Exploitation. Films reviewed: Juggernaut, The Strangers: Prey at Night, Gringo

Posted in Canada, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Mexico, Pop Culture, violence by CulturalMining.com on March 9, 2018

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

Are you suffering from post-Oscar withdrawal? Too many foreign and highbrow films to catch up on? Forget about all that, it’s time to take a break. This week I’m just talking about genre and exploitation movies. There is death in smalltown Canada, slashers in a Kentucky trailer park, and a corporate kidnapping in Mexico City.


Wri/Dir: Daniel DiMarco

Saxon (Jack Kesy) is a loner who lives out west. With a buzzed scalp, he’s gaunt and wired, always ready for a fight. But when he returns to his hometown his beloved mother is dead, and nobody seems to care. It was a suicide they say. And his brother Dean (David Cubitt) seems to have profited handsomely from their mom’s insurance policy. Dean is a powerful man in the town, with a finger in every pot. He’s the type of guy who makes money from the local prison, while Saxon is the kind who ends up behind bars. Saxon is bad news: bipolar, uncontrollable, and violent – at least that’s his reputation.

Only Amelia (Amanda Crew), Dean’s beautiful fiancée, holds no grudge against Saxon. In fact she identifies with him as a fellow outsider, who came to the town from afar. Saxon doesn’t believe his mother would kill herself. It smells fishy to him, and so does the whole stinkin town. So he decides to investigate. He talks to the local cop, the insurance rep, a local padre, and digs up lost photos and important documents. But everyone he talks to stonewalls him. Nothing happened here, they say.  Just move along. But Saxon is too stubborn to give up. Will he find what he’s looking for? Will the town’s secrets be revealed? Or is he sticking his neck out too far?

Juggernaut is noir-ish drama set in a small town in western BC. The acting is all credible – especially Kesy and Crew — and the scenery is nice and all, but the movie just didn’t really grab me. I mean, even with all the fist fights and shootouts and chase scenes, it feels too long and too slow, more of a gothic drama than a crime thriller.

The Strangers: Prey at Night

Dir: Johannes Roberts

Kinsey (Bailee Madison) is an emo-grunge-punk who lives with her red-haired Mom (Christina Hendricks) and her tetris-loving Dad (Martin Henderson). She used to be close to her big brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) but not lately. They’re always fighting now, and the whole family is nearly dysfunctional. “This parenting gig is real tough” says dad. Baillee spent a year messing up, and now her parents are sending her off to boarding school. Driving her there across Kentucky in an SUV. And they’re staying for the night at a trailer park owned by their uncle. They arrive at night. It’s a pretty place in a grassy field with a swing set, an office and a swimming pool, all covered with a layer of mist. But it all seems strangely deserted. And when they keep hearing loud knocks on their door they decide to find out what’s going on. Bad move.

What’s going on is, there are people there with their faces covered by a girl’s face, a baby mask, and a burlap bag with a face drawn on with a sharpie. They’re carrying huge knives and axes and clearly they know how to use them. The unarmed family runs away in horror as the killers seek them out. Why are they chasing them? Who will die and who will survive? And can anyone fight them off?

This is a classic slasher movie with not much of a plot, but lots of killing and sick stuff. It’s full of the usual scary movie clichés – telephone wires cut, a jack-in-the-box, irrational-seeming murderers who never seem to die. The family members are basically two-dimiensional. At the same time – if you can stomach the violence and blood in a slasher movie – the production design is strangely, eerily beautiful, from the misty fields at night to the catharsis of burning flames, from the chaotic destruction of smash-ups using trailers and cars, to a truly stunning knifefight in a glowing blue swimming pool surrounded by lurid, pink-neon palm trees. Really well done.

The music is all early-80s pop hits, the killers are rejects from 90s raves and everyone seems to have swallowed Tide pods. This is a sequel, and people who have seen the original hate it — they say it’s a poor repeat of the first one — but for a neophyte like me, it worked just fine.

I liked this slasher.


Dir: Nash Edgerton

Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) is a middle manager for a Chicago pharmaceutical corporation that is developing a new pill made from marijuana. Harold honest to a fault, smart, and hard working. Originally from Nigeria, he’s happily married to elegant Bonnie, an interior decorator. And he’s doing well at work. He puts up with his two morally questionable bosses, Elaine and Rusk (Charlize Theron and Joel Edgerton) because he knows its part of his job. He ignores their offensive comments, lets Rusk beat him at chess, and pretends he doesn’t see them bonking in the execituve washroom.

On a business trip to Mexico, Harold starts to realize something is very wrong. His wife is leaving him, his money is running out, and it looks like his bosses are stabbing him in the back. So he sneaks out of his hotel room and disappears. But can a “black gringo” really disappear in Mexico City? Soon everyone’s looking for him, his company, a drug boss (unfortunately named “Black Panther”), some local hoods, and a black-ops mercenary. It seems like everyone’s out to get him, except for Sunny (Amanda Seyfried) a nice young American woman who doesn’t know she’s a drug mule. Can Harold — a mild-mannered scaredy-cat — regain his confidence, fight off the killers, and make it out alive?  Or will he disappear for good?

Gringo is a fun and fast-moving comedy thriller that keeps you interested. The office politics, involving the odious and sleazy Elaine and Rusk, are appropriately grotesque but largely unpleasant. But once the action shifts to Mexico it becomes much more interesting. David Oyelowo is fantastic as fish-out-of-water Harold, a character you can laugh at but also root for. The portrayal of Mexico and the people there is full of derogatory stereotypes… but so are all the Americans characters. Gringo is a misanthropic but funny look at contemporary life. I enjoyed this one.

The Strangers: Prey at Night, Juggernaut and Gringo 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 Sherwan Haji about The Other Side of Hope

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Drama, Finland, Kurds, Refugees, Syria by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

Photos 1,3 by Jeff Harris

Khaled is a mechanic in Aleppo when the bombs start to fall, killing most of his family. He flees Syria and makes his way through Europe until he finds sanctuary in Helsinki, Finland. But when he applies for refugee status he is turned down, and threatened with deportation. He ends up living on the streets… until he is given a job in an unusual restaurant, recently bought by an eccentric, older man looking for a career change. Khaled is searching for his lost sister even as he runs from police, government agents and neo-Nazis. Can his new job show him the Other Side of Hope?

The Other Side of Hope is filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film. It shows the plight of refugees in Finland as well as the endearing — if oddball — characters, live musicians and an ineffable aesthetic unique to Kaurismäki’s films. It stars Sherwan Haji as Khaled. Sherwan himself is originally from Syria, where he acted on TV. He now continues his accomplished career of acting and filmmaking in Europe.

I spoke to Sherwan on site at Films We Like in Toronto in September 2017, during TIFF.

The Other Side of Hope opens today in Toronto.

Made for the Big Screen. Films reviewed: Suburbicon, Human Flow, Faces Places

Posted in 1950s, Anthropology, Art, Clash of Cultures, Crime, documentary, France, Migrants, Refugees, Rural, Suburbs, War by CulturalMining.com on October 27, 2017

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

Do you find it hard to keep up with all these Fall Film Festivals? Here’s some coming in November whose names are nearly self-explanatory: EstDocs shows documentaries from Estonia – This year is Estonia’s 100th anniversary since it first declared itself a republic. ReelAsian is one of Toronto’s biggest festivals, showing features from East and South Asia and their diasporas. And guess what Black Star shows? It’s a curated series of classics at TIFF featuring black movie stars: Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, Sidney Poitier in In The Heat of the Night, and Denzel Washington in Malcolm X.

This week I’m looking at some movies — a thriller and two art documentaries – with strong visual elements that deserve to be seen on the big screen. These films are about migrating across continents, driving across France… or just staying put in the suburbs,


Dir: George Clooney

It’s the late 50s in a cookie-cutter suburb. Nicky (Noah Jupe) is a twelve year old boy who lives with his mom and dad in a middleclass, white, Episcopalian home. His father, Mr Gardner (Matt Damon) works at a middle management office job, while his mom (Julianne Moore) stays at home. She uses a wheelchair to get around since she was almost killed in a car accident a year earlier. Her sister (also played by Juliane Moore) helps out around the house. Life is bland, suburban and normal.

Then two big things happen.

First, a middle class black family moves into the house behind theirs. This makes Nicky happy because they have a son his age– someone he can play baseball with. His all-white neighbours, though, didn’t like it one bit, and try to intimidate them into moving away. The second thing is a home invasion by a pair of lowlife criminals. They tie up the family to chairs at the dinner table and knock them out with ether. And when Nicky wakes up, his mom is dead and the killers are gone. Stranger still, his aunt quickly moves in to take her place and dyes her hair to look exactly like his real mom. What’s going on?

Then things get worse. White violence scalates against their new black neighbours escalates. A detective visits Gardner at his office investigating his wife’s murder. He’s suspicious. So is an insurance investigator. Then the killers themselves show up again making new demands. What do they want from him? When Nicky catches his Dad and his fake-mom in a compromising position on the pingpong table he realizes something is very wrong.

Suburbicon is a zany — but violent – mystery/thriller that looks at the dark side of a 1950s suburb, as seen through the eyes of a little boy. It also deals with segregation, but that’s really just a subplot — an attempt to give it relevance. It’s written by Joel and Ethan Coen, with the usual over-the-top violence and absurdist comedy, but it doesn’t feel like a Coen Brothers movie. This is George Clooney’s work. Aesthetically, it’s amazing, with incredible art direction that brings to life a stylized version of suburban America.

It’s a fun story, but that’s all it is — entertaining fluff.

Human Flow

Dir: Ai Weiwei

Millions of people around the world are housed temporarily in makeshift shelters. These refugees flee their homes or villages in fear for their lives. Many more are migrating across borders looking for a place to call home, now that war or famine or poverty has made their previous homes uninhabitable. This human flow, these crowds of people risk their lives qs they walk through deserts, through fields and cities, crossing oceans in leaky boats, as they search for sanctuary.

This movie follows refugees and migrants around the world: Rohingya in Bangladesh, Syrians walking through Europe, central Americans climbing those walls at the US/Mexican border. It takes us to Gaza, Kenya, Afghanistan, Turkey and Hungary, looking at how these people fare in unwelcoming environs.

Human Flow is huge, epic in scope and very long for a documentary – almost 2 ½ hours. It takes you to different locations without any narrative or order, punctuated with poetic quotes and info scrolling across the screen. There are some exciting parts — like the rescue of migrants in boats on the Mediterranean – but much of the film has a constant “flow”, just drifting to scene after scene. Ai Weiwei is primarily an artist so the filming is gorgeous and grandiose. It uses drone shots looking down from way, way up in the air where refugee camps look like tiny white pills arranged in neat rows. Then it zooms down, until you gradually see what looks like ants and then finally, real people with faces. Human Flow is visually stunning and informative.

I just wish it were an hour shorter.

Faces Places (Visages Villages)

Wri/Dir: Agnes Varda and JR

Agnes Varda is the Belgian-born artist and filmmaker who rose to fame in the French New Wave. JR is a contemporary artist known for his postering. He plasters his work — giant-sized, black and white paper photos – onto outdoor walls. Together they travel across France taking pictures of ordinary people they meet on their way: a coal miners daughter, a waitress, a farmer, and a woman who raises goats. They also pay homage to important figures from Agnes’s past: a man who modeled for her on the beach, the grave of photographer Cartier-Bressson, and Jean-Luc Godard’s home.

They make strange pair. Agnes is short, with a pageboy haircut, her white hair partly dyed with a red halo around the fringe. She’s 88. JR is tall and lanky. He won’t reveal his real name and keeps his face disguised with a fedora and dark glasses. He’s 33. They travel in JR’s little truck that has the image of a camera lens on the side. It functions as a photobooth that prints out the huge paper photos he take. And Agnes films it all, recording the process and people’s honest reactions to JRs art. The posters might wash off of walls by the next high tide , but they will remain longer on film.

Faces Places is a delightful personal documentary about art and photography, both still and in motion.  It shows us the transience of people and images.

Human Flow is now playing, and Suburbicon and Faces, Places 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.

Dark Comedies. Films reviewed: The Square, Happy End, The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Class, comedy, France, Greece, Psychological Thriller, Satire, Scandal, Sweden by CulturalMining.com on September 5, 2017

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

TIFF started just last night and continues through the 17th. I’ve seen a lot of the films now, but I’m barred from commenting on most of them until they open. So I’ll tell you a bit about a few European movies having their Canadian Premiers at TIFF. All three are dark comedies.

The Square

Dir: Ruben Östlund

Christian (Claes Bang) is a rich, handsome and successful man at the top of his game. He’s divorced with two kids and uses his single status to pick up women for one-night stands. At work, he’s the chief curator at a famous art museum inside a former royal palace. The gallery is known for challenging old ideas… it’s revolutionary! Like the new show he’s working on, called The Square: a simple brass plaque on the plaza where a statue of a king on a horse once stood. Now the square welcomes everybody, as a place of respect and responsibility, whether you’re rich or poor, have- or have-not, Swedish born or a recent immigrant.

But things start to go wrong, that call into question his intehrity and high- minded beliefs. When con artists steal his celphone, he traces it back to a public housing highrise, but doesn’t know which apartment it’s in. So he prints up hundreds of threatening letters and drops them into each apartment mailbox. At work he scoffs at an accident involving an art installation – just replace it, he says, no one will notice. He hires young MBA hot shots to promote The Square, but doesn’t pay attention to an offensive promotional video they make – it’s all good, as long as it goes viral. And his personal life spirals out of control when he tries to juggle responsibility toward his bratty kids, with his sex life. Will his life and career all collapse from a series of awful mistakes? And will he realize he’s part of the system causing all these disasters?

The Square, by the director of Force Majeure, is a biting satire about hypocrisies in the art world, told in a series of very funny vignettes. Like when a night of sex with a woman he meets (Elizabeth Moss: A Handmaid’s Tale and Mad Men) turns into a hilarious fight over who owns the used condom – the man or the woman. It’s a long movie but a very enjoyable one. And it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Happy End

Dir: Michael Haneke

Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is the patriarch of a Laurent enterprises a huge corporation based in Calais France. It’s run by his daughter

Anne (Isabelle Huppert) a no-no-nonsense business woman. Her brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) a successful surgeon, lives on the family estate with his young wife Anaïs. Then there’s the third generation. Pierre (Franz Rogowski) Anne’s son, knows how to wear a hard hat, but that’s about it. He’s responsible for a disaster that happens at a construction site. And Thomas’s daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) from a previous marriage re-enters his life when his ex-wife suddenly gets sick. The cute and innocent little girl is not as nice as she seems. She’s a tiny psychopath who does horrible things just for the lulz – and to share them anonymously on Snapchat. And Georges, the patriarch, desperately wants to end it all.

Happy End is a very dark comedy about a rich, dysfunctional family. Haneke its great director, does something really unusual: He recreates characters from a previous film, but with an entirely different back story. Amour, Which won an Oscar in 2013, was about an elderly musician man, Georges, facing his wife’s dementia. IN Happy End, Georges (and his daughter) are back again played by the same actors, but this time not as musicians but as corporate leaders. And this time it’s a comedy not a tragic romance. Another great movie.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

Steven and Anna (Colin Farrell) and Nicole Kidman) are a Cincinatti power couple, both successful doctors. They live in a beautiful home with their two kids. Everything is normal, except… theres a teenaged boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) who Steven is spending a lot of time with. He meets him on the sky, treating him to lunch at a local diner, meeting him beneath city bridges. He buys Martin a Rolex as a birthday gift. And then Steven takes him to meet his family. What’s going on?

It turns out the boy’s father died a couple years before on the operating table. Steven was the heart surgeon. At first Martin wants to befriends – he even tries to set Steven up with his mom (Alicia Silverstone) at an awkward dinner date. But his true motives are much more sinister. He says Steven must suffer as much as he suffered when s father died. He wants him to sacrifice – in the manner if the ancient greeks – a sacred deer. Meaning one of his family members: his son, his daughter or his wife. And due to some strange condition that the doctors cannot diagnose, the two kids become paralyzed from the waste down. Only Stevens decision can stop this terror.

The killing of a sacred deer is advertised as a horror movie, and there is a bit of that, but like all of Lanthimos’s movies – from Digtooth to the Lobster – it’s more of a dark comedy with a bizarre premise. And like in all the movies, the characters talk like robots, say inappropriately formal things, and don’t notice their own strangeness, because everyone in the movie acts the same way. You get the feeling he doesn’t treat it completely seriously. For example, whenever he’s near Martin, even in an innocuous situation I, the extra loud forbiding music starts to play. I think I liked it, once I accepted the premise. And it is alternatively very funny and disturbingly shocking.

Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Square, Happy End are all playing at TIFF. Go tiff.net for details.

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



Indoors, Outdoors. Films reviewed: The Black Prince, Dunkirk, A Ghost Story

Posted in 1800s, 1940s, Clash of Cultures, Death, India, Movies, Punjab, Supernatural, War, WWII by CulturalMining.com on July 21, 2017

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

Summer is the perfect time to see movies outdoors. There are open air screenings in city parks, free Canadian films at Yonge Dundas square, and an Open Roof festival, complete with music at 99 Sudbury, that is showing the amazing documentary Brimstone and Glory next Tuesday.

But sometimes it’s nice just to sit inside. This week I’m looking at three movies opening today to watch inside a theatre. There’s a wartime thriller about an army’s retreat, an historical drama about a royal defeat, and an arthouse ghost story… about a white sheet?

The Black Prince

Wri/Dir: Kavi Raz

It’s the Victorian era. Maharaja Duleep Singh (Satinder Sartaaj) is a proper English gentleman. He lives a life of luxury in a country palace furnished with a retinue of servants, fine clothing and sumptuous meals. He spends his free time hunting on his estate. But something is missing. You see, he is the heir to the throne of the Punjab Empire that once stretched across northern India. But palace intrigue and assassinations left the Sikh kingdom in disarray, and the British swooped in and took control. The young prince was shipped off to England where he now lives under under the benevolent but watchful eyes of Queen Victoria (Amanda Root) and the prince’s surrogate father, Dr Login (Jason Flemyng). He’s a Sikh but wears no turban and carries no kirpan.

But back in Lahore the crowds are clamouring for his return. And when he is reunited with his mother (Shabana Azmi) he realizes he’s more than just Victoria’s “Black Prince” — he’s a Maharaja! He returns to his faith and starts a lifetime of plots and alliances to restore his kingdom with armed insurrections. But can a single man – and his followers – defeat the British Raj?

The Black Prince is a film filled with beautiful scenery and costumes, and a potentially interesting story. Unfortunatly, it moves at a glacial pace. The exciting parts of the movie — the battles and assassinations — are relegated to quick flashbacks, leaving us with endless scenes of talk, talk, talk. While Shabana Azmi adds fun to the scenes she appears in, the star, singer Satinder Sartaaj, is like a Punjabi Keanu Reeves – wooden and emotionless.


Wri/Dir: Christopher Nolan

It’s 1944 on the northern tip of France near Belgium. The German Army has taken much of Europe, save for this one beach, called Dunkirk. Hundreds of thousands of British troops, along with French and Belgian allies, are completely surrounded. German bombers fill the skies and U-Boat submarines patrol underwater, shooting torpedoes and dropping bombs on the British ships. It’s time for a massive retreat back to England – but how? The film follows three stories.

Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is a young soldier on the run, after his unit is wiped out. Together with a mute fighter he meets on the beach, they attempt to board departing warships, but with limited success… the boats keep sinking. Meanwhile, back in England, the government has commandeered all private boats, from sailboats to mudskippers, to help rescue the soldiers. Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) along with two teenaged boys, George and Peter, attempt to cross the channel in a pleasure boat… but meet trouble when they rescue a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy). And above it all, an RAF pilot (Tom Hardy) flies his Spitfire to keep the skies clear of German bombers while the boats cross.

Dunkirk is an unusual war movie that celebrates not a triumphant battle but a potentially disastrous retreat. The enemy is invisible, faceless and nameless, and we never see a British soldier raise a gun against the Germans. No fighting, just survival. And though there’s lots of people dying, there is little blood or gore in this strangely clean war. Dunkirk is a non-stop action movie that rarely takes a breather. It’s tense, thrilling and kept my eyes riveted to the screen from beginning to end.

A Ghost Story

Wri/Dir: David Lowery

A nameless married couple (Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara) live with their dog and a standup piano in an ordinary bungalow in the American Southwest. She wants to move to a better place but he feels strangely attached to the house. Perhaps it’s the creaks and bumps they hear late at night. Is it haunted? Then disaster strikes. He is killed in a car crash, and she has to identify his body in the hospital morgue. And after she leaves, the sheet covered corpse gets up and walks slowly back to the house. Is he a zombie? No, he’s just a ghost moving back into his home where no one can see him.

When I first heard about this movie – Casey Affleck playing ghost with a sheet over his head – I thought gimme a break. It sounds like a self-conscious bad joke. So I was completely surprised at how emotionally wrenching, how shocking, how wonderful this movie actually is. The silent ghost just stands in the background as time passes, observing all as his sheet tumbles majestically around his feet. It shows the passage of time, in a series of linked tableaux, fading one to the next – his wife’s mourning, new residents, a tear-it-down party. It’s like a dream.

Do you remember the Tree of Life, that extremely long movie about creation and the meaning of life? A Ghost Story does that, more simply, and in just 90 minutes. It’s a beautiful and haunting look at love, death, memory and the passage of time.

I like this one a lot.

The Black Prince, Dunkirk and A Ghost Story 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 David Bull and Toru Tokikawa about Ukiyo-e Heroes at Hot Docs

Posted in Art, Canada, Clash of Cultures, Cultural Mining, documentary, Japan, Movies by CulturalMining.com on May 12, 2017

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

Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro – these are the masters of Ukiyo-e or  Japanese block printing.

Their images of great waves, courtesans and journeys along the Tokaido highway are recognized around the world. Ukiyo-e flourished in Edo Japan, with the masters treated like superstars. But when the country modernized and westernized, the craft of woodblock printing began to fade. It lay moribund, until an unusual influence, a Canadian craftsman, is helping to reawaken interest. Who is this Ukiyo-e Hero?

Ukiyo-e Heroes is the name of a new feature which premiered at HotDocs, Toronto’s International Documentary Festival. It tells the story of two people helping to revive interest in ukiyo-e in Japan: Canadian David Bull who learned the traditional craft despite all the obstacles imposed on him. And Jed Henry, an American artist obsessed with Japanese pop culture. The film is directed by LA-based Toru Tokikawa, known for his award-winning music videos.

I spoke with Toru and David in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Exceptional people with hidden histories. Movies reviewed: Gifted, I Called Him Morgan, Frantz

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, drugs, Family, France, Germany, Jazz, melodrama, Music, Mystery, WWI by CulturalMining.com on April 10, 2017

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

Spring Film Festival season continues with the upcoming Images and TIFF Kids film festivals, celebrating their 30th and 20th anniversaries (respectively).

This week, I’m looking at movies about exceptional people with hidden histories. There’s a musical genius in Manhattan, a mathematical prodigy on the Florida coast, and a man of mystery at the border of France and Germany.


Dir: Mark Webb

Frank (Chris Evans) is a youngish guy living in a shack in Florida. He lives a quiet life, fixing boats and hooking up with women at laguna bars. The rest of his time is spent home-schooling his niece Mary (McKenna Grace), a foul-mouthed seven-year-old with blonde pigtails. Mary likes math, dancing to pop songs and playing with Fred, their one-eyed stray cat, a castoff like the two of them. How did they end up in Florida? Frank’s sister, a math genius, left Mary with him as a baby… just before killing herself. She made him promise to let Mary have a normal life, in case it turns out she’s a genius too. Normal means keeping the child free from math profs and universities, and most of all away from their obsessive mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). She’s the one who pushed Frank’s sister over the edge with her relentless ambition: solving one of the Millennium Prize Problems.

Frank is protecting Mary from all that. But how can she live a normal life hidden away in their clapboard shack? It’s time to send her to public school — despite his savvy neighbour Roberta’s warnings not to (Octavia Spence). Right away the dominos start to fall: teacher tells principal Mary is gifted, Principal goes online and soon Evelyn is in Florida demanding a proper Harvard education for her gifted grandchild.  Who has Mary’s best interests at heart – her wealthy patrician grandmother or her salt-of-the-earth uncle Frank?

I like the idea behind Gifted, and was looking forward to a story about a genius kid trying to live a normal life – but aside from a few scenes the movie isn’t about that. It’s actually a child custody drama, which is never much fun. Throw in foster parents, courtrooms and lawyers and the movie becomes a trial to watch. While the acting is not bad – Captain America as a single dad – and there are a few big secrets revealed along the way, I found Gifted disappointing.

I Called Him Morgan

Dir: Kasper Collin

Lee Morgan was a young jazz trumpet player from Philly, featured in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band as an 18 year old. 15 years later he was shot dead outside a Manhattan jazz club in a snow storm by a much older woman named Helen. How did he get there, who was this woman, and how did it happen? A new documentary looks closely at both their lives.

Morgan was a hard-bop trumpeter who dressed in Ivy League suits and drove his Triumph through Central Park. He played with Art Blakey and John Coltrane, later breaking away with his own band. Helen was born in a small town near Wilmington, North Carolina, with two kids by age 14, and widowed by 18 after a short marriage to a bootlegger. She left her kids with grandma, moved to New York City and never looked back. She cut an impressive figure on the streets, hanging with Manhattan’s demimonde, sexual outlaws and drug dealers. That’s how she entered the jazz scene. By the time she met Lee Morgan, he was a junkie who had pawned his trumpet for some heroin and was virtually homeless. She washed him, got him into a Bronx clinic and set him back up in the jazz scene. She served as his mother, lover, manager and protector. But when he began to fool around with a young woman from New Jersey, things started to go wrong…

I Called Him Morgan is an amazing movie about the two lovers’ lives. Helen gave only one interview in a bar on a cassette tape a month before she died, but in it she tells what really happened. Interviews with the friends and musicians he played with fill in the blanks, and it is illustrated with B&W photos from Blue Note (the club and record label where Morgan played and recorded), all set alight by Morgan’s cool trumpet sounds. Fascinating musical documentary.


Dir: Francois Ozon

A small town in Germany, right after WWI. Anna (Paula Beer) is a strong and pretty young woman all dressed in black. She is in mourning for her fiance Frantz Hoffmeister, who died in the trenches. She still lives with Frantz’s father, the good Doktor Hoffmeister, and Magda his mother. They treat her like one of the family. One day, Anna spies a young man with a pencil thin moustache laying white roses by Frantz’s grave. Who is this man and what does he want? His name is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) and he is a musician. It seems he knew Frantz before the war, in Paris, and he carries a letter he wrote. He is visiting the town to pay his respects and to say something to Frantz’s father. But the war wounds are still raw, and townsfolk can’t believe a frenchman would dare set foot there. Eventually, nervous Adrien spends time with Anna and her family forging a deep emotional friendship, but one based partly on lies. What isn’t he telling them?

After Adrien returns to France, Anna decides to track him down in Paris, and retrace the museums and music halls Frantz had loved. But Adrien is nowhere to be found. Like a detective, she tries to locate him far outside Paris, which leads her to a sumptuous villa in the country. And now Anna must reveal secrets of her own.

Frantz is a fantastic, novelistic melodrama spanning Germany and France, about secrets, lies, guilt and class. It’s a romance full of unrequited love, fuelled by letters and whispered confessions. I told very little of the story, to avoid spoilers, but believe me this is one great movie. It’s shot in stunning black and white with a hitchcockian musical score, beautiful costumes and great acting. Francois Ozon’s movies are often light family dramas or superficial sexual comedies, but this one is a sumptuous, epic story, perfectly made. I recommend this one.

Gifted, I Called him Morgan and Frantz all start 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.

Heimat Films. Movies reviewed: Schultze Gets the Blues, Window Horses

Posted in Animation, Canada, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Germany, Iran, Movies, Music, Poetry by CulturalMining.com on March 10, 2017

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

Heimat is the German word for home, homeland and fatherland… with hints of blood and soil. It’s also the name of a particular postwar film genre. Backed with strong American encouragement it helped Germans forget their economic problems and troublesome past, and look blithely forward toward a better tomorrow. Heimat films were made in southern Germany and popular in Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland, depicting traditional small towns filled with girls in blonde pigtails. Heimat films are having a comeback in contemporary Germany, perhaps in response to Conservative governments and feelings of turmoil and insecurity. They concentrate on a mixture of traditional, homogeneous, smalltown Germany, so-called authentic culture, and a longing for a simpler past. Toronto’s Goethe Films: Heimat Now series is running until March 14th.

This week I’m looking at movies about home. There’s a comedy about German man whose accordion leads him to zydeco; and an animated feature about a Canadian woman whose poems lead her to Shiraz.

Schultze Gets the Blues

Wri/Dir: Michael Schorr

Schultze (Horst Krause) is a miner in a small town Germany. This town is so small that the radio traffic report is just a long pause. The village is dominated by a railroad crossing, a motorcross track and an enormous slag pile, expelled from the mine where Schultze works with his two friends Jurgen (Harald Warmbrunn) and Manfred (Karl Fred Muller). But when the three men retire they find they have nothing to do. Chess games end in fights, and trips to the local pub means just the same old faces, over and over.

At least Schultze has his garden gnomes and his trusty accordion. Like his father before him, he’s been entertaining townsfolk with his polkas for two generations. They’re even planning on sending a cultural emissary to its twin city in Texas. Nothing ever changes, until one day, out of nowhere, he hears accordion music on his radio that isn’t quite right. It disturbs him. It’s not a polka, it’s faster, jumpier, and catchier. What is this Amerikanische music? It has entered Schultze’s brain and will not go away. Locals listen in horror and shout the N-word at him. So Schultze sets off for the swamps and bayous of America in search of Zydeco. And he finds the people in small town Texas a whole lot like the ones he left back home.

Schultze Gets the Blues is a simple, endearing comedy about a big-bellied man looking for meaning in music. I have to admit watching this movie felt, at first, like watching paint dry. I guess I’m a city boy used to a faster pace. But once I adjusted to the slower small-town rhythms, it was funnier, fascinating, almost profound. I ended up liking it.

Window Horses

Wri/Dir: Ann Marie Fleming

Rosie Ming (Sandra Oh) is a young woman with pigtails who lives in Vancouver but dreams of Paris. Her mom died, and her dad abandoned her when she was just a little girl so now she lives with her kind but overprotective grandparents.

She works in a fast food joint, and loves poetry, berets and the romance of far-off France. She writes down the words that come to her as she strums at her guitar, and publishes a collection of these poems at a vanity press. Imagine her surprise when she’s invited to a poetry festival far away. Not in Paris, France, but in Shiraz, Iran. With her grandparents consent she arrives there, a Chinese-looking Canadian dressed in a black chador, the most conservative type of Iranian dress, a combination black hijab and full-length gown.

At the poetry festival, she seems out of place. Iran is a land of poetry and Shiraz its poetic capital. At poetry slams she tries to understand what she hears, but the poems in Farsi, German and Chinese evade her. Gradually she meets people who had heard of her… through her father. Far from abandoning her, she discovers her dad was forced to leave her and kept away from her by outside forces. Not only that, but he was Iranian, loved poetry and once lived in Shiraz. His story, and its connection to Rosie May is gradually revealed through the music, the poetry and the people who seek her out. But will she ever discover the truth about her Iranian father?

Window Horses is a visually and musically beautiful movie, portraying a naïve Canadian woman exposed to a colourful and culturally rich country. This is an animated film with simple drawings. Rosie is a stick figure with two lines for eyes, who almost disappears in her Chador. Others have faces decorated with oblong jowls and curlicue eyes. Animation shifts from traditional two dimensional figures to sepia -coloured 3-D frescoes. Voices are provided by Sandra Oh as Rosie, with Don McKellar, Ellen Page and Shohreh Aghdashloo in other roles.

I like this movie.

Window Horses starts today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Schultze Gets the Blues is playing at the Heimat Now series at the Goethe Institute in Toronto.

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

Destinies and Destinations. Films Reviewed: Toni Erdmann, Gold, The Red Turtle PLUS Isaac Julien

Posted in Animation, Belgium, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Drama, Family, Finance, Germany, Movies by CulturalMining.com on January 27, 2017

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

British filmmaker and artist Isaac Julien has two film installations on three screens each at the ROM, that follow parallel impressionistic journeys. One with migrants ijs105_western-union-series-no5_ghosts_they-build-their-lives_2007travelling from North Africa to southern Europe, the other following Matthew A Henson the African American explorer heading to the North Pole with Robert Peary.

So this week I’m looking at movies about destinies and destinations. There’s a prospector looking for Gold in Indonesia, a man stranded on a deserted island, and a German trickster in Romania.

c6006c5e-b388-4432-a637-9499a701e432Toni Erdmann

Dir: Maren Ade

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is an elderly man who lives in Germany with his little dog. He still teaches but his main hobby is practical jokes, especially elaborate routines with him at the centre. He always carries a set of crooked teeth to slip over his own for the shocking effect.

Winfried has an adult daughter named Ines (Sandra Hüller). She’s in her thirties who dresses conservatively, with plain blonde hair. She works for a dda3ca6c-37d5-4322-8070-aeb2af566f08multinational corporation in Bucharest Romania. Ines is an uptight, by-the-book careerist, rising quickly to the top levels of her company. She’s also brimming with angst, loneliness and depression.

Who shows up at her corporate 01533d11-1237-4a24-9475-0bdfe53eed02office? It’s Winfried her dad, on a surprise visit. She loves him, but finds him awkward and uncomfortable to deal with, so she’s relieved when he leaves. Only he doesn’t. He’s still in Bucharest, but in character, complete with fake teeth, Richard Branson wig and dark suit. He says his name is Toni Erdmann, and, he shows up at every party, meeting and get together. And to Ines’s dismay, he’s very popular at her workplace. She has to play along with his joke or risk her job and career.646540f8-a2a1-47f6-a981-99169e9c5cfa

But the story gets really interesting when Ines starts to pick up on her dad’s playful nature and learns to relax, laugh and let herself go.

This is a long movie – almost three hours – and it’s a comedy but it’s never boring. It reveals the story at its own pace, and — no spoilers! — but it does include a nudist party, impromptu karaoke, and an enormous mythical yeti. Great movie!


Dir: Stephen Gaghan

It’s the 1980s. Kenny Wells (Matt McConaughey) is a fourth generation prospector who lives in Reno, Nevada. His grandpa headed west to get rich on silver and gold. Prospectors say they can smell gold a mile away. But Wells seems to have lost that magic touch. Now he works in a cramped office, and he takes meetings at a rundown bar. Each of his investment schemes promise riches but GOLDend up in ruin. And his charm is in the eyes of the beholder. He’s balding with a pot belly, greasy hair and a snuggle tooth. His girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) still believes in him, but investors don’t.

Until he hears about a man from South America with a new theory. GOLDMichael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) is a dashing prospector with an air of mystery about him. He says there’s a ring of fire in Southeast Asia loaded with precious metals from ancient meteors. Wells and Acosta venture into the jungles of Indonesia looking for treasure. And just when Wells is about to give up, just when he is on deaths door with malaria… Acosta strikes gold. It’s GOLDthe motherload! Core samples say it’s the richest gold mine on the face of the earth. Now they need to face investors, Wall Street brokers, mining moguls and tinpot dictators to hold onto their claims and to make billions. Can Wells keep his indignation and ego under control? Will his relationship with Kay – and his bromance with Acosta — endure under pressure? And can they survive the dog eat dog world of high finance?

Though loosely based on a real story, Gold is strictly fiction. The movie doesn’t deal with things like environmental degradation or horrible work conditions that can accompany mining. And it’s a bit long. But it’s also a fun and fascinating story of the ups and downs of prospecting.

13340241_233264913726993_7447487803385711803_oThe Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)

Dir: Michael Dudok de Wit

A man is awakened on a beach by a crab skittering past. What happened? Where is he? He’s stranded on an island somewhere, a rock with sparkling white sand and pristine blue water. Exploring the island, he finds a lush bamboo forest on one side, a clear freshwater pond in the middle, and at the far end a high rocky precipice. Huge fruits hang from trees, 13415485_234005173652967_7596049063021961426_oready to pick and the beaches teem with fish, and clams. No one around to keep him company, just a wailing seal, fluttering birds and those annoying little crabs that follow him everywhere. Clearly he must escape.

14362673_288284511558366_2379912415219863982_oHe fashions a raft out of bamboo poles tied together with vines and sets off into the waves. Before long something enormous smashes raft to pieces from below. A shark? A whale? He can’t tell, but each attempt to escape the island ends in the same way… disaster. He unnamedfinally discovers the source: a huge red turtle. Eventually the turtle goes aground and walks on the beach, and in a fit of anger, the man flips it on its back and beats it with a stick. Feeling guilty, he tries, without success, to nurse it back to health. But the shell cracks open revealing a beautiful woman inside with long, red hair.

13316884_231361350584016_4940529898495944572_oThe red turtle is a beautiful animated film about a man and his family who form a symbiotic relationship with the sea. it’s produced by Japan’s famous Ghibli Studios – which may explain the Urashima Taro references, a classic story about a man and a turtle. But the look of the movie is purely northern European – the characters have dots for eyes, just like Tintin. This is a beautiful and poignant animated movie. I really liked this one.

Toni Erdmann has been nominated for best foreign film, and The Red Turtle for best animated film Oscar. Along with Gold, they all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Isaac Julien’s Other Destinies is now screening at the Royal Ontario Museum. Go to rom.on.ca for details.

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

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.


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

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