Dark Summer Movies. Films reviewed: It Comes At Night, Awakening the Zodiac, My Cousin Rachel

Posted in Cultural Mining, Gothic, Horror, Movies, Mystery, post-apocalypse, Psychological Thriller, Romance, violence by CulturalMining.com on June 9, 2017

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

Even on the hottest summer day, it still gets dark at night. So this week I’m looking at some dark summer movies. We’ve got rednecks stalking a serial killer, an aristocrat falling for a black widow, and an ordinary family fighting an unknown plague.

 

It Comes at Night

Wri/Dir: Trey Edward Shults

Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a 17-year-old boy who lives with his parents in a huge wooden house in the woods. He sneaks around the dark halls and passageways late at night when he should be sleeping. He’s an insomniac plagued with strange dreams. And there’s a reason for his nightmares. A terrible disease – like Ebola mixed with small pox – is killing almost everybody and no one knows how it spreads. That’s why his parents Paul and Sarah (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo) fled the city and moved into this abandoned and isolated house. They are well equipped with gas masks, water purifiers… and guns, if they need them. They boarded up all the windows and doors except one: a red door that opens into a mud room.

One night, they hear a noise from behind the red door. It’s a young man covered in dirt (Christopher Abbott). Is he a thief or an innocent family man? And is he infected? Sam beats him up and leaves him to die tied to a tree with a bag over his head. But when he’s still alive the next day, he lets Will, his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their little boy to move in with them. But can they be trusted? And are they clean?

Don’t be misled by the title. It Comes at Night is not a conventional horror movie with scary monsters; ordinary people who discard conventional morality when faced with extreme circumstances. It feels like a zombie movie, but without the zombies. It’s violent and disturbing but without the expected triumph or disaster. Great acting, amazingly shot with indoor scenes all lit by the glowing lanterns the characters carry. It has an almost surreal feel to it, as it switches between Travis’s fears, dreams and sexual fantasies and the horrible reality if his post-apocalyptic life. See this if your looking for a spooky and violent art house drama.

Awakening the Zodiac

Dir: Jonathan Wright

Mick and Zoe (Shane West, Leslie Bibbe) are a neerdowell couple living in a trailer park in rural Virginia. They drive a rusty pickup looking for work to improve their lot in life. For Mick this usually means a get-rich-quick scheme with his good buddy Harvey (Matt Craven). Their current plan? Treasure hunting in delinquent storage spaces: you pay a few hundred bucks to take ownership of the contents. And Harver thinks they’ve struck gold in the form of stacks of 8mm films dating back to the sixties. He’s uncovered the personal footage of an infamous serial killer known for his brutal murders and the cryptic messages he sent to the police. Zodiac disappeared in 1968, never heard from again. But there’s still a $100,000 reward in his head. Zoe, Mick and Harvey want the big bucks but first they must prove the storage locker belongs to Zodiac. Can they find the evidence they need before the killer finds them?

Awakening the Zodiac is a corny horror/thriller. It has some scary parts and a few shocks, and the main characters are likeable. Unfortunately it gets bogged down by a ridiculous plot and rusty script. Would a genius serial killer save all the evidence of his crimes and then forget about it? If you found valuable films wouldn’t you rather sell them than stalk a serial killer? (But I guess there’d be no movie) Even the 8 mm selfies look like what people make nowadays, not what a serial killer would have shot in the sixties. The biggest problem is when we finally discover who the killer is, he or she is just not scary enough. Save this one for late night TV.

My Cousin Rachel

Dir: Roger Michell (Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier)

Victorian England. Philip (Sam Claflin) is a young aristocrat with a fiery temper not given to fancy words and deep thoughts. He lives in a stately mansion in the English countryside. An orphan, he was brought up by his much older cousin Ambrose, his finances handled by his godfather. He is deeply loyal to these two surrogate fathers and is expected to marry his longtime friend Louise (Holliday Grainger) his godfather’s daughter. He spends his time galloping through the rolling hills, steep cliffs and sandy beaches of his vast estate.

Philip is lord of the manor, but works alongside his servants and tenant farmers at harvest time. But things take a turn for the worse when his ailing cousin Ambrose writes him from Italy that his wife Rachel Ashley (Rachel Weisz) is trying to kill him! Before he can rescue him, his cousin dies and Rachel shows up unannounced. Full of hatred and vowing revenge, Philip confronts the murderous witch. He expects a crone with a wart on her nose. Instead, she’s a charming and sophisticated older woman with dark good looks even shrouded in widow’s weeds.

Philip falls madly in love, throwing money, family jewels and even the estate he’s due to inherit at age 25, if only she’ll marry him. She kisses him by candlelight even as she concocts odd tasting tisanes for him to drink. Is she killing him or nursing him back to health? Is she a serial killer and con artist, or merely a woman trying to secure her future? And is Philip the victim or an abusive lover who expects to possess whatever woman he desires?

My Cousin Rachel is an old fashioned gothic romance, complete with beautiful costumes, stunning scenery, authentic songs and a realistic, modern take on English country life. It’s based on a novel from the 1950s, but to modern audiences, parts seem out of date, like Philip’s ridiculous naïveté. The movie starts slowly but eventually gets really good with some shocking twists and turns toward the end.

It Comes at Night, Awakening the Zodiac, and My Cousin Rachel 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

 

Heads up! Films reviewed: Keepers of the Game, Mansfield 66/67, City of Tiny Lights

Posted in Canada, documentary, First Nations, Hollywood, Indigenous, Mystery, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on June 2, 2017

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

Toronto’s film festivals continue with Inside Out and Canada’s Sport Film Fest. This week, I’m looking at two documentaries and a noir drama. There’s a Mohawk lacrosse team keeping traditions relevant, a Hollywood star keeping her mystique afloat, and a private eye in London just trying to stay alive.

Keepers of the Game

Dir: Judd Ehrlich

The Akwesasne Mohawk territory straddles the US/Canadian border that runs between New York and Ontario. 20 years ago there was widespread discord among the longhouses. So to calm the waters, they started a boy’s lacrosse team to compete in the local high school division, off reserve. The idea was to bring back self-respect using a traditional custom. Lacrosse is a precolumbian warlike sport used by the Mohawk and other Iroquois long before Europeans came to North America. Hundreds, or even thousands of men would play the game together on open fields. It shows valour, strength and offers thanks to the creator.

Flash forward to the present. High school girls are facing the same problems – bullying, depression, suicide – as the boys did, but without the traditional sport outlet. They need a medicine to cure their ills. So they decide to start a girls team, using lacrosse as a traditional Mohawk medicine. But they face opposition from all sides. Awkesasne men say they are defying tradition by letting girls play a boys sport and want it stopped. The school board is facing cutbacks, so the are against funding a new team… especially one for girls. And the players themselves are afraid they lack the confidence and experience to win. Even so, they manage to raise the money and recruit the players to have a regionally competitive team. But can they beat their rivals  — a mainly white team who use a feathered native cartoon as their team mascot?

This documentary is a record of one season of a real-life team and the obstacles they face, on and off the field. It shows the role traditional customs can play in a modern sport. Players design their own war paint as they compete for the first time, even as mothers and grandmothers pass on language and rituals. It’s about young aboriginal women who gain self respect as they reclaim a sport their own ancestors created. It’s an inspiring story.

Mansfield 66/67

Dir: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes

Jayne Mansfield was a bleach blonde bombshell in the 1950s, who lived on publicity. She was known for her whispery voice, her highpitched squeals, and personality – that of a naïve, dumb blonde seemingly unaware of her sexiness, even as she posed for playboy and appeared naked on the big screen. In fact, her persona was self-created and nurtured by the Hollywood studios, and fed by the tabloids paparazzi and gossip rags who lived in her stories. She married Mickey Hargitay, a body-builder, to complement her own figure. And she lived in a pink mansion, legendary in Hollywood for its 45 rooms. But did you know she was a multilingual musician, and a student at a top university? Sadly, her movie career faltered in the 1960s, and  she began to follow another celebrity, a man named Anton LaVay. LaVay was known for his shaved head, his black goatee and his sinister but commanding looks. He founded a new religion — The Church of Satan. And not long after, her life was suddenly cut short in a terrible accident that totalled her car and chopped off the top of her head. Those are the bare facts. But what really happened to Jayne Mansfield?

You could call Mansfield 66/67 a documentary, but that might give you the wrong idea. It’s actually a highly stylized tribute to — and desconstruction of – a Hollywood legend. There are the usual talking heads  — from gender studies professors, to stars like Tippi Hedron and starlets like Mamie van Doren. But there are also underground icons, eighties pop stars, models, drag queens, and the chronicler of Hollywood himself, Kenneth Anger.

This is not your usual bio doc. What other documentary creates a cutesy cartoon of Mansfields son being mauled by a lion? Or intricately choreographed dancers of both sexes wearing matching blonde wigs as they worshipped  the devil in Busby Berkeley-like formations? This is a strange combination of film lore, academic analysis, hollywood gossip, and extremely campy performance art.

City of Tiny Lights

Dir: Pete Travis

Tommy (Riz Ahmed) is a private detective who lives and works in an ungentrified part of London. It’s a neighbourhood in flux, full of nervous shopkeepers and streetcorner drug dealers, radical imams, and sketchy real estate speculators. His dad (Roshan Seth) is a die-hard Briton whose life is guided by Charles Dickens and Cricket. As a South Asian Ugandan he was forced to flee under dictator Idi Amin. One day a sultry sex worker named Melody (Cush Jumbo) hires him to look for her friend Natasha. She hasn’t seen her since her last trick 8 hours earlier and doesn’t answer her cel. But when he searches her hotel room he finds a dead body, not Natasha. It’s a real estate broker involved in a major development. He also discovers the dead man gave money to an Islamic youth group known for driving drug dealers off their streets, led by a radical Muslim preacher. Lurking in the shadows is a sketchy security spook working for the US government. And it is all somehow related to his boyhood, a friend named Lovely, and woman named Shell. Who is behind the murders and disappearances? Organized crime, terrorists, corrupt developers or American spies?

City of Tiny Lights is a well-acted, low budget look at a private detective in contemporary London. Some of the camera work is annoying and gimmicky – like cheap 90s TV — that distracts from the story. I was also confused by frequent flashbacks — the young actors look nothing like their adult counterparts. But I liked the complex, multi-levelled mystery and the acting is terrific.

Mansfield 66/67 is one of many films at Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival which continues through Sunday; Keepers of the Game is the opening night feature at the ninth annual Canada’s Sport Film Festival, beginning next Friday. Tickets and showtimes are at sportfilmfestival.ca. City of Tiny Lights opens today in Toronto, as does Ken Finkleman’s satiric comedy An American Dream: The Education of William Bowman (I talked about this film in March). 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

Daniel Garber talks with director Jac Gares about her new film Free CeCe! at Inside Out

Posted in African-Americans, documentary, LGBT, Prison, Protest, Trans, violence by CulturalMining.com on May 26, 2017

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

In June, 2011 in St. Paul Minnesota, an African-American woman and her friends were taunted by a group of white supremacists they encountered on the street. A white woman assaulted her, cutting her face, followed by a violent attack by a white man. The situation escalated when the woman under attack pulled out a scissors to defend herself. The man ended up dead, the woman charged with murder. Her name is CeCe McDonald and she’s a transgendered black woman whose story has captured the interest of activists around the world.

Free CeCe! is a new documentary that tells her story. It’s about the violence, injustice and incarceration faced by transgender people of colour. It is directed by Jacqueline “Jac” Gares an award-winning TV director and filmmaker. Free CeCe! is her first documentary feature film, and it’s having its Canadian premier at Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival on Sunday, May 28th.

I spoke with Jac in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM via telephone to New York City.

Lifestyles? Films reviewed: My Wonderful West Berlin, The Lavender Scare, Baywatch

Posted in Berlin, Breasts, comedy, documentary, LGBT, Protest by CulturalMining.com on May 26, 2017

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

Inside Out is Toronto’s LGBT film festival showing dramas, comedies, documentaries and short films from around the world. There are events, free screenings and a chance to talk to the filmmakers and stars at most screenings.

This week I’m looking at two historical Inside Out documentaries about gay life and repression in two cities, Washington, D.C. and Berlin; and an action/comedy about straight life on a California beach.

My Wonderful West Berlin (Mein wunderbares West-Berlin)

Wri/Dir: Jochen Hick

After WWII, a defeated Germany was divided into East and West, its bombed-out former capital, Berlin, into Soviet and Western zones. But the pre-war laws still applied. Paragraph 175 — an anti-gay section of the German criminal code passed by the Nazis in 1935 — made many homosexual acts illegal. But gays and lesbians flocked there – Berlin represented freedom, counterculture and revolution.  And when the Berlin wall went up in the early 1969s Berlin served as a beacon located entirely within East Germany.

The districts of Shöneberg (and later Kreutzberg) became the centres of a queer counterculture. The movie follows the changing city from the 1950s to the 1990s. There’s the well-known drag shows and sex clubs, but also a vibrant theatre scene, and a city filled with gay artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers (including Fassbinder and Rosa von Praunheim). There were gay squatters who set up home inside abandoned buildings. In the 1960s groups of men formed “Male Communes”, living spaces where pairing-off into heterosexual-style marriages was considered bourgeois. Cooking, cleaning and sex were all shared. But could Marxist thought coexist with gay sex?

The movie covers the subculture of the 1950s, the leftist counterculture of the 60s, through the punk movement, the AIDS crisis, and the end of the cold war. Filmmakers played a crucial war in establishing gay culture. The Berlin Film Festival, (where this film recently premiered), is the first major film festival to have a gay film prize, the Teddy awards. My Wonderful West Berlin is a fantastic guide to Berlin’s history, illustrated with contemporary and historical interviews with the people who lived through it. It also includes eye-popping photos and footage of everything from safe-sex porn to Taxi Zum Klo. An excellent look at a complex city.

The Lavender Scare

Dir: Josh Howard

In the 1930s Washington, D.C. attracted educated people from across America to follow their ambitions and live openly gay or lesbian lives. WWII brought together men and women across the country with a new same-sex comradery. And the Kinsey Report (1948) estimated that close to a quarter of all men have had some same-sex experience. This all came to a sudden halt in the early 1950s. Politicians (like Senator Joe McCarthy) claimed communists were lurking in every dark alley. Party members, fellow travellers, socialists and liberals were purged en masse from government jobs and blacklisted for a decade. This Red Scares was followed by the lesser known “Lavender Scare”, an anti-gay purge that started in the 1950s but that lasted for 40 years. Civil servants were spied on by police and J Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Anyone seen in “suspect” bars, observed as having habits different from the mainstream or even “gay” patterns of speech, was interrogated and forced to name names. Each person accused of being gay, lesbian or bi had to name five other suspects, who were also arrested. The excuse was that LGBT people were vulnerable to blackmail — since homosexual acts were illegal, and therefore prone to act as spies for the Soviet Union. But in fact, there was not a single proven incident of LGBT government employees blackmailed into becoming traitors. Instead, thousands of people lost their jobs, had passports revoked, with many driven to suicide.

The movie follows mainly white, middle-class, educated, professionals in Washington — navy brass, diplomats, post office workers — both men and women, and how the Lavender Scare changed their lives. The film takes a mainstream, middle-of-the-road look at LGBT politics. It covers an early gay and lesbian advocacy group known as the Mattachine Society, and the founder of its DC branch Frank Kameny. At protests, he ordered men to wear suits and ties and women dresses, to demonstrate that they were just like “ordinary” people. (Trans not welcome here.) The Lavender Scare is a mainstream, suitable-for-television look at US government persecution of gays and lesbians and the effect it had on their lives. It’s lavishly illustrated with snapshots and period footage.

Baywatch

Dir: Seth Gordon

Mitch (played by wrestler-turned-actor The Rock) is a huge, egotistical lifeguard adored by everyone on the beach. Along with two women, CJ and Stephanie (Kelly Rohrbach, Ilfenesh Hadera), the Baywatch team save lives on a daily basis. They also function as an unofficial police force, patrolling the waves for drug pushers and petty thieves. Today’s the day they choose three new rookies out of the hundreds who apply. This year’s choice? Summer (Alexandra Daddario), an athletic young woman, Ronnie (Jon Bass), an out-of-shape computer geek, and Brody. Brody (Zac Efron) is a former olympic swimmer with pop-idol good looks, who rides a vintage motorcycle. He’s also impulsive, brash and selfish, and prone to excess drinking.

Brody and Mitch do not get along.

Then bad things start happening. Dead bodies wash up on shore along with packets of a designer drug. And there’s a new dog in town, Victoria, a rich and ruthless villain (Priyanka Chopra). Is she somehow connected to these crimes? Can the lifeguards stop corruption at City Hall? And can the Baywatch team just learn to get along?

Baywatch is an action/comedy based on the hit 90s TV show. There are a few inside references to the original version, along with chase scenes, rescues and shootouts. But let’s be real; this movie is really about boobs and dicks on the beach. Virtually every scene involves close ups of unzipped one-piece swim suits. And the penis jokes never end. I’m not exaggerating. There’s one scene involving Ronnie’s erection stuck in a wooden lounge chair that lasted for 5-10 minutes.

Is Baywatch funny? Not very. Is it exciting? Not really. Is it surprising. Not at all. Men get all the punchlines, while women provide the scenery. But did I hate it? No. How could I? It’s just like sitting on a beach, watching all the people walk past.

Baywatch opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Lavender Scare and My Wonderful West Berlin are playing at the Inside Out Film Festival. Go to insideout.ca for tickets and showtimes.

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

Life in Nature. Films reviewed: The Gardener, Certain Women

Posted in documentary, Drama, Movies, Quebec, Rural, Western, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 18, 2017

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

Toronto’s spring film festival season continues. LGBT films, shorts and documentaries from around the world are featured at Inside Out beginning next week. Get into shape in June with CSFF, a new festival featuring Canadian Sports docs and shorts. Toronto’s Japanese Film Festival brings the newest dramas, thrillers and samurai hits served up with sake tasting at the Japanese cultural centre. And contemporary Italian cinema is showcased at the ICFF.

April showers bring May flowers, so this week I’m looking at slow-paced movies set against natural beauty. There an arthouse drama in rural Montana, and a look at the gardens in Quebec.

The Gardener

Dir: Sébastien Chabot

The Cabots are a famous upperclass American family. You’ve probably heard the ditty about Boston:

…the home of the bean and the cod,

Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,

And the Cabots talk only to God.

This documentary is about those Cabots, and what one man in particular created. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the family has owned a huge tract of land in the Charlevoix region near Quebec city for their summer estate. It’s an area of bucolic fields and breathtaking views overlooking the St Lawrence. But Francis Cabot (1925-2011) decided to do something more with it. He designed Les Quatre Vents, the four winds, an amazing private garden. It’s planted with perennials that bloom throughout the year, leading to waves of yellow, violets, greens and reds in sequential seasons. Cabot believed gardens should not be sterile units of symmetrical topiary, but a sensuous experience. The gardens are filled with smells of flowers, buzzing bees, trickling streams flowing past vast fields. It is divided into different sections, each one revealed as a surprise when you turn a corner or, cross a bridge. Gorgeous black and white horses, foliage from the Himalayas, a moonbridge reminiscent of Suzhou and a traditional Japanese garden complete with a hand-crafted teahouse.

If you’re expecting a hard-hitting documentary, look elsewhere. this is not an expose about the family’s history in Salem Massachusetts or its roots in the slave trade. Rather, it’s very much an homage or a tribute to the magnificent garden that one man created. If you love gardens and consider them symphonies, this one takes you on a guided tour through it all with commentary from its late creator. It’s less of a film than an experience. I had never heard of Les Quatre Vents before I saw this film,  but now I want to go there.

Certain Women

Dir: Kelly Reichardt (Based on stories by Maile Meloy)

Laura (Laura Dern) is an established lawyer in a tiny town in Montana. Much of her time is spent on a single case where the plaintiff, an older man named Fuller (Jared Harris) was screwed by his former boss. He was injured at work, affecting his vision, but because he accepted a token payment, leaving him high and dry and unemployable. She told him way back that his case is unsinkable, but he keeps coming back to her office… maybe for a different reason? Meanwhile, Gina (Michelle Williams) is dead set on buying a ranch, Her husband Ryan (James le Gros) and her teenaged daughter aren’t interested, but Gina refuses to give up. She will buy that house! But at what personal cost?

And nearby, a young law student named Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart) finds herself teaching a night class at a school four hours away from her home. The students are all teachers who want answers to their own petty legal disputes, but Elizabeth knows nothing about education… or teaching. The one bright spot is a boyish rancher (Lily Gladstone) who shows up out of boredom – she’s like a lonesome cowboy who never sees anyone except horses and dogs. After class, she offers to drive Elizabeth to the local diner so they can talk. And after a few meetings, the lonesome cowgirl shows up not in her pickup but on horseback. “hop on!” Could this be the start of a romantic relationship with the doe-eyed rancher?

Certain Women is another fine, modern-day take on the classic Western (from a female POV) by the great director Kelly Reichardt. It’s actually three separate stories whose characters briefly appear across the plots. For example, the movie opens in a cheap hotel room where Laura just had a noonday rendezvous with a bearded man (but you don’t find out whose husband he is until later.) Set against the breathtaking mountains and dusty roads of smalltown Montana, it feels like a C&W song come to life. It’s slow paced but never boring. It has that rural feel – things happen more slowly out west. This is a touching drama littered with unrequited love, and driven by the Certain Women of the title: people who make big decisions for selfish reasons, without realizing how much it hurts the people around them.

Certain Women and the Gardener 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

Daniel Garber talks with David Bull and Toru Tokikawa about Ukiyo-e Heroes at Hot Docs

Posted in Art, Canada, Clash of Cultures, Cultural Mining, documentary, Japan, Movies by CulturalMining.com on May 12, 2017

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

Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro – these are the masters of Ukiyo-e or  Japanese block printing.

Their images of great waves, courtesans and journeys along the Tokaido highway are recognized around the world. Ukiyo-e flourished in Edo Japan, with the masters treated like superstars. But when the country modernized and westernized, the craft of woodblock printing began to fade. It lay moribund, until an unusual influence, a Canadian craftsman, is helping to reawaken interest. Who is this Ukiyo-e Hero?

Ukiyo-e Heroes is the name of a new feature which premiered at HotDocs, Toronto’s International Documentary Festival. It tells the story of two people helping to revive interest in ukiyo-e in Japan: Canadian David Bull who learned the traditional craft despite all the obstacles imposed on him. And Jed Henry, an American artist obsessed with Japanese pop culture. The film is directed by LA-based Toru Tokikawa, known for his award-winning music videos.

I spoke with Toru and David in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Cities. Films reviewed: The Lost City of Z, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, Colossal

Posted in Addiction, Adventure, Brazil, documentary, Drama, Manhattan, Protest, UK by CulturalMining.com on April 21, 2017

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

Cities. People around the globe are urbanizing at an alarming rate, with tens of millions leaving their farms, villages and small towns each year. So this week I’m looking at movies about cities. There’s a man who wants to find a city, a woman who wants to save a city, and another woman who is trying not to destroy a city.

The Lost City of Z

Dir: James Gray

It’s 1905. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a major in His Majesty’s Army but an undecorated one – no medals, because he has never seen battle. He’s a modern thinker, not bogged down by religion and bigotry, and believes in equal rights for women, including for his wife Nina (Sienna Miller). His father — a drinker and gambler – had ruined the family name, so he jumps at the chance to restore it. The offer: to lead an expedition to “Amazonia” sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society. A skilled cartographer, Fawcett must map an uncharted river running between Bolivia and Brazil. He also wants to find a legendary, advanced civilization he calls the city of “Z”.

On the ship heading to South America he meets a dismissive man with a bushy beard, round glasses and a big hat. Turns out it’s his aide-de-camp, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They make an odd couple, Costin kitted out for the jungle with Fawcett still in European mode. But soon they learn to get along. First they journey to a pop-up city in the jungle, complete with an opera house. It’s run by filthy- rich robber barons riding the Amazon rubber boom. Fawcett assembles a small team to travel down the river on a raft, further than any European has gone so far. A former slave serves as their guide. Along the way, they are attacked by locals with spears and arrows, encounter black jaguars and make it as far as a waterfall – the river’s source? There Fawcett finds artifacts he says are from the lost city he seeks. Back in London, he raises money for a second trip. His wife asks to go too, but he says it’s “no place for a woman”. Instead he takes a portly millionaire named Mr. Murray – an armchair explorer – as his sponsor. But this leads to more trouble. This time they encounter cannibals and travel even further than the first trip, but not as far as “Z”. Can Fawcett earn the respect of his family, the confidence of the Royal Geographers, and the backing of the press? Can he survive a third trip through the jungle? Or is his passion — finding the lost city of Z — based on his own fantasies?

This is fascinating adventure based on real historical figures. It’s also very similar to a fantastic black and white arthouse film from a few years ago called Embrace of the Serpent, also about a European travelling down the Amazon during the rubber boom. This one is more traditional, told solely from a European point of view, with dashing explorers out to discover things lost to the locals. The indigenous people are “things” they encounter on their journey, and almost never speak. It’s a bit old-fashioned, but I enjoyed the movie anyway. Charlie Hunnam is great as Fawcett, and Robert Pattinson (the heartthrob vampire from the execrable Twilight series) is completely unrecognizable in this role. If you’re in the mood for an exciting colonial trek through the jungle, this long movie is made for you.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Wri/Dir: Matt Tyrnauer

It’s postwar America, where the car is king and freshly-built houses in the suburbs the ideal home. Jane Jacobs is a young writer in Manhattan who publishes pieces on manhole covers and city streets for magazines like Vogue and Architectural Forum. Robert Moses is the immensely powerful, urban planning and highway czar, building enormous parkways through cities to let people commute to their far off homes. He subscribes to the visions of Swiss architect le Corbusier: Cities are best viewed from an airplane — clean, pristine and devoid of pesky things like small shops, loitering people and peculiar neighbourhoods. Cities are old and ugly cesspools filled with cancerous slums that can only be saved by wiping them out.

Robert Moses views cities from above looking down; Jane Jacobs (in her book The Life and Death of Great American Cities) looks at cities from ground level. She loves the confusion and excitement of neighbourhoods and the people who live there. Moses wants to extend Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue down through Washington Square park, and turn into a highway, destroying Canal St, Soho, and Little Italy on the way. And no one ever defies his grand plans… until Jane Jacobs. She’s the one responsible for a new look at urban landscapes and city planning. She saved Greenwich village from destruction and changed people’s views about what a city should look like and feel like.

This is a superb documentary chronicling her battle with Moses. It also shows how people like Jacobs can challenge the orthodoxy of so-called urban renewal (what James Baldwin called “negro removal”) and its destruction of neighbourhoods.

This documentary doesn’t deal with Jane Jacobs before she moved to New York City or afterwards when she moved to Toronto (where she helped save the city from the Spadina Expressway). It’s specifically about Jacobs’ battle with Moses. And it does so in a very informative and absorbing way.

Colossal

Wri/Dir: Nacho Vigalondo

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) has it made: an English boyfriend with a beautiful apartment, and lots of cool hipster friends who show her the highlife. She’s loose with the bottle and free with the pills. But after an especially horrific incident he gives her the boot until she dries out. So she is forced to relocate to her childhood home in a small town. She is taken under the wing of Oscar (Jason Sudeikas) a local entrepreneur who offers her a job at his roadhouse bar (turns it he had a crush on her as a kid and wants to renew their friendship).

She takes the job but turns down his sexual advances. Though depressed and lonely, she gradually adjusts to the slow paced rhythm of life there: working late at the bar, sharing drinks with her new friends and waking up the next morning on a park bench feeling like hell warmed over. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a giant monster is trampling through Seoul Korea, toppling buildings and terrorizing the populous. And Gloria notices something very strange: the monster only appears in Seoul whenever she wakes up in the park, drunk to the gills. Stranger still, the colossal monster she sees on the news shares her nervous tics and habits. What is the connection?

Colossal is a unique film that doesn’t fall easily into any single genre. It starts out like a sophisticated chick flick or a recovery movie, but it’s also a disaster and monster movie, a comedy and a social drama. Hathaway is good as a young alcoholic forced to deal with her addiction, and Sudeikas is equally good as a conflicted (and sometimes vengeful) friend. The Korean aspect of the movie is superficial, with locals mainly there to get stepped on. Still, Colossal is weird and surprisingly entertaining — it’s different from any movie you’ve ever seen before.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, The Lost City of Z and Colossal 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

Daniel Garber talks with Ben Donoghue about Pierre Radisson: Fjord and Gulf

Posted in Art, Canada, documentary, Quebec by CulturalMining.com on April 21, 2017

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

Pierre Radisson was an explorer in New France adopted by the Iroquois, whose journeys led him to the rivers around Hudson’s Bay. This was an area teeming with beavers ready to be exploited for the European market. The Pierre Radisson is also the name of a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, a mammoth metal vessel that plies the waters of the Gulf of St Lawrence and the Saguenay Fjord, making waters navigable for scientists and commercial ships. And Pierre Radisson: Fjord and Gulf is also the name of a feature film shot aboard the Pierre Radisson, a piece of moving-image art. Through a series of composed, contemplative shots – ranging from 20 seconds to more than 4 minutes long – it shows us the ice-breaker — interior and exterior, top to bottom, bow to stern – as it journeys up and down Canadian waters.

Ben Donoghue is a Toronto based artist, curator, and filmmaker, and is the former Executive director of LIFT (Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto). Pierre Radisson: Fjord and Gulf is his first feature which had its world premier at Toronto’s Images Festival on Sunday, April 21, 2017 at 5 PM at Innis College Town Hall.

I spoke to Ben in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Unusual relationships. Movies reviewed: Room 213, Your Name, Maudie

Posted in Animation, Art, Canada, Denmark, Drama, Japan, Nova Scotia, Romance, Supernatural by CulturalMining.com on April 14, 2017

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

April 19th is National Canadian Film Day, which bills itself as the world’s largest film festival. On that day — at theatres around Toronto, and across the country – you can see free screenings of Canadian movies, often with actors or directors in attendance. Comedies, kids’ movies, French, indigenous… and they’re all free.  Check it out.

This week I’m looking at movies about unusual relationships. There’s a disabled woman who moves in with a recluse, a ghost who inhabits a young girl, and a teenage boy and girl who inhabit each other’s bodies.

Room 213

Dir: Emilie Lindblom

Elvira (Wilma Lundgrun) is a 12-year-old Danish girl heading to camp for the first time. Camp Bjorkuddens is a lot like a Canadian summer camp: it’s on a lake, they play games, roast weenies on sticks and tell scary stories by the campfire. The big difference is instead of tents or small, bare cabins they stay in a huge, elaborate building filled with dusty antiques. Elvira has two roommates, the blond and snobbish Meja (Ella Fogelström) and the darker, shy Bea (Elena Hovsepyan). And due to a plumbing problem they move to room 213, empty for many years.

That’s when weird things start to happen. The door creaks open in the middle of the night, and treasured items disappear (and the three girls suspect one another). A girl with red hair and bright green eyes named Mebel appears — is she a ghost? And when Elvira’s brown eyes start turning green, is it Mebel taking over?

Room 213 is a scary movie aimed at small children. It’s tame even by YTV standards — no violence at all, no slashers in hockey masks, just general spookiness. And it deals with problems like exclusion, bullying and young love in a multi-ethnic Denmark. But this is definitely a movie for little kids only.

Your Name (君の名は)

Dir: Makoto Shinkai

Taki is a high schooler in central Tokyo. He’s scrawny but quick to fight. He hangs out with his two best friends and has a crush on his sophisticated, female boss at his part-time restaurant job. Mitsuha is a teenaged girl in a remote Japanese village, known for its obscure shinto shrine and little else. She lives with her little sister Yotsuha and her traditional grandmother who knows about the old ways. Things like weaving colourful lanyards, and chewing up glutinous rice, spitting it back into a wooden box so it ferments into sake. Yum! And there’s a celestial comet that passes close to the town every 200 years (that day is approaching soon.)

Taki and Mitsuha are total strangers who live far away from each other. So what’s their connection? Some mornings, Taki is waking up with breasts, and Mitsuha with a penis. Well not exactly; they’re actually waking up inside each other’s bodies. They have to live those days at school, at work and with friends they’ve never met before. It’s not all bad. Mitsuha lands Taki a date with his boss, and Taki gains some insight into shinto rituals. He becomes more mature and she is more assertive. The two manage to communicate with each other using cryptic scrawls they leave in notebooks and diaries recorded on cel phones so they can know what happened during their switch-body days. Until something changes. The body switches suddeny stop and all the notes they left each other fade away. For Taki it’s as if Mitsuha never existed and it was all a dream. But it was real. He can’t remember her name, but he knows it all happened. Using a sketch of her town he drew from memory, he sets out to find her.

Your Name is deeply-moving romantic drama with a touch of the supernatural. It’s a beautifully- drawn, animated film from Japan with neat camera angles and lovely art. It’s also a record-breaking smash hit across East Asia that has finally reached these shores. It’s the only movie playing now to sell-out crowds, with huge lineups inside the theatre before each screening. And I understand why. No spoilers, but there’s a wrenching revelation in the middle that sent shivers down my spine, the sign of a really good story. Anime is a particular genre, and if you’re not familiar with it it might be hard to understand, but if you like anime, this one is a must-see.

Maudie

Dir: Aisling Walsh

Maud (Sally Hawkins) is a disabled woman who lives in post-war Digby, Nova Scotia with her controlling aunt. Every moment of her life is supervised and she’s treated like a simple-minded child. But on a visit to a local shop she finds a way to escape: a hand-written ad for a live in housekeeper. Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) wrote the note, though his house is barely a home. He lives in a rundown shack on a small plot of land, earning a meagre living as a fish monger. He’s unmarried, mainly because no woman can put up with his rudeness.

But Maudie can. After dogged persistence, she moves in with him and immediately starts to work. He is peculiar and abusive, but she sticks with it. In her free time she begins to decorate the walls with small paintings of flowers and animals. When her hand-painted postcards sell out at the local general store, she moves on to bigger paintings, selling them for $5 apiece. These catch the eye of a rich woman from N.Y. City who spreads the primitivist paintings among her friends back home. Meanwhile, Maud’s relationship with Everett gradually shifts from boss/servant to bedmate to wife. But can a reclusive misanthrope handle living with a recognized artist and local celebrity?

Maudie is the true story of a self-taught painter whose works now hang in famous galleries and in the homes of collectors. It’s also an unusual romance about a pair of social outcasts hammering out an unusual relationship on their own. Sally Hawkins is outstanding as Maudie – you really believe she is who she is playing. Hawke, though capable in his portrayal of such an unsympathetic character, pales in comparison to his co-star. This is a good — though very dark — movie.

Your Name is now playing and Maudie opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Room 213 is one of many films showing at the TIFF Kids Festival – go to tiff.net for details. And canadianfilmday.ca will tell you where to see free films on April 19th.

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

Exceptional people with hidden histories. Movies reviewed: Gifted, I Called Him Morgan, Frantz

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, drugs, Family, France, Germany, Jazz, melodrama, Music, Mystery, WWI by CulturalMining.com on April 10, 2017

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

Spring Film Festival season continues with the upcoming Images and TIFF Kids film festivals, celebrating their 30th and 20th anniversaries (respectively).

This week, I’m looking at movies about exceptional people with hidden histories. There’s a musical genius in Manhattan, a mathematical prodigy on the Florida coast, and a man of mystery at the border of France and Germany.

Gifted

Dir: Mark Webb

Frank (Chris Evans) is a youngish guy living in a shack in Florida. He lives a quiet life, fixing boats and hooking up with women at laguna bars. The rest of his time is spent home-schooling his niece Mary (McKenna Grace), a foul-mouthed seven-year-old with blonde pigtails. Mary likes math, dancing to pop songs and playing with Fred, their one-eyed stray cat, a castoff like the two of them. How did they end up in Florida? Frank’s sister, a math genius, left Mary with him as a baby… just before killing herself. She made him promise to let Mary have a normal life, in case it turns out she’s a genius too. Normal means keeping the child free from math profs and universities, and most of all away from their obsessive mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). She’s the one who pushed Frank’s sister over the edge with her relentless ambition: solving one of the Millennium Prize Problems.

Frank is protecting Mary from all that. But how can she live a normal life hidden away in their clapboard shack? It’s time to send her to public school — despite his savvy neighbour Roberta’s warnings not to (Octavia Spence). Right away the dominos start to fall: teacher tells principal Mary is gifted, Principal goes online and soon Evelyn is in Florida demanding a proper Harvard education for her gifted grandchild.  Who has Mary’s best interests at heart – her wealthy patrician grandmother or her salt-of-the-earth uncle Frank?

I like the idea behind Gifted, and was looking forward to a story about a genius kid trying to live a normal life – but aside from a few scenes the movie isn’t about that. It’s actually a child custody drama, which is never much fun. Throw in foster parents, courtrooms and lawyers and the movie becomes a trial to watch. While the acting is not bad – Captain America as a single dad – and there are a few big secrets revealed along the way, I found Gifted disappointing.

I Called Him Morgan

Dir: Kasper Collin

Lee Morgan was a young jazz trumpet player from Philly, featured in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band as an 18 year old. 15 years later he was shot dead outside a Manhattan jazz club in a snow storm by a much older woman named Helen. How did he get there, who was this woman, and how did it happen? A new documentary looks closely at both their lives.

Morgan was a hard-bop trumpeter who dressed in Ivy League suits and drove his Triumph through Central Park. He played with Art Blakey and John Coltrane, later breaking away with his own band. Helen was born in a small town near Wilmington, North Carolina, with two kids by age 14, and widowed by 18 after a short marriage to a bootlegger. She left her kids with grandma, moved to New York City and never looked back. She cut an impressive figure on the streets, hanging with Manhattan’s demimonde, sexual outlaws and drug dealers. That’s how she entered the jazz scene. By the time she met Lee Morgan, he was a junkie who had pawned his trumpet for some heroin and was virtually homeless. She washed him, got him into a Bronx clinic and set him back up in the jazz scene. She served as his mother, lover, manager and protector. But when he began to fool around with a young woman from New Jersey, things started to go wrong…

I Called Him Morgan is an amazing movie about the two lovers’ lives. Helen gave only one interview in a bar on a cassette tape a month before she died, but in it she tells what really happened. Interviews with the friends and musicians he played with fill in the blanks, and it is illustrated with B&W photos from Blue Note (the club and record label where Morgan played and recorded), all set alight by Morgan’s cool trumpet sounds. Fascinating musical documentary.

Frantz

Dir: Francois Ozon

A small town in Germany, right after WWI. Anna (Paula Beer) is a strong and pretty young woman all dressed in black. She is in mourning for her fiance Frantz Hoffmeister, who died in the trenches. She still lives with Frantz’s father, the good Doktor Hoffmeister, and Magda his mother. They treat her like one of the family. One day, Anna spies a young man with a pencil thin moustache laying white roses by Frantz’s grave. Who is this man and what does he want? His name is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) and he is a musician. It seems he knew Frantz before the war, in Paris, and he carries a letter he wrote. He is visiting the town to pay his respects and to say something to Frantz’s father. But the war wounds are still raw, and townsfolk can’t believe a frenchman would dare set foot there. Eventually, nervous Adrien spends time with Anna and her family forging a deep emotional friendship, but one based partly on lies. What isn’t he telling them?

After Adrien returns to France, Anna decides to track him down in Paris, and retrace the museums and music halls Frantz had loved. But Adrien is nowhere to be found. Like a detective, she tries to locate him far outside Paris, which leads her to a sumptuous villa in the country. And now Anna must reveal secrets of her own.

Frantz is a fantastic, novelistic melodrama spanning Germany and France, about secrets, lies, guilt and class. It’s a romance full of unrequited love, fuelled by letters and whispered confessions. I told very little of the story, to avoid spoilers, but believe me this is one great movie. It’s shot in stunning black and white with a hitchcockian musical score, beautiful costumes and great acting. Francois Ozon’s movies are often light family dramas or superficial sexual comedies, but this one is a sumptuous, epic story, perfectly made. I recommend this one.

Gifted, I Called him Morgan and Frantz all start today in Toronto; check your local listings. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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