Wood, Bricks and Rocks. Films reviewed: Black Bear, 18 to Party, Rocks

Posted in 1980s, Cabin in the Woods, Coming of Age, Family, Friendship, High School, Homelessness, Poverty, Suicide, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 4, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three new indie movies. We’ve got alienated teens in the 1980s standing by a wall of bricks, a homeless high school girl in London named Rocks, and a fractious ménage a trois in a cabin made of wood.

Black Bear

Wri/Dir: Lawrence Michael Levine

It’s summertime in upstate New York. Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is an actress, a director and a writer. She’s staying in a beautiful wooden house, completely off the grid as she tries to write a new screenplay. But she’s easily distracted from her work: there’s a ramp running down from the house into a wide wooden doc on a placid lake. Then there’s the attractive couple who own the house and live there: Blair (Sarah Gadon), a feminist and former dancer, pregnant with their first child; and Gabe (Christopher Abbott) her bearded husband who holds antediluvian views. But freindy banter over wine and dinner turns to bitter bickering, with Allison caught between the two. Blair is convinced that Gabe is cheating on her with Allison. Tension builds until it explodes… leading to a dangerous outcome.

But wait! It’s not over.

We now watch the same scene again, but this time Allison and Gabe are married and own the cabin and Blair is the visiting actress. And they’re no longer alone: they’re actually shooting a movie, which Gabe is directing, surrounded costumes, makeup, camera, script, continuity, ADs and everyone else. And Allison (the actress playing the role) thinks Gabe – the director not the character “Gabe” (played by a bearded lookalike) – is fooling around with Blair, both in the script they’re shooting and off-set. So Allison is guzzling Jack Daniels straight from the bottle, the crew is all stoned on cannabis, and a big black bear is lurking outside. Can they finish making the movie? Which part is real, the first act or the second act? Or is it all just a meta illusion?

Black Bear is a fascinating study of brain-twisting double-think, as well as a slapstick comedy and living room drama. But does it work? I think it does, and that’s because of the great acting by the three. Aubrey Plaza is the queen of indies, always great, and in this film playing a slinky and sly independent woman almost losing it. Abbott and Gadon are equally good, each playing two very different versions of the same role, almost like an exercise in acting school.

Black Bear is a marvelous intellectual exercise that’s also fun to watch.

18 to Party

Wri/Dir: Jeff Roda

It’s September in the mid-1980s in a small town in New York. A group of 14-year-old friends are gathering outside a club where a big party is supposed to happen that night. But the doorman says no entry until the older teens are there. So they meet around the corner in a vacant lot, to catch up after summer vacation. They don’t have to worry about being out late; all the grownups in town are at a meeting about UFOs. There are two computer nerds, two former best friends, Kira and Missy (Ivy Miller, Taylor Richardson), an introverted artist, and best buddies Shel and Brad. But these friendships are built on strict hierarchies. Shel (Tanner Flood) is self-conscious kid who idolizes Brad (Oliver Gifford) a star soccer player. But a girl has a crush on Shel not Brad. Will they make out? Kira and Missy both hold festering grudges. And one friend is missing from the picture: Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson). Something major happened over the summer, and rumours abound. Is he in prison? Reform school? Or is everything just like it used to be? And hanging over them all is a suicide epidemic, with half a dozen kids at their school dead. There’s bullying, sexual insecurities, internalized anger and alienation. And a gun someone brought that night. Can these fragile friendships last through the evening? And will they actually get into the party?

18 to Party is a social drama that draws on movies from the 80s, sort of a combination of The Breakfast Club (but not as commercial and retrogressive) and River’s Edge (but not as creepy).  It’s dressed up with the hairstyles, clothes and music from that era, but the story is all it’s own. It’s shot in a very small area, like a play, where people exit and enter and cross the stage, but the camera seldom leaves the brick-wall area. The characters work, because while some of them fit classic stereotypes, they’re all multi layered. And the film deals with prejudices and themes unique to that era. I haven’t seen any of the actors before but they play their parts very well, especially Ivy Miller as the rebel, Tanner Flood as the main character and James Freedson-Jackson as the loose cannon.

This film’s worth seeing.

Rocks

Dir: Sarah Gavron

Rocks (Bukky Bakray) is a young woman who goes to an all-girl London highschool. She’s warm, funny, clever and buoyant, with a close circle of friends. Her bestie Sumaya (Kosar Ali) helps her with her first tampon – they’re that close. She lives with her little brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) and their mom, originally from Lagos, Nigeria. (Their dad died years earlier.) But one day, her mom doesn’t come home from the bakery where she works. Turns out she was fired two weeks earlier.  Then Emmanuel notices the food in the fridge has gone bad – the power was cut off. And when, coming home from school, she notices some officials at their door, she realizes it’s time to get out of there.

So she heads out, exploring London while asking her school friends for sleepovers. She brings her brother everywhere, who, in turn, carries a little frog in a terrarium that he got from school. She takes care of Emmanuel he protects his friog. But as her money runs out and stress grows, she’s increasingly alienated from her friends. Will the social workers track her down? Will her mother ever come back? And what about Emmanuel?

Rocks – which debuted at TIFF last year – is an excellent high school drama told in that super-realistic European style.  It’s a different sort of coming-of-age drama, with kids facing much harsher conditions than you usually see in movies. But it’s not depressing. While there are some heavy tear-jerk scenes, its mainly funny, surprising and upbeat. It explores underground contemporary London, like sketchy hoods, makeup artists, pompous school teachers, and a fascinating portrayal of a Somali family. And Bukky Bakray is really, really good as Rocks.

I liked this movie.

Rocks, 18 to Party, and Black Bear are all playing theatrically in select theatres today – check your local listings, or are available digitally or Video on Demand

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

The Fathers and the Mothers. Films reviewed: The Goddess of Fortune, Zappa

Posted in 1960s, Cold War, documentary, Family, Gay, Italy, L.A., LGBT, Music, Romance by CulturalMining.com on November 26, 2020

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

In Toronto, we’re locked up at home, while in the States they’re huddled around Covid-lit fires eating turkey as Rome burns. This week I’m looking at an two new movies, an Italian drama and an American documentary. We’ve got impromptu fathers in Rome, and the mothers of invention in LA.

The Goddess of Fortune

Wri/Dir: Ferzan Ozpetek

Arturo and Allesandro (Stefano Accorsi, Edoardo Leo) are a happy Italian couple in a long-term relationship. Arturo is an academic translator who works at home, while Allesandro is a plumber. There relationship is strong but missing some of it’s original pizzazz. They still sleep together in the same bed, but the don’t “sleep together”. Allesandro settles for quickies on the sly, while Arturo is celibate. But they still have their friends and neighbours, a close-knit family that spans the straight and LGBT world in all its aspects, ethnicities and languages.

But their lives are disrupted by an unexpected arrival. Annamaria (Jasmine Trinca: The Son’s Room, The Best of Youth) is a single mom with two kids, the stern Martina and the innocent Sandro. She was dating Allesandro when he met Arturo, but remains close after they broke up. Now she’s visiting Rome for medical tests – she suffers from extreme migraines – and is leaving the kids with them for a few days. Allesandro takes Sandro on his plumbing trips, teaching him how to fix pipes, while Arturo serves as a temporary teacher for Martina. But the idyllic relationship begins to fade as jealousies and suspicions rise to the surface. Is Arturo having a secret affair? Is Sandro Allesandro’s biological son? Is Annamaria’s ailment more dangerous than they thought? And if things get worse, who will take care of the kids?

The Goddess of Fortune is a warm-and-fuzzy gay family drama with great characters and some surprising plot turns. With an attractive cast, it’s beautifully shot amidst the decaying palaces and frescos of Palermo, Sicily, which gives parts of the film a spooky feel. The director, Ferzan Ozpetek, is well known to Toronto audiences – originally from Istanbul, he’s been making romantic dramas in Italy, usually with a gay theme, for 20 years now. If you like his films, or just feel-good dramas in general, let The Goddess of Fortune shine bright on you.

Zappa

Dir: Alex Winter

Frank Zappa was an American composer, musician and prominent counter-culture figure. He is known for his driven personality, his prolific output, and his innovations in the field of experimental music, as well as for his hit singles and albums. His music is uncategorizeable, but is simultaneously both frenetic and precise, with a subversive feel, far outside the mainstream. This new documentary looks at his entire life and career, using largely unseen super-8, video, TV and film from Zappa’s vast collection.

Frank Zappa was born into an Italian-American family in Baltimore during WWII. His dad worked in an arms factory making nerve gas and chemical weapons. The beakers and gas masks his dad brought home for the kids to play with instilled in young Frank a love of explosives and both a fascination with and repulsion toward the macabre US arms industry, a view that stayed with him for most of his life. (He was also a fan of Spike Jones and Ernie Kovacs.) The family moved to small-town California in his teens where he started composing and performing music. His entry into the avant-garde was spurred by a Look magazine article mentioning Edgard Varese, described as an unlistenable composer (reason enough for him to want to hear more). He later worked as a greeting card artist, and wrote the scores for low-budget films. He was driven out of Cucamonga in a vice-squad sting that accused him of making porn movies.

But when he arrived in LA in the 60s, he found his stride. He began performing at the Whiskey a Go Go, where he met his wife Gail. And with his band, The Mothers of Invention, began recording and touring his music. Classic songs like Dynamo Hum, placed him within the “sexual revolution”. He was also a hero within the psychedelic drug movement, though he said he didn’t touch the stuff. While never a huge hit, his albums sold well, he had a devoted fan base, and was respected by other musicians. To give you an idea of his eclectic nature, Zappa performed with or alongside people like Lenny Bruce, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Flo and Eddie of The Turtles, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and conductor Zubin Mehta. The members of The Mothers changed over the years, but all were accomplished musicians whom Zappa directed with an iron grip. He was not known for showing emotions and had no tolerance of imprecise performances. (He was a mean mofo.)

In the 1980s he left the establishment and formed his own independent record company. Ironically, he hit his first commercial success and had his only top 10 hit with a novelty song, Valley Girl, where his daughter, Moon Unit Zappa, provided a perfect imitation of the San Fernando dialect.  Later he became an outspoken critic of government censorship, including the classifying of popular music using warning labels. He was also invited to perform in Prague just as Czechoslovakia (where he was considered a national hero) threw off Soviet control. He died of cancer in the early 1990s.

This documentary film by Alex Winter is an overwhelming panoply, a barrage of audio and visual images, both public and private, as well as new interviews with musicians he worked with. It’s less concerned with Zappa’s private life than his astoundingly prolific career and his innovations in experimental music. It’s produced by his son Ahmet and features a lengthy interview with his late wife Gail, so, while not a white-washed hagiography, it’s not a scandal-doc, either.

Whether or not you’re a fan of his music, Zappa is a must-see documentary, an unforgettable look at the man, the era he lived in, and the influence he had.

Zappa is available on VOD and in selected theatres starting today; and The Goddess of Fortune is on VOD beginning next week. 

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 Emma Seligman about Shiva Baby

Posted in comedy, Family, Feminism, Judaism, LGBT, New York City, Sex, Women by CulturalMining.com on October 9, 2020

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

Danielle is a woman living the high life in New York City. She’s young, pretty and smart, finishing her BA and looking for work. In the meantime she’s shacking up in a Soho flat with a very generous, older boyfriend named Max in a pecuniary relationship. He thinks he’s paying her way through law school. But her delicate web of lies and deceptions threatens to unravel when she finds herself at a party she doesn’t want to attend. Well, not exactly a party, it’s a shiva, a Jewish, post-funeral get-together with family and friends of the deceased. And who shows up? Maya, her former best friend from high school with whom she once had a relationship; and Max, the guy she’s sleeping with now. Add an intrusive mother, an oblivious father, some nosy relatives telling cringe-worthy stories, some awful coincidences, and a few key embarrassing accidents, and there you have it: Danielle’s shiva from hell.

Shiva Baby is a dark comedy that adds a new twist to the classic screwball genre. It deals with family, sex work, secrets and lies, romance, eating disorders, hidden pasts and uncomfortable presents, It’s written and directed by Toronto-born, NY-based filmmaker Emma Seligman. Shiva Baby is her first feature.

I spoke with Emma in Toronto from my home via ZOOM.

Shiva Baby screened at TIFF20, SXSW and is currently playing at Toronto’s LGBT Inside Out Film Festival.

 

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.

Daniel Garber talks with Barry Stevens about his new documentary The World’s Biggest Family on CBC Docs POV

Posted in Canada, Corruption, documentary, Family, Secrets, UK by CulturalMining.com on September 25, 2020

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

Did you ever consider you might share ancestry with someone you’ve never met? Now, what if that person that shares your ancestry turns out to be more than just one? Imagine doing a DNA test and finding out you have over 600 half-siblings spread across the Atlantic, and you’re a part of the biggest family in the world?

The World’s Biggest Family is the name of a new documentary. It tells the story of the offspring of an anonymous and unusually prolific sperm donor, and the secrets and lies that surround artificial insemination. The movie’s subject and its director is multiple-award-winning filmmaker Barry Stevens who has worked on films like The Diary of Evelyn Lau, Offspring, Souvenir of Canada and History TV’s War Story.

The World’s Biggest Family premiers on Oct 1 on CBC Docs POV and CBC Gem.

I spoke with Barry Stevens in Toronto via ZOOM.

Creepy small towns. Films/TV shows reviewed: Hammer, Curon, Ragnarok

Posted in Canada, Crime, Family, Italy, Mystery, Norway, Supernatural, Suspense, Thriller, TV by CulturalMining.com on June 26, 2020

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

In light of the pandemic, many people are thinking of cities cities as crowded, dirty and dangerous places, compared to smaller towns. But are small towns any better? This week, I’m looking at three new productions – one film and two limited series – that look at the darker side of family life in small towns. There are nogoodniks in Newfoundland, taboos in Tyrolia, and felonious fat cats among the fjords.

Hammer

Wri/Dir: Christian Sparkes

It’s a paper-mill town somewhere in Canada (possibly Newfoundland).

Chris (Mark O’Brien) is a young man, down on his luck. He deals in drugs and stolen jewels, both valuable commodities, but somehow is deep in debt. Luckily, there’s a big operation – involving satchels of cash to be exchanged deep in the woods – about to go down with a sketchy guy named Adams (Ben Cotton). It should leave him rich. But something goes wrong. Now someone is dead, their body lost in a corn field, and Chris is on the run with Adams on his trail.

So in a chance encounter, he turns to his estranged family — his younger brother Jeremy, his disapproving mom and his angry dad Stephen (Will Patton) – for help. He hasn’t talked to them for years, but they’re his only hope. Can his father help him secure the cash, rescue a hostage, and protect him from Adams? Or will everything fall apart?

Hammer is a short, fast moving drama about a criminal act pulling a small-town family apart. It’s a well-written and well-acted movie. It’s a very of-the-moment, what you see is what you get style movie. No excess dialogue, no wasted scenes, no deep back story, just high-tension thrills. There’s violence but not gratuitous violence, gun battles, chase scenes and a few surprising twists. A noir-ish style but in a natural setting. And an ominous symbol – the ourusborus, a snake swallowing its own tail – gives this crime drama a darker, more sinister feel.

Curon

Created by Ezio Abbate, Ivano Fachin, Giovanni Galassi, Tommaso Matano

A picturesque town in Italy. Mauro and Daria are 17-year-old twins from Milan. Mauro (Federico Russo) is shy and introverted with a hearing impairment. He’s a natural target of bullies. His sister Daria (Margherita Morchio) is tough and self-confident. She’s sexually adventurous, can out-drink anyone she meets, and will likely win in a fistfight. She always looks out for her brother. The two are used to life in the big city, but their divorced mom moves them back to her hometown of Curon. It’s in German-speaking Tyrolia right by Austria and Switzerland. Very different from Milan, where the twins grew up. Curon’s main landmark is a man-made lake with a church bell tower in the middle; the only thing left of the old town they flooded to built a hydro dam. And they say if you ever hear the church bells ring, it means you’re going to die.

Soon after they arrive their mom disappears, so they move into their grandfather (Luca Lionello)’s spooky old hotel (like in The Shining). And they meet some of the popular locals at their highschool. Micki (Juju Di Domenico) and her bullyish boxer brother Giulio (Giulio Brizzi) are the two kids of a highschool teacher… They both hate Curon and want to head south to Milan. Will they be friends or enemies? And then there’s Micki’s wimpy friend Lukas (Luca Castellano) who goes through a strange transformation. Lukas has a crush on Micki, while Micki and Giulio have crushes on someone else. They also find out Micki and Giulio’s dad and Mauro and Daria’s mom share an old history. Will they ever find their mom, discover Curon’s secrets, and escape this creepy old town? Or will it ensare them in its mysterious and sinister ways?

Curon is a good, spooky TV drama, with sex, drugs and hints of horror every once in a while. It’s also full of dopplegangers, disappearing bodies, and strange sounds in the dark. Netflix seems to have created its own sub-genre – big city highschool kids returning to a picturesque town full of dark secrets. No spoilers here, but it’s worth watching. It’s scary but not terrifying, never boring, and with a good, attractive cast.

Ragnarok

Created by Adam Price

Here’s another TV series about a mom and her two kids moving back to her hometown. This time it’s a picturesque, fjord-filled village in Norway called Edda. Magne (David Stakston) and his brother Laurits (Jonas Strand Gravli) arrive by car. Magne has blond hair and glasses. He takes meds each day, has terrible vision and is dyslexic, and is fond of tossing hammers. Laurits has black hair and a pointy nose; he likes playing tricks on his brother. They quickly make friends at school. Magne meets Isolde, a young woman whose dad is their school teacher. She’s an enviroronmental activist who knows all the Edda’s secrets. Toxic wastes dumped into the pristine fjords are ruining the town’s ecology.

Laurits gravitates toward the son and daughter of an elitist family, the Jutals, headed by Vidar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson). They own the toxic chemical plant and have control over the police the school, nearly everything. Only the activists – and the town drunk – dare to defy them. And the girl Magne has the hots for is already dating Fjor Jutul, from the same rich family. It looks as if the town, and possibly the world, is heading toward ecological Armageddon, or Ragnarok as they say in Norse mythology. Can Magne learn in time who this family really is… and his own importance in confronting them?

Ragnarok is a TV series partly about ordinary people standing up to elitist authority figures to protect the environment. But that’s not all. There’s a Harry Potter-type backstory as well, where ordinary people learn about extraordinary things. I really liked this show – beautiful scenery, great acting, suspence, tons of fascinating and endearing characters, with lots of twists and surprises. Sort of a myth or fairy tale set in modern- day Norway. And it’s the work of Adam Price who also wrote Borgen, that popular Danish political drama that was on broadcast TV here a few years back.

Ragnarok is one of the best TV series I’ve seen so far this year.

Season One of Curon and Ragnarok are both streaming now on Netflix; Hammer opens today on Apple TV, Google Play and 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.

Daniel Garber talks with Ken Loach about Sorry We Missed You

Posted in Family, Movies, Newcastle, UK by CulturalMining.com on March 6, 2020

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

The Turners are a happy family in Newcastle, in Northern England. Ricky is a labourer and Abby a caregiver, while their schoolkids, Seb and Liza Jane, are into graffiti art and selfies. They dream of owning a home and sending the kids to University. Problem is Ricky and Abby can’t make enough money to pull the family out of perpetual debt.

So, to change their fortunes, Ricky buys a white van and signs on as a contractor for a package delivery service. The new job promises independence, freedom of choice and untold riches. But he soon discovers its real nature – brutal hours, hardass rules, no time off, and huge hidden deductions, fees, and fines. Will this new job tear the family apart? Can they ever escape the gig economy? Or have they traded freedom and happiness for a white van and a stack of delivery cards saying “Sorry We Missed You”…?

Sorry We Missed You is a new movie about the unforseen effects of the gig economy on a Newcastle family. It’s directed by prize winning filmmaker Ken Loach known for his hard-hitting, poignant movies that don’t shy away from topics ignored by Hollywood. Films like I Daniel Blake, The Wind that Shakes the Barley, Land of Freedom, Riff-Raff and many others.

Sorry We Missed You opens on March 6, 2020 in Toronto.

I spoke with Ken Loach in London by telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Fall of the Patriarchs. Films reviewed: Downhill, Sonic the Hedgehog, Nose to Tail

Posted in Austria, Canada, comedy, Cooking, Family, Fantasy, Ski, Snow, Super Villains, Toronto, video games by CulturalMining.com on February 14, 2020

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

It’s Valentine’s Day today, as good a time as any to catch a new movie. So this week I’m looking at films about unusual relationships. There’s a husband and wife rejuvenating their marriage at an Alpen ski resort; a divorced, master chef dating the restaurant’s maitre d’;  and a super-sonic, electric-blue hedgehog in a bromance with a traffic cop.

Downhill

Dir: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Pete and Billie (Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are a happily-married couple. He’s a workaholic and a bit of chowderhead, while she’s an successful, if opinionated, lawyer. Billie is worried about her husband. He spends more time texting than playing with their two sons.  And he hasn’t been the sane since his own father died last summer. So when Pete books a family vacation at a ski chalet in the Austrian Alps — and handles all the arrangements — they are all looking forward to a fun, quiet time to heal their inner wounds. When they arrive, they are greeted by an Alpen sexpot named Charlotte (hilariously played by Miranda Otto: Aunt Zelda on  CHilling Adventures of Sabrina) who assures them nudity is encouraged and enforced. (Turns out the family lodge is nearby… they’re at the swingers chalet.)

Then Pete secretly invites his younger workmate Zach (Zach Woods) and Zach’s girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Zhao) to join them. But things really get bad when a planned avalanche crashes near the chalet, sending patrons on an outdoor patio running for cover in the sudden whiteout. Turns out, Billie stayed behind to protect the kids from what they thought was their final moment. And Pete the family patriarch? He grabbed his smart phone and ran, leaving his family to die. No one did die, of course, but now Billie and the kids feel abandoned by Pete in a dangerous crisis.

Will Pete ever regain Billie’s trust or his his kids’ respect? Or are his marriage, his family and his self confidence damaged beyond repair?

Downhill is a mildly funny dramatic comedy about the fall from power of the proverbial middle class white American male. It’s also an American remake of the brilliant Swedish film Force Majeure. But it’s less visually attractive, less biting and bitter than the original, trading subtlety for the broad strokes of tired Euro stereotypes.  Odd sex has been replaced by straightforward moral lessons. Louis-Dreyfus is great as Billie, conveying her hurt and suspicion through a single squint or pursed lip. Ferrell is less successful as a clueless Joe Biden-type, seemingly unaware of his imminent downfall.

Downhill is OK, but not great.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Dir: Jeff Fowler

Sonic is an electric-blue hedgehog who lives in a cave  furnished with a beanbag chair and a ping pong table, near Green Hills, Montana. He looks like a plush toy with spaghetti legs, a button nose and bright red sneakers.  And he can run faster than anything else on earth. He’s so fast he can play ping pong with himself. He’s so fast he can play all the bases on a baseball game at once, pitching a fastball from the pitcher’s mound and then hitting it from home plate. When he’s truly in danger he rolls up into a small blue ball and can generate mammoth amounts of electricity. He carries a bag of golden rings, magic portals that can instantly take hint to any place in the universe.

Sonic is a social animal who speaks perfect English (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and would love to meet friends, but is forced to remain hidden. If anyone found him – or discovered his secret powers – he would be in great danger.

But when he accidentally triggers an interstate blackout, the DC generals fear an enemy attack. They send out an expert to solve the problem and capture the so-called terrorist. This expert is the infamous Dr Robotnik (Jim Carrey) a brash and arrogant genius with multiple PhDs and a curly moustache. He plans to find the elusive source of the blackout… and dissect him. Luckily, Sonic is taken under the wing of the local speed-trap cop named Tom (James Marsden). Although dubious at first, eventually Tom takes to the hedgehog and the two become fast friends They set off on a roadtrip to San Francisco to evade Robotnik, recover the lost gold rings and save the world. But who will triumph? The evil Dr Robotnik? Or the fast little hedgehog and his buddies?

Sonic the Hedgehog is a kids movie based on the famous Sega video game. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, movies based on video games is the worst new genre out there. But you know what? I actually enjoyed this one. It’s silly of course, but the special effects are terrific. And the scenes shot from Sonic’s point of view, where everyone else seems frozen in time – like a barfight in a roadhouse where the spiny mammal runs rampant around redneck bikers – are totally fun to watch. OK, there’s relentless product placement (the whole movie is basically an ad) but still… it is fun. And Jim Carrey is a perfect as the villain and very funny.

If you see it, remember to watch it until the credits roll.

Nose to Tail

Wri/Dir: Jesse Zigelstein

Dan (Aaron Abrams) is an arrogant, self-centred master chef at a restaurant in downtown Toronto. He oversees every dish and inspects each outsourced vegetable that arrives in the morning. If anyone in the kitchen steps out of line, he lashes out like a boot camp sergeant. Dan starts his day with a makeshift breakfast of single malt whiskey and prescription drugs. The restaurant is everything to him. He depends on Chloe (Lara Jean Chorostecki) at the front of house, Keith, his Chef de Cuisine ( Brandon McKnight) in the kitchen, and Steven his sommelier (Salvatore Antonio) to keep the wine cellar well stocked. Problem is his world is collapsing all around him.

He’s four months overdue on the rent. Online bloggers are dissing his abrasive manners (fuckin’ millennials!). Keith is heading for greener pastures and his bills are piling up. He stood up Chloe (his on-again, off-again girlfriend) and has berated and verbally abused his entire staff, burning bridges all around him. Then his ex-wife drops by with unexpected news, and a popular new food truck parks right across the street. Everything depends on a high school friend and millionaire (Ennis Esmer) who is coming for dinner that night. Will he invest in the business? Or will the restaurant – just like the heritage pig he cuts up on camera, from nose to tail – go belly up?

This isn’t the first drama about a high-strung egotistical chef –  think Bradley Cooper in Burnt and Jon Favreau in Chef, to name just two – but Nose to Tail has a level of intensity and density – the whole movie lasts just one day – that beats those other two hands down. And Aaron Abrams (The Go-Getters) gives a tour de force performance, keeping close to the boiling point till the bitter end.

Downhill, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Nose to Tail 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.

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