Working class heroes. Films reviewed: 22 Chaser, Boundaries, Leave No Trace

Posted in Canada, Cars, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, Road Movie, Toronto, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 6, 2018

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

Movies aren’t only about escapism, superheroes and spaceships. Some equally entertaining movies shed light on real people and their concerns – like escaping poverty, finding a home, or keeping their kids in school.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about working-class families. There’s a father and daughter in Portland who live in the wild, a west coast mom and her son forced to deal with a wiley grandpa, and a tow truck driver negotiating the wilds of downtown Toronto.

22 Chaser

Dir: Rafal Sokolowski

Ben and Avery (Brian J Smith: Sense8; and Tiio Horn: Ghost BFF) are an ambitious young couple from a small town with a scrappy son named Zach. Ben drives a truck for Jackrabbit Towing but hopes to open his own garage some day; while Avery plans to parlay her skills as diner waitress into restaurant owner. But despite their big ideas they’re barely surviving, with Avery forced to visit the local foodbank.

Ben is an ethical guy who helps the victims he sees at accidents; he’s no ambulance chaser like his rival towtruck drivers Elvis (Shaun Benson) and Wayne (Raoul Trujillo). One day at work he gets some good news and bad news. The good news is his company is about to land a big police contract – this guarantees lots of future income. The bad news is the drivers have to pay a big deposit to keep their tow trucks – money he just doesn’t have.

So he enters a deal with a crooked cop named Ray (Aiden Devine) who doubles as a predatory loan shark. The meeting is arranged by his best friend Sean (Aaron Ashmore), another chaser. But the income he expects doesn’t come in. The loanshark demands a payment in 24 hours — or else — but he doesn’t even have enough to buy his kid a birthday present. Jackrabbit Ben is forced to turn chaser, at least for one night. Can he survive the bloodthirsty world of competitive tow truck driving?

22 Chaser is equal parts family drama and action movie with enough violence and street racing to keep it moving. The story’s a bit old fashioned… or classic, depending on how you view it. (It feels like the movie Nightcrawler, but with a tow-truck driver instead of a news photgrapher.) Smith and Horn are appealing as the troubled married couple, and the night time street views of downtown Toronto are a pleasure to watch.

Boundaries

Wri/Dir: Shana Feste

Laura (Vera Farmiga) is an eccentric single mom who lives with her son and a whole lot of dogs – she adopts any abandoned dog she sees on the street. She’s the pied piper of mange. She works for her rich best friend as a party planner, but she’s struggling to get by. Her son Henry (Lewis MacDougall) is an artist and a bit of an oddball too. He draws what he feels. His latest hobby is to draw naked pictures of adults he knows – including his mom’s boyfriends. But when he draws his school principal naked, he gets expelled. This means mom has to find a private school that takes non-conformist kids. And she has to pay for it. Which forces her to contact her estranged father Jack (Christopher

Plummer) who was just kicked out of a seniors home.

Laura blames him for her troubled childhood – he was never around when she was growing up. And though he’s in his eighties she still doesn’t trust him. But she really needs the money. So she agrees to go on a roadtrip down the west coast, from Seattle to LA, with her son and her dad in exchange for the money to pay for Henry’s school. And maybe Henry can finally bond with his grandpa. But what she doesn’t know is Jack is using the trip for nefarious reasons. Can the the three learn to get along? And will the trip solve their problems? Or lead to a terrible end?

Boundaries is a very cute move about family ties. It pulls a lot of the old hollywood road movie tricks – I mean who doesn’t like beautiful scenery, an oddball kid, wacky grandpa, neurotic mom, and lots and lots of adorable dogs? – but I enjoyed it.

Leave No Trace

Wri/Dir: Debra Granik

Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) is a teenaged girl who lives with her dad Will (Ben Foster) in a forest near Portland, Oregon. He’s a war vet and she’s his only child. They live a sustainable, natural life, moving every few days, being sure to leave no trace – for both ecological and security reasons. Will suffers from severe PTSD – he’s kept awake by the sound of helicopters in his head – and is extremely antisocial. He doesn’t like being around other people, except Tom of course.

They start campfires with flint and steel, pick wild mushrooms, and drink rainwater captured in plastic tarps. He teaches her survival tactics and how to hide from the enemy, but also book learning. Thom likes her life — it’s the only life she’s ever known. But when their lives are disrupted – they’re arrested by the police and Tom is handed over to social services – they’re forced to rethink their entire way of life. Tom discovers she likes being around other people, while will can’t stand it. What will happen to their father daughter relationship?

Leave No Trace sounds like a simple family movie, but it’s so much more. It follows a script with actors but feels almost like a documentary at times. It follows Will and Tom on a picaresque journey through the Pacific north west, through forests, along highways, and with the people they meet on the way. Gorgeous scenery, fantastic acting, and a beautiful subtle story. It’s directed by Debra Granik who did the fantastic Winter’s Bone – (another great movie, and was Jennifer Lawrence’s first important film, and look at her now!) That’s why I made sure to catch this one. And though it’s not a thriller like Winter’s Bone, it’s just as good.

I recommend this movie.

22 Chaser, Boundaries and Leave No Trace 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.

Big plans. Films reviewed: Octavio is Dead, American Animals, Hearts Beat Loud

Posted in Brooklyn, Canada, College, Coming of Age, Crime, Cultural Mining, Dreams, Ghosts, LGBT, Music, Romance by CulturalMining.com on June 22, 2018

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

It’s Pride weekend in Toronto, so this week I’m looking at three indie movies, two of which fall somewhere with in the LGBTQ2 spectrum – can you guess which two? I’ve got four Kentucky fratboys with a secret plan; a Brooklyn daughter and dad forming a band; and a young woman in Hamilton… dressed like a man!

Octavio is Dead

Wri/Dir: Sook-yin Lee

Tyler (Sarah Gadon: Indignation) is a young woman who lives with her shrewish single mom (Rosanna Arquette) in suburban Toronto. But a knock on their door changes everything. It seems her father Octavio, a latino poet and teacher she never met has died. And he left her his condo and all his possessions. So she heads out to Hamilton to try to find out he was, exactly.

What she finds there is surprising. His flat is an Old Curiosity Shop, filled with persian rugs, oil paintings, tapestries and floor-to-ceiling shelves full of books. (She loves books.) There’s a sunroom with withering plants and eccentric neighbours all around. And strangest of all, Octavio himself, or at least his ghost, appears every so often to proffer advice. Later, she sees a young man in a hoodie who has some connection to her dad. She follows him to a burlesque club but is barred from entering: Men Only!

So she cuts off her hair, puts on one of Octavio’s suits and tries again. This time she meets the young man and he opens up to her. Apostolis (Dimitris Kitsos), is a poet who learned about art and literature at Octavio’s knee. He also knew him… intimately. Apostolis likes posing in bathtubs dressed in a toga. He also seems to like Tyler – a lot – and she likes him, too. The problem is he desires her thinking she’s Octavio’s son, while she’s attracted to him as a woman to a man. What to do?

Octavio is Dead is a quirky, indie movie by Sook-yin Lee, best known for CBC’s DNTO, Definitely Not The Opera. This film is also not an opera, but it is full of classical themes projected against a grittty, downtown Hamilton. Cross-dressing Riley feels more Shakespearean than non-binary queer, but the performances — especially laid back Kitsos and intense Gadon — are pleasing to watch.

American Animals

Wri/Dir: Bart Layton

It’s Lexington, Kentucky in 2004. Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is at university studying art, when he notices something strange at Transylvania University. No, not vampires, this is a actual place. A library there holds priceless artworks – like Audubon’s famous bird paintings – in the form of rare books. And these volumes – worth over 10 million dollars – are watched over by a single librarian (Ann Down). He tells this to a friend Warren, (Evan Peters) and a scheme begins to hatch. Warren’s at school on a sports scholarship but is bored by college life. He wants to do something big, something exciting.

His plan is simple: We enter the library disguised as old men, disable the librarian, open the glass case, take out the books and walk straight out the basement door without anyone knowing what we did! The perfect heist.

But they also need a driver and a lookout. So they enlist two friends they can trust: Eric (Jared Abrahamson) a contrarian genius; and Chas (Blake Jenner) a jock / entrepreneur whose also a great driver. Together they just might pull it off.

American Animals is a story of simple plans gone astray and their potential moral consequences. It’s a true story, and the real people involved – the four guys plus the librarian – bring a real-life element as they narrate the story, documentary-style. This stylish true crime drama has some thrilling parts, but it’s mainly good for the characters and the

LA Times: American Animals actors and real counterparts

actors that portray them. Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, Killing of a Sacred Deer) is great as a bored art student, and Canadian Jared Abrahamson (Hello Destroyer, Hollow in the Land, Sweet Virginia) who normally plays angry young men is unrecognizeable as the fuzzy-bearded smart kid. And at times the real people interviewed are even more fascinating than the actors who play them.

Hearts Beat Loud

Dir: Brett Haley

Frank (Nick Offerman) is a former musician who lives in Red Hook, a waterside Brooklyn neighbourhood, with his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons). Frank owns a record store, while Sam is preparing for college: she leaves for UCLA in the fall. For Sam, everything’s coming up roses. She’s going to be a doctor, and meets a pretty young artist Rose (Sasha Lane). Is it true love?

For Frank, on the other hand, times are tough. He’s a musician who has raised his biracial daughter alone since his wife (and former band mate) died in an accident. Now he’s closing his record store and his eccentric lounge singer mom (Blythe Danner) has been arrested for shoplifting. And he’s getting mixed signals from his landlady/prospective girlfriend Leslie (Toni Collette) Is she just a friend… or something more?

The one thing he still has is his jam sessions with Sam. And a particularly good one yields some potential hit singles. When he posts them online, they start picking up listeners. Will the record store be saved? Can Sam take a year off to record and tour with her two-member band? Or will she leave the band, her family and her girlfriend to go to UCLA?

Hearts Beat Loud – which is also the name of one of their songs – is a sweet and gentle story of family and first love. Offerman is believable as a midlife crisis dad trying to hold on to his authenticity, and Kiersey Clemons is wonderful as Sam. She performs her own music, and luckily, she’s really good at it… since about a third of the movie is about people making music.

This film leaves you with a warm feeling inside.

Octavio is Dead, American Animals, and Hearts Beat Loud 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.

Meandering Movies. Films reviewed: A Date for Mad Mary, Nostalgia, Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia, PLUS Oscar Predictions!

Posted in Coming of Age, Death, Drama, Experimental Film, Feminism, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Lesbian, LGBT by CulturalMining.com on March 2, 2018

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

Some movies have linear narratives – stories that move in a straight line from start to finish — but occasionally you can find movies that take a more circuitous route. This week I’m looking at some meandering movies. There’s a path to a wedding in Ireland, a journey to Asia from Germany, and a search for keepsakes in America.

But first…

Oscar Predictions, 2018

Here’s a list of who I think should win, and who I think will win.

A few caveats: I’m usually wrong, though this year my choices of the best movies of 2017 (published in December) is very close to the Oscar nominations (including Get Out, Call Me By Your Name, Three Billiards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and The Shape of Water — all nominated for Best Picture; plus Loveless and A Fantastic Woman, both nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.) Does this mean I’ve been a movie critic for too long and my taste is getting worse? Or that the Academy’s choices are getting better?

I haven’t seen three of the nominated movies, so for these I can only go by what I’ve been told:

Darkest Hour – I couldn’t bring myself to watch this; I’m all Churchilled out. No more Churchill, please.

Phantom Thread is probably great but you have to be in the mood to watch a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. And I haven’t been in that mood yet.

And I Tonya – I just haven’t seen it yet, but plan to soon.

Adapted screenplay

James Ivory (Call Me By Your Name). Should win and will win.

Original screenplay

Should win: That’s a real toughie, I have no idea which should win; there are too many good ones to choose just one.

Will win: I’m guessing Greta Gerwig (Ladybird). ✘ (Jordan Peele won for Get Out)

Best foreign film:

I loved Loveless, but I think A Fantastic Woman should win and will win.

Best Actor

Should win: Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name)

Will win: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Best Actress

Should win and will win

Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Supporting Actor

Should win: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Will win: Willem Dafoe (Florida Project) ✘ (Sam Rockwell won.)

Best Supporting Actress

Should win: Laura Metcalfe (Ladybird)

…but everyone tells me Allison Janney will win for I, Tonya

Best Director

I think Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) should win and will win.

Best Film

Again, I think The Shape of Water should win and will win.

 

A Date for Mad Mary

Dir: Darren Thornton

Mary (Seána Kerslake) is a pretty young woman who lives at home with her mom and grandmother. She likes Tank Girl, Hello Kitty and her best mate Charlene (Charleigh Bailey) They used to be inseparable but things have changed. Charlene’s getting married, and Mary is the maid of honour but she can’t find anyone to be her date to the wedding. She enlists a Polish matchmaker to set her up with a series of men. Problem is she’s a foul-mouthed heavy drinker who is quick to anger. Her last brawl led to six months in the clink. And now she’s finding it hard to find a guy she likes who also likes her. As her grandma said, even a sniper wouldn’t take her out.

But things get better when she meets Jess (Tara Lee), the videographer for Charlene’s wedding. Jess is a singer in a band and Mary likes her style. And she’s a good influence too: Mary feels comfortable around Jess and maybe… there’s something deeper.

I really enjoyed A Date for Mad Mary, a coming-of-age drama about a misfit who is trying to fit in. Very well-acted, especially Seána Kerslake as Mary. It’s a touching drama loaded with salty oneliners.

Nostalgia

Wri/Dir: Mark Pellington

Daniel (John Ortiz) is a reserved, middle aged man who works for an insurance firm. He helps asses the monetary value of possessions, so clients can decide what’s valuable to them. This can range from a lifetime of accumulated detritus, to a single possession. Helen (Ellen Burstyn) for example only has a few pieces of jewelry and an autographed baseball she grabbed as her entire house burnt to the ground. Brother-and-sister Donna and Will (Catherine Keener and Jon Hamm) are forced to look through endless boxes in their late parents’ attic to decide what to keep and what to give away. These are just a few of the stories in a loosely-linked chain of vignettes about possessions and keepsakes.

Nostalgia is a nicely-photographed film with a stellar cast whose characters segue from scene to unrelated scene. The problem is the movie has no plot, the stories don’t follow any particular order, and the only thing that connects them all is the theme. Worse than that, a third of the movie is taken up by characters weeping, a third with them bitterly sniping at one other, and a third pondering the meaning of life in painfully drawn-out voiceovers.

This is like a Hallmark movie if they only printed the kind of cards you give to people at funerals.

Ugh. Avoid this movie at all costs.

Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia

Ulrike Ottinger is a lesser-known German filmmaker who emerged in the 1970s alongside Von Trotta, Herzog and Fassbinder. Born by the Alpen city of Lake Constance, she studied art in Paris around the time of the riots of 1968. She ran a bar in her home town, a welcome place for men with long hair and women who smoke cigars. She started as a visual artist before deciding on film as her ideal medium.

By the early 1970s she moved to Berlin, establishing herself as a lesbian feminist director, pioneering avante-garde film. Her work was highly stylized, combining over-the-top expressionistic acting with a pop-art aesthetic. Full of bright blues and reds, Ottinger incorporated medieval motifs, bare-breasted Wagnerian women, leaping pigs and crashing waves. Her interests range from food preparation to textiles, her characters from luxurious femininity to militant and radical feminists. And keeping true to her avant garde roots, she eschews strictly linear narratives, choosing instead the more realistic “meandering” style.

One running theme is her reverent and deferential view of the foreign, especially of East Asia. These films in particular — plus a biographical documentary about her life’s work, called Nomad from the Lake (directed by Brigitte Kramer) — are being shown as a mini-retrospective by Toronto Goethe Institute. This includes Under Snow, a combination kabuki-style drama and documentary. It shows life in Japan’s snow country around New Year’s day at a hot spring onsen. From there it takes viewers to Sado island, a land of exile, seemingly populated by clockwork automatons working in the gold mines. In Exile Shanghai she looks at Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany to that Chinese city in the 1930s and 40s. And Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia about European women encountering that country.

Ottinger’s unique and often-imitated style of filmmaking gives viewers an aesthetically pleasing look at the odd, freakish and mysterious.

Nostalgia opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. A Date for Mad Mary is tonight’s opening film at TIRFF, the Toronto Irish Film Festival; and the mini-retrospective Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia is also playing now. Both festivals are screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Holy or Hollow? Films reviewed: Black Hollow Cage, The Holy Girl

Posted in Argentina, Coming of Age, Family, Fantasy, Sex, Spain, Thriller, Time Travel by CulturalMining.com on February 16, 2018

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

After a slow period, February is busting out all over. After Valentine’s Day, films and documentaries are showing at Toronto’s Black Film Festval, Next Wave – with free movies if you’re under 25 — is on this weekend, you can catch a lion dance for Chinese New Year, or just spend time with significant others on  Family Day. So there’s tons of stuff going on out there.

This week I’m looking at movies about young women from Spain and Argentina. There’s a house in the woods with a girl in a cube, and a hotel in the mountains with a girl in a pool.

Black Hollow Cage

Wri/Dir: Sadrac González-Perellón

Alice (Lowena McDonell) is a young teenager with brown hair and huge limpid eyes. She lives with her parents in an isolated, minimalist house, built of glass wood and steel. Her father Adam (Julian Nicholson) takes care of her, while her mother Beatrice is always by her side to offer advice. Sounds like a nice, simple life… but it’s not. Her mother is dead; Beatrice is actually a fluffy white husky with a device strapped to her collar that speaks in her mother’s voice. Alice lost an arm in the same accident that killed her mother. She’s been fitted with a prosthetic arm that looks like it was taken off a star wars storm trooper: shiny, bulky and white. Alice hates the arm and the exercises the physiotherapist tells her to do. One day, Alice is walking Beatrice in the woods near her home and comes across a large, matte-black box, just sitting there. What is it and where does it come from? When she approaches it it opens, revealing a handwritten note – they are not to be trusted. The note is in her own handwriting. Spooky! And a murderous ninja dressed in black is stalking the halls of her house.

Later her dad brings home Erika and Paul (Haydée Lysander and Marc Puiggener), a teenaged sister and brother in trouble. Paul is mute, but Erika talks for the two of them. They were badly beaten so Adam lets them spend the night. Can they be trusted? A voice tells Alice to kill them, but she hesitates. Can she kill innocent children in cold blood? But when she hesitates others end up dead.

How can she fix her errors? She finds that by climbing into the black cube she can emerge and revisit her day to set things straight. But by setting in motion parallel universes she risks upsetting everything and possibly killing her father, beatrice and maybe even herself.

Black Hollow Cage is an extremely strange movie based on a fascinating concept. Some of the strangers things become clear later on, but most of it is left unexplained. So you’re never sure if Alice is insane, whether time travel is actually possible, and who is actually good or bad. It’s one of these movies with strange concepts and beautiful minimalist settings but totally devoid of real life. I couldn’t make heads or tails of this confusing picture. It surprised and shocked me… but didn’t move me.

The Holy Girl (2004)

Dir: Lucrecia Martel

Helena (Mercedes Moran) is a beautiful divorcee who lives in a remote resort in Argentina. It’s a grand hotel, the same one she grew up in with her brother, but is gradually inching from splendid to seedy. The whole hotel is preparing for an influx of Ear-Nose-and-Throat doctors in town for a convention. Under the eagle-eyed manager Mirta,The masseuse is put to work chopping chickens in the kitchen and a nervous maid rushes from room to room spraying disenfectant on everything. Helena herself was once known for her high diving skills but now just dog-paddles in the hot pool worrying about tinnitus. When Helena encounters Dr Jano (Carlos Belloso) who remembers her in her glory days, he invites her to grace the stage at the closing night presentation at the convention. The convention organizer wants to end things with a bang.

Meanwhile her daughter Amalia (María Alché) attends church classes and is on a mission to serve God by saving men. She’s into memorizing catechisms and religious tracts and is looking for a sign. But most lessons are spent listening to her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) whispering lascivious comments in her ear. She’s looking for a sign – does a naked man falling out a second story window outside her class count? One day, when standing in a crowd listening to a Theramin player, Amalia feels a man pushing against her from behind. She turns around and sees a clean shaven middle aged man rushing away. Maybe this is her sign?

Dr Jano is married with children who join him at the hotel, even as both Helena and Amalia pursue him, but for different reasons. Whose secrets will be revealed?

The Holy Girl is a wonderfully, Byzantine drama told through the eyes of both a mother and a daughter and the dozens of other characters swarming around them. It functions both as a coming-of-age story of a religiously engaged but sexually curious teen, and the drama of a middle aged woman trying to juggle work, family, and personal rivalries with chance sexual encounters. This is a lush, detailed film with great acting. I had never seen Lucrecia Martel’s movies before (never heard of her, in fact) but now I want to see everything she’s done.

Black Hollow Cage opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Holy Girl is part of the retrospective Argentine Genius: The Films of Lucrecia Martel playng at TIFF Cinematheque Feb 23-27. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

Middle Class, Middle East. Films reviewed: Ava, The Insult

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, High School, Iran, Lebanon, Movies, Palestine, Refugees, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 2, 2018

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

Looking for new things to watch other than big studio crap? Here’s what to look out for in February. It’s Black History Month, and Toronto’s Black Film Festival is coming up this month. The Goethe Foundation is showing movies set in Asia by Ulrike Ottinger. At TIFF Cinematheque they’ve got a retrospective of French New Wave director Philippe Garrel. To name just a few…

This week, though, I’m looking at two dramas about the Middle Class in the Middle East. There’s a teen drama set in Iran about a dare, and a courtroom drama in Lebanon about an insult.

Ava

Wri/Dir: Sadaf Foroughi

Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is a high school girl in Iran. An only child, she’s pretty but determined and self-confident. She lives with her mom, a psychiatrist, and her dad when he’s not out of town. She brightens up her obligatory, all-back uniform with some red Converse running shoes and a backpack. Her prized possession is her metronome. Her life consists of violin lessons, studying for exams, and hanging with her best friend Melody. Another friend Shirin, is a know-it-all always putting her down so she bets she can get a guy, Nima, to go out with her. She knows him from music lessons where he accompanies her on the piano… and she thinks he’s cute.

So she arranges an elaborate plot where she says she’s going to study with Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi), but actually plans to meet up with Nima, and drop by Shirin’s place to show him off so she can win the bet. Easy as pie. Except Shirin isn’t home – so no bet – and worse, when she sneaks back to Melody’s place her suspicious mom is there going ballistic and taking it out on Melody and her mom. And when Ava arrives her mom’s all Where were you? what did you do? Why did you lie? Then she drags Ava to a doctor to check that her virginity is intact!

In school the next day it gets even worse, with teachers searching through her backpack for forbidden things (whatever that may be). Even the school principal lectures all the girls about the dangers of doing the unspeakable with their unmentionables! She lost the bet, is humiliated in front of everyone, forbidden to see her best friend, and forced to quit her music lessons. All this, even though she didn’t do anything. Her stress and frustration rises to a boiling point and she has a meltdown in class.

Why is her mom so worried about her daughter having premarital sex? Can Ava pull her life back together, pass her exams, play violin at the recital, make up with her friends and family and maybe get back together with her non-boyfriend Nima? Or is her life ruined?

Ava might sound like a YA soap opera, but it’s actually a realistic coming-of-age drama about life in contemporary Iran. This is a good movie, surprisingly mature for a first feature. It has the look of an arthouse flick, with experimental camera work — like characters shot from behind, from above, from far away, with parts of them obscured, or even out of the frame entirely. And Jabari is excellent as Ava.

The Insult

Dir: Ziad Doueiri

Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is an engineer working on contract for the city. He supervises dozens of workers who repair potholes, drainage and infrastructure. He’s at the height of his career, known for his skill, diligence and bringing projects in under budget, while still looking out for the little guy.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) runs his own business, an auto repair shop, fixing BMWs. He lives in a second floor apartment with his pregnant wife. The young couple are saving up to buy their first home. Everything’s peachy until one day Tony spills dirty water through a faulty drainage pipe all over Yasser on the street below. Yasser calls Tony a rude name, but later fixes the pipe at the city’s expense. Tony smashes it to pieces. Words escalate with neither side apologizing for their insults. Until Tony voices the ultimate insult, and Yasser responds by beating him up.

Seems like a small problem, easily solved, right? Wrong. It turns into a lawsuit and the ensuing trial captures the attention of the whole country, leading to riots, molotov cocktails, even a meeting with the President of Lebanon. What is so important about this dispute? Yasser is Palestinian and Tony is Maronite Christian, and their disputes go back for generations, including the bloody, 15-year-long Lebanese civil war.

Their two lawyers, both working pro bono, are the famous Wajda Webb on Tony’s side and rising legal eagle Nadine working for Yasser. Both sides discover hidden histories from their two clients’ pasts, as victims and perpetrators of some of the massacres that tore the region apart: Black September in Jordan, Damour, Sabra and Shatilla.

The Insult has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and I understand why. It manages to handle controversial topics in a sometimes humorous, sometimes serious manner. The movie is told from Tony’s point of view, and therefore that of Maronite Christians as a group – including his political influences, their role in the civil war and Tony’s personal memories. That said, it is respectful and sympathetic to Yasser’s side and takes pains to portray him in a positive way. And Kamal El Basha gives a great performance as Yasser, both subtle and explosive at appropriate places.

The Insult is a good crash course in Lebanese modern history.

Ava and The Insult are both playing now 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.

Just for the lulz. Films reviewed: Adventures in Public School, Father Figures, Downsizing

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Family, Fantasy, High School, Road Movie by CulturalMining.com on December 22, 2017

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

There are lots of heavy-duty movies out now, with great actors, by famous directors about important issues. But what if you just want to have some fun for 90 minutes? Enough great movies — this week, just for the lulz, I’m looking at three comedies. There’s a homeschooled boy who meets a one-legged girl; a teeny-tiny man who meets a one-legged woman; and two adult brothers who just want to meet their dad.

Adventures in Public School

Dir: Kyle Rideout

It’s present-day Vancouver. Liam (Daniel Doheny) is a gawky, home-schooled teenager preparing to write his high school equivalency exams. Once he passes with flying colours he’s off to Cambridge to study astronomy. At least that’s what his over-protective mom thinks. Claire (Judy Greer) gave birth to Liam when she was still a highschool student, so she planned his life to avoid all the problems she faced as a teen.

But when he enters Claire’s old high school to write the test his world is turned upside down by a beautiful girl he passes in the hallway. Anastasia (Siobhan Williams) has blonde hair, an angelic face and a prosthetic leg. Who is this one-legged girl? He deliberately fails the test just so he can attend school and maybe meet her. He manages to join class midterm when he convinces the principal (Andrew McNee) — who has a crush on Claire — that he’ll take the place of a missing girl for two weeks. Now Liam is the new kid, known to everyone as “Maria Sanchez”.

He soon learns about friendship from the flamboyant Wes who shares his locker; bullying from BDC an Aussie competing for Anastasia; and unrequited love. Can he learn about love, sex, drugs and survival in just two weeks of school? And can he shake off his mom’s relentless interference?

Adventures in Public School is a cute Canadian coming of age comedy, but one that takes few risks. Doheny is appealing as Liam, and Greer funny as Claire, and the story is interesting enough, but the film is underwhelming as a whole. But there are enough twists and funny bits to make it worth a watch.

Father Figures

Dir: Lawrence Sher

Kyle and Peter are brothers. They’re also fraternal twins but couldn’t be more different. Peter (Ed Helms) is uptight angry and depressed. He’s a proctologist who hates his job. He’s divorced but has no luck meeting women because he lacks basic social skills. Kyle (Owen Wilson), on the other hand, is a hippy-dippy beach bum who lives in Hawaii. He’s also rich with a beautiful girlfriend. A chance photo of him ended up on a bottle of BBQ sauce, and he has lived off the royalties ever since. He explains his extraordinary luck as “the Universe” talking to him. The two were raised by their single mom Helen (Glenn Close). Their dad died of colon cancer when they were infants.

Peter and Kyle don’t get along but when they meet up again at their mother’s house they discover a secret: their dad didn’t die – in fact he’s still alive. The two of them jump into a car to try to find him. They son discover their mom slept with a huge number of men in the mid-1970s. which one is their real dad? And will they tear each other apart before they meet him?

Father Figures is a simple buddy/road movie – two guys who don’t get along but share a single goal. It has a very barebones plot, with a sentimental ending. Ed Helms is good as the uptight Peter but Owen Wilson is barely trying. It’s the “father figures” who are funny, especially JK Simmonds as a miscreant Repo Man. Again, this is not a great movie, but it’s funny enough.

Downsizing

Dir: Alexander Payne

It’s some point in the future. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is a non-descript but happily-married man who works as a job counsellor for a large corporation. Life’s OK, bit something is missing. Then he hears about a new scientific discvery out of Norway that addresses climate change without affecting your lifestyle. They’ve discovered how to shrink you down to the size of your finger, and developed tiny gated communities where you can live a normal life. Since you’re so small, you leave no carbon footprint and everything is cheap – middle class people with savings from the big world can live like kings in the small world. Food, real estate, travel – all affordable. One catch: the process is irreversible. And when Paul awakens he discovers his wife has changed her mind. And a bunch of his savings have disappeared. Now he’s all alone, works in a crap job and lives in a condo. He’s small and life sucks.

But when he meets a Eurotrash neighbour named Dusan (Christoph Waltz) things start to improve. He learns to let loose and live a little. And when he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a one-legged, Vietnamese cleaning woman, he begins to see how the other half lives. This tiny world has slums, refugees and undocumented migrants just like the big world. Can a normal guy find love and satsfaction in a strange new world?

Downsizing is a silly and goofy movie, but an interesting one anyway. Once they establish the big/small changes, the size thing disappears, and it turns into a light social satire with a middle class guy learning about poverty. Mart Damon plays that gormless white guy he does so well; Christoph Waltz – with sidekick Udo Kier – adds some life, and Hong Chau pours on a heavy Vietnamese accent but is still believable.

Father Figures and Downsizing open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Adventures in Public School starts in January as part of the Canada’s Top Ten movies series. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

 

Lots of Indies! Films reviewed: The Disaster Artist, Sweet Virginia, Wexford Plaza

Posted in Acting, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Film Noir, L.A., Mumblecore, Realism, Toronto, violence by CulturalMining.com on December 1, 2017

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

Indie movies are in this year, picking up prizes and heading for the Oscars. They are the most innovative films out there, flouting expected cinematic rules, sharing a sense of realism missing from big-budget movies.

This week I’m talking about three new indie movies opening today. There’s a hit man staying at a motel, a security guard working at a strip mall, and an indie movie about making indie movies.

The Disaster Artist

Dir: James Franco (Based on the book by Greg Sestero)

Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a model and aspiring actor in San Francisco. He’s taking classes, looking for his big break. Problem is he’s a terrible actor: way too shy and withdrawn. Enter fellow student Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). He’s a body–builder with a redone face, a mane of long black hair and an unintelligible accent. (He says he’s from New Orleans). He’s entirely without talent, but brimming with self-confidence. Greg sees him acting in class, shouting and literally climbing the walls. The teachers all cringe, but Greg is dumbfounded. This is what he wants to do, this is what he wants to be like. Soon they move to Tommy’s LA pied a terre, find agents and start up the ladder toward movie stardom. At least that’s the plan. When the studios don’t come knocking at their door, they decide to shoot their own movie, called The Room. Tommy will direct and produce (he’s bankrolling the whole thing) while the two of them share top billing. But will The Room be any good?

The short answer is no.

But that doesn’t convey the awfulness of the film they’re making. It’s spectacularly, stupendously, unbelievably bad… but in a very distinctive way. (It has since become a major cult hit — so bad it’s good — seen everywhere.) Its humour derives from the bad acting and non-sensical script, and from Tommy Wiseaus total obliviousness to his own social ineptitude and to how bad the film actually is (he imagines it’s a masterpiece).

This movie — The Disaster Artist — isnt a remake, it’s a move about the making of The Room. It recreates and incorporates the funniest, worst parts of the original, but also what was going on behind the camera. It’s a bro comedy, starring real life bros Dave and James Franco, who is just so funny as Tommy. And though it is ostensibly an indie movie, it may have broken a record for the number of Hollywood cameos:  Hannibal Buress, Seth Rogan, Sharon Stone, JJ Abrams, and dozens of others.

The Disaster Project is a really funny movie.

Sweet Virginia

Dir: Jamie M. Dagg

Sam (Jon Bernthal) is a former champion bull rider who used to earn his living in the rodeo circuit, until he had an accident. Now he runs a motel called Sweet Virginia nestled somewhere between two foggy mountains. Lila (Imogen Poots) is his assistant helping out in his office. All is well until the town is shaken by an unexpected killing: three men gunned down at a late night poker game. Elwood (Christopher Abbott) a man with anger issues, is staying at Sam’s motel. Turns out he’s a hit man, the one that killed the three men, including Lila’s husband. He also killed the husband of Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is having a secret affair with Sam. Who hired him? Lila! She hated her husband and wants his money. She promises Elwood big bucks in exchange for his murder (The other men he kills are just “collateral damage”). But when Lila can’t get hold of the money, things take a turn for the worse. Will the bad guys pay for their crimes? Or will there be more violence to come?

Sweet Virginia has all the makings of an excellent movie. Great cast, good acting, wonderful locations, and beautiful cinematography. So why does it suck?

This movie is all wrong. It reveals everything in the first few minutes, ruining any suspense. It wastes a lot of screen time introducing characters who are killed off in the first 15 minutes. And the rest of the move just creaks along, revealing dull, pointless and violent lives, with no surprises. I get the feeling the only reason this movie was released is because Bernthal is starring in the Netflix series The Punisher right about now.

Wexford Plaza

Wri/Dir: Joyce Wong

Betty (Reid Asselstine) is a cheery and voluptuous 19-year-old starting her new job. She’s a security guard at a rundown strip mall in Scarborough called Wexford Plaza. She’s forced to wear a too-small uniform: black polyester pants with an ugly yellow polo shirt. Her high school friends have moved on; she only sees them on instagram. She works with Rich and Anton (Francis Melling and Mirko Miljevic) two immature asshats who smoke pot, leer at her breasts and tell off-colour jokes at her expense. Then she meets Danny (Darrel Gamotin), a bartender in the mall. He’s a nice guy, older, successful and self-confident, and seems interested in her. He has her back when she drinks too much, and she returns the favour (along with sexual benefits) when he gets sloshed. She forsees a long term relationship… until things go drastically wrong. He turns on a dime, from good guy to cold bastard. What’s going on? Is he just using her?

Wexford Plaza is a realistic comedy/drama that tells the same story twice, first from Betty’s and then from Danny’s point of view. Similar events occupy the same time and space but seem radically different. Words considered crucial by one – slurred out while drunk – are completely missing from the other one’s memories. Reid Asselstine is great, subtly exposing Betty’s burgeoning sexuality tempered by her self-doubt. This is a good coming-of-age drama set in the desolate strip malls of Toronto.

Sweet Virginia, The Disaster Artist and Wexford Plaza 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

 

Looking for trouble. Films reviewed: Thelma, Amerika Square, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted in Coming of Age, Greece, Norway, Racism, Refugees, Supernatural, Vengeance, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 17, 2017

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

More fall film festivals: The EU Film Fest brings free movies from across Europe to Toronto; and look out for the all-Canadian horror festival called Blood in the Snow – BITS for short – coming next weekend.

We all face trouble at times, but some people seem to invite it. This week I’m looking at movies about people getting into trouble. There’s a bigot in Athens trying to make trouble, a young woman in Oslo trying to avoid trouble, and a middle-aged woman in Missouri who acts like trouble is her middle name.

Thelma

Dir: Joachim Trier

It’s present day Norway. Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a teenaged girl at university in Oslo who is living on her own for the very first time. She was homeschooled by devout Christian parents including a very strict father. Aside from frequent calls from her parents checking up on her, Thelma is suddenly free to discover life on her own. She gets invited to parties, drinks beer, has arguments about politics, and flirts with an obnoxious boy who pursues her relentlessly. It’s thrilling, but also scary. Strange things seem to happen around her when she’s nervous. When she really starts to panic she shakes, shivers, and collapses into what look like epileptic seizures. But are they? And all around her nature seems to react: birds crash into windows, leaves rustle, then things start to shake, break and shatter.

Anja (Kaja Wilkins) is one of her classmates who looks out for her. They seem to have a psychic bond, meeting almost at random – when athelma wants to see her, she seems to just appear. More than that, there’s a strong sexual attraction between the two of them. But Thelma is afraid to tell her the truth: when she thinks hard enough she unleashes forces that can make people… disappear!

Thelma is a terrific coming of age drama full of suspense, mystery and the supernatural. It’s been called the Norwegian Carrey – fundamentalist christian girl with telekinetic powers – but it’s also totally different. She’s not bullied, she’s not weak, and there’s a fascinating love story in the mix.

Harboe and Wilkins — great as Thelma and Anja — are both new faces I want to see more of.

Amerika Square

Dir: Yannis Sakandis

Present-day Athens. Billy (Yannis Stankoglou) is a chill tattoo artist who runs his own shop. He looks like a young Bruce Springsteen in a diverse, workingclass neighbourhood. He lives in an apartment block near Amerika Square, a rundown local park. He just wants to live his life. Tarek (Vassilis Koukalani) is a Syrian refugee with a small daughter. He wants to make his way to safety in Germany, but keeps failing. And when he gets separated from his daughter he breaks into panic mode. Tereza (Ksenia Dania) is a beautiful, biracial nightclub singer (who speaks Greek). She wants to escape local hoodlums who control her. She meets Billy when she asks him to rewrite her tattoo and free her from virtual slavery. Is there something more between Billy and Tereza? Nakos (Makis Papadimitriou) is overweight and underemployed. He’s in his late thirties but still lives with his parents. He is obsessed with foreigners – he methodically counts how many live in the apartment and worries there will be more immigrants than Greeks. They’re changing everything and taking over! he says. His own parents migrated to Athens from a small village, but he considers the square his own. And he’s willing to do almost anything to drive the immigrants out. Will this include murder?

Amerika Square is a good drama about the current conflicts in Athens and across Europe. It looks at the plight of refugees and migrants, locals who welcome them, and the rise of rightwing groups who violently oppose immigration. It follows an ensemble cast in a complex storylines that all comes together in the end, along with a few ironic plot twists.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Wri/Dir: Martin McDonagh

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a divorced woman who runs a gift shop in tiny Ebbing Missouri. She’s been on edge since her teenaged daughter was brutally raped and murdered. The police have yet to charge anyone with the crime. So she rents three derelict billboards on a road near her home. The billboards, like giant Burma Shave signs, ask in garish letters, why Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) hasn’t caught the killer. But when the story is picked up by local media, the powers that be fight back: highschool bullies, her dentist, even a priest. They strongly pressure her to take down the signs, and attack her friends, employees and even her son (Lucas Hedges). But she refuses. This ignites a feud between Mildred and one cop in particular, the corrupt and bigoted Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon lives with his gravelly voiced mother who goads him on to greater and greater acts of violence. But Mildred fights back, upping the ante from words to fistfights, to shooting to firebombing.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a satisfying, exciting, but extremely violent movie about irascible characters facing big issues in a small town. I call it cutely violent – which fits with the director’s other movies: In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. The violence is extreme and graphic, but it always retains a touch of humour. Peter Dinklage and Sam Rockwell are back again, but this time a woman is allowed to shine in the lead role, with great results. Frances McDormand is perfect as this hateable/loveable character. Mildred might curse a blue streak but you can still see the heart in this irascible, hard-ass woman.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF17.

Thelma and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri both open today in Toronto; check our local listings.  Amerika Square is playing at Toronto’s European Union Film Festival. Go to euffto.com for details.

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

Bad Students. Films Reviewed: Lady Bird, Bad Genius, My Friend Dahmer

Posted in 1970s, 2000s, Coming of Age, Crime, High School, Thailand by CulturalMining.com on November 10, 2017

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

Fall Film Festival season continues in Toronto. The EU Film Fest, which started last night, features movies from each of the EU countries, and all screenings are free. Reelasian also just started with films from South, East and Southeast Asia.

This week I’m looking at dramas about troublesome high school students. There’s a young woman in California who wants to head east (to university), another in Bangkok who wants to go south (to Singapore), and a guy in Akron who wants to look inside other people.

Lady Bird

Dir: Greta Gerwig

It’s central California in the early 2000s. Lady Bird (Saorise Ronan), is a bored kid with great ambitions – she wants to study at an eastcoast University. She’s in her last year at a private, Catholic school. Her mom (Laurie Metcalf) sent her there because she thinks public school is too dangerous. She lives in a small house in Sacramento with her brother Miguel, her dad, a computer programmer, and her mom who works in a psychiatric hospital.

Lady Bird wants to be cool and maybe meet a boyfriend. But Immaculate Heart – or Immaculate Fart, as she calls it– is an all-girls school run by nuns. Her only chance of meeting guys is in the theatre club run in conjunction with an all-boys Catholic school nearby. She immediately hits it off with Danny (Lucas Hedges) who likes show tunes and wearing puka shell chokers. She takes him home to meet the family. Later she wants to create a cooler self. (Earlier she renamed herself Lady Bird – she’s actually Christine.) Now she quits doing school plays, and starts playing pranks on nuns. She swaps boyfriend Danny for the chill Kyle (Timothee Chalumet) and trades best friend Julie for the prettier and richer Jenna. She tells her she lives in a mansion, not a bungalow on the wrong side of the tracks. And secretly, with the help of her recently unemployed dad, she applies to east coast schools. But can the tower of lies she creates stand up to closer scrutny? And are her new friends good people?

Lady Bird is Greta Gerwigs first solo film – she codirected Frances Ha with noah Baumbach — and it’s a funny and touching movie. Saorise Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe make a fantastic mother and daughter who can’t get along. And side roles — like Hedges as Danny – are amazing (I didn’t even recognize him as the kid in Manchester on the Sea). I admit I found the last three minutes of the movie a terrible — and unnecessary — mistake, but Lady Bird is still an almost flawless coming-of-age story.

Bad Genius

Dir: Nattawut Poonpiriya

Lynn (actor/model Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is a student at an elite Bangkok high school. It’s a school where many grads get accepted to US Ivy league schools. Most the kids there are filthy rich but not very bright . Lynn is just the opposite – the daughter of a divorced school teacher, she’s a scholarship student, a piano player, and a genius at math. She also understands the value of money — she has to be when theres’s not much around. She quickly establishes herself – along with Bank, another scholarship student – as the top two kids in the school, in competition for a place in a Singapore university. But everything changes when Lynn’s friend Grace – with her millionaire boyfriend Pat – come to her with a proposition. They’ll pay her big bucks to act as their tutor. But they don’t really want to study – they want to an easy way to pass the tests. Lynn comes up with a brilliant plan – she shows them the multiple choice answers by “playing the piano” in the test hall, moving her fingers in the order of four famous passages. The students all pass the exam. But Bank – the good genius — suspects something fishy.

Later they recruit him to join Lynn in a trip to Sydney, Australia to take the STIC exam – the international SAT test. They plan to write the exam and text the answers just in time for the Bangkok exams, four time zones over. Will the plan work? Will they get caught? And will sparks fly between the two geniuses, Lynn and Bank?

Bad Genius is based on an actual test scandal that shook Thailand. The movie works as both a teen drama and an action movie, with the main characters racing against time to rig the tests and avoid capture. It also shows the huge gap between Bangkok’s super rich, and the rest of the people who never seem to get ahead.

My Friend Dahmer

Dir: Marc Meyers

It’s the late 1970s in a small town near Akron Ohio. Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is a tall kid with big glasses and feathered blond hair. He lives with his little brother, his mom a pill-popper (Anne Heche) and his dad a chemist. Jeff collects animal bones from roadkill he finds on the highway. He is also obsessed with a local doctor he always sees jogging down the highway. He keeps to himself at a school ruled by football jocks and cheerleaders. He’s not bullied but not popular either till he finds his niche: a class clown who is both audacious and weird. He spontaneously breaks into his acts, talking like a handicapped kid, or falling to the floor in imitation tonic-clinic seizures.

This catches the attention of Derf (Alex Wolff) and his friends Neil and Mike. They are counterculture types into the Ramones and and comic books. And they see Jeff as epitomize get Punk, even if he doesn’t know it himself. They form the Dahmer fan club, planning events so Jeff can go wild in front of an audience. But are they helping him or using him? Jeff turns to alcohol to counter his constantly bickering parents. She wants to know what people are like on the inside – literally. He gets stranger and stranger, experimenting on live animals.  Are his new “friends” the ones pushing him over the edge?

My Friend Dahmer is a based on the true graphic novel written by Derf Backderf, his highchool (sort of) friend. Dahmer later became a notorious serial killer who picked up men in bars, had sex with their paralyzed bodies, and later dissolved their corpses in acid vats. But My Friend Dahmer takes place before all that. This is an extremely disturbing and creepy — but also weird and funny — look at teenagers in the 1970s. With a great soundtrack, it makes you wonder what – bullying, mental illness, encouragement — pushes people from normalcy to depravity.

Ladybird, and My Friend Dahmer open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Bad Genius is playing at the ReelAsian film festival. Go to reelasian.com for details.

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

Seeking his Fortune. Films Reviewed: Lean on Pete, Sheikh Jackson, Valley of Shadows

Posted in Coming of Age, Drama, Egypt, Fairytales, Islam, Kids, Movies, Music, Norway by CulturalMining.com on September 15, 2017

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

Whether it’s Jack or Hans or Esben or Ivan, many fairytales start with a young man leaving home to seek his fortune. This week I’m looking at three new movies premiering at TIFF17 about young men heading off into the unknown. There’s Khaled, a young man in Egypt, Charley, a 15-year-old in Oregon, and Aslak a six-year-old boy in northern Norway.

Sheikh Jackson

Dir: Amr Salama

Khaled (Ahmad Alfishawy) is an imam at a mosque in Cairo who is having strange dreams and hallucination. He cries during prayers and keeps seeing a strange man dressed in black with pale skin and a glittering glove. Is family is very religious — his wife wears a niqab scolds their daughter for watching Beyoncé videos on youtube. And his uncle is his mentor and spiritual advisor. And everyone notices something is not right. He sees a psychiatrist and after many false starts he finally opens up and tells his story.

In his youth, Khaled (Ahmed Malek) lived with a loving family in Alexandria. His father is a body-builder entrepreneur, his mother stays at home.And he is entranced by a strange figure he sees on TV — it’s michael Jackson. His mother approves, but his father says “don’t watch that transvestite”. When his mother dies, he becomes obsessed with Michael Jackson, changing his hairstyle, buying new clothes, and going to nightclubs to hear his music. He also wants to impress another fan, a beautiful girl in his music class. But things with his father get worse and worse, until everything explodes. He runs to his uncle for help, who says he can,ove inwith his family as long as he gives up his current life and studies the Koran. But, back in the present, Michael Jacksons death turns his life upside down. Can he reconcile his moonwalking past with his religious present?

Sheikh Jackson is a delightfully cute look at the conflicts of contemporary Egypt. Religious vs secular, western pop culture vs more traditional ways. It’s also a bittersweet coming of age story about a non-conformist looking fir his place in the world. And — no spoiler – it includes a dance number to the tune of Thriller!

Valley of Shadows

Dir: Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen

Aslak (Adam Akeli) is a 6 year old boy who lives his mom on a farm in remote northern Norway. His older brother is in some kidn of trouble, so he theres no one to play with. And when an older kid tells him there are monsters in the woods and werewolves killing sheep, his imagination goes wild. And when his dog runs away, he realizes he is the only one who can save him. So he packs some sandwiches in a bag and heads out up the mountain and into the forest. This starts a long journey, through trees, down slopes, across rivers, encountering, huge beasts, wild animals and a magical hermit as he travels all around. Will he find his dog, survive alone in the forest, avoid the werewolves and somehow make his way home again?

Valley of Shadows is a beautiful look at a journey through the eyes of a little boy. Fantastic scenery and wildlife seen in a dark and mystical light. With very little dialogue, it shows instead what Aslak sees in his journey. It feels like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are… but real.

Lean on Pete

Wri/Dir: Andrew Haigh

Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a fifteen year old kid who moved with his dad to Portland Oregon. His dad is a heavy drinker who picks up women and takes them home. Charley’s mom left when he was just a kid. Back home he would go running in the mornig and played on the Varsity football team. But he doesn’t know anyone here. One day on a monring run he meets a grizzly old man named Del (Steve Buschemi) who handles race horses. Charley knows nothing about horses, but Del needs someone willing to work hard and shovel manure. He hires charley on the spot. That’s where he meets a female jockey named Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) and a 5 year old quarter horse named Lean On Pete. Bonnie warns him it’s a business, and never treat racehorses like pets, but Charley loves Pete and tells him all his secrets. And when something happens to his dad, and Pete’s life is threatened, he takes the only path he can think of. He sets off across the sagebrush and deserts to save the horse and maybe find a relative who can help him.

Lean on Pete is a wonderful and very moving story of a kid on his own crossing Oregon and Wyoming. It’s not an idealized version, it’s a realistic look at someone trying to eat, drink and stay alive while broke and homeless, and with no one to turn to. It’s a bit of a tearjerker but never maudlin, and kept me riveted to the screen all the way through. And Charley Plummer is great in the title role, telling his story aloud as he travels across country.

Valley of Shadows and Lean on Pete are both playing now at TIFF with Sheikh Jackson having its world prenier tonight as the closing film of Special Presentations. And on Sunday you can see the People’s Choice award winner for free at Roy Thomson Hall; tickets are handed out at 4 pm. Go to tiff.net for details.

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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