Family Crises. Films reviewed: Our Friend, Phobic, Falling

Posted in 1960s, 2000s, Disease, Drama, Family, Friendship, Horror, LGBT, Mental Illness, Mystery, Police, Psychological Thriller by CulturalMining.com on January 29, 2021

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

It may be cold, but February is offering some film festivals to enjoy in your own warm homes. TBFF Toronto Black Film Festival is coming mid-month, showing unique and dynamic black voices in Canada. JFF Plus is showing Japanese features shorts and anime, all free beginning in a week. And Hot Docs is running its annual Podcast Festival right now. But this week I’m looking at three new movies that explore family troubles. There’s a police detective chasing a serial killer; a journalist taking care of his dying wife; and an airline pilot dealing with his father’s dementia.

Our Friend

Dir: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

(Based on an article in Esquire by Matthew Teague)

It’s the early 2000s. Matt (Casey Affleck) is a print journalist at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He’s married to Nicole (Dakota Johnson) a stage actress starring in musicals. They have two  young kids. Matt’s career is taking off, and while he’s a foreign correspondent covering wars in Pakistan and the middle east, Nicole has stayed home to care of the kids. But both their lives are disrupted by shocking news: she has cancer. They soon find the two of them can’t handle the triple threat of job, kids and cancer, never mind their own relationship. So they call for help from a good friend. Dane (Jason Segal) is an actor and a comic who has known them with for ages. His relationship is shaky and so is his job status. So he agrees to bunk at their home and help ease the burden. He soon becomes a part of the family, a second mom and dad to the kids, and a comfort to Matt and Nicole dealing with the pains of illness and the threat of death.

Our Friend is a dramatization of Matthew Teague’s personal memoir of a decade living with his wife’s cancer with the help of their friend. It’s told in flashbacks explicitly dated by the number of years before or after Nicole Teague’s diagnosis. As such, it holds very few surprises. Even when she’s healthy we all know that in a year a two she’s going to get sick and eventually die. Almost preordained. So there’s a melancholy inevitability to the story, as we’re walked through anger, denial, and stages of diagnosis, chemo, remission,  metastasis, psychosis, palliative care and finally death. This is a sentimental and sad movie told in a clean, palatable way. It’s all about family relationships and friendships. Surprisingly though it’s not a tearjerker so it didn’t give me the deep emotional purge I was expecting. Apparently, the magazine article it was based on was amazingly popular, and the acting is good enough, but this movie didn’t move me.

Phobic

Wri/Dir: Bryce Clark

Riley Sanders (Jacque Gray) is a police detective in Utah. She has blonde hair a svelte body and a stern expression on her face. She’s rejoining the force after recovering from a violent incident. Her new partner is Paul (Devin Liljenquist) has a lantern jaw and soap opera looks. Is there a spark between them? They’ve never met but their fathers worked together in the past; they’re both second-generation cops. Their first case? A serial killer with a strange M.O. The victims are all found chained to a chair in a locked room. One is in a place painted red. Another with snakes writhing around his feet. What do they have in common? They were scared to death.

Turns out the victims are all patients of the same psychiatrist, a certain Dr Holden (Tiffani DiGregorio) who uses new techniques to cure “phobics” of their darkest fears. First she diagnoses them using Rorschach inkblot tests, then, through therapy and the use of a strobe light, unlocks her patients’ inner strength to conquer their irrational phobias. But she’s highly protective of her files and won’t let the detectives see them. Meanwhile, Riley has a phobia of her own, a fear of the dark. What is Dr Holden’s role in these grisly deaths? What is her connection to Riley? Are Riley and Paul a thing? And can they catch the elusive killer before the killer kills them?

Phobic is ostensibly a psychological thriller about  a serial killer that preys on the victims’ worst fears. An interesting concept. The problem is, it’s not thrilling.  It’s about as scary as an old episode of CSI. It’s too slow, clumsily directed, and badly edited. Even the props seem to be done on the cheap. The story looks promising at first but goes totally off-kilter toward the end. Sorry to say, this movie is a mess.

Falling

Wri/Dir: Viggo Mortensen

It’s the early 1960s. Willis (Sverrir Gudnason) is young man from Boonville, NY, who lives on a farm with his wife Gwen (Martha Gross). He likes hunting, horses and fishing, but not much else. On the day his son Johnny is born he says he’s sorry he brought the little stinker into this world. Fifty years later, John (Viggo Mortensen) is an airline pilot happily married to his husband Eric (Terry Chen) with their inquisitive daughter. He lives in sunny California, not far from his younger sister Sarah (Laura Linney). Willis is old now (Lance Henricksen), and Gwen is long gone, so his adult children are trying to find him a place near them to live out his final years. The problem is he’s still the same rude, angry  and violent sonofabitch they remember from their childhood. If not worse. He’s a smoker and a drinker. He’s xenophobioc, paranoid, racist, misogynistic and homophobic. He’s rude and lecherous, ogling women and swearing at men. He says all women are whores, and calls his adult son, an airforce vet, a fairy. On top of that, he’s losing it — prone to wandering away, forgetting where he is or why he’s there. How long can John keep calm and put up with his father? And will Willis ever make peace with the world… and himself?

Falling is a drama about a father and son, set in the past and the present. It jumps back and forth through memories shared by John and Willis, as their stories, and how they ended up how they are, are gradually revealed. This is a great movie, directed and written by actor Viggo Mortensen who plays John, but it’s really about Willis. It’s a fascinating and realistic character study about this hateable, but totally watchable, man and his cringeworthy but funny behaviour and motives. It’s a character study but not  a caricature. Gudnason is great as the young Willis, but Henricksen as the old Willis fighting dementia is stupendous. It’s beautifully shot among nature at a wintry, snow covered farm, and beneath the hot pacific sun. Falling is harshly funny, cruel, constantly surprising and quite touching. This is an excellent movie.

Our Friend and Phobic are now playing, and Falling opens next Friday.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

Seberg

Dir: Benedict Andrews

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

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

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

I liked this movie.

The Jesus Rolls

Wri/Dir: John Turturro

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

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

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

Beanpole (Dylda)

Co-Wri/Dir: Kantemir Balagov

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

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

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

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

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

Make up and dance. Films Reviewed: Like a Boss, Cunningham

Posted in Art, comedy, Dance, documentary, Feminism, Friendship, LGBT, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 10, 2020

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

Sometimes I wonder if I should be talking about movies when the planet is on fire as we head toward environmental catastrophe, even as an erratic leader — like a James Bond villain — is carrying out drone assassinations willy-nilly and pushing us all to the brink of war and back again, depending on his mood.

Are we fiddling while Rome burns?

Luckilly, the United States is still full of innovative and creative people. So this week I’m looking at two new American movies, a comedy and a performance/doc. There are two women entrepreneurs who challenge contemporary makeup; and a man who challenged the makeup of contemporary dance.

Like a Boss

Dir: Miguel Arteta

Mia and Mel (Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne) are single girlfriends who live in Atlanta Georgia. They have been besties since junior high. They go to bars together to pick up younger guys (I don’t care if they can’t read, butthey better still have their teeth, says Mia). They live in the same house – Mia’s mom left it to the two of them in  her will. And they even work together. They founded a cosmetics company that they jointly run – Mia is the creative side while Mel handles the finances.

They specialize in innovative goods, like their best selling One Night Stand packs for a woman on the go. And tell all types of women to use makeup to embrace their own good looks rather than trying to change or hide them. And they work closely with their two employees: a flamboyant gay man in the workshop (Billy Porter) and a quirky woman handling the front (Jennifer Coolidge). Everything seems to be going well, but behind the scenes they are facing serious financial trouble. Luckilly, a stranger arrives with an offer they can’t refuse. His boss, he says, wants to buy their business.

The offer comes from Claire Luna (Salma Hayek) a ruthless business mogul. Claire has dramatic orange hair, platform shoes and impossibly white teeth. Her office looks like the Guggenheim but with small killer drones flying around everywhere. She is the head of a huge cosmetics empire and she covets their niche market. Mel and Mia are intimidated by her, but stand firm – they want to keep majority interest – 51% -in their own company. Claire Luna agrees… but with a catch. If either of them leaves the company, she takes over Like a Bossthe company. Can Mel and Mia stay best friends with a new boss in the picture? Or will they fight and lose their friendship, their home and their company?

Like a Boss is an extremely simple — I would even say simplistic — movie about female best friends. It spoonfeeds you all the expected plot turns as it moves to its totally predictable conclusion. I love Haddish and Byrne, and their sidekicks Porter and Coolidge are even funnier. Hayek is a cartoon villain — she’d be twirling her moustache if she had one. I like the female-centred story, and the sexually- and racially-diverse cast. It’s also short… under 90 minutes, so it’s never boring.

The problem is the script: it’s mediocre at best, forcing talented comic actors to make do with crappy material. A real shame. The funny parts are used up in the first half, as the movie dwells on the babyish plot through the second half.

Like a Boss is not awful, it just isn’t as good as it should be.

Cunningham (in 3D)

Dir: Alla Kovgan

Merce Cunningham is born in 1919 in Washington state and begins dancing at a young age. He joins Martha Graham’s dance company as a principal dancer in the 1940s, originating many roles before turning to choreography. He leaves Graham to set up a studio in a New York tenament, with a room at the back to live in. Working with composer John Cage (the two are lovers) he pioneers a new form of experimental dance. It combines how ballet uses feet with how modern dance handles the torso. Instead of playing music with dancers moving in synch with the notes and rhythms, Cunningham decides dancers should move independent of the sound, the two art forms coexisting. He rejects the autocratic culture of traditional dance — a dictator ordering around his puppet-like dancers, while they claw their way to the top as Prima Ballerina — to a more democractic and cooperative company. He likes to call himself a dancer not a choreographer, though that is what he does. The dancers move as individual units coexiting in the same space, but often without interacting in traditional ways.

He combines music and dance to create works of art. He works with visual artists, like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol to design the costumes and sets, incorporating things like pointillism backdrops and mylar balloons with designed the complimentary costumes and backdrops so a dancer could almost disappear into the set, as in Robert Rauschenberg’s pointillist designs. The dance company drives across a country not quite ready to accept their advances in dance. A European tour leads to terrible reviews until he starts to build  appreciative audiences in the UK.

I have to admit, before seeing this film I was only vaguely aware of Merce Cunningham’s work, as opposed to his more famous collaborators – Rauschenberg, Cage, and Andy Warhol. But having watched it, I can say I get him now. It’s like a “best of” version, showcasing segments of some of his most famous works. And it’s done in 3D. You might ask, who needs 3D for dance? Well, the use of innovative filming and staging techniques gives you – in the theatre – a chance to see aspects and angles of his work previously unexplored. For example, one excerpt is shot on the roof of a skyscraper lit by searchlights projected from a nearby building… and it’s filmed using drone cameras cruising up the side of the roof and hovering overhead looking down as the dancers across the elevated stage. Just spectacular!

So if you’re one of those people who’s heard about opera, dance or Shakespearean plays, but are squeamish about actually watching a live performance (because you’re afraid you might fall asleep or squirm in your seat) this movie makes modern dance accessible. Sequences are short, varied, and beautifully done, while staying true to Cunningham’s aesthetic ideals. The movie also uses classic photos, scripts and footage of his early work to make it part documentary and part performance.

Cunningham is a beautiful movie, a tribute to an underapppreciated artist and a joy to watch.

Cunningham and Like a Boss both open today in Toronto.

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

Stolen. Films reviewed: Hustlers, The Goldfinch, The Vigil at #TIFF19!

Posted in Art, Crime, Death, Friendship, Horror, Judaism, Sex Trade, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 13, 2019

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

TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, winds up this weekend, so if you haven’t had a chnce to see anything yet, or maybe can’t afford to buy tickets, you should know theres a number of free screenings of the most popular film at TIFF, juried film winners, Midnight Madness and more on Sunday. This means you should go to tiff.net online on Sunday morning at 10 am, and you’ll have a good chance of getting a free ticket for later the same day.

This week I’m looking at three movie that premiered at TIFF: a horror story, and two dramas. There’s a boy who protects a priceless stolen painting, a group of women who steal from unconcscious men, and a man who sits beside a corpse… to make sure it doesn’t move.

Hustlers

Wri/Dir: Lorene Scafaria

Dorothy (Constance Wu) is a single mom with financial troubles who lives with her grandma in New York. She works as a dancer in strip bars under the stage name Destiny. When she lands a spot at bar that caters to wall street big shots she thinks her luck has changed. No dice, still struggling. That is until she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). When Ramona’s on stage it rains money. She dances in high heels and fur coats. She’s intimidating and a bit scary, but Destiny reaches it to her for help. They hit it off as friend and Ramona takes Destiny under her wing. She learns how to shimmy down a pole upside down, how to conduct a proper lap dance, and howto keep the clients wanting. Life’s good but she’s still not earning the real big bucks. Until they think up a fool proof plan. Treat the biggest spenders to a serious party in a back room, drop some powder in their drinks, and then let yourself go wild on his company card. The client wakes up the next day with a hangover and $15 thou in charges, none the wiser. It works like a charm, and soon Destiny is swimming in furs. But how long will their good luck last?

The Hustlers, (based on a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler), is an engaging drama about BFFs in the world of stripbars, and how they attempt to take back control. Constance Wu is nice as the main character, with J-Lo believable as the iconoclastic Ramona. The other characters, played by Cardi B, Lizzo, Keke Palmer and others keep the largely all-female cast interesting. I liked it but I didn’t love it. The problem is it’s too long, and doesn’t really know where it’s going. It sets up a rivalry between Destiny and Ramona that doesn’t pan out in the plot. And it unnecessarily frames the whole story within the context of a magazine article. Why? In Hustlers, the New York Magazine journalist is just a cipher, a sounding board for what you really want to see. But the rest of the story – while not the shocking expose it pretends to be – is still good as a realistic, inside look at sex workers’ private lives.

The Goldfinch

Dir: John Crowleyn (Based on the novel by Donna Tarte)

Theo (Oakes Fegley) is a precocious prepschool boy in New York. His life is turned upside down when he survives a terrorist bomb attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That fateful explosion leaves him a penniless orphan holding a priceless painting that the world thinks was destroyed. It also points him to a small shop that restores antique furniture, and Pippa, the mysterious red-headed girl who was standing beside him when the bomb went off. When he bonds with a school friend he is taken under the wing of a one-percenter family headed by old-money matriarch Mrs Barbour (Nicole Kidman). Will he end up one of the family?

Later, he finds himself living in Las Vegas, in an eerily deserted neighbourhood with his actor Dad who abandoned him as a child. There he meets an over-the-top Russian kid named Boris (Finn Wolfhard) who leads him into a world of drugs and petty crime, but also pulls him out of his shell. But can that friendship endure?

Later still, as a young adult back in Manhattan (Ansel Elgort), Theo is on the verge of entersing high society when he rejoins friends from his childhood. And through it all, he is kept sane and grounded by the knowledge that he, and only he, possesses that priceless wooden painting of a little bird. But what would happen if the secret gets out?

I read and enjoyed the book, so I was worried it would ruin it somehow. It doesn’t. It’s true to the story, and even though I knew, more or less, what was going to happen, it still kept me glued to the screen for most of the movie. It’s like running into an old friend: they feel familiar, an important part of your life, even though they don’t live up to your expectations. That said, it didn’t tug at my heartstrings nearly as much as I thought it would, and left me feeling vaguely empty at the end. But the great acting, lush images and music, and fascinating plot did what it’s supposed to do. This won’t win any awards but it’s still a pleasure to watch.

The Vigil

Wri/Dir: Keith Thomas

It’s late at night in Brooklyn New York. Jacob (Dave Davis) is broke, depressed and suffering from PTSD. He’s meeting with a support group of men and women. They are all former Chassids, ultra-orthodox Jews, who have left the insular communities they were born in. That’s why Jacob is disturbed to see a man in black standing by a streetlight outside. Why can’t they leave him alone? Turns out the man is there to offer Jacob a job: one that’s quick, easy, and well-paid. The catch? He has to start working immediately as a “Shomer” or (vigil. This means watching over a newly dead body until undertakers arrive at dawn to pick it up. Easier said than done.

The widow, Mrs Litvack, says he’s not the right one for the job… but she doesn’t say why. It soon becomes clearer to Jacob that this is not a good place to spend the night. The old house is full of shadows that seem to move, lightbulbs that frazzle and pop, and creaky sounds in the floorboards. The corpse is covered with a simple sheet, but Jacob keeps checking that it didn’t move. And as the minutes tick past, things start to get even weirder. A video he watches says there’s an ancient Mazzik there, an evil Jewish demon that can manipulate thoughts and dreams. It will play tricks on your mind, and shape shift into people you know and trust. And it can take human form. Is Jacob having a psychotic episode – he’s not taking his meds – or is the place really haunted? And will he survive until dawn?

The Vigil is a terrifyingly-good horror movie that scared the pants off me. You experience everything Jacob sees, as he sees it, without always knowing if they’re hallucinations or the truth. Dave Davis is fantastic as Jacob, sharing through his facial expressions his fears, misgivings and guilt for past actions. This movie had me spontaneously shouting at the screen in terror at least three times, coming up with ever more scary surprises. This is Keith Thomas’s first film which manages to convey absolute terror in a small set, with a tiny cast, using minimal visual effects and great sound.  This is definitely the scariest thing I’ve seen all year.

Hustlers and The Goldfinch both open today in Toronto, check your local listings; And The Vigil has its last screening this Sunday at TIFF.

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

Minors and Miners. Films reviewed: After the Wedding, Mine 9, Good Boys

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Disaster, Drama, Drones, drugs, Family, Friendship, India, Kids, Movies by CulturalMining.com on August 16, 2019

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

Mountains can grow out of moleholes. This week I’m looking at three movies – a disaster, a family drama, and a comedy with kids – about minors facing major difficulties. There are three tweens caught up in adult-type problems, coal miners caught in a disaster, and a woman who works with orphans in India facing major problems back in New York.

After the Wedding

Wri/Dir: Bart Freundlich

Isabel (Michelle Williams) is an American woman grudgingly back in New York for the first time in decades. She fled the country as a teen after an unplanned pregnancy, and has lived in India ever since. She works at an orphanage in Tamil Nadu, raising the kids there, including Jai, a little boy she found abandoned on a street. But she’s forced to travel to The States for the sake of the kids; to secure a large donation to the orphanage. The donor insists she come, not anyone else.

Theresa (Julianne Moore) is a ruthless media magnate preparing to sell all her assets and retire. She wants to donate to various charities – including the orphanage. But when she meets Isabel she says she’ll only confirm the donation after her daughter Grace (Abby Quinn)’s wedding . And Isabel must attend.

But Isabel is in for a shock. Turns out the father of the bride is Oscar (Billy Crudup) Isabel’s teenaged boyfriend, and the father of the unwanted child they put up for adoption so many years ago! He’s why she moved India in the first place, to erase her past and start again. He seems as shocked to see her as she is to see him. Is this just a coincidence? Could the bride possibly be the baby she gave birth to? And if Theresa finds out that Isabel and Oscar were once lovers will she cancel all the money the orphanage needs so badly?

After the Wedding is a remake of Danish director Susanne Bier’s film from 2006. I’ve never seen the original but I’m told in Bier’s film Isabel and Theresa are male roles and Oscar is a woman. This switch seems to work. And I found the continuous revelations fascinating – I wanted to know what would happen all the way till the end.

That said, the script was so clunky it felt, at times, like it was written by Google Translate. Williams’s main emotion was being perturbed, and the whole film lasted 30 minutes longer than it should have. I didn’t love this movie but I didn’t hate it either: good story, bad script; great actors but who are not at the top of their game here.

Mine 9

Wri/Dir: Eddie Mensore

It’s a mining town in West Viriginia. The coal mine is the only steady employer, but it’s a dangerouns place. Some of the old timers, like Kenny (Mark Ashworth), Daniel (Kevin Sizemore) and John (Clint James), have lived most of their lives underground. The black dust is ground into their skin, their hair, their beards. They don’t like it, but it’s their livelihood, and their only source of health insurance. But when they narrowly escape a methane leak, they wonder if it’s safe to go back down into mine #9. And with no outside foreman or rescue team, if there is an accident, who will save them?

But management insists so down they go, along with Ryan (Drew Starkey) a newbie fresh out of high school. It’s his first time in a mine, though his family has been doing it for centuries. Things seem to be going alright until a short circuit leads to an explosion and a collapse. The mine is filling with poisonous gas with only an hour’s worth of oxygen left. They have to battle fire, rushing water, smoke, dust, methane gas and collapsing tunnels all around them. It’s up to Zeke (Terry Serpico) their dependable leader, to bring them to safety. Who will escape and who will be left two miles down?

Mine 9 is an indie action/ disaster movie about West Virginia coal miners. It has a realistic, gritty feel to it, capturing the dirt, darkness and claustrophobia of coal mining, along with the excitement of escape. Unfortunately it’s also full of problems, both big and small.

I understand why they have to wear oxygen masks to breathe and hard hats for safety, but how can you care about characters when you can’t see their faces for much of the movie? And, seriously, do miners really break into miners’ songs each time they go underground? Their names aren’t Sneezy, Dopey and Doc.

Still, if you’re in the mood for a short trip into a coal mine, you might want to look at Mine 9.

Good Boys

Co-Wri/Dir Gene Stupnitsky

Max, Lucas and Thor are the Bean Bag Boys, three best friends and grade sixers. They’re a team that does everything together. Thor (Brady Noon) pierces an ear to be cool, but is labelled “sippy cup” by the popular kids for not trying beer. Lucas (Keith L. Williams) is a God-fearing boy who cannot tell a lie, but whose beliefs are shaken when his parents announce their divorce. Max (Jacob Tremblay) is a lover not a fighter, and is crushing on a girl he’s never actually met in lunchroom. But when Max is invited to a kissing party, he realizes he has to learn how to kiss before he can go there. These foul-mouthed boys can say the dirty words, but they don’t know how to do them. They can’t ask their parents and they find internet porn too disgusting to look at.

So the Bean Bag Boys concoct a plan: to spy on Hannah (Molly Gordon) the much older, girl next door as she makes out with her drug-dealer, frat boy boyfriend. But how? Using Max’s dad’s drone – something Max is forbidden even to touch. Caught in the act, Hannah and her friend Lily (Midori Francis) seize the drone from the boys. Then they steal her purse. But the purse contains the MDMA the women planned to take that night. Can the three boys escape their pursuers and rescue the drone? Can Max kiss the girl he thinks he loves? Or will the big problems they all face destroy their unbreakable friendship?

Good Boys is a hilarious coming-of-age comedy about extremely naïve kids encountering adult situations – like drugs and sex – for the first time, and deal with them from a child’s perspective. The laughs are constant, with very few misses. A lot of the humour rests on believing the kids are so sheltered they’ve never seen or encountered anything adult.  For example they find Thor’s parents’s sex toys but use them as weapons and kids’ toys. They’re afraid tasting beer will turn them into alcoholics. They’ve heard grown-up words but don’t know their real meanings: Nymphomania means having sex both on land and at sea. Misogyny means giving massages.

The three main kids are great, especially Tremblay (Room), but so are all the other roles. And despite the fact it’s being marketed as an R-rated movie, except for some foul language and innuendo, it’s not outrageously offensive. No serious violence and no sex, just some 11-year-old kids being extremely funny.

After the Wedding, Mine 9, and Good Boys 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.

 

Daniel Garber talks with filmmakers Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas about their two new movies: Spice it Up and White Lie

Posted in Army, Canada, Dance, Depression, Disease, Feminism, Friendship, Pop Culture, Toronto, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 9, 2019

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

Photos (#2, #3) of Yonah Lewis, Calvin Thomas and Kacey Rohl at TIFF19 are by Jeff Harris.

René is a Toronto film student at Ryerson, trying to finish her practical thesis. The film she’s directing is about seven young women, who want to join the army. Not individually, but together, all seven, as a group. René’s problem is, in a world full of male film profs, male directors, and male editors, no one seems interested in her Girl Power creativity. They say there’s too much content and not enough narrative. But can René remain true to her vision even as she “spices up” her story?

Spice It Up is a meta-movie dramedy about making a film… and the film the filmmaker’s making. It’s co-directed by Calvin Thomas, Yonah Lewis and Lev Lewis, the founders of Toronto’s Lisa Pictures.

Calvin and Yonah’s newest film White Lie is an intriguing, dark tale of a

White Lie

cash-poor university student who concocts a cancer story to raise donations and make friends.

I spoke with Yonah and Calvin at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Spice it Up opens Friday, August 16 in Toronto at the Tiff Bell Lightbox.

White Lie is having it’s world premier at #TIFF19 this September.

Summer movies. Films reviewed: The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Fireflies are Gone, Midsommar

Posted in African-Americans, Drama, Friendship, Homelessness, Horror, Housing, Music, Quebec, San Francisco, Suspicion, Sweden by CulturalMining.com on July 5, 2019

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

Summer’s here and it’s the right time to cool off by seeing movies outdoors. Open Roof Film Festival, which is on all summer on Sterling  in the Junction, pairs new Canadian and international films with live music by local bands.

Keeping with that theme, this week I’m talking about three great summer movies. There’s a misanthropic girl in Québec looking for a summer job; a man in San Francisco looking for a home; and some college students in Sweden looking for fun in the summer solstice.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Dir: Joe Talbot

Wri: Joe Talbot and Jimmy Fails

Jimmy Fails is a homeless skater from San Francisco, who travels by boardfrom placeto place. Brought up in a group home when his parents split up, he once lived in a car, and now crashes outside the city at his friend Montgomery’s place (Jonathan Majors). But he is constantly drawn back to the Fillmore district of San Francisco – once known as the Harlem of the West – and a particular house there. It’s a stunning piece of Victorian architecture complete with a witch’s hat tower. He’s helping preserve it in a gentrifying city. But he also has a hidden motive: His grandfather built that home by hand in the 1940s and Jimmy wants it back. So when the current owners move out in an inheritance dispute, Jimmy moves right in, bringing all the original furniture, carpets and photos with him. It’s an enchanted house, with intricate woodwork, hidden doors and a working pipe organ built right in. And Monty – who draws everything he sees in a sketchbook – writes a play to commemorate the house and its history. But how much is true and how much family legend? Can Jimmy actually live there permanently? Or has San Francisco become a city only for the rich?

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an unusual, warm and wonderful story, part fact and part fiction. It’s based on Jimmy Fail’s own story – he plays himself. Another character, Kofi, jimmy’s frenemy from a group home, is played by the real Jamal Trulove, a San Francisco man falsely convicted of murder under Kamala Harris. It’s also an homage to an older San Francisco. It paints a disappearing city of soapbox preachers, panhandlers, buskers and organizers while subtly dealing with issues of poverty, housing, violence, renoviction, and environmental ruin. It’s narrated by a greek chorus of black commentators, Monty’s drawings, Jimmy’s family lore, and local legend.

This is a great movie, not to be missed.

The Fireflies are Gone (La disparition des lucioles)

Wri/Dir: Sébastien Pilote

Léonie (Karelle Tremblay) is a misanthropic teenager just finishing high school. She lives in a small city, a gorgeous inland port in northeast Quebec. near Sagueney. It’s a beautiful town but she hates it. She hates the smalltown attitude, she hates her hick friends and their pickup trucks and she despises her stepfather. She blames Paul (François Papineau) – a rightwing talk radio shock jock – for her parents divorce. Her Papa (Luc Picard) is a union organizer forced to leave town for work up north when the lumber mill closed, and now only visits every so often. Leo can’t wait to get out of this place, but in the meantime she gets a summer job tending to the local ballpark. It’s perfect – no human contact.

But when she meets a new face at the local diner she thinks things might be changing for the better. Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant) is a loner like her, a middle-aged musician, formerly in a band, now supporting himself by giving guitar lessons in his mother’s basement. She signs up for lessons, they hit it off, and soon become friends. But can it last?

The Fireflies are Gone is a bittersweet coming of age drama about life in a picturesque but declining Quebec town. The title refers to the loss of innocence of an earlier era, but it’s also about Leo’s own ideals called into question when she discovers a hidden family secret. Tremblay is amazing as the angry young Leo and she holds this film together. And Brillant is brilliantly understated as Steve. While not perfect, Fireflies… is a good, realistic drama.

Midsommar

Wri/Dir: Ari Aster

Dani (Florence Pugh: Fighting with my Family) is a young woman in a long-term relationship with her non-commital boyfriend. Christian (Jack Reynor: Sing Street) likes Dani but doesn’t like all the responsibilities. He’d rather drink beer and smoke cannabis with his buds from college: Josh (William Jackson Harper: The Good Place) an anthropology keener; Mark (Will Poulter: The Revenant, We’re The MIllers) a self-centred twit, and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) who’s from Sweden. They’re planning a summer solstice bro trip to Pelle’s home village, where there’s lots of beautiful blond women, halucinagens and free sex. But when Dani suffers an unspeakably horrible loss, they let her come too.

At first glance the isolated village seems like a happy commune full of flower children, a holdover from the sixties. They sleep and eat communally, select their sex partners, and wear handwoven traditional outfits. They still sing their ancient songs, and write their scriptures (predicted by a handicapped oracle) using ancient runes. But in fact, their beliefs predate the hippies by centuries, dating back to pre-Christian days. The friends arrive to a warm welcome but soon reveal themselves as the prototypical “ugly Americans”, photographing sacred texts, urinating on an ancestral tree, and just generally behaving horribly. But the Swedes aren’t so nice either. And when people start disappearing, one by one, they suspect foul play. Will Dani and Christian’s struggling relationship survive? And can the Americans get out of this crazy place alive?

Midsommar is a fantastically strange horror/comedy/drama, Director Ari Aster second film after the great Hereditary, but is totally different from that one. In fact it defies all usual classifications. It’s a horror movie, but shot in bright sunlight, full of happy songs and dances. It also totally reverses the moralistic streak of most American horror movies. Victims aren’t “punished” for drug use or premarital sex; in fact that’s encouraged. Rather, it’s about naïve people facing a much older and darker world than they ever imagined. It’s scary, hilarious and grotesque, overflowing with intricate anthropological hints and winks. While definitely not for everyone, I love Midsommar.

It’s a weirdly perfect movie.

Midsommar is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings. The Fireflies are Gone and The Last Black Man in San Francisco both open today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

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