Acting white. Films reviewed: Whitney, Sorry to Bother You, Mary Shelley

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, documentary, Feminism, Movies, Music, Poetry, Politics, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 13, 2018

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

The scorching heat shows no sign of letting up, but you can always wait till dark and watch free screenings in Toronto parks. There are screenings at Yonge/Dundas Square each Tuesday, in Corktown each Thursday, and a special TPFF screening at Christie Pits in August.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies playing only in air-conditioned theatres. There’s a man in Oakland told to talk white, a musician from Newark made to sing white, and a woman in 19th century England… who just wants to write.

Whitney (a documentary)

Dir: Kevin McDonald

Whitney Houston is a middleclass churchgoing girl born into a musical family in Newark, New Jersey. Her mom Cissie Houston sings backup for Aretha Franklin and her cousin is Dionne Warwick. She has many supportive aunts and brothers – including an NBA player – and her stepdad is a municipal bureaucrat. They put her into a private Catholic school to avoid urban strife and riots. She’s pretty and talented and professionally trained. By age 18 she is accompanying her mom at a Manhattan nightclub, until the night she takes the stage on her own. Her beautiful voice blows the audience away, soon record execs are banging at her door, and she never looks back. She moves in with her best friend, Robyn Crawford, in a committed relationship.

Soon she’s chalking up consecutive number one hits, eventually breaking records for a female vocalist. And she puts her entire extended family on the payroll. Despite her intimate relationship with Robyn – a woman — she meets and marries popstar

Bobby Brown and does her best to please him – and their cute little daughter. But all is not well.

Even as her fame grows, some fans object to the homogenized, MOR tunes provided by a studio that wants her to sing “white”. Whitney becomes a real superstar when the movie The Bodyguard – and its theme song – attract worldwide attention. But she’s too big to survive. She start on a downward spiral of drug addiction, depression and isolation. She’s exploited, abused and her career collapses, as do her vocal chords and her family life.

Whitney is a new documentary that, through interviews with her family members and work mates – virtually everyone in her life (except Robyn) — unveils her hidden history: her drug use, her fluid sexuality and even, possibly, sexual abuse as a young girl (no spoilers here). Personally, I was never a fan of Whitney’s bland musical style, but I found this documentary totally engrossing (and sickening). Along with all the interviews, it has amazing montages that combine 80s music videos, TV commercials and violent news footage –  it’s worth watching just for that. Whitney is a celebration of crash-and-burn celebrityhood that you don’t want to watch, but can’t take your eyes off of.

Sorry to Bother You

Wri/Dir: Boots Riley

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young, everyman in Oakland in a bad situation. He’s jobless, penniless, and nearly homeless: he lives in his uncle’s garage and drives a rust bucket. His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is a political performance artist who is also perpetually broke.

So he jumps at the chance to work for a telemarketing company and gradually learns the ropes. It’s stressful and depressing with a high turnover rate. Worse than that, salary is commission-based, meaning if you don’t close a deal, you don’t get paid. And he can’t get anyone to buy from him until an old timer (Danny Glover) tells him the secret: talk white. It’s not just an accent, it’s the whole lifestyle, talking like you don’t have a worry in the world. Sure enough, he begins to earn some cash. At the same time a union rep named Squeeze (Steven Yeun) is organizing a wildcat strike. And behind the scenes, bay area zillionaire Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is urging labour sign up as indentured servants — virtual slavery, in other words. He owns the company. Which direction will Cassius go… join the strike or cross the picket line?

Sorry to Bother You is a brilliant political satire that combines science fiction, black american culture, experimental movie making and delightful comedy. Filmmaker Boots Riley reinvents movies in unexpected ways: like tearing down the fourth wall in one scene – literally! He portrays gangsta rap as modern day minstrelsie while keeping political issues – like homelessness and precarious employment – at the forefront. This is an excellent indie movie.

Mary Shelley

Dir: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning: Ginger and Rosa, Neon Demon, 20th Century Women, The Beguiled) is a teenaged girl in 19th century London. She wears her blond hair braided and her dresses loose. She can be found curled up against a gravestone reading a book. She’s the daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecroft (who died when she was an infant), and political philosopher Charles Godwin, so she’s always open to new ideas, both scientific and literary.

Her dark-haired, half-sister Claire (Bel Powley: Diary of Teenege Girl, ) is her constant companion, until she meets a poet at a reading. Handsome, young Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth: The Riot Club) sweeps her off her feet with his amorous verse. Is it love? Mary thinks so… until she meets his estranged wife and child. (Turns out Shelley is a bit of a player.) But she agrees to run off with him, accompanied by the faithful Claire. And when deby collectors chase them out of their Bloomsbury flat, they flee to the continent, where sex-addicted poet Lord Byron lives in a grand mansion.

To while away the rainy days Byron proposes the four of them – Mary, Shelley, himself and a young doctor, but not Claire – to write some scary stories. That’s where Mary pens the classic Frankenstein. Can a woman get her work published in 19th century England? And is “free love” just an excuse men use to exploit gullible women?

I enjoyed Mary Shelley but didn’t love it. It can’t seem to decide where it’s going: is it a gothic, Brontë romance? An intellectual feminist historical biopic? Or a witty, Jane Austen drama? You can’t be all three.

As for Frankenstein, the only monsters here are the loathesome poets Mary Shelley has to deal with.

Whitney, Sorry to Bother You and Mary Shelley 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.

Working class heroes. Films reviewed: 22 Chaser, Boundaries, Leave No Trace

Posted in Canada, Cars, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, Road Movie, Toronto, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 6, 2018

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

Movies aren’t only about escapism, superheroes and spaceships. Some equally entertaining movies shed light on real people and their concerns – like escaping poverty, finding a home, or keeping their kids in school.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about working-class families. There’s a father and daughter in Portland who live in the wild, a west coast mom and her son forced to deal with a wiley grandpa, and a tow truck driver negotiating the wilds of downtown Toronto.

22 Chaser

Dir: Rafal Sokolowski

Ben and Avery (Brian J Smith: Sense8; and Tiio Horn: Ghost BFF) are an ambitious young couple from a small town with a scrappy son named Zach. Ben drives a truck for Jackrabbit Towing but hopes to open his own garage some day; while Avery plans to parlay her skills as diner waitress into restaurant owner. But despite their big ideas they’re barely surviving, with Avery forced to visit the local foodbank.

Ben is an ethical guy who helps the victims he sees at accidents; he’s no ambulance chaser like his rival towtruck drivers Elvis (Shaun Benson) and Wayne (Raoul Trujillo). One day at work he gets some good news and bad news. The good news is his company is about to land a big police contract – this guarantees lots of future income. The bad news is the drivers have to pay a big deposit to keep their tow trucks – money he just doesn’t have.

So he enters a deal with a crooked cop named Ray (Aiden Devine) who doubles as a predatory loan shark. The meeting is arranged by his best friend Sean (Aaron Ashmore), another chaser. But the income he expects doesn’t come in. The loanshark demands a payment in 24 hours — or else — but he doesn’t even have enough to buy his kid a birthday present. Jackrabbit Ben is forced to turn chaser, at least for one night. Can he survive the bloodthirsty world of competitive tow truck driving?

22 Chaser is equal parts family drama and action movie with enough violence and street racing to keep it moving. The story’s a bit old fashioned… or classic, depending on how you view it. (It feels like the movie Nightcrawler, but with a tow-truck driver instead of a news photgrapher.) Smith and Horn are appealing as the troubled married couple, and the night time street views of downtown Toronto are a pleasure to watch.

Boundaries

Wri/Dir: Shana Feste

Laura (Vera Farmiga) is an eccentric single mom who lives with her son and a whole lot of dogs – she adopts any abandoned dog she sees on the street. She’s the pied piper of mange. She works for her rich best friend as a party planner, but she’s struggling to get by. Her son Henry (Lewis MacDougall) is an artist and a bit of an oddball too. He draws what he feels. His latest hobby is to draw naked pictures of adults he knows – including his mom’s boyfriends. But when he draws his school principal naked, he gets expelled. This means mom has to find a private school that takes non-conformist kids. And she has to pay for it. Which forces her to contact her estranged father Jack (Christopher

Plummer) who was just kicked out of a seniors home.

Laura blames him for her troubled childhood – he was never around when she was growing up. And though he’s in his eighties she still doesn’t trust him. But she really needs the money. So she agrees to go on a roadtrip down the west coast, from Seattle to LA, with her son and her dad in exchange for the money to pay for Henry’s school. And maybe Henry can finally bond with his grandpa. But what she doesn’t know is Jack is using the trip for nefarious reasons. Can the the three learn to get along? And will the trip solve their problems? Or lead to a terrible end?

Boundaries is a very cute move about family ties. It pulls a lot of the old hollywood road movie tricks – I mean who doesn’t like beautiful scenery, an oddball kid, wacky grandpa, neurotic mom, and lots and lots of adorable dogs? – but I enjoyed it.

Leave No Trace

Wri/Dir: Debra Granik

Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) is a teenaged girl who lives with her dad Will (Ben Foster) in a forest near Portland, Oregon. He’s a war vet and she’s his only child. They live a sustainable, natural life, moving every few days, being sure to leave no trace – for both ecological and security reasons. Will suffers from severe PTSD – he’s kept awake by the sound of helicopters in his head – and is extremely antisocial. He doesn’t like being around other people, except Tom of course.

They start campfires with flint and steel, pick wild mushrooms, and drink rainwater captured in plastic tarps. He teaches her survival tactics and how to hide from the enemy, but also book learning. Thom likes her life — it’s the only life she’s ever known. But when their lives are disrupted – they’re arrested by the police and Tom is handed over to social services – they’re forced to rethink their entire way of life. Tom discovers she likes being around other people, while will can’t stand it. What will happen to their father daughter relationship?

Leave No Trace sounds like a simple family movie, but it’s so much more. It follows a script with actors but feels almost like a documentary at times. It follows Will and Tom on a picaresque journey through the Pacific north west, through forests, along highways, and with the people they meet on the way. Gorgeous scenery, fantastic acting, and a beautiful subtle story. It’s directed by Debra Granik who did the fantastic Winter’s Bone – (another great movie, and was Jennifer Lawrence’s first important film, and look at her now!) That’s why I made sure to catch this one. And though it’s not a thriller like Winter’s Bone, it’s just as good.

I recommend this movie.

22 Chaser, Boundaries and Leave No Trace 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.

Disruptions. Films reviewed: Marlina the Murderer, Darken, North Mountain

Posted in Canada, Darkness, Feminism, Indigenous, Indonesia, LGBT, Nova Scotia, violence, Western, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 29, 2018

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

It’s Canada Day weekend – a good time for fireworks, beer, and maybe a movie. So I’ve been looking around for films not from south of the border — and three unusual ones caught my eye. Two are from Canada — and one from Indonesia — and two of the three are directed by and feature women.

This week I’m looking at three movies about people whose lives are disrupted by unexpected visitors. There’s a Mi’kmaq trapper fighting off thieves in eastern Canada, a widow fighting off rapists in eastern Indonesia, and a Toronto nurse fighting medieval soldiers… in a parallel universe.

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Dir: Mouly Surya

It’s present day Sumba, an island in Eastern Indonesia near Flores and Timor Leste. Marlina (Marsha Timothy) is a sad and lonely widow. Her only child died years ago, and her husband’s body sits beside her in her home, wrapped in traditional cloth, awaiting his funeral. All she has left are her cattle, chickens and pigs. But her sad relections are interrupted one day by a visitor on a motorbike. It’s Marcus (Egy Fedly) an evil, long-haired outlaw from a nearby town. He heard she’s alone and comes there to take advantage. I have a gang of six more men on their way, he says. You’re a woman all alone, so we own you now. You’re going to cook us a meal. We will steal your cattle and anything else you own. And — if you’re lucky — we’ll rape you, but not kill you. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Marlina is sickened and terrified… but not helpless. She poisons four of the men with her chicken soup, and when Marcus sexually assaults her, Marlina, in a moment of desperation, grabs a machete and chops off his head! Not knowing what else to do, she decides to turn herself in to the local police.

At the truck-taxi stop she meets a neighbour named Novi (Dea Panendra) who reacts rather mildly to the dead man’s head she’s carrying.  Novi is more concerned with her own problems. She’s ten months pregnant but the baby just won’t come out! So they set off down the long and twisting road to the nearest town.

But two of the killers are still after her. Will Novi ever give birth? Should Marlina turn herself in? And what will she do with Marcus’s head?

Marlina the Murderer is a genre-busting drama, part revenge pic, part feminist western, part art house dark comedy. It has an amazingly calm tone in the midst of horrible crime. There are horses, and posses, and road trips and fights. I haven’t seen many Indonesian movies, so I’m far from an expert, but the two stars were both in great action movies I actually have seen: Headshot and The Raid 2 – which is a good sign. And it introduces the music, customs and amazing scenery and people of Sumba, a place I had never heard of before this film, but now at least have experienced a taste of it.

Marlina the Murderer is a brilliant, rich and baffling movie.

Darken

Dir: Audrey Cummings

Eve (Bea Santos) is a Toronto nurse who’s feeling down. She’s depressed and her life has lost its point. Until one day she runs into a woman on a sidewalk calling for help. The woman is dressed in a strange medieval leather outfit and is bleeding from a knife wound. She asks Eve to rescue her friends. But when Eve opens a door to a nearby building, she finds herself, like Alice in Wonderland, in a whole other world.

It’s a land called Darken, composed of a series of linked rooms and hallways, It’s always indoors in Darken and always nighttime. It’s governed by a goddess who provides life through her blood and is ruled by an autocratic priestess named Clarity (Christine Horne). It serves as a refuge for outcasts from different eras, all of whom live peacefully together. That is, until now.

The Mother Goddess is out of the picture, and Clarity has declared war on all dissidents. Her spear-wielding guards – all decked out in Game of Thrones gear – provide her the muscle; and a lackey (Ari Millen) — who reminds me of the young Penguin on Gotham — defends her legal rulings.

But Eve falls in with the rebels, including the fierce Kali (Olunike Adeliyi) and the kindly Mercy (Zöe Belkin) who communicates using sign language. Which side will win? And can Eve ever get back to her normal world?

Darken is a science fiction/fantasy set in a parallel universe. It ranges from unexpected plot twists to absolute cheese. Above all, this feature shouts TV, from the set design, to the lighting, to the acting and the script. There are even scenes that fade to black as if they’re saying: Insert Ad Here. And I find shows shot entirely on dark blue sets claustrophobic. But that’s just me.

On the other hand, women-centred science fiction or fantasy movies are rarer than an affordable apartment in Toronto. And this one has a a goddess, an evil priestess, a heroine, and noble fighters — all played by women. The men are there as peripheral characters or arm candy.

And for that reason alone it might be worth seeing.

North Mountain

Dir: Bretten Hannam

Wolf (Justin Rain) is a young hunter/trapper in a Nova Scotia forest. He knows every rock and tree on North Mountain: where to set the snares, where to hunt the deer. He lives a traditional Mi’kmaq life in his Grandmother’s wooden cabin, a life still lit by candlelight. He uses a bow and arrow to kill the animals he eats, and honours and respects each life he sacrifices. It’s a simple, quiet existence, punctuated by monthly visits to the town store where he catches up with Mona (Meredith MacNeil), a long time friend.

Nothing changes except the seasons, until… he finds an older man’s body leaning against a tree. He’s bleeding, barely alive, and is holding a leather satchel filled with cold, hard American cash. Wolf tends to his wounds until Crane (Glenn Gould) comes back to life. Turns out he’s from this place and speaks the same language.

Their first conversations are fraught with violence and fistfights and filled with suspicion. But at some point their initial violent antipathy shifts to something very different: they become lovers! And just as they’re making sense of it, a group of strangers comes to the mountain. A posse of crooked cops and organized criminals. They want the cash and don’t care who they kill to get it. Can a pair of indigenous lovers wielding bow, arrow and tomahawk overcome a heavily-armed contingent?

North Mountain is half violent thriller, half passionate, aboriginal gay love story. Rain and Gould (of Plains Cree and Mi’kmaq heritage, respectively) are excellent as the two lovers, and the action – including references to Peckinpaw’s ultra-violent Straw Dogs – is as heart-pounding as any good thriller.

North Mountain, Darken and Marlina the Murderer all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Carlyle Jansen, founder of Toronto International Porn Festival

Posted in Breasts, Feminism, Movies, Porn, Sex, Sex Trade by CulturalMining.com on April 20, 2018

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

In Toronto the Good, sex was a dirty word and pornography a crime until just a few decades ago. Now, though, here and around the world, porn is an enormous — and quite legal — industry worth an estimated $60 billion dollars. That means they make a lot of movies. Toronto is a city of movie lovers with over 100 film festivals. So how come there’s no film festival devoted to porn? The answer is: there is!

It’s called the Toronto International Porn Festival and it’s on now until Sunday. The festival includes including screenings, workshops and panel discussions dealing with a panoply of sexualities and gendres and ideologies. It was founded by noted sex education expert Carlyle Jansen, who trains sex therapists on topics ranging from sexual pleasure to sexual challenges. You may have seen her Ted Talk or read her two books: Anal Sex Basics and Sex Yourself: The Woman’s Guide to Mastering Masturbation and Achieving powerful Orgasms.

I spoke with Carlyle Jansen in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM. She talked about Porn Fest, diversity in porn, exploitation, reversing genders, body types, sex work, science fiction, Erika Lust, Bruce LaBruce, breastfeeding… and more!

Toronto International Porn Festival is running from now through Sunday, April 22, 2018 at The Royal Cinema and Super Wonder.

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

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

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

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

But first…

Oscar Predictions, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapted screenplay

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

Original screenplay

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

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

Best foreign film:

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

Best Actor

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

Will win: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Best Actress

Should win and will win

Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Supporting Actor

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

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

Best Supporting Actress

Should win: Laura Metcalfe (Ladybird)

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

Best Director

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

Best Film

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

 

A Date for Mad Mary

Dir: Darren Thornton

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

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

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

Nostalgia

Wri/Dir: Mark Pellington

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

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

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

Ugh. Avoid this movie at all costs.

Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

And two more: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, The Florida Project

Posted in 1930s, Cultural Mining, Feminism, LGBT, Movies, Polyamory, Poverty, Psychology, Romance, Sex, Sex Trade by CulturalMining.com on October 13, 2017

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

I’m back again because it’s a bumper crop this week, and there are two more great movies opening today that deserve to be seen. One takes place in the shadows of Disneyworld, the other reveals the origins of Wonder Woman.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Wri/Dir: Angela Robinson

It’s the 1920s at a prestigious University. William Marston (Luke Evans) is a Harvard-trained psychologist who lives and works alongside his brilliant wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). They are both outspoken advocates for women’s rights and create the world’s first lie detector. But when William takes on a young research assistant named Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), Elizabeth suspects hanky-panky. So what a surprise when they all answer intimate questions about their truest feelings and desires using the lie detector: Olive desires both William and Elizabeth! And the feelings are mutual. They form a triad – a polyamorous relationship – among the three of them. To the outside world they are a married couple with their widowed relative, but behind closed doors anything goes. The three move into a large house and raise their children together, exploring new sexual avenues – including role play and BDSM — while the kids are away at school. But when their secret is revealed and he loses his job, Marston is forced to look for new ways to earn a living. So he creates the world’s first feminist superhero, Wonder Woman, based on the two women in his life. Her outfit is inspired by clothing they see at Greenwich Village fetish shop, and the Lasso of Truth is a combination of bondage and lie detectors.

Professor Marston and the Womder Women tells the delightful and always surprising love story about the origins of a superhero before she was whitewashed into blandness and conformity.

The Florida Project

Dir: Sean Baker

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) Jancey (Valeria Cotto) Scooty (Christopher Rivera) are three little kids who live in the giant pink motels that dot the highways around Disneyland in Orlando Florida. They spit off balconies, explore junk piles and panhandle tourists for ice cream. Though rundown, the motels serve as a community and home for the nearly homeless and marginal. They are forced to vacate their rooms weekly and relocate – they’re not allowed to call their homes home. They are all looked after by the stern but benevolent manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe)

Halley, Moony’s mom (Bria Vinaite) earns her living reselling wholesale perfume bottles or turning the occasional trick. Other moms work as waitresses or as de facto daycare, just trying to keep the kids fed and out of trouble. And boy do these kids get in trouble. Abut when something serious happens, the delicate balance between parents and kids quickly falls apart.

The Florida project is a fascinating look at the poor and marginal people around Orlando, in a private hotel that functions like a housing project, Florida-style The kids are great, although occasionally prone to cuting-it-up for the camera. And the raw, beautiful camerawork, crumbling houses against a tropical sunset, give it an immediate, authentic feel. Great movie.

The Florida Project and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women both open today in Toronto. This is Daniel Garber at the movies each Friday morning for CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.

Surfaces. Films Reviewed: Ghost Hunting, Battle of the Sexes, Beach Rats

Posted in 1970s, drugs, Feminism, LGBT, Movies, Palestine, Sex, Sports, Tennis, Torture by CulturalMining.com on September 22, 2017

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

Toronto’s fall film festival season has begun. This week I’m looking at three movies that played at festivals: Sundance, TIFF and the Toronto Palestine Film Festival — two of which are directed by women. There’s a drama on the boardwalk, a biopic on the tennis court, and a documentary on a cold prison floor.

Ghost Hunting

Dir: Raed Andoni

Raed is Palestinian movie director who sends out a strange request. He’s looking for steelworkers, set builders, carpenters and painters to recreate a notorious Israeli prison inside an abandoned warehouse. The strange part is these builders and architects will also play the prisoners and their interrogators in the film he’s making. And stranger still, all the cast — including the director — were once prisoners at this very prison.

The interrogation centre is in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem known to prisoners as Al-Moskobiya (Moscow). They recount what happened to them. Many endured days or even weeks of nonstop interrogation in small cells. They were chained to walls, hung on their tiptoes suspended by pulleys or forced to kneel on the ground. Some were shaken, choked, hit, and denied sleep, water, or toilet access.

Hunting Ghosts has a complex artistic structure. Its partly a verite documentary, showing the construction of the set while the former prisoners candidly tell their stories. It’s partly a drama, the scripted re-enactment of the interrogations themselves. It’s partly meta – where the people working on the set become caricatures of themselves (i.e. the cruel director, the angry set-builder). Explicitly scripted scenes – often moving and disturbing – are always presented in a way you know it’s just a film. We see the actors putting on their makeup before they’re locked into the cells. The real drama often begins after the director yells cut, when the actors start talking.

The movie is also part fantasy, with animated scenes reflecting the thoughts running through their heads during long interrogations, their heads covered in cloth bags. One man thinks he sees his dead mother walk through a concrete wall to bring him water to drink.

Hunting Ghosts is a powerful look at the treatment of Palestinian prisoners and a tribute to the reported 750,000 arrested since 1967.

Battle of the Sexes

Dir: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

It’s the early 1970s in California. Billy Jean King (Emma Stone) is the top women’s tennis player in America. She’s happily married to her husband Larry (Larry King, but not the CNN journalist) but her real devotion is to the game. She’s shocked to discover prize money on an upcoming tour will be one eighth what the men get. The women threaten a walkout, but Jack Kramer — President of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) — tells them that men deserve more money because they have to support families, because they sell more tickets, and because women are “too emotional” to be thought of as real athletes. So the women start a League of Their Own.

Bobbie Riggs (Steve Carell) is a former national tennis champ twenty years earlier. Now he works at a desk job for his very rich wife’s dad. He’s a compulsive gambler who wins big bucks – including a golden Rolls Royce — by challenging rich country clubbers to heavily handicapped tennis games.

But Bobby wants to be really famous again. So he dubs himself a Male Chauvinist Pig and says women should stay in the kitchen and the bedroom, not on a tennis court. And he challenges Billie Jean King to a Battle of the Sexes, man vs woman. King smells a media circus, but finally agrees when she thinks it will advance pay equality between the sexes. Who will win?

Meanwhile,  unbenownst to the outside world, Billie Jean is having a clandestine affair with a woman named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) her hairdresser. A chance meeting sparks new feelings in Billie Jean King… but will her love affair interfere with her game?

I’m not a tennis buff, but I found Battle of the Sexes a thoroughly enjoyable, feel-good movie. I was even interested in watching the the game itself, which uses actual sports footage and historical commentary (by Howard Cossell) worked into the film. The side roles are also well-cast, from Bill Pullman as the condescending Jack Kramer, to Sarah Silverman as the feminist manager. Steve Carell is funny as the dog-and-pony showman, and Emma Stone is just great as the pretty and determined Billie Jean King.

Beach Rats

Wri/Dir: Eliza Hittman

It’s a hot summer in a hipster-free section of Brooklyn. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is a white, working class guy who lives with his parents and his little sister. He likes handball, vaping and posting weight-lifting selfies online. He spends most of his time at the Coney Island boardwalk, hanging with three local yahoos who like to make trouble.

One night, he meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein) a pretty girl who tells him he’s sexy. She thinks the fireworks are romantic. Frankie is not so sure. His own parents met on the boardwalk too.  But his dad is dying of cancer and his mom is on edge. He’s unhappy about it too, but at least his dad’s cancer keeps him well supplied with prescription opiates he shares with his beach rat buddies. Aside from his home and the beach there’s a third universe Frankie visits, but only after dark. It’s an online date site called Brooklyn Boys where he posts his selfies. There he meets older men for anonymous sex. He considers himself straight but enjoys having sex with men.

But when his father dies, everything falls apart. Simone dumps him — he’s too much of a “fixer upper”. His Oxy supply is cut off, so he’s reduced to pawning his mom’s jewelry to buy drugs. And he’s worried his pals — the Beach Rats — might find out about his sex life. Can Frankie come clean with his mom, cut down on his drug use, and reconcile his self image with his sexuality? Or will his whole life crash and burn?

Beach Rats is a terrific coming-of-age drama set against the carnival lights and phosphorescent waves of nighttime Coney Island. Dickinson is a new face but is perfect as the enigmatic Frankie, a young man simultaneously self-obsessed and self-doubting. Beautifully photographed, Beach Rats blends an up-to-the minute topic with a classical indie feel.

Battle of the Sexes launched at TIFF and Beach Rats at Sundance; both open today in Toronto — check your local listings. Ghost Hunting is one of many films and cultural events on now at the Toronto Palestine Film Fest. Go to tpff.ca for details.

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

Village People. Films reviewed: Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, Silence, 20th Century Women

Posted in 1970s, Art, Christianity, Clash of Cultures, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, Gay, Japan, Punk, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 13, 2017

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

Everyone lives in a neighbourhood, whether it’s a city or a small town. This week I’m looking at movies about village people. There’s a photographer in the East Village, a priest in a Japanese village, and a woman who believes it takes a village.

MapplethorpeMapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

Dir: Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato

Robert Mapplethorpe was a major 20th century artist who rose to fame just as four major changes were taking place: the gay liberation movement, the Aids crisis, the socially conservative backlash under Ronald Reagan, and the sudden rise in value of contemporary art and photography. Born in Queens NY he went to Pratt art college and moved in with 201605317_1_img_fix_700x700underground poet and musician Patti Smith. He smoked acid and boiled a dead monkey. Mapplethorpe fell in with the jet-set of the ultra-rich in Mustique, in the Caribbean, creating a demand for his black and white photos. And his second life was spent in a legendary S&M gay bar called the Mineshaft in the meatpacking district. Likewise, he divided his work docs_mapplethorpe02-296x300into three categories: X, Y and Z. Explicit gay S&M imagery (X); flowers (Y); and nude portraits of African-American men, focusing on their genitals (Z). He died of Aids in the late 80s at the height of his career, just as conservative Jesse Helms blocked his art from a Washington museum, plus a court case labelling his art as obscene.

This documentary covers his life and career, and most of all reveals his work. It’s a great introduction to his art and its history, but I was bothered by its stance: venerate the art – as significant and valuable; but denigrate the artist – as vain, selfish, ambitious and petty.

15137495_1333188413378658_1730090754012238611_oSilence

Dir: Martin Scorsese (based on Endo Shusaku’s novel)

Rodrigues and Garrpe (Andrew Garfiield and Adam Driver) are Jesuit priests in 17th century Portugal. The Jesuit mission to convert the Japanese under Frances Xavier has failed: the Tokugawa government banned Christianity, and closed off the country to all outside contact. Japanese Christians have reverted back to Buddhists or else practice their religion underground. Worst of all, their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) is missing. So they sneak into Japan with the help of a shady fisherman named Kichijiro (Kubozuka Yousuke). Once there to their surprise, they discover hidden Christians everywhere, who call them Padre and rush to confess. But behind the scenes lurks the grand inquisitor Inoue (Ogata Issei), a samurai whose sole job is to flush out hidden Christians, and convert them to Buddhism. When he finally meets 15168802_1341247705906062_2844253298776036664_oRodrigues the two embark on an extended religious debate. Who will triumph? The Christlike Rodrigues or the cunning Inoue?

Silence is a beautiful looking movie. For Rodrigues, Japan is witnessed mainly through cracks in wooden walls, either hiding from the authorities or imprisoned by them. The islands are lush and green shrouded in a mist that surrounds the padres and their followers. But 15235447_1344428582254641_1724759706567928024_oonce the action shifts to a battle of minds on government land, it becomes sharp and austere.

The original novel is by Shusaku Endo, a Catholic Japanese novelist (a rare thing). Andrew Garfield (who plays Rodrigues) is becoming a poster child for Christian philosophy in a Japanese setting – he’s also starring in Hacksaw Ridge about a conscientious objector fighting in Okinawa in WWII. Garfield is great, as is the entire Japanese cast, filled with top actors and a surprising number of directors. (You can tell they all want to appear in a Scorsese film). To name just two, Kubozuka is fascinating as the Judas character Kichijiro, and Ogata is amazing as Inoue (he starred in Aleksandr Sokurov’s masterpiece The Sun). Silence is a long and intense movie, filled with philosophical debate, and punctuated by disturbing death and torture. This is not an easy movie to take in but it’s well worth seeing.

_DSC1289.NEF20th Century Women

Wri/Dir: Mike Mills

It’s 1979. Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a single mom in small town California who works as a designer in a canning factory. She’s a 20th century woman who wears Birkenstocks and smokes menthol cigarettes. She was the first female pilot in the Air Force in WWII. Now she lives in a big house with her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Jamie is 15, rides a skateboard and just hangs out. But when he nearly dies after a silly game, Dorothea realizes they aren’t connecting anymore. So she asks for help from the younger women in her life. Julie (Elle Fanning) is Jamie’s childhood crush. She likes riding her bike and _TND7063.NEFattending her mom’s psychotherapy encounters. She’s exploring sex and will sleep with any guy she likes…except Jamie. Well she’ll sleep with him and share his bed, just no sex. Abbie (Greta Gerwig) rents a room in their house, recovering from cervical cancer. She’s a punk _DSC4067.tifphotographer who dyes her hair red. She introduces Jamie to feminism with a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves. He gets in his first fist fight at school in an argument about clitoral orgasm. And then there’s William (Billy Crudup) a hippy handyman drifter who repairs the house in lieu of rent. Mom is loving and giving and wants to share it all with Jamie and the rest, but fears the effects of feminism, and the sexual revolution on his development as a man. And Jamie? He just wants to live life and make sense of it all.

Twentieth Century Women is a funny and fascinating ensemble piece. It’s narrated by an omniscient version of Dorothea in some future incarnation. There are a few jarring anachronisms:  would a 15 year old in 1979 receiving a gift of recorded music exclaim “It’s a Mixtape!”? But that doesn’t detract from this excellent coming-of-age story within an impromptu family. Great movie.

Silence is now playing, 20th Century Women opens today in Toronto; check your local listings; and Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures opens on January 13th,  with a special screening at the AGO. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Avi Nesher about Past Life at #TIFF16

Posted in 1970s, Berlin, Biopic, Drama, Feminism, Israel, Music, Mystery, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on January 6, 2017

avi-nesher-tiff16-past-life-1-jeff-harrisHi, this is Daniel Garber at the movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Sephi and Nana Milch are Israeli sisters in the late 1970s. Sephi is the beautiful one – she’s a student of music and wants to become a composer. Nana is the smart one, an intellectual who writes for a pastlife_06radical leftist newspaper. They were both raised by strict parents who survived the Holocaust by hiding in a Polish farmer’s house. But on a musical visit to Berlin, Sephi has a strange encounter: a woman shouting that her father is a murderer. A murderer? Her own father? This sends both sisters on a search across two continents to find out what really happened and to confront their avi-nesher-tiff16-past-life-2-jeff-harrisown hidden past. But can they handle the truth of their parents’ past life?

Past Life is the name of a new movie, based on a bestselling memoir. It was written and directed by Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher. Nesher is a longtime favourite at TIFF, bringing us heady romances like The pastlife_04Secrets and brilliant period dramas like The Matchmaker (a personal favourite). Nesher is a consumate storyteller. His absorbing films combine intellectual rigour with vivid characters, all placed within stories reminiscent of classic Hollywood movies. This film premiered at the Toronto international film festival. I spoke with Avi Nesher on location at the TIFF Bell Lightbox during TIFF16.

Past Life screens in Toronto at 1:00pm and 4:00pm on Sunday, January 15, 2017. Go to TJFF for details.

Photos of Avi Nesher by Jeff Harris.

 

Return of the Western? Movies reviewed: The Magnificent Seven, Brimstone #TIFF16

Posted in Action, Cultural Mining, Feminism, Movies, Western by CulturalMining.com on September 30, 2016

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

Is the Hollywood Western dead? Or is it back from the dead? As a genre, I thought old-fashioned westerns faded away in the 1960s and 70s, despite a few last-gasp efforts to revive it.

So imagine my surprise when the first public screening I saw at TIFF — as well as the last one — were Westerns. They were superficially similar, but very different in substance. So this week I’m looking at those two westerns: a multi-ethnic reboot about a shoot’em-up posse, and a feminist rewrite about a fire-and-brimstone preacher.

magnificentseven_01_mustuseThe Magnificent Seven

Dir: Antoine Fuqua

Rose Creek is a god-fearing mining town in the old west, complete with sheriff, church, and saloon. One day a church meeting is interrupted by frightening incident. A bad man – accompanied mean by gunmen – declares the town now belongs to a robber barren named Pogue. They have one week to hand it all over or leave town. And to drive his point home, he unceremoniously shoots anyone who objects.

The people are in despair until a lawman arrives on horseback. Chisolm (Denzel Washington) says he can put together a team that will defend the town for its rightful owners. He just needs to be paid. They agree, and he sets out to find his Denzel Washington;Chris Prattsoldiers. And what a colourful group they are. First is Faraday, a card shark (Chris Pratt) already in town. He’s a smooth-talking swindler but quick on the trigger. Vasquez is a criminal on the run. Goodnight Robichaud (Ethan Hawke) is a sharpshooter from the confederate army with PTSD. He works the rodeo circuit with Billy, a Korean knife thrower. They’re joined by Jack, a bearlike bounty hunter who lives in a log cabin, and Red Harvest, a warrior armed with bow, arrow and spear, but far from his people. Together they are the “Magnificent Seven”.

Denzel WashingtonTo counter them, robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Saarsgard) recruits a hundred heavily armed men, complete with horses, rifles, and a Gatling gun. They line up on a hillside waiting for the attack. Can seven men defeat 100 bad guys and save the town? And which of them will survive this battle royale?

The Magnificent Seven is a remake of a remake – the 1960 spaghetti western based on Kurusawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) – and it shows its age. There were very few surprises in this movie and it had a mechanical feel. Here’s the shoot out, Denzel Washington;Chris Prattthere’s the recruiting scenes, and here comes the big battle. I like the multiracial cast – diversity on the screen is always a good thing– but aside from their looks and their weapons their background never really enters the storyline.  (Apparently the director considers women an ethnic group, too, so there’s one token woman shooting alongside the rest.) The movie has an all-star cast, but you can tell they’re doing it for the fun of it (and the money) not to stretch their acting chops. Neither does director Antoine Fuqua – known for films like Training Day. This one does not measure up.

Even so, I can enjoy a movies for its good shootouts, explosions and mayhem. Take it for what it is – an entertaining, though instantly forgettable, western. It’s OK, but nothing special.

brimstoneBrimstone

Wri/Dir: Martin Koolhoven

Elizabeth (Dakota Fanning) is a young woman who lives in a small California town in the old west, complete with sheriff, church and saloon.

She’s a respected midwife, but mute, so her 5-year-old daughter serves as her translator, her tiny voice conveying her mom’s very adult messages. But things go wrong when a fire-and-brimstone preacher enters town. The Reverend (Guy Pierce) says there are sinners among us, and they will be punished. Soon after, Elizabeth is forced to deliver a premature infant right in brimstonefront of the pulpit. To save the mother’s life she is forced to abort the male baby. This sparks a furor in the town: with an angry man carrying the torch, goaded on by the preacher’s words. How dare she save the life of a woman over that of a baby boy? That’s God’s decision, not hers.

But it soon becomes clear that this is a small battle in a much bigger fight. The preacher is out to get Elizabeth, and only the two of them know why. The preacher is willing to torture — or even murder — anyone who gets gets in his way. She refuses to give in and proves a powerful opponent. What is their connection, their history? Why is she mute? What brought her to this town? And what secrets do they hide?

brimstone_04Brimstone is told in an unusual way, in a series of biblical chapters, like Revelations and Exodus. Each successive chapter takes place before the previous one, so you only understand the meaning of the last scene until you see the next one. The story follows her homelife as a girl with a strict father and an abused mother (Carice van Houten). She learns the facts of life from two wounded gunslingers she keeps hidden in her barn. We also find about her life as a young woman in another town’s cathouse, and how and why she left there.

Dakota Fanning plays the lead as teenager, young woman and mother, and she’s completely brimstone_07believable in all three.  Guy Pearce is chilling as the horribly malevalent preacher. The movie is a scathing indictment of the treatment of women in America, by religion, by society, and by men in general.

Brimstone is troubling, disturbing and shocking, especially for a western. It doesn’t shy away from hard-to-handle issues. I had to turn my head from the screen, it was so horrific in a few scenes. It is violent in a way the Magnificent Seven isn’t, even though Seven has a huge amount of killing, while death is rarer in Brimstone. I don’t want to give the details away, since it depends on the revelations of the story, but let me just say it is not for the faint of heart. Brimstone is a fantastic, heart-wrenching drama with a lot to say.

The Magnificent Seven is playing now, check you local listings; and hopefully Brimstone will be released later this year. 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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