Unusual relationships. Movies reviewed: Room 213, Your Name, Maudie

Posted in Animation, Art, Canada, Denmark, Drama, Japan, Nova Scotia, Romance, Supernatural by CulturalMining.com on April 14, 2017

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

April 19th is National Canadian Film Day, which bills itself as the world’s largest film festival. On that day — at theatres around Toronto, and across the country – you can see free screenings of Canadian movies, often with actors or directors in attendance. Comedies, kids’ movies, French, indigenous… and they’re all free.  Check it out.

This week I’m looking at movies about unusual relationships. There’s a disabled woman who moves in with a recluse, a ghost who inhabits a young girl, and a teenage boy and girl who inhabit each other’s bodies.

Room 213

Dir: Emilie Lindblom

Elvira (Wilma Lundgrun) is a 12-year-old Danish girl heading to camp for the first time. Camp Bjorkuddens is a lot like a Canadian summer camp: it’s on a lake, they play games, roast weenies on sticks and tell scary stories by the campfire. The big difference is instead of tents or small, bare cabins they stay in a huge, elaborate building filled with dusty antiques. Elvira has two roommates, the blond and snobbish Meja (Ella Fogelström) and the darker, shy Bea (Elena Hovsepyan). And due to a plumbing problem they move to room 213, empty for many years.

That’s when weird things start to happen. The door creaks open in the middle of the night, and treasured items disappear (and the three girls suspect one another). A girl with red hair and bright green eyes named Mebel appears — is she a ghost? And when Elvira’s brown eyes start turning green, is it Mebel taking over?

Room 213 is a scary movie aimed at small children. It’s tame even by YTV standards — no violence at all, no slashers in hockey masks, just general spookiness. And it deals with problems like exclusion, bullying and young love in a multi-ethnic Denmark. But this is definitely a movie for little kids only.

Your Name (君の名は)

Dir: Makoto Shinkai

Taki is a high schooler in central Tokyo. He’s scrawny but quick to fight. He hangs out with his two best friends and has a crush on his sophisticated, female boss at his part-time restaurant job. Mitsuha is a teenaged girl in a remote Japanese village, known for its obscure shinto shrine and little else. She lives with her little sister Yotsuha and her traditional grandmother who knows about the old ways. Things like weaving colourful lanyards, and chewing up glutinous rice, spitting it back into a wooden box so it ferments into sake. Yum! And there’s a celestial comet that passes close to the town every 200 years (that day is approaching soon.)

Taki and Mitsuha are total strangers who live far away from each other. So what’s their connection? Some mornings, Taki is waking up with breasts, and Mitsuha with a penis. Well not exactly; they’re actually waking up inside each other’s bodies. They have to live those days at school, at work and with friends they’ve never met before. It’s not all bad. Mitsuha lands Taki a date with his boss, and Taki gains some insight into shinto rituals. He becomes more mature and she is more assertive. The two manage to communicate with each other using cryptic scrawls they leave in notebooks and diaries recorded on cel phones so they can know what happened during their switch-body days. Until something changes. The body switches suddeny stop and all the notes they left each other fade away. For Taki it’s as if Mitsuha never existed and it was all a dream. But it was real. He can’t remember her name, but he knows it all happened. Using a sketch of her town he drew from memory, he sets out to find her.

Your Name is deeply-moving romantic drama with a touch of the supernatural. It’s a beautifully- drawn, animated film from Japan with neat camera angles and lovely art. It’s also a record-breaking smash hit across East Asia that has finally reached these shores. It’s the only movie playing now to sell-out crowds, with huge lineups inside the theatre before each screening. And I understand why. No spoilers, but there’s a wrenching revelation in the middle that sent shivers down my spine, the sign of a really good story. Anime is a particular genre, and if you’re not familiar with it it might be hard to understand, but if you like anime, this one is a must-see.

Maudie

Dir: Aisling Walsh

Maud (Sally Hawkins) is a disabled woman who lives in post-war Digby, Nova Scotia with her controlling aunt. Every moment of her life is supervised and she’s treated like a simple-minded child. But on a visit to a local shop she finds a way to escape: a hand-written ad for a live in housekeeper. Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) wrote the note, though his house is barely a home. He lives in a rundown shack on a small plot of land, earning a meagre living as a fish monger. He’s unmarried, mainly because no woman can put up with his rudeness.

But Maudie can. After dogged persistence, she moves in with him and immediately starts to work. He is peculiar and abusive, but she sticks with it. In her free time she begins to decorate the walls with small paintings of flowers and animals. When her hand-painted postcards sell out at the local general store, she moves on to bigger paintings, selling them for $5 apiece. These catch the eye of a rich woman from N.Y. City who spreads the primitivist paintings among her friends back home. Meanwhile, Maud’s relationship with Everett gradually shifts from boss/servant to bedmate to wife. But can a reclusive misanthrope handle living with a recognized artist and local celebrity?

Maudie is the true story of a self-taught painter whose works now hang in famous galleries and in the homes of collectors. It’s also an unusual romance about a pair of social outcasts hammering out an unusual relationship on their own. Sally Hawkins is outstanding as Maudie – you really believe she is who she is playing. Hawke, though capable in his portrayal of such an unsympathetic character, pales in comparison to his co-star. This is a good — though very dark — movie.

Your Name is now playing and Maudie opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Room 213 is one of many films showing at the TIFF Kids Festival – go to tiff.net for details. And canadianfilmday.ca will tell you where to see free films on April 19th.

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

Heimat Films. Movies reviewed: Schultze Gets the Blues, Window Horses

Posted in Movies, Canada, Iran, comedy, Animation, Music, Clash of Cultures, Germany, Poetry by CulturalMining.com on March 10, 2017

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

Heimat is the German word for home, homeland and fatherland… with hints of blood and soil. It’s also the name of a particular postwar film genre. Backed with strong American encouragement it helped Germans forget their economic problems and troublesome past, and look blithely forward toward a better tomorrow. Heimat films were made in southern Germany and popular in Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland, depicting traditional small towns filled with girls in blonde pigtails. Heimat films are having a comeback in contemporary Germany, perhaps in response to Conservative governments and feelings of turmoil and insecurity. They concentrate on a mixture of traditional, homogeneous, smalltown Germany, so-called authentic culture, and a longing for a simpler past. Toronto’s Goethe Films: Heimat Now series is running until March 14th.

This week I’m looking at movies about home. There’s a comedy about German man whose accordion leads him to zydeco; and an animated feature about a Canadian woman whose poems lead her to Shiraz.

Schultze Gets the Blues

Wri/Dir: Michael Schorr

Schultze (Horst Krause) is a miner in a small town Germany. This town is so small that the radio traffic report is just a long pause. The village is dominated by a railroad crossing, a motorcross track and an enormous slag pile, expelled from the mine where Schultze works with his two friends Jurgen (Harald Warmbrunn) and Manfred (Karl Fred Muller). But when the three men retire they find they have nothing to do. Chess games end in fights, and trips to the local pub means just the same old faces, over and over.

At least Schultze has his garden gnomes and his trusty accordion. Like his father before him, he’s been entertaining townsfolk with his polkas for two generations. They’re even planning on sending a cultural emissary to its twin city in Texas. Nothing ever changes, until one day, out of nowhere, he hears accordion music on his radio that isn’t quite right. It disturbs him. It’s not a polka, it’s faster, jumpier, and catchier. What is this Amerikanische music? It has entered Schultze’s brain and will not go away. Locals listen in horror and shout the N-word at him. So Schultze sets off for the swamps and bayous of America in search of Zydeco. And he finds the people in small town Texas a whole lot like the ones he left back home.

Schultze Gets the Blues is a simple, endearing comedy about a big-bellied man looking for meaning in music. I have to admit watching this movie felt, at first, like watching paint dry. I guess I’m a city boy used to a faster pace. But once I adjusted to the slower small-town rhythms, it was funnier, fascinating, almost profound. I ended up liking it.

Window Horses

Wri/Dir: Ann Marie Fleming

Rosie Ming (Sandra Oh) is a young woman with pigtails who lives in Vancouver but dreams of Paris. Her mom died, and her dad abandoned her when she was just a little girl so now she lives with her kind but overprotective grandparents.

She works in a fast food joint, and loves poetry, berets and the romance of far-off France. She writes down the words that come to her as she strums at her guitar, and publishes a collection of these poems at a vanity press. Imagine her surprise when she’s invited to a poetry festival far away. Not in Paris, France, but in Shiraz, Iran. With her grandparents consent she arrives there, a Chinese-looking Canadian dressed in a black chador, the most conservative type of Iranian dress, a combination black hijab and full-length gown.

At the poetry festival, she seems out of place. Iran is a land of poetry and Shiraz its poetic capital. At poetry slams she tries to understand what she hears, but the poems in Farsi, German and Chinese evade her. Gradually she meets people who had heard of her… through her father. Far from abandoning her, she discovers her dad was forced to leave her and kept away from her by outside forces. Not only that, but he was Iranian, loved poetry and once lived in Shiraz. His story, and its connection to Rosie May is gradually revealed through the music, the poetry and the people who seek her out. But will she ever discover the truth about her Iranian father?

Window Horses is a visually and musically beautiful movie, portraying a naïve Canadian woman exposed to a colourful and culturally rich country. This is an animated film with simple drawings. Rosie is a stick figure with two lines for eyes, who almost disappears in her Chador. Others have faces decorated with oblong jowls and curlicue eyes. Animation shifts from traditional two dimensional figures to sepia -coloured 3-D frescoes. Voices are provided by Sandra Oh as Rosie, with Don McKellar, Ellen Page and Shohreh Aghdashloo in other roles.

I like this movie.

Window Horses starts today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Schultze Gets the Blues is playing at the Heimat Now series at the Goethe Institute in Toronto.

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

Destinies and Destinations. Films Reviewed: Toni Erdmann, Gold, The Red Turtle PLUS Isaac Julien

Posted in Animation, Belgium, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Drama, Family, Finance, Germany, Movies by CulturalMining.com on January 27, 2017

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

British filmmaker and artist Isaac Julien has two film installations on three screens each at the ROM, that follow parallel impressionistic journeys. One with migrants ijs105_western-union-series-no5_ghosts_they-build-their-lives_2007travelling from North Africa to southern Europe, the other following Matthew A Henson the African American explorer heading to the North Pole with Robert Peary.

So this week I’m looking at movies about destinies and destinations. There’s a prospector looking for Gold in Indonesia, a man stranded on a deserted island, and a German trickster in Romania.

c6006c5e-b388-4432-a637-9499a701e432Toni Erdmann

Dir: Maren Ade

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is an elderly man who lives in Germany with his little dog. He still teaches but his main hobby is practical jokes, especially elaborate routines with him at the centre. He always carries a set of crooked teeth to slip over his own for the shocking effect.

Winfried has an adult daughter named Ines (Sandra Hüller). She’s in her thirties who dresses conservatively, with plain blonde hair. She works for a dda3ca6c-37d5-4322-8070-aeb2af566f08multinational corporation in Bucharest Romania. Ines is an uptight, by-the-book careerist, rising quickly to the top levels of her company. She’s also brimming with angst, loneliness and depression.

Who shows up at her corporate 01533d11-1237-4a24-9475-0bdfe53eed02office? It’s Winfried her dad, on a surprise visit. She loves him, but finds him awkward and uncomfortable to deal with, so she’s relieved when he leaves. Only he doesn’t. He’s still in Bucharest, but in character, complete with fake teeth, Richard Branson wig and dark suit. He says his name is Toni Erdmann, and, he shows up at every party, meeting and get together. And to Ines’s dismay, he’s very popular at her workplace. She has to play along with his joke or risk her job and career.646540f8-a2a1-47f6-a981-99169e9c5cfa

But the story gets really interesting when Ines starts to pick up on her dad’s playful nature and learns to relax, laugh and let herself go.

This is a long movie – almost three hours – and it’s a comedy but it’s never boring. It reveals the story at its own pace, and — no spoilers! — but it does include a nudist party, impromptu karaoke, and an enormous mythical yeti. Great movie!

bryce-dallas-howard-and-matthew-mcconaughey-in-goldGold

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

It’s the 1980s. Kenny Wells (Matt McConaughey) is a fourth generation prospector who lives in Reno, Nevada. His grandpa headed west to get rich on silver and gold. Prospectors say they can smell gold a mile away. But Wells seems to have lost that magic touch. Now he works in a cramped office, and he takes meetings at a rundown bar. Each of his investment schemes promise riches but GOLDend up in ruin. And his charm is in the eyes of the beholder. He’s balding with a pot belly, greasy hair and a snuggle tooth. His girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) still believes in him, but investors don’t.

Until he hears about a man from South America with a new theory. GOLDMichael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) is a dashing prospector with an air of mystery about him. He says there’s a ring of fire in Southeast Asia loaded with precious metals from ancient meteors. Wells and Acosta venture into the jungles of Indonesia looking for treasure. And just when Wells is about to give up, just when he is on deaths door with malaria… Acosta strikes gold. It’s GOLDthe motherload! Core samples say it’s the richest gold mine on the face of the earth. Now they need to face investors, Wall Street brokers, mining moguls and tinpot dictators to hold onto their claims and to make billions. Can Wells keep his indignation and ego under control? Will his relationship with Kay – and his bromance with Acosta — endure under pressure? And can they survive the dog eat dog world of high finance?

Though loosely based on a real story, Gold is strictly fiction. The movie doesn’t deal with things like environmental degradation or horrible work conditions that can accompany mining. And it’s a bit long. But it’s also a fun and fascinating story of the ups and downs of prospecting.

13340241_233264913726993_7447487803385711803_oThe Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)

Dir: Michael Dudok de Wit

A man is awakened on a beach by a crab skittering past. What happened? Where is he? He’s stranded on an island somewhere, a rock with sparkling white sand and pristine blue water. Exploring the island, he finds a lush bamboo forest on one side, a clear freshwater pond in the middle, and at the far end a high rocky precipice. Huge fruits hang from trees, 13415485_234005173652967_7596049063021961426_oready to pick and the beaches teem with fish, and clams. No one around to keep him company, just a wailing seal, fluttering birds and those annoying little crabs that follow him everywhere. Clearly he must escape.

14362673_288284511558366_2379912415219863982_oHe fashions a raft out of bamboo poles tied together with vines and sets off into the waves. Before long something enormous smashes raft to pieces from below. A shark? A whale? He can’t tell, but each attempt to escape the island ends in the same way… disaster. He unnamedfinally discovers the source: a huge red turtle. Eventually the turtle goes aground and walks on the beach, and in a fit of anger, the man flips it on its back and beats it with a stick. Feeling guilty, he tries, without success, to nurse it back to health. But the shell cracks open revealing a beautiful woman inside with long, red hair.

13316884_231361350584016_4940529898495944572_oThe red turtle is a beautiful animated film about a man and his family who form a symbiotic relationship with the sea. it’s produced by Japan’s famous Ghibli Studios – which may explain the Urashima Taro references, a classic story about a man and a turtle. But the look of the movie is purely northern European – the characters have dots for eyes, just like Tintin. This is a beautiful and poignant animated movie. I really liked this one.

Toni Erdmann has been nominated for best foreign film, and The Red Turtle for best animated film Oscar. Along with Gold, they all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Isaac Julien’s Other Destinies is now screening at the Royal Ontario Museum. Go to rom.on.ca for details.

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

Out of Sight. Movies reviewed: The Unseen, Castle in the Sky

Posted in Animation, Canada, Horror, Japan, Kids, Levitation, steampunk by CulturalMining.com on December 3, 2016

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

Not everything you see is the plain truth. Sometimes you have to dig deeper to see what’s really there. This week I’m looking at movies about things kept out of sight. There’s a classic Japanese anime about a city that can’t be found, and a new Canadian thriller/horror about a man who’s not all there.

14088468_1656718961215506_4090497205890860405_nThe Unseen

Wri/Dir: Geoff Redknap

Bobby Langmore (Aden Young) was an NHL golden boy, a wizard on the ice. He was happily married to Darlene (Camille Sullivan) with a young daughter, Eva, when something happened. He still felt healthy and normal, but his skin and flesh 10984228_1493728920847845_3341519512764863931_nappeared to be rotting away. This was a secret he had to keep hidden. He climbed into a truck and never looked back. Now, eight years later, he still works in a saw mill in northern BC. His only family contact is the monthly cheques he sends them. His life up north is drab and desolate, his only friend the joint he smokes after a hard day.

Bob is equal parts gruff, tough, and scruff.

Meanwhile, in the lower mainland, his daughter Eva (Julia Sarah Stone) is 16 now and barely remembers her dad. 11755062_1517963381757732_8659678087913732529_nShe’s a cute non-conformist with a chip on her shoulder. She lives a comfortable life with her mom and her mom’s wife. But she is increasingly troubled and alienated from family and friends, and threatens to just take off and never come back. Darlene sees something of 12002323_1535433453344058_8264690283193874598_nBob in her, so she gives him a call:” I think you need to talk to Eva.”

He walks off his job the next day… but needs help getting there. He makes a deal with Crisby (Ben Cotton), a sketchy local drug dealer, to pay for truck repairs. But soon after he reaches his former family, Eva disappears. You see, she has the same mysterious affliction, but no one has 10599521_1533738020180268_2559640461075319616_ntold her what it means. So she explores a boarded-up mental hospital with hopes of finding her grandfather’s files. He committed suicide their years before and Eva wonders if she’s headed down the same path. But then she disappears. Can Bob find his missing daughter and tells her what’s what? Or will history repeat itself for another generation?

The Unseen is a creepy look at a working class family with a strange condition in small town BC. It’s dark and misanthropic, with only family loyalty – and a few kind strangers – to counter its dark and grumpy view of humanity. The acting is angry but good, and the film has a raw realistic feel to it, from the scenic sawmill to the ramshackle houses everyone seems to live in. It’s a good strong dramatic horror film.

And the special effects that finally appear – or disappear! – toward the end of the film are fantastic.

castle_in_the_sky_movie_posterCastle in the Sky (Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta) 1986

Dir: Miyazaki Hayao

Pazu is an orphan who lives in a hillside mining town. He sleeps in a crumbling stone home with a dovecot on the roof, and starts each morning with a trumpet to rouse the all the people in the town below. All that he has from his parents are photos and drawings of a mythical place called Laputa. But one day while working at the complex machinery above the mineshaft, he sees something falling from the skies. It’s a little girl, 6087_1unconscious, drifting slowly down to earth. He catches her and brings her home. Who is she and where did she come from?

Her name is Sheeta, raised in an alpine town north of there. She’s an orphan like Pazu, her only possession a glowing crystal she wears around her neck. And it’s that jewel that keeps her on the run. She was kidnapped by miyazaki-castle_in_the_sky__1__shetapazuf_soldiers — and a haughty government agent named Muska – who flew her away in mechanical blimp. But hey were attacked by a gang of air pirates who attacked the ship. Both groups are after one thing – Sheeta’s crystal. It’s made from a rare stone with special properties – it can counteract gravity. But it can only be activated by the incantations Sheeta knows. But their real aim is to locate Laputa, the mythical island in the sky mentioned in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Dola and the pirates crave the treasure, the military its potential weapons, while Muska has far more sinister plans.

Sheeta and Pazu have only their wits, stamina and each other to depend on. So they embark on a series of highspeed train rides, car chases, and flying machines Dola, Castle in the Skybattles, making odd alliances on the way. There are even long armed metallic robots. But which of them will find that castle in the sky?

This film is 30 years old, and was the first made by Japan’s famed Ghibli studios. It’s filled with kid-pop references. Pazu’s moustachioed uncle looks like Super Mario, Sheeta was raised in Heidi country near the Alps, and Dola — the head pirate with her giant red pigtails — is a grown-up Anne of Green Gables gone to seed. It has vaguely subversive views, anti-military and anti-government, with strong female role models.. Replete with steampunk exploits and amazing views from the sky, I just had a chance to see this kids’ cartoon on the big screen for the first time and it really grabbed me. Great movie.

The Unseen played at last week’s Blood in the Snow Canadian film festival (Winner: Best Feature: The Unseen, Dir. Geoff Redknap, Katie Weekley, Producer; Best Actor: Aden Young, The Unseen) and The Castle in the Sky is opening as part of Spirited Away: the Films of Studio Ghibli at TIFF; go to tiff.net for showtimes. It’s playing on Christmas Eve.

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

 

Back to School. The Girl with all the Gifts, Queen of Katwe, My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea #TIFF16

Posted in Animation, Coming of Age, Games, High School, Horror, School, Science Fiction, Uganda, UK, US, Women, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on September 16, 2016

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

It’s mid-September as TIFF enters its final weekend with lots left to see. It’s also the start of an academic year. So this week I’m looking TIFF movies about going back to school. We’ve got an American school sinking into the sea, smart African kids who can’t afford the school fee, and British kids kept under lock and key.

thegirlwithallthegifts_02The Girl with all the Gifts

Dir: Colm McCarthy

It’s a military camp in a dystopian, future UK. Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is a bright and friendly girl who gets along well with others. She goes to school each morning and is the best kid in the class. But she – like the rest of the kids – is kept locked up in a dingy prison cell, fed raw worms, and derided thegirlwithallthegifts_04by heavily armed soldiers as a monster abortion. Only her teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Atherton), sticks up for Melanie. But Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) a sinister scientist, also has her eye on Melanie.

You see, all of England has been infected by a fungal virus that turns you into a flesh-eating zombie who never dies. But these kids are second generation — infected in utero — who think and act like humans but carry a craving for raw flesh. thegirlwithallthegifts_01Caldwell wants to carve up Melanie’s brain to find a cure. But when the camp is overrun by zombies, the three of them (along with a troupe of soldiers) are forced to escape in a military vehicle to find another base. Can Melanie – the girl with all the gifts – be trusted to stay moral and not eat the humans? Can trigger-happy soldiers and heartless scientists be trusted not to kill her? This is a great science fiction drama in the form of a zombie flic. Glenn Close goes a bit overboard in her evil rants, but Atherton and Manua are amazing as the good guys.

queen-of-katweQueen of Katwe

Dir: Mira Nair

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl who lives in Katwe, a desperately poor slum in Uganda. By day she sells corn to passing motorists. By night she sleeps in an unlit shack with her brother, her sister and her stern mother (Lupita Nyong’o) who always sticks up for her kids. Is there no way out of this desperate life.

Enter Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). He has an engineering degree but works at a community centre for underprivileged kids, teaching them chess. Phiona and her brother take to the game almost immediately, despite kids deriding their unwashed clothes. She’s illiterate but learns to play strategically, plotting out future moves in her head. Robert sees a chess prodigy and his wife helps her learn to read. But Phiona is still penniless, playing chess with bottle caps on a piece of cardboard. Her mother tries to Queen of Katwepull her away from that gambling den. But Coach Robert convinces her that only by becoming a chess master can Phiona make it out of Katwe. Mom finally understands, selling her only possessions to pay for paraffin candles so Phiona can study at night. But can a girl from the ghetto become a Chess Master?

Queen of Katwe is a wonderful traditional family story, about hard work and tenacity. It says never give up, believe in yourself. At the same it shows a realistic portrait of desperate lives, their constant search for money, and the terrible prejudice they face. The story is told in a simple way but it’s very moving. It’s shot in Africa by the great Indian director Mira Nair, an expert at showing class differences. The actors portray their roles well, from grumpy Nyong’o, to optimistic Oyelowo and especially the wonderful Nalwanga as Phiona.

myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_02My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea

Wri/Dir Dash Shaw

Dash is starting a new year with high hopes. A junior at Tides High, he’s a cynical news geek who writes for the school paper, the Tides Gazette, with best friend Assaf and Verti the editor. He wants to find the big story. He’s sure his school is about to collapse due to bad maintenance. But no one reads the paper’s turgid prose and his warnings are ignored. Assaf and Verti are dating now so he’s left all alone. When he is caught looking through school files for hard evidence, he ends up in detention. But that’s when disaster strikes — an earthquake starts fires and sends the shoddily built school sinking into the sea. It’s also on fire, with sharks in the water and rats on land. It’s up to Dash and his friends — along with a courageous lunch lady — to lead his schoolmates to safety. But they must face the school myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_01snitch, drug dealers, the devious principal, popular kids and the school quarterback who reigns from a golden throne in only his jockstrap. But who will survive and who will be torn to bloody pieces before their very eyes?

This is a fantastic animated feature, one of the best movies at TIFF. It’s the Poseidon Adventure set in a high school. The art and animation takes unexpected forms. No pixar 3-D or complex cell animation here. Instead it’s broad splashes of tempera paint behind the thick black lines that make up character faces. There are cutouts and fingerpaint, boy scout illustrations, pop art and trippy half-tone dots from newspaper sunday comics.

Great voices are provided by Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph and Susan Sarandon as Lunch Lady Lorraine. But the art of Dash Shaw — and his fellow cartoonists and artists — is what makes this so great.

The Girl with all the Gifts, Queen of Katwe, and My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea, are all playing now at TIFF. And you can line up at Roy Thompson Hall around 4 pm on Sunday to get a free ticket to the people’s choice award movie. Always worth watching, always free. Details are posted at tiff.net.

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

Out of Their Element. Movies reviewed: Triple 9, Only Yesterday, Where to Invade Next PLUS Oscar predictions

Posted in 1990s, Animation, comedy, Coming of Age, Corruption, Crime, Cultural Mining, documentary, Japan, Movies, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2016

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

The White Oscars are on this Sunday, and here are some of my predictions. But beware: I’m often completely wrong.

Animated feature: Pete Docter & Jonas Rivera (Inside Out) ✓
Foreign language: Ciro Guerra (Embrace the Serpent) X
Documentary: Amy (Asif Kapadia & James Gay-Rees) ✓
Original screenplay: Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) ✓
Adapted screenplay: Emma Donoghue (Room) X
Supporting actor: Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight) X
Supporting actress: Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) X
Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant) ✓
Actress: Brie Larson (Room) ✓
Director: Lenny Abrahamson (Room) X
Best picture: Room X

This week I’m looking at movies about people out of their element. There’s a documentary about a Michigander in Europe, an action/thriller about Atlanta bank robbers in a cop shop, and a Japanese anime about a Tokyo dweller on a farm.

gallery_onesheetTriple 9
Dir: John Hillcoat

Early one morning, Russel and Gabe, Marcus and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr) and their leader Michael pull of a perfect bank robbery in Atlanta, taking lots of cash, and leaving no fingerprints. Why are they so good at it? Because they’re cops… crooked cops. They split the cash and prepare to pull off gallery_chrisjeffreyjust one more robbery.

Problem is there’s a new cop in town named Chris (Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone) investigating this crime. He’s a straight arrow. He’s looking for clues around the Latino section of Atlanta with a gang war in proigress. He doesn’t realize that his partner Marcus (Anthony Mackie, The Hurt Locker) is crooked.

In fact the street gangs have nothing to do with the bank heist, gallery_michaelelenait’s tied to organized crime. Specifically: the Russian mob, headed by Irina (Kate Winslet, Titanic), the blond Russian kingpin.  (…Queenpin?) She’s running her hubby’s Kosher meat empire while he’s behind bars. And what’s the police connection? Policeman Mike (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Twelve Years a Slave) is married to Irina’s beautiful sister Elena (Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman) – and they have a black, Jewish kid gallery_irinaparkinglottogether (named Drake?).

That’s not all. Russell and Gabe (Norman Reedus, The Walking Dead; Aaron Paul, Breaking Bad) are brothers, and Chris – who is Marcus’s detective partner – is the son of another cop (Woody Harrelson, Rampart) His dad smokes pot and expects freebies from his transsexual prostitute informant, but he’s considered “not corrupt”. Which group will triumph — good cops or bad cops? Criminals or the mob?

All clear now? I didn’t think so. This is such a confusing movie. There are a dozen important characters each with his own reason for double-crossing someone else. Triple 9 has a great illustrious cast, but they’re wasted in this messy, shoot-em-up, cops and robbers story. Not boring… just pointless.

48vgKk_Only_Yesterday_Trailer_o3_8939181_1455135765Only Yesterday
Dir: Takahata Isao

It’s the early 1990s in Tokyo. Maeko is an office worker in her late 20s, who finds life dull and pointless. So to perk things up she decides to go back to the land… on vacation, at least. She pays money to a farming family to let her help them with the harvest of WnK5vg_Only_Yesterday_credit__1991_Hotaru_Okamoto_-_Yuko_Tone_-_GNH_(1)_o3_8935474_1455135738safflower blossoms.

The long journey by train gives her time to think and remember. Almost unbidden, memories of her childhood come flooding back. When she was in grade 5, everything — like her first crush, first tampon, even her first taste of a fresh pineapple — seemed much more JZKORD_Only_Yesterday_credit__1991_Hotaru_Okamoto_-_Yuko_Tone_-_GNH_(4)_o3_8935564_1455135750important.

Life on the farm also gives her a connection to a greater history: how the safflowers crushed by once-poor farmers becomes the rouge used by rich city women to blush their cheeks. Even the runoff water becomes the pink dye used for the clothing she wears. The people she meets there — especially Toshio, the goofy country guy who clearly qjpO93_Only_Yesterday_credit__1991_Hotaru_Okamoto_-_Yuko_Tone_-_GNH_(5)_o3_8935596_1455135751likes her — seem more real, more important than her “friends” in the city. But what will she do when the summer is over?

Only Yesterday is a 25-year-old animated film from famed Ghibli studios, rereleased in English with Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel providing the voices of Maeko and Toshio. I have mixed feelings about this one. I like how it deals with real life problems and its beautiful animation, with bright colours for the 1990s Maeko and faded, old-fashioned illustrations for her as a child. But there’s a super-earnest tone to it, with lots of educational bits, like a kids’ show on NHK (Japan’s public TV). And it has some long silent parts, without sound effects or music, that make you squirm.

Much like Maeko’s childhood memories, the film somehow seems better in retrospect than while you’re watching it.

acbcc98e-e19f-4532-b534-2424684a1e6aWhere to Invade Next
Dir: Michael Moore

More Americans – especially African Americans and Latinos — are in prison than in any other country in the world. Decent education and health care are still out of reach for many people, with spiraling debt and falling incomes. How can America solve its huge social problems? It’s easy, says Michael Moore. Let’s invade Europe again and take home its best ideas. Armed only with an American flag and a camera, Moore visits the best parts of the EU to record its plusses. Like affordable, delicious school lunches in France, complete with 19 cheeses; the kids shudder fb3cab01-2368-4ad7-83d1-a6beb0ed251dto see Moore guzzling a can of Coke. Or free universities in Slovenia. Generous union contracts in Italy. There are open prisons in Norway that reintegrate prisoners back into society. When the stock market crashed in Iceland they arrested the brokers responsible. And Germany makes sure its school kids know all about the atrocities in their history. (We should be so lucky.)

The movie starts with a fast-moving, hard-hitting news 5ea9a85c-ecb6-4e85-8337-1504b51ab17amontage about American life, well worth the price of the film. After that, it’s a gentle, cute, and completely enjoyable travelogue of the best of Europe. (The film was made before the huge influx of Syrian refugees, where some European countries are showing their uglier sides… but that’s a different movie.) Basically, Where to Invade Next is like a travel guide to places where Bernie Sanders’ election promises are already in place.

Triple 9, Only Yesterday, and Where to Invade Next all open today: check your local listings. And if you’re into wolverines — not X-Men, the real thing — check out the rare footage in Wolverine: Ghost of the Northern Forest, a new documentary on CBC’s the Nature of Things this weekend.

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

A new year. Movies Reviewed: Anomalisa, Sleeping Giant, The Demons

Posted in Animation, Canada, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Movies, Psychology, Quebec by CulturalMining.com on January 8, 2016

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

Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival is now screening some of the best movies of 2015. This week I’m looking at two coming-of-age films, one set in Quebec the other in Ontario, that look at summer stories; and an unusual animated drama about celebrity and conformity.

qjLZ5G_anomalisa_02_o3_8703152_1438094874Anomalisa
Dir: Duke Johnson and Charlie Kaufmann

Michael Stone (David Thewlis) is a minor celebrity in the world of business self-help books. He’s much loved by office staffs all across America. His specialty? customer service. He’s staying at a hotel in Cincinnati for a day to prepare for an upcoming speech he’s giving there.

But something seems not right. Everyone else (Tom Noonan) just 12375066_931049030312493_458353283602098012_orepeats what they’ve been told: Cincinnati has a great zoo. Cincinnati makes great chile. And they all look the same too: same face, same voice. Old or young, male or female, they all talk just the same.

He begins to doubt his sanity… maybe he’s the robot, not them!.

Then, somewhere outside his hotel room door, he hears a voice, a distinctive voice, a woman’s voice. He pulls on his pants, runs out of his room, and races down the hall, knocking on every door. Until he 12247951_918554004895329_2691172879829888643_ofinds what he’s looking for. It’s a woman named Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh), from Akron in town to hear Michael’s speech. She’s ordinary looking, not particularly bright, but he decides, she’s the only real person left in this world. Lisa is the anomaly amongst all the conformity. Anomalisa.

Could this be true love?

What I haven’t said yet is that this is an animated film using stop-motion photography. And in fact, Michael, Lisa, and everyone else are actually dolls. Anatomically correct dolls. They get in fights, sing songs, get drunk, have realistic sex – with all the bumps and faux pas – but they’re not human. So it’s a triple conundrum: is this an animated movie about a normal middle aged guy losing it? Or are we seeing the characters as animated dolls because that’s how the main character envisions the world? Or are we all actually identical automatons?

Anomalisa is a weird and funny, if troubling, drama.

vgRX90_SLEEPING_GIANT_02_o3_8685410_1438737298Sleeping Giant
Dir: Andrew Cividino

Adam (Jackson Martin) is a sheltered, middle-class kid who still goes to bed on time. He’s up in cottage country on Lake Superior for the summer. His parents just bought an expensive place, so everything seems to be going well. But parents don’t see everything.

Adam is 15, and still in touch with his old summer friends, mainly j25GLP_SLEEPING_GIANT_03_o3_8685445_1438737314girls like Taylor (Katelyn McKerracher). But now he has some guy friends to tell him what’s what. Nate and Riley (Nick Serino and Reece Moffet) are a pair of cool cousins he meets out there on the road. They are staying with their grandma, with no parents around Lg0XAr_SLEEPING_GIANT_01_o3_8685366_1438737282to supervise. Nate’s the aggressive fast talker, while older Riley is less volatile.

Together the two of them are slowly corrupting Adam, introducing him to the basics adult life: lying, stealing beer, getting drunk, smoking pot and badmouthing girls. They use a golf cart to rob a liquor store. But things start to go wrong when Taylor upsets the delicate “guy balance”. One of them falls in love with her, another feels stilted and a third sees her as a danger to their friendship. And looming in the background is a huge rocky cliff on a nearby A019_C001_0724VXuninhibited island. Legend has it, someone jumped and died there.

Based on a short film, Sleeping giant is another great coming of age story that looks at the scariness and discovery of adolescence played against the cottages and lakes of northwest Ontario.

2RqJ9W_demons_05_o3_8888535_1449615258The Demons
Wri/Dir: Philippe Lesage

Felix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier) is your average 10 year old boy in a Quebec suburb. Bigger kids pick on him so he bullies littler kids. He spends his days at school where he forgets his pencils, at home where he hears his parents fighting, or 0go30V_demons_03_o3_8888443_1449615229with his friends at the outdoor swimming pool. He’s at that age between childhood and adolescence where everything is new and strange and more than a little scary. Like ghosts that can sense your fear, kidnappers who might grab you off the street, and AIDS which will infect you if you act “too gay”.

qjp8QR_demons_02_o3_8888396_1449615258His fears are preyed on by his siblings and friends. They pile on the kind of urban myths that make you shiver. Like the girl who has cockroaches growing inside her tongue, or how chewing your hair leads to death from hair balls. But at the same time, something weird and sinister is happening all around g5DX2Z_demons_04_o3_8888488_1449615243him. Why did his Dad spend the night visiting his best friend’s mom? How come the girl he loves ignores him? And why are kids disappearing right around his neighbourhood?

Demons has a terrific ensemble cast with kids saying the stuff they won’t say in front of adults. It’s based on the director’s memories of his own childhood and it rings true. This is an unsparingly realistic look at dark shames and fears. Really good movie.

Anomalisa opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Sleeping Giant and The Demons are both part of Canada’s Top Ten Film Fest. 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.

East Asia. Movies reviewed: The Assassin, Miss Hokusai, Port of Call

Posted in Animation, Art, Crime, Cultural Mining, Hong Kong, Japan, Movies, Sex Trade, Taiwan by CulturalMining.com on November 7, 2015

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

Toronto’s fall film festival season continues in November. 2015-rwm_logo-with-bg2Rendezvous with Madness opens tonight, featuring films and documentaries made by or about people with mental health or addiction issues. Each screening is followed by a reelasian-headerpanel discussion. And don’t miss the ReelAsian International Film Festival which started last night. I find movies from East Asia doubly interesting, not just for the story, acting and cinematography, but also for the cultural insights. This week, I’m looking at three Asian movies: a true crime drama set in contemporary Hong Kong, a martial arts epic set in Tang dynasty China, and Japanese anime set in 19th Century Edo.

0gEJM3_assassin_01_o3_8674043_1439243554The Assassin
Dir: Hou Hsiao-hsien

Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi) is a young woman in Tang dynasty China born into high-ranked family. As children, she and Tian Ji’an – a first cousin (Chang Chen) — are given matching disks carved from yellow jade, as a symbol of their future marriage. But destinies change. So to save her life, her mother sends the 10-year-old away to study with a Taoist nun.

But what does she study? She leaves there with a moral drive to defend the empire against all foes, both inside and at its fringes. With her long black vgRE5n_assassin_02_o3_8674110_1439243572hair hanging down, the beautiful Nie Yinniang now dresses in black robes to remain unseen, a veritable Chinese ninja. She can handle a sword like none other. Her profession? Assassin. The kind who can take down an official on horseback in the midst of a royal retinue and disappear a second later.

But does she have the mental toughness to kill on command? She refuses to kill a target when she sees him protecting his child. The nun says “to be 0gEJB5_assassin_04_o3_8674243_1439243607a true assassin, first kill the one that victim loves, then the victim himself.” And she sends her back to her beginnings with a mission. Kill the one she loves most — Tian Ji’An!

This sounds like just another martial arts movie, and it does have some excellent sword fights, battles and chase scenes. But don’t go to this movie expecting an ordinary action film. Cause it ain’t. It’s by renowned Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, known for his stunning visual and musical style, cultural sensitivity… and sloooow pace. Cloak and dagger politics, sumptuous costumes, stilted language, they’re all there, but without the driving music and non-stop action of most Wushu movies. This is suitable for Hou Hsiao-hsien fans, but anyone looking for a crouching tiger or a hidden dragon will search in vain.

MISS_HOKUSAI_main_01Miss Hokusai
Dir: Hara Keiichi
Based on the manga Sarusuberi by Sugiura Hinako

O-ei is an accomplished painter in 19th century Edo (now called Tokyo), known for her scary images of hell, and erotic portraits of women. She spends her days painting in her father’s studio, or trolling the lanes of Yoshiwara, the red light district. She lives in the floating world of actors, sex workers, geisha, samurai and nouveau-riche merchants. And she visits her blind little sister, sent away by their dad who doesn’t like being near disabled people. The movie follows episodes from her life, both realistic and fantastical: painting her first MISS_HOKUSAI_main_02dragon (the spirit has to possess you), seeing demons, even witnessing a long-necked geisha’s out-of-body experience. And her first sexual experience with a man, an onna-gata kabuki actor, who spends his life dressed as a woman.

Based on a true story, you may be wondering how come you’ve never heard of her? The answer is simple: she lived under the shadow of one of MISS_HOKUSAI_main_03the most famous Japanese artists of all time, Hokusai. His ukiyo-e block prints of mount Fuji and his big blue cresting wave are still ubiquitous images when you think of Japan. He was quite the showman, creating the world’s largest brush painting of Zen Buddhist monk Daruma, using a brush bigger than he was.

Miss Hokusai is both faithful to, and a victim of, Japanese anime based on manga. It follows the winding pace and endless variations of Japanese manga, not the neat beginning/middle/end of a western graphic novel. I like its non-judgemental view of the pre-Meiji demi-monde, and it’s all-around Japaneseness. Just wish it had a more linear plot.

IMG_1682Port of Call
Dir: Philipp Yung

Wang Jiamei (Jessie Li) is a student at a Catholic high school in Hong Kong. Originally from Hunan on the mainland, she arrived with her ambitious divorced mom and her innocent little sister. Her dad is a layabout gambler who makes his money whenever Manchester United loses a game. She picks up the local language but can’t fit in. She feels cold and detached inside, alienated. When a girl at the next desk slits her wrist in class, she doesn’t even blink. She drops out and drifts from job to job. A modelling agency sends her to one gig – she becomes the poster girl – literally – in an ad warning about domestic violence. Prophetic.

Ting (Michael Ning) is a friendless, chubby boy whose mother was killed inIMG_2338 a truck accident when he was a kid. After online chatting, he had hired Kama (Jiamei’s name she uses as an escort.) But their meeting leads to a series of horrific events. And when she completely disappears her mother calls the cops to investigate. Detective Chong (Aaron Kwok) quickly determines she’s not missing, she’s dead. But her body is nowhere to be found. Until Ting walks into a police station and confesses all.

Through a series of flashbacks and courtroom testimony, the three C1D31722characters – the murderer, the relentless detective and the dead victim – all reveal their secrets, feelings, histories and surprising motivations. What starts out as a simple police procedural turns into a moving — and at times shocking – drama of a case that had Hong Kongers glued to the tabloids just a few years ago.

Port of Call is a bit long and has some truly disgusting scenes. But it captures a feeling unique to parts of Hong Kong: gritty, grimy, cramped and crowded. The great performances by two unknown actors (plus veteran singer/star Aaron Kwok), its indie soundtrack, the unmistakable images of HK cinematographer Christopher Doyle, plus a surprise ending, all place this film a step above most true crime movies.

The Assassin is playing now in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and you can catch Miss Hokusai and Port of Call at the ReelAsian Film Festival. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.

Cracks in the Foundation. The Continent, Rocks in my Pockets, Rosewater

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

From far away, porcelain looks smooth, shiny and flawless, but look too close and fine cracks appear. This week, I‘m looking at movies that expose the cracks in faraway Latvia, China and Iran. There’s an Iranian man who wants to leave prison; three Chinese men who want to leave their island, and a Latvian woman who, at times, wants to leave life altogether.

TheContinentThe Continent
Dir: Han Han

Three young men have lived their lives on a tiny, windswept island off the east coast of China. But they decide it’s time to check out the continent. Like in the classic Chinese novel, they set out on a “Journey to the West. They each have a different reason. Jianghe (Chen Bolin  [陈柏霖], who also starred in Buddha Mountain [觀音山] — read my review here) a school teacher an”d eternal optimist, is transferred by the government to a remote location far, far away. Haohan (Feng Shaofeng [冯绍峰]) is a blustering young man dying to see the world. He longs to stand on a determined mountaintop and shout to the world about the size of his dick. And he has a childhood pen-pal Yingying TheContinent_still2(Yolanda Yuan [袁泉]), a pretty girl he’ll finally meet face to face. And true love will soon follow. Their third friend, Hu Sheng, is mentally challenged, and depends on the other two to tell him what to do.

But they soon discover life outside their tiny island is bewildering and confusing. They stumble onto a movie set in WWII. And at their first hotel Jianghe is approached by an escort named Sumi, immediately followed by knocks on the door from aggressive police. Bewildered, he plays the hero, HanHanbusting out through a barred window and “saving” Sumi from a fate worse than death. Or so he thinks. And a sketchy, Cantonese hitchhiker helps them with their navigating – but can he be trusted? Maybe not, in a place where anything that you don’t hold onto with both hands when you gp to sleep will likely be gone by morning. But it’s also a country with stunning and empty vast vistas, rockets flying to outer-space, and cool and savvy people at every turn.

The Continent is writer-director Han Han’s (韩寒) first film, but he’s far from unknown. His blog is the best-known one in China which automatically makes him one of the most famous people in the world. This is not just a simple, picaresque road movie. It’s also a slyly humorous — if bleak — cautionary tale about life in contemporary China.

RocksinMyPockets_Poster_MediumRocks in My Pockets
Wri/Dir Signe Baumane

Signe is a Brooklyn artist, originally from Latvia, with a hidden family past. She wants to find out the truth behind the family matriarch, her late grandmother. On the surface, she was a preternaturally hard-worker, known for her Sisyphean feat of carrying endless buckets of water up a steep mountain. She had retreated to a backwoods cabin with her husband, an eccentric entrepreneur, to escape the difficulties of life in the city. But, after a bit of digging, Signe discovers a streak of depression, suicide and mental illness in her family stretching back three generations. The title refers to her grandmother’s attempted suicide by drowning – she was unsuccessful because she forgot to fill her pocket with rocks. Even if the mind wants to end it all, the body – until the last breath — will fight against dying. At the same time, Signe realizes that the many children and grandchildren managed to survive and succeed despite harsh time. In this film, Riga is imagined as a rocksinmypockets-1024x576place with enormous human faces on their buildings, within a country filled with animistic creatures with long tails, dog ears and goggly eyes that lurk everywhere, just out of sight.

Her odd family history is portrayed in a series of short, animated episodes, using panels of sketched characters moving against brightly-tinted Linda_Sc_080_with_WS_Thumbnailbackgrounds. These are interspersed with super-imposed stop-motion images made of rope and papier-mache figurines. This giuves the whole movie an unusual three-dimensional feel, combining classic drawing with computer-manipulated mixes. And omnipresent is the wry and funny –though at times grating – voice of the narrator telling and commenting on her family history. The director shows the deleterious effects of Soviet era psychiatry – one where cures consist of medicinal corrections to chemical imbalances – and how it makes some people long to “erase themselves” and ceasing to exist. A poignant, fascinating and great animated feature.

RW_LM_20130810_0238.jpgRosewater
Dir: Jon Stewart

Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) is an Iranian-Canadian journalist based in London. He lives there with his beautiful (and pregnant) wife. He is assigned to cover the upcoming elections in Iran, but quickly runs unto trouble as soon as he arrives. He quickly makes friends with a politically active and sympathetic taxi driver who takes him to areas fertile with dissent. But after witnessing a potentially explosive event he is arrested. His charge? Spying.

Ironically, a comic TV interview he had given to an American comedian on the Daily Show is used as evidence of his wrong doing. He is quickly thrown into solitary confinement in a notorious prison. He is psychologically tortured until — says the warden — his will is broken and he will lose all hope.

His family, it turns out, is no stranger to death and imprisonment for RW_NK_20130729_0700.jpgpolitical views under earlier regimes. Both his father and his sister had gone through it, and appear, in his mind, to convince him to hold on. But will he make it?

Rosewater is Jon Stewart’s first film, and it shows it. Stewart is known for the brilliant and funny The Daily Show that skewers mass media from a left-ish perspective. But a feature film is not a three-minute sketch. The movie starts out great with exciting scenes of news-gatering, but it starts to drag, heavily, once it moves to the prison. While it conveys the loneliness and suffering,  solitary confinement does not make for good cinema. Bernal and the supporting actors are fine, but the buffoonish prison guard and the sinister administrator seem too much like the evil twins of  Schultz and Klink to take seriously.

The Continent played at the ReelAsian Film Festival which continues for another week (reelasian.com), Rosewood played at TIFF this year and opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; and Rocks in my Pockets opened the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival (which features films on addiction and mental health – with an additional screening tomorrow: go to rendezvouswithmadness.com for times. Also opening: next week at Hot Docs there’s the great documentary called Point and Shoot about a young American traveler/journalist who, despite being non-religious and non-radicalized, nevertheless joins the rebel armies fighting in Libya (listen to my review here). And a surprising story about the Life of Pigeons on CBC’s the Nature of Things.

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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