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

Black History. Films reviewed: A United Kingdom, I Am Not Your Negro

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Africa, African-Americans, Apartheid, documentary, Drama, France, Gay, Racism, Romance, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on February 24, 2017

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

It’s Black History Month, so I’m looking at some historical movies that fit the profile. There’s a British drama about forbidden love and a united kingdom, and a French documentary about a writer’s look at African Americans in the divided United States.

A UNITED KINGDOMA United Kingdom

Dir: Amma Asante

It’s London in the 1950s. Ruth (Rosamund Pike) is an attractive, professional woman who lives with her parents. One night she meets a handsome student from Oxford at a dance. After a few dates he reveals he’s a prince, destined to become the king of a far off country called Bechuanaland. They fall in love, decide to marry, and move there… it’s like a fairy tale. But they face one problem. Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) is black, and Ruth is white. This doesn’t A UNITED KINGDOMmatter much to them, but it does to the people around them.

Ruth’s parents are dead set against it, and as a mixed race couple they face abuse and even violence from strangers on the streets of London. In Bechuanaland, a British protectorate in Southern Africa, Seretse also faces trouble. He’s going against tradition by not choosing a wife from his own tribe. His uncle, the current Regent, objects strongly. And then there’s Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), a highly-placed diplomat in the foreign service. He’s condescending, snotty, racist and sexist – he A UNITED KINGDOMassumes Ruth works in a typing pool (because she’s a woman) when she’s actually an underwriter at Lloyds of London. And he has ulterior motives.

Bechuanaland (now Botswana) is a British protectorate completely surrounded by Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South Africa and South-West Africa (Namibia). Since 1948, South Africa has been under apartheid rules which make it illegal for whites and blacks to marry. For the king of Bechuanaland to openly flout these racist laws might undermine South A UNITED KINGDOMAfrica’s legitimacy. South Africa is a commonwealth member and the region is a huge source of mineral wealth for multinationals. Under current laws, Seretse and Ruth are not legally permitted to share a drink in a restaurant… in the land he’s supposed to rule!

Politics is strange. Seretse is forced into exile, while Ruth – and their new baby – remain in Africa. Can Ruth and Seretse win the trust of their countrymen? Can they win the sympathy of the British public? Can they bring justice and prosperity to a remote arid country? And can love hold a separated family together?

A United Kingdom is a historical drama, with equal helpings of romance and British parliamentary politics. It’s based on a true story I knew nothing about. Although it ends abruptly, it has a surprisingly fascinating story. I liked this movie.

3ea9d0fe-c6c6-4980-9ef1-727cc28d7b96I Am Not Your Negro

Dir: Raoul Peck (Written by James Baldwin)

James Baldwin was an African American writer, the author of Notes of a Native Son, and novels like Giovanni’s Room. Born in Harlem he took part in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. But because of the racism and potential violence he faced in America he left for Paris where he spent most of his life. He joined the expat community there, including Nina Simone and Josephine Baker. He wanted to be known not as a black writer,  not as a gay writer, but 6bbac4d9-bdd8-4d22-aae4-fa76fe7ab6a0as a writer.

This film follows Baldwin’s writings on three important figures in the struggle for civil rights: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.,

They represented, respectively, the NAACP, Black Muslims, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. All three were spied on and harassed by the FBI and labeled “dangerous”, and all three were assassinated before the age of 40.

Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

Baldwin looks back at their stories and his encounters with them, but also sets himself apart. He’s not a Muslim, not a Christian, not a member of the NAACP or the Black Panther Party.

The title, I Am Not Your Negro, is Baldwin’s central point. The story of the Negro in America, he says, is the story of America, and it’s not a pretty story. It’s a history of violence and racism.There is no difference between the North and South, Baldwin says, just the way you castrate us. He covers slavery, lynching, segregation, and incarceration. And the film neatly connects the slaying of Medgar Evers by a white supremacist with current racist murders, like the deaths of Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin

4357c413-cb69-4edf-841e-9d3ce1e5660b Samuel L Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s prophetic words alternates with Baldwin’s own voice: on the Dick Cavett show and at the Cambridge Debates. Baldwin – and director Peck — tells his story with a barrage of Hollywood images. From the pink-scrubbed face of a dancing Doris Day, to John Wayne’s 7f8cc584-e699-49bc-ba66-791cb899b7f5confidence in killing native Americans. Baldwin recalls his childhood shock at a John Wayne Western when he realized he’s not the “cowboy”, he’s the “Indian”.

I Am Not Your Negro is about the fear and violence faced by African Americans. It’s a terrific documentary, a cinematic essay told through the masterful use of period still images. These are not the photos and clips you’re used to but jaw-dropping, newfound pictures. There’s lush nighttime footage and a fantastic juxtapositions of words and images. (The film reminds me of the work Adam Curtis.) It’s nominated for an Oscar for best documentary.

A United Kingdom and I Am Not Your Negro both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening this weekend: if you’re a cat person, there’s Kedi, about the street cats of Istanbul; or if you’re a zombie or a zombie-lover, there’s the wonderful horror movie The Girl with all the Gifts (read the review here).

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

Whence America? Films reviewed: Paterson, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Posted in African-Americans, College, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, Racism, Slavery, US by CulturalMining.com on February 10, 2017

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

The recent executive order known as the Muslim Ban has made the lives of hundreds of thousands of American citizens and residents uncertain. So uncertain that some refugee claimants are fleeing the Land of the Free, seeking sanctuary across the frozen border in Canada.

Whence America? Where is that country heading?

This week, I’m looking at two movies that give a more optimistic look at life in the United States. There’s a new documentary about Historically Black Colleges, and a quirky drama about the state of life in a post-industrial town.

spelman-college-1964Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Dir: Stanley Nelson

Did you know that under slavery, it was actually illegal for African Americans to learn to read and write? And that even slave owners – who could beat, sexually assault or even murder their slaves with impunity — were legally forbidden from educating them? It was in the best interest of the Government and slave owner to keep black Americans ignorant, docile, and illiterate.

To counter this, after emancipation and the civil war, African Americans realized education was the most important way to rise up from slavery. The first colleges were opened based on the writings of scholars like Frederick hbcu-students-from-c-1900-graduates-of-atlanta-baptist-college-and-spelman-seminary-from-the-institutions-that-were-later-known-as-morehouse-college-and-spelman-collegeDouglas. And like Douglas, the first students were born into slavery. Early education efforts were aimed at skilled trades or religion, but as the movement grew it shifted to academic subjects.

Two schools of thought emerged. Southerner Booker T. Washington believed in a business-oriented outlook, centred on entrepreneurship but was opposed to any protests or political action confronting the status quo. W.E.B. Du Bois took the opposite stance, and led the movement toward equal rights.

Many of the early colleges were run by whites, who imposed harsher disciplinary policies on black students students.

bp_standingfedbldg_seattle-e1401981658505Fisk University harshly segregated the students by sex and forbade social interaction. This led to a protest and an organized walkout until the school President resigned.

By the 1930s and 40s, the teachers and administration positions were increasingly filled by blacks, many of whom had been educated at these same colleges and universities. The US was still strictly segregated under so-called separate but equal laws. So all the best and the brightest students flocked to these schools, becoming the new black middle class. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers and judges all passed through these schools, including renowned Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Howard University Law School).

By the the 1950s and ’60s these schools also became a hotbed of black-led political movements. Civil rights tell_them_we_are_rising_the_story_of_black_colleges_and_universities_xlgactions — like sit-ins at segregated lunch counters — were spearheaded by students at black universities..

100 years after it was a crime for blacks to read or write, the Brown v Board of Education decision promised to end segregation in schools. But this had an unexpected negative impact on black colleges. With white universities now open to black students, there was a brain drain of top applicants to ivy league schools.

Today there are still over 100 black colleges and universities, some thriving, but others crumbling for lack of funds.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is the first documentary to tell the full history of this important but not-widely-known institution. It’s narrated by voiceovers and talking heads: historians and former students and professors from these schools. It’s beautifully illustrated with period photos and film clips touching all aspects of black college life, including educational,  political movements and social: fraternities, and sororities, sports and music.

It’s by director Stanley Nelson who also made the excellent The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

04e8c932-9d19-4a19-8e05-12ebd8db89f2Paterson

Dir: Jim Jarmusch

Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver who lives with his girlfriend, Laura, in a small house in Paterson, NJ. He lives a routine life. He carries a lunchpail to work each morning, and a notebook to write down any poems that might occur to him. He eats lunch in a tiny national park. After work he talks with Laura over dinner. And each night he walks his dog to a neighbourhood bar and stays PATERSON_D25_0077.ARWfor a drink or two, chewing the fat.

Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is an artist who remembers her dreams. She covers everything around her in rough swaths of black and white. Clothes, chairs, curtains, cupcakes… their home is her canvas. Except for his basement where he goes to tinker with things and think. The two of them have a symbiotic relationship. he is the observer, passively PATERSON_D19_0011.ARWtaking in what he sees and hears around him. She is the dynamic one, planning their future, and launching business projects that may or may not succeed.

The town of Paterson serves as the third character in the movie. It’s the first city in North America designed as an industrial centre powered by a series of 18th century canals and mills. It has become an artistic hub for New Yorkers who can’t afford the high rents of that city. Jarmusch includes these brick factories and waterfalls in all his outdoor shots. What he doesn’t show is the parts of town with a large and vibrant middle eastern community there. Instead they’re represented by Laura, played by a Persian American actor. (Paterson is also the place where Trump falsely claimed Muslims were dancing on their rooftops during 9-11.) Maybe it’s because I’ve visited Paterson the town, but I was really tickled by this movie.

Paterson is a richly minimalist film that leaves you feeling good about the state of the world.

Paterson opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is playing on February 15th at the opening night of the Toronto Black Film Festival. Go to torontoblackfilm.com for more information.

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 director Jamie Kastner about A Skyjacker’s Tale

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, African-Americans, Crime, Cuba, documentary, FBI, Interview, Politics, Torture, Trial, US by CulturalMining.com on January 20, 2017

jamie-kastner-a-skyjackers-taleHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s the 1980s. Ishmael Ali is on a commercial flight to the US. Virgin Islands. But not to lie on the beaches of St Croix. He’s being transferred to another maximum security prison. He’s serving time for the Fountain Valley Massacre – the infamous killing at a golf course owned by the theskyjackerstale_01Rockefellers… a crime, he says, he did not commit. And on this flight he manages to hijack the plane to Cuba. But there’s much, much more to this skyjacker’s tale.

A Skyjacker’s Tale is a new feature documentary that interviews the skyjacker himself in Cuba. It tells his story, and that of all the jamie-kastner-a-skyjackers-talepeople he affected: at the skyjacking, and at the trial. These interviews shed new light on a controversial case – with a dramatic finish — that left the public polarized. A Skyjackers Tale is directed by award-winning filmmaker Jamie Kastner, who brought us films like Kike Like Me, and The Secret Disco Revolution. (Here’s the interview from 2012).

A Skyjacker’s Tale opens today at the Hot Docs Cinema in Toronto.

I spoke to Jamie in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM..

 

End times? Films reviewed: Arrival, The First, the Last

Posted in Aliens, Crime, Cultural Mining, Disabilities, Drama, Movies, Science, Science Fiction, US, War, Western by CulturalMining.com on November 11, 2016

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

With the reality of the recent US election sinking in, people are using words like Brexit 2, Armageddon, Apocalypse and even Thermonuclear War. So this week I have a couple end-of-days movies to capture the prevailing mood. There’s a Belgian western about lost souls who think the world is about to end, and a US science fiction drama about scientists trying to stop the world from ending.

Arrival

14707836_664581693705770_5049392264758941723_oDir: Denis Villeneuve

Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor who speaks Chinese, Portuguese and Sanskrit. She occasionally translates top-secret documents for the US government. She has red hair, blue eyes and porcelain-like skin. She once had a daughter she adored but Hannah died of an incurable disease. Now Louse lives alone in a brick and glass lakeside home comforted only by her memories. Then something cataclysmic happens.

Twelve enormous, lozenge-shaped spaceships arrive on earth. They hover, silently and menacingly, over twelve random places, including Montana in the North America. there’s rioting in the streets, mayhem, mayhem, mayhem. Right away, she gets a knock on the door; it’s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) a high-ranked officer. He needs her help translating strange clicking sounds into English. Translate? says Louise. I can’t translate a language I don’t understand.I need to speak directly to the aliens. So they whisk her off to an army base in rural Montana along with an arrogant physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner). Together they’re expected to figure out why the aliens are there and whether the army should 13996056_631361680361105_8857193805571371798_oattack them. Easier said than done.

The aliens let them board the spaceship, kept separate by a glass wall. Louise is shocked by what appears in the mist. No little green men here;  these aliens are septipods – hideous sea creatures with seven legs — and hands that look like starfish. These mollusks have pulpy-grey bodies and can shoot out ink, like octopuses. Louise also discovers they are highly intelligent, with a sophisticated written language with multi-dimensional ring-shaped characters that look like Japanese brush painting. They float, suspended, underwater.

And their cryptic message? Something involving weapons! This pricks up the ears of a sinister CIA agent, her nemesis. With the world on the brink of thermonuclear war, it’s up to Louise to communicate with the aliens and decipher their message before armageddon.

ARRIVALArrival is a fascinating and thoughtful science fiction drama, told through the eyes of an academic. It’s part of the new trend of science-y fantasies that favour intellect over explosions. It’s similar to films like The Martian and Gravity, but I like this one the best. While Jeremy Renner is dull and Forest Whitaker unremarkable, Amy Adams is great as the pensive Louise. Arrival takes place in a barren military camp and it’s overloaded with khaki, camo and annoying Cold War jargon like domino effects and zero-sum games. But it’s also a feel-good movie with a truly surprising twist. It can satisfy your craving for excitement without resorting to superheroes.

12698182_1695852464032129_1864656549375743261_oThe First, the Last (Les Premiers, les Derniers)

Wri/Dir: Bouli Lanners

It’s present-day Wallonia, a place of barren fields, billiard halls and abandoned warehouses. Cochise and Gilou, two rough-and- tough middle aged guys, are hired by an anonymous client to retrieve a valuable lost telephone in exchange for lots of cash. Gilou (played by the director) is a white-bearded man in a midlife crisis, who thinks he’s dying, while Cochise (Albert Dupontel) is a moustached heavy in a leather jacket, always ready to fight but looking 13411815_1749664588650916_4661391988069200063_ofor love. Gilou sets up camp in a lonely motel run by an ancient innkeeper, who looks like an old-age version of himself. Cochise moves in with a woman he meets on the road.

The phone they seek is in the hands of a mysterious young couple named Esther and Willy (Aurore Broutin, David Murgia) who are making their way down a highway, dressed in high-viz orange 12418937_1698598447090864_4975528855641345564_ojumpsuits they found on their journey. They are society’s outcasts, mentally disabled and homeless, but at least they have each other. They need that comfort now, especially since Willy learned that the world is about to end (he saw it on TV). Esther declares they must find a proper gift for a final visit she has to make before it’s all over. And they meet a Jesus-like figure on the way, who tries to take them under his wing.

But neither pair realizes they have wandered into the badlands, an area filled with crooked sheriffs, black marketeers, and all- around villains who don’t take kindly to strangers. So while the phone hunters are tracking down the outcasts, they’re all being sought — violently so — by the bad guys. There is also a mysterious 12291825_1669565919994117_8655432979938888484_ogangster, an antlered stag, a mummy and a lost child to make things interesting. Can any of them find what they’re looking for?

The First, the Last is a satisfying — if baffling — western, set among the highways and desolate fields of French-speaking Belgium. It has the “European” feel of a movie like the Lobster, only not so straightforward. There’s also twangy music, nice cinematography, and all-around good acting, including a cameo by Max von Sydow as an undertaker.

Arrival arrives today in Toronto, check your local listings; is playing at the EU festival, now until the 24th. Tickets are free, but be sure to line up early to get a seat. Go to eutorontofilmfest.ca for showtimes. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Daniel Garber talks with documentary filmmaker Ilan Ziv about An Eye for an Eye

Posted in 2000s, documentary, Prison, Racism, Texas, US, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 11, 2016

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

Mark Stroman was a regular guy: Texas loud and Texas proud. He hated big government, taxes, foreigners, and political correctness. He liked love, liberty, security, family and patriotism. He was also a white supremacist, an admirer of Aryan nations and a proud flyer of the Confederate Battle Flag. Then 9-11 happened and something snapped.

Stroman went out in his car to systematically murder people he called “A-rabs” — mainly the mark stroman, an eye for an eyeSouth Asians he encountered at convenience stores and gas stations. He was later arrested, tried and sentenced to death, in exchange for the lives he took. But is justice as simple as an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?

An Eye for an Eye is a new documentary that looks at Stroman’s transformation in prison, and the unexpected support he received from his enemies, his victims and their families. It’s about vengeance and racism but also compassion and forgiveness. The doc is directed by award-winning filmmaker Ilan Ziv and it opens today in Toronto.

I spoke with Ilan in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Old Flames. Movies reviewed: Blue Jay, Complete Unknown

Posted in Cultural Mining, Depression, Drama, Movies, Psychology, Romance, US by CulturalMining.com on October 14, 2016

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

Did you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you had stayed with your first true love — that summer love or high school sweetheart? What would you two be doing now? And would it have lasted?

This week I’m looking two indie movies about old flames. There’s a chance meeting in small town California, and a planned encounter in New York City.

14520498_1170812952980711_4802563027156445665_nBlue Jay

Dir: Alexandre Lehmann

Jim is blue. He’s sad because his mother died; that’s why he’s back in his hometown in northern California after many years in LA. He’s back at his childhood home, going through old boxes, deciding what to keep and what to give away. And reconsidering the house itself – he works in home reno.

Amanda (Sarah Paulson) is also back in town, helping out her pregnant sister. She’s beautiful, glamorous and dressed for success with perfect hair and clothes. Jim (Mark Duplass) is a scruffy, bearded guy, dressed for work, not for company. When they bump into each other in a grocery aisle, awkward doesn’t begin to describe their emotions. A second meeting in the parking lot screams karma. They take it over to the Blue Jay Café, to catch up on old times.bluejay_03

Turns out, they once had a serious relationship in high school, full of love and commitment. But when something happened it ended abruptly with no further contact. Jim is now depressed, jobless and single. Amanda is in a much better situation, but, she admits, her life just isn’t fun anymore. So they buy some beer and head on back to his family home, perhaps to recover the past.

Once there, they eat, drink and smoke some weed and sing along to corny tunes. Rummaging through old boxes, they dig up some bluejay_01items of special significance: a cassette tape and a sealed envelope. The tape is a game they used to play, pretending to be an old married couple, with kids, house, car, and job. (“Old” meaning their ages now.) Wouldn’t it be fun to play that game again, twenty years later? Then there’s the letter written by Jim to Amanda but never sent. What does it say? And would things have ended differently if she had read the letter back then?

Blue Jay is an engaging, low-budget look at a lost relationship. Beatifully shot in black and white with just two actors, it explores the “what ifs” of high school love and its consequences. The whole movie is done very simply, with just a few plot ideas and lots of dialogue and emotions. But the results are marvelous. Paulson and Duplass are great as bittersweet Amanda and weepy Jim. It feels like an improvised movie, but one that keeps only the best parts.

tumblr_static_dr6vjgh8d28g088oo0g8c8wcgComplete Unknown

Dir: Joshua Marston

Tom (Michael Shannon) is a committed contrarian who works at a methodical job for an environmental NGO. He’s preparing for a presentation before a committee about cattle. He lives with his wife, Ramina, who designs jewelry.

It’s his birthday, and some of his closest friends are coming for dinner. It’s also when Ramina brings up a life-changing decision.

Alice (Rachel Weisz) is an American scientist who made her fame in Tasmania studying frog calls. She shows up at the party as an impromptu date of Clyde, Tom’s lumpy coworker. At first she’s COMPLETE UNKNOWNthe hit of the party, with her erudite knowledge and socially engaging manner. But soon she lets out that this isn’t her first job. She has also worked as an ER nurse in Africa, a concert pianist, and a magician’s assistant in China (“He sawed me in half!”). She admits she enjoys reinventing herself from scratch every few years with a new name, place and specialty. Is she a genius… or a con artist?

The guests turn on her – she’s clearly a sociopath and a compulsive liar. They shame her out of the bar when they go dancing. But Tom wants to hear 1471969439688more. He follows her onto the street.

You see, he knew her, intimately, when they were both students. And then one day she just disappeared. Until now, Tom thought she was dead or missing. And her showing up that day wasn’t a coincidence;  she wanted to see Tom again,  someone she knew before she started her adventure. She invites him to join her at playing her game, even if only for one night. But is he willing to join her thrilling life of reinvention? And can he embrace sudden change?

Complete Unknown has an interesting story about a strange and exciting woman (well-played by Rachel Weisz). Michael Shannon is intense as Tom, a grumpy and suspiciuous office geek. Aside from flashbacks and few set-up scenes, it all takes place over one night. But we never really make it past the concept of Alice’s various, changing identities.  I enjoyed the film but it didn’t move me. It felt more like a hokusai_c0611TV pilot for Orphan Black than a drama or a love story.

Complete Unknown opens today in Toronto: check your local listings. Blue Jay is now playing on video on demand. Also opening today is Miss Hokusai, an animated adult drama about the floating world of an Ukiyo-e artist in Edo, Japan.

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

More movies by women. Films reviewed: Moments of Clarity, A Magical Substance Flows Into Me

Posted in Canada, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Israel, Music, Palestine, Religion, Road Movie, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 23, 2016

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

TIFF is over but fall film festival season is just starting. Over the next year you’ll hear many of the interviews I recorded at TIFF, from Paul Verhoeven to Kore-eda Hirokazu and Alanis Obomsawin. There’s a multionational and multilingual selection of films. Still, by the end I realized that only one of the directors I interviewed was a woman. So to start to balance that out, this week I’m only looking at movies directed by women. There’s a home-schooled Christian in search of people to meet; and a Palestinian filmmaker in search of music to listen to.

mocstill6Moments of Clarity

Wri/Dir: Kristin Wallace

Claire (Kristin Wallace) is an eccentric woman in her twenties who lives with her obsessive-compulsive mom (Saxon Trainor). She has no fashion sense or social skills to speak of, but is always good natured and optimistic. She acts like a 12 year old girl. She was home-schooled by her mom and kept sheltered from the rest of the world. She only ventures out to distribute to her neighbours the muffins she bakes, and gets nervous when she enters unknown territory. On the mocstill5-2outside she’s a good Christian girl, but inside she’s a seething cauldron of unrealized sexual fantasies.

Danielle (Lyndsy Fonseca) is the local pastor’s daughter with just the opposite personality. She’s pretty and “normal”, cynical and jaded, but finds joy behind an old camera. Claire wants to be friends wth her. But when her camera is ruined she blames it on Claire. So Claire borrows her mothers wood-panelled station wagon and mocstill4they set out for a used camera store the next town over. But who will they meet on the way? On the run from their respective parents and the police, Claire is exposed to sex, drugs, and the outside world for the first time, and discovers a secret about her past. Can she and Danielle stay friends? And can they both reconcile with their out-of-touch parents?

This is low-budget, buddy/road movie. It’s also a coming of age drama but with a twist… The budding adolescent is actually a fully grown adult, whose life has been stunted by an over protective mother. It’s a fun and simple comedy. I found it hard to believe that a woman in her twenties living in a town surrounded by other people could be that naïve and isolated… but once you accept the premise, the rest falls into place. And Moments of Clarity is written, directed by and starring a Toronto filmmaker.

13923874_1050454381656875_4136600126401296685_oA Magical Substance Flows Into Me

Wri/Dir: Jumana Manna

Robert Lachmann was a German orientalist and ethnomusicologist who fled Nazi persecution to British Mandate Palestine in the 1930s. Once there, he set about collecting the so-called “Oriental” music of that area, while spurning any music with European or North American influences. He recorded traditional and liturgical music on metal disks, as performed by musicians from indigenous and migrant cultures, all carefully documented and recorded. And he broadcasted them on the Palestine Radio Service. This included Bedouins, Palestinian Arabs in the Galilee, Coptic Christians, 13975251_1050454704990176_2875683675079136567_oKurds, Jewish Yemenites, and others.

Eighty years later, using Lachmann’s original notes and recordings, Palestinian filmmaker Jumana Manna sets out to find modern performers of the same songs. She play the original recordings, talks with members of those communities, and invites them to replay the same songs today.

The film is shot in carefully composed tableaux, with an unmoving camera, often in the musician’s kitchen or garden. She talks about their life and background, and then records an actual performance. This is punctuated with the director reading aloud Lachmann’s handwritten notes.

13914070_1050455511656762_431118580071783850_oThis is a fascinating movie. There’s an elderly member of the Samaratins — an ancient religion with fewer than a thousand followers split between Israel and Palestine — today shows off his 600 year old prayer scrolls. Then he listens to his father-in-law’s recording and sings along. You can’t find a voice like that anymore, he laments. A Kurdish man discusses pickles and olives. A Coptic Christian who leads tourists around holy sites says business is bad. People are afraid to come out here anymore. They hear about Isis beheadings in Iraq and think it’s all the same. And a Moroccan-Israeli woman celebrates her grandmother’s Arab roots.

This is a quiet film but subtly political. Musical performances are juxtaposed with silent shots of 1470789934802Israeli government maps of the occupied territories; shots of graffiti on both sides of the wall separating Israel from Palestine; and the director’s own father, a scholar of Palestinian history. Lachmann’s notes range from priceless records to weirdly dated, orientalist views of “primitive cultures.” Fascinating documentary.

Moments of Clarity opens today at the Carlton in Toronto. A Magical Substance Flows Into Me is queen-of-katweplaying as part of the Toronto Palestine Film Festival this weekend. Go to tpff.ca for details. And there’s Queen of Katwe, (which I talked about last week) the heart-warming story of an impoverished and illiterate teenaged girl in Uganda who wants to become a chess champion. It’s directed by the great Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, and starts 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

Back to School. The Girl with all the Gifts, Queen of Katwe, My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea #TIFF16

Posted in Animation, Coming of Age, Games, High School, Horror, School, Science Fiction, Uganda, UK, US, Women, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on September 16, 2016

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

It’s mid-September as TIFF enters its final weekend with lots left to see. It’s also the start of an academic year. So this week I’m looking TIFF movies about going back to school. We’ve got an American school sinking into the sea, smart African kids who can’t afford the school fee, and British kids kept under lock and key.

thegirlwithallthegifts_02The Girl with all the Gifts

Dir: Colm McCarthy

It’s a military camp in a dystopian, future UK. Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is a bright and friendly girl who gets along well with others. She goes to school each morning and is the best kid in the class. But she – like the rest of the kids – is kept locked up in a dingy prison cell, fed raw worms, and derided thegirlwithallthegifts_04by heavily armed soldiers as a monster abortion. Only her teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Atherton), sticks up for Melanie. But Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) a sinister scientist, also has her eye on Melanie.

You see, all of England has been infected by a fungal virus that turns you into a flesh-eating zombie who never dies. But these kids are second generation — infected in utero — who think and act like humans but carry a craving for raw flesh. thegirlwithallthegifts_01Caldwell wants to carve up Melanie’s brain to find a cure. But when the camp is overrun by zombies, the three of them (along with a troupe of soldiers) are forced to escape in a military vehicle to find another base. Can Melanie – the girl with all the gifts – be trusted to stay moral and not eat the humans? Can trigger-happy soldiers and heartless scientists be trusted not to kill her? This is a great science fiction drama in the form of a zombie flic. Glenn Close goes a bit overboard in her evil rants, but Atherton and Manua are amazing as the good guys.

queen-of-katweQueen of Katwe

Dir: Mira Nair

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl who lives in Katwe, a desperately poor slum in Uganda. By day she sells corn to passing motorists. By night she sleeps in an unlit shack with her brother, her sister and her stern mother (Lupita Nyong’o) who always sticks up for her kids. Is there no way out of this desperate life.

Enter Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). He has an engineering degree but works at a community centre for underprivileged kids, teaching them chess. Phiona and her brother take to the game almost immediately, despite kids deriding their unwashed clothes. She’s illiterate but learns to play strategically, plotting out future moves in her head. Robert sees a chess prodigy and his wife helps her learn to read. But Phiona is still penniless, playing chess with bottle caps on a piece of cardboard. Her mother tries to Queen of Katwepull her away from that gambling den. But Coach Robert convinces her that only by becoming a chess master can Phiona make it out of Katwe. Mom finally understands, selling her only possessions to pay for paraffin candles so Phiona can study at night. But can a girl from the ghetto become a Chess Master?

Queen of Katwe is a wonderful traditional family story, about hard work and tenacity. It says never give up, believe in yourself. At the same it shows a realistic portrait of desperate lives, their constant search for money, and the terrible prejudice they face. The story is told in a simple way but it’s very moving. It’s shot in Africa by the great Indian director Mira Nair, an expert at showing class differences. The actors portray their roles well, from grumpy Nyong’o, to optimistic Oyelowo and especially the wonderful Nalwanga as Phiona.

myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_02My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea

Wri/Dir Dash Shaw

Dash is starting a new year with high hopes. A junior at Tides High, he’s a cynical news geek who writes for the school paper, the Tides Gazette, with best friend Assaf and Verti the editor. He wants to find the big story. He’s sure his school is about to collapse due to bad maintenance. But no one reads the paper’s turgid prose and his warnings are ignored. Assaf and Verti are dating now so he’s left all alone. When he is caught looking through school files for hard evidence, he ends up in detention. But that’s when disaster strikes — an earthquake starts fires and sends the shoddily built school sinking into the sea. It’s also on fire, with sharks in the water and rats on land. It’s up to Dash and his friends — along with a courageous lunch lady — to lead his schoolmates to safety. But they must face the school myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_01snitch, drug dealers, the devious principal, popular kids and the school quarterback who reigns from a golden throne in only his jockstrap. But who will survive and who will be torn to bloody pieces before their very eyes?

This is a fantastic animated feature, one of the best movies at TIFF. It’s the Poseidon Adventure set in a high school. The art and animation takes unexpected forms. No pixar 3-D or complex cell animation here. Instead it’s broad splashes of tempera paint behind the thick black lines that make up character faces. There are cutouts and fingerpaint, boy scout illustrations, pop art and trippy half-tone dots from newspaper sunday comics.

Great voices are provided by Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph and Susan Sarandon as Lunch Lady Lorraine. But the art of Dash Shaw — and his fellow cartoonists and artists — is what makes this so great.

The Girl with all the Gifts, Queen of Katwe, and My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea, are all playing now at TIFF. And you can line up at Roy Thompson Hall around 4 pm on Sunday to get a free ticket to the people’s choice award movie. Always worth watching, always free. Details are posted at tiff.net.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

fixer_01The Fixer (Fixeur)
Dir: Adrian Sitaru

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

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

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

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

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