Questioning Authority. Films reviewed: Empty Metal, The Oath, The Happy Prince

Posted in 1800s, Biopic, comedy, France, Indigenous, LGBT, Politics, Protest, Resistance, Supernatural, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on October 19, 2018

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

Toronto’s Fall Film Festival season continues with Imaginenative, in its 20th year. Imaginenative looks at indigenous film and media arts on the big screen and in galleries. There are scary movies, docs, short films, video games VR, and lectures. Look out for Alanis Obomsawin, a retrospective of Métis director Marjorie Beaucage, CBC’s Rosanna Deerchild on Colton Boushie, and Oscar winner Zacharias Kunuk’s latest. There are dozens of things to see and do, from North America and around the world, and many of them are free.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about people who question authority. There’s a writer in exile for breaking a law, an American in trouble for ignoring a law, and indigenous revolutionaries fighting the law… using telepathic powers!

Empty Metal

Wri/Dir: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer

It’s present day America, where native protesters face rows of armed state troopers. Aliens, a three member electropunk band in Brooklyn, are obsessed by the upcoming apocalypse, and sad they might miss the end of the world. So when they are approached by a young indigenous activist on their first band tour, they are wary, but intrigued by what she offers them. She says they can play a crucial role in the upcoming collapse of everything… but they will have to communicate telepathically. She is advised by three elders – a Zen like white man with a shaved head, a white bearded Rastafarian, and a matronly indigenous activist – who plot the group’s future. Meanwhile, a posse of white, NRA militiamen are training in the woods for their own armed insurrection. And observing – and listening to – everything are unseen government intellegence agents using drones and cellphone listening devices. Who will survive this never ending battle between surveillance and subversion? And why are these people body worshipping a wild boar and opening umbrellas on sunny days?

Empty Metal is a strange and disjointed but ultimately satisfying look at music, art and politics. Some of the images are baffling – what’s with the frying eggyolks and stirring soup? But what seems at first like a series of unrelated events and bizarre practices gradually coalesces into a coherent narrative. It ends up as a cool, if unusual, arthouse espionage drama.

And it’s having it’s Canadian premier at ImageineNative.

The Oath

Wri/Dir: Ike Barinholtz

Chris and Kai (Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish) are a middle class liberal couple hosting a big Thanksgiving dinner for all of Chris’s family. Since he’s known for his outspoken views, Kai makes him promise to stay away from political discussions. But his vows all evaporate when his little brother’s girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner) shows up. She’s a poster child for Fox News views and doesn’t care who knows it. Get ready for big fights over turkey. But there’s a bigger issue splitting the family – and the country – apart. That’s an oath the president declares all citizens must sign, affirming their loyalty and patriotism. And the deadline for signing is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Who has signed the oath and who has stood firm? And what will happen to people who refuse to sign?

Things take a turn for the worse when quasi-official government agents show up to enforce the new law. Peter (John Cho), is a reasonable guy, but his partner Mason (Billy Magnussen) is another story. He’s a rude, crude pit bull, longing for a fight. And he’s carrying a gun. When things violent can Chris keep his family safe? Or are they headed for disaster?

The Oath is a dark comedy about life in a divided America under a Trump-like president (they never say his name). It’s also a look at masculinity, with Chris changing from a mansplaining but progressive white guy to a stand-your-ground defender of family and home. Basically a drawing room comedy, it deals with stereotypes and politics, in a funny, though violent, way.

I liked this movie.

The Happy Prince

Wri/Dir: Rupert Everett

It’s the 1890s. Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) is a London playright and novelist at the height of his career, rich, famous and wildly popular. He has a happy life at home with his wife (Emily Watson) and two young sons, whom he loves to tell bedtime stories. He’s also gay, a felony at that time. His love affair with an aristocrat, Bosie Douglas lands him in the notorious Reading Jail for two years hard labour. And his career, reputation and homelife disappear overnight. Now he’s in France under an assumed name, living off a tiny allowance. His affairs are handled by a former lover named Robbie Ross. Robbie (Edwin Thomas) is still deeply in love with Oscar Wilde, but thewriter still carries a torch for the diffident Bosie, the cause of all his problems. And when Bosie  (Colin Morgan: Merlin) shows up again, things start to go wrong. Will Oscar Wilde die lonely and neglected in Paris or living life to its fullest?

The Happy Prince is a look at the last years of Oscar Wilde’s life, but is also a fascinating glimpse of the marginal nature of gay life nearly a century before it was legalized in the U.K.. Though solidly upper class, Oscar spends time with beggars, thieves, sailors, street urchins and drag queens. Or running away from bigoted cricketers armed with lead pipes. Rupert Everett plays Oscar – in excellent French and English — as a tragicomic figure, whether witty and urbane, or rude and lusty.

This movie is a lot of fun.

The Oath, The Happy Prince both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Empty Metal is playing tonight go to Imaginenative.org 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 Ann Shin about her new documentary The Superfood Chain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Garber talks with Alison McAlpine about her new doc CIELO

Posted in Canada, Chile, Cultural Mining, documentary, Indigenous, Movies, Mysticism, photography, Science, Spirituality by CulturalMining.com on August 10, 2018

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

Have you ever stared at the night sky and the stars and planets up there? What does it mean and how does it relate to our lives?

A new documentary premiering next Friday looks at the skies above the Atacama desert in northern Chile, the scientists and astronomers who observe them, and the people born there and who live beneath them.

It explores the filmmaker’s personal impression and interactions with the people she meets. It’s an astronomical, spiritual, anthropological look at life in a desert beneath the vast bright stars.

The film is called Cielo, and its filmmaker is Alison McAlpine. Alison’s award-winning and critically acclaimed documentaries have played at film festivals around the world.

 

I spoke to Alison McAlpine in Montreal by telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Cielo opens in Toronto on Friday, August 10.

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

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

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

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

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

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Dir: Mouly Surya

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darken

Dir: Audrey Cummings

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for that reason alone it might be worth seeing.

North Mountain

Dir: Bretten Hannam

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movies Made by Women. Films reviewed: What Will People Say?, Zama

Posted in 1500s, Argentina, Clash of Cultures, Drama, Family, Indigenous, Kidnapping, Norway, Slavery, Spain, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 20, 2018

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

Spring festival season is on right now, with two or three new ones popping up each week. There are established festivals like Hot Docs, celebrating its 25th anniversary, as well as some new ones. Reelabilities is only in its third year, but already programs a full international slate of dramas and docs – and even a comedy night — for and about people with deafness, mental illness, autism, down’s syndrome, and many others. And they’re dealing with important topics like sexuality and disabilities and disability rights. This week I’m looking at two movies directed by women and that played film festivals in Toronto (TIFF, Human Rights Watch Film Fest). There’s a coming-of-age drama about a Norwegian schoolgirl whose parents come from Pakistan, and an historical drama about a colonial Argentine whose ancestors came from Spain.

What Will People Say?

Dir: Iram Haq

Nisha (Maria Mozdah)is a high school student living in a snow-swept Oslo housing project. She has beautiful long hair, dark eyes and a shy but winning smile. Nisha is a typical Norwegian girl. She hangs with a tight-knit group of friends for partying, listening to music, texting. At night, though, she’s the grudgingly loyal daughter to her traditional Pakistani parents. She is the apple of her fathers eye. Mirza (Adil Hussein) piles money and gifts on his smart and beautiful daughter whom he dreams of becoming a doctor or an engineer. But Her mother is more strict, always wondering what other people – meaning people from Pakistan – will say, if they see Nisha doing outrageous things like… dancing? Little does she know. she’s dating a guy named Daniel who looks like Archie Andrews. But when her dad catches them in her bedroom, flirting, all hell breaks loose.

Before she knows what’s happening she’s on a plane to Pakistan on her way to a relative’s home in a remote town. They take away her phone, burn her passport, and forbid her from using the internet. Mirza says he’s doing it for her own good, but Nisha feels betrayed, lost and abandoned. And then there’s the physical dangers. She can’t just put on a hoodie and explore the streets alone like she did in Norway. Only a young cousin who idolizes her, and Amir, a boy she likes, make her life worth living. But her eyes and tastebuds are awakening to new sights and flavours she never encountered in cold, grey Norway.  She gradually adapts to her new home…. until a big change threatens her life and her future. Will she ever regain her old life and friends? Can she achieve success as a woman? And will she and her family learn to accept each other?

What Will People Say is a great coming-of-age drama that’s a bit of a thriller, too. It gives a multi-faceted look at a teenaged girl, partly self-centred and spoiled, partly facing a miserable life not of her own making. Pakistan is portrayed as a scary and violent place but also a vibrant and beautiful one, filled with both kindness and terror. The director (herself of Pakistani/ Norwegian background) eschews what could have been a one-sided kidnapping thriller in favour of a realistic and touching drama. She avoids easy stereotypes opting instead for a nuanced and loving look.

Zama

Wri/Dir: Lucrecia Martel

It’s 300 years ago in imperial Spain in South America.

Don Diego Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a low- level magistrate decked out in a white wig and three cornered hat, with a bright reddish jacket and a shiny sword. He’s there to provide justice and compassion in disputes among the colonists, their slaves and the indigenous peoples in the remote colony of Asunción. But he soon discovers his rulings are ignored, his requests disregarded, and his status questioned. He’s far from his wife in Buenos Aires, and his native mistress in Asunción doesn’t like him much, even after she gives birth to his son.

His life depends on the indulgences of a king in far off Spain, and a corrupt and decadent local Governor who spends most of his time gambling to win obscene tokens of power. He covets worthless geodes and decrepit ears sliced off a dead convict’s head. Colonial landholders slaughter Indios with impunity. As his life gets worse and worse, Zama feels trapped in a cesspit he can’t climb out of.

He finally gets his chance by joining a posse searching for Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele) a villainous criminal terrorizing the locals. But his search seems equally pointless and circuitous, achieving nothing, waiting for a Godot who may never arrive.

On his journey he faces dangers and fascinations both real and imagineary: small boys with psychic abilities, hidden ghosts and potergeists infecting his lodges. People appear and disappear, seamingly at random, dying and coming back to life, in a colourful whirlwind of unexplained phenomena.

Zama is a fantastic, non-linear adventure based on an Argentinian novel. It explores name and identity, position and class, and race and ethnicity in Colonial Spain. Indigenous languages are spoken without subtitles – we hear it all through Zama’s ears.

I’m not going to pretend I completely understood this movie, but like Embrace of the Serpent (which I reviewed here), the images and exotic scenes in Zama are so engrossing I didn’t worry too much about the plot. Picture a group of women on a riverbank covering their naked bodies with thick brown mud. And the scenery in Argentina’s northeast Formosa province — green moss, sweeping hills, twisting rivers and impossibly tall bare tree trunks — is like seeing those Dr Seuss books I read as a kid again but in real life.

What a great movie.

Zama opens today in Toronto. check your local listings.What will people say is playing at Human Rights Watch film fest.  This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Serious. Films reviewed: Beirut, Abu, Indian Horse

Posted in Canada, Canadian Literature, documentary, Dreams, Espionage, Indigenous, Islam, Lebanon, LGBT, Ojibway, Racism, Residential Schools by CulturalMining.com on April 13, 2018

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

Spring film festival season is on now. Look out for Cinefranco featuring films from Québec; Human Rights Watch Film Fest with films from around the world, and here’s a new one: The Toronto International Porn Film Festival! This week, though, I’m looking at some serious movies. There’s a spy thriller set in Lebanon, a family memoir in Pakistan and Canada, and a drama about Canada’s residential schools.

Beirut

Dir: Brad Anderson

It’s 1972 at the US Embassy in Beirut. Mason (Jon Hamm) and his wife are hosting a party for bigwigs from Washington. Helping out is Karim, an earnest 12-year-old Palestinian kid who they treat like a son. But all is not well. His best friend, Cal, a CIA agent tells him something’s up with that cute little boy so they’re just going to take him away to a dark cell somewhere for awhile.

What–? Mason objects, but just then, gunmen enter the embassy, kill his wife, and drive off with the boy. Mason’s life is ruined. Ten years later he’s back in the States, staying just sober enough to keep his job as a labour negotiator… when out of the blue comes an urgent call: top government officials wants him back in Beirut, but they won’t say why.

He is met by Sandy (Rosamund Pike) in the now wartorn city, who fills him in. Militants have kidnapped an American and have asked Mason to negotiate. Turns out the kidnappee is his old friend Cal, and the kidnapper? Little Karim, now all grown up. Can Mason defuse the tensions, negotatiate a trade between the CIA, the Mossad, the PLO, the Lebanese government, splinter groups and corrupt officials? Or will the intrigue and subterfuge prove too much for him to handle?

Beirut is a neat and taut action thriller with lots of suspense amidst the twists and turns. (The script is by Tony Gilroy who did the Bourne trilogy.) Poltically, though, it’s a total mess. The film is loaded with visual “shorthand”, so 1982 Lebanon is represented by a woman in a niqab beside a camel on the beach! Really??  This isn’t Saudi Arabia in 2018, it’s Lebanon in 1982.  The movie also implies that every Arab child is a potential terrorist in the making.

Still the acting is good, the pace brisk and the game-theory-fuelled plot is fascinating to watch.

Abu

Wri/Dir: Arshad Khan

Arshad is a little kid growing up in Pakistan to an Army engineer dad and an upper-class mom. He likes dancing to disco music and being flamboyant. And by his teenaged years he’s secretly dating another boy. The parents find out and he is deeply humiliated.

Later, the family moves to Canada, where he stands out for a different reason. Suddenly, he’s Pakistani, he’s an immigrant, he’s a person of colour – with all the racism that comes with his new identity. Arshad gradually feels his way through an unfamiliar, racialized setting, as a South Asian, as a Canadian, as a gay man, and as a political activist. His parents veer in the opposite direction. They gradually turn to fundamentalist Islam, which they learn about in their new home. Can this family stay together?

Abu is deeply personal film, that serves as both a tribute to Arshad’s parents (Abu means father) and a look at his own life. It’s filled with family photos, videos, and interviews – his parents were movie enthusiasts who recorded everything. These random vignettes are strung together with an unusual plot device – an animated version of a dream he has that proves prophetic. Though the story is routine, much like what countless other new immigrants to Canada experience,  I love the way the film puts everything – history, pop culture, music – into a larger context.

Indian Horse

Dir: Stephen S. Campanelli

Based on the novel by Richard Wagamese

It’s the 1950s in Northern Ontario. Saul Indian Horse (Sladen Peltier as young Saul; Forrest Goodluck as teen Saul; Ajuawak Kapashesit as adult Saul) is a young boy  raised by his grandmother (Edna Manitowabi) who teaches him the Ojibway ways. Until the day government officials arrive in a fancy car who literally pull him out of his grandmother’s arms. They leave him at St Jerome’s a Catholic residential school where they can “kill the Indian in him”. Right away they cut off his hair, forbid him from speaking his language. The school is run by cruel priests and nuns, who abuse the kids physically and psychologically. Some are tortured, even locked up in a cage in the basement. Saul is a survivor and stays out of trouble, unlike his best friend who can’t hack it… and suffers terribly.

Saul comes up with a way to get out of the place: hockey. He’s seen it on B&W TV at school and it speaks to him. He’s sure if he learns to skate and practices on his own every morning, hockey will save him. He’s helped by way of a deal he makes with Father Gaston (Michiel Huisman), a friendly priest who takes a liking to him. It turns out Saul’s right – he is a fantastic player. He joins a native hockey team up north and slowly climbs his way up the ladder. He faces racism and discrimination at every step but he keeps his identity and sense of self. Eventually he gets drafted to the NHL and sent to Toronto – their first indigenous player. But deep inside, something from his past is eating away at him. What will become of Saul? Will he succeed in his dreams? Or will his experiences at the residential school drag him down?

Indian Horse is a deeply moving story, starring indigenous actors playing Saul at each stage of his life. It exposes a recent, shameful part of Canadian history, and one that’s still being felt today. The movie is not perfect or without flaws — it was made with a limited budget, and isn’t a Hollywood-style pic with a feel-good ending. But I think it’s a really good drama about an important topic, and one that should be required viewing across this country.

Beirut, Abu and Indian Horse all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening is the fantastic, realistic drama Lean on Pete which I reviewed here last September and is also on my New Year’s list of best movies of the year.

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

Western-ish. Films reviewed: Lucky, Hostiles, Sweet Country

Posted in 1800s, 1920s, Australia, Indigenous, Movies, Music, US, violence, Western, Wilderness by CulturalMining.com on October 6, 2017

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

If the western seems like an old, tired genre to you, there are some new movies you should take a look at. They reinvent the western by changing key elements and points of view.

This week I’m looking at three new movies that are westerns (or at least western-ish). There’s justice in the outback, a northbound trail, and a lonesome cowboy in the great southwest.

Lucky

Dir: John Carroll Lynch

Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) is a very lucky man. He’s 89 years old, smokes a pack a day, lives on milk, coffee and bloody mary’s – and not much else – and is still in perfect health. He’s a crotchety old coot who wears cowboy boots and a straw hat. He lives alone in a small town in the great southwest, amidst giant Seguara cacti and hundred-year-old tortoises. He likes yoga calisthenics, mariachi and crossword puzzles. He hangs out at the local diner by day and at the corner bar at night. So why is Lucky so sad?

The other day he fell in his kitchen for no reason. His doctor says that’s just what happens when you’re old. This makes Lucky reexamine his long-held attitudes and his stubborn ways. But can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Lucky is a nice and gentle look at an old cowboy in a multi racial southwestern town. It’s an arthouse film, full of music, stories, and funny, quirky characters, (played by David Lynch, Tom Skerrit and others.) It also functions as a tribute to Harry Dean Stanton himself, who plays the music and provides the backstories for the anecdotes Lucky tells. Stanton died earlier this year, but the film is less of an epitaph than a wry celebration of his life.

I like this movie.

Hostiles

Wri/Dir: Scott Cooper

It’s the 1890s in New Mexico. The Indians have all been killed or jailed under an army led by Captain Blocker (Christian Bale). Blocker is widely known for his fighting prowess and his cruelty – they say he’s scalped more natives than anyone. So he’s surprised when the President himself orders him to protect and accompany his sworn enemy on a trip to Montana. Blocker fought and jailed Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) a decade earlier. But now the Chief is dying of cancer and wants to be buried in his ancestral lands. Blocker sets off with the Chief, his family and a squad of soldiers. On the way they meet Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) a dazed mother still holding a dead baby to her breast. Her entire family was wiped out in a Comanche raid a few days earlier. She joins the group. The Chief offers to help them fight the Comanche but Blocker doesn’t trust him – he keeps him shackled to his horse. Is the enemy of his enemy his friend? But as the soldiers travel ever northward they begin to understand their captives, and overcome the fear, bigotry and hatred that killed so many.

Hostiles is a good, traditional western, shot against breathtaking scenery. It’s a bit slow, and there are way too many long-winded apologies as each character asks for forgiveness when he confesses his crimes. (One dramatic mea culpa would have been enough.) Though told from the white point of view, it is sympathetic toward the plight of First Nations. It satisfies as a Western with the horseback riding, shoot-outs and lots of dramatic tension. And Christian Bale makes a great silent soldier who sees the light.

Sweet Country

Dir: Warwick Thonrton

It’s 1929 in Northern Territory, Australia with three homesteads not far from a small town. They’re owned by whites, but worked by aboriginal families. Sam (Hamilton Morris) works for a kindly preacher (Sam Neill); Cattleman Archie (Gibson John) is indigenous but comes from far away. And mixed-race kid Philomac (Tremayne Doolan) lives near — but not with — his white father.

In comes Harry March, a deranged WWI veteran demanding some “black stock” – how he describes aboriginal workers — to repair a fence. Sam and his family volunteer, but March gives them no food or money for their work, and then sexually assaults Sam’s wife.

They flee back to the preacher’s house, pursued by March, armed and dangerous. Sam defends himself but ends up killing March, a white man (as secretly witnessed by Philomac). So Sam and his wife flee into the bush pursued by a posse that includes Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and Archie as their guide.  The sergeant is the de facto law in these parts and plans to lynch Sam whenever he finds him. But things changes when Sam ends up saving the Sergeant’s  life and turning himself in. Then an actual judge shows up to conduct the trial. But can an Aboriginal man receive justice in a white, frontier town?

Sweet Country is an excellent western set in 20th century Australia. It gives a raw and realistic look at brutal racism and frontier justice. It’s also a subtle examination of identity, and the uneasy give-and-take among the different aboriginal groups, the white settlers and their mixed race descendents.

I recommend this movie.

Sweet Country won the Platform Prize at TIFF and the Special Jury Prize at Venice.

Lucky starts today in Toronto, check your local listings, with Hostiles opening later on. You can catch Sweet Country on Thursday, Oct 19th at the Imaginenative film festival. Go to Imaginenative.org for show times and tickets.

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

Secrets. Films reviewed: Two Men in Manhattan, Army of Shadows, Rumble: Indians Rock the World

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, African-Americans, documentary, Drama, France, Indigenous, Manhattan, Music, WWII by CulturalMining.com on July 28, 2017

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

Is there anything you wouldn’t tell your partner, best friend or parents? This week I’m looking at movies about secrets: two classic French thrillers by Jean-Pierre Melville, and a new Canadian documentary. There’s French resistance fighters with secret identities, a journalist in Manhattan chasing a secret story, and the secret, indigenous roots of rock and roll.

Two Men in Manhattan (1959)

Wri/Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville

It’s the late 1950s. Moreau (Jean Pierre Melville) is a reporter for AFP (Agence France-Presse), based in Manhattan, who receives a strange assignment. A top diplomat at the United Nations didn’t show up at the General Assembly… he has completely disappeared. The missing man is a French diplomat, and a war hero with a sterling reputation. Moreau has to track him down and find out what’s going on.

So Moreau turns to a freelance photographer Delmas (Pierre Grasset) for help. Delmas is a notorious alcoholic and a womanizer, but one who knows what’s going on behind the scenes in downtown manhattan. Moreau has to drag him out of bed with his latest pickup to get him to come along.

Turns out Grasset was the right one to turn to – he knows how to find the diplomat by who he’s been scene with late at night. But while Moreau is a respected journalist, Grasset will do anything for a buck. Their search takes them to a series of meeting with exotic women: a jazz singer in her recording studio, an actress backstage at intermission, a stripper in her change room and a sex worker in her boudoir. And, unbeknownst to them, they’re being followed by a mysterious woman in a car. Will they find the diplomat, and if they do will the story be suppressed or sold to the highest bidder?

This is neat noirish movie with a moral dilemma on the ethics of journalism. It’s also the only time Melville appears in one of his own movies.

Army of Shadows (1969)

Wri/Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville (Based on the novel by)

It’s 1942 in Vichy France. Most of France is occupied by Germany, but for most people life hasn’t changed. But not for Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) a middle-class engineer. He is arrested by gendarmes, not by Nazis,  and sent to a relocation camp, built by the French to hold prisoners of war from Germany. Now it’s the other way around.

The camp holds a ragtag assortment of Russians, Poles, Jews, Algerians, Communists, as well as random Frenchmen arrested for no known reason. He has plans to escape with a young communist but is suddenly sent to the Gestapo headquarters for interrogation. After a daring escape, he joins a Resistance cell in Marseille consisting of tight knit group of men and one woman:

There’s handsome Jean Francois (Jean Pierre Cassel) who is in awe of his older brother, a philosopher. Mathilde (Simone Signoret) is a tactical genius, inventing fantastical ways to break into enemy headquarters without being noticed (Signoret convincingly switches from French to German). Other members are known only by their code names: La Masque, Le Bison, Felix. Together they smuggle allied forces to safety in England, relay messages sent by radio, and keep one another out of the hands of the enemy. Army of Shadows is a realistic thriller, based on a novel by a member of the French resistance( as was the director himself – in fact Melville was his nom de guerre)

It’s full of dark episodes and plot twists, that doesn’t portray the French, including the Resistance, in the best light. It’s full of secrets and lies, and the cold-blooded executions of their own comrades and closest friends who may have divulged secrets.

The movie bombed when it was first released – perhaps it was still too close to the events it portrayed, or maybe its politics didn’t jibe with Paris in 1969 – but decades later, after it was finally released on North America, it was a critical success. It is now considered a masterpiece.  Ventura, Cassel, and especially Signoret are all fantastic.

A must-see.

Rumble: The Indians who Rocked the World

Dir: Catherine Bainbridge, Alfonso Maiorana

When people talk about rock and roll they’re sure to mention its influences: jazz, blues, folk and country. It uses tunes from Europe, rhythms from West Africa but with words and feelings that are purely American. But what about aboriginal North Americans – First Nations, Metis and Native Americans? This documentary looks at both the musicological influences and the genetics of the musicians themselves – the drummers, guitarists and singers most people took for white, black or hispanic.

Link Wray pioneered the use of guitar feedback (his hit Rumble was a huge influence on bands from Led Zeppelin to the Who). He was Shawnee. Robbie Robertson, founding member of The Band, is Mohawk and learnt his music on the Six Nations reserve. Early blues great Charley Patton was Choctaw, and singer Mildred Bailey was Couer d’Alene.

The film covers territory from centuries past to present-day struggles, like activist and folk singer Buffy Ste Marie who performed at Standing Rock. And many of the black musicians who still perform at the New Orleans Mardi Gras dressed in “tribal” costume are descended from indigenous ancestors.

Music styles covered in the movie range from heavy metal to pop rock, country to folk, and soul to R&B. The musicians point out the singing styles, the drums from their childhoods.

Rumble is a really great music doc.

Rumble opens today in Toronto at the Hot Docs cinema; check your local listings. Two Men in Manhattan and Army of Shadows are part of the Jean Pierre Melville retrospective, Army of Shadows: The Cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville, which continues through August. 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.

A More Perfect Union. Films reviewed: The Big Sick, The Beguiled, In the Name of All Canadians

Posted in 1800s, Canada, Disease, documentary, Indigenous, Romantic Comedy, Rural, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 30, 2017

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

With the 150th anniversary of Confederation in Canada and the 4th of July south of the border, this is a long weekend with lots of movies to watch. This week I’m looking at two comedy/dramas from the US and a documentary from Canada. There’s a comedian coping with blind dates, a girls’ school dealing with a wounded soldier, and a country coming to terms with a new constitution.

The Big Sick

Dir: Michael Showalter

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a stand-up comic who wants to make it big. He’s a self-described numbers geek, who is into the X-Files and corny horror movies. He’s dating Emily (Zoe Kazan), a young woman he met at the comedy club, and their relationship is getting serious. But Kumail has a secret. His Pakistani-American parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff) insist their son marry a Muslim-Pakistani woman, and constantly surprise him with blind dates. His parents don’t know about Emily and she doesn’t know about his arranged dates. Everything goes well until Emily uncovers Kumail’s “X File”, a cigar box filled with photos of all the women he secretly dates and rejects. She is livid and never wants to see him again. But the next time he hears from her she is in hospital on her deathbed with a mysterious ailment, the “big sick” of the title. He stays by her bedside as she falls into a coma. Things get complicated when her parents Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) arrive. They know all about his secrets and lies and don’t trust him. But their relationship grows as they cope with Emily’s troubles together. Will Emily recover? Can she forgive Kumail? And can he tell the truth to his family?

The Big Sick is a very sweet romantic comedy mainly about the relationship of a young man and his true love’s parents. Spoiler Alert: it’s based on Kumail and Emily’s real life story, so obviously she didn’t die. I liked that it doesn’t succumb to crass toilet humour but instead finds jokes in the normal life of a standup comic. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are especially good as the parents. A good date movie.

The Beguiled

Dir: Sofia Coppola

It’s rural Virginia during the US Civil War, where a school for young ladies remains untouched by the war raging all around them. There, beautifully dressed women study literature, French, music and the bible, seemingly oblivious to the mayhem outside the school’s wrought-iron gates. There’s the imperious Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman); dowdy Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst); the recently grown-up Alicia (Elle Fanning) and nature-loving little Amy, among many others. They live in harmony in an old plantation house with two-storey, ionic columns, but no slaves, mind you – they all ran away. No one has breached the gates so far. Until one day, young Amy is out picking mushrooms and she finds a wounded yankee soldier. Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) says he joined the Union army straight off the boat from Dublin. Now he’s a deserter. Can the ladies help him?

Miss Martha sews up his wounds lets him stay, but only as a prisoner. That’s when the corporal turns the charm level to high and begins beguiling and seducing all the girls and women. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met, he tells one. You’re the one I like the best, he tells another. We have a special bond he says to a third. Soon, the women are fighting one another to spend time alone with the handsome young soldier. This culminates at a dinner where all of the women are all gussied up, each hoping he will choose her. But something unexpected happens that turns the smiling charmer into a violent ogre. What will the women do with him now?

The Beguiled is a dark comedy, a remake of Don Seigel’s movie from the 1970s, told from the women’s point of view. It includes lots of twists and turns for a simple ninety minute movie. I thought the acting was good, and the looks of the movie itself is fantastic. I’d describe it as over-the-top subtlety, with oak trees groaning with Spanish moss and a constant mist covering everything. I liked this one.

In the Name of All Canadians

It’s Canada’s Sesquicentennial, 150 years since confederation, so Hot Docs commissioned a multipart documentary made any a number of filmmakers. I dreaded watching this because I was afraid this would be yet another treackly look at toques, poutine, multiculturalism, our health system and Tim Hortons. But I was way off the mark. It’s actually a reality check, a hard look at the all the egregious errors Canada’s governments have made over the past 70 years or so. Did you know Frenco-Manitoban school teachers were forbidden from teaching in French for 50 years? Then there’s the case of Mr Abdelrazik, a Sudanese- Canadian man tortured then forced to camp out inside the Canadian Embassy in Khartoum for three years before he was allowed to come home. There’s the mass arrests at the G20, the internment of Japanese Canadians, discrimination faced by black and Muslim Canadians. And the biggest issue of all, Truth and Reconciliation with aboriginal Canadians — First Nations, Inuit and Metis — for the countless crimes, including Residential Schools, inflicted on them.

In form, most of these docs use actors reading scripts, animated sequences, talking heads and reenactments, rather than fly-on-the-wall records of actual events. Some parts are very moving, while other parts veer into speechifying. The serious parts are tied together by cute short sequences asking various Canadians what they prefer in a huge range of topics. While not perfect, altogether it gives a good hard look at Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, its successes and failures. Worth seeing.

In the Name of all Canadians is playing now at the Hot Docs cinema; and The Big Sick and The Beguiled both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

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

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