Dogs and toys. Films reviewed: Child’s Play, Paris is Burning, Dogman

Posted in 1980s, Animals, Crime, documentary, Drama, Horror, Italy, Kids, LGBT, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 21, 2019

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

Pets, toys and dressing up are the innocent parts of childhood that supply endless bouts if nostalgic memories. That’s also what makes them useful fodder for shocking or surprising scenes in adult movies. This week I’m looking at three movies – a horror, a doc and a drama. There are drag balls run by fashion houses, a dog kennel run inside a house, and a kid’s toy ruining another kid’s home.

Child’s Play

Dir: Lars Klevberg

Andy (Gabriel Bateman) is a hearing-impaired kid who has just moved into a low-rent apartment. No dad, no friends, no one to keep him company except a mean old cat. His mom (the hilarious Aubrey Plaza) is trying her best to raise him, but her thankless job in a big box store takes up most of her time. So when a disgruntled customer returns a defective new toy – a first-generation robot named Buddi – she sneaks it home and gives it to Andy as an early birthday present. Buddi – who calls himself Chucky – is the ultimate high tech best friend. Like Siri or Alexa, Chucky records everything Andy says or does and adjusts his personality to suit it. Problem is, this particular toy has a defect – it’s missing the digital safeguards that stop it from things like using foul language.

Andy starts to make friends with people in his building, like Detective Mike (a hapless cop who visits his elderly mother down the hall) and juvenile delinquents Pugg and Falyn. Together, they watch campy slasher movies on TV, laughing at the gory parts. But what they don’t realize is Chucky takes in everything at face value. Lacking a moral compass, the robotic toy sees that violence makes Andy happy, so he begins to replicate the actions just to please his best friend.

And as the unexplained dead bodies start to pile up, it’s up to Andy to stop the toy from killing everyone around him. Will anyone believe Andy that a kid’s toy is actually a homicidal maniac? And is Andy strong enough to stop him?

Child’s Play is an updated remake of the classic horror movie from the 1980s and its many sequels… and I think this version is even better. In the original, a voodoo spell puts an adult criminal’s evil soul into a kid’s inanimate doll who cynically manipulates the hapless child. But in this version Chucky is an actual robotic kid who genuinely wants to please his best friend, but is missing the parts that tell right from wrong. It’s also a cautionary tale about the dangers of the rampant technology, surveillance, and artificial intelligence controlled by huge corporations. It is also hilarious, with great acting, and horrifically grotesque scenes used for comic effect. It includes constant pop culture references, from Tupac to driverless cars. Child’s Play is a perfect dose of schlock for a Saturday night.

I liked this one a lot.

Paris is Burning

Dir: Jennie Livingston

If you’re looking for a way to celebrate LGBTTQQIAAP Pride Day with a movie, you cannot do better than watching the documentary Paris is Burning. Shot in the late 1980s when HiV was decimating the gay community, this movie shows the drag balls run in NY City by various competitive houses. It is shot from the inside, not as exploitation but as celebration of the players. It features the queens and kings of drag, mainly black and brown people, back when their world was kept down low. Since this film was made, many of its subjects have died of plague or were murdered on the streets (black and brown transwomen are  particularly vulnerable to violence.) These are people who have had an enormous influence on mainstream TV, music, fashion, language and culture.

Paris is Burning is definitely one of the ten best documentaries ever made, so if you have a chance, be sure to check out this newly-restored 4K version.

Dogman

Dir: Matteo Garrone

Marcello (Marcello Fonte) is a hardworking, dimunitive man in his thirties who lives in a run-down section of Naples. He is dark, wiry and scruffy. Marcelo is own as the Dogman, also the kennel where he cares for and grooms dogs. He is a respected member of the local business association and shares drinks with the other men in the piazza. And he hangs out with his best friend Simone (Eduardo Pesce). But friend ship doesn’t clearly describe their relationship.

Simone is a musclebound bruiser, a competitive boxer and cokehead twice Marcelo’s size. He bullies him, steals from him and forces him into embarrassing and often dangerous situations. Marcelo regards him with equal parts fear and awe. Simone is a selfstyled gangsta who needs a constant flow of cash to fuel his extravagent tastes and drug habit. Marcelo plays along, lending a hand for petty burglary in expensive mansions. But when Simone wants him to rob a shop in his own neighbourhood, he has to take a stand. Can Marcelo use his skill with animals to stop Simone from ruining his life? Or will this alpha dog prove to be too big to tame?

Dogman is a terrific drama, Matteo Garrone’s latest, about the period of unequal friendship of two men and tied to local loyalty. It’s funny tender, surprising and moving. Like all of Garrone’s movies, it’s shot on location in the same poor Naples neighbourhood, and with lots of local faces and dialect. Many of the roles are played by non-actors which gives it a gritty realism you can’t always get with movie stars. This is a great film.

Paris is Burning is now playing with Dogman at the Tiff Bell Lightbox. Child’s Play also opens 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.

Daniel Garber talks with immigration attorney Judy Wood about the new biopic Saint Judy

Posted in 2000s, Biopic, Drama, L.A., Migrants, Movies, Refugees, Resistance, Trial, US, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 14, 2019

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

It’s the early 2000s in L.A. Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan), an immigration lawyer and single mom, discovers a shocking case. A young woman – a school teacher who defied Taliban oppression in Afghanistan – is incarcerated in California awaiting deportation. But sending her back to her home village would be like a death sentence. Why isn’t she considered a refugee? Trouble is women are not a minority group, and her religion, language and nationality – Muslim and Pashtun – are the same as her oppressors. Which means she’s not a “persecuted minority” and doesn’t qualify for asylum. What can she do?

Saint Judy is a new biopic based on real events that tells the story of this important trial. It centres on Judy Wood, an immigration lawyer – still practising in LA – who changed the Law of Asylum.

I spoke to Judy in Los Angeles via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Saint Judy has its Canadian Premier on Thursday, June 20 in Oakville, and its Toronto VOD launch on Friday, June 21 at the Revue Cinema in a benefit for Sistering.  Judy Wood will appear in panel discussionsat both screenings.

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Women in the Arts. Films reviewed: Wild Nights with Emily, The Souvenir, Mouthpiece

Posted in 1800s, 1980s, Addiction, Drama, drugs, LGBT, Movies, Poetry, Romance, Toronto, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 7, 2019

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

Spring festival season continues with the Toronto Japanese Film Festival which starts today and the Italian Contemporary Film Festival beginning on Thursday.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about women in the arts. There’s a poet in New England who can’t get published, a filmmaker in Sunderland who can’t finish her movie, and a writer in Toronto whose mind is torn asunder.

Wild Nights with Emily

Wri/Dir: Madeleine Olnek

It’s the 1860s in Amherst Massachusetts. Emily Dickinson (Molly Shannon) is an unmarried woman who rarely ventures outside. She has everything she needs her big wooden home. She can wear the same white dress every day, listen to piano music, and bake shortbread, which she gives to the local kids who gather outside her window. And whenever a thought occurs to her she scribbles it down on a scrap of paper. But these are more than random thoughts, they are poems, and ones that flout conventional writing. They don’t have titles, they don’t rhyme and they’re written in free verse (before that term even existed).

That’s what she does during the day. Night time is whole other ball game. You see, far from reclusive and repressed, Emily Dickinson has a passionate ongoing relationship with her sister in law, Susan. Susan (Susan Ziegler) is a childhood friend who married her brother Austin, but has a sexless marriage. Instead she shares her bed with Emily. And much of Emily’s poetry consists of love letters sent to Susan. But despite all her efforts, just a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime. Instead they were gathered together by her brother’s mistress Mabel (Amy Seimetz).

Wild Nights with Emily is a historical comedy, but it’s far from a spoof. It’s a meticulously reworked view of Emily Dickinson. It restores her same-sex relationship that had previously been expunged and erased – literally – from her original manuscripts. The actual handwritten poems appear on the screen in this movue, at times word by word. While at times the film has an academic, PBS feel to it, and the acting is somewhat mannered, I liked it anyway.

It manages to render her wonderful poetry to the big screen while keeping a light and irreverent tone.

The Souvenir

Wri/Dir: Joanna Hogg

It’s the early 1980s in England.

Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is a well-to-do young filmmaker in her early twenties. She’s smart and cute with an asymmetrical boyish haircut. She’s trying to shoot her first movie in the northern port of Sunderland. She observes all, quietly taking snapshots and recording film footage all around her, presenting her plans to the profs and producers she has to deal with. And she rents out space in her beautifully mirrored whitewalled apartment. But when she meets Anthony (Tom Burke) her world changes.

Anthony is older and more worldly than Julie, a louche dandy into velvet robes and pocket squares. He’s tall, pale and speaks in a blasé, elongated drawl. He gives her gifts of scanty lingerie and garters that fit his fantasies. They escape by train to Venice for sexy romps among renaissance frescos. She’s in his thrall.

But something is not quite right. She comes home early one day to find a stranger wandering around her home. Anthony is in constant need of cash. And unknown burglars ransacked her apartment stealing her jewelry and movie camera. Something’s off about Anthony. Hmm… worldly, pale, intense, elaborate clothing, secretive. Is Anthony a vampire? Nothing so exotic. He’s just a run-of-the-mill junkie, and threatens to pull her into that world. What will happen to their relationship? And will Julie ever complete her film?

The Souvenir is a beautifully shot, well-acted, semi-autobiographical drama. It incorporates long takes of natural scenes, uses mirrors and reflections, great period costumes and a nice eighties soundtrack. It combines Joana Hogg’s older film work and photos with new footage. So why don’t I like it?

It could be the genre – I’m not a great fan of addiction movies. Or it could be the endless conversations about nothing in particular. Or the lack of humour. Or the overly-restrained dialogue. But my main problem is it’s boring. While I can sympathize with the main character, there just isn’t enough going on. The filmmaking scenes and cuts to the movie-within-the-movie detract from the main story… which isn’t all that interesting to begin with. Two hours of nothing, however well executed, is just too long.

Mouthpiece

Dir: Patricia Rozema

It’s winter in downtown Toronto. Casandra (Amy Nostbakken, Nora Sadava) is a 30-year-old punk. Her idea of dressing up is a black sweater without moth holes. She greets her dates with a snarl and tells sex partners she isn’t into comitment. She works as a writer/bartender. But when her mother (Maev Beaty) dies suddenly from a stroke she is faced with her hardest piece ever… She has two days to write a eulogy for her mother’s funeral. Can she overcome her guilt, anger and self doubt in time to give a sweet heartfelt eulogy? Or will the upcoming funeral turn into the fiasco that everyone dreads?

Mouthpiece sounds like a conventional drama, but it’s anything but. Cass is played by two women simultaneously, noticeable only to themselves and the audience. The two halves of Cassandra’s soul sleep together in spoon fashion, share a bath and keep each other in check. But when there’s a crisis or internal debate all breaks loose, with the two Casses wrestling, punching and shouting, doing practically anything to get the other side to shut up. It’s a constant pas de deux, at times moving in absolute symmetry, or scrambling and climbing over each other like puppies.

Mouthpiece was originally a stage play written and performed by the two Cassandras, Nostbakken and Sadava. This explains their flawless fluidity of movement, their perfect give and take as the two sides compete and coalesce into one soul, movement that only comes from repeated performances. And as a movie, Rozema manages to capture a closeup intimacy you might not catch on stage. Mouthpiece works perfectly on the screen as a beautiful, funny and moving film.

Mouthpiece and Wild Nights with Emily all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And The Souvenir playing as part of a Joanna Hogg retrospective with TIFF Cinematheque.

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

Highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow. Films reviewed: The Hustle, Tolkien, Be My Star

Posted in 1910s, 2000s, Berlin, Biopic, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Germany, Orphans, UK, War, Women, WWI by CulturalMining.com on May 10, 2019

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

Some people mistake upper-class and working-class characters with highbrow and lowbrow films. This week I’m looking at three movies with upper-class and working class-characters. There’s a middlebrow biopic about an orphan at a private school, an arthouse drama about working-class kids in Berlin, and a lowbrow comedy about a boorish con artist at an elite resort.

The Hustle

Dir: Chris Addison

Josephine (Anne Hathaway) is a British aristocrat who lives in a cliffside mansion in Beaumont-sur-mer, a casino resort on the French riviera. Fluent in many languages, the high-stakes gambler and seductress knows all the shakers and movers on the Côte d’Azur. But her life of luxury is disrupted by a hefty and boorish Aussie named Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who is passing through town. Penny is a small-time con artist whose M.O. involves catfishing men online using stock photos, then tricking them out of more money when they meet face to face. Penny is arrested mid-scam, tossed into prison and kicked out of town. What she doesn’t know is she’s been played– the policewoman who arrested her worked actually for another con artist, none other than Josephine! When she discovers the truth, Penny and Josephine agree on a competition: whoever succeeds in scamming a random man out of half a million dollars can stay in the resort, and the other one must leave. Their victim is an innocent, Mark Zuckerberg look-alike (Alex Sharp). Which of them will win over the tech millionaire?

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because The Hustle is a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but with Anne Hathaway in Michael Caine’s role and Rebel Wilson replacing Steve Martin. Recasting successful comedies with women in formerly male roles is popular these days, but doesn’t always work. But in this case it sure does. The Hustle is better, funnier and more subversive than Scoundrels. Hathaway is clever as the multilingual aristocrat, but it’s Rebel Wilson who steals every scene with her physical humour, facial contortions and bawdy language. She is brilliant. Maybe the concept of con artists on the Riviera is a bit dated, but it still had me laughing loudly during most of the movie.

I rarely endorse comedies, but I found this one hilarious.

Tolkien

Dir: Dome Karukoski

It’s the early 20th century in Birmingham, England. Young J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult: The Favourite, Warm Bodies) is an orphan who finds himself in impecunious circumstances. Luckily, a wealthy Catholic priest, Father Francis (Colm Meaney) takes him under his wing and sponsors him to study at a prestigious school called King Edward’s. He was home schooled by his mother before she died, leaving his head filled with stories of mythical dragons and elves. He may be the poor kid, but he immediately impresses everybody with his knowledge of Latin, Old English and mythical languages he creates just for himself.

After initial misgivings, he falls in with three other boys: Christopher, Geoffrey and Robert. Together they form the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, a four-man group that hangs out in tea shops discussing art, music and poetry as well as concepts of bravery, fellowship and loyalty. He meets a beautiful young woman named Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), also an orphan, who lives in his boarding house. His friendship with the boys grows, even as his love for the piano-playing Edith deepens.

He is eventually accepted to Oxford on a scholarship, but is separated from Edith and some of his friends. And his world is torn apart by WWI, when they are all sent off to the trenches, where he witnesses carnage and total destruction. Who will live and who will die? And will he ever see Edith again?

Tolkien is about the boyhood and youth of JRR Tolkien, long before he wrote the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The movie flashes back and forth between memories of his growing up, and the film’s “present day” when he is stuck in the trenches of The Battle of the Somme in WWI. And it gives a a few hints at his future as a writer of the famous fantasy books. He imagines fire breathing dragons on the battle front, with the scenery like Mordor. The four friends are like Frodo, Sam and the gang in The Fellowship of the Ring. It also touches on Wagner’s Ring Cycle’s influence on Tolkien’s Ring trilogy. So it’s kind of interesting to watch if you’re into his books. And I liked the period costumes, scenery and good acting.

But the movie never seems to go anywhere. It falls into the category of biopics about revered subjects where you can’t show passion, adventure or sex, at the risk of tarnishing his pristine image. (Ironically, Tolkien’s heirs still refused to endorse the film.) No sparks in this hagiography, just a few kisses and some unrequited, longing glances.

Be My Star (Mein Stern) 2001

Wri/Dir: Valeska Grisebach

Nicole (Nicole Gläser) is 14-year-old girl who lives in Berlin with her two sisters, Monique and Janine. She’s at a turning point in her life. It’s the age when you try out a job (she chooses to intern at a bakery because she likes the way it smells). She’s also becoming sexually aware. First she dates any guy who asks her, but later becomes more discerning. She approaches Schöps (Christopher Schöps) a soccer-playing teen to give it a go. He’s interning as a plumber and gets his own apartment. They have cigarettes, alcohol and privacy to share, but they don’t quite know what to do. Is this love, and are they a real couple? Or just a couple of kids?

Be My Star is a very sweet and beautiful coming-of-age story made 20 years ago. It’s acted by kids using their real names, in a verité style and setting, but it’s clearly a drama not a documentary. It’s also an excellent example of the Berlin School of filmmaking. This tender and intimate examination of first love (and first break up) is realistic and moving. Its showing as part of Past Forward: German Directors Before Cannes, a series of seminal works by German directors who later became famous.

I really liked this one.

Tolkien and The Hustle both open today in Toronto. Check your local listings. And Goethe Films is showing Be My Star one time only at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on May 14th at 6:30.

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

Back from the Dead. Films reviewed: Pet Sematary, The Invisibles, Amazing Grace

Posted in 1940s, 1970s, Animals, Berlin, Christianity, documentary, Drama, Dreams, Germany, Holocaust, Horror, L.A., Music by CulturalMining.com on April 5, 2019

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

We all know people are born and they die, things come and go. But every once in a while things and people we believe are long gone seem to come back to life. This week I’m looking at three very different movies about coming back from the dead. There’s Aretha’s gospel concert buried since 1972; a documentary about young German Jews who hide in Nazi Berlin till 1945; and a horror movie about pets who come back from their graves in small town Maine.

Pet Sematary

Dir: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer

(Based on the novel by Stephen King)

Louis (Jason Clarke) is a Boston doctor suffering from ER burnout. He’s overworked, overstressed, and overtired. So to relax and spend more time with his family he takes and easy job in the quaint small town of Ludlow, Maine. He’s there with his nervous, religious wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two kids, little Gage, and his pride and joy Ellie. Ellie (Jeté Laurence) is an eight year old who loves ballet dancing and her furry cat Church (short for Winston Churchill). Their old wooden house is on a sprawling estate in a small forest with a high speed highway running through it. But their quiet lives are disrupted by some strange events. First, when a young patient of Louis dies in his care after a car accident, the dead boy seems to return, over and over to talk to him in his dreams.

Then Ellie sees kids from town in spooky animal masks burying dead pets on their property. It’s an ancient custom, explains kindly old Jud (John Lithgow) their nearest neighbour. He’s lived there all his life and understands the local lore. So when Ellie is despondent when her beloved cat is run over Jud tells Louis a secret. There’s powerful magic up on the mountain beyond the pet cemetery. Bury the cat under a cairn and he will come back to you from the dead. Sure enough, Jud is right. But it isn’t cute and loveable anymore. When you play with the the forces of good and evil, of life and death, bad things will surely happen.

Pet Sematary – a remake of the movie based on the Stephen King novel – is suitably scary. The small, excellent cast nicely contained in a single location give it a good cabin-in-the-woods quality, but it’s scariness is less adventurous. It uses the age-old techniques – spooky dreams, little “boo!” moments, even twists on the overused images of the mirror in medicine cabinet, and the dark room in the basement. And then it degenerates from scariness into outright, Bride-of-Chucky kitsch. I enjoyed Pet Sematary as a good, old-skool horror movie, just don’t expect anything new.

The Invisibles

Dir: Claus Räfle

It’s 1943, in Nazi Berlin, and Joseph Goebels has officially declares his Germany’s capital judenfrei – free of Jews. But he doesn’t realize that 7,000 Jewish Germans still lived their hidden in plain view. This docudrama tells four true stories about young people who survived the Holocause while living in Berlin. They don’t hide in an attic like Anne Frank’s family; instead they continue their lives right in the middle of everything.  Cioma (Max Mauff) sells all his possessions and poses as someone whose house was bombed in Köln, moving to new vacant rooms each day. He finds work for a high placed civil servant forging ID papers. Hanni (Alice Dwyer) bleaches her hair, calls herself Hannelore and hangs out in dark movie theatres in the Kurfürstendamm. Ruth (Ruby O. Fee) and a friend find jobs as maid and nanny for the kids of Nazi officers. And Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is placed with former colleagues of his dad a doctor, and dressing in hitler’s youth uniforms. But there are informants and Gestapo agents everywhere, searching for people like them. Who will survive?

The Invisibles is a fascinating retelling of largely unknown stories. It’s part documentary – the film regularly cuts to interviews in German with the actual people it happened to – and part drama with the thrilling stories replayed by well-known young actors.

Fascinating and thrilling stories, well told.

Amazing Grace

Dir: Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliott

Its 1972 at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, LA.

Reverend James Cleveland is leading a very special service for his devout parishioners. None other than the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin herself will be performing, alongside the Southern California Community Choir. The congregation is urged to feel the spirit, clap their hands, and get up from their seats and dance. But wait a minute — since when has pop sensation Aretha Franklin beena gospel singer? The answer is: all her life. Her father is the famous Detroit Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, and she was touring churches with her amazing voice since the age of six.

This concert became a huge hit album – many people say it’s Aretha’s best recordings – and the movie includes her back-up musicians, the choir, and the audience, including some very famous people, like Mick Jagger, gospel singer Clara Ward and lots of others I couldn’t quite recognize. A beautiful, intensely moving concert and church service. Interestingly, it’s been sitting in film cans, unscreened until now. For some reason, Aretha blocked its release her whole life, perhaps because it is so personal to her, perhaps because the sound and images were never synchronized. That’s all fixed now.

It’s a grainy hyper-realistic verité-style film that shows everything: retakes, the cameramen, the soundboard, the director running around pointing, and Aretha in a sparkling white gown, sweating under the hot lights. If you’re a fan of Aretha Franklin, and want to experience those two days of 1972, you must see Amazing Grace.

Pet Sematary and The Invisibles both open today in Toronto; check your local listings, and you can see Amazing Grace beginning next Friday.

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 Oscar-winning filmmaker László Nemes about Sunset

Posted in 1910s, Drama, Dreams, Hungary, Mysticism, Secrets, Women, WWI by CulturalMining.com on April 5, 2019

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

Photos of László Nemes by Jeff Harris

Irisz is a pretty, young milliner from Trieste who is visiting a grand hat shop in Budapest celebrating its 30th Jubilee. She is there to apply for a job, but the owner hands her a first class ticket home the moment he hears her name.

It’s Leiter, a name both famous and infamous. It’s the  name of the hat store, suppliers to the royal family, and founded by her own parents who died in a fire. But it’s also the name of a man who started the fire and murdered a count. Is he a madman… or a revolutionary? Irisz vows to find out who he is. But will the visit lead to a happy anniversary? Or is it the final sunset for the famous millinery house?

Sunset is also the name of a new film from Hungarian director Lázsló Nemes, who created the Oscar-winning Son of Saul. Sunset gives a multifaceted impression of pre-WWI Budapest, using sound, light, motion, colour and voices as experienced by Irisz. It shows the decadent Austro-Hungarian empire teetering on the brink, even as the new shining city arises. Sunset is a film filled with chaos, confusion and conflagration.

I spoke to Lázsló Nemes on location at TIFF in September, 2018. 

Sunset opens today in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Apocalypse when? Films reviewed: The Aftermath, Us

Posted in 1940s, doppelgänger, Drama, Germany, Horror, Romance, Supernatural, Thriller, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on March 22, 2019

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

When civilization faces apocalypse, authority collapses and animal insticts take over. This week I’m looking at two movies set around apocalypses. There’s a post-apocalyptic romantic drama set in the rubble of postwar Hamburg; and a pre-apocalyptic horror set in the boardwalk of Santa Cruz, California.

The Aftermath

Dir: James Kent (Based on the novel by Rhidian Brook)

It’s 1945 in occupied Hamburg, just a few months after the end of WWII. Allied bombing has reduced the city to rubble with some of the remaining houses requisitioned by military officers. Rachael (Keira Knightly), a beautiful young Englishwoman arrives by train to be reunited with her husband, Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke). They didn’t see each other much during the war, but now that it’s over maybe they can find some quiet time to talk things. No such luck.

The Colonel is busy hunting Nazi holdouts around the city – feral teenagers with the number 88 carved into their skin – for Heil Hitler – run rampant targeting occupying troups. And far from the furnished flat she expected, they are placed in an enormous mansion untouched by bombing and furnished Bauhaus style. Lewis, in an act of kindness, allows the homeowner – a handsome architect and his daughter – to stay. There’s lots of room for both families, he says. But little privacy.

The two broken families settle into an uneasy truce. Rachael hates Germans for killing their only son in the blitz, and directs her anger at Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) who built the house. He lives in the attic now with his daughter. His wife was killed by allied bombing. And little Freda (Flora Thiemann) who blames Rachael for her mother’s death, spends her time with the trümmerkinder, the kids who hide in bombed out buildings in the city centre. When she runs into the Morgans in the hallways she just hisses at them like a cat.

Tension rises to a boiling point, until one day, when Lewis away a shouting match between Stefan and Rachael… turns ino a passionate kiss! Will this turn into something bigger? Can her marriage survive? Is Stefan a Nazi? Will Freda accept Rachael into her life? And what does Rachael really want?

The Aftermath is a romance that also deals with the mourning and loss that war brings. It’s beautifully done, with an attractive cast luxuriating in their magnificent clothing, hairstyles, jewelry and interior décor. The movie looks gorgeous but the story is less satisfying. There are some scenes set in the post war ruin – actually the parts with feral nazi children are the most interesting – but mostly it’s just about relationships. It reminds me a lot of Suite Francaise, also based on a novel, set a few years earlier, with a German officer occupying French home, and similar results. Did I like it? The Aftermath starts very slowly, as if it doesn’t know where it’s going. But it picks up about halfway through and comes to an unexpected finish. Not a perfect movie, but one with lots of eye candy.

Us

Wri/Dir: Jordan Peele

The Wilsons are a very ordinary California family heading off to their summer home in sunny Santa Cruz. Dad (Winston Duke) plans to tinker with his leaky motorboat. The kids are off in their own worlds. Little Jason (Evan Alex) is into magic tricks and a scary Halloween mask he wears all day. 12-year-old Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) prefers to tune out and spend time with earbuds and instagram. They plan to spend time on the beach with their old friends, the alcoholic Kitty and Josh (Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker) and their twin teenaged daughters.

Only Mom (Lupita Nyong’o) is preoccupied. She feels weird to be back in her childhood summer home, and is dead-set against spending any time on the beach or at the boardwalk. It just doesn’t feel right. She is still haunted by a strange experience she had as a child on her ninth birthday. She wandered into a hall of mirrors met a girl who looked exactly like her but who wasn’t her. She never saw her again, and no one believes her story, but she’s still afraid she’ll run into that mirror girl again. But she relents and spends an uneventful day at the beach.

But that night, things start to change. A family dressed in identical red jumpsuits appears in their driveway, each carrying a pair of sharp scissors. And when they enter their house, Jason notices “they’re us!” Who are these people? Criminals? Zombies? Ghosts? They look exactly like the Wilsons and have similar personalities, but in a creepy distorted way. They don’t speak, they just make animal noises… except for Mom’s doppelganger, who explains it all. We are your shadows, she says, tethered to your lives, but we live underground. We are like marionettes, moving against our will, we live identical lives but with none of the pleasure. So we’re here to reclaim it.

But not if they can help it! It’s up to the family to fight back against these strange people who want to replace them. But can they beat creatures who seem to know what they’re thinking and are faster, stronger and meaner than they are?

Us is a scary and very strange horror movie. Like his previous movie Get Out, this one has mind-bending twists, secret conspiracies laced with lots of humour. It’s almost more strange and funny than it is scary. And unlike Get Out, it has no overarching political theme – no racial dimensions, no class conflicts, no left/right divide. It even avoids gun-control issues, with every killing in the movie using household weapons – scissors, golf clubs, fire irons – rather than semi-automatic firearms. No politics at all.

The one surprising theme is religion: the music is full of scary liturgical chants, the doppelgänger people live in a hellish underground, they dress in red robes, they are surrounded by flames and are possibly part of a nationwide apocalypse ordained by God to punish Americans for worshipping false idols.

Is this a good movie? Oh yes it is! Is it a horror movie? Sort of, but more creepy than terrifying. And it leaves you thinking about it long after it’s over. Lupita Nyong’o and the two kids are especially good, as their selves but especially as their shadows. If you like horror, dark humour and the occult, this is the movie to see. It’s great.

Us and The Aftermath 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

Teens. Films reviewed: Bernadette, Minding the Gap, Carmen & Lola

Posted in 1990s, Coming of Age, documentary, Drama, LGBT, Roma, Romantic Comedy, Skateboards, Slackers, Spain, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 15, 2019

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

In your teenaged years, as you span the time between child and adulthood, it’s hard to separate true love from first crush. This week I’m looking at three such comic of age stories. There’s a 15 year old boy with a crush on a French woman; three skateboarders trapped in a rust belt town, and two young women in Spain touched by chance.

Bernadette

Wri/Dir: John Psathis

It’s the summer of 1994 in Forest Lake, a suburb near Chicago. Archie (Sam Straley) is a 15 year old freshman who lives with his single mom (Sarah Shirkey). He plays in a garage band with two other nerds, his best friends Ken and Martin (Johnnie Lim, James Guytin) .  Archie has just one goal: to meet a beautiful, but unapproachable exchange student named Bernadette before she moves back to France in the Fall. Problem is she’s a senior, a lifeguard at the local pool, and is beautiful beyond belief. She also has an older boyfriend, a French prof at the local community college. And she’s surrounded by a gang of bullies, led by by the cruel and vindictive Richtor (Tommy Philbin).

Luckily he gets a job at the park where Bernadette (Marilyn Bass) works. And his boss, Dixon (James Psathis) shows him the ropes. Dixon is a legend at his school — tall, charismatic and known for his sexual prowess. He keeps polaroids of all the women he’s slept with on the wall of the tool shed he’s living in. Anyone else would kill for such a mentor. But not Archie. He can’t stand Dixon, because of his latest conquest. No, it’s not Bernadette he’s sleeping with, it’s Archie’s 33-year-old mom! Will Archie come to terms with Dixon, overcome the bully Richtor, and convince Bernadette that he’s her one true love?

Bernadette is a typical boy-meets-girl coming of age story, but, despite the title is barely about Bernadette at all. It’s about a fatal summer in the life of the hero. This is a cute, indie movie, with a fun cast and an enjoyable story. The plot is not especially original – you can predict most of the plot turns a mile away – but it is nicely done and neatly constructed. And does every new film need to be super-special?

An enjoyable teenage romcom is good enough for me.

Minding the Gap

Dir: Bing Liu

Rockford is a small city in Northern Illinois. It’s filled with vacant warehouses and empty factories, cracking sidewalks and vacant lots. All the empty space makes it a paradise for skateboards and the guys who skate them. This documentary follows the lives of three of them, Kiere, Zack and Bing. Aside from their love of skating, they also share dark pasts. All three of them endured violence and abuse at the hands of their parents. Kiere’s dad beat him as corproaral punishment to discipline him when he did something wrong. He resented it at the time, but now desperately misses his father who died when he was teen. Zack also comes from a family with a history of violence and alcoholism… which he seems to be carrying forward in his own relationship with his girlfriend. A relationship mainly based on their baby boy, not any love they once had for each other. Bing’s story is the most hidden of the three. He coaxes it out of his mother who admits her second husband, Bing’s stepdad, abused both of them…though the nature of his abuse remains unclear.

Minding the Gap follows the three boys as they grow into men in their 20s, all captured by Bing’s video camera. It starts as just shots of the three of them gliding down the streets, but gradually reveals, in a series of interviews, traumatic moments in their lives. And life in a rust belt town, gradually being emptied of its people. I liked this doc, though confessional, reality-show-type docs aren’t my favourite format. It’s a first film, but surprisingly has already been nominated as Best Feature Documentary in this year’s Oscars.

Check it out.

Carmen & Lola

Wri/Dir: Arantxa Echevarría

It’s a housing project outside present day Madrid. Lola (Zaira Romero) is a prickly 16 year old graffiti artist who wants to get out of this place. Her illiterate parents, Paco and Flor, and her little brother Miguel are happy with their life here. They run a stall at an outdoor market, attend an evangelical church and celebrate birthdays and weddings in the traditional Roma style. Lots of singing and dancing with their friends relatives. But Lola wants more. With the help of Paqui (Carolina Yuste) who works at the local community centre she’s trying to pull herself out of traditional roles. At the market she meets the beautiful and glamorous Carmen (Rosy Rodríguez) who also works there. She’s engaged to Lola’s first cousin, and dreams of becoming a hairdresser, one of the few professions open to Roma women.

For Lola, it’s love at first site. She’s enchanted by everything about Carmen, from her little bird-shaped earings to her lithe body and beautiful face. Carmen is everything she desires and she paints grafitti art tributes her on local walls. She teaches her how to swim, so someday they might go to the beach in Malaga together. But Carmen is shocked when Lola expresses her love to her. I’m normal, Lola, not disgusting like you, she says. Kiss a boy, and you’ll see what you’re missing. Lola counters, kiss me, or you’ll never know for sure. Will Carmen and Lola become lovers? Or will her strong community ties make that impossible?

Carmen & Lola is a wonderful romantic drama about an unlikely couple. It’s shot in a realistic style, celebrating Roma culture in Spain, the church services, the music and traditional costumes. She uses non-actors for many of the roles, and never shies away from the racism and poverty they face on a daily basis.

This is a very good love story.

Carmen & Lola and Minding the Gap are both playing at the TIFF Next Wave festival. All tickets are free if you’re 25 or under. Go to tiff.net for details. And Bernadette is premiering at Vancouver’s Just for Laughs and will open later this year.

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.

Need help. Films reviewed: Capernaum, The Upside

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Drama, Kids, Lebanon, Migrants, Movies, Poverty by CulturalMining.com on January 11, 2019

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

If January has left you broke or in debt, but you still want to see some movies, there are free alternatives out there. Kanopy – free for anyone with a Toronto library card, is an online streaming service with a huge selection of incredible movies and documentaries you can sign out digitally for free. Workman Arts and Rendezvous with Madness is showing a selection of cool movies about mental illness, for free later this month — reserve tickets online. And the Japanese Consulate in Toronto and the Japan Foundation are sponsoring three Japanese movies, first come, first serve. Both of these series are playing at the Hot Docs cinema in January.

This week I’m looking at two movies about people who need help. There’s a homeless kid in Beirut trying to help a motherless toddler, and a homeless ex-con in New York trying to help an extremely rich man who is paraplegic.

Capernaum

Wri/Dir: Nadine Labaki

Beirut, right now.

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is a foul-mouthed, poor kid who doesn’t go to school – his parents never registered him when he was born. He shares a bed with his three sisters, including Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam) the oldest. When she has her first period, Zain senses danger. He’s afraid their parents will marry very young Sahar to their predatory middle aged landlord Assaad. His fears turn out to be true, and she’s carried out of their home kicking and screaming. Zain has had enough… so he runs away. On a bus he meets an elderly man in a knockoff superhero costume – I’m cockroach man – and follows him to a rundown carnival. There he meets Tigest (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian woman fluent in Arabic with a baby named Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). She uses a fake ID – she draws a beauty spot on her face each morning, but without she could be deported. She’s poor too, but takes Zain under her wing; he takes care of the baby while she’s at work. Everything’s going fine until… She doesn’t come home one day. What happened to her? Now 12 year old Zain has to serve as 1-year-old Yonas’s dad, searching the streets for milk and diapers for the baby, food and water. Zain is forced to pose as a Syrian refugee to get any help. But how long can a homeless child – taking care of a baby – last in a big cruel city?

Capernaum (the Lebanese word for chaos) is a funny, delightful and fascinating drama that’s also brimming with pathos. It’s a genuine tearjerker, I cried at least three times – couldn’t help it – but despite the tears, surprisingly this is not a depressng movie. It’s told in a series of flashbacks based on testimony in a courtroom. Zain is there suing his own parents for giving birth to him. The trial serves as the backdrop, but it’s mainly about Zain’s journey as an undocumented kid. Most of the characters are played by non-actors, but all of them, especially Zain al Rafeea are superb and real-seeming. It deals with very heavy topics – including human trafficking, refugees, poverty, child neglect and abuse – but this film manages to handle it with just the right degree of sadness, punctuated with enough humour to stop it from sliding into misery

This is only the second film I”ve seen by Nadine Labaki. I still remember Where do We Go Now (2011) a simple story about the women in a village trying to stop the conflict between Christians and Muslims. That was a cute movie, but this one is 100 times more clever, sophisticated, and skillfull.

I liked this film a lot.

The Upside

Dir: Neil Burger

Phillip (Bryan Cranston) is a billionaire widower who lives in a penthouse suite in New York City, He hasn’t large live in staff, including Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), his kind but prudish financial manager. He loves opera, poetry, fine art…, and paragliding. Or at least he did until a terrible accident left him paralyzed except for his neck and head. Now he’s despondent and ready to die. But Yvonne insists on hiring a new caregiver.

Dell (Kevin Hart) is a deadbeat dad with a teenaged son and an ex wife he can’t support. He’s a ne’erdowell on parole with a long prison record, and if he can’t prove he’s looking for work he’ll be back behind bars. Somehow he ends up in Phillip’s penthouse just when they’re hiring. To everyone’s surprise Phillip hires the extremely rude and unqualified Dell, mainly because he wants to die, the sooner the better. Dell is just as shocked to get the job, especially when he sees the first paycheque. But somehow the two hit it off, and little by little, Phillip crawls out of his shell and learns to live again. But how long can it last? Will Dell’s prison record come back to haunt him? And can Phillip ever recover from the loss of his one true love?

The Upside is a Hollywood remake of Intouchables, the French comedy that was a box office smash. I’ve never seen the original – apparently based on a true story – but I doubt this one will be a big hit. It’s very predictable, with some godawful jokes. Faking a tonic-clonic seizure to avoid a speeding ticket? (Please don’t.) Uneducated Dell mispronouncing famous names and three sylable words? Of course he panics at the idea of touching another man’s penis, even inserting a catheter. (Really?) Dell’s black, you see, but don’t worry white people, he likes Aretha Franklin not that newfangled hip hop stuff. (Sigh).

That said, there are some funny scenes; Hart and Cranston are likeable in their roles and together make a good buddy movie, and Nicole Kidman is unusually understated.

Is The Upside a great movie? No, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Capernaum and The Upside 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.

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