Daniel Garber talks with Ann Shin about her new documentary The Superfood Chain

Posted in Africa, documentary, Eating, Economics, Environmentalism, Family, Fishing, Food, Globalization, Indigenous by CulturalMining.com on October 5, 2018

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

What do walnuts, goji berries and garlic have in common? How about quinoa, teff, virgin coconut oil and wild salmon? They’re all “superfoods” full of vitamins and minerals, and great traits like anti-oxidents Omega-3, high protein, gluten-free, or high fibre. As soon as a newly-marketed food is dubbed a superfood, it flies off the shelves of our grocery stores. But what happens to the people who grow these superfoods and who consider them a staple when the demand for a superfood skyrockets? What happens – good ot bad – to the people at the other end of the superfood foodchain?

The Superfood Chain is the title of a fascinating new documentary that follows four families whose local food has become an international commodity: teff growers in Ethiopia, coconut processors in the Philippines, quinoa farmers in Bolivia and salmon fishers in Haida Gwai. The film is directed and narrated by noted Toronto filmmaker Ann Shin, whose powerful documentaries like Escape from North Korea and My Enemy, My Brother use personal stories to tackle major issues.

I spoke with Ann Shin in Toronto by telephone at CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Superfood Chain premiers on TVO Docs on Monday, Oct 8 at 10 pm and is also playing at the upcoming Planet in Focus Film Festival.

Daniel Garber talks with producer Jason Charters and director Larry Weinstein about Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas

Posted in China, Christianity, Christmas, Christmas songs, Cultural Mining, documentary, Eating, Judaism, Music, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on December 22, 2017

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

It’s the 1960s. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… outside the snow is falling and friends are calling yoo-hoo… it’s Christmastime in the city. Mom, Dad and the two kids get in the car to go out for their traditional family dinner. Is it ham? Turkey? No… it’s Chinese food! Beause these folks are dreaming of a “Jewish Christmas”.

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas is a new documentary that looks at the secular celebration of a religious holiday in North America and how it’s reflected in popular culture – especially in Christmas songs. It re-eneacts a 1960s dinner in Chinatown with new performances of classic Christmas songs by Steven Page, Dione Taylor and Aviva Chernick.

The film was produced in Toronto by Jason Charters and Liam Romalis at Riddle Films and directed by Oscar nominee Larry Weinstein.

I spoke with Jason in studio at CIUT and with Larry via telephone.

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas is playing on CBC Documentary Channel on Dec 24 and Dec 25.

Daniel Garber talks to Yung Chang about his new documentary FRUIT HUNTERS.

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

When you think of middle-aged explorers and hunters in khaki and pith helmets you probably picture Kipling shooting elephants and tigers. But there’s a new type of hunter on the scene. They’re ecologically minded, not destructive. They’re the fruit hunters who travel the globe searching for undiscovered varieties of cultivated or wild fruits to bring back to their sanctuaries.
Their stories are explored in a fascinating, new documentary called FRUIT HUNTERS, directed by noted Canadian filmmaker YUNG CHANG (Up the Yangtse, China Heavyweight), that premiered at Toronto’s ReelAsian festival.

In this telephone interview Yung Chang talks about fruit and sex, the Hollywood connection, how mediaeval paintings can help identify modern fruits, why mangos are the perfect food, and more…!

Fruit Hunters will be released in theatres on Nov 23rd.

March 30, 2012. Battles Royal. Movies Reviewed: The Hunger Games, The Raid: Redemption, Gerhard Richter — Painting

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

I’m back again, to review three movies. With the recent re-release of the Japanese horror/thriller Battle Royale (Dir: Fukasaku Kinji, 1990) I thought it was appropriate to look at great battles and fights to the death. One’s about a girl who must fight 23 other teenagers on national television; one’s about a cop who has to kill literally hundreds of bad guys in an apartment complex; and one’s about a master artist who has to fight a constant battle with his adversaries: the paintings he creates.

Hunger Games
Dir: Gary Ross

It’s sometime in the future in America, with the country split into 12 districts, divided by what they produce. They are all poor, while the people in the capital are rich, living their lives obsessed with grotesque, Louis XVI clothing and wigs. Catniss (Jenifer Lawrence) is extremely poor since her father died in a mining disaster, so she hunts for food (illegally) with her best friend Gale and a bow and arrow. Without the squirrels she catches she, her mother and her sister Prim would starve to death.

This country is called Panem and it operates on the bread and circuses principle (keep the people fed on bread — panem — and entertained). So while the people are just eking by, the President forces two “tributes” — a teenaged boy and girl from each district — to fight to the death each year in a televised reality show. Sort of like the Olympics, except no one wants to be chosen by the random “reaping”. They are dressed, trained, and sent away to a forest with cameras hidden in every knothole and behind each shrub.

Catniss and Peeta – the baker’s son — are the ones sent to the games. Which one of the twenty-four will survive?
I read all three of the books, and the movie’s is a fairly accurate dramatization of the original.
But… where’s the hunger? It’s the Hunger Games! They’re stuck in this manufactured, forest “arena” with nothing to eat or drink except what they can find (or that’s sent to them using tiny parachutes, paid for by donations from the fans.) But Jennifer Lawrence looks like a big, healthy milk-fed athlete, not the vulnerable wiry but headstrong little girl I was expecting. When she gets sent off to the capital she barely glances at the fancy array food. And she never really eats. Petta (Josh Hutcherson), on the other hand, is much more believable in his role.
The movie follows the action in the arena, but constantly cuts away to unnecessary behind-the –scenes action in a control room, where the scientists plan their next danger. This takes away a lot of the mystery and excitement: you know what’s going to happen before the characters do. Still, the suspense and action – save for the completely unwatchable shaky camera fights – is exciting, and the story is good. Who will survive? Can people behave morally in an immoral world? And can a boy and a girl find love in a battle to the death? My heart didn’t pound much, but it was still a fun movie to watch.
The Raid: Redemption
Dir: Gareth Evans
A young Jakarta policeman named Rama (Iko Uwais), is sent into an apartment building as part of a SWAT team, to arrest a gangster. But he soon discovers it’s a set-up! Almost every apartment in the high-rise is filled with the gangster’s minions who spring forward — armed with cleavers, knives, axes and swords – in a fight to the death against the cops.
Rama is an expert in the Indonesian martial art silat, which involves throwing, hitting, and cutting with various bladed weapons (kids… don’t try this at home!) So its up to him to fight them off, one by one, so he can reach the penthouse suite and arrest the chief bad guy. But he has to deal with corrupt cops in his own team, and a mysterious connection he has to a player on the other side.
This non-stop, extremely violent action assault movie is intense, to say the least, with incredible, choreographed fight scenes involving dozens of fighters at a time, all of them throwing themselves, like crazed, screeching zombies, at the one martial arts hero. It’s a great, gorey action movie, not like one I’ve ever scene before.
Gerhard Richter — Painting
Dir: Corrina Belz
Gerhard Richter was trained as an artist in socialist realism in East Germany but he crossed over to the west in the early sixties. Since then, his work — which spans everything from plain grey fields and coloured, geometric designs, to photorealism, and abstract expressionism – has grown in reputation to the point where, today, he’s generally considered one of the most important living painters.
But, he says, the process of painting is a private thing, not meant to be seen by the public. Painters are cowards, they do their art in private, then reveal it in public.
Paintings, he says (quoting Adorno), are mortal enemies: every work is the mortal enemy of the other.  Each painting is an assertion that tolerates no company.
So it’s a rare, rare thing for him to allow a camera to reveal him at work, almost as if we’re seeing the king without his clothes on.  But what a king!
It’s just amazing seeing him at work in a completely white – floors, walls, ceiling – studio, climbing up a ladder, and painting huge brushstrokes on these 10 foot wide canvases. Bright fields of yellow, a streak of red, a blue patch. And you think, yeah that’s not bad, nice balance… then he looks at it, and says it’s not good… ist schlecht!  Then a few days later he puts some paint on a piece of glass as tall as the painting, and then slowly, deliberately squeegees  a layer of paint slowly across the painting breaking up the colour into crackly, or smooth, or patchy areas. It’s a new painting, now, and stays like that one for another few days until he decides to change it, junk it, or keep it as is. It’s like the movie shows paintings that don’t exist anymore in galleries, they’re just the stages of the painting now on a wall somewhere.
And just in case someone wants to say “my 12 year old daughter could paint better than that!” the movie also shows a previous series of his paintings, these photorealism taken from old black and white snapshots.
This movie’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. It’s in German with subtitles, and is mainly footage of Richter painting and talking about it. It’s not an “art movie”, it’s a movie about the creation of art and art itself. It’s not an exciting film, but I liked it: it’s a terrific introduction to a great painter, and an intellectually fascinating and visually stunning representation of his art.
The Hunger Games and The Raid: Redemption are playing now, and Gerhard Richter – Painting opens today. Also on this weekend, you can catch the enjoyable Ma Part du Gateau (My Piece of the Pie) showing at the Cinefranco festival in Toronto.  And a very good documentary, The Guantanamo Trap, is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com. 

Super Macho Friday! Films reviewed: Love and Other Drugs; Black Swan; Kings of Pastry

I was recently in The States for American Thanksgiving, and at an American chain bookstore, I noticed a whole section – not just a table, not just a shelf, but a whole section — devoted to “paranormal teenage romances”! I’ve seen that ultimate teenaged paranormal romantic vampire trilogy (the eclipse trilogy) – and I have to say, they were awful, I couldn’t find the appeal in any of them. But different people like different things…I guess it’s a matter of taste.

You might think you like things that blow up, crashing cars, scary monsters, blood and guts, and fistfights. Yeah, me too. That’s why I’m calling this week’s reviews Super Macho Friday, so I can talk about some uber-alpha-testosterone-laden action-packed movies. Yes!!! We’re going to see three rough and tough movies about cut-throat competition, nerves of steel, ironman endurance…! One’s a romantic comedy, one’s a film about ballet dancing, and one’s a documentary on… exquisite French sweeties?

OK I lied, they’re not stereotypically masculine as movies go, but, keep listening: some of them are well worth watching.

Love and Other Drugs
Dir: Edward Zwick

Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a retail salesman in the mid-1990s whose aim is to get laid – on the job – as often as possible. But he gets fired for hitting on his boss’s girlfriend. He’s young, handsome, ambitious, and out of work. Meanwhile, his slovenly, obnoxious, unattractive little brother Josh, who has made a fortune in the dot-com bubble, offers to set him up with a sales job at a global pharmaceutical giant. If his sales reach a certain target, he’ll get to move away from the backwater he’s placed in to the big-time: Chicago.

So he trains hard, works hard, and learns the trade, while also sticking to his hobby. Is he trying to pick up women in order to up his sales? Or is he working as a traveling salesman to sleep with the metaphorical farmer’s daughters? Who knows? Either way, he’s being trounced by a more successful, rival salesman: an ex-marine peddling prozac. But, after bribing a doctor to let him dress as an intern, he encounters a beautiful woman, Maggie (Anne Hathaway) a barrista and artist with early onset Parkinson’s. Sounds interesting so far? It is, sort of.

After that, unfortunately, the rest of the movie is just about them jumping in and out of bed, and whether their casual sex will develop into a loving relationship. Granted, there’s lots of gratuitous shots of the two movie stars running around scantily dressed… but the movie itself was pointless and boring. Will Maggie and Jake stay together? Will he get his transferred to Chicago? Will she continue to make coffee and snap photos and buy medications? Who cares? You get the impression even they don’t really care. And when the movie tries to be funny, it usually fails miserably, like the lame scene about Viagra-induced priapism and a three way with a model-like saleswoman in a hot tub (“She’s Thai, and I’m Thai-curious”).

It doesn’t even really deal with the real problems of big pharmaceuticals, aside from the industry’s high prices and competitiveness. Instead, it was more of a non-stop product placement for the drugs themselves. They even have a depressed homeless guy whose life is turned around after garbage-picking Prozac samples. Oliver Platt as his trainer and Hank Azaria as a GP are bth great, but other than that, unless you really love Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, (or have a thing for awful 90’s music, like The Macarena) this is a stupid, pointless romantic movie that goes nowhere.

Black Swan
Dir: Darren Aronofsky

I reviewed this during the Toronto Film festival, and it stayed with me – it’s a haunting, moving film.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina, pure of heart, who wants the lead role in Swan Lake. She’s been raised to reach perfection, en pointe, by her relentless stage mother who was also in the ballet, but never made it big. Nina doesn’t drink or smoke or have sex – she still lives at home, she’s bullemic, plays with stuffed animals, wears a fuzzy pink coat, and listens to her little music box with a dancing ballerina by her bed.

But the ballet director, played Vincent Cassel, wants to put new life into the that cliched old ballet. He pushes her to also play the role of the Black Swan, the sinister evil twin of the Swan Queen. For this, he wants her to abandon her remaining childhood and purity and to become angry, passionate and sexual. He’s exploitative and cruel. Meanwhile, Beth the former diva at this ballet, (Winona Ryder) is forced to retire, and a new competitor, Lily (Mila Kunis) is also trying for the role, and trying everything she can to take it from Nina. Sophisticated Lily is Nina’s opposite – sex, drugs, smoking, and backstabbing all come as second nature to her. Nina has to hold on, both to her role in the ballet, and to her tenuous grip on reality.

The big question is: does Aronofsky’s latest venture work or not. I have to admit, at times, this movie drifted into high camp, and felt like nothing more than a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”, another movie about backstabbing dancers.

That said, I think it’s a totally watchable classic melodrama and psychological thriller, with great acting by the two main women, plus very enjoyable overacting by Winona Ryder as the former prima donna and Barbara Hershey as the over-the-top stage mom. This movie’s also stunning on the eyes and ears, with amazing production values.

I think Aronofsky knows exactly what he’s doing, neatly alternating three styles: The super-real, documentary-like footage just like in The Wrestler – behind the scenes bone-cracking, massages, rehearsals, warm-ups and make-ups; the scenery-chewing catfights of melodramatic soap opera; and surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies (like in his great “Requiem for a Dream”). For me, this balance worked.

Kings of Pastry
Dir: Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker

The title says it all: this is about the cut-throat competition to be accepted as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France and allowed to wear the coveted collar. The movie follows the competitors from Europe and North America, as they go from stage to stage, constructing elaborate spun sugar sculptures, designing multi-layered chocolate truffles, obscure pastries, and impossibly complex cakes. It’s like a reality show or Iron Chef – except it’s not a TV show competition. It’s the real thing. They all compete, with an olympic-like ethos, to create these monuments of grotesquerie.

Part of the competition is to take these huge, delicate and breakable constructions, lift them up, using their own hands, and carry them all the way to the table where the judges do their judging. And even though this is an unscripted documentary, you just know it, one of the chefs is going to stumble…

When I was a kid, they did the learning numbers sequence on Sesame Street – some of you might remember this – and one film clip that still sticks in my mind is, in each sequence, there would be this guy at the top of a staircase in a white chef’s toque announcing something like “Seven Pumpkin Pies!” And then dropping them all.

Anyway, I don’t get it. I’m not a sweet tooth so I don’t see why you’d breaking your back creating hideous spun-sugar displays and petit fours arangements, but clearly some people live for this stuff. And the chefs, obviously, still value these old-school distinctions. I guess you could say they want to be archaic, and eat it, too. The film starts slowly, with the chefs in their home territories, practicing spinning flawless sugar ribbons; but once they’re at the big competition, it really heats up. Tthis is an excellent documentary, and the ultimate dessert film.

Just to review, today I talked about Love and Other Drugs, now playing, Black Swan opening today, check your local listings, and Kings of Pastry which is playing at The TIFF Lightbox – go to tiff.net for details. Also starting today is Sell Out!, a funny and unusual satirical musical-comedy about Rafflesia, a reality show host whose ambition comes to the rescue when she finds a new way to attract Malaysian audiences – using death as the ultimate draw.

August Grab Bag. Movies Reviewed: Eat, Pray, Love; Centurion; Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Eat Pray Love

Dir: Ryan Murphy

Liz (Julia Roberts), a successful writer, gets her fortune told in Bali, telling her her destiny. Soon after, her marriage collapses and she feels empty and forlorn, so she sets off on a round-the-world tour of popular vacation spots to spend some of her dough. In Rome she learns about Dolce Far Niente – which she interprets as knowing how to order food in a restaurant. In India at an Ashram, she learns to find her inner balance by being smug, condescending and vaguely pissed off as she scrubs the stone floors. Then in Bali, settling in to the island’s most expensive hotel, she meditates and rides her bike. She meets a woman who has to live in a rented place, not a house of her own – can you imagine? She feels so sympathetic she decides to raise money on Facebook. What a philanthropist!

I wanted to like it – it had beautiful scenery – Bali, Rome, New York, India – and great actors (Billy Crudup, James Franco, Javier Bardem) and I’m not a Julia Roberts hater – I like her. I’ve even heard the writer Elizabeth Gilbert (whom the main character is based on) talk on the radio, and she seems really smart and interesting. But this movie is just horrible. Some people seemed to walk out happy, but I can’t figure out why. It’s one of the worst, stupidest and most annoyingly clichéd and obnoxious movies I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s a typical line, an example of the degree of profundity she encounters on her quest for wholeness and self-actualization: “If you want to get to the castle, Groceries, you’ve got to swim the moat!” Bleaaaggghh! Maybe if this movie had been called the Ugly American, I would have understood it better.

In the beginning I was hoping that all the cute supporting roles would make up for Julia Roberts’ insufferable character. But that didn’t pan out. Instead we get to see anorexic Julia saying “I’m fat – look at my muffin top”. And the next scene is her squeezing into a pair of designer jeans, over her model-bodied flat belly.

You get to see her in Italy learning how to talk with her hands. “Like-a this-a?” says Julia Roberts. (Did she actually say like-a this-a?)

Eat Pray Love:

I ate my popcorn, I prayed the movie would get just a little bit better, and I loved finally getting out of that god-awful place.

“Centurion”

Dir: Neil Marshall

I went to this movie, at Toronto After Dark Festival, partly because Michael Fassbender was in the main role.  He was amazing in two British movies over the last couple years: “Hunger”, about IRA Bobby Sands’s prison hunger strike and a coming of age drama, “Fish Tank”. This movie, while set in the British Isles, is…a little bit different. To say the least.

This is a sword and sandals epic, about the period when the Roman soldiers fought against the Picts. This was way before all those nouveau immigrants, those Angles, Jutes and Saxons moved in and spoiled the neighbourhood. This was way back when. So in a big battle, the Roman legions were there fighting those Picts up in the north.

They’re tough mofos, those Picts are, with all their pictish ways, and blue face paint. Don’t mess with them. But the Romans are tough too. Anyway, there’s battle after battle and skirmish after skirmish before the actually story takes off. Lots of splatt, and uggh, and aaah, as another head gets chopped off and plopped into a water barrel. Anyway… so Quintas Dias (“I am a soldier of Rome, I will not yield!”) a centurian, and a Pict by birth, has been training for fighting since his childhood. He speaks the local language, and knows the way around. After the failed attempt to beat the locals, he just wants to rescue a Roman general and call it a day. But in their botched attempt, someone in his multi-cultural platoon does something that sets the whole tribe against them — till the death. They have to escape and make it back to the main Roman legion. So there are lots of scenic mountains and rivers and waterfalls as they try to outwit the dangerous Picts and an expert tracker who always seems to find them: a fur-clad and mute Lisbeth Salander-type rival, played by the striking Olga Kurylenko. I started to get dizzy when I thought of all the swooping airplanes they had to rent to shoot this movie – it felt like every second scene had to start with a swooshing aerial view of where they were fighting next.

And on the way, they encounter a pictish witch to add a further dimension to the story. I liked it, just for it’s bigness. I got bored of all the killing and stabbing and stuff, but it brightened a bit in the second half. If you like very bloody, Roman big-screen war movies, then this is the movie for you. (I liked it better than “Gladiator” and the very plastic-looking “Troy”, but that’s not saying much.)

Scott Pilgrim vs the World

Dir: Edgar Wright

Based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, and starring Michael Cera in the title role.

Scott Pilgrim is a nerdy guy in a band. He shares a bachelor apartment with a gay dude who gets laid way more than he does. Scott’s still pining for a girlfriend who dumped him a year ago. And he’s dating a highschool girl (“we hold hands”) named Knives Chau, who’s gradually becoming more of a fan of the band than a GF. But she’s crushing heavily on Scott Pilgrim. They play Dance Dance Revolution together in perfect Harmony. Then he meets the girl of his dreams – literally of his dreams! – at a party, and they sort of hit it off, even though he’s a wimpy Toronto guy, and she’s a beautiful and glamorous American, from New York, who changes her hair style each week.

The thing is, she has lots of baggage from her various exes, all evil, all more successful, and all out to ambush Scott when he’s least expecting it. So he has to fight them if he wants to stay with Ramona Flowers, that’s the name of his new beautiful and glamorous girlfriend.

So he goes through a series of 8-byte video battles – battles of the bands, Street Fighter skirmishes, skateboard derbies on the hills around Casa Loma… covering the whole indie, comics, video games, manga, electronica, clubs and party scene of downtown Toronto of the 90’s and 2000’s. It’s retro without being specifically any retro period. And the whole movie is told as if the area of Toronto, within, say, thirty blocks of the comic store The Beguiling were trapped inside an old Nintendo set – and the only way to get out is to beat all these villains.

This is a great movie and the most Toronto movie I’ve seen in a long time. References to Honest Ed’s, Pizza Pizza, the Second Cup, even SARS are everywhere. I’m not even going into all the other characters – too many, too funny – but I liked this movie. It’s just so Toronto, with all the cool people drinking beer at the parties… y’know? I think I was at that party in the movie. OK, maybe I wasn’t there, but I was invited, and I didn’t go, cause it would have sucked anyway.

Anyway, you have to watch it to see whether Scott Pilgrim wins his awesome battles or whether the world beats him and just leaves his burnt husk there in an Annex alley off Bloor Street: Game Over!

Finally, the 11th annual ImagineNATIVE Festival of great new movies by indigenous peoples here and around the world, is starting tonight in Toronto, and continuing for the next five days. You should check this out — It’s opening tonight with Boy, a Maori coming-of-age story, that was a huge hit in New Zealand. Look online at ImagineNative.org .

Folk Heroes. Movies reviewed: Soul Kitchen, Mesrine: Killer Instinct, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, plus Joan Rivers A Piece of Work, and Toronto After Dark Festival

We’re at the hottest time of the year, the dog days of summer, and, with all the sticky, sultry weather, some people get boiled into limp submission… and others just boil over. This week, there was a Johnny Paycheck at Jet Blue Airlines, who’d had it. After being bonked on the head by a falling piece of luggage, he took to the airplane mike, and mouthed the equivalent of the old ’70’s country song “Take this job and shove it, I ain’t workin’ any more”. The flight attendant, Steven Slater, activated the airplane emergency slide, grabbed a couple cans of beer, and slid away. They’re already calling him a folk hero – someone who went with his feelings.

Well, there are some movies opening this weekend, with some very different takes on what to do with your life, including its anger and frustration. And one of them is about an actual folk hero.

Soul Kitchen

Dir: Fatih Akin

This movie is about Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos), a German-Greek guy from Hamburg who owns a rundown diner in an old warehouse. One day, he’s with his rich girlfriend at a big family dinner, when something happens. A customer has complained that his soup is cold. No big deal. Except… the soup is cold gazpacho. So when the customer demands he heat it up in the microwave, the chef goes ballistic and comes out of te kitchen brandishing a cleaver.

Zinos witnesses all this and hires him on as a diner chef. The movie –aside from all the great food shots of chopping and stirring, is really about poor Zinos’s misadventures as he tries to get his restaurant and his life back in order. He has to deal with his icy girlfriend who has relocated to Shanghai; his brother, a thief and gambler on day parole who wants a job but doesn’t want to work; Socrates, an old bearded guy in a Greek fisherman’s cap who’s building a wooden boat behind the restaurant; and the various city zoning officials and real-estate speculators who seem to be teaming up to make his life miserable. And then there’s his bad back…

It’s unusual to see German movies with multi-ethnic casts and storylines – that’s an interesting change. And this cute, light German comedy has lots of scenes of diverse characters rolling with the punches, and eventually exploding. It’s an OK movie, (not a great one) with lots of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Actually, “Soul Kitchen” feels most like a TV sitcom pilot: Introducing all the madcap friends of the beleaguered main character who you can enjoy watching in his crazy musical restaurant, week after week…

The next movie, a biopic, is a lot more powerful.

“Mesrine: Killer Instinct”

Dir: Jean-Francois Richet

Screenplay: Abdel Raouf Dafri (who wrote last year’s amazing prison gangster flick Un Prophete / A Prophet).

Jacques Mesrine, not so well known here, is a full-fledged folk hero in France, and maybe in Quebec. After serving his term with the French army in Algeria (France’s “Vietnam”) he has to move back in with his parents. His mother is demanding, his father is conciliatory and he hates them both. Jacques (or Jacky) wants pride, he wants glory.

He becomes a burglar and a thief of some renown. He can talk himself out of trouble, no prison can hold him. He’s quick with a gun, and a even quicker when there’s a chance of meeting a pretty girl. He rides sports cars, dresses in suits, and keeps a narrow military moustache. When his beautiful and fiery-tempered Spanish wife Sofia leaves him after a violent incident, he takes off for greener pastures. Soon, he’s in Montreal in the late 60’s, with a new Bonnie to his Clyde: Jeanne Schneider. And he shares Molson Ex stubbies and bottles of Canadian Club with his new best buddy, Jean-Paul Mercier from the FLQ. And when they end up in a horrific Quebec penitentiary, they vow: dehors ou mort — to get out or die trying.

“Mesrine: Killer Instinct” is extremely rich, and epic in its scope. From the slick, period scenes of the Parisian demimonde of the 60’s, to the vast hyper-realism of Montreal – forests, bridges, ship yards, and apartment complexes — it all rings true.

The acting – especially the wiry, charismatic star Vincent Cassel, who’s made a career playing fighters and anti-heroes – is absolutely amazing. Gerard Depardieu as his gangster boss, Roy Dupuis as his Quebec friend; and the two female leads, Cecile de France, and Elena Anaya as two of his lovers — they’re all just perfect.

This is a great look at an extremely violent gangster who captured the imaginations of a generation. The movie also gives, for the first time, a stark look at the Canadian prison system in the 1970’s. Really shocking. I do recommend this movie, just be aware it’s quite violent, and it only covers the first part of Mesrine’s life. (“Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1” is coming soon.)

“The Disappearance of Alice Creed”

Dir: J Blakeson

Also opening this weekend, is a thriller I saw last year at the Toronto Film Festival.

Alice Creed is a young woman woman who is kidnapped, bound, gagged and tied to a bed by two masked men. They have a foolproof plan — to hide her in a high rise apartment, without her ever knowing who they are. Their plan is flawless… until it begins to fall apart.

Is she really a total stranger? How

can these two men trust each other? And how innocent a victim is the young woman?

As the three players in this intrigue shift alliance, blame, and loyalty, the power equation constantly changes.

Eventually it all breaks down to who gets the satchel of cash. But isn’t there some sort of unwritten rule for movies — that there can only be so many plot twists before it completely loses its point?

Spindly plot legs can’t support a story with too many heavy plot reversals, and this one has more than you can count. I liked the fact that it has a tiny cast — just the three of them — and I liked seeing Eddie Marsan (the loopy driving teacher from “Happy-Go-Lucky”: En! Ra! Ha!) in another unusual role. But the acting is better than the story. This is not terrible, but not a great one either.

And if these three movies aren’t enough, there’s a fourth one opening this weekend: “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” (directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg) a tell-all documentary about the famous stand-up comic and talk-show host.

This is a really funny movie, with lots of the comedian’s offensive one-liners. You also get to see her behind the scenes reconstructing her face and body for the audiences; and her personal struggles with her husband, daughter, agent and career. As someone who is not a fan of Joan Rivers, and had never actually seen her perform before, even on a talk show, the movie was surprisingly entertaining. I don’t like celebrity culture at all, but this is one good, funny documentary. I don’t know if Joan Rivers can ever be called a folk hero, but she’s a real piece of work.

Finally, for people who love horror, cult, action and science fiction movies, you’re in for a treat. It’s time again for the Toronto After Dark festival.

One full week of al the ninjas, zombies, aliens, robots and monsters you can stand. I haven’t seen any of the movies playing, but the titles say it all: “RoboGeisha”; “Alien vs Ninja”; “The Human Centipede”; and a new remake of the revenge classic “I Spit on your Grave”. Whoa! More scary B-movies than you can shake a stick at. And there’s a special appearance by none other than Eli Roth (who directed “Hostel” and acted in “Inglourious Basterds”) along with the cast of his latest production, “The Last Exorcism”. After Dark is also the kind of festival that attaches short films before the main feature, something that should be done more often.

Unusual Characters: Documentaries reviewed: And Everything is Going Fine, The Story of Furious Pete, The Canal Street Madam, Inventing Dr Nakamats, Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya

Today I’m going to look at a particular form of documentary that’s at this year’s Hotdocs, and talk about some of the movies screening there.

Right now, and through the weekend, Hotdocs Festival in Toronto is showing over a hundred new documentaries. There are history documentaries, there are social issues, there are global disasters, there are political movements, current affairs, competition, true crime, and personal triumphs. This year, Hotdocs has brought in not just the filmmakers, but a number of documentary subjects themselves – the people the movies are about.

These days, everyone downtown is looking funny at everyone else: is that woman in a movie? I think he’s sort of famous! On Sunday, I chatted with a pair of Teletubbies in Yorkville. Still not sure whether they were there as part of a movie or if they just liked dressing in fuzzy yellow and red costumes. I guess I’ll never know. The festival is full of unusual documentaries with all sorts of unique, off-beat characters. Here are a few I liked.

And Everything is Going Fine

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Spalding Gray was a fantastic storyteller and monologist who used his own life and encounters as the raw materials for his talks. He would sit at a plain wooden desk, with some papers in front of him – stage props, he never looked at them — maybe a glass of water, and just talk to the audience in a brilliant, multifaceted monologue.

His stories were really captivating, hilarious, always surprising, and all about himself. He talked about sex, about his mother’s suicide, about psychiatry, sex, war, travel, more sex, acting, performing, his wife, and death. He committed suicide a few years ago, and Stephen Soderbergh has put together footage from some of his past shows, TV appearances, and interviews. “And Everything is Going Fine”, gives a partial biography of Spalding Gray’s life, told in his own words, by him.

It’s a great collection of his past works, seamlessly stitched together into a single script. My only criticism is that Soderbergh skewed the focus of Spalding Gray’s talks into a sort of a living epitaph, as if his words were a clear prediction of his eventual, inevitable suicide. I don’t think it was predestined at all… it just, sadly, happened. And I hope his narrative won’t be recast in the public memory as the guy who killed himself. But I do recommend this movie, both for people who have seen him, and those who have never heard of him.

The Story of Furious Pete, Directed by George Tsioutsioulis is about Peter Czerwinski, a Canadian competitive eater, who at a much earlier age, was hospitalized for anorexia. So, a guy who used to barely eat at all, is now a buff body-builder who scoops up chunks of food in official competitions and chows down, like a vicious velociraptor, at whatever is put in front of him. Schnitzels, steak, obscenely massive sandwiches, everything, that is, except the legendary Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating contest in Coney Island. We follow him traveling around North America competing as a pro eater, his hair died red and white to look like the Canadian flag.

As a movie, it’s half fun to watch, half disgusting. The parts about his personal life don’t come through as clearly as the competition scenes, which are truly remarkable examples of high-speed zombie-style gorging. Sometimes the documentary feels borderline infomercial, with that “exciting” pounding sports TV music, and the flashing chrome fonts it uses. I guess that’s to make it look like a sports show. Maybe it is a sports show… And there are lots of product placements and logos for the companies that sponsor him, so the tone is noticeably different from most of the films at hotdocs. But it still kept me interested, and rooting for him to win as he stuffs barbecued ribs into his bulging cheeks. He even appeared live, at the screening, in an impromptu orgy of competitive watermelon gluttony, the latest chapter in the ongoing Story of Furious Pete.

In The Canal Street Madam, directed by Cameron Yates, Jeanette Maier runs a brothel on Canal St in New Orleans that attracts famous clients – politicians, journalists, businessmen.

But in 2004, after a year of wiretapping, the FBI holds a major raid, throwing Jeanette, her mom, and her daughter in jail. Three generations in the same profession. The courts close down her livelihood. The people working there go to jail, the well heeled clients split without charge.

This movie shows Jeanette’s gradual change from a rich madam to a politically active sex trade worker, who isn’t ashamed, isn’t afraid, and is willing to stand up for her rights. The government has no place in the bedrooms of the nation, including consensual paid sex. She says she has now moved from “politricking” to politicking. Though the movie sometimes drifts into reality show-style confessionals, it is a moving, respectful, and fascinating profile of Jeanette’s public persona and her private family life.

“Inventing Dr Nakamats”, directed by Danish filmmaker Kaspar Schroder shows an eccentric Japanese man who holds the patent to over 3000 devices. Dr Nakamatsu has a number of theories he lives by. He keeps track of every meal he eats (one meal a day at 8 pm sharp), to follow the nutrients. He’s driven by efficiency – how many minutes will something take, how much, how many, how long. He has determined that the best new ideas happen underwater, so of course he invents a waterproof pen and paper so he can write an idea down in the swimming pool as soon as he thinks of it. You get to see him sniffing a camera – he believes you can judge a new camera by its smell.

The filmmaker follows him around for a month recording everything leading up to his 80th birthday, when he plans to release his latest invention, a push-up bra. He comes across as egotistical and tyrannical – he castigates a hotel toady for refusing to name a room after him – but his off-beat creativity, combined with prolific scientific brilliance and brazen self-promotion show a unique guy. This movie is a lot of fun.

I have my own encounter with Dr Nakamatsu a few days ago at a lecture. I see him sitting at a table with his wife. I go over to acknowledge his work. He says “Latin America”? I say no, I’m Canadian. He explains. He is heading for the Latin America documentary reception, as am I. How many minutes? he wants to know. I don’t know… 10-15 minutes? OK, he says, let’s go, where’s your car? My car? No I’m taking the subway, right across the street.

Mood change. Dr Nalamatsu dismisses me. They’ll be going without me.

Later, at the party, we meet again. How many minutes did it take me? His method, by taxi, was faster. We are near a tray of tortilla chips and salsa. What is that? he wants to know, ever the nutritional scientist. I explain. But he wants the ingredients. Um corn… Oil? Salt? And that, he says, pointing to the dip. Tomatoes, onions, pepper, spices… pause. Dr Nakamatsu deliberates. Dr Nakamatsu photographs the tray. Then… he nods his approval. Chips and salsa will constitute his once-a-day meal. And in his head, he’s probably inventing a new, better, Japanese taco chip. All’s well with the world.

Sex Magic: Manifesting Maya Directed by Eric Liebman and Jonathan Schell.

His name is Desert, but you can call him Dez. Dez lives in Sedona, Arizona with Maya. They hold big spiritual meetings. Baba Dez (who attended the screening) – an old-school surfer-dude-looking guy, with long hair and a yoga physique – is a tantric, polyamorous shaman. Tantric as in tantric yoga, tantric sex; polyamorous meaning he has sex with various women other than his lover; and shamanistic, meaning… well that was never quite clear, but I think it’s about him playing a wooden flute on the side of a hill. Maya dumps him cause he’s too polyamorous for her tastes. He spends most of the movie trying to get her back.

Dez says we all have yin and yang, a lingam and yoni, deep inside of us. And the key is to find the union of your masculine and feminine sides, (not the bullies and the victims, the good masculine and feminine), in order to find inner calm and sexual satisfaction.

He helps one woman find her orgasm by saying “OM” just as she reaches nirvana. He’s a “hands-on” kinda guy…

Dez is frequently nekkid, (as are many of the people in this movie) so you get to see a lot of him. Whatever his tantric beliefs are, at his consciousness raising ashrams Dez is always quick to spot the prettiest women and to try to make contact with them. Dez, Dez, Dez… you dirty dog. We know what you’re all about.

We see him impressing women in Hawaii by showing them a giant, all-natural, lava rock vagina inside a cave (sort of like the Virgin Mary appearing on a tortilla). Aw, Dez…

Then, just when you think nothing will surprise you, in another scene, he’s kneeling beside a woman he’s saying something spiritual to. She’s lying naked on her back, and he’s – wait a minute, is that his…? It appears that Dez has gingerly displayed his junk across her thigh.

Anyway, this is a movie like none you’ve ever seen (hopefully), sort of soft-core tantric porn, but it’s also a really good documentary, and very entertaining. And you know what? The people in the movie all seem happy with what’s going on, so who can argue with that? Even though nothing Dez says makes any sense.

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