Revision. Films reviewed: The Stone Speakers, Free Trip to Egypt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Posted in 1960s, Bosnia, Communism, documentary, Egypt, Hippies, Hollywood, Islam, L.A., Movies, War by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2019

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

They say he who pays the piper calls the tune. This week I’m looking at two documentaries and a drama that retell history. There’s a doc about changing American minds in Egypt, another one about rewriting history in Bosnia, and a drama that rewrites the history of Hollywood.

The Stone Speakers

Wri/Dir: Igor Drljaca

It’s present-day Bosnia-Herzogovina. Since the end of the Bosnian war, the formerly multicultural country has been divided ethnically and religiously among Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. As its factories close down and young people move away cities have turned to tourism for income… in some unusual ways, fiddling with history on the way. The film looks at four Bosnian cities.

In Medjugorje, millions of pilgrims visit a site where six children are said to have seen the Virgin Mary. Tuzla, once known for its ancient salt mines, has opened man-made salt springs lakes where the city had gradually been sinking. Visoko is dominated by a strange hill, once an Ottoman fortress, built over an unknown ancient pyramid. Tourists cluster in its tunnels to absorb its energy, even as Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim leaders all condemn it as heretical. And Višegrad, a crossroads city, once known for its Ottoman stone bridge, is now the site of a cultural centre built by Bosnian Serb director Emir Kusturica in honour of Nobel laureate Ivo Andric’s novel. (A museum about a movie about a book about a bridge…!)

The movie presents these oddball Bosnian towns at face value in a series of carefully composed shots, both portraits and landscapes, as panoramic long takes… almost like still photographs but ones that move. Voiceovers, by discontented residents of the cities, provide arms-length analysis, uncovering the absurdity and revisionist history of these places.

The Stone Speakers is a humorous and hauntingly beautiful look at what has become of the Toronto director’s homeland.

Much simpler is…

Free Trip to Egypt

Dir: Ingrid Serban

Tarek Mounib is a Halifax-born Canadian of Egyptian ancestry, who looks a bit like Jon Stewart. As a university student he was an activist but has mellowed in middle age. But he is dismayed at the explosion of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment in the US today, especially since Trump’s election. So he sets out to remedy this by offering strangers an unusual proposition: free guided trips to Egypt! He recruits these adventurers in unusual places, both online and at Trump’s MAGA rallies.

There’s a policeman, two young evengelicals, a single woman, a war vet and an older couple, each with their own prejudices and expectations. In Egypt they are paired with local singles and families to show them how real Egyptians live, along with their religions, food, music, and culture as well as visiting the more famous tourist sites like the pyramids of Giza.

But can a group of Americans change their dead-set views about Arabs and Muslims?

Free Trip to Egypt is exactly what the title promises. Nothing surprising or unexpected in this film. It actually feels closer to reality TV than to a documentary – but it has a good heart.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Wri/Dir: Quentin Tarantino

It’s the late 1960s in LA.

Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are good friends, both on and off screen, but they are not equals. Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a movie star, best known for his TV series Bounty Law. He lives in a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills, next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski. Cliff (Brad Pitt) is a stuntman, and Rick’s double. He lives in the valley with his dog in a rundown trailer behind a drive-in movie park in Van Nuys.

They’re both pushing forty and things aren’t looking good. Rick has shifted from white hat to black hat, playing the heavy on TV cop shows. A mover and shaker (played by Al Pacino) wants to restart his career, but Rick isn’t sure he can shift from star to actor. Cliff is still limber and seemingly indestructible, but hasn’t worked as a stuntman since he accidentally killed his wife. He has a bad rep, picking fights on set with a young Bruce Lee. Now he’s mainly just Rick’s driver and personal assistant, with too much free time on his hands.

Rick struggles through his latest role – as the villain in a True Grit-type western – and wonders if he has lost his mojo… while Cliff cruises around LA in his sports car, listening to AM radio and flirting with a nubile, hippy hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). What he doesn’t realize is Pussycat – and her sketchy friends Squeaky (Dakota Fanning) and Tex (Austin Butler) – are members of the not-yet- notorious Charles Manson’s “Family”. And that they’re living on the Spahn ranch, a movie location where Rick and Cliff’s TV show was shot in the 1950s. Meanwhile, with Polanski out of the country, Sharon Tate is enjoying her newfound stardom. But what will happen when the players all meet?

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Tarantino’s latest movie and one of his tamest. It’s an affectionate tribute to the movies of the 60s: its look, it’s stars, it’s pop music. Everything – from car models to movie trailers to neon lights and billboards – is painstakingly recreated, to give you the feel of the era. There are dozens of cameos played by long-forgotten hollywood favourites and former child stars. The story itself – that takes a leisurely two hours and forty minutes to tell – seems less important than the mood.

Tarantino is known for endless scenes that don’t seem to quit… even when they’re supposed to. In past films, it meant extended scenes of torture and endless violence. In this movie it’s more likely a very long, behind-the-scenes reenactment of shooting a movie. He’s one of few directors I can say I saw every one of his movies in theatres when they first came out. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood while shallow, was very enjoyable: constant eye candy, a terrific soundtrack, and Pitt and DiCaprio are a lot of fun as buddies. And despite the Manson subplot, there is much less gratuitous violence than in most of his movies.

If you like movies about movies, this is the one to see.

The Stone Speakers opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood starts across North America today; and A Free Trip to Egypt starts next Friday (August 2) in Toronto; 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.

Daniel Garber talks with director Sameh Zoabi about Tel Aviv on Fire

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Israel, Movies, Mystery, Palestine, Satire, Secrets, TV, War by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2019

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

Salem is an ordinary Palestinian from Jerusalem who is down on his luck. No job, no money, no girlfriend. So he jumps at the chance to work on a popular TV soap shooting in Ramallah. It’s about a beautiful Palestinian spy seducing an Israeli officer in the days leading up to the 1967 war.

The problem is Salem has to pass through Israeli checkpoints between Jerusalem and Ramallah each day to get to work and back. And after a mixup with an Israeli guard at the checkpoint, the officer starts using his position to pressure Salem to change the soap opera’s plot. Will the TV series end with a happy wedding… or with Tel Aviv on fire?

Tel Aviv on Fire is a new comedy about relations between Israelis and Palestinians under occupation. It’s directed and co-written by Sameh Zoabi, the award-winning Palestinian filmmaker. Tel Aviv on Fire played at Venice and TIFF and many other festivals.

I spoke with Sameh in May, 2019 in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Tel Aviv on Fire opens today in Toronto.

Art and deception. Films reviewed: Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, The Art of Self Defense, Push

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

The things you see online – or on TV for that matter – aren’t always true (suprised?). This week I’m looking at three movies, two docs and one dark comedy, about lies and deceptions. There’s a man who trains in the art of karate, a look at the art of selling lies, and a look at the lies of selling real estate.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies

Dir: Larry Weinstein

What is Propaganda? Is it art and literature? Or brainwashing and fake news? The word comes from a benign Catholic term meaning the propagation of faith, the planting the seeds. The Vatican opened a department of propaganda to counter Martin Luther’s austere reforms. It combined the opulance of baroque cathedrals, the lure of incense and all the lush frescos, paintings and marble statues you’ve seen. But art and magic and religion were around long before that, and so, says this documentary, was propaganda. Some historians trace it as far back as Neandrathal cave paintings.

Propaganda is easy to spot in other cultures but very hard to see in your own.  Many people were entanced by dictators like Hitler and Stalin thanks to their skillful use of films (like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) radio broadcasts and posters. But with the shift to digital culture, it has taken on new forms; like patently false news stories online, repeated ad infinitum, until people start to believe it.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies is a fun, light documentary that talks to a lot of artists and writers – Astra Taylor, Ai Weiwei and Kent Monkman – but also musicians, analysts and others. It shoots a constant barrage of propaganda at you, images from the past 100 years, shown in harsh black and white periodically blanketed in fields of red. A lot of it is familiar but there are also some bizarre juxtapositions you’ve never heard of: like the racing cars that now drive around the former Nazi Nuremberg Stadium. Or Laibach, a Slovenian band known for its fascistic costumes and images, who performed in North Korea before a concert hall of nonplussed party apparatchiks and university students. Very funny.

The Art of Self Defense

Wri/Dir: Riley Stearns

It’s the 1990s in small-town America. Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a shy accountant who lives with his dachshund. He’s a 98-pound weakling who works in an office full of alpha males. But when he’s violently attacked by strangers on motorbikes he decides something has got to change. No more sand will be kicked in his face! He joins a local karate dojo with its own set of hierarchical rules. Everyone is ranked by their belt colour. There’s Anna (Imogen Poots) who teaches the kids class; get on her wrong side and she’ll beat you to a pulp. And at the top of the heap is Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).

He says karate is not just a martial art, it’s a way of life. You must punch with your feet and kick with your hands. Casey is starry-eyed, and ready to do whatever Sensei tells him. You must become more masculine, he says.  Stop learning French, start learning German. And throw out those adult contemporary CDs; only listen to metal! Casey takes the blue pill. He leaves his job and devotes his life to karate. He worships Sensei, has a secret crush on Anna, and proudly displays his low-ranked yellow belt for all to see.

But something is not right. When he joins the mysterious night classes he is exposed to a violent world of hyper-masculinity he doesn’t subscribe to. He is asked to perform dubious tasks outside of the dojo. Is this place only about karate? Or is it a cult? And what is hidden behind Sensei’s secret door?

The Art of Self Defense is a low-budget, uncategorizable, odd sort of a movie, part dark comedy, part mystery, with a bit of violence and horror mixed in. It’s slow to develop, but picks up nicely about halfway through. It’s filled with wood paneling, old computers and ugly clothes from the 90s, which adds a humorous tinge. But It’s hard to tell whether it’s being satirical or straightforward, comic or scary. Jesse Eisenberg is totally believable as the wimpy accountant trying to become more manly, and Allessandro Nivola is good as the mysterious sensei.

Take it as a cautionary tale about the search for masculinity, self-confidence and the cult of martial arts and you’ll enjoy this dark comedy.

Push

Dir: Fredrik Gertten

There’s a housing crisis in the world’s cities and no one knows seems to know what’s going on. In Toronto there’s a shortage of affordable apartments, with stagnant wages, soaring rents and home prices quadrupling. Speculators are buying up land as a bankable commodity, something bought and sold, with little thought given to the people who live there. And in many cities entire blocks of housing sit empty, because rent income is dwarfed by what they can earn from the constant increase in value of the buildings themselves. What’s going on?

Enter Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. She’s a mom from Ottawa who travels around the world collecting data and advocating on behalf of tenants everywhere. She views housing not as an investment but as a right.

This documentary looks at the dire situation in the world’s cities – from Milan to Berlin, Seoul to Valpariaso – where people are facing the same situations: gentrification, renoviction, and the displacing of average- and low-income earners from the world’s cities.

It explores the role of organized crime in the housing crisis. They use property investment as a way of laundering money by over investing in legit properties, driving up demand and prices and hiding their illicit profits.

It looks at how the financial sector is turning housing into an investment commodity, with the people who live in them entirely erased from the equation. One particularly notorious player is Blackstone – founded by former Lehman Brothers execs – a voracious American property investment company that swooped into the real estate market after the stockmarket crash of 2008. Now they’re making money by buying up public housing for profit, while neglecting the people they were actually built for.

And it looks at the role of pensions, both government and private, which invest in housing to grow their capital, but, unintentionally, lead to skyrocketing prices and increasing homelessness.

Push is an incredibly important and informative documentary that explains in simple terms the economics, politics and effects of this crisis. It uses experts – like Joseph Stiglitz, Saskia Sassen and Roberto Saviano – to explain the reasons behind the crisis. But it also talks with ordinary people around the world. It shows the multiple, small-scale problems people face as well as the large-scale disasters, like the Grenfell Tower Fire in London. They are all related. And it’s the great Leilani Farha who is trying to confront these problems in a new way.

I recommend this doc.

Propaganda: The Art of Lies, Push, and The Art of Self Defense all open today in Toronto; 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.

Daniel Garber talks with Leslie Ann Coles and Barrie Wentzell about Melody Makers: Should’ve Been There

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, documentary, Journalism, Music, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 12, 2019

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

Melody Maker was a UK weekly tabloid established in 1926 as a jazz paper for professional musicians. But by the 1960s it shifted its focus, eventually becoming known as “the Bible of rock’n’roll”. Bands were formed in the classified ads at the back, and, in the front, a cover photo could launch a music career. But who were the melody makers who made it all happen?

Melody Makers: Should’ve Been There is a new documentary about the legendary paper — it’s wrters, photographers and editors – and the musicians they wrote about. Using new interview and period footage it traces its rise and fall in an oral history of the age. And the film is illustrated by the black and white pics of Barrie Wentzell, their chief photographer from 1965-1975 chronicling the the gods of rock and roll. The film was directed and produced by award-winning Leslie Ann Coles, who is the founder of Toronto’s Female Eye Film Festival.

I spoke to Barrie Wentzell and Leslie Ann Coles at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Melody Makers opens Friday, July 12th, at the Royal Cinema.

Around the world in 167 days. Film reviewed: Maiden

Posted in 1980s, documentary, Feminism, Sports, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 12, 2019

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

The movie industry has its ups and downs, and so does its release dates. And this week is one of the slowest all year, with no big-budget releases, and virtually no indie movies either. And the one getting the most publicity is one I will not review, or even mention its name. I haven’t seen it, but, word has it, it’s a bizarre piece of propaganda that crept up from south of the border to appease the religious right, a fringe group in Canada but a major force in the US.

Basically, it paints reproductive rights — specifically abortion — as the terrain of depraved and greedy doctors who cruelty chop up screaming babies in order to sell their parts for profit. It could make for a good science fiction / horror movie, but they’re marketing it as a “true story”. Anyway, if you find yourself in line at a movie theatre, be sure to avoid making any Unplanned decisions in your choice of film. Avoid it at all costs.

This week, I’m talking about a new documentary with a woman who wants to sail around the world.

Maiden

Dir: Alex Holmes

It’s England in the 1980s. Tracy Edwards is a young woman who works as a bartender seaside town. She has no real goals and ambitions but is drawn to the sea. So she decides to get a job as a cook on a sailboat. But she is shocked to find no one would hire a woman, even as a cook. Boating is a man’s world, they say, and not a place for “girls”.

But this “girl” – she’s actually in her early 20s – decides if you can’t join ’em, beat ’em… at their own game. She puts together an all-women crew, and enters the legendary Whitbread round the world boat race. But first she needs sponsors and a sailboat. She mortgages her home to buy a rusty old hull and spends the next couple years in an all-male shipyard, putting it into ship-shape condition. Then there’s the money. Much as in other sports, sponsors don’t want to give any money to women. But she eventually finds someone to put up the bucks. (No spoilers, but he happens to be a king.)

The journey has four legs after leaving Portsmouth: first to Punta del Este, Uruguay; next to Western Australia and on to Auckland, NZ; then to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and finally back to Portsmouth.

The press treats her, and the very idea of an all female crew, as a novelty, a human interest story. Do you fight

My beautiful picture

all the time? Can you control your emotions? Are you physically able? But as the journey progresses, they come to be seen as serious competitors, not just novelties. And they learn to own the media, donning swimsuits to enter a port to distract journalists after a less than stellar segment. But will they make it around the world?

Maiden – the name of the boat and the documentary – is a gripping sports movie with a feel-good ending. It interviews all the players 30 years later, but also includes stunning footage filmed by the crew themselves during their voyage.

It’s full of fascinating details… like the fact you can start smelling land at sea five days before you reach it. You really feel like you’re there with them, seaspray in your face, dodging icebergs in the south seas, or strapped to the mast. It’s an exciting, hazardous and gruelling trip around the world using only the power of wind. (GPS and the internet wasn’t around yet; you navigated using maps.) And the willpower and determination of Tracy Edwards and the rest of the crew.

Great doc.

Maiden opens today in Toronto; 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.

Summer movies. Films reviewed: The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Fireflies are Gone, Midsommar

Posted in African-Americans, Drama, Friendship, Homelessness, Horror, Housing, Music, Quebec, San Francisco, Suspicion, Sweden by CulturalMining.com on July 5, 2019

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

Summer’s here and it’s the right time to cool off by seeing movies outdoors. Open Roof Film Festival, which is on all summer on Sterling  in the Junction, pairs new Canadian and international films with live music by local bands.

Keeping with that theme, this week I’m talking about three great summer movies. There’s a misanthropic girl in Québec looking for a summer job; a man in San Francisco looking for a home; and some college students in Sweden looking for fun in the summer solstice.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Dir: Joe Talbot

Wri: Joe Talbot and Jimmy Fails

Jimmy Fails is a homeless skater from San Francisco, who travels by boardfrom placeto place. Brought up in a group home when his parents split up, he once lived in a car, and now crashes outside the city at his friend Montgomery’s place (Jonathan Majors). But he is constantly drawn back to the Fillmore district of San Francisco – once known as the Harlem of the West – and a particular house there. It’s a stunning piece of Victorian architecture complete with a witch’s hat tower. He’s helping preserve it in a gentrifying city. But he also has a hidden motive: His grandfather built that home by hand in the 1940s and Jimmy wants it back. So when the current owners move out in an inheritance dispute, Jimmy moves right in, bringing all the original furniture, carpets and photos with him. It’s an enchanted house, with intricate woodwork, hidden doors and a working pipe organ built right in. And Monty – who draws everything he sees in a sketchbook – writes a play to commemorate the house and its history. But how much is true and how much family legend? Can Jimmy actually live there permanently? Or has San Francisco become a city only for the rich?

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an unusual, warm and wonderful story, part fact and part fiction. It’s based on Jimmy Fail’s own story – he plays himself. Another character, Kofi, jimmy’s frenemy from a group home, is played by the real Jamal Trulove, a San Francisco man falsely convicted of murder under Kamala Harris. It’s also an homage to an older San Francisco. It paints a disappearing city of soapbox preachers, panhandlers, buskers and organizers while subtly dealing with issues of poverty, housing, violence, renoviction, and environmental ruin. It’s narrated by a greek chorus of black commentators, Monty’s drawings, Jimmy’s family lore, and local legend.

This is a great movie, not to be missed.

The Fireflies are Gone (La disparition des lucioles)

Wri/Dir: Sébastien Pilote

Léonie (Karelle Tremblay) is a misanthropic teenager just finishing high school. She lives in a small city, a gorgeous inland port in northeast Quebec. near Sagueney. It’s a beautiful town but she hates it. She hates the smalltown attitude, she hates her hick friends and their pickup trucks and she despises her stepfather. She blames Paul (François Papineau) – a rightwing talk radio shock jock – for her parents divorce. Her Papa (Luc Picard) is a union organizer forced to leave town for work up north when the lumber mill closed, and now only visits every so often. Leo can’t wait to get out of this place, but in the meantime she gets a summer job tending to the local ballpark. It’s perfect – no human contact.

But when she meets a new face at the local diner she thinks things might be changing for the better. Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant) is a loner like her, a middle-aged musician, formerly in a band, now supporting himself by giving guitar lessons in his mother’s basement. She signs up for lessons, they hit it off, and soon become friends. But can it last?

The Fireflies are Gone is a bittersweet coming of age drama about life in a picturesque but declining Quebec town. The title refers to the loss of innocence of an earlier era, but it’s also about Leo’s own ideals called into question when she discovers a hidden family secret. Tremblay is amazing as the angry young Leo and she holds this film together. And Brillant is brilliantly understated as Steve. While not perfect, Fireflies… is a good, realistic drama.

Midsommar

Wri/Dir: Ari Aster

Dani (Florence Pugh: Fighting with my Family) is a young woman in a long-term relationship with her non-commital boyfriend. Christian (Jack Reynor: Sing Street) likes Dani but doesn’t like all the responsibilities. He’d rather drink beer and smoke cannabis with his buds from college: Josh (William Jackson Harper: The Good Place) an anthropology keener; Mark (Will Poulter: The Revenant, We’re The MIllers) a self-centred twit, and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) who’s from Sweden. They’re planning a summer solstice bro trip to Pelle’s home village, where there’s lots of beautiful blond women, halucinagens and free sex. But when Dani suffers an unspeakably horrible loss, they let her come too.

At first glance the isolated village seems like a happy commune full of flower children, a holdover from the sixties. They sleep and eat communally, select their sex partners, and wear handwoven traditional outfits. They still sing their ancient songs, and write their scriptures (predicted by a handicapped oracle) using ancient runes. But in fact, their beliefs predate the hippies by centuries, dating back to pre-Christian days. The friends arrive to a warm welcome but soon reveal themselves as the prototypical “ugly Americans”, photographing sacred texts, urinating on an ancestral tree, and just generally behaving horribly. But the Swedes aren’t so nice either. And when people start disappearing, one by one, they suspect foul play. Will Dani and Christian’s struggling relationship survive? And can the Americans get out of this crazy place alive?

Midsommar is a fantastically strange horror/comedy/drama, Director Ari Aster second film after the great Hereditary, but is totally different from that one. In fact it defies all usual classifications. It’s a horror movie, but shot in bright sunlight, full of happy songs and dances. It also totally reverses the moralistic streak of most American horror movies. Victims aren’t “punished” for drug use or premarital sex; in fact that’s encouraged. Rather, it’s about naïve people facing a much older and darker world than they ever imagined. It’s scary, hilarious and grotesque, overflowing with intricate anthropological hints and winks. While definitely not for everyone, I love Midsommar.

It’s a weirdly perfect movie.

Midsommar is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings. The Fireflies are Gone and The Last Black Man in San Francisco both open today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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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