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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Daniel Garber talks with Andrey Zvyagintsev about Loveless

Posted in Cultural Mining, Drama, Family, Movies, Realism, Russia by CulturalMining.com on February 23, 2018

(Second track is an unedited version for Russian speakers)

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Boris and Zhenya — an attractive young couple in Moscow obsessed by sex, money and status — are getting a divorce. Zhenya wants to move in with her rich and powerful boyfriend. Boris’s girlfriend is pregnant with his child. That leaves only their loving son, Alyosha. But the boy reacts in horror when he overhears his parents saying neither of them want him.

And then he disappears. What more can you ask of a boy from a home that is loveless?

Loveless (Нелюбовь) is the name of a new film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev – who was nominated for an Oscar for the great Leviathian — has made another powerful movie. This is no ordinary family drama; this is the kind of movie that reaches into your guts, pulls them out and spreads them on the table in front of you. It’s stunning and devestating, without resorting to explicit violence.

Loveless won the Jury Prize at the Cannes festival. I spoke with Andrey Zvyagintsev on location at TIFF17.

Loveless has been nominated for an Academy Award, Best Foreign Language Film.  It opens in theatres today.

Big Changes, Big Trouble. Films reviewed: Every Day, The Party, Annihilation

Posted in Army, comedy, Fantasy, High School, Horror, Movies, Politics, Romance, Science Fiction, UK, Y.A. by CulturalMining.com on February 23, 2018

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

Everybody knows change is good, but big changes can lead to big trouble. This week I’m looking at three good movies about women facing big changes. There’s a British politician with a once-in-a-lifetime career change; a biologist investigating changes that are scientifically impossible; and a high school student whose boyfriend changes bodies once a day.

Every Day

Dir: Michael Sucsy

Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) is a highschool student in Maryland. Her mom’s a careerist, while her dad, since his breakdown, stays at home painting pictures. Her boyfriend Justin (Justice Smith) is a popular athlete… and a bit of a jerk. So she is surprised when he agrees to play hooky and spend the day just with her. It’s the perfect date: They explore downtown Baltimore, he pays attention to her, stops smoking, they share intimate personal stories, find their special song, and for the first time, they actually have fun together. Is this true love? But the next day he’s acting like a douche again, with only vague memories of the day before. It’s like he’s a different person. What’s going on?

What’s going on is he was a different person that day, someone named “A”. “A” is a bodyless being who inhabits a different person each day and — like Cinderella — departs that body at exactly midnight. “A” has no choice of who they’ll wake up as, except that it will be someone their age who lives nearby. “A” could be a boy that day, or a girl, could be black, white or asian, could be straight, gay or trans. Could be ugly or attractive. Rhiannon and “A” have to find each other each day to carry on their relationship. Hint: “A” knowing Rhiannon’s phone number helps a lot. Can their love overcome “A”’s ever-shifting identity?

Every Day is a cool, young adult fantasy/romance that works. It’s set in Maryland, but was shot in Toronto, and it has a Degrassi feel to it, where the multiracial, multigender nature of the cast is omnipresent but not central to the plot. Instead it deals with questions of identity, look-ism, and mental illness.

I liked this movie.

The Party

Wri/Dir: Sally Potter

Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a politician in the UK celebrating her promotion, the pinnacle of her career. Starting tomorrow, she’ll be the Shadow Minister of Health for the opposition Labour Party. So she’s throwing a party for her nearest and dearest. They arrive two- by two . There’s Martha (Cherry Jones) – a lesbian feminist university prof with her earnest partner Jinny.   Cynical April comes with her flaky boyfriend Gottfried (Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz), a self-professed healer. And Tom — a nervous and brittle financier (Cillian Murphy) — comes without his wife Marianne, Janet’s closest friend and workmate. Janet’s husband the grey-bearded Bill (Timothy Spall) sits alone in the parlour spinning vinyl as she bakes her vol-au-vents, to show that a woman can feel at home both in Westminster and in her kitchen. Problem is, her hors d’oeuvres are burning even as her party is collapsing like a house of cards, as each guest reveals a big secret. There’s cocaine, champagne, a fire, broken glass, face slaps… even a handgun.

The Party is a drawing room comedy that pokes fun at the social conceits of a generation of middle-class, leftist baby boomers. It’s the work of Sally Potter, director of Orlando and Ginger and Rosa. Shot in black and white with a wicked musical soundtrack that shifts the mood from scene to scene, it clocks in at just over 70 minutes, as a short-but-sweet English comedy.


Dir: Alex Garland

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology prof at Johns Hopkins who specializes in mutating cancer cells. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) – a soldier she met when she was in the army – is missing and presumed dead. But when he shows up at her bedroom door, seemingly with no memory of what happened and how he got there, she decides to investigate. She’s valuable to the military, a woman as comfortable with a petri dish as she is with a submachine gun. She joins a crack team of scientists, all women, headed by the laconic psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Their goal is to explore unknown territory within a swampy National Park.

It’s encased in something called “the Shimmer”, a phenomenon eminating from a lighthouse on the coastline.  No one who goes into the Shimmer comes out alive (except for her husband Kane) and it’s getting bigger and bigger each day. From the outside it looks like a giant rainbow-coloured, plastic shower curtain that’s melting upwards. On the inside it’s even stranger, a world where distinctions like “animal/vegetable/mineral” cease to exist. It’s both beautiful and grotesque, filled with Chihuly crystals, human topiary and brightly-coloured tree fungi. Unrelated species are combining and mutating at a rapid rate, into a cancerous growth — just like the cells Lena studies, only prettier. And they’re affecting the five women too, both their minds and their bodies. Video messages they find (left by previous soldiers) only make things worse. Can Lena survive the hideous creatures and her deranged and suspicious teammates before she faces the scariest entity of all?

Annihilation is a terrifying exercise in horror sci-fi psychedelia. It references everything from Arrival, to The Wizard of Oz to Apocalypse Now, as the team paddles their way though a Heart of Darkness in their search for emerald city. Natalie Portman is great as the elegant soldier-scientist, and director Alex Garland brings us a different take on post-apocalyptic images. Annihilation is the kind of psychedelic fantasy that keeps you guessing.

This movie is scary-pretty… and pretty scary.

The Party comes to Toronto next week (check your local listings);  Every Day and Annihilation open today. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Holy or Hollow? Films reviewed: Black Hollow Cage, The Holy Girl

Posted in Argentina, Coming of Age, Family, Fantasy, Sex, Spain, Thriller, Time Travel by CulturalMining.com on February 16, 2018

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

After a slow period, February is busting out all over. After Valentine’s Day, films and documentaries are showing at Toronto’s Black Film Festval, Next Wave – with free movies if you’re under 25 — is on this weekend, you can catch a lion dance for Chinese New Year, or just spend time with significant others on  Family Day. So there’s tons of stuff going on out there.

This week I’m looking at movies about young women from Spain and Argentina. There’s a house in the woods with a girl in a cube, and a hotel in the mountains with a girl in a pool.

Black Hollow Cage

Wri/Dir: Sadrac González-Perellón

Alice (Lowena McDonell) is a young teenager with brown hair and huge limpid eyes. She lives with her parents in an isolated, minimalist house, built of glass wood and steel. Her father Adam (Julian Nicholson) takes care of her, while her mother Beatrice is always by her side to offer advice. Sounds like a nice, simple life… but it’s not. Her mother is dead; Beatrice is actually a fluffy white husky with a device strapped to her collar that speaks in her mother’s voice. Alice lost an arm in the same accident that killed her mother. She’s been fitted with a prosthetic arm that looks like it was taken off a star wars storm trooper: shiny, bulky and white. Alice hates the arm and the exercises the physiotherapist tells her to do. One day, Alice is walking Beatrice in the woods near her home and comes across a large, matte-black box, just sitting there. What is it and where does it come from? When she approaches it it opens, revealing a handwritten note – they are not to be trusted. The note is in her own handwriting. Spooky! And a murderous ninja dressed in black is stalking the halls of her house.

Later her dad brings home Erika and Paul (Haydée Lysander and Marc Puiggener), a teenaged sister and brother in trouble. Paul is mute, but Erika talks for the two of them. They were badly beaten so Adam lets them spend the night. Can they be trusted? A voice tells Alice to kill them, but she hesitates. Can she kill innocent children in cold blood? But when she hesitates others end up dead.

How can she fix her errors? She finds that by climbing into the black cube she can emerge and revisit her day to set things straight. But by setting in motion parallel universes she risks upsetting everything and possibly killing her father, beatrice and maybe even herself.

Black Hollow Cage is an extremely strange movie based on a fascinating concept. Some of the strangers things become clear later on, but most of it is left unexplained. So you’re never sure if Alice is insane, whether time travel is actually possible, and who is actually good or bad. It’s one of these movies with strange concepts and beautiful minimalist settings but totally devoid of real life. I couldn’t make heads or tails of this confusing picture. It surprised and shocked me… but didn’t move me.

The Holy Girl (2004)

Dir: Lucrecia Martel

Helena (Mercedes Moran) is a beautiful divorcee who lives in a remote resort in Argentina. It’s a grand hotel, the same one she grew up in with her brother, but is gradually inching from splendid to seedy. The whole hotel is preparing for an influx of Ear-Nose-and-Throat doctors in town for a convention. Under the eagle-eyed manager Mirta,The masseuse is put to work chopping chickens in the kitchen and a nervous maid rushes from room to room spraying disenfectant on everything. Helena herself was once known for her high diving skills but now just dog-paddles in the hot pool worrying about tinnitus. When Helena encounters Dr Jano (Carlos Belloso) who remembers her in her glory days, he invites her to grace the stage at the closing night presentation at the convention. The convention organizer wants to end things with a bang.

Meanwhile her daughter Amalia (María Alché) attends church classes and is on a mission to serve God by saving men. She’s into memorizing catechisms and religious tracts and is looking for a sign. But most lessons are spent listening to her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) whispering lascivious comments in her ear. She’s looking for a sign – does a naked man falling out a second story window outside her class count? One day, when standing in a crowd listening to a Theramin player, Amalia feels a man pushing against her from behind. She turns around and sees a clean shaven middle aged man rushing away. Maybe this is her sign?

Dr Jano is married with children who join him at the hotel, even as both Helena and Amalia pursue him, but for different reasons. Whose secrets will be revealed?

The Holy Girl is a wonderfully, Byzantine drama told through the eyes of both a mother and a daughter and the dozens of other characters swarming around them. It functions both as a coming-of-age story of a religiously engaged but sexually curious teen, and the drama of a middle aged woman trying to juggle work, family, and personal rivalries with chance sexual encounters. This is a lush, detailed film with great acting. I had never seen Lucrecia Martel’s movies before (never heard of her, in fact) but now I want to see everything she’s done.

Black Hollow Cage opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Holy Girl is part of the retrospective Argentine Genius: The Films of Lucrecia Martel playng at TIFF Cinematheque Feb 23-27. Go to tiff.net for details.

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 Daniela Vega about A Fantastic Woman

Posted in Bullying, Chile, Drama, Family, Movies, Music, Secrets, Trans, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 9, 2018

(The second track is unedited, for Spanish speakers)

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Marina Vidal is a happy woman. Her career as a singer is taking off, and her relationship with her lover, Orlando, is at a new stage. They are living together. He gives her a perfect birthday: dinner, dancing, and a trip to a resort. But her luck takes a turn for the worse when he wakes up feeling strange. She rushes him to hospital but it’s too late. He’s dead. And suddenly everything changes.

The authorities, police, doctor, and Orlandos family swoop down upon her. She is called a thief, a prostitute, a murderer. She is attacked emotionally and physically and told to stay away. All of this because she’s a trans woman. They say her relationship with Orlando was not “normal”.

But why should a woman settle for normal when she can be fantastic?

A Fantastic Woman is the name of a new film directed by Sebastián Lelio and starring Daniela Vega. Vega is a popular Chilean singer and actor who plays Marina in a remarkably powerful performance.

I spoke with Daniela on location at TIFF17 in September.

A Fantastic Woman has been nominated for an Academy Award: Best Foreign Language Film.  It opens today in Toronto.

Can depression lead to great sex? Films reviewed: Axolotl Overkill, Entanglement, Fake Tattoos

Posted in Berlin, Depression, Drama, drugs, Montreal, Movies, Punk, Romance, Sex, tattoos, Vancouver by CulturalMining.com on February 9, 2018

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

Feeling blue? Don’t worry, things will get better, and bad events, even depression, can sometimes lead to great sex. This week I’m looking at three movies (from Berlin, Montreal and Vancouver) where a chance meeting offers new hope to depressed people.

There’s a brooding introvert picked up by a girl at a thrash concert; a teenaged girl who encounters a middle-aged woman in a coke-filled haze; and a depressed guy who wants to have sex …with his sister?!

Axolotl Overkill

Wri/Dir: Helene Hegemann (Based on her novel Axlotl Overdrive)

Mifti (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) is a student at an alternative high school in Berlin, and she’s depressed. Her parents are divorced, with her mom in hospital, brain dead, and her rich dad gallavanting around with no time for his kids. She’s forced to live with her adult half-sister and half-brother, in an uneasy arangement. She hates school and acts out, upsetting everyone she meets. She even gets in a food fight with the lunch lady. Turns out this lunch lady is an equally rude TV star named Ophelia (Mavie Hörbiger) who is working at the school because she was sentenced to community service. She’s beautiful, famous, and occasionally psychotic. Mifti attaches herself to Ophelia and her entourage to explore and discover the mysteries of Berlin’s nightlife. This involves exotic pets, throbbing music, cigarettes and handguns. She goes on weekend-long benders, snorting coke in men’s rooms, and picking up cab drivers for furtive sex. Somewhere along the way she meets a strikingly beautiful, but mysterious, woman named Alice (Arly Jover), who is at least three times her age. They embark on an intense sexual relationship. Can Mifti survive her dysfunctional family, her nihilistic nature, and her crash-and-burn lifestyle? Or will it all come tumbling down?

Helene Heggemann is 25 now, and a sensation in contemporary Germany. This is her first directed feature, but she’s been writing novels and plays for a decade. I like the picaresque structure of the movie, journeys from place to place with Mifti absorbing it all, taking it all in. At the same time, Mifti is self-centred, rude and offensive — and comes from a privileged background — so it’s hard to sympathize with her. Lots of passion and emotion in this movie but no love, just alienation. The plot’s confusing too, so it’s hard to tell what’s real, what’s imaginary and what’s a flashback. Still, I enjoyed this unsparing look at underground Berlin seen through a teenager’s eyes.


Dir: Jason James

Ben (Thomas Middleditch) lives alone in an apartment in BC. He was married and successful, until his wife ran off with another guy. Now he’s severely depressed, to the point of suicide. He’s seeing a child psychologist (he’s 30) and takes anti-psychotic meds. Only his neighbour Tabby (Diana Bang) is looking out for him. He has hit rock bottom… until two random events change everything.

First his parents tell him a family secret. He has a sister he’s never met… well almost a sister. In fact she was an infant adopted by his childless parents but taken back on the first day when his mother discovered she was pregnant. Ben decides to find his almost sister. Next he meets a woman at random who is everything he’s not. Ben is gangly, ginger haired and shy. Hanna (Jess Weixler) is vivacious and spontaneous, willing to break into a swimming pool for a late night skinny dip. She is sexy and wild, with bleached-blonde hair. She’s a pick-pocket and also a bit of a stalker – she pursues Ben with a vengeance. She even wants to have sex with him. Tabby warns Ben to take it slowly… she might not be what she says she is. But Ben is totally into her… even though Hanna might be that almost sister he’s looking for. He’s convinced it’s all quantum physics, random events are all connected and we should let the universe figure it out.

Entanglement is a fun and comic look at a dark subject – depression, attempted suicide and psychotic breakdowns. It shifts from simple comedy into psychedelia, as Ben sees the world in his own way. It also has a very surprising ending – no spoilers. Middleditch and Weixler make a great yin and yang couple, while Bang is perfect as the “straight man.”

I liked this movie a lot.

Fake Tattoos (Les Faux Tatouages)

Wri/Dir: Pascal Plant

Theo (Anthony Therrien) is a shaggy-haired guy in Montreal, celebrating his 18th birthday. He’s broody and intense, into hardcore black Tshirts and tattoo designs. He quaffs a six pack of beer – bought legally for the first time – and heads to a thrash punk concert by himself. He’s a loner, but lets loose in the crowd, just another moshing body.

Afterwards a young woman approaches him about a tattoo on his arm. It’s a fake, she says, but a good one. Mag (Rose-Marie Perrault) has a nose ring and blonde hair with pink tips. She’s getting over a bad breakup. She’s a funny extrovert, and tries to break through Theo’s standoffish attitude. They end up sleeping together, which quickly turns from a one-night stand into an intense serious relationship. This may be love. Alas, like a cup of yogurt, it’s due to expire in just a few weeks. He’s moving to LaPocatiere a small town way up the St Lawrence, to get away from something terrible in his past. Why is Theo a loner? What is he escaping? Can Mag recover from a previous bad relationship? And will their love endure?

Fake Tattoos is a wonderful story about young summer lovers in Montreal. The pair have amazing chemistry that comes through in this short and simple love story. It’s a sweet look at first love. This is Pascal Plante’s first feature – it played at Slamdance and at the Berlinale this year — and I can’t wait to see his next one.

Entanglement opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Fake Tattoos and Axlotl Overkill are both playing at the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival that’s on next week. And if you’re 25 or under, tickets are free – go to tiff.net for details. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Middle Class, Middle East. Films reviewed: Ava, The Insult

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, High School, Iran, Lebanon, Movies, Palestine, Refugees, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 2, 2018

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

Looking for new things to watch other than big studio crap? Here’s what to look out for in February. It’s Black History Month, and Toronto’s Black Film Festival is coming up this month. The Goethe Foundation is showing movies set in Asia by Ulrike Ottinger. At TIFF Cinematheque they’ve got a retrospective of French New Wave director Philippe Garrel. To name just a few…

This week, though, I’m looking at two dramas about the Middle Class in the Middle East. There’s a teen drama set in Iran about a dare, and a courtroom drama in Lebanon about an insult.


Wri/Dir: Sadaf Foroughi

Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is a high school girl in Iran. An only child, she’s pretty but determined and self-confident. She lives with her mom, a psychiatrist, and her dad when he’s not out of town. She brightens up her obligatory, all-back uniform with some red Converse running shoes and a backpack. Her prized possession is her metronome. Her life consists of violin lessons, studying for exams, and hanging with her best friend Melody. Another friend Shirin, is a know-it-all always putting her down so she bets she can get a guy, Nima, to go out with her. She knows him from music lessons where he accompanies her on the piano… and she thinks he’s cute.

So she arranges an elaborate plot where she says she’s going to study with Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi), but actually plans to meet up with Nima, and drop by Shirin’s place to show him off so she can win the bet. Easy as pie. Except Shirin isn’t home – so no bet – and worse, when she sneaks back to Melody’s place her suspicious mom is there going ballistic and taking it out on Melody and her mom. And when Ava arrives her mom’s all Where were you? what did you do? Why did you lie? Then she drags Ava to a doctor to check that her virginity is intact!

In school the next day it gets even worse, with teachers searching through her backpack for forbidden things (whatever that may be). Even the school principal lectures all the girls about the dangers of doing the unspeakable with their unmentionables! She lost the bet, is humiliated in front of everyone, forbidden to see her best friend, and forced to quit her music lessons. All this, even though she didn’t do anything. Her stress and frustration rises to a boiling point and she has a meltdown in class.

Why is her mom so worried about her daughter having premarital sex? Can Ava pull her life back together, pass her exams, play violin at the recital, make up with her friends and family and maybe get back together with her non-boyfriend Nima? Or is her life ruined?

Ava might sound like a YA soap opera, but it’s actually a realistic coming-of-age drama about life in contemporary Iran. This is a good movie, surprisingly mature for a first feature. It has the look of an arthouse flick, with experimental camera work — like characters shot from behind, from above, from far away, with parts of them obscured, or even out of the frame entirely. And Jabari is excellent as Ava.

The Insult

Dir: Ziad Doueiri

Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is an engineer working on contract for the city. He supervises dozens of workers who repair potholes, drainage and infrastructure. He’s at the height of his career, known for his skill, diligence and bringing projects in under budget, while still looking out for the little guy.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) runs his own business, an auto repair shop, fixing BMWs. He lives in a second floor apartment with his pregnant wife. The young couple are saving up to buy their first home. Everything’s peachy until one day Tony spills dirty water through a faulty drainage pipe all over Yasser on the street below. Yasser calls Tony a rude name, but later fixes the pipe at the city’s expense. Tony smashes it to pieces. Words escalate with neither side apologizing for their insults. Until Tony voices the ultimate insult, and Yasser responds by beating him up.

Seems like a small problem, easily solved, right? Wrong. It turns into a lawsuit and the ensuing trial captures the attention of the whole country, leading to riots, molotov cocktails, even a meeting with the President of Lebanon. What is so important about this dispute? Yasser is Palestinian and Tony is Maronite Christian, and their disputes go back for generations, including the bloody, 15-year-long Lebanese civil war.

Their two lawyers, both working pro bono, are the famous Wajda Webb on Tony’s side and rising legal eagle Nadine working for Yasser. Both sides discover hidden histories from their two clients’ pasts, as victims and perpetrators of some of the massacres that tore the region apart: Black September in Jordan, Damour, Sabra and Shatilla.

The Insult has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and I understand why. It manages to handle controversial topics in a sometimes humorous, sometimes serious manner. The movie is told from Tony’s point of view, and therefore that of Maronite Christians as a group – including his political influences, their role in the civil war and Tony’s personal memories. That said, it is respectful and sympathetic to Yasser’s side and takes pains to portray him in a positive way. And Kamal El Basha gives a great performance as Yasser, both subtle and explosive at appropriate places.

The Insult is a good crash course in Lebanese modern history.

Ava and The Insult are both playing now in Toronto; check your local listings.  This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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