Do opposites attract? Films reviewed: Tito, Uncle Peckerhead, My Days of Mercy

Posted in Canada, Cannibalism, Class, comedy, Horror, Lesbian, LGBT, Music, Prison, Punk, Romance, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on August 28, 2020

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

Do opposites attract? This week I’m looking at three new indie movies about odd combinations. There’s an introvert confronting an aggressive frat boy; a law-and-order lawyer vs an activist opposed to capital punishment; and a punk band with a hillbilly roadie… who’s also a cannibal!

Tito

Wri/Dir: Grace Glowicki

Tito (Grace Glowicki) is a young guy who lives alone in an empty wooden house. He’s tall and gangly, dressed in black with heavy brow and sideburns, and straight hair tucked behind his ears. He always carries a red plastic whistle around his neck, to scare way the baddies. And they’re everywhere, banging at the doors, scratching at the windows or just roaring and howling inside his head. He’s very hungry – down to just pickle brine in the fridge – but he’s too scared to go outside.

Everything changes when he wakes up to find a strange man in his kitchen, cooking breakfast. Who is he? John (Ben Petrie) says he’s there to lend a hand and make a friend. Tito is petrified and repulsed by this invasion, but he joins him at the table. John is the yin to Tito’s yang. He’s a frat boy bro who gesticulates with grand gestures and talks and shouts non-stop; while the introverted Tito can barely choke out a syllable. But when he passes Tito a joint, the voices in his head turn to music, and he even lets John take him for a walk. Can Tito emerge from his shell? Can this odd couple become friends? Or will it lead to trouble?

Tito is a stylized and impressionistic character study, a look inside an introvert’s brain. Sort of a cross between acting, modern dance and pantomime. Petrie is great as John, the self-declared “pussy-hound”. He’s loud, manipulative and bursting with barely-controlled aggression. And Glowicki perfectly conveys a young man’s paranoia with a hunched-over walk, pulled inward and cringing at the slightest provocation. Tito isn’t your usual comedy, drama or art house film, but is fascinating and watchable nonetheless.

Uncle Peckerhead

Wri/Dir: Matthew John Lawrence

Judy (Chet Siegel) is a happy-go-lucky musician in her thirties whose dream is finally coming true. Her punk band – called Duh – is going on their first tour! They make a good trio: Mel (Ruby McCollister) on drums is a ginger-haired nihilist, Max (Jeff Riddle) on bass and vocals is a friendly chowderhead, bald and bearded; and Judy – skinny with long black-hair, who plays bass and lead vocals – keeps the group running. She has everything ready – demo tapes, T shirts, a full roster of music, and clubs booked to play it in. There’s only thing missing: money – barely two coins to rub together. They’ve already quit their day jobs and they’re being kicked out of their apartment. But when their van gets repossessed, they’re really in trouble. How can they go on tour without wheels?

Luckily they meet a polite and friendly man with a van (David Littleton) who offers to be their roadie. He’ll drive and do the heavy lifting in exchange for meals and gas money. It’s a deal! And what’s his name? “My dad always called me Peckerhead, but you can call me Peck.” They’re all set… except for one problem. At midnight, Peck changes in strange ways, and a hidden evil beast emerges. And pretty soon they’re leaving a pile of half-eaten mutilated corpses wherever they go.

Uncle Peckerhead is a horror/comedy road movie, about the usual aspects a touring band faces – pretentious musicans, unscrupulous managers, adoring fans – combined with hilarious extreme violence and gore. It starts out quirky and funny, but gradually builds to an over-the-top, blood-drenched finish. Fun music, silly characters, unexpected situations and lots of splashing blood. Siegel is great as Judy and Littleton steals the show as the aw-shucks, cannibal yokel.

My Days of Mercy

Dir: Tali Shalom-Ezer (Princess)

Lucy (Ellen Page) is a woman in her twenties who lives in a small Ohio town with her older sister Martha (Amy Seimetz) and her little brother Ben (Charlie Shotwell). The three of them drive their camper across the country to protest capital punishment in front of prisons where an execution is about to take place. She’s part of a large community of protesters that regularly meet and comfort one other. At one such demo she shares a cigarette with a woman named Mercy (Kate Mara). The two are quite different – Mara is a well-dressed lawyer with neatly cut blond hair from Illinois, while Lucy is working class, in jeans and T-shirt – but something clicks. When the two meet again they become friends, and ther friendship leads to a relationship. Soon they’re meeting in motels, the RV or in Lucy’s home for passionate sex.

But something keeps them apart. Mercy’s father is a cop whose partner was killed. She’s at the demos to support the executions. While Lucy is there because her dad is on death row, blamed for the murder of her mom. She, Martha and Ben have spent the past six years devoting their lives to save him. Can Lucy and Mercy overcome the political and family divisions that keep them on opposing sides? Or is their romance doomed from the start?

My Days of Mercy is a great Romeo and Juliet (or Juliet and Juliet?) romantic drama, tender and moving, and starkly told. Each episode is set outside a different prison, punctuated by a still shot of a dying prisoner’s last meal. Their romance is erotic, the sex scenes tastefully done, though surprisingly vanilla (were Lucy and Mercy both raised by missionaries?) It’s beautifully shot in a realistically rendered working-class home and the insides of actual prisons. Ellen Page and Kate Mara are full of passion and pathos as the star-crossed lovers, their story skillfully told. It’s a real tear-jerker – I cried at least twice – both for the couple and the horrors of executions. I recommend this one.

Tito and Uncle Peckerhead are now playing digitally and VOD and My Days of Mercy starts today.

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

Lost Boys. Films reviewed: Stage Mother, Summerland

Posted in 1940s, Adoption, Canada, comedy, Gay, Lesbian, LGBT, Music, Romance, UK, WWII by CulturalMining.com on August 21, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at two new movies – a comedy and an historical drama. There’s a Texas mom who inherits a San Francisco drag bar from her late son; and a reclusive Englishwoman during WWII dragged out of isolation to care for someone else’s son.

Stage Mother

Dir: Thom Fitzgerald (Cloudburst)

It’s a conservative small town in Texas. Maybelline (Jacki Weaver: Animal Kingdom) is a woman in her 70s who lives with her husband Jeb, a good ol’ boy. She spends most of her time as the choirmaster at a local Baptist church, or sharing gossip with her sister Babette. One day, her quiet life is disrupted by a phone call from San Francisco. Their adult son Ricky is dead. So she hops on a plane to attend the funeral and sort out his affairs. They’ve been estranged for many years but she’s still the next of kin. But when she visits his apartment an angry man named Nathan (Adrian Grenier: Entourage) slams the door in her face. And the funeral service itself is full of salacious double-entendres and drag queens vamping on the church stage. What’s going on?

Luckily, she meets Sienna (Lucy Liu: Kill Bill) a bleach-blonde single mom with a cute little baby who was Ricky’s friend (the baby was named after him) She explains it all to Maybelline: Ricky was not just gay, but also a drag performer who owned a bar in the Castro district called Pandora’s Box. Nathan was his lover, and the club’s manager, but since they weren’t married he’s left high and dry. Hence his anger and bitterness. So she visits the club to see what’s what. It’s a sad, depressing place with few patrons. And the lipsynch act is tired. She decides to turn the business around as a tribute to her late son.

She’s used to dealing with divas and wigs at her Baptist church choir; how different can this be? So she takes the three drag queens – Joan of Arkansas (Alister MacDonald), Cherry (Mya Taylor: she was amazing in Tangerine), and Tequila Mockingbird (Oscar Moreno) under her wing to teach them how to sing for real. Turns out they all have great voices. But each has baggage to sort out. Joan has a drug problem, Cherry is dealing with her transition, and Tequila has been rejected by his family. Meanwhile, Maybelline meets a man in a hotel who is everything her husband Jeb is not – kind, elegant and sophisticated. What should she do? Can she save the bar and turn her own life around? Or will she just give it all up and move back to Texas?

Stage Mother is a musical/comedy about an older woman who finds her new mission in a San Francisco drag bar. It’s a very camp romp, cute but not so funny, and extremely predictable. About a third of the film consists of the traditional drag performances themselves, with all the songs, dances, and lipsynching, as well as the elaborate costumes and makeup, the torch songs and jokes… everything you want if you’re into drag. Australian actress Jacki Weaver makes for a great Texas mom, Lucy Liu is almost unrecognizable as Sienna, and the drag trio – Cherry, Joan and Tequila – are totally believable as performers. Drag is very popular these days, with lots of TV shows devoted to it, so if that’s your thing and you can’t get enough of it, you’ll probably like Stage Mother.

But it didn’t do much for me.

Summerland

Wri/Dir: Jessica Swale

It’s WWII in Kent County, England. German bombs are falling on the big cities, but it’s peaceful in the countryside. Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton: Byzantium; Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters) is a recluse who lives alone in a cliffside house. Locals call her a witch and schoolkids torment her with practical jokes. She’s a writer, not a witch, and earns her living researching folktales and magic from a scientific bias. She’s currently obsessed with Fata Morgana – mirages of ships or castles that sometimes appear over the ocean. She’s been living on her own since a painful breakup in university.

But her solitude is broken when a boy is left at her door. Frank (Lucas Bond) is an evacuee, the child of an unnamed airforce pilot and a government bureaucrat sent to the town to escape the Blitz. He’s a sociable boy who likes playing and asking questions. It’s hate at first sight. She rejects him categorically, but is forced to take care of him for a week, until they find somewhere else to place him. Can Alice and Frank somehow learn to get along?

Summerland is an elegantly constructed and touching film about people forced to live together in extreme times. The main storyline alternates with flashbacks to Alice’s passionate love affair with a woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Free State of Jones) that left her with a broken heart. It also looks at Frank’s growing friendship at school with a free-spirited girl (Dixie Egerickx: The Secret Garden) who lives with her grandmother in the town. The backstories of all these characters are gradually revealed, along with a few unexpected, exciting twists. There have been so many movies about life in WWII that references here can be reduced to quick tropes – a toy airplane, a burning building – without seeming clichéd. The acting is good, the characters endearing, and the beautiful scenery and wardrobe make it a pleasure to watch. I cried at least twice over the course of the movie.

So if you’re looking for a romantic historical drama, artfully told, this is one for you.

Summerland and Stage Mother both open today digitally and VOD.

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 Warren P. Sonoda and actor/musicians Max and Theo Aoki about Things I Do For Money

Posted in Art, Canada, comedy, Crime, Drama, Japanese Candians, Movies, Music by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2020

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

Nick and Eli Yaguchi are brothers who play the cello together. They’re working toward a joint audition for the Banff Arts Centre. They live in an industrial neighbourhood in Hamilton. Eli is a naïve highschool nerd who is crushing on a figure-skating girl named Laura. Nick is older, self-confident and chill – he plays in a band and works at a dive bar. As their audition date approaches, Eli finally meets Laura and things are going well, until… they witness a crime and find a satchel of cash that could solve all their problems. But it turns out both Laura’s and Eli’s families have ties to organized crime! Can they pursue their artistic goals without breaking the law or getting killed? And what things will they do for money?

Things I Do For Money is a new Canadian crime-dramedy about family ties and dark secrets, music and art. It stars the real-life cellists Max and Theo Aoki, and is co-written and directed by Warren P. Sonoda. Theo and Max are prize-winning musicians known on stage as VersaCello. They play Max and Eli, and wrote and performed the music that’s used in this film. Warren is a multi-award winner in TV and film, directing episodes of Trailer Park Boys, Murdoch Mysteries and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

I spoke with Warren, Max and Theo via Zoom.

Things I Do for Money is now playing digitally across Canada.

Kick-Ass Women! Movies reviewed: Ravage, Lucky Grandma, Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Posted in Action, comedy, Crime, documentary, Drama, Gambling, Jazz, Music, New York City, Thriller, Torture, violence by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three movies – an action/thriller, a musical documentary, and a dark comedy – all featuring kick-ass women. There’s a photographer in the Appalachians pursued by killer rednecks, a grandma in Chinatown pursued by Red Dragon gangsters; and a parade of jazz singers in Rhode Island pursuing musical bliss.

Ravage

Wri/Dir: Teddy Grennan

Harper Sykes (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) is a professioinal photographer who travels the world looking for rare wildlife. She’s in the Watchatoomy valley in Virginia searching for an endangered species when she stumbles on something she isn’t supposed to see: a group of men brutally torturing a stranger in the woods. She is shocked and sickened but pauses long enough to record the awful event from behind a tree. Then jumps in her pickup and rushes to the nearest police station. But things don’t go as planned. She’s kidnapped and dragged by tow truck to a barn, and awakens to find herself barefoot, tied up and suspended from the rafters. Ravener (Robert Longstreet) is a nasty evil redneck with a gang of meth-head henchmen. (He’s a lot like the character Negan in Walking Dead, only not as menacing.) In this valley, they don’t trust outsiders. So anyone who ventures in gets tortured and fed to the hogs. And there’s no way out.

The thing is, they don’t know Harper. She’s a regular G.I. Jane, a female McGuyver who can get out of any tight situation, using whatever’s close at hand. She gradually turns herself from victim to killer, taking down her opponents one by one. She thinks she’s safe when she takes refuge in an isolated home, where a kindly old man lives (Bruce Dern). But he turns out to be as obsessed with evil torture as the rest of them. Can she ever escape from this hell-hole?

Ravage, as the title suggests is an action/vengeance/horror flick, and it’s a B-movie at best. There are plot holes, weird editing, and a silly ending. But it doesn’t matter. Dexter-Jones is great as the kick-ass Harper, who escapes from tight spaces, makes rafts out of empty barrels, drops bullets into campfires and sabotages her pursuers in ingenious ways. Really cool. The gross-outs and shock scenes are silly, but – if you don’t mind extreme violence – this is a fun flick, perfectly suitable for drive-ins.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Dir: Bert Stern

It’s 1958 in Newport Rhode Island. There’s a jazz festival set up in a vast field with an outdoor stage and wooden folding chairs in neat rows. On stage are some newcomers plus big names like Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, and Chuck Berry, playing jazz, blues and R&B. But it’s the women who really stand out. Anita O’day sings scat in Tea for Two, Big Maybelle rumbles her voice, Dinah Washington soars and Mahalia Jackson hushes the crowd whith her heartfelt gospel. This is all taking place at the Newport Jazz Festival in a posh summer resort with the Americas Cup – sailboats and yachts – floating past in the water.

The concert is captured on film without commentary, playing songs we’ve all heard before, but the camera doesn’t stick to the stage. Equal time is given to the audience: girls in pearls, boys in nautical ware, middle aged men in black knee socks, women in straw hats and cardigans, all unconsciously cool. College kids drinking Rheingold beer and making out in the shadows, couples dancing in the grass and hipsters nodding their heads on the off-beat. Model T Fords carrying a Dixieland jazz band sputters past, with experimental musicians jamming in the attic of an old wooden house. Everything’s captures on film, now completely restored with glowing orange klieg lights, bright red lipstick, rippling blue waves. It’s a concert and also a documentary that perfectly captures this slice of time. Something to watch and relax to on a hot summer’s day…

Lucky Grandma

Co-Wri/Dir: Sasie Sealy

Grandma (Tsai Chin) is a retired and elderly widow who lives alone in a cramped apartment in New York’s Chinatown. She likes aqua fitness, smoking cigarettes, and sipping congee. Her son wants her to move to their house in the suburbs and spend time with her noisy grandkids. It’s not safe living alone in the city, he says. But she’s stubborn, and wants to stay on familiar ground. Life’s tough but at least it’s hers. And things change when her fortune teller insists there’s a huge streak of good luck coming her way on the 28th. And when she wins an unexpected sweepstakes, she knows the odds really are on her side.

So she withdraws all her cash and goes to a casino to wager everything on number 8. She wins and wins and wins again. Until, at a game of blackjack she loses it all – tens of thousands – to old Mr Lin. It doesn’t make sense. But when Lin drops dead in her lap on the bus back home, luck is on her side again. She takes back the duffel bag of cash and sneaks home. Looks like she can finally retire in luxury.

But word gets out and Red Dragon gangsters start dropping by uninvited in her apartment to intimidate her. But she won’t give in their tactics. Instead she hires Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha) a huge but simple-minded bodyguard from a rival gang. But things start to heat up, bullets fly and now everyone seems to be after Grandma’s cash (which she insists she doesn’t have). IS this old lady stubborn enough and tough enough to fend off deadly killers? Or has she bit off more than she can chew?

Before I saw Lucky Grandma, judging by the poster I was expecting a cute, slapstick, throwaway comedy. So I was pleasantly surprised by how good a movie this actually is. It’s a low-key, but funny, realistic and poignant picture of life in Chinatown. And this is because of the star Tsai Chin, who gives a nuanced, perfect performance. Every line is just right. Who is Tsai Chin? She’s been a star since the late 50s with a hit single in HK in 1961, was a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice, appeared in Antonioni’s Blow Up, starred in countless plays in London’s west end, and was Auntie Lindo in the Joy Luck Club. Now, in her late eighties, she’s as good as ever. Don’t miss Tsai Chin in this really good, Chinese-language American movie.

You can watch Jazz on a Summer’s Day on virtual cinema at Hot Docs, Lucky Grandma is now on digital and VOD, and you can see Ravage at drive-ins across Ontario; 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.

Secrets and Lies. Films reviewed: The Secret Garden, She Dies Tomorrow, The Burnt Orange Heresy

Posted in Art, Depression, Disabilities, Disease, Fantasy, Horror, India, Italy, Kids, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on August 7, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies about secrets and lies. There’s a little girl with a secret garden, an art critic with a secret past, and a woman whose future night be ending tomorrow.

The Secret Garden

Dir: Marc Munden

Based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett

It’s 1947. Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is a little English girl raised by servants in India. They dress her, feed her and bring her whatever she wants. She likes telling stories and playing with dolls. But when her parents both die, she’s shipped back to England to live in the stately Misselthwaite Manor. It’s a huge mansion with secret rooms and passageways, haunted each night by scary voices eachoing in the halls. It’s owned Mary’s uncle, the reclusive Lord Craven (Colin Firth) and strictly supervised by the housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters). who warns Mary, keep quiet, eat your porridge, and stay away from forbidden rooms or Lord Craven will send you off to boarding school! Needless to say Mary hates it there.

But things take a turn when she discovers she’s not the only kid there. Colin (Edan Hayhurst) is the source of the wailing cries she hears each night. He’s pale and bedridden and never leaves his room – he’s her first cousin. And there’s young Dickon (Amir Wilson) who knows his way around the estate grounds and the misty moors beyond. When a little bird leads Mary to an ivy covered gate, she‘s delighted to find a walled garden, full of sunlight, flowers, butterflies and a bit of magic. It’s a wonderful place where she can play with Dickon, and tell stories. Can Mary keep her beloved garden? Will Colin ever leave his room? Will Lord Craven come out of his shell? And what other secrets does Misselthwaite Manor hold?

The Secret Garden is a new adaptation of the famous children’s book written more than a hundred years ago. It’s definitely a kids’ movie, but the children aren’t cutesy they’re interesting, argumentative and rude… and their characters develop over the course of the film. The acting is good all around. It deals with issues like death, loss and depression within the exciting adventure story. I wasn’t crazy about the excessive use of CGIs reflecting Mary’s internal thoughts, but, like I said, it’s a kids’ movie. And its multi-racial cast provides a nice break from the traditional, lily-white British historical dramas.

I enjoyed this movie.

She Dies Tomorrow

Wri/Dir: Amy Seimetz

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is a young woman who has it all: a lover, a devoted friend, and her first house – she just moved in today. She’s happy, healthy and financially secure, and hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol for months. So why is she so depressed? Because she just found out she’s going to die. Really soon. And there’s nothing she can do about it. There’s no medical report, or threatening letter or anything… she just knows, deep down inside. How should she spend her last 24 hours? Making love? Saying goodbye?

Instead, Amy grabs a bottle of liquor, puts on her favourite sequined gown, and goes into the backyard to do some gardening. That’s where her best friend Jane (Jane Adams) finds her a few hours later. She tries to understand Amy’s feelings of fear and dread and calm her down, talk some sense into her. But a few hours later, it’s Jane who is sure she’s going to die. And she passes it on to her brother at a birthday party where it spreads to others throughout the building. Is this mass delusion? A psychological virus? And can it be stopped?

She Dies Tomorrow is an uncategorizable movie, with equal parts dark comedy, horror, fantasy and satirical social drama. It’s about a highly contagious virus that makes people believe they’re about to die and then (maybe) kills them. It’s also about what we choose to do in our last 24 hours. It dramatizes the infection using a series of intensely coloured flashes of light – red, blue, green – accompanied by murmuring voices inside characters’ heads. And it alternates the scary parts with inane conversations about the sex lives of dolphins and dune-buggy rides, all set in a southwestern American desert town. Although She Dies Tomrrow was made before the current pandemic, its surreal and impressionistic feel perfectly captures the current malaise infecting everyone right now.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Dir: Giuseppe Capotondi

Based on the novel by Charles Willford

James (Claes Bang) is a handsome but cynical art critic who lives in northern Italy. He earns his living selling his books and giving lectures to American tourists. His theme? it’s not the artists who make art great it’s the critics. Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) is a strikingly beautiful woman with an acid tongue. She mysteriously appears at one of his lectures and calls his bluff. It’s art, truth and beauty that’s important, not criticism and spin. They end up making passionate love in his apartment.

James invites her on a trip to Lac Como, to visit Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) a dilletente who married into money and is famous as an art collector. Cassidy supports eccentric artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland) who lives on his estate, with the hope he will someday create a masterpiece. Although critically acclaimed, all of his paintings were destroyed in a series of fires, and he allows no one, not even his benefactor to look at his work. Cassidy offers James a deal – you can have an exclusive interview with Debney if you bring me one of his paintings… And I don’t care how you get it. Will James get the painting? Will his relentless ambition lead to unforeseen ends? And what is Berenice’s role in all this?

The Burnt Orange Heresy is a taut, tense noir thriller about deceit and lies within the rotten world of fine art. It’s full of twists and surprises throughout the film. The beautiful settings, clever dialogue and attractive cast stand in sharp contrast to its dark – and sometimes violent – theme. Debicki and Bang are fantastic, like a modern day Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, shifting from lovers to friends to potential rivals. I liked this one a lot, but beware: it’s anything but a romantic comedy.

The Secret Garden, She Dies Tomorrow, and The Burnt Orange Heresy, all open today in Toronto, theatrically or VOD – 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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