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

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

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

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

The Automat

Dir: Lisa Hurwitz

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

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

Dope is Death

Wri/Dir: Mia Donovan (Inside Lara Roxx)

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

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

After Yang

Dir: Kogonada

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

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

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

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

Career change. Films reviewed: Nightride, Jockey

Posted in Animals, Crime, Drama, drugs, Horses, Movies, Northern Ireland by CulturalMining.com on March 6, 2022

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

Professions don’t necessarily last forever. Some people retire early or change jobs. This week, I’m looking at two new movies — a realistic drama and a thriller — about men leaving their longtime professions. There’s a jockey in Phoenix pondering his final ride, and a drug dealer in Belfast trying to complete his last deal

Nightride
Dir: Stephen Fingleton

Budge (Moe Dunford) is a small-time drug-runner in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who wants to change his life. He has a Ukrainian girlfriend and a teenaged daughter, both of whom he loves dearly. He plans to get out of the drug trade entirely but needs a bit of cash — 60 thousand quid, to be exact — to start a new business. He and a friend are signing the lease in the morning to open a new body shop. He got his share from a loan shark, and the borrowed balance has to be returned by midnight. Before that, he just has to pick up 50 kilos in a white van, and drop them off with the buyer. He’s done it dozens of times, and nothing ever went wrong before, so he’s not really worried.

Famous last words…

Something does go wrong — he’s being tailed by someone, probably a cop. He has to pass the pickup to an underling so he won’t get caught with the evidence. But the loan shark’s thug is on his back, the buyer is getting cold feet, and his teenaged daughter is seeks real-time advice about her date. And then the worst possible outcome — the van with the drugs goes missing. The cops are circling, and loaded guns enter the picture. Are his future plans ruined? Will he live or will he die? And has he unwittingly pulled his daughter, best friend and the love of his life into a dangerous world he’s always kept separate?

Nightride is not-bad thriller, with a bunch of twists and turns that keep you interested. It’s a single-shot movie, with no cuts and and recorded by a single camera. And I like Moe Dunford as the main character. Good thing, because he’s basically the only one in the movie! Why? you may ask. Because the whole thing was shot during a Covid lockdown, so all we see — aside from a few crucial scenes —  is him driving his car around while talking on his phone to various invisible voices. I know, we have to pull together in these troubled times, blah, blah, blah, but this doesn’t make for a good movie. I’ve seen a number of these lockdown films: Jake Gyllenhaal as a 911 cop in the bad The Guilty; Naomi Watts as a jogger-mom in the awful Lakewood; and KJ Apa as a bike courier in the atrociously laughable Songbird. So in that company, Nightride is fantastic by comparison. But in the wider world of action thrillers, a movie about a guy driving a car while on the phone… just doesn’t do it.

Jockey
Dir: Clint Bentley

Jackson (Clifton Collins Jr) is an ordinary man in Phoenix, Arizona. He likes fishing, playing poker and waking up early in the morning. What’s special about him is his skill as a jockey — he has ridden many prize-winning racehorses to victory. He may be a bit long in the tooth now, but he’s still legendary at the race tracks. He works alongside Ruth (Molly Parker) a horse trainer. She raises the animals and handles relations with the owners, — Jackson has little time for those dilletantes. And the two of them are like white on rice. They never keep secrets.

Their relationship changes when Ruth becomes an owner herself. She’s raising a filly that’s perfect for Jackson to ride, and could be a real prize-winner. He feels the same way, and would love to take her all the way to the top.

But he is keeping one secret: his spine is severely damaged from years of accidents at the racetracks. The only doctor he’s seen about it is a veterinarian. And a twitch he first noticed on one side starting with his fingers is getting worse. And there’s a second problem. A young jockey named Gabriel (Moises Arias) seems to be following him around. What does the kid want? Is he trying to take over? He confronts him, and Gabriel blurts that Jackson is his father the result of a fling he had with his mom 20 years ago. Is he telling the truth? Will Jackson retire after riding his last great horse? Can he pass his secrets to his new-found son? Or will his back injury cut everything short?

Jockey is a beautifully-made film about a legendary jockey in his declining years. The storyline is fictional, and the three main characters are played by actors, but it’s shot semi-documentary-style in the midst of a real world we rarely see. And it’s a rough life. Actual jockeys share their battle scars and injuries with their chums, and the dangers they face each day. Cameras are placed right under the horses as they speed away at the start of a race. And most scenes are shot right at dawn, capturing the vast glowing Arizona skies. Clifton Collins Jr gives a subtly perfect performance as Jackson; if I didn’t know he was an actor I’d have thought they found a jockey and made a film about him.

This is a great picture that deserves to be seen on a big screen.

Nightride is now available on VOD, and Jockey opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; 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

 

In depth. Films reviewed: The Velvet Underground, Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, The Power of the Dog

Posted in 1920s, 1960s, Addiction, Canada, drugs, Indigenous, LGBT, New Zealand, Uncategorized, Western by CulturalMining.com on November 20, 2021

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

We are all flooded each day with new images and stories, both broadcast and online, but don’t they all seem to be fleeting and ethereal, lasting no longer than the average news cycle or two. Rarely do we get in-depth examinations of anything. But movies can do that, opening your eyes to deeper thoughts. So this week I’m looking at three new movies — a western and two feature-length docs —that look at things up close. There’s cowboys in Montana, First Nations in Alberta, and avant-garde rockers in Greenwich Village.

The Velvet Underground 

Wri/Dir: Todd Haynes

It’s the early 1960s. Lou Reed is a Brooklyn-born teenager who lives in suburban Long Island.  He’s depressed and his parents send him for electroshock therapy. He teaches himself guitar listening to doo-wop and rockabilly on the radio. Later at university in Syracuse, he studies under Delmore Schwartz. He goes to Harlem with his girlfriend to buy hard drugs and writes poems about furtive sex with men he meets in dark alleys. John Cale is the son of a coal miner in Wales who studies classical music in London. They meet in the Village and start a band within the  exploding world of avant-garde film, music, art and poetry. Velvet Underground plays long, drawn-out tones with a dark drone grinding in the background, combining Reed’s dark lyrics and Cale’s musicality (he plays viola in a rock band!) They perform at Andy Warhol’s Factory and Nico, the enigmatic European actress, completes their sound. Though never a huge success and breaking up after a few years, the Velvets influenced generations of musicians.

This two-hour doc looks at the band itself (Reed and Cale, along with Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison) and where it fit within New York’s burgeoning underground scene. Aside from the usual suspects, it talks about or interviews unexpected faces, musicians Jonathan Richman and Jackson Browne, and experimental  filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Jack Smith. Aside from its meticulous retelling of group’s history, it’s the look of this doc that really blew me away.  Todd Haynes exploits that era’s avant-garde film techniques, from split screens to three-quarter projections, along with a good dose of 60s pop culture. And there’s a constant stream of music from start to finish, including rare tracks of early songs before they found their groove. I had to watch The Velvet Underground on my laptop but this beautiful documentary deserves to be appreciated on a movie screen.

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy

Dir: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

It’s the mid-2010s and opioids are ravaging the Kainai Blackfoot First Nation in Alberta (that’s the largest reserve in Canada). Families are torn apart, and hundreds of lives are lost. The abstinence and cold-turkey programs just aren’t working, especially for the most marginalized, who end up homeless in cities.  So instead they start up harm reduction centres like those pioneered on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. This highly-personal documentary follows a number of addicts — of both opioids and alcohol — as they enter harm-reduction treatments and through its various stages. It’s spearheaded by the filmmaker’s own mother, Dr Esther Tailfeathers, a physician, but also includes Social workers, EMS, nurses and councellors, in drop ins, detox centres, hospitals and clinics, both on the reserve and in nearby cities like Lethbridge.

As the title suggests, caring and empathy saves more lives than punishment, threats or abstinence. Rather than kicking people out, it embraces them while standing by to treat overdoses, and on a bigger scale helping them find purpose and meaning, along with food, shelter and medical care. The doc also looks at the intergenerational causes that led to these addictions, from broken treaties to residential schools. Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is gruelling in parts — and not an easy film to watch — but it is one that turns despair into hope.

The Power of the Dog

Wri/Dir: Jane Campion

It’s the 1920s. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is durned mean cuss. He owns a ranch in Montana with his brother George (Jesse Plemons), and regularly drives cattle with his posse of young cowboys. They always stop by a roadhouse run by the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her skinny sensitive son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil went to one of them Ivy League schools in the east, but they don’t know nuthin about the life of a cowboy. He learned everything from an older buckaroo when he was just a lad, and now keeps a shrine to him in his stables. But like I said, Phil is a mean bastard who directs his venom all around him. He calls his brother fatso, and when George marries Rose, Phil torments her and drives her to drink. And he calls her son Pete a pansy. Until… Pete discovers Phil’s secret. He finds his illicit porn stash and catches him in a hidden grove luxuriating in mud-covered self-love. That’s when Phil changes his mind and decides to mentor Pete in the old cowboy ways. But is that what Pete is really after?

I walked into The Way of the Dog at TIFF expecting a conventional Western, but I saw something much bigger than that. It’s a subversive twist on a classic genre. It’s set in the 1920s, avoiding the blatantly racist portrayals of indigenous people in most Westerns (the “Indians” in “Cowboys and Indians”) which take place in the 19th century when settlers were slaughtering them with impunity in their western migration. This one is set 50 years later.  There are also no hold-ups or show-downs; guns don’t play a major war in this Western. It’s directed by Jane Campion who won big time awards for The Piano thirty years ago, but I hadn’t heard much about her for a long time. So I wasn’t expecting much. But this film really shocked me with its gothic tone, complex characters and twisted plot. The interplay between Cumberbatch and Cody-Smit is fascinating. All of this played out against the wide, western skies (it was actually filmed in New Zealand) makes The Power of The Dog a really great movie.

The Velvet Underground  is playing theatrically in Canada for one night only, Sunday, Nov 28th at 8 pm, at the Rogers Hot Docs cinema in Toronto; and Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy opens today, also at Hot  Docs; and The Power of the Dog just opened at the Tiff Bell Lightbox.

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

Self-reflexive. Films reviewed: Akilla’s Escape, Truman & Tennessee, Censor

Posted in 1950s, 1980s, Canada, Crime, documentary, drugs, Gay, Horror, Jamaica, Toronto, UK, Writers by CulturalMining.com on June 18, 2021

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies — a crime drama, a horror movie and a documentary. — that also look at themselves. There’s a possible killer named Akilla, a horror movie about horror movies, and a doc about two famous gay writers… who write about themselves.

Akilla’s Escape

Co-Wri/Dir: Charles Officer

It’s present-day Toronto. Akilla (Saul Williams) is a smart and well-read guy, who was born in Jamaica, grew up in Queens NY, and ended up in Toronto as a teenager. He has built a career with a successful grow-op he calls “the farm” for twenty years, but feels it’s time for a change. There’s been a rash of gang violence and he wants out. But on the same day, he interrupts a robbery gone wrong, leaving dead bodies in its wake. Most of the remaining local gangsters get away with two bags full of cash and drugs which should be in the hands of organized crime. But one of them — whom Akilla knocks out during the robbery — is still lying unconscious on the floor. And when he pulls off his mask, he sees young Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana), a 15-year-old boy who reminds him of himself at that age. He doesn’t want to hand him over to the mob because they’ll kill him… but he also needs to recover the stolen cash and drugs — otherwise he’ll be the one to suffer.  Can he get Sheppard to confess, avoid a hitman from the Greek mob, and catch a fugitive killer… without dying himself?

Akilla’s Escape is a complex and engrossing crime drama set within Toronto’s Jamaican community. Through a series of flashbacks, it’s told in three parallel stories about people dragged into a life of crime largely against their own will: young Akilla in Queens, Sheppard in Toronto, and adult Akilla in the present day. It’s nicely shot in a distinctive style coloured with reds and yellows to differentiate the different time periods. Saul Williams is really good as Akilla, both thoughtful and intense; and, in a twist, Sheppard and the 15-year-old Akilla are both played by the same actor, Thamela Mpumlwana! 

Interesting movie — I like this one.

Truman & Tennessee: an intimate conversation

Dir: Lisa Immordino Vreeland 

Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams first met in the 1940s when they both were rising stars.  Capote was still a teenager while Williams was in his late twenties. And they both were gay authors.  Tennessee was a compulsive writer dedicated to his craft, while Truman yearned for celebrity, not just success. Tennessee wrote a series of incredibly successful plays, most of which were later turned into hit movies, all about the lives, loves  and tragedies of southern woman. You’ve probably seen at least some of them: The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, to name just a few. Truman Capote wrote novels, memoirs and true crime reports, like In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Other Voices, Other Rooms. They went on vacations together, along with their long-term lovers, to exotic locales in Italy and Morocco.

They both drank heavily and popped pills supplied by the notorious “Doctor Feelgood”. But by the 1970s their fractious friendship ended in bitter rivalries.  Truman wrote a story with a character based on Tennessee, whom he described as “a chunky, paunchy, booze puffed runt with a play moustache glued above laconic lips who has a corn-pone voice.” In response, Truman is said to have “gone so far in his shtick that all his work will be seen now in the shimmer of a poised stiletto”. 

This documentary is composed of scenes from their films, still photos (by photographers like Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton), and a few key TV interviews (with David Frost and Dick Cavett). Visually it’s experimental, with lush green leaves, trees and rippling water superimposed kaleidoscopically on much of the period footage, giving the film a drifting, ethereal feel.

It’s narrated by the authors themselves, as voiced by actors Zachary Quinto (Star Trek) as Tennessee Williams and Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) as Truman Capote. It’s full of personal details of their superstitions, phobias, addictions, jealousy, loneliness and lust. Did you know that Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe, not Audrey Hepburn, to play Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which was based on an actual friend of his)? And Tennessee Williams tells all his viewers to walk out of his movies just before they’re over, because, he says, Hollywood’s happy endings ruin them all. These just give you a taste of all the secrets revealed in this movie.

If you like these two writers, you must see this doc.

Censor

Co-Wri/Dir: Prano Bailey-Bond

It’s the mid-1980s in Thatcher’s Britain. Enid (Niamh Algar) works for the censor board. In teams of two they rate, classify, cut or ban the many videos flooding the country. She’s meticulous in her work, logging frame by frame any images she thinks show too much. Scenes that don’t make the grade include a gouged eyeball that “looks too realistic”, or “excessively visible genitalia”. Pressure is especially strong these days because the tabloid press blames a rise in crime on the prevalence of “video nasties” — low-budget horror movies washing up on the sacred shores of Albion.

Things get worse when a gruesome real-life murder seems to mimic a scene from a horror movie she once approved. And once the papers print her name, she is inundated by paparazzi, journalists and non-stop anonymous obscene phone calls to her home. Meanwhile, at work, she is visited by a particularly sleazy and salacious film producer, who says she would be perfect to star in his next movie. Turns out his past video nasties include a film about two teenaged sisters, one of whom was violently killed. Thing is, Enid’s own sister disappeared after a walk in the woods when they were both still little girls, and she has made it her life-long goal either to find her or find out what happened to her. Is this film somehow related to her and her sister? Is the film studio a murder machine, making snuff films? Or is it all in her head?

Censor is a psychological horror pic that traces a bureaucrat’s slide from proper office worker into the depths of violence and depravity. It’s about the making and censoring of those low-budget horror movies in the 80s, but it’s also a horror movie in its own right. Its style matches the videos it’s sampling —  the music, sound effects, costumes — giving the whole film a surreal feeling.

This is good, over-the-top horror.

Akilla’s Escape is now playing on VOD; Truman & Tennessee: an intimate conversation opens today digitally at the Rogers HotDocs cinema; and Censor also opens today on your favourite VOD platform.

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

Canadian Film Day! The Courier, Bloodthirsty, The Marijuana Conspiracy

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Cold War, drugs, Espionage, Lesbian, Mental Illness, Music, Toronto, UK, USSR, Werewolves by CulturalMining.com on April 16, 2021

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

Hey, did you know next Wednesday is Canadian Film Day? Yeah, I know all the theatres will be closed but you can still attend Canadian movies all across the country. Things like 11 new short films from emerging filmmakers, called Light(s) at the End of the Tunnel; online discussions, and lots of films you can watch on TV or streaming online. Go to canadianfilmday.ca for details.

This week I’m looking at three new movies, two of which are Canadian. There’s tokes in Toronto, Spooks in the Soviet Union, and lycanthropes in Alberta.

The Courier

Dir: Dominic Cooke

It’s 1960 in Moscow and the space race, the arms race and the cold war are in full swing. Oleg Pankovsky (Merab Ninidze) is a high-ranked officer in Soviet military intelligence. He has access to secret documents,  and knows something big and potentially dangerous is coming. And he doesn’t like Kruschev’s inflammatory speeches. It feels like the USSR and the USA are heading toward all out nuclear war. So he decides to do something. He leaks a bundle of documents to the American embassy with a promise of more to come. But Oleg is too important for the  CIA and the MI5 to risk exposing him by using one of their own agents.

So, instead, a CIA agent named Emily (Rachel Brosnahan) and her MI5 counterpart approach a mild-mannered British businessman who already conducts trade behind the Iron Curtain. Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is just an ordinary fellow, who lives in a modest London home with his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and their young son. And he wants nothing to do with it. He’s untrained and uninterested. But when he learns that the fate of the world may be at stake, he agrees. All he has to do is continue what he was always doing — making deals and signing import and export contracts. And regular meeting with Oleg to carry secret documents back to London. Heh’s a courier. But as tensions rise moles on both sides are revealing secrets. Wynne and Oleg both face growing suspicion, and their home lives suffer (Wynne’s wife thinks he’s having an affair). And when something goes wrong both Oleg and Wynne are in grave danger. Will they be discovered? Can they safely make it to the west? Or is their fate already sealed?

The Courier is a gripping historical spy thriller set at the height of the Cold War, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s exciting and mysterious, filled with quirky realistic characters. It’s also based on an actual case. On the other hand, it regurgitates Cold War politics as if it’s still 1960.  The KGB was surely a nasty agency, but so were the CIA and the MI5. They were all busy assassinating leaders, supporting coups, installing dictators and thwarting democratic elections worldwide. But in this movie it’s “Russians bad, Anglo-Americans good”.

Keep that in mind, but it doesn’t detract from the gripping story, and excellent acting. I liked this one.

Bloodthirsty

Dir: Amelia Moses

Grey (Lauren Beatty) is a singer-songwriter in Edmonton, Alberta. She’s a vegan and an animal lover who treats everyone, even the four-legged, with love and respect. She lives with her long-time girlfriend  Charlie, an artist (Katharine King So).  Her first album was a smash hit, but now she’s facing two problems: First she has writer’s block and sophomore blues — she’s afraid her second album will suck. She’s also  on prescription meds to battle a strange phenomenon: frequent, realistic nightmares about gorging on raw flesh, dripping with blood, and similar hallucinations when she’s awake.

So, when a famous but reclusive record producer named Vaughn Daniels (Greg Bryk) invites her to his home to record her next album, she jumps at the chance. Charlie is less enthusiastic. Why does he live in a house in the woods. And isn’t he a convicted murderer? (Actually he was charged but never convicted.) So they drive up north. He takes Grey under his wing, so she can let her mind free. It’s not writer’s block it’s your inhibitions that are holding you back, he tells her. He takes off her meds, plies her with hard liquor and tries to get her to eat raw meat.  And Grey notices she’s changing — she’s creating good, dark music,  but her head is filled with violent ideas. Why did Vaughn choose her? What is he after? And why do dead animals and humans — ostensibly killed by wolves — keep turning up near his home?

Bloodthirsty, as the title suggests, is a dark and brooding, horror movie about werewolves and music.  It’s spooky but not all that scary. It’s a low-budget movie with a very small cast and low-rent special effects. And it could have used a bit more humour… and a scarier-looking house. (Vaughn’s lair just looks strange.)

What’s great about this movie is the way it combines the creative process of composing and writing lyrics with supernatural bloodlust! That is totally original, and and Lauren Beatty as Grey does it really well (with a beautiful voice, too). 

The Marijuana Conspiracy 

Wri/Dir: Craig Pryce

It’s 1972 in downtown Toronto. Trudeaumania has swept across Canada but here in True Blue Ontario, the Tories are worried. Rumour has it that Trudeau — Pierre, not Justin — might legalize marijuana. So they commission a study of the dangers of the demon weed. 20 young women, age 18-25 are paid subjects at the Addiction Research Foundation, (later merged with CAMH). They’re given rooms to live in, food and recreation for three months. What’s the catch? They’re not allowed to leave the premises and  have to smoke cannabis every day. The doctors observe the results but don’t interfere. And to measure the long term effects the patients weave macrame wall hangings out of hemp and beads, and they’ll be paid upon completion of the study for each one they successfully finish (that measures motivation.)  What they’re measuring is whether smoking grass impedes work production. (There’s also a control group in the study identical in every way except they don’t smoke.)

The movie focuses on a few of the subjects. One is homeless, another is upper middle class, a third is hippy who wants to move to a commune in Vancouver, and one whose father is serving time for drug possession. There’s also intrigue, sex, humour music, and friendship. And it touches on sexuality, race, psychiatry, politics and many other issues. Here’s the biggest twist: This is not a documentary! It’s base on the actual study but this is character-driven drama about the the young volunteers, and the doctors, nurses, and grad students they interact with.

This is such an unusual movie, it really grabbed me, both for the characters and drama and surprises, but also the weirdness of it all — and because it actually happened right here in Toronto.

The Courier is released today on PVOD; The Marijuana Conspiracy opens across North America on Tuesday, April 20th, and you can pre-order Bloodthirsty beginning next Friday.

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

Against the Grain. Films reviewed: Judy vs Capitalism, Monkey Beach, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted in 1960s, Canada, Depression, documentary, drugs, Ghosts, Indigenous, Magic, Police, Politics, Poverty, Protest, Resistance, Trial, War by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2020

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

Toronto’s Fall Film Festival Season continues with ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival, the world’s largets indigenous film festival, and Rendezvous with Madness, the first and largest arts and mental health festival in the world, both running through Sunday, the 25th.

This week I’m talking about three new movies – a doc, a drama and a courtroom pic – about people who go against the grain. There’s a young woman resisting ghosts, another woman fighting anti-abortion activists; and boomers protesting the war in Vietnam.

Judy vs Capitalism

Dir: Mike Holboom

Judy Rebick is a well-known activist and writer in Toronto. As a former Trotskyite revolutionary turned writer and TV commentator, she’s a pro-choice feminist and socialist known for slogans like “Radical is Practical”. She can be seen everywhere, from CBC panels to tent-city protests. A new documentary looking at her life divides it into six stages: Family – her dad was a baseball player quick to pick fights; Weight – she says she has a pair of hips “like two battleships”; Feminism – women’s bodies and the violence they face; Abortion – her hands-on role in legalizing reproductive rights in Canada; Others – her struggles with depression and mental health; and End Notes – her views on various political topics, like the rise of neo-liberalism, the war in Gaza, and as head of NAC, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

Did you know she single-handedly fought off a man trying to stab Dr Henry Morgantaler with a pair of garden shears? This film includes footage of that in slow motion. Each section begins with a speech – some mundane talks in lecture halls, others shouted through a bullhorn at a rally. Judy vs Capitalism is directed by artist/filmmaker Mike Holboom in his patented style: clear sound and straightforward narration, combined with avant-garde images: slow motion, high speed, underwater photography, blurred and melting visuals, random faces… basically Holboom’s interpretations of Rebick’s moods, memories, thoughts and ideas rather than the typical clips you might expect in a conventional biography.  Judy vs Capitalism is an experimental look at a Canadian icon.

Monkey Beach

Dir: Loretta Todd (Based on the novel by Eden Robinson)

Lisa (Grace Dove) is a young woman who lives in East Vancouver. She’s been there for the past two years with nothing to show for it but a bad hangover. Till her friend Tab tells her it’s time to go home, back to her family in the Haisla community in Kitimat. So she does. Her family is shocked but delighted to to see her – they weren’t even sure she was still alive. There’s her mom and dad, her little brother Jimmy (Joel Oulette) a swimming champ, and her Uncle Mick (Adam Beach) who told her at an early age to say “f*ck the oppressors!” Then there’s her grandma Ma-Ma-Oo (Tina Lameman) who taught Lisa everything she knows… including things she doesn’t want to know. Like why a little man with red hair keeps appearing. A crow talks to her, and ghosts (people who should be dead) appear to her in real, human form. (Tab, for example, was murdered but she’s still around.) Worst of all are the dreams and premonitions she keeps having – that her brother Jimmy, the swimmer – is going to drown. Are her powers a gift or a curse? Can she ever live normally? And can she keep Jimmy out of the water?

Monkey Beach is a good YA drama filmed in the gorgeous forests and waters of Kitimat in the pacific northwest, with a uniformly good indigenous cast. It incorporates traditional Haisla culture and practices with contemporary, realistic social problems, sprinkled with the supernatural. And it flashes back and forth between the present day and Lisa’s childhood. I like this movie but I can’t help but compare it to the CBC TV series Trickster, which is edgier, faster-moving and more complex. They’re both based on Eden Robinson’s novels – Monkey Beach was her first, showing many of the themes later explored in Son of a Trickster. That said, if you’re a fan of Trickster, you’ll want to see Monkey Beach, too.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Wri/Dir: Aaron Sorkin

It’s the summer of ‘68 in the USA, and the youth are restless. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had just been killed, with demonstrations springing up across the country. The US is embroiled in an increasingly senseless war in Vietnam and it’s an election year. So droves of young people converge on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, to have their voices heard. The protests are brutally crushed by police and state troopers. Nixon is elected in November, and the protest leaders, known as the Chicago 7, are arrested and put on trial. The defendants are from the SDS – Students for a Democratic Society, a radical group that sprung out of the labour movement – led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the Yippies, founded by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin who use performance and pranks to forward their agenda; anti-war activist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch);  and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) co-founder of the Black Panther Party, known both for its militant image and progressive social programs. The charge? Conspiracy, even though these group leaders had never met one other.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is two-hour film that manages to condense hundreds of days of testimony into a few key scenes. This includes a shocking re-enactment of the binding and gagging of Bobby Seale in the courtroom. The script’s pace is fast, the production values excellent, and the acting is superb, especially Baron-Cohen in an unusual funny-serious role, Mark Rylance as their lawyer, William Kunstler, Frank Langella as the unjust judge Julius Hoffman, and Lynch as the veteran pacifist. Women are invisible in this film, except as receptionists, wives-of and one undercover FBI agent. I was glued to the screen the entire time. Still, it leaves me with an uneasy feeling Aaron Sorkin has done some subtle, historic slight of hand. He portrays the anti-war movement as mainly about honouring and saving the lives of American soldiers, not Vietnamese civilians. It buries the aims of the defendants beneath petty squabbles. And somehow he takes a protest aimed squarely at Democratic politicians — the hawks and conservative Democrats in a city and state run by that party — into a Democrats vs Republican division…!

Hmm…

Judy vs Capitalism is at Rendezvous with Madness; Monkey Beach is at ImagineNative, both through Sunday; and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now streaming on Netflix.

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

More coming of age movies. Films reviewed: Kajillionaire, Summerland, Nadia, Butterfly

Posted in Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Crime, drugs, Family, Japan, LGBT, Quebec, Road Movie, Sports by CulturalMining.com on September 25, 2020

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

TIFF is over but Toronto’s fall film festival Season has just begun, but with a difference this year. Many of the festivals, here and abroad, that were cancelled in the spring are now popping up in the fall. Look out for Inside Out, The Cannes film fest, SXSW, Toronto’s Japanese film fest, Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Planet in Focus, Rendezvous with Madness, ReelAsian, ImagineNative, Toronto Palestine Film Fest – which is on right now – and many more.

This week, though, I’m looking at three new indie coming-of-age movies. There’s an Olympic athlete who swims the butterfly; a gay virgin playing catfish with a guy he meets online; and a young woman born under the net of a family of grifters.

Kajillionaire

Wri/Dir: Miranda July

Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is a young woman born into a family of scammers. With her mom and dad (Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins) they plan low-level cons and split the proceeds three ways. Most of it goes to pay for food and rent: they live in an office located directly beneath a bubble factory that extrudes pink foam into their home twice a day. They’re always working; no time wasted on frivolities like holidays, presents or birthday dinners. No phoney-baloney words like “dear” or “hon”. Even her name is a scam: they called her Old Dolio after an elderly homeless guy who won a lottery, in the hope that he would leave her all his money when he died. (He didn’t.)

So Old Dolio grows up emotionally stunted and starved for affection. Now she’s in her early twenties living a loveless and strangely sheltered existence. She’s nervous and introverted. But everything changes when Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) – a voluptuous young woman her parents meet on a plane – says she wants to join their gang and pull off a big con. She’s Dolio’s exact opposite: self-confident, sexy and talkative. Someone she can spend time with. But is she a friend? A rival? A mark? Or something else entirely?

Kajillionaire is a weird and wonderful dark comedy, laden with odd, quirky characters. Evan Rachel Wood is fantastically deadpan as the awkward, stilted Dolio. It’s told in a series of linked tableaus about a strange family of socially inept, but inoffensive, criminals. It’s also a coming-of-age drama about a 26-year-old woman experiencing life away from her domineering parents for the first first time. Great film.

Summerland

Dir: Lankyboy

Bray (Chris Ball) is a naïve gay virgin in love. He met a guy named Shawn on an online, Christian dating site, and now they’re going to meet in person. The planned meeting is at a music festival called Summerland in a southwestern desert. Bray wants to go there with his best friend Oliver (Rory J Saper) – a young guy from London in America on a student visa. They share a house together. Oliver’s dating a beautiful young woman named Stacy (Maddie Phillips) who lives in a mansion but wants to leave it and move in with Oliver. She can’t stand her stepfather. There are three problems: Oliver’s visa has expired so he has to move back to England (but Stacy doesn’t know). Bray has been texting Shawn using Stacy’s selfies. Shawn thinks he’s been communicating with a girl, not a gay guy named Bray. And the car they plan to use has broken down. So Tracy decides to join their road trip to Summerland using her stepdad’s RV.

They set off on a journey down the west coast, passing through Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Las Vegas. Stacy wants to listen to audio books on an ancient Sony Walkman to improve her mind. But Oliver has other plans. He has a briefcase full of strange, new psychedelic drugs for them to sample on their way. Oliver and Stacy are constantly having noisy sex in the RV, while Bray is holding out for his one true love. Will they make it to Summerland? Will Oliver tell Stacy he’s moving back to England? Will Bray ever meet Shawn? And if he does will he admit he’s the one who’s been catfishing him – pretending he’s a woman online – all this time?

Summerland is a simple, endearing road comedy. It’s full of interesting characters they meet on the way, like Oliver’s honey-badger drug dealer, an existential new age philosopher, and a gay black wizard named Khephra who enters Bray’s brain.

Summerland is a funny movie, easy to watch.

Nadia, Butterfly

Wri/Dir: Pascale Plante (Fake Tattoos)

It’s the 2020 Summer Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan. Nadia (Katerine Savard) is an Olympic swimmer from Québec. She’s been training since the age of ten and now, in her early twenties, is one of the fastest butterfly swimmers in the world. She lives a highly regimented life: home schooling, intense training, and a restricted diet. She’s massaged, prodded, tested and poked all day long – her body is a communal effort. But this will be her last competition – she’s retiring from competitive swimming to go back to school. And she leaves on a high note, winning a bronze medal in medley with the other three on her team: bilingual Karen (back stroke), newby Jess (breast), and her best friend Marie Pierre (Ariane Mainville) on freestyle. The two have been training together for a decade; Marie — she’s in her early thirties — is like a big sister to Nadia. And now that their races – and drug tests – are finished, she vows to take Nadia on a blow-out weekend inside the Olympic Village and out and about on the streets of Tokyo. Nadia’s been around the world, but only seen its swimming pools. It’s her first chance to explore on her own, to buy junk food from vending machines, get drunk… and maybe have sex. She meets a Lebanese fencer at a dance party and takes MDMA for the first time. But will she really leave competitive sports in her prime?

Nadia, Butterfly is a coming-of-age drama about a young athlete on the verge of leaving the only life she’s ever known. It covers a three-day period as she struggles over her decision. The film is immersed in the world of competitive sports, both the public side – its anthems, mascots and medals – and its hidden life. The film is saturated with the four colours of flags and uniforms: red, aqua, black and white. It’s a realistic, behind-the-scenes look at the Olympics, from the athletes’ perspectives. While I’m not really an Olympic fan (the movie was shot in Tokyo last summer) it still kept me constantly interested, if not deeply moved. But it’s the great performances of Savard and Mainville (as Nadia and Marie-Pierre) that really make the movie work.

Nadia, Butterfly is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings. Kajillionaire and Summerland open today.

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

Sublime mainstream. Films reviewed: Tainted, Fisherman’s Friends, Volition

Posted in Canada, Crime, drugs, Fishing, Music, Nazi, Organized Crime, Time Travel, UK, Vancouver, Vengeance, violence by CulturalMining.com on July 10, 2020

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

Theatres are still closed indefinitely, but does that mean you can only watch movies at home? No! Drive-ins are making a big comeback, and in Toronto the Lavazza Drive-in Film Fest is running a different international film each night at Ontario Place beginning July 20-31, thanks to the Italian Contemporary Film Fest.

This week I’m looking at three mainstream movies; two from Canada and one from the UK. There’s a record exec who finds sea shanties sublime; a former hit man who wants to leave his life of crime; and a man who can read the future who wants to change time.

Tainted

Wri/Dir: Brent Cote

It’s a small city in north Ontario. Lance (Alan van Sprang) is a nice guy with a bad reputation. He used to be a hitman who could take down a rival gang unarmed. He took the fall for the Russian mob and did 15 years in Millhaven, but now he’s on the straight and narrow. No more killing, no more gangs. He keeps to himself in his low-rent apartment, listening to ancient blues singers on a portable record player. The only person he talks to is Anna (Sara Waisglass: Degrassi) a lonely musician who lives down the hall and sings at a local dive bar. But when there’s a massacre of Russian gangsters by Aryan Nations, he’s called in to even the score. You see, he’s the only one who can infiltrate the neo-nazi gang, due to the enormous swastika still tattooed on his chest.

In exchange, Gregor (John Ralston) – a small-time Finnish drug runner who operates out of his wife’s pastry bakery – promises to leave him alone forever, along with a wad of cash and a forged passport so he can just disappear. He does the job. But when they try to bring innocent Anna – the only person he feels for – into the gang war, he becomes a burning stick of dynamite that the Russians, the Finns and the neo-nazis all want to kill. But who will survive?

Tainted is an excellent action- thriller about an expert hitman trying to leave his tainted past, who finds himself sucked into the criminal spiral he wants to escape. It’s set among the mean streets of Sault Ste Marie as the opiate dealers fight for dominance. It’s tense, bitter and hardboiled, filled with choreographed fight sequences in warehouses, parking lots and dive bars. If you’re in the mood for some violent noir, this one is a cut above.

Fisherman’s Friends

Dir: Chris Foggin

It’s 2010 in St Isaac’s a small fishing village in Cornwall, known for its lobsters, a rustic pub, and Cornish patriotic sentiments. Danny (Daniel Mays) is a record exec who specializes in boy bands. He’s there on a daytrip with his work pals for some gambling and boozing on a yacht. The boat doesn’t show, so they spend the day exploring the ancient port and stumble upon a group of fishermen singing sea shanties in the local square. His boss orders him to sign the fishermen up for a record contract, and don’t come back to London until the deals done. The singers aren’t interested, and his own boss just meant it as a joke.

But Danny is stubborn. He moves into a bed and breakfast run by Rowan (Tuppence Middleton) a young single mom who doesn’t like him at all. (What’s a tosser, mum? asks the little girl). Rowan’s dad, Jim (James Purefoy) can’t stand him – and he’s one of the singing sailors Danny wants to represent. Can he win the sailors trust and sign them up? And would anyone, anywhere want to listen to middle aged fisherman singing old songs?

Fisherman’s Friends (like the throat lozenges) is a cute family drama about a cynical Londoner finding authenticity in a working-class small town. It’s a bit formulaic – think Kinky Boots, Made in Dagenham, or Pride – but it works. There’s music, local folklore – never wear green or say the word rabbit on a fishing boat – and even a bit of romance.

One thing: I’m no expert on Cornish accents but why did some of the actors sound like pirates? And I mean Pirates of the Caribbean not Pirates of Penzance. (Aaaargh!). Never mind that, Fisherman’s Friends is a funny, pleasant and palateable movie, a real crowd-pleaser.

Volition

Co-Wri/Dir: Tony Dean Smith

James (Adrian Glynn McMorran) is a 30-year-old who rents a room above a body shop in East Vancouver. He’s an alcoholic gambler, perpetually in debt with no ambition. He does have one unique talent, though: precognition. He can predict the future. It comes to him in a series of dream-like, disconnected visions. And he writes them down on a calendar to try to make sense of them. Ocassionally it’s useful, like when he saves a woman named Angela (Magda Apanowicz) from being attacked in an alley – she ends up crashing at his place. So he’s not surprised when he’s called in by low-level mobster named Ray (John Cassini) for a big job. He knows about James’s special skills. Ray’s uneasy about a stolen sack of cut diamonds he’s passing on to a buyer – is it a set up? – so he asks James to hold onto the jewels for 24 hours until he gets a vision guaranteeing Ray’s safety. In exchange James will get 100K solving all his problems.

Problem is Ray’s own henchmen are the one’s trying to double-cross him. When things go south, James and Angela’s jump into a car to escape. Now the gangsters are chasing him and a mystery man steals all the diamonds. But his visions keep getting stranger and stranger… until he makes a shocking discovery: he can physically relocate to the past in order to change the present. Can James manipulate events to save his and Angela’s life? Or will time travel be his undoing?

Volition is a gritty science- fiction mystery thriller, filled with unexpected plot turns. It really pulls you in with new twists and constant suprises. It has a tight script and small cast, set among the gritty working class neighbourhoods of BC. If you like fast-moving crime dramas and time-travel stories, you’ll love Volition.

Volition, Fisherman’s Friends and Tainted all open this week on VOD.

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 Stephen McHattie and Bruce McDonald about Dreamland

Posted in Addiction, Canada, Crime, drugs, Jazz, Kidnapping, Music, psychedelia, violence by CulturalMining.com on June 5, 2020

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

A once-great jazz trumpeter in his declining years is in a European capital to play a private performance at a royal wedding – a simple gig for the money. Minor problem is, he’s a junkie, prone to OD-ing before a performance. Major problem is there’s a gangster who wants to see him dead or at least injured before the wedding. And the hitman assigned to his case? It’s his doppelganger! Throw in a vampire and a kidnapped 14-year-old girl and the world starts to spin out of control. Can he ever escape this dreamland from hell?

Dreamland is a new fantasy/ comedy/drama film with a good bit of horror thrown in. It stars Stephen McHattie in the two lead roles and is directed by Bruce McDonald. Stephen is known on stage and screen for his sketchy hardboiled characters, from Watchmen to Come to Daddy. Bruce is a prize-winning chronicler of Canada’s rough underbelly, on TV and film, from Roadkill to Weirdos, known for his punk sensibility and hard-core tastes. They made the cult classic Pontypool together back in 2008 about zombies attacking a radio station.

I spoke to Stephen and Bruce at their respective homes via Zoom.

Dreamland is now playing VOD across Canada.

Crises. Films reviewed: Band Ladies, Cane Fire, Castle in the Ground

(Audio: no music)

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

I’m recording from my home, once again, looking for ways to entertain you all while movie theatres are out of the picture. So this week I’m looking at three new films, a documentary, a web series, and a dark Canadian drama. There’s a filmmaker discovering Hawai’i’s past; a group of women dealing with a collective midlife crisis; and a mother and son facing the opioid crisis.

Band Ladies

Dir: Molly Flood

Five bored, middle-aged women meet at a local bar to discuss Victorian romances for their regular book club. There’s Marnie (Kate Fenton), a stay-at- home mom with a lackluster life; Chloe (Lisa Michelle Cornelius) a careerist lawyer troubled by her Big Pharma employer; Cindy (Vicki Kim) an aspiring musician / bartender; Penny (Dana Puddicombe) a rich celeb who could pass as a Dragons Den panelist; and Stephanie (Kirstin Rasmussen) a drunk dead-ender recenty dumped by her longtime girlfriend.

But when their inhibitions are loosened by a few bottles of plonk, Chloe storms the stage to tell her secret truth: her bosses peddle opiods to children! Someone captures her rant on their phone and posts it online, and boom! the clip goes viral. But what can they do with their 15 minutes of fame? Why, form a band, of course. What kind? Punk. But can five middle-aged women shake up their lives and transform themselves overnight into an 80s style punk band? Or is this just a pipe dream?

Band Ladies is a fast-moving, cute and clever web series. It zooms through the five characters’ lives in six quick, 10-minute episodes, a crash course on the dos and don’ts of starting a band. The actors write their own characters’ lyrics and perform the songs on their first “tour” – as the opening act at a Parry Sound bar. It’s sharp, witty and empathetic – and the whole series is over in an hour.

I like this web series.

Cane Fire

Dir: Anthony Banua-Simon

Beautiful Kaua’i: a tropical paradise where happy Hawaiians harvest sugar cane and pineapples on plantations; where luxury hotels preserve ancient ceremonies by lighting torches each night; and the setting of hundreds of Hollywood features shot there. But is that the whole truth? The locals tell a very different story.

This new feature documentary pulls the veil off the island’s past and retells its story through its own people’s eyes. When the US toppled its government and colonized the islands Kaua’i was taken over by five families who controlled most of the land. Hawaiians – and workers imported from places like China, Japan and the Philippines – were kept down by the sugar and pineapple plantation owners. Unions were busted, and organizers fired, demoted or sent away. Luxury hotels were built on sacred burial grounds and their culture co-opted or invented by settlers to attract tourists. Stars like Elvis and John Wayne were featured in movies shot there while locals were background decorations. And now locals are further marginalized by the ultra-rich people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – buying huge tracts of land for their own personal use.

Cane Fire is partly a personal travelogue – the filmmaker goes to Kaua’i to find out about his great grandfather – partly a look at Hollywood’s sanitized depiction of the place; and partly a chance for the people’s own stories to be told. This includes local activists reclaiming the ruins of the once famous Koko Palms hotel built on sacred lands. The title Cane Fire comes from a movie of the same name about local unrest on the island. That movie is now lost, but the documentary fills in the blanks normally missing in depictions of Hawai’i.

Cane Fire is an excellent film.

Castle in the Ground

Wri/Dir: Joey Klein

It’s a cold, dark day in Sudbury, Ontario. Henry (Alex Wolff) is a good son, taking time off from school to take care of his dying mom (Neve Campbell). He feeds her crushed prescription pills each day to help ease her pain. But noise from across the hall – she lives in a rundown tenement – keeps bothering her. So Henry bangs on the door to investigate. There he meets Ana (Imogen Poots) – a sketchy woman with hollow eyes – and some of her unsavoury friends. She’s a cunning addict on the methadone wagon, jonesing for her next fix. And her dealer (a kid she calls Polo Boy (Keir Gilchrist) for his designer tracksuits) says she stole his bag of pills, and the scary guys are asking for it back. Ever the gallant one, Henry steps in to protect her, but soon is drawn into her hellish universe of guns, crime and opioids. Can he emerge unscathed with only a hammer as a weapon? And what about those close to him?

Castle in the Ground has a lot of things I avoid in movies – I find movies all about people slowly dying or struggling with addiction, more depressing than interesting. Luckily, this movie, while dealing with these very real phenomena, manages to avoid the moralistic tone that usually smothers stories like this. Instead it jacks up the thriller aspects – drug dealers wearing creepy baby masks, car chases, and narrow escapes from dimly-lit drug parties – couched in a constant, surreal haze. Yes, it’s bleak, but the bleakness is mollified by aburdist humour, fascinating details, and stunning night photography, lit with the glare of headlights and the acid glow of neon. And when actors like Imogen Poots and Alex Wolff put their all into a movie like this, it’s worth paying attention.

Band Ladies is streaming now on Highball.tv; Castle in the Ground opens today on VOD; and Cane Fire is having its world premier at this year’s Hot Docs.

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

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