Daniel Garber talks with Kevin Hegge about TRAMPS!

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, Canada, documentary, Fashion, Interview, LGBT, Music, UK, Underground by CulturalMining.com on May 21, 2022

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

Photo by Jeff Harris.

It’s the late 1970s in a Covent Garden, London nightclub with an exclusive policy. To get in you have to look amazing in some way. An older man in blue jeans gets turned away at the door. The man is Mick Jagger, the place is Bowie Night at the Blitz Club and the doorman and organizer is Steve Strange. And so a new movement, born out of the ashes of punk, is dubbed the New Romantics by the mainstream press. But who were these tramps, really?

Tramps! Is a new documentary that looks in depth at East London in the early 1980s, along with the art, fashion, film, music, hats, makeup, hair, magazines, sexualities, aesthetics  and lifestyles that grew out of it. It’s a stunningly beautiful kaleidoscope of colour, a collection of period photos and footage combined with new interviews with the main players. And it talks about the celebrities who emerged from it, like Boy George, Leigh Bowery, Derek Jarman, Phillip Sallon, Judy Blame, and many others.

Tramps is the work of award-winning Toronto filmmaker Kevin Hegge, whom I last interviewed on this show back in 2012 about  his documentary She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column.

I spoke with Kevin Hegge in Toronto, via Zoom.

Tramps! is premiering in Toronto at the Inside Out film festival on May 31st, 7 pm, at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Daniel Garber talks with Ry Levey about Out in the Ring

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Canada, documentary, Fighting, LGBT, Pop Culture, Sports by CulturalMining.com on May 21, 2022

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

Picture this: scantily clad men and woman grope each other in same-sex displays. Over-the-top performers dressed in outrageous costumes , wigs and makeup, posture  before shrieking crowds. What are we talking about here: gay and lesbian porn? Or maybe Rupaul’s Drag Race? No! This is the world of pro-wrestling, known for both it’s outright campy behaviour and its homo-erotic displays, along with a deep-seated record of discrimination against LGBT wrestlers. That was the past, and things have changed. But what is it like now to be “out in the ring”?

Out in the Ring is a new documentary, over four years in the making that traces the history of LGBT people in and around the world of pro-wrestling. It talks with athletes, present and past, famous and infamous. It also meticulously traces their history, giving both an insiders’ visceral view and an outsiders’ critical stance. And it delves deep into the sometimes shady business of pro-wrestling.  It’s the work of producer/ director Ry Levey — a labour of love.

I spoke with Ry Levey in Toronto via ZOOM.

Out in the Ring is having its world premier at the Inside Out film festival on June 3rd, at 4:45 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Daniel Garber talks with Frankie Fenton and IIda Ruishalme about Atomic Hope at #Hotdocs22

Posted in Climate Change, documentary, Environmentalism, Hotdocs, Ireland, Japan, Protest, Science by CulturalMining.com on May 7, 2022

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

Photo by Jeff Harris.

Climate change is at a crisis point: enormous forest fires are breaking out around the world, catastrophic weather events are becoming the norm, polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate, and sea levels are constantly rising. So any changes that slow down carbon emissions are welcomed by everyone, right? Not necessarily. Nuclear power plants are closing, and climate activists are cheering.

Is anyone supporting the “nuclear option” or is it considered too… radioactive?

A new documentary called Atomic Hope – Inside the Pro-Nuclear Movement just had its world premier at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival. It follows members of the widely unpopular pro-nuclear movement as they challenge current beliefs and promote nuclear energy as a viable option to fossil fuels. The film is made by award-winning Irish Director/producer  Frankie Fenton, and features nuclear advocates like Iida Ruishalme, a Zurich-based, Finnish biomedical researcher, science communicator, and fiction writer.

Atomic Hope had its world premiere at #Hotdocs22.

I spoke with Frankie and IIda on location at the Hotdocs Networking Lounge at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Hot Docs 22! Films reviewed: Hunting in Packs, Midwives PLUS other docs to look out for

Posted in Canada, documentary, Movies, Myanmar, Politics, UK, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 30, 2022

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

Hotdocs, Canada’s International Documentary Festival is on now, showing more than 200 selected movies, many having their world premier. Filmmakers are now in Toronto from all around the world, and so are many of the films subjects. And as always daytime screenings are free for students and seniors: go to hotdocs.ca for details and restrictions. 

And — unlike with mainstream motion pictures — a large number of the directors are women. This year they’re featuring films by the legendary documentarians Janis Cole and Holly Dale, whose films P4W: Prison for Women and Hookers on Davie (about sex workers in Vancouver) are not to be missed. I saw both of these many years ago, and they’re unforgettable.

This week I’m looking at two more movies — both directed by and about women — playing at hotdocs. There are midwives in Myanmar and politicos in Parliaments and Congress.

But before that I’m talking about some of the movies playing at Hotdocs that I haven’t seen yet but look like they’re worth checking out 

Movies at Hotdocs.

One is Jennifer Baichwal’s newest doc Into the Weeds. It’s about a groundskeeper who stood up to the agro-chemical giant Monsanto when he (and tens of thousands of others) got sick after using the herbicide Roundup. Baichwal has won numerous awards for her breathtakingly beautiful documentaries like Manufactured Landscapes and Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, so I’m sure this one is worth seeing too.

Reg Harkema has a new documentary all about the Kids in the Hall, the great Toronto comedy group. They’re getting back together, and three of them — Scott Thompson, Bruce McCulloch, and Mark McKinney — will be at Hotdocs premier in person. Can’t wait to see that.

Another celeb in town is Abigail Disney (of the Disney family) who is now a social activist and filmmaker, She co-directed The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, which talks about the great class divide and economic inequality in the US, using her own family as the starting point. 

Atomic Hope: Inside the Pro-Nuclear Movement talks with scientists campaigning for nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels in slowing climate change. This sounds very interesting. 

In the Eye of the Storm: The Political Odyssey of Yanis Varoufakis is about the former Finance Minister of Greece who fought against the brutal austerity measures imposed by European banks.

Riotsville, USA tells the true story of two fake towns built in the 1960s to train military troops to crack down on demonstrations and civil disobedience.

On a lighter note, Her Scents of Pu Er looks at the first female tea master in China’s history, who shares the secrets of that fragrant and much sought after tea.  And Patty vs Patty tells the bizarre true story of Toronto city hall trying to force sellers of Jamaican beef patties to call them something else, because they’re not hamburger patties. This actually happened.

All of these movies are playing at Hotdocs, right now.

Hunting in Packs

Dir: Chloe Sosa-Sims

Michelle Rempel is a conservative MP from Calgary, who is an ardent supporter of building more pipelines and encouraging the fossil fuel industry.  Jess Philips is an MP from Birmingham from the Labour Party. An ardent feminist, she opposes the leftist Jeremy Corbyn, veering toward Keir Starmer on the party’s centre-right. And Pramila Jayapal is a congresswoman from Seattle. Born in Chennai, India, she is a longtime advocate for immigrant rights and represents the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. So what do these three very different people have in common? They’re all outspoken politicians with firm beliefs… who are also women.

Hunting in Packs is a great, behind-the-scenes look at women in politics over the course of a few years, and the particular abuse they face, up to and including recent elections. It takes you to political “war rooms”, TV appearance, door-to-door canvassing, and the daily drudgery of a politician’s life. It shows them dealing with hecklers and potentially violent protesters (Jess Philips brings up the terrible murder of another Labour MP, Jo Cox, by a politically motivated killer, just a few years ago.) It also reveals some hidden aspects of these women’s personalities. Rempel can curse a blue streak that would make a sailor blush. Philips keeps her cool passing in-your-face protesters. And Jayapal, while the most polished of the three, sticks to her guns and faces down abusive comments on the floor of the House. And regardless of your politics, the three women are each likeable in her own way. This is an entertaining look at the game of politics in the US, UK and Canada.

Midwives

Dir: Hnin Ei Hlaing (Snow)

Hla is an established midwife in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, where she functions as the local doctor, caring for women, not just when they’re giving birth. She notices that a lot of women in her village receive no medical care at all, with some forced to give birth, alone, in the middle of their fields. This is unheard of. So Hla decides to hire a young woman named Nyo Nyo as her apprentice so she can care for this underserved population.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

No!

Rakhine is a deeply troubled area with rebels fighting the central government, as well as ethnic strife within. This is where a million Rohingya were forced to flee to squalid refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh following brutal violence, rape and arson directed against  them. And what do we have here? Hla (Rakhine and Buddhist) hiring Nyo Nyo  (Rohingya and Muslim) as her apprentice. And nationalists, soldiers, and rebels are not happy about this. Can two very different women work together as midwives? Or will ethnic strife tear their arrangement apart?

Midwives is a fascinating, observational-style documentary that gives us a glimpse of two women as out follows them over several years. It shows the raw and rough aspects of their lives — including an actual childbirth on camera — as Nyo Nyo gradually learns her profession. It also exposes the casual racism — from rude, everyday comments about Nyo Nyo’s darker skin, to pop songs on the radio inciting violence against the Rohingya, that shapes the attitudes in that region. All this set against a tumultuous political climate, with a violent military that eventually overthrows the democratically elected government. It’s not unusual to hear missiles and bombs exploding outside the village. But it also gives us an intimate view of the two women and their families as they navigate their uncertain futures, through assimilation, learning languages, and opening a new business. You learn to love and laugh with these two unusual women. It gives an honest and realistic look at this troubled area, as rarely seen on film. 

Midwives and Hunting in Packs are both premiering at hotdocs. Go to hotdocs.ca for tickets.

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 filmmaker Chase Joynt about Framing Agnes at Hot Docs

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, documentary, L.A., LGBT, Mystery, Queer, Secrets, Trans, UCLA by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2022

Garber-April-23-22-interview

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

It’s the late 1950s in Los Angeles. While the world’s attention is on Christina Jorgensen, the charismatic transgendered celebrity who flew back from Copenhagen as a new woman, a much quieter clinic at UCLA was also conducting treatment and surgery of transgendered patients. And into this office stepped a young woman named Agnes who said despite being a cis male she grew breasts spontaneously upon reaching puberty — a celebrated case. But later Agnes admitted she made it all up so she would qualify for gender reassignment surgery. Why did Agnes have to lie to get much-needed treatment?

Framing Agnes is a new and unusual documentary based on newly uncovered medical files that look at Agnes and her other unsung contemporaries from that era. Made in the style of a 1950s talk show, it includes reenactments, off-screen conversations, period footage as seen through a present-day filter. Using trans actors, it meticilously presents interviews as “real”, immediately followed by footage showing that they’re only acting. It deals with hot topics, ranging from gender, sexuality and identity, to trans youth, and visibility vs invisibility. This first feature is the work of  prize-winning writer and filmmaker Chase Joynt, who co-directed No Ordinary Man, about jazz musician Billy Tipton, and co-authored You Only Live Twice with Toronto artist Mike Holboom.

I spoke with Chase Joynt in Chicago, via Zoom.

Framing Agnes is premiering in Toronto at Hot Docs on Sunday, May 1, 8:30pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

Advances in Technology. Films reviewed: The Automat, Dope is Death, After Yang

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, Addiction, Adoption, Androids, Canada, documentary, drugs, Eating, Family, New York City, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on March 12, 2022

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

Technology, whether we find it good or bad, always affects our lives. This week, I’m looking at three movies — two documentaries and a science fiction drama — that look at advances in technology. There’s a new type of restaurant a hundred years ago that sells hot food out of metal and glass dispensers; a clinic 50 years ago that uses acupuncture to detox heroin addicts; and a future world where androids serve as siblings.

The Automat

Dir: Lisa Hurwitz

It’s the 1920s in New York and the city is booming. 300,000 women work as stenographers and they — along with everyone else — all need to eat lunch. And one modern restaurant chain, Horn & Hardart’s Automat, is serving them all. Art Deco palaces welcome anyone with a nickel to buy a slice of pie or a cup of steaming French-press coffee expelled through shiny brass dolphin heads. Customers share marble topped tables with whoever sits down beside them.  And behind stacks and rows of pristine glass and metal drawers, a nickel or two dropped in a slot opens the door to a single servings of macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, baked beans, or Salisbury steak all made at a central commissary and shipped out that very same day. At its peak they served 800,000 diners each day in NY and Philadelphia (where the chain was founded). But what goes up must come down. I wandered into an automat just once as a teenager and never went back. It was disgusting, the food looked unpalatable and aside from the novelty of buying a stale, egg salad sandwiches behind a little glass door, I couldn’t see why anyone would go there. But its fans from earlier generations remember it well, swearing by their specialties like strawberry rhubarb pies. 

The Automat is a fun and breezy look at this fabled restaurant chain, and its rise and fall. It interviews former owners, staff and customers, including celebrities like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. And although the doc was shot pretty recently, many of the featured interviewees — like Ruth Bader Ginzburg and Colin Powell — have sadly passed away. This is an interesting doc about an almost forgotten phenomenon.

Dope is Death

Wri/Dir: Mia Donovan (Inside Lara Roxx)

It’s the early 1970s in the South Bronx, NY and heroin use is rampant. Nixon has declared a war on drugs, devoting money to incarceration and maintenance programs (like methadone), but nothing for detoxification and ending addiction. So black, brown and white activists in groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords decided to take action. They occupied Lincoln Hospital and managed to open a detox clinic there. The program was led by Dr Mutulu Shakur, (that’s Tupac Shakur’s step-father, and a separatist activist in the Republic of New Afrika movement.) who tried something new — acupuncture! A half dozen medics went up to Montreal and returned a couple years later as medically-trained acupuncturists, staffing the new clinic, specifically to relieve drug addicts from their need for heroin.

Dope is Death is a brilliant, politically-informed historical documentary that looks at all the people involved in this movement— interviewing former addicts, acupuncturists and political activists. Sadly many were jailed or went underground following a brutal FBI crackdown. This film includes pristine colour footage from the era, along with period posters, photos, and audio  and video interviews. Although most of the film is set in NY city, the story takes us exotic locales from Montreal to Beijing. Sadly this fascinating doc was released during covid, but it’s finally showing on the big screen one day next week in Toronto.

After Yang

Dir: Kogonada

It’s the near future somewhere in the world. Kyra and Jake (Jodie Turner-Smith, Colin Farrell) are a happily married couple with a daughter named Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). To help Mika cope with differences (Mika is Black and English, Jake white and Irish, and she was adopted as an infant from mainland China)  they purchase an android named Yang. He is programmed to help Mika discover fun facts about her heritage and learn to speak Chinese. Yang  (Justin H Min) is like a gentle adult brother, there to explain and comfort her while her parents are away (mom works in an office, while dad sells tea leaves   — his obsession — out of a small shop). But when Yang malfunctions and stops working altogether,  that is, he dies, little Kyra is devastated, sending the family on a downward spiral. It’s up to Jake to try to bring them back together by preserving Yang’s thoughts and memories. But in trying to save him, Jake discovers new things about their lives, and Yang’s, things he knew nothing about.

After Yang is an unusual science fiction movie, without space ships, laser beams, or violence of any kind. In this future world people (or at least this family) live in stunning glass and wooden houses and dress in colourful hand-sewn clothing. They hilariously compete as a family in online dancing competitions (this has to be seen to be believed). Jake’s investigations uncover Yang’s hidden past lives, before he lived with them, including a woman he was in love with. This is a very low-key and visually-pleasing look at a future just like our present but prettier… and where artificial intelligence plays a crucial  part in our lives. It also deals with privacy, death, technology and everyday middle class problems. The director incorporates experimental film techniques in the movie, things like multiple repetitions of some of the lines to convey the way we — or an android — might remember things. Characters rarely show strong emotions; everything is repressed.  And to tell you the truth, not much happens. So while not completely satisfying, After Yang is still a pleasure to watch.

After Yang opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Hot Docs Cinema is featuring special screenings of The Automat and Dope is Death next week, with the directors present for Q&As; go to hotdocs.ca for details.

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 documentarian Leora Eisen about Chef Secrets

Posted in Canada, CBC, documentary, Food, Indigenous, Science, TV by CulturalMining.com on January 29, 2022

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

While professional chefs might talk about their signature dishes, they like to keep their recipes a closely guarded secret. Even Colonel Sanders wouldn’t reveal his 11 herbs and spices. But is it simply a matter of flavour …or is there some hard science in the mix? And what are these hidden tricks of the trade?

Chef Secrets is a new documentary that looks at the science behind some everyday dishes, how they are applied, and why they make food taste so delicious. It follows a number of chefs and scientists, cooking everyday things like sourdough bread and mashed potatoes. And it  proposes some intriguing conundrums like what food is solid, liquid and gas — simultaneously? The documentary is produced, directed and written by award-winning documentary filmmaker Leora Eisen whose work has been seen on CBC, Radio-Canada, History, Bravofactual, Smithsonian, BBC Worldwide and Amazon Prime.

I spoke with Leora Eisen in Toronto via Zoom.

Chef Secrets: The Science of Cooking is now streaming on The Nature of Things on CBC Gem.

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 1950s, Canada, Cold War, documentary, Mystery, US, Yukon 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

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