First loves. Films reviewed: Yesterday, Genesis

Posted in Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Fantasy, LGBT, Music, Quebec, Romance, UK by CulturalMining.com on June 28, 2019

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

This week I’m looking at two movies – a fantasy musical and a coming-of-age drama. There are three adolescents in Quebec wondering where their loves will go; and one man in England wondering where She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah went.

Yesterday

Dir: Danny Boyle

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a singer songwriter trying to make a career in a tiny seaside town near Suffolk, England. His diehard manager Ellie (Lily James), whom he’s known since his school days is always on the lookout for new gigs. He left his teaching job to make it big, but he can count his fan base on his fingers. He just never gets a break. In fact he’s ready to pack it in when something unusual happens: a massive, worldwide electrical meltdown.

When it’s over, everything seems slightly different in unfamothable ways. The biggest of all is he discovers “The Beatles” never existed:  none of their songs were ever written or recorded. Jack is the only one who remembers their words and lyrics.

He makes no secret that these songs are famous and he didn’t write them, but since he’s the only one who knows them, it’s up to him to correct that imbalance. He sets out writing down everything he can remember, sticking them to his wall using post-it notes. And when Ellie lands him a spot on a local TV show, his song goes viral. He is approached by ginger-haired pop sensation Ed Sheeran (Ed Sheeran) who signs him up as his opening act. Soon Jack is headed for international fame, fortune and glory. A bitter manager takes over his account when Ellie retreats to her school teaching job, and the money starts pouring in. But is this what he really wants? And will he ever get the nerve to tell Ellie… what he really wants?

Yesterday is an enjoyable movie with an appealing, though largely unknown cast. Patel (from the UK soap Eastenders) actually sings his songs, and the supporting roles – like his foot-in-mouth assistant Rocky (Joel Fry) – are fun. The thing is, Yesterday seems like a typical netflix-type movie, the plot as an excuse to bolster a single flimsy “what if” premise (what if only one man remembered the Beatles?). The story just plays out. And Kate McKinnon is painfully miscast as the greedy LA manager: she treats a quasi-realistic movie like a Saturday Night Live skit, spoiling the tone of every scene she appears in. Even so, while Yesterday is overly simplistic, it’s still cute.

Genesis (Genèse)

Wri/Dir: Philippe Lesage (The Demons)

Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) is a 16 year old at an all boys school in Montreal. He’s known for his sharp tongue and witty remarks. He’s the clear class leader, as likely to challenge an unfair teacher as he is to burst into old Québécois camp songs. He serves as a mentor to younger kids and a friend to all. But his status, reputation and friendship are all threatened when he drunkenly kisses his best friend, Nicholas, after a school party.

His older sister Charlotte (Noée Abita) is 18 and deeply in love. She’s dating Maxime, a smart kid from a well-to-do family. But all her feelings are shattered when he suggests they (meaning he) have sexual flings with other people. What the hell? She takes his words at face value and soon picks up Theo, a much older guy she meets at a dance club. She begins to realize she’s attractive and desirable – the world is her oyster, she can have whoever she chooses. But what should her limits be and what does she really want?

Felix (Edouard Tremblay-Grenier) is a kid with braces at a boys’ summer camp. They’re located just across from the girls camp, and the two sides get together for bonfires and music. He really likes a particular girl, Beatrice, but he doesn’t know how to approach her. So he asks his counsellor for advice. Is this true live or just a crush? And will Felix have a chance to spend time with her before they all go home?

Genèse is a beautiful, tender, realistic and funny coming-of-age story about three sets of teenagers at different stages of their lives. It delves into the meaning of first love at 13, 16 and 18… and the very-real dangers it might bring. The first two stories – involving brother and sister Guillaume and Charlotte – are told simultaneously, while the third, seemingly unrelated chapter is told seperately at the end of the film. (But they are all connected.)

The acting is superb and passionate, the music and images inviting. This is a great movie.

Yesterday opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Genesis is playing next week, July 5-7, in Toronto at the Royal Cinema as part of the Quebec on Screen series. (It’s also a chance to see Une Colonie, another Quebec film I reviewed here.)

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

Light on their feet. Dykes in the Street, We are the Radical Monarchs, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, Diamantino

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, documentary, Fantasy, Feminism, Folk, LGBT, Movies, Music, Portugal, Protest, Refugees, Sports, Toronto, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 24, 2019

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

Spring festival season continues in Toronto with Inside Out LGBT Film Festival. It premiers queer movies and docs from around the world. This week I’m talking about films at InsideOut and some general releases.There’s a musician who’s a light foot, a soccer player who is light on his feet, and some women marching in solidarity, boots on the ground.

Inside Out LGBT Film Festival

Inside Out opened last night and runs for the next 10 days. It features some major releases, like the Elton John Biopic Rocketman, Mindy Kaling’s Late Night, and the latest chapters in Armistead Maupin’s amazing serial Tales of the City.

I’m not allowed to talk about any of those films yet, but let me tell you about a couple of great new docs on radical lesbians.

Dykes in the Street

Dir: Almerinda Travassos

…looks at the evolution of the dyke march in Toronto over the past 35 years. It started in 1981 with 300 women matching down Yonge and Bay streets organized by Lesbians Aganst the Right. This informative documentary combines talking heads with historical footage from the period. It talks to women who were there then and at subsequent marches ten, fifteen and thirty-five years later, as it becomes more inclusive and diverse.

Another radical lesbian documentary is shot in Oakland California:

We Are the Radical Monarchs

Dir: Linda Goldstein Knowlton

…tells about a new alternative to scouts and girl guides. Founded by Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest the Radical Monarchs go camping, learn fun songs and chants and earn badges. But they also wear berets reminiscent of the Black Panther Party, and learn about social justice activism and black and brown history in Oakland.  There’s even a Black Lives Matter badge! Adorable kids working for a good cause.

These are just a few of the dozens of great movies playing at InsideOut.

Diamantino

Wri/Dir: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt

Diamantino (Carloto Cotta) is a Portuguese soccer player at the top of his game. Like no other player, he can weave his way through a crowded field as if he’s all alone. His secret power? he sees other players as enormous fluffy pink dogs frolicking in the grass. That’s the source of his success. Diamantino is fit, popular and incredibly rich. He owns a mansion and a yacht. He’s also naïve, gullible and very stupid. Which makes him vulnerable to adversaries and villains alike.

When he first encouters refugees he is so upset he decides to adopt a teenaged boy from Africa who loves soccer. What he doesn’t realize is the “teenaged refugee” is actually the much older Aisha (Cleo Tavares) a gorgeous, lesbian secret agent. She is working undercover to find evidence of fraud and corruption in Diamantino’s many businesses.

Diamantino also has twin sisters, Sonia and Natasha (Anabela and Margarida Moreira), the real villains. They depend on their brother to finance their lavish lifestyle and don’t want to lose it… so they start spying on the spy. Something seems suspicious about that boy. Throw in some right-wing nationalists who want Diamantino to endorse their cause, and an evil scientist named Dr Lamborghini (Carla Maciel) – who drives a Lamborghini! –  and you can see all the obstacles our hero has to face. Can Diamantino survive a cruel world and remain a soccer great?

Diamantino is a bizarre and fantastical comedy, an explosion of pastel eye-candy across the screen. It’s told in an exaggerated storybook style, but deals with important issues. I can’t keep calling every movie “like nothing you’ve ever seen” but it’s safe to say this one really is.

I liked this one a lot.

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind

Wri/Dir: Martha Kehoe, Joan Tosoni

Like many Canadians I’ve heard of Gordon Lightfoot and vaguely familiar with some of his songs. But before watching this documentary I knew little about his life. Originally from Orillia Ontario, he worked his way through the folk scene in Toronto’s Yorkville and NY City’s Greenwich Village. He studied music in LA and learned to compose and arrange at an early stage, and began writing his poetic lyrics even earlier. His widely covered songs range from traditional folk melodies, to country and western, pop, rock and even the long neglected ballad genre. (The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – a six-and-a-half minute retelling of a shipwreck the year before, became an unexpected smash hit in the 1970s.)

This movie fills in a lot of gaps about his music, his career, personal problems (like alcoholism) and the meaning behind many of his lyrics. It shows him composing, recording and performing his hits, giving an inside perspective rarely seen. My only criticism is it didn’t need the overwrought ass-kissery, celebrity musicians gushing about how great Lightfoot is. (He knows it, and we know it – it feels like a eulogy, and he’s very much alive.) Luckily, that only takes up about 10-15 minutes. The rest of the documentary is outstanding, with unequalled visual and sound research. They found a recording of him singing in the church choir as a teenager, and footage of him chatting with Alex Trebec in the 1960s. There are countless family photos and films and period shots of Toronto streets meticulously covering sixty years. Just amazing. And all his best songs and performances spread out from beginning to end, getting better and better as it goes.

I went in expecting nothing, and was blown away by this great music doc.

Gordon Lightfoot and Diamantino both open today in Toronto at Hot Docs cinema and theTiff Bell Lightbox, respectively. Check your local listings. Dykes in the Street and We are the Radical Monarchs are two of many fine movies at Inside Out over the next 10 days.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Justin McConnell and Jack Foley about Lifechanger

Posted in Canada, Crime, Death, Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on December 28, 2018

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

It’s Christmastime at a bar in Toronto.

Julia is a young woman sitting in her usual spot, trying to forget her own tragic history. She chats with the usual suspects – strange men trying to hit on her, and women looking for a shoulder to cry on. But what she doesn’t realize is that most of the strangers she talks to each night… are all the same person.

Then there’s Drew. He suffers from a bizarre illness. The only way he can survive is to refresh his body by inhabiting a new one… until the body is worn out and he moves on to the next. Can Drew tell Julia the truth and convince her to accept his unusual lifestyle?

Or is that just too big a life change for either of them to accept?

Lifechanger is a new fantasy/horror movie that will keep you guessing till the end.

It’s written and directed by Justin McConnell (who I interviewed 5 years ago about his documentary Skull World.) Lifechanger has won multiple awards at international film festivals across North America and around the world. It co-stars Jack Foley as the romantic lead… who is also a man with a secret.

The film opens today in Toronto, Calgary and Ottawa.

I spoke with actor Jack Foley and writer/director Justin McConnell in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Big Changes, Big Trouble. Films reviewed: Every Day, The Party, Annihilation

Posted in Army, comedy, Fantasy, High School, Horror, Movies, Politics, Romance, Science Fiction, UK, Y.A. by CulturalMining.com on February 23, 2018

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

Everybody knows change is good, but big changes can lead to big trouble. This week I’m looking at three good movies about women facing big changes. There’s a British politician with a once-in-a-lifetime career change; a biologist investigating changes that are scientifically impossible; and a high school student whose boyfriend changes bodies once a day.

Every Day

Dir: Michael Sucsy

Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) is a highschool student in Maryland. Her mom’s a careerist, while her dad, since his breakdown, stays at home painting pictures. Her boyfriend Justin (Justice Smith) is a popular athlete… and a bit of a jerk. So she is surprised when he agrees to play hooky and spend the day just with her. It’s the perfect date: They explore downtown Baltimore, he pays attention to her, stops smoking, they share intimate personal stories, find their special song, and for the first time, they actually have fun together. Is this true love? But the next day he’s acting like a douche again, with only vague memories of the day before. It’s like he’s a different person. What’s going on?

What’s going on is he was a different person that day, someone named “A”. “A” is a bodyless being who inhabits a different person each day and — like Cinderella — departs that body at exactly midnight. “A” has no choice of who they’ll wake up as, except that it will be someone their age who lives nearby. “A” could be a boy that day, or a girl, could be black, white or asian, could be straight, gay or trans. Could be ugly or attractive. Rhiannon and “A” have to find each other each day to carry on their relationship. Hint: “A” knowing Rhiannon’s phone number helps a lot. Can their love overcome “A”’s ever-shifting identity?

Every Day is a cool, young adult fantasy/romance that works. It’s set in Maryland, but was shot in Toronto, and it has a Degrassi feel to it, where the multiracial, multigender nature of the cast is omnipresent but not central to the plot. Instead it deals with questions of identity, look-ism, and mental illness.

I liked this movie.

The Party

Wri/Dir: Sally Potter

Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a politician in the UK celebrating her promotion, the pinnacle of her career. Starting tomorrow, she’ll be the Shadow Minister of Health for the opposition Labour Party. So she’s throwing a party for her nearest and dearest. They arrive two- by two . There’s Martha (Cherry Jones) – a lesbian feminist university prof with her earnest partner Jinny.   Cynical April comes with her flaky boyfriend Gottfried (Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz), a self-professed healer. And Tom — a nervous and brittle financier (Cillian Murphy) — comes without his wife Marianne, Janet’s closest friend and workmate. Janet’s husband the grey-bearded Bill (Timothy Spall) sits alone in the parlour spinning vinyl as she bakes her vol-au-vents, to show that a woman can feel at home both in Westminster and in her kitchen. Problem is, her hors d’oeuvres are burning even as her party is collapsing like a house of cards, as each guest reveals a big secret. There’s cocaine, champagne, a fire, broken glass, face slaps… even a handgun.

The Party is a drawing room comedy that pokes fun at the social conceits of a generation of middle-class, leftist baby boomers. It’s the work of Sally Potter, director of Orlando and Ginger and Rosa. Shot in black and white with a wicked musical soundtrack that shifts the mood from scene to scene, it clocks in at just over 70 minutes, as a short-but-sweet English comedy.

Annihilation

Dir: Alex Garland

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology prof at Johns Hopkins who specializes in mutating cancer cells. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) – a soldier she met when she was in the army – is missing and presumed dead. But when he shows up at her bedroom door, seemingly with no memory of what happened and how he got there, she decides to investigate. She’s valuable to the military, a woman as comfortable with a petri dish as she is with a submachine gun. She joins a crack team of scientists, all women, headed by the laconic psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Their goal is to explore unknown territory within a swampy National Park.

It’s encased in something called “the Shimmer”, a phenomenon eminating from a lighthouse on the coastline.  No one who goes into the Shimmer comes out alive (except for her husband Kane) and it’s getting bigger and bigger each day. From the outside it looks like a giant rainbow-coloured, plastic shower curtain that’s melting upwards. On the inside it’s even stranger, a world where distinctions like “animal/vegetable/mineral” cease to exist. It’s both beautiful and grotesque, filled with Chihuly crystals, human topiary and brightly-coloured tree fungi. Unrelated species are combining and mutating at a rapid rate, into a cancerous growth — just like the cells Lena studies, only prettier. And they’re affecting the five women too, both their minds and their bodies. Video messages they find (left by previous soldiers) only make things worse. Can Lena survive the hideous creatures and her deranged and suspicious teammates before she faces the scariest entity of all?

Annihilation is a terrifying exercise in horror sci-fi psychedelia. It references everything from Arrival, to The Wizard of Oz to Apocalypse Now, as the team paddles their way though a Heart of Darkness in their search for emerald city. Natalie Portman is great as the elegant soldier-scientist, and director Alex Garland brings us a different take on post-apocalyptic images. Annihilation is the kind of psychedelic fantasy that keeps you guessing.

This movie is scary-pretty… and pretty scary.

The Party comes to Toronto next week (check your local listings);  Every Day and Annihilation open today. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Holy or Hollow? Films reviewed: Black Hollow Cage, The Holy Girl

Posted in Argentina, Coming of Age, Family, Fantasy, Sex, Spain, Thriller, Time Travel by CulturalMining.com on February 16, 2018

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

After a slow period, February is busting out all over. After Valentine’s Day, films and documentaries are showing at Toronto’s Black Film Festval, Next Wave – with free movies if you’re under 25 — is on this weekend, you can catch a lion dance for Chinese New Year, or just spend time with significant others on  Family Day. So there’s tons of stuff going on out there.

This week I’m looking at movies about young women from Spain and Argentina. There’s a house in the woods with a girl in a cube, and a hotel in the mountains with a girl in a pool.

Black Hollow Cage

Wri/Dir: Sadrac González-Perellón

Alice (Lowena McDonell) is a young teenager with brown hair and huge limpid eyes. She lives with her parents in an isolated, minimalist house, built of glass wood and steel. Her father Adam (Julian Nicholson) takes care of her, while her mother Beatrice is always by her side to offer advice. Sounds like a nice, simple life… but it’s not. Her mother is dead; Beatrice is actually a fluffy white husky with a device strapped to her collar that speaks in her mother’s voice. Alice lost an arm in the same accident that killed her mother. She’s been fitted with a prosthetic arm that looks like it was taken off a star wars storm trooper: shiny, bulky and white. Alice hates the arm and the exercises the physiotherapist tells her to do. One day, Alice is walking Beatrice in the woods near her home and comes across a large, matte-black box, just sitting there. What is it and where does it come from? When she approaches it it opens, revealing a handwritten note – they are not to be trusted. The note is in her own handwriting. Spooky! And a murderous ninja dressed in black is stalking the halls of her house.

Later her dad brings home Erika and Paul (Haydée Lysander and Marc Puiggener), a teenaged sister and brother in trouble. Paul is mute, but Erika talks for the two of them. They were badly beaten so Adam lets them spend the night. Can they be trusted? A voice tells Alice to kill them, but she hesitates. Can she kill innocent children in cold blood? But when she hesitates others end up dead.

How can she fix her errors? She finds that by climbing into the black cube she can emerge and revisit her day to set things straight. But by setting in motion parallel universes she risks upsetting everything and possibly killing her father, beatrice and maybe even herself.

Black Hollow Cage is an extremely strange movie based on a fascinating concept. Some of the strangers things become clear later on, but most of it is left unexplained. So you’re never sure if Alice is insane, whether time travel is actually possible, and who is actually good or bad. It’s one of these movies with strange concepts and beautiful minimalist settings but totally devoid of real life. I couldn’t make heads or tails of this confusing picture. It surprised and shocked me… but didn’t move me.

The Holy Girl (2004)

Dir: Lucrecia Martel

Helena (Mercedes Moran) is a beautiful divorcee who lives in a remote resort in Argentina. It’s a grand hotel, the same one she grew up in with her brother, but is gradually inching from splendid to seedy. The whole hotel is preparing for an influx of Ear-Nose-and-Throat doctors in town for a convention. Under the eagle-eyed manager Mirta,The masseuse is put to work chopping chickens in the kitchen and a nervous maid rushes from room to room spraying disenfectant on everything. Helena herself was once known for her high diving skills but now just dog-paddles in the hot pool worrying about tinnitus. When Helena encounters Dr Jano (Carlos Belloso) who remembers her in her glory days, he invites her to grace the stage at the closing night presentation at the convention. The convention organizer wants to end things with a bang.

Meanwhile her daughter Amalia (María Alché) attends church classes and is on a mission to serve God by saving men. She’s into memorizing catechisms and religious tracts and is looking for a sign. But most lessons are spent listening to her best friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) whispering lascivious comments in her ear. She’s looking for a sign – does a naked man falling out a second story window outside her class count? One day, when standing in a crowd listening to a Theramin player, Amalia feels a man pushing against her from behind. She turns around and sees a clean shaven middle aged man rushing away. Maybe this is her sign?

Dr Jano is married with children who join him at the hotel, even as both Helena and Amalia pursue him, but for different reasons. Whose secrets will be revealed?

The Holy Girl is a wonderfully, Byzantine drama told through the eyes of both a mother and a daughter and the dozens of other characters swarming around them. It functions both as a coming-of-age story of a religiously engaged but sexually curious teen, and the drama of a middle aged woman trying to juggle work, family, and personal rivalries with chance sexual encounters. This is a lush, detailed film with great acting. I had never seen Lucrecia Martel’s movies before (never heard of her, in fact) but now I want to see everything she’s done.

Black Hollow Cage opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Holy Girl is part of the retrospective Argentine Genius: The Films of Lucrecia Martel playng at TIFF Cinematheque Feb 23-27. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

Just for the lulz. Films reviewed: Adventures in Public School, Father Figures, Downsizing

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Family, Fantasy, High School, Road Movie by CulturalMining.com on December 22, 2017

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

There are lots of heavy-duty movies out now, with great actors, by famous directors about important issues. But what if you just want to have some fun for 90 minutes? Enough great movies — this week, just for the lulz, I’m looking at three comedies. There’s a homeschooled boy who meets a one-legged girl; a teeny-tiny man who meets a one-legged woman; and two adult brothers who just want to meet their dad.

Adventures in Public School

Dir: Kyle Rideout

It’s present-day Vancouver. Liam (Daniel Doheny) is a gawky, home-schooled teenager preparing to write his high school equivalency exams. Once he passes with flying colours he’s off to Cambridge to study astronomy. At least that’s what his over-protective mom thinks. Claire (Judy Greer) gave birth to Liam when she was still a highschool student, so she planned his life to avoid all the problems she faced as a teen.

But when he enters Claire’s old high school to write the test his world is turned upside down by a beautiful girl he passes in the hallway. Anastasia (Siobhan Williams) has blonde hair, an angelic face and a prosthetic leg. Who is this one-legged girl? He deliberately fails the test just so he can attend school and maybe meet her. He manages to join class midterm when he convinces the principal (Andrew McNee) — who has a crush on Claire — that he’ll take the place of a missing girl for two weeks. Now Liam is the new kid, known to everyone as “Maria Sanchez”.

He soon learns about friendship from the flamboyant Wes who shares his locker; bullying from BDC an Aussie competing for Anastasia; and unrequited love. Can he learn about love, sex, drugs and survival in just two weeks of school? And can he shake off his mom’s relentless interference?

Adventures in Public School is a cute Canadian coming of age comedy, but one that takes few risks. Doheny is appealing as Liam, and Greer funny as Claire, and the story is interesting enough, but the film is underwhelming as a whole. But there are enough twists and funny bits to make it worth a watch.

Father Figures

Dir: Lawrence Sher

Kyle and Peter are brothers. They’re also fraternal twins but couldn’t be more different. Peter (Ed Helms) is uptight angry and depressed. He’s a proctologist who hates his job. He’s divorced but has no luck meeting women because he lacks basic social skills. Kyle (Owen Wilson), on the other hand, is a hippy-dippy beach bum who lives in Hawaii. He’s also rich with a beautiful girlfriend. A chance photo of him ended up on a bottle of BBQ sauce, and he has lived off the royalties ever since. He explains his extraordinary luck as “the Universe” talking to him. The two were raised by their single mom Helen (Glenn Close). Their dad died of colon cancer when they were infants.

Peter and Kyle don’t get along but when they meet up again at their mother’s house they discover a secret: their dad didn’t die – in fact he’s still alive. The two of them jump into a car to try to find him. They son discover their mom slept with a huge number of men in the mid-1970s. which one is their real dad? And will they tear each other apart before they meet him?

Father Figures is a simple buddy/road movie – two guys who don’t get along but share a single goal. It has a very barebones plot, with a sentimental ending. Ed Helms is good as the uptight Peter but Owen Wilson is barely trying. It’s the “father figures” who are funny, especially JK Simmonds as a miscreant Repo Man. Again, this is not a great movie, but it’s funny enough.

Downsizing

Dir: Alexander Payne

It’s some point in the future. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is a non-descript but happily-married man who works as a job counsellor for a large corporation. Life’s OK, bit something is missing. Then he hears about a new scientific discvery out of Norway that addresses climate change without affecting your lifestyle. They’ve discovered how to shrink you down to the size of your finger, and developed tiny gated communities where you can live a normal life. Since you’re so small, you leave no carbon footprint and everything is cheap – middle class people with savings from the big world can live like kings in the small world. Food, real estate, travel – all affordable. One catch: the process is irreversible. And when Paul awakens he discovers his wife has changed her mind. And a bunch of his savings have disappeared. Now he’s all alone, works in a crap job and lives in a condo. He’s small and life sucks.

But when he meets a Eurotrash neighbour named Dusan (Christoph Waltz) things start to improve. He learns to let loose and live a little. And when he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a one-legged, Vietnamese cleaning woman, he begins to see how the other half lives. This tiny world has slums, refugees and undocumented migrants just like the big world. Can a normal guy find love and satsfaction in a strange new world?

Downsizing is a silly and goofy movie, but an interesting one anyway. Once they establish the big/small changes, the size thing disappears, and it turns into a light social satire with a middle class guy learning about poverty. Mart Damon plays that gormless white guy he does so well; Christoph Waltz – with sidekick Udo Kier – adds some life, and Hong Chau pours on a heavy Vietnamese accent but is still believable.

Father Figures and Downsizing open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Adventures in Public School starts in January as part of the Canada’s Top Ten movies series. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

 

Heavy Hitters. Films Reviewed: Wonder Wheel, Roman J Israel, Esq, The Shape of Water

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Cold War, Drama, Fantasy, L.A., Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

It’s December now, and that’s when the movie awards start to pile up. This week I’m looking at some of the hard-hitters — movies with famous directors or stars — that might be up for a prize. There’s a kitchen sink drama in Coney Island, a legal drama in LA, and a romantic drama in a secret Baltimore laboratory.

Wonder Wheel

Wri/Dir: Woody Allen

It’s the 1950s in Coney Island. Humpty and Ginny are a middle aged couple living in a rundown apartment overlooking the ferris wheel. Humpty (Jim Belushi) is an angry drunk, currently on the wagon, who manages the carousel. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a former actress who is a waitress at the clam shack… or as she puts it, she’s playing the part of “Waitress” in an on-going drama. She has a little kid from her first marriage, Richie, who is a petty thief and an aspiring arsonist, lighting fires wherever he can. Life in this dysfunctional family is far from perfect but at least it’s stable. That is until two things turn their lives upside down.

First Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up out of nowhere. They haven’t spoken for five years, not since she married a racketeer. Now she’s on the lam, a marked woman since she turned canary and sang about the mob to the cops. She moves into their crowded home, working with Ginny at the Clam House. The second thing that happens is Ginny meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard on the beach. He’s a grad student at NYU and loves the idea of dating a dramatic older woman. Soon they are secretly meeting under the boardwalk for afternoon delights. But then Mickey meets Carolina and everything starts to unravel.

After watching Wonder Wheel, I kept wondering: did I just see a great movie or a terrible one? It’s certainly very different from Woody Allen’s European comedies. It feels more like a stage play, with characters reciting the lines of a script, from Mickey the lifeguard who narrates by speaking directly to the camera, to Ginny who says things like: “I’m consumed with jealousy!” I think that’s intentional.  But I’m not so sure most of the characters wanted to speak exactly like Woody, down to his stammer and pauses. Still, the look of the movie – from the period costumes to the lurid colours of neon lights, and the unexpectedly jarring camerawork – is stunning and surprising. Does this mean Woody Allen is still experimenting?

So is Wonder Wheel a good movie or not? Hmmm… I guess so.

Roman J Israel, Esq.

Wri/Dir: Dan Gilroy

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a defense lawyer in present day LA. He’s a partner in a small law firm – he minds the office while his partner goes to court. He’s an old-fashioned guy. He wears big round glasses and ill-fitting clothes. He rides the bus to an office full of foolscap and post-it notes. He works under the watchful gaze of pictures of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin. He sacrificed marriage, a social life and material possessions, in exchange for devoting his life to civil rights and equality under the law. That is until his law partner of 30 years has a heart attack. Suddenly Roman finds himself jobless, friendless and nearly homeless.

A slick corporate colleague of his boss named George (Colin Farrell) offers him a low-level job at his firm. He refuses. But when he can’t find paying work, is mocked at a meeting of young activists, and is attacked by a mugger on the way home, he is faced with a tough decision: stay true to his ideals or sell out and enjoy the profits? Only Maya (Carmen Ejogo) – a woman he meets at an NGO – still believes in him. He ends up making an ethically dubious decision, and has to deal with the consequences.

Roman J Israel, Esq. is billed as a thriller – and there are a few tense moments – but it’s basically a character study of a man forced to re-examine his values in a changing world. Denzel Washington is great as Roman – he really gets into the part, portraying him as an oddball but a sympathetic and believable one. The story is very simple, but it’s the details surrounding this fascinating character that keeps you interested.

The Shape of Water

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s Baltimore in 1962. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is an elegant cleaning woman at a top secret government lab. She loves hard boiled eggs and bathtubs and lives above a movie theatre. She is mute, but communicates with her two friends using sign language. There’s Zelda (Octavia Spence) a talkative woman who translates and covers for her at work; and Giles (Richard Jenkins) a lonely illustrator in his 60s who lives with his cats in the apartment next door.

Elisa lives a routine life, until something strange shows up in a glass tank! Like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he’s part human, part fish. Elisa is scared but intrigued. She offers him hard boiled eggs which he scarfs down. Gradually she teaches him to communicate through sign language, and exposes him to music, art and human emotions. Could this be love? If only life were so simple. The creature arrived with Strickland (Michael Shannon) the agent in charge of the project. He’s a racist misogynist who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing the creature with a cattle prod. He plans to kill him and take him apart to study. And lurking in the shadows at the lab is a soviet spy who observes everything – including Elisa communicating with the creature. Can their love survive?

The Shape of Water is an amazing movie, modelled on classic Hollywood films. I’ve seen it twice now, and it didn’t drag for a moment. It’s funny, romantic, surprising, violent, and exciting. The music, the art direction, the singing and dancing, the dream sequences, the surreal sex scenes, the Cold War/cloak-and-dagger feel…. this movie has just about everything. Sally Hawkins is an unusual romantic lead, but she’s perfect as Elisa. Shannon is a hateable — but understandable — villain. Spence and Jenkins as, respectively, her comic and melancholy sidekick, are both spot on.

This is a wonderful movie: I recommend it.

Roman J. Israel, Esquire is now playing. Wonder Wheel and The Shape of Water open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Runaways. Films reviewed: Across the Waters, Wonderstruck

Posted in 1920s, 1940s, 1970s, Denmark, Fantasy, Jazz, Kids, Manhattan, Movies, Nazi, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 20, 2017

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

Film Festival season continues in Toronto. Planet in Focus is an environmental film festival that bring eco heroes – like astronaut Roberta Bondar – to Toronto along with amazing documentaries from around the world. Everything from a grocery co-op in Brooklyn to a plastic recycling plant in Shandong, China to Genetically Modified Organisms, which are, well, everywhere. Go to Planetinfocus.org for more information.

ImagineNative is indigenous films and media arts, including an art crawl around the city, a wall is a screen, and many workshops, breakfasts and events. It has scary movies, westerns, docs, dramas, animation and so much more. Go to imaginenative.org for details.

This week I’m looking at two movies about people running away. One has a boy and a girl running away to New York City to find family. And the other has a father fleeing Copenhagen to save his family.

Across the Waters

Dir: Nicolo Donato (Brotherhood)

It’s 1943, in German-occupied Copenhagen. It’s an uneasy peace, but because of an agreement the Germans leave the Danes alone. Arne (David Dencik) is a guitarist in a jazz band. He is passionately in love with his wife Miriam (Danica Curcic) and they spend all their free time having sex. But only after they put their 6 year old son to bed. Jacob (Anton Dalgård Guleryüz) likes listening to Danish poems and playing with his teddy bear. Everything is going fine – no need to worry about the Nazis; this is Denmark, not Poland. Until that knock on the door comes one night – the Germans are coming! Run! Now!

The family is Jewish and the Nazis are there to take them away.

There’s only one way to escape; and that’s by boat to neutral Sweden. But how? They make their way north to a small port called Gilleleje, where they hear the fisherman are helping people across the sea. But when they get there things aren’t as good as they hoped.

One fisherman named Kaj is demanding high fares. But Arne and Miriam are nearly broke. There are way too many refugees in the town to keep them a secret from the Nazis. While some of the locals – the police chief, the pastor – are risking their lives to save fellow Danes, others have questionable motives. Who can be trusted, and who is collaborating? And will the family escape to Sweden?

Across the Waters is a fictional retelling of a true story. The movie is Danish but it was shot in Ireland to give it that period, seaside look. I always like a good WWII drama, and there have been some great Danish films, like Flame and Citron and Land of Mine, that deal with the topic. This one is smaller and more of a family drama than an action thriller, but it does keep the tension and suspense at a high level. (Including a scene reminiscent of Melville’s Army of Shadows.)

Worth seeing.

WonderStruck

Wonderstruck

Dir: Todd Haynes

It’s the late 1970s in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a 12 year old boy who lives with his aunt’s family. He suffers from strange dreams since his mom, a librarian, was killed in a car accident. Some nightmares involve being chased by wolves, but others are stranger still. They tell a continuous story, night after night, and they’re silent, and in black and white — just like an old movie.

These dreams tell a parallel story about Rose (Millicent Simmonds) a 12-year-old girl who lives in her father’s mansion in 1927 like a bird in a gilded cage. He’s a rich, divorced man in Hoboken, New Jersey. Rose’s head is in the stars – she spends most of her days reading title cards at silent movies or collecting photos she cuts from magazines. She’s obsessed with a certain pale-skinned movie actress named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).

Rose doesn’t go to school. But when she discovers her local theatre is switching to talkies she she knows it’s time for a change. She’s deaf and can only communicate by writing things down or reading words on a screen. So she bobs her hair and takes the ferry into Manhattan where she hopes to find the legendary actress.

Ben, meanwhile, is an orphan. His mom never told him who his birth father was. But looking through her things he finds an old bookmark with a message. It was tucked into a book about a museum collection, and the message was written by someone named Danny who visited their town before he was born. Could this be his dad?

But when he tries to call him up long distance, lightening strikes — literally. The electric shock travels through the phone line, leaving Ben deaf (just like Rose). But he catches a bus to New York City anyway, arriving at the Port Authority carrying just the name of a bookstore and a handful of cash. There he meets another 12-year-old named Jamie (Jaden Michael) who befriends him and says he’ll help him find his (possible) dad.

Jamie gives Ben a place to stay… a storage rooms at the Museum of Natural History (where Jamie’s father works). Will Ben find his dad? And will Rose find the movie star? Can two deaf 12-year-olds survive in a huge city? And what connects the two runaways?

Wonderstruck is a wonderful kids movie about seeking the unknown. It’s full of dreams, coincidences, and flashbacks, too many for it to be a real story. But it works great as a kids’ fantasy. It’s also beautifully made, using amazing animated paper models to tell part of the story. And through ingenious special effects, it incorporates the two main characters into what looks like period footage — of streetlife in New York in the gritty but colourful 70s,  and the fuzzy black-and-white 20s.

Just wonderful.

Wonderstruck opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Across the Waters is playing Sunday afternoon as part of the Chai Tea and Movies programme. Go to tjff.com for details.

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

Indie movies. Films reviewed: Sundowners, The Only Living Boy in New York, Patti Cake$

Posted in Books, Canada, comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Hiphop, Mexico, Movies, Music by CulturalMining.com on August 25, 2017

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

A soundtrack can make or break an indie movie. This week I’m looking at three independent movies about people in their twenties where music sets the tone. There are two guys from Toronto heading to Mexico fuelled by contemporary Canadian music; a lovestruck guy in Manhattan described in a Simon and Garfunkle song; and a white woman in New Jersey with hip hop in her soul.

Sundowners

Wri/Dir: Pavan Moondi

Alex and Justin are good friends with dead-end jobs. Alex (Phil Hanley) is skinny and tall with a perpetual five o’clock shadow. He’s single, shy and frustrated. He earns a meagre living videotaping weddings, and lets his douche-y boss walk all over him. Justin (Luke Lalonde: Born Ruffians) is smiley and gregarious but, with him, girlfriends rarely stick around. He lives with his demented grandmother, and works long hours on a telemarketing complaint line. They are both a hair’s breadth away from quitting their jobs.

So when Alex’s boss offers to fly him on an all-expense-paid trip to a Mexican resort to film a wedding, he takes it. And he gets free tickets for Justin, too – he just has to pretend he’s a cameraman, even though he’s never lifted a camera in his life. Will the trip prove to be their downfall? Will it change their lives? And will Alex finally meet a woman he’s compatible with, even if it’s just for the weekend?

Sundowners is another feature by Pavan Moondi, and like Diamond Tongues it features Canadian musicians both in the cast and on the soundtrack. It’s a comedy, but isn’t full of one- liners. It’s more about the characters and the odd and awkward social situations they find themselves in. The plot is very basic, and some of the jokes are hit and miss, but the movie itself is still a pleasure to watch.

The Only Living Boy in New York

Dir: Marc Webb

Thomas (Callum Turner) is a college drop out living in the lower east side. He’s tall, thin and pale and wears harry potter glasses. He’s originally from the upper west side where his parents still live. His mom (Cynthia Nixon) is artsie but bipolar and fragile. His Dad (Pierce Brosnan) is a failed novelist but a very successful book publisher. Thomas has literary ambitions, too, but they were quashed when his dad dismissed his writing as just adequate.

Thomas is madly in love with the pretty and smart Mimi (Kiersey Clemons) ever since she told him she loves Nabokov. But Mimi just wants to be friends. What to do?

Then one night, Thomas and Mimi spot his dad at a nightclub kissing a beautiful woman. Who is she and what does this mean? Are they having an affair? Her name is Johanna (Kate Beckinsale) and she’s a freelance editor. Thomas confronts her – why are you ruining my parents’ marriage? She replies: You want to make love to me, Thomas, you just don’t realize it. What?  Thomas is shocked… but intrigued.

Will these flirtations lead to an affair? What would Mimi think? And what secrets are his parents hiding?

The Only Living Boy in New York is an enjoyable romance set against a glamorous, literary Manhattan. The movie is narrated by a gruff old man (Jeff Bridges) who mysteriously appears in Thomas’s apartment building to offer sage advice. The problem is almost everybody talks like they’re narrating their own books all the time. People don’t talk like that — not even writers. But I liked the movie anyway, with all it’s romantic surprises. And Callum Turner – actor/model – does Thomas very well. In fact the whole cast is great. Another enjoyable film.

 

Patti Cake$

Dir: Geremie Jasper

Patti (Danielle Macdonald) is a working-class Jersey Girl who lives with her Mom and Grandma (Cathy Moriarty) somewhere off the Turnpike. She’s heavy-set with long curly blonde hair, who dresses in 90s hiphop gear and hoop earings. Bullies call her Dumbo. Her best friend is Jhery (Siddharth Dhananjay) a pharmacist who takes of his white coat at night and dons a do-rag. He and Patti long to leave New Jersey with their hip hop duo and relocate in the Emerald city (New York) but so far, no go. Barb (Bridget Everett) her mom, also almost made it big singing in a rock band, but not big enough. Now she just drinks away her sorrows. Patti works in a low grade Karaoke bar just to pay off her mom’s tab.

Enter Bastard, aka Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), a mysterious african-american man she meets at an open mic night. He’s tall and skinny dressed in black with short fdreads and multiple piercings. His music is some weird combination of death metal, goth, punk and hiphop. When he says anything it’s with a vaguely English accent. He claims to be a hobo, riding the rails across America. He lives in a shack in the woods, just beyond the gates of hell, filled with sound equipment and satanic ritual objects. Patti longs to get to know him better. But can these three urban misfits together record a track good enough to bring them the recognition they crave? And can Patti, Mom and Nana find common ground?

Patti Cakes is like a hilarious, non-stop music video. It’s also a heartwarming look at a mythical, mystical  New Jersey town and its inhabitants. The director, Geremie Jasper, also wrote the script and the lyrics to most of the songs and they’re all brilliant. As are all the cast. And guess what? The actress playing Patti isn’t from Jersey… she’s Australian!

Brilliant.

 

Sundowners, Patti Cake$ and The Only Living Boy in New York all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Are the 90s back? Films reviewed: Brigsby Bear, Landline

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Manhattan, Movies, Sex by CulturalMining.com on August 4, 2017

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

What’s with the nineties? Is it a thing now? Are the nineties back? It’s recent enough that we don’t yet know how to abbreviate it. Is it what was there? Grunge, flannel, ecstasy, glow sticks, drum and bass, Roxette, gangsta rap. Or is it what wasn’t there any more (the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact). Or is it what hasn’t happened yet: 9/11, cell phones, texting, facebook, google.

I guess it is possible to be nostalgic for the 90s. This week I’m looking at two indie movies, dramatic comedies that played at Sundance this year. There’s a Manhattan family living in the 90s and a 25-year-old guy who is stuck in the 90s.

Brigsby Bear

Dir: Dave McCary

It’s present-day America. James (Kyle Mooney) is 25 but still lives with his dad (Mark Hamill) and mom. He was homeschooled and has never left his house – an underground bunker – because poison gas has flooded the planet. At least that’s his parents tell him. His only contact with the outside world is a TV show called Brigsby Bear, a low-budgets kids’ show. The highlight of his week is when his dad, wearing a gas mask, comes home with the latest episode recorded on VHS. Life never changes, until…

Until the day when there’s a police raid on their home. They arrest his parents and interrogate him. Turns out, everything James thought he knew was wrong. His parents? Actually kidnappers who snatched him from his real family as an infant and raised him as their own. Poison gas? Another lie to keep him from leaving. But the biggest shock of all was his hero and best friend Brigsby Bear, the foundation of his entire universe. No one else has heard of him.

James is reunited with his birth parents and a 16 year old sister sister named Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins.) But he sticks out like a sore thumb. His clothes and bad haircut are stuck in the 90s and the only thing he talks about is Brigsby Bear. He knows nothing about sex drugs and rock and roll. The ultimate fish out of water. He learns about a few things at his first party, from his new best friend — a teenager named Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) — and his first potential girlfriend. He’s a bit of a celebrity, the kidnapped guy, so people like to gawk at him.

James’ therapist (Claire Danes) wants him to forget about Brigsby Bear and enter the real world. But that would leave him rudderless with nothing familiar to him. Until Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) tells him a secret. He knows where Brigsby Bear is – the costumes the props, the whole thing. Will James – and his friends – recreate the TV show so he can achieve closure? Or will his parents and his therapist gang up to destroy his Brigsby universe… for his own good?

Brigsby Bear is a cute, gentle comedy drama. There’s no real villain, just James trying to adjust. Unfortunately, it relies a lot on Saturday Night Live-style humour: grown ups who act like children, are socially inept, or out of fashion; people who look like us but talk strange. The problem is, James is both the sympathetic main character and also the butt of most of the jokes. The movie just isn’t that funny, but it is entertaining and watchable.

Landline

Dir: Gillian Robespierre

It’s summertime in the 1990s and the Jacobs family is returning from their cottage to Manhattan. Ali (Abby Quinn) is the foul-mouthed teenaged sister. She’s a rebel, into raves, recreational drugs and, she hopes, sex at some point with her current non-boyfriend Jed. Dana (Jenny Slate) works at Paper magazine and is engaged to her affable fiance Ben (Jay Duplass). Then there’s Dad and Mom (John Turturro and Edie Falco). Dad’s an advertising copywriter – but wants to be a playright — and Mom’s involved in municipal politics. Her inspirations are Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits and Jennifer Aniston hairstyles. (It’s the 90s). They’re a happy family, though they never stop fighting.

But everything changes when Ali picks up a random floppy disc and puts it into her dad’s grey computer. She discovers a file, filled with erotic poetry he wrote, not for her mom but for someone named “C”. Is her father having an affair?

Dana, meanwhile, is in a comfortable relationship with her fiance, one that involves kinky sex in the shower and watching movies on TV. But at a party she runs into Nate, an old flame from college (Finn Wittrock). He’s clearly interested in her, despite the engagement ring. Which way will Dana go?

When Dana runs into Ali in an unexpected encounter the two sisters are forced to come clean, talk to each other and work out their family’s growing problems.

Landline is a good, funny and sometimes moving look back at family life in NY city in the 1990s. Characters are not caricatures, they’re quirky and realistic, and the acting is uniformly spot on. The 90s aspect is there as a gimmick, not central to the plot. The soundtrack is mainly from the songs from the 70s and 80s. What’s with the trench coats? And correct me if I’m wrong, but the NY City skyline seems already missing the Twin Towers. But other details — things like using a pay phone to check voice messages — are very realistic. Who knows …Maybe the 90s were kinda cool.

Brigsby Bear and Landline both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

 

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