Decline and Fall. Films reviewed: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, The Strain, The Humorist

Posted in Action, Communism, Cooking, Disaster, Disease, documentary, Food, France, Horror, New York City, Russia, TV, USSR, Vampires by CulturalMining.com on May 29, 2020

Unedited, no music

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

It’s Spring Film Festival Season in Toronto, without cinemas but with exciting new movies still being shown online. I’m recording at home via CIUT, from my house to yours, so I apologize for the sound quality. This week I’m looking at three films, one each from TJFF and Hot Docs, as well as a TV series. There’s decadence in Versailles, pandemic and mayhem in New York, and decline in 80s Moscow.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

Dir: Laura Gabbert

Yotam Ottolenghi is a London-based chef, restauranteur and cookbook author. A few years ago he receives an unusual offer from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”): to pull together an event recreating the desserts of the Palace of Versailles, from Louis XIV till Louis XVI. He contacts five chefs from around the world to fly in and show their stuff. But these are no ordinary chefs; they each have an unusual style all their own. Dinara Kasko, a young woman from Ukraine, assembles architecturally-inspired cakes with gravity-defying minimalist structures on the outside, and fantastic layers on the inside. Dominique Ansel – inventor of the Cronut – features new takes on classic French patisseries at his Manhattan restaurant. Sam Bompas of London’s Bompas and Parr, injects life into that much-neglected cooking form: jellies and moulds. Ghaya Oliveira is a multi-talented Tunisian chef who evokes her grandmother’s ideas while creating French pastries; and Janice Wong, a Cordon Bleu-trained Singaporean culinary artist who paints and sculpts using chocolates.

This wonderful documentary shows the chefs at work behind the scenes at The Met, recreating the splendour, decadence and opulence of Louis XIV’s Versailles. The unique works they create especially for the show are really amazing, suggesting the architecture, the formal gardens, and the open-court style of that palace, where ordinary people, if elegantly dressed, were allowed to enter the palace grounds, a space traditionally fenced off from the public. The film also provides much needed historical context: Starving Parisians stormed the palace in 1789, while the documentary is set in an ostentatious Manhattan not too long before the pandemic lockdown. Parallels anyone?

The Strain (Season 1)

Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Dr Goodweather (Corey Stoll) is a NY epidemiologist who works for the CDC. He’s separated from his wife and son because he’s always on call for emergencies. He works alongside Nora (Mia Maestro) an Argentinian-born doctor. They are called into action when a 747 lands at JFK. Everyone on board – including the pilots – are dead. Is it a terrorist hijacking? No, it’s a highly contagious virus. Called to action, the doctors attempt to stop its spread before it infects everyone in the city. But they are thwarted by corrupt officials who allow an intricately-carved wooden box (a coffin?) out of the protected area. And it turns out that the infected passengers are really dead, just temporarily comatose. They’re actually still alive, or perhaps undead. Once infected, people change into zombie-like vampires under the thrall of an unseen master.

What’s unusual about this virus is how it spreads. A red, phallic piece of flesh, like a blind moray eel, shoots out from the infected person’s neck and sucks their victim’s blood. The disease carriers cluster in colonies underground and only come out at night. Manhattan quickly collapses into chaos with widespread crime, looting and mayhem due to the pandemic. But still no quarantine to stop its spread. Luckily, a Scooby Gang of mismatched players form a team. There’s Mr Setrakian (David Bradley) an old man with secrets fro the past who carries a silver sword; Vassily (Kevin Durand) is a public rat catcher who knows his way through all of Manhattan’s dark tunnels; Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas) a champion hacker who disables the internet. They face a cabal of powerful men who want the infection to continue for their own nefarious purposes. But can the doctors and their allies stop the infection? Or is it too late?

The Strain is a great action/horror/thriller TV series about an uncontrolled pandemic, corrupt billionaires amd politicians, and the frontline medical workers trying to stop them. It has mystery, romance, sex, and violence with a good story arc, gradually revealed. It’s uncannily appropriate now, and for Toronto residents it’s fun to spot the localations – it was shot here. So if you’re looking for a good pandemic drama, and don’t know where to find it, look for The Strain.

The Humorist

Wri/Dir: Mikhail Idov

It’s 1984 in the Soviet Union. The Soyuz T-12 is in the sky, Chernenko heads a geriatric government, and Ronald Reagan casually talks about dropping atomic bombs on Russia. Boris Arkadiev (Aleksey Agranovich) is a successful comedian who has it all, adored by fans and government officials alike. He travels across the nation with a stand-up monologue called The Mellow Season, a tame routine about a trained monkey. Born in Byelorussia, he now lives in a nice Moscow apartment with his lawyer wife Elvira, and his two kids, his adoring six-year-old Polina and his rebellious teenage son Ilya. In public, he’s a national icon. But behind the scenes he’s an arrogant alcoholic, a prolific womanizer, and an all-around prick. Aside from himself, he worships the two Russian idols: vodka and the space program. He left religion behind but is conscious of anti-Jewish murmurs wherever he goes. And he’s a total sell-out. Once a serious but unsuccessful novelist, he went on to be a TV writer with his friend and rival Simon. Boris gave in to the official censors, while the less-successful Simon resisted. Now Boris is like the trained monkey in his monologue, performing on cue whenever ordered to do so.

But a series of events change his outlook. An unexpected encounter with a cosmonaut makes him rethink destiny, God and existence. And when he learns about the audacious black comics working in LA from his actor pal Maxim (Yuri Kolokolnikov) he realizes how dull and tired his own comedy has become. Will he stay a depressed, trained monkey for his corrupt masters in the army and KGB? Or will he risk his job, family and reputation by speaking from the heart?

The Humorist is an excellent dark comedy, set in the last days of the Soviet Union. Agranovich is great as a troubled, over-the-hill comic, like a Soviet Phillip Roth anti-hero. It’s brilliantly constructed starting with a garden party in Latvia, but degenerating into a soiree at a high-ranked party-member’s villa. It’s peak-decadence, where sagging old generals in formal wear dine with American porn playing elegantly on a TV in the background (they think it’s high society). The men later retreat to a banya wearing Roman togas, in a scene straight out of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The Humourist has an absurdist, almost surreal tone, where a midnight knock on the door could mean interrogation or the exact opposite. It’s filled with disturbing scenes of long underground corridors and empty Aeroflot planes. It kept me gripped — and squirming — until the end.

Great movie.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is now streaming at Hotdocs; The Humourist is playing online at TJFF, and you can find The Strain streaming, VOD, or on DVD.

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

Different from the norm. Films reviewed: Blood Machines, The Roads Not Taken, Code of the Freaks

Posted in Disabilities, documentary, Drama, Dreams, Family, Hollywood, Science Fiction, Space by CulturalMining.com on May 22, 2020

Audio: unedited, no music

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

I’m still recording at home in the midst of this pandemic, but movies are still being released, just not theatriclly. So this week I’m looking at three new indie films that celebrate the unusual. There’s a psychedelic pilot in outer space, a man with dementia retreating into his innermost thoughts, and a radical re-look at the disabled in film.

Blood Machines

Dir: Seth Ickerman

It’s the distant future on a desolate planet in outer space. The spaceship is headed by Vascan (Anders Heinrichsen) with second-in-command Lago (Christian Erickson), along with a glowing metallic robot as its brain. It’s a ramshackle outfit, held together with nuts, bolts and duct tape. But they are surprised one day by a huge, snakelike machine that crash-lands nearby. Vascan ventures outside to neutralize it, but he’s stopped by a small group of all-women warriors, their hair dyed bright red. Don’t hurt her they say, referring to the AI-powered machine. Her? And when Vascan attacks the machine, something remarkable happens. A naked woman emerges from the wreck and flies up into the sky. She has a flawless body with the image of a glowing, upside down crucifix covering her groin and lower torso. What is she, a friend or foe? And why is she there?

Blood Machines is a surreal, psychedelic science fiction fantasy, told in three short chapters. The lines are delivered in comic book fashion, accompanied by brilliant electronic music (by Carpenter Brut). Vascan looks like an angry Jared Kushner in a tailored suit with Members Only epaulettes, while Lago is more like the original Scotty (on Star Trek) with a hangover. They are later joined by Corey (Elisa Lasowski) who adds rivalry and sexual tension to the mix –the giant laser gun Vascan likes to brandish, keeps malfunctioning when Corey’s around. There are holograms, fight scenes and writhing naked bodies. There’s not much of a story to speak of, but it doesn’t matter – It’s saturated with hot pinks, violets and acid greens, powered by constant musical thrumming, and loaded with endless science fiction tropes, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Beautiful to watch and to listen to.

The Roads Not Taken

Wri/Dir: Sally Potter

Leo (Javier Bardem) is a middle aged man who is not all there. He lives in a spartan NY apartment beside the El-train. His daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), a career woman in her twenties, has the morning off to take him to the dentist and the eye doctor. But when she arrives he’s almost comatose. He barely responds to her questions. Is he just a hollow vessel with no spark inside? In fact his mind is elsewhere, caught between two other lives progressing simultaneously.

In one alternate reality, he lives with his first love Dolores (Salma Hayek) in an adobe home in the desert with rose coloured walls and bars on the window. She wants him to come with her to a Day of the Dead celebration to communicate with someone they lost. In a second life he’s a novelist on a picturesque Greek island where he writes and chats with tourists in open-air tavernas. But back in the present day his life is miserable. He’s prone to wander at night, barefoot and unaware. He drinks the dentist’s mouthwash and wets his pants, and calls strange women Dolores. Can Molly get through to her dad? And can he accept reality or will he retreat permanently into the recesses of his mind?

The Roads Not Taken is a grim look at the miserable life of a man suffering from dementia living a life he regrets, mitigated by the kindness of his daughter and the vibrant world he lives in inside his head. I have mixed feelings toward this movie. On the positive side, it has a stellar cast: Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek and Laura Linney as his ex-wife. But the narrative is fragmented among the three worlds, and not entirely satisfying. Elle Fanning is sympathetic, but how many times can a character have tear-streaked cheeks in one movie? She never turns off the waterworks. The musical score is great, and the cinematography is really effective, with a constant movement – trains, taxis, pickup trucks – that neatly ties together disparate scenes. Still, this movie just didn’t deeply move me. Sally Potter may be a great director, but this film is not one of her best.

Code of the Freaks

Dir: Salome Chasnoff

Are disabled people hideous villains or saintly, childlike freaks who need to be rescued? People with secret superpowers? Or ones who desire either to die or to be “cured”? All of the above, if you go by Hollywood movies. This new documentary looks at 100 years of film portrayals of people with disabilities and finds it sorely lacking in real-life characters.

The doc consists of movie clips – everything from The Miracle Worker, to Rain Man, to My Left Foot — alternated with brilliant commentary by artists, writers, academics and activists. There’s no group-think here, more of a cross-section of ideas from the community. And it covers very wide ground. Like the portrayal of sex and disabilities. White women are eroticized by upping their vulnerability, while black men are neutered, made non-threatening and asexual. And, as one commentator points out, you virtually never see two disabled people having sex with each other.

Blind people have “super-power hearing abilities” (Daredevil) or a carnal need to touch other people’s faces (!? ). If you have a mental illness or disability, you have no self-control, and are liable to explode… so you have to be either institutionalized, or killed, before you “hurt someone” (eg Of Mice and Men). Little people are turned into figures of fun. Wheelchairs are made symbols of limitation, not the vehicle they use to get around. (Are drivers ever described as “confined to cars”?)

The doc pinpoints some of the most offensive movies of all, skewering the hateful Million Dollar Baby, in which the heroine valiantly chooses death over living with a disability. It’s a running theme in this documentary – a happy ending in a drama with a disabled character means they’re either “cured”, institutionalized, or killed. Even worse are the dreadfully insipid “inspirational movies” where people are congratulated for their “bravery” just for existing, instead of portraying them as real people. The one thing you almost never see are disabled characters portrayed by disabled actors (though that’s gradually improving). Probably because roles like this are too valuable as Oscar Bait for the stars.

Code of the Freaks is a scathing look at Hollywood’s portrayal of disabilities and a radical rethink of the genre. This is a must-see documentary for all moviegoers everywhere.

The Roads Not Taken is available now on VOD; Code of the Freaks was the opening night film at the RealAbilities Film Festival; and Blood Machines is now streaming on Shudder.

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

Crises. Films reviewed: Band Ladies, Cane Fire, Castle in the Ground

(Audio: no music)

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

I’m recording from my home, once again, looking for ways to entertain you all while movie theatres are out of the picture. So this week I’m looking at three new films, a documentary, a web series, and a dark Canadian drama. There’s a filmmaker discovering Hawai’i’s past; a group of women dealing with a collective midlife crisis; and a mother and son facing the opioid crisis.

Band Ladies

Dir: Molly Flood

Five bored, middle-aged women meet at a local bar to discuss Victorian romances for their regular book club. There’s Marnie (Kate Fenton), a stay-at- home mom with a lackluster life; Chloe (Lisa Michelle Cornelius) a careerist lawyer troubled by her Big Pharma employer; Cindy (Vicki Kim) an aspiring musician / bartender; Penny (Dana Puddicombe) a rich celeb who could pass as a Dragons Den panelist; and Stephanie (Kirstin Rasmussen) a drunk dead-ender recenty dumped by her longtime girlfriend.

But when their inhibitions are loosened by a few bottles of plonk, Chloe storms the stage to tell her secret truth: her bosses peddle opiods to children! Someone captures her rant on their phone and posts it online, and boom! the clip goes viral. But what can they do with their 15 minutes of fame? Why, form a band, of course. What kind? Punk. But can five middle-aged women shake up their lives and transform themselves overnight into an 80s style punk band? Or is this just a pipe dream?

Band Ladies is a fast-moving, cute and clever web series. It zooms through the five characters’ lives in six quick, 10-minute episodes, a crash course on the dos and don’ts of starting a band. The actors write their own characters’ lyrics and perform the songs on their first “tour” – as the opening act at a Parry Sound bar. It’s sharp, witty and empathetic – and the whole series is over in an hour.

I like this web series.

Cane Fire

Dir: Anthony Banua-Simon

Beautiful Kaua’i: a tropical paradise where happy Hawaiians harvest sugar cane and pineapples on plantations; where luxury hotels preserve ancient ceremonies by lighting torches each night; and the setting of hundreds of Hollywood features shot there. But is that the whole truth? The locals tell a very different story.

This new feature documentary pulls the veil off the island’s past and retells its story through its own people’s eyes. When the US toppled its government and colonized the islands Kaua’i was taken over by five families who controlled most of the land. Hawaiians – and workers imported from places like China, Japan and the Philippines – were kept down by the sugar and pineapple plantation owners. Unions were busted, and organizers fired, demoted or sent away. Luxury hotels were built on sacred burial grounds and their culture co-opted or invented by settlers to attract tourists. Stars like Elvis and John Wayne were featured in movies shot there while locals were background decorations. And now locals are further marginalized by the ultra-rich people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – buying huge tracts of land for their own personal use.

Cane Fire is partly a personal travelogue – the filmmaker goes to Kaua’i to find out about his great grandfather – partly a look at Hollywood’s sanitized depiction of the place; and partly a chance for the people’s own stories to be told. This includes local activists reclaiming the ruins of the once famous Koko Palms hotel built on sacred lands. The title Cane Fire comes from a movie of the same name about local unrest on the island. That movie is now lost, but the documentary fills in the blanks normally missing in depictions of Hawai’i.

Cane Fire is an excellent film.

Castle in the Ground

Wri/Dir: Joey Klein

It’s a cold, dark day in Sudbury, Ontario. Henry (Alex Wolff) is a good son, taking time off from school to take care of his dying mom (Neve Campbell). He feeds her crushed prescription pills each day to help ease her pain. But noise from across the hall – she lives in a rundown tenement – keeps bothering her. So Henry bangs on the door to investigate. There he meets Ana (Imogen Poots) – a sketchy woman with hollow eyes – and some of her unsavoury friends. She’s a cunning addict on the methadone wagon, jonesing for her next fix. And her dealer (a kid she calls Polo Boy (Keir Gilchrist) for his designer tracksuits) says she stole his bag of pills, and the scary guys are asking for it back. Ever the gallant one, Henry steps in to protect her, but soon is drawn into her hellish universe of guns, crime and opioids. Can he emerge unscathed with only a hammer as a weapon? And what about those close to him?

Castle in the Ground has a lot of things I avoid in movies – I find movies all about people slowly dying or struggling with addiction, more depressing than interesting. Luckily, this movie, while dealing with these very real phenomena, manages to avoid the moralistic tone that usually smothers stories like this. Instead it jacks up the thriller aspects – drug dealers wearing creepy baby masks, car chases, and narrow escapes from dimly-lit drug parties – couched in a constant, surreal haze. Yes, it’s bleak, but the bleakness is mollified by aburdist humour, fascinating details, and stunning night photography, lit with the glare of headlights and the acid glow of neon. And when actors like Imogen Poots and Alex Wolff put their all into a movie like this, it’s worth paying attention.

Band Ladies is streaming now on Highball.tv; Castle in the Ground opens today on VOD; and Cane Fire is having its world premier at this year’s Hot Docs.

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

Histories. Films reviewed: Hollywood, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Academy Awards, Acting, documentary, Economics, Ensemble Cast, Hollywood, Movies, Poverty, Slavery, Wall Street by CulturalMining.com on May 8, 2020

(Home recording, no music)

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

History, they say, is written by the victors, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other histories still out there. This week I’m looking at two stories, a doc and a TV drama. There’s a pessimistic, economic history of the world; and an optimistic, revisionist history of Hollywood.

Hollywood

Creators: Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy

It’s just after WWII in LA. Young people from small towns across the US are flocking to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune in the movies. People like Jack (David Corenswet), a handsome young actor who lines up each day at Ace studios on the chance of a day’s paid work as an extra. But a pretty face is no guarantee of steady work in Hollywood. So when a mysterious man named Ernie (Dylan McDermott) recruits him for a day job at a gas station he welcomes the extra income. He’s stuck in a loveless marriage with his pregnant wife who works at the famed Schwab’s Pharmacy (where actors hang out to get discovered). Camille (Laura Harrier) is a beautiful actress on contract at Ace, where she attends locution lessons to perfect her elegant mid-atlantic accent. Still she’s stuck playing demeaning roles as maids, simply because she’s black. Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) is a talentless but good looking actor who thinks his luck has changed when he is signed by an agent named Henry (Jim Parsons). But the power broker demands sexual favours from all his clients.

Luckily, these three actors all have love interests. Jack soon discovers his job isn’t about pumping gas. It’s a front for male sex workers to peddle their wares for Hollywood’s rich and famous. Powerful women, including an older woman named Avis (Patti LuPone), grant him a chance for a foot in the door in a real movie. At the gas station, he works beside Archie (Jeremy Pope) a black writer hoping Ace studios will produce his script about a failed actress

HOLLYWOOD

who kills herself by jumping off the famed Hollywood sign. His first client is none other than Rock Hudson, looking for male companionship. Camille is in a relationship with Raymond (Darren Criss) a director at Ace. He says he’s part-Asian but can pass as white. And he wants to direct that movie Archie wrote, bringing all the main characters of the series together in one production. But is Ace Studios – and America – ready for a multi-racial romance?

Hollywood is a TV mini-series that appears to give an insider’s view of the post-war movie industry, but actually it makes it all up. The infamous casting couch – where directors or producers forced woman to have sex with them in exchange for a part – is reversed here to make men both the victims and the objects of desire. In this fantasy world, 1940s Hollywood produces movies written by, directed by, and starring non-whites. Studios are headed by women, actors come out publicly as gay and the Academy Awards happily nominates lots of African-Americans. In reality, desegregation and repeal of Jim Crow laws was decades away, “miscegenation” – mixed racial marriage – was still illegal, homosexuality was a crime, and even today Hollywood (and the Oscars) are still as white as snow.

About the only true part of this series is the gas station used as a front for male hustlers. All of this was revealed in a book and a documentary featuring the late, great Scotty Bowers (I interviewed him here in 2018.) The Netflix series is the story of his career… but he’s never mentioned by name, even once. I don’t dislike the series – it’s never boring, it’s fun to watch and has beautiful production values along with many interesting new players in the cast – but, like most Netflix productions, historical accuracy applies to hairstyles but never to the script.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Dir: Justin Pemberton

Based on the book by Thomas Piketty

What is capital? How is it distributed? How has that changed over the past three centuries? These are just some of the questions dealt with in this new documentary. In the 18th Century 99% of capital – meaning wealth, money and land – was controlled by the aristocracy, less than 1% of the people. Life expectancy was low, and life for the poor was nasty, brutish and short. But revolutionis, in France and elsewhere, didn’t mean a transfer of power and weath from the top to the bottom. Government was still controlled by those with the most money and laws were passed to ensure they didn’t lose their wealth. The rise of colonialism in the Americas, Africa and Asia led to more wealth in Europe extracted from the lands and people they now controlled. Slave-based agriculture generated even more capital – in the form of human beings – now bought, sold and traded like commodities. And people working in factories could be arrested even for quitting a job, and imprisoned for being poor or in debt. But, following the widespread death and destruction of WWI and the following worldwide depression, came the first signs of a transfer of power and capital from huge corporate monopolies and the very rich to the rest of the people.

Following WWII, the remaining aristocracy was heavily taxed, and wealth was transferred to the average person in the form of housing, education, health and the welfare state. People were finally rewarded for study and hard work. They were able to move up from poverty. This lasted for a few decades, until it began to unravel with new ideologies introduced by Thatcher and Reagan. Unions and welfare were suddenly bad. Greed was good. And once again, wealth was transferred from the poor and shrinking middle class back up to the top 1%. That’s where we are now.

How can we reverse these awful changes?

This documentary is a fascinating — and fast-moving – condensed look at economic history over the past 300 years and how it affects us today. It’s narrated by Pickety and other economists in a very accessible and easy to understand way. And it’s beautiful to look at, filled with thousands of tiny, quick film clips, mostly one to three seconds long, of stately homes and Victorian factories, mints printing dollar bills, Thatcher talking to schoolgirls, and people breathing through face masks in a horribly polluted Beijing. The images and music are as meticulously researched as they are lovely. Constant eye-candy.

Even the talking heads, those usually dull academics interviewed in the doc, are enthusiastic and interesting, and uniformly filmed against lavish backgrounds and scenery. And it’s filled with cool sequences. l loved one about a psychological experiment where volunteers play Monopoly without a level playing field – it favours certain players at random. These newly “rich” players are recorded acting rude, scarfing pretzels and generally behaving entitled as soon as they discovered the rules were tilted in their favour. So if you want to learn about history and economics and what to do about it, but don’t feel like reading thousands of pages, Capital in the 21st Century is a great place to feed your brain without wearing it out.

Hollywood is now streaming on Netflix; Capital opens May 8 in Toronto at the Hotdocs Virtual Theatre; 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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