By Anne Brodie
Scarborough from directors Shasha Nakhai, Rich Williamson and writer Catherine Hernandez is set in a low-income enclave in eastern Toronto. Its diverse population is well represented in three families whose children attend the same breakfast and literacy program run by a nurturing leader Ms. Hina (Aliya Kanani.) She knows each child’s difficulties and gifts. Little Laura is neglected and starving and can’t read, talented Bing is bullied and Johnny’s autism disrupts the class. Each family’s story – drug addiction, extreme poverty, rebuilding after escaping domestic, and systemic racism – is told in lyrical, cinematic ways. Each character contributes to the fabric of the community, the kindly prostitute, the old man who babysits kids when necessary, the gifted street artist. White characters are unsympathetic, the ones who demand Christmas carols in the class, the racist father who can’t keep his daughter fed, an abusive mother, the unyielding boss of the programmer who tells Ms. Hina not to care so much. It’s an engrossing, mature, well-made, and rich tapestry of a community in its daily life told with compassion. Stars Liam Diaz, Mekiya Fox, and Anna Claire Beitel. TIFF Bell Lightbox and select theatres
The History Channels’ excellent docuseries BLK: An Origin Story debuts tomorrow, the first episode focusing on Nova Scotia’s rich Black history. Jennifer Holness and Sudz Sutherland’s scholarly, fascinating must-see provides info to most Canadians with little to zero knowledge of our Black history. Academics, descendants of groups that made the trek to Nova Scotia hundreds of years ago, poets, artists, indigenous Black members, and storytellers present a finely woven tapestry of the earliest contributors to the province life and the ripple effect felt and seen today. We are told that Blacks in Canada are the northernmost expression of Blackness in the world, Nordic Africans. And the stories of how they got to NS are unique, three immigrants waves are identified. First the Black Loyalists, ex-southern US slaves turned soldiers for Brits in the US Revolutionary War, who came to the province for a new life. Second – the warrior nation, known as the Maroons who arrived from Jamaica in 1796, and third, the Black Refugees from the War of 1812. Africans kidnapped to the US and Caribbean went north, promised land in return for fighting and freedom. But such promises were mostly mirages, treacherous betrayals by the British. Many Africans returned to Sierra Leone but most stayed and settled. Their stories must be known and this beautifully made, richly detailed series is crucial.
Finally, after multiple release date changes, Joe Wright’s Cyrano, an adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, a lyrical and powerful adaptation lands in theatres. Peter Dinklage’s exceptional performance as Cyrano is based in passion and the power of words. Set in some timeless time in a mountain village, Cyrano loves Rosamund (Haley Bennett) but hasn’t let her know; he feels unworthy. She loves Christian (Calvin Harrison, Jr.) who is unable to fully express himself and his feelings for her, he’s tongue-tied. He asks Cyrano to write Rosamund love letters on his behalf, to use his skills on his behalf. Rosamund sends for Cyrano to answer Christian’s outpourings of love. He’s heartbroken but carries on the ruse working both sides. He speaks his truth, not Christian’s so powerfully they have an erotic effect on her. Rosamund agrees to meet with Christian but he’s tongue-tied, not the romantic wordsmith she’s come to believe he is. Enter the third man – Ben Mendelsohn’s De Guiche to marry Rosamund by force “I will have you tonight!”. This sets the scene for a rousing final chapter rich in wit, humour, irony, sensuality, baser emotions, and ideal ones leading to a heartrending conclusion. This critic felt happily enveloped by its spell, this fairy tale of otherworldliness, the gorgeous, score, look, and vibe. Dinklage is phenomenal, as always, as he and the company reprise their roles from the Connecticut-based Goodspeed Musicals production of Cyrano.
Note to HBO – Kindly renew Our Flag Means Death ad infinitum. On March 3, the zaniest comedy series in recent memory bows on Crave. Taika Waititi created, produced, and stars in OFMD loosely based on aristocratic Brit adventurer Stede Bonnet (Rhys Darby), circa 1717, the “golden age of piracy”. Bonnet’s wife and family have grown tired of him; he dumps them and his fortune to sail the seas as a pirate. He captains the buccaneer ship Revenge and launches his swashbuckling dream leading a crew of extremely colourful characters (Nathan Foad, Samson Kayo, Vico Ortiz, Ewen Bremner, Joel Fry, Matt Maher, Kristian Nairn, Con O’Neill, Guz Khan, David Fane) who know he has no clue what he’s doing. He’s weak. He is, but he’s able to quell mutiny by “talking things over”, doing arts and crafts (making pirate flags), reading them to sleep at night using the characters’ voices, and making friends. An English ship approaches guns a-blazin’ and Cpt. Badminton comes aboard to take control. The men dress up as Lords and things happen and Stede is forced to kill Badminton, so now he’s a real pirate, and the crew’s delighted. Once ashore, they’re captured by natives led by Gary Farmer. Then it’s off to Pirates Island (“I may be landed gentry, but I’m thrilled to be granted entry”) where mad matriarch Jackie (Leslie Jones) runs things with brutal brilliance, and a woman’s killed because she’s gauche, that kind of thing. Enter Blackbeard, the sexiest pirate in the history of film, who’s terrifying, murderous, sadistic but also, as it turns out, sensitive to teasing. And this isn’t half of it. The writing, skillfully heightened performances across the board, the outsize wit, and the buttons it hits make OFMD one of the best, freshest comedies in a long while.
Jamie Dornan is The Man, a Scot driving through the parched Australian outback when a mysterious tractor-trailer sets upon him, a la The Duel, chasing him to exhaustion and a crash. He awakens in the hospital with no memory and no identity. Thus begins the white-knuckle road thriller The Tourist. Danielle Macdonald is the sunny local investigating officer who takes pity on this anonymous stranger. He can’t day what happened, but there’s a note in his pocket with instructions to meet someone at a diner in Burnt Ridge 50 km north. Cut to inside a coffin buried under the desert where a man screams for help and attempts to call the stranger. He’s escaped hospital for the diner at Burnt Ridge and chats with a waitress who seems to know him. They step outside for a moment, and the place blows to smithereens. The trucker whose pointed snakeskin boots we saw earlier, comes to the hospital, is on his trail. Meanwhile, Macdonald’s officer doggedly pursues her investigation, ruffling feathers and unwittingly endangering herself. There’s much tension and endless twists in this six-parter, it’s complex, what with deadly international conspiracies. And it’s interesting that the scorching heat and light of the outback is the landscape of human darkness. The man is learning small piece by frustratingly small piece, who and what he is and he doesn’t like it. This is crazy interesting and entirely bingeable, especially on a cold wintry day, enjoying that blazing Oz heat. A hell of an ending. Crave.
Stephanie Laing’s highly entertaining Family Squares on TVOD shines a glaring light on family members gathered to say goodbye to Grandma Mabel and their lies, betrayals, backstabbing and misdeeds. You know, a normal family! It’s a look at what not to do in life, especially during a time of bereavement when people’s nerves are shredded. Ann Dowd, Elsie Fisher, Judy Greer, Billy Magnussen, Margo Martindale, Sam Richardson, Timothy Simons, June Squibb, Casey Wilson, Zoë Chao, Maclaren Laing, and Henry Winkler are the Worths. They’ve gathered online to watch Grandma die in the nursing home. A grandson calls in from Russia, a granddaughter and her son from their RV, dissed for travelling the country during a pandemic, and the rest. The funeral director slash lawyer is over his head with the scrappy Worths. Grandma’s latter-day lover played by Dowd is in tremendous pain and resented by the family. Grandma states in her recorded will that she is very disappointed with them all for being jackasses, and lets slip that one of the siblings isn’t a sibling at all and one’s an embezzler. Considering the limitations of a 90-minute Zoom call, Family Squares manages to be flinty and real, frustrating, funny and knowing, familiar to us in many respects, and an oddly fun emotional roller coaster ride.
BritBox‘ original 3-parter Murder in Provence, based on the books of Canadian author M.L. Longworth takes us to sunny France with British ex-pats Investigating Judge Antoine Verlaque (Roger Allam) and his partner, Criminal Psychology Professor Marine Bonnet (Nancy Carroll). The first episode concerns a to-do in the Medieval History department of Aix-en-Provence’ university. The longtime head is to announce his retirement and name new staff at a cocktail party. He stuns the hopefuls to say he’s changed his mind, he’s staying put. He promised jobs to multiple people so there are plenty of suspects when he’s found murdered in his study. Vignettes of two men arguing, news of the deceased man’s much younger female lover plus a closeted gay life, a missing and priceless piece of 14th-century glass, fake antiquities, and a general dislike for him. And the snappy warm relationship between the Judge and the Professor sparkles, all good fun but I found the dialogue to be a tad xenophobic, burning Americans, the French, the English, the lesser educated and enlightened, all fair game. And he make sure people knew he’s from the world’s second-biggest flour-producing family. Check out Broadway singer and superstar Keala Settle as Verlaque’s no-nonsense (and non-singing) local detective partner. Look her up.
Netflix tackles international intelligence intersecting with a single New Jersey mom in its eight-part series In From the Cold. It opens with scenes of violence – a jolly rooftop cocktail reception in Madrid abruptly ends when a man is thrown over, a man on a bus is beaten into a coma, and a businesswoman stabs a mother with her child in the public square. Meanwhile, a U.S. girls’ skating team is in town for a competition and gathers at their hotel, shepherded by Becca’s overprotective mother, Jenny (Margarita Levieva). She leaves them alone to pick up supplies but is apprehended and gassed by a CIA agent, and held. Turns out, she was a top-secret Russian spy, years ago, bio-engineered and highly skilled, a shapeshifter named Anya. She’d become a leading assassin in the drugs wars in Russia but when her bosses stopped watching her, she fled to America in search of a normal life. And she stopped being careful. Her captors force her to return to work or they’ll expose and imprison her on espionage charges. Someone on a killing spree has copied her MO and she’s tasked with finding out who it is. Jenny reluctantly agrees and returns to the hotel and her daughter Becca and the team, and Becca starts asking questions. The subject matter is interesting but I’m not sure that this particular mix of science fiction, espionage, and motherhood work. It demands too much suspension of disbelief.
The Kingston Canadian Film Festival gets underway from March 3 to 13 in a hybrid style. Eight feature films will screen in The Isabel Concert Hall and The Screening Room and 30 features and shorts will be shown online. Most films will have a post-show Q&A, and in-person screenings will follow all Provincial guidelines.
The lineup includes many highly anticipated and award-winning films including Scarborough.
All My Puny Sorrows
Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy
Last of the Right Whales
and one of Canada’s greatest films Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
Check out www.kingcanfilmfest.com