When I grow up… Films reviewed: Fighting With My Family, Never Look Away

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, Art, Biopic, comedy, Communism, Disabilities, Germany, Nazi, Sports, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 22, 2019

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

One question every kid hears is What do you want to be when you grow up? When I was three I wanted to be a fire truck. But how many stay true to their earliest ambitions? This week I’m looking at two movies about people who stick to their childhood passions. There’s an historical drama from Germany about an aspiring artist and a biopic from the UK about a perspiring wrestler

Fighting with My Family

Wri/Dir: Stephen Merchant

Saraya Knight (Francis Pugh) is a thirteen-year-old girl in a working-class neighbourhood in Norwich. Her mom and dad (Lena Headey, Nick Frost) run a business: the WAW, or World Association of Wrestlers. But like everything else in that world, it’s a bit of an exaggeration. They have one gym where they train local kids to wrestle, and take their family’s matches on the road in their shiny white van. Her life is fully immersed in the sport. Black haired and petite, Saraya uses black eyeliner and dresses in heavy metal gear. She has posters of her wrestling heroes on her wall and even made her own championship belt out of cardboard. But she has one problem: she chokes under stress.

So her big brother Zack (Jack Lowden) takes her into the ring and teaches her how to wrestle. He is her sparring partner, and they soon become an accomplished tag team. She’s a natural. But they have bigger ambitions: to be make it to the top. So when the WWE is coming to the UK they sign up for the tryouts. This is Zack and Saraya’s one chance to make it big. The auditions are led by Coach (Vince Vaughan) a hard-boiled veteran who takes no prisoners. Will Zack get in? And will he take Saraya with him? Turns out, Coach chooses her, not him!

Suddenly she finds herself in Florida surrounded by palm trees, suntans and bikinis while Zack is left in Norwich taking care of his new baby. Saraya — now called Paige — is overwhelmed by the gruelling, boot-camp workouts and the loneliness she faces. Zack feels abandoned so he cuts her off. And the fledgling wrestlers she’s paired with are all former models, dancers and cheerleaders… who don’t know how to wrestle. Professionals finesse their jabs, throws and punches so they don’t hurt so much.

Her parents and all the kids at the gym back home are rooting for her, but Paige is filled with doubt. Can the little “freak from Norwich” ever make it in pro-wrestling?

Fighting With My Family is a very cute, palatable and easy-to-watch comedy biopic, about the real female pro wrestler known as Paige. I have to admit I knew next to nothing about pro wrestling before I watched it.

What did I learn? That this sport is “fixed”, but it’s not “fake”… the wrestling part is real, and it can really hurt. That it’s a theatrical performance, much like a circus. That you have to win over an audience if you want to make it. And that your persona, while a big exaggeration, has to have some truth in it or no one will believe it. The movie is filled with salty language but no sex or violence (except in the ring). Pugh and Lowden are great as the brother and sister. Yes, it’s predictable and sentimental and I’m not going to call it a “great movie”, but I had a good time watching it.

Never Look Away (Werk Ohne Autor)

Wri/Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

1937, Germany.

Little Kurt, with his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), visits an exhibition in Dresden filled with avant-garde art. He loves the beautiful colours of fauvism, the strange distortions of cubism, and challenging images by Grozs, Kandinsky, Mondrian. But is he too young to understand the art show was put on by the Nazi government to condemn this art as bad and “degenerate”? No, he understands perfectly what they’re saying, and rejects it all.

But he listens to his aunt when she warns him to keep his drawings secret. Later, when the lovely but eccentric aunt has a strange episode they lock her up in a mental hospital. While she is there, top-ranked Nazi doctors decide to throw away not just “degenerate” art but imperfect people. Anyone with a mental illness, physical disability or a developmental handicap is sent to the gas chambers. Doctors write either a blue “minus” (keep) or a red “plus” (kill) on their files. This includes Elisabeth, condemned to death by a top Nazi gynecologist (Sebastian Koch).

Later, after the war, Kurt (Tom Schilling) is accepted into the Dresden Art Academy. But now his talent is stifled by the communist government who only want him to paint socialist realism: stern men and rosy-cheeked women harvesting wheat as they stare toward a brighter future. At the academy he meets the kind and beautiful Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), and wins her heart. Even under communism, Ellie is a “golden pheasant” from a rich, high-ranked family. They fall in love and meet for secret trysts. But when her parents come home they have to be extra cautious. While her mother is sympathetic, her father, Professor Karl Seeband, tries his best to break them up. But what no one realizes, this professor is the same doctor who sent Kurt’s aunt Elizabeth to her death!

Kurt and Ellie eventually make it to West Germany, where he joins the prestigious art academy in Düsseldorf, and lands a private studio to create the art he really wants to make. The art professor tells him his work is good but not yet special, but he still detects the talent hidden there. Will Kurt ever find his true calling? Will Seebald’s hidden war crimes be exposed? Can Ellie emerge from beneath her oppressive father’s shadow?

Never Look Away is an epic, fictionalized drama about the life of a well- known artist, spanning German history from the Nazi era, to the communist east, and to the changes in the west in the 50s and 60s. It stars some of Germany’s biggest names: tiny Tom Schilling with his high-pitched voice is still playing young men in his late thirties (and he’s great as Kurt). Paula Beer (Transit) is sweet as Ellie, Sebastian Koch is suitably sinister as the hidden Nazi Zeebald, and Saskia Rosendahl (who was amazing in Lore) once again wins as Elisabeth. The cinematography and music are all wonderful. But something seems missing from this huge drama.

At one point Kurt makes an interesting point: Take six random numbers. On their own they have no meaning. But if they are the winning numbers on a lottery ticket suddenly they become important and beautiful. I went into this movie blind, knowing nothing about it. While watching it, I kept thinking what’s the big deal about Kurt? But when he starts experimenting with smeared, black-and-white, photorealist paintings, I thought, wait a minute, those look like Gerhard Richter’s paintings! And suddenly the movie makes sense. It becomes a winning lottery ticket. Not a perfect movie – not as good as this director’s Lives of Others – but definitely worth watching.

Oscar nominee Never Look Away and Fighting With My Family 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.

Nannies. Films reviewed: Mary Poppins Returns, Roma

Posted in 1930s, 1970s, Family, Kids, Mexico, Musical, Protest, UK, Women 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 holiday season, between Christmas and New Year, a good time to catch up on all those movies you’ve been meaning to see. This week I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a period drama, about nannies. There’s an ageless nanny in London with a magical touch, and a young nanny in Mexico City with a touch of sadness.

Mary Poppins Returns

Dir: Rob Marshall

It’s the 1930s in London, the time of The Great Slump. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a recently widowed father of three adorable kids – Anabel, John, and Georgie. They’ve lived in the house for generations, right beside an eccentric Admiral who fires cannons off his roof. Michael wants to be an artist, but works as a bank clerk to make ends meet. The kids struggle to act like grown-ups now that their mother is gone. And his sister Jane is doing her part as a social activist and union organizer. But an unexpected visit by two lawyers from the bank he works for throws the family into disarray. Turns out Michael defaulted on a loan and has until midnight Friday to pay it back or the entire family will be evicted from their own home.

What to do? Who can they turn to for help? Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), of course!

Michael and Jane have almost forgotten that she saved the two of them when they were kids, and here she is back again, aged not a day. There is something magical about her, but only if you allow the impossible to happen.  The kids are much too mature to fall for her tricks… or are they? Soon they’re swimming in the ocean via their bathtub, and travelling to a music hall in an animated world inside a chipped bowl. They visit Topsy (Meryl Streep) a flibbertigibbetty repair woman who lives upside down, to fix the bowl.  They race through London piled up on a bicycle driven by Jack (Lin Manuel Miranda) who lights the city’s gas lamps. And they buy magic balloons from an old woman (Angela Landsbury) in the park. But can magic save their home before the bank’s evil Mr Wilkins (Colin Firth) takes it all away?

Mary Poppins Returns is exactly what the title promises: a continuation of the original story, one generation later. Jack was the chimney sweep’s son in the original, now he’s a lamplighter who narrates the story in song and dance. Michael and Jane are grownup versions of the original kids. The costumes – in bright yellows and fuscias with white boater hats – are pure Disney.The music, songs and dances, even the combination of flat cel animation with real people is just like it used to be. The score, the art direction, everything was a spot- on recreation of the original. The only differences are this Mary Poppins is decidedly sexier than the original, (Emily Blunt is amazing) and the cast isn’t lily white anymore. Lin Manuel Miranda is nicely endearing as Jack, though never having seen the hit broadway musical Hamilton I didn’t quite get the camera’s adulation of him.

I didn’t grow up with Mary Poppins, so I hold no deep sentimental attachment, but even so it scored high on my nostalgia meter, tugged at my heartstrings and made me feel warm inside. This is a wonderful G-rated musical and a genuine kids’ movie that also appeals to grown ups, a rarity these days.

Roma

Wri/Dir: Alfonso Cuaron

It’s 1970 in Mexico City. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) lives in a beautiful house with a grand staircase, and walls lined with bookshelves. There’s a narrow tiled passageway that serves as a garage, where a big dog runs around. And four cute kids — Toño, Paco, Pepe and Sofi — who happily play spaceman games. Cleo lives there but it’s not her house. The kids pet their dog while Cleo shovels the poop. She’s the nanny and also the maid, the one who gets blamed when there’s trouble. And there’s lots of trouble these days, with Señora Sofía (Marina de Tavira) the mom, trying to run the house with Papa on a long business trip to Quebec. She has help from the grandmother, Señora Teresa, but it’s a world without men, at least until Papa comes back.

Cleo is from a village and not yet used to city life. She spends her free time with the cook and her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). Fermin is a Kendo fanatic – martial arts saved my life, he says – prone to bouts of kicking and punching the air in the nude following sex. But when Cleo tells him she’s pregnant with his child, he disappears without a trace. What will happen to her baby? Who will take care of the kids? And will the family’s father ever come home?

Roma is a slice-of-life look at Mexico City in the tumultuous early 70s. It follows Cleo, a poor indigenous girl who speaks Spanish as a second language, and Sofía’s upper middle class family, as they try to understand one another, even while they both face family crises. It’s a slow-moving drama with normal, mundane family problems alternating with episodes of violence, terror and natural disaster. Cleo is viewing gurgling babies in the maternity ward just as an earthquake hits. She travels with the family to a hacienda where family dog heads are mounted on a wall like hunting trophies and forest fires break out. A simple trip to a downtown furniture store coincides with a government attack on student protesters.

Watching Roma is an immersive experience, filled with sound and unexplained images appearing on the screen. It’s shot in exquisite black and white – Cuaron is the cinematographer, as well as writer and director. Long, low shots almost always from far away: looking longingly down long corridors, at figures in a field before a spacious mountain range, or watching Cleo and Fermin from behind as they watch a movie on a screen even further away.

This is a lovely rich movie but one that intentionally keeps the audience from getting too close to any of the characters. We’re observers, but the action is far away, through a window or behind a closed door. No close ups, reaction shots, or gushing movie score, even with Cleo. But the cumulative effect – the sounds, music, images characters and historical events based on Cuaron’s own childhood – gives it a powerful impact.

See it in a movie theatre while you still can.

Mary Poppins Returns is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings. And you can see Roma on Netflix or at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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

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.

 

 

Questioning Authority. Films reviewed: Empty Metal, The Oath, The Happy Prince

Posted in 1800s, Biopic, comedy, France, Indigenous, LGBT, Politics, Protest, Resistance, Supernatural, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on October 19, 2018

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

Toronto’s Fall Film Festival season continues with Imaginenative, in its 20th year. Imaginenative looks at indigenous film and media arts on the big screen and in galleries. There are scary movies, docs, short films, video games VR, and lectures. Look out for Alanis Obomsawin, a retrospective of Métis director Marjorie Beaucage, CBC’s Rosanna Deerchild on Colton Boushie, and Oscar winner Zacharias Kunuk’s latest. There are dozens of things to see and do, from North America and around the world, and many of them are free.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about people who question authority. There’s a writer in exile for breaking a law, an American in trouble for ignoring a law, and indigenous revolutionaries fighting the law… using telepathic powers!

Empty Metal

Wri/Dir: Adam Khalil, Bayley Sweitzer

It’s present day America, where native protesters face rows of armed state troopers. Aliens, a three member electropunk band in Brooklyn, are obsessed by the upcoming apocalypse, and sad they might miss the end of the world. So when they are approached by a young indigenous activist on their first band tour, they are wary, but intrigued by what she offers them. She says they can play a crucial role in the upcoming collapse of everything… but they will have to communicate telepathically. She is advised by three elders – a Zen like white man with a shaved head, a white bearded Rastafarian, and a matronly indigenous activist – who plot the group’s future. Meanwhile, a posse of white, NRA militiamen are training in the woods for their own armed insurrection. And observing – and listening to – everything are unseen government intellegence agents using drones and cellphone listening devices. Who will survive this never ending battle between surveillance and subversion? And why are these people body worshipping a wild boar and opening umbrellas on sunny days?

Empty Metal is a strange and disjointed but ultimately satisfying look at music, art and politics. Some of the images are baffling – what’s with the frying eggyolks and stirring soup? But what seems at first like a series of unrelated events and bizarre practices gradually coalesces into a coherent narrative. It ends up as a cool, if unusual, arthouse espionage drama.

And it’s having it’s Canadian premier at ImageineNative.

The Oath

Wri/Dir: Ike Barinholtz

Chris and Kai (Barinholtz and Tiffany Haddish) are a middle class liberal couple hosting a big Thanksgiving dinner for all of Chris’s family. Since he’s known for his outspoken views, Kai makes him promise to stay away from political discussions. But his vows all evaporate when his little brother’s girlfriend Abbie (Meredith Hagner) shows up. She’s a poster child for Fox News views and doesn’t care who knows it. Get ready for big fights over turkey. But there’s a bigger issue splitting the family – and the country – apart. That’s an oath the president declares all citizens must sign, affirming their loyalty and patriotism. And the deadline for signing is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Who has signed the oath and who has stood firm? And what will happen to people who refuse to sign?

Things take a turn for the worse when quasi-official government agents show up to enforce the new law. Peter (John Cho), is a reasonable guy, but his partner Mason (Billy Magnussen) is another story. He’s a rude, crude pit bull, longing for a fight. And he’s carrying a gun. When things violent can Chris keep his family safe? Or are they headed for disaster?

The Oath is a dark comedy about life in a divided America under a Trump-like president (they never say his name). It’s also a look at masculinity, with Chris changing from a mansplaining but progressive white guy to a stand-your-ground defender of family and home. Basically a drawing room comedy, it deals with stereotypes and politics, in a funny, though violent, way.

I liked this movie.

The Happy Prince

Wri/Dir: Rupert Everett

It’s the 1890s. Oscar Wilde (Rupert Everett) is a London playright and novelist at the height of his career, rich, famous and wildly popular. He has a happy life at home with his wife (Emily Watson) and two young sons, whom he loves to tell bedtime stories. He’s also gay, a felony at that time. His love affair with an aristocrat, Bosie Douglas lands him in the notorious Reading Jail for two years hard labour. And his career, reputation and homelife disappear overnight. Now he’s in France under an assumed name, living off a tiny allowance. His affairs are handled by a former lover named Robbie Ross. Robbie (Edwin Thomas) is still deeply in love with Oscar Wilde, but thewriter still carries a torch for the diffident Bosie, the cause of all his problems. And when Bosie  (Colin Morgan: Merlin) shows up again, things start to go wrong. Will Oscar Wilde die lonely and neglected in Paris or living life to its fullest?

The Happy Prince is a look at the last years of Oscar Wilde’s life, but is also a fascinating glimpse of the marginal nature of gay life nearly a century before it was legalized in the U.K.. Though solidly upper class, Oscar spends time with beggars, thieves, sailors, street urchins and drag queens. Or running away from bigoted cricketers armed with lead pipes. Rupert Everett plays Oscar – in excellent French and English — as a tragicomic figure, whether witty and urbane, or rude and lusty.

This movie is a lot of fun.

The Oath, The Happy Prince both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Empty Metal is playing tonight go to Imaginenative.org for details.

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

Unrequited Lust. Films reviewed: On Chesil Beach, Hurley, M/M

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Berlin, Cars, documentary, Drama, Dreams, LGBT, melodrama, Sex, UK by CulturalMining.com on May 25, 2018

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

Inside out, Toronto’s LGBT film fest is on now, premiering movies from around the world, from Thailand to South Africa and showcasing innovative short films by new directors.

Unrequited love is a common theme, but what about unrequited lust? This week I’m looking at three movies — two dramas and a doc. There’s a honeymoon couple whose marital bliss isn’t; a racing car driver with a need for speed, and a guy in Berlin who lusts after a lookalike… in a coma.

On Chesil Beach

Dir: Dominic Cooke, based on Ian McEwan’s novel

It’s England in 1962. Florence (Saorise Ronan) is a confident musician who leads a string quintet in Oxford. She comes from an uptight, stuck up, and upper class Tory family. Edward (Billie Howle) is a country bumpkin from a rural home a bus ride away. He’s emotionally raw and quick to anger. He can’t tell a baguette from a croissant but can identify a bird just from its call.

He comes from an eccentric family, with pre-raphaelite twin sisters, a kindly father, and an artist mother suffering from a brain injury. She can’t remember new names and takes off her clothes in public. Florence and Edward meet at random at a nuclear disarmament meeting (CND) and it’s love at first sight. She loves his realness and disdain for money and social conventions. And he is stricken by her beauty, her musical skills, and most of all her kindness – she can even pull his mother out of her shell. They marry.

But the honeymoon at a second rate hotel on a pebble-strewn beach starts bad and gets worse. The closer they get to the marital bed, the farther they get from sex. And after a disastrous attempt, they flee the bedroom for the rocky beach. Can true love rescue an awful honeymoon? Or will this be the end?

On Chesil Beach is a moving look at relationships, and a bit of a tear jerker, too. Though the beach scenes are at its centre, the film flashes back in time to reveal crucial secrets — and into a possible future — as the two lovers have it out. While not a perfect movie, I’ve seen it twice now and I liked it better the second time… which is a good sign.

Hurley

Wri/Dir Derek Dodge

Daytona, Florida is the site of a renowned race car competition, where teams speed along a circuit keeping their cars running for 24 hours without stopping. The drivers too have to continue functioning at high speeds negotiating perilous turns while fighting exhaustion. Even a momentary break in concentration could lead to a crash.

Machismo rules, and winners flaunt their masculinity and sense of cool. It’s a world filled with photo-ops beside bikini-clad penthouse models, aboard expansive yachts. It’s also a big-money professional sport, whose champions land lucrative endorsements, prize money, sponsorships and cushy positions at car dealerships. Image is everything.

The kings of Daytona have long been the Brumos Porsche team, who drove to victory in the 1970s under Peter Gregg. He was arrogant and successful. He was later joined by Hurley Haywood, a shy but highly skilled racer. Together they were known as Batman and Robin. Eventually Haywood headed the team himself in Daytona and La Mans, chalking up countless wins. This new documentary chronicals Haywood’s career and his personal life.

So why is a movie about race cars playing at Inside Out?

SPOILER ALERT!

Because Hurley Haywood is the first race car champ to publicly come out as gay… which makes this film a historic record.

Hurley is a squeaky-clean documentary about the famous race car driver, and is mainly of interest to fans of that sport, whom, I am told, are legion. I’m not one of them, but could still appreciate the cool cars and vintage pics. I felt like I was playing with hot wheels again.

M/M

Wri/Dir: Drew Lint

Matthieu (Antoine Lahaie) is a Montrealer living in a small apartment in Berlin. During the day he works as a lifeguard at a local swimming pool (or does he?). At night he’s clubbing to flashing lights and dark shadows. And then there are his dreams – realistic visions of interactions with stone statues and human flesh. (He rarely meets living people.)

One day he encounter Matthias (Nicolas Maxim Endlicher) online and follows him into the swimming pool showers. Matthias has a thin moustache, a buzz cut and a perfectly symmetrical body and face. The words Sodom and Gomorrah are tattooed on his torso. He works as a fashion model and poses for a digital sculpture created using a 3-D printer. Matthieu is infatuated with Matthias, mimics his style, and stalks him to his apartment window. It’s a minimalist palace of white walls, blown-up black and white photos and a chin-up bar. Matthieu longs to meet him, but there’s no real connection. But when Matthias falls into a coma after a crash, Matthieu — like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley — moves into his home and takes over his life. Soon he has a parade of sex partners visiting him who thinks he’s the other guy. But what will happen to Matthew when Matthias comes home? And how far will one M go to duplicate, or replace, the other M?

M/M is a highly stylized, dreamlike and surreal look at superficial relationships and the dangers they pose. This Berlin is inhabited only by gay fashion plates in their twenties, posing against shiny white surfaces or pausing for sexual release in washrooms or saunas. Most dialogue is disjointed telephone conversations or short texts sent on gay dating sites; and the sex scenes fall somewhere between MMA and interpretive dance.

The story is intentionally ambiguous, so you never know if you’re seeing dreams, fantasies or actual events, nor even which M is dreaming what. Still, this dazzling art-house fest of image and music manages to hold together.

This is the best movie I’ve seen at Inside Out, but if you miss it there, it opens commercially on June 1.

On Chesil Beach opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Hurley and M/M are both playing at the Inside Out Film Fest.

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

Death Be Not Proud. Films reviewed: The Death of Stalin, Foxtrot

Posted in Army, comedy, Corruption, Death, Drama, Israel, Movies, UK, USSR by CulturalMining.com on March 16, 2018

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

Which is worse — dying? Or knowing someone’s dying but not knowing when?  This week I’m looking at two great dark comedies that find humour in terrible situations about death. There’s the imminent death of eminent dictator, and the questionable death of an questioning soldier.

The Death of Stalin

Dir: Armando Iannucci

It’s 1953 in the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin rules the country with an iron fist, and everyone trembles in his presence. So when he orders a recorded copy of a just-completed live musical performance – that wasn’t actually recorded – of course everyone starts to panic. Everyone, it seems, except the musician who played it. She dares to drop a note for him into the re-recorded record envelope. If he reads it, surely her death will follow – and everyone around her. But as fate wll have it, when Stalin reads the message, he falls to the floor with a heart attack.

And with Stalin on his deathbed all his closest political allies come running to see what will happen next, and what their own status will be after he’s gone. There’s Malenkov ((Jeffrey Tambor) Stalin’s right-hand man for 30 years – a bit of a chowderhead but he’s also the one who purges anyone who challenges him. His rival Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) is the proud military leader who beat Hitler in WWII. Molotov (Michael Palin) is the foreign minister (don’t share a cocktail with this guy!) There’s the wily Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the dreaded Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the Secret Police (NKVD). And Stalin’s two adult children, his clever daughter Svetlana and his idiot son Vasily, who acts like he’s an aristocrat in a Chekov play. Picture all these historical figures running around all at once, panicking, conspiring, and thinking up ways to best their rivals.

While The Death of Stalin may sound like a dry historical drama, it is anything but. It’s fast-moving, shocking, and hilarious. The director — Armando Iannucci — has made another one of his twisted, foul-mouthed political comedies. This one isn’t in Westminster or The White House, it’s set in the Kremlin instead. The actors are either British – like Michael Palin — or American – like Steve Buscemi – but he lets them keep their real voices, no fake heavy Russian accents here (except from the Russian actors).

The Death of Stalin is a great political comedy.

Foxtrot

Dir: Samuel Maoz

Michael and Daphna (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) are a successful Israeli couple Progressive, atheist and sexually open. He’s an architect so their Tel Aviv flat is beautifully designed and tastefully appointed. There lives are nearly perfect… until the day a knock on their door reveals two army officers in uniform. Their son Jonathan, a corporal at a remote posting, has died in the line of duty. Michael is stunned and Daphna collapses to the floor. She is put on meds while Michael stumbles in a daze to talk with his mom in a nursing home.

The army steps in to arrange the funeral, provide the coffin, direct the speech, call their relatives. Don’t worry, they say, we’ll take care of everything. But something is wrong… they can’t provide answers to the most basic questions. Where was he posted? How did he die? And where’s the body? Six hours later they return to say there’s been a terrible mistake. You’re son is still alive.

The story shifts to a remote checkpoint on a purgatorial desert road somewhere near Gehenna. Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray) is posted there with three other young guys. They live in a rusty, ramshackle shipping container made of corrugated steel. It’s slowly disappearing into a muck-filled sinkhole, a couple inches a day. Dinner consists of canned mystery meat cooked on a space heater. They while away their time fiddling with ancient radio receivers, drawing cartoons, telling stories or dancing with a rifle. It’s endless and pointless. Their sole capacity seems to be checking the IDs of passing Palestinians on their way to weddings, funerals or nightclub. The boys approach this job – and their only source of power — with a keen intensity, They shine floodlights at bewildered passersby, force middle aged women to stand in the pouring rain, pointing lethal weapons at their faces, … and worse. That worse incident , and its aermath, brings a new calamity to Jonathan’s family back home, bringing grief, decay and self-harm. Will the family ever recover?

Foxtrot – named after both the dance and the military code – is a dark, ironic and satiric look at the creeping militarization of people’s lives and it’s horrific results. This army is a portrayed as a new Catch-22, one filled with ridiculous errors, secrecy and coverups. The film itself adopts that unexplained mysterious tone – places are left unidentified, some characters not given names. Visions of censorship – symbolized by the black tape covering images of vintage softcore porn – carries over into everyday life and family folklore. The dystopia of the dirty and rusty army post is run by sympathetic characters but is rotten to the core. I called this a dark comedy, but it’s also a very moving drama, cushioned by the absurdist and surreal tone that overlays everything. This is a visually splendid film that relies more on images than dialogue. Foxtrot is a great, but scathingly critical, movie.

I recommend it.

Death of Stalin and Foxtrot 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.

 

 

Big Changes, Big Trouble. Films reviewed: Every Day, The Party, Annihilation

Posted in Army, comedy, Fantasy, High School, Horror, Movies, Politics, Romance, Science Fiction, UK, Y.A. by CulturalMining.com on February 23, 2018

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

Everybody knows change is good, but big changes can lead to big trouble. This week I’m looking at three good movies about women facing big changes. There’s a British politician with a once-in-a-lifetime career change; a biologist investigating changes that are scientifically impossible; and a high school student whose boyfriend changes bodies once a day.

Every Day

Dir: Michael Sucsy

Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) is a highschool student in Maryland. Her mom’s a careerist, while her dad, since his breakdown, stays at home painting pictures. Her boyfriend Justin (Justice Smith) is a popular athlete… and a bit of a jerk. So she is surprised when he agrees to play hooky and spend the day just with her. It’s the perfect date: They explore downtown Baltimore, he pays attention to her, stops smoking, they share intimate personal stories, find their special song, and for the first time, they actually have fun together. Is this true love? But the next day he’s acting like a douche again, with only vague memories of the day before. It’s like he’s a different person. What’s going on?

What’s going on is he was a different person that day, someone named “A”. “A” is a bodyless being who inhabits a different person each day and — like Cinderella — departs that body at exactly midnight. “A” has no choice of who they’ll wake up as, except that it will be someone their age who lives nearby. “A” could be a boy that day, or a girl, could be black, white or asian, could be straight, gay or trans. Could be ugly or attractive. Rhiannon and “A” have to find each other each day to carry on their relationship. Hint: “A” knowing Rhiannon’s phone number helps a lot. Can their love overcome “A”’s ever-shifting identity?

Every Day is a cool, young adult fantasy/romance that works. It’s set in Maryland, but was shot in Toronto, and it has a Degrassi feel to it, where the multiracial, multigender nature of the cast is omnipresent but not central to the plot. Instead it deals with questions of identity, look-ism, and mental illness.

I liked this movie.

The Party

Wri/Dir: Sally Potter

Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a politician in the UK celebrating her promotion, the pinnacle of her career. Starting tomorrow, she’ll be the Shadow Minister of Health for the opposition Labour Party. So she’s throwing a party for her nearest and dearest. They arrive two- by two . There’s Martha (Cherry Jones) – a lesbian feminist university prof with her earnest partner Jinny.   Cynical April comes with her flaky boyfriend Gottfried (Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz), a self-professed healer. And Tom — a nervous and brittle financier (Cillian Murphy) — comes without his wife Marianne, Janet’s closest friend and workmate. Janet’s husband the grey-bearded Bill (Timothy Spall) sits alone in the parlour spinning vinyl as she bakes her vol-au-vents, to show that a woman can feel at home both in Westminster and in her kitchen. Problem is, her hors d’oeuvres are burning even as her party is collapsing like a house of cards, as each guest reveals a big secret. There’s cocaine, champagne, a fire, broken glass, face slaps… even a handgun.

The Party is a drawing room comedy that pokes fun at the social conceits of a generation of middle-class, leftist baby boomers. It’s the work of Sally Potter, director of Orlando and Ginger and Rosa. Shot in black and white with a wicked musical soundtrack that shifts the mood from scene to scene, it clocks in at just over 70 minutes, as a short-but-sweet English comedy.

Annihilation

Dir: Alex Garland

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology prof at Johns Hopkins who specializes in mutating cancer cells. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) – a soldier she met when she was in the army – is missing and presumed dead. But when he shows up at her bedroom door, seemingly with no memory of what happened and how he got there, she decides to investigate. She’s valuable to the military, a woman as comfortable with a petri dish as she is with a submachine gun. She joins a crack team of scientists, all women, headed by the laconic psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Their goal is to explore unknown territory within a swampy National Park.

It’s encased in something called “the Shimmer”, a phenomenon eminating from a lighthouse on the coastline.  No one who goes into the Shimmer comes out alive (except for her husband Kane) and it’s getting bigger and bigger each day. From the outside it looks like a giant rainbow-coloured, plastic shower curtain that’s melting upwards. On the inside it’s even stranger, a world where distinctions like “animal/vegetable/mineral” cease to exist. It’s both beautiful and grotesque, filled with Chihuly crystals, human topiary and brightly-coloured tree fungi. Unrelated species are combining and mutating at a rapid rate, into a cancerous growth — just like the cells Lena studies, only prettier. And they’re affecting the five women too, both their minds and their bodies. Video messages they find (left by previous soldiers) only make things worse. Can Lena survive the hideous creatures and her deranged and suspicious teammates before she faces the scariest entity of all?

Annihilation is a terrifying exercise in horror sci-fi psychedelia. It references everything from Arrival, to The Wizard of Oz to Apocalypse Now, as the team paddles their way though a Heart of Darkness in their search for emerald city. Natalie Portman is great as the elegant soldier-scientist, and director Alex Garland brings us a different take on post-apocalyptic images. Annihilation is the kind of psychedelic fantasy that keeps you guessing.

This movie is scary-pretty… and pretty scary.

The Party comes to Toronto next week (check your local listings);  Every Day and Annihilation open today. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Hidden Histories. Films reviewed: The Gay the Negro and the Holy Mountain, The Journey, 13 Minutes

Posted in documentary, Drama, Germany, Nazi, Northern Ireland, Politics, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 7, 2017

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

Not all history is neatly recorded on paper; some of it lies hidden, far from public view. This week I’m looking at three films — two historical dramas and a personal-history documentary — that uncover hidden histories. There are two leaders in Northern Ireland who can’t come to terms; a young worker in 1930s Germany who can’t stand Hitler, and a plumber in a European village who can’t come out.

The Gay, the Negro and the Holy Mountain (Der Schwule, der Neger und der heilige Berg)

Dir: Dave D. Leins

Dave is a young man in Holy Mountain (Heilingenberg), a tiny village, who wants to make a documentary. His father, who is black, is a sailor but Dave grew up with his white mother. He faced bullying and racism growing up because of his skin colour. Dave wonders, is there anyone else in this town who feels “different”?

Markus is a town leader who runs a successful business that’s been in his family for generations. He’s divorced with two adult daughters. He’s a plumber, a fitter of gas pipes and is head of the annual town carnival. Like the rest of the villagers, he dresses up in funny costumes and performs in pantomimes on the town stage. But what some people in the town don’t know he’s also gay, and can only feel truly comfortable when he’s far from home.

This beautifully photographed documentary is a first-time filmmaker’s look at his own heimat. It is a neatly constructed film that uses visual images to frame the story (for example, curtains on a carnival stage open the film, a scene replayed in a resort hotel room).

Leins documents Markus’ daily life as he works, plays and interacts with friends, family and the filmmaker himself. And it exposes some of the stranger things that happen even in small towns. But despite the provocative title (der shwule and der neger are both pejorative terms in German) this is actually a low-key, quiet and personal film.

The Journey

Dir: Nick Hamm

The Troubles was the conflict in Norhern Ireland that began in the 1960s between the Catholic Republicans who wanted to join Ireland and the Protestant Unionists who wanted to stay in the UK. It was fueled by shootings, massacres and bombings by paramilitary groups on both sides. Thousands of people, mainly civilians, were killed in the violent years that followed in this simmering civil war. But now it’s a new millennium, and both sides agree it’s time to make peace.

The two political leaders, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness (Timothy Spall and Com Meaney) agree to meet for talks in neutral territory: Glasgow, Scotland. The problem is they refuse to talk and walk away. Protocol says the two must travel in the same plane to prevent any assassination attempt. So in a last-ditched effort, Tony Blair puts them together, with just the young driver for the long journey to the Edinborough airport.

Paisley is the fire-and-brimstone Calvinist preacher, a christian fundamentalist, given to Papist conspiracy theories. He is also the inspiration for rightwing vigilantes. McGuinness is the head of Sinn Féin, the public face of the provisional IRA, known for its bombs and guns. Can such sworn enemies every talk like human beings?

This is a fascinating movie based on a meeting that actually took place. The script, though, is an invention asto what might have happened. Parts of it are hard to swallow, like Paisley saying he was a supporter of Martin Luther King, when in fact he was an ally of white segregationists in the 1960s. And the scenes with Tony Blair, the head of MI5, Gerry Adams, and Paisley’s son all watching the talks through hidden cameras and secretly cheering them on are just ludicrous. Come on. But that’s secondary to the great acting. I think of Timothy Spall as a short roly-poly, but he completely transforms his body, face and voice into the tall, angry Paisley.

The Journey is a tense and exciting chronical of an imagined historical event.

13 Minutes

Dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel

It’s the late 1930s in Nazi Germany. A time bomb explodes in Munich Bierkeller where Hitler and other top Nazis had just given a speech but escaped unharmed. They leave unharmed, 13 minutes ahead of schedule.

Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) is arrested for the bombing and immediately given to the Gestapo and Kripo for interrogation. Who do you work for? Who built that bomb? Who gave you the orders? They tie him to a metal cot and inflict gruesome tortures on him, refusing to believe that a simple worker could have done all this on his own.

But as he lies there, passed out, his memories flood back. Elser is a craftsman from Königsbron, a small town in Swabia, who is good with his hands. He fixes clock works, builds furniture and plays the zither. Locally he’s known just as a loud mouthed musician. He’s also in love with Elsa (Katharina Schüttler) a woman married to an abusive husband. He rents a room in her basement.

But times are hard, even in a small town, especially if you refuse to join the party. As the year’s pass, things get worse, but no one will do anything. His best friend, a communist, is arrested, a local woman is pilloried for dating a jew, and all the town customs have been co-opted by the government and turned into Nazi propaganda. He also does nothing… until he realizes he must build a bomb.

The Gestapo refuse to believe him. But Elser is the one man who dares to say “Hitler ist schlecht für Deutschland” – Hitler is bad – not just for the rest of Europe – but even for Germany. There will be war, people will die, the bombs are going to fall, the country will be destroyed! he predicted.

13 minutes is a great historical drama about one ordinary man who attempts an extraordinary feat – he decides to fight back. Half of the film is the violent and brutal torture and interrogations, the other half is flashbacks to his personal life. I liked this movie a lot.

The Gay, the Negro and the Holy Mountain is playing at ReelHeART International Film Fest. Go to reelheart.com for info. The Journey and 13 Minutes 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

 

 

 

Heads up! Films reviewed: Keepers of the Game, Mansfield 66/67, City of Tiny Lights

Posted in Canada, documentary, First Nations, Hollywood, Indigenous, Mystery, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on June 2, 2017

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

Toronto’s film festivals continue with Inside Out and Canada’s Sport Film Fest. This week, I’m looking at two documentaries and a noir drama. There’s a Mohawk lacrosse team keeping traditions relevant, a Hollywood star keeping her mystique afloat, and a private eye in London just trying to stay alive.

Keepers of the Game

Dir: Judd Ehrlich

The Akwesasne Mohawk territory straddles the US/Canadian border that runs between New York and Ontario. 20 years ago there was widespread discord among the longhouses. So to calm the waters, they started a boy’s lacrosse team to compete in the local high school division, off reserve. The idea was to bring back self-respect using a traditional custom. Lacrosse is a precolumbian warlike sport used by the Mohawk and other Iroquois long before Europeans came to North America. Hundreds, or even thousands of men would play the game together on open fields. It shows valour, strength and offers thanks to the creator.

Flash forward to the present. High school girls are facing the same problems – bullying, depression, suicide – as the boys did, but without the traditional sport outlet. They need a medicine to cure their ills. So they decide to start a girls team, using lacrosse as a traditional Mohawk medicine. But they face opposition from all sides. Awkesasne men say they are defying tradition by letting girls play a boys sport and want it stopped. The school board is facing cutbacks, so the are against funding a new team… especially one for girls. And the players themselves are afraid they lack the confidence and experience to win. Even so, they manage to raise the money and recruit the players to have a regionally competitive team. But can they beat their rivals  — a mainly white team who use a feathered native cartoon as their team mascot?

This documentary is a record of one season of a real-life team and the obstacles they face, on and off the field. It shows the role traditional customs can play in a modern sport. Players design their own war paint as they compete for the first time, even as mothers and grandmothers pass on language and rituals. It’s about young aboriginal women who gain self respect as they reclaim a sport their own ancestors created. It’s an inspiring story.

Mansfield 66/67

Dir: P. David Ebersole, Todd Hughes

Jayne Mansfield was a bleach blonde bombshell in the 1950s, who lived on publicity. She was known for her whispery voice, her highpitched squeals, and personality – that of a naïve, dumb blonde seemingly unaware of her sexiness, even as she posed for playboy and appeared naked on the big screen. In fact, her persona was self-created and nurtured by the Hollywood studios, and fed by the tabloids paparazzi and gossip rags who lived in her stories. She married Mickey Hargitay, a body-builder, to complement her own figure. And she lived in a pink mansion, legendary in Hollywood for its 45 rooms. But did you know she was a multilingual musician, and a student at a top university? Sadly, her movie career faltered in the 1960s, and  she began to follow another celebrity, a man named Anton LaVay. LaVay was known for his shaved head, his black goatee and his sinister but commanding looks. He founded a new religion — The Church of Satan. And not long after, her life was suddenly cut short in a terrible accident that totalled her car and chopped off the top of her head. Those are the bare facts. But what really happened to Jayne Mansfield?

You could call Mansfield 66/67 a documentary, but that might give you the wrong idea. It’s actually a highly stylized tribute to — and desconstruction of – a Hollywood legend. There are the usual talking heads  — from gender studies professors, to stars like Tippi Hedron and starlets like Mamie van Doren. But there are also underground icons, eighties pop stars, models, drag queens, and the chronicler of Hollywood himself, Kenneth Anger.

This is not your usual bio doc. What other documentary creates a cutesy cartoon of Mansfields son being mauled by a lion? Or intricately choreographed dancers of both sexes wearing matching blonde wigs as they worshipped  the devil in Busby Berkeley-like formations? This is a strange combination of film lore, academic analysis, hollywood gossip, and extremely campy performance art.

City of Tiny Lights

Dir: Pete Travis

Tommy (Riz Ahmed) is a private detective who lives and works in an ungentrified part of London. It’s a neighbourhood in flux, full of nervous shopkeepers and streetcorner drug dealers, radical imams, and sketchy real estate speculators. His dad (Roshan Seth) is a die-hard Briton whose life is guided by Charles Dickens and Cricket. As a South Asian Ugandan he was forced to flee under dictator Idi Amin. One day a sultry sex worker named Melody (Cush Jumbo) hires him to look for her friend Natasha. She hasn’t seen her since her last trick 8 hours earlier and doesn’t answer her cel. But when he searches her hotel room he finds a dead body, not Natasha. It’s a real estate broker involved in a major development. He also discovers the dead man gave money to an Islamic youth group known for driving drug dealers off their streets, led by a radical Muslim preacher. Lurking in the shadows is a sketchy security spook working for the US government. And it is all somehow related to his boyhood, a friend named Lovely, and woman named Shell. Who is behind the murders and disappearances? Organized crime, terrorists, corrupt developers or American spies?

City of Tiny Lights is a well-acted, low budget look at a private detective in contemporary London. Some of the camera work is annoying and gimmicky – like cheap 90s TV — that distracts from the story. I was also confused by frequent flashbacks — the young actors look nothing like their adult counterparts. But I liked the complex, multi-levelled mystery and the acting is terrific.

Mansfield 66/67 is one of many films at Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival which continues through Sunday; Keepers of the Game is the opening night feature at the ninth annual Canada’s Sport Film Festival, beginning next Friday. Tickets and showtimes are at sportfilmfestival.ca. City of Tiny Lights opens today in Toronto, as does Ken Finkleman’s satiric comedy An American Dream: The Education of William Bowman (I talked about this film in March). 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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