Three Historical Dramas. Films reviewed: Budapest Noir, An Act of Defiance, Bye Bye Germany

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, Apartheid, Drama, Germany, Hungary, Movies, Nazi, South Africa by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2018

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

Spring Film Festival Season continues in Toronto, with Hotdocs rounding up its fnal weekend. Remember, daytime tickets to these amazing documentaries are free for all students and seniors.

And starting up now is Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival, featuring comedies, dramas, TV and documentaries from around the world. This week I’m looking at three historical dramas now playing at TJFF. There’s a mystery/thriller set in Budapest in the 30s, a comedy/drama in Frankfurt in the 40s, and a courtroom drama in Pretoria in the 60s.

Budapest Noir

Dir: Éva Gárdos

It’s 1936, and everyone in Budapest is preparing for the state funeral of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös. Everyone but cynical reporter Szigmond Gordon (Krisztián Kolovratnik). Crime’s his beat, not politics and cigarettes and bourbon are his life’s blood. And his only distraction is a beautiful woman. So he’s pleasantly surprised when he meets a mysterious woman in a downtown cafe. But today’s potential love interest is tomorrow’s news story when he finds her body in a pool of blood.

He calls on his ex-girlfriend Kristina, a photographer (Réka Tenki) to take pics of the crimes scene. (She’s back in Budapest after smuggling shocking photos out of Germany.) But when he tries to investigate the murder, he faces roadblocks at every turn, with no one but Kristina to help him. The chief of police, the politicians, and even members of the underworld seem to be blocking him from finding the truth. And for some reason her body has disappeared from the morgue.

His search leads him to pornographers, fascist gangs, a coffee importer, a secret communist meeting, a madame at a brothel, and a punch-drunk boxer, all in an attempt to solve the mystery. Will he find what he seeks? Or is he digging too deep, uncovering things journalists aren’t supposed to see?

Budapest Noir is a look at the underbelly of a huge city in turmoil in turbulent times. It’s presented in a film noir style, narrated by a Bogart-type character complete with trenchcoat and hat, and borrows images from dozens of famous movies. Occasionally it veers from pastiche into parody with all its hollywood memes, but generally it’s a solid and well-acted homage, full of surprises.

An Act of Defiance

Dir: Jean Van De Velde

It’s 1963 in South Africa. The police raid a secret meeting in a farm house in Rivonia, arresting everyone there. The meeting was by the heads of umKhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress. Charged with sabotage, the accused face death by hanging, and it looks like they’re heading that way. Until a respected white Afrikaner lawyer, Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller), agrees to head the defence team. The defendants include Walter Sisulu, Harold Wolpe and none other than Nelson Mandela himself.

But the prosecutors are working hand-in-hand with the police, the government and the secret service. They tap phones, record private lawyer-client conversations, and send spies out at night to take pictures through windows. Turns out Fischer is not just a random defence lawyer helping out; he has deep ties to the anti-apartheid movement. As the trial progresses, he and his family become the targets of underhanded campaigns. Can he convince a conservative judge to save the defendents’ lives? Or will they, and he, end up in the gallows?

This is a fascinating and intense courtroom drama, about a period of South African history largely unknown outside of that country. It includes Mandela’s famous “I’m prepared to die” speech given during the trial, but he and the other defendents are minor characters. It’s mainly about Fischer and his family, including his wife Mollie (beautifully played by Antoinette Louw) and the fight against apartheid. It also includes some thrilling moments about the family avoiding an evil police force.

This is another good film to catch.

Bye Bye Germany (Es war einmal in Deutschland)

Dir: Sam Garbarski (Based on the novels of Michel Bergmann)

It’s occupied Frankfurt just after WWII. A quarter of a million holocaust survivors are living in DP (displaced persons) camps in central Europe, run by allied forces. They’re waiting to emigrate to America or Palestine. But in the meantime they have to support themselves. Enter David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) a sweet-talking teller of tales with a pencil thin mustache and a mysterious past. He says his family has been in dry goods for generations. So he recruits a ragtag bunch of salesmen to help peddle his linens. But they wonder why he keeps disappearing for hours at a time. Where does he go?

He’s being interrogated by the stern but beautiful Special Agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue) a German-speaking G.I. assigned to weed out war criminals and collaborators from among the refugees. Why was Bermann given special treatment by the SS? His answer? He told funny jokes. Will Sara believe his outlandish stories? Will his business venture pan out? And will he and his friends make enough money to say Auf Wiedersehen to Deutschland?

Bye Bye Germany is a very entertaining, but bittersweet, memoir of life as a jew in postwar Frankfurt. Antje Traue is the perfect foil for Bleibtreu’s charming but sketchy Bermann. I liked this movie.

You can catch Bye Bye Germany, An Act of Defiance and Budapest Noir at TJFF over the next two weeks. 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.

And two more: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, The Florida Project

Posted in 1930s, Cultural Mining, Feminism, LGBT, Movies, Polyamory, Poverty, Psychology, Romance, Sex, Sex Trade by CulturalMining.com on October 13, 2017

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

I’m back again because it’s a bumper crop this week, and there are two more great movies opening today that deserve to be seen. One takes place in the shadows of Disneyworld, the other reveals the origins of Wonder Woman.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Wri/Dir: Angela Robinson

It’s the 1920s at a prestigious University. William Marston (Luke Evans) is a Harvard-trained psychologist who lives and works alongside his brilliant wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). They are both outspoken advocates for women’s rights and create the world’s first lie detector. But when William takes on a young research assistant named Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), Elizabeth suspects hanky-panky. So what a surprise when they all answer intimate questions about their truest feelings and desires using the lie detector: Olive desires both William and Elizabeth! And the feelings are mutual. They form a triad – a polyamorous relationship – among the three of them. To the outside world they are a married couple with their widowed relative, but behind closed doors anything goes. The three move into a large house and raise their children together, exploring new sexual avenues – including role play and BDSM — while the kids are away at school. But when their secret is revealed and he loses his job, Marston is forced to look for new ways to earn a living. So he creates the world’s first feminist superhero, Wonder Woman, based on the two women in his life. Her outfit is inspired by clothing they see at Greenwich Village fetish shop, and the Lasso of Truth is a combination of bondage and lie detectors.

Professor Marston and the Womder Women tells the delightful and always surprising love story about the origins of a superhero before she was whitewashed into blandness and conformity.

The Florida Project

Dir: Sean Baker

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) Jancey (Valeria Cotto) Scooty (Christopher Rivera) are three little kids who live in the giant pink motels that dot the highways around Disneyland in Orlando Florida. They spit off balconies, explore junk piles and panhandle tourists for ice cream. Though rundown, the motels serve as a community and home for the nearly homeless and marginal. They are forced to vacate their rooms weekly and relocate – they’re not allowed to call their homes home. They are all looked after by the stern but benevolent manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe)

Halley, Moony’s mom (Bria Vinaite) earns her living reselling wholesale perfume bottles or turning the occasional trick. Other moms work as waitresses or as de facto daycare, just trying to keep the kids fed and out of trouble. And boy do these kids get in trouble. Abut when something serious happens, the delicate balance between parents and kids quickly falls apart.

The Florida project is a fascinating look at the poor and marginal people around Orlando, in a private hotel that functions like a housing project, Florida-style The kids are great, although occasionally prone to cuting-it-up for the camera. And the raw, beautiful camerawork, crumbling houses against a tropical sunset, give it an immediate, authentic feel. Great movie.

The Florida Project and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women both open today in Toronto. This is Daniel Garber at the movies each Friday morning for CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.

Lions and Lambs. Films reviewed: Handsome Devil, Before I Fall, Bitter Harvest, Table 19

Posted in 1930s, Bullying, comedy, Coming of Age, Death, Drama, Gay, Ireland, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Ukraine by CulturalMining.com on March 3, 2017

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

March came in like a lamb, followed by a pride of lions, roaring at the gate. I’m talking about the spring film festival season, which is on now with films from Ireland and more.

This week I’m looking at movies with lions and lambs: a few comedies plus one tragedy. There’s friendship in Ireland, tragedy in Ukraine, fantasy in the northwest and a wedding in the midwest.

handsome devilHandsome Devil

Wri/Dir: John Butler

Ned (Fionn O’Shea) is a skinny redhead at a boy’s boarding school in Ireland. He likes reading and indie music, and dresses in hip rocker gear. Popular kid, right? Wrong. He’s bullied, reviled and labeled as gay just because he’s not into rugby. and rugby is the school handsomedevil_04sport.

Enter Conor (Nicholas Galitzine) his new roommate. Conor was kicked out of his last school for fighting. Is he an outcast? Just the opposite. He’s handsome, athletic and on the pitch he’s both nimble and brutal. He quickly becomes the king of rugby, a handsomedevil_05veritable idol at his new school. He’s even nice to Ned, and stops the bullies — especially one called Weasel — from beating him up. Has Ned found a friend?

Things get even better when a new English teacher, Mr Sherry (Andrew Scott) encourages the kids to broaden their interests beyond just rugger, to include music and literature. But that’s sacrilege, and the coach won’t have it. He decides to break up Ned and Conor’s friendship whatever it takes.

Handsome devil is a funny and moving coming-of-age story about an unexpected friendship. I like this one.

before-i-fallBefore I Fall

Dir: Ry Russo-Young

It’s a big day for Sam (Zoey Deutch), a teenaged girl in the Pacific northwest. It’s Valentine’s day and she’s going to have sex with her boyfriend for the first time. Her dad and mom (Jennifer Beals), and her cute little sister who likes origami, are all nice but they just don’t get it. It’s her posse, her three best friends, that she shares everything with: Ally – rich but insecure; Elody – sexually halston-sage-medalion-rahimi-cynthy-wu-zoey-deutch-in-before-i-fallaudacious; and Lindsay (Halston Sage). She’s the alpha dog, the honey badger: she always keeps her cool; just don’t get on her bad side.

Her school has special traditions for Cupid Day. All the girls (except the class lesbian) receive messages from their admirers. While the teacher drones on about the myth of Sisyphus, Sam gets baskets of roses delivered to her desk… including one _X6A7999.JPGfrom Kent (Logan Miller), a geeky poet in her class that she ignores. In the café, the four friends relentlessly mock Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris) a blonde woman with frizzy hair. She’s the school pariah… are Sam and her friends bullies? That night at the party, things spiral out if control, with a breakup, a drunken fight and a terrible car crash.

But the next morning it’s a new day and everything’s back to normal. Until Sam realizes… it’s the same day as yesterday! Her little sister’s origami, the rose from Kent, Juliet in the cafeteria, and the fight at the party. Like Sysiphus, she’s caught in a cosmic, karmic loop, and she can’t escape. No zoey-deutch-in-before-i-fallmatter what she tries to change, she still wakes up each morning on Valentine’s Day. Can Sam right all her wrongs in a single day, or will she be stuck to repeat them forever?

Before I Fall, is a fantasy set in the present day. There have been others about people caught in a repeating loop – Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code – but this is the first I’ve seen from a female point of view. Like the Twilight series, it’s set in the Pacific North West but without its unbearable soppiness. This is a good YA movie.

15194340_949283011838918_4071947400932947185_oBitter Harvest

Dir: George Mendeluk

It’s the 1930s in a small village in Ukraine. Yuri (Max Irons) is a young farmer who is also a skilled artist. He’s the grandson of a great swordsman named Ivan (Terrence Stamp), and is in love with his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks). They paint, frolic in the woods and attend church regularly. All is going well until the Russian Bolsheviks come to town, led by a man with a scar across his cheek. Sinister 15895153_988096897957529_6383476820894374352_nSergei (Tamer Hassan) is dressed in black leather from head to toe and carries a whip. Sign this paper, he orders, and collectivize those farms! Your farm, your wheat, even you belong to the state now! The people refuse and chase Sergei out of the village. But he will return.

After hiding the treasured town icon of St Yuri, his namesake sets off to Kiev carrying his grandfathers prized knife. In the city, he studies art and spends time with his best friend, Mykola. Mykola also happens to be the head of the Ukrainian Communist 15319318_967538840013335_3644678351628886805_nParty, uniting Ukrainian nationalism with socialism. But he doesn’t realize that in Moscow, Stalin has other plans at work. Stalin despises Ukrainians and vows to kill them all. Party members are purged, Yuri is sent to prison, and Stalin, with evil subordinates like Sergei, send all the wheat to Mother Russia, leaving Ukraine with a terrible 15941277_990987597668459_5998812033080133428_nfamine killing millions. A Bitter Harvest indeed.

Bitter Harvest is the story of a Ukraine village during the Holodomor, the horrible famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. It’s an important part of history, rarely portrayed, that deserves to be shown on the big screen. This movie, unfortunately, doesn’t quite cut it. While it includes authentic-looking Ukrainian costumes, locations and folklore, the rollicking story is just not told very well. The movie is clunky and Kludgy, unintentionally campy and melodramatic, and full of comic-book villains. It lacks the gravity it deserves. Bitter Harvest isn’t bitter enough.

table-19-posterTable 19

Dir: Jeffrey Blitz

Eloise (Anna Kendrick) is a grudging guest at her best friend’s wedding party at a lakeside hotel in Michigan. Grudging because her boyfriend Teddy – the bride’s brother – dumped her. Blonde, bearded Teddy (played by Wyatt Russell, looking like a younger and dumber Owen Wilson), is best man but Eloise has been demoted from maid of honour at the centre table to the dreaded table 19.

Table 19 is a veritable land of Lost Toys, the cast offs of the wedding party. Bina and Jerry (Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson) a bickering middle aged couple; Rezno (Tony Revolori) a socially-awkward adolescent; elderly Jo (June Squibb), the bride’s childhood nanny; and gangly ex-con 13123270_780360932099535_7819038637567418602_oWalter (Stephen Merchant). Eloise is mortified by her table mates and just plain depressed. But things start to look up when a suave and handsome stranger, named Huck, arrives. They dance and kiss before disappearing into the mist like a male Cinderella. But when jealous Teddy confronts her, mayhem ensues, resulting in a ruined wedding cake. The Table 19ers, retreat to their hotel rooms to clean up, and their they learn that they’re a lot more fun than they expected. Together they vow to find love for Eloise, a first date for Rezno, a reunion between Jo the Nanny and the bride, and more.

Table 19 is a gentle social comedy that shows that, once you get to know them, even outcasts are real human beings with foibles of their own. The script is co-written by the Duplass brothers, known for their indie movies about quirky oddballs. It’s tame for a comedy, with a few too many pratfalls, but it’s also touching, with a cute, romantic ending. Hendricks is terrific as Eloise, and the rest of Table 19 all keep their characters from falling into dumb stereotypes.

Table 19, Before I Fall, and Bitter Harvest all start today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Handsome Devil is playing this weekend at Toronto Irish film fest. Go to toirishfilmfest.com for info.

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

Hidden identities. Films reviewed: Made in France, Moonlight, The Handmaiden

Posted in 1930s, 1990s, African-Americans, Crime, Cultural Mining, Drama, France, Korea, LGBT, Sex, Terrorism, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on October 28, 2016

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

Hallowe’en weekend is a time of mysteries and hidden identities. If you want to stay home and shiver, there’s a new movie streaming channel called shudder.com that only does the scary. Everything from Japanese horror, to low budget slashers, to classics like Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. (And don’t miss The Editor, the hilarious spoof of 1970s Italian giallo horror.) But if you want to head out, there are some great movies opening in Toronto. This Hallowe’en, no monsters; instead I am looking at hidden identities. There’s a shy Korean maid who’s actually a con artist, a French terrorist who’s actually an undercover journalist, and a black kid in 90s Miami, whose sexual identity is a secret… even to himself.

img_3644-640x426Made in France

Dir: Nicolas Boukhrief

Sam (Malik Zidi) is a red-bearded, freelance journalist, the son of an Algerian dad and a French Marxist mom. To research a story, he attends a radical mosque that holds meetings in a metal-gated storage locker. There he meets three other French men. Christophe (Francois Civil) is a rich Catholic guy who sees himself as img_3865-640x426a gangsta, like Tony Montano in Scarface. Driss (Nassim Si Ahmed) is a tough boxer, radicalized while in prison for drug offences. Sidi (Ahmed Drame) is a good son, whose African cousin was killed by French soldiers in Mali. Ironically, only Sam, the undercover journalist, has any religious training or can speak Arabic.

img_8249-640x426They fall under the command of a mysterious man named Hassan (Dimitri Storoge). His motives are a secret. He says he trained at a bootcamp in Pakistan and is in contact with a terrorist group. Sam is married with a kid, and is staying in a flop house to keep them safe. But when he reports his story to the police, they threaten him with prison unless he stays with the cel and finds img_9133-640x426out who their “big boss” is. Can he survive life with this ragtag gang and the sinister Hassan? And will innocent people die in the process?

Made in France is a tight thriller told from the point of view of would-be homegrown terrorists. It has never been screened there, for obvious reasons – it was made just before the terrible Charlie Hebdo shootings and postponed again following the Bataclan massacre. But it still stands up as a good crime thriller.

MoonlightMoonlight

Wri/Dir: Barry Jenkins

Chiron is a small, shy kid who lives in a mainly black neighbourhood in 1990s Miami. He is relentlessly bullied after school, with his crack-head mom never there to defend him. Juan (Mahershala Ali, Luke Cage) comes to his rescue when he sees the kid chased into an abandoned building. He takes him home where his wife feeds and comforts him. But Chiron remains completely silent, not trusting himself to speak. Juan vows to be his protector and Moonlightserves as his mentor, teaching him to swim at the local beach. The boy views him in awe and adulation. Ironically, Juan is the neighbourhood drug kingpin, the one supplying the crack that’s destroying his mother.

Chiron is relentlessly bullied and beaten up. Only one friend, Kevin, shows any affection. He can’t understand why he lets other kids beat him up, and call him the “F” word. He gradually matures, but is always drawn back to that stretch of moonlit beach where he formed and later expressed his sexual identity.

MoonlightMoonlight is a superb coming-of-age drama, portrayed by mainly unknown black actors. It’s moving and surprising. The gradually-paced, subtle story is told in three chapters: as kid, adolescent and adult (wonderfully played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes)

Chiron goes through a troubled childhood, an explosion in high school, adopting an unexpected persona as a grown-up. But in each section he revisits his declining mother, his unreliable best friend Kevin,  and that stretch of moonlit beach. Fantastic film, brilliantly told.

97b32291-67f9-48f7-a0c7-bcf7a46c6544The Handmaiden

Dir: Chan-Wook Park

It’s 1930s Korea. Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri) is a shy handmaiden who lives in a grotesque mansion run by a fabulously rich Japanese baron. Hired for her Japanese ability, she works for an uptight heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee). Imperial Japan annexed Korea in 1910, and is now trying to Japanize the entire country.  When a suitor arrives seeking the Lady’s hand in marriage, Sook-hee serves as her confidant. The 383a2f0a-21c2-41ac-bb80-cc81816180dedashing Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo) has swept her off her feet and promises a wonderful life in Japan. But Sook-Hee seems to have fallen hopelessly in love with her naïve mistress, and wants to school her in the Sapphic arts. This love triangle spells trouble.

But wait! Nothing is quite what it seems. All the players in this drama are actually Korean speakers. Uncle Kouzuki is a nouveau riche 30465dc1-7ad7-4f9f-96c0-809875d0d181Korean robber baron who invested his money in Japanese erotic books. His proper niece reads them aloud to a select crowd of well-paying gentlemen. Meanwhile, both Sook-Hee and the Count belong to a Korean street gang of pickpockets and con artists, who, in a complex scheme,  have infiltrated the mansion to defraud them of their millions. Jealousy, lust romance and deceit swirl around 0981b274-14bd-480d-9e06-5bc5179f5ed7this strange foursome. But who’s fooling whom?

Based on Sarah Waters’ Dickinsian novel, The Handmaiden is a fun, sexual romp relocated from Victorian England to prewar Korea. With trapezes, bondage, marionettes, even tentacles, this movie is a total perv-fest. The story is told and retold from the point of view of the three characters. But far from a lesson in lesbian politics, the movie seems told from a male perspective, its twisted plot serving mainly as a vehicle for the audience’s sexual titillation.

Made in France is playing tonight as part of the Cinefranco International Film Festival. Go to cinefranco.com for details. Moonlight and The Handmaiden both 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.

At a Crossroad. Films reviewed: The Seventh Fire, Cafe Society, Phantom Boy

Posted in 1930s, Animation, Crime, Cultural Mining, documentary, First Nations, France, Hollywood, Kids, Movies by CulturalMining.com on July 29, 2016

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

Your life may seem to follow a straight path, but at some point we all face a crossroads. This week I’m looking at movies about points of change. There’s a man in Minnesota heading to prison, a boy from the Bronx heading to Hollywood, and a flying boy with cancer heading toward the stars.

SeventhFireThe Seventh Fire

Dir: Jack Pettibone-Riccobono

Rob is an Anishnaabe man in his 30s who lives near Pine Point. It’s a small town on a reserve in rural Minnesota. He’s spending his last week as a free man, before he is sent back to prison. He turned himself in. He is giving up a thriving business with lots of eager customers. He makes a dry pink powder, adding things like laxatives to his meth to add a more dramatic finish, he says.11217577_1605152963073483_2635420771054583365_o

It’s a life of bingo games and gang tats, burning sofas and leach traps. House parties turn to coke fests and fistfights. But, Pine Point is his home. Now he has to leave it pay for his past and live with his legacy – and what it did to his community.

This film follows three people: Rob, a young man looking to leave the state, and a young pregnant woman, as they decide where to take their lives. Their voices, on- and off-screen, narrate the story. This verite documentary shows a bleak — if realistic – slice of life on an impoverished reserve (and in a prison). But it’s visualized amidst striking scenic beauty, along with occasional whimsy and hope.

wasp2015_day_05-0081.CR2Café Society

Wri/Dir: Woody Allen

It’s the 1930s, the Great Depression. Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is nebbishy kid who lives with his parents in the Bronx. He has two older brothers. One is a communist intellectual, the other, Ben (Corey Stoll) is a gangster. Bobby heads west to find his own fortune. He shows up at his uncle’s office. Phil (Steve Carell) is a Hollywood bigwig, a shaker and mover. An agent to the stars, wasp2015_day_40-0442.CR2he is seen with his wife at all the best pool parties and cocktail lounges in town. Bobby is pasty and pale, dressed in a woolen suit amidst suntanned beauties — a real greenhorn. He gets to meet socialites by the dozen, including Rad Taylor (Parker Posey) who promises to show him the highlife if he ever goes back to NY. But when Bobby asks his uncle for an actual job, Phil balks. He says there aren’t any. Instead he gets his secretary, Vonnie, to show Bobby around.

wasp2015_day_38-0177.CR2Vonnie (Kristin Stewart) is a charming, plainspoken woman from Nebraska. She doesn’t mince words. When Bobby senses some mutual attraction, Vonnie nips it in the bud. I have a boyfriend, she says. Little does Bobby know, her boyfriend is his Uncle Phil – and Vonnie is his mistress. Which one will she choose? Young Bobby or established (but married) Phil?

Years later, Bobby finds great success in Manhattan. He hosts a popular nightclub – that’s the café society of the title – that his gangster brother snatched from a competitor. Bobby hobnobs with the in crowd, but he still seems lonely. wasp2015_day_39-0199.CR2Has he made the right decisions in his life?

Woody Allen narrates Café Society as a bittersweet look back to the 1930s, loaded with period costumes and music. Even so, it felt like a mishmash more than a movie. In only 90 minutes, it goes off on side plots and tangents about crime and family differences, high society and black jazz clubs, NY and LA. There’s even a painfully laborious scene about Bobby’s misadventures with a Hollywood prostitute – but why? Is it even from the same movie? What does it have to do with the love of Vonnie and Bobby?

Jesse Eisenberg and Christen Stewart also co-starred in last year’s American Ultra, (a stoner-comedy/action-thriller) but don’t have nearly the chemistry as they had in that one. Eisenberg is excellent as a surrogate Woody Allen, he has the accent and hesitation down pat, while Kristen seems honest and likeable as Vonnie. While Cafe Society does have a good finish, it’s clearly not one of his best.

phantomboy_04Phantom Boy

Dir: Jean-Loup Felicioli, Alain Gagnol

Leo lives in New York with his parents and little sister. He’s a gawky kid in a baseball cap and a smiley-face shirt who is crazy about mysteries, especially detective stories. He’s in hospital now, undergoing chemotherapy. But he has a secret power: while he sleeps his phantom self can leave his body and float through walls, high in the sky, all around the city.

Detective Tanner is a great cop, singlehandedly stopping criminals, solving crimes and saving lives. He meets Mary Delaney, a prize-winning investigative journalist, when he stops two men robbing a grocery store phantomboy_01they’re both shopping at. But his captain regards him as a pain in the ass — too much paperwork. So he gets assigned to a crime-free zone, patrolling the docks.

Meanwhile, an ingenious master criminal is terrorizing the city. He looks like a Picasso painting… but from his cubist period. His face is a patchwork of bright colours. He plunges the city into darkness, until he’s thwarted by Detective Tanner who spots him on the docks. But he escapes capture and Tanner ends up in hospital with a broken leg. While unconscious he encounters Leo, or Phantom Boy. Phantom Leo is only visible to injured or dying people while they are dreaming.

phantomboy_03But somehow, the detective remembers his dream and recognizes Leo when he’s awake. But he can’t leave the hospital with his broken leg. Leo says he can help him catch the criminal. Here’s how: when Leo is semi-conscious his phantom self can float around the city, while the corporeal Leo, though asleep, can murmur to the cop what he sees. And Mary the journalist can investigate it all on foot.

But can they beat the master criminal, or will he kill them all.

This is a terrific animated kids movie. I saw this one last year – the original French version – last year and I loved it. Beautiful, classic animation, simple lines, elegant design. The one opening today is the English dubbed version, also great, but sounds a bit cornier to my English speaking ear. In any case, it still brought tears to my eyes. Wonderful music, great story, beautifully done.

The Seventh Fire, Café Society, and Phantom Boy 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

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.

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

Bette Davis, The Hard Way. Movies reviewed: Jezebel, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, All About Eve

Posted in 1930s, Cultural Mining, Hollywood, Movies, New Orleans, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 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.

jezebell_01I see hundreds of movies a year, and I think I have a pretty good grasp of current cinema. But what do I know about old Hollywood? Next to nothing. So when I heard that TIFF was running a retrospective of a famous star through December, I thought I’d finally take a look at what all the fuss is about. I had always avoided these movies, so this really is the first time I’m watching her movies.

That actress is Bette Davis, and they’re playing a selection of her films in a series called The Hard Way. She’s unusual looking — huge round eyes, a narrow nose, not conventionally beautiful but quite distinctive, especially her voice. I’m starting to understand her fame. She plays strong – often tyrannical – women, but ones who don’t necessarily end up getting what they want. She conveys her meaning with a grand gesture, a cruel slap or a dismissive flick of her fingers.

This week I’m looking at three of her movies, one from each stage of her long career. First, from her days as a huge star in the late 1930s, a romantic drama set in the Old South;  in her comeback in the early 1950s, in an amazing drama set amidst Broadway theatre; and, with her second comeback, a dramatic horror movie set in Hollywood in the early 1960s.

jezebell_03Jezebel (1938)

Dir: William Wyler

It’s antebellum New Orleans, a land of strange customs. Chivalry prevails: a gentleman can be challenged to a duel at dawn merely for besmirching a woman’s name. But, at the same time, half the people there are enslaved to the other half. In the middle of this world is Julie (Bette Davis), a strong-willed southern belle living on a halcyon plantation. She loves one man only, a businessman named Pres Dillard (Henry Fonda). But she also loves her freedom: riding horses and asserting her own opinions, damn the rest. But she commits a social faux pas at the ball by appearing in a red dress, not the requisite white one. What a Jezebel! The audacity! The horror! Pres heads up north without asking her hand in marriage.

He returns a few years later a changed man. Julie – struck by melancholy — is sure he’s jezebell_02come back for her. But has he? When the plot turns, she sets in motion a series of intricate revenge plots among her friends, schemes that could lead to death. This is all done in the midst of a plague of yellow fever among the swamps, a symbol of the putrefaction of the entire pre-war south. Will Julie change her ways and feel regret? And will Pres ever love her again, or at least respect her?

This movie is an interesting look at another era, but it was so removed from now that it was hard for me to sympathize. A red dress? Honour? Chivalry? Jezebel is not a pro-slavery movie; it shows the pre-Civil-War south as a decadent, outdated culture on the verge of collapse. But how can you take a movie like this seriously after seeing Twelve Years a Slave, one that takes place during the same time period, but about the people who were really oppressed? Still (not a spoiler), the closing scenes in Jezebel do provide a suitably dramatic conclusion to this epic drama.

babyjane_01What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)

Dir: Robert Aldrich

Baby Jane Hudson is a tap-dancing child star of vaudeville, known for her blonde bologna curls and frilly white dresses. Her father flogs life-sized Baby Jane dolls at every performance. Her plain sister Blanche depends on her income. But with the dawn of the talkies, Blanche’s Hollywood star rises even while Jane’s falls. But when Blanche is crippled after a deliberate car crash, Jane becomes her nursemaid out of guilt.

Now, it’s the early 1960s, and they still live in the same rat-infested old Hollywood mansion. The adult Jane (Bette Davis) still has her blonde curls, but she’s an old woman now with inches of white pancake makeup slapped on her cheeks, and grotesque black eyeliner and misshapen lipstick. Blanche (Joan Crawford), in a wheelchair, is isolated in a room upstairs and can’t come down. They exist in a sort of a truce. But when Blanche’s old movies are revived on TV, Jane is overcome by jealousy and anger. She should be famous. She should have a comeback, not her sister. She becomes increasingly unhinged, flashing from 10-year-old girl to her hideous and cruel self. Can Blanche escape this hell-hole of Hollywood torture and decay? Two aging cinematic icons playing themselves, battle it out to the end.

And the final scene is just amazing.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, though a schlocky, much-imitated horror movie, did work as a comeback for Bette Davis, who carved out a new career as the queen of fear.

allabouteve_01All About Eve (1950)

Dir: Joseph L Mankiewicz.

Margo (Bette Davis) is a great broadway actress at the peak of her career. Eve (Ann Baxter) is a superfan. She shows up at every single performance in a trenchcoat and a crumpled Tilley hat. When they actually meet, Eve’s earnest story of love and loss entrances Margo and all her friends with her freshness, innocence and sincerity. Margo gives her a room in her home and Eve becomes a combination maid, confidant and personal assistant. But Margo gradually becomes suspicious when she sees Eve studiously imitating her every move. She’s not worshipping her… she’s trying to become her! Margo’s friends dismiss her fears as an aging actress’s egotitistic paranoia.

Soon Eve becomes Margo’s actual understudy and, due to some manipulation by Margo’s friends, Eve wows the critics, especially the all-powerful and all-knowing theatre critic Addison Dewitt (George Sanders).

Is Eve the ingénue she pretends to be — or an ambitious psychopath? All About Eve won a slew of Academy Awards, and, far from feeling dated, it really is a masterpiece, showing the pettiness, deception, artifice and manipulation in the dog-eat-dog world of theatre, and by extension, Hollywood. Perfect script, fantastic acting, flawless direction.

All About Eve, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and Jezebel are part of TIFF’s program The Hard Way: the Films of Bette Davis, curated by James Quandt. Go to tiff.net for listings. Also opening today is Empire of Dirt a Canadian drama about three generations of stubborn, first nations women, who are thrown together for the first time.

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

 

Daniel Garber talks to Chen Kaige about Yellow Earth, Farewell My Concubine, and Caught in the Web

Posted in 1930s, China, Cross-dressing, Cultural Mining, Movies, Music, Politics, Poverty, Uncategorized, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on June 7, 2013

Chen KaigeHi, This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

The TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto is launching a Century of Chinese Cinema, a mammoth series that runs all summer. As part of this series, New Waves looks at the Fifth Generation directors in post-Mao China in the eighties.

One director’s work stands out, spanning the eighties to the present day and including such crucial Chinese films as Yellow Earth and Farewell My Concubine. In this interview, director CHEN KAIGE tells about Yellow Earth CREDIT FRL_mediummaking films in the 1980s, the 1990s and today, and talks about traditional culture, Chinese politics, whether Chinese films should “serve the people”, social networking, and more.

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 .

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