Back from the Dead. Films reviewed: Pet Sematary, The Invisibles, Amazing Grace

Posted in 1940s, 1970s, Animals, Berlin, Christianity, documentary, Drama, Dreams, Germany, Holocaust, Horror, L.A., Music by CulturalMining.com on April 5, 2019

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

We all know people are born and they die, things come and go. But every once in a while things and people we believe are long gone seem to come back to life. This week I’m looking at three very different movies about coming back from the dead. There’s Aretha’s gospel concert buried since 1972; a documentary about young German Jews who hide in Nazi Berlin till 1945; and a horror movie about pets who come back from their graves in small town Maine.

Pet Sematary

Dir: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer

(Based on the novel by Stephen King)

Louis (Jason Clarke) is a Boston doctor suffering from ER burnout. He’s overworked, overstressed, and overtired. So to relax and spend more time with his family he takes and easy job in the quaint small town of Ludlow, Maine. He’s there with his nervous, religious wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two kids, little Gage, and his pride and joy Ellie. Ellie (Jeté Laurence) is an eight year old who loves ballet dancing and her furry cat Church (short for Winston Churchill). Their old wooden house is on a sprawling estate in a small forest with a high speed highway running through it. But their quiet lives are disrupted by some strange events. First, when a young patient of Louis dies in his care after a car accident, the dead boy seems to return, over and over to talk to him in his dreams.

Then Ellie sees kids from town in spooky animal masks burying dead pets on their property. It’s an ancient custom, explains kindly old Jud (John Lithgow) their nearest neighbour. He’s lived there all his life and understands the local lore. So when Ellie is despondent when her beloved cat is run over Jud tells Louis a secret. There’s powerful magic up on the mountain beyond the pet cemetery. Bury the cat under a cairn and he will come back to you from the dead. Sure enough, Jud is right. But it isn’t cute and loveable anymore. When you play with the the forces of good and evil, of life and death, bad things will surely happen.

Pet Sematary – a remake of the movie based on the Stephen King novel – is suitably scary. The small, excellent cast nicely contained in a single location give it a good cabin-in-the-woods quality, but it’s scariness is less adventurous. It uses the age-old techniques – spooky dreams, little “boo!” moments, even twists on the overused images of the mirror in medicine cabinet, and the dark room in the basement. And then it degenerates from scariness into outright, Bride-of-Chucky kitsch. I enjoyed Pet Sematary as a good, old-skool horror movie, just don’t expect anything new.

The Invisibles

Dir: Claus Räfle

It’s 1943, in Nazi Berlin, and Joseph Goebels has officially declares his Germany’s capital judenfrei – free of Jews. But he doesn’t realize that 7,000 Jewish Germans still lived their hidden in plain view. This docudrama tells four true stories about young people who survived the Holocause while living in Berlin. They don’t hide in an attic like Anne Frank’s family; instead they continue their lives right in the middle of everything.  Cioma (Max Mauff) sells all his possessions and poses as someone whose house was bombed in Köln, moving to new vacant rooms each day. He finds work for a high placed civil servant forging ID papers. Hanni (Alice Dwyer) bleaches her hair, calls herself Hannelore and hangs out in dark movie theatres in the Kurfürstendamm. Ruth (Ruby O. Fee) and a friend find jobs as maid and nanny for the kids of Nazi officers. And Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is placed with former colleagues of his dad a doctor, and dressing in hitler’s youth uniforms. But there are informants and Gestapo agents everywhere, searching for people like them. Who will survive?

The Invisibles is a fascinating retelling of largely unknown stories. It’s part documentary – the film regularly cuts to interviews in German with the actual people it happened to – and part drama with the thrilling stories replayed by well-known young actors.

Fascinating and thrilling stories, well told.

Amazing Grace

Dir: Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliott

Its 1972 at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, LA.

Reverend James Cleveland is leading a very special service for his devout parishioners. None other than the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin herself will be performing, alongside the Southern California Community Choir. The congregation is urged to feel the spirit, clap their hands, and get up from their seats and dance. But wait a minute — since when has pop sensation Aretha Franklin beena gospel singer? The answer is: all her life. Her father is the famous Detroit Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, and she was touring churches with her amazing voice since the age of six.

This concert became a huge hit album – many people say it’s Aretha’s best recordings – and the movie includes her back-up musicians, the choir, and the audience, including some very famous people, like Mick Jagger, gospel singer Clara Ward and lots of others I couldn’t quite recognize. A beautiful, intensely moving concert and church service. Interestingly, it’s been sitting in film cans, unscreened until now. For some reason, Aretha blocked its release her whole life, perhaps because it is so personal to her, perhaps because the sound and images were never synchronized. That’s all fixed now.

It’s a grainy hyper-realistic verité-style film that shows everything: retakes, the cameramen, the soundboard, the director running around pointing, and Aretha in a sparkling white gown, sweating under the hot lights. If you’re a fan of Aretha Franklin, and want to experience those two days of 1972, you must see Amazing Grace.

Pet Sematary and The Invisibles both open today in Toronto; check your local listings, and you can see Amazing Grace beginning next Friday.

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

Gone fishing. Films reviewed: Serenity, Wonders of the Sea PLUS Cold War

Posted in 1950s, Animals, Cold War, Communism, Conservation, Crime, documentary, Drama, Film Noir, France, Music, Mystery, Poland, Romance, Suspense by CulturalMining.com on January 25, 2019

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

Fishing for something different to watch? This week I’m looking at two movies about fish and one about love. There’s a doc beneath the waves, a suspense drama aboard a fishing boat, and a bittersweet romance behind the Iron Curtain.

Serenity

Wri/Dir: Steve Knight

Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman off Plymouth Island, a tropical vacation spot in the middle of nowhere. Along with his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) he takes rich tourists out on his boat to catch some sharks. But Dill’s real love, his passion, is for tuna. One particular bluefin he calls Justice, that always gets away. It’s his great white whale, his Moby Dick . He spends his free time drinking dark rum at the local bar or sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane) an attractive older woman with a black cat, who helps him out financially after a night of passion.

Life never changes… until one day a mysterious femme fatale, named Karen (Anne Hathaway) appears on his boat. If you drown my rich abusive husband, she says, I’ll give you 10 million bucks. Cash. Will Dill stick with his tuna obsession or will he kill a stranger?

But wait, that’s not all. Turns out he had a thing with Karen before serving in Iraq… she dumped him to marry the rich guy. And her teenaged boy Patrick, a computer geek, could be his biological son. (Though they’ve never met Dill feels he has a psychic bond with the boy). And a strange man with a briefcase following Dill has some crucial information.

If my description sounds like a clichéed film noir knock-off, that’s because that’s what it is. The actors play their characters – an obsessed fisherman, a villainous drunk, an abused but devious woman – in over-the-top performances, vamping for the camera. Why the boilerplate plots? Why the tired dialogue? Apparently, it’s all intentional, but to tell you why would ruin the WTF plot twist. I started to figure it out about two-thirds-of-the-way through, and it kept me interested (though not really satisfied). If you like watching famous actors acting in an imperfect script, this is for you.

Wonders of the Sea

Dir: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jean-Jacques Montello

Jacques Cousteau was the French deep-sea diver, conservationist and underwater filmmaker whose TV shows fascinated me as a child. He sailed away on a ship called Calypso with flippers on his feet and aqualungs on his back. He died in 1997 but his son Jean-Michel and grandkids Fabien and Celine are still diving. This latest documentary in 3D looks at undiscovered parts of the ocean floor and the tiny creatures that live there. They lead us through a massive squid orgy: a mating ritual near California where they all have sex with each other. They also visit a hammerhead shark migration near the Bahamas, and the wondrous coral reefs off Fiji, which form a crucial part of the world’s oceans’ ecosystem. The doc focusses on the tiny, the cute, the weird and the grotesque. And they throw in informative facts and stats about pollution and overfishing.

My biggest problem with this movie is the insufferably corny and dated voiceovers by Arnold Schwartzeneggar and the Cousteaus. It seems aimed at three-year-olds. Who knows, maybe the narration was this bad when I was three but I just didn’t notice. Whatever. If you can somehow switch off the dialogue and just take in the intense, weird-and-wonderful, 3-D coloured images you’ll enjoy this movie.

Cold War

Wri/ Dir Pawel Pawlikowski

It’s post-WWII Poland, and a team of musicologists is heading to the mountains with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Irena (Agata Kulesza) is a serious academic looking to preserve authentic folk culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) a handsome conductor, wants to put together a musical group. Their boss is Kazsmarek (Borys Szyc), an apparatchik – he wants a show big enough to impress his party bosses. The auditions begin, with milk maids and farm hands singing the innocently salacious songs of their childhood. Authenticity rules. Still, one pretty young woman, with blonde braids and a strong voice manages to slip through the cracks. Zula (Joanna Kulig) isn’t really a local peasant, but after living through WWII, taking on new identities is a piece of cake. And Wiktor is attracted to her. The Mazurek Choir is born, and it’s a big hit. And Wiktor and Zula start a secret relationship.

The Party weeds out anyone not “Polish-looking” enough: hair too dark, nose too big? Back to the farm. When they are forced to include Stalinist paeans to collective farming, Wiktor shrugs his shoulders but Irena quits in disgust. But their new status pushes the choir to star status in the Eastern Bloc. Wiktor and Zula fall in love and hatch a plan to defect to the west. Wiktor makes it across the border, but Zula stays behind. Now thelovers are separated by the impenetrable Iron Curtain. Will they ever see each other again? If so, on which side? And can their love –  and their music – survive a long separation?

Cold War is a wonderful, bittersweet romantic drama, set in 1950s Europe. It paints the Cold War era with all its faults and how it affects the people caught in it. Like Pawlikowski’s Ida, it’s just 90 minutes long and shot in glorious black and white on a square screen. Filled with haunting music and images, the film showcases the amazing Kulig and Kot in their flawless performances as separated lovers. (Kulig sings, too!) It’s nominated for a Foreign Language Feature Oscar and is also on my list of best movies of the year.

This is a great movie, don’t miss it.

Wonders of the Sea in 3D starts next week, Serenity and Cold War 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.

Kinship. Films reviewed: Vox Lux, Shoplifters

Posted in Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Japan, Movies, Music, Terrorism, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 21, 2018

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

The holiday season is a time when families get back together, for good or for ill. So this week I’m looking at two movies about family and kinship. There’s a pair of sisters turned pop musicians, where one holds the scars of a terrible incident; and a makeshift family that rescues a small girl with scars.

Vox Lux

Wri/Dir: Brady Corbet

Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a god-fearing high school student in Staten Island, New York. She likes music, church and her big sister Eleanor (Stacey Martin) who always looks out for her. But her world turns upside down when a non-conformist kid pulls out a gun in music class, and starts shooting people down. Celeste tries to reason with him; she ends up wounded but not dead. She recovers with a scar on her neck. At the memorial for the mass shooting she performs a song which soon goes viral.

She and her sister are quickly signed to a major label by their manager (Jude Law) and whisked off to Sweden. There they experience the heady brew of extreme wealth, celebrity and number-one hits. But it also exposes them to the cruel scrutiny of tabloids and paparazzi that accompany celebrity.

Still a teenager, she loses her virginity to another musician, tries drugs and alcohol for the first time, and begins a gradual downward spiral toward addiction and paranoia. But she also establishes herself as an international icon, with her sparkling makeup, severe haircuts, and sequined outfits mimicked by devoted fans. She always wears a band around her neck both to hide and commemorate the scars of the shooting.

Years later Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) plans for a comeback, culminating in a stadium concert back in the hometown she left after the shooting. Now she’s brittle and bitter, addicted to drugs, and full of anger and pain. And she has a daughter (played by Cassidy, the young Celeste) brought up by the more responsible sister Eleanor. As she works toward the ultimate concert, a disturbing incident hits the headlines. Halfway around the world, fans wearing her distinctive makeup and clothing commit a random act of terrorism. Is she to blame? Will her career crash and burn? And if she performs her stadium show in her home town, will this lead to yet another massacre?

My brief description of the film suggests a music biopic crossed with an action movie. It’s neither. It’s actually a visual and audio collage of the impressions of a teenaged girl in the high pressure world of pop music, and the adult who emerges from it. Vox Lux is a short film, and at least a third of it is taken up by music performed on a stage before an actual audience. The music is by SIA and actually sung by Natalie Portman. The plot is mainly a background for the director’s experiments with sound and image filtered through the cruel world of social networks. Recurring shots of endless tunnels and aerial views of cities give it a hypnotic effect, and the music gives it a haunting feel. Though the movie feels incomplete, I liked the look and sound of it.

Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)

Wri/Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu

It’s present day Tokyo. Shota (Jyo Kairi) is a young boy living in an urban paradise. He’s smart, resourceful and brave. He studies at home – where he learns not just reading and writing, but also essential survival skills and the ways of the world. He lives with his grandma, his mom and dad and his big sister Aki, a family brimming with love. They are always there to rescue him from trouble and help him through bad times. They share responsibilities and eat dinner together. No one tells Shota to clean his room or wash the dishes. This is a life rich in traditions, superstitions, and family lore. And there’s lots of time to tell stories, go to the beach, or go fishing.

Or

Shota lives in a filthy, ramshackle house, a Dickensian den of petty criminals, thieves and con artists. This so-called family of vaguely-related misfits shoplifts their dinners and daily needs to stay alive. Dad (Lily Franky) works as a casual labourer, Grandma (Kiki Kirin) receives payments from an unknown source, teenaged Aki (Matsuoka Mayu) performs behind glass at a peepshow arcade, and mom, sometimes called auntie or Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) makes do with a parttime job pressing garments in a small factory. Even young Shota helps them all by pocketing food and shampoo while dad distracts the clerks.

But homelife takes a subtle shift with the newest family member.

Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is a little waif, horribly abused and neglected by her young parents… they always see her staring whistfully through her balcony bars, like a prisoner hoping to be rescued. They adopt her into their family, after discovering scars and burn marks all over her arms.

She immediately adapts to her new life, especially the love, attention and lack of fear she never experiences at home. They ask her if she wants to go home, but she adamently refuses… she likes it better here. But when her case becomes known as a kidnapping, it spells trouble. Can the family survive this a brush with authority? Or will it all come tumbling down? And would government intervention make their lives better or worse?

Perhaps I’m biased: I’ve interviewed Kore-eda four times, more than any other director, because I love all his films. But in my opinion Shoplifters is a fantastic movie, definitely one of the year’s best. It deals with poverty, nonconformity and precarious lives coexisting within one of the richest cities in the world. It explores what a family really is: is it something designated by law, or could it be a family by choice, where the members designate their own names and roles.

Hirokazu Kore-eda, TIFF17, photo by Jeff Harris

It stars many of his past actors – Lili Franky, and the late Kiki Kirin – and replays some themes from his early films. Our Little Sister was about whether a half-sister can be accepted into a complete family. Like Father, Like Son, where a family discovers their son was switched at birth, explores whether it’s nature or nurture that makes kinship real (Lili Franky plays the “bad dad” in that film.) After the Storm is about a delinquent dad trying to rebuild his family (also co-starring Lili Franky and Kiki Kirin). The Third Murder, a courtroom drama, deals with an accused murderer and his role as a surrogate parent to a high school girl. And in Nobody Knows, there’s a family made up of abandoned kids living in a highrise in central Tokyo.

Shoplifters (or Shoplifter Family, the more accurate Japanese title) is a culmination of all these films, a distillation of all their best elements.

It’s also exquisitely laden with relics of an older Japan – filled with glass bottles, printed cotton, paper calenders, snow men and fishing trips – that impart a soft, glowing light to all the scenes.

Detailed and nuanced, I strongly recommend Shoplifters to all.

Vox Lux and Shoplifters 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.

Other people’s danger. Films reviewed: Blaze, Ben is Back, The Quake

Posted in Addiction, Biopic, C&W, Christmas, Disaster, Family, Morality, Music, Norway, Romance, Texas by CulturalMining.com on December 14, 2018

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

 

With all the trouble in the world, some people like to safely observe other people’s problems, as a kind of catharsis. This week I’m looking at three new movies about people putting themselves in danger. There’s an opiate addict at Christmas, a quake spotter in Oslo, and an alcoholic musician in a bar.

Blaze

Dir: Ethan Hawke

It’s the 70s in the deep south. Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey) is a hefty, bearded Texan from San Antone, living in an artsy, hippy commune. That’s where he meets a beautiful woman with kinky hair named Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). He’s a musician and a raconteur, she’s a writer and aspiring actress. The two decide to shack up together in a treehouse for some sweet, summer lovin. When they’re not in bed they’re singing songs to each other. But Sybil – or Tsibele, as her parents call her – sees something more. Blaze, she says, you gotta go to Austin to make it big. And Blaze says I don’t wanna be a star, I want to be a legend.

But he agrees to tour blues bars while she works as a waitress. Problem is, when he’s lonely he drinks – he’s a boozehound – and when he drinks he gets angry, and when he gets angry he gets into fights – not a good career move for a budding musician.

Can their relationship survive? And will people ever get to hear his music?

Blaze is a meandering biopic about a musician you’ve probably never heard of. It jumps back and forth over a twenty year period tracing his highs and lows… mainly the lows. (Like the time when a trio of Texas Oilmen — played by Steve Zahn, Richard Linklater and Sam Rockwell — who think they’ve discovered the next big thing and put up the money to record an album.)  And there are lots of concerts in small bars. Blaze’s story is narrated by Towne Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) recalling his life and his music. Blaze was dead by age 40, but now, 30 years later, he’s finally getting listened to.

It sounds super depressing… but it’s not. It’s actually a very gentle, pleasant movie, mainly because the music – folk, blues, country – never stops for the whole two hours. Lots of plucking of guitars and Ben Dickey’s sweet voice. And Alia’s, too.

OK, it is a bit too long and the plot isn’t that interesting (though the stories Blaze tells are), but if you go to this movie to feel it, not to think about it… well, you just might like it.

Ben is Back

Wri/Dir: Peter Hedges

Holly (Julia Roberts) is happily married to her second husband (Courtney B Vance) and fond of her three kids who live at home. She’s preparing for Christmas: trimming the tree and wrapping the presents. But then a surprise visitor shows up. It’s Ben (Lucas Hedges), the eldest from her first marriage, the return of the Prodigal Son. She over him dearly, but he also makes her nervous. He’s an addict,

and he’s supposed to be at rehab. But she welcomes him for dinner, after carefully hiding all the prescription drugs, money and valuable jewelry. She loves him, but everyone knows addicts lie, cheat and steal… the boy can’t help it.

But maybe this time is different. He’s been clean for 80 days now, and he promises he won’t do anything to hurt his family. He seems back to normal. But when Ben is back, all his history, his baggage, all his friends and enemies are there with him, metaphorically. And some literally: when they go to sister Ivy’s Christmas pageant, they come back to a burglarized home… and Ben’s pet has been dog-napped.

Who dunnit? It’s up to him to visit all the ghosts of his past – people he stole from, families of overdose victims, druggies, dealers and gangsters – until he finds the one with his dog. But Holly won’t let him do it alone. She’ll stick by his side until he’s safe again. Will they find the dog? Or die in trying?

Ben is Back is one of a creepily popular genre: addiction movies. And like many of them it’s not about the addicts, it’s about the harm they bring to their parents or lovers. (The recent Beautiful Boy is a good example – it should have been called Dithering Dad.) While Ben is Back’s story kept me interested, the movie as a whole was both moralistic and grueling to watch… why are moviegoers forced to sit through yet another reenactment of a 12-step meeting? Ugh. That’s not entertaininment. And as if that’s not enough, you also have to sit through an interminable Christmas show.

Equal doses of saccharine and grime… No thanks.

The Quake

Dir: John Andreas Andersen

It’s present-day Norway. Gaunt, bearded Kristian (Krisoffer Joner) lives in the picturesque, fjord-filled town of Geiranger. Three years ago a deadly tsunami swept through there but Kristian saved many people including his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) his son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and his darling daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande). He’s a national hero… and a broken man, far away from his family who moved to Oslo. Why? Because Kristian hears tremors everywhere – he’s in a constant state of panic, just waiting for the next earthquake. Perfect for an emergency but unfit to be a normal husband and father.

But his panic starts to escalate when a series of clues – unexplained seismic data, a collapsing tunnel, rats running away – tell him the next earthquake is coming to Oslo. He has to get there fast and warn his family.. and everyone else. Has Kristian gone bananas? Or is he right? The Quake is a disaster movie so of course he’s right. Once the tremors start the real action begins, mainly in a glass and steel highrise in downtown Oslo. Somehow Dad, Mom, Little Julia and Marit (Kathrine T Johansen) a woman helping Kristian find the truth, all end up there, at the very top of a skyscraper, when the earthquake hits. Who will survive?

The Quake is a terrific disaster flic, mainly because the characters are interesting enough to care about. And the special effects are amazing. You believe they’re hanging onto wires in elevator shafts or sliding toward the edge as the skyscraper starts lean. The director of this movie is actually a cinematographer so its very visual: aerial views, long tunnels, fjords, and collapsing new buildings. I had to watch it on a computer screen, but you should try to see it in a theatre with a big screen, and loud rumbles.

Blaze, Ben is Back, and the Quake 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.

Dancing. Films reviewed: Nang by Nang, Dancehall’s Asian Ambassadors, Saturday Church at #CaribbeanTales

Posted in African-Americans, Dance, documentary, Drama, Jamaica, Japan, LGBT, Music by CulturalMining.com on August 31, 2018

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

Toronto’s Fall Film Festival Season has begun, people, bringing you a first look at the best movies you’ll be watching over the next year. TIFF is the grandmother of all Toronto festivals – and you’ll be hearing a lot more about that one in weeks to come – but you shouldn’t miss the smaller festivals that come right before and after TIFF. September 20-23 is TPFF, Toronto Palestine Film Festival celebrates Arab cinema at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. And before TIFF is Caribbean Tales, showing films and docs from Trinidad to Jamaica to Barbados and Haiti, as well as the US, Canada and South Africa. Caribbean Tales starts Wednesday (running Sept 5 – 20) with a sneak preview of HERO, about the legendary Ulric Cross.

This week I’m talking about three movies at Caribbean Tales. There’s a one-time dancer in Trinidad, Japanese dancehall DJs in Jamaica, and a boy in New York who is yearning to dance.

Nang by Nang

Dir: Richard Fung

Nang is a 90 year old woman in Trinidad with a remarkable history. She was illegitmate – didn’t meet her father, a playboy, until she was in her 20s, but she knows her background well. Her ancestry reads like a Caribbean history lesson: she’s part Chinese, part Black, but also descended from Indian indentured servants and indigenous peoples as well. Her names range from Dorothy to Mavis to Russel to Anang, constantly changing and morphing throughout her life. . As a young woman she joined a dance troup headed by brothers Geoffrey and Bosco Holder. (Choreographer Geoffrey Holder is most famous in North America for The Wiz and his role in James Bond movies.) Though not a trained dancer they loved her beautiful face and natural skills and she embraced the behemian lifestyle.

In this documentary filmmaker Richard Fung meets his aunt for the first time and uncovers her story. They journey back to her former houses spread across the islands and all the way to New Mexico. She has married many times, and she shares stories and photos of men long dead. She has outlived everyone, from a loving husband, to a professional, to a playboy and to a scoundrel. Nang by Nang is a personal history that serves as a fascinating look at a women with in a multifaceted and polyglot culture.

Dancehall’s Asian Ambassadors

Dir: Kaneal Gayle

For such a small island, Jamaica has a huge influence on music around the world. Ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall are adored by listeners who have never been to the caribbean. But there’s one place you might not immediately associate with Jamaican music… and that’s Japan! But did you know they’ve had a huge underground reggae scene there since the 1970s? And now Dancehall has landed in Japan and is growing in popularity.

Dancehall’s Asian Ambasaadors follows four Japanese women who fell in love with genre and moved to Jamaica to be nearer to its pulse. With names like Rankin Pumpkin, and Kiss Kiss, they they are music organizers, DJs, dancers and singers, competing on TV and attracting international audiences on youtube. The English they speak is Jamaican, and they earn a living by driving cabs, exporting local music and parephernalia, and importing fans from back home who want to explore the scene.

As one woman says: life in Japan is easier, and more comfortable than Jamaica, but no vibes.

Saturday Church

Wri/Dir: Damon Cardasis

Ulysses (Luka Cain) is a high school kid in New York. He lives with his mom and little brother Abe. His soldier-dad recently died in action, so his mother has invited stern Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) to help take care of the kids. Ulysses is an altar boy, a good kid with a face as angelic as the saints on the stained glass windows. But he has a forbidden secret: He likes his to try on his mom’s shoes and clothes.

No one at school has seen this, but the locker room jocks can sense something anyway, and constantly bully him. Homelife is equally perilous, with Abe threatening to tell mean Aunt Rose. Is there no escape? One weekend, he hops on the subway to Greenwich village to explore, and ends up on the Christopher Street Pier. There he meets some women like he’s never seen before. With exotic names like Dijon, Ebony and Heaven (Indya Moore, Mj Rodriguez, Alexia Garcia), they exude confidence and attitude. One of them, Amara (Margot Bingham) takes him under her wing and leads him to a sanctuary. Saturday Church offers him food shelter and a space to feel free.

It’s also where he is first exposed to vogueing, the life blood of the women he met. And a boy named Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez) – his first boyfriend? But when things explode at home between him and aunt Rose, he runs away. And he discovers his church sanctuary is only open on Saturdays. He’s left homeless, lost and vulnerable. Can he survive life on the streets?

Saturday Church sounds like another sensitive coming-out story about a black teen in New York. What’s remarkable, though, is that throughout the movie, the characters burst into intricately-choreographed dances and songs. From locker rooms to homeless shelters to locker rooms, characters suddenly switch to impromptu, modern-dance-inspired musical numbers and torch songs. Luka Cain is great as Ulysses, and Saturday Church is an inspiring and unusual musical.

Saturday Church, Nang by Nang and Dancehall’s Asian Ambassadors and many others are all playing at CaribbeanTales film festival, which opens next Wednesday with Hero.

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

 

 

 

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.

Big plans. Films reviewed: Octavio is Dead, American Animals, Hearts Beat Loud

Posted in Brooklyn, Canada, College, Coming of Age, Crime, Cultural Mining, Dreams, Ghosts, LGBT, Music, Romance by CulturalMining.com on June 22, 2018

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

It’s Pride weekend in Toronto, so this week I’m looking at three indie movies, two of which fall somewhere with in the LGBTQ2 spectrum – can you guess which two? I’ve got four Kentucky fratboys with a secret plan; a Brooklyn daughter and dad forming a band; and a young woman in Hamilton… dressed like a man!

Octavio is Dead

Wri/Dir: Sook-yin Lee

Tyler (Sarah Gadon: Indignation) is a young woman who lives with her shrewish single mom (Rosanna Arquette) in suburban Toronto. But a knock on their door changes everything. It seems her father Octavio, a latino poet and teacher she never met has died. And he left her his condo and all his possessions. So she heads out to Hamilton to try to find out he was, exactly.

What she finds there is surprising. His flat is an Old Curiosity Shop, filled with persian rugs, oil paintings, tapestries and floor-to-ceiling shelves full of books. (She loves books.) There’s a sunroom with withering plants and eccentric neighbours all around. And strangest of all, Octavio himself, or at least his ghost, appears every so often to proffer advice. Later, she sees a young man in a hoodie who has some connection to her dad. She follows him to a burlesque club but is barred from entering: Men Only!

So she cuts off her hair, puts on one of Octavio’s suits and tries again. This time she meets the young man and he opens up to her. Apostolis (Dimitris Kitsos), is a poet who learned about art and literature at Octavio’s knee. He also knew him… intimately. Apostolis likes posing in bathtubs dressed in a toga. He also seems to like Tyler – a lot – and she likes him, too. The problem is he desires her thinking she’s Octavio’s son, while she’s attracted to him as a woman to a man. What to do?

Octavio is Dead is a quirky, indie movie by Sook-yin Lee, best known for CBC’s DNTO, Definitely Not The Opera. This film is also not an opera, but it is full of classical themes projected against a grittty, downtown Hamilton. Cross-dressing Riley feels more Shakespearean than non-binary queer, but the performances — especially laid back Kitsos and intense Gadon — are pleasing to watch.

American Animals

Wri/Dir: Bart Layton

It’s Lexington, Kentucky in 2004. Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is at university studying art, when he notices something strange at Transylvania University. No, not vampires, this is a actual place. A library there holds priceless artworks – like Audubon’s famous bird paintings – in the form of rare books. And these volumes – worth over 10 million dollars – are watched over by a single librarian (Ann Down). He tells this to a friend Warren, (Evan Peters) and a scheme begins to hatch. Warren’s at school on a sports scholarship but is bored by college life. He wants to do something big, something exciting.

His plan is simple: We enter the library disguised as old men, disable the librarian, open the glass case, take out the books and walk straight out the basement door without anyone knowing what we did! The perfect heist.

But they also need a driver and a lookout. So they enlist two friends they can trust: Eric (Jared Abrahamson) a contrarian genius; and Chas (Blake Jenner) a jock / entrepreneur whose also a great driver. Together they just might pull it off.

American Animals is a story of simple plans gone astray and their potential moral consequences. It’s a true story, and the real people involved – the four guys plus the librarian – bring a real-life element as they narrate the story, documentary-style. This stylish true crime drama has some thrilling parts, but it’s mainly good for the characters and the

LA Times: American Animals actors and real counterparts

actors that portray them. Barry Keoghan (Dunkirk, Killing of a Sacred Deer) is great as a bored art student, and Canadian Jared Abrahamson (Hello Destroyer, Hollow in the Land, Sweet Virginia) who normally plays angry young men is unrecognizeable as the fuzzy-bearded smart kid. And at times the real people interviewed are even more fascinating than the actors who play them.

Hearts Beat Loud

Dir: Brett Haley

Frank (Nick Offerman) is a former musician who lives in Red Hook, a waterside Brooklyn neighbourhood, with his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons). Frank owns a record store, while Sam is preparing for college: she leaves for UCLA in the fall. For Sam, everything’s coming up roses. She’s going to be a doctor, and meets a pretty young artist Rose (Sasha Lane). Is it true love?

For Frank, on the other hand, times are tough. He’s a musician who has raised his biracial daughter alone since his wife (and former band mate) died in an accident. Now he’s closing his record store and his eccentric lounge singer mom (Blythe Danner) has been arrested for shoplifting. And he’s getting mixed signals from his landlady/prospective girlfriend Leslie (Toni Collette) Is she just a friend… or something more?

The one thing he still has is his jam sessions with Sam. And a particularly good one yields some potential hit singles. When he posts them online, they start picking up listeners. Will the record store be saved? Can Sam take a year off to record and tour with her two-member band? Or will she leave the band, her family and her girlfriend to go to UCLA?

Hearts Beat Loud – which is also the name of one of their songs – is a sweet and gentle story of family and first love. Offerman is believable as a midlife crisis dad trying to hold on to his authenticity, and Kiersey Clemons is wonderful as Sam. She performs her own music, and luckily, she’s really good at it… since about a third of the movie is about people making music.

This film leaves you with a warm feeling inside.

Octavio is Dead, American Animals, and Hearts Beat Loud 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.

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

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.

Daniel Garber talks with Scott Jones and Laura Marie Wayne about their new doc Love, Scott

Posted in Canada, Crime, Cultural Mining, Disabilities, documentary, Gay, Music, violence by CulturalMining.com on April 27, 2018

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Scott Jones is a young musician just back in Canada after a stint abroad. He’s giving music lessons in a small town in Nova Scotia, when something terrible happens. He’s brutally attacked by a stranger and left to die. But he doesn’t die. He comes back with a new mission: to use music to tell Canadians about the reallife consequences of homophobia. Despite his disability, he conducts a full choir to tell his story and spread his love.

And he’s the subject of a new, deeply personal documentary made by a close friend he met in music school. It’s a story of hatred and loss that leads to love and rebirth. The NFB documentary is called Love, Scott.

It’s director Laura Marie Wayne’s first film.

I spoke with Scott and Laura at CIUT 89.5 FM during Hot Docs.

Daniel Garber talks with Daniela Vega about A Fantastic Woman

Posted in Bullying, Chile, Drama, Family, Movies, Music, Secrets, Trans, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 9, 2018

(The second track is unedited, for Spanish speakers)

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Marina Vidal is a happy woman. Her career as a singer is taking off, and her relationship with her lover, Orlando, is at a new stage. They are living together. He gives her a perfect birthday: dinner, dancing, and a trip to a resort. But her luck takes a turn for the worse when he wakes up feeling strange. She rushes him to hospital but it’s too late. He’s dead. And suddenly everything changes.

The authorities, police, doctor, and Orlandos family swoop down upon her. She is called a thief, a prostitute, a murderer. She is attacked emotionally and physically and told to stay away. All of this because she’s a trans woman. They say her relationship with Orlando was not “normal”.

But why should a woman settle for normal when she can be fantastic?

A Fantastic Woman is the name of a new film directed by Sebastián Lelio and starring Daniela Vega. Vega is a popular Chilean singer and actor who plays Marina in a remarkably powerful performance.

I spoke with Daniela on location at TIFF17 in September.

A Fantastic Woman has been nominated for an Academy Award: Best Foreign Language Film.  It opens today in Toronto.

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