Guys doing stuff. Films reviewed: Nobody, Six Minutes to Midnight, Judas and the Black Messiah

Posted in 1930s, 1960s, Espionage, FBI, Nazi, Resistance, Suburbs, Thriller, UK, Uncategorized, WWII by CulturalMining.com on March 26, 2021

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

A few weeks ago. I did International Women’s Day, so this week I’m looking at three new movies about guys doing stuff. There’s a WWII drama about a spy in a school for Nazi girls, a ‘60s drama about an FBI rat in the Black Panther Party, and an action-thriller about an ordinary, middle-aged man who decides to fight against the Mafia.

Nobody

Dir: Ilya Naishuller

Hutch (Bob Odenkirk) is a ordinary guy who lives in the suburbs with his wife and two kids. He works at a dull desk job in a nondescript factory, a life that, while not perfect, is what he wants. But when his house in broken into by a pair of amateur burglars., everything falls apart. His his son no longer respects him and his wife seems bored by his very existence.  She married a wimp. Something has got to change. So Hutch sets out to channel his anger and aggression. 

He gets his chance when a pack of hoods boards a city bus and begin harassing and threatening a teenaged girl. So he decides to pick a fight. They’re younger, stronger and meaner than he is, and there’s six of them. Is there something about Hutch we don’t know? The good news is he beats all six to a pulp, sending them to hospital. The bad news is one of them dies. Worse news is he’s the younger brothers of a notoriously powerful Russian mob boss named Yulian (Aleksey Serebryakov). Yulian is cruel, sadistic and vengeful, with a veritable army of supporters. Can Hutch face down an entire Russian mob? Or is he, and his family, doomed to die?

Nobody is a great action thriller, extremely violent but quite entertaining. There are car chases and excellent fight scenes — many without guns — and a pace that is constantly moving.  You might know Odinkirk from the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul, not your average action hero, but he pulls it off perfectly. And Serebryakov as the villain is also fascinating — he’s actually a famous Russian actor, in movies like Leviathan.  Also Christopher Lloyd as an elderly action hero, and RZA, of Wu Tang fame, rounding out the slate. This is actually a Russian movie (though it’s mainly in English and shot in Winnipeg) and the director, Ilya Naishuller, does really cool stuff with his camera, eliding entire days into just a few seconds on the screen. I like the look and feel and mood and music he uses. There’s nothing deep or socially relevant or meaningful about this film, it’s just a fun and exciting action movie about fights, explosions, guns and cars, skillfully done.

Six Minutes to Midnight

Dir: Andy Goddard

It’s the summer of 1939 in Bexhill-on-Sea, a small coastal town in southeastern England. The girls at Augusta-Victoria College, a prestigious boarding school, are out for their morning swim. They’re excited because a new English teacher is coming that day. The school is run by a stern headmistress (Judi Dench) who is adamant about teaching girls poise, grace and maybe a bit of knowledge. And while she’s suspicious of the new “gentleman teacher” Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard), she likes the fact he plays the piano. And the girls — including Ilsa (Carla Juri), their leader, Astrid the rebel, and Gretel the bullied girl with glasses — all enjoy singing in class. But what’s so special about this school?  All the young women there are Germans. And not just ordinary Germans, but the daughters and granddaughters of the Nazi elite.

Mr Miller knows all about this before he arrives. He’s a British spy on a secret mission: to find out what’s going on behind closed doors. But when his handler, a Colonel, is assassinated before his very eyes, things get dangerous. He’s blamed for the killing, labeled a German spy, and has no way to contact headquarters to clear his name. Meanwhile,  German sympathizers are everywhere — who can he trust? Europe is on the brink of war, and something major is about to happen to the girls in the academy. Can Miller free himself, save the girls, and stop the German war effort? Or is he doomed to failure?

Six Minutes to Midnight is an enjoyable WWII thriller. It’s filled with classic skullduggery, like hidden cameras, double crossers and political intrigue. Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench are good, along with James D’Arcy as a police captain, Jim Broadbent as a bus driver, plus a bevy of talented German and Swiss actresses.

I guess I’m a sucker for British historical dramas, but… they do them so well!

Judas and the Black Messiah

Dir: Shaka King

It’s the summer of ’68 in Chicago. Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is the young local head of the Black Panther Party. They supply meals for poor kids and plan to open a medical centre. He takes up with Deborah (Dominique Fishback) a young idealistic poet. Fred is also known for his rabble-rousing speeches, done without a mic, calling for revolution, instead of just posturing: Political power doesn’t flow from the sleeve of a dashiki, he says. You have to do something, don’t just talk about it. Because 1968 is a time of change, with  the war in Vietnam, the Democratic convention, and massive marches and demos going on in downtown Chicago. 

Naturally, J Edgar Hoover and the FBI don’t like it at all. They label the Panthers “dangerous extremists” and decide to go all out to stop them, with their notorious and illegal operation known as COINTELPRO. They plan to infiltrate, jail or kill the Panthers, whom they call a subversive criminal group. 

Meanwhile, there’s Wild Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) a petty grifter  and car thief who poses as an FBI agent to rob other blacks. He’s caught, threatened with prison or worse, and forced to work as a rat for the FBI. It’s a carrot and stick operation. His handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), possibly the whitest guy in the world, shares the wealth — cigars, expensive alcohol, and envelopes of cash. He just has to betray the panthers, incite violence, and draw maps of their headquarters for illegal break-ins and assassinations. 

Judas and the Black Messiah is a fantastic historical dramatic thriller about major social movements and the the US government’s attempt to stop it. The title suggests it’s about two clashing forces, Hampton and O’Neal, the revolutionary and the traitor, facing off. But actually they seldom interact. It’s actually a story divided into two points of view, the FBI, and the Black Panther Party. It’s full of stuff I hadn’t heard about — things like Hampton organizing working-class whites, Puerto Ricans and Blacks in order to form a united front based on class, not race. Kaluuya and Stanfield were in the movie Get Out together and they’re both unrecognizable; they totally get into their roles here. It’s an important issue told in a cinematic way… and it’s nominated for for academy awards this year.

Great movie.

Nobody and Six  Minutes to Midnight are available starting today, and Judas and the Black Messiah is coming soon.  

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

 

Separated. Films reviewed: Dear Comrades!, A Glitch in the Matrix, Two of Us

Posted in 1960s, documentary, Family, France, Lesbian, LGBT, Protest, Psychology, Romance, Russia, TIFF, USSR, video games, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 5, 2021

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

Festival and award season has begun, so this week I’m looking at three new movies – from the US, Russia and France – now playing at Sundance or already nominated for upcoming awards. There are people who believe perception is separate from reality; a Communist official separated from her daughter; and an elderly woman separated from the love of her life.

Dear Comrades!

Co-Wri/Dir: Andrey Konchalovskiy 

It’s summer in a small Russian city on the Don River, and the people are angry. Food prices are soaring while wages are going down. Thousands of factory workers take to the streets carrying red flags and pictures of Lenin. Is this the Russian revolution of 1905? Or is it 1917?

Neither… it’s the Soviet Union in 1962!

Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya) is a single mom who lives with her and her daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova) who works in a train factory, She’s an ardent Stalinist. And because she’s an apparatchik — a high-placed local official and member of the Communist Party — she lives a good life. This means access to hair salons, nylon stockings, negligees, and Hungarian salami. She’s having an affair with a married official. 

The food shortages and wage cuts don’t really affect her.

But her life is shaken up by the  walkout at a locomotive factory (where Svetka works) and spreading across the city of Novocherkassk. And their meetings — they’re trying to figure out how to handle this — end up with bricks through the window and Lyuda and the rest forced to sneak out through a sewer tunnel. In comes the KGB who want to bring guns ammunition into the equation: the instigators must be stopped. Mayhem and killings ensue. Lyuda is a hardliner, but when her daughter disappears she has to decide whether her loyalty is to the state or to her kin.

Dear Comrades is a moving drama about a real event and the massive cover-up that followed it. It’s shot in glorious, high-contrast black and white, similar to Polish director Pawilowski’s Ida and Cold War, but with magnificent, classic cinematic scenes involving hundreds of rioters and soldiers in the public square. Yuliya Vysotskaya’s  performance as Lyuda runs the gamut from cold official to angry mother to disillusioned and drunken party member as her entire existence and beliefs are called into question.

This is Russia’s nominee for best foreign film Oscar and definitely deserves to be seen.

A Glitch in the Matrix

Dir: Rodney Ascher 

Have you ever had the sensation that everything around you — other people, your job, what you see and hear — is an illusion, that you’re living in a programmed reality? If so, you’re not alone. A new documentary talks to people who are convinced they are trapped in a world like the Wachowskis’ 1999 movie The Matrix, where everything they perceive is just a computer simulation. And anyone else — other than one’s self — is either a part of this conspiracy, or a victim of it, or they don’t even exist outside of your head. And it is only detectable by paying attention to weird glitches in the system, like odd examples of deja vu, or coincidences that are too absurd or fantastical to be merely random events. 

The doc interviews people rendered into 3-D animated avatars who tell about their own experiences. It also gives a full history of these beliefs, dating back to Plato’s concept of shadows on the wall of a cave, through Descarte’s  epistemological example of an “Evil Demon” deceiving us, all the way to the present. This includes a rare recording of a speech given by author Phillip K Dick in the 1970s, who says the ideas in his books are not science fiction but science fact. His stories inspired movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall.

A Glitch in the Matrix is a fascinating, informative and bizarre documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival a couple days ago. Aside from the animated interviews and narration, it presents a veritable tsunami of visual references to movies and TV shows video games that deal with these topics. I’m talking hundreds of clips, from the game Minecraft, to The Truman Show, to the kids’ book Horton Hears a Who, all of which propose that there are worlds or universes who don’t know they are just tiny self-contained units within much larger realities.

Do I believe I’m living in a glass dome or floating in a sensory deprivation tank? No. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying this mind-warp of a documentary.

Two of Us

Co-Wri/Dir: Filippo Meneghetti

Nina and Madeleine (Barbara Sukowa, Martine Chevallier) are two elderly women who live in Paris (Nina’s originally from Berlin). They first met as children in a public park in Rome, and kept in touch ever since. And for the past 20 years they’ve been passionate lovers who share one floor of an apartment building, floating back and forth between the two homes separated by a hallway. And they’re planning on selling them leaving Paris and retiring somewhere in Rome. The only thing holding them back are Madeleine (or Made as Nina calls her)’s two adult children and her Anne and Frédéric and her grandson Théo.

She was married to an abusive husband for Amy years until he died, though her actual relationship was with her lover Nina. But she’s never told her family the truth — she’s too worried about what they’ll think. But when Mado has a sudden stroke rendering her speechless, Nina is suddenly separated from her de facto wife. Mado’s family just think of her as the kindly neighbour Mme Dorn who lives down the hall. They bring in a paid caregiver who blocks her entry into the other apartment. When Nina demands to spend time with her lover, Anne and Frederic begin to regard Nina as a crazy woman who won’t leave their mother alone and cut off all contact. Will Nina and Mado ever see each other again?  And can their relationship be saved?

Two of Us is a wonderful and passionate drama about two elderly lovers. It’s the young, Paris-based Italian director’s first feature, but it feels mature and masterfully done. And it co-stars the great Barbara Sukowa (If you’re into German cinema, you may remember her from movies in the 70s and 80s by Fassbinder and more recently by von Trotta), Sukowa is just as good now as she’s ever been.  And Chevalier conveys volumes even when she can’t speak. The movie is full of pathos and tears and frustration and joy, you feel so much for both of them.

Two of Us is France’s nominee for best Foreign Oscar, and it’s definitely worth seeing.

A Glitch in the Matrix starts today, and Dear Comrade and Two of Us are both opening at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Family Crises. Films reviewed: Our Friend, Phobic, Falling

Posted in 1960s, 2000s, Disease, Drama, Family, Friendship, Horror, LGBT, Mental Illness, Mystery, Police, Psychological Thriller by CulturalMining.com on January 29, 2021

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

It may be cold, but February is offering some film festivals to enjoy in your own warm homes. TBFF Toronto Black Film Festival is coming mid-month, showing unique and dynamic black voices in Canada. JFF Plus is showing Japanese features shorts and anime, all free beginning in a week. And Hot Docs is running its annual Podcast Festival right now. But this week I’m looking at three new movies that explore family troubles. There’s a police detective chasing a serial killer; a journalist taking care of his dying wife; and an airline pilot dealing with his father’s dementia.

Our Friend

Dir: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

(Based on an article in Esquire by Matthew Teague)

It’s the early 2000s. Matt (Casey Affleck) is a print journalist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He’s married to Nicole (Dakota Johnson) a stage actress starring in musicals. They have two  young kids. Matt’s career is taking off, and while he’s a foreign correspondent covering wars in Pakistan and the middle east, Nicole has stayed home to care of the kids. But both their lives are disrupted by shocking news: she has cancer. They soon find the two of them can’t handle the triple threat of job, kids and cancer, never mind their own relationship. So they call for help from a good friend. Dane (Jason Segal) is an actor and a comic who has known them with for ages. His relationship is shaky and so is his job status. So he agrees to bunk at their home and help ease the burden. He soon becomes a part of the family, a second mom and dad to the kids, and a comfort to Matt and Nicole dealing with the pains of illness and the threat of death.

Our Friend is a dramatization of Matthew Teague’s personal memoir of a decade living with his wife’s cancer with the help of their friend. It’s told in flashbacks explicitly dated by the number of years before or after Nicole Teague’s diagnosis. As such, it holds very few surprises. Even when she’s healthy we all know that in a year a two she’s going to get sick and eventually die. Almost preordained. So there’s a melancholy inevitability to the story, as we’re walked through anger, denial, and stages of diagnosis, chemo, remission,  metastasis, psychosis, palliative care and finally death. This is a sentimental and sad movie told in a clean, palatable way. It’s all about family relationships and friendships. Surprisingly though it’s not a tearjerker so it didn’t give me the deep emotional purge I was expecting. Apparently, the magazine article it was based on was amazingly popular, and the acting is good enough, but this movie didn’t move me.

Phobic

Wri/Dir: Bryce Clark

Riley Sanders (Jacque Gray) is a police detective in Utah. She has blonde hair a svelte body and a stern expression on her face. She’s rejoining the force after recovering from a violent incident. Her new partner is Paul (Devin Liljenquist) has a lantern jaw and soap opera looks. Is there a spark between them? They’ve never met but their fathers worked together in the past; they’re both second-generation cops. Their first case? A serial killer with a strange M.O. The victims are all found chained to a chair in a locked room. One is in a place painted red. Another with snakes writhing around his feet. What do they have in common? They were scared to death.

Turns out the victims are all patients of the same psychiatrist, a certain Dr Holden (Tiffani DiGregorio) who uses new techniques to cure “phobics” of their darkest fears. First she diagnoses them using Rorschach inkblot tests, then, through therapy and the use of a strobe light, unlocks her patients’ inner strength to conquer their irrational phobias. But she’s highly protective of her files and won’t let the detectives see them. Meanwhile, Riley has a phobia of her own, a fear of the dark. What is Dr Holden’s role in these grisly deaths? What is her connection to Riley? Are Riley and Paul a thing? And can they catch the elusive killer before the killer kills them?

Phobic is ostensibly a psychological thriller about  a serial killer that preys on the victims’ worst fears. An interesting concept. The problem is, it’s not thrilling.  It’s about as scary as an old episode of CSI. It’s too slow, clumsily directed, and badly edited. Even the props seem to be done on the cheap. The story looks promising at first but goes totally off-kilter toward the end. Sorry to say, this movie is a mess.

Falling

Wri/Dir: Viggo Mortensen

It’s the early 1960s. Willis (Sverrir Gudnason) is young man from Boonville, NY, who lives on a farm with his wife Gwen (Martha Gross). He likes hunting, horses and fishing, but not much else. On the day his son Johnny is born he says he’s sorry he brought the little stinker into this world. Fifty years later, John (Viggo Mortensen) is an airline pilot happily married to his husband Eric (Terry Chen) with their inquisitive daughter. He lives in sunny California, not far from his younger sister Sarah (Laura Linney). Willis is old now (Lance Henricksen), and Gwen is long gone, so his adult children are trying to find him a place near them to live out his final years. The problem is he’s still the same rude, angry  and violent sonofabitch they remember from their childhood. If not worse. He’s a smoker and a drinker. He’s xenophobioc, paranoid, racist, misogynistic and homophobic. He’s rude and lecherous, ogling women and swearing at men. He says all women are whores, and calls his adult son, an airforce vet, a fairy. On top of that, he’s losing it — prone to wandering away, forgetting where he is or why he’s there. How long can John keep calm and put up with his father? And will Willis ever make peace with the world… and himself?

Falling is a drama about a father and son, set in the past and the present. It jumps back and forth through memories shared by John and Willis, as their stories, and how they ended up how they are, are gradually revealed. This is a great movie, directed and written by actor Viggo Mortensen who plays John, but it’s really about Willis. It’s a fascinating and realistic character study about this hateable, but totally watchable, man and his cringeworthy but funny behaviour and motives. It’s a character study but not  a caricature. Gudnason is great as the young Willis, but Henricksen as the old Willis fighting dementia is stupendous. It’s beautifully shot among nature at a wintry, snow covered farm, and beneath the hot pacific sun. Falling is harshly funny, cruel, constantly surprising and quite touching. This is an excellent movie.

Our Friend and Phobic are now playing, and Falling opens next Friday.

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

The Fathers and the Mothers. Films reviewed: The Goddess of Fortune, Zappa

Posted in 1960s, Cold War, documentary, Family, Gay, Italy, L.A., LGBT, Music, Romance by CulturalMining.com on November 26, 2020

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

In Toronto, we’re locked up at home, while in the States they’re huddled around Covid-lit fires eating turkey as Rome burns. This week I’m looking at an two new movies, an Italian drama and an American documentary. We’ve got impromptu fathers in Rome, and the mothers of invention in LA.

The Goddess of Fortune

Wri/Dir: Ferzan Ozpetek

Arturo and Allesandro (Stefano Accorsi, Edoardo Leo) are a happy Italian couple in a long-term relationship. Arturo is an academic translator who works at home, while Allesandro is a plumber. There relationship is strong but missing some of it’s original pizzazz. They still sleep together in the same bed, but the don’t “sleep together”. Allesandro settles for quickies on the sly, while Arturo is celibate. But they still have their friends and neighbours, a close-knit family that spans the straight and LGBT world in all its aspects, ethnicities and languages.

But their lives are disrupted by an unexpected arrival. Annamaria (Jasmine Trinca: The Son’s Room, The Best of Youth) is a single mom with two kids, the stern Martina and the innocent Sandro. She was dating Allesandro when he met Arturo, but remains close after they broke up. Now she’s visiting Rome for medical tests – she suffers from extreme migraines – and is leaving the kids with them for a few days. Allesandro takes Sandro on his plumbing trips, teaching him how to fix pipes, while Arturo serves as a temporary teacher for Martina. But the idyllic relationship begins to fade as jealousies and suspicions rise to the surface. Is Arturo having a secret affair? Is Sandro Allesandro’s biological son? Is Annamaria’s ailment more dangerous than they thought? And if things get worse, who will take care of the kids?

The Goddess of Fortune is a warm-and-fuzzy gay family drama with great characters and some surprising plot turns. With an attractive cast, it’s beautifully shot amidst the decaying palaces and frescos of Palermo, Sicily, which gives parts of the film a spooky feel. The director, Ferzan Ozpetek, is well known to Toronto audiences – originally from Istanbul, he’s been making romantic dramas in Italy, usually with a gay theme, for 20 years now. If you like his films, or just feel-good dramas in general, let The Goddess of Fortune shine bright on you.

Zappa

Dir: Alex Winter

Frank Zappa was an American composer, musician and prominent counter-culture figure. He is known for his driven personality, his prolific output, and his innovations in the field of experimental music, as well as for his hit singles and albums. His music is uncategorizeable, but is simultaneously both frenetic and precise, with a subversive feel, far outside the mainstream. This new documentary looks at his entire life and career, using largely unseen super-8, video, TV and film from Zappa’s vast collection.

Frank Zappa was born into an Italian-American family in Baltimore during WWII. His dad worked in an arms factory making nerve gas and chemical weapons. The beakers and gas masks his dad brought home for the kids to play with instilled in young Frank a love of explosives and both a fascination with and repulsion toward the macabre US arms industry, a view that stayed with him for most of his life. (He was also a fan of Spike Jones and Ernie Kovacs.) The family moved to small-town California in his teens where he started composing and performing music. His entry into the avant-garde was spurred by a Look magazine article mentioning Edgard Varese, described as an unlistenable composer (reason enough for him to want to hear more). He later worked as a greeting card artist, and wrote the scores for low-budget films. He was driven out of Cucamonga in a vice-squad sting that accused him of making porn movies.

But when he arrived in LA in the 60s, he found his stride. He began performing at the Whiskey a Go Go, where he met his wife Gail. And with his band, The Mothers of Invention, began recording and touring his music. Classic songs like Dynamo Hum, placed him within the “sexual revolution”. He was also a hero within the psychedelic drug movement, though he said he didn’t touch the stuff. While never a huge hit, his albums sold well, he had a devoted fan base, and was respected by other musicians. To give you an idea of his eclectic nature, Zappa performed with or alongside people like Lenny Bruce, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Flo and Eddie of The Turtles, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and conductor Zubin Mehta. The members of The Mothers changed over the years, but all were accomplished musicians whom Zappa directed with an iron grip. He was not known for showing emotions and had no tolerance of imprecise performances. (He was a mean mofo.)

In the 1980s he left the establishment and formed his own independent record company. Ironically, he hit his first commercial success and had his only top 10 hit with a novelty song, Valley Girl, where his daughter, Moon Unit Zappa, provided a perfect imitation of the San Fernando dialect.  Later he became an outspoken critic of government censorship, including the classifying of popular music using warning labels. He was also invited to perform in Prague just as Czechoslovakia (where he was considered a national hero) threw off Soviet control. He died of cancer in the early 1990s.

This documentary film by Alex Winter is an overwhelming panoply, a barrage of audio and visual images, both public and private, as well as new interviews with musicians he worked with. It’s less concerned with Zappa’s private life than his astoundingly prolific career and his innovations in experimental music. It’s produced by his son Ahmet and features a lengthy interview with his late wife Gail, so, while not a white-washed hagiography, it’s not a scandal-doc, either.

Whether or not you’re a fan of his music, Zappa is a must-see documentary, an unforgettable look at the man, the era he lived in, and the influence he had.

Zappa is available on VOD and in selected theatres starting today; and The Goddess of Fortune is on VOD beginning next week. 

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

Against the Grain. Films reviewed: Judy vs Capitalism, Monkey Beach, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted in 1960s, Canada, Depression, documentary, drugs, Ghosts, Indigenous, Magic, Police, Politics, Poverty, Protest, Resistance, Trial, War by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2020

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

Toronto’s Fall Film Festival Season continues with ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival, the world’s largets indigenous film festival, and Rendezvous with Madness, the first and largest arts and mental health festival in the world, both running through Sunday, the 25th.

This week I’m talking about three new movies – a doc, a drama and a courtroom pic – about people who go against the grain. There’s a young woman resisting ghosts, another woman fighting anti-abortion activists; and boomers protesting the war in Vietnam.

Judy vs Capitalism

Dir: Mike Holboom

Judy Rebick is a well-known activist and writer in Toronto. As a former Trotskyite revolutionary turned writer and TV commentator, she’s a pro-choice feminist and socialist known for slogans like “Radical is Practical”. She can be seen everywhere, from CBC panels to tent-city protests. A new documentary looking at her life divides it into six stages: Family – her dad was a baseball player quick to pick fights; Weight – she says she has a pair of hips “like two battleships”; Feminism – women’s bodies and the violence they face; Abortion – her hands-on role in legalizing reproductive rights in Canada; Others – her struggles with depression and mental health; and End Notes – her views on various political topics, like the rise of neo-liberalism, the war in Gaza, and as head of NAC, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

Did you know she single-handedly fought off a man trying to stab Dr Henry Morgantaler with a pair of garden shears? This film includes footage of that in slow motion. Each section begins with a speech – some mundane talks in lecture halls, others shouted through a bullhorn at a rally. Judy vs Capitalism is directed by artist/filmmaker Mike Holboom in his patented style: clear sound and straightforward narration, combined with avant-garde images: slow motion, high speed, underwater photography, blurred and melting visuals, random faces… basically Holboom’s interpretations of Rebick’s moods, memories, thoughts and ideas rather than the typical clips you might expect in a conventional biography.  Judy vs Capitalism is an experimental look at a Canadian icon.

Monkey Beach

Dir: Loretta Todd (Based on the novel by Eden Robinson)

Lisa (Grace Dove) is a young woman who lives in East Vancouver. She’s been there for the past two years with nothing to show for it but a bad hangover. Till her friend Tab tells her it’s time to go home, back to her family in the Haisla community in Kitimat. So she does. Her family is shocked but delighted to to see her – they weren’t even sure she was still alive. There’s her mom and dad, her little brother Jimmy (Joel Oulette) a swimming champ, and her Uncle Mick (Adam Beach) who told her at an early age to say “f*ck the oppressors!” Then there’s her grandma Ma-Ma-Oo (Tina Lameman) who taught Lisa everything she knows… including things she doesn’t want to know. Like why a little man with red hair keeps appearing. A crow talks to her, and ghosts (people who should be dead) appear to her in real, human form. (Tab, for example, was murdered but she’s still around.) Worst of all are the dreams and premonitions she keeps having – that her brother Jimmy, the swimmer – is going to drown. Are her powers a gift or a curse? Can she ever live normally? And can she keep Jimmy out of the water?

Monkey Beach is a good YA drama filmed in the gorgeous forests and waters of Kitimat in the pacific northwest, with a uniformly good indigenous cast. It incorporates traditional Haisla culture and practices with contemporary, realistic social problems, sprinkled with the supernatural. And it flashes back and forth between the present day and Lisa’s childhood. I like this movie but I can’t help but compare it to the CBC TV series Trickster, which is edgier, faster-moving and more complex. They’re both based on Eden Robinson’s novels – Monkey Beach was her first, showing many of the themes later explored in Son of a Trickster. That said, if you’re a fan of Trickster, you’ll want to see Monkey Beach, too.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Wri/Dir: Aaron Sorkin

It’s the summer of ‘68 in the USA, and the youth are restless. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had just been killed, with demonstrations springing up across the country. The US is embroiled in an increasingly senseless war in Vietnam and it’s an election year. So droves of young people converge on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, to have their voices heard. The protests are brutally crushed by police and state troopers. Nixon is elected in November, and the protest leaders, known as the Chicago 7, are arrested and put on trial. The defendants are from the SDS – Students for a Democratic Society, a radical group that sprung out of the labour movement – led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the Yippies, founded by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin who use performance and pranks to forward their agenda; anti-war activist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch);  and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) co-founder of the Black Panther Party, known both for its militant image and progressive social programs. The charge? Conspiracy, even though these group leaders had never met one other.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is two-hour film that manages to condense hundreds of days of testimony into a few key scenes. This includes a shocking re-enactment of the binding and gagging of Bobby Seale in the courtroom. The script’s pace is fast, the production values excellent, and the acting is superb, especially Baron-Cohen in an unusual funny-serious role, Mark Rylance as their lawyer, William Kunstler, Frank Langella as the unjust judge Julius Hoffman, and Lynch as the veteran pacifist. Women are invisible in this film, except as receptionists, wives-of and one undercover FBI agent. I was glued to the screen the entire time. Still, it leaves me with an uneasy feeling Aaron Sorkin has done some subtle, historic slight of hand. He portrays the anti-war movement as mainly about honouring and saving the lives of American soldiers, not Vietnamese civilians. It buries the aims of the defendants beneath petty squabbles. And somehow he takes a protest aimed squarely at Democratic politicians — the hawks and conservative Democrats in a city and state run by that party — into a Democrats vs Republican division…!

Hmm…

Judy vs Capitalism is at Rendezvous with Madness; Monkey Beach is at ImagineNative, both through Sunday; and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now streaming on Netflix.

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

Histories. Films reviewed: Hollywood, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Academy Awards, Acting, documentary, Economics, Ensemble Cast, Hollywood, Movies, Poverty, Slavery, Wall Street by CulturalMining.com on May 8, 2020

(Home recording, no music)

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

History, they say, is written by the victors, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other histories still out there. This week I’m looking at two stories, a doc and a TV drama. There’s a pessimistic, economic history of the world; and an optimistic, revisionist history of Hollywood.

Hollywood

Creators: Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy

It’s just after WWII in LA. Young people from small towns across the US are flocking to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune in the movies. People like Jack (David Corenswet), a handsome young actor who lines up each day at Ace studios on the chance of a day’s paid work as an extra. But a pretty face is no guarantee of steady work in Hollywood. So when a mysterious man named Ernie (Dylan McDermott) recruits him for a day job at a gas station he welcomes the extra income. He’s stuck in a loveless marriage with his pregnant wife who works at the famed Schwab’s Pharmacy (where actors hang out to get discovered). Camille (Laura Harrier) is a beautiful actress on contract at Ace, where she attends locution lessons to perfect her elegant mid-atlantic accent. Still she’s stuck playing demeaning roles as maids, simply because she’s black. Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) is a talentless but good looking actor who thinks his luck has changed when he is signed by an agent named Henry (Jim Parsons). But the power broker demands sexual favours from all his clients.

Luckily, these three actors all have love interests. Jack soon discovers his job isn’t about pumping gas. It’s a front for male sex workers to peddle their wares for Hollywood’s rich and famous. Powerful women, including an older woman named Avis (Patti LuPone), grant him a chance for a foot in the door in a real movie. At the gas station, he works beside Archie (Jeremy Pope) a black writer hoping Ace studios will produce his script about a failed actress

HOLLYWOOD

who kills herself by jumping off the famed Hollywood sign. His first client is none other than Rock Hudson, looking for male companionship. Camille is in a relationship with Raymond (Darren Criss) a director at Ace. He says he’s part-Asian but can pass as white. And he wants to direct that movie Archie wrote, bringing all the main characters of the series together in one production. But is Ace Studios – and America – ready for a multi-racial romance?

Hollywood is a TV mini-series that appears to give an insider’s view of the post-war movie industry, but actually it makes it all up. The infamous casting couch – where directors or producers forced woman to have sex with them in exchange for a part – is reversed here to make men both the victims and the objects of desire. In this fantasy world, 1940s Hollywood produces movies written by, directed by, and starring non-whites. Studios are headed by women, actors come out publicly as gay and the Academy Awards happily nominates lots of African-Americans. In reality, desegregation and repeal of Jim Crow laws was decades away, “miscegenation” – mixed racial marriage – was still illegal, homosexuality was a crime, and even today Hollywood (and the Oscars) are still as white as snow.

About the only true part of this series is the gas station used as a front for male hustlers. All of this was revealed in a book and a documentary featuring the late, great Scotty Bowers (I interviewed him here in 2018.) The Netflix series is the story of his career… but he’s never mentioned by name, even once. I don’t dislike the series – it’s never boring, it’s fun to watch and has beautiful production values along with many interesting new players in the cast – but, like most Netflix productions, historical accuracy applies to hairstyles but never to the script.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Dir: Justin Pemberton

Based on the book by Thomas Piketty

What is capital? How is it distributed? How has that changed over the past three centuries? These are just some of the questions dealt with in this new documentary. In the 18th Century 99% of capital – meaning wealth, money and land – was controlled by the aristocracy, less than 1% of the people. Life expectancy was low, and life for the poor was nasty, brutish and short. But revolutionis, in France and elsewhere, didn’t mean a transfer of power and weath from the top to the bottom. Government was still controlled by those with the most money and laws were passed to ensure they didn’t lose their wealth. The rise of colonialism in the Americas, Africa and Asia led to more wealth in Europe extracted from the lands and people they now controlled. Slave-based agriculture generated even more capital – in the form of human beings – now bought, sold and traded like commodities. And people working in factories could be arrested even for quitting a job, and imprisoned for being poor or in debt. But, following the widespread death and destruction of WWI and the following worldwide depression, came the first signs of a transfer of power and capital from huge corporate monopolies and the very rich to the rest of the people.

Following WWII, the remaining aristocracy was heavily taxed, and wealth was transferred to the average person in the form of housing, education, health and the welfare state. People were finally rewarded for study and hard work. They were able to move up from poverty. This lasted for a few decades, until it began to unravel with new ideologies introduced by Thatcher and Reagan. Unions and welfare were suddenly bad. Greed was good. And once again, wealth was transferred from the poor and shrinking middle class back up to the top 1%. That’s where we are now.

How can we reverse these awful changes?

This documentary is a fascinating — and fast-moving – condensed look at economic history over the past 300 years and how it affects us today. It’s narrated by Pickety and other economists in a very accessible and easy to understand way. And it’s beautiful to look at, filled with thousands of tiny, quick film clips, mostly one to three seconds long, of stately homes and Victorian factories, mints printing dollar bills, Thatcher talking to schoolgirls, and people breathing through face masks in a horribly polluted Beijing. The images and music are as meticulously researched as they are lovely. Constant eye-candy.

Even the talking heads, those usually dull academics interviewed in the doc, are enthusiastic and interesting, and uniformly filmed against lavish backgrounds and scenery. And it’s filled with cool sequences. l loved one about a psychological experiment where volunteers play Monopoly without a level playing field – it favours certain players at random. These newly “rich” players are recorded acting rude, scarfing pretzels and generally behaving entitled as soon as they discovered the rules were tilted in their favour. So if you want to learn about history and economics and what to do about it, but don’t feel like reading thousands of pages, Capital in the 21st Century is a great place to feed your brain without wearing it out.

Hollywood is now streaming on Netflix; Capital opens May 8 in Toronto at the Hotdocs Virtual Theatre; 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.

Serious and sexual. Films reviewed: Seberg, The Jesus Rolls, Beanpole

Posted in 1940s, 1960s, comedy, Crime, Drama, Espionage, France, Friendship, Hollywood, Russia, Sex, USSR, WWII by CulturalMining.com on February 28, 2020

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

Want to watch some grown up movies? This week I’m looking at three unusual films dealing with serious topics — crime, war and surveilance — in a sexualized context. There are best friends in post-war Leningrad, movie stars and activists in 1960s Hollywood, and sex-starved ex-cons in present day New York.

Seberg

Dir: Benedict Andrews

It’s Paris the 1960s, a time of antiwar demonstrations and sexual revolution. Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart), is a movie star of the French New Wave. She is beautiful a striking face framed with short blonde hair. She lives in Paris with her husband, the writer Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) and their young son. And now she’s making her triumphant return to Hollywood. But in the first class airplane cabin, she noticed a kerfuffle . A young man named Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a member of the Black Panther Party, objects loudly to the fact that well-known civil rights activist Betty Shabbaz (Malcolm X’s widow) is sequestered in economy class.  Jean offers to exchange seats, calming the waters. They meet up again in LA and sparks fly, leading to a secret affair. But what neither of them realizes is the FBI is photographing and recording everything they do. J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro program considers activists on the left – and particularly Black activists – as enemies of the state.

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed agent Jack (Jack O’Connell) and his conservative partner Carl (Vince Vaughan) follow the two from inside a painted van, listening in on their most intimate conversations. Soon the FBI’s focus shifts from Hakim to Jean, as the leak salacious details to Hakim’s wife and Hollywood gossip columnists, in an attempt to ruin his status and her career. As Jean becomes increasingly paranoid (and for good reason – she’s being gaslighted by the FBI!) she grows more and more frantic, all observed by agent Jack. His consience is pricked. But will he  do something to stop this persecution of Jean Seberg?

Seberg is a fascinating drama, based on a true story, about the FBI spying on its own citizens regardless of the consequences and moral cost suffered by their victims. It also gives a good look at Hollywood in the 1960s and the interplay among black activists and their white sympathizers. Seberg is part fashion and glamour, part intrigue and espionage.  It feels a bit like The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), where you get to know both the spies and those spied on. While the dialogue and acting seems wooden and clugey at the beginning, it gets better as it moves along, as you get to know and feel for the characters.

I liked this movie.

The Jesus Rolls

Wri/Dir: John Turturro

Jesus Quintano (John Tuturro) is a Puerto Rican American known for his skill at bowling, his sexual prowess and his penchant for pointy purple shoes. He’s on his prison bowling team, and when the Jesus bowls, Jesus rolls. But his term has finished and he’s being released. His old pal Petey (Bobby Cannavale) is at the gate to help him adjust to life outside. But Jesus doesn’t want to adjust; he wants to live his life to the fullest. He immediately steals a vintage, orange muscle car and starts cruising the streets of his small town. He visits his mom, a sex worker, and then hooks up with his ex-girlfriend Marie, a French hairdresser (Audrey Tautou: Emélie). Petey is with him all the way. The three of them embark on a spree of petty crime across the state. They steal and ditch vintage cars, run away from diners without paying, and hold up doctor’s offices.  At night they experiment in bed… but there is one factor missing. Marie enjoys frequent sex but has never had an orgasm. Can Jesus and Petey bring Marie to satisfaction before they are all thrown in jail?

The Jesus Rolls is one unusual picture. It’s a sex comedy, a bittersweet crime drama, and a buddy movie/road movie. Judging by the fashions, hair styles and vintage cars, it seems to take place in the late ’80s, but suddenly an iPhone or smart car will appear dragging it back to the present. It takes a character from one film – Jesus in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski – and transplants him into the plot line of another one: Les Valseuse  (1974, Betrand Blier). Many of the characters are half-naked, half the time, the Jesus character is always over the top, while others are more subtle.

Does it work? Kinda. Depending on the scene and your mood, it’s moving, it’s over-acted, it’s strange, it’s awful, it’s bizarre, and it’s funny. And there are great cameos by the likes of Susan Sarandon, Pete Davidson, Jon Hamm, Christopher Walken, and Sônia Braga.

Beanpole (Dylda)

Co-Wri/Dir: Kantemir Balagov

It’s Leningrad in Autumn, 1945. The war is over, and soldiers are returning home from the front into a bombed out shell of a city. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed “Beanpole”, is a young woman discharged from the army after a head injury. She is extremely tall and gangly, with pale skin and white-blonde hair. And she is prone to absence seizures, frozen in place, incommunicado, until they pass. She lives in a crowded, decrepit apartment with a young boy named Pashka (Timofey Glazkov) whose she treats like her son. She sometimes brings him to her workplace, a hospital for injured soldiers. They play animal charades with the kid who has probably never seen a live animal (food is very scarce.) And everyone is on their best behaviour whenever a glamorous Communist party official named Lyubov (Kseniya Kutepova)  drops by the hospital to congratulate soldiers and offer gifts.

But things change for Iya when her best friend and fellow soldier comes back from the front. Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) is as outgoing as Iya is shy, sexually promiscuous (Iya shies away from contact with men), and short with auburn hair, not tall and blonde like Beanpole. And when Masha discovers Pashka is missing she gets an unshakeable need to to have a new baby, immediately if possible. They meet a couple of young men in a fancy car – the sons of Communist Party apparatchiks. Masha pair up with Sasha (Igor Shirokov) with hope of a future marriage and a normal family. But Iya feels left out. Will Masha and Sasha become a couple? Can Beanpole survive on her own? What is her real relationship with her best friend? And what really happened at the front?

Beanpole is a fantastic story of two young women getting by in Stalinist Leningrad just after WWII. Loaded with pathos but devoid of kitschy sentimentality it exposes the harsh realities people faced. It also shows the unsurmountable class divisions in the Soviet Union, extreme poverty, and the horrors of war. The acting is superb, and the candlelit warmth of the images helps to modify the movie’s dark tone. Beanpole is a wonderful movie you can’t forget. I recommend this one.

Seberg, The Jesus Rolls and Beanpole 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.

Critical Mass. Films reviewed: Dolittle, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Les Misérables

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, Animals, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, Family, Fantasy, France, Kids, Language, Morality, Movies, New York City, Police, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 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. There’s a man who talks to monkeys; a kid who steals a lion, and a movie critic who monkeyed with the way we look at movies.

Dolittle

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

It’s early 19th Century England, in a village called Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Young Stubbins (Harry Collett) a boy out hunting with his dad  accidentally shoots a squirrel. But instead of “putting it out of its misery” as his father suggests, he tries to save it. Stubbins stumbles on a derelict hospital run by the reclusive Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) the legendary animal doctor. The hospital is full of steampunk devices and wild animals — gorillas and polar bears, insects and parrots — wandering around just like people. And even more surprising, Doctor Dolittle can speak all their languages. Stubbins wants to convince the doctor to take him on as an apprentice so he can talk to the animals, too.

But trouble is brewing at Buckingham Palace. Someone has poisoned the Queen! And only the doctor knows the cure, a panacea found in a distant land.  Dolittle and the gang set sail to find it. Can they trick the evil King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) into giving them the map? And will they defeat a tiger, a  dragon, and various palace villains, and manage to cure the Queen in time?

I grew up surrounded by Hugh Lofting’s books, TV cartoons, and movies, and though I wasn’t a devotee, I knew all about the stories and characters. And I don’t love Robert Downey Jr. So I was all set to be disappointed: where’s the chimp? And what happened to my favourite animal, the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu?

But you know what? I liked it! It was cute, full of adventures, close escapes, exciting trips to exotic lands, and all the quirky animals (voiced by Octavia Spencer, Rami Malek, John Cena, and Emma Thompson). Keep in mind, this movie is for little kids, not grown ups, who may find the jokes too stupid, but the exciting scenes and the fast-moving action kept me satisfied. Not a terrific movie, but a very cute one.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

Wri/Dir: Rob Garver

Pauline Kael was a single mom who grew up on a California ranch during the time when movies were still silent and B&W. Her first published review was Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight — she hated it. She ran a movie theatre in Berkeley where she wrote the reviews and descriptions of the films playing there, encouraging locals to see them. She wrote for Macall’s but was fired for not loving big-budget cinema. And she quit her job at The New Repulic because they edited out her writing. She finally found a post at The New Yorker, where she became one of the most influential movie critics in the world.

She’s is known both for the movies she hated (she described The Sound of Music as asexual revisionist treacle, and trashed Kubrick’s 2001!) and those she loved (Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Scorcese’s Mean Streets, Spielberg’s Sugarland Express). Some directors’ careers were made by her patronage, while others lived in dread of her columns.  She rejected the ennui-ridden academic view of Auteur theory, without falling for manipulative Big-budget schlock. She liked trash, mind you, but it had to be good trash.

What She Said is an immaculately researched,spot-on look at Pauline Kael’s reviews,and her influence on audience and filmmakers. It delves into her fascinating life and and undeniable influence without resorting to endless kiss-assery. This movie is a labour of love,  combining vintage TV interviews with Dick Cavett and Brian Linehan, and talking heads — from Tarantino to David Lean — with readings from her work by Sarah Jessica Parker. Best of all, these voices are illustrated by a barrage of 2-3 second film clips from hundreds of movies over the past century that I haven’t seen in a documentary since Los Angeles Plays Itself (2002). (I grew up reading her reviews in The New Yorker — that and the cartoons were all  read — and while I disagreed with her half the time, I always wanted to see what she had to say.)

If you love movies, I strongly recommend this doc.

Les Misérables

Co-Wri/Dir: Ladj Ly

It’s Paris in the high-rise banlieue that circle the city. It’s 35 degrees outside and the crowds are high on the country’s win on the soccer pitch, singing la Marseillaise at train stations. But trouble is brewing…. it seems a lion cub is missing from a travelling Roma circus and the four brothers that run it are threatening a rumble with the locals.

Power here is shared by the secular — led by community leader called Le Maire (Steve Tientcheu); the religious — Salah (Almamy Kanouté), an Imam who runs a kebab shop; and the criminal — a gang of thieves who work directly with the cops. Attempting to keep the peace are the feckless police who mainly harass kids and sex workers. The regular team — an abrasive white guy Chris (Alexis Manenti) and his calmer black partner Gwada, who grew up in the hood (Djebril Zonga) — is joined by a newbie. the wide-eyed Stephane/Pento (Damien Bonnard) is a hick, straight from the farm. But the only ones who really know what’s going on are the local kids, who know every broken fence, every fire escape and back alley — they are watching everything. Especially Issa (Issa Perica) a feisty 10 year old, and his pal the nerdy Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly). Issa is the one who liberated the cute lion cub, and Buzz who records everything from the rooftops with his trusty drone.

But when the cops overstep their bounds and use weapons — which is caught on camera — things start to go really wrong. Chaos reigns.

Can the trouble be defused by the cops and community leaders? Or will the kids triumph? And could this lead to a repeat of the Paris riots of 2005?

Les Misérables (this is not Victor Hugo’s novel, but the location is the same) is an amazing dive into the lives of Parisians in the outer suburbs, their alienation, and the tension brewing there. The acting and story are superb, and I love the way multiple strands are woven together into a seamless whole. It’s nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and, though violent at times, it holds a real love and understanding of the characters portrayed. This is a great movie.

Dolittle opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is opening today at the Hot Docs Cinema, as is Les Misérables 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

Not Marvel Movies. Films reviewed: The Irishman, Last Christmas, Midway

Posted in 1940s, 1960s, 1970s, Christmas, Corruption, Crime, Cuba, Hawaii, Romantic Comedy, UK, Unions, War, Woody Harrelson, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 8, 2019

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

Martin Scorsese recently wrote that tentpole movies, like ones that Marvel makes, are hogging a disproportionate share of Hollywood bucks. This squeezes traditional, medium-budget, one-off films out of the picture. Luckilly, they’re not all gone.  This week, I’m looking at three films – a crime drama, a war movie and a rom-com – without superheroes.

The Irishman

Dir: Martin Scorsese

It’s the 1950s.

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a truck driver who delivers beef hindquarters. When his truck breaks down on the highway, a strange man offers advice on how to fix it. He’s Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci) a mob boss in Pennsylvania. When Sheeran is caught stealing beef, Russell supplies a lawyer, thus starting a longtime relationship between the trucker and the Mafia. And Teamsters, the truckers union, stands with them all the way. Soon Frank is doing a different kind of work for Russell: he paints houses. Which really means he’s a hitman for the mob. Despite his Irish background, he speaks Italian: he served in the Army in Anzio in WWII. Soon they’re thick as thieves, and Frank enjoys the benefits, but Russell is always the boss.

Eventually he’s sent to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of Teamsters as a bodyguard, as well as the middleman between Hoffa and the mob. Hoffa is a brash firebrand, an old-school union organizer with legions of loyal members. He’s also an extremely powerful leader, and he controls the union’s pension. This means he can finance Las Vegas casinos with cash, something banks refuse to do. And he gives money to the Nixon campaign, a rare instance of a labour union officially supporting a Republican. But friction grows between Hoffa and the mafia until the day Hoffa mysteriously disappears without a trace, his body never found. What happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

The Irishman is narrated by Frank in an old age home, which gives it the feel of an old man’s movie. It’s a Forest Gump for gangsters, with Frank somehow tied to all the major events of the 60s and 70s: The Kennedies, Bay of Pigs, Jimmy Hoffa disappearance, to name just a few. This film has some problems: the CGI de-aged faces look wooden; female characters have virtually no lines – they just scowl and disapprove; and it’s missing the sharp edges and sexual zing of Scorsese’s early movies.

That said, I was never bored; I was glued to the screen the whole time. Pacino is fantastic as Jimmie Hoffa, and Scorsese’s movies are always superior.

The quality of filmmaking is superb and The Irishman tells a great story.

Last Christmas

Dir: Paul Feig

Kate (Emilia Clarke) is an quirky, aspiring young singer in London. By day she’s a cute little green elf, working in a kitschy, Christmas-themed gift shop run by a prickly boss named Santa (Michelle Yeoh). By night, she’s a barfly, sleeping with any guy she fancies, a different one each night. Ever since her operation, she’s been depressed. She’s embarrassed by her Yugoslavian family, and her singing career is going nowhere fast. She’s on a downward spiral of self-pity and self desctruction… until she meets Tom (Henry Golding).

Tom is everything Kate is not. He’s saintly, altruistic and generous. While Kate looks down and sees garbage tips, Tom looks up and sees tropical birds and quaint old signs. He takes her on a walk to show her the hidden side of London – a secret garden where people go to be alone; a soup kitchen for the homeless (he’s a volunteer), a deserted skating rink. Is it love? But he disappears for days at a time. What secret is he hiding? Is this true love? And can their relationship keep them together?

Last Christmas is a cute Romcom about a depressed woman coming out of her shell and her happy-go-lucky, would-be boyfriend. Emma Thompson plays Kate’s weepy Croatian mom and she also co-wrote the script. It’s cute and heartwarming… but not that funny.

Michelle Yeoh is terrific as a middle-aged woman still on the hunt, and Clarke and Golding make an appealing romantic couple. There is a totally surprising twist which brought tears to my eyes – No Spoiler – which left me with a bit more than I expected.

Midway

Dir: Roland Emmerich

It’s 1941, with war raging across Europe, China and the Pacific. But the US is cautiously viewing it from the sidelines. Dick Best (Ed Screin) is a gum chewing pilot based in Pearl Harbour. He’s a daredevil dive bomber, showing off his new techniques. Also on board the aircraft carrier is his rival, a by-the-books officer named McClusky (Luke Evans). He says Dick is a cowboy who should stop showing off. But while their aircraft carrier is out at sea, all the ships in Pearl Harbour are wiped out in a surprise attack by the Japanese, pulling the US into WWII.

Only Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) – the intel expert on Japan – predicted it. And he thinks a crucial battle up ahead: the Battle of Midway, an island in the South Pacific. Midway is a point crucial for control of the Pacific: if Layton is right, whoever wins the battle will win the war; it’s just a matter of time.

Midway is a dramatization of the years leading up to the naval battle of Midway, and the intense fight that follow: in submarines, on aircraft carriers and in planes overhead. It’s filtered through the eyes of lantern-jawed military figures like Jimmy Doolittle ( Aaron Eckhardt), Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) Vice Adm Bull Halsey (Dennis Quaid), and many semi-fictional sailors and pilots in various acts of bravery… like Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas, of the Jonas brothers!). The story also switches back and forth to the Japanese side, with Admirals Nagumo, Yamaguchi and Yamamoto plotting to defeat the Americans.

Midway is exactly the sort of movie I can’t stand – yet another tired war pic about a long-forgotten battle, filled with smarmy patriotism. But I went to the press screening, and guess what? I actually really liked Midway! Fantastic special effects, complex battles shown in an easy-to-follow way, good acting, and great characters. Japanese are portrayed respectfully, not as hokey villains, but without covering up their war crimes in Eastern China. Like The Irishman, women are there mainly to worry about their husbands. It’s two hours, twenty minutes long, but the thrills keep you staring, rapt, till it’s over. I’m sure a lot of critics are going to compare it (unfavourably) with Dunkirk, but to me Midway is more thrilling, less ponderous.

Midway and Last Christmas both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. And The Irishman is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, also beginning today.

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 Matt Tyrnauer about Where’s My Roy Cohn?

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Communism, Conservativism, Crime, documentary, LGBT, New York City, Super Villains by CulturalMining.com on October 4, 2019

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

Roy Cohn is a historical phenomenon, despised by many and feared by more. In his lifetime, he sent Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to the electric chair, worked beside Joe McCarthy in the massive government purge of the left; persecuted homosexuals, defended right-wing causes, mentored Donald Trump, and defended the mob. Behind the scenes he lived a decadent gay life. He was a devious, ruthless and powerful lawyer who ruled NY City… prompting more than one to ask: Where’s my Roy Cohn?

Where’s my Roy Cohn? is also the name of a new documentary that chronicles the notorious man’s life. It shares photos, recordings, period news footage and new interviews with some of his closest friends, family and past lovers. The film was directed by Matt Tyrnauer, known for his documentaries on the folk heroes and villains of our age, from Scotty Bowers to Jane Jacobs to Robert Moses.

I spoke to Matt Tyrnauer via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM.

Where’s my Roy Cohn? opens on November 4 in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Photo of Matt Tyrnauer by Jeff Harris.

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