Not Marvel Movies. Films reviewed: The Irishman, Last Christmas, Midway

Posted in 1940s, 1960s, 1970s, Christmas, Corruption, Crime, Cuba, Hawaii, Romantic Comedy, UK, Unions, War, Woody Harrelson, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 8, 2019

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

Martin Scorsese recently wrote that tentpole movies, like ones that Marvel makes, are hogging a disproportionate share of Hollywood bucks. This squeezes traditional, medium-budget, one-off films out of the picture. Luckilly, they’re not all gone.  This week, I’m looking at three films – a crime drama, a war movie and a rom-com – without superheroes.

The Irishman

Dir: Martin Scorsese

It’s the 1950s.

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a truck driver who delivers beef hindquarters. When his truck breaks down on the highway, a strange man offers advice on how to fix it. He’s Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci) a mob boss in Pennsylvania. When Sheeran is caught stealing beef, Russell supplies a lawyer, thus starting a longtime relationship between the trucker and the Mafia. And Teamsters, the truckers union, stands with them all the way. Soon Frank is doing a different kind of work for Russell: he paints houses. Which really means he’s a hitman for the mob. Despite his Irish background, he speaks Italian: he served in the Army in Anzio in WWII. Soon they’re thick as thieves, and Frank enjoys the benefits, but Russell is always the boss.

Eventually he’s sent to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of Teamsters as a bodyguard, as well as the middleman between Hoffa and the mob. Hoffa is a brash firebrand, an old-school union organizer with legions of loyal members. He’s also an extremely powerful leader, and he controls the union’s pension. This means he can finance Las Vegas casinos with cash, something banks refuse to do. And he gives money to the Nixon campaign, a rare instance of a labour union officially supporting a Republican. But friction grows between Hoffa and the mafia until the day Hoffa mysteriously disappears without a trace, his body never found. What happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

The Irishman is narrated by Frank in an old age home, which gives it the feel of an old man’s movie. It’s a Forest Gump for gangsters, with Frank somehow tied to all the major events of the 60s and 70s: The Kennedies, Bay of Pigs, Jimmy Hoffa disappearance, to name just a few. This film has some problems: the CGI de-aged faces look wooden; female characters have virtually no lines – they just scowl and disapprove; and it’s missing the sharp edges and sexual zing of Scorsese’s early movies.

That said, I was never bored; I was glued to the screen the whole time. Pacino is fantastic as Jimmie Hoffa, and Scorsese’s movies are always superior.

The quality of filmmaking is superb and The Irishman tells a great story.

Last Christmas

Dir: Paul Feig

Kate (Emilia Clarke) is an quirky, aspiring young singer in London. By day she’s a cute little green elf, working in a kitschy, Christmas-themed gift shop run by a prickly boss named Santa (Michelle Yeoh). By night, she’s a barfly, sleeping with any guy she fancies, a different one each night. Ever since her operation, she’s been depressed. She’s embarrassed by her Yugoslavian family, and her singing career is going nowhere fast. She’s on a downward spiral of self-pity and self desctruction… until she meets Tom (Henry Golding).

Tom is everything Kate is not. He’s saintly, altruistic and generous. While Kate looks down and sees garbage tips, Tom looks up and sees tropical birds and quaint old signs. He takes her on a walk to show her the hidden side of London – a secret garden where people go to be alone; a soup kitchen for the homeless (he’s a volunteer), a deserted skating rink. Is it love? But he disappears for days at a time. What secret is he hiding? Is this true love? And can their relationship keep them together?

Last Christmas is a cute Romcom about a depressed woman coming out of her shell and her happy-go-lucky, would-be boyfriend. Emma Thompson plays Kate’s weepy Croatian mom and she also co-wrote the script. It’s cute and heartwarming… but not that funny.

Michelle Yeoh is terrific as a middle-aged woman still on the hunt, and Clarke and Golding make an appealing romantic couple. There is a totally surprising twist which brought tears to my eyes – No Spoiler – which left me with a bit more than I expected.

Midway

Dir: Roland Emmerich

It’s 1941, with war raging across Europe, China and the Pacific. But the US is cautiously viewing it from the sidelines. Dick Best (Ed Screin) is a gum chewing pilot based in Pearl Harbour. He’s a daredevil dive bomber, showing off his new techniques. Also on board the aircraft carrier is his rival, a by-the-books officer named McClusky (Luke Evans). He says Dick is a cowboy who should stop showing off. But while their aircraft carrier is out at sea, all the ships in Pearl Harbour are wiped out in a surprise attack by the Japanese, pulling the US into WWII.

Only Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) – the intel expert on Japan – predicted it. And he thinks a crucial battle up ahead: the Battle of Midway, an island in the South Pacific. Midway is a point crucial for control of the Pacific: if Layton is right, whoever wins the battle will win the war; it’s just a matter of time.

Midway is a dramatization of the years leading up to the naval battle of Midway, and the intense fight that follow: in submarines, on aircraft carriers and in planes overhead. It’s filtered through the eyes of lantern-jawed military figures like Jimmy Doolittle ( Aaron Eckhardt), Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) Vice Adm Bull Halsey (Dennis Quaid), and many semi-fictional sailors and pilots in various acts of bravery… like Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas, of the Jonas brothers!). The story also switches back and forth to the Japanese side, with Admirals Nagumo, Yamaguchi and Yamamoto plotting to defeat the Americans.

Midway is exactly the sort of movie I can’t stand – yet another tired war pic about a long-forgotten battle, filled with smarmy patriotism. But I went to the press screening, and guess what? I actually really liked Midway! Fantastic special effects, complex battles shown in an easy-to-follow way, good acting, and great characters. Japanese are portrayed respectfully, not as hokey villains, but without covering up their war crimes in Eastern China. Like The Irishman, women are there mainly to worry about their husbands. It’s two hours, twenty minutes long, but the thrills keep you staring, rapt, till it’s over. I’m sure a lot of critics are going to compare it (unfavourably) with Dunkirk, but to me Midway is more thrilling, less ponderous.

Midway and Last Christmas both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. And The Irishman is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, also beginning today.

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

Dec 2, 2011 Fox Movies vs Hedgehog Movies. Films Reviewed: Surviving Progress, The Descendants PLUS VTape

Posted in Canada, Cultural Mining, Death, Denial, Drama, Environmentalism, Gas, Hawaii, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on December 3, 2011

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

Have you ever heard of “Foxes vs Hedgehogs”? Isaiah Berlin (in a famous essay about Tolstoy) wrote that writers and intellectuals were all either foxes or hedgehogs. Hedgehogs know one big thing, while foxes know many things. (He’s talking about expertise in a field versus generalists.) But I wonder if this can be applied to movies? Are their fox movies and hedgehog movies? I don’t know — all movies are collaborations of dozens or even hundreds of people… but they usual seem to be about one big thing. Fox movies (I don’t mean 20th Century Fox) might be ones like Enter the Void, or You are Here, or Magnolia; while hedgehogs are Remains of the Day or Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Then there are most movies which have a concept but where there’s no idea at all. I guess they’re neither foxes nor hedgehogs.

So this week I’m talking about two movies, a documentary about everything, and a humorous drama about a family facing a whole lot of problems all at once.

Surviving Progress

Dir: Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks

You’ve probably heard of “peak oil”: that’s the point where the oil yet to come out of the ground is less than what we’ve already extracted, so we’ve already used most of it up. People say we reached peak oil about 8 years ago, most of the found reserves are drying out, and that’s why they’re trying to get oil out of the tar sands and digging in remote areas to find whatever’s left.

But what if it’s not just peak oil? What if it’s peak everything? What if we’re using up all the credit we possibly could in the drive toward over- consumption; all the forests, the water, arable land is approaching point zero; what if the financial sector, with its rapacious, slash-and-burn attitude toward company takeovers in search of the next 10% profit rate…

This new documentary (based on Ronald Wright’s book “A short history of progress) poses a really interesting situation. Progress is defined as a technological advance that takes us out of each successive crisis and saves us. But what if these advances in technology or progress are the cause of these crises?

It uses the example of the mammoth. When the cavemen – who are basically us, genetically – used to go out and chase after woolly elephants, they’d kill one ot two every so often and eat them. But when someone came up with the new idea, the technology, that let them round up a whole herd and chase them off a cliff… well that was that. Peak Mammoth.

So the current financial crisis, the environmental crisis, the water, oil, shortages… maybe all our new ideas aren’t progress at all, but the start of disaster?

This is a really interesting idea, and a fascinating documentary. The movie consists mainly of talking head interviews by lots of famous experts like Vaclav Smil, Jane Goodall and Steven Hawking taking all sides of the argument. Personally, I would have liked more shots of apes playing with blocks or wooly mammoths falling off cliffs, and less long, talking-head interviews… but it’s still a really interesting topic.

(Definitely a fox movie, not a hedgehog, though, talking about everything and its opposite, to cover all points of view – it left me a bit overwhelmed by all it covered, and at a loss as to what the movie says we should do to solve the problem.)

The Descendants

Dir: Alexander Payne

Matt King (George Clooney) is a middle aged corporate lawyer in Hawai’i, who, along with all his cousins, is apparently descended way back from a Hawaiian princess, but looks, sounds and acts like a rich white guy, a haoli. He’s in charge of the family trust for a land grant of untouched beaches and forests left by that Hawaiian royal family a century ago, and suddenly they have to sell it off to developers to make condos and golf courses before they lose it. Then, all of the sudden, everything hits him all at once. His wife is in hospital in a coma, so, for the first time he has to take care of his two daughters, Scottie and Alex (Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley), who are a handful. And if that’s not enough, the doctors say his wife may not survive – her friends, his in-laws, and everyone close need to be told. And his daughter Alex chooses this point to tell him some shocking news about his wife – something he never knew. So now it’s up to the three of them, plus Alex’s boyfriend Sid the pool boy, to journey around the islands to try to tie up the loose ends, and face their upcoming losses.

So it deals with a load of plot lines that are all over the place, like the scattered Hawaiian islands, but it’s held together with traditional Hawaiian music, scenery and style. This is a very sweet and interesting movie about a father and his family facing up to a whole bunch of problems all at once. The cast is great, the acting, the look and feel, the story too. I didn’t leave the theatre thinking “this is a deep movie” – it’s not – but it’s a good movie. It felt like the pilot for a really good HBO TV series. What’s this family’s next adventure? I want to find out!

Surviving Progress opens today in Toronto, and The Descendants is playing now, check your local listings.

Also check out VTape’s program this Saturday, a very foxy movie program, where the staff at this experimental art-video space has selected a special, eclectic program, CARRIED AWAY, which they describe as “a sampler box of chocolates” including “mash-ups, tender meditations, and animations, both precise and apocalyptic”. That’s on this Saturday, Dec 9. Go to www.vtape.org for more information

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining . com.

June 17, 2011. Indie Enough for You? Movies reviewed: Hip Hop Mom, Notes from the Kuerti Keyboard, 6 Ft Hick , You Can’t Sing it for Them, Below New York, Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry: the Life of Norman K. Collins

Posted in Australia, Canada, Cultural Mining, documentary, Hawaii, Movies, Music, NXNE, Pop Art, Spirituality, tattoos, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on June 22, 2011

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

You may have noticed the sudden influx of caterpillar mustaches and black T-shirts on guys, women with pig tails, or Betty Page hairdos and half-sleeve tattoos; a net increase in the per capita level of skinny jeans and Raybans; or the preponderance of Mohawks, no-hawks, and even a few faux-hocks…

You may have felt a change in the air and wondered what was exactly going on – is it a detox convention? A hairstyle and denim expo? The answer is, no, none of the above. It’s NXNE, the huge indie music and film festival that’s going on all over downtown Toronto right now.

That’s right, music and film – aside from the huge number of great groups, there are movies – mainly documentaries about music, musicians, subcultures, genres, and peripheral topics – that are playing alongside a lot of the musical sets, and they are worth checking out. If you buy a bracelet that lets you wander in and out of clubs for a day, I suggest you try a detour to some of the movies. So here are a few of the movies playing at NXNE.

Hip Hop Mom

Dir: Mina Shum

In this short, funny film, a mother who’s trying to calm her baby over her cel while she’s driving her car gets in a bit of a parking tussle with another mom. She jumps out of her car, her posse in brightly coloured sweatsuits appears out of nowhere, and they start a parking lot soccer mom showdown.

In another short movie,

Notes from the Kuerti Keyboard

Dir by David Eng and Katarina Soukup

the composer plays a concerto on both an old Underwood manual typewriter and on a piano, where music and words combine to make visible pithy comments on the notes the piano produces.

6 Ft Hick

Dir:Marty Moynihan

…is a feature length documentary that follows this Aussie garage punk band on a tour of Europe. What’s remarkable about the group are the two main musicians — Geoff and Ben, brothers who were brought up on a rural chicken farm — who violently break glass, pull their underwear elastics up to their shoulders, throw themselves at spectators, and often end up making out with each other on stage. And to think it used to be enough just to smash a few guitars into a speaker…

You Can’t Sing it for Them

Dir: Jacqueline Richard & Margot Fassler

…is a fascinating, almost academic, documentary both about the history of traditional African-American music — including spirituals, gospel, and other contemporary forms as sung by choirs in black churches — and a new choir director Jonathon Berryman who arrives at the venerable Messiah Baptist Church in Connecticut to save its choir.

The movie discusses the fading away of the traditional black church choir and how he attempts to pull it back together. While churches traditionally would follow their own liturgy and the songs associated with their particular denomination, Berryman, a trained musicilogist, tries to gather a whole variety of songs and styles, before they all, like many traditional cultures, just disappear. He does all this while a famous, elderly church member doles out her criticism. Although mainly about music and the people at this particular church, the movie also touches upon crucial historical aspects from slavery, to the civil rights movement and beyond. A few of the scenes with interviews and footage of rehearsals are a bit to languorous for my taste, but these are alternated with amazing short clips like a line of red robed children doing this unbelievable jumping and turning entrance to the church – like nothing Ive ever seen before. In general, the performances plus the story, make this is a fascinating and excellently researched story.

Below New York

Dir: Matt Finlin

Below New York is a neat, B&W short documentary showing the buskers and performers who operate in the stations and inside the subway cars of NY City. Do wop a capella singers, a blues guitarists and harmonica player, and a team of busker acrobatic dancers show how they do their short performances in the amount of time it takes a car to pull into a station and end it.

There are few other movies which I haven’t seen but which look good. I spoke with director Noel Lawrence about his new film JX Williams’ Cabinet of Curiosities about a seminal director who turned to the LA punk movement in the 70’s. He compared his work to Kenneth Anger’s satanic topics, and that alone should make it worth seeing. I’m looking forward to this one.

And Ivory Tower, Directed by Adam Traynor – not sure what it is, exactly, but it’s got the Toronto/Berlin axis of Peaches, Feist, Chillie Gonzales and German Hiphop group the Puppetmasters, so it could be really surprising – and I love surprises.

Finally, I caught a movie called:

Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry: the Life of Norman K. Collins

Dir: Erich Weiss

This is a movie about the current explosion of tattoo art, and where it came from. It does this by focusing on one guy, Norman Collins, a strange, irreverent, right-wing tattoo master who incorporated Japanese motifs and techniques (traditionally worn only by members of the Yakuza in Japan) into the more standard America styles.

Tattoos have the image of being louche, skid, skeezy, underground, transient, rebellious, and vaguely illegal. Parlours were located on the wrong side of the tracks, in ports like San Francisco, Shanghai, Yokohama, Bora-bora. Often they shared their quarters with brothels, VD clinics, fortune tellers, or abortionists. Far from the mainstream, part of what gives them their current appeal.

In WWII, a million sailors and marines passed through Hawaii, and it became a rite of passage to visit Hotel Street in Honolulu’s Chinatown where men got drunk gambled, lost their virginity and inscribed the event it on the arms. This was and is a red-light district, and where Sailor Jerry set up shop. He drilled countless anchors, Hula dancers, geisha girls, sad sack sailors, broken hearts, grinning chimps, Chinese characters, palm trees, bald eagles, and mermaids onn men’s bodies.

Although it slips occasionally into what looks like a promotion for Ed Hardy, this is a fun movie, where most of the tattooers they interviewed look like retired Hells Angels, especially one old salt from Phillie. Everytime this foul mouthed codger comes on the screen with this woman in a strange black wig seated beside him, the whole audience cracks up even before he talks.

The guy is Popeye incarnate.

I really liked this movie, but unfortunately, I saw it under the influence, so my judgement could be flawed. There was a pre-screening party promotion for a spiced rum named after the tattoo artist, so the cola-rum-and-stout mixtures were flowing fast and furious. I guzzled a few of those, and there must have been something special about them, because I woke up the next morning in a dark alley with a splitting headache and the words dude and sweet tattooed across my back.

The films I reviewed are all playing at NXNE, which runs through the weekend. Pick up a free program, buy a bracelet, or just catch some of the free shows at Dundas square and free movies at the Hyatt Regency screening room. Look on line at NXNE.com .

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining dot com.

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