Not Marvel Movies. Films reviewed: The Irishman, Last Christmas, Midway

Posted in 1940s, 1960s, 1970s, Christmas, Corruption, Crime, Cuba, Hawaii, Romantic Comedy, UK, Unions, War, Woody Harrelson, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 8, 2019

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

Martin Scorsese recently wrote that tentpole movies, like ones that Marvel makes, are hogging a disproportionate share of Hollywood bucks. This squeezes traditional, medium-budget, one-off films out of the picture. Luckilly, they’re not all gone.  This week, I’m looking at three films – a crime drama, a war movie and a rom-com – without superheroes.

The Irishman

Dir: Martin Scorsese

It’s the 1950s.

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a truck driver who delivers beef hindquarters. When his truck breaks down on the highway, a strange man offers advice on how to fix it. He’s Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci) a mob boss in Pennsylvania. When Sheeran is caught stealing beef, Russell supplies a lawyer, thus starting a longtime relationship between the trucker and the Mafia. And Teamsters, the truckers union, stands with them all the way. Soon Frank is doing a different kind of work for Russell: he paints houses. Which really means he’s a hitman for the mob. Despite his Irish background, he speaks Italian: he served in the Army in Anzio in WWII. Soon they’re thick as thieves, and Frank enjoys the benefits, but Russell is always the boss.

Eventually he’s sent to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of Teamsters as a bodyguard, as well as the middleman between Hoffa and the mob. Hoffa is a brash firebrand, an old-school union organizer with legions of loyal members. He’s also an extremely powerful leader, and he controls the union’s pension. This means he can finance Las Vegas casinos with cash, something banks refuse to do. And he gives money to the Nixon campaign, a rare instance of a labour union officially supporting a Republican. But friction grows between Hoffa and the mafia until the day Hoffa mysteriously disappears without a trace, his body never found. What happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

The Irishman is narrated by Frank in an old age home, which gives it the feel of an old man’s movie. It’s a Forest Gump for gangsters, with Frank somehow tied to all the major events of the 60s and 70s: The Kennedies, Bay of Pigs, Jimmy Hoffa disappearance, to name just a few. This film has some problems: the CGI de-aged faces look wooden; female characters have virtually no lines – they just scowl and disapprove; and it’s missing the sharp edges and sexual zing of Scorsese’s early movies.

That said, I was never bored; I was glued to the screen the whole time. Pacino is fantastic as Jimmie Hoffa, and Scorsese’s movies are always superior.

The quality of filmmaking is superb and The Irishman tells a great story.

Last Christmas

Dir: Paul Feig

Kate (Emilia Clarke) is an quirky, aspiring young singer in London. By day she’s a cute little green elf, working in a kitschy, Christmas-themed gift shop run by a prickly boss named Santa (Michelle Yeoh). By night, she’s a barfly, sleeping with any guy she fancies, a different one each night. Ever since her operation, she’s been depressed. She’s embarrassed by her Yugoslavian family, and her singing career is going nowhere fast. She’s on a downward spiral of self-pity and self desctruction… until she meets Tom (Henry Golding).

Tom is everything Kate is not. He’s saintly, altruistic and generous. While Kate looks down and sees garbage tips, Tom looks up and sees tropical birds and quaint old signs. He takes her on a walk to show her the hidden side of London – a secret garden where people go to be alone; a soup kitchen for the homeless (he’s a volunteer), a deserted skating rink. Is it love? But he disappears for days at a time. What secret is he hiding? Is this true love? And can their relationship keep them together?

Last Christmas is a cute Romcom about a depressed woman coming out of her shell and her happy-go-lucky, would-be boyfriend. Emma Thompson plays Kate’s weepy Croatian mom and she also co-wrote the script. It’s cute and heartwarming… but not that funny.

Michelle Yeoh is terrific as a middle-aged woman still on the hunt, and Clarke and Golding make an appealing romantic couple. There is a totally surprising twist which brought tears to my eyes – No Spoiler – which left me with a bit more than I expected.

Midway

Dir: Roland Emmerich

It’s 1941, with war raging across Europe, China and the Pacific. But the US is cautiously viewing it from the sidelines. Dick Best (Ed Screin) is a gum chewing pilot based in Pearl Harbour. He’s a daredevil dive bomber, showing off his new techniques. Also on board the aircraft carrier is his rival, a by-the-books officer named McClusky (Luke Evans). He says Dick is a cowboy who should stop showing off. But while their aircraft carrier is out at sea, all the ships in Pearl Harbour are wiped out in a surprise attack by the Japanese, pulling the US into WWII.

Only Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) – the intel expert on Japan – predicted it. And he thinks a crucial battle up ahead: the Battle of Midway, an island in the South Pacific. Midway is a point crucial for control of the Pacific: if Layton is right, whoever wins the battle will win the war; it’s just a matter of time.

Midway is a dramatization of the years leading up to the naval battle of Midway, and the intense fight that follow: in submarines, on aircraft carriers and in planes overhead. It’s filtered through the eyes of lantern-jawed military figures like Jimmy Doolittle ( Aaron Eckhardt), Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) Vice Adm Bull Halsey (Dennis Quaid), and many semi-fictional sailors and pilots in various acts of bravery… like Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas, of the Jonas brothers!). The story also switches back and forth to the Japanese side, with Admirals Nagumo, Yamaguchi and Yamamoto plotting to defeat the Americans.

Midway is exactly the sort of movie I can’t stand – yet another tired war pic about a long-forgotten battle, filled with smarmy patriotism. But I went to the press screening, and guess what? I actually really liked Midway! Fantastic special effects, complex battles shown in an easy-to-follow way, good acting, and great characters. Japanese are portrayed respectfully, not as hokey villains, but without covering up their war crimes in Eastern China. Like The Irishman, women are there mainly to worry about their husbands. It’s two hours, twenty minutes long, but the thrills keep you staring, rapt, till it’s over. I’m sure a lot of critics are going to compare it (unfavourably) with Dunkirk, but to me Midway is more thrilling, less ponderous.

Midway and Last Christmas both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. And The Irishman is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, also beginning today.

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 Matt Tyrnauer about Where’s My Roy Cohn?

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Communism, Conservativism, Crime, documentary, LGBT, New York City, Super Villains by CulturalMining.com on October 4, 2019

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

Roy Cohn is a historical phenomenon, despised by many and feared by more. In his lifetime, he sent Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to the electric chair, worked beside Joe McCarthy in the massive government purge of the left; persecuted homosexuals, defended right-wing causes, mentored Donald Trump, and defended the mob. Behind the scenes he lived a decadent gay life. He was a devious, ruthless and powerful lawyer who ruled NY City… prompting more than one to ask: Where’s my Roy Cohn?

Where’s my Roy Cohn? is also the name of a new documentary that chronicles the notorious man’s life. It shares photos, recordings, period news footage and new interviews with some of his closest friends, family and past lovers. The film was directed by Matt Tyrnauer, known for his documentaries on the folk heroes and villains of our age, from Scotty Bowers to Jane Jacobs to Robert Moses.

I spoke to Matt Tyrnauer via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM.

Where’s my Roy Cohn? opens on November 4 in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Photo of Matt Tyrnauer by Jeff Harris.

Families. Films reviewed: Before You Know It, Downton Abbey, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Posted in 1920s, 1960s, 1970s, Canada, Class, documentary, Drama, Family, Music, Screwball Comedy, Theatre, TV, UK by CulturalMining.com on September 20, 2019

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

This week I’m looking at three movies exploring different families. There’s a band of brothers who form a band inside a big pink house; a pair of sisters who live inside a Greenwich Village theatre; and an extended family of aristocrats – and their servants – who live inside a stately mansion.

Before You Know It

Dir: Hannah Pearl Utt

Rachel and Jackie (Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock) are adult sisters who live inside a Greenwich Village playhouse. Homeschooled by their playwright Dad (Mandy Patinkin) since their mom died, their world is centred on their family theatre. Rachel, dressed in plain clothes and sensible shoes, is their always-reliable stage manager. Jackie – flamboyant, and self-obsessed – is an actress. Her impulsive behaviour gave her with an alcohol problem and a 13-year-old daughter named Dodge (Oona Yaffe). Rachel wishes she could date more, but she has too many responsibilities.

Life continues, until a major revelation shakes up their lives. Turns out their mom (Judith Light) is still alive, and has been living nearby under a stage name since they were kids! What’s more, she owns their theatre, and they might lose their careers, their home, their entire lives. Can Jackie and Rachel infiltrate a TV studio, meet their soap opera actress mom, and convince her to let them stay on at their theatre they call home? Or is this their final act?

Before You Know It is a delightful story of three generations of women in a theatrical setting. Written by Jen Tullock and Hannah Pearl Utt it veers between a gently screwball plot and a somewhat more serious coming-of-age story about growing up, both for Dodge and the two adult sisters. Nothing spectacular, just a pleasant and fun indie movie.

Downton Abbey: The Movie

Dir: Michael Engler

The Crawley’s are an aristocratic family living in a stately mansion on a vast manor estate in post- Edwardian England. It takes a village to keep things going smoothly, and it’s almost as self-sufficient community living inside the walls. This includes the extended family and their in-laws but also the multitude of servants, footmen, groomsmen, maids, kitchen help, grounds keepers, valets, a butler and more. But the normal social order is threatened by some unexpected guests. The King is coming! The King is coming!

Amd this brings all sorts of problems. Violet, the dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) has a longstanding inheritance feud with Maud Bagshaw, a lady in waiting (Imelda Staunton) for theQueen. Tom Branson (Allen Leech), an Irish socialist and widower who started as a chauffeur but later married into the family, is suspected by a mysterious government agent as being disloyal to the King. Meanwhile, amongst the other half of the house, other troubles are revealed. Kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera) wonders whether longtime boyfriend William is right for her, especially since a handsome young plumber arrives on the scene. And when the Kings servants barge in and take over everything, they must concoct a plot to get back their rightful place within their own house. Meanwle Thomas Barrow (Robert James Collier) the usually secretive and conniving butler seizes the chance to explore his sexuality in a nearby town.

Downton Abbey,the movie is a continuation of the popular British nighttime soap that ran for many years. I remember watching the first two seasons of it before giving up.It concentrated on a dull patriarch andhis faithful butler, his bickering daughters and various servants seen skitting around behind the scenes. It felt like a Leaveit to Beaver sitcom superimposed ona feudal estate. Deadly dull, politically loathesome – I hated it. But I found the movie much more interesting. It concentrates as much on the “Downstairs” as on the “Upstairs”, there are real surprises, and the characters are allowed to grow and progress.

I’m as surprised as you that I actually enjoyed this movie.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Dir: Daniel Roher

It’s the late 1950s in Toronto. Robbie Robertson is a teenaged boy and aspiring musician who learns to play chords on visits to his mom’s family at Mohawk Six Nations. When Southern rocker Ronnie Hawkins brings his band to town, Robbie is mesmerized by their energy, showmanship and confidence, especially their stick-twirling drummer Levon Helm. He writes some tunes and joins the Hawks at age 16, alongside other multitalented Canadian musicians: Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel. They travel down south to perfect their style, playing alongside blues artist and country musicians. The Hawks outgrow their front man and set out on their own,

They tour Europe as Bob Dylan,s band rght when he goes electric.They are booed on every stage, but realize they have something special. They move into a big pink house in woodstock NY where they prefect their unique boendof folk,country, rock,blues and R&B. Robbie writes most of the songs while the entire band, one with the three vocalists, crafts each song. They start releasing their own songs under the name The Band and become one of the most influential North American groups of the ’60s and ’70s.

Once Were Brothers is a great music doc about the Band, as told through Robbie Robertson’s eyes. Through old photos, magazine clippings, period footage, and new interviews, it explores their brother-like friendship through its ups and downs, including jeolousy, addiction and car crashes. And looks at the rivalry between him and Levon Helm which eventually tore the band apart. It looks at their music, the pele they knew even their look — long hair and bearded, country gentlemen farmers, dressed like in 19th Century photos. It follows them from the early 60s through their Last Waltz, a giant concert filmed by Martin Scorsese. This is a beautiful, compelling story of the – can I say it? – legendary band.

Before You Know It (at the Tiff Bell Lightbox) Once Were Brothers and Downton Abbey all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Toronto’s fall festival season continues through the weekend with the Toronto Palestine Film Fest.

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

Self Help. Films reviewed: Becoming Nobody, Brittany Runs a Marathon

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, comedy, Death, Depression, documentary, drugs, Philosophy, psychedelia, Psychology, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 30, 2019

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

It’s Labour Day weekend, a good time to catch up on all those things you’ve been meaning to do. That’s why this week I’m looking at two movies – a dramedy and a documentary – about Self Help. There’s a woman who wants to lose some of herself, and a man who wants to lose all of himself.

Becoming Nobody

Dir: Jamie Catto

A hippie walks into a pizza parlour. The guy behind the counter asks: What would you like?  The hippie says: Make me One… with Everything!

Old joke, but I’m trying to explain who Ram Dass is.

He’s born Richard Alpert in Newton, Mass., to an upper middle class family, and becomes a clinical psychology prof at Harvard University. In the early 1960s Timothy Leary introduces him to hallucinogenic drugs as a part of therapy. Alpert takes psilocybin mushrooms for the first time and it blows his mind (in the positive sense.) But he wants to know how he can harnass its effects when he’s not high. He drops out, grows long hair and a beard. Somehow he ends up in India, in the Himilayas, right on the border of Tibet. There he studies under Maharaj-ji, his spiritual guru – who dubs him Ram Dass, Servant of Rama, Servent of God – and then brings his findings back to America. Back home, youth culture is rejecting the status quo, protesting the war in Vietnam, and opting out of the rat race. They’re looking for new answers. Spiritual answers. His book, Be Here Now (1971) provides just that to a large part of his generation.

I am not a devotee of Ram Dass, I don’t go to yoga classes and I don’t practice meditation in a search for spiritual enlightenment. I do remember being fascinated as a little kid by the cube-shaped book Be Here Now with the hypnotic mandala drawn on its cover.

So I won’t attempt to explain his entire spiritual philosophy in a few sentences. But the film Becoming Nobody, attempts to do some of that in 90 minutes. It’s basically a selection of his talks and conversations spanning his life from the 1960s to the present – discovery, spiritualism, losing oneself, and accepting death. You see him change from uptight academic, to long-haired hippy, to lecturer with a Dr. Phil moustache, to wise and funny old man. The film is illustrated with cute period footage and framed by a dialogue with the director, British musician Jamie Catto.

For a non-initiate like me, some of what Ram Dass says sounds like a collection of simple aphorisms, a mishmash of Hindu and Buddhist thought. But when you think about it, a lot of what he says really make sense; it’s not just hollow rhetoric. So whether you’re looking for a simple introduction to his philosophy, or just interested in him, Becoming Nobody gives you lots to chew on.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Wri/Dir: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Brittany (Jillian Bell) lives in a cluttered New York apartment. By day she works as a low-paid usher at a theatre. At night she goes to bars with her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee). A good time means getting high on adderal and having drunken sex with a stranger in a bathroom stall. She thought her college education would land her a creative job on Madison Avenue. Instead she’s underemployed with a huge student debt. Which depresses her. And to rub salt in the wound, her doctor tells her she’s 60 pounds overweight and if she doesn’t do something about it, she might die.

Could her life get any worse? Actually, it begins to get better when her neighbor, Catherine (Michaela Watkins) – who she’s never met and who she refers to as “Moneybags Martha” when she sees her through the window – offers to help Brittany train with her running club. There she meets Seth (Micah Stock) a slightly effeminate, married gay guy, who wants his kids to respect him and call him dad. Catherine is dealing with a painful divorce and custody battle. So the three form a sort of a support group to help Brittany run in the New York City Marathon.

She also lands a long-term house-sitting job, which helps her keep her above water economically and away from roommate Gretchen’s bad influence. She begins to lose weight, her self confidence grown, and she becomes closer to her fellow house-sitter Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) a poster boy for slackers. Are they a couple? Can she lose 60 pounds, get a job in her profession, find a home, meet a guy, and run the marathon? Or are these just a series of unattainable hopes?

Brittany Runs a Marathon is exactly what the title suggests – a woman trying to run a marathon to achieve a personal goal. But it’s also a really funny comedy. Jillian Bell is hilarious and disarming as the sneaky, funny, self-deprecating Brittany. You also feel for her character as she goes through crushing disappointments. And it deals with serious issues like the ups and downs of weight loss, body image, and depression, without turning into a condescending sermon. It’s a fun, funny, heartwarming and inspiring movie. I like this one.

Brittany Runs a Marathon opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; and Becoming Nobody opens next Friday, September 6th at Hot Docs.

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

Revision. Films reviewed: The Stone Speakers, Free Trip to Egypt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Posted in 1960s, Bosnia, Communism, documentary, Egypt, Hippies, Hollywood, Islam, L.A., Movies, War by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2019

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

They say he who pays the piper calls the tune. This week I’m looking at two documentaries and a drama that retell history. There’s a doc about changing American minds in Egypt, another one about rewriting history in Bosnia, and a drama that rewrites the history of Hollywood.

The Stone Speakers

Wri/Dir: Igor Drljaca

It’s present-day Bosnia-Herzogovina. Since the end of the Bosnian war, the formerly multicultural country has been divided ethnically and religiously among Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. As its factories close down and young people move away cities have turned to tourism for income… in some unusual ways, fiddling with history on the way. The film looks at four Bosnian cities.

In Medjugorje, millions of pilgrims visit a site where six children are said to have seen the Virgin Mary. Tuzla, once known for its ancient salt mines, has opened man-made salt springs lakes where the city had gradually been sinking. Visoko is dominated by a strange hill, once an Ottoman fortress, built over an unknown ancient pyramid. Tourists cluster in its tunnels to absorb its energy, even as Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim leaders all condemn it as heretical. And Višegrad, a crossroads city, once known for its Ottoman stone bridge, is now the site of a cultural centre built by Bosnian Serb director Emir Kusturica in honour of Nobel laureate Ivo Andric’s novel. (A museum about a movie about a book about a bridge…!)

The movie presents these oddball Bosnian towns at face value in a series of carefully composed shots, both portraits and landscapes, as panoramic long takes… almost like still photographs but ones that move. Voiceovers, by discontented residents of the cities, provide arms-length analysis, uncovering the absurdity and revisionist history of these places.

The Stone Speakers is a humorous and hauntingly beautiful look at what has become of the Toronto director’s homeland.

Much simpler is…

Free Trip to Egypt

Dir: Ingrid Serban

Tarek Mounib is a Halifax-born Canadian of Egyptian ancestry, who looks a bit like Jon Stewart. As a university student he was an activist but has mellowed in middle age. But he is dismayed at the explosion of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment in the US today, especially since Trump’s election. So he sets out to remedy this by offering strangers an unusual proposition: free guided trips to Egypt! He recruits these adventurers in unusual places, both online and at Trump’s MAGA rallies.

There’s a policeman, two young evengelicals, a single woman, a war vet and an older couple, each with their own prejudices and expectations. In Egypt they are paired with local singles and families to show them how real Egyptians live, along with their religions, food, music, and culture as well as visiting the more famous tourist sites like the pyramids of Giza.

But can a group of Americans change their dead-set views about Arabs and Muslims?

Free Trip to Egypt is exactly what the title promises. Nothing surprising or unexpected in this film. It actually feels closer to reality TV than to a documentary – but it has a good heart.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Wri/Dir: Quentin Tarantino

It’s the late 1960s in LA.

Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are good friends, both on and off screen, but they are not equals. Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a movie star, best known for his TV series Bounty Law. He lives in a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills, next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski. Cliff (Brad Pitt) is a stuntman, and Rick’s double. He lives in the valley with his dog in a rundown trailer behind a drive-in movie park in Van Nuys.

They’re both pushing forty and things aren’t looking good. Rick has shifted from white hat to black hat, playing the heavy on TV cop shows. A mover and shaker (played by Al Pacino) wants to restart his career, but Rick isn’t sure he can shift from star to actor. Cliff is still limber and seemingly indestructible, but hasn’t worked as a stuntman since he accidentally killed his wife. He has a bad rep, picking fights on set with a young Bruce Lee. Now he’s mainly just Rick’s driver and personal assistant, with too much free time on his hands.

Rick struggles through his latest role – as the villain in a True Grit-type western – and wonders if he has lost his mojo… while Cliff cruises around LA in his sports car, listening to AM radio and flirting with a nubile, hippy hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). What he doesn’t realize is Pussycat – and her sketchy friends Squeaky (Dakota Fanning) and Tex (Austin Butler) – are members of the not-yet- notorious Charles Manson’s “Family”. And that they’re living on the Spahn ranch, a movie location where Rick and Cliff’s TV show was shot in the 1950s. Meanwhile, with Polanski out of the country, Sharon Tate is enjoying her newfound stardom. But what will happen when the players all meet?

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Tarantino’s latest movie and one of his tamest. It’s an affectionate tribute to the movies of the 60s: its look, it’s stars, it’s pop music. Everything – from car models to movie trailers to neon lights and billboards – is painstakingly recreated, to give you the feel of the era. There are dozens of cameos played by long-forgotten hollywood favourites and former child stars. The story itself – that takes a leisurely two hours and forty minutes to tell – seems less important than the mood.

Tarantino is known for endless scenes that don’t seem to quit… even when they’re supposed to. In past films, it meant extended scenes of torture and endless violence. In this movie it’s more likely a very long, behind-the-scenes reenactment of shooting a movie. He’s one of few directors I can say I saw every one of his movies in theatres when they first came out. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood while shallow, was very enjoyable: constant eye candy, a terrific soundtrack, and Pitt and DiCaprio are a lot of fun as buddies. And despite the Manson subplot, there is much less gratuitous violence than in most of his movies.

If you like movies about movies, this is the one to see.

The Stone Speakers opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood starts across North America today; and A Free Trip to Egypt starts next Friday (August 2) 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 Leslie Ann Coles and Barrie Wentzell about Melody Makers: Should’ve Been There

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, documentary, Journalism, Music, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 12, 2019

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

Melody Maker was a UK weekly tabloid established in 1926 as a jazz paper for professional musicians. But by the 1960s it shifted its focus, eventually becoming known as “the Bible of rock’n’roll”. Bands were formed in the classified ads at the back, and, in the front, a cover photo could launch a music career. But who were the melody makers who made it all happen?

Melody Makers: Should’ve Been There is a new documentary about the legendary paper — it’s wrters, photographers and editors – and the musicians they wrote about. Using new interview and period footage it traces its rise and fall in an oral history of the age. And the film is illustrated by the black and white pics of Barrie Wentzell, their chief photographer from 1965-1975 chronicling the the gods of rock and roll. The film was directed and produced by award-winning Leslie Ann Coles, who is the founder of Toronto’s Female Eye Film Festival.

I spoke to Barrie Wentzell and Leslie Ann Coles at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Melody Makers opens Friday, July 12th, at the Royal Cinema.

Bustin loose. Films reviewed: Ma, Rocketman PLUS ReelAbilities Film Festival

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Disabilities, drugs, High School, Horror, Music, Musical, Psychological Thriller, Thriller, UK by CulturalMining.com on May 31, 2019

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

Spring festival season continues in Toronto with Inside Out and Reelabilities playing through Sunday. ReelAbilities is a film festival showing shorts and features (along with panel discussions) dealing with disabilities. They are made by actors and filmmakers with disabilities, and the characters or topics of the films touch on issues relevant to people with a wide range of abilities. This includes physical disabilities, deafness, and many others areas, ranging from Tourette’s to one of the most segregated and discriminated groups: people with intellectual disabilities. And the festival itself is designed and planned to make the movies accessible to all viewers, with subtitles on the screen and locations fully accessible to people who use wheelchairs.

This week I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a thriller/horror. There’s a man who turns to music to overcome his stodgy and repressive upbringing; and some teenagers who turn to a surrogate mom to escape their restrictive parents.

Ma

Dir: Tate Taylor

It’s winter in small town America. Maggie (Diana Silvers) is a 16-year- old girl from San Diego starting at a new school. She just moved there so her single mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) could start a job as a cocktail waitress in a nearby casino. Luckily she quickly makes friends with the popular kids at school, a clique that includes the take-charge girl Haley (McKaley Miller), and their designated driver Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). A typical Saturday night consists of convincing a random adult to buy them alcohol, and then getting drunk at an abandoned rock pile on the outskirts of town. (Lots of fun.)

But things take a turn for the better when they meet Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a middle-aged assistant at a veterinary hospital. She says they can use her basement as their party headquarters, a place to listen to music, dance and get drunk. Word spreads quickly until every kid in town knows that’s the place where they can par-tay without grownup supervision — except Sue Ann, of course, whom they all call “Ma”. It’s a kids’ paradise. Or is it?

Maggie feels something is not quite right.

What they don’t realize is that all of their parents, even Maggie’s mom, went to high school together back in the 80s. Sue Ann went there too, something bad happened, and she wants payback. Is Sue Ann just lonely and enjoys reliving her teenaged years with local kids? Or is there something more sinister going on? And will the sins of the parents fall on their children?

Ma is a pretty good psychological thriller / teen horror movie. The casting is good, not just the main roles but even the small parts, like Allison Janney as the foul-mouthed animal doctor, Dominic Burgess as a flamboyant casino manager, and Luke Evans as Ben, a dickish security exec. But the story is a bit muddy, with the point of view shifting from Sue Ann, to Maggie to Erica. It’s not a spoiler to say this is a thriller/horror, so you know something bad is going to happen, but most of the movie is suspense leading up to the violence rather than the violence itself. Is it scary? More creepy than scary. Is it gory? A little, toward the end. And the story seems a bit lopsided, almost as unbalanced as Sue Ann herself.

While Ma is not perfect, I did enjoy watching it.

Rocketman

Dir: Dexter Fletcher

It’s England in the 1950s. Little Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) lives with his standoffish RAF dad, his self-centred mum and his kindly grandmother. He’s an ordinary kid until the day his fingers touch the keys of a piano, and suddenly everything changes. He discovers he can play perfectly, by ear, any song he hears on the radio. He enrolls in the Royal Academy of Music and starts on the path to be a professional musician.

Later, in his twenties, he works as a backup musician for a touring American soul band. He learns about rock and roll and gets his first kiss… from a guy! And he learns to reinvent himself. Reginald Dwight becomes Elton John (Taron Egerton), and the pudgy, shy boy gradually becomes the flamboyant pop star. Together with his writing partner and platonic best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) they head to London and then on to Los Angeles.

There he meets the handsome manager John Reid (Richard Madden), who takes Elton under his wing, promising incredible fame, fortune and success. But is it true love? Soon Elton John rises to the top, becoming the world’s biggest pop star playing to stadium-sized audiences… even as his personal life spirals into a decadent morass of depraved sex, drugs, alcoholism. Will Elton ever find peace with his parents, overcome his self doubt, come out publicly as gay, and find true love?

Rocketman is a biopic about Elton John from his life a a child until a low point midway through his career at a drug rehab centre. It’s also a musical. By musical, I mean an actual, old-school musical, one where the characters at any moment might burst into song accompanied by elaborately choreographed dance numbers. The dance scenes include everything, from 50s rock’n’roll dance routines, to abstract modern dance in a swimming pool, to writhing bodies at a 70s sex orgy.

The songs they sing tell Elton’s life by singing his (and Bernie Taupin’s) actual hit songs, rearranged chronologically to fit the storyline. I’m not a fan, to say the least, of most music biopics, and had very low expectations for Rocketman, but I actually really liked it. It’s a beautifully produced, seamlessly directed and highly stylized movie that moves without pause from start to finish. It has outrageous costumes, and great music – with the actors doing their own singing. And they’re really good at it, especially Taron Egerton.

If you like Elton John’s music – and even if you don’t – you won’t be disappointed by Rocketman.

Rocketman (which opened Inside Out) and Ma both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. ReelAbilities and Inside Out are both on through Sunday.

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

Light on their feet. Dykes in the Street, We are the Radical Monarchs, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, Diamantino

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, documentary, Fantasy, Feminism, Folk, LGBT, Movies, Music, Portugal, Protest, Refugees, Sports, Toronto, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 24, 2019

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

Spring festival season continues in Toronto with Inside Out LGBT Film Festival. It premiers queer movies and docs from around the world. This week I’m talking about films at InsideOut and some general releases.There’s a musician who’s a light foot, a soccer player who is light on his feet, and some women marching in solidarity, boots on the ground.

Inside Out LGBT Film Festival

Inside Out opened last night and runs for the next 10 days. It features some major releases, like the Elton John Biopic Rocketman, Mindy Kaling’s Late Night, and the latest chapters in Armistead Maupin’s amazing serial Tales of the City.

I’m not allowed to talk about any of those films yet, but let me tell you about a couple of great new docs on radical lesbians.

Dykes in the Street

Dir: Almerinda Travassos

…looks at the evolution of the dyke march in Toronto over the past 35 years. It started in 1981 with 300 women matching down Yonge and Bay streets organized by Lesbians Aganst the Right. This informative documentary combines talking heads with historical footage from the period. It talks to women who were there then and at subsequent marches ten, fifteen and thirty-five years later, as it becomes more inclusive and diverse.

Another radical lesbian documentary is shot in Oakland California:

We Are the Radical Monarchs

Dir: Linda Goldstein Knowlton

…tells about a new alternative to scouts and girl guides. Founded by Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest the Radical Monarchs go camping, learn fun songs and chants and earn badges. But they also wear berets reminiscent of the Black Panther Party, and learn about social justice activism and black and brown history in Oakland.  There’s even a Black Lives Matter badge! Adorable kids working for a good cause.

These are just a few of the dozens of great movies playing at InsideOut.

Diamantino

Wri/Dir: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt

Diamantino (Carloto Cotta) is a Portuguese soccer player at the top of his game. Like no other player, he can weave his way through a crowded field as if he’s all alone. His secret power? he sees other players as enormous fluffy pink dogs frolicking in the grass. That’s the source of his success. Diamantino is fit, popular and incredibly rich. He owns a mansion and a yacht. He’s also naïve, gullible and very stupid. Which makes him vulnerable to adversaries and villains alike.

When he first encouters refugees he is so upset he decides to adopt a teenaged boy from Africa who loves soccer. What he doesn’t realize is the “teenaged refugee” is actually the much older Aisha (Cleo Tavares) a gorgeous, lesbian secret agent. She is working undercover to find evidence of fraud and corruption in Diamantino’s many businesses.

Diamantino also has twin sisters, Sonia and Natasha (Anabela and Margarida Moreira), the real villains. They depend on their brother to finance their lavish lifestyle and don’t want to lose it… so they start spying on the spy. Something seems suspicious about that boy. Throw in some right-wing nationalists who want Diamantino to endorse their cause, and an evil scientist named Dr Lamborghini (Carla Maciel) – who drives a Lamborghini! –  and you can see all the obstacles our hero has to face. Can Diamantino survive a cruel world and remain a soccer great?

Diamantino is a bizarre and fantastical comedy, an explosion of pastel eye-candy across the screen. It’s told in an exaggerated storybook style, but deals with important issues. I can’t keep calling every movie “like nothing you’ve ever seen” but it’s safe to say this one really is.

I liked this one a lot.

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind

Wri/Dir: Martha Kehoe, Joan Tosoni

Like many Canadians I’ve heard of Gordon Lightfoot and vaguely familiar with some of his songs. But before watching this documentary I knew little about his life. Originally from Orillia Ontario, he worked his way through the folk scene in Toronto’s Yorkville and NY City’s Greenwich Village. He studied music in LA and learned to compose and arrange at an early stage, and began writing his poetic lyrics even earlier. His widely covered songs range from traditional folk melodies, to country and western, pop, rock and even the long neglected ballad genre. (The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – a six-and-a-half minute retelling of a shipwreck the year before, became an unexpected smash hit in the 1970s.)

This movie fills in a lot of gaps about his music, his career, personal problems (like alcoholism) and the meaning behind many of his lyrics. It shows him composing, recording and performing his hits, giving an inside perspective rarely seen. My only criticism is it didn’t need the overwrought ass-kissery, celebrity musicians gushing about how great Lightfoot is. (He knows it, and we know it – it feels like a eulogy, and he’s very much alive.) Luckily, that only takes up about 10-15 minutes. The rest of the documentary is outstanding, with unequalled visual and sound research. They found a recording of him singing in the church choir as a teenager, and footage of him chatting with Alex Trebec in the 1960s. There are countless family photos and films and period shots of Toronto streets meticulously covering sixty years. Just amazing. And all his best songs and performances spread out from beginning to end, getting better and better as it goes.

I went in expecting nothing, and was blown away by this great music doc.

Gordon Lightfoot and Diamantino both open today in Toronto at Hot Docs cinema and theTiff Bell Lightbox, respectively. Check your local listings. Dykes in the Street and We are the Radical Monarchs are two of many fine movies at Inside Out over the next 10 days.

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 Cristina Gallega about Birds of Passage

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Clash of Cultures, Colombia, Crime, Indigenous, Movies, War by CulturalMining.com on March 1, 2019

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

Photos of Cristina Gallega by Jeff Harris

It’s the 1960s in the deserts of La Guajira in northern Colombia, where the Waayuu, a fiercely independent  indigenous nation, make their home. A young man, Rapayet who wants to marry Zaida must bring a large dowry of cattle, goats and precious beads. He sets out on a journey with his best friend, to earn the money he needs to pay for it. He finds his answer in the marijuana trade.  Americans are willing to pay good money for sacks of it grown in the hills. But with the cannibis trade comes complications to the clan in the form of riches… but also of violence, rivalries and possible destruction. Will this new wealth destroy the Waayuu people? Or can the old ways coexist with the newfound money?

A dramatic new movie called Birds of Passage follows the characters over two decades as their lives change. It’s a chronical of life over two decades, in the 1960s and 70s, a crime story, and a study of indigenous ways. Its detailed, passionate, and epic units scope.  The film was made by the creators of Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpant, and is co-directed by noted filmmaker Cristina Gallegos.

I spoke with Cristina Gallego on location in September at TIFF 18.

Birds of Passage opens today in Toronto.

When I grow up… Films reviewed: Fighting With My Family, Never Look Away

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, Art, Biopic, comedy, Communism, Disabilities, Germany, Nazi, Sports, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 22, 2019

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

One question every kid hears is What do you want to be when you grow up? When I was three I wanted to be a fire truck. But how many stay true to their earliest ambitions? This week I’m looking at two movies about people who stick to their childhood passions. There’s an historical drama from Germany about an aspiring artist and a biopic from the UK about a perspiring wrestler

Fighting with My Family

Wri/Dir: Stephen Merchant

Saraya Knight (Francis Pugh) is a thirteen-year-old girl in a working-class neighbourhood in Norwich. Her mom and dad (Lena Headey, Nick Frost) run a business: the WAW, or World Association of Wrestlers. But like everything else in that world, it’s a bit of an exaggeration. They have one gym where they train local kids to wrestle, and take their family’s matches on the road in their shiny white van. Her life is fully immersed in the sport. Black haired and petite, Saraya uses black eyeliner and dresses in heavy metal gear. She has posters of her wrestling heroes on her wall and even made her own championship belt out of cardboard. But she has one problem: she chokes under stress.

So her big brother Zack (Jack Lowden) takes her into the ring and teaches her how to wrestle. He is her sparring partner, and they soon become an accomplished tag team. She’s a natural. But they have bigger ambitions: to be make it to the top. So when the WWE is coming to the UK they sign up for the tryouts. This is Zack and Saraya’s one chance to make it big. The auditions are led by Coach (Vince Vaughan) a hard-boiled veteran who takes no prisoners. Will Zack get in? And will he take Saraya with him? Turns out, Coach chooses her, not him!

Suddenly she finds herself in Florida surrounded by palm trees, suntans and bikinis while Zack is left in Norwich taking care of his new baby. Saraya — now called Paige — is overwhelmed by the gruelling, boot-camp workouts and the loneliness she faces. Zack feels abandoned so he cuts her off. And the fledgling wrestlers she’s paired with are all former models, dancers and cheerleaders… who don’t know how to wrestle. Professionals finesse their jabs, throws and punches so they don’t hurt so much.

Her parents and all the kids at the gym back home are rooting for her, but Paige is filled with doubt. Can the little “freak from Norwich” ever make it in pro-wrestling?

Fighting With My Family is a very cute, palatable and easy-to-watch comedy biopic, about the real female pro wrestler known as Paige. I have to admit I knew next to nothing about pro wrestling before I watched it.

What did I learn? That this sport is “fixed”, but it’s not “fake”… the wrestling part is real, and it can really hurt. That it’s a theatrical performance, much like a circus. That you have to win over an audience if you want to make it. And that your persona, while a big exaggeration, has to have some truth in it or no one will believe it. The movie is filled with salty language but no sex or violence (except in the ring). Pugh and Lowden are great as the brother and sister. Yes, it’s predictable and sentimental and I’m not going to call it a “great movie”, but I had a good time watching it.

Never Look Away (Werk Ohne Autor)

Wri/Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

1937, Germany.

Little Kurt, with his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), visits an exhibition in Dresden filled with avant-garde art. He loves the beautiful colours of fauvism, the strange distortions of cubism, and challenging images by Grozs, Kandinsky, Mondrian. But is he too young to understand the art show was put on by the Nazi government to condemn this art as bad and “degenerate”? No, he understands perfectly what they’re saying, and rejects it all.

But he listens to his aunt when she warns him to keep his drawings secret. Later, when the lovely but eccentric aunt has a strange episode they lock her up in a mental hospital. While she is there, top-ranked Nazi doctors decide to throw away not just “degenerate” art but imperfect people. Anyone with a mental illness, physical disability or a developmental handicap is sent to the gas chambers. Doctors write either a blue “minus” (keep) or a red “plus” (kill) on their files. This includes Elisabeth, condemned to death by a top Nazi gynecologist (Sebastian Koch).

Later, after the war, Kurt (Tom Schilling) is accepted into the Dresden Art Academy. But now his talent is stifled by the communist government who only want him to paint socialist realism: stern men and rosy-cheeked women harvesting wheat as they stare toward a brighter future. At the academy he meets the kind and beautiful Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), and wins her heart. Even under communism, Ellie is a “golden pheasant” from a rich, high-ranked family. They fall in love and meet for secret trysts. But when her parents come home they have to be extra cautious. While her mother is sympathetic, her father, Professor Karl Seeband, tries his best to break them up. But what no one realizes, this professor is the same doctor who sent Kurt’s aunt Elizabeth to her death!

Kurt and Ellie eventually make it to West Germany, where he joins the prestigious art academy in Düsseldorf, and lands a private studio to create the art he really wants to make. The art professor tells him his work is good but not yet special, but he still detects the talent hidden there. Will Kurt ever find his true calling? Will Seebald’s hidden war crimes be exposed? Can Ellie emerge from beneath her oppressive father’s shadow?

Never Look Away is an epic, fictionalized drama about the life of a well- known artist, spanning German history from the Nazi era, to the communist east, and to the changes in the west in the 50s and 60s. It stars some of Germany’s biggest names: tiny Tom Schilling with his high-pitched voice is still playing young men in his late thirties (and he’s great as Kurt). Paula Beer (Transit) is sweet as Ellie, Sebastian Koch is suitably sinister as the hidden Nazi Zeebald, and Saskia Rosendahl (who was amazing in Lore) once again wins as Elisabeth. The cinematography and music are all wonderful. But something seems missing from this huge drama.

At one point Kurt makes an interesting point: Take six random numbers. On their own they have no meaning. But if they are the winning numbers on a lottery ticket suddenly they become important and beautiful. I went into this movie blind, knowing nothing about it. While watching it, I kept thinking what’s the big deal about Kurt? But when he starts experimenting with smeared, black-and-white, photorealist paintings, I thought, wait a minute, those look like Gerhard Richter’s paintings! And suddenly the movie makes sense. It becomes a winning lottery ticket. Not a perfect movie – not as good as this director’s Lives of Others – but definitely worth watching.

Oscar nominee Never Look Away and Fighting With My Family 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.

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