Kick-Ass Women! Movies reviewed: Ravage, Lucky Grandma, Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Posted in Action, comedy, Crime, documentary, Drama, Gambling, Jazz, Music, New York City, Thriller, Torture, violence by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three movies – an action/thriller, a musical documentary, and a dark comedy – all featuring kick-ass women. There’s a photographer in the Appalachians pursued by killer rednecks, a grandma in Chinatown pursued by Red Dragon gangsters; and a parade of jazz singers in Rhode Island pursuing musical bliss.

Ravage

Wri/Dir: Teddy Grennan

Harper Sykes (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) is a professioinal photographer who travels the world looking for rare wildlife. She’s in the Watchatoomy valley in Virginia searching for an endangered species when she stumbles on something she isn’t supposed to see: a group of men brutally torturing a stranger in the woods. She is shocked and sickened but pauses long enough to record the awful event from behind a tree. Then jumps in her pickup and rushes to the nearest police station. But things don’t go as planned. She’s kidnapped and dragged by tow truck to a barn, and awakens to find herself barefoot, tied up and suspended from the rafters. Ravener (Robert Longstreet) is a nasty evil redneck with a gang of meth-head henchmen. (He’s a lot like the character Negan in Walking Dead, only not as menacing.) In this valley, they don’t trust outsiders. So anyone who ventures in gets tortured and fed to the hogs. And there’s no way out.

The thing is, they don’t know Harper. She’s a regular G.I. Jane, a female McGuyver who can get out of any tight situation, using whatever’s close at hand. She gradually turns herself from victim to killer, taking down her opponents one by one. She thinks she’s safe when she takes refuge in an isolated home, where a kindly old man lives (Bruce Dern). But he turns out to be as obsessed with evil torture as the rest of them. Can she ever escape from this hell-hole?

Ravage, as the title suggests is an action/vengeance/horror flick, and it’s a B-movie at best. There are plot holes, weird editing, and a silly ending. But it doesn’t matter. Dexter-Jones is great as the kick-ass Harper, who escapes from tight spaces, makes rafts out of empty barrels, drops bullets into campfires and sabotages her pursuers in ingenious ways. Really cool. The gross-outs and shock scenes are silly, but – if you don’t mind extreme violence – this is a fun flick, perfectly suitable for drive-ins.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Dir: Bert Stern

It’s 1958 in Newport Rhode Island. There’s a jazz festival set up in a vast field with an outdoor stage and wooden folding chairs in neat rows. On stage are some newcomers plus big names like Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, and Chuck Berry, playing jazz, blues and R&B. But it’s the women who really stand out. Anita O’day sings scat in Tea for Two, Big Maybelle rumbles her voice, Dinah Washington soars and Mahalia Jackson hushes the crowd whith her heartfelt gospel. This is all taking place at the Newport Jazz Festival in a posh summer resort with the Americas Cup – sailboats and yachts – floating past in the water.

The concert is captured on film without commentary, playing songs we’ve all heard before, but the camera doesn’t stick to the stage. Equal time is given to the audience: girls in pearls, boys in nautical ware, middle aged men in black knee socks, women in straw hats and cardigans, all unconsciously cool. College kids drinking Rheingold beer and making out in the shadows, couples dancing in the grass and hipsters nodding their heads on the off-beat. Model T Fords carrying a Dixieland jazz band sputters past, with experimental musicians jamming in the attic of an old wooden house. Everything’s captures on film, now completely restored with glowing orange klieg lights, bright red lipstick, rippling blue waves. It’s a concert and also a documentary that perfectly captures this slice of time. Something to watch and relax to on a hot summer’s day…

Lucky Grandma

Co-Wri/Dir: Sasie Sealy

Grandma (Tsai Chin) is a retired and elderly widow who lives alone in a cramped apartment in New York’s Chinatown. She likes aqua fitness, smoking cigarettes, and sipping congee. Her son wants her to move to their house in the suburbs and spend time with her noisy grandkids. It’s not safe living alone in the city, he says. But she’s stubborn, and wants to stay on familiar ground. Life’s tough but at least it’s hers. And things change when her fortune teller insists there’s a huge streak of good luck coming her way on the 28th. And when she wins an unexpected sweepstakes, she knows the odds really are on her side.

So she withdraws all her cash and goes to a casino to wager everything on number 8. She wins and wins and wins again. Until, at a game of blackjack she loses it all – tens of thousands – to old Mr Lin. It doesn’t make sense. But when Lin drops dead in her lap on the bus back home, luck is on her side again. She takes back the duffel bag of cash and sneaks home. Looks like she can finally retire in luxury.

But word gets out and Red Dragon gangsters start dropping by uninvited in her apartment to intimidate her. But she won’t give in their tactics. Instead she hires Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha) a huge but simple-minded bodyguard from a rival gang. But things start to heat up, bullets fly and now everyone seems to be after Grandma’s cash (which she insists she doesn’t have). IS this old lady stubborn enough and tough enough to fend off deadly killers? Or has she bit off more than she can chew?

Before I saw Lucky Grandma, judging by the poster I was expecting a cute, slapstick, throwaway comedy. So I was pleasantly surprised by how good a movie this actually is. It’s a low-key, but funny, realistic and poignant picture of life in Chinatown. And this is because of the star Tsai Chin, who gives a nuanced, perfect performance. Every line is just right. Who is Tsai Chin? She’s been a star since the late 50s with a hit single in HK in 1961, was a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice, appeared in Antonioni’s Blow Up, starred in countless plays in London’s west end, and was Auntie Lindo in the Joy Luck Club. Now, in her late eighties, she’s as good as ever. Don’t miss Tsai Chin in this really good, Chinese-language American movie.

You can watch Jazz on a Summer’s Day on virtual cinema at Hot Docs, Lucky Grandma is now on digital and VOD, and you can see Ravage at drive-ins across Ontario; 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.

Sublime mainstream. Films reviewed: Tainted, Fisherman’s Friends, Volition

Posted in Canada, Crime, drugs, Fishing, Music, Nazi, Organized Crime, Time Travel, UK, Vancouver, Vengeance, violence by CulturalMining.com on July 10, 2020

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

Theatres are still closed indefinitely, but does that mean you can only watch movies at home? No! Drive-ins are making a big comeback, and in Toronto the Lavazza Drive-in Film Fest is running a different international film each night at Ontario Place beginning July 20-31, thanks to the Italian Contemporary Film Fest.

This week I’m looking at three mainstream movies; two from Canada and one from the UK. There’s a record exec who finds sea shanties sublime; a former hit man who wants to leave his life of crime; and a man who can read the future who wants to change time.

Tainted

Wri/Dir: Brent Cote

It’s a small city in north Ontario. Lance (Alan van Sprang) is a nice guy with a bad reputation. He used to be a hitman who could take down a rival gang unarmed. He took the fall for the Russian mob and did 15 years in Millhaven, but now he’s on the straight and narrow. No more killing, no more gangs. He keeps to himself in his low-rent apartment, listening to ancient blues singers on a portable record player. The only person he talks to is Anna (Sara Waisglass: Degrassi) a lonely musician who lives down the hall and sings at a local dive bar. But when there’s a massacre of Russian gangsters by Aryan Nations, he’s called in to even the score. You see, he’s the only one who can infiltrate the neo-nazi gang, due to the enormous swastika still tattooed on his chest.

In exchange, Gregor (John Ralston) – a small-time Finnish drug runner who operates out of his wife’s pastry bakery – promises to leave him alone forever, along with a wad of cash and a forged passport so he can just disappear. He does the job. But when they try to bring innocent Anna – the only person he feels for – into the gang war, he becomes a burning stick of dynamite that the Russians, the Finns and the neo-nazis all want to kill. But who will survive?

Tainted is an excellent action- thriller about an expert hitman trying to leave his tainted past, who finds himself sucked into the criminal spiral he wants to escape. It’s set among the mean streets of Sault Ste Marie as the opiate dealers fight for dominance. It’s tense, bitter and hardboiled, filled with choreographed fight sequences in warehouses, parking lots and dive bars. If you’re in the mood for some violent noir, this one is a cut above.

Fisherman’s Friends

Dir: Chris Foggin

It’s 2010 in St Isaac’s a small fishing village in Cornwall, known for its lobsters, a rustic pub, and Cornish patriotic sentiments. Danny (Daniel Mays) is a record exec who specializes in boy bands. He’s there on a daytrip with his work pals for some gambling and boozing on a yacht. The boat doesn’t show, so they spend the day exploring the ancient port and stumble upon a group of fishermen singing sea shanties in the local square. His boss orders him to sign the fishermen up for a record contract, and don’t come back to London until the deals done. The singers aren’t interested, and his own boss just meant it as a joke.

But Danny is stubborn. He moves into a bed and breakfast run by Rowan (Tuppence Middleton) a young single mom who doesn’t like him at all. (What’s a tosser, mum? asks the little girl). Rowan’s dad, Jim (James Purefoy) can’t stand him – and he’s one of the singing sailors Danny wants to represent. Can he win the sailors trust and sign them up? And would anyone, anywhere want to listen to middle aged fisherman singing old songs?

Fisherman’s Friends (like the throat lozenges) is a cute family drama about a cynical Londoner finding authenticity in a working-class small town. It’s a bit formulaic – think Kinky Boots, Made in Dagenham, or Pride – but it works. There’s music, local folklore – never wear green or say the word rabbit on a fishing boat – and even a bit of romance.

One thing: I’m no expert on Cornish accents but why did some of the actors sound like pirates? And I mean Pirates of the Caribbean not Pirates of Penzance. (Aaaargh!). Never mind that, Fisherman’s Friends is a funny, pleasant and palateable movie, a real crowd-pleaser.

Volition

Co-Wri/Dir: Tony Dean Smith

James (Adrian Glynn McMorran) is a 30-year-old who rents a room above a body shop in East Vancouver. He’s an alcoholic gambler, perpetually in debt with no ambition. He does have one unique talent, though: precognition. He can predict the future. It comes to him in a series of dream-like, disconnected visions. And he writes them down on a calendar to try to make sense of them. Ocassionally it’s useful, like when he saves a woman named Angela (Magda Apanowicz) from being attacked in an alley – she ends up crashing at his place. So he’s not surprised when he’s called in by low-level mobster named Ray (John Cassini) for a big job. He knows about James’s special skills. Ray’s uneasy about a stolen sack of cut diamonds he’s passing on to a buyer – is it a set up? – so he asks James to hold onto the jewels for 24 hours until he gets a vision guaranteeing Ray’s safety. In exchange James will get 100K solving all his problems.

Problem is Ray’s own henchmen are the one’s trying to double-cross him. When things go south, James and Angela’s jump into a car to escape. Now the gangsters are chasing him and a mystery man steals all the diamonds. But his visions keep getting stranger and stranger… until he makes a shocking discovery: he can physically relocate to the past in order to change the present. Can James manipulate events to save his and Angela’s life? Or will time travel be his undoing?

Volition is a gritty science- fiction mystery thriller, filled with unexpected plot turns. It really pulls you in with new twists and constant suprises. It has a tight script and small cast, set among the gritty working class neighbourhoods of BC. If you like fast-moving crime dramas and time-travel stories, you’ll love Volition.

Volition, Fisherman’s Friends and Tainted all open this week 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 Stephen McHattie and Bruce McDonald about Dreamland

Posted in Addiction, Canada, Crime, drugs, Jazz, Kidnapping, Music, psychedelia, violence by CulturalMining.com on June 5, 2020

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

A once-great jazz trumpeter in his declining years is in a European capital to play a private performance at a royal wedding – a simple gig for the money. Minor problem is, he’s a junkie, prone to OD-ing before a performance. Major problem is there’s a gangster who wants to see him dead or at least injured before the wedding. And the hitman assigned to his case? It’s his doppelganger! Throw in a vampire and a kidnapped 14-year-old girl and the world starts to spin out of control. Can he ever escape this dreamland from hell?

Dreamland is a new fantasy/ comedy/drama film with a good bit of horror thrown in. It stars Stephen McHattie in the two lead roles and is directed by Bruce McDonald. Stephen is known on stage and screen for his sketchy hardboiled characters, from Watchmen to Come to Daddy. Bruce is a prize-winning chronicler of Canada’s rough underbelly, on TV and film, from Roadkill to Weirdos, known for his punk sensibility and hard-core tastes. They made the cult classic Pontypool together back in 2008 about zombies attacking a radio station.

I spoke to Stephen and Bruce at their respective homes via Zoom.

Dreamland is now playing VOD across Canada.

Canadian Film Day! Movies reviewed: The Decline, The Grey Fox

Posted in 1900s, Canada, Conspiracy Theory, Crime, Quebec, Romance, Snow, Thriller, Trains, violence, Western, Wilderness by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2020

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

It’s spring film festival season in Toronto, but all the theatres are closed… or are they? It’s actually possible to enjoy new movies without ever leaving your home. Images Film Festival went digital this year for the first time, showing art as moving images, not projected on a screen or in an art gallery, but transferred onto your home device. They live-streamed, both movies and dialogues with the artists. National Canadian Film Day (April 22) continues through the week in virtual cinemas throughout the country. This lets you support your local theatres and enjoy new and classic Canadian films. So this week I’m looking at two Canadian movies to celebrate National Film Day. There’s a fugitive looking for love in the Rockies, and a survivalist looking for refuge in Northern Quebec.

The Decline (Jusqu’au déclin)

Dir: Patrice Laliberté

Antoine (Guillaume Laurin) is a happily married man with a young daughter in Montreal. They’re survivalists, intent on preparing for an unknown, unpredictable apocalypse. He knows something terrible is coming he; just doesn’t know what form it will take. So he diligently studies lessons on youtube, and practices late night escapes with his family, just in case. He’s thrilled when a legendary survivalist named Alain (Réal Bossé) invites him up north to visit his compound, and study under the master.

Alain’s estate is everything he hoped for. There’s a geodesic greenhouse, huge storage lockers, and a cosy wooden cabin to sleep in. The forest is bountiful, filled with deer and rabbits – more meat than they could eat. Alain is recruiting the best and the brightest to join him in his utopia. But secrecy and security are top priorities; mustn’t let the unbelievers – or the government – know about this vast hideaway. It would ruin their paradise. So he and the other trainees gladly give up their cel phones and cars. Up here travel is done on foot or by skidoo.

And it’s not just Antoine and Alain. There are others, both first timers, like Rachel (Marie-Evelyne Lessard) a hard-ass army vet; and devotees like Dave (Marc Beaupré) an arrogant douche with a hint of bloodlust in his manner. The snowy woods have paths and roads heading in all directions to confuse outsiders. And there are active snares and booby traps to catch animals (and maybe people). This elite crew trains as hard at hunting and trapping as they do at shooting and self defense. But when the lessons turn to explosive devices, something goes wrong and a member is badly hurt. If they go to a hospital will that reveal their plans? But they can’t just let a person die… can they? Which is more important – safety or secrecy? The group splits up, and the two opposing sides soon find themselves in an all-out war. Who will survive – the newbies or the hardliners?

The Decline is a good, taut action/thriller set in northern Quebec. It’s exciting and surprising. It’s shot in the winter, in stark snowy forests where they have to fight each other but also icy rivers and steep rocky hillsides. Man vs Man (and women) and Man vs Nature. And it shows how things that look fun and exciting on conspiracy-theory websites can prove to be much more sinister in real life. Ths film seems particularly appropriate in the midst of a pandemic.

The Grey Fox

DIr: Phillip Borsos

Bill Miner (Richard Farnsworth) is a pioneer of sorts in the old west. He robs the famed Pony Express and makes his fortune stealing from stage coaches. He is known as the “Gentleman Bandit” taking the loot without firing a shot. But eventually the law catches up to him and he’s locked away in San Quentin. He emerges decades later, older, wiser and grey. But has he learned his lesson? He gets work picking oysters in Washington State, but it just isn’t his style. So he makes his way north on horseback to British Columbia. And on the way he catches his first movie, Thomas Edison’s 12 minute smash hit: The Great Train Robbery! He hires Shorty (Wayne Robson) as a henchman and looks up an old prison buddy named Jack (Ken Pogue) in Kamloops. His goal? To become Canada’s first train robber.

He bides his time, settling into an ordinary life in smalltown BC. There he makes two unexpected friends. Sgt Fernie (Timothy Webber) is a Dudley Do-right Provincial policeman who likes and respects this newcomer. And then there’s Kate (Jackie Burroughs). She’s a feminist firebrand, ahead of her time. She’s middle-aged, unmarried, alone – and loving it. No man is keeping her down. She works as a professional photographer. They meet by chance when he hears her listening to opera music on a hillside. Sparks fly and they become lovers… but will he ever reveal his secret past? Meanwhile, the dreaded Pinkerton private detectives have crossed the border looking for him. Can Bill Miner pull of his final heist? Does Sgt Fernie know his friend’s a robber? Will the Pinkerton’s catch him? And can he and Kate stay together?

The Grey Fox is a classic Canadian movie from the early 80s shot on location in the Canadian Rockies, complete with real steam engines and horses before stunning mountain sunsets. Farnsworth and the much-missed Jackie Burroughs make for an atypical, sweet couple. It’s based on a true story, but The Grey Fox’s nostalgic feel comes not from evoking the old west but rather by harkening back to a gentler and more idealistic 1980s Canada.

The Decline is streaming on Netflix. You can watch The Grey Fox on your TV, computer, phone or device until April 30, in a virtual cinema benefitting independent theatres from Charlottetown to Victoria including Toronto’s Revue Cinema. Go to filmmovement.com/virtual-cinema for more information.  

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 Jamhil X.T. Qubeka about Knuckle City

Posted in Academy Awards, Africa, Boxing, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Family, South Africa, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 10, 2020

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

It’s Mdantsane, Cape Province, in Apartheid South Africa. A boxing champ tells his young sons Duke and Dudu that there are three ways out of their township: as a boxer, as a mobster, or as a dead man. Flash forward to the present day; their father is dead, and the boys have taken divergent paths. Duke is a flamboyant career criminal just out of prison and Dudu – AKA the Night Rider – is a professional boxer in the twilight of his career. But there’s still a chance at becoming a champion. Can they turn things around? Or will they just be the latest casualties at Knuckle City?

Knuckle City is the name of an exciting new boxing / crime drama out of South Africa. This fast-moving, visceral movie dives deep into the nexus between those two worlds as personified by the brothers, their families and friends. Knuckle City is directed by Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, who has won countless awards across Africa, Europe, and North America. The film had its international premier at TIFF and was South Africa’s nominee for Best International Feature Film Oscar.

I spoke to Jahmil in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM during #TIFF19.

Knuckle City is opening soon.

Climb every mountain. Films reviewed: Abominable, Monos

Posted in Animation, Canada, China, Colombia, Kids, Tibet, Uncategorized, violence, War by CulturalMining.com on September 27, 2019

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

The majesty and beauty of mountains makes some people stare in awe, while others see it as a personal goal – something to climb, claim or conquer. This week I’m looking at two new movies about mountains. There’s a group of kids in China on their way to a mountain as they protect a mythical beast; and a group of kids in Colombia holding a hostage on top of a mountain as they fight an inner beast.

Abominable

Dir: Jill Culton, Todd Wilderman

Yi is a teen who lives with her mom and her grandmother Nai-Nai in a downtown Shanghai apartment. She’s saving the money from three parttime jobs to travel across China in the path of her late father, a musician. But her life is turned upside down when an enormous furry creature appeared on her roof. He has white hair, a huge mouth and pale blue eyes that stare longingly at a nearby billboard advertising Mount Everest. It’s his home, and he wants to go back.

Standing in his path are Mr Burnish a billionaire CEO, and a zoological scientist named Zara. Everest is a Yeti, the legendary Tibetan creature, never captured until Beamish enterprizes nabbed him. They want their specimen back, dead or alive. But Yi has other plans. Along with her two neighbours – the selfie-obsessed Jin and the basketball dribbler Peng – they set out on a journey across China. Can they save Everest and bring him back to his homeleand? Or will they all end up captives in a corporate lab in Shanghai?

Abominable is a fun and exciting animated movie for little kids. It’s full of cultural references, from the classic Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West (西遊記), to the classic ’80s film ET: Yi lures the creature with a trail of steamed dumplings instead of Reece’s Pieces, and the alien creature is “Yeti” not “E.T.”. But it’s also fun and original in its own right, with exciting magic, humour, action and the sentimental bits you need to make it worthwhile. I saw it with an audience of small children and they loved most of it, but were frightened when it looked like the heroes were going to die (Spoiler Alert: they don’t die… ’cause it’s a kids movie!)

Voices include Chloe Bennet (Crazy Rich Asians) as Yi, and Tenzing Norgay Trainor as Jin. Fun fact: if the name sounds familiar it’s because he’s the grandson of Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali-Tibetan Sherpa who climbed Mt Everest with Edmond Hillary.

Abominable is fun movie for kids that grown ups can enjoy too.

Monos

Dir: Alejandro Landes

On a mountaintop somewhere in Colombia a multi-ethnic, multi-gendered group of “monos” – cool, cute teenagers – are fooling around. They’re stylin’ with hip hairstyles and military outfits. They play games like blindfolded soccer, where you kick a ball with bells attached, into a net that makes noise. Or one-on-one wrestling matches, combining martial arts, modern dance and Capoeira. Everyone has a nickname reflecting something about them: Smurf is young and cute, Lady is pretty, Rambo’s a fighter, Swede is light-skinned, Lobo is wolflike… plus Dog, Bigfoot, and Boom Boom. Some even pair off as couples.

Their only contact with the outside world is a staticky two-way radio and a diminutive, muscular man who visits them every so often. He’s from The Organization, a cryptic paramilitary group fighting the government. Their assignment is to guard an American woman they call Doctora. The girls braid her hair and the boys invite her to play in their games. The problem is she’s a hostage of The Organization, and a potential source of power and money. So when things go wrong, the monos take sides and start fighting each other. And when the enemy bombards them with missiles. things turn into a co-ed Lord Of The Flies. Can they stick together in peace and harmony? Or will outside pressure, internal divisions, and harsh military culture lead to harm and even death?

Monos is an aesthetically beautiful look at a period of violence and death in Colombia. The ensemble cast play it as part melodrama, part dance performance, plotted against breathtakingly lush scenery. From sexualized wrestling, to scenes of struggle filmed underwater, to an exquisite pantomime of soldiers walking in the jungle covered in different colours of mud, this highly-stylized movie is as pretty as a Vogue fashion spread, but just realistic enough that you care about the kids and their fate.

Good movie.

Monos starts today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and Abominable also opens 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.

Wedding or Wetting? Films reviewed: Fiddler: A Miracles of Miracles, Aquarela, Ready or Not

Posted in documentary, Horror, Movies, Musical, Russia, Thriller, Ukraine, violence by CulturalMining.com on August 23, 2019

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

There’s a great movie series on right now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, highlighting a rarely screened cohort, one I’ve been covering for the past decade: contemporary Arab Women Filmmakers. It features movies from places like Lebanon, Algeria, Palestine and Tunisia, and cover a wide range of genres from avant garde to docs to dramas. Well worth seeing.

This week I’m looking at three movies, two docs and a comic thriller horror. – there’s a milkman worried about his daughters’ wedding; a bride whose inlaws want her dead after her wedding; and melting glaciers, waterfalls and hurricanes wetting everybody.

Fiddler: A Miracles of Miracles

Dir: Max Lewkowicz

In 1964, a new musical about a Jewish milk man in Czarist Russia, opened on Broadway to little fanfare. With songs by Jerry Bockand Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein it was based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye and his Five Daughters and their neighbours in a shtetl. It was a risky venture with little hope if a widespread audience. Little did they know that Fiddler on the Roof would become one of the most popular musicals ever staged, with productions staged somewhere in the world until today.

This is a deep dive documentary that delves into everything there is to know about Fiddler on the Roof: is it a feminist fable? Jewish nostalgia? Is it about the American dream? The immigrant experience? And lots of esoteric news. Did you know the title came not from Sholem Aleichem stories but from a painting by Marc Chagal? That it’s wildly popular in Japan for its Japeneseness? Or that Zero Mostel (the original Tevye) was in a feud with director Jerome Robbin notorious for his perfectionism and slave driving style, but Mostel hated Robbins for a different reason. They were both called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee (the Macarthy hearings). Mostel stood up to them and refused to cooperate – and was blacklisted for years because of it. Robbins named names – gave them a list of suspected communists – not because of the Red Scare but because of the Lavender purge: he worried they’d reveal he’s gay.

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a fascinating documentary, full of interviews and stage footage and photos from the various productions over the past half century. It even plays songs you’ve probably never heard – they were cut from early versions. If you’re a theatre buff, this one’s a must see.

Aquarela

Dir: Viktor Kossakovsky

It’s Lake Baikal in Siberia. For some reason a team of men are digging holes into the frozen crust. Why? Because the usually solid ice melted early and cars crossing the lake are being swallowed up. The rescue team is there to save unsuspecting drivers. Then Boom! You’re on a sailboat navigating between drifting icebergs. And then you’re in the middle of a hurricane destroying an American city. Aquarela is a meditative collage of images of ice and water, turning on a dime to new locations across the globe. No explanations are given, no voiceovers no talking heads here, just a series of images tell their own stories, some slow and contemplative, others violent and arresting, as nature takes its toll. While not explicitly about climate change, when you see and hear glaciers calving mammoth icebergs which bob in the ocean like dinosaurs, you can’t help think about the meltdowns happening right now from greenland to Tuktoyaktuk.

Aquarela is shot at high speed ninety six frames per second, giving the doc an intense visual effect. It starts extremely slow, but this unusual documentary gradually switches to faster and faster images in a visual symphony. It may be a little slow and hard to comprehend, but it’s more than a week since I saw it, and it’s images are still haunting my dreams.

Ready or Not

Dir: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett

Grace (Samara Weaving) is a young woman raised by foster parents and who has never had a family to call her own. So when she meets Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brian) she wants to be a part of his family in every way. It doesn’t hurt that they’re filthy rich. So after an 18-month bone-a-thon, they decide to get married. And all of Alex’s eccentric family are there: big brother Daniel (Adam Brody) his dad and mom (Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell), various coke-snorting siblings and inlaws, and even his hate-filled Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni)

The Le Domas family made their vast fortune from playing cards, board games, and pro sports teams. They love games. So it’s no surprise that family tradition says a new bride or groom has to play a game on their wedding night. The big surprise? The rules to the game – its hide-and-seek – say she hides and the rest of the family has until dawn to find her and kill her. Why is thefamily doing this to her? Will her husband protect her? And can she ever escape from this nightmare?

Ready or not is a horror thriller with darkly comic undertones. It’s full of satirical jabs at a truly evil family of one percenters, while still being interesting enough to care when characters kill or are killed. Aussie actor Samara Weaving is terrific as the strong female lead – a Buffy the Vampure skater without special powers – , who has to transform herself from blushing bride to road warrior in a manner of minutes. It’s shot in and around a mansion in Ottawa as she t makes her way out of windows and down hidden passages. Warning: this movie is quite violent and gory, but it’s light tone keeps you watching. I liked this movie.

Fiddler: A Miracles of Miracles opens today at the Rogers Hot Docs Cinema, with Aquarela playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; Ready or Not is playing now 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.

Dogs and toys. Films reviewed: Child’s Play, Paris is Burning, Dogman

Posted in 1980s, Animals, Crime, documentary, Drama, Horror, Italy, Kids, LGBT, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 21, 2019

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

Pets, toys and dressing up are the innocent parts of childhood that supply endless bouts if nostalgic memories. That’s also what makes them useful fodder for shocking or surprising scenes in adult movies. This week I’m looking at three movies – a horror, a doc and a drama. There are drag balls run by fashion houses, a dog kennel run inside a house, and a kid’s toy ruining another kid’s home.

Child’s Play

Dir: Lars Klevberg

Andy (Gabriel Bateman) is a hearing-impaired kid who has just moved into a low-rent apartment. No dad, no friends, no one to keep him company except a mean old cat. His mom (the hilarious Aubrey Plaza) is trying her best to raise him, but her thankless job in a big box store takes up most of her time. So when a disgruntled customer returns a defective new toy – a first-generation robot named Buddi – she sneaks it home and gives it to Andy as an early birthday present. Buddi – who calls himself Chucky – is the ultimate high tech best friend. Like Siri or Alexa, Chucky records everything Andy says or does and adjusts his personality to suit it. Problem is, this particular toy has a defect – it’s missing the digital safeguards that stop it from things like using foul language.

Andy starts to make friends with people in his building, like Detective Mike (a hapless cop who visits his elderly mother down the hall) and juvenile delinquents Pugg and Falyn. Together, they watch campy slasher movies on TV, laughing at the gory parts. But what they don’t realize is Chucky takes in everything at face value. Lacking a moral compass, the robotic toy sees that violence makes Andy happy, so he begins to replicate the actions just to please his best friend.

And as the unexplained dead bodies start to pile up, it’s up to Andy to stop the toy from killing everyone around him. Will anyone believe Andy that a kid’s toy is actually a homicidal maniac? And is Andy strong enough to stop him?

Child’s Play is an updated remake of the classic horror movie from the 1980s and its many sequels… and I think this version is even better. In the original, a voodoo spell puts an adult criminal’s evil soul into a kid’s inanimate doll who cynically manipulates the hapless child. But in this version Chucky is an actual robotic kid who genuinely wants to please his best friend, but is missing the parts that tell right from wrong. It’s also a cautionary tale about the dangers of the rampant technology, surveillance, and artificial intelligence controlled by huge corporations. It is also hilarious, with great acting, and horrifically grotesque scenes used for comic effect. It includes constant pop culture references, from Tupac to driverless cars. Child’s Play is a perfect dose of schlock for a Saturday night.

I liked this one a lot.

Paris is Burning

Dir: Jennie Livingston

If you’re looking for a way to celebrate LGBTTQQIAAP Pride Day with a movie, you cannot do better than watching the documentary Paris is Burning. Shot in the late 1980s when HiV was decimating the gay community, this movie shows the drag balls run in NY City by various competitive houses. It is shot from the inside, not as exploitation but as celebration of the players. It features the queens and kings of drag, mainly black and brown people, back when their world was kept down low. Since this film was made, many of its subjects have died of plague or were murdered on the streets (black and brown transwomen are  particularly vulnerable to violence.) These are people who have had an enormous influence on mainstream TV, music, fashion, language and culture.

Paris is Burning is definitely one of the ten best documentaries ever made, so if you have a chance, be sure to check out this newly-restored 4K version.

Dogman

Dir: Matteo Garrone

Marcello (Marcello Fonte) is a hardworking, dimunitive man in his thirties who lives in a run-down section of Naples. He is dark, wiry and scruffy. Marcelo is own as the Dogman, also the kennel where he cares for and grooms dogs. He is a respected member of the local business association and shares drinks with the other men in the piazza. And he hangs out with his best friend Simone (Eduardo Pesce). But friend ship doesn’t clearly describe their relationship.

Simone is a musclebound bruiser, a competitive boxer and cokehead twice Marcelo’s size. He bullies him, steals from him and forces him into embarrassing and often dangerous situations. Marcelo regards him with equal parts fear and awe. Simone is a selfstyled gangsta who needs a constant flow of cash to fuel his extravagent tastes and drug habit. Marcelo plays along, lending a hand for petty burglary in expensive mansions. But when Simone wants him to rob a shop in his own neighbourhood, he has to take a stand. Can Marcelo use his skill with animals to stop Simone from ruining his life? Or will this alpha dog prove to be too big to tame?

Dogman is a terrific drama, Matteo Garrone’s latest, about the period of unequal friendship of two men and tied to local loyalty. It’s funny tender, surprising and moving. Like all of Garrone’s movies, it’s shot on location in the same poor Naples neighbourhood, and with lots of local faces and dialect. Many of the roles are played by non-actors which gives it a gritty realism you can’t always get with movie stars. This is a great film.

Paris is Burning is now playing with Dogman at the Tiff Bell Lightbox. Child’s Play also opens 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 immigration attorney Judy Wood about the new biopic Saint Judy

Posted in 2000s, Biopic, Drama, L.A., Migrants, Movies, Refugees, Resistance, Trial, US, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 14, 2019

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

It’s the early 2000s in L.A. Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan), an immigration lawyer and single mom, discovers a shocking case. A young woman – a school teacher who defied Taliban oppression in Afghanistan – is incarcerated in California awaiting deportation. But sending her back to her home village would be like a death sentence. Why isn’t she considered a refugee? Trouble is women are not a minority group, and her religion, language and nationality – Muslim and Pashtun – are the same as her oppressors. Which means she’s not a “persecuted minority” and doesn’t qualify for asylum. What can she do?

Saint Judy is a new biopic based on real events that tells the story of this important trial. It centres on Judy Wood, an immigration lawyer – still practising in LA – who changed the Law of Asylum.

I spoke to Judy in Los Angeles via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Saint Judy has its Canadian Premier on Thursday, June 20 in Oakville, and its Toronto VOD launch on Friday, June 21 at the Revue Cinema in a benefit for Sistering.  Judy Wood will appear in panel discussionsat both screenings.

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Eccentric. Films reviewed: Ruben Brandt Collector, Greta, A Bread Factory

Posted in Animation, Art, Crime, Family, Movies, Mystery, psychedelia, Psychological Thriller, Psychopaths, Theatre, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 1, 2019

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

It’s March and Toronto’s spring film festival season has begun. The Irish Film Fest is on this weekend, and the WTF Fest starts showing “eccentric movies” at the Royal Cinema today. In this case, WTF stands for What the Film – great stuff. Also opening is What Walaa Wants, the NFB doc about a young Palestinian woman who wants to be a cop. Also opening is Gaspar Noe’s amazing film Climax, a movie that includes a fantastic dance performance and a stunning title sequence… followed by a horrific panoply of drug-addled sex and violence.

Keeping with the theme of the strange and unusual, this week I’m looking at offbeat movies with eccentric characters. There’s a a French widow with a yen for pocketbooks, a psychotherapist keeps fine art front and centre; and a two older women who want to save their arts centre from falling apart.

Ruben Brandt Collector

Wri/Dir: Milorad Krstic

Dr Ruben Brandt is a psychoanalyst obsessed by art. He lives and works in an isolated alpine chalet where he treats his rich but troubled clients, including a banker with an eating problem, and a former bodyguard.

Meanwhile Mike Kowalsky, a private detective from Washington DC, is in Paris chasing Mimi, a notorious cat burglar down the city streets. She’s carrying a priceless Egyptian artifact. But he can’t catch her; the former circus acrobat is just too fast. Mimi tracks down Dr Brandt and visits his clinic. She wants to get rid of her kleptomania, She can’t stop stealing. But in a strange turn of events, patients turn to doc tors and doctors to patients. You see, Dr Brandt is plagued with halucinations of people in famous paintings. Is Venus in Boticelli’s painting trying to kill him? How about Warhol’s double Elvis? Brandt’s patients, including Mimi, decide the only way to save their doctor is to steal all the paintings that obsess him. They begin a series of elaborate heists of the world’s best known paintings from the most famous galleries. Can Kowalsky solve the puzzle and catch the culprits? Or will Ruben Brandt, the art collector, triumph?

Ruben Brandt Collector is a simple, silly story told with amazing animated images. It feels like a cartoon guide to Janson’s History of Art… on acid. Characters are portrayed as cubists, as two-faced januses, or as two-dimensional pieces of paper. The plot may be flat and inconsequential but the animated art and psychedelic imagery sticks with you.

Greta

Wri/Dir: Neil Jordan (The Crying Game)

Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is depressed. She’s a recent college grad who works as a server in a fancy Manhattan restaurant. She shares a spacious condo with her best friend Erica (Maika Monroe) whose dad gave it to her as a gift. Ever since her mom died, Frances can’t have fun; she never seems to go out anymore. But her attitude changes when she finds a designer purse that someone left on a subway. Finally, she can do a good deed. Using the ID, she takes it to its owner’s home. Greta (Isabelle Huppert), is an older woman, a widow, who lives in an isolated cottage. Her home is like a piece of France right in the middle of NY city. She plays Chopin and bakes cookies.

It’s like at first sight. Greta needs someone to spend time with since her daughter moved away and Frances misses her mother terribly. They go for walks in Central Park, share intimate meals at her home, and even adopt a dog to keep Greta company. Greta worries Frances will go away, just like her daughter. Don’t worry Greta, I’m like chewing gum – I’ll stick around. Imagine, such good friends meeting at random.

But… everything changes when Frances discovers Greta’s secret. That “lost purse” wasn’t actually lost! Greta placed it there so they would meet. Is Greta just desperately lonely? A con artist? Or is she a psychopath? Even when Frances cuts off all contact with her Greta keeps showing up wherever she goes. She’s a stalker who can’t be stopped. Will Frances ever forgive her? And will Greta leave her alone?

Greta starts as a conventional drama but turns into an unexpected psychological thriller. It feels like a classic Grimm’s fairytale, with an innocent girl lured into a witch’s lair. Though not her best performance, Isabelle Huppert is credible as the (potential) villain, though Chloe Grace Moretz is wasted as the victim. It’s hard to picture Moretz as a helpless scaredycat. Greta is OK as a run of the mill, cat-and-mouse thriller, but it could have been so much more.

A Bread Factory

Wri/Dir: Patrick Wang (I interviewed him in 2012)

The Bread Factory is an arts centre in a small town on the Hudson Valley. Formerly an industrial bakery, it’s where the post-industrial townfolks go to see a movie, put on a play or attend a poetry reading. It’s been run by Dorothea and Greta (Tyne Daly, Elizabeth Henry) for more than 40 years. At the moment there are filmmaking lessons for little kids by an auteur (Janeane Garofalo); a greek tragedy starring an elderly shakesperean actor, and a Chekhov-like drama in production. It’s a hotbed of creativity and community life.

But everything is put at risk when a strange new group arrives in town. They are a pair of performers/conceptual artists known as May + Ray (Janet Hsieh, George Young), a sort of a Blue Man Group. They are vaguely associated with China, have a large international following, their videos are on youtube, and they even have a catchy logo on the T-shirts and totebags they sell. The problem is their work is shallow and pointless. And more important, the town school board is thinking of transfering all arts spending from The Bread Factory to May + Ray.

Can the town artists and performers save the bread factory? Or will corporate interests triumph?

A Bread Factory sounds ordinary but it’s actually a great movie. I really liked it. Dozens of characters and a complex, twisted plot manages to keep you interested but not distracted, with each storyline and character carefully constructed and allowed to develop. There’s a teenager (Zachary Sayle) interning at the town paper, a kid who functions as the projectionist (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a critic and an actor who hold a 50 year grudge… and many more. It feels like a great John Sayles movie.

I’ve only seen the first two hours (Part 1) so far but now I can’t wait to see Part 2.

A Bread Factory is a delightful treat.

Greta and Ruben Brandt Collector both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. A Bread Factory is playing this weekend at the WTF Festival at the Royal Cinema.

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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