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.

Women on the move. Films reviewed: Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Light of My Life, The Kitchen

Posted in 1970s, comedy, Crime, Drama, L.A., New York City, Peru, post-apocalypse, psychedelia, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 9, 2019

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

Who says exciting movies are always about men? This week, I’m looking at three movies about girls and women facing danger in unusual places. There’s a pre-teen girl surviving post-apocalyptic America; a teenager exploring the jungles of Peru; and a gang of middle-aged housewives fighting back in Hell’s Kitchen.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Dir: James Bobin

Dora (Isabela Moner) is a smart and friendly 16 year old girl. She was brought up by her academic parents (Eva Langoria, Michael Peña) in the jungles of Peru, where she made friends with all the animals – especially Boots, a monkey. Now her parents want to discover the legendary ruins of Parapata, an Incan city of gold – not as treasure hunters, but as explorers. But it could be dangerous. So they send her to stay with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) in far off LA. But life at Silverlake High is not what she expected. Despite her relentless positivity, students tease her for her childlike un-coolness.

Diego finds her embarrassing. Student president Sammy (Madeleine Madden) scorns her as a rival. Only astronomy nerd Randy (Nicholas Coombe) likes her. But when she is kidnapped and flown back to Peru, along with Randy, Sammy and Diego. it’s up to Dora to escape the bad guys – including mercenary treasure hunters and a masked fox named Swiper – rescue her friends, and find the Incan ruins of Parapata.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a very cute take on the popular educational kids show. It’s simultaneously a tongue-in-cheek satire of the original cartoon, and a deadpan recreation of it. Boots and Swiper are there in CGI, but there’s no talking backpack. It’s primarily for kids, but there’s lots of laughs for grownups – like a psychedelic drug scene and a bit of romance. There’s even a song about how to dig a hole to bury your poop when camping in the woods. I saw it with a 50%-toddler audience who loved it. I liked it, too.

Light of My Life

Dir: Casey Affleck

Rag (Anna Pniowsky) is a tough, outdoorsy girl going camping with her dad (Casey Affleck). She’s a preteen with short hair dressed in boyish clothes. He tells her bible stories to put her to sleep. Thing is, they’re not camping for fun. A terrible plague wiped away half the world’s population – the female half – right when she was born. So rag, short for raggedy ann, grew up in an all-male world. leaving only men and some boys. Her dad is terrified about what might happen to her – men can’t be trusted. So they live in a perpetual state of seclusion and escape. He never sleeps. He teaches her how to spell – she reads voraciously – and about the birds and the bees.

They find an empty house and move in, but Dad is terrified when she tries on girls clothes. But when they find an isolated house populated only by bible-thumping grandpas, he thinks they might finally live a normal life. Can the one of the last girls on earth lead a normal life? And will her dad ever relax?

Light of My Life is a low-budget drama about the love between a father and a daughter in extreme circumstances. It’s filled with long scenes of flashlight-lit dialogue in lush, moss-filled forests, punched with occasional bursts of fear and violence. Anna Pniowsky is fantastic as Rag, and Affleck is good as her conflicted father.

I just wonder… what is the point of this movie? That girls in an all-male world will still gravitate to their own gender expression? That guns, bible, and the family are the only things we can trust? This is a zombie movie without zombies, and not nearly as good as Leave No Trace (about a dad and daughter living off the grid). This movie is not bad, just not that great or original.

The Kitchen

Dir: Andrea Berloff

It’s 1978 on a hot summer’s night in Hell’s Kitchen. Claire, Cathy and Ruby are three working class women waiting to hear from their husbands, gangsters with the Irish mob. Cathy (Mellissa McCarthy) is happily married with two young kids. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), originally from Harlem, is an outsider who doesn’t get along with her matriarchical mother-in-law (Margo Martindale). And Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is just a punching bag for her abusive husband. But when their husbands get jailed by the Feds, they find themselves with no money, no income and few prospects for work. So they decide to take over their husbands’ jobs.

Though untrained, they seem to have a knack for collecting protection payments from local stores. And when they fight off rivals within their husbands’ gang, they become “queenpins” of the neighbourhood. Cathy does the talking, Ruby collects the bucks, and Claire finds new strength in doing “the messy stuff” – shooting, killing, and getting rid of dead bodies. She’s tutored in these skills by Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), a ginger-haired hitman with a history. Their business expands northward and southward, with graft, extortion and prostitution. But can they handle the disloyal members of their gang, powerful Mafia dons from Brooklyn, and FBI agents on their tail? And what will happen when their husbands get out of jail?

The Kitchen is a brilliant new twist on the classic gangster movie, with three women rising up in a dog-eat-dog world. Based on a comic, it’s full of love, compassion, violence and intrigue. McCarthy and Haddish are comic actors but convincing in their serious roles, and Moss and Gleeson are even better.There are some missteps. Could working-class financially-strapped women in the late 1970s have no experience working? And some bizarre references to Gloria Steinem and “feminism” seem totally out of line. (There’s no feminist solidarity here; these are three criminals clawing their way to the top.) And the ending is lacklustre. But altogether this is a beautifully shot, fast-moving story that’s fun to watch. The Kitchen is a great crime drama, with women in the lead.

The Kitchen, Light of My Life, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with 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.

Back from the Dead. Films reviewed: Pet Sematary, The Invisibles, Amazing Grace

Posted in 1940s, 1970s, Animals, Berlin, Christianity, documentary, Drama, Dreams, Germany, Holocaust, Horror, L.A., Music by CulturalMining.com on April 5, 2019

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

We all know people are born and they die, things come and go. But every once in a while things and people we believe are long gone seem to come back to life. This week I’m looking at three very different movies about coming back from the dead. There’s Aretha’s gospel concert buried since 1972; a documentary about young German Jews who hide in Nazi Berlin till 1945; and a horror movie about pets who come back from their graves in small town Maine.

Pet Sematary

Dir: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer

(Based on the novel by Stephen King)

Louis (Jason Clarke) is a Boston doctor suffering from ER burnout. He’s overworked, overstressed, and overtired. So to relax and spend more time with his family he takes and easy job in the quaint small town of Ludlow, Maine. He’s there with his nervous, religious wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two kids, little Gage, and his pride and joy Ellie. Ellie (Jeté Laurence) is an eight year old who loves ballet dancing and her furry cat Church (short for Winston Churchill). Their old wooden house is on a sprawling estate in a small forest with a high speed highway running through it. But their quiet lives are disrupted by some strange events. First, when a young patient of Louis dies in his care after a car accident, the dead boy seems to return, over and over to talk to him in his dreams.

Then Ellie sees kids from town in spooky animal masks burying dead pets on their property. It’s an ancient custom, explains kindly old Jud (John Lithgow) their nearest neighbour. He’s lived there all his life and understands the local lore. So when Ellie is despondent when her beloved cat is run over Jud tells Louis a secret. There’s powerful magic up on the mountain beyond the pet cemetery. Bury the cat under a cairn and he will come back to you from the dead. Sure enough, Jud is right. But it isn’t cute and loveable anymore. When you play with the the forces of good and evil, of life and death, bad things will surely happen.

Pet Sematary – a remake of the movie based on the Stephen King novel – is suitably scary. The small, excellent cast nicely contained in a single location give it a good cabin-in-the-woods quality, but it’s scariness is less adventurous. It uses the age-old techniques – spooky dreams, little “boo!” moments, even twists on the overused images of the mirror in medicine cabinet, and the dark room in the basement. And then it degenerates from scariness into outright, Bride-of-Chucky kitsch. I enjoyed Pet Sematary as a good, old-skool horror movie, just don’t expect anything new.

The Invisibles

Dir: Claus Räfle

It’s 1943, in Nazi Berlin, and Joseph Goebels has officially declares his Germany’s capital judenfrei – free of Jews. But he doesn’t realize that 7,000 Jewish Germans still lived their hidden in plain view. This docudrama tells four true stories about young people who survived the Holocause while living in Berlin. They don’t hide in an attic like Anne Frank’s family; instead they continue their lives right in the middle of everything.  Cioma (Max Mauff) sells all his possessions and poses as someone whose house was bombed in Köln, moving to new vacant rooms each day. He finds work for a high placed civil servant forging ID papers. Hanni (Alice Dwyer) bleaches her hair, calls herself Hannelore and hangs out in dark movie theatres in the Kurfürstendamm. Ruth (Ruby O. Fee) and a friend find jobs as maid and nanny for the kids of Nazi officers. And Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is placed with former colleagues of his dad a doctor, and dressing in hitler’s youth uniforms. But there are informants and Gestapo agents everywhere, searching for people like them. Who will survive?

The Invisibles is a fascinating retelling of largely unknown stories. It’s part documentary – the film regularly cuts to interviews in German with the actual people it happened to – and part drama with the thrilling stories replayed by well-known young actors.

Fascinating and thrilling stories, well told.

Amazing Grace

Dir: Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliott

Its 1972 at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, LA.

Reverend James Cleveland is leading a very special service for his devout parishioners. None other than the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin herself will be performing, alongside the Southern California Community Choir. The congregation is urged to feel the spirit, clap their hands, and get up from their seats and dance. But wait a minute — since when has pop sensation Aretha Franklin beena gospel singer? The answer is: all her life. Her father is the famous Detroit Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, and she was touring churches with her amazing voice since the age of six.

This concert became a huge hit album – many people say it’s Aretha’s best recordings – and the movie includes her back-up musicians, the choir, and the audience, including some very famous people, like Mick Jagger, gospel singer Clara Ward and lots of others I couldn’t quite recognize. A beautiful, intensely moving concert and church service. Interestingly, it’s been sitting in film cans, unscreened until now. For some reason, Aretha blocked its release her whole life, perhaps because it is so personal to her, perhaps because the sound and images were never synchronized. That’s all fixed now.

It’s a grainy hyper-realistic verité-style film that shows everything: retakes, the cameramen, the soundboard, the director running around pointing, and Aretha in a sparkling white gown, sweating under the hot lights. If you’re a fan of Aretha Franklin, and want to experience those two days of 1972, you must see Amazing Grace.

Pet Sematary and The Invisibles both open today in Toronto; check your local listings, and you can see Amazing Grace beginning next Friday.

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.

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