By Anne Brodie – Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers is a complex character study and mystery, wrapped in the filmmaker’s signature humanism with Penélope Cruz as Janis and Milena Smit as Ana. Almodóvar lowers the visual and emotional temperature this time, out of respect for the dark history permeating the story, the mass murder of locals by Fascists under dictator Francisco Franco and the thread of lost babies. Janis works with the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory gathering funds and expertise to excavate the bodies for identification, honouring and burying them. She has an affair with forensic archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) and she becomes pregnant. Cut to the maternity ward where Janis shares a room with Ana, a teenager who confesses she’s not keen to have a baby, that she has no maternal instincts. Janis is touched and offers encouragement while dealing with her own problems. It’s not clear who impregnated her although she claims it was her lover, Arturo. Later on, Janis and the archeology crew gather at the pit grave to collect remains, a meditative, sombre act set to a Hitchcockian score highlighting life’s uncertainties and the acknowledgment of death. Gut-wrenchingly emotional in its stripped-down way, a masterpiece of subtlety from a director not known for it, the evolution of a mature master filmmaker. TIFF Bell Lightbox and select theatres.
Johnny Depp’s masterful turn as Life magazine photojournalist Eugene Smith, whose photographs of a chemical spill that ruined thousands of lives in Japan is not only a professional triumph, it drew focus to the evils of big pharma and petrochemical pollution. Minamata follows Smith a tired, jaded man with war coverage PTSD who finds purpose in using photography for the greater good at great personal risk. He’d seen photos of locals in the Japanese village and their twisted, non-functioning bodies, devastated by mercury runoff from the nearby Chisso Chemical company. For thirty years, the company purposely released highly toxic methyl mercury waste into the ocean, poisoning the fish the local population depended on as its main food course. The horrific results included deformation, loss of senses, immobility, inability to communicate – the victims were cared for with profound love by the villagers as case numbers rose. Chisso covered up its malfeasance and denied responsibility when Smith’s photo essay was published in Life, but the cat was out of the bag. Smith grew close to the locals, took part in protests and was severely beaten but he got the message out to the world. Chisso lost the cases brought against it but the story didn’t end there. A breathtaking reflection on systemic, murderous corporate cruelty and the brave late-life energy of the man who let the world know. Co-stars Tadanobu Asano, Jun Kunimura, Hiroyuki Sanada and Bill Nighy. Minamata is in theatres today and on TVOD later this spring.
Jennifer Lopez and Owen Wilson find themselves in a wildly improbable “relationship” in Kat Coiro’s Marry Me. J-Lo’s superstar Kat Valdez, half of the international pop power couple with Bastian (Maluma). An enormous age difference – she’s 53 in real life, he’s 28 isn’t mentioned. They plan to marry on stage in front of a worldwide audience of 20M as the ultimate final performance of their concert tour. Wilson’s Charlie, an old-fashioned single math teacher, and his daughter Lou go to the concert with their pal (Sarah Silverman) who’s carrying Lou’s Marry Me sign – the name of Kat’s monster hit. Moments before the ceremony, Kat discovers Bastian’s cheating, dumps him live on stage and randomly picks a guy out of the crowd to marry – Marry Me banner-holding Charlie. He’s stunned but agrees to come onstage and marry her – and does in modern Instagram fairytale style. They keep in touch and develop an affection – he’s a welcome relief from the job of being a superstar and while he clings to his lifestyle, he appreciates her as a person and then as a woman. Much hand wringing, gentle connection and patience, and Bastian shows up because the road to love is never easy, right? Lopez sings up a storm with Marry Me and On My Way and dances so hard and beautifully – it’s a showcase for her powerhouse talent (and work ethic) and grit. She is a force of nature and Wilson is gentle enough to remove the constant noise of her professional lifestyle. Family-friendly, easy-going and no annoying heavy thinking. In theatres.
Liam Neeson sticks to his signature as skilled assassin Travis Block, an “off-the-books fixer” employed by the head of the FBI in Blacklight. Once an action hero, always an action hero, and always with Neeson’s dignity and gravity. It opens with a progressive Latina political candidate addressing supporters at a rally. She’s run over and killed in a calculated attack. Block is sent to hillbilly mobile home encampment to extract a female undercover agent who is sick of “these racist bastards” and in danger of being outed. They manage to elude the camo-wearing, negative energy from backwoods yahoos with axes to grind and make off leaving a calling card. Meanwhile, journalist Emmy Raver-Lampman (Umbrella Academy) stumbles on a juicy story. A young man seen at the opening rally runs amok and threatens to expose government corruption, leaving bodies behind. He’s undercover FBI, a friend of Block’s and he knows dangerous things. He’s captured and handcuffed but escapes, setting a meeting with the journo, which could earn him 30 – life in prison for treason. Unsurprisingly he’s murdered. The FBI director, Block’s secret employer and lifelong best friend, is up to his eyes in it. On the personal side, Block appears to suffer from PTSD following years of his undercover work and grapples with his daughter’s resentment re his dangerous job and its effects on his granddaughter. Neeson’s 70 and he can still fight hard and deliver an effective verbal threat. Directed by Mark Williams. In theatres.
The Worst Person in the World shifts to TIFF Bell Lightbox and theatres today, powered by two Academy Awards nominations. Renate Reinsve is Julie, a headstrong and, as chapter titles tell us, a narcissist. Writer-director Joachim Trier explores ten chapters with a prologue and epilogue in Julie’s life clearly inspired, in style, by Woody Allen romantic comedies. Beautiful, curious and unsure of her career goals, Julie flits from medicine (too concrete) to writing to photography, making excuses for abandoning each foray, paid for by her mother. Her social life, strangely without women friends, leaves her unsatisfied and constantly questioning what she’s getting out of it. She moves in with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) who is 44 to her 29; it’s ok for a while but a difficult trip to a country house with friends and his insistence that she have their child exacerbates her doubts and self-interest. A chance meeting with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) when she crashes a party leads to an emotional affair – he’s married, she’s with Aksel so they enjoy teasing and not doing. She tells Aksel she wants out, he blames her father’s lack of love for her. Great performances in this discomfiting romantic drama made interesting by our doubts about Julie and enlivened by wonderful cinematic fillips. She runs across city streets (Oslo) to Eivind in an extended sequence in which time is frozen; Fabulously inventive, fresh and fun, especially as we aren’t sure about the protagonist. Special kudos to Reinsve for her stellar performance.
Apple TV+ original film, The Sky is Everywhere, based on the bestselling YA novel by Jandy Nelson looks at those things that set YA hearts afire, the possibility of love, awakening impulses, dreaded obstacles and learning to be one’s true self. Set in Northern California amidst the majestic redwoods, 17-year-old Lennie (Grace Kaufman) mourns the death of her beloved older sister Bailey (Havana Rose Liu) as a boy at school Joe (Jacques Colimon) offers a welcome reprieve. It doesn’t sit well with Bailey’s boyfriend Toby (Pico Alexander) who seems intent on seducing her. Lennie’s confusion in grief, hormones and naivete are clear and heartbreaking but she has something else on her side – her loving Grandmother played by Cherry Jones and Jason Segal as her understanding Uncle Big whose charisma and love for her come shining through. Lennie also finds comfort and nurturing in the redwood forests, bound to nature through her grandmother’s garden. A nice exploration of those confusing years when something bad happens, and how a young person might survive and thrive great loss with family, community and nature.
CBC‘s secret weapon Aba Amuquandoh the youngest ever cast member of This Hour Has 22 Minutes has a new gig! The dynamic actor, comedian, singer and personality shifts from sketch comedy to soothe the souls of contestants in CBC Gem‘s new reality series Best in Miniature. Competitors who love nothing more than less, build creations, paring life-size ideas down to 1:12 scale, to be judged by U.K miniature expert Emma Waddell and Canadian interior designer, Micheal Lambie. Miniatures and dolls houses have fascinated folks since time began. Think of the treasures of Sutton Hoo, Royal dollhouses and silent film star Colleen Moore’s $7M Fairy Castle—an 8-foot, jewel-encrusted creation now permanently housed in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. Little is big in this beautifully produced series; binge-watching Best in Miniature is encouraged. The contestants are devoted to their art. Miniaturism is a fascinating culture and the show brings it out into the open. Big times!
A theatrical reopening and expansion for the lauded animated documentary Flee. Riz Ahmed executive produced this profound animated story of Amin, an Afghani refugee who escaped his homeland when the Mujahadeen murdered his family. The country fell under Communist rule after the violent overthrow of the monarchy threw it into violent chaos. International embassies evacuated and dead bodies were everywhere, the airport a hellscape. Amin and remaining family members flee on foot and dozens to a tractor-trailer in life-threatening freezing winter conditions through Eastern Europe to Russia where they are brutalised by police and the political system. Eventually, Amin makes it to Denmark and they are able to settle. Cut to today, he is an academic living and working in Denmark, educated at Princeton, and about to marry his male lover. In Afghanistan when he was coming of age, there was no word for “homosexual” and deep antipathy and danger for LGBTQ+. His story is told as a man reflecting on his life for a documentary, on the eve of his wedding, animated in order to protect the real-life Amin’s identity. Flee will change the way you think about refugees and underserved peoples of the world in deeper, richer ways. This mindboggling, extremely powerful film asks the question “what is home” and for many in the world, there is no answer. Featuring the voices of Daniel Karimyar, Fardin Mijdzadeh and Milad Eskandari and the ghost of Jean-Claude Van Damme. To date, Flee has won 65 awards and 131 nominations as of this writing.
The tenth annual Black Film Festival is online from February 16 to 21, 2022 featuring 200 Black-led films from 30 countries, a feast of ideas, styles and genres including animation. Its mission is to give “unique voices in cinema the opportunity to present audiences with new ways of looking at the world. A dynamic, refreshing and audacious Festival whose ambition is to encourage the development of the independent film industry and to promote more films on the reality of Black people from around the globe.”
TTBFF22 launches with the Canadian Premiere of Krystin Ver Linden’s Alice starring Keke Palmer and Common in which an enslaved girl escapes the plantation unprepared to discover what the reality is beyond it.