Dark TIFF. Films reviewed: We Are Never Alone, Manchester by the Sea, The Fixer PLUS Pop VR at #TIFF16 and FIVARS

Posted in Czech Republic, Drama, Family, Journalism, Movies, Romania, Sex Trade, US by CulturalMining.com on September 9, 2016

kathebattle_still_02Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Take a trip down to King street between Spadina and University and you’ll see TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, in full swing, with celebrities everywhere and free concerts and events. Featured this year for the first time are movies not invasion_03-1from Hollywood, nor India’s Bollywood, but from Nollywood, Nigeria’s thriving movie industry. Another new attraction at TIFF is POP VR, short films and documentaries shot in 3-d, and 360: movies you watch all around you. Using special headgear, kathebattle_still_05earphones and a smartphone attached to the front, you can see things like a cartoon about aliens, a doc about a feminist movement in India to enter sacred temples, and a Cirque de Soleil performance that puts you right in the middle of a Chinese sword fight! VR is still developing, but it’s a force to be reckoned with. This week I’m talking about three great dark movies playing now at TIFF. There’s a Czech village purple with paranoia, a man in New England with a dark history, and some yellow journalism in Romania.

miroslav-hanus-left-and-daniel-doubrava-right-in-we-are-never-alone-courtesy-of-wideWe Are Never Alone
Dir: Petr Vacla

Two families live in a remote small town in the Czech Republic built around a fortress-like prison. One is headed by a burly single dad (Miroslav Hanus), a prison guard, with a small son. He believes minorities and ex-cons are out to get him, and is writing a rightwing nationalist manifesto to rid the country of subversives and Roma. He longs to see those strong Czech bridges and dams being built again and the factories producing more widgets. In another family, a hypochondriac dad (Karl Roden) spends his time trying to photograph his back with a cellphone. He desperately seeks evidence of cancer. His wife (Lenka Vlasakova) stares lenka-vlasakova-left-and-zdenek-godla-right-in-we-are-never-alone-courtesy-of-widelongingly out the window all day of a roadside convenience store where she works.

Meanwhile a swarthy part-time pimp and his stand-offish junkie girlfriend drive around in a broken down red cart purchasing garish gifts. But things go really wrong when the two paranoid men meet, and begin to blend their strange theories and conspiracies. And daniel-doubrava-in-we-are-never-alone-courtesy-of-wideunbeknownst to them both, their young sons are gaslighting their dads, trying to drive them crazy, by secretly leaving increasingly large dead animals on their own doorsteps. Things start to spiral into increasingly awfulness as the three groups interact.

We are Never Alone is a dark story of nationalism, paranoia and apathy win modern-day Czech Republic. It has great acting, an unpredictable plot, and, thankfully, an underlying streak of absurdist comedy that lets usavoid the dread of the characters’ lives.

76e05278-81a6-4fc7-97b4-861c73eee46eManchester by the Sea
Dir: Kenneth Lonergan

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a handyman who lives alone in Quincy, just outside Boston. But he’s called back to his hometown in Manchester, when his divorced brother John dies. It’s up to him to inform his nephew Patrick that his dad is dead. Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is 16 years old, on the school hockey team and in a band. Lee and Casey were always been close, until something terrible happened, and Lee left town. Now, suddenly and against his wishes, he finds himself Patrick’s de facto dad. It’s written in his brother’s will. He doesn’t know how to

MBTS_3869.CR2raise a teen. He did have kids once, but that was a long time ago.

At first he acts like Chris’s buddy – lets him drink, take girls home, say or do whatever he likes. But gradually reality sets in and Lee realizes he has to do the right thing: either raise him properly or find someone else who can. Trouble is Lee’s reputation is dirt in this town, and no one will hire him. Ghosts of his past keep popping up, like Randi, his ex-alcoholic, ex-wife (Michelle Williams).

Although this may sounds like a typical movie, it’s not. The form, emotions and acting set it apart. It’s edited in a chop-up style, with flashbacks coming unannounced right after a scene set in the present. So you have to pay attention. Emotionally, it’s a devastating tearjerker, as the hidden past is gradually revealed. The whole film is exquisitely structured, with certain scenes repeated but with new, subtle variations and revelations. And the acting – especially Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges – is just so good. Oscar good. Great movie.

fixer_01The Fixer (Fixeur)
Dir: Adrian Sitaru

Radu (Tudor Istodar) is a journalist living in Bucharest with his wife and small son, He comes across an exclusive news story – a real scoop. A young woman named Anca (Diana Spatarescu)
has escaped from her Parisian pimp and made her way back to a small town in northern Romania. If they can track her down, a first hand interview could expose the huge network of underage 14138013_1063443357080084_3733967339935546785_otrafficking across Europe. Agence France Press sends their trip TV reporters to capture her on film, telling her story. But that’s easier said than done. Radu has to call in favours, smoothe out troubles, and serve as 10256865_778397828917973_7636613034058641716_otranslator, guide and journalist for Axel (Mehdi Nebbou) the French reporter. He is stymied by local thugs, a recalcitrant mother superior sheltering the girl in a nunnery, and even Anca herself, who doesn’t trust the French reporters. And as the story develops he starts to wonder: do journalists want to expose stories for the public good… or merely to boost their ratings?

The Fixer is another shocking movie. Like many Romanian movies it is hyper-realistic and slow to develop, but when it does — wow! It slams you and makes you question what you thought was happening. Distinctive cinematography, and again, great acting, The Fixer is a potent indictment of com-samsung-vrvideo-20160726-232455-1024x920investigative journalism.

We are Never Alone, The Fixer, and Manchester by the Sea are all playing at TIFF. Go to tiff.net for more information. And for another view of augmented and virtual reality, check out fivars, another Toronto VR festival that takes beyond where Pokemon-go can go. Go to fivars.net for details.

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

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