Critical Mass. Films reviewed: Dolittle, What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael, Les Misérables

Posted in 1800s, 1960s, Animals, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, Family, Fantasy, France, Kids, Language, Morality, Movies, New York City, Police, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three movies. There’s a man who talks to monkeys; a kid who steals a lion, and a movie critic who monkeyed with the way we look at movies.

Dolittle

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

It’s early 19th Century England, in a village called Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Young Stubbins (Harry Collett) a boy out hunting with his dad  accidentally shoots a squirrel. But instead of “putting it out of its misery” as his father suggests, he tries to save it. Stubbins stumbles on a derelict hospital run by the reclusive Doctor Dolittle (Robert Downey Jr) the legendary animal doctor. The hospital is full of steampunk devices and wild animals — gorillas and polar bears, insects and parrots — wandering around just like people. And even more surprising, Doctor Dolittle can speak all their languages. Stubbins wants to convince the doctor to take him on as an apprentice so he can talk to the animals, too.

But trouble is brewing at Buckingham Palace. Someone has poisoned the Queen! And only the doctor knows the cure, a panacea found in a distant land.  Dolittle and the gang set sail to find it. Can they trick the evil King Rassouli (Antonio Banderas) into giving them the map? And will they defeat a tiger, a  dragon, and various palace villains, and manage to cure the Queen in time?

I grew up surrounded by Hugh Lofting’s books, TV cartoons, and movies, and though I wasn’t a devotee, I knew all about the stories and characters. And I don’t love Robert Downey Jr. So I was all set to be disappointed: where’s the chimp? And what happened to my favourite animal, the two-headed Pushmi-Pullyu?

But you know what? I liked it! It was cute, full of adventures, close escapes, exciting trips to exotic lands, and all the quirky animals (voiced by Octavia Spencer, Rami Malek, John Cena, and Emma Thompson). Keep in mind, this movie is for little kids, not grown ups, who may find the jokes too stupid, but the exciting scenes and the fast-moving action kept me satisfied. Not a terrific movie, but a very cute one.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

Wri/Dir: Rob Garver

Pauline Kael was a single mom who grew up on a California ranch during the time when movies were still silent and B&W. Her first published review was Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight — she hated it. She ran a movie theatre in Berkeley where she wrote the reviews and descriptions of the films playing there, encouraging locals to see them. She wrote for Macall’s but was fired for not loving big-budget cinema. And she quit her job at The New Repulic because they edited out her writing. She finally found a post at The New Yorker, where she became one of the most influential movie critics in the world.

She’s is known both for the movies she hated (she described The Sound of Music as asexual revisionist treacle, and trashed Kubrick’s 2001!) and those she loved (Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Scorcese’s Mean Streets, Spielberg’s Sugarland Express). Some directors’ careers were made by her patronage, while others lived in dread of her columns.  She rejected the ennui-ridden academic view of Auteur theory, without falling for manipulative Big-budget schlock. She liked trash, mind you, but it had to be good trash.

What She Said is an immaculately researched,spot-on look at Pauline Kael’s reviews,and her influence on audience and filmmakers. It delves into her fascinating life and and undeniable influence without resorting to endless kiss-assery. This movie is a labour of love,  combining vintage TV interviews with Dick Cavett and Brian Linehan, and talking heads — from Tarantino to David Lean — with readings from her work by Sarah Jessica Parker. Best of all, these voices are illustrated by a barrage of 2-3 second film clips from hundreds of movies over the past century that I haven’t seen in a documentary since Los Angeles Plays Itself (2002). (I grew up reading her reviews in The New Yorker — that and the cartoons were all  read — and while I disagreed with her half the time, I always wanted to see what she had to say.)

If you love movies, I strongly recommend this doc.

Les Misérables

Co-Wri/Dir: Ladj Ly

It’s Paris in the high-rise banlieue that circle the city. It’s 35 degrees outside and the crowds are high on the country’s win on the soccer pitch, singing la Marseillaise at train stations. But trouble is brewing…. it seems a lion cub is missing from a travelling Roma circus and the four brothers that run it are threatening a rumble with the locals.

Power here is shared by the secular — led by community leader called Le Maire (Steve Tientcheu); the religious — Salah (Almamy Kanouté), an Imam who runs a kebab shop; and the criminal — a gang of thieves who work directly with the cops. Attempting to keep the peace are the feckless police who mainly harass kids and sex workers. The regular team — an abrasive white guy Chris (Alexis Manenti) and his calmer black partner Gwada, who grew up in the hood (Djebril Zonga) — is joined by a newbie. the wide-eyed Stephane/Pento (Damien Bonnard) is a hick, straight from the farm. But the only ones who really know what’s going on are the local kids, who know every broken fence, every fire escape and back alley — they are watching everything. Especially Issa (Issa Perica) a feisty 10 year old, and his pal the nerdy Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly). Issa is the one who liberated the cute lion cub, and Buzz who records everything from the rooftops with his trusty drone.

But when the cops overstep their bounds and use weapons — which is caught on camera — things start to go really wrong. Chaos reigns.

Can the trouble be defused by the cops and community leaders? Or will the kids triumph? And could this lead to a repeat of the Paris riots of 2005?

Les Misérables (this is not Victor Hugo’s novel, but the location is the same) is an amazing dive into the lives of Parisians in the outer suburbs, their alienation, and the tension brewing there. The acting and story are superb, and I love the way multiple strands are woven together into a seamless whole. It’s nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, and, though violent at times, it holds a real love and understanding of the characters portrayed. This is a great movie.

Dolittle opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael is opening today at the Hot Docs Cinema, as is Les Misérables at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Make up and dance. Films Reviewed: Like a Boss, Cunningham

Posted in Art, comedy, Dance, documentary, Feminism, Friendship, LGBT, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 10, 2020

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

Sometimes I wonder if I should be talking about movies when the planet is on fire as we head toward environmental catastrophe, even as an erratic leader — like a James Bond villain — is carrying out drone assassinations willy-nilly and pushing us all to the brink of war and back again, depending on his mood.

Are we fiddling while Rome burns?

Luckilly, the United States is still full of innovative and creative people. So this week I’m looking at two new American movies, a comedy and a performance/doc. There are two women entrepreneurs who challenge contemporary makeup; and a man who challenged the makeup of contemporary dance.

Like a Boss

Dir: Miguel Arteta

Mia and Mel (Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne) are single girlfriends who live in Atlanta Georgia. They have been besties since junior high. They go to bars together to pick up younger guys (I don’t care if they can’t read, butthey better still have their teeth, says Mia). They live in the same house – Mia’s mom left it to the two of them in  her will. And they even work together. They founded a cosmetics company that they jointly run – Mia is the creative side while Mel handles the finances.

They specialize in innovative goods, like their best selling One Night Stand packs for a woman on the go. And tell all types of women to use makeup to embrace their own good looks rather than trying to change or hide them. And they work closely with their two employees: a flamboyant gay man in the workshop (Billy Porter) and a quirky woman handling the front (Jennifer Coolidge). Everything seems to be going well, but behind the scenes they are facing serious financial trouble. Luckilly, a stranger arrives with an offer they can’t refuse. His boss, he says, wants to buy their business.

The offer comes from Claire Luna (Salma Hayek) a ruthless business mogul. Claire has dramatic orange hair, platform shoes and impossibly white teeth. Her office looks like the Guggenheim but with small killer drones flying around everywhere. She is the head of a huge cosmetics empire and she covets their niche market. Mel and Mia are intimidated by her, but stand firm – they want to keep majority interest – 51% -in their own company. Claire Luna agrees… but with a catch. If either of them leaves the company, she takes over Like a Bossthe company. Can Mel and Mia stay best friends with a new boss in the picture? Or will they fight and lose their friendship, their home and their company?

Like a Boss is an extremely simple — I would even say simplistic — movie about female best friends. It spoonfeeds you all the expected plot turns as it moves to its totally predictable conclusion. I love Haddish and Byrne, and their sidekicks Porter and Coolidge are even funnier. Hayek is a cartoon villain — she’d be twirling her moustache if she had one. I like the female-centred story, and the sexually- and racially-diverse cast. It’s also short… under 90 minutes, so it’s never boring.

The problem is the script: it’s mediocre at best, forcing talented comic actors to make do with crappy material. A real shame. The funny parts are used up in the first half, as the movie dwells on the babyish plot through the second half.

Like a Boss is not awful, it just isn’t as good as it should be.

Cunningham (in 3D)

Dir: Alla Kovgan

Merce Cunningham is born in 1919 in Washington state and begins dancing at a young age. He joins Martha Graham’s dance company as a principal dancer in the 1940s, originating many roles before turning to choreography. He leaves Graham to set up a studio in a New York tenament, with a room at the back to live in. Working with composer John Cage (the two are lovers) he pioneers a new form of experimental dance. It combines how ballet uses feet with how modern dance handles the torso. Instead of playing music with dancers moving in synch with the notes and rhythms, Cunningham decides dancers should move independent of the sound, the two art forms coexisting. He rejects the autocratic culture of traditional dance — a dictator ordering around his puppet-like dancers, while they claw their way to the top as Prima Ballerina — to a more democractic and cooperative company. He likes to call himself a dancer not a choreographer, though that is what he does. The dancers move as individual units coexiting in the same space, but often without interacting in traditional ways.

He combines music and dance to create works of art. He works with visual artists, like Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol to design the costumes and sets, incorporating things like pointillism backdrops and mylar balloons with designed the complimentary costumes and backdrops so a dancer could almost disappear into the set, as in Robert Rauschenberg’s pointillist designs. The dance company drives across a country not quite ready to accept their advances in dance. A European tour leads to terrible reviews until he starts to build  appreciative audiences in the UK.

I have to admit, before seeing this film I was only vaguely aware of Merce Cunningham’s work, as opposed to his more famous collaborators – Rauschenberg, Cage, and Andy Warhol. But having watched it, I can say I get him now. It’s like a “best of” version, showcasing segments of some of his most famous works. And it’s done in 3D. You might ask, who needs 3D for dance? Well, the use of innovative filming and staging techniques gives you – in the theatre – a chance to see aspects and angles of his work previously unexplored. For example, one excerpt is shot on the roof of a skyscraper lit by searchlights projected from a nearby building… and it’s filmed using drone cameras cruising up the side of the roof and hovering overhead looking down as the dancers across the elevated stage. Just spectacular!

So if you’re one of those people who’s heard about opera, dance or Shakespearean plays, but are squeamish about actually watching a live performance (because you’re afraid you might fall asleep or squirm in your seat) this movie makes modern dance accessible. Sequences are short, varied, and beautifully done, while staying true to Cunningham’s aesthetic ideals. The movie also uses classic photos, scripts and footage of his early work to make it part documentary and part performance.

Cunningham is a beautiful movie, a tribute to an underapppreciated artist and a joy to watch.

Cunningham and Like a Boss both open today in Toronto.

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

Good dramas. 1917, Uncut Gems, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão

Posted in 1910s, 1950s, Brazil, comedy, Drama, Gambling, Judaism, melodrama, New York City, Sex, Sports, UK, War, Women, WWI by CulturalMining.com on December 25, 2019

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

A good drama is hard to find, and this week I’ve got three of them. There’s an action drama set in Europe in WWI, a melodrama set in Rio in the 1950s, and a dark comedy set in present-day Manhattan.

1917

Dir: Sam Mendes

It’s April, 1917 in the trenches. Two soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George Mackay) are summoned by an officer with an important mission. The Germans seem to be retreating and frontline soldiers are preparing to cross over no man’s land. But it’s a ruse. If the troops try to cross the fields they’ll be gunned down like lambs to the slaughter. And the telegraph lines are down. It’s up to Blake and Schofield to take a crciial letter to the isolated troops before they’re all wiped out. And to get there, they have to pass through enemy territory, inside German trenches, and across enemy lines. Why are two ordinary soldiers chosen for this impossible task? Blake has a brother in the squadron they’re warning. And Schofield? He happens to be nearby when Blake is summoned. Can the two men young men make it there intime? Or are they just another couple casualties in this war to end all wars?

1917 is a thrilling action movie set during WWI. It’s full of narrow escapes, shootouts, explosions and hand-to-hand combat, with Our heroes riding, running, flying and swimming, all to get to their goal. It uses lots of tricks you’d expect to see in horror movies: from sudden encounters with piles of rotting corpses, to shocking encounters with rats. It’s also a War is Hell movie but It’s a bit foggy on the us and them narrative of a war from a hundred years ago. Should WWI German soldiers still be portrayed as evil drunken cowards while British soldiers are brave, kindly, steadfast and resolute? Still, you do find yourself rooting for the heroes hoping beyond hope that they’ll survive.The acting, especially MacKay, is fantastic and it’s fun to spot all the famous actors with bit parts as military brass include Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Colin Firth. But the best part of this movie is in an unexpected area. Roger Deakins camerawork is incredible, with shadow and searchlight, glowing candles and burning flames throwing Chiarascuro images across the screen. It’s stunning to watch.

Uncut Gems

Dir: Josh and Benny Safdie

It’s the diamond district in present-day Manhattan. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a successful Bling jeweller peddling pricy kitsch to therich and famous in a small boutique encased in bullet-proof glass. He supports an unhappy suburban Jewish family, also setting aside money for his own peccadilloes: a mistress in a midtown apartment and tickets to NBA games. But he’s also a compulsive gambler throwing money at bookies. He’s in debt up to his neck, and the gangsters are circling. Two thugs in particular. Loan sharks, pawn shops, bookies, and legit business associates are all asking for their cut. But when Howard lands a lump of Ethiopian opals – the “uncut gems” of the title – he thinks all his problems are solved. By gazing into the glowing, coloured rocks he loses himself in a fantastical universe. He embarks on a complex plan: sell the gem to a superstitious star basketball player, pawn the priceless gaudy ring the player leaves as a deposit, and bet it all on a mammoth Las Vegas sports gamble. Will his plan pan out? Or will it all come a tumbling down?

Uncut Gems is the latest Safdie Brother’s look at sympathetic, small-time losers and petty criminals, and the destruction they leave in their path. There’s a bit of excitement, but it’s more like a dark absurdist comedy than anything else. They say Adam Sandler makes one credible acting movie for every ten horrible comedies. He proves his bona fides in this one, hands down. He’s great as the irrepressible and irritating Howard Ratner, complete with fake crooked and gummy teeth. But he’s a hard character to like…his problems are all of his own making, and his adulation for celebrity, sportsteams, cars and The Big Win is unattractive. I kinda sympathize with Howard but not really; I saw this four months ago at TIFF and remember feeling bothered and a bit angry by the end. But the humour, great acting, music, images, and elegant plot – from start to finish – helps redeem the unfomfortable feeling it leaves you with.

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão

Dir: Karim Aïnouz

It’s 1950 in a middle class family in Rio de Jeneiro. Guida and Euridice are inseparable sisters who do almost everything together. Guida (Julia Stockler) is 20 years old, small, buxom, adventurous and mature. She’s looking for love in all the wrong places, where she meets Iorgos, a handsome sailor from Greece. She leaves a note with her sister that she’s off on a ship to Europe to marry her love and will be back in Brazil soon. Euridice (Carol Duarte) is 18, the good daughter, tall with long, curly hair. She devotes all her energy to practicing the piano, with the hope that someday soon she’ll be accepted into the conservatory in Vienna.

But both of their plans are stymied by unwanted pregnancies. Guida comes home, pregnant and alone. Iorgos is a rat, with a wife and kids in Greece and a girl in every port. But when she walks through her door, her father throws her out, saying, “you’re dead to me, I never want to see you again”. She’s forced to move to a working class neighbourhood, get a job (she works as a welder at the docks) and raise her son.

Meanwhile, Euridice gets married to Antenor (Gregório Duvivier) the son of a business partner of her dad who owns a bakery. He’s a boor and an inconsiderate lover. She’s preparing for her Vienna audition in a few months but despite her church-sanctioned birth control methods, she ends up pregnant too, scotching any plans to study in Vienna. Guida assumes her sister is in Europe, and Euridice thinks Guida has disappeared without a trace (their parents block any communication with Guida, and both sisters have no idea the other is living in Rio.) Will the sisters ever see each other again? And will their ambitions be realized?

The Invisibie Life of Euridice Gusmao is subtitled, “a tropical melodrama” and that’s what it is: a passionate, lush story about the lives of two strong-willed women, torn apart against their will. Guida forging a new life as a single, working class mom, as Euridice navigates Brazil’s repressive middle class life in the ’50s. I loved this movie.

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao is now playing in Toronto, and Uncut Gems and 1917 both opened on Christmas Day; 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.

Good not good. Films reviewed: Bombshell, A Hidden Life, Cats

Posted in 2000s, Acting, Animals, Austria, Dance, Farming, Journalism, Movies, Musical, Nazi, Religion, Sexual Harassment, Theatre, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 20, 2019

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

Ever watch something that’s bad, but still has good parts? Or a beautifully rendered piece of art that doesn’t live up to its potential? This week, I’m looking at three new films, that I liked but didn’t like, or hated but still enjoyed. There’s one farmer in wartime Austria, three women at Fox News, and a hundred cats in London.

Bombshell

Dir: Jay Roach

It’s Fox News studios in New York City. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is a top TV journalist and news anchor, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is co-host of Fox & Friends, Donald Trump’s favourite show, and newcomer Kayla Pospisal (Margot Robbie) is a committed conservative evangelical, trying to advance her career. What do these three women have in common? Theyre all smart, conservative and attractive (Carlson is a former Miss Minnesota.) And they were all hired by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Ailes is the highly profitable Fox News CEO, the man who singlehandedly shifted cable journalism from neutral news-source to a font of blatantly partisan right-wing talking points, leaving CNN in its dust. He’s also paranoid and hideously ugly, called Jabba the Hut behind his back.

The Fox News he runs is a place where cameras are positioned to show off female newscasters’ legs. Male employees advance because of their work. Female employees are also judged on looks, and work in a blatantly sexist office culture. And Ailes is the centre of it all, using his position power to exploit, harass and sexually assault young women. Kelly shares her concerns with her husband and Pospisal with her lesbian lover and Fox News staffer (Kate McKinnon) who says she doesn’t want to hear about it. But Carlson refuses to take this lying down. She launches a lawsuit against Ailes and Fox News. But will other journalists, like Kelly and Pospisal (a composite character based on real people) join her struggle, or stay loyal to Ailes?

Bombshell is a fast-paced news drama based on recent real-life events. It’s told in a light, punchy and easy-to-digest format, which makes the few dramatic scenes showing sexual harassment all the more powerful. Theron, Kidman and Robbie are all terrific and believable in their roles. On the ther hand, the movie barely touches on the awfulness and deceit of Fox News itself. And while it skewers Ailes it leaves the notorious Rupert Murdoch strangely untouched. Bombshell tells a great story, as seen by three strong women, around sexual harassment, but doesn’t concern itself with other political matters.

A Hidden Life

Wri/Dir: Terrence Malick

It’s WWII in Austria. Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is a simple farmer deeply in love with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). They live with his mother, her sister and their three little girls inthefoothills of a dramatic mountain range. Together with their neighbours they till the fields, harvest the grain and carry it, on the back of a donkey, to the miller. They go to church on Sunday and dress up in masks and costumes to honour the harvest. Their life is idyllic until… Franz gets drafted for army duty a second time. Enough, he says. I’m not going. No more Heil Hitler’s, no more military uniforms, no more separation from my wife and kids. Enough! Neighbours and government officials try to convince him to sign a loyalty oath, but he refuses. He is sent to prison, leaving his wife and sister-in-law to plow the fields among neighbours who aren’t friendly anymore. Only their constant letters keep them sane and I love. Will Franz sign the oath, or will he stay steadfast to his beliefs, even at risk of death?

A Hidden Life is a lush and beautiful rendering of a simple act of resistance in wartime anschluss Austria. It’s directed by Terrance Mallick, and is instantly recognizable by its swirling images, breathy voiceovers, lush music and stunning camerawork. People clutch earth in their fingers, and reap fields with scythes. Good passionate acting, featuring cameo performances by Matthias Schoenaerts, Franz Rogowski, and the late, great Bruno Ganz.

On the other hand… it’s three hours long. Three hours!  Why does it take so long to tell such a simple story? Why? It’s not exactly boring or tedious since it’s done so beautifully, but similar stories have already been told (and in a more dramatic fashion, like Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes/Elser – Er hätte die Welt verändert). As a movie critic, I try to avoid terms like “self-indulgent”, but this movie is strictly for fans of Terrence Mallick.

Cats

Dir: Tom Hooper

It’s nighttime in a fantastical, pre-gentrified London, where abandoned alley cats rule the streets. The Jellicle Cats are gathered for their annual meeting, presided over by Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench), who will choose one cat to be reborn. Each contestant performs before the queen: There are dancers (Francesca Hayward, Steven McRae) singers (Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson), comics (Rebel Wilson, James Corden), a magician dressed in black and white (Laurie Davidson) and even an old theatre cat (Ian McKellen). But the age-old ceremony is challenged by the evil Macavity (Idris Elba) who is kidnapping each cat after their performance. Who will be chosen to ascend to the skies? Will peace and order return to the Jellicle cats? And can newbie Victoria join the gang?

Cats is a strange hybrid of theatre, and movie special effects. Each act is performed on a vast soundstage, keeping close to how it would look before a live audience. The cat people’s faces and bodies are human, but augmented, using CGI, with cat ears, moving tails and furry bodies. Some of them wear elaborate costumes, while others run around “naked”, covered in sleek fur. But they’ve all been digitally neutered, with no sign of breasts or genitals anywhere. The script is abysmally bad, almost babyish, with “jokes” like cat got your tongue? and relentless fat jokes. Fat jokes? Really?

Music ranges from torch songs to chorus lines. There are a few great scenes, like cockroaches doing elaborate Busby Berkeley formations as Rebel Wilson eats them, one by one; and impressive dance routines, along with some good songs… but I can’t figure out who the movie is trying to appeal to? Small children? Theatre buffs? Taylor Swift fans? I don’t think it knows, either.

Still… I kinda liked it, if just for the spectacle of it all. It’s bad, but it’s watchable and loaded with great singers dancers and prize-winning actors all of whom are far, far more talented than the material they’ve been given.

And I think these weird cat people will haunt my sexual nightmares for years to come.

Bombshell, A Hidden Life and Cats 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.

Films Reviewed: The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Marriage Story, 63 Up

Posted in Canada, Depression, documentary, Drama, Family, Indigenous, Poverty, TV, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 13, 2019

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

How much of our lives are changed by free will, and how much is predetermined by fate, class or outside circumstances? This week I’m looking at three films about people affeed by changes they didn’t plan on. There’s two indigenous women thrown together, a married couple torn apart, and fourteen people following divergent pathways in their lives.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

Wri/Dir: Kathleen Hepburn, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

Rosie (Violet Nelson) is a pregnant young woman who lives with her boyfriend and his mom in Vancouver’s East End. She likes tie dye hoodies and watching TV. Alia (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) is a middle class woman debating whether she’s ready for a child with her partner. The two meet at random on a sidewalk, Alia emerging from an alienating medical procedure, Rosie from a violent incident at home. Her boyfriend attacked her, leaving on a daze, with a bruised face, barefoot and pregnant, standing in the rain. Alia dismisses her own problems and concentrates on getting a safe sheltered space for the woman she has just met. They are both indigenous women, but do they have anything else in common? Or are they just ships passing in the dark?

The Body Remembers as the World Broke Open is a very moving, personal drama about two women, and how their lives briefly intersect. They are followed with a handheld camera, and the movie takes place in real time, without breaks, as if you are there with them. It explores differences of class and appearance – Alia can pass for white – and all that carries: violence and abuse, and how police behaviour depends on the appearance of a victim. This is an amazing depiction of a multifaceted urban indigenous story told from the characters ownpoints of view. It takes you on a heartfelt journey even as it destroys common stereotypes. Great acting, a realistic script and an urgent, constantly-moving style keeps you on edge the entire time.

I like this movie.

Marriage Story

Wri/Dir: Noah Baumbach

Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) are a happily married couple in Brooklyn. He’s originally from the midwest and she’s from LA, but they both think of New York as their home. He’s a theatre director with a show headed for Broadway, and she’s an actress featured in the plays he directs. But when she heads to California to shoot a TV show, their perfect marriage turns out to be not so perfect. Turns out they haven’t slept together in a year, and Charlie is having an affair with another actress from within their own theatre. And now their living on opposite coasts of the country. Still, Charlie is shocked and devastated when Nicole tells him she’s staying in LA, with their son, and filing for divorce. Can their marriage be saved? Should it be? What will happen to their careers? The broadway show? And who will stay with their son.

Marriage Story is a compact film about a relationship falling apart. It follows the characters – along with her family and their son – as it turns from a disagreement to a fight to a legal battle. I watched this movie not in a theatre but at home on Netflix. The problem with home viewing is that you can turn it off halfway through and come back later, something you can’t do in a movie theatre. That’s what happened to me. I was bored and distracted for the first half-hour, and didn’t want to sit through a happy and successful family’s divorce. It was irritating, annoying. Charlie is an entitled, selfish doofus, while Nicole can’t take responsibility for her own actions, pinning it all on him.

But I later returned to watch the rest… and I am so glad I did. It turns into a fantastic, subtle portrayal of a loving couple torn apart by their own actions and a legal system that leaves them scrambling. It also becomes almost a brilliant musical, in which both characters (in separate, plausible settings), break into Sondheim songs to explain their situations to their friends and families. Driver and Johannsson are both excellent and believable in their roles and their lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda) provide a sharp and cynical counterpoint the couple’s real emotions.

63 Up

Dir: Michael Apted

“Give me the child at age seven and I’ll show you the man.” That’s how a segment called Seven Up began on a UK current affairs show in the early 60s. 14 children were brought together on a playground and interviewed on camera. Upper class boys in line for elite public schools and then on to Oxford or Cambridge and the seats of power. Working class kids from London’s east end; a couple from the North, one from a farm, and two taken from a “Home for Boys”, an orphanage-like institution. The short piece wondered what will become of these post-war baby-boomers as the world

changes? Seven years later a young Michael Apted took on the responsibility and followed them every seven years with a new film looking at what has become of them. Each successive version surprises and delights audiences who wonder what has happened to these kids – now adults – as they gradually age: their opinions on relationships and politics, whether they have transcended their class or background, what are their hopes, and later, what are their regrets.

63 Up is a fascinating study, almost the only one of its kind, that traces a generation throughout their lives. It began in a very different era, when class is all-important, while gender or ethnicity are afterthoughts and sexuality never mentioned. Since there were only three girls in the initial show, three women it remains, and in the early years they are asked domestic questions, nothing about politics, or professional goals. But the subjects end up having fascinating lives. One emigrates to Australia, another follows an academic path to an American professorship. Others stay close to home. And two subjects face death. One of the most endearing stories follows a man troubled by depression whose life takes a surprising turn. And for all of them, the series both keeps track of their lives and affects them as they become public figures, almost celebrities, in a largely private world… before social networking made everyone’s lives common currency.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open starts today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Marriage Story continues there and on Netflix; and 63 Up starts next Friday at the Hot Docs Cinema.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Sophie Deraspe about Antigone

Posted in Canada, Disguise, Drama, Family, High School, Montreal, Prison, Protest, Quebec, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 6, 2019

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Antigone is a straight-A high school student in Montreal. She lives with two brothers and a sister, raised by ther grandmother. They immigrated from North Africa when she was still a child. She’s heading for university and is dating Hémon, the son of a prominent politician. But her normal life is shattered when the police kill one brother and jail the other. She comes up with a scheme to take her brothers place in prison. But what will become of Antigone?

Antigone is the title of a fantastic new film from Québec, about a strong young woman willing to confront the government and risk everything for the love of her brother. The film transplants the classic Greek play into modern day Montréal, incorporating contemporary cinema, drama, literature, and music. The film is written and directed by Sophie Deraspe who also served as cinematographer and editor. Antigone is her first feature and has won countless prizes, including best Canadian Film at TIFF and is Canada’s choice for Best Foreign Film Oscar.

I spoke with Sophie at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Antigone opens today in Toronto.

Stolen. Films reviewed: Hustlers, The Goldfinch, The Vigil at #TIFF19!

Posted in Art, Crime, Death, Friendship, Horror, Judaism, Sex Trade, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 13, 2019

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

TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, winds up this weekend, so if you haven’t had a chnce to see anything yet, or maybe can’t afford to buy tickets, you should know theres a number of free screenings of the most popular film at TIFF, juried film winners, midnight madness and more on Sunday. This means you should go to tiff.net online on Sunday morning at 10 am, and you’ll have a good chance of getting a free ticket for later the same day.

This week I’m looking at three movie that premiered at TIFF: a horror story, and two dramas. There’s a boy who protects a priceless stolen painting, a group of women who steal from unconcscious men, and a man who sits beside a corpse… to make sure it doesn’t move.

Hustlers

Wri/Dir: Lorene Scafaria

Dorothy (Constance Wu) is a single mom with financial troubles who lives with her grandma in New York. She works as a dancer in strip bars under the stage name Destiny. When she lands a spot at bar that caters to wall street big shots she thinks her luck has changed. No dice, still struggling. That is until she meets Ramona (Jennifer Lopez). When Ramona’s on stage it rains money. She dances in high heels and fur coats. She’s intimidating and a bit scary, but Destiny reaches it to her for help. They hit it off as friend and Ramona takes Destiny under her wing. She learns how to shimmy down a pole upside down, how to conduct a proper lap dance, and howto keep the clients wanting. Life’s good but she’s still not earning the real big bucks. Until they think up a fool proof plan. Treat the biggest spenders to a serious party in a back room, drop some powder in their drinks, and then let yourself go wild on his company card. The client wakes up the next day with a hangover and $15 thou in charges, none the wiser. It works like a charm, and soon Destiny is swimming in furs. But how long will their good luck last?

The Hustlers, (based on a New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler), is an engaging drama about BFFs in the world of stripbars, and how they attempt to take back control. Constance Wu is nice as the main character, with J-Lo believable as the iconoclastic Ramona. The other characters, played by Cardi B, Lizzo, Keke Palmer and others keep the largely all-female cast interesting. I liked it but I didn’t love it. The problem is it’s too long, and doesn’t really know where it’s going. It sets up a rivalry between Destiny and Ramona that doesn’t pan out in the plot. And it unnecessarily frames the whole story within the context of a magazine article. Why? In Hustlers, the New York Magazine journalist is just a cipher, a sounding board for what you really want to see. But the rest of the story – while not the shocking expose it pretends to be – is still good as a realistic, inside look at sex workers’ private lives.

The Goldfinch

Dir: John Crowleyn (Based on the novel by Donna Tarte)

Theo (Oakes Fegley) is a precocious prepschool boy in New York. His life is turned upside down when he survives a terrorist bomb attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That fateful explosion leaves him a penniless orphan holding a priceless painting that the world thinks was destroyed. It also points him to a small shop that restores antique furniture, and Pippa, the mysterious red-headed girl who was standing beside him when the bomb went off. When he bonds with a school friend he is taken under the wing of a one-percenter family headed by old-money matriarch Mrs Barbour (Nicole Kidman). Will he end up one of the family?

Later, he finds himself living in Las Vegas, in an eerily deserted neighbourhood with his actor Dad who abandoned him as a child. There he meets an over-the-top Russian kid named Boris (Finn Wolfhard) who leads him into a world of drugs and petty crime, but also pulls him out of his shell. But can that friendship endure?

Later still, as a young adult back in Manhattan (Ansel Elgort), Theo is on the verge of entersing high society when he rejoins friends from his childhood. And through it all, he is kept sane and grounded by the knowledge that he, and only he, possesses that priceless wooden painting of a little bird. But what would happen if the secret gets out?

I read and enjoyed the book, so I was worried it would ruin it somehow. It doesn’t. It’s true to the story, and even though I knew, more or less, what was going to happen, it still kept me glued to the screen for most of the movie. It’s like running into an old friend: they feel familiar, an important part of your life, even though they don’t live up to your expectations. That said, it didn’t tug at my heartstrings nearly as much as I thought it would, and left me feeling vaguely empty at the end. But the great acting, lush images and music, and fascinating plot did what it’s supposed to do. This won’t win any awards but it’s still a pleasure to watch.

The Vigil

Wri/Dir: Keith Thomas

It’s late at night in Brooklyn New York. Jacob (Dave Davis) is broke, depressed and suffering from PTSD. He’s meeting with a support group of men and women. They are all former Chassids, ultra-orthodox Jews, who have left the insular communities they were born in. That’s why Jacob is disturbed to see a man in black standing by a streetlight outside. Why can’t they leave him alone? Turns out the man is there to offer Jacob a job: one that’s quick, easy, and well-paid. The catch? He has to start working immediately as a Shomer or vigil. This means watching over a newly dead body until undertakers arrive at dawn to pick it up. Easier said than done.

The widow, Mrs Litvack, says he’s not the right one for the job… but she doesn’t say why. It soon becomes clearer to Jacob that this is not a good place to spend the night. The old house full of shadows that seem to move, lightbulbs that frazzle and pop, and creaky sounds in the floorboards. The corpse is covered with a simple sheet, but Jacob keeps checking it didn’t move. And as the minutes tick past things start to get even weirder. A video he watches says there’s an ancient Mazzik there an evil jewish demon that can manipulate thoughts and dreams. It will play tricks on your mind, and shape shift into people you know and trust. And it can take human form. Is Jacob having a psychotic episode – he’s not taking his meds – or is the place really haunted? And will he survive until dawn?

The Vigil is a terrifyingly good horror movie that scared the pants off me. You experience everything Jacob sees, as he sees it, without always knowing if they’re hallucinations or the truth. Dave Davis is fantastic as Jacob, sharing through his facial expressions his fears, misgivings and guilt for past actions. This movie had me spontaneously shouting at the screen in terror at least three times, coming up with ever more scary surprises. This is Keith Thomas’s first film which manages to convey absolute terror in a small set, with a tiny cast, using minimal visual effects and great sound.  This is definitely the scariest thing I’ve seen all year.

Hustlers and The Goldfinch both open today in Toronto, check your local listings; And The Vigil has its last screening this Sunday at TIFF.

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

Self Help. Films reviewed: Becoming Nobody, Brittany Runs a Marathon

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, comedy, Death, Depression, documentary, drugs, Philosophy, psychedelia, Psychology, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 30, 2019

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

It’s Labour Day weekend, a good time to catch up on all those things you’ve been meaning to do. That’s why this week I’m looking at two movies – a dramedy and a documentary – about Self Help. There’s a woman who wants to lose some of herself, and a man who wants to lose all of himself.

Becoming Nobody

Dir: Jamie Catto

A hippie walks into a pizza parlour. The guy behind the counter asks: What would you like?  The hippie says: Make me One… with Everything!

Old joke, but I’m trying to explain who Ram Dass is.

He’s born Richard Alpert in Newton, Mass., to an upper middle class family, and becomes a clinical psychology prof at Harvard University. In the early 1960s Timothy Leary introduces him to hallucinogenic drugs as a part of therapy. Alpert takes psilocybin mushrooms for the first time and it blows his mind (in the positive sense.) But he wants to know how he can harnass its effects when he’s not high. He drops out, grows long hair and a beard. Somehow he ends up in India, in the Himilayas, right on the border of Tibet. There he studies under Maharaj-ji, his spiritual guru – who dubs him Ram Dass, Servant of Rama, Servent of God – and then brings his findings back to America. Back home, youth culture is rejecting the status quo, protesting the war in Vietnam, and opting out of the rat race. They’re looking for new answers. Spiritual answers. His book, Be Here Now (1971) provides just that to a large part of his generation.

I am not a devotee of Ram Dass, I don’t go to yoga classes and I don’t practice meditation in a search for spiritual enlightenment. I do remember being fascinated as a little kid by the cube-shaped book Be Here Now with the hypnotic mandala drawn on its cover.

So I won’t attempt to explain his entire spiritual philosophy in a few sentences. But the film Becoming Nobody, attempts to do some of that in 90 minutes. It’s basically a selection of his talks and conversations spanning his life from the 1960s to the present – discovery, spiritualism, losing oneself, and accepting death. You see him change from uptight academic, to long-haired hippy, to lecturer with a Dr. Phil moustache, to wise and funny old man. The film is illustrated with cute period footage and framed by a dialogue with the director, British musician Jamie Catto.

For a non-initiate like me, some of what Ram Dass says sounds like a collection of simple aphorisms, a mishmash of Hindu and Buddhist thought. But when you think about it, a lot of what he says really make sense; it’s not just hollow rhetoric. So whether you’re looking for a simple introduction to his philosophy, or just interested in him, Becoming Nobody gives you lots to chew on.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Wri/Dir: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Brittany (Jillian Bell) lives in a cluttered New York apartment. By day she works as a low-paid usher at a theatre. At night she goes to bars with her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee). A good time means getting high on adderal and having drunken sex with a stranger in a bathroom stall. She thought her college education would land her a creative job on Madison Avenue. Instead she’s underemployed with a huge student debt. Which depresses her. And to rub salt in the wound, her doctor tells her she’s 60 pounds overweight and if she doesn’t do something about it, she might die.

Could her life get any worse? Actually, it begins to get better when her neighbor, Catherine (Michaela Watkins) – who she’s never met and who she refers to as “Moneybags Martha” when she sees her through the window – offers to help Brittany train with her running club. There she meets Seth (Micah Stock) a slightly effeminate, married gay guy, who wants his kids to respect him and call him dad. Catherine is dealing with a painful divorce and custody battle. So the three form a sort of a support group to help Brittany run in the New York City Marathon.

She also lands a long-term house-sitting job, which helps her keep her above water economically and away from roommate Gretchen’s bad influence. She begins to lose weight, her self confidence grown, and she becomes closer to her fellow house-sitter Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) a poster boy for slackers. Are they a couple? Can she lose 60 pounds, get a job in her profession, find a home, meet a guy, and run the marathon? Or are these just a series of unattainable hopes?

Brittany Runs a Marathon is exactly what the title suggests – a woman trying to run a marathon to achieve a personal goal. But it’s also a really funny comedy. Jillian Bell is hilarious and disarming as the sneaky, funny, self-deprecating Brittany. You also feel for her character as she goes through crushing disappointments. And it deals with serious issues like the ups and downs of weight loss, body image, and depression, without turning into a condescending sermon. It’s a fun, funny, heartwarming and inspiring movie. I like this one.

Brittany Runs a Marathon opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; and Becoming Nobody opens next Friday, September 6th at Hot Docs.

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 Jennifer Deschamps about her documentary Inside Lehman Brothers

Posted in Corruption, Crime, documentary, Economics, France, Suspicion, US, Wall Street, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 23, 2019

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

It’s 2008, and Lehman Brothers, one of the world’s biggest investment banks, is riding high on the hog. With assets in the trillions, it has pioneered innovative financial products like marketing subprime loans to people who can’t otherwise afford a mortgage. And its top execs are pocketing huge amounts of cash… that is, until it all came tumbling down, plunging the world into an economic crisis. Everyone seemed surprised, except some insiders at Lehman Brothers… who saw it coming a mile away.

Inside Lehmann Brothers is a new documentary about the criminal activities of the financial sector that helped being about the Wall Street crash of 2008. It’s told through the eyes of the insiders, accountants, salespeople, auditors and underwriters whose warnings were ignored by both the company and by government regulators. It’s co-written and directed by noted Paris-based filmmaker and journalist Jennifer Deschamps, who has created films on topics ranging from Scientology to the Sub-Prime economic crisis.

I spoke to Jennifer Deschamps in the south of France, via telephone at CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Inside Lehman Brothers plays on Sunday, Aug 25th on Documentary Channel.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmakers Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas about their two new movies: Spice it Up and White Lie

Posted in Army, Canada, Dance, Depression, Disease, Feminism, Friendship, Pop Culture, Toronto, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 9, 2019

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

Photos (#2, #3) of Yonah Lewis, Calvin Thomas and Kacey Rohl at TIFF19 are by Jeff Harris.

René is a Toronto film student at Ryerson, trying to finish her practical thesis. The film she’s directing is about seven young women, who want to join the army. Not individually, but together, all seven, as a group. René’s problem is, in a world full of male film profs, male directors, and male editors, no one seems interested in her Girl Power creativity. They say there’s too much content and not enough narrative. But can René remain true to her vision even as she “spices up” her story?

Spice It Up is a meta-movie dramedy about making a film… and the film the filmmaker’s making. It’s co-directed by Calvin Thomas, Yonah Lewis and Lev Lewis, the founders of Toronto’s Lisa Pictures.

Calvin and Yonah’s newest film White Lie is an intriguing, dark tale of a

White Lie

cash-poor university student who concocts a cancer story to raise donations and make friends.

I spoke with Yonah and Calvin at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Spice it Up opens Friday, August 16 in Toronto at the Tiff Bell Lightbox.

White Lie is having it’s world premier at #TIFF19 this September.

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