Investigative Journalists. Movies reviewed: The Journalist, The Viewing Booth, The Best is Yet to Come

Posted in 2000s, China, Corruption, Crime, Israel, Japan, Meta, Movies, Palestine, Poverty, Realism, Suspense, Women, 日本映画, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on October 16, 2020

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

Is journalism still alive? We seem to have an endless supply of pundits with formulaic political viewpoints, but true investigative journalism is hard to find. But it’s still there – you just have to know where to look. So this week I’m talking about three new movies (two dramas and a doc) about journalists and the media. There’s a die-hard journalist in Tokyo looking for the truth; a cub reporter in Beijing looking for his first big story; and a documentary-maker in the US looking at how viewers interpret the news.

The Journalist (新聞記者)

Dir: Fujii Michihito (Based on the novel by Mochizuki Isoko)

Erika Yoshioka (Eun-kyung Shim) is a young reporter at Tôto, a medium-sized Tokyo newspaper. One day she receives an anonymous fax with a cartoon of a sheep drawn on the first page. Inside are government plans to open a medical researchlab in a backwater town. is it a prank? Evidence of a boondoggle? Or something more? She decides to investigate. But she has to be careful; her own father was a freelance journalist based in New York who ended up dead from suicide after revealing another storyl.

Meanwhile, in a different part of Tokyo, a young government bureaucrat named Takumi Sugihara (Tôri Matsuzaka) gets an unusual call from Kanzaki, his former boss from five years earlier. He wants to meet for a talk. Sugihara used to work for Gaimushô, Japan’s foreign service, but switched to his current job after Kanzaki took the fall for a scandal at the Beijing Embassy where they both worked. Sugihara now works for Naicho, the secretive intelligence unit that operates out of the PMO. Rumour has it Naicho is used to surveil and plot against opponents to the ruling political leaders. Kanzaki wants to tell him something, but they both end up getting drunk instead. And not long after, he jumps off a building. His death brings together the dogged journalist Erika and the loyal bureaucrat Sugihara both of whom want to find out exactly what happened. What was Kanzaki’s secret and why is it so dangerous? Is it related to the sheep cartoon Erika received? Who else knows? And what will happen to the two of them if the scandal reaches the papers?

The Journalist is a tense, captivating story of deep-state corruption and sinister plots. The action alternates between Erika’s bright and crowded newsroom and the cold empty halls of Naicho where Sugihara reports to an evil and powerful boss. Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung is perfect as Erika in her unwavering search for the truth – she totally deserves the Japanese Academy award she won for this performance. The Journalist is a terrific movie.

The Viewing Booth

Dir: Ra’anan Alexandrowicz

This documentary asks: can news viewers, like you and me, ever change our political views because of politically-charged videos we watch on sites like youtube?  It follows a subject named Maya at an American university by filming her face has she watches a selection of 40 short news videos. The camera captures her comments and facial expressions, moment by moment, as she wavers between acceptance and rejection of what she’s watching, sorting them mentally according to whether or not they fit her outlook. She asks aloud: Is this footage real? Is it convincing? Is it biased? Does she believe it? And what does it mean?

She’s brought back six months later, this time viewing the same videos, right beside footage of herself from the first session. She observes herself observing videos (it gets super-meta here.) The videos in the doc are all from the occupied Palestinian territories and they range from innocuous to disturbing, showing settlers, Israeli soldiers, and Palestinians. (She concentrates on one video where soldiers dressed in large military masks walk into a home in the middle of the night, wake up small children,  ask each child their name, photograph each child’s face, then leaving without explanation.) Half the clips are from B’Tselem, a human rights group opposed to the occupation, and the other half were posted by various right-wing groups. The documentary tries to see whether exposure to opposing viewpoints can change a viewer’s mind or if it merely enforces the beliefs she already holds. Here’s the thing: it’s not a scientific study despite its clinical trappings; rather, The Viewing Booth is more of a meditation, the filmmaker’s personal reflection on the biases news viewers hold. Is it universally applicable or just about that single subject? I don’t know, but it is interesting – and unsettling – to watch.

The Best is Yet to Come (不止不休)

Dir: Wang Jing

It’s 2003. Han Dong (Bai Ke) is a would-be journalist in Beijing. Originally from northeastern China, he’s a high school drop-out who quit his steady job back home at a chemical factory to go for broke in the big city. But so far no luck. His girlfriend Xiaozhu (Miao Miao: Youth) who also worked at the factory lives in even worse conditions. But he keeps going to job fairs to try to get hired by a newspaper. And they keep rejecting him as unqualified, until… opportunity knocks when he visits a newspaper to pick up a minuscule 100 yuan paycheque for a short piece they published. He catches the attention of a veteran journo there takes him on as an intern, right beside college grads brandishing journalism degrees from prestigious schools like Bei Da. And he passes his first test, getting a scoop at the site of a coal mine disaster. But his next story could be a whopper.

He goes undercover taking a job at a sketchy medical clinic that pays cash for blood. No they’re not vampires. Rather they provide forged blood samples for applicants to jobs. Why? Because anyone who tests positive for Hepatitis B is categorically rejected. This effects maybe 100 million people for a disease that is not even contagious. It’s a crooked company that breaks the law. But is the law fair? Should he cover the story… or cover it up?

The Best is Yet to Come (based on a true story) shows how a self-taught, print journalist breaks into the big leagues despite all the odds against him. Its exciting plot keeps you questioning all the way through. This is Wang Jing’s first feature – he was assistant director to the great Jia Zhang-ke (Ash is Purest White, Touch of Sin) but with a very different style. It’s told in a straightforward chronological manner, no tricks or fancy camerawork. Great acting and story, The Best is Yet to Come gives an unusual look at both investigative journalism and a glimpse into real-life China – the grime and grit, the dark alleys, crowded tenements and poverty. And it leaves on a hopeful note: if you try hard and don’t give up, you can change the world.

The Best is Yet to Come played at #TIFF20, The Viewing Booth is showing at Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival on now through the weekend, and The Journalist is available for streaming at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival through October 21st.

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

Daniel Garber talks with director Warren P. Sonoda and actor/musicians Max and Theo Aoki about Things I Do For Money

Posted in Art, Canada, comedy, Crime, Drama, Japanese Candians, Movies, Music by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2020

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

Nick and Eli Yaguchi are brothers who play the cello together. They’re working toward a joint audition for the Banff Arts Centre. They live in an industrial neighbourhood in Hamilton. Eli is a naïve highschool nerd who is crushing on a figure-skating girl named Laura. Nick is older, self-confident and chill – he plays in a band and works at a dive bar. As their audition date approaches, Eli finally meets Laura and things are going well, until… they witness a crime and find a satchel of cash that could solve all their problems. But it turns out both Laura’s and Eli’s families have ties to organized crime! Can they pursue their artistic goals without breaking the law or getting killed? And what things will they do for money?

Things I Do For Money is a new Canadian crime-dramedy about family ties and dark secrets, music and art. It stars the real-life cellists Max and Theo Aoki, and is co-written and directed by Warren P. Sonoda. Theo and Max are prize-winning musicians known on stage as VersaCello. They play Max and Eli, and wrote and performed the music that’s used in this film. Warren is a multi-award winner in TV and film, directing episodes of Trailer Park Boys, Murdoch Mysteries and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

I spoke with Warren, Max and Theo via Zoom.

Things I Do for Money is now playing digitally across Canada.

Crimes and punishments. Films reviewed: Tijuana Jackson: Purpose over Prison, Random Acts of Violence, A Girl Missing

Posted in Canada, comedy, Comics, Horror, Japan, Journalism, Kidnapping, Movies, Prison by CulturalMining.com on July 31, 2020

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

They say movie theatres will open again in Toronto, but aside from drive-ins, so far = nada. In the mean time, there are still lots of movies to watch at home. This week I’m looking at three new ones – from the US, Canada and Japan – that deal with crimes and their punishments. There’s a man on parole trying to stick to the straight and narrow; a cartoonist driving on a dangerous highway; and a caregiver caught up in a twisted path of vengeance and betrayal.

Tijuana Jackson: Purpose over Prison

Wri/Dir: Romany Malco

Tijuana Jackson, or TJ, is an audacious and bombastic speaker who operates out of a prison cell in Florida. He has a shaved head and a goatee. TJ has great ambitions as a life coach and motivational speaker, skills honed through years of practice. But once he’s released back into the real world, his captive audience is gone. His life is still centred on cigarettes, cheap suits and mixtapes, but the world has moved on. He moves back in with his deeply religious Momma Jackson, his adult sister Sharia, and his devoted nephew Lil’ Eric Jackson (Alyoka Brunson). He tries to recreate his previous life in his new home – there’s a payphone in his bedroom, and Lil’ Eric passes him contraband messages through cracks in his window.

But he’s under the constant watch of his angry sister and Cheryl, his strict parole officer with whom he shares a history. If he doesn’t straighten up and find a job soon, it’s back behind bars. He tries working – unsuccessfully — as a life coach by hustling random people he meets in a city park. Fortunately he still has one prospect – the chance of appearing on a reality show. It’s run by Toastmasters where competitors take turns as motivational speakers. But can he make it to the audition on time and become a media star? Or is it just a revolving door back to prison?

Tijuana Jackson is a comedy / mocumentary that looks at life within the carceral system, both inside and out, in an exaggerated but still realistic way. Everything he says is recorded by a film school student named Rachel who follows him everywhere with her cameraman. Is it funny? Yes – not so much the simple plot as TJs persona. It’s one Malco has been polishing for years in a series of monologues on youtube called Prison Logic. This is just the movie version, but I liked it.

Random Acts of Violence

Dir: Jay Baruchel

Todd (Jesse Williams) is an indie comic book writer and artist who lives with his partner Kathy (Jordana Brewster) in Toronto. He’s famous for his gruesome series about Slasherman, a sadistic serial killer. Slasherman wears a metal welder’s mask and arranges his victims’ corpses in grotesque artistic poses. Although Slasherman has many fans, Todd plans to finish the series as soon as he can figure out a good ending. So they’re going on a road trip to the states with Kathy, his geeky publisher Ezra (Jay Baruchel) and his assistant artist Aurora (Niamh Wilson). They’re heading toward New York City for a comic con, but taking the scenic route, stopping at comic shops on the way.

But the America they encounter is a scary and dangerous place, full of cheap motels, gas stations run by distrustful rednecks, and black vans with tinted windows. They’re driving along the I-90, the highway where the real slasherman had a reign of terror back in 91 before disappearing. But he seems to have awakened again with a new series of killings… murders that exactly imitate Todd’s own comic books. And as the killer gets closer and closer, they start fearing for their own lives. Who is the killer? What is the connection? And are they somehow to blame?

Random Acts of Violence is a psychological thriller/horror movie with a stylized look. It inserts comic book images with spooky scenes of terror and horrific violence. The slasher movie aspect is totally predictable, but the telling is done in an unsual way. So if you’re in the mood for something scary and bloody, with characters you want to watch, this is a good one.

A Girl Missing

Wri/Dir: Fukada Kōji

Ichiko (Tsutsui Mariko) is a middle-aged woman who lives in a quiet suburb north of Tokyo. She’s pretty and unassuming a nurse who goes out of her way to help others. She has worked for many years as a caregiver for the Ōishi family headed by an elderly matriarch who was once a well-known artist but is now in her last years. And she serves as a mentor for the granddaughters Saki and Motoko, selflessly spending her free time with them, helping them study for cram schools at a nearby coffee shop. The tall and gawky Motoko (Ichikawa Mikako) declares she’s planning her whole life to follow in Ichiko’s footsteps. Ichiko is dating a much older doctor – a single dad with a mentally disabled son – and they plan to get married and move in together soon. Everything is going fine, until… something terrible happens.

Saki, the younger Oishi sister, is kidnapped and held captive for a day. And when she’s rescued, it turns out the kidnapper is Ichiko’s own nephew, an introverted 20 year old. Now her job, her marriage, indeed her whole life is potentially in jeopardy for something she didn’t do. Will the relentless tabloids discover the connection? And how will this crime affect her life?

A Girl Missing is an ingenious, astounding and very disturbing psychological drama about the compelling character of Ichiko as she changes from an unassuming nurse to something quite different. It’s told, simultaneously, in two parts: as she experiences the fallout of the kidnapping; and a number of years later when she encounters a younger man named Kazumichi (Sôsuke Ikematsu). By “simultaneous” I mean it switches back and forth between the periods as the two stories unfold, always chronologocally, but without explicitly stating the time period you’re watching, or the connection between the two. Tsutsui Mariko’s portrayal of Ichiko is masterful as she goes through these monumental and unexpected changes.

This is a great movie.

Random Acts of Violence premiered at a drive-in theatre earlier this week; Tijuana Jackson is available on VOD, and A Girl Missing is now playing in the US and coming soon to Canada.

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

Building walls. Films reviewed: The Rest of Us, The Divided Brain, Mr Jones

Posted in 1930s, Brain, Canada, Communism, documentary, Drama, Family, Feminism, Journalism, Movies, Neuroscience, Norway, Thriller, USSR, Wales, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 19, 2020

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

I’m recording this in my home to tell you about some movies you can watch in your home. This week I have two dramas directed by women and a documentary. There’s a psychiatrist looking at the divided brain, two families trying to bridge a gap; and a UK journalist who wants to penetrate the iron curtain.

The Rest of Us

Dir: Aisling Chin-Yee

Cami (Heather Graham) is a divorced mom who writes and illustrates children’s books. She lives in an elegant house with a swimming pool. Her daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) is home from university and hanging with a guy she met. She’s mad at her mother so she lives in an Airstream trailer parked out front. Meanwhile, another mother/daughter family live in another nice house. Rachel (Jodi Balfour) lives with her husband and young daughter Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky). What do they have in common? Rachel had an affair with Cami’s husband 10 years back, and now she’s married to him. But when he suddenly dies, the two moms – and their daughters – are brought together, against their will. Turns out the late husband hadn’t kept up with insurance and mortgage payments, leaving Rachel and Talulah homeless. So they end up moving, temporarily, into Cami and Aster’s home. An odd couple indeed. Can four women with very little in common bond together? Or will they stew in their respective juices making for an intractable situation?

The Rest of Us is a light drama about relationships and make-shift families. It’s short – less than 90 minutes – but the characters are really well done, complete with secrets, back stories and quirks. It didn’t exactly blow me away, but it I liked watching it develop — you do care about what happens to them. A nice, light family drama.

The Divided Brain

Dir: Manfred Becker

The human brain is divided in half. The left brain controls the right side of your body, and the right brain handles the left side. So if you’re right-handed that usually means the left side of your brain is dominant. Beyond that, the two sides are said to process information in different ways: The left brain, or so the theory goes, is more analytical, concerned wth facts and minutiae; while the right brain is more creative; it lets you look at the big picture. This documentary is about the theories of Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and neuroimaging researcher who also studied literature. He lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. He’s the author of The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). Basically, he says we – meaning our history, civilization, educational system, society, not to mention our individual personalities – can be explained by our emphasis on the left side of the brain at the expense of the right side. And it goes on to show research and experiments on the topic as explained by various talking heads. But is it true, and has McGilchrist proven it?

Personally, I don’t buy it. I don’t even believe the basic left side/right side premise. We all use both sides of our brains, so to make it a simple A vs B, is reductionist. And then to extrapolate this theory to cover all of society, communication, and our educational system, while fascinating just isn’t believable. (I have seen the documentary but not read his book, which could explain his work in greater detail.) While the documentary mainly focuses on McGilchrist’s theories, it does include opposing views. McGilchrist is a heterodox scholar, not part of the mainstream. It also includes magnificent drone shots of cityscapes and farms to illustrate the increasing “left brain”-look of ever more geometrically divided landscapes.

Whether or not you agree with these theories, The Divided Brain does leave you with lots of food for thought.

Mr Jones

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

It’s the early 1930s in London. Gareth Jones (James Norton) is a Cambridge-educated young man from Wales. He’s multilingual and works as a foreign policy advisor to the former PM David Lloyd George. But what he really wants is to be an investigative journalist. He’s already had one big scoop: he was on the plane carrying carrying Hitler, Goebels and other top Nazis right after they came to power. Now he wants to go to Moscow to follow a source about a big story there… and maybe interview Stalin!

Easier said than done. But he does manage to get a visa and a few nights at the posh Hotel Metropol. When he gets there, he discovers his source – another journalist – has been murdered. Luckily, he is taken under the wing of a famous foreign correspondent, Walter Duranty (Peter Saarsgard). He heads the NY Times bureau – known as “our man in Moscow” – and he’s won the Pulitzer. He’s also a total sleazebucket. He takes Jones to a party, right in the middle of Moscow, complete with jazz musicians, sex workers, and party favours… like hypodermic needles, loaded with heroin, ready to shoot.

He also meets a Berlin-based journalist named Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby). She trusts Jones and tells him what he needs to know. So he gets on a train with a high-ranked party member who says he’ll show him beautiful Ukraine… but Jones manages to sneak away in the city of Stalino (now Donetsk). And what he sees is shocking. There’s a major famine going on, right in the middle of Europe’s breadbasket. All the wheat is being shipped east, leaving almost nothing for them to eat. He witnesses unspeakable horrors in what is now known as The Holodomor. But he’s arrested before he can file his story. Will Jones make it back home? Can he publish this story? And if he does, will anyone believe him?

Based on a true story, Mr Jones is a combination biopic, thriller and historical drama. It’s a bit too long, and there are a few things I don’t get: for example, the movie is framed by scenes of George Orwell typing Animal Farm, but the story’s about Gareth Jones, not George Orwell. Other than that, the acting’s good (especially James Norton), the story is compelling, and it’s beautifully shot, from the modernistic Moscow hotel to the staid, stone buildings in London. Most of all are the scenes in Ukraine where colour is dimmed to almost black and white with stark snowy landscapes.

A good but harrowing movie.

The Rest of Us is now playing on VOD; Mr Jones opens today online at Apple and Cineplex; check your local listings; and The Brain Divided is available to rent online on Vimeo.com here

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

Rescue. Films reviewed: The Walrus and the Whistleblower, The Forbidden Reel, It Must Be Heaven

Posted in Afghanistan, Animals, Canada, Cold War, documentary, Movies, Niagara Falls, Palestine, War by CulturalMining.com on June 12, 2020

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

I’m recording this in my home to tell you about new movies you can watch in your home. This week I have two docs and a comedy. There’s a Palestinian director trying to make a film; Afghani directors trying to save their films, and a man in Canada trying to rescue a walrus from a swimming pool.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower

Dir: Nathalie Bibeau

Marineland is a huge amusement park in Niagara Falls, centred on its performing animals. Built in the 1960s it attracts huge crowds. Visitors love watching trainers diving off the noses of orcas, and dolphins jumping in rhythm like synchronized swimmers. There are porpoises, belugas and walruses happily doing tricks for the fish rewards they’re handed. But the world is shocked in 2012 when the Toronto Star prints a front-page expose about the maltreatment of its animals. When not performing for audiences they are kept in filthy cramped cells, much like prisons. They are force-fed drugs and made to perform in over-chlorinated pools. They are caught at sea as infants and separated from their mothers who are often killed in the process. And when they die they are dumped into mass graves on the amusement park’s own property.

Who spilled the tea on this explosive issue? Phil Demers, a trainer who had worked there since his early twenties. He learned the trade as he went along, and became an integral part of the show. He was most attached to a walrus he calls Smooshi. He milk-fed the baby walrus when it was brought there, and became its surrogate mother. They bonded like a true family. So he is disturbed by how badly Smooshi and the other animals are being treated there – an open secret shared by all its employees. When Marineland doesn’t change, he goes to the press. His whistleblowing leads to a bill in Parliament and he becomes a spokesperson for animal rights. But he is also vilified by the park’s owner,  John Holer, who launches a series of SLAPP lawsuits to stifle him. Who will win in the end – Demers or Marineland? And can he save Smooshi?

This documentary is a first-hand look at the plight of marine mammals as told by Phil Demers (Marineland doesn’t cooperate with the filmmaker). Demers is an unusual character, in turn passionate, angry, and even rude. But his love for the animals – especially Smooshi – is undeniable. And the hidden camera footage taken inside the park is very disturbing; you can see why he’s fighting so hard, and why this documentary is so popular (it won the Top Audience Award at Hot Docs this year). If you haven’t made up your mind yet, The Walrus and the Whisteblower will totally change your opinion on keeping whales in captivity.

The Forbidden Reel

Dir: Ariel Nasr

In Kabul, there’s a building that stands behind filigreed metal gates. It holds a treasure trove of Afghan culture and history wound around movie reels in metal cases. What are they, where did they come from, and how did they survive? The building is called called Afghan Films, and its archive contains a crucial record of the country’s past. Through war and peace, modernism, communism and civil war. Afghan Films was founded by film directors who wanted to create a national cinema. Influenced by Iranian, European, Hollywood and Bollywood, they created works interesting and accessible to Afghanis. They continued producing and showing their films through the civil war, indeed until the Taliban was at its gate. That’s when the archive was safely hidden and preserved in a room behind a plaster wall.

This amazing documentary tells the history of modern Afghanistan through these films. I’m talking romances, war stories, battles, dramas and newsreels. The cameramen were recoding missiles landing in Kabul. Films made under Soviet rule still depicted stories of Mujahadeen fighters. There are massice crowds in city squares, girls in poppy fields lacing flowers through their hair, travelers leading camels along mountain passes, and sombre footage of past President hanging from poles. The documentary talks to people like Yasamin Yarmal a genuine Afghani movie star, and directors Engineer Latif and Siddiq Barmak who give first-hand accounts. And it’s even a bit of a thriller – how they managed to save these Forbidden Reels (it’s not what you think!) This doc gives a view of Afghan culture like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Great documentary.

It Must Be Heaven

Wri/Dir: Elia Suleiman

Elia Suleiman is a Palestinian film director who lives in Nazareth. He lives a simple, quiet life, observing his lemon tree, listening to neighbours and drinking coffee or wine at nearby cafes, always in his panama hat and dark rimmed glasses. But his life changes when he travels abroad for a series of meetings. He flies first to Paris and then to Manhattan, but maintains his lifestyle as a quiet observer… until he goes back home again. But this simple outline doesn’t really capture the feelings behind this comic film.

It’s actualy a series of brief, whimsical tableaux, some one-offs, some repeated, in the style of Jaques Tati. This is basically a silent film with only occasional lines spoken by the people he meets. Some scenes are cute; like a little bird that keeps landing on his laptop as he tries to write. Others are more political, dealing with the pervasive presence of surveillance, military and police forces in all three countries. Israeli soldiers happily exchanging sunglasses in a car driving past… and then you see a young woman, blindfolded, in the back seat. There’s a scene on the Paris metro where he is frightened by an angry man who somehow drinks his beer in a threatening way.

Some scenes are spiritual: there’s an angel pursued by Keystone Cops in Central Park. Others are mundane – a drunken doorkeeper refusing to unlock the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although the film represents nationalities in stereotypical ways – he dreams, What if New Yorkers carried assault weapons casually slung over their shoulders?; and do Parisian ambulances really offer 3-course meals to homeless people? – but it laughs equally at all nationalities. Some of the most interesting scenes are in his own home where neighbours tell fantastical fables as if real life… part of the magic-realism feel of the whole movie. It Must Be Heaven is a lovely, funny and thought-provoking look at the strangeness of everyday life.

The Forboidden Reel and The Walrus and the Whistleblower are both streaming at Hotdocs; and It Must Be Heaven is opening across Canada at select virtual theatres; 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.

Histories. Films reviewed: Hollywood, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Academy Awards, Acting, documentary, Economics, Ensemble Cast, Hollywood, Movies, Poverty, Slavery, Wall Street by CulturalMining.com on May 8, 2020

(Home recording, no music)

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

History, they say, is written by the victors, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other histories still out there. This week I’m looking at two stories, a doc and a TV drama. There’s a pessimistic, economic history of the world; and an optimistic, revisionist history of Hollywood.

Hollywood

Creators: Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy

It’s just after WWII in LA. Young people from small towns across the US are flocking to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune in the movies. People like Jack (David Corenswet), a handsome young actor who lines up each day at Ace studios on the chance of a day’s paid work as an extra. But a pretty face is no guarantee of steady work in Hollywood. So when a mysterious man named Ernie (Dylan McDermott) recruits him for a day job at a gas station he welcomes the extra income. He’s stuck in a loveless marriage with his pregnant wife who works at the famed Schwab’s Pharmacy (where actors hang out to get discovered). Camille (Laura Harrier) is a beautiful actress on contract at Ace, where she attends locution lessons to perfect her elegant mid-atlantic accent. Still she’s stuck playing demeaning roles as maids, simply because she’s black. Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) is a talentless but good looking actor who thinks his luck has changed when he is signed by an agent named Henry (Jim Parsons). But the power broker demands sexual favours from all his clients.

Luckily, these three actors all have love interests. Jack soon discovers his job isn’t about pumping gas. It’s a front for male sex workers to peddle their wares for Hollywood’s rich and famous. Powerful women, including an older woman named Avis (Patti LuPone), grant him a chance for a foot in the door in a real movie. At the gas station, he works beside Archie (Jeremy Pope) a black writer hoping Ace studios will produce his script about a failed actress

HOLLYWOOD

who kills herself by jumping off the famed Hollywood sign. His first client is none other than Rock Hudson, looking for male companionship. Camille is in a relationship with Raymond (Darren Criss) a director at Ace. He says he’s part-Asian but can pass as white. And he wants to direct that movie Archie wrote, bringing all the main characters of the series together in one production. But is Ace Studios – and America – ready for a multi-racial romance?

Hollywood is a TV mini-series that appears to give an insider’s view of the post-war movie industry, but actually it makes it all up. The infamous casting couch – where directors or producers forced woman to have sex with them in exchange for a part – is reversed here to make men both the victims and the objects of desire. In this fantasy world, 1940s Hollywood produces movies written by, directed by, and starring non-whites. Studios are headed by women, actors come out publicly as gay and the Academy Awards happily nominates lots of African-Americans. In reality, desegregation and repeal of Jim Crow laws was decades away, “miscegenation” – mixed racial marriage – was still illegal, homosexuality was a crime, and even today Hollywood (and the Oscars) are still as white as snow.

About the only true part of this series is the gas station used as a front for male hustlers. All of this was revealed in a book and a documentary featuring the late, great Scotty Bowers (I interviewed him here in 2018.) The Netflix series is the story of his career… but he’s never mentioned by name, even once. I don’t dislike the series – it’s never boring, it’s fun to watch and has beautiful production values along with many interesting new players in the cast – but, like most Netflix productions, historical accuracy applies to hairstyles but never to the script.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Dir: Justin Pemberton

Based on the book by Thomas Piketty

What is capital? How is it distributed? How has that changed over the past three centuries? These are just some of the questions dealt with in this new documentary. In the 18th Century 99% of capital – meaning wealth, money and land – was controlled by the aristocracy, less than 1% of the people. Life expectancy was low, and life for the poor was nasty, brutish and short. But revolutionis, in France and elsewhere, didn’t mean a transfer of power and weath from the top to the bottom. Government was still controlled by those with the most money and laws were passed to ensure they didn’t lose their wealth. The rise of colonialism in the Americas, Africa and Asia led to more wealth in Europe extracted from the lands and people they now controlled. Slave-based agriculture generated even more capital – in the form of human beings – now bought, sold and traded like commodities. And people working in factories could be arrested even for quitting a job, and imprisoned for being poor or in debt. But, following the widespread death and destruction of WWI and the following worldwide depression, came the first signs of a transfer of power and capital from huge corporate monopolies and the very rich to the rest of the people.

Following WWII, the remaining aristocracy was heavily taxed, and wealth was transferred to the average person in the form of housing, education, health and the welfare state. People were finally rewarded for study and hard work. They were able to move up from poverty. This lasted for a few decades, until it began to unravel with new ideologies introduced by Thatcher and Reagan. Unions and welfare were suddenly bad. Greed was good. And once again, wealth was transferred from the poor and shrinking middle class back up to the top 1%. That’s where we are now.

How can we reverse these awful changes?

This documentary is a fascinating — and fast-moving – condensed look at economic history over the past 300 years and how it affects us today. It’s narrated by Pickety and other economists in a very accessible and easy to understand way. And it’s beautiful to look at, filled with thousands of tiny, quick film clips, mostly one to three seconds long, of stately homes and Victorian factories, mints printing dollar bills, Thatcher talking to schoolgirls, and people breathing through face masks in a horribly polluted Beijing. The images and music are as meticulously researched as they are lovely. Constant eye-candy.

Even the talking heads, those usually dull academics interviewed in the doc, are enthusiastic and interesting, and uniformly filmed against lavish backgrounds and scenery. And it’s filled with cool sequences. l loved one about a psychological experiment where volunteers play Monopoly without a level playing field – it favours certain players at random. These newly “rich” players are recorded acting rude, scarfing pretzels and generally behaving entitled as soon as they discovered the rules were tilted in their favour. So if you want to learn about history and economics and what to do about it, but don’t feel like reading thousands of pages, Capital in the 21st Century is a great place to feed your brain without wearing it out.

Hollywood is now streaming on Netflix; Capital opens May 8 in Toronto at the Hotdocs Virtual Theatre; 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 Ken Loach about Sorry We Missed You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Albert Shin about Disappearance at Clifton HiIll

Posted in Animals, Canada, Crime, Mental Illness, Movies, Mystery, Noir, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 21, 2020

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

Abby is a young woman returning to her hometown of Niagara Falls. She’s figuring out what to do with the rundown motel she inherited with her sister. Should she make a go of it? Or sell it to a rich local patriarch. But as she goes through old photos and films, she starts to remember hidden memories from the distant past. And with the help of eccentric locals she finds herself digging deeper and deeper, the more dirt she uncovers. Dirt that involves some of the most powerful figures in the city. Most troubling of all is an image from her childhood, still stuck in her brain. A boy with one bleeding eye who disappeared right in front of her. Was he kidnapped? Was he killed? Or was it just a false memory. What really happened happened in Clifton Hill?

Disapearance at Clifton Hill is also the name of a new movie opening February 28th across Canada. It’s been nominated for multiple Canadian Screen Awards, and is a fantastic film. It’s co-written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Albert Shin. I last interviewed Albert six years ago alongside his collaborator and colleague Igor Drljaca about In Her Place.

I spoke to Albert by telephone at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Disappearance at Clifton HIll opens across Canada on February 28th.

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

Critical Mass. Films reviewed: Dolittle, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Les Misérables

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, Animals, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, Family, Fantasy, France, Kids, Language, Morality, Movies, New York City, Police, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three movies. There’s a man who talks to monkeys; a kid who steals a lion, and a movie critic who monkeyed with the way we look at movies.

Dolittle

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

It’s early 19th Century England, in a village called Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Young Stubbins (Harry Collett) a boy out hunting with his dad  accidentally shoots a squirrel. But instead of “putting it out of its misery” as his father suggests, he tries to save it. Stubbins stumbles on a derelict hospital run by the reclusive Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) the legendary animal doctor. The hospital is full of steampunk devices and wild animals — gorillas and polar bears, insects and parrots — wandering around just like people. And even more surprising, Doctor Dolittle can speak all their languages. Stubbins wants to convince the doctor to take him on as an apprentice so he can talk to the animals, too.

But trouble is brewing at Buckingham Palace. Someone has poisoned the Queen! And only the doctor knows the cure, a panacea found in a distant land.  Dolittle and the gang set sail to find it. Can they trick the evil King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) into giving them the map? And will they defeat a tiger, a  dragon, and various palace villains, and manage to cure the Queen in time?

I grew up surrounded by Hugh Lofting’s books, TV cartoons, and movies, and though I wasn’t a devotee, I knew all about the stories and characters. And I don’t love Robert Downey Jr. So I was all set to be disappointed: where’s the chimp? And what happened to my favourite animal, the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu?

But you know what? I liked it! It was cute, full of adventures, close escapes, exciting trips to exotic lands, and all the quirky animals (voiced by Octavia Spencer, Rami Malek, John Cena, and Emma Thompson). Keep in mind, this movie is for little kids, not grown ups, who may find the jokes too stupid, but the exciting scenes and the fast-moving action kept me satisfied. Not a terrific movie, but a very cute one.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

Wri/Dir: Rob Garver

Pauline Kael was a single mom who grew up on a California ranch during the time when movies were still silent and B&W. Her first published review was Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight — she hated it. She ran a movie theatre in Berkeley where she wrote the reviews and descriptions of the films playing there, encouraging locals to see them. She wrote for Macall’s but was fired for not loving big-budget cinema. And she quit her job at The New Repulic because they edited out her writing. She finally found a post at The New Yorker, where she became one of the most influential movie critics in the world.

She’s is known both for the movies she hated (she described The Sound of Music as asexual revisionist treacle, and trashed Kubrick’s 2001!) and those she loved (Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Scorcese’s Mean Streets, Spielberg’s Sugarland Express). Some directors’ careers were made by her patronage, while others lived in dread of her columns.  She rejected the ennui-ridden academic view of Auteur theory, without falling for manipulative Big-budget schlock. She liked trash, mind you, but it had to be good trash.

What She Said is an immaculately researched,spot-on look at Pauline Kael’s reviews,and her influence on audience and filmmakers. It delves into her fascinating life and and undeniable influence without resorting to endless kiss-assery. This movie is a labour of love,  combining vintage TV interviews with Dick Cavett and Brian Linehan, and talking heads — from Tarantino to David Lean — with readings from her work by Sarah Jessica Parker. Best of all, these voices are illustrated by a barrage of 2-3 second film clips from hundreds of movies over the past century that I haven’t seen in a documentary since Los Angeles Plays Itself (2002). (I grew up reading her reviews in The New Yorker — that and the cartoons were all  read — and while I disagreed with her half the time, I always wanted to see what she had to say.)

If you love movies, I strongly recommend this doc.

Les Misérables

Co-Wri/Dir: Ladj Ly

It’s Paris in the high-rise banlieue that circle the city. It’s 35 degrees outside and the crowds are high on the country’s win on the soccer pitch, singing la Marseillaise at train stations. But trouble is brewing…. it seems a lion cub is missing from a travelling Roma circus and the four brothers that run it are threatening a rumble with the locals.

Power here is shared by the secular — led by community leader called Le Maire (Steve Tientcheu); the religious — Salah (Almamy Kanouté), an Imam who runs a kebab shop; and the criminal — a gang of thieves who work directly with the cops. Attempting to keep the peace are the feckless police who mainly harass kids and sex workers. The regular team — an abrasive white guy Chris (Alexis Manenti) and his calmer black partner Gwada, who grew up in the hood (Djebril Zonga) — is joined by a newbie. the wide-eyed Stephane/Pento (Damien Bonnard) is a hick, straight from the farm. But the only ones who really know what’s going on are the local kids, who know every broken fence, every fire escape and back alley — they are watching everything. Especially Issa (Issa Perica) a feisty 10 year old, and his pal the nerdy Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly). Issa is the one who liberated the cute lion cub, and Buzz who records everything from the rooftops with his trusty drone.

But when the cops overstep their bounds and use weapons — which is caught on camera — things start to go really wrong. Chaos reigns.

Can the trouble be defused by the cops and community leaders? Or will the kids triumph? And could this lead to a repeat of the Paris riots of 2005?

Les Misérables (this is not Victor Hugo’s novel, but the location is the same) is an amazing dive into the lives of Parisians in the outer suburbs, their alienation, and the tension brewing there. The acting and story are superb, and I love the way multiple strands are woven together into a seamless whole. It’s nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and, though violent at times, it holds a real love and understanding of the characters portrayed. This is a great movie.

Dolittle opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is opening today at the Hot Docs Cinema, as is Les Misérables at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

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