Past, present, future. Films reviewed: Aniara, Peterloo PLUS Prism Prize videos

Posted in 1800s, Canada, Music, Politics, Pop Culture, Protest, Resistance, Science Fiction, Space, Sweden, UK by CulturalMining.com on May 21, 2019

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

100 years ago this week in 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike brought that city to a standstill. But did you know there was another important political demonstration 100 years earlier in Manchester in 1819? So this week I’m looking at movies set in the past, the present and the future. There’s an historical epic set in Northern England, a Swedish cruise set in post-nuclear outer space, and some state-of-the-art Canadian music videos set in the right here, right now.

Aniara

Wri/Dir: Pella Kågerman, Hugo Lilja

It’s the near future. Mimaroben (Emelie Jonsson) is a happy and hopeful flower child who works onboard a cruise ship. The Aniara has champagne bars, shopping malls, discos and restaurants to suit every taste on the 23-day cruise. Passengers are reassured by the stern pilot Isagel (Bianca Cruzeiro) the conservative captain Chefone (Arvin Kananian) and veteran Astronomer (Anneli Martini). Mimaroben has a special job. She works with Mima, an A.I. program where homesick passengers re-experience the natural beauty they left behind. But this is no ordinary cruise ship. They’re leaving an uninhabitable planet Earth for a new home on Mars.

The problem is when we humans are busy ruining the planet we’re also polluting the solar system with space trash. A spare piece of metal hits Aniara sending the spaceship off-course. Can the crew reassure the passengers that everything is OK? Will Mimarobe find love aboard a space ship? Will they ever reach Mars? Or will they forge a new life on the space ship itself?

Aniara is a dark (though sometimes warm and funny) look at a possible future when we’re all pulled out of a numbing consumerist existence and forced to face reality. There are nihilists who have wild sex orgies, law and order types who want people imprisoned, and cultists who form new religions and rituals. The story is based on a Swedish poem written in the 1950s when people were most afraid of nuclear holocaust, but it works just as well in a world facing climate change and ecological disaster.

Aniara is a terrific distopian look at our future — and would make a great double feature with Claire Denis’ High Life.

The Prism Prize

…is an annual Canadian award for that underrated cinematic form, the music videos. This year’s winner is Low by Belle Game. It’s directed by Kevan Funk (Hello Destroyer) and is an exquisitely disturbing short film made in an LA factory producing life-like rubber sex toys and robots. It shows the bodies being assembled, part by part, as the music plays in the background. You have to see it to believe it.

Prizes also went to Soleil Denault, Clairmont the Second and Lacey Duke. And the audience award went to Said the Whales’ “Unamerican” for an unusual photographic stop-motion video by Johnny Jansen.

Peterloo

Dir: Mike Leigh

It’s 1819 in Lancashire in northern England and things are not going well. Soldiers with PTSD are returning home, broke, after the Napoleonic Wars. Local weavers find their wages cut in half by greedy industrialists. And the new Corn Laws, which protect rich farmers from foreign competition, means the price of a loaf of bread is going through the roof. Ordinary people working twice as hard can’t feed their families. Politicians ignore ordinary people, and the magistrates are even worse, flogging an old women for drunkenness, and even hanging a man for taking a coat to keep warm.

Something has got to give. Luckilly it’s also a time of great change. Orators like the middle-class Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) are speaking out: put the common people into the House of Commons!  Preachers, rabble rousers, journalists, organizers and advocates – both men and woman – are pulling people together for a mass rally scheduled for August.

They face opponents, though. An effete Prince Regent adorned in white plumes fears a French style revolution. Factory owners want absolute control over their workers. Local magistrates hate and distrust ordinary people. Spies, thugs, and agents provocateurs are hired to make trouble among the protesters. And the military, who normally fight on foreign soil, are called in to quell the masses. What will happen on the day of the rally?

It’s not a spoiler to say that the title of this movie, Peterloo, refers to the massacre of hundreds of unarmed men, women and children in Manchester’s St Peter’s Field by military and local police on horseback. But most of this terrific historical drama looks at the period leading up to the demo and the subsequent government attack on its own people.

It’s an ensemble picture with many dozens of characters, each with their own memorable stories, portrayed over the course of the film. Fantastic music, settings, costumes, and acting, in many ways it’s like a great Hollywood epic from the 1960s, with a “cast of thousands” moving en masse across a wide screen. But it also shows the poignant individual stories of the odd characters you meet along the way. It is long (and somewhat confusing) but always interesting and politically relevant.

Peterloo is another memorable movie from the great UK director Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, Mr Turner). I liked it a lot.

Aniara and Peterloo both open today in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check your local listings. And you can watch the top ten Prism Prize music videos at prismprize.com.

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

Hot Docs 2019! Films reviewed: Bellingcat, The Corporate Coup D’Etat, American Factory, One Child Family

Posted in 1980s, China, Clash of Cultures, Corruption, documentary, Economics, Journalism, Ohio, Politics, Unions by CulturalMining.com on April 26, 2019

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

Toronto’s Hot Docs International Documentary Festival is on now. These films tell us what will be news in a year or two, and goes behind the scenes of stories we only think we know about. Hot Docs is showing hundreds of documentaries from around the world, way more than I could ever talk about, but let me briefly tell you about a few I’ve seen that might interest you.

These capsule reviews are shorter than usual, but hopefully long enough for some of it to sink in. This week I’m exposing you to amateur journalists influencing world politics, multinational corporations taking over governments, foreign-owned factories replacing local ones, and government control reaching into women’s bodies.

Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World

Dir: Hans Pool

With the explosion of Photoshop, propaganda and fake news, how can we find the real truth? A new news source called Bellingcat offers an alternative. It is similar to Wikileaks but functions as an original news source, rather than a publisher of leaked documents. Founded by Eliot Higgins, a UK “vigilante journalist”, Bellingcat uses Open Source investigations to determine whether what we see on the news and online is what is really happening.

Composed of a network of digital news geeks spread across Europe (all men), Bellingcat’s investigations range from responsibility for the Malaysia Airline plane shot down over the Russia/Ukraine border, to a look into bombings in Syria, and identifying neo-nazi faces at the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville. Using an ingenious combination of satellite footage, snapchat images, and uncensored, online discussion groups of soldiers wives, they find convincing evidence that conventional journalists – and government propaganda – ignore. I would have loved to have seen more about Bellingcat’s investgations into malfeasance within its own country – not just about Russians – but their work is fascinating, valuable and so clever.

You can find Bellingcat’s most recent investigations here)

Moving on now from journalism to governments themselves…

The Corporate Coup D’Etat

Dir: Fred Peabody

Do we still live in democracies, imperfect though they may be? Or has there been a corporate coup d’etat, a virtual takeover of our government? Well this filmmaker says, at least in the United States, the answer is a resounding yes. Widespread incarceration, congressmen and senators with corporate ties, and the phenomenal number of paid lobbyists working in Washington. New laws with extreme libertarian views are often written in total not by politicians but by ALEC a private body associated with the Koch Brothers.

Talking heads include Chris Hedges, Cornel West, Maude Barlow, and John Ralston Saul — who coined the term corporate coup d’etat.

But it also takes us into the heart of the problems by talking with the people of Camden, NJ., a city allowed to decay, and Youngstown Ohio, a former engine of the steel industry, where some people switched their votes from Obama to Trump… not because they love him, but because everyone else had failed to rescue the steel industry, so why not try someone from “outside” the system? This is a great doc, filled both with smart pundits and unknown but unforgettable ordinary people who tell it like it is. Corporate Coup d’état is another politically astute doc from Fred Peabody (whom I interviewed about All Governments Lie in 2016).

Youngstown Ohio may look bleak but how are things in Dayton? The next doc looks at both sides of an…

American Factory

Dir: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert

Dayton Ohio is the longtime home of Moraine, a major General Motors plant. But when it moved south, the burgeoning middle class started to collapse.

Enter Fuyao Auto Glass, a China-based multinational that manufactures windshields for a large percentage of the world’s cars. Formerly struggling workers with decades of factory experience are offered a new chance. The only problem is GM payed $29 an hour, Fuyao pays $12. Workers are flown in from China to “train” already skilled labourers in the company’s philosophy. Can formerly unionized factory workers adjust to an autocratic, and some say unsafe, shop? Or will they succeed in unionizing the plant? American Factory is great look at changes in a Midwest factory town. It talks to the people on the shop floor and in their homes. It also follows some American managers visiting the mother plant in China. And it speaks directly both to the American and Chinese workers and management (including the odd, billionaire owner) and the cultural roadblocks they meet on the way. Another great doc from Bognar and Reichert!

And finally, a highly personal doc set in China that exposes some dark secrets…

One Child Nation

Dir: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang

Nanfu Wang is a young American filmmaker, originally from Jiangxi, a desperately poor, landlocked province in southeast China. She was born in the 1980s right when the One Child Family policy comes into force. (It lasts officially until 2013.) It says city people can only have one child, but peasants can have a second child if their first one is a girl. Why? It’s simple economics: peasant families depend on their son to stay in the family home and provide for the parents in their old age. Girls move away once they marry.

But the film shows a dark side of this policy. Wang returns to her home village and finds evidence of parents abandoning baby girls to die, foetuses scattered in garbage dumps, and a trafficking ring that sold babies to orphanages to be adopted abroad. There are even cases where village chiefs dictated whether pregnant women must abort their foetuses. I don’t know how much of the film applies to a huge country with 1.4 billion people, but what the filmmaker uncovers in her own area really makes one wonder. One Child Nation is a heartfelt but disturbing documentary.

You can catch all of these films — One Child NationAmerican Factory, The Corporate Coup D’Etat, Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World — at Hotdocs over the next ten days. And remember, students and seniors can get in free to daytime screenings!

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

“What is Democracy?” Daniel Garber talks with Astra Taylor about her new documentary

Posted in documentary, Economics, Greece, Interview, Italy, Morality, Movies, Philosophy, Politics, Poverty, Protest, US by CulturalMining.com on November 9, 2018

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

Is democracy justice or is it freedom? And if it’s freedom, is it freedom to think and say what you want, or is it freedom from hunger, poverty, and homelessness? Or is it just choosing which political party to vote for once every four years?

Should democracy just exist inside a nation, or should it extend across borders? Is majority rule fair and equal?

What is democracy, anyway?

A new documentary poses just that question to intellectuals and the hoi polloi in America and across the Atlantic. It talks to barbers and doctors, students and politicians, in legislatures and at Trump rallies, to try to determine what democracy actually is.

It’s called What Is Democracy and is written and directed by noted documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor, whose works include Examined Life and Zizek!

What is Democracy had its world premier at #TIFF18.

I spoke with Astra Taylor at NFB’s Toronto headquarters during TIFF. Her film is opening soon.

Questioning Authority. Films reviewed: Empty Metal, The Oath, The Happy Prince

Posted in 1800s, Biopic, comedy, France, Indigenous, LGBT, Politics, Protest, Resistance, Supernatural, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on October 19, 2018

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

Toronto’s Fall Film Festival season continues with Imaginenative, in its 20th year. Imaginenative looks at indigenous film and media arts on the big screen and in galleries. There are scary movies, docs, short films, video games VR, and lectures. Look out for Alanis Obomsawin, a retrospective of Métis director Marjorie Beaucage, CBC’s Rosanna Deerchild on Colton Boushie, and Oscar winner Zacharias Kunuk’s latest. There are dozens of things to see and do, from North America and around the world, and many of them are free.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about people who question authority. There’s a writer in exile for breaking a law, an American in trouble for ignoring a law, and indigenous revolutionaries fighting the law… using telepathic powers!

Empty Metal

Wri/Dir: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer

It’s present day America, where native protesters face rows of armed state troopers. Aliens, a three member electropunk band in Brooklyn, are obsessed by the upcoming apocalypse, and sad they might miss the end of the world. So when they are approached by a young indigenous activist on their first band tour, they are wary, but intrigued by what she offers them. She says they can play a crucial role in the upcoming collapse of everything… but they will have to communicate telepathically. She is advised by three elders – a Zen like white man with a shaved head, a white bearded Rastafarian, and a matronly indigenous activist – who plot the group’s future. Meanwhile, a posse of white, NRA militiamen are training in the woods for their own armed insurrection. And observing – and listening to – everything are unseen government intellegence agents using drones and cellphone listening devices. Who will survive this never ending battle between surveillance and subversion? And why are these people body worshipping a wild boar and opening umbrellas on sunny days?

Empty Metal is a strange and disjointed but ultimately satisfying look at music, art and politics. Some of the images are baffling – what’s with the frying eggyolks and stirring soup? But what seems at first like a series of unrelated events and bizarre practices gradually coalesces into a coherent narrative. It ends up as a cool, if unusual, arthouse espionage drama.

And it’s having it’s Canadian premier at ImageineNative.

The Oath

Wri/Dir: Ike Barinholtz

Chris and Kai (Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish) are a middle class liberal couple hosting a big Thanksgiving dinner for all of Chris’s family. Since he’s known for his outspoken views, Kai makes him promise to stay away from political discussions. But his vows all evaporate when his little brother’s girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner) shows up. She’s a poster child for Fox News views and doesn’t care who knows it. Get ready for big fights over turkey. But there’s a bigger issue splitting the family – and the country – apart. That’s an oath the president declares all citizens must sign, affirming their loyalty and patriotism. And the deadline for signing is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Who has signed the oath and who has stood firm? And what will happen to people who refuse to sign?

Things take a turn for the worse when quasi-official government agents show up to enforce the new law. Peter (John Cho), is a reasonable guy, but his partner Mason (Billy Magnussen) is another story. He’s a rude, crude pit bull, longing for a fight. And he’s carrying a gun. When things violent can Chris keep his family safe? Or are they headed for disaster?

The Oath is a dark comedy about life in a divided America under a Trump-like president (they never say his name). It’s also a look at masculinity, with Chris changing from a mansplaining but progressive white guy to a stand-your-ground defender of family and home. Basically a drawing room comedy, it deals with stereotypes and politics, in a funny, though violent, way.

I liked this movie.

The Happy Prince

Wri/Dir: Rupert Everett

It’s the 1890s. Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) is a London playright and novelist at the height of his career, rich, famous and wildly popular. He has a happy life at home with his wife (Emily Watson) and two young sons, whom he loves to tell bedtime stories. He’s also gay, a felony at that time. His love affair with an aristocrat, Bosie Douglas lands him in the notorious Reading Jail for two years hard labour. And his career, reputation and homelife disappear overnight. Now he’s in France under an assumed name, living off a tiny allowance. His affairs are handled by a former lover named Robbie Ross. Robbie (Edwin Thomas) is still deeply in love with Oscar Wilde, but thewriter still carries a torch for the diffident Bosie, the cause of all his problems. And when Bosie  (Colin Morgan: Merlin) shows up again, things start to go wrong. Will Oscar Wilde die lonely and neglected in Paris or living life to its fullest?

The Happy Prince is a look at the last years of Oscar Wilde’s life, but is also a fascinating glimpse of the marginal nature of gay life nearly a century before it was legalized in the U.K.. Though solidly upper class, Oscar spends time with beggars, thieves, sailors, street urchins and drag queens. Or running away from bigoted cricketers armed with lead pipes. Rupert Everett plays Oscar – in excellent French and English — as a tragicomic figure, whether witty and urbane, or rude and lusty.

This movie is a lot of fun.

The Oath, The Happy Prince both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Empty Metal is playing tonight go to Imaginenative.org for details.

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

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

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

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

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

Fahrenheit 11/9

Dir: Michael Moore

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

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

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

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

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

The Man Who Feels No Pain

Dir: Vasan Bala

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

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

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

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

The Wife

Dir: Björn Runge

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

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

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

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

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

TIFF18! Films reviewed: Consequences, Woman at War, Tito and the Birds

Posted in Animation, Brazil, Environmentalism, Iceland, Kids, LGBT, Politics, Prison, Skinhead, Slovenia, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 11, 2018

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

Tiff is here, now.

It began last night, and is filled with big-budget, glitzy premiers and movie stars  from all over the world. You can go down to King st — between Spadina and University — starting today, to take it all in. And even if you don’t have tickets, with more than two hundred movies opening there, I promise, you can still get in.

But the Hollywood stuff is getting way too much coverage, so this week I’m talking about three, lesser-known movies playing at TIFF that I really like. There’s an eco-activist in Iceland, a bird talker in Brazil and a Slovenian in the slammer.

Consequences

Wri/Dir Darko Stante

Andrej (Mate Zemlijk) is a teenager who has it made. He lives with his parents in a nice suburban home. He’s handsome, fit, with a beautiful girlfriend and a pet rat named FIFA. Fortified with bourbon he can pick up any girl in the room. But the sex he has is bad, his life is empty, and he takes out his frustrations on everyone around him.

This lands him in a reform school with strict rules. It’s run by adult men, but is actually governed by a gang of bullies, headed by Žele (Timon Sturbej) and his sidekick Niko. Žele is a tough skinhead who extorts money from the other boys by claiming they owe him. Niko is a deranged practical joker who eggs Žele on while brandishing a blowtorch. Andrej initially stands up for his pothead roommate Luka, but soon he is invited into the gang and becomes their main enforcer. He accompanies them on their weekend outings in Ljubljana.  

And as he is pulled away from the rules of his home and the reform centre he feels increasingly isolated, spending the night in a kindergarten playhouse he remembers from his childhood. Meanwhile the crime level continues to rise, as Žele grooms Andrej for shakedowns, car theft, drug trade and smuggling. But Andrej’s not in it for the money. He likes the bully – likes, as in sexually – and thinks he sees a mutual attraction. Will Zele be his rival, his friend… or his lover?

Consequences is a dark, coming of age drama set in present-day Slovenia. It probes alienated youth, crime, drugs, sexual fluidity, and relationships. This film uses unknown actors to great effect  and the interplay between Zemlijk and Sturbej is compelling. Darko Stante’s Consequences is part of TIFF’s Discovery series and it’s having to world premier tonight. Catch it if you can.

Woman at War

Dir: Benedikt Erlingsson

Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is a single,  middle-aged Icelandic woman with a secret. It’s not that she’s a well-liked choir head. Or that she has an identical twin named Asa. Or even that she’s been approved to adopt a Ukrainian orphan girl. Her big secret is she’s the eco activist the government has been searching for. She’s the one who takes down hydro cables, shutting down the foreign-owned smelting plants endangering Iceland’s once pristine environment.

Using a simple bow and arrow, along with some metal wire, she manages to bring down a high tension wire. Her secret is known only to one person in the government – her friend and government mole Baldvin (Jörundur Ragnarsson) who is sickened by their environmental policies. The government repeatedly arrests a latino hiker in a Che Guevara T-shirt, while Halla escapes unknown.

Halla is one with nature. She knows every nook and cranny, every mound and cliff, and manages to avoid drones, helicopters and security experts. But when they close down all the roads just to catch her she seeks refuge with a sympathetic farmer, possibly a distant cousin. But with the government closing in, can she continue her one-woman fight for the environment? Or will it ruin her long awaited chance to adopt a child?

Woman at War is a brilliant satirical comedy drama about Iceland, its clans, government corruption, the environment, and its women. Geirharðsdóttir is marvellous as the twin sisters, totally believable as an underground superhero who can communicate with the environment by covering her face in lichen.

Another great movie at TIFF.

Tito and The Birds

Dir: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg

Tito is a schoolboy in a big Brazilian city like São Paulo. His dad is an inventor, specializing in steampunk contraptions filled with misshapen, pipes, dials and gewgaws sticking out at weird angles. He thinks his machine will let people talk with birds. But when it explodes, and Tito ends up in hospital, dad leaves his family for good. A few years later Tito takes up his dad’s role and enters his own invention into the school science fair. His main rival is a rich kid named Teo. But Tito’s machine,  like his dad’s, blows up, sending the audience running.

Meanwhile a strange disease has gone viral infecting more and more people in the city. It feeds on fear – fear of crime, fear of disease, fear of poor people – even though there is nothing to fear but fear itself. This fear is encouraged by a real estate developer, trying to move people out of the cities into gated communities under glass domes. Scary men in Hazmat suits have taken over spraying everyone with chemicals, but it doesn’t seem to work. So Tito and his best friends – the brave Sarah and the silent Buiu – join forces to defy fear and thus defeat this terrible disease. They are sure the city’s pigeons hold the secret. And they invite rich rival Teo – the son of the real estate mogul – to help them too. Can they save the city with birds and science? Or will fear overcome logic?

Tito and the Birds is an animated film from Brazil that looks at poverty and class difference as seen through the eyes of children. It’s a kids’ movie, for sure, but I loved it, especially the colours splashed across the big screen. Vibrant swathes of glowing green, hot pink, warm yellow, and black are everywhere, giving it an unforgettable look.

Consequences, Tito and the Birds, and Woman at War are all premiering at TIFF. Go to tiff.net for details.

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.

Daniel Garber talks with director Sarah Fodey about The Fruit Machine at Inside Out

Posted in Canada, documentary, Inside Out, LGBT, Politics, RCMP by CulturalMining.com on June 1, 2018

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

Canada finished WWII riding high as the fourth biggest military power in the world. Then came the Cold War and the red scare it inspired — a widespread panic about communist infiltration.

They look just like you and me, and might be hiding in plain sight... In the ensuing crackdown, another group was also labeled insidious, morally corrupt, and unpatriotic.

Who were these potential spies? And how could they be detected?

These “spies” were actually just ordinary lesbian, gay or bisexual Canadians, “detected” using a device the RCMP jokingly named the fruit machine. Suspects were locked in rooms, interrogated, forced to confess and expose friends and lovers. They were fired from their jobs, humiliated and ostracized.

A new documentary called The Fruit Machine looks at this terrible period and the effect it had on generations of Canadians. It tells about a dark side of history: over half a century of relentless persecution of gays and lesbians in the civil service and military.

The films was written, directed and produced by Sarah Fodey for TVO Docs. It has its world premier today at 4 pm at Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT film festival.

I spoke to Sarah about The Fruit Machine by telephone at CIUT 89.5 FM.

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

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

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

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

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

I spoke with Adam in studio at CIUT. 

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

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

Torn from the headlines! Docs reviewed: Active Measures, The Cleaners, The Blue Wall, Blowin’ Up at #HotDocs

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Conspiracy Theory, Corruption, documentary, Donald Trump, Politics, Racism, Sex Trade, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 27, 2018

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

Hot Docs is one of the worlds biggest international documentary film festivals, and this year is its 25th anniversary. Over 200 movies are playing this week– this year featuring docs made in Mexico, along with new movies and festival favourites from the past 25 years.

I love all movies but documentaries have a special appeal: their immediacy, with the newness of the nightly news or online investigative journalism, combined with the grandeur of the camerawork you see on the big screen. And their independence – they’re usually made not by studios or huge media conglomerates but by indie directors – allow it to go places where mainstream movies don’t dare to tread.

This week I’m looking at Hot Docs documentaries torn from the headlines. There’s malfeasance in Moscow, chicanery in Chicago, questioning in Queens, and manipulation in Manila.

Active Measures

Dir: Jack Bryan

Since the wave of Russian immigration to the US in the late 70s, organized crime and soviet spies have had a strong but hidden presence in US finance, real estate and politics. At the head of it all is Vladimir Putin, and the puppet kept under his control through blackmail is Donald Trump. …or so says a new documentary that traces connections dating back 40 years among the various power brokers. This includes money laundering, insider trading, computer hacking and cyber attacks. All of which culminated in Trumps election.

While the film provides lots of historical evidence, it’s told in a style reminiscent of Cold War propaganda, suggesting there’s a Russian hiding behind every potted palm. Parts of it – like banking and real estate schemes, and Russian interference in Estonia and Georgia — seem totally believable; while others — like blaming Russia for Cambridge Analytica — are wild jumps worthy of the worst Glenn Beck conspiracy theory. The talking heads used in the film are, with few exceptions, “experts” who once worked for the CIA or FBI, pundits from conservative think tanks, and centre-right politicians. It is also monolithic in its beliefs, not even entertaining any alternate arguments. You’ll find no dissenting voices here.

Active Measures gives you a lot to think about, but most of its conclusions are still unproven.

  • To read director Jack Bryan’s response to this review, see comments, below.

The Cleaners

Dir: Hans Block, Moritz Riesewieck

After the recent revelations about Facebook, with fake news and targeted ads aimed at user profiles, many people are wondering who decides what goes up there and what gets takes down? And are these famous algorithtms doing their jobs? But what people don’t know is there are already people, actual humans, not machines who review what gets censored on the web, on search engines and on social networking sites. It takes us to an office highrise in Manila in the Philippines, where subcontractors review and decide on tens of thousands of images each day. For example, why did Facebook take down a nude painting of Donald Trump with a small penis that artist Illma Gore posted? It was taken down by this office.

The film exposes how these judges judge what they see, and the highly subjective reasoning behind their choices. It also shows how the constant viewing of degrading and disgusting images effects these men and women. The Cleaners is a real eye opener.

The Blue Wall

Dir: Richard Rowley

In 2014, Jason van Dyke shot and killed an unarmed seventeen year old, Laquan Mcdonald, in front of witnesses on a Chicago street. 16 times in the back of a man walking away from him. The killing was captured on numerous CCTV sources, in police cars and at a nearby fast food restaurant. You might assume the killer was immediately arrested and put on trial… but you’d be wrong. McDonald was African American, and van Dyke is a white police officer. This meant that shortly after the killing, police spokesmen swooped in to frame the narrative the way they wanted the media to cover it. It worked.

This film follows the cover up, the investigative journalist who tried to change the narrative, and the various parties involved in the case… a trail which reached the very top of Chicago’s city hall, and the municipal elections in progress when the story broke. This is a thrilling documentary that examines in depth the legendary “thin blue line” (here called a blue wall) of police brotherhood and the coverups and corruption it spawns. Great documentary.

Blowin’ Up

Dir: Stephahie Wang-Breal

Queens is a magnet for migrants from all around the world, many of whom turn to sex work to make a living. But when the police raid a massage parlour they arrest way more prostitutes than johns or pimps. And for immigrants, especially undocumented ones, an arrest means jail which means police record wand eventual deportation. But an unusual courtroom in Queens — run by women — is trying to disrupt that pattern. Judge Toko Serita, and lawyers on both the prosecution and defence side, along with translators, NGOs, social workers and the centre for court innovation are working together for once.

Their goal? To let sex workers leave the courtroom with their records swept clean if they stay out of trouble. Blowin’ Up (a slang term meaning leaving your pimp) is a verité, in-person look at how that courtroom works, as well as the private lives of a few of the subjects.

Blowin’ Up is fascinating and informative.

Active Measures, The Cleaners, The Blue Wall, and Blowin’ up are all playing at Hot Docs on from now until Sunday May 6, with daytime screenings free for students and seniors.

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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