Daniel Garber talks with the SOSKA SISTERS about their new film AMERICAN MARY

Posted in Canada, Cultural Mining, Feminism, Horror, Movies, Penis, Uncategorized, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 30, 2013

Soska Sisters

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

Who says Canada is dull and boring, never weird or whack? Wasn’t me… We have lots of strange things here (and I’m not just talking about our crackhead Mayor). But I rarely see movies as weird as a new horror film opening across Canada today.

This is a story about a medical school student named Mary (Katherine Isabelle) who is planning to become a surgeon. But she’s flat broke — can’t even make her rent. So she brings her resume to a local strip bar and offers her services. But, to her surprise, the skeezy characters there need her mind and her hands more than her body — she’s put toAmerican Mary Poster work as an underground
secret surgeon.

Soon she’s a sought-after figure within the body-modification set. And when something terrible happens to her, she quits medical school and seeks revenge in her new guise as a regular Bloody Mary. But the police are on her trail….

The movie is called American Mary, and was written and directed by the famous / notorious identical-twin horror-meisters the Soska Sisters. (This is the second feature by the team who brought us the cult favourite Dead Hooker in a Trunk.)

I speak with Jen and Sylvia Soska about American Mary, horror, genital mutilation, women in film, evil twins, body modification, feminism, and more… (Warning: this unedited podcast contains adult language and subjects that may not be suitable for all listeners.)

I talk with Morgan White about his new documentary THE REP

Posted in Batman, Cultural Mining, Movie Theatre Trends, Movies, Toronto, Uncategorized, Underground by CulturalMining.com on May 25, 2013

Morgan_0695(1)Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

There used to be a repertory cinema in every town, in every neighbourhood, and near every university. Reps are the kind of theatres that play a mix of second-run, classic, cult movies, art flics, and perennial favourites… for a few bucks. They’re usually one-screen theatres, but with a constantly changing program — often two new movies each night.

But something is happening — repertory cinemas are disappearing across North America. Why? What’s going on? Well a new movie, called The Rep, which opens The Rep Crowd Watching A Movietoday in Toronto, takes a look at these theatres, focussing on one of them: Toronto’s Underground Cinema on Spadina. It’s a beautiful homage to a disappearing phenomenon. I speak with the film’s director Morgan White to find out more about it.

Tagged with: ,

HIgh School Confidential. Movies Reviewed: Geography Club, Schoolgirl Complex, Animals PLUS Epic and Inside Out

Posted in Bullying, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Drama, High School, Japan, LGBT, Spain, Uncategorized, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on May 24, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and ZulmaCIUT 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 difference.

High school often plays a central role in coming-of-age dramas, (since that’s where teenagers spend most of their time). It’s the place where people become aware of their sexual identities, their desires, their genders. And often, it’s not a lot of fun. Throw in some bullying, suicide, peer pressure, sex, university applications and young love, and you’ve got a boiling cauldron of teenage trouble waiting to overflow (at least in the movies).

So this week I’m looking at three such movies, all playing at Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival a place to see mainstream and experimental films by and about lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people from around the world. It’s the third biggest such festival, and it’s also a great place to meet people and experience a different aspect of movies — one that is often swept under the carpet.

So… back to these troubled teens. This week I’m looking at a US movie about a club hidden in plain sight, one from Japan about a club on a roof, and one from Spain about people who would never join a club.

lg_geographyclubGeography Club

Dir: Gary Entin (based on the popular young adult novel by Brent Hartinger)

Russell and Kevin (Cameron Deane Stewart, Justin Deeley) are both in their senior year, but may as well live in separate universes. Russell’s the brain – his parents have already decided he’s going to Yale, and he’s wearing a sweatshirt to prove it. Kevin’s the jock, the quarterback of the football team, the cock of the walk. He’s going for a football scholarship. They’re both gay, and they end up meeting — anonymously, online — even though they see each other in the hallway at school. Secret passion ensues… until a girl sees them kissing on a school trip. They both find a hand-written note in their lockers the next day: go to room 327. What is it? Blackmail? Will their reputations be ruined?

Turns out, this is the site of an unofficial club where closeted LGBT kids can talkZPxLTD9g2pDGh32T_9MdWYmS-MxIJD-o1sAUnyvupCI,Q9GgDboopGMH38UWb-WfQiffwoBjAX8T4DhlBqLknxA openly with one another. But to keep their sexuality secret they call it the Geography Club, a club so boring, they think, that no one would accidentally wander into it. Russell joins up, but Kevin is too afraid he’ll lose his jock status (and potential scholarship). He wants Russell as his boyfriend but kept on a Don’t Ask – Don’t Tell basis. And when the club threatens to go official, as a Gay/Straight Alliance, Russell and Kevin have to make a decision: come out together or stop seeing each other. Which will they choose?

The Geography Club is a very mainstream, easy to follow, after-school-special-type movie. Still, it deals with very real topics, like bullying, sexual identity, and the lives of closeted kids who are forced (by peer pressure) to conform. It’s told as a light drama, but with GSAs a hot issue in Ontario Catholic schools right now, it may just open some eyes and change some minds.

27xZGiNQa8vEEubHIuVthvQLa9WbHf8qTB00Cadk9Zc,UInHtw6sjnrewhzSuGJv0pRS562nDD1H8raPHQWTf8ESchoolgirl Complex (スクールガール・コンプレックス~放送部篇)

Dir: Yuichi Onuma

It’s an all-girl high school in Japan. They dress in crisp white shirts and plaid skirts with floppy red bows around their necks. (No sailor suits here.) Everyone joins clubs. Even more than classes, clubs are the source of their identity and friendships. One such group is the Broadcast Club, for people who like the sound of their own voices. They meet each day on the roof of the school to practice elocution, random syllables, and nonsensical rhymes to perfect their radio Japanese, and lose any trace of a regional accent.

nv1IMtM_XvPUV1JGpsp7ZsGv7-QbyXl5wkXcRT1rFPsYou can hear them taking turns at making announcements over the school PA system, waxing lyrical on subjects like The Importance of Japanese Curry. It’s the end of the year and the broadcast club will do a reading for the whole school of Schoolgirl, a story by 20th century novelist Osamu Dazai (太宰 治). But whose voice will they use?

Group leader Manami (Aoi Morikawa) is naïve and kind, with a high forehead and pale skin. Until now, she spends most of her time hanging with her best friend Ai, eating red bean pies with mayonnaise. But when the older and wiser Mitsuzaka (Mugi Kadowaki) visits her at the school sick bed and gives her some caramels, Manami’s world is shaken. Who is this worldy woman with tousled hair and sensuous features? Is it love, lust or just a crush?

Manami puts all her faith in Mitsuzaka (an absentee member of the club), and gives her the lead role. But will Mitsuzaka even show up for the reading?

Schoolgirl Complex looks at hidden loves and crushes, at passionate obsessions and tearful confessions. This is a gentle, bittersweet story of the power dynamics of teenaged girls.

Animals 7Animals

Dir: Marçal Forés

Pol (Oriol Pla) is a student at a British-style school in Catalonia. He’s always up for sharing a smoke with his beautiful, sort-of girlfriend Laia (Roser Tapias), or his bitterly funny gay chum, the curly-haired Mark (Dimitri Leonidas). But his real best friend, the one he can always count on in times of trouble, is the cute Deerhoof. He gives Pol advice, accompanies his punk guitar-playing on the drums, and is generally just there for a hug whenever he needs him. That means a lot: Pol is lonely with his parents gone, and only his brother Lorenc, a cop, to look after him. Thing is, Deerhoof is actually a teddy bear! (Pol’s a bit whacko.)

Then a new kid, Ikari (Augustus Prew), comes to the school, and he brings Animals 1trouble. He’s into bigger things, mature things, sexual adult things. And things like cutting your wrists, watching it bleed. Pol doesn’t like the cutting but he really likes the sex and love part. He decides to let go of his childhood crutches and enter the real world. He buries the past, metaphorically… and literally (but will it stay buried?)

Does Ikari (like Icarus) fly too close to the sun, and will Pol fall to the ground in a tailspin? And will the whole school explode in chaos? Animals is a really great, nihilistic high school movie with a punk sensibility. I’d rank it up there with Heathers, River’s Edge, and Donnie Darko for its dark humour, great acting, music and story.

June 3,  2013:  ANIMALS, directed by Marçal Forés (Spain) has won the Bill Sherwood Award for Best First Feature at Toronto’s Inside-Out Film Festival. ANIMALS is awarded this prize for its accomplished and assured filmmaking and the promise the jury sees in Forés future work.

Animals, Geography Club and Schoolgirl Complex are all playing at the Inside Out festival in Toronto: go to insideout.ca for showtimes. Also opening today is another story, Epic, about a high school girl who discovers a whole other Epickingdom in the woods behind her father’s house when she is shrunk down to a tiny size. She has to help the leaf men — soldiers who fight the evil, rotten types on the backs of hummingbirds — to save the pod (a single lotus seed) on this special day, to allow a new Beyonce-voiced queen to be born. It’s animated, 3-D and it’s not Disney, not Dreamworks, but 20th Century Fox’s try at animation. I enjoyed it a lot, even though it’s basically Arriety meets Camelot.

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

Getaways! Movies Reviewed: Mud, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Star Trek Into Darkness

JH Wingfield_1966_DetailHi, 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 difference.

What does it mean to get away for a while? You’re probably thinking, beach, a drive, a cottage, camping trip, maybe a weekend in another city across the border… But what about a real getaway, one where you might have no plan to go back home?

This week I’m going to look at three dramas opening this weekend, all by very good directors, about people trying to get away. There’s a man on the lam hiding out on an island in the Mississippi; a Wall Street financier who flees to Lahore, Pakistan; and some explorers who embark on a long trip to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Mud 2Mud

Dir: Jeff Nichols

Two boys, Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland), live right on the Mississippi river in Arkansas. They’re not townies – they live off the water where their families catch fish for a living. So one day they head off to an island down the river where Ellis says he saw a boat… up in a tree! But they soon discover it’s occupied by a man nicknamed MudMud 3. Mud (Matt McConaughey) was a homeless orphan when he grew up in the area, and now he’s come back home. He’s on the lam after committing a crime in Texas. But he wants to send a message to the love of his life, a woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). He’s been in love with her since they were teenagers. But a whole posse has come up from Texas to hunt him down – and they might even kill him.

He tells the boys if they help him skip town with Juniper he’ll let them keep the boat. Neckbone is suspicious, but Ellis agrees to be his Mud 1inbetweener and contact Juniper. He’s doing it in the name of true love.

Ellis, meanwhile, is also trying to find to find his own true love. He’s only 14 but punches out a much older and bigger and meaner boy for the way he’s treating a young woman. Will she be his girlfriend? Or does she still think of him as just a kid? Maybe a girlfriend will bring some stability to Ellis’s life — his parents fight every day. If they split up that would mean the end of the family home, the end of their boat, and the end of their life on the river.

Mud is a really great movie, a drama about crime and how it affects the lives of poor, white rural families. It’s in the vein of Winter’s Bone and Frozen River. It’s also a tender coming-of-age story, and a family drama with action, mystery, guns and chases. It’s also an examination of true love and disappointment. It’s directed by Jeff Nichol who did the fantastic movie Take Shelter a couple years ago. Mud is really good – I recommend it.

IMG_7661.CR2The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Dir: Mira Nair

Changez (Riz Ahmed) is a Princeton grad who left Wall Street at the height of his career, trading riches for a quieter professorship in his hometown of Lahore, Pakistan. Why did he do it? asks an American journalist (Liev Schreiber) interviewing Changez at a tea house in Pakistan. Why did he give it all up? That is a long story. And that’s the story the movie tells.

The son of a respected but not rich Pakistani poet, Changez wants to live the American dream. Just out of Princeton, he is hired as an analyst by a financial firm. They grab existing companies and determines their “value” (Changez’s specialty) before chopping them up, firing the workers and closing the less profitable factories. He moves in with a beautiful and privileged girlfriend, an artist (Kate Hudson), and things are looking up. But then comes 9-11. Suddenly he’s being strip-searched at borders, locked up and questioned. His veneer of privilege is stripped away, and his house of cards collapses. He begins to wonder about the real value of things in his life. The path he takes and the decisions he makes are gradually revealed… but where does that leave him? Has he become a radical “Islamist” terrorist? And is he behind a kidnapping at the IMG_1048.JPGuniversity? Or is he just a well-meaning teacher?

The backstory to this whole movie is 9-11. Mira Nair knows it well. I was at a screening at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept 12th (or 13th?) in 2001, just after the incident. She had brought the entire cast of her delightful comedy Monsoon Wedding to its premier at TIFF, and was mortified that her show was being unfairly eclipsed by that nasty business in Manhattan. No one yet knew what was going to happen after that day, or how big a change it would bring to the US and the world. I think that day is omnipresent in Mira Nair’s mind while directing this film.

The story is interesting and relevant. The problem with the Reluctant Fundamentalist is that neither Changez, nor his girlfriend nor his boss (Keiffer Sutherland), are particularly sympathetic or likeable characters. They’re all equally greedy or self-absorbed. It’s hard to feel for people when you don’t really care what happens to them.

HH-00789CStar Trek: Into Darkness

Dir: J.J. Abrams

It’s Earth a few hundred years in the future. Brash Captain Kirk and logical Mr Spock (engagingly played by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto) are at it again in this Star Trek prequel. The big cities (San Francisco, London) are still there, just with more, fancier buildings. So all the world is shocked when an insider from The Federation (that’s the worldwide and interplanetary government) turns out to be a terrorist, killing countless people — including someone important to Kirk. He flies off in a rage aboard the Starship Enterprise, after some goading from Marcus (Peter Weller) a high placed military hawk. Armed with a new type of missiles, they head toward the dark and mysterious Klingon territory to hunt down the terrorist. But they discover things aren’t what they seem. The man accused of terrorism turns out to be sort of an uber-human, almost unkillable, genetically stronger and smarter than any normal human. But he saves the lives of Kirk and his crew: whose side is he really on?star-trek-into-darkness-benedict-cumberbatch3-600x427

I had a great time with this movie, chock-full of insider jokes about the original Star Trek (things like tribbles, red shirts, the Wrath of Khan). There are wicked scenes of people in rocket suits zooming through outer space. Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV series) is especially good as this scary superman. Yes, all the actors are just imitating the looks and voices from the original series, but so what? It works. Zoe Soldana, as a newly sexualized Uhura, and Simon Pegg as a funnier Scotty stand out. The 3-D effects are impressive for the first 15 minutes then you forget about them, but the action, laughs and, yes, excitement, keep you glued to the screen the whole time.

Mud, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Star Trek Into Darkness all open today: check your local listings. And keep your eyes open for Toronto’s Inside-Out LGBT Film Festival (insideout.ca); and the Monsters and Martians science fiction film festival is screening the original Manchurian Candidate next week at the Big Pictures Cinema, which is always worth seeing.

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

Small Town Blues. Movies Reviewed: At Any Price, Blackbird

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 difference.

Sometimes ordinary people find their trajectories at odds with the people around them. Suddenly they have to get out of extraordinary situations, ones that affect not just their own lives but that of their friends and families.

This week I’m looking at two movies when small-town fathers and sons land into terrible trouble.

At Any Price 2 QuaidAt Any Price

Dir: Ramin Bahrani

Henry Whipple (Dennis Quaid) lives in Whipple, Iowa, on the family farm. His corn grows as high as an elephant’s eye. Those genetically-modified seeds he plants sure work wonders! He should know – he’s the top seed salesman in seven counties. But in order to succeed it’s grow or die, your farm has to get bigger and bigger just to survive. So Henry’s also a land shark, snatching up any acres that come available at local funerals.

Then there’s his family. He’s happily married… but fools around on the sly. His older boy is groomed to take over as soon as he comes home from college. Then there’s Dean (Zac Efron), the black sheep, the prodigal son. He’d rather hang out with his girlfriend Cadence, and drive his car in figure-eights. Forget farming, corn sucks. He’s gonna find his fortune as a champion stock car racer.

But things aren’t quite right. First, the older son never comes home – he’s in South America somewhere finding himself. And a competing seed salesman is infringing on his territory. Henry might loses Decatur county! And that same salesman’s son is a wannabe Nascar racer, too. So he’s an instant rival to Dean. Like father, like son: a two-generation feud. Henry wants to open up to Dean. But how can he get Dean to talk to him? Or even look him straight in the eye? It’s clear: Dean hates his dad.

And on top of all this, the GMO seed company hears a rumour that At Any Price Efron QuaidHenry is washing his seeds and reselling them – a normal farming practice, but a copyright violation if it’s a GMO seed. He could lose everything. His Dad already looks down on Henry, what would he do if he lost the farm?

At Any Price is a hard movie to grasp. Is it a family drama? A grain-conspiracy thriller? A rural slice of life? This movie interests me because the director, Ramin Bahrani, made a really good, low-budget super-realistic movie Chop Shop just a few years ago. Chop Shop was a neat little movie that almost felt like a documentary about a homeless kid who lives in a junkyard in Queens N.Y. So I thought this would be “Chop Shop in the Cornfields”. It’s not. It has big stars, bigger budget.

There are some good, drawn-out scenes – the movie conveys some emotions and events visually – no talking. This is no TV movie about life on a farm – it’s cinematic, it has big skies and endless fields.

The problem is it’s just not that good. It’s really slow, it’s really long and the plot just drags its way through all these convoluted relationships. It gets exciting (or at least dramatic) and heavy toward the end – in a good way — but that doesn’t redeem the blah-ness of most of the movie. The acting was very good, especially Dennis Quaid as Henry, and Maika Monroe as Cadence, the young woman who is both Dean’s girlfriend and Henry’s apprentice. I don’t want to completely dis this movie, since it has a sophisticated and satisfying ending, but if you see it go prepared for a long and slow film about father/son relations.

blackbird_02_largeBlackbird

Dir: Jason Buxton

Sean (Connor Jessup) is a gothy-looking adolescent who goes to school every day wearing a spiky leather jacket torn-up skinny jeans, and a cloud of attitude. He likes his pet lizard, red wiccan stars, and camo sheets. He’s actually a big city boy, but his mom has pawned him off on his small town Nova Scotia dad, now that she’s remarried. Dad lives for hockey and works as a Zamboni driver; he’s not comfortable with his son always “dressing up for Hallowe’en” as he calls it. He says it’s not a smart thing to do in a small town. It also attracts the school bullies – the alpha-dog hockey players. He could just stay away from them but he really likes hockey bunny Deanna (Alexia Fast) who rides the bus with him. He’s attacked and humiliated by the school bullies, and Deanna doesn’t defend him. But when his guidance counsellor tells him to express his anger in story form, things turn from bad to worse. The police get a hold of his notebook, his website, and the short films he made on his cell phone and he’s arrested for supposedly plotting to kill everybody. And his lawyer tells him to plead guilty to cut down his jail time. Through no fault if his own, Sean is caught in a whirlpool of injustice with only his father and potential girlfriend to save him. The victim of bullying is painted as the criminal.

Blackbird is divided among a very realistic portrayal of life as a pariahblackbird_03_medium in a small town, the even rougher stay in a juvenile detention centre, and his ongoing relationship Deanna. Equally compelling is the in-prison run-ins with the unstable psycho-killer Trevor (Alex Ozerov) who labels Sean “Columbine”. Jessup is fantastic as Sean, as is Ozerov as Trevor, and the understated performances of Alexia Fast and Michael Buie as Sean’s girlfriend and dad serve as good foils for the main character. And it gives an eye-opening, stark portrayal of Canada’s youth justice system. I really like Blackbird – it’s one of the best things I saw at TIFF last year, and it’s an impressive debut for writer/director Jason Buxton.

At Any Cost and Blackbird both open today in Toronto. Also opening is another father/son drama, this one a Canadian psychological thriller called A Good Lie. When his mum dies, a young man (Thomas Dekker) discovers his late mother had a secret – his dad is not his biological father. That was dangerous criminal who had raped his mother. And Workman Arts is showing an interesting  series of short films dealing with addiction and mental health.

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

Tagged with: ,

Daniel Garber talks with director JUSTIN McCONNELL and the Skullman GREG SOMMERS about the new film Skullworld

Posted in Australia, Canada, Cultural Mining, documentary, Games, LARPing, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 9, 2013

skullworldHi, 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 difference.

Have you ever turned down a dark alley only to run into a strange man with a skull for a head, a booming voice, decked out in elaborate body armour, and maybe holding a chain or an axe? Did you scream and run away? Or did you just say “how’s it goin bro” and buy him a beer?

Well that was probably Skullman, the subject of a new documentary opening Skull World 2today called SKULLWORLD. He’s part of a growing international gaming phenomenon known as Box Wars.

To explain all this, I speak with the Skullman himself, aka Greg Sommers, and the film’s director Justin McConnell.

Hot Docs Photo Gallery 2013

Posted in Canada, Cultural Mining, Hotdocs, Jeff Harris, Movies, Photo Gallery, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on May 5, 2013

photographs by Jeff Harris

Comments Off on Hot Docs Photo Gallery 2013

Daniel Garber talks with Alan Zweig about his new documentary 15 Reasons to Live

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

What makes you get out of bed in the morning? What little things get you through the day? What makes you commit? What do you do when you suffer an enormous loss?

A new documentary follows 15 diverse people who tell their brief, honest stories to the filmmaker, in sequence — some life-affirming, some inconsequential. Whale watchers, a man who walks around the world, a massage artist, a lighthouse keeper. This is an intensely 15_Reasons_To_Live_1personal movie, though not necessarily intimate. It’s called Fifteen Reasons to Live, it’s directed by Alan Zweig and it’s having its world premier at Toronto’s Hotdocs documentary festival. Alan talks about why he made the film, how he chose the subjects, whether this represents a shift in his filmmaking style… and more.

Behind the Curtain. Movies reviewed: Dragon Girls, We Always Lie to Strangers, The Grub-Stake: Revisited PLUS Hot Docs!

Posted in 1920s, Canada, China, Conservativism, documentary, melodrama, Movies, Music, Musical, Republican Party, Uncategorized, Yukon by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2013

Jeff Harris: Lining up for Hot DocsHi, 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 difference.

Hot Docs, Toronto’s documentary film festival, continues through the weekend – and daytime tickets are free for all students and seniors. This is a once-a-year opportunity to really absorb all sorts of politics, people, music and ideas.

This week I’m going to look at three movies that – in very different ways — pull back the curtain to show what’s going on backstage. One doc is about a Kung Fu Academy in China, another about hillbilly entertainment in southern Missouri, and there’s a new look at a silent film shot in Yukon Territory in the 1920s.

Dragon_Girls_4Dragon Girls

Dir: Inigo Westmeier

This is a movie about China’s biggest kung fu centre, the Ta Gou Shao Lin martial arts academy. It’s in Henan province, north of Beijing. It has a huge number of students, both boys and girls, and they are all strictly trained in what feels like a military school (like Karate Kid times 1,000). And this school has a public square, a vast stone plaza that looks to be about the size of Tian’anmen Square in Beijing.

This documentary uses two ways to portray the school. One is aerial views of the entire academy – that’s hundreds of people – performing flawless, intricate fighting formations, all at once, on the square. And they’re all dressed in identical red jumpsuits, running around in perfect harmony.

But then they switch to close-ups of girls at the academy telling their stories. The place is unheated in the winter and Spartan looking. It’s Dragon_Girls_5almost like a prison, says one. Another runs away, all the way home to Shanghai – she can’t stand the life there: it’s cruel and bitter. Their trainers aren’t very sympathetic toward them – they went through the same training so they expect the new girls to do suffer like they did. They train them ruthlessly, even the little girls, to learn the kicks, the sword moves, the jumps, the punches…  And there are constant competitions, with winners and losers and rankings. Some of the girls’ parents are dragons themselves – if the kids don’t come in first place they get no praise.

The movie continues like that: in and out, tight then wide. There are the close-up, touching stories about individual girls’ plights; alternating with fantastical movie-style performances in the square, involving hundreds or thousands of shaolin kids.

From far away everything looks perfect. But, up close, the flaws begin to appear.

We_Always_Lie_To_Strangers_1We Always Lie to Strangers

Dir: AJ Schnack, David Boone Wilson

Somewhere, halfway between Hollywood and Broadway stands a small town in the Ozarks that offers its own, unique variety of entertainment. It’s Branson Mo., and it’s one of the best-known, unknown tourist attractions in the US.

What is this place? It’s a strange small town filled with giant music halls started a few decades ago by people like the Osmonds, the Presley Family, and Lawrence Welk. They put on old-school musicals and variety shows that are mainstream, conservative, and very, very white. It’s a world of elaborate kitschy musicals and hillbilly, Hee-Haw comedy.

But this movie goes behind the scenes, showing that it’s not quite what it appears to be. It follows some of the theatrical families who make Branson their home base. There’s a foul-mouthed single mother, who cusses a blue streak and then says – for Jesus. There’s the town mayor, a woman and member of the Presley clan, who points out that women are the ones who really run things there. There’s the Lennon family, transplanted from Venice, California, who have kept their liberal convictions even deep in Tea Party territory. And there’s a gay couple, a divorced We_Always_Lie_To_Strangers_2man with two sons and his boyfriend, both of whom sing and dance in some of the kitschy, dog-and-pony shows, even while promoting Branson “family values”.

I liked this doc because, even though it starts as a conventional, reality-TV-style show, following some of the characters around, it ends up giving much more. There’s lots of music, some of which is actually really good.

There’s a lots to like: things like a brilliant analysis of the differences between borscht-belt and bible-belt humour. And some scenes are visually fantastic: like when everyone’s at this combination flea market and air show, and, all of the sudden, the planes are dropping fire bombs just behind them, and there are huge plumes of black smoke shooting up, just past the funnel cakes! (That scene made it for me…) Very interesting movie.

GrubStake_mediumThe Grub-Stake: Revisited

Dir: Bert Van Tuyl and Nell Shipman

A silver-haired prospector arrives down south with a fistful of gold nuggets. He tempts the wide-eyed young Faith (Nell Shipman) to leave her laundry shop and come north with him to the Yukon to find love and get rich. After some resistance she agrees, and they head north by steamship.

But he soon turns out to be a monstrous letch and Nell has to fight him off. She’s forced to flee by dog sled with her disabled father. She has to cope with blizzards, bears, outlaws with guns, and dangerous cliff-side chases. Luckily, Nell meets a handsome man in the woods and together they try to triumph over the bad guys.

That’s what The Grub Stake – a Canadian silent movie from 1923 – looks like. But in the new, Revisited version (that’s showing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox next week) the archival print will be shown alongside an original, live performance, that comes to us from the Yukon. A group of actors supply new voices to the silent images, with live musicians creating a haunted, ambient soundtrack.

Here’s the twist: the new script is positively Shakesperean, with all the lines pulled from plays like Hamlet, Richard III and Twelfth Night. Does it work? It’s funny! It doesn’t quite make sense, though: sometimes the dialogue is in perfect synch with the images on the screen, but at other times it seems to be at war with what you’re watching. But I guess that’s what makes it… art.

The Grub Stake is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, only on May 6th. For more information, go to tiff.net.

You can see Dragon Girls, We Always Lie to Strangers, and many other great documentaries at Hot Docs this weekend. Go to hotdocs.ca for details.

Also opening today is Still Mine, based on a true story about an elderly farmer in New Brunswick who vows to defy the law for the sake of his ailing wife; Kon Tiki, the fantastic Norwegian epic about a journey across the pacific on a raft (I loved the Norwegian version, but haven’t seen the English-language one (check your local listings); and various short films at TIFF that support Mental Health Week (May 5-11) sponsored by Toronto’s Workman Arts: 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 .

%d bloggers like this: