Acting white. Films reviewed: Whitney, Sorry to Bother You, Mary Shelley

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, documentary, Feminism, Movies, Music, Poetry, Politics, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 13, 2018

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

The scorching heat shows no sign of letting up, but you can always wait till dark and watch free screenings in Toronto parks. There are screenings at Yonge/Dundas Square each Tuesday, in Corktown each Thursday, and a special TPFF screening at Christie Pits in August.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies playing only in air-conditioned theatres. There’s a man in Oakland told to talk white, a musician from Newark made to sing white, and a woman in 19th century England… who just wants to write.

Whitney (a documentary)

Dir: Kevin McDonald

Whitney Houston is a middleclass churchgoing girl born into a musical family in Newark, New Jersey. Her mom Cissie Houston sings backup for Aretha Franklin and her cousin is Dionne Warwick. She has many supportive aunts and brothers – including an NBA player – and her stepdad is a municipal bureaucrat. They put her into a private Catholic school to avoid urban strife and riots. She’s pretty and talented and professionally trained. By age 18 she is accompanying her mom at a Manhattan nightclub, until the night she takes the stage on her own. Her beautiful voice blows the audience away, soon record execs are banging at her door, and she never looks back. She moves in with her best friend, Robyn Crawford, in a committed relationship.

Soon she’s chalking up consecutive number one hits, eventually breaking records for a female vocalist. And she puts her entire extended family on the payroll. Despite her intimate relationship with Robyn – a woman — she meets and marries popstar

Bobby Brown and does her best to please him – and their cute little daughter. But all is not well.

Even as her fame grows, some fans object to the homogenized, MOR tunes provided by a studio that wants her to sing “white”. Whitney becomes a real superstar when the movie The Bodyguard – and its theme song – attract worldwide attention. But she’s too big to survive. She start on a downward spiral of drug addiction, depression and isolation. She’s exploited, abused and her career collapses, as do her vocal chords and her family life.

Whitney is a new documentary that, through interviews with her family members and work mates – virtually everyone in her life (except Robyn) — unveils her hidden history: her drug use, her fluid sexuality and even, possibly, sexual abuse as a young girl (no spoilers here). Personally, I was never a fan of Whitney’s bland musical style, but I found this documentary totally engrossing (and sickening). Along with all the interviews, it has amazing montages that combine 80s music videos, TV commercials and violent news footage –  it’s worth watching just for that. Whitney is a celebration of crash-and-burn celebrityhood that you don’t want to watch, but can’t take your eyes off of.

Sorry to Bother You

Wri/Dir: Boots Riley

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is a young, everyman in Oakland in a bad situation. He’s jobless, penniless, and nearly homeless: he lives in his uncle’s garage and drives a rust bucket. His girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is a political performance artist who is also perpetually broke.

So he jumps at the chance to work for a telemarketing company and gradually learns the ropes. It’s stressful and depressing with a high turnover rate. Worse than that, salary is commission-based, meaning if you don’t close a deal, you don’t get paid. And he can’t get anyone to buy from him until an old timer (Danny Glover) tells him the secret: talk white. It’s not just an accent, it’s the whole lifestyle, talking like you don’t have a worry in the world. Sure enough, he begins to earn some cash. At the same time a union rep named Squeeze (Steven Yeun) is organizing a wildcat strike. And behind the scenes, bay area zillionaire Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) is urging labour sign up as indentured servants — virtual slavery, in other words. He owns the company. Which direction will Cassius go… join the strike or cross the picket line?

Sorry to Bother You is a brilliant political satire that combines science fiction, black american culture, experimental movie making and delightful comedy. Filmmaker Boots Riley reinvents movies in unexpected ways: like tearing down the fourth wall in one scene – literally! He portrays gangsta rap as modern day minstrelsie while keeping political issues – like homelessness and precarious employment – at the forefront. This is an excellent indie movie.

Mary Shelley

Dir: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Elle Fanning: Ginger and Rosa, Neon Demon, 20th Century Women, The Beguiled) is a teenaged girl in 19th century London. She wears her blond hair braided and her dresses loose. She can be found curled up against a gravestone reading a book. She’s the daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecroft (who died when she was an infant), and political philosopher Charles Godwin, so she’s always open to new ideas, both scientific and literary.

Her dark-haired, half-sister Claire (Bel Powley: Diary of Teenege Girl, ) is her constant companion, until she meets a poet at a reading. Handsome, young Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth: The Riot Club) sweeps her off her feet with his amorous verse. Is it love? Mary thinks so… until she meets his estranged wife and child. (Turns out Shelley is a bit of a player.) But she agrees to run off with him, accompanied by the faithful Claire. And when deby collectors chase them out of their Bloomsbury flat, they flee to the continent, where sex-addicted poet Lord Byron lives in a grand mansion.

To while away the rainy days Byron proposes the four of them – Mary, Shelley, himself and a young doctor, but not Claire – to write some scary stories. That’s where Mary pens the classic Frankenstein. Can a woman get her work published in 19th century England? And is “free love” just an excuse men use to exploit gullible women?

I enjoyed Mary Shelley but didn’t love it. It can’t seem to decide where it’s going: is it a gothic, Brontë romance? An intellectual feminist historical biopic? Or a witty, Jane Austen drama? You can’t be all three.

As for Frankenstein, the only monsters here are the loathesome poets Mary Shelley has to deal with.

Whitney, Sorry to Bother You and Mary Shelley 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.

Good genres. Films reviewed: Ishtar, Tokyo Vampire Hotel, Hereditary

Posted in 1980s, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Family, Horror, Japan, Movies, Supernatural, Vampires by CulturalMining.com on June 9, 2018

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

As I frequently say, don’t confuse highbrow cinema with good movies, and genre films with bad movies. Good and bad exist in both worlds. This week I’m looking at three entertaining, genre movies: a comedy thriller, a horror movie and a horror/comedy. We’ve got lounge singers in a hotel in war-torn North Africa, a singles retreat in a hotel run by vampires, and a family living in a dollhouse-like home… that might be haunted.

Ishtar (1987)

Wri/Dir: Elaine May

Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) is a gullible rube from the sticks; while Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) is a fast-talking pickup artist from Queens. Together they’re Rogers and Clarke a musical duo of singer-songwriters in New York. They think they’re going to be the next Lennon and McCartney or Simon and Garfunkel, but they are missing one key element: talent! Needless to say, they’re going nowhere fast. Their savings are gone, and their girlfriends have left them, and their agent is far from helpful. But he does have a gig for them at a hotel in Morocco. Sounds good! So they fly, off via the remote (fictional) kingdom of Ishtar.

But Ishtar is on the brink of revolution. And an ancient map that a local archaeologists has just found is the only spark needed to light that fire. Lyle and Chuck are clueless, of course, and just want to perform their act. But the hapless Americans are quickly drawn into this intrigue.

There’s a shifty American CIA agent (Charles Grodin) who convinces Chuck he can help their career; and a fiery revolutionary named Shirra (Isabelle Adjani) disguised as a young man who seduces Lyle to get him to help her cause. Will Rogers and Clarke split up? As fate would have it they end up in a camel caravan in the Sahara desert, pursued by militants, mercenaries, gun runners, nomads and US bombers, all convinced they have that crucial map.

When Ishtar came out in 1987 it was a collasal flop with many critics calling it the worst movie ever made. I disagree. I finally watched it and I think it’s a hoot. It’s funny and politically astute; when was the last mainstream comedy you saw with the CIA and US military as the bad guys? OK, its cultural impressions are rather obtuse, but it’s making fun of the American characters’ disguises not the locals. And it takes place before the “regime change” wars yet to come.

More than that, here are Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman — former icons — making fun of the whole generation of baby boomers, saying how did they all end up so uncool? Even their improvisational songs are bad-funny. If you’re yearning to see a forgotten piece of 80s culture, check out Ishtar.

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

Wri/Dir: Sion Sono

It’s 2022 in Tokyo, Japan, and something big is about to happen. Manami (Tomite Ami) can feel it. She’s about to turn 22 and is having strange thoughts. Like buzzing away at her hair until she looks like Eleven on Stranger Things. But when she witnesses a mass shooting inside a restaurant that kills everyone but her she really freaks. She barely escapes and owes her life to a mysterious woman named K (Kaho). That’s when Manami discovers the killings were committed by rival gangs searching for her. She is crucial to their plans, but she doesn’t know why.

Meanwhile, a major Tokyo hotel has invited singles to a special event – a dating weekend for coupling up. What the guests don’t know is the hotel is run by vampires. And they’re the main course. Add a rivalry between two vampire lineages, the Draculs and the Corvins, fighting for power; a Transylvania/Japan connection, and a Prime Minister who might destroy the world, and there you have it: a bloody, non-stop battle royale fought by rival vampires and hotel guests in a Tokyo hotel.

If you think that’s a lot of plot for one movie, you’re right. It’s actually a condensed version of a TV series, edited to fit into a single film. There are love affairs, Romanian castles, hidden rivers, a female killer dressed in pink, and sinister royal matriarchs, one of whom runs a secret world of blood orgies involving thousands of slaves… hidden inside her vagina! Tokyo Vampire Hotel isn’t for everyone, but I found it shocking, disgusting, sexy and hilarious.

Director Sion Sono is one of my favourite Japanese directors, a master schlockmeister unmatched when it comes to rivers of blood. Every frame uses saturated colours, and lightning-fast editing.

He treats blood as an art form, spilling it everywhere in a grotesquely beautiful way.

Heriditary

Wri/Dir: Ari Aster

Annie and Steve (Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne) are a happy middle aged couple with two kids. Peter (Alex Wolff) is a pothead in high school crushing on a girl from class. Charlie (MIllly Shapiro) is younger and a bit tetched in the head. She draws strange pictures and puts scraps of wood and metal together to make little dolls. She must have got that from her mom, an artist, who builds intricate doll houses that recreate important aspects of her own family’s lives. They live in a beautiful if isolated wooden home filled with her doll houses.

But ever since Annie’s own mother died, strange things keep happening in her house. Things like doors opening by themselves, and nonsense words found scrawled on walls. Charlie wanders off when she should be at home, Peter awakens from hideous nightmares, and mom finds herself sleepwalking holding a knife in a fugue state. What can it all mean? But when decapitated birds lead to human deaths, Annie feels she has to stop this. But what is she fighting aganst? And is she too late?

Hereditary is a chilling thriller/horror, beautifully made. You’re never quite sure if your watching Peter’s pot-fueled nightmares, Annie’s sleepwalking visions, life inside her intricate dollhouse dioramas, or real life. And by “real life” I mean supernatural goings on.

Scene changes are so skillfully done, it shifts seamlessly through these conflicting realities. This is director Ari Aster’s first feature but the acting, art direction and camera work turns a conventional story into a remarkable film.

Great movie.

Hereditary opens today in Toronto; Ishtar is at TIFF Cinematheque as part of Funny Girl: The Films of Elaine May; and Tokyo Vampire Club is playing at Toronto’s Japanese Film Festival.

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

Quests. Films reviewed: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, Let the Sunshine In, First Reform

Posted in Christianity, Death, Drama, France, Jamaica, Movies, Music, Reggae, Religion, Sex by CulturalMining.com on June 1, 2018

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

Toronto’s spring festival season continues. Inside Out finishes this weekend, and look out for the Japanese Film Fest and True Crime Film Festival both opening next weekend.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies by three great directors about people on quests. There’s a musician driven by fame, a woman searching for love, and a clergyman holding on to his immortal soul.

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

Dir: Sophie Fiennes

Grace Jones is a multi-talented artist and performer. Known for her distinctive voice, looks and style, she has left a mark on everything from fashion to pop music. Originally from Spanish Town in Jamaica, she made it big as a model in France, capturing the fashion world with her androgynous body and striking features. Later she shifted to music, recording first dance hits like La Vie en Rose, followed by the punk sounds of Warm Leatherette, and pop songs with a drum-and-bass reggae theme provided by Sly and Robbie. And as an actress she perfected the look of a crazed, cold villain in movies like James Bond’s View to a Kill.

This movie strips her bare physically and emotionally as she returns to Jamaica to visit her family and record a new album. The camera follows her as she digs up her family’s past, tries to record songs, and goes on a concert tour. It also includes a stopover in Paris to record a TV music video; and her performances on stage. This is an intimate portrayal of the underground superstar – who turned 70 this year, still dancing, changing clothes, arguing on the phone, and putting on the elaborate headddresses and costumes she’s known for. It also makes her seem a bit crazy – her accent shifts from Jamaican to American to british depending on whom she’s talking to, even shifting to a sort of french when she’s in Paris.

This no-holds-barred portrait is not always pretty but always fascinating.

First Reformed

Wri/Dir: Paul Schrader

Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a lonely reverend at an old church with a long history. He carries heavy baggage of his own: a dead son and memories of war. The church itself – First Reformed – has been there for centuries and is approaching its historical anniversary. For the Church administrators this is a PR goldmine and chance for big corporate donations. But Toller is an old-school preacher with traditional ideas. He feels like he’s losing his calling, and isn’t comfortable playing a pretend minister for tourists at a historical site. Luckily, there is a parishioner with real problems who needs his help.

Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is going through a crisis with her husband Michael, an environmental activist. She’s worried about him losing it. And the environmentalists are diametrically opposed to the very corporate donors that are keeping the church on its feet. As Toller gets involved in their lives, he re finds his calling. But things take a shocking turn with one unexpected death and the possibility of more. What path will Toller take, what is the church’s future, and what will become of Mary?

I’m not saying anything more about the plot, but let me just say that what starts as a simple and almost boring story slowly builds to an intense and shocking finish. Paul Schrader is a great director — he did Cat People, American Gigolo and Mishima — and an even better scriptwriter: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

I don’t always like Ethan Hawke’s acting, but I do here – this might be his best performance ever.

Let The Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur)

Dir: Claire Denis

Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is a middle aged artist at the peak of her career. She expresses her art using big brushes on huge canvases nailed to her studio floor. She’s signing with a new art dealer, and is financially secure, a great house, and her ex husband is taking care of their daughter. She is beautiful with a sparkling personality. The world is her oyster… so why is she having so much trouble finding a pearl? The problem is it takes two to tango and the men she meets aren’t playing their parts correctly.

She has carried on multiple relationships since her divorce. There’s a married banker who thinks she’s loves him, when it’s actually her repulsion toward him that turns her on. A handsome and famous but vapid actor thinks he’s great with the women, but despite the great sex, he does courtship all wrong. She wants the seduction, the passion and the ongoing interplay a relationship needs. He just wants a director to give him his lines.

Then there’s a mysterious and passionate man she meets while dancing, but who doesn’t fit in with her friends. Even her ex-husband sometimes spends the night when he’s in Paris.

Can she find her life partner, the best man out there? Or will she settle?

Ignore the pedestrian title, Let the Sunshine In is sophisticated and subtle movie. Juliette Binoche shines in every scene, she funny, clever and quirky. Claire Denis is one of best directors in France who is vastly underrated. This story is told purely from the female gaze – that of Isabelle.

It pokes fun at men – and at the women who fall for their tricks.

Grace Jones, Let the Sunshine In and First Reformed 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.

Changes. Films reviewed: Venus, RBG, Boom for Real

Posted in 1970s, Art, Canada, documentary, Hiphop, LGBT, Montreal, Movies, Punk, Trans, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 18, 2018

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

Spring Film Festival Season is going strong in Toronto with world premiers, features and short films to reflect every taste. Inside Out is one of the world’s largest LGBT film festivals; ICFF, the Italian Contemporary film festival, has parallel screenings in eight cities across Canada; and Toronto’s Japanese Film Festival features great movies and a special appearance by Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient Setsuko Thurlow. And brand new this year is Toronto’s True Crime Film Festival – the title says it all. They’re all coming soon.

This week I’m looking at three new movies – a dramedy ad two documentaries – opening today, which (coincidentally) are all directed by women. There’s a teenaged boy who changes New York’s art scene, a diminutive judge who changes US laws, and a woman in her thirties who just wants to change herself.

Venus

Dir: Eisha Marjara

Sid (DeBargo Sanyal) is a Montrealer in her thirties going through some major changes. Her longtime boyfriend Daniel (Pierre-Yves Cardinal: Tom at the Farm) dumped her, and a strange, 14-year-old kid has been following her around. But the biggest change of all is her gender – she’s transitioning from male to female, and is about to appear as a woman, in public, for the very first time. That’s when Ralph (Jamie Mayers) the 14 year old skate kid who’s been following her around finally tells her why: Sid, he says, you’re my dad!

What?! First of all, she says, I only have sex with men, second of all I’m brown – Sid is of a Punjabi ancestry – and you’re white. But doesn’t she remember Kristin from high school? (Kristin is Ralph’s mom and Ralph read in her diary that she had a fling with Sid as a teenager).

When she gets over the shock Sid takes a crash course in Parenting for Dummies, and starts to bond with Ralph. Her ex-partner Daniel reappears in her life, and accepts her change of gender. And her estranged parents, her transphobic Mamaji (Zena Darawalla) and  laid-back Papaji (Gordon Warnecke: My Beautiful Launderette), welcome her back with open arms when they discover they’re grandparents. But trouble lurks. Will Daniel come out publicly as her partner? Will Ralph tell his Mom he found his birth parent? And will Sid survive the stress of transition?

Venus is a very cute dramedy, one that shows pathos without too much treacle, and keeps you interested. And the cast is uniformly believable and endearing, especially the principals: Sanyal, Mayers and Cardinal.

RBG

Dir: Julie Cohen, Betsy West

In 1970s America it was not illegal to refuse women bank loans without a man’s signature, to fire them for being pregnant, to pay them less than men, to bar them from public schools, private clubs and other institutions… even for husbands to rape their own wives.

Enter noted lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Born in Brooklyn, she is one of few female students at Harvard Law in the 1950s which helps shape her legal outlook. She observes the oppression and panic of the Red Scare. She also experiences discrimination first hand, as she and other women are ignored by professors and barred from accessing archives. Later, she works for the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union)  and begins to challenge laws that discriminate against women, one at a time, through lawsuits. Many of her cases make it to the all-male Supreme Court, whose members understand civil rights on the basis of race, but can’t yet conceive of it on the basis of sex.

She teaches them what’s what.

Later this diminutive, shy woman becomes a law professor, a circuit judge in the Washington, D.C. Appeals Court and eventually a Supreme Court justice herself, often leading dissenting positions on the increasingly conservative court. More recently, in her eighties, she has been adopted by young feminist activists as a “rock star” or celebrity of sorts; an unusual role model for a youth-obsessed culture.

RBG is an interesting and informative – if conventional – look at her policies, her home life, her late husband, and her love of opera.

Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Dir: Sara Driver

It’s 1978 and New York is a bombed out city. Crime rates are soaring, the government is bankrupt, and poor neighbourhoods like the Lower East side are abandoned and crumbling. With hard times come big changes. Both Punk rock and hip hop culture are developing side by side, and into this incubator steps a 16 year old boy named Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Born in Brooklyn, the son of a Haitian Dad and a Puerto Rican mom, Jean Michel is homeless, kicked out for dropping out of high school. Now he’s couch-surfing in the lower east side, and becoming an artist. He expresses himself as SAMO, a graffiti artist. But instead of the bold, chunky murals and tags that cover the subways Jean-Michel scrawls pensive poetry and enigmatic thoughts using plain – though distinctive — letters. He later develops his images – childlike hearts, crosses, three pointed crowns, Batman and science books – and applies them to diverse media: everything from walls, to clothing, to refrigerator doors. He targets walls near Soho, so galleries will notice. He already thinks of himself as a superstar, just one who is not famous yet.

But Soho galleries don’t care much about youth, punk, hip hop or black culture in general. So the artists create their own spaces in a DIY mode. Still a teenager he attends seminal art happenings and events around the city, whether or not he is actually invited, spontaneously adding his art directly to gallery walls And he refines his distinctive look, with short dreads and a partly shaved skull.

Boom for Real is a brilliant documentary about an artist life before his incredible fame in the art boom of the 1980s and his untimely death. It situates him within an era: of Fab 5 Freddy and Planet Rock; Club 57 and the Mudd Club; Grafitti art, Jim Jarmusch, club kids and Quaaludes, fashion, music, rap and art. It’s the best sort of documentary, one that functions as a constantly-flowing oral history told by the people who were there. It shows a fantastic array of period photos, videos and images documenting Basquiat’s teenaged years. Even the closing credits are thoughtfully laid out.

Beautiful movie.

Venus, RBG, and Boom for Real 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.

Daniel Garber talks with director Adam Bhala Lough about Alt Right: Age of Rage at #Hotdocs

Posted in documentary, Movies, Nazi, Politics, Protest, Racism, US, violence by CulturalMining.com on May 4, 2018

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

In post-WWII America, the extreme right operated undercover. Klansmen wore hoods and Nazis were reviled in the mainstream. But recently — especially since the election of Donald Trump — the ultra-right has re-emerged as a significant, recognizable group. And under self-proclaimed leaders like Richard Spencer, they have redubbed themselves the “alt right”. But what is the alt right, who are its members and what do they want?

Alt Right, Age of Rage is a new documentary that looks at this rise, which culminated in the notoriously violent, torchlit rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. The film follows neo-Nazis like Spencer and their encounters with anti-fascist protesters like Daryle Lamont Jenkins. The film was directed by Adam Bhala Lough, known for documenting fringe political groups, whether on the left, the right or neither. Alt Right: Age of Rage had its Canadian debut at Hotdocs Toronto’s International Documentary Film Festival.

I spoke with Adam in studio at CIUT. 

He talked about the “Alt Right”, Richard Spencer, Jared Taylor, white supremacy, platforming, Charlottesville, The Southern Poverty Law Centre, Daryle Lamont Jenkins, Antifa… and more!

Alt Right: Age of Rage premiered at Toronto’s Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival.

Three Historical Dramas. Films reviewed: Budapest Noir, An Act of Defiance, Bye Bye Germany

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, Apartheid, Drama, Germany, Hungary, Movies, Nazi, South Africa by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2018

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

Spring Film Festival Season continues in Toronto, with Hotdocs rounding up its fnal weekend. Remember, daytime tickets to these amazing documentaries are free for all students and seniors.

And starting up now is Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival, featuring comedies, dramas, TV and documentaries from around the world. This week I’m looking at three historical dramas now playing at TJFF. There’s a mystery/thriller set in Budapest in the 30s, a comedy/drama in Frankfurt in the 40s, and a courtroom drama in Pretoria in the 60s.

Budapest Noir

Dir: Éva Gárdos

It’s 1936, and everyone in Budapest is preparing for the state funeral of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös. Everyone but cynical reporter Szigmond Gordon (Krisztián Kolovratnik). Crime’s his beat, not politics and cigarettes and bourbon are his life’s blood. And his only distraction is a beautiful woman. So he’s pleasantly surprised when he meets a mysterious woman in a downtown cafe. But today’s potential love interest is tomorrow’s news story when he finds her body in a pool of blood.

He calls on his ex-girlfriend Kristina, a photographer (Réka Tenki) to take pics of the crimes scene. (She’s back in Budapest after smuggling shocking photos out of Germany.) But when he tries to investigate the murder, he faces roadblocks at every turn, with no one but Kristina to help him. The chief of police, the politicians, and even members of the underworld seem to be blocking him from finding the truth. And for some reason her body has disappeared from the morgue.

His search leads him to pornographers, fascist gangs, a coffee importer, a secret communist meeting, a madame at a brothel, and a punch-drunk boxer, all in an attempt to solve the mystery. Will he find what he seeks? Or is he digging too deep, uncovering things journalists aren’t supposed to see?

Budapest Noir is a look at the underbelly of a huge city in turmoil in turbulent times. It’s presented in a film noir style, narrated by a Bogart-type character complete with trenchcoat and hat, and borrows images from dozens of famous movies. Occasionally it veers from pastiche into parody with all its hollywood memes, but generally it’s a solid and well-acted homage, full of surprises.

An Act of Defiance

Dir: Jean Van De Velde

It’s 1963 in South Africa. The police raid a secret meeting in a farm house in Rivonia, arresting everyone there. The meeting was by the heads of umKhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress. Charged with sabotage, the accused face death by hanging, and it looks like they’re heading that way. Until a respected white Afrikaner lawyer, Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller), agrees to head the defence team. The defendants include Walter Sisulu, Harold Wolpe and none other than Nelson Mandela himself.

But the prosecutors are working hand-in-hand with the police, the government and the secret service. They tap phones, record private lawyer-client conversations, and send spies out at night to take pictures through windows. Turns out Fischer is not just a random defence lawyer helping out; he has deep ties to the anti-apartheid movement. As the trial progresses, he and his family become the targets of underhanded campaigns. Can he convince a conservative judge to save the defendents’ lives? Or will they, and he, end up in the gallows?

This is a fascinating and intense courtroom drama, about a period of South African history largely unknown outside of that country. It includes Mandela’s famous “I’m prepared to die” speech given during the trial, but he and the other defendents are minor characters. It’s mainly about Fischer and his family, including his wife Mollie (beautifully played by Antoinette Louw) and the fight against apartheid. It also includes some thrilling moments about the family avoiding an evil police force.

This is another good film to catch.

Bye Bye Germany (Es war einmal in Deutschland)

Dir: Sam Garbarski (Based on the novels of Michel Bergmann)

It’s occupied Frankfurt just after WWII. A quarter of a million holocaust survivors are living in DP (displaced persons) camps in central Europe, run by allied forces. They’re waiting to emigrate to America or Palestine. But in the meantime they have to support themselves. Enter David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) a sweet-talking teller of tales with a pencil thin mustache and a mysterious past. He says his family has been in dry goods for generations. So he recruits a ragtag bunch of salesmen to help peddle his linens. But they wonder why he keeps disappearing for hours at a time. Where does he go?

He’s being interrogated by the stern but beautiful Special Agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue) a German-speaking G.I. assigned to weed out war criminals and collaborators from among the refugees. Why was Bermann given special treatment by the SS? His answer? He told funny jokes. Will Sara believe his outlandish stories? Will his business venture pan out? And will he and his friends make enough money to say Auf Wiedersehen to Deutschland?

Bye Bye Germany is a very entertaining, but bittersweet, memoir of life as a jew in postwar Frankfurt. Antje Traue is the perfect foil for Bleibtreu’s charming but sketchy Bermann. I liked this movie.

You can catch Bye Bye Germany, An Act of Defiance and Budapest Noir at TJFF over the next two weeks. 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.

Daniel Garber talks with Carlyle Jansen, founder of Toronto International Porn Festival

Posted in Breasts, Feminism, Movies, Porn, Sex, Sex Trade by CulturalMining.com on April 20, 2018

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

In Toronto the Good, sex was a dirty word and pornography a crime until just a few decades ago. Now, though, here and around the world, porn is an enormous — and quite legal — industry worth an estimated $60 billion dollars. That means they make a lot of movies. Toronto is a city of movie lovers with over 100 film festivals. So how come there’s no film festival devoted to porn? The answer is: there is!

It’s called the Toronto International Porn Festival and it’s on now until Sunday. The festival includes including screenings, workshops and panel discussions dealing with a panoply of sexualities and gendres and ideologies. It was founded by noted sex education expert Carlyle Jansen, who trains sex therapists on topics ranging from sexual pleasure to sexual challenges. You may have seen her Ted Talk or read her two books: Anal Sex Basics and Sex Yourself: The Woman’s Guide to Mastering Masturbation and Achieving powerful Orgasms.

I spoke with Carlyle Jansen in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM. She talked about Porn Fest, diversity in porn, exploitation, reversing genders, body types, sex work, science fiction, Erika Lust, Bruce LaBruce, breastfeeding… and more!

Toronto International Porn Festival is running from now through Sunday, April 22, 2018 at The Royal Cinema and Super Wonder.

Art and Sport. Films Reviewed: The Miracle Season, Final Portrait, PLUS Steve Reinke’s films at Images

Posted in Art, Canada, Death, France, Movies, Queer, Rural, Sex, Sports, Switzerland, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 6, 2018

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

Toronto’s Images, the International Festival of Moving Image Culture, opens next Thursday with Canadian and international video artists and filmmakers… featuring the work of Steve Reinke. This week, I’m going to talk about films by artists, and films about artists, with some sports thrown in, too. There’s an American volleyball team, a Swiss sculptor, and a Canadian video artist.

The Miracle Season

Dir: Sean McNamara

Caroline and Kelly have been best friends since childhood. “Line” (Danika Yarosh) is the always chirpy optimist who Kelly (Erin Moriarty) looks up to. Growing up in rural Iowa, they share their secrets amidst big barns and cornfields. In high school they play volleybal together. With Line as team manager and setter they win the State Championships. Of course the other team members, andtheir hard boiled coach (Helen Hunt) are important, but it’s really Line who leads the team to victory.

But the next year things take a turn for the worse. The team is dispirited and Line’s Mom has cancer. Then the unthinkable happens; Line dies in a crash. Kelly feels guilty, and so does Line’s dad Ernie (William Hurt) who used to throw team parties and boost the players. With no Line around to pull people out of their misery, the team slides to last place. They don’t even want to be happy – it’s disrespectful. It falls to Kelly to turn the team around. Can she do it, and will the team ever win again?

The Miracle Season is a nice movie about teamwork and overcoming loss. It has good acting and a conventionally inspiring story. “Nice” is the key word here. Based on a true story, it was made by permission of the charity founded by the Line’s father. So as you can expect, anything not super “nice” has been scrubbed from the plot. No sex, no violence here. They could show this movie at Bible Camp without raising an eyebrow. Which makes it a nice memorial for teammates and family members, but for the rest of us, it’s just a dull and predictable movie. But, like I said, it’s still nice.

Final Portrait

Dir: Stanley Tucci

It’s early 1960s. James Lord (Armie Hammer) is a young American living in Paris who writes biographies of well known artists. He’s friends with both Picasso and the Swiss-Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti (Geoffrey Rush). Giacometti is famous for his sculptures of people with crusty and extremely elongated arms and legs. But he also paints. And one day he asks James to pose for him for a few hours. He sits down in Alberto’s studio dressed in khakis, navy blue sports jacket and shirt and tie. But the one-day painting turns into a project lasting days and then weeks, until no one knew if it would ever end. Each time he paints his face, Alberto rubs it all out and starts again. Meanwhile, various people in his life walk in and out adding colour to the story. His brother Diego (Tony Shalhoub) has seen it all before. His neglected wife Annette (Sylvie Testud) refuses to pose for him anymore. And his mistress Caroline (played by the delightfully-named Clémence Poésy) would rather go for a jaunt in their sportscar than just hang at the studio. Final Portrait has some fun parts, but basically this movie is 90 minutes of watching paint dry.

Steve Reinke

Steve Reinke is a queer Canadian artist and filmmaker, originally from the Ottawa valley but now based in Chicago. I’ve seen a lot of his films in the past 20 years, but for the first time I spent last night binge-watching them all together (which is quite an experience).  If you’ve never seen Reinke’s stuff before, you should.

He’s been shooting films and videos that chronical his life, his thoughts, aesthetics, and interests — both intellectual and sexual – beginning in the late 1970s and continuing till now. And unlike a lot of gallery video artists, his films are never boring. (This is important.) Like porn, a Reinke film is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. (But that doesn’t mean you’ll understand it.)

Taken at face value, his collection is an ongoing, partly-fictional memoir told through video art (predating blogs and youtube by decades). His images are partly found footage/partly original, narrated both by voice and by titles. Take What Weakens the Flesh is the Flesh Itself, a recent film he made with James Richards. The film alternates grotesquerie with erotica and mundaneness, with the edges sometimes blurring among the three. Grotesque as in a dead piglet; mundane, like a naked man eating grapes or an ice fishing hut shot with a distorted, fisheye lens; erotic like a poisonous snake having its venom extracted in a laboratory. The film begins with photos by the late German photographer Albrecht Becker. He was imprisoned in Nazi Germany for his sexuality. His work consists of photos of himself reduplicated with an imaginary “twin”. Over time, as his photos become more stylized and experimental so does his body, which gradually transmogrifies — before still cameras — into a work of art using tattoos, body modification, and a whopping-big metal thing hanging from his scrotum. (Ouch!)

Reinke’s flms are transgressive and a total mindfuck. Like he’ll show you an alien monster with pointy ears making out with a faceless, sexless human, encased in a skintight black PVC outfit. And then later he’ll show an unborn dead calf being pulled from a cow’s belly with the same black shininess.

This is weird stuff, alternating between jarring pictures of sex and death overlayed with anodyne intellectual musings. Who else would compare Casper the Friendly Ghost to Wittgenstein? What other filmmaker offers a film called Anal Masturbation and Object Loss that’s actually just Steve Reinke pasting the pages of an academic psychiatric textbook together? Or show thousands of unidentified military photos before telling you this: [SPOILER ALERT] these are pics of all the American military casualties of the Second Gulf War arranged in order of attractiveness. Shocking stuff.

It all feels like you just watched a story, but one arranged with enough sudden changes and musical distortion that you’re not seduced into it. Steven Reinke’s films leave you disturbed and unsatisfied but you don’t quite know why.

Films viewed:

What Weakens The Flesh Is The Flesh Itself (2017)

Atheists Need Theology, Too (2016)

Joke (Version One) (1991)

*Watermelon Box (1990)

*Michael and Lacan (1991)

*Room (1991)

*Barely Human (1992)

Anal Masturbation and Object Loss (2002)

Squeezing Sorrow From an Ashtray (1992)

Hobbit Love is the Greatest Love (2007)

A Boy Needs a Friend (2015)

*not included in Images series

The Miracle Season and Final Portrait both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Steve Reinke’s films are showing at Toronto’s Images Festival — featured in its Canadian Artist Spotlight series — beginning next Thursday. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Shells. Films reviewed: Journey’s End, Ready Player One, The China Hustle

Posted in 1910s, China, Class, Corruption, Darkness, documentary, Drama, Games, Movies, Poverty, Science Fiction, Wall Street, War, WWI by CulturalMining.com on March 30, 2018

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

It’s a holiday weekend filled with eggs, whether hard boiled or made of chocolate with a prize inside. So this week I’m looking at three new movies about… shells. There are VR gamers looking for a hidden easter egg, Wall Streeters investing in shell corporations, and WWI soldiers dodging mortar shells.

Journey’s End

Dir: Saul Dibb

It’s March, 1918, in the WWI trenches of northern France. Underground, where the officers stay, it’s dark, dank and smelly. Up on the surface its deadly dangerous, with snipers aiming at your head. Four British divisions rotate their stays at the front at one week per month. It’s like a lottery – with a one in four chance of dying. And the soldiers in Company C are just trying to stay sane and alive. There’s the fatherly Osborne (Paul Bettany) who everyone calls “Uncle”, the indefatigable cook Mason (Toby Jones), and the shell-shocked Hibbert.

So no one can understand why the green, idealistic Lt Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) pulls strings to join this benighted group. Why? His upper classman Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is stationed there and he wants to see him again. But he doesn’t realize the level of death and despair that has taken hold there. And that his hero, Stanhope,

is now a mean and bitter alcoholic. The soldiers there are forced to make pointless raids in daylight so as not to interrupt the dinner schedule of far-off Generals. And things reach a boiling point when word gets out the Germans are about to attack on Thursday, right there. They’re essentially sentenced to die at the front. How do they all handle this?

Journey’s End – based on the classic play – is a tense retelling of an old war story, exactly 100 years later. It deals with the futility of war, the rigid British class system, and the male comeradery of life in the trenches. The acting is very good, and the camera wonderfully captures a world lit only by flickering lanterns. Even so, it was hard to sympathize with the stuff-upper-lip, tally-ho language of the script. The long theatrical conversations might might work on stage but not on the screen. The main emotions I got from this movie were depression, disgust claustrophobia and fatalism. It all felt too long, too slow, and too distant, especially once you know their fate… Just die already!

Ready Player One

Dir: Steven Spielberg

It’s 2045 in Columbus, Ohio and the world is a mess. People live marginal existences in ramshackle towers beside huge corporations. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is an 18-year-old orphan who spends most of his time online in a wildly- popular VR fantasy world called Oasis. Its creator left a trillion-dollar prize to whoever can solve the puzzles hidden within this digital world. First they must complete three levels of games and collect three keys  and claim the hidden easter egg. Wade he surprises the world by appearing on the boards as Player One, the top ranked player in the world. But he’s not the only gunter (egg hunter) trying to win. His closest virtual rivals are Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) a fiery red-head, Aech, a muscular giant and genius mechanic; plus Daito and Sho whose avatars look like a samurai and a ninja, respectively. Wade calls himself Parzival. Like the Wagner opera character, he’s searching for a holy grail. And he’s in love with the lovely Artemis. But as best-bud Aech keeps telling him: you only know her avatar – that’s not what she’s like in real life. And lurking in the shadows is the rich and evil Sorrento, (Ben Mendelssohn) the head of IOI, the corporate rival to Oasis’s company. He pretends to be a champion gamer, but he’s actually a fake who hires employees to play for him. But he’s out to win — and take over the world — at any cost. Which of the hunters will figure out the puzzle and find the easter egg? And can they defeat the villainous Sorrento?

Ready Player One is an incredibly fast-moving sci-if action movie. Oasis’s inventor, whose puzzles they’re all trying to solve, was obsessed with the 80s, so the movie feeds you a random hodgepodge of Back to the Future and Iron Giant, Gandam and Street Fighter, New Order and Van Halen, a non-stop shower of pop culture, to the point where you can’t tell self-referential jokes from cheap product placement. (Maybe they’re both?) But why would kids in the 2040s care about the 1980s? I can’t call this a good movie; it’s incredibly commercial, felt more like a theme park ride than a film, and parts were like watching a video game with someone else holding the controls. But you know what? I still enjoyed it. And it does have that classic Spielbergian look and sound.

China Hustle

Wri/Dir: Jed Rothstein

After the Subprime Mortgage crisis, American investors, pension funds, and ordinary moms and pops were looking to make some money. But where? Chinese people were making millions investing in their red-hot companies, but those stocks weren’t traded on Wall Street. Until, suddenly, they were. Hundreds of Chinese startups were being bought and sold and making big bucks. And companies like Roth Capital were holding lavish parties known as “investment conferences” to reel in buyers. They were backed by reputable auditors like Deloitte. It’s a win-win proposition – everyone makes money. Until, that is, some suspicious investors fly to Shanghai and looked around.

Turns out, many of these companies operate as “Reverse Mergers”. Existing Chinese corporations buy shell companies already registered in the US, take them over, change their name, and they’re open to make money.

But their books here don’t look like their books there. Idle factories in China are said to be making ten times what they’re actually earning. And no one’s checking up on them.

So a few maverick investors decide to short sell their stock (like in that movie The Big Short) counting on its value crashing soon. And they speed this along by publicising the corruption and questionable accounting of the parent companies back in China. The result, riches for a few, terrible losses for many.

The China Hustle is a fascinating documentary looking at the shady practices behind deregulation, auditing and investments, as told by three American short-sellers. I thought its view of China as a monolithic villain was superficial and rather one-sided; for example, it shows how these fraudulent investments affect ordinary Americans’ lives, but not how they affect ordinary Chinese.

But it does expose in detail a huge scandal I knew nothing about.

Ready Player One opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Journey’s End and The China Hustle are in theatres and Video On Demand. 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 Nicole Maroon and Vladimir Jon Cubrt about their new film Luba

Posted in Addiction, Canada, drugs, Family, Hockey, Movies, Poverty, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on March 23, 2018

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

Luba and Donnie are a married couple with a young son, Matty. Their marriage faltered when Donnie’s drug use got out of hand, but since rehab things are looking up. Little Matty commutes between Lou’s flat and his grandma’s home where Donnie is living. They’re barely staying afloat with precarious jobs — he’s in construction while she’s serving jell-o shots for tips. Will poverty, depression and crack grind them into the dirt? Or can a family be saved by the hope and determination of a strong young woman named Luba?

Luba is also the name of a heartfelt family drama that looks at life in Toronto through the eyes of a family left behind. It stars Nicole Maroon as Luba and Vladimir Jon Cubrt as Donnie. Nicole is a master of Fine Arts whose range includes everything from Shakespeare to City TVs Meet the Family; while Vlad is celebrated on stage, screen and on TV’s Hannibal. The two co-produced Luba and Vlad wrote the script.

I spoke with Nicole and Vlad in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM. They talk about Acting, Luba, Hockey, Ukrainian-Canadians, Jack Nicholson, Toronto, the film’s genesis, why Nicole was cast in the title role… and more!

Luba had its Canadian premier on Saturday, March 24th at 5:30 PM at Toronto’s Scotiabank Theatre as part of the Canadian Film Fest.

At CFF Luba won both the Audience Choice Award for Best Picture and the Reel Canada Indie Award.

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