Big plans. Films reviewed: Octavio is Dead, American Animals, Hearts Beat Loud

Posted in Brooklyn, Canada, College, Coming of Age, Crime, Cultural Mining, Dreams, Ghosts, LGBT, Music, Romance by CulturalMining.com on June 22, 2018

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

It’s Pride weekend in Toronto, so this week I’m looking at three indie movies, two of which fall somewhere with in the LGBTQ2 spectrum – can you guess which two? I’ve got four Kentucky fratboys with a secret plan; a Brooklyn daughter and dad forming a band; and a young woman in Hamilton… dressed like a man!

Octavio is Dead

Wri/Dir: Sook-yin Lee

Tyler (Sarah Gadon: Indignation) is a young woman who lives with her shrewish single mom (Rosanna Arquette) in suburban Toronto. But a knock on their door changes everything. It seems her father Octavio, a latino poet and teacher she never met has died. And he left her his condo and all his possessions. So she heads out to Hamilton to try to find out he was, exactly.

What she finds there is surprising. His flat is an Old Curiosity Shop, filled with persian rugs, oil paintings, tapestries and floor-to-ceiling shelves full of books. (She loves books.) There’s a sunroom with withering plants and eccentric neighbours all around. And strangest of all, Octavio himself, or at least his ghost, appears every so often to proffer advice. Later, she sees a young man in a hoodie who has some connection to her dad. She follows him to a burlesque club but is barred from entering: Men Only!

So she cuts off her hair, puts on one of Octavio’s suits and tries again. This time she meets the young man and he opens up to her. Apostolis (Dimitris Kitsos), is a poet who learned about art and literature at Octavio’s knee. He also knew him… intimately. Apostolis likes posing in bathtubs dressed in a toga. He also seems to like Tyler – a lot – and she likes him, too. The problem is he desires her thinking she’s Octavio’s son, while she’s attracted to him as a woman to a man. What to do?

Octavio is Dead is a quirky, indie movie by Sook-yin Lee, best known for CBC’s DNTO, Definitely Not The Opera. This film is also not an opera, but it is full of classical themes projected against a grittty, downtown Hamilton. Cross-dressing Riley feels more Shakespearean than non-binary queer, but the performances — especially laid back Kitsos and intense Gadon — are pleasing to watch.

American Animals

Wri/Dir: Bart Layton

It’s Lexington, Kentucky in 2004. Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is at university studying art, when he notices something strange at Transylvania University. No, not vampires, this is a actual place. A library there holds priceless artworks – like Audubon’s famous bird paintings – in the form of rare books. And these volumes – worth over 10 million dollars – are watched over by a single librarian (Ann Down). He tells this to a friend Warren, (Evan Peters) and a scheme begins to hatch. Warren’s at school on a sports scholarship but is bored by college life. He wants to do something big, something exciting.

His plan is simple: We enter the library disguised as old men, disable the librarian, open the glass case, take out the books and walk straight out the basement door without anyone knowing what we did! The perfect heist.

But they also need a driver and a lookout. So they enlist two friends they can trust: Eric (Jared Abrahamson) a contrarian genius; and Chas (Blake Jenner) a jock / entrepreneur whose also a great driver. Together they just might pull it off.

American Animals is a story of simple plans gone astray and their potential moral consequences. It’s a true story, and the real people involved – the four guys plus the librarian – bring a real-life element as they narrate the story, documentary-style. This stylish true crime drama has some thrilling parts, but it’s mainly good for the characters and the

LA Times: American Animals actors and real counterparts

actors that portray them. Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, Killing of a Sacred Deer) is great as a bored art student, and Canadian Jared Abrahamson (Hello Destroyer, Hollow in the Land, Sweet Virginia) who normally plays angry young men is unrecognizeable as the fuzzy-bearded smart kid. And at times the real people interviewed are even more fascinating than the actors who play them.

Hearts Beat Loud

Dir: Brett Haley

Frank (Nick Offerman) is a former musician who lives in Red Hook, a waterside Brooklyn neighbourhood, with his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons). Frank owns a record store, while Sam is preparing for college: she leaves for UCLA in the fall. For Sam, everything’s coming up roses. She’s going to be a doctor, and meets a pretty young artist Rose (Sasha Lane). Is it true love?

For Frank, on the other hand, times are tough. He’s a musician who has raised his biracial daughter alone since his wife (and former band mate) died in an accident. Now he’s closing his record store and his eccentric lounge singer mom (Blythe Danner) has been arrested for shoplifting. And he’s getting mixed signals from his landlady/prospective girlfriend Leslie (Toni Collette) Is she just a friend… or something more?

The one thing he still has is his jam sessions with Sam. And a particularly good one yields some potential hit singles. When he posts them online, they start picking up listeners. Will the record store be saved? Can Sam take a year off to record and tour with her two-member band? Or will she leave the band, her family and her girlfriend to go to UCLA?

Hearts Beat Loud – which is also the name of one of their songs – is a sweet and gentle story of family and first love. Offerman is believable as a midlife crisis dad trying to hold on to his authenticity, and Kiersey Clemons is wonderful as Sam. She performs her own music, and luckily, she’s really good at it… since about a third of the movie is about people making music.

This film leaves you with a warm feeling inside.

Octavio is Dead, American Animals, and Hearts Beat Loud 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.

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

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

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

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

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

STEP

Dir: Amanda Lipitz

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

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

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

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

Menashe

Dir: Joshua Z Weinstein

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

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

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

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

Step and Menashe both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

 

 

Making sense of things. Films reviewed: Little Men, Indignation PLUS Lo and Behold

Posted in 1950s, Brooklyn, College, Coming of Age, documentary, Drama, Kids, Romance, War by CulturalMining.com on August 5, 2016

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

In Lo and Behold, Werner Herzog’s excellent new documentary about the internet, a scientist explains the first internet connection between two computers. The message was supposed to be “log on” to start the transmission, but it was cut off after the first two letters, LO. As in the biblical Lo and Behold. The mysteries of life.

This week I’m talking about two dramas, about young men trying to make sense of life’s mysteries. There’s two friends in Brooklyn trying to understand their parents; and a young man in Ohio trying to understand the meaning of life.

12513502_761314487302803_7976637993320204498_oLittle Men

Dir: Ira Sachs

Jake and Tony are best friends. They met on the day Jake moved with his parents from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and immediately hit it off. Jake (Theo Taplitz) is a sensitive quiet boy who is bullied at school. Jake expresses himself through the art and comics he draws. Tony (Michael Barbieri) is his exact opposite. Outspoken, Brooklyn born and bred. He’s good at sports and always loyal to his friends. Jake is a shy introvert, while Tony is bursting out all over.

They meet because Tony’s mother, (Paulina Garcia), is a dressmaker with 13331003_828730807227837_8992169820379428690_na small boutique. It’s on the ground floor of the apartment Jake’s family is moving into. They inherited it when Jake’s grandfather died, and Brian – Jake’s dad — (Greg Kinnear) inherited it.

Finally, Jake has a friend, someone to hang with. Tony shows him around the hood, lets him meet his buddies, they even take an acting class together. Tony excels there – he’s a natural. The two boys even have a plan: that they both get accepted to the NY High School of Performing Arts. Tony would pursue his acting, of course, and Jake could do his drawing.

So we’ve got two 12-year-old kids, best friends, everything’s going great, until… the grown- ups ruin everything. Jake’s grandpa was a kindly old man, who took a Chilean refuge (Tony’s mom) 12485861_761657650601820_3424484959118845572_ounder his wing and kept her rent low. But Brian, Jake’s dad, has no such attachment or obligations to their tenant. They just want to make money. So the disagreement becomes a spat, which becomes a feud, which becomes a lawsuit. It’s spiraling out of control, and the parents aren’t letting their sons – who have nothing to do with it — see each other anymore. Jake and Tonty decide to fight back. But can they change their parents’ minds?

Little Men is not a remake of the Parent Trap; it’s not a kids’ movie at all.  It feels more like an adult’s  bittersweet memories of childhood. That said, it’s a great coming of age drama about two best friends torn apart by a family disagreement. The parents are well played, but it’s the acting of the kids that really shines, especially newcomer Michael Barbieri as Tony.

150619_IND_College_Webhall_00360.CR2Indignation

Dir: James Schamus (Based on the novel by Phillip Roth)

It’s 1951, in Newark, N.J. Marcus (Logan Lerman) works in his father’s butcher shop plucking chickens. He’s in High School, captain of the baseball team, with straight A’s. Which is very important. Because America is at war in Korea, and all his friends are being drafted, sent to fight, and shipped back home in a coffin. Only Marcus might avoid the war if he gets into university — students are Sarah Gadon stars in INDIGNATIONexempt. Marcus isn’t concerned. But his Dad (Danny Burstein) is sick with worry that his only son will die. He develops a compulsion, and follows him around at night to make sure he’s safe. Marcus’s mom (Linda Emond) meanwhile is going bonkers over her husband’s obsessive behaviour. For Marcus, the only solution is to go somewhere far, far away.

He ends up a scholarship student at a college in small town Winesburg, Ohio. It’s a chance to shed his background, expectations, stereotypes – that of the insular Jewish community of 150625_Hospital_Escargot_00071.CR2Newark, New Jersey — by cultivating his intellect at a free and open mid-western campus. He can stay true to his ideals and beliefs: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, non-conformity, and freedom from religion – he’s an atheist. Unfortunately that’s easier said than done.

He arrives to find he’s placed in a dorm with the only other Jewish kids on campus not in a fraternity.

And the University head, Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) is a cold-war Sarah Gadon & Logan Lerman star in INDIGNATION - in theaters Augustconservative, a churchgoer and nosy as hell. And seems to take particular interest in Marcus, forcing him – to his great distress — to defend all his personal beliefs and philosphies.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The awesome Olivia Hutton (Toronto actress Sarah Gadon) seems to notice Marcus. Olivia is everything he dreams of – smart, beautiful, and independent with the manners of sophisticated society. Their first date is awkward but it’s what happens next when they park the car that’s important. She gives him a ind_0707_000471468363878blow job… and it blows his mind. This is 1951, and he can’t understand what happened. “Nice” girls aren’t supposed to be sexual. Why did she do what she did? And what does it mean?

Marcus is in love, but everyone else – his roommates, the Dean, his parents, and Olivia’s secret vullnerability – threaten to destroy their relationship. Can Marcus stay true to his beliefs in oppressive, 1950s America?

Indignation is another great drama. It’s moving and fascinating, with an unexpected twist at the end. It’s literary in form – full of long debates and discussions – alternating with intimate scenes of suppressed sexuality.

James Schamus is a first-time director but he’s no newbie. He’s an old hand at scriptwriting and producing movies. He was Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s writer and producer for many years, including movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain to name just a few. He’s treading new waters here, but he does it quite well.

Lo and Behold, Little Men and Indignation 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 actors Kerwin Johnson, Jr and Curtiss Cook, Jr and director Jay Dockendorf about their new film Naz & Maalik

Posted in African-Americans, Brooklyn, Cultural Mining, Drama, Family, Gay, Islam, Morality, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on January 28, 2016

naz and maalik-4Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Naz and Maalik are African-American teenagers living in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. They sell lottery tickets and Catholic Saint cards on the street to earn extra cash. Normal kids, they chat about religion, morality and what it’s like to be young, gifted and black. They’re both Muslim, but Naz is more devout. And they have a secret they keep on the down low. They’re lovers. But when an FBI agent begins to follow them, thinking they’re radicalized, they don’t know which is the biggestJay Dockendorf threat: Arrested as a Muslim? Shot by the police as a black man? Or coming out as gay to their families?

Naz & Maalik is also the name of a new film, just released on DVD and VOD. It stars two charismatic young actors in their first feature roles: Kerwin Johnson Jr. as Naz, and Curtiss Cook Jr., as Maalik. It’s written and directed by filmmaker Jay Dockendorf. They’re winning prizes for this touching and realistic story of triply-marginalized youth. I spoke with Kerwin, Curtiss and Jay in Brooklyn by telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM.

Real / Not Real. Movies Reviewed: Frank, The Trip to Italy PLUS The Dog

Posted in Brooklyn, comedy, Crime, Cultural Mining, Ireland, Movies, Music, Travel by CulturalMining.com on August 15, 2014

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Ever heard of “native advertising”? Well, you should. It’s when newspapers or websites – like the Globe and Mail and the New York Times – plant advertisements disguised as journalism right alongside real news articles. So it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish between what’s real and what’s made up. Well, this week, I’m looking at movies that cross the line between fiction and reality. There’s a comedy from the UK about actors on a trip who play themselves, a comedy from Ireland about a musician who hides his face, and a documentary about a bank robber who inspired a movie.

Domhnall Gleeson in FRANK, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.Frank
Dir: Leonard Abrahamson (based on an article by Jon Ronson)

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is a ginger-haired nerd in his twenties who still lives with his parents. He lives in a seaside English town and works at a boring desk job. But he imagines himself as a successful singer-songwriter and keyboardist. He spends his free time recording feeble, unfinished verses on his computer… He’s of the Twitter generation and can’t think longer than 140 characters. But one day he witnesses an attempted suicide on a beach by an actual deranged musician – a keyboardist. And just because Jon is in the wrong place at the right time he is asked, spontaneously, to take his Michael Fassbender in FRANK, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.place at a gig.

The show is a disaster. He’s terrible, the band can’t play, and the performance generates an on-stage fight. But Jon is mesmerized by the lead singer, Frank (Michael Fassbender). Frank is a charismatic man, with huge blue eyes, neat black hair and enigmatic features. He has a friendly, enthusiastic style that everyone likes. He’s everything Jon would want to be.

The thing is, his features are enigmatic because they never change. His big blue eyes are entrancing because they are enormous. In fact, Frank wears a gigantic, painted papier-mache globe over his real head. What does his face look like? Nobody knows. He never takes it off and eats his food through a straw.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Fassbender and Domhnall Gleeson in FRANK, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.John invited to join them in a cabin in the woods to record an album. But he soon discovers this group is a strange bunch. Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plays the Theramin ad looks like a smouldering heroin addict, with her pale skin and art-school hair. She’s outright hostile to John. She thinks he’s the Yoko Ono, tearing the group apart. The rest of them include a sneering Frenchman, a burnt-out American, and others, who come and go. Days turns to weeks, then months. They’re broke. Will they ever finish it? But without telling the others, John posts clips on youtube and reports their progress on Twitter. Soon they have a solid fanbase without ever performing beyond the cabin. Newfound success draws them to SXSW in Texas. Will they have a hit? Will the people adore them? And will Frank ever take off his fake head?

Frank is a great movie, strange quirky and funny. It’s a new look at sex and fame and rock and roll. As Frank, Fassbender is a combination Jim Morrison and Mr Dressup, with his music morphing from prog rock to silly electric piano pop. Maggie Gyllenhall is terrific as the brooding musician and love interest and Gleeson is a new Michael Cera. This is a good movie to watch.

Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon 63718-trip to italy_01The Trip to Italy
Dir: Michael Winterbottom

Steve Coogan is an English movie actor, at a slow point in his career. So he sets out with his travel companion, Welsh comedian Rob Brydon, for a drive down the coast of Italy. You see, they’ve been hired to relax at exclusive resorts, putter around on yachts, and enjoy meals at 3-star restaurants. All they have to do is comment on the experience. And along the way they retrace the steps places visited centuries earlier by British poets (and early tourists) Keats, Shelley and Byron. Steve is divorced with a teenaged son and considers himself a bit of a womanizer, while Rob is happily married with two small children, who he talks to by phone each day. But who will pick up the most beautiful women for casual sex? This is a sequel to an almost identical movie set in England a few years back.

This sounds awful and boring as hell, right? No! it’s absolutely hilarious. Basically, the two Rob Brydon, Steve Coogan Trip to Italy 2 63721-_CRX6989actors play exaggerated, fictional version of themselves, while, the rest of the cast – the photographer, tour guide, family members – are all other actors cast in the roles. Aside from views of gorgeous scenery and delicious looking cooking scenes for foodies, what this movie is really about is two guys in a car, singing along to songs from the 90s by Alanis Morisette. And they re-enact entire scenes from The Godfather, Part II (another sequel), reciting every line in the voices of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Arguing about who was the best James Bond. Commenting about people at the next table at a restaurant in Rome or amongst the ruins of Pompeii. Not every joke hits the mark – I’m at a loss when it comes to comments about, say, European sportscasters – but there’s a cumulative effect, with all the jokes, comments, plays on words, competitive punning and imitations of Michael Caine, each building on the one before, until it’s just wipe-the-tears-from-your-eyes hilarious. It’s a particular style of improvized, spoken humour. There’s no pratfalls, no racial jokes, no gross-outs, no silly comments on “those crazy foreigners”, no stand-up comedy humour that depends on a punchline… It’s just two guys engaging in caustically funny conversations. It’s just great.

The Dog stacks_image_236And finally, I want to recommend The Dog, a great documentary by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren. It’s the true story of folk hero / criminal John Wojtowicz. A self-described pervert, John is the guy who robbed a bank and took hostages in Manhattan in the early 1970s to pay for his girlfriend’s sex change. They were soon surrounded by cops but he entranced the crowd – and the news media — by talking to them, to his mom, and to his wife Carmen. It’s one of the earliest TV as-it-happens news stories, with a twist. It inspired Dog Day Afternoon, but his story is even wilder, encompassing his bisexuality and his early role in queer politics. This funny-looking guy is an amazing, absurd character, filled with Brooklyn bravado. And his story is amazing and well-worth seeing.

Frank, The Trip To Italy and The Dog all open today in Toronto: check your local listings for details.

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

December 9, 2011. Daniel Garber speaking with Nelson George about his new documentary “Brooklyn Boheme”

Posted in African-Americans, Brooklyn, Cultural Mining, documentary, Spike Lee, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 24, 2011

Daniel Garber interviews writer, columnist, novelist, filmmaker Nelson George about a new documentary “Brooklyn Boheme”. The documentary is about a Brooklyn neighbourhood — Fort Greene and Clinton Hill  — that in the 80’s and 90’s reached a critical mass of great African-American art, jazz music, movies, plays, poetry that some say was comparable to the Harlem Renaissance. In the interview, Nelson George talks of the many people who lived and worked there, what made them choose this place, how it has changed, and where Brooklyn’s young, black creative class is now.

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