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.

Daniel Garber talks with Carlyle Jansen, founder of Toronto International Porn Festival

Posted in Breasts, Feminism, Movies, Porn, Sex, Sex Trade by CulturalMining.com on April 20, 2018

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

In Toronto the Good, sex was a dirty word and pornography a crime until just a few decades ago. Now, though, here and around the world, porn is an enormous — and quite legal — industry worth an estimated $60 billion dollars. That means they make a lot of movies. Toronto is a city of movie lovers with over 100 film festivals. So how come there’s no film festival devoted to porn? The answer is: there is!

It’s called the Toronto International Porn Festival and it’s on now until Sunday. The festival includes including screenings, workshops and panel discussions dealing with a panoply of sexualities and gendres and ideologies. It was founded by noted sex education expert Carlyle Jansen, who trains sex therapists on topics ranging from sexual pleasure to sexual challenges. You may have seen her Ted Talk or read her two books: Anal Sex Basics and Sex Yourself: The Woman’s Guide to Mastering Masturbation and Achieving powerful Orgasms.

I spoke with Carlyle Jansen in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM. She talked about Porn Fest, diversity in porn, exploitation, reversing genders, body types, sex work, science fiction, Erika Lust, Bruce LaBruce, breastfeeding… and more!

Toronto International Porn Festival is running from now through Sunday, April 22, 2018 at The Royal Cinema and Super Wonder.

In the Trash. Movies Reviewed: A Swingers Weekend, The Go-Getters, Isle of Dogs

Posted in Addiction, Animals, Animation, Canada, Japan, Poverty, Sex, Sex Trade, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on March 23, 2018

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

The Canadian Film Fest is on now, bringing lots of new movies to the big screen, movies made right here in Toronto and across the country. Comedies, dramas and real life stories.

Hollywood movies often glamourize everyday life with an idealized view of the world the average person can never attain. But sometimes movies look in the opposite direction… downward, toward the gutter.  This week I’m looking at movies set among the trash. There’s an island of garbage filled with abandoned dogs, a couple of ne’er-do-wells who live in  rubbish, and a married couple who risk trashing their marriage for a weekend getaway.

A Swingers Weekend

Wri/Dir: Jon E. Cohen

Lisa and Dan (Erin Karpluk – Being Erica, Randal Edwards) are a power couple. She’s in real estate and he’s CEO at an energy drink corporation, and they’re  taking a break from their Toronto jobs for a weekend retreat in a lakeside villa up in cottage country. They’ve invited the attractive TJ and Skai (Michael Xavier, Erin Agostino) — he’s an artist, she’s into yoga – for a gourmet dinner and a weekend of kinky sex. But their planned foursome gains a fifth and sixth wheel when unexpected guests show up at the door. Geoffrey and Fiona (Jonas Chernik, Mia Kirchner) are Dan’s old friends whose marriage is falling apart. Can a weekend of bed-swapping inject new life into the respective couples’ relationships? And what are their real motives behind this swingers’ retreat?

A Swingers Weekend is a cute comedy that’s surprisingly tame. No nudity, it’s more of a social satire than a bedroom farce.

The Go-Getters

Dir: Jeremy LaLonde

Owen and Lacie (Aaron Abrams, Tomie Amber Pirie) are an odd couple. She’s a streetwalker who works for a disabled pimp called Cerebral Paulie, who keeps her addicted to oxycodone. He’s a nearly homeless alcoholic who mooches drinks from his brother’s skid row bar. He robbed her of her last fiver when she was ODing in a puddle of vomit on the bathrooom floor. It was hate at first site. But circumstances conspire to make them work together so they can buy bus tickets to Brockville to renovate an abandoned home.

They try robbing panhandlers, selling sex to teens, and fleecing buskers, but nothing seems to work. Will they ever escape from hideous Toronto? The Go-Getters is an unusual look at the lowest of the low in downtown Toronto. But guess what – this is a comedy! Yup, I’m not joking. Abrams as Owen looks like a younger and dumber Dr House (Hugh Laurie), and Pirie is truly unique as a loud-mouthed hooker with a heart of lead.

Isle of Dogs

Dir: Wes Anderson

It’s Japan sometime in the future. Megasaki in Uni prefecture is a big city controlled by the evil and corrupt Kobayashi dynasty. The Kobayashi clan own everything from the golf courses to the amusement parks and pharmaceutical labs. And they are all cat lovers who despise dogs. The dogs all come down with an odd disease called snout flu. Mayor Kobayashi – under the thumb of the corpse-like Major Domo – declares all dogs persona non grata. To save the city from infection, he says, he is banishing all the city’s dogs to Trash Island off the coast. This even includes his nephew Atari’s dog Spots. (Atari was adopted by his distant uncle when his parents died in a train crash.)

But when Atari flies to Trash Island in a toy airplane to rescue his pooch, he discovers a strange world rarely seen by humans. It’s ruled by gangs of alpha dogs, headed by a team of five: former pets Duke, Rex, King and Boss, as well as the mysterious Chief, a stray who likes to fight. (He bites.) They vow to help Atari find his dog Spots… or die trying.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, student journalists — led by exchange student Tracy — smell a skunk among the cats. They sense there’s a conspiracy targeting dogs and – with the help of a hacker — they vow to save the dogs and the missing boy Atari, and to make City Hall pay for their crimes. But will they make it in time?

Isle of Dogs is an epic fantasy made with stop-motion animation. The humans speak Japanese (with voiceover translation) and the dogs speak a stilted Japanese English. The story sounds simple and a bit goofy, but it’s not. It’s pure, non-stop eye candy, with art and illustration flooding your brain at the pace of a Simpsons episode.

It feels like Wes Anderson made a list of all English words derived from the Japanese — yakuza, sumo, sushi, geisha, samurai, bonsai, kabuki, haiku, anime, manga, otaku, cos-ple, taiko — and worked them all into the film. The thing is, it’s not cheap laughs and cultural plundering, it’s lovingly, respectfully, and exquisitely reproduced.

The constant barrage of images includes Japanese pop art, manga, ukiyo-e, silhouettes, and 2-D animation, all portrayed with a futuristic/retro/ steampunk feel (if such a thing is possible). Wes Anderson has done stop- motion animation before — The Fantastic Mister Fox — but this one is a quantum leap beyond that. None of Mister Fox‘s nudge-nudge, wink-wink snark in this movie; just affectionately rendered geek culture.

Isle of Dogs is stunning to watch. I’ve seen it twice now, and want to see it again, as soon as possible. It’s exquisite, beautiful, awe-inducing… I’m running out of adjectives. I love this movie, and if you revel in the visual and all things Japanese, you must see this animated film.

Isle of Dogs opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Go Getters and other films are playing this weekend at the Canadian Film Fest. 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 Scotty Bowers and Matt Tyrnauer about Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, documentary, Hollywood, LGBT, Movies, Scandal, Secrets, Sex, Sex Trade by CulturalMining.com on December 29, 2017

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

It’s the early 1950s. Scotty Bowers is a former Marine working as a gas jockey on Hollywood blvd. who stumbles on an untapped market: sex with the stars. They wanted young men and they were willing to pay for it: 20 bucks a pop. Soon he was turning tricks, invited into the mansions of the biggest stars in Hollywood: Spencer Tracy, Catherine Hepburn, Charles Laughton, George Cukor, Lana Turner, Cary Grant. But Scotty was also discreet, and kept Hollywood’s secrets safe from the gossip rags… until the stars were long gone. Then he wrote it down in a tell-all book.

Scottty and the Secret History of Hollywood is a new feature documentary which had its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by noted documentary filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer, and starring Scotty Bowers it probes Scotty’s history, tells his secrets, and brings it up-to-date in present day LA.

I spoke with Matt Tyrnauer and the legendary Scotty Bowers at TIFF17.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood will open in April.

 

And two more: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, The Florida Project

Posted in 1930s, Cultural Mining, Feminism, LGBT, Movies, Polyamory, Poverty, Psychology, Romance, Sex, Sex Trade by CulturalMining.com on October 13, 2017

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

I’m back again because it’s a bumper crop this week, and there are two more great movies opening today that deserve to be seen. One takes place in the shadows of Disneyworld, the other reveals the origins of Wonder Woman.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Wri/Dir: Angela Robinson

It’s the 1920s at a prestigious University. William Marston (Luke Evans) is a Harvard-trained psychologist who lives and works alongside his brilliant wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). They are both outspoken advocates for women’s rights and create the world’s first lie detector. But when William takes on a young research assistant named Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), Elizabeth suspects hanky-panky. So what a surprise when they all answer intimate questions about their truest feelings and desires using the lie detector: Olive desires both William and Elizabeth! And the feelings are mutual. They form a triad – a polyamorous relationship – among the three of them. To the outside world they are a married couple with their widowed relative, but behind closed doors anything goes. The three move into a large house and raise their children together, exploring new sexual avenues – including role play and BDSM — while the kids are away at school. But when their secret is revealed and he loses his job, Marston is forced to look for new ways to earn a living. So he creates the world’s first feminist superhero, Wonder Woman, based on the two women in his life. Her outfit is inspired by clothing they see at Greenwich Village fetish shop, and the Lasso of Truth is a combination of bondage and lie detectors.

Professor Marston and the Womder Women tells the delightful and always surprising love story about the origins of a superhero before she was whitewashed into blandness and conformity.

The Florida Project

Dir: Sean Baker

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) Jancey (Valeria Cotto) Scooty (Christopher Rivera) are three little kids who live in the giant pink motels that dot the highways around Disneyland in Orlando Florida. They spit off balconies, explore junk piles and panhandle tourists for ice cream. Though rundown, the motels serve as a community and home for the nearly homeless and marginal. They are forced to vacate their rooms weekly and relocate – they’re not allowed to call their homes home. They are all looked after by the stern but benevolent manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe)

Halley, Moony’s mom (Bria Vinaite) earns her living reselling wholesale perfume bottles or turning the occasional trick. Other moms work as waitresses or as de facto daycare, just trying to keep the kids fed and out of trouble. And boy do these kids get in trouble. Abut when something serious happens, the delicate balance between parents and kids quickly falls apart.

The Florida project is a fascinating look at the poor and marginal people around Orlando, in a private hotel that functions like a housing project, Florida-style The kids are great, although occasionally prone to cuting-it-up for the camera. And the raw, beautiful camerawork, crumbling houses against a tropical sunset, give it an immediate, authentic feel. Great movie.

The Florida Project and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women both open today in Toronto. This is Daniel Garber at the movies each Friday morning for CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.

War and remembrance. Films reviewed: Hacksaw Ridge, Birth of a Nation, Seoul Station

Posted in 1800s, 1940s, African-Americans, Japan, Resistance, Sex Trade, Slavery, soldier, violence, WWII, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on November 4, 2016

img_1527Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

November 11th is Remembrance Day, when we remember the death and destruction of war. Even wars fought for good reasons may result in horrible deaths for soldiers and ordinary people. This week I’m looking at movies about war. There are armies of zombies in Seoul who want to eat people, a secret slave army in Virginia that wants to free people, and a man who joins the US army in WWII… but refuses to kill people.

hacksawridge_d14-6618Hacksaw Ridge

Dir: Mel Gibson

It’s the 1930s. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) is a young man who lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia with his drunk Dad (Hugo Weaving) and religious Mom (Rachel Griffiths). As a kid he loved climbing cliffs and rassling with his brother Hal. But when he saw how close to death his brother came when he hit him in the head with a brick, he swore never to hurt or kill another person again. As a Seventh Day Adventist he takes the Sixth Commandment — thou shalt not kill – very seriously. Years later,hacksawridge_d4-3041-edit he rescues a man injured in an accident by putting a tourniquet on his leg. He has studied medicine on his own since he can’t go to college. At the hospital he meets the beautiful and smart Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) a nurse. It’s love at first sight.

But it’s 1941 and the country is at war. Young men all rush to join the army and Doss is no exception. But he joins as a medic to save lives, not as a fighter to kill people. He and Dorothy plan to get married after boot camp. But then reality hits. You can’t be in the army and refuse to carry a gun. They offer him a Section 8 – a psychiatric discharge. But he refuses to quit. He’s not crazy, he’s not un-American, he’s not unpatriotic. The army disagrees.  Soldiers beat him and bully him, and on hacksawridge_d22-10131_fullframehis wedding day the Army throws him in the brig, leaving Dorothy waiting at the altar. Will he be court-martialed?

Somehow he makes it to Okinawa, in time for a crucial battle. They must climb Hacksaw Ridge, a sheer cliff, to face a never-ending battalion of Japanese soldiers. Can Doss use his medic skills to save his fellow soldiers?

Hacksaw Ridge is a heartfelt war movie about a conscientious objector who goes into battle without a gun. For a movie about a heroic man opposed to killing,  there’s also an ungodly amount of gory carnage shown in minute detail. Not for the squeamish.

Interestingly, the entire cast, except for Andrew Garfield and Vince Vaughan, is Australian. And with all those thin-lipped, lantern-jawed, soldiers, I had a hard time telling them apart. (Didn’t that guy just die in a foxhole? Must have been someone else…). Garfield, though, stands out as the stubborn, jug-eared Doss. If you like heroic war movies, this one pushes all the right buttons.

birthofanation_04Birth of a Nation

Dir: Nate Parker

Nat Turner (Nate Parker) is born to loving parents and grandparents in a wooden house in Virginia in the early 19th century. At an early age mystics declare him a born leader, with special birthmarks on his belly. He grows up a student of the bible, reading to himself at night. And he happily marries a beautiful woman when they fall in love.,But he is also an African American in the south which means… he is also a slave. The slave owner Sam Turner (Armie Hammer) played with him as a child and they share the birthofanation_02same last name. When earnings are down Sam hires him out to other plantations to preach to fellow slaves, to help calm potential unrest. Nat delivers the sermons, while Sam keeps the cash.

It is on these visits that Nat Turner witnesses the truly horrifying nature of slavery. A young girl kept like a dog with collar and leash. Men set upon by vicious dogs. Families broken up and sold like cattle at auctions. Heinous torture – worse than you can imagine – for crimes as simple as looking a white man directly in the eyes. Women are subject to birthofanation_06horrific rape.  Murder and lynching — always white violence against blacks — is not even considered a crime. So Nat Turner decides enough is enough and organizes a small army to fight back. But can a handful of men and woman overturn slavery itself?

Birth of a Nation is a fictionalized retelling of the famous Nat Turner rebellion. The movie birthofanation_01concentrates more on Nat’s life in the years leading up to it than on the battle itself. The film is disturbing, dealing with topics rarely shown in mainstream movies. Even so, it has a mainstream feel to it: flickering candles, gushing music, and Hollywood kisses in profile. The title itself reclaims D.W. Griffith’s wildly popular silent movie from 1915 which glorified the Ku Klux Klan and inspired countless terrorist attacks on black Americans. This is a good film about a neglected part of US history, downplayed or glossed over in most movies.

seoul_station_film_posterSeoul Station

Dir: Sang-ho Yeon

It’s a typical day at the central train station in Seoul, Korea. It’s used by commuters everyday. But it’s also a mecca for the disenfranchised — the poor, the mentally ill and the homeless. Hye-sun is a young runaway,  a former sex worker who lives with her wimpish boyfriend. They are separated by a massive zombie attack — and the virus is spreading. He teams up with her father, while she follows a deranged, homeless man. Hye-sun communicates with her boyfriend whenever they can find a signal on their phones. When she turns to the police for help, they lock her up in a jail cel. Later, a large group of people trapped in an area besieged by zombies appeals to the army. But instead of rescuing them, the soldiers fire water canons and teargas… not at the zombies, but at their fellow citizens. Who will survive the zombie onslaught?

Seoul Station is an animated prequel to the hit horror film Train to Busan. Characters are drawn with clean black outlines against realistic backgrounds. Seoul is portrayed as a desolate place, its dim skies lit only by neon crosses.  This may be a zombie movie but it’s also an unsparing look at the maltreatment of the homeless and disenfranchised in modern Korea.

Birth of a Nation is now playing and Hacksaw Ridge opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Seoul Station is playing at the upcoming ReelAsian Film Festival. Go to reelasian.com for showtimes. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Daniel Garber talks about The Stairs with director Hugh Gibson, Roxanne and Marty at #TIFF16

Posted in Addiction, Cultural Mining, Depression, documentary, Poverty, Sex Trade, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on September 30, 2016

 

l to r: Marty, Hugh, Roxanne

l to r: Marty, Hugh, Roxanne

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

Regent Park is a well-known public housing development in Toronto’s east end. Built in the 1940s, it consisted of small houses arranged in quads as well as highrise apartments.the-stairs-roxanne-marty It mainly housed working-class and low-income immigrants. But the buildings started to crumble and conditions grew worse, until recently. Now the older buildings are being the-stairs-hugh-gibsonrazed and redeveloped. But what about the people who live there?

The Stairs is a new documentary that had it’s world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. Shot over a five year period by director Hugh Gibson, it looks at the lives of people there, at home and at work. It focuses on the South Riverdale Community the-stairs-marty-roxanneHealth Centre and Street Health, a harm reduction clinic aimed at drug users, sex workers, the homeless and others in the neighbourhood. The film concentrates on three social workers there: Marty, Greg and Roxanne. And

I spoke with Marty, Roxanne and Hugh at CIUT. The Stairs opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on October 7th.

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Dark TIFF. Films reviewed: We Are Never Alone, Manchester by the Sea, The Fixer PLUS Pop VR at #TIFF16 and FIVARS

Posted in Czech Republic, Drama, Family, Journalism, Movies, Romania, Sex Trade, US by CulturalMining.com on September 9, 2016

kathebattle_still_02Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Take a trip down to King street between Spadina and University and you’ll see TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, in full swing, with celebrities everywhere and free concerts and events. Featured this year for the first time are movies not invasion_03-1from Hollywood, nor India’s Bollywood, but from Nollywood, Nigeria’s thriving movie industry. Another new attraction at TIFF is POP VR, short films and documentaries shot in 3-d, and 360: movies you watch all around you. Using special headgear, kathebattle_still_05earphones and a smartphone attached to the front, you can see things like a cartoon about aliens, a doc about a feminist movement in India to enter sacred temples, and a Cirque de Soleil performance that puts you right in the middle of a Chinese sword fight! VR is still developing, but it’s a force to be reckoned with. This week I’m talking about three great dark movies playing now at TIFF. There’s a Czech village purple with paranoia, a man in New England with a dark history, and some yellow journalism in Romania.

miroslav-hanus-left-and-daniel-doubrava-right-in-we-are-never-alone-courtesy-of-wideWe Are Never Alone
Dir: Petr Vacla

Two families live in a remote small town in the Czech Republic built around a fortress-like prison. One is headed by a burly single dad (Miroslav Hanus), a prison guard, with a small son. He believes minorities and ex-cons are out to get him, and is writing a rightwing nationalist manifesto to rid the country of subversives and Roma. He longs to see those strong Czech bridges and dams being built again and the factories producing more widgets. In another family, a hypochondriac dad (Karl Roden) spends his time trying to photograph his back with a cellphone. He desperately seeks evidence of cancer. His wife (Lenka Vlasakova) stares lenka-vlasakova-left-and-zdenek-godla-right-in-we-are-never-alone-courtesy-of-widelongingly out the window all day of a roadside convenience store where she works.

Meanwhile a swarthy part-time pimp and his stand-offish junkie girlfriend drive around in a broken down red cart purchasing garish gifts. But things go really wrong when the two paranoid men meet, and begin to blend their strange theories and conspiracies. And daniel-doubrava-in-we-are-never-alone-courtesy-of-wideunbeknownst to them both, their young sons are gaslighting their dads, trying to drive them crazy, by secretly leaving increasingly large dead animals on their own doorsteps. Things start to spiral into increasingly awfulness as the three groups interact.

We are Never Alone is a dark story of nationalism, paranoia and apathy win modern-day Czech Republic. It has great acting, an unpredictable plot, and, thankfully, an underlying streak of absurdist comedy that lets usavoid the dread of the characters’ lives.

76e05278-81a6-4fc7-97b4-861c73eee46eManchester by the Sea
Dir: Kenneth Lonergan

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a handyman who lives alone in Quincy, just outside Boston. But he’s called back to his hometown in Manchester, when his divorced brother John dies. It’s up to him to inform his nephew Patrick that his dad is dead. Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is 16 years old, on the school hockey team and in a band. Lee and Casey were always been close, until something terrible happened, and Lee left town. Now, suddenly and against his wishes, he finds himself Patrick’s de facto dad. It’s written in his brother’s will. He doesn’t know how to

MBTS_3869.CR2raise a teen. He did have kids once, but that was a long time ago.

At first he acts like Chris’s buddy – lets him drink, take girls home, say or do whatever he likes. But gradually reality sets in and Lee realizes he has to do the right thing: either raise him properly or find someone else who can. Trouble is Lee’s reputation is dirt in this town, and no one will hire him. Ghosts of his past keep popping up, like Randi, his ex-alcoholic, ex-wife (Michelle Williams).

Although this may sounds like a typical movie, it’s not. The form, emotions and acting set it apart. It’s edited in a chop-up style, with flashbacks coming unannounced right after a scene set in the present. So you have to pay attention. Emotionally, it’s a devastating tearjerker, as the hidden past is gradually revealed. The whole film is exquisitely structured, with certain scenes repeated but with new, subtle variations and revelations. And the acting – especially Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges – is just so good. Oscar good. Great movie.

fixer_01The Fixer (Fixeur)
Dir: Adrian Sitaru

Radu (Tudor Istodar) is a journalist living in Bucharest with his wife and small son, He comes across an exclusive news story – a real scoop. A young woman named Anca (Diana Spatarescu)
has escaped from her Parisian pimp and made her way back to a small town in northern Romania. If they can track her down, a first hand interview could expose the huge network of underage 14138013_1063443357080084_3733967339935546785_otrafficking across Europe. Agence France Press sends their trip TV reporters to capture her on film, telling her story. But that’s easier said than done. Radu has to call in favours, smoothe out troubles, and serve as 10256865_778397828917973_7636613034058641716_otranslator, guide and journalist for Axel (Mehdi Nebbou) the French reporter. He is stymied by local thugs, a recalcitrant mother superior sheltering the girl in a nunnery, and even Anca herself, who doesn’t trust the French reporters. And as the story develops he starts to wonder: do journalists want to expose stories for the public good… or merely to boost their ratings?

The Fixer is another shocking movie. Like many Romanian movies it is hyper-realistic and slow to develop, but when it does — wow! It slams you and makes you question what you thought was happening. Distinctive cinematography, and again, great acting, The Fixer is a potent indictment of com-samsung-vrvideo-20160726-232455-1024x920investigative journalism.

We are Never Alone, The Fixer, and Manchester by the Sea are all playing at TIFF. Go to tiff.net for more information. And for another view of augmented and virtual reality, check out fivars, another Toronto VR festival that takes beyond where Pokemon-go can go. Go to fivars.net for details.

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

Daniel Garber talks to burlesque stars Judith Stein and Camille 2000 and director Rama Rau about The League of Exotique Dancers

Posted in Breasts, Burlesque, Canada, Dance, documentary, Feminism, Sex Trade, Strippers, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 20, 2016

Judith Stein, Camille 2000Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Photos by Jeff Harris.

In the days before pole dancing and pornhub, ecdysiasts plied their trade in show palaces across North America. These women performed their acts on stage with live music, costumes, and comedians. It was known as burlesque and Camille 2000, Rama Rau, Judith Steinproduced stars of its own, known for their songs, dances and looks. Burlesque reached its heyday in the 1950s and 60s before taking its last bows.

Now the original dancers are performing together again at a special Las Vegas show honoring inductees into the Burlesque Hall of Fame. A veritable League of Exotic Dancers.

The League of Exotique DancersThe League of Exotique Dancers is also the name of a new documentary that had its world premier at Hot Docs. It’s directed by award-winning Toronto-based filmmaker Rama Rau and features the original burlesque stars. I spoke with Rama Rau and burlesque artists Canadian Grand Beaver Judith Stein and Camille 2000.

They told me about the glamour and costumes of burlesque, Judith and Camille’s early days, burlesque vs neo-burlesque, burlesque and Bollywood, why strip bars pushed burlesque out of the picture… and more!

The League of Exotique Dancers opens today at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.

East Asia. Movies reviewed: The Assassin, Miss Hokusai, Port of Call

Posted in Animation, Art, Crime, Cultural Mining, Hong Kong, Japan, Movies, Sex Trade, Taiwan by CulturalMining.com on November 7, 2015

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

Toronto’s fall film festival season continues in November. 2015-rwm_logo-with-bg2Rendezvous with Madness opens tonight, featuring films and documentaries made by or about people with mental health or addiction issues. Each screening is followed by a reelasian-headerpanel discussion. And don’t miss the ReelAsian International Film Festival which started last night. I find movies from East Asia doubly interesting, not just for the story, acting and cinematography, but also for the cultural insights. This week, I’m looking at three Asian movies: a true crime drama set in contemporary Hong Kong, a martial arts epic set in Tang dynasty China, and Japanese anime set in 19th Century Edo.

0gEJM3_assassin_01_o3_8674043_1439243554The Assassin
Dir: Hou Hsiao-hsien

Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is a young woman in Tang dynasty China born into high-ranked family. As children, she and Tian Ji’an – a first cousin (Chang Chen) — are given matching disks carved from yellow jade, as a symbol of their future marriage. But destinies change. So to save her life, her mother sends the 10-year-old away to study with a Taoist nun.

But what does she study? She leaves there with a moral drive to defend the empire against all foes, both inside and at its fringes. With her long black vgRE5n_assassin_02_o3_8674110_1439243572hair hanging down, the beautiful Nie Yinniang now dresses in black robes to remain unseen, a veritable Chinese ninja. She can handle a sword like none other. Her profession? Assassin. The kind who can take down an official on horseback in the midst of a royal retinue and disappear a second later.

But does she have the mental toughness to kill on command? She refuses to kill a target when she sees him protecting his child. The nun says “to be 0gEJB5_assassin_04_o3_8674243_1439243607a true assassin, first kill the one that victim loves, then the victim himself.” And she sends her back to her beginnings with a mission. Kill the one she loves most — Tian Ji’An!

This sounds like just another martial arts movie, and it does have some excellent sword fights, battles and chase scenes. But don’t go to this movie expecting an ordinary action film. Cause it ain’t. It’s by renowned Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, known for his stunning visual and musical style, cultural sensitivity… and sloooow pace. Cloak and dagger politics, sumptuous costumes, stilted language, they’re all there, but without the driving music and non-stop action of most Wushu movies. This is suitable for Hou Hsiao-hsien fans, but anyone looking for a crouching tiger or a hidden dragon will search in vain.

MISS_HOKUSAI_main_01Miss Hokusai
Dir: Hara Keiichi
Based on the manga Sarusuberi by Sugiura Hinako

O-ei is an accomplished painter in 19th century Edo (now called Tokyo), known for her scary images of hell, and erotic portraits of women. She spends her days painting in her father’s studio, or trolling the lanes of Yoshiwara, the red light district. She lives in the floating world of actors, sex workers, geisha, samurai and nouveau-riche merchants. And she visits her blind little sister, sent away by their dad who doesn’t like being near disabled people. The movie follows episodes from her life, both realistic and fantastical: painting her first MISS_HOKUSAI_main_02dragon (the spirit has to possess you), seeing demons, even witnessing a long-necked geisha’s out-of-body experience. And her first sexual experience with a man, an onna-gata kabuki actor, who spends his life dressed as a woman.

Based on a true story, you may be wondering how come you’ve never heard of her? The answer is simple: she lived under the shadow of one of MISS_HOKUSAI_main_03the most famous Japanese artists of all time, Hokusai. His ukiyo-e block prints of mount Fuji and his big blue cresting wave are still ubiquitous images when you think of Japan. He was quite the showman, creating the world’s largest brush painting of Zen Buddhist monk Daruma, using a brush bigger than he was.

Miss Hokusai is both faithful to, and a victim of, Japanese anime based on manga. It follows the winding pace and endless variations of Japanese manga, not the neat beginning/middle/end of a western graphic novel. I like its non-judgemental view of the pre-Meiji demi-monde, and it’s all-around Japaneseness. Just wish it had a more linear plot.

IMG_1682Port of Call
Dir: Philipp Yung

Wang Jiamei (Jessie Li) is a student at a Catholic high school in Hong Kong. Originally from Hunan on the mainland, she arrived with her ambitious divorced mom and her innocent little sister. Her dad is a layabout gambler who makes his money whenever Manchester United loses a game. She picks up the local language but can’t fit in. She feels cold and detached inside, alienated. When a girl at the next desk slits her wrist in class, she doesn’t even blink. She drops out and drifts from job to job. A modelling agency sends her to one gig – she becomes the poster girl – literally – in an ad warning about domestic violence. Prophetic.

Ting (Michael Ning) is a friendless, chubby boy whose mother was killed inIMG_2338 a truck accident when he was a kid. After online chatting, he had hired Kama (Jiamei’s name she uses as an escort.) But their meeting leads to a series of horrific events. And when she completely disappears her mother calls the cops to investigate. Detective Chong (Aaron Kwok) quickly determines she’s not missing, she’s dead. But her body is nowhere to be found. Until Ting walks into a police station and confesses all.

Through a series of flashbacks and courtroom testimony, the three C1D31722characters – the murderer, the relentless detective and the dead victim – all reveal their secrets, feelings, histories and surprising motivations. What starts out as a simple police procedural turns into a moving — and at times shocking – drama of a case that had Hong Kongers glued to the tabloids just a few years ago.

Port of Call is a bit long and has some truly disgusting scenes. But it captures a feeling unique to parts of Hong Kong: gritty, grimy, cramped and crowded. The great performances by two unknown actors (plus veteran singer/star Aaron Kwok), its indie soundtrack, the unmistakable images of HK cinematographer Christopher Doyle, plus a surprise ending, all place this film a step above most true crime movies.

The Assassin is playing now in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and you can catch Miss Hokusai and Port of Call at the ReelAsian Film Festival. 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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