Gone fishing. Films reviewed: Serenity, Wonders of the Sea PLUS Cold War

Posted in 1950s, Animals, Cold War, Communism, Conservation, Crime, documentary, Drama, Film Noir, France, Music, Mystery, Poland, Romance, Suspense by CulturalMining.com on January 25, 2019

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

Fishing for something different to watch? This week I’m looking at two movies about fish and one about love. There’s a doc beneath the waves, a suspense drama aboard a fishing boat, and a bittersweet romance behind the Iron Curtain.

Serenity

Wri/Dir: Steve Knight

Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman off Plymouth Island, a tropical vacation spot in the middle of nowhere. Along with his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) he takes rich tourists out on his boat to catch some sharks. But Dill’s real love, his passion, is for tuna. One particular bluefin he calls Justice, that always gets away. It’s his great white whale, his Moby Dick . He spends his free time drinking dark rum at the local bar or sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane) an attractive older woman with a black cat, who helps him out financially after a night of passion.

Life never changes… until one day a mysterious femme fatale, named Karen (Anne Hathaway) appears on his boat. If you drown my rich abusive husband, she says, I’ll give you 10 million bucks. Cash. Will Dill stick with his tuna obsession or will he kill a stranger?

But wait, that’s not all. Turns out he had a thing with Karen before serving in Iraq… she dumped him to marry the rich guy. And her teenaged boy Patrick, a computer geek, could be his biological son. (Though they’ve never met Dill feels he has a psychic bond with the boy). And a strange man with a briefcase following Dill has some crucial information.

If my description sounds like a clichéed film noir knock-off, that’s because that’s what it is. The actors play their characters – an obsessed fisherman, a villainous drunk, an abused but devious woman – in over-the-top performances, vamping for the camera. Why the boilerplate plots? Why the tired dialogue? Apparently, it’s all intentional, but to tell you why would ruin the WTF plot twist. I started to figure it out about two-thirds-of-the-way through, and it kept me interested (though not really satisfied). If you like watching famous actors acting in an imperfect script, this is for you.

Wonders of the Sea

Dir: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jean-Jacques Montello

Jacques Cousteau was the French deep-sea diver, conservationist and underwater filmmaker whose TV shows fascinated me as a child. He sailed away on a ship called Calypso with flippers on his feet and aqualungs on his back. He died in 1997 but his son Jean-Michel and grandkids Fabien and Celine are still diving. This latest documentary in 3D looks at undiscovered parts of the ocean floor and the tiny creatures that live there. They lead us through a massive squid orgy: a mating ritual near California where they all have sex with each other. They also visit a hammerhead shark migration near the Bahamas, and the wondrous coral reefs off Fiji, which form a crucial part of the world’s oceans’ ecosystem. The doc focusses on the tiny, the cute, the weird and the grotesque. And they throw in informative facts and stats about pollution and overfishing.

My biggest problem with this movie is the insufferably corny and dated voiceovers by Arnold Schwartzeneggar and the Cousteaus. It seems aimed at three-year-olds. Who knows, maybe the narration was this bad when I was three but I just didn’t notice. Whatever. If you can somehow switch off the dialogue and just take in the intense, weird-and-wonderful, 3-D coloured images you’ll enjoy this movie.

Cold War

Wri/ Dir Pawel Pawlikowski

It’s post-WWII Poland, and a team of musicologists is heading to the mountains with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Irena (Agata Kulesza) is a serious academic looking to preserve authentic folk culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) a handsome conductor, wants to put together a musical group. Their boss is Kazsmarek (Borys Szyc), an apparatchik – he wants a show big enough to impress his party bosses. The auditions begin, with milk maids and farm hands singing the innocently salacious songs of their childhood. Authenticity rules. Still, one pretty young woman, with blonde braids and a strong voice manages to slip through the cracks. Zula (Joanna Kulig) isn’t really a local peasant, but after living through WWII, taking on new identities is a piece of cake. And Wiktor is attracted to her. The Mazurek Choir is born, and it’s a big hit. And Wiktor and Zula start a secret relationship.

The Party weeds out anyone not “Polish-looking” enough: hair too dark, nose too big? Back to the farm. When they are forced to include Stalinist paeans to collective farming, Wiktor shrugs his shoulders but Irena quits in disgust. But their new status pushes the choir to star status in the Eastern Bloc. Wiktor and Zula fall in love and hatch a plan to defect to the west. Wiktor makes it across the border, but Zula stays behind. Now thelovers are separated by the impenetrable Iron Curtain. Will they ever see each other again? If so, on which side? And can their love –  and their music – survive a long separation?

Cold War is a wonderful, bittersweet romantic drama, set in 1950s Europe. It paints the Cold War era with all its faults and how it affects the people caught in it. Like Pawlikowski’s Ida, it’s just 90 minutes long and shot in glorious black and white on a square screen. Filled with haunting music and images, the film showcases the amazing Kulig and Kot in their flawless performances as separated lovers. (Kulig sings, too!) It’s nominated for a Foreign Language Feature Oscar and is also on my list of best movies of the year.

This is a great movie, don’t miss it.

Wonders of the Sea in 3D starts next week, Serenity and Cold War 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.

Deep. Films reviewed: Destroyer, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, Ratcatcher

Posted in 1970s, 1990s, African-Americans, Coming of Age, Crime, documentary, Kids, L.A., Scotland, Thriller, Uncategorized, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2019

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

Tired of fantasy? How about some gritty realism? This week I’m looking at three deep, realistic movies — a documentary, a drama and a thriller — about working class characters living their lives. There are African Americans in the deep south, an LA detective in deep cover, and a young man in Glasgow knee-deep in trash.

Destroyer

Dir: Karyn Kusama

Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) used to be a young, pretty and ambitious uniformed cop in LA. Pulled from her division for an undercover operation, she was meant to infiltrate a notorious and deadly ring of bank robbers. She posed as a couple with Chris (Sebastian Stan) another cop which led to a relationship. And she made friends with the robbery team, including the sinister Silas (Toby Kebell) a long-haired man with a cruel streak a mile wide; and the friendly Petra (Tatiana Maslany).

But things didn’t go as planned. People died, and the thieves got away with bags of loot. Look at her now. She’s a burnt-out husk of her former self. Bell doesn’t walk, she staggers. Her lips are wrinkled, her hair looks like it was cut with garden shears and she talks like Jeff Bridges on a bad day. But when she finds evidence the robbers are at it again, she takes the law into her own hands. Will she stop the killers? Or will they destroy her first?

Destroyer is a fantastic crime thriller about an angry worn out cop on her quest for retribution. It keeps you glued to the screen, heart racing, as you try to figure out what’s going on. It’s told during three time periods, jumping back and forth between them, and as you watch it you constantly have to change your assumptions. No spoilers but there are some big shocks along the way. It’s very violent, though from a female point of view: men punching women, women strangling women, women attacking men. Not for the faint of heart. Nicole Kidman totally transforms herself – physically and emotionally – from the naive young woman into the hardboiled cop she ends up as.

Destroyer is a great LA crime thriller.

Hale County, This Morning, This Evening

Dir: RaMell Ross

Hale County, Alabama is in the deep, deep south. You can still find white-pillared mansions built on the backs of slave labour on cotton plantations. It’s named after a Confederate officer whose statue still stands. It’s also where the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr once sought refuge from the KKK. It’s a rural, mainly black area where people stay on with their daily lives: sports tournaments, childbirth, funerals. There’s a catfish factory, a school, a hospital and churches.

This fascinating documentary is a series of beautifully composed, very short – from five seconds to three minutes – and highly personal scenes. A woman tapping her thigh with a flyswatter, a man playing blues on an electric guitar. A baby learning to walk, fritters frying in a pan, kids drinking coca cola. We see teenaged boys talking in the basketball locker room, families baptized at a church, people hanging at a beauty salon or a bowling alley. Rolling clouds with electrical storms, the first drops of rain on the pavement, a deer caught in the headlights, and a solar eclipse. The filmmaker RaMell Ross who started photographing there when he moved to the town, records what’s going on all around him in an impressionistic collage of portraits, time lapse, and tableaux: a joyous celebration of African American life in rural Alabama.

This beautiful film is on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature.

Ratcatcher (1999)

Wri/Dir Lynne Ramsay

It’s 1973 in Glasgow, Scotland. James (William Eadie) is a gawky lad with ears that stick out who lives with his working- class family in a crumbling flat.   His father (Tommy Flanagan) has a scar on his cheek from a fight, his mother (Mandy Matthews) has holes in her nylons. The yard outside is piled high with trash – the garbagemen are on strike – so the mice and rats are having a ball. James lives his life carefully, avoiding dangerous gangs of teenaged bullies who dominate the streets.

He sometimes visits a stagnant canal nearby, badly in need of a dredging. There he meets a much older and sexually active teenaged girl. The bullies have thrown her glasses in the water, but James doesn’t fish them out – perhaps he thinks he has a better chance if she can’t see him clearly? She seduces him, inviting him to spend the night. But the canal also brings him horrible feelings of guilt: a friend of his drowned there when they were fighting in the water.

One day, James jumps onto a bus and takes it to the end of the line where a new housing development is being built. It’s on the edge of the city, right where oatfields meet the streets. He explores the empty construction site – will this be his new home?

Ratcatcher is a slice-of-life, coming-of-age drama about life in an urban slum as seen through the eyes of a young man. The characters are mainly played by local residents, non-professional actors who bring a gritty realism to their roles. This is Lynne Ramsay’s first film (from 1999) and one I’ve always wanted to see, but never had a chance until now. You should, too. It’s a realistic and touching movie about hard times… but with an uplifting finish.

Destroyer is now playing in Toronto, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening opens tomorrow, and Rat Catcher plays next Thursday as part of the 1999 Millenial Movies program playing this month (until Feb 12) 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 Pugly directors Michael McNamara and Aaron Hancox

Posted in Animals, Canada, documentary, Movies, Toronto, TV by CulturalMining.com on January 11, 2019

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

If you’ve ever been to Trinity Bellwoods park on a certain Sunday, you may have noticed dozens of strange animals running rampant in the park’s dog run. They have big round eyes, squashed in faces, and make the oddest squawking sounds. What are they, and where did they come from?

They’re pugs, a popular breed of companion dogs popping up everywhere in this city. Many people devote their lives to these high-maintenance dogs. But it’s harder than it looks. Some have runny noses, birth defects, eating disorders and a host of other emotional and medical difficulties.

Pugly: a Pug’s Life, is a new documentary that follows these strange creatures and looks at some of their problems… and the people who come to their rescue. It’s co-directed by award winners Michael McNamara and Aaron Hancox. Michael is a TV and film writer and director who created The Cockroach that Ate Cincinnati. Aaron’s a producer/director, whose docs have been show on Netflix and other outlets.

I spoke with Michael McNamara & Aaron Hancoxhere in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Pugly premiers tonight at 9:00 pm on CBC Docs POV.

Need help. Films reviewed: Capernaum, The Upside

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Drama, Kids, Lebanon, Migrants, Movies, Poverty by CulturalMining.com on January 11, 2019

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

If January has left you broke or in debt, but you still want to see some movies, there are free alternatives out there. Kanopy – free for anyone with a Toronto library card, is an online streaming service with a huge selection of incredible movies and documentaries you can sign out digitally for free. Workman Arts and Rendezvous with Madness is showing a selection of cool movies about mental illness, for free later this month — reserve tickets online. And the Japanese Consulate in Toronto and the Japan Foundation are sponsoring three Japanese movies, first come, first serve. Both of these series are playing at the Hot Docs cinema in January.

This week I’m looking at two movies about people who need help. There’s a homeless kid in Beirut trying to help a motherless toddler, and a homeless ex-con in New York trying to help an extremely rich man who is paraplegic.

Capernaum

Wri/Dir: Nadine Labaki

Beirut, right now.

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is a foul-mouthed, poor kid who doesn’t go to school – his parents never registered him when he was born. He shares a bed with his three sisters, including Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam) the oldest. When she has her first period, Zain senses danger. He’s afraid their parents will marry very young Sahar to their predatory middle aged landlord Assaad. His fears turn out to be true, and she’s carried out of their home kicking and screaming. Zain has had enough… so he runs away. On a bus he meets an elderly man in a knockoff superhero costume – I’m cockroach man – and follows him to a rundown carnival. There he meets Tigest (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian woman fluent in Arabic with a baby named Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). She uses a fake ID – she draws a beauty spot on her face each morning, but without she could be deported. She’s poor too, but takes Zain under her wing; he takes care of the baby while she’s at work. Everything’s going fine until… She doesn’t come home one day. What happened to her? Now 12 year old Zain has to serve as 1-year-old Yonas’s dad, searching the streets for milk and diapers for the baby, food and water. Zain is forced to pose as a Syrian refugee to get any help. But how long can a homeless child – taking care of a baby – last in a big cruel city?

Capernaum (the Lebanese word for chaos) is a funny, delightful and fascinating drama that’s also brimming with pathos. It’s a genuine tearjerker, I cried at least three times – couldn’t help it – but despite the tears, surprisingly this is not a depressng movie. It’s told in a series of flashbacks based on testimony in a courtroom. Zain is there suing his own parents for giving birth to him. The trial serves as the backdrop, but it’s mainly about Zain’s journey as an undocumented kid. Most of the characters are played by non-actors, but all of them, especially Zain al Rafeea are superb and real-seeming. It deals with very heavy topics – including human trafficking, refugees, poverty, child neglect and abuse – but this film manages to handle it with just the right degree of sadness, punctuated with enough humour to stop it from sliding into misery

This is only the second film I”ve seen by Nadine Labaki. I still remember Where do We Go Now (2011) a simple story about the women in a village trying to stop the conflict between Christians and Muslims. That was a cute movie, but this one is 100 times more clever, sophisticated, and skillfull.

I liked this film a lot.

The Upside

Dir: Neil Burger

Phillip (Bryan Cranston) is a billionaire widower who lives in a penthouse suite in New York City, He hasn’t large live in staff, including Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), his kind but prudish financial manager. He loves opera, poetry, fine art…, and paragliding. Or at least he did until a terrible accident left him paralyzed except for his neck and head. Now he’s despondent and ready to die. But Yvonne insists on hiring a new caregiver.

Dell (Kevin Hart) is a deadbeat dad with a teenaged son and an ex wife he can’t support. He’s a ne’erdowell on parole with a long prison record, and if he can’t prove he’s looking for work he’ll be back behind bars. Somehow he ends up in Phillip’s penthouse just when they’re hiring. To everyone’s surprise Phillip hires the extremely rude and unqualified Dell, mainly because he wants to die, the sooner the better. Dell is just as shocked to get the job, especially when he sees the first paycheque. But somehow the two hit it off, and little by little, Phillip crawls out of his shell and learns to live again. But how long can it last? Will Dell’s prison record come back to haunt him? And can Phillip ever recover from the loss of his one true love?

The Upside is a Hollywood remake of Intouchables, the French comedy that was a box office smash. I’ve never seen the original – apparently based on a true story – but I doubt this one will be a big hit. It’s very predictable, with some godawful jokes. Faking a tonic-clonic seizure to avoid a speeding ticket? (Please don’t.) Uneducated Dell mispronouncing famous names and three sylable words? Of course he panics at the idea of touching another man’s penis, even inserting a catheter. (Really?) Dell’s black, you see, but don’t worry white people, he likes Aretha Franklin not that newfangled hip hop stuff. (Sigh).

That said, there are some funny scenes; Hart and Cranston are likeable in their roles and together make a good buddy movie, and Nicole Kidman is unusually understated.

Is The Upside a great movie? No, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Capernaum and The Upside 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.

Best Movies of 2018!

Posted in Cultural Mining, Movies by CulturalMining.com on January 4, 2019

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

2018: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

I take it back – it was just the worst of times.

War, famine, with no action on Climate Change. volcanoes erupting, tsunamis, mass killings, ethnic cleansing, child refugees thrown into prisons, and incompetent but vengeful buffoons ruling more than one country. Good, safe Toronto (like many cites) suffered two mass killings by deranged nutbars, and somehow Ontario elected the brother of a man who made this city the laughing stock of the world. Yeah, it was the worst of times.

But at least a lot of people are still making great, original movies. (I’m a movie critic, not a newscaster.) This week I’m talking about the best movies of 2018. Some were made earlier but played this year, some screened at festivals and are opening in 2019, but all of them were open to the public at a movie theatre in this city at some point in 2018. There were way, way too many excellent movies to fit on any short list, so I’ve tried to find not just ones I liked, but also movies that somehow, shocked, surprised or delighted me in unexpected ways. Films that tickled the eye, pleased the ear, warmed the soul… or chilled the heart.

I’m intentionally shying away from Oscar Bait, superhero movies and sequels. And just to keep it within limits, I’m not including animated films or documentaries… but not because I don’t love them. (I do.)

There are also a bunch of movies I just haven’t seen yet, so of course I can’t include them.

So here, in no particular order, are my choices for best movies of 2018.

Let me start with some first movies or first in a long time movies, all from the US.

Hereditary is Ari Aster’s first film, and it goes so far beyond the usual cheap scare scenes I hesitate to call it a horror movie, but it is. It’s about a family – Mom’s an artist who builds doll houses exactly the one they live in; son’s a pothead, and daughter is a bit tetched in the head – who somehow conjure up an evil entity. I wish all horror movies were this well-made.

Leave No Trace is Debra Granik’s latest since the Winters Bone ten years ago. This is a subtlety moving film about a man raising his daughter in a nomadic life in the woods with minimal human contact… until they’re discovered by the authorities and forced to join civilization.

Sorry to Bother You is Boots Riley’s first film. It’s about an everyman in Oakland working as a telemarketer who discovers a secret about the company. It’s a combination political satire, science fiction, comedy drama. Not flawless, but brimming with brilliant new ideas and adventures in an old genre.

With honourable mentions to:

Jeremiah Zagar’s We The Animals

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (a cartoon, so doesn’t qualify on my main list)

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman

Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Robert Redford’s The Old Man and the Gun

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed

Here are four fantastic movies playing right now.

Border directed by Iranian filmmaker Ali Abbasi is a Swedish movie about an unusual looking border guard who discovers she may not be completely human.

The Favourite is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest and most accessible movie, a historical dark comedy about two female rivals fighting for Queen Anne’s attention.

Burning is Korean director Lee Chang-Dong’s mystery drama based on Haruki Murakami’s story about an intense young writer, the holly golightly woman he is obsessed with, and a slick rich guy who may have sinister motives.

Shoplifters is Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s family drama about a makeshift but loving family of petty criminals disrupted by government intervention.

And here are three more films coming in the first few months of 2019.

Cold War is Pawel Pawlikowski’s flawless romance about two musicians in postwar Poland, separated by the Iron Curtain.

Birds of Passage is an epic saga about how an indigenous family in Colombia is affected by the marijuana trade in the 60s and 70s.

The Good Girls is Alejandra Marquez Abella’s scathing look at the uppper class in Mexico City in the 1980s. Of course I loved Cuaron’s Roma, a visually beautiful film, but in my mind The Good Girls gets deeper and closer to the characters.

There are many more I really wanted to include, including Roma:

Lázsló Nemes’s Sunset (Napszállta)

Lucretia Martel’s Zama

Mouly Surya’s Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Gaspar Noe Climax

Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers

Luis Ortega’s El Angel

Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built

…but I decided to stop at 10 this year.

Once again, my favourite films of 2018:

The Good Girls

Birds of Passage

Cold War

Sorry to Bother You

Leave No Trace

Hereditary

Border

The Favourite

Burning

Shoplifters

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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