Reasons. Films reviewed: Silent Night, Sun Children

Posted in Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, Iran, Kids, UK by CulturalMining.com on June 25, 2021

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

Toronto is finally opening up — well, kinda. Now you can see movies away from home, just not yet in theatres.  The Lavazza Drive-In Film Festival is coming to Ontario Place, showing a huge selection of crowd-pleasing international films. It also incorporates the wonderful annual Italian Contemporary Film Fest, now celebrating its 10th year. It starts this Sunday and continues through July 17th, featuring, on Canada Day, the North American premier of Peace By Chocolate — based on the inspiring, true story of a family of Syrian refugees  who start a chocolate factory in Nova Scotia.

And for those of you without cars, the Toronto Outdoor Picture Show (or TOPS & Friends, for short) is showing outdoor movies  in person at Old Fort York, incorporating special features selected from a year of Toronto film festivals, including the Geothe Institute, Real Asian, Toronto Palestine, Inside-Out film fests,  Viewers can sit on the grass, physically distanced, while watching a whole bunch of movies — for free! Details and showtimes will be released in July.

But this week I’m looking at two new movies you can watch at home: a crime flick and a coming of age story, one from the UK the other from Iran. There’s a gangster in London who agrees to kill someone in order to save his young daughter; and a 12-year-old kid in Teheran who agrees to break the law in order to save his mother.

Silent Night

Wri/Dir: Will Thorne

London in the present day. Mark (Bradley Taylor) is just out of a London prison, and looking for work. His six-year-old daughter Daisy is overjoyed tp see her dad again, but his ex-wife Rosey is skeptical. Mark insists he’s a different man now, and wants nothing to do with the gangsters he used to pal around with. He just wants to carve a wooden hobby horse to give to Daisy for Christmas. But when he gets a job trimming trees in a forest, who is the first guy he runs into? Alan (Cary Crankson) a truly sketchy character if he’s ever met one who is also his former cell-mate. More former “friends” start gathering around him, including Pete and Seamus a friendly pair of pot dealers; Toni, the gang’s matriarch; Nicky, girlfriend of the boss; and Caddy (Frank Harper), the gruff and paranoid kingpin. 

They urge, cajole, pressure and threaten Mark offering a carrot and a stick, for this, they promise will be his final job. The carrot is enough money to keep his family secure and stable (the government jobs pay terribly). The stick is they’ll kill Daisy if he doesn’t follow through. What does he have to do? Catch and kill a rival mob boss who Caddy thinks is threatening his business. But when the bodies start piling up, with no end in sight, Mark has to make some heavy decisions. Can he complete the job, save his daughter, and figure out who is really behind this scheme… before getting killed or sent back to prison first?

Silent Night — it’s set during the days leading up to Christmas — is a heavy-duty London crime drama. There’s lot’s of death and violence — some quite explicit, others comical — as Mark tries to navigate his life as a former criminal gone straight despite all the forces working against him. No spoilers, but there’s also a major twist that caught me totally by surprise, and raised my enjoyment level considerably. The acting is good and the script is punchy and fast-moving, without being stupid (like so many crime dramas.)

I like this one.

Sun Children

Co-Wri/Dir: Majid Majidi

Ali (Rouhollah Zamani) is a 12-year old boy in Teheran. His father died in an accident and the shock sent his mother to a psychiatric hospital, where she lies tied to a bed, unresponsive. He has no money and nowhere to live, but does work for a pigeon-keeper and petty criminal named Hashem, who is like Fagin in Oliver Twist. Ali is the head of a group of four young guys, with Abolfazl, Reza, and Mamad.  They make money stealing hubcaps. They also look out for Zahra, a little girl who sells trinkets on the subway. Some of them are Afghan refugees, others have fathers in prison, on drugs or dead. So when the boys are offered a chance to go back to school, and get paid for it, they jump at the opportunity. Ali and his gang may be street smart but they’re uneducated. And he’s promised a safe place to live so he can take his mom out of hospital. 

There’s just one catch. He has to enrol in a specific school — the Sun School — and do a bit of side work without getting caught. When they’re not in class, they’re supposed to be secretly digging a long underground tunnel using a pickaxe and their bare hands. At the end of the tunnel,  beneath a cemetery, there’s buried treasure beyond their wildest dreams.  So begins their new lives, studying full time but also doing hard labour between classes. Abolfazl proves to be a great math student, and Reza excels at soccer. Ali has his own skills: he head-butts two classmates and scares off a third for insulting his mother. He still has to avoid the cops and the self-important school principal, while looking after the others, and relentlessly digging, digging, digging through the walls. What lies at the other end?

Sun Children — that’s what all the boys in the school are called — is a marvellous, realistic, entertaining and deeply-moving look at the lives of street kids. (If this film doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, I don’t know what will.) The children are all non-actors but pull off amazing performances, including Rouhollah Zamani, who won a top prize at Venice. This coming-of-age drama looks at political corruption, poverty, child labour and the duplicitous  and exploitative nature of grown-ups as seen through the eyes of children.

I strongly recommend this movie.

Sun Children and Silent Night both open today on VOD and digital platforms.

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

Self-reflexive. Films reviewed: Akilla’s Escape, Truman & Tennessee, Censor

Posted in 1950s, 1980s, Canada, Crime, documentary, drugs, Gay, Horror, Jamaica, Toronto, UK, Writers by CulturalMining.com on June 18, 2021

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 — a crime drama, a horror movie and a documentary. — that also look at themselves. There’s a possible killer named Akilla, a horror movie about horror movies, and a doc about two famous gay writers… who write about themselves.

Akilla’s Escape

Co-Wri/Dir: Charles Officer

It’s present-day Toronto. Akilla (Saul Williams) is a smart and well-read guy, who was born in Jamaica, grew up in Queens NY, and ended up in Toronto as a teenager. He has built a career with a successful grow-op he calls “the farm” for twenty years, but feels it’s time for a change. There’s been a rash of gang violence and he wants out. But on the same day, he interrupts a robbery gone wrong, leaving dead bodies in its wake. Most of the remaining local gangsters get away with two bags full of cash and drugs which should be in the hands of organized crime. But one of them — whom Akilla knocks out during the robbery — is still lying unconscious on the floor. And when he pulls off his mask, he sees young Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana), a 15-year-old boy who reminds him of himself at that age. He doesn’t want to hand him over to the mob because they’ll kill him… but he also needs to recover the stolen cash and drugs — otherwise he’ll be the one to suffer.  Can he get Sheppard to confess, avoid a hitman from the Greek mob, and catch a fugitive killer… without dying himself?

Akilla’s Escape is a complex and engrossing crime drama set within Toronto’s Jamaican community. Through a series of flashbacks, it’s told in three parallel stories about people dragged into a life of crime largely against their own will: young Akilla in Queens, Sheppard in Toronto, and adult Akilla in the present day. It’s nicely shot in a distinctive style coloured with reds and yellows to differentiate the different time periods. Saul Williams is really good as Akilla, both thoughtful and intense; and, in a twist, Sheppard and the 15-year-old Akilla are both played by the same actor, Thamela Mpumlwana! 

Interesting movie — I like this one.

Truman & Tennessee: an intimate conversation

Dir: Lisa Immordino Vreeland 

Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams first met in the 1940s when they both were rising stars.  Capote was still a teenager while Williams was in his late twenties. And they both were gay authors.  Tennessee was a compulsive writer dedicated to his craft, while Truman yearned for celebrity, not just success. Tennessee wrote a series of incredibly successful plays, most of which were later turned into hit movies, all about the lives, loves  and tragedies of southern woman. You’ve probably seen at least some of them: The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, to name just a few. Truman Capote wrote novels, memoirs and true crime reports, like In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Other Voices, Other Rooms. They went on vacations together, along with their long-term lovers, to exotic locales in Italy and Morocco.

They both drank heavily and popped pills supplied by the notorious “Doctor Feelgood”. But by the 1970s their fractious friendship ended in bitter rivalries.  Truman wrote a story with a character based on Tennessee, whom he described as “a chunky, paunchy, booze puffed runt with a play moustache glued above laconic lips who has a corn-pone voice.” In response, Truman is said to have “gone so far in his shtick that all his work will be seen now in the shimmer of a poised stiletto”. 

This documentary is composed of scenes from their films, still photos (by photographers like Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton), and a few key TV interviews (with David Frost and Dick Cavett). Visually it’s experimental, with lush green leaves, trees and rippling water superimposed kaleidoscopically on much of the period footage, giving the film a drifting, ethereal feel.

It’s narrated by the authors themselves, as voiced by actors Zachary Quinto (Star Trek) as Tennessee Williams and Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) as Truman Capote. It’s full of personal details of their superstitions, phobias, addictions, jealousy, loneliness and lust. Did you know that Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe, not Audrey Hepburn, to play Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which was based on an actual friend of his)? And Tennessee Williams tells all his viewers to walk out of his movies just before they’re over, because, he says, Hollywood’s happy endings ruin them all. These just give you a taste of all the secrets revealed in this movie.

If you like these two writers, you must see this doc.

Censor

Co-Wri/Dir: Prano Bailey-Bond

It’s the mid-1980s in Thatcher’s Britain. Enid (Niamh Algar) works for the censor board. In teams of two they rate, classify, cut or ban the many videos flooding the country. She’s meticulous in her work, logging frame by frame any images she thinks show too much. Scenes that don’t make the grade include a gouged eyeball that “looks too realistic”, or “excessively visible genitalia”. Pressure is especially strong these days because the tabloid press blames a rise in crime on the prevalence of “video nasties” — low-budget horror movies washing up on the sacred shores of Albion.

Things get worse when a gruesome real-life murder seems to mimic a scene from a horror movie she once approved. And once the papers print her name, she is inundated by paparazzi, journalists and non-stop anonymous obscene phone calls to her home. Meanwhile, at work, she is visited by a particularly sleazy and salacious film producer, who says she would be perfect to star in his next movie. Turns out his past video nasties include a film about two teenaged sisters, one of whom was violently killed. Thing is, Enid’s own sister disappeared after a walk in the woods when they were both still little girls, and she has made it her life-long goal either to find her or find out what happened to her. Is this film somehow related to her and her sister? Is the film studio a murder machine, making snuff films? Or is it all in her head?

Censor is a psychological horror pic that traces a bureaucrat’s slide from proper office worker into the depths of violence and depravity. It’s about the making and censoring of those low-budget horror movies in the 80s, but it’s also a horror movie in its own right. Its style matches the videos it’s sampling —  the music, sound effects, costumes — giving the whole film a surreal feeling.

This is good, over-the-top horror.

Akilla’s Escape is now playing on VOD; Truman & Tennessee: an intimate conversation opens today digitally at the Rogers HotDocs cinema; and Censor also opens today on your favourite VOD platform.

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

Travelling for love. Films reviewed: Make Up, Identifying Features, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Posted in Coming of Age, Corruption, Crime, Family, Hungary, LGBT, Mexico, Obsession, Psychology, Romance, Rural, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2021

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

They say love is true, and some people travel far and wide to keep that love alive. This week I’m looking at three new movies, directed by women in Hungary, England, and Mexico, that explore this theme. There’s a teenaged girl who moves to Cornwall to spend time with her boyfriend; an American surgeon who moves to Budapest to be reunited with her lover, and a Mexican farmer who crosses the country in search of her missing son.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Dir: Lili Horvát

Marta (Natasa Stork) is a 39-year-old, successful surgeon from New Jersey.  So what is she doing at a run-down hospital in Budapest? She moved there, spontaneously to join up with a man she met a conference. They shared a night of passion and swore to meet up again  on a bridge in Budapest at a specific time and date. (Marta is originally from Hungary but immigrated to the U.S.) But when she sees her bearded lover Janos (Viktor Bodó) he says he has ever seen her before in his life. She faints on a downtown street, where a young man named Alex (Benett Vilmányi) comes to her rescue. Marta is overcome with emotions. Is she going crazy? Was it all a dream? Or is Janos gaslighting her for some unknown reason? 

She gets a job at the hospital where Janos works to be close to him. Meanwhile Alex turns out to be a young medical student who develops an infatuation with Marta. So this turns into a three way stalk fest with Marta spying on Janos and Alex following her. Where is love? IS it real or imaginary? And can Marta come to terms with her new strange life?

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is an intriguing mystery-romance-psychological drama about passion and illusion, alienation and obsession. Marta deals with sexist colleagues and petty bureaucrats, as she  tries to navigate a culture she’s not quite familiar with. It’s filmed on the lovely streets of Budapest with a fair amount of unexpectedly strange sex (no spoilers). The movie is a bit confusing in its tone, with, rather than a huge dramatic turning point, it culminates in an oddly absurdist, anticlimactic finish. Preparations is a good movie, but probably not what you expect. 

This is Hungary’s nominee for best Foreign Language  Film Oscar.

Make Up

Dir: Claire Oakley

It’s winter in Cornwall, England. Ruth (Molly Windsor) is an 18 year old woman, staying at a deserted summer holiday park so she can spend time with her boyfriend. She’s been dating Tom (Joseph Quinn) for 3 years. But rather than a romantic getaway, she’s staying in a grey, gloomy collection of jerry-built cottages near the sea. Everything is covered in plastic sheeting. And her relation with Tom is fraught with tension and jealousy. When she finds a hair in her sheets, that clearly isn’t hers, she takes the bedding to the laundry to wash it clean. There she meets an older taller woman named Jade (Stephanie Martini). Jane makes hair pieces for a local hospital — it takes 30,000 knots to make a single wig, she says. 

Now Ruth has someone she can hang around with, talk to, and tell her secrets, none of which she’s getting from Tom. But her obsession with her boyfriend’s possible mistress drives Ruth into an unexpected situation. Can her relationship last? Or will she find a new path among the windswept sand dunes?

Make Up is an impressionistic coming-of-age story about a young woman looking for love while trapped in an almost surreal setting. It’s full of the screeching foxes, detached sexual sounds and  blurry vistas set against the banality of service jobs. Molly Windsor is really good as the bewildered Ruth. The movie itself is a straightforward drama but shot almost like an eerie ghost story. This is an excellent first feature from a young filmmaker.

Identifying Features

Dir: Fernanda Valadez

Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra) is a farmer in Guanajuato, Mexico. She’s a single mom who’s raising her teenaged son Jesus in a small farmhouse. But when he suddenly tells her he’s heading north with his best friend to take a job in Arizona, she packs his bag and says goodbye. And that’s the last she hears from him and his friend. Are they kidnapped? Lost? Or dead? She reports it to the police to no avail. His best friend is found but nothing is found of Jesus except the bag Chuya had packed.  And when a woman she meets tells her not to give up, she sets out on a journey to try to find her son, or else confirmation that he’s dead.

On the way she falls in with a young man named Miguel (David Illescas)  who was recently deported from the US. He is looking for his mom who lives in Ocampo a region plagued with crime. It’s also where Chuya thinks she can find the answers to her son’s disappearance. Will she ever find out what happened to him? And can an ordinary, kind woman survive in a society filled with greed, suspicion, and murder? 

Identifying Features is a deeply moving and gripping mystery/drama that looks at the lives of Mexicans, trapped within larger forces — el migra, organized crime, and a corrupt police force — over which they have no control. It takes you into fascinating places, rarely portrayed — like indigenous villages, hostels for migrants — that tell an unforgettable story with a shocking ending.  Stunning cinematography, and natural acting combined with compelling drama, makes for a terrific film.

Make Up just opened on VOD across North America.  Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, and Identifying Features both open today at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Two Ladies and a Gentleman. Films Reviewed: Love Sarah, Promising Young Woman, Lupin

Posted in Crime, Disguise, Family, Food, France, Movies, Mystery, Psychology, Thriller, UK, US, Vengeance by CulturalMining.com on January 15, 2021

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

Doug Ford’s latest rules  to fight the pandemic say don’t leave home… except when you do But don’t worry, there’s lots to see without going outside. This week I’m looking at two new movies and a TV series. There’s three woman in London opening a bakery, a Parisian thief who’s a master of fakery, and a vengeful woman exposing predators by pretending to be drunk when she’s actually wide-awakery.

Love Sarah

Dir: Eliza Schroeder

It’s present-day London, in Notting Hill (before the pandemic). Sarah is a chef who comes from a family of very talented women. Her daughter Clarissa (Shannon Tarbet) is a professional dancer, and her mum, Mimi (Celia Imrie), is a retired trapeze artist. She plans to open a gourmet bakery/cafe  with her best friend Isabella (Shelley Conn). They studied cooking together in Paris. But right after they secure the property, Sarah is killed in a bicycle accident, and her whole family is in disarray. Depressed Clarissa can’t dance anymore, and her dancer-boyfriend kicks her out. Mimi was already estranged from Sarah before she died. And Isabella without a real chef, is forced to go back to her office job. The three manage to overcome their differences and open the cafe in Sarah’s name. But where will they find a baker? In walks Matthew (Rupert Penry-Jones). He’s a two star Michelin chef who studied with Sarah and Isabella in Paris and slept with each of them (he’s a notorious womanizer.) Perhaps he’s also Clarissa’s birth father… And does he still carry a torch for Isabella? 

Love Sarah is a charming, low-key drama about the joys and trepidations of running a business in honour of someone who died. It’s full of vignettes about cooking and baking in a quaint and colourful neighbourhood. There are also chances of romance for each of the three women. The plot is threadbare but the characters — and the actors who portray them —  are quite endearing, in that understated English way. Love Sarah is a cute, but inoffensive, picture.

Promising Young Woman

Wri/Dir: Emerald Fennell

Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) is a promising young woman at med school with her best friend Mimi. They’ve planned to become doctors since they were kids. But then something terrible happens. Mimi gets drunk at a party and is raped by another student and the university sides with the man. Mimi commits suicide and a despondent Cassandra quits school, moves in with her parents   and drops out of life. She works by day at a dead end job, while her nights are spent in a drunken stupor at tawdry pick-up bars, going home with whatever guy asks her. But things aren’t what they seem. Whenever her “date” inevitably throws

Carey Mulligan stars as “Cassandra” in director Emerald Fennell’s PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features

himself on this seemingly drunken woman, she jumps into action to teach the predator a lesson. This secret heroin will never be a victim. But can she single-handedly avenge all the people to blame for Nina’s suicide? And will she ever start living a normal life again?

Promising Young Woman is a vengeance thriller that’s full of shocks surprises. Carey Mulligan is fantastic as Clarissa, a multi-leveled character who is both depressing, and funny with a dark, deranged streak running through her. Bo Burnham plays a self-effacing nerd — and potential boyfriend — who challenges her theory that all men are douches; and comic relief is provided by Jennifer Coolidge as her mom, and Laverne Cox as her boss. Promising Young Woman is shocking and deeply disturbing while also reassuringly moralistic. This movie keeps you guessing — and your heart pumping — till the very end.

Lupin

Assan Diop (Omar Sy) is a young boy who lives with his Senegalese father in  a palatial estate in Paris. His dad’s a chauffeur for the Pellegrinis, a very rich  but ruthless family. He gives Assan a book — classic stories of Arsene Lupin, the eponymous gentleman thief and master of disguises — and tells him to read it carefully and learn from it. Lupin is ingenious and conniving but always a gentleman (they use the English word in this French drama) But when his father is arrested for stealing priceless jewels, Assan is left alone, penniless and orphaned. Luckily an anonymous donor pays for his education at an elite academy. Years later he emerges as a modern day Lupin, reenacting his most audacious thefts and reaping its rewards. He’s married now and has a teenaged son. But when the jewels his father was accused of stealing reappear at an auction, he is determined to get the necklace, prove his father’s innocence and get revenge on Pellegrini, whom he believes set his dad up. But to do this he must outsmart the police, evade Pellegrini’s hired killers, even while he continues to carry out his intricately planned heists.

Lupin is a delightful new TV series full of capers and adventures, a new take on a classic character. It follows multiple sub-plots: his relationship with his wife and son; his various capers; his war against Pellegrini, and the cat & mouse game he plays with the police. Omar Sy is wonderful in the main role, so much so that there’s little screen time given to the supporting actors — the buffoonish cops and naive millionaires are mainly there as foils for his exploits. Yes, it’s an unbelievable fantasy, and yes, it’s purely light entertainment, but I like it a lot. And after one week with only 5 episodes, it is already trending at #1.

Lupin is now streaming on Netflix. And Love Sarah and Promising Young Woman both open today digitally and on VOD.

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

Not about the US election. Films reviewed: The Crossing, The Kid Detective, Major Arcana

Posted in 1940s, Addiction, Canada, Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, Homelessness, Kids, Mystery, Norway, Romance, Rural, Thriller, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 6, 2020

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

I’m recording this on Thursday before the US election has been settled. So with all the tension and stress, it’s a perfect time to watch some entertainment entirely unrelated to politics. This week I’m looking at three new movies about growing up. There are Norwegian children facing adult responsibilities; a grown-up kid detective fighting real crime; and a man trying to grow up and act his age.

The Crossing (Flukten over grensen)

Dir: Johanne Helgeland

It’s Christmastime in 1942. Norway is occupied by Nazi Germany with the blessings of the Quisling government. Food is rationed and times are tough but life goes on. Gerda (Anna Sofie Skarholt) is a little girl with rosy cheeks and blond hair. She’s obsessed with the Three Musketeers and wears a floppy hat, a cloak (made from an old apron) and brandishes a pie cutter: en garde, rogue! But one day she spies her older brother Otto (Bo Lindquist-Ellingsen) through a window –he’s at a Nazi meeting! Their parents are firmly opposed to the occupation… why is Otto there? Meanwhile, strange things are happening at home –the cocoa is disappearing… and their arents keep talking about sacks of potatoes. Things come to a head when the police bang on the door in the middle of the night. As they’re taken away their parents shout the Christmas presents are in the basement! Take them to your aunt Vigdis! What do they mean? Turns out there are two kids their age hidden behind a wall. Daniel (Samson Steine) and Sarah (Bianca Ghilardi-Hellsten) a brother and sister just like Otto and Gerda except they’re Jewish. With their parents in jail, now it’s up to Gerda and Otto to take them across the border to neutral Sweden. Can they take Daniel and Sarah to safety? Or will they be caught?

The Crossing is an adventure story about friendship and family in a wartime setting. It’s a kids-against-grown-ups situation – most of the good adults have been arrested, while the bad ones – Nazi and local collaborators – seem to be everywhere. They are real life villains, almost witches and monsters in the children’s eyes. There are good people too, but it’s hard to know who to trust. Gerda is excited by their journey, Otto is reluctant to join them, while for proud Daniel and innocent Sarah it’s a matter of life and death. Though made for children, the movie is full of action, close calls and near escapes. It’s also a tear jerker, with some every emotional scenes. Though fictional and clean-scrubbed, it’s an exciting look back at adventures in occupied Norway.

The Kid Detective

Wri/Dir: Evan Morgan

When Abe Applebaum was little (Adam Brodie) he was the smartest kid in town. He solved mysteries at school, figuring out who broke into a locker or cheated on a test. He worked out of his treehouse. His fame grew – the pop shop owner promised him free icecream for life, and the town chipped in to get him a real detective’s office. But people grow up and things change. A 10 year old caught snooping for clues in a little girl’s closet is adorable; for a man in his thirties it’s not cute at all. His reputation tanked when he failed to solve the mystery of a missing girl. Now, Abe is an alcoholic detective, eating alone in neon-lit diners, and addicted to anti-depressants. But things take a turn when he is approached by an innocent student named Caroline (Sophie Nélisse). They soon uncover clues – a photo of a naked woman in a tiger mask and some origami roses – that harken back to the disappearance 20 years earlier. Is he just a wash out? Or will the former kid detective solve this new, terrible mystery and regain his self worth?

The Kid Detective is a totally watchable and cute comedy drama. It starts as a high concept movie – what happens to heroes from kids’ books (like Encyclopedia Brown) – when they grow up? It’s full of kid-ified versions of cinema noir clichés, seen through a mist of bittersweet adult nostalgia and small town life. It starts out a bit slow and silly, but picks up quite nicely. I saw this at TIFF immediately after a shockingly violent horror movie, and it left me with just the right combination of watchable entertainment and warm feelings (with an unexpected and shocking twist). I thought I’d hate it, but I actually liked this movie.

Major Arcana

Wri/Dir: Josh Melrod

Dink (Ujon Tokarski), who is far from dinky, is a tall and rangy alcoholic drifter travelling across America looking for work as a carpenter. He’s a fit man in his thirties, with long hair, a scraggly blond beard; sort of a homeless Jesus. Four years ago, he left his depressed town in rural Vermont under a dark cloud, vowing never to come back. But like the prodigal son, here he is again. His father died leaving him a broken-down shack, some cash and 50 acres of forest. And he’s off drugs and alcohol now, living clean and sober. So he decides to turn his life around.

He pitches a tent and thinks about his future. In the morning he begins, spontaneously, to build a wooden home from scratch with his bare hands. He fells trees with an axe and chainsaw, cuts beams and clears a field dragging lumber across the forest floor. He survives on aerosol cheese and uncooked hotdogs. But his past still haunts him: his shrewish, gambling mom (Lane Bradbury) and his former lover, Sierra (Tara Summers). She’s voluptuous but tough, slapping his face for past transgressions on one night, but showing up at his tent on another. And Dink is still helplessly in love with her. Will he complete his task? Will Sierra leave her boyfriend? And can he show his face in a town that hates him?

Major Arcana — the title refers to a tarot card reading that Sierra does for Dink – is about major changes, life lessons and destiny. It’s a bumpy love story, and a drama about a man trying to redeem himself. While there are some revelations and conflicts this is mainly a meditative look at a man building a cabin in the woods. It sounds kinda dull, but it’s actually a really soothing, healing and life-affirming film. There are hints at spirituality, but it’s not sanctimonious or heavy handed. There’s enough nudity, sex, pain and misery — this is no Sunday school – to keep you watching. The measured pace and natural beauty makes this movie an incredibly relaxing and pleasant experience.

Not my normal choice of film, but I quite liked it.

The Crossing is one of many movies that played digitally at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Fall edition; The Kid Detective opens theatrically today across Canada; and Major Arcana is available for viewing on VOD.

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

Investigative Journalists. Movies reviewed: The Journalist, The Viewing Booth, The Best is Yet to Come

Posted in 2000s, China, Corruption, Crime, Israel, Japan, Meta, Movies, Palestine, Poverty, Realism, Suspense, Women, 日本映画, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on October 16, 2020

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

Is journalism still alive? We seem to have an endless supply of pundits with formulaic political viewpoints, but true investigative journalism is hard to find. But it’s still there – you just have to know where to look. So this week I’m talking about three new movies (two dramas and a doc) about journalists and the media. There’s a die-hard journalist in Tokyo looking for the truth; a cub reporter in Beijing looking for his first big story; and a documentary-maker in the US looking at how viewers interpret the news.

The Journalist (新聞記者)

Dir: Fujii Michihito (Based on the novel by Mochizuki Isoko)

Erika Yoshioka (Eun-kyung Shim) is a young reporter at Tôto, a medium-sized Tokyo newspaper. One day she receives an anonymous fax with a cartoon of a sheep drawn on the first page. Inside are government plans to open a medical researchlab in a backwater town. is it a prank? Evidence of a boondoggle? Or something more? She decides to investigate. But she has to be careful; her own father was a freelance journalist based in New York who ended up dead from suicide after revealing another storyl.

Meanwhile, in a different part of Tokyo, a young government bureaucrat named Takumi Sugihara (Tôri Matsuzaka) gets an unusual call from Kanzaki, his former boss from five years earlier. He wants to meet for a talk. Sugihara used to work for Gaimushô, Japan’s foreign service, but switched to his current job after Kanzaki took the fall for a scandal at the Beijing Embassy where they both worked. Sugihara now works for Naicho, the secretive intelligence unit that operates out of the PMO. Rumour has it Naicho is used to surveil and plot against opponents to the ruling political leaders. Kanzaki wants to tell him something, but they both end up getting drunk instead. And not long after, he jumps off a building. His death brings together the dogged journalist Erika and the loyal bureaucrat Sugihara both of whom want to find out exactly what happened. What was Kanzaki’s secret and why is it so dangerous? Is it related to the sheep cartoon Erika received? Who else knows? And what will happen to the two of them if the scandal reaches the papers?

The Journalist is a tense, captivating story of deep-state corruption and sinister plots. The action alternates between Erika’s bright and crowded newsroom and the cold empty halls of Naicho where Sugihara reports to an evil and powerful boss. Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung is perfect as Erika in her unwavering search for the truth – she totally deserves the Japanese Academy award she won for this performance. The Journalist is a terrific movie.

The Viewing Booth

Dir: Ra’anan Alexandrowicz

This documentary asks: can news viewers, like you and me, ever change our political views because of politically-charged videos we watch on sites like youtube?  It follows a subject named Maya at an American university by filming her face has she watches a selection of 40 short news videos. The camera captures her comments and facial expressions, moment by moment, as she wavers between acceptance and rejection of what she’s watching, sorting them mentally according to whether or not they fit her outlook. She asks aloud: Is this footage real? Is it convincing? Is it biased? Does she believe it? And what does it mean?

She’s brought back six months later, this time viewing the same videos, right beside footage of herself from the first session. She observes herself observing videos (it gets super-meta here.) The videos in the doc are all from the occupied Palestinian territories and they range from innocuous to disturbing, showing settlers, Israeli soldiers, and Palestinians. (She concentrates on one video where soldiers dressed in large military masks walk into a home in the middle of the night, wake up small children,  ask each child their name, photograph each child’s face, then leaving without explanation.) Half the clips are from B’Tselem, a human rights group opposed to the occupation, and the other half were posted by various right-wing groups. The documentary tries to see whether exposure to opposing viewpoints can change a viewer’s mind or if it merely enforces the beliefs she already holds. Here’s the thing: it’s not a scientific study despite its clinical trappings; rather, The Viewing Booth is more of a meditation, the filmmaker’s personal reflection on the biases news viewers hold. Is it universally applicable or just about that single subject? I don’t know, but it is interesting – and unsettling – to watch.

The Best is Yet to Come (不止不休)

Dir: Wang Jing

It’s 2003. Han Dong (Bai Ke) is a would-be journalist in Beijing. Originally from northeastern China, he’s a high school drop-out who quit his steady job back home at a chemical factory to go for broke in the big city. But so far no luck. His girlfriend Xiaozhu (Miao Miao: Youth) who also worked at the factory lives in even worse conditions. But he keeps going to job fairs to try to get hired by a newspaper. And they keep rejecting him as unqualified, until… opportunity knocks when he visits a newspaper to pick up a minuscule 100 yuan paycheque for a short piece they published. He catches the attention of a veteran journo there takes him on as an intern, right beside college grads brandishing journalism degrees from prestigious schools like Bei Da. And he passes his first test, getting a scoop at the site of a coal mine disaster. But his next story could be a whopper.

He goes undercover taking a job at a sketchy medical clinic that pays cash for blood. No they’re not vampires. Rather they provide forged blood samples for applicants to jobs. Why? Because anyone who tests positive for Hepatitis B is categorically rejected. This effects maybe 100 million people for a disease that is not even contagious. It’s a crooked company that breaks the law. But is the law fair? Should he cover the story… or cover it up?

The Best is Yet to Come (based on a true story) shows how a self-taught, print journalist breaks into the big leagues despite all the odds against him. Its exciting plot keeps you questioning all the way through. This is Wang Jing’s first feature – he was assistant director to the great Jia Zhang-ke (Ash is Purest White, Touch of Sin) but with a very different style. It’s told in a straightforward chronological manner, no tricks or fancy camerawork. Great acting and story, The Best is Yet to Come gives an unusual look at both investigative journalism and a glimpse into real-life China – the grime and grit, the dark alleys, crowded tenements and poverty. And it leaves on a hopeful note: if you try hard and don’t give up, you can change the world.

The Best is Yet to Come played at #TIFF20, The Viewing Booth is showing at Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival on now through the weekend, and The Journalist is available for streaming at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival through October 21st.

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

In the Twilight Zone? Films reviewed: Shadow in the Cloud, The Antenna, Possessor Uncut

Posted in 1940s, Action, Crime, Horror, Mind Control, Supernatural, Suspense, Suspicion, Turkey, Uncategorized, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2020

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

Fall festival season continues with Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT festival playing now both digitally and at drive-ins. The Toronto Japanese Film Festival is entirely digital and runs from Saturday, October 3 – Thursday October 22.

This week I’m looking at three new genre movies that exist in a universe known as the Twilight Zone. There’s a female pilot fighting for control of a plane; a Turkish superintendant fighting a satellite dish for control of an apartment; and a highly-paid assassin fighting for control of a brain.

Shadow in the Cloud

Co-Wri/Dir: Roseanne Liang

It’s WWII at an airforce base in New Zealand. Maud Garret (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a pilot on a secret mission: to deliver a package with unknown contents to an undisclosed destination. But when she tries to board the all-male plane, she’s bombarded by a barrage of insults and abuse, ranging from condescension, to wolf whistles to outright hatred. But she stands her ground and won’t budge. So they relegate her to the ball turret – the glass and steel bubble attached to the bottom of the plane. Before climbing down she hands her satchel to one of the men – “never let this out of your hands, no matter what.” Her job? To look for a shadow in the clouds, evidence of Zero fighters, the Japanese aircraft that could shoot them down.

Turns out she’s an expert gunner, saving them all from a certain crash. But she faces a much bigger challenge from an unexpected enemy… something she keeps spotting out of the corner of her eye. It seems to be a creature with claws that can rip through steel, sharp teeth and cruel eyes. Is it real or just her imagination? What is in Maud’s package? And will this plane ever see dry land again?

Shadow in the Cloud is a fantastic WWII airplane drama, an action/thriller/sci-fi/horror movie, expertly done. A large portion of the movie is just Chloe Grace Moretz in a bomber jacket, alone in her ball turret, the rest of them just disembodied voices she hears through her earphones – but she carries it through. The movie is exciting and gripping all the way through. This is a genre movie – don’t look too closely for social significance – but it’s very entertaining with a perfect bad-ass heroine.  I loved this one.

The Antenna

Wri/Dir: Orçun Behram

Mehmet (Ihsan Önal) is an ordinary guy who works at a dead-end job somewhere in Turkey. He’s the superintendant at a non-descript apartment building, and has to deal with demanding tenants and a bully of a boss. He works in a small booth at the apartment gate, looking out a wide glass window. But he has some friends there, too. Like Yasemin (Gül Arici) a pretty young woman with conservative parents who wants to get out of this place; and Yusuf, a little kid who is kept awake by nightmares. (Mehmet has insomnia, too).

His job is tedious but not hard to handle… until a government operative arrives to install a new antenna on the building’s roof. These satellite dishes are required on every home, by orders of their Orwellian president, so they can hear his midnight speeches. But things go badly once the satellite dish is installed. Mehmet hears strange whispers. Black gunk starts seeping through cracks in the walls. And anyone exposed to the goop starts to change… in a bad way. Can Mehmet keep the run-down apartment from collapsing? Can he fight a secretive government plot to censor and control all the people? Or will he succumb to the powers of the antenna?

The Antenna is a fantasy/horror movie about ordinary people trying to fight government propaganda and the toxic waste it generates. It’s shot in a stark, 1984-ish style, with deserted apartment blocks, drab clothes, bland faces and constant overcast skies. Radios broadcast iron curtain propaganda, full of static and noise. Don’t expect elaborate special effects or extreme violence – it’s a low-budget psychological drama, more weird and creepy than truly frightening. It’s a bit too slow, and a bit too long, but it does capture the current fears of oppression, surveillance and the total lack of privacy. It’s about the toxic dystopia we’re living in right now.

Possessor Uncut

Wri/Dir: Brandon Cronenberg

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a highly-paid English assassin who never gets caught. She’s a skinny woman in her thirties, with pale skin, blue eyes and whispy blond hair – not your typical killer. So how does she do it? She works for a company that deals in biotechnology… and she never has to leaves the lab. Instead, the victims are killed by a bystander, someone with a reason to be near the target. A device is implanted into the hapless third party’s brain, and Vos possesses their body, becoming comfortable there. When they’re in the right place at the right time, she neutralizes the target and then shoots themselves in the head, thus destroying the implant and sending Vos back to her own body. Simple right? But the more she does it, the harder it is to retain her sense of self… memories of the other bodies she possessed keep popping into her brain. And her marriage is on the rocks; she’s separated from her husband and 5 year old son.

Now (with the help of her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh) she’s embarking on her biggest job yet: to kill the nasty CEO of a multinational high-tech corporation (Sean Bean) by inhabiting the body of his daughter’s boyfriend. Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) is a swarthy, working class guy who happens to be living with Ava (Tuppence Middleton) the heiress to the company’s fortune. He’s living the life of Reilly, with a mistress on the side (Kaniehtiio Horn) his girlfriend’s best friend. But he has to swallow his pride and work at a menial job at Ava’s dad’s company. The thing is, Vos (the assassin) has underestimated the body she’s possessing. The sublimated personality is fighting for control. Will the assassination take place? And whose survival instinct is the strongest – Vos or Tate?

Possessor is a highly original psychological thriller/horror about mind control, possession and high-tech surveillance. Beautifully designed, it takes you from cold cityscapes, to bland labs and offices, and into the gaudy, golden mansions of the super-rich, filled with Trumpian rococo excess. The special effects are excellent and the acting all appropriately creepy. There’s also suspense, good fight scenes, psychedelic brain implosions, and extreme violence (Vos’s weapon of choice is a knife – so if you can’t watch lots of blood, stay away!). I wasn’t crazy about Brandon Cronenberg’s first biotech horror, Antiviral, but Possessor corrects all his errors while keeping it’s weird beauty.

This is a good one.

Shadow in the Cloud played at TIFF; Possessor Uncut opens today in Toronto; check your local listenings. The Antenna starts today in virtual cinemas in select North American cities, and digitally on Oct 20th;

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

More coming of age movies. Films reviewed: Kajillionaire, Summerland, Nadia, Butterfly

Posted in Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Crime, drugs, Family, Japan, LGBT, Quebec, Road Movie, Sports by CulturalMining.com on September 25, 2020

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

TIFF is over but Toronto’s fall film festival Season has just begun, but with a difference this year. Many of the festivals, here and abroad, that were cancelled in the spring are now popping up in the fall. Look out for Inside Out, The Cannes film fest, SXSW, Toronto’s Japanese film fest, Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Planet in Focus, Rendezvous with Madness, ReelAsian, ImagineNative, Toronto Palestine Film Fest – which is on right now – and many more.

This week, though, I’m looking at three new indie coming-of-age movies. There’s an Olympic athlete who swims the butterfly; a gay virgin playing catfish with a guy he meets online; and a young woman born under the net of a family of grifters.

Kajillionaire

Wri/Dir: Miranda July

Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is a young woman born into a family of scammers. With her mom and dad (Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins) they plan low-level cons and split the proceeds three ways. Most of it goes to pay for food and rent: they live in an office located directly beneath a bubble factory that extrudes pink foam into their home twice a day. They’re always working; no time wasted on frivolities like holidays, presents or birthday dinners. No phoney-baloney words like “dear” or “hon”. Even her name is a scam: they called her Old Dolio after an elderly homeless guy who won a lottery, in the hope that he would leave her all his money when he died. (He didn’t.)

So Old Dolio grows up emotionally stunted and starved for affection. Now she’s in her early twenties living a loveless and strangely sheltered existence. She’s nervous and introverted. But everything changes when Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) – a voluptuous young woman her parents meet on a plane – says she wants to join their gang and pull off a big con. She’s Dolio’s exact opposite: self-confident, sexy and talkative. Someone she can spend time with. But is she a friend? A rival? A mark? Or something else entirely?

Kajillionaire is a weird and wonderful dark comedy, laden with odd, quirky characters. Evan Rachel Wood is fantastically deadpan as the awkward, stilted Dolio. It’s told in a series of linked tableaus about a strange family of socially inept, but inoffensive, criminals. It’s also a coming-of-age drama about a 26-year-old woman experiencing life away from her domineering parents for the first first time. Great film.

Summerland

Dir: Lankyboy

Bray (Chris Ball) is a naïve gay virgin in love. He met a guy named Shawn on an online, Christian dating site, and now they’re going to meet in person. The planned meeting is at a music festival called Summerland in a southwestern desert. Bray wants to go there with his best friend Oliver (Rory J Saper) – a young guy from London in America on a student visa. They share a house together. Oliver’s dating a beautiful young woman named Stacy (Maddie Phillips) who lives in a mansion but wants to leave it and move in with Oliver. She can’t stand her stepfather. There are three problems: Oliver’s visa has expired so he has to move back to England (but Stacy doesn’t know). Bray has been texting Shawn using Stacy’s selfies. Shawn thinks he’s been communicating with a girl, not a gay guy named Bray. And the car they plan to use has broken down. So Tracy decides to join their road trip to Summerland using her stepdad’s RV.

They set off on a journey down the west coast, passing through Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. Stacy wants to listen to audio books on an ancient Sony Walkman to improve her mind. But Oliver has other plans. He has a briefcase full of strange, new psychedelic drugs for them to sample on their way. Oliver and Stacy are constantly having noisy sex in the RV, while Bray is holding out for his one true love. Will they make it to Summerland? Will Oliver tell Stacy he’s moving back to England? Will Bray ever meet Shawn? And if he does will he admit he’s the one who’s been catfishing him – pretending he’s a woman online – all this time?

Summerland is a simple, endearing road comedy. It’s full of interesting characters they meet on the way, like Oliver’s honey-badger drug dealer, an existential new age philosopher, and a gay black wizard named Khephra who enters Bray’s brain.

Summerland is a funny movie, easy to watch.

Nadia, Butterfly

Wri/Dir: Pascale Plante (Fake Tattoos)

It’s the 2020 Summer Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan. Nadia (Katerine Savard) is an Olympic swimmer from Québec. She’s been training since the age of ten and now, in her early twenties, is one of the fastest butterfly swimmers in the world. She lives a highly regimented life: home schooling, intense training, and a restricted diet. She’s massaged, prodded, tested and poked all day long – her body is a communal effort. But this will be her last competition – she’s retiring from competitive swimming to go back to school. And she leaves on a high note, winning a bronze medal in medley with the other three on her team: bilingual Karen (back stroke), newby Jess (breast), and her best friend Marie Pierre (Ariane Mainville) on freestyle. The two have been training together for a decade; Marie — she’s in her early thirties — is like a big sister to Nadia. And now that their races – and drug tests – are finished, she vows to take Nadia on a blow-out weekend inside the Olympic Village and out and about on the streets of Tokyo. Nadia’s been around the world, but only seen its swimming pools. It’s her first chance to explore on her own, to buy junk food from vending machines, get drunk… and maybe have sex. She meets a Lebanese fencer at a dance party and takes MDMA for the first time. But will she really leave competitive sports in her prime?

Nadia, Butterfly is a coming-of-age drama about a young athlete on the verge of leaving the only life she’s ever known. It covers a three-day period as she struggles over her decision. The film is immersed in the world of competitive sports, both the public side – its anthems, mascots and medals – and its hidden life. The film is saturated with the four colours of flags and uniforms: red, aqua, black and white. It’s a realistic, behind-the-scenes look at the Olympics, from the athletes’ perspectives. While I’m not really an Olympic fan (the movie was shot in Tokyo last summer) it still kept me constantly interested, if not deeply moved. But it’s the great performances of Savard and Mainville (as Nadia and Marie-Pierre) that really make the movie work.

Nadia, Butterfly is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings. Kajillionaire and Summerland open today.

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

Daniel Garber talks with director Warren P. Sonoda and actor/musicians Max and Theo Aoki about Things I Do For Money

Posted in Art, Canada, comedy, Crime, Drama, Japanese Candians, Movies, Music by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2020

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

Nick and Eli Yaguchi are brothers who play the cello together. They’re working toward a joint audition for the Banff Arts Centre. They live in an industrial neighbourhood in Hamilton. Eli is a naïve highschool nerd who is crushing on a figure-skating girl named Laura. Nick is older, self-confident and chill – he plays in a band and works at a dive bar. As their audition date approaches, Eli finally meets Laura and things are going well, until… they witness a crime and find a satchel of cash that could solve all their problems. But it turns out both Laura’s and Eli’s families have ties to organized crime! Can they pursue their artistic goals without breaking the law or getting killed? And what things will they do for money?

Things I Do For Money is a new Canadian crime-dramedy about family ties and dark secrets, music and art. It stars the real-life cellists Max and Theo Aoki, and is co-written and directed by Warren P. Sonoda. Theo and Max are prize-winning musicians known on stage as VersaCello. They play Max and Eli, and wrote and performed the music that’s used in this film. Warren is a multi-award winner in TV and film, directing episodes of Trailer Park Boys, Murdoch Mysteries and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

I spoke with Warren, Max and Theo via Zoom.

Things I Do for Money is now playing digitally across Canada.

Kick-Ass Women! Movies reviewed: Ravage, Lucky Grandma, Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Posted in Action, comedy, Crime, documentary, Drama, Gambling, Jazz, Music, New York City, Thriller, Torture, violence by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three movies – an action/thriller, a musical documentary, and a dark comedy – all featuring kick-ass women. There’s a photographer in the Appalachians pursued by killer rednecks, a grandma in Chinatown pursued by Red Dragon gangsters; and a parade of jazz singers in Rhode Island pursuing musical bliss.

Ravage

Wri/Dir: Teddy Grennan

Harper Sykes (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) is a professioinal photographer who travels the world looking for rare wildlife. She’s in the Watchatoomy valley in Virginia searching for an endangered species when she stumbles on something she isn’t supposed to see: a group of men brutally torturing a stranger in the woods. She is shocked and sickened but pauses long enough to record the awful event from behind a tree. Then jumps in her pickup and rushes to the nearest police station. But things don’t go as planned. She’s kidnapped and dragged by tow truck to a barn, and awakens to find herself barefoot, tied up and suspended from the rafters. Ravener (Robert Longstreet) is a nasty evil redneck with a gang of meth-head henchmen. (He’s a lot like the character Negan in Walking Dead, only not as menacing.) In this valley, they don’t trust outsiders. So anyone who ventures in gets tortured and fed to the hogs. And there’s no way out.

The thing is, they don’t know Harper. She’s a regular G.I. Jane, a female McGuyver who can get out of any tight situation, using whatever’s close at hand. She gradually turns herself from victim to killer, taking down her opponents one by one. She thinks she’s safe when she takes refuge in an isolated home, where a kindly old man lives (Bruce Dern). But he turns out to be as obsessed with evil torture as the rest of them. Can she ever escape from this hell-hole?

Ravage, as the title suggests is an action/vengeance/horror flick, and it’s a B-movie at best. There are plot holes, weird editing, and a silly ending. But it doesn’t matter. Dexter-Jones is great as the kick-ass Harper, who escapes from tight spaces, makes rafts out of empty barrels, drops bullets into campfires and sabotages her pursuers in ingenious ways. Really cool. The gross-outs and shock scenes are silly, but – if you don’t mind extreme violence – this is a fun flick, perfectly suitable for drive-ins.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Dir: Bert Stern

It’s 1958 in Newport Rhode Island. There’s a jazz festival set up in a vast field with an outdoor stage and wooden folding chairs in neat rows. On stage are some newcomers plus big names like Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, and Chuck Berry, playing jazz, blues and R&B. But it’s the women who really stand out. Anita O’day sings scat in Tea for Two, Big Maybelle rumbles her voice, Dinah Washington soars and Mahalia Jackson hushes the crowd whith her heartfelt gospel. This is all taking place at the Newport Jazz Festival in a posh summer resort with the Americas Cup – sailboats and yachts – floating past in the water.

The concert is captured on film without commentary, playing songs we’ve all heard before, but the camera doesn’t stick to the stage. Equal time is given to the audience: girls in pearls, boys in nautical ware, middle aged men in black knee socks, women in straw hats and cardigans, all unconsciously cool. College kids drinking Rheingold beer and making out in the shadows, couples dancing in the grass and hipsters nodding their heads on the off-beat. Model T Fords carrying a Dixieland jazz band sputters past, with experimental musicians jamming in the attic of an old wooden house. Everything’s captures on film, now completely restored with glowing orange klieg lights, bright red lipstick, rippling blue waves. It’s a concert and also a documentary that perfectly captures this slice of time. Something to watch and relax to on a hot summer’s day…

Lucky Grandma

Co-Wri/Dir: Sasie Sealy

Grandma (Tsai Chin) is a retired and elderly widow who lives alone in a cramped apartment in New York’s Chinatown. She likes aqua fitness, smoking cigarettes, and sipping congee. Her son wants her to move to their house in the suburbs and spend time with her noisy grandkids. It’s not safe living alone in the city, he says. But she’s stubborn, and wants to stay on familiar ground. Life’s tough but at least it’s hers. And things change when her fortune teller insists there’s a huge streak of good luck coming her way on the 28th. And when she wins an unexpected sweepstakes, she knows the odds really are on her side.

So she withdraws all her cash and goes to a casino to wager everything on number 8. She wins and wins and wins again. Until, at a game of blackjack she loses it all – tens of thousands – to old Mr Lin. It doesn’t make sense. But when Lin drops dead in her lap on the bus back home, luck is on her side again. She takes back the duffel bag of cash and sneaks home. Looks like she can finally retire in luxury.

But word gets out and Red Dragon gangsters start dropping by uninvited in her apartment to intimidate her. But she won’t give in their tactics. Instead she hires Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha) a huge but simple-minded bodyguard from a rival gang. But things start to heat up, bullets fly and now everyone seems to be after Grandma’s cash (which she insists she doesn’t have). IS this old lady stubborn enough and tough enough to fend off deadly killers? Or has she bit off more than she can chew?

Before I saw Lucky Grandma, judging by the poster I was expecting a cute, slapstick, throwaway comedy. So I was pleasantly surprised by how good a movie this actually is. It’s a low-key, but funny, realistic and poignant picture of life in Chinatown. And this is because of the star Tsai Chin, who gives a nuanced, perfect performance. Every line is just right. Who is Tsai Chin? She’s been a star since the late 50s with a hit single in HK in 1961, was a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice, appeared in Antonioni’s Blow Up, starred in countless plays in London’s west end, and was Auntie Lindo in the Joy Luck Club. Now, in her late eighties, she’s as good as ever. Don’t miss Tsai Chin in this really good, Chinese-language American movie.

You can watch Jazz on a Summer’s Day on virtual cinema at Hot Docs, Lucky Grandma is now on digital and VOD, and you can see Ravage at drive-ins across Ontario; 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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