Daniel Garber talks with Jamie Kastner about There Are No Fakes

Posted in Art, Canada, Crime, documentary, Indigenous, LGBT, Ojibway, Organized Crime by CulturalMining.com on April 19, 2019

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

Norval Morrisseau was one of Canada’s most celebrated painters, whose brightly-coloured images, surrounded by thick, black outlines are instantly recognizeable. An Ojibwe shaman from an area north of Thunder Bay, Morrisseau incorporated Anishinaabe culture and storytelling into his work. His paintings hang in top galleries and are highly prized by art collectors. So musician Kevin Hearn, of the group Barenaked Ladies, was  pleased to buy a large green Morrisseau canvas from a Toronto Gallery. Until, that is, he discovers it’s a fake.

There Are No Fakes is a new documentary that looks at the roots of Canada’s biggest case of art fraud ever uncovered. It also looks in depth at the dark underworld of fine art, filled with deception, organized crime, money laundering, and terrible violence.

It’s written and directed by award-winning Toronto filmmaker Jamie Kastner and is having its world premier at Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. He’s known for his quirky, funny, shocking and highly original documentaries on a wide range of topics. I’ve spoken to Jamie twice before on this show, once about the Great Disco Revolution (2012) and again, in 2016, about the Highjacker’s Tale.

I talked with Jamie Kastner in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

There Are No Fakes will have its world premier on April 29th at 6:00 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Shrink Brink Link? Films reviewed: Little, The Brink, Missing Link

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, Animation, comedy, documentary, Evolution, Kids, Magic, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 12, 2019

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

Toronto’s Spring Film Festival Season is in full swing right now. Images – which features art movies, videos and gallery installations — is on this weekend. And Cinefranco brings new French-language movies – this year from La Belle Province – starting next week.

But this week I’m going to spill some ink on three new popular movies that just might make you think. There’s an animated movie about a British explorer searching for the missing link; a political documentary about democracy teetering on the brink; and a comedy about a magical spell that makes a hard ass businesswoman shrink!

Little

Dir: Tina Gordon

It’s present day Atlanta. Jordan (Regina Hall) is a successful, self-made businesswoman whose company creates games and apps. Violently bullied as a badly-dressed teenaged nerd she vows never to put up with it again as a grown up. Instead, she becomes a bully herself, taking it out on her employees, her lover, and even random strangers and kids. She even attacks a little girl with a magic wand whose father runs a food truck. But her biggest target is April (Issa Rae), her faithful personal assistant who is always there to help her. But Jordan’s status is thrown into question by two events.

First her biggest client threatens to pull his account if she doesn’t come up with a new, youthful pitch in 48 hours. And when she wakes up the next morning she’s reliving her worst nightmare: she’s been magically transferred into her teenage face and body! Her adult privileges suddenly disappear and young Jordan (Marsai Martin) is forced to enroll at the same Windsor Jr High suffered through in her youth. She is a nerd again before, long she straightened her hair and wore makeup, badly bullied and forced to sit with the rejected kids. April has to cover for her at work, and becomes her public face. Can she survive as a bullied teenager, can her company be saved, will she ever turn back again, and can she get in touch with her inner child?

Little is a very funny, body-transformation comedy, like Freaky Friday or Big. The plot is fairly tame and predictable, and seems to suggest kids can be rescued from bullying with a few instagram photos! But Issa Rae is good as April, and Marsai Martin brilliant as the “little” Jordan, perfectly channelling an adult’s gestures and expressions into her performance. And finally, finally Hollywood seems to have figured out that movies from a black and female point of view can be enjoyed and appreciated by a general audience.

Little is an easy-to-like comedy that provides almost constant laughs.

The Brink

Dir: Alison Klayman

Steve Bannon is an extreme right-wing nationalist ideologue. He allies online fake-news site Breitbart with the so-called Alt Right. He goes on to lead Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign. But Bannon is fired soon after the Unite the Right riots in Charlotteville North Carolina which resulted in violence and death. This documentary follows Bannon’s daily life from that time until last fall’s US election. In between, Bannon tours Europe with Belgian Mischäel Modrikamed in an attempt to unite the extreme right within the EU. He thinks he can pull together disparate nationalists, islamophobes, populists, neo-fascists, and Euroskeptics into a unified bloc. This includes questionable figures like ultra-nationalis Viktor Orban, Nigel Farage, French Front National, the nazi-affiliated Swedish Democrats, an Italian party with fascist roots, and Belgium’s extremist Parti Populaire.

Can an American extremist successfully steer the rise in populism into a unified Europes Front? Or are is the American right – and the much reviled Trump – too different from their euro counterparts?

The Brink is a capable documentary about a player in the extreme right. It reveals the source of his funds – a Chinese billionaire – and his political ties. It even includes footage of his visit to Toronto for a debate between the right and the extreme right where he is dismayed by the widespread protests and his lack of support.  The Brink clearly exposes how his racist, antisemitic, anti-immigration and islamophpbic ideology has led directly to right-wing terrorism.

But it also humanizes and normalizes him as just a guy who wears two shirts and wonders whether he looked OK or said the right thing in his last interview. As Bannon says, any publicity is good publicity.

Missing Link

Dir: Chris Butler

It’s Victorian England. Sir Lionel Frost is an international explorer looking for fame and adventure. He survives an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster but fails to reach his real goal – membership in a prestigious gentleman’s club. But his luck changes with a letter from America, telling him where to find Sasquatch, a mythical, missing link between man and ape. He makes a wager with the club’s leader, Lord Piggit: if he brings back a live sasquatch, they will let him join the club.

But when he encounters Big Foot he is shocked to discover he’s just like you and me. He speaks english, reads and writes, and is an all around nice guy, just much bigger and hairier. He’s the last of his species and longs for a friend like himself. He agrees to travel with Lionel to England, as long as he first visits his people – the Yetis – who are said to live in Tibet. With the help of Adelina, a willful widow (and former lover of Lionel) the three set out on an adventure around the world. Will they find the Yeti, complete their missions, and avoid a murderous hitman sent to stifle thir voyage at all costs? And will Mr Link – or “Susan” as he prefers to be called – ever find a true friend?

Missing Link is a wonderfully made animated film using stylized puppets for its characters. It’s from Laika studio that also brought us Boxtrolls, Caroline and Paranorman, also by director Chris Butler. Much of the humour comes from the naïve but nice Susan as a fish out of water experiencing the outside world for the first time. It features the voices of Zach Galafianakis, Zoe Saldana, and Hugh Jackman.

Missing Link is funny, surprising, beautiful, quirky and heartwarming. If you like animation (but without any treackly Disney princesses) this is the one to see.

The Brink, Missing Link and Little 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

Back from the Dead. Films reviewed: Pet Sematary, The Invisibles, Amazing Grace

Posted in 1940s, 1970s, Animals, Berlin, Christianity, documentary, Drama, Dreams, Germany, Holocaust, Horror, L.A., Music by CulturalMining.com on April 5, 2019

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

We all know people are born and they die, things come and go. But every once in a while things and people we believe are long gone seem to come back to life. This week I’m looking at three very different movies about coming back from the dead. There’s Aretha’s gospel concert buried since 1972; a documentary about young German Jews who hide in Nazi Berlin till 1945; and a horror movie about pets who come back from their graves in small town Maine.

Pet Sematary

Dir: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer

(Based on the novel by Stephen King)

Louis (Jason Clarke) is a Boston doctor suffering from ER burnout. He’s overworked, overstressed, and overtired. So to relax and spend more time with his family he takes and easy job in the quaint small town of Ludlow, Maine. He’s there with his nervous, religious wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two kids, little Gage, and his pride and joy Ellie. Ellie (Jeté Laurence) is an eight year old who loves ballet dancing and her furry cat Church (short for Winston Churchill). Their old wooden house is on a sprawling estate in a small forest with a high speed highway running through it. But their quiet lives are disrupted by some strange events. First, when a young patient of Louis dies in his care after a car accident, the dead boy seems to return, over and over to talk to him in his dreams.

Then Ellie sees kids from town in spooky animal masks burying dead pets on their property. It’s an ancient custom, explains kindly old Jud (John Lithgow) their nearest neighbour. He’s lived there all his life and understands the local lore. So when Ellie is despondent when her beloved cat is run over Jud tells Louis a secret. There’s powerful magic up on the mountain beyond the pet cemetery. Bury the cat under a cairn and he will come back to you from the dead. Sure enough, Jud is right. But it isn’t cute and loveable anymore. When you play with the the forces of good and evil, of life and death, bad things will surely happen.

Pet Sematary – a remake of the movie based on the Stephen King novel – is suitably scary. The small, excellent cast nicely contained in a single location give it a good cabin-in-the-woods quality, but it’s scariness is less adventurous. It uses the age-old techniques – spooky dreams, little “boo!” moments, even twists on the overused images of the mirror in medicine cabinet, and the dark room in the basement. And then it degenerates from scariness into outright, Bride-of-Chucky kitsch. I enjoyed Pet Sematary as a good, old-skool horror movie, just don’t expect anything new.

The Invisibles

Dir: Claus Räfle

It’s 1943, in Nazi Berlin, and Joseph Goebels has officially declares his Germany’s capital judenfrei – free of Jews. But he doesn’t realize that 7,000 Jewish Germans still lived their hidden in plain view. This docudrama tells four true stories about young people who survived the Holocause while living in Berlin. They don’t hide in an attic like Anne Frank’s family; instead they continue their lives right in the middle of everything.  Cioma (Max Mauff) sells all his possessions and poses as someone whose house was bombed in Köln, moving to new vacant rooms each day. He finds work for a high placed civil servant forging ID papers. Hanni (Alice Dwyer) bleaches her hair, calls herself Hannelore and hangs out in dark movie theatres in the Kurfürstendamm. Ruth (Ruby O. Fee) and a friend find jobs as maid and nanny for the kids of Nazi officers. And Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is placed with former colleagues of his dad a doctor, and dressing in hitler’s youth uniforms. But there are informants and Gestapo agents everywhere, searching for people like them. Who will survive?

The Invisibles is a fascinating retelling of largely unknown stories. It’s part documentary – the film regularly cuts to interviews in German with the actual people it happened to – and part drama with the thrilling stories replayed by well-known young actors.

Fascinating and thrilling stories, well told.

Amazing Grace

Dir: Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliott

Its 1972 at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, LA.

Reverend James Cleveland is leading a very special service for his devout parishioners. None other than the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin herself will be performing, alongside the Southern California Community Choir. The congregation is urged to feel the spirit, clap their hands, and get up from their seats and dance. But wait a minute — since when has pop sensation Aretha Franklin beena gospel singer? The answer is: all her life. Her father is the famous Detroit Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, and she was touring churches with her amazing voice since the age of six.

This concert became a huge hit album – many people say it’s Aretha’s best recordings – and the movie includes her back-up musicians, the choir, and the audience, including some very famous people, like Mick Jagger, gospel singer Clara Ward and lots of others I couldn’t quite recognize. A beautiful, intensely moving concert and church service. Interestingly, it’s been sitting in film cans, unscreened until now. For some reason, Aretha blocked its release her whole life, perhaps because it is so personal to her, perhaps because the sound and images were never synchronized. That’s all fixed now.

It’s a grainy hyper-realistic verité-style film that shows everything: retakes, the cameramen, the soundboard, the director running around pointing, and Aretha in a sparkling white gown, sweating under the hot lights. If you’re a fan of Aretha Franklin, and want to experience those two days of 1972, you must see Amazing Grace.

Pet Sematary and The Invisibles both open today in Toronto; check your local listings, and you can see Amazing Grace beginning next Friday.

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

Getting away. Level 16, Triple Frontier, The Panama Papers

Posted in Action, Adoption, documentary, drugs, Heist, Morality, post-apocalypse, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 8, 2019

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

It’s international Women’s Day, a great time to check out some movies directed by women. If you haven’t seen the great Colombian film Birds of Passage, see it now. And Objects of Desire, a retrospective of French master Claire Denis’s films is also playing now at TIFF. She’s one of my favourites.

This week I’m looking at people trying to get away with something. We’ve got orphan girls running for their lives, war vets running off with sacks of loot, and journalists rushing to publish the biggest data dump in history

Level 16

Wri/Dir: Danishka Esterhazy

Vivien and Sophia are two teenagers at an all-girls boarding school for orphans. They wear identical uniforms: skirts, shirts and ties during the day, and floor-length cotton gowns at night. Classes consist of B&W educational films from the 1950s shown on flatscreen TVs. Their teacher, the strict but beautiful Miss Brixil (Sara Canning), visits each unit to teach them feminine virtues like cleanliness, subservience, obedience and silence. And their most important exams are not about reading or math but applying cold cream to their cheeks and taking their vitamins.

They live under a panopticon with surveillance cameras recording every move and thedisembodied voice of a Doctor (Peter Outerbridge) who tells them what to do. They’ve never been outside this drab institution, since the air and sunlight out there are “hazardous”. Besides, it’s important to stay pretty and clean so a nice family will adopt them some day. And now that they’re at Level 16, that someday is coming soon.

Headstrong Vivien (Katie Douglas) is excited to hear she might be leaving this place; she’s been counting the days. But all her hopes and dreams are shattered when the nearsighted Sophia (Celina Martin) tells her a secret: don’t swallow the vitamins! When Vivien takes her advice she is shocked by what she finds out. The “vitamins” are actually sedatives and what happens to their limp bodies at night is not nice at all. What is this place? Why are they there? What is it like outside its walls? And can they ever escape?

Level 16 is a scary and weird speculative fiction look at a distopian future as seen through the eyes of teenaged girls. It’s full of strange anomalies: why do the guards speak Russian? Where did all these fake-happy educational film clips come from?  Does this movie take place in the past… or in the future? It feels like a cross between Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid’s Tale.  It’s a low budget film shot on a single location (and one that is bland, industrial and and claustrophobic to look at), but it had enough shocking twists to keep me fascinated until the end.

Triple Frontier

Dir: JC Chandor

Santiago (Oscar Isaac) is a paramilitary cop working in an unnamed Latin American country. His police team raids low level drug traffickers… but they are also on the take. Any witness who tries squeal on Lorea’s — the fugitive drug kingpin — whereabouts is immediately executed to keep him quiet. But Santiago (an American) has his own informant in Lorea’s HQ. He discovers for himself where the big man is hiding. Rumour has it there are millions in cash just sitting in the jungle, waiting to be taken. So he flies back to the States to meet with his former special-ops army buddies. They loved their time in the military, but it hasn’t treated them well as veterans.

Miller (Charlie Hunnam) is a low-level army recruiter with a bad goatee who delivers the same speech over and over. Davis (Ben Affleck) tries to support a teenaged daughter from a failed marriage with the pittance he earns flogging condos. Morales (Pedro Pascal) is a helicopter pilot whose license was taken away for drug offenses. And Ben (Garrett Hedlund), Miller’s brother, is an MMA cage fighter — not a great long-term career plan.

Santiago says, let’s get what the government never gave us but that we deserve: millions in cold hard cash. And don’t worry, it’s a flawless plan. Sure enough, the heist works great. In fact, it works too well. They are faced not with millions of dollars but hundreds of millions, far too heavy for them to carry. Their momentary greed makes their exit plan impossible. Can they lug their bags of loot through the jungle, over a mountain pass and down to a the ocean (through the multinational “triple frontier” of the title)? Or will mother nature – and the vengeful locals who inhabit it – kill them first?

Triple Frontier has strikingly beautiful scenery, famous-name actors and a well known director and scriptwriter. So how come it sucks?

Well, it’s a boring and sexless buddy action flick with inane, bro dialogue: I got your back… I love you man… we deserve this. Do you really care if they get away with the money they stole? More than that, it reeks of exceptionalism. It’s co-written by Mark Boal, who brought us the vile Zero Dark Thirty, a movie which said we Americans are always the good guys, torture is useful and all Muslims are potential terrorists. For this movie just substitute drug traffickers for terrorists, and South Americans for Muslims. Almost every person they encounter is corrupt, dangerous, and out to kill us. It’s up to our heroic soldiers to stop these caravans of latino drug traffickers from invading our border.

OK, I admit there is a good chase scene near the beginning, but the rest of it is a total waste of two hours and five minutes.

Ugh.

The Panama Papers

Wri/Dir: Alex Winter

It’s 2016 in Munich, Germany. Bastian Obermayer, an investigative journalist at the Süddeutcher Zeitung receives a mysterious message. A whistleblower calling himself John Doe says he has some information to send him. But because of its importance and sheer volume he has to be sure his identity is kept secret and the information gets released, What is this information, where did it come from, and why is it so important? The data leak is from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama law firm known for its secrecy. Their clients include both organized crime and upstanding world leaders all hiding their money so they don’t pay taxes. The amount of money lost in taxes worldwide is stupendous: it’s the reason social services have been cut and why the wealth distribution gap between the ultra rich and everybody else is the highest it’s been in a century.

The Panama Papers tells this story through the eyes of the journalists involved in its release. It feels like a chapter of All the Presidents Men, but on a much bigger scale. The papers were shared – in secret! – with over 300 investigative journalists worldwide. And the outcome and blowback that followed changed the world. The Prime Minister of Iceland, top figures in FIFA, Argentina, Pakistan and Spain were forced to resign. Others in Russia, the US and Syria were also implicated in the multinational scandal. And top journalists like Malta’s Daphne Gaizia, were murdered because of their role in exposing these crimes.

The Panama Papers is a great documentary that churns politics, investigative journalism and conspiracies into a potent brew.

The Panama Papers is now playing at Hotdocs Cinema, you can catch Triple Frontier’s stunning cinematography on the big screen before it moves to Netflix, and Level 16 opens next Friday; 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.

Teens. Films reviewed: Bernadette, Minding the Gap, Carmen & Lola

Posted in 1990s, Coming of Age, documentary, Drama, LGBT, Roma, Romantic Comedy, Skateboards, Slackers, Spain, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 15, 2019

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

In your teenaged years, as you span the time between child and adulthood, it’s hard to separate true love from first crush. This week I’m looking at three such comic of age stories. There’s a 15 year old boy with a crush on a French woman; three skateboarders trapped in a rust belt town, and two young women in Spain touched by chance.

Bernadette

Wri/Dir: John Psathis

It’s the summer of 1994 in Forest Lake, a suburb near Chicago. Archie (Sam Straley) is a 15 year old freshman who lives with his single mom (Sarah Shirkey). He plays in a garage band with two other nerds, his best friends Ken and Martin (Johnnie Lim, James Guytin) .  Archie has just one goal: to meet a beautiful, but unapproachable exchange student named Bernadette before she moves back to France in the Fall. Problem is she’s a senior, a lifeguard at the local pool, and is beautiful beyond belief. She also has an older boyfriend, a French prof at the local community college. And she’s surrounded by a gang of bullies, led by by the cruel and vindictive Richtor (Tommy Philbin).

Luckily he gets a job at the park where Bernadette (Marilyn Bass) works. And his boss, Dixon (James Psathis) shows him the ropes. Dixon is a legend at his school — tall, charismatic and known for his sexual prowess. He keeps polaroids of all the women he’s slept with on the wall of the tool shed he’s living in. Anyone else would kill for such a mentor. But not Archie. He can’t stand Dixon, because of his latest conquest. No, it’s not Bernadette he’s sleeping with, it’s Archie’s 33-year-old mom! Will Archie come to terms with Dixon, overcome the bully Richtor, and convince Bernadette that he’s her one true love?

Bernadette is a typical boy-meets-girl coming of age story, but, despite the title is barely about Bernadette at all. It’s about a fatal summer in the life of the hero. This is a cute, indie movie, with a fun cast and an enjoyable story. The plot is not especially original – you can predict most of the plot turns a mile away – but it is nicely done and neatly constructed. And does every new film need to be super-special?

An enjoyable teenage romcom is good enough for me.

Minding the Gap

Dir: Bing Liu

Rockford is a small city in Northern Illinois. It’s filled with vacant warehouses and empty factories, cracking sidewalks and vacant lots. All the empty space makes it a paradise for skateboards and the guys who skate them. This documentary follows the lives of three of them, Kiere, Zack and Bing. Aside from their love of skating, they also share dark pasts. All three of them endured violence and abuse at the hands of their parents. Kiere’s dad beat him as corproaral punishment to discipline him when he did something wrong. He resented it at the time, but now desperately misses his father who died when he was teen. Zack also comes from a family with a history of violence and alcoholism… which he seems to be carrying forward in his own relationship with his girlfriend. A relationship mainly based on their baby boy, not any love they once had for each other. Bing’s story is the most hidden of the three. He coaxes it out of his mother who admits her second husband, Bing’s stepdad, abused both of them…though the nature of his abuse remains unclear.

Minding the Gap follows the three boys as they grow into men in their 20s, all captured by Bing’s video camera. It starts as just shots of the three of them gliding down the streets, but gradually reveals, in a series of interviews, traumatic moments in their lives. And life in a rust belt town, gradually being emptied of its people. I liked this doc, though confessional, reality-show-type docs aren’t my favourite format. It’s a first film, but surprisingly has already been nominated as Best Feature Documentary in this year’s Oscars.

Check it out.

Carmen & Lola

Wri/Dir: Arantxa Echevarría

It’s a housing project outside present day Madrid. Lola (Zaira Romero) is a prickly 16 year old graffiti artist who wants to get out of this place. Her illiterate parents, Paco and Flor, and her little brother Miguel are happy with their life here. They run a stall at an outdoor market, attend an evangelical church and celebrate birthdays and weddings in the traditional Roma style. Lots of singing and dancing with their friends relatives. But Lola wants more. With the help of Paqui (Carolina Yuste) who works at the local community centre she’s trying to pull herself out of traditional roles. At the market she meets the beautiful and glamorous Carmen (Rosy Rodríguez) who also works there. She’s engaged to Lola’s first cousin, and dreams of becoming a hairdresser, one of the few professions open to Roma women.

For Lola, it’s love at first site. She’s enchanted by everything about Carmen, from her little bird-shaped earings to her lithe body and beautiful face. Carmen is everything she desires and she paints grafitti art tributes her on local walls. She teaches her how to swim, so someday they might go to the beach in Malaga together. But Carmen is shocked when Lola expresses her love to her. I’m normal, Lola, not disgusting like you, she says. Kiss a boy, and you’ll see what you’re missing. Lola counters, kiss me, or you’ll never know for sure. Will Carmen and Lola become lovers? Or will her strong community ties make that impossible?

Carmen & Lola is a wonderful romantic drama about an unlikely couple. It’s shot in a realistic style, celebrating Roma culture in Spain, the church services, the music and traditional costumes. She uses non-actors for many of the roles, and never shies away from the racism and poverty they face on a daily basis.

This is a very good love story.

Carmen & Lola and Minding the Gap are both playing at the TIFF Next Wave festival. All tickets are free if you’re 25 or under. Go to tiff.net for details. And Bernadette is premiering at Vancouver’s Just for Laughs and will open later this year.

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

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

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

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

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

Serenity

Wri/Dir: Steve Knight

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

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

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

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

Wonders of the Sea

Dir: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jean-Jacques Montello

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

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

Cold War

Wri/ Dir Pawel Pawlikowski

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

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

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

This is a great movie, don’t miss it.

Wonders of the Sea in 3D starts next week, Serenity and Cold War both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

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

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

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

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

Destroyer

Dir: Karyn Kusama

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

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

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

Destroyer is a great LA crime thriller.

Hale County, This Morning, This Evening

Dir: RaMell Ross

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

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

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

Ratcatcher (1999)

Wri/Dir Lynne Ramsay

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

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

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

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

Destroyer is now playing in Toronto, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening opens tomorrow, and Rat Catcher plays next Thursday as part of the 1999 Millenial Movies program playing this month (until Feb 12) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Pugly directors Michael McNamara and Aaron Hancox

Posted in Animals, Canada, documentary, Movies, Toronto, TV by CulturalMining.com on January 11, 2019

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

If you’ve ever been to Trinity Bellwoods park on a certain Sunday, you may have noticed dozens of strange animals running rampant in the park’s dog run. They have big round eyes, squashed in faces, and make the oddest squawking sounds. What are they, and where did they come from?

They’re pugs, a popular breed of companion dogs popping up everywhere in this city. Many people devote their lives to these high-maintenance dogs. But it’s harder than it looks. Some have runny noses, birth defects, eating disorders and a host of other emotional and medical difficulties.

Pugly: a Pug’s Life, is a new documentary that follows these strange creatures and looks at some of their problems… and the people who come to their rescue. It’s co-directed by award winners Michael McNamara and Aaron Hancox. Michael is a TV and film writer and director who created The Cockroach that Ate Cincinnati. Aaron’s a producer/director, whose docs have been show on Netflix and other outlets.

I spoke with Michael McNamara & Aaron Hancoxhere in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Pugly premiers tonight at 9:00 pm on CBC Docs POV.

Lower Budget. Films reviewed: Dead in a Week, Nothing Like a Dame, Clara

Posted in Acting, Canada, comedy, Death, documentary, Movies, Romance, Science Fiction, Space, Suicide, Thriller, Toronto, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 30, 2018

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

There are lots of big-budget blockbusters and Oscar bait cluttering the theatres these days, but I thought I’d give you a break from all that. So this week I’m looking at three lower- budget films that might otherwise fall through the cracks. There’s a documentary on the hidden side of acting; a dark comedy about the humorous side of suicide; and a scientific romance about the spiritual side of astronomy and quantam physics.

Dead in a Week (or your money back)

Wri/Dir: Tom Edmunds

William (Aneurin Barnard: Dunkirk, Bigger, Bitter Harvest ), a brooding young English writer, is a total mess. He’s lonely and depressed, with a dead-end job, and daily rejection letters for his unpublished book. Things are so bad he wants to off himself. But he has terrible luck with that too. Each time he tries to kill himself something goes wrong, saving his life. In desperation, he hires an assassin to kill him. “Dead in a week or your money back.” His assassin, Leslie O’Neil (Tom Wilkinson: Selma, Denial, The Happy Prince ) was the country’s top hitman in his heyday, but no more. His homey wife and the Assassins League president are both pushing for him retire. But this hit could change his luck, putting him over the required minimum murders so he’s stoked and ready to kill. Everybody’s happy, until…

William gets an unexpected call from a publisher who wants to meet him. Ellie (Freya Mavor: The Sense of an Ending, The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun), an editor, is intrigued by his book. She’s also bright, cynical and pretty. Suddenly William has a reason to live. Trouble is you can’t cancel a contract once it’s been signed. And through a series of mishaps, other assassins are also on their tail. Are they both doomed? Or will they find love beneath a dark cloud in the picturesque southern counties of England?

Dead in a Week is Tom Edmunds’s first film, and it’s a very enjoyable, twisted comedy. It starts with a ridiculously implausible premise, but manages to ride it to a fun and unexpected conclusion. It twins bland, small town life – budgies and needlepoint – with bloody violence and an almost supernatural “League of Assassins”. And the main actors stick to their oddball characters in absurd situations without resorting to mugging or hamming.

This would make a perfect date movie for an emo and a goth.

Nothing Like a Dame

Dir: Roger Michel

What do actors Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins have in common? They are longtime actors of the London stage, and good friends since the 1950s. They are also all addressed as “Dame” a title awarded by the Queen, the equivalent of Sir for men. This documentary follows them at their retreat in the English countryside as they reminisce about life on the stage, and reveal untold stories about what really was going on; their homelives and marriages. They talk abut naturalism, stagefright, forgotten lines, and whether they read critics of their work. And what it’s like growing old before the cameras.

I’m not a big celebrity hound, so a lot of what they say that might be common knowledge to you was all new to me. I never realized Joan Plowright was married to Lawrence Olivier. (How could I have missed that?) I remember as a kid seeing Maggie Smith as Lady MacBeth at Stratford… but until now I never knew that the reason she was in Canada was she was scared to perform Shakespeare in England. And that all four of them protested the Vietnam War at demos in London.

Nothing like a Dame is an enjoyable look at famous actors chatting. There’s also amazing footage of stage, film and TV performances spanning their careers. But if you’re expecting salty stories about clandestine romances and shocking backstage sex scandals, you’re not going to find them here. Everything they say is guarded and carefully worded, suitable language for a Dame.

Clara

Wri/Dir: Akash Sherman

Dr Isaac Bruno (Pattrick J Adams) is a young astronomy prof at a Canadian University, who works in a lab beside his best friend Charlie (Ennis Esmer: Sex after Kids). Isaac is a sweater nerd with wire rimmed glasses and a neck beard. He hates teaching, preferring to study the stars using Extremely Large Telescopes, continents away. He feels angry and adrift since his marriage collapsed. His only obsession? His search for evidence of life on a distant planet. And he needs to find it soon, before the WEBB telescope is introduced, opening the universe to amateur star searchers.

But when he loses his research priveleges he hires an unpaid research assistant to help analyze data in his home. But she’s not like his normal students. Clara (Troian Bellisario) is a free spirit in a duffelcoat with long black hair. She travels the world, carrying a pouch of small stones, one from each continent, to plot out her next journey. She’s a study in contradictions, a highschool dropout who can speaks five languages. And whenever she closes her eyes, she’s overwhelmed with images of galaxies, stars and planets… Can Clara’s spiritual views coexist with Isaac’s die-hard science-based research? Do they share a cosmic entanglement? And could there be a populated planet like Earth somewhere far, far away?

Clara is a nicely-made first film set in Toronto. It’s filled with amazing telescopic footage of quasars, meteors, galaxies and stars rushing through space, as visualized in Clara’s brain, and as seen through super telescopes. And I’m no astronomer, but the film seems accurate in its reading of space data. This is not a perfect film — some of the characters’ motivations seem too simplistic – but I still liked it.

Clara, Nothing Like a Dame, and Dead in a Week all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

 

 

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Barry Avrich about Prosecuting Evil

Posted in documentary, Germany, Holocaust, Movies, Nazi, Netherlands by CulturalMining.com on November 30, 2018

Barry Avrich

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

Ben Ferencz was a diminutive boy, the son of a bootmaker, who spoke no English, living in Hell’s Kitchen. 25 years later he’s heading a legal team as a chief prosecuter at the Nuremberg Trials in post-war Germany. How did he get from here to there? And where did he take his of belief in international law and the responsibility of governments for their war crimes?

Prosecuting Evil: the Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz is the title of a new documentary that tells Ben Ferencz’s story in his own voice, from the Nuremberg Trials to the International Criminal Court. He narrates his own life in a series of interviews, illustrated with ample period photos, news footage and personal pics and documents. Supplemented by words from family, colleagues and famous lawyers (like Rosalie Abella and Fatou Bensouda) the film deals with justice on an international level.

It’s written and directed by award-wininng Canadian producer and filmmaker Barry Avrich, well known both for his documentaries (Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story; Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World) and his films of Shakespearean plays.

I spoke to Barry in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Prosecuting Evil premiered at TIFF18 and is opening today in Toronto at the Ted Rogers Hot Docs CInema.

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