Record/Erase. Films reviewed: Synonyms, News from Home

Posted in Belgium, Clash of Cultures, comedy, documentary, France, Israel, New York City, soldier by CulturalMining.com on November 1, 2019

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

It’s November now and Toronto’s fall film festival season is in full swing. ReelAsian is showing films from Asia – including Japan, Korea, China, Philippines in the Pacific, South Asian, and from the Asian diaspora from around the world, including Canada and the US. Films include dramas, comedies, anime, documentaries, art and again this year virtual reality, with a piece based on the work of Joy Kogawa. Cinefranco shows French language films, this year featuring movies by Franco-Ontarian directors. The EU Film Fest, which started last night, shows one film from each country in the European Union. This still includes the U.K., in case you’re wondering, despite all the Brexit craziness. And more to the point, all films are showing for free at the Royal Cinema!

This week, I’m looking at two movies, one from the 1970s and one from right now. There’s a filmmaker from Bruxelles who moves to New York to record what she sees; and a man from Israel who moves to Paris to erase who he is.

Synonyms

Dir: Nadav Lapid

Yoav (Tom Mercier) is a traveller who arrives in Paris with a plan: learn French, blend in with the culture, recreate himself. life. He’s originally from Israel, a sniper in the army, and wants to get rid of his past. And he’s helped toward his goal by a series of unexpected events, both good and bad. Good news: He arrives at a B’n’B with a key to an empty apartment. Bad news: When he takes a shower the next morning, everything he owns – all his clothes, his money, his passport – is gone stolen by a stranger. He ends up running naked through the apartment trying to catch the thief, ending up curled in a foetal position, almost frozen. Good news: an attractive young couple, Emile and Caroline (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte), find him and nurse him back to health. And better news, they give him some beautiful clothes to wear, help him find a place to live, andmore. Bad news: despite trying to erase his Israeli past, all his jobs seem to be with forner soldier buddies or at the embassy itself, with unexpected consequences.

What begins as simple flirtation turns into a potential love affair… but with whom: Emile or Caroline?

Synonyms is a dark comedy about conflicting identity, immigration, and clashing cultures. It’s partly a tender ménage a trois about a stranger introduced into the lives of a young couple. It’s also an absurdist comedy, satirizing Israeli military culture, its overt masculinity (verging on the homoerotic in a number of scenes), as well as a paranoid fixation on persecution, with themselves as victims. And it equally satirizes the immigration process in France, in which newcomers are instructed to assimilate, to hide their religion and ethnicity beneath a veil of loyalty to secularism, and the French way of life. The director previously brought us the equally strange and brilliant film The Kindergarten Teacher (I reviewed here) a few years back. This film, Synonyms is completely different, and much lighter in tone, but equally perplexing. And Tom Mercier, in the main role, is someone you should look out for.

News from Home

Dir: Chantal Akerman

It’s 1976 in lower Manhattan. Huge cadillacs cruise through empty alleys in the meatpacking district, leaving loose newspapers fluttering in their wake. On the subway, riders glare at the camera, or stare wide-eyed in curiosity. In the tunnels beneath Times Square, mom’s with toddlers, people commuting to work, and businessmen with their buddies walk past a stationary 16 mm camera. Through a moving car window, storefronts and gas stations and taxis and pedestrians walk up and down a West side avenue. This is a moment in time captured in architectural grandeur by avant garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman.

And over the top you can hear her voice reading the letters, largely unanswered, her mother Nelly sends her from Belgium. Her mother is worried their separation could be permanent, or worse dangerous, and sneaks twenty dollar bills into the enevelopes in case her daughter is in trouble. (Nelly’s own parents were killed in Nazi death camps.) The film itself is both drab and hypnotic, a series of ordinary, detached images of people and places that act like a time capsule; combined with deeply intimate glances into her relationship with her mom.

You may have heard Chantal Akerman’s name before but probably haven’t seen her work.

But her influence is everywhere. I was just describing one of her earliest films, News From Home. She went onto make many films, both mainstream and avant-garde. She was a pioneer in Feminist cinema, queer cinema, and experimental film.

She was also a tempestuous perfectionist and hard to work with, falling into depressed funks or driven by manic episodes. At the same time, she is hugely influential. Todd Haynes studied her work, Gus van Sant used it as a source for Last Days, his film about Kurt Cobain, and people as different as Sofia Coppola and Weerasathakul Apichatpong were shaped by Akerman’s work. You may not know this, but even films like Joker used News From Home as a model for its images of NY City in the 70s.

I am far from an expert on Chantal Akerman – I’m a movie critic not a filmmaker – but if you’re a director, a cinema studies majors, or a film festival enthusiast, the current retrospective is a rare opportunity to see her work in its entirety. And thanks to Andrea Picard, co-curator of the program: most of what I’m saying is based on cribbed notes from a talk she gave on Akerman.

Synonyms starts today in Toronto; check your local listings. The retrospective News From Home: the films of Chantal Akerman begins today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Solving problems. Films reviewed: Sometimes Always Never, The Laundromat, Chiko

Posted in Berlin, comedy, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Family, Games, Scandal, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 8, 2019

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

Toronto’s Fall Festival Season is in full swing this October. Look out for Toronto After Dark – scary and fantastic films; Rendezvous with Madness – films on addiction and mental health; Planet in Focus focussing on environmental films for its 20th anniversary; ImagineNative with movies by and about indigenous peoples around the world… and many more.

But this week I’m looking at three movies, from Germany, the U.K. and the US. There’s a gangster who turns to drugs to find success, a grandpa who turns to word games to find his missing son, and an older woman who turns to amateur sluething to find the bad guys.

Sometimes Always Never

Dir: Carl Hunter

Alan (Bill Nighy) is a dapper businessman in small town England. He likes Marmite, tea and scrabble. He’s meeting his estranged, adult son Peter (Sam Riley) to view a body at a remote village morgue. Alan’s other son ran away decades ago, disappearing without a trace. Could this be him? When the body turns out be the son of another couple, Margaret and Arthur (Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerney), Alan follows Peter home. It’s an excuse to finally meet his daughter-in-law Sue (Alice Lowe) and grandson Jack (Louis Healy). Won’t you stay for dinner? The evening turns into an extended visit as Alan insinuates himself into their homelife, sharing a bunk bed in Jack’s room. The teenager is a shy introvert who spends all his time gaming online. To change his life, his grandfather gets him a haircut and a custom-made suit. He’s a tailor, you see. The movie’s title refers to which buttons to button on a three-button suit. Top to bottom: sometimes, always, never.

Alan’s obsession with Scrabble has a lot to do with his missing son, who ran away in the middle of a game. It’s what separates him from his son – but will it bring them back together? – and influences his relations with Margaret and Arthur, the couple he met at the bed & breakfast. But can a board game bring his missing son home again?

Sometimes Always Never is a clever, funny and touching look at family life in small-town, northern England. Lots of twists in the plot, and enough wordplay to make the whole script feel like an ongoing Scrabble game. It does walk the fine line between charming and twee. The movie, though set in the present day, is drenched in sets, props, costumes, and style from an earlier era. But Bill Nighy, Alice Lowe and the rest are so good you can excuse a bit of excess quirky cuteness.

I like this movie.

The Laundromat

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Mossack and Fonseca (Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas) are a pair of rich lawyers who operate out of Panama. They like flashy tuxedos, palm trees and vodka martinis. Why are they so rich? Their firm holds the secrets of dictators, billionaires, drug dealers, corporations, celebrities and politicians the world over. Through the use of off-shore banking, shell corporations and absolute secrecy, they launder untold billions.

Enter Ellen (Meryl Streep), an everywoman who loses her husband in a freak accident on their wedding anniversary. Turns out the accident insurance on the boat tour they took (it sank) was bogus. Later the condo she buys in Las Vegas with her husband’s life insurance is snatched away by some Russian oligarchs. So she begins to investigate. All these companies – real estate, insurance, banking – seem to operate out of offices in the Caribbean. But when she goes to confront the CEO of the company giving her the runaround, she discovers it’s just a series of post office boxes. Can she follow their trail to Panama? And will the villains ever pay?

The Laundromat is a series of fables to explain the money laundering and tax evasion brought to light by the Panama Papers, a mammoth data haul leaked to the press by an anonymous whistleblower. Mossack and Fonseca themselves tell the story in episodic form, regularly turning toward the camera to look right at you. At the beginning of the movie I was giggling at its audacity and unexpected form – I couldn’t wait to see Soderbergh’s next trick. The trouble is, that were no other gimmicks. He flogs the same dead horse – this is just a movie, they’re all actors, that’s a green screen behind them – for the whole 90 minutes! Just when you start caring a bit, Soderbergh makes sure to remind you it’s not real, it’s just a game. I admit there’s one surprising twist near the end.… but it’s immediately followed by a slice of earnest Americana so cringe-worthy it would make a nine-year-old squirm in embarrassment.

The Laudromat just doesn’t work.

Chiko

Wri/Dir: Özgür Yildirim

Chiko (Denis Moschitto) is a young Berliner trying to get ahead. His parents came to Germany from Turkey as Gastarbeiters in the 60s, and he still hangs with other Turkish Germans. Especially his two best friend, Tibet (Volkan Özcan) and Curly. Together they beat up and rob a local cannabis dealer. But instead of running away, Chiko asks to meet his boss.

Brownie (Moritz Bleibtreu — he’s in Bye Bye Germany, The Fifth Estate, My Best Enemy) is a crime boss living a comfortable middle-class life. He ends up hiring the scrappy Chiko on a trial run, moving ten keys of cannabis. Chiko exalts in his new wealth and woos the Turkish-German prostitite Meryam (Reyhan Sahin) in the apartment next door. Is it true love or just a financial transaction?

Meanwhile, Tibet, trying to save money for his mom’s kidney operation, short-changes customers. Brownie’s thugs arrive to punish him… by hammering a nail through his foot!  This leads to a series of escalating events. Chiko graduates to coke dealing, and buys a white Mercedes with gold hubcaps to match his new image. As Chiko rises to the top like Scarface, Tibet’s falls into a downward spiral, his seething anger getting worse and worse. Finally Chiko has to choose: kingpin Brownie or his former best friend Tibet? Which commands his loyalty – friendship or business?

Chiko is a cool and violent crime drama set in urban Germany. It’s a melodrama in the best sense. Moschitto is terrific as Chiko: the criminal, the lover, the anti-hero. I liked this film and found it very moving, both the acting and the realistic, almost documentary-like peek inside the mosques, corner-stores and restaurants of Berlin. Of course it also has what you expect from a good crime drama: chase scenes, shootouts, and fights. And it’s playing as part of the Goethe Film’s Stronger than Blood, a series of crime dramas.

Sometimes Always Never opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Laundromat starts today, with Chiko playing one night only, October 8th, also at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Self Help. Films reviewed: Becoming Nobody, Brittany Runs a Marathon

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, comedy, Death, Depression, documentary, drugs, Philosophy, psychedelia, Psychology, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 30, 2019

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

It’s Labour Day weekend, a good time to catch up on all those things you’ve been meaning to do. That’s why this week I’m looking at two movies – a dramedy and a documentary – about Self Help. There’s a woman who wants to lose some of herself, and a man who wants to lose all of himself.

Becoming Nobody

Dir: Jamie Catto

A hippie walks into a pizza parlour. The guy behind the counter asks: What would you like?  The hippie says: Make me One… with Everything!

Old joke, but I’m trying to explain who Ram Dass is.

He’s born Richard Alpert in Newton, Mass., to an upper middle class family, and becomes a clinical psychology prof at Harvard University. In the early 1960s Timothy Leary introduces him to hallucinogenic drugs as a part of therapy. Alpert takes psilocybin mushrooms for the first time and it blows his mind (in the positive sense.) But he wants to know how he can harnass its effects when he’s not high. He drops out, grows long hair and a beard. Somehow he ends up in India, in the Himilayas, right on the border of Tibet. There he studies under Maharaj-ji, his spiritual guru – who dubs him Ram Dass, Servant of Rama, Servent of God – and then brings his findings back to America. Back home, youth culture is rejecting the status quo, protesting the war in Vietnam, and opting out of the rat race. They’re looking for new answers. Spiritual answers. His book, Be Here Now (1971) provides just that to a large part of his generation.

I am not a devotee of Ram Dass, I don’t go to yoga classes and I don’t practice meditation in a search for spiritual enlightenment. I do remember being fascinated as a little kid by the cube-shaped book Be Here Now with the hypnotic mandala drawn on its cover.

So I won’t attempt to explain his entire spiritual philosophy in a few sentences. But the film Becoming Nobody, attempts to do some of that in 90 minutes. It’s basically a selection of his talks and conversations spanning his life from the 1960s to the present – discovery, spiritualism, losing oneself, and accepting death. You see him change from uptight academic, to long-haired hippy, to lecturer with a Dr. Phil moustache, to wise and funny old man. The film is illustrated with cute period footage and framed by a dialogue with the director, British musician Jamie Catto.

For a non-initiate like me, some of what Ram Dass says sounds like a collection of simple aphorisms, a mishmash of Hindu and Buddhist thought. But when you think about it, a lot of what he says really make sense; it’s not just hollow rhetoric. So whether you’re looking for a simple introduction to his philosophy, or just interested in him, Becoming Nobody gives you lots to chew on.

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Wri/Dir: Paul Downs Colaizzo

Brittany (Jillian Bell) lives in a cluttered New York apartment. By day she works as a low-paid usher at a theatre. At night she goes to bars with her roommate Gretchen (Alice Lee). A good time means getting high on adderal and having drunken sex with a stranger in a bathroom stall. She thought her college education would land her a creative job on Madison Avenue. Instead she’s underemployed with a huge student debt. Which depresses her. And to rub salt in the wound, her doctor tells her she’s 60 pounds overweight and if she doesn’t do something about it, she might die.

Could her life get any worse? Actually, it begins to get better when her neighbor, Catherine (Michaela Watkins) – who she’s never met and who she refers to as “Moneybags Martha” when she sees her through the window – offers to help Brittany train with her running club. There she meets Seth (Micah Stock) a slightly effeminate, married gay guy, who wants his kids to respect him and call him dad. Catherine is dealing with a painful divorce and custody battle. So the three form a sort of a support group to help Brittany run in the New York City Marathon.

She also lands a long-term house-sitting job, which helps her keep her above water economically and away from roommate Gretchen’s bad influence. She begins to lose weight, her self confidence grown, and she becomes closer to her fellow house-sitter Jern (Utkarsh Ambudkar) a poster boy for slackers. Are they a couple? Can she lose 60 pounds, get a job in her profession, find a home, meet a guy, and run the marathon? Or are these just a series of unattainable hopes?

Brittany Runs a Marathon is exactly what the title suggests – a woman trying to run a marathon to achieve a personal goal. But it’s also a really funny comedy. Jillian Bell is hilarious and disarming as the sneaky, funny, self-deprecating Brittany. You also feel for her character as she goes through crushing disappointments. And it deals with serious issues like the ups and downs of weight loss, body image, and depression, without turning into a condescending sermon. It’s a fun, funny, heartwarming and inspiring movie. I like this one.

Brittany Runs a Marathon opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; and Becoming Nobody opens next Friday, September 6th at Hot Docs.

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

Minors and Miners. Films reviewed: After the Wedding, Mine 9, Good Boys

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Disaster, Drama, Drones, drugs, Family, Friendship, India, Kids, Movies by CulturalMining.com on August 16, 2019

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

Mountains can grow out of moleholes. This week I’m looking at three movies – a disaster, a family drama, and a comedy with kids – about minors facing major difficulties. There are three tweens caught up in adult-type problems, coal miners caught in a disaster, and a woman who works with orphans in India facing major problems back in New York.

After the Wedding

Wri/Dir: Bart Freundlich

Isabel (Michelle Williams) is an American woman grudgingly back in New York for the first time in decades. She fled the country as a teen after an unplanned pregnancy, and has lived in India ever since. She works at an orphanage in Tamil Nadu, raising the kids there, including Jai, a little boy she found abandoned on a street. But she’s forced to travel to The States for the sake of the kids; to secure a large donation to the orphanage. The donor insists she come, not anyone else.

Theresa (Julianne Moore) is a ruthless media magnate preparing to sell all her assets and retire. She wants to donate to various charities – including the orphanage. But when she meets Isabel she says she’ll only confirm the donation after her daughter Grace (Abby Quinn)’s wedding . And Isabel must attend.

But Isabel is in for a shock. Turns out the father of the bride is Oscar (Billy Crudup) Isabel’s teenaged boyfriend, and the father of the unwanted child they put up for adoption so many years ago! He’s why she moved India in the first place, to erase her past and start again. He seems as shocked to see her as she is to see him. Is this just a coincidence? Could the bride possibly be the baby she gave birth to? And if Theresa finds out that Isabel and Oscar were once lovers will she cancel all the money the orphanage needs so badly?

After the Wedding is a remake of Danish director Susanne Bier’s film from 2006. I’ve never seen the original but I’m told in Bier’s film Isabel and Theresa are male roles and Oscar is a woman. This switch seems to work. And I found the continuous revelations fascinating – I wanted to know what would happen all the way till the end.

That said, the script was so clunky it felt, at times, like it was written by Google Translate. Williams’s main emotion was being perturbed, and the whole film lasted 30 minutes longer than it should have. I didn’t love this movie but I didn’t hate it either: good story, bad script; great actors but who are not at the top of their game here.

Mine 9

Wri/Dir: Eddie Mensore

It’s a mining town in West Viriginia. The coal mine is the only steady employer, but it’s a dangerouns place. Some of the old timers, like Kenny (Mark Ashworth), Daniel (Kevin Sizemore) and John (Clint James), have lived most of their lives underground. The black dust is ground into their skin, their hair, their beards. They don’t like it, but it’s their livelihood, and their only source of health insurance. But when they narrowly escape a methane leak, they wonder if it’s safe to go back down into mine #9. And with no outside foreman or rescue team, if there is an accident, who will save them?

But management insists so down they go, along with Ryan (Drew Starkey) a newbie fresh out of high school. It’s his first time in a mine, though his family has been doing it for centuries. Things seem to be going alright until a short circuit leads to an explosion and a collapse. The mine is filling with poisonous gas with only an hour’s worth of oxygen left. They have to battle fire, rushing water, smoke, dust, methane gas and collapsing tunnels all around them. It’s up to Zeke (Terry Serpico) their dependable leader, to bring them to safety. Who will escape and who will be left two miles down?

Mine 9 is an indie action/ disaster movie about West Virginia coal miners. It has a realistic, gritty feel to it, capturing the dirt, darkness and claustrophobia of coal mining, along with the excitement of escape. Unfortunately it’s also full of problems, both big and small.

I understand why they have to wear oxygen masks to breathe and hard hats for safety, but how can you care about characters when you can’t see their faces for much of the movie? And, seriously, do miners really break into miners’ songs each time they go underground? Their names aren’t Sneezy, Dopey and Doc.

Still, if you’re in the mood for a short trip into a coal mine, you might want to look at Mine 9.

Good Boys

Co-Wri/Dir Gene Stupnitsky

Max, Lucas and Thor are the Bean Bag Boys, three best friends and grade sixers. They’re a team that does everything together. Thor (Brady Noon) pierces an ear to be cool, but is labelled “sippy cup” by the popular kids for not trying beer. Lucas (Keith L. Williams) is a God-fearing boy who cannot tell a lie, but whose beliefs are shaken when his parents announce their divorce. Max (Jacob Tremblay) is a lover not a fighter, and is crushing on a girl he’s never actually met in lunchroom. But when Max is invited to a kissing party, he realizes he has to learn how to kiss before he can go there. These foul-mouthed boys can say the dirty words, but they don’t know how to do them. They can’t ask their parents and they find internet porn too disgusting to look at.

So the Bean Bag Boys concoct a plan: to spy on Hannah (Molly Gordon) the much older, girl next door as she makes out with her drug-dealer, frat boy boyfriend. But how? Using Max’s dad’s drone – something Max is forbidden even to touch. Caught in the act, Hannah and her friend Lily (Midori Francis) seize the drone from the boys. Then they steal her purse. But the purse contains the MDMA the women planned to take that night. Can the three boys escape their pursuers and rescue the drone? Can Max kiss the girl he thinks he loves? Or will the big problems they all face destroy their unbreakable friendship?

Good Boys is a hilarious coming-of-age comedy about extremely naïve kids encountering adult situations – like drugs and sex – for the first time, and deal with them from a child’s perspective. The laughs are constant, with very few misses. A lot of the humour rests on believing the kids are so sheltered they’ve never seen or encountered anything adult.  For example they find Thor’s parents’s sex toys but use them as weapons and kids’ toys. They’re afraid tasting beer will turn them into alcoholics. They’ve heard grown-up words but don’t know their real meanings: Nymphomania means having sex both on land and at sea. Misogyny means giving massages.

The three main kids are great, especially Tremblay (Room), but so are all the other roles. And despite the fact it’s being marketed as an R-rated movie, except for some foul language and innuendo, it’s not outrageously offensive. No serious violence and no sex, just some 11-year-old kids being extremely funny.

After the Wedding, Mine 9, and Good Boys 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.

 

Women on the move. Films reviewed: Dora and the Lost City of Gold, Light of My Life, The Kitchen

Posted in 1970s, comedy, Crime, Drama, L.A., New York City, Peru, post-apocalypse, psychedelia, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 9, 2019

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

Who says exciting movies are always about men? This week, I’m looking at three movies about girls and women facing danger in unusual places. There’s a pre-teen girl surviving post-apocalyptic America; a teenager exploring the jungles of Peru; and a gang of middle-aged housewives fighting back in Hell’s Kitchen.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

Dir: James Bobin

Dora (Isabela Moner) is a smart and friendly 16 year old girl. She was brought up by her academic parents (Eva Langoria, Michael Peña) in the jungles of Peru, where she made friends with all the animals – especially Boots, a monkey. Now her parents want to discover the legendary ruins of Parapata, an Incan city of gold – not as treasure hunters, but as explorers. But it could be dangerous. So they send her to stay with her cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg) in far off LA. But life at Silverlake High is not what she expected. Despite her relentless positivity, students tease her for her childlike un-coolness.

Diego finds her embarrassing. Student president Sammy (Madeleine Madden) scorns her as a rival. Only astronomy nerd Randy (Nicholas Coombe) likes her. But when she is kidnapped and flown back to Peru, along with Randy, Sammy and Diego. it’s up to Dora to escape the bad guys – including mercenary treasure hunters and a masked fox named Swiper – rescue her friends, and find the Incan ruins of Parapata.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is a very cute take on the popular educational kids show. It’s simultaneously a tongue-in-cheek satire of the original cartoon, and a deadpan recreation of it. Boots and Swiper are there in CGI, but there’s no talking backpack. It’s primarily for kids, but there’s lots of laughs for grownups – like a psychedelic drug scene and a bit of romance. There’s even a song about how to dig a hole to bury your poop when camping in the woods. I saw it with a 50%-toddler audience who loved it. I liked it, too.

Light of My Life

Dir: Casey Affleck

Rag (Anna Pniowsky) is a tough, outdoorsy girl going camping with her dad (Casey Affleck). She’s a preteen with short hair dressed in boyish clothes. He tells her bible stories to put her to sleep. Thing is, they’re not camping for fun. A terrible plague wiped away half the world’s population – the female half – right when she was born. So rag, short for raggedy ann, grew up in an all-male world. leaving only men and some boys. Her dad is terrified about what might happen to her – men can’t be trusted. So they live in a perpetual state of seclusion and escape. He never sleeps. He teaches her how to spell – she reads voraciously – and about the birds and the bees.

They find an empty house and move in, but Dad is terrified when she tries on girls clothes. But when they find an isolated house populated only by bible-thumping grandpas, he thinks they might finally live a normal life. Can the one of the last girls on earth lead a normal life? And will her dad ever relax?

Light of My Life is a low-budget drama about the love between a father and a daughter in extreme circumstances. It’s filled with long scenes of flashlight-lit dialogue in lush, moss-filled forests, punched with occasional bursts of fear and violence. Anna Pniowsky is fantastic as Rag, and Affleck is good as her conflicted father.

I just wonder… what is the point of this movie? That girls in an all-male world will still gravitate to their own gender expression? That guns, bible, and the family are the only things we can trust? This is a zombie movie without zombies, and not nearly as good as Leave No Trace (about a dad and daughter living off the grid). This movie is not bad, just not that great or original.

The Kitchen

Dir: Andrea Berloff

It’s 1978 on a hot summer’s night in Hell’s Kitchen. Claire, Cathy and Ruby are three working class women waiting to hear from their husbands, gangsters with the Irish mob. Cathy (Mellissa McCarthy) is happily married with two young kids. Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), originally from Harlem, is an outsider who doesn’t get along with her matriarchical mother-in-law (Margo Martindale). And Claire (Elisabeth Moss) is just a punching bag for her abusive husband. But when their husbands get jailed by the Feds, they find themselves with no money, no income and few prospects for work. So they decide to take over their husbands’ jobs.

Though untrained, they seem to have a knack for collecting protection payments from local stores. And when they fight off rivals within their husbands’ gang, they become “queenpins” of the neighbourhood. Cathy does the talking, Ruby collects the bucks, and Claire finds new strength in doing “the messy stuff” – shooting, killing, and getting rid of dead bodies. She’s tutored in these skills by Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), a ginger-haired hitman with a history. Their business expands northward and southward, with graft, extortion and prostitution. But can they handle the disloyal members of their gang, powerful Mafia dons from Brooklyn, and FBI agents on their tail? And what will happen when their husbands get out of jail?

The Kitchen is a brilliant new twist on the classic gangster movie, with three women rising up in a dog-eat-dog world. Based on a comic, it’s full of love, compassion, violence and intrigue. McCarthy and Haddish are comic actors but convincing in their serious roles, and Moss and Gleeson are even better.There are some missteps. Could working-class financially-strapped women in the late 1970s have no experience working? And some bizarre references to Gloria Steinem and “feminism” seem totally out of line. (There’s no feminist solidarity here; these are three criminals clawing their way to the top.) And the ending is lacklustre. But altogether this is a beautifully shot, fast-moving story that’s fun to watch. The Kitchen is a great crime drama, with women in the lead.

The Kitchen, Light of My Life, and Dora and the Lost City of Gold 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.

Rivals. Films reviewed: Hobbs & Shaw, Luce PLUS Canadian films at #TIFF19

Posted in Action, Adoption, African-Americans, Canada, Cars, CBC, comedy, Drama, Family, High School by CulturalMining.com on August 2, 2019

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

The Toronto International Film Festival has just announced its upcoming Canadian film programme, so I’m going to talk about that. I’m also looking at two new movies: an action thriller and a psychological drama. There’s a rivalry between a respected teacher and a prize pupil that threatens their futures; and a futuristic rivalry between two secret agents fighting a threat to world destruction.

Canada at #TIFF19

If you’re looking for some brand new, home-grown movies, docs and short films, there’s lots to see at TIFF this September. I haven’t seen anything yet, but I’ve been looking around and there are a few that caught my attention. The program features many indigenous directors who have made great movies so, chances are, these will be great too. In Jordan River Anderson, The Messenger, Alanis Obomsawin continues to document – started in We Can’t Make the Same Mistake Twice – the struggle of First Nation kids on reserves to get the same medical treatment as in the rest of Canada. Zachariah Kunuk (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner) brings us One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, a drama set in the 1960s when the government was forcing nomadic Inuit hunters to assimilate and give up their way of life. And, in a totality different take, Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum pits a Mi’gmaq nation against a new zombie-like plague… that only infects white people.

Sometimes it’s just the title that attracts, so listen to some of these Canadian movies coming to TIFF: The Last Porno Show (Kire Paputts) This is Not a Movie (Yung Chang); Tammy’s Always Dying (Amy Jo Johnson); And The Birds Rained Down (Il pleuvait des oiseaux); and The Body Remembers when the World Broke Open.

Conversely, there are some short films whose titles are very long. Like I am in the World as Free and Slender as a Deer on a Plain; or how about Speak Continuously and Describe your Experiences as They Come to You. I bet you’ll remember those.

And finally you can look at some of the big names of Canadian cinema, with new work by Alan Zweig, who has a documentary about the police called Coppers; Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour, starring David Thewlis as a food inspector; Albert Shin’s Clifton Hill, a psychological thriller set in Niagara Falls; and a new doc co-directed by Ellen Page, about environmental racism in Nova Scotia called There’s Something in the Water.

I just flooded you with more names than anyone can absorb, but maybe some of it will stick. Tickets are on sale now, including the cheaper packages, so check them out.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Dir: David Leitch

Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is a hugely muscled single dad in LA formerly with the CIA. Shaw (Jason Statham) is a well dressed wiry assassin from a family of London criminals, headed by his mother. But when Hattie (Vanessa Kirby) an MI6 agent goes rogue, the two men are ordered to work together to bring her in.

The problem is Hobbs and Shaw loathe each other, and would rather die than be in the same room. But there’s a bigger issue at stake: Hattie absconded with a terrible man-made virus which, if activated, could wipe out every human in a week.. and she carries it imbedded in her body. Even worse, they have to beat Brixton (Idris Elba), Shaw’s former partner, who is now an unkillable cyborg who works for a criminal organization that controls the world’s media. Can the two agents overcome their differences, capture Hattie, recover the virus, defeat Brixton, and save the world?

Hobbs and Shaw is a silly, comic-book-like action movie in the style of the Fast and Furious series, and though ridiculous, it’s a lot of fun to watch. It doesn’t take itself very seriously, instead just provides endless chase scenes – we’re talking cars, motorcycles and helicopters here — extended fistfights against nameless enemies, and epic battles with guns, missiles and spears (but without any visible death or blood).

As I said, it’s ridiculous, concerned purely with the images. There’s a chase scene at a Chernobyl-like nuclear reactor, but the characters blast at each other not caring about meltdoen. The towers are just there for decoration. The story takes you from an amazing vertical chase scene involving ropes and an elevator on the side of a glass and steel skyscraper in London… to an eventual battle royal in Samoa!

The banter between Johnson and Statham is silly, almost to the point of boredom, but there is some humour and, most important, the movie is loaded with superior special effects. Take it for what it is – a simple action movie – and you’ll probably love it. I gave up on the Fast and Furious series after Number 3 or 4, but I would probably watch another Hobbs & Shaw. With Idris Elba, and cameo roles by a sinister Helen Mirren and a campy Ryan Reynolds… what more can you ask for for 14 bucks?

Luce

Dir: Julius Onah

Based on the play by J.C. Lee

It’s an middleclass suburb in the Midwest. Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is the school’s golden boy. He’s a star athlete, manager of the track team, head of the debating club. He’s handsome, popular, athletic and very bright. So much so, he’s invited to give inspirational, Obama-style speeches to the school. His white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) couldn’t be happier. They adopted him as a refugee from war-torn Eritrea, and moulded him into their idea of the perfect all-American son, with a new name, history, and identity. His friends may have troubles, but not Luce. Everyone, even his ex, Cynthia (Andrea Bang: Kim’s Convenience) loves Luce. Everyone except his teacher Ms Wilson (Octavia Spencer).

She is suspicious of his motives. She is disturbed enough by an essay he wrote (about Marxist anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon) to search his school locker, where she finds an unmarked bag of firecrackers. She calls his mother in to talk, leaving Luce out of the equation for now. But it plants a seed of doubt in his parents’ minds. Luce isn’t stupid; he knows something is going on. And so begins a hidden game of cat and mouse between pupil and teacher. Is he just a normal, nice guy… or a psychopath? And is Ms Wilson honestly concerned? Or is she just jealous and wants to bring him down?

Luce is a complex, multifaceted and ultimately ambiguous drama about identity, history and blackness. (Interestingly, another work by Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, was surely lurking at the back of Luce’s mind). It’s also about parents digging too deeply into their kid’s private lives, without realizing they’ll expose facts they didn’t want to know about. It brings in other issues, too – mental health, sexual consent, and drug use. Tim Roth and Naomi Watts are appropriately annoying as the well-meaning but namby-pamby parents. Octavia Spencer just gets better and better, and Kelvin Johnson Jr  (though he doesn’t look even vaguely Eritrean!) is great as Luce. He also a very different son in another movie, It Comes at Night, which, in retrospect, adds even more dimensions to this role. Can’t wait to see what he does next

Luce, though not perfect, is a very well-done indie movie that leaves you with a lot to think about.

Fast and Furious Presents Hobbs and Shaw opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Luce opens next week (August 9th). And for more information on TIFF go to 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 director Sameh Zoabi about Tel Aviv on Fire

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Israel, Movies, Mystery, Palestine, Satire, Secrets, TV, War by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2019

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

Salem is an ordinary Palestinian from Jerusalem who is down on his luck. No job, no money, no girlfriend. So he jumps at the chance to work on a popular TV soap shooting in Ramallah. It’s about a beautiful Palestinian spy seducing an Israeli officer in the days leading up to the 1967 war.

The problem is Salem has to pass through Israeli checkpoints between Jerusalem and Ramallah each day to get to work and back. And after a mixup with an Israeli guard at the checkpoint, the officer starts using his position to pressure Salem to change the soap opera’s plot. Will the TV series end with a happy wedding… or with Tel Aviv on fire?

Tel Aviv on Fire is a new comedy about relations between Israelis and Palestinians under occupation. It’s directed and co-written by Sameh Zoabi, the award-winning Palestinian filmmaker. Tel Aviv on Fire played at Venice and TIFF and many other festivals.

I spoke with Sameh in May, 2019 in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Tel Aviv on Fire opens today in Toronto.

Art and deception. Films reviewed: Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, The Art of Self Defense, Push

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

The things you see online – or on TV for that matter – aren’t always true (suprised?). This week I’m looking at three movies, two docs and one dark comedy, about lies and deceptions. There’s a man who trains in the art of karate, a look at the art of selling lies, and a look at the lies of selling real estate.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies

Dir: Larry Weinstein

What is Propaganda? Is it art and literature? Or brainwashing and fake news? The word comes from a benign Catholic term meaning the propagation of faith, the planting the seeds. The Vatican opened a department of propaganda to counter Martin Luther’s austere reforms. It combined the opulance of baroque cathedrals, the lure of incense and all the lush frescos, paintings and marble statues you’ve seen. But art and magic and religion were around long before that, and so, says this documentary, was propaganda. Some historians trace it as far back as Neandrathal cave paintings.

Propaganda is easy to spot in other cultures but very hard to see in your own.  Many people were entanced by dictators like Hitler and Stalin thanks to their skillful use of films (like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) radio broadcasts and posters. But with the shift to digital culture, it has taken on new forms; like patently false news stories online, repeated ad infinitum, until people start to believe it.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies is a fun, light documentary that talks to a lot of artists and writers – Astra Taylor, Ai Weiwei and Kent Monkman – but also musicians, analysts and others. It shoots a constant barrage of propaganda at you, images from the past 100 years, shown in harsh black and white periodically blanketed in fields of red. A lot of it is familiar but there are also some bizarre juxtapositions you’ve never heard of: like the racing cars that now drive around the former Nazi Nuremberg Stadium. Or Laibach, a Slovenian band known for its fascistic costumes and images, who performed in North Korea before a concert hall of nonplussed party apparatchiks and university students. Very funny.

The Art of Self Defense

Wri/Dir: Riley Stearns

It’s the 1990s in small-town America. Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a shy accountant who lives with his dachshund. He’s a 98-pound weakling who works in an office full of alpha males. But when he’s violently attacked by strangers on motorbikes he decides something has got to change. No more sand will be kicked in his face! He joins a local karate dojo with its own set of hierarchical rules. Everyone is ranked by their belt colour. There’s Anna (Imogen Poots) who teaches the kids class; get on her wrong side and she’ll beat you to a pulp. And at the top of the heap is Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).

He says karate is not just a martial art, it’s a way of life. You must punch with your feet and kick with your hands. Casey is starry-eyed, and ready to do whatever Sensei tells him. You must become more masculine, he says.  Stop learning French, start learning German. And throw out those adult contemporary CDs; only listen to metal! Casey takes the blue pill. He leaves his job and devotes his life to karate. He worships Sensei, has a secret crush on Anna, and proudly displays his low-ranked yellow belt for all to see.

But something is not right. When he joins the mysterious night classes he is exposed to a violent world of hyper-masculinity he doesn’t subscribe to. He is asked to perform dubious tasks outside of the dojo. Is this place only about karate? Or is it a cult? And what is hidden behind Sensei’s secret door?

The Art of Self Defense is a low-budget, uncategorizable, odd sort of a movie, part dark comedy, part mystery, with a bit of violence and horror mixed in. It’s slow to develop, but picks up nicely about halfway through. It’s filled with wood paneling, old computers and ugly clothes from the 90s, which adds a humorous tinge. But It’s hard to tell whether it’s being satirical or straightforward, comic or scary. Jesse Eisenberg is totally believable as the wimpy accountant trying to become more manly, and Allessandro Nivola is good as the mysterious sensei.

Take it as a cautionary tale about the search for masculinity, self-confidence and the cult of martial arts and you’ll enjoy this dark comedy.

Push

Dir: Fredrik Gertten

There’s a housing crisis in the world’s cities and no one knows seems to know what’s going on. In Toronto there’s a shortage of affordable apartments, with stagnant wages, soaring rents and home prices quadrupling. Speculators are buying up land as a bankable commodity, something bought and sold, with little thought given to the people who live there. And in many cities entire blocks of housing sit empty, because rent income is dwarfed by what they can earn from the constant increase in value of the buildings themselves. What’s going on?

Enter Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. She’s a mom from Ottawa who travels around the world collecting data and advocating on behalf of tenants everywhere. She views housing not as an investment but as a right.

This documentary looks at the dire situation in the world’s cities – from Milan to Berlin, Seoul to Valpariaso – where people are facing the same situations: gentrification, renoviction, and the displacing of average- and low-income earners from the world’s cities.

It explores the role of organized crime in the housing crisis. They use property investment as a way of laundering money by over investing in legit properties, driving up demand and prices and hiding their illicit profits.

It looks at how the financial sector is turning housing into an investment commodity, with the people who live in them entirely erased from the equation. One particularly notorious player is Blackstone – founded by former Lehman Brothers execs – a voracious American property investment company that swooped into the real estate market after the stockmarket crash of 2008. Now they’re making money by buying up public housing for profit, while neglecting the people they were actually built for.

And it looks at the role of pensions, both government and private, which invest in housing to grow their capital, but, unintentionally, lead to skyrocketing prices and increasing homelessness.

Push is an incredibly important and informative documentary that explains in simple terms the economics, politics and effects of this crisis. It uses experts – like Joseph Stiglitz, Saskia Sassen and Roberto Saviano – to explain the reasons behind the crisis. But it also talks with ordinary people around the world. It shows the multiple, small-scale problems people face as well as the large-scale disasters, like the Grenfell Tower Fire in London. They are all related. And it’s the great Leilani Farha who is trying to confront these problems in a new way.

I recommend this doc.

Propaganda: The Art of Lies, Push, and The Art of Self Defense 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.

First loves. Films reviewed: Yesterday, Genesis

Posted in Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Fantasy, LGBT, Music, Quebec, Romance, UK by CulturalMining.com on June 28, 2019

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

This week I’m looking at two movies – a fantasy musical and a coming-of-age drama. There are three adolescents in Quebec wondering where their loves will go; and one man in England wondering where She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah went.

Yesterday

Dir: Danny Boyle

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a singer songwriter trying to make a career in a tiny seaside town near Suffolk, England. His diehard manager Ellie (Lily James), whom he’s known since his school days is always on the lookout for new gigs. He left his teaching job to make it big, but he can count his fan base on his fingers. He just never gets a break. In fact he’s ready to pack it in when something unusual happens: a massive, worldwide electrical meltdown.

When it’s over, everything seems slightly different in unfamothable ways. The biggest of all is he discovers “The Beatles” never existed:  none of their songs were ever written or recorded. Jack is the only one who remembers their words and lyrics.

He makes no secret that these songs are famous and he didn’t write them, but since he’s the only one who knows them, it’s up to him to correct that imbalance. He sets out writing down everything he can remember, sticking them to his wall using post-it notes. And when Ellie lands him a spot on a local TV show, his song goes viral. He is approached by ginger-haired pop sensation Ed Sheeran (Ed Sheeran) who signs him up as his opening act. Soon Jack is headed for international fame, fortune and glory. A bitter manager takes over his account when Ellie retreats to her school teaching job, and the money starts pouring in. But is this what he really wants? And will he ever get the nerve to tell Ellie… what he really wants?

Yesterday is an enjoyable movie with an appealing, though largely unknown cast. Patel (from the UK soap Eastenders) actually sings his songs, and the supporting roles – like his foot-in-mouth assistant Rocky (Joel Fry) – are fun. The thing is, Yesterday seems like a typical netflix-type movie, the plot as an excuse to bolster a single flimsy “what if” premise (what if only one man remembered the Beatles?). The story just plays out. And Kate McKinnon is painfully miscast as the greedy LA manager: she treats a quasi-realistic movie like a Saturday Night Live skit, spoiling the tone of every scene she appears in. Even so, while Yesterday is overly simplistic, it’s still cute.

Genesis (Genèse)

Wri/Dir: Philippe Lesage (The Demons)

Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin) is a 16 year old at an all boys school in Montreal. He’s known for his sharp tongue and witty remarks. He’s the clear class leader, as likely to challenge an unfair teacher as he is to burst into old Québécois camp songs. He serves as a mentor to younger kids and a friend to all. But his status, reputation and friendship are all threatened when he drunkenly kisses his best friend, Nicholas, after a school party.

His older sister Charlotte (Noée Abita) is 18 and deeply in love. She’s dating Maxime, a smart kid from a well-to-do family. But all her feelings are shattered when he suggests they (meaning he) have sexual flings with other people. What the hell? She takes his words at face value and soon picks up Theo, a much older guy she meets at a dance club. She begins to realize she’s attractive and desirable – the world is her oyster, she can have whoever she chooses. But what should her limits be and what does she really want?

Felix (Edouard Tremblay-Grenier) is a kid with braces at a boys’ summer camp. They’re located just across from the girls camp, and the two sides get together for bonfires and music. He really likes a particular girl, Beatrice, but he doesn’t know how to approach her. So he asks his counsellor for advice. Is this true live or just a crush? And will Felix have a chance to spend time with her before they all go home?

Genèse is a beautiful, tender, realistic and funny coming-of-age story about three sets of teenagers at different stages of their lives. It delves into the meaning of first love at 13, 16 and 18… and the very-real dangers it might bring. The first two stories – involving brother and sister Guillaume and Charlotte – are told simultaneously, while the third, seemingly unrelated chapter is told seperately at the end of the film. (But they are all connected.)

The acting is superb and passionate, the music and images inviting. This is a great movie.

Yesterday opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Genesis is playing next week, July 5-7, in Toronto at the Royal Cinema as part of the Quebec on Screen series. (It’s also a chance to see Une Colonie, another Quebec film I reviewed here.)

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

Media. Films reviewed: Late Night, Fly Me to the Saitama

Posted in comedy, Japan, LGBT, Manga, TV, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 14, 2019

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

Spring film festival season continues in Toronto. The Japanese film fest is showing great movies at the JCCC (Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre), and the ICFF (Italian Contemporary Film Fest) which started just last night is showing films in Toronto and across Canada.

This week I’m talking about two new comedies, one that closed Inside Out, and another that’s opening at Toronto Japanese Film Fest. There’s a talk show host in New York who might lose her job, and a suburban freedom fighter in Tokyo who might lose his life.

Late Night

Dir: NIsha Ganatra

Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is a late night talk show host on Network TV. She’s known for her erudite interviews, highbrow topics and funny monologues. She sticks to the tried and true, steering clear of gossip, pop culture and social networks. She’s a highly respected host and the only woman on late night TV.

She’s also tired, boring and tanking in the ratings. So much so, the network chief gives her an ultimatum: get with times or we’ll replace you. An offensive fratboy standup is already being groomed to take her place. What can she do?

In walks Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), fresh from a chemical plant in Pennsylvania. She has no experience as a writer, but happens to be in the right place at the right time, and is hired to add some spark to a moribund, all-male writers’ room. But she faces a wall of sexist, priveleged white guys, who resent her intrusion. This has been a bastion of male writers for so long they have even co-opted women’s washroom!

And their boss, Katherine – the show’s host – is a petty dictator, who never talks to her writers but demands long hours and absolute obedience. Only the newly-hired Molly is naïve enough to flout the rules. Can Molly fit into an all-male workplace? And can she change Katherine’s mindset enough to set theshow on a new course… before she gets gets fired or the show gets canned?

Late Night is a clever look at late-night TV. While not a slapstick comedy, it does have a enough character jokes, awkward situations and one-liners (some work, some don’t) which keep you smiling if not always rolling on the floor. It follows the dynamics of a cruel but insecure boss trying to change, and the newby who keeps getting herself in trouble.

It also follows the two main characters’ lovelifes. Katherine has a faithful but reclusive husband (John Lithgow). Molly is initially hit on by writers from the show: the womanizer Charlie (Hugh Dancy) and the snobbish Tom (Reid Scott) who both think a woman writer is there to date, but not to take seriously.

Emma Thompson is believable as the talk show host and Mindy Kaling (she’s also the movie’s writer) is fun as the small-town, fish out of water.

I liked this movie.

Fly me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉)

Dir: Hideki Takeuchi

It’s present-day Tokyo (sort of). It’s actually a feudal version dressed in modern garb, patrolled by violent Robocop storm troopers dressed in clingy, white bodysuits who capture and expell any “outsiders” from beyond the city’s borders. The most reviled place of all is Saitama, a suburban prefecture just to the city’s north. It’s known as Dasai-tama, Urusai-tama, Mendokusai-tama, Ahokusai-tama (meaning out of fashion, inconvenient, noisy… and worse.) Your status is determined by your Urban Index Rating.

Momomi (Nikaido Fumi) is the Student Council President at the prestigious Hakuhodo Academy. He’s an arrogant snob who dresses like Little Lord Fauntleroy with a blonde pageboy haircut. He is the son of the deeply corrupt, hereditary governor of Metropolitan Tokyo and next in line to take the throne. And he is served by his mysterious butler Akutsu (Iseya Yusuke) who anticipates his every move.

But order is threatened by the arrival of an unknown wealthy aristocrat named Rei (Gackt). Rei spent many years in America and can distinguish the various neighbourhoods of Tokyo merely by sense of smell. And his urban rating is higher even than Momomi’s. Momomi is furious and wants to have him killed… until their first kiss. Momomi is swept away in his arms. But Rei has a secret…

He’s actually from Saitama! If the secret is revealed he will be humiliated, expelled from Tokyo, or maybe even killed. Can Momomi accept Rei’s true identity? And can Rei overthrow the powers that be and free the people of Saitama forever?

That’s a very quick and simple sketch of this movie, but it’s actually about so much more. Fly Me to the Saitama is an absolutely bizarre, over-the-top satire of urban culture, based on a gag-style manga from the 1980s. The characters all wear elaborate rococo costumes and multi-coloured, enormous hairstyles. Like in many girls comics (aka shojo manga) both of the main romantic characters are boys, in this one Momomi is played by a woman. And the whole movie is loaded with plays on words, and references to old Japan. Still, with a bit of suspension of disbelief, I think it’s totally understandable.

It’s directed by Takeuchi Hideki, who brought us Thermae Romae, about a Roman centurian who is magically transported through time from a Roman bath to a Japanese sento. This movie is also fantastical and bizarre, and will keep you shaking your head in bewildered wonder. Fly Me to the Saitama is already smash hit in Japan, one of the few local film successes so far this year, grossing over a billion yen. If you’re into Japanese pop culture, this movie is a must-see.

Late Night opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Fly me to the Saitama is playing at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival.

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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