Post-Halloween movies. Films reviewed: Suspiria, Boy Erased, Burning

Posted in 1970s, Berlin, Christianity, Dance, Death, Drama, Horror, Italy, Korea, LGBT, Mysticism, Psychological Thriller, Religion, Suspicion, Witches, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 2, 2018

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

Yeah, I know Hallowe’en was two days ago, but there’s still lots to be scared about. (Don’t you watch the news?) So this week I’m looking at three new movies that involve horror, thrills or just bad things happening to good people. There’s a dance troup in Berlin that reeks of brimstone, a gay conversion clinic in Arkansas that exudes homophobia, and a young writer in Korea who thinks he smells death.

Suspiria

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

It’s 1977 in Berlin with the Cold War raging, the wall dividing the city in two, and RAF bombs exploding in Kreuzburg. Into this world walks Susie (Dakota Johnson) a naïve Mennonite girl from Ohio, with pale skin and a long red braid. She’s there to dance, if a prestigious, all-women’s dance school will have her.

Have her they will.

So she moves into their huge headquarters the next day. It’s a grand old building, right beside the Berlin Wall, with mirrored rooms, a dormitory and a theatre. It’s owned and run by a group of older women, headed by their choreographer and former prima donna Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), known for her long black hair and floor-length dresses. They are preparing for a relaunch of their masterwork, a primitivist, flamenco-style piece called Volk. And since their lead dancer, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), has mysterously disappeared, Susie is ready to take her place.

But behind the scenes, something wicked this way comes. Susie keeps having terrifying dreams. There’s a power struggle between Madame Blanc and “Mother Markus” — the school’s founder. And strangest of all, the house itself – with its secret passageways and intricate pentagrams etched into the floor – seems to transform the dancers’ violent moves into lethal weapons… with terrifying results. And Doktor Klemperer, an enigmatic psychiatrist with a secret past, is attempting to bring police – men! – into this inner sanctum of womanhood. Is this dance troupe actually a coven of witches? And will Susie be their next victim

Suspiria (based on Dario Argento’s classic horror pic) is a visually stunning film, an unusual combination of modern dance and the occult. There are so many scenes in this two-and-a-half hour movie of dance rehearsals — including an amazing performance near the end — that you almost forget it’s a horror movie. But the twisted limbs, breaking bones and endless flow of blood, blood, blood, brings you back. Luca Guadagnino (he directed Call me by your Name, A Bigger Splash, and I Am Love) is back with another aesthetically overwhelming film, recreating 1970s Berlin, and starring, once again, the fantastic Tilda Swinton in many, hidden roles. Though not that scary, this arthouse horror is always fascinating.

Boy Erased

Dir: Joel Edgerton

Jared (Lucas Hedges) is a 19 year old in Arkansas. He’s on the basketball team, has a steady girlfriend and works parttime in his dad (Russell Crowe)’s car dealership. He also goes to church: his dad’s a Baptist minister and his mom (Nicole Kidman) an active member. Everything’s hunky dory… until he gets outed as gay by an anonymous caller. Word spreads, church elders come knocking at the door, and Jared is sent off for a heavy dose of brainwashing.

Love In Action is a “gay conversion therapy” centre, with very little love. It’s headed by Victor (Joel Edgerton) a self-taught therapist full of vapid platitudes and pseudo-freudian pop psychology. He’s backed up by a violent ex-con (Flea) who hurls abuse at the patients in an attempt to scare them straight. The other patients/prisoners include the military-like Jon (Xavier Dolan, playing against type), the bullied Cameron (Britton Sear), and others who tell him to “fake it” – just repeat what they tell you until you’re out of there. But if he does, will they erase his very being? And can Jared ever get out of this godforsaken place?

Based on a true story, Boy Erased is a realistic look at one young man’s experiences in a gay conversion clinic. It’s well-acted and I found it moving (though predictable) in parts. But it’s also an incredibly uptight, desiccated, visually-starved, anti-sex movie that seems made for Sunday school church groups. No nudity — everyone’s buttoned to the top. In this movie, any “sex” is relegated to a rape scene. It’s one thing to have uptight characters, but does the film itself have to be so repressed?

This may be an important topic, but it’s a dreadful movie.

Burning

Dir: Lee Chang-dong

Present-day Korea. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is an aspiring writer in his twenties who lives on his dad’s dairy farm near the Demilitarized Zone. On a trip to Seoul he runs into a woman he barely recognizes. Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-Seo) is a former highschool classmate who – post plastic surgery – works as a glamour girl spinning the prize wheel at a department store. And Haemi likes Jong-su. She lives in a small apartment that only gets sunlight for a few mites each day. Haemi is an flakey extrovert into mime. Jongsu is reserved, quiet and introspective. Soon enough, they’re lovers, but then Haemi says she’s going on a trip to the Kalahari desert to experience “The Great Hunger”.

And she comes back wth a new friend, named Ben (Steven Yeun) she met at the airport flying home. Ben is Korean, but rich, privileged and vaguely foreign. He’s one of those Gangnam-style guys, with a fancy apartment and a pricey car. He’s smooth, slick and ultra-blase – like Andy Warhol — but in a weirdly creepy way. And now he’s dating Haemi. They visit Jongsu at his farm, get drunk and smoke some pot. And Ben confesses his secret – he gets off on burning down greenhouses. And never gets caught. And soon after, Haemi disappears without a trace. Ben acts as if nothing is wrong but Jongsu is not so sure.. Is Ben a psychopath? Or is Jongsu losing touch with reality? And what about Haemi?

Burning, based on a story by Murakami Haruki, is a tense, creepy psychological thriller. The three main actors are all great in their roles: Steve Yeun — that nice guy in The Walking Dead — is perfect as the possible serial killer, and Yoo Ah-in is amazing as the shy boy seething wth inner tension.

Fantastic.

Suspiria, Boy Erased, and Burning 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.

Quests. Films reviewed: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, Let the Sunshine In, First Reform

Posted in Christianity, Death, Drama, France, Jamaica, Movies, Music, Reggae, Religion, Sex by CulturalMining.com on June 1, 2018

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

Toronto’s spring festival season continues. Inside Out finishes this weekend, and look out for the Japanese Film Fest and True Crime Film Festival both opening next weekend.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies by three great directors about people on quests. There’s a musician driven by fame, a woman searching for love, and a clergyman holding on to his immortal soul.

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

Dir: Sophie Fiennes

Grace Jones is a multi-talented artist and performer. Known for her distinctive voice, looks and style, she has left a mark on everything from fashion to pop music. Originally from Spanish Town in Jamaica, she made it big as a model in France, capturing the fashion world with her androgynous body and striking features. Later she shifted to music, recording first dance hits like La Vie en Rose, followed by the punk sounds of Warm Leatherette, and pop songs with a drum-and-bass reggae theme provided by Sly and Robbie. And as an actress she perfected the look of a crazed, cold villain in movies like James Bond’s View to a Kill.

This movie strips her bare physically and emotionally as she returns to Jamaica to visit her family and record a new album. The camera follows her as she digs up her family’s past, tries to record songs, and goes on a concert tour. It also includes a stopover in Paris to record a TV music video; and her performances on stage. This is an intimate portrayal of the underground superstar – who turned 70 this year, still dancing, changing clothes, arguing on the phone, and putting on the elaborate headddresses and costumes she’s known for. It also makes her seem a bit crazy – her accent shifts from Jamaican to American to british depending on whom she’s talking to, even shifting to a sort of french when she’s in Paris.

This no-holds-barred portrait is not always pretty but always fascinating.

First Reformed

Wri/Dir: Paul Schrader

Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a lonely reverend at an old church with a long history. He carries heavy baggage of his own: a dead son and memories of war. The church itself – First Reformed – has been there for centuries and is approaching its historical anniversary. For the Church administrators this is a PR goldmine and chance for big corporate donations. But Toller is an old-school preacher with traditional ideas. He feels like he’s losing his calling, and isn’t comfortable playing a pretend minister for tourists at a historical site. Luckily, there is a parishioner with real problems who needs his help.

Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is going through a crisis with her husband Michael, an environmental activist. She’s worried about him losing it. And the environmentalists are diametrically opposed to the very corporate donors that are keeping the church on its feet. As Toller gets involved in their lives, he re finds his calling. But things take a shocking turn with one unexpected death and the possibility of more. What path will Toller take, what is the church’s future, and what will become of Mary?

I’m not saying anything more about the plot, but let me just say that what starts as a simple and almost boring story slowly builds to an intense and shocking finish. Paul Schrader is a great director — he did Cat People, American Gigolo and Mishima — and an even better scriptwriter: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

I don’t always like Ethan Hawke’s acting, but I do here – this might be his best performance ever.

Let The Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur)

Dir: Claire Denis

Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is a middle aged artist at the peak of her career. She expresses her art using big brushes on huge canvases nailed to her studio floor. She’s signing with a new art dealer, and is financially secure, a great house, and her ex husband is taking care of their daughter. She is beautiful with a sparkling personality. The world is her oyster… so why is she having so much trouble finding a pearl? The problem is it takes two to tango and the men she meets aren’t playing their parts correctly.

She has carried on multiple relationships since her divorce. There’s a married banker who thinks she’s loves him, when it’s actually her repulsion toward him that turns her on. A handsome and famous but vapid actor thinks he’s great with the women, but despite the great sex, he does courtship all wrong. She wants the seduction, the passion and the ongoing interplay a relationship needs. He just wants a director to give him his lines.

Then there’s a mysterious and passionate man she meets while dancing, but who doesn’t fit in with her friends. Even her ex-husband sometimes spends the night when he’s in Paris.

Can she find her life partner, the best man out there? Or will she settle?

Ignore the pedestrian title, Let the Sunshine In is sophisticated and subtle movie. Juliette Binoche shines in every scene, she funny, clever and quirky. Claire Denis is one of best directors in France who is vastly underrated. This story is told purely from the female gaze – that of Isabelle.

It pokes fun at men – and at the women who fall for their tricks.

Grace Jones, Let the Sunshine In and First Reformed all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with producer Jason Charters and director Larry Weinstein about Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas

Posted in China, Christianity, Christmas, Christmas songs, Cultural Mining, documentary, Eating, Judaism, Music, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on December 22, 2017

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

It’s the 1960s. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… outside the snow is falling and friends are calling yoo-hoo… it’s Christmastime in the city. Mom, Dad and the two kids get in the car to go out for their traditional family dinner. Is it ham? Turkey? No… it’s Chinese food! Beause these folks are dreaming of a “Jewish Christmas”.

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas is a new documentary that looks at the secular celebration of a religious holiday in North America and how it’s reflected in popular culture – especially in Christmas songs. It re-eneacts a 1960s dinner in Chinatown with new performances of classic Christmas songs by Steven Page, Dione Taylor and Aviva Chernick.

The film was produced in Toronto by Jason Charters and Liam Romalis at Riddle Films and directed by Oscar nominee Larry Weinstein.

I spoke with Jason in studio at CIUT and with Larry via telephone.

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas is playing on CBC Documentary Channel on Dec 24 and Dec 25.

Village People. Films reviewed: Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, Silence, 20th Century Women

Posted in 1970s, Art, Christianity, Clash of Cultures, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, Gay, Japan, Punk, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 13, 2017

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

Everyone lives in a neighbourhood, whether it’s a city or a small town. This week I’m looking at movies about village people. There’s a photographer in the East Village, a priest in a Japanese village, and a woman who believes it takes a village.

MapplethorpeMapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

Dir: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato

Robert Mapplethorpe was a major 20th century artist who rose to fame just as four major changes were taking place: the gay liberation movement, the Aids crisis, the socially conservative backlash under Ronald Reagan, and the sudden rise in value of contemporary art and photography. Born in Queens NY he went to Pratt art college and moved in with 201605317_1_img_fix_700x700underground poet and musician Patti Smith. He smoked acid and boiled a dead monkey. Mapplethorpe fell in with the jet-set of the ultra-rich in Mustique, in the Caribbean, creating a demand for his black and white photos. And his second life was spent in a legendary S&M gay bar called the Mineshaft in the meatpacking district. Likewise, he divided his work docs_mapplethorpe02-296x300into three categories: X, Y and Z. Explicit gay S&M imagery (X); flowers (Y); and nude portraits of African-American men, focusing on their genitals (Z). He died of Aids in the late 80s at the height of his career, just as conservative Jesse Helms blocked his art from a Washington museum, plus a court case labelling his art as obscene.

This documentary covers his life and career, and most of all reveals his work. It’s a great introduction to his art and its history, but I was bothered by its stance: venerate the art – as significant and valuable; but denigrate the artist – as vain, selfish, ambitious and petty.

15137495_1333188413378658_1730090754012238611_oSilence

Dir: Martin Scorsese (based on Endo Shusaku’s novel)

Rodrigues and Garrpe (Andrew Garfiield and Adam Driver) are Jesuit priests in 17th century Portugal. The Jesuit mission to convert the Japanese under Frances Xavier has failed: the Tokugawa government banned Christianity, and closed off the country to all outside contact. Japanese Christians have reverted back to Buddhists or else practice their religion underground. Worst of all, their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) is missing. So they sneak into Japan with the help of a shady fisherman named Kichijiro (Kubozuka Yousuke). Once there to their surprise, they discover hidden Christians everywhere, who call them Padre and rush to confess. But behind the scenes lurks the grand inquisitor Inoue (Ogata Issei), a samurai whose sole job is to flush out hidden Christians, and convert them to Buddhism. When he finally meets 15168802_1341247705906062_2844253298776036664_oRodrigues the two embark on an extended religious debate. Who will triumph? The Christlike Rodrigues or the cunning Inoue?

Silence is a beautiful looking movie. For Rodrigues, Japan is witnessed mainly through cracks in wooden walls, either hiding from the authorities or imprisoned by them. The islands are lush and green shrouded in a mist that surrounds the padres and their followers. But 15235447_1344428582254641_1724759706567928024_oonce the action shifts to a battle of minds on government land, it becomes sharp and austere.

The original novel is by Shusaku Endo, a Catholic Japanese novelist (a rare thing). Andrew Garfield (who plays Rodrigues) is becoming a poster child for Christian philosophy in a Japanese setting – he’s also starring in Hacksaw Ridge about a conscientious objector fighting in Okinawa in WWII. Garfield is great, as is the entire Japanese cast, filled with top actors and a surprising number of directors. (You can tell they all want to appear in a Scorsese film). To name just two, Kubozuka is fascinating as the Judas character Kichijiro, and Ogata is amazing as Inoue (he starred in Aleksandr Sokurov’s masterpiece The Sun). Silence is a long and intense movie, filled with philosophical debate, and punctuated by disturbing death and torture. This is not an easy movie to take in but it’s well worth seeing.

_DSC1289.NEF20th Century Women

Wri/Dir: Mike Mills

It’s 1979. Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a single mom in small town California who works as a designer in a canning factory. She’s a 20th century woman who wears Birkenstocks and smokes menthol cigarettes. She was the first female pilot in the Air Force in WWII. Now she lives in a big house with her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Jamie is 15, rides a skateboard and just hangs out. But when he nearly dies after a silly game, Dorothea realizes they aren’t connecting anymore. So she asks for help from the younger women in her life. Julie (Elle Fanning) is Jamie’s childhood crush. She likes riding her bike and _TND7063.NEFattending her mom’s psychotherapy encounters. She’s exploring sex and will sleep with any guy she likes…except Jamie. Well she’ll sleep with him and share his bed, just no sex. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) rents a room in their house, recovering from cervical cancer. She’s a punk _DSC4067.tifphotographer who dyes her hair red. She introduces Jamie to feminism with a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves. He gets in his first fist fight at school in an argument about clitoral orgasm. And then there’s William (Billy Crudup) a hippy handyman drifter who repairs the house in lieu of rent. Mom is loving and giving and wants to share it all with Jamie and the rest, but fears the effects of feminism, and the sexual revolution on his development as a man. And Jamie? He just wants to live life and make sense of it all.

Twentieth Century Women is a funny and fascinating ensemble piece. It’s narrated by an omniscient version of Dorothea in some future incarnation. There are a few jarring anachronisms:  would a 15 year old in 1979 receiving a gift of recorded music exclaim “It’s a Mixtape!”? But that doesn’t detract from this excellent coming-of-age story within an impromptu family. Great movie.

Silence is now playing, 20th Century Women opens today in Toronto; check your local listings; and Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures opens on January 13th,  with a special screening at the AGO. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Acts of God. Movies reviewed: Into the Storm, Calvary PLUS TIFF Canadian Films

Posted in Action, Adventure, Catholicism, Christianity, Cultural Mining, Death, Disaster, Drama, Ireland, Movies, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on August 8, 2014

TIFF14 Rising Stars © Jeff Harris Sophie Desmarais, Alexandre LandryHi, 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.

The names of the Canadian films opening this fall at the Toronto International Film Festival were announced this week, and they look really good. Haven’t seen any yet, but a few caught my eye. From Quebec, there’s a drama about a young man in Montreal who joins the nascent FLQ in the 1960s. It’s called Corbo, directed by TIFF14 CorboMatthieu Denis. Xavier Dolan’s movies are always worth seeing. His fifth one, called, simply, Mommy, revisits the themes of his first film (J’ai tue ma mere) about a mother/son relationship and all its perils. With Anne Dorval back as the mom. And Master filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin is bringing another NFB TIFF14  Alanis Obomsawin, NFB director of Trick or Treatydoc on First Nations issues. This one, Trick or Treaty, covers the battle for treaty rights. There are many other too, including a new one from Cronenberg, a remastered film by Atom Egoyan, and movies from Jean Marc Valee, and Phillipe Felardeau, both starring Reese Witherspoon for some reason. Go to tiff.net for more info.

This week, I’m looking at two movies about The Imp and the Angels Sally de Frehn 1946brave people facing “acts of God”. One’s an American disaster-adventure about the danger brought to a family by unstoppable winds; the other’s an Irish drama about the dangers brought to a priest by an emotional loose cannon.

INTO THE STORM afficheInto the Storm
Dir: Steven Quale

On graduation day in Silverton, a single dad (Richard Armitage) and his two sons, Donnie and Trey (Max Deacon, Nathan Kress), are making a time capsule on video. 25 years from now they’ll look back in wonder — or so they think. Instead, a series of unusually powerful, super – tornadoes strike their town during the graduation ceremony, wreaking havoc in its path. Donnie is trapped with a classmate in an abandoned paper mill on the outskirts of town. (He skipped graduation to help a girl he has a crush on get some footage for her Into the Storm 1environmental film.)

Dad and Trey set out to find them but encounter another group on the way. It’s a team of storm chasers — people who make their living by pursuing tornadoes and capturing it all on video. Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies) is a scientist, while Pete (Matt Walsh) is her boss. It’s Pete’s dream to pass through the eye of a tornado and live to tell the tale — and this is the biggest twister he’s ever seen. With the help of his tank-like car (called Titus) he treats the storm as his great white whale.

But when Dad rescues Allison from blowing away – literally! A manly man relying on the brute strength of his handgrip to overcome the tornado and save her from blowing away like a leaf — she decides to help him. They drive off to save his son; she chooses people’s lives over fame and fortune.

Into the Storm 2But can anyone beat this Grandmother of a superstorm? While there are some nice shots of huge objects bring blown away, and some wicked “flame-nadoes”, it wasn’t enough. Where are the sharks?

Terrific special effects don’t excuse the mediocre plot and script, and ho-hum acting. And it’s dripping with Tea Party subtexts: The school principal is an Obama surrogate. A good speech-maker but it’s the Paul Ryan-type Dad who can save the day. It’s also a movie about irregular weather systems that never talks about climate change. But the biggest problem is you can’t have a disaster movie that’s also an adventure flick; the two types are diametrically opposed. Disaster movies are all about sadness and braveness in the face of terrible disaster. Adventure movies are all about fun and excitement. This movie doesn’t know which way to turn. Into The Storm, while diverting, will disappear as fast as a tornado.

62996-Calvary_001Calvary
Wri/Dir: John Michael McDonagh

Father James (Brendan Gleeson) is a priest in a small, isolated village in Ireland. A husky bearded man in his 60s, he still wears the traditional black cassock. He’s attended by a novice priest and a Machievellian altar boy who steals bottles of sacramental wine. The movie begins in confession where a disembodied man’s voice says he was savagely raped as a child – repeatedly, over many years – by a priest. That priest is now dead, but the man declares he will kill this good priest, Father James, in his stead. And he tells him he has one week to make peace with the world, and to show up next Sunday on the beach outside town to die. Quelle Calvaire!

From there the movie follows Father James as he visits his parishioners to make amends, offer forgiveness, and maybe discover who plans to kill him. But the people’s problems are not what might be expected in small-town Ireland. There’s a woman who cheats on her husband (Chris O’Dowd) with a Senegalese mechanic. The local policeman is gay, the priest’s novice is a toady, a local lad says he wants to join the army so he can murder people, and the arrogant local millionaire tosses his money around like toilet paper.62997-Calvary_013

Father James also has a beautiful grown daughter. (Not what you think – he joined the priesthood after his wife died.) They were estranged can they get along again? Everyone knows he’s a good man, but not many of them still carries the faith like he does. He’s a combination social worker, therapist, enforcer and drinking buddy, and, well, priest. Surrounded by such unrelenting cynicism, he’s beginning to question it all, too. Does he have the strength to face his upcoming Calvary?

This is a very good movie from Ireland. It has a large cast, but each character, each part seems perfectly played. Visually, it’s fantastic, with huge, aerial shots of mammoth, grass-covered rocky plateaus and beaches. And jarring images, like a discussion inside the grocer’s freezer played against an oddly beautiful background of cow carcasses. Father James is a tough, Jesus-y character facing a troubling fate even as he tries to do good and forgive the worst sins of others. Calvary challenges our perceptions of traditional Irish life and the role of the Catholic Church there — warts and all.

Into the Storm and Calvary 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

Philadelphia Freedom. Movies reviewed: Jingle Bell Rocks, Let the Fire Burn

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies forculturalmining.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.

I was in the US for American Thanksgiving. Had a wonderful visit to family and friends, beautiful places, lots to see and do. But you wouldn’t know it if you watched TV news on Black Friday. It’s an orgiastic  frenzy of consumer excess slapped onto an otherwise sedate family weekend. All you could see on TV was the repeated image of two women at a Philadelphia Walmart tasing each other to get at a discount i-Pad. Just crazy.

But they segue nicely into my themes this week: Philadelphia and holiday excess. I’m looking at Canadian documentary about Christmas music. And an American doc about a firebomb dropped on a radical commune in Philadelphia.

mitch_hat_vigJingle Bell Rocks

Dir: Mitchel Kezin

Mitchel is obsessed with Christmas songs., Not the traditional carols or sing-alongs — Silent Night, Jingle Bells —  but the many, possibly countless, record albums released over the past 60-70 years. He believes that, among all the treacle and dross they play constantly for a month and a half every year, there are gems to be discovered. So he goes to every flea market, ducks into every used record store he sees, on the off chance there’s an indie treasure waiting to be rediscovered.

It all started with a Nat King Cole song about a little kid pining for his absentee dad, who won’t be home for Chistmas. His own dad was never there and eventually his parents were divorced. Now he feels driven to recreate the sad feelings john_waters_pic2he remembers from a melancholy tune.

And he’s not alone. There’s a hip-hop producer, a radio DJ, and a rock star, each with their obsessive horde of old Xmas vinyl.

The movie spans decades, including everything from be-bop jazz (that’s Bob Dorough singing with the Miles Davis Quintet in the background) to soul – there’s a risqué song about a Backdoor Santa – to Vietnam protest songs, ordinary pop, bill_adler&rev-run_prod2counter-culture kitsch and hip hop, all the way to the nineties and beyond.

Stars include Flaming Lips, Run DMC, and John Waters, with the movie culminating in an amazing recording session with calypso legend Mighty Sparrow.

Not bad for a documentary. Jingle Bell Rocks is 90-minute look at an ordinary – if oddball – guy with a hording obsession. I can sympathize with the narrator’s plight, but never feel his drive. Anyway, it’s a light subject, not intrinsically exciting. But it’s saved by the music: great tunes.

let the fire burn poster_largeLet the Fire Burn

Dir: Jason Osder

In the mid 1980s, Philadelphia — a city I love — experienced a terrifying event. A home was bombed, and many people were killed. You might think: terrorists? But the bomb was dropped on a row house from a helicopter… by the police! And as the fire grew, the fireman stood by to letthefireburn.photo03watch the flames engulf a city block.

How could this have happened? Some background.

Half a century after the civil rights movement, Philadelphia is still a de facto segregated city. It experienced decades of unrest and white flight to the exurbs. Much of this was related to the combative stance letthefireburn.photo05of the police force and City Hall, led, in the 1970s by Frank Rizzo.

A former police commissioner, Rizzo fought a personal battle against radical groups like the Black Panthers, displaying, at times, seemed more loyalty to his fellow police than toward the people of the city. He was known for his harsh treatment of black people, in general. Well, right in the middle of this was a small, black-to-nature group known as MOVE, headed by the self-named John Africa. They believed in such “radical” concepts as a vegan diet, the raw food movement, animal rights — a new religion that was anti-pesticide letthefireburn.photo02and anti-technology. The kids walked around naked and everyone shared the same last name. They also proselytized loudly in public, using a megaphone, not endearing themselves to their neighbours.

The police accused them of being an armed terrorist group and raided their home. In the melee a cop was killed, but it was never determined where the shot came from. (The police were caught on video brutally attacking an unarmed Delbert Africa.) Nine members of MOVE were convicted of third-degree murder and jailed.

Seven years later, in an apparent act of revenge for the  policeman’s death, they dropped two fire bombs – supplied by the FBI — on the urban commune and stood by, as 11 people, including five small children, letthefireburn.photo01died. Afterwards, the city’s Mayor, W. Wilson Goode, called for an investigation.

This excellent movie tells the story in an unusual way. The documentary is composed entirely of  period news footage, TV interviews, and, most of all, the recorded testimony of the inquiry. There’s no narrator, only voices from that time, preserved on tape. Police and survivors of the bombing all testify why they did what they did and bring light to what was happening that tragic day. (Some police were appalled by what happened and did what they could to rescue people, while others clearly supported it.) Especially poignant is the testimony of a little boy, Birdie Africa, who clears up many of the false claims and misconceptions about what went on. This is a stunning movie and an excellent oral history.

Jingle Bell Rocks (Hot Docs) and Let the Fire Burn (TIFF Bell Lightbox) 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 .

November 23, 2012. The Joys and the Dangers of Fantasy. Movies Reviewed: Rise of the Guardians, The Suicide Room

Posted in Animation, Bullying, Christianity, Cultural Mining, Dragons, Drama, Dreams, drugs, Emo, Fantasy, Magic, Movies, Poland, Russia, US by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 2012

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.

A new American import known as “Black Fridays” is spilling over into Canada as a big shopping day. The name supposedly comes from the day in which the average US retailer reaches a positive balance on sales for the year which is usually the Friday after American Thanksgiving. But in a weird case of a snake swallowing its own tail they have turned it into a massive frenzy of shopping from consumers searching for bargains put on by retailers wanting to capitalize on a chance to pump up sales.

It also means it’s the start of Christmas shopping in earnest. So, just in time for new childhood memories to form, this week I’m talking about two movies that show the good side and the bad side of believing in fantasy.

Rise of the Guardians

Dir: Peter Ramsey

Jack Frost (Chris Pine)  is a mischievous teenager in a hoodie and skinny jeans who likes snowball fights, getting kids’ tongues stuck to metal poles, and skatebording on hazardous, icy roads. When his snow lands on humans they have fun.He’s also invisible. He loves play but wishes he knew where he came from, and that other kids could see him.

Meanwhile there’s trouble up at the north pole: the bogeyman, aka Pitch, a fey, vain and evil man with an English accent (of course) is injecting nightmares into kids’ minds, and interfering with their sleep. So the Guardians who live there – Santa, the Easter Bunny, Mr Sandman, the Tooth Fairy — summon Jack to join them in their fight against scariness.

Santa (Alec Baldwin) is a Finnish-type Father Christmas known as “North” – muscular, tough and tattooed — but with an unplaceable Eastern European accent. He carries matruschka dolls, and curses using the names of Russian composers: Rimsky Korsakov! Shostakovitch! He’s guarded by a gang of rough looking Yetis and serviced by short-bus elves. The Easter Bunny is a foul-tempered Aussie (Hugh Jackman), and the Tooth Fairy collects teeth to store the memories of children.

In their war room stands a giant globe of flickering lights – each one representing a kid who still believes in them. But with Pitch on the upswing, the lights are gradually dimming, and, like in the Peter Pan cartoon, if no one believes in fairies then tinkerbell will die! In this case they won’t die, they’ll just become invisible to the non-believers, like Jack is.

So… will Jack join up with the good guys and try to get the human kids to believe in them again? Or will he let the world fall into the clutches of the evil and scary Pitch?

Rise of the Guardians is a resolutely non-religious Christmas movie, without a cross, a church or even a glowing star to be seen. God takes the form of an all-knowing and all seeing Man in the Moon, the easter bunny is all about eggs, and they’re all on equal footing of secular figures like Sandy the Sandman. It’s a beautiful crafted movie – really nice art direction, with an interesting plot. It’s clearly aimed at the pre-teen set, but was aesthetically pleasing enough to hold my attention.(like an incredibly beautiful scenes where they all meet in a sort of a floating, rust-tiled Samarkand in their encounter with Pitch.) And it has Guillermo Del Toro’s name on it – as an executive producer, which lets you know it’s not degenerating into a comedy dissing childhood beliefs.

And it’s in 3-D.

Much grimmer, but also a partly- animated drama is

The Suicide Room

Dir: Jan Komasa

Dominik (Jakub Gierszal) is a happy, popular private school kid, a bit emo-looking but in tight with the in crowd. But there’s a guy he likes at school who may or may not be leading him on. And when he has an embarrassing frottage incident at a judo practice when he gets a bit too frisky with the guy he’s crushing on, he is mortified. All his friends seem to have turned on him and to make matters worse, they other guy put up a video of the incident on Facebook where everyone could see it. He’s cyber-bullied into hiding up in his bedroom.

His one solace is an animated world on line, a sort of Second Life ruled by a queen, Sylwia (Roma Gasiorowska), who lives in a castle. He becomes obsessed by her and seems to exist only in the form of his avatar, while his real self lives in the dark, barely eating and never going outside. From most popular kid to reclusive otaku in a matter of weeks. Sylwia strongly pressures Dom to join their suicide club and kill himself.

His parents, both rich and successful, have no idea what’s going on. Dominik may be on the verge of killing himself while the parents are more worried about how their son’s aborted sexual life might embarrass them and damage their career ambitions. They just want him on meds so he stops bothering them.

Will Dominik choose to live or to die? Will he reconnect with the outside world? Will he get to meet his cyber-love Sylwia face to face? And will his parents ever show compassion for their son?

This Polish film (which played at this year’s Ekran Polish Film Festival in Toronto) is a look at adolescent depression, cyber-bullying and Second Life, all aspects of contemporary Polish life largely unknown in North America.

Rise of the Guardians is playing now, while Suicide Club played at the EKRAN Polish Film Festival. Also look out for free Japan Foundation screenings coming up in December at the Bloor cinema featuring dramatizations of Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai’s stories; The Toronto Film Noir Syndicate showing the Coen brothers’ classic Blood Simple this weekend, and the first annual Blood in the Snow Canadian film festival showing new and classic Canadian horror movies next week at the Projection Booth on Gerrard St E. It features cool pics like Bruce MacDonald’s Pontypool and the world premier of new movies like SICK and psychological thriller the House of Flies.

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

August 3, 2012. Movies Reviewed: 360, Blue Like Jazz. PLUS Queen of Versailles, The Invisible War

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 movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Countless fairytales about travellers include a scene where a character comes to a fork in the road, and has to decide which way to go. One direction could bring happiness and good fortune; the other way – danger. This week I’m looking at two movies about people making life decisions and where that path takes them. One’s a low-budget American movie about a young, conservative Texan who ends up in liberal Portand, Oregan; the other’s a multi-lingual drama with an international cast about people facing life-changing decisions that end up affecting dozens of strangers they’ll never meet.

360
Dir: Fernando Meirelles

In a series of apparently unrelated stories in Vienna, Paris and London, we see men and women falling in love, and falling out of it, having illicit affairs, purchasing sexual acts, stalking strange women, resisting temptation, breaking up and starting all over again.

(This is a difficult movie to describe without giving away the stories and relationships which provide the main reason for watching this movie… but I’ll try) In just one of the linked stories, a
middle-class, somewhat selfish London couple, (Jude Law and Rachel Weisz) have a fragile relationship but, depending on which direction they each decide to take it, they will affect lots of people – a sex trade worker in Eastern Europe, a Brazilian woman stranded in a US airport (alongside an old man seeking his daughter’s dead body, and a sex offender recently released from prison) as she heads home to Rio.

These and many other stories come looping back in a 360 degree turn, just like the ring roads in the grand European capitals – Vienna, London and Paris. Since these are all strangers who meet at random, we see the characters in hotel bars, airport lobbies, cafes, internet sites, and AA meetings, the sorts of places strangers meet. We get a glimpse of their problems and decisions, then — zoom! — it’s on to the next city.

All the individual stories are loosely woven together, but not in the neat circle the title suggests. It’s not even like the hub in a wheel with lots of spokes heading out. It’s more like throwing a bunch of shoes into a bag, shaking them up, and then wondering how all the laces got so tangled and knotted. It’s definitely interesting, and neat, and the plot is never predictable (lots of the characters don’t take the paths you expect them to)… but I was left wondering if I was duped by complicated junk or had just witnessed a masterpiece. Or more simply: is it a good movie?

A movie doesn’t have to be great and perfect, but this one seems to be a smaller film than the grandiose themes it’s tackling. On the positive side, it’s not encumbered with a weepy, Hollywood violin soundtrack; instead it skips from city to city with old local pop songs. And it does have a great international cast (Jamel Debbouze, etc), a well-known Brazilian director who did City of God, and the UK writer Peter Morgan.

Hmm… is it just pandering, “Oscar Bait”? No, that’s not quite fair, although it does have that grave, sombre tone of too many film festival movies. But it’s also fascinating, a bit thrilling and tense, with a bit if ironic humour. Even if the movie as a whole left me feeling cold and devoid of satisfaction (that 1960’s, angsty European feel) it’s still a unique piece of work.

OK, I give in. I liked it. It wasn’t bad. Go see it.

Blue Like Jazz
Dir: Steve Taylor

Donny (Marshall Allman) is a good Texan. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t cuss. He tucks in his short-sleeved shirt, and goes to Baptist church every Sunday, and does whatever his divorced mother tells him to. But right when he’s about to go off to Baptist College he discovers two things: his layabout Dad who lives in a trailer park is ready to bankroll his tuition at a liberal arts school in Portland(ia); and his bible-ready Mom isn’t quite the goody-goody church lady he thought she was. He decides the church has betrayed him, so he heads off to open his mind to new ideas.

So the movie follows his experiences as a Fresher at college, as he gradually adjusts to student life. He falls in with Lauren (Tania Raymonde), a genuine lesbian who looks like Amy Winehouse; The Pope, an older college rabble-rouser given to dressing in a robe and mitre; and Penny, an earnest politically active blonde woman
who is fighting plastic water bottles. His shirts get untucked, then he switches to T-shirts, stops shaving and soon enough he’s throwing beer bottles out of windows and popping MDMA at outdoor raves. Portland is not without its rules. Umbrellas are considered “uncool” and Penny warns him that, in these parts, Christians are expected to stay in their religious closets – they don’t “come out” as born again.

It’s up to Donny to decide if he should permanently ditch the church in favour of new ideas, or to fall back on his childhood upbringing.

Blue like Jazz is an extremely low-budget drama, paid for through crowd-sourcing. It’s actually a fun, coming-of-age college movie, with interesting characters, a nice story and good acting. Worth watching.

Also opening this weekend are the two documentaries The Invisible War, and The Queen of Versailles.

The Invisible War (Dir: Kirby Dick) tells about the estimated one million rapes or sexual assaults that have happened within the US armed forces over the past half century, how the perpetrators are let off even as the victims face punishment. It’s an important look at a shocking subject. (Listen to my interview with director Kirby Dick)

And on a much lighter note, is the Queen of Versailles, a hilarious documentary by Lauren Greenfield about a pneumatically equipped compulsive shopper with many children and little yappy dogs; and her husband, an elderly time-share mogul, who, together, attempt to build themselves a replica of the Palace of Versailles in the Florida everglades — the biggest home in the world — but are caught in a lurch by the sudden bursting of the real estate bubble. (Read my Hotdocs review here.)

The dramas 360 and Blue Like Jazz, and the documentaries The Invisible War and the Queen of Versailles 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 .

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