Women in the Arts. Films reviewed: Wild Nights with Emily, The Souvenir, Mouthpiece

Posted in 1800s, 1980s, Addiction, Drama, drugs, LGBT, Movies, Poetry, Romance, Toronto, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 7, 2019

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

Spring festival season continues with the Toronto Japanese Film Festival which starts today and the Italian Contemporary Film Festival beginning on Thursday.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about women in the arts. There’s a poet in New England who can’t get published, a filmmaker in Sunderland who can’t finish her movie, and a writer in Toronto whose mind is torn asunder.

Wild Nights with Emily

Wri/Dir: Madeleine Olnek

It’s the 1860s in Amherst Massachusetts. Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) is an unmarried woman who rarely ventures outside. She has everything she needs her big wooden home. She can wear the same white dress every day, listen to piano music, and bake shortbread, which she gives to the local kids who gather outside her window. And whenever a thought occurs to her she scribbles it down on a scrap of paper. But these are more than random thoughts, they are poems, and ones that flout conventional writing. They don’t have titles, they don’t rhyme and they’re written in free verse (before that term even existed).

That’s what she does during the day. Night time is whole other ball game. You see, far from reclusive and repressed, Emily Dickinson has a passionate ongoing relationship with her sister in law, Susan. Susan (Susan Ziegler) is a childhood friend who married her brother Austin, but has a sexless marriage. Instead she shares her bed with Emily. And much of Emily’s poetry consists of love letters sent to Susan. But despite all her efforts, just a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime. Instead they were gathered together by her brother’s mistress Mabel (Amy Seimetz).

Wild Nights with Emily is a historical comedy, but it’s far from a spoof. It’s a meticulously reworked view of Emily Dickinson. It restores her same-sex relationship that had previously been expunged and erased – literally – from her original manuscripts. The actual handwritten poems appear on the screen in this movue, at times word by word. While at times the film has an academic, PBS feel to it, and the acting is somewhat mannered, I liked it anyway.

It manages to render her wonderful poetry to the big screen while keeping a light and irreverent tone.

The Souvenir

Wri/Dir: Joanna Hogg

It’s the early 1980s in England.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a well-to-do young filmmaker in her early twenties. She’s smart and cute with an asymmetrical boyish haircut. She’s trying to shoot her first movie in the northern port of Sunderland. She observes all, quietly taking snapshots and recording film footage all around her, presenting her plans to the profs and producers she has to deal with. And she rents out space in her beautifully mirrored whitewalled apartment. But when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke) her world changes.

Anthony is older and more worldly than Julie, a louche dandy into velvet robes and pocket squares. He’s tall, pale and speaks in a blasé, elongated drawl. He gives her gifts of scanty lingerie and garters that fit his fantasies. They escape by train to Venice for sexy romps among renaissance frescos. She’s in his thrall.

But something is not quite right. She comes home early one day to find a stranger wandering around her home. Anthony is in constant need of cash. And unknown burglars ransacked her apartment stealing her jewelry and movie camera. Something’s off about Anthony. Hmm… worldly, pale, intense, elaborate clothing, secretive. Is Anthony a vampire? Nothing so exotic. He’s just a run-of-the-mill junkie, and threatens to pull her into that world. What will happen to their relationship? And will Julie ever complete her film?

The Souvenir is a beautifully shot, well-acted, semi-autobiographical drama. It incorporates long takes of natural scenes, uses mirrors and reflections, great period costumes and a nice eighties soundtrack. It combines Joana Hogg’s older film work and photos with new footage. So why don’t I like it?

It could be the genre – I’m not a great fan of addiction movies. Or it could be the endless conversations about nothing in particular. Or the lack of humour. Or the overly-restrained dialogue. But my main problem is it’s boring. While I can sympathize with the main character, there just isn’t enough going on. The filmmaking scenes and cuts to the movie-within-the-movie detract from the main story… which isn’t all that interesting to begin with. Two hours of nothing, however well executed, is just too long.

Mouthpiece

Dir: Patricia Rozema

It’s winter in downtown Toronto. Casandra (Amy Nostbakken, Nora Sadava) is a 30-year-old punk. Her idea of dressing up is a black sweater without moth holes. She greets her dates with a snarl and tells sex partners she isn’t into comitment. She works as a writer/bartender. But when her mother (Maev Beaty) dies suddenly from a stroke she is faced with her hardest piece ever… She has two days to write a eulogy for her mother’s funeral. Can she overcome her guilt, anger and self doubt in time to give a sweet heartfelt eulogy? Or will the upcoming funeral turn into the fiasco that everyone dreads?

Mouthpiece sounds like a conventional drama, but it’s anything but. Cass is played by two women simultaneously, noticeable only to themselves and the audience. The two halves of Cassandra’s soul sleep together in spoon fashion, share a bath and keep each other in check. But when there’s a crisis or internal debate all breaks loose, with the two Casses wrestling, punching and shouting, doing practically anything to get the other side to shut up. It’s a constant pas de deux, at times moving in absolute symmetry, or scrambling and climbing over each other like puppies.

Mouthpiece was originally a stage play written and performed by the two Cassandras, Nostbakken and Sadava. This explains their flawless fluidity of movement, their perfect give and take as the two sides compete and coalesce into one soul, movement that only comes from repeated performances. And as a movie, Rozema manages to capture a closeup intimacy you might not catch on stage. Mouthpiece works perfectly on the screen as a beautiful, funny and moving film.

Mouthpiece and Wild Nights with Emily all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And The Souvenir playing as part of a Joanna Hogg retrospective with TIFF Cinematheque.

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

Other people’s danger. Films reviewed: Blaze, Ben is Back, The Quake

Posted in Addiction, Biopic, C&W, Christmas, Disaster, Family, Morality, Music, Norway, Romance, Texas by CulturalMining.com on December 14, 2018

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

 

With all the trouble in the world, some people like to safely observe other people’s problems, as a kind of catharsis. This week I’m looking at three new movies about people putting themselves in danger. There’s an opiate addict at Christmas, a quake spotter in Oslo, and an alcoholic musician in a bar.

Blaze

Dir: Ethan Hawke

It’s the 70s in the deep south. Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey) is a hefty, bearded Texan from San Antone, living in an artsy, hippy commune. That’s where he meets a beautiful woman with kinky hair named Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). He’s a musician and a raconteur, she’s a writer and aspiring actress. The two decide to shack up together in a treehouse for some sweet, summer lovin. When they’re not in bed they’re singing songs to each other. But Sybil – or Tsibele, as her parents call her – sees something more. Blaze, she says, you gotta go to Austin to make it big. And Blaze says I don’t wanna be a star, I want to be a legend.

But he agrees to tour blues bars while she works as a waitress. Problem is, when he’s lonely he drinks – he’s a boozehound – and when he drinks he gets angry, and when he gets angry he gets into fights – not a good career move for a budding musician.

Can their relationship survive? And will people ever get to hear his music?

Blaze is a meandering biopic about a musician you’ve probably never heard of. It jumps back and forth over a twenty year period tracing his highs and lows… mainly the lows. (Like the time when a trio of Texas Oilmen — played by Steve Zahn, Richard Linklater and Sam Rockwell — who think they’ve discovered the next big thing and put up the money to record an album.)  And there are lots of concerts in small bars. Blaze’s story is narrated by Towne Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) recalling his life and his music. Blaze was dead by age 40, but now, 30 years later, he’s finally getting listened to.

It sounds super depressing… but it’s not. It’s actually a very gentle, pleasant movie, mainly because the music – folk, blues, country – never stops for the whole two hours. Lots of plucking of guitars and Ben Dickey’s sweet voice. And Alia’s, too.

OK, it is a bit too long and the plot isn’t that interesting (though the stories Blaze tells are), but if you go to this movie to feel it, not to think about it… well, you just might like it.

Ben is Back

Wri/Dir: Peter Hedges

Holly (Julia Roberts) is happily married to her second husband (Courtney B Vance) and fond of her three kids who live at home. She’s preparing for Christmas: trimming the tree and wrapping the presents. But then a surprise visitor shows up. It’s Ben (Lucas Hedges), the eldest from her first marriage, the return of the Prodigal Son. She over him dearly, but he also makes her nervous. He’s an addict,

and he’s supposed to be at rehab. But she welcomes him for dinner, after carefully hiding all the prescription drugs, money and valuable jewelry. She loves him, but everyone knows addicts lie, cheat and steal… the boy can’t help it.

But maybe this time is different. He’s been clean for 80 days now, and he promises he won’t do anything to hurt his family. He seems back to normal. But when Ben is back, all his history, his baggage, all his friends and enemies are there with him, metaphorically. And some literally: when they go to sister Ivy’s Christmas pageant, they come back to a burglarized home… and Ben’s pet has been dog-napped.

Who dunnit? It’s up to him to visit all the ghosts of his past – people he stole from, families of overdose victims, druggies, dealers and gangsters – until he finds the one with his dog. But Holly won’t let him do it alone. She’ll stick by his side until he’s safe again. Will they find the dog? Or die in trying?

Ben is Back is one of a creepily popular genre: addiction movies. And like many of them it’s not about the addicts, it’s about the harm they bring to their parents or lovers. (The recent Beautiful Boy is a good example – it should have been called Dithering Dad.) While Ben is Back’s story kept me interested, the movie as a whole was both moralistic and grueling to watch… why are moviegoers forced to sit through yet another reenactment of a 12-step meeting? Ugh. That’s not entertaininment. And as if that’s not enough, you also have to sit through an interminable Christmas show.

Equal doses of saccharine and grime… No thanks.

The Quake

Dir: John Andreas Andersen

It’s present-day Norway. Gaunt, bearded Kristian (Krisoffer Joner) lives in the picturesque, fjord-filled town of Geiranger. Three years ago a deadly tsunami swept through there but Kristian saved many people including his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) his son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and his darling daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande). He’s a national hero… and a broken man, far away from his family who moved to Oslo. Why? Because Kristian hears tremors everywhere – he’s in a constant state of panic, just waiting for the next earthquake. Perfect for an emergency but unfit to be a normal husband and father.

But his panic starts to escalate when a series of clues – unexplained seismic data, a collapsing tunnel, rats running away – tell him the next earthquake is coming to Oslo. He has to get there fast and warn his family.. and everyone else. Has Kristian gone bananas? Or is he right? The Quake is a disaster movie so of course he’s right. Once the tremors start the real action begins, mainly in a glass and steel highrise in downtown Oslo. Somehow Dad, Mom, Little Julia and Marit (Kathrine T Johansen) a woman helping Kristian find the truth, all end up there, at the very top of a skyscraper, when the earthquake hits. Who will survive?

The Quake is a terrific disaster flic, mainly because the characters are interesting enough to care about. And the special effects are amazing. You believe they’re hanging onto wires in elevator shafts or sliding toward the edge as the skyscraper starts lean. The director of this movie is actually a cinematographer so its very visual: aerial views, long tunnels, fjords, and collapsing new buildings. I had to watch it on a computer screen, but you should try to see it in a theatre with a big screen, and loud rumbles.

Blaze, Ben is Back, and the Quake 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.

Suburban types. Films reviewed: Eighth Grade, Under the Tree, Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Posted in Addiction, comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Drama, Family, Feminism, Iceland, LGBT, Scandinavia, School, Suburbs by CulturalMining.com on July 20, 2018

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

Movies needn’t be about famous people. This week I’m looking at three domestic dramas about ordinary, suburban types. There’s a girl in 8th grade deciding what to do with her future, Icelandic neighbours fighting over a tree, and a quadriplegic alcoholic learning to draw.

Eighth Grade

Wri/Dir: Bo Burman

Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is a modern eighth grader who lives with her dad (Josh Hamilton). It’s the end of her last year of junior high and kids are looking at the time capsules they buried three years earlier, to see how much they’ve changed. On youtube and instagram she’s a success and she shares her thoughts on a vlog, ending each podcast with the word “Gucci”! But at school she’s the opposite of famous. She’s the kind of girl who shows up at a pool party in a little kid’s one piece when the rest of the girls are wearing bikinis. Kayla has zits, she doesn’t understand fashion and has no friends.

The guy she’s crushing on, Riley, just wants sex. And popular girls – like the snobby Olivia – won’t even acknowledge she exists. But things look up when she’s invited to Olivia’s birthday party, and even better when a much older highschool girl agrees to be her mentor. Can Kayla create a new personality, make friends and find a boyfriend? Or will high school just bring more of the countless humiliations a 12-year-old girl faces each day?

Eighth Grade is a warm and funny coming-of-age story about a girl approaching — but not yet entering — adolescence. Elsie Fisher is totally believable in the lead role. And Bo Burman, the filmmaker, started as a youtube presence himself. The thing is, a lot of the movie feels like a stereotypical boy’s coming-of-age story superimposed on a girl. Things like: whenever Kayla ogles her crush Riley she pictures him walking in slow motion to loud pop music, leaving her tongue-tied; or when her dad catches her masturbating to porn on her smartphone. (Also… what’s with all these single dad movies? In real life, 80% of single-parent families are headed by moms, not dads, but you wouldn’t know it.)

On the other hand this film deals with real contemporary issues – like consent, snobbery, bullying, sex-education and the very new, very real phenomenon of shooting drills; what kids should do if a shooter comes into the school.

Eighth Grade is a very cute and touching comedy, and one that’s worth seeing.

Under the Tree

Dir: Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson

It’s suburban Iceland. Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) is a married guy with a three-year-old daughter, until… his wife catches him watching porn on his computer. Not only that, it’s him in the video, with his ex girlfriend. It’s not how it looks, he says. We made the tape years before I met you – I’ve never cheated on you. No, she says, that’s exactly how it looks, and you’re out of here.

He ends up at his parents’ house, a retired couple named Baldvin and Inga (Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Edda Björgvinsdóttir). The family is already dealing with the disappearance and presumed death of his brother. They live in a big blue townhouse with a shady tree in the backyard. Inga has a silky cat, and Baldvin fills his free time with choir practice. They get along well with their neighbour – a divorced professional — but less so with his fitness-obsessed second wife. The shade from their tree interferes with her suntan. A small disagreement.

But just like Atli’s sex tape, little things left unchecked can grow into big problems. A series of unexplained incidents – slashed tires, salacious garden gnomes found in a planter, a missing cat – grow more and more dangerous. Can the feuding neighbours settle their crisis? And will Atli move back home with his family?

Under the Tree is a very dark comedy about life in contemporary Iceland . But don’t expect hotsprings and rustic fishing boats. It’s filled instead with classrooms, Ikea stores and government offices. The acting is excellent as the story progresses to its ultimate conclusion.

Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot

Dir: Gus Van Sant

It’s the 1970s in the Pacific Northwest. John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) is a redhead who likes drinking and picking up girls. An adopted kid from small town Oregon he goes to California to sow his wild oats. But his life changes dramatically when a weekend bender ends with his car wrapped around a tree. He’s left quadriplegic, with little chance of recovery. But with the help of a Swedish caregiver named Annu (Rooney Mara), he learns to operate a wheelchair and eventually how to draw with one hand. His personality stays intact and so does his alcoholism.

So he joins a 12-step AA group held in a mansion. It’s hosted by Donnie (Jonah Hill) an irreverent rich gay man with long hair and beard. Donnie always has time for his piggies what he calls the men and women he sponsors. And as John passes through the twelve steps of recovery he finds a meaning in life: drawing obscene, politically incorrect and hilarious cartoons.

Normally, if someone says a movie is about Alcoholic Anonymous meetings I’d say let me out if here. These kind of movies are both gruellingly depressing and painfully earnest. But this is a Gus Van Sant movie and he makes it work. This movie is funny, surprising, shocking and very enjoyable. Yeah, it’s sad at times, but it offers so much you rarely see. It’s refreshing to see a movie that deals with the bad sides of living with a disability, just as it’s not afraid of celebrating a disabled person’s sex life.

Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant as John, And Jonah Hill is great – and totally unrecognizable — as Donnie. Smaller roles like Jack Black as a drunk driver, Tony Greenhand as John’s caregiver and Kim Gordon, Udo Kier and Ronnie Adrian, as some of the piggies – keep the movie going, The film is done cut-up style, jumping around over a 20-year period, which makes it a bit disorienting. Even so, it leads you feeling warm and fuzzy inside.

Eighth Grade, Under the Tree and Don’t worry, He Won’t Get far on Foot, 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 Nicole Maroon and Vladimir Jon Cubrt about their new film Luba

Posted in Addiction, Canada, drugs, Family, Hockey, Movies, Poverty, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on March 23, 2018

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

Luba and Donnie are a married couple with a young son, Matty. Their marriage faltered when Donnie’s drug use got out of hand, but since rehab things are looking up. Little Matty commutes between Lou’s flat and his grandma’s home where Donnie is living. They’re barely staying afloat with precarious jobs — he’s in construction while she’s serving jell-o shots for tips. Will poverty, depression and crack grind them into the dirt? Or can a family be saved by the hope and determination of a strong young woman named Luba?

Luba is also the name of a heartfelt family drama that looks at life in Toronto through the eyes of a family left behind. It stars Nicole Maroon as Luba and Vladimir Jon Cubrt as Donnie. Nicole is a master of Fine Arts whose range includes everything from Shakespeare to City TVs Meet the Family; while Vlad is celebrated on stage, screen and on TV’s Hannibal. The two co-produced Luba and Vlad wrote the script.

I spoke with Nicole and Vlad in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM. They talk about Acting, Luba, Hockey, Ukrainian-Canadians, Jack Nicholson, Toronto, the film’s genesis, why Nicole was cast in the title role… and more!

Luba had its Canadian premier on Saturday, March 24th at 5:30 PM at Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre as part of the Canadian Film Fest.

At CFF Luba won both the Audience Choice Award for Best Picture and the Reel Canada Indie Award.

In the Trash. Movies Reviewed: A Swingers Weekend, The Go-Getters, Isle of Dogs

Posted in Addiction, Animals, Animation, Canada, Japan, Poverty, Sex, Sex Trade, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on March 23, 2018

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

The Canadian Film Fest is on now, bringing lots of new movies to the big screen, movies made right here in Toronto and across the country. Comedies, dramas and real life stories.

Hollywood movies often glamourize everyday life with an idealized view of the world the average person can never attain. But sometimes movies look in the opposite direction… downward, toward the gutter.  This week I’m looking at movies set among the trash. There’s an island of garbage filled with abandoned dogs, a couple of ne’er-do-wells who live in  rubbish, and a married couple who risk trashing their marriage for a weekend getaway.

A Swingers Weekend

Wri/Dir: Jon E. Cohen

Lisa and Dan (Erin Karpluk – Being Erica, Randal Edwards) are a power couple. She’s in real estate and he’s CEO at an energy drink corporation, and they’re  taking a break from their Toronto jobs for a weekend retreat in a lakeside villa up in cottage country. They’ve invited the attractive TJ and Skai (Michael Xavier, Erin Agostino) — he’s an artist, she’s into yoga – for a gourmet dinner and a weekend of kinky sex. But their planned foursome gains a fifth and sixth wheel when unexpected guests show up at the door. Geoffrey and Fiona (Jonas Chernik, Mia Kirchner) are Dan’s old friends whose marriage is falling apart. Can a weekend of bed-swapping inject new life into the respective couples’ relationships? And what are their real motives behind this swingers’ retreat?

A Swingers Weekend is a cute comedy that’s surprisingly tame. No nudity, it’s more of a social satire than a bedroom farce.

The Go-Getters

Dir: Jeremy LaLonde

Owen and Lacie (Aaron Abrams, Tomie Amber Pirie) are an odd couple. She’s a streetwalker who works for a disabled pimp called Cerebral Paulie, who keeps her addicted to oxycodone. He’s a nearly homeless alcoholic who mooches drinks from his brother’s skid row bar. He robbed her of her last fiver when she was ODing in a puddle of vomit on the bathrooom floor. It was hate at first site. But circumstances conspire to make them work together so they can buy bus tickets to Brockville to renovate an abandoned home.

They try robbing panhandlers, selling sex to teens, and fleecing buskers, but nothing seems to work. Will they ever escape from hideous Toronto? The Go-Getters is an unusual look at the lowest of the low in downtown Toronto. But guess what – this is a comedy! Yup, I’m not joking. Abrams as Owen looks like a younger and dumber Dr House (Hugh Laurie), and Pirie is truly unique as a loud-mouthed hooker with a heart of lead.

Isle of Dogs

Dir: Wes Anderson

It’s Japan sometime in the future. Megasaki in Uni prefecture is a big city controlled by the evil and corrupt Kobayashi dynasty. The Kobayashi clan own everything from the golf courses to the amusement parks and pharmaceutical labs. And they are all cat lovers who despise dogs. The dogs all come down with an odd disease called snout flu. Mayor Kobayashi – under the thumb of the corpse-like Major Domo – declares all dogs persona non grata. To save the city from infection, he says, he is banishing all the city’s dogs to Trash Island off the coast. This even includes his nephew Atari’s dog Spots. (Atari was adopted by his distant uncle when his parents died in a train crash.)

But when Atari flies to Trash Island in a toy airplane to rescue his pooch, he discovers a strange world rarely seen by humans. It’s ruled by gangs of alpha dogs, headed by a team of five: former pets Duke, Rex, King and Boss, as well as the mysterious Chief, a stray who likes to fight. (He bites.) They vow to help Atari find his dog Spots… or die trying.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, student journalists — led by exchange student Tracy — smell a skunk among the cats. They sense there’s a conspiracy targeting dogs and – with the help of a hacker — they vow to save the dogs and the missing boy Atari, and to make City Hall pay for their crimes. But will they make it in time?

Isle of Dogs is an epic fantasy made with stop-motion animation. The humans speak Japanese (with voiceover translation) and the dogs speak a stilted Japanese English. The story sounds simple and a bit goofy, but it’s not. It’s pure, non-stop eye candy, with art and illustration flooding your brain at the pace of a Simpsons episode.

It feels like Wes Anderson made a list of all English words derived from the Japanese — yakuza, sumo, sushi, geisha, samurai, bonsai, kabuki, haiku, anime, manga, otaku, cos-ple, taiko — and worked them all into the film. The thing is, it’s not cheap laughs and cultural plundering, it’s lovingly, respectfully, and exquisitely reproduced.

The constant barrage of images includes Japanese pop art, manga, ukiyo-e, silhouettes, and 2-D animation, all portrayed with a futuristic/retro/ steampunk feel (if such a thing is possible). Wes Anderson has done stop- motion animation before — The Fantastic Mister Fox — but this one is a quantum leap beyond that. None of Mister Fox‘s nudge-nudge, wink-wink snark in this movie; just affectionately rendered geek culture.

Isle of Dogs is stunning to watch. I’ve seen it twice now, and want to see it again, as soon as possible. It’s exquisite, beautiful, awe-inducing… I’m running out of adjectives. I love this movie, and if you revel in the visual and all things Japanese, you must see this animated film.

Isle of Dogs opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Go Getters and other films are playing this weekend at the Canadian Film Fest. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Cities. Films reviewed: The Lost City of Z, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, Colossal

Posted in Addiction, Adventure, Brazil, documentary, Drama, Manhattan, Protest, UK by CulturalMining.com on April 21, 2017

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

Cities. People around the globe are urbanizing at an alarming rate, with tens of millions leaving their farms, villages and small towns each year. So this week I’m looking at movies about cities. There’s a man who wants to find a city, a woman who wants to save a city, and another woman who is trying not to destroy a city.

The Lost City of Z

Dir: James Gray

It’s 1905. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is a major in His Majesty’s Army but an undecorated one – no medals, because he has never seen battle. He’s a modern thinker, not bogged down by religion and bigotry, and believes in equal rights for women, including for his wife Nina (Sienna Miller). His father — a drinker and gambler – had ruined the family name, so he jumps at the chance to restore it. The offer: to lead an expedition to “Amazonia” sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society. A skilled cartographer, Fawcett must map an uncharted river running between Bolivia and Brazil. He also wants to find a legendary, advanced civilization he calls the city of “Z”.

On the ship heading to South America he meets a dismissive man with a bushy beard, round glasses and a big hat. Turns out it’s his aide-de-camp, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson). They make an odd couple, Costin kitted out for the jungle with Fawcett still in European mode. But soon they learn to get along. First they journey to a pop-up city in the jungle, complete with an opera house. It’s run by filthy- rich robber barons riding the Amazon rubber boom. Fawcett assembles a small team to travel down the river on a raft, further than any European has gone so far. A former slave serves as their guide. Along the way, they are attacked by locals with spears and arrows, encounter black jaguars and make it as far as a waterfall – the river’s source? There Fawcett finds artifacts he says are from the lost city he seeks. Back in London, he raises money for a second trip. His wife asks to go too, but he says it’s “no place for a woman”. Instead he takes a portly millionaire named Mr. Murray – an armchair explorer – as his sponsor. But this leads to more trouble. This time they encounter cannibals and travel even further than the first trip, but not as far as “Z”. Can Fawcett earn the respect of his family, the confidence of the Royal Geographers, and the backing of the press? Can he survive a third trip through the jungle? Or is his passion — finding the lost city of Z — just based on his own fantasies?

This is a fascinating adventure based on real historical figures. It’s also very similar to a fantastic black-and-white arthouse film from a few years back called Embrace of the Serpent, also about a European travelling down the Amazon during the rubber boom. This one is more traditional, told solely from a European point of view, with dashing explorers out to discover things lost to the locals. The indigenous people are “things” they encounter on their journey, and almost never speak. It’s a bit old-fashioned, but I enjoyed the movie anyway. Charlie Hunnam is great as Fawcett, and Robert Pattinson (the heartthrob vampire from the execrable Twilight series) is completely unrecognizable in this role. If you’re in the mood for an exciting colonial trek through the jungle, this long movie is made for you.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

Wri/Dir: Matt Tyrnauer

It’s postwar America, where the car is king and freshly-built houses in the suburbs the ideal home. Jane Jacobs is a young writer in Manhattan who publishes pieces on manhole covers and city streets for magazines like Vogue and Architectural Forum. Robert Moses is the immensely powerful, urban planning and highway czar, building enormous parkways through cities to let people commute to their far off homes. He subscribes to the visions of Swiss architect le Corbusier: Cities are best viewed from an airplane — clean, pristine and devoid of pesky things like small shops, loitering people and peculiar neighbourhoods. Cities are old and ugly cesspools filled with cancerous slums that can only be saved by wiping them out.

Robert Moses views cities from above looking down; Jane Jacobs (in her book The Life and Death of Great American Cities) looks at cities from ground level. She loves the confusion and excitement of neighbourhoods and the people who live there. Moses wants to extend Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue down through Washington Square park, and turn it into a highway, destroying Canal St, Soho, and Little Italy on the way. And no one ever defies his grand plans… until Jane Jacobs. She’s the one responsible for a new look at urban landscapes and city planning. She saved Greenwich village from destruction and changed people’s views about what a city should look like and feel like.

This is a superb documentary chronicling her battle with Moses. It also shows how people like Jacobs can challenge the orthodoxy of so-called urban renewal (what James Baldwin called “negro removal”) and its destruction of neighbourhoods.

This documentary doesn’t deal with Jane Jacobs before she moved to New York City or afterwards when she moved to Toronto (where she helped save the city from the Spadina Expressway). It’s specifically about Jacobs’ battle with Moses. And it does so in a very informative and absorbing way.

Colossal

Wri/Dir: Nacho Vigalondo

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) has it made: an English boyfriend with a beautiful apartment, and lots of cool hipster friends who show her the highlife. She’s loose with the bottle and free with the pills. But after an especially horrific incident he gives her the boot until she dries out. So she is forced to relocate to her childhood home in a small town. She is taken under the wing of Oscar (Jason Sudeikas) a local entrepreneur who offers her a job at his roadhouse bar. (Turns out he had a crush on her as a kid and wants to renew their friendship).

She takes the job but turns down his sexual advances. Though depressed and lonely, she gradually adjusts to the slow paced rhythm of life there: working late at the bar, sharing drinks with her new friends and waking up the next morning on a park bench feeling like hell warmed over. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a giant monster is trampling through Seoul Korea, toppling buildings and terrorizing the populous. And Gloria notices something very strange: the monster only appears in Seoul whenever she wakes up in the park, drunk to the gills. Stranger still, the colossal monster she sees on the news shares her nervous tics and habits. What is the connection?

Colossal is a unique film that doesn’t fall easily into any single genre. It starts out like a sophisticated chick flick or a recovery movie, but it’s also a disaster and monster movie, a comedy and a social drama. Hathaway is good as a young alcoholic forced to deal with her addiction, and Sudeikas is equally good as a conflicted (and sometimes vengeful) friend. The Korean aspect of the movie is superficial, with locals mainly there to get stepped on. Still, Colossal is weird and surprisingly entertaining — it’s different from any movie you’ve  seen before.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, The Lost City of Z and Colossal 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 about The Stairs with director Hugh Gibson, Roxanne and Marty at #TIFF16

Posted in Addiction, Cultural Mining, Depression, documentary, Poverty, Sex Trade, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on September 30, 2016

 

l to r: Marty, Hugh, Roxanne

l to r: Marty, Hugh, Roxanne

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

Regent Park is a well-known public housing development in Toronto’s east end. Built in the 1940s, it consisted of small houses arranged in quads as well as highrise apartments.the-stairs-roxanne-marty It mainly housed working-class and low-income immigrants. But the buildings started to crumble and conditions grew worse, until recently. Now the older buildings are being the-stairs-hugh-gibsonrazed and redeveloped. But what about the people who live there?

The Stairs is a new documentary that had it’s world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. Shot over a five year period by director Hugh Gibson, it looks at the lives of people there, at home and at work. It focuses on the South Riverdale Community the-stairs-marty-roxanneHealth Centre and Street Health, a harm reduction clinic aimed at drug users, sex workers, the homeless and others in the neighbourhood. The film concentrates on three social workers there: Marty, Greg and Roxanne. And

I spoke with Marty, Roxanne and Hugh at CIUT. The Stairs opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on October 7th.

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Daniel Garber talks with director Phyllis Ellis about her new documentary Girls’ Night Out

Posted in Addiction, Canada, Cultural Mining, documentary, Psychology, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2016

Phyllis Ellis, Girls' Night Out Hi this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s been a tradition for generations of young women: waiting for the weekend, and then letting loose with a vengeance – going out, partying, and drinking like a fish. The bumps, bruises and blackoutsPhyllis Ellis, Girls' Night Out can all be written off as collateral damage, a necessary side-effect of having fun.

It’s called binge drinking and it’s a popular part of youth culture, reinforced through popular music, social networking and the clever use of marketing. But more and more young women are Phyllis Ellis, Girls' NIght Outfinding their “girls’ night out” fraught with problems.

Girls’ Night Out is also the name of a new documentary that looks at young women and binge drinking. Based on the book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston, it looks at the role binge drinking and alcohol culture plays in their lives – and the dangers it poses to health, self-image and safety. It follows its subjects – MAC08_BINGE-DRINKING_POST01women who say they like to go binge drinking and those who have given it up — and shares their frank confessions.

The documentary is directed by award-winning Toronto filmmaker Phyllis Ellis. It premiers on CBC TV’s Firsthand on February 25th. I spoke to Phyllis at CIUT 89.5 FM about binge drinking, young women, consent, body image, long-term effects, short-term dangers, Big Alcohol… and more!

Vulnerable. Films reviewed: Songs my Brother Taught Me, The Lady in the Van

Posted in Addiction, Cultural Mining, Disabilities, Drama, First Nations, Movies, Old Age, Poverty, Suspicion by CulturalMining.com on February 7, 2016

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

8qzGkl_SongsMyBrothersTaughtMe_02_o3_8934485_1453302729You can tell a lot about a culture by looking at how it treats its most vulnerable members. This week I’m looking at two dramas, one from the US, another from the U.K. There’s a teenaged bootlegger in a pickup truck in a badlands state; and an old lady in a van in Camden in a bad state of mind.

Songs My Brother Taught Me
Dir: Chloe Zhao

Johnny Winters (John Reddy) is a teenager living in a Sioux Nation reserve in the Badlands, Northwestern US. He helps care for his sister Jashaun (Jashaun St John) and their mom (Irene Bedard) who stays in bed all day. NxKlQm_SongsMyBrothersTaughtMe_05_o3_8934624_1453302723She’s depressed. And there’s an older brother in prison.

Johnny’s still in high school, but he plans to cut out as soon as he graduates. He’s saving money so he can buy a pickup truck and drive to LA with his girlfriend. She’s going to University in the fall, and he hopes to make it as a boxer. So he turns to a bootlegging as a source of income. The reserve he lives on is officially dry, but there’s still a black market for beer and alcohol. k5jYyY_SongsMyBrothersTaughtMe_03_o3_8934502_1453302704He meets with an older woman who brings in the bottles and he distributes them for cash. But he faces trouble and potential violence from rivals who think he’s poaching on their territory.

His little sister knows all and sees all. She likes to draw, paint and dance. She begins to follow a tattoo artist to study his crafts and learn about her culture.

Jashawn looks at her brother almost like a father. Then their real father, Carl, dies in a fire, and Jashawn and Johnny realize they don’t know who he was. They get to know their extended family. Carl was a champion bull riderGZX1PQ_SongsMyBrothersTaughtMe_04_o3_8934563_1453302713 who followed the rodeo circuit. They all share Carl’s last name, along with lots of others at the reserve, but Johnny and Jashawn barely knew him. So they are jealous of his “real” family. Will knowing his relatives help him get a job? Or will he move to the big city and leave his mom and sister behind?

Songs my Brother Taught Me is a realistic look at life on a Lakota reserve, and pulls no punches. It’s not a Hollywood feel-good movie. It has a low-key, almost documentary feel to it, and shows a lot of sad and depressing scenes about scraping by with not enough money or jobs. But the realistic acting — especially the appealing performances of John Reddy and Jashawn St. John — help mitigate its downer feel. And the scenery — the dramatic crumbling white cliffs of the badlands — give it a stark and timeless immediacy.

1cf24d8d-9a27-480a-a622-172fc82728a7The Lady in the Van
Dir: Nicholas Hytner

Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) is a writer living on a quaint, middle-class street in Camdentown, north London. His life is a quiet one until an eccentric old woman enters the scene. Miss Sheppard (Maggie Smith) is a nearly homeless woman who lives in a VW van. She’s ornery and smells bad. And she doesn’t mince words: she needs a place to park her home so she can live in peace. And after some deliberation with nosy neighbours, Alan agrees it’s his turn to help Miss Sheppard. So she moves into his driveway takes up residence and lives there for the next THE LADY IN THE VAN15 years.

For Alan Bennett the character, Miss Sheppard is a pain in the ass: a disputatious, mentally ill old lady who gets in the way. She infringes on his private space, interferes with visiting sex partners, and interrupts his writing. And the smell! Plastic bags serve as her toilet. But for Alan Bennett the writer, she’s a fascinating character, dying to be explored and studied.

Turns out Miss Sheppard has a hidden past. The reason she lives in London is to escape a witness to a possible hit-and-run incident decades earlier. Alan also discovers she was once a concert pianist, and later joined a French convent. She’s a bullying, difficult woman with a “derelict nobility”.

THE LADY IN THE VANIronically, the more time he spends trying to learn about Miss Sheppard, the less he spends with the other old woman in his life – his own mother. She is neither glamorous nor mysterious not frightening, and he can’t bring himself to visit her. He’d rather think about the woman in the van in his driveway.

This is a great movie. Maggie Smith is just fantastic, not given to grandiose gestures. She plays it straight as a homeless woman with a strong personality. And Jennings plays Alan Bennett as two characters: the man and the narrator, who appear on the screen together to debate what to do about the woman in the driveway. It’s a theatrical conceit but it works reallyTHE LADY IN THE VAN well. Alan Bennett’s books and memoirs often have internal dialogue that doesn’t work in plays or on the big screen.

He’s a really witty and fun writer and playwright – he writes books like Smut and plays like History Boys – so it’s neat to see him as a character. The Lady in the Van is part memoir (it’s a true story) and part imagined drama. It’s a difficult comedy, one that makes you think and squirm while you laugh. Great movie.

12647247_223040471366833_8306883834731885620_nThe Lady in the Van opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; and Songs my Brother Taught Me is showing next weekend at Toronto’s Next Wave festival. Next Wave shows films by, for and about young adults, including many free screenings. Go to tiff.net for details. Also playing now is the sometimes hilarious parody 50 Shades of Black. If you like the Wayans’ style of comedy, this one’s for you.

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

Finished. Movies Reviewed: Amy, Self/Less, Big Game

dd21159d-2ec4-4d3b-9897-8ee5302d052bHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

People talk about closure as if finishing is always a good thing. But is it? This week I’m looking three movies. There’s a documentary about a young singer whose life came to an untimely finish; an action/thriller about a rich man who wants to delay his ultimate finish; and an action/adventure about a President in trouble who seeks help from a boy… who is Finnish.

Amy

Dir: Asif Kapadia

Amy Winehouse was a soulful jazz singer with an incredible voice. She was4318843f-61a8-446d-921a-ccc683cf9ac1 born in North London and dead by the age of 27. This was just four years ago. A new documentary fills in the missing years of her heartbreaking story. It concentrates on her music, her family, her friends and her lovers.

Amy was the daughter of a cabby and a pharmacist who divorced when she was still young. Extremely talented, she was sent to a prestigious music academy but was kicked out by age 16. She recorded her first album by age 20. Her voice was a throwback to some of the great American Jazz singers. Her look was also retro – dramatic and sensuous, with big hair, heavy black eyeliner. And she had an outspoken manner and working class accent, which set her apart from the carefully groomed and managed commercial bands.

33063f6d-9987-4fc2-806b-518679da09cbAccording to the film, she behaved sexually “like a man” – had lots of lovers and did it for the pleasure of it. She experimented with drugs while hanging in Camden nightclubs. At one of these clubs – prophetically called “Trash” — she first met Blake. He became her on-again, off-again lover and future husband, and many blame him for her growing dependence on drugs. . And while all this was going on her career was taking off. Her albums went multi-platinum in the UK and around the world.

Her instant stardom brought the bad side, too. The London press is notorious for its voracious appetite; it chews up the newly famous, and spits out their husks. The paparazzi follow their every move pasting lurid and intensely personal pics on the front pages of tabloids. She was in and out of ef490e32-30fb-44cc-b875-0b93ceca52d6rehab clinics, after collapsing onstage. And eventually it all proved too much and her body just gave out. (Doctors blame bulimia with excessive alcohol.)

This is a great, heartbreaking and extremely intimate documentary, shot with cel phones, voice mail recordings and tons of archival grainy photos and footage. And it features her music, along with the lyrics projected on the screen. It’s accessible both to die-hard fans and the merely curious. But is this film as exploitative as the tabloids it documents? No. Even though it shows Amy’s good and bad sides, it is sympathetic not accusatory..

Still10Self/Less

Dir: Tarsem Singh

Damian (Ben Kingsley) is a self-made real estate kingpin in New York City. He thinks money can buy anything, and he lives a life of luxury: a penthouse suite with elaborate, gold-inlaid doors and massive wooden furniture. When there’s a difficult situation, he just pulls out a wad of cash. But he has a problem that money can’t solve: he’s dying. And then he discovers a secret corporation where a Still7scientist, Dr Albright (Matthew Goode: “Finn” from The Good Wife) promises him immortality, in exchange for Big Bucks. The only catch? He has to pretend to die, leaving his old life behind. In exchange, they’ll give him a brand new – and much younger – body, freshly-made in a laboratory tank.

He agrees, and before you know it, Ben Kingskey’s soul passes into Ryan Reynolds’ body. And his past self — his heavy New York accent, his mannerisms, his personality — all disappear. Now he has a new home in

S_05989-2.cr2New Orleans, flashy clothes, a new best friend, and more beautiful women than he can shake a stick at. But there’s a problem.  Turns out, his body wasn’t made in a laboratory at all, it’s a real person! And the body’s memories keep coming back to life. So Damian investigates, and meets up with his body’s wife Marguerite  (Natalie Martinez) and a daughter.

But as soon as the lab folks find out he knows their secret — despite the millions Damian paid them — they all have to die. Luckily his body still remembers its special ops fight skills — it’s up to him to fight for strangers Still9who knew the body he’s living in. Who will win the ultimate  showdown – Damian? Or the laboratory?

This movie makes no sense at all. It starts out good, but soon loses its point, and reports to shootouts and showdowns to keep you interested.

I love the “body swap” genre – films like Freaky Friday, All of Me and  Face/Off. Even The Change Up, (Reynolds’ comedy from last year) wasn’t bad. Alas, in this one, Reynolds is bland, generic and unadventurous. He doesn’t even pretend to show the enormous gaps between Ben Kingsley’s Damian and himself.

He may be nice-looking and likeable, but he’s just a meat puppet.

Big Game_00200.NEFBig Game

Dir: Jalmari Helander

Oskari (Onni Tommila) is a 13-year-old in Northern Finland. As part of the Sami coming-of-age ritual (the Sami are an indigenous people living in Europe’s Far North) he has 24 hours to prove his manhood as a hunter and bring back a reindeer. He’s a brave kid but he’s unskilled with his bow and arrow and doubts his own self-worth.

But in the woods after an explosion he comes across a metal space pod. And inside is the US president (Samuel L Jackson)! An evil billionaire terrorist, with the help of some White House insiders, has shot down Air Force 1. He did it as a lark, not for any ideological reason. And now he’s Big Game_00181.NEFout hunting “big game” — the President himself. So young Oskari has to prove his mettle by guiding him to safety and fending off all the bad guys in the process.

Believe it or not, this kids’ movie is really good. It’s quirky, surprising and funny. I had zero expectations coming in, but something clicked when I realized this is another film by Finnish Director Helander (Rare Exports about Santa Big Game - Onni Tommila (Oskari) and Samuel L. Jackson (the President) in Big GameClause as a primeval demon), which also starred Tommila). It’s not disneyish at all. Big Game has blood and guts, a gritty feel and a twisted sensibility, all of which make it delightful.

Self/Less, Big Game and Amy all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening tonight is Tangerine with a special screening with Trans Pride activist Christin Milloy and sex work activist Catherine Brockhurst to lead a discussion. Also  on now is the Buster Keaton festival, with a live piano player. Go to robertbrucemusic.com for more information.

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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