Get away. Films reviewed: The Jump, See For Me

Posted in Blindness, Canada, Cold War, Crime, documentary, Lithuania, Politics, Thriller, USSR by CulturalMining.com on January 15, 2022

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

Today is CIUT’s 35th anniversary and we plan to  be around for at least 35 years more.  

This week I’m looking at two movies — one from Lithuania and one from Canada, now playing in virtual cinemas or Video on Demand. There’s a sailor who jumps off a ship to escape Soviet domination, and a blind cat-sitter who uses a phone app to escape from a gang of thieves.

But first, to celebrate CIUT’s 35th anniversary, here’s a clip of two of my earliest reviews, originally broadcast in January, 2010, where I talk about two films by Québec directors Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve, early in their careers.  

(listen)

And now back to the future in 2022!

The Jump

Dir: Giedre Zickyte

It’s November, 1970.  Simas Kudirka is a Lithunian sailor who is married with children. He works aboard a huge ship, the Sovetskaya Litva. Simas has been enchanted by the idea of going to sea since he was young man, picturing swaying palms and exotic tropical climes. Instead he ends up in the drab grey, north Atlantic.  But his life turns upside down when the ship, seeking shelter from bad weather, anchors near Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts. They are approached by the Vigilant, a US Coast Guard boat, and in a sudden, spontaneous decision, Simas jumps from the deck of his ship onto the Coast Guard boat. He says he’s defecting from the Soviet Union and seeking asylum in the US. But in a surprising decision, when KGB officers board the Vigilant, the Americans turn down his plea and hand him back. Remember this is during the cold war, when relations between the US and the USSR are tenuous at best, with both countries fighting proxy wars in countries around the world. And both have enough ready-to-launch nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over. 

Simas is sentenced to prison for treason. But that’s not the end of the story. He becomes a political hot potato in the US, where widespread protests by Lithuanian Americans turn him into a cause celebre about the Baltic states. Will he be released from prison? And will he ever reach the United States?

The Jump is a Lithuanian documentary that revisits the case 50 years later. It incorporates contemporary news stories, footage from a TV movie made about him (played by Alan Arkin) and new interviews with all the main people involved; from former KGB agents to Henry Kissinger, retired coast guard sailors, politicians and the American women who tirelessly worked toward his release. And of course, Simas Kudirka himself. The Jump is a fascinating story about how one man can lead to monumental changes. It doesn’t go deeply into political critiques; this is more of a personal story coloured with a nationalist point of view. But it’s a good story.

See For Me

Dir: Randall Okita

Sophie (Skyler Davenport) was once a young, competitive alpine skier with Olympic ambitions. But her athletic career was cut short when she lost her vision. Now she now lives with her mother and earns a meagre living as a cat-sitter. She’s angry and frustrated. But she takes a job in a remote glass and wooden house deep in a forest. It’s luxurious and well paying, because the recently-divorced owner is heading abroad on vacation. It’s also her first time using a new app on her phone her overprotective mom gave her. It’s called  See for Me, and it hooks up visually-impaired people with random helpers around the world. The user holds up the phone and the helper tells her which way to turn, where to pickup a lost item, or read directions on a table. And when Sophie finds herself locked out and alone on a cold winter’s day, it proves invaluable.

The helper, Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy) is a former marine and video game enthusiast. She teaches Sophie how to break in through a sliding door. But that’s small potatoes compared with what happens that evening. She awakens to strange voices in the house. They’re professional thieves trying to break into a safe, in a building they assumed would be empty. And it turns out they’re armed and dangerous. And escape is impossible — there’s nowhere to go in the middle of a snowy forest. It’s up to Kelly to to help Sophie navigate her way around the house away from danger. But can a far-off ex-marine help a blind woman shoot to kill?

See for Me is a good Canadian thriller about a seemingly helpless woman in a battle with nefarious criminals. It has a fair level of tension with a few unexpected twists. And the two main characters — Sophie and Kelly, played by Davenport and Kenedy — are great. My biggest problem with it is, it reduces much of the conflict down to a series of shootouts like in an old western. Guns to the rescue! Even a blind woman (gasp!) can kill mean men as long as she has a handgun. Kelly seems really eager to kill people, even by proxy, and Sophie is less than blameless herself (no spoilers). Still, if you’re itching to see a wintertime, cabin-in-the-woods thriller, this one’s not bad. 

See For Me is now available on VOD, and The Jump opens this weekend in virtual cinemas in cities like Sudbury, Montreal, and London — check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with director Andrew Gregg about Skymaster Down

Posted in documentary, US, Canada, Mystery, Cold War, Yukon, 1950s by CulturalMining.com on January 15, 2022

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

It’s a cold winter day in January, 1950 in Yukon. A US military plane, the Douglas C54-D, known as the Skymaster, is flying between Montana and Alaska, when it suddenly loses contact. Flight #2469 disappears from the skies. And when they searched for survivors among the 44 crew and passengers, no-one was found and the plane itself has completely disappeared. What became of the Skymaster?

Skymaster Down is a new, in-depth look at the plane’s disappearance and the friends and families of the missing crew and passengers today. The feature-length film is the work of award-winning documentarian Andrew Gregg. You may have heard him previously on this show talking about diverse topics including the new far right in Skinheads (in 2017), problems in our prisons in State of Incarceration (2014), and new archaeological advances in The Norse, an Arctic Mystery, way back in 2012.

I spoke with Andrew Gregg in Toronto via Zoom

Skymaster Down premiers on CBC’s Documentary Channel on Sunday, January 16th.

Hope? Films reviewed: The Matrix Resurrections, Try Harder, American Underdog

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

New Year’s Day is a good time to look toward the future and make plans. So this week I’m looking at three new movies, a drama, a documentary, and a science fiction action /thriller, about looking forward. There’s a football player who dreams of playing for the NFL, a group of high school students who dream of going to Stanford, and a video game creator who dreams of a world completely different from our  own. 

The Matrix Resurrections

Co-Wri/Dir: Lana Wachowski 

Tom Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a video game maker and programmer in Chicago. His baby is a series called The Matrix —0 there have been three versions so far and the company is thinking of creating a fourth. The game — created and programmed by Tom and financed by his business partner (Jonathan Groff) — is about two fighters named Neo and Trinity who fight in a parallel world against a villain named Smith. At a cafe Tom frequents, he notices a woman named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), and she notices him, too. Have they met? No, but Trinity and Neo, the characters in the game, look very similar to Tiffany and Tom. And Tom has been having weird dreams and deja vu, so his analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) gives him meds  — blue pills — to keep his mind from wandering. That is, until one day glitches start to appear on his computer matrix, unexplained activity within his own designs. These soon morph into changes in real life: people, (actually characters he created) are appearing in the office! And they know who he is… Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a fighter, and Morpheus (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) are their to explain it all. 

You’re not Tom, they say, you’re Neo. And it isn’t your dreams that are false, it’s your daily life that’s made up. You can pass through mirrors, climb walls, jump off roofs and fly! And if he just stops swallowing those blue pills he’ll see what the world is really like — a futuristic dystopia of people kept alive in rusty pods guarded by scary bots. Will he stay in his current world or break free? What awaits him in the other world? And will Tiffany/Trinity come with him if he goes?

The Matrix Resurrections is the long awaited sequel to the famous Matrix trilogy that has permeated our popular culture. People still use the terms “swallowing the blue pill” to refer to those who go about their daily lives ignoring a darker reality. It incorporates older footage in the forms of dreams and flashbacks, while introducing new characters as well as new actors playing older roles. It’s two and half hours long, much of which is gun fights, chase scenes, and endless SGI images.

Does it work? I’m not a Matrix fanboy, so I have no deep, vested interest in finding out what happens to these characters. I like the new plot twists, and the whole meta-aspect of it (it initially presents the previous episodes as existing in this universe but only as video games). And it’s fun just to watch (though a bit too long). I enjoyed this final version of the Matrix, but it didn’t change my life.

Try Harder

Dir: Debbie Lum

San Francisco’s Lowell School, known for its exceptional test scores and a graduation rate of nearly 100%, is one of the most famous public schools in California. Students there are under pressure — from their parents, other students, and themselves, to achieve high marks, SAT scores and ultimately to get into a prestigious university. This documentary looks at five students as they try to navigate the stress of senior year. 

The film follows the students at school, in their classes, at teams and clubs, and at home. The school — like the city — has a large Asian-American population, mainly of Chinese origin, but explores the stark differences as well, of class race and culture. Some are the kids of recent immigrants, while others are a part of the city’s long history. It also looks at differences in attitudes and stereotypes. This film doesn’t try to dig too deeply or uncover surprising turns; rather it observes and talks to the subjects and lets nature take its course — as they apply to universities and change their expectations over the course of the year. Try Harder is an intimate look at how teenagers handle what many consider the most important year of their lives. 

American Underdog

Dir: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin

Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) is born in small-town Iowa and raised by his divorced mom. Ever since he was a kid he has always wanted to be a pro football player. He practices religiously, till his arm can throw balls like a howitzer. After  high school he makes the team  at Northern Iowa University, but spends most of his time on the bench. One night, at a roadhouse bar, a certain woman catches his eye. Brenda (Anna Paquin) is a no-nonsense former marine who likes line dancing and Country & Western music. But she won’t give Kurt her number. How come? She has two small kids, including one with disabilities, and she doesn’t have the time to waste on guys like him. But Kurt is persistent. He brings her flowers, and more important, just it off with Zach (Hayden Zaller) her legally blind and disabled son. So they start dating. Meanwhile his career is advancing nicely, until he is asked to try out for the Green Bay Packers. Is this his big chance? Nope, he only lasts one day. 

Now he has to work as a stock boy at the local grocery store. Eventually he is recruited to play pro football… well, kinda. It’s a new sport called Arena Football: played indoors on smaller fields, with fewer players and is much faster than the usual game. The years pass, and he’s spotted by someone who wants him to play on for the St Louis Rams — that’s NFL. But can someone who is way too old to be a rookie, and too green to be a pro  ever make it in the NFL? And can he win and keep Brenda’s heart?

American Underdog is a moving family drama and sports biopic based on a true story.  It’s no spoiler to say that Warner ended up taking his team to the Super Bowl and was awarded Most Valuable Player and is now in the NFL Hall of Fame. But this film tells us what led up to it and how he got there.

This is what’s known as a “Christian” or “faith-based”  movie,  a particular American genre, with no nudity, sex, drugs or even cussing. It’s all about cornfields and country music… not my usual cup of tea. Nor am I football fanatic. But you know what? It’s a compelling story, with real situations and interesting characters. It’s not sappy or corny or cheesy, nor is it cringe-worthy (unlike your average Hallmark movie). No. This is an honestly good, nice film. OK, there’s no way — even in a dark room — that you would ever mistake a 40-year-old Zachary Levi for a college student. No way. But that’s beside the point. He’s good, and so is Paquin, and Hayden Zaller as the kid Zach is adorable without ever being cutesy. I saw the Erwin brothers previous Christian film, “I Still Believe” and there’s no comparison — this one is a cut above. 

American Underdog, is now playing theatrically, check your local listings. You can find the Matrix Resurrections in theatres and certain streaming services, while Try Harder is playing at Hot Docs cinema and on VOD.

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

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

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

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

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

Red Rocket

Co-Wri/Dir: Sean Baker

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

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

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

Flee

Co-Wri/Dir: Jonas Poher Rasmussen

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

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

Nightmare Alley

Co-Wri/Dir: Guillermo del Toro

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

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

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

I quite like this one.

Red Rocket, Flee and Nightmare Alley all theatrically in Toronto this weekend; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Desirée Mckenzie about the Jayu Human Rights Film Festival

Posted in documentary, Human Rights, Indigenous, Movies, Poetry, Poverty, Racism, Resistance, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on December 4, 2021

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

Movies are made to entertain — they should be interesting, novel, funny, exciting, or surprising. But movies can also inform, opening our eyes to important issues. Well, there’s a film festival in Toronto that does all that… and more. The JAYU Human Rights Film festival offers movies, poetry, art talks and films for audiences to watch and to discuss afterwards.

Desirée Mckenzie is the iAM Program Coordinator at JAYU — she’s also an award-winning poet, arts educator, and national poetry slam champion.

I spoke with Desirée in Toronto, via ZOOM.

The JAYU Human Rights Film Festival is entering its 10th year; it runs through  Dec 10th. 

Daniel Garber talks with documentarian Dugald Maudsley about Inside the Great Vaccine Race

Posted in Canada, Covid-19, documentary, Science by CulturalMining.com on November 6, 2021

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

It’s news to nobody that our planet has been ravaged by a pandemic since early 2020, and that more and more people in the developed world are being vaccinated to stop the effects of the Covid-19 corona virus. But where this vaccine came from, how it was developed, and who made it happen is less well known.

Inside the Great Vaccine Race is the name of a new documentary that looks at the corona virus itself, how the vaccines were developed, how they work… and why. It follows scientists in China, Brazil, Thailand, Canada, Germany and the UK at a time when many of these countries were already locked down. It’s produced and written by Dugald Maudsley, the multi-award-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker, known for TV series like Myth or Science and Ancestors in the Attic, as well as documentary features like Jumbo: The Life of an Elephant Superstar.

Inside the Great Vaccine Race is the opening episode of The Nature of Things celebrating its 61st season, and is now streaming on CBC Gem.

I spoke to Dugald in Toronto via Zoom.

 

Daniel Garber talks with documentary filmmaker Joanne Belluco about Stuck, premiering at Cinefranco

Posted in Art, Canada, Covid-19, documentary, Language, Music, Theatre by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2021

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

What do these people have in common?

A writer and storyteller in Toronto; a dancer in France; a stand-up comic in New Brunswick; a theatre director in Sudbury; a cinematographer in Winnipeg; an electronic musician in Northern Ontario; and a brother/sister musical duo in Montreal? 

They’re all francophone Canadians who work in the performing arts. And during the pandemic they all find themselves stuck! Stuck à la maison, stuck at home.

Stuck is also the name of a  new documentary feature  that looks at the effect of the coronavirus — and the restrictions it brought — on these people’s lives and careers.

Stuck was directed by Joanne Belluco, a French-born, Toronto-based documentary filmmaker, producer, writer and journalist.

I spoke with Joanne in Toronto via ZOOM.

Stuck is having its world premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs Cinema on November 1, at 7:30 pm at Toronto’s CineFranco film festival.

Innocent children. Films reviewed: Lamb, The Rescue, Squid Game

Posted in Animals, Class, Docudrama, documentary, Fairytales, Family, Farming, Gambling, Games, Iceland, Korea, Rural, Thailand, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on October 9, 2021

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

In movies, little kids and innocent animals are the perfect way to gain our sympathies. But what about adults who have fallen on hard times?

This week I’m looking at two new movies and a miniseries from around the world all about the innocent. There’s a childless couple on an Icelandic farm who adopt a baby lamb; a teenaged Thai soccer team trapped in a cave; and Korean ne’er-do-wells forced to compete at childish games… in a kill-or-be-killed arena. 

Lamb

Co-Wri/Dir: Valdimar Jóhannsson

Maria (Noomi Rapace) and  Ingvar (Hilmir Snær Guðnason) are a married couple who live on a sheep farm in rural Iceland at the base of a snow-capped mountain, beside a twisting brook. Their  lives are content but lonely, with just a cat, a dog and each other to keep them company.  Their only child died, leaving a gap that can’t be filled. If only they could go back in time… or somehow bring their lost child back to life. Until, one of their sheep gives birth to an angelic baby lamb. And there’s something different about this one. They immediately bring it into their home, feed it milk from a bottle and put it to sleep in their baby’s crib. They name it Ada, after their own child. 

What’s so different about Ada? Their face, shoulders and one arm are like any other lamb, but the rest of their body is human. It’s a gift from the gods, they say. They teach Ada nursery rhymes, take them for walks, and dress them like any other child. Ada can’t speak, but understands Icelandic and can nod or shake their head in response to questions. But  not everybody is happy with the new arrangement. Ada’s mother, a ewe,  wants her baby back. She waits outside their window each day longing for her lamb. And Petur (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), Ingvar’s brother, returns to the farm after decades living in Reijkjavik as a rock musician. Can this unusual family stay to gather? Or will outside forces tear them apart?

Lamb is a very unusual movie, a combination, fairytale, love story and haunting family drama with all the complications that entails. It’s pace is slow-moving and rustic — like life on a farm — but not boring, even though the people don’t talk very much. It’s beautifully shot amidst Iceland’s stark scenery, and the acting is good and understated. (You probably recognize Noomi Rappace — best known for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.) And though not much happens, the ending is certainly a surprise. Lamb is a nicely understated film..

The Rescue

Dir: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

It’s June, 2018 in Northern Thailand near the Burmese and Laotion borders.  12 young soccer players — age 11-16 — and their coach go for a day trip to explore the popular local caves. Tham Luang is a miles-long twisting tunnel filed with beautiful limestone rock formations. They are always closed during monsoon season in July, as it’s prone to flooding. But this year the rains came early, and the entire team was trapped, surrounded by rushing water, deep inside the caves. The Thai Navy seals were sent in to rescue them and bring them food, but they were trapped there too. They also recruited some of the best cave divers — a very obscure area of expertise — from

the UK, Belgium, the US, and elsewhere. But as days turn to weeks, time is running out, and the waters keep rising. Can the boys be saved?

This documentary looks in detail at the story — which held the world’s attention for weeks —  of the miraculous rescue and the hundreds of people involved in it. It uses archival TV footage, news animation, and brand new interviews. It also re-enacts many of the crucial scenes — never captured on film for obvious reasons, they were too busy saving lives — using the original divers, and some actors. The film is made by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, known for their breathtaking docs following mountain climbers — films like Free Solo. The Rescue (which won the People’s Choice award at TIFF this year) is also exciting and gripping, but not as much as the mountain climbing. This is mainly underwater and in near darkness, plus the fact that nearly everyone still remembers the story from just 3 years ago, no spoilers needed. I would have liked to have heard more from the Thai rescuees and a bit less from the British rescuers, but I guess they didn’t want to give interviews. I enjoyed The Rescue, but I wasn’t blown away by it.

Squid Game

Wri/Dir: Hwang Dong-hyuk

It’s present day Korea. 

Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) is a compulsive gambler who grew up in a working-class neighbourhood. He is constantly compared with his best friend from childhood Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), who made millions as a top financier, while Gi-hun spiralled deeper and deeper into debt. His wife divorced him and he rarely sees his 10 year old daughter, whose step father is taking her to The States. On top of this his elderly mother is suffering from diabetes. How can he get some cash — quick? At the racetrack, of course, But his winnings are stolen by a stealthy pickpocket (Lee Jung-jae). And that’s when he receives a mysterious card from a strange man. He is invited to play some games to earn a lot of money. He — and 500 others — say yes, and wake up in a strange uniform at an unspecified place. He remembers the games from childhood, like Freeze or Statues where you try to cross the line, but have to freeze when the caller tells you too. The difference is, if you move, you get gunned down by snipers! These games are deadly and there’s no way out. But the winner will get all the cash in a giant glass globe suspended overhead. Who will survive? Who is behind this perverse game? And why are they doing it?

Squid Game is an engrossing nine-part Netflix dramatic thriller about a group of people down on their luck forced to play a deadly game. Aside from Gihun, his pickpocket is also there — she’s a defector from North Korea; as is his childhood best friend who was caught with his hand in the till. Other characters include an elderly man with cancer, a disbarred doctor, a migrant worker from Pakistan, a petty gangster, and an aging, foul-mouthed sex worker with lots of moxie to spare. And an undercover cop, trying to infiltrate the organization to discover what happened to his missing brother. And they’re supervised by ruthless, nameless and faceless guards dressed in pink hooded jumpsuits. What keeps you watching this bloody and violent drama are the characters — they’re funny, quirky each with their own stories to tell.  Squid Game is an incredibly popular series out of Korea, one of Netflix’s top TV shows to date. And I can see why.  It seems silly, but it’s a great binge-watch, each chapter ending with enough of a cliff hanger to keep you hooked till the end.

This is a good one.

The Rescue and Lamb open this weekend; check your local listings. Squid Game is now streaming on Netflix.

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 Canadaland’s Jesse Brown about The White Saviours

Posted in 1990s, Africa, Canada, Charity, Corruption, documentary, High School, Journalism, Podcasts by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2021

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

It’s the mid-1990s. A 12-year-old boy in Thornhill, Ontario grabs the headlines for his advocacy of exploited and enslaved kids around the world with the simple words: Free The Children.

Craig Kielberger, along with his brother Mark, started an international charity which grew exponentially. Eventually, as the WE organization, it became one of Canada’s biggest and most famous charities, educating young people in developing countries around the world, as well as forming a wildly popular, self-empowerment youth movement in schools across North America.

But by the summer of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, it started to collapse. The WE charity’s  name  became tarnished with accusations of conflict of interest within the government, when they were awarded a $900 million student grant contract. This led to the resignation of Minister of Finance Bill Morneau… and the eventual shutdown of the WE charity in Canada. What happened?

A new six-part investigative documentary called The White Saviours takes a look at the Kielbergers and We Charity, delving into the dark underbelly of this Canadian icon. And what they find isn’t always nice.

The White Saviours is a fascinating and at times shocking examination filled with new interviews with anonymous insiders, along with public recordings of the main players themselves. The White Saviours is now available as a podcast on Canadaland, the platform known for its rabble-rousers, whistleblowers, mudslingers, and all-around shit disturbers. Canadaland was founded by publisher and editor-in-chief Jesse Brown, whom you’ve probably heard on CIUT on Tuesdays from 9-10 am. They produce excellent podcasts like The Commons, The Backbench and the eponymous Canadaland itself.

I spoke to Jesse Brown in Toronto, via ZOOM.

You can listen to The White Saviours here.

End of summer movies. Films reviewed: Flag Day, 499, Candyman

Posted in 1500s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Art, Chicago, Crime, documentary, Family, History, Mexico by CulturalMining.com on August 28, 2021

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

I know, everyone’s still thinking about Covid-19, vaccinations and Delta, Delta, Delta… but it’s also beastly hot and horribly humid. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in an air-conditioned movie theatre, (safely spaced away from the other moviegoers?) This week I’m talking about three new films that open this weekend — a documentary, a family drama and a horror movie. There’s a Spanish conquistador recording notes in a book; a ghostly killer whose hand is a hook; and a grifter who vows to help out his daughter… by hook or by crook. 

Flag Day

Dir: Sean Penn

It’s the 1970s in the US  midwest. Jennifer and her little brother Nick lived with both their parents, until mom (Katheryn Winnick) kicked dad (Sean Penn) out of the house. He’s a liar and I won’t put up with him anymore! But after watching their mom spiral into alcoholism, the kids only have fond memories of their dad. So they ask to spend time with him. They move into his ramshackle hut by a lake, alongside his new, young girlfriend. He teaches 11-year-old Jennifer to drive, and they spend crazy times by the lake and on the highway. It’s all like an exciting adventure… until the motorcycle gang he works for — and owes money to — start visiting the home. Dad gets beaten up and the kids move back in with mom.

Later, in the 80s they’re back in school. Jennifer (Dylan Penn) is a goth rebel and Nick (Hopper Penn) is a withdrawn teen. Mom has remarried to a creepy guy, and the kids suffer for it. But when the stepdad starts crawling into bed with Jen, that’s the last straw — she has to get out of there. She travels across the country until she finds her father. He is not in great shape — neither mentally nor financially. And his criminal tendencies start to re-emerge. Can Jennifer reconcile with her dad and mom and pursue her goal to become a journalist? Or is she doomed to follow in their footsteps?

Flag Day is a family drama (based in a true story) about the ups and downs of a father-daughter friendship. It stars a real father and daughter, Sean and Dylan Penn. The movie starts on Flag Day (an unofficial,  patriotic US holiday), with the father — an accused counterfeiter — is being pursued down a highway by a line of police cars with a helicopter overhead. The rest of the movie is about what led to this point: mainly Dad trying to get away with his crimes to help his beloved daughter.

I have mixed feelings about this film. I’ve seen enough to know that if it’s bad in the first 10 minutes, it will probably only get worse. (Flag Day feels wooden and slow.) But I decided to give this one a chance… and you know what? It gets much better. There’s way too much crying — every scene of the movie involving Jennifer or one of her parents leaving or coning back is punctuated by more tears. And voice-over narration  can ruin any connection you might feel to the characters on the screen. On the other hand, the whole movie is nicely shot on grainy video filled with beautiful fireworks, bonfires, flaming BBQs — (lots of fire and water!); the characters develop and get more and more interesting as you get to know them; and the whole thing (nearly) pulls together by the end. It’s set mainly in Minnesota but was shot in Manitoba, giving it an “authentic” feeling of working-class, white America. Flag Day isn’t perfect but it’s not bad either, once you give it a chance.

499

Co-Wri/Dir: Rodrigo Reyes

In 1521, Cortez and a few hundred conquistadors  invade the Aztec kingdom. They overthrow Montezuma and slaughter countless people, laying waste to the beautiful capital of Tenochtitlán in their insatiable search for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Later, one of the conquistadors (Eduardo San Juan) survives a shipwreck and washes to shore, complete with armour, helmet, pantaloons and sword. He walks from the beach to Tenochtitlan, but it’s not how he remembers it. Somehow he has skipped the past 499 years and is now near Mexico City, circa 2020.

499 is a documentary with a twist. It’s a travelogue through modern day Mexico as seen through the eyes of a relic from the past, a man mired in 16th century Christian morality and Spanish Imperialism. He feels he can slaughter local “Indios” with impunity. But, gradually,  as he sees what’s become of Mexico today — the drug cartels and corrupt police forces, along with the relentless crime, torture and death they bring — he is forced to rethink his beliefs. He becomes less of a soldier, and more of a passive observer, speaking with Mexicans and writing down what they say as they tell him their harrowing stories.

But it’s not all sad stuff. We also see the beauty, the splendour, the weirdness and the wonder all around him. Dance, music, acrobatics, art, culture and history are all shown in glorious panoramic cinematography.  There are bullfights and strip bars, and interviews with actual masked gangsters… as well as their victims.

499 is an eye-opening doc about contemporary Mexico disguised as a time-travel movie. 

Candyman

Dir:  Nia DaCosta

It’s present-day Chicago. 

Brianna and Anthony (Teyonah Parris, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are a rising young power couple in Chicago. They live in a luxury high-rise. She’s a curator at a local art gallery, and he’s an artist. But when he wants his paintings included in a group show, his gallerist says his work is getting stale. Find something new. So he sets out to explore a local urban legend to incorporate it in his work. It’s the story of Candyman, a ghostly serial killer who operated out of a public housing project called Cabrini–Green. It was a sorely neglected area, populated mainly by poor blacks, located just across a street from one of Chicago’s richest and mainly white neighbourhoods, the Gold Coast. (Looks like Bree’s apartment was built over the remains of the project.) 

Candyman tempts victims by offering  them candy, and kills them surrounded by a swarm of honeybees, using a sharp hook he has for a hand. And he can be summoned by saying his name 5 times while looking into a mirror. Anthony’s latest work is called Call My Name, a mirror that dares its viewers to summon Candyman. It gets little notice until people associated with his art start turning up dead. Suddenly, he’s a hot property and art critics say he’s important. But Anthony knows the truth. Candyman is real, he’s dangerous, and he’s Anthony’s to blame for letting him loose on the world. Can he and Bree stop the Candyman before he kills more people? Or is it too late?

Candyman is a sequel to the Wes Craven’s horror movie from the 90s, and it turns conventional slasher-horror movies on their head.  Bree’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett)  is flamboyantly gay but also a credible character with a life all his own, not just a victim to be laughed out. Black characters don’t exist merely in reaction to whites — they’re the focus of the movie. Killings are usually shown from a distance or off-camera — while there’s blood, it’s not excessively gory (compared to most slasher movies). Scary but not terrifying. 

Aesthetically, Candyman is deeply satisfying with art direction way above what you normally see: minimalist composed sets, breathtaking cityscape views of Chicago filmed upside-down in black and white, and shadow puppets used to illustrate the story within the story… so cool. The filmmakers — producer Jordan Peele and co-writer/directer Nia DaCosta  — are black, as are the main characters… but not most of the victims. DaCosta skewers the cut-throat world of fine art, using razor-sharp political satire. Candyman is not a conventional slasher/horror movie, and probably won’t scare your pants off, but it offers lots of eye candy to look at and even more to think about. 

I liked this one a lot.

Candyman and Flag Day just opened this weekend in Toronto — check your local listings. And you can catch 499 at the Paradise Theatre for two days only: Aug 28-9th. 

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

 

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