50 years? Then there’s the case of Mr Abdelrazik, a Sudanese- Canadian man tortured then forced to camp out inside the Canadian Embassy in Khartoum for three years before he was allowed to come home. There’s the mass arrests at the G20, the internment of Japanese Canadians, discrimination faced by black and Muslim Canadians. And the biggest issue of all, Truth and Reconciliation with aboriginal Canadians — First Nations, Inuit and Metis — for the countless crimes, including Residential Schools, inflicted on them.

In form, most of these docs use actors reading scripts, animated sequences, talking heads and reenactments, rather than fly-on-the-wall records of actual events. Some parts are very moving, while other parts veer into speechifying. The serious parts are tied together by cute short sequences asking various Canadians what they prefer in a huge range of topics. While not perfect, altogether it gives a good hard look at Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, its successes and failures. Worth seeing.

In the Name of all Canadians is playing now at the Hot Docs cinema; and The Big Sick and The Beguiled both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Ana Serrano, Lisa Ellis and Priam Givord about the Pulse of VR

Posted in 3-D, Art, Cultural Mining, Games, Movies, VR by CulturalMining.com on June 30, 2017

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

Have you heard of VR but never experienced it? VR, or Virtual Reality, is a system that creates an artificial, interactive environment that makes you feel like you’re somewhere else. It gives you a startlingly realistic experience of sight and sound happening all around you. It’s already used by filmmakers, scientists, artists and gamers.  But is VR a flash in the pan or a quantam leap in technological change? How will it affect Canadian cinema? And how can you experience it yourself?

Pulse on VR is a new exhibit of Canadian VR works, sponsored by the CFC media lab. It’s running now through Sunday at the House of VR on 639 Queen St West.

Ana Serrano is the award- winning Founder of CFC Media Lab that specializes in interactive storytelling.

Lisa Ellis, the Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, AGO, created Small Wonders, a VR rendering of CT scan images of miniature, gothic wooden carvings.

Priam Givord is a freelance artist and designer who specializes in interactive media; he co-created  Small Wonders, the VR Experience.

I spoke with Ana, Lisa and Priam at CIUT about Pulse of VR and how VR may affect the future of Canadian cinema.

Dark Summer Movies. Films reviewed: It Comes At Night, Awakening the Zodiac, My Cousin Rachel

Posted in Cultural Mining, Gothic, Horror, Movies, Mystery, post-apocalypse, Psychological Thriller, Romance, violence by CulturalMining.com on June 9, 2017

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

Even on the hottest summer day, it still gets dark at night. So this week I’m looking at some dark summer movies. We’ve got rednecks stalking a serial killer, an aristocrat falling for a black widow, and an ordinary family fighting an unknown plague.

 

It Comes at Night

Wri/Dir: Trey Edward Shults

Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a 17-year-old boy who lives with his parents in a huge wooden house in the woods. He sneaks around the dark halls and passageways late at night when he should be sleeping. He’s an insomniac plagued with strange dreams. And there’s a reason for his nightmares. A terrible disease – like Ebola mixed with small pox – is killing almost everybody and no one knows how it spreads. That’s why his parents Paul and Sarah (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo) fled the city and moved into this abandoned and isolated house. They are well equipped with gas masks, water purifiers… and guns, if they need them. They boarded up all the windows and doors except one: a red door that opens into a mud room.

One night, they hear a noise from behind the red door. It’s a young man covered in dirt (Christopher Abbott). Is he a thief or an innocent family man? And is he infected? Sam beats him up and leaves him to die tied to a tree with a bag over his head. But when he’s still alive the next day, he lets Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their little boy to move in with them. But can they be trusted? And are they clean?

Don’t be misled by the title. It Comes at Night is not a conventional horror movie with scary monsters; ordinary people who discard conventional morality when faced with extreme circumstances. It feels like a zombie movie, but without the zombies. It’s violent and disturbing but without the expected triumph or disaster. Great acting, amazingly shot with indoor scenes all lit by the glowing lanterns the characters carry. It has an almost surreal feel to it, as it switches between Travis’s fears, dreams and sexual fantasies and the horrible reality if his post-apocalyptic life. See this if your looking for a spooky and violent art house drama.

Awakening the Zodiac

Dir: Jonathan Wright

Mick and Zoe (Shane West, Leslie Bibbe) are a neerdowell couple living in a trailer park in rural Virginia. They drive a rusty pickup looking for work to improve their lot in life. For Mick this usually means a get-rich-quick scheme with his good buddy Harvey (Matt Craven). Their current plan? Treasure hunting in delinquent storage spaces: you pay a few hundred bucks to take ownership of the contents. And Harver thinks they’ve struck gold in the form of stacks of 8mm films dating back to the sixties. He’s uncovered the personal footage of an infamous serial killer known for his brutal murders and the cryptic messages he sent to the police. Zodiac disappeared in 1968, never heard from again. But there’s still a $100,000 reward in his head. Zoe, Mick and Harvey want the big bucks but first they must prove the storage locker belongs to Zodiac. Can they find the evidence they need before the killer finds them?

Awakening the Zodiac is a corny horror/thriller. It has some scary parts and a few shocks, and the main characters are likeable. Unfortunately it gets bogged down by a ridiculous plot and rusty script. Would a genius serial killer save all the evidence of his crimes and then forget about it? If you found valuable films wouldn’t you rather sell them than stalk a serial killer? (But I guess there’d be no movie) Even the 8 mm selfies look like what people make nowadays, not what a serial killer would have shot in the sixties. The biggest problem is when we finally discover who the killer is, he or she is just not scary enough. Save this one for late night TV.

My Cousin Rachel

Dir: Roger Michell (Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier)

Victorian England. Philip (Sam Claflin) is a young aristocrat with a fiery temper not given to fancy words and deep thoughts. He lives in a stately mansion in the English countryside. An orphan, he was brought up by his much older cousin Ambrose, his finances handled by his godfather. He is deeply loyal to these two surrogate fathers and is expected to marry his longtime friend Louise (Holliday Grainger) his godfather’s daughter. He spends his time galloping through the rolling hills, steep cliffs and sandy beaches of his vast estate.

Philip is lord of the manor, but works alongside his servants and tenant farmers at harvest time. But things take a turn for the worse when his ailing cousin Ambrose writes him from Italy that his wife Rachel Ashley (Rachel Weisz) is trying to kill him! Before he can rescue him, his cousin dies and Rachel shows up unannounced. Full of hatred and vowing revenge, Philip confronts the murderous witch. He expects a crone with a wart on her nose. Instead, she’s a charming and sophisticated older woman with dark good looks even shrouded in widow’s weeds.

Philip falls madly in love, throwing money, family jewels and even the estate he’s due to inherit at age 25, if only she’ll marry him. She kisses him by candlelight even as she concocts odd tasting tisanes for him to drink. Is she killing him or nursing him back to health? Is she a serial killer and con artist, or merely a woman trying to secure her future? And is Philip the victim or an abusive lover who expects to possess whatever woman he desires?

My Cousin Rachel is an old fashioned gothic romance, complete with beautiful costumes, stunning scenery, authentic songs and a realistic, modern take on English country life. It’s based on a novel from the 1950s, but to modern audiences, parts seem out of date, like Philip’s ridiculous naïveté. The movie starts slowly but eventually gets really good with some shocking twists and turns toward the end.

It Comes at Night, Awakening the Zodiac, and My Cousin Rachel all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

 

Heads up! Films reviewed: Keepers of the Game, Mansfield 66/67, City of Tiny Lights

Posted in Canada, documentary, First Nations, Hollywood, Indigenous, Mystery, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on June 2, 2017

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

Toronto’s film festivals continue with Inside Out and Canada’s Sport Film Fest. This week, I’m looking at two documentaries and a noir drama. There’s a Mohawk lacrosse team keeping traditions relevant, a Hollywood star keeping her mystique afloat, and a private eye in London just trying to stay alive.

Keepers of the Game

Dir: Judd Ehrlich

The Akwesasne Mohawk territory straddles the US/Canadian border that runs between New York and Ontario. 20 years ago there was widespread discord among the longhouses. So to calm the waters, they started a boy’s lacrosse team to compete in the local high school division, off reserve. The idea was to bring back self-respect using a traditional custom. Lacrosse is a precolumbian warlike sport used by the Mohawk and other Iroquois long before Europeans came to North America. Hundreds, or even thousands of men would play the game together on open fields. It shows valour, strength and offers thanks to the creator.

Flash forward to the present. High school girls are facing the same problems – bullying, depression, suicide – as the boys did, but without the traditional sport outlet. They need a medicine to cure their ills. So they decide to start a girls team, using lacrosse as a traditional Mohawk medicine. But they face opposition from all sides. Awkesasne men say they are defying tradition by letting girls play a boys sport and want it stopped. The school board is facing cutbacks, so the are against funding a new team… especially one for girls. And the players themselves are afraid they lack the confidence and experience to win. Even so, they manage to raise the money and recruit the players to have a regionally competitive team. But can they beat their rivals  — a mainly white team who use a feathered native cartoon as their team mascot?

This documentary is a record of one season of a real-life team and the obstacles they face, on and off the field. It shows the role traditional customs can play in a modern sport. Players design their own war paint as they compete for the first time, even as mothers and grandmothers pass on language and rituals. It’s about young aboriginal women who gain self respect as they reclaim a sport their own ancestors created. It’s an inspiring story.

Mansfield 66/67

Dir: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes

Jayne Mansfield was a bleach blonde bombshell in the 1950s, who lived on publicity. She was known for her whispery voice, her highpitched squeals, and personality – that of a naïve, dumb blonde seemingly unaware of her sexiness, even as she posed for playboy and appeared naked on the big screen. In fact, her persona was self-created and nurtured by the Hollywood studios, and fed by the tabloids paparazzi and gossip rags who lived in her stories. She married Mickey Hargitay, a body-builder, to complement her own figure. And she lived in a pink mansion, legendary in Hollywood for its 45 rooms. But did you know she was a multilingual musician, and a student at a top university? Sadly, her movie career faltered in the 1960s, and  she began to follow another celebrity, a man named Anton LaVay. LaVay was known for his shaved head, his black goatee and his sinister but commanding looks. He founded a new religion — The Church of Satan. And not long after, her life was suddenly cut short in a terrible accident that totalled her car and chopped off the top of her head. Those are the bare facts. But what really happened to Jayne Mansfield?

You could call Mansfield 66/67 a documentary, but that might give you the wrong idea. It’s actually a highly stylized tribute to — and desconstruction of – a Hollywood legend. There are the usual talking heads  — from gender studies professors, to stars like Tippi Hedron and starlets like Mamie van Doren. But there are also underground icons, eighties pop stars, models, drag queens, and the chronicler of Hollywood himself, Kenneth Anger.

This is not your usual bio doc. What other documentary creates a cutesy cartoon of Mansfields son being mauled by a lion? Or intricately choreographed dancers of both sexes wearing matching blonde wigs as they worshipped  the devil in Busby Berkeley-like formations? This is a strange combination of film lore, academic analysis, hollywood gossip, and extremely campy performance art.

City of Tiny Lights

Dir: Pete Travis

Tommy (Riz Ahmed) is a private detective who lives and works in an ungentrified part of London. It’s a neighbourhood in flux, full of nervous shopkeepers and streetcorner drug dealers, radical imams, and sketchy real estate speculators. His dad (Roshan Seth) is a die-hard Briton whose life is guided by Charles Dickens and Cricket. As a South Asian Ugandan he was forced to flee under dictator Idi Amin. One day a sultry sex worker named Melody (Cush Jumbo) hires him to look for her friend Natasha. She hasn’t seen her since her last trick 8 hours earlier and doesn’t answer her cel. But when he searches her hotel room he finds a dead body, not Natasha. It’s a real estate broker involved in a major development. He also discovers the dead man gave money to an Islamic youth group known for driving drug dealers off their streets, led by a radical Muslim preacher. Lurking in the shadows is a sketchy security spook working for the US government. And it is all somehow related to his boyhood, a friend named Lovely, and woman named Shell. Who is behind the murders and disappearances? Organized crime, terrorists, corrupt developers or American spies?

City of Tiny Lights is a well-acted, low budget look at a private detective in contemporary London. Some of the camera work is annoying and gimmicky – like cheap 90s TV — that distracts from the story. I was also confused by frequent flashbacks — the young actors look nothing like their adult counterparts. But I liked the complex, multi-levelled mystery and the acting is terrific.

Mansfield 66/67 is one of many films at Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival which continues through Sunday; Keepers of the Game is the opening night feature at the ninth annual Canada’s Sport Film Festival, beginning next Friday. Tickets and showtimes are at sportfilmfestival.ca. City of Tiny Lights opens today in Toronto, as does Ken Finkleman’s satiric comedy An American Dream: The Education of William Bowman (I talked about this film in March). Check your local listings.

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

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