Secretive Groups. Movies Reviewed: Pussy Riot, Kill Team, Pain & Gain PLUS Hot Docs!

Posted in 1990s, Bodybuilders, Cultural Mining, documentary, Movies, Punk, Russia, Trial, Uncategorized, War by CulturalMining.com on April 26, 2013

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, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Hot Docs – Toronto’s legendary Film Festival that shows over 200 documentaries in one week – is on now. It brings cutting edge documentaries from around the world, the filmmakers, and subjects, It’s centered on the Hot Docs cinema on Bloor St, but runs movies and events all around the downtown. And if you’re a student or a senior, you can get free rush tickets for any daytime screening.

What do conspiracies look like? They can be a group of well-meaning protesters, a gang of thieves, or a secret cabal of soldier killers. This week I’m looking at three films about secretive groups whose actions run up against the law and morality. One’s about Russian feminist punks who run into trouble with Putin and the Russian Orthodox church; another’s about a whistleblower in the US military who gets charged with murder; and a third is about some ambitious bodybuilders who want their slice of the pie – and will do whatever is necessary to get it.

The_Kill_Team_2Kill Team

Dir: Dan Krauss

When the photos of Abu Ghraib hit the papers, people were shocked at the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers. But a series of incidents in Afghanistan , even more shocking than Abu Ghraib are the subject of a new expose. Here’s what happened.

Winfield, a young skinny marine, the smallest in his unit, notices a strange shift in his unit when a new commanding officer, Gibbs, arrives. Gibbs has a reputation for violence during his term in Iraq. And now he was demanding his soldiers take down Afghan civilians – boys and yound men — in their area. Gibbs forms an elite squad, a “Kill Team”, who are The_Kill_Team_3sent out on “drop weapon” missions. This means they would surprise someone, kill him, and then drop a weapon they had brought for that purpose beside the dead body to justify the killing. And then pose for smiling souvenir photos.

So Winfield becomes a whistleblower, sending out word of these heinous murders to his family, asking them to report it. But, through a series of events that the film reveals, the whistleblower ends up being arrested and charged with murder for the very events he was trying to prevent. The movie tells the story of the various marines involved in this particular unit, as the trials and court-martials are prepared. This disturbing documentary also suggests that these practices were not restricted to that one unit but are common practice among soldiers in Afghanistan. They were just the only ones caught. While mainly talking heads – the various soldiers telling their stories – and with a few too many scenes involving negotiatins with lawyers – it is a serious, important film. The Kill Team puts the integrity of the entire Afghan mission into question.

Pussy_Riot_A_Punk_Prayer_1Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Dir: Maxim Pozdorovkin, Mike Lerner

Pussy Riot is a Russian feminist punk band. They perform their protest pieces wearing neon-coloured balaclavas to cover their faces, playing guitar and singing about government corruption, human rights and freedom of expression. But something happened when they choose to sing about Putin’s ties to the Russian Orthodox church’s patriarchy on the actual altar of a famous cathedral. Within seconds police swarm the stage and arrest three of them for trespassing and defaming religion.

And so begins a lengthy trial followed around the world. The movie interviews the three prisoners – Nadia, Maria and Ekatarina – their families, co-performers and friends. Performance art, public satire and the avant garde, while familiar in the west (where it’s met with yawns or raised eyebrows) are new and genuinely revolutionary in Russia. Somehow, the filmmakers got their cameras and microphones into the trial itself, with perfect views of the three women boxed into a glass cage, as if they were Hannibal Lecters on trial for mass murder. It’s a rare glimpse into the Russian justice system, where playing a simple protest tune still holds the threat of a term in a Siberian prison camp.

Pussy Riot is a must-see at Hotdocs.

PG-01Pain & Gain

Dir: Michael Bay

Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a musclehead personal trainer. He’s given to mindless slogans to inspire him. He’s all about the American dream, being a doer not a don’t-er, and yo, bitches, his body is his temple, his muscles a shrine to physical power (“no homo!”). It’s Miami in the 90’s. This is America — a buff, pimpin’ nation! Or so say the men with fake orange tans at Sun Gym.

But Danny just isn’t making enough money – and he wants to have it all. So he gathers a team of ex-cons to kidnap his client Pepe, an obnoxious, middle-aged Jewish guy from Colombia. After some trouble and some violent episodes, their scheme pays off – they’re rich! They have everything now: a mansion, a sportscar, a yacht, cocaine, a Romanian girlfriend, penile implants… But a persistent P.I. (Peter Weller) is on their trail. Will he catch them in the act?

Pain & Gain is a mildly interesting comedy /action movie. It’s just not that funny, or that PG-12interesting, and without much action. The main characters are all caricatures – Dwayne Johnson (“the Rock”) is OK as a sub-normal, born-again body-builder; Tony Shalhoub is great as the world’s most annoying kidnappee; and Mark Wahlberg does his wannabe criminal mastermind very well. But the characters seem to be there just so the audience can laugh at how stupid they all are. (It’s also a weirdly structured movie. The plot repeatedly screeches to a halt to give each character a freeze-frame and an extended voiceover explaining their backstory, out loud. Why?) Pain & Gain is intentionally kitschy, mildly offensive and aims for the lowest common denominator… but it still entertains.

Pain and Gain opens today, check your listings; and Hot Docs is on now: for showtimes of movies like Pussy Riot (screening today) and Kill Team, go to hotdocs.ca.

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

Daniel Garber talks to John Kastner about his new documentary NCR: Not Criminally Responsible

Posted in Canada, Crime, Cultural Mining, documentary, Hotdocs, Mental Illness, Movies, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on April 25, 2013

Kastner_JHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Our justice system says if someone commits a crime they should be arrested, tried and — if guilty — sentenced. We need that both for the victims of crime and also because it’s just the right thing to do. Everyone agrees.

But what happens if the person who committed NCR_Not_Criminally_Responsible_1the crime is not responsible for it, because he was mentally ill or deficient when the crime took place? Surely it’s not fair to jail people who didn’t intentionally commit a crime. But nor can they simply be labeled innocent.

Somewhere between guilt and innocence is a legal territory known as NCR — not criminally responsible. Well there’s a new documentary that’s premiering at Hot Docs in Toronto, called NCR. It follows the victim — a young woman named Julie — and the perpetrator of the crime, Sean, a mentally ill young man who attacked her, seemingly at random, as the court is determining whether or not he is criminally responsible. I spoke by telephone with the venerable Toronto documentary-maker JOHN KASTNER about his new film NCR, premiering at Hot Docs.

Exotica. Movies Reviewed: Hotel Lux, The Rabbi’s Cat, To the Wonder

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Africa, Algeria, Animation, Berlin, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Comics, Germany, Kremlin, Romance, Uncategorized, US, USSR by CulturalMining.com on April 19, 2013

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, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Images and Toronto Jewish Film Festival continue on through this weekend, with Hot Docs just around the corner. This week I’m looking at movies about people travelling to exotic lands. There’s a German screwball comedy about an actor who escapes the Nazis only to find himself in the heart of Stalin’s Moscow; a French animated film about a group of travellers from Algiers looking for a lost city; and an American romance about a woman from Paris looking for love in America.

Hotel_LuxHotel Lux

Dir: Leander Haussmann

It’s Berlin in the 1930s. The comedy team Zeisig and Meyer (Michael Herbig and Jurgen Vogel) work at a successful cabaret, playing Stalin and Hitler. But their livelihood is threatened when the Nazi’s come to power, and political satire is no longer tolerated. An undercover Dutch communist, Frida, suddenly appears, and Zeisig, a notorious lothario, is smitten. Meyer goes into hiding, but Zeisig sees no reason to run. But eventually he must. He flees Berlin with fake papers and the name of a Moscow landmark: the Hotel Lux. Outside, it’s a stately building with a spinning red star on the roof. Inside it’s a rat-infested heap. And what he doesn’t realize is it’s also the epicenter of Stalinism, a hotel filled with the hardcore German communists in exile.

Every conversation is bugged. People are constantly dragged out of their rooms by a diminutive NKVD agent and accused of the worst possible crime: Trotskyism! And, due to a series of strange coincidences and mistaken identities, Zeisig, the Stalin impersonator, finds himself in meetings with Stalin himself. And his old friends, Meyer and Frida, both end up in Hotel Lux, too.

How will Zeisig get out if this mess? Will he have an influence on Stalin’s decisions? Will his true identity be discovered? And will Frida ever like him?

Like an Austrian comedy set in the same era, My Best Enemy, this movie doesn’t have any grave meanings or deep philisophyt to impart. Rather, it’s a fantasy set against a backdrop of the troubled thirties. Hotel Lux is just a cute, old-fashioned screwball comedy, with its history and politics filtered through the eyes of post-reunification Germany.

The_Rabbis_CatThe Rabbi’s Cat

Dir: Antoine Delesvaux and Joann Sfar (based on his graphic novels)

It’s 1920s in Algiers, part of the North African colony annexed by France. (It’s inhabited by Arabic-speaking Muslims and Jews, and their French speaking rulers.) Rabbi Safr lives with his beautiful but fiery daughter Zlabiya. But there normal life is interrupted by some strange things. His cat suddenly begins to speak, and wants to have religious debates. The dead body of a blond Russian man appears in a wooden crate of prayer books sent from Europe. And a cousin, who travels with a huge lion comes for a visit. The Rabbi Safr, accompanied by a Muslim sheikh, also named Safr, a Chagal-like artist, and an aristocratic white Russian, set off on a road journey in a Citroen. They are on a quest through northeast Africa to find an ancient hidden city, an African Jerusalem, the legendary land of giant Black- African Jews.

On their journey, they encounter nomads, Belgian colonists (in the form of a pink-skinned Tintin in a pith helmet), and pick up new members to join their group.

Joann Safr is a great, contemporary French cartoonist who creates fantastical imaginary worlds. This is the first animated version of his work I’ve seen, and it stays true to his comics. This is a great movie: funny, fantastical, and colourful, and featuring French-Algerian actors like Mohamed Fellag.

Redbud_Day28 (412 of 381).CR2To the Wonder

Dir: Terrence Malick

Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a single mother, meets Neil (Ben Affleck), an American tourist who is visiting France. They fall in love in scenic spots. Their love affair is extended when he invites her (and her daughter) to follow him back to America. Ah, America. Calm, rich, honest, she thinks as she pirouettes around her new Oklahoma backyard. Her whispered thoughts are an ongoing narration to her new life there. Ah… l’amour, l’amour, she whispers, turning another pirouette. Je t’aime. Her life is an avalanche of tenderness. Neil doesn’t speak, he just nods or grunts and goes out to check an oil pump.

OK, just so you know, I was describing a typical scene. But the whole movie is like that. It’s like a two-hour-long movie trailer, an endless montage of a bumpy, depressing relationship in an Oklahoma suburb. With a non-stop voiceover of the most painful poetry, the most awful French doggerel ever inflicted on my ears in one dose. I kind of liked Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life from two years ago (he supposedly spent a decade making it) but this one is worthless. I’m not even mentioning the various sub plots — Marina’s depression, a priest who talks to poor people, marital infidelity — because they barely add anything to this meandering, dull story. Avoid this movie at all costs, unless you are looking for two hours of pointless, superficial Hallmark images and loads of false solemnity.

To the Wonder opens today, check your local listings; and The Rabbi’s Cat and Hotel Lux are both playing this weekend: go to TJFF.ca for details.

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

Daniel Garber talks to Peter Sanders about his new documentary ALTINA

Posted in Art, Cultural Mining, documentary, Family, Feminism, Movies, TJFF, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on April 17, 2013

FILMMAKER-PETER-SANDERS-FOTO1Altina Schinasi, a tobacco heiress born in a veritable palace in Manhattan, made her name as an artist, activist, designer, filmmaker, and as an openly-sexual woman, with four husbands over the course of her lifetime. Altina is a new documentary about this unknwon but fascinating character. Winner of the festival’s 2013 DAVID A. STEIN MEMORIAL AWARD, it’s having its Canadian premier at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. And I am pleased to have the award-winning filmmaker, Peter Sanders to talk to me about the film and its fascinating subject with me by telephone from New York.

altina

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Clandestine, Intimate. Movies Reviewed: Suitcase of Love and Shame, Your Day is My Night, The Place Beyond the Pines

Posted in Art, China, Crime, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, Linked Stories, Movies, Secrets, Suspicion, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on April 14, 2013

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, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Film festivals continue in Toronto. Cinefranco is on through the weekend, with two new ones starting today. The Toronto Jewish Film Festival is bringing comedies, dramas, documentaries and musicals from around the world. Images is a festival of art, moving images and sound –projected on movie and video screens in theatres and art galleries. This week I’m looking at three films, all from the US, that are both clandestine and intensely intimate and personal. Two films at Images: one’s about a long-distance sexual relationship, the other about people who share the same bed… just not at the same time. And the third movie is about how family rivalries can carry on over generations.

LoveShame_Hers1Suitcase of Love and Shame

Dir: Jane Gillooly

It’s the 1960s in middle-America. A married man and a single woman are having a secret, sexual affair. They meet in hotels, a hospital, a planetarium, and record their sexual encounters and fantasies. He promises her he’ll leave his wife so they can be together – but someone else may be listening in. Sounds like a Hollywood movie, but it’s not.

This highly unusual film uses a suitcase of reel-to-reel tapes from the 60’s that someone bought on eBay. It’s the story of two nameless, faceless people who recorded their affair on two tape-recorders, words they LoveandShame-Postcardnotext-5x5.5-300dpi-938x1024believed would only be heard by the two of them.

(Here’s a clip: on podcast)

The audio is accompanied by simple, images of period artifacts – tape boxes, matchbooks – and filmed “still lifes” of suburban homes, dogs, cars. The sexually-charged, explicit dialogue is paired with simple, non-sexual but private-seeming visuals. As a viewer, you’re an audio-voyeur, hearing things you’re not supposed to know about. Jane Gillooly has made a haunting, very intimate film, out of material from long before the days of youtube.

Your_Day_Is_My_Night_Two_Men_sing-800x450Your Day is My Night

Dir: Lynne Sachs

This movie is about Chinese immigrants, documented and otherwise, living in close quarters in Manhattan’s Chinatown. By close quarters, I mean so close that people actually share their beds – half of the tenants work day shifts, half at night. It’s a very diverse crowd, speaking mutually unintelligible dialects. They each tell their own stories. Some do it in casual conversations. Others in a grand manner: like a classic Chinese storyteller, enunciating each word.

Your_Day_Is_My_Night_Tsui_Face2-800x450This sort of dwelling is not unique to New York. I remember spending time at the notorious Chunking Mansions, an apartment and flophouse high-rise in Kowloon, which had people sleeping in beds so close that the next stranger’s bed was just a curtain away. But I’ve never seen anything quite like this.

I’d call it a scripted documentary.

There’s a wedding singer, a poorly paid worker, a grandmother, a masseur. They each have their say, either in the kitchen, on one of the mattresses they sleep on, or outside on the streets of New York Chinatown. They talk about lost ancestors, about fear of the subway, about Ai Weiwei, about sweet potato varieties.

This is an art piece – so it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s staged. But the content seems real enough, as do the people – identified by name. And the stories are fascinating.

Gosling Place Beyond Pines circus cageThe Place Beyond the Pines

Dir Derek Cianfrance

This is another unusually structured movie, made of three sequential parts. The first part is about Luke (Ryan Gosling).

Luke is a travelling carnie who is in Schenectady, NY for the annual fair there. He’s a bleach-blond, tattooed, motorcycle stunt rider, a darling of the pre-teen set. He’s just passing through when he discovers last year’s fling with Romina (Eva Mendes) brought her a bouncing baby boy named Jason. He’s a father! Romina has a home and a boyfriend now, but Luke wants to be with his son and support him. So he quits his job with the circus, stays in town, and turns to robbing banks on his motorcycle to raise the necessary cash. He ends up in a shootout with a rookie cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper). Like Luke, Avery also has a one-year old boy, named A.J.

Place Beyond Pines Bradley Cooper Evidence RoomThe second part is about Avery, who is forced either to confront the corrupt local police force or to join in.

And the third part, is about the two grown-up sons, now 16-year-olds, who are brought together for the first time, as discover how their fathers once crossed paths.

Fortunately, this movie starts with an amazing scene which has Luke on his cycle entering a spinning metal circus globe and zooming around and around inside it – like a human hotwheels car driver. Cool. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from there. That’s the happiest scene in the movie. There are chases and shootouts and love and loss, but the whole movie has a fatalistic feel. Society, class, fatal decisions and Place Beyond the Pines Emory Cohen Dane De Haancircumstance try to push us all in certain predetermined directions It’s up to us to make the right decisions.

Visually it’s a very nice movie, and the acting is good, but I found the story rather pat. Cianfrance’s last film, Blue Valentine, was all sex – this one is mainly violence. I enjoyed it, but the blatant story manipulation left me with a meh feeling.

Your Day is My Night is playing on the 19th and Suitcase of Love and Shame is playing tonight at 9 pm, both at Images; go to imagesfestival.com for more information; and The Place Beyond the Pines also opens tonight. Check your local listings.

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

An A+ on the Bechdel Test. Movies Reviewed: The Sapphires, Ich Bin Eine Terroristin, Nitrate Kisses PLUS Cinefranco

Posted in 1960s, Australia, Cultural Mining, Drama, Feminism, France, Movies, Musical, Protest, Queer, Uncategorized, Vietnam by CulturalMining.com on April 5, 2013

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, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

It’s official: festival season is on now. Cinefranco, is showing contemporary French-language movies from around the world each night at the Royal (with English subtitles, so everyone can enjoy it.) And Tiff Cinematheque is running a retrospective of the well-known radical-feminist filmmaker Barbara Hammer’s oeuvre. They’re screening through Sunday on the Free Screen (free to view).

This week I’m looking at three movies (in order of complexity), all told from the perspective of girls and women. There’s an 11-year-old revolutionary from France, a group of four aboriginal pop singers in Australia in the 1960s, and there’s an explicit look at the once-hidden lesbian sexuality, history and culture.

untitledThe Sapphires

Dir: Wayne Blair

It’s the 1960’s in Cummergunja, a small town in North Australia. There sisters living on a reserve — tough Gail, pretty-voiced Julie and feisty, young Kay (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Stebbens) – are known for their harmonized church songs and country and western tunes.

When they try their hand at a local talent show they meet up with a drunken ne’erdowell, Dave (Chris O’Dowd) who sleeps in the back seat of his car. Dave offers to make them rich and famous as a girl group with him as their manager. The catch? They’ll be IMG_1029_4nm3psxlperforming in Vietnam war zones for the American troops there. He switches their style from country to Motown, and tells them how to dress and change their hair. They accept a fourth singer, Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) who was pulled off their reserve as a child and adopted because, her skin was light enough to “pass” for white. Ironically, the four aboriginal Australians have been heavily discriminated against and pressured to assimilate, but now are told they’re “not black enough” for American audiences!

IMG_0918_eiepw73yThe movie follows the five of them through the bars and battlefields of Vietnam, as they find love with GIs, danger, success and setbacks. About a third of the film consists of their songs and performances, so if you don’t like 60s Motown pop, you won’t like the the Sapphires. I found it fairly corny and cheesy, your typical romantic musical drama, with conventional music. But I enjoyed it. It’s an indigenous cast, with good singers and capable actors, with Deborah Mailman and Chris O’Dowd giving the best performances. And it’s loosely based on a true story, written by the son of one of the singers.

Ich Bin Eine Terroristin cinefranco posterIch Bin Eine Terroristin

Dir: Valerie Gaudissart

Violette (Matthilde Besse) is an endearing 11-year-old girl in France. Her grandmother, a leftist revolutionary, has instilled in her a love of politics that her parents seem to have given up. So when her grandmother dies, she decides to spread revolution across Europe. Carrying her ashes and a book of Rosa Luxemburg’s prison letters, she makes her way alone to a train station and buys a ticket to train heading east. (Rosa Luxemburg was the revolutionary socialist murdered in 1919 by the German government.) Violette vows to take her grandma’s ashes to the places Rosa wrote about in her letters.

First she meets up with a Karl Marx lookalike in the dining car. They recite her verses to each other. In Berlin she visits her grave, and tries to get the tourists there to understand Rosa’s writings. She recites the poems and sings her own songs to anyone who will listenICH BIN EINE - Goethe Institut

On the way she meets border guards in Poland, refugees from Kosovo, and the proletariat women everywhere she goes. She wants to experience what Rosa did, even if it means a jail term.

This cute travelogue is part fantasy, part documentary. It’s full of non-scripted scenes, with real people playing themselves. And Matthilde Besse as Violette carries the film, enchanting us with her songs and writing.

NitrateKissesNitrate Kisses

Dir: Barbara Hammer

Lesbians and gays were silenced for generations in the 20th century in their stories covered up, their letters and diaries burned, and their history left unrecorded. Homosexuality was illegal, and socially so it was kept hidden. In popular culture, gay and lesbian themes had to be disguised, encoded. Old movies would use scenes of ancient Greece or stories from the bible to present homoerotic images in an acceptable manner. Sapphic love was mired within chaste romance and usually ended with lesbian characters going insane, being murdered or committing suicide. So entire historical chapters about a large part of the population remains blank, empty, nonexistent,

In an attempt to address this gap in the historical record, Hammer constructs an aural nitratekisses_02record. She includes spoken accounts of the early twentieth century. These oral histories are played back throughout the film along with music – everything from blues to Kurt Weill — from the periods discussed. Cultural evidence of a queer existence.

Visually, though, the film takes a totally different path. Hammer uses B&W explicit footage of various same-sex couples (three of women, one of men) having sex. Even though we’re inundated with nudity in contemporary cinema and porn is ubiquitous nowadays, you rarely see couples quite like this. Especially the case of two elderly women — a long-time couple — Nitrate-Kissesjoyfully making love for the camera. (Correction: I’ve been informed that the couples having sex on camera were, in fact, total strangers, hired specifically to perform for the film, and had nothing to do with the recorded voices.)

Aside from the sex, there are also lots of clips from period films, music, and lesbian pulp fiction. And every so often it’s topped off with an agit-prop quote plastered across the screen from literary theorists like Michel Foucault.

Nitrate Kisses is vigorously resistant to conventions like narrative, linear storylines, or synchronized sound and picture.

Doesn’t matter. It’s not disjointed at all. The film is an engrossing and engaging historical record.

Ich bin eine Terroristin is playing on april 14th, one of many films at Cinefranco.com – the festival is running all week; you can see Barbara Hammer’s retrospective running through the weekend with Nitrate Kisses screening on Saturday. Go to tiff.net for more information. And The Sapphires opens today – check your local listings.

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

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