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

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.

Issues. Films reviewed: Minari, Test Pattern, The Mauritanian

Posted in 1980s, 2000s, Africa, Courtroom Drama, Family, Kids, Korea, Prison, Romance, Sexual Assault, Terrorism, Texas, Thriller, Torture, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2021

Movies are entertainment, but they can also inform. This week I’m looking at three new American movies that look at important issues. There’s a Korean-American family living the immigrant experience in Arkansas, a black woman dealing with sexual assault in Texas, and a young man enduring prison life in Guantanamo Bay.

Minari

Wri/Dir: Lee Isaac Chung

It’s rural Arkansas in the 1980s. Young David (Alan Kim) just moved there from California with his small family, just his sister Anne and his parents. He’s not allowed to run and play because of his heart murmur. His Dad  (Steven Yuen) spent their life savings on a plot of land and an old mobile home. He wants to start a new life there, growing vegetables for the burgeoning Korean-American market, immigrants like themselves. He’s sure they’ll make a fortune. In the mean time, Mom and Dad (Yeri Han) have to continue working at a poultry factory where they sort newly-hatched chicks. The girl chicks go to poultry farmers, while the boy chicks are incinerated and belched out of a sinister-looking chimney behind the plant. The problem is, despite Dad’s relentless enthusiasm, Mom hates it there and wants to move back to California. She’s a city girl. So they’re fighting all the time adding to their kids’ anxiety. To calm the waters they get Grandma, Mom’s mother (Yuh-jung Youn), to come live with them. 

She shares a room with David who doesn’t know what to make of her. She cracks foul-mouthed jokes and ogles pro-wrestlers on TV. When he wets his bed, she tells him his ding-dong is broken. You’re not a real grandmother, he says.  Mom is unhappy, and Dad is increasingly on edge — farming isn’t as easy as it looks. Will the family business go bust? Can David and Grandma learn to get along? What about his heart murmur? And can a dysfunctional family learn to like one another?

Minari (the title refers to a leafy vegetable grandma plants by a stream in the woods) is a warm, tender and funny look at the lives of an immigrant family trying to make it. It’s told through the point of view of an anxious little kid observing the strangeness of rural Arkansas. Things like diviners renting themselves out to find wells, and their grizzly old farm hand (Will Patton),  prone to bursting into prayers and exorcisms at a moment’s notice. The storytelling is rich and colourful, the locations are warm and rustic, the acting is terrific, and while the plot is bittersweet, it leaves you with a good feeling.

Test Pattern

Wri/Dir: Shatara Michelle Ford

It’s Austin Texas. 

Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is a beautiful young black executive originally from Dallas. She’s starting her new job as a manager at a pet-rescue charity. She lives with Evan (Will Brill) a scruffy, white tattoo artist. They met at a nightclub and are deeply in love.   And to celebrate her new position, Amber (Gail Bean) takes her on a “girl’s’ night out” at a local bar. She promises Evan she’ll be home early to get a good night’s sleep. But she wakes up, hungover, dizzy, disoriented and in pain, in the bed of a strange man. What happened?

Evan can tell, it was something bad. She was sexually assaulted by a stranger, a rich, e-commerce guy they met at the bar who plied her with drinks and strong drugs. Momentary flashbacks start appearing in her head, adding to her unease. Renesha just wants to shower and sleep, but Evan insists they go to a hospital to pick up a rape kit. What follows is a gruelling exercise in medical incompetence, legal boundaries, and an unsympathetic system, as the two of them travel from hospital to hospital trying to get the tests done. What effect will that night have on Renesha? Can she go back to work? Can their relationship survive? And will justice be served?

Test Pattern is a dark look at the results of a sexual assault on one woman and the ripple effects on her boyfriend. The story alternates between a study of that one awful day after, and of the much nicer times in their relationship leading up to it. It also chronicles the indignities a woman has to endure — things like not being allowed to urinate before she takes the tests — at the worst possible time, as they try to preserve evidence of the assault.  Test Pattern is not a happy movie, but rather a sympathetic and realistic view of trauma.

The Mauritanian

Dir: Kevin MacDonald

It’s November, 2001, on the western edge of the Sahara Desert. Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) is a young man, from engineering student in Mauritania.  He’s celebrating with family and friends in a huge tent, when black limos pull up. It’s the corrupt local police force.  The US authorities, they say, are going crazy since 9/11. They just want to talk to you about something. That’s the last his family saw him. Five years later, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) a successful partner at an Albuquerque, law firm, decides to investigate his case. With the help of a young associate named Teri (Shailene Woodley) she discovers Mohamadou is being held without charge, in Guantanamo. The government is going to try him in court, under the prosecution of a military lawyer named Crouch (Benedict Cumberbatch). They agree to be his pro bono defence attorneys because that’s how trials work. But the cards are stacked against them. He is one of Al Qaeda’s main recruiters, a close friend of Osama Bin Laden, personally connected to one of the hijackers on 9/11, and responsible; for the deaths of more than 3000 Americans. (Or so they say.) 

But when they fly out to Gitmo to meet the defendant, his story seems quite different. In a series of redacted letters, he records his experiences over the past 5 years, at the hands of CIA and military interrogators. Is Mohamadou a terrorist, or just a random guy they arrested? Is the evidence against him real? What did they do to him at Guantanamo? And will he ever be released from that hell hole?

The Mauritanian is a harrowing legal drama based on the true case of Mohamadou Slahi. The film deals with torture, corruption, secrecy and a flawed legal system. French actor Tahar Rahim is terrific as Mohamadou, the main character of the movie, as he records what life is really like in that notorious complex. Foster, Woodley and Cumberbatch (with a very believable southern accent) support him well, though in less exciting roles.

Test Pattern is now playing digitally at the Revue Cinema; Minari starts today; and the Mauritanian opens on Tuesday.

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

Do opposites attract? Films reviewed: Tito, Uncle Peckerhead, My Days of Mercy

Posted in Canada, Cannibalism, Class, comedy, Horror, Lesbian, LGBT, Music, Prison, Punk, Romance, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on August 28, 2020

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

Do opposites attract? This week I’m looking at three new indie movies about odd combinations. There’s an introvert confronting an aggressive frat boy; a law-and-order lawyer vs an activist opposed to capital punishment; and a punk band with a hillbilly roadie… who’s also a cannibal!

Tito

Wri/Dir: Grace Glowicki

Tito (Grace Glowicki) is a young guy who lives alone in an empty wooden house. He’s tall and gangly, dressed in black with heavy brow and sideburns, and straight hair tucked behind his ears. He always carries a red plastic whistle around his neck, to scare way the baddies. And they’re everywhere, banging at the doors, scratching at the windows or just roaring and howling inside his head. He’s very hungry – down to just pickle brine in the fridge – but he’s too scared to go outside.

Everything changes when he wakes up to find a strange man in his kitchen, cooking breakfast. Who is he? John (Ben Petrie) says he’s there to lend a hand and make a friend. Tito is petrified and repulsed by this invasion, but he joins him at the table. John is the yin to Tito’s yang. He’s a frat boy bro who gesticulates with grand gestures and talks and shouts non-stop; while the introverted Tito can barely choke out a syllable. But when he passes Tito a joint, the voices in his head turn to music, and he even lets John take him for a walk. Can Tito emerge from his shell? Can this odd couple become friends? Or will it lead to trouble?

Tito is a stylized and impressionistic character study, a look inside an introvert’s brain. Sort of a cross between acting, modern dance and pantomime. Petrie is great as John, the self-declared “pussy-hound”. He’s loud, manipulative and bursting with barely-controlled aggression. And Glowicki perfectly conveys a young man’s paranoia with a hunched-over walk, pulled inward and cringing at the slightest provocation. Tito isn’t your usual comedy, drama or art house film, but is fascinating and watchable nonetheless.

Uncle Peckerhead

Wri/Dir: Matthew John Lawrence

Judy (Chet Siegel) is a happy-go-lucky musician in her thirties whose dream is finally coming true. Her punk band – called Duh – is going on their first tour! They make a good trio: Mel (Ruby McCollister) on drums is a ginger-haired nihilist, Max (Jeff Riddle) on bass and vocals is a friendly chowderhead, bald and bearded; and Judy – skinny with long black-hair, who plays bass and lead vocals – keeps the group running. She has everything ready – demo tapes, T shirts, a full roster of music, and clubs booked to play it in. There’s only thing missing: money – barely two coins to rub together. They’ve already quit their day jobs and they’re being kicked out of their apartment. But when their van gets repossessed, they’re really in trouble. How can they go on tour without wheels?

Luckily they meet a polite and friendly man with a van (David Littleton) who offers to be their roadie. He’ll drive and do the heavy lifting in exchange for meals and gas money. It’s a deal! And what’s his name? “My dad always called me Peckerhead, but you can call me Peck.” They’re all set… except for one problem. At midnight, Peck changes in strange ways, and a hidden evil beast emerges. And pretty soon they’re leaving a pile of half-eaten mutilated corpses wherever they go.

Uncle Peckerhead is a horror/comedy road movie, about the usual aspects a touring band faces – pretentious musicans, unscrupulous managers, adoring fans – combined with hilarious extreme violence and gore. It starts out quirky and funny, but gradually builds to an over-the-top, blood-drenched finish. Fun music, silly characters, unexpected situations and lots of splashing blood. Siegel is great as Judy and Littleton steals the show as the aw-shucks, cannibal yokel.

My Days of Mercy

Dir: Tali Shalom-Ezer (Princess)

Lucy (Ellen Page) is a woman in her twenties who lives in a small Ohio town with her older sister Martha (Amy Seimetz) and her little brother Ben (Charlie Shotwell). The three of them drive their camper across the country to protest capital punishment in front of prisons where an execution is about to take place. She’s part of a large community of protesters that regularly meet and comfort one other. At one such demo she shares a cigarette with a woman named Mercy (Kate Mara). The two are quite different – Mara is a well-dressed lawyer with neatly cut blond hair from Illinois, while Lucy is working class, in jeans and T-shirt – but something clicks. When the two meet again they become friends, and ther friendship leads to a relationship. Soon they’re meeting in motels, the RV or in Lucy’s home for passionate sex.

But something keeps them apart. Mercy’s father is a cop whose partner was killed. She’s at the demos to support the executions. While Lucy is there because her dad is on death row, blamed for the murder of her mom. She, Martha and Ben have spent the past six years devoting their lives to save him. Can Lucy and Mercy overcome the political and family divisions that keep them on opposing sides? Or is their romance doomed from the start?

My Days of Mercy is a great Romeo and Juliet (or Juliet and Juliet?) romantic drama, tender and moving, and starkly told. Each episode is set outside a different prison, punctuated by a still shot of a dying prisoner’s last meal. Their romance is erotic, the sex scenes tastefully done, though surprisingly vanilla (were Lucy and Mercy both raised by missionaries?) It’s beautifully shot in a realistically rendered working-class home and the insides of actual prisons. Ellen Page and Kate Mara are full of passion and pathos as the star-crossed lovers, their story skillfully told. It’s a real tear-jerker – I cried at least twice – both for the couple and the horrors of executions. I recommend this one.

Tito and Uncle Peckerhead are now playing digitally and VOD and My Days of Mercy starts today.

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

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

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

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

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

Tijuana Jackson: Purpose over Prison

Wri/Dir: Romany Malco

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

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

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

Random Acts of Violence

Dir: Jay Baruchel

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

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

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

A Girl Missing

Wri/Dir: Fukada Kōji

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

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

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

This is a great movie.

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

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

The Aussie connection. Reviewed: Stateless, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Posted in Australia, Berlin, documentary, Drama, Fashion, photography, Prison, Refugees, TV by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2020

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

Toronto used to be movie city, a place with countless films in production at any one time, competing for access to location shots and studio space. Dozens of screens showing the latest releases and over a hundred film festivals showcasing upcoming hits… but that was pre-Pandemic. Now the city is so dead you can almost hear a pin drop.

But don’t panic, movies are still being shown. The Lavazza Drive-in Film Fest continues at Ontario Place, showing everything from Bollywood comedies to Italian dramas to crowd pleasers from Brazil, the US and China. Go to ICFF.ca for tickets. And if you want to stay home this weekend, don’t miss the Toronto Arab Film Festival, premiering features and short films online from Canada and around the world, today through Sunday. Films are all free or PWYC. For more information, go to arabfilm.ca.

This week I’m looking at two new productions, a glamorous documentary and a human TV drama, both with an Australian connection. There’s an Australian who wants to be deported to Germany, and a German fashion photographer who finds refuge in Australia.

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Dir: Gero von Boehm

Are the high-fashion photographs you see in Vogue magazine revolutionary and sexually subversive looks at our culture? Or are they violent, misogynistic views of women? A new documentary asks these questions about the pictures of renowned photographer Helmut Newton and the story of his life. He isborn in 1920 in Weimar Berlin. His father owns a factory that makes buttons and buckles. By the time he’s a teenager the Nazis are in power. He’s both repelled by and attracted to the fascist imagery of photographers like Leni Riefenstahl – he’s German-Jewish, immersed in the culture all around him but also highly restricted and persecuted by government laws.

He works as an apprentice for a woman named Yva, one of the first to use photographs within the fashion industry. In 1938 he boards a ship with a ticket to Shanghai, but disembarks in Singapore, and from there to Australia, where he spends two years in an internment camp, joins the army, and eventually becomes a fashion photographer. And he marries his life and work partner, June, AKA Alice Springs.

His photos become a smash hit in Europe, where they change the whole look of fashion photgraphy. By the 1960s he’s the first to use nude models in fashion spreads. His images are filled with fear, embarssment and the threat of violence. They often include statuesque women with domineering expressions, chiseled features, athletic bodies and large breasts. Many verge on soft core porn, with images of women dominating men. There are also photos of women as victims of violence, swallowed whole by aligators, missing limbs or brandishing knives.

And, surprisingly, a series of photos showing the erotic violence of roast chickens.

Newton settled into the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood where he died in a car accident, aged 83.

This film takes an unusual tactic. Rather than the narrator intruding into the film, we hear instead from all the women, the actors and models, he worked with: Grace Jones, Isabella Rosselini, Catherine Deneuve, Hannah Schygulla, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithfull, Anna Wintour and many more. They talk about whether they felt liberated or exploited by posing in the nude; what it was like to work with him, and how the final images are often very different from the shooting itself. Many mention how he treated models like puppets, dolls or manequins that convey Newton’s ideas not the models – that’s undeniable. But most say they loved working with him and also liked the shocking and subversive images they played a part in. This film mirrors Newton’s gaze of women and turns it around by reversing the POV to that of those women examining Newton and his work. Very clever.

If you like the aesthetic of glamorous images, high fashion, and stark, nude women’s bodies — that also gives a subjective voice to the women Newton used as objects — you will love this doc.

Stateless

Created by Tony Ayres, Cate Blanchett, Elise McCredie

It’s the 2000s in a remote detention centre somewhere in Australia. High fences stop inmates from escaping, while visitors must line up to pass through security inspections. It’s just another day in the life prisoners in the carceral system. The problem is this isn’t a prison at all and the inmates have committed no crimes. They’re actually asylum seekers, refugees from around the world, who arrive there by boat.

One such inmate is Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi) who is separated from his wife and kids. The family fled the Taiban in Afghanistan only to find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous refugee brokers who steal their savings and set them adrift in leaky boats. Ameer manages to reach Australia on his own, but now he’s locked up in the detention centre and can’t find his beloved family.

Another inmate is Eva (Yvonne Strahovski). Unlike most of the detainees, she’s not a refugee from the developing world; she’s European and just wants to leave Australia for Germany. But she has no papers to prove who she is. That’s because she’s actually an Australian flight attendant on the run from a creepy personality cult.

The inmates are guarded by people like Cam (Jai Courtney) a likeable newlywed from a nearby town. With the decent salary he can afford a new house with a swimming pool. But after a few months of working in the toxic prison-like atmosphere he finds himself morphing from ordinary guy to sadistic torturer.

Then there’s Claire (Asher Keddie) an ambitious federal civil servant. She’s sent there to clean the place up, keep journalists at bay and restore the centre’s reputation. But she arrives to find news helicopters filming despondent Sri Lankan Tamil refugees camped out on rooftop, with others driven to suicide by the horrible and hopeless conditions there. What will happen to the refugees? Will Ameer ever find his family? Why is a mentally ill Australian woman locked up in a concentration camp? And for that matter why are asylum seekers there at all?

Stateless is a six-part drama, based on a true story about actually refugees imprisoned in Australian detention camps, as well as the case of an Australian woman who ended up in one of the camps. It’s a heart-wrenching TV series with powerful acting and compelling characters played out against an extremely bleak setting. I found it really interesting – I wanted to find it what happens and binged-watched it in two sittings. It’s a bit strange though that – except for Ameer – the asylum seekers are all peripheral characters while the three Australian characters all have backstories, histories, neuroses and sex lives. I guess that’s the point – it’s not about asylum seekers, per se, it’s about how poorly the Australian government treats them, and how passionately other Australians fight for their rights.

Stateless is streaming on Netflix, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful is playing now on VOD.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Sophie Deraspe about Antigone

Posted in Canada, Disguise, Drama, Family, High School, Montreal, Prison, Protest, Quebec, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 6, 2019

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Antigone is a straight-A high school student in Montreal. She lives with two brothers and a sister, raised by ther grandmother. They immigrated from North Africa when she was still a child. She’s heading for university and is dating Hémon, the son of a prominent politician. But her normal life is shattered when the police kill one brother and jail the other. She comes up with a scheme to take her brothers place in prison. But what will become of Antigone?

Antigone is the title of a fantastic new film from Québec, about a strong young woman willing to confront the government and risk everything for the love of her brother. The film transplants the classic Greek play into modern day Montréal, incorporating contemporary cinema, drama, literature, and music. The film is written and directed by Sophie Deraspe who also served as cinematographer and editor. Antigone is her first feature and has won countless prizes, including best Canadian Film at TIFF and is Canada’s choice for Best Foreign Film Oscar.

I spoke with Sophie at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Antigone opens today in Toronto.

TIFF18! Films reviewed: Consequences, Woman at War, Tito and the Birds

Posted in Animation, Brazil, Environmentalism, Iceland, Kids, LGBT, Politics, Prison, Skinhead, Slovenia, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 11, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

Tiff is here, now.

It began last night, and is filled with big-budget, glitzy premiers and movie stars  from all over the world. You can go down to King st — between Spadina and University — starting today, to take it all in. And even if you don’t have tickets, with more than two hundred movies opening there, I promise, you can still get in.

But the Hollywood stuff is getting way too much coverage, so this week I’m talking about three, lesser-known movies playing at TIFF that I really like. There’s an eco-activist in Iceland, a bird talker in Brazil and a Slovenian in the slammer.

Consequences

Wri/Dir Darko Stante

Andrej (Mate Zemlijk) is a teenager who has it made. He lives with his parents in a nice suburban home. He’s handsome, fit, with a beautiful girlfriend and a pet rat named FIFA. Fortified with bourbon he can pick up any girl in the room. But the sex he has is bad, his life is empty, and he takes out his frustrations on everyone around him.

This lands him in a reform school with strict rules. It’s run by adult men, but is actually governed by a gang of bullies, headed by Žele (Timon Sturbej) and his sidekick Niko. Žele is a tough skinhead who extorts money from the other boys by claiming they owe him. Niko is a deranged practical joker who eggs Žele on while brandishing a blowtorch. Andrej initially stands up for his pothead roommate Luka, but soon he is invited into the gang and becomes their main enforcer. He accompanies them on their weekend outings in Ljubljana.  

And as he is pulled away from the rules of his home and the reform centre he feels increasingly isolated, spending the night in a kindergarten playhouse he remembers from his childhood. Meanwhile the crime level continues to rise, as Žele grooms Andrej for shakedowns, car theft, drug trade and smuggling. But Andrej’s not in it for the money. He likes the bully – likes, as in sexually – and thinks he sees a mutual attraction. Will Zele be his rival, his friend… or his lover?

Consequences is a dark, coming of age drama set in present-day Slovenia. It probes alienated youth, crime, drugs, sexual fluidity, and relationships. This film uses unknown actors to great effect  and the interplay between Zemlijk and Sturbej is compelling. Darko Stante’s Consequences is part of TIFF’s Discovery series and it’s having to world premier tonight. Catch it if you can.

Woman at War

Dir: Benedikt Erlingsson

Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is a single,  middle-aged Icelandic woman with a secret. It’s not that she’s a well-liked choir head. Or that she has an identical twin named Asa. Or even that she’s been approved to adopt a Ukrainian orphan girl. Her big secret is she’s the eco activist the government has been searching for. She’s the one who takes down hydro cables, shutting down the foreign-owned smelting plants endangering Iceland’s once pristine environment.

Using a simple bow and arrow, along with some metal wire, she manages to bring down a high tension wire. Her secret is known only to one person in the government – her friend and government mole Baldvin (Jörundur Ragnarsson) who is sickened by their environmental policies. The government repeatedly arrests a latino hiker in a Che Guevara T-shirt, while Halla escapes unknown.

Halla is one with nature. She knows every nook and cranny, every mound and cliff, and manages to avoid drones, helicopters and security experts. But when they close down all the roads just to catch her she seeks refuge with a sympathetic farmer, possibly a distant cousin. But with the government closing in, can she continue her one-woman fight for the environment? Or will it ruin her long awaited chance to adopt a child?

Woman at War is a brilliant satirical comedy drama about Iceland, its clans, government corruption, the environment, and its women. Geirharðsdóttir is marvellous as the twin sisters, totally believable as an underground superhero who can communicate with the environment by covering her face in lichen.

Another great movie at TIFF.

Tito and The Birds

Dir: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg

Tito is a schoolboy in a big Brazilian city like São Paulo. His dad is an inventor, specializing in steampunk contraptions filled with misshapen, pipes, dials and gewgaws sticking out at weird angles. He thinks his machine will let people talk with birds. But when it explodes, and Tito ends up in hospital, dad leaves his family for good. A few years later Tito takes up his dad’s role and enters his own invention into the school science fair. His main rival is a rich kid named Teo. But Tito’s machine,  like his dad’s, blows up, sending the audience running.

Meanwhile a strange disease has gone viral infecting more and more people in the city. It feeds on fear – fear of crime, fear of disease, fear of poor people – even though there is nothing to fear but fear itself. This fear is encouraged by a real estate developer, trying to move people out of the cities into gated communities under glass domes. Scary men in Hazmat suits have taken over spraying everyone with chemicals, but it doesn’t seem to work. So Tito and his best friends – the brave Sarah and the silent Buiu – join forces to defy fear and thus defeat this terrible disease. They are sure the city’s pigeons hold the secret. And they invite rich rival Teo – the son of the real estate mogul – to help them too. Can they save the city with birds and science? Or will fear overcome logic?

Tito and the Birds is an animated film from Brazil that looks at poverty and class difference as seen through the eyes of children. It’s a kids’ movie, for sure, but I loved it, especially the colours splashed across the big screen. Vibrant swathes of glowing green, hot pink, warm yellow, and black are everywhere, giving it an unforgettable look.

Consequences, Tito and the Birds, and Woman at War are all premiering at TIFF. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

Visuals. Films reviewed: Papillon, We the Animals, Madeline’s Madeline

Posted in 1930s, Coming of Age, Dance, Drama, Family, France, LGBT, Prison, violence by CulturalMining.com on August 24, 2018

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

All movies need good sound and pictures, but in some films the visual aspects are especially notable. This week, I’m looking at three, new, visually-oriented movies, with two approaching the avant-garde.

We’ve got three brothers exploring their home, two men escaping from a desert island, and one young actress channelling her inner self.

Papillon

Dir: Michael Noer

It’s 1930s Paris and Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Charley Hunnam) is living the life of Riley. He’s fit, smart and well-to-do, and is passionately in love with his beautiful wife. He figures at this current income he could retire in six more months. His job? An expert safe-cracker, working freelance for the mob. But his luck runs out when he is sent down for a murder he didn’t commit. Papillon is a good fighter but not a killer. They send him off to an inescable prison in French Guyana but he is already planning on how to get out. On board the ship he meets Louis Dega (Rami Malek) a small but snobbish counterfeiter with glasses. Dega is rich – he keeps a roll of bills hidden up his rectum – but can’t defend himself, and Papillon needs money to get away. Together they form a grudging alliance that deepens as their friendship grows.

Prison life – including hard labour – is brutal, with violence coming both from other inmates and from the guards. Any escape attempt means two years in solitary, with absolute silence required Repeated attempts mean permanent exile to Devils island a cliff covered desert. Papillon – his nickname comes from a butterfly tat on his chest – takes the fall for dega when he blows an escape attempt. He keeps from going insane in solitary by keeping his inner mind awake. The warden wants to break him, but Papillon never gives up.

Can he ever escape this hell-hole? And can Dega make it out too?

Perhaps because I’ve read Papillon’s true prison memoirs, and seen the 1970s film (starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman) this version seems too long and two slow… almost like a prison sentence. Still, it is visually gorgeous with period costumes, exotic settings, and epic scenery. Hunnam and Malek – two actors I really like — carry their roles well. So I ended up liking it, mainly as an adventure/action movie.

We the Animals

Dir: Jeremiah Zagar

It’s the 1980s. Manny, Joel and Jonah (Isaiah Kristian, Josiah Gabriel, Evan Rosado) are three biracial brothers in their tweens who live in a country home in upstate New York. Their Ma (Sheila Vand) has pale skin and long black hair – she works in a bottling plant. Pops (Raul Castillo) is Puerto Rican and looks like Freddie Mercury with his buzzed hair and black moustache. He keeps the boys’ hair buzzed short just like his, but Jonah, the youngest, has his mother’s blue eyes. Mom wants him to stay with her and never grow up and turn bad. Always stay nine years old, she says. Together the three boys run rampant around the house in the woods, though Jonah is shyer than his brothers, and afraid to go swimming.

Their playful and fun lives are interrupted by reality when Paps beats up mom, and drives away. She locks herself in her bedroom, so there’s no one to feed them. They become like wild animals exploring local stores and farms for food they can steal. On their travels they meet another kid. Dustin, who shows them their first porn videos and shares their first smokes. He’s from Phillie, and Jonah adores him. Will he and Dustin run away to somewhere they can be together?

We the Animals is an amazingly beautiful movie about growing up, as seen through a young boy’s eyes. He narrates the story, and keeps a record of everything in his secret journal along with bold crayon drawings. These drawings are animated in the film, and together with handlheld camera shots and aerial optics, we feel like we’re part of Jonah’s thoughts and dreams. The three, first-time actors are fantastic as the brothers, as are the parents.

We the Animals is a gorgeous, surreal film.

Madeline’s Madeline

Dir: Josephine Decker

Madeline (Helena Howard) is a young, biracial stage actress in NY City. She lives with her mom (Miranda July) and little brother She has her own bedroom decorated with fashion photos of models with their faces cut out and replaced by skies, clouds and sunsets. She sometimes sneaks in friends and prospective boyfriends to chat and maybe maybe more, but she’s always on the lookout for her overprotective mother… ready to intrude into her private life. But there’s a reason her mom is so intrusive. Madeline is prone to undiagnosed “episodes”, brought on by God knows what. She behaves erratically, inappropriately possibly even violent, so her mom tries not to upset her.

Currently Madeline is cast in an avant-garde stage project directed by Evangeline (Molly Parker). The actors – think yoga outfits and man buns – enter the minds of animals they imagine. It’s part acting, part movement, part dance, performed wearing masks. Evangeline is a Jungian, and longs to share in her actors’ thoughts and dreams, especially Madeline’s. She is obsessed by her, perhaps because Evangeline is pregnant and she sees Madeline as her baby (Evangeline’s unborn baby is also biracial).

So now it’s up to Madeline to negotiate her fraught relationship wihth her mother, a new one with her surrogate mom, and her inner turmoil that torments her dreams. All this while playing a version of herself in the project. Can Madeline, and the inner-Madeline she’s channelling – survive the daily stress of a scriptless production? Or is it too much for a 17 year old to handle?

Madeline’s Madeline is a semi-mystical look at the process of putting on an avant garde play. You have to accept the premise of experimental theatre to get the movie, but once you do, it works. The three main actors – supported by a group of almost mute performers – makes a great mom-daughter-mom rivalry, but Helena Howard especially stands out with her great and unpredictable acting.

Papillon, We the Animals and Madeline’s Madeline all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Tarique Qayumi about Black Kite at #TIFF17

Posted in Afghanistan, Canada, Cultural Mining, Drama, Prison, violence, War by CulturalMining.com on August 25, 2017

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

Arian is an Afghan man thrown into a dark prison cell with a murderer. His crime? Flying a kite, forbidden by religious fundamentalist in charge. It seems an easy enough thing to give up… but not for Arian. He was brought up with them, earned a living from them, met his love from them, raised a daughter through them… maybe even lost a war because of them. Kites mean freedom, beauty, fantasy, and escape. Kites are his everything.

Black Kite is a new film having its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s written and directed by Afghan-born Canadian filmmaker Tarique Qayumi. Tarique went back to war-torn Kabul to shoot this moving, fairytale drama even while suicide bombings exploded all around. The film features popular Afghan stars and incorporates lovely animated sequences and period footage woven throughout the film.

I reached Tarique in Vancouver by telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM.

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