Rescue. Films reviewed: The Walrus and the Whistleblower, The Forbidden Reel, It Must Be Heaven

Posted in Afghanistan, Animals, Canada, Cold War, documentary, Movies, Niagara Falls, Palestine, War by CulturalMining.com on June 12, 2020

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

I’m recording this in my home to tell you about new movies you can watch in your home. This week I have two docs and a comedy. There’s a Palestinian director trying to make a film; Afghani directors trying to save their films, and a man in Canada trying to rescue a walrus from a swimming pool.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower

Dir: Nathalie Bibeau

Marineland is a huge amusement park in Niagara Falls, centred on its performing animals. Built in the 1960s it attracts huge crowds. Visitors love watching trainers diving off the noses of orcas, and dolphins jumping in rhythm like synchronized swimmers. There are porpoises, belugas and walruses happily doing tricks for the fish rewards they’re handed. But the world is shocked in 2012 when the Toronto Star prints a front-page expose about the maltreatment of its animals. When not performing for audiences they are kept in filthy cramped cells, much like prisons. They are force-fed drugs and made to perform in over-chlorinated pools. They are caught at sea as infants and separated from their mothers who are often killed in the process. And when they die they are dumped into mass graves on the amusement park’s own property.

Who spilled the tea on this explosive issue? Phil Demers, a trainer who had worked there since his early twenties. He learned the trade as he went along, and became an integral part of the show. He was most attached to a walrus he calls Smooshi. He milk-fed the baby walrus when it was brought there, and became its surrogate mother. They bonded like a true family. So he is disturbed by how badly Smooshi and the other animals are being treated there – an open secret shared by all its employees. When Marineland doesn’t change, he goes to the press. His whistleblowing leads to a bill in Parliament and he becomes a spokesperson for animal rights. But he is also vilified by the park’s owner,  John Holer, who launches a series of SLAPP lawsuits to stifle him. Who will win in the end – Demers or Marineland? And can he save Smooshi?

This documentary is a first-hand look at the plight of marine mammals as told by Phil Demers (Marineland doesn’t cooperate with the filmmaker). Demers is an unusual character, in turn passionate, angry, and even rude. But his love for the animals – especially Smooshi – is undeniable. And the hidden camera footage taken inside the park is very disturbing; you can see why he’s fighting so hard, and why this documentary is so popular (it won the Top Audience Award at Hot Docs this year). If you haven’t made up your mind yet, The Walrus and the Whisteblower will totally change your opinion on keeping whales in captivity.

The Forbidden Reel

Dir: Ariel Nasr

In Kabul, there’s a building that stands behind filigreed metal gates. It holds a treasure trove of Afghan culture and history wound around movie reels in metal cases. What are they, where did they come from, and how did they survive? The building is called called Afghan Films, and its archive contains a crucial record of the country’s past. Through war and peace, modernism, communism and civil war. Afghan Films was founded by film directors who wanted to create a national cinema. Influenced by Iranian, European, Hollywood and Bollywood, they created works interesting and accessible to Afghanis. They continued producing and showing their films through the civil war, indeed until the Taliban was at its gate. That’s when the archive was safely hidden and preserved in a room behind a plaster wall.

This amazing documentary tells the history of modern Afghanistan through these films. I’m talking romances, war stories, battles, dramas and newsreels. The cameramen were recoding missiles landing in Kabul. Films made under Soviet rule still depicted stories of Mujahadeen fighters. There are massice crowds in city squares, girls in poppy fields lacing flowers through their hair, travelers leading camels along mountain passes, and sombre footage of past President hanging from poles. The documentary talks to people like Yasamin Yarmal a genuine Afghani movie star, and directors Engineer Latif and Siddiq Barmak who give first-hand accounts. And it’s even a bit of a thriller – how they managed to save these Forbidden Reels (it’s not what you think!) This doc gives a view of Afghan culture like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Great documentary.

It Must Be Heaven

Wri/Dir: Elia Suleiman

Elia Suleiman is a Palestinian film director who lives in Nazareth. He lives a simple, quiet life, observing his lemon tree, listening to neighbours and drinking coffee or wine at nearby cafes, always in his panama hat and dark rimmed glasses. But his life changes when he travels abroad for a series of meetings. He flies first to Paris and then to Manhattan, but maintains his lifestyle as a quiet observer… until he goes back home again. But this simple outline doesn’t really capture the feelings behind this comic film.

It’s actualy a series of brief, whimsical tableaux, some one-offs, some repeated, in the style of Jaques Tati. This is basically a silent film with only occasional lines spoken by the people he meets. Some scenes are cute; like a little bird that keeps landing on his laptop as he tries to write. Others are more political, dealing with the pervasive presence of surveillance, military and police forces in all three countries. Israeli soldiers happily exchanging sunglasses in a car driving past… and then you see a young woman, blindfolded, in the back seat. There’s a scene on the Paris metro where he is frightened by an angry man who somehow drinks his beer in a threatening way.

Some scenes are spiritual: there’s an angel pursued by Keystone Cops in Central Park. Others are mundane – a drunken doorkeeper refusing to unlock the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although the film represents nationalities in stereotypical ways – he dreams, What if New Yorkers carried assault weapons casually slung over their shoulders?; and do Parisian ambulances really offer 3-course meals to homeless people? – but it laughs equally at all nationalities. Some of the most interesting scenes are in his own home where neighbours tell fantastical fables as if real life… part of the magic-realism feel of the whole movie. It Must Be Heaven is a lovely, funny and thought-provoking look at the strangeness of everyday life.

The Forboidden Reel and The Walrus and the Whistleblower are both streaming at Hotdocs; and It Must Be Heaven is opening across Canada at select virtual theatres; check your local listings.

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

Lost causes. Films reviewed: Tammy’s Always Dying, Planet of the Humans, She’s Allergic to Cats


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

I had a strange dream last night. I was in an old-school movie palace (in real life, all movie theatres are still closed) fumbling around in the dark, trying to find a seat while maintaining social distance. I finally found an empty seat way up in the second or third balcony but there was a huge pillar blocking the screen. So I had to twist around until I was almost lying prone until could catch a glimpse of the movie, far below…

But you don’t have to go such lengths to see unusual films – they’re on your device or TV at home. So this week I’m looking at three new indie movies, now playing. There’s an ex-environmentalist tilting at windmills; a depressed mom in Hamilton jumping off bridges; and a neurotic filmmaker in Hollywood obsessed with bananas.

Tammy’s Always Dying

Dir: Amy Jo Johnson

Kathy (Anastasia Phillips) is a working-class woman in Hamilton, Ontario. She has a steady boyfriend, a career, a nice car and a mother who loves her. OK, that’s an exaggeration. She actually has a ramshackle existence teetering on the brink. She drives a wreck, works in a

dive bar for Doug (Clark Johnson) an older gay black guy who’s her only friend. Her so-called boyfriend Sean (Aaron Ashmore: 22 Chaser) is married with two young kids who meets her periodically for quickies in his tool shed.

And then there’s her mom. Tammy (Felicity Huffman) is a total mess: a penniless alcoholic, she’s depressed and suicidal. Her only pleasure is watching confessional talk shows on daytime TV. Each month she can be found, like clockwork, on a pedestrian bridge, ready to throw herself onto the railway tracks far below. But Katherine always arrives just in time to save her mom’s life.

Until… Tammy finds herself facing a physical problem that almost trumps her financial and mental difficulties. Turns out she’s dying of cancer, stage 4 cancer, with less than a year to live. Can Katherine convince her to take chemo to extend her life? Or will she abandon her mom, buy a Toyota and move to Toronto?

Tammy’s Always Dying is a bittersweet drama about mental illness, poverty and fanmily relations. Its shot against the bleak industrial steel mills of Hamilton. It has some humour and light parts, as it satirizes daytime TV. The acting is good all-around (though Felicity Huffman’s excruciating attempt at a Canadian accent sounds more like a Wisconsin dairy farmer). While it didn’t blow me away, it does have some very touching scenes. If you’re looking for a good, realistic tear-jerker, this is one to see.

Planet of the Humans

Wri/Dir: Jeff Gibbs

Our planet is heading toward environmental destruction. Can we stop climate change by switching to greener renewable energy? So asks a new controversial documentary. The filmmaker follows eco-skeptic Ozzie Zehner around the US, and what they find is not good. Rather than replacing carbon fuels, these new energy sources just switch one carbon-based energy for another. Environmental movements, they say, are just ways for major corporations to greenwash their image… and make big bucks from government subsidies. And green energy is not so green after all. All of which are very real concerns.

The problem with this movie is it is full of silly comparisons, half-truths and a near total lack of credible statistics. Instead, it discredits genuine improvements without offering any alternatives. For example, they show up with a camera at a protest against fracking and ask random people not about the troubles with fracking but rather – what are your feelings about biomass? Huh? And when the people they talk to don’t give them the answer they’re looking for, they suggest maybe environmentalists are hiding something.

Their argument against solar energy and wind turbines? The panels are manufactured, solar energy doesn’t work in the dark, and their equipment eventually wears out. But instead of supporting their arguments with stats – such as does a given energy source uses more energy than it produces? – they go for cheap gotcha scenes, where a rock concert that claims to be powered by solar energy is caught using a generator when it starts to rain. It’s like a child’s version of a documentary… and one that offers no alternatives except despair.

Yes, we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Yes, corporations are co-opting some environmental movements to profit off government subsidies. And yes, green energy equipment has to be manufactured. But burining coal is not the same as hydropower or windmills. Broken solar panels littering a desert is not the same environmentally as mining oil sands. To write off an entire movement as fraudulent based on factoids and interviews with random strangers – and without any research to back it up – is not the way to expose malfeasance. And spreading misinformation doesn’t help much either.

I’d give this one a miss.

She’s Allergic to Cats

Wri/Dir: Michael Reich

Dorky Mike Pinkney (Mike Pinkney) is a single guy who lives in a small house in Hollywood. He came there with big plans: to shoot a remake of Carrie with cats playing all the roles. He shares his idea with his best friend Sebastien (Flula Borg) who isn’t impressed. He says Michael is a giant, sad dirty man-baby. In the meantime he works at a day job, grooming dogs (badly). There he meets the beautiful and glamorous Cora (Sonja Kinski). She’s Mickey Rourke’s daughter’s personal assistant, and she brings in the star’s dogs to be groomed. Is this love at first sight? Not exactly, but at least they might go on a date some evening.

But Mike doesn’t tell her about his real problems. His home is filthy and infested by rats, which his landlord – a musician named Honey (Honey Davis) – won’t do anything about. And he ocassionally slips into psychedelic fantasies, full of sinister cats, buckets of blood, and a wooden bowl of rotten bananas, spinning, spinning, spinning around in his brain. Sometimes people he’s talking to seem to be possessed by Satan.

Will Mike make his video art? Will he and Cora fall in love? Will he win his battle with the rats? And what about the missing pug?

Needless to say, this is not an ordinary movie, more of an impressionistic, experimental indie collage of images, characters and music. It’s a comedy, a mystery, and a fantasy. It’s shot on grainy video, with frequent cuts to fuzzy, 80s-style video art. And full of odd references to movies, from The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to Congo. It’s pretty funny and pretty strange without being over the top. If you like unusual movies – She’s Allergic to Cats feels like a cross between Peter Strickland and John Waters – you might enjoy this one.

I did.

Tammy’s Always Dying opens today across Canada on all VOD platforms; Planet of the Humans is streaming on Youtube; and She’s Allergic to Cats is available on demand from Giant Pictures.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Albert Shin about Disappearance at Clifton HiIll

Posted in Animals, Canada, Crime, Mental Illness, Movies, Mystery, Noir, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 21, 2020

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

Abby is a young woman returning to her hometown of Niagara Falls. She’s figuring out what to do with the rundown motel she inherited with her sister. Should she make a go of it? Or sell it to a rich local patriarch. But as she goes through old photos and films, she starts to remember hidden memories from the distant past. And with the help of eccentric locals she finds herself digging deeper and deeper, the more dirt she uncovers. Dirt that involves some of the most powerful figures in the city. Most troubling of all is an image from her childhood, still stuck in her brain. A boy with one bleeding eye who disappeared right in front of her. Was he kidnapped? Was he killed? Or was it just a false memory. What really happened happened in Clifton Hill?

Disapearance at Clifton Hill is also the name of a new movie opening February 28th across Canada. It’s been nominated for multiple Canadian Screen Awards, and is a fantastic film. It’s co-written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Albert Shin. I last interviewed Albert six years ago alongside his collaborator and colleague Igor Drljaca about In Her Place.

I spoke to Albert by telephone at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Disappearance at Clifton HIll opens across Canada on February 28th.

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

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, Animals, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, Family, Fantasy, France, Kids, Language, Morality, Movies, New York City, Police, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three movies. There’s a man who talks to monkeys; a kid who steals a lion, and a movie critic who monkeyed with the way we look at movies.

Dolittle

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

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

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

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

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

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

Wri/Dir: Rob Garver

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

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

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

If you love movies, I strongly recommend this doc.

Les Misérables

Co-Wri/Dir: Ladj Ly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good not good. Films reviewed: Bombshell, A Hidden Life, Cats

Posted in 2000s, Acting, Animals, Austria, Dance, Farming, Journalism, Movies, Musical, Nazi, Religion, Sexual Harassment, Theatre, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 20, 2019

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

Ever watch something that’s bad, but still has good parts? Or a beautifully rendered piece of art that doesn’t live up to its potential? This week, I’m looking at three new films, that I liked but didn’t like, or hated but still enjoyed. There’s one farmer in wartime Austria, three women at Fox News, and a hundred cats in London.

Bombshell

Dir: Jay Roach

It’s Fox News studios in New York City. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is a top TV journalist and news anchor, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is co-host of Fox & Friends, Donald Trump’s favourite show, and newcomer Kayla Pospisal (Margot Robbie) is a committed conservative evangelical, trying to advance her career. What do these three women have in common? Theyre all smart, conservative and attractive (Carlson is a former Miss Minnesota.) And they were all hired by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Ailes is the highly profitable Fox News CEO, the man who singlehandedly shifted cable journalism from neutral news-source to a font of blatantly partisan right-wing talking points, leaving CNN in its dust. He’s also paranoid and hideously ugly, called Jabba the Hut behind his back.

The Fox News he runs is a place where cameras are positioned to show off female newscasters’ legs. Male employees advance because of their work. Female employees are also judged on looks, and work in a blatantly sexist office culture. And Ailes is the centre of it all, using his position power to exploit, harass and sexually assault young women. Kelly shares her concerns with her husband and Pospisal with her lesbian lover and Fox News staffer (Kate McKinnon) who says she doesn’t want to hear about it. But Carlson refuses to take this lying down. She launches a lawsuit against Ailes and Fox News. But will other journalists, like Kelly and Pospisal (a composite character based on real people) join her struggle, or stay loyal to Ailes?

Bombshell is a fast-paced news drama based on recent real-life events. It’s told in a light, punchy and easy-to-digest format, which makes the few dramatic scenes showing sexual harassment all the more powerful. Theron, Kidman and Robbie are all terrific and believable in their roles. On the ther hand, the movie barely touches on the awfulness and deceit of Fox News itself. And while it skewers Ailes it leaves the notorious Rupert Murdoch strangely untouched. Bombshell tells a great story, as seen by three strong women, around sexual harassment, but doesn’t concern itself with other political matters.

A Hidden Life

Wri/Dir: Terrence Malick

It’s WWII in Austria. Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is a simple farmer deeply in love with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). They live with his mother, her sister and their three little girls inthefoothills of a dramatic mountain range. Together with their neighbours they till the fields, harvest the grain and carry it, on the back of a donkey, to the miller. They go to church on Sunday and dress up in masks and costumes to honour the harvest. Their life is idyllic until… Franz gets drafted for army duty a second time. Enough, he says. I’m not going. No more Heil Hitler’s, no more military uniforms, no more separation from my wife and kids. Enough! Neighbours and government officials try to convince him to sign a loyalty oath, but he refuses. He is sent to prison, leaving his wife and sister-in-law to plow the fields among neighbours who aren’t friendly anymore. Only their constant letters keep them sane and I love. Will Franz sign the oath, or will he stay steadfast to his beliefs, even at risk of death?

A Hidden Life is a lush and beautiful rendering of a simple act of resistance in wartime anschluss Austria. It’s directed by Terrance Mallick, and is instantly recognizable by its swirling images, breathy voiceovers, lush music and stunning camerawork. People clutch earth in their fingers, and reap fields with scythes. Good passionate acting, featuring cameo performances by Matthias Schoenaerts, Franz Rogowski, and the late, great Bruno Ganz.

On the other hand… it’s three hours long. Three hours!  Why does it take so long to tell such a simple story? Why? It’s not exactly boring or tedious since it’s done so beautifully, but similar stories have already been told (and in a more dramatic fashion, like Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes/Elser – Er hätte die Welt verändert). As a movie critic, I try to avoid terms like “self-indulgent”, but this movie is strictly for fans of Terrence Mallick.

Cats

Dir: Tom Hooper

It’s nighttime in a fantastical, pre-gentrified London, where abandoned alley cats rule the streets. The Jellicle Cats are gathered for their annual meeting, presided over by Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench), who will choose one cat to be reborn. Each contestant performs before the queen: There are dancers (Francesca Hayward, Steven McRae) singers (Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson), comics (Rebel Wilson, James Corden), a magician dressed in black and white (Laurie Davidson) and even an old theatre cat (Ian McKellen). But the age-old ceremony is challenged by the evil Macavity (Idris Elba) who is kidnapping each cat after their performance. Who will be chosen to ascend to the skies? Will peace and order return to the Jellicle cats? And can newbie Victoria join the gang?

Cats is a strange hybrid of theatre, and movie special effects. Each act is performed on a vast soundstage, keeping close to how it would look before a live audience. The cat people’s faces and bodies are human, but augmented, using CGI, with cat ears, moving tails and furry bodies. Some of them wear elaborate costumes, while others run around “naked”, covered in sleek fur. But they’ve all been digitally neutered, with no sign of breasts or genitals anywhere. The script is abysmally bad, almost babyish, with “jokes” like cat got your tongue? and relentless fat jokes. Fat jokes? Really?

Music ranges from torch songs to chorus lines. There are a few great scenes, like cockroaches doing elaborate Busby Berkeley formations as Rebel Wilson eats them, one by one; and impressive dance routines, along with some good songs… but I can’t figure out who the movie is trying to appeal to? Small children? Theatre buffs? Taylor Swift fans? I don’t think it knows, either.

Still… I kinda liked it, if just for the spectacle of it all. It’s bad, but it’s watchable and loaded with great singers dancers and prize-winning actors all of whom are far, far more talented than the material they’ve been given.

And I think these weird cat people will haunt my sexual nightmares for years to come.

Bombshell, A Hidden Life and Cats all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Dogs and toys. Films reviewed: Child’s Play, Paris is Burning, Dogman

Posted in 1980s, Animals, Crime, documentary, Drama, Horror, Italy, Kids, LGBT, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 21, 2019

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

Pets, toys and dressing up are the innocent parts of childhood that supply endless bouts if nostalgic memories. That’s also what makes them useful fodder for shocking or surprising scenes in adult movies. This week I’m looking at three movies – a horror, a doc and a drama. There are drag balls run by fashion houses, a dog kennel run inside a house, and a kid’s toy ruining another kid’s home.

Child’s Play

Dir: Lars Klevberg

Andy (Gabriel Bateman) is a hearing-impaired kid who has just moved into a low-rent apartment. No dad, no friends, no one to keep him company except a mean old cat. His mom (the hilarious Aubrey Plaza) is trying her best to raise him, but her thankless job in a big box store takes up most of her time. So when a disgruntled customer returns a defective new toy – a first-generation robot named Buddi – she sneaks it home and gives it to Andy as an early birthday present. Buddi – who calls himself Chucky – is the ultimate high tech best friend. Like Siri or Alexa, Chucky records everything Andy says or does and adjusts his personality to suit it. Problem is, this particular toy has a defect – it’s missing the digital safeguards that stop it from things like using foul language.

Andy starts to make friends with people in his building, like Detective Mike (a hapless cop who visits his elderly mother down the hall) and juvenile delinquents Pugg and Falyn. Together, they watch campy slasher movies on TV, laughing at the gory parts. But what they don’t realize is Chucky takes in everything at face value. Lacking a moral compass, the robotic toy sees that violence makes Andy happy, so he begins to replicate the actions just to please his best friend.

And as the unexplained dead bodies start to pile up, it’s up to Andy to stop the toy from killing everyone around him. Will anyone believe Andy that a kid’s toy is actually a homicidal maniac? And is Andy strong enough to stop him?

Child’s Play is an updated remake of the classic horror movie from the 1980s and its many sequels… and I think this version is even better. In the original, a voodoo spell puts an adult criminal’s evil soul into a kid’s inanimate doll who cynically manipulates the hapless child. But in this version Chucky is an actual robotic kid who genuinely wants to please his best friend, but is missing the parts that tell right from wrong. It’s also a cautionary tale about the dangers of the rampant technology, surveillance, and artificial intelligence controlled by huge corporations. It is also hilarious, with great acting, and horrifically grotesque scenes used for comic effect. It includes constant pop culture references, from Tupac to driverless cars. Child’s Play is a perfect dose of schlock for a Saturday night.

I liked this one a lot.

Paris is Burning

Dir: Jennie Livingston

If you’re looking for a way to celebrate LGBTTQQIAAP Pride Day with a movie, you cannot do better than watching the documentary Paris is Burning. Shot in the late 1980s when HiV was decimating the gay community, this movie shows the drag balls run in NY City by various competitive houses. It is shot from the inside, not as exploitation but as celebration of the players. It features the queens and kings of drag, mainly black and brown people, back when their world was kept down low. Since this film was made, many of its subjects have died of plague or were murdered on the streets (black and brown transwomen are  particularly vulnerable to violence.) These are people who have had an enormous influence on mainstream TV, music, fashion, language and culture.

Paris is Burning is definitely one of the ten best documentaries ever made, so if you have a chance, be sure to check out this newly-restored 4K version.

Dogman

Dir: Matteo Garrone

Marcello (Marcello Fonte) is a hardworking, dimunitive man in his thirties who lives in a run-down section of Naples. He is dark, wiry and scruffy. Marcelo is own as the Dogman, also the kennel where he cares for and grooms dogs. He is a respected member of the local business association and shares drinks with the other men in the piazza. And he hangs out with his best friend Simone (Eduardo Pesce). But friend ship doesn’t clearly describe their relationship.

Simone is a musclebound bruiser, a competitive boxer and cokehead twice Marcelo’s size. He bullies him, steals from him and forces him into embarrassing and often dangerous situations. Marcelo regards him with equal parts fear and awe. Simone is a selfstyled gangsta who needs a constant flow of cash to fuel his extravagent tastes and drug habit. Marcelo plays along, lending a hand for petty burglary in expensive mansions. But when Simone wants him to rob a shop in his own neighbourhood, he has to take a stand. Can Marcelo use his skill with animals to stop Simone from ruining his life? Or will this alpha dog prove to be too big to tame?

Dogman is a terrific drama, Matteo Garrone’s latest, about the period of unequal friendship of two men and tied to local loyalty. It’s funny tender, surprising and moving. Like all of Garrone’s movies, it’s shot on location in the same poor Naples neighbourhood, and with lots of local faces and dialect. Many of the roles are played by non-actors which gives it a gritty realism you can’t always get with movie stars. This is a great film.

Paris is Burning is now playing with Dogman at the Tiff Bell Lightbox. Child’s Play also opens today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Back from the Dead. Films reviewed: Pet Sematary, The Invisibles, Amazing Grace

Posted in 1940s, 1970s, Animals, Berlin, Christianity, documentary, Drama, Dreams, Germany, Holocaust, Horror, L.A., Music by CulturalMining.com on April 5, 2019

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

We all know people are born and they die, things come and go. But every once in a while things and people we believe are long gone seem to come back to life. This week I’m looking at three very different movies about coming back from the dead. There’s Aretha’s gospel concert buried since 1972; a documentary about young German Jews who hide in Nazi Berlin till 1945; and a horror movie about pets who come back from their graves in small town Maine.

Pet Sematary

Dir: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer

(Based on the novel by Stephen King)

Louis (Jason Clarke) is a Boston doctor suffering from ER burnout. He’s overworked, overstressed, and overtired. So to relax and spend more time with his family he takes and easy job in the quaint small town of Ludlow, Maine. He’s there with his nervous, religious wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two kids, little Gage, and his pride and joy Ellie. Ellie (Jeté Laurence) is an eight year old who loves ballet dancing and her furry cat Church (short for Winston Churchill). Their old wooden house is on a sprawling estate in a small forest with a high speed highway running through it. But their quiet lives are disrupted by some strange events. First, when a young patient of Louis dies in his care after a car accident, the dead boy seems to return, over and over to talk to him in his dreams.

Then Ellie sees kids from town in spooky animal masks burying dead pets on their property. It’s an ancient custom, explains kindly old Jud (John Lithgow) their nearest neighbour. He’s lived there all his life and understands the local lore. So when Ellie is despondent when her beloved cat is run over Jud tells Louis a secret. There’s powerful magic up on the mountain beyond the pet cemetery. Bury the cat under a cairn and he will come back to you from the dead. Sure enough, Jud is right. But it isn’t cute and loveable anymore. When you play with the the forces of good and evil, of life and death, bad things will surely happen.

Pet Sematary – a remake of the movie based on the Stephen King novel – is suitably scary. The small, excellent cast nicely contained in a single location give it a good cabin-in-the-woods quality, but it’s scariness is less adventurous. It uses the age-old techniques – spooky dreams, little “boo!” moments, even twists on the overused images of the mirror in medicine cabinet, and the dark room in the basement. And then it degenerates from scariness into outright, Bride-of-Chucky kitsch. I enjoyed Pet Sematary as a good, old-skool horror movie, just don’t expect anything new.

The Invisibles

Dir: Claus Räfle

It’s 1943, in Nazi Berlin, and Joseph Goebels has officially declares his Germany’s capital judenfrei – free of Jews. But he doesn’t realize that 7,000 Jewish Germans still lived their hidden in plain view. This docudrama tells four true stories about young people who survived the Holocause while living in Berlin. They don’t hide in an attic like Anne Frank’s family; instead they continue their lives right in the middle of everything.  Cioma (Max Mauff) sells all his possessions and poses as someone whose house was bombed in Köln, moving to new vacant rooms each day. He finds work for a high placed civil servant forging ID papers. Hanni (Alice Dwyer) bleaches her hair, calls herself Hannelore and hangs out in dark movie theatres in the Kurfürstendamm. Ruth (Ruby O. Fee) and a friend find jobs as maid and nanny for the kids of Nazi officers. And Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is placed with former colleagues of his dad, a doctor, dressing in a Hitler Youth uniform. But there are informants and Gestapo agents everywhere, searching for people like them. Who will survive?

The Invisibles is a fascinating retelling of largely unknown stories. It’s part documentary – the film regularly cuts to interviews in German with the actual people it happened to – and part drama with the thrilling stories replayed by well-known young actors.

Fascinating and thrilling stories, well told.

Amazing Grace

Dir: Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliott

Its 1972 at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, LA.

Reverend James Cleveland is leading a very special service for his devout parishioners. None other than the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin herself will be performing, alongside the Southern California Community Choir. The congregation is urged to feel the spirit, clap their hands, and get up from their seats and dance. But wait a minute — since when has pop sensation Aretha Franklin beena gospel singer? The answer is: all her life. Her father is the famous Detroit Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, and she was touring churches with her amazing voice since the age of six.

This concert became a huge hit album – many people say it’s Aretha’s best recordings – and the movie includes her back-up musicians, the choir, and the audience, including some very famous people, like Mick Jagger, gospel singer Clara Ward and lots of others I couldn’t quite recognize. A beautiful, intensely moving concert and church service. Interestingly, it’s been sitting in film cans, unscreened until now. For some reason, Aretha blocked its release her whole life, perhaps because it is so personal to her, perhaps because the sound and images were never synchronized. That’s all fixed now.

It’s a grainy hyper-realistic verité-style film that shows everything: retakes, the cameramen, the soundboard, the director running around pointing, and Aretha in a sparkling white gown, sweating under the hot lights. If you’re a fan of Aretha Franklin, and want to experience those two days of 1972, you must see Amazing Grace.

Pet Sematary and The Invisibles both open today in Toronto; check your local listings, and you can see Amazing Grace beginning next Friday.

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

Gone fishing. Films reviewed: Serenity, Wonders of the Sea PLUS Cold War

Posted in 1950s, Animals, Cold War, Communism, Conservation, Crime, documentary, Drama, Film Noir, France, Music, Mystery, Poland, Romance, Suspense by CulturalMining.com on January 25, 2019

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

Fishing for something different to watch? This week I’m looking at two movies about fish and one about love. There’s a doc beneath the waves, a suspense drama aboard a fishing boat, and a bittersweet romance behind the Iron Curtain.

Serenity

Wri/Dir: Steve Knight

Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman off Plymouth Island, a tropical vacation spot in the middle of nowhere. Along with his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) he takes rich tourists out on his boat to catch some sharks. But Dill’s real love, his passion, is for tuna. One particular bluefin he calls Justice, that always gets away. It’s his great white whale, his Moby Dick . He spends his free time drinking dark rum at the local bar or sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane) an attractive older woman with a black cat, who helps him out financially after a night of passion.

Life never changes… until one day a mysterious femme fatale, named Karen (Anne Hathaway) appears on his boat. If you drown my rich abusive husband, she says, I’ll give you 10 million bucks. Cash. Will Dill stick with his tuna obsession or will he kill a stranger?

But wait, that’s not all. Turns out he had a thing with Karen before serving in Iraq… she dumped him to marry the rich guy. And her teenaged boy Patrick, a computer geek, could be his biological son. (Though they’ve never met Dill feels he has a psychic bond with the boy). And a strange man with a briefcase following Dill has some crucial information.

If my description sounds like a clichéed film noir knock-off, that’s because that’s what it is. The actors play their characters – an obsessed fisherman, a villainous drunk, an abused but devious woman – in over-the-top performances, vamping for the camera. Why the boilerplate plots? Why the tired dialogue? Apparently, it’s all intentional, but to tell you why would ruin the WTF plot twist. I started to figure it out about two-thirds-of-the-way through, and it kept me interested (though not really satisfied). If you like watching famous actors acting in an imperfect script, this is for you.

Wonders of the Sea

Dir: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jean-Jacques Montello

Jacques Cousteau was the French deep-sea diver, conservationist and underwater filmmaker whose TV shows fascinated me as a child. He sailed away on a ship called Calypso with flippers on his feet and aqualungs on his back. He died in 1997 but his son Jean-Michel and grandkids Fabien and Celine are still diving. This latest documentary in 3D looks at undiscovered parts of the ocean floor and the tiny creatures that live there. They lead us through a massive squid orgy: a mating ritual near California where they all have sex with each other. They also visit a hammerhead shark migration near the Bahamas, and the wondrous coral reefs off Fiji, which form a crucial part of the world’s oceans’ ecosystem. The doc focusses on the tiny, the cute, the weird and the grotesque. And they throw in informative facts and stats about pollution and overfishing.

My biggest problem with this movie is the insufferably corny and dated voiceovers by Arnold Schwartzeneggar and the Cousteaus. It seems aimed at three-year-olds. Who knows, maybe the narration was this bad when I was three but I just didn’t notice. Whatever. If you can somehow switch off the dialogue and just take in the intense, weird-and-wonderful, 3-D coloured images you’ll enjoy this movie.

Cold War

Wri/ Dir Pawel Pawlikowski

It’s post-WWII Poland, and a team of musicologists is heading to the mountains with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Irena (Agata Kulesza) is a serious academic looking to preserve authentic folk culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) a handsome conductor, wants to put together a musical group. Their boss is Kazsmarek (Borys Szyc), an apparatchik – he wants a show big enough to impress his party bosses. The auditions begin, with milk maids and farm hands singing the innocently salacious songs of their childhood. Authenticity rules. Still, one pretty young woman, with blonde braids and a strong voice manages to slip through the cracks. Zula (Joanna Kulig) isn’t really a local peasant, but after living through WWII, taking on new identities is a piece of cake. And Wiktor is attracted to her. The Mazurek Choir is born, and it’s a big hit. And Wiktor and Zula start a secret relationship.

The Party weeds out anyone not “Polish-looking” enough: hair too dark, nose too big? Back to the farm. When they are forced to include Stalinist paeans to collective farming, Wiktor shrugs his shoulders but Irena quits in disgust. But their new status pushes the choir to star status in the Eastern Bloc. Wiktor and Zula fall in love and hatch a plan to defect to the west. Wiktor makes it across the border, but Zula stays behind. Now thelovers are separated by the impenetrable Iron Curtain. Will they ever see each other again? If so, on which side? And can their love –  and their music – survive a long separation?

Cold War is a wonderful, bittersweet romantic drama, set in 1950s Europe. It paints the Cold War era with all its faults and how it affects the people caught in it. Like Pawlikowski’s Ida, it’s just 90 minutes long and shot in glorious black and white on a square screen. Filled with haunting music and images, the film showcases the amazing Kulig and Kot in their flawless performances as separated lovers. (Kulig sings, too!) It’s nominated for a Foreign Language Feature Oscar and is also on my list of best movies of the year.

This is a great movie, don’t miss it.

Wonders of the Sea in 3D starts next week, Serenity and Cold War both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Pugly directors Michael McNamara and Aaron Hancox

Posted in Animals, Canada, documentary, Movies, Toronto, TV by CulturalMining.com on January 11, 2019

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

If you’ve ever been to Trinity Bellwoods park on a certain Sunday, you may have noticed dozens of strange animals running rampant in the park’s dog run. They have big round eyes, squashed in faces, and make the oddest squawking sounds. What are they, and where did they come from?

They’re pugs, a popular breed of companion dogs popping up everywhere in this city. Many people devote their lives to these high-maintenance dogs. But it’s harder than it looks. Some have runny noses, birth defects, eating disorders and a host of other emotional and medical difficulties.

Pugly: a Pug’s Life, is a new documentary that follows these strange creatures and looks at some of their problems… and the people who come to their rescue. It’s co-directed by award winners Michael McNamara and Aaron Hancox. Michael is a TV and film writer and director who created The Cockroach that Ate Cincinnati. Aaron’s a producer/director, whose docs have been show on Netflix and other outlets.

I spoke with Michael McNamara & Aaron Hancoxhere in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Pugly premiers tonight at 9:00 pm on CBC Docs POV.

In the Trash. Movies Reviewed: A Swingers Weekend, The Go-Getters, Isle of Dogs

Posted in Addiction, Animals, Animation, Canada, Japan, Poverty, Sex, Sex Trade, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on March 23, 2018

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

The Canadian Film Fest is on now, bringing lots of new movies to the big screen, movies made right here in Toronto and across the country. Comedies, dramas and real life stories.

Hollywood movies often glamourize everyday life with an idealized view of the world the average person can never attain. But sometimes movies look in the opposite direction… downward, toward the gutter.  This week I’m looking at movies set among the trash. There’s an island of garbage filled with abandoned dogs, a couple of ne’er-do-wells who live in  rubbish, and a married couple who risk trashing their marriage for a weekend getaway.

A Swingers Weekend

Wri/Dir: Jon E. Cohen

Lisa and Dan (Erin Karpluk – Being Erica, Randal Edwards) are a power couple. She’s in real estate and he’s CEO at an energy drink corporation, and they’re  taking a break from their Toronto jobs for a weekend retreat in a lakeside villa up in cottage country. They’ve invited the attractive TJ and Skai (Michael Xavier, Erin Agostino) — he’s an artist, she’s into yoga – for a gourmet dinner and a weekend of kinky sex. But their planned foursome gains a fifth and sixth wheel when unexpected guests show up at the door. Geoffrey and Fiona (Jonas Chernik, Mia Kirchner) are Dan’s old friends whose marriage is falling apart. Can a weekend of bed-swapping inject new life into the respective couples’ relationships? And what are their real motives behind this swingers’ retreat?

A Swingers Weekend is a cute comedy that’s surprisingly tame. No nudity, it’s more of a social satire than a bedroom farce.

The Go-Getters

Dir: Jeremy LaLonde

Owen and Lacie (Aaron Abrams, Tomie Amber Pirie) are an odd couple. She’s a streetwalker who works for a disabled pimp called Cerebral Paulie, who keeps her addicted to oxycodone. He’s a nearly homeless alcoholic who mooches drinks from his brother’s skid row bar. He robbed her of her last fiver when she was ODing in a puddle of vomit on the bathrooom floor. It was hate at first site. But circumstances conspire to make them work together so they can buy bus tickets to Brockville to renovate an abandoned home.

They try robbing panhandlers, selling sex to teens, and fleecing buskers, but nothing seems to work. Will they ever escape from hideous Toronto? The Go-Getters is an unusual look at the lowest of the low in downtown Toronto. But guess what – this is a comedy! Yup, I’m not joking. Abrams as Owen looks like a younger and dumber Dr House (Hugh Laurie), and Pirie is truly unique as a loud-mouthed hooker with a heart of lead.

Isle of Dogs

Dir: Wes Anderson

It’s Japan sometime in the future. Megasaki in Uni prefecture is a big city controlled by the evil and corrupt Kobayashi dynasty. The Kobayashi clan own everything from the golf courses to the amusement parks and pharmaceutical labs. And they are all cat lovers who despise dogs. The dogs all come down with an odd disease called snout flu. Mayor Kobayashi – under the thumb of the corpse-like Major Domo – declares all dogs persona non grata. To save the city from infection, he says, he is banishing all the city’s dogs to Trash Island off the coast. This even includes his nephew Atari’s dog Spots. (Atari was adopted by his distant uncle when his parents died in a train crash.)

But when Atari flies to Trash Island in a toy airplane to rescue his pooch, he discovers a strange world rarely seen by humans. It’s ruled by gangs of alpha dogs, headed by a team of five: former pets Duke, Rex, King and Boss, as well as the mysterious Chief, a stray who likes to fight. (He bites.) They vow to help Atari find his dog Spots… or die trying.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, student journalists — led by exchange student Tracy — smell a skunk among the cats. They sense there’s a conspiracy targeting dogs and – with the help of a hacker — they vow to save the dogs and the missing boy Atari, and to make City Hall pay for their crimes. But will they make it in time?

Isle of Dogs is an epic fantasy made with stop-motion animation. The humans speak Japanese (with voiceover translation) and the dogs speak a stilted Japanese English. The story sounds simple and a bit goofy, but it’s not. It’s pure, non-stop eye candy, with art and illustration flooding your brain at the pace of a Simpsons episode.

It feels like Wes Anderson made a list of all English words derived from the Japanese — yakuza, sumo, sushi, geisha, samurai, bonsai, kabuki, haiku, anime, manga, otaku, cos-ple, taiko — and worked them all into the film. The thing is, it’s not cheap laughs and cultural plundering, it’s lovingly, respectfully, and exquisitely reproduced.

The constant barrage of images includes Japanese pop art, manga, ukiyo-e, silhouettes, and 2-D animation, all portrayed with a futuristic/retro/ steampunk feel (if such a thing is possible). Wes Anderson has done stop- motion animation before — The Fantastic Mister Fox — but this one is a quantum leap beyond that. None of Mister Fox‘s nudge-nudge, wink-wink snark in this movie; just affectionately rendered geek culture.

Isle of Dogs is stunning to watch. I’ve seen it twice now, and want to see it again, as soon as possible. It’s exquisite, beautiful, awe-inducing… I’m running out of adjectives. I love this movie, and if you revel in the visual and all things Japanese, you must see this animated film.

Isle of Dogs opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Go Getters and other films are playing this weekend at the Canadian Film Fest. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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