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. 

In depth. Films reviewed: The Velvet Underground, Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, The Power of the Dog

Posted in 1920s, 1960s, Addiction, Canada, drugs, Indigenous, LGBT, New Zealand, Uncategorized, Western by CulturalMining.com on November 20, 2021

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

We are all flooded each day with new images and stories, both broadcast and online, but don’t they all seem to be fleeting and ethereal, lasting no longer than the average news cycle or two. Rarely do we get in-depth examinations of anything. But movies can do that, opening your eyes to deeper thoughts. So this week I’m looking at three new movies — a western and two feature-length docs —that look at things up close. There’s cowboys in Montana, First Nations in Alberta, and avant-garde rockers in Greenwich Village.

The Velvet Underground 

Wri/Dir: Todd Haynes

It’s the early 1960s. Lou Reed is a Brooklyn-born teenager who lives in suburban Long Island.  He’s depressed and his parents send him for electroshock therapy. He teaches himself guitar listening to doo-wop and rockabilly on the radio. Later at university in Syracuse, he studies under Delmore Schwartz. He goes to Harlem with his girlfriend to buy hard drugs and writes poems about furtive sex with men he meets in dark alleys. John Cale is the son of a coal miner in Wales who studies classical music in London. They meet in the Village and start a band within the  exploding world of avant-garde film, music, art and poetry. Velvet Underground plays long, drawn-out tones with a dark drone grinding in the background, combining Reed’s dark lyrics and Cale’s musicality (he plays viola in a rock band!) They perform at Andy Warhol’s Factory and Nico, the enigmatic European actress, completes their sound. Though never a huge success and breaking up after a few years, the Velvets influenced generations of musicians.

This two-hour doc looks at the band itself (Reed and Cale, along with Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison) and where it fit within New York’s burgeoning underground scene. Aside from the usual suspects, it talks about or interviews unexpected faces, musicians Jonathan Richman and Jackson Browne, and experimental  filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Jack Smith. Aside from its meticulous retelling of group’s history, it’s the look of this doc that really blew me away.  Todd Haynes exploits that era’s avant-garde film techniques, from split screens to three-quarter projections, along with a good dose of 60s pop culture. And there’s a constant stream of music from start to finish, including rare tracks of early songs before they found their groove. I had to watch The Velvet Underground on my laptop but this beautiful documentary deserves to be appreciated on a movie screen.

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy

Dir: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

It’s the mid-2010s and opioids are ravaging the Kainai Blackfoot First Nation in Alberta (that’s the largest reserve in Canada). Families are torn apart, and hundreds of lives are lost. The abstinence and cold-turkey programs just aren’t working, especially for the most marginalized, who end up homeless in cities.  So instead they start up harm reduction centres like those pioneered on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. This highly-personal documentary follows a number of addicts — of both opioids and alcohol — as they enter harm-reduction treatments and through its various stages. It’s spearheaded by the filmmaker’s own mother, Dr Esther Tailfeathers, a physician, but also includes Social workers, EMS, nurses and councellors, in drop ins, detox centres, hospitals and clinics, both on the reserve and in nearby cities like Lethbridge.

As the title suggests, caring and empathy saves more lives than punishment, threats or abstinence. Rather than kicking people out, it embraces them while standing by to treat overdoses, and on a bigger scale helping them find purpose and meaning, along with food, shelter and medical care. The doc also looks at the intergenerational causes that led to these addictions, from broken treaties to residential schools. Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is gruelling in parts — and not an easy film to watch — but it is one that turns despair into hope.

The Power of the Dog

Wri/Dir: Jane Campion

It’s the 1920s. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is durned mean cuss. He owns a ranch in Montana with his brother George (Jesse Plemons), and regularly drives cattle with his posse of young cowboys. They always stop by a roadhouse run by the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her skinny sensitive son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil went to one of them Ivy League schools in the east, but they don’t know nuthin about the life of a cowboy. He learned everything from an older buckaroo when he was just a lad, and now keeps a shrine to him in his stables. But like I said, Phil is a mean bastard who directs his venom all around him. He calls his brother fatso, and when George marries Rose, Phil torments her and drives her to drink. And he calls her son Pete a pansy. Until… Pete discovers Phil’s secret. He finds his illicit porn stash and catches him in a hidden grove luxuriating in mud-covered self-love. That’s when Phil changes his mind and decides to mentor Pete in the old cowboy ways. But is that what Pete is really after?

I walked into The Way of the Dog at TIFF expecting a conventional Western, but I saw something much bigger than that. It’s a subversive twist on a classic genre. It’s set in the 1920s, avoiding the blatantly racist portrayals of indigenous people in most Westerns (the “Indians” in “Cowboys and Indians”) which take place in the 19th century when settlers were slaughtering them with impunity in their western migration. This one is set 50 years later.  There are also no hold-ups or show-downs; guns don’t play a major war in this Western. It’s directed by Jane Campion who won big time awards for The Piano thirty years ago, but I hadn’t heard much about her for a long time. So I wasn’t expecting much. But this film really shocked me with its gothic tone, complex characters and twisted plot. The interplay between Cumberbatch and Cody-Smit is fascinating. All of this played out against the wide, western skies (it was actually filmed in New Zealand) makes The Power of The Dog a really great movie.

The Velvet Underground  is playing theatrically in Canada for one night only, Sunday, Nov 28th at 8 pm, at the Rogers Hot Docs cinema in Toronto; and Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy opens today, also at Hot  Docs; and The Power of the Dog just opened 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.

Troubles. Films reviewed: Vicious Fun, Inbetween Girl, Belfast

Posted in 1960s, 1980s, Canada, Comics, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Feminism, High School, Horror, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Secrets, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 13, 2021

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

Fall Film Festival Season continues in November. ReelAsian is on now, and Blood in the Snow (aka “BITS”) with new made-in-Canada horror movies — both features and shorts —  showing on the big screen at Toronto’s beautiful Royal Cinema starting next week.

So this week I’m looking at three movies showing at Toronto film festivals. There’s an 8-year-old boy in Belfast at the start of the Troubles, a high school girl in Texas who learns having secret boyfriend can lead to trouble, and a film critic in Minnesota whose 12-step self-help group turns out to be nothing but very big trouble.

Vicious Fun

Wri/Dir: Cody Calahan

It’s the 1980s in Minnesota.

Joel (Evan Marsh) is a film critic who writes reviews for a horror movie fanzine. He’s a real devotee of slasher pics and is well versed on all the details. He lives with his apartment-mate Sarah, who he has a huge crush on. So he doesn’t like her new douchey boyfriend, Bob, at all. So he follows him to an isolated Chinese restaurant and bar where he tries to entrap him using hidden mic as the unfaithful boyfriend he thinks Bob is. But he ends  drunk as a skunk and passed out in the restaurant bathroom. He wakes up a few hours later to the voice if a motivational speaker coming from the next room. He wanders into a sort of a self-help group, a twelve step… but for whom? He takes his place in the circle and the confessions begin. Turns out they’re not alcoholics, they’re all serial killers! The worst in the world! Carrie (Amber Goldfarb) slices and dices men. Fritz (Julian Richings) enjoys paralysing victims with a hypodermic then torments them dressed as a clown. Mike, a bearded giant in a iron mask (former pro wrestler Robert Maillet) chops up coeds while having sex with them. Hideo (Sean Baek) is sushi chef-slash-cannibal who uses Ninja like skills to trap his prey. Zachary is the group leader (David Koechner) who looks like a used car salesman but had killed more than any of the others — there’s a sort of a competition going on. So Poor Joel — who they think is new serial killer who didn’t show up to this first meeting — has to squirm his way out of it. But his cover is blown when guess who arrives late? It’s Bob (Ari Millen) the douchey sociopath he met earlier! 

The group turns into a mad orgy of killing and violence once they discover his deception. But luckily, Carrie, for reasons all her own, decides to protect him from the other serial killers. What’s her secret? Can they escape these ruthless deranged serial killers? And can Joel warn Sarah in time to protect her from the evil Bob? 

Vicious Fun is a comedy  horror movie about a horror movie enthusiast who discovers it’s not as much fun in real life. It’s full of lots of blood and gore, as expected, but also a heavy dose of retro-80s camp, from moustachioed cops, to vintage drive in, pay phones and a seedy bar. The characters are all played to the max with the appropriate excess a group of weird serial killers demands, with Marsh as the fish-out-of-water film critic and Goldfarb as the killer with a heart off gold — as well as Millen as arrogant evil incarnate, are especially good. 

Vicious Fun (just like the title says) is a very entertaining, low-budget, over-the-top movie with a clever premise that carries it through to the very end. It’s funny, bloody, and bloody funny.

I like this one a lot.

(I interviewed Cody in 2013.)

Inbetween Girl

Wri/Dir: Mei Makino

Angie Chen (Emma Galbraith) is a high school girl at St Michael’s a posh private school in Texas.  It’s also very white. But as a mixed race kid (white Mom, Chinese dad) she feels both self-conscious and ignored. So she’s surprised that Liam (William Magnuson) the most popular guy in the school says he likes her. He drives her home everyday, and later climbs through her window to spend time with her. They hang out, make out, have sex, and share their thoughts in addition to an occasional joint. So what’s the problem? He’s dating Sheryl (Emily Garrett), an equally popular girl, who has millions of followers on Instagram. She’s an influencer. So Liam keeps their relationship a secret. Sheryl’s too fragile, he says, not a battleship like you. if she finds it out it could kill her. (I’m a Battleship? Angie wonders.) She goes along with Liam’s game but doesn’t quite get it. 

Meanwhile, there’s trouble at home. She’s disconnected from her recently divorced parents.  Mom’s always busy with work and dad has a new family, including a daughter who speaks Chinese. What’s the point of it all? But when she is assigned a school project with Sheryl, Liam’s girlfriend, Angie realizes it can’t go on like this. They’re in love… how can they keep it a secret? Will Liam choose her over Cheryl? Does Angie even want him anymore? And what will Sheryl do if she finds out the truth?

Inbetween Girl is a delightful and quirky coming-of-age story. Though the plot seems run-of-the-mill, it’s told through Angie’s art (she loves drawing comics and taking analog photos) her video monologues along with the normal story. It covers family relationships, first love and deceit, along with questions of cultural identity she has no control over. It has lots of picturesque settings in and around Galveston, giving it a view of modern cosmopolitan Texas you don’t always see. 

I like this movie.

Belfast 

Wri/Dir: Kenneth Branagh

It’s Belfast in the last 1960s. Buddy (Jude Hill) is a little boy who lives with his brother Will, his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and his grandparents, Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). His Pa (Jamie Dornan) is off in England somewhere earning a living as a joiner. He can only come home every couple weeks. Buddy misses him but spends his time studying at the Grove Park elementary school. While the classrooms never change, the seating arrangements do, where kids with the top marks move to the front each week. That’s his main motivation to study — so he can be bumped up beside the girl he wants to meet.

But things take a turn for the worse. Barricades appear on street corners patrolled by the military, while paramilitary thugs throw rocks through windows to get the Catholics to move out of their street. Buddy’s family is Protestant but he can’t tell the difference among his friends and neighbours. And as violence and intimidation increases, so does the push to join Pa in England till the Troubles are over. 

Money troubles, taxes, Pop’s illness and the friction between Ma and Pa all threaten the family. Will they stick by their beloved Belfast and the little street they’ve lived on for so long? Or will they be forced to move to England till the Troubles blow away?

Belfast is a touching look at life in Belfast during the Troubles as seen through the eyes of a small boy. Well-known actor/director Kenneth Branagh grew up there, and presumably it’s based on his memories. As such, there’s a misty-eyed sentimentality to much of the film, as would any adult thinking back to his childhood. It’s nicely shot in black and white, and the acting is generally good, though the characters seem straight out of central casting — no big creative leaps here. The best parts are the unusual and realistic childhood memories that are totally separate from the Troubles. Things like kid gangs and shoplifting happening simultaneously with the looting, intimidation and riots. But there’s also a disjointed feel to the film itself. Van Morisson’s music is great but it doesn’t fit the mood. And there’s a strange music video inserted into the movie, for no apparent reason other than providing footage for a trailer. Gimmicks — like having people filmed in black and white watching a movie in colour — are just embarrassing.  Even so, there are enough surprising plot turns and beautiful images that linger after the movie. While flawed, Belfast is still a touching, bittersweet look at one boy’s childhood in an historical moment.

Vicious Fun is the opening film at B.I.T.S., the Blood in the Snow Film Festival; In-between Girl is now screening at ReelAsianfilm Festival, and Belfast — which won the people’s choice award at TIFF this year, opens this weekend 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

It’s Halloween! Films reviewed: Last Night In Soho, Antlers, Locke & Key

Posted in 1960s, Bullying, Comics, Coming of Age, Family, Fashion, Ghosts, Halloween, Horror, Indigenous, Kids, Monsters, Time Travel, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 30, 2021

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

Awooooooo…!
It’s Hallowe’en again — the perfect time to watch some spooky and scary movies!

This week, I’m looking at a fashion student in London who travels back in time from her attic apartment; a family in Massachusetts who find keys that open locked doors; and a school boy in the Pacific Northwest who always keeps his father’s door locked… from the outside.

Last Night In Soho
Co-Wri/Dir: Edgar Wright (Scott Pilgrim vs the World)

Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie) is an idealistic young student at a fashion college in North London. Though raised in remote Cornwall, she already sews her own dresses and wants to follow in her grandmother and mom’s footsteps as a designer. She’s also obsessed by the early 1960s — the fashions, the people and the music — and she constantly listens to her grandma’s old discs on a portable record player. But she can’t stand the condescending attitude of her roommate Jocasta and most of the other students. So she rents an attic bed-sit flat in Soho, and gets a job at a local pub to pay for it. But everything changes on her first night in her new home. She awakens to find herself in Soho, circa 1964!, experiencing life through the eyes of young woman named Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy: Queen’s Gambit)! Where Ellie is shy with mousy brown hair, Sandie is blonde, brash and self-confident. She marches into the Cafe de Paris and declares she’ll be the next singer on that famous stage. When Ellie wakes up in the morning, things are back to normal, but she feels. different. She starts sewing a 60’s style dress based on what she wore the night before in Soho. And she starts mimicking Sandie’s look and lifestyle — dying her hair, wearing makeup and sticking up for herself. But gradually she realizes 60s Soho wasn’t the fun place she imagined — it was actually full of exploitation, violence and organized crime. And the separation between the two worlds starts to blur… with the ghosts of Sandie’s far-off dangers appearing in her real life in modern London. Is Eloise losing her mind? And can she ever escape from this dual existence?

Last Night in Soho is a cool, fun and sometimes scary coming-of-age story loosely wrapped in a time-travel theme. Throw in life in London, 60s girl groups, fashion, Soho burlesque and seedy organized crime, and you have a fascinating and unique world to explore. Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) gives a terrific performance as a young woman trying to hang on to her sanity, while Anya Taylor-Joy (you might recognize her from the TV series The Queen’s Gambit) is a dynamo as her alter ego. Throw in some real ’60s stars — Terrence Stamp as a sleazy barfly, and an almost unrecognizable Diana Rigg as a curmudgeonly landlady — and you’re left with a lot to watch.

Great movie.

Antlers
Co-WriDir: Scott Cooper (Hostiles)

Julia (Keri Russell) is a school teacher in a mining town in the Pacific northwest. She lives with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff. She fled to California 20 years earlier to escape her abusive father. But now that he’s dead, she feels safe to move back again. Little does she know there are other dangers in this small town. In any case, she’s having trouble fitting in. None of the 12 year olds in her class participate, or even seem interested, in what she’s teaching. And one kid in particular, Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas) looks malnourished, bullied and fearful. And he draws terrifying pictures at his desk. She reaches out to help him, but though needy, he rejects her. You see, his dad ran a meth lab in an abandoned mine where something terrible happened.

Now his dad and his seven-year-old brother are ill with a strange disease — the can only eat raw flesh. Lucas keeps them locked up in the attic, bringing them small animals he traps and any roadkill he can find. But it’s not enough. So here we have a do-gooder teacher who wants to save what she sees as an abused and neglected child, while he’s trying desperately to keep his family alive. But when Lucas’s dad tries some human flesh, he really starts to change, both physically and mentally. Can a little boy keep a monster at bay? Or will it take a schoolteacher to stop this cannibal killer?

Antlers is a bloody and gory — though not all that scary — horror movie set among the gorgeous lakes and mountains of Western Canada. Strangely, the monster in the story — modelled on the Windigo, a rapacious half-human, half-animal creature — is part of the Anishinaabe culture in the east, not the Pacific Northwest. And aside from Graham Greene (as a walk-on indigenous explainer), everyone else is white. That said, I like the acting, and the fact the characters are not all strictly good or bad, more nuanced than in your typical scary movie. Antlers is a chilling — though slow-paced — horror-thriller with enough blood and guts to keep you satisfied on Hallowe’en.

Locke & Key
Developed by Meredith Averill, Aron Eli Coleite and Carlton Cuse, based on the graphic novel by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

It’s the present day in small-town Mathesen, Massachusetts. The Locke family — eldest son Tyler (Connor Jessup: BlackbirdCloset Monster ), Middle sister Kinsey (Emilia Jones) and the youngest Bode (Jackson Robert Scott) — and their mom (Darby Stanchfield) have just relocated from Seattle. Their dad died in a terrible incident so maybe a new environment will help them get over it. They move into the stately family home, a huge, but crumbling, mansion known as the Key House. It’s been in the family for generations. While the Lockes know next-to-nothing about their history, everyone in this town knows exactly who they are. The two eldest enroll in the local prep school — Tyler joins the hockey team while Kinsey falls in with a crowd of amateur filmmakers — while Bode is left to explore the mansion. And what he discovers is magical — a series of keys, each with its own properties. One lets you walk through a door and emerge wherever you want to be. Another lets you enter someones mind and explore their memories. Soon Tyler and Kinsey join in, but their mother and their uncle Duncan (Aaron Ashmore) can’t comprehend anything magical, even when they experience it themselves. Only kids can remember it. But all is not just fun and games, There’s an evil shape-shifting demon, a beautiful woman known as Dodge, who covets these keys for her own nefarious purposes. Who will triumph in the end?

Locke & Key is a wonderful TV series that’s part adventure, part horror, part psychological thriller and part family drama. I’m purposely revealing very little because I don’t spoil the plot, but it’s well acted — with a mainly Canadian cast — and lots of unexpected plot turns and cool special effects. And the series was shot right here, just outside CIUT’s broadcast studios in the gothic hallways of Hart House (pre-Covid, of course.) So if you’re looking for something Hallowe’en-y to binge on, you have to check out Locke & Key.

Locke & Key seasons 1 and 2 are streaming now on Netflix; Antlers and Last Night in Soho 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.

Two Thimothées. Films reviewed: Dune, The French Dispatch

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Art, Canada, Food, France, Journalism, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Writers by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2021

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

Nostalgia is an interesting phenomenon that changes with the times, where past events are coloured by present-day attitudes. This week, I’m looking at two new movies: one set in the future but based on a novel from the 1960s; and the other set in the past but based on American perceptions of a Europe that never was.

Dune

Dir: Denis Villeneuve (Based on the book by Frank Herbert)

It’s the future. The universe is divided up by ruthless feudal planets looking to increase their wealth and power through extraction of precious minerals. One prize planet is Arrakis, seemingly inhospitable and covered in sand dunes, with gigantic killer worms living just beneath the surface. However the sand yields “spice” a highly coveted group of elements that make intergalactic travel possible. But the planet is populated by the fiercely independent Fremen. Paul (Thimothée Chalamet) the son of a Duke, is sent there after a cruel leader is forced to leave. Paul’s dad is a decorated military hero  (Oscar Isaac) and his mom is a sorceress (Rebecca Ferguson). So the multilingual young man has been trained from an early age both in martial arts and complex mental powers. He can predict the future through his dreams. He hopes to secure the planet while leaving the Fremen unharmed. But various international forces are working against him and his family— was he sent to the planet merely to be eliminated? 

Dune is a science fiction, space movie with a complex novelistic plot and many characters. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, done in the style of the cover art of 1970s paperbacks. I’m talking gorgeous costumes with the Fremen dressed like multi-ethnic saharan Tuareg, and concrete beige spaceships rendered in a brutalist style. And it’s shot in IMAX, meaning it’s a tall movie not a wide movie. I saw it at TIFF at the Cinesphere, where 50-foot sandworms lunge at you from the screen, like they’re about to swallow you up. That said, while I loved the movie aesthetically, it didn’t move me emotionally at all. Maybe because I read the book in junior high so I knew what was going to happen, or maybe because it’s the first of a three part series and doesn’t really end, or maybe because science fiction isn’t supposed to make you cry. Whatever the reason, I think Dune is a fantastic, though unfulfilling, movie to see.

The French Dispatch 

Dir: Wes Anderson

It’s the Twentieth Century, Newspapers are revered, and even smaller cities have foreign correspondents. One such paper, based in Liberty Kansas, opens a bureau in France, known as the French Dispatch, to replace their usual colour Sunday supplement. They spare no expense, hiring the finest writers to ruminate on topics of their choice, including Berensen (Tilda Swinton) on art, Krementz (Frances McDormand) on politics, and Wright (Jeffrey Wright) on food. At its peak it has more than half a million subscribers, but when the editor (Bill Murray) dies, it publishes its final issue. This film dramatizes three of its best stories. In the first chapter, Berensen looks at Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) a killer locked away fin a prison for the criminally insane. He paints abstract canvases of his prison guard Simone (Lea Seydoux) who poses nude for him. But can a shady art dealer (Adrian Brody) save him from obscurity? In the second story, seasoned journalist Krementz covers the student uprisings of the 1960s, where she befriends young Zefirelli (Timothée Chalamet) who calls for revolution. But will her carnal attraction to the much younger student compromise her neutrality as a journalist? In the third story, ostensibly a look at a chef who works at the police station, turns into an action thriller, as a detective’s young son is kidnapped by a hardened criminal. Can a food critic write a credible eye-witness report on organized crime?

The French Dispatch is, of course, total fiction. These exciting stories are set not in Paris, but in a tiny town called Ennui-sur-Blasé. And the magazine is not the New Yorker — its from Liberty, Kansas, pop: 123. What it is is a highly-stylized, funny and quirky look at old school journalists and the stories they told. It’s loaded with in-jokes and thousands of obscure cultural references. Camera work is as precise as a graphic novel moving from panel to panel. Scenes vary between sharp black and white, faded colour or the garish tones of the 70s. Styles cover everything from animated comics, to stage plays, to old tabloid flash-photos. It’s almost overwhelming in its visual impact. French Dispatch is a brilliant illustration of mid-century, middle-class culture… and wonderful to watch.

Dune and The French Dispatch 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

%d bloggers like this: