By Anne Brodie
Charles Officer’s deeply affecting film Akilla’s Escape a “crime-noir about the urban child-soldier” in Toronto looks at the toll taken on Black youth at risk in a cycle of generational poverty, violence and gangsterism. Officer traces the tragic and seemingly immovable pattern back to its roots in Jamaica. A stunning performance by Thamela Mpumlwana as young Akilla takes us to his unstable life in his housing complex as he is caught in the crossfire of gang violence. His violent, abusive gangster father’s noxious influence leads him down the gang path but it’s not the life he wants for himself. We see Akilla as an adult played by Saul Williams who also scored the film, as he’s reaching the end of his tether, and attempts to save a young boy from the same path he fell into. Officer plays with time and character as we see the boy, the man, the forces in his life and spirit as he tries to survive a war that’s gone on too long and at too high a price. A multitude of tragedies leads to his decision to make a change, haunted by the image of a man falling from the sky. Officer’s story is based in part on real-life gang warfare in Toronto between the Shower Posse, and other Jamaican gangs that left for opportunities in Toronto. Officer’s encyclopedic work reminds me of Luc Sante’s history “Low Life” on New York’s 19th-century gangs and their evolution; it was the basis for Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York. There’s violence, poetry, powerfully drawn characters and emotional power. And there is also hope. Also stars Brandon Oakes, Colm Feore, Jennifer Podemski. digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.
In the Heights, a big, shiny and vision of Washington Heights, Lin-Manual Miranda’s neighbourhood for most of his life, its characters and cross currents of culture, community and choruses is a welcome breath of cinematic fresh air. Miranda’s musical love letter to his home patch and its diverse tight-knit communities is now available in select theatres in Canada and on HBO Max. Much like the beloved Broadway musical and film West Side Story, In the Heights profiles the sound, look and life of really good singers and dancers – I mean characters – who share a common history and story of immigration, hope, faith and new life. A cast of mostly youngsters with an occasional grandmother, auntie, businessman or soft drink vendor (Miranda) play their parts with visible joy, spirit and spunk. They are, among others singer-dancers Alex Wong, Ariana Greenblatt, Chris Jackson, Corey Hawkins, Dascha Polanco, Damien Valentino, Doreen Montalvo, Gregory Diaz IV, Isabella Iannelli, Joseph Velez, Julia Harnett, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Stephanie Beatriz, Susan Pourfar with Marc Anthony, Rita Moreno, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Olga Merediz and Jimmy Smits for elder cred. Way up to 181th Street, dreams are dreamed, songs are sung and it’s a candy-coated world. No real place is like that but it’s fun to pretend for a couple of hours alongside bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos). He was orphaned when he came to the US and he dreams of a better life, maybe back in the Dominican Republic and he dreams of the woman he likes but can’t tell. Director Jon M.Chu, in pre-production on five films including an adaptation of the stage musical Wicked, delivers this burst of energy with his signature elan. Here are the first eight minutes:
A horrifying story is told in An Unknown Compelling Force: the True Story of the Dyatlov Pass In winter 1959 a group of young student hiking enthusiasts set out to Russia’s Ural Mountains to hike up Dead Mountain via the Dyatlov Pass. Snow was deep, winds driving and temperatures sub-Arctic, quite an undertaking for these young idealists. They took lots of photos of their happy adventure. Ten days into their climb, they were all dead. It was a horrific scene, they appear to have cut their way out of the tents and run, half-naked, and barefoot. They got a mile away before collapsing and freezing to death. Some of their eyeballs and tongues were missing, they bore signs of violent attack and crushing, and they held traces of radiation. But they also found rolls of film. The Russian government immediately closed the case stating the deaths were caused by “an unknown compelling force”. Los Angeles news cameraperson Liam Le Guillou recently became fascinated and travelled across the world to find out how and why they died. He heard theories, that the hikers had photographed something they shouldn’t have, it was a Yeti, an avalanche, use of a chemical by the Russian government, a military rocket, a nuclear meltdown at a plant, retaliation for theft from an indigenous Mansi sacred site, etc. Le Guillou examines each theory with fellow obsessives and questions why in 60 years no cause of death has been determined or investigated. He put life on the line to retrace their steps and find answers, but truth is elusive. Just a brutal story and an extremely interesting doc. TVOD.
Anna Paquin is fearless as a Flack. Season 2 is available now on Amazon Prime Video and not a moment too soon. Paquin is Robyn, the sangfroid PR whiz who specialises in hiding, masking or lying about her wealthy clients’ misdeeds’, clients from the world of sports, business, film, TV, politics, you name it, she and her firm will save reputations for a good price, whatever it takes. She’s a bit of a lost cause personally, focusing her energy on clients around the clock, constructing elaborate schemes to save them from flaming out while being unable to save herself. There’s the high-level politician caught in a brothel raid, a famous white celebrity couple expecting a baby – who is Black, a huge sports star who would prefer not to be forced out of the closet – solved by claiming polyamory is on-trend, artificial insemination, and other hokum. A sweet outcome in Melody’s case, so unceremoniously fired last season is hired by Eve back into the company saying she’s the only person she trusts. Not a surprise considering the firm deals in lies. Meanwhile Robyn deals with a heartbreaking personal tragedy, picks herself up, dusts herself off and roars back to save another celebrity without having dealt with the pain. Comedy, drama, character development and the mad world of flackery make for a rich, good time. Also stars Lydia Wilson, Rebecca Benson, Sophie Okonedo as the steely boss, with guest stars Daniel Dae Kim, Martha Plimpton and Sam Neill.
Disney+ and Marvel launch Loki, the series this week. Tom Hiddleston’s God of MIschief and sworn enemy of The Avengers, has his close up and what’s this? He’s not horrifying every moment? NO. He’s funny, awkward, hilariously overconfident and kind of human, I guess you could say, as he’s taken on a journey – to prison! You see, he has broken reality, changed the flow of time, the “sacred’ timeline with his evil deeds, including murdering his mother, leaving conditions open for a new War just like the old War that killed so many heroes. The Avenger good guys show up from time to time, being their best selves, while he is only and always his “worst self”. He travels to Aix-en Provence, the Gobi Desert where his watcher played by Owen Wilson, is investigating the stabbing murder of a member of the military. the pair of them argue philosophy, and there’s this tidbit revealing Loki’s insecurity. “I AM smart!” as they iron out their world views and Loki’s deserved place. He said he didn’t like hurting people but he had to. The great thing about it is that the Marvel comic book universe is endless and unstoppable, and ancient rules seem carved in stone, but things can change on a dime; that’s a huge part of the fun. Maybe I missed it but did not know his full name was Loki Lowkison. 🙂 Is this a bridge between Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness?” I dunno.
Now on TVOD is Spanish filmmaker Michel Franco’s New Order an explosive portrait of social unrest you’ll not soon forget. It’s contemporary Mexico city and the class divide is wide, jobs are scarce and the economy’s tanked. A wealthy young couple is being married in the bride’s lavish home, no expense spared. Jewelry, cash gifts, cars and special status defines this sunny afternoon as guests wait for the minister to arrive. Servants make faces behind the guests’ backs and sneak the wedding food, which seems odd. Suddenly, armed men in black scale the high stone wall by the pool and enter shooting. Bodies drop, blood smears walls, screaming, shouting, chaos. Servants load bags full of silver, knick-knacks, gifts, money, dishes and run. An organized social coup is underway, not just in this house but across the city. Guests try to escape and are shot down, and those lucky enough to get into cars can’t move in stopped traffic. The city has erupted in chaos, but the rioters are carrying out their coup with military precision. Citizens are rounded up and placed in cages, including the bride, who had left her own wedding to help a dying former servant across town. It’s a violent tapestry of behaviours and creeds as ages-old class resentments spill over into revolution. There is little chance of survival for the elites. Riveting, horrifying and as we know, not unprecedented in the real world. Stars Naian González Norvind and Fernando Cuautle.
TIFF 20 hit Holler, the tough and touching story of an Appalachian high schooler is lifelike and naturalistic and then it starts to sneak up on you like a kind of emotional thriller. Ruth played with quiet intensity by Jessica Barden, dreams of going to university, but her school counsellor says people like her don’t go to university and she might as well get a local job. She refuses to accept his glib judgement, and finds work in a scrap metal yard, hoping to finance her dream on her own. The film’s female point of view, the story, the director, and young star all based on real events, Nicole Riegel’s own life and voice are powerful and delineate major problems that exist for the poor, those in the wrong place and time, who want to get ahead and exit limitation. Riegel says ” My film is a semi-autobiographical story about how challenging it was to transcend where I came from as a young woman, both practically and emotionally. Like Ruth, the teenage girl at the center of my story, and many young girls across America, I was vulnerable to a fractured system that felt rigged against me, … I had to leave behind the family and community that created me which felt like a betrayal”. TVOD.
Chasing Wonders, starring Paz Vega, Edward James Olmos, Carmen Maura, and Michael Crisafulli in a breathtaking performance, shot between Australia and Span over a five-year period, traces twelve-year-old Savino’s relationship with his embittered father (Antonio de la Torre ). The family moved from Spain to Australia to begin a vineyard. Savino lives in terror of his father who never showed love and beats him. Edward James Olmos who plays his grandfather is the only male warmth he knows. Fast forward to Savino, now a young man touring Spain to find his family’s roots. Maybe he’ll find answers as to his father’s anger and violence. We move back and forth in time to learn the causes of the family’s dysfunction. His father’s microaggressions and beatings solidified Savino’s rebellion and hardened him. Olmos is powerless to protect him, when he tries, he and his elderly wife is thrown out of the family home, further isolating the boy. We’re reminded that “stones we throw into youth cause ripples that can last a lifetime”. Savino’s resilience in finding his own way is powerful. Gorgeous nighttime and golden hour scenes in the desert, as Savino ponders his place in the world, and the drone shots are magical. Emotional complexity and inevitability are the core of the film, again, raised by Crisafulli’s understanding, empathetic performance. TVOD.
A breath of retro fresh air also from Australia MIss Fishers Modern Murder Mysteries on Acorn, a swinging 60’s spin-off of the popular series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, stars Peregrine Fisher (Geraldine Hakewill), a spirited and ever so fashionable private detective who works hand in hand with local police, literally, her beau’s a detective. Season 2 begins with Death by Design, a case of whodunnit in the world of swingers. Yes! An architect whose home is a gorgeous urban ranch is found dead during a wife swapping weekend! The architect was working on Peregrine’s home renovations so she immediately has an in with the investigation – she loves a good murder mystery. and what ho! two more bodies found basked to death in the sauna. Someone jammed the sauna door from the outside. The colourful characters fall under suspicion, the author of the controversial book The Female Mistake, the husband who didn’t know his wife was in the sauna with her fellow victim, the ultra-conservative nosy next-door neighbours. Grim as it sounds there is no shortage of upbeat convo, 60’s rock music, wonderful 60’s set design, and Peregrine’s boldly coloured, dolly outfits are to die for!
The chilling Danish detective series DNA now on CBC Gem from the makers of The Killing follows a police detective investigating a child’s disappearance. And horror of horrors, unthinkable occurs, his own baby daughter goes missing from a passenger boat when he was inattentive. Det. Rolf Larsen (Anders W. Berthelsen) devotes himself to what is a painful and fruitless search for her, over five years, while actively investigating a child trafficking ring, hoping to tie the two together and find her alive. The police DNA bank is proven to have major holes, changing the course of the investigation and increasing the chances she is ok. And reports of her being spotted near Krakow Poland increase his hope. Five years later, his marriage has fallen apart and his ex-wife has moved to Boston, and he plods on relentlessly. One day, a savvy female officer stops a man on a minor offence on a lonely country road; her curiosity is piqued and she discovers he’s a three-time kidnapper. She brings Larson his DNA along with that of every person on the ferry and he connects with a French detective (Charlotte Rampling) investigating a series of similar disappearances. This is good solid Nordic noir as perpetrator and law play a long game of cat and mouse.
HBO‘s garden design competition series Full Bloom now in its second season, boasts a new crop of florists sharing a love of design, blooms and the thought of the $100k grand prize! Simon Lycett, Elizabeth Cronin, and Maurice Harris host and judge the results of this season’s challenges, from breathtaking outdoor settings. This isn’t a show for the serious gardener, it’s very much a reality competition pitting teams against one another, setting a seemingly impossible schedule and insult of insults, using acres of dyed flowers!! What makes it fun is the colourful characters -a flower shaman, a former NFL cheerleader, etc.. and the outre, punny and ever so lively hosts. Turn Picassos into floral knockoffs? Sure. Floral chessboards, yup. and my favourite tiny arrangements in tiny holders, a hummingbird made out of plucked petals, and a hyacinth reconstructed from itself. Clever!