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.

Shells. Films reviewed: Journey’s End, Ready Player One, The China Hustle

Posted in 1910s, China, Class, Corruption, Darkness, documentary, Drama, Games, Movies, Poverty, Science Fiction, Wall Street, War, WWI by CulturalMining.com on March 30, 2018

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

It’s a holiday weekend filled with eggs, whether hard boiled or made of chocolate with a prize inside. So this week I’m looking at three new movies about… shells. There are VR gamers looking for a hidden easter egg, Wall Streeters investing in shell corporations, and WWI soldiers dodging mortar shells.

Journey’s End

Dir: Saul Dibb

It’s March, 1918, in the WWI trenches of northern France. Underground, where the officers stay, it’s dark, dank and smelly. Up on the surface its deadly dangerous, with snipers aiming at your head. Four British divisions rotate their stays at the front at one week per month. It’s like a lottery – with a one in four chance of dying. And the soldiers in Company C are just trying to stay sane and alive. There’s the fatherly Osborne (Paul Bettany) who everyone calls “Uncle”, the indefatigable cook Mason (Toby Jones), and the shell-shocked Hibbert.

So no one can understand why the green, idealistic Lt Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) pulls strings to join this benighted group. Why? His upper classman Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is stationed there and he wants to see him again. But he doesn’t realize the level of death and despair that has taken hold there. And that his hero, Stanhope,

is now a mean and bitter alcoholic. The soldiers there are forced to make pointless raids in daylight so as not to interrupt the dinner schedule of far-off Generals. And things reach a boiling point when word gets out the Germans are about to attack on Thursday, right there. They’re essentially sentenced to die at the front. How do they all handle this?

Journey’s End – based on the classic play – is a tense retelling of an old war story, exactly 100 years later. It deals with the futility of war, the rigid British class system, and the male comeradery of life in the trenches. The acting is very good, and the camera wonderfully captures a world lit only by flickering lanterns. Even so, it was hard to sympathize with the stuff-upper-lip, tally-ho language of the script. The long theatrical conversations might might work on stage but not on the screen. The main emotions I got from this movie were depression, disgust claustrophobia and fatalism. It all felt too long, too slow, and too distant, especially once you know their fate… Just die already!

Ready Player One

Dir: Steven Spielberg

It’s 2045 in Columbus, Ohio and the world is a mess. People live marginal existences in ramshackle towers beside huge corporations. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is an 18-year-old orphan who spends most of his time online in a wildly- popular VR fantasy world called Oasis. Its creator left a trillion-dollar prize to whoever can solve the puzzles hidden within this digital world. First they must complete three levels of games and collect three keys  and claim the hidden easter egg. Wade he surprises the world by appearing on the boards as Player One, the top ranked player in the world. But he’s not the only gunter (egg hunter) trying to win. His closest virtual rivals are Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) a fiery red-head, Aech, a muscular giant and genius mechanic; plus Daito and Sho whose avatars look like a samurai and a ninja, respectively. Wade calls himself Parzival. Like the Wagner opera character, he’s searching for a holy grail. And he’s in love with the lovely Artemis. But as best-bud Aech keeps telling him: you only know her avatar – that’s not what she’s like in real life. And lurking in the shadows is the rich and evil Sorrento, (Ben Mendelssohn) the head of IOI, the corporate rival to Oasis’s company. He pretends to be a champion gamer, but he’s actually a fake who hires employees to play for him. But he’s out to win — and take over the world — at any cost. Which of the hunters will figure out the puzzle and find the easter egg? And can they defeat the villainous Sorrento?

Ready Player One is an incredibly fast-moving sci-if action movie. Oasis’s inventor, whose puzzles they’re all trying to solve, was obsessed with the 80s, so the movie feeds you a random hodgepodge of Back to the Future and Iron Giant, Gandam and Street Fighter, New Order and Van Halen, a non-stop shower of pop culture, to the point where you can’t tell self-referential jokes from cheap product placement. (Maybe they’re both?) But why would kids in the 2040s care about the 1980s? I can’t call this a good movie; it’s incredibly commercial, felt more like a theme park ride than a film, and parts were like watching a video game with someone else holding the controls. But you know what? I still enjoyed it. And it does have that classic Spielbergian look and sound.

China Hustle

Wri/Dir: Jed Rothstein

After the Subprime Mortgage crisis, American investors, pension funds, and ordinary moms and pops were looking to make some money. But where? Chinese people were making millions investing in their red-hot companies, but those stocks weren’t traded on Wall Street. Until, suddenly, they were. Hundreds of Chinese startups were being bought and sold and making big bucks. And companies like Roth Capital were holding lavish parties known as “investment conferences” to reel in buyers. They were backed by reputable auditors like Deloitte. It’s a win-win proposition – everyone makes money. Until, that is, some suspicious investors fly to Shanghai and looked around.

Turns out, many of these companies operate as “Reverse Mergers”. Existing Chinese corporations buy shell companies already registered in the US, take them over, change their name, and they’re open to make money.

But their books here don’t look like their books there. Idle factories in China are said to be making ten times what they’re actually earning. And no one’s checking up on them.

So a few maverick investors decide to short sell their stock (like in that movie The Big Short) counting on its value crashing soon. And they speed this along by publicising the corruption and questionable accounting of the parent companies back in China. The result, riches for a few, terrible losses for many.

The China Hustle is a fascinating documentary looking at the shady practices behind deregulation, auditing and investments, as told by three American short-sellers. I thought its view of China as a monolithic villain was superficial and rather one-sided; for example, it shows how these fraudulent investments affect ordinary Americans’ lives, but not how they affect ordinary Chinese.

But it does expose in detail a huge scandal I knew nothing about.

Ready Player One opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Journey’s End and The China Hustle are in theatres and Video On Demand. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Death Be Not Proud. Films reviewed: The Death of Stalin, Foxtrot

Posted in Army, comedy, Corruption, Death, Drama, Israel, Movies, UK, USSR by CulturalMining.com on March 16, 2018

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

Which is worse — dying? Or knowing someone’s dying but not knowing when?  This week I’m looking at two great dark comedies that find humour in terrible situations about death. There’s the imminent death of eminent dictator, and the questionable death of an questioning soldier.

The Death of Stalin

Dir: Armando Iannucci

It’s 1953 in the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin rules the country with an iron fist, and everyone trembles in his presence. So when he orders a recorded copy of a just-completed live musical performance – that wasn’t actually recorded – of course everyone starts to panic. Everyone, it seems, except the musician who played it. She dares to drop a note for him into the re-recorded record envelope. If he reads it, surely her death will follow – and everyone around her. But as fate wll have it, when Stalin reads the message, he falls to the floor with a heart attack.

And with Stalin on his deathbed all his closest political allies come running to see what will happen next, and what their own status will be after he’s gone. There’s Malenkov ((Jeffrey Tambor) Stalin’s right-hand man for 30 years – a bit of a chowderhead but he’s also the one who purges anyone who challenges him. His rival Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) is the proud military leader who beat Hitler in WWII. Molotov (Michael Palin) is the foreign minister (don’t share a cocktail with this guy!) There’s the wily Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the dreaded Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the Secret Police (NKVD). And Stalin’s two adult children, his clever daughter Svetlana and his idiot son Vasily, who acts like he’s an aristocrat in a Chekov play. Picture all these historical figures running around all at once, panicking, conspiring, and thinking up ways to best their rivals.

While The Death of Stalin may sound like a dry historical drama, it is anything but. It’s fast-moving, shocking, and hilarious. The director — Armando Iannucci — has made another one of his twisted, foul-mouthed political comedies. This one isn’t in Westminster or The White House, it’s set in the Kremlin instead. The actors are either British – like Michael Palin — or American – like Steve Buscemi – but he lets them keep their real voices, no fake heavy Russian accents here (except from the Russian actors).

The Death of Stalin is a great political comedy.

Foxtrot

Dir: Samuel Maoz

Michael and Daphna (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) are a successful Israeli couple Progressive, atheist and sexually open. He’s an architect so their Tel Aviv flat is beautifully designed and tastefully appointed. There lives are nearly perfect… until the day a knock on their door reveals two army officers in uniform. Their son Jonathan, a corporal at a remote posting, has died in the line of duty. Michael is stunned and Daphna collapses to the floor. She is put on meds while Michael stumbles in a daze to talk with his mom in a nursing home.

The army steps in to arrange the funeral, provide the coffin, direct the speech, call their relatives. Don’t worry, they say, we’ll take care of everything. But something is wrong… they can’t provide answers to the most basic questions. Where was he posted? How did he die? And where’s the body? Six hours later they return to say there’s been a terrible mistake. You’re son is still alive.

The story shifts to a remote checkpoint on a purgatorial desert road somewhere near Gehenna. Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray) is posted there with three other young guys. They live in a rusty, ramshackle shipping container made of corrugated steel. It’s slowly disappearing into a muck-filled sinkhole, a couple inches a day. Dinner consists of canned mystery meat cooked on a space heater. They while away their time fiddling with ancient radio receivers, drawing cartoons, telling stories or dancing with a rifle. It’s endless and pointless. Their sole capacity seems to be checking the IDs of passing Palestinians on their way to weddings, funerals or nightclub. The boys approach this job – and their only source of power — with a keen intensity, They shine floodlights at bewildered passersby, force middle aged women to stand in the pouring rain, pointing lethal weapons at their faces, … and worse. That worse incident , and its aermath, brings a new calamity to Jonathan’s family back home, bringing grief, decay and self-harm. Will the family ever recover?

Foxtrot – named after both the dance and the military code – is a dark, ironic and satiric look at the creeping militarization of people’s lives and it’s horrific results. This army is a portrayed as a new Catch-22, one filled with ridiculous errors, secrecy and coverups. The film itself adopts that unexplained mysterious tone – places are left unidentified, some characters not given names. Visions of censorship – symbolized by the black tape covering images of vintage softcore porn – carries over into everyday life and family folklore. The dystopia of the dirty and rusty army post is run by sympathetic characters but is rotten to the core. I called this a dark comedy, but it’s also a very moving drama, cushioned by the absurdist and surreal tone that overlays everything. This is a visually splendid film that relies more on images than dialogue. Foxtrot is a great, but scathingly critical, movie.

I recommend it.

Death of Stalin and Foxtrot 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.

 

 

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.

Juggernaut

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.

Gringo

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 Shoot the Messenger’s creator Jennifer Holness, and star Lyriq Bent

Posted in Action, Canada, Clash of Cultures, Corruption, Crime, Journalism, Politics, Romance, Somali, Thriller, Toronto, TV by CulturalMining.com on October 7, 2016

Jennifer Holness, Lyriq BentHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Daisy is a cub reporter at the Toronto Gazette. She’s interrupted from a roll in the hay with her lover by a mysterious phone call – a source! She rushes to meet him only to see a young Somali man gunned down in cold blood. And which police detective Jennifer Holness, Lyriq Bent, Shoot the Messengeris investigating the case? It’s her lover, Kevin. Now the police, the news media, and the government are all trying to find out who shot the messenger?

Shoot the Messenger is also the name of a dramatic new series premiering on CBC TV next week (Oct. 10). Jennifer Holness, Lyriq Bent, Shoot the MessengerIt looks at how a city copes with street-level crime… and high-level corruption. Created by husband-and-wife team Jennifer Holness and Sudz Sutherland, it stars Lyriq Bent and Elise Levesque as Kevin and Daisy.

I spoke to Jennifer Holness and Lyriq Bent in studio at CIUT.

Out of Their Element. Movies reviewed: Triple 9, Only Yesterday, Where to Invade Next PLUS Oscar predictions

Posted in 1990s, Animation, comedy, Coming of Age, Corruption, Crime, Cultural Mining, documentary, Japan, Movies, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2016

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

The White Oscars are on this Sunday, and here are some of my predictions. But beware: I’m often completely wrong.

Animated feature: Pete Docter & Jonas Rivera (Inside Out) ✓
Foreign language: Ciro Guerra (Embrace the Serpent) X
Documentary: Amy (Asif Kapadia & James Gay-Rees) ✓
Original screenplay: Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) ✓
Adapted screenplay: Emma Donoghue (Room) X
Supporting actor: Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight) X
Supporting actress: Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) X
Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant) ✓
Actress: Brie Larson (Room) ✓
Director: Lenny Abrahamson (Room) X
Best picture: Room X

This week I’m looking at movies about people out of their element. There’s a documentary about a Michigander in Europe, an action/thriller about Atlanta bank robbers in a cop shop, and a Japanese anime about a Tokyo dweller on a farm.

gallery_onesheetTriple 9
Dir: John Hillcoat

Early one morning, Russel and Gabe, Marcus and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr) and their leader Michael pull of a perfect bank robbery in Atlanta, taking lots of cash, and leaving no fingerprints. Why are they so good at it? Because they’re cops… crooked cops. They split the cash and prepare to pull off gallery_chrisjeffreyjust one more robbery.

Problem is there’s a new cop in town named Chris (Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone) investigating this crime. He’s a straight arrow. He’s looking for clues around the Latino section of Atlanta with a gang war in proigress. He doesn’t realize that his partner Marcus (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker) is crooked.

In fact the street gangs have nothing to do with the bank heist, gallery_michaelelenait’s tied to organized crime. Specifically: the Russian mob, headed by Irina (Kate Winslet, Titanic), the blond Russian kingpin.  (…Queenpin?) She’s running her hubby’s Kosher meat empire while he’s behind bars. And what’s the police connection? Policeman Mike (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Twelve Years a Slave) is married to Irina’s beautiful sister Elena (Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman) – and they have a black, Jewish kid gallery_irinaparkinglottogether (named Drake?).

That’s not all. Russell and Gabe (Norman Reedus, The Walking Dead; Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad) are brothers, and Chris – who is Marcus’s detective partner – is the son of another cop (Woody Harrelson, Rampart) His dad smokes pot and expects freebies from his transsexual prostitute informant, but he’s considered “not corrupt”. Which group will triumph — good cops or bad cops? Criminals or the mob?

All clear now? I didn’t think so. This is such a confusing movie. There are a dozen important characters each with his own reason for double-crossing someone else. Triple 9 has a great illustrious cast, but they’re wasted in this messy, shoot-em-up, cops and robbers story. Not boring… just pointless.

48vgKk_Only_Yesterday_Trailer_o3_8939181_1455135765Only Yesterday
Dir: Takahata Isao

It’s the early 1990s in Tokyo. Maeko is an office worker in her late 20s, who finds life dull and pointless. So to perk things up she decides to go back to the land… on vacation, at least. She pays money to a farming family to let her help them with the harvest of WnK5vg_Only_Yesterday_credit__1991_Hotaru_Okamoto_-_Yuko_Tone_-_GNH_(1)_o3_8935474_1455135738safflower blossoms.

The long journey by train gives her time to think and remember. Almost unbidden, memories of her childhood come flooding back. When she was in grade 5, everything — like her first crush, first tampon, even her first taste of a fresh pineapple — seemed much more JZKORD_Only_Yesterday_credit__1991_Hotaru_Okamoto_-_Yuko_Tone_-_GNH_(4)_o3_8935564_1455135750important.

Life on the farm also gives her a connection to a greater history: how the safflowers crushed by once-poor farmers becomes the rouge used by rich city women to blush their cheeks. Even the runoff water becomes the pink dye used for the clothing she wears. The people she meets there — especially Toshio, the goofy country guy who clearly qjpO93_Only_Yesterday_credit__1991_Hotaru_Okamoto_-_Yuko_Tone_-_GNH_(5)_o3_8935596_1455135751likes her — seem more real, more important than her “friends” in the city. But what will she do when the summer is over?

Only Yesterday is a 25-year-old animated film from famed Ghibli studios, rereleased in English with Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel providing the voices of Maeko and Toshio. I have mixed feelings about this one. I like how it deals with real life problems and its beautiful animation, with bright colours for the 1990s Maeko and faded, old-fashioned illustrations for her as a child. But there’s a super-earnest tone to it, with lots of educational bits, like a kids’ show on NHK (Japan’s public TV). And it has some long silent parts, without sound effects or music, that make you squirm.

Much like Maeko’s childhood memories, the film somehow seems better in retrospect than while you’re watching it.

acbcc98e-e19f-4532-b534-2424684a1e6aWhere to Invade Next
Dir: Michael Moore

More Americans – especially African Americans and Latinos — are in prison than in any other country in the world. Decent education and health care are still out of reach for many people, with spiraling debt and falling incomes. How can America solve its huge social problems? It’s easy, says Michael Moore. Let’s invade Europe again and take home its best ideas. Armed only with an American flag and a camera, Moore visits the best parts of the EU to record its plusses. Like affordable, delicious school lunches in France, complete with 19 cheeses; the kids shudder fb3cab01-2368-4ad7-83d1-a6beb0ed251dto see Moore guzzling a can of Coke. Or free universities in Slovenia. Generous union contracts in Italy. There are open prisons in Norway that reintegrate prisoners back into society. When the stock market crashed in Iceland they arrested the brokers responsible. And Germany makes sure its school kids know all about the atrocities in their history. (We should be so lucky.)

The movie starts with a fast-moving, hard-hitting news 5ea9a85c-ecb6-4e85-8337-1504b51ab17amontage about American life, well worth the price of the film. After that, it’s a gentle, cute, and completely enjoyable travelogue of the best of Europe. (The film was made before the huge influx of Syrian refugees, where some European countries are showing their uglier sides… but that’s a different movie.) Basically, Where to Invade Next is like a travel guide to places where Bernie Sanders’ election promises are already in place.

Triple 9, Only Yesterday, and Where to Invade Next all open today: check your local listings. And if you’re into wolverines — not X-Men, the real thing — check out the rare footage in Wolverine: Ghost of the Northern Forest, a new documentary on CBC’s the Nature of Things this weekend.

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 director Radu Muntean about his new film One Floor Below at #TIFF15

Posted in Corruption, Cultural Mining, Death, Movies, Mystery, Romania by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2016

Radu Muntean-5- Jeff Harris culturalminingPatrascu is a middle-aged, middle-class man, working as a middleman in contemporary Romania. He lives in a nice apartment with his wife Olga, his teenaged son Matei, and his dog Jerry. But one day he hears screaming from a woman’s apartment, and out walks Vali, a married man from upstairs. The next day the woman is found dead with her skull smashed in. But when the police come by to investigate, Patrascu clams up.

Can he live with a suspected murderer One Floor Below?Radu Muntean-4- Jeff Harris culturalmining

One Floor Below (Un etaj mai jos) is also the name of a dark drama that premiered at TIFF. It blurs the lines among feelings of guilt, responsibility, mistrust and fear in a country still emerging from generations under an authoritarian government. The film is made by award-winning Romanian director Radu Muntean.

I spoke with Radu about his intriguing, fifth feature in September, 2015, at the Toronto International Film Festival. One Floor Below opens today.

Caught up. Movies Reviewed: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, Leviathan

Posted in Corruption, Cultural Mining, Farsi, Movies, Russia, Uncategorized, Vampires, Yakuza, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2015

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

There aren’t many blockbusters released in January, so it’s a good time to catch up on less commercial films. So this week I’m looking at movies about people caught in a bad place: an art-house indie horror,  an over-the-top comedy/horror/musical, and a serious drama.  There’s an Iranian guy caught between a drug dealer and a vampire, a Japanese filmmaker caught between rival yakuza gangs, and a Russian caught by corrupt politicans.

A_Girl_6A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Dir: Ana Lily Amirpour

Bad City is a place for lost souls. It’s a desert town filled with oil rigs and refineries, separated from the rest of the world by a row of distant mountains. The streets are deserted except for a few people. Arash (Arash Marandi) is a Persian James Dean, who works as a gardener at a rich woman’s mansion. And at home he takes care of his dad, Hossain. Hossein (Marshall Mannesh) is depressed and slowly committing suicide by using drugs. Then there’s the track-suited, A_Girl_2tattooed drug dealer and all-around asshole; the sex worker who peddles her wares in dark alleys, and a little kid with a skateboard who observes it all. And finally there’s a girl who walks home alone at night (Sheila Vand).

A_Girl_1The girl – who is kept nameless – wears the conservative Iranian chador – an outfit that covers her head and body in an unbroken shroud. But hidden underneath the chador she’s like Marjane Satrapi in the graphic novel Persepolis, with black eye liner and a striped French jersey. She dances to Emo dirges at home, and only ventures outside at night to wander the dark streets… and look for human blood to drink. She’s a vampire.

Arash owns nothing but his treasured sports car and loses that to the thug. But due to a strange turn of events he suddenly finds himself A_Girl_4surrounded by money, power and drugs. He ends up at a costume party dressed in the cape and collar of Dracula. And in an ecstasy-induced haze he encounters the nameless girl who walks home alone at night. Is it true love? Or will she eat him?

This is a cool — though somewhat opaque — indie film, shot in beautiful black and white. It’s filled with sex, drugs, rock and roll – all in farsi. It takes place in a limbo world caught somewhere between the American Southwest and Iranian oil fields. It’s a slow moving mood piece, like Jim Jarmusch directing a Becket play, but from a feminine perspective. Interesting movie.

47_jigoku_sub3_5MBWhy Don’t You Play in Hell? (地獄でなぜ悪い)
Dir: Sono Sion

A team of aspiring college film geeks called the “F*ck Bombers” vow to make a real movie, starring one of their own – a Bruce Lee lookalike. But 10 years pass and still no luck. Meanwhile, two rival yakuza gangs are in a permanent state of war. The Muto gang dress in Godfather suits and carry guns, while the Ikegami gang wear classic kimono, armed with genuine Samurai swords.

Teenaged Mitsuko – the daughter of the Muto gang boss — is famous 49_jigoku_sub5_5MBfor a jingle she sang as a child on a TV toothpaste ad. And the Ikegami boss still has a deeply-buried crush on her (they met in a bloodbath 10 years earlier). Her yakuza dad is bankrolling a film starring his reluctant daughter. But things start to unravel when the famous director quits in disgust. Who can make a movie produced by organized criminals? Especially when a gang war is about to erupt. Confusion, violence and mayhem ensues.

46_jigoku_sub2_5MBIn walks the Movie Club members to the rescue… maybe they could take over the movie? But would rival gangs ever agree to let film geeks record a bloody and violent showdown on 35 mm film… as it happens?

My bare-bones description does not do justice to this fantastic musical45_jigoku_sub1_3M comedy – including an unbelievably blood-drenched, 30-minute-long battle scene. It has to be seen to be believed, and the film is finally opening on the big screen in Toronto. Sono Sion is one of my favourite Japanese directors. His movies are outrageous and shockingly violent but also amazingly sentimental, earnest and goofy at the same time: an odd, but oddly pleasing combination.

05ff2dc3-382c-446d-93f1-6646a6b29db8Leviathan
Dir: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) is a mechanic who lives in northern Russia by the sea. His family has lived there for three generations and Kolya built his home with his own two hands. His son Roma is a bit spoiled but doing OK at school, and his beautiful second wife works at the fish cannery. Their marriage is going well.

But there’s trouble at City Hall. They want to seize his house and land6002bf07-aaaf-4f30-8420-9d038fba9d3f to build something… municipal. Kolya is furious and he’s not going to take this lying down. He’s a real hothead. He’s sure the Mayor is up to no good – just wants to build himself a mansion. So Kolya calls his army buddy in Moscow to give him a hand. Dima (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) is a lawyer. He comes to town fully loaded with files on the very corrupt mayor Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF FileVadim. The man has “blood on his hands” he says, and he has the documents to prove it. This should stop the mayor in his tracks.

So things are looking up. The trial looks promising, and if not, he can always file an appeal. And there’s a picnic and shooting party to look forward to. A local cop has invited the whole gang, family and friends, to head out to the cliffs to shoot a few bottles with their rifles and AK47s. And boy do these guys have a lot of empty vodka bottles to 2e8da8fe-7cf4-40ce-a66f-5252e16ad79dshoot!

Meanwhile Vadim, the criminal mayor (Roman Madyanov) is plotting Kolya’s downfall. He’s an incredibly arrogant, abusive and greedy politician, a raging alcoholic, and he doesn’t care who knows it. He has the judges, the police, even the local church on his side. This sets off a series of unforeseen events that turn Kolya’s life into a Jobean ordeal of despair.

Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF FileLeviathan is a fantastic movie, a slice-of-life look at modern Russia. Breathtaking, stark scenery, really great acting. But it’s also a devastating indictment of corruption and how it affects regular people there. The story starts slow, but gradually grows, driving toward an unexpectedly powerful finish. It’s also relevant: It’s nominated for an Oscar – best foreign film – but just last week Russia’s Culture Ministry threatened to censor this movie. That would be a real shame, because it’s a great film.

Leviathan, Why Don’t You Play in Hell, and a Girl Walks Home Alone at Night all open today in Toronto: check your local listings. Also opening is Still Alice, starring Julianne Moore as a professor with early-onset Alzheimers – I’ll talk about this next week – and the 50 Year Argument, a documentary about the New York Review of Books.

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

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