February is marked as Black History Month in many local movie theaters and now on some of the streaming services as well. They show important films about black lives and struggles and you should check out what they have on offer this year. But notice this small irony. The new movies coming out regularly this week are about another group that has had a long fight for equality: women. Well, except one, and it’s from a book written by a woman.
And the big movie of the week, Argylle, not only comes from a book written by a woman (we think it’s kind of dark), but it features a woman as a central character. She goes on an international mission involving a spy syndicate. The producers hope it becomes a franchise but I haven’t seen it because they haven’t seen it where I am.
Maybe there is no loss. The Wrap’s review says it’s “a strange mishmash of ideas” and that it’s at least 30 minutes long.
There are more promising options here:
Totem: 4 ½ stars
Orion and the darkness: 3
Assembly: 2 ½
TOTEM: This is a beautiful visit to a young woman who is wise beyond her years (her parents and grandparents may have someone like her in their lives) but who has a limited understanding of her world and her family. So, from her point of view we see the scene gradually evolve. She is preparing a birthday party for her father. No more family members. The house is full of life. Minor incidents and conversations occur, just like in real life. But there is a dark undertone that seven-year-old Sol only partially perceives. Dad is resting, he has been told. That’s why she can’t go to him, not because she fears that he doesn’t love her anymore. Actually, as we know, she has cancer. Sol knows little about that but she does wish “that dad doesn’t die.”
The film by Lila Avilés, from Mexico, shows a keen recognition of a child’s perception. And also the family dynamics that surround her and that we see through a diverse group. There is an aunt worried about the details of the party, a grandfather who is also a victim of cancer and speaks with an electrolarynx, his father’s former teacher who explains that her name, Toniatuh, dates back to the time of the conquistadors. Several others, including a caretaker who seems the wisest of the group and a spiritualist who is the funniest. She’s there to expel bad energy from the house (and then says that she also sells Tupperware). Comedy moments like that enliven this reflection on the topic of death and help make it immensely watchable. We are moved by the warm humanity in that house. The actors are very good and the young debutant Naíma Sentíes as Sol is a great discovery. (In theaters: Toronto, Vancouver and Sudbury now; Edmonton starting tomorrow and Ottawa next week) 4 ½ out of 5
THE BRAID: This is a simple and unmistakable celebration of femininity. And examination of the tests and difficulties they face periodically, in this case in three societies: India, Italy and Canada. It arrived as a novel five years ago, became a best seller and this adaptation is directed by the same woman who wrote it, Laetitia Colombani. She tells three stories, each strong enough to stand on its own, and shows how they are alike by repeatedly alternating between them. Interestingly, the symbol that unites them, women’s hair as indicated in the title, seems a bit sophisticated. The rest is not; it is real.
In Italy, Giulia, played by Fotinì Peluso, has to take over the management of the wig company that her father left her, but discovers that it is insolvent and that the family house is heavily mortgaged. In India, Mia Maelzer as Smita, a Dalit woman (formerly called an untouchable) wants to take her daughter south of her, to a sacred place that can grant her wishes for a better life. In Montreal, Kim Raver as Sarah, a powerful lawyer with a corner office, hides the cancer diagnosis she received and the surgery she faces. All three face discrimination of one kind or another and fight to escape it. Giula is advised to marry for money. Smita is told that Dalits can’t do anything, “except hide like rats.” Or this: “It is better to be born a cow than a woman.” The whole movie is that direct. It seems too obvious but, dedicated to “all brave women”, it highlights perseverance. (In theaters) 3 out of 5
ORION AND THE DARKNESS: Many children are afraid of the dark and this film, adapted from the picture book by Emma Yarlett of Falmouth, England, addresses the problem directly. But don’t expect a solution. Just a wild, fun ride in an animated film written by the master of quirky Charlie Kaufman. Orion, 11 years old and voiced by BC’s Jacob Tremblay, is afraid of “everything”… or “every negative thing that can happen.” Darkness tops the list and it’s no wonder he reads books about nihilism and existentialism. He asks, “What if life is a cosmic accident and my existence has no meaning?” He does not accept his sister’s analysis: “Fear of the dark is an evolutionary adaptation… to protect oneself from predators.” That’s a cut above a typical animated movie, and a lot of kids.
Orion is visited by Dark himself (voiced by Paul Walter Hauser) to prove that there is nothing to fear with him. In fact, he turns out to be a friendly, smiling cloud-like being. He carries it with the associates of him: sleep, insomnia, silence, unexplained noises and Sweet Dreams quite sarcastic voiced by Angela Bassett. Carrying the child from one place to another interrupts his work, he complains. He does, but not as much as another entity who arrives: Light, Dark’s enemy, and a boastful, preening character played by Ike Barinholtz. There’s also an off-kilter time travel element. Coexistence is the theme, although the film devolves into a noisy battle, like many other animated films. Director Sean Charmatz has worked on several, including the first Trolls and the second Lego Movie. He made this for Dreamworks and it’s streaming on Netflix. 3 out of 5
APPROPRIATE IN: I saw this described as “a light-hearted comic drama.” That? I found it quite creepy because of the details it included about a rare medical condition. It’s called MRKH syndrome and it doesn’t sound funny at all. Women who suffer from it do not have a uterus or cervix and their vaginal canal is small. Too young to have sex, something 16-year-old Lindy, played by Maddie Ziegler, plans to do. On the other hand, a visit to the doctor for birth control pills gives you bad news. She has been given a series of rubber dilators of different sizes that she has been advised to use to “create her vagina.” “How to train.” Naturally, she shudders at the thought and spends her time reading Eve Ensler’s book, The Vagina Monologues, for comfort.
Director Molly McGlynn tells a little of her own story here. She is from Montreal, New Jersey and now Los Angeles and was born with the condition. She is determined to discover the syndrome and eliminate the feelings of shame. She says that for a long time she felt like “a partial woman, something half-formed.” Her familiarity with him allowed her to give a realistic aura to this film, not only about feelings of self-worth but also about uncomfortable dealings with doctors. She had a pelvic exam in front of a group of doctors. She used one of her comments in the film: practicing dilation on a boyfriend “unless he is well endowed.” D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai plays him in the film but don’t expect a romantic comedy. It’s a medical drama that includes some laughs. (It has been presented at several festivals and is now in theaters) 2 ½ out of 5