Building walls. Films reviewed: The Rest of Us, The Divided Brain, Mr Jones

Posted in 1930s, Brain, Canada, Communism, documentary, Drama, Family, Feminism, Journalism, Movies, Neuroscience, Norway, Thriller, USSR, Wales, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 19, 2020

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

I’m recording this in my home to tell you about some movies you can watch in your home. This week I have two dramas directed by women and a documentary. There’s a psychiatrist looking at the divided brain, two families trying to bridge a gap; and a UK journalist who wants to penetrate the iron curtain.

The Rest of Us

Dir: Aisling Chin-Yee

Cami (Heather Graham) is a divorced mom who writes and illustrates children’s books. She lives in an elegant house with a swimming pool. Her daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) is home from university and hanging with a guy she met. She’s mad at her mother so she lives in an Airstream trailer parked out front. Meanwhile, another mother/daughter family live in another nice house. Rachel (Jodi Balfour) lives with her husband and young daughter Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky). What do they have in common? Rachel had an affair with Cami’s husband 10 years back, and now she’s married to him. But when he suddenly dies, the two moms – and their daughters – are brought together, against their will. Turns out the late husband hadn’t kept up with insurance and mortgage payments, leaving Rachel and Talulah homeless. So they end up moving, temporarily, into Cami and Aster’s home. An odd couple indeed. Can four women with very little in common bond together? Or will they stew in their respective juices making for an intractable situation?

The Rest of Us is a light drama about relationships and make-shift families. It’s short – less than 90 minutes – but the characters are really well done, complete with secrets, back stories and quirks. It didn’t exactly blow me away, but it I liked watching it develop — you do care about what happens to them. A nice, light family drama.

The Divided Brain

Dir: Manfred Becker

The human brain is divided in half. The left brain controls the right side of your body, and the right brain handles the left side. So if you’re right-handed that usually means the left side of your brain is dominant. Beyond that, the two sides are said to process information in different ways: The left brain, or so the theory goes, is more analytical, concerned wth facts and minutiae; while the right brain is more creative; it lets you look at the big picture. This documentary is about the theories of Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and neuroimaging researcher who also studied literature. He lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. He’s the author of The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). Basically, he says we – meaning our history, civilization, educational system, society, not to mention our individual personalities – can be explained by our emphasis on the left side of the brain at the expense of the right side. And it goes on to show research and experiments on the topic as explained by various talking heads. But is it true, and has McGilchrist proven it?

Personally, I don’t buy it. I don’t even believe the basic left side/right side premise. We all use both sides of our brains, so to make it a simple A vs B, is reductionist. And then to extrapolate this theory to cover all of society, communication, and our educational system, while fascinating just isn’t believable. (I have seen the documentary but not read his book, which could explain his work in greater detail.) While the documentary mainly focuses on McGilchrist’s theories, it does include opposing views. McGilchrist is a heterodox scholar, not part of the mainstream. It also includes magnificent drone shots of cityscapes and farms to illustrate the increasing “left brain”-look of ever more geometrically divided landscapes.

Whether or not you agree with these theories, The Divided Brain does leave you with lots of food for thought.

Mr Jones

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

It’s the early 1930s in London. Gareth Jones (James Norton) is a Cambridge-educated young man from Wales. He’s multilingual and works as a foreign policy advisor to the former PM David Lloyd George. But what he really wants is to be an investigative journalist. He’s already had one big scoop: he was on the plane carrying carrying Hitler, Goebels and other top Nazis right after they came to power. Now he wants to go to Moscow to follow a source about a big story there… and maybe interview Stalin!

Easier said than done. But he does manage to get a visa and a few nights at the posh Hotel Metropol. When he gets there, he discovers his source – another journalist – has been murdered. Luckily, he is taken under the wing of a famous foreign correspondent, Walter Duranty (Peter Saarsgard). He heads the NY Times bureau – known as “our man in Moscow” – and he’s won the Pulitzer. He’s also a total sleazebucket. He takes Jones to a party, right in the middle of Moscow, complete with jazz musicians, sex workers, and party favours… like hypodermic needles, loaded with heroin, ready to shoot.

He also meets a Berlin-based journalist named Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby). She trusts Jones and tells him what he needs to know. So he gets on a train with a high-ranked party member who says he’ll show him beautiful Ukraine… but Jones manages to sneak away in the city of Stalino (now Donetsk). And what he sees is shocking. There’s a major famine going on, right in the middle of Europe’s breadbasket. All the wheat is being shipped east, leaving almost nothing for them to eat. He witnesses unspeakable horrors in what is now known as The Holodomor. But he’s arrested before he can file his story. Will Jones make it back home? Can he publish this story? And if he does, will anyone believe him?

Based on a true story, Mr Jones is a combination biopic, thriller and historical drama. It’s a bit too long, and there are a few things I don’t get: for example, the movie is framed by scenes of George Orwell typing Animal Farm, but the story’s about Gareth Jones, not George Orwell. Other than that, the acting’s good (especially James Norton), the story is compelling, and it’s beautifully shot, from the modernistic Moscow hotel to the staid, stone buildings in London. Most of all are the scenes in Ukraine where colour is dimmed to almost black and white with stark snowy landscapes.

A good but harrowing movie.

The Rest of Us is now playing on VOD; Mr Jones opens today online at Apple and Cineplex; check your local listings; and The Brain Divided is available to rent online on Vimeo.com here

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

Rescue. Films reviewed: The Walrus and the Whistleblower, The Forbidden Reel, It Must Be Heaven

Posted in Afghanistan, Animals, Canada, Cold War, documentary, Movies, Niagara Falls, Palestine, War by CulturalMining.com on June 12, 2020

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

I’m recording this in my home to tell you about new movies you can watch in your home. This week I have two docs and a comedy. There’s a Palestinian director trying to make a film; Afghani directors trying to save their films, and a man in Canada trying to rescue a walrus from a swimming pool.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower

Dir: Nathalie Bibeau

Marineland is a huge amusement park in Niagara Falls, centred on its performing animals. Built in the 1960s it attracts huge crowds. Visitors love watching trainers diving off the noses of orcas, and dolphins jumping in rhythm like synchronized swimmers. There are porpoises, belugas and walruses happily doing tricks for the fish rewards they’re handed. But the world is shocked in 2012 when the Toronto Star prints a front-page expose about the maltreatment of its animals. When not performing for audiences they are kept in filthy cramped cells, much like prisons. They are force-fed drugs and made to perform in over-chlorinated pools. They are caught at sea as infants and separated from their mothers who are often killed in the process. And when they die they are dumped into mass graves on the amusement park’s own property.

Who spilled the tea on this explosive issue? Phil Demers, a trainer who had worked there since his early twenties. He learned the trade as he went along, and became an integral part of the show. He was most attached to a walrus he calls Smooshi. He milk-fed the baby walrus when it was brought there, and became its surrogate mother. They bonded like a true family. So he is disturbed by how badly Smooshi and the other animals are being treated there – an open secret shared by all its employees. When Marineland doesn’t change, he goes to the press. His whistleblowing leads to a bill in Parliament and he becomes a spokesperson for animal rights. But he is also vilified by the park’s owner,  John Holer, who launches a series of SLAPP lawsuits to stifle him. Who will win in the end – Demers or Marineland? And can he save Smooshi?

This documentary is a first-hand look at the plight of marine mammals as told by Phil Demers (Marineland doesn’t cooperate with the filmmaker). Demers is an unusual character, in turn passionate, angry, and even rude. But his love for the animals – especially Smooshi – is undeniable. And the hidden camera footage taken inside the park is very disturbing; you can see why he’s fighting so hard, and why this documentary is so popular (it won the Top Audience Award at Hot Docs this year). If you haven’t made up your mind yet, The Walrus and the Whisteblower will totally change your opinion on keeping whales in captivity.

The Forbidden Reel

Dir: Ariel Nasr

In Kabul, there’s a building that stands behind filigreed metal gates. It holds a treasure trove of Afghan culture and history wound around movie reels in metal cases. What are they, where did they come from, and how did they survive? The building is called called Afghan Films, and its archive contains a crucial record of the country’s past. Through war and peace, modernism, communism and civil war. Afghan Films was founded by film directors who wanted to create a national cinema. Influenced by Iranian, European, Hollywood and Bollywood, they created works interesting and accessible to Afghanis. They continued producing and showing their films through the civil war, indeed until the Taliban was at its gate. That’s when the archive was safely hidden and preserved in a room behind a plaster wall.

This amazing documentary tells the history of modern Afghanistan through these films. I’m talking romances, war stories, battles, dramas and newsreels. The cameramen were recoding missiles landing in Kabul. Films made under Soviet rule still depicted stories of Mujahadeen fighters. There are massice crowds in city squares, girls in poppy fields lacing flowers through their hair, travelers leading camels along mountain passes, and sombre footage of past President hanging from poles. The documentary talks to people like Yasamin Yarmal a genuine Afghani movie star, and directors Engineer Latif and Siddiq Barmak who give first-hand accounts. And it’s even a bit of a thriller – how they managed to save these Forbidden Reels (it’s not what you think!) This doc gives a view of Afghan culture like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Great documentary.

It Must Be Heaven

Wri/Dir: Elia Suleiman

Elia Suleiman is a Palestinian film director who lives in Nazareth. He lives a simple, quiet life, observing his lemon tree, listening to neighbours and drinking coffee or wine at nearby cafes, always in his panama hat and dark rimmed glasses. But his life changes when he travels abroad for a series of meetings. He flies first to Paris and then to Manhattan, but maintains his lifestyle as a quiet observer… until he goes back home again. But this simple outline doesn’t really capture the feelings behind this comic film.

It’s actualy a series of brief, whimsical tableaux, some one-offs, some repeated, in the style of Jaques Tati. This is basically a silent film with only occasional lines spoken by the people he meets. Some scenes are cute; like a little bird that keeps landing on his laptop as he tries to write. Others are more political, dealing with the pervasive presence of surveillance, military and police forces in all three countries. Israeli soldiers happily exchanging sunglasses in a car driving past… and then you see a young woman, blindfolded, in the back seat. There’s a scene on the Paris metro where he is frightened by an angry man who somehow drinks his beer in a threatening way.

Some scenes are spiritual: there’s an angel pursued by Keystone Cops in Central Park. Others are mundane – a drunken doorkeeper refusing to unlock the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although the film represents nationalities in stereotypical ways – he dreams, What if New Yorkers carried assault weapons casually slung over their shoulders?; and do Parisian ambulances really offer 3-course meals to homeless people? – but it laughs equally at all nationalities. Some of the most interesting scenes are in his own home where neighbours tell fantastical fables as if real life… part of the magic-realism feel of the whole movie. It Must Be Heaven is a lovely, funny and thought-provoking look at the strangeness of everyday life.

The Forboidden Reel and The Walrus and the Whistleblower are both streaming at Hotdocs; and It Must Be Heaven is opening across Canada at select virtual theatres; 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.

Decline and Fall. Films reviewed: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, The Strain, The Humorist

Posted in Action, Communism, Cooking, Disaster, Disease, documentary, Food, France, Horror, New York City, Russia, TV, USSR, Vampires by CulturalMining.com on May 29, 2020

Unedited, no music

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

It’s Spring Film Festival Season in Toronto, without cinemas but with exciting new movies still being shown online. I’m recording at home via CIUT, from my house to yours, so I apologize for the sound quality. This week I’m looking at three films, one each from TJFF and Hot Docs, as well as a TV series. There’s decadence in Versailles, pandemic and mayhem in New York, and decline in 80s Moscow.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

Dir: Laura Gabbert

Yotam Ottolenghi is a London-based chef, restauranteur and cookbook author. A few years ago he receives an unusual offer from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”): to pull together an event recreating the desserts of the Palace of Versailles, from Louis XIV till Louis XVI. He contacts five chefs from around the world to fly in and show their stuff. But these are no ordinary chefs; they each have an unusual style all their own. Dinara Kasko, a young woman from Ukraine, assembles architecturally-inspired cakes with gravity-defying minimalist structures on the outside, and fantastic layers on the inside. Dominique Ansel – inventor of the Cronut – features new takes on classic French patisseries at his Manhattan restaurant. Sam Bompas of London’s Bompas and Parr, injects life into that much-neglected cooking form: jellies and moulds. Ghaya Oliveira is a multi-talented Tunisian chef who evokes her grandmother’s ideas while creating French pastries; and Janice Wong, a Cordon Bleu-trained Singaporean culinary artist who paints and sculpts using chocolates.

This wonderful documentary shows the chefs at work behind the scenes at The Met, recreating the splendour, decadence and opulence of Louis XIV’s Versailles. The unique works they create especially for the show are really amazing, suggesting the architecture, the formal gardens, and the open-court style of that palace, where ordinary people, if elegantly dressed, were allowed to enter the palace grounds, a space traditionally fenced off from the public. The film also provides much needed historical context: Starving Parisians stormed the palace in 1789, while the documentary is set in an ostentatious Manhattan not too long before the pandemic lockdown. Parallels anyone?

The Strain (Season 1)

Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Dr Goodweather (Corey Stoll) is a NY epidemiologist who works for the CDC. He’s separated from his wife and son because he’s always on call for emergencies. He works alongside Nora (Mia Maestro) an Argentinian-born doctor. They are called into action when a 747 lands at JFK. Everyone on board – including the pilots – are dead. Is it a terrorist hijacking? No, it’s a highly contagious virus. Called to action, the doctors attempt to stop its spread before it infects everyone in the city. But they are thwarted by corrupt officials who allow an intricately-carved wooden box (a coffin?) out of the protected area. And it turns out that the infected passengers are really dead, just temporarily comatose. They’re actually still alive, or perhaps undead. Once infected, people change into zombie-like vampires under the thrall of an unseen master.

What’s unusual about this virus is how it spreads. A red, phallic piece of flesh, like a blind moray eel, shoots out from the infected person’s neck and sucks their victim’s blood. The disease carriers cluster in colonies underground and only come out at night. Manhattan quickly collapses into chaos with widespread crime, looting and mayhem due to the pandemic. But still no quarantine to stop its spread. Luckily, a Scooby Gang of mismatched players form a team. There’s Mr Setrakian (David Bradley) an old man with secrets fro the past who carries a silver sword; Vassily (Kevin Durand) is a public rat catcher who knows his way through all of Manhattan’s dark tunnels; Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas) a champion hacker who disables the internet. They face a cabal of powerful men who want the infection to continue for their own nefarious purposes. But can the doctors and their allies stop the infection? Or is it too late?

The Strain is a great action/horror/thriller TV series about an uncontrolled pandemic, corrupt billionaires amd politicians, and the frontline medical workers trying to stop them. It has mystery, romance, sex, and violence with a good story arc, gradually revealed. It’s uncannily appropriate now, and for Toronto residents it’s fun to spot the localations – it was shot here. So if you’re looking for a good pandemic drama, and don’t know where to find it, look for The Strain.

The Humorist

Wri/Dir: Mikhail Idov

It’s 1984 in the Soviet Union. The Soyuz T-12 is in the sky, Chernenko heads a geriatric government, and Ronald Reagan casually talks about dropping atomic bombs on Russia. Boris Arkadiev (Aleksey Agranovich) is a successful comedian who has it all, adored by fans and government officials alike. He travels across the nation with a stand-up monologue called The Mellow Season, a tame routine about a trained monkey. Born in Byelorussia, he now lives in a nice Moscow apartment with his lawyer wife Elvira, and his two kids, his adoring six-year-old Polina and his rebellious teenage son Ilya. In public, he’s a national icon. But behind the scenes he’s an arrogant alcoholic, a prolific womanizer, and an all-around prick. Aside from himself, he worships the two Russian idols: vodka and the space program. He left religion behind but is conscious of anti-Jewish murmurs wherever he goes. And he’s a total sell-out. Once a serious but unsuccessful novelist, he went on to be a TV writer with his friend and rival Simon. Boris gave in to the official censors, while the less-successful Simon resisted. Now Boris is like the trained monkey in his monologue, performing on cue whenever ordered to do so.

But a series of events change his outlook. An unexpected encounter with a cosmonaut makes him rethink destiny, God and existence. And when he learns about the audacious black comics working in LA from his actor pal Maxim (Yuri Kolokolnikov) he realizes how dull and tired his own comedy has become. Will he stay a depressed, trained monkey for his corrupt masters in the army and KGB? Or will he risk his job, family and reputation by speaking from the heart?

The Humorist is an excellent dark comedy, set in the last days of the Soviet Union. Agranovich is great as a troubled, over-the-hill comic, like a Soviet Phillip Roth anti-hero. It’s brilliantly constructed starting with a garden party in Latvia, but degenerating into a soiree at a high-ranked party-member’s villa. It’s peak-decadence, where sagging old generals in formal wear dine with American porn playing elegantly on a TV in the background (they think it’s high society). The men later retreat to a banya wearing Roman togas, in a scene straight out of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The Humourist has an absurdist, almost surreal tone, where a midnight knock on the door could mean interrogation or the exact opposite. It’s filled with disturbing scenes of long underground corridors and empty Aeroflot planes. It kept me gripped — and squirming — until the end.

Great movie.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is now streaming at Hotdocs; The Humourist is playing online at TJFF, and you can find The Strain streaming, VOD, or on DVD.

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

Different from the norm. Films reviewed: Blood Machines, The Roads Not Taken, Code of the Freaks

Posted in Disabilities, documentary, Drama, Dreams, Family, Hollywood, Science Fiction, Space by CulturalMining.com on May 22, 2020

Audio: unedited, no music

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

I’m still recording at home in the midst of this pandemic, but movies are still being released, just not theatriclly. So this week I’m looking at three new indie films that celebrate the unusual. There’s a psychedelic pilot in outer space, a man with dementia retreating into his innermost thoughts, and a radical re-look at the disabled in film.

Blood Machines

Dir: Seth Ickerman

It’s the distant future on a desolate planet in outer space. The spaceship is headed by Vascan (Anders Heinrichsen) with second-in-command Lago (Christian Erickson), along with a glowing metallic robot as its brain. It’s a ramshackle outfit, held together with nuts, bolts and duct tape. But they are surprised one day by a huge, snakelike machine that crash-lands nearby. Vascan ventures outside to neutralize it, but he’s stopped by a small group of all-women warriors, their hair dyed bright red. Don’t hurt her they say, referring to the AI-powered machine. Her? And when Vascan attacks the machine, something remarkable happens. A naked woman emerges from the wreck and flies up into the sky. She has a flawless body with the image of a glowing, upside down crucifix covering her groin and lower torso. What is she, a friend or foe? And why is she there?

Blood Machines is a surreal, psychedelic science fiction fantasy, told in three short chapters. The lines are delivered in comic book fashion, accompanied by brilliant electronic music (by Carpenter Brut). Vascan looks like an angry Jared Kushner in a tailored suit with Members Only epaulettes, while Lago is more like the original Scotty (on Star Trek) with a hangover. They are later joined by Corey (Elisa Lasowski) who adds rivalry and sexual tension to the mix –the giant laser gun Vascan likes to brandish, keeps malfunctioning when Corey’s around. There are holograms, fight scenes and writhing naked bodies. There’s not much of a story to speak of, but it doesn’t matter – It’s saturated with hot pinks, violets and acid greens, powered by constant musical thrumming, and loaded with endless science fiction tropes, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Beautiful to watch and to listen to.

The Roads Not Taken

Wri/Dir: Sally Potter

Leo (Javier Bardem) is a middle aged man who is not all there. He lives in a spartan NY apartment beside the El-train. His daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), a career woman in her twenties, has the morning off to take him to the dentist and the eye doctor. But when she arrives he’s almost comatose. He barely responds to her questions. Is he just a hollow vessel with no spark inside? In fact his mind is elsewhere, caught between two other lives progressing simultaneously.

In one alternate reality, he lives with his first love Dolores (Salma Hayek) in an adobe home in the desert with rose coloured walls and bars on the window. She wants him to come with her to a Day of the Dead celebration to communicate with someone they lost. In a second life he’s a novelist on a picturesque Greek island where he writes and chats with tourists in open-air tavernas. But back in the present day his life is miserable. He’s prone to wander at night, barefoot and unaware. He drinks the dentist’s mouthwash and wets his pants, and calls strange women Dolores. Can Molly get through to her dad? And can he accept reality or will he retreat permanently into the recesses of his mind?

The Roads Not Taken is a grim look at the miserable life of a man suffering from dementia living a life he regrets, mitigated by the kindness of his daughter and the vibrant world he lives in inside his head. I have mixed feelings toward this movie. On the positive side, it has a stellar cast: Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek and Laura Linney as his ex-wife. But the narrative is fragmented among the three worlds, and not entirely satisfying. Elle Fanning is sympathetic, but how many times can a character have tear-streaked cheeks in one movie? She never turns off the waterworks. The musical score is great, and the cinematography is really effective, with a constant movement – trains, taxis, pickup trucks – that neatly ties together disparate scenes. Still, this movie just didn’t deeply move me. Sally Potter may be a great director, but this film is not one of her best.

Code of the Freaks

Dir: Salome Chasnoff

Are disabled people hideous villains or saintly, childlike freaks who need to be rescued? People with secret superpowers? Or ones who desire either to die or to be “cured”? All of the above, if you go by Hollywood movies. This new documentary looks at 100 years of film portrayals of people with disabilities and finds it sorely lacking in real-life characters.

The doc consists of movie clips – everything from The Miracle Worker, to Rain Man, to My Left Foot — alternated with brilliant commentary by artists, writers, academics and activists. There’s no group-think here, more of a cross-section of ideas from the community. And it covers very wide ground. Like the portrayal of sex and disabilities. White women are eroticized by upping their vulnerability, while black men are neutered, made non-threatening and asexual. And, as one commentator points out, you virtually never see two disabled people having sex with each other.

Blind people have “super-power hearing abilities” (Daredevil) or a carnal need to touch other people’s faces (!? ). If you have a mental illness or disability, you have no self-control, and are liable to explode… so you have to be either institutionalized, or killed, before you “hurt someone” (eg Of Mice and Men). Little people are turned into figures of fun. Wheelchairs are made symbols of limitation, not the vehicle they use to get around. (Are drivers ever described as “confined to cars”?)

The doc pinpoints some of the most offensive movies of all, skewering the hateful Million Dollar Baby, in which the heroine valiantly chooses death over living with a disability. It’s a running theme in this documentary – a happy ending in a drama with a disabled character means they’re either “cured”, institutionalized, or killed. Even worse are the dreadfully insipid “inspirational movies” where people are congratulated for their “bravery” just for existing, instead of portraying them as real people. The one thing you almost never see are disabled characters portrayed by disabled actors (though that’s gradually improving). Probably because roles like this are too valuable as Oscar Bait for the stars.

Code of the Freaks is a scathing look at Hollywood’s portrayal of disabilities and a radical rethink of the genre. This is a must-see documentary for all moviegoers everywhere.

The Roads Not Taken is available now on VOD; Code of the Freaks was the opening night film at the RealAbilities Film Festival; and Blood Machines is now streaming on Shudder.

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

Crises. Films reviewed: Band Ladies, Cane Fire, Castle in the Ground

(Audio: no music)

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

I’m recording from my home, once again, looking for ways to entertain you all while movie theatres are out of the picture. So this week I’m looking at three new films, a documentary, a web series, and a dark Canadian drama. There’s a filmmaker discovering Hawai’i’s past; a group of women dealing with a collective midlife crisis; and a mother and son facing the opioid crisis.

Band Ladies

Dir: Molly Flood

Five bored, middle-aged women meet at a local bar to discuss Victorian romances for their regular book club. There’s Marnie (Kate Fenton), a stay-at- home mom with a lackluster life; Chloe (Lisa Michelle Cornelius) a careerist lawyer troubled by her Big Pharma employer; Cindy (Vicki Kim) an aspiring musician / bartender; Penny (Dana Puddicombe) a rich celeb who could pass as a Dragons Den panelist; and Stephanie (Kirstin Rasmussen) a drunk dead-ender recenty dumped by her longtime girlfriend.

But when their inhibitions are loosened by a few bottles of plonk, Chloe storms the stage to tell her secret truth: her bosses peddle opiods to children! Someone captures her rant on their phone and posts it online, and boom! the clip goes viral. But what can they do with their 15 minutes of fame? Why, form a band, of course. What kind? Punk. But can five middle-aged women shake up their lives and transform themselves overnight into an 80s style punk band? Or is this just a pipe dream?

Band Ladies is a fast-moving, cute and clever web series. It zooms through the five characters’ lives in six quick, 10-minute episodes, a crash course on the dos and don’ts of starting a band. The actors write their own characters’ lyrics and perform the songs on their first “tour” – as the opening act at a Parry Sound bar. It’s sharp, witty and empathetic – and the whole series is over in an hour.

I like this web series.

Cane Fire

Dir: Anthony Banua-Simon

Beautiful Kaua’i: a tropical paradise where happy Hawaiians harvest sugar cane and pineapples on plantations; where luxury hotels preserve ancient ceremonies by lighting torches each night; and the setting of hundreds of Hollywood features shot there. But is that the whole truth? The locals tell a very different story.

This new feature documentary pulls the veil off the island’s past and retells its story through its own people’s eyes. When the US toppled its government and colonized the islands Kaua’i was taken over by five families who controlled most of the land. Hawaiians – and workers imported from places like China, Japan and the Philippines – were kept down by the sugar and pineapple plantation owners. Unions were busted, and organizers fired, demoted or sent away. Luxury hotels were built on sacred burial grounds and their culture co-opted or invented by settlers to attract tourists. Stars like Elvis and John Wayne were featured in movies shot there while locals were background decorations. And now locals are further marginalized by the ultra-rich people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – buying huge tracts of land for their own personal use.

Cane Fire is partly a personal travelogue – the filmmaker goes to Kaua’i to find out about his great grandfather – partly a look at Hollywood’s sanitized depiction of the place; and partly a chance for the people’s own stories to be told. This includes local activists reclaiming the ruins of the once famous Koko Palms hotel built on sacred lands. The title Cane Fire comes from a movie of the same name about local unrest on the island. That movie is now lost, but the documentary fills in the blanks normally missing in depictions of Hawai’i.

Cane Fire is an excellent film.

Castle in the Ground

Wri/Dir: Joey Klein

It’s a cold, dark day in Sudbury, Ontario. Henry (Alex Wolff) is a good son, taking time off from school to take care of his dying mom (Neve Campbell). He feeds her crushed prescription pills each day to help ease her pain. But noise from across the hall – she lives in a rundown tenement – keeps bothering her. So Henry bangs on the door to investigate. There he meets Ana (Imogen Poots) – a sketchy woman with hollow eyes – and some of her unsavoury friends. She’s a cunning addict on the methadone wagon, jonesing for her next fix. And her dealer (a kid she calls Polo Boy (Keir Gilchrist) for his designer tracksuits) says she stole his bag of pills, and the scary guys are asking for it back. Ever the gallant one, Henry steps in to protect her, but soon is drawn into her hellish universe of guns, crime and opioids. Can he emerge unscathed with only a hammer as a weapon? And what about those close to him?

Castle in the Ground has a lot of things I avoid in movies – I find movies all about people slowly dying or struggling with addiction, more depressing than interesting. Luckily, this movie, while dealing with these very real phenomena, manages to avoid the moralistic tone that usually smothers stories like this. Instead it jacks up the thriller aspects – drug dealers wearing creepy baby masks, car chases, and narrow escapes from dimly-lit drug parties – couched in a constant, surreal haze. Yes, it’s bleak, but the bleakness is mollified by aburdist humour, fascinating details, and stunning night photography, lit with the glare of headlights and the acid glow of neon. And when actors like Imogen Poots and Alex Wolff put their all into a movie like this, it’s worth paying attention.

Band Ladies is streaming now on Highball.tv; Castle in the Ground opens today on VOD; and Cane Fire is having its world premier at this year’s Hot Docs.

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

Histories. Films reviewed: Hollywood, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Academy Awards, Acting, documentary, Economics, Ensemble Cast, Hollywood, Movies, Poverty, Slavery, Wall Street by CulturalMining.com on May 8, 2020

(Home recording, no music)

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

History, they say, is written by the victors, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other histories still out there. This week I’m looking at two stories, a doc and a TV drama. There’s a pessimistic, economic history of the world; and an optimistic, revisionist history of Hollywood.

Hollywood

Creators: Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy

It’s just after WWII in LA. Young people from small towns across the US are flocking to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune in the movies. People like Jack (David Corenswet), a handsome young actor who lines up each day at Ace studios on the chance of a day’s paid work as an extra. But a pretty face is no guarantee of steady work in Hollywood. So when a mysterious man named Ernie (Dylan McDermott) recruits him for a day job at a gas station he welcomes the extra income. He’s stuck in a loveless marriage with his pregnant wife who works at the famed Schwab’s Pharmacy (where actors hang out to get discovered). Camille (Laura Harrier) is a beautiful actress on contract at Ace, where she attends locution lessons to perfect her elegant mid-atlantic accent. Still she’s stuck playing demeaning roles as maids, simply because she’s black. Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) is a talentless but good looking actor who thinks his luck has changed when he is signed by an agent named Henry (Jim Parsons). But the power broker demands sexual favours from all his clients.

Luckily, these three actors all have love interests. Jack soon discovers his job isn’t about pumping gas. It’s a front for male sex workers to peddle their wares for Hollywood’s rich and famous. Powerful women, including an older woman named Avis (Patti LuPone), grant him a chance for a foot in the door in a real movie. At the gas station, he works beside Archie (Jeremy Pope) a black writer hoping Ace studios will produce his script about a failed actress

HOLLYWOOD

who kills herself by jumping off the famed Hollywood sign. His first client is none other than Rock Hudson, looking for male companionship. Camille is in a relationship with Raymond (Darren Criss) a director at Ace. He says he’s part-Asian but can pass as white. And he wants to direct that movie Archie wrote, bringing all the main characters of the series together in one production. But is Ace Studios – and America – ready for a multi-racial romance?

Hollywood is a TV mini-series that appears to give an insider’s view of the post-war movie industry, but actually it makes it all up. The infamous casting couch – where directors or producers forced woman to have sex with them in exchange for a part – is reversed here to make men both the victims and the objects of desire. In this fantasy world, 1940s Hollywood produces movies written by, directed by, and starring non-whites. Studios are headed by women, actors come out publicly as gay and the Academy Awards happily nominates lots of African-Americans. In reality, desegregation and repeal of Jim Crow laws was decades away, “miscegenation” – mixed racial marriage – was still illegal, homosexuality was a crime, and even today Hollywood (and the Oscars) are still as white as snow.

About the only true part of this series is the gas station used as a front for male hustlers. All of this was revealed in a book and a documentary featuring the late, great Scotty Bowers (I interviewed him here in 2018.) The Netflix series is the story of his career… but he’s never mentioned by name, even once. I don’t dislike the series – it’s never boring, it’s fun to watch and has beautiful production values along with many interesting new players in the cast – but, like most Netflix productions, historical accuracy applies to hairstyles but never to the script.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Dir: Justin Pemberton

Based on the book by Thomas Piketty

What is capital? How is it distributed? How has that changed over the past three centuries? These are just some of the questions dealt with in this new documentary. In the 18th Century 99% of capital – meaning wealth, money and land – was controlled by the aristocracy, less than 1% of the people. Life expectancy was low, and life for the poor was nasty, brutish and short. But revolutionis, in France and elsewhere, didn’t mean a transfer of power and weath from the top to the bottom. Government was still controlled by those with the most money and laws were passed to ensure they didn’t lose their wealth. The rise of colonialism in the Americas, Africa and Asia led to more wealth in Europe extracted from the lands and people they now controlled. Slave-based agriculture generated even more capital – in the form of human beings – now bought, sold and traded like commodities. And people working in factories could be arrested even for quitting a job, and imprisoned for being poor or in debt. But, following the widespread death and destruction of WWI and the following worldwide depression, came the first signs of a transfer of power and capital from huge corporate monopolies and the very rich to the rest of the people.

Following WWII, the remaining aristocracy was heavily taxed, and wealth was transferred to the average person in the form of housing, education, health and the welfare state. People were finally rewarded for study and hard work. They were able to move up from poverty. This lasted for a few decades, until it began to unravel with new ideologies introduced by Thatcher and Reagan. Unions and welfare were suddenly bad. Greed was good. And once again, wealth was transferred from the poor and shrinking middle class back up to the top 1%. That’s where we are now.

How can we reverse these awful changes?

This documentary is a fascinating — and fast-moving – condensed look at economic history over the past 300 years and how it affects us today. It’s narrated by Pickety and other economists in a very accessible and easy to understand way. And it’s beautiful to look at, filled with thousands of tiny, quick film clips, mostly one to three seconds long, of stately homes and Victorian factories, mints printing dollar bills, Thatcher talking to schoolgirls, and people breathing through face masks in a horribly polluted Beijing. The images and music are as meticulously researched as they are lovely. Constant eye-candy.

Even the talking heads, those usually dull academics interviewed in the doc, are enthusiastic and interesting, and uniformly filmed against lavish backgrounds and scenery. And it’s filled with cool sequences. l loved one about a psychological experiment where volunteers play Monopoly without a level playing field – it favours certain players at random. These newly “rich” players are recorded acting rude, scarfing pretzels and generally behaving entitled as soon as they discovered the rules were tilted in their favour. So if you want to learn about history and economics and what to do about it, but don’t feel like reading thousands of pages, Capital in the 21st Century is a great place to feed your brain without wearing it out.

Hollywood is now streaming on Netflix; Capital opens May 8 in Toronto at the Hotdocs Virtual Theatre; 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.

Critical Mass. Films reviewed: Dolittle, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Les Misérables

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, Animals, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, Family, Fantasy, France, Kids, Language, Morality, Movies, New York City, Police, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three movies. There’s a man who talks to monkeys; a kid who steals a lion, and a movie critic who monkeyed with the way we look at movies.

Dolittle

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

It’s early 19th Century England, in a village called Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Young Stubbins (Harry Collett) a boy out hunting with his dad  accidentally shoots a squirrel. But instead of “putting it out of its misery” as his father suggests, he tries to save it. Stubbins stumbles on a derelict hospital run by the reclusive Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) the legendary animal doctor. The hospital is full of steampunk devices and wild animals — gorillas and polar bears, insects and parrots — wandering around just like people. And even more surprising, Doctor Dolittle can speak all their languages. Stubbins wants to convince the doctor to take him on as an apprentice so he can talk to the animals, too.

But trouble is brewing at Buckingham Palace. Someone has poisoned the Queen! And only the doctor knows the cure, a panacea found in a distant land.  Dolittle and the gang set sail to find it. Can they trick the evil King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) into giving them the map? And will they defeat a tiger, a  dragon, and various palace villains, and manage to cure the Queen in time?

I grew up surrounded by Hugh Lofting’s books, TV cartoons, and movies, and though I wasn’t a devotee, I knew all about the stories and characters. And I don’t love Robert Downey Jr. So I was all set to be disappointed: where’s the chimp? And what happened to my favourite animal, the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu?

But you know what? I liked it! It was cute, full of adventures, close escapes, exciting trips to exotic lands, and all the quirky animals (voiced by Octavia Spencer, Rami Malek, John Cena, and Emma Thompson). Keep in mind, this movie is for little kids, not grown ups, who may find the jokes too stupid, but the exciting scenes and the fast-moving action kept me satisfied. Not a terrific movie, but a very cute one.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

Wri/Dir: Rob Garver

Pauline Kael was a single mom who grew up on a California ranch during the time when movies were still silent and B&W. Her first published review was Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight — she hated it. She ran a movie theatre in Berkeley where she wrote the reviews and descriptions of the films playing there, encouraging locals to see them. She wrote for Macall’s but was fired for not loving big-budget cinema. And she quit her job at The New Repulic because they edited out her writing. She finally found a post at The New Yorker, where she became one of the most influential movie critics in the world.

She’s is known both for the movies she hated (she described The Sound of Music as asexual revisionist treacle, and trashed Kubrick’s 2001!) and those she loved (Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Scorcese’s Mean Streets, Spielberg’s Sugarland Express). Some directors’ careers were made by her patronage, while others lived in dread of her columns.  She rejected the ennui-ridden academic view of Auteur theory, without falling for manipulative Big-budget schlock. She liked trash, mind you, but it had to be good trash.

What She Said is an immaculately researched,spot-on look at Pauline Kael’s reviews,and her influence on audience and filmmakers. It delves into her fascinating life and and undeniable influence without resorting to endless kiss-assery. This movie is a labour of love,  combining vintage TV interviews with Dick Cavett and Brian Linehan, and talking heads — from Tarantino to David Lean — with readings from her work by Sarah Jessica Parker. Best of all, these voices are illustrated by a barrage of 2-3 second film clips from hundreds of movies over the past century that I haven’t seen in a documentary since Los Angeles Plays Itself (2002). (I grew up reading her reviews in The New Yorker — that and the cartoons were all  read — and while I disagreed with her half the time, I always wanted to see what she had to say.)

If you love movies, I strongly recommend this doc.

Les Misérables

Co-Wri/Dir: Ladj Ly

It’s Paris in the high-rise banlieue that circle the city. It’s 35 degrees outside and the crowds are high on the country’s win on the soccer pitch, singing la Marseillaise at train stations. But trouble is brewing…. it seems a lion cub is missing from a travelling Roma circus and the four brothers that run it are threatening a rumble with the locals.

Power here is shared by the secular — led by community leader called Le Maire (Steve Tientcheu); the religious — Salah (Almamy Kanouté), an Imam who runs a kebab shop; and the criminal — a gang of thieves who work directly with the cops. Attempting to keep the peace are the feckless police who mainly harass kids and sex workers. The regular team — an abrasive white guy Chris (Alexis Manenti) and his calmer black partner Gwada, who grew up in the hood (Djebril Zonga) — is joined by a newbie. the wide-eyed Stephane/Pento (Damien Bonnard) is a hick, straight from the farm. But the only ones who really know what’s going on are the local kids, who know every broken fence, every fire escape and back alley — they are watching everything. Especially Issa (Issa Perica) a feisty 10 year old, and his pal the nerdy Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly). Issa is the one who liberated the cute lion cub, and Buzz who records everything from the rooftops with his trusty drone.

But when the cops overstep their bounds and use weapons — which is caught on camera — things start to go really wrong. Chaos reigns.

Can the trouble be defused by the cops and community leaders? Or will the kids triumph? And could this lead to a repeat of the Paris riots of 2005?

Les Misérables (this is not Victor Hugo’s novel, but the location is the same) is an amazing dive into the lives of Parisians in the outer suburbs, their alienation, and the tension brewing there. The acting and story are superb, and I love the way multiple strands are woven together into a seamless whole. It’s nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and, though violent at times, it holds a real love and understanding of the characters portrayed. This is a great movie.

Dolittle opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is opening today at the Hot Docs Cinema, as is Les Misérables 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

Make up and dance. Films Reviewed: Like a Boss, Cunningham

Posted in Art, comedy, Dance, documentary, Feminism, Friendship, LGBT, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 10, 2020

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

Sometimes I wonder if I should be talking about movies when the planet is on fire as we head toward environmental catastrophe, even as an erratic leader — like a James Bond villain — is carrying out drone assassinations willy-nilly and pushing us all to the brink of war and back again, depending on his mood.

Are we fiddling while Rome burns?

Luckilly, the United States is still full of innovative and creative people. So this week I’m looking at two new American movies, a comedy and a performance/doc. There are two women entrepreneurs who challenge contemporary makeup; and a man who challenged the makeup of contemporary dance.

Like a Boss

Dir: Miguel Arteta

Mia and Mel (Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne) are single girlfriends who live in Atlanta Georgia. They have been besties since junior high. They go to bars together to pick up younger guys (I don’t care if they can’t read, butthey better still have their teeth, says Mia). They live in the same house – Mia’s mom left it to the two of them in  her will. And they even work together. They founded a cosmetics company that they jointly run – Mia is the creative side while Mel handles the finances.

They specialize in innovative goods, like their best selling One Night Stand packs for a woman on the go. And tell all types of women to use makeup to embrace their own good looks rather than trying to change or hide them. And they work closely with their two employees: a flamboyant gay man in the workshop (Billy Porter) and a quirky woman handling the front (Jennifer Coolidge). Everything seems to be going well, but behind the scenes they are facing serious financial trouble. Luckilly, a stranger arrives with an offer they can’t refuse. His boss, he says, wants to buy their business.

The offer comes from Claire Luna (Salma Hayek) a ruthless business mogul. Claire has dramatic orange hair, platform shoes and impossibly white teeth. Her office looks like the Guggenheim but with small killer drones flying around everywhere. She is the head of a huge cosmetics empire and she covets their niche market. Mel and Mia are intimidated by her, but stand firm – they want to keep majority interest – 51% -in their own company. Claire Luna agrees… but with a catch. If either of them leaves the company, she takes over Like a Bossthe company. Can Mel and Mia stay best friends with a new boss in the picture? Or will they fight and lose their friendship, their home and their company?

Like a Boss is an extremely simple — I would even say simplistic — movie about female best friends. It spoonfeeds you all the expected plot turns as it moves to its totally predictable conclusion. I love Haddish and Byrne, and their sidekicks Porter and Coolidge are even funnier. Hayek is a cartoon villain — she’d be twirling her moustache if she had one. I like the female-centred story, and the sexually- and racially-diverse cast. It’s also short… under 90 minutes, so it’s never boring.

The problem is the script: it’s mediocre at best, forcing talented comic actors to make do with crappy material. A real shame. The funny parts are used up in the first half, as the movie dwells on the babyish plot through the second half.

Like a Boss is not awful, it just isn’t as good as it should be.

Cunningham (in 3D)

Dir: Alla Kovgan

Merce Cunningham is born in 1919 in Washington state and begins dancing at a young age. He joins Martha Graham’s dance company as a principal dancer in the 1940s, originating many roles before turning to choreography. He leaves Graham to set up a studio in a New York tenament, with a room at the back to live in. Working with composer John Cage (the two are lovers) he pioneers a new form of experimental dance. It combines how ballet uses feet with how modern dance handles the torso. Instead of playing music with dancers moving in synch with the notes and rhythms, Cunningham decides dancers should move independent of the sound, the two art forms coexisting. He rejects the autocratic culture of traditional dance — a dictator ordering around his puppet-like dancers, while they claw their way to the top as Prima Ballerina — to a more democractic and cooperative company. He likes to call himself a dancer not a choreographer, though that is what he does. The dancers move as individual units coexiting in the same space, but often without interacting in traditional ways.

He combines music and dance to create works of art. He works with visual artists, like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol to design the costumes and sets, incorporating things like pointillism backdrops and mylar balloons with designed the complimentary costumes and backdrops so a dancer could almost disappear into the set, as in Robert Rauschenberg’s pointillist designs. The dance company drives across a country not quite ready to accept their advances in dance. A European tour leads to terrible reviews until he starts to build  appreciative audiences in the UK.

I have to admit, before seeing this film I was only vaguely aware of Merce Cunningham’s work, as opposed to his more famous collaborators – Rauschenberg, Cage, and Andy Warhol. But having watched it, I can say I get him now. It’s like a “best of” version, showcasing segments of some of his most famous works. And it’s done in 3D. You might ask, who needs 3D for dance? Well, the use of innovative filming and staging techniques gives you – in the theatre – a chance to see aspects and angles of his work previously unexplored. For example, one excerpt is shot on the roof of a skyscraper lit by searchlights projected from a nearby building… and it’s filmed using drone cameras cruising up the side of the roof and hovering overhead looking down as the dancers across the elevated stage. Just spectacular!

So if you’re one of those people who’s heard about opera, dance or Shakespearean plays, but are squeamish about actually watching a live performance (because you’re afraid you might fall asleep or squirm in your seat) this movie makes modern dance accessible. Sequences are short, varied, and beautifully done, while staying true to Cunningham’s aesthetic ideals. The movie also uses classic photos, scripts and footage of his early work to make it part documentary and part performance.

Cunningham is a beautiful movie, a tribute to an underapppreciated artist and a joy to watch.

Cunningham and Like a Boss both open today in Toronto.

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

Films Reviewed: The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Marriage Story, 63 Up

Posted in Canada, Depression, documentary, Drama, Family, Indigenous, Poverty, TV, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 13, 2019

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

How much of our lives are changed by free will, and how much is predetermined by fate, class or outside circumstances? This week I’m looking at three films about people affected by changes they didn’t plan on. There’s two indigenous women thrown together, a married couple torn apart, and fourteen people following divergent pathways in their lives.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

Wri/Dir: Kathleen Hepburn, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

Rosie (Violet Nelson) is a pregnant young woman who lives with her boyfriend and his mom in Vancouver’s East End. She likes tie dye hoodies and watching TV. Alia (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) is a middle class woman debating whether she’s ready for a child with her partner. The two meet at random on a sidewalk, Alia emerging from an alienating medical procedure, Rosie from a violent incident at home. Her boyfriend attacked her, leaving on a daze, with a bruised face, barefoot and pregnant, standing in the rain. Alia dismisses her own problems and concentrates on getting a safe sheltered space for the woman she has just met. They are both indigenous women, but do they have anything else in common? Or are they just ships passing in the dark?

The Body Remembers as the World Broke Open is a very moving, personal drama about two women, and how their lives briefly intersect. They are followed with a handheld camera, and the movie takes place in real time, without breaks, as if you are there with them. It explores differences of class and appearance – Alia can pass for white – and all that carries: violence and abuse, and how police behaviour depends on the appearance of a victim. This is an amazing depiction of a multifaceted urban indigenous story told from the characters ownpoints of view. It takes you on a heartfelt journey even as it destroys common stereotypes. Great acting, a realistic script and an urgent, constantly-moving style keeps you on edge the entire time.

I like this movie.

Marriage Story

Wri/Dir: Noah Baumbach

Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) are a happily married couple in Brooklyn. He’s originally from the midwest and she’s from LA, but they both think of New York as their home. He’s a theatre director with a show headed for Broadway, and she’s an actress featured in the plays he directs. But when she heads to California to shoot a TV show, their perfect marriage turns out to be not so perfect. Turns out they haven’t slept together in a year, and Charlie is having an affair with another actress from within their own theatre. And now their living on opposite coasts of the country. Still, Charlie is shocked and devastated when Nicole tells him she’s staying in LA, with their son, and filing for divorce. Can their marriage be saved? Should it be? What will happen to their careers? The broadway show? And who will stay with their son.

Marriage Story is a compact film about a relationship falling apart. It follows the characters – along with her family and their son – as it turns from a disagreement to a fight to a legal battle. I watched this movie not in a theatre but at home on Netflix. The problem with home viewing is that you can turn it off halfway through and come back later, something you can’t do in a movie theatre. That’s what happened to me. I was bored and distracted for the first half-hour, and didn’t want to sit through a happy and successful family’s divorce. It was irritating, annoying. Charlie is an entitled, selfish doofus, while Nicole can’t take responsibility for her own actions, pinning it all on him.

But I later returned to watch the rest… and I am so glad I did. It turns into a fantastic, subtle portrayal of a loving couple torn apart by their own actions and a legal system that leaves them scrambling. It also becomes almost a brilliant musical, in which both characters (in separate, plausible settings), break into Sondheim songs to explain their situations to their friends and families. Driver and Johannsson are both excellent and believable in their roles and their lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda) provide a sharp and cynical counterpoint the couple’s real emotions.

63 Up

Dir: Michael Apted

“Give me the child at age seven and I’ll show you the man.” That’s how a segment called Seven Up began on a UK current affairs show in the early 60s. 14 children were brought together on a playground and interviewed on camera. Upper class boys in line for elite public schools and then on to Oxford or Cambridge and the seats of power. Working class kids from London’s east end; a couple from the North, one from a farm, and two taken from a “Home for Boys”, an orphanage-like institution. The short piece wondered what will become of these post-war baby-boomers as the world

changes? Seven years later a young Michael Apted took on the responsibility and followed them every seven years with a new film looking at what has become of them. Each successive version surprises and delights audiences who wonder what has happened to these kids – now adults – as they gradually age: their opinions on relationships and politics, whether they have transcended their class or background, what are their hopes, and later, what are their regrets.

63 Up is a fascinating study, almost the only one of its kind, that traces a generation throughout their lives. It began in a very different era, when class is all-important, while gender or ethnicity are afterthoughts and sexuality never mentioned. Since there were only three girls in the initial show, three women it remains, and in the early years they are asked domestic questions, nothing about politics, or professional goals. But the subjects end up having fascinating lives. One emigrates to Australia, another follows an academic path to an American professorship. Others stay close to home. And two subjects face death. One of the most endearing stories follows a man troubled by depression whose life takes a surprising turn. And for all of them, the series both keeps track of their lives and affects them as they become public figures, almost celebrities, in a largely private world… before social networking made everyone’s lives common currency.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open starts today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Marriage Story continues there and on Netflix; and 63 Up starts next Friday at the Hot Docs Cinema.

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

Record/Erase. Films reviewed: Synonyms, News from Home

Posted in Belgium, Clash of Cultures, comedy, documentary, France, Israel, New York City, soldier by CulturalMining.com on November 1, 2019

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

It’s November now and Toronto’s fall film festival season is in full swing. ReelAsian is showing films from Asia – including Japan, Korea, China, Philippines in the Pacific, South Asian, and from the Asian diaspora from around the world, including Canada and the US. Films include dramas, comedies, anime, documentaries, art and again this year virtual reality, with a piece based on the work of Joy Kogawa. Cinefranco shows French language films, this year featuring movies by Franco-Ontarian directors. The EU Film Fest, which started last night, shows one film from each country in the European Union. This still includes the U.K., in case you’re wondering, despite all the Brexit craziness. And more to the point, all films are showing for free at the Royal Cinema!

This week, I’m looking at two movies, one from the 1970s and one from right now. There’s a filmmaker from Bruxelles who moves to New York to record what she sees; and a man from Israel who moves to Paris to erase who he is.

Synonyms

Dir: Nadav Lapid

Yoav (Tom Mercier) is a traveller who arrives in Paris with a plan: learn French, blend in with the culture, recreate himself. life. He’s originally from Israel, a sniper in the army, and wants to get rid of his past. And he’s helped toward his goal by a series of unexpected events, both good and bad. Good news: He arrives at a B’n’B with a key to an empty apartment. Bad news: When he takes a shower the next morning, everything he owns – all his clothes, his money, his passport – is gone stolen by a stranger. He ends up running naked through the apartment trying to catch the thief, ending up curled in a foetal position, almost frozen. Good news: an attractive young couple, Emile and Caroline (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte), find him and nurse him back to health. And better news, they give him some beautiful clothes to wear, help him find a place to live, andmore. Bad news: despite trying to erase his Israeli past, all his jobs seem to be with forner soldier buddies or at the embassy itself, with unexpected consequences.

What begins as simple flirtation turns into a potential love affair… but with whom: Emile or Caroline?

Synonyms is a dark comedy about conflicting identity, immigration, and clashing cultures. It’s partly a tender ménage a trois about a stranger introduced into the lives of a young couple. It’s also an absurdist comedy, satirizing Israeli military culture, its overt masculinity (verging on the homoerotic in a number of scenes), as well as a paranoid fixation on persecution, with themselves as victims. And it equally satirizes the immigration process in France, in which newcomers are instructed to assimilate, to hide their religion and ethnicity beneath a veil of loyalty to secularism, and the French way of life. The director previously brought us the equally strange and brilliant film The Kindergarten Teacher (I reviewed here) a few years back. This film, Synonyms is completely different, and much lighter in tone, but equally perplexing. And Tom Mercier, in the main role, is someone you should look out for.

News from Home

Dir: Chantal Akerman

It’s 1976 in lower Manhattan. Huge cadillacs cruise through empty alleys in the meatpacking district, leaving loose newspapers fluttering in their wake. On the subway, riders glare at the camera, or stare wide-eyed in curiosity. In the tunnels beneath Times Square, mom’s with toddlers, people commuting to work, and businessmen with their buddies walk past a stationary 16 mm camera. Through a moving car window, storefronts and gas stations and taxis and pedestrians walk up and down a West side avenue. This is a moment in time captured in architectural grandeur by avant garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman.

And over the top you can hear her voice reading the letters, largely unanswered, her mother Nelly sends her from Belgium. Her mother is worried their separation could be permanent, or worse dangerous, and sneaks twenty dollar bills into the enevelopes in case her daughter is in trouble. (Nelly’s own parents were killed in Nazi death camps.) The film itself is both drab and hypnotic, a series of ordinary, detached images of people and places that act like a time capsule; combined with deeply intimate glances into her relationship with her mom.

You may have heard Chantal Akerman’s name before but probably haven’t seen her work.

But her influence is everywhere. I was just describing one of her earliest films, News From Home. She went onto make many films, both mainstream and avant-garde. She was a pioneer in Feminist cinema, queer cinema, and experimental film.

She was also a tempestuous perfectionist and hard to work with, falling into depressed funks or driven by manic episodes. At the same time, she is hugely influential. Todd Haynes studied her work, Gus van Sant used it as a source for Last Days, his film about Kurt Cobain, and people as different as Sofia Coppola and Weerasathakul Apichatpong were shaped by Akerman’s work. You may not know this, but even films like Joker used News From Home as a model for its images of NY City in the 70s.

I am far from an expert on Chantal Akerman – I’m a movie critic not a filmmaker – but if you’re a director, a cinema studies majors, or a film festival enthusiast, the current retrospective is a rare opportunity to see her work in its entirety. And thanks to Andrea Picard, co-curator of the program: most of what I’m saying is based on cribbed notes from a talk she gave on Akerman.

Synonyms starts today in Toronto; check your local listings. The retrospective News From Home: the films of Chantal Akerman begins today 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.

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