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By Anne Brodie

My admiration for Dale Dickey knows no bounds. Her subtlety and theatrically trained, seasoned work has won her a remarkable range of characters. Her face is pure Americana, a natural wonder left to its own devices and brimming with experience. It is a pleasure to watch her in Max Walker-Silverman’s A Love Song in select theatres. Faye’s seven years a widow, alone by choice, camped in a trailer by a desert lake, awaiting someone’s arrival. She eats fish and crawdads, makes a strong cup of coffee, and watches nature; she can name and whistle each birdsong and ID the night stars and constellations. Silent cowhands appear with shovels and a little girl does the talking in a most colourful, literary manner. She asks Faye to move the trailer so they can dig up their father and move him to a nicer spot, now that a rig is in his view of the lake. Faye says someone’s going to look for her there; later she loans them her truck engine when theirs dies. The shovelers provide ironic whimsy to the film which is mostly internal, mostly in Dickey’s eyes and adds tang to this poetic outing. She anxiously awaits Lito (the amazing Wes Studi) and he appears. They knew each other as children and laugh about a kiss they attempted. They play music and share her bed. Faye wakes up alone in the morning as he packs up. Did she think or hope he would stay, did she want him to leave? Dickey’s persuasive performance is about as realistic and naturalistic as it gets, a triumph of her subtle, remarkable talent.

Clio Barnard’s Ali and Ava now on at TIFF Bell Lightbox, and select theatres brings together a man and woman from the same lower economic strata but divergent backgrounds. Ali (Adeel Akhtar ) is a sweet-natured Yorkshire man of Pakistani descent and Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is the matriarch of a growing family with five grandchildren and works in an elementary school. She’s compassionate and understands her grown children’s frustrations with their limited expectations and seems to have an endless well of love for all. Her late husband was violently abusive and she worries for her son Callum ( Shaun Thomas) now a father. Ali has a big extended, traditional family and he and his wife are hiding the breakup of their marriage. Ali’s waiting for a child in the schoolyard when the rains come and he offers Ava a life at home. They discover a mutual love for music and dancing – albeit opposite genres – and share a friendly musical afternoon interrupted when Callum finds them at home and erupts in anger over her disrespect for his recently deceased father, it’s not 100% clear but perhaps Ali’s race. Ava and Ali begin an affair in secret, a meeting of two lonely people who’ve endured struggles and finally found a bright moment in life. It’s not clear sailing but Barnard’s gentle depiction of them together is optimistic and beautifully realistic. And kudos for both performances.

Alan Cumming’s accent is perfectly Canadian in My Old School now on in Toronto Hot Docs Theatre and Vancouver’s Vancity. Cumming is the face of adult Brandon Lee, appearing on camera, lip-synching to Lee’s audio interviews, and voicing young Brandon in animated sequences. Grey-haired Cumming is Lee speaking to the camera about his incredible life – the real Lee refused to appear. He’d enrolled in Glasgow’s Bearsden Academy in 1993, fresh from Canada. His mother, a renowned opera singer with whom he’d travelled the world had just died, leaving him to live with his only remaining relative, his grandmother in Thurston, a posh suburb. One of Lee’s classmates was Jono McLeod, who made this film. McLeod interviews their classmates about the peculiar Canadian who entered their midst. Sixteen-year-old Lee was standoffish but smart in school but soon won respect for his smarts and empathy. He told people his IQ was found to be 162 at age nine; he knew worldly things and outperformed the teacher. He desperately wanted to go to medical school; his late father had made him promise. But a vacation in Tenerife with two of the popular girls and another guy put an end to his identity. Lee gets into a bar fight and was arrested. Police found two passports, one for Brandon Lee, and the other, for the same man according to the photo, but called Brian McKinnon, thirty-something. That’s when his carefully constructed hoax unravels. From tongue in cheek, to incredulous to deadly serious, Lee’s classmates spill the beans, and while Lee (Cumming) speaks, he seems to be unreliable! An astonishing wee gem about a deeply troubled, frustrated good son who becomes a media sensation.

From Timmins to the top, that’s our heroine appearing in a new documentary Shania Twain: Not Just a Girl now on Netflix. It’s safe to say she got there by her own bootstraps. I did not know she wrote or co-wrote her songs and music, played instruments, produced the video shoots, and invented her signature navel-baring wardrobe that cemented her iconic status. The footage was sent directly to Twain and she edited the videos herself. She says she made her own decisions, even under longtime manager Mary Bailey. Twain’s singular vision – worldwide fame – was made real because of her instincts. Born Eilleen Regina Edwards in Windsor her mother remarried and they moved to Timmins Ontario and lived in poverty and abuse. At age 8, she earned money for the family when her mother took her to after-hours bars to perform. Her parents died in a car crash and at 22 she was responsible for her siblings, and thankfully landed a healthy singing contract at Deerhurst Inn. Twain learned to count on herself, she never compromised and went on to make her mark. She is the only female artist to have three consecutive Diamond albums, the sixth best-selling female artist in the US, the 10th best-selling artist of the Nielsen SoundScan era, and the 13th Greatest Music Video Female Solo Artist of all time. We know her story – she and the producer’s husband moved to Switzerland, eventually broke up, she remarried and remains there with a cabin near Huntsville – but to hear her tell it and admit to anxieties and doubts, the stars she worked with, the joy her career brings her – is sweet. She’s still a nice girl from Northern Ontario who says “gee!” and who singlehandedly changed the map for female artists and music genres. Interviewees include Lionel Ritchie, Bo Derek, Diplo, Avril Lavigne, and Orville Peck and there’s so much fabulous archival footage including her 1969 debut on The Tommy Hunter Show.

Netflix‘s series Keep Breathing on the service now concerns LIv (Melissa Barrera) a sophisticated young New York lawyer en route to Inuvik, Northwest Territories, to make peace with someone. But it becomes a life-and-death battle to survive when the small plane crashes into a mountain river killing the pilot and photographer and leaving her alone. Her phone works, but there’s no service, and she has only a bottle of water and a couple of power bars but she has her wits. An interesting recurring element is a late photographer, lying dead on the beach, and her mother sending “messages” on what to do to survive. She uses a log in ice-cold fast waters to reach the submerged plane and retrieves the baggage and small items of use. Her survival instinct has kicked in – she uses fir branches to make a bed in a tree trunk, shapes a bowl from metal debris to boil river water, and forages for berries, fearlessly following a bear’s lead. The men’s bags contain an enormous amount of cash, some of which she burns for warmth, and bottles of oxycontin headed for the north. She empties them and stores boiled water and searches for a signal. She realises whoever owns the money and drugs will be looking for them but the flight wasn’t registered so she has time to make a plan. Barerra, a fearless young Mexican actress holds our interest in what is a one-hander. She’s a skilled swimmer and diver and holds her breath underwater for terrifyingly long stretches. Her co-star, the magnificent backdrop of the endless, natural north is beyond beautiful even if it is the greatest threat to her life. A fresh, gripping story that seems ripped from the headlines, with a powerful female lead who refuses to give up. If you’re ever lost in the woods, remember this woman’s wisdom and will.

Darren Star and Jeffrey Richman’s series Uncoupled on Netflix follows the progress of a middle-aged gay man Michael (Neil Patrick Harris) in New York, suddenly single after seventeen years with his partner Colin (Tuc Watkins). And it’s not as if he was expecting it, he comes home from work to celebrate Colin’s birthday to find he’s been robbed, the Hermes towels, fine wine collection, and Colin’s clothes are gone. Michael frantically tries to find him, but no luck. The coward sneaked out without a word ending what Michael thought was an ideal coupling and he is blindsided and shattered. But he must host Colin’s surprise 50th party that night. Surprise is right. Harris expresses a world of pain in his performance here and throughout – abandonment has turned Michael’s world inside out and he can’t accept it. He asks Colin after the party if there was someone else and is told no. But his concerned friend (Tisha Campbell) reluctantly informs him that he has moved in with a man she saw kissing Colin. Michael finds sympathy in a strange ally, his deeply entitled, hot-tempered, and wealthy client Claire (Marcia Gay Harden) who has been similarly dumped, and the two of them share the angry phase- he demands his friends pick between him and Colin. So a bad beginning to his journey into selfhood but baby steps. And with the help of his true friends, he attempts to forge ahead. It’s a journey that feels authentic, painful, alarming, and yet funny at times, and shines a light on the warm hug of friendship.

I think it’s because Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character, trauma survivor Sophie has battled demons leading to a near-tragic event, that she is nearly catatonic through the gripping psychological crime thriller Surface on Apple TV+. The eight-parter, produced by Apple Studios and Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine with creator Veronica West, is a sober affair, but thankfully has enough believable twists and turns to make it interesting. Her husband James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) misleads us from the start, a seemingly sinister sort with unhealthy ownership of his wife. She jumped or was pushed off a ferry in San Francisco Bay and suffered injuries that caused her to lose her memory. But she has a vague vision of a man standing over her as she sinks deeper into the water. She awakens in a terrifying place, a world that means nothing to her living with a man who may or may not have tried to drown her. So we see him through her eyes, as a dangerous force who lies and tries to control her. He certainly plays the part. A second man, Baden (Scarborough’s own Stephan James), a police detective investigating her case, is a concerned, caring protector who goes out of his way legally and morally to investigate her husband and keep her safe. James is being investigated for his company’s shortfall of $11M. To add to the hallucinogenic quality of the series, little things matter – the amount of the shortfall keeps changing, her best friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) is devoted to her but has been disloyal and works in both personas, as her status keeps changing. Sophie’s psychiatrist (Marianne Jean Baptiste) keeps her under a tight right and seems to be working against her, for her husband’s benefit. All this reflects Sophie’s memory-challenged perception of events and people as she sorts through what’s real and what isn’t as she begins taking hallucinogens. We are kept off-balance, madly bingeing, as Sophie’s unmoving face seems a mask someone pretty freaked out would wear. Surface will keep you out of the pool halls for eight hours, madly bingeing.

It’s Nov 1, 1988, the day after Hallowe’en – Hell day and the end of the world as we know it. Got it? Everything is about to change for four early bird Paper Girls as they go on the strangest route they’ll ever experience. Tiffany (Camryn Jones), Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), (new girl “Erin Tieng”), Mac (Sofia Rosinsky), and KJ (Fina Strazza) are yelled at by an old white man, bullied by local teenagers cruising the streets at 5 am on a school night and robbed. The girls chase them to recover their walkies and find themselves in a house under construction. tomboy Mac tells them to get ready to fight and hold their thumbs outside their fists when punching. Suddenly an explosion throws the time and space continuum off balance and they find themselves in some unknown wood, chased by extremely well-dressed space aliens firing weapons at them. They’ve wandered into the middle of an intergalactic war and into the future thirty years out. A woman (Ali Wong) saves them and lo and behold, she is the grown-up version of Erin, a huge surprise to both parties and a bit of a disappointment to young Erin who isn’t impressed by her dull life. The girls realise they’re not in Kansas anymore, and what the heck is a mobile phone? and this device that holds “all human knowledge”? A trip to the tech store drives the point home with chilling certitude. The girls want to return home in 1988 NOW but powerful forces are at work, including the Old Watch that has forbidden time travel. They’re stuck and soon face all their grown selves and feelings of sadness at the futility of their adolescent dreams. And they are just getting started. Can four teens save the world? Based on the graphic novels by Brian K. Vaughan. On Prime Video.

Reality TV pioneer Allen Funt’s hidden camera experiments for radio, film trailers, and television evolved over decades, but the undeniable truth is that audiences loved the idea of watching someone in a situation that they didn’t know we were watching. Mister Candid Camera a doc by his son Peter pays homage to a disrupter and creator of vastly popular shows, whose originality is undeniable but who was never given an award or even a star on the walk of fame. Peter has produced 250 episodes so far since his father retired to a massive cattle ranch in Big Sur where he stayed until his death. The doc celebrates 75 years since the Candid Microphone radio series launched and Candid Camera, a multi-media company, is still turning out programming, features, and equipment. Allen Funt was a staunch feminist and equal rights advocate and launched Woody Allen’s comedy career, along with Fannie Flagg and Carol Burnett. Howie Mandell said Candid Camera changed his life path and entered comedy. All for nothing without the setups – the Food Traffic Counter advised multiple diners to stop eating when a light flashed and they complied without question, three staffers turn to change facing direction in an elevator and a random passenger followed suit, and much more – LOL-worthy stuff that must be seen to be appreciated. Candid Camera footage is regularly donated to Funt’s alma mater Cornell University for human behavioural psychology studies, a true goldmine. Apparently, you only need three people to convince a person of something without saying anything. TVOD. Here are some classic moments:



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