Hollywood movies. Films reviewed: Glass Onion, The Fabelmans

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, comedy, Coming of Age, Family, Hollywood, Movies, Mystery, Secrets by CulturalMining.com on November 28, 2022

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

It’s Thanksgiving weekend south of the border, so movies are being released midweek. This week I’m looking at two new, big-ticket Hollywood movies, you might want to watch this weekend. There’s a mystery/comedy set on a private Greek island, and a coming-of-age drama set in postwar America.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Wri/Dir: Rian Johnson

Miles Bron (Edward Norton) is a conceited, ultra-rich tycoon who made his fortune in the tech sector. Now he amuses himself by throwing elaborate parties on his private Greek Island, where his select guests try to solve a mystery during their stay. But this year, there’s a surprise visitor — the famous detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). He’s there on the invitation of one of the party guests — Bron’s former business partner — who was secretly murdered, with her identical sister (Janelle Monáe) a meek introvert, impersonating the flamboyant victim. (She invites Benoit as her guest to find her sister’s killer.)

Benoit Blanc, of course, is the famous gay private investigator known for his dapper suits, southern drawl, and legendary detective skills. Other guests include a flaky fashion designer (Kate Hudson), an insufferable online celebrity (Dave Bautista), a devious politician (Kathryn Hahn), and a shady scientist (Leslie Odom, Jr.), among others. But the week-long game is spoiled when Benoit guesses the answer almost immediately, to the host’s displeasure. But, soon after, the real mystery begins, when one of the guests is murdered in plain sight without anyone knowing whodunnit. It becomes a race against time, as other guests start to disappear, one by one. Can Benoit identify the killer, uncover their motive, prevent any more murders, and solve the bigger mystery of why these particular people were invited to this party?

The Glass Onion is a brilliant sequel to Ryan Johnson’s Knives Out from a few years ago, with Daniel Craig repeating the role of Benoit Blanc. It’s hard to review a mystery without giving away the plot, but I’ll do my best. This movie is very cleverly done: like any good Agatha Christie-style mystery, all the different characters — both potential killer or killers and victims — are introduced at the beginning, with no surprises

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). (L-R) Jessica Henwick as Peg, Kate Hudson as Birdie, and Janelle Monáe as Andi. Cr. John Wilson/Netflix © 2022.

parachuting onto the Island. It’s also good because each character has their own quirks, back stories, secrets and motives, all of which are gradually revealed.  It’s even more fun because many of them are satirically modelled after certain celebrities. On top of that, there are a number of intricate clues hidden within clockwork-type devices featured in the film. 

I’ve been watching Rian Johnson’s work since his first film, Brick, came out almost 20 years ago, as he gradually honed his skills. I loved Knives Out, but was worried that a sequel might be a let down. But have no fear, Glass Onion is as good as or better than Knives Out. It’s hard to find movies these days that are there just for the viewers’ pleasure without ever pandering, dumbing down a plot, trying to sell you stuff or stealing ideas. Glass Onion avoids all that, concentrating instead on giving you a really fun night out. 

The Fabelmans

Dir: Steven Spielberg 

Written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner.

It’s Christmastime in the 1950s. Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) is a little boy who lives with his parents and sisters in New Jersey. Mitzi his mom (Michelle Williams) is a former concert pianist forced to adjust to suburban family life. But she manages to keep her sense of creativity front and centre. She refuses to do dishes, insisting instead on paper plates and plastic forks.  She’s the kind of woman who doesn’t hide from tornados, she chases them… and reads music scores in bed. She has a blonde pixie haircut and loves diaphanous white gowns. 

Burt (Paul Dano) his dad, is an engineer and part-time inventor who works for RCA and repairs old TV sets as a side job. He thinks science is superior, while art and movies are just for fun… but he worships the ground Mitzi walks on. And always close at hand is Burt’s best friend and workmate Bennie (Seth Rogan) who the kids all call Uncle.

The story begins with the parents taking Sammy to his first movie, Cecil B DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Sammy is frightened but also mesmerized by a trainwreck in the movie where circus cars are derailed and wild animals run free. Sammy wants to film it. He manages to duplicate it on 8 mm film, repeatedly using his model train set seen from all the angles used in the movie. Sammy’s love of film is ignited — now he’s making silent monster movies at home starring his sisters. Later the family moves to Colorado, where Burt has a new position developing computers for General Electric.

And Uncle Bennie moves with them.

Teenage Sammy is now a boy scout, and, with his new friends, starts shooting and editing elaborate westerns and war movies to everyone’s delight. But in editing family films he discovers a hidden secret that threatens to pull them apart. 

Years later, they move to northern California where Burt now works for IBM. But Mitzi feels depressed and alienated and Sammy is bullied at school by guys who, he says, look like giant Sequoia trees. Can he still find solace making films? Will Mitzi adjust to a strange new environment? Or is the family heading for disaster?

The Fabelmans (meaning storytellers) is Steven Spielberg’s first fictionalized, semi-autobiographical look at how his childhood and adolescence led to his career as a filmmaker. I usually dislike movies about movies — they tend to be overly nostalgic and sentimental, and mainly there as Oscar-bait, to get people in the industry to vote for them. But this one is surprisingly good. And while there are many scenes of people staring at movie screens, there’s way more to it. It’s a bittersweet coming of age story, it’s a family story, and it’s a rare mother-son story: Sammy and Mitzi are both obsessive artists driven by their craft, but facing constant roadblocks put up by the conventional world. The film also incorporates the southwest, circuses, evangelism, folk singing, secular Judaism, family camping trips, and baby boom youth culture.

Michelle Williams is excellent as Mitzi, a complex character with many regrets. Canadian newcomer Gabriel LaBelle as Sammy is also great. And Judd Hirsch totally steals the scene as crazy Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a lion tamer who wants Sammy to understand that following your artistic dreams is like sticking your head into a lion’s mouth: it takes guts, drive and determination… and might hurt a lot.

The Fabelmans is a very enjoyable movie. 

Glass Oinion is on at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for one week only, while The Fabelmans is playing across North America; check your local listings. 

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

Wives and Moms. Films Reviewed: Ticket to Paradise, My Policeman, Till

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, African-Americans, Family, Indonesia, LGBT, Mississippi, Racism, Romantic Comedy, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 22, 2022

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

With Halloween approaching, Toronto After Dark is here until Sunday night to scare your pants off. And ImagineNative continues through the weekend with in-person screenings, followed by online movies till the end of the month.

This week I’m looking at three new movies — two historical dramas and one rom-com — about wives and mothers. There’s a wedding in Bali, a love triangle in Brighton… and a lynching in Mississippi.

Ticket to Paradise

Co-Wri/Dir: Ol Parker

David and Georgia Cotton (George Clooney, Julia Roberts) are a power couple. He’s a celebrated architect, while she directs a famous art gallery. They met in University, married and brought up their only child Lily (Kaitlyn Dever). She’s 24 now, but her parents? They’ve been divorced for two decades. They rarely see one another, and when they do, their conversation consists of put downs, and oneupmanship. But Lily loves both her parents, and is excited when they turn up for her law school graduation. And loves the fact they both accompany her to the airport. She’s flying with her best friend Wren (Billie Lourd) for a one-in-a-lifetime vacation at a fancy resort in Bali, before starting her job at a law firm in the fall. 

Once there, Lily is loving their vacation, until everything changes, when she’s stranded in the ocean far from shore. She’s rescued by a Balinese guy in a boat named Gede (Maxime Bouttier, the French/Indonesian actor/model). It’s love at first sight, and a few weeks later Lily has ditched her plans to be a lawyer and wants to live on the beach forever with a seaweed farmer. David and Georgia are invited to the wedding, and fly over together, bickering all the way. Tension rises when David discovers the jet is piloted by Georgia’s much younger boyfriend Paul (Lucas Bravo, Emily in Paris). 

But the ex-couple can agree on one thing. Lily is making a terrible mistake and they must do everything they can to stop it from happening. You see, Georgia gave up a promising career at an LA art gallery when David proposed to her — but their marriage fell apart after just a few years. So they owe it to their daughter to stop her from making the biggest mistake of her life. Will their plans succeed? Or will they alienate the only one they both love? And can David and Georgia ever get along? 

Ticket to Paradise is a traditional rom-com set in an “exotic” locale with big stars and some real laughs. The plot is threadbare and ridiculous — seriously, can you imagine grown- ups thinking they can stop a marriage merely by hiding the wedding rings? And it’s shot in Australia, not Bali; there’s no Kuta beach or Denpasar or Ubud, or anywhere else that evokes the island, aside from a few location shots That said, if you’re a fan of Clooney and Roberts — and they are fun to watch — and if you’re just looking for some ultra-light entertainment, and if rom-coms are your thing… well, you’ll probably like this one a lot. And even if you don’t like any of those (like me) it’s still totally watchable.

My Policeman

Dir: Michael Grandage (Genius: my review here)

Marion and Tom (Gina McKee, Linus Roache) are a retired couple living a quiet life in a seaside home in Brighton. But their marriage hits a rocky period when an invalid elderly boarder recovering from a stroke (Rupert Everett: The Happy Prince, review here) moves into their home. Marion feels they should take care of him, since he has no living relatives, while Tom is very disturbed by the notion. Who is he to us? He asks. What do we owe him? The answer lies in the journals he brought with him. Because, in fact, way back in the late 1950s, the three of them were very close. 

Tom (Harry Styles) is a young policeman dating Marion, a schoolteacher (Emma Corrin). It’s a tender courtship and the two are deeply in love. Tom introduces her to Patrick (David Dawson) who works at the local art museum: He’s smart and sophisticated. They met at the museum when Patrick asked Tom to model for his drawings. Will Marion fall for the sophisticated Patrick over the simple, but handsome policeman? No! There is a love triangle brewing here, but Marion isn’t the fulcrum, Tom is. He’s having a secret affair with Patrick. And when Tom says he’s travelling with him to Italy to work as his personal assistant, Marion gets suspicious. Thing is, being gay (or having gay sex) was a serious crime in the UK at the time. Somehow word gets out, and Patrick is arrested. Are Patrick and Tom in love? How about Marion? Who will vouch for Patrick if he goes to trial? Can Tom remain a policeman if his connection to Patrick gets out? And over 50 years later what will happen now that old secrets are being uncovered? 

My Policeman (based on the novel by Bethan Roberts) is a low-key, bitter-sweet drama about a menage a trois, and the fallout that comes from it. It’s told in flashforwards and flashback, following both periods simultaneously. It’s a compelling story but with a weak ending. The problem is the 50s section is much more interesting and moving, while the present day is dull and uneventful, which drags down the whole story. Harry Styles — the hugely popular pop singer — surprisingly, is not bad at all as an actor. Emma Corrin is great as the young Marion, likewise David Dawson who plays Patrick like a young Alan Cumming. I like the mood and the music and all, but as a whole My Policeman is easily forgettable. 

Till

Co-Wri/Dir: Chinonye Chukwu

It’s 1955 in Chicago.

Emmet Till (Jalyn Hall) — known as Beau to his Mom and Bobo to his friends — is 14 years old. He’s a happy, middle-class kid, who likes listening to music on the radio and playing with toys . He lives with his mom and grandparents. He’s getting ready for a train trip to visit his cousins in Mississippi, and he’s dressed in his Sunday best. But his mother, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler) doesn’t want him to go. She warns him that Black people down there aren’t treated the same way. You have to make yourself “small”. You can’t look a white person in the eyes. Emmett does a Steppin Fetchit imitation, but Mamie says this is no joke. She comes from there, it’s a dangerous place and she never wants to go back.

On the train heading south, Emmett starts to feel Jim Crow. He and all the other black passengers are forced to leave their seats and move to segregated cars. In Mississippi, all his relatives are share- croppers who pick their plantation managers’ cotton, even the kids, and spend all their money in the company store. Emmett, though, still doesn’t really get it. But when he buys some candy and whistles at the pretty white cashier, things turn from bad to worse. Three days later men bang at the door in the middle of the night and take Emmett away in a pickup truck. His lynched body, mutilated and swollen, is found floating in a river.

His mother is crushed, devastated, but, she buries her son in an open casket. It gets nationwide attention when his photos are featured in Jet magazine. And with the urging of the NAACP, she decides to return to Mississippi to seeking justice.

Till is an accurate and moving drama about this awful crime and the travesty of justice that follows. The lynching of Emmett Till served as a catalyst for the civil rights movement, but it’s also a symbol of the pervasive violence of anti-black racism. Danielle Deadwyler is stupendous as Mamie; and it’s her performance that makes this movie worth seeing. It’s told through Mamie’s eyes: before the killing, at the funeral, in the trial that follows and its aftermath.  What doesn’t work so well are the dozens of historical figures with walk-on parts. Their lines are dutifully recited but lack Deadwyler’s passionate acting; they just seem flat, and there are too many characters to keep track of. Stand-out exceptions include Darian Rolle’s powerful portrayal as Willie Reed, a surprise witness at the trial; and, of course, Jalyn Hall playing Emmett himself. Till is an important historical record that must not be forgotten.

My Policeman opens at the Tiff Bell Lightbox, with Till and Ticket to Paradise playing across North America this weekend; check your local listings.

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

War movies at #TIFF22. Films reviewed: The Inspection, The Greatest Beer Run Ever, All Quiet on the Western Front

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, 2000s, Germany, LGBT, Vietnam, violence, War, WWI by CulturalMining.com on September 17, 2022

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

When military budgets soar, and “war games” are held more frequently, when Presidents and Prime Ministers make speeches about liberty and democracy, when lots of military experts start appearing on cable news networks, rattling their sabres… it usually means governments are gearing up for war. And art imitates life. War movies — you know, the kind of films with all-male casts showing bravery and camaraderie, and lots and lots of guns, tanks and bombs — are becoming popular again.

This week I’m talking about three new war movies that had their world premieres at TIFF. There’s high schoolers in Germany who want to enlist in WWI, a guy from New York who wants to bring beer to his buddies in Vietnam, and a homeless black, gay man who wants to join the marines. 

The Inspection

Wri/Dir: Elegance Bratton

Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) is a 25-year old man who sleeps in a homeless shelter in Jersey City, NJ. His single mother (Gabrielle Union), threw him out as a teenager when he came out as gay. He spent the next 10 years living on the streets. Now he plans a new beginning: to turn his life around by joining the marines. But bootcamp is not a nurturing environment. As the sergeants say, we are going to break you all down, and if you survive it, we’ll build you back up again. The breaking down process consists of bullying and violence visited on anyone deviating the norm, be they gay, muslim or just insecure. Sgt Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), in particular, has it in for French, and seems to want kill him — literally.  Another recruit, Harvey (McCaul Lombardi) goes out of his way to make French’s life in bootcamp unbearable. Luckily he does find a few friends, including Sgt Rosales, who takes his side. Can he survive bootcamp and become a marine? And can he ever make his estranged mother proud of him again?

The inspection is based on the memoirs of the film’s writer/director Elegance Bratton. It’s a passionate and deeply-moving first film about a gay son and his fundamentalist mother, while trying to succeed in a toxic environment. There have been many movies before about life in bootcamp (especially Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket) even for a gay man (the South African film Moffie, for example) but The Inspection is still a new take. My only criticism is it seems to be, as a whole, an “oorah-oorah” celebration of military life, despite the prejudice and corruption within it. Without a negative thought, anywhere, about war itself.

The Greatest Beer Run Ever

Co-Wri/Dir: Peter Farrelly

It’s 1967 in Inwood, N.Y.,  a white, working-class neighbourhood in northern Manhattan. Chicky Donohue (Zach Efron) is a high school drop out who sleeps in everyday and during waking hours can usually be found getting drunk with his buddies at a local bar. Full of piss and vinegar, Chick has lots of big ideas but rarely follows through; no one take him seriously. Lots of his friends and neighbours either signed up or were drafted to serve in Vietnam, but his time served in the Merchant Marines exempts him. His sister marches in rallies against the Vietnam War at Columbia, but Chicky is firmly on the America, Love it Or Leave it side.

But one day, sitting at the bar with his friends, he wonders why no one is doing anything for their buddies in Nam: Minogue, Pappas, Duggan and the rest. So he boasts he’ll buy them some beer and give it to them personally. And that’s what he does — fills a duffel bag with cans of PBR, signs up on a ship headed for Saigon, and just goes there. His ship captain gives him three days to find his friends if he ever wants to leave Vietnam. The only Americans who travel in that country are journalists or military. And no one goes north into battle zones voluntarily. Except Chicky. He starts tracking them down to everyone else’s disbelief. As they say, only someone as dumb as him could survive a trip like this.

He happily passes as a CIA agent until he witnesses what they actually do (like the torture and murder of prisoners). And the Vietnamese in the countryside aren’t welcoming him with open arms — they’re terrified he’s going to murder them. And those bombers all around? They’re dropping napalm everywhere. Later he joins forces with a journalist (Russel Crowe) to discover the truth. But will he ever get the beer to his buddies and make it back alive?

The Greatest Beer Run Ever is a fun and fast-moving bro-dramedy based on a true story. It’s set during the Tet Offensive as the war escalates. It has a terrific soundtrack of 60s pop and psychedelic music. Zach Efron is good as a dumb cluck who gradually wakes up to what the war is really about. And while there are some Vietnamese characters, like most American war movies, it’s all about America. It’s hard to tell whether this film is pro-war or anti-war; rather it seems to be pro-soldiers but against the war in Vietnam and especially the lies the generals told. 

All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues)

Dir: Edward Berger

(based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque)

It’s 1917 and the world is at war. Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) is a skinny student with glasses at a Catholic boys’ school in a German town. After a rousing speech by their schoolmaster — who dubs the boys “Iron Youth” — all of his classmates rush to join the fight for God, the Kaiser and the Fatherland. But Paul is still too young to enlist, so he forges a letter to sign up with his friends, looking forward to the fun and adventure that surely lies ahead. 

But once they arrive in occupied northern France, they soon discover this war consists of an endless wasteland of trenches. The “new” uniforms they’re fitted with are recycled from the bodies of dead soldiers. They are forced to train wearing horrible gas masks, and thrown into battle.  And a hellish fight it is. Paul — along with his friends Haie, Kropp, Müller, Kat and Tjaden — soon realizes that the only way they’re going home is in a coffin.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a scathing look at the machinery of war and how it uses soldiers as cannon fodder. Even while a German diplomat (Daniel Brühl) is busy negotiating armistice, the generals continue killing as many soldiers as they can until the bitter end. The film graphically shows soldiers incinerated by flame throwers, shot, bombed, stabbed by bayonets, and run over by tanks… even killed in brutal, hand-to-hand combat by the main sympathetic characters. While it provides some relief — one soldier steals a goose from a farm to the joy of his squad-mates; another falls for an art deco poster of a French woman that he sticks to the trench wall — there’s a feeling of doom pervading the entire movie. It has good acting, a soundtrack that is as brilliantly ominous as the theme from Jaws, the photography is deadly, and the makeup — soldiers’ faces coated in a deathly layer of mud and blood  — is especially striking. It’s as violent as American movies like Saving Private Ryan, or Hacksaw Ridge, but without the veneer of heroism and bravery. It shows the futility of warfare in all its enormity. This is a gruelling and shocking testament against all war and the military industrial complex.

All Quiet on the Western Front, The Inspection and The Greatest Beer Run Ever all had their world premieres at TIFF, which continues through the weekend.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Buffy Sainte-Marie about Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On at #TIFF22

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Academy Awards, Canada, Cree, documentary, FBI, Folk, Indigenous, Music, Protest by CulturalMining.com on September 17, 2022

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

Buffy Sainte Marie was born to Cree parents on a reserve in the Qu’Apelle valley Saskatchewan but was adopted and raised by a  family with Mi’kmaq roots in Massachusetts. She grew up musically-inclined and sang folk songs in Yorkville and Greenwich Village coffee houses. Her dynamic guitar style and distinctive vibrato set her apart.

The songs she wrote and performed climbed the charts and were covered by hundreds of other musicians, from Elvis to Donavan, Joni Mitchell to Barbra Streisand. Her song Universal Soldier became an anthem of the anti-war movement while Now That the Buffalo’s Gone did the same for the American Indian Movement. She starred in movies and on TV, became a regular on Sesame Street, won countless awards, and was the first — and for many years only — indigenous person to win an Oscar.

Her story is told in a new documentary by Madison Thomas called Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On. Narrated by Taj Mahal, Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell and others, and Buffy Ste Marie herself, it combines period footage and personal photos,  dramatizations, and lots of music and concerts, both vintage and new.

I spoke to Buffy Sainte-Marie on site at TIFF22.

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On had its world premiere at TIFF and is opening at the Hot Docs Cinema later this month.  

Humans and other animals. Films reviewed: We Are As Gods, Beast

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Africa, Animals, Climate Change, Conservation, documentary, drugs, Family, Hippies, psychedelia, South Africa, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on August 20, 2022

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

This week I’m talking about two new movies, about humans and other animals. There’s a man who wishes he’d never met a lion face to face, and another man who wishes woolly mammoths walked the earth again. 

We Are As Gods

Wri/ Dir: David Alvarado, Jason Sussberg

Stewart Brand is a man who was at the centre of many of the 20th century’s biggest changes, including psychedelic drugs, environmentalism, personal computers, hacking, and The Whole Earth Catalog. Born in a small city in the midwest he liked playing with wild animals as a child, making friends with squirrels, ‘possums and ducks. He studied biology at Stanford, but by the early 60s wound up in San Francisco, around the time of Ken Kesey’s experimentation with psychedelic drugs. He joined the Merry Pranksters, dropping acid, dancing around and generally having a wild hippie good time.

This was during the Space Race, when the US and USSR were competing at the exploration of outer space. But what Stewart wanted was a photograph of the earth from up there. He publicly and loudly demanded such a photo, and eventually someone took it. It became the cover of a technologically friendly, do-it-yourself guidebook called the Whole Earth Catalog, which embraced environmentalism and conservationism through DIY tools and simple technology. Filled with geodesic domes and quonset huts, it showed how to co-exist in a natural setting. A huge bestseller, it inspired many within the baby boomers’ burgeoning youth culture.

He was also around in the earliest stages of Apple computers, inspiring both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Fast forward to the present: Stewart Brand is back in the spotlight, attempting to change the world by “de-extincting” long-lost plants and animals. He points out how entire species that used to dominate North America — from the American chestnut tree to the passenger pigeon — which were wiped out over the course of a few decades about 100 years ago. But their DNA remains, and, he says, with some genetic tweaking, they could be restored. Why is this so important?  Because our system is made up of complex, intertwining and interdependent species and when even one disappears it causes a major natural reorganization.

But that’s not all. Building on the work of Pleistocene Park in Siberia (the subject of another doc), he promotes the reintroduction of large animals (like wooly mammoths) into our biosphere. Maybe new flocks of pre-historic elephants, camels, wild horses and buffalo now missing from these areas will help stop global warming by allowing the permafrost to survive. 

We Are As Gods is a documentary about Brand, his life and his ideas. The title comes from an epigraph from the Whole Earth Catalogue. Yes, some his ideas sounds ridiculous at first listen, but the film makes a believable argument for a real-life Jurassic Park (Pleistocene actually) — despite the dangers it could pose. He’s also a really interesting character, both smart and ridiculous — he admits to mistakes such as inhaling a tank of laughing gas (nitrous oxide) each week for a couple of years. The movie includes period footage, TV videos, still photos and new interviews with friends, his ex-wife, family members and various scientists. Lots of  interesting stuff, packed into one documentary.

Beast

Dir: Baltasar Kormákur

It’s summertime in South Africa. Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) a well-off physician from New York, arrives in a remote game park with his two daughters, Mer and Norah. Mer (Iyana Halley) is angry at her father, but but is swept away by the beauty and grandeur of the African bush. Her little sister Norah (Leah Jeffries), is more innocent and naive. This visit is a homecoming of sorts. Their late mom (she died of cancer in New York) came from a nearby Tsonga village where she met their dad. They were introduced by Uncle Martin (Sharlto Copley), as the kids call him. He’s a game ranger who helps stop poachers from killing the animals, and he’s their host. He shows them giraffes and wildebeests and introduces them to a pride of lions one of whom he raised — they all run to him like playful pups. Lions are social animals, he explains. The lionesses hunt for food, while the lions protect the pride if threatened. Otherwise they don’t attack people.

Which is why all of them — including Martin — are shocked and frightened when, later, another lion violently attacks their jeep. It seems poachers had killed his entire pride except him, leaving only the rogue beast looking for vengeance — and they’re not his first target. But can a middle-aged doctor and his two teenaged girls fight off a lion three times their size? Or are they all doomed?

Beast is a dramatic thriller set amidst the spectacular beauty of South Africa. After a mundane start, it quickly turns into a heart-thumper, as one impossible situation follows another as the four of them try to escape this monster. Idris Elba portrays Nate as a neglectful dad but a caring doctor, devoted to saving patients not killing animals. But he also has to connect with his daughters who don’t completely trust him. (He was never around when their mother — his wife — was dying).

I assume the animals were all CGI, but they’re believable enough that you can’t tell. The music spans the continent with tunes from Nigeria to South Africa. I have to admit I saw the trailer and the movie looked pretty bad — a rich American going to Africa to shoot lions? But that’s not what it’s about at all. Though not deeply moving,  it’s actually a fun movie with a compact story and all-around good acting. It’s directed by the under-appreciated Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur; I’ve seen a few of his movies (like Contraband, 2 Guns, The Deep), and he’s always really good at manipulating sympathetic characters through enormous disasters. He’s not afraid of moving the viewer deep into swampy water, up trees, on top of small mountains or through disorienting tunnels, so you feel you’re a part of it all. So if you’re looking for some well-made thrills, check out Beast.

You can catch Beast this weekend across Canada, check your local listings; and We Are As Gods opens today in select US theatres, and on VOD in September. 

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Mark James about Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, documentary, Jamaica, Music, Reggae by CulturalMining.com on August 13, 2022

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

It’s the 1960s in Kingston, Jamaica.

Randy’s is a legendary record store, a place where fans of music — and the musicians themselves — could listen to the latest hits. And upstairs, on the second floor, there’s a studio, a place where new tunes are being recorded, and their music — ska, reggae and dub — is being released worldwide. All the greats — people like Sly and Robby, Dennis Brown, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Lee Scratch Perry, Bob Marley and the Wailers — all spend time there, with some songs climbing to the top of the charts. The studio is run by husband-and-wife Vince and Pat Chin. But when the mood in Kingston changes from peace and calm to violence and gun wars, the studio is forced to close, the Chins move to New York, and the building is battered by storms and robbed by looters… but what happened to all those recordings?

Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes is a new documentary that looks at that recording studio, the people who made it work, and the music itself, boxes and boxes of rare, reel-to-reel tapes that somehow survived until now… when the tapes are being faithfully restored, archived and rereleased. The film includes interviews with many musicians, and the Chins, illustrated with hundreds of period photos and video clips, along with non-stop music taken from those legendary recordings. This feature documentary is the work of award-winning director and cinematographer, Mark James. A student of fine arts at London’s Goldsmiths College, and film production at the Royal College of Art, he has made docs about Damien Hirst, and Bryan Ferry, as well as horror films like Vampire Diary.

I spoke to Mark in Montreal, via ZOOM.

Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes is having a special Toronto screening on August 15th at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, as part of a national tour.

Still looking. Films reviewed: Mrs Harris Goes to Paris, The Gray Man, Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Posted in 1960s, Action, Animation, CIA, Class, comedy, Fashion, France by CulturalMining.com on July 16, 2022

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

Summer is here and so is TOPS, Toronto Outdoor Picture Show. This festival lets you watch new or classic films for free, sitting on the cool grass on a warm dark night in a city park. Locations include Christie Pits, the Corktown Commons and Bell Manor Park, showing open-air movies weekly through July and August. Or if you’d rather stay home or watch things on your phone you should check out this year’s Prism Prize winners, a collection of cinematic music videos by and about Canadian artists. Surprisingly good.

This week I’m looking at three new, big-screen movies. There’s a woman in Paris looking for a dress, a hitman in Bangkok looking for a way out, and a talking sea shell looking for his family.

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris

Dir: Anthony Fabian

It’s London in the 1960s. Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) is a hardworking house cleaner, who always goes out of her way to help other people. But her employers, including an aspiring movie star and an extremely rich family, don’t seem to appreciate what she does, often forgetting to pay her wages. Her husband was shot down in WWII so she has supported herself ever since waiting in vain for him to come home.  On her free time she goes to the pub or bets on dog races with her best friend Vi (Ellen Thomas) and her bookie Archie (Jason Isaacs). But everything changes when she spots a beautifully flowered dress in her employer’s wardrobe. It’s a Christian Dior, and it cost £500 in Paris. Five hundred pounds…!

Suddenly, Ada has a goal: save up all her money and spend it on a dress like that one. And, through a series of fortuitous events she finds herself in Paris quicker than she thought. But buying the gown is another matter entirely. She faces roadblocks at every turn — the idea of a cleaning woman buying such a dress. It’s Haut couture, but Mrs Harris  is neither haut nor a part of their couture. We sell to princesses and heiresses not to the likes of you, says Mme Colbert (Isabelle Huppert). Are Ada’s hopes and dreams nothing but a fantasy? Or will her optimistic nature win out in the end?

Mrs Harris Goes to Paris is a wonderful bitter-sweet drama about a working-class woman in the mid-20th century. Based on the novel by Paul Gallico, it shows how an ordinary woman — through the power of will, sincerity and common sense — can open the tightest doors, but can never transcend her class. The movie’s not just about her — there’s a Marquis (Christopher Lambert); a shy young executive (Lucas Bravo — you may recognize him from the dreadful Emily in Paris); and Natasha (Alba Baptista), an existentialist  model — but Lesley Manville as Mrs Harris is really the star. She manages to convey, perfectly and subtly, Ada’s innermost thoughts and emotions. Parts of the movie did seem like a non-stop ad for Christian Dior, but, other than that, it was a pleasure to watch.

The Gray Man

Dir: Anthony and Joe Russo

It’s a night-club in Bangkok. 6 (Ryan Gosling) is there for a job: murder. He’s a hitman who works undercover for the CIA in the top secret Sierra division. Recruited as a young man doing hard time for murder, he’s been a loyal member for two decades, eliminating with precision  whatever bad guys (no women or children) they assign him to kill. He chases the target into a dark alley, and after a violent confrontation, on his deathbed, the guy says, Wait! I have something to tell you! You’re 6, right? I’m 4. You’re killing a member of your own unit… they’re getting rid of Sierra, and you’re next. He hands him a tiny memory disc drive, and says, They’ve gone bad, and this proves it. Hold onto it and get the hell out of here. Then the guy expires.

So begins an intercontinental chase, with 6 vs the entire CIA, and a  team of mercenary assassins bankrolled by the Agency under the guidance of Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans). He’s  a ruthless, sadistic contractor who will kidnap, torture and kill anyone who gets in his way. The whole world is potential collateral damage… including a little girl with a heart condition that 6 had promised always to protect. (Giving 6 a reason to pursue Lloyd.) Who will triumph? 6, a regular-guy hitman in a track suit with a heart of gold?  Or Lloyd, an evil elitist with a douchey moustache and an expensive gold watch?

The Gray Man is a fast-moving action/thriller made for the big screen. It follows 6 from Thailand to Turkey, from Vienna and Prague to an isolated castle in Croatia, complete with a convenient hedge maze. There are some spectacular fights — like a battle in mid-air as a cargo plane blows up; fistfights in a hospital and shootouts aboard a a rolling streetcar. On the negative side, there is absolutely nothing original in this action movie — it’s all been done a thousand times before. And there’s product placement for a brand of gum in the first lines of the script. That said, it’s great to see Ryan Gosling again — he’s always worth watching; and Chris Evans is a nicely hateable villain. Ana de Armas, though, is wasted as a dull CIA agent. The good lines all went to other characters. And there are some clever ones. Like You can’t make an omelette without killing people.  Is the Gray Man a good movie? I won’t say it’s “good” but I actually like watching good actors in pretty settings with lots of buildings blowing up. 

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Dir: Dean Fleischer-Camp

Marcel (Jenny Slate) is a  naive, inquisitive little boy who lives in a large deserted house with just his grandma to keep him company. The rest of his family mysteriously disappeared one day, and he hasn’t seen them since. He likes listening to Brahms on a record player and watching 60 Minutes. But he’s not human — he’s actually a tiny seashell with one big eye, two legs with pink running shoes and a little mouth. He gets around using Rube Goldberg-esque  contraptions, powered by an electric blender blender attached to pieces of string. And he can move quickly on the floor by climbing into a tennis ball and rolling around. But everything changes when a filmmaker named Dean (Dean Fleischer-Camp) moves in. He’s fascinated by the strange little talking shell, so he starts to film Marcel — with his permission —  and puts the clips on YouTube, which, of course, eventually go viral. Soon he’s in the NY Times, and people on TikTok are copying his funniest phrases and moves. He’s a minor celebrity, but still hasn’t found his family. And Nana (Isabella Rosselini) is getting old. She loves gardening and can talk to insects but she’s having trouble remembering things, and her shell is pock-marked and cracked. Will his new-found fame bring Marcel a better life?

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is a totally delightful treat of a movie made in the form of a live-action documentary. Marcel is portrayed using stop-motion photography incorporating his (or actually Jenny Slate’s) hilarious, improvised comedy. It’s 90 minutes long, but flies by in a second, despite its simple style. It’s full of wisdom and humour and speaks to both kids and adults (a lot of the funniest lines appeal to grown ups with Marcel’s unintentionally hilarious observations.) You may be familiar with him from Youtube, and when I first saw the poster, I thought, why in hell would anyone want to watch this? But, view it and you’ll understand why it’s so good. 

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On is now playing all across Canada, Mrs Harris Goes to Paris opens this weekend; check your local listings; The Gray Man is playing in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Ambitions. Films reviewed: Minions: The Rise of Gru, Ennio, Mr Malcolm’s List

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, 1970s, Animation, documentary, Italy, Kidnapping, Movies, Music, Romantic Comedy, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 2, 2022

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

Summer is definitely here, and this long holiday weekend is the perfect time to take in some new movies. This week I’m talking about three of them: — a rom-com, a cartoon and a documentary — about people with ambitions. There’s a spinster in Victorian England who wants revenge on the man who has scorned her; a spaghetti western composer in 1960s Italy who wants to be taken seriously; and a little boy in San Francisco in the ’70s who wants to become a super villain.

Minions: The Rise of Gru

Dir: Kyle Balda, Brad Ableson, Jonathan del Val

It’s the late 1970s, and Gru is a little kid in elementary school. While his classmates say they want to be a fireman or a ballet dancer when they grow up, Gru wants to be a super villain. And he has a basement filled with strange mechanical devices to prove it. They were built with the help of his minions. The minions are bright-yellow, lozenge-shaped creatures with googly eyes. Dressed in matching denim overalls, they speak their own incomprehensible dialect, a mishmash of all the world’s languages. Gru idolizes a gang of six supervillains, who are now one villain short of a pack (since they did away with their leader) and are looking for a replacement. But when he shows up for an interview at their secret hideaway they dismiss him as just a kid. To prove them wrong, he steals their prize possession, a Chinese jade-green amulet. He gives it to a minion to keep it safe, who soon loses it in exchange for a pet rock. (The minions aren’t always the brightest bulb in the chandelier.) Gru is kidnapped by the villains’ former leader, and threatened with torture and death. Can the minions find the amulet, bring it to San Francisco, and save their best friend, Gru?

Minions: The Rise of Gru is a funny, easy-to-watch kids’ movie, where the villains are the good guys, even though they’re evil. It’s a prequel to the surprise hit from 2010, Despicable Me. The voice actors are mainly American or British, but the animated film is actually from France. The catchy soundtrack, groovy 1970s characters, the San Francisco setting, the fast-moving plot and the very colourful graphics make it a fun watch. It stars the voices of Steve Carell as Gru, Pierre Coffin as all of the minions, and Alan Arkin, Taraji P. Henson, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jill Lawless, Danny Trejo, Dolph Lundgrin as the six villains. I enjoyed Minions, but the five-and-under set that filled the theatre absolutely loved it. 

Ennio

Dir: Giuseppe Tornatore

Ennio Morricone is born in Rome in 1928 to a professional trumpet player. He enters a music conservatory at the age of 12 and studies under Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi. (He spends most of his life yearning to be taken seriously by Petrassi and the rest of the traditional music establishment.) At an early age, he’s already composing and arranging pieces which include both melodic themes and counterpoint, an oft repeated characteristic of his music.  He writes the tunes for a number of pop songs, and eventually gets a job working for RCA. From there he goes on to compose the soundtracks — always anonymously — for the new film genre known as Spaghetti Westerns. But when he recognizes a director’s name from his elementary school, he becomes a close friend and life-long collaborator with Sergio Leone. He quickly rises to fame writing the distinctive musical scores of films like A fistful of Dollars and The Good the Bad and the Ugly, using harmonicas, whistling, electric guitars, and sound effects in place of the more common symphony orchestras. (Today those films remain his most recognizable works.) He also forms an experimental group that makes improvisational music out of non-musical sounds, influenced by avant-garde composer John Cage.

Morricone goes on to compose the scores of over 500 films, working with Italian masters like Pasolini, Wertmüller and Bertolucci, the giallo horror/thriller director Dario Argento, and Giuseppe Tornatore director of Oscar winner Cinema Paradiso (who also directed this doc).

Ennio died in 2020, and this film is as much a loving tribute to the composer as it is a documentary. While it reveals Morricone’s personality quirks, there are no scandals or salacious secrets of his private life. It’s told using film clips, period footage, audio tracks and many talking heads commenting about him, including fellow composers, John Williams and Hans Zimmer, stars and directors he worked with like Quentin Tarantino Terrance Mallick and Clint Eastwood. (Eastwood says something like Morricone’s music provided the emotions that he never could) Then there are also a bunch of celebs — Bruce Springsteen, Pat Metheny, Wong Kar-Wai — who probably never worked with him, but just felt like praising him or commenting on how he influenced them. Ennio is an informative and fascinating doc, and I liked it a lot, but… couldn’t Tornatore  have told this story in 90 minutes, instead of the two and a  half hours he took?

Mr Malcolm’s List

Dir: Emma Holly Jones

It’s England in the early 19th century. Julia and Selina were best friends at boarding school, but haven’t seen each other in years. Which is why Selina the pure and virtuous daughter of a country vicar (Freida Pinto) is surprised to receive an invitation to visit Julia an upper-class city woman (Zawe Ashton), after all these years. But she does have a reason: she was slighted by a man who took her to the opera once and never called back. The man is Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dirisu), who is also the most eligible bachelor in town, not least because he inherited a lot of money. And Julia can’t bear being slighted in public (made even worse when it was depicted in a widely circulated cartoon pamphlet). First Julia turns to her cousin Cassy (Oliver Jackson Cohen) who happens to be Malcolm’s best friend and wingman, who knows all of his secrets. Somehow he leaks the biggest secret of all: that Mr Malcolm keeps a list of 10 characteristics a woman must have for him to consider marrying her — things like talent, poise, intelligence, a knowledge of politics, literature and the arts and one who easily forgives small offences. 

Enter Selina. Would she go along with Julia’s scheme — to date Mr Malcolm, knowing what was on that list, and afterwards to dump him — so Julia can get her sweet revenge? Selina is hesitant but agrees at least to meet him. And wouldn’t you know it? It’s love at first sight. This is further complicated by another man, a dashing military officer (Theo James), who likes Celina a lot, and happens to be in town on the same day. Which one will she choose? And if it’s Mr Malcolm, what will become of Julia’s nefarious revenge plot?

Mr Malcolm’s List is a classic, Jane Austen-style light romantic comedy, complete with a masquerade ball, a hidden scheme, whacky relatives,  and star-crossed lovers. There are also some modern twists. The most obvious is the colour-blind casting, with Black, Indian, White and East Asian actors playing the various roles, without ever bringing up questions of race or ethnicity. Like the musical Hamilton, the film The Personal History of David Copperfield, and, most recently, the Netflix series Bridgerton, this film shows that race on the screen doesn’t need to have any special significance — it just is. Family bloodlines and facial resemblances are not part of the plot. I think it works great in this movie, and I hope to see more of it. The mansions are all stately, the costumes — though a bit odd-looking — are all pretty. And the actors and the characters they play are quite delicious.  They’re clearly having a good time doing this. You can revel in their ludicrous scheming without ever taking it too seriously. Even the credits — accompanied by quaint hand-coloured drawings — are delightful. Rom-coms are not my cuppa tea, but if I have to watch one, I like it when they‘re like this.

Ennio is one of many films playing at the ICFF;  Mr Maxwell’s List, as well as  Minions: the Rise of Gru both open this weekend: check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Ry Levey about Out in the Ring

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Canada, documentary, Fighting, LGBT, Pop Culture, Sports by CulturalMining.com on May 21, 2022

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

Picture this: scantily clad men and woman grope each other in same-sex displays. Over-the-top performers dressed in outrageous costumes , wigs and makeup, posture  before shrieking crowds. What are we talking about here: gay and lesbian porn? Or maybe Rupaul’s Drag Race? No! This is the world of pro-wrestling, known for both it’s outright campy behaviour and its homo-erotic displays, along with a deep-seated record of discrimination against LGBT wrestlers. That was the past, and things have changed. But what is it like now to be “out in the ring”?

Out in the Ring is a new documentary, over four years in the making that traces the history of LGBT people in and around the world of pro-wrestling. It talks with athletes, present and past, famous and infamous. It also meticulously traces their history, giving both an insiders’ visceral view and an outsiders’ critical stance. And it delves deep into the sometimes shady business of pro-wrestling.  It’s the work of producer/ director Ry Levey — a labour of love.

I spoke with Ry Levey in Toronto via ZOOM.

Out in the Ring is having its world premier at the Inside Out film festival on June 3rd, at 4:45 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Chase Joynt about Framing Agnes at Hot Docs

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, documentary, L.A., LGBT, Mystery, Queer, Secrets, Trans, UCLA by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2022

Garber-April-23-22-interview

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

It’s the late 1950s in Los Angeles. While the world’s attention is on Christina Jorgensen, the charismatic transgendered celebrity who flew back from Copenhagen as a new woman, a much quieter clinic at UCLA was also conducting treatment and surgery of transgendered patients. And into this office stepped a young woman named Agnes who said despite being a cis male she grew breasts spontaneously upon reaching puberty — a celebrated case. But later Agnes admitted she made it all up so she would qualify for gender reassignment surgery. Why did Agnes have to lie to get much-needed treatment?

Framing Agnes is a new and unusual documentary based on newly uncovered medical files that look at Agnes and her other unsung contemporaries from that era. Made in the style of a 1950s talk show, it includes reenactments, off-screen conversations, period footage as seen through a present-day filter. Using trans actors, it meticilously presents interviews as “real”, immediately followed by footage showing that they’re only acting. It deals with hot topics, ranging from gender, sexuality and identity, to trans youth, and visibility vs invisibility. This first feature is the work of  prize-winning writer and filmmaker Chase Joynt, who co-directed No Ordinary Man, about jazz musician Billy Tipton, and co-authored You Only Live Twice with Toronto artist Mike Holboom.

I spoke with Chase Joynt in Chicago, via Zoom.

Framing Agnes is premiering in Toronto at Hot Docs on Sunday, May 1, 8:30pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

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