Friends divorce, killer nurse, even worse. Films reviewed: Decision to Leave, The Good Nurse, The Banshees of Inisherin

Posted in 1920s, comedy, Crime, Ireland, Korea, Mystery, Thriller, violence by CulturalMining.com on October 29, 2022

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

It’s Halloween weekend, with lots of good scary movies playing now, but if you’re staying home, you check out the streamer Shudder, with some of the coolest indie horror and fantasy movies out there. Or if you’re on Netflix, check out Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, his new anthology series of well-made, one-hour dramas.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies, all of which I saw this year at TIFF. There’s an Irish friendship threatened with divorce, a killer who may be a nurse, and a detective obsessed with a suspect who may be a killer… or worse.

Decision to Leave

Co-Wri/Dir: Park Chan-wook

Hae jun (Park Hae-il) is a homicide detective in Busan, Korea. He is devoted to his job, but less so to his wife, whom he only sees on weekends. She lives in Ipo, a small town with very few murders. In comparison, Busan is a veritable hotbed of organized crime, drugs and violence. But one unusual case catches his attention: a middle aged mountain-climbing enthusiast who fell to his death from an especially steep cliff. it seems to be a cut and dry accident, except for his widow’s reaction, she barely had one.  He decides to follow her, stake her out and surveil and record her every movement. The widow Seo-rae (Tang Wei) is a femme fatale, young, beautiful, and exotic in his eyes (she’s originally from China.) And unknown to him, she gets off on being followed and watched. His obsession shifts from interrogation to first-hand contact and eventually to a passionate, clandestine affair. He later moves to the quiet town of Ipo to be with his wife. But when he discovers Seo-rae lives there too, and is remarried to very rich man, his suspicions are raised. Is she a killer or just an innocent woman? And will seeing her again lead to trouble?

Decision to Leave is a fast-moving and stylish police thriller, told with an absurdist touch.  It never takes itself too seriously, but it’s a lot of fun to watch. Tang Wei (who was great in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution) has a classic noir feel to her. And Park Hae-il plays the beguiled but committed police detective very well. The movie is beautifully crafted but constantly plays tricks on the viewers. It has some of the strangest shifts in point of view I’ve ever seen, including even one shot seen through the cloudy eyes of a dead fish. Which makes the movie a bit challenging to follow, but worth it.

The Good Nurse

Dir: Tobias Lindholm

Amy (Jessica Chastain) is a single mom with two cute but rambunctious young girls. She has a woman who takes care of the kids when she works late, but her patience is running out. Amy works full time as a registered nurse at a corporate hospital in New Jersey. She also has a heart condition, which requires major surgery. But if the hospital finds out about her pre-existing condition before she finishes her probationary period, she’ll be let go. enter Charlie (Eddie Redmayne) a kindly inoffensive nurse who just transferred from another hospital. He helps her out, covering for her when she faints at work, and volunteering to help with her kids. He’s divorced with kids himself so he’s good with children.

But things start to go wrong at the hospital. Patients are dying for no good reason. And when the police come to investigate, they are stonewalled by the hospital management, who refuse to cooperate. But two of the patients died on Amy’s shift, so she needs to find out what happened. Like why did an otherwise healthy senior die of a suddenly skyrocketing insulin level? And what about a little kid? All of the patients are in hospital for a reason, but that’s not how they died. The more she investigates, the more it looks like good ol’ Charlie is somehow connected. Can she figure out why the patients are dying and who is responsible? Or will this put her and her family in danger?

The Good Nurse is a mystery thriller, based on a true story. It’s two hours long, and it doesn’t get good till near the end of the first hour. I saw this movie at TIFF on a huge screen at Roy Thompson Hall, and I found it visually oppressive. Everything is drab and dull, grey and light blue, dim and soft focussed, with an intensely boring colour palate. All you see are institutions — hospitals and police— at their most plain and mundane. Movies are meant to be a pleasure watch, why make it so a chore to look at. (Admittedly, I saw it again on Netflix on a small screen, and it didn’t bother me visually nearly as much.) In any case, the story is good, thrilling and tense, once it picks up. Jessica Chastain is sympathetic as Amy, and Eddie Redmayne is excellent as a milquetoast guy with a dark side. If you just want to spend two hours on a true crime hospital mystery with no expectations, The Good Nurse will probably satisfy you.

The Banshees of Inisherin

Dir: Martin McDonagh

It’s 1923, on a tiny, fictional island, separated by water from the Irish civil war raging in the distance. Pádraic (Collin Farrell) is a simple man living a simple life. He plays with his miniature donkey, sells his cows’ milk to the local shop, and sleeps soundly in his cottage close to his sister Siobhan’s bed (Kerry Condon). But most important of all, is his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson). They meet each afternoon to walk to the pub and chat over beer. Which is why he is shocked and confused when Colm decides one day, not to go drinking with Pádraic. Just today? No, now and forever. Colm doesn’t want to drink with him, Colm talk with him, He doesn’t even look at him. He has wasted enough time on pointless chatter, and now wants to his life worthwhile, to do something noteworthy. Colm plays the fiddle, perhaps he can compose a great work. But Pádraic refuses to allow his best friend to just walk away. He won’t leave him.  Until Colm makes a vow: If you ever speak with me again, I will cut off one of my own fingers. And if you persist, I will cut off another and another until you leave me alone.  What’s wrong with Colm? Should Pádraic take him seriously? Is this all his own fault?

The Banshees of Inisherin is a really good dark comedy, that builds from a simple disagreement to one of increasingly dramatic reactions on each side. I’m only touching on one plot — there are also subplots involving Dom (Barry Keoghan) a simpleton who has a crush on Padraic’s sister; Mrs McCormick (Shiela Flitton) a creepy, banshee-like neighbour, as well as an abusive policeman who is also Dominic’s dad.

I’m guessing here, but maybe — even though it’s never explicitly mentioned in the movie — the story is a metaphor for the Irish Civil War, with Pádraic as the pro-treaty side who wants things to stay the same, and Colm as the IRA who wants a dramatic change even if it involves violence and loss. Or maybe it’s just director Martin McDonagh having his usual brilliant, chaotic fun with great characters, some violence and a cool political subtext. He’s known for movies like Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri… maybe this one should be called The Five Fingers of Inisherin? 

Decision to Leave is starting at the Tiff Bell Lightbox; The Banshees of Inisherin opens this weekend, check your local listings; and The Good Nurse is now screening on Netflix. 

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

War movies at #TIFF22. Films reviewed: The Inspection, The Greatest Beer Run Ever, All Quiet on the Western Front

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, 2000s, Germany, LGBT, Vietnam, violence, War, WWI by CulturalMining.com on September 17, 2022

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

When military budgets soar, and “war games” are held more frequently, when Presidents and Prime Ministers make speeches about liberty and democracy, when lots of military experts start appearing on cable news networks, rattling their sabres… it usually means governments are gearing up for war. And art imitates life. War movies — you know, the kind of films with all-male casts showing bravery and camaraderie, and lots and lots of guns, tanks and bombs — are becoming popular again.

This week I’m talking about three new war movies that had their world premieres at TIFF. There’s high schoolers in Germany who want to enlist in WWI, a guy from New York who wants to bring beer to his buddies in Vietnam, and a homeless black, gay man who wants to join the marines. 

The Inspection

Wri/Dir: Elegance Bratton

Ellis French (Jeremy Pope) is a 25-year old man who sleeps in a homeless shelter in Jersey City, NJ. His single mother (Gabrielle Union), threw him out as a teenager when he came out as gay. He spent the next 10 years living on the streets. Now he plans a new beginning: to turn his life around by joining the marines. But bootcamp is not a nurturing environment. As the sergeants say, we are going to break you all down, and if you survive it, we’ll build you back up again. The breaking down process consists of bullying and violence visited on anyone deviating the norm, be they gay, muslim or just insecure. Sgt Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), in particular, has it in for French, and seems to want kill him — literally.  Another recruit, Harvey (McCaul Lombardi) goes out of his way to make French’s life in bootcamp unbearable. Luckily he does find a few friends, including Sgt Rosales, who takes his side. Can he survive bootcamp and become a marine? And can he ever make his estranged mother proud of him again?

The inspection is based on the memoirs of the film’s writer/director Elegance Bratton. It’s a passionate and deeply-moving first film about a gay son and his fundamentalist mother, while trying to succeed in a toxic environment. There have been many movies before about life in bootcamp (especially Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket) even for a gay man (the South African film Moffie, for example) but The Inspection is still a new take. My only criticism is it seems to be, as a whole, an “oorah-oorah” celebration of military life, despite the prejudice and corruption within it. Without a negative thought, anywhere, about war itself.

The Greatest Beer Run Ever

Co-Wri/Dir: Peter Farrelly

It’s 1967 in Inwood, N.Y.,  a white, working-class neighbourhood in northern Manhattan. Chicky Donohue (Zach Efron) is a high school drop out who sleeps in everyday and during waking hours can usually be found getting drunk with his buddies at a local bar. Full of piss and vinegar, Chick has lots of big ideas but rarely follows through; no one take him seriously. Lots of his friends and neighbours either signed up or were drafted to serve in Vietnam, but his time served in the Merchant Marines exempts him. His sister marches in rallies against the Vietnam War at Columbia, but Chicky is firmly on the America, Love it Or Leave it side.

But one day, sitting at the bar with his friends, he wonders why no one is doing anything for their buddies in Nam: Minogue, Pappas, Duggan and the rest. So he boasts he’ll buy them some beer and give it to them personally. And that’s what he does — fills a duffel bag with cans of PBR, signs up on a ship headed for Saigon, and just goes there. His ship captain gives him three days to find his friends if he ever wants to leave Vietnam. The only Americans who travel in that country are journalists or military. And no one goes north into battle zones voluntarily. Except Chicky. He starts tracking them down to everyone else’s disbelief. As they say, only someone as dumb as him could survive a trip like this.

He happily passes as a CIA agent until he witnesses what they actually do (like the torture and murder of prisoners). And the Vietnamese in the countryside aren’t welcoming him with open arms — they’re terrified he’s going to murder them. And those bombers all around? They’re dropping napalm everywhere. Later he joins forces with a journalist (Russel Crowe) to discover the truth. But will he ever get the beer to his buddies and make it back alive?

The Greatest Beer Run Ever is a fun and fast-moving bro-dramedy based on a true story. It’s set during the Tet Offensive as the war escalates. It has a terrific soundtrack of 60s pop and psychedelic music. Zach Efron is good as a dumb cluck who gradually wakes up to what the war is really about. And while there are some Vietnamese characters, like most American war movies, it’s all about America. It’s hard to tell whether this film is pro-war or anti-war; rather it seems to be pro-soldiers but against the war in Vietnam and especially the lies the generals told. 

All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues)

Dir: Edward Berger

(based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque)

It’s 1917 and the world is at war. Paul Bäumer (Felix Kammerer) is a skinny student with glasses at a Catholic boys’ school in a German town. After a rousing speech by their schoolmaster — who dubs the boys “Iron Youth” — all of his classmates rush to join the fight for God, the Kaiser and the Fatherland. But Paul is still too young to enlist, so he forges a letter to sign up with his friends, looking forward to the fun and adventure that surely lies ahead. 

But once they arrive in occupied northern France, they soon discover this war consists of an endless wasteland of trenches. The “new” uniforms they’re fitted with are recycled from the bodies of dead soldiers. They are forced to train wearing horrible gas masks, and thrown into battle.  And a hellish fight it is. Paul — along with his friends Haie, Kropp, Müller, Kat and Tjaden — soon realizes that the only way they’re going home is in a coffin.

All Quiet on the Western Front is a scathing look at the machinery of war and how it uses soldiers as cannon fodder. Even while a German diplomat (Daniel Brühl) is busy negotiating armistice, the generals continue killing as many soldiers as they can until the bitter end. The film graphically shows soldiers incinerated by flame throwers, shot, bombed, stabbed by bayonets, and run over by tanks… even killed in brutal, hand-to-hand combat by the main sympathetic characters. While it provides some relief — one soldier steals a goose from a farm to the joy of his squad-mates; another falls for an art deco poster of a French woman that he sticks to the trench wall — there’s a feeling of doom pervading the entire movie. It has good acting, a soundtrack that is as brilliantly ominous as the theme from Jaws, the photography is deadly, and the makeup — soldiers’ faces coated in a deathly layer of mud and blood  — is especially striking. It’s as violent as American movies like Saving Private Ryan, or Hacksaw Ridge, but without the veneer of heroism and bravery. It shows the futility of warfare in all its enormity. This is a gruelling and shocking testament against all war and the military industrial complex.

All Quiet on the Western Front, The Inspection and The Greatest Beer Run Ever all had their world premieres at TIFF, which continues through the weekend.

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

Urban chaos. Films reviewed: Crimes of the Future, The Divide

Posted in Art, Canada, Corruption, France, Horror, LGBT, Meltdown, Police, Politics, Protest, Sex, Uncategorized, violence by CulturalMining.com on June 4, 2022

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

Spring film festival season continues in June, when the idea of sitting in an air-conditioned movie theatre starts sounding better and better. The Female Eye film fest is on next Thursday through Saturday at the TIFF Bell Lighbox, showing films by female directors. Look out for Go On and Bleed about an American draft-dodger in 1971 — it’s directed by J. Christian Hamilton, host of Dementia 13, playing psychedelic music at this station. And if you’re down California way, catch the 3rd Annual Blue Water Film Festival, celebrating the United Nations World Oceans Day, with movies about Antartica, whales, oceans.

But this week I’m looking at two new movies — both opening this weekend in Toronto — about urban chaos and society in decline. There’s a film from France about an artist and a protester seeking refuge in a hospital; and another one from Canada about an artist who treats radical surgery as performance.

Crimes of the Future

Wri/Dir: David Cronenberg

Picture a future where you don’t just sit in a chair, it latches onto you with grotesque bone-like appendages. It’s a world that diverged away from ours in the 1980s or 90s. People still carry huge clunky portable phones, they keep files in filing cabinets, and everything’s analogue.  But technology has taken an unexpected turn — humans have “evolved”… drastically so. Pain and pleasure sensations have mainly disappeared, so people seeking sexual fulfillment might slice pieces of flesh of their lovers’ bodies… and then snack on it in a non-lethal, cannibalistic orgy.  Government has largely collapsed, and police operate undercover in cels of corruption. 

In this future world, Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Lèa Seydoux) are a celebrity couple known for their artistic performances. Fans flock to events where Caprice records Tenser cutting open his belly to excise fully-grown, tattooed organs from his body, organs that developed spontaneously. Afterwards they visit a clandestine quasi governmental office where two dry bureaucrats Timlin and Wippet (Kristen Stewart and Don McKellar) file their cases in the appropriate folders. 

But there are complications. An undercover cop wants Tenser to be his informant. A young father named Lang (Scott Speedman) is also seeking out Lang and Caprice. He recently lost his son when his ex-wife murdered the boy because she didn’t like the way the boy ate plastic trashcans.  He’s also stalking Tenser; but why?

Crimes of the Future is an extremely strange movie, maybe Cronenberg’s weirdest yet. Its full of sex, art and cringe-worthy gross-outs. Things like after Tenser gets a living-flesh zipper sewn into his belly, Caprice unzips it to performs oral sex on his gaping wound.  It’s grotesque, but I’m not even revealing any of the most crucial horrific scenes. The costumes and special effects are terrific, and the locations (the movie was shot in Greece) are appropriately seedy and falling apart.

Does any of this make sense? Well it does, kinda.

It fools around with our fear of Big Pharma and the physical changes it could make to our bodies. It also deftly satirizes the worlds of art, celebrity and government. There’s an otherworldly feel to the whole movie, the stuff of dreams (or nightmares). It’s slow moving and very creepy but this isn’t a screamer-type horror movie, more of a constant supply of shock and yuck. Viggo Mortensen acts like a vampire or an unwrapped mummy, always shrouded in hoods  and shawls, while Lèa Seydoux as Caprice is equal parts model and body-modification fanatic. Do I like this movie? Not exactly, it creeps me out and occasionally slides into the ludicrous, but I’m glad I saw it — with some of its images permanently burned into my brain’s synapses. 

The Divide (La fracture)

Wri/Dir: Catherine Corsini

Raf (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) is a middle-aged, middle-class liberal cartoonist in Paris.  She’s also a neurotic, relentless  nag, given to sending  countless text messages  at 3 am. The recipient of the texts is her lover Julie (Marina Foïs), an editor and publisher who shares her bed. They live together along with Julie’s teenaged son.  And Julie has had it — she wants to break up. And despite Raf’s pleas, she refuses to budge. They take their fight onto the street, but when Julie stomps away in anger, Raf slips and falls, ending up in hospital. But this is no ordinary day.

It’’s 2019 in Paris, and France is angry. Macron’s corporate and wealth taxes cuts, are making people angry. So are his austerity measures, cutting unemployment insurance and the general social Gas prices are rising, and surveillance cameras are appearing on the streets…So a huge coalition of truckers, precarious workers, and anarchists converge on the Champs Elysée to stop traffic and get noticed.

But the police crack down on the Yellow Vest protesters, sending dozens to hospital. So doctors and nurses are overworked and overwhelmed with patients. One is Yann (Pio Marmaï) a trucker in Paris just for the afternoon to check out the protests. He has shrapnel in his leg, and if he doesn’t get home by morning he’ll lose his job. Kim (Aïssatou Diallo Sagna) is a nurse in the hospital, dealing with the sudden influx of injured patients… and he own baby is not doing well. Meanwhile the police are trying to break in to arrest the injured protesters. And Raf and Julie’s teenaged son — who went to the demonstrations — is still missing. Can the chaos of the hospital bring these very different people together? Or is the divide too great?

The Divide is a terrific, realistic day in the life of a group of Parisians stuck in a crisis. I like the French title, La Fracture better, because it’s about Raf’s broken arm, but also about the huge divisions in French society. In its really warm and quirky view of diametrically opposed people forced to confront one another and work together,  it humanizes all sides of the conflict. And there were lots of revelations — the yellow vests protesters were not right-wing followers of Le Pen… but they were angry at Macron. And while all this is going on, the on again, off again relationship of Raf and Julie, is resolved, one way or another by the end. The direction, script and acting are all just fantastic — Aïssatou Diallo Sagna won a César for best supporting actress and the film won the “Queer Palm” award as well. And after I watched it I remembered I‘ve seen this director’s work before, back in 2015; Summertime (La Belle Saison)  was one of my favourite films that year. Which made me realize that this was no fluke, Corsini is a genius. The Divide is a wonderful warm human drama.

The Divide is playing at the Inside-Out film festival through Sunday; and Crimes of the Future opens this weekend in Toronto; 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

Sagas. Films reviewed: All My Puny Sorrows, The Northman

Posted in Adventure, Canada, Family, Iceland, Music, Religion, Secrets, Suicide, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 16, 2022

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

If you’re looking for new opportunities to see movies in Toronto, there are a lot of opportunities coming up. This coming Wednesday is the annual Canada Film Day, with great Canadian movies playing for free across the country, and at embassies around the world. Whether you’re in Arviat, Saskatoon, or downtown Toronto, go to canfilmday.ca to find the movie closest to you. Also free, if you’re under 25, is the Next Wave Festival at TIFF with workshops, competitions and a well-curated slate of screenings for you to watch. 

This week, I’m looking at two new movies — one from the US, the other from Canada. There’s a brooding Mennonite drama, and a swashbuckling Icelandic saga.

All My Puny Sorrows

Co-Wri/Dir: Michael McGowan (Based on the novel by Miriam Toews)

Elf and Yoli are sisters who grew up in a small Mennonite community in Canada. Elf (Sarah Gadon) is a world-renowned concert pianist, rich famous and glamorous. Her loving husband is always there to lend a hand. Yoli (Alison Pill), the black sheep of the family, was pregnant at 18, and lives with her daughter in Toronto. She’s a published writer but her last novel sold just a few hundred copies. And now she has writer’s block, her husband is divorcing her, and she’s sleeping with a lawyer named Finbar she doesn’t even like. So when their  Mom (Mare Winningham) gets a late night phone call that her daughter had attempted suicide, she’s not surprised. The thing is, it’s Elf, not Yoli, who wants to die. 

So Yoli flies back to her hometown to visit Elf in hospital and to convince her that life is worth living. But the visit awakens lost memories of their childhood, including gossipy small-town life, and various encounters with the repressive church leadership. They never wanted Elf to study music or for their father to open a public library. And she’s not the first one in the family with suicidal tendencies — the movie starts with their dad walking in front of a train a decade earlier.

All My Puny Sorrows is a literary look at the lives of two sisters. By “literary” I mean they literally talk like characters in a book, with witty bon mots spilling off their tongues. I mean, why say hey Elf, how’s it going? when you can quote Coleridge and Virginia Woolf instead? The problem is some of the dialogue and voice-overs come across as stilted and wooden, not how real people talk.  There are some great scenes in the movie — like a flashback, where their mom expresses her anger at the Elders’ interference by loudly pounding a chicken breast in the kitchen while Elf plays Rachmaninoff on the piano, full blast, to drown out their voices. And I also liked some of the interactions among Elf, Yoli, their mom and their aunt.

But as a whole, the movie doesn’t quite cut it, with too many parts that fall flat. 

The Northman

Co-Wri/Dir: Robert Eggers (read my 2019 interview with Eggers here)

It’s the middle ages in Scandinavia. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a little prince who lives a quiet life with his mother, the Queen (Nicole Kidman) in a seaside village. But when his father the king returns home, everything changes. He leads the prince into a secret cave to perform sacred rituals. Between farts and belches, Amleth becomes an adult, receives an amulet, and is inducted into the order of the wolves by howling at the moon. But his new status is interrupted by his insidious uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). He witness his uncle murdering the king, kidnapping the queen, and ordering the prince’s death, too. His father’s last words: avenge my death by killing my brother and rescuing the Queen. The little boy fights off his killer by slicing off his nose, and flees in a small boat across the seas. 

Years later, he’s a fierce warrior, raiding coastal and riverside towns dressed as a wolf berserker, massacring, looting and pillaging as his team passes through. But a mystical soothsayer orders him to fulfil her predictions and leave the vikings for a new voyage. So he disguises himself as a slave, and climbs aboard a ship destined for Iceland. On board he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) the blonde slave warrior from his visions, and together they make a pact. But will he ever fulfill his destiny?

The Northman is a brilliant new Icelandic saga about a hero’s wars, battles, magic and family lines. It blends pre-christian legends and rituals with sacred swords, Dwarves, animism and nordic gods. It’s also about reclaiming masculinity, including a spectacularly homoerotic sword fight fought in the nude over flowing lava. (Not joking.) It also has proto-football matches, magical crows and wolves, and psychedelic mushroom. 

In order to appreciate The Northman you have to buy into the whole concept, otherwise you’ll reject it as ludicrous (there are a few moments where you wonder what the hell are you watching.) But it’s so beautifully done and carefully crafted that it’s much more than a Game of Thrones episode. This one has depth and meaning. And knowing Robert Eggers, I’m sure he and his crew deeply researched the film — his other ones used things like dialogue taken directly from a 19th century diary. It also includes incredible images you’ve never seen before, like a three-dimensional family tree that appears to him in his visions, that looks like a cross between a Japanese ghost story and a mediaeval tapestry. Just amazing. It’s extremely violent and harshly amoral, so if that upsets you, don’t see this movie. But if you like sword fights, vikings and authentic mediaeval adventures, you’ll probably love The Northman as much as I did.

All My Puny Sorrows is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings; and The Northman opens next Friday.

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

Female saviours. Films reviewed: The 355, The King’s Daughter, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Posted in 1600s, Action, Espionage, Fairytales, France, High School, Mermaids, Porn, Roma, Romania, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 29, 2022

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

Movie theatres are re-opening on Monday, at 50% capacity. That means the movies they’ve been banking are all coming out in the next little while — brace yourselves. So this week, I’m looking at three new movies about women: an action-thriller, a historical romance, and a social satire. There’s a teacher who wants to save her job, a princess who wants to save a mermaid, and a group of spies who want to save the planet.

The 355

Co-Wri/Dir: Simon Kinberg

In a Colombian jungle a drug lord is handing off a major sale to an international criminals, when something goes wrong. In the scuffle a computer drive disappears. It’s the hard drive, not the drugs that’s so valuable. It holds the ultimate hack: a device that can penetrate and control any computer or system in the world. So Mace (Jessica Chastain) a CIA agent flies to Paris with. Her partner, in and out of bed, to purchase the program. She enlists a former colleague named Khadija (Lupita Nyong’o), a British Mi6 agent to help her out.  Khadija doesn’t want to spy anymore. She’s an academic now, with a lover. But she grudgingly agrees. Meanwhile a Colombian desk agent named Graciela (Penelope Cruz) with no fieldwork experience, is flown in to make sure the hand-off goes as planned. But it doesn’t, partly because of a clash with an unknown  woman, named Marie (Diane Kruger). Turns out she’s not a criminal, she an allied spy who works for the German government. And Mace’s erstwhile lover – and partner – is killed.

So now we have four agents, none of whom trust one another, but are forced to work together when they are all declared rogue by their respective agencies. Meanwhile, jet planes are crashing, systems are imploding — just a taste of what the master criminals can do with this hard drive. It’s cyber warfare and the bad guys hold all the cards. So it’s up to them to find the device, save the world, restore their tarnished reputations and be taken off the most wanted list. 

The 355 is a typical, run-of-the-mill action movie. Lots of fights, chases, narrow escapes and shootouts, against exotic locations in Europe, Morocco and Shanghai. I was worried at first that Jessica Chastain would pull another disgusting Zero Dark Thirty glorifying CIA torture in the so-called War on Terror.  But that’s not what this movie is about at all.  It’s a classic James Bond-style movie, but with four agents not one. What’s good about it is the incredible cast — these aren’t female Sylvester Stallone or Vin Diesels. They’re top tier actors — Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Us, and Queen of Katwe; Diane Kruger is a major European actor (In the Fade, The Host, Unknown) best known in North America for Inglourious Basterds, Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz (Pain and Glory, Zoolander 2, To Rome with Love) and everyone knows Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Fae,  The Zookeeper’s Wife, Crimson Peak, The Martian,  Mama, Lawless, Take Shelter,, etc). Plus top Chinese star Fan Bingbing (Buddha Mountain, Wheat,) appears in the movie, too (no spoilers). Take it for what it is, great female actors playing kick-ass roles in an enjoyable (through totally forgettable) action flick.

The King’s Daughter

Dir: Sean McNamara

It’s the 17th century in Versailles. Louis XIV, the Sun King (Pierce Brosnan) lives a life of luxury confessing his excesses to priest and confident Père Lachaise (William Hurt). But he realizes his mortality when he is wounded by a bullet.  And France itself is deeply in debt following a long expensive war. So on the advice of an evil doctor (Pablo Schreiber), he orders the dashing Captain Yves (Benjamin Walker) to search for the lost continent of Atlantis and to capture a mermaid there. If he kills the mermaid during a total eclipse he will become the king of France forever — immortal. Meanwhile, Marie Josephe (Kaya Scodelario) has lived since birth in a remote convent, cloistered by nuns. She still manages to learn music, sneaking outside to hone her horseriding and ocean swimming skills. She is suddenly called back to Versailles. Why? Of course, she is the King’s daughter, but only the king knows this. She soon makes friends with the mermaid (Fan Bingbing), communicating telepathically and using music to bring them together. She also falls for to the handsome sailor Yves. But the king has other ideas — to marry her off to a rich duke. Can Marie Josephe marry the man she loves? Will the King ever listen to his daughter? And will he kill the innocent mermaid for his own glory?

The King’s Daughter is a second-rate Disney- princess-type movie, set in a gilded royal palace. It borrows liberally from Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and virtually any of princess-centric fairytales (its narrated by Julie Andrews.) Lots of CGI — generally mediocre, though I like the underwater scenes —  and way too much gilded ornate settings. This is Louis Quatorze, but you wouldn’t know it from the sets. The makeup and costumes don’t even attempt to look like Versailles. We’re talking the era of the Three Musketeers but you wouldn’t know it; it’s so sterilized and dumbed down that it ends up as a  gold-leaf bowl of pablum. Which isn’t surprising from a director of such masterpieces as 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain and Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite. I liked Kaya Scodelario she’s very good, but the script and direction are uninspired. If you are a little girl or boy into supernatural princess romances, you just might love this movie, otherwise, for the rest of you, the movie’s not terrible, it’s bearable, it’s just not very good.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Dir: Radu Jude

Emi (Katia Pascariu) is a teacher  at a prestigious school in Bucharest, Romania. She’s well respected in her profession, and dresses in a conservative grey skirt and jacket. But when her husband takes their laptop into the shop for repairs, some of their private footage is leaked online. And that’s when everything falls apart. They made a sex video for private viewing only, but now it’s everywhere, on tabloid news sites, Facebook and her students’ smartphones. Even after it’s been taken down by Pornhub, copies still circulate. And the parents are angry. She asks the schoolmistress (Claudia Ieremia) to take her side but to no avail. She’s forced to attend a humiliating parent/teacher meeting, held out of doors, to defend her reputation, and explain that a sex tape made by consenting adults in the privacy of their own home is not a crime. But the mob at the meeting disagrees. They insist on showing the tape again right in front of her at the meeting, complete with lewd commentary from some,  and pillorying by the rest. Will she lose her job, or can she emerge from this ordeal unscathed?

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is a scathing indictment of contemporary Romania, in the form of an absurdist comical farce. The movie is divided into three sections. The first part follows Emi on a walk around Bucharest , as she tries to fathom what happened. On the sway she observes random street conversations ranging from obscene to mundane. The camera lingers on signs, billboards and shopwindow, emphasizing the omnipresence of sex there. The second part is a long montage of a series of images — ranging from century old porn, to wartime photos, fascist memorabilia, Patriotic songs, kitschy poetry, nationalistic quotes, Holocaust denial, the persecution of the Roma, and much more. Each image is accompanied by unspoken comments in the form of subtitles. The third part is the outdoor tribunal as Emi is put on the stand before angry parents who want her fired.

The whole film is set within the current pandemic, with everyone in masks for the entire film, whether indoors or out. (This includes the absolutely explicit sex tape, where Emi’s face is sometimes covered but never her or her husband’s rampant genitalia. If you are bothered by explicit sex, do not watch this movie.) That said, it’s hard to watch a movie where people’s faces are covered. That’s a drawback, no matter how you look at it. On the other hand its funny, shocking and eye-opening. And it’s presented as a darkly satirical comedy. I would have liked to have seen more faces; I expect to see lips move when I watch a movie. But at least the middle montage section helps break up the Covid protocols into more digestible parts.

The 355 and the King’s Daughter open in theatres in Toronto on Monday; check your local listings. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is now playing at the Digital Bell Lightbox.

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

Troubles. Films reviewed: Vicious Fun, Inbetween Girl, Belfast

Posted in 1960s, 1980s, Canada, Comics, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Feminism, High School, Horror, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Secrets, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 13, 2021

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

Fall Film Festival Season continues in November. ReelAsian is on now, and Blood in the Snow (aka “BITS”) with new made-in-Canada horror movies — both features and shorts —  showing on the big screen at Toronto’s beautiful Royal Cinema starting next week.

So this week I’m looking at three movies showing at Toronto film festivals. There’s an 8-year-old boy in Belfast at the start of the Troubles, a high school girl in Texas who learns having secret boyfriend can lead to trouble, and a film critic in Minnesota whose 12-step self-help group turns out to be nothing but very big trouble.

Vicious Fun

Wri/Dir: Cody Calahan

It’s the 1980s in Minnesota.

Joel (Evan Marsh) is a film critic who writes reviews for a horror movie fanzine. He’s a real devotee of slasher pics and is well versed on all the details. He lives with his apartment-mate Sarah, who he has a huge crush on. So he doesn’t like her new douchey boyfriend, Bob, at all. So he follows him to an isolated Chinese restaurant and bar where he tries to entrap him using hidden mic as the unfaithful boyfriend he thinks Bob is. But he ends  drunk as a skunk and passed out in the restaurant bathroom. He wakes up a few hours later to the voice if a motivational speaker coming from the next room. He wanders into a sort of a self-help group, a twelve step… but for whom? He takes his place in the circle and the confessions begin. Turns out they’re not alcoholics, they’re all serial killers! The worst in the world! Carrie (Amber Goldfarb) slices and dices men. Fritz (Julian Richings) enjoys paralysing victims with a hypodermic then torments them dressed as a clown. Mike, a bearded giant in a iron mask (former pro wrestler Robert Maillet) chops up coeds while having sex with them. Hideo (Sean Baek) is sushi chef-slash-cannibal who uses Ninja like skills to trap his prey. Zachary is the group leader (David Koechner) who looks like a used car salesman but had killed more than any of the others — there’s a sort of a competition going on. So Poor Joel — who they think is new serial killer who didn’t show up to this first meeting — has to squirm his way out of it. But his cover is blown when guess who arrives late? It’s Bob (Ari Millen) the douchey sociopath he met earlier! 

The group turns into a mad orgy of killing and violence once they discover his deception. But luckily, Carrie, for reasons all her own, decides to protect him from the other serial killers. What’s her secret? Can they escape these ruthless deranged serial killers? And can Joel warn Sarah in time to protect her from the evil Bob? 

Vicious Fun is a comedy  horror movie about a horror movie enthusiast who discovers it’s not as much fun in real life. It’s full of lots of blood and gore, as expected, but also a heavy dose of retro-80s camp, from moustachioed cops, to vintage drive in, pay phones and a seedy bar. The characters are all played to the max with the appropriate excess a group of weird serial killers demands, with Marsh as the fish-out-of-water film critic and Goldfarb as the killer with a heart off gold — as well as Millen as arrogant evil incarnate, are especially good. 

Vicious Fun (just like the title says) is a very entertaining, low-budget, over-the-top movie with a clever premise that carries it through to the very end. It’s funny, bloody, and bloody funny.

I like this one a lot.

(I interviewed Cody in 2013.)

Inbetween Girl

Wri/Dir: Mei Makino

Angie Chen (Emma Galbraith) is a high school girl at St Michael’s a posh private school in Texas.  It’s also very white. But as a mixed race kid (white Mom, Chinese dad) she feels both self-conscious and ignored. So she’s surprised that Liam (William Magnuson) the most popular guy in the school says he likes her. He drives her home everyday, and later climbs through her window to spend time with her. They hang out, make out, have sex, and share their thoughts in addition to an occasional joint. So what’s the problem? He’s dating Sheryl (Emily Garrett), an equally popular girl, who has millions of followers on Instagram. She’s an influencer. So Liam keeps their relationship a secret. Sheryl’s too fragile, he says, not a battleship like you. if she finds it out it could kill her. (I’m a Battleship? Angie wonders.) She goes along with Liam’s game but doesn’t quite get it. 

Meanwhile, there’s trouble at home. She’s disconnected from her recently divorced parents.  Mom’s always busy with work and dad has a new family, including a daughter who speaks Chinese. What’s the point of it all? But when she is assigned a school project with Sheryl, Liam’s girlfriend, Angie realizes it can’t go on like this. They’re in love… how can they keep it a secret? Will Liam choose her over Cheryl? Does Angie even want him anymore? And what will Sheryl do if she finds out the truth?

Inbetween Girl is a delightful and quirky coming-of-age story. Though the plot seems run-of-the-mill, it’s told through Angie’s art (she loves drawing comics and taking analog photos) her video monologues along with the normal story. It covers family relationships, first love and deceit, along with questions of cultural identity she has no control over. It has lots of picturesque settings in and around Galveston, giving it a view of modern cosmopolitan Texas you don’t always see. 

I like this movie.

Belfast 

Wri/Dir: Kenneth Branagh

It’s Belfast in the last 1960s. Buddy (Jude Hill) is a little boy who lives with his brother Will, his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and his grandparents, Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). His Pa (Jamie Dornan) is off in England somewhere earning a living as a joiner. He can only come home every couple weeks. Buddy misses him but spends his time studying at the Grove Park elementary school. While the classrooms never change, the seating arrangements do, where kids with the top marks move to the front each week. That’s his main motivation to study — so he can be bumped up beside the girl he wants to meet.

But things take a turn for the worse. Barricades appear on street corners patrolled by the military, while paramilitary thugs throw rocks through windows to get the Catholics to move out of their street. Buddy’s family is Protestant but he can’t tell the difference among his friends and neighbours. And as violence and intimidation increases, so does the push to join Pa in England till the Troubles are over. 

Money troubles, taxes, Pop’s illness and the friction between Ma and Pa all threaten the family. Will they stick by their beloved Belfast and the little street they’ve lived on for so long? Or will they be forced to move to England till the Troubles blow away?

Belfast is a touching look at life in Belfast during the Troubles as seen through the eyes of a small boy. Well-known actor/director Kenneth Branagh grew up there, and presumably it’s based on his memories. As such, there’s a misty-eyed sentimentality to much of the film, as would any adult thinking back to his childhood. It’s nicely shot in black and white, and the acting is generally good, though the characters seem straight out of central casting — no big creative leaps here. The best parts are the unusual and realistic childhood memories that are totally separate from the Troubles. Things like kid gangs and shoplifting happening simultaneously with the looting, intimidation and riots. But there’s also a disjointed feel to the film itself. Van Morisson’s music is great but it doesn’t fit the mood. And there’s a strange music video inserted into the movie, for no apparent reason other than providing footage for a trailer. Gimmicks — like having people filmed in black and white watching a movie in colour — are just embarrassing.  Even so, there are enough surprising plot turns and beautiful images that linger after the movie. While flawed, Belfast is still a touching, bittersweet look at one boy’s childhood in an historical moment.

Vicious Fun is the opening film at B.I.T.S., the Blood in the Snow Film Festival; In-between Girl is now screening at ReelAsianfilm Festival, and Belfast — which won the people’s choice award at TIFF this year, opens this weekend in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Disturbed or unusual boys and men. Films reviewed: Halloween Kills, Mass, I’m Your Man

Posted in 1970s, Christianity, Death, Family, Germany, Horror, Religion, Romance, Satire, Science Fiction, Sex, Terrorism, Vengeance, violence by CulturalMining.com on October 16, 2021

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

Spring Film Festival season continues in October, with ImagineNATIVE showing wonderful indigenous films and art from here and around the world beginning next week; and Toronto After Dark, bringing us the best new horror, sci-fi and action movies, now through Sunday.

This week I’m looking at three new movies — a slasher horror, a serious drama, and a romantic comedy — about disturbed or unusual boys and men.

There’s a dangerous man with a knife and a mask; two sets of parents mourning the death of their boys; and a woman whose perfect date isn’t exactly human.

Halloween Kills

Dir: David Gordon Green

It’s 2018 in Haddonfield, Illinois. This town is notorious for a series of murders beginning in the late 1970s, by Michael Myers, a mysterious man in a white mask. Michael has brutally killed countless people using a sharp knife on Halloween. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) was a babysitter who survived this attack and the many others that followed. When he reappeared at this year’s Halloween, 40 years later, Laurie was not that surprised. Together with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and grand-daughter Allyson (Andi Matichek) they managed to finally defeated this monster by leaving him trapped in a burning house. Or have they? You see, Michael is virtually indestructible, with the mind of a disturbed six-year-old boy combined with the strength of a supernaturally strong man.  Turns out — surprise, surprise, surprise, — Michael is not dead. He’s back and ready to kill more people. So three groups set out to stop him: a posse of costumed competitors at a talent show at a local dive bar; a frenzied mob of vigilantes shouting Trump-like slogans; and Laurie Strode’s own crew. But can anyone defeat Michael Myers?

Halloween Kills is a classic, almost nostalgic, reboot of the 1970s slasher. This one takes up immediately after the 2018 version ends. But unlike that darkly humorous take, this one is more of a campy bloodbath filled with non-stop gruesome violence. It also includes flashbacks to the 70s, introducing a group of characters from that night and where they are now, 40 years later. There’s not much of a plot, per se, more just scene after scene of people being murdered by Michael. Which is not to say I didn’t like it. The music (by John Carpenter) the camerawork, the design and art direction, the whole feel of it provides a wonderful counterpoint to the disgusting blood and guts.  Halloween Kills is a delightfully pointless salute to the original 70s slasher. 

Mass

Wri/Dir: Fran Kranz

An Episcopal church in a small town is preparing for a meeting. It’s not the usual choir practice or AA meetings. This one is different. Four people — two middle-aged married couples — have never met face to face but know a great deal about each other. Their sons went to school together. Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs) are filled with dread, and seething with anger. They almost can’t bear to enter the building. Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney) are desperately trying to make a connection and to mend  — not burn — the bridges that bind these two couples. What is it that ties them together? Linda and Richard’s son gunned down a dozen people in his school, including Gail and Jay’s boy, before turning the gun on himself.

Gail and Jay’s lives are ruined and they are still trying to recover from the massacre. But Linda and Richard’s lives are even worse. They can’t publicly mourn the loss of their only child, and are bombarded by hate mail. They are filled with guilt and remorse — is what their son did their fault? Were they bad parents? Did they pay too much attention, or not enough? Through an open and unmoderated discussion, including the showing of photos and telling of stories, the two couples are there to better understand the feelings of the others, and ultimately, to look for forgiveness.   But will they find it at a small table in a spartan church room?

Mass is a highly emotional look at four fragile adults. It’s basically a long, slow-paced conversation, especially between the two mothers. The acting is great, and the topic is supercharged. You have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate Mass. I found it a bit hard to watch, with zero eye candy or external flashbacks, basically nothing to look at other than their faces. it’s visually dead, except for the raw emotions expressed by the four characters… but if you stick with it, you’ll find the most emotional moments are cleverly inserted, almost incidentally, near the end.

I’m Your Man

Co-Wri/Dir: Maria Schrader

Alma (Maren Eggert) is a single woman, a noted academic at a famous Berlin museum. She specializes in Sumerian cuneiform tablets. She also spends one day a week with her angry father who is suffering from dementia. Her life, and career, are satisfying but uneventful. Until she becomes a reluctant participant in an unusual experiment: to spend three weeks living with and observing, a perfect lover. This man, they say, is handsome, smart and courteous, there to address and satisfy all her wants and needs. But who is this mysterious date? It’s Tom (Dan Stevens). Tom’s hair teeth and body, are always perfect. He never gets angry, and speaks with an oddly alluring foreign accent. And he goes out of his way to make her life more romantic, dropping rose petals in her bubble bath by the light of flickering candles. He likes to dance the Rumba, And he is highly skilled in bed, precisely trained on how to give a woman the ultimate orgasm. But Alma recoils from him, refuses to sleep with him, and treats him like dirt. She gives him a small cot to sleep on in a windowless storage room.

What’s Alma’s problem?

Tom is a robot. And one designed especially for her. But while 82% of German women in her age bracket say they desire candles and rose petals, Alma is not one of them. She hates that stuff. And she feels put upon by this machine. Where is his sense of humour? Where is his spontaneity? Where is his humanity? But the thing is, Tom is not just a machine, he has artificial intelligence. He can learn, adapt and change… as long as she lets him into her life. Can the two of them ever understand each other? Will their relationship become sexual? And is love possible between humans and machines? 

I’m Your Man is a surprisingly romantic story, wonderfully told. It explores concepts of love, reality and what people really look for in a relationship. It’s funny, quirky, tender and surprisingly easy to believe, despite the science-fiction premise. While there are some special effects, most of the stranger stuff is handled by the actors themselves.  I’m Your Man uses a simple idea to explore unexpected places.

This movie really grabbed me — I liked it a lot.

Halloween Kills, Mass, and I’m Your Man all open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with writer and lawyer Jay Paul Deratany about Foster Boy at the Toronto Black Film Festival

Posted in African-Americans, Chicago, Corruption, Courtroom Drama, Family, Movies, Orphans, Resistance, Secrets, Thriller, violence by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2021

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

Jamal is an angry 19-year-old who finds himself back in a Chicago courtroom once again. He’s a product of the deeply- flawed foster care industry, a privatized system which left him physically and mentally scarred, and in and out of prison. But this time he’s before a judge voluntarily; he’s suing the corporation that put him through hell. His lawyer? An unsympathetic corporate shill assigned to his case, pro bono, by a sympathetic judge. Jamal sees a “three-piece” supporter of the system he’s fighting, and the lawyer sees Jamal as a “thug” he’s ordered to represent. Can the two of them fight the power of an abusive system that made him a foster boy?

Foster Boy is the name a new courtroom drama and legal thriller inspired by true events, that was the opening night feature at the Toronto Black Film Festival. It’s produced by Shaquille O’Neal directed by Youssef Delara and stars Shane Paul McGhie, Matthew Modine, and Louis Gosset, Jr.

The script is by Jay Paul Deratany, a screenwriter who is also an accomplished Chicago lawyer and a foster youth advocate.

I spoke with Jay Paul Deratany in Chicago, via ZOOM, on February 17, 2021.

Foster Boy is available across North America at the Toronto Black Film Festival through Sunday, and online VOD.

Daniel Garber talks with Peter Kuplowsky about Psycho Goreman

Posted in Aliens, Canada, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Coming of Age, Horror, Kids, Super Villains, Super-heroes, Supernatural, violence by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2021

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

Mimi and Luke are young siblings in a nondescript town. They’re both typical and atypical. Mimi’s the younger one, but she’s more aggressive, They spend their time playing games they invent like “crazy ball”. But after a game one day they uncover a strange glowing stone buried deep in the ground. And when Mimi removes it she unknowingly activates a hideous monster, the epitome of evil, a creature responsible for the deaths of millions. He can casually tear his victims apart in an orgy of blood and gore.  But since Mimi holds the gem, she soon discovers he’s in her power. What will a little girl do with her newfound strength — will she use it for good or for evil? Will they save the planet or destroy it? And can she and her brother control the powerful demon they call Psycho Goreman.

Psycho Goreman is also the name of a new comedy/horror movie about kids and alien beings. Science fiction, family comedy and first love are set against a potential universe-shattering apocalypse. The film is written and directed by Steven Kostanski  who brought us twisted, over-the-top genre classics like The Void and Manborg.  Peter Kuplowsky, who worked on Steven’s other films and is also notable as the curator of TIFF’s Midnight Madness series, co-produced it.

I spoke to Peter Kuplowsky from home via ZOOM.

Psycho Goreman opens digitally on January 22, 2021 across North America.

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.

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