Opening and closing nights at TIFF. Films reviewed: Dear Evan Hansen, One Second

Posted in 1960s, Bullying, China, Communism, Depression, Drama, Family, High School, Movies, Musical, Poverty, Prison, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 25, 2021

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

The ending of summer and TIFF marks the beginning of Toronto’s Fall Film Festival season. And first in line is the TPFF, Toronto’s Palestine Film Fest on now through Sunday, with films, workshops, exhibitions and feasts, both here and digitally across the country. Go to TPFF.ca for details.

But this week I’m tying up loose ends by looking at the opening and closing night features at TIFF. In a show of solidarity and togetherness in the face of increasing worldwide tension, the festival opened with a film from the US and closed with one from China. And, coincidentally, both films are about underdogs and outcasts. There’s a suburban high school student whose life is changed by a letter, and an escapee from a labour camp in China whose life is changed by a movie.

Dear Evan Hansen 

Dir: Stephen Chbosky

Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a high school student in suburban USA. He’s depressed, painfully shy and insecure. His broken arm is in a cast. He lives with his mom, a nurse (Julianne Moore) who sends him to a therapist to handle his difficulties. His summer assignment? To write optimistic letters to himself in the third person — “Dear Evan Hansen” to help raise his spirits. And his Mom suggests he get all his friends to sign his cast. But the first day of school turns out so dismal that he rewrites his letter into one of despair. An angry loner named Connor (Colton Ryan) offers veto sign his cast — so we can both pretend we have friend. But after a tussle, Connor snatches the letter from his hands and runs away. And the next day Connor is dead from suicide, with no note except Evan’s sad letter they find in his pocket. Connor’s Mom and Dad  (Amy Adams, Danny Pino)

turn to Evan — thinking they’ve found their late son’s secret pal. Evan, who barely sees his mother is so happy to have anyone pay attention to him, that he decides to brighten their day by talking about Connor and himself — all imaginary of course but anything to make them happier. And it doesn’t hurt that Evan has a crush on Connor’s sister, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). 

Alana, the most popular kid at school (Amandla Stenberg) urges Evan to form a group to remember Connor. He can hardly say no since he says they were once friends. The deception grows and grows, until he gives a moving speech captured on other people’s phones, which immediately goes viral. Donations pour in to commemorate Connor, his family is happy again, and tens of thousands feel their lives have been improved, even saved, because of Evan’s talk. But it’s all a deception. Will he come clean? And will he get the help he needs/ And what about Zoe?

Dear Evan Hansen is an emotionally moving, constant tear-jerker that doesn’t let up until the end. It’s bases on the hit Broadway musical, and stars Ben Platt who originated the role and who sings with a sublime angelic tenor. It’s filled with songs and dances punctuated by wistful gazes at the sky, a tree, a window or into other people’s eyes. I’m not a big fan of Broadway musicals but I really liked this one. It’s poignant more than depressing, and you really feel for the main characters. So if you want to break your heart over and over, and listen to some songs, don’t miss Dear Evan Hansen.

One Second 

Dir: Zhang Yimou

It’s China’s Cultural Revolution. A man (Zhang Yi) who escaped from a labour camp in the Gobi Desert is walking across the sand dunes. His mission: to watch a movie. There are very few movies you’re allowed to watch during the Cultural Revolution, and he’s desperate to see one in particular. But there’s someone else also looking for a film. A street urchin with dirty face and unkempt hair, known as Orphan Liu (Liu Haocun) is intent on stealing a reel for his own nefarious purposes (we find out later she’s a girl, not a boy). The two engage in a cat-and-mouse chase until the reel is returned to its rightful place: in the hands of the town projectionist known as “Mister Movie” (Wei Fan). He’s an arrogant perfectionist, highly revered in the village because he’s the only source of entertainment. Tonight’s show? Heroic Sons and Daughters, an operatic drama about the anti-Japanese War decades earlier. But when the dust settles Mister Movie  realizes one of the reels has been damaged — it’s just a pile of tangled film covered with sand and dust. He cancels the screening. Whaaaat?

The townspeople are mortified, and none more that the escaped prisoner. He, and everyone else, agree to communally rescue the damaged reel, wiping clean each frame and rolling it back into its spool. The escapee  especially needs to view it that night. Why? Because of the newsreel. His daughter — whom he hasn’t heard from since he was arrested and sent away for punching a Red Guard — appears in it for one second. It’s his only chance to see her. And he’ll stop at nothing so he can see it. Will the films be shown? Will he get to see his daughter? And will Orphan Liu get what she’s looking for?

One Second is a lovely and touching look at the personal effect of movies on the people who watch them. It’s well crafted and historically evocative. It’s set during the Cultural Revolution, with Mao’s quotations painted on every wall. Though it’s portrayed lightly, it does reveal the poverty, oppression and unfairness of that period. People are hungry, children are bullied, police beat up the wrong person, and everyone — including  Mister Movie —is in constant fear of losing their job due to corrupt or indifferent party members.  But there are happy times too, like when the whole village bursts into song, along with the soldiers on the screen. No spoilers, but the storyline of the movie they watch — Heroic Sons and Daughters, about a soldier separated from his daughter — is reflected in the real lives of all the main characters in One Second.

This is a beautiful, nostalgic, and ultimately feel-good movie. 

Dear Evan Hansen opens this weekend — check your local listings; One Second should be opening later this year.

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

The Twentieth Century. Films reviewed: Escape from Mogadishu, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, 12 Mighty Orphans

Posted in 1930s, 1990s, Action, Coming of Age, Germany, High School, Korea, Orphans, Poverty, Refugees, Sports, Switzerland, Texas by CulturalMining.com on August 7, 2021

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

Some movies have titles that tell you a lot about what you’re going to see. This week I’m looking at three such movies, all set during the 20th century. We’ve got Koreans in Mogadishu in the 1990s; child refugees from Nazi Germany in the early 30s; and Texan orphans playing football in the Great Depression.

Escape from Mogadishu

Dir: Seung-wan Ryoo

It’s 1990 in Mogadishu Somalia, and the country is on the verge of collapse. Its authoritarian President Barre is still in power but rebel forces are gaining strength. It’s also the year when both North and South Korea are joining the United Nations, and are in heavy cold-war competition to build up more allies than their rival in vote-rich Africa. And the two ambassadors, Ambassador Han from the south (Kim Yoon-seok) and Ambassador Rim (Heo Joon-ho) from the north are in constant competition to curry favour with Barre’s government. And they each have heavy-hitters to help them. Kang (In-Sung Jo) is a recent arrival from the notorious Korean CIA. He’s arrogant and rude, but effective. Likewise, his counterpart from the north. They each run underhanded schemes against the other side, from planting fake news reports, to hiring thugs to steal embassy materials. But the Somali government is losing its grip, and there’s mayhem on the streets. And when all communications cease, both sides realize they have to get the hell out of Mogadishu. And due to strange circumstances, the North and the South are forced to cooperate, and try to escape together.

But will it work?

Escape from Mogadishu is a Korean action/thriller set in a Somalia teetering on the brink of civil war. There are child soldiers shooting rifles at random, corrupt police, and mobs of looters running rampant. Both North and South Koreans loathe their rivals — the countries are technically still at war, with a 40-year-old ceasefire at their shared border. When they encounter each other face-to-face, the ROKs thinks the DPRKs are trained as killers since they were kids; while they’re sure the South Koreans are either trying to poison them or force them to defect. And neither country can let it be known they’re doing anything that might help the other side. 

This is a fun movie about rivals caught in an apocalypse. It includes an amazing, 30-minute chase scene as they try to escape. It’s set in Somalia (and shot in Morocco) but it’s really about Koreans — rivalry, suspicion, with the underlying hope of brotherhood and peace. The Somalis are there as decoration, mainly portrayed as corrupt, violent, crazy, untrustworthy, or else  as silent, nameless victims — typical of most war movies. The Korean characters are more rounded but not always favourable either. Escape from Mogadishu has a hardboiled, cynical tone, but with a great streak of ironic humour and an underlying message of good will. This movie was just released in South Korea and it’s the years first blockbuster. So if you like action thrillers, you should check this one out.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

Co-WriDir: Caroline Link

It’s 1933 in Berlin. The Kempers are an upper middle class family living in a nice neighbourhood. Dad (Oliver Masucci) is a leading theatre critic, also known for his radio broadcasts. Mom (Carla Juri) is a pianist. Their son, Max (Marinus Hohmann) is into Zorro, while little Anna (Riva Krymalowski) likes drawing pictures of animals at the zoo. And they all adore their housekeeper Heimpi. But with elections a week away, and Hitler’s Nazis likely to prevail, Dad is worried. As a committed socialist and an unsparing critic, he’s prominent on Hitler’s enemy list. If the Nazis win he will likely be jailed or killed. So the family packs up a few suitcases for a quick trip to Switzerland. They plan to come back after the election. No such luck. Hitler triumphs, and they’re stranded in Zurich. The government seizes all his possessions and furniture, brown shirts burn his books, and newspapers stop publishing his work. Suddenly they are refugees, and Jewish intellectuals, no less, an exceedingly unpopular category.

So they settle into country life in a tiny alpen village near lake Zurich. Anna is baffled by the strange accent, their melted cheese and odd customs. Girls are separated from boys and kept at the back of the classroom, and boys throw rocks at girls they like.  She soon adjusts and makes local friends. But their  parents must keep a low profile. Dad is a wanted man, with a price on his head, and Nazi sympathizers are everywhere. Eventually they movie to Paris, where antisemitism is rife. As they sink deeper into poverty, they are forced to choose between necessities (like food, pencils and lightbulbs) and luxuries (like books and meat). Will the tide ever turn in their favour?

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a realistic and poignant story about a young girl’s life as a refugee in the 1930s. It’s about the whole family but seen through Anna’s eyes. It’s also about her internal trauma — her drawings turn from cute animals to people drowning in the ocean or crushed in an avalanche. It’s based on the semi-autobiographical novel by the late British author and illustrator Judith Kerr. So, as a film, it’s not the kind that builds to big climax and denouement; rather it’s episodic storytelling, a collection of vivid memories taken from the author’s childhood. The movie is filled with the wonder and disillusionment of a girl growing up in an unkind world, but it never loses its optimism. 

This is a very nice and engrossing film.

12 Mighty Orphans

Dir: Ty Roberts

It’s the 1938 in the Texas panhandle dustbowl, where starving farmers are abandoning their land and their children. Rusty Russel (Luke Wilson) is a renowned high school football coach starting a new job. He has taken many teams statewide championships. But his newest school is an exception. The kids here are barefoot, undernourished and illiterate. And they’re all orphans. But the coach is determined to change all that. So he tries to put together a football team, the school’s first, from among the orphans. They’re regularly flogged by Frank Wynne (Wayne Knight) who runs a for-profit printing press on school grounds and who treats the kids as virtual slaves. Rusty offers an enticement — when you’re training on the football field, you won’t be working on the fields.

Rusty pulls together a ramshackle bunch of scrawny, gap-toothed kids with low-esteem. And a newcomer, Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker) a 17-year-old seething with anger. With the help of the school’s medic, the kindly alcoholic Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), they manage to get the boys to resemble something like a team. Through pep-talks, motivation and intensive training, they’re ready to play ball — but against whom? The other schools want nothing to do with them. And they’re so much smaller than the average football player they don’t stand a chance even if they do play. But the Mighty Mites persevere, and make it into the league. But can they ever win? And will they learn to call themselves orphans with pride not shame?

12 Mighty Orphans is a wonderful, heartwarming sports movie about a team of underdogs trying to make it. I have no interest whatsoever in high school football, and yet I found this movie captivating. It’s a traditional-style movie — it could have been made in the 1940s — but still feels fresh. Each kid has his own personality, with names like Snoggs (Jacob Lofland), Fairbanks, Wheatie, and Pickett — all based on actual players. With clear-cut villains, and bittersweet heroes, it’s simple and easy to follow but moving, nonetheless. 

This is a good one.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is now available on VOD and other digital formats.  12 Mighty Orphans and Escape from Mogadishu both open theatrically in Toronto this weekend — check your local listings.

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

Heroes? Films reviewed: Lorelei, Stillwater, The Green Knight

Posted in Adventure, Fairytales, Family, Fantasy, France, Medieval, Mysticism, Poverty, Prison, Road Movie, Romance, Trial, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 31, 2021

Heroism is not just a thing of the past; it can still be found in unexpected places. So this week I’m looking at three new movies about flawed men on heroic journeys. There’s a man straight out of prison looking for his long-lost lover; an American in France who wants to rescue his daughter; and a medieval knight who wants to prove his valour.

Lorelei
Wri/Dir: Sabrina Doyle

Wayland or “Way” (Pablo Schreiber) is fresh out of prison. He’s tall and muscular with a goatee. He served 15 years for armed robbery, taking the fall for his motorcycle gang. Way’s on parole now, living at a local church, run by the kindly Pastor Gail. There he happens upon a single mom’s support group where he sees a blast from the past. Dolores (Jena Malone) is pretty and petite with blonde hair and an uplifting spirit. She was his high school sweetheart, a champion swimmer, the love of his life. The dreamed of moving to LA together but his incarceration ended all that. Now she has three kids, all from one night stands. She named them each after colours she likes. Dodger Blue (Chancellor Perry) is a 15-year old with attitude; Periwinkle Blue, or just Perry, (Amelia Borgerding) is 11 or 12 and starting to rebel; and Denim Blue, who is 6 (Parker Pascoe-Sheppard) is adorable but gets bullied at school for wearing girls’ clothes.

Wayland’s first night with Delores is a disaster — he says he has forgotten how to do it. But things get better. She cleans rooms at a motel while he gets a job demolishing vehicles at a junkyard. And since he can’t afford a car, he fixes up a run-down ice cream truck and uses that to get around. But things look risky. He earns extra money transporting drugs for the gang. And his parole officer keeps showing up at the worst possible times. Then there’s the kids. Wayland’s not looking for commitment, but expectations change over time. Can the relationship last? Is it a package deal? Will he be sent back to prison? And can people living a life of poverty hang onto their sense of self-worth?

Lorelei is a bittersweet drama about a passionate and loving couple trying to overcome the enormous problems they face. The characters are real, not just Hollywood stereotypes, and that makes it all the more moving. (It’s a real tear jerker.) And it keeps defying what you think would happen in a more formulaic version. Schreiber and Malone have great chemistry, and the kids, all played by first-time actors, are really good. For a first feature, the director did an amazing job.

I really like this one.

Stillwater
Co-WriDir: Tom McCarthy

Bill (Matt Damon) is good at fixing things. He likes guns, praying and country music. He’s from Stillwater, Oklahoma where he worked as a roughneck at the oil wells until he spent time in jail. Now he does whatever he can find. So what is he doing in the south of France? He’s there to try to get his adult daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) out of prison. She was a college student in Marseilles when her roommate was found brutally murdered. She was convicted and sentenced for the killing but continues to protest her innocence. She says she knows who really killed her, but he has disappeared. The police and lawyers refuse to do anything so Bill decides to track down this guy, get his DNA and free his daughter.

In the meantime, he’s staying at a cut-rate hotel, where he comes to the rescue of a little girl named Maya (Lilou Siauvaud) who is locked out of the room next door. In gratitude, Virginie, an actress and Maya’s mom (Camille Cottin), helps him with some translations. (Bill doesn’t speak any French.) Eventually they become friends, he moves in with them, and he lands a demolition job in Marseilles. Will there be a relationship in the future? Can a conservative redneck American get along with a liberal French woman in the arts? Is there love in the horizon? Can he catch the real killer and free his daughter? Or will it all come to naught?

Stillwater is the slow telling of a story about a flawed, middle-aged guy trying to do right by his estranged daughter. It’s also about polarized American politics in the age of Trump, transplanted onto a French setting. It’s billed as a thriller, but a thriller it ain’t. There are a few thrilling parts, and some unexpected plot twists, but it’s mainly too long, too slow and pretty bleak. It moves like still water.

The Green Knight
Wri/Dir: David Lowery

It’s Christmastime in the era of King Arthur, chivalry and magic. Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) is an aristocratic layabout more comfortable rolling in the hay at the local brothel than appearing in the royal court. But he’s the nephew of the King and Queen, and his mum (Sarita Choudhury) is a powerful sorceress. So when their feast is interrupted by an unexpected visitor, Gawain pays attention. The Green Knight, a huge and imposing creature who looks like he’s made of a tree, challenges anyone to a special game. A one-on-one fight, to be revisited one year later at the Green Knight’s home. The trick? Whatever the winner does it will be revisited upon him next year. Gawain volunteers — for a good chance to prove his valour and bravery and to become a knight. Without considering the consequences, he quickly beheads the Green Knight. But one year later he must visit his castle and get his head chopped off. He sets off on a journey encountering many unexpected challenges, including a highwayman, (Barry Keoghan), a red fox, a ghost (Erin Kellman) a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and a beautiful and mysterious, woman (Alicia Vikander). Will Gawain show valour or cowardice on his long journey? And will he survive his meeting with the Green Knight?

The Green Knight is an ingenious retelling of the ancient myths and stories of the British Isles and France. It’s not a straightforward adventure, but one loaded with dreams, magic and alternate realities. At times it’s unclear whether what you’re seeing is real or imaginary. It’s highly stylized, with gorgeous costumes and settings, which look simultaneously contemporary and medieval. It also uses unusual media – from puppet shows to tapestries and paintings – to advance the story. Dev Patel is great  (he carries the entire movie) but so are most of the others. Surprising phenomena are presented without comment, like a parade of naked giants lumbering past, or Gawain’s own semen serving as a shield of immortality. You might walk out of this movie thinking huh? What did I just see?, but if you think back to director David Lowery’s previous work, like A Ghost Story, you can accept his surreal mysticism at face value. This is a beautiful and fascinating film, a new, bold take on an ancient tale.

Lorelei is now available on VOD and digital formats. Stillwater and The Green Knight opens theatrically or digitally this weekend — check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Rebecca Snow about Pandora’s Box

Posted in Africa, Feminism, Human Rights, India, Politics, Poverty, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 8, 2021

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

It’s as old as humanity, directly experienced by more than half the population, and indirectly by the rest; is crucial to our existence as a species. And yet it’s treated as a dirty and shameful taboo. It’s omnipresent yet never mentioned in public.

I’m talking about menstruation. And because we never talk about it, women and girls suffer social discrimination and economic hardship, at work and at home, in schools and in prisons. Isn’t it time we open this Pandora’s Box?

Pandora’s Box: Lifting the Lid on Menstruation is a new documentary that delves into its history and culture, and looks at human rights advocates around the world — in India, Kenya, North America and Europe — who are trying to normalize periods and to make them affordable, safe and accessible.  It’s written and directed by Rebecca Snow, an award-winning Canadian filmmaker who specializes in social issue documentaries.

Pandora’s Box premiers on Monday, March 8th, International Women’s Day.

I spoke with Rebecca Snow in Toronto, via ZOOM. (Some of the dialogue is inaudible, due to technical difficulties.)

Older. Films reviewed: Nomadland, Supernova, Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Posted in Death, Dementia, documentary, Drama, Gay, Poverty, Road Movie, Romance, UK by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2021

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

As the baby boomers age, so do the characters in their movies. This week I’m looking at two dramas and a documentary about travelling around. There’s an older woman exploring the western US in her dilapidated mobile home; two older men driving through northern England in their old camper; and an intense documentary series that takes you across the twentieth century and back again.

Nomadland

Wri/Dir: Chloe Zhao

(Based on the book by Jessica Bruder)

Fern (Frances McDormand) is an ornery, older woman with short grey hair who lives in Empire, Nevada, a company town that processes gypsum. She likes wearing overalls and reciting Shakespeare. She followed her beloved husband to Empire decades earlier with the promise of lifetime employment.  It proved true for him — he died at work. But the empire has fallen. Now she’s a widow, the plant is closed,  the company has pulled up its stakes, and the town itself no longer exists; it’s been wiped off the map, literally. She’s broke with no prospect of work, so she packs up all her stuff, piles it into a ramshackle RV, and sets out on the highway. She’s not homeless, she’s houseless. Her home is on wheels. 

She encounters a group of people like her,  camping in RVs in the desert, like old war horses put out to pasture. They’ve got no money — instead they share goods at a trading post, sing songs around a campfire, and do each other favours like fixing flat tires. They live entirely off the grid. (You’ve heard of Burning Man? This is Burning Van.) Fern meets Dave, a friendly guy with a greying beard (David Strathairn), and she begrudgingly shack up with him. They go their separate ways looking for work where they can find it. But she meets up with him again in the Badlands as she travels across the American west. Will they live together permanently? Can Fern settle down? Or will she stick to her nomadic life and the freedom of the open road?

Nomadland is an engrossing, gritty drama about an older woman on the road trying to make it on her own. It’s all about finding friendship and hope amidst loneliness and poverty. Frances McDormand is remarkable as Fern, acting alongside non-actors, ordinary people playing themselves. 

This is Chloe Zhao’s third feature, and like her earlier films, it feels part documentary, part drama, slow paced and very real.

It’s all shot on location, against magnificent and stark scenery, the desert, the mountains, the sterile interior of an Amazon warehouse and the rustic kitchen of the famous Wall Drugs. Nomadland isn’t a Hollywood feel good movie — its even mildly depressing in parts, but on the whole it’s a magnificent and moving picture. Just Great

Supernova

Wri/Dir: Harry Macqueen

Sam and Tusker are a middle aged couple who have lived together in England for decades. Tusker (Stanley Tucci) is a successful American novelist, bald-headed with a sharp tongue. He loves staring at the night sky and thinking about distant galaxies. Sam (Colin Firth) is an English concert pianist who likes wooly sweaters and old friends. Together they used to travel the world on long trips exploring Paris, Italy, and Kyushu, Japan. Now they’re on a drive in an old  rundown camper through the rocky hills and steep green ravines of the Lake District. They’re heading for a concert hall where Sam is giving a recital after a long hiatus. Tusker is working on his latest novel. On the way, they stop to celebrate a birthday in Sam’s childhood home. Surrounded by closest friends and family, driving on a scenic highway,  snuggling up together in their camper with their shaggy dog… what could be bad?

The bad is Tusker’s early-onset Alzheimers. He was diagnosed a while back and it’s starting to reveal itself. Everything still works normally but he dreads the day when he can no longer control himself. I’ll always be there for you, says Sam. But Tusker doesn’t want that to happen. He wants to be the driver, not Sam’s passenger. Will 

Supernova is a tender  and loving drama about dying and loss. It’s full of profundities about destiny and memory, picturesque stone houses, and music on the car radio. It’s nicely acted and subtly carried out. But maybe too subtle, by half. It didn’t really move me.  There’s a single idea — Tusker doesn’t want to lose control, Sam doesn’t want to lose Tusker — but it feels repetitive,  exploring the same conflict over and over. I like the intimacy and familiarity of the characters, but the movie is too simple and Tucci’s portrayal of someone with dementia didn’t quite ring true.

Can’t Get You Out of My Head

Wri/Dir: Adam Curtis

What do Jiang Qing, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Red Army Faction, a London slumlord, the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, Petrodollars, and Appallachian coal miners,all have in common? They’re all part of the documentary series directed by Adam Curtis, on the history, economy, psychology and politics of the twentieth century. He explores the fall of empires, but also the failure of revolutions. He also looks at the origins of false conspiracy theories, as well as actual conspiracies, like the CIA’s use of LSD on unsuspecting patients. Basically, he looks at what movements, schools of thought, and major changes going on today, and what inspired them.

If you’ve never seen his documentaries before, now — with all the recent confusion and strangeness and unprecedented changes — is a perfect time to start. Curtis has a unique filmmaking style, that manages to tell its story without ever shooting any new footage. Virtually all his visuals are taken from meticulously researched material from the BBC’s archives. They’re edited together in a constantly changing, almost convoluted way but that all makes sense in the end. And all his docs are narrated, relentlessly, by the filmmaker’s own distinctive voice. And they have such an unusual look, as if they are made of long-forgotten, dusty film spools he dug up in someone’s basement  but that also somehow explains what you heard on the news  news three days ago. You may or may not like his style, but I guarantee he will tell you things you never knew before.

Nomadland opens today, Supernova is playing at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox and you can find episodes of  Can’t Get You Out of My Head for free on YouTube. 

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

Wood, Bricks and Rocks. Films reviewed: Black Bear, 18 to Party, Rocks

Posted in 1980s, Cabin in the Woods, Coming of Age, Family, Friendship, High School, Homelessness, Poverty, Suicide, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 4, 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 indie movies. We’ve got alienated teens in the 1980s standing by a wall of bricks, a homeless high school girl in London named Rocks, and a fractious ménage a trois in a cabin made of wood.

Black Bear

Wri/Dir: Lawrence Michael Levine

It’s summertime in upstate New York. Allison (Aubrey Plaza) is an actress, a director and a writer. She’s staying in a beautiful wooden house, completely off the grid as she tries to write a new screenplay. But she’s easily distracted from her work: there’s a ramp running down from the house into a wide wooden doc on a placid lake. Then there’s the attractive couple who own the house and live there: Blair (Sarah Gadon), a feminist and former dancer, pregnant with their first child; and Gabe (Christopher Abbott) her bearded husband who holds antediluvian views. But freindy banter over wine and dinner turns to bitter bickering, with Allison caught between the two. Blair is convinced that Gabe is cheating on her with Allison. Tension builds until it explodes… leading to a dangerous outcome.

But wait! It’s not over.

We now watch the same scene again, but this time Allison and Gabe are married and own the cabin and Blair is the visiting actress. And they’re no longer alone: they’re actually shooting a movie, which Gabe is directing, surrounded costumes, makeup, camera, script, continuity, ADs and everyone else. And Allison (the actress playing the role) thinks Gabe – the director not the character “Gabe” (played by a bearded lookalike) – is fooling around with Blair, both in the script they’re shooting and off-set. So Allison is guzzling Jack Daniels straight from the bottle, the crew is all stoned on cannabis, and a big black bear is lurking outside. Can they finish making the movie? Which part is real, the first act or the second act? Or is it all just a meta illusion?

Black Bear is a fascinating study of brain-twisting double-think, as well as a slapstick comedy and living room drama. But does it work? I think it does, and that’s because of the great acting by the three. Aubrey Plaza is the queen of indies, always great, and in this film playing a slinky and sly independent woman almost losing it. Abbott and Gadon are equally good, each playing two very different versions of the same role, almost like an exercise in acting school.

Black Bear is a marvelous intellectual exercise that’s also fun to watch.

18 to Party

Wri/Dir: Jeff Roda

It’s September in the mid-1980s in a small town in New York. A group of 14-year-old friends are gathering outside a club where a big party is supposed to happen that night. But the doorman says no entry until the older teens are there. So they meet around the corner in a vacant lot, to catch up after summer vacation. They don’t have to worry about being out late; all the grownups in town are at a meeting about UFOs. There are two computer nerds, two former best friends, Kira and Missy (Ivy Miller, Taylor Richardson), an introverted artist, and best buddies Shel and Brad. But these friendships are built on strict hierarchies. Shel (Tanner Flood) is self-conscious kid who idolizes Brad (Oliver Gifford) a star soccer player. But a girl has a crush on Shel not Brad. Will they make out? Kira and Missy both hold festering grudges. And one friend is missing from the picture: Lanky (James Freedson-Jackson). Something major happened over the summer, and rumours abound. Is he in prison? Reform school? Or is everything just like it used to be? And hanging over them all is a suicide epidemic, with half a dozen kids at their school dead. There’s bullying, sexual insecurities, internalized anger and alienation. And a gun someone brought that night. Can these fragile friendships last through the evening? And will they actually get into the party?

18 to Party is a social drama that draws on movies from the 80s, sort of a combination of The Breakfast Club (but not as commercial and retrogressive) and River’s Edge (but not as creepy).  It’s dressed up with the hairstyles, clothes and music from that era, but the story is all it’s own. It’s shot in a very small area, like a play, where people exit and enter and cross the stage, but the camera seldom leaves the brick-wall area. The characters work, because while some of them fit classic stereotypes, they’re all multi layered. And the film deals with prejudices and themes unique to that era. I haven’t seen any of the actors before but they play their parts very well, especially Ivy Miller as the rebel, Tanner Flood as the main character and James Freedson-Jackson as the loose cannon.

This film’s worth seeing.

Rocks

Dir: Sarah Gavron

Rocks (Bukky Bakray) is a young woman who goes to an all-girl London highschool. She’s warm, funny, clever and buoyant, with a close circle of friends. Her bestie Sumaya (Kosar Ali) helps her with her first tampon – they’re that close. She lives with her little brother Emmanuel (D’angelou Osei Kissiedu) and their mom, originally from Lagos, Nigeria. (Their dad died years earlier.) But one day, her mom doesn’t come home from the bakery where she works. Turns out she was fired two weeks earlier.  Then Emmanuel notices the food in the fridge has gone bad – the power was cut off. And when, coming home from school, she notices some officials at their door, she realizes it’s time to get out of there.

So she heads out, exploring London while asking her school friends for sleepovers. She brings her brother everywhere, who, in turn, carries a little frog in a terrarium that he got from school. She takes care of Emmanuel he protects his friog. But as her money runs out and stress grows, she’s increasingly alienated from her friends. Will the social workers track her down? Will her mother ever come back? And what about Emmanuel?

Rocks – which debuted at TIFF last year – is an excellent high school drama told in that super-realistic European style.  It’s a different sort of coming-of-age drama, with kids facing much harsher conditions than you usually see in movies. But it’s not depressing. While there are some heavy tear-jerk scenes, its mainly funny, surprising and upbeat. It explores underground contemporary London, like sketchy hoods, makeup artists, pompous school teachers, and a fascinating portrayal of a Somali family. And Bukky Bakray is really, really good as Rocks.

I liked this movie.

Rocks, 18 to Party, and Black Bear are all playing theatrically in select theatres today – check your local listings, or are available digitally or Video on Demand

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.

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.

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.

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.

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