Creepy small towns. Films/TV shows reviewed: Hammer, Curon, Ragnarok

Posted in Canada, Crime, Family, Italy, Mystery, Norway, Supernatural, Suspense, Thriller, TV by CulturalMining.com on June 26, 2020

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

In light of the pandemic, many people are thinking of cities cities as crowded, dirty and dangerous places, compared to smaller towns. But are small towns any better? This week, I’m looking at three new productions – one film and two limited series – that look at the darker side of family life in small towns. There are nogoodniks in Newfoundland, taboos in Tyrolia, and felonious fat cats among the fjords.

Hammer

Wri/Dir: Christian Sparkes

It’s a paper-mill town somewhere in Canada (possibly Newfoundland).

Chris (Mark O’Brien) is a young man, down on his luck. He deals in drugs and stolen jewels, both valuable commodities, but somehow is deep in debt. Luckily, there’s a big operation – involving satchels of cash to be exchanged deep in the woods – about to go down with a sketchy guy named Adams (Ben Cotton). It should leave him rich. But something goes wrong. Now someone is dead, their body lost in a corn field, and Chris is on the run with Adams on his trail.

So in a chance encounter, he turns to his estranged family — his younger brother Jeremy, his disapproving mom and his angry dad Stephen (Will Patton) – for help. He hasn’t talked to them for years, but they’re his only hope. Can his father help him secure the cash, rescue a hostage, and protect him from Adams? Or will everything fall apart?

Hammer is a short, fast moving drama about a criminal act pulling a small-town family apart. It’s a well-written and well-acted movie. It’s a very of-the-moment, what you see is what you get style movie. No excess dialogue, no wasted scenes, no deep back story, just high-tension thrills. There’s violence but not gratuitous violence, gun battles, chase scenes and a few surprising twists. A noir-ish style but in a natural setting. And an ominous symbol – the ourusborus, a snake swallowing its own tail – gives this crime drama a darker, more sinister feel.

Curon

Created by Ezio Abbate, Ivano Fachin, Giovanni Galassi, Tommaso Matano

A picturesque town in Italy. Mauro and Daria are 17-year-old twins from Milan. Mauro (Federico Russo) is shy and introverted with a hearing impairment. He’s a natural target of bullies. His sister Daria (Margherita Morchio) is tough and self-confident. She’s sexually adventurous, can out-drink anyone she meets, and will likely win in a fistfight. She always looks out for her brother. The two are used to life in the big city, but their divorced mom moves them back to her hometown of Curon. It’s in German-speaking Tyrolia right by Austria and Switzerland. Very different from Milan, where the twins grew up. Curon’s main landmark is a man-made lake with a church bell tower in the middle; the only thing left of the old town they flooded to built a hydro dam. And they say if you ever hear the church bells ring, it means you’re going to die.

Soon after they arrive their mom disappears, so they move into their grandfather (Luca Lionello)’s spooky old hotel (like in The Shining). And they meet some of the popular locals at their highschool. Micki (Juju Di Domenico) and her bullyish boxer brother Giulio (Giulio Brizzi) are the two kids of a highschool teacher… They both hate Curon and want to head south to Milan. Will they be friends or enemies? And then there’s Micki’s wimpy friend Lukas (Luca Castellano) who goes through a strange transformation. Lukas has a crush on Micki, while Micki and Giulio have crushes on someone else. They also find out Micki and Giulio’s dad and Mauro and Daria’s mom share an old history. Will they ever find their mom, discover Curon’s secrets, and escape this creepy old town? Or will it ensare them in its mysterious and sinister ways?

Curon is a good, spooky TV drama, with sex, drugs and hints of horror every once in a while. It’s also full of dopplegangers, disappearing bodies, and strange sounds in the dark. Netflix seems to have created its own sub-genre – big city highschool kids returning to a picturesque town full of dark secrets. No spoilers here, but it’s worth watching. It’s scary but not terrifying, never boring, and with a good, attractive cast.

Ragnarok

Created by Adam Price

Here’s another TV series about a mom and her two kids moving back to her hometown. This time it’s a picturesque, fjord-filled village in Norway called Edda. Magne (David Stakston) and his brother Laurits (Jonas Strand Gravli) arrive by car. Magne has blond hair and glasses. He takes meds each day, has terrible vision and is dyslexic, and is fond of tossing hammers. Laurits has black hair and a pointy nose; he likes playing tricks on his brother. They quickly make friends at school. Magne meets Isolde, a young woman whose dad is their school teacher. She’s an enviroronmental activist who knows all the Edda’s secrets. Toxic wastes dumped into the pristine fjords are ruining the town’s ecology.

Laurits gravitates toward the son and daughter of an elitist family, the Jutals, headed by Vidar (Gísli Örn Garðarsson). They own the toxic chemical plant and have control over the police the school, nearly everything. Only the activists – and the town drunk – dare to defy them. And the girl Magne has the hots for is already dating Fjor Jutul, from the same rich family. It looks as if the town, and possibly the world, is heading toward ecological Armageddon, or Ragnarok as they say in Norse mythology. Can Magne learn in time who this family really is… and his own importance in confronting them?

Ragnarok is a TV series partly about ordinary people standing up to elitist authority figures to protect the environment. But that’s not all. There’s a Harry Potter-type backstory as well, where ordinary people learn about extraordinary things. I really liked this show – beautiful scenery, great acting, suspence, tons of fascinating and endearing characters, with lots of twists and surprises. Sort of a myth or fairy tale set in modern- day Norway. And it’s the work of Adam Price who also wrote Borgen, that popular Danish political drama that was on broadcast TV here a few years back.

Ragnarok is one of the best TV series I’ve seen so far this year.

Season One of Curon and Ragnarok are both streaming now on Netflix; Hammer opens today on Apple TV, Google Play and VOD.

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

Building walls. Films reviewed: The Rest of Us, The Divided Brain, Mr Jones

Posted in 1930s, Brain, Canada, Communism, documentary, Drama, Family, Feminism, Journalism, Movies, Neuroscience, Norway, Thriller, USSR, Wales, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 19, 2020

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

I’m recording this in my home to tell you about some movies you can watch in your home. This week I have two dramas directed by women and a documentary. There’s a psychiatrist looking at the divided brain, two families trying to bridge a gap; and a UK journalist who wants to penetrate the iron curtain.

The Rest of Us

Dir: Aisling Chin-Yee

Cami (Heather Graham) is a divorced mom who writes and illustrates children’s books. She lives in an elegant house with a swimming pool. Her daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) is home from university and hanging with a guy she met. She’s mad at her mother so she lives in an Airstream trailer parked out front. Meanwhile, another mother/daughter family live in another nice house. Rachel (Jodi Balfour) lives with her husband and young daughter Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky). What do they have in common? Rachel had an affair with Cami’s husband 10 years back, and now she’s married to him. But when he suddenly dies, the two moms – and their daughters – are brought together, against their will. Turns out the late husband hadn’t kept up with insurance and mortgage payments, leaving Rachel and Talulah homeless. So they end up moving, temporarily, into Cami and Aster’s home. An odd couple indeed. Can four women with very little in common bond together? Or will they stew in their respective juices making for an intractable situation?

The Rest of Us is a light drama about relationships and make-shift families. It’s short – less than 90 minutes – but the characters are really well done, complete with secrets, back stories and quirks. It didn’t exactly blow me away, but it I liked watching it develop — you do care about what happens to them. A nice, light family drama.

The Divided Brain

Dir: Manfred Becker

The human brain is divided in half. The left brain controls the right side of your body, and the right brain handles the left side. So if you’re right-handed that usually means the left side of your brain is dominant. Beyond that, the two sides are said to process information in different ways: The left brain, or so the theory goes, is more analytical, concerned wth facts and minutiae; while the right brain is more creative; it lets you look at the big picture. This documentary is about the theories of Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and neuroimaging researcher who also studied literature. He lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. He’s the author of The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). Basically, he says we – meaning our history, civilization, educational system, society, not to mention our individual personalities – can be explained by our emphasis on the left side of the brain at the expense of the right side. And it goes on to show research and experiments on the topic as explained by various talking heads. But is it true, and has McGilchrist proven it?

Personally, I don’t buy it. I don’t even believe the basic left side/right side premise. We all use both sides of our brains, so to make it a simple A vs B, is reductionist. And then to extrapolate this theory to cover all of society, communication, and our educational system, while fascinating just isn’t believable. (I have seen the documentary but not read his book, which could explain his work in greater detail.) While the documentary mainly focuses on McGilchrist’s theories, it does include opposing views. McGilchrist is a heterodox scholar, not part of the mainstream. It also includes magnificent drone shots of cityscapes and farms to illustrate the increasing “left brain”-look of ever more geometrically divided landscapes.

Whether or not you agree with these theories, The Divided Brain does leave you with lots of food for thought.

Mr Jones

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

It’s the early 1930s in London. Gareth Jones (James Norton) is a Cambridge-educated young man from Wales. He’s multilingual and works as a foreign policy advisor to the former PM David Lloyd George. But what he really wants is to be an investigative journalist. He’s already had one big scoop: he was on the plane carrying carrying Hitler, Goebels and other top Nazis right after they came to power. Now he wants to go to Moscow to follow a source about a big story there… and maybe interview Stalin!

Easier said than done. But he does manage to get a visa and a few nights at the posh Hotel Metropol. When he gets there, he discovers his source – another journalist – has been murdered. Luckily, he is taken under the wing of a famous foreign correspondent, Walter Duranty (Peter Saarsgard). He heads the NY Times bureau – known as “our man in Moscow” – and he’s won the Pulitzer. He’s also a total sleazebucket. He takes Jones to a party, right in the middle of Moscow, complete with jazz musicians, sex workers, and party favours… like hypodermic needles, loaded with heroin, ready to shoot.

He also meets a Berlin-based journalist named Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby). She trusts Jones and tells him what he needs to know. So he gets on a train with a high-ranked party member who says he’ll show him beautiful Ukraine… but Jones manages to sneak away in the city of Stalino (now Donetsk). And what he sees is shocking. There’s a major famine going on, right in the middle of Europe’s breadbasket. All the wheat is being shipped east, leaving almost nothing for them to eat. He witnesses unspeakable horrors in what is now known as The Holodomor. But he’s arrested before he can file his story. Will Jones make it back home? Can he publish this story? And if he does, will anyone believe him?

Based on a true story, Mr Jones is a combination biopic, thriller and historical drama. It’s a bit too long, and there are a few things I don’t get: for example, the movie is framed by scenes of George Orwell typing Animal Farm, but the story’s about Gareth Jones, not George Orwell. Other than that, the acting’s good (especially James Norton), the story is compelling, and it’s beautifully shot, from the modernistic Moscow hotel to the staid, stone buildings in London. Most of all are the scenes in Ukraine where colour is dimmed to almost black and white with stark snowy landscapes.

A good but harrowing movie.

The Rest of Us is now playing on VOD; Mr Jones opens today online at Apple and Cineplex; check your local listings; and The Brain Divided is available to rent online on Vimeo.com here

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

Canadian Film Day! Movies reviewed: The Decline, The Grey Fox

Posted in 1900s, Canada, Conspiracy Theory, Crime, Quebec, Romance, Snow, Thriller, Trains, violence, Western, Wilderness by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2020

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

It’s spring film festival season in Toronto, but all the theatres are closed… or are they? It’s actually possible to enjoy new movies without ever leaving your home. Images Film Festival went digital this year for the first time, showing art as moving images, not projected on a screen or in an art gallery, but transferred onto your home device. They live-streamed, both movies and dialogues with the artists. National Canadian Film Day (April 22) continues through the week in virtual cinemas throughout the country. This lets you support your local theatres and enjoy new and classic Canadian films. So this week I’m looking at two Canadian movies to celebrate National Film Day. There’s a fugitive looking for love in the Rockies, and a survivalist looking for refuge in Northern Quebec.

The Decline (Jusqu’au déclin)

Dir: Patrice Laliberté

Antoine (Guillaume Laurin) is a happily married man with a young daughter in Montreal. They’re survivalists, intent on preparing for an unknown, unpredictable apocalypse. He knows something terrible is coming he; just doesn’t know what form it will take. So he diligently studies lessons on youtube, and practices late night escapes with his family, just in case. He’s thrilled when a legendary survivalist named Alain (Réal Bossé) invites him up north to visit his compound, and study under the master.

Alain’s estate is everything he hoped for. There’s a geodesic greenhouse, huge storage lockers, and a cosy wooden cabin to sleep in. The forest is bountiful, filled with deer and rabbits – more meat than they could eat. Alain is recruiting the best and the brightest to join him in his utopia. But secrecy and security are top priorities; mustn’t let the unbelievers – or the government – know about this vast hideaway. It would ruin their paradise. So he and the other trainees gladly give up their cel phones and cars. Up here travel is done on foot or by skidoo.

And it’s not just Antoine and Alain. There are others, both first timers, like Rachel (Marie-Evelyne Lessard) a hard-ass army vet; and devotees like Dave (Marc Beaupré) an arrogant douche with a hint of bloodlust in his manner. The snowy woods have paths and roads heading in all directions to confuse outsiders. And there are active snares and booby traps to catch animals (and maybe people). This elite crew trains as hard at hunting and trapping as they do at shooting and self defense. But when the lessons turn to explosive devices, something goes wrong and a member is badly hurt. If they go to a hospital will that reveal their plans? But they can’t just let a person die… can they? Which is more important – safety or secrecy? The group splits up, and the two opposing sides soon find themselves in an all-out war. Who will survive – the newbies or the hardliners?

The Decline is a good, taut action/thriller set in northern Quebec. It’s exciting and surprising. It’s shot in the winter, in stark snowy forests where they have to fight each other but also icy rivers and steep rocky hillsides. Man vs Man (and women) and Man vs Nature. And it shows how things that look fun and exciting on conspiracy-theory websites can prove to be much more sinister in real life. Ths film seems particularly appropriate in the midst of a pandemic.

The Grey Fox

DIr: Phillip Borsos

Bill Miner (Richard Farnsworth) is a pioneer of sorts in the old west. He robs the famed Pony Express and makes his fortune stealing from stage coaches. He is known as the “Gentleman Bandit” taking the loot without firing a shot. But eventually the law catches up to him and he’s locked away in San Quentin. He emerges decades later, older, wiser and grey. But has he learned his lesson? He gets work picking oysters in Washington State, but it just isn’t his style. So he makes his way north on horseback to British Columbia. And on the way he catches his first movie, Thomas Edison’s 12 minute smash hit: The Great Train Robbery! He hires Shorty (Wayne Robson) as a henchman and looks up an old prison buddy named Jack (Ken Pogue) in Kamloops. His goal? To become Canada’s first train robber.

He bides his time, settling into an ordinary life in smalltown BC. There he makes two unexpected friends. Sgt Fernie (Timothy Webber) is a Dudley Do-right Provincial policeman who likes and respects this newcomer. And then there’s Kate (Jackie Burroughs). She’s a feminist firebrand, ahead of her time. She’s middle-aged, unmarried, alone – and loving it. No man is keeping her down. She works as a professional photographer. They meet by chance when he hears her listening to opera music on a hillside. Sparks fly and they become lovers… but will he ever reveal his secret past? Meanwhile, the dreaded Pinkerton private detectives have crossed the border looking for him. Can Bill Miner pull of his final heist? Does Sgt Fernie know his friend’s a robber? Will the Pinkerton’s catch him? And can he and Kate stay together?

The Grey Fox is a classic Canadian movie from the early 80s shot on location in the Canadian Rockies, complete with real steam engines and horses before stunning mountain sunsets. Farnsworth and the much-missed Jackie Burroughs make for an atypical, sweet couple. It’s based on a true story, but The Grey Fox’s nostalgic feel comes not from evoking the old west but rather by harkening back to a gentler and more idealistic 1980s Canada.

The Decline is streaming on Netflix. You can watch The Grey Fox on your TV, computer, phone or device until April 30, in a virtual cinema benefitting independent theatres from Charlottetown to Victoria including Toronto’s Revue Cinema. Go to filmmovement.com/virtual-cinema for more information.  

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

Future/Past. Films reviewed: James vs His Future Self, Resistance

Posted in 1940s, Canada, comedy, Espionage, France, Mime, Romance, Science, Thriller, Time Travel, WWII by CulturalMining.com on April 10, 2020

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

I love watching movies in theatres, but under a lockdown that’s not an option. Here a few ways to watch films at home for free. Kanopy offers an excellent selection of films which you sign out using your library card – up to eight a month. New additions include bizarre films like Borgman (review ), comedies like Young Adult (review ), and classics like Warren Beatty’s Reds. Look for it on your public library website. The National Film Board of Canada has tons of movies, documentaries and animation online now for free. Go to nfb.ca/films. And if you’re francophone or want to practice your French, myfrenchfilmfestival.com offers free short films and animation for kids.

But new movies – movies you pay for – are still being released online. This week I’m looking at two new movies. There’s a WWII drama about a famous entertainer’s encounters with the enemy in occupied France; and a science fiction comedy about a man who encounters his future self in Canada.

James vs. His Future Self

Dir: Jeremy LaLonde

James (Jonas Chernick) is a particle physicist who works at a lab. His obsession? Time travel. He lives at home with his sister Meredith (Tommie-Amber Pirie). Their mom and dad were killed in a terrible accident 15 years earlier, so she functions as his de facto parents, tearing him away from his scientific calculations long enough to eat a meal or get some sleep. James works alongside the beautiful and brilliant Courtney (Cleopatra Coleman) a science geek like him. She’s up for a position at the CERN Accelerator in Geneva. James harbours a secret crush on her, but are the feelings mututal? They do get together regularly for video nights with Chinese take out – but that’s the entire extent of his social life. Until his world is turned upside down by a taxi driver named Jimmy (Daniel Stern).

Jimmy is a crusty old guy with a greying chin beard. He loves croissants, music, and waxing lyrical about living in the present. But he has a dark side as well. (He could be Ram Das’s evil twin). More important, he claims to be James’s future self. Jimmy says James will invent the time machine, with fame, fortune and a stellar career devoted to science. Hooray! Except Jimmy came back from the future to stop him: don’t do it or you’ll end up like me: tired, bitter and alone. Fall in love, have fun, enjoy your life. Can James reconcile his future incarnation with his current scientific obsession? Can he get along with Meredith? Or fall in love in with Courtney? Or is this all just a hoax?

James vs His Future Self is a surprisingly good time-travel comedy, that does it all with virtually no special effects. Daniel Stern (Breaking Away; Home Alone) as “future James” looks absolutely nothing like Jonas Chernick (Borealis interview, A Swingers Weekend review)… but it doesn’t matter. Why use expensive de-aging technology (like in the Irishman review) when you can just say “time travel messes you up.” Jeremy LaLonde (Sex after Kidsinterview; The Go-Getters- review) is always doing these weird and quirky comedies, and they just get better and better.

Stern and Chernick are great as the two James, and Coleman and Pirie also show their stuff. The movie was shot up north in beautiful Sudbury. My only question is: How come there are two Canadian movies that opened in 2020 with a female lead moving to Switzerland to work on the CERN Supercollider? Doesn’t matter. James vs His Future Self is a good film to enjoy at home.

Resistance

Wri/Dir: Jonathan Jakubowicz

It’s the late 1930s in Strasbourg, France. Marcel (Jesse Eisenberg) works at the family Kosher butcher shop run by his dad (Karl Markovics: The Counterfeiters). But he’d rather be at his night job: impersonating Charlie Chaplin onstage at a downtown brothel. But war is looming, so he starts work at an orphanage inside a huge castle for little kids fleeing Nazi Germany. Two sisters, Emma and Mila (Clémence Poésy, Vica Kerekes) also work there and Marcel really likes Emma. (Feelings are mutual.) The tiny refugees are frightened and speak no French, but Marcel discovers he can communicate without words. He starts performing silently as a mime, expanding the skills he learned at theatre school. He’s a natural — one performance and they forget all their troubles. He also teaches them how to be silent themselves, especially if they’re being chased by Nazi soldiers. Then comes the invasion, and they all flee south to Limoges. There he and his friends all join the resistance to fight the German occupation, led by the notorious Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer) known as the Butcher of Lyons. He learns to forge passports and perform acts of derring-do. But can he lead the orphans to safety in the Swiss Alps?

At the beginning of Resistance I was cringing and squirming in my seat. All the actors, including Jesse Eisenberg, speak in that annoying, generic, fake European accent. Worse than that, it looked like it was going to be about orphans, clowns and the holocaust, a potentially lethal combination. Something like Jerry Lewis’s legendary, infamous lost film The Day the Clown Cried. Luckilly, Resistance isn’t bad at all. It borrows from a lot of movies about the German occupation, especially Melville’s Army of Shadows, but it has many new scenes: hiding, escape, chase. It’s actually quite good, very classic in style, feeling like movies from 50-60 years ago. More interesting still, this is a biopic about Marcel Marceau, the most famous mime anywhere, ever. I never knew he was in the French resistance. This is a movie with an accomplished international cast (from across Europe, North and South America) many of whom appeared in other WWII dramas (Son of Saul, The Counterfeiters) and a Venezuelan director. So if you’re looking for an historical movie complete with thrills and tears, Resistance is one to watch.

James vs His Future Self and Resistance are both available now online.

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

Friday the 13th movies. Films reviewed: Extra Ordinary, I Still Believe, The Hunt

Posted in Action, Christianity, College, comedy, Ghosts, Horror, Ireland, Music, Romance, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on March 13, 2020

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

If it feels like the world is going crazy, well it is. And it’s Friday the 13th, too. This week I’m looking at two movies with a sinister theme, and one more for believers. There’s a car rental clerk fighting the “liberal elites”, a  driving instructor fighting Satan, and a Christian rock devotee using prayer to cure cancer.

Extra Ordinary

Dir: Mike Ahern, Enda Loughman

Rose (Maeve Higgins) is a middle-aged psychic driving instructor in Eastern Ireland. She believes ghosts are everywhere. When she was still a little girl, she used her paranormal abilities on her Dad’s TV show. But when he died she blamed herself and stopped listening to ghosts. Nearby lives Martin (Barry Ward) a highschool shop teacher whose house is haunted by a poltergeist. He’s used to it burning his toast or throwing away unhealthy food like donuts. But when he finds his daughter Sarah in a trance and floating above her bed, he senses something has changed. So he goes to Rose for help. She thinks he’s cute – but does he like her that way?

What neither of them realize is Sarah’s possession is the work of Christian Winter (Will Forte) a sinister pop star who lives in a nearby castle. Winter is a one-hit wonder trying to regain his fame with a little help from Satan. But to do so he needs to sacrifice a virgin – that’s Sarah, Martin’s daughter. Can two psychic talents overcome powerful forces? And are Rose and Martin just friends? Or is there something more?

Extra Ordinary is a very cute paranormal comedy. Much of its humour comes from the “ordinary” — average, middle-aged people with normal lives – set against a bizarre world of magic and ghosts. And it’s presented within a retro world full of Swiss Balls and VHS videos.  Higgins is hilariously deadpan as Rose, while Ward shows his stuff when his body is occupied by a series of spirits. If you’re looking for a nice light break from the ordinary, this is a fun one to watch.

I Still Believe

Dir: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin

It’s 1999 in Indiana. Jeremy Camp (KJ Apa: Riverdale) says good bye to his parents (Gary Sinise, Shania Twain) and his two little brothers and heads off to college in California. He carries his prize possession: an acoustic guitar. At college he meets Jean-Luc (Nathan Parsons) a popular musician who lets him work as a roadie at a show. And almost immediately he falls in love with a young woman he sees in the audience. Melissa (Britt Robertson) is smart, pretty, and is into astronomy.. Jeremy’s career takes off with help from Jean Luc, even as his love — or infatuation – with Melissa grows. Problem is she’s dating Jean Luc… or is she? Later she comes down with a terrible illness. Can Jeremy cure her using prayer?

If you haven’t noticed yet, I Still Believe is a music biopic (apparently Jeremy Camp is a wildly popular musician, though I’ve never heard of him) and a faith-based movie. Faith-based means capital “C” Christian. It means no nudity – even male characters can’t take their T- shirts off – no violence, no alcohol, no cussing, no cigarettes, no gambling. It’s like Sunday School.

But there’s also no conflict, no tension, no suspense, no villain.

When characters talk to each other, they’re also talking to Jesus. And when Melissa looks up at the stars, she says “They’re God’s paintbrush!” Now don’t get me wrong; the acting was actually good, and the script wasn’t corny or cringeworthy, but the movie itself was just really boring. And for a faith-based movie you’d think it would make you cry a bit. But this movie is so whitewashed, so denuded, that it has no soul. Unless you’re a true believer, stay away from I Still Believe.

The Hunt

Dir: Craig Zobel

What if the culture wars were actual wars, not just twitter spats? This might be what’s going through the minds of 12 random people who wake up in a field somewhere in Vermont (or so they think). They are being attacked by unknown others with crossbows, hand grenades, and assault weapons. And all around them are trip wires and booby traps set to kill. But who is doing this to whom, and why? Turns out the hunted are all Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”: conspiracy theorists, MAGA loyalists and xenophobes. Their hunters? Politically-correct liberals who use gender-appropriate pronouns and keep farm animals as pets. Who will win this culture war?

The Hunt is the latest version of the classic The Most Dangerous Game done as a very dark comedy. It’s an extremely violent thriller, with occasional bouts of gruesome gore. Some characters are introduced and then immediately killed off. The story focuses on Crystal (Betty Gilpin) an Afghan war vet who works at a car rental service. She is neither a deplorable nor a liberal, just a tough woman with a survival instinct, a suspicious mind, and special-op training. She questions everything she sees, even after she escapes from the so-called hunting ground. Are the people she meets friends, foes or actors playing roles? And can anyone be trusted?

The Hunt deals with obvious stereotypes and cliches but in very funny ways. It’s violent, scary and more than a bit gory. And it’s not for everyone… but I enjoyed this flick.  And it’s the perfect movie to watch during a pandemic.

Extra Ordinary, I Still Believe, and The Hunt 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 filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu about The Whistlers

Posted in Corruption, Crime, Romania, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on March 13, 2020

Photos by Jeff Harris

Cristo is a corrupt police detective who lives with his mother in Bucharest. But everything starts to change when a beautiful woman asks for his help freeing her friend from jail. At stake? 30 million euros in cash…  hidden in a mattress. At risk? Arrest, torture or gruesome, painful death. And in order to succeed, first he must learn a secret whistling language used only in the Canary Islands. But which of the whistlers will come out alive?

The Whistlers is a new dark and twisted crime thriller that uncovers multiple layers of crime and corruption in Romania and across Europe. It’s directed by Romanian New Wave filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu, known for award-winning films like Police: Adjective.

I spoke with Corneliu at TIFF19.

The film had its debut at TIFF, opened theatrically in March, and will be available VOD or for purchase in June.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Albert Shin about Disappearance at Clifton HiIll

Posted in Animals, Canada, Crime, Mental Illness, Movies, Mystery, Noir, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 21, 2020

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

Abby is a young woman returning to her hometown of Niagara Falls. She’s figuring out what to do with the rundown motel she inherited with her sister. Should she make a go of it? Or sell it to a rich local patriarch. But as she goes through old photos and films, she starts to remember hidden memories from the distant past. And with the help of eccentric locals she finds herself digging deeper and deeper, the more dirt she uncovers. Dirt that involves some of the most powerful figures in the city. Most troubling of all is an image from her childhood, still stuck in her brain. A boy with one bleeding eye who disappeared right in front of her. Was he kidnapped? Was he killed? Or was it just a false memory. What really happened happened in Clifton Hill?

Disapearance at Clifton Hill is also the name of a new movie opening February 28th across Canada. It’s been nominated for multiple Canadian Screen Awards, and is a fantastic film. It’s co-written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Albert Shin. I last interviewed Albert six years ago alongside his collaborator and colleague Igor Drljaca about In Her Place.

I spoke to Albert by telephone at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Disappearance at Clifton HIll opens across Canada on February 28th.

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

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

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

The Assistant

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come to Daddy

Dir: Ant Timpson (Turbo Boy)

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

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

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

The Assistant and Come to Daddy both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Away from home. Films reviewed: Gretel and Hansel, The Rhythm Section, Rosie

Posted in Action, Drama, Dreams, Espionage, Fairytales, Family, Homelessness, Ireland, Realism, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 31, 2020

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

If you live in Toronto, you have probably noticed that unscrupulous landlords, soaring rents and loopholes like “renoviction” and “demoviction” are driving tenants out of the city. Isn’t housing a human right? So this week I’m looking at three new movies about young women looking for a home. There’s a mother of four who lost possession of her house, a sister and brother lost in the woods; and a university student who lost her entire family in suspicious circumstances.

Gretel and Hansel

Dir: Oz Perkins

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, there was a famine in the land and people were starving. Little Hansel and Gretel live with their mother in a small house. Gretel, aged 16 (Sophia Lillis) keeps her brother happy by telling him fairytales before he goes to sleep. But when their mother, crazed with hunger, attacks them with an axe, Gretel knows it’s time to go. She grabs eight-year-old Hansel (Samuel Leakey) and flees into the woods. Perhaps they can find work at a lumber camp (their late father was a woodcutter.) No such luck. But they do find a strange pointy house painted black, with  the aromas of delicious food wafting out. Hansel sneaks in through a window and starts gorging on all the cakes and tarts, the roasts and stews he finds there. Gretel is more cautious — there’s no such thing a free lunch.

Turns out it’s the home of an old crone with wrinkled skin, and fingers dyed black (Alice Krige). She invites the kids to stay with her in their own room. And she teaches Gretel how to mix potions using her book of spells; She has magic powers — that’s why she lives in the woods. Men don’t like women who know too much. And says Gretel is just like her, she has to harness her magic abilities. But Gretel knows something is wrong. Where does all this food come from? Why is she having dreams about crying children? What’s happening to Hansel? And what’s behind that hidden door in the pantry?

Gretel and Hansel is a reboot of the famous Brothers Grimm fairy tale and it’s no spoiler to say it sticks to the basic story. Differences include their parents don’t abandon them in the woods, there don’t leave a trail  to find their way home, and the witch’s house isnt made of gingerbread. On the plus side there’s a feminist coming of age theme and Alice Krige is terrific as the Witch. Minuses include gratuitous references to The Wizard of Oz, accents that keep changing… and what’s with the pig snort sounds all the characters keep making? I don’t get it.  I love the look of this low budget film — from triangular spyholes to the witch’s forked staff like a divining rod — and the neat symmetry of the plot.

If you love fairytales, you might want to check this one out.

The Rhythm Section

Dir: Reed Morano

Stephanie (Blake Lively) used to be a star student at Oxford. But when he entire family died in a plane crash, her life fell apart. Now she’s a junkie, turning tricks at a low-rent brothel in London, earning just enough to pay for her next fix. Until… she meets a freelance journalist (Raza Jaffrey) who tells her the plane crash wasn’t an accident. It was deliberate, th killer is still out there, and a vast conspiracy is covering it all up. So she makes her way to northern scotland to track down the source.  There she is attacked from behind by a  mysterious bearded man.

He’s a rogue MI6 agent (Jude Law) who knows exactly what happened. She wants revenge on whoever killed her family. He agrees to train her in a violent one-on-one boot camp as long as she does what he says.  Soon she’s working as a hitman flying from Tangier to Berlin, New York to Marseilles to knock off various criminals and spies. And a former CIA agent Mark Serra (Sterling K Brown) sends her from place to place. Who is she really working for? Will she find the killer she’s looking for? And are the men she meets on the way potential lovers, damgerous killers… or both?

The Rhythm Section is a so-so action thriller in the manner of the Bourne series. It has some tense moments a few life-and-death fights, and lots of great chase scenes. Andthe weird, twisting camera work pulls you into Stephanie’s panicked and confused mood (though i was getting carsick after a while). Blake LIvely and Jude Law both play against type as violent, stone-cold killers, and are believable. My biggest problems? It was impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys, the politics are confused, there’s no originality, and the story is extremely muddy. I don’t expect much from an action/thriller, but they really should clean up the plot and make the characters less robotic if they want to turn it into a series.

Rosie

Dir: Paddy Breathnach (Viva)

Wri: Roddy Doyle

It’s present-day Dublin.

Rosie Davis (Sarah Greene) is a devoted young mother with four adorable kids (first time actors Ellie O’Halloran, Ruby Dunne, Darragh McKenzie and Molly McCann) ranging from toddler to tween. Kayleigh concentrates on her homework, Millie is the shy one, Alfie loves bouncing around, and Madison is fine as long as she has her stuffed bunny. Since her husband John Paul (Moe Dunford) works late at a restaurant kitchen, it’s up to Rosie to get the kids fed, cleaned, bathed, brought to school and back, comforted and tucked into bed at night… an almost impossible task.

So imagine what happens when their landlord suddenly evicts them from their own rented home — what can they do? Now her number-one task is finding a place to stay. But with a concert in town, and all the hotels booked solid where can they find a room? Can she keep their kids’ lives normal without anyone noticing they’re suddenly homeless?

Rosie is an intensely personal, hyperrealistic  look at a day and half in the lives of a family in crisis. Viewers are dropped right into the middle of their lives, a short peek at an ongoing crisis. It’s about love, pride, poverty, family, bullying and homelessness, and the fraying social welfare state. It’s filmed with a closeup, handheld camera capturing the cramped claustrophobic setting and the degree of tension they face. It’s sentimental but not cloying, and Sarah Greene is fantastic in the main role. Rosie is intense and will probably make you cry, but if you’re in the mood for some kitchen-sink realism, this is the one to see.

Gretel and Hansel, The Rhythm Section and Rosie 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 .

Wedding or Wetting? Films reviewed: Fiddler: A Miracles of Miracles, Aquarela, Ready or Not

Posted in documentary, Horror, Movies, Musical, Russia, Thriller, Ukraine, violence by CulturalMining.com on August 23, 2019

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

There’s a great movie series on right now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, highlighting a rarely screened cohort, one I’ve been covering for the past decade: contemporary Arab Women Filmmakers. It features movies from places like Lebanon, Algeria, Palestine and Tunisia, and cover a wide range of genres from avant garde to docs to dramas. Well worth seeing.

This week I’m looking at three movies, two docs and a comic thriller horror. – there’s a milkman worried about his daughters’ wedding; a bride whose inlaws want her dead after her wedding; and melting glaciers, waterfalls and hurricanes wetting everybody.

Fiddler: A Miracles of Miracles

Dir: Max Lewkowicz

In 1964, a new musical about a Jewish milk man in Czarist Russia, opened on Broadway to little fanfare. With songs by Jerry Bockand Sheldon Harnick and book by Joseph Stein it was based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories about Tevye and his Five Daughters and their neighbours in a shtetl. It was a risky venture with little hope if a widespread audience. Little did they know that Fiddler on the Roof would become one of the most popular musicals ever staged, with productions staged somewhere in the world until today.

This is a deep dive documentary that delves into everything there is to know about Fiddler on the Roof: is it a feminist fable? Jewish nostalgia? Is it about the American dream? The immigrant experience? And lots of esoteric news. Did you know the title came not from Sholem Aleichem stories but from a painting by Marc Chagal? That it’s wildly popular in Japan for its Japeneseness? Or that Zero Mostel (the original Tevye) was in a feud with director Jerome Robbin notorious for his perfectionism and slave driving style, but Mostel hated Robbins for a different reason. They were both called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee (the Macarthy hearings). Mostel stood up to them and refused to cooperate – and was blacklisted for years because of it. Robbins named names – gave them a list of suspected communists – not because of the Red Scare but because of the Lavender purge: he worried they’d reveal he’s gay.

Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles is a fascinating documentary, full of interviews and stage footage and photos from the various productions over the past half century. It even plays songs you’ve probably never heard – they were cut from early versions. If you’re a theatre buff, this one’s a must see.

Aquarela

Dir: Viktor Kossakovsky

It’s Lake Baikal in Siberia. For some reason a team of men are digging holes into the frozen crust. Why? Because the usually solid ice melted early and cars crossing the lake are being swallowed up. The rescue team is there to save unsuspecting drivers. Then Boom! You’re on a sailboat navigating between drifting icebergs. And then you’re in the middle of a hurricane destroying an American city. Aquarela is a meditative collage of images of ice and water, turning on a dime to new locations across the globe. No explanations are given, no voiceovers no talking heads here, just a series of images tell their own stories, some slow and contemplative, others violent and arresting, as nature takes its toll. While not explicitly about climate change, when you see and hear glaciers calving mammoth icebergs which bob in the ocean like dinosaurs, you can’t help think about the meltdowns happening right now from greenland to Tuktoyaktuk.

Aquarela is shot at high speed ninety six frames per second, giving the doc an intense visual effect. It starts extremely slow, but this unusual documentary gradually switches to faster and faster images in a visual symphony. It may be a little slow and hard to comprehend, but it’s more than a week since I saw it, and it’s images are still haunting my dreams.

Ready or Not

Dir: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett

Grace (Samara Weaving) is a young woman raised by foster parents and who has never had a family to call her own. So when she meets Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brian) she wants to be a part of his family in every way. It doesn’t hurt that they’re filthy rich. So after an 18-month bone-a-thon, they decide to get married. And all of Alex’s eccentric family are there: big brother Daniel (Adam Brody) his dad and mom (Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell), various coke-snorting siblings and inlaws, and even his hate-filled Aunt Helene (Nicky Guadagni)

The Le Domas family made their vast fortune from playing cards, board games, and pro sports teams. They love games. So it’s no surprise that family tradition says a new bride or groom has to play a game on their wedding night. The big surprise? The rules to the game – its hide-and-seek – say she hides and the rest of the family has until dawn to find her and kill her. Why is thefamily doing this to her? Will her husband protect her? And can she ever escape from this nightmare?

Ready or not is a horror thriller with darkly comic undertones. It’s full of satirical jabs at a truly evil family of one percenters, while still being interesting enough to care when characters kill or are killed. Aussie actor Samara Weaving is terrific as the strong female lead – a Buffy the Vampure skater without special powers – , who has to transform herself from blushing bride to road warrior in a manner of minutes. It’s shot in and around a mansion in Ottawa as she t makes her way out of windows and down hidden passages. Warning: this movie is quite violent and gory, but it’s light tone keeps you watching. I liked this movie.

Fiddler: A Miracles of Miracles opens today at the Rogers Hot Docs Cinema, with Aquarela playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; Ready or Not is playing now in Toronto, check your local listings.

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

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