Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Mark James about Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, documentary, Jamaica, Music, Reggae by CulturalMining.com on August 13, 2022

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

It’s the 1960s in Kingston, Jamaica.

Randy’s is a legendary record store, a place where fans of music — and the musicians themselves — could listen to the latest hits. And upstairs, on the second floor, there’s a studio, a place where new tunes are being recorded, and their music — ska, reggae and dub — is being released worldwide. All the greats — people like Sly and Robby, Dennis Brown, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Lee Scratch Perry, Bob Marley and the Wailers — all spend time there, with some songs climbing to the top of the charts. The studio is run by husband-and-wife Vince and Pat Chin. But when the mood in Kingston changes from peace and calm to violence and gun wars, the studio is forced to close, the Chins move to New York, and the building is battered by storms and robbed by looters… but what happened to all those recordings?

Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes is a new documentary that looks at that recording studio, the people who made it work, and the music itself, boxes and boxes of rare, reel-to-reel tapes that somehow survived until now… when the tapes are being faithfully restored, archived and rereleased. The film includes interviews with many musicians, and the Chins, illustrated with hundreds of period photos and video clips, along with non-stop music taken from those legendary recordings. This feature documentary is the work of award-winning director and cinematographer, Mark James. A student of fine arts at London’s Goldsmiths College, and film production at the Royal College of Art, he has made docs about Damien Hirst, and Bryan Ferry, as well as horror films like Vampire Diary.

I spoke to Mark in Montreal, via ZOOM.

Studio 17: The Lost Reggae Tapes is having a special Toronto screening on August 15th at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, as part of a national tour.

Advances in Technology. Films reviewed: The Automat, Dope is Death, After Yang

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, Addiction, Adoption, Androids, Canada, documentary, drugs, Eating, Family, New York City, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on March 12, 2022

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

Technology, whether we find it good or bad, always affects our lives. This week, I’m looking at three movies — two documentaries and a science fiction drama — that look at advances in technology. There’s a new type of restaurant a hundred years ago that sells hot food out of metal and glass dispensers; a clinic 50 years ago that uses acupuncture to detox heroin addicts; and a future world where androids serve as siblings.

The Automat

Dir: Lisa Hurwitz

It’s the 1920s in New York and the city is booming. 300,000 women work as stenographers and they — along with everyone else — all need to eat lunch. And one modern restaurant chain, Horn & Hardart’s Automat, is serving them all. Art Deco palaces welcome anyone with a nickel to buy a slice of pie or a cup of steaming French-press coffee expelled through shiny brass dolphin heads. Customers share marble topped tables with whoever sits down beside them.  And behind stacks and rows of pristine glass and metal drawers, a nickel or two dropped in a slot opens the door to a single servings of macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, baked beans, or Salisbury steak all made at a central commissary and shipped out that very same day. At its peak they served 800,000 diners each day in NY and Philadelphia (where the chain was founded). But what goes up must come down. I wandered into an automat just once as a teenager and never went back. It was disgusting, the food looked unpalatable and aside from the novelty of buying a stale, egg salad sandwiches behind a little glass door, I couldn’t see why anyone would go there. But its fans from earlier generations remember it well, swearing by their specialties like strawberry rhubarb pies. 

The Automat is a fun and breezy look at this fabled restaurant chain, and its rise and fall. It interviews former owners, staff and customers, including celebrities like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. And although the doc was shot pretty recently, many of the featured interviewees — like Ruth Bader Ginzburg and Colin Powell — have sadly passed away. This is an interesting doc about an almost forgotten phenomenon.

Dope is Death

Wri/Dir: Mia Donovan (Inside Lara Roxx)

It’s the early 1970s in the South Bronx, NY and heroin use is rampant. Nixon has declared a war on drugs, devoting money to incarceration and maintenance programs (like methadone), but nothing for detoxification and ending addiction. So black, brown and white activists in groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords decided to take action. They occupied Lincoln Hospital and managed to open a detox clinic there. The program was led by Dr Mutulu Shakur, (that’s Tupac Shakur’s step-father, and a separatist activist in the Republic of New Afrika movement.) who tried something new — acupuncture! A half dozen medics went up to Montreal and returned a couple years later as medically-trained acupuncturists, staffing the new clinic, specifically to relieve drug addicts from their need for heroin.

Dope is Death is a brilliant, politically-informed historical documentary that looks at all the people involved in this movement— interviewing former addicts, acupuncturists and political activists. Sadly many were jailed or went underground following a brutal FBI crackdown. This film includes pristine colour footage from the era, along with period posters, photos, and audio  and video interviews. Although most of the film is set in NY city, the story takes us exotic locales from Montreal to Beijing. Sadly this fascinating doc was released during covid, but it’s finally showing on the big screen one day next week in Toronto.

After Yang

Dir: Kogonada

It’s the near future somewhere in the world. Kyra and Jake (Jodie Turner-Smith, Colin Farrell) are a happily married couple with a daughter named Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). To help Mika cope with differences (Mika is Black and English, Jake white and Irish, and she was adopted as an infant from mainland China)  they purchase an android named Yang. He is programmed to help Mika discover fun facts about her heritage and learn to speak Chinese. Yang  (Justin H Min) is like a gentle adult brother, there to explain and comfort her while her parents are away (mom works in an office, while dad sells tea leaves   — his obsession — out of a small shop). But when Yang malfunctions and stops working altogether,  that is, he dies, little Kyra is devastated, sending the family on a downward spiral. It’s up to Jake to try to bring them back together by preserving Yang’s thoughts and memories. But in trying to save him, Jake discovers new things about their lives, and Yang’s, things he knew nothing about.

After Yang is an unusual science fiction movie, without space ships, laser beams, or violence of any kind. In this future world people (or at least this family) live in stunning glass and wooden houses and dress in colourful hand-sewn clothing. They hilariously compete as a family in online dancing competitions (this has to be seen to be believed). Jake’s investigations uncover Yang’s hidden past lives, before he lived with them, including a woman he was in love with. This is a very low-key and visually-pleasing look at a future just like our present but prettier… and where artificial intelligence plays a crucial  part in our lives. It also deals with privacy, death, technology and everyday middle class problems. The director incorporates experimental film techniques in the movie, things like multiple repetitions of some of the lines to convey the way we — or an android — might remember things. Characters rarely show strong emotions; everything is repressed.  And to tell you the truth, not much happens. So while not completely satisfying, After Yang is still a pleasure to watch.

After Yang opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Hot Docs Cinema is featuring special screenings of The Automat and Dope is Death next week, with the directors present for Q&As; go to hotdocs.ca for details.

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

Hope? Films reviewed: The Matrix Resurrections, Try Harder, American Underdog

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

New Year’s Day is a good time to look toward the future and make plans. So this week I’m looking at three new movies, a drama, a documentary, and a science fiction action /thriller, about looking forward. There’s a football player who dreams of playing for the NFL, a group of high school students who dream of going to Stanford, and a video game creator who dreams of a world completely different from our  own. 

The Matrix Resurrections

Co-Wri/Dir: Lana Wachowski 

Tom Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a video game maker and programmer in Chicago. His baby is a series called The Matrix —0 there have been three versions so far and the company is thinking of creating a fourth. The game — created and programmed by Tom and financed by his business partner (Jonathan Groff) — is about two fighters named Neo and Trinity who fight in a parallel world against a villain named Smith. At a cafe Tom frequents, he notices a woman named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), and she notices him, too. Have they met? No, but Trinity and Neo, the characters in the game, look very similar to Tiffany and Tom. And Tom has been having weird dreams and deja vu, so his analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) gives him meds  — blue pills — to keep his mind from wandering. That is, until one day glitches start to appear on his computer matrix, unexplained activity within his own designs. These soon morph into changes in real life: people, (actually characters he created) are appearing in the office! And they know who he is… Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a fighter, and Morpheus (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) are their to explain it all. 

You’re not Tom, they say, you’re Neo. And it isn’t your dreams that are false, it’s your daily life that’s made up. You can pass through mirrors, climb walls, jump off roofs and fly! And if he just stops swallowing those blue pills he’ll see what the world is really like — a futuristic dystopia of people kept alive in rusty pods guarded by scary bots. Will he stay in his current world or break free? What awaits him in the other world? And will Tiffany/Trinity come with him if he goes?

The Matrix Resurrections is the long awaited sequel to the famous Matrix trilogy that has permeated our popular culture. People still use the terms “swallowing the blue pill” to refer to those who go about their daily lives ignoring a darker reality. It incorporates older footage in the forms of dreams and flashbacks, while introducing new characters as well as new actors playing older roles. It’s two and half hours long, much of which is gun fights, chase scenes, and endless SGI images.

Does it work? I’m not a Matrix fanboy, so I have no deep, vested interest in finding out what happens to these characters. I like the new plot twists, and the whole meta-aspect of it (it initially presents the previous episodes as existing in this universe but only as video games). And it’s fun just to watch (though a bit too long). I enjoyed this final version of the Matrix, but it didn’t change my life.

Try Harder

Dir: Debbie Lum

San Francisco’s Lowell School, known for its exceptional test scores and a graduation rate of nearly 100%, is one of the most famous public schools in California. Students there are under pressure — from their parents, other students, and themselves, to achieve high marks, SAT scores and ultimately to get into a prestigious university. This documentary looks at five students as they try to navigate the stress of senior year. 

The film follows the students at school, in their classes, at teams and clubs, and at home. The school — like the city — has a large Asian-American population, mainly of Chinese origin, but explores the stark differences as well, of class race and culture. Some are the kids of recent immigrants, while others are a part of the city’s long history. It also looks at differences in attitudes and stereotypes. This film doesn’t try to dig too deeply or uncover surprising turns; rather it observes and talks to the subjects and lets nature take its course — as they apply to universities and change their expectations over the course of the year. Try Harder is an intimate look at how teenagers handle what many consider the most important year of their lives. 

American Underdog

Dir: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin

Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) is born in small-town Iowa and raised by his divorced mom. Ever since he was a kid he has always wanted to be a pro football player. He practices religiously, till his arm can throw balls like a howitzer. After  high school he makes the team  at Northern Iowa University, but spends most of his time on the bench. One night, at a roadhouse bar, a certain woman catches his eye. Brenda (Anna Paquin) is a no-nonsense former marine who likes line dancing and Country & Western music. But she won’t give Kurt her number. How come? She has two small kids, including one with disabilities, and she doesn’t have the time to waste on guys like him. But Kurt is persistent. He brings her flowers, and more important, just it off with Zach (Hayden Zaller) her legally blind and disabled son. So they start dating. Meanwhile his career is advancing nicely, until he is asked to try out for the Green Bay Packers. Is this his big chance? Nope, he only lasts one day. 

Now he has to work as a stock boy at the local grocery store. Eventually he is recruited to play pro football… well, kinda. It’s a new sport called Arena Football: played indoors on smaller fields, with fewer players and is much faster than the usual game. The years pass, and he’s spotted by someone who wants him to play on for the St Louis Rams — that’s NFL. But can someone who is way too old to be a rookie, and too green to be a pro  ever make it in the NFL? And can he win and keep Brenda’s heart?

American Underdog is a moving family drama and sports biopic based on a true story.  It’s no spoiler to say that Warner ended up taking his team to the Super Bowl and was awarded Most Valuable Player and is now in the NFL Hall of Fame. But this film tells us what led up to it and how he got there.

This is what’s known as a “Christian” or “faith-based”  movie,  a particular American genre, with no nudity, sex, drugs or even cussing. It’s all about cornfields and country music… not my usual cup of tea. Nor am I football fanatic. But you know what? It’s a compelling story, with real situations and interesting characters. It’s not sappy or corny or cheesy, nor is it cringe-worthy (unlike your average Hallmark movie). No. This is an honestly good, nice film. OK, there’s no way — even in a dark room — that you would ever mistake a 40-year-old Zachary Levi for a college student. No way. But that’s beside the point. He’s good, and so is Paquin, and Hayden Zaller as the kid Zach is adorable without ever being cutesy. I saw the Erwin brothers previous Christian film, “I Still Believe” and there’s no comparison — this one is a cut above. 

American Underdog, is now playing theatrically, check your local listings. You can find the Matrix Resurrections in theatres and certain streaming services, while Try Harder is playing at Hot Docs cinema and on VOD.

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

Death and Life. Films reviewed: Broken Diamonds, Old, Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters

Posted in Dance, Dementia, documentary, Family, Fantasy, Horror, LGBT, Mental Illness by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2021

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

Movies in Toronto are taking off. I saw a press screening in a movie theatre this week for the first time in 16 months! It felt a little bit strange and awkward but I can already feel myself adjusting to it. TIFF has announced its first batch of movies, including the world premier of the musical Dear Evan Hansen to open the festival (I’m reviewing another movie starring Ben Platt today). The ICFF is now running a series of outdoor movies including the 1911 silent classic, L’Inferno from Danté’s Divine Comedy. And actual, indoor movie theatres are also open now, even in Toronto, showing new, trashy popcorn movies.

This week, I’m looking at three “deadly” American movies – a drama, a doc and a fantasy/horror – all opening this weekend on various platforms. There’s a brother and sister brought together after a death, a dance performance inspired by a death, and tourists at a beach resort facing death.

Broken Diamonds

Dir: Peter Sattler

Scott (Ben Platt) is a young writer with a goal. He’s quitting his day job, selling all his possessions and flying off to Paris to write his first novel. At least that was his plan until his estranged father suddenly dies. Which brings him together with his sister Cindy (Lola Kirke). Cindy was once the big shot in the family, pretty, smart, an aspiring actress. She was the apple of her father’s eye while Scott was always an afterthought. But she’s been living in a mental institution on and off since high school. But, perhaps because of the turmoil of losing her dad, she acts out and gets kicked out and now she’s suddenly homeless.  She moves back into the empty family home. Now it’s up to Scott to take care of his big sister… or at least until he moves to Paris.

But it’s not that simple. They have a long history to work out. And when Cindy goes off her meds, things start to spiral out of control.  Can Scott act like a grown up and take responsibility for once? Can he help Cindy adjust to life outside of institutions? Is he his sister’s keeper? And will he ever get to Paris?

Broken Diamonds is a touching movie about a few weeks in the lives of adult siblings. It deals with family issues like death and inheritance, living with mental illness, and other people facing their own hidden demons. Though largely told through Scott’s eye’s, it’s sympathetic toward Cindy’s plight. The acting is good and the tone is light. That said, I found the story overly simplistic — neither Scott not Cindy seem to have any friend, lover or relative in their lives other than each other, but they haven’t spoken in years. And did they have to portray schizophrenia as a disease where “split personalities” with different names and voices start to appear as soon as she’s off meds? It also has a painfully awful and unnecessary denouement tacked onto the credits,  so if you decide to see this movie — and it’s seriously not bad, it’s watchable, it’s touching, and well-acted — run out of the theatre when the closing titles start to roll!

Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters

Dir: Tom Hurwitz, Rosalynde LeBlanc

It’s the 1980s in New York City. Bill T Jones and Arnie Zane have a dance company in which they both perform. They’re also lovers. They met in the apex of gay culture and abandon in the late 70s. But now it’s the 80s and the AIDS epidemic is decimating the gay community, including the world of dance. Many of the people they work with, including Keith Haring who does their sets, and Alvin Ailey who commissions their work, are dying. Then Arnie dies too, throwing their company into disarray. As part of the grieving process, Jones decides to create a totally different kind of dance. The dancers are multiracial, men and women, gay and straight, and people with different body types, not just the stereotypical “look” dancers usually have. It incorporates athleticism and the Aids crisis within a fusion of elements of traditional ballet and modern dance. He calls it “post-modern” dance.

This spectacular dance opens to rave reviews and packed audiences. And over the past 30+ years it’s been performed in hundreds of productions. And what a performance — bodies being tossed into the air;  diving off one dancer’s back into another’s arms. And despite it’s modernity, it’s set to 19th century music by Mendelsohn. 

The film shows footage from the original production in the late 1980s, and interviews with many of those dancers. It also follow a young group at a university, going through the process of auditioning, rehearsing and putting together a new version of the same dance. Bill T Jones is present both in the original production and visiting this new one to offer advice during their rehearsals. 

Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters is a documentary that traces the genesis and meaning of the original production and how it retains its relevance and dynamism today.  It’s both an historical document and an important work of art. Personally, I would rather have seen more dancing and less talking, but found it interesting nevertheless. 

Old

Wri/Dir:M. Night Shyamalan

Prisca and Guy (Vicky Krieps and Gael Garcia Bernal) are a married couple with two precocious kids: daughter Maddox, age 7 and Trent who is 6.  Guy is an actuary and Prisca is a museum curator. They’ve just arrived at a luxury resort, for what might be their last time together. Prisca is facing a medical condition and  their marriage is on the rocks. Maybe a few days on a beautiful tropical island can solve all their problems? Soon they’re in a minibus headed for a private beach for a day of sun and fun. The resort has even packed huge picnic hampers of food for them to enjoy. And it’s a stunning beach with white sand and crystal waters, surrounded by steep cliffs, reached only through a passageway in the rocks. Joining them on this excursion are an angry doctor with his elderly mother, his model-like wife and their little girl; another couple — she’s a psychologist and he’s a nurse; and a famous rapper with his girlfriend.But strange things start happening. A dead body washes up on shore. And something’s wrong with the kids — they’re growing up. As in puberty! In just an hour they’ve turned into teenagers with Trent and the other former 6-year-old sneaking away to make out in a tent. They’re in love, and before you know it she’s pregnant! What is going on?

It seems that on this beach they’re all aging at the rate of 10 years an hour, which means they could all be dead of old age by the end of the day. Their cel phones don’t work, and anyone who tries to leave becomes dizzy and faint at the border of the beach. What is happening… and why? And will anyone escape?

Old — based on a graphic novel — operates on a really neat sci-fi fantasy premise. It’s not just horror, there are lots of intriguing and unexpected parts. There are some impossible missteps, most of which I can’t mention without revealing the ending. For example, a psychologist with epilepsy has a tonic clonic seizure at the hotel but doesn’t bother bringing her anti-seizure meds with her on a trip the next day? Lot’s of little errors like that. But even so, I found it a surprising and fascinating story, beginning to end. M Night Shyamalam has been churning out a series of not-so-great movies since The Sixth Sense (1999), but maybe Old means he’s getting better again.

Old and Broken Diamonds both open this weekend, either theatrically or VOD check your local listings; and you can now watch Can You Bring It: Bill T. Jones and D-Man in the Waters at the Digitall TIFF Bell Lightbox and at Virtual Hotdocs. 

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

Movies from Africa! Films reviewed: Dachra, Lift Like a Girl, Running Against the Wind

Posted in Coming of Age, documentary, Drama, Egypt, Ethiopia, Feminism, Horror, photography, Sports, Supernatural, Tunisia, Witches by CulturalMining.com on July 9, 2021

This week, I’m looking at three movies from north and northeast Africa: a horror movie from Tunisia, a documentary from Egypt, and a drama from Ethiopia. We’ve got inner-city weightlifters, a forest full of witches, and two childhood friends… who can’t wait, but don’t know which way to go.

Dachra

Dir: Abdelhamid Bouchnak

Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi) is a journalism student at a university in Tunis. She was raised by her kindly grandfather; ever since her mother left her in his care when she was still a child. At school she hangs out with two friends: the very serious Bilel (Bilel Slatnia) and the  rude, crude and funny Walid (Aziz Jebali), who is always on the lookout for a sexual innuendo. The three team up to complete an assignment due soon: to report on a unique story, one that’s never been covered in the mainstream media before. Bilel is the cameraman, Walid the sound guy, and Yassmine — who is beautiful and likes to take charge — is the reporter. The story they’re chasing? A woman in a mental hospital named Mongia who is rumoured to be a witch. She has attacked medics in the past, and is said to perform supernatural acts. She’s been there ever since she was discovered at a village in the woods with her throat cut but still alive. 

After some bribes and subterfuge, they manage to arrange an interview with her, so they can track down the mysterious village where all the events were said to have taken place. But are these cub reporters biting off more than they can chew?

Dachra is a scary, gory and sometimes disgusting horror movie from Tunisia.  It’s beautifully shot in colour, but so spare it almost seems like black and white at times. It uses little or no CGI special effects — the horror is in the creepy characters and situations. These include an always-laughing little girl, an overly solicitous middle-aged man, and a village populated only by women who don’t seem to speak Arabic or French, and who only eat “meat”. Certain parts are predictable — it’s a variation on the classic Cabin in the Woods-type movie — but it also has enough twists and surprises, both supernatural and earthly, to keep you staring at  (or cringing away from)  the screen. 

Dachra is great classic horror in a brand new setting.

Lift Like a Girl

Zebiba seems like an average 14-year-old girl with glasses and ponytail in Alexandria, Egypt. So what’s so special about her? She’s a competitive weightlifter, training for international competitions. And her coach is the famous Captain Ramadan who brought his own daughter international glory a generation earlier. He’s an exuberant man, exuding enthusiasm with every breath. He’s also a one-man cheerleader, ready to break out in chants, songs and dances for his best lifters. And right now, Zebiba is his prize. She specializes in a three part lift. First bringing up the barbell from a squat, then raising it to her upper chest, then turning her hands around to lift it above her head. Her daily practice takes place in a dusty field surrounded by a fence on a street corner in an industrial section of the city. As a competitor she’s equally concerned about how many kilos she lifts as she is about how many she weighs (which determines whom you’re competing against) so she has to follow a strict diet, complete with fasting. to win. But as she grows older, and her medals add up, something unexpected happens, totally changing the dynamics of her life. Can Zebiba continue as a champion weightlifter… or is the magic gone?

Lift Like a Girl is a verité-style documentary about a young girl training in a traditionally masculine sport. It follows Zebiba over four years as she matures. Coach Ramadan is an unforgettable character, a man who rejects religious piety, external pressure, and traditional gender stereotypes (“if a man can belly dance, why can’t a woman lift weights?” he asks.) Zebiba, on the other hand, rarely speaks. She’s followed as an athlete but we rarely see her home life or innermost thoughts, only what the camera catches in her face. Lift Like a Girl is an informative and occasionally interesting examination of a previously unexplored sport. While it definitely has its moving moments, this doc is best suited for those who find competitive weightlifting a fascinating spectator sport.

Running Against the Wind

Co-Wri/Dir: Jan Philipp Weyl

Abdi and Solomon are two young boys who live in the desert like Gand Abdi area of Ethiopia. They don’t go to school, instead spending their time playing or herding goats. But one day a surprise visitor send both their lives on a new course. Abdi discovers he loves running… and can do it faster than anyone he knows. Solomon discovers what a camera is, and decides to devote his life to taking photos. Within a few tears, Abdi is in training with a coach in Addis Ababa, while Solomon has completely disappeared. In fact he isn’t dead, he has taken up a new life in the capital. His photo dreams quickly fade as he falls in with a crowd of homeless kids who make their living begging, stealing and doing hard labour. 

Years pass and Abdi (Ashenafi Nigusu) is now a celebrity runner appearing on billboards, with more prize money than he can spend. Solomon nicknamed photo (Mikias Wolde) is now living with a girl he met as a child in the gang, and they have a two year old daughter. But they still live hand to mouth in a shanty-town shack. Worse, his friends get him involved in organized crime, leaving him under the sway of a genuine villain. Is Solomon permanently stuck in a life of poverty or can he fulfill his dream? Will Abdi adjust to big city life, forgetting his roots in the countryside? And will the two best friends ever be reunited in Addis Ababa?

Running Against the Wind is an engaging, Dickensian story about friendship and brotherhood. While it has a somewhat boilerplate storyline, there is so much stuff happening it can’t can’t help but be interesting. There are dozens of memorable characters, from Solomon’s ne’er-do-well friend Kiflom who keeps getting him into trouble, to Solomon’s loving partner Genet, Abdi’s hard-ass coach with a heart of gold;  Paul, an Amharic-speaking European-Ethiopian photographer; and an evil, bulging-eyed gangster kingpin who oozes cruelty from every pore. Running Against the Wind is the first Ethiopian movie I’ve ever seen, and I can’t wait to watch more.

Lift Like a Girl and Running Against the Wind may be playing in cinemas in your area — check your local listings — or you can find them on VOD;  Dachra  is opening theatrically in the US, and later on VOD. 

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

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.

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