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

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

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

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

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

I spoke with Warren, Max and Theo via Zoom.

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

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

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

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

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

Ravage

Wri/Dir: Teddy Grennan

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

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

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

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Dir: Bert Stern

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

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

Lucky Grandma

Co-Wri/Dir: Sasie Sealy

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Aussie connection. Reviewed: Stateless, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Posted in Australia, Berlin, documentary, Drama, Fashion, photography, Prison, Refugees, TV by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2020

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

Toronto used to be movie city, a place with countless films in production at any one time, competing for access to location shots and studio space. Dozens of screens showing the latest releases and over a hundred film festivals showcasing upcoming hits… but that was pre-Pandemic. Now the city is so dead you can almost hear a pin drop.

But don’t panic, movies are still being shown. The Lavazza Drive-in Film Fest continues at Ontario Place, showing everything from Bollywood comedies to Italian dramas to crowd pleasers from Brazil, the US and China. Go to ICFF.ca for tickets. And if you want to stay home this weekend, don’t miss the Toronto Arab Film Festival, premiering features and short films online from Canada and around the world, today through Sunday. Films are all free or PWYC. For more information, go to arabfilm.ca.

This week I’m looking at two new productions, a glamorous documentary and a human TV drama, both with an Australian connection. There’s an Australian who wants to be deported to Germany, and a German fashion photographer who finds refuge in Australia.

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Dir: Gero von Boehm

Are the high-fashion photographs you see in Vogue magazine revolutionary and sexually subversive looks at our culture? Or are they violent, misogynistic views of women? A new documentary asks these questions about the pictures of renowned photographer Helmut Newton and the story of his life. He isborn in 1920 in Weimar Berlin. His father owns a factory that makes buttons and buckles. By the time he’s a teenager the Nazis are in power. He’s both repelled by and attracted to the fascist imagery of photographers like Leni Riefenstahl – he’s German-Jewish, immersed in the culture all around him but also highly restricted and persecuted by government laws.

He works as an apprentice for a woman named Yva, one of the first to use photographs within the fashion industry. In 1938 he boards a ship with a ticket to Shanghai, but disembarks in Singapore, and from there to Australia, where he spends two years in an internment camp, joins the army, and eventually becomes a fashion photographer. And he marries his life and work partner, June, AKA Alice Springs.

His photos become a smash hit in Europe, where they change the whole look of fashion photgraphy. By the 1960s he’s the first to use nude models in fashion spreads. His images are filled with fear, embarssment and the threat of violence. They often include statuesque women with domineering expressions, chiseled features, athletic bodies and large breasts. Many verge on soft core porn, with images of women dominating men. There are also photos of women as victims of violence, swallowed whole by aligators, missing limbs or brandishing knives.

And, surprisingly, a series of photos showing the erotic violence of roast chickens.

Newton settled into the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood where he died in a car accident, aged 83.

This film takes an unusual tactic. Rather than the narrator intruding into the film, we hear instead from all the women, the actors and models, he worked with: Grace Jones, Isabella Rosselini, Catherine Deneuve, Hannah Schygulla, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithfull, Anna Wintour and many more. They talk about whether they felt liberated or exploited by posing in the nude; what it was like to work with him, and how the final images are often very different from the shooting itself. Many mention how he treated models like puppets, dolls or manequins that convey Newton’s ideas not the models – that’s undeniable. But most say they loved working with him and also liked the shocking and subversive images they played a part in. This film mirrors Newton’s gaze of women and turns it around by reversing the POV to that of those women examining Newton and his work. Very clever.

If you like the aesthetic of glamorous images, high fashion, and stark, nude women’s bodies — that also gives a subjective voice to the women Newton used as objects — you will love this doc.

Stateless

Created by Tony Ayres, Cate Blanchett, Elise McCredie

It’s the 2000s in a remote detention centre somewhere in Australia. High fences stop inmates from escaping, while visitors must line up to pass through security inspections. It’s just another day in the life prisoners in the carceral system. The problem is this isn’t a prison at all and the inmates have committed no crimes. They’re actually asylum seekers, refugees from around the world, who arrive there by boat.

One such inmate is Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi) who is separated from his wife and kids. The family fled the Taiban in Afghanistan only to find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous refugee brokers who steal their savings and set them adrift in leaky boats. Ameer manages to reach Australia on his own, but now he’s locked up in the detention centre and can’t find his beloved family.

Another inmate is Eva (Yvonne Strahovski). Unlike most of the detainees, she’s not a refugee from the developing world; she’s European and just wants to leave Australia for Germany. But she has no papers to prove who she is. That’s because she’s actually an Australian flight attendant on the run from a creepy personality cult.

The inmates are guarded by people like Cam (Jai Courtney) a likeable newlywed from a nearby town. With the decent salary he can afford a new house with a swimming pool. But after a few months of working in the toxic prison-like atmosphere he finds himself morphing from ordinary guy to sadistic torturer.

Then there’s Claire (Asher Keddie) an ambitious federal civil servant. She’s sent there to clean the place up, keep journalists at bay and restore the centre’s reputation. But she arrives to find news helicopters filming despondent Sri Lankan Tamil refugees camped out on rooftop, with others driven to suicide by the horrible and hopeless conditions there. What will happen to the refugees? Will Ameer ever find his family? Why is a mentally ill Australian woman locked up in a concentration camp? And for that matter why are asylum seekers there at all?

Stateless is a six-part drama, based on a true story about actually refugees imprisoned in Australian detention camps, as well as the case of an Australian woman who ended up in one of the camps. It’s a heart-wrenching TV series with powerful acting and compelling characters played out against an extremely bleak setting. I found it really interesting – I wanted to find it what happens and binged-watched it in two sittings. It’s a bit strange though that – except for Ameer – the asylum seekers are all peripheral characters while the three Australian characters all have backstories, histories, neuroses and sex lives. I guess that’s the point – it’s not about asylum seekers, per se, it’s about how poorly the Australian government treats them, and how passionately other Australians fight for their rights.

Stateless is streaming on Netflix, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful is playing now on VOD.

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

Building walls. Films reviewed: The Rest of Us, The Divided Brain, Mr Jones

Posted in 1930s, Brain, Canada, Communism, documentary, Drama, Family, Feminism, Journalism, Movies, Neuroscience, Norway, Thriller, USSR, Wales, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 19, 2020

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

I’m recording this in my home to tell you about some movies you can watch in your home. This week I have two dramas directed by women and a documentary. There’s a psychiatrist looking at the divided brain, two families trying to bridge a gap; and a UK journalist who wants to penetrate the iron curtain.

The Rest of Us

Dir: Aisling Chin-Yee

Cami (Heather Graham) is a divorced mom who writes and illustrates children’s books. She lives in an elegant house with a swimming pool. Her daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) is home from university and hanging with a guy she met. She’s mad at her mother so she lives in an Airstream trailer parked out front. Meanwhile, another mother/daughter family live in another nice house. Rachel (Jodi Balfour) lives with her husband and young daughter Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky). What do they have in common? Rachel had an affair with Cami’s husband 10 years back, and now she’s married to him. But when he suddenly dies, the two moms – and their daughters – are brought together, against their will. Turns out the late husband hadn’t kept up with insurance and mortgage payments, leaving Rachel and Talulah homeless. So they end up moving, temporarily, into Cami and Aster’s home. An odd couple indeed. Can four women with very little in common bond together? Or will they stew in their respective juices making for an intractable situation?

The Rest of Us is a light drama about relationships and make-shift families. It’s short – less than 90 minutes – but the characters are really well done, complete with secrets, back stories and quirks. It didn’t exactly blow me away, but it I liked watching it develop — you do care about what happens to them. A nice, light family drama.

The Divided Brain

Dir: Manfred Becker

The human brain is divided in half. The left brain controls the right side of your body, and the right brain handles the left side. So if you’re right-handed that usually means the left side of your brain is dominant. Beyond that, the two sides are said to process information in different ways: The left brain, or so the theory goes, is more analytical, concerned wth facts and minutiae; while the right brain is more creative; it lets you look at the big picture. This documentary is about the theories of Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and neuroimaging researcher who also studied literature. He lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. He’s the author of The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). Basically, he says we – meaning our history, civilization, educational system, society, not to mention our individual personalities – can be explained by our emphasis on the left side of the brain at the expense of the right side. And it goes on to show research and experiments on the topic as explained by various talking heads. But is it true, and has McGilchrist proven it?

Personally, I don’t buy it. I don’t even believe the basic left side/right side premise. We all use both sides of our brains, so to make it a simple A vs B, is reductionist. And then to extrapolate this theory to cover all of society, communication, and our educational system, while fascinating just isn’t believable. (I have seen the documentary but not read his book, which could explain his work in greater detail.) While the documentary mainly focuses on McGilchrist’s theories, it does include opposing views. McGilchrist is a heterodox scholar, not part of the mainstream. It also includes magnificent drone shots of cityscapes and farms to illustrate the increasing “left brain”-look of ever more geometrically divided landscapes.

Whether or not you agree with these theories, The Divided Brain does leave you with lots of food for thought.

Mr Jones

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

It’s the early 1930s in London. Gareth Jones (James Norton) is a Cambridge-educated young man from Wales. He’s multilingual and works as a foreign policy advisor to the former PM David Lloyd George. But what he really wants is to be an investigative journalist. He’s already had one big scoop: he was on the plane carrying carrying Hitler, Goebels and other top Nazis right after they came to power. Now he wants to go to Moscow to follow a source about a big story there… and maybe interview Stalin!

Easier said than done. But he does manage to get a visa and a few nights at the posh Hotel Metropol. When he gets there, he discovers his source – another journalist – has been murdered. Luckily, he is taken under the wing of a famous foreign correspondent, Walter Duranty (Peter Saarsgard). He heads the NY Times bureau – known as “our man in Moscow” – and he’s won the Pulitzer. He’s also a total sleazebucket. He takes Jones to a party, right in the middle of Moscow, complete with jazz musicians, sex workers, and party favours… like hypodermic needles, loaded with heroin, ready to shoot.

He also meets a Berlin-based journalist named Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby). She trusts Jones and tells him what he needs to know. So he gets on a train with a high-ranked party member who says he’ll show him beautiful Ukraine… but Jones manages to sneak away in the city of Stalino (now Donetsk). And what he sees is shocking. There’s a major famine going on, right in the middle of Europe’s breadbasket. All the wheat is being shipped east, leaving almost nothing for them to eat. He witnesses unspeakable horrors in what is now known as The Holodomor. But he’s arrested before he can file his story. Will Jones make it back home? Can he publish this story? And if he does, will anyone believe him?

Based on a true story, Mr Jones is a combination biopic, thriller and historical drama. It’s a bit too long, and there are a few things I don’t get: for example, the movie is framed by scenes of George Orwell typing Animal Farm, but the story’s about Gareth Jones, not George Orwell. Other than that, the acting’s good (especially James Norton), the story is compelling, and it’s beautifully shot, from the modernistic Moscow hotel to the staid, stone buildings in London. Most of all are the scenes in Ukraine where colour is dimmed to almost black and white with stark snowy landscapes.

A good but harrowing movie.

The Rest of Us is now playing on VOD; Mr Jones opens today online at Apple and Cineplex; check your local listings; and The Brain Divided is available to rent online on Vimeo.com here

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

Different from the norm. Films reviewed: Blood Machines, The Roads Not Taken, Code of the Freaks

Posted in Disabilities, documentary, Drama, Dreams, Family, Hollywood, Science Fiction, Space by CulturalMining.com on May 22, 2020

Audio: unedited, no music

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

I’m still recording at home in the midst of this pandemic, but movies are still being released, just not theatriclly. So this week I’m looking at three new indie films that celebrate the unusual. There’s a psychedelic pilot in outer space, a man with dementia retreating into his innermost thoughts, and a radical re-look at the disabled in film.

Blood Machines

Dir: Seth Ickerman

It’s the distant future on a desolate planet in outer space. The spaceship is headed by Vascan (Anders Heinrichsen) with second-in-command Lago (Christian Erickson), along with a glowing metallic robot as its brain. It’s a ramshackle outfit, held together with nuts, bolts and duct tape. But they are surprised one day by a huge, snakelike machine that crash-lands nearby. Vascan ventures outside to neutralize it, but he’s stopped by a small group of all-women warriors, their hair dyed bright red. Don’t hurt her they say, referring to the AI-powered machine. Her? And when Vascan attacks the machine, something remarkable happens. A naked woman emerges from the wreck and flies up into the sky. She has a flawless body with the image of a glowing, upside down crucifix covering her groin and lower torso. What is she, a friend or foe? And why is she there?

Blood Machines is a surreal, psychedelic science fiction fantasy, told in three short chapters. The lines are delivered in comic book fashion, accompanied by brilliant electronic music (by Carpenter Brut). Vascan looks like an angry Jared Kushner in a tailored suit with Members Only epaulettes, while Lago is more like the original Scotty (on Star Trek) with a hangover. They are later joined by Corey (Elisa Lasowski) who adds rivalry and sexual tension to the mix –the giant laser gun Vascan likes to brandish, keeps malfunctioning when Corey’s around. There are holograms, fight scenes and writhing naked bodies. There’s not much of a story to speak of, but it doesn’t matter – It’s saturated with hot pinks, violets and acid greens, powered by constant musical thrumming, and loaded with endless science fiction tropes, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Beautiful to watch and to listen to.

The Roads Not Taken

Wri/Dir: Sally Potter

Leo (Javier Bardem) is a middle aged man who is not all there. He lives in a spartan NY apartment beside the El-train. His daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), a career woman in her twenties, has the morning off to take him to the dentist and the eye doctor. But when she arrives he’s almost comatose. He barely responds to her questions. Is he just a hollow vessel with no spark inside? In fact his mind is elsewhere, caught between two other lives progressing simultaneously.

In one alternate reality, he lives with his first love Dolores (Salma Hayek) in an adobe home in the desert with rose coloured walls and bars on the window. She wants him to come with her to a Day of the Dead celebration to communicate with someone they lost. In a second life he’s a novelist on a picturesque Greek island where he writes and chats with tourists in open-air tavernas. But back in the present day his life is miserable. He’s prone to wander at night, barefoot and unaware. He drinks the dentist’s mouthwash and wets his pants, and calls strange women Dolores. Can Molly get through to her dad? And can he accept reality or will he retreat permanently into the recesses of his mind?

The Roads Not Taken is a grim look at the miserable life of a man suffering from dementia living a life he regrets, mitigated by the kindness of his daughter and the vibrant world he lives in inside his head. I have mixed feelings toward this movie. On the positive side, it has a stellar cast: Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek and Laura Linney as his ex-wife. But the narrative is fragmented among the three worlds, and not entirely satisfying. Elle Fanning is sympathetic, but how many times can a character have tear-streaked cheeks in one movie? She never turns off the waterworks. The musical score is great, and the cinematography is really effective, with a constant movement – trains, taxis, pickup trucks – that neatly ties together disparate scenes. Still, this movie just didn’t deeply move me. Sally Potter may be a great director, but this film is not one of her best.

Code of the Freaks

Dir: Salome Chasnoff

Are disabled people hideous villains or saintly, childlike freaks who need to be rescued? People with secret superpowers? Or ones who desire either to die or to be “cured”? All of the above, if you go by Hollywood movies. This new documentary looks at 100 years of film portrayals of people with disabilities and finds it sorely lacking in real-life characters.

The doc consists of movie clips – everything from The Miracle Worker, to Rain Man, to My Left Foot — alternated with brilliant commentary by artists, writers, academics and activists. There’s no group-think here, more of a cross-section of ideas from the community. And it covers very wide ground. Like the portrayal of sex and disabilities. White women are eroticized by upping their vulnerability, while black men are neutered, made non-threatening and asexual. And, as one commentator points out, you virtually never see two disabled people having sex with each other.

Blind people have “super-power hearing abilities” (Daredevil) or a carnal need to touch other people’s faces (!? ). If you have a mental illness or disability, you have no self-control, and are liable to explode… so you have to be either institutionalized, or killed, before you “hurt someone” (eg Of Mice and Men). Little people are turned into figures of fun. Wheelchairs are made symbols of limitation, not the vehicle they use to get around. (Are drivers ever described as “confined to cars”?)

The doc pinpoints some of the most offensive movies of all, skewering the hateful Million Dollar Baby, in which the heroine valiantly chooses death over living with a disability. It’s a running theme in this documentary – a happy ending in a drama with a disabled character means they’re either “cured”, institutionalized, or killed. Even worse are the dreadfully insipid “inspirational movies” where people are congratulated for their “bravery” just for existing, instead of portraying them as real people. The one thing you almost never see are disabled characters portrayed by disabled actors (though that’s gradually improving). Probably because roles like this are too valuable as Oscar Bait for the stars.

Code of the Freaks is a scathing look at Hollywood’s portrayal of disabilities and a radical rethink of the genre. This is a must-see documentary for all moviegoers everywhere.

The Roads Not Taken is available now on VOD; Code of the Freaks was the opening night film at the RealAbilities Film Festival; and Blood Machines is now streaming on Shudder.

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

Serious and sexual. Films reviewed: Seberg, The Jesus Rolls, Beanpole

Posted in 1940s, 1960s, comedy, Crime, Drama, Espionage, France, Friendship, Hollywood, Russia, Sex, USSR, WWII by CulturalMining.com on February 28, 2020

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

Want to watch some grown up movies? This week I’m looking at three unusual films dealing with serious topics — crime, war and surveilance — in a sexualized context. There are best friends in post-war Leningrad, movie stars and activists in 1960s Hollywood, and sex-starved ex-cons in present day New York.

Seberg

Dir: Benedict Andrews

It’s Paris the 1960s, a time of antiwar demonstrations and sexual revolution. Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart), is a movie star of the French New Wave. She is beautiful a striking face framed with short blonde hair. She lives in Paris with her husband, the writer Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) and their young son. And now she’s making her triumphant return to Hollywood. But in the first class airplane cabin, she noticed a kerfuffle . A young man named Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a member of the Black Panther Party, objects loudly to the fact that well-known civil rights activist Betty Shabbaz (Malcolm X’s widow) is sequestered in economy class.  Jean offers to exchange seats, calming the waters. They meet up again in LA and sparks fly, leading to a secret affair. But what neither of them realizes is the FBI is photographing and recording everything they do. J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro program considers activists on the left – and particularly Black activists – as enemies of the state.

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed agent Jack (Jack O’Connell) and his conservative partner Carl (Vince Vaughan) follow the two from inside a painted van, listening in on their most intimate conversations. Soon the FBI’s focus shifts from Hakim to Jean, as the leak salacious details to Hakim’s wife and Hollywood gossip columnists, in an attempt to ruin his status and her career. As Jean becomes increasingly paranoid (and for good reason – she’s being gaslighted by the FBI!) she grows more and more frantic, all observed by agent Jack. His consience is pricked. But will he  do something to stop this persecution of Jean Seberg?

Seberg is a fascinating drama, based on a true story, about the FBI spying on its own citizens regardless of the consequences and moral cost suffered by their victims. It also gives a good look at Hollywood in the 1960s and the interplay among black activists and their white sympathizers. Seberg is part fashion and glamour, part intrigue and espionage.  It feels a bit like The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), where you get to know both the spies and those spied on. While the dialogue and acting seems wooden and clugey at the beginning, it gets better as it moves along, as you get to know and feel for the characters.

I liked this movie.

The Jesus Rolls

Wri/Dir: John Turturro

Jesus Quintano (John Tuturro) is a Puerto Rican American known for his skill at bowling, his sexual prowess and his penchant for pointy purple shoes. He’s on his prison bowling team, and when the Jesus bowls, Jesus rolls. But his term has finished and he’s being released. His old pal Petey (Bobby Cannavale) is at the gate to help him adjust to life outside. But Jesus doesn’t want to adjust; he wants to live his life to the fullest. He immediately steals a vintage, orange muscle car and starts cruising the streets of his small town. He visits his mom, a sex worker, and then hooks up with his ex-girlfriend Marie, a French hairdresser (Audrey Tautou: Emélie). Petey is with him all the way. The three of them embark on a spree of petty crime across the state. They steal and ditch vintage cars, run away from diners without paying, and hold up doctor’s offices.  At night they experiment in bed… but there is one factor missing. Marie enjoys frequent sex but has never had an orgasm. Can Jesus and Petey bring Marie to satisfaction before they are all thrown in jail?

The Jesus Rolls is one unusual picture. It’s a sex comedy, a bittersweet crime drama, and a buddy movie/road movie. Judging by the fashions, hair styles and vintage cars, it seems to take place in the late ’80s, but suddenly an iPhone or smart car will appear dragging it back to the present. It takes a character from one film – Jesus in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski – and transplants him into the plot line of another one: Les Valseuse  (1974, Betrand Blier). Many of the characters are half-naked, half the time, the Jesus character is always over the top, while others are more subtle.

Does it work? Kinda. Depending on the scene and your mood, it’s moving, it’s over-acted, it’s strange, it’s awful, it’s bizarre, and it’s funny. And there are great cameos by the likes of Susan Sarandon, Pete Davidson, Jon Hamm, Christopher Walken, and Sônia Braga.

Beanpole (Dylda)

Co-Wri/Dir: Kantemir Balagov

It’s Leningrad in Autumn, 1945. The war is over, and soldiers are returning home from the front into a bombed out shell of a city. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed “Beanpole”, is a young woman discharged from the army after a head injury. She is extremely tall and gangly, with pale skin and white-blonde hair. And she is prone to absence seizures, frozen in place, incommunicado, until they pass. She lives in a crowded, decrepit apartment with a young boy named Pashka (Timofey Glazkov) whose she treats like her son. She sometimes brings him to her workplace, a hospital for injured soldiers. They play animal charades with the kid who has probably never seen a live animal (food is very scarce.) And everyone is on their best behaviour whenever a glamorous Communist party official named Lyubov (Kseniya Kutepova)  drops by the hospital to congratulate soldiers and offer gifts.

But things change for Iya when her best friend and fellow soldier comes back from the front. Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) is as outgoing as Iya is shy, sexually promiscuous (Iya shies away from contact with men), and short with auburn hair, not tall and blonde like Beanpole. And when Masha discovers Pashka is missing she gets an unshakeable need to to have a new baby, immediately if possible. They meet a couple of young men in a fancy car – the sons of Communist Party apparatchiks. Masha pair up with Sasha (Igor Shirokov) with hope of a future marriage and a normal family. But Iya feels left out. Will Masha and Sasha become a couple? Can Beanpole survive on her own? What is her real relationship with her best friend? And what really happened at the front?

Beanpole is a fantastic story of two young women getting by in Stalinist Leningrad just after WWII. Loaded with pathos but devoid of kitschy sentimentality it exposes the harsh realities people faced. It also shows the unsurmountable class divisions in the Soviet Union, extreme poverty, and the horrors of war. The acting is superb, and the candlelit warmth of the images helps to modify the movie’s dark tone. Beanpole is a wonderful movie you can’t forget. I recommend this one.

Seberg, The Jesus Rolls and Beanpole all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Turning thirty. Films reviewed: Space & Time, Standing Up Falling Down

Posted in comedy, Depression, Drama, photography, Physics, Science, Toronto, US by CulturalMining.com on February 21, 2020

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

Blockbusters are good, but once in a while it’s also fun to watch real people in real situations without any green screens or CGIs. So this week I’m looking at two nice movies, both low budget and independent, that look at the lives of millennials turning thirty. There’s a romantic drama about a physicist and a photographer with a seven year itch, and a dramedy about a drunk dermatologist and a standup comedian with itchy skin.

Space & Time

Wri/Dir: Shawn Gerrard

Sean and Siobhan are a Toronto couple in their twenties.  Sean (Steven Yaffee) is a professional photographer who still develops his prints old-style in a darkroom. Siobhan (Victoria Kucher) is doing her graduate degree in astrophysics but longs to work with a supercollider. They’ve been together for seven years so are spending their anniversary camping out on the Toronto Islands, just the two of them. But something doesn’t click. They wonder if there’s another Sean and Siobhan in a distant parallel usiverse that’s doing better than they are. Like when Sean used to take her picture all day long… and when they made love on every bare surface in their apartment?

But back on earth, Siobhan dreams more about the Large Hadron Collider in Cern than she does if Sean. She wants to study there, in Switzerland… and he can come too, of course. Sean, meanwhile, seems more concerned about whether or not to buy a rice cooker. He also wonders about fellow photographer DD (Risa Stone). She’s pansexual and so much more free-spirited than career-oriented Siobhan is these days. And Siobhan is fighting off scientific super nerd Alvin (Andy McQueen) in her office. Is he cute or just a pain? The couple is still in love, but can they stay together? Are upside forces working against them? And what would happen if they take a break?

Space and Time is a bittersweet romance about a couple turning thirty who is forced to reassess their lives. It looks at desire, love, and the pluses and minuses of living together. It’s an unapologetic indie actually set in Toronto, with recognizable buildings everywhere. It has some glitches. In the opening scenes it frequently cuts to outside images, setting the whole movie up like a graphic novel. But they go away after that scene, as if they ran out of energy.  But it rightly deals with real-life issues… like couples whose main reason for staying together is that it’s too difficult to find separate apartments.

While not perfect, Space & Time works as a gentle, low-budget look at the lives and times of urban millenials in Toronto.

Standing Up Falling Down

Dir: Matt Ratner

Scott (Ben Schwartz) is a failed standup comic. He left his girlfriend in a lurch when things were getting too serious. He swore he’d make it big in LA. But now he’s home again, in long island with his tale between his legs. He’s moved back into his childhood bedroom in his parents house in a working class neighbourhood. He still pines for Becky, but she ended up marrying someone else. He’s jobless, sexless and nearly homeless, with no ready prospects. He even has a strange skin reaction he’s always rubbing. His life is a disaster, until a strange old guy bumps into him in a bar toilet, staining his pants.  Marty  (Billy Crystal) is a funny old man in a fedora, who tells Marty what’s what. Take it easy, he says, and enjoy life. Tell a joke, lighten up. Marty’s an alcoholic dermatologist who cures Scott’s skin problem, gratis.

But he has his own demons to handle. Marty’s adult son won’t talk with him, both his former wives are now dead, andhe doesn’t have many friends outside the bar he frequents. Can this odd couple become good friends? Or are they both carrying too much baggage to let loose?

Standing Up, Falling Down — the title refers to the unusual friendship between a standup comic and an alcoholic — is a sweet story about two lonely people. It’s a working class comedy, but less uproariously funny than warm and witty. A dramedy. Billy Crystal has still got it, and Ben Schwartz is a likeable newcomer (just saw him last week as Sonic the Hedgehog) . Also funny are Scott’s sister Megan () who works in a convenience store. There are lots of dramatic sideplots along with occasional pathos. But it’s mainly about the light interplay between these two comic actors, thirty-five years apart.

Space & Time and Standing Up, Falling Down both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

 

Away from home. Films reviewed: Gretel and Hansel, The Rhythm Section, Rosie

Posted in Action, Drama, Dreams, Espionage, Fairytales, Family, Homelessness, Ireland, Realism, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 31, 2020

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

If you live in Toronto, you have probably noticed that unscrupulous landlords, soaring rents and loopholes like “renoviction” and “demoviction” are driving tenants out of the city. Isn’t housing a human right? So this week I’m looking at three new movies about young women looking for a home. There’s a mother of four who lost possession of her house, a sister and brother lost in the woods; and a university student who lost her entire family in suspicious circumstances.

Gretel and Hansel

Dir: Oz Perkins

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, there was a famine in the land and people were starving. Little Hansel and Gretel live with their mother in a small house. Gretel, aged 16 (Sophia Lillis) keeps her brother happy by telling him fairytales before he goes to sleep. But when their mother, crazed with hunger, attacks them with an axe, Gretel knows it’s time to go. She grabs eight-year-old Hansel (Samuel Leakey) and flees into the woods. Perhaps they can find work at a lumber camp (their late father was a woodcutter.) No such luck. But they do find a strange pointy house painted black, with  the aromas of delicious food wafting out. Hansel sneaks in through a window and starts gorging on all the cakes and tarts, the roasts and stews he finds there. Gretel is more cautious — there’s no such thing a free lunch.

Turns out it’s the home of an old crone with wrinkled skin, and fingers dyed black (Alice Krige). She invites the kids to stay with her in their own room. And she teaches Gretel how to mix potions using her book of spells; She has magic powers — that’s why she lives in the woods. Men don’t like women who know too much. And says Gretel is just like her, she has to harness her magic abilities. But Gretel knows something is wrong. Where does all this food come from? Why is she having dreams about crying children? What’s happening to Hansel? And what’s behind that hidden door in the pantry?

Gretel and Hansel is a reboot of the famous Brothers Grimm fairy tale and it’s no spoiler to say it sticks to the basic story. Differences include their parents don’t abandon them in the woods, there don’t leave a trail  to find their way home, and the witch’s house isnt made of gingerbread. On the plus side there’s a feminist coming of age theme and Alice Krige is terrific as the Witch. Minuses include gratuitous references to The Wizard of Oz, accents that keep changing… and what’s with the pig snort sounds all the characters keep making? I don’t get it.  I love the look of this low budget film — from triangular spyholes to the witch’s forked staff like a divining rod — and the neat symmetry of the plot.

If you love fairytales, you might want to check this one out.

The Rhythm Section

Dir: Reed Morano

Stephanie (Blake Lively) used to be a star student at Oxford. But when he entire family died in a plane crash, her life fell apart. Now she’s a junkie, turning tricks at a low-rent brothel in London, earning just enough to pay for her next fix. Until… she meets a freelance journalist (Raza Jaffrey) who tells her the plane crash wasn’t an accident. It was deliberate, th killer is still out there, and a vast conspiracy is covering it all up. So she makes her way to northern scotland to track down the source.  There she is attacked from behind by a  mysterious bearded man.

He’s a rogue MI6 agent (Jude Law) who knows exactly what happened. She wants revenge on whoever killed her family. He agrees to train her in a violent one-on-one boot camp as long as she does what he says.  Soon she’s working as a hitman flying from Tangier to Berlin, New York to Marseilles to knock off various criminals and spies. And a former CIA agent Mark Serra (Sterling K Brown) sends her from place to place. Who is she really working for? Will she find the killer she’s looking for? And are the men she meets on the way potential lovers, damgerous killers… or both?

The Rhythm Section is a so-so action thriller in the manner of the Bourne series. It has some tense moments a few life-and-death fights, and lots of great chase scenes. Andthe weird, twisting camera work pulls you into Stephanie’s panicked and confused mood (though i was getting carsick after a while). Blake LIvely and Jude Law both play against type as violent, stone-cold killers, and are believable. My biggest problems? It was impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys, the politics are confused, there’s no originality, and the story is extremely muddy. I don’t expect much from an action/thriller, but they really should clean up the plot and make the characters less robotic if they want to turn it into a series.

Rosie

Dir: Paddy Breathnach (Viva)

Wri: Roddy Doyle

It’s present-day Dublin.

Rosie Davis (Sarah Greene) is a devoted young mother with four adorable kids (first time actors Ellie O’Halloran, Ruby Dunne, Darragh McKenzie and Molly McCann) ranging from toddler to tween. Kayleigh concentrates on her homework, Millie is the shy one, Alfie loves bouncing around, and Madison is fine as long as she has her stuffed bunny. Since her husband John Paul (Moe Dunford) works late at a restaurant kitchen, it’s up to Rosie to get the kids fed, cleaned, bathed, brought to school and back, comforted and tucked into bed at night… an almost impossible task.

So imagine what happens when their landlord suddenly evicts them from their own rented home — what can they do? Now her number-one task is finding a place to stay. But with a concert in town, and all the hotels booked solid where can they find a room? Can she keep their kids’ lives normal without anyone noticing they’re suddenly homeless?

Rosie is an intensely personal, hyperrealistic  look at a day and half in the lives of a family in crisis. Viewers are dropped right into the middle of their lives, a short peek at an ongoing crisis. It’s about love, pride, poverty, family, bullying and homelessness, and the fraying social welfare state. It’s filmed with a closeup, handheld camera capturing the cramped claustrophobic setting and the degree of tension they face. It’s sentimental but not cloying, and Sarah Greene is fantastic in the main role. Rosie is intense and will probably make you cry, but if you’re in the mood for some kitchen-sink realism, this is the one to see.

Gretel and Hansel, The Rhythm Section and Rosie all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Critical Mass. Films reviewed: Dolittle, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Les Misérables

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, Animals, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, Family, Fantasy, France, Kids, Language, Morality, Movies, New York City, Police, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three movies. There’s a man who talks to monkeys; a kid who steals a lion, and a movie critic who monkeyed with the way we look at movies.

Dolittle

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

It’s early 19th Century England, in a village called Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Young Stubbins (Harry Collett) a boy out hunting with his dad  accidentally shoots a squirrel. But instead of “putting it out of its misery” as his father suggests, he tries to save it. Stubbins stumbles on a derelict hospital run by the reclusive Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) the legendary animal doctor. The hospital is full of steampunk devices and wild animals — gorillas and polar bears, insects and parrots — wandering around just like people. And even more surprising, Doctor Dolittle can speak all their languages. Stubbins wants to convince the doctor to take him on as an apprentice so he can talk to the animals, too.

But trouble is brewing at Buckingham Palace. Someone has poisoned the Queen! And only the doctor knows the cure, a panacea found in a distant land.  Dolittle and the gang set sail to find it. Can they trick the evil King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) into giving them the map? And will they defeat a tiger, a  dragon, and various palace villains, and manage to cure the Queen in time?

I grew up surrounded by Hugh Lofting’s books, TV cartoons, and movies, and though I wasn’t a devotee, I knew all about the stories and characters. And I don’t love Robert Downey Jr. So I was all set to be disappointed: where’s the chimp? And what happened to my favourite animal, the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu?

But you know what? I liked it! It was cute, full of adventures, close escapes, exciting trips to exotic lands, and all the quirky animals (voiced by Octavia Spencer, Rami Malek, John Cena, and Emma Thompson). Keep in mind, this movie is for little kids, not grown ups, who may find the jokes too stupid, but the exciting scenes and the fast-moving action kept me satisfied. Not a terrific movie, but a very cute one.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

Wri/Dir: Rob Garver

Pauline Kael was a single mom who grew up on a California ranch during the time when movies were still silent and B&W. Her first published review was Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight — she hated it. She ran a movie theatre in Berkeley where she wrote the reviews and descriptions of the films playing there, encouraging locals to see them. She wrote for Macall’s but was fired for not loving big-budget cinema. And she quit her job at The New Repulic because they edited out her writing. She finally found a post at The New Yorker, where she became one of the most influential movie critics in the world.

She’s is known both for the movies she hated (she described The Sound of Music as asexual revisionist treacle, and trashed Kubrick’s 2001!) and those she loved (Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Scorcese’s Mean Streets, Spielberg’s Sugarland Express). Some directors’ careers were made by her patronage, while others lived in dread of her columns.  She rejected the ennui-ridden academic view of Auteur theory, without falling for manipulative Big-budget schlock. She liked trash, mind you, but it had to be good trash.

What She Said is an immaculately researched,spot-on look at Pauline Kael’s reviews,and her influence on audience and filmmakers. It delves into her fascinating life and and undeniable influence without resorting to endless kiss-assery. This movie is a labour of love,  combining vintage TV interviews with Dick Cavett and Brian Linehan, and talking heads — from Tarantino to David Lean — with readings from her work by Sarah Jessica Parker. Best of all, these voices are illustrated by a barrage of 2-3 second film clips from hundreds of movies over the past century that I haven’t seen in a documentary since Los Angeles Plays Itself (2002). (I grew up reading her reviews in The New Yorker — that and the cartoons were all  read — and while I disagreed with her half the time, I always wanted to see what she had to say.)

If you love movies, I strongly recommend this doc.

Les Misérables

Co-Wri/Dir: Ladj Ly

It’s Paris in the high-rise banlieue that circle the city. It’s 35 degrees outside and the crowds are high on the country’s win on the soccer pitch, singing la Marseillaise at train stations. But trouble is brewing…. it seems a lion cub is missing from a travelling Roma circus and the four brothers that run it are threatening a rumble with the locals.

Power here is shared by the secular — led by community leader called Le Maire (Steve Tientcheu); the religious — Salah (Almamy Kanouté), an Imam who runs a kebab shop; and the criminal — a gang of thieves who work directly with the cops. Attempting to keep the peace are the feckless police who mainly harass kids and sex workers. The regular team — an abrasive white guy Chris (Alexis Manenti) and his calmer black partner Gwada, who grew up in the hood (Djebril Zonga) — is joined by a newbie. the wide-eyed Stephane/Pento (Damien Bonnard) is a hick, straight from the farm. But the only ones who really know what’s going on are the local kids, who know every broken fence, every fire escape and back alley — they are watching everything. Especially Issa (Issa Perica) a feisty 10 year old, and his pal the nerdy Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly). Issa is the one who liberated the cute lion cub, and Buzz who records everything from the rooftops with his trusty drone.

But when the cops overstep their bounds and use weapons — which is caught on camera — things start to go really wrong. Chaos reigns.

Can the trouble be defused by the cops and community leaders? Or will the kids triumph? And could this lead to a repeat of the Paris riots of 2005?

Les Misérables (this is not Victor Hugo’s novel, but the location is the same) is an amazing dive into the lives of Parisians in the outer suburbs, their alienation, and the tension brewing there. The acting and story are superb, and I love the way multiple strands are woven together into a seamless whole. It’s nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and, though violent at times, it holds a real love and understanding of the characters portrayed. This is a great movie.

Dolittle opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is opening today at the Hot Docs Cinema, as is Les Misérables at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Jamhil X.T. Qubeka about Knuckle City

Posted in Academy Awards, Africa, Boxing, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Family, South Africa, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 10, 2020

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

It’s Mdantsane, Cape Province, in Apartheid South Africa. A boxing champ tells his young sons Duke and Dudu that there are three ways out of their township: as a boxer, as a mobster, or as a dead man. Flash forward to the present day; their father is dead, and the boys have taken divergent paths. Duke is a flamboyant career criminal just out of prison and Dudu – AKA the Night Rider – is a professional boxer in the twilight of his career. But there’s still a chance at becoming a champion. Can they turn things around? Or will they just be the latest casualties at Knuckle City?

Knuckle City is the name of an exciting new boxing / crime drama out of South Africa. This fast-moving, visceral movie dives deep into the nexus between those two worlds as personified by the brothers, their families and friends. Knuckle City is directed by Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, who has won countless awards across Africa, Europe, and North America. The film had its international premier at TIFF and was South Africa’s nominee for Best International Feature Film Oscar.

I spoke to Jahmil in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM during #TIFF19.

Knuckle City is opening soon.

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