Make up and dance. Films Reviewed: Like a Boss, Cunningham

Posted in Art, comedy, Dance, documentary, Feminism, Friendship, LGBT, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 10, 2020

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

Sometimes I wonder if I should be talking about movies when the planet is on fire as we head toward environmental catastrophe, even as an erratic leader — like a James Bond villain — is carrying out drone assassinations willy-nilly and pushing us all to the brink of war and back again, depending on his mood.

Are we fiddling while Rome burns?

Luckilly, the United States is still full of innovative and creative people. So this week I’m looking at two new American movies, a comedy and a performance/doc. There are two women entrepreneurs who challenge contemporary makeup; and a man who challenged the makeup of contemporary dance.

Like a Boss

Dir: Miguel Arteta

Mia and Mel (Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne) are single girlfriends who live in Atlanta Georgia. They have been besties since junior high. They go to bars together to pick up younger guys (I don’t care if they can’t read, butthey better still have their teeth, says Mia). They live in the same house – Mia’s mom left it to the two of them in  her will. And they even work together. They founded a cosmetics company that they jointly run – Mia is the creative side while Mel handles the finances.

They specialize in innovative goods, like their best selling One Night Stand packs for a woman on the go. And tell all types of women to use makeup to embrace their own good looks rather than trying to change or hide them. And they work closely with their two employees: a flamboyant gay man in the workshop (Billy Porter) and a quirky woman handling the front (Jennifer Coolidge). Everything seems to be going well, but behind the scenes they are facing serious financial trouble. Luckilly, a stranger arrives with an offer they can’t refuse. His boss, he says, wants to buy their business.

The offer comes from Claire Luna (Salma Hayek) a ruthless business mogul. Claire has dramatic orange hair, platform shoes and impossibly white teeth. Her office looks like the Guggenheim but with small killer drones flying around everywhere. She is the head of a huge cosmetics empire and she covets their niche market. Mel and Mia are intimidated by her, but stand firm – they want to keep majority interest – 51% -in their own company. Claire Luna agrees… but with a catch. If either of them leaves the company, she takes over Like a Bossthe company. Can Mel and Mia stay best friends with a new boss in the picture? Or will they fight and lose their friendship, their home and their company?

Like a Boss is an extremely simple — I would even say simplistic — movie about female best friends. It spoonfeeds you all the expected plot turns as it moves to its totally predictable conclusion. I love Haddish and Byrne, and their sidekicks Porter and Coolidge are even funnier. Hayek is a cartoon villain — she’d be twirling her moustache if she had one. I like the female-centred story, and the sexually- and racially-diverse cast. It’s also short… under 90 minutes, so it’s never boring.

The problem is the script: it’s mediocre at best, forcing talented comic actors to make do with crappy material. A real shame. The funny parts are used up in the first half, as the movie dwells on the babyish plot through the second half.

Like a Boss is not awful, it just isn’t as good as it should be.

Cunningham (in 3D)

Dir: Alla Kovgan

Merce Cunningham is born in 1919 in Washington state and begins dancing at a young age. He joins Martha Graham’s dance company as a principal dancer in the 1940s, originating many roles before turning to choreography. He leaves Graham to set up a studio in a New York tenament, with a room at the back to live in. Working with composer John Cage (the two are lovers) he pioneers a new form of experimental dance. It combines how ballet uses feet with how modern dance handles the torso. Instead of playing music with dancers moving in synch with the notes and rhythms, Cunningham decides dancers should move independent of the sound, the two art forms coexisting. He rejects the autocratic culture of traditional dance — a dictator ordering around his puppet-like dancers, while they claw their way to the top as Prima Ballerina — to a more democractic and cooperative company. He likes to call himself a dancer not a choreographer, though that is what he does. The dancers move as individual units coexiting in the same space, but often without interacting in traditional ways.

He combines music and dance to create works of art. He works with visual artists, like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol to design the costumes and sets, incorporating things like pointillism backdrops and mylar balloons with designed the complimentary costumes and backdrops so a dancer could almost disappear into the set, as in Robert Rauschenberg’s pointillist designs. The dance company drives across a country not quite ready to accept their advances in dance. A European tour leads to terrible reviews until he starts to build  appreciative audiences in the UK.

I have to admit, before seeing this film I was only vaguely aware of Merce Cunningham’s work, as opposed to his more famous collaborators – Rauschenberg, Cage, and Andy Warhol. But having watched it, I can say I get him now. It’s like a “best of” version, showcasing segments of some of his most famous works. And it’s done in 3D. You might ask, who needs 3D for dance? Well, the use of innovative filming and staging techniques gives you – in the theatre – a chance to see aspects and angles of his work previously unexplored. For example, one excerpt is shot on the roof of a skyscraper lit by searchlights projected from a nearby building… and it’s filmed using drone cameras cruising up the side of the roof and hovering overhead looking down as the dancers across the elevated stage. Just spectacular!

So if you’re one of those people who’s heard about opera, dance or Shakespearean plays, but are squeamish about actually watching a live performance (because you’re afraid you might fall asleep or squirm in your seat) this movie makes modern dance accessible. Sequences are short, varied, and beautifully done, while staying true to Cunningham’s aesthetic ideals. The movie also uses classic photos, scripts and footage of his early work to make it part documentary and part performance.

Cunningham is a beautiful movie, a tribute to an underapppreciated artist and a joy to watch.

Cunningham and Like a Boss both open today in Toronto.

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 filmmaker Matthew Rankin about The Twentieth Century

Posted in 1800s, Art, Canada, Fetish, Movies, Politics, Sex by CulturalMining.com on December 27, 2019

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

It’s the end of the 19th Century, and Canada is still an Imperial backwater. Sir Wilfrid Laurier says “The 20th Century shall be the century of Canada.”

Dan Beirne, The Twentieth Century, Photo by Jeff Harris

And a young William Lyon Mackenzie King thinks he should be the one to lead it. He visits girls dying of consumption, tends to his blonde-tressed mother, and pines for a heroic, harp-playing Valkyrie. A pity though, he’s quite nuts.

The Twentieth Century is a new, partially animated and highly stylized film about the history of Canada as seen through the deranged eyes of a young Mackenzie King. Powered with the glow of fluorescent light, modernist architecture with actors gliding past on roller skates, it reimagines the country as a den of corruption controlled by evil royalists and their puppets.

The feature is written and directed by Winnipeg-born, avant-garde filmmaker Matthew Rankin.

I spoke with Matthew on location at TIFF19.

The Twentieth Century won the Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF and has been selected for Canada’s Top Tem Films of 2019.  It is now playing in Toronto.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Robert Eggers about The Lighthouse

Posted in 1800s, Art, Drama, Dreams, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, Nova Scotia, Sex by CulturalMining.com on October 17, 2019

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

Photo of Robert Eggers by Jeff Harris

It’s the 19th century on a rocky Atlantic island. An old salt and a young jack tar share threadbare lodgings. Their job? Keep a lighthouse burning to warn all passing boats of potential danger. The old man is there for the long haul, while the younger one seems to be a temporary replacement. But as the isolation grows they become increasingly unhinged as they try to keep their senses… in the lighthouse.

The Lighthouse is a new film about life in a lighthouse as seen through the fantastical minds of the two men living there. It’s written and directed by Robert Eggers, his second feature after The VVitch.

This interview was recorded onsite during TIFF 19.

The Lighthouse opens next Friday (Oct 25, 2019) in Toronto.

Stolen. Films reviewed: Hustlers, The Goldfinch, The Vigil at #TIFF19!

Posted in Art, Crime, Death, Friendship, Horror, Judaism, Sex Trade, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 13, 2019

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

TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, winds up this weekend, so if you haven’t had a chnce to see anything yet, or maybe can’t afford to buy tickets, you should know theres a number of free screenings of the most popular film at TIFF, juried film winners, midnight madness and more on Sunday. This means you should go to tiff.net online on Sunday morning at 10 am, and you’ll have a good chance of getting a free ticket for later the same day.

This week I’m looking at three movie that premiered at TIFF: a horror story, and two dramas. There’s a boy who protects a priceless stolen painting, a group of women who steal from unconcscious men, and a man who sits beside a corpse… to make sure it doesn’t move.

Hustlers

Wri/Dir: Lorene Scafaria

Dorothy (Constance Wu) is a single mom with financial troubles who lives with her grandma in New York. She works as a dancer in strip bars under the stage name Destiny. When she lands a spot at bar that caters to wall street big shots she thinks her luck has changed. No dice, still struggling. That is until she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). When Ramona’s on stage it rains money. She dances in high heels and fur coats. She’s intimidating and a bit scary, but Destiny reaches it to her for help. They hit it off as friend and Ramona takes Destiny under her wing. She learns how to shimmy down a pole upside down, how to conduct a proper lap dance, and howto keep the clients wanting. Life’s good but she’s still not earning the real big bucks. Until they think up a fool proof plan. Treat the biggest spenders to a serious party in a back room, drop some powder in their drinks, and then let yourself go wild on his company card. The client wakes up the next day with a hangover and $15 thou in charges, none the wiser. It works like a charm, and soon Destiny is swimming in furs. But how long will their good luck last?

The Hustlers, (based on a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler), is an engaging drama about BFFs in the world of stripbars, and how they attempt to take back control. Constance Wu is nice as the main character, with J-Lo believable as the iconoclastic Ramona. The other characters, played by Cardi B, Lizzo, Keke Palmer and others keep the largely all-female cast interesting. I liked it but I didn’t love it. The problem is it’s too long, and doesn’t really know where it’s going. It sets up a rivalry between Destiny and Ramona that doesn’t pan out in the plot. And it unnecessarily frames the whole story within the context of a magazine article. Why? In Hustlers, the New York Magazine journalist is just a cipher, a sounding board for what you really want to see. But the rest of the story – while not the shocking expose it pretends to be – is still good as a realistic, inside look at sex workers’ private lives.

The Goldfinch

Dir: John Crowleyn (Based on the novel by Donna Tarte)

Theo (Oakes Fegley) is a precocious prepschool boy in New York. His life is turned upside down when he survives a terrorist bomb attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That fateful explosion leaves him a penniless orphan holding a priceless painting that the world thinks was destroyed. It also points him to a small shop that restores antique furniture, and Pippa, the mysterious red-headed girl who was standing beside him when the bomb went off. When he bonds with a school friend he is taken under the wing of a one-percenter family headed by old-money matriarch Mrs Barbour (Nicole Kidman). Will he end up one of the family?

Later, he finds himself living in Las Vegas, in an eerily deserted neighbourhood with his actor Dad who abandoned him as a child. There he meets an over-the-top Russian kid named Boris (Finn Wolfhard) who leads him into a world of drugs and petty crime, but also pulls him out of his shell. But can that friendship endure?

Later still, as a young adult back in Manhattan (Ansel Elgort), Theo is on the verge of entersing high society when he rejoins friends from his childhood. And through it all, he is kept sane and grounded by the knowledge that he, and only he, possesses that priceless wooden painting of a little bird. But what would happen if the secret gets out?

I read and enjoyed the book, so I was worried it would ruin it somehow. It doesn’t. It’s true to the story, and even though I knew, more or less, what was going to happen, it still kept me glued to the screen for most of the movie. It’s like running into an old friend: they feel familiar, an important part of your life, even though they don’t live up to your expectations. That said, it didn’t tug at my heartstrings nearly as much as I thought it would, and left me feeling vaguely empty at the end. But the great acting, lush images and music, and fascinating plot did what it’s supposed to do. This won’t win any awards but it’s still a pleasure to watch.

The Vigil

Wri/Dir: Keith Thomas

It’s late at night in Brooklyn New York. Jacob (Dave Davis) is broke, depressed and suffering from PTSD. He’s meeting with a support group of men and women. They are all former Chassids, ultra-orthodox Jews, who have left the insular communities they were born in. That’s why Jacob is disturbed to see a man in black standing by a streetlight outside. Why can’t they leave him alone? Turns out the man is there to offer Jacob a job: one that’s quick, easy, and well-paid. The catch? He has to start working immediately as a Shomer or vigil. This means watching over a newly dead body until undertakers arrive at dawn to pick it up. Easier said than done.

The widow, Mrs Litvack, says he’s not the right one for the job… but she doesn’t say why. It soon becomes clearer to Jacob that this is not a good place to spend the night. The old house full of shadows that seem to move, lightbulbs that frazzle and pop, and creaky sounds in the floorboards. The corpse is covered with a simple sheet, but Jacob keeps checking it didn’t move. And as the minutes tick past things start to get even weirder. A video he watches says there’s an ancient Mazzik there an evil jewish demon that can manipulate thoughts and dreams. It will play tricks on your mind, and shape shift into people you know and trust. And it can take human form. Is Jacob having a psychotic episode – he’s not taking his meds – or is the place really haunted? And will he survive until dawn?

The Vigil is a terrifyingly good horror movie that scared the pants off me. You experience everything Jacob sees, as he sees it, without always knowing if they’re hallucinations or the truth. Dave Davis is fantastic as Jacob, sharing through his facial expressions his fears, misgivings and guilt for past actions. This movie had me spontaneously shouting at the screen in terror at least three times, coming up with ever more scary surprises. This is Keith Thomas’s first film which manages to convey absolute terror in a small set, with a tiny cast, using minimal visual effects and great sound.  This is definitely the scariest thing I’ve seen all year.

Hustlers and The Goldfinch both open today in Toronto, check your local listings; And The Vigil has its last screening this Sunday at TIFF.

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

Art and deception. Films reviewed: Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, The Art of Self Defense, Push

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

The things you see online – or on TV for that matter – aren’t always true (suprised?). This week I’m looking at three movies, two docs and one dark comedy, about lies and deceptions. There’s a man who trains in the art of karate, a look at the art of selling lies, and a look at the lies of selling real estate.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies

Dir: Larry Weinstein

What is Propaganda? Is it art and literature? Or brainwashing and fake news? The word comes from a benign Catholic term meaning the propagation of faith, the planting the seeds. The Vatican opened a department of propaganda to counter Martin Luther’s austere reforms. It combined the opulance of baroque cathedrals, the lure of incense and all the lush frescos, paintings and marble statues you’ve seen. But art and magic and religion were around long before that, and so, says this documentary, was propaganda. Some historians trace it as far back as Neandrathal cave paintings.

Propaganda is easy to spot in other cultures but very hard to see in your own.  Many people were entanced by dictators like Hitler and Stalin thanks to their skillful use of films (like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) radio broadcasts and posters. But with the shift to digital culture, it has taken on new forms; like patently false news stories online, repeated ad infinitum, until people start to believe it.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies is a fun, light documentary that talks to a lot of artists and writers – Astra Taylor, Ai Weiwei and Kent Monkman – but also musicians, analysts and others. It shoots a constant barrage of propaganda at you, images from the past 100 years, shown in harsh black and white periodically blanketed in fields of red. A lot of it is familiar but there are also some bizarre juxtapositions you’ve never heard of: like the racing cars that now drive around the former Nazi Nuremberg Stadium. Or Laibach, a Slovenian band known for its fascistic costumes and images, who performed in North Korea before a concert hall of nonplussed party apparatchiks and university students. Very funny.

The Art of Self Defense

Wri/Dir: Riley Stearns

It’s the 1990s in small-town America. Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a shy accountant who lives with his dachshund. He’s a 98-pound weakling who works in an office full of alpha males. But when he’s violently attacked by strangers on motorbikes he decides something has got to change. No more sand will be kicked in his face! He joins a local karate dojo with its own set of hierarchical rules. Everyone is ranked by their belt colour. There’s Anna (Imogen Poots) who teaches the kids class; get on her wrong side and she’ll beat you to a pulp. And at the top of the heap is Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).

He says karate is not just a martial art, it’s a way of life. You must punch with your feet and kick with your hands. Casey is starry-eyed, and ready to do whatever Sensei tells him. You must become more masculine, he says.  Stop learning French, start learning German. And throw out those adult contemporary CDs; only listen to metal! Casey takes the blue pill. He leaves his job and devotes his life to karate. He worships Sensei, has a secret crush on Anna, and proudly displays his low-ranked yellow belt for all to see.

But something is not right. When he joins the mysterious night classes he is exposed to a violent world of hyper-masculinity he doesn’t subscribe to. He is asked to perform dubious tasks outside of the dojo. Is this place only about karate? Or is it a cult? And what is hidden behind Sensei’s secret door?

The Art of Self Defense is a low-budget, uncategorizable, odd sort of a movie, part dark comedy, part mystery, with a bit of violence and horror mixed in. It’s slow to develop, but picks up nicely about halfway through. It’s filled with wood paneling, old computers and ugly clothes from the 90s, which adds a humorous tinge. But It’s hard to tell whether it’s being satirical or straightforward, comic or scary. Jesse Eisenberg is totally believable as the wimpy accountant trying to become more manly, and Allessandro Nivola is good as the mysterious sensei.

Take it as a cautionary tale about the search for masculinity, self-confidence and the cult of martial arts and you’ll enjoy this dark comedy.

Push

Dir: Fredrik Gertten

There’s a housing crisis in the world’s cities and no one knows seems to know what’s going on. In Toronto there’s a shortage of affordable apartments, with stagnant wages, soaring rents and home prices quadrupling. Speculators are buying up land as a bankable commodity, something bought and sold, with little thought given to the people who live there. And in many cities entire blocks of housing sit empty, because rent income is dwarfed by what they can earn from the constant increase in value of the buildings themselves. What’s going on?

Enter Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. She’s a mom from Ottawa who travels around the world collecting data and advocating on behalf of tenants everywhere. She views housing not as an investment but as a right.

This documentary looks at the dire situation in the world’s cities – from Milan to Berlin, Seoul to Valpariaso – where people are facing the same situations: gentrification, renoviction, and the displacing of average- and low-income earners from the world’s cities.

It explores the role of organized crime in the housing crisis. They use property investment as a way of laundering money by over investing in legit properties, driving up demand and prices and hiding their illicit profits.

It looks at how the financial sector is turning housing into an investment commodity, with the people who live in them entirely erased from the equation. One particularly notorious player is Blackstone – founded by former Lehman Brothers execs – a voracious American property investment company that swooped into the real estate market after the stockmarket crash of 2008. Now they’re making money by buying up public housing for profit, while neglecting the people they were actually built for.

And it looks at the role of pensions, both government and private, which invest in housing to grow their capital, but, unintentionally, lead to skyrocketing prices and increasing homelessness.

Push is an incredibly important and informative documentary that explains in simple terms the economics, politics and effects of this crisis. It uses experts – like Joseph Stiglitz, Saskia Sassen and Roberto Saviano – to explain the reasons behind the crisis. But it also talks with ordinary people around the world. It shows the multiple, small-scale problems people face as well as the large-scale disasters, like the Grenfell Tower Fire in London. They are all related. And it’s the great Leilani Farha who is trying to confront these problems in a new way.

I recommend this doc.

Propaganda: The Art of Lies, Push, and The Art of Self Defense 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.

Surprising twists at TJFF. Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground, A Fortunate Man, The Golem

Posted in 1600s, 1800s, 1910s, Art, Denmark, documentary, Experimental Film, Horror, Judaism, Supernatural by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2019

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

Spring Film Festival Season continues in Toronto. Hot Docs comtinues on through the weekend and TJFF — the Toronto Jewish Film fest — opened last night. This week I’m looking at three new movies with surprising twists, all playing at the TJFF. There’s a Golem (who’s not from the Hobbit), a historical romantic drama (that’s not based on an English novel), and a doc on an experimental filmmaker (that’s not about a man).

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground

Dir: Chuck Smith

It’s the 1960s. Barbara Rubin is an outspoken teenager in Queens, NY. So outspoken, her parents lock her up in a mental hospital… which serves as her crash course in how to use drugs. She emerges as a savvy artist and drug expert and dives straight into the world of underground cinema, just heating up in New York. She studies under the wing of Lithuanian-American filmmaker Jonas Mekas. One of her first films creates a sensation. Shot against her own apartment’s white walls and floor, “Christmas on Earth” features naked men and women whose entire bodies are covered in either black or white paint, with their breasts and genitals painted the opposite colour. (Basically they writhe on the floor in a continual orgy.) But the two reels of film are projected simultaneously on the same screen – something never done before. She releases this film when she is still 18 years old.

Barbara and Jonas fly to Belgium for an experimental film competition, and cause an international scandal when she occupies the projection booth to show a banned movie — Flaming Creatures by Jack Smith. Later she falls in with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky, pop artist and experimental fimmaker Andy Warhol, the already legendary Bob Dylan, and the seminal band the Velvet Underground. She’s the one at the centre of these disparate figures who introduces them to one another, leading to some major artistic projects, collaborations  and record albums that never would have been made if it weren’t for her.

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground is a fascinating documentary about an important figure who you’ve probably never heard of. Tragically, she died in her thirties, after adventures that bounced across the Atlantic and back again, spanning England, France and rural New Jersey, delving into sexual experiments, psychedelic expression, lost loves, and Jewish mysticism.

A really good movie.

A Fortunate Man

Dir: Billie August

(Based on the novel Lykke-Per by Henrik Pontoppidan)

It’s the late 1800s in Jutland, Denmark. Per Sidenius (Esben Smed) is a bright young man off to Copenhagen to study engineering. But his strict father, a fundamentalist preacher, withholds his money, to teach his headstrong son a lesson in humility. Broke and hungry, he struggles to survive in a slum, while attending university classes. He already knows what he wants to do: create a complex system of canals in Jutland to bring Denmark into the modern era. But is he too big for his britches?

Luckily he spies a member of the illustrious Salomon family in a café, and pitches his idea to Ivan (Benjamin Kitter). Ivan is intrigued and introduces him to his family, including the erudite and elegant Jakobe (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal), heiress to the family fortune. Educated in Switzerland, Jakobe speaks many languages and looks down on the ambitious but clumsy Per. She is standoffish and rebuffs his attempts at wooing her – she’s engaged to a widower with two daughters. But he wins her over when he runs like a deer hunter beside her horse and carriage. They are engaged to be married.

Meanwhile, the Salomons and their friends express interest in investing in Per’s grand scheme. But first, Per – a young man who never apologizes – must humble himself before an important government figure. And the Salamons are a Jewish family, while Per comes from a long line of fundamentalist Protestant ministers. Are their backgrounds, classes, religions and philosophies too different? Will Per reconcile with his family? Will he learn to be humble? Or is he too brash and immature ever to fit into Copenhagen’s mannered society?

A Fortunate Man is a 2¾ hours long saga of the lives of Per Lykke – Lucky Per – and Jakobe Salomons, but I was never bored. If you devour these long historical dramas, but are getting tired of the same old, same-old british Victorians, this one introduces totally new worlds and characters. It feels like a Thomas Mann saga. I’ve seen the movie, now I think want to watch the whole miniseries. Great acting, beautiful period costumes and sets, and a compelling unpredictable drama

The Golem

Dir: The Paz Brothers

It’s 1673 in an impoverished, isolated Jewish shtetl village in eastern europe. Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) is a young woman with pale skin, green eyes and bright red hair. She and her husband Benjamin lost a son, but are still in love. He studies religion all day — which is only open to men — while Hanna eavesdrops on lessons through cracks in the floorboards. She studies the Kaballah, a mystical text on numerology, in secret, on her own. But all is not well. One day she spies outsiders in the woods burning corpses. They are dressed in bizarre, birdlike masks and leather capes  It’s the plague! It hasn’t reached their village yet, but these outsiders are blaming them for its spread. The outsiders are led by Vladimir (Aleksey Tritenko) whose daughter is dying. He rides into town on horseback with a threat: Unless their village healer can save his daughter, he’ll burn down the village and kill them all.

Hanna decides it’s time to act. Using her knowledge of Kaballah, the 72 sacred names, some red string and a mound of fresh dirt, she creates a golem, the mythical Prague monster. The golem comes to life, but with a difference. Not a huge beast, this golem is just a little boy. But one that is fast, strong, and vengeful. He feels whatever Hanna feels, and kills whoever he thinks she doesn’t like. And when the golem is hurt she feels his pain. Can the golem save the village from destruction and death? Or will he end up killing them all?

The Golem is a new twist on the classic horror movie: It’s Fiddler on the Roof  but with a Stephen King killer-kid with special powers, An interesting combination I’ve never seen before. Is it scary? A little. There’s lots of blood, without too much gore. Hanni Furstenberg is great as Hanna, as is Konstantin Anikienk as the boy golem.

For a new take on horror, you should check out The Golem.

The Golem, Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground, and A Fortunate Man are all playing now at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

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 Jamie Kastner about There Are No Fakes

Posted in Art, Canada, Crime, documentary, Indigenous, LGBT, Ojibway, Organized Crime by CulturalMining.com on April 19, 2019

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

Norval Morrisseau was one of Canada’s most celebrated painters, whose brightly-coloured images, surrounded by thick, black outlines are instantly recognizeable. An Ojibwe shaman from an area north of Thunder Bay, Morrisseau incorporated Anishinaabe culture and storytelling into his work. His paintings hang in top galleries and are highly prized by art collectors. So musician Kevin Hearn, of the group Barenaked Ladies, was  pleased to buy a large green Morrisseau canvas from a Toronto Gallery. Until, that is, he discovers it’s a fake.

There Are No Fakes is a new documentary that looks at the roots of Canada’s biggest case of art fraud ever uncovered. It also looks in depth at the dark underworld of fine art, filled with deception, organized crime, money laundering, and terrible violence.

It’s written and directed by award-winning Toronto filmmaker Jamie Kastner and is having its world premier at Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. He’s known for his quirky, funny, shocking and highly original documentaries on a wide range of topics. I’ve spoken to Jamie twice before on this show, once about the Great Disco Revolution (2012) and again, in 2016, about the Highjacker’s Tale.

I talked with Jamie Kastner in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

There Are No Fakes will have its world premier on April 29th at 6:00 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Eccentric. Films reviewed: Ruben Brandt Collector, Greta, A Bread Factory

Posted in Animation, Art, Crime, Family, Movies, Mystery, psychedelia, Psychological Thriller, Psychopaths, Theatre, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 1, 2019

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

It’s March and Toronto’s spring film festival season has begun. The Irish Film Fest is on this weekend, and the WTF Fest starts showing “eccentric movies” at the Royal Cinema today. In this case, WTF stands for What the Film – great stuff. Also opening is What Walaa Wants, the NFB doc about a young Palestinian woman who wants to be a cop. Also opening is Gaspar Noe’s amazing film Climax, a movie that includes a fantastic dance performance and a stunning title sequence… followed by a horrific panoply of drug-addled sex and violence.

Keeping with the theme of the strange and unusual, this week I’m looking at offbeat movies with eccentric characters. There’s a a French widow with a yen for pocketbooks, a psychotherapist keeps fine art front and centre; and a two older women who want to save their arts centre from falling apart.

Ruben Brandt Collector

Wri/Dir: Milorad Krstic

Dr Ruben Brandt is a psychoanalyst obsessed by art. He lives and works in an isolated alpine chalet where he treats his rich but troubled clients, including a banker with an eating problem, and a former bodyguard.

Meanwhile Mike Kowalsky, a private detective from Washington DC, is in Paris chasing Mimi, a notorious cat burglar down the city streets. She’s carrying a priceless Egyptian artifact. But he can’t catch her; the former circus acrobat is just too fast. Mimi tracks down Dr Brandt and visits his clinic. She wants to get rid of her kleptomania, She can’t stop stealing. But in a strange turn of events, patients turn to doc tors and doctors to patients. You see, Dr Brandt is plagued with halucinations of people in famous paintings. Is Venus in Boticelli’s painting trying to kill him? How about Warhol’s double Elvis? Brandt’s patients, including Mimi, decide the only way to save their doctor is to steal all the paintings that obsess him. They begin a series of elaborate heists of the world’s best known paintings from the most famous galleries. Can Kowalsky solve the puzzle and catch the culprits? Or will Ruben Brandt, the art collector, triumph?

Ruben Brandt Collector is a simple, silly story told with amazing animated images. It feels like a cartoon guide to Janson’s History of Art… on acid. Characters are portrayed as cubists, as two-faced januses, or as two-dimensional pieces of paper. The plot may be flat and inconsequential but the animated art and psychedelic imagery sticks with you.

Greta

Wri/Dir: Neil Jordan (The Crying Game)

Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is depressed. She’s a recent college grad who works as a server in a fancy Manhattan restaurant. She shares a spacious condo with her best friend Erica (Maika Monroe) whose dad gave it to her as a gift. Ever since her mom died, Frances can’t have fun; she never seems to go out anymore. But her attitude changes when she finds a designer purse that someone left on a subway. Finally, she can do a good deed. Using the ID, she takes it to its owner’s home. Greta (Isabelle Huppert), is an older woman, a widow, who lives in an isolated cottage. Her home is like a piece of France right in the middle of NY city. She plays Chopin and bakes cookies.

It’s like at first sight. Greta needs someone to spend time with since her daughter moved away and Frances misses her mother terribly. They go for walks in Central Park, share intimate meals at her home, and even adopt a dog to keep Greta company. Greta worries Frances will go away, just like her daughter. Don’t worry Greta, I’m like chewing gum – I’ll stick around. Imagine, such good friends meeting at random.

But… everything changes when Frances discovers Greta’s secret. That “lost purse” wasn’t actually lost! Greta placed it there so they would meet. Is Greta just desperately lonely? A con artist? Or is she a psychopath? Even when Frances cuts off all contact with her Greta keeps showing up wherever she goes. She’s a stalker who can’t be stopped. Will Frances ever forgive her? And will Greta leave her alone?

Greta starts as a conventional drama but turns into an unexpected psychological thriller. It feels like a classic Grimm’s fairytale, with an innocent girl lured into a witch’s lair. Though not her best performance, Isabelle Huppert is credible as the (potential) villain, though Chloe Grace Moretz is wasted as the victim. It’s hard to picture Moretz as a helpless scaredycat. Greta is OK as a run of the mill, cat-and-mouse thriller, but it could have been so much more.

A Bread Factory

Wri/Dir: Patrick Wang (I interviewed him in 2012)

The Bread Factory is an arts centre in a small town on the Hudson Valley. Formerly an industrial bakery, it’s where the post-industrial townfolks go to see a movie, put on a play or attend a poetry reading. It’s been run by Dorothea and Greta (Tyne Daly, Elizabeth Henry) for more than 40 years. At the moment there are filmmaking lessons for little kids by an auteur (Janeane Garofalo); a greek tragedy starring an elderly shakesperean actor, and a Chekhov-like drama in production. It’s a hotbed of creativity and community life.

But everything is put at risk when a strange new group arrives in town. They are a pair of performers/conceptual artists known as May + Ray (Janet Hsieh, George Young), a sort of a Blue Man Group. They are vaguely associated with China, have a large international following, their videos are on youtube, and they even have a catchy logo on the T-shirts and totebags they sell. The problem is their work is shallow and pointless. And more important, the town school board is thinking of transfering all arts spending from The Bread Factory to May + Ray.

Can the town artists and performers save the bread factory? Or will corporate interests triumph?

A Bread Factory sounds ordinary but it’s actually a great movie. I really liked it. Dozens of characters and a complex, twisted plot manages to keep you interested but not distracted, with each storyline and character carefully constructed and allowed to develop. There’s a teenager (Zachary Sayle) interning at the town paper, a kid who functions as the projectionist (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a critic and an actor who hold a 50 year grudge… and many more. It feels like a great John Sayles movie.

I’ve only seen the first two hours (Part 1) so far but now I can’t wait to see Part 2.

A Bread Factory is a delightful treat.

Greta and Ruben Brandt Collector both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. A Bread Factory is playing this weekend at the WTF Festival at the Royal Cinema.

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

When I grow up… Films reviewed: Fighting With My Family, Never Look Away

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, Art, Biopic, comedy, Communism, Disabilities, Germany, Nazi, Sports, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 22, 2019

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

One question every kid hears is What do you want to be when you grow up? When I was three I wanted to be a fire truck. But how many stay true to their earliest ambitions? This week I’m looking at two movies about people who stick to their childhood passions. There’s an historical drama from Germany about an aspiring artist and a biopic from the UK about a perspiring wrestler

Fighting with My Family

Wri/Dir: Stephen Merchant

Saraya Knight (Francis Pugh) is a thirteen-year-old girl in a working-class neighbourhood in Norwich. Her mom and dad (Lena Headey, Nick Frost) run a business: the WAW, or World Association of Wrestlers. But like everything else in that world, it’s a bit of an exaggeration. They have one gym where they train local kids to wrestle, and take their family’s matches on the road in their shiny white van. Her life is fully immersed in the sport. Black haired and petite, Saraya uses black eyeliner and dresses in heavy metal gear. She has posters of her wrestling heroes on her wall and even made her own championship belt out of cardboard. But she has one problem: she chokes under stress.

So her big brother Zack (Jack Lowden) takes her into the ring and teaches her how to wrestle. He is her sparring partner, and they soon become an accomplished tag team. She’s a natural. But they have bigger ambitions: to be make it to the top. So when the WWE is coming to the UK they sign up for the tryouts. This is Zack and Saraya’s one chance to make it big. The auditions are led by Coach (Vince Vaughan) a hard-boiled veteran who takes no prisoners. Will Zack get in? And will he take Saraya with him? Turns out, Coach chooses her, not him!

Suddenly she finds herself in Florida surrounded by palm trees, suntans and bikinis while Zack is left in Norwich taking care of his new baby. Saraya — now called Paige — is overwhelmed by the gruelling, boot-camp workouts and the loneliness she faces. Zack feels abandoned so he cuts her off. And the fledgling wrestlers she’s paired with are all former models, dancers and cheerleaders… who don’t know how to wrestle. Professionals finesse their jabs, throws and punches so they don’t hurt so much.

Her parents and all the kids at the gym back home are rooting for her, but Paige is filled with doubt. Can the little “freak from Norwich” ever make it in pro-wrestling?

Fighting With My Family is a very cute, palatable and easy-to-watch comedy biopic, about the real female pro wrestler known as Paige. I have to admit I knew next to nothing about pro wrestling before I watched it.

What did I learn? That this sport is “fixed”, but it’s not “fake”… the wrestling part is real, and it can really hurt. That it’s a theatrical performance, much like a circus. That you have to win over an audience if you want to make it. And that your persona, while a big exaggeration, has to have some truth in it or no one will believe it. The movie is filled with salty language but no sex or violence (except in the ring). Pugh and Lowden are great as the brother and sister. Yes, it’s predictable and sentimental and I’m not going to call it a “great movie”, but I had a good time watching it.

Never Look Away (Werk Ohne Autor)

Wri/Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

1937, Germany.

Little Kurt, with his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), visits an exhibition in Dresden filled with avant-garde art. He loves the beautiful colours of fauvism, the strange distortions of cubism, and challenging images by Grozs, Kandinsky, Mondrian. But is he too young to understand the art show was put on by the Nazi government to condemn this art as bad and “degenerate”? No, he understands perfectly what they’re saying, and rejects it all.

But he listens to his aunt when she warns him to keep his drawings secret. Later, when the lovely but eccentric aunt has a strange episode they lock her up in a mental hospital. While she is there, top-ranked Nazi doctors decide to throw away not just “degenerate” art but imperfect people. Anyone with a mental illness, physical disability or a developmental handicap is sent to the gas chambers. Doctors write either a blue “minus” (keep) or a red “plus” (kill) on their files. This includes Elisabeth, condemned to death by a top Nazi gynecologist (Sebastian Koch).

Later, after the war, Kurt (Tom Schilling) is accepted into the Dresden Art Academy. But now his talent is stifled by the communist government who only want him to paint socialist realism: stern men and rosy-cheeked women harvesting wheat as they stare toward a brighter future. At the academy he meets the kind and beautiful Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), and wins her heart. Even under communism, Ellie is a “golden pheasant” from a rich, high-ranked family. They fall in love and meet for secret trysts. But when her parents come home they have to be extra cautious. While her mother is sympathetic, her father, Professor Karl Seeband, tries his best to break them up. But what no one realizes, this professor is the same doctor who sent Kurt’s aunt Elizabeth to her death!

Kurt and Ellie eventually make it to West Germany, where he joins the prestigious art academy in Düsseldorf, and lands a private studio to create the art he really wants to make. The art professor tells him his work is good but not yet special, but he still detects the talent hidden there. Will Kurt ever find his true calling? Will Seebald’s hidden war crimes be exposed? Can Ellie emerge from beneath her oppressive father’s shadow?

Never Look Away is an epic, fictionalized drama about the life of a well- known artist, spanning German history from the Nazi era, to the communist east, and to the changes in the west in the 50s and 60s. It stars some of Germany’s biggest names: tiny Tom Schilling with his high-pitched voice is still playing young men in his late thirties (and he’s great as Kurt). Paula Beer (Transit) is sweet as Ellie, Sebastian Koch is suitably sinister as the hidden Nazi Zeebald, and Saskia Rosendahl (who was amazing in Lore) once again wins as Elisabeth. The cinematography and music are all wonderful. But something seems missing from this huge drama.

At one point Kurt makes an interesting point: Take six random numbers. On their own they have no meaning. But if they are the winning numbers on a lottery ticket suddenly they become important and beautiful. I went into this movie blind, knowing nothing about it. While watching it, I kept thinking what’s the big deal about Kurt? But when he starts experimenting with smeared, black-and-white, photorealist paintings, I thought, wait a minute, those look like Gerhard Richter’s paintings! And suddenly the movie makes sense. It becomes a winning lottery ticket. Not a perfect movie – not as good as this director’s Lives of Others – but definitely worth watching.

Oscar nominee Never Look Away and Fighting With My Family 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.

Controversial European Directors. Films reviewed: The Favourite, The House that Jack Built

Posted in 1700s, 1980s, 1990s, Art, Horror, Lesbian, Movies, Psychopaths, Royalty, Satire, Thriller, UK, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 7, 2018

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

This week I’m looking at two movies in English by controversial European directors from Denmark and Greece. There’s a satirical horror movie about a Jack in his house; and a historical dramedy about a Queen in her palace.

The Favourite

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

It’s England in the early 1700s, a time of heavy makeup, high heels and elaborate wigs. (I’m talking about the men here). Women, on the other hand, rule the country. At the top of the heap is Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) a long-suffering widow. And always by her side is her childhood friend Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Malborough (Rachel Weisz). Her husband is leading a battle in France, leaving Sarah free to her own devices. She advises the Queen about when to go to war and whose taxes should pay for it. Together, they – not the male politicians – decide where the country should head.

Until one day, when a new woman appears on the scene, upsetting the delicate balance. Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s naïve cousin, shows up at the palace gates asking for a job. She is pretty and speaks with an upper class accent but she hasn’t been rich since her father, a compulsive gambler, lost her in a card game when she was still a teen. Now she’s single again and penniless. They put her to work as a scullery maid where the other servants treat her cruely. But gradually Abigail learns how to play the game.

She seduces a young aristocrat she meets in the woods with the aim of marrying up. And she manoeuvres her status in the palace by “accidentally” running into the Queen as often as she can. She expresses sympathy for the sad Queen and the rabbits she keeps as pets to replace all her lost children. While Sarah can be cruel and domineering – she dresses in dominant, tight black bodices, and sends withering looks at Anne when she gets too sentimental – Abigail presents herself as a dainty ingénue, devoted to the Queen’s happiness.

Is it all just an act? And can she replace Sarah as the Queen’s favourite?

The Favourite is a brilliant comedy – based on historical facts – about two women fighting for the Queen’s favour. It’s also a love triangle, about what happens in the royal bedchambers behind closed doors. It’s by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose unique style I’ve loved since his first film Dogtooth almost a decade ago. All his movies (Alps, The LobsterThe Killing of a Sacred Deer) have a strange stilted, faux-naïve style to them that puts some people off. His characters always seem slightly out of place in their suburban homes. But by setting it in an 18th century royal palace, suddenly the dialogue (Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara) seems witty, not stilted, and everything makes perfect sense.

With its exquisite costumes, beautiful musical score and great acting, especially Coleman and Weisz, this is a great movie.

The House that Jack Built

Wri/Dir: Lars von Trier

Jack (Matt Dillon, in a despicably good performance) is an independently wealthy engineer who would rather be an architect. He is building himself a house. But he is also a perfectionist with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) which makes him a captive of his own fear of failure. Each version he tries to complete ends in frustration. So he turns to other ways to express himself artistically.

But he’s also a psychopath with no moral sense so first he has to teach himself to fake normal emotions so people will trust him. He uses these new skills to meet women, often at random, and murders them. He takes the bodies to a huge walk-in freezer, poses them, and then send his photographs to the tabloids as Mister Sophistication. These are his “works of art”.

And despite how obvious and blatant his killings are – he even brags to the police that he’s a serial killer – nobody ever tries to stop him.

The film is narrated by Jack’s voice, off camera, confessing all to a man named Virgil (Bruno Ganz) in a reference to Dante’s Inferno. Jack tells Verge about a few of his more than 60 murders, which are shown in explicit detail on the screen. The unnamed victims – strange characters all – are played by Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sophie Gråbøl, and Riley Keough (Elvis’s granddaughter).

Is Jack the epitome of evil? Or just an amoral idiot? And will he ever be punished for what he did?

The House that Jack Built is Lars von Trier’s latest work, and like many before – Antichrist, MelancholiaNymphomaniac – it’s a tough movie to watch. Excruciating, actually, because you know there’s going to be more horrible violence coming up. I was in a constant state of cringe through most of the movie.

But in retrospective it seems very elegant and funny, a self-referential exercise in comedy/ horror/satire. Like most of von Trier’s movies, it’s told in chapters and sub-chapters, bookended by Jack and Virgil’s conversation. It’s also filled with repeated cultural references, visual and audio, including Glenn Gould Plays Bach, Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video, David Bowie’s Fame, William Blake’s drawings and Delacroix’ The Barque of Dante… even clips from von Trier’s own movies.  Jack compares his “art” — the murders themselves and the arranged bodies — to the works of these great artists.

This film is Lars von Trier’s reply to past accusations of being a nazi, a misogynist, a bigot and a narcissist. Here he invents a character that combines the worst elements of all of these, and spews it back at the viewers in triumphant, hideous glory.

One thing: the screening I went to was a total sausage fest. The audience was maybe 99% male — rockers, hipsters, film geeks, von Trier fans and Incels — so when parts of the audience burst into laughter and applause when Jack violently attacks and mutilates yet another nameless female victim, it just added to the general creepiness of the experience.

The Favourite opens today in Toronto; check your local listings; and The House that Jack Built opens next Friday in theatres and on VOD.

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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