Cults and kidnappers. Films reviewed: The Black Phone, One Summer Story

Posted in Animation, Coming of Age, Death, Horror, Japan, Kidnapping, Magic, Manga, Religion, Suspense, Thriller, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on June 25, 2022

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

Spring film festival season continues in Toronto with the Japanese and Jewish film festivals coming to a close, while ICFF — the Italian contemporary film festival — and Lavazza IncluCity are just beginning. The festival features film composer Ennio Morricone, Giuseppe Tornatore (who won an Oscar for Cinema Paradiso), and Allesandro Gassmann, the son of star Vittorio Gassman, and an accomplished actor in his own right. Movies at this festival are being shown both in theatres and outdoors in open air screenings.

This week, I’m looking at two new movies. There’s a thriller-horror about a boy who is kidnapped in 1970s Colorado; and a girl who discovers her biological father was a member of a religious cult in Japan.

The Black Phone

Dir: Scott Derrickson

It’s the late 1970s in Denver, Colorado. Finney (Mason Thames) is a kid in junior high who lives with his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), and their angry and depressed dad, a widower. Finney is into rocket ships and baseball — he’s the pitcher on his team. But he’s bullied at school. Luckily his best friend Robin is always looking out for him.

But all is not well in Denver. Teenagers are disappearing, one by one, with no bodies ever found. But when Robin disappears, he turns to Gwen for help — she has psychic dreams that might tell them where he is. But before they can do anything, Finney finds himself locked in a basement cell, somewhere in the city. theres just a toilet, a mattress, and a barred window way up near the ceiling. And an old black phone mounted on the wall, but with all the wires cut. The guy who kidnapped him — known as the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) — is a freelance magician who always covers his face with hideous masks reflecting changes in his warped psyche.  Before long, Finney is in despair and figures he’s going to be killed soon, just like the other boys before him. Until… the black phone starts to ring! And coming from somewhere is the voice of one of the previous victims, who says he can tell Finney how to escape.

Is this real or just his imagination?  Can the dead really speak? And will Finney ever get out of there?

The Black Phone is a fantastic thriller about a kid vs a deranged serial killer. Though billed as a horror movie,  and there are some very scary scenes here and there, it’s miles ahead above most of the gory schlock passing for horror movies these days.  This one is more about suspense, mystery and adventure than meaningless, gratuitous violence. There is violence, but it fits within the movie. The characters are all well-rounded with complex back stories. There are lots of red herrings to lead you astray, but the whole movie leaves you with a sense of satisfaction, not dread. And it avoids the cheap scares typical of many horror flicks. The film perfectly captures the feel of the 1970s, through the rock soundtrack, costumes and locations. The acting — especially heroes McGraw and Thames, as well as the villains including the creepy killer and the brooding father, and the many school bullies —  is really well done. The Black Phone  is based on a story by Joe Hill, who also wrote the graphic novel the great TV series Locke & Key was based on. He’s an amazing storyteller… who also happens to be Stephen King’s son.  (I mention that because he’s of the same calibre). And writer-director Scott Derickson has done some good stuff himself.

If you don’t want to be scared — stay far away. But if you’re looking for a good chiller-thriller, you’re really gonna like this one.

One Summer Story (Kodomo ha Wakatteagenai)

Dir: Okita Shûichi

It’s present-day Japan. Minami (Kamishiraishi Moka) is a teenaged girl who lives with her Mum, stepfather, and little brother. Backstroke is her thing — she’s on the school swim team. And she’s obsessed with a TV anime series called Koteko, about a Count who is literally a royal sack of cement and his two gloopy sons Concrete and Plaster. One day she’s at a swim practice when she sees something unbelievable on the roof of their school: a boy is painting something on a large easel. could it be true? she runs over to take a look.  A boy is painting a character from her favourite anime series. They hit it iff immediately.

Moji-kun (Chiba Yûdai) comes from a long line of Japanese calligraphers.  But when she visits his home, she sees a paper talisman with the exact writing as one she always carries with her. The words come from an obscure religious cult, a client of Moji’s father. After some investigation, they discover Minami’s birth father is somehow associated with the cult… and perhaps is why she never knew him. So she decides to secretly show up at his door to find out the truth. Will she find out about her missing history? Or is she just opening a can of worms?

One Summer Story is an extremely cute coming-of-age drama about a girl discovering her birth father with unexpected results. Its also about her new friend — and his unusual family — who helps her on her way.

Based on a manga, it also incorporates a non-existent, animated TV show within the story line. Lots of quirky but likeable characters and an unpredictable plot make it a pleasure to watch. And with much of it set at a beachside home or a swimming pool, it gives  off a nice cool energy on a hot summer’s day.

The Black Phone opens this weekend; check your local listings; One Summer Story’s is playing at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival for its Canadian premiere on Sunday, June 26th at 7:00pm, at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

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

Leaving a mark. Films reviewed: Charlotte, Marvellous and the Black Hole, The Bad Guys

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, Action, Animals, Animation, Art, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Crime, France, Heist, Magic, WWII by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2022

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

Spring festival season is on now, with Hot Docs, Toronto’s international documentary film festival, right around the corner. 

But this week, I’m looking at three new movies, one live and two animated, about people trying to leave a mark on society. There’s a gang of criminal animals offered a chance to go straight; an angry 13-year-old girl who looks for solace in magic tricks; and a young artist who decides to chronicle her life in Nazi Germany in the form of hundreds of paintings. 

Charlotte 

Dir: Tahir Rana, Éric Warin

It’s the 1930s in Nazi Berlin. Charlotte Salomon , known as Lotte, is a young woman living with her father and stepmother. On a trip to Rome with her grandparents she meets a a kindly American heiress named Ottlie. She liked Lotte’s drawings and invites her to stay in her expansive villa in Cote D’zur in southern France. But Lotte is accepted at the prestigious art academy, despite the fact she is Jewish, so doesn’t want to leave Berlin. But under the harsh rules,  only symmetry and precision are acceptable in art, while “deviant artistic expression”, like Charlotte’s, was considered degenerate. She is eventually expelled, and when her father is arrested and tortured by the Gestapo she decides it’s time to leave her home. She joins her grandparents at Ottlie’s mansion. And she’s delighted to learn there is a studio set up for her so she can create her paintings.  She also finds love, in the form of Alexander, a refugee from Austria who works as a groundskeeper on the estate. But she has to put up with her deeply disapproving and domineering grandfather, who has become bitter in his old age. But as the Nazi’s encircle southern France, she knows her time is limited. So she starts to document her life in a series of hundreds of gouache paintings on paper. Will Lotte and her lover survive the war? And what about her art?

Charlotte is an exquisitely made animated historical drama, based primarily on the stories told in the actual paintings of Charlotte Salomon, titled Life or Theatre, that included both memories she witnessed and things she thought about. Some describe her art as the first graphic novel, since her paintings (there were over a thousand) often include words and ideas. The movie is quite troubling in parts, as people are forced to do terrible things under the stress of war. But it’s set in such beautiful locations — the Vatican in Rome, her home in Berlin, swimming in lakes, or nestled among the rolling hills of southern France — that its beauty mitigates its tension.  And the paintings themselves appear on the screen in blobs of coloured paint that gradually transform into her own art. Keira Knightly provides Charlotte’s voice, with Brenda Blethyn, Jim Broadbent as her grandparents. I’ve seen it twice now, and still find it moving, tragic, and inspiring, and visually very pleasing. 

Marvellous and the Black Hole

Wri/Dir: Kate Tsang

Sammy (Miya Cech) is a moody and truculent 13 year old girl who lives with her domineering father and computer geek sister. Ever since her mother died she lashes out at anyone who comes near her. She smokes cigarettes, talks back, and uses a needle to secretly tattoo herself. But her busy father gets tired of her anger and attitude, and tells her if she doesn’t pass a class in entrepreneurship at the local community college he’ll send her off to summer camp (which Sammy considers a fate worse than death.) So she takes the course which she hates. One day, while sneaking a smoke in the college washroom, she meets Margot the Marvellous (Rhea Perlman), a professional magician with a hidden past. She press-gangs Sammy into serving as her assistant at a kids’ birthday party. She is secretly impressed by Margot’s ability to make flowers bloom on her sleeves, and somehow can grab a real, live white rabbit out of thin air. So they make a pact: Sammy will help Margot with her show in exchange for teaching her magic tricks and helping her pass the course. But will Sammy ever learn to control her anger and escape from the black hole she’s been stuck in since the death of her mother?

Marvellous and the Black Hole is an excellent coming-of-age story about a troubled girl taken under the wing of a sympathetic magician. Miya Cech is terrific as tough-girl Sammy, and Rhea Perlman (best known for playing Carla, the surly barmaid on Cheers) shows a softer side here. There’s a real beauty to this film — from the integration of classic silent film, to the jerky stop-motion animation used for special effects, to the nicely compact sets used in class, at home, and on a stage — that gives it an extra oomph you don’t find in your usual teen drama.  This is a good, indie YA movie.

The Bad Guys

Dir: Pierre Perifel

It’s a time like the present in a city like Los Angeles where a criminal gang (known as the “Bad Guys”) runs rampant, robbing banks, wreaking havoc and scaring the hell out of locals. The group consists of five members: Wolf, their charismatic leader; Snake, his second in command; Shark, a master of disguises; Piranha, a crazed tough guy; and Tarantula, a computer geek who can break into anything. Together they’re unbeatable. But they’re finally caught when a difficult heist at a gala event goes wrong. The police want to send them to prison, but a local pundit and inventor — a guinea pig named Prof Marmalade — says he can turn them from bad guys into good guys using his powers of persuasion. But can a leopard change its spots?

The Bad Guys is a very cute and enjoyable animated crowd-pleaser, aimed primarily at kids, but interesting enough that grown-ups can enjoy it, too. It’s also a feel-good movie about the value of friendship and the pleasure we can get from doing good things for others. And there are cool subplots involving a meteorite, lab tests, computer-operated zombies, and much more. But mainly, it’s an action-packed comedy thriller, with lots of chase scenes, twists and turns, and a fair amount of suspense. 

One quibble: all the main characters (except the chief of police) are animals — including fish and insects — and have all the best lines. Most of the humans rarely speak. But there are also pets — like cats and guinea pigs — that don’t talk either. Which makes the logic a bit confusing, but enjoyable nonetheless. It stars the voices of Sam Rockwell, Awkwafina, Anthony Ramos, Zazie Beetz, Alex Borstein,  and the inimitable Richard Ayoade as Prof Marmalade.

The Bad Guys is a very cute, fun movie that’ll leave you smiling.

The Bad Guys and Charlotte both open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Marvellous and the Black Hole is opening in select cities; look out for it. 

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 Jim Shedden about Moments of Perception: Experimental Film in Canada

Posted in Animation, Art, Books, Canada, Experimental Film, History, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2022

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

Photo of Jim Shedden by Brody White.

Since motion pictures took the world by storm, Canadian mainstream movies have been dominated by Hollywood. But avant-garde, independent and experimental films have a very different history. Pioneers like Norman MacLaren and Arthur Lipsett at the NFB, and artists like Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland established Canadian films on the world’s stage. And creativity exploded after 1967 in a surge of national expression. But what makes a film experimental, what makes it Canadian, and how have these criteria changed over the past century? 

Moments of Perception: Experimental Film in Canada is a monumental, landmark book released this week, accompanied by a series of screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The screenings are curated by — and the book edited by — Barbara Sternberg and Jim Shedden. It includes a meticulous history of experimental film by Mike Zryd, a series of filmographies and profiles of the major players by Stephen Broomer, shorter bios compiled by Jim and Barbara who also wrote the preface, and it’s beautifully illustrated with contemporary photos of the filmmakers and stills from the films themselves. 

Jim Shedden is a curator of inter-disciplinary exhibitions and head of the publishing program at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I spoke with Jim via Zoom in Toronto.

Moments of Perception: Experimental Film in Canada is now available from Goose Lane Editions.

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

Men on the Run. Films reviewed: Flee, Red Rocket, Nightmare Alley

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1990s, Afghanistan, Animation, Circus, Clash of Cultures, comedy, documentary, Drama, melodrama, Movies, Refugees, Sex Trade, Texas, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on December 18, 2021

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

With Award Season quickly approaching — from the Golden Globes to the Golden Turkeys — the studios are releasing a lot of its big ticket movies in hopes of being considered for some of the major prizes up for grabs. This week I’m looking at three potential Oscar nominations, all stories about men trying to flee from their dark pasts for a potentially better future. There’s a man who leaves a burning house to join the circus, a middle-aged porn star who leaves LA to find a job in small-town Texas, and a young man who runs for his life from Afghanistan in hopes of finding a better one in Europe.

Red Rocket

Co-Wri/Dir: Sean Baker

Mikey Sabre (Simon Rex) is down on his luck. He was an LA porn star in his heyday, along with his wife, 

Lexi (Bree Elrod). But the good times are long gone. Now he’s back home in Texas City, Texas, with no money, no possessions, no reputation, the prodigal husband knocking at his ex-wife’s door. Naturally she and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss) want nothing to do with him, but he manages to sweet talk his way into letting him sleep on their couch. And after an exhausting search for employment — no one will hire a former sex worker — he falls back on his teenage job as a pot dealer. And soon enough, with the help of his blue happy pills, he’s sleeping wth Lexi again each night.  But everything changes when he meets a beautiful naive young woman with red hair, who works at the local donut shop. Her name is Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who loves pink hearts and everything sweet. Mikey becomes infatuated by her, both as a focus of his lust and his imagined ticket to wealth. He tells her he’ll take her away from this dead-end town and introduce her to the top names in Hollywood porn, after, of course, she turns 18. Wait… what?

Red Rocket is an outrageous  comedy about the misadventures of a former male porn star, including an extended across town by a panicking naked Mikey brandishing his Sabre. This is Sean Baker’s third such film — Tangerine about two black transwomen in LA, and The Florida Project, told through the eyes of kids in Orlando — shot, guerilla-style, on location on a budget using mainly first-time actors (who, I have to say, are all great!) And he helps normalize marginal sex workers by defying the usual stereotypes. At the same time, a movie about a predatory 40-year-old guy seducing a Lolita-like teenaged girl is not the same as rambunctious kids in Florida or wisecracking transwomen in LA. Don’t worry, everyone gets their comeuppance in the end, but Red Rocket will make you squirm and cringe uncomfortably along the way.

Flee

Co-Wri/Dir: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

Amin is born in Kabul where he grows up under communist rule, watching Bruce Lee movies and dancing to pop music on his walkman. Now he lives in Copenhagen with Kasper, his lover — they’re thinking of buying a house in the countryside. After that is, he finishes his post-doctoral work at Princeton. But how did he get from Afghanistan to Denmark? When the US-backed Mujahideen invaded Kabul his family is forced to flee. Russia is the only place offering a tourist visa — but Moscow is a mess; the the Soviet Union has just collapsed and is now run by oligarchs and corrupt police. Now they’re stuck in limbo, supported by his older brother a janitor in Sweden. Can the family stay together? Can they ever make it to somewhere safe? Or will unscrupulous human traffickers lead them to disaster?

Flee is a deeply moving drama about one man’s journey as a refugee from danger to sanctuary, and all the moral compromises he is forced to make along the way. It’s sort of a documentary, in that it’s a true story told by the man it happened to, even though it’s voiced by actors using animated characters. And by animation, I don’t mean cute animals with big eyes, I mean lovely, hand-made drawings that portray what actually happened. Far from being the heavy, ponderous lesson I was dreading, Flee has a wonderfully surprising story, elegantly told.

Nightmare Alley

Co-Wri/Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s the dustbowl during the Great Depression. Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a bright and fit young man with great ambitions and a shady past. Leaving a dead man in a burnt house behind him, he sets out to find his fortune He comes upon a circus, and makes his way through the tents to Nightmare Alley, the area where the carnies do their work out of sight. He gets hired as a roustabout, hammering nails, pitching tents, but soon rises quickly within the circus ranks. Zeena  the Seer (Toni Collette) seduces him, and in return she provides access to her partner Ezra (Richard Jenkins) an aging alcoholic. Ezra holds a little black book outlining exactly how to con strangers out of their money by convincing them you can read their minds and talk to the dead. But he warns Stan, don’t fall into the trap of believing you it’s real — that can kill you. Meanwhile, Stan only has eyes for the beautiful and innocent Molly  Cahill (Rooney Mara), the electric woman. She’s fiercely defended by the other carnies, but they let her go when she says they’re in love. 

They move to the big city where they find great success in their psychic act. Stan loves their new rich lifestyle, while Molly pines for her previously life at the circus. But trouble brews in the form of a femme fatale, a beautiful blonde woman with an ivory-handled gun who attends one of their acts. Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) is a successful psychoanalyst who listens to — and records — the confessions of the richest and most powerful men in the city… and she is intrigued by Stan’s psychic abilities. (She completely ignores Molly). Perhaps they can combine their resources for even greater success? 

Nightmare Alley is a dark movie about an ambitious but ruthless man in his quest for success. Bradley Cooper is credible in the lead, but even better are all the supporting actors, from Willem Dafoe to Cate Blanchett. It has a novelistic storyline with a plethora of characters, almost like a classic Hollywood film, which makes sense.  Based on a novel, it’s a remake of the 1949 film noir of the same name, starring Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell. And it fits perfectly in del Toro’s body of work, with his love of freaks, legerdemain, underdogs, young women with pageboy haircuts, and of course many actors who appeared in his previous films. Guillermo del Toro (who shoots his movies in studios and locations around Toronto) has a troupe of actors he uses over and over, like Ron Perlman, dating back to his earliest movies. NIghtmare Alley is quite long — two and a half hours — but kept my attention all the way to a perfectly twisted finish. It’s a good, classic drama.

I quite like this one.

Red Rocket, Flee and Nightmare Alley all theatrically in Toronto 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

Weird. Films reviewed: Rare Beasts, The Night House, Cryptozoo

Posted in 1960s, Animals, Animation, comedy, Feminism, Ghosts, Horror, Mysticism, Pop Art, UK by CulturalMining.com on August 21, 2021

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

Are you getting tired of the same old thing? Have you watched all the conventional stuff you can handle for one summer? Well, fear not, faithful listeners, there are really unconventional and unexpected movies out there, you just have to know where to look. This week I’m talking about three weird films, a ghost story, a love story and an uncategorizable animated picture. There’s a schoolteacher who thinks her house is haunted, a single mom in London dating a rare beast, and a zoo filled with mythical creatures.

Rare Beasts

Wri/Dir: Billie Piper

Mandy (Billie Piper) is a millennial writer who works at a TV production company in London. She’s clever and pretty with ginger hair and a toothy grin. Mandy is partial to bright colours and leopard-skin patterns. She still lives with her Mom and Dad (Kerry Fox, David Thewlis) and her 7-year old-son, Larch (Toby Woolf).  Larch is a lovable handful — he suffers from tics and is prone to screaming at the top of his lungs and rolling around on the floor when he doesn’t get his way. And despite her beauty and sharp, sarcastic wit, Mandy has yet to find a suitable mate. She’s currently dating a workmate named Pete. He’s a conservative dresser with wispy blond hair and a caterpillar moustache. He says he hates kids. Mandy’s own parents are a piece of work, with Dad constantly dashing off to Thailand for a bit of fun, while Mom is dying of cancer. But Pete’s family is even stranger — deeply religious, frequently praying, and getting into shouting matches over nothing. Then there’s work. Her douchey boss is lecherous, sexist and not so bright. Despite all this, Mandy and Pete are giving it a go. He hits it off with Larch, and Mandy makes friends with some of his family members. Do opposites attract? Or is she better off single?

Rare Beasts is a clever comedy about life as a single woman in the big city. It stars Billie Piper who is also the writer-director. She’s great. It’s a well-written script — almost too well-written. Every character is quirky, every line is witty, but for a comedy it isn’t all that funny. It inspires nodding chuckles but few genuine laughs. The movie is highly stylized, where a serious scene can shift into a fantastical, dance-like performances for no apparent reason. That said, the central characters are appealing and it’s an amusing story.

So if you want to see an unromantic Rom-Com that is never dumbed down, and told from a woman’s perspective, you’ll probably like Rare Beasts.

The Night House

Dir: David Bruckner

Beth (Rebecca Hall) is a high school English teacher in upstate New York. She has lived with her loving husband Owen, an architect, in a beautiful lakeside house he designed. It’s full of grass and wood, with built-in bookshelves and workshops, and splendid views of the water. Then tragedy strikes. Seemingly for no reason, Owen commits suicide one night aboard a row boat on the lake.  Beth is devastated. Her best friend and fellow-teacher Claire (Sarah Goldberg) offers a shoulder to cry on and her elderly neighbour Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) gives some much-needed advice. All alone in her house, she starts having terrifying nightmares, combines with sleepwalking, waking up in strange places each morning. The dreams seem to be completely real. And she feels there is someone watching her… has own come back?

And as she sorts through his possessions, she comes across some things that just don’t make sense. On his computer and phone she finds photos of women who look almost exactly like her… but aren’t her. And in his architectural drawings, there are plans to build a house on the other side of the pond, that is a mirror image of the one they live in. Was Owen insane… or did he know something? Will he come back to help her? Or is something sinister coming by each night?

The Night House is a very scary ghost story about a haunted house. It takes an entirely new approach to the idea of ghosts possession and parallel universes, and is full of strange Celtic images and paranormal dreams. The special effects are amazingly rendered. British actress Rebecca Hall is superb as Beth, which is crucial because the entire movie is seen from her point of view. You should watch this film in a theatre beside someone you know, but never all alone, at home, late at night!

Cryptozoo

Wri/Dir:  Dash Shaw

It’s the late 1960s. Crystal and Matt are a pair of flower children wandering through the woods. After making love beneath the stars, they climb a fence to see what’s on the other side. And what they find is unbelievable… a unicorn! Sadly it gores Matt to death with its single horn. Crystal has wandered into a crypto zoo, still under construction, a place where mythical creatures (known as “cryptids”) can gather in peace. There are ancient Greek animals like the Minotaur,  magical humanoids, and terrifying monsters like the Kraken. The park was started by Joan, a grey haired woman who has a carnal lust for cryptids. Her lover is a semi-human. Her first commander is Lauren, an army brat who grew up in Okinawa. She’s an expert at capturing cryptids and transporting them to safety. She’s assisted by Phoebe, a gorgon with snakes for hair and eyes that can turn anyone to stone. But Phoebe wants to pass as human and have a normal life, so she keeps her powers under wraps using contact lenses and a wig.  Joan is building a theme park to normalize Cryptids among the public, and also to generate income to keep the place running. But they face terrible opponents — private bounty-hunters like the demi-god Gustav, a pervy player of pan pipes; and the US military who want to disect these creatures to make powerful weapons. Can these three brave women keep the cryptids safe? Or is it doomed from the start, a Jurassic Park for fictional beasts?

Cryptozoo is a brilliant animated arthouse feature brimming with gratuitous sex and violence. I loved Dash Shaw’s first movie, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, and this one goes even further.

It has tarot card mysticism and Japanese mythology alternating with cheap-ass amusement parks and secretive orgies.  Images are hand-drawn or painted in a variety of genres, and animated in an endearing, old-school jerky style. It’s a perfect blend of ancient fantasy and adolescent humour.  There’s a wonderful soundtrack by John Caroll Kirby, and the voices feature actors like Lake Bell and Michael Cera.

If you like base humour mixed with exquisite home-made art and indie music, don’t miss Cryptozoo!

Look for Cryptozoo on VOD and digital formats., including the digital TIFF bell Lightbox;  Rare Beasts and The Night House open theatrically in Toronto 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 Kourtney Jackson, Max Shoham and Ella Morton about their films at FOFS

Posted in 1940s, Animation, Beauty, Black, Canada, Indigenous, Inuit, Movies, Trans, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on July 10, 2021

What do the following three stories have in common? An Inuk recalling her history, language and culture amidst the ice floes of Nunavut; three diverse black women in Toronto sharing the unique hair problems they faced during the pandemic; and a young, Jewish-Romanian couple meeting aboard a ship burgeoning with refugees adrift at sea during WWII. These stories are all films featured in The Future Of Film Showcase — or FOFS. In its eighth year, FOFS has selected 11 new short films made by Canadians under 40. 

Kourtney Jackson is a Toronto-based experimental filmmaker whose hybridized, storytelling transcends the physical body. Her film Wash Day looks at three black women talking about  bodies, hair, skin, beauty and self-love as they each cleanse themselves in a shower.

Max Shoham, an award-winning, prolific maker of animated short films in diverse genres, has been obsessed with movies since Grade 3.  Sophie and Jacob is an animated retelling of Max’s own grandparents’ story about how they met aboard a ship. 

Ella Morton is an artist whose still and moving images incorporating obsolete techniques have taken her across Canada and through Scandinavia. Her film Kajanaqtuq combines manipulated analog formats along with recordings of an Inuk’s recollections of her life so far in Nunavut.

I spoke with Ella, Max and Kourtney via Zoom.

You can watch all films playing at FOFS on CBC Gem for free until July 22nd.

Summer movies. Films reviewed: Summer of Soul, The Boss Baby: Family Business, Black Conflux

Posted in Animation, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Kids, Newfoundland by CulturalMining.com on July 3, 2021

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

Summer is here and it’s hot, hot, hot! Normally I’d say go sit in an air conditioned movie theatre and go watch something, anything, right now. But as of today, (I’m recording early because of the holiday weekend) the indoor theatres are still closed. But here’s a selection of films to please almost everybody who wants to watch at home.

This week, I have a music doc, a family cartoon and an art house drama. There are musicians in Harlem in the ’60s bringing the house down, babies around the world trying to bring the government down, and a girl in ’80s Newfoundland trying to stop her life from crumbling all around her.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Dir: Questlove

It’s the summer of ’69 in Harlem, where 50,000 people are crowded into Mt. Morris Park for a series of six outdoor concerts all summer long. The images and music were captured on film for TV, but were never broadcast; they sat in a vault for 52 years until now. This new documentary replays some of the best songs of that summer, and talked to the performers and the fans about how they remembered it. What’s remarkable is the array of talent and the enormous peaceful crowds in Harlem, a neighbourhood vilified as a violent ghetto. But it was actually a safe, black neighbourhood, beloved by its residents as their home, and as a centre of culture, commerce and political foment.

This film is a time machine, showing fashion, hair styles, and faces in the crowd — one viewer remembers the pervasive aroma of AfroSheen. There are incredible performances on the stage, in a wide range of styles: soul, R&B, gospel, pop, jazz and psychedelic. There’s an amazing moment when young Mavis Staples shares a mic with the great Mahalia Jackson for the first time to sing Oh Happy Day. There’s Nina Simone at the piano, reminding the crowd they are “Young, Gifted and Black.” Motown stars like Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight and the Pips alternate with salsa bands. It’s really surprising to see mainstream groups like The Fifth Dimension, letting loose on stage — their top 40 hits were always classified as “white pop music” — I never even knew they were black. Luminaries like Sly and the Family Stone and Hugh Masakela from South Africa light up the stage.

Summer of Soul works as both a documentary and as an excellent concert film; what a shame it was never shown until now.

The Boss Baby: Family Business
Dir: Tom McGrath

It’s a suburb, somewhere in America. Tim is a stay-at-home dad, who takes care of his two daughters Tabitha and Tina, while his wife is at the office. Tabitha is in grade 2 at an elite private school, while Tina is still just a baby. He tells them stories, sings songs and plays games. But he’s worried that he’s losing his bond with Tabitha — the 7-year-old spends all her time studying and says she doesn’t need childish things anymore. Alone in the attic Ted wonders how things ended up this way disconnected from his kids and no contact with his little brother Ted. If only he could go back in time and fix things. Next thing you know, Ted arrives at their doorstep by helicopter (he’s a rich CEO now) and the two of them are magically transformed into their childhood selves. Who engineered all this? It’s little Tina, the new Boss Baby, behind it all. Still in diapers she talks like a grown up with a brain to match. She works for Baby Corp, a secretive organization that keeps the world safe. But there are evil villains working all around the world at schools just like the one Tabitha goes to. It’s up to Tim and Ted, in their new kid and baby forms, to infiltrate the school and stop their fiendish plans. But are they too late?

The Boss Baby: Family Business is a funny family film, aimed at kids, but equally enjoyable by grown-ups. It’s animated, and features the voices of Alec Baldwin as Ted, the original Boss Baby, James Marsden as Tim, Ariana Greenblatt as Tabitha and
Amy Sedaris as Tina. I tend to avoid sequels, because they’re usually second rate, but never having seen the original Boss Baby I have nothing to compare it to. And (though clearly not a cinematic masterpiece) I was fully entertained by this one.

Black Conflux
Wri/Dir: Nicole Dorsey

It’s the 1980s in a small town in Newfoundland. Jackie (Ella Ballentine) is a 15-year-old girl with ginger hair and a good singing voice. And she’s seeing a new boyfriend. She’s bright, pretty and optimistic: she believes people are basically good. But her upbeat nature is threatened by reality. She has lived with her alcoholic aunt since her mom went to jail for DUI (her dad’s out of the picture). She spends most of her time hanging with Amber and her other two best friends, smoking behind the school, shoplifting makeup at the mall, or going to bonfire parties. They get around by hitchhiking along the single highway that passes through the town. But Jackie is forced to deal with the increasingly bad and gritty aspects of her life which keep intruding on the fun of growing up.

Dennis (Ryan McDonald) is an introvert in his late twenties with a fetish for porn. He’s also a firebug who gets off on lighting matches. He lives with his adult sister and works loading and delivering 24s at a local brewery. He’s also a brooding loner with anger and resentment building up deep inside. He has no social skills to speak of and his occasional dates always seem to end up as disasters. He prefers to peer at women at night through their open bedroom windows over actually speaking to them face to face. He spends most of his time with a bevy of imaginary women he fantasizes are living in the back of his delivery truck. Sometimes he can’t tell the difference between reality and his hallucinations. Is he just a misunderstood guy or a nascent serial killer?

Black Conflux is a slow-building drama that follows these two characters in their separate but parallel lives, like two rivers that eventually merge. For Jackie, it’s a coming-of-age story, while for Dennis it’s a brooding drama. They come close to meeting throughout the movie, but it’s kept till the very end to reveal what happens when they do. Ella Ballentine and
Ryan McDonald both give remarkable performances as two alienated people in rural Newfoundland in the 1980s. Beautifully shot, and skilfully directed by Nicole Dorsey (her first feature), I first saw Black Conflux at TIFF two years ago, and like it even better the second time through.

Boss Baby, and Summer of Soul opened this weekend on VOD and digital platforms with Black Conflux now at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Dissidents. Films reviewed: The Dissident, The Chicago 10

Posted in Animation, Chicago, documentary, Hippies, History, Politics, Protest, Resistance, Saudi Arabia, War by CulturalMining.com on January 8, 2021

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

I’m recording this on Wednesday (January 6th), when the Q Anon army, red-pilled and red-capped, at the behest of a certain, soon-to-be-former President, has just stormed the (widely anticipated but strangely unguarded) Capitol building and many state government buildings, too. Sort of a reverse-coup, an attempt to block regime change? The mob has dispersed and Trump has temporarily been stripped of his Twitter account, a fate worse than impeachment. But if you’re listening to this on Friday morning, things may have changed so much that these comments are already old hat.

Either way, I think it’s as good a time as any to talk about political unrest and dissent. So this week I have two new movies, both documentaries. There are antiwar radicals who disrupt the Democrats in Chicago; and a Saudi journalist who disappears in Istanbul.

The Dissident
Dir: Bryan Fogel

Jamal Khashoggi is a successful journalist born into an illustrious family in Medina, Saudi Arabia. For thirty years he works tirelessly for the government, and is part of the country’s elite. But in a sudden about face, he divorces his wife, and leaving his family behind, relocates in Washington DC. He is hired by The Washington Post to write columns, some of which criticize the Saudi government and its royal family. But in the authoritarian monarchy this is a no-no. He becomes a dissident.

Later, he falls in love with a young Turkish woman — a scholar who speaks Arabic — he met at a conference. He travels to Turkey to meet his fiancee’s family. In order to marry, they need a document from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, proving he has divorced his first wife. But this is where things get weird; after entering the consulate a year ago, he is never seen again.

After widespread outrage, Turkish detectives are allowed into the building. Based on the evidence they find — in addition to wiretaps, recordings and external video footage — they came to a shocking conclusion: Khashoggi was murdered in cold blood by a hit team of Saudi team of special ops flown in especially for that purpose. He was suffocated in front of a diplomat=, his body dismembered by a pathologist and burned to ashes in a barbecue pit

The Dissident is a detailed documentary — in Arabic, Turkish and English — that traces Khashoggi’s life and death from inisder to dissident to victim. Using new interviews with most of the key players — though no one inside the Kingdom — it solves many of the mysteries dogging his case. It rarely veers from its central topic, Khashoggi and freedom of speech, and stays away from important issues like women’s rights, the war in Yemen, never mind cultural expression and sexual liberation. But the one area the doc does explore is an insider’s look at dissidents across the Arab world. The film is narrated by Omar Abdulaziz, a young Saudi who sought asylum in Canada. He helped guide Khashoggi when he becomes a dissident. And this is where the movie gets really interesting. It explores a government-sponsored troll army that silences dissent on social networks like Twitter — a site used by 80% of Saudis; and the work Omar has done to counter it. While some of the doc is a bit dry, it shines when it digs deep into cyber warfare, political activism and and newly revealed secrets of the Kingdom.

The Chicago 10 (2007)
Wri/Dir: Brett Morgen

It’s the summer of ’68, and the youth of America, the product of the baby boom, is revolting. LBJ has plunged the country into war in Vietnam; civil rights leaders, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy have been assassinated. People are sitting in, dropping out, fighting back. It’s also an election year, and the DNC (Democratic National Committee) is holding its convention in Chicago. To confront this and to have their voices heard, radical political action youth groups converge on Chicago from across the country. The Yippies, from the east coast, headed by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and poet Allen Ginsberg, are humorous, media savvy, sex-positive masters of performance art.

Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden fight against war, poverty and racism. David Dellinger is a long-time anti-war activists. They plan a massive be-in, a festival of life, based in Lincoln Park, full of speeches and music culminating in a march to the Hilton Hotel to confront the Democratic convention. But they are met by riot police, ordered by Mayor Daley, and the national guard who violently attack the largely unarmed peace activists. Loads of people were arrested and injured, and a key few — including Davis, Hoffman, Rubin, Heyden, and Dellinger — are put on trial in 1969 by the feds and charged with conspiracy. For some reason they throw Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party into the group, when he was only in Chicago for a few hours that summer. And thus begins the lengthy show trial.

The Chicago 10 is an excellently researched documentary on that famous trial and the demonstrations that led to it. The film jumps back and forth, chronologically, between the trial and the summer demos. No cameras were allowed into the courtroom, so the trial scenes are 3-D animated using the actual transcripts, and the voices of actors like Nick Nolte, Leiv Schrieber, Hank Azaria, Roy scheider, Mark Ruffalo,Jeffrey Wright and many others. The voices are occasionally cartoonish, because, well, its a cartoon, but generakky feel like the r eal thing. The demonstations are taken from beautifully restored contemporary footage and news clips, as well as radio recordings, and onstage performamces all done while the trial was actually taking place. (none of the accused were locked away during the trial so they were constantly on the media.

It’s full of revelations. Allen Ginsberg is called in as a witness, and the prosecutor makes him recite his most salacious erotic poems, presumably to shock the jury. There are great news stories, like little kids in Chicago seen playing cops and protesters, instead of cops and robbers, where in this game activists get clubbed by police.

You may have seen the much lauded the Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s star-studded take on the story. While the production values and acting are great in that one, Chicago 10 is much more historically accurate than Sorkin’s revisionist drama.

If the topic interests you, Chicago 10 is definitely worth a watch.

The Chicago 10 is now available online, and The Dissident opens today across North America, 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.

Climb every mountain. Films reviewed: Abominable, Monos

Posted in Animation, Canada, China, Colombia, Kids, Tibet, Uncategorized, violence, War by CulturalMining.com on September 27, 2019

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

The majesty and beauty of mountains makes some people stare in awe, while others see it as a personal goal – something to climb, claim or conquer. This week I’m looking at two new movies about mountains. There’s a group of kids in China on their way to a mountain as they protect a mythical beast; and a group of kids in Colombia holding a hostage on top of a mountain as they fight an inner beast.

Abominable

Dir: Jill Culton, Todd Wilderman

Yi is a teen who lives with her mom and her grandmother Nai-Nai in a downtown Shanghai apartment. She’s saving the money from three parttime jobs to travel across China in the path of her late father, a musician. But her life is turned upside down when an enormous furry creature appeared on her roof. He has white hair, a huge mouth and pale blue eyes that stare longingly at a nearby billboard advertising Mount Everest. It’s his home, and he wants to go back.

Standing in his path are Mr Burnish a billionaire CEO, and a zoological scientist named Zara. Everest is a Yeti, the legendary Tibetan creature, never captured until Beamish enterprizes nabbed him. They want their specimen back, dead or alive. But Yi has other plans. Along with her two neighbours – the selfie-obsessed Jin and the basketball dribbler Peng – they set out on a journey across China. Can they save Everest and bring him back to his homeleand? Or will they all end up captives in a corporate lab in Shanghai?

Abominable is a fun and exciting animated movie for little kids. It’s full of cultural references, from the classic Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West (西遊記), to the classic ’80s film ET: Yi lures the creature with a trail of steamed dumplings instead of Reece’s Pieces, and the alien creature is “Yeti” not “E.T.”. But it’s also fun and original in its own right, with exciting magic, humour, action and the sentimental bits you need to make it worthwhile. I saw it with an audience of small children and they loved most of it, but were frightened when it looked like the heroes were going to die (Spoiler Alert: they don’t die… ’cause it’s a kids movie!)

Voices include Chloe Bennet (Crazy Rich Asians) as Yi, and Tenzing Norgay Trainor as Jin. Fun fact: if the name sounds familiar it’s because he’s the grandson of Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali-Tibetan Sherpa who climbed Mt Everest with Edmond Hillary.

Abominable is fun movie for kids that grown ups can enjoy too.

Monos

Dir: Alejandro Landes

On a mountaintop somewhere in Colombia a multi-ethnic, multi-gendered group of “monos” – cool, cute teenagers – are fooling around. They’re stylin’ with hip hairstyles and military outfits. They play games like blindfolded soccer, where you kick a ball with bells attached, into a net that makes noise. Or one-on-one wrestling matches, combining martial arts, modern dance and Capoeira. Everyone has a nickname reflecting something about them: Smurf is young and cute, Lady is pretty, Rambo’s a fighter, Swede is light-skinned, Lobo is wolflike… plus Dog, Bigfoot, and Boom Boom. Some even pair off as couples.

Their only contact with the outside world is a staticky two-way radio and a diminutive, muscular man who visits them every so often. He’s from The Organization, a cryptic paramilitary group fighting the government. Their assignment is to guard an American woman they call Doctora. The girls braid her hair and the boys invite her to play in their games. The problem is she’s a hostage of The Organization, and a potential source of power and money. So when things go wrong, the monos take sides and start fighting each other. And when the enemy bombards them with missiles. things turn into a co-ed Lord Of The Flies. Can they stick together in peace and harmony? Or will outside pressure, internal divisions, and harsh military culture lead to harm and even death?

Monos is an aesthetically beautiful look at a period of violence and death in Colombia. The ensemble cast play it as part melodrama, part dance performance, plotted against breathtakingly lush scenery. From sexualized wrestling, to scenes of struggle filmed underwater, to an exquisite pantomime of soldiers walking in the jungle covered in different colours of mud, this highly-stylized movie is as pretty as a Vogue fashion spread, but just realistic enough that you care about the kids and their fate.

Good movie.

Monos starts today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and Abominable also opens 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.

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