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By Anne Brodie

The Monk And The Gun by Pawo Choyning Dorji, which was shortlisted as Best International Feature for this year’s Oscars is genius – a compelling, exciting story, the opportunity to experience life in a far distant country with a vastly different culture than our own, and the mischief fate concocts, and a keen sense of wonder and humour. It’s 2006 Bhutan, internet and television are finally available. The King has abdicated to give his people their voices in a democracy. The first-ever elections with three factions to choose from, are met with universal negativity. People are content under a monarchy, the only governance they’ve known. Outsiders go to each village to educate “voters” and meet gentle opposition, in keeping with Buddhist ways. Meanwhile, a wealthy American has arrived in search of a certain American Civil War rifle. He’s been looking for thirty years and will pay anything; he finds it in a humble village. Imagine him offering a peasant USD 75K! He’s turned down but the owner finally accepts USD 35K. When they leave, a monk shows up looking for a gun for the Lama’s use “to set things right”, and the man gives it to him gratis. The American and his guide give chase and try to reason with the monk. From here on in, fate’s whimsical and extraordinary twists play out to our delight. We see a country change and maintain its true nature against outsider interference and rediscover the Western problem with greed, with heart to spare. I’ll give it ten out of five stars. Theatres now.

The hilarious and frequently uncomfortable Suze concerns a well-meaning but smothering mother (Michaela Atkins) and her extremely entitled high school grad daughter Brooke (Sara Waisglass) who’s off to university. Suze’s having a hard time- she’s just discovered her husband en flagrante with a woman in their swimming pool. Brooke’s dating Gage, a sweet, “dense loser” (Charlie Gillespie) who didn’t graduate high school. Brooke announces she’s not going to the local university, she’s going all the way to McGill in Montreal just to escape Suze and Gage. So Suze takes her to bed in tears. Gage jumps off the local water tower, depressed by Brooke’s abandonment, and breaks his leg. After witnessing a hurtful scene between Gage and his neglectful father (Aaron Ashmore) Suze takes him into her home. Weeks go by, she doesn’t hear from Brooke, who doesn’t return her calls and wonders how things went so wrong. Gage is a big-hearted kid, sensible, empathetic, and just needs parental guidance and love; Suze becomes his ersatz mother. They pay a surprise visit to Brooke, and she berates them and storms off. And then comes the chance to change. This is a heartfelt, funny and deliciously bittersweet character study of a woman who has to please everyone, a daughter who needs to cool it, and a loser who finds his way. Theatres.

Meredith Hama-Brown’s excellent debut feature film, Seagrass, a hit at TIFF 23, stars Ally Maki and Luke Roberts as Judith and Steve, Chris Pang, and Sarah Gadon as Pat and Carol. Judith is a Japanese Canadian woman who can’t quite process her mother’s death and falls into a tailspin on a family development retreat. Her children don’t feel the weight of her grief as they play, meet new friends, and make the most of their “vacation” – yet. Judith has time to herself and home truths fall hard. She compares her frail marriage to Pat and Carol’s and feels less-than, as self-absorption leaves her ill-equipped to mother her girls. She takes some wild swings, gets drunk and abusive at a pool hall, and picks a fight, while her husband joins a therapy group, and ponders his life without her. Meanwhile, she’s making out with a man and screaming at the girls. An unsympathetic character leads the film and smart scripting, with fully realised portraits of folks at the end of their tethers tugs at us. It’s jarring, a rich and unconventional film about family. The daughters Stephanie and Emmy, played with extraordinary suppleness by Nyha Breitkreuz and Remy Marthaller feel startled, unsafe, and unloved. These young characters deserve better. TIFF Lightbox and select theatres across Canada.

The “Queer Revolutionary Drag Dramedy” Queen Tut shot in Toronto’s Gay Village is a heartwarming, inspiring look at connection, family, and change, from Egyptian-Canadian director Reem Morsi. Nabil (Ryan Ali) a recent emigre to Canada from Eygpt, lives with his widower father, a real estate developer with his eye on a Sherbourne Street property. His company plans to demolish a historic stretch of the street for condos. It includes long-lived drag bar Mandy’s and would wipe out the LGBTQ2+ community. Owner and activist Malibu (trans female SAG Award-nominee Alexandra Billings) rallies friends and neighbours to stop the effective closure of the historic gay village, in existence since the early 19th century. Nabil thinks of his late mother of his mother who taught him to sew, and appreciate flamboyance and opens his eyes to Malibu’s world of fantasy. Meeting her is a turning point; he gravitates to Mandy’s and works up the courage to make his own dresses and be who he is. His father sees him at an anti-renoviction rally and is twice wounded – his son working against the condo development and he’s out. The sensitivity of the script and performances is boosted by positive messages of inclusion, community, and the courage to fulfill one’s destiny. Mandy’s circle is a lively, supportive bunch that carries one another and supports Nabil on his journey to fulfillment. Billings, a multi-award-winning film and theatre actor is especially magnetic. In theatres.

FX’s thrilling historical drama Shōgun premiering on Disney+ via Hulu on Feb 27 is an ambitious, sprawling adaptation of James Clavell’s bestselling novel, set in 1600 in Japan as civil war brews. The Portuguese have a lucrative trade relationship with the country that is kept secret from the rest of Europe to protect their interests. They also brought Roman Catholicism to Japan. One remaining Portuguese ship of a fleet of five filled with dead and dying sailors drifts just off the coast. Onshore civil war on the death of the ruler, is in the air as Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada, who also produces) becomes suspicious of his Council of Regents. English pilot, John Blackthorne’s (Cosmo Jarvis) enemies, Jesuit priests, mutinous sailors, and rival merchants, capture and torture him but he is saved by the information he has crucial to Toranaga’s survival. Christian Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai) Toranaga’s servant, a disgraced noblewoman sees and knows all and develops a wary bond with the captive Blackthorne. Brutal violence as revolt grows, a staggering preponderance of enemy networks, and nerve-shredding hostilities are central to the tale. It’s a dense and fascinating political actioner and the cinematography, angry natural seaside landscape, and art direction are superlative. Written by Rachel Kondo & Justin Marks; directed by Jonathan van Tulleken.

Brenda Blythen remains unmatched as long-running television detective Vera, and season 13 is about to land. Vera Stanhope is the lead in a busy east coast English police detachment. Eternally in that worn green raincoat, cap, and scarf, people are unwise to underestimate her. When that happens, she takes them down with a look, a phrase, a grunt. A tiny terror! Her instincts are on point even if her interoffice manner could use some polish. Relationships with staff are well-defined as we watch her attitudes toward individuals change over the years. We may not know why, but at some point, maybe seasons later, we might find out. It’s all so human and real. DI Joe Ashworth (David Leon) returns; he’d been her gifted but exasperated dogsbody in the earliest seasons; he is a big shot now and will “observe” and report on her managerial skills. She’s been reported, but we’re not given details. The murders are characteristically odd, requiring Vera’s laser-sharp instincts. Unfortunately, there are just three episodes this season, each gorgeously written, directed, cast, and acted, but rest assured there’s another season coming in 2025. Vera’s edgy, demanding personality is strangely familiar and comforting, that there are dedicated people out there who make a difference, whatever it takes, whatever their age. Feb 28 on BritBox.

Another weekend, another awards show. And finally, the streamers are getting in on it! Netflix will air live the Screen Actors Guild Awards on Saturday. The actors vote for actors’ performances so it’s an insider’s look at the actor’s mindset. That’s Feb 24 at 7 p.m. EST!



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