Daniel Garber talks with Yung Chang about Wuhan, Wuhan

Posted in Canada, China, Depression, Disaster, documentary, Family, Realism, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 14, 2021

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

Photo by Jeff Harris.

It’s February and the city is under a lockdown. The streets are deserted for all but essential workers. New, makeshift hospitals and quarantines are popping up to deal with the thousands of infected patients… and the death toll is frightening. The government has instituted harsh restrictions to stop the corona virus, and people forced to stay at home are volunteering just to have something to do. Is this Toronto? LA? Or New Delhi? No, it’s February, 2020 and the city is Wuhan.

Wuhan Wuhan is a new documentary that takes you onto the scene of the first-known pandemic of COVID-19. It’s upbeat, real and very moving. It talks to doctors, patients and ordinary people showing first hand how they handle the early stages of this previously unknown virus. It’s the latest film by award-winning Canadian documentarian Yung Chang, known for Up the Yangtze, China Heavyweight and many others. Wuhan Wuhan premiered at Hot Docs, Canada’s International Documentary Festival.  I interviewed him in 2012 about The Fruit Hunters and in 2013 about This Is Not a Movie.

I spoke to Yung Chang in Toronto via Zoom.

Wuhan Wuhan premiered at #Hot Docs21.

Implanted ideas. Films reviewed: Held, Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide, Moffie

Posted in 1980s, Art, Cold War, Coming of Age, Drama, Gay, H.I.V., Horror, New York City, Psychological Thriller, South Africa, Suspicion, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 9, 2021

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies — a doc, a war drama and a thriller horror — about ideas implanted into our minds. There’s an eighties artist digging up TV images from the sixties; a soldier in eighties South Africa with Cold War racism and homophobia drilled into his head; and a married couple forced to re-enact outdated sexual roles by the orders of a device… drilled into their skulls.

Held
Dir: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing

Emma and Henry (Jill Awbrey and Bart Johnson) are a married couple, both professionals. They plan to meet at a remote luxury resort in order to bring the spark back into their relationship. Eight years ago they had an amazing vacation in Monterey, just the two of them; but lately, they’ve been drifting apart. Emma arrives first, driven by a vaguely suspicious-looking guy named Joe (Rez Kempton). Why does he ask so many personal questions? She’s relieved to see the house is protected by a large wall. She checks out the digs — it’s a minimalist wonder, all glass and white walls, and incredibly safe from intruders. There are alarms and code systems everywhere, a modern kitchen, and a lovely orchard just outside. And Henry left her some flowers on the doorstep — red roses… how romantic!

When Henry arrives, they share a toast over glasses of whiskey. But then things get weird. They both start to feel dizzy — are there roofies in their drinks? They wake up the next morning in a daze. Their cel phones are gone. Emma is dressed in an old-school negligee. Did someone do this to her in her sleep? And the roses? Henry says they weren’t from him. Their clothes have all disappeared, replaced by 6os-style dresses for her and suits for him, and large TV screens that play old-school songs urging them to dance a foxtrot. Dance?

The doors are all locked, and a strange detached voice starts giving them orders. Obey us! If you follow our directions you will not be harmed! Mr Creepy Voice wants them to stick to traditional sexual roles — men open doors for women, who respond by thanking them. If they disobey, they get zapped by a high-power, hugely painful device that’s been implanted into their heads the night before. And now they’re expected to make love under a watchful eye. Who is this maniac and what’s his agenda? Is it Jordan Peterson? Or an incel? Why does he cling to outdated sexual norms? And will they ever escape from this bizarre house of horrors?

Held is a heart pounding , psychological thriller about a couple held hostage for no known reason. There’s a big revelation about two-thirds of the way through (no spoilers) which I predicted… but even so, it gripped me till the very end. It is quite violent and disturbing, so not for the faint of heart, but I found Held a super-twisted and scary movie, just the thing for late-night viewing.

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide
Wri/Dir:Max Basch, Malia Scharf

Kenny Scharf is born into post-war LA, the land of artificial smiles, perma-tans, non-stop TV and brightly coloured plastic. He grows up in a nuclear family amidst the prefab suburbs of the San Fernando valley. He likes art and design and has a steady hand that can draw a perfect line without a ruler. But Andy Warhol and New York City beckons and he ends up a student at SVA (the School of Visual Arts) beside Keith Haring with whom he eventually shares an apartment in Times Square. It’s the early 1980s, and together with the younger Jean-Michel Basquiat, the three start spreading their art all over the city: on subways, toasters, TV sets, and crumbing tenement walls. Kenny can’t stop putting painting on everything he sees.

Eventually people with money start to notice, and the East Village art scene explodes. Kenny Scharf’s work incorporates found art, day-glo colours, and cartoonish TV images of George Jetson, Barney Rubble and 1950s suburban housewives. These figures are vomited across canvas in a cosmic orgy of detailed mayhem, the work of spray paint and fine brush strokes. Grotesque smiles and googly-eyed faces adorn his prolific paintings and sculptures, like a Peewee’s Playhouse of fine art. The East Village art scene spills over into the world of performance, music, fashion and nightclubs, blurring the lines. Kenny is doing it all. Next comes money and fame, one-man shows and installations,…until it finally crashes and burns. Many of the artists die in the AIDS epidemic, but Kenny survives, moving back to LA with his Brazilian wife and kids and continuing his work.

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide (the title is from one of his massive paintings) is a documentary look at his life and art, from childhood to the present, presented using never-seen period footage, video, recordings and art. It’s an amazing story brought to life. To be honest, I’m always suspicious of docs on living artists — did they make this film just to raise his recognition and pump up the value of his work? Who knows?  But life as an artist is never easy. This film is co-directed by another artist, Kenny’s own daughter Malia, which lets us look into his private life and thoughts, and his never-ending outflow of colour and plastic… while steering clear of any stories of sex, drugs and debauchery. It’s her dad… what do you want?

I liked this movie.

Moffie
Wri/Dir: Oliver Hermanus

It’s 1982 in Apartheid South Africa. All white boys and men are required to serve in the army for two years starting at age 16. Nick (Kai Luke Brümmer) is still wet behind the ears and doesn’t want to go. But his mother and boorish step-father send him off with a big celebration. His father slips him a porn mag to keep him company. But Playboy centrefolds are not his thing. The train to the camp is loud and rough, filled with oafs drinking till they puke, picking fights and shouting racist abuse at any African they pass. Nick makes one friend on the way, Michael (Matthew Vey), an anglo and a nice guy to boot. At the base, they are spat on, kicked, punched and made to repeat inane slogans by an especially sadistic sergeant. All hatred is aimed toward the three enemies of the state — Africans, communists, and homosexuals. And heaven help anyone caught supporting any of them, or worse being one of them. The sleeping quarters are filled with testosterone-fuelled idiots, spouting racist nonsense but exuding a constant masculine sexuality that clouds Nick’s thoughts.

But war is war (there’s a longstanding border conflict with neighbouring Angola) and they’re expected to fight. When Nick finds himself sharing a sleeping bag in a foxhole with a friendly soldier named Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) he’s forced to reassess his sense of desire and sexuality. But will he survive this two year ordeal?

Moffie (the title is an Afrikaans anti-gay slur), is a realistic internal look at the unrelenting racism and paranoia drilled into the psyche of white South Africans’ during Apartheid. (Unspoken, but implied, is the the violence that this visited upon the non-white South African majority on a daily basis) It’s also an intensely moving story, full of lust and longing, regret and horror. Dialogue alternates between Afrikaans and English. It has stunning cinematograpy, and a great soundtrack. The acting is fantastic, with a largely unknown cast, many on screen for the first time. Moffie is a powerful war film.

I recommend this movie.

Moffie opens today on VOD on Apple TV and in the summer on IFC Films Unlimited; Held also starts today on VOD on AppleTV, iTunes and other platforms; and Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide will open next Thursday.

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 Kelly McCormack about her new film Sugar Daddy

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, Feminism, Music, Politics, Psychology, Sex, Sex Trade, Toronto, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 2, 2021

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

Darren is a small town girl with big city ambitions. She left her divorced mom and adoring sister behind for a music career in Toronto. She found a gaggle of artists to hang with and an apartment-mate who has a crush on her. She earns her rent at a catering job. But when, in a Dickensian plot turn,  she’s caught taking home leftover sandwiches —  she finds herself fired, broke, starving, and nearly homeless. What to do? She signs onto a service where she’s paid to go on public dates with much older, much richer men. This solves her money deficit… but what about her career and sense of self worth? Will Darren’s new arrangements lead to success? Or is she doomed to failure as an artist on the payroll of a “sugar daddy”?

Sugar Daddy is a coming-of-age feature about a young woman discovering her self worth, and what her youth, body, and talent will fetch on the open market. The film is written, produced by and starring Toronto-based writer, musician, actor, and artist Kelly McCormack. Kelly has made her mark on stage and screen — you’ve probably seen her as Betty Anne on LetterKenny as well as parts on Ginny and Georgia on Netflix and the upcoming A League of their Own on Amazon. 

I spoke with Kelly via Zoom in Toronto. I previously interviewed her along with Alec Toller in 2014 about her off-beat film Play: the Movie.

Sugar Daddy premiered at the Canadian Film Festival on April 1st, and opens on VOD, beginning April 6th, 2021.

O Canada! Films reviewed: Jump Darling, Underplayed, Death of a Ladies’ Man

Posted in Addiction, Canada, comedy, documentary, Drag, Drama, Family, Ireland, LGBT, Montreal, Music, Uncategorized, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 19, 2021

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

There are tons of great movies finally opening up this week, including Night of the Kings which I reviewed last fall, one of my favourite movies of the year, at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

This week I’m looking at three new Canadian movies ready to be seen There are female DJs who want to be noticed, a Toronto drag queen who who wants to see his grandmother, and a Montreal poet who wonders why he keeps seeing his dead father.

Jump, Darling

Wri/Dir: Phil Connell 

Russell (Thomas Duplessie) is an aspiring actor whose career is going nowhere. His only role? As Fishy Falters, a drag queen gig he landed at a Toronto gay bar called Peckers. And even that falls apart when he trips on his way to the stage in a symphony of disaster. His husband, a successful Bay Street lawyer who bankrolls his acting career, rubs salt in the wound: take some acting courses or go to. auditions, but no more drag, it embarrasses me. 

Russell takes this as an ultimatum, packs up a suitcase and heads out the door. He lands up at his grandmother’s place in Prince Edward County to borrow her car os he can drive off to unknown parts..    She greets him at the door with a scream and a knife. Margaret (Cloris Leachman) lives alone. She was once a figure skater (I was hired by the Ice Capades! she says) and a formidable bridge player, but since her husband died she’s been frail, forgetful and depressed.  Russel’s mom (Linda Kash) wants to send her off to an old-age home, but Margaret would rather die. So Russel agrees to stick around and help take care of her. Meanwhile he starts frequenting a tiny bar in town, where he thinks his drag act could catch on. Will he pull Margaret out of the dumps? And will hr return to Toronto, triumphant? 

Jump, Darling is a bittersweet family drama about a young gay man trying to express himself in the inly way he knows, and an elderly woman dealing with old age and loss. (The title Jump Darling refers to her husband’s suicide) This is a first time feature both for the director and Thomas Duplessie as Russell, and they pull it off quite nicely. The characters are three-dimensional not cookie-cutter. Of course it helps having the late, great Cloris Leachman in her final role, and Linda Kash who ties the two sides firmly together. This is a good movie. 

Underplayed

Dir: Stacey Lee

The music business is vast and diverse, but not equitable. Did you know that of Billboard’s top 100 DJs, only 7 are women? Same holds true in the electronic music sector, even fewer studio producers are women. And only a tiny fraction of these are women of colour. Why are there so few and why don’t we ever hear about them? This documentary looks at the industry and its history, and follows a handful of female DJs, electronic musicians and producers as they play their music in clubs, concerts and festivals over the course one summer. 

Many trailblazers in electronica — from Wendy Carlos to Daphne Oram — were women, but names like Moog dominate the collective memory. And in the electronic DJ world, at raves and festivals, women find it nearly impossible to get their proverbial feet in the door. The filmmakers talk to stars like Tokimonsta, musician Alison Wonderland, Toronto-based superstar Rezz, and newcomers like Tygapaw out of Brooklyn. The documentary shows both their professional lives — at concerts and in studios — and also gives them a soapbox to talk about the troubles they face on the road and in the workplace. Underplayed is an informative look at under-representation and equity in the electronic music world, with some cool digital graphics and great beats playing in the background. 

Death of a Ladies’ Man

Wri/Dir: Matthew Bissonnette

Samuel O’Shea (Gabriel Byrne) is a Canadian poetry prof at McGill and a notorious philanderer. He sees his ex-wife Geneviève (Suzanne Clément) at Thanksgiving and Christmas along with his adult children. Josée (Karelle Tremblay) is a foul-mouthed artist who hangs out with a junkie, and his son Layton (Antoine Olivier Pilon) is a brawler for a minor league hockey team who is also gay. He meets them each once a week for lunch. But his life is falling apart. He drinks heavily and his creative output — he’s a writer — is zero. And when he catches his second wife in bed with another man, he is deeply offended — How dare she… he’s the adulterer, not her! But that’s not all.

His father (Brian Gleeson) is frequently visiting him at home. Problem is, he died in Ireland decades ago when Samuel was just a boy. Other hallucinations come and go: a female bodybuilder with a tiger’s head, and the grim reaper himself. Is he going crazy? Turns out Samuel has an inoperable tumour pressing on his brain. So he decides to turn his life around. He packs up and heads to Ireland, to write his novel. There he meets Charlotte (Jessica Paré) a Quebecoise former model who works in a corner.  Is third time the charm? Will he beat his tumour? Will he ever stop boozing? And will he reconcile with the ones he loves?

Death of a Ladies Man, is a densely-packed, mood-heavy saga about an Irish-Canadian man in his sixties dealing with his life.  Although it’s set in present day Montreal and Ireland, the movie has a very nostalgic feel, and it’s brimming with Canadiana.. The title comes from a Leonard Cohen song, whose music appears throughout the film.  Samuel feels like equal parts Duddy Kravitz and Ginger Coffey, a Montreal everyman… all grown up. His son is named Layton (Irving Layton was Leonard Cohen’s poetry mentor.) When he leaves Canada the soundtrack instantly switches to Un Canadien Errant. He hallucinates figure-skating hockey players and fur trappers… Could he possibly be any more Canadian?

The movie — a Canadian-Irish co-production — runs into trouble with all the “meta” elements: it’s hard to tell whether you’re watching the character’s hallucinations, the plot of the book he’s writing, or the writer-director’s own fantasies. Everything centres on Samuel, and though Gabriel Byrne (who is great) is surrounded by some of Quebec’s best actors, they’re all only background figures. 

Does it work? I think it does — it’s delightful to watch, wonderfully photographed and redolent with great Canadian music — just don’t mistake art for reality.

Underplayed and Jump, Darling are now playing, and Death of a Ladies’ Man opens today.

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 Rebecca Snow about Pandora’s Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Women’s Day! Films reviewed: True Mothers, The World to Come, My Salinger Year

Posted in 1800s, 1990s, Adoption, Family, J.D. Salinger, Japan, LGBT, New York City, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 5, 2021

Monday is International Women’s Day, so this week I’m looking at three new movies that celebrate women. There’s a woman who encounters her adopted son’s birth mother; an aspiring writer in 1990s Manhattan; and two women in 19th century, upstate New York. 

True Mothers

Wri/Dir: Naomi Kawase

Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) is a married professional woman in Western Japan. She and her husband enjoy their kids-free lifestyle — fine dining, travel, and a high-rise luxury condo. But they long for a family of their own, and so far, it isn’t working., despite various medical interventions. Then one day on a talk show they see a woman telling about her organization. It’s called Baby Baton because the infant is passed on like a baton from the birth mother to its new parents. Adoptees have to pass rigorous requirements, including that one parent must quit their job and become a full-time house parent. Unsurprisingly, Satoko takes that role. And they bring home the newborn baby of a 14-year-old junior high girl named Hikari (Aju Makita). That was five years ago. Now they are devoted to their adorable adopted son, Asato. But their world is turned upside down by a knock on the door by a woman who claims to be the boy’s mother. And, she says, she wants him back.

True Mothers is a touching intimate story of two women’s lives. The movie is divided in half, The first part is all about Satoko and her husband and son, the trials and tribulations of raising a child. The second half is about Hikari the birth mother, and her life since giving up the baby. It explores her time on a misty remote island off Hiroshima (at the Baby Baton headquarters), where she spends the final months of her pregnancy, but also the dark turn her life takes afterwards. Naomi Kawase is one of very few female directors in Japan, and as in all her movies, the story is gently told but full of pathos. Well-acted and very moving with lovely cinematography, True Mothers pulls no punches when dealing with the reality of fertility, unplanned pregnancy, and the other side of adoption. 

Very nice movie.

The World to Come

Dir: Mona Fastvold

It’s the 1850s in rural upstate New York. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is a morose young woman with a stern demeanour and long black hair. She lives in a farmhouse with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck). They have a flock of sheep, chickens and milk cows. They used to have a little daughter, the light of their lives, but she died before she was five. Since then, it’s been a loveless marriage and the two barely speak to each other, just coasting through life without a purpose. Dyer records financial records in his ledger, while Abigail writes her thoughts and observations in a black-bound diary. But everything changes when they meet their new neighbours who rent a farm over the hill. Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) has ginger hair and fiery eyes, and she swooshes past in elegant gowns. Her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) has a dark side carrying bitter grudged just waiting to explode. Abigail and Tallie become instant friends, sharing thoughts, sharp observations, secrets. Their husbands notice the change — why are they smiling? Why are they so happy? Could these two friends like each other more than their husbands? 

The World to Come is a passionate and poetic romance, about two women who find love along the harsh frontier. It’s narrated by Abigail’s diary entries and love letters from Jan to July of the same year, and the story is told in a literary style, like the turning pages of a book. But it’s not all talk, it’s a beautifully shot movie full of burnished wood, wrought iron, fireplaces, cotton dresses and candlelight. It’s filmed on location, with harsh winter blizzards and beautiful spring days. And while not explicit, there are sensuous scenes of Abigail and Tallie kissing furtively in dark doorways, or sneaking off into the woods. Very famous cast: Vanessa Kirby plays Princes Margaret in The Crown, and Katherine Waterston is in Fantastic Beasts and Inherent Vice. And the husbands, Christopher Abbot and Casey Affleck, are very well known, as well. While I wasn’t deeply moved by this movie, I did care about what happens to the characters, and the film itself is visually very nice to look at.

My Salinger Year

Wri/Dir: Phillippe Falardeau (Based on the Memoir by Joanna Rackoff) 

It’s the 1990s in Manhattan. Joanna (Margaret Qualley) is a young grad student and aspiring poet, who is visiting the city to experience literary New York. She has a boyfriend back in Berkeley, but in the meantime she’s camping out in her best friend Jenny’s cramped Village apartment. Her “room” is a tiny space in the corner separated by a folding paper screen. And she lands a plumb job; not as a a writer or working for a publisher, but in the office of a venerable agency. The company is headed by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) who looks like a stately Susan Sontag. Margaret’s biggest client is JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, whom she calls Jerry. He hasn’t published anything since the ’60s, but he’s still wildly popular. As Margaret’s assistant, Joanna’s main job is dealing with the bags of fan mail delivered each day. Salinger is a recluse, and never sees any mail — they shred each letter, but not before reading it, and sending out a hand-typed — we’re talking typewriters here, no computers allowed in the office — form letter, saying thank try for your kind letter, unfortunately JD Salinger won’t see it. 

Meanwhile Joanna is luxuriating in the literary life: having lunch at the Waldorf, rubbing shoulders with famous authors (though never Salinger). She goes to poetry readings at the right cafes and moves in with her handsome new boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth), a working-calls writer who’s also a bit of a dick. Will Joanna stay on in Manhattan or return to California? Can she forge a career as a literary agent? And will she ever meet Salinger?

My Salinger Year is a true memoir based on the writer’s own early career. It’s delightful to watch —who would have guessed we could feel nostalgic for the 90s? She experiences the city, wandering into places like the New Yorker magazine’s offices. And it’s full of wonderful vignettes about the quirky people she meets in her office (played by Colm Feore, and others.) It also shows us the writers of the fan mail, each of whom addresses the audience directly, reciting the texts of their letters. The film is made by Quebec director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and is shot around Montreal. As always, his movies are full of warm, funny characters and lots of  detail; he doesn’t gloss over what’s going on. Falardeau also has some weird trademarks — characters break into music videos or start dancing — which I don’t quite get, but luckily it doesn’t detract from the story. You can tell Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley loved making this movie, and if you’re into writing or reading books, or the whole literary milieu, you’ll enjoy it, too. 

True Mothers, The World to Come, and My Salinger Year are all playing today on VOD or streaming sites.

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

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

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

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

Minari

Wri/Dir: Lee Isaac Chung

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

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

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

Test Pattern

Wri/Dir: Shatara Michelle Ford

It’s Austin Texas. 

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

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

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

The Mauritanian

Dir: Kevin MacDonald

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

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

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

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

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

Separated. Films reviewed: Dear Comrades!, A Glitch in the Matrix, Two of Us

Posted in 1960s, documentary, Family, France, Lesbian, LGBT, Protest, Psychology, Romance, Russia, TIFF, USSR, video games, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 5, 2021

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

Festival and award season has begun, so this week I’m looking at three new movies – from the US, Russia and France – now playing at Sundance or already nominated for upcoming awards. There are people who believe perception is separate from reality; a Communist official separated from her daughter; and an elderly woman separated from the love of her life.

Dear Comrades!

Co-Wri/Dir: Andrey Konchalovskiy 

It’s summer in a small Russian city on the Don River, and the people are angry. Food prices are soaring while wages are going down. Thousands of factory workers take to the streets carrying red flags and pictures of Lenin. Is this the Russian revolution of 1905? Or is it 1917?

Neither… it’s the Soviet Union in 1962!

Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya) is a single mom who lives with her and her daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova) who works in a train factory, She’s an ardent Stalinist. And because she’s an apparatchik — a high-placed local official and member of the Communist Party — she lives a good life. This means access to hair salons, nylon stockings, negligees, and Hungarian salami. She’s having an affair with a married official. 

The food shortages and wage cuts don’t really affect her.

But her life is shaken up by the  walkout at a locomotive factory (where Svetka works) and spreading across the city of Novocherkassk. And their meetings — they’re trying to figure out how to handle this — end up with bricks through the window and Lyuda and the rest forced to sneak out through a sewer tunnel. In comes the KGB who want to bring guns ammunition into the equation: the instigators must be stopped. Mayhem and killings ensue. Lyuda is a hardliner, but when her daughter disappears she has to decide whether her loyalty is to the state or to her kin.

Dear Comrades is a moving drama about a real event and the massive cover-up that followed it. It’s shot in glorious, high-contrast black and white, similar to Polish director Pawilowski’s Ida and Cold War, but with magnificent, classic cinematic scenes involving hundreds of rioters and soldiers in the public square. Yuliya Vysotskaya’s  performance as Lyuda runs the gamut from cold official to angry mother to disillusioned and drunken party member as her entire existence and beliefs are called into question.

This is Russia’s nominee for best foreign film Oscar and definitely deserves to be seen.

A Glitch in the Matrix

Dir: Rodney Ascher 

Have you ever had the sensation that everything around you — other people, your job, what you see and hear — is an illusion, that you’re living in a programmed reality? If so, you’re not alone. A new documentary talks to people who are convinced they are trapped in a world like the Wachowskis’ 1999 movie The Matrix, where everything they perceive is just a computer simulation. And anyone else — other than one’s self — is either a part of this conspiracy, or a victim of it, or they don’t even exist outside of your head. And it is only detectable by paying attention to weird glitches in the system, like odd examples of deja vu, or coincidences that are too absurd or fantastical to be merely random events. 

The doc interviews people rendered into 3-D animated avatars who tell about their own experiences. It also gives a full history of these beliefs, dating back to Plato’s concept of shadows on the wall of a cave, through Descarte’s  epistemological example of an “Evil Demon” deceiving us, all the way to the present. This includes a rare recording of a speech given by author Phillip K Dick in the 1970s, who says the ideas in his books are not science fiction but science fact. His stories inspired movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall.

A Glitch in the Matrix is a fascinating, informative and bizarre documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival a couple days ago. Aside from the animated interviews and narration, it presents a veritable tsunami of visual references to movies and TV shows video games that deal with these topics. I’m talking hundreds of clips, from the game Minecraft, to The Truman Show, to the kids’ book Horton Hears a Who, all of which propose that there are worlds or universes who don’t know they are just tiny self-contained units within much larger realities.

Do I believe I’m living in a glass dome or floating in a sensory deprivation tank? No. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying this mind-warp of a documentary.

Two of Us

Co-Wri/Dir: Filippo Meneghetti

Nina and Madeleine (Barbara Sukowa, Martine Chevallier) are two elderly women who live in Paris (Nina’s originally from Berlin). They first met as children in a public park in Rome, and kept in touch ever since. And for the past 20 years they’ve been passionate lovers who share one floor of an apartment building, floating back and forth between the two homes separated by a hallway. And they’re planning on selling them leaving Paris and retiring somewhere in Rome. The only thing holding them back are Madeleine (or Made as Nina calls her)’s two adult children and her Anne and Frédéric and her grandson Théo.

She was married to an abusive husband for Amy years until he died, though her actual relationship was with her lover Nina. But she’s never told her family the truth — she’s too worried about what they’ll think. But when Mado has a sudden stroke rendering her speechless, Nina is suddenly separated from her de facto wife. Mado’s family just think of her as the kindly neighbour Mme Dorn who lives down the hall. They bring in a paid caregiver who blocks her entry into the other apartment. When Nina demands to spend time with her lover, Anne and Frederic begin to regard Nina as a crazy woman who won’t leave their mother alone and cut off all contact. Will Nina and Mado ever see each other again?  And can their relationship be saved?

Two of Us is a wonderful and passionate drama about two elderly lovers. It’s the young, Paris-based Italian director’s first feature, but it feels mature and masterfully done. And it co-stars the great Barbara Sukowa (If you’re into German cinema, you may remember her from movies in the 70s and 80s by Fassbinder and more recently by von Trotta), Sukowa is just as good now as she’s ever been.  And Chevalier conveys volumes even when she can’t speak. The movie is full of pathos and tears and frustration and joy, you feel so much for both of them.

Two of Us is France’s nominee for best Foreign Oscar, and it’s definitely worth seeing.

A Glitch in the Matrix starts today, and Dear Comrade and Two of Us are both opening at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Travelling for love. Films reviewed: Make Up, Identifying Features, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Posted in Coming of Age, Corruption, Crime, Family, Hungary, LGBT, Mexico, Obsession, Psychology, Romance, Rural, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2021

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

They say love is true, and some people travel far and wide to keep that love alive. This week I’m looking at three new movies, directed by women in Hungary, England, and Mexico, that explore this theme. There’s a teenaged girl who moves to Cornwall to spend time with her boyfriend; an American surgeon who moves to Budapest to be reunited with her lover, and a Mexican farmer who crosses the country in search of her missing son.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Dir: Lili Horvát

Marta (Natasa Stork) is a 39-year-old, successful surgeon from New Jersey.  So what is she doing at a run-down hospital in Budapest? She moved there, spontaneously to join up with a man she met a conference. They shared a night of passion and swore to meet up again  on a bridge in Budapest at a specific time and date. (Marta is originally from Hungary but immigrated to the U.S.) But when she sees her bearded lover Janos (Viktor Bodó) he says he has ever seen her before in his life. She faints on a downtown street, where a young man named Alex (Benett Vilmányi) comes to her rescue. Marta is overcome with emotions. Is she going crazy? Was it all a dream? Or is Janos gaslighting her for some unknown reason? 

She gets a job at the hospital where Janos works to be close to him. Meanwhile Alex turns out to be a young medical student who develops an infatuation with Marta. So this turns into a three way stalk fest with Marta spying on Janos and Alex following her. Where is love? IS it real or imaginary? And can Marta come to terms with her new strange life?

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is an intriguing mystery-romance-psychological drama about passion and illusion, alienation and obsession. Marta deals with sexist colleagues and petty bureaucrats, as she  tries to navigate a culture she’s not quite familiar with. It’s filmed on the lovely streets of Budapest with a fair amount of unexpectedly strange sex (no spoilers). The movie is a bit confusing in its tone, with, rather than a huge dramatic turning point, it culminates in an oddly absurdist, anticlimactic finish. Preparations is a good movie, but probably not what you expect. 

This is Hungary’s nominee for best Foreign Language  Film Oscar.

Make Up

Dir: Claire Oakley

It’s winter in Cornwall, England. Ruth (Molly Windsor) is an 18 year old woman, staying at a deserted summer holiday park so she can spend time with her boyfriend. She’s been dating Tom (Joseph Quinn) for 3 years. But rather than a romantic getaway, she’s staying in a grey, gloomy collection of jerry-built cottages near the sea. Everything is covered in plastic sheeting. And her relation with Tom is fraught with tension and jealousy. When she finds a hair in her sheets, that clearly isn’t hers, she takes the bedding to the laundry to wash it clean. There she meets an older taller woman named Jade (Stephanie Martini). Jane makes hair pieces for a local hospital — it takes 30,000 knots to make a single wig, she says. 

Now Ruth has someone she can hang around with, talk to, and tell her secrets, none of which she’s getting from Tom. But her obsession with her boyfriend’s possible mistress drives Ruth into an unexpected situation. Can her relationship last? Or will she find a new path among the windswept sand dunes?

Make Up is an impressionistic coming-of-age story about a young woman looking for love while trapped in an almost surreal setting. It’s full of the screeching foxes, detached sexual sounds and  blurry vistas set against the banality of service jobs. Molly Windsor is really good as the bewildered Ruth. The movie itself is a straightforward drama but shot almost like an eerie ghost story. This is an excellent first feature from a young filmmaker.

Identifying Features

Dir: Fernanda Valadez

Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra) is a farmer in Guanajuato, Mexico. She’s a single mom who’s raising her teenaged son Jesus in a small farmhouse. But when he suddenly tells her he’s heading north with his best friend to take a job in Arizona, she packs his bag and says goodbye. And that’s the last she hears from him and his friend. Are they kidnapped? Lost? Or dead? She reports it to the police to no avail. His best friend is found but nothing is found of Jesus except the bag Chuya had packed.  And when a woman she meets tells her not to give up, she sets out on a journey to try to find her son, or else confirmation that he’s dead.

On the way she falls in with a young man named Miguel (David Illescas)  who was recently deported from the US. He is looking for his mom who lives in Ocampo a region plagued with crime. It’s also where Chuya thinks she can find the answers to her son’s disappearance. Will she ever find out what happened to him? And can an ordinary, kind woman survive in a society filled with greed, suspicion, and murder? 

Identifying Features is a deeply moving and gripping mystery/drama that looks at the lives of Mexicans, trapped within larger forces — el migra, organized crime, and a corrupt police force — over which they have no control. It takes you into fascinating places, rarely portrayed — like indigenous villages, hostels for migrants — that tell an unforgettable story with a shocking ending.  Stunning cinematography, and natural acting combined with compelling drama, makes for a terrific film.

Make Up just opened on VOD across North America.  Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, and Identifying Features both open today at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Investigative Journalists. Movies reviewed: The Journalist, The Viewing Booth, The Best is Yet to Come

Posted in 2000s, China, Corruption, Crime, Israel, Japan, Meta, Movies, Palestine, Poverty, Realism, Suspense, Women, 日本映画, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on October 16, 2020

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

Is journalism still alive? We seem to have an endless supply of pundits with formulaic political viewpoints, but true investigative journalism is hard to find. But it’s still there – you just have to know where to look. So this week I’m talking about three new movies (two dramas and a doc) about journalists and the media. There’s a die-hard journalist in Tokyo looking for the truth; a cub reporter in Beijing looking for his first big story; and a documentary-maker in the US looking at how viewers interpret the news.

The Journalist (新聞記者)

Dir: Fujii Michihito (Based on the novel by Mochizuki Isoko)

Erika Yoshioka (Eun-kyung Shim) is a young reporter at Tôto, a medium-sized Tokyo newspaper. One day she receives an anonymous fax with a cartoon of a sheep drawn on the first page. Inside are government plans to open a medical researchlab in a backwater town. is it a prank? Evidence of a boondoggle? Or something more? She decides to investigate. But she has to be careful; her own father was a freelance journalist based in New York who ended up dead from suicide after revealing another storyl.

Meanwhile, in a different part of Tokyo, a young government bureaucrat named Takumi Sugihara (Tôri Matsuzaka) gets an unusual call from Kanzaki, his former boss from five years earlier. He wants to meet for a talk. Sugihara used to work for Gaimushô, Japan’s foreign service, but switched to his current job after Kanzaki took the fall for a scandal at the Beijing Embassy where they both worked. Sugihara now works for Naicho, the secretive intelligence unit that operates out of the PMO. Rumour has it Naicho is used to surveil and plot against opponents to the ruling political leaders. Kanzaki wants to tell him something, but they both end up getting drunk instead. And not long after, he jumps off a building. His death brings together the dogged journalist Erika and the loyal bureaucrat Sugihara both of whom want to find out exactly what happened. What was Kanzaki’s secret and why is it so dangerous? Is it related to the sheep cartoon Erika received? Who else knows? And what will happen to the two of them if the scandal reaches the papers?

The Journalist is a tense, captivating story of deep-state corruption and sinister plots. The action alternates between Erika’s bright and crowded newsroom and the cold empty halls of Naicho where Sugihara reports to an evil and powerful boss. Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung is perfect as Erika in her unwavering search for the truth – she totally deserves the Japanese Academy award she won for this performance. The Journalist is a terrific movie.

The Viewing Booth

Dir: Ra’anan Alexandrowicz

This documentary asks: can news viewers, like you and me, ever change our political views because of politically-charged videos we watch on sites like youtube?  It follows a subject named Maya at an American university by filming her face has she watches a selection of 40 short news videos. The camera captures her comments and facial expressions, moment by moment, as she wavers between acceptance and rejection of what she’s watching, sorting them mentally according to whether or not they fit her outlook. She asks aloud: Is this footage real? Is it convincing? Is it biased? Does she believe it? And what does it mean?

She’s brought back six months later, this time viewing the same videos, right beside footage of herself from the first session. She observes herself observing videos (it gets super-meta here.) The videos in the doc are all from the occupied Palestinian territories and they range from innocuous to disturbing, showing settlers, Israeli soldiers, and Palestinians. (She concentrates on one video where soldiers dressed in large military masks walk into a home in the middle of the night, wake up small children,  ask each child their name, photograph each child’s face, then leaving without explanation.) Half the clips are from B’Tselem, a human rights group opposed to the occupation, and the other half were posted by various right-wing groups. The documentary tries to see whether exposure to opposing viewpoints can change a viewer’s mind or if it merely enforces the beliefs she already holds. Here’s the thing: it’s not a scientific study despite its clinical trappings; rather, The Viewing Booth is more of a meditation, the filmmaker’s personal reflection on the biases news viewers hold. Is it universally applicable or just about that single subject? I don’t know, but it is interesting – and unsettling – to watch.

The Best is Yet to Come (不止不休)

Dir: Wang Jing

It’s 2003. Han Dong (Bai Ke) is a would-be journalist in Beijing. Originally from northeastern China, he’s a high school drop-out who quit his steady job back home at a chemical factory to go for broke in the big city. But so far no luck. His girlfriend Xiaozhu (Miao Miao: Youth) who also worked at the factory lives in even worse conditions. But he keeps going to job fairs to try to get hired by a newspaper. And they keep rejecting him as unqualified, until… opportunity knocks when he visits a newspaper to pick up a minuscule 100 yuan paycheque for a short piece they published. He catches the attention of a veteran journo there takes him on as an intern, right beside college grads brandishing journalism degrees from prestigious schools like Bei Da. And he passes his first test, getting a scoop at the site of a coal mine disaster. But his next story could be a whopper.

He goes undercover taking a job at a sketchy medical clinic that pays cash for blood. No they’re not vampires. Rather they provide forged blood samples for applicants to jobs. Why? Because anyone who tests positive for Hepatitis B is categorically rejected. This effects maybe 100 million people for a disease that is not even contagious. It’s a crooked company that breaks the law. But is the law fair? Should he cover the story… or cover it up?

The Best is Yet to Come (based on a true story) shows how a self-taught, print journalist breaks into the big leagues despite all the odds against him. Its exciting plot keeps you questioning all the way through. This is Wang Jing’s first feature – he was assistant director to the great Jia Zhang-ke (Ash is Purest White, Touch of Sin) but with a very different style. It’s told in a straightforward chronological manner, no tricks or fancy camerawork. Great acting and story, The Best is Yet to Come gives an unusual look at both investigative journalism and a glimpse into real-life China – the grime and grit, the dark alleys, crowded tenements and poverty. And it leaves on a hopeful note: if you try hard and don’t give up, you can change the world.

The Best is Yet to Come played at #TIFF20, The Viewing Booth is showing at Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival on now through the weekend, and The Journalist is available for streaming at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival through October 21st.

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

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