Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Sophie Deraspe about Antigone

Posted in Canada, Disguise, Drama, Family, High School, Montreal, Prison, Protest, Quebec, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 6, 2019

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Antigone is a straight-A high school student in Montreal. She lives with two brothers and a sister, raised by ther grandmother. They immigrated from North Africa when she was still a child. She’s heading for university and is dating Hémon, the son of a prominent politician. But her normal life is shattered when the police kill one brother and jail the other. She comes up with a scheme to take her brothers place in prison. But what will become of Antigone?

Antigone is the title of a fantastic new film from Québec, about a strong young woman willing to confront the government and risk everything for the love of her brother. The film transplants the classic Greek play into modern day Montréal, incorporating contemporary cinema, drama, literature, and music. The film is written and directed by Sophie Deraspe who also served as cinematographer and editor. Antigone is her first feature and has won countless prizes, including best Canadian Film at TIFF and is Canada’s choice for Best Foreign Film Oscar.

I spoke with Sophie at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Antigone opens today in Toronto.

Top to Bottom. Films reviewed: The Kindness of Strangers, The Two Popes, Knives Out

Posted in Argentina, Catholicism, comedy, Crime, Family, Homelessness, Movies, Mystery, New York City, Poverty by CulturalMining.com on November 29, 2019

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

With the awards season coming up, Hollywood is starting to release the big ones with famous stars and directors. This week I’m looking at three such movies. There’s a drama about the downtrodden, a biopic about religious leaders at the top, and a comedy mystery about a large group of suspects caught in the middle… of a possible murdet.

The Kindness of Strangers

Wri/Dir: Lone Scherfig (An Education, The Riot Club, One Day)

Manhattan is a lonely place, especially for people down on their luck. Alice (Andrea Riseborough) is an empathetic ER nurse who volunteers at a soup kitchen and moderates a forgiveness group. But her long hours are taking a toll on her psyche. Clara (Zoe Kazan: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Big Sick) is a wide-eyed young mom from Buffalo on vacation with her two boys _ well thats what she tells them. In fact she’s penniless, fleeing her husband, a cop Richard (Esben Smed: Lykke Per) who beats up their kids. She keeps them fed by shoplifting, dumpster diving and stealing hors d’oeuvres from parties. Marc (Tahar Rahim: A Prophet, The Past) is an ex-con, recently freed from prison by a lawyer, who lands a job managing a Russian restaurant. And Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones: ByzantiumContraband, The Last Exorcism) is an earnest simpleton who can’t hold onto a job. If he doesn’t pay his rent soon, he’ll be out on the street.

Luckily, some strangers are kind. But will Alice find happiness, Clara find refuge, Marc find friends, and Jeff find a job? Or are they just more victims in the Naked City?

The Kindness of Strangers follows seemingly unrelated stories as they gradually come together in unexpected ways. Danish director Lone Scherfig’s movies are always good, even the bad ones. And this is a good one. It’s basically a Christmas movie but without any santas or angels. Lots of snow, but no presents. Church basements but no preaching. Some criticism: Only 7% of homeless in NY City are white, but in this movie it’s 100%. Although it veers into corn territory once or twice, this tear jerker is miles beyond any Hallmark movie, and seems genuinely sympathetic to the downtrodden. It deals with real problems, and leaves you feeling warm inside.

The Two Popes

Dir: Fernando Meirelles

Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathon Pryce) is a popular priest in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He loves soccer, pizza and dancing the tango. He preaches humility and compassion to the poor, and though he’s a Cardinal, dresses in plain clothes. He is flying to the Vatican to request early retirement. Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) is a conservative German, whothis the Vatican was moving in the wrong direction and has to be fixed. He loves the pageantry and finery of the Vatican, from the fancy clothes to the elegant trappings. He likes eating alone, a bowl of plain broth with Knödel. And he invites Bergoglio to join him at his country retreat. There conversation goes nowhere, with one asking to retire, and the other refusing. They disagree on practically everything. Why are they meeting and will they ever find common ground?

The Two Popes is a dramatization of a meeting between – not a spoiler! –  two Popes: Benedict who stepped down amid scandal, and Francis, the first pope from the Americas, who took his place. It’s a highly visual film, shot in a semi-documentary style. It gives us a “Pope’s-eye view” of the inside of the Vatican, with all its sumptuous finery and grandeur. I once saw Pope John Paul II appear at the window; in this movie you’re inside the window looking down at the crowd, which is very cool. And the larger-than-life characters – as imagined by Welsh actors Hopkins and Pryce in effective performances – are humanized and normalized. They’re just like you and me.

But I think you have to deeply care about the doctrine, policies, politics and rituals of the Catholic Church to truly appreciate this movie.

Count me out.

Knives Out

Wri/Dir: Rian Johnson

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a hugely successful mystery novelist. He lives in a gothic mansion with his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). All of his descendents are in town to celebrate his landmark birthday. There’s hard-boiled Linda, a real-estate agent with her hanger-on hubby and playboy son (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans). Flaky, new-age entrepreneur Joni (Toni Collette) with her college-age daughter (Katherine Langford) and alt-right son (Jaeden Martell). Goateed Walt’s family (Michael Shannon) handles the publishing side of his dad’s burgeoning book empire. And Greatnana (K Callan) who observes all but says nothing. There are the usual family squabbles, But by morning, everything has changed. Thrombey is found dead in his bedroom in a pool of blood, an apparent suicide… but is it? And if it’s murder, whodunnit?

Investing the crime are two hapless cops (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and a private detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Blanc has an eagle eye and a deep southern drawl. Everyone is a suspect and has something to hide. Everyone but Marta, who is allergic to lying. She actually throws up if she says anything untrue.

Knives Out is an extremely entertaining mystery comedy, in the style of Agatha Christie and Murder She Wrote. Almost every line is clever, overflowing with biting cultural references: Benoit Blanc is referred to as CSI from KFC, and there are pastiches of everyone from Gwynneth Paltrow to Ben Shapiro. I’ve seen this one twice already and I could easily watch it again next year.

Knives Out is now playing in Toronto, and The Two Popes opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The Kindness of Strangers opens next Friday; 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.

Birth, Death, Birth. Films reviewed: Dead Dicks, In Safe Hands, The Report

Posted in Adoption, Bipolar, Canada, Family, France, Horror, Politics, Suspense, Suspicion, Terrorism, Torture, US by CulturalMining.com on November 15, 2019

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

Fall festival season continues in Toronto, with ReelAsian ending tonight and the EU Film Fest still going strong. Coming soon are Blood in the Snow (aka BITS), featuring Canadian Horror and Genre movies, and CineFranco with French language movies, from Canada and around the world.

This week I’m looking at three movies, two about births and two about deaths. We’ve got mysterious rebirths wanted by no one, a newborn infant wanted by everyone, and a horrifying CIA program they want no one to know anything about.

Dead Dicks

Wri/Dir: Chris Bavota, Lee Paula Springer

Becca (Jillian Harris) is a young bartender who works downtown. But much of her time is filled with taking care of her big brother Richie (Heston Horwin). Richie is a depressed artist with anger issues given to playing music full blast while scribbling in his sketchbook. When there parents died he served as the adult in the family, but now the roles are reversed. She’s forced to deal with his angry neighbours and make sure he takes his meds. So when she she is called away from her job by frantic texts, she thinks this is just another one of Richie’s episodes. But it’s not.

She arrives to see an apartment in disarray, with a huge mouldy patch formed above his bed, and Richie wandering around naked, in a daze. His brain feels fuzzy he says. Turns out he killed himself just a few minutes before. And almost immediately expelled, fully grown, through a hole in the wall. But the dead body he left behind is still there, hanging in the closet. And another one in the bathtub, and another one in the kitchen. Living Richie is surrounded by all the dead Dicks from his repeated suicide attempts. He’s experimenting, he says.

But that leaves Richie and Becka with a pile of dead Dicks to get rid of, a mysterious birth canal on his wall and an angry neighbour (Matt Keyes) who could get them arrested by threatening to call the cops. What is causing all these rebirths? What does it mean? And what are the unanticipated consequences?

Dead Dicks is a bizarre, low budget film, part horror, part mystery, part comedy. The film does not encourage death by suicide. Rather, It deals with issues of family and mental illness, within a weird fantasy setting. It manages to be grotesque and gruesome, with very few special effects, and an absurd humorous streak running through it.

In Safe Hands (Pupille)

Dir: Jeanne Herry

It’s present-day Brest, in French Brittany.

A young woman arrives at a hospital in labour. She’s a college student and says the pregnancy is the result of a one-night stand, and says she doesn’t want the baby. This starts a dozen gears spinning into action, notifying dozens of doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, midwives, social workers, foster parents, and adoption agencies. And little Theo, the baby, is the centre of attention. He is transferred to an incubator, with lots of faces peering down at him. But can his lack of contact with his birth mother damage him for life? Or will a concerted effort place this baby into safe loving hands?

In Safe Hands is mainly a dramatization of the process of birth and adoption, but there are a few interestingside plots along the way. Jean (Gilles Lellouche) is a married dad who takes care ofhis own daughter and two troubled foster boys who takes care of Theo as he awaits adoption. Karine (Sandine Kiberlain) works for the adoption and fostering program and has a thing for Jean… but will an affair upset the adoption process? Alice Langlois (Élodie Bouchez) is single and works describing action at live plays for the visually impaired. She applied for adoption when she was attached. A social worker is concerned both for the privacy of the birth mother and of the baby who might one day wish to get in contact with her. And many, many others, all centred around a wordless, Yodalike baby who seems to take everything in. It was interesting from a parenting and adoption point of view, exposing all the hidden parts of the mechanism of adoption, but isn’t very satisfying as a dramatic or romantic movie, more just as an educational docudrama, as acted by famous French movie stars.

The Report

Wri/Dir: Scott Z. Burns

It’s post 9-11 Washington, DC.

Dan Jones (Adam Driver) is a young college grad appointed to a group to write a bipartisan internal report on the CIA for the Senate Intelligence Committee. The committee is headed b Sen. Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening). Dan is locked up in a dark basement in a nameless bureaucratic and told to find out what the CIA has done since 9/11. It turns out their practices, supposedly enacted to stop terrorism, were immoral, illegal and of no value whatsoever for intelligence. Specifically, he uncovers the practice of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a policy previously known as torture and banned by the Geneva Convention.

They were under the direction of two psychologists, James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen (Douglas Hodge and T Ryder Smith) working on contract with no experience in interrogation. They stripped prisoners naked, chained them to walls, waterboarded them and nailed them – live – into wooden coffins, covering their skin with crawling insects. The torture yielded no intel, yet was repeated for many years in blacksites around the world.

Dan outlines these heinous war crimes in a long report to the committee, shocking senators by its findings. But instead of offering support and investgating their own lawbreakers, the CIA initiates a coverup, threatening Dan himself with jail time if he releases his findings. And the CIA sends operatives to spy on the Senate itself in order to coverup the findings. Will Dan Jones’s report ever see the light of day? And will the war criminals be punished?

The Report is a good political drama about the illegal use of torture by the CIA, but a thriller it’s not. It incorporates elements of All the President’s Men, and is nicely shot with lots of fluorescent lights and stark, brutalist architecture. Driver is great as the persistent policy geek, with an understated Bening as a veteran Senator. Warning: there are a few highly disturbing reenactments of the torture itself, which are extremely hard to watch. Much more common are the reenactments of the culprits – John Yoo, Jose Rodrigues, John Brennan (Ted Levine), Cheney, and the psychologists – war criminals who leave a very bad taste in one’s mouth.

I liked this one.

Dead Dicks will be playing at Blood in the Snow, In Safe Hands at Cinefranco, and The Report at the Tiff Bell Lightbox all starting one week from today.

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

Solving problems. Films reviewed: Sometimes Always Never, The Laundromat, Chiko

Posted in Berlin, comedy, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Family, Games, Scandal, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 8, 2019

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

Toronto’s Fall Festival Season is in full swing this October. Look out for Toronto After Dark – scary and fantastic films; Rendezvous with Madness – films on addiction and mental health; Planet in Focus focussing on environmental films for its 20th anniversary; ImagineNative with movies by and about indigenous peoples around the world… and many more.

But this week I’m looking at three movies, from Germany, the U.K. and the US. There’s a gangster who turns to drugs to find success, a grandpa who turns to word games to find his missing son, and an older woman who turns to amateur sluething to find the bad guys.

Sometimes Always Never

Dir: Carl Hunter

Alan (Bill Nighy) is a dapper businessman in small town England. He likes Marmite, tea and scrabble. He’s meeting his estranged, adult son Peter (Sam Riley) to view a body at a remote village morgue. Alan’s other son ran away decades ago, disappearing without a trace. Could this be him? When the body turns out be the son of another couple, Margaret and Arthur (Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerney), Alan follows Peter home. It’s an excuse to finally meet his daughter-in-law Sue (Alice Lowe) and grandson Jack (Louis Healy). Won’t you stay for dinner? The evening turns into an extended visit as Alan insinuates himself into their homelife, sharing a bunk bed in Jack’s room. The teenager is a shy introvert who spends all his time gaming online. To change his life, his grandfather gets him a haircut and a custom-made suit. He’s a tailor, you see. The movie’s title refers to which buttons to button on a three-button suit. Top to bottom: sometimes, always, never.

Alan’s obsession with Scrabble has a lot to do with his missing son, who ran away in the middle of a game. It’s what separates him from his son – but will it bring them back together? – and influences his relations with Margaret and Arthur, the couple he met at the bed & breakfast. But can a board game bring his missing son home again?

Sometimes Always Never is a clever, funny and touching look at family life in small-town, northern England. Lots of twists in the plot, and enough wordplay to make the whole script feel like an ongoing Scrabble game. It does walk the fine line between charming and twee. The movie, though set in the present day, is drenched in sets, props, costumes, and style from an earlier era. But Bill Nighy, Alice Lowe and the rest are so good you can excuse a bit of excess quirky cuteness.

I like this movie.

The Laundromat

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Mossack and Fonseca (Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas) are a pair of rich lawyers who operate out of Panama. They like flashy tuxedos, palm trees and vodka martinis. Why are they so rich? Their firm holds the secrets of dictators, billionaires, drug dealers, corporations, celebrities and politicians the world over. Through the use of off-shore banking, shell corporations and absolute secrecy, they launder untold billions.

Enter Ellen (Meryl Streep), an everywoman who loses her husband in a freak accident on their wedding anniversary. Turns out the accident insurance on the boat tour they took (it sank) was bogus. Later the condo she buys in Las Vegas with her husband’s life insurance is snatched away by some Russian oligarchs. So she begins to investigate. All these companies – real estate, insurance, banking – seem to operate out of offices in the Caribbean. But when she goes to confront the CEO of the company giving her the runaround, she discovers it’s just a series of post office boxes. Can she follow their trail to Panama? And will the villains ever pay?

The Laundromat is a series of fables to explain the money laundering and tax evasion brought to light by the Panama Papers, a mammoth data haul leaked to the press by an anonymous whistleblower. Mossack and Fonseca themselves tell the story in episodic form, regularly turning toward the camera to look right at you. At the beginning of the movie I was giggling at its audacity and unexpected form – I couldn’t wait to see Soderbergh’s next trick. The trouble is, that were no other gimmicks. He flogs the same dead horse – this is just a movie, they’re all actors, that’s a green screen behind them – for the whole 90 minutes! Just when you start caring a bit, Soderbergh makes sure to remind you it’s not real, it’s just a game. I admit there’s one surprising twist near the end.… but it’s immediately followed by a slice of earnest Americana so cringe-worthy it would make a nine-year-old squirm in embarrassment.

The Laudromat just doesn’t work.

Chiko

Wri/Dir: Özgür Yildirim

Chiko (Denis Moschitto) is a young Berliner trying to get ahead. His parents came to Germany from Turkey as Gastarbeiters in the 60s, and he still hangs with other Turkish Germans. Especially his two best friend, Tibet (Volkan Özcan) and Curly. Together they beat up and rob a local cannabis dealer. But instead of running away, Chiko asks to meet his boss.

Brownie (Moritz Bleibtreu — he’s in Bye Bye Germany, The Fifth Estate, My Best Enemy) is a crime boss living a comfortable middle-class life. He ends up hiring the scrappy Chiko on a trial run, moving ten keys of cannabis. Chiko exalts in his new wealth and woos the Turkish-German prostitite Meryam (Reyhan Sahin) in the apartment next door. Is it true love or just a financial transaction?

Meanwhile, Tibet, trying to save money for his mom’s kidney operation, short-changes customers. Brownie’s thugs arrive to punish him… by hammering a nail through his foot!  This leads to a series of escalating events. Chiko graduates to coke dealing, and buys a white Mercedes with gold hubcaps to match his new image. As Chiko rises to the top like Scarface, Tibet’s falls into a downward spiral, his seething anger getting worse and worse. Finally Chiko has to choose: kingpin Brownie or his former best friend Tibet? Which commands his loyalty – friendship or business?

Chiko is a cool and violent crime drama set in urban Germany. It’s a melodrama in the best sense. Moschitto is terrific as Chiko: the criminal, the lover, the anti-hero. I liked this film and found it very moving, both the acting and the realistic, almost documentary-like peek inside the mosques, corner-stores and restaurants of Berlin. Of course it also has what you expect from a good crime drama: chase scenes, shootouts, and fights. And it’s playing as part of the Goethe Film’s Stronger than Blood, a series of crime dramas.

Sometimes Always Never opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Laundromat starts today, with Chiko playing one night only, October 8th, also 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.

Families. Films reviewed: Before You Know It, Downton Abbey, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Posted in 1920s, 1960s, 1970s, Canada, Class, documentary, Drama, Family, Music, Screwball Comedy, Theatre, TV, UK by CulturalMining.com on September 20, 2019

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

This week I’m looking at three movies exploring different families. There’s a band of brothers who form a band inside a big pink house; a pair of sisters who live inside a Greenwich Village theatre; and an extended family of aristocrats – and their servants – who live inside a stately mansion.

Before You Know It

Dir: Hannah Pearl Utt

Rachel and Jackie (Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock) are adult sisters who live inside a Greenwich Village playhouse. Homeschooled by their playwright Dad (Mandy Patinkin) since their mom died, their world is centred on their family theatre. Rachel, dressed in plain clothes and sensible shoes, is their always-reliable stage manager. Jackie – flamboyant, and self-obsessed – is an actress. Her impulsive behaviour gave her with an alcohol problem and a 13-year-old daughter named Dodge (Oona Yaffe). Rachel wishes she could date more, but she has too many responsibilities.

Life continues, until a major revelation shakes up their lives. Turns out their mom (Judith Light) is still alive, and has been living nearby under a stage name since they were kids! What’s more, she owns their theatre, and they might lose their careers, their home, their entire lives. Can Jackie and Rachel infiltrate a TV studio, meet their soap opera actress mom, and convince her to let them stay on at their theatre they call home? Or is this their final act?

Before You Know It is a delightful story of three generations of women in a theatrical setting. Written by Jen Tullock and Hannah Pearl Utt it veers between a gently screwball plot and a somewhat more serious coming-of-age story about growing up, both for Dodge and the two adult sisters. Nothing spectacular, just a pleasant and fun indie movie.

Downton Abbey: The Movie

Dir: Michael Engler

The Crawley’s are an aristocratic family living in a stately mansion on a vast manor estate in post- Edwardian England. It takes a village to keep things going smoothly, and it’s almost as self-sufficient community living inside the walls. This includes the extended family and their in-laws but also the multitude of servants, footmen, groomsmen, maids, kitchen help, grounds keepers, valets, a butler and more. But the normal social order is threatened by some unexpected guests. The King is coming! The King is coming!

Amd this brings all sorts of problems. Violet, the dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) has a longstanding inheritance feud with Maud Bagshaw, a lady in waiting (Imelda Staunton) for theQueen. Tom Branson (Allen Leech), an Irish socialist and widower who started as a chauffeur but later married into the family, is suspected by a mysterious government agent as being disloyal to the King. Meanwhile, amongst the other half of the house, other troubles are revealed. Kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera) wonders whether longtime boyfriend William is right for her, especially since a handsome young plumber arrives on the scene. And when the Kings servants barge in and take over everything, they must concoct a plot to get back their rightful place within their own house. Meanwle Thomas Barrow (Robert James Collier) the usually secretive and conniving butler seizes the chance to explore his sexuality in a nearby town.

Downton Abbey,the movie is a continuation of the popular British nighttime soap that ran for many years. I remember watching the first two seasons of it before giving up.It concentrated on a dull patriarch andhis faithful butler, his bickering daughters and various servants seen skitting around behind the scenes. It felt like a Leaveit to Beaver sitcom superimposed ona feudal estate. Deadly dull, politically loathesome – I hated it. But I found the movie much more interesting. It concentrates as much on the “Downstairs” as on the “Upstairs”, there are real surprises, and the characters are allowed to grow and progress.

I’m as surprised as you that I actually enjoyed this movie.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Dir: Daniel Roher

It’s the late 1950s in Toronto. Robbie Robertson is a teenaged boy and aspiring musician who learns to play chords on visits to his mom’s family at Mohawk Six Nations. When Southern rocker Ronnie Hawkins brings his band to town, Robbie is mesmerized by their energy, showmanship and confidence, especially their stick-twirling drummer Levon Helm. He writes some tunes and joins the Hawks at age 16, alongside other multitalented Canadian musicians: Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel. They travel down south to perfect their style, playing alongside blues artist and country musicians. The Hawks outgrow their front man and set out on their own,

They tour Europe as Bob Dylan,s band rght when he goes electric.They are booed on every stage, but realize they have something special. They move into a big pink house in woodstock NY where they prefect their unique boendof folk,country, rock,blues and R&B. Robbie writes most of the songs while the entire band, one with the three vocalists, crafts each song. They start releasing their own songs under the name The Band and become one of the most influential North American groups of the ’60s and ’70s.

Once Were Brothers is a great music doc about the Band, as told through Robbie Robertson’s eyes. Through old photos, magazine clippings, period footage, and new interviews, it explores their brother-like friendship through its ups and downs, including jeolousy, addiction and car crashes. And looks at the rivalry between him and Levon Helm which eventually tore the band apart. It looks at their music, the pele they knew even their look — long hair and bearded, country gentlemen farmers, dressed like in 19th Century photos. It follows them from the early 60s through their Last Waltz, a giant concert filmed by Martin Scorsese. This is a beautiful, compelling story of the – can I say it? – legendary band.

Before You Know It (at the Tiff Bell Lightbox) Once Were Brothers and Downton Abbey all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Toronto’s fall festival season continues through the weekend with the Toronto Palestine Film Fest.

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

Minors and Miners. Films reviewed: After the Wedding, Mine 9, Good Boys

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Disaster, Drama, Drones, drugs, Family, Friendship, India, Kids, Movies by CulturalMining.com on August 16, 2019

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

Mountains can grow out of moleholes. This week I’m looking at three movies – a disaster, a family drama, and a comedy with kids – about minors facing major difficulties. There are three tweens caught up in adult-type problems, coal miners caught in a disaster, and a woman who works with orphans in India facing major problems back in New York.

After the Wedding

Wri/Dir: Bart Freundlich

Isabel (Michelle Williams) is an American woman grudgingly back in New York for the first time in decades. She fled the country as a teen after an unplanned pregnancy, and has lived in India ever since. She works at an orphanage in Tamil Nadu, raising the kids there, including Jai, a little boy she found abandoned on a street. But she’s forced to travel to The States for the sake of the kids; to secure a large donation to the orphanage. The donor insists she come, not anyone else.

Theresa (Julianne Moore) is a ruthless media magnate preparing to sell all her assets and retire. She wants to donate to various charities – including the orphanage. But when she meets Isabel she says she’ll only confirm the donation after her daughter Grace (Abby Quinn)’s wedding . And Isabel must attend.

But Isabel is in for a shock. Turns out the father of the bride is Oscar (Billy Crudup) Isabel’s teenaged boyfriend, and the father of the unwanted child they put up for adoption so many years ago! He’s why she moved India in the first place, to erase her past and start again. He seems as shocked to see her as she is to see him. Is this just a coincidence? Could the bride possibly be the baby she gave birth to? And if Theresa finds out that Isabel and Oscar were once lovers will she cancel all the money the orphanage needs so badly?

After the Wedding is a remake of Danish director Susanne Bier’s film from 2006. I’ve never seen the original but I’m told in Bier’s film Isabel and Theresa are male roles and Oscar is a woman. This switch seems to work. And I found the continuous revelations fascinating – I wanted to know what would happen all the way till the end.

That said, the script was so clunky it felt, at times, like it was written by Google Translate. Williams’s main emotion was being perturbed, and the whole film lasted 30 minutes longer than it should have. I didn’t love this movie but I didn’t hate it either: good story, bad script; great actors but who are not at the top of their game here.

Mine 9

Wri/Dir: Eddie Mensore

It’s a mining town in West Viriginia. The coal mine is the only steady employer, but it’s a dangerouns place. Some of the old timers, like Kenny (Mark Ashworth), Daniel (Kevin Sizemore) and John (Clint James), have lived most of their lives underground. The black dust is ground into their skin, their hair, their beards. They don’t like it, but it’s their livelihood, and their only source of health insurance. But when they narrowly escape a methane leak, they wonder if it’s safe to go back down into mine #9. And with no outside foreman or rescue team, if there is an accident, who will save them?

But management insists so down they go, along with Ryan (Drew Starkey) a newbie fresh out of high school. It’s his first time in a mine, though his family has been doing it for centuries. Things seem to be going alright until a short circuit leads to an explosion and a collapse. The mine is filling with poisonous gas with only an hour’s worth of oxygen left. They have to battle fire, rushing water, smoke, dust, methane gas and collapsing tunnels all around them. It’s up to Zeke (Terry Serpico) their dependable leader, to bring them to safety. Who will escape and who will be left two miles down?

Mine 9 is an indie action/ disaster movie about West Virginia coal miners. It has a realistic, gritty feel to it, capturing the dirt, darkness and claustrophobia of coal mining, along with the excitement of escape. Unfortunately it’s also full of problems, both big and small.

I understand why they have to wear oxygen masks to breathe and hard hats for safety, but how can you care about characters when you can’t see their faces for much of the movie? And, seriously, do miners really break into miners’ songs each time they go underground? Their names aren’t Sneezy, Dopey and Doc.

Still, if you’re in the mood for a short trip into a coal mine, you might want to look at Mine 9.

Good Boys

Co-Wri/Dir Gene Stupnitsky

Max, Lucas and Thor are the Bean Bag Boys, three best friends and grade sixers. They’re a team that does everything together. Thor (Brady Noon) pierces an ear to be cool, but is labelled “sippy cup” by the popular kids for not trying beer. Lucas (Keith L. Williams) is a God-fearing boy who cannot tell a lie, but whose beliefs are shaken when his parents announce their divorce. Max (Jacob Tremblay) is a lover not a fighter, and is crushing on a girl he’s never actually met in lunchroom. But when Max is invited to a kissing party, he realizes he has to learn how to kiss before he can go there. These foul-mouthed boys can say the dirty words, but they don’t know how to do them. They can’t ask their parents and they find internet porn too disgusting to look at.

So the Bean Bag Boys concoct a plan: to spy on Hannah (Molly Gordon) the much older, girl next door as she makes out with her drug-dealer, frat boy boyfriend. But how? Using Max’s dad’s drone – something Max is forbidden even to touch. Caught in the act, Hannah and her friend Lily (Midori Francis) seize the drone from the boys. Then they steal her purse. But the purse contains the MDMA the women planned to take that night. Can the three boys escape their pursuers and rescue the drone? Can Max kiss the girl he thinks he loves? Or will the big problems they all face destroy their unbreakable friendship?

Good Boys is a hilarious coming-of-age comedy about extremely naïve kids encountering adult situations – like drugs and sex – for the first time, and deal with them from a child’s perspective. The laughs are constant, with very few misses. A lot of the humour rests on believing the kids are so sheltered they’ve never seen or encountered anything adult.  For example they find Thor’s parents’s sex toys but use them as weapons and kids’ toys. They’re afraid tasting beer will turn them into alcoholics. They’ve heard grown-up words but don’t know their real meanings: Nymphomania means having sex both on land and at sea. Misogyny means giving massages.

The three main kids are great, especially Tremblay (Room), but so are all the other roles. And despite the fact it’s being marketed as an R-rated movie, except for some foul language and innuendo, it’s not outrageously offensive. No serious violence and no sex, just some 11-year-old kids being extremely funny.

After the Wedding, Mine 9, and Good Boys 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.

 

Rivals. Films reviewed: Hobbs & Shaw, Luce PLUS Canadian films at #TIFF19

Posted in Action, Adoption, African-Americans, Canada, Cars, CBC, comedy, Drama, Family, High School by CulturalMining.com on August 2, 2019

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

The Toronto International Film Festival has just announced its upcoming Canadian film programme, so I’m going to talk about that. I’m also looking at two new movies: an action thriller and a psychological drama. There’s a rivalry between a respected teacher and a prize pupil that threatens their futures; and a futuristic rivalry between two secret agents fighting a threat to world destruction.

Canada at #TIFF19

If you’re looking for some brand new, home-grown movies, docs and short films, there’s lots to see at TIFF this September. I haven’t seen anything yet, but I’ve been looking around and there are a few that caught my attention. The program features many indigenous directors who have made great movies so, chances are, these will be great too. In Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger, Alanis Obomsawin continues to document – started in We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice – the struggle of First Nation kids on reserves to get the same medical treatment as in the rest of Canada. Zachariah Kunuk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner) brings us One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, a drama set in the 1960s when the government was forcing nomadic Inuit hunters to assimilate and give up their way of life. And, in a totality different take, Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum pits a Mi’gmaq nation against a new zombie-like plague… that only infects white people.

Sometimes it’s just the title that attracts, so listen to some of these Canadian movies coming to TIFF: The Last Porno Show (Kire Paputts) This is Not a Movie (Yung Chang); Tammy’s Always Dying (Amy Jo Johnson); And The Birds Rained Down (Il pleuvait des oiseaux); and The Body Remembers when the World Broke Open.

Conversely, there are some short films whose titles are very long. Like I am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain; or how about Speak Continuously and Describe your Experiences as They Come to You. I bet you’ll remember those.

And finally you can look at some of the big names of Canadian cinema, with new work by Alan Zweig, who has a documentary about the police called Coppers; Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour, starring David Thewlis as a food inspector; Albert Shin’s Clifton Hill, a psychological thriller set in Niagara Falls; and a new doc co-directed by Ellen Page, about environmental racism in Nova Scotia called There’s Something in the Water.

I just flooded you with more names than anyone can absorb, but maybe some of it will stick. Tickets are on sale now, including the cheaper packages, so check them out.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Dir: David Leitch

Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is a hugely muscled single dad in LA formerly with the CIA. Shaw (Jason Statham) is a well dressed wiry assassin from a family of London criminals, headed by his mother. But when Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) an MI6 agent goes rogue, the two men are ordered to work together to bring her in.

The problem is Hobbs and Shaw loathe each other, and would rather die than be in the same room. But there’s a bigger issue at stake: Hattie absconded with a terrible man-made virus which, if activated, could wipe out every human in a week.. and she carries it imbedded in her body. Even worse, they have to beat Brixton (Idris Elba), Shaw’s former partner, who is now an unkillable cyborg who works for a criminal organization that controls the world’s media. Can the two agents overcome their differences, capture Hattie, recover the virus, defeat Brixton, and save the world?

Hobbs and Shaw is a silly, comic-book-like action movie in the style of the Fast and Furious series, and though ridiculous, it’s a lot of fun to watch. It doesn’t take itself very seriously, instead just provides endless chase scenes – we’re talking cars, motorcycles and helicopters here — extended fistfights against nameless enemies, and epic battles with guns, missiles and spears (but without any visible death or blood).

As I said, it’s ridiculous, concerned purely with the images. There’s a chase scene at a Chernobyl-like nuclear reactor, but the characters blast at each other not caring about meltdoen. The towers are just there for decoration. The story takes you from an amazing vertical chase scene involving ropes and an elevator on the side of a glass and steel skyscraper in London… to an eventual battle royal in Samoa!

The banter between Johnson and Statham is silly, almost to the point of boredom, but there is some humour and, most important, the movie is loaded with superior special effects. Take it for what it is – a simple action movie – and you’ll probably love it. I gave up on the Fast and Furious series after Number 3 or 4, but I would probably watch another Hobbs & Shaw. With Idris Elba, and cameo roles by a sinister Helen Mirren and a campy Ryan Reynolds… what more can you ask for for 14 bucks?

Luce

Dir: Julius Onah

Based on the play by J.C. Lee

It’s an middleclass suburb in the Midwest. Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is the school’s golden boy. He’s a star athlete, manager of the track team, head of the debating club. He’s handsome, popular, athletic and very bright. So much so, he’s invited to give inspirational, Obama-style speeches to the school. His white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) couldn’t be happier. They adopted him as a refugee from war-torn Eritrea, and moulded him into their idea of the perfect all-American son, with a new name, history, and identity. His friends may have troubles, but not Luce. Everyone, even his ex, Cynthia (Andrea Bang: Kim’s Convenience) loves Luce. Everyone except his teacher Ms Wilson (Octavia Spencer).

She is suspicious of his motives. She is disturbed enough by an essay he wrote (about Marxist anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon) to search his school locker, where she finds an unmarked bag of firecrackers. She calls his mother in to talk, leaving Luce out of the equation for now. But it plants a seed of doubt in his parents’ minds. Luce isn’t stupid; he knows something is going on. And so begins a hidden game of cat and mouse between pupil and teacher. Is he just a normal, nice guy… or a psychopath? And is Ms Wilson honestly concerned? Or is she just jealous and wants to bring him down?

Luce is a complex, multifaceted and ultimately ambiguous drama about identity, history and blackness. (Interestingly, another work by Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, was surely lurking at the back of Luce’s mind). It’s also about parents digging too deeply into their kid’s private lives, without realizing they’ll expose facts they didn’t want to know about. It brings in other issues, too – mental health, sexual consent, and drug use. Tim Roth and Naomi Watts are appropriately annoying as the well-meaning but namby-pamby parents. Octavia Spencer just gets better and better, and Kelvin Johnson Jr  (though he doesn’t look even vaguely Eritrean!) is great as Luce. He also a very different son in another movie, It Comes at Night, which, in retrospect, adds even more dimensions to this role. Can’t wait to see what he does next

Luce, though not perfect, is a very well-done indie movie that leaves you with a lot to think about.

Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Luce opens next week (August 9th). And for more information on TIFF go to tiff.net.

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

Eccentric. Films reviewed: Ruben Brandt Collector, Greta, A Bread Factory

Posted in Animation, Art, Crime, Family, Movies, Mystery, psychedelia, Psychological Thriller, Psychopaths, Theatre, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 1, 2019

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

It’s March and Toronto’s spring film festival season has begun. The Irish Film Fest is on this weekend, and the WTF Fest starts showing “eccentric movies” at the Royal Cinema today. In this case, WTF stands for What the Film – great stuff. Also opening is What Walaa Wants, the NFB doc about a young Palestinian woman who wants to be a cop. Also opening is Gaspar Noe’s amazing film Climax, a movie that includes a fantastic dance performance and a stunning title sequence… followed by a horrific panoply of drug-addled sex and violence.

Keeping with the theme of the strange and unusual, this week I’m looking at offbeat movies with eccentric characters. There’s a a French widow with a yen for pocketbooks, a psychotherapist keeps fine art front and centre; and a two older women who want to save their arts centre from falling apart.

Ruben Brandt Collector

Wri/Dir: Milorad Krstic

Dr Ruben Brandt is a psychoanalyst obsessed by art. He lives and works in an isolated alpine chalet where he treats his rich but troubled clients, including a banker with an eating problem, and a former bodyguard.

Meanwhile Mike Kowalsky, a private detective from Washington DC, is in Paris chasing Mimi, a notorious cat burglar down the city streets. She’s carrying a priceless Egyptian artifact. But he can’t catch her; the former circus acrobat is just too fast. Mimi tracks down Dr Brandt and visits his clinic. She wants to get rid of her kleptomania, She can’t stop stealing. But in a strange turn of events, patients turn to doc tors and doctors to patients. You see, Dr Brandt is plagued with halucinations of people in famous paintings. Is Venus in Boticelli’s painting trying to kill him? How about Warhol’s double Elvis? Brandt’s patients, including Mimi, decide the only way to save their doctor is to steal all the paintings that obsess him. They begin a series of elaborate heists of the world’s best known paintings from the most famous galleries. Can Kowalsky solve the puzzle and catch the culprits? Or will Ruben Brandt, the art collector, triumph?

Ruben Brandt Collector is a simple, silly story told with amazing animated images. It feels like a cartoon guide to Janson’s History of Art… on acid. Characters are portrayed as cubists, as two-faced januses, or as two-dimensional pieces of paper. The plot may be flat and inconsequential but the animated art and psychedelic imagery sticks with you.

Greta

Wri/Dir: Neil Jordan (The Crying Game)

Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is depressed. She’s a recent college grad who works as a server in a fancy Manhattan restaurant. She shares a spacious condo with her best friend Erica (Maika Monroe) whose dad gave it to her as a gift. Ever since her mom died, Frances can’t have fun; she never seems to go out anymore. But her attitude changes when she finds a designer purse that someone left on a subway. Finally, she can do a good deed. Using the ID, she takes it to its owner’s home. Greta (Isabelle Huppert), is an older woman, a widow, who lives in an isolated cottage. Her home is like a piece of France right in the middle of NY city. She plays Chopin and bakes cookies.

It’s like at first sight. Greta needs someone to spend time with since her daughter moved away and Frances misses her mother terribly. They go for walks in Central Park, share intimate meals at her home, and even adopt a dog to keep Greta company. Greta worries Frances will go away, just like her daughter. Don’t worry Greta, I’m like chewing gum – I’ll stick around. Imagine, such good friends meeting at random.

But… everything changes when Frances discovers Greta’s secret. That “lost purse” wasn’t actually lost! Greta placed it there so they would meet. Is Greta just desperately lonely? A con artist? Or is she a psychopath? Even when Frances cuts off all contact with her Greta keeps showing up wherever she goes. She’s a stalker who can’t be stopped. Will Frances ever forgive her? And will Greta leave her alone?

Greta starts as a conventional drama but turns into an unexpected psychological thriller. It feels like a classic Grimm’s fairytale, with an innocent girl lured into a witch’s lair. Though not her best performance, Isabelle Huppert is credible as the (potential) villain, though Chloe Grace Moretz is wasted as the victim. It’s hard to picture Moretz as a helpless scaredycat. Greta is OK as a run of the mill, cat-and-mouse thriller, but it could have been so much more.

A Bread Factory

Wri/Dir: Patrick Wang (I interviewed him in 2012)

The Bread Factory is an arts centre in a small town on the Hudson Valley. Formerly an industrial bakery, it’s where the post-industrial townfolks go to see a movie, put on a play or attend a poetry reading. It’s been run by Dorothea and Greta (Tyne Daly, Elizabeth Henry) for more than 40 years. At the moment there are filmmaking lessons for little kids by an auteur (Janeane Garofalo); a greek tragedy starring an elderly shakesperean actor, and a Chekhov-like drama in production. It’s a hotbed of creativity and community life.

But everything is put at risk when a strange new group arrives in town. They are a pair of performers/conceptual artists known as May + Ray (Janet Hsieh, George Young), a sort of a Blue Man Group. They are vaguely associated with China, have a large international following, their videos are on youtube, and they even have a catchy logo on the T-shirts and totebags they sell. The problem is their work is shallow and pointless. And more important, the town school board is thinking of transfering all arts spending from The Bread Factory to May + Ray.

Can the town artists and performers save the bread factory? Or will corporate interests triumph?

A Bread Factory sounds ordinary but it’s actually a great movie. I really liked it. Dozens of characters and a complex, twisted plot manages to keep you interested but not distracted, with each storyline and character carefully constructed and allowed to develop. There’s a teenager (Zachary Sayle) interning at the town paper, a kid who functions as the projectionist (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a critic and an actor who hold a 50 year grudge… and many more. It feels like a great John Sayles movie.

I’ve only seen the first two hours (Part 1) so far but now I can’t wait to see Part 2.

A Bread Factory is a delightful treat.

Greta and Ruben Brandt Collector both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. A Bread Factory is playing this weekend at the WTF Festival at the Royal Cinema.

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

Nannies. Films reviewed: Mary Poppins Returns, Roma

Posted in 1930s, 1970s, Family, Kids, Mexico, Musical, Protest, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 28, 2018

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

It’s holiday season, between Christmas and New Year, a good time to catch up on all those movies you’ve been meaning to see. This week I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a period drama, about nannies. There’s an ageless nanny in London with a magical touch, and a young nanny in Mexico City with a touch of sadness.

Mary Poppins Returns

Dir: Rob Marshall

It’s the 1930s in London, the time of The Great Slump. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a recently widowed father of three adorable kids – Anabel, John, and Georgie. They’ve lived in the house for generations, right beside an eccentric Admiral who fires cannons off his roof. Michael wants to be an artist, but works as a bank clerk to make ends meet. The kids struggle to act like grown-ups now that their mother is gone. And his sister Jane is doing her part as a social activist and union organizer. But an unexpected visit by two lawyers from the bank he works for throws the family into disarray. Turns out Michael defaulted on a loan and has until midnight Friday to pay it back or the entire family will be evicted from their own home.

What to do? Who can they turn to for help? Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), of course!

Michael and Jane have almost forgotten that she saved the two of them when they were kids, and here she is back again, aged not a day. There is something magical about her, but only if you allow the impossible to happen.  The kids are much too mature to fall for her tricks… or are they? Soon they’re swimming in the ocean via their bathtub, and travelling to a music hall in an animated world inside a chipped bowl. They visit Topsy (Meryl Streep) a flibbertigibbetty repair woman who lives upside down, to fix the bowl.  They race through London piled up on a bicycle driven by Jack (Lin Manuel Miranda) who lights the city’s gas lamps. And they buy magic balloons from an old woman (Angela Landsbury) in the park. But can magic save their home before the bank’s evil Mr Wilkins (Colin Firth) takes it all away?

Mary Poppins Returns is exactly what the title promises: a continuation of the original story, one generation later. Jack was the chimney sweep’s son in the original, now he’s a lamplighter who narrates the story in song and dance. Michael and Jane are grownup versions of the original kids. The costumes – in bright yellows and fuscias with white boater hats – are pure Disney.The music, songs and dances, even the combination of flat cel animation with real people is just like it used to be. The score, the art direction, everything was a spot- on recreation of the original. The only differences are this Mary Poppins is decidedly sexier than the original, (Emily Blunt is amazing) and the cast isn’t lily white anymore. Lin Manuel Miranda is nicely endearing as Jack, though never having seen the hit broadway musical Hamilton I didn’t quite get the camera’s adulation of him.

I didn’t grow up with Mary Poppins, so I hold no deep sentimental attachment, but even so it scored high on my nostalgia meter, tugged at my heartstrings and made me feel warm inside. This is a wonderful G-rated musical and a genuine kids’ movie that also appeals to grown ups, a rarity these days.

Roma

Wri/Dir: Alfonso Cuaron

It’s 1970 in Mexico City. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) lives in a beautiful house with a grand staircase, and walls lined with bookshelves. There’s a narrow tiled passageway that serves as a garage, where a big dog runs around. And four cute kids — Toño, Paco, Pepe and Sofi — who happily play spaceman games. Cleo lives there but it’s not her house. The kids pet their dog while Cleo shovels the poop. She’s the nanny and also the maid, the one who gets blamed when there’s trouble. And there’s lots of trouble these days, with Señora Sofía (Marina de Tavira) the mom, trying to run the house with Papa on a long business trip to Quebec. She has help from the grandmother, Señora Teresa, but it’s a world without men, at least until Papa comes back.

Cleo is from a village and not yet used to city life. She spends her free time with the cook and her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). Fermin is a Kendo fanatic – martial arts saved my life, he says – prone to bouts of kicking and punching the air in the nude following sex. But when Cleo tells him she’s pregnant with his child, he disappears without a trace. What will happen to her baby? Who will take care of the kids? And will the family’s father ever come home?

Roma is a slice-of-life look at Mexico City in the tumultuous early 70s. It follows Cleo, a poor indigenous girl who speaks Spanish as a second language, and Sofía’s upper middle class family, as they try to understand one another, even while they both face family crises. It’s a slow-moving drama with normal, mundane family problems alternating with episodes of violence, terror and natural disaster. Cleo is viewing gurgling babies in the maternity ward just as an earthquake hits. She travels with the family to a hacienda where family dog heads are mounted on a wall like hunting trophies and forest fires break out. A simple trip to a downtown furniture store coincides with a government attack on student protesters.

Watching Roma is an immersive experience, filled with sound and unexplained images appearing on the screen. It’s shot in exquisite black and white – Cuaron is the cinematographer, as well as writer and director. Long, low shots almost always from far away: looking longingly down long corridors, at figures in a field before a spacious mountain range, or watching Cleo and Fermin from behind as they watch a movie on a screen even further away.

This is a lovely rich movie but one that intentionally keeps the audience from getting too close to any of the characters. We’re observers, but the action is far away, through a window or behind a closed door. No close ups, reaction shots, or gushing movie score, even with Cleo. But the cumulative effect – the sounds, music, images characters and historical events based on Cuaron’s own childhood – gives it a powerful impact.

See it in a movie theatre while you still can.

Mary Poppins Returns is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings. And you can see Roma on Netflix or at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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

Kinship. Films reviewed: Vox Lux, Shoplifters

Posted in Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Japan, Movies, Music, Terrorism, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 21, 2018

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

The holiday season is a time when families get back together, for good or for ill. So this week I’m looking at two movies about family and kinship. There’s a pair of sisters turned pop musicians, where one holds the scars of a terrible incident; and a makeshift family that rescues a small girl with scars.

Vox Lux

Wri/Dir: Brady Corbet

Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a god-fearing high school student in Staten Island, New York. She likes music, church and her big sister Eleanor (Stacey Martin) who always looks out for her. But her world turns upside down when a non-conformist kid pulls out a gun in music class, and starts shooting people down. Celeste tries to reason with him; she ends up wounded but not dead. She recovers with a scar on her neck. At the memorial for the mass shooting she performs a song which soon goes viral.

She and her sister are quickly signed to a major label by their manager (Jude Law) and whisked off to Sweden. There they experience the heady brew of extreme wealth, celebrity and number-one hits. But it also exposes them to the cruel scrutiny of tabloids and paparazzi that accompany celebrity.

Still a teenager, she loses her virginity to another musician, tries drugs and alcohol for the first time, and begins a gradual downward spiral toward addiction and paranoia. But she also establishes herself as an international icon, with her sparkling makeup, severe haircuts, and sequined outfits mimicked by devoted fans. She always wears a band around her neck both to hide and commemorate the scars of the shooting.

Years later Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) plans for a comeback, culminating in a stadium concert back in the hometown she left after the shooting. Now she’s brittle and bitter, addicted to drugs, and full of anger and pain. And she has a daughter (played by Cassidy, the young Celeste) brought up by the more responsible sister Eleanor. As she works toward the ultimate concert, a disturbing incident hits the headlines. Halfway around the world, fans wearing her distinctive makeup and clothing commit a random act of terrorism. Is she to blame? Will her career crash and burn? And if she performs her stadium show in her home town, will this lead to yet another massacre?

My brief description of the film suggests a music biopic crossed with an action movie. It’s neither. It’s actually a visual and audio collage of the impressions of a teenaged girl in the high pressure world of pop music, and the adult who emerges from it. Vox Lux is a short film, and at least a third of it is taken up by music performed on a stage before an actual audience. The music is by SIA and actually sung by Natalie Portman. The plot is mainly a background for the director’s experiments with sound and image filtered through the cruel world of social networks. Recurring shots of endless tunnels and aerial views of cities give it a hypnotic effect, and the music gives it a haunting feel. Though the movie feels incomplete, I liked the look and sound of it.

Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)

Wri/Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu

It’s present day Tokyo. Shota (Jyo Kairi) is a young boy living in an urban paradise. He’s smart, resourceful and brave. He studies at home – where he learns not just reading and writing, but also essential survival skills and the ways of the world. He lives with his grandma, his mom and dad and his big sister Aki, a family brimming with love. They are always there to rescue him from trouble and help him through bad times. They share responsibilities and eat dinner together. No one tells Shota to clean his room or wash the dishes. This is a life rich in traditions, superstitions, and family lore. And there’s lots of time to tell stories, go to the beach, or go fishing.

Or

Shota lives in a filthy, ramshackle house, a Dickensian den of petty criminals, thieves and con artists. This so-called family of vaguely-related misfits shoplifts their dinners and daily needs to stay alive. Dad (Lily Franky) works as a casual labourer, Grandma (Kiki Kirin) receives payments from an unknown source, teenaged Aki (Matsuoka Mayu) performs behind glass at a peepshow arcade, and mom, sometimes called auntie or Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) makes do with a parttime job pressing garments in a small factory. Even young Shota helps them all by pocketing food and shampoo while dad distracts the clerks.

But homelife takes a subtle shift with the newest family member.

Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is a little waif, horribly abused and neglected by her young parents… they always see her staring whistfully through her balcony bars, like a prisoner hoping to be rescued. They adopt her into their family, after discovering scars and burn marks all over her arms.

She immediately adapts to her new life, especially the love, attention and lack of fear she never experiences at home. They ask her if she wants to go home, but she adamently refuses… she likes it better here. But when her case becomes known as a kidnapping, it spells trouble. Can the family survive this a brush with authority? Or will it all come tumbling down? And would government intervention make their lives better or worse?

Perhaps I’m biased: I’ve interviewed Kore-eda four times, more than any other director, because I love all his films. But in my opinion Shoplifters is a fantastic movie, definitely one of the year’s best. It deals with poverty, nonconformity and precarious lives coexisting within one of the richest cities in the world. It explores what a family really is: is it something designated by law, or could it be a family by choice, where the members designate their own names and roles.

Hirokazu Kore-eda, TIFF17, photo by Jeff Harris

It stars many of his past actors – Lili Franky, and the late Kiki Kirin – and replays some themes from his early films. Our Little Sister was about whether a half-sister can be accepted into a complete family. Like Father, Like Son, where a family discovers their son was switched at birth, explores whether it’s nature or nurture that makes kinship real (Lili Franky plays the “bad dad” in that film.) After the Storm is about a delinquent dad trying to rebuild his family (also co-starring Lili Franky and Kiki Kirin). The Third Murder, a courtroom drama, deals with an accused murderer and his role as a surrogate parent to a high school girl. And in Nobody Knows, there’s a family made up of abandoned kids living in a highrise in central Tokyo.

Shoplifters (or Shoplifter Family, the more accurate Japanese title) is a culmination of all these films, a distillation of all their best elements.

It’s also exquisitely laden with relics of an older Japan – filled with glass bottles, printed cotton, paper calenders, snow men and fishing trips – that impart a soft, glowing light to all the scenes.

Detailed and nuanced, I strongly recommend Shoplifters to all.

Vox Lux and Shoplifters 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.

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