Eccentric. Films reviewed: Ruben Brandt Collector, Greta, A Bread Factory

Posted in Animation, Art, Crime, Family, Movies, Mystery, psychedelia, Psychological Thriller, Psychopaths, Theatre, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 1, 2019

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

It’s March and Toronto’s spring film festival season has begun. The Irish Film Fest is on this weekend, and the WTF Fest starts showing “eccentric movies” at the Royal Cinema today. In this case, WTF stands for What the Film – great stuff. Also opening is What Walaa Wants, the NFB doc about a young Palestinian woman who wants to be a cop. Also opening is Gaspar Noe’s amazing film Climax, a movie that includes a fantastic dance performance and a stunning title sequence… followed by a horrific panoply of drug-addled sex and violence.

Keeping with the theme of the strange and unusual, this week I’m looking at offbeat movies with eccentric characters. There’s a a French widow with a yen for pocketbooks, a psychotherapist keeps fine art front and centre; and a two older women who want to save their arts centre from falling apart.

Ruben Brandt Collector

Wri/Dir: Milorad Krstic

Dr Ruben Brandt is a psychoanalyst obsessed by art. He lives and works in an isolated alpine chalet where he treats his rich but troubled clients, including a banker with an eating problem, and a former bodyguard.

Meanwhile Mike Kowalsky, a private detective from Washington DC, is in Paris chasing Mimi, a notorious cat burglar down the city streets. She’s carrying a priceless Egyptian artifact. But he can’t catch her; the former circus acrobat is just too fast. Mimi tracks down Dr Brandt and visits his clinic. She wants to get rid of her kleptomania, She can’t stop stealing. But in a strange turn of events, patients turn to doc tors and doctors to patients. You see, Dr Brandt is plagued with halucinations of people in famous paintings. Is Venus in Boticelli’s painting trying to kill him? How about Warhol’s double Elvis? Brandt’s patients, including Mimi, decide the only way to save their doctor is to steal all the paintings that obsess him. They begin a series of elaborate heists of the world’s best known paintings from the most famous galleries. Can Kowalsky solve the puzzle and catch the culprits? Or will Ruben Brandt, the art collector, triumph?

Ruben Brandt Collector is a simple, silly story told with amazing animated images. It feels like a cartoon guide to Janson’s History of Art… on acid. Characters are portrayed as cubists, as two-faced januses, or as two-dimensional pieces of paper. The plot may be flat and inconsequential but the animated art and psychedelic imagery sticks with you.

Greta

Wri/Dir: Neil Jordan (The Crying Game)

Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is depressed. She’s a recent college grad who works as a server in a fancy Manhattan restaurant. She shares a spacious condo with her best friend Erica (Maika Monroe) whose dad gave it to her as a gift. Ever since her mom died, Frances can’t have fun; she never seems to go out anymore. But her attitude changes when she finds a designer purse that someone left on a subway. Finally, she can do a good deed. Using the ID, she takes it to its owner’s home. Greta (Isabelle Huppert), is an older woman, a widow, who lives in an isolated cottage. Her home is like a piece of France right in the middle of NY city. She plays Chopin and bakes cookies.

It’s like at first sight. Greta needs someone to spend time with since her daughter moved away and Frances misses her mother terribly. They go for walks in Central Park, share intimate meals at her home, and even adopt a dog to keep Greta company. Greta worries Frances will go away, just like her daughter. Don’t worry Greta, I’m like chewing gum – I’ll stick around. Imagine, such good friends meeting at random.

But… everything changes when Frances discovers Greta’s secret. That “lost purse” wasn’t actually lost! Greta placed it there so they would meet. Is Greta just desperately lonely? A con artist? Or is she a psychopath? Even when Frances cuts off all contact with her Greta keeps showing up wherever she goes. She’s a stalker who can’t be stopped. Will Frances ever forgive her? And will Greta leave her alone?

Greta starts as a conventional drama but turns into an unexpected psychological thriller. It feels like a classic Grimm’s fairytale, with an innocent girl lured into a witch’s lair. Though not her best performance, Isabelle Huppert is credible as the (potential) villain, though Chloe Grace Moretz is wasted as the victim. It’s hard to picture Moretz as a helpless scaredycat. Greta is OK as a run of the mill, cat-and-mouse thriller, but it could have been so much more.

A Bread Factory

Wri/Dir: Patrick Wang (I interviewed him in 2012)

The Bread Factory is an arts centre in a small town on the Hudson Valley. Formerly an industrial bakery, it’s where the post-industrial townfolks go to see a movie, put on a play or attend a poetry reading. It’s been run by Dorothea and Greta (Tyne Daly, Elizabeth Henry) for more than 40 years. At the moment there are filmmaking lessons for little kids by an auteur (Janeane Garofalo); a greek tragedy starring an elderly shakesperean actor, and a Chekhov-like drama in production. It’s a hotbed of creativity and community life.

But everything is put at risk when a strange new group arrives in town. They are a pair of performers/conceptual artists known as May + Ray (Janet Hsieh, George Young), a sort of a Blue Man Group. They are vaguely associated with China, have a large international following, their videos are on youtube, and they even have a catchy logo on the T-shirts and totebags they sell. The problem is their work is shallow and pointless. And more important, the town school board is thinking of transfering all arts spending from The Bread Factory to May + Ray.

Can the town artists and performers save the bread factory? Or will corporate interests triumph?

A Bread Factory sounds ordinary but it’s actually a great movie. I really liked it. Dozens of characters and a complex, twisted plot manages to keep you interested but not distracted, with each storyline and character carefully constructed and allowed to develop. There’s a teenager (Zachary Sayle) interning at the town paper, a kid who functions as the projectionist (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a critic and an actor who hold a 50 year grudge… and many more. It feels like a great John Sayles movie.

I’ve only seen the first two hours (Part 1) so far but now I can’t wait to see Part 2.

A Bread Factory is a delightful treat.

Greta and Ruben Brandt Collector both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. A Bread Factory is playing this weekend at the WTF Festival at the Royal Cinema.

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 Cristina Gallega about Birds of Passage

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Clash of Cultures, Colombia, Crime, Indigenous, Movies, War by CulturalMining.com on March 1, 2019

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

Photos of Cristina Gallega by Jeff Harris

It’s the 1960s in the deserts of La Guajira in northern Colombia, where the Waayuu, a fiercely independent  indigenous nation, make their home. A young man, Rapayet who wants to marry Zaida must bring a large dowry of cattle, goats and precious beads. He sets out on a journey with his best friend, to earn the money he needs to pay for it. He finds his answer in the marijuana trade.  Americans are willing to pay good money for sacks of it grown in the hills. But with the cannibis trade comes complications to the clan in the form of riches… but also of violence, rivalries and possible destruction. Will this new wealth destroy the Waayuu people? Or can the old ways coexist with the newfound money?

A dramatic new movie called Birds of Passage follows the characters over two decades as their lives change. It’s a chronical of life over two decades, in the 1960s and 70s, a crime story, and a study of indigenous ways. Its detailed, passionate, and epic units scope.  The film was made by the creators of Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpant, and is co-directed by noted filmmaker Cristina Gallegos.

I spoke with Cristina Gallego on location in September at TIFF 18.

Birds of Passage opens today in Toronto.

Popcorn Movies. Films reviewed: Cold Pursuit, What Men Want, The Prodigy

Posted in comedy, Crime, drugs, Horror, Psychology, Sex, Snow, Sports, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on February 8, 2019

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

It’s the middle of winter, and all the highbrow pics have been released. So this week I’m looking at regular, popcorn movies – a comedy, a revenge thriller and a horror movie. There’s a psychic sports agent looking to land a killer client, a man out to find his son’s killers… and a young couple worried their 8-year-old son might be a killer himself.

Cold Pursuit

Dir: Hans Petter Moland

It’s winter at a ski resort in Colorado. Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is the town snowplow driver, clearing the roads for drivers from nearby Denver. He lives a respectable unremarkable life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and his snowplows. But his life turns sideways when their only son turns up dead from a drug overdose. At least that’s what the police detective (Emily Rossum) says. But his son doesn’t do drugs. Turns out he accidentally disrupted a drug deal involving lots of cocaine.

Nels decides to take the law into his own hands, work his way up the chain of command and get revenge on the criminal ultimately responsible for his son’s death. On the way Nels kills and disposes of each man he meets. The head gangster is Viking (Tom Bateman) a detestable, effete millionaire whose lackies all look like models in fine suits. His territory is split with an aboriginal Chief named White Bull (Tom Jackson) of the Ute Nation. But when dead bodies show up, Viking thinks his indigenous rivals, starting a major drug war. With a kidnapped boy, the local police, the Feds, and Nels himself all converging on a single spot, who will survive the ultimate showdown?

Cold Pursuit is an exact, scene-by-scene remake of the 2016 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance. Same director, same stunning snow scenes, but this time shot in Canada, not Norway, and the script is in English. I’m not a big fan of Liam Neesen action movies, but he plays this part perfectly: the single-minded revenge killer out for blood. It’s bloody, it’s violent and while somewhat comic, it seems to be missing the sardonic, Norwegian irony of the original.

But I still liked it.

What Men Want

Dir: Adam Shankman

It’s present day Atlanta.

Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson) is a manager at Summit Worldwide a highly competitive pro-sports management agency. She’s an alpha dog in an all-male office. Her dad (Richard Roundtree), a former boxer, raised her to be a winner in both her work and her private life. When she takes men home for the night she’s always on top. She’s ambitious and self-centred. And with her gay personal assistant Brandon’s help (Josh Brenner) she’s close to landing a huge client – Jamal a star college basketball player. But she still can’t break through the glass ceiling and make full partner.

Until… her life changes after a party with her closest girlfriends when a psychic gives her a secret potion, and later that night she gets bonked on the head by a huge inflatable penis. When she comes to, she realizes she has a new secret power: she can read men’s minds. Suddenly a whole world is open to her, with all its potential benefits. Like finding out if a guy she’s crushing on has a thing for her. Or what men say to each other when women aren’t around. And where those men-only poker games are taking place. Is this new power the key to her success? Can she penetrate the locker-room bro culture that is holding her back? Can she turn a one night stand with single-dad bartender Will (Aldis Hodge) into a real relationship? Or is all this ESP stuff less of a blessing than a curse?

What Men Want is a remake of Mel Gibson’s comedy from 20 years ago, but with a role reversal. If you’re into pro sports and TV comedies there are tons of celebrity cameos to keep you happy, from Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Jones, Tracy Morgan, Pete Davidson, Mark Cuban, and many, many others. Eryka Badu is great as the psychic, and Taraji P. Henson – who starred in Hidden Figures – carries the show as Ali. But is it funny?

It’s OK, but not that funny. It’s disturbingly full of product placements in almost every scene. They could have so done so much more, but in this movie a black woman who reads minds finds out white men may be sex obsessed, devious, condescending and insecure, but none of them are actually racist. (“Yay! — no one’s racist!“) It does talk about the problems inherent in pro sports, but steers away from bigger issues just begging to be addressed. This movie may be facile, safe and predictable, but I enjoyed it anyway.

The Prodigy

Dir: Nicolas McCarthy

Sarah and John (Taylor Schilling, Peter Mooney) are a young married couple in suburban Pennsylvania with a gifted son. Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) seems older than his years. He spoke his first words after just a few months, and at age eight is excelling at a school for exceptional students. And he has an angelic smile he shows his mom and dad. But there’s something not quite right about him. He seems to speak an exotic language in his sleep. And people nearby keep having strange accidents, which Miles claims he knows nothing about.

But when he violently attacks another boy in science class, his parents are disturbed. A specialist named Arthur (Colm Feore) says there might be someone else controlling Miles from somewhere deep inside him. Is he possessed by Satan? Does he have a split personality? Or is it something else? And what is little Miles’s connection to a notorious serial killer with a fetish for cutting of women’s hands? Sarah doesn’t know exactly what’s behind Miles strange behaviour but decides it’s time to act… before it’s too late!

If you like extremely scary horror movies, this is one to see. A disturbing Bad Seed-style story of a parent’s worst nightmare: that their nice kid might actually be evil. Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) is totally believeable as the mother, and young Jackson Robert Scott is extremely creepy as Miles – watch out for him. I still have shivers in my gut. The Prodigy is classic horror.

Prodigy, Cold Pursuit and What Men Want 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.

Gone fishing. Films reviewed: Serenity, Wonders of the Sea PLUS Cold War

Posted in 1950s, Animals, Cold War, Communism, Conservation, Crime, documentary, Drama, Film Noir, France, Music, Mystery, Poland, Romance, Suspense by CulturalMining.com on January 25, 2019

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

Fishing for something different to watch? This week I’m looking at two movies about fish and one about love. There’s a doc beneath the waves, a suspense drama aboard a fishing boat, and a bittersweet romance behind the Iron Curtain.

Serenity

Wri/Dir: Steve Knight

Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman off Plymouth Island, a tropical vacation spot in the middle of nowhere. Along with his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) he takes rich tourists out on his boat to catch some sharks. But Dill’s real love, his passion, is for tuna. One particular bluefin he calls Justice, that always gets away. It’s his great white whale, his Moby Dick . He spends his free time drinking dark rum at the local bar or sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane) an attractive older woman with a black cat, who helps him out financially after a night of passion.

Life never changes… until one day a mysterious femme fatale, named Karen (Anne Hathaway) appears on his boat. If you drown my rich abusive husband, she says, I’ll give you 10 million bucks. Cash. Will Dill stick with his tuna obsession or will he kill a stranger?

But wait, that’s not all. Turns out he had a thing with Karen before serving in Iraq… she dumped him to marry the rich guy. And her teenaged boy Patrick, a computer geek, could be his biological son. (Though they’ve never met Dill feels he has a psychic bond with the boy). And a strange man with a briefcase following Dill has some crucial information.

If my description sounds like a clichéed film noir knock-off, that’s because that’s what it is. The actors play their characters – an obsessed fisherman, a villainous drunk, an abused but devious woman – in over-the-top performances, vamping for the camera. Why the boilerplate plots? Why the tired dialogue? Apparently, it’s all intentional, but to tell you why would ruin the WTF plot twist. I started to figure it out about two-thirds-of-the-way through, and it kept me interested (though not really satisfied). If you like watching famous actors acting in an imperfect script, this is for you.

Wonders of the Sea

Dir: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jean-Jacques Montello

Jacques Cousteau was the French deep-sea diver, conservationist and underwater filmmaker whose TV shows fascinated me as a child. He sailed away on a ship called Calypso with flippers on his feet and aqualungs on his back. He died in 1997 but his son Jean-Michel and grandkids Fabien and Celine are still diving. This latest documentary in 3D looks at undiscovered parts of the ocean floor and the tiny creatures that live there. They lead us through a massive squid orgy: a mating ritual near California where they all have sex with each other. They also visit a hammerhead shark migration near the Bahamas, and the wondrous coral reefs off Fiji, which form a crucial part of the world’s oceans’ ecosystem. The doc focusses on the tiny, the cute, the weird and the grotesque. And they throw in informative facts and stats about pollution and overfishing.

My biggest problem with this movie is the insufferably corny and dated voiceovers by Arnold Schwartzeneggar and the Cousteaus. It seems aimed at three-year-olds. Who knows, maybe the narration was this bad when I was three but I just didn’t notice. Whatever. If you can somehow switch off the dialogue and just take in the intense, weird-and-wonderful, 3-D coloured images you’ll enjoy this movie.

Cold War

Wri/ Dir Pawel Pawlikowski

It’s post-WWII Poland, and a team of musicologists is heading to the mountains with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Irena (Agata Kulesza) is a serious academic looking to preserve authentic folk culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) a handsome conductor, wants to put together a musical group. Their boss is Kazsmarek (Borys Szyc), an apparatchik – he wants a show big enough to impress his party bosses. The auditions begin, with milk maids and farm hands singing the innocently salacious songs of their childhood. Authenticity rules. Still, one pretty young woman, with blonde braids and a strong voice manages to slip through the cracks. Zula (Joanna Kulig) isn’t really a local peasant, but after living through WWII, taking on new identities is a piece of cake. And Wiktor is attracted to her. The Mazurek Choir is born, and it’s a big hit. And Wiktor and Zula start a secret relationship.

The Party weeds out anyone not “Polish-looking” enough: hair too dark, nose too big? Back to the farm. When they are forced to include Stalinist paeans to collective farming, Wiktor shrugs his shoulders but Irena quits in disgust. But their new status pushes the choir to star status in the Eastern Bloc. Wiktor and Zula fall in love and hatch a plan to defect to the west. Wiktor makes it across the border, but Zula stays behind. Now thelovers are separated by the impenetrable Iron Curtain. Will they ever see each other again? If so, on which side? And can their love –  and their music – survive a long separation?

Cold War is a wonderful, bittersweet romantic drama, set in 1950s Europe. It paints the Cold War era with all its faults and how it affects the people caught in it. Like Pawlikowski’s Ida, it’s just 90 minutes long and shot in glorious black and white on a square screen. Filled with haunting music and images, the film showcases the amazing Kulig and Kot in their flawless performances as separated lovers. (Kulig sings, too!) It’s nominated for a Foreign Language Feature Oscar and is also on my list of best movies of the year.

This is a great movie, don’t miss it.

Wonders of the Sea in 3D starts next week, Serenity and Cold War 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.

Deep. Films reviewed: Destroyer, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, Ratcatcher

Posted in 1970s, 1990s, African-Americans, Coming of Age, Crime, documentary, Kids, L.A., Scotland, Thriller, Uncategorized, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2019

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

Tired of fantasy? How about some gritty realism? This week I’m looking at three deep, realistic movies — a documentary, a drama and a thriller — about working class characters living their lives. There are African Americans in the deep south, an LA detective in deep cover, and a young man in Glasgow knee-deep in trash.

Destroyer

Dir: Karyn Kusama

Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) used to be a young, pretty and ambitious uniformed cop in LA. Pulled from her division for an undercover operation, she was meant to infiltrate a notorious and deadly ring of bank robbers. She posed as a couple with Chris (Sebastian Stan) another cop which led to a relationship. And she made friends with the robbery team, including the sinister Silas (Toby Kebell) a long-haired man with a cruel streak a mile wide; and the friendly Petra (Tatiana Maslany).

But things didn’t go as planned. People died, and the thieves got away with bags of loot. Look at her now. She’s a burnt-out husk of her former self. Bell doesn’t walk, she staggers. Her lips are wrinkled, her hair looks like it was cut with garden shears and she talks like Jeff Bridges on a bad day. But when she finds evidence the robbers are at it again, she takes the law into her own hands. Will she stop the killers? Or will they destroy her first?

Destroyer is a fantastic crime thriller about an angry worn out cop on her quest for retribution. It keeps you glued to the screen, heart racing, as you try to figure out what’s going on. It’s told during three time periods, jumping back and forth between them, and as you watch it you constantly have to change your assumptions. No spoilers but there are some big shocks along the way. It’s very violent, though from a female point of view: men punching women, women strangling women, women attacking men. Not for the faint of heart. Nicole Kidman totally transforms herself – physically and emotionally – from the naive young woman into the hardboiled cop she ends up as.

Destroyer is a great LA crime thriller.

Hale County, This Morning, This Evening

Dir: RaMell Ross

Hale County, Alabama is in the deep, deep south. You can still find white-pillared mansions built on the backs of slave labour on cotton plantations. It’s named after a Confederate officer whose statue still stands. It’s also where the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr once sought refuge from the KKK. It’s a rural, mainly black area where people stay on with their daily lives: sports tournaments, childbirth, funerals. There’s a catfish factory, a school, a hospital and churches.

This fascinating documentary is a series of beautifully composed, very short – from five seconds to three minutes – and highly personal scenes. A woman tapping her thigh with a flyswatter, a man playing blues on an electric guitar. A baby learning to walk, fritters frying in a pan, kids drinking coca cola. We see teenaged boys talking in the basketball locker room, families baptized at a church, people hanging at a beauty salon or a bowling alley. Rolling clouds with electrical storms, the first drops of rain on the pavement, a deer caught in the headlights, and a solar eclipse. The filmmaker RaMell Ross who started photographing there when he moved to the town, records what’s going on all around him in an impressionistic collage of portraits, time lapse, and tableaux: a joyous celebration of African American life in rural Alabama.

This beautiful film is on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature.

Ratcatcher (1999)

Wri/Dir Lynne Ramsay

It’s 1973 in Glasgow, Scotland. James (William Eadie) is a gawky lad with ears that stick out who lives with his working- class family in a crumbling flat.   His father (Tommy Flanagan) has a scar on his cheek from a fight, his mother (Mandy Matthews) has holes in her nylons. The yard outside is piled high with trash – the garbagemen are on strike – so the mice and rats are having a ball. James lives his life carefully, avoiding dangerous gangs of teenaged bullies who dominate the streets.

He sometimes visits a stagnant canal nearby, badly in need of a dredging. There he meets a much older and sexually active teenaged girl. The bullies have thrown her glasses in the water, but James doesn’t fish them out – perhaps he thinks he has a better chance if she can’t see him clearly? She seduces him, inviting him to spend the night. But the canal also brings him horrible feelings of guilt: a friend of his drowned there when they were fighting in the water.

One day, James jumps onto a bus and takes it to the end of the line where a new housing development is being built. It’s on the edge of the city, right where oatfields meet the streets. He explores the empty construction site – will this be his new home?

Ratcatcher is a slice-of-life, coming-of-age drama about life in an urban slum as seen through the eyes of a young man. The characters are mainly played by local residents, non-professional actors who bring a gritty realism to their roles. This is Lynne Ramsay’s first film (from 1999) and one I’ve always wanted to see, but never had a chance until now. You should, too. It’s a realistic and touching movie about hard times… but with an uplifting finish.

Destroyer is now playing in Toronto, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening opens tomorrow, and Rat Catcher plays next Thursday as part of the 1999 Millenial Movies program playing this month (until Feb 12) 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 Justin McConnell and Jack Foley about Lifechanger

Posted in Canada, Crime, Death, Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on December 28, 2018

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

It’s Christmastime at a bar in Toronto.

Julia is a young woman sitting in her usual spot, trying to forget her own tragic history. She chats with the usual suspects – strange men trying to hit on her, and women looking for a shoulder to cry on. But what she doesn’t realize is that most of the strangers she talks to each night… are all the same person.

Then there’s Drew. He suffers from a bizarre illness. The only way he can survive is to refresh his body by inhabiting a new one… until the body is worn out and he moves on to the next. Can Drew tell Julia the truth and convince her to accept his unusual lifestyle?

Or is that just too big a life change for either of them to accept?

Lifechanger is a new fantasy/horror movie that will keep you guessing till the end.

It’s written and directed by Justin McConnell (who I interviewed 5 years ago about his documentary Skull World.) Lifechanger has won multiple awards at international film festivals across North America and around the world. It co-stars Jack Foley as the romantic lead… who is also a man with a secret.

The film opens today in Toronto, Calgary and Ottawa.

I spoke with actor Jack Foley and writer/director Justin McConnell in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Kinship. Films reviewed: Vox Lux, Shoplifters

Posted in Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Japan, Movies, Music, Terrorism, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 21, 2018

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

The holiday season is a time when families get back together, for good or for ill. So this week I’m looking at two movies about family and kinship. There’s a pair of sisters turned pop musicians, where one holds the scars of a terrible incident; and a makeshift family that rescues a small girl with scars.

Vox Lux

Wri/Dir: Brady Corbet

Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a god-fearing high school student in Staten Island, New York. She likes music, church and her big sister Eleanor (Stacey Martin) who always looks out for her. But her world turns upside down when a non-conformist kid pulls out a gun in music class, and starts shooting people down. Celeste tries to reason with him; she ends up wounded but not dead. She recovers with a scar on her neck. At the memorial for the mass shooting she performs a song which soon goes viral.

She and her sister are quickly signed to a major label by their manager (Jude Law) and whisked off to Sweden. There they experience the heady brew of extreme wealth, celebrity and number-one hits. But it also exposes them to the cruel scrutiny of tabloids and paparazzi that accompany celebrity.

Still a teenager, she loses her virginity to another musician, tries drugs and alcohol for the first time, and begins a gradual downward spiral toward addiction and paranoia. But she also establishes herself as an international icon, with her sparkling makeup, severe haircuts, and sequined outfits mimicked by devoted fans. She always wears a band around her neck both to hide and commemorate the scars of the shooting.

Years later Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) plans for a comeback, culminating in a stadium concert back in the hometown she left after the shooting. Now she’s brittle and bitter, addicted to drugs, and full of anger and pain. And she has a daughter (played by Cassidy, the young Celeste) brought up by the more responsible sister Eleanor. As she works toward the ultimate concert, a disturbing incident hits the headlines. Halfway around the world, fans wearing her distinctive makeup and clothing commit a random act of terrorism. Is she to blame? Will her career crash and burn? And if she performs her stadium show in her home town, will this lead to yet another massacre?

My brief description of the film suggests a music biopic crossed with an action movie. It’s neither. It’s actually a visual and audio collage of the impressions of a teenaged girl in the high pressure world of pop music, and the adult who emerges from it. Vox Lux is a short film, and at least a third of it is taken up by music performed on a stage before an actual audience. The music is by SIA and actually sung by Natalie Portman. The plot is mainly a background for the director’s experiments with sound and image filtered through the cruel world of social networks. Recurring shots of endless tunnels and aerial views of cities give it a hypnotic effect, and the music gives it a haunting feel. Though the movie feels incomplete, I liked the look and sound of it.

Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)

Wri/Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu

It’s present day Tokyo. Shota (Jyo Kairi) is a young boy living in an urban paradise. He’s smart, resourceful and brave. He studies at home – where he learns not just reading and writing, but also essential survival skills and the ways of the world. He lives with his grandma, his mom and dad and his big sister Aki, a family brimming with love. They are always there to rescue him from trouble and help him through bad times. They share responsibilities and eat dinner together. No one tells Shota to clean his room or wash the dishes. This is a life rich in traditions, superstitions, and family lore. And there’s lots of time to tell stories, go to the beach, or go fishing.

Or

Shota lives in a filthy, ramshackle house, a Dickensian den of petty criminals, thieves and con artists. This so-called family of vaguely-related misfits shoplifts their dinners and daily needs to stay alive. Dad (Lily Franky) works as a casual labourer, Grandma (Kiki Kirin) receives payments from an unknown source, teenaged Aki (Matsuoka Mayu) performs behind glass at a peepshow arcade, and mom, sometimes called auntie or Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) makes do with a parttime job pressing garments in a small factory. Even young Shota helps them all by pocketing food and shampoo while dad distracts the clerks.

But homelife takes a subtle shift with the newest family member.

Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is a little waif, horribly abused and neglected by her young parents… they always see her staring whistfully through her balcony bars, like a prisoner hoping to be rescued. They adopt her into their family, after discovering scars and burn marks all over her arms.

She immediately adapts to her new life, especially the love, attention and lack of fear she never experiences at home. They ask her if she wants to go home, but she adamently refuses… she likes it better here. But when her case becomes known as a kidnapping, it spells trouble. Can the family survive this a brush with authority? Or will it all come tumbling down? And would government intervention make their lives better or worse?

Perhaps I’m biased: I’ve interviewed Kore-eda four times, more than any other director, because I love all his films. But in my opinion Shoplifters is a fantastic movie, definitely one of the year’s best. It deals with poverty, nonconformity and precarious lives coexisting within one of the richest cities in the world. It explores what a family really is: is it something designated by law, or could it be a family by choice, where the members designate their own names and roles.

Hirokazu Kore-eda, TIFF17, photo by Jeff Harris

It stars many of his past actors – Lili Franky, and the late Kiki Kirin – and replays some themes from his early films. Our Little Sister was about whether a half-sister can be accepted into a complete family. Like Father, Like Son, where a family discovers their son was switched at birth, explores whether it’s nature or nurture that makes kinship real (Lili Franky plays the “bad dad” in that film.) After the Storm is about a delinquent dad trying to rebuild his family (also co-starring Lili Franky and Kiki Kirin). The Third Murder, a courtroom drama, deals with an accused murderer and his role as a surrogate parent to a high school girl. And in Nobody Knows, there’s a family made up of abandoned kids living in a highrise in central Tokyo.

Shoplifters (or Shoplifter Family, the more accurate Japanese title) is a culmination of all these films, a distillation of all their best elements.

It’s also exquisitely laden with relics of an older Japan – filled with glass bottles, printed cotton, paper calenders, snow men and fishing trips – that impart a soft, glowing light to all the scenes.

Detailed and nuanced, I strongly recommend Shoplifters to all.

Vox Lux and Shoplifters 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.

Daniel Garber talks with Luis Ortega about El Ángel

Posted in 1970s, Argentina, Crime, Cultural Mining, LGBT, Movies, Parkour, violence by CulturalMining.com on December 14, 2018

Adult language, topics.

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

Its 1971 in Buenos Aires Argentina. Carlitos is an innocent-looking boy with an angelic face and blonde curls. But this teenager has a strange hobby. He enjoys breaking into homes undetected and taking things.

He’s an expert cat burglar, born to steal. He loves what he does, but has no one to share his triumphs with. That is until he meets Ramon. Ramon is bigger, darker, and tougher and comes from a family of petty gangsters. Carlitos is smitten, and soon they’re a team –  one with homoerotic undertones – and together they wreak havoc across the city. And when guns enter the picture, people start to die. Is Carlitos the devil incarnate? Or an angel gone astray?

El Ángel is a new feature film from Argentina written and directed by Luis Ortega. This is Luis’s first film and it features an unknown actor in the title role. El Angel was featured in the Discovery series at TIFF and is opening soon in Toronto.

I spoke to Luis on site at TIFF 18.

El Ángel is Argentina’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

Far from the Madding Crowd. Films reviewed: Border, The Drawer Boy

Posted in 1970s, Acting, Canada, Crime, Fairytales, Farming, Folktale, Horror, Intersex, Sex, Supernatural, Suspicion, Sweden, Theatre, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on November 23, 2018

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

Fall festival season is coming to an end in Toronto but there’s still some left to see. This weekend, watch out for Blood in the Snow. Not literally. BITS is the all-Canadian film fest that shows horror, genre and underground films at the Royal Cinema. And at the ROM this weekend, presented by Ekran and The Polish Filmmakers Association, you can see films with historic themes celebrating 100 years of Poland’s Regained Independence, featuring Andrej Wajda, Roman Polanski and other great Polish directors.

This week, I’m looking at two movies set far from cities. There’s a Canadian actor who thinks a farmer’s stories don’t smell quite write; and a fairytale-like Swedish customs officer who can sniff out crime.

Border

Dir: Ali Abbasi

(Based on a short story by John Lindqvist, author of Let the Rght One In)

Tina (Eva Melander) is a customs officer at a remote ferry dock in rural Sweden. She lives in a cabin in the woods. She feels a kinship with the local foxes and reindeer, more so than with people. She shares her home with a redneck dog trainer named Roland, but rejects his

sexual advances. It just doesn’t feel right. She’s resigned to a life of celibacy, partly because of her very unusual appearance. She’s kind and friendly, but… pretty ugly. She looks almost neanderthal, with her heavy brow, scarred skin, scraggly hair, and a nose like a lion’s. And with that nose comes an amazing sense of smell. She can detect the hidden emotions – shame, cruelty, and evil intent – of smugglers and criminals passing through her customs line. When she sniffs out kiddy porn on a businessman’s cel phone, the local police begin to take notice. They ask her to help them uncover a kidnapping ring.

Meanwhile, one day at the customs house, she sniffs out a strange man. Vore (Finnish actor Eero Milanoff) looks like her and sniffs like she does. She’s suspicious at first but notices a definite attraction. When they finally get together, their sex is explosive! He urges her to run away with him and stop living “like the humans”. Wait… what?!

If they’re not human what are they, exactly? And what other secrets is Vore hiding?

Border is a fantastic Swedish movie, a combination horror and supernatural thriller that manages to be funny, repulsive, touching and shocking (not for the faint of heart). It also deals with a wide range of unexpected topics, from intersexuality and gender transformation, to ostracism, folklore, mental illness, and a whole lot more. The acting is fantastic, the look and feel of this movie is amazing.

If you want to see something truly different, this is a film for you.

The Drawer Boy

Dir: Arturo Pérez Torres, Aviva Armour-Ostroff

Based on the play by Michael Healey

It’s the early 1970s in rural southern Ontario. Miles (Jakob Ehman) is an earnest young actor, part of a Toronto theatre collective that wants to create a play about farmers and farm life. He arrives with a bunch of other actor/hippies, each staying on different farms, who get together, every so often, to rehearse and compare notes. Miles’s new home is run by two men who have lived there since 1945 after serving together in the army.  Angus (Stuart Hughes) bakes bread in the kitchen and keeps the books. He seems a bit touched in the head. In fact he has no short term memory – there’s a metal plate in his brain from a wartime explosion. Morgan (Richard Clarkin) is more like the boss, handling the heavier farm work. Morgan lets Miles stay there as long as he adapts to farm life. That means 3:00 a.m. wake-ups, hard work, and “don’t ask too many questions”. Angus doesn’t like thinking about troubling memories… it gives a headache.

Morgan talks slow and low, like a farmer, but he’s smarter than he looks. He feeds gullible Miles lots of halftruths and impossibilities, which Miles dutifully scribbles down in his ever-present notebook. Things like “dairy cows eat pigs”, and are terrified of humans, knowing they could be slaughtered any day.

Morgan also tells a story to Angus each day, to restore his lost memories. It’s about a boy who draws, two tall sisters, and a house on the farm they were all supposed to share. But when the actors perform their workshop in a barn for all the local farmers, including Angus, something clicks. Seeing his own story performed on the stage, suddenly, like a knock on the head, unleashes a flood of memories. Memories that Morgan doesn’t want Angus to know…

The Drawer Boy is a film adaptation of the famous Canadian play from the 1990s, which itself was about the making of an earlier play in the 1970s. I’m always cautious about plays turned into movies – sometimes the media just don’t match. But don’t worry, this play makes a wonderful movie. It incorporates the drama of the original while adding special effects and scene changes hard to show on stage. The three actors are all excellent, and seeing it in a real barn with real cows, tractors and bales of hay just adds to the realism. The Drawer Boy is a great movie about storytelling, memory, loss, and relationships… a perfect dose of Canadiana on the big screen.

The Drawer Boy and Borders 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.

Heists and Outlaws. Films reviewed: Widows, The Whiskey Bandit, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs PLUS Instant Family

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, Crime, Family, Heist, Hungary, Movies, Western, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 15, 2018

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

Being robbed is everyone’s nightmare… so why do we love heist movies so much? Maybe it’s the excitement and audacity of their heroes and antiheroes. This week, I’m looking at three movies with sympathetic thieves. There’s a professional bank robber in Budapest, four female thieves in the Midwest, and outlaws and gunslingers in the old west.

Widows

Wri/Dir: Steve McQueen

Veronica (Viola Davis) lives in a Chicago penthouse with her loving husband Harry (Liam Neeson), a successful businessman. But when he is killed in a car crash, she discovers the source of his wealth: he’s a professional thief. He – and three other men – died on a job that ended with millions of dollars going up in flames when the getaway van exploded. And some not-so-nice people tell Veronica they want those millions back. What to do? She decides to learn from her husband and form her own gang of thieves for a single, grand heist of their own. But first she needs a team. So she turns to the widows of the men who worked with her husband – total strangers all. Veronica has to convince them all to join in with her plan.

There’s Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) a hardworking mom raising young kids while running her dress shop. With her husband gone she could lose everything. And tall, beautiful Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) has been working as a high-end escort since her abusive husband died. They agree to join Veronica. When the fourth widow pulls out of the scheme they recruit Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) a tough cookie from the projects who can run like lightning. But can four inexperienced women pull off a complex home robbery and outsmart organized criminals who hold all the cards?

Widows is a complex thriller, involving not just the four women but also corrupt Chicago politicians, gangsters, preachers, and power brokers. It portrays the city as rotten to the core. It co-stars Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall and Daniel Kaluuya, but the men in this movie are just distractions; women are the core, unusual for a crime thriller. This is artist-turned-director Steve McQueen‘s first mainstream genre movie. Widows is sophisticated, well-acted and skilfully made, but… it’s just a movie. It isn’t deep or emotionally jarring like his earlier movies Hunger, and Twelve Years a Slave.

It kept me interested but left me feeling hollow inside.

The Whiskey Bandit

Wri/Dir: Nimród Antal

It’s the 1980s in Transylvania, Romania. Atilla Ambruzs (Bence Szalay) is a poor young man, neglected and beaten by his father, sent to juvie for petty theft, and enlisted into the army, where he’s an excellent marksman. As an ethnic Hungarian in Ceaucescu’s Romania he has no future. So he escapes across the border by strapping his belt to the bottom of a train and holding on for dear life.

In Budapest, he’s welcomed with open arms and given a job, a home and status. No, just kidding. He’s penniless, homeless and without legal status. Worse, in Hungary he’s derided as Romanian! He finally finds work: as a combination goalie and janitor for a pro-hockey team. No pay, but at least he has a place to live.

One night, drinking beer with his buddies, he spots the woman of his dreams. He chases her to the subway, and offers her flowers. Is this love at first sight? But Kata (Piroska Móga) is educated from a rich family, while Atilla is a penniless alien. He needs the proper papers to get ahead, but they require a hefty bribe. So he turns to bank robbing… and he’s very good at it. He never fires a shot, never hurts anybody, just leapfrogs the tellers and grabs the cash from the banks safes. And he always avoids the cops– He climb walls, jump from buildings, even swim across the Danube to escape. He disguises his appearance with caps, aviator glasses and a fake moustache, leaving nothing behind but the smell of alcohol on his breath. As his exploits pile up, so does his infamy, dubbed the Whiskey Bandit in the news media and adored as a folk hero. And he lives lavishly – telling Kata and his teammates he made his fortune importing bear skins. But how long will his luck hold out?

The Whiskey Bandit is a great crime/action movie, from the director of the great sci-fi action movie “Predators”. Most of the film is narrated by the Bandit telling his story to a crooked detective (Zoltan Schneider). Szalay and Móga have great chemistry, and the story really grabs you. This is a great, rollicking action/adventure. And turns out, it’s based on a true story.

I really enjoyed this one.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Wri/Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen

It’s the mid 19th Century in the wild, wild west. Picture: wagon trains and prospectors, cowboys and bank robbers. Outlaws and bounty hunters. Their stories are told in a series of short episodes, each its own complete film. Genres change, film by film – musical, serious drama, near horror, or comedy, nicely balanced over a two hour show. They’re tied together by the turning pages of an old book of illustrated western tales, but they owe more to Hollywood westerns. The title story is about a singing cowboy all dressed in white… who turns out to be a serial killer. Like most Coen brothers movies this one doesn’t skimp on guns, violence and dark, dark humour.

I usually dislike anthology films, but in this film, it works. The dramas are tiny, perfect and very pessimistic. Standout performances include Zoe Kazan as an indecisive young woman on the Oregan trail (this is her second wagon train movie, after Kelly Reichardt’s great Meek’s Cutoff); Tom Waits as a prospector looking for Mister Pocket, his streak of gold; and Harry Melling (from the Harry Potter movies) as an armless, legless orator travelling from town to town. It’s very much a traditional Hollywood western with cowboys, stand-offs, and shootouts – and, regretably, indigenous characters still portrayed as “noble savages”, even in 2018. (But in fact all the other characters have stereotypical, largely negative personalities, too.)

Still, it feels like much more than the sum of its parts. superior acting, wonderful music and scenery… This is a great Coen brothers movie.

Also opening today is…

Instant Family

Dir: Sean Anders

Pete and Ellie (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) are a happily married, middle-aged couple. They design and renovate houses, and play golf in their spare time. But something is missing… kids! But if they start a family now, they’ll be old folks by the time the kid grows up. But what if they adopt? They join a foster care class run by two social workers (Tig Notaro and Octavio Spencer) who teach them the ins and outs. But when they decide to give it a go, they somehow end up with three foster kids, Lita, Juan and Lizzie. An instant family. Lita (Juliana Gamiz) is a wild child who only eats potato chips. Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) is a scared, accident-prone introvert. And Lizzie (Isabela Moner), age 15, is their surrogate mother, and won’t listen to anything her foster parents tell her. They were abandoned by their birth mother, an addict and petty criminal. Pete and Ellie decide they’ll be their new mom and dad. But will the kids accept them? And when their birth mother is released from prison will they lose these kids they’ve been trying so hard to raise?

Inspired by the director’s own story, Instant Family is equal parts comedy, tear jerker, and realistic look at adoption. It alternates between Ellie, Pete and the kids, the couple’s various relatives (the two grandmas are hilarious, the rest of the relatives just irritating); and the foster parent support group they attend regularly to compare notes. To be honest, this isn’t the sort of movie I would normally go to if I weren’t a film critic. but once there, I did laugh, tear up or cringed, depending on the scene. So if you like inspiring and occasionally funny movies about struggling through parenthood, this is a film for you.

Instant Family, and Widows open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and you can see The Whiskey Bandit tonight at 8:30 at the Royal Cinema as part of the EU Film Festival.

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

%d bloggers like this: