Runaways. Films reviewed: Across the Waters, Wonderstruck

Posted in 1920s, 1940s, 1970s, Denmark, Fantasy, Jazz, Kids, Manhattan, Movies, Nazi, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 20, 2017

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

Film Festival season continues in Toronto. Planet in Focus is an environmental film festival that bring eco heroes – like astronaut Roberta Bondar – to Toronto along with amazing documentaries from around the world. Everything from a grocery co-op in Brooklyn to a plastic recycling plant in Shandong, China to Genetically Modified Organisms, which are, well, everywhere. Go to Planetinfocus.org for more information.

ImagineNative is indigenous films and media arts, including an art crawl around the city, a wall is a screen, and many workshops, breakfasts and events. It has scary movies, westerns, docs, dramas, animation and so much more. Go to imaginenative.org for details.

This week I’m looking at two movies about people running away. One has a boy and a girl running away to New York City to find family. And the other has a father fleeing Copenhagen to save his family.

Across the Waters

Dir: Nicolo Donato (Brotherhood)

It’s 1943, in German-occupied Copenhagen. It’s an uneasy peace, but because of an agreement the Germans leave the Danes alone. Arne (David Dencik) is a guitarist in a jazz band. He is passionately in love with his wife Miriam (Danica Curcic) and they spend all their free time having sex. But only after they put their 6 year old son to bed. Jacob (Anton Dalgård Guleryüz) likes listening to Danish poems and playing with his teddy bear. Everything is going fine – no need to worry about the Nazis; this is Denmark, not Poland. Until that knock on the door comes one night – the Germans are coming! Run! Now!

The family is Jewish and the Nazis are there to take them away.

There’s only one way to escape; and that’s by boat to neutral Sweden. But how? They make their way north to a small port called Gilleleje, where they hear the fisherman are helping people across the sea. But when they get there things aren’t as good as they hoped.

One fisherman named Kaj is demanding high fares. But Arne and Miriam are nearly broke. There are way too many refugees in the town to keep them a secret from the Nazis. While some of the locals – the police chief, the pastor – are risking their lives to save fellow Danes, others have questionable motives. Who can be trusted, and who is collaborating? And will the family escape to Sweden?

Across the Waters is a fictional retelling of a true story. The movie is Danish but it was shot in Ireland to give it that period, seaside look. I always like a good WWII drama, and there have been some great Danish films, like Flame and Citron and Land of Mine, that deal with the topic. This one is smaller and more of a family drama than an action thriller, but it does keep the tension and suspense at a high level. (Including a scene reminiscent of Melville’s Army of Shadows.)

Worth seeing.

WonderStruck

Wonderstruck

Dir: Todd Haynes

It’s the late 1970s in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a 12 year old boy who lives with his aunt’s family. He suffers from strange dreams since his mom, a librarian, was killed in a car accident. Some nightmares involve being chased by wolves, but others are stranger still. They tell a continuous story, night after night, and they’re silent, and in black and white — just like an old movie.

These dreams tell a parallel story about Rose (Millicent Simmonds) a 12-year-old girl who lives in her father’s mansion in 1927 like a bird in a gilded cage. He’s a rich, divorced man in Hoboken, New Jersey. Rose’s head is in the stars – she spends most of her days reading title cards at silent movies or collecting photos she cuts from magazines. She’s obsessed with a certain pale-skinned movie actress named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).

Rose doesn’t go to school. But when she discovers her local theatre is switching to talkies she she knows it’s time for a change. She’s deaf and can only communicate by writing things down or reading words on a screen. So she bobs her hair and takes the ferry into Manhattan where she hopes to find the legendary actress.

Ben, meanwhile, is an orphan. His mom never told him who his birth father was. But looking through her things he finds an old bookmark with a message. It was tucked into a book about a museum collection, and the message was written by someone named Danny who visited their town before he was born. Could this be his dad?

But when he tries to call him up long distance, lightening strikes — literally. The electric shock travels through the phone line, leaving Ben deaf (just like Rose). But he catches a bus to New York City anyway, arriving at the Port Authority carrying just the name of a bookstore and a handful of cash. There he meets another 12-year-old named Jamie (Jaden Michael) who befriends him and says he’ll help him find his (possible) dad.

Jamie gives Ben a place to stay… a storage rooms at the Museum of Natural History (where Jamie’s father works). Will Ben find his dad? And will Rose find the movie star? Can two deaf 12-year-olds survive in a huge city? And what connects the two runaways?

Wonderstruck is a wonderful kids movie about seeking the unknown. It’s full of dreams, coincidences, and flashbacks, too many for it to be a real story. But it works great as a kids’ fantasy. It’s also beautifully made, using amazing animated paper models to tell part of the story. And through ingenious special effects, it incorporates the two main characters into what looks like period footage — of streetlife in New York in the gritty but colourful 70s,  and the fuzzy black-and-white 20s.

Just wonderful.

Wonderstruck opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Across the Waters is playing Sunday afternoon as part of the Chai Tea and Movies programme. Go to tjff.com for details.

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

Making history. Films reviewed: Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Goodbye Christopher Robin, BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, 1990s, France, H.I.V., Kids, LGBT, Poetry, Politics, Pop Culture, Protest, Watergate, WWI by CulturalMining.com on October 13, 2017

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

It’s festival season in Toronto: Reel World film festival brings the world’s untold stories to the big screen; and Toronto After Dark has horror, sci-fi and fantasy pics that make you laugh your ass off or will scare your pants off. Toronto after Dark and Reel World are both on right now.

But this week I’m looking at historical dramas based on real events. We’ve got protests in Paris, politics in Washington, and Pooh in East Sussex.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Dir: Peter Landesman

It’s June, 1972 in Washington DC. Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) a top-ranked FBI agent, notices something strange: burglars were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel. And they weren’t stealing money, they were looking for files. And the burglars are former Federal agents. Who is behind it all? Felt investigates. The trail leads to the White House where Richard Nixon is running for reelection. But his investigation is stifled by a suspicious political appointee named Gray. He’s the provisional head of the FBI – J. Edgar Hoover just died — and seems to be taking orders from the White House. This is a no-no. And the White House seem to know everything the FBI is doing – is there a leak in the Bureau? So Felt decides to do some leaking himself. He secretly meets with reporters from Time Magazine and the Washington Post to pass on crucial information. Will the truth about Nixon and Watergate come out and can Felt keep his identity a secret?

No spoilers here: you’ve probably heard of the Watergate scandal that brought down Nixon. And about Deep Throat – the mysterious source journalists Woodward and Bernstein used to break their stories. And the Senate Watergate Hearings which investigated it all. This movie, though, looks at it from an entirely new perspective: as a power struggle between the White House and the FBI, personified by Felt a career federal agent.

It’s also about Felt’s private life, with his depressed, alcoholic wife Audrey (Diane Lane), and his hippy daughter who disappears and who Felt thinks is a member of the Weathermen Underground. At its worst, this film seems to paint the FBI – which has plenty of its own skeletons in its closet — as the saviour of a nation. But at its best it captures the mood of a superb thriller, based on a huge, real-life conspiracy.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Dir: Simon Curtis

A.A. Milne (Domhnal Gleeson) is a popular playwright in London’s west end just back from WWI. On the surface he’s full of witty patter, all whizbang and tiddley poo. But he’s actually he’s shell-shocked: Champagne corks or popping balloons send him diving for cover. He’s so shaken up he moves out to the country where he hopes to write an anti-war book in peace. His flapper wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) makes it clear she would much rather be partying in London. Milne has writer’s block. And the crying baby makes the situation even worse. They hire a nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to help raise their son Christopher Robin whom they call Billy Moon. But when Daphne moves back to London, and Olive to her dying mother’s bedside, Milne is suddenly left alone with a son he barely knows (Will Tilston). He has to talk to him, cook for him and entertain him.

And that’s when some serious father-son bonding kicks in. They go on adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood, climb trees, make up stories and play with Billy Moon’s stuffed animals – a teddy bear, a piglet, and a donkey. He invites his friend — an illustrator — to draw pictures of it all. And Milne begins to write poems. He sends one, Vespers, about their son praying before bed, to Daphne in London to show her he’s writing again. She submits it to Vanity Fair and soon it’s a huge hit. Milne publishes his poems and stories and, suddenly, his son and the toys he plays with – Winnie the Pooh, and Kanga and Roo – become celebrities, famous around the world. The boy is dressed up and trotted out for book tours and toy stores and radio interviews. And this upsets him. Strangers know everything about his private life and his imaginary inventions. They think he’s a fictional character come to life, but he’s not Christopher Robin. He’s Billy Moon. Can the family stop this tide of fame before their lives are ruined?

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a touching story about the reality behind the beloved childrens’ books. It’s also the contrast between the British stiff upper lip – no touching or showing emotion – and all the humour and imagination yearning to escape. The movie is a bit slow in parts, and sometimes succombs to nostalgia and sentimentality, but I liked it anyway. And it also has beautiful locations and great costumes.

BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Dir: Robin Campillo

It’s the early 1990s in Paris, AIDS is at its peak and people are in a panic. The government makes speeches but does nothing and big pharma is sitting on crucial medication. Meanwhile, people are dying every day. So a group of activists launch a protest group called Act Up Paris (after its US counterpart) and spring into action.

They storm into government meetings and pharmaceutical offices, throwing plastic sacs of fake blood at the walls. Then they stage mass die-ins, falling to the floor until they’re dragged away by police. They meet in university lecture halls to hash out their disagreements: men and women of all ages and sexualities. But will their actions fall on deaf ears?

BPM is a story about the group, but especially two of its members, Sean –a scrawny, cynical latino (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart ) and Nathan, a student from a small town (Arnaud Valois). After a spontaneous first kiss – when they take over a high school to teach safe sex – they move in together: Sean is HIV positive, Nathan negative. Their relationship is intense and passionate, partly because Sean might die at any moment. BPM is a long and detailed – but very moving – look at a civil disobedience movement. It captures the fluidity and uncertainty of life and love in the midst of a crisis.

BPM, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House and Goodbye Christopher Robin 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.

Western-ish. Films reviewed: Lucky, Hostiles, Sweet Country

Posted in 1800s, 1920s, Australia, Indigenous, Movies, Music, US, violence, Western, Wilderness by CulturalMining.com on October 6, 2017

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

If the western seems like an old, tired genre to you, there are some new movies you should take a look at. They reinvent the western by changing key elements and points of view.

This week I’m looking at three new movies that are westerns (or at least western-ish). There’s justice in the outback, a northbound trail, and a lonesome cowboy in the great southwest.

Lucky

Dir: John Carroll Lynch

Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) is a very lucky man. He’s 89 years old, smokes a pack a day, lives on milk, coffee and bloody mary’s – and not much else – and is still in perfect health. He’s a crotchety old coot who wears cowboy boots and a straw hat. He lives alone in a small town in the great southwest, amidst giant Seguara cacti and hundred-year-old tortoises. He likes yoga calisthenics, mariachi and crossword puzzles. He hangs out at the local diner by day and at the corner bar at night. So why is Lucky so sad?

The other day he fell in his kitchen for no reason. His doctor says that’s just what happens when you’re old. This makes Lucky reexamine his long-held attitudes and his stubborn ways. But can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Lucky is a nice and gentle look at an old cowboy in a multi racial southwestern town. It’s an arthouse film, full of music, stories, and funny, quirky characters, (played by David Lynch, Tom Skerrit and others.) It also functions as a tribute to Harry Dean Stanton himself, who plays the music and provides the backstories for the anecdotes Lucky tells. Stanton died earlier this year, but the film is less of an epitaph than a wry celebration of his life.

I like this movie.

Hostiles

Wri/Dir: Scott Cooper

It’s the 1890s in New Mexico. The Indians have all been killed or jailed under an army led by Captain Blocker (Christian Bale). Blocker is widely known for his fighting prowess and his cruelty – they say he’s scalped more natives than anyone. So he’s surprised when the President himself orders him to protect and accompany his sworn enemy on a trip to Montana. Blocker fought and jailed Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) a decade earlier. But now the Chief is dying of cancer and wants to be buried in his ancestral lands. Blocker sets off with the Chief, his family and a squad of soldiers. On the way they meet Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) a dazed mother still holding a dead baby to her breast. Her entire family was wiped out in a Comanche raid a few days earlier. She joins the group. The Chief offers to help them fight the Comanche but Blocker doesn’t trust him – he keeps him shackled to his horse. Is the enemy of his enemy his friend? But as the soldiers travel ever northward they begin to understand their captives, and overcome the fear, bigotry and hatred that killed so many.

Hostiles is a good, traditional western, shot against breathtaking scenery. It’s a bit slow, and there are way too many long-winded apologies as each character asks for forgiveness when he confesses his crimes. (One dramatic mea culpa would have been enough.) Though told from the white point of view, it is sympathetic toward the plight of First Nations. It satisfies as a Western with the horseback riding, shoot-outs and lots of dramatic tension. And Christian Bale makes a great silent soldier who sees the light.

Sweet Country

Dir: Warwick Thonrton

It’s 1929 in Northern Territory, Australia with three homesteads not far from a small town. They’re owned by whites, but worked by aboriginal families. Sam (Hamilton Morris) works for a kindly preacher (Sam Neill); Cattleman Archie (Gibson John) is indigenous but comes from far away. And mixed-race kid Philomac (Tremayne Doolan) lives near — but not with — his white father.

In comes Harry March, a deranged WWI veteran demanding some “black stock” – how he describes aboriginal workers — to repair a fence. Sam and his family volunteer, but March gives them no food or money for their work, and then sexually assaults Sam’s wife.

They flee back to the preacher’s house, pursued by March, armed and dangerous. Sam defends himself but ends up killing March, a white man (as secretly witnessed by Philomac). So Sam and his wife flee into the bush pursued by a posse that includes Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and Archie as their guide.  The sergeant is the de facto law in these parts and plans to lynch Sam whenever he finds him. But things changes when Sam ends up saving the Sergeant’s  life and turning himself in. Then an actual judge shows up to conduct the trial. But can an Aboriginal man receive justice in a white, frontier town?

Sweet Country is an excellent western set in 20th century Australia. It gives a raw and realistic look at brutal racism and frontier justice. It’s also a subtle examination of identity, and the uneasy give-and-take among the different aboriginal groups, the white settlers and their mixed race descendents.

I recommend this movie.

Sweet Country won the Platform Prize at TIFF and the Special Jury Prize at Venice.

Lucky starts today in Toronto, check your local listings, with Hostiles opening later on. You can catch Sweet Country on Thursday, Oct 19th at the Imaginenative film festival. Go to Imaginenative.org for show times and tickets.

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

Schocken and Scribner’s. Films reviewed: Vita Activa — The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, Genius

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, Biopic, Books, Cultural Mining, Germany, Manhattan, Nazi, US, WWII by CulturalMining.com on June 10, 2016

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

Movies based on books are a dime a dozen: there’s a movie option for every bestseller. But what about movies about the books and writers themselves? This week I’m looking at movies set in the mid-20th century when books really were important. There’s a documentary about a philosopher who pulls her observations together; and a biopic about an editor who cuts lengthy manuscripts apart.

Vita Activa PosterVita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Dir: Ada Ushpiz

It’s 1963 in Jerusalem. Adolph Eichmann is on trial there as the primary architect of the mass murder perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Covering the trial for the New Yorker  is Hanna Arendt noted German-Jewish philosopher. She observes the ultimate bland bureaucrat in a glass box who claims he has no hatred of the Jews he slaughtered and says he is not an ideologue. Arendt observes it all, and coins the term the Banality of Evil to describe it. This sets off a huge controversy. Critics accuse her of minimizing the enormity of Nazi crimes, humanizing the criminal and even partially blaming the victims.

How did she go from a girl from Hanover to a philosopher/journalist inHannah Arendt 1 Jerusalem? The path was not direct. This documentary covers the history of her life, both academic and personal, and her philosophy and writings.

Arendt lived through what she wrote about. Born in Hanover, Arendt was raised by her mother. She studied at the University of Marburg under philospher Martin Heidegger (her sometime lover) just before the Nazis came to power in 1933. She was kicked out of  school and suddenly found herself — an ordinary German — as part of a group denounced and dehumanized by government propaganda: the refugees who had fled war and revolution across Europe.  What disheartened her Hannah Arendt 2most was to see German intellectuals (including Heidegger), the very people she revered and was devoting her life to study,  incorporating Nazi rhetoric into their own writing and speeches.

She fled to Paris and continued her work. There she witnessed the rise of extremism and totalitarianism across Europe. Imprisoned in a concentration camp by the French, she escaped and made it to New York, where she wrote about totalitarianism, guilt and responsibility.

This film is a historical document that uses recorded interviews – in English, French and German — to explain her ideas and the events in her Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa, Zeitgeist Filmslife. It’s illustrated by newsreel footage, government propaganda as well as film from the Eichmann trial. Her writing and letters are read by off-screen actors. And both her critics and supporters — including Karl Jaspers and Judith Butler — are given airtime.

This is a rich and beautiful look at the work and life of Hannah Arendt.  It also deals with the debate on her philosophy and the controversies around her coverage of the Eichmann trial. I think this films does a better job than the dramas made about her life.

Genius PosterGenius

Dir: Michael Grandage

Max Perkins (Colin Firth) is a top editor at Scribners and sons, a major New York publisher of fiction. He’s known for championing an unknown writer. He picks up a messy pile of paper, cuts out the unnecessary parts and rewrites it Boom – instant bestseller. Max – known for the fedora he never takes off his head — is the invisible force behind F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He’s the one who edited The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises.

When he’s not at work he’s commuting to the outer suburbs, a bastion of Anglo privilege and conservatism with his wife Louise (Laura Linney) and their five daughters.

But suddenly something upsets the apple cart. A manuscript 7X2A4831.cr2arrives, courtesy of Broadway costume designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman). She’s married with children but champion an unknown writer whose work has been rejected across the industry. He reads it it and is blown away. And who appears his door but Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), a youngish man with messy hair and a brown suit with a heavy southern drawl. He shouts and performs rather than converses. As soon as they meet, the older, bookish Max and the young undisciplined Tom become fast friends and devote all their time trying to convert 1000s of messy pages a pile into a coherent readable novel. Cut, cut, cut says Max. But this is my life! 7X2A3167.cr2protests Tom. The book is published to phenomenal success. And then on to the next manuscript to the chagrine of their famileis and livers But will their bromance outlast Tom’s brush with fame?

13416962_1731661510436823_7285708826814410368_oGenius is an interesting film about writing and editing. That’s what I liked about it.

(Full disclosure: when I’m not reviewing movies I’m editing books – that’s my other job.) I love editing… but is it ever exciting? The movie is filled with writers typing and scribbling, and scribbling away passages with a red pencil. But what the movie really needs is a good edit! It’s filled with tons of speechifying and grandstanding (and dare I say overacting?) Do real writers, even famous ones, talk like they write? Of course not. But in this movie they do.

It’s done as a period piece, complete with beautiful interwar cityscapes, 13418669_1732542140348760_2521662994238663257_operiod costumes and cars, and a great cast. But somehow this movie manages to be both bookish and overwrought.

Spring festival season continues with ICFF, the Italian Contemporary Film Festival and the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, and NIFF, the Niagara Integrated Film Festival. Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; Genius starts next week in Toronto and Vancouver.

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

European movies without subtitles. Films Reviewed: Every Thing Will Be Fine, The Danish Girl, Youth

Posted in 1920s, Canada, Cultural Mining, Denial, Denmark, Depression, Drama, Subtitles, Switzerland, Trans by CulturalMining.com on December 11, 2015

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

If you want to see a European movie, but can’t stand reading subtitles, have I got some movies for you! This week I’m reviewing three movies by famous European directors with multinational casts but only using English dialogue. There’s a Quebec writer trying to forget a terrible accident, a Danish painter who moves to Paris trying to escape her gender, and some artists at a Swiss spa who just want to while away the hours.

937bf644-3b7d-46c3-afbe-2a31f9fc5010Every Thing Will be Fine

Dir: Wim Wenders

Tomas (James Franco) is a novelist in Quebec. He’s gone ice fishing to clear his mind, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. He has writers’ block, severe depression and marital problems. And his elderly father (Patrick Bauchau) is even worse. Tomas’s partner Sara (Rachel McAdams) really wants to help him, 84ae3573-1ae0-47b2-8096-2f80afa9120fbut he doesn’t seem to want to be helped. And then disaster strikes: driving home in a blizzard he doesn’t see two kids tobogganing down a hill right in front of him. After the accident he brings the older boy, Christopher, home to his mom Kate’s home (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It wasn’t Tomas’s fault but it messed up his life, Sara’s, Kate’s and even little Christopher’s. He hits rock bottom and tries to kill himself. It doesn’t work. But things do get better. Gradually.

His sorrows provide new material for his next book, and at 514025f3-9433-4f89-8c51-d373855a4ddea meeting at his publisher he encounters Ann (Marie-Josée Croze) a woman with a young daughter. And over the next dozen or so years, things really do become fine for Tomas. But what has become of the other people affected by the accident?

This is a movie about relationships, guilt and memory. It’s also about writing and the ownership of eba43d3e-47f0-4377-8f51-60673f8c9c2aevents and ideas. Who controls the way a story is told? The writer or the subjects? And it’s shot in beautiful Quebec locations. But is it a good movie? For the first half hour at least, Wim Wenders’ film is almost unbearably slow. Slow as molasses on a cold winter’s day. Slow as sap dripping out of a maple tree. Pauses between each line so long you could step outside for a break and not miss a thing. That kind of depressing slowness. But everything becomes much better as the movie goes on until, by the end, it’s actually a very interesting movie.

The second half redeems the first.

pgLRWV_danishgirl_01_o3_8707307_1441409186-1The Danish Girl

Dir: Tom Hooper

Einer Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) is a young, successful landscape artist 100 years ago, in turn-of-the-century Copenhagen. He’s married to another artist a portrait painter named Gerda (Alicia Vikander: Ex Machina). Gerda is a feminist and an artist, but can’t reach the fame of her husband. Probably because she’s a woman. One day Gerda has him pose with his legs together, wearing stockings and high heels, as a stand-in when her female model can’t Eddie Redmayne The Danish Girlcome. Something clicks on deep inside him, and the “Danish girl” of the title is born. She names herself Lili Elbe. Gerda is a bit surprised but takes it in stride. But for Lili this means big changes. She ventures out-of-doors and encounters a man named Henrik (Ben Whishaw). But Lili is distressed to discover he’s gay and desires her as a man, not as a woman.

x900 copyLater Lili takes a break as Einer moves with Gerda to Paris. He consults doctors and psychiatrists there; he’s worried he may be going crazy. Lili comes back into their lives. Suddenly Gerda becomes the talk of the town with her unusual paintings and their enigmatic subject. Who is that woman in her portraits? Lili of course. Einer is more and more sublimated as Lili comes to the surface. His childhood friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts) appears in their lives again. He is very sympathetic to Lili’s plight but at the same time helps Gerda with their marital difficulties. Which one is he closest The Danish Girlto now? Lili suffers attacks on the street by thugs and even more terrible treatment by cruel doctors and psychiatrists. Will she ever meet a doctor who believes her? One that can transform her body to match her gender?

The Danish Girl is a visually beautiful, highly emotional historical drama, based on Lili Elbe’s memoirs as one the first famous, transgendered women. But it doesn’t work as a movie. It’s overwrought, melodramatic, even operatic in parts. It feels dated and stiff.

Redmayne’s performance is totally believable both as Einer and as Lili. And I understand that movies like this are made with potential Oscars and ticket sales in mind. But with the flood of big-budget movies and TV shows — Transparent, Dallas Buyers Club, The Danish Girl — aren’t they ever going to cast a trans actor in the lead role?

image-5586e5b5-a28e-42df-9115-006940b63cd5Youth

Dir: Paolo Sorentino

Fred and Mick (Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel) are two old friends spending some time at a luxury spa in Switzerland. They’ve known each other for 60-odd years and are so close that Fred’s daughter Lena (Rachel Weiss) is married Mick’s son. They’re family now.

Fred is an English composer and conductor who, though retired, still has melodies bouncing around his brain. He sounds them out using a candy wrapper between two fingers. He’s being pursued by a representative of the Queen, who wants him to conduct, in her presence, his most famous composition known simply as a Simple Song. He refuses.

Mick is a famous Hollywood director. He’s at the spa with his writers and image-abbd6cc0-ab01-4225-8103-55f195eec116actors, hammering out his latest, and perhaps last, film script. He’s waiting to hear from Brenda, an over-the-hill Hollywood diva (Jane Fonda) about appearing in this movie.

But they are far from alone at this exclusive resort. There’s also a young actor (Paul Dano) rehearsing a part in a German movie; an overweight soccer star, a mountain climber, a beautiful Italian model, and a Tibetan lama.

This is a great movie. The film is a series of vignettes, ostensibly about two old guys assessing their whole lives,

YOUTHdiscussing what they should have done, and what to do next.

But more than that, it’s also an incredibly beautiful movie to watch and listen to. It’s funny, surprising, a bit bombastic, and occasionally predictable. But above all it’s subtle. It’s not a high-concept movie, just a beautiful montage.

The director, Paolo Sorentino, is famous for his last film, A Great Beauty. But I like this one much better, because it’s not as plotty as that one, heading toward some supposedly profound ending.

This one just is.

Youth, The Danish Girl, and Every Thing Will be Fine all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And if subtitles don’t bother you, be sure to catch the a free screening at Innis Town Hall of the classic Kurosawa movie Ikiru, playing for free (Dec 15, at 6:30), courtesy of the Japan Foundation.

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

Off the Beaten Track. Movies Reviewed: Serena, Gemma Bovery, Corner Gas: the Movie

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Books, Canada, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Cultural Mining, Drama, France, Horses, Movies, Satire by CulturalMining.com on December 5, 2014

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

Urban life getting you down? Here are three movies set in small towns. A gothic drama in the Smoky Mountains of Carolina; a comedy in a Saskatchewan town where there’s not a whole lot going on; and a comic drama in Normandy… with a literary twist.

67934-SERENA_D1-190_R_CROPSerena
Dir: Susanne Bier

George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) is a lumber baron in the roaring 20s. He’s also a big-game hunter, searching for the elusive panther. He dreams of clear-cutting the smoky mountains of North Carolina, and, with the profits, expanding into the rain forests of Brazil. But he’s a good guy — you can tell because he chops his own wood and saves his workers’ lives. There would be no SERENA_D11-2819.CR2problems at all, if it weren’t for those meddling government types. They want to make it into a national park, just because of its breathtaking scenic beauty, and the rare flora and fauna living in those foggy, tree-covered mountains.

But everything changes when he spots a blonde woman at a horse show. Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) is a strong and independent woman from out west and born to the wood. Beautiful, glamorous and tough as nails, she’s as comfortable in an evening gown as she is on horseback. She can SERENA_D18-4906._R_CROPjpgkill a rattler with an axe from across a field and is handy with a rifle. He proposes on the spot and makes her a full partner in his business… to the chagrin of his male colleagues. But Wall Street crashes and tough times follow. Things start to fray at the edges. There’s Galloway (Rhys Ifans) a sketchy ex-con with “the sight”: Serena once appeared in a vision so he’ll protect her to the death. And there’s talk George might have an illegitimate son in the village. And his partners are losing faith in the business. Can Serena and George find happiness in a lumber camp? Or will it drag them into a spiral of jealousy, revenge and madness?

Susanne Bier is a well-known Danish director, and Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence scored in two big hits: Silver Lining Playbook and American Hustle. Is this three for the win? Not a chance. It’s a clunky potboiler with a confusing and messy story, and extremely uneven acting. Lawrence plays it to the hilt as a deranged, screeching devil-woman, while Cooper sticks to the single-emotion style of acting. Whether it’s shock, lust, anger, or bewilderment, he just stares off into space with his mouth slightly open. Serena is not awful, it kept me watching and interested, but it’s just not very good.

GEMMA BOVERYRéalisé par Anne FontaineGemma Bovery
Dir: Anne Fontaine

Martin (Fabrice Luchini) is an intellectual from Paris. He moves to small-town Normandy, near Rouen, to take over his dad’s bakery. He likes kneading dough and pondering great literature. His wife is a world-weary realist, and his teenaged son prefers Call of Duty to French culture. But dad’s thoughts are still filled with the 19th century novels of Flaubert. So imagine his surprise when a young English couple that moves into the dilapidated house next door, shares the names of the characters in Madame Bovery! Down-to-earth Charles repairs furniture, while his bored wife Gemma (Gemma Atherton) decorates homes with trompe d’oeil to make them appear older. And just like Madame Bovery, she craves a more exciting GEMMA BOVERYRéalisé par Anne Fontainelife.

Martin, though, knows the book well and feels he can predict every thought they will have and every word they will say. Soon enough, he sees her making eyes at the town rake, handsome Hervé (Niels Schneider: J’ai tué ma mère, Les amours imaginaires) a local squire living in a nearby castle. Don’t go with him, it can only lead to ruin! Martin thinks. In his mind he sees them in period costume, dancing in the ballroom. In reality, the quaint town, including the aristocracy, is crumbling all around him. Martin tries to manipulate the local characters – using secret methods – to save them from their novelistic fates. But will it work?

GEMMA BOVERYRéalisé par Anne FontaineThe entire film is narrated, at times directly to the camera, by Martin himself. He takes us through the story, mainly to the various dinner parties, where people speak fractured English and French. He is especially incensed by a nouveau riche couple, an English/French marriage who see French culture as merely wine and Camembert.

Gemma Bovery is two movies in one. There’s Flaubert’s novel reenacted in Martin’s head, and there’s a satirical look at contemporary France. Because of the meta- aspects of the film, you don’t feel as deeply invested in the characters’ lives; you’re always a step away from what’s happening. But it more than makes up for that with its cleverness. And because it’s an Anne Fontaine movie, it carries that sensual, erotic tone she’s so good at.  And the actors, especially the beautiful Gemma Atherton, are a joy to watch. I like this movie.

CGTM_100_Brent Butt (as Brent Leroy). Photo by Steve WilkieCorner Gas: The Movie
Dir: Brent Butt

If you’ve ever watched Canadian TV, you’re probably familiar with Dog River, Saskatchewan. It’s an uneventful prairie town known mainly for its gas station, its coffee shoCGTM_109_Fred Ewanuick (as Hank Yarbo). Photo by Steve Wilkiep, and its wise-cracking locals. There’s dry Brent at the gas station (Brent Butt), his dad and mum — cranky Oscar and rational Emma (Eric Peterson, Janet Wright), pretty Lacey at the coffee shop (Gabrielle Miller), and the local police. CGTM_113_Janet Wright (as Emma Leroy). Photo by Steve WilkieThen there’s the incorrigible Hank (Fred Ewanuick) and the trickster Wanda (the very hilarious Nancy Robertson).

Nothing ever happens there, right? Wrong! To turn a sitcom into a feature film, you need an epic plot. In this film the town goes bankrupt, the people run amok, and Tim Horton’s starts sniffing at the real estate. Their only hope? A Toronto contest looking for the quaintest town in Canada. Can they pull it all together in time? Not bloody likely… it’s aCGTM_117_Nancy Robertson (as Wanda Dollard). Photo by Steve Wilkie comedy, folks.

Believe it or not, I only saw the TV show once. It felt too slow paced, so I couldn’t get into it. Clearly, I’m not one of its fans (who are legion). But the movie? It was surprisingly funny. There are corny parts and some gags fall flat of course, but on the whole the humour is clever, inventive, ironic… even subversive. And it does all this without any potty laughs, frat boy nudges, boobies, four-letter words, dumb blondes, racial and ethnic stereotypes or fat jokes. Not a small accomplishment.

So if you’re looking for Canadian humour, here it is, and then some.

spiceworld_imageGemma Bovery and Serena both open today in Toronto. Check your local listings. And Corner Gas: the Movie is playing now through the weekend. Also in Toronto,  look out for the MUFF society — specializing in girl-tastic pics for women —  kicks off their monthly series with Spice World (yes, I do mean that Spice Girl movie) only at the Royal. And First to Fall – a documentary about two students in Canada who volunteered to fight with the rebels in Libya — is finally screening in Toronto, tonight at the Jayu Human Rights Film Festival at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  I interviewed the directors last summer.

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

Lost Memories. Movies Reviewed: New Women, Free the Mind, Before Midnight

Posted in 1920s, Cultural Mining, Denmark, Mental Illness, Movies, Mysticism, Romance, Shanghai, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on June 7, 2013

June 5 2013_Yang Fudong_New Women credit SONIA RECCHIA, WireImage for TIFF_mediumHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Lost memories – should they be buried, and forgotten? Or is it better to preserve them… or even recreate versions of them? Do you find yourself unconsciously repeating half-forgotten conversations? Will bringing old memories to the surface help us purge them and get on with our lives?

This week I’m looking at these questions in three movies that treat memories in very different ways. One is a film/art installation that recreates titillating images of women in pre-war Shanghai; one’s a documentary about ex-soldiers who confront and purge past memories through breathing exercises; and a drama about a couple on vacation in Greece, and the memories the trip brings up.

June 5 2013_Yang Fudong_New Women 2 credit SONIA RECCHIA, WireImage for TIFF_medium_New Women

Dir: Yang Fudong

New Women is an art/film installation at the TIFF Bell Lightbox with five large movie screens in a darkened chamber. Black and white video projections show languorous women, wandering around in recreated scenes of old Shanghai. Or, rather, not Shanghai locations but the false photo sets and backgrounds that were popular in that era. The models seem to be trapped in a seductive opium-haze, and they lounge around, draping themselves over art deco New Women_ CREDIT Courtesy the Artist and ShanghART_mediumfurniture, sprays of cherry blossoms, immaculate Roman ruins and feather boas. Shanghai glamour girls were idolized in the 1920s and 30s, their images selling cigarettes, alcohol and candy. But these models, save for their elaborate make-up, hairstyles and jewelry,  are completely nude in these unusual soft-core porn projections.

Each scene is reflected and echoed across the chamber, not synchronized, but staggered and varied, giving the whole exhibition a drifting, dream-like quality. You should check out this show.

Free the Mind 1_Main_still_Rich_with_electrodesFree The Mind

Dir: Phie Ambo

Will is a 3-year-old foster child who is terrified of elevators. He feels trapped there if the doors closed and doesn’t know how to press the buttons. It makes him feel bad in his belly. He also gets into fights easily and doesn’t get along with the other kids. Doctors say he has ADHD and should be medicated.

One ex-soldier is plagued by constant guilt and uneasiness for the cruelty he showed. And another veteran’s marriage is collapsing — he can’t shake the memory of the deaths he feels responsible for in Iraq. They both suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Should they drown their lives in activities? Or start on a program of prescription drugs? Free the Mind 9_Will_listeningOr self-medicate themselves to oblivion – masking their troubles with alcohol or pot? Or is there another way to free the brain and body from the worries that plague them?

This documentary suggests that breathing and meditation exercises, constantly repeated, can actually reform the thought patterns in the brain. While the movie doesn’t make a strictly scientific argument, it’s still too early to offer proof, it does show the results of a test case at the University of Wisconsin: the session seems to change moods and sleep patterns. In word-association tests the patients shifted from negative, doom-and-gloom responses to a much more positive mindset. And it’s heart-warming to see the little boy Will gradually adjusting.

This is a fairly conventional documentary in form (plus a bit of animation and some psychedelic scenes) but its topic is fascinating.

Before Midnight 8 Delpy HawkeBefore Midnight

Dir: Richard Linklater

Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy) are on vacation in Greece. Jesse is a successful American novelist with a son from a previous marriage. He’s seeing him off at the airport after spending some time with him on their vacation. Celine is from Paris and her career is finally taking off. And their beautiful blonde daughters are there, too.

Their Greek friends have booked them a hotel room to spend an evening alone, awayBefore Midnight 5 Delpy Hawke from their kids, their friends, their work and their responsibilities – just the two of them, alone.

But it doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to. Their harshest thoughts and their biggest worries resurface, and the arguments about a potential break-up looms large. Do they still find one another attractive? Can an American man and a French woman with ties on two different continents actually stay together? Do two people with different views on religion, truth, and jealousy, on men and women have enough in common to keep the spark of love alive? And will they still be together after another twenty years?

Before Midnight Delpy HawkeMy bare-bones outline does not do this film justice. Although it’s really just an extended conversation (in beautiful settings) it’s still a really good, totally engrossing movie about relationships.

Before Midnight is the third film in a series by Linklater that started twenty years ago, with Jesse and Celine meeting for the first time at random on a train to Vienna. The second film was shot ten years later, and this third one after another decade. All the hints brought up in the first film – about their imagined future, about how people in a time machine would look back at these times — are revisited in Before Midnight.

Before Midnight has a lot of oblique references and in-jokes which I appreciated and liked but didn’t quite get… until I saw the films that led up to it. (I watched the series in reverse order.) But I really liked it without having seen the previous films, and once I saw them – whoa! Great series, great film.

Before Midnight and Free the Mind open today, and the art exhibit New Women, along with cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s __ are now open at the TIFF Bell Lightbox – free admission. And coming soon, NXNE.ca starts next week – don’t miss its fantastic selection of bands and performances allaround the downtown, with added art shows and stand-up comics this year, and of course… movies! Also starting next week is the Toronto Japanese Film Festival. And rounding off the month is Italian Contemporary Film Festival with lots of great films by and about Italy its people and culture.

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

Behind the Curtain. Movies reviewed: Dragon Girls, We Always Lie to Strangers, The Grub-Stake: Revisited PLUS Hot Docs!

Posted in 1920s, Canada, China, Conservativism, documentary, melodrama, Movies, Music, Musical, Republican Party, Uncategorized, Yukon by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2013

Jeff Harris: Lining up for Hot DocsHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Hot Docs, Toronto’s documentary film festival, continues through the weekend – and daytime tickets are free for all students and seniors. This is a once-a-year opportunity to really absorb all sorts of politics, people, music and ideas.

This week I’m going to look at three movies that – in very different ways — pull back the curtain to show what’s going on backstage. One doc is about a Kung Fu Academy in China, another about hillbilly entertainment in southern Missouri, and there’s a new look at a silent film shot in Yukon Territory in the 1920s.

Dragon_Girls_4Dragon Girls

Dir: Inigo Westmeier

This is a movie about China’s biggest kung fu centre, the Ta Gou Shao Lin martial arts academy. It’s in Henan province, north of Beijing. It has a huge number of students, both boys and girls, and they are all strictly trained in what feels like a military school (like Karate Kid times 1,000). And this school has a public square, a vast stone plaza that looks to be about the size of Tian’anmen Square in Beijing.

This documentary uses two ways to portray the school. One is aerial views of the entire academy – that’s hundreds of people – performing flawless, intricate fighting formations, all at once, on the square. And they’re all dressed in identical red jumpsuits, running around in perfect harmony.

But then they switch to close-ups of girls at the academy telling their stories. The place is unheated in the winter and Spartan looking. It’s Dragon_Girls_5almost like a prison, says one. Another runs away, all the way home to Shanghai – she can’t stand the life there: it’s cruel and bitter. Their trainers aren’t very sympathetic toward them – they went through the same training so they expect the new girls to do suffer like they did. They train them ruthlessly, even the little girls, to learn the kicks, the sword moves, the jumps, the punches…  And there are constant competitions, with winners and losers and rankings. Some of the girls’ parents are dragons themselves – if the kids don’t come in first place they get no praise.

The movie continues like that: in and out, tight then wide. There are the close-up, touching stories about individual girls’ plights; alternating with fantastical movie-style performances in the square, involving hundreds or thousands of shaolin kids.

From far away everything looks perfect. But, up close, the flaws begin to appear.

We_Always_Lie_To_Strangers_1We Always Lie to Strangers

Dir: AJ Schnack, David Boone Wilson

Somewhere, halfway between Hollywood and Broadway stands a small town in the Ozarks that offers its own, unique variety of entertainment. It’s Branson Mo., and it’s one of the best-known, unknown tourist attractions in the US.

What is this place? It’s a strange small town filled with giant music halls started a few decades ago by people like the Osmonds, the Presley Family, and Lawrence Welk. They put on old-school musicals and variety shows that are mainstream, conservative, and very, very white. It’s a world of elaborate kitschy musicals and hillbilly, Hee-Haw comedy.

But this movie goes behind the scenes, showing that it’s not quite what it appears to be. It follows some of the theatrical families who make Branson their home base. There’s a foul-mouthed single mother, who cusses a blue streak and then says – for Jesus. There’s the town mayor, a woman and member of the Presley clan, who points out that women are the ones who really run things there. There’s the Lennon family, transplanted from Venice, California, who have kept their liberal convictions even deep in Tea Party territory. And there’s a gay couple, a divorced We_Always_Lie_To_Strangers_2man with two sons and his boyfriend, both of whom sing and dance in some of the kitschy, dog-and-pony shows, even while promoting Branson “family values”.

I liked this doc because, even though it starts as a conventional, reality-TV-style show, following some of the characters around, it ends up giving much more. There’s lots of music, some of which is actually really good.

There’s a lots to like: things like a brilliant analysis of the differences between borscht-belt and bible-belt humour. And some scenes are visually fantastic: like when everyone’s at this combination flea market and air show, and, all of the sudden, the planes are dropping fire bombs just behind them, and there are huge plumes of black smoke shooting up, just past the funnel cakes! (That scene made it for me…) Very interesting movie.

GrubStake_mediumThe Grub-Stake: Revisited

Dir: Bert Van Tuyl and Nell Shipman

A silver-haired prospector arrives down south with a fistful of gold nuggets. He tempts the wide-eyed young Faith (Nell Shipman) to leave her laundry shop and come north with him to the Yukon to find love and get rich. After some resistance she agrees, and they head north by steamship.

But he soon turns out to be a monstrous letch and Nell has to fight him off. She’s forced to flee by dog sled with her disabled father. She has to cope with blizzards, bears, outlaws with guns, and dangerous cliff-side chases. Luckily, Nell meets a handsome man in the woods and together they try to triumph over the bad guys.

That’s what The Grub Stake – a Canadian silent movie from 1923 – looks like. But in the new, Revisited version (that’s showing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox next week) the archival print will be shown alongside an original, live performance, that comes to us from the Yukon. A group of actors supply new voices to the silent images, with live musicians creating a haunted, ambient soundtrack.

Here’s the twist: the new script is positively Shakesperean, with all the lines pulled from plays like Hamlet, Richard III and Twelfth Night. Does it work? It’s funny! It doesn’t quite make sense, though: sometimes the dialogue is in perfect synch with the images on the screen, but at other times it seems to be at war with what you’re watching. But I guess that’s what makes it… art.

The Grub Stake is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, only on May 6th. For more information, go to tiff.net.

You can see Dragon Girls, We Always Lie to Strangers, and many other great documentaries at Hot Docs this weekend. Go to hotdocs.ca for details.

Also opening today is Still Mine, based on a true story about an elderly farmer in New Brunswick who vows to defy the law for the sake of his ailing wife; Kon Tiki, the fantastic Norwegian epic about a journey across the pacific on a raft (I loved the Norwegian version, but haven’t seen the English-language one (check your local listings); and various short films at TIFF that support Mental Health Week (May 5-11) sponsored by Toronto’s Workman Arts: 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 .

Exotica. Movies Reviewed: Hotel Lux, The Rabbi’s Cat, To the Wonder

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Africa, Algeria, Animation, Berlin, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Comics, Germany, Kremlin, Romance, Uncategorized, US, USSR by CulturalMining.com on April 19, 2013

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

Images and Toronto Jewish Film Festival continue on through this weekend, with Hot Docs just around the corner. This week I’m looking at movies about people travelling to exotic lands. There’s a German screwball comedy about an actor who escapes the Nazis only to find himself in the heart of Stalin’s Moscow; a French animated film about a group of travellers from Algiers looking for a lost city; and an American romance about a woman from Paris looking for love in America.

Hotel_LuxHotel Lux

Dir: Leander Haussmann

It’s Berlin in the 1930s. The comedy team Zeisig and Meyer (Michael Herbig and Jurgen Vogel) work at a successful cabaret, playing Stalin and Hitler. But their livelihood is threatened when the Nazi’s come to power, and political satire is no longer tolerated. An undercover Dutch communist, Frida, suddenly appears, and Zeisig, a notorious lothario, is smitten. Meyer goes into hiding, but Zeisig sees no reason to run. But eventually he must. He flees Berlin with fake papers and the name of a Moscow landmark: the Hotel Lux. Outside, it’s a stately building with a spinning red star on the roof. Inside it’s a rat-infested heap. And what he doesn’t realize is it’s also the epicenter of Stalinism, a hotel filled with the hardcore German communists in exile.

Every conversation is bugged. People are constantly dragged out of their rooms by a diminutive NKVD agent and accused of the worst possible crime: Trotskyism! And, due to a series of strange coincidences and mistaken identities, Zeisig, the Stalin impersonator, finds himself in meetings with Stalin himself. And his old friends, Meyer and Frida, both end up in Hotel Lux, too.

How will Zeisig get out if this mess? Will he have an influence on Stalin’s decisions? Will his true identity be discovered? And will Frida ever like him?

Like an Austrian comedy set in the same era, My Best Enemy, this movie doesn’t have any grave meanings or deep philisophyt to impart. Rather, it’s a fantasy set against a backdrop of the troubled thirties. Hotel Lux is just a cute, old-fashioned screwball comedy, with its history and politics filtered through the eyes of post-reunification Germany.

The_Rabbis_CatThe Rabbi’s Cat

Dir: Antoine Delesvaux and Joann Sfar (based on his graphic novels)

It’s 1920s in Algiers, part of the North African colony annexed by France. (It’s inhabited by Arabic-speaking Muslims and Jews, and their French speaking rulers.) Rabbi Safr lives with his beautiful but fiery daughter Zlabiya. But there normal life is interrupted by some strange things. His cat suddenly begins to speak, and wants to have religious debates. The dead body of a blond Russian man appears in a wooden crate of prayer books sent from Europe. And a cousin, who travels with a huge lion comes for a visit. The Rabbi Safr, accompanied by a Muslim sheikh, also named Safr, a Chagal-like artist, and an aristocratic white Russian, set off on a road journey in a Citroen. They are on a quest through northeast Africa to find an ancient hidden city, an African Jerusalem, the legendary land of giant Black- African Jews.

On their journey, they encounter nomads, Belgian colonists (in the form of a pink-skinned Tintin in a pith helmet), and pick up new members to join their group.

Joann Safr is a great, contemporary French cartoonist who creates fantastical imaginary worlds. This is the first animated version of his work I’ve seen, and it stays true to his comics. This is a great movie: funny, fantastical, and colourful, and featuring French-Algerian actors like Mohamed Fellag.

Redbud_Day28 (412 of 381).CR2To the Wonder

Dir: Terrence Malick

Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a single mother, meets Neil (Ben Affleck), an American tourist who is visiting France. They fall in love in scenic spots. Their love affair is extended when he invites her (and her daughter) to follow him back to America. Ah, America. Calm, rich, honest, she thinks as she pirouettes around her new Oklahoma backyard. Her whispered thoughts are an ongoing narration to her new life there. Ah… l’amour, l’amour, she whispers, turning another pirouette. Je t’aime. Her life is an avalanche of tenderness. Neil doesn’t speak, he just nods or grunts and goes out to check an oil pump.

OK, just so you know, I was describing a typical scene. But the whole movie is like that. It’s like a two-hour-long movie trailer, an endless montage of a bumpy, depressing relationship in an Oklahoma suburb. With a non-stop voiceover of the most painful poetry, the most awful French doggerel ever inflicted on my ears in one dose. I kind of liked Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life from two years ago (he supposedly spent a decade making it) but this one is worthless. I’m not even mentioning the various sub plots — Marina’s depression, a priest who talks to poor people, marital infidelity — because they barely add anything to this meandering, dull story. Avoid this movie at all costs, unless you are looking for two hours of pointless, superficial Hallmark images and loads of false solemnity.

To the Wonder opens today, check your local listings; and The Rabbi’s Cat and Hotel Lux are both playing this weekend: go to TJFF.ca for details.

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

September 14, 2012. “This is a BIG festival…” Movies reviewed: Spring Breakers, Kon-Tiki, Blancanieves

Posted in 1920s, Adventure, Cultural Mining, drugs, Fairytales, Movies, Norway, Polynesia, Spain, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on September 14, 2012

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

Spring Breakers photo by Jeff Harris

TIFF is monumental, vast and confusing. Three critics I spoke to this week – onefrom NY, one from L.A. and one from Australia – all said Toronto isn’t like the other film festivals they go to – it’s a “really big one”. And all the huge-ness that goes with it.

Let me give you an example: a weird thing that happened to me. Picture a floor-to-ceiling, black-velvet curtain. At TIFF they have a photo-op area right beside the press conference area, but they’re separated by that black curtain. I was on the press side, so I could hear everything happening but not see it. Basically, when the celebs show up there’s a frenzy of rabid shouting photographers snapping pics like crazy and shouting out their names. So you can see a non-stop barrage of flashes on the ceiling above the curtain and hear what sounds like vicious digs tearing a famous actor apart and then eating him alive. Very weird. Then, one minute later, they cross to the press side, and quietly sit down at the table on the stage.

The press conference where I witnessed this was for Harmony Korine’s new movie called Spring Breakers as in SPRING BREAK FOREVAH… Bitches! (the movie’s catchphrase)

It’s an impressionistic look at a fantasy version of the annual florida bacchanalia where college students get drink, have sex, and gather in huge numbers. It’s full of the glowing neon and pastels, jiggling bodies, vespa scooters, red camaros and white baby grands. Into this fiesta are three blond university students — Candy, Cotty and Brittney (Ashley Benson, Vannessa Hudgons, Rachel Korine) who want to go wild, and their God-fearing friend Faith (Selena Gomez) who tries to stay the path to the straight and narrow. Then Candy and Brit rob a chicken shack to pay for their trip, and soon the four of them fall under the sway of Alien (James Franco) a white stoner gangsta rapper living the life of riley with his club-kid, identical twin sidekicks in his drug fueled beach-side mansion. The three bad girls take to him like honey, don matching pink balaclavas and wave their heavy-duty machine guns in the air in Pussy-Riotous triumph.

The movie is less about story than impression, with lots of improvised lines, repetition, and a constant background beat. It’s mainly about bodies in the sun and guns at night… a satirical, fantastical college collage. I love this like I love all of Harmony Korine’s movies. This is his most accessible one and feels like lying in the sand while reading a glossy fashion magazine with a great ipod mix in your ears. Spring Break…!

Anyway, there are hundreds of movies at TIFF this year, but I thought I’d tell you about a few that really struck my fancy, for very different reasons. One’s about a boat trip to the South Pacific, another about  fighting bulls in Seville.

Kon-Tiki

Dir: Joachim Rønning

It’s after WWII and Thor Heyerdahl wants to test his theories about Polynesia where he had lived for a decade with his wife, Liv. The polynesians say their ancesters followed the winds and the tides from the east (South America), not from the West (Asia). So he vows to make the crossing in the same way to prove it was possible. Without funding or academic backing, he gathers together four more men — an anthropologist with a movie camera, an engineer who was a fridge salesman, a sexton operator who knows his directions, and a morse code radio operator — and they all set off from Peru.

The movie follows the adventurers across an ocean, their encounters with glowing creatures, dangerous sharks, and whales, all beneath their balsa-wood raft and moved by Tiki himself, the god’s image painted on the canvas sail. They set out in suits and ties, but gradually pare down to saggy long underwear. These five sun-burned and blonde-bearded buddies are always growling on the verge of a fight, but without a hint of macho. It’s up to Thor to keep the faith, follow the sun god’s path and be true to Tiki. Will they all survive and can they make it all the way?

This is a really fantastic family movie, thrilling, funny, scary and exciting. It’s by the director of Max Manus, another Boy’s Own style adventure about WWII resistance fighters. Joachim Rønning is the Norwegian Spielberg and gets all the cliff-hangers, shocks, and special effects dead-on. There must be some CGIs involved but it really felt like you were out in the Pacific ocean with them battling the elements. I loved this movie, too.

Blancanieves

Dir: Pablo Berger

It’s Seville in the 1920’s, a city of long narrow alleys and whitewashed houses, black-laced flamenco dancers and massive crowds at the bullfights. But when the great Matador Antonio is felled by a satanic bull just as his wife Carmen is giving birth to their child, Carmencita, the baby, loses her parents. A sinister nurse Encana connives to take over the matador’s wealth, power and riches. When young Carmen finally moves in with her pet chicken Pepe, she is made into a Cinderella and only sees her father on the sly. He teaches her how to be a matadora from his wheelchair, careful to avoid the wrath of the evil stepmother. Will she escape from her evil clutches? Later, she is found in the woods by a handsome dwarf who takes her in with his travelling circus troupe. She has amnesia and can only remember how to raise the cape and to keep her eye on a bull. So they rename her Blancanieves — Snow White. Will she ever remember her past? Will she become a Matadora in the ring? What about Encana? Who will triumph – the innocent Snow White or the closet dominatrix? And who will be her handsome prince?

This is an unbelievably beautiful retelling of the Snow White story in glorious black and white. It’s done in the old style of a silent movie, with lush music and occasional cards to show dialogue. Maribel Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Pan’s Labarynth) is fantastic as always, this time with a pale face,  black hair, dark lips, and the high collar of the Walt Disney Queen. Newcomer Macarena Garcia is just as beautiful and steals the screen. Even though I knew (more or less) what would happen in this dark retelling of a well-known fairytale in a 1920’s Seville, it didn’t matter; it left me feeling shocked, thrilled and passionately moved. It’s a magnificent-looking film.

All of these films are playing at TIFF. Log on to tiff.net at 7 am to get new tickets on sale for the day.

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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