Self Help. Films reviewed: Becoming Nobody, Brittany Runs a Marathon

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, comedy, Death, Depression, documentary, drugs, Philosophy, psychedelia, Psychology, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 30, 2019

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

It’s Labour Day weekend, a good time to catch up on all those things you’ve been meaning to do. That’s why this week I’m looking at two movies – a dramedy and a documentary – about Self Help. There’s a woman who wants to lose some of herself, and a man who wants to lose all of himself.

Becoming Nobody

Dir: Jamie Catto

A hippie walks into a pizza parlour. The guy behind the counter asks: What would you like?  The hippie says: Make me One… with Everything!

Old joke, but I’m trying to explain who Ram Dass is.

He’s born Richard Alpert in Newton, Mass., to an upper middle class family, and becomes a clinical psychology prof at Harvard University. In the early 1960s Timothy Leary introduces him to hallucinogenic drugs as a part of therapy. Alpert takes psilocybin mushrooms for the first time and it blows his mind (in the positive sense.) But he wants to know how he can harnass its effects when he’s not high. He drops out, grows long hair and a beard. Somehow he ends up in India, in the Himilayas, right on the border of Tibet. There he studies under Maharaj-ji, his spiritual guru – who dubs him Ram Dass, Servant of Rama, Servent of God – and then brings his findings back to America. Back home, youth culture is rejecting the status quo, protesting the war in Vietnam, and opting out of the rat race. They’re looking for new answers. Spiritual answers. His book, Be Here Now (1971) provides just that to a large part of his generation.

I am not a devotee of Ram Dass, I don’t go to yoga classes and I don’t practice meditation in a search for spiritual enlightenment. I do remember being fascinated as a little kid by the cube-shaped book Be Here Now with the hypnotic mandala drawn on its cover.

So I won’t attempt to explain his entire spiritual philosophy in a few sentences. But the film Becoming Nobody, attempts to do some of that in 90 minutes. It’s basically a selection of his talks and conversations spanning his life from the 1960s to the present – discovery, spiritualism, losing oneself, and accepting death. You see him change from uptight academic, to long-haired hippy, to lecturer with a Dr. Phil moustache, to wise and funny old man. The film is illustrated with cute period footage and framed by a dialogue with the director, British musician Jamie Catto.

For a non-initiate like me, some of what Ram Dass says sounds like a collection of simple aphorisms, a mishmash of Hindu and Buddhist thought. But when you think about it, a lot of what he says really make sense; it’s not just hollow rhetoric. So whether you’re looking for a simple introduction to his philosophy, or just interested in him, Becoming Nobody gives you lots to chew on.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Wri/Dir: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Brittany (Jillian Bell) lives in a cluttered New York apartment. By day she works as a low-paid usher at a theatre. At night she goes to bars with her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee). A good time means getting high on adderal and having drunken sex with a stranger in a bathroom stall. She thought her college education would land her a creative job on Madison Avenue. Instead she’s underemployed with a huge student debt. Which depresses her. And to rub salt in the wound, her doctor tells her she’s 60 pounds overweight and if she doesn’t do something about it, she might die.

Could her life get any worse? Actually, it begins to get better when her neighbor, Catherine (Michaela Watkins) – who she’s never met and who she refers to as “Moneybags Martha” when she sees her through the window – offers to help Brittany train with her running club. There she meets Seth (Micah Stock) a slightly effeminate, married gay guy, who wants his kids to respect him and call him dad. Catherine is dealing with a painful divorce and custody battle. So the three form a sort of a support group to help Brittany run in the New York City Marathon.

She also lands a long-term house-sitting job, which helps her keep her above water economically and away from roommate Gretchen’s bad influence. She begins to lose weight, her self confidence grown, and she becomes closer to her fellow house-sitter Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) a poster boy for slackers. Are they a couple? Can she lose 60 pounds, get a job in her profession, find a home, meet a guy, and run the marathon? Or are these just a series of unattainable hopes?

Brittany Runs a Marathon is exactly what the title suggests – a woman trying to run a marathon to achieve a personal goal. But it’s also a really funny comedy. Jillian Bell is hilarious and disarming as the sneaky, funny, self-deprecating Brittany. You also feel for her character as she goes through crushing disappointments. And it deals with serious issues like the ups and downs of weight loss, body image, and depression, without turning into a condescending sermon. It’s a fun, funny, heartwarming and inspiring movie. I like this one.

Brittany Runs a Marathon opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; and Becoming Nobody opens next Friday, September 6th at Hot Docs.

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

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.

Eccentric. Films reviewed: Ruben Brandt Collector, Greta, A Bread Factory

Posted in Animation, Art, Crime, Family, Movies, Mystery, psychedelia, Psychological Thriller, Psychopaths, Theatre, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 1, 2019

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

It’s March and Toronto’s spring film festival season has begun. The Irish Film Fest is on this weekend, and the WTF Fest starts showing “eccentric movies” at the Royal Cinema today. In this case, WTF stands for What the Film – great stuff. Also opening is What Walaa Wants, the NFB doc about a young Palestinian woman who wants to be a cop. Also opening is Gaspar Noe’s amazing film Climax, a movie that includes a fantastic dance performance and a stunning title sequence… followed by a horrific panoply of drug-addled sex and violence.

Keeping with the theme of the strange and unusual, this week I’m looking at offbeat movies with eccentric characters. There’s a a French widow with a yen for pocketbooks, a psychotherapist keeps fine art front and centre; and a two older women who want to save their arts centre from falling apart.

Ruben Brandt Collector

Wri/Dir: Milorad Krstic

Dr Ruben Brandt is a psychoanalyst obsessed by art. He lives and works in an isolated alpine chalet where he treats his rich but troubled clients, including a banker with an eating problem, and a former bodyguard.

Meanwhile Mike Kowalsky, a private detective from Washington DC, is in Paris chasing Mimi, a notorious cat burglar down the city streets. She’s carrying a priceless Egyptian artifact. But he can’t catch her; the former circus acrobat is just too fast. Mimi tracks down Dr Brandt and visits his clinic. She wants to get rid of her kleptomania, She can’t stop stealing. But in a strange turn of events, patients turn to doc tors and doctors to patients. You see, Dr Brandt is plagued with halucinations of people in famous paintings. Is Venus in Boticelli’s painting trying to kill him? How about Warhol’s double Elvis? Brandt’s patients, including Mimi, decide the only way to save their doctor is to steal all the paintings that obsess him. They begin a series of elaborate heists of the world’s best known paintings from the most famous galleries. Can Kowalsky solve the puzzle and catch the culprits? Or will Ruben Brandt, the art collector, triumph?

Ruben Brandt Collector is a simple, silly story told with amazing animated images. It feels like a cartoon guide to Janson’s History of Art… on acid. Characters are portrayed as cubists, as two-faced januses, or as two-dimensional pieces of paper. The plot may be flat and inconsequential but the animated art and psychedelic imagery sticks with you.

Greta

Wri/Dir: Neil Jordan (The Crying Game)

Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) is depressed. She’s a recent college grad who works as a server in a fancy Manhattan restaurant. She shares a spacious condo with her best friend Erica (Maika Monroe) whose dad gave it to her as a gift. Ever since her mom died, Frances can’t have fun; she never seems to go out anymore. But her attitude changes when she finds a designer purse that someone left on a subway. Finally, she can do a good deed. Using the ID, she takes it to its owner’s home. Greta (Isabelle Huppert), is an older woman, a widow, who lives in an isolated cottage. Her home is like a piece of France right in the middle of NY city. She plays Chopin and bakes cookies.

It’s like at first sight. Greta needs someone to spend time with since her daughter moved away and Frances misses her mother terribly. They go for walks in Central Park, share intimate meals at her home, and even adopt a dog to keep Greta company. Greta worries Frances will go away, just like her daughter. Don’t worry Greta, I’m like chewing gum – I’ll stick around. Imagine, such good friends meeting at random.

But… everything changes when Frances discovers Greta’s secret. That “lost purse” wasn’t actually lost! Greta placed it there so they would meet. Is Greta just desperately lonely? A con artist? Or is she a psychopath? Even when Frances cuts off all contact with her Greta keeps showing up wherever she goes. She’s a stalker who can’t be stopped. Will Frances ever forgive her? And will Greta leave her alone?

Greta starts as a conventional drama but turns into an unexpected psychological thriller. It feels like a classic Grimm’s fairytale, with an innocent girl lured into a witch’s lair. Though not her best performance, Isabelle Huppert is credible as the (potential) villain, though Chloe Grace Moretz is wasted as the victim. It’s hard to picture Moretz as a helpless scaredycat. Greta is OK as a run of the mill, cat-and-mouse thriller, but it could have been so much more.

A Bread Factory

Wri/Dir: Patrick Wang (I interviewed him in 2012)

The Bread Factory is an arts centre in a small town on the Hudson Valley. Formerly an industrial bakery, it’s where the post-industrial townfolks go to see a movie, put on a play or attend a poetry reading. It’s been run by Dorothea and Greta (Tyne Daly, Elizabeth Henry) for more than 40 years. At the moment there are filmmaking lessons for little kids by an auteur (Janeane Garofalo); a greek tragedy starring an elderly shakesperean actor, and a Chekhov-like drama in production. It’s a hotbed of creativity and community life.

But everything is put at risk when a strange new group arrives in town. They are a pair of performers/conceptual artists known as May + Ray (Janet Hsieh, George Young), a sort of a Blue Man Group. They are vaguely associated with China, have a large international following, their videos are on youtube, and they even have a catchy logo on the T-shirts and totebags they sell. The problem is their work is shallow and pointless. And more important, the town school board is thinking of transfering all arts spending from The Bread Factory to May + Ray.

Can the town artists and performers save the bread factory? Or will corporate interests triumph?

A Bread Factory sounds ordinary but it’s actually a great movie. I really liked it. Dozens of characters and a complex, twisted plot manages to keep you interested but not distracted, with each storyline and character carefully constructed and allowed to develop. There’s a teenager (Zachary Sayle) interning at the town paper, a kid who functions as the projectionist (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a critic and an actor who hold a 50 year grudge… and many more. It feels like a great John Sayles movie.

I’ve only seen the first two hours (Part 1) so far but now I can’t wait to see Part 2.

A Bread Factory is a delightful treat.

Greta and Ruben Brandt Collector both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. A Bread Factory is playing this weekend at the WTF Festival at the Royal Cinema.

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

Point of collapse. Films reviewed: Rojo, The Good Girls, Climax

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Argentina, Dance, Economics, France, Mexico, psychedelia, Queer, Secrets, Sex, violence by CulturalMining.com on September 14, 2018

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

At a festival the size of TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival which continues through the weekend) I try to carefully select which movies to see, based on reputation, subject and word of mouth. But even occasionally wandering into a movie at random can be a pleasant surprise.

This week I’m looking at three movies at TIFF set right before — and during — the point of collapse or disaster.

There’s a noir drama set in Argentina before the 1976 military coup, a social drama set in an upper class Mexico neighbourhood before the Peso crash of 82; and a dance, sex and drug fuelled  horror movie set in France in the 90s..

Rojo

Dir: Benjamín Naishtat

It’s the mid 1970s in a small provincial town in Argentina. The military has divided the country into war zones to fight guerrillas in the jungle. All is quiet but something is not right. Whole families are suddenly disappearing from their homes – are they kidnapped? Or just on vacation? Whatever, locals are enriching themselves by plundering whites left behind.

Claudio (Dario Grandinetti) a mild-mannered lawyer with bald head and a trim moustache, is not bothered by the tension — he is solidly middle class.. He joins a close family friend in a real estate scam to take over one of these empty homes. Claudio’s daughter and his scam partner’s son are dating though she seems less than eager – she’s more interested in the school’s dance club. But Claudio’s own life is disrupted by a disturbing incident at a restaurant: a man, a stranger in this town,  starts a loud argument over a reservation. Later, the argument turns violent, and Claudio secretly dumps the man’s body in the desert. And a famous private detective arrives from Santiago, Chile to investigate a missing person. Could this somehow be related to Claudio? Will this tension – and Claudio’s secret – ever go away? Or is Claudio – and Argentina — entering a terrible new phase of violent oppression?

Rojo is a dark mystery-drama about life in small-town Argentina before the US-backed military coup. It shows the stress uncertainty and violence affecting everyone in the town – from high school kids to the town’s leaders. Rojo nicely mixes politics, history, and noir-ish drama with a stylized, almost surreal 70s look — like an episode of Colombo.

I like this movie.

The Good Girls (Las Niñas Bien)

Dir: Alejandra Márquez Abella

It’s the summer of 1982 in a posh neighbourhood in Mexico City. Sofia (Ilse Salas) is riding high. She’s an elegant and beautiful woman from an upper-middle-class family, married to an investor. And she belongs to an exclusive country club where she and her friends meet daily to play tennis and gossip. Sofia is more interested in bags, shoes and facial creams than local politics. Her birthday party went flawlessly, ending with a wonderful present – a new cream-coloured car from her devoted husband Fernando (Flavio Medina). And with the kids at camp in the US– don’t talk to Mexicans! she tells them — she can devote herself to tennis, shopping and spending times with her friends.

But all is not well. Tell-tale signs are turning up – the taps run dry as the water utility runs into trouble. Oil prices are crashing and so is the Mexican economy. One of her best friends stops coming to the club, and a nouveau riche woman – named Ana Paula –  has taken her place on the ladder. Sofia continues to spend lavishly, but her cheques are starting to bounce. The creditors are moving in. And the servants are leaving, one by one. Is this a momentary lapse? Or – as one of her kids ask – are we poor now, mommy?

The Good Girls is a subtle and nuanced movie about the turning point, the exact moment when a woman realizes her carefully crafted life might crumble in an instant once the money goes away. When dignity disappears – and pettiness takes over – she realizes it could all be finished.

This is a spectacular movie – from the costumes, to the acting – and one I would have missed if I didn’t wander into the theatre at random when the movie I planned to go to was full.

Climax

Dir: Gaspar Noé 

It’s 1996 in an isolated building in rural France. A dance troupe — multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi-sexual  — is perfecting their dance routine. There’s It’s the dress rehearsal before heading off to New York and they do it without a single problem. The celebratory afterparty is just starting, with the Daddy is playing tunes, David scouting a sexual partner, and psyche is pouting. as the choreographer sends her son up to bed. But something is wrong. Somebody has spiked the sangria with halucinegenic drugs! And the dancers are reacting in very strange ways. Dance turns to uncontrolled sex, and unchecked violence, as the dancers run through the red-lit halls in panic  escape. Others form impromptu gangs attacking skapegoats. Will anyone survive?

Gaspar Noé is one of my favourite directors and Climax does not disappoint. This is an amazing and unusual combination of contemporary dance, sex, drugs and extremely disturbing violence. The film starts with interviews of the dancers on old videotape, introducing themselves directly to the audience. Then theres a non-stop dance performance filmed from above, shot in what looks like a single take. Then comes the spiked punch and the horror begins, turning the world upside down. Its erotic, disturbing entertaining and extremely creepy and troublesome.

You also get Gaspar Noes amazing camerawork and design with upside down shots, titles appearing midway through the movie, non-stop music and some very funny lines before everything goes terrible.

Climax is amazing and disturbing.

Rojo, The Good Girls, and Climax are all playing at TIFF right now. Go to tiff.net for details. And don’t forget to show up at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sunday around 3 or 4 pm for free tickets to all the winning movies at TIFF selected by the audiences. There are four free screenings around 5-6 pm on Sunday.

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 Gaspar Noé about his new film Love (in 3-D) at #TIFF15

Posted in 3-D, Breasts, Clash of Cultures, Cultural Mining, Drama, drugs, France, Mental Illness, Movies, Penis, psychedelia, Romance, Sex, Suspicion, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 14, 2015

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

Murphy is an American in Paris. On New Year’s Day he awakens from a sexual dream to find himself miserable and hungover. He is married to a woman, Omi, he barely knows and father of Gaspar Noe 2an accidental baby named Gaspar. He retreats to his one private space, an old VHS box. Inside are the only items that still connect him to his one true love, raven-haired Electra: a stack of stereoscopic photos and a piece of opium. And Karl Glusman, Gaspar Noe photo © Jeff Harris cultural mining 2after a desperate, panicky call from Electra’s mother, he lies back, takes the opium, and retraces what happened to their Love.

LOVE is also the name of a new movie about sexual romance, passion and loss, as seen through the eyes of Murphy, a young American filmmaker and two European women, Electra and Omi. The film was made by the legendary GasparLOVE - Still 2 Noé, known for his mind-blowing movies Enter the Void, Irreversible and I Stand Alone. It had its Canadian premier at the Toronto International Film Festival, and is opening in Toronto today. I spoke with Gaspar on location (some background noise) at TIFF15 in September. He talked about actors Aomi Muyock’s hair colour, Klara Kristin’s electricity, Karl Glusman’s looks, Dustin Hoffman,  Douglas Sirk, Winston Churchill, himself, intimacy, sperm, “Gaspar Julio Noe Murphy”, Wild Bunch, Irreversible,  tunnels, circles, the colour red, psychedelic images, Enter the Void, a fourth dimension, humidity, old movies… and more!

Photos by Jeff Harris

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