Heavy Hitters. Films Reviewed: Wonder Wheel, Roman J Israel, Esq, The Shape of Water

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Cold War, Drama, Fantasy, L.A., Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

It’s December now, and that’s when the movie awards start to pile up. This week I’m looking at some of the hard-hitters — movies with famous directors or stars — that might be up for a prize. There’s a kitchen sink drama in Coney Island, a legal drama in LA, and a romantic drama in a secret Baltimore laboratory.

Wonder Wheel

Wri/Dir: Woody Allen

It’s the 1950s in Coney Island. Humpty and Ginny are a middle aged couple living in a rundown apartment overlooking the ferris wheel. Humpty (Jim Belushi) is an angry drunk, currently on the wagon, who manages the carousel. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a former actress who is a waitress at the clam shack… or as she puts it, she’s playing the part of “Waitress” in an on-going drama. She has a little kid from her first marriage, Richie, who is a petty thief and an aspiring arsonist, lighting fires wherever he can. Life in this dysfunctional family is far from perfect but at least it’s stable. That is until two things turn their lives upside down.

First Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up out of nowhere. They haven’t spoken for five years, not since she married a racketeer. Now she’s on the lam, a marked woman since she turned canary and sang about the mob to the cops. She moves into their crowded home, working with Ginny at the Clam House. The second thing that happens is Ginny meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard on the beach. He’s a grad student at NYU and loves the idea of dating a dramatic older woman. Soon they are secretly meeting under the boardwalk for afternoon delights. But then Mickey meets Carolina and everything starts to unravel.

After watching Wonder Wheel, I kept wondering: did I just see a great movie or a terrible one? It’s certainly very different from Woody Allen’s European comedies. It feels more like a stage play, with characters reciting the lines of a script, from Mickey the lifeguard who narrates by speaking directly to the camera, to Ginny who says things like: “I’m consumed with jealousy!” I think that’s intentional.  But I’m not so sure most of the characters wanted to speak exactly like Woody, down to his stammer and pauses. Still, the look of the movie – from the period costumes to the lurid colours of neon lights, and the unexpectedly jarring camerawork – is stunning and surprising. Does this mean Woody Allen is still experimenting?

So is Wonder Wheel a good movie or not? Hmmm… I guess so.

Roman J Israel, Esq.

Wri/Dir: Dan Gilroy

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a defense lawyer in present day LA. He’s a partner in a small law firm – he minds the office while his partner goes to court. He’s an old-fashioned guy. He wears big round glasses and ill-fitting clothes. He rides the bus to an office full of foolscap and post-it notes. He works under the watchful gaze of pictures of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin. He sacrificed marriage, a social life and material possessions, in exchange for devoting his life to civil rights and equality under the law. That is until his law partner of 30 years has a heart attack. Suddenly Roman finds himself jobless, friendless and nearly homeless.

A slick corporate colleague of his boss named George (Colin Farrell) offers him a low-level job at his firm. He refuses. But when he can’t find paying work, is mocked at a meeting of young activists, and is attacked by a mugger on the way home, he is faced with a tough decision: stay true to his ideals or sell out and enjoy the profits? Only Maya (Carmen Ejogo) – a woman he meets at an NGO – still believes in him. He ends up making an ethically dubious decision, and has to deal with the consequences.

Roman J Israel, Esq. is billed as a thriller – and there are a few tense moments – but it’s basically a character study of a man forced to re-examine his values in a changing world. Denzel Washington is great as Roman – he really gets into the part, portraying him as an oddball but a sympathetic and believable one. The story is very simple, but it’s the details surrounding this fascinating character that keeps you interested.

The Shape of Water

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s Baltimore in 1962. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is an elegant cleaning woman at a top secret government lab. She loves hard boiled eggs and bathtubs and lives above a movie theatre. She is mute, but communicates with her two friends using sign language. There’s Zelda (Octavia Spence) a talkative woman who translates and covers for her at work; and Giles (Richard Jenkins) a lonely illustrator in his 60s who lives with his cats in the apartment next door.

Elisa lives a routine life, until something strange shows up in a glass tank! Like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he’s part human, part fish. Elisa is scared but intrigued. She offers him hard boiled eggs which he scarfs down. Gradually she teaches him to communicate through sign language, and exposes him to music, art and human emotions. Could this be love? If only life were so simple. The creature arrived with Strickland (Michael Shannon) the agent in charge of the project. He’s a racist misogynist who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing the creature with a cattle prod. He plans to kill him and take him apart to study. And lurking in the shadows at the lab is a soviet spy who observes everything – including Elisa communicating with the creature. Can their love survive?

The Shape of Water is an amazing movie, modelled on classic Hollywood films. I’ve seen it twice now, and it didn’t drag for a moment. It’s funny, romantic, surprising, violent, and exciting. The music, the art direction, the singing and dancing, the dream sequences, the surreal sex scenes, the Cold War/cloak-and-dagger feel…. this movie has just about everything. Sally Hawkins is an unusual romantic lead, but she’s perfect as Elisa. Shannon is a hateable — but understandable — villain. Spence and Jenkins as, respectively, her comic and melancholy sidekick, are both spot on.

This is a wonderful movie: I recommend it.

Roman J. Israel, Esquire is now playing. Wonder Wheel and The Shape of Water 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.

Urban stories. Films reviewed: STEP, Menashe PLUS TIFF17 preview

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Dance, documentary, Drama, Family, Judaism, Movies, Yiddish by CulturalMining.com on August 12, 2017

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

TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival is still a month away, but already some of the movies are generating buzz, even before anyone’s seen them. Here are some I want to see. Call Me by Your Name looks at a boy in northern Italy who has a crush on an older visiting student. It’s directed by Luca Guadagnino who brought us This is Love. Mary Shelly could be a conventional historical biopic about the author of Frankenstein, but what’s so interesting is this is the second film by Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who brought us the delightiful Wadjda five years ago. The Shape of Water features Sally Hawkins as a mute cleaning woman working in a secret weapons lab, who discovers she can communicate with a Creature from the Black Lagoon kept captive in a glass tank. It was made in Toronto by the great Guillermo del Toro. I’ll have some more buzz about Canadian movies next week.

But this week I’m talking about two American films centred on urban life: a documentary on school life in Baltimore, and a drama about home life in Brooklyn.


Dir: Amanda Lipitz

BLSYW (or “Bliss”), the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is a public charter school with a clearly stated goal: that all of its students (mainly African-American girls and young women) will not just graduate each year but will continue on to college or university. And at the core of this school is their Step team. Step is a competitive sport that combines athletics, dance and theatrical performance, driven by music and rhythm. The intense practice and teamwork helps motivate the young women to succeed in their studies and fosters a sense of responsibility.

This documentary follows three of the students — Cori, Tayla and Blessin – as they attempt to achieve their goals. The three use their brains, skills and charisma to succeed. This also means getting their families to cooperate. The cameras follow them home so you meet their families, atoo. And at school it’s Coach G and their guidance counsellor who carry the story on. Together can they break away and rise up from the poverty and oppresssion faced by so many Baltimoreans for so many generations? Or will life, and the normal pressures they face, drag them down?

STEP follows their lives in the newly formed school against the background of the killing of Freddy Gray by local police. It shows how the Black Lives Matter movement — and the political awakening that accompanied it — enters the girls’ lives and even their Step performances.

This is a fascinating and inspiring look specifically at one charter school in Baltimore. It doesn’t deal with controversies over the charter system in general, or how charter schools might affect other schools in the public system. But it does provide a feel-good story that hopefully will motivate youth throughout that country to achieve their goals. Either way, it’s an enjoyable, funny and touching look at the lives of three girls.


Dir: Joshua Z Weinstein

Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a single dad who lives in a self-contained Hasidic community in Brooklyn. He’s chubby with an unkempt red beard and rimless glasses. He has a low-paying job at a local grocery store unloading boxes, sweeping the floor and as a cashier. And for fun, he studies religious books, and sings songs with his friends over a cup of schnapps. He’s coping with his economic troubles, but faces an even bigger one: the community disapproves of single parent households. He has lived alone with his young son Rievele (Ruben Niborski) his only source of happiness since his wife died earlier that year. But they’re pressuring him to marry again, and arranging dates. He wants none of that — can’t they just leave him alone? Apparently not. And to force the issue, his brother in law Yitsig has forced his son to move in with his family until Menashe marries again. He did this with the approval of their rabbi, so Menashe is forced to go along with it or his son could be kicked out of school.

His brother in law is everything Menashe is not. He makes good income selling real estate, lives in an expensive brownstone. Itsig has a silken black beard almost two feet long and wears a black coat and fur hat when he goes outside. He treats Menashe disdainfully, calling him demeaning names to his face.

But Menashe is granted reprieve: his son can move back home until the one year anniversary of his wife’s death. Can he prove he’s a fit father by then? Or will his clumsy nature and bad luck alienate his father son relationship and what’s left of his status in the insular ultra-orthodox community?

Menashe is a touching and realistic drama based on actual events in the actor Menashe’s life. Most remarkable of all is the dialogue is entirely in Yiddish, peppered with a few English words, like “plastic bag” and she’s “not my type”. The cast is largely composed of non-actors. A gently-paced movie, it gives a look behind the scenes, from the plastic wash basin kept under his bed, to the large white cap Ruben wears to sleep each night. Menashe is a slice-of-life family drama rarely scene on film.

Step and Menashe 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



Low Budget. Movies reviewed: Mourning Has Broken, 12 0’Clock Boys. PLUS the Great Digital and Super 8 Film Fests

Posted in ATV, Baltimore, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Crime, Cultural Mining, Death, documentary, Drama, Movies, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on January 24, 2014

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

You may have noticed: not everyone’s rich. A recent report estimated the world’s richest 85 people have more money than the poorest 3.5 billion people. That’s not even the 1%; just 85 people own as much as half the people in the world. After news like that, it doesn’t seem right to promote some $300 million Hollywood blockbuster. This week I’m looking at low-budget movies, cheap places to see them, and films about the have-nots.

Despite all the Cassandra-like predictions, Toronto still has rep cinemas. Places like the Royal, the Revue, the Fox, Bloor Hotdocs, and Big Picture Cinema let you see an always-changing selection of art films, indies, retro, second-run and cult movies, at a reasonable price.

akiraBut there are other screens too. At one end, there’s the Great Digital Film logansrunFest showing at Cineplex beginning next week. No rom-coms, but superheroes like Batman from the 80s, rare science fiction pics like Logan’s Run and Japanese anime like Akira.

Just 6 bucks a pop.

At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Super 8 festival this weekend showing the best of Toronto’s art and indie cinema. Go to the8fest.com for details.

This week, I’m looking at a Canadian comedy/drama about a misanthrope doing errands; and a US documentary about a kid who wants to join a particular type of gang.


Mourning has Broken

Dir: Brett and Jason Butler

A neurotic, troubled man (Robert Nolan) leads a normal life in a Toronto suburb. He lives with his wife and his cat, Mignon. On this special day he has a list of errands to run: wash his car, return his wife’s dress, buy a red velvet cake – simple things like that.  He has to do them all that day… or else. So he kisses his wife lying motionless in bed (she’s either asleep, ill, or dead) and sets off. But easier said than done.

He can’t stand small talk and is deeply irritated by almost everyone he sees. And in this movie, he meets an unusual selection of bottom-feeders, douches, nosy neighbours, nasty women, eye-rolling cashiers, know-it-all mechanics, and pushy salesmen. And like Peter Finch in Network, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver or Michael Douglas in Falling Down, here’s another middle aged, middleclass guy on the brink.

We get to hear his internal stream-of-conscious, his muttered rants, and his 544833_419808448075051_1885620781_noccasional outbursts. Respect the big screen! he shouts in a movie theatre where people are talking and texting during a film. He stampedes a dad bullying his chubby son. And he goes to a sporting goods store to buy a bat. Uh-oh… looks like Ford Nation is out for revenge.

What’s so special about this day? Who’s the bat for? And what’s he bringing home to his wife?

Mourning Has Broken is very much a one-man show, and character actor Nolan generally carries it off, with the help of dozens of funny (or not-so-funny) side characters. The pace is a bit odd, with him going crazy one scene then back to muttering again the next. (He ends up losing it all and recovering more than once.)

What’s remarkable about this simple story? This feature dramady was made last year for 1000 bucks as part of Ingrid Veninger’s 1K Wave Feature Film initiative. That, friends, is very impressive.

12OB_PosterHiRes12 0’Clock Boys

Dir: Lotfy Nathan

This is a documentary about three years in the life of an African-American kid named Pug. Pug goes to church in Sunday, has pet turtles and wears his hair in braids. His mom, Coco, is a former exotic dancer. Pugnacious Pug says he likes his life in Baltimore — it’s a city without earthquakes, hurricanes or collapsing buildings. He lives with Coco and his sibs in West Baltimore.

This is a neighbourhood where you learn “the right way to do the wrong things.” And in Baltimore, the thing to learn is dirt biking.

Dirt bikes, dune buggies, fat-tired cars and ATV are the bomb. They zoom down city streets, popping wheelies, revving engines and generally showing off and having fun. It’s a Baltimore tradition. And Pug really, really wants to join this gang.12OB_Still1

The problem? It’s the popo, the turtles, 40, peaches… you know, the police. You get fifty or 100 young black men in one place and the cops see trouble, crime, danger. The guys in the group see freedom, fun, and flash. It’s unclear what is, exactly, the crime they’re committing  (aside from potentially reckless driving), but the police don’t like it. And the TV news paints it as an epidemic, a horror, an out-of-control crime-fest leading to countless deaths.

So the cops chase down the dirt bikers using police cars and helicopters. Legally, the city has a no-chase policy, but chase accidents still happen. One of which really disturbs Pug’s life.

Rabinowitz_TOCB_013As his voice changes so does his vocabulary – he uses four-letter words, acts tough, Pug wants to earn his bonafides. But will he ever be allowed to join this group?

12 0’Clock Boys is a terrific slice-of-life doc, seen through a kid’s eyes. It’s filled with sublime, slow-motion dirtbike rallies paired with excellent beats. And rounded off with news clips, outdoor interviews and just people mouthing off. Worth seeing.

Mourning has Broken opens today, 12 O’Clock Boys starts next week in Toronto. Also opening today is the multifaceted French family drama The Past, as well the8fest.com .

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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