Different from the norm. Films reviewed: Blood Machines, The Roads Not Taken, Code of the Freaks

Posted in Disabilities, documentary, Drama, Dreams, Family, Hollywood, Science Fiction, Space by CulturalMining.com on May 22, 2020

Audio: unedited, no music

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

I’m still recording at home in the midst of this pandemic, but movies are still being released, just not theatriclly. So this week I’m looking at three new indie films that celebrate the unusual. There’s a psychedelic pilot in outer space, a man with dementia retreating into his innermost thoughts, and a radical re-look at the disabled in film.

Blood Machines

Dir: Seth Ickerman

It’s the distant future on a desolate planet in outer space. The spaceship is headed by Vascan (Anders Heinrichsen) with second-in-command Lago (Christian Erickson), along with a glowing metallic robot as its brain. It’s a ramshackle outfit, held together with nuts, bolts and duct tape. But they are surprised one day by a huge, snakelike machine that crash-lands nearby. Vascan ventures outside to neutralize it, but he’s stopped by a small group of all-women warriors, their hair dyed bright red. Don’t hurt her they say, referring to the AI-powered machine. Her? And when Vascan attacks the machine, something remarkable happens. A naked woman emerges from the wreck and flies up into the sky. She has a flawless body with the image of a glowing, upside down crucifix covering her groin and lower torso. What is she, a friend or foe? And why is she there?

Blood Machines is a surreal, psychedelic science fiction fantasy, told in three short chapters. The lines are delivered in comic book fashion, accompanied by brilliant electronic music (by Carpenter Brut). Vascan looks like an angry Jared Kushner in a tailored suit with Members Only epaulettes, while Lago is more like the original Scotty (on Star Trek) with a hangover. They are later joined by Corey (Elisa Lasowski) who adds rivalry and sexual tension to the mix –the giant laser gun Vascan likes to brandish, keeps malfunctioning when Corey’s around. There are holograms, fight scenes and writhing naked bodies. There’s not much of a story to speak of, but it doesn’t matter – It’s saturated with hot pinks, violets and acid greens, powered by constant musical thrumming, and loaded with endless science fiction tropes, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Beautiful to watch and to listen to.

The Roads Not Taken

Wri/Dir: Sally Potter

Leo (Javier Bardem) is a middle aged man who is not all there. He lives in a spartan NY apartment beside the El-train. His daughter Molly (Elle Fanning), a career woman in her twenties, has the morning off to take him to the dentist and the eye doctor. But when she arrives he’s almost comatose. He barely responds to her questions. Is he just a hollow vessel with no spark inside? In fact his mind is elsewhere, caught between two other lives progressing simultaneously.

In one alternate reality, he lives with his first love Dolores (Salma Hayek) in an adobe home in the desert with rose coloured walls and bars on the window. She wants him to come with her to a Day of the Dead celebration to communicate with someone they lost. In a second life he’s a novelist on a picturesque Greek island where he writes and chats with tourists in open-air tavernas. But back in the present day his life is miserable. He’s prone to wander at night, barefoot and unaware. He drinks the dentist’s mouthwash and wets his pants, and calls strange women Dolores. Can Molly get through to her dad? And can he accept reality or will he retreat permanently into the recesses of his mind?

The Roads Not Taken is a grim look at the miserable life of a man suffering from dementia living a life he regrets, mitigated by the kindness of his daughter and the vibrant world he lives in inside his head. I have mixed feelings toward this movie. On the positive side, it has a stellar cast: Javier Bardem, Elle Fanning, Salma Hayek and Laura Linney as his ex-wife. But the narrative is fragmented among the three worlds, and not entirely satisfying. Elle Fanning is sympathetic, but how many times can a character have tear-streaked cheeks in one movie? She never turns off the waterworks. The musical score is great, and the cinematography is really effective, with a constant movement – trains, taxis, pickup trucks – that neatly ties together disparate scenes. Still, this movie just didn’t deeply move me. Sally Potter may be a great director, but this film is not one of her best.

Code of the Freaks

Dir: Salome Chasnoff

Are disabled people hideous villains or saintly, childlike freaks who need to be rescued? People with secret superpowers? Or ones who desire either to die or to be “cured”? All of the above, if you go by Hollywood movies. This new documentary looks at 100 years of film portrayals of people with disabilities and finds it sorely lacking in real-life characters.

The doc consists of movie clips – everything from The Miracle Worker, to Rain Man, to My Left Foot — alternated with brilliant commentary by artists, writers, academics and activists. There’s no group-think here, more of a cross-section of ideas from the community. And it covers very wide ground. Like the portrayal of sex and disabilities. White women are eroticized by upping their vulnerability, while black men are neutered, made non-threatening and asexual. And, as one commentator points out, you virtually never see two disabled people having sex with each other.

Blind people have “super-power hearing abilities” (Daredevil) or a carnal need to touch other people’s faces (!? ). If you have a mental illness or disability, you have no self-control, and are liable to explode… so you have to be either institutionalized, or killed, before you “hurt someone” (eg Of Mice and Men). Little people are turned into figures of fun. Wheelchairs are made symbols of limitation, not the vehicle they use to get around. (Are drivers ever described as “confined to cars”?)

The doc pinpoints some of the most offensive movies of all, skewering the hateful Million Dollar Baby, in which the heroine valiantly chooses death over living with a disability. It’s a running theme in this documentary – a happy ending in a drama with a disabled character means they’re either “cured”, institutionalized, or killed. Even worse are the dreadfully insipid “inspirational movies” where people are congratulated for their “bravery” just for existing, instead of portraying them as real people. The one thing you almost never see are disabled characters portrayed by disabled actors (though that’s gradually improving). Probably because roles like this are too valuable as Oscar Bait for the stars.

Code of the Freaks is a scathing look at Hollywood’s portrayal of disabilities and a radical rethink of the genre. This is a must-see documentary for all moviegoers everywhere.

The Roads Not Taken is available now on VOD; Code of the Freaks was the opening night film at the RealAbilities Film Festival; and Blood Machines is now streaming on Shudder.

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

Crises. Films reviewed: Band Ladies, Cane Fire, Castle in the Ground

(Audio: no music)

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

I’m recording from my home, once again, looking for ways to entertain you all while movie theatres are out of the picture. So this week I’m looking at three new films, a documentary, a web series, and a dark Canadian drama. There’s a filmmaker discovering Hawai’i’s past; a group of women dealing with a collective midlife crisis; and a mother and son facing the opioid crisis.

Band Ladies

Dir: Molly Flood

Five bored, middle-aged women meet at a local bar to discuss Victorian romances for their regular book club. There’s Marnie (Kate Fenton), a stay-at- home mom with a lackluster life; Chloe (Lisa Michelle Cornelius) a careerist lawyer troubled by her Big Pharma employer; Cindy (Vicki Kim) an aspiring musician / bartender; Penny (Dana Puddicombe) a rich celeb who could pass as a Dragons Den panelist; and Stephanie (Kirstin Rasmussen) a drunk dead-ender recenty dumped by her longtime girlfriend.

But when their inhibitions are loosened by a few bottles of plonk, Chloe storms the stage to tell her secret truth: her bosses peddle opiods to children! Someone captures her rant on their phone and posts it online, and boom! the clip goes viral. But what can they do with their 15 minutes of fame? Why, form a band, of course. What kind? Punk. But can five middle-aged women shake up their lives and transform themselves overnight into an 80s style punk band? Or is this just a pipe dream?

Band Ladies is a fast-moving, cute and clever web series. It zooms through the five characters’ lives in six quick, 10-minute episodes, a crash course on the dos and don’ts of starting a band. The actors write their own characters’ lyrics and perform the songs on their first “tour” – as the opening act at a Parry Sound bar. It’s sharp, witty and empathetic – and the whole series is over in an hour.

I like this web series.

Cane Fire

Dir: Anthony Banua-Simon

Beautiful Kaua’i: a tropical paradise where happy Hawaiians harvest sugar cane and pineapples on plantations; where luxury hotels preserve ancient ceremonies by lighting torches each night; and the setting of hundreds of Hollywood features shot there. But is that the whole truth? The locals tell a very different story.

This new feature documentary pulls the veil off the island’s past and retells its story through its own people’s eyes. When the US toppled its government and colonized the islands Kaua’i was taken over by five families who controlled most of the land. Hawaiians – and workers imported from places like China, Japan and the Philippines – were kept down by the sugar and pineapple plantation owners. Unions were busted, and organizers fired, demoted or sent away. Luxury hotels were built on sacred burial grounds and their culture co-opted or invented by settlers to attract tourists. Stars like Elvis and John Wayne were featured in movies shot there while locals were background decorations. And now locals are further marginalized by the ultra-rich people like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg – buying huge tracts of land for their own personal use.

Cane Fire is partly a personal travelogue – the filmmaker goes to Kaua’i to find out about his great grandfather – partly a look at Hollywood’s sanitized depiction of the place; and partly a chance for the people’s own stories to be told. This includes local activists reclaiming the ruins of the once famous Koko Palms hotel built on sacred lands. The title Cane Fire comes from a movie of the same name about local unrest on the island. That movie is now lost, but the documentary fills in the blanks normally missing in depictions of Hawai’i.

Cane Fire is an excellent film.

Castle in the Ground

Wri/Dir: Joey Klein

It’s a cold, dark day in Sudbury, Ontario. Henry (Alex Wolff) is a good son, taking time off from school to take care of his dying mom (Neve Campbell). He feeds her crushed prescription pills each day to help ease her pain. But noise from across the hall – she lives in a rundown tenement – keeps bothering her. So Henry bangs on the door to investigate. There he meets Ana (Imogen Poots) – a sketchy woman with hollow eyes – and some of her unsavoury friends. She’s a cunning addict on the methadone wagon, jonesing for her next fix. And her dealer (a kid she calls Polo Boy (Keir Gilchrist) for his designer tracksuits) says she stole his bag of pills, and the scary guys are asking for it back. Ever the gallant one, Henry steps in to protect her, but soon is drawn into her hellish universe of guns, crime and opioids. Can he emerge unscathed with only a hammer as a weapon? And what about those close to him?

Castle in the Ground has a lot of things I avoid in movies – I find movies all about people slowly dying or struggling with addiction, more depressing than interesting. Luckily, this movie, while dealing with these very real phenomena, manages to avoid the moralistic tone that usually smothers stories like this. Instead it jacks up the thriller aspects – drug dealers wearing creepy baby masks, car chases, and narrow escapes from dimly-lit drug parties – couched in a constant, surreal haze. Yes, it’s bleak, but the bleakness is mollified by aburdist humour, fascinating details, and stunning night photography, lit with the glare of headlights and the acid glow of neon. And when actors like Imogen Poots and Alex Wolff put their all into a movie like this, it’s worth paying attention.

Band Ladies is streaming now on Highball.tv; Castle in the Ground opens today on VOD; and Cane Fire is having its world premier at this year’s Hot Docs.

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

Histories. Films reviewed: Hollywood, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Academy Awards, Acting, documentary, Economics, Ensemble Cast, Hollywood, Movies, Poverty, Slavery, Wall Street by CulturalMining.com on May 8, 2020

(Home recording, no music)

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

History, they say, is written by the victors, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other histories still out there. This week I’m looking at two stories, a doc and a TV drama. There’s a pessimistic, economic history of the world; and an optimistic, revisionist history of Hollywood.

Hollywood

Creators: Ian Brennan, Ryan Murphy

It’s just after WWII in LA. Young people from small towns across the US are flocking to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune in the movies. People like Jack (David Corenswet), a handsome young actor who lines up each day at Ace studios on the chance of a day’s paid work as an extra. But a pretty face is no guarantee of steady work in Hollywood. So when a mysterious man named Ernie (Dylan McDermott) recruits him for a day job at a gas station he welcomes the extra income. He’s stuck in a loveless marriage with his pregnant wife who works at the famed Schwab’s Pharmacy (where actors hang out to get discovered). Camille (Laura Harrier) is a beautiful actress on contract at Ace, where she attends locution lessons to perfect her elegant mid-atlantic accent. Still she’s stuck playing demeaning roles as maids, simply because she’s black. Rock Hudson (Jake Picking) is a talentless but good looking actor who thinks his luck has changed when he is signed by an agent named Henry (Jim Parsons). But the power broker demands sexual favours from all his clients.

Luckily, these three actors all have love interests. Jack soon discovers his job isn’t about pumping gas. It’s a front for male sex workers to peddle their wares for Hollywood’s rich and famous. Powerful women, including an older woman named Avis (Patti LuPone), grant him a chance for a foot in the door in a real movie. At the gas station, he works beside Archie (Jeremy Pope) a black writer hoping Ace studios will produce his script about a failed actress

HOLLYWOOD

who kills herself by jumping off the famed Hollywood sign. His first client is none other than Rock Hudson, looking for male companionship. Camille is in a relationship with Raymond (Darren Criss) a director at Ace. He says he’s part-Asian but can pass as white. And he wants to direct that movie Archie wrote, bringing all the main characters of the series together in one production. But is Ace Studios – and America – ready for a multi-racial romance?

Hollywood is a TV mini-series that appears to give an insider’s view of the post-war movie industry, but actually it makes it all up. The infamous casting couch – where directors or producers forced woman to have sex with them in exchange for a part – is reversed here to make men both the victims and the objects of desire. In this fantasy world, 1940s Hollywood produces movies written by, directed by, and starring non-whites. Studios are headed by women, actors come out publicly as gay and the Academy Awards happily nominates lots of African-Americans. In reality, desegregation and repeal of Jim Crow laws was decades away, “miscegenation” – mixed racial marriage – was still illegal, homosexuality was a crime, and even today Hollywood (and the Oscars) are still as white as snow.

About the only true part of this series is the gas station used as a front for male hustlers. All of this was revealed in a book and a documentary featuring the late, great Scotty Bowers (I interviewed him here in 2018.) The Netflix series is the story of his career… but he’s never mentioned by name, even once. I don’t dislike the series – it’s never boring, it’s fun to watch and has beautiful production values along with many interesting new players in the cast – but, like most Netflix productions, historical accuracy applies to hairstyles but never to the script.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Dir: Justin Pemberton

Based on the book by Thomas Piketty

What is capital? How is it distributed? How has that changed over the past three centuries? These are just some of the questions dealt with in this new documentary. In the 18th Century 99% of capital – meaning wealth, money and land – was controlled by the aristocracy, less than 1% of the people. Life expectancy was low, and life for the poor was nasty, brutish and short. But revolutionis, in France and elsewhere, didn’t mean a transfer of power and weath from the top to the bottom. Government was still controlled by those with the most money and laws were passed to ensure they didn’t lose their wealth. The rise of colonialism in the Americas, Africa and Asia led to more wealth in Europe extracted from the lands and people they now controlled. Slave-based agriculture generated even more capital – in the form of human beings – now bought, sold and traded like commodities. And people working in factories could be arrested even for quitting a job, and imprisoned for being poor or in debt. But, following the widespread death and destruction of WWI and the following worldwide depression, came the first signs of a transfer of power and capital from huge corporate monopolies and the very rich to the rest of the people.

Following WWII, the remaining aristocracy was heavily taxed, and wealth was transferred to the average person in the form of housing, education, health and the welfare state. People were finally rewarded for study and hard work. They were able to move up from poverty. This lasted for a few decades, until it began to unravel with new ideologies introduced by Thatcher and Reagan. Unions and welfare were suddenly bad. Greed was good. And once again, wealth was transferred from the poor and shrinking middle class back up to the top 1%. That’s where we are now.

How can we reverse these awful changes?

This documentary is a fascinating — and fast-moving – condensed look at economic history over the past 300 years and how it affects us today. It’s narrated by Pickety and other economists in a very accessible and easy to understand way. And it’s beautiful to look at, filled with thousands of tiny, quick film clips, mostly one to three seconds long, of stately homes and Victorian factories, mints printing dollar bills, Thatcher talking to schoolgirls, and people breathing through face masks in a horribly polluted Beijing. The images and music are as meticulously researched as they are lovely. Constant eye-candy.

Even the talking heads, those usually dull academics interviewed in the doc, are enthusiastic and interesting, and uniformly filmed against lavish backgrounds and scenery. And it’s filled with cool sequences. l loved one about a psychological experiment where volunteers play Monopoly without a level playing field – it favours certain players at random. These newly “rich” players are recorded acting rude, scarfing pretzels and generally behaving entitled as soon as they discovered the rules were tilted in their favour. So if you want to learn about history and economics and what to do about it, but don’t feel like reading thousands of pages, Capital in the 21st Century is a great place to feed your brain without wearing it out.

Hollywood is now streaming on Netflix; Capital opens May 8 in Toronto at the Hotdocs Virtual Theatre; 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.

Serious and sexual. Films reviewed: Seberg, The Jesus Rolls, Beanpole

Posted in 1940s, 1960s, comedy, Crime, Drama, Espionage, France, Friendship, Hollywood, Russia, Sex, USSR, WWII by CulturalMining.com on February 28, 2020

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

Want to watch some grown up movies? This week I’m looking at three unusual films dealing with serious topics — crime, war and surveilance — in a sexualized context. There are best friends in post-war Leningrad, movie stars and activists in 1960s Hollywood, and sex-starved ex-cons in present day New York.

Seberg

Dir: Benedict Andrews

It’s Paris the 1960s, a time of antiwar demonstrations and sexual revolution. Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart), is a movie star of the French New Wave. She is beautiful a striking face framed with short blonde hair. She lives in Paris with her husband, the writer Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) and their young son. And now she’s making her triumphant return to Hollywood. But in the first class airplane cabin, she noticed a kerfuffle . A young man named Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a member of the Black Panther Party, objects loudly to the fact that well-known civil rights activist Betty Shabbaz (Malcolm X’s widow) is sequestered in economy class.  Jean offers to exchange seats, calming the waters. They meet up again in LA and sparks fly, leading to a secret affair. But what neither of them realizes is the FBI is photographing and recording everything they do. J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro program considers activists on the left – and particularly Black activists – as enemies of the state.

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed agent Jack (Jack O’Connell) and his conservative partner Carl (Vince Vaughan) follow the two from inside a painted van, listening in on their most intimate conversations. Soon the FBI’s focus shifts from Hakim to Jean, as the leak salacious details to Hakim’s wife and Hollywood gossip columnists, in an attempt to ruin his status and her career. As Jean becomes increasingly paranoid (and for good reason – she’s being gaslighted by the FBI!) she grows more and more frantic, all observed by agent Jack. His consience is pricked. But will he  do something to stop this persecution of Jean Seberg?

Seberg is a fascinating drama, based on a true story, about the FBI spying on its own citizens regardless of the consequences and moral cost suffered by their victims. It also gives a good look at Hollywood in the 1960s and the interplay among black activists and their white sympathizers. Seberg is part fashion and glamour, part intrigue and espionage.  It feels a bit like The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), where you get to know both the spies and those spied on. While the dialogue and acting seems wooden and clugey at the beginning, it gets better as it moves along, as you get to know and feel for the characters.

I liked this movie.

The Jesus Rolls

Wri/Dir: John Turturro

Jesus Quintano (John Tuturro) is a Puerto Rican American known for his skill at bowling, his sexual prowess and his penchant for pointy purple shoes. He’s on his prison bowling team, and when the Jesus bowls, Jesus rolls. But his term has finished and he’s being released. His old pal Petey (Bobby Cannavale) is at the gate to help him adjust to life outside. But Jesus doesn’t want to adjust; he wants to live his life to the fullest. He immediately steals a vintage, orange muscle car and starts cruising the streets of his small town. He visits his mom, a sex worker, and then hooks up with his ex-girlfriend Marie, a French hairdresser (Audrey Tautou: Emélie). Petey is with him all the way. The three of them embark on a spree of petty crime across the state. They steal and ditch vintage cars, run away from diners without paying, and hold up doctor’s offices.  At night they experiment in bed… but there is one factor missing. Marie enjoys frequent sex but has never had an orgasm. Can Jesus and Petey bring Marie to satisfaction before they are all thrown in jail?

The Jesus Rolls is one unusual picture. It’s a sex comedy, a bittersweet crime drama, and a buddy movie/road movie. Judging by the fashions, hair styles and vintage cars, it seems to take place in the late ’80s, but suddenly an iPhone or smart car will appear dragging it back to the present. It takes a character from one film – Jesus in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski – and transplants him into the plot line of another one: Les Valseuse  (1974, Betrand Blier). Many of the characters are half-naked, half the time, the Jesus character is always over the top, while others are more subtle.

Does it work? Kinda. Depending on the scene and your mood, it’s moving, it’s over-acted, it’s strange, it’s awful, it’s bizarre, and it’s funny. And there are great cameos by the likes of Susan Sarandon, Pete Davidson, Jon Hamm, Christopher Walken, and Sônia Braga.

Beanpole (Dylda)

Co-Wri/Dir: Kantemir Balagov

It’s Leningrad in Autumn, 1945. The war is over, and soldiers are returning home from the front into a bombed out shell of a city. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed “Beanpole”, is a young woman discharged from the army after a head injury. She is extremely tall and gangly, with pale skin and white-blonde hair. And she is prone to absence seizures, frozen in place, incommunicado, until they pass. She lives in a crowded, decrepit apartment with a young boy named Pashka (Timofey Glazkov) whose she treats like her son. She sometimes brings him to her workplace, a hospital for injured soldiers. They play animal charades with the kid who has probably never seen a live animal (food is very scarce.) And everyone is on their best behaviour whenever a glamorous Communist party official named Lyubov (Kseniya Kutepova)  drops by the hospital to congratulate soldiers and offer gifts.

But things change for Iya when her best friend and fellow soldier comes back from the front. Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) is as outgoing as Iya is shy, sexually promiscuous (Iya shies away from contact with men), and short with auburn hair, not tall and blonde like Beanpole. And when Masha discovers Pashka is missing she gets an unshakeable need to to have a new baby, immediately if possible. They meet a couple of young men in a fancy car – the sons of Communist Party apparatchiks. Masha pair up with Sasha (Igor Shirokov) with hope of a future marriage and a normal family. But Iya feels left out. Will Masha and Sasha become a couple? Can Beanpole survive on her own? What is her real relationship with her best friend? And what really happened at the front?

Beanpole is a fantastic story of two young women getting by in Stalinist Leningrad just after WWII. Loaded with pathos but devoid of kitschy sentimentality it exposes the harsh realities people faced. It also shows the unsurmountable class divisions in the Soviet Union, extreme poverty, and the horrors of war. The acting is superb, and the candlelit warmth of the images helps to modify the movie’s dark tone. Beanpole is a wonderful movie you can’t forget. I recommend this one.

Seberg, The Jesus Rolls and Beanpole 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.

Revision. Films reviewed: The Stone Speakers, Free Trip to Egypt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Posted in 1960s, Bosnia, Communism, documentary, Egypt, Hippies, Hollywood, Islam, L.A., Movies, War by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2019

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

They say he who pays the piper calls the tune. This week I’m looking at two documentaries and a drama that retell history. There’s a doc about changing American minds in Egypt, another one about rewriting history in Bosnia, and a drama that rewrites the history of Hollywood.

The Stone Speakers

Wri/Dir: Igor Drljaca

It’s present-day Bosnia-Herzogovina. Since the end of the Bosnian war, the formerly multicultural country has been divided ethnically and religiously among Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. As its factories close down and young people move away cities have turned to tourism for income… in some unusual ways, fiddling with history on the way. The film looks at four Bosnian cities.

In Medjugorje, millions of pilgrims visit a site where six children are said to have seen the Virgin Mary. Tuzla, once known for its ancient salt mines, has opened man-made salt springs lakes where the city had gradually been sinking. Visoko is dominated by a strange hill, once an Ottoman fortress, built over an unknown ancient pyramid. Tourists cluster in its tunnels to absorb its energy, even as Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim leaders all condemn it as heretical. And Višegrad, a crossroads city, once known for its Ottoman stone bridge, is now the site of a cultural centre built by Bosnian Serb director Emir Kusturica in honour of Nobel laureate Ivo Andric’s novel. (A museum about a movie about a book about a bridge…!)

The movie presents these oddball Bosnian towns at face value in a series of carefully composed shots, both portraits and landscapes, as panoramic long takes… almost like still photographs but ones that move. Voiceovers, by discontented residents of the cities, provide arms-length analysis, uncovering the absurdity and revisionist history of these places.

The Stone Speakers is a humorous and hauntingly beautiful look at what has become of the Toronto director’s homeland.

Much simpler is…

Free Trip to Egypt

Dir: Ingrid Serban

Tarek Mounib is a Halifax-born Canadian of Egyptian ancestry, who looks a bit like Jon Stewart. As a university student he was an activist but has mellowed in middle age. But he is dismayed at the explosion of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment in the US today, especially since Trump’s election. So he sets out to remedy this by offering strangers an unusual proposition: free guided trips to Egypt! He recruits these adventurers in unusual places, both online and at Trump’s MAGA rallies.

There’s a policeman, two young evengelicals, a single woman, a war vet and an older couple, each with their own prejudices and expectations. In Egypt they are paired with local singles and families to show them how real Egyptians live, along with their religions, food, music, and culture as well as visiting the more famous tourist sites like the pyramids of Giza.

But can a group of Americans change their dead-set views about Arabs and Muslims?

Free Trip to Egypt is exactly what the title promises. Nothing surprising or unexpected in this film. It actually feels closer to reality TV than to a documentary – but it has a good heart.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Wri/Dir: Quentin Tarantino

It’s the late 1960s in LA.

Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are good friends, both on and off screen, but they are not equals. Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a movie star, best known for his TV series Bounty Law. He lives in a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills, next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski. Cliff (Brad Pitt) is a stuntman, and Rick’s double. He lives in the valley with his dog in a rundown trailer behind a drive-in movie park in Van Nuys.

They’re both pushing forty and things aren’t looking good. Rick has shifted from white hat to black hat, playing the heavy on TV cop shows. A mover and shaker (played by Al Pacino) wants to restart his career, but Rick isn’t sure he can shift from star to actor. Cliff is still limber and seemingly indestructible, but hasn’t worked as a stuntman since he accidentally killed his wife. He has a bad rep, picking fights on set with a young Bruce Lee. Now he’s mainly just Rick’s driver and personal assistant, with too much free time on his hands.

Rick struggles through his latest role – as the villain in a True Grit-type western – and wonders if he has lost his mojo… while Cliff cruises around LA in his sports car, listening to AM radio and flirting with a nubile, hippy hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). What he doesn’t realize is Pussycat – and her sketchy friends Squeaky (Dakota Fanning) and Tex (Austin Butler) – are members of the not-yet- notorious Charles Manson’s “Family”. And that they’re living on the Spahn ranch, a movie location where Rick and Cliff’s TV show was shot in the 1950s. Meanwhile, with Polanski out of the country, Sharon Tate is enjoying her newfound stardom. But what will happen when the players all meet?

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Tarantino’s latest movie and one of his tamest. It’s an affectionate tribute to the movies of the 60s: its look, it’s stars, it’s pop music. Everything – from car models to movie trailers to neon lights and billboards – is painstakingly recreated, to give you the feel of the era. There are dozens of cameos played by long-forgotten hollywood favourites and former child stars. The story itself – that takes a leisurely two hours and forty minutes to tell – seems less important than the mood.

Tarantino is known for endless scenes that don’t seem to quit… even when they’re supposed to. In past films, it meant extended scenes of torture and endless violence. In this movie it’s more likely a very long, behind-the-scenes reenactment of shooting a movie. He’s one of few directors I can say I saw every one of his movies in theatres when they first came out. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood while shallow, was very enjoyable: constant eye candy, a terrific soundtrack, and Pitt and DiCaprio are a lot of fun as buddies. And despite the Manson subplot, there is much less gratuitous violence than in most of his movies.

If you like movies about movies, this is the one to see.

The Stone Speakers opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood starts across North America today; and A Free Trip to Egypt starts next Friday (August 2) in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks about the Oscars with Toronto cinephiles Jeff Harris and Jamil Fiorino-Habib

Posted in Bad Movies, Cultural Mining, Hollywood, Movies by CulturalMining.com on February 8, 2019

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

Is Hollywood the epitome of the American dream, a place where a small town girl can be discovered at a soda fountain, or an auto mechanic can turn into a movie star overnight? Or is it where an obsolete medium recycles tired ideas, racist norms and sexual exploitation in exchange for the almighty dollar?

However you look at them, the Oscars – with their glamour, flash and controversy – are Hollywood’s sacred temple, where its gods show up annually to pay obeisance.

To help make sense of the Academy Awards I’ve invited two Toronto Cinephiles who really know their stuff to share their opinions on movies, Hollywood, and the Oscars.

Jamil Fiorino-Habib is a recent cinema studies and philosophy grad from UofT, hoping to pursue a Masters in Film Theory at the University of Amsterdam in the fall. He has a soft spot for international cinema, and loves to dive deep into film history and psychoanalysis.

Jeff Harris is a professional photographer with a photo arts degree from Ryerson. His photography has been featured in The Globe and Mail, Time Magazine, and culturalmining and has been nominated for many Webby Awards. He has worked as a photographer and photo editor at Maclean’s magazine and has been covering TIFF since 2002.

I spoke with Jamil and Jeff in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Academy Awards will be broadcast on February 24th, 2019.

Daniel Garber talks with Scotty Bowers and Matt Tyrnauer about Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, documentary, Hollywood, LGBT, Movies, Scandal, Secrets, Sex, Sex Trade by CulturalMining.com on December 29, 2017

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

It’s the early 1950s. Scotty Bowers is a former Marine working as a gas jockey on Hollywood blvd. who stumbles on an untapped market: sex with the stars. They wanted young men and they were willing to pay for it: 20 bucks a pop. Soon he was turning tricks, invited into the mansions of the biggest stars in Hollywood: Spencer Tracy, Catherine Hepburn, Charles Laughton, George Cukor, Lana Turner, Cary Grant. But Scotty was also discreet, and kept Hollywood’s secrets safe from the gossip rags… until the stars were long gone. Then he wrote it down in a tell-all book.

Scottty and the Secret History of Hollywood is a new feature documentary which had its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by noted documentary filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer, and starring Scotty Bowers it probes Scotty’s history, tells his secrets, and brings it up-to-date in present day LA.

I spoke with Matt Tyrnauer and the legendary Scotty Bowers at TIFF17.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood will open in April.

 

Heads up! Films reviewed: Keepers of the Game, Mansfield 66/67, City of Tiny Lights

Posted in Canada, documentary, First Nations, Hollywood, Indigenous, Mystery, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on June 2, 2017

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

Toronto’s film festivals continue with Inside Out and Canada’s Sport Film Fest. This week, I’m looking at two documentaries and a noir drama. There’s a Mohawk lacrosse team keeping traditions relevant, a Hollywood star keeping her mystique afloat, and a private eye in London just trying to stay alive.

Keepers of the Game

Dir: Judd Ehrlich

The Akwesasne Mohawk territory straddles the US/Canadian border that runs between New York and Ontario. 20 years ago there was widespread discord among the longhouses. So to calm the waters, they started a boy’s lacrosse team to compete in the local high school division, off reserve. The idea was to bring back self-respect using a traditional custom. Lacrosse is a precolumbian warlike sport used by the Mohawk and other Iroquois long before Europeans came to North America. Hundreds, or even thousands of men would play the game together on open fields. It shows valour, strength and offers thanks to the creator.

Flash forward to the present. High school girls are facing the same problems – bullying, depression, suicide – as the boys did, but without the traditional sport outlet. They need a medicine to cure their ills. So they decide to start a girls team, using lacrosse as a traditional Mohawk medicine. But they face opposition from all sides. Awkesasne men say they are defying tradition by letting girls play a boys sport and want it stopped. The school board is facing cutbacks, so the are against funding a new team… especially one for girls. And the players themselves are afraid they lack the confidence and experience to win. Even so, they manage to raise the money and recruit the players to have a regionally competitive team. But can they beat their rivals  — a mainly white team who use a feathered native cartoon as their team mascot?

This documentary is a record of one season of a real-life team and the obstacles they face, on and off the field. It shows the role traditional customs can play in a modern sport. Players design their own war paint as they compete for the first time, even as mothers and grandmothers pass on language and rituals. It’s about young aboriginal women who gain self respect as they reclaim a sport their own ancestors created. It’s an inspiring story.

Mansfield 66/67

Dir: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes

Jayne Mansfield was a bleach blonde bombshell in the 1950s, who lived on publicity. She was known for her whispery voice, her highpitched squeals, and personality – that of a naïve, dumb blonde seemingly unaware of her sexiness, even as she posed for playboy and appeared naked on the big screen. In fact, her persona was self-created and nurtured by the Hollywood studios, and fed by the tabloids paparazzi and gossip rags who lived in her stories. She married Mickey Hargitay, a body-builder, to complement her own figure. And she lived in a pink mansion, legendary in Hollywood for its 45 rooms. But did you know she was a multilingual musician, and a student at a top university? Sadly, her movie career faltered in the 1960s, and  she began to follow another celebrity, a man named Anton LaVay. LaVay was known for his shaved head, his black goatee and his sinister but commanding looks. He founded a new religion — The Church of Satan. And not long after, her life was suddenly cut short in a terrible accident that totalled her car and chopped off the top of her head. Those are the bare facts. But what really happened to Jayne Mansfield?

You could call Mansfield 66/67 a documentary, but that might give you the wrong idea. It’s actually a highly stylized tribute to — and desconstruction of – a Hollywood legend. There are the usual talking heads  — from gender studies professors, to stars like Tippi Hedron and starlets like Mamie van Doren. But there are also underground icons, eighties pop stars, models, drag queens, and the chronicler of Hollywood himself, Kenneth Anger.

This is not your usual bio doc. What other documentary creates a cutesy cartoon of Mansfields son being mauled by a lion? Or intricately choreographed dancers of both sexes wearing matching blonde wigs as they worshipped  the devil in Busby Berkeley-like formations? This is a strange combination of film lore, academic analysis, hollywood gossip, and extremely campy performance art.

City of Tiny Lights

Dir: Pete Travis

Tommy (Riz Ahmed) is a private detective who lives and works in an ungentrified part of London. It’s a neighbourhood in flux, full of nervous shopkeepers and streetcorner drug dealers, radical imams, and sketchy real estate speculators. His dad (Roshan Seth) is a die-hard Briton whose life is guided by Charles Dickens and Cricket. As a South Asian Ugandan he was forced to flee under dictator Idi Amin. One day a sultry sex worker named Melody (Cush Jumbo) hires him to look for her friend Natasha. She hasn’t seen her since her last trick 8 hours earlier and doesn’t answer her cel. But when he searches her hotel room he finds a dead body, not Natasha. It’s a real estate broker involved in a major development. He also discovers the dead man gave money to an Islamic youth group known for driving drug dealers off their streets, led by a radical Muslim preacher. Lurking in the shadows is a sketchy security spook working for the US government. And it is all somehow related to his boyhood, a friend named Lovely, and woman named Shell. Who is behind the murders and disappearances? Organized crime, terrorists, corrupt developers or American spies?

City of Tiny Lights is a well-acted, low budget look at a private detective in contemporary London. Some of the camera work is annoying and gimmicky – like cheap 90s TV — that distracts from the story. I was also confused by frequent flashbacks — the young actors look nothing like their adult counterparts. But I liked the complex, multi-levelled mystery and the acting is terrific.

Mansfield 66/67 is one of many films at Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival which continues through Sunday; Keepers of the Game is the opening night feature at the ninth annual Canada’s Sport Film Festival, beginning next Friday. Tickets and showtimes are at sportfilmfestival.ca. City of Tiny Lights opens today in Toronto, as does Ken Finkleman’s satiric comedy An American Dream: The Education of William Bowman (I talked about this film in March). Check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with movie critic Simon Howell about the Oscars

Posted in Cultural Mining, Hollywood, Movies by CulturalMining.com on February 24, 2017

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

Hooray for Hollywood. Yes, it’s Oscar time again, with the excessive glitz and glamour that goes with the award ceremony: things like 100,000 dollar swagbags, and a red carpet to show off a parade of dresses. Then there’s the awards themselves, the celebration of an increasingly rarefied and incestuous genre that some say exists only for the awards themselves. And yet… as many as a billion people still watch it – including me.

To help me talk about the Oscars and present our (probably) wrong predictions, I invited movie pundit Simon Howell.  Simon co-hosts two podcasts: one focused on genre film called Sordid Cinema, and another The Lodgers, a Twin Peaks podcast, that he also produces. Previously a music and talk show host at CJLO in Montreal, Simon is an “avid devotee of all forms of expression that let you remain invisible.”

I spoke to Simon Howell in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Christmas movies. Films reviewed: Julieta, Fences, La La Land

Posted in African-Americans, Drama, Hollywood, L.A., Musical, Spain by CulturalMining.com on December 23, 2016

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

It’s Christmas weekend with lots of movies to choose from. This week I’m talking about three excellent movies to see. There’s a woman in Madrid haunted by her past, a married man in Pittsburgh fighting off his demons, and a young couple in LA looking for love in a city of lost souls.

207c9f5a-c8b2-4684-84b8-e2ca620e5350Julieta

Dir: Pedro Almadovar

Julieta (Emma Suarez) is a middle aged woman who lives in Madrid. She is making a big change, leaving her longtime lover Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) and moving to Portugal after countless years of waiting. What is she waiting for? Word from her daughter Antia, who disappeared without a trace many years earlier. She’s all ready to go when she runs into her daughter’s childhood friend Beatriz on a street corner, who says she saw Antia in Lac Como. And so begins the telling of a mysterious story divided into three chapters.

As a young woman, Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) is a brilliant and beautiful prof. Her c1bbda5d-7ad7-43d0-8743-6fd52f0acf0dstudents all love her. But when she meets Xoan — a handsome and rugged fisherman — on a train, her life is turned upside down. A man is killed, a deer runs past the train, and she falls heavily for Xoan. Is it love at first sight? She visits Xoan (Daniel Grao) at his home by the water. But he’s not at home, just a suspicious and protective housekeeper (Rossy de Palma) who won’t let Julieta wait for him inside. Eventually they live as a couple and raise their daughter Antia together. Julieta meets Xoan’s friends, including the sultry 47c1af05-dbf2-4911-b667-2e6504d2be42sculptress Ava (Inma Cuesta),

But after a tragic turn of events, Julieta is back in Madrid, raising her daughter alone. She falls into a deep depression, and young Antia spends more and more time with her best friend Beatriz. Still later, Julieta retraces her steps, trying to explain why she lost her daughter so many years ago.

Julieta is a great drama, the product of an unexpected combination. It pairs Almadovar – known for his lush, passionate melodramas and over-the-top comedies — with Canadian author Alice Munro’s quirky, understated stories about women in small town Ontario. Does it work? Yes, yes, yes. With its small fishing boat on a lake, classrooms, caribou running past a train, along with jealousy and infidelity, it’s an intrinsically Canadian story… and yet perfectly Spanish. I really liked this movie.

14707023_1121134524668241_6064690716005417326_oFences

Dir: Denzel Washington

It’s the 1950s. Troy Maxton (Denzel Washington) works as a garbage man for the city of Pittsburgh. Each Friday, he comes home from work with the same things: a sack of potatoes, a piece of lard, a mickey of gin, and his pay envelope. The money goes to his wife Rose (Viola Davis) but he shares the gin with his best friend Bono. Troy met Bono in jail as a young man. It’s also, where he learned to play baseball, and where he met Rose a kindly visitor. He has two sons: Lyons who is a jazz musician (Troy calls it Chinese music) and Cory (Jovan Adepo) a high school athlete. His brother Gabriel – with a metal plate in his head — carries a trumpet to play for St Peter at the pearly gates. Troy, though, is more worried about the Devil.

Troy and Rose are deeply in love, Cory’s doing great in school, everything seems perfect… but it isn’t.. Troy wants to show he’s the man of the house, and everyone’s afraid of him. He tries to stop Cory from going to college on a football scholarship. (He once was a pro baseball player once but now he’s hauling rubbish.) Gabe has moved out, and best friend Bono says Troy is looking too closely at other woman. Can this family stay together? Or is it teetering on the brink of total collapse?

Fences is a small movie that feels more like a filmed play. Great dialogue — adapted from his own script by August Wilson – and basically one setting, with little action other than crossing the floor or sawing a board.  Flashbacks are talked about, not shown. But the grandness of the characters and the stories they tell does come through. Director Denzel Washington doesn’t hog the screen; instead he lets all the other actors bloom before the camera. Davis and Adepo are outstanding, in fact all of them are great. But this film is more stage-worthy than cinematic. Fences is a moving and revealing look at an African-American family in the 1950s.

LLL d 29 _5194.NEFLa La Land

Dir: Damien Chazelle

Mia and Sebastian are strangers in LA. Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress. She commutes to a major Hollywood studio each day, to work not as an actress but as a barista at a coffee chain. She lives with other actresses who enjoy the party scene but none of whom has made it big. Each audition Mia goes to is worse than the one before. But she’s hoping her one woman show wi’ll convince Hollywood she’s ready for stardom. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a serious musician who composes grand jazz opuses on his grand piano. He’s a jazz purist who would rather die than perform with a fusion band. He pines for the old jazz joints, now rapidly turning into tapas bars. Ironically he ends up working in a rundown piano bar where his hard-ass boss (JK Simmons) makes him play Jingle Bells, over and over again.

Mia and Sebastian first meet in an LA traffic jam, and it’s hate at first site. Later, when he rescues her from a bad date, they hit it off. This leads to more meetings where together they explore the classic sites of old 16426304_660736417446295_5158240061357564169_nHollywood: like the planetarium from Rebel without a Cause.

Together, supporting one another, they think they can conquer the world. But will their success be what tears their relationship apart?

La La Land is a very good movie that’s also a musical. That means extras singing and dancing their hearts out on the LA freeway. Gosling and Stone use their real voices and legs, but they’re not Gene Kelly or Julie Andrews. They’re popular actors trying hard to sing and dance. It makes their performances real and touching, but not super fantastic. It combines fantasy, a complex plot, extended flashbacks, and touching moments of love, with beautifully shot images and catchy songs. It’s a tribute to a forgotten Hollywood by young people yearning for purer days. A very good movie.

Julieta starts today and Fences and Lala Land open on Christmas Day in Toronto; check your local listings. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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