Bro Movies. Films reviewed: Bigger, First Man, Free Solo

Posted in 1930s, 1960s, Biopic, Bodybuilders, documentary, Montreal, Movies, Space, Sports by CulturalMining.com on October 12, 2018

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

It’s Fall Film Festival season in Toronto now, meaning more movies than you can shake a stick at. Toronto After Dark will thrill and chill you with horror, cult and fantasy pics. Cinefranco brings brand new French language comedies, dramas and policiers from Quebec and Europe. And Rendezvous with Madness plays fascinating films accompanied by panel discussions on addiction and mental health.

But this week I’m talking about bro films, two biopics and a doc about men with lofty goals. One wants to climb a sheer cliff, another wants to build the perfect body, and a third one who just wants to fly to the moon.

Bigger

Dir: George Gallo

Joe Weider (Tyler Hoechlin) is a poor jewish kid in depression-era Montreal. On the streets tough kids beat him up and steal his paper route money, and at home his cruel mom beats him for not keeping clean. At least his little brother Ben (Aneurin Barnard) looks up to him. Joe finds inspiration in unusual places: a strongman at the circus and photos of weight lifters he see at newsstands. He begins to obsessively draw pictures of perfect male bodies, copying from textbooks at the McGill library. He wants to promote beautiful physiques, bodies that are muscular, symmetrical and healthy. But fitness for health and looks is still a new concept. In those days people guzzled booze, smoked like chimneys, and thought exercise was a dangerous thing best left to olympic athletes.

Weider challenges all that with self-published magazines, promoting new exercises, diets and weight training, illustrated with glamour shots of barely-dressed muscle men. It’s a smash hit, he gets a US contract and Joe and Ben’s empire expands to bodybuilder contests, weights, and a wide range of magazines. And when business takes him to Hollywood, he spots a bleached blonde pin up model working out at Jack LaLanne’s gym.  Betty (Julianne Hough) is everything he desires: beautiful, fit and smart (he is separated from his first wife). Is this true love? Later he discovers Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger – the personification of his childhood drawings – and brings him to America.

Bigger is a fun, if idealized, look at the life and career of Canadian fitness mogul Joe Weider. It’s a bit corny, with Montreal-born Joe talking in an unplaceable, choppy accent. And it steers clear of his lawsuits and scandals. But Hoechlin and Hough are enjoyable as Joe and Betty, and there’s even a super villain, a racist, anti-semitic homophobe named Hauk (wonderfully played by Kevin Durand) who is his business rival and real-life enemy. Not a great movie, but an enjoyable one.

First Man

Dir: Damien Chazelle

It’s the 1960s in America, the space race is on, and the Soviets are winning. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is a test pilot exploring the skies. He can land any plane, even one about to explode. He’s married to Janet (Claire Foy), a pixie-ish woman with a fierce temper. They have a young daughter they both love. But when the girl dies of an incurable illness, and Neil loses his job despite his skills they know things have to change. So Neil makes a big decision: NASA needs astronauts, and he’s going to be one. They move down to Houston and settle in to suburban life.

First Man follows the career and home life of the renowned astronaut, from Gemini missions, to Apollo’s first landing. Armstrong is portrayed as a strong silent type, a no-nonsense guy who drives off alone to handle anger and depression. It also deals with astronauts and their uncertain lives (lots of them died). And director Chazelle makes you feel like you’re there with them in the planes and rockets. He even inserts showtunes into his astronaut movie. (Wait — showtunes?)  So why didn’t I Iike it? First Man is too heavy, too long, too ponderous. It’s one of those overly stern and patriotic American movies about national heroes. And where’s the suspense? We already know he was the first man on the moon. What’s the point? Ok, there are a few powerful scenes, but First Man consists mainly of rattling cockpits, brooding astronauts and suburban housewives yelling about their husbands.

Ryan Gosling is wasted in this boring example of Oscar Bait.

Free Solo

Dir: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

It’s 2016 and Alex Honnold has one obsession: to scale a sheer cliff in Yosemite. Mountain climbers have done it before in teams rapelling with ropes, pitons and caribiners. But Alex wants to do it “free solo”, that is, by himself and without safety ropes. One slip, one miscalculated reach, will send him plunging to his death. But he really wants to climb El Cap, and if it’s not free solo, what’s the point?

Alex is a boyish, wiry vegetarian who cares little for material things. He’s a loner who lives out of a trailer. He’s also in perfect shape, lithe, bendy and incredibly strong. He has to be to hold onto a crack in a rock with just a few fingers while stretching his body sideways to the next outcropping. He intensely studies the cliff, practicing each stage in separate small climbs using ropes. And he is accompanied by the filmmakers, who are accomplished climbers themselves. Alex proves to be a bit camera shy, hesitant to “let go” before the cameras. Is it performance anxiety? And will Alex make it to the top of El Capitan… or plunge to his death?

Free Solo is an amazing and spectacular look at one climber attempting the nearly impossible. I have no deep-seated passion for rock climbing – I even have a fear of falling – but this movie kept me riveted the whole time. Scenes that show Alex’s quirky nature and the people around him —  including other climbers, his family and his girlfriend – help give him a more rounded portrayal. But it’s the climb itself, and the truly amazing photography, that really keeps your attention.

Bigger, First Man, and Free Solo and 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.

Still more TIFF. Films Reviewed: Fahrenheit 11/9, The Wife, The Man Who Feels No Pain

Posted in Action, documentary, Drama, Family, Found Footage, India, Movies, Politics, Protest, Sweden, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 21, 2018

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

TIFF is over now, but you’ll have lots of chances to catch up on films you missed as they release them over the next few months… or years. This week I’m looking at three movies that played at TIFF. They look at secrets in Stockholm, mayhem in Mumbai, and what went wrong in Washington DC.

Fahrenheit 11/9

Dir: Michael Moore

Torch-bearing Nazis, tax cuts for the richest Americans, and a president who brags about assaulting women, who makes friends with dictators and throws the country’s allies under the bus. How did this happen? Michael Moore is back again, attempting to explain what brought a celebrity-obsessed, egotistical racist to the White House. He talks to a few experts and travels to places like West Virginia, but most of the film is devoted to news clips, recordings and and photos. He tells the story as a series of concentric circles: the country, the state of Michigan, the city of Flint and Michael Moore himself.

He doesn’t spare anyone from criticism. That means Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and even Barak Obama all get a drubbing. News media – and not just Fox news — are rightly blamed for the endless free publicity they gave Trump. And it was Moore who predicted Trump’s victory… and is praised for it by the likes of Steve Bannon, Fox News, Jared Kushner and Trump himself.

The juiciest clips are about the president, including some that make your skin crawl. Like the lewd sexual comments he makes about his own daughter Ivanka, starting when she was just a little girl.

He also deals with the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the Flint water scandal, the Stoneman Douglas protesters, and a whole lot more. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a funny, entertaining and fast-moving doc that keeps you glued to the screen for over two hours. It’s not perfect – it seems to “end” a couple times before its actually over; and he should retire his trademark schtick of the little guy Michael Moore confronting famous people at their homes (especially when he’s more famous than they are).

But as a whole, if you want a smart, sharp and funny take on American politics, this is the movie to watch.

The Man Who Feels No Pain

Dir: Vasan Bala

Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani) is a brave little boy in Bombay. Raised by his father and grandpa (his mother was killed by a chain snatcher the day he was born) he fears nothing. Along with his best friend, a girl named Supri (Radhika Madan) they stand up to bullies, and stage impossible escapes, jumping off rooves when there’s no other way out. Surya thinks they’re heroes with superpowers. In fact, his only superpower is a dangerous medical conditional known as CIP (Congenital Insensitivity to Pain). Surya risks illness or death from not noticing the bruises, burns, broken bones and internal injuries that make most kids cry out in pain. And when their adventures lead to the near-death of Supri’s abusive father, Surya is rushed away to avoid jail time.

Over the next 12 years his worrisome dad and hippie grandpa keep him safe indoors, checking his body daily for injuries, and always keeping him hydrated (he wears a water sac on his back with a plastic tube he can drink from). His only pastime is watching old VHS tapes of Bruce Lee and action movies. He teaches himself martial arts by imitating what he sees on the screen. His goals? To find his childhood friend Surya, to catch the chain snatchers, and to meet his VHS hero, a one-legged, Indian master known as Karate Manni who once fought and beat a 100 men! He thinks two of his goals have been reached when he spots a grown-up Surya putting up Karate Man posters. But first he must win back Surya’s heart, gain Karate Man’s trust and defeat a Scarface-like super villain. Will his self-taught fighting moves – and imperviousness to pain – save him against an army of enemies?

The Man Who Feels No Pain is a delightful new mash-up, a novel combination of comedy, Hong Kong Shaolin, Bollywood musicals, and found-footage videotapes. Dasani and Madan make a wonderful pair of fighters – and love interests? – and the fast-moving plot, saturated with pop culture movie references, is fun to watch.

This movie won the TIFF 18 Grolsch Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award.

The Wife

Dir: Björn Runge

It’s 1992, somewhere over the Atlantic. Joe and Joan Castleman (Glenn Close, Jonathon Pryce) a happily married retired couple, are flying to Stockholm, first class. Joe is preparing his acceptance speech for the Nobel prize for literature. And Joan? Well, she’s his wife, his plus one. Also on the plane is their adult son David (Max Irons) an aspiring writer. Joan told him she liked the story but he needs his father’s approval. But their conversation is interrupted by Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater) an aggressively obsequious journalist who wants to pen Joe’s biography… and who is looking for some inside dirt.

Part of their story becomes clear in flashbacks to the 1950s where they met. At the time, Joe is still a young, married English prof at Smith, where Joan is a student. He woos her with a walnut. True love? He divorces his wife and marries Joan. She wants to be a writer, but her plans are quashed by a bitter, female novelist who says women like them will never succeed in a man’s world. So she devotes herself to her husband’s career instead, and overlooks his frequent peccadilloes. And now he’s in Sweden, about to win the Nobel Prize. So why is Joan so resentful? Is it Joe’s infidelity? Or is there a deeper secret? And what is the scandal the biographer threatens to reveal?

The Wife is a good, small drama about marriage, women and the secrets that they keep. It’s also about writers. And it’s full of royal references: the writer is named Castleman, Joan dubs herself a “king-maker” and the screen is filled with the regal opulance, music and grandeur surrounding the Nobel prize. I liked this movie.

Fahrenheit 11/9 and The Wife open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Man Who Feels No Pain played at TIFF’s Midnight Madness and is coming soon. And don’t forget about the Toronto Palestine Film Festival which is on now through the weekend. Go to TPFF.ca 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 filmmakers Çagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti about Sibel at #TIFF18

Posted in Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Disabilities, Drama, Folktale, France, Movies, Mystery, Turkey, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 14, 2018

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

It’s present-day Turkey. Sibel is a fiercely independent young woman who lives in an isolated mountain village near the Black Sea. Having lost her voice after a fever at age five, she communicates with her father using a traditional whistling code, still known to older villagers. She’s a keen hunter and trapper who seeks a lone wolf said to be lurking in the woods. But in her search she traps a different sort of wolf — a crazed and bearded man, on the run from the army. She nurses him back to health in her cabin in the woods. Can she maintain a secret life with her newfound prisoner/friend? Or will word reach the disapproving villagers below?

Sibel is a new film, a Turkish/French co-production that explores the classic folklore and customs of the Black Sea region. It’s also a rich and fascinating look at an independent woman living within the restrictive rules of traditional village life.

Sibel had its North American premier at Toronto International Film Festival and is playing again this Saturday. It’s jointly directed by Guillaume Giovanetti and Çagla Zencirci, French/Turkish partners, who previously made Noor and Ningen together, both of which played at TIFF.

I spoke with Çagla and Guillaume in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM, during TIFF18.

More Films by Women. Films reviewed: Never Saw it Coming, Skate Kitchen

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, Movies, Mystery, Skateboards, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 17, 2018

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

TIFF promises one third of all movies showing this year will be directed by women. This was virtually unheard of even a few years ago. But I’m finding — especially with indie productions — that there’s been a sea change with loads of good movies being made by women. This week I’m looking at two such movies, one from Canada and another from south of the border. There’s a body hidden beneath the ice in Sudbury and a subculture hidden between the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Never Saw it Coming

Dir: Gail Harvey

Wri: Linwood Barklay

Keisha (Emily Hampshire) is a psychic in Sudbury Ontario. She specializes in locating lost relatives, dead or alive. By touching a personal item she has visions pointing straight to a grave site. But is she authentic? Keisha lives with her young red head son Matt (Keegan Hedley) and her on-again, off again boyfriend Kirk. He moved in with her four months ago but has yet to pay rent.

She’s saving up to buy her son the keyboard he’s always wanted but money is scarce. So she agrees to pull off a onetime scam, involving parents desperate to locate their drug-addicted son.

At the same time she searches out a family with a mother who has gone missing. (The movie opens with her car sinking into a frozen lake as the woman screams for help) The missing woman’s husband Wendel (Eric Roberts) and daughter Melissa  (Katie Boland) have appealed for help on TV, along with police detective Wedmore (Tamara Podemski). Keisha sees this as a chance to locate a missing person and make some quick cash. But her meeting goes terribly wrong, and her chaotic life becomes impossible to handle. Now she has to deal with a suspicious detective, her partner in crime turned junkie blackmailer, and threats from her volatile, layabout boyfriend.

Can her visions – if they actually exist – save Keisha? Or is she heading for the big house?

Never Saw it Coming is a short but credible Canadian mystery thriller, with lots of scurrilous characters without many sympathetic good guys. It seems like almost everyone in Sudbury is a lowlife. Still, I always enjoy a good noirish Canadian movie, despite its flaws. Emily Hampshire and Tamara Podemski as the psychic and cop in a battle of wits, stand out. And Eric Roberts is great as a sketchy schemester.

Skate Kitchen

Dir: Crystal Moselle

Camille (Michelle Vinberg) is an 18 year old vegan who lives with her mom in Long Island. She has long hair, glasses and wears shorts, white socks and thrasher T shirts. She spends most of her time hanging at a nearby skate park practicing her moves, despite the catcalling and abuse she takes from the guys there. But when a mishap sends her to hospital with gushing blood between her legs, her mother forbids her from using a skateboard again. But skating is her life. What can she do?

Find a crew on instagram to skate with. An all female one. She joins them in Manhattan and makes fast friends. They skate the city, exchange stories and defend themselves against asshole guys. There’s strength in numbers. After a big fight with her mom she ends up moving in with Janay (Ardelia Lovelace), one of the girls in the group.

She also gets a day job, as a cashier in a super. There she meets Devon (Jaden Smith) who works in the stock room. He’s a skater too, with dyed red hair, and asks her to let him snap her pics. She does some solid moves on the top of a skyscraper near the empire state building. And sparks seem to fly.

The problem is she likes him, but Devon and Janay used to be a thing. And she never got over their nasty breakup. Can Camille keep her relationship with Devon a secret from her fiercely loyal crew? Or will her life collapse like a house of cards?

Skate Kitchen is a great coming-of-age story set within the world of skateboarding – the music, fights, drugs, sexual experimentation, tampons, comeradery, as well as misogynistic bragadoccio on the male side.

This movie, though, is unique in that it’s painted from a female point of view, a community usually totally absent from anything skate-related. It’s modelled on a real group, also called Skate Kitchen, with many of the actors playing roles based on themselves, including Vinberg, its founder. This gives it a very realistic feel, and provides a genuine look at a seldom seen subculture. This movie’s the real thing and I liked it.

Skate Kitchen and Never Saw it Coming 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.

Daniel Garber talks with Sofia Bohdanowicz about Maison du Bonheur

Posted in Canada, Cooking, documentary, Fashion, France, Movies by CulturalMining.com on August 17, 2018

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

Juliane is a retired astrologer in her 70s who lives in a Paris apartment in the 18th arrondissement, in Montmartre. She believes her personal presentation – hair, makeup, clothes, and shoes – must always be impeccable. Her life should be full of delicious food, lovely colours and fast friends. And her apartment, part of Haussmanns original design, should be a veritable “house of happiness”.

Maison du Bonheur is a wonderful new documentary that follows Juliane over the course of a month by a Canadian filmmaker who comes to stay with her. It records the mundane, yet fascinating, details of the everyday life of a classic parisienne, even as it subtly reveals her — and the filmmaker’s — unspoken secret histories. The film was directed, shot and edited on a microbudget by Toronto-based Sofia Bohdanowicz. Winner of the Jay Scott Prize, the Emerging Canadian Directors award (at VIFF) and many more, this is Sofia’s second film.

Maison du Bonheur opens tonight at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

I spoke with Sofia at CIUT 89.5 FM.

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.

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.

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