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.

Strange Sons. Movies Reviewed: The Boxtrolls, The Guest, The Notebook

Posted in 1940s, 3-D, Animation, Coming of Age, Conspiracy Theory, Cultural Mining, Drama, Fairytales, Family, Morality, Movies, Uncategorized, War by CulturalMining.com on September 26, 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.

This week I’m looking at movies about strange sons. There’s an action-thriller about an American soldier-son replaced by a stranger; an animated film about a son raised by strange creatures; and a wartime drama about twin brothers sent to a strange place.

Boxtrolls Eggs  (Isaac Hempstead Wright) surrounded by Boxtroll friends. Courtesy of eOne Films 64811-1400.0900.fin.001._L.0184_CCThe Box Trolls (in 3D)
Dir: Graham Annable, Anthony Stacchi

What are boxtrolls? They’re trolls who live in cardboard boxes. Well, they don’t actually live in them; they wear them. And, like box turtles, whenever there’s danger, they retract their heads, arms and legs until they look like an ordinary cardboard box. Trolls have pointy ears and crooked teeth, and, oh yeah – they kill babies and eat them!

Or at least that’s what the people in the faraway town of Cheesebridge believe. Because it’s what the boxtroll exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) tells them. But Archibald – who bears an uncanny resemblance to the child snatcher in Chitty Chitty, Bang Bang – has an ulterior motive. Though poor and uncouth, he longs to wearchildcatcher-300x138 the white hats of the ruling class, an effete coterie of millionaires – led by Lord Portly Rind – who meet in closed chambers to sample exotic cheeses. The boxtroll killer will do or say anything to become a white hat.

Winnie (Elle Fanning) and Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright) Courtesy eOne Films 64814-1750.0360.fin.001.L.0106In fact, not only do the boxtrolls not eat babies, but they actually have one hidden away in their underground headquarters, a steam-punk paradise of spinning wheels, gears, pumps and pulleys. The boy, named Eggs (the boxtrolls’ names correspond with the words on their cardboard box) grows up among the boxtrolls, never realizing he’s human. He depends on them, especially the long-headed Fish. But when the trolls begin to disappear, he realizes its time to act. Only Winnie, Lord Portly Rind’s privileged daughter, can help Eggs pass as a normal boy and expose Archibald’s nefarious scheme. Can they save the boxtrolls? Or are their efforts for naught?

Though clearly aimed at small children, I found Boxtrolls totally enjoyable, and was especially impressed by the art and wonderful stop-motion photography.

THE GUESTThe Guest
Dir: Adam Wingard

David, a soldier (Dan Stevens) shows up, uninvited to spend the night at the family home of another member his unit who was killed in combat. While initially surprised and a bit uncomfortable, the Peterson family – Mom, Dad, and kids Anna and Lucas – agree to let him stay. Soon enough he integrates himself into the family, literally taking the dead son’s place, sleeping in his bedroom, sharing meals with the family. When young Luke (Brendan Meyer) gets bullied, David teaches him to stand up for himself. And he goes to parties with older sister Anna (Maika Monroe) and greatly impresses the locals. David has a military bearing but seems somehow quicker, more precise, than the average grunt. Mom and Dad start to notice unusual changes in their lives since David moved in with them. Things are working out well, it’s better for all of them.

But when Anna follows her suspicions and calls veteran affairs, everything changes. There’s a red flag attached to David’s name and events snowball as government agents zoom in on the small town. Is David a good guy or a bad guy? A defender or a terrible danger to the Peterson Family? Why is he there and why does he act the way he does? And who is he, really?

The Guest (which premiered TIFF’s Midnight Madness) is a good, tight action thriller, sprinkled with dark humour and some unexpected plot turns. This includes camp references to classical slasher/horror movies, complete with dry ice. The action takes place in a small town around Halloween. So if you’re looking for a gripping violent story, with unusual characters, told with a tongue-in-cheek sensibility, this one’s a good choice.

The Notebook courtesy Sony Pictures Classics a9b0f912-da11-4387-ac89-ef8ea0fde720The Notebook
Dir: János Szász (Based on the novel Le Grand Cahier by Agota Kristof)

A soldier and his wife live in 1944 Budapest with their twin boys (András and László Gyémánt). Life is beautiful. Then, suddenly, the Germans are moving into Hungary. So they send the twins off to stay with the wife’s estranged mother in a remote farm, to keep them safe. It’s wartime, their dad says, everything’s different. He gives them a big black ledger – the notebook of the title – and they promise to record everything that happens.

Grandmother – fat, gruff, unmannered – is known by the locals as the Witch. She has no friends, and takes care of the farm all by herself. She puts the boys to work – nobody eats for free. The twins – dressed in navy peacoats and clean white shirts — are terrified by the evil witch. They turn to their one book – the The Notebook. László Gyémánt as Egyik Iker, Piroska Molnár as Nagyanya and András Gyémánt as Masik Iker Photo by Christian Berger, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics 51ca02d5-4dc1-49df-bfcd-96a40b8ee3f2bible – for help, but only to improve their memorization skills.

They decide to make themselves impervious to pain, hunger, and remorse – the only way to survive the war. They refuse food from Grandmother, and take turns punching and hitting each other to see who can endure the most pain.

They start to meet people and learn things. There’s a destitute girl they call harelip (Orsolya Tóth) — who László Gyémánt as Egyik Iker, András Gyémánt as Masik Iker and Gyöngyver Bognar as Anya. Photo by Christian Berger, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics 44324922-c4cc-4461-9051-b6d529202f57teaches them how to steal. A kindly Jewish shoemaker gives them boots. And the corrupt deacon at the church and his lascivious secretary – she introduces them to the adult world… but they recoil from her black heart. And a gay Nazi officer, fascinated when he sees the twins punching each other. The twins record it all, good and bad.

They witness wartime atrocities and gradually start to kill: first insects, then bigger, working their way up the food chain. Will they become killers, just like the people around them? Or will they retain a sense of Ulrich Thomsen as Tiszt, László Gyémánt as Egyik Iker and András Gyémánt as Masik Iker. Photo by Christian Berger, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics b1979b52-735e-44f5-9963-8854e4b69eb5morality?

The Notebook is an amazing, rich, and disturbing coming-of-age story, told through the unnamed twins’ eyes. The boys lend a mythical, novelistic view of life under Nazi occupation. I saw this movie over a year ago at TIFF, but I still remember it, vividly. This is a great movie, don’t miss it.

moebius_01The Guest, Box Trolls, and the Notebook all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also playing is a fourth movie about strange sons: Kim Ki-duk’s Moebius. It’s a bizarre movie with no dialogue about  a crazed mother who chops off her son’s dick and runs away with it! Not for the faint of heart.

And the Palestine International Film Festival opens tomorrow, showing exciting movies like the hit Omar. Go to tpff.ca for 41details.

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

Stars as Commodities. Film Reviewed: The Congress PLUS TIFF14 Whiplash, Mommy, Heartbeat

Posted in Animation, Canada, Cultural Mining, LGBT, Mental Illness, Movies, Pop Art, Quebec, Queer, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on August 28, 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.

Are movies and movie stars and their images commodities? Things that can be bought sold and traded, just like stocks and bond, like bitcoins and pork belly futures? In some ways, they are. International film festivals — like TIFF, which opens in Toronto in less than a week — are partly there to put films on the market. This week I’m going to talk about an unusual new film about movie stars as commodities, and, first, three must-see films coming to TIFF.

One movie that jumped out at me and slapped me in the face is

282f0eaa028d2851cd1689724e8a76deWhiplash
Dir: Damien Chazelle

Andrew (Miles Teller) is a 19-year-old drummer just starting at a prestigious music conservatory who is spotted by Fletcher a music teacher (JK Simmonds). He’s allowed to audition for their award- winning jazz band, and feels everything is turning out great. But he soon discovers that Fletcher is a cruel and twisted perfectionist, who brings his players up to the top, and then has them crash down into the dirt again. He treats them worse than the toughest marine sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. The acting, the passion and the relentless tension in this movie is just incredible… you gotta see it. Don’t want to say Oscar bells are already ringing, but… Whiplash definitely deserves one.

434c654375241fb0e9419d0e7af58f03Mommy

(Dir) Xavier Dolan

Another great movie is Quebecois director Xavier Dolan’s latest, Mommy. It’s a reworking of his first film J’ai Tue Ma Mere, but takes it to a new level. Steve-o (Antoine Olivier-Pilon) is a working-class, foul-mouthed teenager with ADHD. He’s kicked out of boarding school and sent home to his single mom Diane (Anne Dorval) who is as gutter-friendly, violent and sexually charged as her boy. It’s up to Kyla, the psychologically-damaged ex-school teacher next door, to try to fix things and keep Steve from being locked up. Dynamic, shocking and hilarious performances from all three actors, Mommy is not to be missed.

Also catch a gentle, quirky, musical story called

ad8a5b8174106f7e916e8a3c98a356afHeartbeat
Dir: Andrea Dorfman

Justine (Tanya Davis) is a creative soul trapped in a boring cubicle job in Halifax. Her best friend is in babyland, her artist-boyfriend-with-benefits Ben has dumped her, and she dresses in her late grandma’s wardrobe. But when she starts jamming with Ruby (Stephanie Clattenburg) she met in a music store window, things begin tot look up. Justine starts to Esty-fy her wardrobe and arts-and-crafts her love life. Heartbeat starts slowly but toasts like a marshmallow on a stick, ending strangely shaped, but crispy, gooey, warm and delicious.

Look out for Heartbeat, Whiplash and Mommy at TIFF.
Robin Wright Congress Affiche
The Congress
Dir: Ari Forman

Robin Wright (Robin Wright) is an over-the-hill movie star who just ekes out a living. She lives beside desert airport with her jaded hollywood daughter Sarah and her innocent but ill son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McFee). She needs money to keep him safe. One day her agent (Harveyt Keitel) makes her an offer she can’t refuse.

A studio wants to buy her name, face, image, voice… basically everything, to turn her back  into a superstar. And theyre giving her a huge contract and a starring role in countless big budget action movies. The catch? She’s not allowed to act or appear in public ever again. Huh?

You see, they want to scan her to make a CGI image that will take her place in all 1233023_407824875984836_624904373_ofuture roles. A star who never ages, never gets into scandals, and never has tantrums on-set. It’s all digital.

Will she do it? 20 years in the future, they up the ante.

They invite her to give a speech at a mysterious Congress, where she — like everyone else — exists only as an animated image of herself. Sort of a Second Life only more so. With the help of Dylan (Jon Hamm), a handsome cartoon character 1048616_380428355391155_743806434_owho created her image himself, she tries to escape from this strange psychedelic cartoon version of her world, and maybe save her now-adult son.

This is a super-bizarre movie, filled with glorious animation modeled on Max Fleischer-type characters from the 1920s and 30s mixed with 1960s psychedelia. At parts I’m totally into it, but other parts have dismally awful lines. Its flawed, not perfect, but worth seeing if your into mind-stretching and super-weird fantasy epics.

The Congress opens today, check your local listings, and Heartbeat, Mommy, and Whiplash are all playing at TIFF which starts up next Thursday. Details at tiff.net.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Eric San (Kid Koala) about Nufonia Must Fall premiering at Luminato in June.

Posted in Animation, Canada, Comics, Cultural Mining, Live Movies, Movies, Pop Art, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 31, 2014

KidKoala_1 Photo Corinne MerrellHi, this is Daniel Garber at the movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 fm.

When you’re shaped like a tin can with headphones I see possible troubles. And if you’re in love with a girl who doesn’t have time for silly love songs,Nufonia Image 4 KK what’s a cartoon robot to do? The answers lie in a new performance that combines comics, projected film images, puppets and music — both live and recorded.

It’s called Nufonia Must Fall, based on the graphic novel of the same name. It was created Nufonia Image 5 KKby Canadian DJ, musician and cartoonist Kid Koala. It’s having its world premier at Toronto’s Luminato festival in June. I spoke to Kid Koala, a.k.a. Erik San, by telephone in Banff Alberta, about Nufonia (its music, design, genesis, inspiration, and technique), nostalgia, K.K. Barrett, found art, Mellotrons, robots, vinyl, “live movies”, imperfection, high tech vs low-tech… and more.

Movies with Kids vs Kids’ Movies. Films Reviewed: Oculus, Loubia Hamra (Bloody Beans), Anina

Posted in Animation, Art, Clash of Cultures, Cultural Mining, Dreams, Experimental Film, Family, France, Horror, Images Festival, Uruguay, War by CulturalMining.com on April 12, 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.

Lots of movies use kids. Some try for a young audience, others have young characters. And the two types don’t necessarily overlap. This week I’m looking at three movies: a chiller-thriller about two kids and a haunted mirror they can’t escape; an art film with kids reenacting the Algerian War; and an animated film from Uruguay about a girl with an envelope she can’t open.

VVS_Oculus_PosterOculus
Dir: Mike Flanagan

Kaylie and Tim (Karen Gillan, Brenton Thwaites) are sister and brother. Kaylie is a decisive, take-charge kind of girl with long red hair like her mother. Tim is brown haired like his dad. A decade earlier, something violent and terrible happened in their home. And by the time it was over, they were orphans. They locked up 10-year-old Tim in a mental hospital. Now, they declare, he’s all cured. No more of that childish nonsense he used to spout – about voices and mind-control and a demon who lives inside a mirror. He’s a responsible adult now, ready to live in the real world. (Like a babe in the woods.)

Except… what’s the first thing big sister Kaylie does? She drags him back to the JE3_7854.NEFhouse where it all happened, and says – we’re gonna get that demon – the one in the mirror – and kill her!

Apparently that antique mirror has been spawning grisly murders for centuries. It possesses all it encounters and muddles their thoughts until they can’t tell illusion from reality. So Kaylie has rigged up a complicated system, involving cameras, computer JE3_2064.NEFscreens, alarm clocks, and a lethal-looking blade that’s always poised to smash the mirror.

The return home triggers strong memories in Tim’s mind – he begins to relive the old days alongside the recent events. Are Tim and Kaylie strong enough to resist the demon’s illusions?

This is a good, scary movie with the two stories – now and flashbacks – unfolding side-by-side, and occasionally overlapping. Parts feel hackneyed, but the two sets of actors (in their teens and twenties) are totally convincing.

Suitable for children? Only if they can handle extreme violence, gore and nightmarish horror.

bloody beans.phpLoubia Hamra (Bloody Beans)
Dir: Narimane Mari

It’s Algeria. Boys dressed in stylish shorts and silk neckties are playing on the beach. They swim in the ocean, float on beached tires and lie in the sun. Until one of them farts.

You fart like an Frenchman! they shout. It’s those bloody beans — loubia make you fart. So they raid the picnic basket the girls brought. The girls warn them there are soldiers on the streets: war is coming.

(Context: Algeria is a north African country, once colonized by its neighbour across the Mediterranean. France annexed it and hundreds of thousands of Europeans settled there. A War of Independence broke out in the 1950s. The Algerian War was notorious for the violence, torture, and cruelty used by both the French military and the FLN revolutionaries. A third group, the OAS –  French extremist-nationalists who refused to leave Algeria – terrorized both the French and the Algerians.)

So the revolutionary boys and girls who want more than just beans to eat set out along the beach, just as the sun sets. bloody beans images festivalThey don wigs, scarves, masks and capes. They paint their faces and bodies with drawings and fake beards. At a French monastery they gaze at the statues, fillagries and icons. They fight an evil man in a pigs mask, and make friends with a French soldier who was drafted to serve. And they project their shadows against a white washed building, making animal noises.

Bloody Beans is a beautiful and strange reenactment, 50 years after the end of the Algerian war. It includes lots of subtle details: women fighting alongside men, the colonial division between the French haves and the Algerian have-nots, and the violence and torture on both sides. It ends with a floating recitation in the ocean, with the boys and girls repeatedly asking: is it better to be than to obey? (Vaut-il mieux etre que d’obeir?).

This complex film is a work of art that uses video as the canvas, kids as the paint.

anina_06_medium tiff kidsAnina
Dir: Alfredo Soderguit (Uruguay)

Anina Yatay Salas is a girl with wild, red hair and a triple-barreled name. Her dad loves the symmetry of her palindromes, words where the head matches the tail. And each day Anina looks at her bus ticket to see if its number is a palindrome like her.

One day, on the school playground she bumps into blonde Yisel, sending her sandwich flying through the air and down a drain. This starts a big fight. Anina calls Yisel, a big girl, “the elephant”.anina_05_medium TIFF kids Yisel makes fun of Anina’s palindromic names.

Their punishment? The principal gives them both mysterious black envelopes, closed with red sealing wax. They have to keep it safe and unopened for a week. Will this strange punishment teach them a lesson?

Anina is a very simple film, but it looks amazing. It’s an animated cartoon in a dusty and smudgy, retro style. It’s filled with fascinating details that shout Uruguay: eggs wrapped in paper, strange fried foods, kids wearing white smocks to school. At the same time, its buses, classrooms, and playgrounds look just like here.

anina_04_medium TIFF kidsBut the movie is at its best when Anina’s imagination takes over: her bus turns into a riverboat, she gets lost in an imaginary hedge maze. And there’s a fantastic nightmare sequence where the Principal and a mean teacher morph into a ghostly judge and jury – ready to punish her for what she did to her black envelope.

Anina is clearly a kids’ movie but everyone can appreciate its amazing look.

Oculus opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; Anina is part of the TIFF Kids film festival, on now (tiff.net), and Bloody Beans is playing April 14th at Toronto’s Images festival of moving art (imagesfestival.com).

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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