Bustin loose. Films reviewed: Ma, Rocketman PLUS ReelAbilities Film Festival

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Disabilities, drugs, High School, Horror, Music, Musical, Psychological Thriller, Thriller, UK by CulturalMining.com on May 31, 2019

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

Spring festival season continues in Toronto with Inside Out and Reelabilities playing through Sunday. ReelAbilities is a film festival showing shorts and features (along with panel discussions) dealing with disabilities. They are made by actors and filmmakers with disabilities, and the characters or topics of the films touch on issues relevant to people with a wide range of abilities. This includes physical disabilities, deafness, and many others areas, ranging from Tourette’s to one of the most segregated and discriminated groups: people with intellectual disabilities. And the festival itself is designed and planned to make the movies accessible to all viewers, with subtitles on the screen and locations fully accessible to people who use wheelchairs.

This week I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a thriller/horror. There’s a man who turns to music to overcome his stodgy and repressive upbringing; and some teenagers who turn to a surrogate mom to escape their restrictive parents.

Ma

Dir: Tate Taylor

It’s winter in small town America. Maggie (Diana Silvers) is a 16-year- old girl from San Diego starting at a new school. She just moved there so her single mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) could start a job as a cocktail waitress in a nearby casino. Luckily she quickly makes friends with the popular kids at school, a clique that includes the take-charge girl Haley (McKaley Miller), and their designated driver Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). A typical Saturday night consists of convincing a random adult to buy them alcohol, and then getting drunk at an abandoned rock pile on the outskirts of town. (Lots of fun.)

But things take a turn for the better when they meet Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a middle-aged assistant at a veterinary hospital. She says they can use her basement as their party headquarters, a place to listen to music, dance and get drunk. Word spreads quickly until every kid in town knows that’s the place where they can par-tay without grownup supervision — except Sue Ann, of course, whom they all call “Ma”. It’s a kids’ paradise. Or is it?

Maggie feels something is not quite right.

What they don’t realize is that all of their parents, even Maggie’s mom, went to high school together back in the 80s. Sue Ann went there too, something bad happened, and she wants payback. Is Sue Ann just lonely and enjoys reliving her teenaged years with local kids? Or is there something more sinister going on? And will the sins of the parents fall on their children?

Ma is a pretty good psychological thriller / teen horror movie. The casting is good, not just the main roles but even the small parts, like Allison Janney as the foul-mouthed animal doctor, Dominic Burgess as a flamboyant casino manager, and Luke Evans as Ben, a dickish security exec. But the story is a bit muddy, with the point of view shifting from Sue Ann, to Maggie to Erica. It’s not a spoiler to say this is a thriller/horror, so you know something bad is going to happen, but most of the movie is suspense leading up to the violence rather than the violence itself. Is it scary? More creepy than scary. Is it gory? A little, toward the end. And the story seems a bit lopsided, almost as unbalanced as Sue Ann herself.

While Ma is not perfect, I did enjoy watching it.

Rocketman

Dir: Dexter Fletcher

It’s England in the 1950s. Little Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) lives with his standoffish RAF dad, his self-centred mum and his kindly grandmother. He’s an ordinary kid until the day his fingers touch the keys of a piano, and suddenly everything changes. He discovers he can play perfectly, by ear, any song he hears on the radio. He enrolls in the Royal Academy of Music and starts on the path to be a professional musician.

Later, in his twenties, he works as a backup musician for a touring American soul band. He learns about rock and roll and gets his first kiss… from a guy! And he learns to reinvent himself. Reginald Dwight becomes Elton John (Taron Egerton), and the pudgy, shy boy gradually becomes the flamboyant pop star. Together with his writing partner and platonic best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) they head to London and then on to Los Angeles.

There he meets the handsome manager John Reid (Richard Madden), who takes Elton under his wing, promising incredible fame, fortune and success. But is it true love? Soon Elton John rises to the top, becoming the world’s biggest pop star playing to stadium-sized audiences… even as his personal life spirals into a decadent morass of depraved sex, drugs, alcoholism. Will Elton ever find peace with his parents, overcome his self doubt, come out publicly as gay, and find true love?

Rocketman is a biopic about Elton John from his life a a child until a low point midway through his career at a drug rehab centre. It’s also a musical. By musical, I mean an actual, old-school musical, one where the characters at any moment might burst into song accompanied by elaborately choreographed dance numbers. The dance scenes include everything, from 50s rock’n’roll dance routines, to abstract modern dance in a swimming pool, to writhing bodies at a 70s sex orgy.

The songs they sing tell Elton’s life by singing his (and Bernie Taupin’s) actual hit songs, rearranged chronologically to fit the storyline. I’m not a fan, to say the least, of most music biopics, and had very low expectations for Rocketman, but I actually really liked it. It’s a beautifully produced, seamlessly directed and highly stylized movie that moves without pause from start to finish. It has outrageous costumes, and great music – with the actors doing their own singing. And they’re really good at it, especially Taron Egerton.

If you like Elton John’s music – and even if you don’t – you won’t be disappointed by Rocketman.

Rocketman (which opened Inside Out) and Ma both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. ReelAbilities and Inside Out are both on through Sunday.

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

Does isolation mean alienation? Films reviewed: Une Colonie, The Grizzlies, High Life

Posted in Coming of Age, High School, Indigenous, Inuit, Nunavut, Quebec, Science Fiction, Sex, Sports, Witches, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 19, 2019

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

Does isolation mean alienation? Or can it be its cure? This week I’m looking at three movies about people who choose to live their lives in isolated areas. There’s an astronaut with a baby in outerspace, a girl in a village in rural Québec, and a lacrosse team in a remote town in Nunavut.

Une Colonie (A Colony)

Dir: Geneviève Dulude-De Celles

It’s the first day of highschool and Mylia (Emilie Bierre) is overwhelmed. She’s a 14 year old girl from rural Quebec. She’s used to seeing her mom and dad, her four-year-old sister Camille (Irlande Côté) and some chickens and cows. When she wants to get away she hides in secret shelters she builds in the woods. But she doesn’t know how to handle the noise and stress of her new school and the hundreds of people there. And she doesn’t quite understand her new classes in history and citizenship. What does that mean, anyway?

Luckily she makes two friends with different paths to choose from. Jacinthe (Cassandra Gosselin-Pelletier) is sophisticated, sexually active and popular. She offers the pretty but naïve Mylia an exciting life full of “lipstick parties”, online challenges and social networking. She sets her up on alcohol-infused dates with strange boys she has nothing in common with. But she also whispers behind her back, spreading rumours that her mother is a stripper.

The second path is offered by Jimmy (Jacob Whiteduck-Lavoie) a neighbour from the Ibanaki Nation. He has strange powers – like taming wild animals – as well as a trampoline he lets Camille bounce on. But he is forced to sit through a histry class that describe his people as “simple savages” or engaged in depraved orgies. He is bullied for not speaking “proper” Quebec French. And he hates seeing Mylia act like the rest of them, people who always colour within the lines. Can Mylia hold onto her idyllic rural life even as she learns to conform and mature?

Une Colonie is a wonderfully thoughtful coming of age story seen through the eyes of young woman. It deals with Quebec both as colony and colonizer and the blurred lines separating the two. It doesn’t fully explain everything you see — it lets you make sense if it as the story is revealed. Une Colonie won best picture and Emilie Bierre best actress at the Canadian screen awards, and rightly so. This is a terrific movie, espcially for a first film.

The Grizzlies

Dir: Miranda de Pencier

It’s 2004 in Kugluktuk, a small village in Nunuavut. Russ (Ben Schnetzer) is an idealistic but inexperienced high school teacher newly arrived from the south. He starts by meeting his students. There’s Kyle (Booboo Stewart) who runs away from home each night. Zach (Paul Nutarariaq) punches him in the face when he tells him to speak English. Spring (Anna Lambe) is deeply in love with her boyfriend. Miranda (Emerald MacDonald) is silent but observes everything.

Russ may speak no Inuktitut but he can still see a problem… an epidemic of death by suicide. He decides to do something about it: start a lacrosse team! He manages to pull a team together, and even gets them a place on the national championships in Toronto. But can the Grizzlies raise the money, convince the local council to support them, and overcome the many social problems they face? Or is Russ just another fly-by-night white saviour from the south, quick to make promises he can’t keep?

The Grizzlies, based on a true story, is a typical sports movie, about an unlikely team that tries to overcome its obvious obstacles using heart, grit and comradery. What’s different is it’s shot in Nunavut, in English and Inuktitut with a mainly Inuit and indigenous cast. And it interweaves realistic scenes of actual culture — you get to see people sharing and eating raw seal meat — with the dark side of history, including issues like the residential schools. It’s not earth-shattering, but The Grizzlies works as a meaningful movie that’s also fun to watch.

High Life

Wri/Dir: Claire Denis

It’s the future.

Monte (Robert Pattinson) is a single dad raising an infant girl at work and at home. They live on a space ship hurtling towards a distant blackhole. How did they get there and where did the baby come from? Through a series of flashbacks we see what life was like back on earth and later on board the spacecraft. It used to be peopled by healthy young astronauts working together both as scientists and as scientific subjects, experimenting and being experimented on.

The ship has everything they need: regular video reports sent from earth, a garden growing succulent fruit and vegetables in a misty arboretum; areas for exercise; and spacesuits for outdoor repairs. There’s also an orgasmic chamber that spins, throbs and penetrates anyone needing sexual release.

They are ruled by a doctor in a white lab coat (Juliette Binoche). She dispenses pills in exchange for sperm samples from the men, and use of the women’s wombs. She calls herself a shaman who wants to create life in outer space. Only Monte, nicknamed the Monk, refuses to participate. But far from placid and cooperative, an atmosphere of violence and sexuality hangs heavily over the voyage. It turns out these astronauts were chosen for their good genes inside prisons back on Earth, where they were serving life sentences for violent crimes. What will happen to them?

High Life is an unusual and fascinating space fantasy like few movies you’ve ever seen. Instead of flashing lights, laser beams or robotic mechanicals, this movie stresses bodily fluids – with semen, breast milk, drool, and unexplained pools of milky white discharge spilling onto the metal floors. It shifts from sex and violence to warm scenes of family bonding. The cast is uniformly amazing from the stoic Pattinson to the witchlike Binoche.

I’ve seen High Life twice now, and I liked it even more the second time. Claire Denis is a genius.

The Grizzlies and High Life both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Une Colonie is showing as part of Cinefranco’s Tournée du Quebec.

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

Fighting Oppressors. Films reviewed: Puzzle, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, BlacKkKlansman

Posted in 1970s, 1990s, African-Americans, Coming of Age, Family, High School, LGBT, Mystery, Racism, Religion, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 10, 2018

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

This week I’m looking at three American movies about individuals dealing with oppressive forces. There’s a man in the 1970s fighting the K.K.K.; a girl in the ’90s fighting to remain gay, gay, gay; and a woman trapped in small-town New York fighting the urge to stay, stay, stay.

Puzzle

Dir: Marc Turtletaub

Agnes (Kelly Macdonald) is a committed wife and mother in a sleepy, workingclass town in New York. She wears frumpy clothes and has an unobtrusive manner What With home, family and church she’s always busy, but no one seems to appreciate her – herself included. She cooks, cleans, does the accounting – she’s a whiz at math — and takes care of everybody else. Her husband Louis (David Denman) and son Ziggy (Bubba Weiler) work at Louis garage. Her other son Gabe (Aaron Austin) is the golden boy, headed for University. Louis says he loves her, but does he ever include her in important decisions? Not a chance. it’s like she isn’t even there. Until a birthday present from her aunt changes everything. It’s a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, and she puts it together almost automatically. Something in her brain is awakened and she wants more. She takes the train into NY City to find more puzzles and in a serious of coincidences, ends up meeting Robert (Irrfan Khan: Lunchbox, Slumdog Millionaire)

A millionaire inventor and dilettante, Robert lounges around his townhouse in silk robes. He is as impressed by her naïveté as he is by her genius at puzzles. And she’s overwhelmed by everything about him. He invites her to be his partner at a two-player puzzle competition. If they win, they’ll fly off to Brussels for the Iinternational Championships.

Soon Agnes is splitting her life between her home and Robert’s glamourous mansion. And she keeps it all a secret from her family and friends. Are her clandestine meetings just a temporary diversion? Or do they signal a change in her life?

Puzzle is a fun, feel-good movie about the awakening of a middle aged woman. Scottish actress KellyMcDonald is perfect as Agnes and actor Irrfan Khan is great as the diffident Robert.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Dir: Desiree Akhavan

It’s the1990s. Cameron (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a teenaged girl raised by evangelical grandparents. (Her own parents died in a car accident.) Cam is smart, popular, and has a steady boyfriend. But her whole life falls apart on prom night when she’s caught having sex in the back seat of the car – not with her boyfriend, but with a girl she likes.

Next thing you know she’s being shipped off to a camp in the woods called God’s Promise. It’s run by Reverend Rick – he looks and acts like Ned Flanders – who plays the guitar and is always upbeat. And behind the scenes, the boss of it all, is his sister, Doctor Lydia Marsh in her shoulder-pad Atlas Shrugged power blouses. Pretty soon, Cam figures out why she’s there: to be “cured” of her same sex attraction. Because – they say — there’s no such thing as homosexuality, just sinning. The gay conversion therapy goes like this: Each kid is given a cartoon drawing of an iceberg. The students had to fill in all their sins – and the underlying trauma that gave them their “disorder”– before they can be free of their gayness.

In practce this means they’e subject to tough love: watched 24/7, woken up in the middle of the night by guards with flashlights – to make sure they’re not being “sinful” (doesn’t work) – and forced to go to group therapy sessions to bare their souls – only to be humiliated by the other members.

Luckily, Cam discovers two rebels she can hang with: Jane (Sasha Lane), a cynical girl with dreads who loves polaroid cameras; and 2-spirited Adam whose politician dad sent him there (Forrest Goodluck – he played Saul in Indian Horse). Can Cameron resist the brainwashing? Can she leave this place? And will she ever see her girlfriend again?

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is an eye-opening look at a repellent practice that’s now banned in most of Canada. And while this role was hardly a stretch, I’ll see anything with Chloë Grace Moretz in it. On the other hand some of the period dialogue feels anachronistic, and the story, though realistic, is tamer than I might have liked.

Still, it’s a good indie pic.

BlacKkKlansman

Dir: Spike Lee

It’s the early 1970s and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first – and only – black policeman in Colorado Springs. Hi first job as an undercover detective? To infiltrate black activists at a speech by civil rights leader Kwame Ture (whom the white cops still call Stokely Carmichael.) There Ron meets Patrice (Laura Harrier) the leader of a student group that invited Ture to speak. They begin to date, without Ron ever admitting he’s a plainclothes cop.

But things take a big turn when Ron discovers the notorious white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan has a branch in this city. Ron calls them up – using s real name, and lets loose with a racist tirade, including frequent use of the N word. So the KKK – composed of powerful locals and sketchy rednecks — invite him to come by their shack in the woods. problem is… he’s black (they don’t know that) and the KKK was founded to terrorize African Americans. What to do?

He gets Flip (Adam Driver), a white cop from his team — to play him in front of the KKK. It just happens that Flip is Jewish, and the Klan – headed by notorious racist David Duke – doesn’t like them much, either.

But soon, they are deeply involved in an undercover operation to stop the Klan. Can the two of them fool the KKK at its own game, and possibly uncover domestic terrorist cels? And will Ron come clean with Patrice?

Blackkklansman is Spike Lee’s latest and his best in a longtime. It’s very entertaining, funny, exciting, even a bit of a thriller. And it’s full of film references, chronicling Holywood’s anti-black attitudes, from Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind to blaxploitation. The photography is sumptuous, including a montage of faces during Ture’s “Black is Beautiful” speech. This is a great movie.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post, BlackKklansman, and Puzzle 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.

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

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

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

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

Every Day

Dir: Michael Sucsy

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

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

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

I liked this movie.

The Party

Wri/Dir: Sally Potter

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

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

Annihilation

Dir: Alex Garland

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

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

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

This movie is scary-pretty… and pretty scary.

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

Middle Class, Middle East. Films reviewed: Ava, The Insult

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, High School, Iran, Lebanon, Movies, Palestine, Refugees, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 2, 2018

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

Looking for new things to watch other than big studio crap? Here’s what to look out for in February. It’s Black History Month, and Toronto’s Black Film Festival is coming up this month. The Goethe Foundation is showing movies set in Asia by Ulrike Ottinger. At TIFF Cinematheque they’ve got a retrospective of French New Wave director Philippe Garrel. To name just a few…

This week, though, I’m looking at two dramas about the Middle Class in the Middle East. There’s a teen drama set in Iran about a dare, and a courtroom drama in Lebanon about an insult.

Ava

Wri/Dir: Sadaf Foroughi

Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is a high school girl in Iran. An only child, she’s pretty but determined and self-confident. She lives with her mom, a psychiatrist, and her dad when he’s not out of town. She brightens up her obligatory, all-back uniform with some red Converse running shoes and a backpack. Her prized possession is her metronome. Her life consists of violin lessons, studying for exams, and hanging with her best friend Melody. Another friend Shirin, is a know-it-all always putting her down so she bets she can get a guy, Nima, to go out with her. She knows him from music lessons where he accompanies her on the piano… and she thinks he’s cute.

So she arranges an elaborate plot where she says she’s going to study with Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi), but actually plans to meet up with Nima, and drop by Shirin’s place to show him off so she can win the bet. Easy as pie. Except Shirin isn’t home – so no bet – and worse, when she sneaks back to Melody’s place her suspicious mom is there going ballistic and taking it out on Melody and her mom. And when Ava arrives her mom’s all Where were you? what did you do? Why did you lie? Then she drags Ava to a doctor to check that her virginity is intact!

In school the next day it gets even worse, with teachers searching through her backpack for forbidden things (whatever that may be). Even the school principal lectures all the girls about the dangers of doing the unspeakable with their unmentionables! She lost the bet, is humiliated in front of everyone, forbidden to see her best friend, and forced to quit her music lessons. All this, even though she didn’t do anything. Her stress and frustration rises to a boiling point and she has a meltdown in class.

Why is her mom so worried about her daughter having premarital sex? Can Ava pull her life back together, pass her exams, play violin at the recital, make up with her friends and family and maybe get back together with her non-boyfriend Nima? Or is her life ruined?

Ava might sound like a YA soap opera, but it’s actually a realistic coming-of-age drama about life in contemporary Iran. This is a good movie, surprisingly mature for a first feature. It has the look of an arthouse flick, with experimental camera work — like characters shot from behind, from above, from far away, with parts of them obscured, or even out of the frame entirely. And Jabari is excellent as Ava.

The Insult

Dir: Ziad Doueiri

Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is an engineer working on contract for the city. He supervises dozens of workers who repair potholes, drainage and infrastructure. He’s at the height of his career, known for his skill, diligence and bringing projects in under budget, while still looking out for the little guy.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) runs his own business, an auto repair shop, fixing BMWs. He lives in a second floor apartment with his pregnant wife. The young couple are saving up to buy their first home. Everything’s peachy until one day Tony spills dirty water through a faulty drainage pipe all over Yasser on the street below. Yasser calls Tony a rude name, but later fixes the pipe at the city’s expense. Tony smashes it to pieces. Words escalate with neither side apologizing for their insults. Until Tony voices the ultimate insult, and Yasser responds by beating him up.

Seems like a small problem, easily solved, right? Wrong. It turns into a lawsuit and the ensuing trial captures the attention of the whole country, leading to riots, molotov cocktails, even a meeting with the President of Lebanon. What is so important about this dispute? Yasser is Palestinian and Tony is Maronite Christian, and their disputes go back for generations, including the bloody, 15-year-long Lebanese civil war.

Their two lawyers, both working pro bono, are the famous Wajda Webb on Tony’s side and rising legal eagle Nadine working for Yasser. Both sides discover hidden histories from their two clients’ pasts, as victims and perpetrators of some of the massacres that tore the region apart: Black September in Jordan, Damour, Sabra and Shatilla.

The Insult has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and I understand why. It manages to handle controversial topics in a sometimes humorous, sometimes serious manner. The movie is told from Tony’s point of view, and therefore that of Maronite Christians as a group – including his political influences, their role in the civil war and Tony’s personal memories. That said, it is respectful and sympathetic to Yasser’s side and takes pains to portray him in a positive way. And Kamal El Basha gives a great performance as Yasser, both subtle and explosive at appropriate places.

The Insult is a good crash course in Lebanese modern history.

Ava and The Insult are both playing now 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.

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

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

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

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

Adventures in Public School

Dir: Kyle Rideout

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

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

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

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

Father Figures

Dir: Lawrence Sher

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

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

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

Downsizing

Dir: Alexander Payne

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bad Students. Films Reviewed: Lady Bird, Bad Genius, My Friend Dahmer

Posted in 1970s, 2000s, Coming of Age, Crime, High School, Thailand by CulturalMining.com on November 10, 2017

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

Fall Film Festival season continues in Toronto. The EU Film Fest, which started last night, features movies from each of the EU countries, and all screenings are free. Reelasian also just started with films from South, East and Southeast Asia.

This week I’m looking at dramas about troublesome high school students. There’s a young woman in California who wants to head east (to university), another in Bangkok who wants to go south (to Singapore), and a guy in Akron who wants to look inside other people.

Lady Bird

Dir: Greta Gerwig

It’s central California in the early 2000s. Lady Bird (Saorise Ronan), is a bored kid with great ambitions – she wants to study at an eastcoast University. She’s in her last year at a private, Catholic school. Her mom (Laurie Metcalf) sent her there because she thinks public school is too dangerous. She lives in a small house in Sacramento with her brother Miguel, her dad, a computer programmer, and her mom who works in a psychiatric hospital.

Lady Bird wants to be cool and maybe meet a boyfriend. But Immaculate Heart – or Immaculate Fart, as she calls it– is an all-girls school run by nuns. Her only chance of meeting guys is in the theatre club run in conjunction with an all-boys Catholic school nearby. She immediately hits it off with Danny (Lucas Hedges) who likes show tunes and wearing puka shell chokers. She takes him home to meet the family. Later she wants to create a cooler self. (Earlier she renamed herself Lady Bird – she’s actually Christine.) Now she quits doing school plays, and starts playing pranks on nuns. She swaps boyfriend Danny for the chill Kyle (Timothee Chalumet) and trades best friend Julie for the prettier and richer Jenna. She tells her she lives in a mansion, not a bungalow on the wrong side of the tracks. And secretly, with the help of her recently unemployed dad, she applies to east coast schools. But can the tower of lies she creates stand up to closer scrutny? And are her new friends good people?

Lady Bird is Greta Gerwigs first solo film – she codirected Frances Ha with noah Baumbach — and it’s a funny and touching movie. Saorise Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe make a fantastic mother and daughter who can’t get along. And side roles — like Hedges as Danny – are amazing (I didn’t even recognize him as the kid in Manchester on the Sea). I admit I found the last three minutes of the movie a terrible — and unnecessary — mistake, but Lady Bird is still an almost flawless coming-of-age story.

Bad Genius

Dir: Nattawut Poonpiriya

Lynn (actor/model Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is a student at an elite Bangkok high school. It’s a school where many grads get accepted to US Ivy league schools. Most the kids there are filthy rich but not very bright . Lynn is just the opposite – the daughter of a divorced school teacher, she’s a scholarship student, a piano player, and a genius at math. She also understands the value of money — she has to be when theres’s not much around. She quickly establishes herself – along with Bank, another scholarship student – as the top two kids in the school, in competition for a place in a Singapore university. But everything changes when Lynn’s friend Grace – with her millionaire boyfriend Pat – come to her with a proposition. They’ll pay her big bucks to act as their tutor. But they don’t really want to study – they want to an easy way to pass the tests. Lynn comes up with a brilliant plan – she shows them the multiple choice answers by “playing the piano” in the test hall, moving her fingers in the order of four famous passages. The students all pass the exam. But Bank – the good genius — suspects something fishy.

Later they recruit him to join Lynn in a trip to Sydney, Australia to take the STIC exam – the international SAT test. They plan to write the exam and text the answers just in time for the Bangkok exams, four time zones over. Will the plan work? Will they get caught? And will sparks fly between the two geniuses, Lynn and Bank?

Bad Genius is based on an actual test scandal that shook Thailand. The movie works as both a teen drama and an action movie, with the main characters racing against time to rig the tests and avoid capture. It also shows the huge gap between Bangkok’s super rich, and the rest of the people who never seem to get ahead.

My Friend Dahmer

Dir: Marc Meyers

It’s the late 1970s in a small town near Akron Ohio. Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is a tall kid with big glasses and feathered blond hair. He lives with his little brother, his mom a pill-popper (Anne Heche) and his dad a chemist. Jeff collects animal bones from roadkill he finds on the highway. He is also obsessed with a local doctor he always sees jogging down the highway. He keeps to himself at a school ruled by football jocks and cheerleaders. He’s not bullied but not popular either till he finds his niche: a class clown who is both audacious and weird. He spontaneously breaks into his acts, talking like a handicapped kid, or falling to the floor in imitation tonic-clinic seizures.

This catches the attention of Derf (Alex Wolff) and his friends Neil and Mike. They are counterculture types into the Ramones and and comic books. And they see Jeff as epitomize get Punk, even if he doesn’t know it himself. They form the Dahmer fan club, planning events so Jeff can go wild in front of an audience. But are they helping him or using him? Jeff turns to alcohol to counter his constantly bickering parents. She wants to know what people are like on the inside – literally. He gets stranger and stranger, experimenting on live animals.  Are his new “friends” the ones pushing him over the edge?

My Friend Dahmer is a based on the true graphic novel written by Derf Backderf, his highchool (sort of) friend. Dahmer later became a notorious serial killer who picked up men in bars, had sex with their paralyzed bodies, and later dissolved their corpses in acid vats. But My Friend Dahmer takes place before all that. This is an extremely disturbing and creepy — but also weird and funny — look at teenagers in the 1970s. With a great soundtrack, it makes you wonder what – bullying, mental illness, encouragement — pushes people from normalcy to depravity.

Ladybird, and My Friend Dahmer open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Bad Genius is playing at the ReelAsian film festival. Go to reelasian.com for details.

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 Alanis Obomsawin about Our People will be Healed

Posted in documentary, Education, Environmentalism, First Nations, High School, Music by CulturalMining.com on October 20, 2017

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

Above the northernmost tip of Lake Winnipeg, Norway House is a Cree First Nation community that works. It has a wonderful school system, local radio station, police, cultural groups, a language renewal program, music, dance and more. Traditional rituals are preserved, and young people are mentored by elders about their relationship with the land and their history. But — after 150 years under the Indian Act, with broken treaties, disease, death, and poverty; forced assimilation, mass incarceration, cultural genocide, residential schools, widespread discrimination, racism, rape and murder – this is a people that needs to be healed.

Our People Will Be Healed is the name of a new documentary that premiered at TIFF and is now showing at ImagineNative, Toronto’s Indigenous film festival. It is the work of master director Alanis Obomsawin, Canada’s doyenne of documentary filmmaking, who has recorded the lives and issues of First Nations in fifty films over fifty years.

I talked with Alanis on location at the National Film Board in Toronto during TIFF 17.

Our People will be Healed is playing at the ImagineNative Film Festival in Toronto on Saturday, 21 October 2017 at 3:00 pm at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Pat Mills about Don’t Talk to Irene

Posted in Bullying, Canada, comedy, Cultural Mining, High School, LGBT, Movies by CulturalMining.com on October 6, 2017

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

Irene is an unusual girl who lives in a small town an hour north of Toronto. It’s her first day of highschool and she can’t wait to join the cheerleading team. But her mother says she’s just not cheerleader material. She’s chubby, plain, and has no friends; garbage is her comfort zone. And when she is bullied by a mean girl and sent to an old age home for community service, she worries she’ll never fit in. Luckily, she meets a lot of potential mentors: an ex-boxer, two elderly women, a non-binary classmate, a mean-ass cook, and a poster of Geena Davis on her ceiling… that seems to communicate with her. But will any of them ever talk to Irene?

Don’t Talk to Irene is the name of a new movie, a coming-of-age comedy that premiered at TIFF17 and is now playing in Toronto. It’s written and directed by Toronto filmmaker Pat Mills known for his very dark — and very funny — looks at society’s outcasts.

I spoke with Pat Mills in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Back to School. The Girl with all the Gifts, Queen of Katwe, My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea #TIFF16

Posted in Animation, Coming of Age, Games, High School, Horror, School, Science Fiction, Uganda, UK, US, Women, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on September 16, 2016

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

It’s mid-September as TIFF enters its final weekend with lots left to see. It’s also the start of an academic year. So this week I’m looking TIFF movies about going back to school. We’ve got an American school sinking into the sea, smart African kids who can’t afford the school fee, and British kids kept under lock and key.

thegirlwithallthegifts_02The Girl with all the Gifts

Dir: Colm McCarthy

It’s a military camp in a dystopian, future UK. Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is a bright and friendly girl who gets along well with others. She goes to school each morning and is the best kid in the class. But she – like the rest of the kids – is kept locked up in a dingy prison cell, fed raw worms, and derided thegirlwithallthegifts_04by heavily armed soldiers as a monster abortion. Only her teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Atherton), sticks up for Melanie. But Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) a sinister scientist, also has her eye on Melanie.

You see, all of England has been infected by a fungal virus that turns you into a flesh-eating zombie who never dies. But these kids are second generation — infected in utero — who think and act like humans but carry a craving for raw flesh. thegirlwithallthegifts_01Caldwell wants to carve up Melanie’s brain to find a cure. But when the camp is overrun by zombies, the three of them (along with a troupe of soldiers) are forced to escape in a military vehicle to find another base. Can Melanie – the girl with all the gifts – be trusted to stay moral and not eat the humans? Can trigger-happy soldiers and heartless scientists be trusted not to kill her? This is a great science fiction drama in the form of a zombie flic. Glenn Close goes a bit overboard in her evil rants, but Atherton and Manua are amazing as the good guys.

queen-of-katweQueen of Katwe

Dir: Mira Nair

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl who lives in Katwe, a desperately poor slum in Uganda. By day she sells corn to passing motorists. By night she sleeps in an unlit shack with her brother, her sister and her stern mother (Lupita Nyong’o) who always sticks up for her kids. Is there no way out of this desperate life.

Enter Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). He has an engineering degree but works at a community centre for underprivileged kids, teaching them chess. Phiona and her brother take to the game almost immediately, despite kids deriding their unwashed clothes. She’s illiterate but learns to play strategically, plotting out future moves in her head. Robert sees a chess prodigy and his wife helps her learn to read. But Phiona is still penniless, playing chess with bottle caps on a piece of cardboard. Her mother tries to Queen of Katwepull her away from that gambling den. But Coach Robert convinces her that only by becoming a chess master can Phiona make it out of Katwe. Mom finally understands, selling her only possessions to pay for paraffin candles so Phiona can study at night. But can a girl from the ghetto become a Chess Master?

Queen of Katwe is a wonderful traditional family story, about hard work and tenacity. It says never give up, believe in yourself. At the same it shows a realistic portrait of desperate lives, their constant search for money, and the terrible prejudice they face. The story is told in a simple way but it’s very moving. It’s shot in Africa by the great Indian director Mira Nair, an expert at showing class differences. The actors portray their roles well, from grumpy Nyong’o, to optimistic Oyelowo and especially the wonderful Nalwanga as Phiona.

myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_02My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea

Wri/Dir Dash Shaw

Dash is starting a new year with high hopes. A junior at Tides High, he’s a cynical news geek who writes for the school paper, the Tides Gazette, with best friend Assaf and Verti the editor. He wants to find the big story. He’s sure his school is about to collapse due to bad maintenance. But no one reads the paper’s turgid prose and his warnings are ignored. Assaf and Verti are dating now so he’s left all alone. When he is caught looking through school files for hard evidence, he ends up in detention. But that’s when disaster strikes — an earthquake starts fires and sends the shoddily built school sinking into the sea. It’s also on fire, with sharks in the water and rats on land. It’s up to Dash and his friends — along with a courageous lunch lady — to lead his schoolmates to safety. But they must face the school myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_01snitch, drug dealers, the devious principal, popular kids and the school quarterback who reigns from a golden throne in only his jockstrap. But who will survive and who will be torn to bloody pieces before their very eyes?

This is a fantastic animated feature, one of the best movies at TIFF. It’s the Poseidon Adventure set in a high school. The art and animation takes unexpected forms. No pixar 3-D or complex cell animation here. Instead it’s broad splashes of tempera paint behind the thick black lines that make up character faces. There are cutouts and fingerpaint, boy scout illustrations, pop art and trippy half-tone dots from newspaper sunday comics.

Great voices are provided by Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph and Susan Sarandon as Lunch Lady Lorraine. But the art of Dash Shaw — and his fellow cartoonists and artists — is what makes this so great.

The Girl with all the Gifts, Queen of Katwe, and My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea, are all playing now at TIFF. And you can line up at Roy Thompson Hall around 4 pm on Sunday to get a free ticket to the people’s choice award movie. Always worth watching, always free. Details are posted at tiff.net.

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

%d bloggers like this: