Shells. Films reviewed: Journey’s End, Ready Player One, The China Hustle

Posted in 1910s, China, Class, Corruption, Darkness, documentary, Drama, Games, Movies, Poverty, Science Fiction, Wall Street, War, WWI by CulturalMining.com on March 30, 2018

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

It’s a holiday weekend filled with eggs, whether hard boiled or made of chocolate with a prize inside. So this week I’m looking at three new movies about… shells. There are VR gamers looking for a hidden easter egg, Wall Streeters investing in shell corporations, and WWI soldiers dodging mortar shells.

Journey’s End

Dir: Saul Dibb

It’s March, 1918, in the WWI trenches of northern France. Underground, where the officers stay, it’s dark, dank and smelly. Up on the surface its deadly dangerous, with snipers aiming at your head. Four British divisions rotate their stays at the front at one week per month. It’s like a lottery – with a one in four chance of dying. And the soldiers in Company C are just trying to stay sane and alive. There’s the fatherly Osborne (Paul Bettany) who everyone calls “Uncle”, the indefatigable cook Mason (Toby Jones), and the shell-shocked Hibbert.

So no one can understand why the green, idealistic Lt Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) pulls strings to join this benighted group. Why? His upper classman Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is stationed there and he wants to see him again. But he doesn’t realize the level of death and despair that has taken hold there. And that his hero, Stanhope,

is now a mean and bitter alcoholic. The soldiers there are forced to make pointless raids in daylight so as not to interrupt the dinner schedule of far-off Generals. And things reach a boiling point when word gets out the Germans are about to attack on Thursday, right there. They’re essentially sentenced to die at the front. How do they all handle this?

Journey’s End – based on the classic play – is a tense retelling of an old war story, exactly 100 years later. It deals with the futility of war, the rigid British class system, and the male comeradery of life in the trenches. The acting is very good, and the camera wonderfully captures a world lit only by flickering lanterns. Even so, it was hard to sympathize with the stuff-upper-lip, tally-ho language of the script. The long theatrical conversations might might work on stage but not on the screen. The main emotions I got from this movie were depression, disgust claustrophobia and fatalism. It all felt too long, too slow, and too distant, especially once you know their fate… Just die already!

Ready Player One

Dir: Steven Spielberg

It’s 2045 in Columbus, Ohio and the world is a mess. People live marginal existences in ramshackle towers beside huge corporations. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is an 18-year-old orphan who spends most of his time online in a wildly- popular VR fantasy world called Oasis. Its creator left a trillion-dollar prize to whoever can solve the puzzles hidden within this digital world. First they must complete three levels of games and collect three keys  and claim the hidden easter egg. Wade he surprises the world by appearing on the boards as Player One, the top ranked player in the world. But he’s not the only gunter (egg hunter) trying to win. His closest virtual rivals are Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) a fiery red-head, Aech, a muscular giant and genius mechanic; plus Daito and Sho whose avatars look like a samurai and a ninja, respectively. Wade calls himself Parzival. Like the Wagner opera character, he’s searching for a holy grail. And he’s in love with the lovely Artemis. But as best-bud Aech keeps telling him: you only know her avatar – that’s not what she’s like in real life. And lurking in the shadows is the rich and evil Sorrento, (Ben Mendelssohn) the head of IOI, the corporate rival to Oasis’s company. He pretends to be a champion gamer, but he’s actually a fake who hires employees to play for him. But he’s out to win — and take over the world — at any cost. Which of the hunters will figure out the puzzle and find the easter egg? And can they defeat the villainous Sorrento?

Ready Player One is an incredibly fast-moving sci-if action movie. Oasis’s inventor, whose puzzles they’re all trying to solve, was obsessed with the 80s, so the movie feeds you a random hodgepodge of Back to the Future and Iron Giant, Gandam and Street Fighter, New Order and Van Halen, a non-stop shower of pop culture, to the point where you can’t tell self-referential jokes from cheap product placement. (Maybe they’re both?) But why would kids in the 2040s care about the 1980s? I can’t call this a good movie; it’s incredibly commercial, felt more like a theme park ride than a film, and parts were like watching a video game with someone else holding the controls. But you know what? I still enjoyed it. And it does have that classic Spielbergian look and sound.

China Hustle

Wri/Dir: Jed Rothstein

After the Subprime Mortgage crisis, American investors, pension funds, and ordinary moms and pops were looking to make some money. But where? Chinese people were making millions investing in their red-hot companies, but those stocks weren’t traded on Wall Street. Until, suddenly, they were. Hundreds of Chinese startups were being bought and sold and making big bucks. And companies like Roth Capital were holding lavish parties known as “investment conferences” to reel in buyers. They were backed by reputable auditors like Deloitte. It’s a win-win proposition – everyone makes money. Until, that is, some suspicious investors fly to Shanghai and looked around.

Turns out, many of these companies operate as “Reverse Mergers”. Existing Chinese corporations buy shell companies already registered in the US, take them over, change their name, and they’re open to make money.

But their books here don’t look like their books there. Idle factories in China are said to be making ten times what they’re actually earning. And no one’s checking up on them.

So a few maverick investors decide to short sell their stock (like in that movie The Big Short) counting on its value crashing soon. And they speed this along by publicising the corruption and questionable accounting of the parent companies back in China. The result, riches for a few, terrible losses for many.

The China Hustle is a fascinating documentary looking at the shady practices behind deregulation, auditing and investments, as told by three American short-sellers. I thought its view of China as a monolithic villain was superficial and rather one-sided; for example, it shows how these fraudulent investments affect ordinary Americans’ lives, but not how they affect ordinary Chinese.

But it does expose in detail a huge scandal I knew nothing about.

Ready Player One opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Journey’s End and The China Hustle are in theatres and Video On Demand. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Death Be Not Proud. Films reviewed: The Death of Stalin, Foxtrot

Posted in Army, comedy, Corruption, Death, Drama, Israel, Movies, UK, USSR by CulturalMining.com on March 16, 2018

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 differenc

Which is worse — dying? Or knowing someone’s dying but not knowing when?  This week I’m looking at two great dark comedies that find humour in terrible situations about death. There’s the imminent death of eminent dictator, and the questionable death of an questioning soldier.

The Death of Stalin

Dir: Armando Iannucci

It’s 1953 in the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin rules the country with an iron fist, and everyone trembles in his presence. So when he orders a recorded copy of a just-completed live musical performance – that wasn’t actually recorded – of course everyone starts to panic. Everyone, it seems, except the musician who played it. She dares to drop a note for him into the re-recorded record envelope. If he reads it, surely her death will follow – and everyone around her. But as fate wll have it, when Stalin reads the message, he falls to the floor with a heart attack.

And with Stalin on his deathbed all his closest political allies come running to see what will happen next, and what their own status will be after he’s gone. There’s Malenkov ((Jeffrey Tambor) Stalin’s right-hand man for 30 years – a bit of a chowderhead but he’s also the one who purges anyone who challenges him. His rival Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) is the proud military leader who beat Hitler in WWII. Molotov (Michael Palin) is the foreign minister (don’t share a cocktail with this guy!) There’s the wily Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the dreaded Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the Secret Police (NKVD). And Stalin’s two adult children, his clever daughter Svetlana and his idiot son Vasily, who acts like he’s an aristocrat in a Chekov play. Picture all these historical figures running around all at once, panicking, conspiring, and thinking up ways to best their rivals.

While The Death of Stalin may sound like a dry historical drama, it is anything but. It’s fast-moving, shocking, and hilarious. The director — Armando Iannucci — has made another one of his twisted, foul-mouthed political comedies. This one isn’t in Westminster or The White House, it’s set in the Kremlin instead. The actors are either British – like Michael Palin — or American – like Steve Buscemi – but he lets them keep their real voices, no fake heavy Russian accents here (except from the Russian actors).

The Death of Stalin is a great political comedy.

Foxtrot

Dir: Samuel Maoz

Michael and Daphna (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) are a successful Israeli couple Progressive, atheist and sexually open. He’s an architect so their Tel Aviv flat is beautifully designed and tastefully appointed. There lives are nearly perfect… until the day a knock on their door reveals two army officers in uniform. Their son Jonathan, a corporal at a remote posting, has died in the line of duty. Michael is stunned and Daphna collapses to the floor. She is put on meds while Michael stumbles in a daze to talk with his mom in a nursing home.

The army steps in to arrange the funeral, provide the coffin, direct the speech, call their relatives. Don’t worry, they say, we’ll take care of everything. But something is wrong… they can’t provide answers to the most basic questions. Where was he posted? How did he die? And where’s the body? Six hours later they return to say there’s been a terrible mistake. You’re son is still alive.

The story shifts to a remote checkpoint on a purgatorial desert road somewhere near Gehenna. Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray) is posted there with three other young guys. They live in a rusty, ramshackle shipping container made of corrugated steel. It’s slowly disappearing into a muck-filled sinkhole, a couple inches a day. Dinner consists of canned mystery meat cooked on a space heater. They while away their time fiddling with ancient radio receivers, drawing cartoons, telling stories or dancing with a rifle. It’s endless and pointless. Their sole capacity seems to be checking the IDs of passing Palestinians on their way to weddings, funerals or nightclub. The boys approach this job – and their only source of power — with a keen intensity, They shine floodlights at bewildered passersby, force middle aged women to stand in the pouring rain, pointing lethal weapons at their faces, … and worse. That worse incident , and its aermath, brings a new calamity to Jonathan’s family back home, bringing grief, decay and self-harm. Will the family ever recover?

Foxtrot – named after both the dance and the military code – is a dark, ironic and satiric look at the creeping militarization of people’s lives and it’s horrific results. This army is a portrayed as a new Catch-22, one filled with ridiculous errors, secrecy and coverups. The film itself adopts that unexplained mysterious tone – places are left unidentified, some characters not given names. Visions of censorship – symbolized by the black tape covering images of vintage softcore porn – carries over into everyday life and family folklore. The dystopia of the dirty and rusty army post is run by sympathetic characters but is rotten to the core. I called this a dark comedy, but it’s also a very moving drama, cushioned by the absurdist and surreal tone that overlays everything. This is a visually splendid film that relies more on images than dialogue. Foxtrot is a great, but scathingly critical, movie.

I recommend it.

Death of Stalin and Foxtrot 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.

 

 

Exploitation. Films reviewed: Juggernaut, The Strangers: Prey at Night, Gringo

Posted in Canada, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Mexico, Pop Culture, violence by CulturalMining.com on March 9, 2018

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

Are you suffering from post-Oscar withdrawal? Too many foreign and highbrow films to catch up on? Forget about all that, it’s time to take a break. This week I’m just talking about genre and exploitation movies. There is death in smalltown Canada, slashers in a Kentucky trailer park, and a corporate kidnapping in Mexico City.

Juggernaut

Wri/Dir: Daniel DiMarco

Saxon (Jack Kesy) is a loner who lives out west. With a buzzed scalp, he’s gaunt and wired, always ready for a fight. But when he returns to his hometown his beloved mother is dead, and nobody seems to care. It was a suicide they say. And his brother Dean (David Cubitt) seems to have profited handsomely from their mom’s insurance policy. Dean is a powerful man in the town, with a finger in every pot. He’s the type of guy who makes money from the local prison, while Saxon is the kind who ends up behind bars. Saxon is bad news: bipolar, uncontrollable, and violent – at least that’s his reputation.

Only Amelia (Amanda Crew), Dean’s beautiful fiancée, holds no grudge against Saxon. In fact she identifies with him as a fellow outsider, who came to the town from afar. Saxon doesn’t believe his mother would kill herself. It smells fishy to him, and so does the whole stinkin town. So he decides to investigate. He talks to the local cop, the insurance rep, a local padre, and digs up lost photos and important documents. But everyone he talks to stonewalls him. Nothing happened here, they say.  Just move along. But Saxon is too stubborn to give up. Will he find what he’s looking for? Will the town’s secrets be revealed? Or is he sticking his neck out too far?

Juggernaut is noir-ish drama set in a small town in western BC. The acting is all credible – especially Kesy and Crew — and the scenery is nice and all, but the movie just didn’t really grab me. I mean, even with all the fist fights and shootouts and chase scenes, it feels too long and too slow, more of a gothic drama than a crime thriller.

The Strangers: Prey at Night

Dir: Johannes Roberts

Kinsey (Bailee Madison) is an emo-grunge-punk who lives with her red-haired Mom (Christina Hendricks) and her tetris-loving Dad (Martin Henderson). She used to be close to her big brother Luke (Lewis Pullman) but not lately. They’re always fighting now, and the whole family is nearly dysfunctional. “This parenting gig is real tough” says dad. Baillee spent a year messing up, and now her parents are sending her off to boarding school. Driving her there across Kentucky in an SUV. And they’re staying for the night at a trailer park owned by their uncle. They arrive at night. It’s a pretty place in a grassy field with a swing set, an office and a swimming pool, all covered with a layer of mist. But it all seems strangely deserted. And when they keep hearing loud knocks on their door they decide to find out what’s going on. Bad move.

What’s going on is, there are people there with their faces covered by a girl’s face, a baby mask, and a burlap bag with a face drawn on with a sharpie. They’re carrying huge knives and axes and clearly they know how to use them. The unarmed family runs away in horror as the killers seek them out. Why are they chasing them? Who will die and who will survive? And can anyone fight them off?

This is a classic slasher movie with not much of a plot, but lots of killing and sick stuff. It’s full of the usual scary movie clichés – telephone wires cut, a jack-in-the-box, irrational-seeming murderers who never seem to die. The family members are basically two-dimiensional. At the same time – if you can stomach the violence and blood in a slasher movie – the production design is strangely, eerily beautiful, from the misty fields at night to the catharsis of burning flames, from the chaotic destruction of smash-ups using trailers and cars, to a truly stunning knifefight in a glowing blue swimming pool surrounded by lurid, pink-neon palm trees. Really well done.

The music is all early-80s pop hits, the killers are rejects from 90s raves and everyone seems to have swallowed Tide pods. This is a sequel, and people who have seen the original hate it — they say it’s a poor repeat of the first one — but for a neophyte like me, it worked just fine.

I liked this slasher.

Gringo

Dir: Nash Edgerton

Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo) is a middle manager for a Chicago pharmaceutical corporation that is developing a new pill made from marijuana. Harold honest to a fault, smart, and hard working. Originally from Nigeria, he’s happily married to elegant Bonnie, an interior decorator. And he’s doing well at work. He puts up with his two morally questionable bosses, Elaine and Rusk (Charlize Theron and Joel Edgerton) because he knows its part of his job. He ignores their offensive comments, lets Rusk beat him at chess, and pretends he doesn’t see them bonking in the execituve washroom.

On a business trip to Mexico, Harold starts to realize something is very wrong. His wife is leaving him, his money is running out, and it looks like his bosses are stabbing him in the back. So he sneaks out of his hotel room and disappears. But can a “black gringo” really disappear in Mexico City? Soon everyone’s looking for him, his company, a drug boss (unfortunately named “Black Panther”), some local hoods, and a black-ops mercenary. It seems like everyone’s out to get him, except for Sunny (Amanda Seyfried) a nice young American woman who doesn’t know she’s a drug mule. Can Harold — a mild-mannered scaredy-cat — regain his confidence, fight off the killers, and make it out alive?  Or will he disappear for good?

Gringo is a fun and fast-moving comedy thriller that keeps you interested. The office politics, involving the odious and sleazy Elaine and Rusk, are appropriately grotesque but largely unpleasant. But once the action shifts to Mexico it becomes much more interesting. David Oyelowo is fantastic as fish-out-of-water Harold, a character you can laugh at but also root for. The portrayal of Mexico and the people there is full of derogatory stereotypes… but so are all the Americans characters. Gringo is a misanthropic but funny look at contemporary life. I enjoyed this one.

The Strangers: Prey at Night, Juggernaut and Gringo all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Meandering Movies. Films reviewed: A Date for Mad Mary, Nostalgia, Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia, PLUS Oscar Predictions!

Posted in Coming of Age, Death, Drama, Experimental Film, Feminism, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Lesbian, LGBT by CulturalMining.com on March 2, 2018

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

Some movies have linear narratives – stories that move in a straight line from start to finish — but occasionally you can find movies that take a more circuitous route. This week I’m looking at some meandering movies. There’s a path to a wedding in Ireland, a journey to Asia from Germany, and a search for keepsakes in America.

But first…

Oscar Predictions, 2018

Here’s a list of who I think should win, and who I think will win.

A few caveats: I’m usually wrong, though this year my choices of the best movies of 2017 (published in December) is very close to the Oscar nominations (including Get Out, Call Me By Your Name, Three Billiards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and The Shape of Water — all nominated for Best Picture; plus Loveless and A Fantastic Woman, both nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.) Does this mean I’ve been a movie critic for too long and my taste is getting worse? Or that the Academy’s choices are getting better?

I haven’t seen three of the nominated movies, so for these I can only go by what I’ve been told:

Darkest Hour – I couldn’t bring myself to watch this; I’m all Churchilled out. No more Churchill, please.

Phantom Thread is probably great but you have to be in the mood to watch a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. And I haven’t been in that mood yet.

And I Tonya – I just haven’t seen it yet, but plan to soon.

Adapted screenplay

James Ivory (Call Me By Your Name). Should win and will win.

Original screenplay

Should win: That’s a real toughie, I have no idea which should win; there are too many good ones to choose just one.

Will win: I’m guessing Greta Gerwig (Ladybird). ✘ (Jordan Peele won for Get Out)

Best foreign film:

I loved Loveless, but I think A Fantastic Woman should win and will win.

Best Actor

Should win: Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name)

Will win: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Best Actress

Should win and will win

Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Supporting Actor

Should win: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Will win: Willem Dafoe (Florida Project) ✘ (Sam Rockwell won.)

Best Supporting Actress

Should win: Laura Metcalfe (Ladybird)

…but everyone tells me Allison Janney will win for I, Tonya

Best Director

I think Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) should win and will win.

Best Film

Again, I think The Shape of Water should win and will win.

 

A Date for Mad Mary

Dir: Darren Thornton

Mary (Seána Kerslake) is a pretty young woman who lives at home with her mom and grandmother. She likes Tank Girl, Hello Kitty and her best mate Charlene (Charleigh Bailey) They used to be inseparable but things have changed. Charlene’s getting married, and Mary is the maid of honour but she can’t find anyone to be her date to the wedding. She enlists a Polish matchmaker to set her up with a series of men. Problem is she’s a foul-mouthed heavy drinker who is quick to anger. Her last brawl led to six months in the clink. And now she’s finding it hard to find a guy she likes who also likes her. As her grandma said, even a sniper wouldn’t take her out.

But things get better when she meets Jess (Tara Lee), the videographer for Charlene’s wedding. Jess is a singer in a band and Mary likes her style. And she’s a good influence too: Mary feels comfortable around Jess and maybe… there’s something deeper.

I really enjoyed A Date for Mad Mary, a coming-of-age drama about a misfit who is trying to fit in. Very well-acted, especially Seána Kerslake as Mary. It’s a touching drama loaded with salty oneliners.

Nostalgia

Wri/Dir: Mark Pellington

Daniel (John Ortiz) is a reserved, middle aged man who works for an insurance firm. He helps asses the monetary value of possessions, so clients can decide what’s valuable to them. This can range from a lifetime of accumulated detritus, to a single possession. Helen (Ellen Burstyn) for example only has a few pieces of jewelry and an autographed baseball she grabbed as her entire house burnt to the ground. Brother-and-sister Donna and Will (Catherine Keener and Jon Hamm) are forced to look through endless boxes in their late parents’ attic to decide what to keep and what to give away. These are just a few of the stories in a loosely-linked chain of vignettes about possessions and keepsakes.

Nostalgia is a nicely-photographed film with a stellar cast whose characters segue from scene to unrelated scene. The problem is the movie has no plot, the stories don’t follow any particular order, and the only thing that connects them all is the theme. Worse than that, a third of the movie is taken up by characters weeping, a third with them bitterly sniping at one other, and a third pondering the meaning of life in painfully drawn-out voiceovers.

This is like a Hallmark movie if they only printed the kind of cards you give to people at funerals.

Ugh. Avoid this movie at all costs.

Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia

Ulrike Ottinger is a lesser-known German filmmaker who emerged in the 1970s alongside Von Trotta, Herzog and Fassbinder. Born by the Alpen city of Lake Constance, she studied art in Paris around the time of the riots of 1968. She ran a bar in her home town, a welcome place for men with long hair and women who smoke cigars. She started as a visual artist before deciding on film as her ideal medium.

By the early 1970s she moved to Berlin, establishing herself as a lesbian feminist director, pioneering avante-garde film. Her work was highly stylized, combining over-the-top expressionistic acting with a pop-art aesthetic. Full of bright blues and reds, Ottinger incorporated medieval motifs, bare-breasted Wagnerian women, leaping pigs and crashing waves. Her interests range from food preparation to textiles, her characters from luxurious femininity to militant and radical feminists. And keeping true to her avant garde roots, she eschews strictly linear narratives, choosing instead the more realistic “meandering” style.

One running theme is her reverent and deferential view of the foreign, especially of East Asia. These films in particular — plus a biographical documentary about her life’s work, called Nomad from the Lake (directed by Brigitte Kramer) — are being shown as a mini-retrospective by Toronto Goethe Institute. This includes Under Snow, a combination kabuki-style drama and documentary. It shows life in Japan’s snow country around New Year’s day at a hot spring onsen. From there it takes viewers to Sado island, a land of exile, seemingly populated by clockwork automatons working in the gold mines. In Exile Shanghai she looks at Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany to that Chinese city in the 1930s and 40s. And Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia about European women encountering that country.

Ottinger’s unique and often-imitated style of filmmaking gives viewers an aesthetically pleasing look at the odd, freakish and mysterious.

Nostalgia opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. A Date for Mad Mary is tonight’s opening film at TIRFF, the Toronto Irish Film Festival; and the mini-retrospective Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia is also playing now. Both festivals are screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Andrey Zvyagintsev about Loveless

Posted in Cultural Mining, Drama, Family, Movies, Realism, Russia by CulturalMining.com on February 23, 2018

(Second track is an unedited version for Russian speakers)

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Boris and Zhenya — an attractive young couple in Moscow obsessed by sex, money and status — are getting a divorce. Zhenya wants to move in with her rich and powerful boyfriend. Boris’s girlfriend is pregnant with his child. That leaves only their loving son, Alyosha. But the boy reacts in horror when he overhears his parents saying neither of them want him.

And then he disappears. What more can you ask of a boy from a home that is loveless?

Loveless (Нелюбовь) is the name of a new film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev – who was nominated for an Oscar for the great Leviathian — has made another powerful movie. This is no ordinary family drama; this is the kind of movie that reaches into your guts, pulls them out and spreads them on the table in front of you. It’s stunning and devestating, without resorting to explicit violence.

Loveless won the Jury Prize at the Cannes festival. I spoke with Andrey Zvyagintsev on location at TIFF17.

Loveless has been nominated for an Academy Award, Best Foreign Language Film.  It opens in theatres today.

Daniel Garber talks with Daniela Vega about A Fantastic Woman

Posted in Bullying, Chile, Drama, Family, Movies, Music, Secrets, Trans, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 9, 2018

(The second track is unedited, for Spanish speakers)

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Marina Vidal is a happy woman. Her career as a singer is taking off, and her relationship with her lover, Orlando, is at a new stage. They are living together. He gives her a perfect birthday: dinner, dancing, and a trip to a resort. But her luck takes a turn for the worse when he wakes up feeling strange. She rushes him to hospital but it’s too late. He’s dead. And suddenly everything changes.

The authorities, police, doctor, and Orlandos family swoop down upon her. She is called a thief, a prostitute, a murderer. She is attacked emotionally and physically and told to stay away. All of this because she’s a trans woman. They say her relationship with Orlando was not “normal”.

But why should a woman settle for normal when she can be fantastic?

A Fantastic Woman is the name of a new film directed by Sebastián Lelio and starring Daniela Vega. Vega is a popular Chilean singer and actor who plays Marina in a remarkably powerful performance.

I spoke with Daniela on location at TIFF17 in September.

A Fantastic Woman has been nominated for an Academy Award: Best Foreign Language Film.  It opens today in Toronto.

Can depression lead to great sex? Films reviewed: Axolotl Overkill, Entanglement, Fake Tattoos

Posted in Berlin, Depression, Drama, drugs, Montreal, Movies, Punk, Romance, Sex, tattoos, Vancouver by CulturalMining.com on February 9, 2018

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

Feeling blue? Don’t worry, things will get better, and bad events, even depression, can sometimes lead to great sex. This week I’m looking at three movies (from Berlin, Montreal and Vancouver) where a chance meeting offers new hope to depressed people.

There’s a brooding introvert picked up by a girl at a thrash concert; a teenaged girl who encounters a middle-aged woman in a coke-filled haze; and a depressed guy who wants to have sex …with his sister?!

Axolotl Overkill

Wri/Dir: Helene Hegemann (Based on her novel Axlotl Overdrive)

Mifti (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) is a student at an alternative high school in Berlin, and she’s depressed. Her parents are divorced, with her mom in hospital, brain dead, and her rich dad gallavanting around with no time for his kids. She’s forced to live with her adult half-sister and half-brother, in an uneasy arangement. She hates school and acts out, upsetting everyone she meets. She even gets in a food fight with the lunch lady. Turns out this lunch lady is an equally rude TV star named Ophelia (Mavie Hörbiger) who is working at the school because she was sentenced to community service. She’s beautiful, famous, and occasionally psychotic. Mifti attaches herself to Ophelia and her entourage to explore and discover the mysteries of Berlin’s nightlife. This involves exotic pets, throbbing music, cigarettes and handguns. She goes on weekend-long benders, snorting coke in men’s rooms, and picking up cab drivers for furtive sex. Somewhere along the way she meets a strikingly beautiful, but mysterious, woman named Alice (Arly Jover), who is at least three times her age. They embark on an intense sexual relationship. Can Mifti survive her dysfunctional family, her nihilistic nature, and her crash-and-burn lifestyle? Or will it all come tumbling down?

Helene Heggemann is 25 now, and a sensation in contemporary Germany. This is her first directed feature, but she’s been writing novels and plays for a decade. I like the picaresque structure of the movie, journeys from place to place with Mifti absorbing it all, taking it all in. At the same time, Mifti is self-centred, rude and offensive — and comes from a privileged background — so it’s hard to sympathize with her. Lots of passion and emotion in this movie but no love, just alienation. The plot’s confusing too, so it’s hard to tell what’s real, what’s imaginary and what’s a flashback. Still, I enjoyed this unsparing look at underground Berlin seen through a teenager’s eyes.

Entanglement

Dir: Jason James

Ben (Thomas Middleditch) lives alone in an apartment in BC. He was married and successful, until his wife ran off with another guy. Now he’s severely depressed, to the point of suicide. He’s seeing a child psychologist (he’s 30) and takes anti-psychotic meds. Only his neighbour Tabby (Diana Bang) is looking out for him. He has hit rock bottom… until two random events change everything.

First his parents tell him a family secret. He has a sister he’s never met… well almost a sister. In fact she was an infant adopted by his childless parents but taken back on the first day when his mother discovered she was pregnant. Ben decides to find his almost sister. Next he meets a woman at random who is everything he’s not. Ben is gangly, ginger haired and shy. Hanna (Jess Weixler) is vivacious and spontaneous, willing to break into a swimming pool for a late night skinny dip. She is sexy and wild, with bleached-blonde hair. She’s a pick-pocket and also a bit of a stalker – she pursues Ben with a vengeance. She even wants to have sex with him. Tabby warns Ben to take it slowly… she might not be what she says she is. But Ben is totally into her… even though Hanna might be that almost sister he’s looking for. He’s convinced it’s all quantum physics, random events are all connected and we should let the universe figure it out.

Entanglement is a fun and comic look at a dark subject – depression, attempted suicide and psychotic breakdowns. It shifts from simple comedy into psychedelia, as Ben sees the world in his own way. It also has a very surprising ending – no spoilers. Middleditch and Weixler make a great yin and yang couple, while Bang is perfect as the “straight man.”

I liked this movie a lot.

Fake Tattoos (Les Faux Tatouages)

Wri/Dir: Pascal Plant

Theo (Anthony Therrien) is a shaggy-haired guy in Montreal, celebrating his 18th birthday. He’s broody and intense, into hardcore black Tshirts and tattoo designs. He quaffs a six pack of beer – bought legally for the first time – and heads to a thrash punk concert by himself. He’s a loner, but lets loose in the crowd, just another moshing body.

Afterwards a young woman approaches him about a tattoo on his arm. It’s a fake, she says, but a good one. Mag (Rose-Marie Perrault) has a nose ring and blonde hair with pink tips. She’s getting over a bad breakup. She’s a funny extrovert, and tries to break through Theo’s standoffish attitude. They end up sleeping together, which quickly turns from a one-night stand into an intense serious relationship. This may be love. Alas, like a cup of yogurt, it’s due to expire in just a few weeks. He’s moving to LaPocatiere a small town way up the St Lawrence, to get away from something terrible in his past. Why is Theo a loner? What is he escaping? Can Mag recover from a previous bad relationship? And will their love endure?

Fake Tattoos is a wonderful story about young summer lovers in Montreal. The pair have amazing chemistry that comes through in this short and simple love story. It’s a sweet look at first love. This is Pascal Plante’s first feature – it played at Slamdance and at the Berlinale this year — and I can’t wait to see his next one.

Entanglement opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Fake Tattoos and Axlotl Overkill are both playing at the TIFF Next Wave Film Festival that’s on next week. And if you’re 25 or under, tickets are free – go to tiff.net for details. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Strong female roles. Films reviewed: In the Fade, The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches PLUS Forever My Girl

Posted in C&W, Depression, Drama, drugs, Family, Germany, Nazi, New Orleans, Quebec, Terrorism by CulturalMining.com on January 19, 2018

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

It’s funny. A few years ago I was wondering what happened to all the female movie stars? They had been pushed into the margins, with hardly any good female roles. This year, though, there are more great female performances than you shake a stick at. Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, Francis McDormand in Three Billboards, Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman, Claire Armstrong in Dim the Fluorescents, Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, and so on.

So this week I’m looking at some more powerful performances by women in very intense movies. There’s a woman in Hamburg confronting Nazi terrorists, and an isolated teenager in rural Quebec reacting to the outside world.

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes)

Wri/Dir: Simon Lavoie

It’s some point in the distant past in rural Quebec. Two brothers with dirty faces and scruffy hair (Marine Johnson and Antoine L’Écuyer) live with their father on an isolated farm in the woods. They’re close enough to the next village to hear churchbells in the distance, but they never go there. It’s a grand old stone manor filled with empty rooms and whole sections blocked off. The teenaged boys are forbidden from seeing them. If you go there, says their father (Jean-François Casabonne) you will die.

The house is lit by church candelabra arranged on altars with lanterns carried through the dark halls. The boys can read but most books are forbidden. They listen to liturgical records on their wind-up gramophone. And the younger brother sometimes visits a terrible monster, locked up in a dark shed. He feeds it apples and pieces of bread through gaps in a wooden cage.

The boys dress in frontier clothes and priest’s hassocks. Younger brother has to keep watch – his bullying older brother often jumps him in the woods and does something to him he doesn’t understand. He keeps his chest tightly wrapped in cloth – his father insists. But he still has questions. He has seen pigs mating in the sty. Why don’t I have a penis? His father says, I told you, it fell off when you were younger. He also believes babies are made out of clay.

It’s a rough life, but it’s all they know, save for faint memories of a beautiful woman in a white dress, and two little girls in pinafores. In fact they can’t remember ever seeing someone from the outside. Until one day when a young man (Alex Godbout) drives to the house on a motorcycle. The town needs to survey the property, he says, but Père and Frère chase him away with their rifles. Is he a knight in shining armour? Or does he signal an invasion by the churchgoing villagers? And when something happens to Père, the two boys discover the house’s secrets, and some of their own. Like the fact that the younger brother… is pregnant!

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches is a powerful, surreal drama with an almost fairytale feel. It tells the story of naïve teenagers whose father (who went mad) is their only source of information. It’s shot in stunning black and white, and is filled with sinister images of the all-pervasive Québec church. It’s creepily fascinating with fantastic acting by L’Écuyer and Johnson. This is a great — but highly disturbing — movie.

In The Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

Wri/Dir: Fatih Akin

It’s present-day Hamburg. Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger) is a happily married woman with a young son named Rocco. She likes artistic tattoos, going to saunas with her best friend Brigitte and making love to her husband. Nuri is of Kurdish ancestry, but wears his hair like a samurai. They were married when he was still in prison. Now he runs a translation office in a Turkish section of town.

Katja’s life is nearly perfect until something devestating happens. An explosioin levels her husband’s office killing him and their son. It turns out it was a bomb, possibly the work of terrorists. And Katja thinks she knows who did it. She saw a blonde woman park her bike right in front of the office on the day of the explosion. In fact she even spoke to her so she knows she’s German. But the police, the press, even her own mother, keep looking at the victim as the cause of the killing. Is it the Turkish Mafia. Islamic terrorists? Drugs?

Katie talks with Danilo her lawyer and good friend (Denis Moschitto) to make sense of it all. They realize it must be be a right wing terrorist — a nazi — who did this. Eventually the police make an arrest based on her description, and two Nazis, a young couple named Edda and Andre Möller (Hanna Hilsdorf, Ulrich Brandhoff) are put on trial for the killings. But will they be convicted?

In the Fade is a great dramatic thriller that combines Katja’s grief and sorrow with her need for vengeance. It’s told in three chapters: her interactions with her family, in-laws and the police; the trial itself; and the heart-pumping aftermath, when she decides to track down and punish the killers. Diane Kruger is just fantastic as Katje, the best I’ve ever seen her, and she puts her whole body and soul into the part. You can really feel her anger, grief and frustration, but she never overacts.

I liked this movie a lot.

Also opening today is this romantic drama:

Forever My Girl

Wri/Dir: Bethany Ashton Wolf (based on the novel by Heidi McLaughlin)

Liam Page (Alex Roe) is a Country & Western superstar. He writes and performs his own songs with a back-up band. He can fill a New Orleans stadium with adoring fans.  Teenaged girls will chase him, screaming, down a city street when he appears in public. They love his smooth voice, handsome face and his sentimental songs. But offstage Liam is a real prick. He’s emotionally vapid, sleeping with different groupies each night. He’s rude and abusive toward his affable, bearded manager Sam (Peter Cambor) and his LA publicist Doris. And he’s addicted to alcohol and drugs.

He carries only one thing to remind him of his life as a smalltown boy: an old flip phone with a recorded message. But after a tragic turn of events, he finds himself back in his hometown, St Augustine, LA, for a funeral. He may be famous, but in “the Saint” his name is mud. You see, he was engaged to marry his highschool sweetheart Josie (Jessica Rothe) eight years earlier, but left her standing at the altar, without an explanation or apology.  When she sees him now, Josie greets him with a sucker punch. And he discovers he has a 7-year-old daughter named Charly (Abby Ryder Forston) that Josie has been raising on her own.

Can Liam change his ways and conquer his demons? Will Josie ever talk to him again? Can he spend time with his precocious daughter? And can his father, the town preacher, forgive his selfish son?

I’m not a big fan of country music or conventional romances involving small-town churchgoers — this is not the kind of movie I rush to see.  It takes few risks and most of the characters walked straight out of Central Casting. But I found it entertaining anyway. I assumed the aw-shucks, southern boy Liam was played by a non-actor, a country singer who basically played himself — woodenly, at that — and performed his own tunes. Turns out I was way off the mark. This UK actor had me convinced he was a real country singer from the Deep South!

In the Fade and Forever My Girl open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches is playing at Canada’s Top Ten festival; go to TIFF.net for details. Also opening today is Hostiles (read my review here) and My Piece of the City  (listen to my interview with director Moze Mossanen here). 

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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Dynamic duos. Films reviewed: Dim the Fluorescents, Call Me By Your Name

Posted in Acting, Art, Canada, Cultural Mining, Drama, First Love, Italy, LGBT, Movies, Romance by CulturalMining.com on December 15, 2017

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

I like movies with two strong central characters… as long as they have good chemistry. This week I’m looking at two new movies featuring dynamic duos that work well together. One’s a romantic drama about two young men set in northern Italy; and the other is a comedy drama about two women set in downtown Toronto.

Dim the Fluorescents

Dir: Daniel Warth

Audrey (Claire Armstrong) is a struggling actress in Toronto. She’s passionate and tempestuous, with rosy cheeks and curly hair, a statuesque figure and a pierced nose. She takes anti-depressants daily so she pour her everything into her work. She goes to frequent readings and auditions, but still hasn’t landed her big break. She lives with Lillian (Naomi Skwarna), her friend and fellow theatre person. Lillian acts too, but she she devotes herself to writing scripts and screenplays, and to helping Audrey’s career. Lillian has a severe demeanor, with glasses and black hair pulled back. The two see all their friends moving up the ladder while they’re stuck at the bottom. And not earning any money from it, either.

So, instead of taking a day job, sitting in a cubicle between auditions, they decide to stick to the craft but in an unusual form and location. They take their acting to the offices, performing short pieces or worker safety on sexual harassment to add some life and excitement to the incredibly dull powerpoint lectures. They manage to turn each corporate banality into a scene from King Lear.

And their efforts are noticed, at least within the offices. One young exec, Bradley (Brendan Hobin), shows up after a show like a stage door groupie to heap praises on Audrey’s fine performance. Instead of asking for her autograph he asks her to dinner.

Meanwhile Lillian is trying hard to make her dramatic business plan pay off. Their big break, at least financially, finally arrives in the form of a contract: an eight minute show before 300 conventioneers. There are a few conditions – they have to include an executive’s niece, Fiona (Andreana Callegarini-Gradzik) in the show, and they have to end on a positive note. But as art reflects life, the drama of the characters spills onto Audrey and Lillian’s own lives, ending in an explosive crisis. Will they get it back together in time for the big show?

Dim the Fluorescents starts as an ordinary Canadian comedy: I get it, I thought, it’s about artists sacrificing their ideals to meet corporate demands. But after the first half hour it really takes off and just gets better and better. By the end it’s Wow – this is a surprisingly powerful movie! The cast is all new faces, all great. Especially Claire Armstrong – man, that woman can act her ass off!

Check this one out.

Call Me by Your Name

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

Wri: James Ivory (based on the novel by Andre Aciman)

It’s 1982. Elio (Timothee Chalamet) is a 17 year old Italian American who spends his summers and Christmas vacation at his family home in Northern Italy. It’s a beautiful villa located in a lush orchard beside a slow-moving river. His parents are academics with a passion for the arts. Mom (Amira Casar) translates medieval poetry, while Dad (Michael Stuhlbarg) is into ancient Greek and Roman bronze statues. Elio spends most of his time transcribing classical music on guitar and piano. He also hangs with Marzia (Esther Garrel), his longtime friend and semi-girlfriend, reading poetry and exploring sex. Elio speaks French to his mother, English to his father and Italian to everyone else. It’s a polyglot family.

Each year, Elio’s dad chooses a gifted American grad student, to come stay with them for the summer. They help catalogue his father’s writings and, presumably, provide a role model for Elio. This year, it’s Oliver (Armie Hammer) a grad student from small town New England. He’s handsome, athletic, preppy and arrogant. And smart as a whip. He dominates any room he enters, and will leave whenever he wants with a simple “later”.

Eliot is put off by Oliveer’s manner but impressed by his confidence. And as he gets to know him better – at a village dance, a family dinner, and bike rides in the country – his interest runs into attraction. Are the feelings mutual? Both have girlfriends from the town, but this seems new. They begin a delicate pas de deux, simultaneously flirting, arguing and testing their limits, each trying to determine the other one’s feelings. Are they friends, or something more? Will this turn into a summer bromance or a lasting love?

Call Me By Your Name is a beautiful and clever romantic drama. It’s as interesting for what it has as it is for what it leaves out. The usual gay themes — coming out, bullying, abusive parents, fear, religious guilt, gay bashing, homophobia and HIV AIDS – aren’t part of this movie. It’s also not a typical boy-meets-girl (or boy meets boy) romance. What it does have is fantastic acting, a great screenplay, beautiful location, music and art. From the beautiful calligraphy of the opening credits, to the devestating, single-shot finish, this movie is flawless.

Dim the Fluorescents is now playing. Call Me By Your Name 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 Sherwan Haji about The Other Side of Hope

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Drama, Finland, Kurds, Refugees, Syria by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

Photos 1,3 by Jeff Harris

Khaled is a mechanic in Aleppo when the bombs start to fall, killing most of his family. He flees Syria and makes his way through Europe until he finds sanctuary in Helsinki, Finland. But when he applies for refugee status he is turned down, and threatened with deportation. He ends up living on the streets… until he is given a job in an unusual restaurant, recently bought by an eccentric, older man looking for a career change. Khaled is searching for his lost sister even as he runs from police, government agents and neo-Nazis. Can his new job show him the Other Side of Hope?

The Other Side of Hope is filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film. It shows the plight of refugees in Finland as well as the endearing — if oddball — characters, live musicians and an ineffable aesthetic unique to Kaurismäki’s films. It stars Sherwan Haji as Khaled. Sherwan himself is originally from Syria, where he acted on TV. He now continues his accomplished career of acting and filmmaking in Europe.

I spoke to Sherwan on site at Films We Like in Toronto in September 2017, during TIFF.

The Other Side of Hope opens today in Toronto.

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