Flashback. Films Reviewed: The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Rings, Shepherds and Butchers

Posted in 1940s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Canada, Coming of Age, Horror, Montreal, Movies, Prison, Seattle, South Africa, Trial by CulturalMining.com on February 3, 2017

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUTflashback-film-fest 89.5 FM.

If the 1970s was Hollywood’s golden age then the 80s and 90s were its tin foil age —when a series of corporate takeovers placed short-term profits over creativity, and the Oscars celebrated forgettable, middle-brow pap. Even so, there were some fun and popular movies from 80s and 90s. Films like Alien, Shallow Grave, and Starship Troupers are playing at Cineplex’s Flashback Film Festival (FBFF) across Canada starting today, giving you a chance to revisit favourites on the big screen.

This week I’m looking at flashbacks. There’s a rerelease of a Canadian coming-of-age classic from the 70s, a flashback to a courtroom drama set in apartheid South Africa in the 80s; and a new sequel to a Japanese horror movie from the 90s.

duddy_kravitz_4colThe Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974)

Dir: Ted Kotcheff Based on the novel by Mordecai Richler

It’s the 1940s in a poor, Jewish section of Montreal. Duddy Kravitz (Richard Dreyfuss) is a teenager recently graduated from Fletcher’s Field (a.k.a. Baron Byng) High School. MBDAPOF EC001He lives with his widowed father Max (Jack Warden) who works as a taxi driver and part-time pimp, and his big brother Lennie. Lennie is a smart and sophisticated med student at McGill. But Duddy has neither the brains nor the inclination to study.

He’s a boorish and loud, nervous and uncouth, always sweating and scratching, jumping MBDAPOF EC008and cussing. He has a filthy mouth and an intrusive manner. With no friends or admirers he just wants to get rich quick. His idol is a gangster known as The Boy Wonder (Henry Ramer), and his favourite retort is kiss my Royal Canadian Ass.

He gets a summer job at a holiday resort in the Laurentiens, but is relentlessly put down by rich kids from Westmount and Outrement. He makes friend with a pretty waitress named Yvette (Micheline Lanctot). They fall for each other and she takes him to a secret spot beside a pristine lake. He’s struck by its beauty and vows to buy it, but is blocked by Québécois farmers who never sell property to jewish people. And Yvette is turned off by his constant drive for profits and MBDAPOF EC006wealth.

Duddy sets off on a series of impossible ventures he thinks will make enough money to buy the land: Importing Pinball machines with his friend Virgil, an American he meets on a train (Randy Quaid); and producing films with an alcoholic British communist (Denholm Elliot). But in his quest for success, he risks alienates his friends, his lover and his family. What will he learn from his apprenticeship with the real world?

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is a hilarious and audacious drama from the 70s which deserves to be seen on the big screen. It’s a dark slice of Canadian life, a world full of bigotry, snobbery, selfishness and deceit, tempered with the glorious freedom of a young man pursuing his dreams.

15871828_1198279710249685_2066179248684362877_nRings

Dir: F. Javier Gutierrez

Julia (Matilda Lutz ) is a high school grad in small town USA. She’s sad because her pretty, but dumb-as-a-post boyfriend (Alex Roe) is heading off to university in Seattle. Don’t worry, Holt says, I’ll skype you every night. But when the calls stop coming and he doesn’t answer her texts, brave Julia heads off to Seattle to investigate. And she finds something strange: there’s an old black-and-white video everyone tells her to watch. Everyone she meets tell her to watch. What she doesn’t know is that anyone who watches this video will be dead in seven days. But if you trick someone else into15844158_1196804380397218_3255840937653140664_o watching it, you get another seven days added to your life.

Like Orpheus in the underworld, Julia decides to forge ahead, rescuing her boyfriend from Hell. She intentionally watches the dreaded video, and using her powers of second sight – she’s clairvoyant — she decides to follow a ghost to its point of origin. But first she has to deal with a secretive professor named Gabriel (Johnny Galecki) and a blind graveyard custodian (Vincent d’Onofrio).

Can Julia rescue Holt, defeat a ghost with long black hair, and figure out the meaning behind the cursed video tape?

Rings is a reboot of the scary Japanese movie Ring and its sequels. Last week I interviewed two ghosts from that era, Sadako vs Kayako. In the American films, Sadako is Samara, and urban Japan becomes a village somewhere in Washington State. More than that, Rings trades the chill feel of video static for a more conventional American ghost story.

Is it scary? A little, especially towards the end as Julie’s visions start to pay off. But the story is so ridiculously disjointed it’s laughable. It treats the original Ring just as a jumping-off point for an unrelated story, discarding much of what made the original so scary.

29_img_8235Shepherds and Butchers

Dir: Oliver Schmitz

It’s 1987 in Apartheid-era South Africa. Leon Labuschagne (Garion Dowds) a white Afrikaner, is arrested for murdering seven black African members of a soccer club in a quarry. The seven bodies were found neatly lined up in a row. The accused refuses to defend himself or even to say anything about what he did; he says he can’t remember. It’s an open 08_img_6438and shut case. Or is it?

In walks the famed jurist Johan Webber (Steve Coogan), a staunch opponent to the death penalty. While not contesting the actual crime, instead he says it is the brutal South African justice system that led to the crime. A church-going shy kid turned into a mass murderer in just a few years? Preposterous!

It turns out Leon since age 17 has been forced  to work on death row in a maximum security prison. His work is like a shepherd, tending to the needs — food, showers, and prayers — of  men  “on the rope” (waiting to be hanged). But he’s also a butcher, forced to 32_img_6718kill — en masse, often seven at a time — the same men he takes care of.

His story is told at his trial in a series of gruesome and realistic flashbacks. Johan goads him into recounting what he – and the prisoners — has been through. This film shows the horrors of capital punishment, and particularly 47_img_9027the mass executions held in South Africa, in graphic detail. It is horrifying and extremely hard to watch, because it brings you the viewer  right into the gallows itself. Shepherds and Butchers is a touching story about an important topic, but believe me, it is not for the faint of heart.

Rings and Shepherds and Butchers both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is playing for free this Sunday as part of the Canada on Screen series. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

Hidden identities. Films reviewed: Made in France, Moonlight, The Handmaiden

Posted in 1930s, 1990s, African-Americans, Crime, Cultural Mining, Drama, France, Korea, LGBT, Sex, Terrorism, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on October 28, 2016

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

Hallowe’en weekend is a time of mysteries and hidden identities. If you want to stay home and shiver, there’s a new movie streaming channel called shudder.com that only does the scary. Everything from Japanese horror, to low budget slashers, to classics like Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. (And don’t miss The Editor, the hilarious spoof of 1970s Italian giallo horror.) But if you want to head out, there are some great movies opening in Toronto. This Hallowe’en, no monsters; instead I am looking at hidden identities. There’s a shy Korean maid who’s actually a con artist, a French terrorist who’s actually an undercover journalist, and a black kid in 90s Miami, whose sexual identity is a secret… even to himself.

img_3644-640x426Made in France

Dir: Nicolas Boukhrief

Sam (Malik Zidi) is a red-bearded, freelance journalist, the son of an Algerian dad and a French Marxist mom. To research a story, he attends a radical mosque that holds meetings in a metal-gated storage locker. There he meets three other French men. Christophe (Francois Civil) is a rich Catholic guy who sees himself as img_3865-640x426a gangsta, like Tony Montano in Scarface. Driss (Nassim Si Ahmed) is a tough boxer, radicalized while in prison for drug offences. Sidi (Ahmed Drame) is a good son, whose African cousin was killed by French soldiers in Mali. Ironically, only Sam, the undercover journalist, has any religious training or can speak Arabic.

img_8249-640x426They fall under the command of a mysterious man named Hassan (Dimitri Storoge). His motives are a secret. He says he trained at a bootcamp in Pakistan and is in contact with a terrorist group. Sam is married with a kid, and is staying in a flop house to keep them safe. But when he reports his story to the police, they threaten him with prison unless he stays with the cel and finds img_9133-640x426out who their “big boss” is. Can he survive life with this ragtag gang and the sinister Hassan? And will innocent people die in the process?

Made in France is a tight thriller told from the point of view of would-be homegrown terrorists. It has never been screened there, for obvious reasons – it was made just before the terrible Charlie Hebdo shootings and postponed again following the Bataclan massacre. But it still stands up as a good crime thriller.

MoonlightMoonlight

Wri/Dir: Barry Jenkins

Chiron is a small, shy kid who lives in a mainly black neighbourhood in 1990s Miami. He is relentlessly bullied after school, with his crack-head mom never there to defend him. Juan (Mahershala Ali, Luke Cage) comes to his rescue when he sees the kid chased into an abandoned building. He takes him home where his wife feeds and comforts him. But Chiron remains completely silent, not trusting himself to speak. Juan vows to be his protector and Moonlightserves as his mentor, teaching him to swim at the local beach. The boy views him in awe and adulation. Ironically, Juan is the neighbourhood drug kingpin, the one supplying the crack that’s destroying his mother.

Chiron is relentlessly bullied and beaten up. Only one friend, Kevin, shows any affection. He can’t understand why he lets other kids beat him up, and call him the “F” word. He gradually matures, but is always drawn back to that stretch of moonlit beach where he formed and later expressed his sexual identity.

MoonlightMoonlight is a superb coming-of-age drama, portrayed by mainly unknown black actors. It’s moving and surprising. The gradually-paced, subtle story is told in three chapters: as kid, adolescent and adult (wonderfully played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes)

Chiron goes through a troubled childhood, an explosion in high school, adopting an unexpected persona as a grown-up. But in each section he revisits his declining mother, his unreliable best friend Kevin,  and that stretch of moonlit beach. Fantastic film, brilliantly told.

97b32291-67f9-48f7-a0c7-bcf7a46c6544The Handmaiden

Dir: Chan-Wook Park

It’s 1930s Korea. Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri) is a shy handmaiden who lives in a grotesque mansion run by a fabulously rich Japanese baron. Hired for her Japanese ability, she works for an uptight heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee). Imperial Japan annexed Korea in 1910, and is now trying to Japanize the entire country.  When a suitor arrives seeking the Lady’s hand in marriage, Sook-hee serves as her confidant. The 383a2f0a-21c2-41ac-bb80-cc81816180dedashing Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo) has swept her off her feet and promises a wonderful life in Japan. But Sook-Hee seems to have fallen hopelessly in love with her naïve mistress, and wants to school her in the Sapphic arts. This love triangle spells trouble.

But wait! Nothing is quite what it seems. All the players in this drama are actually Korean speakers. Uncle Kouzuki is a nouveau riche 30465dc1-7ad7-4f9f-96c0-809875d0d181Korean robber baron who invested his money in Japanese erotic books. His proper niece reads them aloud to a select crowd of well-paying gentlemen. Meanwhile, both Sook-Hee and the Count belong to a Korean street gang of pickpockets and con artists, who, in a complex scheme,  have infiltrated the mansion to defraud them of their millions. Jealousy, lust romance and deceit swirl around 0981b274-14bd-480d-9e06-5bc5179f5ed7this strange foursome. But who’s fooling whom?

Based on Sarah Waters’ Dickinsian novel, The Handmaiden is a fun, sexual romp relocated from Victorian England to prewar Korea. With trapezes, bondage, marionettes, even tentacles, this movie is a total perv-fest. The story is told and retold from the point of view of the three characters. But far from a lesson in lesbian politics, the movie seems told from a male perspective, its twisted plot serving mainly as a vehicle for the audience’s sexual titillation.

Made in France is playing tonight as part of the Cinefranco International Film Festival. Go to cinefranco.com for details. Moonlight and The Handmaiden 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.

Out of Their Element. Movies reviewed: Triple 9, Only Yesterday, Where to Invade Next PLUS Oscar predictions

Posted in 1990s, Animation, comedy, Coming of Age, Corruption, Crime, Cultural Mining, documentary, Japan, Movies, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2016

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

The White Oscars are on this Sunday, and here are some of my predictions. But beware: I’m often completely wrong.

Animated feature: Pete Docter & Jonas Rivera (Inside Out) ✓
Foreign language: Ciro Guerra (Embrace the Serpent) X
Documentary: Amy (Asif Kapadia & James Gay-Rees) ✓
Original screenplay: Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) ✓
Adapted screenplay: Emma Donoghue (Room) X
Supporting actor: Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight) X
Supporting actress: Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) X
Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant) ✓
Actress: Brie Larson (Room) ✓
Director: Lenny Abrahamson (Room) X
Best picture: Room X

This week I’m looking at movies about people out of their element. There’s a documentary about a Michigander in Europe, an action/thriller about Atlanta bank robbers in a cop shop, and a Japanese anime about a Tokyo dweller on a farm.

gallery_onesheetTriple 9
Dir: John Hillcoat

Early one morning, Russel and Gabe, Marcus and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr) and their leader Michael pull of a perfect bank robbery in Atlanta, taking lots of cash, and leaving no fingerprints. Why are they so good at it? Because they’re cops… crooked cops. They split the cash and prepare to pull off gallery_chrisjeffreyjust one more robbery.

Problem is there’s a new cop in town named Chris (Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone) investigating this crime. He’s a straight arrow. He’s looking for clues around the Latino section of Atlanta with a gang war in proigress. He doesn’t realize that his partner Marcus (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker) is crooked.

In fact the street gangs have nothing to do with the bank heist, gallery_michaelelenait’s tied to organized crime. Specifically: the Russian mob, headed by Irina (Kate Winslet, Titanic), the blond Russian kingpin.  (…Queenpin?) She’s running her hubby’s Kosher meat empire while he’s behind bars. And what’s the police connection? Policeman Mike (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Twelve Years a Slave) is married to Irina’s beautiful sister Elena (Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman) – and they have a black, Jewish kid gallery_irinaparkinglottogether (named Drake?).

That’s not all. Russell and Gabe (Norman Reedus, The Walking Dead; Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad) are brothers, and Chris – who is Marcus’s detective partner – is the son of another cop (Woody Harrelson, Rampart) His dad smokes pot and expects freebies from his transsexual prostitute informant, but he’s considered “not corrupt”. Which group will triumph — good cops or bad cops? Criminals or the mob?

All clear now? I didn’t think so. This is such a confusing movie. There are a dozen important characters each with his own reason for double-crossing someone else. Triple 9 has a great illustrious cast, but they’re wasted in this messy, shoot-em-up, cops and robbers story. Not boring… just pointless.

48vgKk_Only_Yesterday_Trailer_o3_8939181_1455135765Only Yesterday
Dir: Takahata Isao

It’s the early 1990s in Tokyo. Maeko is an office worker in her late 20s, who finds life dull and pointless. So to perk things up she decides to go back to the land… on vacation, at least. She pays money to a farming family to let her help them with the harvest of WnK5vg_Only_Yesterday_credit__1991_Hotaru_Okamoto_-_Yuko_Tone_-_GNH_(1)_o3_8935474_1455135738safflower blossoms.

The long journey by train gives her time to think and remember. Almost unbidden, memories of her childhood come flooding back. When she was in grade 5, everything — like her first crush, first tampon, even her first taste of a fresh pineapple — seemed much more JZKORD_Only_Yesterday_credit__1991_Hotaru_Okamoto_-_Yuko_Tone_-_GNH_(4)_o3_8935564_1455135750important.

Life on the farm also gives her a connection to a greater history: how the safflowers crushed by once-poor farmers becomes the rouge used by rich city women to blush their cheeks. Even the runoff water becomes the pink dye used for the clothing she wears. The people she meets there — especially Toshio, the goofy country guy who clearly qjpO93_Only_Yesterday_credit__1991_Hotaru_Okamoto_-_Yuko_Tone_-_GNH_(5)_o3_8935596_1455135751likes her — seem more real, more important than her “friends” in the city. But what will she do when the summer is over?

Only Yesterday is a 25-year-old animated film from famed Ghibli studios, rereleased in English with Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel providing the voices of Maeko and Toshio. I have mixed feelings about this one. I like how it deals with real life problems and its beautiful animation, with bright colours for the 1990s Maeko and faded, old-fashioned illustrations for her as a child. But there’s a super-earnest tone to it, with lots of educational bits, like a kids’ show on NHK (Japan’s public TV). And it has some long silent parts, without sound effects or music, that make you squirm.

Much like Maeko’s childhood memories, the film somehow seems better in retrospect than while you’re watching it.

acbcc98e-e19f-4532-b534-2424684a1e6aWhere to Invade Next
Dir: Michael Moore

More Americans – especially African Americans and Latinos — are in prison than in any other country in the world. Decent education and health care are still out of reach for many people, with spiraling debt and falling incomes. How can America solve its huge social problems? It’s easy, says Michael Moore. Let’s invade Europe again and take home its best ideas. Armed only with an American flag and a camera, Moore visits the best parts of the EU to record its plusses. Like affordable, delicious school lunches in France, complete with 19 cheeses; the kids shudder fb3cab01-2368-4ad7-83d1-a6beb0ed251dto see Moore guzzling a can of Coke. Or free universities in Slovenia. Generous union contracts in Italy. There are open prisons in Norway that reintegrate prisoners back into society. When the stock market crashed in Iceland they arrested the brokers responsible. And Germany makes sure its school kids know all about the atrocities in their history. (We should be so lucky.)

The movie starts with a fast-moving, hard-hitting news 5ea9a85c-ecb6-4e85-8337-1504b51ab17amontage about American life, well worth the price of the film. After that, it’s a gentle, cute, and completely enjoyable travelogue of the best of Europe. (The film was made before the huge influx of Syrian refugees, where some European countries are showing their uglier sides… but that’s a different movie.) Basically, Where to Invade Next is like a travel guide to places where Bernie Sanders’ election promises are already in place.

Triple 9, Only Yesterday, and Where to Invade Next all open today: check your local listings. And if you’re into wolverines — not X-Men, the real thing — check out the rare footage in Wolverine: Ghost of the Northern Forest, a new documentary on CBC’s the Nature of Things this weekend.

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

Philadelphia Freedom. Movies reviewed: Jingle Bell Rocks, Let the Fire Burn

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies forculturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I was in the US for American Thanksgiving. Had a wonderful visit to family and friends, beautiful places, lots to see and do. But you wouldn’t know it if you watched TV news on Black Friday. It’s an orgiastic  frenzy of consumer excess slapped onto an otherwise sedate family weekend. All you could see on TV was the repeated image of two women at a Philadelphia Walmart tasing each other to get at a discount i-Pad. Just crazy.

But they segue nicely into my themes this week: Philadelphia and holiday excess. I’m looking at Canadian documentary about Christmas music. And an American doc about a firebomb dropped on a radical commune in Philadelphia.

mitch_hat_vigJingle Bell Rocks

Dir: Mitchel Kezin

Mitchel is obsessed with Christmas songs., Not the traditional carols or sing-alongs — Silent Night, Jingle Bells —  but the many, possibly countless, record albums released over the past 60-70 years. He believes that, among all the treacle and dross they play constantly for a month and a half every year, there are gems to be discovered. So he goes to every flea market, ducks into every used record store he sees, on the off chance there’s an indie treasure waiting to be rediscovered.

It all started with a Nat King Cole song about a little kid pining for his absentee dad, who won’t be home for Chistmas. His own dad was never there and eventually his parents were divorced. Now he feels driven to recreate the sad feelings john_waters_pic2he remembers from a melancholy tune.

And he’s not alone. There’s a hip-hop producer, a radio DJ, and a rock star, each with their obsessive horde of old Xmas vinyl.

The movie spans decades, including everything from be-bop jazz (that’s Bob Dorough singing with the Miles Davis Quintet in the background) to soul – there’s a risqué song about a Backdoor Santa – to Vietnam protest songs, ordinary pop, bill_adler&rev-run_prod2counter-culture kitsch and hip hop, all the way to the nineties and beyond.

Stars include Flaming Lips, Run DMC, and John Waters, with the movie culminating in an amazing recording session with calypso legend Mighty Sparrow.

Not bad for a documentary. Jingle Bell Rocks is 90-minute look at an ordinary – if oddball – guy with a hording obsession. I can sympathize with the narrator’s plight, but never feel his drive. Anyway, it’s a light subject, not intrinsically exciting. But it’s saved by the music: great tunes.

let the fire burn poster_largeLet the Fire Burn

Dir: Jason Osder

In the mid 1980s, Philadelphia — a city I love — experienced a terrifying event. A home was bombed, and many people were killed. You might think: terrorists? But the bomb was dropped on a row house from a helicopter… by the police! And as the fire grew, the fireman stood by to letthefireburn.photo03watch the flames engulf a city block.

How could this have happened? Some background.

Half a century after the civil rights movement, Philadelphia is still a de facto segregated city. It experienced decades of unrest and white flight to the exurbs. Much of this was related to the combative stance letthefireburn.photo05of the police force and City Hall, led, in the 1970s by Frank Rizzo.

A former police commissioner, Rizzo fought a personal battle against radical groups like the Black Panthers, displaying, at times, seemed more loyalty to his fellow police than toward the people of the city. He was known for his harsh treatment of black people, in general. Well, right in the middle of this was a small, black-to-nature group known as MOVE, headed by the self-named John Africa. They believed in such “radical” concepts as a vegan diet, the raw food movement, animal rights — a new religion that was anti-pesticide letthefireburn.photo02and anti-technology. The kids walked around naked and everyone shared the same last name. They also proselytized loudly in public, using a megaphone, not endearing themselves to their neighbours.

The police accused them of being an armed terrorist group and raided their home. In the melee a cop was killed, but it was never determined where the shot came from. (The police were caught on video brutally attacking an unarmed Delbert Africa.) Nine members of MOVE were convicted of third-degree murder and jailed.

Seven years later, in an apparent act of revenge for the  policeman’s death, they dropped two fire bombs – supplied by the FBI — on the urban commune and stood by, as 11 people, including five small children, letthefireburn.photo01died. Afterwards, the city’s Mayor, W. Wilson Goode, called for an investigation.

This excellent movie tells the story in an unusual way. The documentary is composed entirely of  period news footage, TV interviews, and, most of all, the recorded testimony of the inquiry. There’s no narrator, only voices from that time, preserved on tape. Police and survivors of the bombing all testify why they did what they did and bring light to what was happening that tragic day. (Some police were appalled by what happened and did what they could to rescue people, while others clearly supported it.) Especially poignant is the testimony of a little boy, Birdie Africa, who clears up many of the false claims and misconceptions about what went on. This is a stunning movie and an excellent oral history.

Jingle Bell Rocks (Hot Docs) and Let the Fire Burn (TIFF Bell Lightbox) 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 .

Secretive Groups. Movies Reviewed: Pussy Riot, Kill Team, Pain & Gain PLUS Hot Docs!

Posted in 1990s, Bodybuilders, Cultural Mining, documentary, Movies, Punk, Russia, Trial, Uncategorized, War by CulturalMining.com on April 26, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Hot Docs – Toronto’s legendary Film Festival that shows over 200 documentaries in one week – is on now. It brings cutting edge documentaries from around the world, the filmmakers, and subjects, It’s centered on the Hot Docs cinema on Bloor St, but runs movies and events all around the downtown. And if you’re a student or a senior, you can get free rush tickets for any daytime screening.

What do conspiracies look like? They can be a group of well-meaning protesters, a gang of thieves, or a secret cabal of soldier killers. This week I’m looking at three films about secretive groups whose actions run up against the law and morality. One’s about Russian feminist punks who run into trouble with Putin and the Russian Orthodox church; another’s about a whistleblower in the US military who gets charged with murder; and a third is about some ambitious bodybuilders who want their slice of the pie – and will do whatever is necessary to get it.

The_Kill_Team_2Kill Team

Dir: Dan Krauss

When the photos of Abu Ghraib hit the papers, people were shocked at the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers. But a series of incidents in Afghanistan , even more shocking than Abu Ghraib are the subject of a new expose. Here’s what happened.

Winfield, a young skinny marine, the smallest in his unit, notices a strange shift in his unit when a new commanding officer, Gibbs, arrives. Gibbs has a reputation for violence during his term in Iraq. And now he was demanding his soldiers take down Afghan civilians – boys and yound men — in their area. Gibbs forms an elite squad, a “Kill Team”, who are The_Kill_Team_3sent out on “drop weapon” missions. This means they would surprise someone, kill him, and then drop a weapon they had brought for that purpose beside the dead body to justify the killing. And then pose for smiling souvenir photos.

So Winfield becomes a whistleblower, sending out word of these heinous murders to his family, asking them to report it. But, through a series of events that the film reveals, the whistleblower ends up being arrested and charged with murder for the very events he was trying to prevent. The movie tells the story of the various marines involved in this particular unit, as the trials and court-martials are prepared. This disturbing documentary also suggests that these practices were not restricted to that one unit but are common practice among soldiers in Afghanistan. They were just the only ones caught. While mainly talking heads – the various soldiers telling their stories – and with a few too many scenes involving negotiatins with lawyers – it is a serious, important film. The Kill Team puts the integrity of the entire Afghan mission into question.

Pussy_Riot_A_Punk_Prayer_1Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Dir: Maxim Pozdorovkin, Mike Lerner

Pussy Riot is a Russian feminist punk band. They perform their protest pieces wearing neon-coloured balaclavas to cover their faces, playing guitar and singing about government corruption, human rights and freedom of expression. But something happened when they choose to sing about Putin’s ties to the Russian Orthodox church’s patriarchy on the actual altar of a famous cathedral. Within seconds police swarm the stage and arrest three of them for trespassing and defaming religion.

And so begins a lengthy trial followed around the world. The movie interviews the three prisoners – Nadia, Maria and Ekatarina – their families, co-performers and friends. Performance art, public satire and the avant garde, while familiar in the west (where it’s met with yawns or raised eyebrows) are new and genuinely revolutionary in Russia. Somehow, the filmmakers got their cameras and microphones into the trial itself, with perfect views of the three women boxed into a glass cage, as if they were Hannibal Lecters on trial for mass murder. It’s a rare glimpse into the Russian justice system, where playing a simple protest tune still holds the threat of a term in a Siberian prison camp.

Pussy Riot is a must-see at Hotdocs.

PG-01Pain & Gain

Dir: Michael Bay

Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a musclehead personal trainer. He’s given to mindless slogans to inspire him. He’s all about the American dream, being a doer not a don’t-er, and yo, bitches, his body is his temple, his muscles a shrine to physical power (“no homo!”). It’s Miami in the 90’s. This is America — a buff, pimpin’ nation! Or so say the men with fake orange tans at Sun Gym.

But Danny just isn’t making enough money – and he wants to have it all. So he gathers a team of ex-cons to kidnap his client Pepe, an obnoxious, middle-aged Jewish guy from Colombia. After some trouble and some violent episodes, their scheme pays off – they’re rich! They have everything now: a mansion, a sportscar, a yacht, cocaine, a Romanian girlfriend, penile implants… But a persistent P.I. (Peter Weller) is on their trail. Will he catch them in the act?

Pain & Gain is a mildly interesting comedy /action movie. It’s just not that funny, or that PG-12interesting, and without much action. The main characters are all caricatures – Dwayne Johnson (“the Rock”) is OK as a sub-normal, born-again body-builder; Tony Shalhoub is great as the world’s most annoying kidnappee; and Mark Wahlberg does his wannabe criminal mastermind very well. But the characters seem to be there just so the audience can laugh at how stupid they all are. (It’s also a weirdly structured movie. The plot repeatedly screeches to a halt to give each character a freeze-frame and an extended voiceover explaining their backstory, out loud. Why?) Pain & Gain is intentionally kitschy, mildly offensive and aims for the lowest common denominator… but it still entertains.

Pain and Gain opens today, check your listings; and Hot Docs is on now: for showtimes of movies like Pussy Riot (screening today) and Kill Team, go to hotdocs.ca.

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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