Daniel Garber talks with Sam Soko and Lauren deFilippo at #TIFF22 about their new doc Free Money

Posted in Africa, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Economics, Education, Movies, Poverty by CulturalMining.com on September 17, 2022

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

Photos of Lauren DeFilippo and Sam Soko by Jeff Harris.

Kogutu is a poor, east African village in Kenya. Some of the villagers have kids who can’t afford schooling, while others have a bleak future ahead of them. Various foreign NGOs have come and gone over the years, leaving poverty and disappointment in their wake. But the latest one tries a different tact: They’re offering a monthly stipend paid to all adult members of the village for over a decade, to see if this transforms their lives. But what’s the catch? And what do they mean by “free money”?

Free Money is a new documentary that looks at the effects of UBI, Universal Basic Income, on the people who receive it, and those who don’t. The film was made over many years tracing changes in the villagers, concentrating on the lives of three villagers. The film is directed by two award-winning documentarians. Lauren DeFilippo’s film acclaimed doc Ailey played theatrically in Toronto and across North America. and Nairobi-based Sam Soko’s film Softie was a big hit at Toronto’s Hot Docs International documentary film fest.

Free Money had its world premiere at TIFF. 

I spoke with Lauren and Sam on-site at #TIFF22.

Atypical locations. Films reviewed: My Old School, Ali & Ava, Vengeance

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Class, Disguise, documentary, drugs, High School, Podcasts, Realism, Romance, Scotland, Texas, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 29, 2022

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

Toronto is alive again, but for those uncomfortable showing up in person, there are still lots of ways to enjoy the arts at home. DanceWorks presents But Then Again, Human Body Expression’s, a new documentary, streaming online through July 31st. Shot in crisp black and white during the pandemic, the film features the choreography of Danceworks’ founder Hanna Kiel, and eight great Canadian dancers each of whom creates their own character. And Images Festival of  experimental film and video art is celebrating its 35th year with a new “Slow Edition”, offering 50 films over a four month period, with lots of time to catch everything, including digitally.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies set away from typical locations. There’s an unusual newcomer at a Glasgow high school, a new friendship in Bradford, and an out-of-place visitor in a small town in Texas.

My Old School

Dir: Jono McLeod

It’s 1993, and a new kid has just arrived at Bearsden Academy, a posh secondary school in Glasgow, Scotland. Brandon Lee is a bit of an oddity. Not just his clothes. hair, glasses and accent… there’s something different about him. Like how he seems to know everything they’re studying and can answer teacher’s questions with confidence. He’s not afraid to speak up. He’s not intimidated by bullies, either, and rescues one kid from a life of misery. Maybe it’s because his mother is a famous opera singer who travels around the world. Or the fact he’s from Canada — people look different over there. Whatever the reason, the teachers and principal love him, and he becomes popular among the kids, too. He eventually lands a  key role in the school play, South Pacific, and is accepted into a prestigious medical school after graduation. But Brandon has a secret: he’s not 16… he’s in his 30s!

My Old School is a mind-blowing documentary that has to be seen to be believed. It’s about how one man managed to recreate his identity and correct his past mistakes, without anyone realizing what he did. It’s also very funny. The story is narrated by Brandon himself, flawlessly lip-synched by Glasgow actor Alan Cumming — Brandon did not want his face to appear in the movie. His former classmates — including the director —  fill in the blanks 30 years later. There are some talking heads, but it’s mainly told through simple cartoon versions of the people involved. There’s 90s music, quirky characters, and a potentially serious topic but done in a hilariously, twisted way. And oh, what a story it is. I’m purposely  leaving out most of the twists because that’s what makes this movie so good, but believe me when I tell you, it’s one hell of a story.

Ali & Ava

Wri/Dir: Clio Barnard

It’s rainy season in Bradford, Yorkshire. Ava (Claire Rushbrook), is a kind-hearted blonde woman of Irish Catholic ancestry in her 50s. She’s warm funny and bursting with love. She works as a teacher’s aid at a local elementary school. Her late husband abused her so she kicked him out, but she’s still close to her many children and grandkids, especially her youngest son Callum (Shaun Thomas). She helps him take care of his newborn still unnamed baby.

Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a youngish guy who works as a kind-hearted landlord (they must exist somewhere!) who loves helping out his tenants. He has a vibrant personality, and sports a black beard, hoodies and earphones, constantly free-styling raps to the music in his head. Of South Asian Muslim background, Ali lives with his extended family. His wife is a beautiful intellectual, a student at the university, but their marriage fell apart after a miscarriage. They still live together, in separate rooms, keeping up appearances. Ali and Ava meet for the first time when he carries a shy little girl, Sofia, to school on his shoulders. She’s his tenant and her student, and something clicks. Their friendship grows as he starts driving her around, sharing tunes on the car radio. Ava’s more into country music and Irish folk, while he likes punk and rock, but somehow they find common ground. He even teaches himself Bob Dylan songs on his ukulele.

Some neighbourhoods in Bradford are separated by class and race — little kids throw rocks at Ali when he drives her home. The little kids get charmed by his personality, but not Callum. He hates his guts and is furious to see his mom with “someone like him”. Ali gets grief from his little sister, who says he’s cheating on his wife and with a poor white woman, no less. Can their romance overcome forces trying to keep them apart? Or will friendship and love triumph?

Ali & Ava is a very sweet, realistic, romantic drama about life in a working- class neighbourhood. It’s full of  pathos and joy. It looks at a relationship over the course of one rainy month, as the moon waxes and wanes. Bradford is a post-industrial city where most of the factories have closed down, but in this film it’s filled with fireworks and music, colour and song. The story is told in an impressionistic manner, but it’s not hard to follow. It’s about love more than sex, feelings over dialogue, held together by its music and images. And the acting is very good, both the main characters and the many first time actors cast in minor roles.

Ali & Ava is a sweet and joyful film.

Vengeance

Wri/Dir: BJ Novak

Ben (B.J. Novak) is a successful freelance writer in his 30s, living the high life in Manhattan. By day he writes pieces for the New Yorker, and at night he’s at parties and clubs, serving as wingman for his base, vapid best friend. His low-level celebrity makes him a desirable commodity, and has slept with dozens of women who otherwise wouldn’t give him a second glance. But everything changes when he receives a late-night phone call from a stranger telling him his “girlfriend” is dead. Not the woman lying beside him in bed, she’s breathing normally. It’s another woman he barely remembers sleeping with. Her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) tells him he was Abilene’s one true love, and she never stopped talking about “Ben from New York” after her career as a musician never took off. Ty shames him into flying to a small town in Texas for her funeral. There’s a photo of Ben with Abilene on her coffin, and like out of a nightmare, he’s asked, without warning, to give the eulogy.

Later, Ty tells him the real reason he wants him there. Though the coroner says Abilene died from an overdose, she was actually murdered. And Ty and Ben are the only two who care enough to track down her murderer… and kill him! Ben explains he doesn’t do guns, and he’s not into killing, but he does agree to stay on for a few weeks to find out what happened. And he convinces Eloise (Issa Rae) his New York boss to approve his podcast-in-the-making, involving real people, in the style of the true crime podcast Serial.

He records interviews with Abilene’s sisters — Paris and Kansas City — and her little brother nicknamed El Stupido. Later he meets Quentin, a slick record producer (Ashton Kutcher), who shares his tantric wisdom, and a local drug dealer, who has secrets of his own. But the more he uncovers the less certain Ben is over what happened to Abilene.

Vengeance is a satirical drama and dark comedy about appearances vs reality. Writer, director and star BJ Novak (this is his first time directing a feature) portrays Ben as a fish out of water, an aloof city slicker with a big mouth who soon discovers all his assumptions do not apply in rural Texas. Inundated by unfamiliar views on family, police, guns, drugs, religion, sports, and red states vs blue states, he’s soon wearing ten gallon hats and cowboy boots. Vengeance is a fun — and sometimes harrowing — movie with a totally unexpected ending.  This is a good one.

You can catch My Old School at the Toronto Hot Docs cinema; Ali & Ava at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Vengeance in cinemas across North America; 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

Around the World. Films reviewed: Memoria, Downton Abbey: A New Era, Confessions of Felix Krull

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

Toronto’s spring film festival season is on its way, with ReelAbilities Film Fest starting on Monday through June 10, bringing films by and about people with disabilities and deaf people. There’s a comedy night, workshops, panels and lots of films. This is a hybrid festival, with both digital and in-person events. And Inside-Out is just around the corner , starting on May 26th, featuring world premiers of films with 2SLGBTQ+ themes, actors and filmmakers. And tickets are going fast.

But this week I’m taking you around the world with new movies from the UK, Germany and Thailand There’s an aristocratic family on the Riviera looking at a villa, an ambitious young man in Paris seeking his fortune, and a woman in Colombia looking for an explanation to a strange noise she thinks she heard.

Memoria

Wri/Dir: Apichatpong Weerasathakul 

Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton) is a middle-aged Scottish professional living in Bogota, Colombia. She’s helping out her married sister, Karen, who is in hospital after being struck by a mysterious ailment. But one night, she is awakened by a loud BOOM!, a noise that no one notices except her. So she decides to investigate. She is referred to a young man named Hernán Bedoya (Juan Pablo Urrego) who is a sound engineer in a recording studio. Hernan says he can locate and synthesize the exact sound she remembers based on her description alone. Sparks fly, and it seems like their professional relationship may turn personal. Jessica knows what the sound she heard was but not what it means, and she needs to learn more. So she leaves Hernan and travels inland toward Medellin. On the way she meets an older man (Elkin Díaz) who lives in an isolated cabin and does nothing all day except scaling fish. He’s not just off the grid, he avoids it like the plague, won’t go near a radio, TV or cellphone — the noise is too much for him. You see, he’s blessed or cursed with a unique ability: he hears every story from the beginning of time just by touching a stone where it took place. And what’s his name? Hernán Bedoya!

Memoria is a hauntingly beautiful art-house film about storytelling,  mysticism and perception. Like all of Apichatpong’s movies (I interviewed him here in 2015) it’s not mainstream, so don’t go expecting a Hollywood fantasy. Scenes are long and pensive, often with no dialogue or camera movement for long stretches, and it’s full of mundane hospital rooms, and institutional hallways. But despite the mundane images and slow pace, it is still fascinating, with exquisite cinematography, amazing soundscapes, and terrific acting — Tilda Swinton, of course but many others you’ve never seen before. With lots of strange unexplained scenes you can just enjoy, even if you don’t understand them all. Apichatpong is a Thai master-director, and this is his first film outside his country with much of the dialogue in Spanish, but it doesn’t matter, it fits so clearly within his work.

What a lovely film Memoria is.

Downton Abbey: A New Era

Dir:  Simon Curtis

It’s 1930 in Yorkshire England, and the aristocratic Crawley family, along with their many relatives, inlays and servants, are celebrating the marriage of a daughter to their former chauffeur., bridging the gap between upstairs and downstairs for the first time. Aside from the wedding, two other big changes occur at Downton Abbey, their manor: the family matriarch Violet (Maggie Smith) discovers she has inherited a villa in the south of France, possibly from the estate of a long-lost lover; and a producer wants to use their home as a location for a film he’s shooting — and even really rich people need money to keep the house in a good state. So half the family travels to the French Riviera to investigate their possible new property, while the other half stays home while a movie is being shot in their hallowed hallways. 

But there are complications. It’s revealed that Violet may have had an affair there and her son, now the patriarch of Downton Abbey, may have been illegitimate! Meanwhile, the film they’re shooting has to turn into a talkie, halfway through. This is fine for the dashing male lead who speaks “Received Pronunciation”, but not for the beautiful female star with her shrill, working class accent. (Exactly like in Singin’ in the Rain). And many of the family and the staff are involved in clandestine love affairs on their own. What new changes are afoot at Downton Abbey?

Downton Abbey: A New Era is an anodyne soap opera that feels like two TV episodes linked loosely together and projected onto the silver screen. While the previous movie version of Downton Abbey (which I liked) was cinematic — with a royal visit, assassins, intrigue and and a passionate love affair — this one seems to exist only for  diehard fans can catch up on all their favourite characters. It’s very predictable with few surprises. At the same time, the acting is great (including Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Tuppence Middleton, and too  many others to mention) the dialogue is smooth, the stately home setting is fun, and the characters enjoyable. If you’re a fan of the TV series (personally,  I hated it) I’m sure you’ll find lots to enjoy in this latest instalment. Otherwise, it’s just a comfortable, if uneventful, 90 minutes.

Confessions of Felix Krull

Co-Wri/Dir: Detlev Buck

Based on the novel by Thomas Mann 

It’s 1900 at a grande hotel in Paris. Felix Krull (Jannis Niewöhner) is a handsome, charming, and eloquent young man with great ambitions. But he is not a guest in the hotel, he’s the elevator Boy. Though raised in a middle class family in Rhineland, he was left penniless and fatherless when the family wine business went bankrupt. So — after avoiding the draft, with the help of a beautiful woman named Zaza (Liv Lisa Fries), his only true love — he makes his way to Paris to seek his fortune. But though beautiful on the outside, the hotel is a den of corruption and inequity, though and through. Worst of all is Stanko, the Maitre d’with his hand in everyone’s pocket. He’s a combination pimp, extortionist, blackmailer and thug, who arranges trysts for all the young employees, male and female, to meet the rich and powerful guests carnally, keeping a large percentage for himself. And though Felix (now known as Armand the elevator boy) resists at first, he soon recognizes this side work as the only way to rise up in status.

He has secret affairs with a number of people simultaniously, including Madame Houpflé, a lonely woman married to an Alsatian toilet mogul, who pays him with her seemingly endless supply of pearl necklaces. He also meets a French Marquis, a Scottish Lord, an eccentric professor, and various other members of the upper crust.  But though he becomes increasingly rich and well-dressed, can material wealth ever help him rise within the rigid class system? Or is he trapped in his class? Can he hold into his morals? And when Zaza reappears in Paris beside the same Marquis… things get complicated.

Confessions of Felix Krull is a wonderful adaptation of Thomas Mann’s unfinished coming-of-age-novel. When I was a teenager, I carried a hardcover copy of that book as I travelled across Europe, so I’m thrilled to see it on the big screen as a big budget movie. Most of the story is told by Felix to the Marquis, as part confession, and part con job — or so it seems. But Felix is not an immoral criminal;  he is the most just and upright character in the story. All the actors, but especially, David Kross (Krabat, The Reader) as the Marquis, Liv Lisa Fries (Babylon Berlin) as Zaza, and newcomer Jannis Niewöhner, are just so much fun to watch. It’s an historical period piece about a long-gone world, but still feels so fresh, never turgid. I recommend this one.

And it’s playing as part of the Goethe Films series called The Art of the Con.

Memento just opened in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; Confessions of Felix Krull is playing one night only, on May 19th, also at TIFF; and Downton Abbey a New Era, opens next week in Toronto; 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

Class divide. Films reviewed: Sundown, Ambulance, Mothering Sunday

Posted in Action, Clash of Cultures, Class, Crime, Depression, Drama, Heist, L.A., Mexico, Sex, UK by CulturalMining.com on April 9, 2022

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies — from the UK, Hollywood and Mexico — about the class divide. There’s a penniless orphan having a passionate affair with an upper-class Englishman; a London billionaire who intentionally disappears in Acapulco; and a bank robber who commandeers an ambulance on the streets of LA to protect 16 million dollars.

Sundown

Wri/Dir: Michel Franco

Neil (Tim Roth) is an Englishman on holiday in Acapulco with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two teenaged kids. They’re staying at a luxury resort , the kind of place where you never have to leave your private infinity pool, as waiters will bring martinis directly to your suite. They can watch locals diving off the cliffs in exchange for small tips — let them eat cake! Neil and Alice are the heirs to a vast fortune worth billions. But a shocking telephone call upsets their plans, forcing them to fly back to London immediately.  But Neil, claiming he left his passport at the hotel, doesn’t get on the plane. Instead, he disappears, checking into a cheap local guesthouse. His days are spent drinking beer on Mexican beaches, and he soon hooks up with a beautiful woman named Berenice (Iazua Larios).  But all is not well. Acapulco is a dangerous city with drive-by killings invading even his beachfront. His hotel room is robbed and he finds himself surrounded by petty criminals. Meanwhile his sister is frantic with worry. Why has he not returned to London? What sort of a game is he playing? Is he trying to bilk her out of her share of the family fortune?  Or, as he says, he has no interest in money at all? And why is he withdrawing from life?

Sundown is a disturbing Mexican film about the class divide and how one man deals with it in his own way. Tim Roth plays Neil as an introverted trying to escape from everything. He barely speaks or makes decisions as his world collapses all around him. He endures crime, violence, and even jail with barely a reaction. But internally he is plagued with bizarre hallucinations, with giant hogs invading his mind-space. While not nearly as upsetting as his previous film, New Order, in Sundown Michel Franco once again probes the fear, corruption and violence permeating the class divide in contemporary Mexico. 

Ambulance

Dir: Michael Bay

Danny and Will Sharpe are best friends and brothers (Will was adopted). They group up together on the streets of LA, but took different paths as adults. Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) stuck to the straight and narrow, joining the military and is now married with a small child. Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) took after their dad, a notorious bank robber who left many dead bodies in his wake. But good guys seem to finish last. Will’s wife needs complex surgery something he can’t afford — he van barely feed his family. So he goes to Danny, cap in hand, asking for help. Danny agrees as long as he participates in what he calls a simple bank robbery that’ll leave them both rich beyond their wildest dreams. But the robbery goes south, and they are forced to flee in an ambulance with a wounded cop and a paramedic named Cam (Eliza González) trying to keep him alive. Can they escape with the money without killing the cop?

Ambulance is a two hour chase scene disguised as a movie. As they race through the streets of LA they are pursued by helicopters, police cars and the FBI, trying to kill the bank robbers without killing the cop. Michael Bay is known for his trademark enormous explosions and spectacular car crashes, and he doesn’t disappoint. There are also some cool new camera tricks, like a drone camera hugging the side of a police station as it plunges many storeys straight down to the sidewalk (it almost made me carsick!). But fancy camerawork and lots of crashes does not a movie make.  And with cookie-cutter characters and ultra-simplistic storylines like this, why go to a movie when you can find the same thing on a game like GTO?

Ambulance is not boring, it’s just totally pointless.

Mothering Sunday

Dir: Eva Husson

It’s England between the wars. Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is a teen orphan who earns her living as a maid. As her name shows, she was abandoned by her mother as a child. Her upper-class employer (Colin Firth and Olivia Coleman) give her a a holiday on Sundays every so often when they go for a picnic with their friends. This gives Jane the chance to sneak away to spend time with her secret boyfriend Paul (Josh O’Connor) whose maid is also given the day off. It’s a passionate relationship full of unbridled sex all around the family mansion. Is this love or infatuation? Either way it’s no coincidence Jane and Paul both have free time on the same day. Paul’s parents and Jane’s employers are meeting at the same picnic, where Paul is heading too, to make an important announcement. But something shocking happens on the way. 

Mothering Sunday is a beautiful film about a woman whose status gradually rises as she makes her way from house servant to independent writer. It’s also about the lovers and partners she meets along her way. Although it starts slowly the film becomes more and more interesting as details and secrets of her life are gradually revealed. Odessa Young is amazing as Jane Fairchild, someone you can really identify with. Eva Husson is French director and this is the first thing I’ve seen by her, but she’s really good — she knows how to subtly set up a scene, and then turn it on its head with a shocking revelation. This is a relatively simple, low-budget movie, but something about it out really grabbed me, and left me thinking about months after I saw it.

I really like this one.  

Ambulance and Mothering Sunday both open this weekend; check your local listings. Sundown is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Valentine’s Day Rom-Coms. Films reviewed: Marry Me, The Worst Person in the World

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Movies, Music, New York City, Norway, Romance, Romantic Comedy by CulturalMining.com on February 12, 2022

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

It’s Valentine’s Day weekend and the movie theatres are open. Wanna go on a date? There’s lots of stuff to see. So this week, I’m looking at two new romantic comedies. There’s a pop star who meets a schoolteacher in New York City; and a student who meets a comic book artist in Oslo. 

Marry Me

Dir: Kat Coiro

It’s present-day New York City. Charlie (Owen Wilson) is a math teacher and divorced dad in Brooklyn. He is trying to win the affection of his only daughter Lou (Chloe Coleman), who is now a student at his school. He coaches the math club, but Lou doesn’t want to join it.   But when his best friend and fellow teacher Parker (Sarah Silverman), says she has three tickets to a big event, he reluctantly agrees to come with his daughter. The concert features pop superstars Kat Valdez and Bastian (Jenifer Lopez and Maluma). The two are deeply in love and plan to marry on stage as part of the release of a new ballad version of their latest smash hit, Marry Me. Lou and Parker are very excited because they are huge fans, but Charlie has never even heard of them. Then, at the show, something goes terribly wrong. Immediately before singing the Marry Me song before tens of millions of online viewers, Kat discovers Bastian has been cheating on her. In a fit of rage, she refuses to marry him and instead points to a random man in the audience — Charlie! A few minutes later, on stage before the cameras, she asks him to marry her… and he says OK. Of course it’s just a publicity stunt, but, after consulting with her kindly manager, she decides to make a go of it. After all, her previous three marriages didn’t work out, who’s to say a marriage to a random guy couldn’t work? But can an ordinary man and a fabulously wealthy and famous woman become a happily married couple? Or is it just an impossible dream of separate worlds?

Marry Me is a cute rom-com with a few twists: the ordinary guy is white, while the rich and powerful woman is Latin; then there’s the fact that the romantic leads are both in their fifties — especially unusual for female leads.   Owen Wilson is still projecting his perpetual dumb-boy energy, and J-Lo is just being J-Lo — a large portion of the film is devoted to music. Acting is not the main point here. It’s also pretty predictable, but that’s why people go to rom-coms, a once-popular genre that has fallen by the wayside.  Will Marry Me be its comeback? Probably not. I’m not a fan of the music or the stars, but despite all that I still found it watchable and cute. 

The Worst Person in the World

Co-Wri/Dir: Joachim Trier

Julie (Renate Reinsve) is a middle-class woman in her 20s in Oslo, Norway. She’s bright, pretty, confident and opinionated, but can’t quite figure out what she wants in life, both professionally and personally. She studies a number of disciplines — medicine, psychology, photography — and is very good at whatever she does… but can’t quite find her niche. She does find love, though. She hooks up with a guy named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) an underground comic artist. He created a Fritz the Cat-type character named Bobcat. He’s 15 years older than her, but she decides to put her own life on hold and move in with him. But she gets restless.

One night she crashes a party and meets a guy named Elvind (Herbert Nordrum). They hit it off immediately and have an intimate verbal encounter, without technically cheating on their respective spouses. They don’t exchange names and swear to never meet again. Thing is, Oslo’s a big city, but not that big. They do meet again, in a bookstore where Julie works. Is Elvind the one she’s always been looking for? Or is Aksel? And will she ever find happiness?

To call The Worst Person in the World a rom-com doesn’t do it justice. It’s more of a long, complex dramatic comedy. It’s told in 12 chapters, and the prologue alone could have been its own movie. It’s also a social satire, dealing wth diverse issues — family, relationships,  pregnancy, politics, selling out to the man, sexism, psychedelic drugs, “cancel culture” — even death. And I really love Joachim Trier’s movies (Thelma, Oslo, August 31st ). I guess that’s why I found this one disappointing. It’s not bad, or cheesy or cheap —he doesn’t make movies like that.  It’s well-made, and well acted, nice design and music. And there’s tons of fascinating ideas and content, but it’s thrown at the viewer, almost indifferently, chapter after chapter after chapter. There’s a superficial melancholy to the whole thing, which makes it hard to sympathize with Julie. She’s not the worst person in the world by any means, but she’s not a heroine either. Is it worth seeing? Certainly, there’s lots to chew on, and it made me think. It’s just not as funny, sad, moving or romantic as I might have liked. Just more of that empty, Scandinavian hollowness. It’s actually less of a rom-com than a romantic tragedy… without the tears.

Marry Me just opened and The Worst Person in the World is now playing at the Tiff Bell Lightbox in Toronto; 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

Daniel Garber talks with Tracey Deer about Beans

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

It’s the summer of 1990.

Tekehentahkhwa or “Beans” for short (Kiawentiio) is a typical, innocent 12-year-old girl who lives near Montréal with her Dad, her ambitious mom, and her little sister. Her biggest worry is getting into a posh private school to guarantee a successful future. But her life is totally changed when the town of Oka tries to grab Mohawk burial grounds to expand a golf course. Protests erupt and her family, being Mohawk, joins in. But when it turns into a blockade and a stand off involving police and the military, it reveals acts of violence and virulent racism she has never witnessed before. Now she has to make a decision: should she toughen up like her dad? Or keep to the straight and narrow like her mom? And how will she emerge from these life-shattering events?

Beans is a fantastic new drama – told from an indigenous point of view – that combines the historical record with a highly personal and intimate coming-of-age story. Since it premiered at TIFF last fall, it has garnered dozens of awards for filmmaker, Tracey Deer who has created a work of personal and national importance.

I spoke with Tracey Deer via Zoom.

Beans is now playing in Toronto and all across Canada, from Victoria to Halifax.  

Daniel Garber talks with Peter Kuplowsky about Psycho Goreman

Posted in Aliens, Canada, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Coming of Age, Horror, Kids, Super Villains, Super-heroes, Supernatural, violence by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2021

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

Mimi and Luke are young siblings in a nondescript town. They’re both typical and atypical. Mimi’s the younger one, but she’s more aggressive, They spend their time playing games they invent like “crazy ball”. But after a game one day they uncover a strange glowing stone buried deep in the ground. And when Mimi removes it she unknowingly activates a hideous monster, the epitome of evil, a creature responsible for the deaths of millions. He can casually tear his victims apart in an orgy of blood and gore.  But since Mimi holds the gem, she soon discovers he’s in her power. What will a little girl do with her newfound strength — will she use it for good or for evil? Will they save the planet or destroy it? And can she and her brother control the powerful demon they call Psycho Goreman.

Psycho Goreman is also the name of a new comedy/horror movie about kids and alien beings. Science fiction, family comedy and first love are set against a potential universe-shattering apocalypse. The film is written and directed by Steven Kostanski  who brought us twisted, over-the-top genre classics like The Void and Manborg.  Peter Kuplowsky, who worked on Steven’s other films and is also notable as the curator of TIFF’s Midnight Madness series, co-produced it.

I spoke to Peter Kuplowsky from home via ZOOM.

Psycho Goreman opens digitally on January 22, 2021 across North America.

Crises. Films reviewed: Band Ladies, Cane Fire, Castle in the Ground

(Audio: no music)

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

I’m recording from my home, once again, looking for ways to entertain you all while movie theatres are out of the picture. So this week I’m looking at three new films, a documentary, a web series, and a dark Canadian drama. There’s a filmmaker discovering Hawai’i’s past; a group of women dealing with a collective midlife crisis; and a mother and son facing the opioid crisis.

Band Ladies

Dir: Molly Flood

Five bored, middle-aged women meet at a local bar to discuss Victorian romances for their regular book club. There’s Marnie (Kate Fenton), a stay-at- home mom with a lackluster life; Chloe (Lisa Michelle Cornelius) a careerist lawyer troubled by her Big Pharma employer; Cindy (Vicki Kim) an aspiring musician / bartender; Penny (Dana Puddicombe) a rich celeb who could pass as a Dragons Den panelist; and Stephanie (Kirstin Rasmussen) a drunk dead-ender recenty dumped by her longtime girlfriend.

But when their inhibitions are loosened by a few bottles of plonk, Chloe storms the stage to tell her secret truth: her bosses peddle opiods to children! Someone captures her rant on their phone and posts it online, and boom! the clip goes viral. But what can they do with their 15 minutes of fame? Why, form a band, of course. What kind? Punk. But can five middle-aged women shake up their lives and transform themselves overnight into an 80s style punk band? Or is this just a pipe dream?

Band Ladies is a fast-moving, cute and clever web series. It zooms through the five characters’ lives in six quick, 10-minute episodes, a crash course on the dos and don’ts of starting a band. The actors write their own characters’ lyrics and perform the songs on their first “tour” – as the opening act at a Parry Sound bar. It’s sharp, witty and empathetic – and the whole series is over in an hour.

I like this web series.

Cane Fire

Dir: Anthony Banua-Simon

Beautiful Kaua’i: a tropical paradise where happy Hawaiians harvest sugar cane and pineapples on plantations; where luxury hotels preserve ancient ceremonies by lighting torches each night; and the setting of hundreds of Hollywood features shot there. But is that the whole truth? The locals tell a very different story.

This new feature documentary pulls the veil off the island’s past and retells its story through its own people’s eyes. When the US toppled its government and colonized the islands Kaua’i was taken over by five families who controlled most of the land. Hawaiians – and workers imported from places like China, Japan and the Philippines – were kept down by the sugar and pineapple plantation owners. Unions were busted, and organizers fired, demoted or sent away. Luxury hotels were built on sacred burial grounds and their culture co-opted or invented by settlers to attract tourists. Stars like Elvis and John Wayne were featured in movies shot there while locals were background decorations. And now locals are further marginalized by the ultra-rich people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – buying huge tracts of land for their own personal use.

Cane Fire is partly a personal travelogue – the filmmaker goes to Kaua’i to find out about his great grandfather – partly a look at Hollywood’s sanitized depiction of the place; and partly a chance for the people’s own stories to be told. This includes local activists reclaiming the ruins of the once famous Koko Palms hotel built on sacred lands. The title Cane Fire comes from a movie of the same name about local unrest on the island. That movie is now lost, but the documentary fills in the blanks normally missing in depictions of Hawai’i.

Cane Fire is an excellent film.

Castle in the Ground

Wri/Dir: Joey Klein

It’s a cold, dark day in Sudbury, Ontario. Henry (Alex Wolff) is a good son, taking time off from school to take care of his dying mom (Neve Campbell). He feeds her crushed prescription pills each day to help ease her pain. But noise from across the hall – she lives in a rundown tenement – keeps bothering her. So Henry bangs on the door to investigate. There he meets Ana (Imogen Poots) – a sketchy woman with hollow eyes – and some of her unsavoury friends. She’s a cunning addict on the methadone wagon, jonesing for her next fix. And her dealer (a kid she calls Polo Boy (Keir Gilchrist) for his designer tracksuits) says she stole his bag of pills, and the scary guys are asking for it back. Ever the gallant one, Henry steps in to protect her, but soon is drawn into her hellish universe of guns, crime and opioids. Can he emerge unscathed with only a hammer as a weapon? And what about those close to him?

Castle in the Ground has a lot of things I avoid in movies – I find movies all about people slowly dying or struggling with addiction, more depressing than interesting. Luckily, this movie, while dealing with these very real phenomena, manages to avoid the moralistic tone that usually smothers stories like this. Instead it jacks up the thriller aspects – drug dealers wearing creepy baby masks, car chases, and narrow escapes from dimly-lit drug parties – couched in a constant, surreal haze. Yes, it’s bleak, but the bleakness is mollified by aburdist humour, fascinating details, and stunning night photography, lit with the glare of headlights and the acid glow of neon. And when actors like Imogen Poots and Alex Wolff put their all into a movie like this, it’s worth paying attention.

Band Ladies is streaming now on Highball.tv; Castle in the Ground opens today on VOD; and Cane Fire is having its world premier at this year’s Hot Docs.

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

Young Lovers. Films reviewed: Angelfish, Man Proposes, God Disposes, And Then We Danced

Posted in 1990s, Brazil, Clash of Cultures, Dance, Georgia, LGBT, New York City, Poland, Romance by CulturalMining.com on January 24, 2020

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

How is cinema faring at the start of this new decade? In Toronto, at least, it looks a bit grim. Our biggest film festival has laid off much of their staff, our largest theatre chain is about to be devoured by a British conglomerate, and one of the biggest downtown movie theatre is slated for demolition. But have no fear, the movies are still here. You can see super-8 movies over the weekend at the Polish Combatants’ Hall (SPK) on Beverley St; The magnificently refurbished Paradise Theatre is showing first-run art house films in a splendid setting. And TIFF’s Next Wave festival is offering free screenings of young directors for free if your under 25.

So this week I’m looking at three new movies about young love. There’s a Polish criminal pursuing a woman he doesn’t love, a Georgian dancer dealing with forbidden love, and a young couple in the Bronx trying to see if love can work.

Angelfish

Dir: Peter Lee

It’s the early 1990s in the Bronx. Brandon (Jimi Stanton) lives with his little brother Conner and alcoholic mom (Erin Davie) in Kingsbridge, a working-class white neighbourhood. He works behind the deli counter at the local grocery store to help pay rent. Eva (Princess Nokia) lives in nearby Marble Hill a Puerto Rican enclave in the north tip of Harlem. Her mother moved there to make a better life for Eva and her severely handicapped brother Julio. She’s planning on studying accounting at College to please her mom, but yearns to be an actress. The two meet by chance in the grocery store when Brandon stops a guy aggressively hitting on her.

They meet again at the local movie theatre, and when they spend a day together by the waterfront sparks fly. Is it love? But family duties intrude on their budding relationship: Julio needs constant care from Eva.  And Brandon should be paying more attention to the sketchy guys Conner is hanging with. Is their love destined to fail? Or can they overcome all the roadblocks between them?

Angelfish is a touching, low-budget and low-key look at ordinary people balancing love with responsibilities. Despite the Tony-and-Maria dynamics and the dark-alley locations, this is no West Side Story redux. The two are less of a Romeo and Juliet separated by race, than a young couple living up to expectations and dealing with grinding poverty.

Man Proposes, God Disposes

Dir: Daniel Leo

It’s a few years back in Gdansk, Poland. Karol (Mateusz Nedza) is a wiry guy in his twenties who lives with his mom and little sister. He sports a shaved head, a pencil moustache and a black watch cap. He makes his living through burglary and petty crime and spends his illicit earnings at nightclubs, picking up women. Bruna (Bruna Massarelli) is a middle-class university student in São Paolo with burgundy hair,  freckled cheeks and sensual lips. Their paths crossed in Europe in a soon forgotten one-night stand. But an unexpected phone call brings them together again. She’s pregnant with his child. Karol makes his way to Brazil and shows up – unannounced and uninvited- at her apartment door. Things are prickly between them, and he acts arrogant.

His only friend is Cici (Erick Mozer) a water deliverer boy he meets on the street. He takes over his job, unheard of for a European in São Paolo. Mateusz is uneducated and penniless, looked down on by Bruna’s university friends. Still, they gradually get to know each other  better and start to get along… Can an unborn foetus hold a couple together? And can such an unlikely pair find happiness and love together?

Man Proposes, God Disposes is a lovely, stylized look at an odd relationship plagued by a clash of cultures. They are forced to communicate in English as neither speaks the others language. First-time director Leo is a skilled cinematographer, and he pays as much attention to the look and sound as he does to acting. Each scene is arranged in vibrant primaty colours, with white walls and sharp contrasts, almost like a graphic novel.

Massarelli and Nedza make for a charming pair, and while the story is simplistic, it’s a pleasure to watch.

And Then We Danced

Wri/Dir: Levan Akin

It’s present day Tbilisi Georgia. Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is a ginger haired young man who lives in a cramped apartment with his brother David, his mom and his grandmother. Their family have been dancers for generations, and Since age 10, he’s been partnered with Mary (Ana Javakishvili), a middle-class girl with black hair and striking features. Together they train at the academy, with the goal of eventually joining the prestigious professional troop. He’s a great dancer but  Aleko, the director, criticizes him for being too expressive, not stiff or rigid enough to capture the heart of Georgian dancing.

Enter Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) newly arrived from Batumi. He’s a natural, and Merab sees him as a rival for the upcoming audition. And he’s friendly with Merab’s loutish brother David (a dancer as well) the two of the often arriving in their shared bedroom late at night, drunk and wasted.

But when a bit of rough and tumble behind a boulder in the woods turns into something more sexual, things become more complicated between Merab and Irakli. Forthe first time in his life, Merab is lovestruck, emanating good feelings. But they have to be cautious. One dancer in their troop was nearly beaten to death when he was found sleeping with an Armenian. But when Irakli disappears, Merab is at wits end. Are they lovers? Or just friends?  Who will win the audition? And with his new-found sexuality, can he find happiness – and safety – in still-conservative Georgia?

And Then We Danced is a beautiful romance set against the world of traditional Georgian dance. Levan Gelbakhiani looks like a young Baryshnikov, but his dance techniques combine traditional steps with hints of contemporary dance.

Great movie.

Man Supposes, God Disposes opens Wednesday at the Paradise cinema. Angelfish and And Then We Danced are two of many films playing at the NEXT WAVE film festival at TIFF in February.

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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