Mind Games. Films reviewed: Spiderhead, Chess Story, In the Wake

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

Spring film festival continues through June with Toronto’s Japanese Film Festival and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival showing films for another week.  Also on now is the Future of Film Showcase, Canada’s premiere festival for short films. It also has panels, coffee sessions and workshops, covering everything from casting to funding, from locations to issues like equity.  

This week, I’m looking at three new movies about people forced to play games. There’s a prisoner playing chess in WWII Vienna, another prisoner forced to play mind games in a secretive American facility; and a detective playing cat-and-mouse with a murderer… ten years after an earthquake in Japan.

Spiderhead 

Dir: Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick) 

Jeff (Miles Teller) is an inmate in a remote, high-security prison. Located inside a brutalist cement building on a placid lake, it can only be reached by boat or pontoon prop plane. But inside it’s a virtual paradise. Doors are kept unlocked, prisoners chat on colourful sofas while eating canapés, and are free to pursue their favourite pastimes. They can even become friends  with other prisoners — like Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett). No violence or distrust here; the benevolent warden Steve (Chris Hemsworth) makes sure of that.

So what’s the catch? 

All prisoners are kept placid by a little gadget attached to their bodies, which — through remote control — releases chemical serums directly into their bloodstreams which controls their moods. They are also forced to attend sessions — controlled by Steve and his assistant behind a glass wall — where they test the potency of their pharmaceuticals. Sometimes it’s as simple as making them laugh at deliberately unfunny jokes. Other times they’re placed in the room with a stranger — a female prisoner in Jeff’s case — to see if drugs can make them so thirsty and the other seem so attractive  (like “beer goggles” times 1000) that they can’t help having sex on the spot. But things take a sinister turn when Jeff is taken behind the glass wall and ordered to remotely inject painful drugs into other prisoners’ bodies. Can Jeff resist the psychological and chemical pressures put on him? What is Chris’s motive behind these experiments? And is there anything Jeff can do to stop him?

Spiderhead — the title is the name of the prison — is a sci-fi psychological thriller,  about the dangers of pharmaceuticals and whether we can resist authority if it goes against our beliefs. The film is partly based on the Milgram experiment of the 1960s, where volunteers behind a glass wall were ordered to send increasingly painful electric shocks to actors pretending to be patients. In Spiderhead it’s taken to even greater extremes.

Is this movie good? It’s not too bad — I actually enjoyed it, loved the location and sets (it’s shot in Australia), the cheesy 1980s soundtrack, and the fun concepts, along with some huge movie stars… but the ending is as predictable as it is implausible. The concept is much better than the story. But if you just want be entertained for a couple hours, you could do worse.

Chess Story (Schachnovelle)

Dir: Philipp Stölzl

It’s 1939 in Vienna, and Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) is living the high life. He always dressed in formal black and white, and only the finest scotch and the best cigarettes ever pass through his lips. He loves telling jokes with his friends, and waltzing with his beloved wife Anna. As long as the Viennese keep dancing what could go wrong? But that night German soldiers march into Austria declaring Anschluss; it’s all one Reich now. Jacob springs into action, scanning through his ledgers and memorizing the codes before throwing them into a blazing fire. You see, his job is to keep the riches of the Austrian royalty safe from the Nazis in numbered Swiss bank accounts. Hours later he is arrested, but not killed, by the Gestapo and locked in a hotel room. If he tells them the numbers they say they’ll let him go — they just want the money. But solitary confinement can play tricks on your brain. He stays alive by studying a chess book he smuggled into the room.

Later, he is on a ship with Anna heading to America and freedom. But he can’t resist playing chess against Mirko, an unusual world chess champion, who is illiterate and can barely form a sentence. But as reality begins to warp, he can’t help wonder if he’s on a ship or still a captive of the nazis. And where is this chess game really taking place?

Chess Story is an historical drama based on a story by Stefan Zweig, the last thing he wrote. He died during the war, in Brazil not Austria, but clearly he was damaged before he left. Everything you see in this film is filtered through Josef’s mind, so you’re never quite sure what is real and what is imaginary. Oliver Masucci who plays him is excellent, portraying a man’s descent from carefree joker to broken soul. It feels almost like an episode of The Twilight Zone episode, but with the emphasis on the characters, not on the twist. 

In the Wake (Mamorarenakatta mono tachi e)

Dir: Zeze Takahisa

Det. Tomashino (Abe Hiroshi) is a policeman in northeastern Japan. He is investigating the mysterious death of two middle-aged men, both found starved death in different locations. Is there a serial killer out there, and if so, what are his motives? Turns out they both worked out of the local welfare office. He turns to a young welfare case worker Mikiko (Kiyohara Kaya) to help him put the pieces together. This is also the site of a mammoth earthquake and tsunami,  ten years earlier. The detective remember it well, as he lost both his wife and his young son. Now he’s a loner who has yet to deal with his losses. 

Meanwhile, Tone (Satoh Takeru) a troubled young man, just out of prison for arson, gets a job in a welding factory. And he wants to get in touch with his makeshift family former after the earthquake: a little kid, and an elderly woman  named Kei (Baishô Mitsuko) who cared for the two lost orphans. But things have clearly changed. Could they have driven him… to murder?

In The Wake is a Japanese drama set immediately after an earthquake and a decade later. While it’s ostensibly a police procedural, about a detective trying to catch a killer, it’s also a surprisingly powerful and moving drama, that takes it much deeper than your usual mystery. It shifts back and forth between the two periods, as all the major characters were also survivors of the quake. And it delves into the terrible inadequacies of Japan’s  austerity cutbacks to to their already inadequate welfare state. The movie features Abe Hiroshi, a huge star from Kore-eda’s films;  Baishô Mitsuko , who was in movies by  the most famous Japanese Kurosawa and Imamura; and Satoh Takeru best known for the Rurouni Kenshin series. I was expecting something simple, and lucked into a really good movie instead.

Spiderhead is now streaming on Netflix; Chess Story is now playing digitally at TJFF, The Toronto Jewish Film Festival; and In the Wake is playing at the other TJFF, the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, on one day only, June 25th, at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

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

 

Science or fiction? Films reviewed: Jurassic World Dominion, Brian and Charles

Posted in Action, Adventure, comedy, Dinosaurs, Disaster, Inventions, Science Fiction, Thriller, Wales by CulturalMining.com on June 11, 2022

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

Spring film festival season continues with many more movies coming your way. The Toronto Jewish Film Festival is on now, with a wide range of movies and docs. Coming soon are Focus on Film, specializing in short subjects; The Toronto Japanese Film Festival with brand new movies from Japan; and the Italian Contemporary Film Fest and the Lavazza Inclucity festival set in the distillery district, both indoors and out, featuring Italian and international movies. 

But this week, I’m looking at two new movies — one big budget, the other a shoestring indie — about the intersection of science and fiction.  There’s an action thriller about a Big Agro conspiracy set among giant dinosaurs; and a quaint comedy about an inventor set among the rolling hills of Wales. 

Jurassic World Dominion 

Co-Wri/Dir: Colin Trevorrow

It’s present day on a rapidly-changing earth, earth. Ever since a dinosaur-based theme park was destroyed by a volcano, dinosaurs have been showing up everywhere scaring or even killing people. But governments are keeping them in check. And a multinational big agro corporation called Syntech, has donated an isolated nature reserve in an Italian  mountain range surrounding their headquarters, where the big dinosaurs can live in peace, with no risk to the outside world. Meanwhile, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) an animal rights activists is freeing small dinosaurs enslaved by cruel owners. She lives in the rockies with Owen (Chris Pratt) a man who can train and domesticate Raptors, and 14 year old Maisie (Isabella Sermon) an Australian whom they protcect from the outside world. Maisie has no friend for schoolmates so she, cautiously plays with a young raptor named Beta. She’s kept isolated because they’re afraid certain criminals want to kidnap Maisie and Beta for unknown purposes. Their fears prove correct.

But that’s not all. A plague of locusts are wreaking havoc across American wheat fields plunging the world into a food crisis. And these are no ordinary locusts; they are the size of small dogs. Strangely, the only things they don’t eat are genetically modified grains. Ellie, a scientist (Laura Dern) suspects Big Agro, specifically SynTech. Are they trying to wipe out all competing grains so they can control the world? Ellie aims to find out, so she sets off with archaeologist Alan (Sam Neill) to visit the company’s HQ to collect a sample that will prove they’re behind the plague. They’re invited by Ian (Jeff Goldblum) who works there now and suspects Ellie is right. Turns out, the corporation may also be involved in Maisie’s kidnapping… but why? It’s up to the three scientists plus Claire and Owen to get what they need from the lab without getting eaten by the giant dinosaurs that surround them.

Jurassic World Dominion is a rollickingly good, non-stop action/adventure/thriller that keeps you interested the whole time. It borrows liberally from past Jurassic movies — Ellie, Alan and Ian were in the Jurassic Park, while Claire and Owen were in Jurassic World — as well as Star Wars and Indiana Jones flicks. There are great chase scenes set in Malta — an entrepôt for trade in exotic dinosaurs — where stars like Omar Sy and Dewanda Wise (as a kick-ass pilot), join the gang. It also has a good dose of humour, with funny “news” clips, and constant gags from Jeff Goldblum. There are some questionable storylines: Is the CIA really a kindly agency dedicated to helping animal rights activists? And why is there so much glorification of American assault weapons, fighter jets, and bazookas? But that aside, I really enjoyed this entertaining, big-budget movie. 

Brian and Charles 

Dir: Jim Archer

Wri: David Earl, Chris Hayward

Brian (David Earl) lives in a remote, ramshackle cottage in Wales. He subsists solely on a diet of cabbages and butter. He’s also a jack-of-all-trades, called into the village to unclog a pipe are fix a wire. But his real profession is inventor — he constantly invents new things that never quite work. Like an egg-belt (to carry raw eggs in your belt,  of course) or a combination water bottle and toilet plunger so you can take a sip while you do your plumbing. But one day, he has a revelation. It starts with finding a mannequin head at the village dump. He combines it with a washing machine, some crossed wires and a glowing electrical ball. He’s created a robot to help him do his chores! Of course it doesn’t work, until… a severe thunderstorm strikes the house, and th enext morning, the robot is walking around, tearing things apart, and most surprising of all, it can talk!Like another eccentric British inventor, Caractacus Potts, Brian has created his own Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He names him Charles. 

Charles is seven feet tall  with a glowing blue eye who wears a bowtie and a deerstalker hat. He has AI — artificial intelligence — and is soon smarter than Brian, but with the temper of a five-year-old.  He wants to go to the village — are we there yet? — he wants to eat more cabbages, and he loves to dance. Brian likes going into town to visit Hazel (Louise Brealey) a shy woman he likes. But he insists Charles stay hidden, or something bad might happen. The bad thing is Eddie (Jamie Michie) (pronounced Mickey) the town bully, who with his suspicious wife and his spoiled twin daughters, shoves around everyone he doesn’t like. Can Brian stand up to the bully? Can he save Charles from destruction? And what about Hazel?

Brian and Charles is an adorably charming comedy about friendship, set among the sheep fields of Wales. Charles talks like a robot — Danger! Danger! — while the rest of the cast members (almost everyone is middle aged or elderly)  behave like kids on a school playground. It’s done documentary style, with the camera as the fourth wall, following Brian around wherever he goes. Brian and Charles are not set in any particular period, but neither is it contemporary — no cel phones, computers or flashy cars. This low-budget, indie movie is simplistic, even child-like at times, but all-around delightful. 

Jurassic World Dominion just opened in Toronto; check your local listings; and look out for Brian and Charles next Friday.

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

On the Brink of Collapse. Films reviewed: This Game’s Called Murder, Don’t Look Up

Posted in Class, comedy, Conspiracy Theory, Disaster, Games, Space by CulturalMining.com on December 11, 2021

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

In these uncertain times sometimes dark humour allow us to laugh at our troubles and worries. So this week I’m looking at two new movies that look at a nihilistic planet on the brink of collapse.  

There’s a high-heeled shoe magnate who wants to control the world, and a pair of astronomers who want to save the world.

This Game’s Called Murder

Wri/Dir: Adam Sherman

Jennifer  (Vanessa Marano) and Cane (James Lastovic) are dating, but they live very different lives. He runs a restaurant and bar in an old abandoned warehouse, and hangs with an all-woman gang of thieves, headed by Cynthia (Annabel Barrett). Cane hates anything technological — cel phones are forbidden in his space. Jennifer is a media star, posting selfies for her countless followers. But to accommodate Cane, she only takes polaroid pics around him — nothing digital. She lives in a huge mansion with her filthy-rich, bible-thumping parents the Wallendorfs (Ron Perlman, Natasha Henstridge). Her Texan dad — using his hypnotic abilities — runs an international business selling his hugely popular red, high-heeled shoes. His company’s ads are as infamous as the shoes they sell. They feature scantily clad models blissfully playing “games” which end up with more aesthetically perfect dead bodies.

Her mom is a socialite, and also quite mad. She does whatever a mysterious voice — coming from inside her vanity mirror — tells her to do even it involves killing people. So Jennifer escapes to Cane’s world to see if she can find something real and honest there. Sadly, Cane’s life is equally hollow and alienated. The gang of thieves regularly murder delivery-truck drivers, using a bow and arrow, to steal the contents. Cane himself attacks a chef with a baseball bat, for the crime of being overweight. Neither Jennifer nor Cane can find the meaning they’re so desperately seaking. But when she sneaks him into a costume party at the mansion, and he witnesses both the decadent orgies and the extreme cruelty he had only heard about, he experiences a sea-change Can they stop the Wallendorf Shoe empire from its cruel plans?

This Game’s Called Murder is a bizarre, comedy/horror movie about our alienated and disconnected world. It’s done in an over-the-top, campy style, which is fun if you’re in the right mood.  It’s full of carousels and chicken-friend steaks, instant ramen and high-heeled shoes, bows and arrows and Froot Loops. The problem is, while there’s lots of eye candy to take in, it’s strung together in a clunky, confusing way. There are no real heroes or characters you can root for (though you eventually come to appreciate Jennifer, Cane and Cynthia). It seems at first to be a critique of the ultra-rich, but you soon realize everyone in this movie is equally evil and cruel. At best, some characters are ambivalent observers. The film has lots of nudity and tons of bloody and gore, but not much substance. And much of the dialogue is painfully bad. To tell you the truth, I  hated this movie at the beginning, but it gradually got better and better, until I actually got into it. I learned to like it by the end, once I accepted its impossible premise. I can’t call this movie great, but it certainly is unique with some very memorable images.

Don’t Look Up

Co-Wri/Dir: Adam McKay

Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) is a disgruntled pot-smoking grad student studying the stars at Michigan State. One night she notices something strange: a previously unknown comet hurtling toward earth at a very fast pace. She reports this to Dr Randall Mindy, her supervisor, (Leonardo DiCaprio) who immediately calls Washington. Why? Because that comet is big enough and travelling fast enough to wipe out life on this planet, and if we don’t do something to stop it, we’ll all be dead in about 6 months. They’re flown to Washington and meet the President (Meryl Streep, doing her best imitation of a female Donald Trump) and her toady son (Jonah Hill). But their reception is less than stellar. This narcissist president seems more concerned her poll ratings than with the fate of the planet. They don’t realize the urgency even when it’s explained in plain terms. So Kate and Randall turn to mass media. They appear on a morning show hosted by Brie (Cate Blanchett) a beautiful but seemingly-vapid celebrity. But their shocking news doesn’t fit in the plastic world of breakfast TV. Kate ends up looking like a raving lunatic, while Randall remains calm. He becomes the national face of the presidential campaign to stop the comet, while Kate ends up working at a convenience store. But can either of them do anything to stop this impending disaster?

Don’t Look Up is a brilliant political satire about American politics and social media. Like an updated Doctor Strangelove, it takes us into the backrooms of Washington. The story comes from David Sirota, the journalist and political advocate, and director Adam McKay is known for movies like The Big Short (all about the Wall Street crash of 2008) so these guys know what they’re doing. It’s superficially a classic disaster/sci-fi pic — along with humour and sex — which makes it fun to watch, and is filled hilarious caricatures set against a polarized country. (The title, Don’t Look Up refers to the comet-deniers, while the Just Look Up-ers are their opposites) but of course it’s really about our inaction in stopping climate change (even though they never mention those words in the movie). It has a huge cast, including Mark Rylance as an enigmatic tech billionaire and Timothée Chalamet  as an ambivalent skateboarder.

Don’t Look Up is a really fun, enjoyable movie that’s also about something real and important, but without falling into that ponderous “nobility” that drags some films down. This stays funny and light till the end. I really like this one.

Don’t Look Up opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend; check your local listings; and This Game’s Called Murder is now available digitally and on all VOD platforms.

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 Kenneth Feinberg about Playing God at Hot Docs 2017

Posted in Courtroom Drama, Crime, Disaster, documentary, Legal, Morality, Politics, Terrorism, Trial, US by CulturalMining.com on August 7, 2021

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

The world reacted in horror when New York’s twin towers were knocked down. But after the dust settled the question was how to compensate its victims and their families. Enter US Attorney Ken Feinberg, who volunteered to handle that monumental task.

Following this, he went on to handle other disasters, in both the private and public sectors, including the BP oil spill and the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school. Are the results always fair? How do the victims –  and Feinberg himself — deal with the enormity they face? And is this a case of one man playing God?

Playing God is a new feature length documentary that had its world premier at Toronto’s Hot Docs International documentary festival. It was directed by filmmaker Karin Jurschick and features US attorney Kenneth Feinberg.

I interviewed Kenneth Feinberg on location at Hotdocs in April, 2017.

Tricks, Tracks, Traps. Films reviewed: The Killing of Two Lovers, Deliver Us From Evil, In the Earth

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

Spring Film Festival Season is on in Toronto, digitally speaking. Coming in the next few weeks are the Toronto Japanese Film festival, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Inside Out, Toronto’s LGBT film festival, and events organized by the Toronto Palestine Film Festival.

Starting in two weeks is the ReelAbilities film festival with shorts, features and docs about deaf and disability cultures, including a comedy night. All screenings are pay-what-you-can. Go to reelabilities.org/toronto for more info. 

This week I’m looking at three new movies, from the US, the UK and Korea. There’s  a husband who feels tricked by his wife, a hitman tracked by a killer; and an earth scientist trapped in a psychedelic forest.

The Killing of Two Lovers

Wri/Dir: Robert Machoian

David (Clayne Crawford) lives in a small-town in the southern US. He used to have ambitions to be a singer-songwriter, but now he works as a handyman doing odd jobs to keep his family afloat. He married Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) straight out of high school, and they now have four kids. But the spark is gone. David is living with his Dad now — he and Nikki are on a trial separation. It’s meant to help fix their broken relationship. But when he finds her in bed sleeping with another man, he feels lost and angry, and starts to carry a gun. 

Meanwhile he wants to bond with his kids and keep the family together. His oldest daughter is furious with them both. And the younger ones (played by real-life siblings) are just getting by. Can Nikki and David ever get back together? Or will David’s brooding anger finally explode into violence?

The Death of Two Lovers is a relationship movie done in the style of a high-tension crime pic. It’s told through David’s eyes, so we feel his boiling rage and inner turmoil. He takes out his anger on a boxing dummy, and practices shooting with an old pistol. The soundtrack is full of repeating sounds — slamming car doors, creaking noises — unrelated to the actual images you see. And his encounters with Derek (Chris Coy) his moustached rival looks like it’s headed for disaster. No spoilers, but this is not a crime drama; it’s a movie about the (potential) collapse of a family. The acting is great and bit of a it’s tear-jerker, but it seems trapped within an unclassifiable and misleading genre. 

Deliver Us From Evil

Wri/Dir: Hong Wan-Chan

In-Nam (Hwang Jung-min) is a Korean hitman who kills for money, but only targets organized criminals. His assignment: a ruthless yakuza boss in Tokyo who exploits sex workers. It’s his final assignment; once complete, he plans to retire somewhere with warm beaches and lax banking laws where he can enjoy his blood money in peace…somewhere like Panama? But his dreams are shattered with a blast from the past. His ex-girlfriend he hasn’t seen in 9 years is trying to reach him. Her nine-year-old daughter Yoo-min has been kidnapped. He drops everything and flies to Bangkok to investigate. He’s too late to save her but maybe little Yoo-min is still alive. He hires a local Korean woman named Yoo-Yi (Park Jeong-Min) to translate for him and serve as his guide. She works at a Patpong bar, and needs the extra cash to pay for sex-reassignment surgery. Together they uncover a terrible truth: a ruthless Thai operation that kidnaps small kids, especially Japanese and Koreans in Thailand, to sell their organs to rich people back home! 

What In-Nam doesn’t realize is that he’s a marked man… the hitman is on a hit-list. The Yakuza boss he assassinated had a brother named Ray aka The Butcher (Lee Jung-jae). This guy is ruthless and deranged, and can do terrible things with his very sharp knives. Can In-min rescue Yoomin (and the other kidnapped kids) before their organs are yanked from their innocent bodies? Is little Yoomin — who he’s never met — his own daughter? And who will survive the fight to the death: Ray who is out for vengeance; or In-Min?

Deliver us from Evil is an intense crime action/thriller set in in the underworlds of Korea, Japan and Thailand. The first half hour is a bit dull: too much talk, talk, talk, and not enough action. It’s a complicated plot that needs a lot of explaining. But once it starts going it never let’s you down, with lots of fistfights, marital arts, knives, guns and cars. It’s a world where everyone’s corrupt: competing criminal gangs, local con artists, international syndicates and cops on the take. If you’re disturbed by violence, blood and awful situations— stay away. But if you like action, suspense, intense fighting, and some interesting characters, Deliver Us From Evil is a good watch.

In the Earth

Wri/Dir: Ben Wheatley

It’s England in the near future, where an unknown  virus pandemic is wiping out the population. The country is a mess with food shortages and strange new laws. Martin (Joel Fry), is a mousy scientist who arrives at a nature preserve to study the soil there. (He also has a hidden agenda, to contact Alma another scientist who disappeared, leaving a puzzling diary.) After passing the medical tests,  he sets out into the woods  accompanied by a guide. Olivia (Hayley Squires) is a no-nonsense forest ranger with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She can assemble a pop tent in a couple minutes and knows every inch of the woods.  But while they slept a stranger  attacked them, stealing their shoes, clothes and Martin’s crucial radio equipment. Luckily they encounter Zach (Reece Shearsmith), an eccentric, bearded, back-to-the-land type who is shacked up nearby. He tends to their wounds, makes them some food and gives them comforting elderflower tea. Unluckily Zach is a lunatic who drugged their tea and tied them up. He says all nature is connected, and we must listen to a common brain to find out her wishes. And this includes using Martin and Olivia in bizarre rituals and possible sacrifices. They must escape!  But a natural mist has settled all around them generating  microscopic mushroom spores and unbearable sounds. What is the truth in these woods? And can Olivia and Martin overcome its allure?

In the Earth is a weird, science-fiction/horror/ fantasy about humans fighting nature — and the earth fighting back. It was filmed just a few months ago during the height of the pandemic in the UK. And it’s full of psychedelic visions and creepy sounds. Ben Wheatley’s movies are unique and either you like them or you don’t. But I thought it was fantastic. There’s a fair amount of violence and gross-outs, but it’s all done in an art-house style, not your typical Hollywood horror. If you’re in the mood for a freaky, indie movie, this one’s for you.

The Killing of Two Lovers Starts today on all major platforms, In the Earth also opens today at the Virtual TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Deliver us From Evil will be available on VOD, digital and on disc on May 25th.

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 Yung Chang about Wuhan, Wuhan

Posted in Canada, China, Depression, Disaster, documentary, Family, Realism, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 14, 2021

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

Photo by Jeff Harris.

It’s February and the city is under a lockdown. The streets are deserted for all but essential workers. New, makeshift hospitals and quarantines are popping up to deal with the thousands of infected patients… and the death toll is frightening. The government has instituted harsh restrictions to stop the corona virus, and people forced to stay at home are volunteering just to have something to do. Is this Toronto? LA? Or New Delhi? No, it’s February, 2020 and the city is Wuhan.

Wuhan Wuhan is a new documentary that takes you onto the scene of the first-known pandemic of COVID-19. It’s upbeat, real and very moving. It talks to doctors, patients and ordinary people showing first hand how they handle the early stages of this previously unknown virus. It’s the latest film by award-winning Canadian documentarian Yung Chang, known for Up the Yangtze, China Heavyweight and many others. Wuhan Wuhan premiered at Hot Docs, Canada’s International Documentary Festival.  I interviewed him in 2012 about The Fruit Hunters and in 2013 about This Is Not a Movie.

I spoke to Yung Chang in Toronto via Zoom.

Wuhan Wuhan premiered at #Hot Docs21.

Daniel Garber talks with Robert Fisk and Yung Chang about This is Not a Movie

Posted in Afghanistan, Arab Spring, Canada, Diplomacy, Disaster, documentary, Iraq War, Islam, Journalism, Lebanon, UK, War by CulturalMining.com on November 6, 2020

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Robert Fisk is a foreign correspondent based in Beirut, who has covered, first-hand, all of the wars in the middle east for the past four decades. He met with Osama bin Laden three separate times.  Award-winning and highly controversial, Fisk flouts the conventional slant pervasive in western mainstream reporting, and brings things back to the people he’s covering.

This Is Not a Movie is a new doc that follows Fisk at work, tells his history and background, and discusses controversial stories and issues. The film is written and directed by Canadian Yung Chang, known for films like Up the Yangtze and the Fruit Hunters.

I spoke with Robert Fisk and Yung Chang in September, 2019 during TIFF, at NFB’s headquarters in Toronto.

Robert Fisk died earlier this week after a short illness.

Decline and Fall. Films reviewed: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, The Strain, The Humorist

Posted in Action, Communism, Cooking, Disaster, Disease, documentary, Food, France, Horror, New York City, Russia, TV, USSR, Vampires by CulturalMining.com on May 29, 2020

Unedited, no music

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

It’s Spring Film Festival Season in Toronto, without cinemas but with exciting new movies still being shown online. I’m recording at home via CIUT, from my house to yours, so I apologize for the sound quality. This week I’m looking at three films, one each from TJFF and Hot Docs, as well as a TV series. There’s decadence in Versailles, pandemic and mayhem in New York, and decline in 80s Moscow.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

Dir: Laura Gabbert

Yotam Ottolenghi is a London-based chef, restauranteur and cookbook author. A few years ago he receives an unusual offer from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”): to pull together an event recreating the desserts of the Palace of Versailles, from Louis XIV till Louis XVI. He contacts five chefs from around the world to fly in and show their stuff. But these are no ordinary chefs; they each have an unusual style all their own. Dinara Kasko, a young woman from Ukraine, assembles architecturally-inspired cakes with gravity-defying minimalist structures on the outside, and fantastic layers on the inside. Dominique Ansel – inventor of the Cronut – features new takes on classic French patisseries at his Manhattan restaurant. Sam Bompas of London’s Bompas and Parr, injects life into that much-neglected cooking form: jellies and moulds. Ghaya Oliveira is a multi-talented Tunisian chef who evokes her grandmother’s ideas while creating French pastries; and Janice Wong, a Cordon Bleu-trained Singaporean culinary artist who paints and sculpts using chocolates.

This wonderful documentary shows the chefs at work behind the scenes at The Met, recreating the splendour, decadence and opulence of Louis XIV’s Versailles. The unique works they create especially for the show are really amazing, suggesting the architecture, the formal gardens, and the open-court style of that palace, where ordinary people, if elegantly dressed, were allowed to enter the palace grounds, a space traditionally fenced off from the public. The film also provides much needed historical context: Starving Parisians stormed the palace in 1789, while the documentary is set in an ostentatious Manhattan not too long before the pandemic lockdown. Parallels anyone?

The Strain (Season 1)

Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Dr Goodweather (Corey Stoll) is a NY epidemiologist who works for the CDC. He’s separated from his wife and son because he’s always on call for emergencies. He works alongside Nora (Mia Maestro) an Argentinian-born doctor. They are called into action when a 747 lands at JFK. Everyone on board – including the pilots – are dead. Is it a terrorist hijacking? No, it’s a highly contagious virus. Called to action, the doctors attempt to stop its spread before it infects everyone in the city. But they are thwarted by corrupt officials who allow an intricately-carved wooden box (a coffin?) out of the protected area. And it turns out that the infected passengers are really dead, just temporarily comatose. They’re actually still alive, or perhaps undead. Once infected, people change into zombie-like vampires under the thrall of an unseen master.

What’s unusual about this virus is how it spreads. A red, phallic piece of flesh, like a blind moray eel, shoots out from the infected person’s neck and sucks their victim’s blood. The disease carriers cluster in colonies underground and only come out at night. Manhattan quickly collapses into chaos with widespread crime, looting and mayhem due to the pandemic. But still no quarantine to stop its spread. Luckily, a Scooby Gang of mismatched players form a team. There’s Mr Setrakian (David Bradley) an old man with secrets fro the past who carries a silver sword; Vassily (Kevin Durand) is a public rat catcher who knows his way through all of Manhattan’s dark tunnels; Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas) a champion hacker who disables the internet. They face a cabal of powerful men who want the infection to continue for their own nefarious purposes. But can the doctors and their allies stop the infection? Or is it too late?

The Strain is a great action/horror/thriller TV series about an uncontrolled pandemic, corrupt billionaires amd politicians, and the frontline medical workers trying to stop them. It has mystery, romance, sex, and violence with a good story arc, gradually revealed. It’s uncannily appropriate now, and for Toronto residents it’s fun to spot the localations – it was shot here. So if you’re looking for a good pandemic drama, and don’t know where to find it, look for The Strain.

The Humorist

Wri/Dir: Mikhail Idov

It’s 1984 in the Soviet Union. The Soyuz T-12 is in the sky, Chernenko heads a geriatric government, and Ronald Reagan casually talks about dropping atomic bombs on Russia. Boris Arkadiev (Aleksey Agranovich) is a successful comedian who has it all, adored by fans and government officials alike. He travels across the nation with a stand-up monologue called The Mellow Season, a tame routine about a trained monkey. Born in Byelorussia, he now lives in a nice Moscow apartment with his lawyer wife Elvira, and his two kids, his adoring six-year-old Polina and his rebellious teenage son Ilya. In public, he’s a national icon. But behind the scenes he’s an arrogant alcoholic, a prolific womanizer, and an all-around prick. Aside from himself, he worships the two Russian idols: vodka and the space program. He left religion behind but is conscious of anti-Jewish murmurs wherever he goes. And he’s a total sell-out. Once a serious but unsuccessful novelist, he went on to be a TV writer with his friend and rival Simon. Boris gave in to the official censors, while the less-successful Simon resisted. Now Boris is like the trained monkey in his monologue, performing on cue whenever ordered to do so.

But a series of events change his outlook. An unexpected encounter with a cosmonaut makes him rethink destiny, God and existence. And when he learns about the audacious black comics working in LA from his actor pal Maxim (Yuri Kolokolnikov) he realizes how dull and tired his own comedy has become. Will he stay a depressed, trained monkey for his corrupt masters in the army and KGB? Or will he risk his job, family and reputation by speaking from the heart?

The Humorist is an excellent dark comedy, set in the last days of the Soviet Union. Agranovich is great as a troubled, over-the-hill comic, like a Soviet Phillip Roth anti-hero. It’s brilliantly constructed starting with a garden party in Latvia, but degenerating into a soiree at a high-ranked party-member’s villa. It’s peak-decadence, where sagging old generals in formal wear dine with American porn playing elegantly on a TV in the background (they think it’s high society). The men later retreat to a banya wearing Roman togas, in a scene straight out of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The Humourist has an absurdist, almost surreal tone, where a midnight knock on the door could mean interrogation or the exact opposite. It’s filled with disturbing scenes of long underground corridors and empty Aeroflot planes. It kept me gripped — and squirming — until the end.

Great movie.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is now streaming at Hotdocs; The Humourist is playing online at TJFF, and you can find The Strain streaming, VOD, or on DVD.

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

Minors and Miners. Films reviewed: After the Wedding, Mine 9, Good Boys

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Disaster, Drama, Drones, drugs, Family, Friendship, India, Kids, Movies by CulturalMining.com on August 16, 2019

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

Mountains can grow out of moleholes. This week I’m looking at three movies – a disaster, a family drama, and a comedy with kids – about minors facing major difficulties. There are three tweens caught up in adult-type problems, coal miners caught in a disaster, and a woman who works with orphans in India facing major problems back in New York.

After the Wedding

Wri/Dir: Bart Freundlich

Isabel (Michelle Williams) is an American woman grudgingly back in New York for the first time in decades. She fled the country as a teen after an unplanned pregnancy, and has lived in India ever since. She works at an orphanage in Tamil Nadu, raising the kids there, including Jai, a little boy she found abandoned on a street. But she’s forced to travel to The States for the sake of the kids; to secure a large donation to the orphanage. The donor insists she come, not anyone else.

Theresa (Julianne Moore) is a ruthless media magnate preparing to sell all her assets and retire. She wants to donate to various charities – including the orphanage. But when she meets Isabel she says she’ll only confirm the donation after her daughter Grace (Abby Quinn)’s wedding . And Isabel must attend.

But Isabel is in for a shock. Turns out the father of the bride is Oscar (Billy Crudup) Isabel’s teenaged boyfriend, and the father of the unwanted child they put up for adoption so many years ago! He’s why she moved India in the first place, to erase her past and start again. He seems as shocked to see her as she is to see him. Is this just a coincidence? Could the bride possibly be the baby she gave birth to? And if Theresa finds out that Isabel and Oscar were once lovers will she cancel all the money the orphanage needs so badly?

After the Wedding is a remake of Danish director Susanne Bier’s film from 2006. I’ve never seen the original but I’m told in Bier’s film Isabel and Theresa are male roles and Oscar is a woman. This switch seems to work. And I found the continuous revelations fascinating – I wanted to know what would happen all the way till the end.

That said, the script was so clunky it felt, at times, like it was written by Google Translate. Williams’s main emotion was being perturbed, and the whole film lasted 30 minutes longer than it should have. I didn’t love this movie but I didn’t hate it either: good story, bad script; great actors but who are not at the top of their game here.

Mine 9

Wri/Dir: Eddie Mensore

It’s a mining town in West Viriginia. The coal mine is the only steady employer, but it’s a dangerouns place. Some of the old timers, like Kenny (Mark Ashworth), Daniel (Kevin Sizemore) and John (Clint James), have lived most of their lives underground. The black dust is ground into their skin, their hair, their beards. They don’t like it, but it’s their livelihood, and their only source of health insurance. But when they narrowly escape a methane leak, they wonder if it’s safe to go back down into mine #9. And with no outside foreman or rescue team, if there is an accident, who will save them?

But management insists so down they go, along with Ryan (Drew Starkey) a newbie fresh out of high school. It’s his first time in a mine, though his family has been doing it for centuries. Things seem to be going alright until a short circuit leads to an explosion and a collapse. The mine is filling with poisonous gas with only an hour’s worth of oxygen left. They have to battle fire, rushing water, smoke, dust, methane gas and collapsing tunnels all around them. It’s up to Zeke (Terry Serpico) their dependable leader, to bring them to safety. Who will escape and who will be left two miles down?

Mine 9 is an indie action/ disaster movie about West Virginia coal miners. It has a realistic, gritty feel to it, capturing the dirt, darkness and claustrophobia of coal mining, along with the excitement of escape. Unfortunately it’s also full of problems, both big and small.

I understand why they have to wear oxygen masks to breathe and hard hats for safety, but how can you care about characters when you can’t see their faces for much of the movie? And, seriously, do miners really break into miners’ songs each time they go underground? Their names aren’t Sneezy, Dopey and Doc.

Still, if you’re in the mood for a short trip into a coal mine, you might want to look at Mine 9.

Good Boys

Co-Wri/Dir Gene Stupnitsky

Max, Lucas and Thor are the Bean Bag Boys, three best friends and grade sixers. They’re a team that does everything together. Thor (Brady Noon) pierces an ear to be cool, but is labelled “sippy cup” by the popular kids for not trying beer. Lucas (Keith L. Williams) is a God-fearing boy who cannot tell a lie, but whose beliefs are shaken when his parents announce their divorce. Max (Jacob Tremblay) is a lover not a fighter, and is crushing on a girl he’s never actually met in lunchroom. But when Max is invited to a kissing party, he realizes he has to learn how to kiss before he can go there. These foul-mouthed boys can say the dirty words, but they don’t know how to do them. They can’t ask their parents and they find internet porn too disgusting to look at.

So the Bean Bag Boys concoct a plan: to spy on Hannah (Molly Gordon) the much older, girl next door as she makes out with her drug-dealer, frat boy boyfriend. But how? Using Max’s dad’s drone – something Max is forbidden even to touch. Caught in the act, Hannah and her friend Lily (Midori Francis) seize the drone from the boys. Then they steal her purse. But the purse contains the MDMA the women planned to take that night. Can the three boys escape their pursuers and rescue the drone? Can Max kiss the girl he thinks he loves? Or will the big problems they all face destroy their unbreakable friendship?

Good Boys is a hilarious coming-of-age comedy about extremely naïve kids encountering adult situations – like drugs and sex – for the first time, and deal with them from a child’s perspective. The laughs are constant, with very few misses. A lot of the humour rests on believing the kids are so sheltered they’ve never seen or encountered anything adult.  For example they find Thor’s parents’s sex toys but use them as weapons and kids’ toys. They’re afraid tasting beer will turn them into alcoholics. They’ve heard grown-up words but don’t know their real meanings: Nymphomania means having sex both on land and at sea. Misogyny means giving massages.

The three main kids are great, especially Tremblay (Room), but so are all the other roles. And despite the fact it’s being marketed as an R-rated movie, except for some foul language and innuendo, it’s not outrageously offensive. No serious violence and no sex, just some 11-year-old kids being extremely funny.

After the Wedding, Mine 9, and Good Boys all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

 

Other people’s danger. Films reviewed: Blaze, Ben is Back, The Quake

Posted in Addiction, Biopic, C&W, Christmas, Disaster, Family, Morality, Music, Norway, Romance, Texas by CulturalMining.com on December 14, 2018

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

 

With all the trouble in the world, some people like to safely observe other people’s problems, as a kind of catharsis. This week I’m looking at three new movies about people putting themselves in danger. There’s an opiate addict at Christmas, a quake spotter in Oslo, and an alcoholic musician in a bar.

Blaze

Dir: Ethan Hawke

It’s the 70s in the deep south. Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey) is a hefty, bearded Texan from San Antone, living in an artsy, hippy commune. That’s where he meets a beautiful woman with kinky hair named Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). He’s a musician and a raconteur, she’s a writer and aspiring actress. The two decide to shack up together in a treehouse for some sweet, summer lovin. When they’re not in bed they’re singing songs to each other. But Sybil – or Tsibele, as her parents call her – sees something more. Blaze, she says, you gotta go to Austin to make it big. And Blaze says I don’t wanna be a star, I want to be a legend.

But he agrees to tour blues bars while she works as a waitress. Problem is, when he’s lonely he drinks – he’s a boozehound – and when he drinks he gets angry, and when he gets angry he gets into fights – not a good career move for a budding musician.

Can their relationship survive? And will people ever get to hear his music?

Blaze is a meandering biopic about a musician you’ve probably never heard of. It jumps back and forth over a twenty year period tracing his highs and lows… mainly the lows. (Like the time when a trio of Texas Oilmen — played by Steve Zahn, Richard Linklater and Sam Rockwell — who think they’ve discovered the next big thing and put up the money to record an album.)  And there are lots of concerts in small bars. Blaze’s story is narrated by Towne Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) recalling his life and his music. Blaze was dead by age 40, but now, 30 years later, he’s finally getting listened to.

It sounds super depressing… but it’s not. It’s actually a very gentle, pleasant movie, mainly because the music – folk, blues, country – never stops for the whole two hours. Lots of plucking of guitars and Ben Dickey’s sweet voice. And Alia’s, too.

OK, it is a bit too long and the plot isn’t that interesting (though the stories Blaze tells are), but if you go to this movie to feel it, not to think about it… well, you just might like it.

Ben is Back

Wri/Dir: Peter Hedges

Holly (Julia Roberts) is happily married to her second husband (Courtney B Vance) and fond of her three kids who live at home. She’s preparing for Christmas: trimming the tree and wrapping the presents. But then a surprise visitor shows up. It’s Ben (Lucas Hedges), the eldest from her first marriage, the return of the Prodigal Son. She over him dearly, but he also makes her nervous. He’s an addict,

and he’s supposed to be at rehab. But she welcomes him for dinner, after carefully hiding all the prescription drugs, money and valuable jewelry. She loves him, but everyone knows addicts lie, cheat and steal… the boy can’t help it.

But maybe this time is different. He’s been clean for 80 days now, and he promises he won’t do anything to hurt his family. He seems back to normal. But when Ben is back, all his history, his baggage, all his friends and enemies are there with him, metaphorically. And some literally: when they go to sister Ivy’s Christmas pageant, they come back to a burglarized home… and Ben’s pet has been dog-napped.

Who dunnit? It’s up to him to visit all the ghosts of his past – people he stole from, families of overdose victims, druggies, dealers and gangsters – until he finds the one with his dog. But Holly won’t let him do it alone. She’ll stick by his side until he’s safe again. Will they find the dog? Or die in trying?

Ben is Back is one of a creepily popular genre: addiction movies. And like many of them it’s not about the addicts, it’s about the harm they bring to their parents or lovers. (The recent Beautiful Boy is a good example – it should have been called Dithering Dad.) While Ben is Back’s story kept me interested, the movie as a whole was both moralistic and grueling to watch… why are moviegoers forced to sit through yet another reenactment of a 12-step meeting? Ugh. That’s not entertaininment. And as if that’s not enough, you also have to sit through an interminable Christmas show.

Equal doses of saccharine and grime… No thanks.

The Quake

Dir: John Andreas Andersen

It’s present-day Norway. Gaunt, bearded Kristian (Krisoffer Joner) lives in the picturesque, fjord-filled town of Geiranger. Three years ago a deadly tsunami swept through there but Kristian saved many people including his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) his son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and his darling daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande). He’s a national hero… and a broken man, far away from his family who moved to Oslo. Why? Because Kristian hears tremors everywhere – he’s in a constant state of panic, just waiting for the next earthquake. Perfect for an emergency but unfit to be a normal husband and father.

But his panic starts to escalate when a series of clues – unexplained seismic data, a collapsing tunnel, rats running away – tell him the next earthquake is coming to Oslo. He has to get there fast and warn his family.. and everyone else. Has Kristian gone bananas? Or is he right? The Quake is a disaster movie so of course he’s right. Once the tremors start the real action begins, mainly in a glass and steel highrise in downtown Oslo. Somehow Dad, Mom, Little Julia and Marit (Kathrine T Johansen) a woman helping Kristian find the truth, all end up there, at the very top of a skyscraper, when the earthquake hits. Who will survive?

The Quake is a terrific disaster flic, mainly because the characters are interesting enough to care about. And the special effects are amazing. You believe they’re hanging onto wires in elevator shafts or sliding toward the edge as the skyscraper starts lean. The director of this movie is actually a cinematographer so its very visual: aerial views, long tunnels, fjords, and collapsing new buildings. I had to watch it on a computer screen, but you should try to see it in a theatre with a big screen, and loud rumbles.

Blaze, Ben is Back, and the Quake all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

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