Aug 19, 2011. History Rewrites Itself. Movies Reviewed: Sarah’s Key, United Red Army, Caterpillar, The Whistleblower

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

Lot’s of people say: if you don’t watch out, history will repeat itself. Maybe so. But I’m more interested in the way history rewrites itself.

What once was glorious is later seen as shameful. What once was righteous is later cruel and unfair. What once was dubbed a “Mission Accomplished” is now seen as the start of an illegal war. And then there are all the people and events that seem to disappear entirely only to be brought back decades later. Faces of purged politicians used to appear or disappear in official photos in the days long before photoshop.

So today I’m looking at four movies set in the past where the filmmakers or characters present history in a new way.

Sarah’s Key

Dir: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Julia (Kirsten Scott-Thomas) is a magazine journalist in Paris who is moving into her husband’s apartment in Le Marais, even while she’s researching the notorious Vel d’Hiv incident. This was when the French police rounded up most of the Jewish immigrants in Paris and locked them into a bicycle racing stadium for a few days before shipping them off to their death in German concentration camps.

So, after a bit of research, Julia is disturbed to discover that her husband’s family had first moved into the apartment she’s about to live in on that very day in the 1940’s. And then she finds out that two kids, a little girl Sarah and her brother, who used to live in that house are nowhere in any historical records. What happened to them? The movie jumps back and forth between Julia’s quest, nowadays, to discover the truth; and little blonde Sarah (Mélusine Mayance)’s attempt to escape back home to rescue her little brother whom she had locked in a hidden closet during the roundup.

The kids’ story — and what became of them — provides the suspense in this movie, as Julia gradually pieces the puzzle back together and reveals the hidden truth of Sarah’s extraordinary wartime adventure.

Are Sarah and her brother still alive? If they are, where are they now? And what was Julia’s in-laws’ actual role in all this?

This is a French movie, so the English dialogue sounds a bit stilted. The dramatic, historical flashbacks are more interesting than the present-day parts, but the sum-total still leaves you with a generally good, exciting drama.

Caterpillar

Dir: Kôji Wakamatsu

Lieutenant Kurokawa (Keigo Kasuya), a brutal husband and a vicious soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army in WWII, is badly burned while sexually assaulting a woman in her home on the Chinese battlefront. He barely survives the fire, and his armless, legless torso with just a badly burned head is sent home to his village. He’s declared a hero and a War God, and sits silently in his military uniform like like an evil anti-Buddha. He can barely speak, and his wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima) is horrified. She almost tries to murder him, but stops when he begins to speak.

At first Shigeko stays subservient and dutiful toward her cruel husband. She is shamed by her neighbours into keeping up appearances.

He sleeps, he eats, he sleeps, he eats, and glories in the medals he won, and the framed newspaper clipping extolling his exploits for the sake of the Japanese Empire. And by grunting, and pulling at her skirt with his teeth he tells her whenever he wants sex. She grudgingly, patriotically goes along with him.

But gradually power shifts: without hands he can no longer beat her to keep her compliant. without a voice, he can’t shut out her opinions. And given his newly submissive position in sex he begins to identify with the women he had raped in China.

This is a brilliantly acted, absurdist black comedy about the collapse of Imperial Japan. It contrasts the tragedy and cruelty of war with the inane barrage of recorded martial marches, brass bands and morality lessons, and slogans repeated by everyone on the homefront. Radio propaganda broadcasts predict imminent victory even as the Americans are firebombing Tokyo. An extremely strange but fascinating movie, Caterpillar shows the disconnect between the official history of the period and the lives of ordinary Japanese people.

In another movie…

United Red Army

Dir: Kôji Wakamatsu

Iooks at an almost forgotten period of radical upheaval from the far left in a more recent period of Japanese history – the 60’s and 70’s. Supposedly peaceful Japan was turned on its head with authority challenged by protests, sit-ins and violent occupations at hundreds of universities.

This long and devastating docudrama, looks at two breakaway radical revolutionary groups in Eastern and Western Japan that temporary joined together into the United Red Army under its two charismatic leaders, a man and a woman. In an isolated cabin in the Japan alps they rethink their policies and insist that all members take part in self-criticism.

(These are the same groups that, along with the German Red Army Faction, were hijacking planes around the world in the 1970’s.)

This movie is divided into three sections. Part one is a cold, documentary-style look at the upheavals at that time. Part two, is an epic, human drama of what becomes of the idealistic revolutionaries when they are hidden in their mountain cabin, and how their grandiose ideas of Cultural Revolution gradually degenerate into an agonizing, Lord of the Flies-style struggle, leading to violence, bullying, torture and death. The third part follows some of these members who later take over a country inn in an extended showdown with the Japanese police.

United Red Army is a devastating, relentless look at the members of the radical Japan Red Army and their ideological implosion behind the scenes.

In another rewriting of history,

The Whistleblower

Dir: Larysa Kondracki

…is a dramatic thriller set during the UN peacekeeping period following the Yugoslavian civil war in the 90’s. Kathryn (Rachel Weiss) a divorced, small-town American cop, takes a position in Sarajevo so she can earn some money and pay for shared custody of her daughter. She is quickly promoted (by a kindly Vanessa Redgrave) to a special unit that advocates and investigates crimes against women.

Meanwhile, Raya (Roxanne Condurache) is a young Ukrainian from Kiev who also takes on a foreign job in Bulgaria for a few months. She ends up in Sarajevo as well. But Kathryn is shocked to learn that Raya (and many women like her) are trafficked across borders, and are living in horrific conditions in a brothel, as virtual sex slaves. And the plot thickens when she discovers that some of the peace-keeping soldiers, corrupt local police, “Fancy diplomats” and UN bureaucrats are also involved, not only as johns, but possibly as pimps and organized criminals. So it’s up to Kathryn and her few allies to try to blow the whistle on this scandal. But who can she trust?

I wanted to like this movie – which seemed like an extended version of Law and Order SVU – but it was a pretty bad, no, an awful movie. I am not giving away any spoilers here – the whole movie basically tells you what’s going to happen in the first couple minutes. It’s called The Whistleblower, so no surprises here. It’s mainly about helpless weeping women saying “save us”, evil Bosnian Serbs saying “No!”, and smarmy UN personel who just don’t care. Kathryn has to do it all herself. It’s much too simple and predictable a plot:

United Nations = Bad

Yugoslavians = Bad

Peacekeepers = Bad

Women = Victims

US small-town cop = Good

The Whistleblower is now playing, check your local listings, Sarah’s Key opens today in Toronto; and United Red Army and Caterpillar also open today, exclusively at the Projection Booth, a new theatre in Eastern Toronto. Also opening is Spy Kids in 4-D with smell-o-vision: warning: most of the spots on the card smell like SweetTarts, just don’t sniff odour number 6!

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining.com.

July 22, 2011. Final Fantasy. Movies reviewed: Captain America, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Shirome

Posted in Action, Bullying, Comics, Crime, High School, Horror, Magic, Monsters, Mystery, Nazi, Sex, Uncategorized, violence, War, Women, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2011

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

It’s hottest summertime when a young person’s fancy turns to … fantasy (to mangle a quote.) School’s out, offices are closed, cottages are open, job vacations are on, and blockbusters, filled with the fantastical, pack the theatres. This week I’m looking at three movies about the supernatural with their origins tied to traditional youth culture: One’s adapted from a kid’s book, one from a comic book, and one starring a group of teen idols In an unusual situation.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Dir: David Yates

Everyone knows who Harry Potter is – the English orphan boy who discovers he’s a wizard, studies magic at the Hogwarts academy, and – with his friends Ron and Hermione — is in an ongoing fight with his evil nemesis, the snakelike Voldemort. Well this movie, the second half of the last book of the series, picks up exactly where the last one left off. Harry and his friends must find and destroy the rest of the horcruxes (little objects that hold part of Voledmort’s power) or else everything they live for will be lost, the school will be ruined, and all the people enslaved.

This final movie was filled with long serious scenes of gravitas, Harry grimacing at the camera, the good guys giving their all for the final battle, the confrontation between good and evil. The usual villains are there – Snape, Draco Malfoy, Bellatrix Lastrange and the Death Eaters – but some startling twists and discoveries show that things aren’t always what they first appear to be. A lot of the humour, the traditional school scenes, and the fun sense of adventure are missing here, but audiences seem to lap it up anyway – who wants it to be just another episode when it’s the final one? There was a long ovation after the last scene in the theatre, with scores of costumed viewers — more adults than kids — applauding a blank screen as the credits rolled.

I enjoyed it (although most of the 3D effects were pretty lame – you may as well see it in 2D and save a few bucks) but, like the last book in the series, it left me with the hollow, sad feeling that an era was over.

The next movie

Captain America

Dir: Joe Johnston

…had – for me — a lot of points in its favour before I even saw it. It’s a WWII European action drama of the allies versus the Nazis, it’s adapted from a comic book, and it uses a fun sub-genre called body transformation or body growth. This usually involves a 98-pound weakling who gets sand kicked in his face who (through some natural or supernatural phenomenon) turns instantly into an invincible super hero. On the negative side, Captain America looks militaristic, it’s overly nationalistic, and more than a bit corny. In the 50’s Captain America was trotted out as a symbol of American conservativism, Cold War anti-communism and McCarthyism, and by the 60’s and 70’s was thought of as a hopelessly dated, and almost fascistic caricature, a symbol of the country’s misadventures in Vietnam.

So… what about the movie? Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who wants to join the army. He never runs away from a fight, despite his skinny body, asthma, and flat feet. He hates bullies, and stands up to them, but it’s left to his best buddy, Bucky, to rescue him from the dust-ups. But he’s rejected from joining the army until a German scientist who had fled the Nazis brings him into an elite squad of potential superfighters. He trains alongside much bigger guys, but catches the attention of the beautiful and sultry, but tough, British Spy Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell).  The scientist chooses him for his experiments because of his true heart, and because he has compassion and no killer instinct. So after an injection he’s transformed into an almost indestructible hero – strong, fast, muscular and agile. And he carries a round metal shield. But instead of being a fighter, he’s made the centrepiece of a kitschy Victory Bonds team who tour America to raise money, performing on stage in elaborate musical numbers with red, white, and blue, high- kicking dancing girls.

Meanwhile, his nemesis, Dr Shmidt (Hugo Weaving), — an evil man who is out-nazi-ing even the Nazis in his Nordic mysticism and a master race – is preparing ultimate victory. He’s also super-powerful but he is cruel and selfish where Captain America is kind and just. Schmidt and his lackeys say “Hail Hydra” (instead of Heil Hitler) in deference to his plans. And where Cap is handsome, Schmidt is hideously ugly once he removes his face mask, revealing a red skull underneath.

Will Captain America prove himself as a real hero not an imitation one? Will he be able to give back what he owes his buddy Buck for past rescues? Will he consummate his love for Agent Carter? And will he be able to beat the indestructible villain?

Although mainly just a war and battle movie, Captain America was very enjoyable to watch. The art direction – yes, that’s what I mean, the whole look of the movie – was amazing, and its corniness was presented with enough tongue in cheek to balance the kitsch. And the 3D effects were fantastic, with some especially pleasing shots of 3D faces against flat, green-screen projections, like in Lars Van Trier’s Europa. So if you like comic-book war scenes, with lots of explosions, and simple two dimensional characters, this is a good movie for that.

Shirome

Dir: Shiraishi Koji

It’s typical for Japanese idols, talents, or stars to be followed around by cameras all day long. So it sort of makes sense that their a strange video about a pop group. In this tape, an under-aged Japanese girl group called Momoiro Clover is shooting a promo when they are asked to make an appearance, on camera, at an old, abandoned school. Apparently, legend has it, a spirit known as Shirome – “White Eyes” – will grant them any sincere and heart-filled wish, as long as its repeated three times in front of its marker – a butterfly on an old wall. But if they disobey the rules they may be found dead, just like other people who had tried this.

Their manager convinces them to wish for a chance to appear on the annual Red and White New Years Day Show, where celebrities, singers and idols perform for all of Japan. But a teller of ghost stories spooks them and they don’t know what to do. Should they accompany the exorcists and psychics into Shirome’s den in the old abandoned schoolhouse? Or should they run away as fast as they can?

This movie is a strange one.  It’s 50% treakly, cutesy over-performing teen idols talking to an ever-present video camera, pursing their lips, posing, and repeating their routines, or bursting into catchy music-video numbers. And 50% Japanese-style horror, with a strange, little white butterfly appearing on grainy footage enchanting and choking various characters as it flutters past. And the usual crackling video, starting and stopping, and almost unnoticeable evil seeping in and out of recovered footage. Picture Paranornal Activity, but instead of actors, starring a Japanese girl group. Death by kawaii-sa?

A strange movie indeed.

Harry Potter and Captain America are playing now, and Shirome and other new Japanese films are playing this weekend only at the Shinsedai Film Festival – go to shinsedai-toronto.com .

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining . com.

July 15, 2011. Things Fall Apart. Movies Reviewed: Horrible Bosses, Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times, Hospitalité

Posted in Dentist, documentary, Drama, Japan, Journalism, L.A., Uncategorized, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2011

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

Movies sometimes seem like an undifferentiated mass of formless entertainment flickering on a big screen, each movie like the one you saw last week, and all of them disconnected from daily life, from the real world. Bit it’s worth it to take a step back and view films like an alien might from outer space, or someone ten years in the future who just came back in a time machine. Because, with a bit of distance, you start to notice themes and trends from one movie to the next.

Right now, at the back of everyone’s minds, is the economic meltdown, the unraveling of businesses and workplaces, the lack of job security, and the fear of unanticipated change. So this week I’m looking at three movies — a comedy, a documentary, and a comic drama — about workplaces facing crises and that may be on the verge of falling apart.

Horrible Bosses

Dir: Seth Gordon

Three friends, Nick, Dale and Kurt, all hate their bosses. Squeaky voiced Dale (Charlie Day) is a dental hygenist who’s sexually harassed by his nymphomaniacal dentist boss, who wants to have sex with him over the sedated bodies of her patients. Nick (Jason Bateman) works in sales at a big company, and has to kiss ass to get his sadistic boss to give him the vice president position. And Kurt’s (Jason Sudeikas) nemesis is the boss’s son, who’s trying to run the business into the ground so he can skim off the profits to pay for his coke habit.

So, at a point of desperation, the three of them come up with a twisted plan to kill each other’s bosses – hilarity ensues. Well, not exactly.

It’s a bit funny, but not that funny. It’s not slapstick, nor screwball, nor sketch comedy – some combination of all three. The script is condescending: typically, it tells a funny joke, but then explains it, so the people who don’t get the joke the first time can laugh too. What’s really weird abut this movie is that Dale, Kurt and Nick are played by TV comedy actors, the bosses and side parts are played by more famous movie stars like Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, and Colin Farrell. It sort of works but sort of seems wrong, like a movie disconnect. Jason Bateman is OK but his part isn’t that funny, and Jason Sudeikas comes across as a low-rent Will Farrell. Aside from a very funny scene involving cocaine, only Jennifer Anniston as the slutty dentist and Charlie Day get the comedy just right. I wouldn’t call this a horrible movie, but it’s not a boss pic either…

Meanwhile, another business is going through huge changes, and a new documentary looks at what’s happening to it.

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times

Dir: Andrew Rossi

So the NY Times is at a point of crisis. With the economic meltdown, circulation didn’t drop, but advertising did – by some 30%. Newspapers, some more than a hundred years old, are folding across the US. Some people say that print is dead, and the movie begins with a haunting image of copies of the Times just hanging there, upside down, in the printing queue like so many slaughtered and plucked chickens in an abbatoir.

And it faces more problems. Judith Miller and other Times journalists served as government lap poodles printing dubious articles on Saddam Hussein’s mythical Weapons of Mass Destruction, which were later quoted by Bush’s government as justification for their invasion. After all, the Times printed it – it must be true. (Miller is asked on TV whether she’s a journalist or a stenographer.) And online sources like Wikileaks and Gawker are usurping the first stage in the news cycle which used to be the undisputed domain of the press, especially the front page of the New York Times. And many people get their news from aggregate sites like Huffington Post that poach stories from the real journalists who write them.

This is a very interesting, well-made documentary. It humanizes something as mammoth as the NY Times by concentrating on its reporters, editors, and columnists, especially the very fascinating and entertaining former crackhead David Carr, an opinionated and witty, dedicated champion of the newspaper, who curses like a sailor but puts the dot-com weenies in their place.

Meanwhile, in another part of the world at another printing press, is this new movie out of Japan called

Hospitalité

Dir: Koji Fukuda

Kobayashi, his beautiful wife Natsuki, and their little daughter live a placid existence above the tiny printing company started by his late father. Their home is in Shitamachi, the old part of Tokyo where their biggest worry is finding an escaped parakeet, and fending off the local NIMBY club, neighbourhood watch made of local gossips who warn about dangerous people like the homeless, and the dreaded gaikokujin – foreigners.

But suddenly their lives are turned upside down by the arrival of Kagawa, an old school friend. Kagawa starts fixing up the printing machines, and moves into their house. But soon, all the family secrets start come to light and the skeletons fall out of the dusty closets. Who’s that sketchy man Natsuki was seen with? Whatever happened to Kobayashi’s ex-girlfriend? And how did such an plain man marry such a pretty woman?

When Kagawa’s wife, a sexually- charged, blond dance instructor from Brazil – or possibly Bosnia – arrives too, the norms of the house are turned upside down, culminating with some more unexpected guests and a surprising birthday party. Hospitalite is a good comic family drama about the very real shifts in everyday life in contemporary Japan.

Horrible Bosses and Page One are playing now, and Hospitalite is playing once only at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, next Thursday as part of the Shinsedai Film Festival – look online at Shinsedai-toronto.com.  Also opening today at the Royal is Blank City — a great documentary about No Wave cinema that captures that short, explosive period of wide-open but underground filmmaking in 1980’s NY City: check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining . com.

%d bloggers like this: