Self-reflexive. Films reviewed: Akilla’s Escape, Truman & Tennessee, Censor

Posted in 1950s, 1980s, Canada, Crime, documentary, drugs, Gay, Horror, Jamaica, Toronto, UK, Writers by CulturalMining.com on June 18, 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 crime drama, a horror movie and a documentary. — that also look at themselves. There’s a possible killer named Akilla, a horror movie about horror movies, and a doc about two famous gay writers… who write about themselves.

Akilla’s Escape

Co-Wri/Dir: Charles Officer

It’s present-day Toronto. Akilla (Saul Williams) is a smart and well-read guy, who was born in Jamaica, grew up in Queens NY, and ended up in Toronto as a teenager. He has built a career with a successful grow-op he calls “the farm” for twenty years, but feels it’s time for a change. There’s been a rash of gang violence and he wants out. But on the same day, he interrupts a robbery gone wrong, leaving dead bodies in its wake. Most of the remaining local gangsters get away with two bags full of cash and drugs which should be in the hands of organized crime. But one of them — whom Akilla knocks out during the robbery — is still lying unconscious on the floor. And when he pulls off his mask, he sees young Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana), a 15-year-old boy who reminds him of himself at that age. He doesn’t want to hand him over to the mob because they’ll kill him… but he also needs to recover the stolen cash and drugs — otherwise he’ll be the one to suffer.  Can he get Sheppard to confess, avoid a hitman from the Greek mob, and catch a fugitive killer… without dying himself?

Akilla’s Escape is a complex and engrossing crime drama set within Toronto’s Jamaican community. Through a series of flashbacks, it’s told in three parallel stories about people dragged into a life of crime largely against their own will: young Akilla in Queens, Sheppard in Toronto, and adult Akilla in the present day. It’s nicely shot in a distinctive style coloured with reds and yellows to differentiate the different time periods. Saul Williams is really good as Akilla, both thoughtful and intense; and, in a twist, Sheppard and the 15-year-old Akilla are both played by the same actor, Thamela Mpumlwana! 

Interesting movie — I like this one.

Truman & Tennessee: an intimate conversation

Dir: Lisa Immordino Vreeland 

Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams first met in the 1940s when they both were rising stars.  Capote was still a teenager while Williams was in his late twenties. And they both were gay authors.  Tennessee was a compulsive writer dedicated to his craft, while Truman yearned for celebrity, not just success. Tennessee wrote a series of incredibly successful plays, most of which were later turned into hit movies, all about the lives, loves  and tragedies of southern woman. You’ve probably seen at least some of them: The Glass Menagerie, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, to name just a few. Truman Capote wrote novels, memoirs and true crime reports, like In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Other Voices, Other Rooms. They went on vacations together, along with their long-term lovers, to exotic locales in Italy and Morocco.

They both drank heavily and popped pills supplied by the notorious “Doctor Feelgood”. But by the 1970s their fractious friendship ended in bitter rivalries.  Truman wrote a story with a character based on Tennessee, whom he described as “a chunky, paunchy, booze puffed runt with a play moustache glued above laconic lips who has a corn-pone voice.” In response, Truman is said to have “gone so far in his shtick that all his work will be seen now in the shimmer of a poised stiletto”. 

This documentary is composed of scenes from their films, still photos (by photographers like Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton), and a few key TV interviews (with David Frost and Dick Cavett). Visually it’s experimental, with lush green leaves, trees and rippling water superimposed kaleidoscopically on much of the period footage, giving the film a drifting, ethereal feel.

It’s narrated by the authors themselves, as voiced by actors Zachary Quinto (Star Trek) as Tennessee Williams and Jim Parsons (Big Bang Theory) as Truman Capote. It’s full of personal details of their superstitions, phobias, addictions, jealousy, loneliness and lust. Did you know that Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe, not Audrey Hepburn, to play Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which was based on an actual friend of his)? And Tennessee Williams tells all his viewers to walk out of his movies just before they’re over, because, he says, Hollywood’s happy endings ruin them all. These just give you a taste of all the secrets revealed in this movie.

If you like these two writers, you must see this doc.

Censor

Co-Wri/Dir: Prano Bailey-Bond

It’s the mid-1980s in Thatcher’s Britain. Enid (Niamh Algar) works for the censor board. In teams of two they rate, classify, cut or ban the many videos flooding the country. She’s meticulous in her work, logging frame by frame any images she thinks show too much. Scenes that don’t make the grade include a gouged eyeball that “looks too realistic”, or “excessively visible genitalia”. Pressure is especially strong these days because the tabloid press blames a rise in crime on the prevalence of “video nasties” — low-budget horror movies washing up on the sacred shores of Albion.

Things get worse when a gruesome real-life murder seems to mimic a scene from a horror movie she once approved. And once the papers print her name, she is inundated by paparazzi, journalists and non-stop anonymous obscene phone calls to her home. Meanwhile, at work, she is visited by a particularly sleazy and salacious film producer, who says she would be perfect to star in his next movie. Turns out his past video nasties include a film about two teenaged sisters, one of whom was violently killed. Thing is, Enid’s own sister disappeared after a walk in the woods when they were both still little girls, and she has made it her life-long goal either to find her or find out what happened to her. Is this film somehow related to her and her sister? Is the film studio a murder machine, making snuff films? Or is it all in her head?

Censor is a psychological horror pic that traces a bureaucrat’s slide from proper office worker into the depths of violence and depravity. It’s about the making and censoring of those low-budget horror movies in the 80s, but it’s also a horror movie in its own right. Its style matches the videos it’s sampling —  the music, sound effects, costumes — giving the whole film a surreal feeling.

This is good, over-the-top horror.

Akilla’s Escape is now playing on VOD; Truman & Tennessee: an intimate conversation opens today digitally at the Rogers HotDocs cinema; and Censor also opens today on your favourite VOD platform.

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 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.

More Hot Docs! Films reviewed: Dark Blossom, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, The Big, Scary “S” Word

Posted in 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, Denmark, documentary, Goth, History, LGBT, Protest, Racism, Slavery, Socialism, US by CulturalMining.com on May 7, 2021

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

Hot Docs — Canada’s International Documentary Festival — continues through the weekend with  tons of great movies online. Free tickets each day for students and seniors. I plan to binge watch documentaries this weekend before it’s over.

Here are a few I want to see:

Four Seasons in a Day – a novel look at the ferry across the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic; 7 Years of Lukas Graham — about the eponymous Danish band; Gaucho Americano — about real cowboys from Chile working in the Western US; and Archipelago — a stunning animated look at an imaginary animated island in Quebec.

But this week I’m talking about three more docs at hotdocs, all directed by women, two of which offer a new take on American history. There’s the dark past and present of American racism; the brighter side of 200 years of populist, home-grown American socialism, and — for something completely different — a look at three dark goths in sunny, rural Denmark.

Dark Blossom

Wri/Dir: Frigge Fri 

Josephine is a young woman who lives in a small town in Northern Jutland, Denmark. She hates sports, and rejects the H&M conformity of her high school classmates. She prefers to wear black, accentuated with theatrical makeup, wigs and a pierced septum. If you haven’t guessed yet, she’s a brooding goth. Luckily, Jose is not completely alone. She’s best friends with two guys: Jay, whose parents are devout christians but who prefers big hair and dark fantasies; and fashion-obsessed Nightmare, who knows choice curse words in Punjabi (from his father’s side) but can’t find a boyfriend. They give each other home-made tattoos, and go out on adventures in the grassy fields. They’re totally into roadkill, boiling dead weasels to make jewelry from their bones. Together they form a tight 3-goth posse. 

But things start to fray when Jose meets a guy she really likes. And when she moves to Copenhagen to live with him, Nightmare takes this as a personal slight. Will the three best friends ever get back together, or is this a permanent shift? And will Jose trade in her animal skulls for Hello Kitty dolls?

Dark Blossom is a highly personal look at three young non-conformists in rural Denmark as they express their fragile feelings of friendships in their art fashion and music.

Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America

Dir: Emily Kunstler & Sarah Kunstler (whose father was the famous civil rights lawyer William Kunstler)

Can a country be both good and bad? Cana country founded on slavery be a bastion of freedom and liberty? So asks Jeffery Robinson, a director of the ACLU in a lecture he gave in New York City on Juneteenth (June 19th) in 2018 to mark the emancipation of enslaved people in the US. This lecture interspersed with vintage photos and personal interviews — looks at the history of slavery and racism and the dominant role it holds in the country. And like the toppling down of old statues, this iconoclast exposes some of the worst aspects hidden in plain sight. Did you know the third verse of the Star Spangled Banner celebrates the capture and killing of escaped slaves? They sing it for you, on stage. Andrew Jackson, whose face greets you on each $20 bill — and whom ex-president Trump says he adores — was a major advocate of the slave trade who proudly owned 150 human beings. A large part of the US economy, both the North and the South, was based on the trade of cotton, tobacco and rice, all of which were produced mainly by slave labour. And that’s just before the US Civil War. 

The film looks at the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, massacres of black neighbourhoods, widespread lynching, segregation, the Jim Crow laws, widespread incarceration and police violence. It covers how ingrained anti-black racism is in the foundations of sectors you might not ever think about, including the financial system, real estate, education, insurance, and government.

This is all told by Robinson himself in a personal way: he grew up in a manly white neighbourhood in Memphis, Tennessee, during the beginning of integration and the implementation of civil rights there. So we see him revisit and talk about his own past, what has improved and what remains the same. Who We Are is an excellent and meticulously researched look at the history of racism and white supremacy within the US, covering hundreds of years in just two short hours.

The Big, Scary “S” Word

Dir: Yael Bridge

With its two-party system, its entrenched political views, and its relative lack of class mobility, the US is considered one of the most conservative, developed countries in the world. But what is often forgotten is the longstanding streak of leftist populism and socialism throughout its history. And with the explosive rise in popularity of politicians like Bernie Sanders and AOC, and movements like the Democratic Socialists, the “S” word no longer holds the negative connotations it once did. This movie  digs up some really unusual facts that will suppose almost everyone who watches it. Did you know it was the republican party who originally espoused socialist ideals after the civil war? And that Karl Marx wrote regular columns in American newspapers? He was intrigued by the socialism in the US long before he write his books. It looks at the cooperative communities that sprung up in the mid 1800s in places like Wisconsin; and the non-commercial Bank of North Dakota that saved the farmers there from losing their land and homes.

The film looks at a huge range of topics eloquently explained by dozens famous talking head like Cornell West and Naomi Klein, as it covers centuries of American history. It also follows some people making history now, like Lee Carter a former Marine turned state politician after he was screwed by his private employer, and Stephanie Price an Oklahoma public school teacher forced to take on a second job just to raise her son (she joined in the statewide teachers strike).

If you’re into history, and not the kind they teach you in high school, check out the Big Scary “S” Word; it’s punchy, fast moving, well-edited, highly informative and most of all, entertaining.

Dark Blossom, Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, The Big, Scary “S” Word, are all playing at Hot Docs now through May 9th.

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

Unsung Heroes at Hot Docs 21! Films reviewed: The Face of Anonymous, It Is Not Over Yet, Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Anonymous, Canada, Dementia, Denmark, documentary, FBI, Feminism, Hacking, Indigenous, Protest by CulturalMining.com on April 30, 2021

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

The 28th edition of Hot Docs — Canada’s International Documentary Festival — has begun, with features and shorts streaming from today until May 9th. It’s online-only this year, but with many live events, Q&As and workshops. As every year, a selection of tickets are offered free to students and Students and Seniors (over 60) with new titles released each day.

I’ve started to watch some the films but first let me tell you about a few that I haven’t seen yet but look good. Wuhan Wuhan, by Toronto’s own Yung Chang, goes to the city where the current pandemic was first discovered. Misha and the Wolves tells the extraordinary story of a young Belgian Holocaust survivor who sought refuge by living among the wolves… but was her story true? Sex, Revolution and Islam looks at the first female imams in Europe and how they’re radically changing their religion’s outlook. And We are as Gods looks at an environmental iconoclast wants to de-extinct animals using DNA… an eco-hero or shades of Jurassic Park? These are just a few of the docs playing at HotDocs.

This week I’m looking at three more docs about unsung heroes. There are Danish nurses changing how we deal with dementia, a  hacktivist changing world events, and a Mohawk activist who changed history.

The Face of Anonymous

Dir: Gary Lang

It’s the 2000s. The US has invaded Iraq, killing hundreds of thousands and displacing millions, supposedly looking for “weapons of mass destruction” and someone to blame for 9/11, when a video started circulating. It is secretly released by Chelsea Manning and published by Julian Assange at Wikileaks, and it shows footage of a heinous war crime, the gunning down of unarmed journalists in Baghdad by the US military. This leads to a crackdown on the whistleblowers, with corporations like PayPal, Visa and MasterCard trying to choke Wikileaks. 

This is when a new group appears in the mainstream media. It’s called Anonymous (previously known for fighting Scientology), and consists of hundreds or thousands of anonymous hackers working in tandem. Together they DDOS (directed denial of service) the corporations and government agencies blocking the truth. And they release scary-looking announcement videos. Their members wear Guy Fawkes masks in public to conceal their faces, and one of their public voices is an unknown person called CommanderX. Later the US government starts a nationwide attack on Anonymous members, arresting many people across the country.

But not Commander X.

The Face of Anonymous gives you this background, but then reveals some things you never knew about. Commander X is living on the streets of Toronto in the 2010s having snuck across the border. He continues to be an active presence, even while he’s sleeping outdoors in a park using his laptop as a pillow. Christopher Doyon. You know why they wore Guy Fawkes masks? Because after V is for Vendetta the masks were sitting on warehouse shelves across the continent at discount prices — so everyone in Anonymous could easily get a hold of one.

This fascinating film follows Commander X, how he travelled from Canada to. Mexico, and where he is now. It reveals he also played a role in the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia. It also interviews other prominent former Anonymous activists. For me, this is especially interesting because I was talking about We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists a doc that played at Hot Docs a decade ago, without knowing Commander X was here in Toronto at the same time viewing the same movie.

It Is Not Over Yet

Dir: Louise Detlefsen

It’s a nursing home in rural Denmark. The residents come from a wide variety of backgrounds; one woman is a former social worker and sexologist. Another ran one of the country’s biggest pharmacies. But they share a common trait: they’re all suffering from dementia. What’s unusual about this place, though is its approach. It’s an open-style residence, located near a forest. They keep chickens I’m the yard, and they’re encouraged to take walks and hug trees. People sing songs, tell jokes, and are always treated with respect. One thing not present is medications. In Denmark the average patient is on 10 different meds. Here they react with horror when they see the medical record of a heavily-drugged newcomer, whom they determine doesn’t have Alzheimers at all.  They all share meals and celebrations to mark the death of any residentn(when the flag outside flies at half mast, their birthdays, and other major events. 

It Is Not Over Yet is a slow-paced but tender look at the final years of some elderly Danes. It’s told in a “fly on the wall” manner — so we get to see the nurses and attendants discussing their cases, their interaction with the residents, and among the elderly themselves; their friendships, loves, and quirks. It’s not so much about dementia or dying as it is about living life to the fullest.

Mary Two-Axe Earley: I Am Indian Again

Dir: Courtney Montour

It’s the 1960s. Mary Two-Axe Earley is a Mohawk woman from Kahnawa:ke who marries a non-indigenous man. She is immediately told that she is no longer an Indian and must leave her home and community. (This rule is part of the Indian Act). She is shocked and flabbergasted but refuses to follow orders. I am Mohawk, I am an Indian, despite what they say, and you can’t take that away from me. She starts up a group, Indian Rights for Indian Women, and takes it to Ottawa to testify before Parliament. The hypocrisy of it all: can you imagine a brother and sister, one considered indigenous, the other not? A woman marrying a non-native man, even if later divorced, lost her Indian status for life. Even after death, she can’t be buried in her ancestral land. (In contrast, a man who marries a non-native keeps his status).

Other women’s groups join in solidarity. Mary Two-Axe struggles for many years until she triumphs, changing the law. And she — and 100,000 others — are finally able to say they are Indians again.

This loving and brilliant short film uses decades-old recordings made by Alanis Obomsawin at the NFB, played publicly now for the first time. It’s illustrated by period footage — historic figures like Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque pop up frequently — as well as  still photos and new interviews with others involved in the struggle. Mary Two-Axe Earley died in 1996, but her legacy lives on.

This is a hero everyone should know about. 

Mary Two-Axe Earley: I am Indian Again, It is Not Over Yet and The Face of Anonymous,…are all playing at Hot Docs now through May. 9th.

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

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

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

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

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

Ravage

Wri/Dir: Teddy Grennan

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

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

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

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Dir: Bert Stern

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

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

Lucky Grandma

Co-Wri/Dir: Sasie Sealy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Dir: Gero von Boehm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stateless

Created by Tony Ayres, Cate Blanchett, Elise McCredie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Garber talks with Ali Weinstein about #Blessed

Posted in Australia, Canada, Christianity, Conservatism, documentary, LGBT, Religion, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on July 17, 2020

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

Pastor Sam is not what you expect to see at a Pentecostal revival meeting. He sports a ginger beard, skinny jeans and half-sleeve tattoos. The sermons are accompanied by slick lighting, sound and music, and the results are posted online. And his Toronto sermons attract a younger flock of millennial hipsters searching for friendship, self-actualization or just something to do. Where did he come from? What does his church believe in? And why is evangelical Christianity making inroads into Canada?

#Blessed is a new documentary that looks at the rise in Canada of C3, an Australian megachurch, its leaders, its followers and its critics. It follows the stories of some of its young members as they adjust to a new world that doesn’t exactly fit with their lifestyles. It’s directed by acclaimed Toronto-based filmmaker Ali Weinstein, whose quirky doc Mermaids has been shown around the world.

I spoke to Ali Weinstein via ZOOM in Toronto

#Blessed had its broadcast premier on July 18 at 8 pm on CBC Docs POV and is streaming on CBC Gem.

Films Reviewed: The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Marriage Story, 63 Up

Posted in Canada, Depression, documentary, Drama, Family, Indigenous, Poverty, TV, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 13, 2019

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

How much of our lives are changed by free will, and how much is predetermined by fate, class or outside circumstances? This week I’m looking at three films about people affected by changes they didn’t plan on. There’s two indigenous women thrown together, a married couple torn apart, and fourteen people following divergent pathways in their lives.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

Wri/Dir: Kathleen Hepburn, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

Rosie (Violet Nelson) is a pregnant young woman who lives with her boyfriend and his mom in Vancouver’s East End. She likes tie dye hoodies and watching TV. Alia (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) is a middle class woman debating whether she’s ready for a child with her partner. The two meet at random on a sidewalk, Alia emerging from an alienating medical procedure, Rosie from a violent incident at home. Her boyfriend attacked her, leaving on a daze, with a bruised face, barefoot and pregnant, standing in the rain. Alia dismisses her own problems and concentrates on getting a safe sheltered space for the woman she has just met. They are both indigenous women, but do they have anything else in common? Or are they just ships passing in the dark?

The Body Remembers as the World Broke Open is a very moving, personal drama about two women, and how their lives briefly intersect. They are followed with a handheld camera, and the movie takes place in real time, without breaks, as if you are there with them. It explores differences of class and appearance – Alia can pass for white – and all that carries: violence and abuse, and how police behaviour depends on the appearance of a victim. This is an amazing depiction of a multifaceted urban indigenous story told from the characters ownpoints of view. It takes you on a heartfelt journey even as it destroys common stereotypes. Great acting, a realistic script and an urgent, constantly-moving style keeps you on edge the entire time.

I like this movie.

Marriage Story

Wri/Dir: Noah Baumbach

Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) are a happily married couple in Brooklyn. He’s originally from the midwest and she’s from LA, but they both think of New York as their home. He’s a theatre director with a show headed for Broadway, and she’s an actress featured in the plays he directs. But when she heads to California to shoot a TV show, their perfect marriage turns out to be not so perfect. Turns out they haven’t slept together in a year, and Charlie is having an affair with another actress from within their own theatre. And now their living on opposite coasts of the country. Still, Charlie is shocked and devastated when Nicole tells him she’s staying in LA, with their son, and filing for divorce. Can their marriage be saved? Should it be? What will happen to their careers? The broadway show? And who will stay with their son.

Marriage Story is a compact film about a relationship falling apart. It follows the characters – along with her family and their son – as it turns from a disagreement to a fight to a legal battle. I watched this movie not in a theatre but at home on Netflix. The problem with home viewing is that you can turn it off halfway through and come back later, something you can’t do in a movie theatre. That’s what happened to me. I was bored and distracted for the first half-hour, and didn’t want to sit through a happy and successful family’s divorce. It was irritating, annoying. Charlie is an entitled, selfish doofus, while Nicole can’t take responsibility for her own actions, pinning it all on him.

But I later returned to watch the rest… and I am so glad I did. It turns into a fantastic, subtle portrayal of a loving couple torn apart by their own actions and a legal system that leaves them scrambling. It also becomes almost a brilliant musical, in which both characters (in separate, plausible settings), break into Sondheim songs to explain their situations to their friends and families. Driver and Johannsson are both excellent and believable in their roles and their lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda) provide a sharp and cynical counterpoint the couple’s real emotions.

63 Up

Dir: Michael Apted

“Give me the child at age seven and I’ll show you the man.” That’s how a segment called Seven Up began on a UK current affairs show in the early 60s. 14 children were brought together on a playground and interviewed on camera. Upper class boys in line for elite public schools and then on to Oxford or Cambridge and the seats of power. Working class kids from London’s east end; a couple from the North, one from a farm, and two taken from a “Home for Boys”, an orphanage-like institution. The short piece wondered what will become of these post-war baby-boomers as the world

changes? Seven years later a young Michael Apted took on the responsibility and followed them every seven years with a new film looking at what has become of them. Each successive version surprises and delights audiences who wonder what has happened to these kids – now adults – as they gradually age: their opinions on relationships and politics, whether they have transcended their class or background, what are their hopes, and later, what are their regrets.

63 Up is a fascinating study, almost the only one of its kind, that traces a generation throughout their lives. It began in a very different era, when class is all-important, while gender or ethnicity are afterthoughts and sexuality never mentioned. Since there were only three girls in the initial show, three women it remains, and in the early years they are asked domestic questions, nothing about politics, or professional goals. But the subjects end up having fascinating lives. One emigrates to Australia, another follows an academic path to an American professorship. Others stay close to home. And two subjects face death. One of the most endearing stories follows a man troubled by depression whose life takes a surprising turn. And for all of them, the series both keeps track of their lives and affects them as they become public figures, almost celebrities, in a largely private world… before social networking made everyone’s lives common currency.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open starts today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Marriage Story continues there and on Netflix; and 63 Up starts next Friday at the Hot Docs Cinema.

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

Hot Docs 2019! Films reviewed: Bellingcat, The Corporate Coup D’Etat, American Factory, One Child Family

Posted in 1980s, China, Clash of Cultures, Corruption, documentary, Economics, Journalism, Ohio, Politics, Unions by CulturalMining.com on April 26, 2019

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

Toronto’s Hot Docs International Documentary Festival is on now. These films tell us what will be news in a year or two, and goes behind the scenes of stories we only think we know about. Hot Docs is showing hundreds of documentaries from around the world, way more than I could ever talk about, but let me briefly tell you about a few I’ve seen that might interest you.

These capsule reviews are shorter than usual, but hopefully long enough for some of it to sink in. This week I’m exposing you to amateur journalists influencing world politics, multinational corporations taking over governments, foreign-owned factories replacing local ones, and government control reaching into women’s bodies.

Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World

Dir: Hans Pool

With the explosion of Photoshop, propaganda and fake news, how can we find the real truth? A new news source called Bellingcat offers an alternative. It is similar to Wikileaks but functions as an original news source, rather than a publisher of leaked documents. Founded by Eliot Higgins, a UK “vigilante journalist”, Bellingcat uses Open Source investigations to determine whether what we see on the news and online is what is really happening.

Composed of a network of digital news geeks spread across Europe (all men), Bellingcat’s investigations range from responsibility for the Malaysia Airline plane shot down over the Russia/Ukraine border, to a look into bombings in Syria, and identifying neo-nazi faces at the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville. Using an ingenious combination of satellite footage, snapchat images, and uncensored, online discussion groups of soldiers wives, they find convincing evidence that conventional journalists – and government propaganda – ignore. I would have loved to have seen more about Bellingcat’s investgations into malfeasance within its own country – not just about Russians – but their work is fascinating, valuable and so clever.

You can find Bellingcat’s most recent investigations here)

Moving on now from journalism to governments themselves…

The Corporate Coup D’Etat

Dir: Fred Peabody

Do we still live in democracies, imperfect though they may be? Or has there been a corporate coup d’etat, a virtual takeover of our government? Well this filmmaker says, at least in the United States, the answer is a resounding yes. Widespread incarceration, congressmen and senators with corporate ties, and the phenomenal number of paid lobbyists working in Washington. New laws with extreme libertarian views are often written in total not by politicians but by ALEC a private body associated with the Koch Brothers.

Talking heads include Chris Hedges, Cornel West, Maude Barlow, and John Ralston Saul — who coined the term corporate coup d’etat.

But it also takes us into the heart of the problems by talking with the people of Camden, NJ., a city allowed to decay, and Youngstown Ohio, a former engine of the steel industry, where some people switched their votes from Obama to Trump… not because they love him, but because everyone else had failed to rescue the steel industry, so why not try someone from “outside” the system? This is a great doc, filled both with smart pundits and unknown but unforgettable ordinary people who tell it like it is. Corporate Coup d’état is another politically astute doc from Fred Peabody (whom I interviewed about All Governments Lie in 2016).

Youngstown Ohio may look bleak but how are things in Dayton? The next doc looks at both sides of an…

American Factory

Dir: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert

Dayton Ohio is the longtime home of Moraine, a major General Motors plant. But when it moved south, the burgeoning middle class started to collapse.

Enter Fuyao Auto Glass, a China-based multinational that manufactures windshields for a large percentage of the world’s cars. Formerly struggling workers with decades of factory experience are offered a new chance. The only problem is GM payed $29 an hour, Fuyao pays $12. Workers are flown in from China to “train” already skilled labourers in the company’s philosophy. Can formerly unionized factory workers adjust to an autocratic, and some say unsafe, shop? Or will they succeed in unionizing the plant? American Factory is great look at changes in a Midwest factory town. It talks to the people on the shop floor and in their homes. It also follows some American managers visiting the mother plant in China. And it speaks directly both to the American and Chinese workers and management (including the odd, billionaire owner) and the cultural roadblocks they meet on the way. Another great doc from Bognar and Reichert!

And finally, a highly personal doc set in China that exposes some dark secrets…

One Child Nation

Dir: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang

Nanfu Wang is a young American filmmaker, originally from Jiangxi, a desperately poor, landlocked province in southeast China. She was born in the 1980s right when the One Child Family policy comes into force. (It lasts officially until 2013.) It says city people can only have one child, but peasants can have a second child if their first one is a girl. Why? It’s simple economics: peasant families depend on their son to stay in the family home and provide for the parents in their old age. Girls move away once they marry.

But the film shows a dark side of this policy. Wang returns to her home village and finds evidence of parents abandoning baby girls to die, foetuses scattered in garbage dumps, and a trafficking ring that sold babies to orphanages to be adopted abroad. There are even cases where village chiefs dictated whether pregnant women must abort their foetuses. I don’t know how much of the film applies to a huge country with 1.4 billion people, but what the filmmaker uncovers in her own area really makes one wonder. One Child Nation is a heartfelt but disturbing documentary.

You can catch all of these films — One Child NationAmerican Factory, The Corporate Coup D’Etat, Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World — at Hotdocs over the next ten days. And remember, students and seniors can get in free to daytime screenings!

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

Changes. Films reviewed: Venus, RBG, Boom for Real

Posted in 1970s, Art, Canada, documentary, Hiphop, LGBT, Montreal, Movies, Punk, Trans, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 18, 2018

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

Spring Film Festival Season is going strong in Toronto with world premiers, features and short films to reflect every taste. Inside Out is one of the world’s largest LGBT film festivals; ICFF, the Italian Contemporary film festival, has parallel screenings in eight cities across Canada; and Toronto’s Japanese Film Festival features great movies and a special appearance by Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient Setsuko Thurlow. And brand new this year is Toronto’s True Crime Film Festival – the title says it all. They’re all coming soon.

This week I’m looking at three new movies – a dramedy ad two documentaries – opening today, which (coincidentally) are all directed by women. There’s a teenaged boy who changes New York’s art scene, a diminutive judge who changes US laws, and a woman in her thirties who just wants to change herself.

Venus

Dir: Eisha Marjara

Sid (DeBargo Sanyal) is a Montrealer in her thirties going through some major changes. Her longtime boyfriend Daniel (Pierre-Yves Cardinal: Tom at the Farm) dumped her, and a strange, 14-year-old kid has been following her around. But the biggest change of all is her gender – she’s transitioning from male to female, and is about to appear as a woman, in public, for the very first time. That’s when Ralph (Jamie Mayers) the 14 year old skate kid who’s been following her around finally tells her why: Sid, he says, you’re my dad!

What?! First of all, she says, I only have sex with men, second of all I’m brown – Sid is of a Punjabi ancestry – and you’re white. But doesn’t she remember Kristin from high school? (Kristin is Ralph’s mom and Ralph read in her diary that she had a fling with Sid as a teenager).

When she gets over the shock Sid takes a crash course in Parenting for Dummies, and starts to bond with Ralph. Her ex-partner Daniel reappears in her life, and accepts her change of gender. And her estranged parents, her transphobic Mamaji (Zena Darawalla) and  laid-back Papaji (Gordon Warnecke: My Beautiful Launderette), welcome her back with open arms when they discover they’re grandparents. But trouble lurks. Will Daniel come out publicly as her partner? Will Ralph tell his Mom he found his birth parent? And will Sid survive the stress of transition?

Venus is a very cute dramedy, one that shows pathos without too much treacle, and keeps you interested. And the cast is uniformly believable and endearing, especially the principals: Sanyal, Mayers and Cardinal.

RBG

Dir: Julie Cohen, Betsy West

In 1970s America it was not illegal to refuse women bank loans without a man’s signature, to fire them for being pregnant, to pay them less than men, to bar them from public schools, private clubs and other institutions… even for husbands to rape their own wives.

Enter noted lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Born in Brooklyn, she is one of few female students at Harvard Law in the 1950s which helps shape her legal outlook. She observes the oppression and panic of the Red Scare. She also experiences discrimination first hand, as she and other women are ignored by professors and barred from accessing archives. Later, she works for the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union)  and begins to challenge laws that discriminate against women, one at a time, through lawsuits. Many of her cases make it to the all-male Supreme Court, whose members understand civil rights on the basis of race, but can’t yet conceive of it on the basis of sex.

She teaches them what’s what.

Later this diminutive, shy woman becomes a law professor, a circuit judge in the Washington, D.C. Appeals Court and eventually a Supreme Court justice herself, often leading dissenting positions on the increasingly conservative court. More recently, in her eighties, she has been adopted by young feminist activists as a “rock star” or celebrity of sorts; an unusual role model for a youth-obsessed culture.

RBG is an interesting and informative – if conventional – look at her policies, her home life, her late husband, and her love of opera.

Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Dir: Sara Driver

It’s 1978 and New York is a bombed out city. Crime rates are soaring, the government is bankrupt, and poor neighbourhoods like the Lower East side are abandoned and crumbling. With hard times come big changes. Both Punk rock and hip hop culture are developing side by side, and into this incubator steps a 16 year old boy named Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Born in Brooklyn, the son of a Haitian Dad and a Puerto Rican mom, Jean Michel is homeless, kicked out for dropping out of high school. Now he’s couch-surfing in the lower east side, and becoming an artist. He expresses himself as SAMO, a graffiti artist. But instead of the bold, chunky murals and tags that cover the subways Jean-Michel scrawls pensive poetry and enigmatic thoughts using plain – though distinctive — letters. He later develops his images – childlike hearts, crosses, three pointed crowns, Batman and science books – and applies them to diverse media: everything from walls, to clothing, to refrigerator doors. He targets walls near Soho, so galleries will notice. He already thinks of himself as a superstar, just one who is not famous yet.

But Soho galleries don’t care much about youth, punk, hip hop or black culture in general. So the artists create their own spaces in a DIY mode. Still a teenager he attends seminal art happenings and events around the city, whether or not he is actually invited, spontaneously adding his art directly to gallery walls And he refines his distinctive look, with short dreads and a partly shaved skull.

Boom for Real is a brilliant documentary about an artist life before his incredible fame in the art boom of the 1980s and his untimely death. It situates him within an era: of Fab 5 Freddy and Planet Rock; Club 57 and the Mudd Club; Grafitti art, Jim Jarmusch, club kids and Quaaludes, fashion, music, rap and art. It’s the best sort of documentary, one that functions as a constantly-flowing oral history told by the people who were there. It shows a fantastic array of period photos, videos and images documenting Basquiat’s teenaged years. Even the closing credits are thoughtfully laid out.

Beautiful movie.

Venus, RBG, and Boom for Real 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.

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