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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Back from the Dead. Films reviewed: Pet Sematary, The Invisibles, Amazing Grace

Posted in 1940s, 1970s, Animals, Berlin, Christianity, documentary, Drama, Dreams, Germany, Holocaust, Horror, L.A., Music by CulturalMining.com on April 5, 2019

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

We all know people are born and they die, things come and go. But every once in a while things and people we believe are long gone seem to come back to life. This week I’m looking at three very different movies about coming back from the dead. There’s Aretha’s gospel concert buried since 1972; a documentary about young German Jews who hide in Nazi Berlin till 1945; and a horror movie about pets who come back from their graves in small town Maine.

Pet Sematary

Dir: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer

(Based on the novel by Stephen King)

Louis (Jason Clarke) is a Boston doctor suffering from ER burnout. He’s overworked, overstressed, and overtired. So to relax and spend more time with his family he takes and easy job in the quaint small town of Ludlow, Maine. He’s there with his nervous, religious wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two kids, little Gage, and his pride and joy Ellie. Ellie (Jeté Laurence) is an eight year old who loves ballet dancing and her furry cat Church (short for Winston Churchill). Their old wooden house is on a sprawling estate in a small forest with a high speed highway running through it. But their quiet lives are disrupted by some strange events. First, when a young patient of Louis dies in his care after a car accident, the dead boy seems to return, over and over to talk to him in his dreams.

Then Ellie sees kids from town in spooky animal masks burying dead pets on their property. It’s an ancient custom, explains kindly old Jud (John Lithgow) their nearest neighbour. He’s lived there all his life and understands the local lore. So when Ellie is despondent when her beloved cat is run over Jud tells Louis a secret. There’s powerful magic up on the mountain beyond the pet cemetery. Bury the cat under a cairn and he will come back to you from the dead. Sure enough, Jud is right. But it isn’t cute and loveable anymore. When you play with the the forces of good and evil, of life and death, bad things will surely happen.

Pet Sematary – a remake of the movie based on the Stephen King novel – is suitably scary. The small, excellent cast nicely contained in a single location give it a good cabin-in-the-woods quality, but it’s scariness is less adventurous. It uses the age-old techniques – spooky dreams, little “boo!” moments, even twists on the overused images of the mirror in medicine cabinet, and the dark room in the basement. And then it degenerates from scariness into outright, Bride-of-Chucky kitsch. I enjoyed Pet Sematary as a good, old-skool horror movie, just don’t expect anything new.

The Invisibles

Dir: Claus Räfle

It’s 1943, in Nazi Berlin, and Joseph Goebels has officially declares his Germany’s capital judenfrei – free of Jews. But he doesn’t realize that 7,000 Jewish Germans still lived their hidden in plain view. This docudrama tells four true stories about young people who survived the Holocause while living in Berlin. They don’t hide in an attic like Anne Frank’s family; instead they continue their lives right in the middle of everything.  Cioma (Max Mauff) sells all his possessions and poses as someone whose house was bombed in Köln, moving to new vacant rooms each day. He finds work for a high placed civil servant forging ID papers. Hanni (Alice Dwyer) bleaches her hair, calls herself Hannelore and hangs out in dark movie theatres in the Kurfürstendamm. Ruth (Ruby O. Fee) and a friend find jobs as maid and nanny for the kids of Nazi officers. And Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is placed with former colleagues of his dad, a doctor, dressing in a Hitler Youth uniform. But there are informants and Gestapo agents everywhere, searching for people like them. Who will survive?

The Invisibles is a fascinating retelling of largely unknown stories. It’s part documentary – the film regularly cuts to interviews in German with the actual people it happened to – and part drama with the thrilling stories replayed by well-known young actors.

Fascinating and thrilling stories, well told.

Amazing Grace

Dir: Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliott

Its 1972 at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, LA.

Reverend James Cleveland is leading a very special service for his devout parishioners. None other than the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin herself will be performing, alongside the Southern California Community Choir. The congregation is urged to feel the spirit, clap their hands, and get up from their seats and dance. But wait a minute — since when has pop sensation Aretha Franklin beena gospel singer? The answer is: all her life. Her father is the famous Detroit Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, and she was touring churches with her amazing voice since the age of six.

This concert became a huge hit album – many people say it’s Aretha’s best recordings – and the movie includes her back-up musicians, the choir, and the audience, including some very famous people, like Mick Jagger, gospel singer Clara Ward and lots of others I couldn’t quite recognize. A beautiful, intensely moving concert and church service. Interestingly, it’s been sitting in film cans, unscreened until now. For some reason, Aretha blocked its release her whole life, perhaps because it is so personal to her, perhaps because the sound and images were never synchronized. That’s all fixed now.

It’s a grainy hyper-realistic verité-style film that shows everything: retakes, the cameramen, the soundboard, the director running around pointing, and Aretha in a sparkling white gown, sweating under the hot lights. If you’re a fan of Aretha Franklin, and want to experience those two days of 1972, you must see Amazing Grace.

Pet Sematary and The Invisibles both open today in Toronto; check your local listings, and you can see Amazing Grace beginning next Friday.

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

Deep. Films reviewed: Destroyer, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, Ratcatcher

Posted in 1970s, 1990s, African-Americans, Coming of Age, Crime, documentary, Kids, L.A., Scotland, Thriller, Uncategorized, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2019

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

Tired of fantasy? How about some gritty realism? This week I’m looking at three deep, realistic movies — a documentary, a drama and a thriller — about working class characters living their lives. There are African Americans in the deep south, an LA detective in deep cover, and a young man in Glasgow knee-deep in trash.

Destroyer

Dir: Karyn Kusama

Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) used to be a young, pretty and ambitious uniformed cop in LA. Pulled from her division for an undercover operation, she was meant to infiltrate a notorious and deadly ring of bank robbers. She posed as a couple with Chris (Sebastian Stan) another cop which led to a relationship. And she made friends with the robbery team, including the sinister Silas (Toby Kebell) a long-haired man with a cruel streak a mile wide; and the friendly Petra (Tatiana Maslany).

But things didn’t go as planned. People died, and the thieves got away with bags of loot. Look at her now. She’s a burnt-out husk of her former self. Bell doesn’t walk, she staggers. Her lips are wrinkled, her hair looks like it was cut with garden shears and she talks like Jeff Bridges on a bad day. But when she finds evidence the robbers are at it again, she takes the law into her own hands. Will she stop the killers? Or will they destroy her first?

Destroyer is a fantastic crime thriller about an angry worn out cop on her quest for retribution. It keeps you glued to the screen, heart racing, as you try to figure out what’s going on. It’s told during three time periods, jumping back and forth between them, and as you watch it you constantly have to change your assumptions. No spoilers but there are some big shocks along the way. It’s very violent, though from a female point of view: men punching women, women strangling women, women attacking men. Not for the faint of heart. Nicole Kidman totally transforms herself – physically and emotionally – from the naive young woman into the hardboiled cop she ends up as.

Destroyer is a great LA crime thriller.

Hale County, This Morning, This Evening

Dir: RaMell Ross

Hale County, Alabama is in the deep, deep south. You can still find white-pillared mansions built on the backs of slave labour on cotton plantations. It’s named after a Confederate officer whose statue still stands. It’s also where the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr once sought refuge from the KKK. It’s a rural, mainly black area where people stay on with their daily lives: sports tournaments, childbirth, funerals. There’s a catfish factory, a school, a hospital and churches.

This fascinating documentary is a series of beautifully composed, very short – from five seconds to three minutes – and highly personal scenes. A woman tapping her thigh with a flyswatter, a man playing blues on an electric guitar. A baby learning to walk, fritters frying in a pan, kids drinking coca cola. We see teenaged boys talking in the basketball locker room, families baptized at a church, people hanging at a beauty salon or a bowling alley. Rolling clouds with electrical storms, the first drops of rain on the pavement, a deer caught in the headlights, and a solar eclipse. The filmmaker RaMell Ross who started photographing there when he moved to the town, records what’s going on all around him in an impressionistic collage of portraits, time lapse, and tableaux: a joyous celebration of African American life in rural Alabama.

This beautiful film is on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature.

Ratcatcher (1999)

Wri/Dir Lynne Ramsay

It’s 1973 in Glasgow, Scotland. James (William Eadie) is a gawky lad with ears that stick out who lives with his working- class family in a crumbling flat.   His father (Tommy Flanagan) has a scar on his cheek from a fight, his mother (Mandy Matthews) has holes in her nylons. The yard outside is piled high with trash – the garbagemen are on strike – so the mice and rats are having a ball. James lives his life carefully, avoiding dangerous gangs of teenaged bullies who dominate the streets.

He sometimes visits a stagnant canal nearby, badly in need of a dredging. There he meets a much older and sexually active teenaged girl. The bullies have thrown her glasses in the water, but James doesn’t fish them out – perhaps he thinks he has a better chance if she can’t see him clearly? She seduces him, inviting him to spend the night. But the canal also brings him horrible feelings of guilt: a friend of his drowned there when they were fighting in the water.

One day, James jumps onto a bus and takes it to the end of the line where a new housing development is being built. It’s on the edge of the city, right where oatfields meet the streets. He explores the empty construction site – will this be his new home?

Ratcatcher is a slice-of-life, coming-of-age drama about life in an urban slum as seen through the eyes of a young man. The characters are mainly played by local residents, non-professional actors who bring a gritty realism to their roles. This is Lynne Ramsay’s first film (from 1999) and one I’ve always wanted to see, but never had a chance until now. You should, too. It’s a realistic and touching movie about hard times… but with an uplifting finish.

Destroyer is now playing in Toronto, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening opens tomorrow, and Rat Catcher plays next Thursday as part of the 1999 Millenial Movies program playing this month (until Feb 12) 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.

Young and Old, New and Old. Films reviewed: mid90s, What They Had, Summer with Monika

Posted in 1950s, 1990s, Chicago, Coming of Age, Death, Drama, Family, L.A., Romance, Skateboards, Sweden by CulturalMining.com on October 26, 2018

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

Mark your calendars folks, as Toronto’s Fall Film Festival season continues in November. ReelAsian has great anime, dramas, docs and comedies from South, East, and Southeast Asia. Ekran Polish film festival opens with Pawel Pawlikowski’s fantastic Cold War — about two lovers seperated by the Iron Curtain — and Toronto’s own 22 Chaser. And the EU film festival has one film from each country in the European Union, with some real treasures waiting to be discovered… and all screenings are free!

This week I’m looking at movies new and old, about people young and old. There’s a love story about young adults in Stockholm made in the 1950s, a coming-of-age story about a young LA teenager set in the 1990s, and a family drama about an elderly Chicago couple set in the right now.

mid90s

Wri/Dir: Jonah Hill

It’s LA in the mid 1990s. 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives with his single mom and frustrated big brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). Ian uses him as his personal punching bag so Stevie stays away from him. Out in the city he discovers a skate shop and cautiously approaches the older kids who hang there. There’s Ruben (Gio Galicia) is a brooding kid, a bit older than Stevie, who tells him what’s what. Ray (Na-Kell Smith) is the group’s rudder who tries to keep them out of trouble. Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), is a skinny nerd who records everything with his video camera. And then there’s the daring and reckless one with blonde dreads (Olan Prenatt) whose name is made up of two words I can’t say on radio (but rhyme with Truck Spit).

At first, they think of Charlie as just a kid, but he proves his mettle by doing the most dangerous rides and jumps… and ends up in hospital for it! Soon he’s a real member of their nameless club. Together they own the streets with their boards. But can a 13-year-old have a good time without ending on drugs, in jail, or dead?

Mid90s is a fun and light coming-of-age story, seen through the eyes of a kid with much older friends. He encounters sex, drugs, and Jackass-style extreme exploits, for the first time, all projected against a non-stop blanket of 90s music.  I’m always dubious whenever a Hollywood moviestar decides to make a film, but Jonah Hill does a great job on this one. It’s low budget, an enjoyable story, simple but effective. It’s moving, funny and believable. without trying too hard or trying change the world. Sunny Suljic is great as Stevie, as are the rest of the gang, mainly played by non-actors who skate.

I like this one.

What They Had

Wri/Dir: Elizabeth Chomko

It’s a snowy Christmastime in Chicago. and Bridget (Hillary Swank), is flying there from sunny California to spend the holiday with her family. She’s travelling with her daughter Emma on college vacation, and is met at the airport by her grumpy brother Nick (Michael Shannon). He owns a bar and lives in the back room with his on-again off-again girlfriend. But they’re mainly there to see their parents, a retired couple in their 70s. They’re devout catholics. Burt (Robert Forster) reads the obits each day yo make sure he’s not in them, while Ruth (Blythe Danner) has simpler pursuits. They’re a happily married couple, in sickness and in health, till death do they part.

And that’s why the family is really there.

Ruth is prone to wandering, walking off aimlessly into the snow, and showing up in a hospital or at the railway tracks. And she mistakes a stapler for the telephone. She has Alzheimer’s and Nick wants to ship her off for “memory care” and Burt to assisted living, alone somewhere. Burt says no way. Life’s not bells and whistles, it’s hard work and we’re still very much in love. But Bridget has her Mom’s power of attorney. Whose side will she take — her father’s or her brother’s? And will the secrets uncovered by this family reunion lead to a permanent rupture in all of their lives?

What They Had is a low-key family drama with a powerhouse cast. Any movie

Away From Her

with Michael Shannon, Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner and Robert Forster in it is worth seeing just for that. But I can’t help comparing Blythe Danner to Julie Christie in Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, that great drama, also about Alzheimer’s. (They even look the same!)

This one is much easier to watch, though, trading heavy drama for family nostalgia.

Summer with Monika (1953)

Dir: Ingmar Bergman

It’s the 1950s in working class Stockholm. Harry (Lars Ekborg) is a 19 year old at his first job, delivering boxes of glass by bicycle cart. (He looks like Tintin.) Harry lives with his ailing dad in the family home. At work, he is constantly yelled at for being late or filling in the wrong forms. Not fun. Monika (Harriet Andersson) is even younger, and from a poor part of town. At home she’s bugged by her drunken dad, or teased by the little brats. And her workplace could be used as a textbook for sexual harassment laws 50 years later. She’s assaulted, groped and insulted all day long.

So when Monika sees Harry, a total stranger, in a bar, she takes the plunge. I hate this job, I hate this city, and I hate my life, let’s just get the hell out of here! Harry, though shocked by her forwardness, realizes he doesn’t like his life much, either. And he does like Monika. So soon, they’re off in a motorboat to a distant place. They set up camp on a rocky shore, and spend their time picking wild mushrooms and frolicking naked on the rocks. Is this love? But reality rears its ugly head. Lelle (John Harryson), Monika’s ex-boyfriend, is stalking them. There’s no clean clothes and their food is running out. And Monika discovers she’s pregnant.

Summer with Monika is 65 years old, but Ingmar Bergman’s timeless love story still feels fresh and vibrant. It’s shot in beautiful black and white in a realistic style. There are a few seconds of discreet nudity but apparently was very shocking when it was released in the US. (Didn’t help that the distributor marketed it as “The story of a bad girl” who was “Naughty and 19“!) But in Europe it proved highly influential for generation of filmmakers. Try to catch this movie while it’s still playing.

What They Had and mid90s both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Summer with Monika is now playing as part of the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Bergman 100, showing virtually all of his movies, in a beautifully programmed series.

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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