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

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

Unedited, no music

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

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

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

Dir: Laura Gabbert

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

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

The Strain (Season 1)

Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

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

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

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

The Humorist

Wri/Dir: Mikhail Idov

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

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

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

Great movie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fast cars and fast food. Films reviewed: xXx: Return of Xander Cage, The Founder

Posted in 1950s, Action, Biopic, Conspiracy Theory, Food, Morality, Movies, Sports by CulturalMining.com on January 20, 2017

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

Things are happening so fast south of the border you have to read Twitter to keep up. One day Chelsea Manning is heading for freedom. Another day Donald Trump is heading for the White House. So this week I’m looking at two movies about things that are fast. There’s a biopic about fast food, and an action movie about fast cars, fast planes and fast motorcycles.

15585154_696458033845759_3594431449720292242_oxXx: Return of Xander Cage

Dir: DJ Caruso

Americas bigwigs are meeting in a highrise and they are very worried. A top secret device known as Pandora’s Box has fallen into enemy hands. It looks like a VHS tape, but it has the power to turn satelites into Weapons of Mass Destruction, plunging to earth on their targets in a blaze of fire. But their meeting is broken up by a surprise attack by ghost agents: powerful paramilitary figures that are totally off the grid. So the head bigwig (Toni Collette) hires the legendary Xander 14940238_661940813964148_2127771514128546450_oCage (Vin Diesel) – the Triple X agent — to track down the bad guys and bring Pandora’s Box back home.

The problem is, how do you tell the good guys from the bad guys? Xander is offered a team of Sgt Nick Furys, but rejects them. Instead he gathers a team of misfits. There’s Adele, a green-haired Aussie sniper, and a car crash 14889751_661940543964175_1685622379480816316_omaniac, amond others. Xander Cage himself is an expert in extreme sports involving skis, skateboards and parkour. He’s also popular with the ladies. He regularly sleeps wth six models simultaneously. Why or how the movie doesn’t explain. The opposing team includes martial arts greats (Donny Yen and Tony Jaa — from Hong Kong and Thailand respectively) and the beautiful Serena (Indian model Deepika Padukone). The big showdown is supposed to take place at an open-air rave in a remote island (supposedly in the in the Philippines but without any Filipinos). But should they be 14902898_661941123964117_8062871875001764536_ofighting one another? Or going against the source of the trouble – the military/industrial bigwigs who started it all?

Triple X, Return of Xander Cage is an action movie, but not a thriller. It has an international cast, and a weird obsession with the 1990s, complete with 90s 14917252_661941140630782_7672771277120637968_orave culture, clothing, tattoos, even a guest appearance by Ice Cube.

There are a few funny lines, but most of the dialogue is painfully bad, filled with fake profundity. Lines like: Patriotism is dead; now there are only rebels and tyrants. (What does that mean?) Great chase scenes, including motorcycles on skis racing through a tubular wave on a beach; OK fights, though they skimped on the martial arts; plus lots of explosions, shootouts, car crashes and falling from great heights. Lots of violence but surprisingly less blood than I see shaving in the morning. (And I have a beard.) Which makes the violence seem comic book or comical. Watch this silly movie if you’re into extreme sport/action movies and just want to kill some time. It’s not a great movie by any measure, but it’s an enjoyable distraction.

TF_D01_TR_00075.ARWThe Founder

Dir: John Lee Hancock

It’s mid-twentieth century in middle America. Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) is an unsuccessful travelling salesman. His mind is full of get-rich-quick schemes, but they always seem to fail. Still, he relentlessly plies the highways with samples of merchandise and the endless sales patter he carefully rehearses in motel rooms. Right TF_D22_DM_06302015-8012.cr2now it’s steel milkshake machines that he sells to drive-in burger joints popping up nationwide. They are places where leather jacketed toughs and girls in bobby sox gather to smoke cigarettes and listen to the juke box. Terrible service, cold food, long waits.

TF_D27_DM_07082015-9955.cr2But when he takes a telephone order from San Bernardino, California, his ears perk up. A restaurant there wants six of them. Six milkshake machines? Surely there must be some mistake. He drives out to investigate. And there he finds McDonalds. They sell burgers, fries, milkshakes. The lines are long but speedy, the food is delicious, and the service is perfect. No carhops, juke boxes or cigarettes here.

So he meets up with the owners, Mac and Dick McDonald (John Carrol Lynch and Nick Offerman). It’s their baby, they say. They planned the menu, the logo, the golden arches. They designed the logistics, they built THE FOUNDERthe ketchup and mustard squirters, they arranged the grills for maximum efficiency. And they’re making money hand over fist. Ray Crok sees his future – and limitless wealth — in franchising these restaurants across the country. The problem is, the McDonalds don’t want to expand. They want to keep it local and under their supervision. But Ray convinces them he’ll stay true to their wishes and TF_D14_DM_06182015-5178.cr2bring them lots of money. But who will ultimately be in charge: the McDonald brothers or the McDonalds corporation?

The Founder is a fascinating look at the history of that well-known brand. It looks at Kroc’s home life, affairs and business deals. I’m not a fan of Mchael Keaton, but he is fantastic in this movie; his portrayal as the ambitious (but unlikeable) Ray Crok is skilfully nuanced and complex. You sympathize with him, since he’s the main character in the movie, but you recoil from how he treats the honest and forthright McDonald brothers. This biopic is not a softball version, it’s a hard-hitting look at the dark side of a successful businessman.

The Founder and xXx Return of Xander Cage 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

Warm your cockles, flex your mussels. Films reviewed: Tampopo, Sugar Mountain, Office Christmas Party

Posted in Chicago, Christmas songs, comedy, Food, Japan by CulturalMining.com on December 9, 2016

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

With short days, long nights and sub-zero temperatures, winter is clearly here. So this week I have three movies to warm your cockles (or flex your mussels). You can take a brisk walk in the snow with an Alaskan crime thriller, dive into a spiked punch bowl with an Christmas comedy, or try a hot bowl of ramen with a Japanese classic.

Tampopo posterTampopo

Dir: Itami Juzo

Goro (Yamazaki Tsutomu) is a Japanese trucker. He wears a cowboy hat and drives a tanker with bullhorns at the front, along with his junior partner Gun (a young Ken Watanabe). But Goro’s real passion is ramen, that Chinese soup-noodle so popular in Japan. Each glistening slice of pork, each slurp of noodle, each sip of fragrant broth, represents the culmination of years noodle 28880id_046_w1600evolution. They stop at a roadside ramen joint but are dismayed by what they see: A boy being bullied out front while a gang of drunken louts harass the ramen chef inside. Goro and Gun manage to rescue the boy and clear out the abusive customers but the ramen they finally eat is just not good.

The chef’s name is Tampopo (Miyamoto Nobuko) and she’s also the mother of the little boy they rescued. She thanks them 28880id_032_primary_w1600profusely, but admits she doesn’t know how to make ramen. She inherited the store from her late husband but not the recipe or technique. So Goro vows to train her to make the perfect bowl of ramen, in a one-woman bootcamp. On the way, he enlists more help: Sensei, a homeless man who lives with a gang of hobos; Shohei, the chef of a rich man whose life they save; and Piss-Ken one of the drunken hoods they met at their first visit to Tampopo’s ramen house. Will Tampopo – a woman — ever become a genuine master ramen chef? And who will she fall for: Goro or Piss-Ken?

Tampopo was originally released in 1985; this rerelease is a newly-28880id_002_w1600remastered 4K version. It’s a comedy/western and one of the first foodie movie ever made. The main humour comes from treating something simple and popular like fast food as if it were a vintage wine. It was made during the Japanese economic bubble when conspicuous consumption of elite, expensive imports was a national pastime. The movie consists of dozens of short tableaux with hundreds of characters — including a hedonistic couple dressed in white who mix food with sex —  separate, but somehow linked to the main story. The late Itami Juzo was a great satirical filmmaker, and Tampopo his first international hit, basically creating a new genre: the food movie. Definitely worth seeing.

Sugar Mountain posterSugar Mountain

Dir: Richard Gray

Miles and Liam West (Drew Roy, Shane Coffey) are brothers who work in the tourist trade in the scenic port Seward, Alaska. Liam is as honest and , trustworthy as Miles is shifty and undependable. Liam can fight a bear, while Miles is a newbie in the wilderness. Because of a recent accident – they Sugar Mountain, Drew Roycrushed the fingers of a famous concert pianist – the family business is in dire straits. So Miles – the sketchy one – comes up with a scheme to make tons of money. It’s flawless, he says, as long as they do it right. They pretend Miles is lost, without a phone, on the banks of the formidable Sugar Sugar Mountain, Haley WebbMountain. Only to reappear 10 days later to sell his exciting story to the media. Miles’s girlfriend Lauren (Haley Webb) is in on it too, and she helps manipulate press coverage, including a fake story that Liam fought with — and possibly murdered! — his own brother. The problem is, Miles really seems to be lost, or momoacoffeypossibly dead. And the town cop, who us also Lauren’s dad, (Carey Elwes) suspects Liam

To top it all off, Liam doesn’t realize his brother’s other motive – he needs the money to pay off other debts. And the guy he owes them to (Jason Momoa), is not a happy camper. If he doesn’t get the money, he’ll take it out in blood… most likely Liam’s.

Sugar Mountain is a solid, dramatic thriller, with lots of unexpected twists. And the fact it’s all played out against the breathtaking mountains, glaciers and forests of southern Alaska really adds to the pleasure.

14682206_1781862548770120_1903229054794222162_oOffice Christmas Party

Dir: Josh Gordon & Will Speck

Josh (Jason Bateman) is a recently divorced manager at a Chicago-based internet provider. They’re making good money, and, thanks to Josh’s good nature, the employees all seem to like it there. Tracy (Olivia Munn) is a tech genius who works on his team. She has a plan to revolutionize wifi. Josh’s boss is Clay (TJ Miller) the son of the company founder. Clay is an extreme sports devotee who majored in Canadian TV Studies. He may be irresponsible but he can throw a mean party.

Everyone is excited about their bonuses and the end of the year festivities, until… in walks the CEO. Carol (Jennifer Aniston) is 14681108_1782510598705315_346340364558759401_othe opposite of Clay. Where he is a partier she’s a wet blanket. Where Clay is fun and spontaneous, Carol is uptight with a sadistic streak. They’re also brother and sister, carrying all the emotional baggage that entails. She announces austerity plans — what a Grinch! what a Scrooge! — with no parties, no gifts, no bonuses and laying off 40% of the staff. Unless they can somehow land a major corporate client within 48 hours. But the client they want, a Mr Davies, thinks the corporate culture there – with all its layoffs 13895133_1744744402481935_8648184611797836688_nand uncertainties — is no good. So it’s up to Josh, Clay and Tracy – and the rest of the company — to hold the best party ever… and to convince Mr Davies to save the company and their jobs.

The rest of the movie is a just a wild office party, exactly what the title suggests. Picture live reindeer, cocaine, naked people sitting on 3-D printers, a Santa with cash taped to his body… and widespread mayhem and destruction. It’s like the movie Project X but for grownups. Is it funny? Yes it is. Constant gags and laughs, with truly funny ones every so often. And the small parts are even funnier than the main ones, including Jillian Bell as a deranged female pimp.

Office Christmas Party, Tampopo, and Sugar Mountain all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Sugar Mountain is also available today on Video on Demand.

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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