By Anne Brodie
Sebastián Lelio’s religious thriller The Wonder, based on the novel by Emma Donoghue, stars Florence Pugh in her best performance to date, and that’s saying a lot. Pugh is Lib an English nurse who flees starvation in London to rural, Roman Catholic Ireland where she will “watch” Anna (Kíla Lord Cassidy) at the request of a local commission. Anna hasn’t eaten in four months and they want to know why. Lib says she will force-feed her if necessary but is told in the strongest terms not to. The child seems healthy but begins a slow decline. Meanwhile, newspaper reports bring the curious to gape at Anna; her impoverished family refuses gratuities. Lib wins Anna’s trust and learns that she feeds on “manna from Heaven” in anticipation of living with God in the afterlife. “I feel full”. (Pugh, in a magnificent turn as Lib, eats often and lustily as she has in previous films) Lib suspects something dark outside of religion is afoot and partners with a local educated man just home from abroad. They become lovers and investigators, parsing Anna’s situation and devising a dangerous plan. The idea that the Roman Catholic church’s influence is manipulated within an entire community seems preposterous, but that’s the genius of the thing. It is no otherworldly situation. It is evil in full flower foreshadowed by dark and stormy natural conditions, and an eerie score that sounds at times like captured buzzing bees. Pugh’s brilliant, as always and young Cassidy is a revelation. Extraordinary opening and closing scenes with costar Niamh Algar looking at us, assuring us what we have seen shouldn’t surprise us. Now on at TIFF Bell Lightbox and select theatres and Nov. 16 on Netflix.
The highly anticipated documentary Selena Gomez: My Mind & Me, has landed on AppleTV+. Filmmaker Alek Keshishian was filming the global superstar at the height of her powers, on the release of her image-changing album Revival on the eve of a world tour. The tour as never competed. The 23-year-old Disney star, hoping to transition from Disney sweetheart to a grown, sexual woman became overwhelmed by depression and institutionalised. Also living with lupus, and bipolar disorder and coming out of a tumultuous relationship with Justin Beiber (now married to Hailey Baldwin), the young singer had a nervous breakdown. She blames her career. Keshishian followed Gomez for six years and the result is this powerful, naked, and hopeful portrait of a woman in crisis and her unique journey to recovery. She writes her diary, talks with friends, and allows herself to be heartbreakingly vulnerable. My Mind & Me is worlds apart from Madonna: Truth or Dare, Keshishian’s revolutionary 1991 doc on another, much tougher superstar.
Emma Kawawada’s My Small Land starts slowly, the story of a young Kurdish girl Sarya (Lina Arashi) whose family immigrated to Japan years before we meet them, to escape discrimination and danger at home. They can’t return home; her father would be arrested. They’ve been waiting years for their refugee status ruling so they can legally remain in Japan and work and go about freely. They’re waiting for a ruling on their refugee status, hoping to stay in Japan. Sarya goes to high school, works at a grocery store, and cares for her younger sister and little brother while her father works construction. Life is normal with its ups and downs, a life with traditional Kurdish values. However, Sarya keeps her identity secret and tells people she’s German. Finally, the family is called to the immigration board where an uncaring young bureaucrat tells them their claim was rejected. Father shows the scars from being tortured back home as the man cuts up their resident cards. Soon after Father is imprisoned indefinitely for working illegally and Sarya must shoulder the family. She’s fired from her job due to her illegal alien status, she momentarily sells a hug for money that turns violent. She can’t join her friend Sota in Osaka because she can’t leave her jurisdiction, meaning no school, no friends, no job. She rejects offers of money, pretending all is well and learns of a major betrayal by her father. What starts as a slow, gentle coming-of-age story builds note by note to a dramatic, gutwrenching cry for social justice in a world teeming with immigrants. My Small Land is Kawawada’s impressive first feature and the first feature released by Momo Films, a new distributor in Canada specialising in Japanese film. In select theatres, TIFF Bell Lightbox Nov 9 and 16, and theatres in Vancouver, Montreal, and Charlottetown.
I’ve seen a lot of Stones docs, including Altamont, but none has so well captured the sexy, youthful outrageous vibe that’s been the band’s calling card for 60 years better than My Life As A Rolling Stone now on CBC Gem. Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, and the late Charlie Watts get their own hour in this trippy quartet. While the narration script is a bit plummy and obvious, the interviews are terrific, especially Mick’s. Besides the usual key points – Mick’s sexuality, those lips, that logo, Mick dashes all the misconceptions – “I’m not a good singer, I’m ok” and answers the question “What is it like to be famous?” honestly, stating simply “I’m the wrong person to ask”. He says he has been made up with mythologies that are repeated often enough and “become” true, as he brushes all the nonsense aside. As finance manager ( “I represent the band to make sure they don’t get fucked.”) and leader, he’s smart, smart, smart, down to earth, doesn’t slur and at 79 is sexy AF. He’s like an alien from a better-run planet and arguably the greatest showman ever. See Michael Jagger climb rocks at maybe 8 years of age, see his horrific, paparazzi-packed Saint Tropez wedding, and watch him sit for an interview straight as an arrow, hands gliding with descriptive expression through the air. The best part, he is having fun reminiscing and knocking over all the BS. Keith Richards, his best frenemy, latecomer Ron Wood and memories of drummer par excellence, Charlie Watts, make this an irresistible four-hour binge, then, I’ll wager a second binge.
Keef! My Life As A Rolling Stone – Keith Richards. The filmmakers again nail the sensuality of the band’s music, this time focussing on that unmistakable sound of Keith Richards on his guitar. The sound that runs up and down the spine, emanates from the introvert and hellraiser, Jagger’s partner of 60 years, Keef, the “poster boy for survival”. As Tina Turner tells us “he’s back there making the sound” which captivated millions of fans. He’s a great songwriter from the country sound of Wild Horses, his fascination for early American blues and his beloved riffs, repeating musical phrases over and over, each repetition slightly different and never monotonous. Someone says Mick wants to be the leader, and Keith doesn’t care but thinks he is, within that “unbreakable bond” between them. Keith looks touched taking his bows at a massive concert. He’s crying. Ron Wood puts a hand on his shoulder. Just a guy who changed popular music forever. The editing is exciting, the music editing sensational, as is the score, using an experimental approach to the Stones’ music as narrative. Brilliant good fun. Here Mick and Keith reminisce about their famously filthy first London flat.
Until her recent death, Loretta Lynn regularly called longtime friend Tanya Tucker to see if she needed money. Given Tucker’s phenomenal rise to global fame as a child country singer and consistent concert tours until 16 years ago, it’s surprising. Many surprising details emerge in the documentary The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile that point to personal problems that affected her finances and health. On the other hand, she deserves a break, having travelled and toured from age thirteen. She hadn’t recorded an album in sixteen years when red-hot country star Brandi Carlile caught up with her and convinced her to do a documentary and a comeback album. Documentarian Kathlyn Horan follows “T” and while it’s clear T has a good deal of anxiety about coming back she’s also open to renewing her remarkable career and she still has That Voice – her “gift”. But she shows up late for rehearsals, often feels ill, and comes this close to losing her voice on what is to be a huge night. Her pain is palpable to us, and we are completely compassionate like Carlile who caringly guides her through the process, providing encouragement – and alcohol – when needed. Carlile devoted five years to T’s comeback and while T hesitates at each step, she’s also grateful and surprised by the attention. There are moments of excruciating tension but there is so much love for her from the musical team, T’s boyfriend and her adoring adult son, let alone Carlile. The final act is a complete joy and says a lot about T’s strength. In theatres.
Director Lindsay MacKay’s delicate handling of writer Kate Hewlett’s Governor General’s Literary Award play nominee The Swearing Jar (a TIFF favourite), and performances of actors Adelaide Clemens, Douglas Smith, Patrick J. Adams, and Kathleen Turner bring this unusual romantic drama home. It’s one to savour, as Clemens’ Carrie weathers a tragic upheaval and attempts to move forward. Carry’s married to Simon (Patrick J. Adams) and theirs is a warm, loving bond. Kathleen Turner is his overbearing mother whom they reject. Singer-songwriter Carry meets Owen (Douglas Smith) a barista while writing a song; he notices she’s emotional and asks her to have a coffee with him. She flees. They meet again and get to know each other. One day, while sitting in a park together her mother-in-law sees them. This brilliantly conceived story is a truthful and complex study of mourning, moving on, and the enduring quality of love; it’ll get you. In theatres.
The fascinating history of James Hemings: Ghost In Americas Kitchen on Prime Video Nov 4 concerns the first American trained as a Master Chef in Paris, France in 1787, the enslaved property of Thomas Jefferson, his brother-in-law who was serving in France at the time! Let that sink in. Back home, Hemings established the finest, most progressive kitchen in North America launching a tradition of fine dining that helped Jefferson entertain and sway European heads of state. Black slave cuisine was well-established by then but Hemings refined it, bringing such delicacies as ice cream, macaroni and cheese, French fries, and crème brulée trickling into slave cottages. No portraits of Hemings have been found and just one grocery list, but his influence is felt today across the Americas. He was the older brother of Sally Hemings, slave, and mother of six children by Jefferson, and the half-sibling of Jefferson’s wife Martha, both fathered by John Wayles. You just can’t make this kind of thing up! Filmmaker Anthony Werhun drops the culinary bomb that finally recognises who Chef Ashbell McElveen describes as “the most overlooked revolutionary figure in American history”. Hemings broke the mould, he spoke and wrote in English and French when Blacks were kept illiterate. earned to read, write and speak in both English and French. Through Interviews with food historians, celebrated chefs, and experts on race and the African American diaspora, Chef Ashbell McElveen and filmmaker Anthony Werhun explore the life, contributions, and erasure of James Hemings. Stated Chef Ashbell McElveen: “Growing up a black kid, the son of cooks in the segregated south, I had no idea that American cuisine was crafted by someone who looked like me. James Hemings is the most overlooked revolutionary figure in American history, and it’s time for his story to be told.” Wehun pays tribute with this onscreen designation MASTER CHEF, VALET, MAITRE D’ HOTEL, TEACHER, SLAVE, 1765-1801, while leading lights in Black cuisine and history including Michael Twitty emphasise his cultural importance.
Jason Kohn’s nifty, iconoclastic doc Nothing Lasts Forever rips the lid off the 200-year-old diamond cartel. There’s a war brewing over earth-mined and synthetic diamonds that has shaken the entire industry. Die-hard earth-mined producers, dealers, and distributors depend on the so-called “myth” that diamonds are rare and have intrinsic value that makes them not just desirable but de riguer for engagement rings. The PR campaign says that diamonds are a billion years old, that’s how long my love for you will last, etc., and that a woman would be insulted to be given a synthesized diamond, grown in a lab. Truth to tell, experts around the world are generally unable to detect any difference been the two. But Schenectady NY born DeBeers head Stephen Lussier lives near DeBeer’s 2 km wide diamond mine in Botswana and tells the earth-mined story. Ironically, as a child, he shovelled snow off the sidewalk of his neighbour H. Tracy Hall, who invented the synthesised diamond. And the shoveller married an Oppenheimer and into the business of earth-mined diamonds! He has a sense of humour about the diamond war. Also, the record is set straight on the rarity of diamonds. They are not rare. Kohn takes us into diamond warehouses around the world starting with India with enormous spaces of diamonds stacked to the ceiling. He takes us to a decrepit factory in China where synthesised diamonds are made and polished that fool professional eyes and are a lot cheaper. Even those big skull busters like the Krupp Diamond, now known as the Elizabeth Taylor Diamond, and the Duke of Burgundy’s medieval diamond used as an engagement ring to give him ownership of his bride’s country, are not rare. Author Aja Raden’s hilarious, searing takedown of the diamond myth alone is worth watching, says the problem is not synthetic diamonds but lack of disclosure about them, i.e. fraud. She calls DeBeer’s sale of Black Boxes to detect fakes “security theatre”. This excellent doc argues both sides with zealots and common sensers on both sides. Wow. On Showtime.
Michael Grandage’s My Policeman, a dour love triangle set not long ago when homosexuality was illegal in Britain is now streaming on Prime Video. In a bit of stunt casting, pop star Harry Styles is Tom, the titular character, a married Brighton copper. He and his wife Marion (Emma Corrin) are happy enough but lack passion. He meets Patrick (David Dawson) an art dealer who is instantly attracted to Tom. He arranges for them to be alone together to draw his portrait and seduces him, against Tom’s will, at first. Cut to the future when Tom (Linus Roache) and Marion (Gina McKee) now retired and living on the seaside, take Patrick (Rupert Everett in a brilliant turn) now disabled and wheelchair bound into their home. Tom refuses to have anything to do with him while Marion compassionately ministers to his needs. So what brought them to this place? Marion discovered early on that Tom and Patrick were lovers, and blamed the force of Patrick’s personality. She was devastated when the two swanned off to Venice and over the years came to an empty place. The muted colour palette, the isolation, sadness, and pain make for a dreary couple of hours, uplifted by forgiveness and the importance of finding one’s way.
The appealing Randall Park stars in a new series on Netflix that dials into nostalgia for times past when you didn’t Netflix and chill, you went to the store for movies. And naturally, it’s called Blockbuster. After dismal losses, the chain lets go of its corporate staff and closes stores leaving one (like the IRL one in Bend, Oregon, still chugging along) the last Blockbuster on Planet Earth. Park is Tommy whose love of the old ways, which means human contact and relationships, a place for film buffs to gather and a home for staffers, is about to take a hit. The corp is no longer paying part of his rent so he has to come up with the money. Ironically his youthful crush Eliza (Melissa Fumero) returns home, having dropped out of Harvard, and joins his staff where they met years ago. His diverse group of employees is dedicated and sassy and join in when his bestie Percy (JB Smoove) who owns the party store suggests a Blockbuster party. What’s fun is the ongoing references to pop culture then and now, olde tyme posters (Backdraft), talk of films spanning generations, and a shout-out to The Great British Baking Show. Staffers, young and old are well-steeped in film and are just as keen to keep Tommy and their now-famous Blockbuster on track. Fun, light, thirty-minute episodes of cultural humour.
Francis Ford Coppolas’ Bram Stoker’s Dracula opened 30 years ago! His ground-breaking reimagining of the classic 1897 horror novel with its sumptuous costumes and set design starred the hottest young actors of the time – Gary Oldman, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, and Monica Bellucci as well as Anthony Hopkins, and Tom Waits. Oldman’s Transylvanian prince Dracula (aka Vlad the Impaler) sleeps by day and prowls for blod by night. He captures and imprisons Jonathan Harker (Reeves) an English lawyer on assignment in Eastern Europe and falls in lust with a photo of Harker’s fiancee Mina (Ryder). Dracula leaves his imposing home (Bram Castle in Romania /Transylvania) to find Mina in London, travelling by coffin. There he finds her and unleashes his undead thirst for blood, killing her friend Lucy. Mina falls under his seductive spell against her will but steels herself with vampire killer Van Helsing (Hopkins) to stop him. Coppola relishes in overwhelming spectacle while falling short of actually psychoanalysing Dracula, and posits some psychological justifications. Now restored on 4K Ultra HD DVD in a limited edition steelbook features Coppola’s Introduction and Audio Commentary, Reflections in Blood, The Blood Is the Life: The Making of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Costumes Are the Sets: The Design of Eiko Ishioka, In Camera: Naïve Visual Effects, Method and Madness: Visualizing Dracula and deleted and extended scenes.