Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu about The Whistlers

Posted in Corruption, Crime, Romania, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on March 13, 2020

Photos by Jeff Harris

Cristo is a corrupt police detective who lives with his mother in Bucharest. But everything starts to change when a beautiful woman asks for his help freeing her friend from jail. At stake? 30 million euros in cash…  hidden in a mattress. At risk? Arrest, torture or gruesome, painful death. And in order to succeed, first he must learn a secret whistling language used only in the Canary Islands. But which of the whistlers will come out alive?

The Whistlers is a new dark and twisted crime thriller that uncovers multiple layers of crime and corruption in Romania and across Europe. It’s directed by Romanian New Wave filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu, known for award-winning films like Police: Adjective.

I spoke with Corneliu at TIFF19.

The film had its debut at TIFF, opened theatrically in March, and will be available VOD or for purchase in June.

Far from home. Movies reviewed: Greed, Wendy, Blame Game

Posted in comedy, Corruption, Espionage, Germany, Greece, Kids, Satire, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on March 6, 2020

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

It’s International Women’s Day, and you can see films directed by Women all weekend long at FEFF, the Female Eye Film Festival at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

This week I’m looking at three new movies – one from England, one from Germany, one from the United States — about people who willingly travel far from home. There’s a German agent meddling in Central Asia, little kids running rampant on a volcanic paradise, and a filthy-rich tycoon planning a birthday party in a coliseum he’s building on a Greek island.

Greed

Dir: Michael Winterbottom

Sir Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan) is a vulture capitalist and a tycoon in the rag trade. His M.O. is to take over successful clothing stores, selling all its real estate, moving factories to Sri Lanka and hiding all the profits in a European tax haven. McCready is filthy rich — Fleet Street calls him McGreedy – catering to the endless demand for ready-made, disposable fashion. He’s also insufferable. His pearly whites look factory- made and his tan is as fake as Donald Trump’s.

For his 60th birthday he plans a mammoth celebration on a Greek island, complete with a newly-built colliseum, gladiators, and a lion. He also wants to rescue his reputation and his brand from scandal. But things aren’t going the way they’re supposed to. Members of his family and his ex-wife keep getting into trouble. There’s a reality show being shot there, Syrian refugees living on the public beach “spoil his view”, and his various servants and employees find him impossible to work with. But when he foces his employees to dress as Roman slaves, the tide turns.

Can money buy happiness? Or are the peasants revolting?

Greed is a political satire about the immense wealth and greed of the richest few, and the suffering of everyone else. It’s a complex story chronicled by his  official biographer’s eyes (David Mitchell). It jumps back and forth from his days at an elite boarding school, his rise to fame, and the people he trampled on on the way to the top. It also includes scenes in his Sri Lankan factory, with allusions to the the horrors of similar places in Bangladesh. I will see anything directed by Winterbottam and anything starring Steve Coogan, so I had great expectations. Which also meant  I automatically enjoyed this movie. But I was mildly disappointed that it wasn’t as funny nor as outrageous as I’d hoped. They could have done so much more — it felt almost like Coogan and Winterbottom were holding back.

Greed is a fun movie but not a great one.

Wendy

Dir: Benh Zeitlin

Wendy (Devin France) lives above a whistle-stop diner in Louisiana, with her mom and her twin brothers . It’s always Egg O’Clock at the Darling’s restaurant. Wendy draws pictures while Dougo and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin) do elaborate dances and poses by the jukebox. Kids have hope while the Olds are all miserable. Who would want to grow up? So the three of them jump aboard a freight train for a chugga-chugga, choo-choo, down by the bayous.

Their tour guide is a mischevious boy named Peter Pan (Yeshua Mack), who takes them to a secret island inhabited only by kids known as the Lost Boys. There’s a volcano, steep cliffs, spouting geysers, and hidden caves — a great place for exploring, playing, and having a kickass good time. It’s a place where you never have to grow up. They are ruled by an ancient deity, deep in the ocean, called Mother. As long as they believe in her nothing bad can happen. But when Doug disappears his twin loses faith… and as soon as you lose faith, you start to age, and are forced join the old codgers on the other side of the island. Things in Never Neverland might not be the paradise she expected. Does Wendy have faith in the ocean mother?  Can she find her twin brothers and take them home? Or is she stranded forever on this island?

Wendy is a new spin on the classic Peter Pan story told through Wendy’s eyes, and transferred from Victorian London to the Gulf Coast with a multiracial cast. It uses experimental, handheld camera work and first-time actors to give the film spontaneity and authenticity. Problem is the movie isn’t fun. The characters don’t seem that interested in where they are, and the storytelling is too slow. But the biggest problem is the musical score: it’s orchestral and lush and traditional but totally at odds with the film’s experimental look.

It just doesn’t work.

Blame Game (Das Ende der Wahrheit)

Wri/Dir: Philipp Leinemann

Martin Behrins (Ronald Zehrfeld) is a spy. He poses as a translator for the German refugee board, and uses his position to recruit assets from the middle east and central asia by blackmailing them into compliance. In the fight against terrorism’ he arranges for the assassination of an anti-western figure. Martin is divorced — his ex wife and son couldn’t handle the constant  threat of death and danger.  So he spends his off hours at a beautiful lakeside cottage with his girlfriend Aurice (Antje Traue). She’s an investigative journalist focussing on government corruption. They’re at odds but agree to keep their work separate from their home lives. But when she uncovers a story about the assassination that Martin planned, things go south. The “simple” drone killing turns out be not simple at all. And then a terror attack kills someone Martin knows very well.

A new bureaucrat named Lemke (Alexander Fehling) – a pencil pusher from another department – is brought in to take over. He knows nothing about the world of espionage, but he lords his authority over Martin. Martin, meanwhile is trying to figure out what’s really going on. Is there a private corporation involved? Was this all a set up with him as the patsy? Who is corrupt and who can be trusted?

Blame Game is a fascinating look at international espionage, the “war on Terror”, the international politics, shady arms deals and the CIA. It has a juicy conspiracy at its core, and enough twists and turns to the plot to keep you guessing. While I found the camerawork and editing pedestrian, the acting and the gripping suspenseful story more than made up for it. If you’re into German film you’ll recognize Zehrfeld from Phoenix and Babylon Berlin, with Traue and Fehling also everywhere. Blame Game is a great political thriller reminiscent of Three Days of the Condor, Homeland, or 24. And the upcoming screening will be its North American debut. I liked this spy thriller a lot.

Wendy and Greed both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Blame Game is playing on March 17 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of a Goethe Film series called The End of Truth.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Jamhil X.T. Qubeka about Knuckle City

Posted in Academy Awards, Africa, Boxing, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Family, South Africa, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 10, 2020

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

It’s Mdantsane, Cape Province, in Apartheid South Africa. A boxing champ tells his young sons Duke and Dudu that there are three ways out of their township: as a boxer, as a mobster, or as a dead man. Flash forward to the present day; their father is dead, and the boys have taken divergent paths. Duke is a flamboyant career criminal just out of prison and Dudu – AKA the Night Rider – is a professional boxer in the twilight of his career. But there’s still a chance at becoming a champion. Can they turn things around? Or will they just be the latest casualties at Knuckle City?

Knuckle City is the name of an exciting new boxing / crime drama out of South Africa. This fast-moving, visceral movie dives deep into the nexus between those two worlds as personified by the brothers, their families and friends. Knuckle City is directed by Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, who has won countless awards across Africa, Europe, and North America. The film had its international premier at TIFF and was South Africa’s nominee for Best International Feature Film Oscar.

I spoke to Jahmil in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM during #TIFF19.

Knuckle City is opening soon.

Not Marvel Movies. Films reviewed: The Irishman, Last Christmas, Midway

Posted in 1940s, 1960s, 1970s, Christmas, Corruption, Crime, Cuba, Hawaii, Romantic Comedy, UK, Unions, War, Woody Harrelson, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 8, 2019

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

Martin Scorsese recently wrote that tentpole movies, like ones that Marvel makes, are hogging a disproportionate share of Hollywood bucks. This squeezes traditional, medium-budget, one-off films out of the picture. Luckilly, they’re not all gone.  This week, I’m looking at three films – a crime drama, a war movie and a rom-com – without superheroes.

The Irishman

Dir: Martin Scorsese

It’s the 1950s.

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a truck driver who delivers beef hindquarters. When his truck breaks down on the highway, a strange man offers advice on how to fix it. He’s Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci) a mob boss in Pennsylvania. When Sheeran is caught stealing beef, Russell supplies a lawyer, thus starting a longtime relationship between the trucker and the Mafia. And Teamsters, the truckers union, stands with them all the way. Soon Frank is doing a different kind of work for Russell: he paints houses. Which really means he’s a hitman for the mob. Despite his Irish background, he speaks Italian: he served in the Army in Anzio in WWII. Soon they’re thick as thieves, and Frank enjoys the benefits, but Russell is always the boss.

Eventually he’s sent to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of Teamsters as a bodyguard, as well as the middleman between Hoffa and the mob. Hoffa is a brash firebrand, an old-school union organizer with legions of loyal members. He’s also an extremely powerful leader, and he controls the union’s pension. This means he can finance Las Vegas casinos with cash, something banks refuse to do. And he gives money to the Nixon campaign, a rare instance of a labour union officially supporting a Republican. But friction grows between Hoffa and the mafia until the day Hoffa mysteriously disappears without a trace, his body never found. What happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

The Irishman is narrated by Frank in an old age home, which gives it the feel of an old man’s movie. It’s a Forest Gump for gangsters, with Frank somehow tied to all the major events of the 60s and 70s: The Kennedies, Bay of Pigs, Jimmy Hoffa disappearance, to name just a few. This film has some problems: the CGI de-aged faces look wooden; female characters have virtually no lines – they just scowl and disapprove; and it’s missing the sharp edges and sexual zing of Scorsese’s early movies.

That said, I was never bored; I was glued to the screen the whole time. Pacino is fantastic as Jimmie Hoffa, and Scorsese’s movies are always superior.

The quality of filmmaking is superb and The Irishman tells a great story.

Last Christmas

Dir: Paul Feig

Kate (Emilia Clarke) is an quirky, aspiring young singer in London. By day she’s a cute little green elf, working in a kitschy, Christmas-themed gift shop run by a prickly boss named Santa (Michelle Yeoh). By night, she’s a barfly, sleeping with any guy she fancies, a different one each night. Ever since her operation, she’s been depressed. She’s embarrassed by her Yugoslavian family, and her singing career is going nowhere fast. She’s on a downward spiral of self-pity and self desctruction… until she meets Tom (Henry Golding).

Tom is everything Kate is not. He’s saintly, altruistic and generous. While Kate looks down and sees garbage tips, Tom looks up and sees tropical birds and quaint old signs. He takes her on a walk to show her the hidden side of London – a secret garden where people go to be alone; a soup kitchen for the homeless (he’s a volunteer), a deserted skating rink. Is it love? But he disappears for days at a time. What secret is he hiding? Is this true love? And can their relationship keep them together?

Last Christmas is a cute Romcom about a depressed woman coming out of her shell and her happy-go-lucky, would-be boyfriend. Emma Thompson plays Kate’s weepy Croatian mom and she also co-wrote the script. It’s cute and heartwarming… but not that funny.

Michelle Yeoh is terrific as a middle-aged woman still on the hunt, and Clarke and Golding make an appealing romantic couple. There is a totally surprising twist which brought tears to my eyes – No Spoiler – which left me with a bit more than I expected.

Midway

Dir: Roland Emmerich

It’s 1941, with war raging across Europe, China and the Pacific. But the US is cautiously viewing it from the sidelines. Dick Best (Ed Screin) is a gum chewing pilot based in Pearl Harbour. He’s a daredevil dive bomber, showing off his new techniques. Also on board the aircraft carrier is his rival, a by-the-books officer named McClusky (Luke Evans). He says Dick is a cowboy who should stop showing off. But while their aircraft carrier is out at sea, all the ships in Pearl Harbour are wiped out in a surprise attack by the Japanese, pulling the US into WWII.

Only Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) – the intel expert on Japan – predicted it. And he thinks a crucial battle up ahead: the Battle of Midway, an island in the South Pacific. Midway is a point crucial for control of the Pacific: if Layton is right, whoever wins the battle will win the war; it’s just a matter of time.

Midway is a dramatization of the years leading up to the naval battle of Midway, and the intense fight that follow: in submarines, on aircraft carriers and in planes overhead. It’s filtered through the eyes of lantern-jawed military figures like Jimmy Doolittle ( Aaron Eckhardt), Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) Vice Adm Bull Halsey (Dennis Quaid), and many semi-fictional sailors and pilots in various acts of bravery… like Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas, of the Jonas brothers!). The story also switches back and forth to the Japanese side, with Admirals Nagumo, Yamaguchi and Yamamoto plotting to defeat the Americans.

Midway is exactly the sort of movie I can’t stand – yet another tired war pic about a long-forgotten battle, filled with smarmy patriotism. But I went to the press screening, and guess what? I actually really liked Midway! Fantastic special effects, complex battles shown in an easy-to-follow way, good acting, and great characters. Japanese are portrayed respectfully, not as hokey villains, but without covering up their war crimes in Eastern China. Like The Irishman, women are there mainly to worry about their husbands. It’s two hours, twenty minutes long, but the thrills keep you staring, rapt, till it’s over. I’m sure a lot of critics are going to compare it (unfavourably) with Dunkirk, but to me Midway is more thrilling, less ponderous.

Midway and Last Christmas both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. And The Irishman is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, also beginning today.

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

Solving problems. Films reviewed: Sometimes Always Never, The Laundromat, Chiko

Posted in Berlin, comedy, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Family, Games, Scandal, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 8, 2019

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

Toronto’s Fall Festival Season is in full swing this October. Look out for Toronto After Dark – scary and fantastic films; Rendezvous with Madness – films on addiction and mental health; Planet in Focus focussing on environmental films for its 20th anniversary; ImagineNative with movies by and about indigenous peoples around the world… and many more.

But this week I’m looking at three movies, from Germany, the U.K. and the US. There’s a gangster who turns to drugs to find success, a grandpa who turns to word games to find his missing son, and an older woman who turns to amateur sluething to find the bad guys.

Sometimes Always Never

Dir: Carl Hunter

Alan (Bill Nighy) is a dapper businessman in small town England. He likes Marmite, tea and scrabble. He’s meeting his estranged, adult son Peter (Sam Riley) to view a body at a remote village morgue. Alan’s other son ran away decades ago, disappearing without a trace. Could this be him? When the body turns out be the son of another couple, Margaret and Arthur (Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerney), Alan follows Peter home. It’s an excuse to finally meet his daughter-in-law Sue (Alice Lowe) and grandson Jack (Louis Healy). Won’t you stay for dinner? The evening turns into an extended visit as Alan insinuates himself into their homelife, sharing a bunk bed in Jack’s room. The teenager is a shy introvert who spends all his time gaming online. To change his life, his grandfather gets him a haircut and a custom-made suit. He’s a tailor, you see. The movie’s title refers to which buttons to button on a three-button suit. Top to bottom: sometimes, always, never.

Alan’s obsession with Scrabble has a lot to do with his missing son, who ran away in the middle of a game. It’s what separates him from his son – but will it bring them back together? – and influences his relations with Margaret and Arthur, the couple he met at the bed & breakfast. But can a board game bring his missing son home again?

Sometimes Always Never is a clever, funny and touching look at family life in small-town, northern England. Lots of twists in the plot, and enough wordplay to make the whole script feel like an ongoing Scrabble game. It does walk the fine line between charming and twee. The movie, though set in the present day, is drenched in sets, props, costumes, and style from an earlier era. But Bill Nighy, Alice Lowe and the rest are so good you can excuse a bit of excess quirky cuteness.

I like this movie.

The Laundromat

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Mossack and Fonseca (Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas) are a pair of rich lawyers who operate out of Panama. They like flashy tuxedos, palm trees and vodka martinis. Why are they so rich? Their firm holds the secrets of dictators, billionaires, drug dealers, corporations, celebrities and politicians the world over. Through the use of off-shore banking, shell corporations and absolute secrecy, they launder untold billions.

Enter Ellen (Meryl Streep), an everywoman who loses her husband in a freak accident on their wedding anniversary. Turns out the accident insurance on the boat tour they took (it sank) was bogus. Later the condo she buys in Las Vegas with her husband’s life insurance is snatched away by some Russian oligarchs. So she begins to investigate. All these companies – real estate, insurance, banking – seem to operate out of offices in the Caribbean. But when she goes to confront the CEO of the company giving her the runaround, she discovers it’s just a series of post office boxes. Can she follow their trail to Panama? And will the villains ever pay?

The Laundromat is a series of fables to explain the money laundering and tax evasion brought to light by the Panama Papers, a mammoth data haul leaked to the press by an anonymous whistleblower. Mossack and Fonseca themselves tell the story in episodic form, regularly turning toward the camera to look right at you. At the beginning of the movie I was giggling at its audacity and unexpected form – I couldn’t wait to see Soderbergh’s next trick. The trouble is, that were no other gimmicks. He flogs the same dead horse – this is just a movie, they’re all actors, that’s a green screen behind them – for the whole 90 minutes! Just when you start caring a bit, Soderbergh makes sure to remind you it’s not real, it’s just a game. I admit there’s one surprising twist near the end.… but it’s immediately followed by a slice of earnest Americana so cringe-worthy it would make a nine-year-old squirm in embarrassment.

The Laudromat just doesn’t work.

Chiko

Wri/Dir: Özgür Yildirim

Chiko (Denis Moschitto) is a young Berliner trying to get ahead. His parents came to Germany from Turkey as Gastarbeiters in the 60s, and he still hangs with other Turkish Germans. Especially his two best friend, Tibet (Volkan Özcan) and Curly. Together they beat up and rob a local cannabis dealer. But instead of running away, Chiko asks to meet his boss.

Brownie (Moritz Bleibtreu — he’s in Bye Bye Germany, The Fifth Estate, My Best Enemy) is a crime boss living a comfortable middle-class life. He ends up hiring the scrappy Chiko on a trial run, moving ten keys of cannabis. Chiko exalts in his new wealth and woos the Turkish-German prostitite Meryam (Reyhan Sahin) in the apartment next door. Is it true love or just a financial transaction?

Meanwhile, Tibet, trying to save money for his mom’s kidney operation, short-changes customers. Brownie’s thugs arrive to punish him… by hammering a nail through his foot!  This leads to a series of escalating events. Chiko graduates to coke dealing, and buys a white Mercedes with gold hubcaps to match his new image. As Chiko rises to the top like Scarface, Tibet’s falls into a downward spiral, his seething anger getting worse and worse. Finally Chiko has to choose: kingpin Brownie or his former best friend Tibet? Which commands his loyalty – friendship or business?

Chiko is a cool and violent crime drama set in urban Germany. It’s a melodrama in the best sense. Moschitto is terrific as Chiko: the criminal, the lover, the anti-hero. I liked this film and found it very moving, both the acting and the realistic, almost documentary-like peek inside the mosques, corner-stores and restaurants of Berlin. Of course it also has what you expect from a good crime drama: chase scenes, shootouts, and fights. And it’s playing as part of the Goethe Film’s Stronger than Blood, a series of crime dramas.

Sometimes Always Never opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Laundromat starts today, with Chiko playing one night only, October 8th, also at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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 Jennifer Deschamps about her documentary Inside Lehman Brothers

Posted in Corruption, Crime, documentary, Economics, France, Suspicion, US, Wall Street, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 23, 2019

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

It’s 2008, and Lehman Brothers, one of the world’s biggest investment banks, is riding high on the hog. With assets in the trillions, it has pioneered innovative financial products like marketing subprime loans to people who can’t otherwise afford a mortgage. And its top execs are pocketing huge amounts of cash… that is, until it all came tumbling down, plunging the world into an economic crisis. Everyone seemed surprised, except some insiders at Lehman Brothers… who saw it coming a mile away.

Inside Lehmann Brothers is a new documentary about the criminal activities of the financial sector that helped being about the Wall Street crash of 2008. It’s told through the eyes of the insiders, accountants, salespeople, auditors and underwriters whose warnings were ignored by both the company and by government regulators. It’s co-written and directed by noted Paris-based filmmaker and journalist Jennifer Deschamps, who has created films on topics ranging from Scientology to the Sub-Prime economic crisis.

I spoke to Jennifer Deschamps in the south of France, via telephone at CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Inside Lehman Brothers plays on Sunday, Aug 25th on Documentary Channel.

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

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

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

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies

Dir: Larry Weinstein

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

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

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

The Art of Self Defense

Wri/Dir: Riley Stearns

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

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

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

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

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

Push

Dir: Fredrik Gertten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I recommend this doc.

Propaganda: The Art of Lies, Push, and The Art of Self Defense all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Hot Docs 2019! Films reviewed: Bellingcat, The Corporate Coup D’Etat, American Factory, One Child Family

Posted in 1980s, China, Clash of Cultures, Corruption, documentary, Economics, Journalism, Ohio, Politics, Unions by CulturalMining.com on April 26, 2019

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

Toronto’s Hot Docs International Documentary Festival is on now. These films tell us what will be news in a year or two, and goes behind the scenes of stories we only think we know about. Hot Docs is showing hundreds of documentaries from around the world, way more than I could ever talk about, but let me briefly tell you about a few I’ve seen that might interest you.

These capsule reviews are shorter than usual, but hopefully long enough for some of it to sink in. This week I’m exposing you to amateur journalists influencing world politics, multinational corporations taking over governments, foreign-owned factories replacing local ones, and government control reaching into women’s bodies.

Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World

Dir: Hans Pool

With the explosion of Photoshop, propaganda and fake news, how can we find the real truth? A new news source called Bellingcat offers an alternative. It is similar to Wikileaks but functions as an original news source, rather than a publisher of leaked documents. Founded by Eliot Higgins, a UK “vigilante journalist”, Bellingcat uses Open Source investigations to determine whether what we see on the news and online is what is really happening.

Composed of a network of digital news geeks spread across Europe (all men), Bellingcat’s investigations range from responsibility for the Malaysia Airline plane shot down over the Russia/Ukraine border, to a look into bombings in Syria, and identifying neo-nazi faces at the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville. Using an ingenious combination of satellite footage, snapchat images, and uncensored, online discussion groups of soldiers wives, they find convincing evidence that conventional journalists – and government propaganda – ignore. I would have loved to have seen more about Bellingcat’s investgations into malfeasance within its own country – not just about Russians – but their work is fascinating, valuable and so clever.

You can find Bellingcat’s most recent investigations here)

Moving on now from journalism to governments themselves…

The Corporate Coup D’Etat

Dir: Fred Peabody

Do we still live in democracies, imperfect though they may be? Or has there been a corporate coup d’etat, a virtual takeover of our government? Well this filmmaker says, at least in the United States, the answer is a resounding yes. Widespread incarceration, congressmen and senators with corporate ties, and the phenomenal number of paid lobbyists working in Washington. New laws with extreme libertarian views are often written in total not by politicians but by ALEC a private body associated with the Koch Brothers.

Talking heads include Chris Hedges, Cornel West, Maude Barlow, and John Ralston Saul — who coined the term corporate coup d’etat.

But it also takes us into the heart of the problems by talking with the people of Camden, NJ., a city allowed to decay, and Youngstown Ohio, a former engine of the steel industry, where some people switched their votes from Obama to Trump… not because they love him, but because everyone else had failed to rescue the steel industry, so why not try someone from “outside” the system? This is a great doc, filled both with smart pundits and unknown but unforgettable ordinary people who tell it like it is. Corporate Coup d’état is another politically astute doc from Fred Peabody (whom I interviewed about All Governments Lie in 2016).

Youngstown Ohio may look bleak but how are things in Dayton? The next doc looks at both sides of an…

American Factory

Dir: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert

Dayton Ohio is the longtime home of Moraine, a major General Motors plant. But when it moved south, the burgeoning middle class started to collapse.

Enter Fuyao Auto Glass, a China-based multinational that manufactures windshields for a large percentage of the world’s cars. Formerly struggling workers with decades of factory experience are offered a new chance. The only problem is GM payed $29 an hour, Fuyao pays $12. Workers are flown in from China to “train” already skilled labourers in the company’s philosophy. Can formerly unionized factory workers adjust to an autocratic, and some say unsafe, shop? Or will they succeed in unionizing the plant? American Factory is great look at changes in a Midwest factory town. It talks to the people on the shop floor and in their homes. It also follows some American managers visiting the mother plant in China. And it speaks directly both to the American and Chinese workers and management (including the odd, billionaire owner) and the cultural roadblocks they meet on the way. Another great doc from Bognar and Reichert!

And finally, a highly personal doc set in China that exposes some dark secrets…

One Child Nation

Dir: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang

Nanfu Wang is a young American filmmaker, originally from Jiangxi, a desperately poor, landlocked province in southeast China. She was born in the 1980s right when the One Child Family policy comes into force. (It lasts officially until 2013.) It says city people can only have one child, but peasants can have a second child if their first one is a girl. Why? It’s simple economics: peasant families depend on their son to stay in the family home and provide for the parents in their old age. Girls move away once they marry.

But the film shows a dark side of this policy. Wang returns to her home village and finds evidence of parents abandoning baby girls to die, foetuses scattered in garbage dumps, and a trafficking ring that sold babies to orphanages to be adopted abroad. There are even cases where village chiefs dictated whether pregnant women must abort their foetuses. I don’t know how much of the film applies to a huge country with 1.4 billion people, but what the filmmaker uncovers in her own area really makes one wonder. One Child Nation is a heartfelt but disturbing documentary.

You can catch all of these films — One Child NationAmerican Factory, The Corporate Coup D’Etat, Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World — at Hotdocs over the next ten days. And remember, students and seniors can get in free to daytime screenings!

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

Noisy or quiet? Films reviewed: Mission Impossible: Fallout, Angels Wear White PLUS #TIFF18

Posted in Action, China, CIA, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Espionage, Migrants, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2018

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

Summer is when the blockbusters come out but there are also great arthouse pics to watch, too. So this week I’m giving you a choice. A Hollywood action thriller that takes you to world capitals, and a moving Chinese drama set in a quiet seaside resort.

But first, here’s  some news about what’s coming this fall to theInternational film festival.

TIFF

TIFF held its annual press conference this week, about the first wave of festival choices coming up. If you’re going here’s how to navigate through the hundreds of movies playing. A few that look terrific, are Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, about a gang of child thieves that operate like Fagins fake family. This year a full third of its movies will be directed by women. French director Claire Denis is always a good bet. she has one called Highlife… Did you see Moonlight two years ago? Barry Jenkins is premiering If Beale Could Talk. based on James Baldwin’s novel. And look out for Canadian films by Donald McKeller, Kim Nguyen, and Patricia Rozema, among many, many others they’ll be announcing soon.

And a warning: if you want to avoid potentially bad movies stay away from remakes, movies about movies, and movies directed by movie stars.

Mission Impossible: Fallout

Wri/Dir: Christopher MacQuarrie

It’s present day Europe, and the Mission Impossible team is together again. There’s the indestructible Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), he faces any crisis by saying “we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.” yHe’s supported by the always affable Luther (Ving Rhames) and the nervous Benji (Simon Pegg). And Ethan’s onetime lover Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), late of the MI6, will pop up every so often when they least expect it. Their mission: to recover three high grade plutonium balls before terrorists use them to destroy large parts of the world.

The bombs are in the hands of The Apostles, devotees of cult leader Solomon Lane. And the IMF – Impossible Mission Force – is further hampered by their own government: The CIA doesn’t trust them. Ethan has to work beside a CIA agent named Walker (Henry Cavill) who looks more like Sgt Preston of the Yukon than a spy. But the team has a bag of tricks of their at their disposal: digital trackers, rubber masks, and the die hard resilience of the members themselves. Can they trick the bad guys out of their info, smoke out the traitors in their midst… and save the world?

Mission impossible:Fallout has its good points and its bad points. It has beautiful shots of tourists sites in Paris and London… but no actual local people – just criminals, cops and more spies. Parisians and Londoners are just scenery. (And in scenes supposedly set in Kashmir there wasn’t a single Kashmiri.) There are fast -moving fist fights, shootouts and relentless chase scenes… but you never know why they’re doing what they’re doing. The chases are there just for the spectacle.

The script is bad, the acting is mediocre, but the stunts and special effects are amazing. This is an action movie with a cliffhanger (literally) and a ticking bomb (also literally). I love the helicopter fights, the mountain-side fights, and the rooftop chases. I just wish there was something there there. Mission Impossible: Fallout never leaves you bored, just feeling empty inside.

Angels Wear White

Dir: Vivian Qu

Xiaomi (Wen Qi) is a teenaged girl in eastern China. She works as hotel maid at a seaside tourist spot. She spends her free time wandering the beach, paying daily visits to her mentor – an enormous statue of Marilyn Monroe in a white dress. She seeks comfort curled between the goddess’s towering legs. Her life is simple until she witnesses a crime at the hotel and saves a copy on her cell phone. The criminal? A high-ranked party member. The crime? He forces himself on two little girls he lured to the hotel.

She is horrified at what happened but when the police come by she clams up. She’s undocumented, a migrant from a poor area, so she has to keep a low profile, especially around cops. (But maybe she can sell the video for enough cash to buy an ID card?)

Meanehile the two victims Xiao Wen (Zhou Meijun) and her best friend go back to school as if nothing happened – “to save their reputations.” They are scolded by teachers for being late, bullied by other students, and finally Wen’s bitter divorced mom blames her own 12-year-old daughter for the attack. Why is your hair so long, why do you wear clothes like this? So she runs away, ending up at her dad place inside a splash park. His boss says he’ll fire him if he does anything to embarrass powerful official. The parents of the other girl are hoping for a big cash payoff for keeping quiet.

Only the state attorney, an honest lawyer named Hao (Shi Ke) wants justice. So she doggedly pursues the witness and the victims to build an airtight case. But can one woman — and some little girls – fight the power of a rich corrupt official and all his cronies? Or can only the powerless statue Marilyn Monroe come to their rescue?

Angels Wear White is an excellent film about a loathesome crime. She handles it with skill and compassion, showing the results through the eyes of three girls and women: the victim, the witness, and the lawyer. No exploitation here. It’s also about corruption and all its tentacles, the status of women – terrible – and the plight of the quarter of a billion migrant workers in China. Angels Wear White is a powerful, heart-wrenching story.

For more info on TIFF films go to tiff.net. Mission Impossible: Fallout and Angels Wear White 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.

Torn from the headlines! Docs reviewed: Active Measures, The Cleaners, The Blue Wall, Blowin’ Up at #HotDocs

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Conspiracy Theory, Corruption, documentary, Donald Trump, Politics, Racism, Sex Trade, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 27, 2018

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

Hot Docs is one of the worlds biggest international documentary film festivals, and this year is its 25th anniversary. Over 200 movies are playing this week– this year featuring docs made in Mexico, along with new movies and festival favourites from the past 25 years.

I love all movies but documentaries have a special appeal: their immediacy, with the newness of the nightly news or online investigative journalism, combined with the grandeur of the camerawork you see on the big screen. And their independence – they’re usually made not by studios or huge media conglomerates but by indie directors – allow it to go places where mainstream movies don’t dare to tread.

This week I’m looking at Hot Docs documentaries torn from the headlines. There’s malfeasance in Moscow, chicanery in Chicago, questioning in Queens, and manipulation in Manila.

Active Measures

Dir: Jack Bryan

Since the wave of Russian immigration to the US in the late 70s, organized crime and soviet spies have had a strong but hidden presence in US finance, real estate and politics. At the head of it all is Vladimir Putin, and the puppet kept under his control through blackmail is Donald Trump. …or so says a new documentary that traces connections dating back 40 years among the various power brokers. This includes money laundering, insider trading, computer hacking and cyber attacks. All of which culminated in Trumps election.

While the film provides lots of historical evidence, it’s told in a style reminiscent of Cold War propaganda, suggesting there’s a Russian hiding behind every potted palm. Parts of it – like banking and real estate schemes, and Russian interference in Estonia and Georgia — seem totally believable; while others — like blaming Russia for Cambridge Analytica — are wild jumps worthy of the worst Glenn Beck conspiracy theory. The talking heads used in the film are, with few exceptions, “experts” who once worked for the CIA or FBI, pundits from conservative think tanks, and centre-right politicians. It is also monolithic in its beliefs, not even entertaining any alternate arguments. You’ll find no dissenting voices here.

Active Measures gives you a lot to think about, but most of its conclusions are still unproven.

  • To read director Jack Bryan’s response to this review, see comments, below.

The Cleaners

Dir: Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck

After the recent revelations about Facebook, with fake news and targeted ads aimed at user profiles, many people are wondering who decides what goes up there and what gets takes down? And are these famous algorithtms doing their jobs? But what people don’t know is there are already people, actual humans, not machines who review what gets censored on the web, on search engines and on social networking sites. It takes us to an office highrise in Manila in the Philippines, where subcontractors review and decide on tens of thousands of images each day. For example, why did Facebook take down a nude painting of Donald Trump with a small penis that artist Illma Gore posted? It was taken down by this office.

The film exposes how these judges judge what they see, and the highly subjective reasoning behind their choices. It also shows how the constant viewing of degrading and disgusting images effects these men and women. The Cleaners is a real eye opener.

The Blue Wall

Dir: Richard Rowley

In 2014, Jason van Dyke shot and killed an unarmed seventeen year old, Laquan Mcdonald, in front of witnesses on a Chicago street. 16 times in the back of a man walking away from him. The killing was captured on numerous CCTV sources, in police cars and at a nearby fast food restaurant. You might assume the killer was immediately arrested and put on trial… but you’d be wrong. McDonald was African American, and van Dyke is a white police officer. This meant that shortly after the killing, police spokesmen swooped in to frame the narrative the way they wanted the media to cover it. It worked.

This film follows the cover up, the investigative journalist who tried to change the narrative, and the various parties involved in the case… a trail which reached the very top of Chicago’s city hall, and the municipal elections in progress when the story broke. This is a thrilling documentary that examines in depth the legendary “thin blue line” (here called a blue wall) of police brotherhood and the coverups and corruption it spawns. Great documentary.

Blowin’ Up

Dir: Stephahie Wang-Breal

Queens is a magnet for migrants from all around the world, many of whom turn to sex work to make a living. But when the police raid a massage parlour they arrest way more prostitutes than johns or pimps. And for immigrants, especially undocumented ones, an arrest means jail which means police record wand eventual deportation. But an unusual courtroom in Queens — run by women — is trying to disrupt that pattern. Judge Toko Serita, and lawyers on both the prosecution and defence side, along with translators, NGOs, social workers and the centre for court innovation are working together for once.

Their goal? To let sex workers leave the courtroom with their records swept clean if they stay out of trouble. Blowin’ Up (a slang term meaning leaving your pimp) is a verité, in-person look at how that courtroom works, as well as the private lives of a few of the subjects.

Blowin’ Up is fascinating and informative.

Active Measures, The Cleaners, The Blue Wall, and Blowin’ up are all playing at Hot Docs on from now until Sunday May 6, with daytime screenings free for students and seniors.

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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