Bad Students. Films Reviewed: Lady Bird, Bad Genius, My Friend Dahmer

Posted in 1970s, 2000s, Coming of Age, Crime, High School, Thailand by CulturalMining.com on November 10, 2017

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

Fall Film Festival season continues in Toronto. The EU Film Fest, which started last night, features movies from each of the EU countries, and all screenings are free. Reelasian also just started with films from South, East and Southeast Asia.

This week I’m looking at dramas about troublesome high school students. There’s a young woman in California who wants to head east (to university), another in Bangkok who wants to go south (to Singapore), and a guy in Akron who wants to look inside other people.

Lady Bird

Dir: Greta Gerwig

It’s central California in the early 2000s. Lady Bird (Saorise Ronan), is a bored kid with great ambitions – she wants to study at an eastcoast University. She’s in her last year at a private, Catholic school. Her mom (Laurie Metcalf) sent her there because she thinks public school is too dangerous. She lives in a small house in Sacramento with her brother Miguel, her dad, a computer programmer, and her mom who works in a psychiatric hospital.

Lady Bird wants to be cool and maybe meet a boyfriend. But Immaculate Heart – or Immaculate Fart, as she calls it– is an all-girls school run by nuns. Her only chance of meeting guys is in the theatre club run in conjunction with an all-boys Catholic school nearby. She immediately hits it off with Danny (Lucas Hedges) who likes show tunes and wearing puka shell chokers. She takes him home to meet the family. Later she wants to create a cooler self. (Earlier she renamed herself Lady Bird – she’s actually Christine.) Now she quits doing school plays, and starts playing pranks on nuns. She swaps boyfriend Danny for the chill Kyle (Timothee Chalumet) and trades best friend Julie for the prettier and richer Jenna. She tells her she lives in a mansion, not a bungalow on the wrong side of the tracks. And secretly, with the help of her recently unemployed dad, she applies to east coast schools. But can the tower of lies she creates stand up to closer scrutny? And are her new friends good people?

Lady Bird is Greta Gerwigs first solo film – she codirected Frances Ha with noah Baumbach — and it’s a funny and touching movie. Saorise Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe make a fantastic mother and daughter who can’t get along. And side roles — like Hedges as Danny – are amazing (I didn’t even recognize him as the kid in Manchester on the Sea). I admit I found the last three minutes of the movie a terrible — and unnecessary — mistake, but Lady Bird is still an almost flawless coming-of-age story.

Bad Genius

Dir: Nattawut Poonpiriya

Lynn (actor/model Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is a student at an elite Bangkok high school. It’s a school where many grads get accepted to US Ivy league schools. Most the kids there are filthy rich but not very bright . Lynn is just the opposite – the daughter of a divorced school teacher, she’s a scholarship student, a piano player, and a genius at math. She also understands the value of money — she has to be when theres’s not much around. She quickly establishes herself – along with Bank, another scholarship student – as the top two kids in the school, in competition for a place in a Singapore university. But everything changes when Lynn’s friend Grace – with her millionaire boyfriend Pat – come to her with a proposition. They’ll pay her big bucks to act as their tutor. But they don’t really want to study – they want to an easy way to pass the tests. Lynn comes up with a brilliant plan – she shows them the multiple choice answers by “playing the piano” in the test hall, moving her fingers in the order of four famous passages. The students all pass the exam. But Bank – the good genius — suspects something fishy.

Later they recruit him to join Lynn in a trip to Sydney, Australia to take the STIC exam – the international SAT test. They plan to write the exam and text the answers just in time for the Bangkok exams, four time zones over. Will the plan work? Will they get caught? And will sparks fly between the two geniuses, Lynn and Bank?

Bad Genius is based on an actual test scandal that shook Thailand. The movie works as both a teen drama and an action movie, with the main characters racing against time to rig the tests and avoid capture. It also shows the huge gap between Bangkok’s super rich, and the rest of the people who never seem to get ahead.

My Friend Dahmer

Dir: Marc Meyers

It’s the late 1970s in a small town near Akron Ohio. Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is a tall kid with big glasses and feathered blond hair. He lives with his little brother, his mom a pill-popper (Anne Heche) and his dad a chemist. Jeff collects animal bones from roadkill he finds on the highway. He is also obsessed with a local doctor he always sees jogging down the highway. He keeps to himself at a school ruled by football jocks and cheerleaders. He’s not bullied but not popular either till he finds his niche: a class clown who is both audacious and weird. He spontaneously breaks into his acts, talking like a handicapped kid, or falling to the floor in imitation tonic-clinic seizures.

This catches the attention of Derf (Alex Wolff) and his friends Neil and Mike. They are counterculture types into the Ramones and and comic books. And they see Jeff as epitomize get Punk, even if he doesn’t know it himself. They form the Dahmer fan club, planning events so Jeff can go wild in front of an audience. But are they helping him or using him? Jeff turns to alcohol to counter his constantly bickering parents. She wants to know what people are like on the inside – literally. He gets stranger and stranger, experimenting on live animals.  Are his new “friends” the ones pushing him over the edge?

My Friend Dahmer is a based on the true graphic novel written by Derf Backderf, his highchool (sort of) friend. Dahmer later became a notorious serial killer who picked up men in bars, had sex with their paralyzed bodies, and later dissolved their corpses in acid vats. But My Friend Dahmer takes place before all that. This is an extremely disturbing and creepy — but also weird and funny — look at teenagers in the 1970s. With a great soundtrack, it makes you wonder what – bullying, mental illness, encouragement — pushes people from normalcy to depravity.

Ladybird, and My Friend Dahmer open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Bad Genius is playing at the ReelAsian film festival. Go to reelasian.com for details.

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 documentary filmmaker Ilan Ziv about An Eye for an Eye

Posted in 2000s, documentary, Prison, Racism, Texas, US, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 11, 2016

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

Mark Stroman was a regular guy: Texas loud and Texas proud. He hated big government, taxes, foreigners, and political correctness. He liked love, liberty, security, family and patriotism. He was also a white supremacist, an admirer of Aryan nations and a proud flyer of the Confederate Battle Flag. Then 9-11 happened and something snapped.

Stroman went out in his car to systematically murder people he called “A-rabs” — mainly the mark stroman, an eye for an eyeSouth Asians he encountered at convenience stores and gas stations. He was later arrested, tried and sentenced to death, in exchange for the lives he took. But is justice as simple as an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?

An Eye for an Eye is a new documentary that looks at Stroman’s transformation in prison, and the unexpected support he received from his enemies, his victims and their families. It’s about vengeance and racism but also compassion and forgiveness. The doc is directed by award-winning filmmaker Ilan Ziv and it opens today in Toronto.

I spoke with Ilan in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Revolution vs Devolution. Movies Reviewed: Zoolander 2, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 2000s, African-Americans, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Fashion, FBI, Movies, Politics, Protest, Resistance, Rome by CulturalMining.com on February 12, 2016

fonds1244item71womenhatsHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

February is Toronto’s Black History Month, because Canada has a history all its own, both good and bad. There’s the black Empire Loyalists and the Underground Railroad. But there was also slavery in Canada, and the demolition of Africville in Halifax, and the rioting at Sir George Williams University in Montreal. So this weekend is a good time to catch up on some of this history at the Black Film Festival in Toronto.

This week, I’m looking at a documentary about 50 years of revolution by an African American party, and a comedy about 15 years of devolution by male models at parties.

1451590015Zoolander 2

Dir: Ben Stiller

Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) is a vapid former supermodel who lives in a log cabin in the Alps of northern New Jersey. His wife is dead and his son, Derek Jr, has been taken away by social services. Zoolander has been a hermit (or “hermit crab” as he says) since 2001. His former best friend and supermodel Hansel (Owen Wilson) lives in a tent in the middle of a vast desert near Palm Springs. He has non-stop orgies – involving sumo wrestlers, babushkas and goats — relieved only by intermittent yoga sessions. The two men hate each other’s guts. But they find themselves together 12694567_1126067307412867_853856684406049756_oagain in Rome relaunching their respective careers.

Together with former swimsuit model Valentina (Penelope Cruz), now part of Interpol’s fashion police, they join forces to fight an evil cabal of supervillains who have infiltrated the fashion industry. Why? Because the bad guys, including Mugatu (Will Farrell), want to get their hands on the fountain of youth guarded by the Chosen One. He is a direct 12742598_1126574614028803_3503656508624870388_ndescendent of an unbroken line of vapid male supermodels dating back to the Garden of Eden. (Apparently there was an Adam and Steve). But who is the Chosen One and how can they save him?

I like comedies, they just have to be funny. This one’s not. it has a few very hilarious moments, but a stand-up comic with only one laugh for every 20 jokes would be booed off the stage. It’s also weirdly outdated. I can accept that Zoolander and Hansel have hidden away for 15 years, but why is the rest of the movie in a time warp, too? It’s filled with Calvin Klein perfume ads from the 1990s, titans of the fashion avant garde like Tommy Hilfiger,  “hipsters” wearing dreadlocks,  and Al Qaeda as the most dangerous terrorists. Even the plot is a take-off of a Dan Brown novel. Everything in the movie just seems so old. There’s no satire, and very little humour. The funniest moments come from the tickle of recognition that accompanies the countless celebrities — Bieber, Kardashian, Sarandon, Sutherland — who make cameo appearances. But it’s not enough to rescue this dud.

20150804_152141_8000991-women-drilling-with-panther-flags-photo-courtesy-of-pirkle-jones.jpg.1280x720_q85The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Dir: Stanley Nelson

It’s 1966. The US is fighting in Vietnam and anti-war protests are springing up around the world. The civil rights movement is in full swing in the southern states. But in northern cities, in places like Oakland California, the police are still arresting, frisking and beating black men with impunity. So two young leaders, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, found a black nationalist movement there to counter police brutality and 20150804_152141_8233072-charles-bursey-hands-plate-of-food-to-a-child-seated-at-free-bre.jpg.1280x720_q85racial oppression and to express black pride and solidarity. And if attacked by the police, they vowed to fight back by any means necessary (in the words of Malcolm X). They named it the Black Panther Party. Members cut a mean profile: natural hairstyles, shades, black leather jackets, and military-style black berets. And, most shocking of all, they carried long guns — in the name of the Second Amendment and the Right to Bear Arms — 20150804_152141_8093234-panthers-on-parade-at-free-huey-rally-in-defermery-park-oakland-.jpg.1280x720_q85with leather straps of bullets across their chests. They were later joined by Eldridge Cleaver whose book Soul on Ice, written in prison, captured the nation’s mood.

Lyndon B Johnson, the president, and FBI chief J Edgar Hoover were shocked. They considered a black nationalist movement the biggest danger of them all — bigger than communism. They swung into action using the notorious COINTELPRO — counter-intelligence program — to infiltrate and spy on the group. They sent letters and ohone calls to women saying their husbands were cheating on them. The police were called into action to break up meetings and arrest its 20150804_152143_3153609-eldridge-cleaver-berkeley-photo-courtesy-of-jeffrey-blankfort.jpg.1280x720_q85members. Dozens were arrested on trumped-up charges, and many killed in raids across the country. Some are still in prison to this day. At an infamous Chicago trial, the judge actually had Bobby Seale chained to a chair, bound and gagged, in the courtroom, making him the perfect symbol of state oppression. Eldridge Cleaver fled to Algeria. Later many of the top members changed their beliefs, leaving the party divided among warring factions.

This is a fascinating history of the movement, with tons of still photos, archival footage, and new interviews with members that tell you lots you’ve probably never heard of. Did you know they started a successful school breakfast program? And published a newspaper that was their main source of income? Their standard image is of armed black men, but the majority of rank-and20150804_152141_8192973-black-panthers-from-sacramento-free-huey-rally-bobby-hutton-memo.jpg.1280x720_q85-file members were actually women, fighting for women’s rights within the party. The film doesn’t go deeply into the more controversial aspects of The Black Panthers. Some thought it undermined the non-violent civil rights movement. Or that it was big on image, weak on politics. But whatever your point of view, the Panthers made a huge mark on American history beginning 50 years ago, and this film explains it all.

Zoolander 2 opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is playing on Saturday at 11:00 AM at the Carlton Cinema as part of Toronto’s Black Film Festival. Go to torontoblackfilm.com for more info. And the Next Wave Film Festival is on all weekend long for 14-18 year-olds who love movies. Check out tiff.net for details — especially its great closing film Sing Street.

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

Work. Movies reviewed: Burnt, Truth, Victoria PLUS Sherlock Holmes

Posted in 2000s, Berlin, Conspiracy Theory, Cooking, Crime, Cultural Mining, Drama, Journalism, Movies, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 30, 2015

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

f_560x272Do you live to work or work to live?

Take the world’s most famous detective Sherlock Holmes, for example. He saw his whole life as his work. But a theatrical reboot of Sherlock’s story that just opened in Toronto (starring David Arquette as the detective with Toronto’s Kyle Gatehouse as his flamboyant rival Moriarty) sees it differently. In this version, Holmes is not the expected obsessive-compulsive driven genius; rather he’s a drug addict whose giddy laughter sets the stage. This Holmes is a self-absorbed ninny and not very bright. It’s Watson’s skillful storytelling that turns him into a legend.

But getting back to work. This week I’m looking at three movies about people at work. There’s an American chef in London, an investigative journalist in New York, and a Spanish barista in Berlin. I liked all three of these movies, but each for a different reason.

UNTITLED JOHN WELLS PROJECTBurnt
Dir: John Wells

Adam (Bradley Cooper) was once a top chef in Paris with two Michelin stars. But he squandered it all in a crash-and-burn blowout, leaving fellow chefs in a lurch: fired, bankrupt, or even in prison. He hides himself away for five years, but reappears, this time in London, trying for his third star. He’s homeless, friendless and penniless.BURNT

But somehow, he manages to convince the chefs whose lives he ruined and the manager Tony (Daniel Bruhl) who bankrolled him to give him one last chance. He injects some new blood: a stubborn single mom Helene (Sienna Miller) who’s a master saucier, and says Adam is five years behind, and a young but ambitious cook he discovers in a local sandwich shop. But can Adam (L-R) SIENNA MILLER and BRADLEY COOPER star in BURNT.run a flawless restaurant that’s creative enough to win three stars? Or will his fiery temper and his drug history destroy him?

Burnt is just the sort of movie I thought I’d hate: a big star playing a self-centred prima donna in a superficial story. But I ended up really liking it. Bradley Cooper is entertaining and believable as Adam, and the rest of the cast — al the people in the kitchen — is like a whole bunch of Bradley Coopers from all across Europe. Germany’s Daniel Bruhl as the manager is huge right now, Riccardo Scamarcio, who plays a jailbird chef, starred in some of Italy’s best movies, France’s Omar Sy was in Intouchables,  and UK’s Sienna Miller, the female lead is also sympathetic. So if you’re in the mood for a light foodie-movie, Burnt is it.

73686-TRUTH_4Truth
Dir: James Vanderbilt

It’s post-9/11, at CBS News in New York City. George W Bush is in the White House and the US has invaded Iraq in a fruitless search for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) is a prize-winning journalist. She broke the infamous Abu Ghraib story about the torture of prisoners by US soldiers in Iraq. Now she produces stories for reporter and anchorman Dan Rather (Robert Redford) at 60 Minutes Wednesday, the second edition of the popular news show.

Around this time, there are numerous headlines about George Bush’s military record during the Vietnam War. He never saw combat, instead serving safely in Texas with the National 73684-TRUTH_2Guard. This is well-kown. Then a reporter named Mike (Topher Grace) discovers some new evidence and a credible witness to add a new twist. He says that Bush never served in the National Guard at all, only on paper. And the anonymous witness gives him copies of letters and documents that prove the theory. And Mapes brings in numerous experts to attest to the authenticity of the handwriting of the documents. But soon after the story plays out, online pundits begin 72876-2S4A6171to question its authenticity. And some of the witnesses and experts start to retract their statements. The story morphs from the expose itself into a so-called scandal about the reporters and the documents. Will CBS news bow to conservative pressure and leave Mapes – and possibly Dan Rather — to take the blame? Or will it back its journalists?

Truth is not a fast-moving political thriller like All the Presidents Men; rather, it’s a slower drama about the demise of investigative journalism. Although a bit preachy, I liked this film a lot for its ideas and its precise telling of a little known piece of history. It records the backstage drama at CBS’s once-respected news show. And Cate Blanchett is fantastic as Mary Mapes.

547eb2e7-c857-4c91-ab66-682354ef66c8Victoria
Dir: Sebastien Schipper

Victoria (Laia Costa) is a Spanish woman who works in a Berlin café on the early morning shift. One night (as she leaves a nightclub to get some sleep before work) she meets four guys who had just been denied entrance into the same club. They are “real Berliners” they tell her, not like those poseurs. They’re scruffy, working-class guys with not enough money and too much time on their hands. Their nicknames are Sonne, Boxer, Blinker and Fuß (Frederick Lau, Franzea9cfda8-d5da-41b9-ab4a-3240e95ef512 Rogowski, Burak Yigit and Max Mauff). For whatever reason, Victoria finds them charming, especially Sonne, and spontaneously agrees to hang out with them as they wander the deserted streets of Berlin in an impromptu birthday party.

But the tone changes when Sonne asks Victoria for a favour. Namely, they need a replacement for Fuß for a quick job, right now, that Boxer (an ex-con) has agreed to do. Fuß is too drunk to go, so they need a fourth person. Turns out, the job is an early morning bank heist, involving money, guns and a lot of danger. Will it all work out? 391118fe-b938-46e4-a787-dfc5dfa0449eAre Victoria and Sonne falling for each other? And can a few short hours before dawn completely change a person’s life?

Victoria is a remarkable movie that unfolds on location in early morning Berlin. What’s amazing is that it’s 2½ hours long, shot in real time by a single, handheld camera. No cuts, no breaks, no editing… it’s one constant shot. This includes violence, action, love scenes, chase scenes, everything! is shot as it happens. Never seen anything like it. And it’s a good story, too. But it’s the technique – that single, unbroken shot – that sets this movie apart.

Burnt, Victoria and Truth all open today in Toronto. Check your local listings. And Sherlock Holmes is now playing at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto.

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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