Unexpected adversaries. Films reviewed: White Noise, Violent Night, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Posted in 1980s, Addiction, Art, Christmas, comedy, Conspiracy Theory, Crime, documentary, drugs, Family, Horror, Mental Illness by CulturalMining.com on December 3, 2022

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

It’s December now with snow on the ground, time for movies to get your blood boiling. This week I’m looking at three new movies about unexpected adversaries: there’s an artist vs a philanthropist, Scrooge vs Santa… and Elvis vs Hitler?

White Noise

Wri/Dir: Noah Baumbach,

It’s the 80s in a small rustbelt college town.  Jack (Adam Driver) is a professor in the new field of Hitler studies. Along with his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) they raise their children, from babies to teens, in a modern, blended family. The kids Denise, Heinrich, Steffie and Wilder, are inquisitive  and precocious, and come from various marriages. At work, Jack lectures to worshipful students, and has intellectual discussions with his colleagues. His closest is Murray (Don Cheadle), a prof who specializes in cinematic car crashes, wants to raise Elvis studies to the level of Hitler studies. 

But there is trouble at home. Babette is obsessed with death and dying, and suffers from memory loss and unexplained absences. Denise suspects she’s on prescription drugs — she found a hidden bottle of Dylar, an unheard of medicine.  Meanwhile Jack is terrorized by nightmares and at times actually thinks he’s going to die. All these troubles are pushed aside when a real disaster happens: a truck crashes into a train carrying dangerous chemicals. The result? A toxic cloud floating above the area with unknown effects. The town is evacuated, the family forced to flee by station wagon to Camp Daffodil a weirdly-named military base. Rumours abound at the camp, and no one knows for sure what is happening. Can life return to normal? Will the toxic cloud blow away? Is Babette an addict? Will Jack’s academic secrets be revealed? And where does Dylar come from?

White Noise is a satirical look at dread, suspicion and alienation within an academic setting. It also looks at pop culture, art and the omnipresent consumer economy. I read Don Delillo’s novel when it first came out and I was captivated by the way it captured the dark mood at the time. Noah Baumbach takes a different path, treating the film as a comical period piece where people dress in funny 80s clothes and use obsolete technology. It looks for laughs in scenes like Jack getting tangled up in a kitchen phone cord. I have mixed feelings about this movie. Some parts just seem like running gags about those wacky 80s, turning serious scenes into absurdist jokes. Other parts are brilliant — like the pas-de-deux between Jack and Murray in a joint Hitler-Elvis lecture. Or an actual dance sequence down the aisles of a supermarket in the closing credits. And a cameo by the great Barbara Sukowa as a German nun in a hospital, should not be missed. While I couldn’t get emotionally into the characters or plot — Driver and Gerwig are both good actors but never seem real in this movie — and I felt detached from the film, I did find it interesting and visually pleasing. 

Violent Night

Dir: Tommy Wirkola

It’s Christmas Eve, and the Lightstone family are  gathered on their vast, private estate. Gertrude (Beverley D’Angelo) their autocratic matriarch, puts on an elaborate dinner each year with servants dressed as Nutcracker Suite characters. Her adult two adult children Cam and Alva, their spouses, and the grandkids Gertrude and Bertrude, (known as Trudy and Bert)outdo one another sucking up to her, to get their share of the family’s wealth. Everyone, that is, except little Trudy (Leah Brady), who doesn’t want any money or presents from Santa. She just wants her estranged parents back together again. 

This year, though, something goes terribly wrong: the costumed caterers turn out to be highly-trained paramilitary criminals, there to murder everyone and steal millions from the safe. They’re headed by a bitter man, nicknamed Scrooge (John Leguizamo) who hates Christmas. Little Trudy escapes from the family, hides in the attic, and calls to Santa Claus by walkie-talkie for help. And, to everyone’s shock, a drunken, bearded man in Christmas gear (David Harbour) comes to their rescue. He’s the real thing, but only Trudy believes in him. Can Santa and Trudy fight off dozens of ruthless killers? Can her parents overcome their differences? And can a worn-out, depressed and alcoholic Santa hang on for one more year… or is this the end of Christmas for everyone?

Violent Night is a comedy/action movie about a good little girl and a hard-ass Santa fighting cruel killers using horrific violence of their own. It’s a combination of two Christmas classics: Home Alone and Die Hard, but with the gore-level pumped up a few notches. Trudy’s booby traps turn out to be deadly, while Santa channels his past life as a Viking to wreak havoc with a hammer named Skullcrusher. Does this movie work? Totally! David Barbour (from Stranger Things) is great as a nasty Santa who pukes and pisses off his sleigh. He takes a licking but keeps on kicking. Newcomer Leah Brady as Trudy is cute — maybe too cute — but good enough. And most of the rest of the characters are sufficiently unlikeable to keep the story going. So if you’re looking for a fun and twisted action movie in time for Christmas, Violent Night fits the bill. 

All the Beauty and The Bloodshed

Dir: Laura Poitras

Nan Goldin is an artist known for her photographic portraits of the demimonde, with louche images of drugs, sex, and self-destruction. She rose to fame in the 1980s with her ever-changing performances of “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”, which combined music and a slide show of her pictures. But far from being a dispassionate observer of the lives of strangers or, worse, an ogler of outcastes, Goldin explicitly documented the lives of her closest friends and herself, including drag queens, junkies, artists and musicians, in various stages of undress. This was also the era of AIDS, which decimated the NY City art scene. Goldin recorded this, too. It was also the start of Act Up and other movements demanding attention from the government and Big Pharma.

Flash forward to the 2000s, when pharmaceutical corporations, through doctors, were strongly pushing prescriptions of opiates as non-addictive relief from the worst levels of pain. In fact they’re highly addictive, and one addict was Goldin herself. Though she kicked the habit, many were still dying from overdoses of opioids. And she noticed something strange. A major sponsor of the galleries and museums that displayed her work were sponsored by noted philanthropists The Sackler Family. And the Sacklers made their fortune through Purdue Corporation, peddling drugs like Oxycontin.  We’re talking the Louvre, the Met, Tate Modern, and the Guggenheim, among others. So she started a protest group called P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) which stages protests in the Sackler wings of museums world-wide.

All the Beauty and The Bloodshed is a fantastic documentary that records Goldin’s life and art, and her battle with the Sacklers. It’s engrossing and revealing, a work of art in its own right. The film includes contemporary footage as well as snapshots and films from Nan Goldin’s own personal history. She’s the cinematographer while the director is Laura Poitras, responsible for the world-changing doc Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed is a rare case of a political documentary that is also respectful of art. It’s visually and audibly stunning and though almost two hours long, it’s totally engrossing; one of the best documentaries of the year.

White Noise is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto; All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, is playing there and at Hot Docs cinema; while Violent Night opens this weekend across North America; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Drew Hayden Taylor about The Pretendians on CBC

Posted in Canada, Disguise, documentary, Education, History, Indigenous, Métis, TV by CulturalMining.com on October 8, 2022

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

For years, many indigenous people have been trying to blend in, struggling to make it in a white world, to be offered the same opportunities, to be treated equally in a court of law, and to receive the benefits that everyone else in the country is entitled to. Many have hidden their backgrounds because of the pervasive bigotry and discrimination they might face.

But recently, there’s been a strange reversal, where white Canadians are trying to pass as native. Whether it’s for financial gain, as a fashion accessory, to find inner value or to help their careers, they are a factor to be reckoned with. What are we to make of these “pretendians”?

The Pretendians is a new documentary that delves deeply into the lives of some of these alleged pretend indians, their opponents, and how it affects us all.  It’s made by the well-known novelist, columnist, playwright and humourist Drew Hayden Taylor, from the Anishinaabe Curve Lake First Nation. I last spoke with Drew about his CBC series Going Native.

I spoke with Drew Hayden Taylor in Toronto via Zoom.

The Pretendians is currently streaming on The Passionate Eye on CBC Gem (S02 E03).

Daniel Garber talks with Buffy Sainte-Marie about Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On at #TIFF22

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Academy Awards, Canada, Cree, documentary, FBI, Folk, Indigenous, Music, Protest by CulturalMining.com on September 17, 2022

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

Buffy Sainte Marie was born to Cree parents on a reserve in the Qu’Apelle valley Saskatchewan but was adopted and raised by a  family with Mi’kmaq roots in Massachusetts. She grew up musically-inclined and sang folk songs in Yorkville and Greenwich Village coffee houses. Her dynamic guitar style and distinctive vibrato set her apart.

The songs she wrote and performed climbed the charts and were covered by hundreds of other musicians, from Elvis to Donavan, Joni Mitchell to Barbra Streisand. Her song Universal Soldier became an anthem of the anti-war movement while Now That the Buffalo’s Gone did the same for the American Indian Movement. She starred in movies and on TV, became a regular on Sesame Street, won countless awards, and was the first — and for many years only — indigenous person to win an Oscar.

Her story is told in a new documentary by Madison Thomas called Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On. Narrated by Taj Mahal, Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell and others, and Buffy Ste Marie herself, it combines period footage and personal photos,  dramatizations, and lots of music and concerts, both vintage and new.

I spoke to Buffy Sainte-Marie on site at TIFF22.

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On had its world premiere at TIFF and is opening at the Hot Docs Cinema later this month.  

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

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

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

Photos of Lauren DeFilippo and Sam Soko by Jeff Harris.

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

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

Free Money had its world premiere at TIFF. 

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

Indigenous films at TIFF22. Movies reviewed: Ever Deadly, We Are Still Here

Posted in Australia, Canada, documentary, Drama, History, Indigenous, Inuit, New Zealand, Nunavut by CulturalMining.com on September 10, 2022

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

TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival is back again with guns ablazin’, after a two-year hiatus. Yes, TIFF didn’t actually stop over the past two years — there were some great films online in 2020 and some in-person shows during last-year’s hybrid version, but very few people were in actual attendance. No celebs, no parties, no volunteers, no lineups, and no red carpets. When the anti-piracy laws popped up on your home screen, there was no crowd there to say Grrrrr. You couldn’t turn to the stranger sitting beside you and ask what did you think of this movie. It felt more like a simulacrum than an actual event.

Well, this year it’s on again, 

They’re sticking a toe in the water to see how it feels. It’s called the TIFF Experience (whatever that means) and you can experience it right now, if you go down to King Street West in Toronto, between Peter and University. Even if you’re not up to going indoors yet, they’re showing outdoor screenings of classic movies. On stage, there are free concerts, and there are always sponsors handing out free samples to munch on, street performers, people dressed up, fans waiting to photograph arriving celebrities, the whole kit and kaboodle. This is pre-recorded so I can’t promise that’s what it will be but that’s prediction. It’s actually fun. That’s just on this weekend, so if you’re in Toronto, you should drop by.

This week I’m talking about two new movies playing at TIFF, both on indigenous peoples in the two antipodes. There’s throat singing in the far north and a new telling of history,  far, far south of the equator.

But first here are a few other TIFF movies I can’t wait to see. 

MOVIES AT TIFF

Chevalier (Stephen Williams) is about a little-known Guadaloupe-born composer in Paris during Mozart’s era. I want see it because it stars Kelvin Harrison Jr, one of the best new actors around who creates an entirely new character for each movie he’s in to the point he’s virtually unrecognizable.

Steven Spielberg has a world premier at TIFF with The Fablemans, his first autobiographical movie. Why do I want to see it? I’m just really curious to see what he did.

Women Talking is based on a book by Mirriam Toews about a Mennonite-type colony. It stars Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Sheila McCarthy, Frances McDormand, but I really want to see it because it’s directed by Sarah Polley.

The Kingdom Exodus is about a weird Danish hospital. It’s a TV show, something I rarely bother to watch at TIFF, and I know nothing about it, but the reason I want to see it is it’s directed by Lars von Trier, and I’ll watch anything he makes, no matter how painful.

And finally I hope to catch The Hotel, about a bunch of Chinese people stranded in a hotel in Thailand during 2020’s Spring Festival, just as the pandemic lockdown hit. I want to see it because it’s directed by Wang Xiaoshuai, who is an under-appreciated but skilled and thoughtful filmmaker.

Ever Deadly

Dir:Tanya Tagaq and Chelsea McMullan

Tanya Tagaq is an Inuit throat singer and performance artist from Nunavut. Ever Deadly documents a performance accompanied by musicians and singers. It’s experimental, avant-garde music interspersed with stories and poems recited as part of the concert. Throat singing is a traditional Inuit art form, but she also experiments with it, in a unique, highly sexual, sensual, visceral, animalistic and at times even supernatural voice. If you’ve seen her before you’ll know what I mean. The film is also about her family’s history, and that of Canada. Her nomadic grandparents were forcibly relocated to a barren arctic area, with nowhere to hunt or fish, in order to claim sovereignty of the land along the northwest passage. Chelsea McMullan also includes stunning scenes of the stark arctic landscape, polar bears, migrating birds, aurora borealis. And not just the visuals but also the sounds like the unique squeaking crunch of walking on pebbles on a beach. There are vintage footage and photos contrasting lawmakers in parliament with Inuit kids gleefully eating bloody raw seal meat. And grotesque, highly-sexualized animated drawings.

If you’ve ever seen Tagaq perform you’ll know exactly why you should see this, but if you haven’t, it’s time for you to experience it.

We Are Still Here

Dir: (Various)

At the height of the British Empire maps were coloured pink on every continent, showing both colonies and the so-called Dominions, areas, like Canada, Australia and New Zealand that were settled by Europeans who make up most of their populations. But these places weren’t empty when the British arrived. 

This film rewrites the history of Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific as seen from an indigenous point of view. It’s made by eight filmmakers, four each from Australia and Aotearoa, and it consists of a number of scenes set in the past, present and future. The first British ships appear on the horizon to a mother and daughter catching fish. A settler lost in the bush demands an aboriginal guide show him the way back to his town. A Maori village debates whether to go to war against settlers, ending in a Haka war dance. And a soldier in the trenches of Gallipoli, has an unusual conversation with his enemy, a Turkish soldier. There’s also a dystopian view if the future, and a number set in the present day, including a clandestine graffiti artist and a young protestor. One of the most moving ones is about an ordinary guy, a tradesman, just trying to buy a bottle of wine from a grog shop (liquor store), who is stopped each time by an abusive cop because he’s indigenous, and it’s Northern Territory where, apparently, it’s legal to routinely treat some people as second-class citizens.

I shy away from reviewing short films because they’re too short and there are too many of them. But We Are Still Here functions as a feature film, telling all the stories not as individual short films, but interwoven into a common coherent thread, jumping back and forth between then and now. It’s nicely done and relevant, very moving, and made by indigenous filmmakers. And it helps restore parts of history that have up to now been erased.

We are Still Here and Ever Deadly are both playing at TIFF;  Festival Street is open all weekend.

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

Non-TIFF movies. Films reviewed: Nightclubbing, Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul

Posted in African-Americans, Christianity, comedy, documentary, Music, New York City, Punk, Religion, Satire, Sexual Harassment by CulturalMining.com on September 3, 2022

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

TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival starts in less than a week, and kicks off fall film festival season in Toronto. 

I‘ll be bringing you lots more about TIFF later, but don’t forget the other festivals on this month. Caribbean Tales International Film Festival runs from Sept 7th through the 23rd; The Toronto Independent Film Festival is on from September 14 – 17; and the Toronto Palestine Film Festival opens on September 22nd.

But this week I’m talking about a couple movies not playing at festivals. There’s a documentary about the rise of punk rock in New York City, and a mocumentary about the fall of a Baptist preacher in Atlanta. 

Wri/ Dir: Adamma Ebo

It’s springtime in Atlanta, Georgia, and churchgoers are preparing for Easter. It will also be the date of the triumphant re-opening of a Baptist megachurch, under the direction of Pastor Lee-Curtis Childs (Sterling K. Brown). Along with his wife, “First Lady” Trinitie Childs (Regina Hall) are looking forward to the triumphant return of their flock. But he has important issues to deal with  — like what suit should he wear — his pink Prada, his purple Prada or his periwinkle Prada. Presentation is important. Trinitie, likewise, has been shopping for a particular beaded church hat, the perfect combination of beauty, wealth and reserve. But so far the response has been less than stellar; only a handful of true believers show up for the first Wednesday night service. 

The Pastor is known for his fiery, passionate preaching, about things like the “sins of homosexuality” and other such vices. But he fell from grace after his own sexual dalliances came to light. Nothing illegal — “consenting adults” and all that — but his reputation as a trusted guide and healer is in tatters. Meanwhile a rival church has sprung up down the road. Run by a younger couple, Keon and Shakura Sumpter (Conphidance, Nicole Beharie), their church has no dark clouds hovering overhead. A few of the faithful have stuck with the Pastor, but most of them switched churches. Can Lee-Curtis and Trinitie convince their flock that all is well and it’s time to come home? Can Trinitie stand by her husband after what he did? Or is this the beginning of the end?

Honk for Jesus, Save your Soul is a satirical social comedy about hypocrisy in religion. The title refers to one of their many attempts to get people to come back to the mega-church’s reopening. The film is done in the form of a documentary, an invisible crew that follows them around, unwittingly exposing their embarrassing or horrible behaviour. (Through no fault of her own, the “First Lady” suffers the effects of his misdeeds.) This alternates with off-camera moments, like Lee-Curtis and Trinitie attempting to have sex in bed (apparently, for a man with a mission, he doesn’t want anything missionary-style just from behind with his eyes closed, to her great disappointment.) 

Does this movie work? Only partly. It’s a comedy but it’s rarely funny. The camerawork is well done — from their gaudy suits and the royal thrones they sit on, to poignant images like a tiny black Jesus statue wheeled out in a last attempt. And the acting is very good: Sterling K. Brown perfectly plays the pastor as a conceited show-off, bearing his near-naked body whenever possible. Regina Hall as the always suffering Trinitie — who has to face the vitriol of her former friends — gives a nicely  sympathetic performance. But the movie itself drags. There are few surprises. It feels way too long, and it’s not very funny… it just makes you squirm uncomfortably. Honk for Jesus all you want, but don’t rush to see this one.

Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in New York City

Wri/Dir: Danny Garcia

Its the 1960s in a rough neighbourhood in Manhattan. Max’s Kansas City is a restaurant with an upstairs bar and lounge, where musicians perform before small audiences. Its down the street from Andy Warhol’s factory whose denizens hang out there along with writers and artists. But everything changes when the Greenwich Village mainstay, The Gaslight, loses its lease. Its manager moves to Max’s and starts booking bigger and bigger acts. Velvet Underground, establishes its rep there, as a place for independent bands. Iggy Pop meets David Bowie at Max’s and start to collaborate, and the New York Dolls set up camp there. As its fame grows, punk becomes a phenomenon with lots of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Max’s washrooms double as a notorious site for quickies. Someone in the film says they everyone there was high all the time, with heroine the drug of choice. Malcolm McLaren shows up after Sid Vicious leaves the Sex Pistols and becomes the Doll’s manager, bankrolling their rehab in exchange for them wearing his clothes on the stage. Though CBGBs ends up more famous, it’s Max’s that really starts the punk scene in NY.

Nightclubbing is an oral history of the early days of the NY punk scene told by the musicians themselves, their fans and followers, staff at the clubs, family and friends. Featured artists include Billy Idol, Alice Cooper, Penny Arcade, Sylvain Sylvain, and many many others.

Illustrated with still photos and archive footage, it is meticulously researched and edited into a continuous seamless narrative. And the music never stops.  Some people are on the screen for just a few seconds, with maybe a simple line or two, while others, like Jayne County, provide the funniest and juiciest bits.  And it’s a pretty juicy story. Like did you know Deedee Ramone’s girlfriend tried to pull a Lorena Bobbitt on him when she discovered he was hustling on 53rd st? Or that Max’s owners were busy counterfeiting hundred dollar bills in the back room? The club closed forever in 1981, but its legend lives on. If you’re into the history of early NY punk, Nightclubbing is a must-see.

Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in New York City will be playing at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto on September 16th-18th; and you can catch Honk for Jesus, Save your Soul across North America starting 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

Humans and other animals. Films reviewed: We Are As Gods, Beast

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Africa, Animals, Climate Change, Conservation, documentary, drugs, Family, Hippies, psychedelia, South Africa, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on August 20, 2022

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

This week I’m talking about two new movies, about humans and other animals. There’s a man who wishes he’d never met a lion face to face, and another man who wishes woolly mammoths walked the earth again. 

We Are As Gods

Wri/ Dir: David Alvarado, Jason Sussberg

Stewart Brand is a man who was at the centre of many of the 20th century’s biggest changes, including psychedelic drugs, environmentalism, personal computers, hacking, and The Whole Earth Catalog. Born in a small city in the midwest he liked playing with wild animals as a child, making friends with squirrels, ‘possums and ducks. He studied biology at Stanford, but by the early 60s wound up in San Francisco, around the time of Ken Kesey’s experimentation with psychedelic drugs. He joined the Merry Pranksters, dropping acid, dancing around and generally having a wild hippie good time.

This was during the Space Race, when the US and USSR were competing at the exploration of outer space. But what Stewart wanted was a photograph of the earth from up there. He publicly and loudly demanded such a photo, and eventually someone took it. It became the cover of a technologically friendly, do-it-yourself guidebook called the Whole Earth Catalog, which embraced environmentalism and conservationism through DIY tools and simple technology. Filled with geodesic domes and quonset huts, it showed how to co-exist in a natural setting. A huge bestseller, it inspired many within the baby boomers’ burgeoning youth culture.

He was also around in the earliest stages of Apple computers, inspiring both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Fast forward to the present: Stewart Brand is back in the spotlight, attempting to change the world by “de-extincting” long-lost plants and animals. He points out how entire species that used to dominate North America — from the American chestnut tree to the passenger pigeon — which were wiped out over the course of a few decades about 100 years ago. But their DNA remains, and, he says, with some genetic tweaking, they could be restored. Why is this so important?  Because our system is made up of complex, intertwining and interdependent species and when even one disappears it causes a major natural reorganization.

But that’s not all. Building on the work of Pleistocene Park in Siberia (the subject of another doc), he promotes the reintroduction of large animals (like wooly mammoths) into our biosphere. Maybe new flocks of pre-historic elephants, camels, wild horses and buffalo now missing from these areas will help stop global warming by allowing the permafrost to survive. 

We Are As Gods is a documentary about Brand, his life and his ideas. The title comes from an epigraph from the Whole Earth Catalogue. Yes, some his ideas sounds ridiculous at first listen, but the film makes a believable argument for a real-life Jurassic Park (Pleistocene actually) — despite the dangers it could pose. He’s also a really interesting character, both smart and ridiculous — he admits to mistakes such as inhaling a tank of laughing gas (nitrous oxide) each week for a couple of years. The movie includes period footage, TV videos, still photos and new interviews with friends, his ex-wife, family members and various scientists. Lots of  interesting stuff, packed into one documentary.

Beast

Dir: Baltasar Kormákur

It’s summertime in South Africa. Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) a well-off physician from New York, arrives in a remote game park with his two daughters, Mer and Norah. Mer (Iyana Halley) is angry at her father, but but is swept away by the beauty and grandeur of the African bush. Her little sister Norah (Leah Jeffries), is more innocent and naive. This visit is a homecoming of sorts. Their late mom (she died of cancer in New York) came from a nearby Tsonga village where she met their dad. They were introduced by Uncle Martin (Sharlto Copley), as the kids call him. He’s a game ranger who helps stop poachers from killing the animals, and he’s their host. He shows them giraffes and wildebeests and introduces them to a pride of lions one of whom he raised — they all run to him like playful pups. Lions are social animals, he explains. The lionesses hunt for food, while the lions protect the pride if threatened. Otherwise they don’t attack people.

Which is why all of them — including Martin — are shocked and frightened when, later, another lion violently attacks their jeep. It seems poachers had killed his entire pride except him, leaving only the rogue beast looking for vengeance — and they’re not his first target. But can a middle-aged doctor and his two teenaged girls fight off a lion three times their size? Or are they all doomed?

Beast is a dramatic thriller set amidst the spectacular beauty of South Africa. After a mundane start, it quickly turns into a heart-thumper, as one impossible situation follows another as the four of them try to escape this monster. Idris Elba portrays Nate as a neglectful dad but a caring doctor, devoted to saving patients not killing animals. But he also has to connect with his daughters who don’t completely trust him. (He was never around when their mother — his wife — was dying).

I assume the animals were all CGI, but they’re believable enough that you can’t tell. The music spans the continent with tunes from Nigeria to South Africa. I have to admit I saw the trailer and the movie looked pretty bad — a rich American going to Africa to shoot lions? But that’s not what it’s about at all. Though not deeply moving,  it’s actually a fun movie with a compact story and all-around good acting. It’s directed by the under-appreciated Icelandic filmmaker Baltasar Kormákur; I’ve seen a few of his movies (like Contraband, 2 Guns, The Deep), and he’s always really good at manipulating sympathetic characters through enormous disasters. He’s not afraid of moving the viewer deep into swampy water, up trees, on top of small mountains or through disorienting tunnels, so you feel you’re a part of it all. So if you’re looking for some well-made thrills, check out Beast.

You can catch Beast this weekend across Canada, check your local listings; and We Are As Gods opens today in select US theatres, and on VOD in September. 

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 Mark James about Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, documentary, Jamaica, Music, Reggae by CulturalMining.com on August 13, 2022

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

It’s the 1960s in Kingston, Jamaica.

Randy’s is a legendary record store, a place where fans of music — and the musicians themselves — could listen to the latest hits. And upstairs, on the second floor, there’s a studio, a place where new tunes are being recorded, and their music — ska, reggae and dub — is being released worldwide. All the greats — people like Sly and Robby, Dennis Brown, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Lee Scratch Perry, Bob Marley and the Wailers — all spend time there, with some songs climbing to the top of the charts. The studio is run by husband-and-wife Vince and Pat Chin. But when the mood in Kingston changes from peace and calm to violence and gun wars, the studio is forced to close, the Chins move to New York, and the building is battered by storms and robbed by looters… but what happened to all those recordings?

Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes is a new documentary that looks at that recording studio, the people who made it work, and the music itself, boxes and boxes of rare, reel-to-reel tapes that somehow survived until now… when the tapes are being faithfully restored, archived and rereleased. The film includes interviews with many musicians, and the Chins, illustrated with hundreds of period photos and video clips, along with non-stop music taken from those legendary recordings. This feature documentary is the work of award-winning director and cinematographer, Mark James. A student of fine arts at London’s Goldsmiths College, and film production at the Royal College of Art, he has made docs about Damien Hirst, and Bryan Ferry, as well as horror films like Vampire Diary.

I spoke to Mark in Montreal, via ZOOM.

Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes is having a special Toronto screening on August 15th at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, as part of a national tour.

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

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

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

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

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

My Old School

Dir: Jono McLeod

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

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

Ali & Ava

Wri/Dir: Clio Barnard

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

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

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

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

Ali & Ava is a sweet and joyful film.

Vengeance

Wri/Dir: BJ Novak

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filming the Impossible. Movies reviewed: Fire of Love, Come Back Anytime, Nope

Posted in 1970s, Cooking, documentary, Food, France, Horror, Japan, Romance, Science by CulturalMining.com on July 23, 2022

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

You know how I’m always talking about big-screen movies, how they show you things that you don’t get on a TV, device or phone? Well, movies don’t just walk to your cinemas, they take a hell of a lot of work to get there. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to get them on the screen. 

So this week I’m looking at three beautiful movies, two of which are about filming the impossible. There’s a ramen chef who reveals his secret recipes; brother-and-sister ranchers who try to take pictures of a UFO; and husband-and-wife scientists who try to film volcanos, up close, as they erupt.

Fire of Love

Dir: Sara Dosa

It’s the early 1960s in France. Katia and Maurice Krafft meet at a scientific conference, and never part. Katia is a petite geochemist with a pixie haircut, while Maurice is a geologist, twice her size, with a face like John C Reilly. The two are so fascinated by volcanoes. That they call themselves Volcanologists. They go to anti-war protests and eventually marry, honeymooning on Santorini island in Greece (an active volcano, naturally). They form a team of two, investigating and recording on film, volcanoes around the world. Dressed in metallic space suits, they measure everything from the arcs that volcanic bombs (large chunks of molten lava) take as they are expelled into the air, to the degree if acid in water pools nearby. And most of all, the volcanoes themselves. Each volcano has a unique personality and should be approached in a different way. But they make one distinction. Red volcanoes are safe if you take precautions. They’re caused by tectonic plates pulling apart, exposing the magma beneath. Molten lava spills out and flows in a clear path, and can be filmed from a relatively close distance. Grey volcanoes, though, are caused by tectonic plates crashing into each other, expel ash into the sky. When they explode, they can be more powerful than an atom bomb, leading to landslides and widespread death and destruction. The power of the earth, the Kraffts say, dwarfs anything mankind can attempt. But they photograph and film it all, providing much of the images of volcanoes the world sees. The Kraffts died in 1991 while following their passion at the eruption of Mt Unzen, a grey volcano in Japan. Their bodies were never found.

Fire of Love is a stunningly beautiful documentary about Katia and Maurice in their search for active volcanoes around the earth. It is illustrated by their own extensive footage, including surprising and breathtaking images from Iceland to Zaire to Krakatau, Indonesia. They went where no one else dared. Wistfully narrated by Miranda July, the film also looks at their long-lasting love affair, devoted to each other and volcanoes. Beautifully illustrated by animated drawings it delves into their private thoughts including Maurice’s fantasy of rowing a canoe down a river of molten lava as it spills into the open sea. You’re probably familiar with the volcanoes in movies and TV shows, but this doc takes you right into the middle of them, like nothing you’ve seen before. Spectacular. 

Come Back Anytime (また いらっしゃい)

Dir: John Daschbach

Over the past decade, ramen has become popular worldwide with dozens of restaurants opening everywhere. It’s considered a classic Japanese dish, but in Japan it’s thought of as Chinese food. Ramen first gained popularity in Yokohama’s Chinatown. It consists of noodles in a hearty broth made of pork or chicken bones — typically flavoured with salt, miso, or soy sauce — and topped with roast pork and vegetables. 

After WWII, it became wildly popular in Japan, with ramen stalls opening on every street corner. This documentary follows Ueda, the chef, along with his wife, of a particular ramen shop. It shows us, season by season, one year of its existence, including a behind the scenes look at what goes into that bowl of ramen you’re probably craving right now. (My mouth started watering about five minutes into the film.)

Come Back Anytime is a very low-key, realistic look at a ramen shop — not one that’s famous or prize-winning, not a chain or a corporation, not one that uses fancy or unique flavours like dried sardines — just an ordinary ramen place. But its devoted clientele — some of whom have been going there for 30 years — would argue that this place is something special. It consists of scenes in the restaurant, up at his farm where he grows vegetables, and interview with customers, family and friends. While nothing remarkable, this gentle, ordinary doc leaves you with a nice warm feeling inside, like after eating a hot bowl of ramen.

Nope

Wri/Dir: Jordan Peele

OJ Haywood and his sister Emerald (Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer) are unsuccessful horse wranglers who live in a huge wooden house on a dry-gulch ranch somewhere in southern California. Em is outgoing, selfish and spontaneous; she loves listening to LPs full blast. OJ is a monosyllabic cowboy, prone to pondering, and is more comfortable with horses than with people. While he’s on the farm taming mustangs, she’s out there trying to get rich and famous in LA.Their dad built up a big business in Hollywood, providing horses for westerns, but they’ve fallen on hard times, especially since Pops died in a freak accident. Now they’re forced to sell their horses, one by one, to Ricky (Steven Yuen) who runs a tacky cowboy theme-park nearby. Ricky is a former child-actor whose hit sitcom was cancelled, years earlier, when his co-star (a chimpanzee) ran amok on set. 

But something else is happening on the ranch. Power turns off spontaneously, metallic objects seem to fly around, and what might be a UFO keeps appearing in the distance. Em thinks they can get rich if they can just capture on film a clear, “Oprah-quality” shot of the UFO. Problem is their security cameras fizzle out whenever the flying saucer appears. So they make a trip to a big box store to buy some better quality equipment. And that’s when they meet Angel (Brandon Perea) a cashier there who is totally into both electronic surveillance and UFOs. He volunteers to help them . But have they bit off more than they can chew?

Nope is a weirdly excellent western / mystery / horror movie with a good amount of humour. It bombards you with shocking, seemingly unrelated events, but eventually they all make sense. While Peele’s previous movies, Get Out and Us, were small, drawing room horror, this one is grand and expansive, with sweeping skies and rolling hills, horseback chases and terrifying attacks from above. Daniel Kaluuya is great as the almost mute cowboy, Keke Palmer hilarious as Em, with Steven Yuen as a slimy actor-turned-entrepreneur and Brandon Perea as an enthusiastic third wheel rounding off a great cast. It has wonderful cinematography and art direction: your eyes are flooded with bright oranges, greens and reds. There’s a bit of social commentary — how blacks were erased from Hollywood westerns, as well as just the general ersatz creepiness of American pop culture;  and there are also the meta aspects — after all, this is a movie about making a movie — but Nope is mainly just entertainment. And that’s what it did. I saw it on an enormous IMAX screen and enjoyed every minute of it. 

Come Back Anytime is now playing at the Toronto Hot Docs cinema; you can see Fire of Love at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Nope opens on IMAX this weekend worldwide; 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

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