Heavy Hitters. Films Reviewed: Wonder Wheel, Roman J Israel, Esq, The Shape of Water

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Cold War, Drama, Fantasy, L.A., Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

It’s December now, and that’s when the movie awards start to pile up. This week I’m looking at some of the hard-hitters — movies with famous directors or stars — that might be up for a prize. There’s a kitchen sink drama in Coney Island, a legal drama in LA, and a romantic drama in a secret Baltimore laboratory.

Wonder Wheel

Wri/Dir: Woody Allen

It’s the 1950s in Coney Island. Humpty and Ginny are a middle aged couple living in a rundown apartment overlooking the ferris wheel. Humpty (Jim Belushi) is an angry drunk, currently on the wagon, who manages the carousel. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a former actress who is a waitress at the clam shack… or as she puts it, she’s playing the part of “Waitress” in an on-going drama. She has a little kid from her first marriage, Richie, who is a petty thief and an aspiring arsonist, lighting fires wherever he can. Life in this dysfunctional family is far from perfect but at least it’s stable. That is until two things turn their lives upside down.

First Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up out of nowhere. They haven’t spoken for five years, not since she married a racketeer. Now she’s on the lam, a marked woman since she turned canary and sang about the mob to the cops. She moves into their crowded home, working with Ginny at the Clam House. The second thing that happens is Ginny meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard on the beach. He’s a grad student at NYU and loves the idea of dating a dramatic older woman. Soon they are secretly meeting under the boardwalk for afternoon delights. But then Mickey meets Carolina and everything starts to unravel.

After watching Wonder Wheel, I kept wondering: did I just see a great movie or a terrible one? It’s certainly very different from Woody Allen’s European comedies. It feels more like a stage play, with characters reciting the lines of a script, from Mickey the lifeguard who narrates by speaking directly to the camera, to Ginny who says things like: “I’m consumed with jealousy!” I think that’s intentional.  But I’m not so sure most of the characters wanted to speak exactly like Woody, down to his stammer and pauses. Still, the look of the movie – from the period costumes to the lurid colours of neon lights, and the unexpectedly jarring camerawork – is stunning and surprising. Does this mean Woody Allen is still experimenting?

So is Wonder Wheel a good movie or not? Hmmm… I guess so.

Roman J Israel, Esq.

Wri/Dir: Dan Gilroy

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a defense lawyer in present day LA. He’s a partner in a small law firm – he minds the office while his partner goes to court. He’s an old-fashioned guy. He wears big round glasses and ill-fitting clothes. He rides the bus to an office full of foolscap and post-it notes. He works under the watchful gaze of pictures of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin. He sacrificed marriage, a social life and material possessions, in exchange for devoting his life to civil rights and equality under the law. That is until his law partner of 30 years has a heart attack. Suddenly Roman finds himself jobless, friendless and nearly homeless.

A slick corporate colleague of his boss named George (Colin Farrell) offers him a low-level job at his firm. He refuses. But when he can’t find paying work, is mocked at a meeting of young activists, and is attacked by a mugger on the way home, he is faced with a tough decision: stay true to his ideals or sell out and enjoy the profits? Only Maya (Carmen Ejogo) – a woman he meets at an NGO – still believes in him. He ends up making an ethically dubious decision, and has to deal with the consequences.

Roman J Israel, Esq. is billed as a thriller – and there are a few tense moments – but it’s basically a character study of a man forced to re-examine his values in a changing world. Denzel Washington is great as Roman – he really gets into the part, portraying him as an oddball but a sympathetic and believable one. The story is very simple, but it’s the details surrounding this fascinating character that keeps you interested.

The Shape of Water

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s Baltimore in 1962. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is an elegant cleaning woman at a top secret government lab. She loves hard boiled eggs and bathtubs and lives above a movie theatre. She is mute, but communicates with her two friends using sign language. There’s Zelda (Octavia Spence) a talkative woman who translates and covers for her at work; and Giles (Richard Jenkins) a lonely illustrator in his 60s who lives with his cats in the apartment next door.

Elisa lives a routine life, until something strange shows up in a glass tank! Like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he’s part human, part fish. Elisa is scared but intrigued. She offers him hard boiled eggs which he scarfs down. Gradually she teaches him to communicate through sign language, and exposes him to music, art and human emotions. Could this be love? If only life were so simple. The creature arrived with Strickland (Michael Shannon) the agent in charge of the project. He’s a racist misogynist who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing the creature with a cattle prod. He plans to kill him and take him apart to study. And lurking in the shadows at the lab is a soviet spy who observes everything – including Elisa communicating with the creature. Can their love survive?

The Shape of Water is an amazing movie, modelled on classic Hollywood films. I’ve seen it twice now, and it didn’t drag for a moment. It’s funny, romantic, surprising, violent, and exciting. The music, the art direction, the singing and dancing, the dream sequences, the surreal sex scenes, the Cold War/cloak-and-dagger feel…. this movie has just about everything. Sally Hawkins is an unusual romantic lead, but she’s perfect as Elisa. Shannon is a hateable — but understandable — villain. Spence and Jenkins as, respectively, her comic and melancholy sidekick, are both spot on.

This is a wonderful movie: I recommend it.

Roman J. Israel, Esquire is now playing. Wonder Wheel and The Shape of Water 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.

Urban stories. Films reviewed: STEP, Menashe PLUS TIFF17 preview

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Dance, documentary, Drama, Family, Judaism, Movies, Yiddish by CulturalMining.com on August 12, 2017

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

TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival is still a month away, but already some of the movies are generating buzz, even before anyone’s seen them. Here are some I want to see. Call Me by Your Name looks at a boy in northern Italy who has a crush on an older visiting student. It’s directed by Luca Guadagnino who brought us This is Love. Mary Shelly could be a conventional historical biopic about the author of Frankenstein, but what’s so interesting is this is the second film by Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who brought us the delightiful Wadjda five years ago. The Shape of Water features Sally Hawkins as a mute cleaning woman working in a secret weapons lab, who discovers she can communicate with a Creature from the Black Lagoon kept captive in a glass tank. It was made in Toronto by the great Guillermo del Toro. I’ll have some more buzz about Canadian movies next week.

But this week I’m talking about two American films centred on urban life: a documentary on school life in Baltimore, and a drama about home life in Brooklyn.

STEP

Dir: Amanda Lipitz

BLSYW (or “Bliss”), the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is a public charter school with a clearly stated goal: that all of its students (mainly African-American girls and young women) will not just graduate each year but will continue on to college or university. And at the core of this school is their Step team. Step is a competitive sport that combines athletics, dance and theatrical performance, driven by music and rhythm. The intense practice and teamwork helps motivate the young women to succeed in their studies and fosters a sense of responsibility.

This documentary follows three of the students — Cori, Tayla and Blessin – as they attempt to achieve their goals. The three use their brains, skills and charisma to succeed. This also means getting their families to cooperate. The cameras follow them home so you meet their families, atoo. And at school it’s Coach G and their guidance counsellor who carry the story on. Together can they break away and rise up from the poverty and oppresssion faced by so many Baltimoreans for so many generations? Or will life, and the normal pressures they face, drag them down?

STEP follows their lives in the newly formed school against the background of the killing of Freddy Gray by local police. It shows how the Black Lives Matter movement — and the political awakening that accompanied it — enters the girls’ lives and even their Step performances.

This is a fascinating and inspiring look specifically at one charter school in Baltimore. It doesn’t deal with controversies over the charter system in general, or how charter schools might affect other schools in the public system. But it does provide a feel-good story that hopefully will motivate youth throughout that country to achieve their goals. Either way, it’s an enjoyable, funny and touching look at the lives of three girls.

Menashe

Dir: Joshua Z Weinstein

Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a single dad who lives in a self-contained Hasidic community in Brooklyn. He’s chubby with an unkempt red beard and rimless glasses. He has a low-paying job at a local grocery store unloading boxes, sweeping the floor and as a cashier. And for fun, he studies religious books, and sings songs with his friends over a cup of schnapps. He’s coping with his economic troubles, but faces an even bigger one: the community disapproves of single parent households. He has lived alone with his young son Rievele (Ruben Niborski) his only source of happiness since his wife died earlier that year. But they’re pressuring him to marry again, and arranging dates. He wants none of that — can’t they just leave him alone? Apparently not. And to force the issue, his brother in law Yitsig has forced his son to move in with his family until Menashe marries again. He did this with the approval of their rabbi, so Menashe is forced to go along with it or his son could be kicked out of school.

His brother in law is everything Menashe is not. He makes good income selling real estate, lives in an expensive brownstone. Itsig has a silken black beard almost two feet long and wears a black coat and fur hat when he goes outside. He treats Menashe disdainfully, calling him demeaning names to his face.

But Menashe is granted reprieve: his son can move back home until the one year anniversary of his wife’s death. Can he prove he’s a fit father by then? Or will his clumsy nature and bad luck alienate his father son relationship and what’s left of his status in the insular ultra-orthodox community?

Menashe is a touching and realistic drama based on actual events in the actor Menashe’s life. Most remarkable of all is the dialogue is entirely in Yiddish, peppered with a few English words, like “plastic bag” and she’s “not my type”. The cast is largely composed of non-actors. A gently-paced movie, it gives a look behind the scenes, from the plastic wash basin kept under his bed, to the large white cap Ruben wears to sleep each night. Menashe is a slice-of-life family drama rarely scene on film.

Step and Menashe 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

 

 

Secrets. Films reviewed: Two Men in Manhattan, Army of Shadows, Rumble: Indians Rock the World

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, African-Americans, documentary, Drama, France, Indigenous, Manhattan, Music, WWII by CulturalMining.com on July 28, 2017

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

Is there anything you wouldn’t tell your partner, best friend or parents? This week I’m looking at movies about secrets: two classic French thrillers by Jean-Pierre Melville, and a new Canadian documentary. There’s French resistance fighters with secret identities, a journalist in Manhattan chasing a secret story, and the secret, indigenous roots of rock and roll.

Two Men in Manhattan (1959)

Wri/Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville

It’s the late 1950s. Moreau (Jean Pierre Melville) is a reporter for AFP (Agence France-Presse), based in Manhattan, who receives a strange assignment. A top diplomat at the United Nations didn’t show up at the General Assembly… he has completely disappeared. The missing man is a French diplomat, and a war hero with a sterling reputation. Moreau has to track him down and find out what’s going on.

So Moreau turns to a freelance photographer Delmas (Pierre Grasset) for help. Delmas is a notorious alcoholic and a womanizer, but one who knows what’s going on behind the scenes in downtown manhattan. Moreau has to drag him out of bed with his latest pickup to get him to come along.

Turns out Grasset was the right one to turn to – he knows how to find the diplomat by who he’s been scene with late at night. But while Moreau is a respected journalist, Grasset will do anything for a buck. Their search takes them to a series of meeting with exotic women: a jazz singer in her recording studio, an actress backstage at intermission, a stripper in her change room and a sex worker in her boudoir. And, unbeknownst to them, they’re being followed by a mysterious woman in a car. Will they find the diplomat, and if they do will the story be suppressed or sold to the highest bidder?

This is neat noirish movie with a moral dilemma on the ethics of journalism. It’s also the only time Melville appears in one of his own movies.

Army of Shadows (1969)

Wri/Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville (Based on the novel by)

It’s 1942 in Vichy France. Most of France is occupied by Germany, but for most people life hasn’t changed. But not for Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) a middle-class engineer. He is arrested by gendarmes, not by Nazis,  and sent to a relocation camp, built by the French to hold prisoners of war from Germany. Now it’s the other way around.

The camp holds a ragtag assortment of Russians, Poles, Jews, Algerians, Communists, as well as random Frenchmen arrested for no known reason. He has plans to escape with a young communist but is suddenly sent to the Gestapo headquarters for interrogation. After a daring escape, he joins a Resistance cell in Marseille consisting of tight knit group of men and one woman:

There’s handsome Jean Francois (Jean Pierre Cassel) who is in awe of his older brother, a philosopher. Mathilde (Simone Signoret) is a tactical genius, inventing fantastical ways to break into enemy headquarters without being noticed (Signoret convincingly switches from French to German). Other members are known only by their code names: La Masque, Le Bison, Felix. Together they smuggle allied forces to safety in England, relay messages sent by radio, and keep one another out of the hands of the enemy. Army of Shadows is a realistic thriller, based on a novel by a member of the French resistance( as was the director himself – in fact Melville was his nom de guerre)

It’s full of dark episodes and plot twists, that doesn’t portray the French, including the Resistance, in the best light. It’s full of secrets and lies, and the cold-blooded executions of their own comrades and closest friends who may have divulged secrets.

The movie bombed when it was first released – perhaps it was still too close to the events it portrayed, or maybe its politics didn’t jibe with Paris in 1969 – but decades later, after it was finally released on North America, it was a critical success. It is now considered a masterpiece.  Ventura, Cassel, and especially Signoret are all fantastic.

A must-see.

Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World

Dir: Catherine Bainbridge, Alfonso Maiorana

When people talk about rock and roll they’re sure to mention its influences: jazz, blues, folk and country. It uses tunes from Europe, rhythms from West Africa but with words and feelings that are purely American. But what about aboriginal North Americans – First Nations, Metis and Native Americans? This documentary looks at both the musicological influences and the genetics of the musicians themselves – the drummers, guitarists and singers most people took for white, black or hispanic.

Link Wray pioneered the use of guitar feedback (his hit Rumble was a huge influence on bands from Led Zeppelin to the Who). He was Shawnee. Robbie Robertson, founding member of The Band, is Mohawk and learnt his music on the Six Nations reserve. Early blues great Charley Patton was Choctaw, and singer Mildred Bailey was Couer d’Alene.

The film covers territory from centuries past to present-day struggles, like activist and folk singer Buffy Ste Marie who performed at Standing Rock. And many of the black musicians who still perform at the New Orleans Mardi Gras dressed in “tribal” costume are descended from indigenous ancestors.

Music styles covered in the movie range from heavy metal to pop rock, country to folk, and soul to R&B. The musicians point out the singing styles, the drums from their childhoods.

Rumble is a really great music doc.

Rumble opens today in Toronto at the Hot Docs cinema; check your local listings. Two Men in Manhattan and Army of Shadows are part of the Jean Pierre Melville retrospective, Army of Shadows: The Cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville, which continues through August. 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.

Daniel Garber talks with director Jac Gares about her new film Free CeCe! at Inside Out

Posted in African-Americans, documentary, LGBT, Prison, Protest, Trans, violence by CulturalMining.com on May 26, 2017

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

In June, 2011 in St. Paul Minnesota, an African-American woman and her friends were taunted by a group of white supremacists they encountered on the street. A white woman assaulted her, cutting her face, followed by a violent attack by a white man. The situation escalated when the woman under attack pulled out a scissors to defend herself. The man ended up dead, the woman charged with murder. Her name is CeCe McDonald and she’s a transgendered black woman whose story has captured the interest of activists around the world.

Free CeCe! is a new documentary that tells her story. It’s about the violence, injustice and incarceration faced by transgender people of colour. It is directed by Jacqueline “Jac” Gares an award-winning TV director and filmmaker. Free CeCe! is her first documentary feature film, and it’s having its Canadian premier at Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival on Sunday, May 28th.

I spoke with Jac in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM via telephone to New York City.

Black History. Films reviewed: A United Kingdom, I Am Not Your Negro

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Africa, African-Americans, Apartheid, documentary, Drama, France, Gay, Racism, Romance, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on February 24, 2017

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

It’s Black History Month, so I’m looking at some historical movies that fit the profile. There’s a British drama about forbidden love and a united kingdom, and a French documentary about a writer’s look at African Americans in the divided United States.

A UNITED KINGDOMA United Kingdom

Dir: Amma Asante

It’s London in the 1950s. Ruth (Rosamund Pike) is an attractive, professional woman who lives with her parents. One night she meets a handsome student from Oxford at a dance. After a few dates he reveals he’s a prince, destined to become the king of a far off country called Bechuanaland. They fall in love, decide to marry, and move there… it’s like a fairy tale. But they face one problem. Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is black, and Ruth is white. This doesn’t A UNITED KINGDOMmatter much to them, but it does to the people around them.

Ruth’s parents are dead set against it, and as a mixed race couple they face abuse and even violence from strangers on the streets of London. In Bechuanaland, a British protectorate in Southern Africa, Seretse also faces trouble. He’s going against tradition by not choosing a wife from his own tribe. His uncle, the current Regent, objects strongly. And then there’s Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), a highly-placed diplomat in the foreign service. He’s condescending, snotty, racist and sexist – he A UNITED KINGDOMassumes Ruth works in a typing pool (because she’s a woman) when she’s actually an underwriter at Lloyds of London. And he has ulterior motives.

Bechuanaland (now Botswana) is a British protectorate completely surrounded by Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South Africa and South-West Africa (Namibia). Since 1948, South Africa has been under apartheid rules which make it illegal for whites and blacks to marry. For the king of Bechuanaland to openly flout these racist laws might undermine South A UNITED KINGDOMAfrica’s legitimacy. South Africa is a commonwealth member and the region is a huge source of mineral wealth for multinationals. Under current laws, Seretse and Ruth are not legally permitted to share a drink in a restaurant… in the land he’s supposed to rule!

Politics is strange. Seretse is forced into exile, while Ruth – and their new baby – remain in Africa. Can Ruth and Seretse win the trust of their countrymen? Can they win the sympathy of the British public? Can they bring justice and prosperity to a remote arid country? And can love hold a separated family together?

A United Kingdom is a historical drama, with equal helpings of romance and British parliamentary politics. It’s based on a true story I knew nothing about. Although it ends abruptly, it has a surprisingly fascinating story. I liked this movie.

3ea9d0fe-c6c6-4980-9ef1-727cc28d7b96I Am Not Your Negro

Dir: Raoul Peck (Written by James Baldwin)

James Baldwin was an African American writer, the author of Notes of a Native Son, and novels like Giovanni’s Room. Born in Harlem he took part in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. But because of the racism and potential violence he faced in America he left for Paris where he spent most of his life. He joined the expat community there, including Nina Simone and Josephine Baker. He wanted to be known not as a black writer,  not as a gay writer, but 6bbac4d9-bdd8-4d22-aae4-fa76fe7ab6a0as a writer.

This film follows Baldwin’s writings on three important figures in the struggle for civil rights: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.,

They represented, respectively, the NAACP, Black Muslims, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. All three were spied on and harassed by the FBI and labeled “dangerous”, and all three were assassinated before the age of 40.

Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Baldwin looks back at their stories and his encounters with them, but also sets himself apart. He’s not a Muslim, not a Christian, not a member of the NAACP or the Black Panther Party.

The title, I Am Not Your Negro, is Baldwin’s central point. The story of the Negro in America, he says, is the story of America, and it’s not a pretty story. It’s a history of violence and racism.There is no difference between the North and South, Baldwin says, just the way you castrate us. He covers slavery, lynching, segregation, and incarceration. And the film neatly connects the slaying of Medgar Evers by a white supremacist with current racist murders, like the deaths of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin

4357c413-cb69-4edf-841e-9d3ce1e5660b Samuel L Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s prophetic words alternates with Baldwin’s own voice: on the Dick Cavett show and at the Cambridge Debates. Baldwin – and director Peck — tells his story with a barrage of Hollywood images. From the pink-scrubbed face of a dancing Doris Day, to John Wayne’s 7f8cc584-e699-49bc-ba66-791cb899b7f5confidence in killing native Americans. Baldwin recalls his childhood shock at a John Wayne Western when he realized he’s not the “cowboy”, he’s the “Indian”.

I Am Not Your Negro is about the fear and violence faced by African Americans. It’s a terrific documentary, a cinematic essay told through the masterful use of period still images. These are not the photos and clips you’re used to but jaw-dropping, newfound pictures. There’s lush nighttime footage and a fantastic juxtapositions of words and images. (The film reminds me of the work Adam Curtis.) It’s nominated for an Oscar for best documentary.

A United Kingdom and I Am Not Your Negro both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening this weekend: if you’re a cat person, there’s Kedi, about the street cats of Istanbul; or if you’re a zombie or a zombie-lover, there’s the wonderful horror movie The Girl with all the Gifts (read the review here).

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

Whence America? Films reviewed: Paterson, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Posted in African-Americans, College, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, Racism, Slavery, US by CulturalMining.com on February 10, 2017

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

The recent executive order known as the Muslim Ban has made the lives of hundreds of thousands of American citizens and residents uncertain. So uncertain that some refugee claimants are fleeing the Land of the Free, seeking sanctuary across the frozen border in Canada.

Whence America? Where is that country heading?

This week, I’m looking at two movies that give a more optimistic look at life in the United States. There’s a new documentary about Historically Black Colleges, and a quirky drama about the state of life in a post-industrial town.

spelman-college-1964Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Dir: Stanley Nelson

Did you know that under slavery, it was actually illegal for African Americans to learn to read and write? And that even slave owners – who could beat, sexually assault or even murder their slaves with impunity — were legally forbidden from educating them? It was in the best interest of the Government and slave owner to keep black Americans ignorant, docile, and illiterate.

To counter this, after emancipation and the civil war, African Americans realized education was the most important way to rise up from slavery. The first colleges were opened based on the writings of scholars like Frederick hbcu-students-from-c-1900-graduates-of-atlanta-baptist-college-and-spelman-seminary-from-the-institutions-that-were-later-known-as-morehouse-college-and-spelman-collegeDouglas. And like Douglas, the first students were born into slavery. Early education efforts were aimed at skilled trades or religion, but as the movement grew it shifted to academic subjects.

Two schools of thought emerged. Southerner Booker T. Washington believed in a business-oriented outlook, centred on entrepreneurship but was opposed to any protests or political action confronting the status quo. W.E.B. Du Bois took the opposite stance, and led the movement toward equal rights.

Many of the early colleges were run by whites, who imposed harsher disciplinary policies on black students students.

bp_standingfedbldg_seattle-e1401981658505Fisk University harshly segregated the students by sex and forbade social interaction. This led to a protest and an organized walkout until the school President resigned.

By the 1930s and 40s, the teachers and administration positions were increasingly filled by blacks, many of whom had been educated at these same colleges and universities. The US was still strictly segregated under so-called separate but equal laws. So all the best and the brightest students flocked to these schools, becoming the new black middle class. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers and judges all passed through these schools, including renowned Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Howard University Law School).

By the the 1950s and ’60s these schools also became a hotbed of black-led political movements. Civil rights tell_them_we_are_rising_the_story_of_black_colleges_and_universities_xlgactions — like sit-ins at segregated lunch counters — were spearheaded by students at black universities..

100 years after it was a crime for blacks to read or write, the Brown v Board of Education decision promised to end segregation in schools. But this had an unexpected negative impact on black colleges. With white universities now open to black students, there was a brain drain of top applicants to ivy league schools.

Today there are still over 100 black colleges and universities, some thriving, but others crumbling for lack of funds.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is the first documentary to tell the full history of this important but not-widely-known institution. It’s narrated by voiceovers and talking heads: historians and former students and professors from these schools. It’s beautifully illustrated with period photos and film clips touching all aspects of black college life, including educational,  political movements and social: fraternities, and sororities, sports and music.

It’s by director Stanley Nelson who also made the excellent The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

04e8c932-9d19-4a19-8e05-12ebd8db89f2Paterson

Dir: Jim Jarmusch

Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver who lives with his girlfriend, Laura, in a small house in Paterson, NJ. He lives a routine life. He carries a lunchpail to work each morning, and a notebook to write down any poems that might occur to him. He eats lunch in a tiny national park. After work he talks with Laura over dinner. And each night he walks his dog to a neighbourhood bar and stays PATERSON_D25_0077.ARWfor a drink or two, chewing the fat.

Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is an artist who remembers her dreams. She covers everything around her in rough swaths of black and white. Clothes, chairs, curtains, cupcakes… their home is her canvas. Except for his basement where he goes to tinker with things and think. The two of them have a symbiotic relationship. he is the observer, passively PATERSON_D19_0011.ARWtaking in what he sees and hears around him. She is the dynamic one, planning their future, and launching business projects that may or may not succeed.

The town of Paterson serves as the third character in the movie. It’s the first city in North America designed as an industrial centre powered by a series of 18th century canals and mills. It has become an artistic hub for New Yorkers who can’t afford the high rents of that city. Jarmusch includes these brick factories and waterfalls in all his outdoor shots. What he doesn’t show is the parts of town with a large and vibrant middle eastern community there. Instead they’re represented by Laura, played by a Persian American actor. (Paterson is also the place where Trump falsely claimed Muslims were dancing on their rooftops during 9-11.) Maybe it’s because I’ve visited Paterson the town, but I was really tickled by this movie.

Paterson is a richly minimalist film that leaves you feeling good about the state of the world.

Paterson opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is playing on February 15th at the opening night of the Toronto Black Film Festival. Go to torontoblackfilm.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

Daniel Garber talks with director Jamie Kastner about A Skyjacker’s Tale

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, African-Americans, Crime, Cuba, documentary, FBI, Interview, Politics, Torture, Trial, US by CulturalMining.com on January 20, 2017

jamie-kastner-a-skyjackers-taleHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s the 1980s. Ishmael Ali is on a commercial flight to the US. Virgin Islands. But not to lie on the beaches of St Croix. He’s being transferred to another maximum security prison. He’s serving time for the Fountain Valley Massacre – the infamous killing at a golf course owned by the theskyjackerstale_01Rockefellers… a crime, he says, he did not commit. And on this flight he manages to hijack the plane to Cuba. But there’s much, much more to this skyjacker’s tale.

A Skyjacker’s Tale is a new feature documentary that interviews the skyjacker himself in Cuba. It tells his story, and that of all the jamie-kastner-a-skyjackers-talepeople he affected: at the skyjacking, and at the trial. These interviews shed new light on a controversial case – with a dramatic finish — that left the public polarized. A Skyjackers Tale is directed by award-winning filmmaker Jamie Kastner, who brought us films like Kike Like Me, and The Secret Disco Revolution. (Here’s the interview from 2012).

A Skyjacker’s Tale opens today at the Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.

I spoke to Jamie in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM..

 

Christmas movies. Films reviewed: Julieta, Fences, La La Land

Posted in African-Americans, Drama, Hollywood, L.A., Musical, Spain by CulturalMining.com on December 23, 2016

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

It’s Christmas weekend with lots of movies to choose from. This week I’m talking about three excellent movies to see. There’s a woman in Madrid haunted by her past, a married man in Pittsburgh fighting off his demons, and a young couple in LA looking for love in a city of lost souls.

207c9f5a-c8b2-4684-84b8-e2ca620e5350Julieta

Dir: Pedro Almadovar

Julieta (Emma Suarez) is a middle aged woman who lives in Madrid. She is making a big change, leaving her longtime lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) and moving to Portugal after countless years of waiting. What is she waiting for? Word from her daughter Antia, who disappeared without a trace many years earlier. She’s all ready to go when she runs into her daughter’s childhood friend Beatriz on a street corner, who says she saw Antia in Lac Como. And so begins the telling of a mysterious story divided into three chapters.

As a young woman, Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) is a brilliant and beautiful prof. Her c1bbda5d-7ad7-43d0-8743-6fd52f0acf0dstudents all love her. But when she meets Xoan — a handsome and rugged fisherman — on a train, her life is turned upside down. A man is killed, a deer runs past the train, and she falls heavily for Xoan. Is it love at first sight? She visits Xoan (Daniel Grao) at his home by the water. But he’s not at home, just a suspicious and protective housekeeper (Rossy de Palma) who won’t let Julieta wait for him inside. Eventually they live as a couple and raise their daughter Antia together. Julieta meets Xoan’s friends, including the sultry 47c1af05-dbf2-4911-b667-2e6504d2be42sculptress Ava (Inma Cuesta),

But after a tragic turn of events, Julieta is back in Madrid, raising her daughter alone. She falls into a deep depression, and young Antia spends more and more time with her best friend Beatriz. Still later, Julieta retraces her steps, trying to explain why she lost her daughter so many years ago.

Julieta is a great drama, the product of an unexpected combination. It pairs Almadovar – known for his lush, passionate melodramas and over-the-top comedies — with Canadian author Alice Munro’s quirky, understated stories about women in small town Ontario. Does it work? Yes, yes, yes. With its small fishing boat on a lake, classrooms, caribou running past a train, along with jealousy and infidelity, it’s an intrinsically Canadian story… and yet perfectly Spanish. I really liked this movie.

14707023_1121134524668241_6064690716005417326_oFences

Dir: Denzel Washington

It’s the 1950s. Troy Maxton (Denzel Washington) works as a garbage man for the city of Pittsburgh. Each Friday, he comes home from work with the same things: a sack of potatoes, a piece of lard, a mickey of gin, and his pay envelope. The money goes to his wife Rose (Viola Davis) but he shares the gin with his best friend Bono. Troy met Bono in jail as a young man. It’s also, where he learned to play baseball, and where he met Rose a kindly visitor. He has two sons: Lyons who is a jazz musician (Troy calls it Chinese music) and Cory (Jovan Adepo) a high school athlete. His brother Gabriel – with a metal plate in his head — carries a trumpet to play for St Peter at the pearly gates. Troy, though, is more worried about the Devil.

Troy and Rose are deeply in love, Cory’s doing great in school, everything seems perfect… but it isn’t.. Troy wants to show he’s the man of the house, and everyone’s afraid of him. He tries to stop Cory from going to college on a football scholarship. (He once was a pro baseball player once but now he’s hauling rubbish.) Gabe has moved out, and best friend Bono says Troy is looking too closely at other woman. Can this family stay together? Or is it teetering on the brink of total collapse?

Fences is a small movie that feels more like a filmed play. Great dialogue — adapted from his own script by August Wilson – and basically one setting, with little action other than crossing the floor or sawing a board.  Flashbacks are talked about, not shown. But the grandness of the characters and the stories they tell does come through. Director Denzel Washington doesn’t hog the screen; instead he lets all the other actors bloom before the camera. Davis and Adepo are outstanding, in fact all of them are great. But this film is more stage-worthy than cinematic. Fences is a moving and revealing look at an African-American family in the 1950s.

LLL d 29 _5194.NEFLa La Land

Dir: Damien Chazelle

Mia and Sebastian are strangers in LA. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress. She commutes to a major Hollywood studio each day, to work not as an actress but as a barista at a coffee chain. She lives with other actresses who enjoy the party scene but none of whom has made it big. Each audition Mia goes to is worse than the one before. But she’s hoping her one woman show wi’ll convince Hollywood she’s ready for stardom. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a serious musician who composes grand jazz opuses on his grand piano. He’s a jazz purist who would rather die than perform with a fusion band. He pines for the old jazz joints, now rapidly turning into tapas bars. Ironically he ends up working in a rundown piano bar where his hard-ass boss (JK Simmons) makes him play Jingle Bells, over and over again.

Mia and Sebastian first meet in an LA traffic jam, and it’s hate at first site. Later, when he rescues her from a bad date, they hit it off. This leads to more meetings where together they explore the classic sites of old 16426304_660736417446295_5158240061357564169_nHollywood: like the planetarium from Rebel without a Cause.

Together, supporting one another, they think they can conquer the world. But will their success be what tears their relationship apart?

La La Land is a very good movie that’s also a musical. That means extras singing and dancing their hearts out on the LA freeway. Gosling and Stone use their real voices and legs, but they’re not Gene Kelly or Julie Andrews. They’re popular actors trying hard to sing and dance. It makes their performances real and touching, but not super fantastic. It combines fantasy, a complex plot, extended flashbacks, and touching moments of love, with beautifully shot images and catchy songs. It’s a tribute to a forgotten Hollywood by young people yearning for purer days. A very good movie.

Julieta starts today and Fences and Lala Land open on Christmas Day 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

War and remembrance. Films reviewed: Hacksaw Ridge, Birth of a Nation, Seoul Station

Posted in 1800s, 1940s, African-Americans, Japan, Resistance, Sex Trade, Slavery, soldier, violence, WWII, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on November 4, 2016

img_1527Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

November 11th is Remembrance Day, when we remember the death and destruction of war. Even wars fought for good reasons may result in horrible deaths for soldiers and ordinary people. This week I’m looking at movies about war. There are armies of zombies in Seoul who want to eat people, a secret slave army in Virginia that wants to free people, and a man who joins the US army in WWII… but refuses to kill people.

hacksawridge_d14-6618Hacksaw Ridge

Dir: Mel Gibson

It’s the 1930s. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a young man who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with his drunk Dad (Hugo Weaving) and religious Mom (Rachel Griffiths). As a kid he loved climbing cliffs and rassling with his brother Hal. But when he saw how close to death his brother came when he hit him in the head with a brick, he swore never to hurt or kill another person again. As a Seventh Day Adventist he takes the Sixth Commandment — thou shalt not kill – very seriously. Years later,hacksawridge_d4-3041-edit he rescues a man injured in an accident by putting a tourniquet on his leg. He has studied medicine on his own since he can’t go to college. At the hospital he meets the beautiful and smart Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) a nurse. It’s love at first sight.

But it’s 1941 and the country is at war. Young men all rush to join the army and Doss is no exception. But he joins as a medic to save lives, not as a fighter to kill people. He and Dorothy plan to get married after boot camp. But then reality hits. You can’t be in the army and refuse to carry a gun. They offer him a Section 8 – a psychiatric discharge. But he refuses to quit. He’s not crazy, he’s not un-American, he’s not unpatriotic. The army disagrees.  Soldiers beat him and bully him, and on hacksawridge_d22-10131_fullframehis wedding day the Army throws him in the brig, leaving Dorothy waiting at the altar. Will he be court-martialed?

Somehow he makes it to Okinawa, in time for a crucial battle. They must climb Hacksaw Ridge, a sheer cliff, to face a never-ending battalion of Japanese soldiers. Can Doss use his medic skills to save his fellow soldiers?

Hacksaw Ridge is a heartfelt war movie about a conscientious objector who goes into battle without a gun. For a movie about a heroic man opposed to killing,  there’s also an ungodly amount of gory carnage shown in minute detail. Not for the squeamish.

Interestingly, the entire cast, except for Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughan, is Australian. And with all those thin-lipped, lantern-jawed, soldiers, I had a hard time telling them apart. (Didn’t that guy just die in a foxhole? Must have been someone else…). Garfield, though, stands out as the stubborn, jug-eared Doss. If you like heroic war movies, this one pushes all the right buttons.

birthofanation_04Birth of a Nation

Dir: Nate Parker

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is born to loving parents and grandparents in a wooden house in Virginia in the early 19th century. At an early age mystics declare him a born leader, with special birthmarks on his belly. He grows up a student of the bible, reading to himself at night. And he happily marries a beautiful woman when they fall in love.,But he is also an African American in the south which means… he is also a slave. The slave owner Sam Turner (Armie Hammer) played with him as a child and they share the birthofanation_02same last name. When earnings are down Sam hires him out to other plantations to preach to fellow slaves, to help calm potential unrest. Nat delivers the sermons, while Sam keeps the cash.

It is on these visits that Nat Turner witnesses the truly horrifying nature of slavery. A young girl kept like a dog with collar and leash. Men set upon by vicious dogs. Families broken up and sold like cattle at auctions. Heinous torture – worse than you can imagine – for crimes as simple as looking a white man directly in the eyes. Women are subject to birthofanation_06horrific rape.  Murder and lynching — always white violence against blacks — is not even considered a crime. So Nat Turner decides enough is enough and organizes a small army to fight back. But can a handful of men and woman overturn slavery itself?

Birth of a Nation is a fictionalized retelling of the famous Nat Turner rebellion. The movie birthofanation_01concentrates more on Nat’s life in the years leading up to it than on the battle itself. The film is disturbing, dealing with topics rarely shown in mainstream movies. Even so, it has a mainstream feel to it: flickering candles, gushing music, and Hollywood kisses in profile. The title itself reclaims D.W. Griffith’s wildly popular silent movie from 1915 which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and inspired countless terrorist attacks on black Americans. This is a good film about a neglected part of US history, downplayed or glossed over in most movies.

seoul_station_film_posterSeoul Station

Dir: Sang-ho Yeon

It’s a typical day at the central train station in Seoul, Korea. It’s used by commuters everyday. But it’s also a mecca for the disenfranchised — the poor, the mentally ill and the homeless. Hye-sun is a young runaway,  a former sex worker who lives with her wimpish boyfriend. They are separated by a massive zombie attack — and the virus is spreading. He teams up with her father, while she follows a deranged, homeless man. Hye-sun communicates with her boyfriend whenever they can find a signal on their phones. When she turns to the police for help, they lock her up in a jail cel. Later, a large group of people trapped in an area besieged by zombies appeals to the army. But instead of rescuing them, the soldiers fire water canons and teargas… not at the zombies, but at their fellow citizens. Who will survive the zombie onslaught?

Seoul Station is an animated prequel to the hit horror film Train to Busan. Characters are drawn with clean black outlines against realistic backgrounds. Seoul is portrayed as a desolate place, its dim skies lit only by neon crosses.  This may be a zombie movie but it’s also an unsparing look at the maltreatment of the homeless and disenfranchised in modern Korea.

Birth of a Nation is now playing and Hacksaw Ridge opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Seoul Station is playing at the upcoming ReelAsian Film Festival. Go to reelasian.com for showtimes. 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.

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