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.

Bustin loose. Films reviewed: Ma, Rocketman PLUS ReelAbilities Film Festival

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Disabilities, drugs, High School, Horror, Music, Musical, Psychological Thriller, Thriller, UK by CulturalMining.com on May 31, 2019

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

Spring festival season continues in Toronto with Inside Out and Reelabilities playing through Sunday. ReelAbilities is a film festival showing shorts and features (along with panel discussions) dealing with disabilities. They are made by actors and filmmakers with disabilities, and the characters or topics of the films touch on issues relevant to people with a wide range of abilities. This includes physical disabilities, deafness, and many others areas, ranging from Tourette’s to one of the most segregated and discriminated groups: people with intellectual disabilities. And the festival itself is designed and planned to make the movies accessible to all viewers, with subtitles on the screen and locations fully accessible to people who use wheelchairs.

This week I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a thriller/horror. There’s a man who turns to music to overcome his stodgy and repressive upbringing; and some teenagers who turn to a surrogate mom to escape their restrictive parents.

Ma

Dir: Tate Taylor

It’s winter in small town America. Maggie (Diana Silvers) is a 16-year- old girl from San Diego starting at a new school. She just moved there so her single mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) could start a job as a cocktail waitress in a nearby casino. Luckily she quickly makes friends with the popular kids at school, a clique that includes the take-charge girl Haley (McKaley Miller), and their designated driver Andy (Corey Fogelmanis). A typical Saturday night consists of convincing a random adult to buy them alcohol, and then getting drunk at an abandoned rock pile on the outskirts of town. (Lots of fun.)

But things take a turn for the better when they meet Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer), a middle-aged assistant at a veterinary hospital. She says they can use her basement as their party headquarters, a place to listen to music, dance and get drunk. Word spreads quickly until every kid in town knows that’s the place where they can par-tay without grownup supervision — except Sue Ann, of course, whom they all call “Ma”. It’s a kids’ paradise. Or is it?

Maggie feels something is not quite right.

What they don’t realize is that all of their parents, even Maggie’s mom, went to high school together back in the 80s. Sue Ann went there too, something bad happened, and she wants payback. Is Sue Ann just lonely and enjoys reliving her teenaged years with local kids? Or is there something more sinister going on? And will the sins of the parents fall on their children?

Ma is a pretty good psychological thriller / teen horror movie. The casting is good, not just the main roles but even the small parts, like Allison Janney as the foul-mouthed animal doctor, Dominic Burgess as a flamboyant casino manager, and Luke Evans as Ben, a dickish security exec. But the story is a bit muddy, with the point of view shifting from Sue Ann, to Maggie to Erica. It’s not a spoiler to say this is a thriller/horror, so you know something bad is going to happen, but most of the movie is suspense leading up to the violence rather than the violence itself. Is it scary? More creepy than scary. Is it gory? A little, toward the end. And the story seems a bit lopsided, almost as unbalanced as Sue Ann herself.

While Ma is not perfect, I did enjoy watching it.

Rocketman

Dir: Dexter Fletcher

It’s England in the 1950s. Little Reggie Dwight (Matthew Illesley) lives with his standoffish RAF dad, his self-centred mum and his kindly grandmother. He’s an ordinary kid until the day his fingers touch the keys of a piano, and suddenly everything changes. He discovers he can play perfectly, by ear, any song he hears on the radio. He enrolls in the Royal Academy of Music and starts on the path to be a professional musician.

Later, in his twenties, he works as a backup musician for a touring American soul band. He learns about rock and roll and gets his first kiss… from a guy! And he learns to reinvent himself. Reginald Dwight becomes Elton John (Taron Egerton), and the pudgy, shy boy gradually becomes the flamboyant pop star. Together with his writing partner and platonic best friend Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) they head to London and then on to Los Angeles.

There he meets the handsome manager John Reid (Richard Madden), who takes Elton under his wing, promising incredible fame, fortune and success. But is it true love? Soon Elton John rises to the top, becoming the world’s biggest pop star playing to stadium-sized audiences… even as his personal life spirals into a decadent morass of depraved sex, drugs, alcoholism. Will Elton ever find peace with his parents, overcome his self doubt, come out publicly as gay, and find true love?

Rocketman is a biopic about Elton John from his life a a child until a low point midway through his career at a drug rehab centre. It’s also a musical. By musical, I mean an actual, old-school musical, one where the characters at any moment might burst into song accompanied by elaborately choreographed dance numbers. The dance scenes include everything, from 50s rock’n’roll dance routines, to abstract modern dance in a swimming pool, to writhing bodies at a 70s sex orgy.

The songs they sing tell Elton’s life by singing his (and Bernie Taupin’s) actual hit songs, rearranged chronologically to fit the storyline. I’m not a fan, to say the least, of most music biopics, and had very low expectations for Rocketman, but I actually really liked it. It’s a beautifully produced, seamlessly directed and highly stylized movie that moves without pause from start to finish. It has outrageous costumes, and great music – with the actors doing their own singing. And they’re really good at it, especially Taron Egerton.

If you like Elton John’s music – and even if you don’t – you won’t be disappointed by Rocketman.

Rocketman (which opened Inside Out) and Ma both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. ReelAbilities and Inside Out are both on through Sunday.

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

Apocalypse when? Films reviewed: The Aftermath, Us

Posted in 1940s, doppelgänger, Drama, Germany, Horror, Romance, Supernatural, Thriller, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on March 22, 2019

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

When civilization faces apocalypse, authority collapses and animal insticts take over. This week I’m looking at two movies set around apocalypses. There’s a post-apocalyptic romantic drama set in the rubble of postwar Hamburg; and a pre-apocalyptic horror set in the boardwalk of Santa Cruz, California.

The Aftermath

Dir: James Kent (Based on the novel by Rhidian Brook)

It’s 1945 in occupied Hamburg, just a few months after the end of WWII. Allied bombing has reduced the city to rubble with some of the remaining houses requisitioned by military officers. Rachael (Keira Knightly), a beautiful young Englishwoman arrives by train to be reunited with her husband, Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke). They didn’t see each other much during the war, but now that it’s over maybe they can find some quiet time to talk things. No such luck.

The Colonel is busy hunting Nazi holdouts around the city – feral teenagers with the number 88 carved into their skin – for Heil Hitler – run rampant targeting occupying troups. And far from the furnished flat she expected, they are placed in an enormous mansion untouched by bombing and furnished Bauhaus style. Lewis, in an act of kindness, allows the homeowner – a handsome architect and his daughter – to stay. There’s lots of room for both families, he says. But little privacy.

The two broken families settle into an uneasy truce. Rachael hates Germans for killing their only son in the blitz, and directs her anger at Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) who built the house. He lives in the attic now with his daughter. His wife was killed by allied bombing. And little Freda (Flora Thiemann) who blames Rachael for her mother’s death, spends her time with the trümmerkinder, the kids who hide in bombed out buildings in the city centre. When she runs into the Morgans in the hallways she just hisses at them like a cat.

Tension rises to a boiling point, until one day, when Lewis away a shouting match between Stefan and Rachael… turns ino a passionate kiss! Will this turn into something bigger? Can her marriage survive? Is Stefan a Nazi? Will Freda accept Rachael into her life? And what does Rachael really want?

The Aftermath is a romance that also deals with the mourning and loss that war brings. It’s beautifully done, with an attractive cast luxuriating in their magnificent clothing, hairstyles, jewelry and interior décor. The movie looks gorgeous but the story is less satisfying. There are some scenes set in the post war ruin – actually the parts with feral nazi children are the most interesting – but mostly it’s just about relationships. It reminds me a lot of Suite Francaise, also based on a novel, set a few years earlier, with a German officer occupying French home, and similar results. Did I like it? The Aftermath starts very slowly, as if it doesn’t know where it’s going. But it picks up about halfway through and comes to an unexpected finish. Not a perfect movie, but one with lots of eye candy.

Us

Wri/Dir: Jordan Peele

The Wilsons are a very ordinary California family heading off to their summer home in sunny Santa Cruz. Dad (Winston Duke) plans to tinker with his leaky motorboat. The kids are off in their own worlds. Little Jason (Evan Alex) is into magic tricks and a scary Halloween mask he wears all day. 12-year-old Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) prefers to tune out and spend time with earbuds and instagram. They plan to spend time on the beach with their old friends, the alcoholic Kitty and Josh (Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker) and their twin teenaged daughters.

Only Mom (Lupita Nyong’o) is preoccupied. She feels weird to be back in her childhood summer home, and is dead-set against spending any time on the beach or at the boardwalk. It just doesn’t feel right. She is still haunted by a strange experience she had as a child on her ninth birthday. She wandered into a hall of mirrors met a girl who looked exactly like her but who wasn’t her. She never saw her again, and no one believes her story, but she’s still afraid she’ll run into that mirror girl again. But she relents and spends an uneventful day at the beach.

But that night, things start to change. A family dressed in identical red jumpsuits appears in their driveway, each carrying a pair of sharp scissors. And when they enter their house, Jason notices “they’re us!” Who are these people? Criminals? Zombies? Ghosts? They look exactly like the Wilsons and have similar personalities, but in a creepy distorted way. They don’t speak, they just make animal noises… except for Mom’s doppelganger, who explains it all. We are your shadows, she says, tethered to your lives, but we live underground. We are like marionettes, moving against our will, we live identical lives but with none of the pleasure. So we’re here to reclaim it.

But not if they can help it! It’s up to the family to fight back against these strange people who want to replace them. But can they beat creatures who seem to know what they’re thinking and are faster, stronger and meaner than they are?

Us is a scary and very strange horror movie. Like his previous movie Get Out, this one has mind-bending twists, secret conspiracies laced with lots of humour. It’s almost more strange and funny than it is scary. And unlike Get Out, it has no overarching political theme – no racial dimensions, no class conflicts, no left/right divide. It even avoids gun-control issues, with every killing in the movie using household weapons – scissors, golf clubs, fire irons – rather than semi-automatic firearms. No politics at all.

The one surprising theme is religion: the music is full of scary liturgical chants, the doppelgänger people live in a hellish underground, they dress in red robes, they are surrounded by flames and are possibly part of a nationwide apocalypse ordained by God to punish Americans for worshipping false idols.

Is this a good movie? Oh yes it is! Is it a horror movie? Sort of, but more creepy than terrifying. And it leaves you thinking about it long after it’s over. Lupita Nyong’o and the two kids are especially good, as their selves but especially as their shadows. If you like horror, dark humour and the occult, this is the movie to see. It’s great.

Us and The Aftermath 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

Popcorn Movies. Films reviewed: Cold Pursuit, What Men Want, The Prodigy

Posted in comedy, Crime, drugs, Horror, Psychology, Sex, Snow, Sports, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on February 8, 2019

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

It’s the middle of winter, and all the highbrow pics have been released. So this week I’m looking at regular, popcorn movies – a comedy, a revenge thriller and a horror movie. There’s a psychic sports agent looking to land a killer client, a man out to find his son’s killers… and a young couple worried their 8-year-old son might be a killer himself.

Cold Pursuit

Dir: Hans Petter Moland

It’s winter at a ski resort in Colorado. Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is the town snowplow driver, clearing the roads for drivers from nearby Denver. He lives a respectable unremarkable life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern) and his snowplows. But his life turns sideways when their only son turns up dead from a drug overdose. At least that’s what the police detective (Emily Rossum) says. But his son doesn’t do drugs. Turns out he accidentally disrupted a drug deal involving lots of cocaine.

Nels decides to take the law into his own hands, work his way up the chain of command and get revenge on the criminal ultimately responsible for his son’s death. On the way Nels kills and disposes of each man he meets. The head gangster is Viking (Tom Bateman) a detestable, effete millionaire whose lackies all look like models in fine suits. His territory is split with an aboriginal Chief named White Bull (Tom Jackson) of the Ute Nation. But when dead bodies show up, Viking thinks his indigenous rivals, starting a major drug war. With a kidnapped boy, the local police, the Feds, and Nels himself all converging on a single spot, who will survive the ultimate showdown?

Cold Pursuit is an exact, scene-by-scene remake of the 2016 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance. Same director, same stunning snow scenes, but this time shot in Canada, not Norway, and the script is in English. I’m not a big fan of Liam Neesen action movies, but he plays this part perfectly: the single-minded revenge killer out for blood. It’s bloody, it’s violent and while somewhat comic, it seems to be missing the sardonic, Norwegian irony of the original.

But I still liked it.

What Men Want

Dir: Adam Shankman

It’s present day Atlanta.

Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson) is a manager at Summit Worldwide a highly competitive pro-sports management agency. She’s an alpha dog in an all-male office. Her dad (Richard Roundtree), a former boxer, raised her to be a winner in both her work and her private life. When she takes men home for the night she’s always on top. She’s ambitious and self-centred. And with her gay personal assistant Brandon’s help (Josh Brenner) she’s close to landing a huge client – Jamal a star college basketball player. But she still can’t break through the glass ceiling and make full partner.

Until… her life changes after a party with her closest girlfriends when a psychic gives her a secret potion, and later that night she gets bonked on the head by a huge inflatable penis. When she comes to, she realizes she has a new secret power: she can read men’s minds. Suddenly a whole world is open to her, with all its potential benefits. Like finding out if a guy she’s crushing on has a thing for her. Or what men say to each other when women aren’t around. And where those men-only poker games are taking place. Is this new power the key to her success? Can she penetrate the locker-room bro culture that is holding her back? Can she turn a one night stand with single-dad bartender Will (Aldis Hodge) into a real relationship? Or is all this ESP stuff less of a blessing than a curse?

What Men Want is a remake of Mel Gibson’s comedy from 20 years ago, but with a role reversal. If you’re into pro sports and TV comedies there are tons of celebrity cameos to keep you happy, from Shaquille O’Neal, Jason Jones, Tracy Morgan, Pete Davidson, Mark Cuban, and many, many others. Eryka Badu is great as the psychic, and Taraji P. Henson – who starred in Hidden Figures – carries the show as Ali. But is it funny?

It’s OK, but not that funny. It’s disturbingly full of product placements in almost every scene. They could have done so much more, but in this movie a black woman who reads minds finds out white men may be sex obsessed, devious, condescending and insecure, but none of them are actually racist. (“Yay! — no one’s racist!“) It does talk about the problems inherent in pro sports, but steers away from bigger issues just begging to be addressed. This movie may be facile, safe and predictable, but I enjoyed it anyway.

The Prodigy

Dir: Nicolas McCarthy

Sarah and John (Taylor Schilling, Peter Mooney) are a young married couple in suburban Pennsylvania with a gifted son. Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) seems older than his years. He spoke his first words after just a few months, and at age eight is excelling at a school for exceptional students. And he has an angelic smile he shows his mom and dad. But there’s something not quite right about him. He seems to speak an exotic language in his sleep. And people nearby keep having strange accidents, which Miles claims he knows nothing about.

But when he violently attacks another boy in science class, his parents are disturbed. A specialist named Arthur (Colm Feore) says there might be someone else controlling Miles from somewhere deep inside him. Is he possessed by Satan? Does he have a split personality? Or is it something else? And what is little Miles’s connection to a notorious serial killer with a fetish for cutting of women’s hands? Sarah doesn’t know exactly what’s behind Miles strange behaviour but decides it’s time to act… before it’s too late!

If you like extremely scary horror movies, this is one to see. A disturbing Bad Seed-style story of a parent’s worst nightmare: that their nice kid might actually be evil. Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) is totally believeable as the mother, and young Jackson Robert Scott is extremely creepy as Miles – watch out for him. I still have shivers in my gut.

The Prodigy is classic horror.

Prodigy, Cold Pursuit and What Men Want 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.

Deep. Films reviewed: Destroyer, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, Ratcatcher

Posted in 1970s, 1990s, African-Americans, Coming of Age, Crime, documentary, Kids, L.A., Scotland, Thriller, Uncategorized, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2019

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

Tired of fantasy? How about some gritty realism? This week I’m looking at three deep, realistic movies — a documentary, a drama and a thriller — about working class characters living their lives. There are African Americans in the deep south, an LA detective in deep cover, and a young man in Glasgow knee-deep in trash.

Destroyer

Dir: Karyn Kusama

Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) used to be a young, pretty and ambitious uniformed cop in LA. Pulled from her division for an undercover operation, she was meant to infiltrate a notorious and deadly ring of bank robbers. She posed as a couple with Chris (Sebastian Stan) another cop which led to a relationship. And she made friends with the robbery team, including the sinister Silas (Toby Kebell) a long-haired man with a cruel streak a mile wide; and the friendly Petra (Tatiana Maslany).

But things didn’t go as planned. People died, and the thieves got away with bags of loot. Look at her now. She’s a burnt-out husk of her former self. Bell doesn’t walk, she staggers. Her lips are wrinkled, her hair looks like it was cut with garden shears and she talks like Jeff Bridges on a bad day. But when she finds evidence the robbers are at it again, she takes the law into her own hands. Will she stop the killers? Or will they destroy her first?

Destroyer is a fantastic crime thriller about an angry worn out cop on her quest for retribution. It keeps you glued to the screen, heart racing, as you try to figure out what’s going on. It’s told during three time periods, jumping back and forth between them, and as you watch it you constantly have to change your assumptions. No spoilers but there are some big shocks along the way. It’s very violent, though from a female point of view: men punching women, women strangling women, women attacking men. Not for the faint of heart. Nicole Kidman totally transforms herself – physically and emotionally – from the naive young woman into the hardboiled cop she ends up as.

Destroyer is a great LA crime thriller.

Hale County, This Morning, This Evening

Dir: RaMell Ross

Hale County, Alabama is in the deep, deep south. You can still find white-pillared mansions built on the backs of slave labour on cotton plantations. It’s named after a Confederate officer whose statue still stands. It’s also where the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr once sought refuge from the KKK. It’s a rural, mainly black area where people stay on with their daily lives: sports tournaments, childbirth, funerals. There’s a catfish factory, a school, a hospital and churches.

This fascinating documentary is a series of beautifully composed, very short – from five seconds to three minutes – and highly personal scenes. A woman tapping her thigh with a flyswatter, a man playing blues on an electric guitar. A baby learning to walk, fritters frying in a pan, kids drinking coca cola. We see teenaged boys talking in the basketball locker room, families baptized at a church, people hanging at a beauty salon or a bowling alley. Rolling clouds with electrical storms, the first drops of rain on the pavement, a deer caught in the headlights, and a solar eclipse. The filmmaker RaMell Ross who started photographing there when he moved to the town, records what’s going on all around him in an impressionistic collage of portraits, time lapse, and tableaux: a joyous celebration of African American life in rural Alabama.

This beautiful film is on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature.

Ratcatcher (1999)

Wri/Dir Lynne Ramsay

It’s 1973 in Glasgow, Scotland. James (William Eadie) is a gawky lad with ears that stick out who lives with his working- class family in a crumbling flat.   His father (Tommy Flanagan) has a scar on his cheek from a fight, his mother (Mandy Matthews) has holes in her nylons. The yard outside is piled high with trash – the garbagemen are on strike – so the mice and rats are having a ball. James lives his life carefully, avoiding dangerous gangs of teenaged bullies who dominate the streets.

He sometimes visits a stagnant canal nearby, badly in need of a dredging. There he meets a much older and sexually active teenaged girl. The bullies have thrown her glasses in the water, but James doesn’t fish them out – perhaps he thinks he has a better chance if she can’t see him clearly? She seduces him, inviting him to spend the night. But the canal also brings him horrible feelings of guilt: a friend of his drowned there when they were fighting in the water.

One day, James jumps onto a bus and takes it to the end of the line where a new housing development is being built. It’s on the edge of the city, right where oatfields meet the streets. He explores the empty construction site – will this be his new home?

Ratcatcher is a slice-of-life, coming-of-age drama about life in an urban slum as seen through the eyes of a young man. The characters are mainly played by local residents, non-professional actors who bring a gritty realism to their roles. This is Lynne Ramsay’s first film (from 1999) and one I’ve always wanted to see, but never had a chance until now. You should, too. It’s a realistic and touching movie about hard times… but with an uplifting finish.

Destroyer is now playing in Toronto, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening opens tomorrow, and Rat Catcher plays next Thursday as part of the 1999 Millenial Movies program playing this month (until Feb 12) at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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 Justin McConnell and Jack Foley about Lifechanger

Posted in Canada, Crime, Death, Drama, Fantasy, Horror, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on December 28, 2018

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

It’s Christmastime at a bar in Toronto.

Julia is a young woman sitting in her usual spot, trying to forget her own tragic history. She chats with the usual suspects – strange men trying to hit on her, and women looking for a shoulder to cry on. But what she doesn’t realize is that most of the strangers she talks to each night… are all the same person.

Then there’s Drew. He suffers from a bizarre illness. The only way he can survive is to refresh his body by inhabiting a new one… until the body is worn out and he moves on to the next. Can Drew tell Julia the truth and convince her to accept his unusual lifestyle?

Or is that just too big a life change for either of them to accept?

Lifechanger is a new fantasy/horror movie that will keep you guessing till the end.

It’s written and directed by Justin McConnell (who I interviewed 5 years ago about his documentary Skull World.) Lifechanger has won multiple awards at international film festivals across North America and around the world. It co-stars Jack Foley as the romantic lead… who is also a man with a secret.

The film opens today in Toronto, Calgary and Ottawa.

I spoke with actor Jack Foley and writer/director Justin McConnell in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Controversial European Directors. Films reviewed: The Favourite, The House that Jack Built

Posted in 1700s, 1980s, 1990s, Art, Horror, Lesbian, Movies, Psychopaths, Royalty, Satire, Thriller, UK, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 7, 2018

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

This week I’m looking at two movies in English by controversial European directors from Denmark and Greece. There’s a satirical horror movie about a Jack in his house; and a historical dramedy about a Queen in her palace.

The Favourite

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

It’s England in the early 1700s, a time of heavy makeup, high heels and elaborate wigs. (I’m talking about the men here). Women, on the other hand, rule the country. At the top of the heap is Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) a long-suffering widow. And always by her side is her childhood friend Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Malborough (Rachel Weisz). Her husband is leading a battle in France, leaving Sarah free to her own devices. She advises the Queen about when to go to war and whose taxes should pay for it. Together, they – not the male politicians – decide where the country should head.

Until one day, when a new woman appears on the scene, upsetting the delicate balance. Abigail (Emma Stone), Sarah’s naïve cousin, shows up at the palace gates asking for a job. She is pretty and speaks with an upper class accent but she hasn’t been rich since her father, a compulsive gambler, lost her in a card game when she was still a teen. Now she’s single again and penniless. They put her to work as a scullery maid where the other servants treat her cruely. But gradually Abigail learns how to play the game.

She seduces a young aristocrat she meets in the woods with the aim of marrying up. And she manoeuvres her status in the palace by “accidentally” running into the Queen as often as she can. She expresses sympathy for the sad Queen and the rabbits she keeps as pets to replace all her lost children. While Sarah can be cruel and domineering – she dresses in dominant, tight black bodices, and sends withering looks at Anne when she gets too sentimental – Abigail presents herself as a dainty ingénue, devoted to the Queen’s happiness.

Is it all just an act? And can she replace Sarah as the Queen’s favourite?

The Favourite is a brilliant comedy – based on historical facts – about two women fighting for the Queen’s favour. It’s also a love triangle, about what happens in the royal bedchambers behind closed doors. It’s by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose unique style I’ve loved since his first film Dogtooth almost a decade ago. All his movies (Alps, The LobsterThe Killing of a Sacred Deer) have a strange stilted, faux-naïve style to them that puts some people off. His characters always seem slightly out of place in their suburban homes. But by setting it in an 18th century royal palace, suddenly the dialogue (Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara) seems witty, not stilted, and everything makes perfect sense.

With its exquisite costumes, beautiful musical score and great acting, especially Coleman and Weisz, this is a great movie.

The House that Jack Built

Wri/Dir: Lars von Trier

Jack (Matt Dillon, in a despicably good performance) is an independently wealthy engineer who would rather be an architect. He is building himself a house. But he is also a perfectionist with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) which makes him a captive of his own fear of failure. Each version he tries to complete ends in frustration. So he turns to other ways to express himself artistically.

But he’s also a psychopath with no moral sense so first he has to teach himself to fake normal emotions so people will trust him. He uses these new skills to meet women, often at random, and murders them. He takes the bodies to a huge walk-in freezer, poses them, and then send his photographs to the tabloids as Mister Sophistication. These are his “works of art”.

And despite how obvious and blatant his killings are – he even brags to the police that he’s a serial killer – nobody ever tries to stop him.

The film is narrated by Jack’s voice, off camera, confessing all to a man named Virgil (Bruno Ganz) in a reference to Dante’s Inferno. Jack tells Verge about a few of his more than 60 murders, which are shown in explicit detail on the screen. The unnamed victims – strange characters all – are played by Uma Thurman, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sophie Gråbøl, and Riley Keough (Elvis’s granddaughter).

Is Jack the epitome of evil? Or just an amoral idiot? And will he ever be punished for what he did?

The House that Jack Built is Lars von Trier’s latest work, and like many before – Antichrist, MelancholiaNymphomaniac – it’s a tough movie to watch. Excruciating, actually, because you know there’s going to be more horrible violence coming up. I was in a constant state of cringe through most of the movie.

But in retrospective it seems very elegant and funny, a self-referential exercise in comedy/ horror/satire. Like most of von Trier’s movies, it’s told in chapters and sub-chapters, bookended by Jack and Virgil’s conversation. It’s also filled with repeated cultural references, visual and audio, including Glenn Gould Plays Bach, Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video, David Bowie’s Fame, William Blake’s drawings and Delacroix’ The Barque of Dante… even clips from von Trier’s own movies.  Jack compares his “art” — the murders themselves and the arranged bodies — to the works of these great artists.

This film is Lars von Trier’s reply to past accusations of being a nazi, a misogynist, a bigot and a narcissist. Here he invents a character that combines the worst elements of all of these, and spews it back at the viewers in triumphant, hideous glory.

One thing: the screening I went to was a total sausage fest. The audience was maybe 99% male — rockers, hipsters, film geeks, von Trier fans and Incels — so when parts of the audience burst into laughter and applause when Jack violently attacks and mutilates yet another nameless female victim, it just added to the general creepiness of the experience.

The Favourite opens today in Toronto; check your local listings; and The House that Jack Built opens next Friday in theatres and on VOD.

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

Lower Budget. Films reviewed: Dead in a Week, Nothing Like a Dame, Clara

Posted in Acting, Canada, comedy, Death, documentary, Movies, Romance, Science Fiction, Space, Suicide, Thriller, Toronto, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 30, 2018

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

There are lots of big-budget blockbusters and Oscar bait cluttering the theatres these days, but I thought I’d give you a break from all that. So this week I’m looking at three lower- budget films that might otherwise fall through the cracks. There’s a documentary on the hidden side of acting; a dark comedy about the humorous side of suicide; and a scientific romance about the spiritual side of astronomy and quantam physics.

Dead in a Week (or your money back)

Wri/Dir: Tom Edmunds

William (Aneurin Barnard: Dunkirk, Bigger, Bitter Harvest ), a brooding young English writer, is a total mess. He’s lonely and depressed, with a dead-end job, and daily rejection letters for his unpublished book. Things are so bad he wants to off himself. But he has terrible luck with that too. Each time he tries to kill himself something goes wrong, saving his life. In desperation, he hires an assassin to kill him. “Dead in a week or your money back.” His assassin, Leslie O’Neil (Tom Wilkinson: Selma, Denial, The Happy Prince ) was the country’s top hitman in his heyday, but no more. His homey wife and the Assassins League president are both pushing for him retire. But this hit could change his luck, putting him over the required minimum murders so he’s stoked and ready to kill. Everybody’s happy, until…

William gets an unexpected call from a publisher who wants to meet him. Ellie (Freya Mavor: The Sense of an Ending, The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun), an editor, is intrigued by his book. She’s also bright, cynical and pretty. Suddenly William has a reason to live. Trouble is you can’t cancel a contract once it’s been signed. And through a series of mishaps, other assassins are also on their tail. Are they both doomed? Or will they find love beneath a dark cloud in the picturesque southern counties of England?

Dead in a Week is Tom Edmunds’s first film, and it’s a very enjoyable, twisted comedy. It starts with a ridiculously implausible premise, but manages to ride it to a fun and unexpected conclusion. It twins bland, small town life – budgies and needlepoint – with bloody violence and an almost supernatural “League of Assassins”. And the main actors stick to their oddball characters in absurd situations without resorting to mugging or hamming.

This would make a perfect date movie for an emo and a goth.

Nothing Like a Dame

Dir: Roger Michel

What do actors Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins have in common? They are longtime actors of the London stage, and good friends since the 1950s. They are also all addressed as “Dame” a title awarded by the Queen, the equivalent of Sir for men. This documentary follows them at their retreat in the English countryside as they reminisce about life on the stage, and reveal untold stories about what really was going on; their homelives and marriages. They talk abut naturalism, stagefright, forgotten lines, and whether they read critics of their work. And what it’s like growing old before the cameras.

I’m not a big celebrity hound, so a lot of what they say that might be common knowledge to you was all new to me. I never realized Joan Plowright was married to Lawrence Olivier. (How could I have missed that?) I remember as a kid seeing Maggie Smith as Lady MacBeth at Stratford… but until now I never knew that the reason she was in Canada was she was scared to perform Shakespeare in England. And that all four of them protested the Vietnam War at demos in London.

Nothing like a Dame is an enjoyable look at famous actors chatting. There’s also amazing footage of stage, film and TV performances spanning their careers. But if you’re expecting salty stories about clandestine romances and shocking backstage sex scandals, you’re not going to find them here. Everything they say is guarded and carefully worded, suitable language for a Dame.

Clara

Wri/Dir: Akash Sherman

Dr Isaac Bruno (Pattrick J Adams) is a young astronomy prof at a Canadian University, who works in a lab beside his best friend Charlie (Ennis Esmer: Sex after Kids). Isaac is a sweater nerd with wire rimmed glasses and a neck beard. He hates teaching, preferring to study the stars using Extremely Large Telescopes, continents away. He feels angry and adrift since his marriage collapsed. His only obsession? His search for evidence of life on a distant planet. And he needs to find it soon, before the WEBB telescope is introduced, opening the universe to amateur star searchers.

But when he loses his research priveleges he hires an unpaid research assistant to help analyze data in his home. But she’s not like his normal students. Clara (Troian Bellisario) is a free spirit in a duffelcoat with long black hair. She travels the world, carrying a pouch of small stones, one from each continent, to plot out her next journey. She’s a study in contradictions, a highschool dropout who can speaks five languages. And whenever she closes her eyes, she’s overwhelmed with images of galaxies, stars and planets… Can Clara’s spiritual views coexist with Isaac’s die-hard science-based research? Do they share a cosmic entanglement? And could there be a populated planet like Earth somewhere far, far away?

Clara is a nicely-made first film set in Toronto. It’s filled with amazing telescopic footage of quasars, meteors, galaxies and stars rushing through space, as visualized in Clara’s brain, and as seen through super telescopes. And I’m no astronomer, but the film seems accurate in its reading of space data. This is not a perfect film — some of the characters’ motivations seem too simplistic – but I still liked it.

Clara, Nothing Like a Dame, and Dead in a Week 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.

 

 

More Films by Women. Films reviewed: Never Saw it Coming, Skate Kitchen

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, Movies, Mystery, Skateboards, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 17, 2018

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

TIFF promises one third of all movies showing this year will be directed by women. This was virtually unheard of even a few years ago. But I’m finding — especially with indie productions — that there’s been a sea change with loads of good movies being made by women. This week I’m looking at two such movies, one from Canada and another from south of the border. There’s a body hidden beneath the ice in Sudbury and a subculture hidden between the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

Never Saw it Coming

Dir: Gail Harvey

Wri: Linwood Barklay

Keisha (Emily Hampshire) is a psychic in Sudbury Ontario. She specializes in locating lost relatives, dead or alive. By touching a personal item she has visions pointing straight to a grave site. But is she authentic? Keisha lives with her young red head son Matt (Keegan Hedley) and her on-again, off again boyfriend Kirk. He moved in with her four months ago but has yet to pay rent.

She’s saving up to buy her son the keyboard he’s always wanted but money is scarce. So she agrees to pull off a onetime scam, involving parents desperate to locate their drug-addicted son.

At the same time she searches out a family with a mother who has gone missing. (The movie opens with her car sinking into a frozen lake as the woman screams for help) The missing woman’s husband Wendel (Eric Roberts) and daughter Melissa  (Katie Boland) have appealed for help on TV, along with police detective Wedmore (Tamara Podemski). Keisha sees this as a chance to locate a missing person and make some quick cash. But her meeting goes terribly wrong, and her chaotic life becomes impossible to handle. Now she has to deal with a suspicious detective, her partner in crime turned junkie blackmailer, and threats from her volatile, layabout boyfriend.

Can her visions – if they actually exist – save Keisha? Or is she heading for the big house?

Never Saw it Coming is a short but credible Canadian mystery thriller, with lots of scurrilous characters without many sympathetic good guys. It seems like almost everyone in Sudbury is a lowlife. Still, I always enjoy a good noirish Canadian movie, despite its flaws. Emily Hampshire and Tamara Podemski as the psychic and cop in a battle of wits, stand out. And Eric Roberts is great as a sketchy schemester.

Skate Kitchen

Dir: Crystal Moselle

Camille (Michelle Vinberg) is an 18 year old vegan who lives with her mom in Long Island. She has long hair, glasses and wears shorts, white socks and thrasher T shirts. She spends most of her time hanging at a nearby skate park practicing her moves, despite the catcalling and abuse she takes from the guys there. But when a mishap sends her to hospital with gushing blood between her legs, her mother forbids her from using a skateboard again. But skating is her life. What can she do?

Find a crew on instagram to skate with. An all female one. She joins them in Manhattan and makes fast friends. They skate the city, exchange stories and defend themselves against asshole guys. There’s strength in numbers. After a big fight with her mom she ends up moving in with Janay (Ardelia Lovelace), one of the girls in the group.

She also gets a day job, as a cashier in a super. There she meets Devon (Jaden Smith) who works in the stock room. He’s a skater too, with dyed red hair, and asks her to let him snap her pics. She does some solid moves on the top of a skyscraper near the empire state building. And sparks seem to fly.

The problem is she likes him, but Devon and Janay used to be a thing. And she never got over their nasty breakup. Can Camille keep her relationship with Devon a secret from her fiercely loyal crew? Or will her life collapse like a house of cards?

Skate Kitchen is a great coming-of-age story set within the world of skateboarding – the music, fights, drugs, sexual experimentation, tampons, comeradery, as well as misogynistic bragadoccio on the male side.

This movie, though, is unique in that it’s painted from a female point of view, a community usually totally absent from anything skate-related. It’s modelled on a real group, also called Skate Kitchen, with many of the actors playing roles based on themselves, including Vinberg, its founder. This gives it a very realistic feel, and provides a genuine look at a seldom seen subculture. This movie’s the real thing and I liked it.

Skate Kitchen and Never Saw it Coming 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.

Noisy or quiet? Films reviewed: Mission Impossible: Fallout, Angels Wear White PLUS #TIFF18

Posted in Action, China, CIA, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Espionage, Migrants, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2018

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

Summer is when the blockbusters come out but there are also great arthouse pics to watch, too. So this week I’m giving you a choice. A Hollywood action thriller that takes you to world capitals, and a moving Chinese drama set in a quiet seaside resort.

But first, here’s  some news about what’s coming this fall to theInternational film festival.

TIFF

TIFF held its annual press conference this week, about the first wave of festival choices coming up. If you’re going here’s how to navigate through the hundreds of movies playing. A few that look terrific, are Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, about a gang of child thieves that operate like Fagins fake family. This year a full third of its movies will be directed by women. French director Claire Denis is always a good bet. she has one called Highlife… Did you see Moonlight two years ago? Barry Jenkins is premiering If Beale Could Talk. based on James Baldwin’s novel. And look out for Canadian films by Donald McKeller, Kim Nguyen, and Patricia Rozema, among many, many others they’ll be announcing soon.

And a warning: if you want to avoid potentially bad movies stay away from remakes, movies about movies, and movies directed by movie stars.

Mission Impossible: Fallout

Wri/Dir: Christopher MacQuarrie

It’s present day Europe, and the Mission Impossible team is together again. There’s the indestructible Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), he faces any crisis by saying “we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.” yHe’s supported by the always affable Luther (Ving Rhames) and the nervous Benji (Simon Pegg). And Ethan’s onetime lover Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), late of the MI6, will pop up every so often when they least expect it. Their mission: to recover three high grade plutonium balls before terrorists use them to destroy large parts of the world.

The bombs are in the hands of The Apostles, devotees of cult leader Solomon Lane. And the IMF – Impossible Mission Force – is further hampered by their own government: The CIA doesn’t trust them. Ethan has to work beside a CIA agent named Walker (Henry Cavill) who looks more like Sgt Preston of the Yukon than a spy. But the team has a bag of tricks of their at their disposal: digital trackers, rubber masks, and the die hard resilience of the members themselves. Can they trick the bad guys out of their info, smoke out the traitors in their midst… and save the world?

Mission impossible:Fallout has its good points and its bad points. It has beautiful shots of tourists sites in Paris and London… but no actual local people – just criminals, cops and more spies. Parisians and Londoners are just scenery. (And in scenes supposedly set in Kashmir there wasn’t a single Kashmiri.) There are fast -moving fist fights, shootouts and relentless chase scenes… but you never know why they’re doing what they’re doing. The chases are there just for the spectacle.

The script is bad, the acting is mediocre, but the stunts and special effects are amazing. This is an action movie with a cliffhanger (literally) and a ticking bomb (also literally). I love the helicopter fights, the mountain-side fights, and the rooftop chases. I just wish there was something there there. Mission Impossible: Fallout never leaves you bored, just feeling empty inside.

Angels Wear White

Dir: Vivian Qu

Xiaomi (Wen Qi) is a teenaged girl in eastern China. She works as hotel maid at a seaside tourist spot. She spends her free time wandering the beach, paying daily visits to her mentor – an enormous statue of Marilyn Monroe in a white dress. She seeks comfort curled between the goddess’s towering legs. Her life is simple until she witnesses a crime at the hotel and saves a copy on her cell phone. The criminal? A high-ranked party member. The crime? He forces himself on two little girls he lured to the hotel.

She is horrified at what happened but when the police come by she clams up. She’s undocumented, a migrant from a poor area, so she has to keep a low profile, especially around cops. (But maybe she can sell the video for enough cash to buy an ID card?)

Meanehile the two victims Xiao Wen (Zhou Meijun) and her best friend go back to school as if nothing happened – “to save their reputations.” They are scolded by teachers for being late, bullied by other students, and finally Wen’s bitter divorced mom blames her own 12-year-old daughter for the attack. Why is your hair so long, why do you wear clothes like this? So she runs away, ending up at her dad place inside a splash park. His boss says he’ll fire him if he does anything to embarrass powerful official. The parents of the other girl are hoping for a big cash payoff for keeping quiet.

Only the state attorney, an honest lawyer named Hao (Shi Ke) wants justice. So she doggedly pursues the witness and the victims to build an airtight case. But can one woman — and some little girls – fight the power of a rich corrupt official and all his cronies? Or can only the powerless statue Marilyn Monroe come to their rescue?

Angels Wear White is an excellent film about a loathesome crime. She handles it with skill and compassion, showing the results through the eyes of three girls and women: the victim, the witness, and the lawyer. No exploitation here. It’s also about corruption and all its tentacles, the status of women – terrible – and the plight of the quarter of a billion migrant workers in China. Angels Wear White is a powerful, heart-wrenching story.

For more info on TIFF films go to tiff.net. Mission Impossible: Fallout and Angels Wear White 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.

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