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

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

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

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

Ravage

Wri/Dir: Teddy Grennan

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

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

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

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Dir: Bert Stern

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

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

Lucky Grandma

Co-Wri/Dir: Sasie Sealy

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

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

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

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

You can watch Jazz on a Summer’s Day on virtual cinema at Hot Docs, Lucky Grandma is now on digital and VOD, and you can see Ravage at drive-ins across Ontario; check your local listings.

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

Decline and Fall. Films reviewed: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, The Strain, The Humorist

Posted in Action, Communism, Cooking, Disaster, Disease, documentary, Food, France, Horror, New York City, Russia, TV, USSR, Vampires by CulturalMining.com on May 29, 2020

Unedited, no music

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

It’s Spring Film Festival Season in Toronto, without cinemas but with exciting new movies still being shown online. I’m recording at home via CIUT, from my house to yours, so I apologize for the sound quality. This week I’m looking at three films, one each from TJFF and Hot Docs, as well as a TV series. There’s decadence in Versailles, pandemic and mayhem in New York, and decline in 80s Moscow.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

Dir: Laura Gabbert

Yotam Ottolenghi is a London-based chef, restauranteur and cookbook author. A few years ago he receives an unusual offer from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”): to pull together an event recreating the desserts of the Palace of Versailles, from Louis XIV till Louis XVI. He contacts five chefs from around the world to fly in and show their stuff. But these are no ordinary chefs; they each have an unusual style all their own. Dinara Kasko, a young woman from Ukraine, assembles architecturally-inspired cakes with gravity-defying minimalist structures on the outside, and fantastic layers on the inside. Dominique Ansel – inventor of the Cronut – features new takes on classic French patisseries at his Manhattan restaurant. Sam Bompas of London’s Bompas and Parr, injects life into that much-neglected cooking form: jellies and moulds. Ghaya Oliveira is a multi-talented Tunisian chef who evokes her grandmother’s ideas while creating French pastries; and Janice Wong, a Cordon Bleu-trained Singaporean culinary artist who paints and sculpts using chocolates.

This wonderful documentary shows the chefs at work behind the scenes at The Met, recreating the splendour, decadence and opulence of Louis XIV’s Versailles. The unique works they create especially for the show are really amazing, suggesting the architecture, the formal gardens, and the open-court style of that palace, where ordinary people, if elegantly dressed, were allowed to enter the palace grounds, a space traditionally fenced off from the public. The film also provides much needed historical context: Starving Parisians stormed the palace in 1789, while the documentary is set in an ostentatious Manhattan not too long before the pandemic lockdown. Parallels anyone?

The Strain (Season 1)

Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Dr Goodweather (Corey Stoll) is a NY epidemiologist who works for the CDC. He’s separated from his wife and son because he’s always on call for emergencies. He works alongside Nora (Mia Maestro) an Argentinian-born doctor. They are called into action when a 747 lands at JFK. Everyone on board – including the pilots – are dead. Is it a terrorist hijacking? No, it’s a highly contagious virus. Called to action, the doctors attempt to stop its spread before it infects everyone in the city. But they are thwarted by corrupt officials who allow an intricately-carved wooden box (a coffin?) out of the protected area. And it turns out that the infected passengers are really dead, just temporarily comatose. They’re actually still alive, or perhaps undead. Once infected, people change into zombie-like vampires under the thrall of an unseen master.

What’s unusual about this virus is how it spreads. A red, phallic piece of flesh, like a blind moray eel, shoots out from the infected person’s neck and sucks their victim’s blood. The disease carriers cluster in colonies underground and only come out at night. Manhattan quickly collapses into chaos with widespread crime, looting and mayhem due to the pandemic. But still no quarantine to stop its spread. Luckily, a Scooby Gang of mismatched players form a team. There’s Mr Setrakian (David Bradley) an old man with secrets fro the past who carries a silver sword; Vassily (Kevin Durand) is a public rat catcher who knows his way through all of Manhattan’s dark tunnels; Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas) a champion hacker who disables the internet. They face a cabal of powerful men who want the infection to continue for their own nefarious purposes. But can the doctors and their allies stop the infection? Or is it too late?

The Strain is a great action/horror/thriller TV series about an uncontrolled pandemic, corrupt billionaires amd politicians, and the frontline medical workers trying to stop them. It has mystery, romance, sex, and violence with a good story arc, gradually revealed. It’s uncannily appropriate now, and for Toronto residents it’s fun to spot the localations – it was shot here. So if you’re looking for a good pandemic drama, and don’t know where to find it, look for The Strain.

The Humorist

Wri/Dir: Mikhail Idov

It’s 1984 in the Soviet Union. The Soyuz T-12 is in the sky, Chernenko heads a geriatric government, and Ronald Reagan casually talks about dropping atomic bombs on Russia. Boris Arkadiev (Aleksey Agranovich) is a successful comedian who has it all, adored by fans and government officials alike. He travels across the nation with a stand-up monologue called The Mellow Season, a tame routine about a trained monkey. Born in Byelorussia, he now lives in a nice Moscow apartment with his lawyer wife Elvira, and his two kids, his adoring six-year-old Polina and his rebellious teenage son Ilya. In public, he’s a national icon. But behind the scenes he’s an arrogant alcoholic, a prolific womanizer, and an all-around prick. Aside from himself, he worships the two Russian idols: vodka and the space program. He left religion behind but is conscious of anti-Jewish murmurs wherever he goes. And he’s a total sell-out. Once a serious but unsuccessful novelist, he went on to be a TV writer with his friend and rival Simon. Boris gave in to the official censors, while the less-successful Simon resisted. Now Boris is like the trained monkey in his monologue, performing on cue whenever ordered to do so.

But a series of events change his outlook. An unexpected encounter with a cosmonaut makes him rethink destiny, God and existence. And when he learns about the audacious black comics working in LA from his actor pal Maxim (Yuri Kolokolnikov) he realizes how dull and tired his own comedy has become. Will he stay a depressed, trained monkey for his corrupt masters in the army and KGB? Or will he risk his job, family and reputation by speaking from the heart?

The Humorist is an excellent dark comedy, set in the last days of the Soviet Union. Agranovich is great as a troubled, over-the-hill comic, like a Soviet Phillip Roth anti-hero. It’s brilliantly constructed starting with a garden party in Latvia, but degenerating into a soiree at a high-ranked party-member’s villa. It’s peak-decadence, where sagging old generals in formal wear dine with American porn playing elegantly on a TV in the background (they think it’s high society). The men later retreat to a banya wearing Roman togas, in a scene straight out of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The Humourist has an absurdist, almost surreal tone, where a midnight knock on the door could mean interrogation or the exact opposite. It’s filled with disturbing scenes of long underground corridors and empty Aeroflot planes. It kept me gripped — and squirming — until the end.

Great movie.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is now streaming at Hotdocs; The Humourist is playing online at TJFF, and you can find The Strain streaming, VOD, or on DVD.

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

Some Antipodean Directors. Films reviewed: The Assistant, Come to Daddy

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

February is the worst month of the year, full of overcast skies, slush on the ground and a general malaise. So I thought: why not look at movies from a place where our winter is their summer? At least the directors, if not the stories. This week I’m looking at two films by directors from the antipodes, one from Australia, another from New Zealand. There’s a thriller/horror about a young man searching for his father’s secrets; and a tense drama about a young woman uncovering horrible secrets in her office.

The Assistant

Wri/Dir: Kitty Green (Interview: Ukraine is not a Brothel)

Jane (Julia Garner) is a young woman trying to make it in New York City. Hired straight out of Northwestern,  she’s currently at the bottom of the ladder, but hopes to work her way up. She’s an assistant at a medium-sized movie industry corporation with offices in New York, London and LA. She’s the first one to arrive, the last one to leave, the sort who eats her fruit loops standing up in the office kitchen.  All the grunt work falls to her — order lunch, sort head shots, distribute memos, serve coffee, book hotel rooms, tidy up her boss’s office. And deal with angry abusive people blaming everything on her. She brushes it all off in exchange for the promise of future work.

But something doesn’t seem quite right. A newly hired assistant, a pretty aspiring actress, has just arrived from Boise, Idaho, fresh out of high school, who has only worked as a waitress in a diner. Jane commutes from remote Astoria while the newest assistant is staying at a first-class hotel. She finds a woman’s earring  under a cushion in the boss’s couch. Why do actresses leave the boss’s office in tears? Why is she sending out blank cheques to unnamed people? And what will happen to the new assistant who thinks she’s here for an audition? Although she doesn’t face sexual abuse from her boss, it’s becoming increasingly clear that other women do. Why isn’t anyone talking about it? And is she to blame of she doesn’t speak up?

The Assistant is a cold, hard look at the rampant sexual harassment and abuse women face. It’s set at some point in the past, before the #MeToo movement broke, when everybody knew what was going on, but nobody ever did anything about it. Or if they did, they would be paid hush money to keep it away from the public. Male assistants laugh nervously, making jokes about which pieces of the boss’s furniture you should never sit in. Older women take it as a given: don’t worry dear, you’re not his type. The movie just lays its out before the audience in all its horribleness… without ever showing it.

Julia Garner gives a stunning performance as Jane, conveying a succession of unspoken emotions over the course of one day through facial expressions and body language: dread, distrust, realization, horror, and fear. There’s a terrific scene where she wraps herself up in a winter coat and a big scarf – like a suit of armour – to somehow shield her from the bad stuff happening all around her. This film gives a realistic look at a widespread problem reduced to a single day in one unnamed office.

The Assistant is a subtly, powerful movie about a difficult and uncomfortable topic that has to be told.

Come to Daddy

Dir: Ant Timpson (Turbo Boy)

Norval Greenwood (Elijah Wood) is a privileged, 35-year-old guy from LA. He loves fashion, celebrity and the big city. His prize possession is a limited edition, solid gold cel phone designed by Lorde. But something is missing from his life. His father walked out when he was five and Norval was raised by his mother in a Beverley Hills mansion. So when he receives a cryptic, letter from his long-lost Dad telling him he wants to talk to him, he decides to do it. He follows a handwritten map to a rocky beach in the pacific northwest until he finds an isolated, wooden house decorated with christmas lights clinging to the edge of a cliff. He knocks on the door, and a dessicated, grizzled old man opens it. “Hi Dad, Here I am…”

But this is not the kindly father he remembers. Gordon (Stephen McHattie) is a mean drunk, staggering around swilling plonk as he shoots insults at his son. His beady eyes look like dried out raisins. Norval wants to get the hell out of there but only after his dad tells him why he asked him to come in the first place. But when the old man threatens to chop him up with a cleaver, he knows something is not right.

Come to Daddy is a nihilistic thriller/horror as seen through a darkly comic lens. Elijah Wood is great as a nervous, self-centred guy whose First World problems are dwarfed by real life dangers… involving a killer, an eccentric policeman, a coroner, a swingers convention at a nearby motel, and the unexplained noises, that echo — clang clang clang —  around the nearly empty house. The vintage Thai soundtrack helps balance the blood and gore. This is a particular genre; either you like it or you don’t, but I love darkly twisted movies like this, with the quirky characters and constant surprises that keeps me glued to my seat till the final revelation.

The Assistant and Come to Daddy 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

Young Lovers. Films reviewed: Angelfish, Man Proposes, God Disposes, And Then We Danced

Posted in 1990s, Brazil, Clash of Cultures, Dance, Georgia, LGBT, New York City, Poland, Romance by CulturalMining.com on January 24, 2020

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

How is cinema faring at the start of this new decade? In Toronto, at least, it looks a bit grim. Our biggest film festival has laid off much of their staff, our largest theatre chain is about to be devoured by a British conglomerate, and one of the biggest downtown movie theatre is slated for demolition. But have no fear, the movies are still here. You can see super-8 movies over the weekend at the Polish Combatants’ Hall (SPK) on Beverley St; The magnificently refurbished Paradise Theatre is showing first-run art house films in a splendid setting. And TIFF’s Next Wave festival is offering free screenings of young directors for free if your under 25.

So this week I’m looking at three new movies about young love. There’s a Polish criminal pursuing a woman he doesn’t love, a Georgian dancer dealing with forbidden love, and a young couple in the Bronx trying to see if love can work.

Angelfish

Dir: Peter Lee

It’s the early 1990s in the Bronx. Brandon (Jimi Stanton) lives with his little brother Conner and alcoholic mom (Erin Davie) in Kingsbridge, a working-class white neighbourhood. He works behind the deli counter at the local grocery store to help pay rent. Eva (Princess Nokia) lives in nearby Marble Hill a Puerto Rican enclave in the north tip of Harlem. Her mother moved there to make a better life for Eva and her severely handicapped brother Julio. She’s planning on studying accounting at College to please her mom, but yearns to be an actress. The two meet by chance in the grocery store when Brandon stops a guy aggressively hitting on her.

They meet again at the local movie theatre, and when they spend a day together by the waterfront sparks fly. Is it love? But family duties intrude on their budding relationship: Julio needs constant care from Eva.  And Brandon should be paying more attention to the sketchy guys Conner is hanging with. Is their love destined to fail? Or can they overcome all the roadblocks between them?

Angelfish is a touching, low-budget and low-key look at ordinary people balancing love with responsibilities. Despite the Tony-and-Maria dynamics and the dark-alley locations, this is no West Side Story redux. The two are less of a Romeo and Juliet separated by race, than a young couple living up to expectations and dealing with grinding poverty.

Man Proposes, God Disposes

Dir: Daniel Leo

It’s a few years back in Gdansk, Poland. Karol (Mateusz Nedza) is a wiry guy in his twenties who lives with his mom and little sister. He sports a shaved head, a pencil moustache and a black watch cap. He makes his living through burglary and petty crime and spends his illicit earnings at nightclubs, picking up women. Bruna (Bruna Massarelli) is a middle-class university student in São Paolo with burgundy hair,  freckled cheeks and sensual lips. Their paths crossed in Europe in a soon forgotten one-night stand. But an unexpected phone call brings them together again. She’s pregnant with his child. Karol makes his way to Brazil and shows up – unannounced and uninvited- at her apartment door. Things are prickly between them, and he acts arrogant.

His only friend is Cici (Erick Mozer) a water deliverer boy he meets on the street. He takes over his job, unheard of for a European in São Paolo. Mateusz is uneducated and penniless, looked down on by Bruna’s university friends. Still, they gradually get to know each other  better and start to get along… Can an unborn foetus hold a couple together? And can such an unlikely pair find happiness and love together?

Man Proposes, God Disposes is a lovely, stylized look at an odd relationship plagued by a clash of cultures. They are forced to communicate in English as neither speaks the others language. First-time director Leo is a skilled cinematographer, and he pays as much attention to the look and sound as he does to acting. Each scene is arranged in vibrant primaty colours, with white walls and sharp contrasts, almost like a graphic novel.

Massarelli and Nedza make for a charming pair, and while the story is simplistic, it’s a pleasure to watch.

And Then We Danced

Wri/Dir: Levan Akin

It’s present day Tbilisi Georgia. Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is a ginger haired young man who lives in a cramped apartment with his brother David, his mom and his grandmother. Their family have been dancers for generations, and Since age 10, he’s been partnered with Mary (Ana Javakishvili), a middle-class girl with black hair and striking features. Together they train at the academy, with the goal of eventually joining the prestigious professional troop. He’s a great dancer but  Aleko, the director, criticizes him for being too expressive, not stiff or rigid enough to capture the heart of Georgian dancing.

Enter Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) newly arrived from Batumi. He’s a natural, and Merab sees him as a rival for the upcoming audition. And he’s friendly with Merab’s loutish brother David (a dancer as well) the two of the often arriving in their shared bedroom late at night, drunk and wasted.

But when a bit of rough and tumble behind a boulder in the woods turns into something more sexual, things become more complicated between Merab and Irakli. Forthe first time in his life, Merab is lovestruck, emanating good feelings. But they have to be cautious. One dancer in their troop was nearly beaten to death when he was found sleeping with an Armenian. But when Irakli disappears, Merab is at wits end. Are they lovers? Or just friends?  Who will win the audition? And with his new-found sexuality, can he find happiness – and safety – in still-conservative Georgia?

And Then We Danced is a beautiful romance set against the world of traditional Georgian dance. Levan Gelbakhiani looks like a young Baryshnikov, but his dance techniques combine traditional steps with hints of contemporary dance.

Great movie.

Man Supposes, God Disposes opens Wednesday at the Paradise cinema. Angelfish and And Then We Danced are two of many films playing at the NEXT WAVE film festival at TIFF in February.

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

Critical Mass. Films reviewed: Dolittle, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Les Misérables

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, Animals, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, Family, Fantasy, France, Kids, Language, Morality, Movies, New York City, Police, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three movies. There’s a man who talks to monkeys; a kid who steals a lion, and a movie critic who monkeyed with the way we look at movies.

Dolittle

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

It’s early 19th Century England, in a village called Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Young Stubbins (Harry Collett) a boy out hunting with his dad  accidentally shoots a squirrel. But instead of “putting it out of its misery” as his father suggests, he tries to save it. Stubbins stumbles on a derelict hospital run by the reclusive Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) the legendary animal doctor. The hospital is full of steampunk devices and wild animals — gorillas and polar bears, insects and parrots — wandering around just like people. And even more surprising, Doctor Dolittle can speak all their languages. Stubbins wants to convince the doctor to take him on as an apprentice so he can talk to the animals, too.

But trouble is brewing at Buckingham Palace. Someone has poisoned the Queen! And only the doctor knows the cure, a panacea found in a distant land.  Dolittle and the gang set sail to find it. Can they trick the evil King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) into giving them the map? And will they defeat a tiger, a  dragon, and various palace villains, and manage to cure the Queen in time?

I grew up surrounded by Hugh Lofting’s books, TV cartoons, and movies, and though I wasn’t a devotee, I knew all about the stories and characters. And I don’t love Robert Downey Jr. So I was all set to be disappointed: where’s the chimp? And what happened to my favourite animal, the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu?

But you know what? I liked it! It was cute, full of adventures, close escapes, exciting trips to exotic lands, and all the quirky animals (voiced by Octavia Spencer, Rami Malek, John Cena, and Emma Thompson). Keep in mind, this movie is for little kids, not grown ups, who may find the jokes too stupid, but the exciting scenes and the fast-moving action kept me satisfied. Not a terrific movie, but a very cute one.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

Wri/Dir: Rob Garver

Pauline Kael was a single mom who grew up on a California ranch during the time when movies were still silent and B&W. Her first published review was Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight — she hated it. She ran a movie theatre in Berkeley where she wrote the reviews and descriptions of the films playing there, encouraging locals to see them. She wrote for Macall’s but was fired for not loving big-budget cinema. And she quit her job at The New Repulic because they edited out her writing. She finally found a post at The New Yorker, where she became one of the most influential movie critics in the world.

She’s is known both for the movies she hated (she described The Sound of Music as asexual revisionist treacle, and trashed Kubrick’s 2001!) and those she loved (Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Scorcese’s Mean Streets, Spielberg’s Sugarland Express). Some directors’ careers were made by her patronage, while others lived in dread of her columns.  She rejected the ennui-ridden academic view of Auteur theory, without falling for manipulative Big-budget schlock. She liked trash, mind you, but it had to be good trash.

What She Said is an immaculately researched,spot-on look at Pauline Kael’s reviews,and her influence on audience and filmmakers. It delves into her fascinating life and and undeniable influence without resorting to endless kiss-assery. This movie is a labour of love,  combining vintage TV interviews with Dick Cavett and Brian Linehan, and talking heads — from Tarantino to David Lean — with readings from her work by Sarah Jessica Parker. Best of all, these voices are illustrated by a barrage of 2-3 second film clips from hundreds of movies over the past century that I haven’t seen in a documentary since Los Angeles Plays Itself (2002). (I grew up reading her reviews in The New Yorker — that and the cartoons were all  read — and while I disagreed with her half the time, I always wanted to see what she had to say.)

If you love movies, I strongly recommend this doc.

Les Misérables

Co-Wri/Dir: Ladj Ly

It’s Paris in the high-rise banlieue that circle the city. It’s 35 degrees outside and the crowds are high on the country’s win on the soccer pitch, singing la Marseillaise at train stations. But trouble is brewing…. it seems a lion cub is missing from a travelling Roma circus and the four brothers that run it are threatening a rumble with the locals.

Power here is shared by the secular — led by community leader called Le Maire (Steve Tientcheu); the religious — Salah (Almamy Kanouté), an Imam who runs a kebab shop; and the criminal — a gang of thieves who work directly with the cops. Attempting to keep the peace are the feckless police who mainly harass kids and sex workers. The regular team — an abrasive white guy Chris (Alexis Manenti) and his calmer black partner Gwada, who grew up in the hood (Djebril Zonga) — is joined by a newbie. the wide-eyed Stephane/Pento (Damien Bonnard) is a hick, straight from the farm. But the only ones who really know what’s going on are the local kids, who know every broken fence, every fire escape and back alley — they are watching everything. Especially Issa (Issa Perica) a feisty 10 year old, and his pal the nerdy Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly). Issa is the one who liberated the cute lion cub, and Buzz who records everything from the rooftops with his trusty drone.

But when the cops overstep their bounds and use weapons — which is caught on camera — things start to go really wrong. Chaos reigns.

Can the trouble be defused by the cops and community leaders? Or will the kids triumph? And could this lead to a repeat of the Paris riots of 2005?

Les Misérables (this is not Victor Hugo’s novel, but the location is the same) is an amazing dive into the lives of Parisians in the outer suburbs, their alienation, and the tension brewing there. The acting and story are superb, and I love the way multiple strands are woven together into a seamless whole. It’s nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and, though violent at times, it holds a real love and understanding of the characters portrayed. This is a great movie.

Dolittle opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is opening today at the Hot Docs Cinema, as is Les Misérables at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Good dramas. 1917, Uncut Gems, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão

Posted in 1910s, 1950s, Brazil, comedy, Drama, Gambling, Judaism, melodrama, New York City, Sex, Sports, UK, War, Women, WWI by CulturalMining.com on December 25, 2019

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

A good drama is hard to find, and this week I’ve got three of them. There’s an action drama set in Europe in WWI, a melodrama set in Rio in the 1950s, and a dark comedy set in present-day Manhattan.

1917

Dir: Sam Mendes

It’s April, 1917 in the trenches. Two soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George Mackay) are summoned by an officer with an important mission. The Germans seem to be retreating and frontline soldiers are preparing to cross over no man’s land. But it’s a ruse. If the troops try to cross the fields they’ll be gunned down like lambs to the slaughter. And the telegraph lines are down. It’s up to Blake and Schofield to take a crucial letter to the isolated troops before they’re all wiped out. And to get there, they have to pass through enemy territory, inside German trenches, and across enemy lines. Why are two ordinary soldiers chosen for this impossible task? Blake has a brother in the squadron they’re warning. And Schofield? He happens to be nearby when Blake is summoned. Can the two men young men make it there in time? Or are they just another couple of casualties in this War to End All Wars?

1917 is a thrilling action movie set during WWI. It’s full of narrow escapes, shootouts, explosions and hand-to-hand combat, with our heroes riding, running, flying and swimming, all to get to their goal. It uses lots of tricks you’d expect to see in horror movies: from sudden encounters with piles of rotting corpses, to shocking encounters with rats. It’s also a “War is Hell” movie but it’s a bit foggy on the Us and Them narrative of a war from a hundred years ago. Should WWI German soldiers still be portrayed as evil, drunken cowards while British soldiers are brave, kindly, steadfast and resolute? Still, you do find yourself rooting for the heroes hoping beyond hope that they’ll survive.The acting, especially MacKay, is fantastic and it’s fun to spot all the famous actors with bit parts as military brass include Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Colin Firth. But the best part of this movie is in an unexpected area. Roger Deakins camerawork is incredible, with shadow and searchlight, glowing candles and burning flames throwing chiarascuro images across the screen. It’s stunning to watch.

Uncut Gems

Dir: Josh and Benny Safdie

It’s the diamond district in present-day Manhattan. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a successful Bling jeweller peddling pricy kitsch to therich and famous in a small boutique encased in bullet-proof glass. He supports an unhappy suburban Jewish family, also setting aside money for his own peccadilloes: a mistress in a midtown apartment and tickets to NBA games. But he’s also a compulsive gambler throwing money at bookies. He’s in debt up to his neck, and the gangsters are circling. Two thugs in particular. Loan sharks, pawn shops, bookies, and legit business associates are all asking for their cut. But when Howard lands a lump of Ethiopian opals – the “uncut gems” of the title – he thinks all his problems are solved. By gazing into the glowing, coloured rocks he loses himself in a fantastical universe. He embarks on a complex plan: sell the gem to a superstitious star basketball player, pawn the priceless gaudy ring the player leaves as a deposit, and bet it all on a mammoth Las Vegas sports gamble. Will his plan pan out? Or will it all come a-tumbling down?

Uncut Gems is the latest Safdie Brother’s look at sympathetic, small-time losers and petty criminals, and the destruction they leave in their path. There’s a bit of excitement, but it’s more like a dark, absurdist comedy than anything else. They say Adam Sandler makes one credible acting movie for every ten horrible comedies. He proves his bona fides in this one, hands down. He’s great as the irrepressible and irritating Howard Ratner, complete with fake crooked and gummy teeth. But he’s a hard character to like…his problems are all of his own making, and his adulation for celebrity, sportsteams, cars and The Big Win is unattractive. I kinda sympathize with Howard but not really; I saw this four months ago at TIFF and remember feeling bothered and a bit angry by the end. But the humour, great acting, music, images, and elegant plot – from start to finish – helps redeem the unfomfortable feeling it leaves you with.

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão

Dir: Karim Aïnouz

It’s 1950 in a middle class family in Rio de Jeneiro. Guida and Euridice are inseparable sisters who do almost everything together. Guida (Julia Stockler) is 20 years old, small, buxom, adventurous and mature. She’s looking for love in all the wrong places, where she meets Iorgos, a handsome sailor from Greece. She leaves a note with her sister that she’s off on a ship to Europe to marry her love and will be back in Brazil soon. Euridice (Carol Duarte) is 18, the good daughter, tall with long, curly hair. She devotes all her energy to practicing the piano, with the hope that someday soon she’ll be accepted into the conservatory in Vienna.

But both of their plans are stymied by unwanted pregnancies. Guida comes home, pregnant and alone. Iorgos is a rat, with a wife and kids in Greece and a girl in every port. But when she walks through her door, her father throws her out, saying, “you’re dead to me, I never want to see you again”. She’s forced to move to a working class neighbourhood, get a job (she works as a welder at the docks) and raise her son.

Meanwhile, Euridice gets married to Antenor (Gregório Duvivier) the son of a business partner of her dad who owns a bakery. He’s a boor and an inconsiderate lover. She’s preparing for her Vienna audition in a few months but despite her church-sanctioned birth control methods, she ends up pregnant too, scotching any plans to study in Vienna. Guida assumes her sister is in Europe, and Euridice thinks Guida has disappeared without a trace (their parents block any communication with Guida, and both sisters have no idea the other is living in Rio.) Will the sisters ever see each other again? And will their ambitions be realized?

The Invisibie Life of Euridice Gusmao is subtitled, “a tropical melodrama” and that’s what it is: a passionate, lush story about the lives of two strong-willed women, torn apart against their will. Guida forging a new life as a single, working class mom, as Euridice navigates Brazil’s repressive middle class life in the ’50s. I loved this movie.

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao is now playing in Toronto, and Uncut Gems and 1917 both opened on Christmas Day; 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.

Top to Bottom. Films reviewed: The Kindness of Strangers, The Two Popes, Knives Out

Posted in Argentina, Catholicism, comedy, Crime, Family, Homelessness, Movies, Mystery, New York City, Poverty by CulturalMining.com on November 29, 2019

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

With the awards season coming up, Hollywood is starting to release the big ones with famous stars and directors. This week I’m looking at three such movies. There’s a drama about the downtrodden, a biopic about religious leaders at the top, and a comedy mystery about a large group of suspects caught in the middle… of a possible murdet.

The Kindness of Strangers

Wri/Dir: Lone Scherfig (An Education, The Riot Club, One Day)

Manhattan is a lonely place, especially for people down on their luck. Alice (Andrea Riseborough) is an empathetic ER nurse who volunteers at a soup kitchen and moderates a forgiveness group. But her long hours are taking a toll on her psyche. Clara (Zoe Kazan: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Big Sick) is a wide-eyed young mom from Buffalo on vacation with her two boys _ well thats what she tells them. In fact she’s penniless, fleeing her husband, a cop Richard (Esben Smed: Lykke Per) who beats up their kids. She keeps them fed by shoplifting, dumpster diving and stealing hors d’oeuvres from parties. Marc (Tahar Rahim: A Prophet, The Past) is an ex-con, recently freed from prison by a lawyer, who lands a job managing a Russian restaurant. And Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones: ByzantiumContraband, The Last Exorcism) is an earnest simpleton who can’t hold onto a job. If he doesn’t pay his rent soon, he’ll be out on the street.

Luckily, some strangers are kind. But will Alice find happiness, Clara find refuge, Marc find friends, and Jeff find a job? Or are they just more victims in the Naked City?

The Kindness of Strangers follows seemingly unrelated stories as they gradually come together in unexpected ways. Danish director Lone Scherfig’s movies are always good, even the bad ones. And this is a good one. It’s basically a Christmas movie but without any santas or angels. Lots of snow, but no presents. Church basements but no preaching. Some criticism: Only 7% of homeless in NY City are white, but in this movie it’s 100%. Although it veers into corn territory once or twice, this tear jerker is miles beyond any Hallmark movie, and seems genuinely sympathetic to the downtrodden. It deals with real problems, and leaves you feeling warm inside.

The Two Popes

Dir: Fernando Meirelles

Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathon Pryce) is a popular priest in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He loves soccer, pizza and dancing the tango. He preaches humility and compassion to the poor, and though he’s a Cardinal, dresses in plain clothes. He is flying to the Vatican to request early retirement. Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) is a conservative German, whothis the Vatican was moving in the wrong direction and has to be fixed. He loves the pageantry and finery of the Vatican, from the fancy clothes to the elegant trappings. He likes eating alone, a bowl of plain broth with Knödel. And he invites Bergoglio to join him at his country retreat. There conversation goes nowhere, with one asking to retire, and the other refusing. They disagree on practically everything. Why are they meeting and will they ever find common ground?

The Two Popes is a dramatization of a meeting between – not a spoiler! –  two Popes: Benedict who stepped down amid scandal, and Francis, the first pope from the Americas, who took his place. It’s a highly visual film, shot in a semi-documentary style. It gives us a “Pope’s-eye view” of the inside of the Vatican, with all its sumptuous finery and grandeur. I once saw Pope John Paul II appear at the window; in this movie you’re inside the window looking down at the crowd, which is very cool. And the larger-than-life characters – as imagined by Welsh actors Hopkins and Pryce in effective performances – are humanized and normalized. They’re just like you and me.

But I think you have to deeply care about the doctrine, policies, politics and rituals of the Catholic Church to truly appreciate this movie.

Count me out.

Knives Out

Wri/Dir: Rian Johnson

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a hugely successful mystery novelist. He lives in a gothic mansion with his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). All of his descendents are in town to celebrate his landmark birthday. There’s hard-boiled Linda, a real-estate agent with her hanger-on hubby and playboy son (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans). Flaky, new-age entrepreneur Joni (Toni Collette) with her college-age daughter (Katherine Langford) and alt-right son (Jaeden Martell). Goateed Walt’s family (Michael Shannon) handles the publishing side of his dad’s burgeoning book empire. And Greatnana (K Callan) who observes all but says nothing. There are the usual family squabbles, But by morning, everything has changed. Thrombey is found dead in his bedroom in a pool of blood, an apparent suicide… but is it? And if it’s murder, whodunnit?

Investing the crime are two hapless cops (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and a private detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Blanc has an eagle eye and a deep southern drawl. Everyone is a suspect and has something to hide. Everyone but Marta, who is allergic to lying. She actually throws up if she says anything untrue.

Knives Out is an extremely entertaining mystery comedy, in the style of Agatha Christie and Murder She Wrote. Almost every line is clever, overflowing with biting cultural references: Benoit Blanc is referred to as CSI from KFC, and there are pastiches of everyone from Gwynneth Paltrow to Ben Shapiro. I’ve seen this one twice already and I could easily watch it again next year.

Knives Out is now playing in Toronto, and The Two Popes opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The Kindness of Strangers opens next Friday; 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.

Record/Erase. Films reviewed: Synonyms, News from Home

Posted in Belgium, Clash of Cultures, comedy, documentary, France, Israel, New York City, soldier by CulturalMining.com on November 1, 2019

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

It’s November now and Toronto’s fall film festival season is in full swing. ReelAsian is showing films from Asia – including Japan, Korea, China, Philippines in the Pacific, South Asian, and from the Asian diaspora from around the world, including Canada and the US. Films include dramas, comedies, anime, documentaries, art and again this year virtual reality, with a piece based on the work of Joy Kogawa. Cinefranco shows French language films, this year featuring movies by Franco-Ontarian directors. The EU Film Fest, which started last night, shows one film from each country in the European Union. This still includes the U.K., in case you’re wondering, despite all the Brexit craziness. And more to the point, all films are showing for free at the Royal Cinema!

This week, I’m looking at two movies, one from the 1970s and one from right now. There’s a filmmaker from Bruxelles who moves to New York to record what she sees; and a man from Israel who moves to Paris to erase who he is.

Synonyms

Dir: Nadav Lapid

Yoav (Tom Mercier) is a traveller who arrives in Paris with a plan: learn French, blend in with the culture, recreate himself. life. He’s originally from Israel, a sniper in the army, and wants to get rid of his past. And he’s helped toward his goal by a series of unexpected events, both good and bad. Good news: He arrives at a B’n’B with a key to an empty apartment. Bad news: When he takes a shower the next morning, everything he owns – all his clothes, his money, his passport – is gone stolen by a stranger. He ends up running naked through the apartment trying to catch the thief, ending up curled in a foetal position, almost frozen. Good news: an attractive young couple, Emile and Caroline (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte), find him and nurse him back to health. And better news, they give him some beautiful clothes to wear, help him find a place to live, andmore. Bad news: despite trying to erase his Israeli past, all his jobs seem to be with forner soldier buddies or at the embassy itself, with unexpected consequences.

What begins as simple flirtation turns into a potential love affair… but with whom: Emile or Caroline?

Synonyms is a dark comedy about conflicting identity, immigration, and clashing cultures. It’s partly a tender ménage a trois about a stranger introduced into the lives of a young couple. It’s also an absurdist comedy, satirizing Israeli military culture, its overt masculinity (verging on the homoerotic in a number of scenes), as well as a paranoid fixation on persecution, with themselves as victims. And it equally satirizes the immigration process in France, in which newcomers are instructed to assimilate, to hide their religion and ethnicity beneath a veil of loyalty to secularism, and the French way of life. The director previously brought us the equally strange and brilliant film The Kindergarten Teacher (I reviewed here) a few years back. This film, Synonyms is completely different, and much lighter in tone, but equally perplexing. And Tom Mercier, in the main role, is someone you should look out for.

News from Home

Dir: Chantal Akerman

It’s 1976 in lower Manhattan. Huge cadillacs cruise through empty alleys in the meatpacking district, leaving loose newspapers fluttering in their wake. On the subway, riders glare at the camera, or stare wide-eyed in curiosity. In the tunnels beneath Times Square, mom’s with toddlers, people commuting to work, and businessmen with their buddies walk past a stationary 16 mm camera. Through a moving car window, storefronts and gas stations and taxis and pedestrians walk up and down a West side avenue. This is a moment in time captured in architectural grandeur by avant garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman.

And over the top you can hear her voice reading the letters, largely unanswered, her mother Nelly sends her from Belgium. Her mother is worried their separation could be permanent, or worse dangerous, and sneaks twenty dollar bills into the enevelopes in case her daughter is in trouble. (Nelly’s own parents were killed in Nazi death camps.) The film itself is both drab and hypnotic, a series of ordinary, detached images of people and places that act like a time capsule; combined with deeply intimate glances into her relationship with her mom.

You may have heard Chantal Akerman’s name before but probably haven’t seen her work.

But her influence is everywhere. I was just describing one of her earliest films, News From Home. She went onto make many films, both mainstream and avant-garde. She was a pioneer in Feminist cinema, queer cinema, and experimental film.

She was also a tempestuous perfectionist and hard to work with, falling into depressed funks or driven by manic episodes. At the same time, she is hugely influential. Todd Haynes studied her work, Gus van Sant used it as a source for Last Days, his film about Kurt Cobain, and people as different as Sofia Coppola and Weerasathakul Apichatpong were shaped by Akerman’s work. You may not know this, but even films like Joker used News From Home as a model for its images of NY City in the 70s.

I am far from an expert on Chantal Akerman – I’m a movie critic not a filmmaker – but if you’re a director, a cinema studies majors, or a film festival enthusiast, the current retrospective is a rare opportunity to see her work in its entirety. And thanks to Andrea Picard, co-curator of the program: most of what I’m saying is based on cribbed notes from a talk she gave on Akerman.

Synonyms starts today in Toronto; check your local listings. The retrospective News From Home: the films of Chantal Akerman begins today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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 Matt Tyrnauer about Where’s My Roy Cohn?

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Communism, Conservativism, Crime, documentary, LGBT, New York City, Super Villains by CulturalMining.com on October 4, 2019

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

Roy Cohn is a historical phenomenon, despised by many and feared by more. In his lifetime, he sent Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to the electric chair, worked beside Joe McCarthy in the massive government purge of the left; persecuted homosexuals, defended right-wing causes, mentored Donald Trump, and defended the mob. Behind the scenes he lived a decadent gay life. He was a devious, ruthless and powerful lawyer who ruled NY City… prompting more than one to ask: Where’s my Roy Cohn?

Where’s my Roy Cohn? is also the name of a new documentary that chronicles the notorious man’s life. It shares photos, recordings, period news footage and new interviews with some of his closest friends, family and past lovers. The film was directed by Matt Tyrnauer, known for his documentaries on the folk heroes and villains of our age, from Scotty Bowers to Jane Jacobs to Robert Moses.

I spoke to Matt Tyrnauer via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM.

Where’s my Roy Cohn? opens on November 4 in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Photo of Matt Tyrnauer by Jeff Harris.

Women on the move. Films reviewed: Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Light of My Life, The Kitchen

Posted in 1970s, comedy, Crime, Drama, L.A., New York City, Peru, post-apocalypse, psychedelia, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 9, 2019

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

Who says exciting movies are always about men? This week, I’m looking at three movies about girls and women facing danger in unusual places. There’s a pre-teen girl surviving post-apocalyptic America; a teenager exploring the jungles of Peru; and a gang of middle-aged housewives fighting back in Hell’s Kitchen.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Dir: James Bobin

Dora (Isabela Moner) is a smart and friendly 16 year old girl. She was brought up by her academic parents (Eva Langoria, Michael Peña) in the jungles of Peru, where she made friends with all the animals – especially Boots, a monkey. Now her parents want to discover the legendary ruins of Parapata, an Incan city of gold – not as treasure hunters, but as explorers. But it could be dangerous. So they send her to stay with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) in far off LA. But life at Silverlake High is not what she expected. Despite her relentless positivity, students tease her for her childlike un-coolness.

Diego finds her embarrassing. Student president Sammy (Madeleine Madden) scorns her as a rival. Only astronomy nerd Randy (Nicholas Coombe) likes her. But when she is kidnapped and flown back to Peru, along with Randy, Sammy and Diego. it’s up to Dora to escape the bad guys – including mercenary treasure hunters and a masked fox named Swiper – rescue her friends, and find the Incan ruins of Parapata.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a very cute take on the popular educational kids show. It’s simultaneously a tongue-in-cheek satire of the original cartoon, and a deadpan recreation of it. Boots and Swiper are there in CGI, but there’s no talking backpack. It’s primarily for kids, but there’s lots of laughs for grownups – like a psychedelic drug scene and a bit of romance. There’s even a song about how to dig a hole to bury your poop when camping in the woods. I saw it with a 50%-toddler audience who loved it. I liked it, too.

Light of My Life

Dir: Casey Affleck

Rag (Anna Pniowsky) is a tough, outdoorsy girl going camping with her dad (Casey Affleck). She’s a preteen with short hair dressed in boyish clothes. He tells her bible stories to put her to sleep. Thing is, they’re not camping for fun. A terrible plague wiped away half the world’s population – the female half – right when she was born. So rag, short for raggedy ann, grew up in an all-male world. leaving only men and some boys. Her dad is terrified about what might happen to her – men can’t be trusted. So they live in a perpetual state of seclusion and escape. He never sleeps. He teaches her how to spell – she reads voraciously – and about the birds and the bees.

They find an empty house and move in, but Dad is terrified when she tries on girls clothes. But when they find an isolated house populated only by bible-thumping grandpas, he thinks they might finally live a normal life. Can the one of the last girls on earth lead a normal life? And will her dad ever relax?

Light of My Life is a low-budget drama about the love between a father and a daughter in extreme circumstances. It’s filled with long scenes of flashlight-lit dialogue in lush, moss-filled forests, punched with occasional bursts of fear and violence. Anna Pniowsky is fantastic as Rag, and Affleck is good as her conflicted father.

I just wonder… what is the point of this movie? That girls in an all-male world will still gravitate to their own gender expression? That guns, bible, and the family are the only things we can trust? This is a zombie movie without zombies, and not nearly as good as Leave No Trace (about a dad and daughter living off the grid). This movie is not bad, just not that great or original.

The Kitchen

Dir: Andrea Berloff

It’s 1978 on a hot summer’s night in Hell’s Kitchen. Claire, Cathy and Ruby are three working class women waiting to hear from their husbands, gangsters with the Irish mob. Cathy (Mellissa McCarthy) is happily married with two young kids. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), originally from Harlem, is an outsider who doesn’t get along with her matriarchical mother-in-law (Margo Martindale). And Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is just a punching bag for her abusive husband. But when their husbands get jailed by the Feds, they find themselves with no money, no income and few prospects for work. So they decide to take over their husbands’ jobs.

Though untrained, they seem to have a knack for collecting protection payments from local stores. And when they fight off rivals within their husbands’ gang, they become “queenpins” of the neighbourhood. Cathy does the talking, Ruby collects the bucks, and Claire finds new strength in doing “the messy stuff” – shooting, killing, and getting rid of dead bodies. She’s tutored in these skills by Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), a ginger-haired hitman with a history. Their business expands northward and southward, with graft, extortion and prostitution. But can they handle the disloyal members of their gang, powerful Mafia dons from Brooklyn, and FBI agents on their tail? And what will happen when their husbands get out of jail?

The Kitchen is a brilliant new twist on the classic gangster movie, with three women rising up in a dog-eat-dog world. Based on a comic, it’s full of love, compassion, violence and intrigue. McCarthy and Haddish are comic actors but convincing in their serious roles, and Moss and Gleeson are even better.There are some missteps. Could working-class financially-strapped women in the late 1970s have no experience working? And some bizarre references to Gloria Steinem and “feminism” seem totally out of line. (There’s no feminist solidarity here; these are three criminals clawing their way to the top.) And the ending is lacklustre. But altogether this is a beautifully shot, fast-moving story that’s fun to watch. The Kitchen is a great crime drama, with women in the lead.

The Kitchen, Light of My Life, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold 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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