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.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Emma Seligman about Shiva Baby

Posted in comedy, Family, Feminism, Judaism, LGBT, New York City, Sex, Women by CulturalMining.com on October 9, 2020

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

Danielle is a woman living the high life in New York City. She’s young, pretty and smart, finishing her BA and looking for work. In the meantime she’s shacking up in a Soho flat with a very generous, older boyfriend named Max in a pecuniary relationship. He thinks he’s paying her way through law school. But her delicate web of lies and deceptions threatens to unravel when she finds herself at a party she doesn’t want to attend. Well, not exactly a party, it’s a shiva, a Jewish, post-funeral get-together with family and friends of the deceased. And who shows up? Maya, her former best friend from high school with whom she once had a relationship; and Max, the guy she’s sleeping with now. Add an intrusive mother, an oblivious father, some nosy relatives telling cringe-worthy stories, some awful coincidences, and a few key embarrassing accidents, and there you have it: Danielle’s shiva from hell.

Shiva Baby is a dark comedy that adds a new twist to the classic screwball genre. It deals with family, sex work, secrets and lies, romance, eating disorders, hidden pasts and uncomfortable presents, It’s written and directed by Toronto-born, NY-based filmmaker Emma Seligman. Shiva Baby is her first feature.

I spoke with Emma in Toronto from my home via ZOOM.

Shiva Baby screened at TIFF20, SXSW and is currently playing at Toronto’s LGBT Inside Out Film Festival.

 

In the Twilight Zone? Films reviewed: Shadow in the Cloud, The Antenna, Possessor Uncut

Posted in 1940s, Action, Crime, Horror, Mind Control, Supernatural, Suspense, Suspicion, Turkey, Uncategorized, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2020

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

Fall festival season continues with Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT festival playing now both digitally and at drive-ins. The Toronto Japanese Film Festival is entirely digital and runs from Saturday, October 3 – Thursday October 22.

This week I’m looking at three new genre movies that exist in a universe known as the Twilight Zone. There’s a female pilot fighting for control of a plane; a Turkish superintendant fighting a satellite dish for control of an apartment; and a highly-paid assassin fighting for control of a brain.

Shadow in the Cloud

Co-Wri/Dir: Roseanne Liang

It’s WWII at an airforce base in New Zealand. Maud Garret (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a pilot on a secret mission: to deliver a package with unknown contents to an undisclosed destination. But when she tries to board the all-male plane, she’s bombarded by a barrage of insults and abuse, ranging from condescension, to wolf whistles to outright hatred. But she stands her ground and won’t budge. So they relegate her to the ball turret – the glass and steel bubble attached to the bottom of the plane. Before climbing down she hands her satchel to one of the men – “never let this out of your hands, no matter what.” Her job? To look for a shadow in the clouds, evidence of Zero fighters, the Japanese aircraft that could shoot them down.

Turns out she’s an expert gunner, saving them all from a certain crash. But she faces a much bigger challenge from an unexpected enemy… something she keeps spotting out of the corner of her eye. It seems to be a creature with claws that can rip through steel, sharp teeth and cruel eyes. Is it real or just her imagination? What is in Maud’s package? And will this plane ever see dry land again?

Shadow in the Cloud is a fantastic WWII airplane drama, an action/thriller/sci-fi/horror movie, expertly done. A large portion of the movie is just Chloe Grace Moretz in a bomber jacket, alone in her ball turret, the rest of them just disembodied voices she hears through her earphones – but she carries it through. The movie is exciting and gripping all the way through. This is a genre movie – don’t look too closely for social significance – but it’s very entertaining with a perfect bad-ass heroine.  I loved this one.

The Antenna

Wri/Dir: Orçun Behram

Mehmet (Ihsan Önal) is an ordinary guy who works at a dead-end job somewhere in Turkey. He’s the superintendant at a non-descript apartment building, and has to deal with demanding tenants and a bully of a boss. He works in a small booth at the apartment gate, looking out a wide glass window. But he has some friends there, too. Like Yasemin (Gül Arici) a pretty young woman with conservative parents who wants to get out of this place; and Yusuf, a little kid who is kept awake by nightmares. (Mehmet has insomnia, too).

His job is tedious but not hard to handle… until a government operative arrives to install a new antenna on the building’s roof. These satellite dishes are required on every home, by orders of their Orwellian president, so they can hear his midnight speeches. But things go badly once the satellite dish is installed. Mehmet hears strange whispers. Black gunk starts seeping through cracks in the walls. And anyone exposed to the goop starts to change… in a bad way. Can Mehmet keep the run-down apartment from collapsing? Can he fight a secretive government plot to censor and control all the people? Or will he succumb to the powers of the antenna?

The Antenna is a fantasy/horror movie about ordinary people trying to fight government propaganda and the toxic waste it generates. It’s shot in a stark, 1984-ish style, with deserted apartment blocks, drab clothes, bland faces and constant overcast skies. Radios broadcast iron curtain propaganda, full of static and noise. Don’t expect elaborate special effects or extreme violence – it’s a low-budget psychological drama, more weird and creepy than truly frightening. It’s a bit too slow, and a bit too long, but it does capture the current fears of oppression, surveillance and the total lack of privacy. It’s about the toxic dystopia we’re living in right now.

Possessor Uncut

Wri/Dir: Brandon Cronenberg

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a highly-paid English assassin who never gets caught. She’s a skinny woman in her thirties, with pale skin, blue eyes and whispy blond hair – not your typical killer. So how does she do it? She works for a company that deals in biotechnology… and she never has to leaves the lab. Instead, the victims are killed by a bystander, someone with a reason to be near the target. A device is implanted into the hapless third party’s brain, and Vos possesses their body, becoming comfortable there. When they’re in the right place at the right time, she neutralizes the target and then shoots themselves in the head, thus destroying the implant and sending Vos back to her own body. Simple right? But the more she does it, the harder it is to retain her sense of self… memories of the other bodies she possessed keep popping into her brain. And her marriage is on the rocks; she’s separated from her husband and 5 year old son.

Now (with the help of her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh) she’s embarking on her biggest job yet: to kill the nasty CEO of a multinational high-tech corporation (Sean Bean) by inhabiting the body of his daughter’s boyfriend. Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) is a swarthy, working class guy who happens to be living with Ava (Tuppence Middleton) the heiress to the company’s fortune. He’s living the life of Reilly, with a mistress on the side (Kaniehtiio Horn) his girlfriend’s best friend. But he has to swallow his pride and work at a menial job at Ava’s dad’s company. The thing is, Vos (the assassin) has underestimated the body she’s possessing. The sublimated personality is fighting for control. Will the assassination take place? And whose survival instinct is the strongest – Vos or Tate?

Possessor is a highly original psychological thriller/horror about mind control, possession and high-tech surveillance. Beautifully designed, it takes you from cold cityscapes, to bland labs and offices, and into the gaudy, golden mansions of the super-rich, filled with Trumpian rococo excess. The special effects are excellent and the acting all appropriately creepy. There’s also suspense, good fight scenes, psychedelic brain implosions, and extreme violence (Vos’s weapon of choice is a knife – so if you can’t watch lots of blood, stay away!). I wasn’t crazy about Brandon Cronenberg’s first biotech horror, Antiviral, but Possessor corrects all his errors while keeping it’s weird beauty.

This is a good one.

Shadow in the Cloud played at TIFF; Possessor Uncut opens today in Toronto; check your local listenings. The Antenna starts today in virtual cinemas in select North American cities, and digitally on Oct 20th;

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

Building walls. Films reviewed: The Rest of Us, The Divided Brain, Mr Jones

Posted in 1930s, Brain, Canada, Communism, documentary, Drama, Family, Feminism, Journalism, Movies, Neuroscience, Norway, Thriller, USSR, Wales, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 19, 2020

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

I’m recording this in my home to tell you about some movies you can watch in your home. This week I have two dramas directed by women and a documentary. There’s a psychiatrist looking at the divided brain, two families trying to bridge a gap; and a UK journalist who wants to penetrate the iron curtain.

The Rest of Us

Dir: Aisling Chin-Yee

Cami (Heather Graham) is a divorced mom who writes and illustrates children’s books. She lives in an elegant house with a swimming pool. Her daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) is home from university and hanging with a guy she met. She’s mad at her mother so she lives in an Airstream trailer parked out front. Meanwhile, another mother/daughter family live in another nice house. Rachel (Jodi Balfour) lives with her husband and young daughter Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky). What do they have in common? Rachel had an affair with Cami’s husband 10 years back, and now she’s married to him. But when he suddenly dies, the two moms – and their daughters – are brought together, against their will. Turns out the late husband hadn’t kept up with insurance and mortgage payments, leaving Rachel and Talulah homeless. So they end up moving, temporarily, into Cami and Aster’s home. An odd couple indeed. Can four women with very little in common bond together? Or will they stew in their respective juices making for an intractable situation?

The Rest of Us is a light drama about relationships and make-shift families. It’s short – less than 90 minutes – but the characters are really well done, complete with secrets, back stories and quirks. It didn’t exactly blow me away, but it I liked watching it develop — you do care about what happens to them. A nice, light family drama.

The Divided Brain

Dir: Manfred Becker

The human brain is divided in half. The left brain controls the right side of your body, and the right brain handles the left side. So if you’re right-handed that usually means the left side of your brain is dominant. Beyond that, the two sides are said to process information in different ways: The left brain, or so the theory goes, is more analytical, concerned wth facts and minutiae; while the right brain is more creative; it lets you look at the big picture. This documentary is about the theories of Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and neuroimaging researcher who also studied literature. He lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. He’s the author of The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). Basically, he says we – meaning our history, civilization, educational system, society, not to mention our individual personalities – can be explained by our emphasis on the left side of the brain at the expense of the right side. And it goes on to show research and experiments on the topic as explained by various talking heads. But is it true, and has McGilchrist proven it?

Personally, I don’t buy it. I don’t even believe the basic left side/right side premise. We all use both sides of our brains, so to make it a simple A vs B, is reductionist. And then to extrapolate this theory to cover all of society, communication, and our educational system, while fascinating just isn’t believable. (I have seen the documentary but not read his book, which could explain his work in greater detail.) While the documentary mainly focuses on McGilchrist’s theories, it does include opposing views. McGilchrist is a heterodox scholar, not part of the mainstream. It also includes magnificent drone shots of cityscapes and farms to illustrate the increasing “left brain”-look of ever more geometrically divided landscapes.

Whether or not you agree with these theories, The Divided Brain does leave you with lots of food for thought.

Mr Jones

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

It’s the early 1930s in London. Gareth Jones (James Norton) is a Cambridge-educated young man from Wales. He’s multilingual and works as a foreign policy advisor to the former PM David Lloyd George. But what he really wants is to be an investigative journalist. He’s already had one big scoop: he was on the plane carrying carrying Hitler, Goebels and other top Nazis right after they came to power. Now he wants to go to Moscow to follow a source about a big story there… and maybe interview Stalin!

Easier said than done. But he does manage to get a visa and a few nights at the posh Hotel Metropol. When he gets there, he discovers his source – another journalist – has been murdered. Luckily, he is taken under the wing of a famous foreign correspondent, Walter Duranty (Peter Saarsgard). He heads the NY Times bureau – known as “our man in Moscow” – and he’s won the Pulitzer. He’s also a total sleazebucket. He takes Jones to a party, right in the middle of Moscow, complete with jazz musicians, sex workers, and party favours… like hypodermic needles, loaded with heroin, ready to shoot.

He also meets a Berlin-based journalist named Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby). She trusts Jones and tells him what he needs to know. So he gets on a train with a high-ranked party member who says he’ll show him beautiful Ukraine… but Jones manages to sneak away in the city of Stalino (now Donetsk). And what he sees is shocking. There’s a major famine going on, right in the middle of Europe’s breadbasket. All the wheat is being shipped east, leaving almost nothing for them to eat. He witnesses unspeakable horrors in what is now known as The Holodomor. But he’s arrested before he can file his story. Will Jones make it back home? Can he publish this story? And if he does, will anyone believe him?

Based on a true story, Mr Jones is a combination biopic, thriller and historical drama. It’s a bit too long, and there are a few things I don’t get: for example, the movie is framed by scenes of George Orwell typing Animal Farm, but the story’s about Gareth Jones, not George Orwell. Other than that, the acting’s good (especially James Norton), the story is compelling, and it’s beautifully shot, from the modernistic Moscow hotel to the staid, stone buildings in London. Most of all are the scenes in Ukraine where colour is dimmed to almost black and white with stark snowy landscapes.

A good but harrowing movie.

The Rest of Us is now playing on VOD; Mr Jones opens today online at Apple and Cineplex; check your local listings; and The Brain Divided is available to rent online on Vimeo.com here

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

Changing Minds. Films reviewed: iHuman, How Holocaust Came to TV, Made in Bangladesh

Posted in Bangladesh, Germany, Norway, Unions, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 5, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three films – from Norway, Germany and Bangladesh – all directed by women and currently playing at Toronto film festivals: Human Rights Watch, TJFF and Hot Docs. There’s a union organizer trying to change a Dhaka factory, a TV show that completely changed Germany, and how AI is changing the entire world.

iHuman

Dir: Tonje Hessen Schei 

You might not think about Artificial Intelligence much but it’s there in almost everything you do, from smart phones to social networking, to purchasing something online. We think of it as a passive device, something that makes things easier to use, a helpful program that nudges you in the right direction (You like this song? Listen to this one.) But we’re less aware of the massive amount of data AI collects about you and what they use it for. Search engines like google knows what you look at, buy, or ask about online. The location indicator in your cellphone uses GPS to know where you are at all times. Drone footage can see you, while facial and voice recognition figures who you are. Social networks like facebook can determine your politics, your sexual orientation, your income and your debt. But what algorythms do with this data is less obvious. They might bombard you with opinions they know will get you indignant, angry or agitated. Political parties can influence who you give money to and who you vote for, or to discouraging you from voting at all. The smarter AI gets, the more it can influence what you do.

This documentary, beautifully illustrated with panoramic overhead drone shots, looks at how governments, corporations and police use AI. Talking heads – investigative journalists and tech experts – explain how AI works and where it’s going. Like bizarre theories straight out of science fiction novels – can observing the facial expression of babies really determine which ones will commit crimes as adults? And should the police be allowed to spy on babies at all? Some people think so.

It also looks at politics – how companies like Cambridge Analytica already influence elections. For me, though, the most surprising scene is a clip of Barack Obama talking about the danger of deep fakes. Then the screen splits and pulls back and you see it’s not Obama at all, it’s someone else, whose voice and image exactly duplicates Obama’s. That’s what a deep fake actually is. iHuman is a disturbing but informative documentary about how AI is changing your life… and influencing your mind.

How Holocaust Came to TV (Wie Holocaust Ins Fernsehen kam)

Dir: Alice Agneskirchner

How can a four-episode TV mini-series transform the loutlook of an entire country and impact future generations? That’s what a new documentary is asking. In 1978 a TV series premiered on US TV called Holocaust. It was a drama about an assimilated, middle-class Jewish-German family during the Nazi era. Three generations of the Weiss family live in Berlin as they passively observe the shocking changes happening in their beloved land, the home of Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven. And over the course of four episodes the sympathetic main characters are systematically attacked, raped, and killed. Though popular among US viewers, many critics said it was too Hollywood, too much like a soap opera that trivializes such a grave and somber topic.

In any case, it did not change America. The country it did change was Germany. It was hugely controversial, generating massive amounts of mail even before it was aired. And when it was broadcast, in German, across the Bundesrepublic, it landed like a juggernaut in the heart of the entire nation. It wasn’t the first show about Germany’s dark past, but somehow it took an American drama to pull the wool from the eyes of a generation. Young people in the 1970s, born after the war, were stunned at what their own parents – their own country – had done. The whole country was glued to the TV each night, both for the show and the hours-long round table discussions that followed it. And the response it generated dominated magazines, newspapers, the movie industry, education and political life.

This was in the 70s, but its impact continued to this day, changing the national psyche. The documentary revisists the making of the show, talking to its producers, crew, and actors like Tovah Feldshuh, Michael Moriarty and Rosemary Harris. More than that, it talks with dozens of ordinary Germans whose lives were changed.

How Holocaust Came to TV while occasionally nostalgic, is always a deeply moving, incisive, and meticulously-made documentary.

Made in Bangladesh

Dir: Rubaiyat Hossain

Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu) is a 23-year-old woman in Dhaka. She’s hardworking but outspoken. She works in a clothing sweatshop alongside her best friends Daliya and Reshma (Novera Rahman and Deepanwita Martin), pushing the sewing machine pedals with their bare feet. The workers in the factory are all women, the managers all men. The T-shirts they make each day are sent abroad, bringing in huge profits to places like H&M, Walmart and Zara. But their own wages are so low, they can barely pay rent. Three T-shirts sell in Canada for what they get paid for an entire month in Bangladesh. And the company fires employees they don’t like, docks their wages, and makes them work long hours without paying overtime. But when a fire alarm goes off and the women flee for their lives they realize something’s gotta change. Shimu says it’s time to form a union. But can a poor woman convince skeptical workers, stand up to cruel bosses, and oppose corrupt officials? Or os it all in vain?

Made in Bangladesh is a fantastic drama about a young woman standing up for her rights as she tries to unionize. Shimu’s character is great – a smart, spunky self-taught woman – like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovitch – who learns her rights and won’t give up. The film is strikingly beautiful – a typical scene in the factory has everyone working on the same colour clothes at the same time, huge spools of bright green thread spinning as they sew piles of identical dresses. Shimu’s character might watch Bollywood, but this film is done in the European style, realistic but moving and inspirational. It’s about the perilous work of forming a union, but also about her home life – her husband, her friends, her neighbourhood.

I like this movie a lot.

iHuman is now streaming at Hotdocs; How “Holocaust” Came to TV is online now at TJFF, and Made in Bangladesh is opening across Canada including digitally at Human Rights Watch in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Crises. Films reviewed: Band Ladies, Cane Fire, Castle in the Ground

(Audio: no music)

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

I’m recording from my home, once again, looking for ways to entertain you all while movie theatres are out of the picture. So this week I’m looking at three new films, a documentary, a web series, and a dark Canadian drama. There’s a filmmaker discovering Hawai’i’s past; a group of women dealing with a collective midlife crisis; and a mother and son facing the opioid crisis.

Band Ladies

Dir: Molly Flood

Five bored, middle-aged women meet at a local bar to discuss Victorian romances for their regular book club. There’s Marnie (Kate Fenton), a stay-at- home mom with a lackluster life; Chloe (Lisa Michelle Cornelius) a careerist lawyer troubled by her Big Pharma employer; Cindy (Vicki Kim) an aspiring musician / bartender; Penny (Dana Puddicombe) a rich celeb who could pass as a Dragons Den panelist; and Stephanie (Kirstin Rasmussen) a drunk dead-ender recenty dumped by her longtime girlfriend.

But when their inhibitions are loosened by a few bottles of plonk, Chloe storms the stage to tell her secret truth: her bosses peddle opiods to children! Someone captures her rant on their phone and posts it online, and boom! the clip goes viral. But what can they do with their 15 minutes of fame? Why, form a band, of course. What kind? Punk. But can five middle-aged women shake up their lives and transform themselves overnight into an 80s style punk band? Or is this just a pipe dream?

Band Ladies is a fast-moving, cute and clever web series. It zooms through the five characters’ lives in six quick, 10-minute episodes, a crash course on the dos and don’ts of starting a band. The actors write their own characters’ lyrics and perform the songs on their first “tour” – as the opening act at a Parry Sound bar. It’s sharp, witty and empathetic – and the whole series is over in an hour.

I like this web series.

Cane Fire

Dir: Anthony Banua-Simon

Beautiful Kaua’i: a tropical paradise where happy Hawaiians harvest sugar cane and pineapples on plantations; where luxury hotels preserve ancient ceremonies by lighting torches each night; and the setting of hundreds of Hollywood features shot there. But is that the whole truth? The locals tell a very different story.

This new feature documentary pulls the veil off the island’s past and retells its story through its own people’s eyes. When the US toppled its government and colonized the islands Kaua’i was taken over by five families who controlled most of the land. Hawaiians – and workers imported from places like China, Japan and the Philippines – were kept down by the sugar and pineapple plantation owners. Unions were busted, and organizers fired, demoted or sent away. Luxury hotels were built on sacred burial grounds and their culture co-opted or invented by settlers to attract tourists. Stars like Elvis and John Wayne were featured in movies shot there while locals were background decorations. And now locals are further marginalized by the ultra-rich people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – buying huge tracts of land for their own personal use.

Cane Fire is partly a personal travelogue – the filmmaker goes to Kaua’i to find out about his great grandfather – partly a look at Hollywood’s sanitized depiction of the place; and partly a chance for the people’s own stories to be told. This includes local activists reclaiming the ruins of the once famous Koko Palms hotel built on sacred lands. The title Cane Fire comes from a movie of the same name about local unrest on the island. That movie is now lost, but the documentary fills in the blanks normally missing in depictions of Hawai’i.

Cane Fire is an excellent film.

Castle in the Ground

Wri/Dir: Joey Klein

It’s a cold, dark day in Sudbury, Ontario. Henry (Alex Wolff) is a good son, taking time off from school to take care of his dying mom (Neve Campbell). He feeds her crushed prescription pills each day to help ease her pain. But noise from across the hall – she lives in a rundown tenement – keeps bothering her. So Henry bangs on the door to investigate. There he meets Ana (Imogen Poots) – a sketchy woman with hollow eyes – and some of her unsavoury friends. She’s a cunning addict on the methadone wagon, jonesing for her next fix. And her dealer (a kid she calls Polo Boy (Keir Gilchrist) for his designer tracksuits) says she stole his bag of pills, and the scary guys are asking for it back. Ever the gallant one, Henry steps in to protect her, but soon is drawn into her hellish universe of guns, crime and opioids. Can he emerge unscathed with only a hammer as a weapon? And what about those close to him?

Castle in the Ground has a lot of things I avoid in movies – I find movies all about people slowly dying or struggling with addiction, more depressing than interesting. Luckily, this movie, while dealing with these very real phenomena, manages to avoid the moralistic tone that usually smothers stories like this. Instead it jacks up the thriller aspects – drug dealers wearing creepy baby masks, car chases, and narrow escapes from dimly-lit drug parties – couched in a constant, surreal haze. Yes, it’s bleak, but the bleakness is mollified by aburdist humour, fascinating details, and stunning night photography, lit with the glare of headlights and the acid glow of neon. And when actors like Imogen Poots and Alex Wolff put their all into a movie like this, it’s worth paying attention.

Band Ladies is streaming now on Highball.tv; Castle in the Ground opens today on VOD; and Cane Fire is having its world premier at this year’s Hot Docs.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Albert Shin about Disappearance at Clifton HiIll

Posted in Animals, Canada, Crime, Mental Illness, Movies, Mystery, Noir, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 21, 2020

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

Abby is a young woman returning to her hometown of Niagara Falls. She’s figuring out what to do with the rundown motel she inherited with her sister. Should she make a go of it? Or sell it to a rich local patriarch. But as she goes through old photos and films, she starts to remember hidden memories from the distant past. And with the help of eccentric locals she finds herself digging deeper and deeper, the more dirt she uncovers. Dirt that involves some of the most powerful figures in the city. Most troubling of all is an image from her childhood, still stuck in her brain. A boy with one bleeding eye who disappeared right in front of her. Was he kidnapped? Was he killed? Or was it just a false memory. What really happened happened in Clifton Hill?

Disapearance at Clifton Hill is also the name of a new movie opening February 28th across Canada. It’s been nominated for multiple Canadian Screen Awards, and is a fantastic film. It’s co-written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Albert Shin. I last interviewed Albert six years ago alongside his collaborator and colleague Igor Drljaca about In Her Place.

I spoke to Albert by telephone at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Disappearance at Clifton HIll opens across Canada on February 28th.

Some Antipodean Directors. Films reviewed: The Assistant, Come to Daddy

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

February is the worst month of the year, full of overcast skies, slush on the ground and a general malaise. So I thought: why not look at movies from a place where our winter is their summer? At least the directors, if not the stories. This week I’m looking at two films by directors from the antipodes, one from Australia, another from New Zealand. There’s a thriller/horror about a young man searching for his father’s secrets; and a tense drama about a young woman uncovering horrible secrets in her office.

The Assistant

Wri/Dir: Kitty Green (Interview: Ukraine is not a Brothel)

Jane (Julia Garner) is a young woman trying to make it in New York City. Hired straight out of Northwestern,  she’s currently at the bottom of the ladder, but hopes to work her way up. She’s an assistant at a medium-sized movie industry corporation with offices in New York, London and LA. She’s the first one to arrive, the last one to leave, the sort who eats her fruit loops standing up in the office kitchen.  All the grunt work falls to her — order lunch, sort head shots, distribute memos, serve coffee, book hotel rooms, tidy up her boss’s office. And deal with angry abusive people blaming everything on her. She brushes it all off in exchange for the promise of future work.

But something doesn’t seem quite right. A newly hired assistant, a pretty aspiring actress, has just arrived from Boise, Idaho, fresh out of high school, who has only worked as a waitress in a diner. Jane commutes from remote Astoria while the newest assistant is staying at a first-class hotel. She finds a woman’s earring  under a cushion in the boss’s couch. Why do actresses leave the boss’s office in tears? Why is she sending out blank cheques to unnamed people? And what will happen to the new assistant who thinks she’s here for an audition? Although she doesn’t face sexual abuse from her boss, it’s becoming increasingly clear that other women do. Why isn’t anyone talking about it? And is she to blame of she doesn’t speak up?

The Assistant is a cold, hard look at the rampant sexual harassment and abuse women face. It’s set at some point in the past, before the #MeToo movement broke, when everybody knew what was going on, but nobody ever did anything about it. Or if they did, they would be paid hush money to keep it away from the public. Male assistants laugh nervously, making jokes about which pieces of the boss’s furniture you should never sit in. Older women take it as a given: don’t worry dear, you’re not his type. The movie just lays its out before the audience in all its horribleness… without ever showing it.

Julia Garner gives a stunning performance as Jane, conveying a succession of unspoken emotions over the course of one day through facial expressions and body language: dread, distrust, realization, horror, and fear. There’s a terrific scene where she wraps herself up in a winter coat and a big scarf – like a suit of armour – to somehow shield her from the bad stuff happening all around her. This film gives a realistic look at a widespread problem reduced to a single day in one unnamed office.

The Assistant is a subtly, powerful movie about a difficult and uncomfortable topic that has to be told.

Come to Daddy

Dir: Ant Timpson (Turbo Boy)

Norval Greenwood (Elijah Wood) is a privileged, 35-year-old guy from LA. He loves fashion, celebrity and the big city. His prize possession is a limited edition, solid gold cel phone designed by Lorde. But something is missing from his life. His father walked out when he was five and Norval was raised by his mother in a Beverley Hills mansion. So when he receives a cryptic, letter from his long-lost Dad telling him he wants to talk to him, he decides to do it. He follows a handwritten map to a rocky beach in the pacific northwest until he finds an isolated, wooden house decorated with christmas lights clinging to the edge of a cliff. He knocks on the door, and a dessicated, grizzled old man opens it. “Hi Dad, Here I am…”

But this is not the kindly father he remembers. Gordon (Stephen McHattie) is a mean drunk, staggering around swilling plonk as he shoots insults at his son. His beady eyes look like dried out raisins. Norval wants to get the hell out of there but only after his dad tells him why he asked him to come in the first place. But when the old man threatens to chop him up with a cleaver, he knows something is not right.

Come to Daddy is a nihilistic thriller/horror as seen through a darkly comic lens. Elijah Wood is great as a nervous, self-centred guy whose First World problems are dwarfed by real life dangers… involving a killer, an eccentric policeman, a coroner, a swingers convention at a nearby motel, and the unexplained noises, that echo — clang clang clang —  around the nearly empty house. The vintage Thai soundtrack helps balance the blood and gore. This is a particular genre; either you like it or you don’t, but I love darkly twisted movies like this, with the quirky characters and constant surprises that keeps me glued to my seat till the final revelation.

The Assistant and Come to Daddy both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Away from home. Films reviewed: Gretel and Hansel, The Rhythm Section, Rosie

Posted in Action, Drama, Dreams, Espionage, Fairytales, Family, Homelessness, Ireland, Realism, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 31, 2020

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

If you live in Toronto, you have probably noticed that unscrupulous landlords, soaring rents and loopholes like “renoviction” and “demoviction” are driving tenants out of the city. Isn’t housing a human right? So this week I’m looking at three new movies about young women looking for a home. There’s a mother of four who lost possession of her house, a sister and brother lost in the woods; and a university student who lost her entire family in suspicious circumstances.

Gretel and Hansel

Dir: Oz Perkins

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, there was a famine in the land and people were starving. Little Hansel and Gretel live with their mother in a small house. Gretel, aged 16 (Sophia Lillis) keeps her brother happy by telling him fairytales before he goes to sleep. But when their mother, crazed with hunger, attacks them with an axe, Gretel knows it’s time to go. She grabs eight-year-old Hansel (Samuel Leakey) and flees into the woods. Perhaps they can find work at a lumber camp (their late father was a woodcutter.) No such luck. But they do find a strange pointy house painted black, with  the aromas of delicious food wafting out. Hansel sneaks in through a window and starts gorging on all the cakes and tarts, the roasts and stews he finds there. Gretel is more cautious — there’s no such thing a free lunch.

Turns out it’s the home of an old crone with wrinkled skin, and fingers dyed black (Alice Krige). She invites the kids to stay with her in their own room. And she teaches Gretel how to mix potions using her book of spells; She has magic powers — that’s why she lives in the woods. Men don’t like women who know too much. And says Gretel is just like her, she has to harness her magic abilities. But Gretel knows something is wrong. Where does all this food come from? Why is she having dreams about crying children? What’s happening to Hansel? And what’s behind that hidden door in the pantry?

Gretel and Hansel is a reboot of the famous Brothers Grimm fairy tale and it’s no spoiler to say it sticks to the basic story. Differences include their parents don’t abandon them in the woods, there don’t leave a trail  to find their way home, and the witch’s house isnt made of gingerbread. On the plus side there’s a feminist coming of age theme and Alice Krige is terrific as the Witch. Minuses include gratuitous references to The Wizard of Oz, accents that keep changing… and what’s with the pig snort sounds all the characters keep making? I don’t get it.  I love the look of this low budget film — from triangular spyholes to the witch’s forked staff like a divining rod — and the neat symmetry of the plot.

If you love fairytales, you might want to check this one out.

The Rhythm Section

Dir: Reed Morano

Stephanie (Blake Lively) used to be a star student at Oxford. But when he entire family died in a plane crash, her life fell apart. Now she’s a junkie, turning tricks at a low-rent brothel in London, earning just enough to pay for her next fix. Until… she meets a freelance journalist (Raza Jaffrey) who tells her the plane crash wasn’t an accident. It was deliberate, th killer is still out there, and a vast conspiracy is covering it all up. So she makes her way to northern scotland to track down the source.  There she is attacked from behind by a  mysterious bearded man.

He’s a rogue MI6 agent (Jude Law) who knows exactly what happened. She wants revenge on whoever killed her family. He agrees to train her in a violent one-on-one boot camp as long as she does what he says.  Soon she’s working as a hitman flying from Tangier to Berlin, New York to Marseilles to knock off various criminals and spies. And a former CIA agent Mark Serra (Sterling K Brown) sends her from place to place. Who is she really working for? Will she find the killer she’s looking for? And are the men she meets on the way potential lovers, damgerous killers… or both?

The Rhythm Section is a so-so action thriller in the manner of the Bourne series. It has some tense moments a few life-and-death fights, and lots of great chase scenes. Andthe weird, twisting camera work pulls you into Stephanie’s panicked and confused mood (though i was getting carsick after a while). Blake LIvely and Jude Law both play against type as violent, stone-cold killers, and are believable. My biggest problems? It was impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys, the politics are confused, there’s no originality, and the story is extremely muddy. I don’t expect much from an action/thriller, but they really should clean up the plot and make the characters less robotic if they want to turn it into a series.

Rosie

Dir: Paddy Breathnach (Viva)

Wri: Roddy Doyle

It’s present-day Dublin.

Rosie Davis (Sarah Greene) is a devoted young mother with four adorable kids (first time actors Ellie O’Halloran, Ruby Dunne, Darragh McKenzie and Molly McCann) ranging from toddler to tween. Kayleigh concentrates on her homework, Millie is the shy one, Alfie loves bouncing around, and Madison is fine as long as she has her stuffed bunny. Since her husband John Paul (Moe Dunford) works late at a restaurant kitchen, it’s up to Rosie to get the kids fed, cleaned, bathed, brought to school and back, comforted and tucked into bed at night… an almost impossible task.

So imagine what happens when their landlord suddenly evicts them from their own rented home — what can they do? Now her number-one task is finding a place to stay. But with a concert in town, and all the hotels booked solid where can they find a room? Can she keep their kids’ lives normal without anyone noticing they’re suddenly homeless?

Rosie is an intensely personal, hyperrealistic  look at a day and half in the lives of a family in crisis. Viewers are dropped right into the middle of their lives, a short peek at an ongoing crisis. It’s about love, pride, poverty, family, bullying and homelessness, and the fraying social welfare state. It’s filmed with a closeup, handheld camera capturing the cramped claustrophobic setting and the degree of tension they face. It’s sentimental but not cloying, and Sarah Greene is fantastic in the main role. Rosie is intense and will probably make you cry, but if you’re in the mood for some kitchen-sink realism, this is the one to see.

Gretel and Hansel, The Rhythm Section and Rosie all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Critical Mass. Films reviewed: Dolittle, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Les Misérables

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, Animals, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, Family, Fantasy, France, Kids, Language, Morality, Movies, New York City, Police, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 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. There’s a man who talks to monkeys; a kid who steals a lion, and a movie critic who monkeyed with the way we look at movies.

Dolittle

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

It’s early 19th Century England, in a village called Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Young Stubbins (Harry Collett) a boy out hunting with his dad  accidentally shoots a squirrel. But instead of “putting it out of its misery” as his father suggests, he tries to save it. Stubbins stumbles on a derelict hospital run by the reclusive Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) the legendary animal doctor. The hospital is full of steampunk devices and wild animals — gorillas and polar bears, insects and parrots — wandering around just like people. And even more surprising, Doctor Dolittle can speak all their languages. Stubbins wants to convince the doctor to take him on as an apprentice so he can talk to the animals, too.

But trouble is brewing at Buckingham Palace. Someone has poisoned the Queen! And only the doctor knows the cure, a panacea found in a distant land.  Dolittle and the gang set sail to find it. Can they trick the evil King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) into giving them the map? And will they defeat a tiger, a  dragon, and various palace villains, and manage to cure the Queen in time?

I grew up surrounded by Hugh Lofting’s books, TV cartoons, and movies, and though I wasn’t a devotee, I knew all about the stories and characters. And I don’t love Robert Downey Jr. So I was all set to be disappointed: where’s the chimp? And what happened to my favourite animal, the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu?

But you know what? I liked it! It was cute, full of adventures, close escapes, exciting trips to exotic lands, and all the quirky animals (voiced by Octavia Spencer, Rami Malek, John Cena, and Emma Thompson). Keep in mind, this movie is for little kids, not grown ups, who may find the jokes too stupid, but the exciting scenes and the fast-moving action kept me satisfied. Not a terrific movie, but a very cute one.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

Wri/Dir: Rob Garver

Pauline Kael was a single mom who grew up on a California ranch during the time when movies were still silent and B&W. Her first published review was Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight — she hated it. She ran a movie theatre in Berkeley where she wrote the reviews and descriptions of the films playing there, encouraging locals to see them. She wrote for Macall’s but was fired for not loving big-budget cinema. And she quit her job at The New Repulic because they edited out her writing. She finally found a post at The New Yorker, where she became one of the most influential movie critics in the world.

She’s is known both for the movies she hated (she described The Sound of Music as asexual revisionist treacle, and trashed Kubrick’s 2001!) and those she loved (Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Scorcese’s Mean Streets, Spielberg’s Sugarland Express). Some directors’ careers were made by her patronage, while others lived in dread of her columns.  She rejected the ennui-ridden academic view of Auteur theory, without falling for manipulative Big-budget schlock. She liked trash, mind you, but it had to be good trash.

What She Said is an immaculately researched,spot-on look at Pauline Kael’s reviews,and her influence on audience and filmmakers. It delves into her fascinating life and and undeniable influence without resorting to endless kiss-assery. This movie is a labour of love,  combining vintage TV interviews with Dick Cavett and Brian Linehan, and talking heads — from Tarantino to David Lean — with readings from her work by Sarah Jessica Parker. Best of all, these voices are illustrated by a barrage of 2-3 second film clips from hundreds of movies over the past century that I haven’t seen in a documentary since Los Angeles Plays Itself (2002). (I grew up reading her reviews in The New Yorker — that and the cartoons were all  read — and while I disagreed with her half the time, I always wanted to see what she had to say.)

If you love movies, I strongly recommend this doc.

Les Misérables

Co-Wri/Dir: Ladj Ly

It’s Paris in the high-rise banlieue that circle the city. It’s 35 degrees outside and the crowds are high on the country’s win on the soccer pitch, singing la Marseillaise at train stations. But trouble is brewing…. it seems a lion cub is missing from a travelling Roma circus and the four brothers that run it are threatening a rumble with the locals.

Power here is shared by the secular — led by community leader called Le Maire (Steve Tientcheu); the religious — Salah (Almamy Kanouté), an Imam who runs a kebab shop; and the criminal — a gang of thieves who work directly with the cops. Attempting to keep the peace are the feckless police who mainly harass kids and sex workers. The regular team — an abrasive white guy Chris (Alexis Manenti) and his calmer black partner Gwada, who grew up in the hood (Djebril Zonga) — is joined by a newbie. the wide-eyed Stephane/Pento (Damien Bonnard) is a hick, straight from the farm. But the only ones who really know what’s going on are the local kids, who know every broken fence, every fire escape and back alley — they are watching everything. Especially Issa (Issa Perica) a feisty 10 year old, and his pal the nerdy Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly). Issa is the one who liberated the cute lion cub, and Buzz who records everything from the rooftops with his trusty drone.

But when the cops overstep their bounds and use weapons — which is caught on camera — things start to go really wrong. Chaos reigns.

Can the trouble be defused by the cops and community leaders? Or will the kids triumph? And could this lead to a repeat of the Paris riots of 2005?

Les Misérables (this is not Victor Hugo’s novel, but the location is the same) is an amazing dive into the lives of Parisians in the outer suburbs, their alienation, and the tension brewing there. The acting and story are superb, and I love the way multiple strands are woven together into a seamless whole. It’s nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and, though violent at times, it holds a real love and understanding of the characters portrayed. This is a great movie.

Dolittle opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is opening today at the Hot Docs Cinema, as is Les Misérables at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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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