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.

 

 

Heists and Outlaws. Films reviewed: Widows, The Whiskey Bandit, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs PLUS Instant Family

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, Crime, Family, Heist, Hungary, Movies, Western, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 15, 2018

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

Being robbed is everyone’s nightmare… so why do we love heist movies so much? Maybe it’s the excitement and audacity of their heroes and antiheroes. This week, I’m looking at three movies with sympathetic thieves. There’s a professional bank robber in Budapest, four female thieves in the Midwest, and outlaws and gunslingers in the old west.

Widows

Wri/Dir: Steve McQueen

Veronica (Viola Davis) lives in a Chicago penthouse with her loving husband Harry (Liam Neeson), a successful businessman. But when he is killed in a car crash, she discovers the source of his wealth: he’s a professional thief. He – and three other men – died on a job that ended with millions of dollars going up in flames when the getaway van exploded. And some not-so-nice people tell Veronica they want those millions back. What to do? She decides to learn from her husband and form her own gang of thieves for a single, grand heist of their own. But first she needs a team. So she turns to the widows of the men who worked with her husband – total strangers all. Veronica has to convince them all to join in with her plan.

There’s Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) a hardworking mom raising young kids while running her dress shop. With her husband gone she could lose everything. And tall, beautiful Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) has been working as a high-end escort since her abusive husband died. They agree to join Veronica. When the fourth widow pulls out of the scheme they recruit Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) a tough cookie from the projects who can run like lightning. But can four inexperienced women pull off a complex home robbery and outsmart organized criminals who hold all the cards?

Widows is a complex thriller, involving not just the four women but also corrupt Chicago politicians, gangsters, preachers, and power brokers. It portrays the city as rotten to the core. It co-stars Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall and Daniel Kaluuya, but the men in this movie are just distractions; women are the core, unusual for a crime thriller. This is artist-turned-director Steve McQueen‘s first mainstream genre movie. Widows is sophisticated, well-acted and skilfully made, but… it’s just a movie. It isn’t deep or emotionally jarring like his earlier movies Hunger, and Twelve Years a Slave.

It kept me interested but left me feeling hollow inside.

The Whiskey Bandit

Wri/Dir: Nimród Antal

It’s the 1980s in Transylvania, Romania. Atilla Ambruzs (Bence Szalay) is a poor young man, neglected and beaten by his father, sent to juvie for petty theft, and enlisted into the army, where he’s an excellent marksman. As an ethnic Hungarian in Ceaucescu’s Romania he has no future. So he escapes across the border by strapping his belt to the bottom of a train and holding on for dear life.

In Budapest, he’s welcomed with open arms and given a job, a home and status. No, just kidding. He’s penniless, homeless and without legal status. Worse, in Hungary he’s derided as Romanian! He finally finds work: as a combination goalie and janitor for a pro-hockey team. No pay, but at least he has a place to live.

One night, drinking beer with his buddies, he spots the woman of his dreams. He chases her to the subway, and offers her flowers. Is this love at first sight? But Kata (Piroska Móga) is educated from a rich family, while Atilla is a penniless alien. He needs the proper papers to get ahead, but they require a hefty bribe. So he turns to bank robbing… and he’s very good at it. He never fires a shot, never hurts anybody, just leapfrogs the tellers and grabs the cash from the banks safes. And he always avoids the cops– He climb walls, jump from buildings, even swim across the Danube to escape. He disguises his appearance with caps, aviator glasses and a fake moustache, leaving nothing behind but the smell of alcohol on his breath. As his exploits pile up, so does his infamy, dubbed the Whiskey Bandit in the news media and adored as a folk hero. And he lives lavishly – telling Kata and his teammates he made his fortune importing bear skins. But how long will his luck hold out?

The Whiskey Bandit is a great crime/action movie, from the director of the great sci-fi action movie “Predators”. Most of the film is narrated by the Bandit telling his story to a crooked detective (Zoltan Schneider). Szalay and Móga have great chemistry, and the story really grabs you. This is a great, rollicking action/adventure. And turns out, it’s based on a true story.

I really enjoyed this one.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Wri/Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen

It’s the mid 19th Century in the wild, wild west. Picture: wagon trains and prospectors, cowboys and bank robbers. Outlaws and bounty hunters. Their stories are told in a series of short episodes, each its own complete film. Genres change, film by film – musical, serious drama, near horror, or comedy, nicely balanced over a two hour show. They’re tied together by the turning pages of an old book of illustrated western tales, but they owe more to Hollywood westerns. The title story is about a singing cowboy all dressed in white… who turns out to be a serial killer. Like most Coen brothers movies this one doesn’t skimp on guns, violence and dark, dark humour.

I usually dislike anthology films, but in this film, it works. The dramas are tiny, perfect and very pessimistic. Standout performances include Zoe Kazan as an indecisive young woman on the Oregan trail (this is her second wagon train movie, after Kelly Reichardt’s great Meek’s Cutoff); Tom Waits as a prospector looking for Mister Pocket, his streak of gold; and Harry Melling (from the Harry Potter movies) as an armless, legless orator travelling from town to town. It’s very much a traditional Hollywood western with cowboys, stand-offs, and shootouts – and, regretably, indigenous characters still portrayed as “noble savages”, even in 2018. (But in fact all the other characters have stereotypical, largely negative personalities, too.)

Still, it feels like much more than the sum of its parts. superior acting, wonderful music and scenery… This is a great Coen brothers movie.

Also opening today is…

Instant Family

Dir: Sean Anders

Pete and Ellie (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) are a happily married, middle-aged couple. They design and renovate houses, and play golf in their spare time. But something is missing… kids! But if they start a family now, they’ll be old folks by the time the kid grows up. But what if they adopt? They join a foster care class run by two social workers (Tig Notaro and Octavio Spencer) who teach them the ins and outs. But when they decide to give it a go, they somehow end up with three foster kids, Lita, Juan and Lizzie. An instant family. Lita (Juliana Gamiz) is a wild child who only eats potato chips. Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) is a scared, accident-prone introvert. And Lizzie (Isabela Moner), age 15, is their surrogate mother, and won’t listen to anything her foster parents tell her. They were abandoned by their birth mother, an addict and petty criminal. Pete and Ellie decide they’ll be their new mom and dad. But will the kids accept them? And when their birth mother is released from prison will they lose these kids they’ve been trying so hard to raise?

Inspired by the director’s own story, Instant Family is equal parts comedy, tear jerker, and realistic look at adoption. It alternates between Ellie, Pete and the kids, the couple’s various relatives (the two grandmas are hilarious, the rest of the relatives just irritating); and the foster parent support group they attend regularly to compare notes. To be honest, this isn’t the sort of movie I would normally go to if I weren’t a film critic. but once there, I did laugh, tear up or cringed, depending on the scene. So if you like inspiring and occasionally funny movies about struggling through parenthood, this is a film for you.

Instant Family, and Widows open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and you can see The Whiskey Bandit tonight at 8:30 at the Royal Cinema as part of the EU Film Festival.

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

Post-Halloween movies. Films reviewed: Suspiria, Boy Erased, Burning

Posted in 1970s, Berlin, Christianity, Dance, Death, Drama, Horror, Italy, Korea, LGBT, Mysticism, Psychological Thriller, Religion, Suspicion, Witches, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 2, 2018

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

Yeah, I know Hallowe’en was two days ago, but there’s still lots to be scared about. (Don’t you watch the news?) So this week I’m looking at three new movies that involve horror, thrills or just bad things happening to good people. There’s a dance troup in Berlin that reeks of brimstone, a gay conversion clinic in Arkansas that exudes homophobia, and a young writer in Korea who thinks he smells death.

Suspiria

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

It’s 1977 in Berlin with the Cold War raging, the wall dividing the city in two, and RAF bombs exploding in Kreuzburg. Into this world walks Susie (Dakota Johnson) a naïve Mennonite girl from Ohio, with pale skin and a long red braid. She’s there to dance, if a prestigious, all-women’s dance school will have her.

Have her they will.

So she moves into their huge headquarters the next day. It’s a grand old building, right beside the Berlin Wall, with mirrored rooms, a dormitory and a theatre. It’s owned and run by a group of older women, headed by their choreographer and former prima donna Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton), known for her long black hair and floor-length dresses. They are preparing for a relaunch of their masterwork, a primitivist, flamenco-style piece called Volk. And since their lead dancer, Patricia (Chloe Grace Moretz), has mysterously disappeared, Susie is ready to take her place.

But behind the scenes, something wicked this way comes. Susie keeps having terrifying dreams. There’s a power struggle between Madame Blanc and “Mother Markus” — the school’s founder. And strangest of all, the house itself – with its secret passageways and intricate pentagrams etched into the floor – seems to transform the dancers’ violent moves into lethal weapons… with terrifying results. And Doktor Klemperer, an enigmatic psychiatrist with a secret past, is attempting to bring police – men! – into this inner sanctum of womanhood. Is this dance troupe actually a coven of witches? And will Susie be their next victim

Suspiria (based on Dario Argento’s classic horror pic) is a visually stunning film, an unusual combination of modern dance and the occult. There are so many scenes in this two-and-a-half hour movie of dance rehearsals — including an amazing performance near the end — that you almost forget it’s a horror movie. But the twisted limbs, breaking bones and endless flow of blood, blood, blood, brings you back. Luca Guadagnino (he directed Call me by your Name, A Bigger Splash, and I Am Love) is back with another aesthetically overwhelming film, recreating 1970s Berlin, and starring, once again, the fantastic Tilda Swinton in many, hidden roles. Though not that scary, this arthouse horror is always fascinating.

Boy Erased

Dir: Joel Edgerton

Jared (Lucas Hedges) is a 19 year old in Arkansas. He’s on the basketball team, has a steady girlfriend and works parttime in his dad (Russell Crowe)’s car dealership. He also goes to church: his dad’s a Baptist minister and his mom (Nicole Kidman) an active member. Everything’s hunky dory… until he gets outed as gay by an anonymous caller. Word spreads, church elders come knocking at the door, and Jared is sent off for a heavy dose of brainwashing.

Love In Action is a “gay conversion therapy” centre, with very little love. It’s headed by Victor (Joel Edgerton) a self-taught therapist full of vapid platitudes and pseudo-freudian pop psychology. He’s backed up by a violent ex-con (Flea) who hurls abuse at the patients in an attempt to scare them straight. The other patients/prisoners include the military-like Jon (Xavier Dolan, playing against type), the bullied Cameron (Britton Sear), and others who tell him to “fake it” – just repeat what they tell you until you’re out of there. But if he does, will they erase his very being? And can Jared ever get out of this godforsaken place?

Based on a true story, Boy Erased is a realistic look at one young man’s experiences in a gay conversion clinic. It’s well-acted and I found it moving (though predictable) in parts. But it’s also an incredibly uptight, desiccated, visually-starved, anti-sex movie that seems made for Sunday school church groups. No nudity — everyone’s buttoned to the top. In this movie, any “sex” is relegated to a rape scene. It’s one thing to have uptight characters, but does the film itself have to be so repressed?

This may be an important topic, but it’s a dreadful movie.

Burning

Dir: Lee Chang-dong

Present-day Korea. Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is an aspiring writer in his twenties who lives on his dad’s dairy farm near the Demilitarized Zone. On a trip to Seoul he runs into a woman he barely recognizes. Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-Seo) is a former highschool classmate who – post plastic surgery – works as a glamour girl spinning the prize wheel at a department store. And Haemi likes Jong-su. She lives in a small apartment that only gets sunlight for a few mites each day. Haemi is an flakey extrovert into mime. Jongsu is reserved, quiet and introspective. Soon enough, they’re lovers, but then Haemi says she’s going on a trip to the Kalahari desert to experience “The Great Hunger”.

And she comes back wth a new friend, named Ben (Steven Yeun) she met at the airport flying home. Ben is Korean, but rich, privileged and vaguely foreign. He’s one of those Gangnam-style guys, with a fancy apartment and a pricey car. He’s smooth, slick and ultra-blase – like Andy Warhol — but in a weirdly creepy way. And now he’s dating Haemi. They visit Jongsu at his farm, get drunk and smoke some pot. And Ben confesses his secret – he gets off on burning down greenhouses. And never gets caught. And soon after, Haemi disappears without a trace. Ben acts as if nothing is wrong but Jongsu is not so sure.. Is Ben a psychopath? Or is Jongsu losing touch with reality? And what about Haemi?

Burning, based on a story by Murakami Haruki, is a tense, creepy psychological thriller. The three main actors are all great in their roles: Steve Yeun — that nice guy in The Walking Dead — is perfect as the possible serial killer, and Yoo Ah-in is amazing as the shy boy seething wth inner tension.

Fantastic.

Suspiria, Boy Erased, and Burning all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Michael Del Monte and Janae Marie Kroczaleski about Transformer

Posted in Bodybuilders, Canada, documentary, Family, LGBT, Sports, Trans, Women by CulturalMining.com on October 19, 2018

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Janae Marie is a Michigan pharmacist, originally from Ypsilanti, divorced with three sons.

Matt was a high school football player, a former marine who rose to fame as a competitive bodybuilder and power lifter. What brings the two together?

Jenae used to be Matt.

She’s a transwoman facing the unusually difficult transition from titanic 250 pound man into her current status. This transformation is documented in a new feature film called Transformer.

The documentary is directed by Toronto native, award-winning filmmaker Michael Del Monte.

It follows Janae both at home with family and friends, and inside the hypermasculine world of competitive weightlifting. It shows her life both as Matt and as Janae while she makes the difficult decisions and myriad changes faced by all trans people, as well as those unique to her world. Transformer is an eye-opening, surprising, touching and always respectful movie.

I spoke to Janae Marie Kroczaleski and Michael Del Monte on location during Hot Docs.

Del Monte’s Transformer won the won Hot Docs Emerging Canadian Filmmaker Award and the Rogers Audience Choice Award for Best Canadian Doc. It starts its theatrical run today.

Women, famous and infamous. Films reviewed: Lizzie, Anthropocene, Colette

Posted in 1800s, Biopic, Crime, documentary, Elephants, Environmentalism, Feminism, France, Lesbian, LGBT, melodrama, Poverty, Psychological Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 28, 2018

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

This week I’m looking at three movies about famous — and infamous — women. There’s a psychological thriller about an axe murderer; a biopic about a French novelist, and a documentary… about Mother Earth.

Lizzie

Dir: Craig William Macneill

It’s 1892 in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) lives with her sister Emma, her stepmother Abby, and her rich and successful father (Jamey Sheridan). He’s a successful financier resented by the neighbouring farmers. Lizzie is a pale woman with curly red hair and an uptight manner. She whiles away her hours reading poetry and cooing with the pigeons she keeps in a wooden dovecote.

But trouble is brewing in this family. Father is outwardly kind but with evil intent. Cryptic notes show up at their home, promising blood and damnation. And then Lizzie has a tonic-clonic seizure at the opera house. Her father calls epilepsy “showing off”, but agrees to hire Bridget (Kristen Stewart) an irish maid as her caregiver. Meanwhile, feeling left out in a house of four women, he invites his brother John to stay with them. John is untrustworthy and might be embezzling money. And as the relationship between Lizzie and Bridget turns sexual, they try to rebuff the aggressive creepiness from the men inthe house. What will happen to this disfunctional family?

Well, it’s not a spoiler that the parents are going to die, as anyone who has heard of Lizzie Borden knows that her mother and father were brutally murdered. This is also made clear in the first scene of the film. But you don’t know who actually did it till a shocking scene near the end. Lizzie is a slow moving, slow-build psychological drama. Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart are both good in their roles, but a thriller it’s not. It’s just too slow.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch

Dir: Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky

Picture a mountain of garbage in Kenya as far as the eye can see. A marble quarry in Italy, carved out of a shear cliff. An open pit mine in Germany. A heavily polluted city in Siberia. Or the rising water gradually flooding the streets and piazzas of Venice. These are not what you normally think of as natural phenomena. Rather they’re part of a new phenomenon, a period some geologists are calling the Anthropocene Epoch, when nature is shaped by humans.

Anthropocene throws a lot of new terms at you, words like anthroturbation – the scarring of the earth’s surface—and concepts like the stages of extinction, as more and more animals exist only in captivity. Visually it’s a treat, but there are so many scientific concepts bombarding the viewer that the message sometimes gets buried in the content. And some of the visual metaphors are too obscure to understand. Why is a bonfire first portrayed as a scary inferno (suggesting forest fires caused by climate change), when it’s later revealed to be a “good thing” — saving elephants by burning their tusks? And what do a million churchgoers in Nigeria have to do with climate change or pit mining?

Still, this stunning documentary combines the photography of Burtynsky – known for his vast and brutal industrial landscapes — with the filmmaking of de Pencier and Baichwall. It’s like the worlds biggest coffeee table book projected onto a big screen. It’s gorgeous.

Anthropocene is definitely worth seeing, perhaps more as a work of art than as a documentary.

Colette

Dir: Wash Westmoreland

It’s the 1890s in Bordeaux, France. Gabrielle Colette (Keira Knightly) is a headstrong young woman with long black braids who lives with her parents in a country home. She’s smart, pretty and creative. She’s also a country girl without a dowry. Enter Willy (Dominic West) a much older Parisian man, visiting her parents. Sparks fly, and soon they rendezvous in the barn for a roll in the hay. Literally. Willy sweeps her off her feet and presents his new wife to the consignienti of Paris; they are unimpressed. He’s a celebrity there, known as much for his flamboyant persona as for his writing (He’s actually a talentless hack who employs a stable of ghost writers.) He encourages her to write too, and then publishes her semi-autobiographical stories about “Claudine” a country school girl.

It’s a smash hit, with Claudine lookalikes popping up all across Paris. And Gabrielle is famous now too… but for her looks, not her writing, since it was published under Willy’s name.

And they are still plagued with financial troubles. Where is all the money going? Mainly to pay for Willy’s mistresses, Willy’s prostitutes, Willy’s gambling debts. Willy can’t keep his willy out of trouble. But my dear, he tells Gabrielle, it’s just what men do.

Gabrielle is pissed that he’s wasting her money and playing with her emotions. So she embarks on her own adventures, a series of affairs: a sex triangle involving a rich woman from Louisiana, known for her auburn hair and come-hither glances. Later she falls for Missy (Denise Gough) an aristocrat who dresses only in men’s clothing and military garb. Is this true love? And will she ever find fame for her writing?

Colette is a fun, historical biopic about the writer who became known as Colette. It’s filled with campy scenes of fin-de-siècle Paris – from shirtless men carrying women on a palanquin, to secret lovers hiding behind velvet curtains. This film is more of a romp than a serious take. But it’s enjoyable nonetheless. And director Westmoreland takes pains to include queer politics in his look at early lesbian feminism, providing a multiracial cast and a proto-trans character (in the current, 21st century sense).

Lizzie, Anthropocene and Collette all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And opening Thursday is Bad Banks — a gripping German TV drama about high finance in Frankfurt — showing on the big screen at the TIFF Bell Light Box. Don’t miss it!

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

Still more TIFF. Films Reviewed: Fahrenheit 11/9, The Wife, The Man Who Feels No Pain

Posted in Action, documentary, Drama, Family, Found Footage, India, Movies, Politics, Protest, Sweden, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 21, 2018

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

TIFF is over now, but you’ll have lots of chances to catch up on films you missed as they release them over the next few months… or years. This week I’m looking at three movies that played at TIFF. They look at secrets in Stockholm, mayhem in Mumbai, and what went wrong in Washington DC.

Fahrenheit 11/9

Dir: Michael Moore

Torch-bearing Nazis, tax cuts for the richest Americans, and a president who brags about assaulting women, who makes friends with dictators and throws the country’s allies under the bus. How did this happen? Michael Moore is back again, attempting to explain what brought a celebrity-obsessed, egotistical racist to the White House. He talks to a few experts and travels to places like West Virginia, but most of the film is devoted to news clips, recordings and and photos. He tells the story as a series of concentric circles: the country, the state of Michigan, the city of Flint and Michael Moore himself.

He doesn’t spare anyone from criticism. That means Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and even Barak Obama all get a drubbing. News media – and not just Fox news — are rightly blamed for the endless free publicity they gave Trump. And it was Moore who predicted Trump’s victory… and is praised for it by the likes of Steve Bannon, Fox News, Jared Kushner and Trump himself.

The juiciest clips are about the president, including some that make your skin crawl. Like the lewd sexual comments he makes about his own daughter Ivanka, starting when she was just a little girl.

He also deals with the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the Flint water scandal, the Stoneman Douglas protesters, and a whole lot more. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a funny, entertaining and fast-moving doc that keeps you glued to the screen for over two hours. It’s not perfect – it seems to “end” a couple times before its actually over; and he should retire his trademark schtick of the little guy Michael Moore confronting famous people at their homes (especially when he’s more famous than they are).

But as a whole, if you want a smart, sharp and funny take on American politics, this is the movie to watch.

The Man Who Feels No Pain

Dir: Vasan Bala

Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani) is a brave little boy in Bombay. Raised by his father and grandpa (his mother was killed by a chain snatcher the day he was born) he fears nothing. Along with his best friend, a girl named Supri (Radhika Madan) they stand up to bullies, and stage impossible escapes, jumping off rooves when there’s no other way out. Surya thinks they’re heroes with superpowers. In fact, his only superpower is a dangerous medical conditional known as CIP (Congenital Insensitivity to Pain). Surya risks illness or death from not noticing the bruises, burns, broken bones and internal injuries that make most kids cry out in pain. And when their adventures lead to the near-death of Supri’s abusive father, Surya is rushed away to avoid jail time.

Over the next 12 years his worrisome dad and hippie grandpa keep him safe indoors, checking his body daily for injuries, and always keeping him hydrated (he wears a water sac on his back with a plastic tube he can drink from). His only pastime is watching old VHS tapes of Bruce Lee and action movies. He teaches himself martial arts by imitating what he sees on the screen. His goals? To find his childhood friend Surya, to catch the chain snatchers, and to meet his VHS hero, a one-legged, Indian master known as Karate Manni who once fought and beat a 100 men! He thinks two of his goals have been reached when he spots a grown-up Surya putting up Karate Man posters. But first he must win back Surya’s heart, gain Karate Man’s trust and defeat a Scarface-like super villain. Will his self-taught fighting moves – and imperviousness to pain – save him against an army of enemies?

The Man Who Feels No Pain is a delightful new mash-up, a novel combination of comedy, Hong Kong Shaolin, Bollywood musicals, and found-footage videotapes. Dasani and Madan make a wonderful pair of fighters – and love interests? – and the fast-moving plot, saturated with pop culture movie references, is fun to watch.

This movie won the TIFF 18 Grolsch Midnight Madness People’s Choice Award.

The Wife

Dir: Björn Runge

It’s 1992, somewhere over the Atlantic. Joe and Joan Castleman (Glenn Close, Jonathon Pryce) a happily married retired couple, are flying to Stockholm, first class. Joe is preparing his acceptance speech for the Nobel prize for literature. And Joan? Well, she’s his wife, his plus one. Also on the plane is their adult son David (Max Irons) an aspiring writer. Joan told him she liked the story but he needs his father’s approval. But their conversation is interrupted by Nathanial Bone (Christian Slater) an aggressively obsequious journalist who wants to pen Joe’s biography… and who is looking for some inside dirt.

Part of their story becomes clear in flashbacks to the 1950s where they met. At the time, Joe is still a young, married English prof at Smith, where Joan is a student. He woos her with a walnut. True love? He divorces his wife and marries Joan. She wants to be a writer, but her plans are quashed by a bitter, female novelist who says women like them will never succeed in a man’s world. So she devotes herself to her husband’s career instead, and overlooks his frequent peccadilloes. And now he’s in Sweden, about to win the Nobel Prize. So why is Joan so resentful? Is it Joe’s infidelity? Or is there a deeper secret? And what is the scandal the biographer threatens to reveal?

The Wife is a good, small drama about marriage, women and the secrets that they keep. It’s also about writers. And it’s full of royal references: the writer is named Castleman, Joan dubs herself a “king-maker” and the screen is filled with the regal opulance, music and grandeur surrounding the Nobel prize. I liked this movie.

Fahrenheit 11/9 and The Wife open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Man Who Feels No Pain played at TIFF’s Midnight Madness and is coming soon. And don’t forget about the Toronto Palestine Film Festival which is on now through the weekend. Go to TPFF.ca for details.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Jawad Rhalib about When Arabs Danced at #TIFF18

Posted in Belgium, Dance, documentary, Egypt, Iran, Islam, Religion, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 21, 2018

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

In the 1950s Egypt was known for its dancers.

From belly dancing to ballet dancing to ballroom dancing, dance was an acceptable, even revered part of Arab culture. But with the rise of fundamentalism, dancing has become frowned upon, or even banned in some countries. When will we see Arabs dancing again?

When Arabs Danced is a new documentary that looks at creativity and performance arts within the Arab community in the Middle East, North Africa and in Europe. It also celebrates dance and performance art that continues to thrive… when not being suppressed.

And it treads the fine line between community censorship and religion.  This documentary had its North American premier at Toronto International Film Festival and is directed by the Belgian writer, novelist, director and journalist Jawad Rhalib.

I spoke with Jawad Rhalib in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM during TIFF.

When Arabs Danced is coming soon…

Daniel Garber talks with filmmakers Çagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti about Sibel at #TIFF18

Posted in Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Disabilities, Drama, Folktale, France, Movies, Mystery, Turkey, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 14, 2018

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

It’s present-day Turkey. Sibel is a fiercely independent young woman who lives in an isolated mountain village near the Black Sea. Having lost her voice after a fever at age five, she communicates with her father using a traditional whistling code, still known to older villagers. She’s a keen hunter and trapper who seeks a lone wolf said to be lurking in the woods. But in her search she traps a different sort of wolf — a crazed and bearded man, on the run from the army. She nurses him back to health in her cabin in the woods. Can she maintain a secret life with her newfound prisoner/friend? Or will word reach the disapproving villagers below?

Sibel is a new film, a Turkish/French co-production that explores the classic folklore and customs of the Black Sea region. It’s also a rich and fascinating look at an independent woman living within the restrictive rules of traditional village life.

Sibel had its North American premier at Toronto International Film Festival and is playing again this Saturday. It’s jointly directed by Guillaume Giovanetti and Çagla Zencirci, French/Turkish partners, who previously made Noor and Ningen together, both of which played at TIFF.

I spoke with Çagla and Guillaume in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM, during TIFF18.

TIFF18! Films reviewed: Consequences, Woman at War, Tito and the Birds

Posted in Animation, Brazil, Environmentalism, Iceland, Kids, LGBT, Politics, Prison, Skinhead, Slovenia, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 11, 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

Tiff is here, now.

It began last night, and is filled with big-budget, glitzy premiers and movie stars  from all over the world. You can go down to King st — between Spadina and University — starting today, to take it all in. And even if you don’t have tickets, with more than two hundred movies opening there, I promise, you can still get in.

But the Hollywood stuff is getting way too much coverage, so this week I’m talking about three, lesser-known movies playing at TIFF that I really like. There’s an eco-activist in Iceland, a bird talker in Brazil and a Slovenian in the slammer.

Consequences

Wri/Dir Darko Stante

Andrej (Mate Zemlijk) is a teenager who has it made. He lives with his parents in a nice suburban home. He’s handsome, fit, with a beautiful girlfriend and a pet rat named FIFA. Fortified with bourbon he can pick up any girl in the room. But the sex he has is bad, his life is empty, and he takes out his frustrations on everyone around him.

This lands him in a reform school with strict rules. It’s run by adult men, but is actually governed by a gang of bullies, headed by Žele (Timon Sturbej) and his sidekick Niko. Žele is a tough skinhead who extorts money from the other boys by claiming they owe him. Niko is a deranged practical joker who eggs Žele on while brandishing a blowtorch. Andrej initially stands up for his pothead roommate Luka, but soon he is invited into the gang and becomes their main enforcer. He accompanies them on their weekend outings in Ljubljana.  

And as he is pulled away from the rules of his home and the reform centre he feels increasingly isolated, spending the night in a kindergarten playhouse he remembers from his childhood. Meanwhile the crime level continues to rise, as Žele grooms Andrej for shakedowns, car theft, drug trade and smuggling. But Andrej’s not in it for the money. He likes the bully – likes, as in sexually – and thinks he sees a mutual attraction. Will Zele be his rival, his friend… or his lover?

Consequences is a dark, coming of age drama set in present-day Slovenia. It probes alienated youth, crime, drugs, sexual fluidity, and relationships. This film uses unknown actors to great effect  and the interplay between Zemlijk and Sturbej is compelling. Darko Stante’s Consequences is part of TIFF’s Discovery series and it’s having to world premier tonight. Catch it if you can.

Woman at War

Dir: Benedikt Erlingsson

Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) is a single,  middle-aged Icelandic woman with a secret. It’s not that she’s a well-liked choir head. Or that she has an identical twin named Asa. Or even that she’s been approved to adopt a Ukrainian orphan girl. Her big secret is she’s the eco activist the government has been searching for. She’s the one who takes down hydro cables, shutting down the foreign-owned smelting plants endangering Iceland’s once pristine environment.

Using a simple bow and arrow, along with some metal wire, she manages to bring down a high tension wire. Her secret is known only to one person in the government – her friend and government mole Baldvin (Jörundur Ragnarsson) who is sickened by their environmental policies. The government repeatedly arrests a latino hiker in a Che Guevara T-shirt, while Halla escapes unknown.

Halla is one with nature. She knows every nook and cranny, every mound and cliff, and manages to avoid drones, helicopters and security experts. But when they close down all the roads just to catch her she seeks refuge with a sympathetic farmer, possibly a distant cousin. But with the government closing in, can she continue her one-woman fight for the environment? Or will it ruin her long awaited chance to adopt a child?

Woman at War is a brilliant satirical comedy drama about Iceland, its clans, government corruption, the environment, and its women. Geirharðsdóttir is marvellous as the twin sisters, totally believable as an underground superhero who can communicate with the environment by covering her face in lichen.

Another great movie at TIFF.

Tito and The Birds

Dir: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg

Tito is a schoolboy in a big Brazilian city like São Paulo. His dad is an inventor, specializing in steampunk contraptions filled with misshapen, pipes, dials and gewgaws sticking out at weird angles. He thinks his machine will let people talk with birds. But when it explodes, and Tito ends up in hospital, dad leaves his family for good. A few years later Tito takes up his dad’s role and enters his own invention into the school science fair. His main rival is a rich kid named Teo. But Tito’s machine,  like his dad’s, blows up, sending the audience running.

Meanwhile a strange disease has gone viral infecting more and more people in the city. It feeds on fear – fear of crime, fear of disease, fear of poor people – even though there is nothing to fear but fear itself. This fear is encouraged by a real estate developer, trying to move people out of the cities into gated communities under glass domes. Scary men in Hazmat suits have taken over spraying everyone with chemicals, but it doesn’t seem to work. So Tito and his best friends – the brave Sarah and the silent Buiu – join forces to defy fear and thus defeat this terrible disease. They are sure the city’s pigeons hold the secret. And they invite rich rival Teo – the son of the real estate mogul – to help them too. Can they save the city with birds and science? Or will fear overcome logic?

Tito and the Birds is an animated film from Brazil that looks at poverty and class difference as seen through the eyes of children. It’s a kids’ movie, for sure, but I loved it, especially the colours splashed across the big screen. Vibrant swathes of glowing green, hot pink, warm yellow, and black are everywhere, giving it an unforgettable look.

Consequences, Tito and the Birds, and Woman at War are all premiering at TIFF. Go to tiff.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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