Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Chase Joynt about Framing Agnes at Hot Docs

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, documentary, L.A., LGBT, Mystery, Queer, Secrets, Trans, UCLA by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2022

Garber-April-23-22-interview

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

It’s the late 1950s in Los Angeles. While the world’s attention is on Christina Jorgensen, the charismatic transgendered celebrity who flew back from Copenhagen as a new woman, a much quieter clinic at UCLA was also conducting treatment and surgery of transgendered patients. And into this office stepped a young woman named Agnes who said despite being a cis male she grew breasts spontaneously upon reaching puberty — a celebrated case. But later Agnes admitted she made it all up so she would qualify for gender reassignment surgery. Why did Agnes have to lie to get much-needed treatment?

Framing Agnes is a new and unusual documentary based on newly uncovered medical files that look at Agnes and her other unsung contemporaries from that era. Made in the style of a 1950s talk show, it includes reenactments, off-screen conversations, period footage as seen through a present-day filter. Using trans actors, it meticilously presents interviews as “real”, immediately followed by footage showing that they’re only acting. It deals with hot topics, ranging from gender, sexuality and identity, to trans youth, and visibility vs invisibility. This first feature is the work of  prize-winning writer and filmmaker Chase Joynt, who co-directed No Ordinary Man, about jazz musician Billy Tipton, and co-authored You Only Live Twice with Toronto artist Mike Holboom.

I spoke with Chase Joynt in Chicago, via Zoom.

Framing Agnes is premiering in Toronto at Hot Docs on Sunday, May 1, 8:30pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

Class divide. Films reviewed: Sundown, Ambulance, Mothering Sunday

Posted in Action, Clash of Cultures, Class, Crime, Depression, Drama, Heist, L.A., Mexico, Sex, UK by CulturalMining.com on April 9, 2022

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies — from the UK, Hollywood and Mexico — about the class divide. There’s a penniless orphan having a passionate affair with an upper-class Englishman; a London billionaire who intentionally disappears in Acapulco; and a bank robber who commandeers an ambulance on the streets of LA to protect 16 million dollars.

Sundown

Wri/Dir: Michel Franco

Neil (Tim Roth) is an Englishman on holiday in Acapulco with his sister Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her two teenaged kids. They’re staying at a luxury resort , the kind of place where you never have to leave your private infinity pool, as waiters will bring martinis directly to your suite. They can watch locals diving off the cliffs in exchange for small tips — let them eat cake! Neil and Alice are the heirs to a vast fortune worth billions. But a shocking telephone call upsets their plans, forcing them to fly back to London immediately.  But Neil, claiming he left his passport at the hotel, doesn’t get on the plane. Instead, he disappears, checking into a cheap local guesthouse. His days are spent drinking beer on Mexican beaches, and he soon hooks up with a beautiful woman named Berenice (Iazua Larios).  But all is not well. Acapulco is a dangerous city with drive-by killings invading even his beachfront. His hotel room is robbed and he finds himself surrounded by petty criminals. Meanwhile his sister is frantic with worry. Why has he not returned to London? What sort of a game is he playing? Is he trying to bilk her out of her share of the family fortune?  Or, as he says, he has no interest in money at all? And why is he withdrawing from life?

Sundown is a disturbing Mexican film about the class divide and how one man deals with it in his own way. Tim Roth plays Neil as an introverted trying to escape from everything. He barely speaks or makes decisions as his world collapses all around him. He endures crime, violence, and even jail with barely a reaction. But internally he is plagued with bizarre hallucinations, with giant hogs invading his mind-space. While not nearly as upsetting as his previous film, New Order, in Sundown Michel Franco once again probes the fear, corruption and violence permeating the class divide in contemporary Mexico. 

Ambulance

Dir: Michael Bay

Danny and Will Sharpe are best friends and brothers (Will was adopted). They group up together on the streets of LA, but took different paths as adults. Will (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) stuck to the straight and narrow, joining the military and is now married with a small child. Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal) took after their dad, a notorious bank robber who left many dead bodies in his wake. But good guys seem to finish last. Will’s wife needs complex surgery something he can’t afford — he van barely feed his family. So he goes to Danny, cap in hand, asking for help. Danny agrees as long as he participates in what he calls a simple bank robbery that’ll leave them both rich beyond their wildest dreams. But the robbery goes south, and they are forced to flee in an ambulance with a wounded cop and a paramedic named Cam (Eliza González) trying to keep him alive. Can they escape with the money without killing the cop?

Ambulance is a two hour chase scene disguised as a movie. As they race through the streets of LA they are pursued by helicopters, police cars and the FBI, trying to kill the bank robbers without killing the cop. Michael Bay is known for his trademark enormous explosions and spectacular car crashes, and he doesn’t disappoint. There are also some cool new camera tricks, like a drone camera hugging the side of a police station as it plunges many storeys straight down to the sidewalk (it almost made me carsick!). But fancy camerawork and lots of crashes does not a movie make.  And with cookie-cutter characters and ultra-simplistic storylines like this, why go to a movie when you can find the same thing on a game like GTO?

Ambulance is not boring, it’s just totally pointless.

Mothering Sunday

Dir: Eva Husson

It’s England between the wars. Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is a teen orphan who earns her living as a maid. As her name shows, she was abandoned by her mother as a child. Her upper-class employer (Colin Firth and Olivia Coleman) give her a a holiday on Sundays every so often when they go for a picnic with their friends. This gives Jane the chance to sneak away to spend time with her secret boyfriend Paul (Josh O’Connor) whose maid is also given the day off. It’s a passionate relationship full of unbridled sex all around the family mansion. Is this love or infatuation? Either way it’s no coincidence Jane and Paul both have free time on the same day. Paul’s parents and Jane’s employers are meeting at the same picnic, where Paul is heading too, to make an important announcement. But something shocking happens on the way. 

Mothering Sunday is a beautiful film about a woman whose status gradually rises as she makes her way from house servant to independent writer. It’s also about the lovers and partners she meets along her way. Although it starts slowly the film becomes more and more interesting as details and secrets of her life are gradually revealed. Odessa Young is amazing as Jane Fairchild, someone you can really identify with. Eva Husson is French director and this is the first thing I’ve seen by her, but she’s really good — she knows how to subtly set up a scene, and then turn it on its head with a shocking revelation. This is a relatively simple, low-budget movie, but something about it out really grabbed me, and left me thinking about months after I saw it.

I really like this one.  

Ambulance and Mothering Sunday both open this weekend; check your local listings. Sundown is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Christmas Movies! Films reviewed: Sing 2, Licorice Pizza

Posted in 1970s, Animals, Animation, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, L.A., Movies, Musical, Romance by CulturalMining.com on December 24, 2021

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

It’s Christmas today, with time off for most of you, meaning lots more time to spend at the movies, whether in theatres or at home.  So this week I’m looking at two new movies opening this Christmas weekend. There’s a cute cartoon about musical animals trying to put on a show, and a coming-of-age story about two young people in California trying to get to know each other.

Sing 2

Wri/Dir: Garth Jennings

Buster Moon is a producer-director who runs a small-town theatre. His current production, Alice in Wonderland, is a smash hit, selling out each night.  The performers, young and old, are singing and dancing their hearts out.,

And audiences love it. So now they’re ready to make it big… they just have to be “discovered” first. But when a talent scout from the big city is uninterested, they decide to take their show to the big city, and show up for the auditions anyway. They disguise themselves as janitors and sneak onto the stage, and to their great surprise, the big boss, Mr Crystal, who has rejected dozens of acts before them… likes them! He signs them on the spot under certain conditions. One: they must bring a celebrity  — specifically the reclusive rock singer Clay Calloway — into their show. And two, if anything goes wrong that might embarrass Crystal, he will literally throw them off the roof of his high-rise. 

Sing 2 is a sequel and in case you never saw the first one, this is an animated movie, and all the characters are animals. Moon is a koala (with the voice of Matt McConaughey), Crystal (Bobby Cannavale) is a wolf, the faded rock star is a lion (Bono) along with various other pigs, gorillas, and elephants  (Reese Witherspoon, Taron Egerton) as well as a cute porcupine named Ash , voiced by Scarlet Johannson unfortunately dressed in what looks like a fake indigenous headdress. (Why…?)

Although it has a kiddy plot meant for three-year-olds, Sing 2 is a consistently entertaining, highly watchable and fast-moving cartoon movie suitable  for kids and adults alike. There are some great scenes, like Johnny the break-dancing gorilla being forced to learn broadway dancing from a cruel choreographer, and a long audition sequence like a fast-motion American idol This is a musical, where the characters sing a huge selection of popular contemporary songs (mainly from the last decade or so), plus a few new ones written for the movie. But always as performers on a stage or in rehearsal, never spontaneously breaking into song in real life (like in a traditional musical). So if you’re looking for a cute and fun family Christmas pic, a film you can leave the theatre humming in your head, you’ll probably like Sing 2.

Licorice Pizza

Wri/Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson

It’s 1973 in Encino, California in the San Fernando Valley. Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is a teenager who lives with his single  mom, a business woman and entrepreneur. Gary’s an actor, part of a. song-and-dance kids troupe known as the Tiny Toes.  Today is photo day at the local High School. Gary sees a young woman in the hall who takes his breath away. It’s Alana Kane (Alana Haim) He approaches her point blank and asks if she’ll go out for dinner with him. She flatly rejects him. Turns out she’s not a student, she’s in her twenties, she works for the school photographer, and she wants nothing to do with this aggressive, chubby kid. But he is nothing if not persistent. So they end up having non-alcoholic drinks at a local bar & grill where Gary is a regular. She adamantly tells him they are not and will never date. But she agrees to be his chaperone to a TV appearance in NY city along with his Tiny Toes colleagues. She ends up dating his rival, an older and better-looking singer- dancer-actor, but it doesn’t last. 

They form a sort of a friendship and business partnership, trying out Gary’s various get-rich-quick schemes, some of which work, others that don’t. Gary wants fame and fortune, while Alana wants to support political causes (US Soldiers are still in Vietnam and Nixon is embroiled in the Watergate scandal.) Can the two of them get along, and will they ever take it to a higher level? 

Licorice Pizza is a stupendous, period comedy-drama, a coming-of-age story about a largely unrequited romance. It’s set within the rapidly-changing social and sexual mores of southern California in the turbulent ’70s.  It has cameo appearances by celebs playing other celebs, like Sean Penn as a movie star who seduces Alana and an unrecognizable Bradley Cooper as a wild-eyed Jon Peters (Barbra Streisand’s husband at the time) in an unforgettable scene where he’s a customer at their fledgling waterbed business. Because they’re in the Valley, Alana and Gary are constantly interacting with semi-famous people in their daily lives, but not quite making it big themselves.

Aside from these cameos, the movie is based on real people, or at least previously unknown actors in their first movie roles, and they are unbelievably good. Gary is played by Cooper Hoffman (son of the late, great Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Alana Kane is played by Alana Haim  a musician/singer from the eponymous trio Haim. And if you look at the cast list, everyone is related to someone famous, with a Spielberg kid here, a Demme there, and more Hoffmans, Haims and Andersons than you can shake a stick at. And maybe that’s what makes this movies seem so incredibly real, even though it’s clearly just a movie. Everyone’s acting and playing scripted roles in costumes from a different era, but it just seems so honest, so true. And Hoffman and Haim have amazing chemistry.

I don’t usually gush over movies, but Licorice Pizza is so very entertaining, delightful, surprising, funny, sad, and moving, from beginning to end, that I walked out of that theatre thinking, wow, this is a movie everyone should see. It’s got direction, acting, music, locations, costumes, dozens of unforgettable characters,…I’m telling very little about what happens because I saw it blank, knowing nothing about it, and I think you should too. This is one of the best movies of the year.

This Christmas weekend Sing 2 and Licorice Pizza open theatrically across Canada with Licorice Pizza playing at the TIFF Bell Lighbox; check your local listings.

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

Delivering the Message. Films reviewed: Songbird, Modern Persuasion, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

Posted in Advertising, Brooklyn, China, Covid-19, Disease, documentary, L.A., Romance, Romantic Comedy, Science Fiction, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on December 11, 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 movies – a rom-com, a thriller, and a documentary – about people delivering messages. We’ve got a romantic ad executive in Brooklyn, a courier in pandemic LA, and peasant-writers in northern China.

Songbird

Dir: Adam Mason

It’s 2022, a year in the future, and Nico (K.J. Apa) is the happiest guy in LA. He’s a courier who spends his days zooming around the city’s almost-deserted streets on his motorbike delivering packages. You see, COVID-19 has wiped out almost everyone, and those still left alive are under permanent lockdown. Rich people cower behind high-security walls while in the poor parts of town, conditions are barbaric. Everyone is under constant surveillance, forced to submit daily digital “temp tests” to prove they’re not infected. Helicopters hover overhead looking for anyone disobeying the lockdown, enforced by “Sanitation Officers”, paramilitary thugs dressed in bright-yellow Hazmat suits.

So how come Nico gets to ride around unhindered? He wears a precious plastic bracelet proving he’s immune to the virus. The one sad note is he can’t get together with his girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson). They’re forced to press hands on either side of closed doors and communicate only by texts. And he’s always on the look out for the evil head of the Sanitation Bureau (Peter Stormare) an immune serial killer who murders with impunity. Will the virus ever end? And will Nico and Sara ever get to kiss?

Songbird is a science-fiction romantic thriller about life under COVID.  Apparently it is the first such movie conceived, shot and released during the pandemic. Aside from Sara and Nico (KJ Apa is the kiwi heart-throb from Riverdale, who regularly takes off his shirt to reveal his abs) the story also follows  William and Piper Griffin (Bradley Whitford, Demi Moore) a crafty rich family who secretely keep their infected daughter Emma alive; a young woman who works as a youtube singer and part-time sex-worker; and some lonely and depressed war vets abandoned by their government but still ready to save the day. Songbird does an OK job at capturing the pandemic in cinematic form (up to now we’ve had to rely on old movies like Contagion, Outbreak, 28 Days) but it’s not great. And with our constantly-changing news cycle, how can any movie like this keep up with Covid-19?

Modern Persuasion

Dir: Alex Appel, Jonathan Lisecki

Wren (Alicia Witt) is an advertising executive who lives in Brooklyn with her cat. She’s pretty and smart, but in her thirties and still single (gasp!). She broke up with her college sweetheart Owen when he moved to the Bay Area and made a fortune in tech. The agency – owned by brother-and-sister rich diletantes – is not doing well, so she has to land a new account soon. Luckilly, a social networking giant is interested in hiring them. It’s called “Blipper” (as in twitter… get it?) Luckilly she has two millennial assistants to help her navigate these strange waters. But when the potential client shows up, she’s shocked to see it’s Owen (Shane McRae), her lost love. And he treats her like she’s not even there, flirting with her younger assistants instead of her. It’s not like she doesn’t have suitors of her own. There’s Sam, Owen’s best friend, a middle-aged emo who listens to sad music from the 80s; and Tyler, a London hotshot who owns a rival ad agency. Her impromptu dates with Tyler are set up by her scheming aunt Vanessa (played by the great Bebe Neuwirth). But secretly, in her heart, she still pines for Owen. Does he still love her? Does she still love him? And which is more important – her career or her love life?

Modern Persuasion – as the title suggests – is a contemporary take on the Jane Austen novel. Parties in the Hamptons replace balls in stately mansions, but the story seems essentially the same (I say “seems” because I haven’t read Persuasion, but I have seen a lot of Jane Austen movie knock-offs.) Beautiful women, especially Wren, dress in modern versions of romantic gowns, while the brooding / aloof / duplicitous men are all handsome, too. Appearance – clothes, hair, shoes, bags, looks – seems to be the great determiner in this movie. It’s cute and occasionally funny, but the plot is totally predictable, and some of the lines, especially the fake millennial-talk, are excruciating: Hashtag: Justshootme.  That said, if you’re looking for some light, shallow and inconsequential entertainment, you could do worse than Modern Persuasion.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue 

Dir: Jia Zhangke (past interviews here and here)

In 1942 under Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party held talks in Yan’an on the role of writers and artists in a future Peoples’ Republic. They declared that literature should be written by educated peasants about their lives for other peasants to read. Fiction should serve the people and the Party, and foreign influences avoided. In Jia Zhangke’s new documentary, he looks at the effect this had on Chinese writers, by looking at four authors in chronological order: Ma Feng, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong. The documentary interviews the writers themselves but also has random villagers reciting lines from the works directly toward the camera, in the style of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

Ma Feng was a writer in early Communist China. Born a peasant, he later became a writer lauded by the party. Locals in the model community Jia Family Village still talk about his innovations, like freedom to marry for love (rather than arranged marriages) and communal work teams that tackled major problems like making salty soil fit to grow crops. He was a fruit of the Yan’an Talks and studied at the Lu Xun Academy, where Western styles were frowned upon and a number of writers were purged. Ma Feng brought his learnings back to his village.

 Jia Zhangke next looks at Jia Pingwa (no relation). His ambitions were thwarted in the 1960s because his dad once attended an opera in Xi’an registered through a local warlord (before liberation). Because of this record, he was declared a spy for the KMT, and his children were also labeled counter-revolutionaries. Jia Pingwa finally broke from his tainted background by painting 8-character slogans on a stone cliff beside a reservoir (he had good handwriting.)  He’s now a noted writer.

Yu Hua is a popular novelist who used to be a dentist, a profession he hated. Although born in the beautiful city of Hangzhou, his family moved to a backwater, and lived near a morgue (an early influence). He talks about his first published stories (in the 1980s) in the prestigious magazine Harvest, and how the caring editor explained that while his writing was good, one story was too gloomy, and required a happy ending. He quickly obliged.

And Liang Hong, who was a PhD student in the 2000s tells harrowing memories of her childhood

on a farm, including spouse abuse, hunger and suicide.

Altogether, Jia Zhangke subtly reveals modern Chinese writers and how they weathered the Cultural Revolution, censorship, anti-foreign sentiments, and conformity of thought while still producing great works of literature. (I have’t read any of these authors.)

Like all of Jia Zhangke’s documentaries, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is slow-paced and subtle, but profound. I found it quite moving, especially the authors’ own recollections. Beautifully shot, it’s divided into 18 short chapters, each one beginning with a written text. While academic in tone, and aimed more at those interested in Chinese art, politics and history than regular fans of Jia Zhangke’s movies, I quite enjoyed it.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue opens today exclusively at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Songbird and Modern Persuasion both open digitally and theatrically 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.

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.

Lost causes. Films reviewed: Tammy’s Always Dying, Planet of the Humans, She’s Allergic to Cats


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

I had a strange dream last night. I was in an old-school movie palace (in real life, all movie theatres are still closed) fumbling around in the dark, trying to find a seat while maintaining social distance. I finally found an empty seat way up in the second or third balcony but there was a huge pillar blocking the screen. So I had to twist around until I was almost lying prone until could catch a glimpse of the movie, far below…

But you don’t have to go such lengths to see unusual films – they’re on your device or TV at home. So this week I’m looking at three new indie movies, now playing. There’s an ex-environmentalist tilting at windmills; a depressed mom in Hamilton jumping off bridges; and a neurotic filmmaker in Hollywood obsessed with bananas.

Tammy’s Always Dying

Dir: Amy Jo Johnson

Kathy (Anastasia Phillips) is a working-class woman in Hamilton, Ontario. She has a steady boyfriend, a career, a nice car and a mother who loves her. OK, that’s an exaggeration. She actually has a ramshackle existence teetering on the brink. She drives a wreck, works in a

dive bar for Doug (Clark Johnson) an older gay black guy who’s her only friend. Her so-called boyfriend Sean (Aaron Ashmore: 22 Chaser) is married with two young kids who meets her periodically for quickies in his tool shed.

And then there’s her mom. Tammy (Felicity Huffman) is a total mess: a penniless alcoholic, she’s depressed and suicidal. Her only pleasure is watching confessional talk shows on daytime TV. Each month she can be found, like clockwork, on a pedestrian bridge, ready to throw herself onto the railway tracks far below. But Katherine always arrives just in time to save her mom’s life.

Until… Tammy finds herself facing a physical problem that almost trumps her financial and mental difficulties. Turns out she’s dying of cancer, stage 4 cancer, with less than a year to live. Can Katherine convince her to take chemo to extend her life? Or will she abandon her mom, buy a Toyota and move to Toronto?

Tammy’s Always Dying is a bittersweet drama about mental illness, poverty and fanmily relations. Its shot against the bleak industrial steel mills of Hamilton. It has some humour and light parts, as it satirizes daytime TV. The acting is good all-around (though Felicity Huffman’s excruciating attempt at a Canadian accent sounds more like a Wisconsin dairy farmer). While it didn’t blow me away, it does have some very touching scenes. If you’re looking for a good, realistic tear-jerker, this is one to see.

Planet of the Humans

Wri/Dir: Jeff Gibbs

Our planet is heading toward environmental destruction. Can we stop climate change by switching to greener renewable energy? So asks a new controversial documentary. The filmmaker follows eco-skeptic Ozzie Zehner around the US, and what they find is not good. Rather than replacing carbon fuels, these new energy sources just switch one carbon-based energy for another. Environmental movements, they say, are just ways for major corporations to greenwash their image… and make big bucks from government subsidies. And green energy is not so green after all. All of which are very real concerns.

The problem with this movie is it is full of silly comparisons, half-truths and a near total lack of credible statistics. Instead, it discredits genuine improvements without offering any alternatives. For example, they show up with a camera at a protest against fracking and ask random people not about the troubles with fracking but rather – what are your feelings about biomass? Huh? And when the people they talk to don’t give them the answer they’re looking for, they suggest maybe environmentalists are hiding something.

Their argument against solar energy and wind turbines? The panels are manufactured, solar energy doesn’t work in the dark, and their equipment eventually wears out. But instead of supporting their arguments with stats – such as does a given energy source uses more energy than it produces? – they go for cheap gotcha scenes, where a rock concert that claims to be powered by solar energy is caught using a generator when it starts to rain. It’s like a child’s version of a documentary… and one that offers no alternatives except despair.

Yes, we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Yes, corporations are co-opting some environmental movements to profit off government subsidies. And yes, green energy equipment has to be manufactured. But burining coal is not the same as hydropower or windmills. Broken solar panels littering a desert is not the same environmentally as mining oil sands. To write off an entire movement as fraudulent based on factoids and interviews with random strangers – and without any research to back it up – is not the way to expose malfeasance. And spreading misinformation doesn’t help much either.

I’d give this one a miss.

She’s Allergic to Cats

Wri/Dir: Michael Reich

Dorky Mike Pinkney (Mike Pinkney) is a single guy who lives in a small house in Hollywood. He came there with big plans: to shoot a remake of Carrie with cats playing all the roles. He shares his idea with his best friend Sebastien (Flula Borg) who isn’t impressed. He says Michael is a giant, sad dirty man-baby. In the meantime he works at a day job, grooming dogs (badly). There he meets the beautiful and glamorous Cora (Sonja Kinski). She’s Mickey Rourke’s daughter’s personal assistant, and she brings in the star’s dogs to be groomed. Is this love at first sight? Not exactly, but at least they might go on a date some evening.

But Mike doesn’t tell her about his real problems. His home is filthy and infested by rats, which his landlord – a musician named Honey (Honey Davis) – won’t do anything about. And he ocassionally slips into psychedelic fantasies, full of sinister cats, buckets of blood, and a wooden bowl of rotten bananas, spinning, spinning, spinning around in his brain. Sometimes people he’s talking to seem to be possessed by Satan.

Will Mike make his video art? Will he and Cora fall in love? Will he win his battle with the rats? And what about the missing pug?

Needless to say, this is not an ordinary movie, more of an impressionistic, experimental indie collage of images, characters and music. It’s a comedy, a mystery, and a fantasy. It’s shot on grainy video, with frequent cuts to fuzzy, 80s-style video art. And full of odd references to movies, from The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to Congo. It’s pretty funny and pretty strange without being over the top. If you like unusual movies – She’s Allergic to Cats feels like a cross between Peter Strickland and John Waters – you might enjoy this one.

I did.

Tammy’s Always Dying opens today across Canada on all VOD platforms; Planet of the Humans is streaming on Youtube; and She’s Allergic to Cats is available on demand from Giant Pictures.

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

Some Antipodean Directors. Films reviewed: The Assistant, Come to Daddy

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

February is the worst month of the year, full of overcast skies, slush on the ground and a general malaise. So I thought: why not look at movies from a place where our winter is their summer? At least the directors, if not the stories. This week I’m looking at two films by directors from the antipodes, one from Australia, another from New Zealand. There’s a thriller/horror about a young man searching for his father’s secrets; and a tense drama about a young woman uncovering horrible secrets in her office.

The Assistant

Wri/Dir: Kitty Green (Interview: Ukraine is not a Brothel)

Jane (Julia Garner) is a young woman trying to make it in New York City. Hired straight out of Northwestern,  she’s currently at the bottom of the ladder, but hopes to work her way up. She’s an assistant at a medium-sized movie industry corporation with offices in New York, London and LA. She’s the first one to arrive, the last one to leave, the sort who eats her fruit loops standing up in the office kitchen.  All the grunt work falls to her — order lunch, sort head shots, distribute memos, serve coffee, book hotel rooms, tidy up her boss’s office. And deal with angry abusive people blaming everything on her. She brushes it all off in exchange for the promise of future work.

But something doesn’t seem quite right. A newly hired assistant, a pretty aspiring actress, has just arrived from Boise, Idaho, fresh out of high school, who has only worked as a waitress in a diner. Jane commutes from remote Astoria while the newest assistant is staying at a first-class hotel. She finds a woman’s earring  under a cushion in the boss’s couch. Why do actresses leave the boss’s office in tears? Why is she sending out blank cheques to unnamed people? And what will happen to the new assistant who thinks she’s here for an audition? Although she doesn’t face sexual abuse from her boss, it’s becoming increasingly clear that other women do. Why isn’t anyone talking about it? And is she to blame of she doesn’t speak up?

The Assistant is a cold, hard look at the rampant sexual harassment and abuse women face. It’s set at some point in the past, before the #MeToo movement broke, when everybody knew what was going on, but nobody ever did anything about it. Or if they did, they would be paid hush money to keep it away from the public. Male assistants laugh nervously, making jokes about which pieces of the boss’s furniture you should never sit in. Older women take it as a given: don’t worry dear, you’re not his type. The movie just lays its out before the audience in all its horribleness… without ever showing it.

Julia Garner gives a stunning performance as Jane, conveying a succession of unspoken emotions over the course of one day through facial expressions and body language: dread, distrust, realization, horror, and fear. There’s a terrific scene where she wraps herself up in a winter coat and a big scarf – like a suit of armour – to somehow shield her from the bad stuff happening all around her. This film gives a realistic look at a widespread problem reduced to a single day in one unnamed office.

The Assistant is a subtly, powerful movie about a difficult and uncomfortable topic that has to be told.

Come to Daddy

Dir: Ant Timpson (Turbo Boy)

Norval Greenwood (Elijah Wood) is a privileged, 35-year-old guy from LA. He loves fashion, celebrity and the big city. His prize possession is a limited edition, solid gold cel phone designed by Lorde. But something is missing from his life. His father walked out when he was five and Norval was raised by his mother in a Beverley Hills mansion. So when he receives a cryptic, letter from his long-lost Dad telling him he wants to talk to him, he decides to do it. He follows a handwritten map to a rocky beach in the pacific northwest until he finds an isolated, wooden house decorated with christmas lights clinging to the edge of a cliff. He knocks on the door, and a dessicated, grizzled old man opens it. “Hi Dad, Here I am…”

But this is not the kindly father he remembers. Gordon (Stephen McHattie) is a mean drunk, staggering around swilling plonk as he shoots insults at his son. His beady eyes look like dried out raisins. Norval wants to get the hell out of there but only after his dad tells him why he asked him to come in the first place. But when the old man threatens to chop him up with a cleaver, he knows something is not right.

Come to Daddy is a nihilistic thriller/horror as seen through a darkly comic lens. Elijah Wood is great as a nervous, self-centred guy whose First World problems are dwarfed by real life dangers… involving a killer, an eccentric policeman, a coroner, a swingers convention at a nearby motel, and the unexplained noises, that echo — clang clang clang —  around the nearly empty house. The vintage Thai soundtrack helps balance the blood and gore. This is a particular genre; either you like it or you don’t, but I love darkly twisted movies like this, with the quirky characters and constant surprises that keeps me glued to my seat till the final revelation.

The Assistant and Come to Daddy both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Women on the move. Films reviewed: Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Light of My Life, The Kitchen

Posted in 1970s, comedy, Crime, Drama, L.A., New York City, Peru, post-apocalypse, psychedelia, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 9, 2019

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

Who says exciting movies are always about men? This week, I’m looking at three movies about girls and women facing danger in unusual places. There’s a pre-teen girl surviving post-apocalyptic America; a teenager exploring the jungles of Peru; and a gang of middle-aged housewives fighting back in Hell’s Kitchen.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Dir: James Bobin

Dora (Isabela Moner) is a smart and friendly 16 year old girl. She was brought up by her academic parents (Eva Langoria, Michael Peña) in the jungles of Peru, where she made friends with all the animals – especially Boots, a monkey. Now her parents want to discover the legendary ruins of Parapata, an Incan city of gold – not as treasure hunters, but as explorers. But it could be dangerous. So they send her to stay with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) in far off LA. But life at Silverlake High is not what she expected. Despite her relentless positivity, students tease her for her childlike un-coolness.

Diego finds her embarrassing. Student president Sammy (Madeleine Madden) scorns her as a rival. Only astronomy nerd Randy (Nicholas Coombe) likes her. But when she is kidnapped and flown back to Peru, along with Randy, Sammy and Diego. it’s up to Dora to escape the bad guys – including mercenary treasure hunters and a masked fox named Swiper – rescue her friends, and find the Incan ruins of Parapata.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a very cute take on the popular educational kids show. It’s simultaneously a tongue-in-cheek satire of the original cartoon, and a deadpan recreation of it. Boots and Swiper are there in CGI, but there’s no talking backpack. It’s primarily for kids, but there’s lots of laughs for grownups – like a psychedelic drug scene and a bit of romance. There’s even a song about how to dig a hole to bury your poop when camping in the woods. I saw it with a 50%-toddler audience who loved it. I liked it, too.

Light of My Life

Dir: Casey Affleck

Rag (Anna Pniowsky) is a tough, outdoorsy girl going camping with her dad (Casey Affleck). She’s a preteen with short hair dressed in boyish clothes. He tells her bible stories to put her to sleep. Thing is, they’re not camping for fun. A terrible plague wiped away half the world’s population – the female half – right when she was born. So rag, short for raggedy ann, grew up in an all-male world. leaving only men and some boys. Her dad is terrified about what might happen to her – men can’t be trusted. So they live in a perpetual state of seclusion and escape. He never sleeps. He teaches her how to spell – she reads voraciously – and about the birds and the bees.

They find an empty house and move in, but Dad is terrified when she tries on girls clothes. But when they find an isolated house populated only by bible-thumping grandpas, he thinks they might finally live a normal life. Can the one of the last girls on earth lead a normal life? And will her dad ever relax?

Light of My Life is a low-budget drama about the love between a father and a daughter in extreme circumstances. It’s filled with long scenes of flashlight-lit dialogue in lush, moss-filled forests, punched with occasional bursts of fear and violence. Anna Pniowsky is fantastic as Rag, and Affleck is good as her conflicted father.

I just wonder… what is the point of this movie? That girls in an all-male world will still gravitate to their own gender expression? That guns, bible, and the family are the only things we can trust? This is a zombie movie without zombies, and not nearly as good as Leave No Trace (about a dad and daughter living off the grid). This movie is not bad, just not that great or original.

The Kitchen

Dir: Andrea Berloff

It’s 1978 on a hot summer’s night in Hell’s Kitchen. Claire, Cathy and Ruby are three working class women waiting to hear from their husbands, gangsters with the Irish mob. Cathy (Mellissa McCarthy) is happily married with two young kids. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), originally from Harlem, is an outsider who doesn’t get along with her matriarchical mother-in-law (Margo Martindale). And Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is just a punching bag for her abusive husband. But when their husbands get jailed by the Feds, they find themselves with no money, no income and few prospects for work. So they decide to take over their husbands’ jobs.

Though untrained, they seem to have a knack for collecting protection payments from local stores. And when they fight off rivals within their husbands’ gang, they become “queenpins” of the neighbourhood. Cathy does the talking, Ruby collects the bucks, and Claire finds new strength in doing “the messy stuff” – shooting, killing, and getting rid of dead bodies. She’s tutored in these skills by Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), a ginger-haired hitman with a history. Their business expands northward and southward, with graft, extortion and prostitution. But can they handle the disloyal members of their gang, powerful Mafia dons from Brooklyn, and FBI agents on their tail? And what will happen when their husbands get out of jail?

The Kitchen is a brilliant new twist on the classic gangster movie, with three women rising up in a dog-eat-dog world. Based on a comic, it’s full of love, compassion, violence and intrigue. McCarthy and Haddish are comic actors but convincing in their serious roles, and Moss and Gleeson are even better.There are some missteps. Could working-class financially-strapped women in the late 1970s have no experience working? And some bizarre references to Gloria Steinem and “feminism” seem totally out of line. (There’s no feminist solidarity here; these are three criminals clawing their way to the top.) And the ending is lacklustre. But altogether this is a beautifully shot, fast-moving story that’s fun to watch. The Kitchen is a great crime drama, with women in the lead.

The Kitchen, Light of My Life, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold 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.

Revision. Films reviewed: The Stone Speakers, Free Trip to Egypt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Posted in 1960s, Bosnia, Communism, documentary, Egypt, Hippies, Hollywood, Islam, L.A., Movies, War by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2019

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

They say he who pays the piper calls the tune. This week I’m looking at two documentaries and a drama that retell history. There’s a doc about changing American minds in Egypt, another one about rewriting history in Bosnia, and a drama that rewrites the history of Hollywood.

The Stone Speakers

Wri/Dir: Igor Drljaca

It’s present-day Bosnia-Herzogovina. Since the end of the Bosnian war, the formerly multicultural country has been divided ethnically and religiously among Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. As its factories close down and young people move away cities have turned to tourism for income… in some unusual ways, fiddling with history on the way. The film looks at four Bosnian cities.

In Medjugorje, millions of pilgrims visit a site where six children are said to have seen the Virgin Mary. Tuzla, once known for its ancient salt mines, has opened man-made salt springs lakes where the city had gradually been sinking. Visoko is dominated by a strange hill, once an Ottoman fortress, built over an unknown ancient pyramid. Tourists cluster in its tunnels to absorb its energy, even as Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim leaders all condemn it as heretical. And Višegrad, a crossroads city, once known for its Ottoman stone bridge, is now the site of a cultural centre built by Bosnian Serb director Emir Kusturica in honour of Nobel laureate Ivo Andric’s novel. (A museum about a movie about a book about a bridge…!)

The movie presents these oddball Bosnian towns at face value in a series of carefully composed shots, both portraits and landscapes, as panoramic long takes… almost like still photographs but ones that move. Voiceovers, by discontented residents of the cities, provide arms-length analysis, uncovering the absurdity and revisionist history of these places.

The Stone Speakers is a humorous and hauntingly beautiful look at what has become of the Toronto director’s homeland.

Much simpler is…

Free Trip to Egypt

Dir: Ingrid Serban

Tarek Mounib is a Halifax-born Canadian of Egyptian ancestry, who looks a bit like Jon Stewart. As a university student he was an activist but has mellowed in middle age. But he is dismayed at the explosion of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment in the US today, especially since Trump’s election. So he sets out to remedy this by offering strangers an unusual proposition: free guided trips to Egypt! He recruits these adventurers in unusual places, both online and at Trump’s MAGA rallies.

There’s a policeman, two young evengelicals, a single woman, a war vet and an older couple, each with their own prejudices and expectations. In Egypt they are paired with local singles and families to show them how real Egyptians live, along with their religions, food, music, and culture as well as visiting the more famous tourist sites like the pyramids of Giza.

But can a group of Americans change their dead-set views about Arabs and Muslims?

Free Trip to Egypt is exactly what the title promises. Nothing surprising or unexpected in this film. It actually feels closer to reality TV than to a documentary – but it has a good heart.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Wri/Dir: Quentin Tarantino

It’s the late 1960s in LA.

Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are good friends, both on and off screen, but they are not equals. Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a movie star, best known for his TV series Bounty Law. He lives in a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills, next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski. Cliff (Brad Pitt) is a stuntman, and Rick’s double. He lives in the valley with his dog in a rundown trailer behind a drive-in movie park in Van Nuys.

They’re both pushing forty and things aren’t looking good. Rick has shifted from white hat to black hat, playing the heavy on TV cop shows. A mover and shaker (played by Al Pacino) wants to restart his career, but Rick isn’t sure he can shift from star to actor. Cliff is still limber and seemingly indestructible, but hasn’t worked as a stuntman since he accidentally killed his wife. He has a bad rep, picking fights on set with a young Bruce Lee. Now he’s mainly just Rick’s driver and personal assistant, with too much free time on his hands.

Rick struggles through his latest role – as the villain in a True Grit-type western – and wonders if he has lost his mojo… while Cliff cruises around LA in his sports car, listening to AM radio and flirting with a nubile, hippy hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). What he doesn’t realize is Pussycat – and her sketchy friends Squeaky (Dakota Fanning) and Tex (Austin Butler) – are members of the not-yet- notorious Charles Manson’s “Family”. And that they’re living on the Spahn ranch, a movie location where Rick and Cliff’s TV show was shot in the 1950s. Meanwhile, with Polanski out of the country, Sharon Tate is enjoying her newfound stardom. But what will happen when the players all meet?

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Tarantino’s latest movie and one of his tamest. It’s an affectionate tribute to the movies of the 60s: its look, it’s stars, it’s pop music. Everything – from car models to movie trailers to neon lights and billboards – is painstakingly recreated, to give you the feel of the era. There are dozens of cameos played by long-forgotten hollywood favourites and former child stars. The story itself – that takes a leisurely two hours and forty minutes to tell – seems less important than the mood.

Tarantino is known for endless scenes that don’t seem to quit… even when they’re supposed to. In past films, it meant extended scenes of torture and endless violence. In this movie it’s more likely a very long, behind-the-scenes reenactment of shooting a movie. He’s one of few directors I can say I saw every one of his movies in theatres when they first came out. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood while shallow, was very enjoyable: constant eye candy, a terrific soundtrack, and Pitt and DiCaprio are a lot of fun as buddies. And despite the Manson subplot, there is much less gratuitous violence than in most of his movies.

If you like movies about movies, this is the one to see.

The Stone Speakers opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood starts across North America today; and A Free Trip to Egypt starts next Friday (August 2) 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 immigration attorney Judy Wood about the new biopic Saint Judy

Posted in 2000s, Biopic, Drama, L.A., Migrants, Movies, Refugees, Resistance, Trial, US, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 14, 2019

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

It’s the early 2000s in L.A. Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan), an immigration lawyer and single mom, discovers a shocking case. A young woman – a school teacher who defied Taliban oppression in Afghanistan – is incarcerated in California awaiting deportation. But sending her back to her home village would be like a death sentence. Why isn’t she considered a refugee? Trouble is women are not a minority group, and her religion, language and nationality – Muslim and Pashtun – are the same as her oppressors. Which means she’s not a “persecuted minority” and doesn’t qualify for asylum. What can she do?

Saint Judy is a new biopic based on real events that tells the story of this important trial. It centres on Judy Wood, an immigration lawyer – still practising in LA – who changed the Law of Asylum.

I spoke to Judy in Los Angeles via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Saint Judy has its Canadian Premier on Thursday, June 20 in Oakville, and its Toronto VOD launch on Friday, June 21 at the Revue Cinema in a benefit for Sistering.  Judy Wood will appear in panel discussionsat both screenings.

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