Daniel Garber talks with director Håvard Bustnes about his new doc Golden Dawn Girls

Posted in documentary, Greece, Journalism, Nazi, Politics, Racism, violence by CulturalMining.com on April 13, 2018

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

It’s the 2010s in Greece. The EU and northern European banks are foreclosing on Greek debt, demanding the country adopt austerity measures. There is talk of Grexit — Greece pulling out of the European Union altogether. Newcomers, fleeing war in the Middle East and Africa, are seeking refuge on their shores. And new political parties are springing up amidst the turmoil, with one, the leftist Syriza, eventually rising to prominence. But on the extreme right, another party arises. Golden Dawn combines Nazi regalia, fascist ideology, and anti-immigrant violence in its attempt to seize power. What is Golden Dawn, what does it stand for, and who are the people in its inner circle?

A bold new documentary looks at the party from an insiders’ point of view. The filmmaker gained access by appealing to the women closest to the party leaders – a mother, a wife and a daughter – who offer their candid insights while the men are in jail. The documentary is Golden Dawn Girls, by the noted Norwegian filmmaker Håvard Bustnes.

I spoke to Håvard in Norway via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Golden Dawn Girls will have its North American premier at Toronto’s Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival on May 1st, 2018.

Serious. Films reviewed: Beirut, Abu, Indian Horse

Posted in Canada, Canadian Literature, documentary, Dreams, Espionage, Indigenous, Islam, Lebanon, LGBT, Ojibway, Racism, Residential Schools by CulturalMining.com on April 13, 2018

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

Spring film festival season is on now. Look out for Cinefranco featuring films from Québec; Human Rights Watch Film Fest with films from around the world, and here’s a new one: The Toronto International Porn Film Festival! This week, though, I’m looking at some serious movies. There’s a spy thriller set in Lebanon, a family memoir in Pakistan and Canada, and a drama about Canada’s residential schools.

Beirut

Dir: Brad Anderson

It’s 1972 at the US Embassy in Beirut. Mason (Jon Hamm) and his wife are hosting a party for bigwigs from Washington. Helping out is Karim, an earnest 12-year-old Palestinian kid who they treat like a son. But all is not well. His best friend, Cal, a CIA agent tells him something’s up with that cute little boy so they’re just going to take him away to a dark cell somewhere for awhile.

What–? Mason objects, but just then, gunmen enter the embassy, kill his wife, and drive off with the boy. Mason’s life is ruined. Ten years later he’s back in the States, staying just sober enough to keep his job as a labour negotiator… when out of the blue comes an urgent call: top government officials wants him back in Beirut, but they won’t say why.

He is met by Sandy (Rosamund Pike) in the now wartorn city, who fills him in. Militants have kidnapped an American and have asked Mason to negotiate. Turns out the kidnappee is his old friend Cal, and the kidnapper? Little Karim, now all grown up. Can Mason defuse the tensions, negotatiate a trade between the CIA, the Mossad, the PLO, the Lebanese government, splinter groups and corrupt officials? Or will the intrigue and subterfuge prove too much for him to handle?

Beirut is a neat and taut action thriller with lots of suspense amidst the twists and turns. (The script is by Tony Gilroy who did the Bourne trilogy.) Poltically, though, it’s a total mess. The film is loaded with visual “shorthand”, so 1982 Lebanon is represented by a woman in a niqab beside a camel on the beach! Really??  This isn’t Saudi Arabia in 2018, it’s Lebanon in 1982.  The movie also implies that every Arab child is a potential terrorist in the making.

Still the acting is good, the pace brisk and the game-theory-fuelled plot is fascinating to watch.

Abu

Wri/Dir: Arshad Khan

Arshad is a little kid growing up in Pakistan to an Army engineer dad and an upper-class mom. He likes dancing to disco music and being flamboyant. And by his teenaged years he’s secretly dating another boy. The parents find out and he is deeply humiliated.

Later, the family moves to Canada, where he stands out for a different reason. Suddenly, he’s Pakistani, he’s an immigrant, he’s a person of colour – with all the racism that comes with his new identity. Arshad gradually feels his way through an unfamiliar, racialized setting, as a South Asian, as a Canadian, as a gay man, and as a political activist. His parents veer in the opposite direction. They gradually turn to fundamentalist Islam, which they learn about in their new home. Can this family stay together?

Abu is deeply personal film, that serves as both a tribute to Arshad’s parents (Abu means father) and a look at his own life. It’s filled with family photos, videos, and interviews – his parents were movie enthusiasts who recorded everything. These random vignettes are strung together with an unusual plot device – an animated version of a dream he has that proves prophetic. Though the story is routine, much like what countless other new immigrants to Canada experience,  I love the way the film puts everything – history, pop culture, music – into a larger context.

Indian Horse

Dir: Stephen S. Campanelli

Based on the novel by Richard Wagamese

It’s the 1950s in Northern Ontario. Saul Indian Horse (Sladen Peltier as young Saul; Forrest Goodluck as teen Saul; Ajuawak Kapashesit as adult Saul) is a young boy  raised by his grandmother (Edna Manitowabi) who teaches him the Ojibway ways. Until the day government officials arrive in a fancy car who literally pull him out of his grandmother’s arms. They leave him at St Jerome’s a Catholic residential school where they can “kill the Indian in him”. Right away they cut off his hair, forbid him from speaking his language. The school is run by cruel priests and nuns, who abuse the kids physically and psychologically. Some are tortured, even locked up in a cage in the basement. Saul is a survivor and stays out of trouble, unlike his best friend who can’t hack it… and suffers terribly.

Saul comes up with a way to get out of the place: hockey. He’s seen it on B&W TV at school and it speaks to him. He’s sure if he learns to skate and practices on his own every morning, hockey will save him. He’s helped by way of a deal he makes with Father Gaston (Michiel Huisman), a friendly priest who takes a liking to him. It turns out Saul’s right – he is a fantastic player. He joins a native hockey team up north and slowly climbs his way up the ladder. He faces racism and discrimination at every step but he keeps his identity and sense of self. Eventually he gets drafted to the NHL and sent to Toronto – their first indigenous player. But deep inside, something from his past is eating away at him. What will become of Saul? Will he succeed in his dreams? Or will his experiences at the residential school drag him down?

Indian Horse is a deeply moving story, starring indigenous actors playing Saul at each stage of his life. It exposes a recent, shameful part of Canadian history, and one that’s still being felt today. The movie is not perfect or without flaws — it was made with a limited budget, and isn’t a Hollywood-style pic with a feel-good ending. But I think it’s a really good drama about an important topic, and one that should be required viewing across this country.

Beirut, Abu and Indian Horse all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening is the fantastic, realistic drama Lean on Pete which I reviewed here last September and is also on my New Year’s list of best movies of the year.

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

Art and Sport. Films Reviewed: The Miracle Season, Final Portrait, PLUS Steve Reinke’s films at Images

Posted in Art, Canada, Death, France, Movies, Queer, Rural, Sex, Sports, Switzerland, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 6, 2018

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

Toronto’s Images, the International Festival of Moving Image Culture, opens next Thursday with Canadian and international video artists and filmmakers… featuring the work of Steve Reinke. This week, I’m going to talk about films by artists, and films about artists, with some sports thrown in, too. There’s an American volleyball team, a Swiss sculptor, and a Canadian video artist.

The Miracle Season

Dir: Sean McNamara

Caroline and Kelly have been best friends since childhood. “Line” (Danika Yarosh) is the always chirpy optimist who Kelly (Erin Moriarty) looks up to. Growing up in rural Iowa, they share their secrets amidst big barns and cornfields. In high school they play volleybal together. With Line as team manager and setter they win the State Championships. Of course the other team members, andtheir hard boiled coach (Helen Hunt) are important, but it’s really Line who leads the team to victory.

But the next year things take a turn for the worse. The team is dispirited and Line’s Mom has cancer. Then the unthinkable happens; Line dies in a crash. Kelly feels guilty, and so does Line’s dad Ernie (William Hurt) who used to throw team parties and boost the players. With no Line around to pull people out of their misery, the team slides to last place. They don’t even want to be happy – it’s disrespectful. It falls to Kelly to turn the team around. Can she do it, and will the team ever win again?

The Miracle Season is a nice movie about teamwork and overcoming loss. It has good acting and a conventionally inspiring story. “Nice” is the key word here. Based on a true story, it was made by permission of the charity founded by the Line’s father. So as you can expect, anything not super “nice” has been scrubbed from the plot. No sex, no violence here. They could show this movie at Bible Camp without raising an eyebrow. Which makes it a nice memorial for teammates and family members, but for the rest of us, it’s just a dull and predictable movie. But, like I said, it’s still nice.

Final Portrait

Dir: Stanley Tucci

It’s early 1960s. James Lord (Armie Hammer) is a young American living in Paris who writes biographies of well known artists. He’s friends with both Picasso and the Swiss-Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush). Giacometti is famous for his sculptures of people with crusty and extremely elongated arms and legs. But he also paints. And one day he asks James to pose for him for a few hours. He sits down in Alberto’s studio dressed in khakis, navy blue sports jacket and shirt and tie. But the one-day painting turns into a project lasting days and then weeks, until no one knew if it would ever end. Each time he paints his face, Alberto rubs it all out and starts again. Meanwhile, various people in his life walk in and out adding colour to the story. His brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub) has seen it all before. His neglected wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) refuses to pose for him anymore. And his mistress Caroline (played by the delightfully-named Clémence Poésy) would rather go for a jaunt in their sportscar than just hang at the studio. Final Portrait has some fun parts, but basically this movie is 90 minutes of watching paint dry.

Steve Reinke

Steve Reinke is a queer Canadian artist and filmmaker, originally from the Ottawa valley but now based in Chicago. I’ve seen a lot of his films in the past 20 years, but for the first time I spent last night binge-watching them all together (which is quite an experience).  If you’ve never seen Reinke’s stuff before, you should.

He’s been shooting films and videos that chronical his life, his thoughts, aesthetics, and interests — both intellectual and sexual – beginning in the late 1970s and continuing till now. And unlike a lot of gallery video artists, his films are never boring. (This is important.) Like porn, a Reinke film is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. (But that doesn’t mean you’ll understand it.)

Taken at face value, his collection is an ongoing, partly-fictional memoir told through video art (predating blogs and youtube by decades). His images are partly found footage/partly original, narrated both by voice and by titles. Take What Weakens the Flesh is the Flesh Itself, a recent film he made with James Richards. The film alternates grotesquerie with erotica and mundaneness, with the edges sometimes blurring among the three. Grotesque as in a dead piglet; mundane, like a naked man eating grapes or an ice fishing hut shot with a distorted, fisheye lens; erotic like a poisonous snake having its venom extracted in a laboratory. The film begins with photos by the late German photographer Albrecht Becker. He was imprisoned in Nazi Germany for his sexuality. His work consists of photos of himself reduplicated with an imaginary “twin”. Over time, as his photos become more stylized and experimental so does his body, which gradually transmogrifies — before still cameras — into a work of art using tattoos, body modification, and a whopping-big metal thing hanging from his scrotum. (Ouch!)

Reinke’s flms are transgressive and a total mindfuck. Like he’ll show you an alien monster with pointy ears making out with a faceless, sexless human, encased in a skintight black PVC outfit. And then later he’ll show an unborn dead calf being pulled from a cow’s belly with the same black shininess.

This is weird stuff, alternating between jarring pictures of sex and death overlayed with anodyne intellectual musings. Who else would compare Casper the Friendly Ghost to Wittgenstein? What other filmmaker offers a film called Anal Masturbation and Object Loss that’s actually just Steve Reinke pasting the pages of an academic psychiatric textbook together? Or show thousands of unidentified military photos before telling you this: [SPOILER ALERT] these are pics of all the American military casualties of the Second Gulf War arranged in order of attractiveness. Shocking stuff.

It all feels like you just watched a story, but one arranged with enough sudden changes and musical distortion that you’re not seduced into it. Steven Reinke’s films leave you disturbed and unsatisfied but you don’t quite know why.

Films viewed:

What Weakens The Flesh Is The Flesh Itself (2017)

Atheists Need Theology, Too (2016)

Joke (Version One) (1991)

*Watermelon Box (1990)

*Michael and Lacan (1991)

*Room (1991)

*Barely Human (1992)

Anal Masturbation and Object Loss (2002)

Squeezing Sorrow From an Ashtray (1992)

Hobbit Love is the Greatest Love (2007)

A Boy Needs a Friend (2015)

*not included in Images series

The Miracle Season and Final Portrait both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Steve Reinke’s films are showing at Toronto’s Images Festival — featured in its Canadian Artist Spotlight series — beginning next Thursday. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Shells. Films reviewed: Journey’s End, Ready Player One, The China Hustle

Posted in 1910s, China, Class, Corruption, Darkness, documentary, Drama, Games, Movies, Poverty, Science Fiction, Wall Street, War, WWI by CulturalMining.com on March 30, 2018

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

It’s a holiday weekend filled with eggs, whether hard boiled or made of chocolate with a prize inside. So this week I’m looking at three new movies about… shells. There are VR gamers looking for a hidden easter egg, Wall Streeters investing in shell corporations, and WWI soldiers dodging mortar shells.

Journey’s End

Dir: Saul Dibb

It’s March, 1918, in the WWI trenches of northern France. Underground, where the officers stay, it’s dark, dank and smelly. Up on the surface its deadly dangerous, with snipers aiming at your head. Four British divisions rotate their stays at the front at one week per month. It’s like a lottery – with a one in four chance of dying. And the soldiers in Company C are just trying to stay sane and alive. There’s the fatherly Osborne (Paul Bettany) who everyone calls “Uncle”, the indefatigable cook Mason (Toby Jones), and the shell-shocked Hibbert.

So no one can understand why the green, idealistic Lt Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) pulls strings to join this benighted group. Why? His upper classman Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is stationed there and he wants to see him again. But he doesn’t realize the level of death and despair that has taken hold there. And that his hero, Stanhope,

is now a mean and bitter alcoholic. The soldiers there are forced to make pointless raids in daylight so as not to interrupt the dinner schedule of far-off Generals. And things reach a boiling point when word gets out the Germans are about to attack on Thursday, right there. They’re essentially sentenced to die at the front. How do they all handle this?

Journey’s End – based on the classic play – is a tense retelling of an old war story, exactly 100 years later. It deals with the futility of war, the rigid British class system, and the male comeradery of life in the trenches. The acting is very good, and the camera wonderfully captures a world lit only by flickering lanterns. Even so, it was hard to sympathize with the stuff-upper-lip, tally-ho language of the script. The long theatrical conversations might might work on stage but not on the screen. The main emotions I got from this movie were depression, disgust claustrophobia and fatalism. It all felt too long, too slow, and too distant, especially once you know their fate… Just die already!

Ready Player One

Dir: Steven Spielberg

It’s 2045 in Columbus, Ohio and the world is a mess. People live marginal existences in ramshackle towers beside huge corporations. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is an 18-year-old orphan who spends most of his time online in a wildly- popular VR fantasy world called Oasis. Its creator left a trillion-dollar prize to whoever can solve the puzzles hidden within this digital world. First they must complete three levels of games and collect three keys  and claim the hidden easter egg. Wade he surprises the world by appearing on the boards as Player One, the top ranked player in the world. But he’s not the only gunter (egg hunter) trying to win. His closest virtual rivals are Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) a fiery red-head, Aech, a muscular giant and genius mechanic; plus Daito and Sho whose avatars look like a samurai and a ninja, respectively. Wade calls himself Parzival. Like the Wagner opera character, he’s searching for a holy grail. And he’s in love with the lovely Artemis. But as best-bud Aech keeps telling him: you only know her avatar – that’s not what she’s like in real life. And lurking in the shadows is the rich and evil Sorrento, (Ben Mendelssohn) the head of IOI, the corporate rival to Oasis’s company. He pretends to be a champion gamer, but he’s actually a fake who hires employees to play for him. But he’s out to win — and take over the world — at any cost. Which of the hunters will figure out the puzzle and find the easter egg? And can they defeat the villainous Sorrento?

Ready Player One is an incredibly fast-moving sci-if action movie. Oasis’s inventor, whose puzzles they’re all trying to solve, was obsessed with the 80s, so the movie feeds you a random hodgepodge of Back to the Future and Iron Giant, Gandam and Street Fighter, New Order and Van Halen, a non-stop shower of pop culture, to the point where you can’t tell self-referential jokes from cheap product placement. (Maybe they’re both?) But why would kids in the 2040s care about the 1980s? I can’t call this a good movie; it’s incredibly commercial, felt more like a theme park ride than a film, and parts were like watching a video game with someone else holding the controls. But you know what? I still enjoyed it. And it does have that classic Spielbergian look and sound.

China Hustle

Wri/Dir: Jed Rothstein

After the Subprime Mortgage crisis, American investors, pension funds, and ordinary moms and pops were looking to make some money. But where? Chinese people were making millions investing in their red-hot companies, but those stocks weren’t traded on Wall Street. Until, suddenly, they were. Hundreds of Chinese startups were being bought and sold and making big bucks. And companies like Roth Capital were holding lavish parties known as “investment conferences” to reel in buyers. They were backed by reputable auditors like Deloitte. It’s a win-win proposition – everyone makes money. Until, that is, some suspicious investors fly to Shanghai and looked around.

Turns out, many of these companies operate as “Reverse Mergers”. Existing Chinese corporations buy shell companies already registered in the US, take them over, change their name, and they’re open to make money.

But their books here don’t look like their books there. Idle factories in China are said to be making ten times what they’re actually earning. And no one’s checking up on them.

So a few maverick investors decide to short sell their stock (like in that movie The Big Short) counting on its value crashing soon. And they speed this along by publicising the corruption and questionable accounting of the parent companies back in China. The result, riches for a few, terrible losses for many.

The China Hustle is a fascinating documentary looking at the shady practices behind deregulation, auditing and investments, as told by three American short-sellers. I thought its view of China as a monolithic villain was superficial and rather one-sided; for example, it shows how these fraudulent investments affect ordinary Americans’ lives, but not how they affect ordinary Chinese.

But it does expose in detail a huge scandal I knew nothing about.

Ready Player One opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Journey’s End and The China Hustle are in theatres and Video On Demand. 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 Nicole Maroon and Vladimir Jon Cubrt about their new film Luba

Posted in Addiction, Canada, drugs, Family, Hockey, Movies, Poverty, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on March 23, 2018

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

Luba and Donnie are a married couple with a young son, Matty. Their marriage faltered when Donnie’s drug use got out of hand, but since rehab things are looking up. Little Matty commutes between Lou’s flat and his grandma’s home where Donnie is living. They’re barely staying afloat with precarious jobs — he’s in construction while she’s serving jell-o shots for tips. Will poverty, depression and crack grind them into the dirt? Or can a family be saved by the hope and determination of a strong young woman named Luba?

Luba is also the name of a heartfelt family drama that looks at life in Toronto through the eyes of a family left behind. It stars Nicole Maroon as Luba and Vladimir Jon Cubrt as Donnie. Nicole is a master of Fine Arts whose range includes everything from Shakespeare to City TVs Meet the Family; while Vlad is celebrated on stage, screen and on TV’s Hannibal. The two co-produced Luba and Vlad wrote the script.

I spoke with Nicole and Vlad in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM. They talk about Acting, Luba, Hockey, Ukrainian-Canadians, Jack Nicholson, Toronto, the film’s genesis, why Nicole was cast in the title role… and more!

Luba had its Canadian premier on Saturday, March 24th at 5:30 PM at Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre as part of the Canadian Film Fest.

At CFF Luba won both the Audience Choice Award for Best Picture and the Reel Canada Indie Award.

In the Trash. Movies Reviewed: A Swingers Weekend, The Go-Getters, Isle of Dogs

Posted in Addiction, Animals, Animation, Canada, Japan, Poverty, Sex, Sex Trade, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on March 23, 2018

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

The Canadian Film Fest is on now, bringing lots of new movies to the big screen, movies made right here in Toronto and across the country. Comedies, dramas and real life stories.

Hollywood movies often glamourize everyday life with an idealized view of the world the average person can never attain. But sometimes movies look in the opposite direction… downward, toward the gutter.  This week I’m looking at movies set among the trash. There’s an island of garbage filled with abandoned dogs, a couple of ne’er-do-wells who live in  rubbish, and a married couple who risk trashing their marriage for a weekend getaway.

A Swingers Weekend

Wri/Dir: Jon E. Cohen

Lisa and Dan (Erin Karpluk – Being Erica, Randal Edwards) are a power couple – she’s in real estate and he’s CEO at an energy drink corporation taking a break from their toronto jobs for a weekend retreat in lakeside villa up in cottage country. They’ve invited the attractive TJ and Skai (Michael Xavier, Erin Agostino) he’s an artist, she’s into Yoga – for a gourmet dinner and weekend of kinky sex. But their planned foursome gains a fifth and sixth wheel when unexpected guests show up at the door. Geoffrey and Fiona (Jonas Chernik, Mia Kirchner) are Dan’s old friends whose marriage is falling apart. Can a weekend of bed-swapping inject new life into the respective couples’ relationships? And what are their real motives behind this swingers’ retreat? A Swingers Weekend is a cute comedy that’s surprisingly tame. No nudity, it’s more of a social satire than a bedroom farce.

The Go-Getters

Dir: Jeremy LaLonde

Owen and Lacie (Aaron Abrams, Tomie Amber Pirie) are an odd couple. She’s a streetwalker who works for a disabled pimp called Cerebral Paulie, who keeps her addicted to oxycodone. He’s a nearly homeless alcoholic who mooches drinks from his brother’s skid row bar. He robbed her of her last fiver when she was ODing in a puddle of vomit on the bathrooom floor. It was hate at first site. But circumstances conspire to make them work together so they can buy bus tickets to Brockville to renovate an abandoned home. They try robbing panhandlers, selling sex to teens, and fleecing buskers, but nothing seems to work. Will they ever escape from hideous Toronto? The Go-Getters is an unusual look at the lowest of the low in downtown Toronto. But guess what – this is a comedy! Yup, I’m not joking. Abrams as Owen looks like a younger and dumber Dr House (Hugh Laurie), and Pirie is truly unique as a loud-mouthed hooker with a heart of lead.

Isle of Dogs

Dir: Wes Anderson

It’s Japan sometime in the future. Megasaki in Uni prefecture is a big city controlled by the evil and corrupt Kobayashi dynasty. The Kobayashi clan own everything from the golf courses to the amusement parks and pharmaceutical labs. And they are all cat lovers who despise dogs. The dogs all come down with an odd disease called snout flu. Mayor Kobayashi – under the thumb of the corpse-like Major Domo – declares all dogs persona non grata. To save the city from infection, he says, he is banishing all the city’s dogs to Trash Island off the coast. This even includes his nephew Atari’s dog Spots. (Atari was adopted by his distant uncle when his parents died in a train crash.)

But when Atari flies to Trash Island in a toy airplane to rescue his pooch, he discovers a strange world rarely seen by humans. It’s ruled by gangs of alpha dogs, headed by a team of five: former pets Duke, Rex, King and Boss, as well as the mysterious Chief, a stray who likes to fight. (He bites.) They vow to help Atari find his dog Spots… or die trying.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, student journalists — led by exchange student Tracy — smell a skunk among the cats. They sense there’s a conspiracy targeting dogs and – with the help of a hacker — they vow to save the dogs and the missing boy Atari, and to make City Hall pay for their crimes. But will they make it in time?

Isle of Dogs is an epic fantasy made with stop-motion animation. The humans speak Japanese (with voiceover translation) and the dogs speak a stilted Japanese English. The story sounds simple and a bit goofy, but it’s not. It’s pure, non-stop eye candy, with art and illustration flooding your brain at the pace of a Simpsons episode.

It feels like Wes Anderson made a list of all English words derived from the Japanese — yakuza, sumo, sushi, geisha, samurai, bonsai, kabuki, haiku, anime, manga, otaku, cos-ple, taiko — and worked them all into the film. The thing is, it’s not cheap laughs and cultural plundering, it’s lovingly, respectfully, and exquisitely reproduced.

The constant barrage of images includes Japanese pop art, manga, ukiyo-e, silhouettes, and 2-D animation, all portrayed with a futuristic/retro/ steampunk feel (if such a thing is possible). Wes Anderson has done stop- motion animation before — The Fantastic Mister Fox — but this one is a quantum leap beyond that. None of Mister Fox‘s nudge-nudge, wink-wink snark in this movie; just affectionately rendered geek culture.

Isle of Dogs is stunning to watch. I’ve seen it twice now, and want to see it again, as soon as possible. It’s exquisite, beautiful, awe-inducing… I’m running out of adjectives. I love this movie, and if you revel in the visual and all things Japanese, you must see this animated film.

Isle of Dogs opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Go Getters and other films are playing this weekend at the Canadian Film Fest. 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 Daniel Zuckerbrot about The Science of Magic

Posted in Canada, CBC, documentary, Magic, Psychology, Science, TV by CulturalMining.com on March 16, 2018

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

Magic.

The word conjures up visions of magic wands and abracadabra, Harry Houdini and Harry Potter, legerdemain and prestidigitation. It’s mysterious, it’s uncanny, it’s… supernatural. But what if I told you there is a scientific basis to magic?

The Science of Magic is a new documentary that looks at just that — the psychology and neuroscience that lurks behind even the simplest card trick. This fascinating documentary goes right to the source: the magicians (and magicienne) doing their tricks, with white-coated scientists watching them intently.

It’s written and directed by documentary filmmakers Donna Zuckerbrot and Daniel Zuckerbrot, known for their deft handling of magical themes.

I spoke with Daniel Zuckerbrot in studio at CIUT. He talked about magic, magicians, Julie Eng, change blindness, Deception, filmmaking, eye movement… and more!

The Science of Magic premiers on Sunday, March 18th on CBC’s The Nature of Things.

Death Be Not Proud. Films reviewed: The Death of Stalin, Foxtrot

Posted in Army, comedy, Corruption, Death, Drama, Israel, Movies, UK, USSR by CulturalMining.com on March 16, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the differenc

Which is worse — dying? Or knowing someone’s dying but not knowing when?  This week I’m looking at two great dark comedies that find humour in terrible situations about death. There’s the imminent death of eminent dictator, and the questionable death of an questioning soldier.

The Death of Stalin

Dir: Armando Iannucci

It’s 1953 in the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin rules the country with an iron fist, and everyone trembles in his presence. So when he orders a recorded copy of a just-completed live musical performance – that wasn’t actually recorded – of course everyone starts to panic. Everyone, it seems, except the musician who played it. She dares to drop a note for him into the re-recorded record envelope. If he reads it, surely her death will follow – and everyone around her. But as fate wll have it, when Stalin reads the message, he falls to the floor with a heart attack.

And with Stalin on his deathbed all his closest political allies come running to see what will happen next, and what their own status will be after he’s gone. There’s Malenkov ((Jeffrey Tambor) Stalin’s right-hand man for 30 years – a bit of a chowderhead but he’s also the one who purges anyone who challenges him. His rival Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) is the proud military leader who beat Hitler in WWII. Molotov (Michael Palin) is the foreign minister (don’t share a cocktail with this guy!) There’s the wily Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the dreaded Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the Secret Police (NKVD). And Stalin’s two adult children, his clever daughter Svetlana and his idiot son Vasily, who acts like he’s an aristocrat in a Chekov play. Picture all these historical figures running around all at once, panicking, conspiring, and thinking up ways to best their rivals.

While The Death of Stalin may sound like a dry historical drama, it is anything but. It’s fast-moving, shocking, and hilarious. The director — Armando Iannucci — has made another one of his twisted, foul-mouthed political comedies. This one isn’t in Westminster or The White House, it’s set in the Kremlin instead. The actors are either British – like Michael Palin — or American – like Steve Buscemi – but he lets them keep their real voices, no fake heavy Russian accents here (except from the Russian actors).

The Death of Stalin is a great political comedy.

Foxtrot

Dir: Samuel Maoz

Michael and Daphna (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) are a successful Israeli couple Progressive, atheist and sexually open. He’s an architect so their Tel Aviv flat is beautifully designed and tastefully appointed. There lives are nearly perfect… until the day a knock on their door reveals two army officers in uniform. Their son Jonathan, a corporal at a remote posting, has died in the line of duty. Michael is stunned and Daphna collapses to the floor. She is put on meds while Michael stumbles in a daze to talk with his mom in a nursing home.

The army steps in to arrange the funeral, provide the coffin, direct the speech, call their relatives. Don’t worry, they say, we’ll take care of everything. But something is wrong… they can’t provide answers to the most basic questions. Where was he posted? How did he die? And where’s the body? Six hours later they return to say there’s been a terrible mistake. You’re son is still alive.

The story shifts to a remote checkpoint on a purgatorial desert road somewhere near Gehenna. Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray) is posted there with three other young guys. They live in a rusty, ramshackle shipping container made of corrugated steel. It’s slowly disappearing into a muck-filled sinkhole, a couple inches a day. Dinner consists of canned mystery meat cooked on a space heater. They while away their time fiddling with ancient radio receivers, drawing cartoons, telling stories or dancing with a rifle. It’s endless and pointless. Their sole capacity seems to be checking the IDs of passing Palestinians on their way to weddings, funerals or nightclub. The boys approach this job – and their only source of power — with a keen intensity, They shine floodlights at bewildered passersby, force middle aged women to stand in the pouring rain, pointing lethal weapons at their faces, … and worse. That worse incident , and its aermath, brings a new calamity to Jonathan’s family back home, bringing grief, decay and self-harm. Will the family ever recover?

Foxtrot – named after both the dance and the military code – is a dark, ironic and satiric look at the creeping militarization of people’s lives and it’s horrific results. This army is a portrayed as a new Catch-22, one filled with ridiculous errors, secrecy and coverups. The film itself adopts that unexplained mysterious tone – places are left unidentified, some characters not given names. Visions of censorship – symbolized by the black tape covering images of vintage softcore porn – carries over into everyday life and family folklore. The dystopia of the dirty and rusty army post is run by sympathetic characters but is rotten to the core. I called this a dark comedy, but it’s also a very moving drama, cushioned by the absurdist and surreal tone that overlays everything. This is a visually splendid film that relies more on images than dialogue. Foxtrot is a great, but scathingly critical, movie.

I recommend it.

Death of Stalin and Foxtrot both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

 

 

Exploitation. Films reviewed: Juggernaut, The Strangers: Prey at Night, Gringo

Posted in Canada, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Mexico, Pop Culture, violence by CulturalMining.com on March 9, 2018

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

Are you suffering from post-Oscar withdrawal? Too many foreign and highbrow films to catch up on? Forget about all that, it’s time to take a break. This week I’m just talking about genre and exploitation movies. There is death in smalltown Canada, slashers in a Kentucky trailer park, and a corporate kidnapping in Mexico City.

Juggernaut

Wri/Dir: Daniel DiMarco

Saxon (Jack Kesy) is a loner who lives out west. With a buzzed scalp, he’s gaunt and wired, always ready for a fight. But when he returns to his hometown his beloved mother is dead, and nobody seems to care. It was a suicide they say. And his brother Dean (David Cubitt) seems to have profited handsomely from their mom’s insurance policy. Dean is a powerful man in the town, with a finger in every pot. He’s the type of guy who makes money from the local prison, while Saxon is the kind who ends up behind bars. Saxon is bad news: bipolar, uncontrollable, and violent – at least that’s his reputation.

Only Amelia (Amanda Crew), Dean’s beautiful fiancée, holds no grudge against Saxon. In fact she identifies with him as a fellow outsider, who came to the town from afar. Saxon doesn’t believe his mother would kill herself. It smells fishy to him, and so does the whole stinkin town. So he decides to investigate. He talks to the local cop, the insurance rep, a local padre, and digs up lost photos and important documents. But everyone he talks to stonewalls him. Nothing happened here, they say.  Just move along. But Saxon is too stubborn to give up. Will he find what he’s looking for? Will the town’s secrets be revealed? Or is he sticking his neck out too far?

Juggernaut is noir-ish drama set in a small town in western BC. The acting is all credible – especially Kesy and Crew — and the scenery is nice and all, but the movie just didn’t really grab me. I mean, even with all the fist fights and shootouts and chase scenes, it feels too long and too slow, more of a gothic drama than a crime thriller.

The Strangers: Prey at Night

Dir: Johannes Roberts

Kinsey (Bailee Madison) is an emo-grunge-punk who lives with her red-haired Mom (Christina Hendricks) and her tetris-loving Dad (Martin Henderson). She used to be close to her big brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) but not lately. They’re always fighting now, and the whole family is nearly dysfunctional. “This parenting gig is real tough” says dad. Baillee spent a year messing up, and now her parents are sending her off to boarding school. Driving her there across Kentucky in an SUV. And they’re staying for the night at a trailer park owned by their uncle. They arrive at night. It’s a pretty place in a grassy field with a swing set, an office and a swimming pool, all covered with a layer of mist. But it all seems strangely deserted. And when they keep hearing loud knocks on their door they decide to find out what’s going on. Bad move.

What’s going on is, there are people there with their faces covered by a girl’s face, a baby mask, and a burlap bag with a face drawn on with a sharpie. They’re carrying huge knives and axes and clearly they know how to use them. The unarmed family runs away in horror as the killers seek them out. Why are they chasing them? Who will die and who will survive? And can anyone fight them off?

This is a classic slasher movie with not much of a plot, but lots of killing and sick stuff. It’s full of the usual scary movie clichés – telephone wires cut, a jack-in-the-box, irrational-seeming murderers who never seem to die. The family members are basically two-dimiensional. At the same time – if you can stomach the violence and blood in a slasher movie – the production design is strangely, eerily beautiful, from the misty fields at night to the catharsis of burning flames, from the chaotic destruction of smash-ups using trailers and cars, to a truly stunning knifefight in a glowing blue swimming pool surrounded by lurid, pink-neon palm trees. Really well done.

The music is all early-80s pop hits, the killers are rejects from 90s raves and everyone seems to have swallowed Tide pods. This is a sequel, and people who have seen the original hate it — they say it’s a poor repeat of the first one — but for a neophyte like me, it worked just fine.

I liked this slasher.

Gringo

Dir: Nash Edgerton

Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) is a middle manager for a Chicago pharmaceutical corporation that is developing a new pill made from marijuana. Harold honest to a fault, smart, and hard working. Originally from Nigeria, he’s happily married to elegant Bonnie, an interior decorator. And he’s doing well at work. He puts up with his two morally questionable bosses, Elaine and Rusk (Charlize Theron and Joel Edgerton) because he knows its part of his job. He ignores their offensive comments, lets Rusk beat him at chess, and pretends he doesn’t see them bonking in the execituve washroom.

On a business trip to Mexico, Harold starts to realize something is very wrong. His wife is leaving him, his money is running out, and it looks like his bosses are stabbing him in the back. So he sneaks out of his hotel room and disappears. But can a “black gringo” really disappear in Mexico City? Soon everyone’s looking for him, his company, a drug boss (unfortunately named “Black Panther”), some local hoods, and a black-ops mercenary. It seems like everyone’s out to get him, except for Sunny (Amanda Seyfried) a nice young American woman who doesn’t know she’s a drug mule. Can Harold — a mild-mannered scaredy-cat — regain his confidence, fight off the killers, and make it out alive?  Or will he disappear for good?

Gringo is a fun and fast-moving comedy thriller that keeps you interested. The office politics, involving the odious and sleazy Elaine and Rusk, are appropriately grotesque but largely unpleasant. But once the action shifts to Mexico it becomes much more interesting. David Oyelowo is fantastic as fish-out-of-water Harold, a character you can laugh at but also root for. The portrayal of Mexico and the people there is full of derogatory stereotypes… but so are all the Americans characters. Gringo is a misanthropic but funny look at contemporary life. I enjoyed this one.

The Strangers: Prey at Night, Juggernaut and Gringo 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.

Meandering Movies. Films reviewed: A Date for Mad Mary, Nostalgia, Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia, PLUS Oscar Predictions!

Posted in Coming of Age, Death, Drama, Experimental Film, Feminism, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Lesbian, LGBT by CulturalMining.com on March 2, 2018

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

Some movies have linear narratives – stories that move in a straight line from start to finish — but occasionally you can find movies that take a more circuitous route. This week I’m looking at some meandering movies. There’s a path to a wedding in Ireland, a journey to Asia from Germany, and a search for keepsakes in America.

But first…

Oscar Predictions, 2018

Here’s a list of who I think should win, and who I think will win.

A few caveats: I’m usually wrong, though this year my choices of the best movies of 2017 (published in December) is very close to the Oscar nominations (including Get Out, Call Me By Your Name, Three Billiards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and The Shape of Water — all nominated for Best Picture; plus Loveless and A Fantastic Woman, both nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.) Does this mean I’ve been a movie critic for too long and my taste is getting worse? Or that the Academy’s choices are getting better?

I haven’t seen three of the nominated movies, so for these I can only go by what I’ve been told:

Darkest Hour – I couldn’t bring myself to watch this; I’m all Churchilled out. No more Churchill, please.

Phantom Thread is probably great but you have to be in the mood to watch a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. And I haven’t been in that mood yet.

And I Tonya – I just haven’t seen it yet, but plan to soon.

Adapted screenplay

James Ivory (Call Me By Your Name). Should win and will win.

Original screenplay

Should win: That’s a real toughie, I have no idea which should win; there are too many good ones to choose just one.

Will win: I’m guessing Greta Gerwig (Ladybird). ✘ (Jordan Peele won for Get Out)

Best foreign film:

I loved Loveless, but I think A Fantastic Woman should win and will win.

Best Actor

Should win: Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name)

Will win: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Best Actress

Should win and will win

Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Supporting Actor

Should win: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Will win: Willem Dafoe (Florida Project) ✘ (Sam Rockwell won.)

Best Supporting Actress

Should win: Laura Metcalfe (Ladybird)

…but everyone tells me Allison Janney will win for I, Tonya

Best Director

I think Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) should win and will win.

Best Film

Again, I think The Shape of Water should win and will win.

 

A Date for Mad Mary

Dir: Darren Thornton

Mary (Seána Kerslake) is a pretty young woman who lives at home with her mom and grandmother. She likes Tank Girl, Hello Kitty and her best mate Charlene (Charleigh Bailey) They used to be inseparable but things have changed. Charlene’s getting married, and Mary is the maid of honour but she can’t find anyone to be her date to the wedding. She enlists a Polish matchmaker to set her up with a series of men. Problem is she’s a foul-mouthed heavy drinker who is quick to anger. Her last brawl led to six months in the clink. And now she’s finding it hard to find a guy she likes who also likes her. As her grandma said, even a sniper wouldn’t take her out.

But things get better when she meets Jess (Tara Lee), the videographer for Charlene’s wedding. Jess is a singer in a band and Mary likes her style. And she’s a good influence too: Mary feels comfortable around Jess and maybe… there’s something deeper.

I really enjoyed A Date for Mad Mary, a coming-of-age drama about a misfit who is trying to fit in. Very well-acted, especially Seána Kerslake as Mary. It’s a touching drama loaded with salty oneliners.

Nostalgia

Wri/Dir: Mark Pellington

Daniel (John Ortiz) is a reserved, middle aged man who works for an insurance firm. He helps asses the monetary value of possessions, so clients can decide what’s valuable to them. This can range from a lifetime of accumulated detritus, to a single possession. Helen (Ellen Burstyn) for example only has a few pieces of jewelry and an autographed baseball she grabbed as her entire house burnt to the ground. Brother-and-sister Donna and Will (Catherine Keener and Jon Hamm) are forced to look through endless boxes in their late parents’ attic to decide what to keep and what to give away. These are just a few of the stories in a loosely-linked chain of vignettes about possessions and keepsakes.

Nostalgia is a nicely-photographed film with a stellar cast whose characters segue from scene to unrelated scene. The problem is the movie has no plot, the stories don’t follow any particular order, and the only thing that connects them all is the theme. Worse than that, a third of the movie is taken up by characters weeping, a third with them bitterly sniping at one other, and a third pondering the meaning of life in painfully drawn-out voiceovers.

This is like a Hallmark movie if they only printed the kind of cards you give to people at funerals.

Ugh. Avoid this movie at all costs.

Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia

Ulrike Ottinger is a lesser-known German filmmaker who emerged in the 1970s alongside Von Trotta, Herzog and Fassbinder. Born by the Alpen city of Lake Constance, she studied art in Paris around the time of the riots of 1968. She ran a bar in her home town, a welcome place for men with long hair and women who smoke cigars. She started as a visual artist before deciding on film as her ideal medium.

By the early 1970s she moved to Berlin, establishing herself as a lesbian feminist director, pioneering avante-garde film. Her work was highly stylized, combining over-the-top expressionistic acting with a pop-art aesthetic. Full of bright blues and reds, Ottinger incorporated medieval motifs, bare-breasted Wagnerian women, leaping pigs and crashing waves. Her interests range from food preparation to textiles, her characters from luxurious femininity to militant and radical feminists. And keeping true to her avant garde roots, she eschews strictly linear narratives, choosing instead the more realistic “meandering” style.

One running theme is her reverent and deferential view of the foreign, especially of East Asia. These films in particular — plus a biographical documentary about her life’s work, called Nomad from the Lake (directed by Brigitte Kramer) — are being shown as a mini-retrospective by Toronto Goethe Institute. This includes Under Snow, a combination kabuki-style drama and documentary. It shows life in Japan’s snow country around New Year’s day at a hot spring onsen. From there it takes viewers to Sado island, a land of exile, seemingly populated by clockwork automatons working in the gold mines. In Exile Shanghai she looks at Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany to that Chinese city in the 1930s and 40s. And Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia about European women encountering that country.

Ottinger’s unique and often-imitated style of filmmaking gives viewers an aesthetically pleasing look at the odd, freakish and mysterious.

Nostalgia opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. A Date for Mad Mary is tonight’s opening film at TIRFF, the Toronto Irish Film Festival; and the mini-retrospective Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia is also playing now. Both festivals are screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

%d bloggers like this: