Daniel Garber talks with immigration attorney Judy Wood about the new biopic Saint Judy

Posted in 2000s, Biopic, Drama, L.A., Migrants, Movies, Refugees, Resistance, Trial, US, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 14, 2019

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

It’s the early 2000s in L.A. Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan), an immigration lawyer and single mom, discovers a shocking case. A young woman – a school teacher who defied Taliban oppression in Afghanistan – is incarcerated in California awaiting deportation. But sending her back to her home village would be like a death sentence. Why isn’t she considered a refugee? Trouble is women are not a minority group, and her religion, language and nationality – Muslim and Pashtun – are the same as her oppressors. Which means she’s not a “persecuted minority” and doesn’t qualify for asylum. What can she do?

Saint Judy is a new biopic based on real events that tells the story of this important trial. It centres on Judy Wood, an immigration lawyer – still practising in LA – who changed the Law of Asylum.

I spoke to Judy in Los Angeles via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Saint Judy has its Canadian Premier on Thursday, June 20 in Oakville, and its Toronto VOD launch on Friday, June 21 at the Revue Cinema in a benefit for Sistering.  Judy Wood will appear in panel discussionsat both screenings.

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Highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow. Films reviewed: The Hustle, Tolkien, Be My Star

Posted in 1910s, 2000s, Berlin, Biopic, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Germany, Orphans, UK, War, Women, WWI by CulturalMining.com on May 10, 2019

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

Some people mistake upper-class and working-class characters with highbrow and lowbrow films. This week I’m looking at three movies with upper-class and working class-characters. There’s a middlebrow biopic about an orphan at a private school, an arthouse drama about working-class kids in Berlin, and a lowbrow comedy about a boorish con artist at an elite resort.

The Hustle

Dir: Chris Addison

Josephine (Anne Hathaway) is a British aristocrat who lives in a cliffside mansion in Beaumont-sur-mer, a casino resort on the French riviera. Fluent in many languages, the high-stakes gambler and seductress knows all the shakers and movers on the Côte d’Azur. But her life of luxury is disrupted by a hefty and boorish Aussie named Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who is passing through town. Penny is a small-time con artist whose M.O. involves catfishing men online using stock photos, then tricking them out of more money when they meet face to face. Penny is arrested mid-scam, tossed into prison and kicked out of town. What she doesn’t know is she’s been played– the policewoman who arrested her worked actually for another con artist, none other than Josephine! When she discovers the truth, Penny and Josephine agree on a competition: whoever succeeds in scamming a random man out of half a million dollars can stay in the resort, and the other one must leave. Their victim is an innocent, Mark Zuckerberg look-alike (Alex Sharp). Which of them will win over the tech millionaire?

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because The Hustle is a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but with Anne Hathaway in Michael Caine’s role and Rebel Wilson replacing Steve Martin. Recasting successful comedies with women in formerly male roles is popular these days, but doesn’t always work. But in this case it sure does. The Hustle is better, funnier and more subversive than Scoundrels. Hathaway is clever as the multilingual aristocrat, but it’s Rebel Wilson who steals every scene with her physical humour, facial contortions and bawdy language. She is brilliant. Maybe the concept of con artists on the Riviera is a bit dated, but it still had me laughing loudly during most of the movie.

I rarely endorse comedies, but I found this one hilarious.

Tolkien

Dir: Dome Karukoski

It’s the early 20th century in Birmingham, England. Young J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult: The Favourite, Warm Bodies) is an orphan who finds himself in impecunious circumstances. Luckily, a wealthy Catholic priest, Father Francis (Colm Meaney) takes him under his wing and sponsors him to study at a prestigious school called King Edward’s. He was home schooled by his mother before she died, leaving his head filled with stories of mythical dragons and elves. He may be the poor kid, but he immediately impresses everybody with his knowledge of Latin, Old English and mythical languages he creates just for himself.

After initial misgivings, he falls in with three other boys: Christopher, Geoffrey and Robert. Together they form the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, a four-man group that hangs out in tea shops discussing art, music and poetry as well as concepts of bravery, fellowship and loyalty. He meets a beautiful young woman named Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), also an orphan, who lives in his boarding house. His friendship with the boys grows, even as his love for the piano-playing Edith deepens.

He is eventually accepted to Oxford on a scholarship, but is separated from Edith and some of his friends. And his world is torn apart by WWI, when they are all sent off to the trenches, where he witnesses carnage and total destruction. Who will live and who will die? And will he ever see Edith again?

Tolkien is about the boyhood and youth of JRR Tolkien, long before he wrote the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The movie flashes back and forth between memories of his growing up, and the film’s “present day” when he is stuck in the trenches of The Battle of the Somme in WWI. And it gives a a few hints at his future as a writer of the famous fantasy books. He imagines fire breathing dragons on the battle front, with the scenery like Mordor. The four friends are like Frodo, Sam and the gang in The Fellowship of the Ring. It also touches on Wagner’s Ring Cycle’s influence on Tolkien’s Ring trilogy. So it’s kind of interesting to watch if you’re into his books. And I liked the period costumes, scenery and good acting.

But the movie never seems to go anywhere. It falls into the category of biopics about revered subjects where you can’t show passion, adventure or sex, at the risk of tarnishing his pristine image. (Ironically, Tolkien’s heirs still refused to endorse the film.) No sparks in this hagiography, just a few kisses and some unrequited, longing glances.

Be My Star (Mein Stern) 2001

Wri/Dir: Valeska Grisebach

Nicole (Nicole Gläser) is 14-year-old girl who lives in Berlin with her two sisters, Monique and Janine. She’s at a turning point in her life. It’s the age when you try out a job (she chooses to intern at a bakery because she likes the way it smells). She’s also becoming sexually aware. First she dates any guy who asks her, but later becomes more discerning. She approaches Schöps (Christopher Schöps) a soccer-playing teen to give it a go. He’s interning as a plumber and gets his own apartment. They have cigarettes, alcohol and privacy to share, but they don’t quite know what to do. Is this love, and are they a real couple? Or just a couple of kids?

Be My Star is a very sweet and beautiful coming-of-age story made 20 years ago. It’s acted by kids using their real names, in a verité style and setting, but it’s clearly a drama not a documentary. It’s also an excellent example of the Berlin School of filmmaking. This tender and intimate examination of first love (and first break up) is realistic and moving. Its showing as part of Past Forward: German Directors Before Cannes, a series of seminal works by German directors who later became famous.

I really liked this one.

Tolkien and The Hustle both open today in Toronto. Check your local listings. And Goethe Films is showing Be My Star one time only at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on May 14th at 6:30.

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.

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

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

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

 

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

Blaze

Dir: Ethan Hawke

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben is Back

Wri/Dir: Peter Hedges

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

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

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

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

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

Equal doses of saccharine and grime… No thanks.

The Quake

Dir: John Andreas Andersen

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

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

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

Blaze, Ben is Back, and the Quake all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Questioning Authority. Films reviewed: Empty Metal, The Oath, The Happy Prince

Posted in 1800s, Biopic, comedy, France, Indigenous, LGBT, Politics, Protest, Resistance, Supernatural, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on October 19, 2018

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

Toronto’s Fall Film Festival season continues with Imaginenative, in its 20th year. Imaginenative looks at indigenous film and media arts on the big screen and in galleries. There are scary movies, docs, short films, video games VR, and lectures. Look out for Alanis Obomsawin, a retrospective of Métis director Marjorie Beaucage, CBC’s Rosanna Deerchild on Colton Boushie, and Oscar winner Zacharias Kunuk’s latest. There are dozens of things to see and do, from North America and around the world, and many of them are free.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about people who question authority. There’s a writer in exile for breaking a law, an American in trouble for ignoring a law, and indigenous revolutionaries fighting the law… using telepathic powers!

Empty Metal

Wri/Dir: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer

It’s present day America, where native protesters face rows of armed state troopers. Aliens, a three member electropunk band in Brooklyn, are obsessed by the upcoming apocalypse, and sad they might miss the end of the world. So when they are approached by a young indigenous activist on their first band tour, they are wary, but intrigued by what she offers them. She says they can play a crucial role in the upcoming collapse of everything… but they will have to communicate telepathically. She is advised by three elders – a Zen like white man with a shaved head, a white bearded Rastafarian, and a matronly indigenous activist – who plot the group’s future. Meanwhile, a posse of white, NRA militiamen are training in the woods for their own armed insurrection. And observing – and listening to – everything are unseen government intellegence agents using drones and cellphone listening devices. Who will survive this never ending battle between surveillance and subversion? And why are these people body worshipping a wild boar and opening umbrellas on sunny days?

Empty Metal is a strange and disjointed but ultimately satisfying look at music, art and politics. Some of the images are baffling – what’s with the frying eggyolks and stirring soup? But what seems at first like a series of unrelated events and bizarre practices gradually coalesces into a coherent narrative. It ends up as a cool, if unusual, arthouse espionage drama.

And it’s having it’s Canadian premier at ImageineNative.

The Oath

Wri/Dir: Ike Barinholtz

Chris and Kai (Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish) are a middle class liberal couple hosting a big Thanksgiving dinner for all of Chris’s family. Since he’s known for his outspoken views, Kai makes him promise to stay away from political discussions. But his vows all evaporate when his little brother’s girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner) shows up. She’s a poster child for Fox News views and doesn’t care who knows it. Get ready for big fights over turkey. But there’s a bigger issue splitting the family – and the country – apart. That’s an oath the president declares all citizens must sign, affirming their loyalty and patriotism. And the deadline for signing is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Who has signed the oath and who has stood firm? And what will happen to people who refuse to sign?

Things take a turn for the worse when quasi-official government agents show up to enforce the new law. Peter (John Cho), is a reasonable guy, but his partner Mason (Billy Magnussen) is another story. He’s a rude, crude pit bull, longing for a fight. And he’s carrying a gun. When things violent can Chris keep his family safe? Or are they headed for disaster?

The Oath is a dark comedy about life in a divided America under a Trump-like president (they never say his name). It’s also a look at masculinity, with Chris changing from a mansplaining but progressive white guy to a stand-your-ground defender of family and home. Basically a drawing room comedy, it deals with stereotypes and politics, in a funny, though violent, way.

I liked this movie.

The Happy Prince

Wri/Dir: Rupert Everett

It’s the 1890s. Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) is a London playright and novelist at the height of his career, rich, famous and wildly popular. He has a happy life at home with his wife (Emily Watson) and two young sons, whom he loves to tell bedtime stories. He’s also gay, a felony at that time. His love affair with an aristocrat, Bosie Douglas lands him in the notorious Reading Jail for two years hard labour. And his career, reputation and homelife disappear overnight. Now he’s in France under an assumed name, living off a tiny allowance. His affairs are handled by a former lover named Robbie Ross. Robbie (Edwin Thomas) is still deeply in love with Oscar Wilde, but thewriter still carries a torch for the diffident Bosie, the cause of all his problems. And when Bosie  (Colin Morgan: Merlin) shows up again, things start to go wrong. Will Oscar Wilde die lonely and neglected in Paris or living life to its fullest?

The Happy Prince is a look at the last years of Oscar Wilde’s life, but is also a fascinating glimpse of the marginal nature of gay life nearly a century before it was legalized in the U.K.. Though solidly upper class, Oscar spends time with beggars, thieves, sailors, street urchins and drag queens. Or running away from bigoted cricketers armed with lead pipes. Rupert Everett plays Oscar – in excellent French and English — as a tragicomic figure, whether witty and urbane, or rude and lusty.

This movie is a lot of fun.

The Oath, The Happy Prince both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Empty Metal is playing tonight go to Imaginenative.org for details.

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

Bro Movies. Films reviewed: Bigger, First Man, Free Solo

Posted in 1930s, 1960s, Biopic, Bodybuilders, documentary, Montreal, Movies, Space, Sports by CulturalMining.com on October 12, 2018

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

It’s Fall Film Festival season in Toronto now, meaning more movies than you can shake a stick at. Toronto After Dark will thrill and chill you with horror, cult and fantasy pics. Cinefranco brings brand new French language comedies, dramas and policiers from Quebec and Europe. And Rendezvous with Madness plays fascinating films accompanied by panel discussions on addiction and mental health.

But this week I’m talking about bro films, two biopics and a doc about men with lofty goals. One wants to climb a sheer cliff, another wants to build the perfect body, and a third one who just wants to fly to the moon.

Bigger

Dir: George Gallo

Joe Weider (Tyler Hoechlin) is a poor jewish kid in depression-era Montreal. On the streets tough kids beat him up and steal his paper route money, and at home his cruel mom beats him for not keeping clean. At least his little brother Ben (Aneurin Barnard) looks up to him. Joe finds inspiration in unusual places: a strongman at the circus and photos of weight lifters he see at newsstands. He begins to obsessively draw pictures of perfect male bodies, copying from textbooks at the McGill library. He wants to promote beautiful physiques, bodies that are muscular, symmetrical and healthy. But fitness for health and looks is still a new concept. In those days people guzzled booze, smoked like chimneys, and thought exercise was a dangerous thing best left to olympic athletes.

Weider challenges all that with self-published magazines, promoting new exercises, diets and weight training, illustrated with glamour shots of barely-dressed muscle men. It’s a smash hit, he gets a US contract and Joe and Ben’s empire expands to bodybuilder contests, weights, and a wide range of magazines. And when business takes him to Hollywood, he spots a bleached blonde pin up model working out at Jack LaLanne’s gym.  Betty (Julianne Hough) is everything he desires: beautiful, fit and smart (he is separated from his first wife). Is this true love? Later he discovers Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger – the personification of his childhood drawings – and brings him to America.

Bigger is a fun, if idealized, look at the life and career of Canadian fitness mogul Joe Weider. It’s a bit corny, with Montreal-born Joe talking in an unplaceable, choppy accent. And it steers clear of his lawsuits and scandals. But Hoechlin and Hough are enjoyable as Joe and Betty, and there’s even a super villain, a racist, anti-semitic homophobe named Hauk (wonderfully played by Kevin Durand) who is his business rival and real-life enemy. Not a great movie, but an enjoyable one.

First Man

Dir: Damien Chazelle

It’s the 1960s in America, the space race is on, and the Soviets are winning. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is a test pilot exploring the skies. He can land any plane, even one about to explode. He’s married to Janet (Claire Foy), a pixie-ish woman with a fierce temper. They have a young daughter they both love. But when the girl dies of an incurable illness, and Neil loses his job despite his skills they know things have to change. So Neil makes a big decision: NASA needs astronauts, and he’s going to be one. They move down to Houston and settle in to suburban life.

First Man follows the career and home life of the renowned astronaut, from Gemini missions, to Apollo’s first landing. Armstrong is portrayed as a strong silent type, a no-nonsense guy who drives off alone to handle anger and depression. It also deals with astronauts and their uncertain lives (lots of them died). And director Chazelle makes you feel like you’re there with them in the planes and rockets. He even inserts showtunes into his astronaut movie. (Wait — showtunes?)  So why didn’t I Iike it? First Man is too heavy, too long, too ponderous. It’s one of those overly stern and patriotic American movies about national heroes. And where’s the suspense? We already know he was the first man on the moon. What’s the point? Ok, there are a few powerful scenes, but First Man consists mainly of rattling cockpits, brooding astronauts and suburban housewives yelling about their husbands.

Ryan Gosling is wasted in this boring example of Oscar Bait.

Free Solo

Dir: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

It’s 2016 and Alex Honnold has one obsession: to scale a sheer cliff in Yosemite. Mountain climbers have done it before in teams rapelling with ropes, pitons and caribiners. But Alex wants to do it “free solo”, that is, by himself and without safety ropes. One slip, one miscalculated reach, will send him plunging to his death. But he really wants to climb El Cap, and if it’s not free solo, what’s the point?

Alex is a boyish, wiry vegetarian who cares little for material things. He’s a loner who lives out of a trailer. He’s also in perfect shape, lithe, bendy and incredibly strong. He has to be to hold onto a crack in a rock with just a few fingers while stretching his body sideways to the next outcropping. He intensely studies the cliff, practicing each stage in separate small climbs using ropes. And he is accompanied by the filmmakers, who are accomplished climbers themselves. Alex proves to be a bit camera shy, hesitant to “let go” before the cameras. Is it performance anxiety? And will Alex make it to the top of El Capitan… or plunge to his death?

Free Solo is an amazing and spectacular look at one climber attempting the nearly impossible. I have no deep-seated passion for rock climbing – I even have a fear of falling – but this movie kept me riveted the whole time. Scenes that show Alex’s quirky nature and the people around him —  including other climbers, his family and his girlfriend – help give him a more rounded portrayal. But it’s the climb itself, and the truly amazing photography, that really keeps your attention.

Bigger, First Man, and Free Solo and 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.

Women, famous and infamous. Films reviewed: Lizzie, Anthropocene, Colette

Posted in 1800s, Biopic, Crime, documentary, Elephants, Environmentalism, Feminism, France, Lesbian, LGBT, melodrama, Poverty, Psychological Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 28, 2018

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

This week I’m looking at three movies about famous — and infamous — women. There’s a psychological thriller about an axe murderer; a biopic about a French novelist, and a documentary… about Mother Earth.

Lizzie

Dir: Craig William Macneill

It’s 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) lives with her sister Emma, her stepmother Abby, and her rich and successful father (Jamey Sheridan). He’s a successful financier resented by the neighbouring farmers. Lizzie is a pale woman with curly red hair and an uptight manner. She whiles away her hours reading poetry and cooing with the pigeons she keeps in a wooden dovecote.

But trouble is brewing in this family. Father is outwardly kind but with evil intent. Cryptic notes show up at their home, promising blood and damnation. And then Lizzie has a tonic-clonic seizure at the opera house. Her father calls epilepsy “showing off”, but agrees to hire Bridget (Kristen Stewart) an irish maid as her caregiver. Meanwhile, feeling left out in a house of four women, he invites his brother John to stay with them. John is untrustworthy and might be embezzling money. And as the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget turns sexual, they try to rebuff the aggressive creepiness from the men inthe house. What will happen to this disfunctional family?

Well, it’s not a spoiler that the parents are going to die, as anyone who has heard of Lizzie Borden knows that her mother and father were brutally murdered. This is also made clear in the first scene of the film. But you don’t know who actually did it till a shocking scene near the end. Lizzie is a slow moving, slow-build psychological drama. Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart are both good in their roles, but a thriller it’s not. It’s just too slow.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch

Dir: Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky

Picture a mountain of garbage in Kenya as far as the eye can see. A marble quarry in Italy, carved out of a shear cliff. An open pit mine in Germany. A heavily polluted city in Siberia. Or the rising water gradually flooding the streets and piazzas of Venice. These are not what you normally think of as natural phenomena. Rather they’re part of a new phenomenon, a period some geologists are calling the Anthropocene Epoch, when nature is shaped by humans.

Anthropocene throws a lot of new terms at you, words like anthroturbation – the scarring of the earth’s surface—and concepts like the stages of extinction, as more and more animals exist only in captivity. Visually it’s a treat, but there are so many scientific concepts bombarding the viewer that the message sometimes gets buried in the content. And some of the visual metaphors are too obscure to understand. Why is a bonfire first portrayed as a scary inferno (suggesting forest fires caused by climate change), when it’s later revealed to be a “good thing” — saving elephants by burning their tusks? And what do a million churchgoers in Nigeria have to do with climate change or pit mining?

Still, this stunning documentary combines the photography of Burtynsky – known for his vast and brutal industrial landscapes — with the filmmaking of de Pencier and Baichwall. It’s like the worlds biggest coffeee table book projected onto a big screen. It’s gorgeous.

Anthropocene is definitely worth seeing, perhaps more as a work of art than as a documentary.

Colette

Dir: Wash Westmoreland

It’s the 1890s in Bordeaux, France. Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightly) is a headstrong young woman with long black braids who lives with her parents in a country home. She’s smart, pretty and creative. She’s also a country girl without a dowry. Enter Willy (Dominic West) a much older Parisian man, visiting her parents. Sparks fly, and soon they rendezvous in the barn for a roll in the hay. Literally. Willy sweeps her off her feet and presents his new wife to the consignienti of Paris; they are unimpressed. He’s a celebrity there, known as much for his flamboyant persona as for his writing (He’s actually a talentless hack who employs a stable of ghost writers.) He encourages her to write too, and then publishes her semi-autobiographical stories about “Claudine” a country school girl.

It’s a smash hit, with Claudine lookalikes popping up all across Paris. And Gabrielle is famous now too… but for her looks, not her writing, since it was published under Willy’s name.

And they are still plagued with financial troubles. Where is all the money going? Mainly to pay for Willy’s mistresses, Willy’s prostitutes, Willy’s gambling debts. Willy can’t keep his willy out of trouble. But my dear, he tells Gabrielle, it’s just what men do.

Gabrielle is pissed that he’s wasting her money and playing with her emotions. So she embarks on her own adventures, a series of affairs: a sex triangle involving a rich woman from Louisiana, known for her auburn hair and come-hither glances. Later she falls for Missy (Denise Gough) an aristocrat who dresses only in men’s clothing and military garb. Is this true love? And will she ever find fame for her writing?

Colette is a fun, historical biopic about the writer who became known as Colette. It’s filled with campy scenes of fin-de-siècle Paris – from shirtless men carrying women on a palanquin, to secret lovers hiding behind velvet curtains. This film is more of a romp than a serious take. But it’s enjoyable nonetheless. And director Westmoreland takes pains to include queer politics in his look at early lesbian feminism, providing a multiracial cast and a proto-trans character (in the current, 21st century sense).

Lizzie, Anthropocene and Collette all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And opening Thursday is Bad Banks — a gripping German TV drama about high finance in Frankfurt — showing on the big screen at the TIFF Bell Light Box. Don’t miss it!

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

Fast cars and fast food. Films reviewed: xXx: Return of Xander Cage, The Founder

Posted in 1950s, Action, Biopic, Conspiracy Theory, Food, Morality, Movies, Sports by CulturalMining.com on January 20, 2017

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

Things are happening so fast south of the border you have to read Twitter to keep up. One day Chelsea Manning is heading for freedom. Another day Donald Trump is heading for the White House. So this week I’m looking at two movies about things that are fast. There’s a biopic about fast food, and an action movie about fast cars, fast planes and fast motorcycles.

15585154_696458033845759_3594431449720292242_oxXx: Return of Xander Cage

Dir: DJ Caruso

Americas bigwigs are meeting in a highrise and they are very worried. A top secret device known as Pandora’s Box has fallen into enemy hands. It looks like a VHS tape, but it has the power to turn satelites into Weapons of Mass Destruction, plunging to earth on their targets in a blaze of fire. But their meeting is broken up by a surprise attack by ghost agents: powerful paramilitary figures that are totally off the grid. So the head bigwig (Toni Collette) hires the legendary Xander 14940238_661940813964148_2127771514128546450_oCage (Vin Diesel) – the Triple X agent — to track down the bad guys and bring Pandora’s Box back home.

The problem is, how do you tell the good guys from the bad guys? Xander is offered a team of Sgt Nick Furys, but rejects them. Instead he gathers a team of misfits. There’s Adele, a green-haired Aussie sniper, and a car crash 14889751_661940543964175_1685622379480816316_omaniac, amond others. Xander Cage himself is an expert in extreme sports involving skis, skateboards and parkour. He’s also popular with the ladies. He regularly sleeps wth six models simultaneously. Why or how the movie doesn’t explain. The opposing team includes martial arts greats (Donny Yen and Tony Jaa — from Hong Kong and Thailand respectively) and the beautiful Serena (Indian model Deepika Padukone). The big showdown is supposed to take place at an open-air rave in a remote island (supposedly in the in the Philippines but without any Filipinos). But should they be 14902898_661941123964117_8062871875001764536_ofighting one another? Or going against the source of the trouble – the military/industrial bigwigs who started it all?

Triple X, Return of Xander Cage is an action movie, but not a thriller. It has an international cast, and a weird obsession with the 1990s, complete with 90s 14917252_661941140630782_7672771277120637968_orave culture, clothing, tattoos, even a guest appearance by Ice Cube.

There are a few funny lines, but most of the dialogue is painfully bad, filled with fake profundity. Lines like: Patriotism is dead; now there are only rebels and tyrants. (What does that mean?) Great chase scenes, including motorcycles on skis racing through a tubular wave on a beach; OK fights, though they skimped on the martial arts; plus lots of explosions, shootouts, car crashes and falling from great heights. Lots of violence but surprisingly less blood than I see shaving in the morning. (And I have a beard.) Which makes the violence seem comic book or comical. Watch this silly movie if you’re into extreme sport/action movies and just want to kill some time. It’s not a great movie by any measure, but it’s an enjoyable distraction.

TF_D01_TR_00075.ARWThe Founder

Dir: John Lee Hancock

It’s mid-twentieth century in middle America. Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is an unsuccessful travelling salesman. His mind is full of get-rich-quick schemes, but they always seem to fail. Still, he relentlessly plies the highways with samples of merchandise and the endless sales patter he carefully rehearses in motel rooms. Right TF_D22_DM_06302015-8012.cr2now it’s steel milkshake machines that he sells to drive-in burger joints popping up nationwide. They are places where leather jacketed toughs and girls in bobby sox gather to smoke cigarettes and listen to the juke box. Terrible service, cold food, long waits.

TF_D27_DM_07082015-9955.cr2But when he takes a telephone order from San Bernardino, California, his ears perk up. A restaurant there wants six of them. Six milkshake machines? Surely there must be some mistake. He drives out to investigate. And there he finds McDonalds. They sell burgers, fries, milkshakes. The lines are long but speedy, the food is delicious, and the service is perfect. No carhops, juke boxes or cigarettes here.

So he meets up with the owners, Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carrol Lynch and Nick Offerman). It’s their baby, they say. They planned the menu, the logo, the golden arches. They designed the logistics, they built THE FOUNDERthe ketchup and mustard squirters, they arranged the grills for maximum efficiency. And they’re making money hand over fist. Ray Crok sees his future – and limitless wealth — in franchising these restaurants across the country. The problem is, the McDonalds don’t want to expand. They want to keep it local and under their supervision. But Ray convinces them he’ll stay true to their wishes and TF_D14_DM_06182015-5178.cr2bring them lots of money. But who will ultimately be in charge: the McDonald brothers or the McDonalds corporation?

The Founder is a fascinating look at the history of that well-known brand. It looks at Kroc’s home life, affairs and business deals. I’m not a fan of Mchael Keaton, but he is fantastic in this movie; his portrayal as the ambitious (but unlikeable) Ray Crok is skilfully nuanced and complex. You sympathize with him, since he’s the main character in the movie, but you recoil from how he treats the honest and forthright McDonald brothers. This biopic is not a softball version, it’s a hard-hitting look at the dark side of a successful businessman.

The Founder and xXx Return of Xander Cage 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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Avi Nesher about Past Life at #TIFF16

Posted in 1970s, Berlin, Biopic, Drama, Feminism, Israel, Music, Mystery, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on January 6, 2017

avi-nesher-tiff16-past-life-1-jeff-harrisHi, this is Daniel Garber at the movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Sephi and Nana Milch are Israeli sisters in the late 1970s. Sephi is the beautiful one – she’s a student of music and wants to become a composer. Nana is the smart one, an intellectual who writes for a pastlife_06radical leftist newspaper. They were both raised by strict parents who survived the Holocaust by hiding in a Polish farmer’s house. But on a musical visit to Berlin, Sephi has a strange encounter: a woman shouting that her father is a murderer. A murderer? Her own father? This sends both sisters on a search across two continents to find out what really happened and to confront their avi-nesher-tiff16-past-life-2-jeff-harrisown hidden past. But can they handle the truth of their parents’ past life?

Past Life is the name of a new movie, based on a bestselling memoir. It was written and directed by Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher. Nesher is a longtime favourite at TIFF, bringing us heady romances like The pastlife_04Secrets and brilliant period dramas like The Matchmaker (a personal favourite). Nesher is a consumate storyteller. His absorbing films combine intellectual rigour with vivid characters, all placed within stories reminiscent of classic Hollywood movies. This film premiered at the Toronto international film festival. I spoke with Avi Nesher on location at the TIFF Bell Lightbox during TIFF16.

Past Life screens in Toronto at 1:00pm and 4:00pm on Sunday, January 15, 2017. Go to TJFF for details.

Photos of Avi Nesher by Jeff Harris.

 

Schocken and Scribner’s. Films reviewed: Vita Activa — The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, Genius

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, Biopic, Books, Cultural Mining, Germany, Manhattan, Nazi, US, WWII by CulturalMining.com on June 10, 2016

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

Movies based on books are a dime a dozen: there’s a movie option for every bestseller. But what about movies about the books and writers themselves? This week I’m looking at movies set in the mid-20th century when books really were important. There’s a documentary about a philosopher who pulls her observations together; and a biopic about an editor who cuts lengthy manuscripts apart.

Vita Activa PosterVita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Dir: Ada Ushpiz

It’s 1963 in Jerusalem. Adolph Eichmann is on trial there as the primary architect of the mass murder perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Covering the trial for the New Yorker  is Hanna Arendt noted German-Jewish philosopher. She observes the ultimate bland bureaucrat in a glass box who claims he has no hatred of the Jews he slaughtered and says he is not an ideologue. Arendt observes it all, and coins the term the Banality of Evil to describe it. This sets off a huge controversy. Critics accuse her of minimizing the enormity of Nazi crimes, humanizing the criminal and even partially blaming the victims.

How did she go from a girl from Hanover to a philosopher/journalist inHannah Arendt 1 Jerusalem? The path was not direct. This documentary covers the history of her life, both academic and personal, and her philosophy and writings.

Arendt lived through what she wrote about. Born in Hanover, Arendt was raised by her mother. She studied at the University of Marburg under philospher Martin Heidegger (her sometime lover) just before the Nazis came to power in 1933. She was kicked out of  school and suddenly found herself — an ordinary German — as part of a group denounced and dehumanized by government propaganda: the refugees who had fled war and revolution across Europe.  What disheartened her Hannah Arendt 2most was to see German intellectuals (including Heidegger), the very people she revered and was devoting her life to study,  incorporating Nazi rhetoric into their own writing and speeches.

She fled to Paris and continued her work. There she witnessed the rise of extremism and totalitarianism across Europe. Imprisoned in a concentration camp by the French, she escaped and made it to New York, where she wrote about totalitarianism, guilt and responsibility.

This film is a historical document that uses recorded interviews – in English, French and German — to explain her ideas and the events in her Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa, Zeitgeist Filmslife. It’s illustrated by newsreel footage, government propaganda as well as film from the Eichmann trial. Her writing and letters are read by off-screen actors. And both her critics and supporters — including Karl Jaspers and Judith Butler — are given airtime.

This is a rich and beautiful look at the work and life of Hannah Arendt.  It also deals with the debate on her philosophy and the controversies around her coverage of the Eichmann trial. I think this films does a better job than the dramas made about her life.

Genius PosterGenius

Dir: Michael Grandage

Max Perkins (Colin Firth) is a top editor at Scribners and sons, a major New York publisher of fiction. He’s known for championing an unknown writer. He picks up a messy pile of paper, cuts out the unnecessary parts and rewrites it Boom – instant bestseller. Max – known for the fedora he never takes off his head — is the invisible force behind F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He’s the one who edited The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises.

When he’s not at work he’s commuting to the outer suburbs, a bastion of Anglo privilege and conservatism with his wife Louise (Laura Linney) and their five daughters.

But suddenly something upsets the apple cart. A manuscript 7X2A4831.cr2arrives, courtesy of Broadway costume designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman). She’s married with children but champion an unknown writer whose work has been rejected across the industry. He reads it it and is blown away. And who appears his door but Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), a youngish man with messy hair and a brown suit with a heavy southern drawl. He shouts and performs rather than converses. As soon as they meet, the older, bookish Max and the young undisciplined Tom become fast friends and devote all their time trying to convert 1000s of messy pages a pile into a coherent readable novel. Cut, cut, cut says Max. But this is my life! 7X2A3167.cr2protests Tom. The book is published to phenomenal success. And then on to the next manuscript to the chagrine of their famileis and livers But will their bromance outlast Tom’s brush with fame?

13416962_1731661510436823_7285708826814410368_oGenius is an interesting film about writing and editing. That’s what I liked about it.

(Full disclosure: when I’m not reviewing movies I’m editing books – that’s my other job.) I love editing… but is it ever exciting? The movie is filled with writers typing and scribbling, and scribbling away passages with a red pencil. But what the movie really needs is a good edit! It’s filled with tons of speechifying and grandstanding (and dare I say overacting?) Do real writers, even famous ones, talk like they write? Of course not. But in this movie they do.

It’s done as a period piece, complete with beautiful interwar cityscapes, 13418669_1732542140348760_2521662994238663257_operiod costumes and cars, and a great cast. But somehow this movie manages to be both bookish and overwrought.

Spring festival season continues with ICFF, the Italian Contemporary Film Festival and the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, and NIFF, the Niagara Integrated Film Festival. Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; Genius starts next week in Toronto and Vancouver.

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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