Daniel Garber talks with director Warren P. Sonoda and actor/musicians Max and Theo Aoki about Things I Do For Money

Posted in Art, Canada, comedy, Crime, Drama, Japanese Candians, Movies, Music by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2020

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

Nick and Eli Yaguchi are brothers who play the cello together. They’re working toward a joint audition for the Banff Arts Centre. They live in an industrial neighbourhood in Hamilton. Eli is a naïve highschool nerd who is crushing on a figure-skating girl named Laura. Nick is older, self-confident and chill – he plays in a band and works at a dive bar. As their audition date approaches, Eli finally meets Laura and things are going well, until… they witness a crime and find a satchel of cash that could solve all their problems. But it turns out both Laura’s and Eli’s families have ties to organized crime! Can they pursue their artistic goals without breaking the law or getting killed? And what things will they do for money?

Things I Do For Money is a new Canadian crime-dramedy about family ties and dark secrets, music and art. It stars the real-life cellists Max and Theo Aoki, and is co-written and directed by Warren P. Sonoda. Theo and Max are prize-winning musicians known on stage as VersaCello. They play Max and Eli, and wrote and performed the music that’s used in this film. Warren is a multi-award winner in TV and film, directing episodes of Trailer Park Boys, Murdoch Mysteries and This Hour Has 22 Minutes.

I spoke with Warren, Max and Theo via Zoom.

Things I Do for Money is now playing digitally across Canada.

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.

Secrets and Lies. Films reviewed: The Secret Garden, She Dies Tomorrow, The Burnt Orange Heresy

Posted in Art, Depression, Disabilities, Disease, Fantasy, Horror, India, Italy, Kids, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on August 7, 2020

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 about secrets and lies. There’s a little girl with a secret garden, an art critic with a secret past, and a woman whose future night be ending tomorrow.

The Secret Garden

Dir: Marc Munden

Based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett

It’s 1947. Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is a little English girl raised by servants in India. They dress her, feed her and bring her whatever she wants. She likes telling stories and playing with dolls. But when her parents both die, she’s shipped back to England to live in the stately Misselthwaite Manor. It’s a huge mansion with secret rooms and passageways, haunted each night by scary voices eachoing in the halls. It’s owned Mary’s uncle, the reclusive Lord Craven (Colin Firth) and strictly supervised by the housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters). who warns Mary, keep quiet, eat your porridge, and stay away from forbidden rooms or Lord Craven will send you off to boarding school! Needless to say Mary hates it there.

But things take a turn when she discovers she’s not the only kid there. Colin (Edan Hayhurst) is the source of the wailing cries she hears each night. He’s pale and bedridden and never leaves his room – he’s her first cousin. And there’s young Dickon (Amir Wilson) who knows his way around the estate grounds and the misty moors beyond. When a little bird leads Mary to an ivy covered gate, she‘s delighted to find a walled garden, full of sunlight, flowers, butterflies and a bit of magic. It’s a wonderful place where she can play with Dickon, and tell stories. Can Mary keep her beloved garden? Will Colin ever leave his room? Will Lord Craven come out of his shell? And what other secrets does Misselthwaite Manor hold?

The Secret Garden is a new adaptation of the famous children’s book written more than a hundred years ago. It’s definitely a kids’ movie, but the children aren’t cutesy they’re interesting, argumentative and rude… and their characters develop over the course of the film. The acting is good all around. It deals with issues like death, loss and depression within the exciting adventure story. I wasn’t crazy about the excessive use of CGIs reflecting Mary’s internal thoughts, but, like I said, it’s a kids’ movie. And its multi-racial cast provides a nice break from the traditional, lily-white British historical dramas.

I enjoyed this movie.

She Dies Tomorrow

Wri/Dir: Amy Seimetz

Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) is a young woman who has it all: a lover, a devoted friend, and her first house – she just moved in today. She’s happy, healthy and financially secure, and hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol for months. So why is she so depressed? Because she just found out she’s going to die. Really soon. And there’s nothing she can do about it. There’s no medical report, or threatening letter or anything… she just knows, deep down inside. How should she spend her last 24 hours? Making love? Saying goodbye?

Instead, Amy grabs a bottle of liquor, puts on her favourite sequined gown, and goes into the backyard to do some gardening. That’s where her best friend Jane (Jane Adams) finds her a few hours later. She tries to understand Amy’s feelings of fear and dread and calm her down, talk some sense into her. But a few hours later, it’s Jane who is sure she’s going to die. And she passes it on to her brother at a birthday party where it spreads to others throughout the building. Is this mass delusion? A psychological virus? And can it be stopped?

She Dies Tomorrow is an uncategorizable movie, with equal parts dark comedy, horror, fantasy and satirical social drama. It’s about a highly contagious virus that makes people believe they’re about to die and then (maybe) kills them. It’s also about what we choose to do in our last 24 hours. It dramatizes the infection using a series of intensely coloured flashes of light – red, blue, green – accompanied by murmuring voices inside characters’ heads. And it alternates the scary parts with inane conversations about the sex lives of dolphins and dune-buggy rides, all set in a southwestern American desert town. Although She Dies Tomrrow was made before the current pandemic, its surreal and impressionistic feel perfectly captures the current malaise infecting everyone right now.

The Burnt Orange Heresy

Dir: Giuseppe Capotondi

Based on the novel by Charles Willford

James (Claes Bang) is a handsome but cynical art critic who lives in northern Italy. He earns his living selling his books and giving lectures to American tourists. His theme? it’s not the artists who make art great it’s the critics. Berenice (Elizabeth Debicki) is a strikingly beautiful woman with an acid tongue. She mysteriously appears at one of his lectures and calls his bluff. It’s art, truth and beauty that’s important, not criticism and spin. They end up making passionate love in his apartment.

James invites her on a trip to Lac Como, to visit Joseph Cassidy (Mick Jagger) a dilletente who married into money and is famous as an art collector. Cassidy supports eccentric artist Jerome Debney (Donald Sutherland) who lives on his estate, with the hope he will someday create a masterpiece. Although critically acclaimed, all of his paintings were destroyed in a series of fires, and he allows no one, not even his benefactor to look at his work. Cassidy offers James a deal – you can have an exclusive interview with Debney if you bring me one of his paintings… And I don’t care how you get it. Will James get the painting? Will his relentless ambition lead to unforeseen ends? And what is Berenice’s role in all this?

The Burnt Orange Heresy is a taut, tense noir thriller about deceit and lies within the rotten world of fine art. It’s full of twists and surprises throughout the film. The beautiful settings, clever dialogue and attractive cast stand in sharp contrast to its dark – and sometimes violent – theme. Debicki and Bang are fantastic, like a modern day Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, shifting from lovers to friends to potential rivals. I liked this one a lot, but beware: it’s anything but a romantic comedy.

The Secret Garden, She Dies Tomorrow, and The Burnt Orange Heresy, all open today in Toronto, theatrically or VOD – 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.

Crimes and punishments. Films reviewed: Tijuana Jackson: Purpose over Prison, Random Acts of Violence, A Girl Missing

Posted in Canada, comedy, Comics, Horror, Japan, Journalism, Kidnapping, Movies, Prison by CulturalMining.com on July 31, 2020

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

They say movie theatres will open again in Toronto, but aside from drive-ins, so far = nada. In the mean time, there are still lots of movies to watch at home. This week I’m looking at three new ones – from the US, Canada and Japan – that deal with crimes and their punishments. There’s a man on parole trying to stick to the straight and narrow; a cartoonist driving on a dangerous highway; and a caregiver caught up in a twisted path of vengeance and betrayal.

Tijuana Jackson: Purpose over Prison

Wri/Dir: Romany Malco

Tijuana Jackson, or TJ, is an audacious and bombastic speaker who operates out of a prison cell in Florida. He has a shaved head and a goatee. TJ has great ambitions as a life coach and motivational speaker, skills honed through years of practice. But once he’s released back into the real world, his captive audience is gone. His life is still centred on cigarettes, cheap suits and mixtapes, but the world has moved on. He moves back in with his deeply religious Momma Jackson, his adult sister Sharia, and his devoted nephew Lil’ Eric Jackson (Alyoka Brunson). He tries to recreate his previous life in his new home – there’s a payphone in his bedroom, and Lil’ Eric passes him contraband messages through cracks in his window.

But he’s under the constant watch of his angry sister and Cheryl, his strict parole officer with whom he shares a history. If he doesn’t straighten up and find a job soon, it’s back behind bars. He tries working – unsuccessfully — as a life coach by hustling random people he meets in a city park. Fortunately he still has one prospect – the chance of appearing on a reality show. It’s run by Toastmasters where competitors take turns as motivational speakers. But can he make it to the audition on time and become a media star? Or is it just a revolving door back to prison?

Tijuana Jackson is a comedy / mocumentary that looks at life within the carceral system, both inside and out, in an exaggerated but still realistic way. Everything he says is recorded by a film school student named Rachel who follows him everywhere with her cameraman. Is it funny? Yes – not so much the simple plot as TJs persona. It’s one Malco has been polishing for years in a series of monologues on youtube called Prison Logic. This is just the movie version, but I liked it.

Random Acts of Violence

Dir: Jay Baruchel

Todd (Jesse Williams) is an indie comic book writer and artist who lives with his partner Kathy (Jordana Brewster) in Toronto. He’s famous for his gruesome series about Slasherman, a sadistic serial killer. Slasherman wears a metal welder’s mask and arranges his victims’ corpses in grotesque artistic poses. Although Slasherman has many fans, Todd plans to finish the series as soon as he can figure out a good ending. So they’re going on a road trip to the states with Kathy, his geeky publisher Ezra (Jay Baruchel) and his assistant artist Aurora (Niamh Wilson). They’re heading toward New York City for a comic con, but taking the scenic route, stopping at comic shops on the way.

But the America they encounter is a scary and dangerous place, full of cheap motels, gas stations run by distrustful rednecks, and black vans with tinted windows. They’re driving along the I-90, the highway where the real slasherman had a reign of terror back in 91 before disappearing. But he seems to have awakened again with a new series of killings… murders that exactly imitate Todd’s own comic books. And as the killer gets closer and closer, they start fearing for their own lives. Who is the killer? What is the connection? And are they somehow to blame?

Random Acts of Violence is a psychological thriller/horror movie with a stylized look. It inserts comic book images with spooky scenes of terror and horrific violence. The slasher movie aspect is totally predictable, but the telling is done in an unsual way. So if you’re in the mood for something scary and bloody, with characters you want to watch, this is a good one.

A Girl Missing

Wri/Dir: Fukada Kōji

Ichiko (Tsutsui Mariko) is a middle-aged woman who lives in a quiet suburb north of Tokyo. She’s pretty and unassuming a nurse who goes out of her way to help others. She has worked for many years as a caregiver for the Ōishi family headed by an elderly matriarch who was once a well-known artist but is now in her last years. And she serves as a mentor for the granddaughters Saki and Motoko, selflessly spending her free time with them, helping them study for cram schools at a nearby coffee shop. The tall and gawky Motoko (Ichikawa Mikako) declares she’s planning her whole life to follow in Ichiko’s footsteps. Ichiko is dating a much older doctor – a single dad with a mentally disabled son – and they plan to get married and move in together soon. Everything is going fine, until… something terrible happens.

Saki, the younger Oishi sister, is kidnapped and held captive for a day. And when she’s rescued, it turns out the kidnapper is Ichiko’s own nephew, an introverted 20 year old. Now her job, her marriage, indeed her whole life is potentially in jeopardy for something she didn’t do. Will the relentless tabloids discover the connection? And how will this crime affect her life?

A Girl Missing is an ingenious, astounding and very disturbing psychological drama about the compelling character of Ichiko as she changes from an unassuming nurse to something quite different. It’s told, simultaneously, in two parts: as she experiences the fallout of the kidnapping; and a number of years later when she encounters a younger man named Kazumichi (Sôsuke Ikematsu). By “simultaneous” I mean it switches back and forth between the periods as the two stories unfold, always chronologocally, but without explicitly stating the time period you’re watching, or the connection between the two. Tsutsui Mariko’s portrayal of Ichiko is masterful as she goes through these monumental and unexpected changes.

This is a great movie.

Random Acts of Violence premiered at a drive-in theatre earlier this week; Tijuana Jackson is available on VOD, and A Girl Missing is now playing in the US and coming soon to Canada.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Dir: Gero von Boehm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stateless

Created by Tony Ayres, Cate Blanchett, Elise McCredie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Garber talks with Ali Weinstein about #Blessed

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

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

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

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

I spoke to Ali Weinstein via ZOOM in Toronto

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

Sublime mainstream. Films reviewed: Tainted, Fisherman’s Friends, Volition

Posted in Canada, Crime, drugs, Fishing, Music, Nazi, Organized Crime, Time Travel, UK, Vancouver, Vengeance, violence by CulturalMining.com on July 10, 2020

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

Theatres are still closed indefinitely, but does that mean you can only watch movies at home? No! Drive-ins are making a big comeback, and in Toronto the Lavazza Drive-in Film Fest is running a different international film each night at Ontario Place beginning July 20-31, thanks to the Italian Contemporary Film Fest.

This week I’m looking at three mainstream movies; two from Canada and one from the UK. There’s a record exec who finds sea shanties sublime; a former hit man who wants to leave his life of crime; and a man who can read the future who wants to change time.

Tainted

Wri/Dir: Brent Cote

It’s a small city in north Ontario. Lance (Alan van Sprang) is a nice guy with a bad reputation. He used to be a hitman who could take down a rival gang unarmed. He took the fall for the Russian mob and did 15 years in Millhaven, but now he’s on the straight and narrow. No more killing, no more gangs. He keeps to himself in his low-rent apartment, listening to ancient blues singers on a portable record player. The only person he talks to is Anna (Sara Waisglass: Degrassi) a lonely musician who lives down the hall and sings at a local dive bar. But when there’s a massacre of Russian gangsters by Aryan Nations, he’s called in to even the score. You see, he’s the only one who can infiltrate the neo-nazi gang, due to the enormous swastika still tattooed on his chest.

In exchange, Gregor (John Ralston) – a small-time Finnish drug runner who operates out of his wife’s pastry bakery – promises to leave him alone forever, along with a wad of cash and a forged passport so he can just disappear. He does the job. But when they try to bring innocent Anna – the only person he feels for – into the gang war, he becomes a burning stick of dynamite that the Russians, the Finns and the neo-nazis all want to kill. But who will survive?

Tainted is an excellent action- thriller about an expert hitman trying to leave his tainted past, who finds himself sucked into the criminal spiral he wants to escape. It’s set among the mean streets of Sault Ste Marie as the opiate dealers fight for dominance. It’s tense, bitter and hardboiled, filled with choreographed fight sequences in warehouses, parking lots and dive bars. If you’re in the mood for some violent noir, this one is a cut above.

Fisherman’s Friends

Dir: Chris Foggin

It’s 2010 in St Isaac’s a small fishing village in Cornwall, known for its lobsters, a rustic pub, and Cornish patriotic sentiments. Danny (Daniel Mays) is a record exec who specializes in boy bands. He’s there on a daytrip with his work pals for some gambling and boozing on a yacht. The boat doesn’t show, so they spend the day exploring the ancient port and stumble upon a group of fishermen singing sea shanties in the local square. His boss orders him to sign the fishermen up for a record contract, and don’t come back to London until the deals done. The singers aren’t interested, and his own boss just meant it as a joke.

But Danny is stubborn. He moves into a bed and breakfast run by Rowan (Tuppence Middleton) a young single mom who doesn’t like him at all. (What’s a tosser, mum? asks the little girl). Rowan’s dad, Jim (James Purefoy) can’t stand him – and he’s one of the singing sailors Danny wants to represent. Can he win the sailors trust and sign them up? And would anyone, anywhere want to listen to middle aged fisherman singing old songs?

Fisherman’s Friends (like the throat lozenges) is a cute family drama about a cynical Londoner finding authenticity in a working-class small town. It’s a bit formulaic – think Kinky Boots, Made in Dagenham, or Pride – but it works. There’s music, local folklore – never wear green or say the word rabbit on a fishing boat – and even a bit of romance.

One thing: I’m no expert on Cornish accents but why did some of the actors sound like pirates? And I mean Pirates of the Caribbean not Pirates of Penzance. (Aaaargh!). Never mind that, Fisherman’s Friends is a funny, pleasant and palateable movie, a real crowd-pleaser.

Volition

Co-Wri/Dir: Tony Dean Smith

James (Adrian Glynn McMorran) is a 30-year-old who rents a room above a body shop in East Vancouver. He’s an alcoholic gambler, perpetually in debt with no ambition. He does have one unique talent, though: precognition. He can predict the future. It comes to him in a series of dream-like, disconnected visions. And he writes them down on a calendar to try to make sense of them. Ocassionally it’s useful, like when he saves a woman named Angela (Magda Apanowicz) from being attacked in an alley – she ends up crashing at his place. So he’s not surprised when he’s called in by low-level mobster named Ray (John Cassini) for a big job. He knows about James’s special skills. Ray’s uneasy about a stolen sack of cut diamonds he’s passing on to a buyer – is it a set up? – so he asks James to hold onto the jewels for 24 hours until he gets a vision guaranteeing Ray’s safety. In exchange James will get 100K solving all his problems.

Problem is Ray’s own henchmen are the one’s trying to double-cross him. When things go south, James and Angela’s jump into a car to escape. Now the gangsters are chasing him and a mystery man steals all the diamonds. But his visions keep getting stranger and stranger… until he makes a shocking discovery: he can physically relocate to the past in order to change the present. Can James manipulate events to save his and Angela’s life? Or will time travel be his undoing?

Volition is a gritty science- fiction mystery thriller, filled with unexpected plot turns. It really pulls you in with new twists and constant suprises. It has a tight script and small cast, set among the gritty working class neighbourhoods of BC. If you like fast-moving crime dramas and time-travel stories, you’ll love Volition.

Volition, Fisherman’s Friends and Tainted all open this week on VOD.

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

Creepy small towns. Films/TV shows reviewed: Hammer, Curon, Ragnarok

Posted in Canada, Crime, Family, Italy, Mystery, Norway, Supernatural, Suspense, Thriller, TV by CulturalMining.com on June 26, 2020

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

In light of the pandemic, many people are thinking of cities cities as crowded, dirty and dangerous places, compared to smaller towns. But are small towns any better? This week, I’m looking at three new productions – one film and two limited series – that look at the darker side of family life in small towns. There are nogoodniks in Newfoundland, taboos in Tyrolia, and felonious fat cats among the fjords.

Hammer

Wri/Dir: Christian Sparkes

It’s a paper-mill town somewhere in Canada (possibly Newfoundland).

Chris (Mark O’Brien) is a young man, down on his luck. He deals in drugs and stolen jewels, both valuable commodities, but somehow is deep in debt. Luckily, there’s a big operation – involving satchels of cash to be exchanged deep in the woods – about to go down with a sketchy guy named Adams (Ben Cotton). It should leave him rich. But something goes wrong. Now someone is dead, their body lost in a corn field, and Chris is on the run with Adams on his trail.

So in a chance encounter, he turns to his estranged family — his younger brother Jeremy, his disapproving mom and his angry dad Stephen (Will Patton) – for help. He hasn’t talked to them for years, but they’re his only hope. Can his father help him secure the cash, rescue a hostage, and protect him from Adams? Or will everything fall apart?

Hammer is a short, fast moving drama about a criminal act pulling a small-town family apart. It’s a well-written and well-acted movie. It’s a very of-the-moment, what you see is what you get style movie. No excess dialogue, no wasted scenes, no deep back story, just high-tension thrills. There’s violence but not gratuitous violence, gun battles, chase scenes and a few surprising twists. A noir-ish style but in a natural setting. And an ominous symbol – the ourusborus, a snake swallowing its own tail – gives this crime drama a darker, more sinister feel.

Curon

Created by Ezio Abbate, Ivano Fachin, Giovanni Galassi, Tommaso Matano

A picturesque town in Italy. Mauro and Daria are 17-year-old twins from Milan. Mauro (Federico Russo) is shy and introverted with a hearing impairment. He’s a natural target of bullies. His sister Daria (Margherita Morchio) is tough and self-confident. She’s sexually adventurous, can out-drink anyone she meets, and will likely win in a fistfight. She always looks out for her brother. The two are used to life in the big city, but their divorced mom moves them back to her hometown of Curon. It’s in German-speaking Tyrolia right by Austria and Switzerland. Very different from Milan, where the twins grew up. Curon’s main landmark is a man-made lake with a church bell tower in the middle; the only thing left of the old town they flooded to built a hydro dam. And they say if you ever hear the church bells ring, it means you’re going to die.

Soon after they arrive their mom disappears, so they move into their grandfather (Luca Lionello)’s spooky old hotel (like in The Shining). And they meet some of the popular locals at their highschool. Micki (Juju Di Domenico) and her bullyish boxer brother Giulio (Giulio Brizzi) are the two kids of a highschool teacher… They both hate Curon and want to head south to Milan. Will they be friends or enemies? And then there’s Micki’s wimpy friend Lukas (Luca Castellano) who goes through a strange transformation. Lukas has a crush on Micki, while Micki and Giulio have crushes on someone else. They also find out Micki and Giulio’s dad and Mauro and Daria’s mom share an old history. Will they ever find their mom, discover Curon’s secrets, and escape this creepy old town? Or will it ensare them in its mysterious and sinister ways?

Curon is a good, spooky TV drama, with sex, drugs and hints of horror every once in a while. It’s also full of dopplegangers, disappearing bodies, and strange sounds in the dark. Netflix seems to have created its own sub-genre – big city highschool kids returning to a picturesque town full of dark secrets. No spoilers here, but it’s worth watching. It’s scary but not terrifying, never boring, and with a good, attractive cast.

Ragnarok

Created by Adam Price

Here’s another TV series about a mom and her two kids moving back to her hometown. This time it’s a picturesque, fjord-filled village in Norway called Edda. Magne (David Stakston) and his brother Laurits (Jonas Strand Gravli) arrive by car. Magne has blond hair and glasses. He takes meds each day, has terrible vision and is dyslexic, and is fond of tossing hammers. Laurits has black hair and a pointy nose; he likes playing tricks on his brother. They quickly make friends at school. Magne meets Isolde, a young woman whose dad is their school teacher. She’s an enviroronmental activist who knows all the Edda’s secrets. Toxic wastes dumped into the pristine fjords are ruining the town’s ecology.

Laurits gravitates toward the son and daughter of an elitist family, the Jutals, headed by Vidar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson). They own the toxic chemical plant and have control over the police the school, nearly everything. Only the activists – and the town drunk – dare to defy them. And the girl Magne has the hots for is already dating Fjor Jutul, from the same rich family. It looks as if the town, and possibly the world, is heading toward ecological Armageddon, or Ragnarok as they say in Norse mythology. Can Magne learn in time who this family really is… and his own importance in confronting them?

Ragnarok is a TV series partly about ordinary people standing up to elitist authority figures to protect the environment. But that’s not all. There’s a Harry Potter-type backstory as well, where ordinary people learn about extraordinary things. I really liked this show – beautiful scenery, great acting, suspence, tons of fascinating and endearing characters, with lots of twists and surprises. Sort of a myth or fairy tale set in modern- day Norway. And it’s the work of Adam Price who also wrote Borgen, that popular Danish political drama that was on broadcast TV here a few years back.

Ragnarok is one of the best TV series I’ve seen so far this year.

Season One of Curon and Ragnarok are both streaming now on Netflix; Hammer opens today on Apple TV, Google Play and VOD.

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

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

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

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

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

The Rest of Us

Dir: Aisling Chin-Yee

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

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

The Divided Brain

Dir: Manfred Becker

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

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

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

Mr Jones

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

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

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

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

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

A good but harrowing movie.

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

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

Rescue. Films reviewed: The Walrus and the Whistleblower, The Forbidden Reel, It Must Be Heaven

Posted in Afghanistan, Animals, Canada, Cold War, documentary, Movies, Niagara Falls, Palestine, War by CulturalMining.com on June 12, 2020

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

I’m recording this in my home to tell you about new movies you can watch in your home. This week I have two docs and a comedy. There’s a Palestinian director trying to make a film; Afghani directors trying to save their films, and a man in Canada trying to rescue a walrus from a swimming pool.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower

Dir: Nathalie Bibeau

Marineland is a huge amusement park in Niagara Falls, centred on its performing animals. Built in the 1960s it attracts huge crowds. Visitors love watching trainers diving off the noses of orcas, and dolphins jumping in rhythm like synchronized swimmers. There are porpoises, belugas and walruses happily doing tricks for the fish rewards they’re handed. But the world is shocked in 2012 when the Toronto Star prints a front-page expose about the maltreatment of its animals. When not performing for audiences they are kept in filthy cramped cells, much like prisons. They are force-fed drugs and made to perform in over-chlorinated pools. They are caught at sea as infants and separated from their mothers who are often killed in the process. And when they die they are dumped into mass graves on the amusement park’s own property.

Who spilled the tea on this explosive issue? Phil Demers, a trainer who had worked there since his early twenties. He learned the trade as he went along, and became an integral part of the show. He was most attached to a walrus he calls Smooshi. He milk-fed the baby walrus when it was brought there, and became its surrogate mother. They bonded like a true family. So he is disturbed by how badly Smooshi and the other animals are being treated there – an open secret shared by all its employees. When Marineland doesn’t change, he goes to the press. His whistleblowing leads to a bill in Parliament and he becomes a spokesperson for animal rights. But he is also vilified by the park’s owner,  John Holer, who launches a series of SLAPP lawsuits to stifle him. Who will win in the end – Demers or Marineland? And can he save Smooshi?

This documentary is a first-hand look at the plight of marine mammals as told by Phil Demers (Marineland doesn’t cooperate with the filmmaker). Demers is an unusual character, in turn passionate, angry, and even rude. But his love for the animals – especially Smooshi – is undeniable. And the hidden camera footage taken inside the park is very disturbing; you can see why he’s fighting so hard, and why this documentary is so popular (it won the Top Audience Award at Hot Docs this year). If you haven’t made up your mind yet, The Walrus and the Whisteblower will totally change your opinion on keeping whales in captivity.

The Forbidden Reel

Dir: Ariel Nasr

In Kabul, there’s a building that stands behind filigreed metal gates. It holds a treasure trove of Afghan culture and history wound around movie reels in metal cases. What are they, where did they come from, and how did they survive? The building is called called Afghan Films, and its archive contains a crucial record of the country’s past. Through war and peace, modernism, communism and civil war. Afghan Films was founded by film directors who wanted to create a national cinema. Influenced by Iranian, European, Hollywood and Bollywood, they created works interesting and accessible to Afghanis. They continued producing and showing their films through the civil war, indeed until the Taliban was at its gate. That’s when the archive was safely hidden and preserved in a room behind a plaster wall.

This amazing documentary tells the history of modern Afghanistan through these films. I’m talking romances, war stories, battles, dramas and newsreels. The cameramen were recoding missiles landing in Kabul. Films made under Soviet rule still depicted stories of Mujahadeen fighters. There are massice crowds in city squares, girls in poppy fields lacing flowers through their hair, travelers leading camels along mountain passes, and sombre footage of past President hanging from poles. The documentary talks to people like Yasamin Yarmal a genuine Afghani movie star, and directors Engineer Latif and Siddiq Barmak who give first-hand accounts. And it’s even a bit of a thriller – how they managed to save these Forbidden Reels (it’s not what you think!) This doc gives a view of Afghan culture like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Great documentary.

It Must Be Heaven

Wri/Dir: Elia Suleiman

Elia Suleiman is a Palestinian film director who lives in Nazareth. He lives a simple, quiet life, observing his lemon tree, listening to neighbours and drinking coffee or wine at nearby cafes, always in his panama hat and dark rimmed glasses. But his life changes when he travels abroad for a series of meetings. He flies first to Paris and then to Manhattan, but maintains his lifestyle as a quiet observer… until he goes back home again. But this simple outline doesn’t really capture the feelings behind this comic film.

It’s actualy a series of brief, whimsical tableaux, some one-offs, some repeated, in the style of Jaques Tati. This is basically a silent film with only occasional lines spoken by the people he meets. Some scenes are cute; like a little bird that keeps landing on his laptop as he tries to write. Others are more political, dealing with the pervasive presence of surveillance, military and police forces in all three countries. Israeli soldiers happily exchanging sunglasses in a car driving past… and then you see a young woman, blindfolded, in the back seat. There’s a scene on the Paris metro where he is frightened by an angry man who somehow drinks his beer in a threatening way.

Some scenes are spiritual: there’s an angel pursued by Keystone Cops in Central Park. Others are mundane – a drunken doorkeeper refusing to unlock the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although the film represents nationalities in stereotypical ways – he dreams, What if New Yorkers carried assault weapons casually slung over their shoulders?; and do Parisian ambulances really offer 3-course meals to homeless people? – but it laughs equally at all nationalities. Some of the most interesting scenes are in his own home where neighbours tell fantastical fables as if real life… part of the magic-realism feel of the whole movie. It Must Be Heaven is a lovely, funny and thought-provoking look at the strangeness of everyday life.

The Forboidden Reel and The Walrus and the Whistleblower are both streaming at Hotdocs; and It Must Be Heaven is opening across Canada at select virtual theatres; 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.

%d bloggers like this: