Daniel Garber interviews David Soll about his new documentary PUPPET

Posted in Cultural Mining, documentary, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on February 24, 2012

Daniel Garber interviews David Soll about his unusual, multi-layered new documentary, PUPPET.

They talk about diverse topics like the history of puppetry, and its fall and rise as a respected art form; an eccentric arkansas photographer who thought he was dropped on his parents’ farm by a tornado; what happens to puppets when they die; and the unusual power of one NY Times theatre critic…

February 25, 2012. Hidden in Plain Sight. Movies Reviewed: In Darkness, The Secret World of Arrietty, The Prodigies

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

What does it mean to be hidden in plain sight? Is it right below our feet — families living their lives just beneath a manhole? or maybe a judiciously placed leaf to disguise someone hiding in a garden. Or maybe people with special powers living among us, that no one recognizes.

This week I’m looking at three very different foreign movies, from France, Poland and Japan, about people hidden in plain sight as they face an earth-shattering crisis that threatens their homes, lives, friends or families.

The Secret World of Arrietty

Dir: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Arrietty is a teeny tiny teenaged girl, a “borrower” who lives with her parents hidden inside a normal home. One day, she is allowed to go out with her father to secretly borrow things that the “human beans” would never miss: a stamp, a pin, a sugar cube, a fish hook, maybe a piece of thread. But she has to obey the rules: never let the human beans see them or notice them – for that always seemed to end up in death. If they’re noticed, it’s time to leave.

But Arriety is fourteen and has never met anyone aside from her parents. Are there other borrowers? And could the big people really be that bad?

Soon she encounters Shawn, a sickly boy sent by his mother to his grandmother’s country house to rest before an operation. He’s very ill, and maybe that’s why he can see Arrietty. But they both have to watch out for Haru, the old housekeeper who believes in the little people — and wants to catch them, and maybe even call an exterminator to wipe them out!

Shawn thinks he can help make Arrietty’s life better. But when he lifts up a floorboard and tears open Arrietty’s home to replace it with part of an old dollhouse, chaos ensues. Haru thinks this proves the borrowers are back, Arrietty’s mum panics when she is placed in a precarious position, and her dad decides it’s time to pack up and move on.

This is a delightful kids’ movie from Japan, based on the English children’s book. It’s made in old-style animation, with painted backgrounds, and hand-drawn cels for each frame. It’s from the Ghibli studios, known for Miyazaki Hayao’s work, but lacks some of Miyazaki’s extreme fantasy and bizarre imagery. Still, it’s a very sweet movie with a great story, a good lesson for kids, and smooth, exciting and dynamic animation.

It shares a theme, strangely enough, with a Polish Holocaust drama that also has people hidden just below ground.

In Darkness

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

It’s the 1940s, WWII, under the German occupation in the Polish city of Lvov (now in Ukraine and called Lviv). It was a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious city, with Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, protestants and Jews, speaking Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and German.

The Jews are locked in a ghetto that’s about to be liquidated and sent to the Jadowska labour camp. So a few families, led by a man Mundek (Benno Fürmann) come up with a plan to hide in the sewers through a hole they cut in their floor. But they quickly encounter Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz in a great performance), the sewer inspector and a petty thief who knows his way through every inch of the dark, rat-infested tunnels.

They reach an agreement to live underground and pay him money each week. they don’t trust one another  but they soon fall into an uneasy coexistence right beneath the Nazi’s soldiers’ feet. Mundek and Socha even manages to escape to the surface to try to find out if a woman is still alive.

The movie follows the two groups – Socha’s family above ground, and Mundek’s extended family and friends below — both of which face the constant risk of exposure. 

This is a different type of holocaust movie: it’s chaotic, passionate and bloody, filled with normal everyday life in an exceptional situation: with people eating, having sex, loving, hating, giving birth and dying, all hidden in near darkness in underground tunnels filled with human waste.

A lot of the movie is an almost black screen, with people running towards the camera down a sludge filled passageway lit only by a candle or a flashlight. In Darkness is a long movie, with a gradual, slow build, but it’s well worth watching. Terrific acting, directing and production values. This Polish / German / Canadian co-production is nominated for an Oscar, best film in a foreign language, and many Genies as well.

The Prodigies

Dir: Antoine Charreyron

Jim is a boy genius who is brought up by the millionaire Killian when his parents die in a violent episode. He knows he has special kinetic powers, can utilize all parts of his brain simultaneously, and can force people to do things against their will. As a grown-up he knows how to keep things in control at the Killian Institute, and use his skills for good, not evil.

But when his benefactor dies, the selfish heiress Melanie threatens to close down the institute since it doesn’t make money. But Jimbo has been using his research and gaming design to find others like him – who share his powers. They are bullied in school by cruel people who don’t know — or care — about their special powers. He wants to give to them what Killian gave him – a chance to meet their own in a safe educated environment.

Thinking quickly, Jimbo proposes a reality game show called American Genius, whose five winners (the five prodigies he has already located) will get to meet with the President in the White House.

But tragedy strikes: instead of going to meet the five teenagers – who he’s sworn to protect — in a park, he lingers with his newly pregnant wife. And before he gets there they are attacked by violent thugs who beat them up and brutally attack Lisa putting her into a coma. The tone darkens as the remaining four – led by the angry Gil – decide to seize power and seek revenge.

Now it’s up to Jimbo to regain the trust of the five prodigies, before they execute their cruel, apocalyptic plan.

The Prodigies is a motion-capture style animated movie – scenes are acted out live, then changed to animated form. Parts are beautifully done, with sleek stylized images – I like the look — but there are also long, irritating sections made in crappy, low-contrast tones which just don’t look good on a screen. (Why do they do that…?) I enjoyed this French/Belgian movie (I saw the American dubbed version) – its fun to watch, exciting (if predictable), though extremely violent. It’s not suitable for children.

Arrietty and In Darkness are now playing, and The Prodigies opens today in Toronto.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

February 17, 2012. Movies Reviewed: Monsieur Lazhar, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

Posted in Academy Awards, Canada, Cultural Mining, Death, documentary, Drama, Movies, Musical, Quebec, Suicide, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on February 20, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I’m back again…

This week I’m looking at two movies about men trying to preserve a culture. One is a drama about an Algerian refugee working as a schoolteacher in Quebec who turns toward his French childhood education for solace; and the other is a documentary about a sophisticated Yiddish writer who turned toward memories of his childhood in a small village as the inspiration for many of his stories.

Monsieur Lazhar
Dir: Philippe Falardeau
Two public school kids, Simon and Alice (Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron) make a shocking discovery one morning. Their teacher hanged herself the night before in their classroom. So now there’s a class without a teacher, a whole bunch of kids recovering from the trauma, and no one willing to take her place. So in walks Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) to the principle’s office and offers his services. He says he taught for 19 years in Algeria and would be honoured to take over the class. And for lack of an alternative, he’s the new teacher.

But he’s a recent newcomer to Canada, trying to qualify for refugee status after a horrific event back in Algeria. He’s recovering from one trauma while the kids in the class are getting over another one. He was raised in an Algeria that had been annexed by France, so he’s steeped in a lost culture, in a country on the brink of violent collapse. The kids don’t get him.

He regiments the desks in neat rows – no circles for him; and he does old-school stuff — like reading Balzac for dictee – and making the kids memorize conjugations and recite them in class.

He doesn’t understand all the new rules. No hitting students – in fact no touching students at all, anywhere, ever. Never talk about the teacher’s death – leave that to the psychologist. But the kids are clearly ridden with guilt, and Bachir wants to get through to them. Maybe by letting them lose their baggage he can release some of his own.

But can he get through to them with his old-fashioned, rigid and formal ways? Will he purge his own loss and let them – especially Simon And Alice – recover from theirs?

Monsieur Lazhar is a really good, complex, and subtle movie (nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.) The French actor Fellag manages to convey Bachir’s grief and compassion while remaining reserved, formal and secretive. It’s also quite funny – its not a drag-you-down movie. It was directed by Philippe Falardeau, who also made another great movie just a few years ago, also about a troubled kid in Quebec: C’est pas moi, je te jure! You should try to catch that one, too. Falardeau is amazing at capturing kids on film, with complete characters. Monsieur Lazhar is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film in a Foreign Language, and for Genie Awards for Best Picture, Director (Falardeau) , Actor (Fellag), Supporting Actress (Sophie Nélisse), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Music,  and Sound.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness
Dir: Joseph Dorman

Sholem Aleichem was the penname of a Yiddish writer who lived in the Pale of Settlement in Tsarist Russia. This is the long but narrow area stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea where Jews were permitted to live. Sholem Aleichem – a pen name meaning Mr how-do-you-do — wrote the classic tales of Tevye the milkman and the others in the village of Kasrilevka. He’s best known today because his stories were adapted into the famous musical Fiddler on the Roof. But he was also one of the pioneers who attempted to turned a looked-down-upon vernacular language, Yiddish, into a font of literature and high culture.

What I had never heard before, and which the movie shows, is that he was a really interesting character, that goes against the homey, nostalgic stereotype of his writing. He was a dandy, a dilettante, and a stock market gambler in Kiev, discussing poetry in cafes and squandering a small fortune.

This excellent documentary tears away the mythos of the renowned writer and exposes both his dark and embarrassing moments as well as his unknown triumphs. It uses black and white photos, playbills, posters, and even an actual audio recording of the writer voice, along with found footage and snapshots from the era to set the mood. Most interesting to me is the way the documentary situates the author, not just as some independent hero, but as one character in a broader political, historical and sociological context.

Monsieur Lazhar is playing now, and Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Dark opens next week in Toronto. And of course the documentary, Puppet opens on the 17th. Also coming soon in Toronto and Vancouver is a series of Kabuki performances captured on film, featuring the legendary onnagata actor, Tamasaburo, who plays only female roles, in the Heron Maiden. Check out the Japan Foundation for more information.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

February 10, 2012. How Do We Communicate? Movies Reviewed: A Dangerous Method, Chronicle, Safe House

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I watch a lot of movies, but film is only one way to communicate. How do you record the truth? Do you write it down? Do you tell it to your friends or whisper it in someone’s ear? Do you text it? Or do you save it in some more durable format?

This week, I’m looking at three movies that centre on recording or preserving information: A Dangerous Method is a historical drama, where talking is prime, and observations are recorded by hand, using pen and ink, in meticulous notes and sent by voluminous, lengthy letters; Chronicle, is a science fiction thriller, where a high school student records his life using a hand-held video camera; and Safe House is an action/thriller, where everything important has been recorded in a single tiny microchip.

Interestingly (at least in these three movies), the more advanced the medium, the shallower the plot.

Dangerous Method
Dir: David Cronenberg

A woman — at first known only as “S” — is an unusual patient admitted to a mental hospital near Zurich, Switzerland. She shrieks she groans, she writhes, and her face is strangely contorted. She plays with her food and rolls around in the mud! The doctor there, Karl Jung decides to try a new treatment – the Dangerous Method. This unheard-of cure has the doctor sitting behind the patient who is cured by talking… about her problems, her dreams, her thoughts and her memories. It was pioneered by Sigmund Freud in Vienna, but Jung doesn’t know if it’ll actually work. But soon the patient, Sabina Spielrein, a Russian-Jewish woman, is miraculously cured when they discover something hidden that happened to her as a girl. He puts her to work in the clinic, and she gradually changes from patient to doctor.

Then another patient, Otto Gross, who’s also a psychiatrist, arrives smoking pot, snorting coke, and drawing dirty pictures. He’s analyzed by Jung who doesn’t know what to do with him. It’s the early 20th century, not the 1960s,, but Otto’s saying just do it man, give in to your sexual desires. She says she wants you, and you want her… Uptight Jung doesn’t want to… but he also does want to. And Sabina makes it clear what she wants. What’s he gonna do?

This is a really good movie, an interesting historical biopic, about the dawn of psychiatry, the rivalry between Freud and Jung, and the passionate, but illicit, love affair between Jung and Sabina Spielrein. Cronenberg made a beautiful movie filled with the exquisite European gardens, antiseptic, white hospital beds, and steampunk clinical devices. Fassbender is great as Jung, Viggo Mortensen interesting as a new type of Freud — imagined as a big, burly, tough-guy patriarch; and Vincent Cassel is terrific as Otto the counter-culture hedonist. But the real star is Keira Knightley as Sabina, the conflicted, smart, pervy and passionate young woman. Sometimes, I wasn’t sure whether Sabina, the character, was really that crazy, or if she was just putting it on for her doctors, (and Knightley’s accent shifted from Russian to Danish-sounding and back again), but she was still amazing to watch.

Dir: Josh Trank

Andrew (Dave de Haan) is a high school kid in Seattle. His mother is bedridden and dying. His dad is a frustrated ex-fireman who likes smacking his only son around. Andrew’s a bit scrawny, a bit hard to talk to, not an athlete, and can’t defend himself. Instead he decides to keep a record of all the indignities and abuses he suffers with a video camera that he’ll carry around wherever he goes. He’s bullied at school, he’s bullied at home, he’s even bullied by the boys in the hood loitering on the corner. He doesn’t have any friends, and is still a virgin. But at least now he has an identity: he’s “the guy with the camera”. We – the audience — see whatever his camera sees.

He occasionally hangs out with his much richer, bigger, better-looking smarter, and more popular cousin Matt (Alex Russell) who, most important, has a car. Matt likes to quote Schopenhauer and Jung. Andrew wonders what Jung would say about glow sticks.

So one night at an outdoor rave, Steve (Michael B Jordan) — the quarterback with the cheerleader girlfriend and who’s running for class prez — asks him to come take some footage of something weird. It’s a strange, glowing crystal deep in a cave nearby. They spelunk down underground. There’re some clicking noises, a flash, and then they all wake up somewhere else. But they’re not the same anymore. They can move things around by telekinesis! But will they use they use the powers for good… or for evil? Or just to get laid? Well, as it turns out, all three.

The three guys make a pact to keep their new powers a secret, not to hurt anybody, and as Matt warns — to avoid hubris at all costs.

As their powers grow they find themselves tied to one another with some powerful immutable force that may be entering their brains. Can they fight it off? will they live or die? Will they go to Tibet? Will they change the world?

I liked this movie, too. Its very simple, a lot of fun, and most of it’s left unexplained, (if anything, it’s most like an unauthorized X-Men knock off, filmed in the style of Cloverfield). The mainly TV actors are engaging and new. The camera work is grainy, and jiggly and bumpy, but luckily, once Andrew can move things without touching them he lets the camera float free, making it a much more pleasant to watch. The special effects are great, culminating in the expected flaming and booming battle royale.

Not exactly a spoiler, since its apparent in the trailers, but I was disappointed by a trend in comic book morality. The American dream says it’s the good, smart and hardworking kid can always overcome his disadvantages. The poor, suffering underdog character overcomes obstacles and becomes the hero who uses his powers for good. The rich and powerful characters are spoiled, privileged and unfeeling, and try to take his power away for their own personal gain. But the poor kid has pluck, brains and gumption and triumphs in the end.

In this movie, the rich, popular kids are the heroes, while the poor, picked-on kid is the sort-of villain. That leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Safe House
Dir: Daniel Espinoza

Matt (Ryan Reynolds) is a low level CIA agent. He’s good at boxing, foreign languages, and strategic analysis. He sits around all day, stationed in a safe house – a secret, high security place where spies can do their stuff – in Cape Town, SA. He just sits around all day, like a Steve McQueen, throwing the baseball against a wall.

Then one day the notorious Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington) comes in from the cold. He’s been a rogue agent, accused of selling CIA secrets for a decade for his own personal game. Frost is an expert spy and a master of disguise. He’s holding a tiny microchip loaded with important information. And he’s being chased by vaguely middle-eastern looking assassins.

But as soon as Tobin’s in Matt’s safe house, (after they warm him up a bit with some complimentary waterboarding), the assassins come barging in and kill everyone – except Matt who escapes with the handcuffed Tobin. he’s disgusted by the violence, but has to remain true to his mission — protect the captive. The rest of the movie is all fight, fight, fight and chase, chase, chase.

The chases take us from a Capetown stadium, through busy city streets, and into the ramshackle townships where people live in corrugated aluminum shacks lit only by a neon church crosses.

The fight scenes are extended and grueling, involving guns, bombs, knives, fists and broken glass. Who do you trust? Who are the real good guys? And is Tobin Matt’s mentor… or his enemy?

This is a fast-moving, never-stopping very violent action movie. It has a barebones plot – who does Matt trust and what’s on the microchip — hollow characters, and not much acting to speak of. I guess I wanted the heroes to survive, but I didn’t really care. Neither Denzel Washington nor Ryan Reynolds is very compelling.

It’s got tons of super-quick scene changes so the jagged camerawork is hard to watch. So much so that my brain couldn’t always tell who was punching or shooting whom.(For example, aguy in the assassin team, coincidentally, looks so much like Ryan Reynolds that I couldn’t keep tell if he’s getting away or shooting at himself. Stupid casting.) And because It’s so fast moving, the few slow scenes — like one with Ruben Blades — seem especially boring.

Safe House is an action movie with a good location. But that’s all.

Dangerous Method and Chronicle are playing now, and Safe House opens tonight – check your local listings. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

February 3, 2012. Movies to Stay Home With. DVDs reviewed: Dream House, Point Blank

Posted in Cultural Mining, Drama, DVD, France, Psychological Thriller, Subtitles, Thriller, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on February 4, 2012


Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Now I’m a huge booster of seeing movies in movie theatres, not on TV, not on your computer. Nothing is better than the group experience of a huge screen in a room filled with strangers all watching and reacting, ensemble, to the same thing.

But… well, it’s winter and it’s freezing outside, and sometimes it’s better just to curl up at home and watch something chilling. So this week I’m talking about two DVD’s to watch on a cold night in bed with someone warm.

Dream House
Dir: Jim Sheridan

When Will (Daniel Craig) quits his publishing job at a big city firm, he moves — with his wife, Libby (Rachel Weisz) and his two young daughters — into an old wooden house in a small town. It’s just the relaxing life he’s been hoping for.

He loves playing games with the kids; play-scaring them with a loud “boo!” when playing “I’m gonna getcha!” Libby wonders who used to live in this house before them; they left lots of evidence behind. And the kids settle in like they’d always lived there.

But there’s something wrong with this old house. Strange things start to happen. His daughter thinks she saw a man’s face through the window, And when Will finds an “infestation” of mohawked teens in his basement, he discovers they were there to invoke the spirit of a mass murderer who, five years earlier, had killed everyone — including a woman and two young daughters — who lived in that house.

“He’s back!” says the punk.

You see, the killer was never caught and the police consider it a cold case. And everyone in the town he talks to just avoids his questions — like they know something but they’re not telling him. Only Ann (Naomi Watts), the pretty, blonde-haired woman across the street, seems sympathetic.

Then Will is shown some videos from the night of the murders. The face of the killer looked familiar. Is that crazed killer really back? Who is that strange figure they see outside the house? The more he discovers, the more he realizes his family might truly be in danger. And if anything happens to them, it would be his fault.

Dream House is a strange mixture of horror, ghost story, and psychological thriller. Good acting, especially by Craig as a troubled man with a hidden past, dealing with love, fear and guilt. Watts and Weisz downplay their roles: no showing off here. It’s a slow-build thriller, good for a late night watch on a cold winter night.

Point Blank
Dir: Fred Cavayé

Samuel (Gilles Lellouche), a Parisian assistant nurse, lives happily with his Spanish wife, Nadia (Elena Anaya) eight months into her first pregnancy. He tends to his latest patient — a wounded gangster on the brink of death — like any other. But the fact there’s a 24-hour police guard beside the criminal, Hugo (Roschdy Zem)’s bed, should tell him something serious is going on.

Then he gets a sudden phone call — he has to smuggle the comatose thug, whose life he’s saved — out of the hospital, past the armed guards… if he ever wants to see his wife alive again! He has no choice. And Hugo (the body) proves not to be so comatose after all. The two of them become an oddly-matched pair, fighting first against each other, then against a series of violent criminals. Their faces are soon on TV everywhere — they’re considered armed and dangerous murderers. Hugo wants to find his brother, and Samuel, his wife, before the crooks and the crooked cops find them. But the conspiracy is so deep they don’t know who to trust.

This is a fantastic, fast-paced action-thriller, with great chase scenes on foot through the streets and subways of Paris.

Both of these movies have great casts, and good scary parts to get your heart-pumping on a dreary winter’s night. Point Blank and Dream House are available now on DVD.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies is on CIUT 89.5 FM each Friday morning, and on my website culturalmining.com.

Inside Lara Roxx: Interview with Director Mia Donovan and Lara Roxx

Posted in Canada, Condoms, Cultural Mining, documentary, H.I.V., L.A., Montreal, Movies, Porn, Quebec, Sex, Sex Trade, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on February 4, 2012

A young woman from Montreal moves to LA to make some money in porn movies, but is exposed to HIV on set. I interview filmmaker Mia Donovan and the new movie’s subject, Lara Roxx, about this raw, personal documentary, Inside Lara Roxx (now playing in Toronto). We talk about the adult film industry, media myths, exploitation, stigma, and condom use in porn. (This interview includes sexual topics and adult language.)

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