Dancing. Films reviewed: Nang by Nang, Dancehall’s Asian Ambassadors, Saturday Church at #CaribbeanTales

Posted in African-Americans, Dance, documentary, Drama, Jamaica, Japan, LGBT, Music by CulturalMining.com on August 31, 2018

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

Toronto’s Fall Film Festival Season has begun, people, bringing you a first look at the best movies you’ll be watching over the next year. TIFF is the grandmother of all Toronto festivals – and you’ll be hearing a lot more about that one in weeks to come – but you shouldn’t miss the smaller festivals that come right before and after TIFF. September 20-23 is TPFF, Toronto Palestine Film Festival celebrates Arab cinema at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. And before TIFF is Caribbean Tales, showing films and docs from Trinidad to Jamaica to Barbados and Haiti, as well as the US, Canada and South Africa. Caribbean Tales starts Wednesday (running Sept 5 – 20) with a sneak preview of HERO, about the legendary Ulric Cross.

This week I’m talking about three movies at Caribbean Tales. There’s a one-time dancer in Trinidad, Japanese dancehall DJs in Jamaica, and a boy in New York who is yearning to dance.

Nang by Nang

Dir: Richard Fung

Nang is a 90 year old woman in Trinidad with a remarkable history. She was illegitmate – didn’t meet her father, a playboy, until she was in her 20s, but she knows her background well. Her ancestry reads like a Caribbean history lesson: she’s part Chinese, part Black, but also descended from Indian indentured servants and indigenous peoples as well. Her names range from Dorothy to Mavis to Russel to Anang, constantly changing and morphing throughout her life. . As a young woman she joined a dance troup headed by brothers Geoffrey and Bosco Holder. (Choreographer Geoffrey Holder is most famous in North America for The Wiz and his role in James Bond movies.) Though not a trained dancer they loved her beautiful face and natural skills and she embraced the behemian lifestyle.

In this documentary filmmaker Richard Fung meets his aunt for the first time and uncovers her story. They journey back to her former houses spread across the islands and all the way to New Mexico. She has married many times, and she shares stories and photos of men long dead. She has outlived everyone, from a loving husband, to a professional, to a playboy and to a scoundrel. Nang by Nang is a personal history that serves as a fascinating look at a women with in a multifaceted and polyglot culture.

Dancehall’s Asian Ambassadors

Dir: Kaneal Gayle

For such a small island, Jamaica has a huge influence on music around the world. Ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall are adored by listeners who have never been to the caribbean. But there’s one place you might not immediately associate with Jamaican music… and that’s Japan! But did you know they’ve had a huge underground reggae scene there since the 1970s? And now Dancehall has landed in Japan and is growing in popularity.

Dancehall’s Asian Ambasaadors follows four Japanese women who fell in love with genre and moved to Jamaica to be nearer to its pulse. With names like Rankin Pumpkin, and Kiss Kiss, they they are music organizers, DJs, dancers and singers, competing on TV and attracting international audiences on youtube. The English they speak is Jamaican, and they earn a living by driving cabs, exporting local music and parephernalia, and importing fans from back home who want to explore the scene.

As one woman says: life in Japan is easier, and more comfortable than Jamaica, but no vibes.

Saturday Church

Wri/Dir: Damon Cardasis

Ulysses (Luka Cain) is a high school kid in New York. He lives with his mom and little brother Abe. His soldier-dad recently died in action, so his mother has invited stern Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) to help take care of the kids. Ulysses is an altar boy, a good kid with a face as angelic as the saints on the stained glass windows. But he has a forbidden secret: He likes his to try on his mom’s shoes and clothes.

No one at school has seen this, but the locker room jocks can sense something anyway, and constantly bully him. Homelife is equally perilous, with Abe threatening to tell mean Aunt Rose. Is there no escape? One weekend, he hops on the subway to Greenwich village to explore, and ends up on the Christopher Street Pier. There he meets some women like he’s never seen before. With exotic names like Dijon, Ebony and Heaven (Indya Moore, Mj Rodriguez, Alexia Garcia), they exude confidence and attitude. One of them, Amara (Margot Bingham) takes him under her wing and leads him to a sanctuary. Saturday Church offers him food shelter and a space to feel free.

It’s also where he is first exposed to vogueing, the life blood of the women he met. And a boy named Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez) – his first boyfriend? But when things explode at home between him and aunt Rose, he runs away. And he discovers his church sanctuary is only open on Saturdays. He’s left homeless, lost and vulnerable. Can he survive life on the streets?

Saturday Church sounds like another sensitive coming-out story about a black teen in New York. What’s remarkable, though, is that throughout the movie, the characters burst into intricately-choreographed dances and songs. From locker rooms to homeless shelters to locker rooms, characters suddenly switch to impromptu, modern-dance-inspired musical numbers and torch songs. Luka Cain is great as Ulysses, and Saturday Church is an inspiring and unusual musical.

Saturday Church, Nang by Nang and Dancehall’s Asian Ambassadors and many others are all playing at CaribbeanTales film festival, which opens next Wednesday with Hero.

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

 

 

 

Visuals. Films reviewed: Papillon, We the Animals, Madeline’s Madeline

Posted in 1930s, Coming of Age, Dance, Drama, Family, France, LGBT, Prison, violence by CulturalMining.com on August 24, 2018

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

All movies need good sound and pictures, but in some films the visual aspects are especially notable. This week, I’m looking at three, new, visually-oriented movies, with two approaching the avant-garde.

We’ve got three brothers exploring their home, two men escaping from a desert island, and one young actress channelling her inner self.

Papillon

Dir: Michael Noer

It’s 1930s Paris and Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Charley Hunnam) is living the life of Riley. He’s fit, smart and well-to-do, and is passionately in love with his beautiful wife. He figures at this current income he could retire in six more months. His job? An expert safe-cracker, working freelance for the mob. But his luck runs out when he is sent down for a murder he didn’t commit. Papillon is a good fighter but not a killer. They send him off to an inescable prison in French Guyana but he is already planning on how to get out. On board the ship he meets Louis Dega (Rami Malek) a small but snobbish counterfeiter with glasses. Dega is rich – he keeps a roll of bills hidden up his rectum – but can’t defend himself, and Papillon needs money to get away. Together they form a grudging alliance that deepens as their friendship grows.

Prison life – including hard labour – is brutal, with violence coming both from other inmates and from the guards. Any escape attempt means two years in solitary, with absolute silence required Repeated attempts mean permanent exile to Devils island a cliff covered desert. Papillon – his nickname comes from a butterfly tat on his chest – takes the fall for dega when he blows an escape attempt. He keeps from going insane in solitary by keeping his inner mind awake. The warden wants to break him, but Papillon never gives up.

Can he ever escape this hell-hole? And can Dega make it out too?

Perhaps because I’ve read Papillon’s true prison memoirs, and seen the 1970s film (starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman) this version seems too long and two slow… almost like a prison sentence. Still, it is visually gorgeous with period costumes, exotic settings, and epic scenery. Hunnam and Malek – two actors I really like — carry their roles well. So I ended up liking it, mainly as an adventure/action movie.

We the Animals

Dir: Jeremiah Zagar

It’s the 1980s. Manny, Joel and Jonah (Isaiah Kristian, Josiah Gabriel, Evan Rosado) are three biracial brothers in their tweens who live in a country home in upstate New York. Their Ma (Sheila Vand) has pale skin and long black hair – she works in a bottling plant. Pops (Raul Castillo) is Puerto Rican and looks like Freddie Mercury with his buzzed hair and black moustache. He keeps the boys’ hair buzzed short just like his, but Jonah, the youngest, has his mother’s blue eyes. Mom wants him to stay with her and never grow up and turn bad. Always stay nine years old, she says. Together the three boys run rampant around the house in the woods, though Jonah is shyer than his brothers, and afraid to go swimming.

Their playful and fun lives are interrupted by reality when Paps beats up mom, and drives away. She locks herself in her bedroom, so there’s no one to feed them. They become like wild animals exploring local stores and farms for food they can steal. On their travels they meet another kid. Dustin, who shows them their first porn videos and shares their first smokes. He’s from Phillie, and Jonah adores him. Will he and Dustin run away to somewhere they can be together?

We the Animals is an amazingly beautiful movie about growing up, as seen through a young boy’s eyes. He narrates the story, and keeps a record of everything in his secret journal along with bold crayon drawings. These drawings are animated in the film, and together with handlheld camera shots and aerial optics, we feel like we’re part of Jonah’s thoughts and dreams. The three, first-time actors are fantastic as the brothers, as are the parents.

We the Animals is a gorgeous, surreal film.

Madeline’s Madeline

Dir: Josephine Decker

Madeline (Helena Howard) is a young, biracial stage actress in NY City. She lives with her mom (Miranda July) and little brother She has her own bedroom decorated with fashion photos of models with their faces cut out and replaced by skies, clouds and sunsets. She sometimes sneaks in friends and prospective boyfriends to chat and maybe maybe more, but she’s always on the lookout for her overprotective mother… ready to intrude into her private life. But there’s a reason her mom is so intrusive. Madeline is prone to undiagnosed “episodes”, brought on by God knows what. She behaves erratically, inappropriately possibly even violent, so her mom tries not to upset her.

Currently Madeline is cast in an avant-garde stage project directed by Evangeline (Molly Parker). The actors – think yoga outfits and man buns – enter the minds of animals they imagine. It’s part acting, part movement, part dance, performed wearing masks. Evangeline is a Jungian, and longs to share in her actors’ thoughts and dreams, especially Madeline’s. She is obsessed by her, perhaps because Evangeline is pregnant and she sees Madeline as her baby (Evangeline’s unborn baby is also biracial).

So now it’s up to Madeline to negotiate her fraught relationship wihth her mother, a new one with her surrogate mom, and her inner turmoil that torments her dreams. All this while playing a version of herself in the project. Can Madeline, and the inner-Madeline she’s channelling – survive the daily stress of a scriptless production? Or is it too much for a 17 year old to handle?

Madeline’s Madeline is a semi-mystical look at the process of putting on an avant garde play. You have to accept the premise of experimental theatre to get the movie, but once you do, it works. The three main actors – supported by a group of almost mute performers – makes a great mom-daughter-mom rivalry, but Helena Howard especially stands out with her great and unpredictable acting.

Papillon, We the Animals and Madeline’s Madeline 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.

Urban stories. Films reviewed: STEP, Menashe PLUS TIFF17 preview

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Dance, documentary, Drama, Family, Judaism, Movies, Yiddish by CulturalMining.com on August 12, 2017

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

TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival is still a month away, but already some of the movies are generating buzz, even before anyone’s seen them. Here are some I want to see. Call Me by Your Name looks at a boy in northern Italy who has a crush on an older visiting student. It’s directed by Luca Guadagnino who brought us This is Love. Mary Shelly could be a conventional historical biopic about the author of Frankenstein, but what’s so interesting is this is the second film by Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who brought us the delightiful Wadjda five years ago. The Shape of Water features Sally Hawkins as a mute cleaning woman working in a secret weapons lab, who discovers she can communicate with a Creature from the Black Lagoon kept captive in a glass tank. It was made in Toronto by the great Guillermo del Toro. I’ll have some more buzz about Canadian movies next week.

But this week I’m talking about two American films centred on urban life: a documentary on school life in Baltimore, and a drama about home life in Brooklyn.

STEP

Dir: Amanda Lipitz

BLSYW (or “Bliss”), the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is a public charter school with a clearly stated goal: that all of its students (mainly African-American girls and young women) will not just graduate each year but will continue on to college or university. And at the core of this school is their Step team. Step is a competitive sport that combines athletics, dance and theatrical performance, driven by music and rhythm. The intense practice and teamwork helps motivate the young women to succeed in their studies and fosters a sense of responsibility.

This documentary follows three of the students — Cori, Tayla and Blessin – as they attempt to achieve their goals. The three use their brains, skills and charisma to succeed. This also means getting their families to cooperate. The cameras follow them home so you meet their families, atoo. And at school it’s Coach G and their guidance counsellor who carry the story on. Together can they break away and rise up from the poverty and oppresssion faced by so many Baltimoreans for so many generations? Or will life, and the normal pressures they face, drag them down?

STEP follows their lives in the newly formed school against the background of the killing of Freddy Gray by local police. It shows how the Black Lives Matter movement — and the political awakening that accompanied it — enters the girls’ lives and even their Step performances.

This is a fascinating and inspiring look specifically at one charter school in Baltimore. It doesn’t deal with controversies over the charter system in general, or how charter schools might affect other schools in the public system. But it does provide a feel-good story that hopefully will motivate youth throughout that country to achieve their goals. Either way, it’s an enjoyable, funny and touching look at the lives of three girls.

Menashe

Dir: Joshua Z Weinstein

Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a single dad who lives in a self-contained Hasidic community in Brooklyn. He’s chubby with an unkempt red beard and rimless glasses. He has a low-paying job at a local grocery store unloading boxes, sweeping the floor and as a cashier. And for fun, he studies religious books, and sings songs with his friends over a cup of schnapps. He’s coping with his economic troubles, but faces an even bigger one: the community disapproves of single parent households. He has lived alone with his young son Rievele (Ruben Niborski) his only source of happiness since his wife died earlier that year. But they’re pressuring him to marry again, and arranging dates. He wants none of that — can’t they just leave him alone? Apparently not. And to force the issue, his brother in law Yitsig has forced his son to move in with his family until Menashe marries again. He did this with the approval of their rabbi, so Menashe is forced to go along with it or his son could be kicked out of school.

His brother in law is everything Menashe is not. He makes good income selling real estate, lives in an expensive brownstone. Itsig has a silken black beard almost two feet long and wears a black coat and fur hat when he goes outside. He treats Menashe disdainfully, calling him demeaning names to his face.

But Menashe is granted reprieve: his son can move back home until the one year anniversary of his wife’s death. Can he prove he’s a fit father by then? Or will his clumsy nature and bad luck alienate his father son relationship and what’s left of his status in the insular ultra-orthodox community?

Menashe is a touching and realistic drama based on actual events in the actor Menashe’s life. Most remarkable of all is the dialogue is entirely in Yiddish, peppered with a few English words, like “plastic bag” and she’s “not my type”. The cast is largely composed of non-actors. A gently-paced movie, it gives a look behind the scenes, from the plastic wash basin kept under his bed, to the large white cap Ruben wears to sleep each night. Menashe is a slice-of-life family drama rarely scene on film.

Step and Menashe 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 to burlesque stars Judith Stein and Camille 2000 and director Rama Rau about The League of Exotique Dancers

Posted in Breasts, Burlesque, Canada, Dance, documentary, Feminism, Sex Trade, Strippers, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 20, 2016

Judith Stein, Camille 2000Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Photos by Jeff Harris.

In the days before pole dancing and pornhub, ecdysiasts plied their trade in show palaces across North America. These women performed their acts on stage with live music, costumes, and comedians. It was known as burlesque and Camille 2000, Rama Rau, Judith Steinproduced stars of its own, known for their songs, dances and looks. Burlesque reached its heyday in the 1950s and 60s before taking its last bows.

Now the original dancers are performing together again at a special Las Vegas show honoring inductees into the Burlesque Hall of Fame. A veritable League of Exotic Dancers.

The League of Exotique DancersThe League of Exotique Dancers is also the name of a new documentary that had its world premier at Hot Docs. It’s directed by award-winning Toronto-based filmmaker Rama Rau and features the original burlesque stars. I spoke with Rama Rau and burlesque artists Canadian Grand Beaver Judith Stein and Camille 2000.

They told me about the glamour and costumes of burlesque, Judith and Camille’s early days, burlesque vs neo-burlesque, burlesque and Bollywood, why strip bars pushed burlesque out of the picture… and more!

The League of Exotique Dancers opens today at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker German Kral about his new film Our Last Tango

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Argentina, Cultural Mining, Dance, documentary, Romance by CulturalMining.com on December 25, 2015

Director German Kral

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

Juan Carlos Copes and Maria Nieves met as teenagers in a Buenos Aires dance hall. They became dance partners and tangoed together through thick and thin in a famously rocky relationship. But it ended in 1997 after almost 50 years p6a6_IMG5252together when they danced their Last Tango.

Our Last Tango is also the name of a new documentary that looks at the famous couple through the years, as they turned their dancing from recreation to performance. Through new interviews it documents their history using dance recreations. The film was created by award-winning director German Krall, and produced by Pena director Wim Wenders. The film played at the Toronto International Film Festival and opens in Toronto on Christmas Day.

I spoke with German in Buenos Aires by telephone from Toronto.

Creative Help. Movies Reviewed: Desert Dancer, True Story, Masters of Suspense

Posted in comedy, Crime, Cultural Mining, Dance, Drama, Iran, Journalism, Movies, Quebec by CulturalMining.com on April 17, 2015

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

Do you have a story to tell but need help getting it down on paper? Or maybe you just want to express yourself, but you can’t do it alone – you need other people to work with. This week I’m looking at three movies. An accused murderer looking for a journalist to tell his story; an Iranian student seeking friends to dance with; and a successful Quebec novelist hiring a ghostwriter to write his book for him.

Desert DancerDesert Dancer
Dir: Richard Raymond

Afshin is a little boy in southern Iran who loves to dance. His teacher recognizes his creative nature but knew school wasn’t the place for it. o He signs him up for classes at the Saba Arts Academy. There he learns that in Iran there are two worlds: the outside world where you have to toe the line, and the inside world where you can do what you want… as long as nobody finds out.

Flash forward and Afshin (Reece Ritchie) goes to University in the big city – Teheran. A place where he can go wild, he thinks. But there, too, he learns he 69757-M-166_Still-Request-3834_rgbneeds to be careful. The Basaji – the morality police – keep their eyes out for anything too western or licentious. And thugs who work for President Ahmadinejad’s party – it’s an election year – are even worse, violently suppressing dissent and protest. He must be careful. He meets a circle of friends on campus and they decide to do something creative. With the help of Elaheh (Freida Pinto) the daughter of a modern dancer, they create a dance club on campus. So what? You may be thinking. What’s the big deal? The big deal is that the country is like that small town in Footloose – dancing is forbidden.

_SDM0097.jpgSo they continue dancing secretly, behind closed doors. But for Afshin that’s not enough. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there… So they plan a public performance far away from intruding eyes. They will dance in the desert, among the rocks and sand dunes. But, he doesn’t realize that one member of the club has an older brother who wants him to report on his friends, find out what their up to, and catch them in the act.. Can Afshin and his friends perform their dance? Or will they end up in prison… or worse?

Based on a true story, Desert Dancer is good look at life in present-day Iran. The two stars, Reece Ritchie and Freida Pinto are neither Persian nor dancers, but they are both good actors, so that’s not so important. The movie itself is the problem. It’s too earnest and plodding, and not moving enough. It’s hard to make the personal struggle of one amateur dancer… into a Gandhi.

image-165c3f6f-e645-47fb-8611-a97bc1a663ecTrue Story
Dir: Rupert Goold

Mike (Jonah Hill) is a celebrated reporter who jets around the world writing feature stories for the NY Times Magazine. But when they catch him fudging facts in an article, They fire him. Deeply embarrassed, he goes back home to Wyoming to be with his wife Jill (Felicity Jones). Then something strange happens: a story falls into his lap. An American is arrested in Mexico for fleeing after murdering his wife and three kids. And the name he gives is Michael Finkel – that’s Mike’s name. He’s intrigued so he visits the man in a high security prison. Christian Longo (James Franco) says he used Mike’s name when he was on the lam image-ecb2619b-6986-479a-9948-91d08c2d2f4bbecause he had read all his articles and respected him. So he gives Mike all his handwritten papers that he says show the real story of what happened to his wife and three children. It’s a chilling and scary story, told in scribbles and drawings. They make a deal – the disgraced reporter gets a potential bestseller and a reputation, while Chris gets a professional reporter to tell his image-9f77255b-a544-49bc-89ab-0e1544dc83bcside of the story. But it can’t be released until after the trial. Who’s fooling who? Are Chris’s stories true? Or are they made from whole cloth?

True Story is not a great movie, but it’s not a bad one, either. Hill and Franco have already made two movies together – both silly pothead comedies. This one is serious. So are they believable as accused killer and reporter? Yeah… I guess. It’s the director’s first feature, and you can tell. There are some painfully bad scenes, slow and awkward, especially Jonah Hill’s scenes at the start of the movie. And the film as a whole is a bit of a letdown. Luckily there’s enough meat in the middle to keep you watching and interested.

10662147_685552898180782_20430642239133877_oMasters of Suspense
Dir: Stéphane Lapointe

Hubert Wolfe (Michel Cote) is a rare thing — a rich, successful pulp novelist – out of Quebec. Books and movies about detective Scarlett Noe, has brought him fame and fortune. He might even get to date the actress who plays Scarlett (Maria de Medeiros). But nobody knows — except one man — that he doesn’t actually write the books. Dany Cabana (Robin Aubert) has been his ghostwriter for a dozen years, churning out the novels but getting none of the glory or respect.

Dany is married with a kid, and ready to ready to start on the latest book: “Paradise Zombie”. But his wife leaves him because she considers him a failure — she doesn’t realize he’s a successful ghostwriter – he has a non-disclosure contract). Dany stops writing and drowns his sorrows at the bar. Allyssa the bartender (Anne Hopkins) is a Louisiana expat who in the past kept him up-to-date with story ideas from the swamps back home. But now the ghostwriter has to hire a ghostwriter. He subcontracts to Quentin (Antoine Betrand) a daycare worker who also writes kids books. Quentin is a good storyteller but, 10712657_716892658380139_5127358223572381622_ovirginal and shy around grownups, he still lives with his mom. All three face an imminent deadline: the book must be finished immediately. Somehow they all end up in New Orleans, where the novel takes place. But, in a Romancing the Stone-type reversal, they land up in real trouble, involving criminals, voodoo zombies and redneck cops. They’re all in way over their heads. Will they ever finish the book and escape to the safety of Montreal?

This is a fun, cute, mainstream story out of Quebec. Like a lot of Quebec comedy, it goes for dubious ethnic stereotypes, like scenes involving African Americans as fanatical, half-naked voodoo worshippers. But they’re equal opportunity insulters – everyone in the film is seedy, rude and dubious.  I enjoyed it. See it just for the fun of it.

Desert Dancer and True Story both open today in Toronto: check your local listings.  Masters of Suspense plays tonight – its English Canada debut – as part of the Cinefranco film festival: go to cinefranco.com for details. And be sure to check out the imagesfestival, which continues through the weekend.

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

Sticking Your Neck Out. Hot Docs Movies Reviewed: An Honest Liar, Point and Shoot, Demonstration

Posted in Barcelona, Cultural Mining, Dance, documentary, Hotdocs, L.A., Libya, Magic, Prison, Protest, Resistance, Road Movie, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2014

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

Cel-phone cameras are ubiquitous now. So it’s getting harder to separate the relentless recording of everyday life from a real documentary. Filmmakers really have to stick their necks out to find something amazing and surprising and beautiful. But some do just that. This week, I’m looking at three films playing at Hot Docs. There’s a magician who exposes tricksters; an adventurer who joins a (non-religious) jihad; and political demonstrators… who dance?

An_Honest_Liar_1An Honest Liar

Dir: Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom

The Magnificent Randi was a Toronto-born magician and escape artist who modeled himself after the Great Houdini. Like Houdini, he is famous for his deception and dramatic escapes.  And like Houdini, he devoted his second career to exposing the fake fakers: the ones who bamboozle audiences into thinking their tricks are for real. I’m talking faith healing televangelists like Peter “out poison!” Popov, the fake TV psychics, and the pseudo-scientific prestidigitators. He has a long-held rivalry with Uri Geller, the spoon bender from the 60s and 70s who claims he has telekinetic powers.

Randi also showed how easily scientists can be fooled as they tried to probe alien An_Honest_Liar_3abductions and ESP. Using young collaborators and his own deceptions, Randi manages to fool even a dedicated scientist if he tried. He secretly places students (who claim they have special abilities) into the experimental pool, and later reveals his tricks – much to the dismay of the scientists. He provides the scientists with a list of what to look out for, but still manages to slip through the cracks. Today he lives in California with a dramatic white beard and walks with gold-topped cane.

This is a fascinating and very well-crafted story, with a twist all its own. Turns out his longtime partner and collaborator, Puerto Rican artist Jose Alvarez, has a lie he keeps under wraps for three decades. Ironically, the two met on the old TV quiz show To Tell The Truth. These honest liars make for a very interesting movie.

Point_And_Shoot_3Point and Shoot

Dir: Marshall Curry

Matthew Van Dyke was a coddled kid from Baltimore, “the only child of an only child of an only child”. Fascinated by movies like Lawrence of Arabia, the blue-eyed boy dreams of exotic and dangerous adventures.  At the same time, he’s also a cube of quivering jello with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and a remarkable sugar phobia. So, after university (Middle Eastern Studies), Matt decides to take a crash course in Manhood. He sets off on a motorcycle trip from Gibraltar to Afghanistan, across North Africa and the Middle East. He documents all his travels with a video camera and a helmet attachment. In Iraq and Afganistan, as a freelance war reporter, he falls in with US soldiers. They teach him the basics of rifle shooting, machine gunning and missile launching. OK… fun and exciting, I’m sure, but mere backpacking adventures do not a Hot Docs movie make.

But here’s what happened next. When he reconnects with a Libyan hippie friend he’d Point_And_Shoot_1met in his travels, he ends up sneaking into Libya during its civil war. He joins the Benghazi rebels, fighting Gaddafi’s soldiers, and standing beside men shouting Allahu Akbar as they fire missiles at far off targets! Things take a turn for the worse and Matt ends up in solitary confinement in a government prison. His mother and girlfriend are terrified. Will he get out? And if he does, where will he go next?

Point and Shoot is a great adventure story about a man who carries a Leica camera in one hand and an AK 47 in the other. It is politically naïve — the movie doesn’t talk much about geo-political issues, ideologies, or the long-term ramifications of that war. Its real strength is as a first-hand look at a fascinating and exciting personal adventure.

Demonstration_1Demonstration

Dir: Viktor Kossokovsky (and 32 others)

A year ago, Spain was in economic turmoil when it’s right-wing government imposed crushing austerity measures. This led to huge demonstrations. In 2013, 32 students in Barcelona, each armed with a video camera, record it all, right in the middle. The general strike, the crowds, and the peaceful marches… and the less than peaceful responses from the riot police. The demonstrators seem split between those who wear Gandhi masks – peaceful disobedience – and the hacktivists in their Guy Fawkes masks.

This movie, though, is about the beauty of crowds, and movement. The running back and forth, the burning dumpsters, and the attacks from helmetted police.  It’s set to Minkus’s Don Quixote, and its beautiful and revealing. Against a backdrop of Gaudi’s Demonstration_4curvy, drippy architecture you see an old-timer who has been demonstrating most of his life, and young students out for their first demo. And some secrets revealed: dozens of “Black Bloc” activists are seen climbing happily into police vans (not arrested); they’re all agents provocateurs, planted in the crowd to ignite violence and justify police attacks.

Demonstration is an artistic look at a public protest.

All of these movies and more are playing through Sunday at Hotdocs. All students and seniors can go to daytime screenings for free! Go to hotdocs.ca for details. And Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival also opens today and continues all next week, including a brand new Canadian movie called the Pin – about young lovers hiding in Lithuania during WWII – and it’s in Yiddish. Looks interesting… Go to tjff.com for more info.

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

The Life and Times of Leos Carax: Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Mauvais Sang, Pola X, Holy Motors

Posted in Art, Cultural Mining, Dance, Fantasy, France by CulturalMining.com on August 22, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking Boymeetsgirl_photofest_01_mediumat high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Leos Carax is a French Director. He’s one of those filmmakers that you may not have heard of, but who, once you see his movies, you’ll be hooked. He’s impossible to categorize, partly because he’s not like any other director, and partly because he’s not even like himself – he’s constantly changing his style and techniques. They shift from absurdist, comic-book-like films, to classic film noir gangster movies, to hyper-realistic semi-documentaries, and then back again. The one constant, in almost all his films, is the actor Denis Lavant.

Loversonthebridge_frl_03_mediumLes Amants du Pont-Neuf

Dir: Leos Carax

The first Leos Carax film I saw was Les Amant du Pont Neuf – Lovers on the Bridge. It’s a simple, — but not simplistic – story of an artist who is going blind (Juliette Binoche) who meets Alex, a street busker (Denis Lavant). They fall in love, sort of, and meet on an ancient Paris bridge that’s under repairs.  With the help of an eccentric, white-bearded hobo named Hans, the two of them try to stay together… but can they?

When I first saw this movie I thought – who the hell is playing this guy, alex? Denis Lavant is an intense performer who uses fire, acrobatics and bodily contortions and fighting as part of his acting. The movie feels like Carax just run into this busker on the street at random, and decided to film him. (That’s not the case, obviously). Oh yeah, and in this movie he doesn’t really speak. He’s an unbreakable but cartoonish figure, while Binoche is a tragic and passionate heroine.

Critics tend to exaggerate the importance of movies, every poster has some critic saying a movie is the best thing ever. Personally, I think hyperbole is the most overated technique in the world – no the universe… But honestly, if you’re a cinephile, if you love movies, you should be required to see Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. It’s that different, that important.

Mauvaissang_photofest_01_mediumMauvais Sang

… was one of Carax’s earliest films, the second one he made. It’s as complex as Pont Neuf is simple. This is about two young lovers, Lise and Alex (played by a teenaged Julie Delpy and Denis Lavant), happy and carefree in the fields of Paris. He is known as a trickster – he picks up extra income doing street scams like three card monte in dark allies. But Alex is pulled away from this life by a pair of aging gangsters.

They know him from working with his late father, and they need Alex – known for his nimble fingers – to help pull off a complicated theft. You see, they owe money to an older American woman, also a gangster; if they pull off the heist, she’ll will cancel their debt. If not… they’re dead meat.

What’s the heist? They have to break into a lab and steal a deadly sexually transmitted virus called STBO, that could kill millions, and whose vaccine would be worth a fortune. (This movie was made in 1986, during the height of the HIV plague).

Alex agrees. He leaves his motorcycle with Lise and flees the city – only to be smitten by the gorgeous Anna (Juliette Binoche) , the mistress of one of the white-haired gangsters. But she rejects him, saying she’s attracted to much older men, bigger men, not to him.

And Lise, meanwhile, won’t let Alex leave her.

Mauvais Sang is a highly-stylized film, filled with peeping toms, bizarre scenes of jumping out of airplanes, staring up at windows, and chase scenes down those long French roads lined with plane trees.

Sometimes it feels like he’s mocking the audience, that it’s all just a big parody; and then it’ll shift into an amazingly passionate and playful scene between Binoche and Lavant and you’re totally caught up in it.

The women in this movie are always smartly dressed and coiffed, while the men, even the older gangsters, seem to walk around semi-clothed, with shirtless chase scenes and shootouts.

In this film, Lavant is still a boy, given to extended shots of him racing down a street, shifting from modern dance to shadow boxing to spontaneous handsprings. Binoche is a pixie with a black, page-boy haircut with flawless, porcelain skin and red lips. The two of them setting up scenes of unrequited love you can follow in Les Amant du Pont- Neuf. Wow – what a movie.

Pola X

…was made in 1999, and it feels different from his other movies. It’s about Pierre (Guillaume Pola X (1999 France)  Directed by Leos Carax Shown: Guillaume DepardieuDepardieu), a young novelist from a very rich family. He wears only white linen and hops in and out of bed with his equally blonde fiancée. His publisher loves his innocence and immaturity. But Pierre  wants to experience reallife. Then his controlling mother (Catherine Deneuve) discovers a secret – some old papers that his late father (a French diplomat who served in Eastern Europe) left behind.

Meanwhile, Pierre discovers that a scruffy, dark-haired street woman is following him – who is she? Listen to her story: (clip)

When he discovers that she may be his blood sister, he throws away his best friend, his fiancé, his family and wealth and plunges into her life of danger and poverty… and possibly, love.

Were this by any other director, I’d say, wow, cool, passionate drama – but it feels like something’s missing. While it has a lot of Carax’s touches – it feels like his most main-stream or conventional film. What’s missing is Denis Lavant. Lavant is a very unusual-looking movie star – he has a compact muscular body, a flattened nose, gap-teeth, scarred skin. He can also do just about anything – magic, acrobatics, dance… anything. In comparison, the late Depardieu (he tragically died from an infection) while compelling, just doesn’t seem to match the greatness and strangeness of someone like Lavant.

Finally,

holymotors_wildbunch_02_mediumHoly Motors

…which just came out last year.

Oscar (Denis Lavant) gets picked up in the morning by a white stretch limo, driven by a handsome, older chauffeur named Cecile.

Maybe it’s just a day like any other for a rich businessman… or is it? You soon discover that inside the limo he has costumes, makeup, spirit gum, wigs and beards. He turns into the man or woman he plays in each act. So, over the course of a day, he becomes a middle-aged, ruthless businessman, a homeless Eastern-European woman, an assassin, a doting dad, a dying man, and Kylie Minogue’s lover. Occasionally, between acts, he’s just Oscar: the man in the car.

In one especially marvellous and shocking sequence he becomes an eccentric street maniac (“M. Merde”) who crawls out of a manhole, pushes his way through a crowd, and stumbles into a fashion shoot in a Parisian cemetery. He violently attacks the photographer’s assistant, biting off her fingers, and smearing the blood all over an unflappably blasé supermodel… before carrying her off to an underground hideaway for a bizarre sexual encounter and another shocking transformation. (No spoilers here — watch the movie to find out the rest of it.)

So what’s going on? Is Oscar (which is also the director’s middle name) like the guy in the Truman Show, unknowingly living an artificial life for the delight of viewers? Or is Oscar doing this for you and me (the moviegoers) playing his role in the cosmic scheme of things — the entire movie is his act. Life’s an illusion, but an enjoyable one, and Denis (with Edith Skob as the driver) have never been better.

Modern Love – The Films of Leos Carax, curated by James Quandt,  is being screened in Toronto beginning this weekend, with the director speaking at some of the shows. Go to tiff.net for details. And the funny road comedy I reviewed last week, We’re The Millers, opens today – 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

Women vs Tentpoles. Films Reviewed: Frances Ha, Fill the Void, World War Z

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Dance, Depression, Drama, Family, Israel, Movies, Uncategorized, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on June 22, 2013

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

Where is cinema heading? Steven Spielberg and George Lucas recently gave a speech at USC. They said the movie industry is about to implode.  It will split into two halves: big-budget, well-promoted potential blockbusters; and personal, smaller projects. The big movies, the “tent poles” are supposed to keep the money flowing, while the indie movies bring in the film buffs and adults. They say these indies will be relegated to Pay-on-Demand apps on your iPad, while movie theatre movies will be the equivalent of going to a Cirque du Soleil performance.

I can’t predict the future, but for now, at least, there are still lots of small movies on the big screen. And there are many other indie (or semi independent) movies being made and shown. Lots of them, not just the “tentpole” movies. And they are all playing on the big screen.

This week I’m looking at two polished, low-budget movies about women, and one Tent Pole behemoth about zombies – all of which can be seen in movie theatres, starting today.

FRANCES HA Greta Gerwig, Mickey SumnerFrances Ha

Dir: Noah Baumbach

Frances and Sophie (Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner) are best friends. They went to a liberal arts university together and now they’re roommates in Manhattan, pursuing their dreams. Frances likes to dance – maybe she’ll become a choreographer — while Sophie is in the publishing world. They do everything together; they say they’re like an old lesbian couple… except no sex.

But their best friendship starts to crumble when Sophie moves in with her dull boyfriend, Punch, leaving Frances with nowhere to live. And her dance ambitions are tanking. She starts couch surfing with friends of friends, looking for work.

Great Gerwig is perfect as the gangly and awkward but pretty Frances. Going through FRANCES HA Greta Gerwig, Michael Zegen, Adam Driverpostpartum depression from losing her best friend, she becomes aware of her dismal life: she’s in the arts, she’s poor, and — as Benji (Michael Zegen) one of the guys she sublets a room from, keeps telling her — “undateable”.

Will Frances find success, sex, love or maybe an apartment? And can she find a new best friend? Frances Ha, shot in glorious black and white, is a fun, light social comedy looking at the lives of smart, white, urban women in their twenties. It’s basically identical to the TV show Girls, even sharing some of the same faces (like Adam Driver). If you like “Girls” (I do) you’ll like this movie, too.

Fill The Void

Wri/Dir: Rama Burshtein

Enter the Void Hadas Yaron, Renana Raz,  Irit Sheleg, Razia Israeli Photo by Karin BarShira (Hadas Yaron) is an ultra-orthodox young Jewish woman in Tel Aviv. She plays the accordion. Her aunt is acting as match maker spying on potential grooms without them noticing. “He’s in the dairy section” she tells her in a supermarket. But when Shira’s sister dies in childbirth, she steps in to help her brother-in- law Yochay (Yiftach Klein) with the baby. Soon a plan is hatched to get teenaged Shira to marry the much older Yochay, her own family. She doesn’t want to. A family rivalry erupts in her family between the disabled Aunt and the other matriarchs. It spreads quietly to the whole community, over marriages, responsibilities and obligations. Who will Enter the Voidmake the sacrifice? Will Yochay move to Europe? And will Shira defy her elders?

Directed by an ultra-orthodox woman, Fill the Void gives a peak at a largely insular world, rarely seen in mainstream films, and almost never from the point of view of women. Despite all its religious trappings, much of the film is actually about the relationships and customs in the completely non-religious, day-to-day life of these women. Fill the Void is a very good, subtle drama.

WORLD WAR ZWorld War Z

Dir: Marc Forster

Gerry (Brad Pitt) is a former UN civil servant who lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two daughters. One day they go for a drive and get caught up in a massive traffic jam. Something is causing major gridlock. It turns out there are fast-running zombie-like people throwing themselves off of the roofs of buildings, and wildly attacking cars and people. The disease is spreading and it seems to be infecting everyone. Ten seconds after you’re scratched by zombies, you twitch, your eyeballs cloud up, and boom – you’re a zombie too!

The family escapes to Newark where the human looters – even the cops –are running WORLD WAR Zwild. Confusion, fear, panic, mayhem. Somehow, due to Gerry’s status, the family gets picked up by helicopters and sent to somewhere safe – an aircraft carrier in the mid-Atlantic.

The UN Secretary General asks Gerry to save the day. He’s a Jack Bauer with a hotline to the top brass. He flies off – with some Navy Seals to guard him — to find Patient Zero, and somehow stop this zombie apocalypse. It morphs into a military PR movie, as he flies around the world to military bases. It’s sort of a Zombie Dark Thirty (with monsters replacing terrorists).

This is where the best special effects come in. The zombies turn into a human wave, splashing against walls and careening down city streets, like they’re running the bulls of Pamplona. Really amazing.

Then it changes into a We Are the World, Hurrah for the U.N.! -type movie. He meets Segen (Daniella Kertesz) a strikingly beautiful female Israeli soldier with a buzz cut. She joins him in a UN sponsored quest to cure Zombie-ism. Gerry is the smartest agent in the world, but one that constantly forgets to turn his cell phone to vibrate (so as not to wake the dormant zombies). And, oh yeah, he seems to think wrapping magazines around his forearms are better protection than, say, the bulletproof vests he could have easily got from the military.

This is a weird, confused movie. I was quite disappointed. It looks like it’s going to be another zombie/horror movie, but it is missing the gore, the blood and the cannibalism. These zombies don’t eat brains. They don’t seem driven by hunger, and don’t do anything except run around and infect other people. There’s no blood, no sex, no real romance either. World War Z is a dull, family-style contagious disease drama… with excellent special effects.

Me the Bees and Cancer John Board PosterFrances Ha, Fill the Void and World War Z, all open today, check your local listings. Coming next week is the Italian Contemporary Film Festival; and to see a truly low-budget film, check out one from the 1000 dollar movie challenge: Me, the Bees and Cancer (John Board’s personal look alternative medicine) is playing tonight at the Royal Cinema to benefit the Actor’s Fund of Canada.

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

September 21, 2012. TIFF Round-up. Movies Reviewed: Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence, Anyways + TIFF12 awards

Posted in Cultural Mining, Dance, Drama, Football, Mental Illness, Movies, Quebec, Queer, Trans, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on October 6, 2012

Photographs by Jeff Harris

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Xavier Dolan TIFF12 awards Photo by Jeff Harris

TIFF is over for the year. I feel like a kid who was left, unsupervised at an all-you-can-eat buffet with no one to tell me to stop stuffing my face. I ended up seeing 53 TIFF movies (if including the 17 press screenings I saw in the weeks before the festival started), and liking about 2/3 of them. I ran on adrenaline — not food, sleep, or exercise — for the length of it, turning my eyes red, my body to mush, and my brain to putty. Luckily I kept good notes.

The winners were announced on Sunday, with the Blackberry People’s Choice going to Silver Linings Playbook, the Midnight Madness award to the very funny Seven Psychopaths, the NETPAC award to Sion Sono’s excellent Land of Hope, a look at the Japanese nuclear meltdown, and the City of Toronto award to Laurence, Anyways. The Canadian first feature prize was split between Jason Buxton’s excellent Blackbird, for its authenticity and social conscience, and Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral for its sophisticated visuals and plot. So this week, I’ll take a look at two of these winners, both of which deal with odd couples and mental illness.

Silver Linings Playbook

Dir: David O. Russell

When Pat Jr (Bradley Cooper), a schoolteacher from suburban Philadelphia, is let out of a me­ntal hospital he vows to make his life better. He’ll get back in shape, re-connect with his estranged wife, Nikki, and stop all the negativity in his mind. He’s going to look at the silver linings in his life, not the dark clouds. But the dark clouds keep coming back. He has moved back in with his mom and dad, and Pat Sr. (Robert de Niro) is an abusive, obsessive-compulsive bookie. Pat Sr wants his whole family to base their lives on his obscure patterns and lucky shirts so he can bring the Eagles football team to NFL victory.

Meanwhile, Pat Jr will do anything to get a letter to Nikki, and he finds out the way to do that, when he meets Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), an extremely intelligent and beautiful young woman who stalks him during his morning jogs.

She’s the only one who can see through his BS without being afraid of his odd behaviour. Tiffany understands what he’s going through – since she’s had her own episodes and sexual compulsions. So if Pat agrees to be her dancing partner in a contest, she’ll help him get his wife back. But is that what she really wants?

Silver Linings Playbook is a fun, crowd-pleaser that presents mental illness as a palatable, fascinating, and easy-to-understand difficulty that people can overcome with hard work, the right attitude, and a bit if help from friends and family. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are a nice couple, and De Niro is finally acting again, not just mugging for the camera. I have absolutely no interest in Philadelphia’s football scene, or Dancing With the Stars, but the fact that the story depended on those two subjects didn’t make it ay less interesting.

Laurence, Anyways

Dir: Xavier Dolan

Laurence Alia (French actor Melville Poupaud) is a slim prof with a black buzzcut living in Montreal in the late 80’s. He’s in love with his fiery, beautiful and passionate girlfriend Fred (Suzanne Clement). She’s gaining fame as an assistant director while he’s fighting off the adoring looks of the pretty girls in his lectures on Celine. And the two of them are trying for a baby. But one day, in the middle of having sex he confesses he’s about to die. The old Laurence of the past three decades was all a façade which he is now throwing away to make way for the real Laurence: a woman! Fred is shocked and their relationship teeters on the brink.

As Laurence embarks on her transition, she loses her job, and since she can’t easily “pass” in public, she faces physical danger and derision from strangers. When Lawrence is bashed in a bar she is given refuge by an unusual family – the Five Roses. He awakens in a palatial building filled with the actual tabernacles, chalices, hostiesand ciboires that Fred curses about in one of her rants — a sort of a cathedral of transsexuality, a Quebecois Notre Dame des Fleurs.

Fred, meanwhile, is left to deal with her bipolar episodes on her own, as Laurence is more busy with her own changes than that of her lover. As the decade passes, Fred retreats to Trois Rivieres with a handsome but bland husband, while Laurence, with a new blond girlfriend, publishes her poems in Europe. Will the troubles that tore them apart bring them back together?

Laurence, Anyways is a long, complicated melodrama of mismatched lovers immersed in  Quebec’s cultural life even while facing their personal trials alone and together over the course of a decade.

Poupaud and Clement are great as the lovers, and Monia Chokri (as Fred’s acerbic and offensive sister Stephanie) steals every scene she’s in. This is not a perfect movie: it’s longer than it needs to be, the story has some confusing omissions which leave me unsatisfied, and some of the montages — which look like 80’s music videos — while a welcome break, are a bit jarring. (They feel like the director is intruding into his characters’ story).

This is how I felt watching it. But an amazing thing happens: in the very last, short scene, it all ties together with a masterful ending. This is Dolan’s most challenging and sophisticated  movie so far.

They’re both good, enjoyable movies, touching similar topics.

Laurence, Anyways is less commercial than Silver Linings, the mentally ill characters are less delightful, but it feels more passionate and heartfelt, and less calculated and Oscar-hungry.

Silver Linings Playbook and Lawrence Anyways both won major awards at TIFF. Laurence opens this weekend and Playbook will be released later this fall. And don’t miss the fantastic documentary opening soon at the Bloor, Detropia – a look at the collapse and possible revival of the rapidly shrinking city of Detroit.

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

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