When I grow up… Films reviewed: Fighting With My Family, Never Look Away

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, Art, Biopic, comedy, Communism, Disabilities, Germany, Nazi, Sports, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 22, 2019

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

One question every kid hears is What do you want to be when you grow up? When I was three I wanted to be a fire truck. But how many stay true to their earliest ambitions? This week I’m looking at two movies about people who stick to their childhood passions. There’s an historical drama from Germany about an aspiring artist and a biopic from the UK about a perspiring wrestler

Fighting with My Family

Wri/Dir: Stephen Merchant

Saraya Knight (Francis Pugh) is a thirteen-year-old girl in a working-class neighbourhood in Norwich. Her mom and dad (Lena Headey, Nick Frost) run a business: the WAW, or World Association of Wrestlers. But like everything else in that world, it’s a bit of an exaggeration. They have one gym where they train local kids to wrestle, and take their family’s matches on the road in their shiny white van. Her life is fully immersed in the sport. Black haired and petite, Saraya uses black eyeliner and dresses in heavy metal gear. She has posters of her wrestling heroes on her wall and even made her own championship belt out of cardboard. But she has one problem: she chokes under stress.

So her big brother Zack (Jack Lowden) takes her into the ring and teaches her how to wrestle. He is her sparring partner, and they soon become an accomplished tag team. She’s a natural. But they have bigger ambitions: to be make it to the top. So when the WWE is coming to the UK they sign up for the tryouts. This is Zack and Saraya’s one chance to make it big. The auditions are led by Coach (Vince Vaughan) a hard-boiled veteran who takes no prisoners. Will Zack get in? And will he take Saraya with him? Turns out, Coach chooses her, not him!

Suddenly she finds herself in Florida surrounded by palm trees, suntans and bikinis while Zack is left in Norwich taking care of his new baby. Saraya — now called Paige — is overwhelmed by the gruelling, boot-camp workouts and the loneliness she faces. Zack feels abandoned so he cuts her off. And the fledgling wrestlers she’s paired with are all former models, dancers and cheerleaders… who don’t know how to wrestle. Professionals finesse their jabs, throws and punches so they don’t hurt so much.

Her parents and all the kids at the gym back home are rooting for her, but Paige is filled with doubt. Can the little “freak from Norwich” ever make it in pro-wrestling?

Fighting With My Family is a very cute, palatable and easy-to-watch comedy biopic, about the real female pro wrestler known as Paige. I have to admit I knew next to nothing about pro wrestling before I watched it.

What did I learn? That this sport is “fixed”, but it’s not “fake”… the wrestling part is real, and it can really hurt. That it’s a theatrical performance, much like a circus. That you have to win over an audience if you want to make it. And that your persona, while a big exaggeration, has to have some truth in it or no one will believe it. The movie is filled with salty language but no sex or violence (except in the ring). Pugh and Lowden are great as the brother and sister. Yes, it’s predictable and sentimental and I’m not going to call it a “great movie”, but I had a good time watching it.

Never Look Away (Werk Ohne Autor)

Wri/Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

1937, Germany.

Little Kurt, with his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), visits an exhibition in Dresden filled with avant-garde art. He loves the beautiful colours of fauvism, the strange distortions of cubism, and challenging images by Grozs, Kandinsky, Mondrian. But is he too young to understand the art show was put on by the Nazi government to condemn this art as bad and “degenerate”? No, he understands perfectly what they’re saying, and rejects it all.

But he listens to his aunt when she warns him to keep his drawings secret. Later, when the lovely but eccentric aunt has a strange episode they lock her up in a mental hospital. While she is there, top-ranked Nazi doctors decide to throw away not just “degenerate” art but imperfect people. Anyone with a mental illness, physical disability or a developmental handicap is sent to the gas chambers. Doctors write either a blue “minus” (keep) or a red “plus” (kill) on their files. This includes Elisabeth, condemned to death by a top Nazi gynecologist (Sebastian Koch).

Later, after the war, Kurt (Tom Schilling) is accepted into the Dresden Art Academy. But now his talent is stifled by the communist government who only want him to paint socialist realism: stern men and rosy-cheeked women harvesting wheat as they stare toward a brighter future. At the academy he meets the kind and beautiful Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), and wins her heart. Even under communism, Ellie is a “golden pheasant” from a rich, high-ranked family. They fall in love and meet for secret trysts. But when her parents come home they have to be extra cautious. While her mother is sympathetic, her father, Professor Karl Seeband, tries his best to break them up. But what no one realizes, this professor is the same doctor who sent Kurt’s aunt Elizabeth to her death!

Kurt and Ellie eventually make it to West Germany, where he joins the prestigious art academy in Düsseldorf, and lands a private studio to create the art he really wants to make. The art professor tells him his work is good but not yet special, but he still detects the talent hidden there. Will Kurt ever find his true calling? Will Seebald’s hidden war crimes be exposed? Can Ellie emerge from beneath her oppressive father’s shadow?

Never Look Away is an epic, fictionalized drama about the life of a well- known artist, spanning German history from the Nazi era, to the communist east, and to the changes in the west in the 50s and 60s. It stars some of Germany’s biggest names: tiny Tom Schilling with his high-pitched voice is still playing young men in his late thirties (and he’s great as Kurt). Paula Beer (Transit) is sweet as Ellie, Sebastian Koch is suitably sinister as the hidden Nazi Zeebald, and Saskia Rosendahl (who was amazing in Lore) once again wins as Elisabeth. The cinematography and music are all wonderful. But something seems missing from this huge drama.

At one point Kurt makes an interesting point: Take six random numbers. On their own they have no meaning. But if they are the winning numbers on a lottery ticket suddenly they become important and beautiful. I went into this movie blind, knowing nothing about it. While watching it, I kept thinking what’s the big deal about Kurt? But when he starts experimenting with smeared, black-and-white, photorealist paintings, I thought, wait a minute, those look like Gerhard Richter’s paintings! And suddenly the movie makes sense. It becomes a winning lottery ticket. Not a perfect movie – not as good as this director’s Lives of Others – but definitely worth watching.

Oscar nominee Never Look Away and Fighting With My Family both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Gone fishing. Films reviewed: Serenity, Wonders of the Sea PLUS Cold War

Posted in 1950s, Animals, Cold War, Communism, Conservation, Crime, documentary, Drama, Film Noir, France, Music, Mystery, Poland, Romance, Suspense by CulturalMining.com on January 25, 2019

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

Fishing for something different to watch? This week I’m looking at two movies about fish and one about love. There’s a doc beneath the waves, a suspense drama aboard a fishing boat, and a bittersweet romance behind the Iron Curtain.

Serenity

Wri/Dir: Steve Knight

Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman off Plymouth Island, a tropical vacation spot in the middle of nowhere. Along with his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) he takes rich tourists out on his boat to catch some sharks. But Dill’s real love, his passion, is for tuna. One particular bluefin he calls Justice, that always gets away. It’s his great white whale, his Moby Dick . He spends his free time drinking dark rum at the local bar or sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane) an attractive older woman with a black cat, who helps him out financially after a night of passion.

Life never changes… until one day a mysterious femme fatale, named Karen (Anne Hathaway) appears on his boat. If you drown my rich abusive husband, she says, I’ll give you 10 million bucks. Cash. Will Dill stick with his tuna obsession or will he kill a stranger?

But wait, that’s not all. Turns out he had a thing with Karen before serving in Iraq… she dumped him to marry the rich guy. And her teenaged boy Patrick, a computer geek, could be his biological son. (Though they’ve never met Dill feels he has a psychic bond with the boy). And a strange man with a briefcase following Dill has some crucial information.

If my description sounds like a clichéed film noir knock-off, that’s because that’s what it is. The actors play their characters – an obsessed fisherman, a villainous drunk, an abused but devious woman – in over-the-top performances, vamping for the camera. Why the boilerplate plots? Why the tired dialogue? Apparently, it’s all intentional, but to tell you why would ruin the WTF plot twist. I started to figure it out about two-thirds-of-the-way through, and it kept me interested (though not really satisfied). If you like watching famous actors acting in an imperfect script, this is for you.

Wonders of the Sea

Dir: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jean-Jacques Montello

Jacques Cousteau was the French deep-sea diver, conservationist and underwater filmmaker whose TV shows fascinated me as a child. He sailed away on a ship called Calypso with flippers on his feet and aqualungs on his back. He died in 1997 but his son Jean-Michel and grandkids Fabien and Celine are still diving. This latest documentary in 3D looks at undiscovered parts of the ocean floor and the tiny creatures that live there. They lead us through a massive squid orgy: a mating ritual near California where they all have sex with each other. They also visit a hammerhead shark migration near the Bahamas, and the wondrous coral reefs off Fiji, which form a crucial part of the world’s oceans’ ecosystem. The doc focusses on the tiny, the cute, the weird and the grotesque. And they throw in informative facts and stats about pollution and overfishing.

My biggest problem with this movie is the insufferably corny and dated voiceovers by Arnold Schwartzeneggar and the Cousteaus. It seems aimed at three-year-olds. Who knows, maybe the narration was this bad when I was three but I just didn’t notice. Whatever. If you can somehow switch off the dialogue and just take in the intense, weird-and-wonderful, 3-D coloured images you’ll enjoy this movie.

Cold War

Wri/ Dir Pawel Pawlikowski

It’s post-WWII Poland, and a team of musicologists is heading to the mountains with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Irena (Agata Kulesza) is a serious academic looking to preserve authentic folk culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) a handsome conductor, wants to put together a musical group. Their boss is Kazsmarek (Borys Szyc), an apparatchik – he wants a show big enough to impress his party bosses. The auditions begin, with milk maids and farm hands singing the innocently salacious songs of their childhood. Authenticity rules. Still, one pretty young woman, with blonde braids and a strong voice manages to slip through the cracks. Zula (Joanna Kulig) isn’t really a local peasant, but after living through WWII, taking on new identities is a piece of cake. And Wiktor is attracted to her. The Mazurek Choir is born, and it’s a big hit. And Wiktor and Zula start a secret relationship.

The Party weeds out anyone not “Polish-looking” enough: hair too dark, nose too big? Back to the farm. When they are forced to include Stalinist paeans to collective farming, Wiktor shrugs his shoulders but Irena quits in disgust. But their new status pushes the choir to star status in the Eastern Bloc. Wiktor and Zula fall in love and hatch a plan to defect to the west. Wiktor makes it across the border, but Zula stays behind. Now thelovers are separated by the impenetrable Iron Curtain. Will they ever see each other again? If so, on which side? And can their love –  and their music – survive a long separation?

Cold War is a wonderful, bittersweet romantic drama, set in 1950s Europe. It paints the Cold War era with all its faults and how it affects the people caught in it. Like Pawlikowski’s Ida, it’s just 90 minutes long and shot in glorious black and white on a square screen. Filled with haunting music and images, the film showcases the amazing Kulig and Kot in their flawless performances as separated lovers. (Kulig sings, too!) It’s nominated for a Foreign Language Feature Oscar and is also on my list of best movies of the year.

This is a great movie, don’t miss it.

Wonders of the Sea in 3D starts next week, Serenity and Cold War both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Black Friday. Movies reviewed: White Raven, Save Yourself, James White, Trumbo PLUS Blood in the Snow

Posted in 1950s, Canada, Communism, Cultural Mining, Death, Disease, Hollywood, Horror, US by CulturalMining.com on November 27, 2015

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

Today is Black Friday, a bizarre, uniquely American festival that worships the gods of conspicuous consumption. This week no shopping movies, but I’m riffing on the Black Friday colour scheme. There’s a biopic about a Hollywood screenwriter who was blacklisted; a drama about a man named White who gets the blues from taking care of his mom;  and an all-Canadian horror film festival that flies the national colours of red and white in the form of Blood in the Snow.

12194740_546998655454504_1943659944968540950_oWhite Raven
Dir: Andrew Moxham

(Spoiler Alert!) Kevin, Jake, Dan and Pete (Andrew Dunbar, Aaron Brooks, Shane Twerdun, Steve Bradley) are old school buddies. Now they’re grown ups — a business exec, a pilot, a restauranteur, and a guide — but they still go camping together every year. They need to commune with nature and hash it out with their buddies while shot-gunning cans of brewsky. So, all kitted-out in the full lumbersexual regalia of toque, beard and plaid, they turn off their smartphones and march off into the woods. They are heading for White Raven Falls, a place rife with native legends. Sure they have their problems at home — drinking, infidelity, girlfriend troubles — but now’s the time to forget all that. Problem is, one of the four has a screw loose. He hears voices coming from White Raven Falls telling him what he has to do… or whom he has to kill. Who will survive this camping trip into the unknown?

Another horror movie also playing at Blood in the Snow is not a boys’ brewcation, but a girls’ road trip.

12186803_547004278787275_687524279454112931_oSave Yourself
Dir: Ryan M Andrews

(Spoiler Alert!) Kim, Crystal, Sasha, Lizzie and Dawn (Jessica Cameron, horror favourite Tristan Risk, Tiana Nori, Caleigh Le Grand, Lara Mrkoci) are a team of horror filmmakers on the verge of success. They’re riding high from fan adulation at their world premier — and all the parties and sexual opportunities that come with it. So they’re all geared up for their long roadtrip to LA. But after a day on the highway they unwittingly find themselves the guests of an odd family, the Sauters, on an isolated farm. These people are weird. Mom speaks with a sinister German accent, daughter stays locked up in her bedroom, son likes hunting a bit too much and Dad (Ry Barret) is partial to weird medical experiments. The “serial” they serve in this place ain’t breakfast cereal. (Shades of Eli Roth’s Hostel here.) Will they all work together to escape from this real-life horror movie, or is it every woman for herself?

These two movies are similar in plot but quite different in style. White Raven is a slow-moving, realistic psychological thriller, while Save Yourself is much faster, with lots more action, fights, and gore. I preferred the second one. Total over-the-top fantasy, but with the satisfaction of heroines fighting villains that are truly evil.

mwNJYr_JAMESWHITE_01_o3_8754892_1440509998James White
Wri/Dir: Josh Mond

James White (Christopher Abbott) is the prodigal son who returns to his Manhattan home under a cloud. His dad has just died and mom, a retired and divorced schoolteacher, has stage four cancer. James just wants to party with his best friend or stay home with his girlfriend. But he ends up as his mom June’s caregiver.

June (Cynthia Nixon,  Sex in the City) is not an easy patient. She moans and groans and screams and cries under constant pain. She pukes and poops her pants. She wanders off in the middle of the day, getting lost in the supermarket. The police get called, the nurses don’t show up, there’s no room at the cancer hospice. And if James isn’t there, she lays 3lVWwM_JAMESWHITE_02_o3_8754936_1440510010on the guilt trips. James is a total mess himself. So he takes it out on everyone he sees, punching out insipid partygoers who don’t share his grief. Hospital administrators, doctors, and friends of the family are all evil and every conversation is torture for him. Will James and June ever get through this trying time?

James White is a hyper-realistic movie about suffering, illness death and all around miserableness. It makes Still Alice, last year’s dying mom movie, seem like Disneyland in comparison. The acting is OK and the story sad with a few tender moments (with some strange Oedipal undercurrents going on). If you’re in the mood for depression and relentless, vomiting sound-effects, this one’s for you. Otherwise, stay away.

3lE59O_trumbo_FORWEB_o3_8667836_1438728639-1Trumbo
Dir: Jay Roach

It’s the late 1940s and Hollywood is booming. Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad) is a scriptwriter at the top of the heap. He revels in the perqs his success at MGM has brought him: a sprawling ranch home, swank cars and membership at the top clubs. He’s friends with the famous and glamorous. Until he gets a knock on his door from the FBI asking him:  are you now or have you ever been a member if the Communist Party? He and the rest of the Hollywood 10 are summoned to Washington. They are TR_08395.dngordered to appear before HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee and name names. He refuses, of course, and is sent to prison on the dubious charge of “contempt of congress”. But this leaves him blacklisted, unable to sell his scripts to any of the studios. He’s forced to move to a smaller home, enduring rocks through his window and contempt from his former Hollywood so-called friends and allies. He writes B movies under assumed names for the schlockiest studio in town, churning out cheap scripts as fast as he can type. He has a family to support. But is his relentless work alienating the ones he loves – his wife (Diane Lane) and DRWlMY_trumbo_02_o3_8733217_1438728644his kids? And can he stand up to the wrath of rightwing figures like gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played by a venomous Helen Mirren in a wonderful performance), and will he ever make his way back rot the top of the heap?

Trumbo is a lot of fun. It’s clearly “Oscar Bait” but enjoyable nonetheless. It holds to that weird Hollywood formula they think will win an Oscar: liberal in story but conservative in style, linear, non controversial, vanilla and easily palateable. And it doesn’t deal with the widespread purges and blacklisting of the McCarthy Era, just sticks to what happened in Hollywood. But I liked this movie — it’s a lot of fun, and definitely worth seeing.

James White and Trumbo both open today in Toronto: check your local listings. And White Raven and Save Yourself are playing at B.I.T.S. which runs through the weekend. Go to bloodinthesnow.ca for details.

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 Zhang Yimou about his new film Coming Home at #TIFF14

Posted in 1960s, Class, Communism, Cultural Mining, Denial, Drama, Morality, Movies, Prison by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2015

_MG_9568Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s China’s cultural revolution. A jailed intellectual escapes from prison to see his wife, but they are prevented from meeting by a political bargain set up by someone he should trust. And in the scuffle his wife suffers a brain injury. Years later, after the cultural revolution, he returns home… only to find his wife doesn’t 676e8779-1a75-47db-9a86-ccc0604f9061recognize him, and his daughter, a ballet student, has been kicked out of their home. So a family has been split in three as a result of his coming home.

COMING HOME is also the name of a film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It stars _MG_9561Gong Li as the mother. It was directed by Chinese master filmmaker Zhang Yimou, known, over the past three decades, for movies like Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers, and Hero. As a Chinese director he is rare indeed as one who is commercially successful, critically acclaimed and acceptable to the government. I spoke to him at TIFF in September, 2014.  Coming Home opens today in Toronto.

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Limbo. Movies Reviewed: The Homesman, West

Posted in 1970s, Communism, Germany, Mental Illness, Road Movie, Uncategorized, Western by CulturalMining.com on November 21, 2014

The Wonders of Modern Underwater SalvageHi, 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.

Ever been stuck in an elevator between two floors? Or stranded in an airport lounge in a far-off country as you wait to change planes? Well, between departure and arrival, there’s always that strange space, that state of limbo that you’re never quite sure you’ll get out of. This week I’m looking at two movies about that interim area. One’s an American western about a woman in Nebraska Territory trying to bring three women  from West to East. The other’s a German drama set in 1970s Berlin about a woman trying to bring her son from East to West.

H_20130429_0351.tifThe Homesman
Dir: Tommy Lee Jones

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hillary Swank) lives on a big farm in the old west. She spends her time ploughing the fields with her two faithful mules. She’s a hardworking, educated farmer. She’s got money in the bank, and if things work out, she might even start up a pumpkin patch next year. So what’s her problem? She’s a single woman, almost 30, unheard of in these parts. All the men have turned her down. She’s too plain and bossy, they all say.

But who do they turn to when things get rough? Mary Bee. Their young wives H_20130409_4096-2.dnghave all gone mad so they need a homesman to take three women them across the prairies to a big city – somewhere with an insane asylum. And they give her a horse-drawn paddy wagon with barred windows to carry them there. But before she leaves, she runs across an ornery old cuss with a rope around his neck. The posse had caught him squatting in an abandoned shack, and that was grounds for a hanging. His name is George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), and he’s a drunken scofflaw who thinks only of himself. She makes him a deal. If she cuts him loose, he has to navigate her – and the three women – across Indian territory in Nebraska. And she sweetens the pot with a jug of whiskey and the promise of 300 dollars if he guides them safely to the town.

So off they go on their journey, crossing rivers, camping on the plains, and avoiding the natives and various outlaws riding around. Will they make it alive? Can irresponsible Briggs and forthright Cuddy ever see eye to eye? Will opposites attract? And how 05f3b79a-bca6-4bf8-8aa1-0e06380cb996will they handle their unusual human cargo?

This is a beautifully shot, traditional Western, a genre thought dead and gone not too long ago. It’s full of visual quotes, not just from movies, but from old American paintings, like George Caleb Bingham’s Jolly Flatboatmen. And it delves into questions of class, race and gender.

I do have some qualms with this movie. Biggest of all is how it portrays mental illness. The three women are infantilized, The-Jolly-Flatboatmen George Caleb Bingham orgconveniently rendered mute by their illnesses. They never speak to one another and act like three-year-olds. They function more as background scenery or pets than as people. And I’m always suspicious when actors try their hands at writing or directing. They tend to let their own characters steal scenes and hog attention. But Tommy Lee Jones, while  occasionally mugging for the camera, he allowed Swank the screen time to let herself shine. All in all, I enjoyed The Homesman. Although slow paced, it kept me interested until the very end.

poster_imageWest (Westen)
Dir: Christian Schwochow

It’s the 1970s and Germany is divided. Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) is a beautiful and successful scientific researcher in East Berlin. She has a long-distance relationship with her Russian lover Vassily, who regularly visits her and their son Alexey (Tristan Göbel) in Berlin. But when he dies in a car crash, her life, and that of Alexey, is changed. She finds the endless interrogations and strip-searches in the DDR humiliating and unbearable. And when she applies for an exit visa, her good job disappears. So when they finally successfully cross over to the West, she expects to find, freedom, privacy and a well-paying job. Instead, they end up stuck in a strange, no-mans-land called the Emergency Refugee Centre.

East Berlin is still held by the Soviets, while West Berlin is occupied by the US, French and British military – a relic of WWII, kept alive by the cold war. She is strip-searched in the west side, too, given cards to punch, and turned down from working. And she is soon called into regular interrogations with John, a black American intelligence officer with a pencil thin moustache (Jacky Ido). She becomes paranoid after he hints that her Russian lover might still be alive, and that Stasi might be spying on her.

Meanwhile, back at the dormitory, her son attaches himself to a new father figure, Hans (Alexander Scheer). Hans was a former Germany West : Westen Toronto EU Film Festivaljailed dissident in the East, but, in spite of this, some people suspect him of being a Stasi informer. Nelly is suspicious too, but she fails to see he’s the only one helping poor Alexey handle the constant bullying. They don’t like the (Easterners) there. Her paranoia grows as her happiness seems unreachable. Nelly is left wondering is the West any different from the East?

This is a fascinating, semi-autobiographical movie that has an historical connection. It was written by a mother and directed by a son who had crossed over from the DDR themselves. I remember meeting refugees from the East living in West Berlin, but never knew what they had gone through. Very illuminating, realistic look at Berlin in the 1970s.

The Homesman opens today in Toronto, check your local listings, and West plays tonight at a free screening at the Royal. It’s part of the EU film festival which runs for another week. Go to eutorontofilmfest.ca for details.

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

Women in Movies for Mothers’ Day. Films Reviewed: Under the Skin, Ida, The German Doctor

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.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers of the past present and future. While all women aren’t mothers, all mothers are women. So, this week, I’m looking at three fascinating movies with girls or women as the main characters.

Two of the movies are historical dramas set in the early sixties, under the shadow of WWII. From Poland comes a drama about a young woman in a convent who discovers her past; from Argentina, a dramatic thriller about a 12-year-old girl who discovers secrets in an unusual village; and from the UK comes a science fiction / art film about a woman with a strange way of meeting men.

Scarlett Johansson 3 in Under the Skin Courtesy of Mongrel MediaUnder the Skin
Dir: Jonathan Glazer

Laura (Scarlett Johannson) is a beautiful woman with black hair who lives in a rundown farmhouse. But she’s not from there. She likes going for drives in her white van, in the rolling hills and rocky roads of rural Scotland. She’s on the lookout for fit young men who are single and live alone. It doesn’t matter that she can’t understand a word they say. She asks for directions and then offers them a lift to some unspecified place down the road. And to no one’s surprise, they end up at her place for some impromptu casual sex.

Simple, right? No. This is where it gets weird, otherworldly, surreal. Basically, after they undress, she lures them across a Under the Skin  Courtesy of Mongrel Media 7shiny, black floor. She walks on the surface, but the men gradually sink down into a black pool, their bodies and minds suspended in a silent limbo. Not dead, but trapped somewhere.

Who is she? What is she? Laura speaks like an alien or a robot or a psychopath. It’s like she was handed an instruction booklet on how to Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin Courtesy of Mongrel Mediatalk like a human being. Her face and body were borrowed from someone else – she’s just a visitor. She doesn’t seem motivated by evil, and she’s not a cannibal or anything. She doesn’t even eat.

But her routine gradually goes astray. She gets corralled into a nightclub. She picks up an incredibly ugly man on the road. She loses her vehicle and is forced to take a bus. She meets another man who seems kind and cares for her, not just out for a quick roll in the hay. And she senses danger from a suspicious man wearing a jumpsuit. And then there’s the man on a motorcycle who follows her around: is he cleaning up after her mistakes? Or is he trying to stop her? It’s all very confusing.

Under the Skin is one weird movie. I liked it a lot, but beware: this is an experimental “art film” not a mainstream sci-fi pic. Modern, disturbing music, wonderful cinematography… and a baffling story.

Ida - 3Ida
Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a WWII orphan raised in a nunnery near Lodz. She wears a plain grey dress and covers her hair. She’s quiet and obedient. Now 16, she’s ready to take her vows as a nun, but the mother superior insists she first meet her only known relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). But why?

Wanda is a woman of the world. She wears lipstick, smokes cigarettes and listens to jazz. And she sleeps with younger men she picks up in bars. She’s cold, cynical and bitter. She used to be a high-ranked communist party prosecutor, but has lost her status. And she’s Jewish. And that means Anna is, too. And, Wanda tells her, her real name is Ida.

Ida wants to see her parents’ grave. Wanda laughs: what grave? But they head out to the small town. The family living in Ida - 5her home denies Jews ever lived there and has never heard of her parents.

Wanda delves deeper as Ida discovers her own hidden history. Wanda warms toward her – she’s like her dead sister, with her red hair, and three dimples when she smiles. Ida dips her toe into the real world (jazz, alcohol, cigarettes, men). Will she live in cosmopolitan urban Poland or in a cloistered life behind the convent walls?

Ida is black & white, and only 80 minutes long. It’s subtle, compact, minimalist and exquisite. The two Polish actresses are both fantastic, with their subtle, contrasting personalities gradually melding. This is a perfect movie.

The German Doctor 4 courtesy az filmsThe German Doctor
Dir: Lucia Puenzo (Based on her novel)

12-year-old Lilith (Florencia Bado) lives in a barren and dusty part of Argentine Patagonia with her two brothers. Tiny Lilith is 12 but looks younger, and still plays with a doll given to her by her dad (Diego Peretti) — a professional doll maker. He makes handcrafted figures, each one unique. They’re moving to Ushuaia, an area with a large German population, to run a family hotel owned by her pregnant mom (Natalia Oreiro). Though Argentinian, her mom went to a German school. She shows Lilith old school photos filled with swastika flags.

The hotel is a beautiful chateau in the woods, overlooking a clear, blue lake against stark snow-covered mountains. The German Doctor 7 courtesy az filmsPositively Alpine. And their first guest is a kindly, German man with a mustache (Alex Brendemuhl). He’s a doctor, but works injecting cattle with growth hormones. Heredity is everything he says, and he wants to create a perfect breed.

So when Lilith is teased and bullied at school he offers experimental hormone injections to help her grow. Lilith loves whatever is forbidden. She is entranced by the doctor, even though there’s something wrong, something sinister about him. And he offers Enzo, her dad – who objects to his experiments with Lilith – the chance to produce identical The German Doctor 20 courtesy az filmsblond, blue-eyed dolls on a massive scale. Only Nora (Elena Roger), the mysterious school archivist, suspects he’s the notorious Dr. Mengele, known for his cruel experiments in Auschwitz. Based on real-life characters, the German Doctor is a tender, but haunting, coming-of age story played out against an Argentina filled with clandestine war criminals.

Under the Skin and Ida both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The German Doctor also opens and is playing at Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival this weekend, along with many other great movies. Go to TJFF.com for more info.

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

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination. Movies Reviewed: The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, The Arabian Nights

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Adventure, Catholicism, Communism, Cultural Mining, Disease, Dreams, Fantasy, Italy, Joy, Magic, Movies, Rome, Sex, Short Stories, Slavery, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 15, 2014

The Decameron Pier Paolo PasoliniHi, 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.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: You may have heard his name, but not know why. He was an Italian novelist, poet, artist and director, born in Bologna. He got his start in movies writing screenplays (including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) before directing his own films. His films – he directed movies from the 1960s until the mid 70s, when he was murdered – celebrate the poor, The Decameron Pasolini 2 TIFFthe outcasts, the people in the margins. They dig at the complacent middle-class, and the oppressive and corrupt church and nobilitiy. He cast non-professionals in his films for their looks and attitude – he wanted his actors natural not contrived. Naturalism was all-important.

Pasolini was in the Italian Communist Party but was kicked out for his criminal activity. His crime? Being gay. So Pasolini embraced his status as sexual outlaw.

All of these elements – politics and sexuality shown in literature and art – come together in his movies: beautiful to watch, full of laughter, but with a rough and tragic streak running through them.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination is a retrospective of his films now playing at TIFF. This week, I’m going to tell you about three of his movies, often called a trilogy, all based on Medieval stories. They are extraordinarily beautiful films and you should see them on the big screen while you can. There’s an English romp, an Italian comedy, and tales of middle-eastern magic.

Pasolini Canterbury Tales 2 TIFFCanterbury Tales (1972)

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the classic collection of stories told by religious pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. Set in 14thcentury England, it’s filled with monastic robes, pious nuns, Oxford students, religious pilgrims. But it’s also a world full of shouting and drunkenness, farts and belches. The old are missing teeth, fat and ugly, and prone to violence. The young, though still beautiful, are selfish and arrogant. And everyone’s apt to break into raucous, unscripted laughter as they do medieval things like milling corn or polishing eggs.

But what do they all desire? Sex (and money). They come up with complex schemes to cheat on their husbands and wives. This movie is very bawdy.

But it has a dark side too. One of the earliest scenes shows a man being burned to death in the market Pasolini Canterbury tales 1 TIFFsquare: he was caught having sex with another man, but was too poor to bribe the police.

Religion and the supernatural are omnipresent. Angels, devils and wood spirits are as likely as a passing neighbour to appear outside a window. A widow wears out a succession of husbands by being too good in bed. An arrogant student fools his mentor into thinking a great flood is coming. Three brothers go from cavorting in a brothel to plotting dangerous and murderous schemes. And a bright red devil shoots the black-clothed sinners of hell out of his ass!

Most of all, it’s a place where large-breasted women and plain-faced men stand around staring… naturally, naked.

Decameron, Il (1971) aka The Decameron Directed by Pier Paolo PasoliniThe Decameron (1971)

Based on 14th century writer Boccacio’s sexual comedy, these piqaresque stories centre on Naples and other medieval Italian cities. Women are tricksters who fool hapless travelers, while sinners look for sex. It’s a comedy about sex, thumbing its nose at church-mandated restrictions.

Here’s a typical story. A nunnery is off limits to all men but the elderly. A young guy, sensing opportunity, pulls his hat down low – like Bob and Doug McKenzie — and pretends to be a deaf-mute simpleton. He gets hired as a gardner. Soon enough, all the nuns are sneaking out to the shed for their daily roll in the hay. But what happens when the mother superior gets her turn? He tells her he’s had enough. He can Pasolini's The Decameron 3 TIFFspeak! It’s a miracle!

This is an amazing movie (I liked it even better than Canterbury Tales) shot around ancient castles and down narrow allies.

Arabian Nights (1974)

The 1001 Nights is the famous collection of intertwined stories-within-stories across the Arab world. Pasolini skips the tale of the Persian Scheherazade as the storyteller, and instead uses a loving Ines Pellegrini in Pasolini's Arabian Nightsrelationship between a wise and beautiful slave-girl named Zummarud, and her young master. She’s smarter than all the men she encounters, and somehow manages to snub potential buyers at her own auction — rich old men who won’t satisfy her sexually – in favour of love at first site. But she is kidnapped by a spurned buyer. This launches a series of journeys as she outsmarts the men she meets and eventually – disguised as a man – rises to the level of king. And all the way her lover, Nur ed-Din tries to find her.

She’s played by Ines Pellegrini, an Italian woman of Eritrean background, and he’s Franco Merli, a Pasolini's The Arabian Nightsteenaged boy Pasolini apparently spotted pumping gas.

Pasolini skips the most famous stories – the Ali Babas, Alladins, and Sinbads – and instead adapts less-well-known ones. Especially the sexy parts.

Like Canterbury Tales and the Decameron, The Arabian Nights was rated “X” when it first came out. Though it includes a lot of nudity, it’s very tame, sweet and almost naïve, by present-day standards. Some of the same actors show up in all of these films. Franco Citti (usually with bright red hair) plays the devil in Canterbury, an unrepentant sinner and homosexual in Decameron and a magical demon in Arabian Nights. Ninneto Davoli (Pasolini’s former lover), is the toothy, curly-haired clown who bursts into tears or laughter, or else stares, dumbfounded, at new things he encounters. Pasolini himself also appears in small — but central — roles arabian-nightsin his own movies — as Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, or as a master painter in The Decameron, who says his art is never as good as what appears in his dreams.

Arabian Nights was shot in Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran and Nepal, and to say the locations are breathtakingly beautiful doesn’t do them justice. It’s mind-boggling, ranging from lunar landscapes and strange curved mud homes, to cavernous, white-and-blue tiled cathedrals, and ancient wooden Nepali shrines. And the faces of the local actors and extras add still more beauty and authenticity to the locations. (A collection of still photos from this film by Roberto Villa is on display now at the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto.)

Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination is playing now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; details on tiff.net. Beginning next Thursday is the CFF a festival of low-budget and independent Canadian films at the Royal:  go to canfilmfest.ca for more information. And cult favourite The Room is playing at the Carlton starting tonight.

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

Eastern Europe at TIFF13. Films reviewed: The Burning Bush, Ida, Le Grand Cahier

Posted in Communism, Cultural Mining, Czech Republic, Drama, Hungary, Movies, Nazi, Nun, Poland, Prague Spring, TIFF, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 20, 2013

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

Eastern Europe used to have a specific meaning — not so much geographical as political. It meant the countries cossacksbehind the iron curtain. Western Europe was allied with the US, Eastern Europe with the Soviet Union. And it meant the barrier to those scary “Asiatic” hordes waiting to swarm, en masse, across Western Europe to enslave us all.

Now, though, there is no eastern Europe anymore. Just Europe. Maybe mittel-Europe if you want to be fancy about it. But the old Eastern Europe lives on in the minds and films of the countries that suffered the brunt of two World Wars, and both Nazi and Stalinist occupations.

So, this week I’m looking at some really good movies, all from Eastern Europe, all from TIFF. They come from the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary: all historical dramas, two set in the 1960s and one in 1944.

TIFF Burning Bush1The Burning Bush

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

In January, 1969, Jan Palach – a history student at Prague’s Charles University – walks into Wenceslaus square with a bucket. He pours the liquid all over himself then sets himself on fire. He’s rushed to a hospital to treat his burns, but is barely alive. He immediately becomes a symbol of Czech opposition to the invasion of the country by Russian tanks to crush the short-lived Prague Spring.

The Party overlords want his story silenced, or the narrative stripped of any political significance. The Czech investigator looking into the case doesn’t want the Russians to impose martial law. His political allies at the university – students and some professors – want his story told. And his family – his older brother and his mother, the ticket seller at a remote train station – are devastated when they discover what happens.

burningbush_04

But when a privileged party hack makes the papers when he states Jan Palach not only was working for the west, but never intended to burn himself alive. Jan’s steadfast mother decides to sue the man who made the speech, with the help of a sympathetic lawyer, a woman, and a young idealistic university student. But the wrath of the party is let loose all around the main characters, with midnight phone calls, men in black cars parked outside their homes, and mysterious disappearances.

The Burning Bush is an epic, four-hour-long story, (originally made as a Czech mini-series, in four, one-hour parts.) It has many diverse plot lines and dozens of characters. It alternates between the hope Jan Palach’s action inspired, and the dread of authoritarian rule that fought against him and his allies.

But it stands up beautifully all-together. The director, the renowned Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, Olivier Olivier, In Darkness) follows this gripping story all the way through. It had me glued to the screen.

Ida_01_mediumIda

Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) was an orphaned baby in WWII Poland, left at a nunnery near Lodz. She wears a plain grey dress and covers her hair. She’s quiet and obedient. Now 16, she’s ready to take her vows, become a nun, but Mother Superior insists first she speak to her only known relative, her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). But why?

Wanda is a woman of the world. She wears lipstick, smokes cigarettes and listens to jazz.

And she sleeps with younger men she picks up in bars. She’s cold, cynical and bitter. She used to be a high-ranked communist party prosecutor, though she seems to have lost her status. And she’s Jewish.

Anna discovers she is too, and her real name is Ida. Wanda advises herida_04

Ida wants to see her parents’ grave. Wanda laughs: Jews who died in the war have no graves! But the two of them head out to the small town. The family that took over their home stonewalls them and says Jews never lived there. But does he know what happened to her parents? Never heard of them.

Wanda delves deeper. Ida starts to discover her own hidden history. Wanda warms toward her – Ida is just like her sister, with her red hair, and three dimples when she smiles. Ida dips her toe into the real world (jazz, alcohol, cigarettes, men). She has to decide between cosmopolitan urban Poland and a cloistered life behind the walls.

Ida is beautifully shot in black and white on a 4×3 frame (not widescreen) like old TV shows.  Each scene stylized. It’s only 80 minutes long, but has everything it needs. It’s subtle, compact, minimalist. The two actresses – the two Agatas – as the naïve teen and her world-weary aunt are both fantastic, with fine rapport as their relationship gradually changes. This is a great movie – beautiful to look at, moving to watch.

Le Grand Cahier PosterLe Grand Cahier (A Nagy Füzet)

Dir: János Szász (based on the novel by Agota Kristov)

A soldier and his wife live in a big city (Budapest?) with their twin boys (András and László Gyémánt). Life is beautiful. Then suddenly, boom! it’s 1944, and the Germans are moving in, taking over 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 the a big black ledger – the Grand Cahier of the title – and they promise to record everything that happens.

Grandmother – fat, gruff, unmannered – is known as the witch by the locals. She has no friends, and takes care of the farm all by herself. “I’ll put them to work – they don’t eat for free.” The twins – dressed in navy peacoats and clean white shirts — are terrified by the evil witch. They have one book to read – the bible – but they use it for memorization and grammar skills not for prayers.

The boys decide in order to survive the war they have to be impervious to pain, hunger, and remorse. They refuse food from Grandmother, and take turns punching and hitting each other to see who can endure the most.

They start to meet people. There’s a girl they call harelip (Orsolya Tóth) — who teaches them how to steal. A kindly Jewish shoemaker gives them boots. Then there’s 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 the wartime atrocities and start to kill: first insects, le grand cahier_01_mediumworking their way up the food chain. Will they become killers themselves, just like the people around them? Or will they retain a sense of morality?

Le Grand Cahier is an amazing, rich, and disturbing coming-of-age story, told through the twins’ eyes.  The two boys — undifferentiated, nameless —  give a mythical, novelistic view of wartime life under the Nazi occupation. The movie follows them until the end of the war, in a gripping unexpected adventure. You should see this one when it comes out.

The Burning Bush, Ida, and Le Grand Cahier, all played at TIFF13 – keep an eye open for these three films. Also worth mentioning are two movies whose titles are self-explanatory. A documentary about a dissident theatrical troop that uses its performances to challenge the authoritarian Belarus government: Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (Madeleine Sackler); and a drama about an Australian woman who discovers the hotel in Serbian Bosnia she slept in was the site of unspeakable war crimes: For Those Who Can Tell no Tales,  (Jasmila Zbanic, who previously directed the excellent Grbavica (2006).)

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

August 10, 2012. Angsty White Men. Movies reviewed: Oslo, August 31st, Killer Joe, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby

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.

Hey white guys out there — do you rule the world, cause all the trouble, and carry the guilt on your shoulders? (It seemed so on the news last night). Well, this week I’m looking at three movies about white guys, and the bitter angst of responsibility, fear of failure, and the terrible crimes we are responsible for.

One’s a Norwegian drama about a guy in his 30s, forced to confront the world outside his addiction centre; there’s a crime drama about a guy in his 20s who considers turning to murder to solve his own debts; and an American documentary about an ethical family man… who played a part in some of his country’s worst war crimes.

Oslo, August 31st

Dir: Joachim Trier

Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a wiry, intense intellectual in his mid-thirties. He is let out of a drug rehab centre for a day after a long stay. The movie follows his encounters with family, friends, party-goers, and strangers in homes, offices, parks and cafes.

Anders is not your “normal drug addict” (if there is such a thing); he’s successful at picking up women, has (or once had) a relaxed self-confidence at social gatherings, and is much more comfortable debating Proustian aesthetics than sitting at moderated addiction self-help groups. But his intelligence, razor wit, and nuanced reactions are not enough.

He just can’t face the outside world. He finds himself rejected or completely blanked by a lot of the people – his old friends and family — he tries to speak to. But he is so filled with despair and self-loathing that he seems to sabotage his future, even when things seem to be going right. Because he’s sure there is no future: he blew his chances of a promising career and family life and he can never get back to them.

I don’t do justice to this beautiful, desperate movie by concentrating on the plot – that’s just the framework. It’s more of a travelogue of a shut-in’s chance to experience a day out in his city. He’s never happier than when he absorbs and mentally files the random conversations around him, along with the voices of past conversations echoing in his brain – sonic flashbacks. You feel for Anders but you experience the rejection and anger by those around him who he may have wronged in the past.

This is a great, gently-paced internal drama: I recommend it.

Killer Joe

Dir: William Friedkin

Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a broke loser in debt to a local good-old-boy. But, with the help of his stupid father (Thomas Haden Church) and despite resistance from his sleazy, shifty step-mother (Gina Gershon) he comes up with a plan to get the 25 grand he needs: he’ll secretly murder his mom and split the insurance with his dad. They hire a corrupt and deadly local cop known as Killer Joe (Matt McConaughey) to do the deed. But when their plans don’t go as smoothly as they thought they would, Chris’ younger sister, the appropriately-named Dottie (Juno Temple), is dragged into the mess he made.

Dottie is tetched in the head. Although now sexually an adult she still thinks of herself as a 12 year old, and likes to practice kungfu kicks while watching Chinese movies on TV. She’s given to random non-sequitors, and taking off her clothes. And the predatory Killer Joe wants to take her as sexual collateral until he gets paid.

Will Chris and Dottie remain true to their vows of loyalty? Will he escape the venomous cop and the violent local mobster? And what about their Mom?

OK – this movie has a lot going for it. It’s based on a play with a gripping plot (which may or may not translate into a good movie), interesting characters, and an excellent cast, and it’s directed by William Friedkin who brought us The Exorcist, The French Connection and the Boys in the Band. But (perhaps because of its low-budget) it wavers between good and cool, and drop-dead awful. So we get to see the (generally credible) Emile Hirsch overacting wildly in a scene where he loses it before the camera; and even worse, Juno Temple reciting her non-sequitor lines deadpan. (Come on, Juno – if Dottie’s crazy or mentally handicapped it’s not enough just to read the lines and stand around naked. It may work for a few minutes but eventually you have to act.)

On top of this, you have to sit through a relentless and excruciatingly violent scene of a sexual assault using a Kentucky Fried Chicken drumstick. While there are some good parts, the unevenness of the acting and the overblown dialogue make it hit or miss.  And this hard-core crime-drama is definitely not for the squeamish.

The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby

Dir: Carl Colby

William Colby was a career spy who worked his way to the top of the CIA from its earliest stages immediately after WWII, to the awful fallout of The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

Some background: The CIA was formed as the main international intelligence agency following WWII, and by the 1950s took on the Cold War as its main raison d’etre. So, in addition to collecting information, the CIA was also infiltrating civil rights groups, financing political parties of the right, and sabotage parties that were left of centre; and sponsoring coups to overthrow elected governments around the world (in Iran, Chile, and Vietnam, among others) in the name of democracy and the free world.

So into this world steps the educated and upper-class devout Catholic William Colby. This movie follows his career from WWII, to being an agent working out of the Embassy in Rome, funneling millions in cash to the conservative Christian Democrats to stop Italy from “falling to the Communists”.

From there he moves to Saigon, reluctantly playing a part in the coup that brought down South Vietnam’s (Catholic President Nho Dimh Dien) and the changes in policy from benevelant helper of the South Vietnamese to purveyor of napalm and agent orange (that leads to over a million deaths.) This culminates in a series of testimonies he gives before the US Senate investigating the CIAs wrong doings. (Ironically, his truthful testimony uncovers a huge load of dirty laundry the CIA had kept hidden until then.)

The film covers all angles, using period film clios and snap shots, but what’s really interesting is that the talking heads – notorious figures like Donald Rumsfeld and famed journalists like Seymour Hersh – all speak directly to the filmmaker. So their memories aren’t all about Bill Colby, they’re about “your father”. (Probably it was the director’s personal connections that allowed him access to some of these major figures.) His mother’s testimony is especially interesting. For example, she talks about going to a cocktail party and being held back from speaking with a couple they had had drinks with just the night before “ We don’t know them”. She had trouble keeping track of her husband’s web of covert deceptions.

The Man Nobody Knew is a good documentary both as an apolitical history of the CIA and as a personal bio.

The dramas Oslo, August 31st and Killer Joe open today in Toronto, and the documentary The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby, is now playing at the HotDocs Bloor St Cinema – check your local listings. Also, coming out this week on DVD and blueray is the wonderful Genie Award-winning Quebec drama, Monsieur Lazhar (Directed by Philippe Falardeau). This is a great movie – touching, tender, funny – about a French-speaking Algerian schoolteacher with a hidden, tragic past who tries to find peace teaching Montreal kids… who are recovering from their own loss.

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

October 7, 2011. Changes? Solar Taxi, Waking the Green Tiger, Restless, PLUS Planet in Focus.

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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

You’re listening to this on Friday morning but I recorded this on Wednesday, so I’m taking an intentionally neutral tone – I don’t know yet what changes the election has brought. Are people saying: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? Or: hooray! Change at last! Right to strike and no more diesel fumes! Or maybe: Hallellujah! Our prayers have brought the Tea Party to Canada with no more of them-there sexiness kidnapping our babies away and stealing our tax breaks! Or even, OMG – Look! There’s a triple rainbow, halley’s comet, a total eclipse… and hell just froze over! …if you’re a faithful Green Party supporter.

Like I said, I don’t know… But I do know that change is happening on a global scale and we ignore these changes at our own risk. So this week, I’m going to look at two informative documentaries playing at the Planet in Focus festival, and also review a new, offbeat romance film that played at TIFF.

So, what is Planet in Focus? Well, it’s an annual Toronto event that brings together video and filmmakers, environmental experts, and activists from around the world for a week-long look at what’s happening to our planet. It’s a good place for youth and adults to learn more about the environment and what to do about it.

There are some big documentaries opening and closing the festival – one, called Revenge of the Electric Car (Narrated by Tim Robbins), and another called The Whale, narrated by Ryan Reynolds about an Orca named Luna separated from his family off the coast of Vancouver.

First let’s look at the movie

Solartaxi: Around the World with the Sun.

Dir: Erik Schmitt

Louis us a Swiss-German school teacher who loves cars but doesn’t like what they’re doing to the planet, with all their inefficient carbon-burning engines, and the disgusting and dangerous emissions that come out the back end. And ever since he was a kid, he dreamed of going around the world by a sort of a race-car. So how does he reconcile his diametrically opposed goals? Well, he manages to find sponsors, battery manufacturers, a mechanic, and a builder to make him the car of his dreams. It’s a cute, low-rolling, blue-and-white three-wheeler that he hopes will carry him out of the Swiss Alps and across many continents.

And behind it is a flatbed covered in solar panels. He dubs the whole thing his “Solar Taxi” and wants to bring it to the world’s attention, that not just hybrids, but purely electric cars really do work. Here’s the thing – the solar panels being made today, aren’t strong enough to power a two-person car. But his home back in Switzerland has a lot more solar panels that feed into the power grid, so he juices up with more power on the way, but never more than he’s actually producing.

Louis has a weedy moustache and rectangular wire-rimmed glasses and a bit politically naïve; but he does manage to take it across Europe, Asia, Australia and North America, giving rides to local politicians, celebrities and movie stars along the way as he spreads the news about his car. The movie shows mainly touristy sights – like snake charmers in India, kangaroos in Australia, and TV celebs in America – but it’s a fun trip. And in China, he sees countless electric mopeds, solar panels on every roof, and even gets a red carpet laid down for his car to drive on!

Which brings us to the next movie:

Waking the Green Tiger

Dir: Gary Marcuse

Is China a green paradise? Or an environmental nightmare? I think the answer’s somewhere in between. This movie gives the issue a balanced look.

In the early days of the People’s Republic, environmentalism didn’t exist. Any potential problem could be solved by the peasants and the workers putting their efforts together and working with all their might. Except… it didn’t always work. In the early 60’s Mao declared there was a shortage of steel, and no factory’s big enough to smelt all the iron the country needed. So they said if collective farm made their own little factory they could all work together and make it happen. Unfortunately, most of the stuff it produced was unusable. And when they decided that the sparrows were eating too much grain they told all the farmers to clap their hands and shake their trees until all the sparrows fell to the ground. Well, they did manage to tire out and kill all the sparrows, but without birds eating the insects there was a horrible plague of locusts that destroyed that year’s crop. So perhaps good intentions, but horribly environmentally unsound practices.

So this movie traces that period to the present, and how the growing awareness of environmental and cultural destruction taking place is awakening a huge number of people as to what’s going on and what they can do to change it. There are thousands of environmental NGO’s in China, some maverick journalists and filmmakers showing the country what’s behind the curtain, and local activists who are fighting the huge corporations and government entities there building dams, mines and rerouting lakes and rivers.

It focuses on the Salween or Nu River and in particular the Tiger Leap gorge, a dramatically beautiful canyon where they might be building a series of dams, and moving out the people who live around there. The Salween river is one of the world’s biggest free-flowing rivers, surrounded by unusual monkeys, diverse wildlife and ecosystems, and unique languages and cultures that exist only there. So, a filmmaker, Shi Lihong, took some of the Salween villagers in a bus across the country to talk to a similar place on the Mekong river. When they saw and spoke to the people there, how they were living now, (compared to what their lives were like before they were evicted) they were horrified and galvanized to take action back home. And the documentary itself, along with a series of newspaper articles, captured the interest of many people across China who also felt it would be an environmental disaster.

This is a great documentary showing the grass-roots environmental campaigns and public reactions in a vast country we know very little about. Using archival footage, great Mao-era propaganda posters and photos, and interviews with contemporary journalists and government officials, it goves a good overview of what’s happening right now in China, and what people are doing about it.

Next, here’s another movie about people who are restless… but in a different way.

Restless

Dir: Gus van Sant

Enoch (Henry Hopper) is a teenaged boy who only wears black and white, and hides his emotions. He talks, plays battleship, and seeks advice from Hiroshi, the ghost of a WWII kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase). He lives with an aunt since his parents died, never going to school, and trying never to show emotions. For some reason, he enjoys going to funerals and memorial services. Well at one of these funerals he’s caught by pretty Annabelle, (Mia Wasikowska). Although an odd match, they eventually hit it off. But here’s the catch – and maybe there’s another funeral to crash on the horizon. You see, Annabelle has cancer and her future does not look great.

Can the two cute blond High Schoolers make a morbid but happy life together – dressing in funny 1920’s era costumes, walking around cemeteries, and acting out potentially romantic death scenes? Or will sad, real life disturb their fantasies?

This is a nice little romantic drama, and a bit of a tear-jerker. I thought she was much more convincing than he was – she’s a much better actor – she lights up the screen, while he seems to drag it down a little. The whole movie feels like any Japanese girl’s manga: a good place to moon over sad, sad love with some witty humour, a lot of posturing and pretty costumes thrown in. I admit it did make me cry — it was touching — but it didn’t seem up to the level of most Gus Van Sant movies.

Restless is now playing, and Planet in Focus starts next Wednesday – check planetinfocus.org for listings and times. And look out for the ImagineNative festival, coming soon!

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining . com.

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