Potatoes, Radios and Poppies. Films reviewed: Potato Dreams of America, How to Fix Radios, Poppy Field #InsideOut!

Posted in Bullying, Canada, Christianity, Coming of Age, Conservatism, Corruption, LGBT, Police, Queer, Romania, Slackers, USSR, Vladivostok by CulturalMining.com on May 28, 2021

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

Inside Out, Toronto’s LGBT film festival, kicked off last night, and is open for digital viewing across Ontario. It has movies, docs and shorts from around the world, many showing here for the first time.

This week I’m looking at three of these new movies two of which are directors’ first features. There’s a “little potato” in Russia, a broken radio in Canada, and a field of poppies in Romania.

Potato Dreams of America

Wri/Dir: Wes Hurley

Little Potato (Hersh Powers) is a school kid in 1980s Vladivostok, in the USSR a land of Perestroila and Glasnost. But he can’t stand communism, he puts all his faith in Jesus and wants to go to America, where it’s just like the movies and everyone has coloured TV. So he is overjoyed when his devoted and progressive mom, a prison doctor becomes a mail-order bride and takes him with her to Seattle. He likes his new school and stepdad, and is thrilled to see the relative openness toward gay people. But the teenaged potato (Tyler Bocock) wants to assimilate and doesn’t American attitudes. And when his step father’s Christianity turns out to be  steeped in homophobia he’s afraid they’ll both be on the next plane back to Russia. Will Potato’s dreams be ruined?

Potato Dreams of America is a highly stylized, theatrical and campy version of the real  memoirs of Russian American director Wes Hurley. And it’s full of surprises. I’m only allowed a capsule review here, but let me just say, if you like to watch a view of gay life in Russia and America, with lots of homoerotic details, occasional two-dimensional sets, and characters who burst into song, you’ll love this one.

How to Fix Radios

Dir: Casper Leonard, Emily Russell

It’s summer in a rural town town in Ontario. Evan (James Rudden) has found a summer job — cleaning up the land around a ramshackle hut before acomes in and clears it all away. He’s a quiet loner, a high school student who lives with his dad in an isolated home ad dresses in basic clothes: Shorts, T-shirt and ball cap. So he’s taken aback when he meets his supervisor. Ross (Dimitri Watson) is his opposite: a combative angry attitude, dressed in overalls, with bright pink hair, black fingernail polish and a pierced septum. He’s here, he’s queer and he doesn’t care who knows it. Evan has never seen anyone like him, but they gradually become friends. They meet up with Ross’s sister to go on picnics, and retreats to an abandoned house by a lake that everyone uses. And there they share intimate secrets by the campfire. 

But things are complicated. 

Small towns have gay people but they also have bullies. Ross is constantly tormented by a thug named Jake who rides around on his three wheeled RV, smoking pot and drinking beer with his chowderhead friends.  Problem is, he’s also the son of their employer who owns the land they’re cleaning up and pays their salaries. Why don’t you move to the city, Evan wonders. Because, Ross says, he likes the quiet and trees there, and the nature all around him. And he doesn’t want a moron like Jake determining what he does with his life. But how much longer can Ross endure the punches and taunts from Jake?

How to Fix Radios (the title refers to one of Evan’s skills) is a warm look at friendship and the life of a queer kid in small-town Ontario. It’s an ultra-low-budget, indie film shot last summer during COVID, with all the spacing and location rules that entailed, which may explain why the sound quality is dodgy (some lines are lost or else overpowered by background noise.)  But  the great music, beautiful images and engaging characters make it a treat to watch. 

Poppy Field

Dir: Eugen Jebeleanu

It’s present-day Romania. Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer) is a member of the Gendarmerie, an elite  national police force run military style, using tightly-knit squads. They’re called in to handle dangerous riots and criminal acts. But tonight they’re at a movie theatre. How come? A lesbian drama, sponsored by an LGBT group, is scheduled to play that night. But the theatre has been occupied by a group of right-wing Christian activists. Draped in Romanian flags and carrying icons of the Virgin Mary, they say they’re trying to stop the pornographic “Homosexual Mafia”. The people in the audience say they just want to watch a movie. The tension is rising, but for some reason, Christi, unlike the other gendarmes, is standing far back, doing nothing. What is bothering him? But when he is confronted by a gay man, he loses it and beats the man up. This outs his whole squad in potential trouble. Why did he do it? Christi is gay too, but doesn’t want the other cops to know. He even has a Parisian lover waiting to meet him tonight in his apartment. Has Christi’s secret been revealed? Will he lose his job? And can he face his inner demons?

Poppy Field (and I have to admit, I have no idea what the title means) is a realistic and tense drama about a gay Romanian cop being pushed to the brink by his two separate lives: a passionate personal life and a rigid and violent workplace.  The film is divided in the same way: part one is a night with him and his lover Hadi, and part two is a day at work. This is an excellent movie — a first feature but done in the style of current Romanian cinema: hyper realistic, done in real time, dealing with social issues. If you’ve ever seen contemporary Romanian movies like Police: Adjective, you’ll immediately recognize the style. Director Jebeleanu uses the fantastic veteran cinematographer Marius Panduru gives it his distinctive, minimalist look. Mericoffer, as Christi, rarely speaks, but you can see the angst brewing beneath his stone-cold features.

Short, sharp and fast-moving, Poppy Field is a great art house pic.

Potato Dreams of America, How to Fix Radios, and Poppy Field are all playing  now at Inside Out, Toronto’s LGBT Film Festival.

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

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

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

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

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

Our Friend

Dir: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

(Based on an article in Esquire by Matthew Teague)

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

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

Phobic

Wri/Dir: Bryce Clark

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

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

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

Falling

Wri/Dir: Viggo Mortensen

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

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

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

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

Against the Grain. Films reviewed: Judy vs Capitalism, Monkey Beach, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted in 1960s, Canada, Depression, documentary, drugs, Ghosts, Indigenous, Magic, Police, Politics, Poverty, Protest, Resistance, Trial, War by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2020

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

Toronto’s Fall Film Festival Season continues with ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival, the world’s largets indigenous film festival, and Rendezvous with Madness, the first and largest arts and mental health festival in the world, both running through Sunday, the 25th.

This week I’m talking about three new movies – a doc, a drama and a courtroom pic – about people who go against the grain. There’s a young woman resisting ghosts, another woman fighting anti-abortion activists; and boomers protesting the war in Vietnam.

Judy vs Capitalism

Dir: Mike Holboom

Judy Rebick is a well-known activist and writer in Toronto. As a former Trotskyite revolutionary turned writer and TV commentator, she’s a pro-choice feminist and socialist known for slogans like “Radical is Practical”. She can be seen everywhere, from CBC panels to tent-city protests. A new documentary looking at her life divides it into six stages: Family – her dad was a baseball player quick to pick fights; Weight – she says she has a pair of hips “like two battleships”; Feminism – women’s bodies and the violence they face; Abortion – her hands-on role in legalizing reproductive rights in Canada; Others – her struggles with depression and mental health; and End Notes – her views on various political topics, like the rise of neo-liberalism, the war in Gaza, and as head of NAC, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

Did you know she single-handedly fought off a man trying to stab Dr Henry Morgantaler with a pair of garden shears? This film includes footage of that in slow motion. Each section begins with a speech – some mundane talks in lecture halls, others shouted through a bullhorn at a rally. Judy vs Capitalism is directed by artist/filmmaker Mike Holboom in his patented style: clear sound and straightforward narration, combined with avant-garde images: slow motion, high speed, underwater photography, blurred and melting visuals, random faces… basically Holboom’s interpretations of Rebick’s moods, memories, thoughts and ideas rather than the typical clips you might expect in a conventional biography.  Judy vs Capitalism is an experimental look at a Canadian icon.

Monkey Beach

Dir: Loretta Todd (Based on the novel by Eden Robinson)

Lisa (Grace Dove) is a young woman who lives in East Vancouver. She’s been there for the past two years with nothing to show for it but a bad hangover. Till her friend Tab tells her it’s time to go home, back to her family in the Haisla community in Kitimat. So she does. Her family is shocked but delighted to to see her – they weren’t even sure she was still alive. There’s her mom and dad, her little brother Jimmy (Joel Oulette) a swimming champ, and her Uncle Mick (Adam Beach) who told her at an early age to say “f*ck the oppressors!” Then there’s her grandma Ma-Ma-Oo (Tina Lameman) who taught Lisa everything she knows… including things she doesn’t want to know. Like why a little man with red hair keeps appearing. A crow talks to her, and ghosts (people who should be dead) appear to her in real, human form. (Tab, for example, was murdered but she’s still around.) Worst of all are the dreams and premonitions she keeps having – that her brother Jimmy, the swimmer – is going to drown. Are her powers a gift or a curse? Can she ever live normally? And can she keep Jimmy out of the water?

Monkey Beach is a good YA drama filmed in the gorgeous forests and waters of Kitimat in the pacific northwest, with a uniformly good indigenous cast. It incorporates traditional Haisla culture and practices with contemporary, realistic social problems, sprinkled with the supernatural. And it flashes back and forth between the present day and Lisa’s childhood. I like this movie but I can’t help but compare it to the CBC TV series Trickster, which is edgier, faster-moving and more complex. They’re both based on Eden Robinson’s novels – Monkey Beach was her first, showing many of the themes later explored in Son of a Trickster. That said, if you’re a fan of Trickster, you’ll want to see Monkey Beach, too.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Wri/Dir: Aaron Sorkin

It’s the summer of ‘68 in the USA, and the youth are restless. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had just been killed, with demonstrations springing up across the country. The US is embroiled in an increasingly senseless war in Vietnam and it’s an election year. So droves of young people converge on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, to have their voices heard. The protests are brutally crushed by police and state troopers. Nixon is elected in November, and the protest leaders, known as the Chicago 7, are arrested and put on trial. The defendants are from the SDS – Students for a Democratic Society, a radical group that sprung out of the labour movement – led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the Yippies, founded by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin who use performance and pranks to forward their agenda; anti-war activist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch);  and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) co-founder of the Black Panther Party, known both for its militant image and progressive social programs. The charge? Conspiracy, even though these group leaders had never met one other.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is two-hour film that manages to condense hundreds of days of testimony into a few key scenes. This includes a shocking re-enactment of the binding and gagging of Bobby Seale in the courtroom. The script’s pace is fast, the production values excellent, and the acting is superb, especially Baron-Cohen in an unusual funny-serious role, Mark Rylance as their lawyer, William Kunstler, Frank Langella as the unjust judge Julius Hoffman, and Lynch as the veteran pacifist. Women are invisible in this film, except as receptionists, wives-of and one undercover FBI agent. I was glued to the screen the entire time. Still, it leaves me with an uneasy feeling Aaron Sorkin has done some subtle, historic slight of hand. He portrays the anti-war movement as mainly about honouring and saving the lives of American soldiers, not Vietnamese civilians. It buries the aims of the defendants beneath petty squabbles. And somehow he takes a protest aimed squarely at Democratic politicians — the hawks and conservative Democrats in a city and state run by that party — into a Democrats vs Republican division…!

Hmm…

Judy vs Capitalism is at Rendezvous with Madness; Monkey Beach is at ImagineNative, both through Sunday; and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now streaming on Netflix.

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

Questioning Authority. Films reviewed: Beans, Quo Vadis Aïda?, Shorta, New Order, Night of the Kings at #TIFF20!

Posted in Africa, Bosnia, Canada, Denmark, Indigenous, Mexico, Police, Protest, Quebec, Uncategorized, War by CulturalMining.com on September 18, 2020

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

The Toronto International Film Festival has come to a close, and to tell you the truth – considering it was touch and go since the pandemic hit – I’m especiallly impressed by the 50 movies that made it into the festival. There’s a particular appropriateness to the movies they chose, films that capture the current feelings of uncertainty, impending doom, and a general mistrust of authority. So this week I’m, looking at five fantastic TIFF films about the current malaise. And so as not to end on too bleak a note, I’m throwing in a nicer story at the end.

There’s a blockade in Quebec genocide in Bosnia, police violence in Denmark, a class war in Mexico… and story-telling in a prison in Cote’d’Ivoire.

Beans

Dir: Tracey Deer

 

It’s 1990. Beans (Kiawentiio) is an innocent 12-year-old girl who lives in suburban Québec with her Dad, her ambitious mom, and her little sister. She’s into stuffed animals and hair ribbons – her biggest worry is getting into a posh private school. But when the town of Oka tries to grab Mohawk burial grounds to expand a golf course, protests erupt. Beans and her family leave their cushy life to join the Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawá:ke community in the increasingly tense stand-off. They are blockaded and local stores refuse to sell them food, and police and military stand by when her family is attacked by racist locals throwing rocks and breaking windows. Beans, meanwhile feels rejected by the local kids as too soft, so she asks April (Paulina Alexis) an older girl to toughen her up. With the crisis raging all around her, Beans starts to change – but is it for the better?

Based on true events, Beans is a marvelous coming-of-age story of a girl learning about heritage, identity and sexuality, as she gradually gains self-confidence in a frightening time.

Quo Vadis, Aïda?

Wri/Dir: Jasmila Žbanic

It’s 1995 in Srebrenica, Bosnia.

The three-year Bosnian civil war is coming to an end, and Aida (Jasna Djuričić) a former high school teacher, is worried. Her former students are fighting on all sides. Ratko Mladić’s soldiers have surrounded the town and the locals have fled to a safety zone run by UN Peace Keepers. Aida is now the official translator, a conduit between the locals, the invaders and the ineffectual, Dutch Blue Helmets. Be calm, they promise, there’s nothing to worry about. But she knows they’re not safe at all. It falls on her shoulders to save them, or at least save her husband and two sons. But can Aida save anyone, even herself?

Quo Vadis, Aida? is a fast, tense and deeply moving depiction of the fear, confusion and helplessness of the days leading up to the genocidal Srebrenica Massacre where over eight thousand Bosnians were murdered in cold blood. Though it doesn’t explicitly show the violent acts themselves, it still leaves the viewer drained and shocked by its enormity.

Shorta

Wri/Dir: Frederik Louis Hviid, Anders Ølholm

Tension is mounting in Svalegården, a highrise housing project in Denmark, after police choke a teenager to death. Two cops are called in to keep the peace. Mike Andersen (Jacob Lohmann) is the bad cop – foul-mouthed, corrupt, out of shape and blatantly racist. Jens Høyer (Simon Sears) is the good cop, fit, clean-cut and by the book. They arrest a local teen, Amos (Tarek Zayat) for a minor infraction. Amos was a promising soccer star but has lost hope after being harassed too often by police. But the three of them are forced to work together – or choose sides – when violence erupts leaving them stranded in a dangerous zone, without a car, and no way out. Can Mike and Jens escape, and can Amos get safely home, before something really bad happens?

Shorta is an action/thriller set within a climate of police violence and corruption. Though at first it seems to be full of anti-immigrant stereotypes, it turns expectations on their head in a series of unexpected and shocking plot turns. An intense thriller.

New Order

Wri/Dir: Michel Franco

Marianne (Naian González Norvind) is a woman in a red dress at her own wedding party. They’re waiting for the judge to arrive to start the ceremony, but she’s tied up. Streets are blocked by demonstrators throwing bright green paint at rich people all across Mexico City, though this exclusive neighbourhood remains untouched. Their faithful servant Marta (Mónica Del Carmen) is working hard to make sure everything’s perfect for the wedding. But when Marianne’s family – who are spending lavishly on the wedding – refuse to help a longtime servant pay an emergency medical bill, Marianne is fed up. She says she’ll drive him to the hospital and pay for it herself. So she sets off in a car with Marta’s brother Cristian (Fernando Cuautle). But while she’s away, mayhem breaks loose. Thieves have infiltrated the wedding party and begin killing people. There’s a military coup and the city is under martial law, shooting civilians at random. And when Marianne is “rescued” by soldiers, she is shocked to discover she’s actually their vicim, a captive held for ransom. Can anyone be trusted?

New Order is an extremely violent, dystopian look at class inequality and the deep corruption permeating Mexican society and government. Be warned, this is not an easy movie to watch.

Night of the Kings

Wri/Dir: Philippe Lacôte

It’s a special day in the huge MACA prison in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire in west Africa. A red moon is expected to rise that night, and with it a change of prison government. Not the warden or guards but the real leadership within the prison walls. Barbe Noire/Black Beard (Steve Tientcheu) rules them all. But he’s dying and needs to appoint a successor. First a ritual storytelling must take place. He appoints a new arrival (Koné Bakary) a young newbie arrested that day to be Roman, the storyteller. Roman is baffled – why him? He’s dressed in a shining blue shirt, and given a special potion to drink and a wooden box to stand on. He must tell a constant story, one that never ends or he will be killed and the whole prison will collapse into mayhem. So the story begins.

Night of the Kings is a fantastical prison drama that portrays both the amazing people who live there, and the story he tells. People like a beautiful transwoman who’s also a secret assassin, and wise man with a chicken on his shoulder who poses as a half- wit. That’s within MACA.

Then there’s the story Roman tells. He serves as an impromptu griot, passing on an oral history of a slain local gang leader named Zama King and his ancestors stretching way back in time. There are elephants and armies, queens and magical powers, elaborate costumes and hair styles. And as he tells his story, he’s surrounded by a greek chorus who spontaneously sing, dance and pantomime all around him. Night of the Kings is a fantastic drama, and one of the best films at TIFF this year.

Watch out for it.

Night of the Kings, New Order, Shorta, Quo Vadis Aida?, and Beans all screened at TIFF. Go to tiff.net for more information.

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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