Post-Halloween movies. Films reviewed: Suspiria, Boy Erased, Burning

Posted in 1970s, Berlin, Christianity, Dance, Death, Drama, Horror, Italy, Korea, LGBT, Mysticism, Psychological Thriller, Religion, Suspicion, Witches, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 2, 2018

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

Yeah, I know Hallowe’en was two days ago, but there’s still lots to be scared about. (Don’t you watch the news?) So this week I’m looking at three new movies that involve horror, thrills or just bad things happening to good people. There’s a dance troup in Berlin that reeks of brimstone, a gay conversion clinic in Arkansas that exudes homophobia, and a young writer in Korea who thinks he smells death.

Suspiria

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

It’s 1977 in Berlin with the Cold War raging, the wall dividing the city in two, and RAF bombs exploding in Kreuzburg. Into this world walks Susie (Dakota Johnson) a naïve Mennonite girl from Ohio, with pale skin and a long red braid. She’s there to dance, if a prestigious, all-women’s dance school will have her.

Have her they will.

So she moves into their huge headquarters the next day. It’s a grand old building, right beside the Berlin Wall, with mirrored rooms, a dormitory and a theatre. It’s owned and run by a group of older women, headed by their choreographer and former prima donna Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), known for her long black hair and floor-length dresses. They are preparing for a relaunch of their masterwork, a primitivist, flamenco-style piece called Volk. And since their lead dancer, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), has mysterously disappeared, Susie is ready to take her place.

But behind the scenes, something wicked this way comes. Susie keeps having terrifying dreams. There’s a power struggle between Madame Blanc and “Mother Markus” — the school’s founder. And strangest of all, the house itself – with its secret passageways and intricate pentagrams etched into the floor – seems to transform the dancers’ violent moves into lethal weapons… with terrifying results. And Doktor Klemperer, an enigmatic psychiatrist with a secret past, is attempting to bring police – men! – into this inner sanctum of womanhood. Is this dance troupe actually a coven of witches? And will Susie be their next victim

Suspiria (based on Dario Argento’s classic horror pic) is a visually stunning film, an unusual combination of modern dance and the occult. There are so many scenes in this two-and-a-half hour movie of dance rehearsals — including an amazing performance near the end — that you almost forget it’s a horror movie. But the twisted limbs, breaking bones and endless flow of blood, blood, blood, brings you back. Luca Guadagnino (he directed Call me by your Name, A Bigger Splash, and I Am Love) is back with another aesthetically overwhelming film, recreating 1970s Berlin, and starring, once again, the fantastic Tilda Swinton in many, hidden roles. Though not that scary, this arthouse horror is always fascinating.

Boy Erased

Dir: Joel Edgerton

Jared (Lucas Hedges) is a 19 year old in Arkansas. He’s on the basketball team, has a steady girlfriend and works parttime in his dad (Russell Crowe)’s car dealership. He also goes to church: his dad’s a Baptist minister and his mom (Nicole Kidman) an active member. Everything’s hunky dory… until he gets outed as gay by an anonymous caller. Word spreads, church elders come knocking at the door, and Jared is sent off for a heavy dose of brainwashing.

Love In Action is a “gay conversion therapy” centre, with very little love. It’s headed by Victor (Joel Edgerton) a self-taught therapist full of vapid platitudes and pseudo-freudian pop psychology. He’s backed up by a violent ex-con (Flea) who hurls abuse at the patients in an attempt to scare them straight. The other patients/prisoners include the military-like Jon (Xavier Dolan, playing against type), the bullied Cameron (Britton Sear), and others who tell him to “fake it” – just repeat what they tell you until you’re out of there. But if he does, will they erase his very being? And can Jared ever get out of this godforsaken place?

Based on a true story, Boy Erased is a realistic look at one young man’s experiences in a gay conversion clinic. It’s well-acted and I found it moving (though predictable) in parts. But it’s also an incredibly uptight, desiccated, visually-starved, anti-sex movie that seems made for Sunday school church groups. No nudity — everyone’s buttoned to the top. In this movie, any “sex” is relegated to a rape scene. It’s one thing to have uptight characters, but does the film itself have to be so repressed?

This may be an important topic, but it’s a dreadful movie.

Burning

Dir: Lee Chang-dong

Present-day Korea. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is an aspiring writer in his twenties who lives on his dad’s dairy farm near the Demilitarized Zone. On a trip to Seoul he runs into a woman he barely recognizes. Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-Seo) is a former highschool classmate who – post plastic surgery – works as a glamour girl spinning the prize wheel at a department store. And Haemi likes Jong-su. She lives in a small apartment that only gets sunlight for a few mites each day. Haemi is an flakey extrovert into mime. Jongsu is reserved, quiet and introspective. Soon enough, they’re lovers, but then Haemi says she’s going on a trip to the Kalahari desert to experience “The Great Hunger”.

And she comes back wth a new friend, named Ben (Steven Yeun) she met at the airport flying home. Ben is Korean, but rich, privileged and vaguely foreign. He’s one of those Gangnam-style guys, with a fancy apartment and a pricey car. He’s smooth, slick and ultra-blase – like Andy Warhol — but in a weirdly creepy way. And now he’s dating Haemi. They visit Jongsu at his farm, get drunk and smoke some pot. And Ben confesses his secret – he gets off on burning down greenhouses. And never gets caught. And soon after, Haemi disappears without a trace. Ben acts as if nothing is wrong but Jongsu is not so sure.. Is Ben a psychopath? Or is Jongsu losing touch with reality? And what about Haemi?

Burning, based on a story by Murakami Haruki, is a tense, creepy psychological thriller. The three main actors are all great in their roles: Steve Yeun — that nice guy in The Walking Dead — is perfect as the possible serial killer, and Yoo Ah-in is amazing as the shy boy seething wth inner tension.

Fantastic.

Suspiria, Boy Erased, and Burning 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.

Young and Old, New and Old. Films reviewed: mid90s, What They Had, Summer with Monika

Posted in 1950s, 1990s, Chicago, Coming of Age, Death, Drama, Family, L.A., Romance, Skateboards, Sweden by CulturalMining.com on October 26, 2018

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

Mark your calendars folks, as Toronto’s Fall Film Festival season continues in November. ReelAsian has great anime, dramas, docs and comedies from South, East, and Southeast Asia. Ekran Polish film festival opens with Pawel Pawlikowski’s fantastic Cold War — about two lovers seperated by the Iron Curtain — and Toronto’s own 22 Chaser. And the EU film festival has one film from each country in the European Union, with some real treasures waiting to be discovered… and all screenings are free!

This week I’m looking at movies new and old, about people young and old. There’s a love story about young adults in Stockholm made in the 1950s, a coming-of-age story about a young LA teenager set in the 1990s, and a family drama about an elderly Chicago couple set in the right now.

mid90s

Wri/Dir: Jonah Hill

It’s LA in the mid 1990s. 13-year-old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives with his single mom and frustrated big brother Ian (Lucas Hedges). Ian uses him as his personal punching bag so Stevie stays away from him. Out in the city he discovers a skate shop and cautiously approaches the older kids who hang there. There’s Ruben (Gio Galicia) is a brooding kid, a bit older than Stevie, who tells him what’s what. Ray (Na-Kell Smith) is the group’s rudder who tries to keep them out of trouble. Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), is a skinny nerd who records everything with his video camera. And then there’s the daring and reckless one with blonde dreads (Olan Prenatt) whose name is made up of two words I can’t say on radio (but rhyme with Truck Spit).

At first, they think of Charlie as just a kid, but he proves his mettle by doing the most dangerous rides and jumps… and ends up in hospital for it! Soon he’s a real member of their nameless club. Together they own the streets with their boards. But can a 13-year-old have a good time without ending on drugs, in jail, or dead?

Mid90s is a fun and light coming-of-age story, seen through the eyes of a kid with much older friends. He encounters sex, drugs, and Jackass-style extreme exploits, for the first time, all projected against a non-stop blanket of 90s music.  I’m always dubious whenever a Hollywood moviestar decides to make a film, but Jonah Hill does a great job on this one. It’s low budget, an enjoyable story, simple but effective. It’s moving, funny and believable. without trying too hard or trying change the world. Sunny Suljic is great as Stevie, as are the rest of the gang, mainly played by non-actors who skate.

I like this one.

What They Had

Wri/Dir: Elizabeth Chomko

It’s a snowy Christmastime in Chicago. and Bridget (Hillary Swank), is flying there from sunny California to spend the holiday with her family. She’s travelling with her daughter Emma on college vacation, and is met at the airport by her grumpy brother Nick (Michael Shannon). He owns a bar and lives in the back room with his on-again off-again girlfriend. But they’re mainly there to see their parents, a retired couple in their 70s. They’re devout catholics. Burt (Robert Forster) reads the obits each day yo make sure he’s not in them, while Ruth (Blythe Danner) has simpler pursuits. They’re a happily married couple, in sickness and in health, till death do they part.

And that’s why the family is really there.

Ruth is prone to wandering, walking off aimlessly into the snow, and showing up in a hospital or at the railway tracks. And she mistakes a stapler for the telephone. She has Alzheimer’s and Nick wants to ship her off for “memory care” and Burt to assisted living, alone somewhere. Burt says no way. Life’s not bells and whistles, it’s hard work and we’re still very much in love. But Bridget has her Mom’s power of attorney. Whose side will she take — her father’s or her brother’s? And will the secrets uncovered by this family reunion lead to a permanent rupture in all of their lives?

What They Had is a low-key family drama with a powerhouse cast. Any movie

Away From Her

with Michael Shannon, Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner and Robert Forster in it is worth seeing just for that. But I can’t help comparing Blythe Danner to Julie Christie in Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, that great drama, also about Alzheimer’s. (They even look the same!)

This one is much easier to watch, though, trading heavy drama for family nostalgia.

Summer with Monika (1953)

Dir: Ingmar Bergman

It’s the 1950s in working class Stockholm. Harry (Lars Ekborg) is a 19 year old at his first job, delivering boxes of glass by bicycle cart. (He looks like Tintin.) Harry lives with his ailing dad in the family home. At work, he is constantly yelled at for being late or filling in the wrong forms. Not fun. Monika (Harriet Andersson) is even younger, and from a poor part of town. At home she’s bugged by her drunken dad, or teased by the little brats. And her workplace could be used as a textbook for sexual harassment laws 50 years later. She’s assaulted, groped and insulted all day long.

So when Monika sees Harry, a total stranger, in a bar, she takes the plunge. I hate this job, I hate this city, and I hate my life, let’s just get the hell out of here! Harry, though shocked by her forwardness, realizes he doesn’t like his life much, either. And he does like Monika. So soon, they’re off in a motorboat to a distant place. They set up camp on a rocky shore, and spend their time picking wild mushrooms and frolicking naked on the rocks. Is this love? But reality rears its ugly head. Lelle (John Harryson), Monika’s ex-boyfriend, is stalking them. There’s no clean clothes and their food is running out. And Monika discovers she’s pregnant.

Summer with Monika is 65 years old, but Ingmar Bergman’s timeless love story still feels fresh and vibrant. It’s shot in beautiful black and white in a realistic style. There are a few seconds of discreet nudity but apparently was very shocking when it was released in the US. (Didn’t help that the distributor marketed it as “The story of a bad girl” who was “Naughty and 19“!) But in Europe it proved highly influential for generation of filmmakers. Try to catch this movie while it’s still playing.

What They Had and mid90s both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Summer with Monika is now playing as part of the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Bergman 100, showing virtually all of his movies, in a beautifully programmed series.

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

Quests. Films reviewed: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, Let the Sunshine In, First Reform

Posted in Christianity, Death, Drama, France, Jamaica, Movies, Music, Reggae, Religion, Sex by CulturalMining.com on June 1, 2018

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

Toronto’s spring festival season continues. Inside Out finishes this weekend, and look out for the Japanese Film Fest and True Crime Film Festival both opening next weekend.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies by three great directors about people on quests. There’s a musician driven by fame, a woman searching for love, and a clergyman holding on to his immortal soul.

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

Dir: Sophie Fiennes

Grace Jones is a multi-talented artist and performer. Known for her distinctive voice, looks and style, she has left a mark on everything from fashion to pop music. Originally from Spanish Town in Jamaica, she made it big as a model in France, capturing the fashion world with her androgynous body and striking features. Later she shifted to music, recording first dance hits like La Vie en Rose, followed by the punk sounds of Warm Leatherette, and pop songs with a drum-and-bass reggae theme provided by Sly and Robbie. And as an actress she perfected the look of a crazed, cold villain in movies like James Bond’s View to a Kill.

This movie strips her bare physically and emotionally as she returns to Jamaica to visit her family and record a new album. The camera follows her as she digs up her family’s past, tries to record songs, and goes on a concert tour. It also includes a stopover in Paris to record a TV music video; and her performances on stage. This is an intimate portrayal of the underground superstar – who turned 70 this year, still dancing, changing clothes, arguing on the phone, and putting on the elaborate headddresses and costumes she’s known for. It also makes her seem a bit crazy – her accent shifts from Jamaican to American to british depending on whom she’s talking to, even shifting to a sort of french when she’s in Paris.

This no-holds-barred portrait is not always pretty but always fascinating.

First Reformed

Wri/Dir: Paul Schrader

Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a lonely reverend at an old church with a long history. He carries heavy baggage of his own: a dead son and memories of war. The church itself – First Reformed – has been there for centuries and is approaching its historical anniversary. For the Church administrators this is a PR goldmine and chance for big corporate donations. But Toller is an old-school preacher with traditional ideas. He feels like he’s losing his calling, and isn’t comfortable playing a pretend minister for tourists at a historical site. Luckily, there is a parishioner with real problems who needs his help.

Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is going through a crisis with her husband Michael, an environmental activist. She’s worried about him losing it. And the environmentalists are diametrically opposed to the very corporate donors that are keeping the church on its feet. As Toller gets involved in their lives, he re finds his calling. But things take a shocking turn with one unexpected death and the possibility of more. What path will Toller take, what is the church’s future, and what will become of Mary?

I’m not saying anything more about the plot, but let me just say that what starts as a simple and almost boring story slowly builds to an intense and shocking finish. Paul Schrader is a great director — he did Cat People, American Gigolo and Mishima — and an even better scriptwriter: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

I don’t always like Ethan Hawke’s acting, but I do here – this might be his best performance ever.

Let The Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur)

Dir: Claire Denis

Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is a middle aged artist at the peak of her career. She expresses her art using big brushes on huge canvases nailed to her studio floor. She’s signing with a new art dealer, and is financially secure, a great house, and her ex husband is taking care of their daughter. She is beautiful with a sparkling personality. The world is her oyster… so why is she having so much trouble finding a pearl? The problem is it takes two to tango and the men she meets aren’t playing their parts correctly.

She has carried on multiple relationships since her divorce. There’s a married banker who thinks she’s loves him, when it’s actually her repulsion toward him that turns her on. A handsome and famous but vapid actor thinks he’s great with the women, but despite the great sex, he does courtship all wrong. She wants the seduction, the passion and the ongoing interplay a relationship needs. He just wants a director to give him his lines.

Then there’s a mysterious and passionate man she meets while dancing, but who doesn’t fit in with her friends. Even her ex-husband sometimes spends the night when he’s in Paris.

Can she find her life partner, the best man out there? Or will she settle?

Ignore the pedestrian title, Let the Sunshine In is sophisticated and subtle movie. Juliette Binoche shines in every scene, she funny, clever and quirky. Claire Denis is one of best directors in France who is vastly underrated. This story is told purely from the female gaze – that of Isabelle.

It pokes fun at men – and at the women who fall for their tricks.

Grace Jones, Let the Sunshine In and First Reformed 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.

Art and Sport. Films Reviewed: The Miracle Season, Final Portrait, PLUS Steve Reinke’s films at Images

Posted in Art, Canada, Death, France, Movies, Queer, Rural, Sex, Sports, Switzerland, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 6, 2018

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

Toronto’s Images, the International Festival of Moving Image Culture, opens next Thursday with Canadian and international video artists and filmmakers… featuring the work of Steve Reinke. This week, I’m going to talk about films by artists, and films about artists, with some sports thrown in, too. There’s an American volleyball team, a Swiss sculptor, and a Canadian video artist.

The Miracle Season

Dir: Sean McNamara

Caroline and Kelly have been best friends since childhood. “Line” (Danika Yarosh) is the always chirpy optimist who Kelly (Erin Moriarty) looks up to. Growing up in rural Iowa, they share their secrets amidst big barns and cornfields. In high school they play volleybal together. With Line as team manager and setter they win the State Championships. Of course the other team members, andtheir hard boiled coach (Helen Hunt) are important, but it’s really Line who leads the team to victory.

But the next year things take a turn for the worse. The team is dispirited and Line’s Mom has cancer. Then the unthinkable happens; Line dies in a crash. Kelly feels guilty, and so does Line’s dad Ernie (William Hurt) who used to throw team parties and boost the players. With no Line around to pull people out of their misery, the team slides to last place. They don’t even want to be happy – it’s disrespectful. It falls to Kelly to turn the team around. Can she do it, and will the team ever win again?

The Miracle Season is a nice movie about teamwork and overcoming loss. It has good acting and a conventionally inspiring story. “Nice” is the key word here. Based on a true story, it was made by permission of the charity founded by the Line’s father. So as you can expect, anything not super “nice” has been scrubbed from the plot. No sex, no violence here. They could show this movie at Bible Camp without raising an eyebrow. Which makes it a nice memorial for teammates and family members, but for the rest of us, it’s just a dull and predictable movie. But, like I said, it’s still nice.

Final Portrait

Dir: Stanley Tucci

It’s early 1960s. James Lord (Armie Hammer) is a young American living in Paris who writes biographies of well known artists. He’s friends with both Picasso and the Swiss-Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush). Giacometti is famous for his sculptures of people with crusty and extremely elongated arms and legs. But he also paints. And one day he asks James to pose for him for a few hours. He sits down in Alberto’s studio dressed in khakis, navy blue sports jacket and shirt and tie. But the one-day painting turns into a project lasting days and then weeks, until no one knew if it would ever end. Each time he paints his face, Alberto rubs it all out and starts again. Meanwhile, various people in his life walk in and out adding colour to the story. His brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub) has seen it all before. His neglected wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) refuses to pose for him anymore. And his mistress Caroline (played by the delightfully-named Clémence Poésy) would rather go for a jaunt in their sportscar than just hang at the studio. Final Portrait has some fun parts, but basically this movie is 90 minutes of watching paint dry.

Steve Reinke

Steve Reinke is a queer Canadian artist and filmmaker, originally from the Ottawa valley but now based in Chicago. I’ve seen a lot of his films in the past 20 years, but for the first time I spent last night binge-watching them all together (which is quite an experience).  If you’ve never seen Reinke’s stuff before, you should.

He’s been shooting films and videos that chronical his life, his thoughts, aesthetics, and interests — both intellectual and sexual – beginning in the late 1970s and continuing till now. And unlike a lot of gallery video artists, his films are never boring. (This is important.) Like porn, a Reinke film is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. (But that doesn’t mean you’ll understand it.)

Taken at face value, his collection is an ongoing, partly-fictional memoir told through video art (predating blogs and youtube by decades). His images are partly found footage/partly original, narrated both by voice and by titles. Take What Weakens the Flesh is the Flesh Itself, a recent film he made with James Richards. The film alternates grotesquerie with erotica and mundaneness, with the edges sometimes blurring among the three. Grotesque as in a dead piglet; mundane, like a naked man eating grapes or an ice fishing hut shot with a distorted, fisheye lens; erotic like a poisonous snake having its venom extracted in a laboratory. The film begins with photos by the late German photographer Albrecht Becker. He was imprisoned in Nazi Germany for his sexuality. His work consists of photos of himself reduplicated with an imaginary “twin”. Over time, as his photos become more stylized and experimental so does his body, which gradually transmogrifies — before still cameras — into a work of art using tattoos, body modification, and a whopping-big metal thing hanging from his scrotum. (Ouch!)

Reinke’s flms are transgressive and a total mindfuck. Like he’ll show you an alien monster with pointy ears making out with a faceless, sexless human, encased in a skintight black PVC outfit. And then later he’ll show an unborn dead calf being pulled from a cow’s belly with the same black shininess.

This is weird stuff, alternating between jarring pictures of sex and death overlayed with anodyne intellectual musings. Who else would compare Casper the Friendly Ghost to Wittgenstein? What other filmmaker offers a film called Anal Masturbation and Object Loss that’s actually just Steve Reinke pasting the pages of an academic psychiatric textbook together? Or show thousands of unidentified military photos before telling you this: [SPOILER ALERT] these are pics of all the American military casualties of the Second Gulf War arranged in order of attractiveness. Shocking stuff.

It all feels like you just watched a story, but one arranged with enough sudden changes and musical distortion that you’re not seduced into it. Steven Reinke’s films leave you disturbed and unsatisfied but you don’t quite know why.

Films viewed:

What Weakens The Flesh Is The Flesh Itself (2017)

Atheists Need Theology, Too (2016)

Joke (Version One) (1991)

*Watermelon Box (1990)

*Michael and Lacan (1991)

*Room (1991)

*Barely Human (1992)

Anal Masturbation and Object Loss (2002)

Squeezing Sorrow From an Ashtray (1992)

Hobbit Love is the Greatest Love (2007)

A Boy Needs a Friend (2015)

*not included in Images series

The Miracle Season and Final Portrait both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Steve Reinke’s films are showing at Toronto’s Images Festival — featured in its Canadian Artist Spotlight series — beginning next Thursday. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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

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

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

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

The Death of Stalin

Dir: Armando Iannucci

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

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

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

The Death of Stalin is a great political comedy.

Foxtrot

Dir: Samuel Maoz

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

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

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

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

I recommend it.

Death of Stalin and Foxtrot both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

 

 

Meandering Movies. Films reviewed: A Date for Mad Mary, Nostalgia, Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia, PLUS Oscar Predictions!

Posted in Coming of Age, Death, Drama, Experimental Film, Feminism, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Lesbian, LGBT by CulturalMining.com on March 2, 2018

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

Some movies have linear narratives – stories that move in a straight line from start to finish — but occasionally you can find movies that take a more circuitous route. This week I’m looking at some meandering movies. There’s a path to a wedding in Ireland, a journey to Asia from Germany, and a search for keepsakes in America.

But first…

Oscar Predictions, 2018

Here’s a list of who I think should win, and who I think will win.

A few caveats: I’m usually wrong, though this year my choices of the best movies of 2017 (published in December) is very close to the Oscar nominations (including Get Out, Call Me By Your Name, Three Billiards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and The Shape of Water — all nominated for Best Picture; plus Loveless and A Fantastic Woman, both nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.) Does this mean I’ve been a movie critic for too long and my taste is getting worse? Or that the Academy’s choices are getting better?

I haven’t seen three of the nominated movies, so for these I can only go by what I’ve been told:

Darkest Hour – I couldn’t bring myself to watch this; I’m all Churchilled out. No more Churchill, please.

Phantom Thread is probably great but you have to be in the mood to watch a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. And I haven’t been in that mood yet.

And I Tonya – I just haven’t seen it yet, but plan to soon.

Adapted screenplay

James Ivory (Call Me By Your Name). Should win and will win.

Original screenplay

Should win: That’s a real toughie, I have no idea which should win; there are too many good ones to choose just one.

Will win: I’m guessing Greta Gerwig (Ladybird). ✘ (Jordan Peele won for Get Out)

Best foreign film:

I loved Loveless, but I think A Fantastic Woman should win and will win.

Best Actor

Should win: Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name)

Will win: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Best Actress

Should win and will win

Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Supporting Actor

Should win: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Will win: Willem Dafoe (Florida Project) ✘ (Sam Rockwell won.)

Best Supporting Actress

Should win: Laura Metcalfe (Ladybird)

…but everyone tells me Allison Janney will win for I, Tonya

Best Director

I think Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) should win and will win.

Best Film

Again, I think The Shape of Water should win and will win.

 

A Date for Mad Mary

Dir: Darren Thornton

Mary (Seána Kerslake) is a pretty young woman who lives at home with her mom and grandmother. She likes Tank Girl, Hello Kitty and her best mate Charlene (Charleigh Bailey) They used to be inseparable but things have changed. Charlene’s getting married, and Mary is the maid of honour but she can’t find anyone to be her date to the wedding. She enlists a Polish matchmaker to set her up with a series of men. Problem is she’s a foul-mouthed heavy drinker who is quick to anger. Her last brawl led to six months in the clink. And now she’s finding it hard to find a guy she likes who also likes her. As her grandma said, even a sniper wouldn’t take her out.

But things get better when she meets Jess (Tara Lee), the videographer for Charlene’s wedding. Jess is a singer in a band and Mary likes her style. And she’s a good influence too: Mary feels comfortable around Jess and maybe… there’s something deeper.

I really enjoyed A Date for Mad Mary, a coming-of-age drama about a misfit who is trying to fit in. Very well-acted, especially Seána Kerslake as Mary. It’s a touching drama loaded with salty oneliners.

Nostalgia

Wri/Dir: Mark Pellington

Daniel (John Ortiz) is a reserved, middle aged man who works for an insurance firm. He helps asses the monetary value of possessions, so clients can decide what’s valuable to them. This can range from a lifetime of accumulated detritus, to a single possession. Helen (Ellen Burstyn) for example only has a few pieces of jewelry and an autographed baseball she grabbed as her entire house burnt to the ground. Brother-and-sister Donna and Will (Catherine Keener and Jon Hamm) are forced to look through endless boxes in their late parents’ attic to decide what to keep and what to give away. These are just a few of the stories in a loosely-linked chain of vignettes about possessions and keepsakes.

Nostalgia is a nicely-photographed film with a stellar cast whose characters segue from scene to unrelated scene. The problem is the movie has no plot, the stories don’t follow any particular order, and the only thing that connects them all is the theme. Worse than that, a third of the movie is taken up by characters weeping, a third with them bitterly sniping at one other, and a third pondering the meaning of life in painfully drawn-out voiceovers.

This is like a Hallmark movie if they only printed the kind of cards you give to people at funerals.

Ugh. Avoid this movie at all costs.

Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia

Ulrike Ottinger is a lesser-known German filmmaker who emerged in the 1970s alongside Von Trotta, Herzog and Fassbinder. Born by the Alpen city of Lake Constance, she studied art in Paris around the time of the riots of 1968. She ran a bar in her home town, a welcome place for men with long hair and women who smoke cigars. She started as a visual artist before deciding on film as her ideal medium.

By the early 1970s she moved to Berlin, establishing herself as a lesbian feminist director, pioneering avante-garde film. Her work was highly stylized, combining over-the-top expressionistic acting with a pop-art aesthetic. Full of bright blues and reds, Ottinger incorporated medieval motifs, bare-breasted Wagnerian women, leaping pigs and crashing waves. Her interests range from food preparation to textiles, her characters from luxurious femininity to militant and radical feminists. And keeping true to her avant garde roots, she eschews strictly linear narratives, choosing instead the more realistic “meandering” style.

One running theme is her reverent and deferential view of the foreign, especially of East Asia. These films in particular — plus a biographical documentary about her life’s work, called Nomad from the Lake (directed by Brigitte Kramer) — are being shown as a mini-retrospective by Toronto Goethe Institute. This includes Under Snow, a combination kabuki-style drama and documentary. It shows life in Japan’s snow country around New Year’s day at a hot spring onsen. From there it takes viewers to Sado island, a land of exile, seemingly populated by clockwork automatons working in the gold mines. In Exile Shanghai she looks at Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany to that Chinese city in the 1930s and 40s. And Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia about European women encountering that country.

Ottinger’s unique and often-imitated style of filmmaking gives viewers an aesthetically pleasing look at the odd, freakish and mysterious.

Nostalgia opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. A Date for Mad Mary is tonight’s opening film at TIRFF, the Toronto Irish Film Festival; and the mini-retrospective Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia is also playing now. Both festivals are screening 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.

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

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

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

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

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

The Black Prince

Wri/Dir: Kavi Raz

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

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

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

Dunkirk

Wri/Dir: Christopher Nolan

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

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

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

A Ghost Story

Wri/Dir: David Lowery

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

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

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

I like this one a lot.

The Black Prince, Dunkirk and A Ghost Story all open today in Toronto: check your local listings.

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

 

 

 

Lions and Lambs. Films reviewed: Handsome Devil, Before I Fall, Bitter Harvest, Table 19

Posted in 1930s, Bullying, comedy, Coming of Age, Death, Drama, Gay, Ireland, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Ukraine by CulturalMining.com on March 3, 2017

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

March came in like a lamb, followed by a pride of lions, roaring at the gate. I’m talking about the spring film festival season, which is on now with films from Ireland and more.

This week I’m looking at movies with lions and lambs: a few comedies plus one tragedy. There’s friendship in Ireland, tragedy in Ukraine, fantasy in the northwest and a wedding in the midwest.

handsome devilHandsome Devil

Wri/Dir: John Butler

Ned (Fionn O’Shea) is a skinny redhead at a boy’s boarding school in Ireland. He likes reading and indie music, and dresses in hip rocker gear. Popular kid, right? Wrong. He’s bullied, reviled and labeled as gay just because he’s not into rugby. and rugby is the school handsomedevil_04sport.

Enter Conor (Nicholas Galitzine) his new roommate. Conor was kicked out of his last school for fighting. Is he an outcast? Just the opposite. He’s handsome, athletic and on the pitch he’s both nimble and brutal. He quickly becomes the king of rugby, a handsomedevil_05veritable idol at his new school. He’s even nice to Ned, and stops the bullies — especially one called Weasel — from beating him up. Has Ned found a friend?

Things get even better when a new English teacher, Mr Sherry (Andrew Scott) encourages the kids to broaden their interests beyond just rugger, to include music and literature. But that’s sacrilege, and the coach won’t have it. He decides to break up Ned and Conor’s friendship whatever it takes.

Handsome devil is a funny and moving coming-of-age story about an unexpected friendship. I like this one.

before-i-fallBefore I Fall

Dir: Ry Russo-Young

It’s a big day for Sam (Zoey Deutch), a teenaged girl in the Pacific northwest. It’s Valentine’s day and she’s going to have sex with her boyfriend for the first time. Her dad and mom (Jennifer Beals), and her cute little sister who likes origami, are all nice but they just don’t get it. It’s her posse, her three best friends, that she shares everything with: Ally – rich but insecure; Elody – sexually halston-sage-medalion-rahimi-cynthy-wu-zoey-deutch-in-before-i-fallaudacious; and Lindsay (Halston Sage). She’s the alpha dog, the honey badger: she always keeps her cool; just don’t get on her bad side.

Her school has special traditions for Cupid Day. All the girls (except the class lesbian) receive messages from their admirers. While the teacher drones on about the myth of Sisyphus, Sam gets baskets of roses delivered to her desk… including one _X6A7999.JPGfrom Kent (Logan Miller), a geeky poet in her class that she ignores. In the café, the four friends relentlessly mock Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris) a blonde woman with frizzy hair. She’s the school pariah… are Sam and her friends bullies? That night at the party, things spiral out if control, with a breakup, a drunken fight and a terrible car crash.

But the next morning it’s a new day and everything’s back to normal. Until Sam realizes… it’s the same day as yesterday! Her little sister’s origami, the rose from Kent, Juliet in the cafeteria, and the fight at the party. Like Sysiphus, she’s caught in a cosmic, karmic loop, and she can’t escape. No zoey-deutch-in-before-i-fallmatter what she tries to change, she still wakes up each morning on Valentine’s Day. Can Sam right all her wrongs in a single day, or will she be stuck to repeat them forever?

Before I Fall, is a fantasy set in the present day. There have been others about people caught in a repeating loop – Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code – but this is the first I’ve seen from a female point of view. Like the Twilight series, it’s set in the Pacific North West but without its unbearable soppiness. This is a good YA movie.

15194340_949283011838918_4071947400932947185_oBitter Harvest

Dir: George Mendeluk

It’s the 1930s in a small village in Ukraine. Yuri (Max Irons) is a young farmer who is also a skilled artist. He’s the grandson of a great swordsman named Ivan (Terrence Stamp), and is in love with his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks). They paint, frolic in the woods and attend church regularly. All is going well until the Russian Bolsheviks come to town, led by a man with a scar across his cheek. Sinister 15895153_988096897957529_6383476820894374352_nSergei (Tamer Hassan) is dressed in black leather from head to toe and carries a whip. Sign this paper, he orders, and collectivize those farms! Your farm, your wheat, even you belong to the state now! The people refuse and chase Sergei out of the village. But he will return.

After hiding the treasured town icon of St Yuri, his namesake sets off to Kiev carrying his grandfathers prized knife. In the city, he studies art and spends time with his best friend, Mykola. Mykola also happens to be the head of the Ukrainian Communist 15319318_967538840013335_3644678351628886805_nParty, uniting Ukrainian nationalism with socialism. But he doesn’t realize that in Moscow, Stalin has other plans at work. Stalin despises Ukrainians and vows to kill them all. Party members are purged, Yuri is sent to prison, and Stalin, with evil subordinates like Sergei, send all the wheat to Mother Russia, leaving Ukraine with a terrible 15941277_990987597668459_5998812033080133428_nfamine killing millions. A Bitter Harvest indeed.

Bitter Harvest is the story of a Ukraine village during the Holodomor, the horrible famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. It’s an important part of history, rarely portrayed, that deserves to be shown on the big screen. This movie, unfortunately, doesn’t quite cut it. While it includes authentic-looking Ukrainian costumes, locations and folklore, the rollicking story is just not told very well. The movie is clunky and Kludgy, unintentionally campy and melodramatic, and full of comic-book villains. It lacks the gravity it deserves. Bitter Harvest isn’t bitter enough.

table-19-posterTable 19

Dir: Jeffrey Blitz

Eloise (Anna Kendrick) is a grudging guest at her best friend’s wedding party at a lakeside hotel in Michigan. Grudging because her boyfriend Teddy – the bride’s brother – dumped her. Blonde, bearded Teddy (played by Wyatt Russell, looking like a younger and dumber Owen Wilson), is best man but Eloise has been demoted from maid of honour at the centre table to the dreaded table 19.

Table 19 is a veritable land of Lost Toys, the cast offs of the wedding party. Bina and Jerry (Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson) a bickering middle aged couple; Rezno (Tony Revolori) a socially-awkward adolescent; elderly Jo (June Squibb), the bride’s childhood nanny; and gangly ex-con 13123270_780360932099535_7819038637567418602_oWalter (Stephen Merchant). Eloise is mortified by her table mates and just plain depressed. But things start to look up when a suave and handsome stranger, named Huck, arrives. They dance and kiss before disappearing into the mist like a male Cinderella. But when jealous Teddy confronts her, mayhem ensues, resulting in a ruined wedding cake. The Table 19ers, retreat to their hotel rooms to clean up, and their they learn that they’re a lot more fun than they expected. Together they vow to find love for Eloise, a first date for Rezno, a reunion between Jo the Nanny and the bride, and more.

Table 19 is a gentle social comedy that shows that, once you get to know them, even outcasts are real human beings with foibles of their own. The script is co-written by the Duplass brothers, known for their indie movies about quirky oddballs. It’s tame for a comedy, with a few too many pratfalls, but it’s also touching, with a cute, romantic ending. Hendricks is terrific as Eloise, and the rest of Table 19 all keep their characters from falling into dumb stereotypes.

Table 19, Before I Fall, and Bitter Harvest all start today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Handsome Devil is playing this weekend at Toronto Irish film fest. Go to toirishfilmfest.com for info.

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

Behind the Camera. Films reviewed: Cameraperson, Harry Benson: Shoot First

Posted in 1960s, Beauty, Class, Death, documentary, Politics, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 16, 2016

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

Every film is actually just a series of still images, sped up to appear to be moving. We don’t see the still shots only their motion. But did you ever wonder who is behind the camera, who is taking these pictures? This week I’m looking at two new documentaries about life behind the camera. There’s a celebrity photographer who always pulls out his camera in the right place at the right time; and a documentary cinematographer who captures war and death, but is affected by what she sees.

1476907888851Cameraperson
Dir: Kirsten Johnson

What would you do if…

A baby is delivered by a midwife in a hospital in Kenya. She leaves the room, but the filmmakers are still there… and the baby doesn’t seem to be moving.  Should they just observe? Or run after the midwife to save the baby’s life?

In the aftermath of the war in Bosnia, an elderly woman in Foča refuses to tell American reporters about the rapes and massacres: nothing happened, she says. But earlier another woman described what happened to four young women who talked to a reporter in the sports stadium where they were interred. They were taken away and never heard from again. Should all journalists bear responsibility for deaths caused by one reporter?

A boxer in blue shorts, storms out of the ring, furious after losing a match. He is followed down the halls by a camera that catches him punching at walls, storming past people, knocking over tables. Then he turns to face the cameraperson with fire in his eyes. Should the cameraperson keep shooting,  or should she run for her life?

These are just some of the dilemmas and dangers faced by a cinematographerbts1-cameraperson-kirsten-johnson-cr-majlinda-hoxha shooting real-life events, things that she caused or what shooting the documentaries did to her. This film follows seemingly random shots taken from films that cinematographer Kirsten Johnson – the cameraperson of the title — has worked on. These include Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, Johanna Hamilton’s 1971, and Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War. But don’t expect a conventional “greatest hits” collection of scenes from famous docs. This is an arthouse flick and much subtler than that. It differs from the usual fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking by bringing the cameraperson into the story.

The clips you see are made of footage that usually ends up on the cutting room floor. The wobbly camera before it is fixed, the setting of the shots before they bts3-cameraperson-kirsten-johnson-cr-janus-filmsdecide on the framing. They don’t show Johnson herself, but you get to hear her voice and reactions before they get edited out. She gasps when there’s a sudden lightning bolt striking across a field. And she starts to cry when a young boy tells what happened when a bomb hit his brother… even though he she doesn’t speak his language or understand what he said (the subtitles are added much later.)

This is a beautiful and powerful film about how a photographer affects what she sees, and how it haunts her long after the film is made. It’s quirky and spontaneous, with lots of unexpected turns. (Like a filmmaker who loses it on camera, just as a tiny avalanche of snow off the roof falls outside the window behind her.)  Through clever editing, seemingly unrelated events are tied together, with athletes and abstract modern dancers followed by rows of gravestones in Bosnia or prison tents at Guantanamo Bay. It has striking scenes that seem to come out of nowhere, like the unexplained jerky movements and bizarre facial contortions of (what appears to be) dancers in Uganda. What does it mean? (Who knows?) But just like the rest of Cameraperson, the photography and its consequences stay with you long after it’s finished.

14691165_1155188961244083_8145693863171075297_oHarry Benson: Shoot First
Dir: Justin Bare, Matthew Miele

Harry Benson is a famous photographer born to a working class family in Glasgow, Scotland. He makes his way to Fleet Street in London – and the fiercely competitive world of gutter journalism – to work as a news photographer. But he catches his big break in 1964. He is sent to Paris to follow the Beatles just before they hit it big. He is with them, 14568083_1145147232248256_3937976388731490458_nshooting their famous hotel room pillow fight, the moment they receive word they are headed to America to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. And he is going with them. He never looks back. He continues his winning streak 15002305_1183935851702727_2037230550259169653_oby always being right there in the nick of time. He chronicles youth culture and the baby boomers as they gradually age against the background of rapidly changing world events. Some examples: Harry goes camping with Bobby Kennedy’s family… and is right beside them when RFK is murdered in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan. He was the one with the camera even as Ethel Kennedy tries to shoo him away: shoot first (think later). He is there in Memphis the day Matin Luther King is shot, and is invited into Richard Nixon’s home when he resigns in shame.

After the early seventies, Benson is famous enough to concentrate on celebrity pics. For some reason, even thedonald-trump-harry-benson most reclusive and private figures seem to trust him. He is allowed to photograph football star Joe Namath’s in his secret bachelor pad, OJ Simpson naked in the shower, and Bobby Fisher with a white horse in Iceland. By the 1980s, he is part and parcel of the Reagan Era’s glitz and glamour, a time of Vanity Fair and Ralph Lauren. His photos are geared more toward People Magazine than LIFE. But his eye for beauty — even in tragic circumstances – is why the rich, famous and powerful let him into their inner sanctums: he always makes them look fantastic.

the-clintons-harry-bensonIs he to blame for the glamorization of politics — the film shows his photos of both First Lady Hillary snuggling up with Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump snuggling up with a million dollars in cash — and our obsession with celebrity culture? Probably.

I had never heard of Harry Benson before this film, but I sure knew his pictures – they’re everywhere, engrained in the collective unconscious. If you like glamour and celebrity caught in unusual ways at the cusp of history – this is a the film for you:  it’ss hocking, exciting and amazing.

The documentaries Cameraperson and Harry Benson: Shoot First 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

Politics. Films reviewed: Speaking is Difficult, The Measure of a Man

Posted in Cultural Mining, Death, documentary, Drama, Family, France, Guns, Movies, Unions by CulturalMining.com on April 15, 2016

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

Art, journalism and movies are discrete entities operating within self-sustaining universes that rarely cross paths. And in movies there are documentaries and there is entertainment. But with the rise of new media the lines between all of these are starting to blur. This week I’m taking a look at movies with political themes from France and the US. There’s an art-house drama about unemployment that reads like a documentary; and a documentary about mass shootings that looks like an art-house flick.

Speaking is difficultSpeaking is Difficult

Dir: A.J. Schnack

Picture a schoolyard on a sunny day. A quiet calm feeling. An American flag, the Stars and Stripes, ripples in the breeze. And then the sound of gunshots rings out. Screaming, chaos, panic, despair. A voice calls out for help. Now picture this scene repeated over and over again: short glimpses of scenic American, beautifully-composed, in three-second takes. Schools, strip malls, bridges and movie theatres. The Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Sandy Hook elementaryLPRy1BA-NQx_ZvYBmX7br8wrkFnwmol4dqtGO8weMdA,8mNaazTQopFo1B-c4HHLIiZ-PVN-w8EkueCuTyahCE0 school in Connecticut. A movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado.

Dubbed over the top of this calming new footage are grainy tapes of 9-1-1 callers. On many of them you can hear the shots still firing in the background as people, including the caller, run for cover. And each 20-30 second sequence is silently labeled with where it took place and how many people were killed.

vEUU9xhVYlPfYLc6JXk5ndqFIbXZbPuTENuotMtRubMIt finishes with testimony before congress by Gabrielle Giffords who suffered a brain injury from one of these shootings. Speaking is difficult, she says. Indeed.

What the film never shows is the killers’ names (unlike the nightly news where “if it bleeds, it leads”). This is not an exploitation film meant to inspire copycat killers looking for their moment in the sun. Instead, it’s a visual memorial to the people who are killed in mass shootings in the United States. It happens every 78 days now, 2 ½ times more often than just 5 years ago.py66lGLvKV3YZo3-eTgTEGSYDfk8QjvHprIKFwxjGss

Speaking is Difficult is a powerful short film. It’s part of Field of Vision, a new online documentary channel that combines the news – ongoing and developing stories – with cinematic directors. Pretty pictures mixed with hard-hitting stories. It’s co-founded by Schnack, Charlotte Cook and Laura Poitras. She’s the director who brought us Citizenfour, that great documentary about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

All these films are free and available online on Field of Vision.

3l30Vr_1021_o3_8981736_1456939014The Measure of a Man (La loi du marché)

Dir: Stéphane Brizé

Thierry (Vincent Lindon) is a taciturn man in his sixties. He has worked as a tool-and-die machinist for many years in a unionized factory job. He lives with his wife (Karine de Mirbeck) and his son (Matthieu Schaller). They’ve nearly paid off the mortgage on their nice apartment and own a modern mobile home to spend August at the beach. They still go out dancing as a couple, and have a caregiver who helps Matthieu, who plans to study science in college, with his disability. It’s the French version of the American dream with pensions and medical care all taken care of. Thierry’s happy family can devote its time to studying, hobbies and relationships.

Then, all of the sudden the company– the place he’s worked for most of his life — suddenly fires him without cause. The union objects and files a grievance, but Thierry is left rudderless without income and with few prospects at his age. And he soon discovers the zmANYr_1022_o3_8981758_1456939032vaunted French welfare state is fraying around the edges. They pay him for retraining, but in a profession with no jobs. They send him to low-wage interviews with condescending employers who don’t want to hire him. His banker tells him to sell his home and casually tells him to buy life insurance instead – implying he’s near the end. His union reps tell him to keep on fighting against his former employer in solidarity and testify at an upcoming trial… but can’t give him money.

12646761_1503557836617013_1107269155603285307_oHis life is on a downward spiral, a race to the bottom. He finally gets a job in retail security, where he spies on customers with aerial cameras that zoon across the store’s ceiling. Treat every shopper as a potential shoplifter he’s told.  He watches customers and staff accused of theft brought behind glass mirrors and humiliated. He tells them to hand over the missing 5 euros or misused coupons 11393008_1444867815819349_6087641443678526007_oor suffer the consequences. But how long can Thierry be part of the system that ground him down?

The Measure of a Man is a realistic drama that feels like a documentary about the decline and fall of France’s working class. Except for Vincent Lindon, the entire cast is made up of non-actors, shot in real places not on a movie set. It’s heart-breaking in parts, but it still leaves you with a sense of hope about Thierry’s integrity and self worth. Lindon is fantastic in this film.

The Measure of a Man opens today in Toronto: check your local listings. And Speaking is Difficult just premiered on Field of Vision on theintercept.com.

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: