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.

Filming the Impossible. Movies reviewed: Fire of Love, Come Back Anytime, Nope

Posted in 1970s, Cooking, documentary, Food, France, Horror, Japan, Romance, Science by CulturalMining.com on July 23, 2022

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

You know how I’m always talking about big-screen movies, how they show you things that you don’t get on a TV, device or phone? Well, movies don’t just walk to your cinemas, they take a hell of a lot of work to get there. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to get them on the screen. 

So this week I’m looking at three beautiful movies, two of which are about filming the impossible. There’s a ramen chef who reveals his secret recipes; brother-and-sister ranchers who try to take pictures of a UFO; and husband-and-wife scientists who try to film volcanos, up close, as they erupt.

Fire of Love

Dir: Sara Dosa

It’s the early 1960s in France. Katia and Maurice Krafft meet at a scientific conference, and never part. Katia is a petite geochemist with a pixie haircut, while Maurice is a geologist, twice her size, with a face like John C Reilly. The two are so fascinated by volcanoes. That they call themselves Volcanologists. They go to anti-war protests and eventually marry, honeymooning on Santorini island in Greece (an active volcano, naturally). They form a team of two, investigating and recording on film, volcanoes around the world. Dressed in metallic space suits, they measure everything from the arcs that volcanic bombs (large chunks of molten lava) take as they are expelled into the air, to the degree if acid in water pools nearby. And most of all, the volcanoes themselves. Each volcano has a unique personality and should be approached in a different way. But they make one distinction. Red volcanoes are safe if you take precautions. They’re caused by tectonic plates pulling apart, exposing the magma beneath. Molten lava spills out and flows in a clear path, and can be filmed from a relatively close distance. Grey volcanoes, though, are caused by tectonic plates crashing into each other, expel ash into the sky. When they explode, they can be more powerful than an atom bomb, leading to landslides and widespread death and destruction. The power of the earth, the Kraffts say, dwarfs anything mankind can attempt. But they photograph and film it all, providing much of the images of volcanoes the world sees. The Kraffts died in 1991 while following their passion at the eruption of Mt Unzen, a grey volcano in Japan. Their bodies were never found.

Fire of Love is a stunningly beautiful documentary about Katia and Maurice in their search for active volcanoes around the earth. It is illustrated by their own extensive footage, including surprising and breathtaking images from Iceland to Zaire to Krakatau, Indonesia. They went where no one else dared. Wistfully narrated by Miranda July, the film also looks at their long-lasting love affair, devoted to each other and volcanoes. Beautifully illustrated by animated drawings it delves into their private thoughts including Maurice’s fantasy of rowing a canoe down a river of molten lava as it spills into the open sea. You’re probably familiar with the volcanoes in movies and TV shows, but this doc takes you right into the middle of them, like nothing you’ve seen before. Spectacular. 

Come Back Anytime (また いらっしゃい)

Dir: John Daschbach

Over the past decade, ramen has become popular worldwide with dozens of restaurants opening everywhere. It’s considered a classic Japanese dish, but in Japan it’s thought of as Chinese food. Ramen first gained popularity in Yokohama’s Chinatown. It consists of noodles in a hearty broth made of pork or chicken bones — typically flavoured with salt, miso, or soy sauce — and topped with roast pork and vegetables. 

After WWII, it became wildly popular in Japan, with ramen stalls opening on every street corner. This documentary follows Ueda, the chef, along with his wife, of a particular ramen shop. It shows us, season by season, one year of its existence, including a behind the scenes look at what goes into that bowl of ramen you’re probably craving right now. (My mouth started watering about five minutes into the film.)

Come Back Anytime is a very low-key, realistic look at a ramen shop — not one that’s famous or prize-winning, not a chain or a corporation, not one that uses fancy or unique flavours like dried sardines — just an ordinary ramen place. But its devoted clientele — some of whom have been going there for 30 years — would argue that this place is something special. It consists of scenes in the restaurant, up at his farm where he grows vegetables, and interview with customers, family and friends. While nothing remarkable, this gentle, ordinary doc leaves you with a nice warm feeling inside, like after eating a hot bowl of ramen.

Nope

Wri/Dir: Jordan Peele

OJ Haywood and his sister Emerald (Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer) are unsuccessful horse wranglers who live in a huge wooden house on a dry-gulch ranch somewhere in southern California. Em is outgoing, selfish and spontaneous; she loves listening to LPs full blast. OJ is a monosyllabic cowboy, prone to pondering, and is more comfortable with horses than with people. While he’s on the farm taming mustangs, she’s out there trying to get rich and famous in LA.Their dad built up a big business in Hollywood, providing horses for westerns, but they’ve fallen on hard times, especially since Pops died in a freak accident. Now they’re forced to sell their horses, one by one, to Ricky (Steven Yuen) who runs a tacky cowboy theme-park nearby. Ricky is a former child-actor whose hit sitcom was cancelled, years earlier, when his co-star (a chimpanzee) ran amok on set. 

But something else is happening on the ranch. Power turns off spontaneously, metallic objects seem to fly around, and what might be a UFO keeps appearing in the distance. Em thinks they can get rich if they can just capture on film a clear, “Oprah-quality” shot of the UFO. Problem is their security cameras fizzle out whenever the flying saucer appears. So they make a trip to a big box store to buy some better quality equipment. And that’s when they meet Angel (Brandon Perea) a cashier there who is totally into both electronic surveillance and UFOs. He volunteers to help them . But have they bit off more than they can chew?

Nope is a weirdly excellent western / mystery / horror movie with a good amount of humour. It bombards you with shocking, seemingly unrelated events, but eventually they all make sense. While Peele’s previous movies, Get Out and Us, were small, drawing room horror, this one is grand and expansive, with sweeping skies and rolling hills, horseback chases and terrifying attacks from above. Daniel Kaluuya is great as the almost mute cowboy, Keke Palmer hilarious as Em, with Steven Yuen as a slimy actor-turned-entrepreneur and Brandon Perea as an enthusiastic third wheel rounding off a great cast. It has wonderful cinematography and art direction: your eyes are flooded with bright oranges, greens and reds. There’s a bit of social commentary — how blacks were erased from Hollywood westerns, as well as just the general ersatz creepiness of American pop culture;  and there are also the meta aspects — after all, this is a movie about making a movie — but Nope is mainly just entertainment. And that’s what it did. I saw it on an enormous IMAX screen and enjoyed every minute of it. 

Come Back Anytime is now playing at the Toronto Hot Docs cinema; you can see Fire of Love at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Nope opens on IMAX this weekend worldwide; 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

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 Kevin Hegge about TRAMPS!

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, Canada, documentary, Fashion, Interview, LGBT, Music, UK, Underground by CulturalMining.com on May 21, 2022

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

Photo by Jeff Harris.

It’s the late 1970s in a Covent Garden, London nightclub with an exclusive policy. To get in you have to look amazing in some way. An older man in blue jeans gets turned away at the door. The man is Mick Jagger, the place is Bowie Night at the Blitz Club and the doorman and organizer is Steve Strange. And so a new movement, born out of the ashes of punk, is dubbed the New Romantics by the mainstream press. But who were these tramps, really?

Tramps! Is a new documentary that looks in depth at East London in the early 1980s, along with the art, fashion, film, music, hats, makeup, hair, magazines, sexualities, aesthetics  and lifestyles that grew out of it. It’s a stunningly beautiful kaleidoscope of colour, a collection of period photos and footage combined with new interviews with the main players. And it talks about the celebrities who emerged from it, like Boy George, Leigh Bowery, Derek Jarman, Phillip Sallon, Judy Blame, and many others.

Tramps is the work of award-winning Toronto filmmaker Kevin Hegge, whom I last interviewed on this show back in 2012 about  his documentary She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column.

I spoke with Kevin Hegge in Toronto, via Zoom.

Tramps! is premiering in Toronto at the Inside Out film festival on May 31st, 7 pm, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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.

Advances in Technology. Films reviewed: The Automat, Dope is Death, After Yang

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, Addiction, Adoption, Androids, Canada, documentary, drugs, Eating, Family, New York City, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on March 12, 2022

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

Technology, whether we find it good or bad, always affects our lives. This week, I’m looking at three movies — two documentaries and a science fiction drama — that look at advances in technology. There’s a new type of restaurant a hundred years ago that sells hot food out of metal and glass dispensers; a clinic 50 years ago that uses acupuncture to detox heroin addicts; and a future world where androids serve as siblings.

The Automat

Dir: Lisa Hurwitz

It’s the 1920s in New York and the city is booming. 300,000 women work as stenographers and they — along with everyone else — all need to eat lunch. And one modern restaurant chain, Horn & Hardart’s Automat, is serving them all. Art Deco palaces welcome anyone with a nickel to buy a slice of pie or a cup of steaming French-press coffee expelled through shiny brass dolphin heads. Customers share marble topped tables with whoever sits down beside them.  And behind stacks and rows of pristine glass and metal drawers, a nickel or two dropped in a slot opens the door to a single servings of macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, baked beans, or Salisbury steak all made at a central commissary and shipped out that very same day. At its peak they served 800,000 diners each day in NY and Philadelphia (where the chain was founded). But what goes up must come down. I wandered into an automat just once as a teenager and never went back. It was disgusting, the food looked unpalatable and aside from the novelty of buying a stale, egg salad sandwiches behind a little glass door, I couldn’t see why anyone would go there. But its fans from earlier generations remember it well, swearing by their specialties like strawberry rhubarb pies. 

The Automat is a fun and breezy look at this fabled restaurant chain, and its rise and fall. It interviews former owners, staff and customers, including celebrities like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. And although the doc was shot pretty recently, many of the featured interviewees — like Ruth Bader Ginzburg and Colin Powell — have sadly passed away. This is an interesting doc about an almost forgotten phenomenon.

Dope is Death

Wri/Dir: Mia Donovan (Inside Lara Roxx)

It’s the early 1970s in the South Bronx, NY and heroin use is rampant. Nixon has declared a war on drugs, devoting money to incarceration and maintenance programs (like methadone), but nothing for detoxification and ending addiction. So black, brown and white activists in groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords decided to take action. They occupied Lincoln Hospital and managed to open a detox clinic there. The program was led by Dr Mutulu Shakur, (that’s Tupac Shakur’s step-father, and a separatist activist in the Republic of New Afrika movement.) who tried something new — acupuncture! A half dozen medics went up to Montreal and returned a couple years later as medically-trained acupuncturists, staffing the new clinic, specifically to relieve drug addicts from their need for heroin.

Dope is Death is a brilliant, politically-informed historical documentary that looks at all the people involved in this movement— interviewing former addicts, acupuncturists and political activists. Sadly many were jailed or went underground following a brutal FBI crackdown. This film includes pristine colour footage from the era, along with period posters, photos, and audio  and video interviews. Although most of the film is set in NY city, the story takes us exotic locales from Montreal to Beijing. Sadly this fascinating doc was released during covid, but it’s finally showing on the big screen one day next week in Toronto.

After Yang

Dir: Kogonada

It’s the near future somewhere in the world. Kyra and Jake (Jodie Turner-Smith, Colin Farrell) are a happily married couple with a daughter named Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). To help Mika cope with differences (Mika is Black and English, Jake white and Irish, and she was adopted as an infant from mainland China)  they purchase an android named Yang. He is programmed to help Mika discover fun facts about her heritage and learn to speak Chinese. Yang  (Justin H Min) is like a gentle adult brother, there to explain and comfort her while her parents are away (mom works in an office, while dad sells tea leaves   — his obsession — out of a small shop). But when Yang malfunctions and stops working altogether,  that is, he dies, little Kyra is devastated, sending the family on a downward spiral. It’s up to Jake to try to bring them back together by preserving Yang’s thoughts and memories. But in trying to save him, Jake discovers new things about their lives, and Yang’s, things he knew nothing about.

After Yang is an unusual science fiction movie, without space ships, laser beams, or violence of any kind. In this future world people (or at least this family) live in stunning glass and wooden houses and dress in colourful hand-sewn clothing. They hilariously compete as a family in online dancing competitions (this has to be seen to be believed). Jake’s investigations uncover Yang’s hidden past lives, before he lived with them, including a woman he was in love with. This is a very low-key and visually-pleasing look at a future just like our present but prettier… and where artificial intelligence plays a crucial  part in our lives. It also deals with privacy, death, technology and everyday middle class problems. The director incorporates experimental film techniques in the movie, things like multiple repetitions of some of the lines to convey the way we — or an android — might remember things. Characters rarely show strong emotions; everything is repressed.  And to tell you the truth, not much happens. So while not completely satisfying, After Yang is still a pleasure to watch.

After Yang opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Hot Docs Cinema is featuring special screenings of The Automat and Dope is Death next week, with the directors present for Q&As; go to hotdocs.ca for details.

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

Christmas Movies! Films reviewed: Sing 2, Licorice Pizza

Posted in 1970s, Animals, Animation, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, L.A., Movies, Musical, Romance by CulturalMining.com on December 24, 2021

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

It’s Christmas today, with time off for most of you, meaning lots more time to spend at the movies, whether in theatres or at home.  So this week I’m looking at two new movies opening this Christmas weekend. There’s a cute cartoon about musical animals trying to put on a show, and a coming-of-age story about two young people in California trying to get to know each other.

Sing 2

Wri/Dir: Garth Jennings

Buster Moon is a producer-director who runs a small-town theatre. His current production, Alice in Wonderland, is a smash hit, selling out each night.  The performers, young and old, are singing and dancing their hearts out.,

And audiences love it. So now they’re ready to make it big… they just have to be “discovered” first. But when a talent scout from the big city is uninterested, they decide to take their show to the big city, and show up for the auditions anyway. They disguise themselves as janitors and sneak onto the stage, and to their great surprise, the big boss, Mr Crystal, who has rejected dozens of acts before them… likes them! He signs them on the spot under certain conditions. One: they must bring a celebrity  — specifically the reclusive rock singer Clay Calloway — into their show. And two, if anything goes wrong that might embarrass Crystal, he will literally throw them off the roof of his high-rise. 

Sing 2 is a sequel and in case you never saw the first one, this is an animated movie, and all the characters are animals. Moon is a koala (with the voice of Matt McConaughey), Crystal (Bobby Cannavale) is a wolf, the faded rock star is a lion (Bono) along with various other pigs, gorillas, and elephants  (Reese Witherspoon, Taron Egerton) as well as a cute porcupine named Ash , voiced by Scarlet Johannson unfortunately dressed in what looks like a fake indigenous headdress. (Why…?)

Although it has a kiddy plot meant for three-year-olds, Sing 2 is a consistently entertaining, highly watchable and fast-moving cartoon movie suitable  for kids and adults alike. There are some great scenes, like Johnny the break-dancing gorilla being forced to learn broadway dancing from a cruel choreographer, and a long audition sequence like a fast-motion American idol This is a musical, where the characters sing a huge selection of popular contemporary songs (mainly from the last decade or so), plus a few new ones written for the movie. But always as performers on a stage or in rehearsal, never spontaneously breaking into song in real life (like in a traditional musical). So if you’re looking for a cute and fun family Christmas pic, a film you can leave the theatre humming in your head, you’ll probably like Sing 2.

Licorice Pizza

Wri/Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson

It’s 1973 in Encino, California in the San Fernando Valley. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a teenager who lives with his single  mom, a business woman and entrepreneur. Gary’s an actor, part of a. song-and-dance kids troupe known as the Tiny Toes.  Today is photo day at the local High School. Gary sees a young woman in the hall who takes his breath away. It’s Alana Kane (Alana Haim) He approaches her point blank and asks if she’ll go out for dinner with him. She flatly rejects him. Turns out she’s not a student, she’s in her twenties, she works for the school photographer, and she wants nothing to do with this aggressive, chubby kid. But he is nothing if not persistent. So they end up having non-alcoholic drinks at a local bar & grill where Gary is a regular. She adamantly tells him they are not and will never date. But she agrees to be his chaperone to a TV appearance in NY city along with his Tiny Toes colleagues. She ends up dating his rival, an older and better-looking singer- dancer-actor, but it doesn’t last. 

They form a sort of a friendship and business partnership, trying out Gary’s various get-rich-quick schemes, some of which work, others that don’t. Gary wants fame and fortune, while Alana wants to support political causes (US Soldiers are still in Vietnam and Nixon is embroiled in the Watergate scandal.) Can the two of them get along, and will they ever take it to a higher level? 

Licorice Pizza is a stupendous, period comedy-drama, a coming-of-age story about a largely unrequited romance. It’s set within the rapidly-changing social and sexual mores of southern California in the turbulent ’70s.  It has cameo appearances by celebs playing other celebs, like Sean Penn as a movie star who seduces Alana and an unrecognizable Bradley Cooper as a wild-eyed Jon Peters (Barbra Streisand’s husband at the time) in an unforgettable scene where he’s a customer at their fledgling waterbed business. Because they’re in the Valley, Alana and Gary are constantly interacting with semi-famous people in their daily lives, but not quite making it big themselves.

Aside from these cameos, the movie is based on real people, or at least previously unknown actors in their first movie roles, and they are unbelievably good. Gary is played by Cooper Hoffman (son of the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Kane is played by Alana Haim  a musician/singer from the eponymous trio Haim. And if you look at the cast list, everyone is related to someone famous, with a Spielberg kid here, a Demme there, and more Hoffmans, Haims and Andersons than you can shake a stick at. And maybe that’s what makes this movies seem so incredibly real, even though it’s clearly just a movie. Everyone’s acting and playing scripted roles in costumes from a different era, but it just seems so honest, so true. And Hoffman and Haim have amazing chemistry.

I don’t usually gush over movies, but Licorice Pizza is so very entertaining, delightful, surprising, funny, sad, and moving, from beginning to end, that I walked out of that theatre thinking, wow, this is a movie everyone should see. It’s got direction, acting, music, locations, costumes, dozens of unforgettable characters,…I’m telling very little about what happens because I saw it blank, knowing nothing about it, and I think you should too. This is one of the best movies of the year.

This Christmas weekend Sing 2 and Licorice Pizza open theatrically across Canada with Licorice Pizza playing at the TIFF Bell Lighbox; 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

Potential explosions. Films reviewed: House of Gucci, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, Drive My Car

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, Acting, Action, Crime, Family, Fashion, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Theatre, video games, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on November 27, 2021

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

With all the stress in people’s lives these days, movies are a good place to purge personal tensions by watching other people’s explosive disasters. This week I’m looking at three new movies about potential explosions.

There’s a zombie-infested city about to be bombed to oblivion, a Hiroshima theatre festival facing an explosive personal conflict; and a bombshell in Italy who threatens a powerful family.

House of Gucci

Wri/Dir: Ridley Scott

It’s the 1970s in northern Italy. Gucci is a major luxury brand specializing in leather goods. Founded 50 years earlier, it is now in the hands of the second generation. Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons), an ailing but piss-elegant man who surrounds himself with priceless art, works behind the scenes, He is grooming his smart but nerdish son Maurizio (Adam Driver) to take over. But the law school student shows little interest in the company or the family. The other half is headed by Aldo (Al Pacino) a hands-on guy who heads the company’s American branch, and wants to expand into the Asian market. But he considers his hapless son Paolo (Jared Leto) an idiot. Enter Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). She’s an accountant at her dad’s trucking business, but has greater ambitions. She meets Maurizio at a party, when she mistakes him for the bartender, but when she hears the name Gucci, her ears perk up. She wants in. After a few dates it’s true love, but Rodolfo doesn’t want his family name besmirched by a trucker’s daughter (forgetting that his own father who founded the company was not a rich man.) So Maurizzio marries into her family gives up his inheritance, and starts hosing down trucks — the best job he’s ever had, he says. But not for long. Following her TV psychic’s instructions Patricia manipulates and manoeuvres Maurizzio’s family to bring him back into the fold (with her at his side) to claw his way back to the top. And she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants. But can they survive the troubles yet to come?

House of Gucci is a true crime/corporate family drama about the rise and fall of a rich family… which isn’t that interesting on its own. And I can’t stand an entire movie of American actors putting on vaguely foreign euro accents — we’re supposed to imagine them speaking their native Italian — why the awful accents? But that’s not why the movie is so much fun. What makes this movie work are two things. One is the amazing fashion and design of the whole movie. Everyone is constantly dressing up— more dresses and purses and tuxes and jewelry than you can shake a stick at.. Even more than this are all the campy, over-the-top characters, chewing the scenery as each one tries to out-do the others. Effete Jeremy Irons, a dazed Salma Hayek, a wonderful Al Pacino, and best of all, Jared Leto, as the hilarious Paolo. Lady Gaga is OK, but can’t compare to the masterful performers all around her. And Adam Driver is the dull straight man who steps back and lets the others shine. House of Gucci is a very enjoyable feast of high-fashion schlock.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

Wri/Dir: Johannes Roberts

It’s the 1990s, somewhere in the US. Chris and Claire Redfield are an estranged brother and sister.  They grew up in the Racoon City Orphanage, a creepy place filled with weird dolls and strange creatures that appear late at night. It is run by the Umbrella corporation the worlds largest pharmaceutical company. But Claire (Kaya Scodelario) runs away when she sees something terrible, while Chris (Robbie Amell) joins the local police force. But now she’s back… to warn Chris that something terrible is about to happen. A leak at the lab has let loose a horrible epidemic infecting nearly everyone in the town. But rather than getting sick, this virus makes your eyes bleed, your hair fall out and you turn into a flesh eating zombie. Or worse (no spoilers). They have until 6 am to fight off these monsters and escape from this hell-hole, or else they, and the rest of the town will be wiped off the face of the earth. They split up; Chris, and fellow cops Wesker and Valentine (Tom Hopper, Hannah John-Kamen) investigate the Spencer mansion, while Claire, the Police Chief, and Leon, a newby on his first day of work (Avan Jogia) set out from the police station. Will they ever get together? Who will live and who will die? And what secrets do these labs hold?

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is a movie based on a video game, plain and simple. There are some good laughs, and a threadbare plot line, but it’s mainly reenacting the game, from the long dark hallways where zombies run towards you, to the dark and scary Spencer mansion. Even some of the camera angles and pans duplicate the game itself.  But it’s very cool to see on the big screen scary pitch-black scenes lit only by a lighter and the flash of gunfire revealing zombie faces. That said, it’s more eerie than scary, more action than horror. Not bad, but not much to it.

Drive My Car

Dir: Hamaguchi Ryusuke

Kafuku and Oto are a happily married couple in Tokyo. Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an actor and director in theatres, while Oto (Reika Kirishima) is a famous scriptwriter for TV and film. Oto’s ideas come to her at an unexpected time — while they’re having sex. Her bizarre stories are generated in the throws of orgasmic bliss, recited aloud to her husband, so it’s up to him to listen and remind her the next morning of what she said. But everything changes one day when he comes back early from a cancelled flight to Vladivostok. He catches sight of her making love to another, much younger, man in their bedroom. He sneaks away instead of barging in, but before they have a chance to talk about it, she dies of an unexpected cerebral hemorrhage.  

Years later he’s invited to direct a play — Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya — for a festival in Hiroshima. Kafuku’s trademark method is to cast his plays with actors who speak other languages and can’t understand each other. In this one the actors speak Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and even signs language. So they practice under his exacting direction, forced to keep each line perfectly timed. But there’s a twist: the most famous actor in the play is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) a handsome and arrogant star who says he idolizes Kafuku and his late wife Oto. And he’s the one Kafuku thinks he saw having sex with his wife before she died. Meanwhile, in line with the theatre company’s rules, all directors must be driven to and from the theatre each day. So Kafuku gets to know the introverted Misaki (Tôko Miura), a young female driver from Hokkaido with a strange story. But as the production nears its premier date something terrible happens, forcing all the main players to reevaluate their priorities. 

Drive My Car is a beautiful drama about love, loss, jealousy, and guilt. The movie builds slowly in an exacting manner, as the director and the various actors get to know one another. And the excerpts from Uncle Vanya we see as they rehearse exactly mirror the feelings and thoughts of the characters in the movie. That’s not the only story. There’s also Oto’s own stories she told her husband, and the personal confessions from the driver herself about her dark past. The acting is superb, and the panoramic views, ranging from drives on causeways and through tunnels to footage of a vast municipal incinerator, are breathtaking. The film is based on a Murakami story, with all the weird quirky fantasy combined with mundane realism you’d expect from him. Drive My Car is a long movie but one that is deeply, emotionally satisfying.

House of Gucci and Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City are now playing theatrically in Toronto; check your local listings; and Drive My Car has 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.

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

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