By Anne Brodie
Tough family drama on the remote farmlands of Alberta, as a farming community struggles to earn a living and keep trouble at bay. Farms that withstood generations of hardscrabble life and an ongoing litany of back-breaking labour face all new threats, in this case, succession. It’s 1981 when trouble comes to Mac (Nicholas Campbell) in the form of his prodigal son’s return. The Hands That Bind explores family ties, and the impact of Dirk’s (Lance Liboiron) return on the community. Devoted hired hand Andy (Paul Sparks) is displaced from his home for Dirk. Campbell is brilliant as Mac, bringing a soul-deep aching for the land and the pain that his life is uncertain at best and he raised an unsuitable son. Andy and Mac do their best until Dirk’s negativity, greed and flaws threaten all of it. He’s lazy, clueless, unfamiliar with farming, a hot-tempered drunk and unmotivated, and not above violence. Family man Andy’s out of a job, and in a dark place. He notices strange lights hovering in the dark prairie night skies but no one else seems to see them. A cow is found dead and meticulously defaced, and later found high up in a tree. Strange goings-on seem to comment on the characters’ chaos. Neighbour Dave (Bruce Dern) is the Greek chorus, enumerating things that happened and what they might mean. There’s much going on in this quiet world with shattering twists. Edmonton writer/director Kyle Armstrong shot the film where he grew up and shows his deep understanding of that world, and brings a Gothic doomsday vibe. Theatres.
Director Sebastian Back’s remarkable coming-of-age story, set in Verona, South Frontenac in deeply rural Ontario tells the story of teenagers who live in a remote world of nature, space, and sky. Verona stars Kat Khan as Camila, a young searcher living with her mother and father. Early on, she learns of the death of her grandfather and his abuse which haunts her father. Camila is in a romantic relationship with the local pastor (Basia Wyszynski) and seems content. Even so, she attends a drinking party with her peers and experiences romantic/sexual interactions with some of the guests. Was she looking for comfort in the wake of the family news? Her lover is angry when she learns what happened and spoils a beautiful, shimmering summer day swimming on the dock. The humid, yellow-white atmosphere really speaks to us now as we face winter, and Back perfectly captures the twin fires of summer and adolescent sexuality. The day progresses with more moments of note as we draw into Verona and its ordinary everyday and extraordinary moments of teen life in a tiny town where everyone knows everyone and there are no secrets. Theatres.
These are the first shots and videos taken inside North Korea that many of us have seen, aside from ostentatious military parades, and they reveal a brutal, harsh, primitive and desperately deprived reality. So what is life like in the “utopia” under Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un? Madeleine Gavin’s chilling doc Beyond Utopia lets us know in no uncertain terms. It’s a place where citizens can be executed for the slightest perceived infraction, in public, where children are taught fear and the possibility of execution, where homelessness and starvation are common, and where bodies lie in the streets. It’s a place brave souls attempt to escape. Gavin’s crew follows a woman trying to get her son out, and a family of five – including an 80-year-old grandmother – as they flee to a safe country, a treacherous undertaking, evading armed guards, crossing the Yalu River on foot at night, and walking almost 3000 km through mountainous terrain from China’s border with North Korea, through Vietnam and Laos and with luck, to freedom in Thailand. Grandmother is wearing flimsy bedroom slippers. Gavin’s crew shot secretly inside North Korea, using flip phones, netting horrific images of everyday life and following the family’s trek. We meet clandestine “brokers” in North Korea and China, including Pastor Kim has helped 1,000 defectors, risking his and his family’s lives. Gavin’s courageous work, putting one of the worst, most dangerous countries in the world under the microscope is essential viewing. Just breathtaking. Toronto and Vancouver theatres.
Nyad now on Netflix, is the true story of how far a person’s will can take them. In the case of Diana Nyad (Greek for “water nymph”) – all the way, against seemingly insurmountable odds. Thirty years before the story begins, the long-distance swimming world champ gave up the gruelling, dangerous 161 km solo swim from Cuba to Florida and became a sports broadcaster. In 2010 at the age of 60, she determined to try again and finish, and without a shark cage. She trained against doubt and discouragement because of her age, but Nyad thrives when faced with a challenge. Annette Bening who plays Nyad spent much of last year in the water, recreating the swim. Sure she didn’t do the “Mount Everest” of swims, but used her own iron will in this profoundly physical role. By her side is Jodie Foster as coach and best friend Bonnie, who ignored Nyad’s sharpish ways to help her complete her lifetime dream. At times her dream caused harm and difficulty for others, but she was given leeway. Nyad’s concise, questioning personality is abrasive; she’s superior physically, athletically and intellectually and lets everyone know. And we desperately want her to succeed; somehow it’s the possibility of our success. Nyad, a parable on the strength of the human spirit, is uplifting, and dramatic and you’ll be ugly crying. Bening and Foster are, as always, in tip-top shape and special kudos to Rhys Ifans for his strong and compassionate performance.
Who’s Yer Father? has a definite flavour all its own, kind of fishy, spicy and nutty. Jeremy Larter’s extremely localised comedy, set in a fishing village somewhere on Prince Edward Island, features Larry (Chris Locke) a sweet, courageous private investigator usually content to hunt down “borrowed” Pyrex casserole dishes for clients. He’s the only PI on PEI. But along comes adventure and the promise of big payday from local seafood buyer Luke (Matt Wells), to ID whoever is stealing his lobsters and selling them to black marketeers. He and local convenience store owner Rhonda (Susan Kent) are friends and she tells him all the gossip about Luke. The town tough Glenn (Steve Lund) is the black marketeer who is having a torrid affair with Luke’s wife Nicole (Kaniehtiio Horn) complete with orgies. And Glenn’s also “involved” with badass Junior (Jess Salgueiro). It’s a real small-town wasps’ nest and of course, Larry and Rhonda are about to get stung. Exaggerated (I think) way down East accents, a local, raucous sense of humour, and quick fisticuffs seem to point to being local habits; Who’s Yer Father glories in silly, over the top, caricature, delivered with heart and laughs. Are they making fun of the locals or showing love? Nutty. Theatres.
Another nutty and mildly entertaining murder mystery set in a luxury home during a dinner party is yet another play on the signature Agatha Christie trope – a group of characters trapped in an isolated, contained space when a murderer strikes. Helen’s Dead starring Emile Hirsch, Tyrese Gibson, Dylan Gelula, Oliver Cooper, and Annabelle Dexter-Jones, from K. Asher Levin finds us at a party; Addie (Dylan Gelula) and her BF Adam (Emile Hirsch) are in a tense conversation – he’s telling her what to do and how to look, and she’s ticked. He turns aside to send a sexy text to his new lover Helen (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz), but accidentally keys it to Addie. She leaves for the party her sister, social influencer Leila (Annabelle Dexter-Jones), nearly a Kardashian, is throwing in a house rented for the occasion to impress to confront Helen – allegedly her best friend – about Adam. But Helen’s dead. A reporter is en route to do a story on Leila’s entertaining style when all heck breaks loose including an intrusion by an angry Henry (Tyrese Gibson) demanding money. The steak tartar served for dinners grosses out the guests and Leila hustles it to the garbage, someone poisons the co-host’s drink, and a guest falls out a window so you see, chaos. Except it IS chaos thanks to plot holes and staccato pacing. It doesn’t pull together like a good bread dough but falls apart like a dry meringue. TVOD.
Kids these days! Some social media “superstars” have made lots of money by posting themselves in shockworthy situations, harming themselves, showing their bodies, carrying out ultra-dangerous stunts, and letting their exhibitionist selves shine. There’s a perception that influencers – those with consistent volumes of “likes” – are powerful and wealthy. It’s true – some are. New Jersey’s @avalouiise, 23, in Tyler Funk’s feature-length NFB/North of Now documentary Anything for Fame, has earned enough to set up a 401K, has a $150K collection of purses she doesn’t use, and has had enough plastic surgery to keep her doctors in clover. Anything goes, sex romps, orgies, and most famously – licking an airplane toilet seat at the height of the pandemic. Whitby, Ontario’s @jakehillhouse (occasionally a mime) has broken multiple bones, been shot in his cheeks, feet, and body, nailed his ear to a plank and whatever he can think of, inspired by Jackass movies, and loves every second of it. Why? It brings him likes = money. Still, he lives in his mother’s house as she idly looks on, not really sure what it is he does. Another unfortunate soul, @Jumannestruggles works hard trashing stores and restaurants while they’re open or closed but earns nada; he believes being a content creator saves him from a life of crime. @peterteatime parkours his way across rooftops, the Golden Gate Bridge, and doesn’t mind jail. Experts weigh in that “likes” mean the liked “matters” so it’s about constant approval. One influencer says it’s a hard job because you can never step away and must be available and posting all the time. UPDATE: @avalouiise’s X account is suspended for violating X Rules and the other accounts have gone. OK, I need a shower. Paramount+ in Canada and free on nfb.ca starting Nov. 8.
Netflix‘ docuseries Mysteries of the Faith takes us to the heart of religious beliefs with special emphasis on relics. It begins with the best known within the Roman Catholic church – Christ’s Crown of Thorns, which cut into his head during the Crucifixion, The Holy Grail or chalice from which he and the disciples drank the sacrament at The Last Supper, and The Holy Face, Jesus’ shroud found in the tomb on his ascension. These are major symbols and some believe, physical connections to Christ that can work miracles. The devout have made pilgrimages from Europe through Italy, and Spain to the Holy Land for two thousand years, and continue today. Pilgrims need to see, kiss, or be near these items, even against uncertainty about some of them – there are theories about which of three goblets, including a wooden one, is the real deal. The Crown of Thorns was saved from destruction when Notre Dame Cathedral, its home for hundreds of years, was destroyed by fire in 2019, and the others were lost for periods of time, then reclaimed, and are often paraded around villages in elaborate ceremonies. Also studied are new relics created globally, the unveiling of shards of the Cross in Brazil and other items meant to take pilgrims outside themselves and closer to their beliefs.