A More Perfect Union. Films reviewed: The Big Sick, The Beguiled, In the Name of All Canadians

Posted in 1800s, Canada, Disease, documentary, Indigenous, Romantic Comedy, Rural, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 30, 2017

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

With the 150th anniversary of Confederation in Canada and the 4th of July south of the border, this is a long weekend with lots of movies to watch. This week I’m looking at two comedy/dramas from the US and a documentary from Canada. There’s a comedian coping with blind dates, a girls’ school dealing with a wounded soldier, and a country coming to terms with a new constitution.

The Big Sick

Dir: Michael Showalter

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a stand-up comic who wants to make it big. He’s a self-described numbers geek, who is into the X-Files and corny horror movies. He’s dating Emily (Zoe Kazan), a young woman he met at the comedy club, and their relationship is getting serious. But Kumail has a secret. His Pakistani-American parents (Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff) insist their son marry a Muslim-Pakistani woman, and constantly surprise him with blind dates. His parents don’t know about Emily and she doesn’t know about his arranged dates. Everything goes well until Emily uncovers Kumail’s “X File”, a cigar box filled with photos of all the women he secretly dates and rejects. She is livid and never wants to see him again. But the next time he hears from her she is in hospital on her deathbed with a mysterious ailment, the “big sick” of the title. He stays by her bedside as she falls into a coma. Things get complicated when her parents Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) arrive. They know all about his secrets and lies and don’t trust him. But their relationship grows as they cope with Emily’s troubles together. Will Emily recover? Can she forgive Kumail? And can he tell the truth to his family?

The Big Sick is a very sweet romantic comedy mainly about the relationship of a young man and his true love’s parents. Spoiler Alert: it’s based on Kumail and Emily’s real life story, so obviously she didn’t die. I liked that it doesn’t succumb to crass toilet humour but instead finds jokes in the normal life of a standup comic. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are especially good as the parents. A good date movie.

The Beguiled

Dir: Sofia Coppola

It’s rural Virginia during the US Civil War, where a school for young ladies remains untouched by the war raging all around them. There, beautifully dressed women study literature, French, music and the bible, seemingly oblivious to the mayhem outside the school’s wrought-iron gates. There’s the imperious Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman); dowdy Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst); the recently grown-up Alicia (Elle Fanning) and nature-loving little Amy, among many others. They live in harmony in an old plantation house with two-storey, ionic columns, but no slaves, mind you – they all ran away. No one has breached the gates so far. Until one day, young Amy is out picking mushrooms and she finds a wounded yankee soldier. Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) says he joined the Union army straight off the boat from Dublin. Now he’s a deserter. Can the ladies help him?

Miss Martha sews up his wounds lets him stay, but only as a prisoner. That’s when the corporal turns the charm level to high and begins beguiling and seducing all the girls and women. You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met, he tells one. You’re the one I like the best, he tells another. We have a special bond he says to a third. Soon, the women are fighting one another to spend time alone with the handsome young soldier. This culminates at a dinner where all of the women are all gussied up, each hoping he will choose her. But something unexpected happens that turns the smiling charmer into a violent ogre. What will the women do with him now?

The Beguiled is a dark comedy, a remake of Don Seigel’s movie from the 1970s, told from the women’s point of view. It includes lots of twists and turns for a simple ninety minute movie. I thought the acting was good, and the looks of the movie itself is fantastic. I’d describe it as over-the-top subtlety, with oak trees groaning with Spanish moss and a constant mist covering everything. I liked this one.

In the Name of All Canadians

It’s Canada’s Sesquicentennial, 150 years since confederation, so Hot Docs commissioned a multipart documentary made any a number of filmmakers. I dreaded watching this because I was afraid this would be yet another treackly look at toques, poutine, multiculturalism, our health system and Tim Hortons. But I was way off the mark. It’s actually a reality check, a hard look at the all the egregious errors Canada’s governments have made over the past 70 years or so. Did you know Frenco-Manitoban school teachers were forbidden from teaching in French for 50 years? Then there’s the case of Mr Abdelrazik, a Sudanese- Canadian man tortured then forced to camp out inside the Canadian Embassy in Khartoum for three years before he was allowed to come home. There’s the mass arrests at the G20, the internment of Japanese Canadians, discrimination faced by black and Muslim Canadians. And the biggest issue of all, Truth and Reconciliation with aboriginal Canadians — First Nations, Inuit and Metis — for the countless crimes, including Residential Schools, inflicted on them.

In form, most of these docs use actors reading scripts, animated sequences, talking heads and reenactments, rather than fly-on-the-wall records of actual events. Some parts are very moving, while other parts veer into speechifying. The serious parts are tied together by cute short sequences asking various Canadians what they prefer in a huge range of topics. While not perfect, altogether it gives a good hard look at Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, its successes and failures. Worth seeing.

In the Name of all Canadians is playing now at the Hot Docs cinema; and The Big Sick and The Beguiled 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

Life in Nature. Films reviewed: The Gardener, Certain Women

Posted in documentary, Drama, Movies, Quebec, Rural, Western, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 18, 2017

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

Toronto’s spring film festival season continues. LGBT films, shorts and documentaries from around the world are featured at Inside Out beginning next week. Get into shape in June with CSFF, a new festival featuring Canadian Sports docs and shorts. Toronto’s Japanese Film Festival brings the newest dramas, thrillers and samurai hits served up with sake tasting at the Japanese cultural centre. And contemporary Italian cinema is showcased at the ICFF.

April showers bring May flowers, so this week I’m looking at slow-paced movies set against natural beauty. There an arthouse drama in rural Montana, and a look at the gardens in Quebec.

The Gardener

Dir: Sébastien Chabot

The Cabots are a famous upperclass American family. You’ve probably heard the ditty about Boston:

…the home of the bean and the cod,

Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,

And the Cabots talk only to God.

This documentary is about those Cabots, and what one man in particular created. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the family has owned a huge tract of land in the Charlevoix region near Quebec city for their summer estate. It’s an area of bucolic fields and breathtaking views overlooking the St Lawrence. But Francis Cabot (1925-2011) decided to do something more with it. He designed Les Quatre Vents, the four winds, an amazing private garden. It’s planted with perennials that bloom throughout the year, leading to waves of yellow, violets, greens and reds in sequential seasons. Cabot believed gardens should not be sterile units of symmetrical topiary, but a sensuous experience. The gardens are filled with smells of flowers, buzzing bees, trickling streams flowing past vast fields. It is divided into different sections, each one revealed as a surprise when you turn a corner or, cross a bridge. Gorgeous black and white horses, foliage from the Himalayas, a moonbridge reminiscent of Suzhou and a traditional Japanese garden complete with a hand-crafted teahouse.

If you’re expecting a hard-hitting documentary, look elsewhere. this is not an expose about the family’s history in Salem Massachusetts or its roots in the slave trade. Rather, it’s very much an homage or a tribute to the magnificent garden that one man created. If you love gardens and consider them symphonies, this one takes you on a guided tour through it all with commentary from its late creator. It’s less of a film than an experience. I had never heard of Les Quatre Vents before I saw this film,  but now I want to go there.

Certain Women

Dir: Kelly Reichardt (Based on stories by Maile Meloy)

Laura (Laura Dern) is an established lawyer in a tiny town in Montana. Much of her time is spent on a single case where the plaintiff, an older man named Fuller (Jared Harris) was screwed by his former boss. He was injured at work, affecting his vision, but because he accepted a token payment, leaving him high and dry and unemployable. She told him way back that his case is unsinkable, but he keeps coming back to her office… maybe for a different reason? Meanwhile, Gina (Michelle Williams) is dead set on buying a ranch, Her husband Ryan (James le Gros) and her teenaged daughter aren’t interested, but Gina refuses to give up. She will buy that house! But at what personal cost?

And nearby, a young law student named Elizabeth (Kristen Stewart) finds herself teaching a night class at a school four hours away from her home. The students are all teachers who want answers to their own petty legal disputes, but Elizabeth knows nothing about education… or teaching. The one bright spot is a boyish rancher (Lily Gladstone) who shows up out of boredom – she’s like a lonesome cowboy who never sees anyone except horses and dogs. After class, she offers to drive Elizabeth to the local diner so they can talk. And after a few meetings, the lonesome cowgirl shows up not in her pickup but on horseback. “hop on!” Could this be the start of a romantic relationship with the doe-eyed rancher?

Certain Women is another fine, modern-day take on the classic Western (from a female POV) by the great director Kelly Reichardt. It’s actually three separate stories whose characters briefly appear across the plots. For example, the movie opens in a cheap hotel room where Laura just had a noonday rendezvous with a bearded man (but you don’t find out whose husband he is until later.) Set against the breathtaking mountains and dusty roads of smalltown Montana, it feels like a C&W song come to life. It’s slow paced but never boring. It has that rural feel – things happen more slowly out west. This is a touching drama littered with unrequited love, and driven by the Certain Women of the title: people who make big decisions for selfish reasons, without realizing how much it hurts the people around them.

Certain Women and the Gardener 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

New Places. Films reviewed: Sunset Song, Neon Bull, A Bigger Splash

Posted in 1910s, Animals, Brazil, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Italy, Music, Rural, Scotland, Sex by CulturalMining.com on May 13, 2016

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

Someone asked me recently what I like about movies. I gave the usual answers: story, emotions, acting, images, themes, novelty… but she said she likes the places movies can take you, countries you otherwise wouldn’t get to visit. So this week I’m looking at dramas that take you to new places. There are celebrities in the Mediterranean, cowboys in Brazil, and farmers in northeast Scotland a century ago.

j266j4_SUNSETSONG_01_o3_8717089_1438274186Sunset Song

Dir: Terence Davies (based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon)

It’s the early 20th century in rural northeastern Scotland. Chris (Agyness Deyn) is happy and bright, a schoolgirl who lives on her family farm. She’s one with the land, but holds future ambitions of a career, maybe a schoolteacher. But her family life is less than nice. Her mother is depressed, her father (Peter Mullan) is a brute. She’s closest to her 8qKKrW_SUNSETSONG_06_o3_8716985_1438274181brother, Will, who hates their dad for good reason. Their father is quick with the whip and will bloody Will’s back for the slightest infraction, even a play on words using the name Jehovah. It’s a rough life.

RgjjVY_SUNSETSONG_05_o3_8716928_1438274178And when Mum survives an incredibly painful childbirth – it’s twins — she loses it and the family falls apart. Will leaves for greener pastures, Mum’s out of the picture, Dad has a stroke. Chris has to run the farm basically by herself, plowing the fields and harvesting the grain. She marries for love to a kind and gentle man named Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). Their post-honeymoon life is idyllic until WWI. Then, suddenly, it’s loud sermons from the pulpit saying the Kaiser isQ1ggBM_SUNSETSONG_04_o3_8716871_1438274174 the antichrist and anyone who doesn’t join up to fight in the muddy trenches is both a coward and a traitor. He signs up. The next time she sees Ewan he’s been replaced by a horrible creature she doesn’t recognize.

Sunset Song is a coming-of-age novel about a strong and independent woman and the troubles she faces. But, being directed by the great Terence Davies makes it a different movie than you might expect. Time passes and scenes change like memories recalled much later. Chris is the narrator but she speaks in the third person. And as in most of his movies, characters are as likely to start singing songs  or reciting poetry or quoting biblical texts as they are to have “normal” dialogue. But it never feels odd or affected, it’s just how they talk. Sex and violence, fury and pain, anguish and celebration are all played out… by candlelight. Beautiful.

O76BgN_NEON_BULL_04_o3_8745169_1439475285Neon Bull

Wri/Dir: Gabriel Mascaro

Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) is a vaqueiro – literally a cowboy – in Brazil. He’s tough and swarthy with a black beard. He lives among the cows, feeding, washing and shoveling manure. His job is to tend the bulls used in a type of rodeo match called a vaquejada. Two men riding horses with a bull running between them have to take him down and cut off the end of his tail. Iremar is the one who powders the bull’s tail and pushes him into X6pO5k_NEON_BULL_05_o3_8745231_1439475286the ring. His work is rough, dirty and badly paid. But a more interesting life exists in the creative part of his mind. He sees images and fantasies which he brings to life, in the form of clothing and costumes.

He lives on the road as part of a travelling, impromptu family. There’s model-like Galega, his boss (Maeve Jinkings), her young daughter, the unfortunately-named Caca (Alyne Santana), and O76Byp_NEON_BULL_01_o3_8745069_1439475275others. In his free time he observes and collects: A mannequin he finds in a dump; surfing fonts he sees on a sign; the hair bobbed off the bulls tails at the rodeo… he keeps them all. And he sketches his designs over pictures of nude women in skin mags. He “dresses” them.

And he translates these into outfits for Galega to wear and perform in. But what outfits they are: a sexy mixture of horse and human.

And there lies the crux: they work with cows but dream about nZ64xl_NEON_BULL_02_o3_8745105_1439475276horses. Caca wants to own a horse, Galega dresses like one, and Iremar either wants to become one or have sex with one – it’s never completely clear. He certainly has erotic dreams involving horses, as well some real-life sexual interactions of a sort between man and beast. (I’ll say no more about that; you have to watch the movie yourself to understand what I’m saying.)

There’s not much of a story; see it for its images and ideas. It’s beautifully shot, alternating between explicit sex and amazing documentary-style animal scenes with the screen completely filled with white bulls. This is the kind of movie that gradually grows on you long after you’ve seen it.

A Bigger Splash PosterA Bigger Splash

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

Marrianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) lives in a secluded villa on a rocky Italian island in the Mediterranean. She’s a former rock star used to preforming in glam makeup and sequins before thousands of adoring fans. Until she lost her voice. Now she’s doted on by her much younger, faithful husband 1936314_1710870315814844_5082996276804202301_nPaul (Matthias Schoenaerts). They spend each day playing in bed or relaxing in their serene swimming pool.

Paul was introduced to Mariann by her first husband, Harry (Ralph Fiennes) who felt a change was needed. Harry is a larger-than-life celebrity in his own right, a rock producer, who loves recalling his adventures with Mick Jagger. So Paul is in 12696974_1708471786054697_5272925310477745538_oawe of both Marianne and Harry. Which is why he can’t really object when Harry arrives uninvited at their doorstep with a blasé young woman named Penelope (Dakota Johnson). She lives with her mom in Connecticut but recently discovered she has a dad – Harry, of course. And here they both are.

Harry loves it. He’s the kind of guy who always needs a dramatic 12440495_1695143877387488_2734753458583916585_oentrance. And once he’s on stage he walks around naked for most of the movie. Penelope is looking for sex, and has her eye on both her putative father (she wants to see a DNA test) and Paul. Marianne is less than pleased by the interlopers. It opens up old wounds and unfinished business. She also prefers centre stage, she doesn’t want 12314676_1684142561820953_5135058809161723940_oto be a side kick in her own home. And Paul is overwhelmed by the uncomfortable situation, but keeps it to himself. Until things explode.

This movie feels like a stage play with four characters played by four great actors. They’re all fascinating but in a grotesque, hateable sort of way. As celebrities they’re used to being watched but they also need privacy. We get to watch them how they really are, and it ain’t pretty.

Some of the camera work bothered me – too show-offy and distracting — but the scenic beauty of a Mediterranean isle that’s also a landing point for asylum-seekers more than makes up for it. Luca Guadagnino also directed I Am Love in 2010;  A Bigger Splash is less stylized, more mature.

Neon Bull, A Bigger Splash, and Sunset Song 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 Sean Garrity and Jonas Chernick about their new film Borealis

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Drama, Gambling, Movies, Organized Crime, Rural, Winnipeg by CulturalMining.com on April 1, 2016

Sean Garrity, Borealis, Photo © 2016 Cultural MiningHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Trouble is brewing in Winnipeg. Jonah (Jonas Chernick) is a compulsive gambler – he can’t pass a card table without placing a bet. He’s in debt up to his neck to a bookie named Tubbie. Jonah is also a relentless liar — even his girlfriend doesn’t know why he needs 10,000 bucks, stat. And when the doctor tells him his estranged, teenaged daughter Aurora (Joey King) is about to go blind he keeps his cards close to his chest and doesn’t tell her. He packs up his car and vows to showBorealis_Jonas Chernick Aurora the northern lights in far-off Churchill, Manitoba. But will she see Aurora Borealis before she goes blind… or before the bookies catch up to them?

Borealis is a new feature now playing at the Canadian Film Fest and opening next Friday in Toronto. It’s a buddy pic, a road movie, a coming-of-age drama and a new look at the far edges of Borealis_-_Additional_Still_1Manitoba. It’s funny, surprising and calmly beautiful. It’s made by two long-time Winnipeg collaborators: award-winning director Sean Garrity and the equally notable actor/writer Jonas Chernick. I spoke to Sean in studio at CIUT, and to Jason (on set) by phone. We talk about road movies, gambling, romance, Sean’s hometown, travelling, card games, Churchill, cold weather, polar bears, Joey King, Bruce McDonald, Paper Moon… and more!

Sean Garrity won the DGC Ontario Best Director award for Borealis at the Canadian Film Fest.

Sexy Strong Seniors! Movies Reviewed: Cloudburst, Still Mine

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

An ever increasing proportion of our population is made up of seniors, so it makes sense that more movies are made about them. They share certain themes: wisdom, loss, history and memory, dissatisfaction with change, along with infirmity, dementia or death. But, so far, not many are about old men and women as fully sexual, dynamic and heroic figures (exceptions include Haneke’s Amour and Sarah Polley’s Away from Her). So this week I’m looking at two new movies that do just that. They’re both told from the point of view of older couples fighting the system. As an added bonus, they both are set in scenic Atlantic Canada. One has a pair of older women escaping to Canada so they can get married; the other has a farmer and his wife fighting the system to build a house on their own land.

cloudburst dukakis frickerCloudburst

Dir: Thom Fitzgerald

Stella and Dottie (Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker) are lovers. They’ve been together for decades, in small-town Maine. They know each other inside and out and like playing things like “hide the vibrator’ in bed. Stella has a foul mouth, a mannish haircut and a cowboy hat. Dottie is blind, plump, ailing, and motherly, with billowy dresses and curly white hair. Life’s a peach.

But when Stella isn’t looking, Dottie’s uptight granddaughter gets her to sign away her power of attorney. Then, with the help of her husband, the town policeman, she trucks her grandma away to an old-age home and takes possession of her house. Naturally, when Stella find’s out she’s furious. But there’s nothing she can do, since she’s not Dollie’s blood relative, just her lover. What to do? Stella has a plan…

She reconnoiters the old-age home, loads Dottie into her car, and heads off north to the Canadiancloudburst ryan doucette border. If they can get up there they can get married and everything will be OK again. On the way, they see a hitchhiker, a young, modern dancer named Prentice (Ryan Doucette) showing some skin by the side of the road. Stella invites him on board but sets him straight “Pull up your pants kid — you’re humping the wrong fire hydrant!” He’s their third wheel, but adds a new flavour to the mix, as he tells them about his own home troubles. He also lets them have some private time when they’re caught in a cloudburst. Will they make it to Canada? Are they fugitives from the law? And can they pull off the wedding in time?

This is light, comical road movie, full of jokes and radio music. All three of the leads are fun to watch as they play out their characters. It takes place in an Atlantic Canada that’s an idyllic, rustic place, full of tolerant, friendly folks. It’s not meant to be a serious story, more of a light comic fantasy. Funny and tender in some parts, sad in others, but never too deep. I think it’s director’s Thom Fitzgerald’s try at a mainstream crowd-pleaser– as opposed to his earlier, more experimental films, like Hanging Garden —  and it works.

STILL MINE_cromwellStill Mine

Dir: Michael McGowan

Craig and Irene (James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold) live on a sprawling, 2000 acre family farm near St Martins, N.B. They’ve been married 60 years and have seven kids, and raise chickens, cows and strawberries. And they still live at home. They are very much in love, and still sleep together. Craig is tall, stern and gaunt; Irene has flowing long white hair that she lets loose on her slim body. (The movie makes a point at showing them bioth partially naked)

Irene’s memory is going, and she’s increasingly hard to handle in their old home. But Craig’s a stubborn old cuss, and there’s no way he’s leaving that place, despite their childrens’ entreaties.

So he decides to build a new house. By himself. By hand. He’s been schooled in the art of building since he was a lad, and St Martins was an old ship-building port, so he’s inherited all the rules: cutting and aging wood, building joists, making it all just right. He’s building a perfect, one story home, as tight as a ship, overlooking the Bay of Fundy. One where Irene will STILL_MINE bujoldnever have to worry about climbing or falling down staircases again.

But things start to go wrong. He never bought a refrigerated truck to transport his strawberry harvest – a new rule. So he can’t sell them. His cattle have wandered away since he didn’t fix a hole in a fence. And worst of all, Mr Daigle, at the licensing desk, says he didn’t follow the proper rules in building the new house, and posts WORK STOP notices all over the skeleton of the house he’s building. If he disobeys the law he could go to jail. Will the house be torn to the ground? Or will Craig and Irene win and get to live in their lovely new house?

Based on a true story – stubborn NB. farmer fights the bureaucrats — this is a nice movie with excellent performances by Bujold and Cromwell (He just won the best actor prize in a Canadian film this past weekend.) Some of the scenes looked similar to ones in Away from Her, with pretty Irene wandering unchecked, in a daze, with her long white hair blowing in her face.It’s modeled on rural life, and they both seem like real farmers, but it also shares the very slow, largely uneventful feel (I’m guessing here) of rural life. So it’s a bit sloooow, not so exciting. But it is a nice, gentle satisfying film to watch.

Cloudburst starts today, check your local listings, and keep your eyes out for Still Home which opens a few months from now, in May.

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

March 30, 2012. Lovers in a Dangerous Time. Daniel Garber interviews May Charters about her new film

Posted in Art, Canada, Cultural Mining, Hockey, Movie Theatre Trends, Movies, Music, Romance, Rural, Toronto, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on March 31, 2012

May Charters and Mark Hug co-wrote, co-directed, and co-star in a new movie, Lovers in a Dangerous Time, opening next week (April 6th, 2012).

It’s a romantic drama about a Toronto woman, Allison (May Charters) a book illustrator returning to her home town in rural Creston, BC for a high school reunion.

There she meets up with her childhood friend Todd (Mark Hug). Todd’s little brother / rival is now a rising young hockey star, but Todd has failed to live up to his potential.

It’s a visually and musically really pretty, (and seldom-seen) realistic look at life in small-town, rural Canada.

I speak to May in Los Angeles by phone about how they made the film, life in a small town, bush parties, Canadian-ness, her co-star, her art, how to shoot a feature with almost no crew, and the future of independent movies.

(Opening music: Lovers in a Dangerous Time, a new version of Bruce Cockburn’s song, performed by Montreal’s JBM)

October 20, 2011. The Calm Before the Storm. Movies Reviewed: Restoration, Wiebo’s War, 50/50 PLUS ImagineNATIVE

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

There’s a term “The Calm Before the Storm”, and I’m getting the sensation that we’re there right now. Have you ever felt what it’s like before a tornado hits? It’s uncomfortably still, with a heavy weight in the pit of your stomach, and a strange feeling in the air. No wind. Weird feeling. Last weekend I stopped by the Occupy Toronto protest, where people are talking about how the middle class and poor — in countries like Canada, the US, Germany — have had their incomes go down or stay stangant over the past two decades, while a tiny percentage, that “1%”,  have had the biggest increase in their wealth in a century. Our national wellbeing is not keeping up to the constant rise in GDP.

Before the march, they pointed out the medics, in case people got clubbed or shot, and asked everyone to write down a number to call in case you’re thrown into prison. So there was that nervous sensation, not knowing how the police would react, would they be violent?, and what the potential risks were for marching, even in a democratic country. It turned out to be totally peaceful with a friendly police escort and no bad incidents whatsoever… but you never know.

So, knowing that some countries are on the brink of self-destruction, and (not that the two are comparable) knowing that next week – Hallowe’en – will be marked with deliberate mayhem and confusion, I’ve decided to talk about three movies where people face potential chaos, calamity, and collapse, and the different ways they choose to confront the coming storm.

First is a movie, which played at TIFF, about people confronting personal change and relationships, and trying to avoid a collapse.

Restoration
Dir: Joseph Madmony

Anton (Henry David), a young man and almost a drifter is looking for work in a run-down section of Tel Aviv. He stumbles into an old-school furniture-restoring shop and gets hired immediately by the grizzled and grumpy old carpenter Fidelman (Sasson Gabai). But the childless co-owner of the place dies the next day, and leaves his half not to the carpenter, but to his son.

Fidelman’s broke. And his son, a lawyer, is a bit of a douche, who is glad to be removed from his father’s life as a tradesman. He calls the place a junkyard, and wants to sell the property to build a condo, destroying his own father’s livelihood and forcing him into retirement. But musical Anton, (who has family troubles of his own) vows to learn the trade and tries to find the golden egg that will save the store. If he can only locate the missing piece of a rare antique piano, it will change from a piece of junk to a treasure worth enough money to keep the place open, and evade the impending doom. Anton becomes almost a surrogate son to the carpenter… almost. But it’s complicated when he realizes he may be falling in love with the real son’s pregnant wife.

This movie had great acting from the two main characters. On the surface, it’s a “let’s work hard to fix the piano and save the shop!”-type story, but that’s just its superficial structure. It’s actually much more sophisticated. Though drab-looking, Restoration is a bitter-sweet examination of love, duty, families, allegiances, death and inheritance.

Next, a movie, which played at Hotdocs, about a man, his family, and his supporters who take drastic moves to confront what he thinks is a coming disaster.

Wiebo’s War
Dir: David York

Wiebo Ludwig is a devout Christian who lives in a remote, isolated colony with his fellow religious settlers in BC, near Alberta. Their lives are food and energy self-sufficient, but, in the 90’s, things began to go wrong. Goats started having frequent stillbirths, and, when a woman also miscarried, they realized their watershed had been contaminated by natural gas wells built right at the edge of their property.

He was later arrested, tried, and jailed for bombs he had set off at wells and pipelines in that energy-rich Alberta area. This movie follows filmmaker David York who was allowed to film inside their compound.

Is Wiebo a religious nut or a devoted social activist? Well, he’s certainly religious, but he’s crazy like a fox. The movie documents some of Wiebo’s (and those of his fellow settlers’) frequent brushes with the law and the big energy companies. There are run-ins with outwardly conciliatory execs from Encana; pointless, intimidating, and relentless police raids of their homes to test things like how many ball point there are on one floor, and how many cassette tapes are on another; and their increasingly fractious relationship with the nearby town, where they have found themselves local pariahs following the unexplained shooting death of young woman on their property.

Folk hero, or deranged terrorist?

Maybe both. I left the movie even less certain than before as to who’s to blame and what actually happened. While a bit slow-moving, Wiebo’s War gives a first hand look at a legendary Canadian figure (who was sadly diagnosed with cancer just a few days ago), his family and co-religionists, and the unusual junction between Christian fundamentalism and environmental extremism. …an inside look at the calm before the storm.

50/50
Dir: Jonathan Levine

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a shy, quiet, polite and passive guy, with a boorish and boisterous friend named Kyle, a smothering, worrying mom, and a beautiful but shallow girlfriend named Rachael. He’s in his twenties, no car, lives in a tiny red house far from the city of Seattle, and cubicle job at a beautiful public radio station (Support CIUT!) where he’s working on a story about a soon-to-erupt volcano.

But when Adam gets a pain in his belly, his doctor (a man with possibly the worst bedside manner ever) does some tests and tells him he has a rare form of cancer, and a 50% chance of living. He’s sent to a therapist (Anne Hendrick) who’s younger than he is, and is still at the student-teacher stage.

So, how is Adam going to face his situation? How will he deal with his casual girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is suddenly his caregiver? His best friend (Seth Rogen) who just wants to use his cancer buddy as a wing-man chick magnet? And his intrusive worry-wort mother, who is already taking care of his Alzheimer stricken dad? Or even his bumbling but sincere therapist, Katie? What will he do? Can he accept the possibility of death? Who is really important to him?

50/50, based on a true story, is not a bad movie – it’s sweet — but, beware, it’s not the comedy it’s billed as. It’s a drama — even a bit of a weeper — with some needed comic relief. Gordon-Levitt is perfect as Adam, as is Hendrick as Katie, while Seth Rogen – not so funny, a bit too much. But Angelica Huston as the Mother was shockingly good. I mean, she plays to stereotypes, but does it so well, I didn’t figure out it was her playing the part until the final credits!

50/50 is now playing, Wiebo’s War opens in Toronto today, check your local listings, and Restoration is playing one show only next week, on Sunday afternoon, October 30th, as part of the Chai, Tea and a Movie series. Go to tjff.com for details.

Also on right now in Toronto is the wonderful ImagineNATIVE, the world’s largest aboriginal film festival, that explores native film, art and music from Canada and abroad. Great stuff! Many events are free and they’re all open to everyone — go to ImagineNATIVE.org for details.

Next week: Hallowe’en!

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, CulturalMining.com.

16 September, 2011. Women Directors at TIFF. Films Reviewed: Union Square, Elles, UFO in Her Eyes, Hysteria, PLUS Road Movie

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

TIFF is a strange and wonderful place. Where else can you go from watching a Russian movie (where all the characters speak German, but most of the actors just move their lips, open and closed, since they don’t speak either language)… to a quintessentially Winnipeg party celebrating another movie, where I ended up sitting at a table between stars Udo Kier and Louis Negin, tearing soft-core pictures out of old National Geographic magazines and new Taschen art books to glue onto paper in a collage. (It was a collage party – why not?)

Well TIFF may be winding down, but there are at least three more days left to see a huge amount of movies, and there are still tickets or rush seats available for most of them. Go to tiff.net for more information. So with no further ado, lets get to the reviews. This week I’m talking about four movies directed by and starring women in lead roles.

Union Square
Dir: Nancy Savoca

Jen (Tammy Blanchard), is a neat, pretty, quiet, and tidy
professional, originally from Vermont, living with he boyfriend in downtown Manhattan. She doesn’t drink or smoke, is a vegetarian, a yoga enthusiast, and runs a health food company out of her apartment. Her boyfriend and fiancé, Bill (Mike Doyle), is a generic-looking handsome Stanford grad, who keeps meticulous notes on his marathon training stats, and calls Jen “twig”. They’re happy.

But into this rarefied existence drops Lucy (Mira Sorvino), a loud-mouthed, gaudily dressed women who seems to know Jen for some reason. It’s soon revealed that she’s her sister. She talks at twice Jen’s volume, interrupts her, laughs, shrieks, cries, and breaks hundred of house rules (no shoes, no pets, no cigarettes, no meat) even in her first few minutes in the apartment off Union Square. She’s a working-class, Italian-American from the Bronx! And Rob’s parents are coming the next day for Thanksgiving dinner, even as Lucy camps out on a pile of things on the couch.

Will Jen’s potential marriage crumble as Bill discovers her real origins? Can she still “pass” as a suburban educated WASP? And will Lucy get a chance to explain some important family issues to Jen?

Union Square works like a one-act-play, with revelations, gradual changes in character, and a final concluding scene to explain some of what’s behind the two sisters’ fighting. And it makes for an enjoyable picture.

Elles
Dir: Malgorzata Szumowska

Anne (Juliette Binoche), is a reporter for Elle magazine in Paris. She’s writing a story on two separate, pretty college students she found Charlotte and Alicja (Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) who secretly work as well-paid prostitutes. Charlotte still lived with her parents, and Alicja was from Poland, studying in Paris but without a place to stay. As they describe their sexual experiences to her, the movie drifts in and out of their sexual experiences with their clients, or at least how Anne imagines them.

Anne begins with questions about how they were forced into this life, what miserable experiences they have, and whether it make them hate sex. But their answers surprise her. Charlotte says there’s a horrible smell that’s really hard to get rid of. Anne nods supportively – all that sex with strangers… No, says Charlotte, its the smell of the housing projects she used to live in with her parents, where she worked as a fast food cashier. Now? Life was wonderful with her new comfortable lifestyle, shoes, clothes, and food. Now she has johns teach her to make Coq au vin with Reisling, and, after sex, sit on her bed playing the guitar.

Anne begins to have sexual fantasies about their lives, even as she questions her own privileged, but meaningless and alienating consumer lifestyle, and how her husband and two sons all ignore her. Elles is pleasant, pretty and sexually explicit — if lightweight — and one that offers a pro-sex, feminist view of the trade thats different from most movies.

UFO in her Eyes
Dir: Guo Xiaolu

Guan Yu (Ke Shi) is a peasant who lives in rural southern China amid the small tree-covered mountains.
She has a roll in the hay with the town schoolteacher. Afterwards, she picks up a piece of crystal and looks at the sky where she’s sure she sees some flying saucers coming to earth. Soon, word has spread, and the ambitious communist party chief for the village (Mandy Zhang) has decided to make the town rich by forcing it to be modern, complete with an ugly town sculpture, a UFO amusement park, a 5-star hotel, and a golf course. The schoolteacher begins to teach his 8-year-old students to read Henry Miller. The town Chief declares Guan Yu a model peasant, and the married school teacher a model intellectual. The schoolteacher should divorce his wife and marry Guanyu to make a perfect couple for the town, and embrace Americanism – whether they want it or not. But what about all the people in the town – the poor, the migrant bicycle repairman, the farmers whose land is requisitioned to build a golf course, and the local butcher whose pig sty is declared unsanitary? As the haves are marching toward modernity richness, the disenfranchised are banding together to protest it. Which side will triumph? Will Guan Yu go with change? Or will she find her true love, the quiet, migrant bicycle repairman? And what about the UFO – will she ever see them again?

UFO in her Eyes, based on the director’s bestselling novel, is a cute satire of the new capitalism in rural China.

Wuthering Heights
Dir: Andrea Arnold
You probably know the story: Heathcliff, an orphan brought home from a port to a rural village in 19th century England, is baptized, and raised sort of as a member of the god-fearing family. He and his adopted sister, Cate, become very close, rolling around in the heather and mud of the moors. But they’re threatened by Hindley who thinks his dad likes Heathcliff more. When Cate decides to marry a rich man, Heathcliff flees the farm, and doesn’t come back for many years. Will they get back together and embrace their love, or will it consume ad destroy them both?

OK. The thing is, this version is done by the great director Andrea Arnold, who made Fish Tank last year – that’s why I wanted to see this. She makes some changes. People speak naturally, the camera is handheld, and jiggles around, lighting seems natural – sunlight or candlelight or complete darkness – interspersed with beautiful contemporary-looking costumes, and tons of shots of birds animals and plants. Most of the actors are non-actors, Hindley’s a racist skinhead and Heathcliff is black!

It doesn’t always work, and gets a bit tedious in the second half, but has some very beautiful scenes, like Cate blowing a tiny feather or licking the wounds on Heathcliff’s back. It’s an interesting, naturalistic take on what’s usually just a costumed melodrama.

Hysteria
Dir: Tanya Wexler

It’s Victorian London, and earnest and handsome young Dr Granville (Hugh Dancy) is trying without luck to help people stay clean and healthy while remaining loyal to the ideals of Lister, and modern medicine. He is hired by a psychiatrist, Dr Dalyrimple, who gives special treatments to rich, society women suffering from the blanket ailment “hysteria”. Women who were designated frigid, or nymphomaniacal, or moody, or argumentative – well, they’re all “hysterical”, so the problem must be in their uterus (and hysterectomies were sometimes considered a “cure”). Treatment consists of manual genital massages behind discretely mounted miniature red velvet curtains.

He’s engages to marry the Dalyrimple’s conservative daughter Emily; she’s a pianist and an phrenologist: Oh, Dr Granville, your thrombus is rigid and jutting! she says after feeling the bumps on his head. But he always seems to be in arguments with the fiery Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhall) a suffragette and social worker who runs a settlement house in the impoverished East End. And poor Granville might lose his job because of the repetitive stress injury in his right hand. But, together with his gay best friend and steampunk inventor (Rupert Everett) he just might have the solution to eveyone’s problems– a new machine that may permanently cure hysteria.

I was expecting nothing from a movie about the invention of the vibrator, but it was a real treat – a romance, a comedy, an historical drama, an old-fashioned Hollywood-style movie, along with a taboo twist. Try to see it this weekend – it’s a great movie!

Union Square, UFO in her Eyes, Wuthering Heights and Hysteria are all playing now at TIFF – check listings at tiff.net . And also check out Road Movie, a two sided, three-screen video installation at the O’Borne Gallery by Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatki that shows pixilated footage tracing the roads in the occupied West Bank (from the view of the Israeli settlers on one side and Palestinians on the other) with their words superimposed in short phrases over the footage.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining . com.

Fighters! Hotdocs Documentaries Reviewed, 2011. Better This World, Fightville, Open Secret, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Recessionize! For Fun and Profit! PLUS Alan Zweig

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

Toronto’s Hotdocs, which starts today, is one of the best documentary festivals in the world.

It features recent docs, including Canadian and world premiers, as well as exceptional films from the past. This year the festival is running a retrospective of Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig’s work, including favourites like I, Curmudgeon and Vinyl, as well as the excellent and moving A Hard Name which follows the difficult lives of seven ex-cons released back into the city.

Many documentaries are about people facing a conflict; they choose either to fight it or to learn to accept it. Today I’m going to talk about movies playing at Hotdocs — films about fighters, people who like to fight, and people who are fighting the Powers That Be; and others who take the opposite route, the path of least resistance.

Better this World

Dir: Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega

When I read about stories like the seven guys in Miami who were arrested for conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago for Osama bin Laden – even though they’ve never even been to Chicago and have no connection with Al Qaeda; or the Somali-American  kid in Portland Oregon labeled as a Christmas Tree Bomber; or the Toronto 18 who were accused of plotting to blow up the Parliament building, I start to wonder how big a role did the government informants play in these stories, and whether anything at all would have happened had it not been for the government instigator.

Two young, idealistic best friends David McKay and Brad Crowder, who grew up in Midland, Texas, went to Minneapolis to protest the Republican Convention two years ago. You might have seen the footage of the police there clubbing, tear gassing and arresting hundreds of protestors, students and even journalists, while, inside the buildings, people like Sarah Palin were talking to sea of middle-aged, white, soon-to-be tea-partiers. Well, within the crowd outside were three guys – the two young best friends, and a supposed radical, Brandon Darby. The two friends were arrested by the FBI and called criminals and anarchist-terrorists, mainly by the much older FBI informant, Darby, who claimed they were there to blow up people – including sleeping policemen – using Molotov cocktails as part of their anti-war demonstrations.

This movie explores the events leading up to Brad and David’s arrests and the subsequent trials, including the use of government informants to create the supposed conspiracy, push it toward some yet-to-happen act of violence, and to entrap them into saying aloud some hypothetical phrase of intention.

This is an excellent — though at times extremely disheartening – documentary about how governments manufacture to order “criminals” where none previously existed, merely to fit into their quota of “War on Terror” political prisoners. Makes you want to cry…

Another type of fighter are the ones featured in the movie

Fightville

Dir: Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

Directors of the fantastic Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace and its good sequel How to Fold a Flag are again dealing with young, poor American men; in this case, aspiring Mixed Martial Arts fighters from Lousiana.

Also called cage fighting or Ultimate Fighting, MMA has a reputation as an extremely violent sport akin to pro wrestling, without any referees, where the two fighters kick, punch, and beat each other up until one is nearly dead. This is its mythology, but none of it’s true. It’s actually safer than heavyweight boxing – the fighters wear smaller, lighter gloves, though because of the nature of the sport, does lead to small cuts and bruises, but not to the head injuries you get in boxing. It’s played in closely refereed rounds, with a match ending with a knockout, one player’s submission, or by a judgement. It looks like a combination of boxing, grappling, Brazilian jujitsu, muai thai kick boxing, and traditional wrestling down on the mat. In my opinion it’s the most interesting kind of fighting to watch, since it involves so many skills and so much training and strategy on the parts of the fighters.

This beautifully shot movie dispels the myths about Mixed martial arts, as it follows two amateur fighters, Dustin and Albert, as they try to make it from an amateur farm team to professional status. Will either of them make it to the pros? While not that dramatic a sports story, Fightville takes you behind the scenes, through all the stages of training and preparation for a fight, and shows Dustin and Albert both in their ordinary lives, and within the ring, with all the glamour and excitement that comes from an actual match.

Open Secret

Dir: Steve Lickteig

Steve Lickteig, an NPR brodcaster, grew up on a Kansas farm and lived his whole life knowing that he was adopted… but not knowing the open secret about his birth parents. The movie investigates his search for the truth that he was never told about as a child.

His oldest brothers and sisters were sworn to secrecy, and the younger ones were kept in the dark. The movie reveals part of the open secret in the first few minutes of the movie, so it’s no spoiler to say that he was actually an older sister’s child, and his parents were really his grandparents.

The movie follows him returning to his family – his sister/mother, and his parents aka grandparents. He also wants to know the truth about who his father was, what the reasons were for the strange arrangement, and more about his actual birth parents, his background, and whether he has other relatives.

Open Secret is above all a family memoir with the various members fighting and arguing, holding grudges, or reconciling, meeting or refusing to meet. If you’re into these types of daytime TV family stories, or if you’re familiar with the NPR personality who made it, then this is a good movie for you, but I have to say it didn’t do much for me.

Let’s move away now from fighting, resisting, and quarrelling and toward the opposite spectrum, to movies about buying into the system and going with the flow.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Dir: Morgan Spurlock

I can’t stand product placement on TV or in movies – it’s a pet peeve. Whether it’s as banal as working a brand name into an answer on Jeopardy!, or the ubiquitous Mac laptop magically appearing in most movies, it’s annoying, obnoxious, and intrusive. So Morgan “Super Size Me” Spurlock decided to make a movie in which every scene, every shot, and even the movie’s title itself, would have at least one product placement in it – and he would use product placement both to pay for the movie, and to provide its plot. It’s a very amusing, fast paced, and light comic take on advertising. Some of its cleverest moments is where he interviews people like Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader about product placement, without them realizing there’s a brand name – a shoe, an underarm deodorant, a soft drink – appearing right beside them. And just because you know it’s there, it doesn’t mean it’s not working. Honest to God, I walked out of this movie with a strange desire to buy a bottle of pomegranate juice!

In a similar vein, and just as entertaining, is the Canadian documentary

Recessionize! For Fun and Profit!

Dir: Jaime Kastner

In a tongue-in-cheek look at the present-day grim effects of the economic meltdown and the recession that followed it, Kastner decides to look at the bright side instead. There’s money to be made out there, even in bad times, so he tracks down some unusual people adapting to the new economic realities. One of the more clever ones include a smartly dressed and perfectly coiffed woman who lives in a deluxe mansion with her family. The catch? She’s only there to make it look lived-in for potential real-estate buyers, and will have t move out the moment it’s sold. What does her teenaged son think about living in a place that has to be kept spotless? He says it’s major OCD territory!

And there’s also a great French guest house where people who feel their career is a rat-race can live for a weekend like a hamster, running in a giant wheel! Recessionize! is a lot of fun – an amusing, up-beat and fast-paced, TV style variety documentary.

The Hotdocs festival runs from Thursday April 28th to May 8th, and is free – no charge! – for rush seats during the day for anyone with a Student or Senior ID. Check this out online hotdocs.ca I think everyone should try to see at least one documentary, and Hotdocs is the best place to see them.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining dot com.

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