Daniel Garber talks with producer Jason Charters and director Larry Weinstein about Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas

Posted in China, Christianity, Christmas, Christmas songs, Cultural Mining, documentary, Eating, Judaism, Music, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on December 22, 2017

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

It’s the 1960s. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… outside the snow is falling and friends are calling yoo-hoo… it’s Christmastime in the city. Mom, Dad and the two kids get in the car to go out for their traditional family dinner. Is it ham? Turkey? No… it’s Chinese food! Beause these folks are dreaming of a “Jewish Christmas”.

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas is a new documentary that looks at the secular celebration of a religious holiday in North America and how it’s reflected in popular culture – especially in Christmas songs. It re-eneacts a 1960s dinner in Chinatown with new performances of classic Christmas songs by Steven Page, Dione Taylor and Aviva Chernick.

The film was produced in Toronto by Jason Charters and Liam Romalis at Riddle Films and directed by Oscar nominee Larry Weinstein.

I spoke with Jason in studio at CIUT and with Larry via telephone.

Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas is playing on CBC Documentary Channel on Dec 24 and Dec 25.

Just for the lulz. Films reviewed: Adventures in Public School, Father Figures, Downsizing

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Family, Fantasy, High School, Road Movie by CulturalMining.com on December 22, 2017

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

There are lots of heavy-duty movies out now, with great actors, by famous directors about important issues. But what if you just want to have some fun for 90 minutes? Enough great movies — this week, just for the lulz, I’m looking at three comedies. There’s a homeschooled boy who meets a one-legged girl; a teeny-tiny man who meets a one-legged woman; and two adult brothers who just want to meet their dad.

Adventures in Public School

Dir: Kyle Rideout

It’s present-day Vancouver. Liam (Daniel Doheny) is a gawky, home-schooled teenager preparing to write his high school equivalency exams. Once he passes with flying colours he’s off to Cambridge to study astronomy. At least that’s what his over-protective mom thinks. Claire (Judy Greer) gave birth to Liam when she was still a highschool student, so she planned his life to avoid all the problems she faced as a teen.

But when he enters Claire’s old high school to write the test his world is turned upside down by a beautiful girl he passes in the hallway. Anastasia (Siobhan Williams) has blonde hair, an angelic face and a prosthetic leg. Who is this one-legged girl? He deliberately fails the test just so he can attend school and maybe meet her. He manages to join class midterm when he convinces the principal (Andrew McNee) — who has a crush on Claire — that he’ll take the place of a missing girl for two weeks. Now Liam is the new kid, known to everyone as “Maria Sanchez”.

He soon learns about friendship from the flamboyant Wes who shares his locker; bullying from BDC an Aussie competing for Anastasia; and unrequited love. Can he learn about love, sex, drugs and survival in just two weeks of school? And can he shake off his mom’s relentless interference?

Adventures in Public School is a cute Canadian coming of age comedy, but one that takes few risks. Doheny is appealing as Liam, and Greer funny as Claire, and the story is interesting enough, but the film is underwhelming as a whole. But there are enough twists and funny bits to make it worth a watch.

Father Figures

Dir: Lawrence Sher

Kyle and Peter are brothers. They’re also fraternal twins but couldn’t be more different. Peter (Ed Helms) is uptight angry and depressed. He’s a proctologist who hates his job. He’s divorced but has no luck meeting women because he lacks basic social skills. Kyle (Owen Wilson), on the other hand, is a hippy-dippy beach bum who lives in Hawaii. He’s also rich with a beautiful girlfriend. A chance photo of him ended up on a bottle of BBQ sauce, and he has lived off the royalties ever since. He explains his extraordinary luck as “the Universe” talking to him. The two were raised by their single mom Helen (Glenn Close). Their dad died of colon cancer when they were infants.

Peter and Kyle don’t get along but when they meet up again at their mother’s house they discover a secret: their dad didn’t die – in fact he’s still alive. The two of them jump into a car to try to find him. They son discover their mom slept with a huge number of men in the mid-1970s. which one is their real dad? And will they tear each other apart before they meet him?

Father Figures is a simple buddy/road movie – two guys who don’t get along but share a single goal. It has a very barebones plot, with a sentimental ending. Ed Helms is good as the uptight Peter but Owen Wilson is barely trying. It’s the “father figures” who are funny, especially JK Simmonds as a miscreant Repo Man. Again, this is not a great movie, but it’s funny enough.

Downsizing

Dir: Alexander Payne

It’s some point in the future. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is a non-descript but happily-married man who works as a job counsellor for a large corporation. Life’s OK, bit something is missing. Then he hears about a new scientific discvery out of Norway that addresses climate change without affecting your lifestyle. They’ve discovered how to shrink you down to the size of your finger, and developed tiny gated communities where you can live a normal life. Since you’re so small, you leave no carbon footprint and everything is cheap – middle class people with savings from the big world can live like kings in the small world. Food, real estate, travel – all affordable. One catch: the process is irreversible. And when Paul awakens he discovers his wife has changed her mind. And a bunch of his savings have disappeared. Now he’s all alone, works in a crap job and lives in a condo. He’s small and life sucks.

But when he meets a Eurotrash neighbour named Dusan (Christoph Waltz) things start to improve. He learns to let loose and live a little. And when he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a one-legged, Vietnamese cleaning woman, he begins to see how the other half lives. This tiny world has slums, refugees and undocumented migrants just like the big world. Can a normal guy find love and satsfaction in a strange new world?

Downsizing is a silly and goofy movie, but an interesting one anyway. Once they establish the big/small changes, the size thing disappears, and it turns into a light social satire with a middle class guy learning about poverty. Mart Damon plays that gormless white guy he does so well; Christoph Waltz – with sidekick Udo Kier – adds some life, and Hong Chau pours on a heavy Vietnamese accent but is still believable.

Father Figures and Downsizing open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Adventures in Public School starts in January as part of the Canada’s Top Ten movies series. 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

 

Dynamic duos. Films reviewed: Dim the Fluorescents, Call Me By Your Name

Posted in Acting, Art, Canada, Cultural Mining, Drama, First Love, Italy, LGBT, Movies, Romance by CulturalMining.com on December 15, 2017

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

I like movies with two strong central characters… as long as they have good chemistry. This week I’m looking at two new movies featuring dynamic duos that work well together. One’s a romantic drama about two young men set in northern Italy; and the other is a comedy drama about two women set in downtown Toronto.

Dim the Fluorescents

Dir: Daniel Warth

Audrey (Claire Armstrong) is a struggling actress in Toronto. She’s passionate and tempestuous, with rosy cheeks and curly hair, a statuesque figure and a pierced nose. She takes anti-depressants daily so she pour her everything into her work. She goes to frequent readings and auditions, but still hasn’t landed her big break. She lives with Lillian (Naomi Skwarna), her friend and fellow theatre person. Lillian acts too, but she she devotes herself to writing scripts and screenplays, and to helping Audrey’s career. Lillian has a severe demeanor, with glasses and black hair pulled back. The two see all their friends moving up the ladder while they’re stuck at the bottom. And not earning any money from it, either.

So, instead of taking a day job, sitting in a cubicle between auditions, they decide to stick to the craft but in an unusual form and location. They take their acting to the offices, performing short pieces or worker safety on sexual harassment to add some life and excitement to the incredibly dull powerpoint lectures. They manage to turn each corporate banality into a scene from King Lear.

And their efforts are noticed, at least within the offices. One young exec, Bradley (Brendan Hobin), shows up after a show like a stage door groupie to heap praises on Audrey’s fine performance. Instead of asking for her autograph he asks her to dinner.

Meanwhile Lillian is trying hard to make her dramatic business plan pay off. Their big break, at least financially, finally arrives in the form of a contract: an eight minute show before 300 conventioneers. There are a few conditions – they have to include an executive’s niece, Fiona (Andreana Callegarini-Gradzik) in the show, and they have to end on a positive note. But as art reflects life, the drama of the characters spills onto Audrey and Lillian’s own lives, ending in an explosive crisis. Will they get it back together in time for the big show?

Dim the Fluorescents starts as an ordinary Canadian comedy: I get it, I thought, it’s about artists sacrificing their ideals to meet corporate demands. But after the first half hour it really takes off and just gets better and better. By the end it’s Wow – this is a surprisingly powerful movie! The cast is all new faces, all great. Especially Claire Armstrong – man, that woman can act her ass off!

Check this one out.

Call Me by Your Name

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

Wri: James Ivory (based on the novel by Andre Aciman)

It’s 1982. Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is a 17 year old Italian American who spends his summers and Christmas vacation at his family home in Northern Italy. It’s a beautiful villa located in a lush orchard beside a slow-moving river. His parents are academics with a passion for the arts. Mom (Amira Casar) translates medieval poetry, while Dad (Michael Stuhlbarg) is into ancient Greek and Roman bronze statues. Elio spends most of his time transcribing classical music on guitar and piano. He also hangs with Marzia (Esther Garrel), his longtime friend and semi-girlfriend, reading poetry and exploring sex. Elio speaks French to his mother, English to his father and Italian to everyone else. It’s a polyglot family.

Each year, Elio’s dad chooses a gifted American grad student, to come stay with them for the summer. They help catalogue his father’s writings and, presumably, provide a role model for Elio. This year, it’s Oliver (Armie Hammer) a grad student from small town New England. He’s handsome, athletic, preppy and arrogant. And smart as a whip. He dominates any room he enters, and will leave whenever he wants with a simple “later”.

Eliot is put off by Oliveer’s manner but impressed by his confidence. And as he gets to know him better – at a village dance, a family dinner, and bike rides in the country – his interest runs into attraction. Are the feelings mutual? Both have girlfriends from the town, but this seems new. They begin a delicate pas de deux, simultaneously flirting, arguing and testing their limits, each trying to determine the other one’s feelings. Are they friends, or something more? Will this turn into a summer bromance or a lasting love?

Call Me By Your Name is a beautiful and clever romantic drama. It’s as interesting for what it has as it is for what it leaves out. The usual gay themes — coming out, bullying, abusive parents, fear, religious guilt, gay bashing, homophobia and HIV AIDS – aren’t part of this movie. It’s also not a typical boy-meets-girl (or boy meets boy) romance. What it does have is fantastic acting, a great screenplay, beautiful location, music and art. From the beautiful calligraphy of the opening credits, to the devestating, single-shot finish, this movie is flawless.

Dim the Fluorescents is now playing. Call Me By Your Name opens 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 Sherwan Haji about The Other Side of Hope

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Drama, Finland, Kurds, Refugees, Syria by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

Photos 1,3 by Jeff Harris

Khaled is a mechanic in Aleppo when the bombs start to fall, killing most of his family. He flees Syria and makes his way through Europe until he finds sanctuary in Helsinki, Finland. But when he applies for refugee status he is turned down, and threatened with deportation. He ends up living on the streets… until he is given a job in an unusual restaurant, recently bought by an eccentric, older man looking for a career change. Khaled is searching for his lost sister even as he runs from police, government agents and neo-Nazis. Can his new job show him the Other Side of Hope?

The Other Side of Hope is filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film. It shows the plight of refugees in Finland as well as the endearing — if oddball — characters, live musicians and an ineffable aesthetic unique to Kaurismäki’s films. It stars Sherwan Haji as Khaled. Sherwan himself is originally from Syria, where he acted on TV. He now continues his accomplished career of acting and filmmaking in Europe.

I spoke to Sherwan on site at Films We Like in Toronto in September 2017, during TIFF.

The Other Side of Hope opens today in Toronto.

Heavy Hitters. Films Reviewed: Wonder Wheel, Roman J Israel, Esq, The Shape of Water

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Cold War, Drama, Fantasy, L.A., Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

It’s December now, and that’s when the movie awards start to pile up. This week I’m looking at some of the hard-hitters — movies with famous directors or stars — that might be up for a prize. There’s a kitchen sink drama in Coney Island, a legal drama in LA, and a romantic drama in a secret Baltimore laboratory.

Wonder Wheel

Wri/Dir: Woody Allen

It’s the 1950s in Coney Island. Humpty and Ginny are a middle aged couple living in a rundown apartment overlooking the ferris wheel. Humpty (Jim Belushi) is an angry drunk, currently on the wagon, who manages the carousel. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a former actress who is a waitress at the clam shack… or as she puts it, she’s playing the part of “Waitress” in an on-going drama. She has a little kid from her first marriage, Richie, who is a petty thief and an aspiring arsonist, lighting fires wherever he can. Life in this dysfunctional family is far from perfect but at least it’s stable. That is until two things turn their lives upside down.

First Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up out of nowhere. They haven’t spoken for five years, not since she married a racketeer. Now she’s on the lam, a marked woman since she turned canary and sang about the mob to the cops. She moves into their crowded home, working with Ginny at the Clam House. The second thing that happens is Ginny meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard on the beach. He’s a grad student at NYU and loves the idea of dating a dramatic older woman. Soon they are secretly meeting under the boardwalk for afternoon delights. But then Mickey meets Carolina and everything starts to unravel.

After watching Wonder Wheel, I kept wondering: did I just see a great movie or a terrible one? It’s certainly very different from Woody Allen’s European comedies. It feels more like a stage play, with characters reciting the lines of a script, from Mickey the lifeguard who narrates by speaking directly to the camera, to Ginny who says things like: “I’m consumed with jealousy!” I think that’s intentional.  But I’m not so sure most of the characters wanted to speak exactly like Woody, down to his stammer and pauses. Still, the look of the movie – from the period costumes to the lurid colours of neon lights, and the unexpectedly jarring camerawork – is stunning and surprising. Does this mean Woody Allen is still experimenting?

So is Wonder Wheel a good movie or not? Hmmm… I guess so.

Roman J Israel, Esq.

Wri/Dir: Dan Gilroy

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a defense lawyer in present day LA. He’s a partner in a small law firm – he minds the office while his partner goes to court. He’s an old-fashioned guy. He wears big round glasses and ill-fitting clothes. He rides the bus to an office full of foolscap and post-it notes. He works under the watchful gaze of pictures of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin. He sacrificed marriage, a social life and material possessions, in exchange for devoting his life to civil rights and equality under the law. That is until his law partner of 30 years has a heart attack. Suddenly Roman finds himself jobless, friendless and nearly homeless.

A slick corporate colleague of his boss named George (Colin Farrell) offers him a low-level job at his firm. He refuses. But when he can’t find paying work, is mocked at a meeting of young activists, and is attacked by a mugger on the way home, he is faced with a tough decision: stay true to his ideals or sell out and enjoy the profits? Only Maya (Carmen Ejogo) – a woman he meets at an NGO – still believes in him. He ends up making an ethically dubious decision, and has to deal with the consequences.

Roman J Israel, Esq. is billed as a thriller – and there are a few tense moments – but it’s basically a character study of a man forced to re-examine his values in a changing world. Denzel Washington is great as Roman – he really gets into the part, portraying him as an oddball but a sympathetic and believable one. The story is very simple, but it’s the details surrounding this fascinating character that keeps you interested.

The Shape of Water

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s Baltimore in 1962. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is an elegant cleaning woman at a top secret government lab. She loves hard boiled eggs and bathtubs and lives above a movie theatre. She is mute, but communicates with her two friends using sign language. There’s Zelda (Octavia Spence) a talkative woman who translates and covers for her at work; and Giles (Richard Jenkins) a lonely illustrator in his 60s who lives with his cats in the apartment next door.

Elisa lives a routine life, until something strange shows up in a glass tank! Like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he’s part human, part fish. Elisa is scared but intrigued. She offers him hard boiled eggs which he scarfs down. Gradually she teaches him to communicate through sign language, and exposes him to music, art and human emotions. Could this be love? If only life were so simple. The creature arrived with Strickland (Michael Shannon) the agent in charge of the project. He’s a racist misogynist who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing the creature with a cattle prod. He plans to kill him and take him apart to study. And lurking in the shadows at the lab is a soviet spy who observes everything – including Elisa communicating with the creature. Can their love survive?

The Shape of Water is an amazing movie, modelled on classic Hollywood films. I’ve seen it twice now, and it didn’t drag for a moment. It’s funny, romantic, surprising, violent, and exciting. The music, the art direction, the singing and dancing, the dream sequences, the surreal sex scenes, the Cold War/cloak-and-dagger feel…. this movie has just about everything. Sally Hawkins is an unusual romantic lead, but she’s perfect as Elisa. Shannon is a hateable — but understandable — villain. Spence and Jenkins as, respectively, her comic and melancholy sidekick, are both spot on.

This is a wonderful movie: I recommend it.

Roman J. Israel, Esquire is now playing. Wonder Wheel and The Shape of Water 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 Melski about The Child Remains

Posted in 1970s, Canada, Ghosts, Gothic, Horror, Nova Scotia by CulturalMining.com on December 1, 2017

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

Rae and Liam are a happily married couple, the only guests at a quaint, private hotel. They drove to this out-of-the-way location for a quiet weekend together. Rae – an investigative journalist – is convalescing after a mental breakdown – and Liam, an aspiring musician, just wants to help his wife. Little do they know, this bed and breakfast was once a maternity hospital for unwed mothers, where terrible things took place. Some of the babies — and their mothers — were buried on the premises. Rae is troubled by strange dreams and visions all around the hotel. And a baby’s cry keeps her up at night. The bad days are long gone… but the child remains.

The Child Remains is a new and very scary movie. Set in small-town Nova Scotia, it’s inspired by true events, but with a supernatural twist. The film had it’s Toronto debut at Blood in the Snow, the Canadian horror film fest. The film is written and directed by award-winning Nova Scotia filmmaker Michael Melski whose movies I’ve followed for half a decade.

I spoke with Michael Melski in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Child Remains will be relased in 2018.

Lots of Indies! Films reviewed: The Disaster Artist, Sweet Virginia, Wexford Plaza

Posted in Acting, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Film Noir, L.A., Mumblecore, Realism, Toronto, violence by CulturalMining.com on December 1, 2017

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

Indie movies are in this year, picking up prizes and heading for the Oscars. They are the most innovative films out there, flouting expected cinematic rules, sharing a sense of realism missing from big-budget movies.

This week I’m talking about three new indie movies opening today. There’s a hit man staying at a motel, a security guard working at a strip mall, and an indie movie about making indie movies.

The Disaster Artist

Dir: James Franco (Based on the book by Greg Sestero)

Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a model and aspiring actor in San Francisco. He’s taking classes, looking for his big break. Problem is he’s a terrible actor: way too shy and withdrawn. Enter fellow student Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). He’s a body–builder with a redone face, a mane of long black hair and an unintelligible accent. (He says he’s from New Orleans). He’s entirely without talent, but brimming with self-confidence. Greg sees him acting in class, shouting and literally climbing the walls. The teachers all cringe, but Greg is dumbfounded. This is what he wants to do, this is what he wants to be like. Soon they move to Tommy’s LA pied a terre, find agents and start up the ladder toward movie stardom. At least that’s the plan. When the studios don’t come knocking at their door, they decide to shoot their own movie, called The Room. Tommy will direct and produce (he’s bankrolling the whole thing) while the two of them share top billing. But will The Room be any good?

The short answer is no.

But that doesn’t convey the awfulness of the film they’re making. It’s spectacularly, stupendously, unbelievably bad… but in a very distinctive way. (It has since become a major cult hit — so bad it’s good — seen everywhere.) Its humour derives from the bad acting and non-sensical script, and from Tommy Wiseaus total obliviousness to his own social ineptitude and to how bad the film actually is (he imagines it’s a masterpiece).

This movie — The Disaster Artist — isnt a remake, it’s a move about the making of The Room. It recreates and incorporates the funniest, worst parts of the original, but also what was going on behind the camera. It’s a bro comedy, starring real life bros Dave and James Franco, who is just so funny as Tommy. And though it is ostensibly an indie movie, it may have broken a record for the number of Hollywood cameos:  Hannibal Buress, Seth Rogan, Sharon Stone, JJ Abrams, and dozens of others.

The Disaster Project is a really funny movie.

Sweet Virginia

Dir: Jamie M. Dagg

Sam (Jon Bernthal) is a former champion bull rider who used to earn his living in the rodeo circuit, until he had an accident. Now he runs a motel called Sweet Virginia nestled somewhere between two foggy mountains. Lila (Imogen Poots) is his assistant helping out in his office. All is well until the town is shaken by an unexpected killing: three men gunned down at a late night poker game. Elwood (Christopher Abbott) a man with anger issues, is staying at Sam’s motel. Turns out he’s a hit man, the one that killed the three men, including Lila’s husband. He also killed the husband of Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) who is having a secret affair with Sam. Who hired him? Lila! She hated her husband and wants his money. She promises Elwood big bucks in exchange for his murder (The other men he kills are just “collateral damage”). But when Lila can’t get hold of the money, things take a turn for the worse. Will the bad guys pay for their crimes? Or will there be more violence to come?

Sweet Virginia has all the makings of an excellent movie. Great cast, good acting, wonderful locations, and beautiful cinematography. So why does it suck?

This movie is all wrong. It reveals everything in the first few minutes, ruining any suspense. It wastes a lot of screen time introducing characters who are killed off in the first 15 minutes. And the rest of the move just creaks along, revealing dull, pointless and violent lives, with no surprises. I get the feeling the only reason this movie was released is because Bernthal is starring in the Netflix series The Punisher right about now.

Wexford Plaza

Wri/Dir: Joyce Wong

Betty (Reid Asselstine) is a cheery and voluptuous 19-year-old starting her new job. She’s a security guard at a rundown strip mall in Scarborough called Wexford Plaza. She’s forced to wear a too-small uniform: black polyester pants with an ugly yellow polo shirt. Her high school friends have moved on; she only sees them on instagram. She works with Rich and Anton (Francis Melling and Mirko Miljevic) two immature asshats who smoke pot, leer at her breasts and tell off-colour jokes at her expense. Then she meets Danny (Darrel Gamotin), a bartender in the mall. He’s a nice guy, older, successful and self-confident, and seems interested in her. He has her back when she drinks too much, and she returns the favour (along with sexual benefits) when he gets sloshed. She forsees a long term relationship… until things go drastically wrong. He turns on a dime, from good guy to cold bastard. What’s going on? Is he just using her?

Wexford Plaza is a realistic comedy/drama that tells the same story twice, first from Betty’s and then from Danny’s point of view. Similar events occupy the same time and space but seem radically different. Words considered crucial by one – slurred out while drunk – are completely missing from the other one’s memories. Reid Asselstine is great, subtly exposing Betty’s burgeoning sexuality tempered by her self-doubt. This is a good coming-of-age drama set in the desolate strip malls of Toronto.

Sweet Virginia, The Disaster Artist and Wexford Plaza 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 Andrew Gregg about Skinhead, his new documentary on CBC Docs POV

Posted in Canada, CBC, Conservativism, Cultural Mining, documentary, Movies, Nazi, Politics, Racism, Skinhead by CulturalMining.com on November 24, 2017

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

Neo-nazis, white supremacists and the alt right have captured headlines for more than a year now. Vandalism has escalated to demonstrations, shootings to terrorism. And some say the election of Donald Trump has given these groups new power in mainstream politics. But surely that’s an American phenomenon, with no traction in Canada….right?  A new documentary looks at the extreme right in Canada and pokes holes in the illusions of complacent Canadians.

The documentary is called Skinhead. It tell the story of a former skinhead and white supremacist named Brad, his beliefs, and what led him to abandon his ideology. Skinhead is written and directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Andrew Gregg. (I previously interviewed him here and here.)

I spoke with Andrew in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Skinhead will be broadcast on CBC TV on Sunday, November 26th at 9:00 pm.

Classics, old and new. Films reviewed: The Breadwinner, The Man who Invented Christmas, Solaris

Posted in Afghanistan, Animation, Christmas, Cross-dressing, Disguise, Movies, Religion, Science Fiction, USSR, Victorian England, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 24, 2017

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

Fall film festival season grinds to a finish with Blood in the Snow – or BITS – showing distinctly Canadian horror movies. Movies filled with ghosts, creatures and cruel killers who aren’t always what they appear to be. It’s on now through Sunday.

This week I’m looking at three movies about things that aren’t what they seem to be. There’s a girl in Afghanistan who appears to be a boy, a writer in London whose characters appear as if they are alive, and an astronaut in outerspace where people appear who shouldn’t be there.

The Breadwinner

Dir: Nora Twomey

It’s 2001 in Afghanistan. Parvana is an 11 year old girl who goes to the market each day with her dad to earn a meagre living. Times are tough, and her dad is missing a leg. But she loves spending time with him and listening to the stories he tells. But when a young member of the Taliban arrests her father and hauls him off to a faraway prison, Parvana and her whole family are left in a crisis. The Taliban strictly forbids women from leaving home unaccompanied by a man, but then how can they earn a living, contact her dad or even buy food to eat? Will they starve? When Parvana tries sneaking out unaccompanied she is chased and almost killed, saved only by a neighbourhood boy. What can she do? Is her only chance of survival an arranged marriage with a much older man?

Then she has an idea. She cuts her hair short, dresses in a boys’ clothes and chooses a new name. Suddenly she’s free again and a whole new world is open to her. She gets a job in the market and brings home food. She’s the breadwinner now. And she soon discovers she’s not the only one – a boy she makes friends with is actually a girl, just like her. Can she rescue her father from prison? Or will Idris, the young Taliban who arrested her father, see through her disguise?

I thought the Breadwinner was going to be another earnest, educational kids’ cartoon, but it’s not that at all. It’s an exciting and wonderful animated feature that captivated me from start to finish. The main story – a girl trying to rescue her father – is told alongside an Afghan fairytale about scary monsters in the mountains. It’s a Canadian-Irish co-production with amazing art full of swirling colours and patterns, drawn in a distinctive, flat, cut-out style.

Great movie.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

Dir: Bharat Nalluri

It’s 1843. Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is a wildly popular novelist who lives in an ornate London mansion with his wife and kids. His Don Quixote-like father (Jonathan Pryce) has taken up residence in his home, running through cash like a sand in a sieve. There’s a young nanny and a portly housekeeper, Mrs Fisk (Miriam Margolyse) to keep things running properly. He lives high on the hog – his wife just ordered a crystal chandelier. Only problem is he’s bankrupt, his latest novels bombed (ever hear of Barnaby Rudge? Me neither) and, worst of all, he has writer’s block. He can’t come up with a story. If he doesn’t publish something soon, he’ll be in big trouble come January. So he decides to write a Christmas story and publish it himself. But about what?

He takes careful notes — a quote here, a name or a face there – and new characters begin to take shape in his head. He asks an elderly waiter at his gentlemen’s club his name. “It’s Marley”. A crooked lawyer has heavy chains all over an iron safe. A rich man he encounters asks “Are there no prisons for the poor? No workhouses?” And at a funeral with only one stingy mourner, an old man dressed in black (Christopher Plummer) mutters Humbug when he passes Dickens. It’s Scrooge in the flesh! Now all he has to do is write the damned thing. But can he finish A Christmas Carol in time?

I think everyone knows the story about Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the Ghost of Christmas Past. What’s interesting here is to see the real-life inspirations that led to the book. It also reveals some real surprises about Dickens’s own ghosts from his childhood, a frightening litany of debtors prisons and child labour that haunted his adult life. Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) offers a clean-shaven Dickens, and Plummer is perfect as his foil, a funny Scrooge who lives in Dickens’s head along with the rest of his characters.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is fun holiday fare.

Solaris

Dir: Andrey Tarkovsky

It’s the Soviet Union, some time in the distant future. Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is visiting his fathers country home to meet an importany guest, a former cosmonaut named Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky). Berton had been living – along wth other scientists – on a space station parked above a distant planet named Solaris. This planet is covered with water that moves and communicates using waves (as in waves in the ocean). These waves, and this planet seems to have extraordinary power: it can evolve and change from exposure to earthlings like Berton. But his evidence, the film brought back, was useless. So Kelvin goes to the station to investigate and decide whether the three scientists – doctors Sartorius, Girbarian and Snaut – are still productive or if it’s time to close it all down.

When he gets there it’s worse than he feared. One is dead, one looks like something the cat dragged in, and the third has locked himself into his room and won’t come out. Is everyone on Solaris nuts? Then he begins to feel it too. The beautiful Kari (Natalya Bondarchuk), his former lover from years ago, appears in his bedroom, exactly as he remembers her, complete with brown suede dress. Far from an illusion they make in his quarters. And she seems to be immortal. Trauma, injury, death or banishment won’t take her away from him, she reappears anew no matter what happens. And the space ship itself gradually morphs from sterile minimalist metal and, glass into a warm and inviting replica of the home he left. But is it all just an illusion?

Everyone has told me for years how great a director Tarkovsky is. But I had only seen one movie by him – Nostalghia – when I was a student and hated it so much I swore I would never watch his films again. What a waste, and what a mistake.

Tarkovsky is a genius, and Solaris is as brilliant and shocking as everyone says. It’s a must-see for all science fiction fans. It doesn’t have the lasers and space battles, the quick editing and CGIs expected in contemporary space movies, but it doesn’t need it.

It’s perfect the way it is.

And no spoilers here, but the ending is a total shock.

The Breadwinner and The Man Who Invented Christmas open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And a new print of Solaris is playing at the Tiff Bell Lightbox as part of a Tarkovsky retrospective. 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

 

Looking for trouble. Films reviewed: Thelma, Amerika Square, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted in Coming of Age, Greece, Norway, Racism, Refugees, Supernatural, Vengeance, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 17, 2017

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

More fall film festivals: The EU Film Fest brings free movies from across Europe to Toronto; and look out for the all-Canadian horror festival called Blood in the Snow – BITS for short – coming next weekend.

We all face trouble at times, but some people seem to invite it. This week I’m looking at movies about people getting into trouble. There’s a bigot in Athens trying to make trouble, a young woman in Oslo trying to avoid trouble, and a middle-aged woman in Missouri who acts like trouble is her middle name.

Thelma

Dir: Joachim Trier

It’s present day Norway. Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a teenaged girl at university in Oslo who is living on her own for the very first time. She was homeschooled by devout Christian parents including a very strict father. Aside from frequent calls from her parents checking up on her, Thelma is suddenly free to discover life on her own. She gets invited to parties, drinks beer, has arguments about politics, and flirts with an obnoxious boy who pursues her relentlessly. It’s thrilling, but also scary. Strange things seem to happen around her when she’s nervous. When she really starts to panic she shakes, shivers, and collapses into what look like epileptic seizures. But are they? And all around her nature seems to react: birds crash into windows, leaves rustle, then things start to shake, break and shatter.

Anja (Kaja Wilkins) is one of her classmates who looks out for her. They seem to have a psychic bond, meeting almost at random – when athelma wants to see her, she seems to just appear. More than that, there’s a strong sexual attraction between the two of them. But Thelma is afraid to tell her the truth: when she thinks hard enough she unleashes forces that can make people… disappear!

Thelma is a terrific coming of age drama full of suspense, mystery and the supernatural. It’s been called the Norwegian Carrey – fundamentalist christian girl with telekinetic powers – but it’s also totally different. She’s not bullied, she’s not weak, and there’s a fascinating love story in the mix.

Harboe and Wilkins — great as Thelma and Anja — are both new faces I want to see more of.

Amerika Square

Dir: Yannis Sakandis

Present-day Athens. Billy (Yannis Stankoglou) is a chill tattoo artist who runs his own shop. He looks like a young Bruce Springsteen in a diverse, workingclass neighbourhood. He lives in an apartment block near Amerika Square, a rundown local park. He just wants to live his life. Tarek (Vassilis Koukalani) is a Syrian refugee with a small daughter. He wants to make his way to safety in Germany, but keeps failing. And when he gets separated from his daughter he breaks into panic mode. Tereza (Ksenia Dania) is a beautiful, biracial nightclub singer (who speaks Greek). She wants to escape local hoodlums who control her. She meets Billy when she asks him to rewrite her tattoo and free her from virtual slavery. Is there something more between Billy and Tereza? Nakos (Makis Papadimitriou) is overweight and underemployed. He’s in his late thirties but still lives with his parents. He is obsessed with foreigners – he methodically counts how many live in the apartment and worries there will be more immigrants than Greeks. They’re changing everything and taking over! he says. His own parents migrated to Athens from a small village, but he considers the square his own. And he’s willing to do almost anything to drive the immigrants out. Will this include murder?

Amerika Square is a good drama about the current conflicts in Athens and across Europe. It looks at the plight of refugees and migrants, locals who welcome them, and the rise of rightwing groups who violently oppose immigration. It follows an ensemble cast in a complex storylines that all comes together in the end, along with a few ironic plot twists.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Wri/Dir: Martin McDonagh

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a divorced woman who runs a gift shop in tiny Ebbing Missouri. She’s been on edge since her teenaged daughter was brutally raped and murdered. The police have yet to charge anyone with the crime. So she rents three derelict billboards on a road near her home. The billboards, like giant Burma Shave signs, ask in garish letters, why Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) hasn’t caught the killer. But when the story is picked up by local media, the powers that be fight back: highschool bullies, her dentist, even a priest. They strongly pressure her to take down the signs, and attack her friends, employees and even her son (Lucas Hedges). But she refuses. This ignites a feud between Mildred and one cop in particular, the corrupt and bigoted Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon lives with his gravelly voiced mother who goads him on to greater and greater acts of violence. But Mildred fights back, upping the ante from words to fistfights, to shooting to firebombing.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a satisfying, exciting, but extremely violent movie about irascible characters facing big issues in a small town. I call it cutely violent – which fits with the director’s other movies: In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. The violence is extreme and graphic, but it always retains a touch of humour. Peter Dinklage and Sam Rockwell are back again, but this time a woman is allowed to shine in the lead role, with great results. Frances McDormand is perfect as this hateable/loveable character. Mildred might curse a blue streak but you can still see the heart in this irascible, hard-ass woman.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF17.

Thelma and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri both open today in Toronto; check our local listings.  Amerika Square is playing at Toronto’s European Union Film Festival. Go to euffto.com 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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