End of summer movies. Films reviewed: Flag Day, 499, Candyman

Posted in 1500s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Art, Chicago, Crime, documentary, Family, History, Mexico by CulturalMining.com on August 28, 2021

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

I know, everyone’s still thinking about Covid-19, vaccinations and Delta, Delta, Delta… but it’s also beastly hot and horribly humid. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in an air-conditioned movie theatre, (safely spaced away from the other moviegoers?) This week I’m talking about three new films that open this weekend — a documentary, a family drama and a horror movie. There’s a Spanish conquistador recording notes in a book; a ghostly killer whose hand is a hook; and a grifter who vows to help out his daughter… by hook or by crook. 

Flag Day

Dir: Sean Penn

It’s the 1970s in the US  midwest. Jennifer and her little brother Nick lived with both their parents, until mom (Katheryn Winnick) kicked dad (Sean Penn) out of the house. He’s a liar and I won’t put up with him anymore! But after watching their mom spiral into alcoholism, the kids only have fond memories of their dad. So they ask to spend time with him. They move into his ramshackle hut by a lake, alongside his new, young girlfriend. He teaches 11-year-old Jennifer to drive, and they spend crazy times by the lake and on the highway. It’s all like an exciting adventure… until the motorcycle gang he works for — and owes money to — start visiting the home. Dad gets beaten up and the kids move back in with mom.

Later, in the 80s they’re back in school. Jennifer (Dylan Penn) is a goth rebel and Nick (Hopper Penn) is a withdrawn teen. Mom has remarried to a creepy guy, and the kids suffer for it. But when the stepdad starts crawling into bed with Jen, that’s the last straw — she has to get out of there. She travels across the country until she finds her father. He is not in great shape — neither mentally nor financially. And his criminal tendencies start to re-emerge. Can Jennifer reconcile with her dad and mom and pursue her goal to become a journalist? Or is she doomed to follow in their footsteps?

Flag Day is a family drama (based in a true story) about the ups and downs of a father-daughter friendship. It stars a real father and daughter, Sean and Dylan Penn. The movie starts on Flag Day (an unofficial,  patriotic US holiday), with the father — an accused counterfeiter — is being pursued down a highway by a line of police cars with a helicopter overhead. The rest of the movie is about what led to this point: mainly Dad trying to get away with his crimes to help his beloved daughter.

I have mixed feelings about this film. I’ve seen enough to know that if it’s bad in the first 10 minutes, it will probably only get worse. (Flag Day feels wooden and slow.) But I decided to give this one a chance… and you know what? It gets much better. There’s way too much crying — every scene of the movie involving Jennifer or one of her parents leaving or coning back is punctuated by more tears. And voice-over narration  can ruin any connection you might feel to the characters on the screen. On the other hand, the whole movie is nicely shot on grainy video filled with beautiful fireworks, bonfires, flaming BBQs — (lots of fire and water!); the characters develop and get more and more interesting as you get to know them; and the whole thing (nearly) pulls together by the end. It’s set mainly in Minnesota but was shot in Manitoba, giving it an “authentic” feeling of working-class, white America. Flag Day isn’t perfect but it’s not bad either, once you give it a chance.

499

Co-Wri/Dir: Rodrigo Reyes

In 1521, Cortez and a few hundred conquistadors  invade the Aztec kingdom. They overthrow Montezuma and slaughter countless people, laying waste to the beautiful capital of Tenochtitlán in their insatiable search for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Later, one of the conquistadors (Eduardo San Juan) survives a shipwreck and washes to shore, complete with armour, helmet, pantaloons and sword. He walks from the beach to Tenochtitlan, but it’s not how he remembers it. Somehow he has skipped the past 499 years and is now near Mexico City, circa 2020.

499 is a documentary with a twist. It’s a travelogue through modern day Mexico as seen through the eyes of a relic from the past, a man mired in 16th century Christian morality and Spanish Imperialism. He feels he can slaughter local “Indios” with impunity. But, gradually,  as he sees what’s become of Mexico today — the drug cartels and corrupt police forces, along with the relentless crime, torture and death they bring — he is forced to rethink his beliefs. He becomes less of a soldier, and more of a passive observer, speaking with Mexicans and writing down what they say as they tell him their harrowing stories.

But it’s not all sad stuff. We also see the beauty, the splendour, the weirdness and the wonder all around him. Dance, music, acrobatics, art, culture and history are all shown in glorious panoramic cinematography.  There are bullfights and strip bars, and interviews with actual masked gangsters… as well as their victims.

499 is an eye-opening doc about contemporary Mexico disguised as a time-travel movie. 

Candyman

Dir:  Nia DaCosta

It’s present-day Chicago. 

Brianna and Anthony (Teyonah Parris, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are a rising young power couple in Chicago. They live in a luxury high-rise. She’s a curator at a local art gallery, and he’s an artist. But when he wants his paintings included in a group show, his gallerist says his work is getting stale. Find something new. So he sets out to explore a local urban legend to incorporate it in his work. It’s the story of Candyman, a ghostly serial killer who operated out of a public housing project called Cabrini–Green. It was a sorely neglected area, populated mainly by poor blacks, located just across a street from one of Chicago’s richest and mainly white neighbourhoods, the Gold Coast. (Looks like Bree’s apartment was built over the remains of the project.) 

Candyman tempts victims by offering  them candy, and kills them surrounded by a swarm of honeybees, using a sharp hook he has for a hand. And he can be summoned by saying his name 5 times while looking into a mirror. Anthony’s latest work is called Call My Name, a mirror that dares its viewers to summon Candyman. It gets little notice until people associated with his art start turning up dead. Suddenly, he’s a hot property and art critics say he’s important. But Anthony knows the truth. Candyman is real, he’s dangerous, and he’s Anthony’s to blame for letting him loose on the world. Can he and Bree stop the Candyman before he kills more people? Or is it too late?

Candyman is a sequel to the Wes Craven’s horror movie from the 90s, and it turns conventional slasher-horror movies on their head.  Bree’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett)  is flamboyantly gay but also a credible character with a life all his own, not just a victim to be laughed out. Black characters don’t exist merely in reaction to whites — they’re the focus of the movie. Killings are usually shown from a distance or off-camera — while there’s blood, it’s not excessively gory (compared to most slasher movies). Scary but not terrifying. 

Aesthetically, Candyman is deeply satisfying with art direction way above what you normally see: minimalist composed sets, breathtaking cityscape views of Chicago filmed upside-down in black and white, and shadow puppets used to illustrate the story within the story… so cool. The filmmakers — producer Jordan Peele and co-writer/directer Nia DaCosta  — are black, as are the main characters… but not most of the victims. DaCosta skewers the cut-throat world of fine art, using razor-sharp political satire. Candyman is not a conventional slasher/horror movie, and probably won’t scare your pants off, but it offers lots of eye candy to look at and even more to think about. 

I liked this one a lot.

Candyman and Flag Day just opened this weekend in Toronto — check your local listings. And you can catch 499 at the Paradise Theatre for two days only: Aug 28-9th. 

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

 

More Hot Docs! Films reviewed: Dark Blossom, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, The Big, Scary “S” Word

Posted in 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, Denmark, documentary, Goth, History, LGBT, Protest, Racism, Slavery, Socialism, US by CulturalMining.com on May 7, 2021

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

Hot Docs — Canada’s International Documentary Festival — continues through the weekend with  tons of great movies online. Free tickets each day for students and seniors. I plan to binge watch documentaries this weekend before it’s over.

Here are a few I want to see:

Four Seasons in a Day – a novel look at the ferry across the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic; 7 Years of Lukas Graham — about the eponymous Danish band; Gaucho Americano — about real cowboys from Chile working in the Western US; and Archipelago — a stunning animated look at an imaginary animated island in Quebec.

But this week I’m talking about three more docs at hotdocs, all directed by women, two of which offer a new take on American history. There’s the dark past and present of American racism; the brighter side of 200 years of populist, home-grown American socialism, and — for something completely different — a look at three dark goths in sunny, rural Denmark.

Dark Blossom

Wri/Dir: Frigge Fri 

Josephine is a young woman who lives in a small town in Northern Jutland, Denmark. She hates sports, and rejects the H&M conformity of her high school classmates. She prefers to wear black, accentuated with theatrical makeup, wigs and a pierced septum. If you haven’t guessed yet, she’s a brooding goth. Luckily, Jose is not completely alone. She’s best friends with two guys: Jay, whose parents are devout christians but who prefers big hair and dark fantasies; and fashion-obsessed Nightmare, who knows choice curse words in Punjabi (from his father’s side) but can’t find a boyfriend. They give each other home-made tattoos, and go out on adventures in the grassy fields. They’re totally into roadkill, boiling dead weasels to make jewelry from their bones. Together they form a tight 3-goth posse. 

But things start to fray when Jose meets a guy she really likes. And when she moves to Copenhagen to live with him, Nightmare takes this as a personal slight. Will the three best friends ever get back together, or is this a permanent shift? And will Jose trade in her animal skulls for Hello Kitty dolls?

Dark Blossom is a highly personal look at three young non-conformists in rural Denmark as they express their fragile feelings of friendships in their art fashion and music.

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

Dir: Emily Kunstler & Sarah Kunstler (whose father was the famous civil rights lawyer William Kunstler)

Can a country be both good and bad? Cana country founded on slavery be a bastion of freedom and liberty? So asks Jeffery Robinson, a director of the ACLU in a lecture he gave in New York City on Juneteenth (June 19th) in 2018 to mark the emancipation of enslaved people in the US. This lecture interspersed with vintage photos and personal interviews — looks at the history of slavery and racism and the dominant role it holds in the country. And like the toppling down of old statues, this iconoclast exposes some of the worst aspects hidden in plain sight. Did you know the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner celebrates the capture and killing of escaped slaves? They sing it for you, on stage. Andrew Jackson, whose face greets you on each $20 bill — and whom ex-president Trump says he adores — was a major advocate of the slave trade who proudly owned 150 human beings. A large part of the US economy, both the North and the South, was based on the trade of cotton, tobacco and rice, all of which were produced mainly by slave labour. And that’s just before the US Civil War. 

The film looks at the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, massacres of black neighbourhoods, widespread lynching, segregation, the Jim Crow laws, widespread incarceration and police violence. It covers how ingrained anti-black racism is in the foundations of sectors you might not ever think about, including the financial system, real estate, education, insurance, and government.

This is all told by Robinson himself in a personal way: he grew up in a manly white neighbourhood in Memphis, Tennessee, during the beginning of integration and the implementation of civil rights there. So we see him revisit and talk about his own past, what has improved and what remains the same. Who We Are is an excellent and meticulously researched look at the history of racism and white supremacy within the US, covering hundreds of years in just two short hours.

The Big, Scary “S” Word

Dir: Yael Bridge

With its two-party system, its entrenched political views, and its relative lack of class mobility, the US is considered one of the most conservative, developed countries in the world. But what is often forgotten is the longstanding streak of leftist populism and socialism throughout its history. And with the explosive rise in popularity of politicians like Bernie Sanders and AOC, and movements like the Democratic Socialists, the “S” word no longer holds the negative connotations it once did. This movie  digs up some really unusual facts that will suppose almost everyone who watches it. Did you know it was the republican party who originally espoused socialist ideals after the civil war? And that Karl Marx wrote regular columns in American newspapers? He was intrigued by the socialism in the US long before he write his books. It looks at the cooperative communities that sprung up in the mid 1800s in places like Wisconsin; and the non-commercial Bank of North Dakota that saved the farmers there from losing their land and homes.

The film looks at a huge range of topics eloquently explained by dozens famous talking head like Cornell West and Naomi Klein, as it covers centuries of American history. It also follows some people making history now, like Lee Carter a former Marine turned state politician after he was screwed by his private employer, and Stephanie Price an Oklahoma public school teacher forced to take on a second job just to raise her son (she joined in the statewide teachers strike).

If you’re into history, and not the kind they teach you in high school, check out the Big Scary “S” Word; it’s punchy, fast moving, well-edited, highly informative and most of all, entertaining.

Dark Blossom, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, The Big, Scary “S” Word, are all playing at Hot Docs now through May 9th.

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

Dissidents. Films reviewed: The Dissident, The Chicago 10

Posted in Animation, Chicago, documentary, Hippies, History, Politics, Protest, Resistance, Saudi Arabia, War by CulturalMining.com on January 8, 2021

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

I’m recording this on Wednesday (January 6th), when the Q Anon army, red-pilled and red-capped, at the behest of a certain, soon-to-be-former President, has just stormed the (widely anticipated but strangely unguarded) Capitol building and many state government buildings, too. Sort of a reverse-coup, an attempt to block regime change? The mob has dispersed and Trump has temporarily been stripped of his Twitter account, a fate worse than impeachment. But if you’re listening to this on Friday morning, things may have changed so much that these comments are already old hat.

Either way, I think it’s as good a time as any to talk about political unrest and dissent. So this week I have two new movies, both documentaries. There are antiwar radicals who disrupt the Democrats in Chicago; and a Saudi journalist who disappears in Istanbul.

The Dissident
Dir: Bryan Fogel

Jamal Khashoggi is a successful journalist born into an illustrious family in Medina, Saudi Arabia. For thirty years he works tirelessly for the government, and is part of the country’s elite. But in a sudden about face, he divorces his wife, and leaving his family behind, relocates in Washington DC. He is hired by The Washington Post to write columns, some of which criticize the Saudi government and its royal family. But in the authoritarian monarchy this is a no-no. He becomes a dissident.

Later, he falls in love with a young Turkish woman — a scholar who speaks Arabic — he met at a conference. He travels to Turkey to meet his fiancee’s family. In order to marry, they need a document from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, proving he has divorced his first wife. But this is where things get weird; after entering the consulate a year ago, he is never seen again.

After widespread outrage, Turkish detectives are allowed into the building. Based on the evidence they find — in addition to wiretaps, recordings and external video footage — they came to a shocking conclusion: Khashoggi was murdered in cold blood by a hit team of Saudi team of special ops flown in especially for that purpose. He was suffocated in front of a diplomat=, his body dismembered by a pathologist and burned to ashes in a barbecue pit

The Dissident is a detailed documentary — in Arabic, Turkish and English — that traces Khashoggi’s life and death from inisder to dissident to victim. Using new interviews with most of the key players — though no one inside the Kingdom — it solves many of the mysteries dogging his case. It rarely veers from its central topic, Khashoggi and freedom of speech, and stays away from important issues like women’s rights, the war in Yemen, never mind cultural expression and sexual liberation. But the one area the doc does explore is an insider’s look at dissidents across the Arab world. The film is narrated by Omar Abdulaziz, a young Saudi who sought asylum in Canada. He helped guide Khashoggi when he becomes a dissident. And this is where the movie gets really interesting. It explores a government-sponsored troll army that silences dissent on social networks like Twitter — a site used by 80% of Saudis; and the work Omar has done to counter it. While some of the doc is a bit dry, it shines when it digs deep into cyber warfare, political activism and and newly revealed secrets of the Kingdom.

The Chicago 10 (2007)
Wri/Dir: Brett Morgen

It’s the summer of ’68, and the youth of America, the product of the baby boom, is revolting. LBJ has plunged the country into war in Vietnam; civil rights leaders, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy have been assassinated. People are sitting in, dropping out, fighting back. It’s also an election year, and the DNC (Democratic National Committee) is holding its convention in Chicago. To confront this and to have their voices heard, radical political action youth groups converge on Chicago from across the country. The Yippies, from the east coast, headed by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and poet Allen Ginsberg, are humorous, media savvy, sex-positive masters of performance art.

Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden fight against war, poverty and racism. David Dellinger is a long-time anti-war activists. They plan a massive be-in, a festival of life, based in Lincoln Park, full of speeches and music culminating in a march to the Hilton Hotel to confront the Democratic convention. But they are met by riot police, ordered by Mayor Daley, and the national guard who violently attack the largely unarmed peace activists. Loads of people were arrested and injured, and a key few — including Davis, Hoffman, Rubin, Heyden, and Dellinger — are put on trial in 1969 by the feds and charged with conspiracy. For some reason they throw Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party into the group, when he was only in Chicago for a few hours that summer. And thus begins the lengthy show trial.

The Chicago 10 is an excellently researched documentary on that famous trial and the demonstrations that led to it. The film jumps back and forth, chronologically, between the trial and the summer demos. No cameras were allowed into the courtroom, so the trial scenes are 3-D animated using the actual transcripts, and the voices of actors like Nick Nolte, Leiv Schrieber, Hank Azaria, Roy scheider, Mark Ruffalo,Jeffrey Wright and many others. The voices are occasionally cartoonish, because, well, its a cartoon, but generakky feel like the r eal thing. The demonstations are taken from beautifully restored contemporary footage and news clips, as well as radio recordings, and onstage performamces all done while the trial was actually taking place. (none of the accused were locked away during the trial so they were constantly on the media.

It’s full of revelations. Allen Ginsberg is called in as a witness, and the prosecutor makes him recite his most salacious erotic poems, presumably to shock the jury. There are great news stories, like little kids in Chicago seen playing cops and protesters, instead of cops and robbers, where in this game activists get clubbed by police.

You may have seen the much lauded the Trial of the Chicago 7, Aaron Sorkin’s star-studded take on the story. While the production values and acting are great in that one, Chicago 10 is much more historically accurate than Sorkin’s revisionist drama.

If the topic interests you, Chicago 10 is definitely worth a watch.

The Chicago 10 is now available online, and The Dissident opens today across North America, 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 director Susan Teskey and David Suzuki about Searching for Cleopatra on The Nature of Things

Posted in Anthropology, Archaeology, Canada, CBC, documentary, Egypt, History, Rome, Royalty by CulturalMining.com on December 18, 2020

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

You’ve probably heard of Cleopatra. She was a beautiful and sensual temptress who seduced two roman leaders before tragically killing herself in a fit of passion with an asp to her breast. Or… was she a brilliant leader, a skilled tactician, a multilingual scholar, and the most powerful woman of her era? What is the truth and what are the myths about this Ptolomaic pharaoh and how can we tell the difference in our search for the real Cleopatra?

Searching for Cleopatra is a new documentary about this Egyptian titan. It talks to historians and scholars and captures recent archaeological finds that cast new light on her story. It’s directed by Susan Teskey, known for her work as a producer for The Fifth Estate. Searching for Cleopatra premiers on the Nature of Things on Jan 8, on CBC and CBC Gem. The Nature of Things is celebrating it’s 60th season, and has been hosted by noted environmentalist David Suzuki since 1979.

I spoke with Susan Teskey in Toronto, and David Suzuki in Vancouver via Zoom.

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