Kick-Ass Women! Movies reviewed: Ravage, Lucky Grandma, Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Posted in Action, comedy, Crime, documentary, Drama, Gambling, Jazz, Music, New York City, Thriller, Torture, violence by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three movies – an action/thriller, a musical documentary, and a dark comedy – all featuring kick-ass women. There’s a photographer in the Appalachians pursued by killer rednecks, a grandma in Chinatown pursued by Red Dragon gangsters; and a parade of jazz singers in Rhode Island pursuing musical bliss.

Ravage

Wri/Dir: Teddy Grennan

Harper Sykes (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) is a professioinal photographer who travels the world looking for rare wildlife. She’s in the Watchatoomy valley in Virginia searching for an endangered species when she stumbles on something she isn’t supposed to see: a group of men brutally torturing a stranger in the woods. She is shocked and sickened but pauses long enough to record the awful event from behind a tree. Then jumps in her pickup and rushes to the nearest police station. But things don’t go as planned. She’s kidnapped and dragged by tow truck to a barn, and awakens to find herself barefoot, tied up and suspended from the rafters. Ravener (Robert Longstreet) is a nasty evil redneck with a gang of meth-head henchmen. (He’s a lot like the character Negan in Walking Dead, only not as menacing.) In this valley, they don’t trust outsiders. So anyone who ventures in gets tortured and fed to the hogs. And there’s no way out.

The thing is, they don’t know Harper. She’s a regular G.I. Jane, a female McGuyver who can get out of any tight situation, using whatever’s close at hand. She gradually turns herself from victim to killer, taking down her opponents one by one. She thinks she’s safe when she takes refuge in an isolated home, where a kindly old man lives (Bruce Dern). But he turns out to be as obsessed with evil torture as the rest of them. Can she ever escape from this hell-hole?

Ravage, as the title suggests is an action/vengeance/horror flick, and it’s a B-movie at best. There are plot holes, weird editing, and a silly ending. But it doesn’t matter. Dexter-Jones is great as the kick-ass Harper, who escapes from tight spaces, makes rafts out of empty barrels, drops bullets into campfires and sabotages her pursuers in ingenious ways. Really cool. The gross-outs and shock scenes are silly, but – if you don’t mind extreme violence – this is a fun flick, perfectly suitable for drive-ins.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Dir: Bert Stern

It’s 1958 in Newport Rhode Island. There’s a jazz festival set up in a vast field with an outdoor stage and wooden folding chairs in neat rows. On stage are some newcomers plus big names like Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, and Chuck Berry, playing jazz, blues and R&B. But it’s the women who really stand out. Anita O’day sings scat in Tea for Two, Big Maybelle rumbles her voice, Dinah Washington soars and Mahalia Jackson hushes the crowd whith her heartfelt gospel. This is all taking place at the Newport Jazz Festival in a posh summer resort with the Americas Cup – sailboats and yachts – floating past in the water.

The concert is captured on film without commentary, playing songs we’ve all heard before, but the camera doesn’t stick to the stage. Equal time is given to the audience: girls in pearls, boys in nautical ware, middle aged men in black knee socks, women in straw hats and cardigans, all unconsciously cool. College kids drinking Rheingold beer and making out in the shadows, couples dancing in the grass and hipsters nodding their heads on the off-beat. Model T Fords carrying a Dixieland jazz band sputters past, with experimental musicians jamming in the attic of an old wooden house. Everything’s captures on film, now completely restored with glowing orange klieg lights, bright red lipstick, rippling blue waves. It’s a concert and also a documentary that perfectly captures this slice of time. Something to watch and relax to on a hot summer’s day…

Lucky Grandma

Co-Wri/Dir: Sasie Sealy

Grandma (Tsai Chin) is a retired and elderly widow who lives alone in a cramped apartment in New York’s Chinatown. She likes aqua fitness, smoking cigarettes, and sipping congee. Her son wants her to move to their house in the suburbs and spend time with her noisy grandkids. It’s not safe living alone in the city, he says. But she’s stubborn, and wants to stay on familiar ground. Life’s tough but at least it’s hers. And things change when her fortune teller insists there’s a huge streak of good luck coming her way on the 28th. And when she wins an unexpected sweepstakes, she knows the odds really are on her side.

So she withdraws all her cash and goes to a casino to wager everything on number 8. She wins and wins and wins again. Until, at a game of blackjack she loses it all – tens of thousands – to old Mr Lin. It doesn’t make sense. But when Lin drops dead in her lap on the bus back home, luck is on her side again. She takes back the duffel bag of cash and sneaks home. Looks like she can finally retire in luxury.

But word gets out and Red Dragon gangsters start dropping by uninvited in her apartment to intimidate her. But she won’t give in their tactics. Instead she hires Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha) a huge but simple-minded bodyguard from a rival gang. But things start to heat up, bullets fly and now everyone seems to be after Grandma’s cash (which she insists she doesn’t have). IS this old lady stubborn enough and tough enough to fend off deadly killers? Or has she bit off more than she can chew?

Before I saw Lucky Grandma, judging by the poster I was expecting a cute, slapstick, throwaway comedy. So I was pleasantly surprised by how good a movie this actually is. It’s a low-key, but funny, realistic and poignant picture of life in Chinatown. And this is because of the star Tsai Chin, who gives a nuanced, perfect performance. Every line is just right. Who is Tsai Chin? She’s been a star since the late 50s with a hit single in HK in 1961, was a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice, appeared in Antonioni’s Blow Up, starred in countless plays in London’s west end, and was Auntie Lindo in the Joy Luck Club. Now, in her late eighties, she’s as good as ever. Don’t miss Tsai Chin in this really good, Chinese-language American movie.

You can watch Jazz on a Summer’s Day on virtual cinema at Hot Docs, Lucky Grandma is now on digital and VOD, and you can see Ravage at drive-ins across Ontario; 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 Stephen McHattie and Bruce McDonald about Dreamland

Posted in Addiction, Canada, Crime, drugs, Jazz, Kidnapping, Music, psychedelia, violence by CulturalMining.com on June 5, 2020

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

A once-great jazz trumpeter in his declining years is in a European capital to play a private performance at a royal wedding – a simple gig for the money. Minor problem is, he’s a junkie, prone to OD-ing before a performance. Major problem is there’s a gangster who wants to see him dead or at least injured before the wedding. And the hitman assigned to his case? It’s his doppelganger! Throw in a vampire and a kidnapped 14-year-old girl and the world starts to spin out of control. Can he ever escape this dreamland from hell?

Dreamland is a new fantasy/ comedy/drama film with a good bit of horror thrown in. It stars Stephen McHattie in the two lead roles and is directed by Bruce McDonald. Stephen is known on stage and screen for his sketchy hardboiled characters, from Watchmen to Come to Daddy. Bruce is a prize-winning chronicler of Canada’s rough underbelly, on TV and film, from Roadkill to Weirdos, known for his punk sensibility and hard-core tastes. They made the cult classic Pontypool together back in 2008 about zombies attacking a radio station.

I spoke to Stephen and Bruce at their respective homes via Zoom.

Dreamland is now playing VOD across Canada.

Runaways. Films reviewed: Across the Waters, Wonderstruck

Posted in 1920s, 1940s, 1970s, Denmark, Fantasy, Jazz, Kids, Manhattan, Movies, Nazi, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 20, 2017

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

Film Festival season continues in Toronto. Planet in Focus is an environmental film festival that bring eco heroes – like astronaut Roberta Bondar – to Toronto along with amazing documentaries from around the world. Everything from a grocery co-op in Brooklyn to a plastic recycling plant in Shandong, China to Genetically Modified Organisms, which are, well, everywhere. Go to Planetinfocus.org for more information.

ImagineNative is indigenous films and media arts, including an art crawl around the city, a wall is a screen, and many workshops, breakfasts and events. It has scary movies, westerns, docs, dramas, animation and so much more. Go to imaginenative.org for details.

This week I’m looking at two movies about people running away. One has a boy and a girl running away to New York City to find family. And the other has a father fleeing Copenhagen to save his family.

Across the Waters

Dir: Nicolo Donato (Brotherhood)

It’s 1943, in German-occupied Copenhagen. It’s an uneasy peace, but because of an agreement the Germans leave the Danes alone. Arne (David Dencik) is a guitarist in a jazz band. He is passionately in love with his wife Miriam (Danica Curcic) and they spend all their free time having sex. But only after they put their 6 year old son to bed. Jacob (Anton Dalgård Guleryüz) likes listening to Danish poems and playing with his teddy bear. Everything is going fine – no need to worry about the Nazis; this is Denmark, not Poland. Until that knock on the door comes one night – the Germans are coming! Run! Now!

The family is Jewish and the Nazis are there to take them away.

There’s only one way to escape; and that’s by boat to neutral Sweden. But how? They make their way north to a small port called Gilleleje, where they hear the fisherman are helping people across the sea. But when they get there things aren’t as good as they hoped.

One fisherman named Kaj is demanding high fares. But Arne and Miriam are nearly broke. There are way too many refugees in the town to keep them a secret from the Nazis. While some of the locals – the police chief, the pastor – are risking their lives to save fellow Danes, others have questionable motives. Who can be trusted, and who is collaborating? And will the family escape to Sweden?

Across the Waters is a fictional retelling of a true story. The movie is Danish but it was shot in Ireland to give it that period, seaside look. I always like a good WWII drama, and there have been some great Danish films, like Flame and Citron and Land of Mine, that deal with the topic. This one is smaller and more of a family drama than an action thriller, but it does keep the tension and suspense at a high level. (Including a scene reminiscent of Melville’s Army of Shadows.)

Worth seeing.

WonderStruck

Wonderstruck

Dir: Todd Haynes

It’s the late 1970s in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a 12 year old boy who lives with his aunt’s family. He suffers from strange dreams since his mom, a librarian, was killed in a car accident. Some nightmares involve being chased by wolves, but others are stranger still. They tell a continuous story, night after night, and they’re silent, and in black and white — just like an old movie.

These dreams tell a parallel story about Rose (Millicent Simmonds) a 12-year-old girl who lives in her father’s mansion in 1927 like a bird in a gilded cage. He’s a rich, divorced man in Hoboken, New Jersey. Rose’s head is in the stars – she spends most of her days reading title cards at silent movies or collecting photos she cuts from magazines. She’s obsessed with a certain pale-skinned movie actress named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).

Rose doesn’t go to school. But when she discovers her local theatre is switching to talkies she she knows it’s time for a change. She’s deaf and can only communicate by writing things down or reading words on a screen. So she bobs her hair and takes the ferry into Manhattan where she hopes to find the legendary actress.

Ben, meanwhile, is an orphan. His mom never told him who his birth father was. But looking through her things he finds an old bookmark with a message. It was tucked into a book about a museum collection, and the message was written by someone named Danny who visited their town before he was born. Could this be his dad?

But when he tries to call him up long distance, lightening strikes — literally. The electric shock travels through the phone line, leaving Ben deaf (just like Rose). But he catches a bus to New York City anyway, arriving at the Port Authority carrying just the name of a bookstore and a handful of cash. There he meets another 12-year-old named Jamie (Jaden Michael) who befriends him and says he’ll help him find his (possible) dad.

Jamie gives Ben a place to stay… a storage rooms at the Museum of Natural History (where Jamie’s father works). Will Ben find his dad? And will Rose find the movie star? Can two deaf 12-year-olds survive in a huge city? And what connects the two runaways?

Wonderstruck is a wonderful kids movie about seeking the unknown. It’s full of dreams, coincidences, and flashbacks, too many for it to be a real story. But it works great as a kids’ fantasy. It’s also beautifully made, using amazing animated paper models to tell part of the story. And through ingenious special effects, it incorporates the two main characters into what looks like period footage — of streetlife in New York in the gritty but colourful 70s,  and the fuzzy black-and-white 20s.

Just wonderful.

Wonderstruck opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Across the Waters is playing Sunday afternoon as part of the Chai Tea and Movies programme. Go to tjff.com for details.

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

Exceptional people with hidden histories. Movies reviewed: Gifted, I Called Him Morgan, Frantz

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, drugs, Family, France, Germany, Jazz, melodrama, Music, Mystery, WWI by CulturalMining.com on April 10, 2017

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

Spring Film Festival season continues with the upcoming Images and TIFF Kids film festivals, celebrating their 30th and 20th anniversaries (respectively).

This week, I’m looking at movies about exceptional people with hidden histories. There’s a musical genius in Manhattan, a mathematical prodigy on the Florida coast, and a man of mystery at the border of France and Germany.

Gifted

Dir: Mark Webb

Frank (Chris Evans) is a youngish guy living in a shack in Florida. He lives a quiet life, fixing boats and hooking up with women at laguna bars. The rest of his time is spent home-schooling his niece Mary (McKenna Grace), a foul-mouthed seven-year-old with blonde pigtails. Mary likes math, dancing to pop songs and playing with Fred, their one-eyed stray cat, a castoff like the two of them. How did they end up in Florida? Frank’s sister, a math genius, left Mary with him as a baby… just before killing herself. She made him promise to let Mary have a normal life, in case it turns out she’s a genius too. Normal means keeping the child free from math profs and universities, and most of all away from their obsessive mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). She’s the one who pushed Frank’s sister over the edge with her relentless ambition: solving one of the Millennium Prize Problems.

Frank is protecting Mary from all that. But how can she live a normal life hidden away in their clapboard shack? It’s time to send her to public school — despite his savvy neighbour Roberta’s warnings not to (Octavia Spence). Right away the dominos start to fall: teacher tells principal Mary is gifted, Principal goes online and soon Evelyn is in Florida demanding a proper Harvard education for her gifted grandchild.  Who has Mary’s best interests at heart – her wealthy patrician grandmother or her salt-of-the-earth uncle Frank?

I like the idea behind Gifted, and was looking forward to a story about a genius kid trying to live a normal life – but aside from a few scenes the movie isn’t about that. It’s actually a child custody drama, which is never much fun. Throw in foster parents, courtrooms and lawyers and the movie becomes a trial to watch. While the acting is not bad – Captain America as a single dad – and there are a few big secrets revealed along the way, I found Gifted disappointing.

I Called Him Morgan

Dir: Kasper Collin

Lee Morgan was a young jazz trumpet player from Philly, featured in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band as an 18 year old. 15 years later he was shot dead outside a Manhattan jazz club in a snow storm by a much older woman named Helen. How did he get there, who was this woman, and how did it happen? A new documentary looks closely at both their lives.

Morgan was a hard-bop trumpeter who dressed in Ivy League suits and drove his Triumph through Central Park. He played with Art Blakey and John Coltrane, later breaking away with his own band. Helen was born in a small town near Wilmington, North Carolina, with two kids by age 14, and widowed by 18 after a short marriage to a bootlegger. She left her kids with grandma, moved to New York City and never looked back. She cut an impressive figure on the streets, hanging with Manhattan’s demimonde, sexual outlaws and drug dealers. That’s how she entered the jazz scene. By the time she met Lee Morgan, he was a junkie who had pawned his trumpet for some heroin and was virtually homeless. She washed him, got him into a Bronx clinic and set him back up in the jazz scene. She served as his mother, lover, manager and protector. But when he began to fool around with a young woman from New Jersey, things started to go wrong…

I Called Him Morgan is an amazing movie about the two lovers’ lives. Helen gave only one interview in a bar on a cassette tape a month before she died, but in it she tells what really happened. Interviews with the friends and musicians he played with fill in the blanks, and it is illustrated with B&W photos from Blue Note (the club and record label where Morgan played and recorded), all set alight by Morgan’s cool trumpet sounds. Fascinating musical documentary.

Frantz

Dir: Francois Ozon

A small town in Germany, right after WWI. Anna (Paula Beer) is a strong and pretty young woman all dressed in black. She is in mourning for her fiance Frantz Hoffmeister, who died in the trenches. She still lives with Frantz’s father, the good Doktor Hoffmeister, and Magda his mother. They treat her like one of the family. One day, Anna spies a young man with a pencil thin moustache laying white roses by Frantz’s grave. Who is this man and what does he want? His name is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) and he is a musician. It seems he knew Frantz before the war, in Paris, and he carries a letter he wrote. He is visiting the town to pay his respects and to say something to Frantz’s father. But the war wounds are still raw, and townsfolk can’t believe a frenchman would dare set foot there. Eventually, nervous Adrien spends time with Anna and her family forging a deep emotional friendship, but one based partly on lies. What isn’t he telling them?

After Adrien returns to France, Anna decides to track him down in Paris, and retrace the museums and music halls Frantz had loved. But Adrien is nowhere to be found. Like a detective, she tries to locate him far outside Paris, which leads her to a sumptuous villa in the country. And now Anna must reveal secrets of her own.

Frantz is a fantastic, novelistic melodrama spanning Germany and France, about secrets, lies, guilt and class. It’s a romance full of unrequited love, fuelled by letters and whispered confessions. I told very little of the story, to avoid spoilers, but believe me this is one great movie. It’s shot in stunning black and white with a hitchcockian musical score, beautiful costumes and great acting. Francois Ozon’s movies are often light family dramas or superficial sexual comedies, but this one is a sumptuous, epic story, perfectly made. I recommend this one.

Gifted, I Called him Morgan and Frantz all start 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.

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