Exceptional people with hidden histories. Movies reviewed: Gifted, I Called Him Morgan, Frantz

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, drugs, Family, France, Germany, Jazz, melodrama, Music, Mystery, WWI by CulturalMining.com on April 10, 2017

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

Spring Film Festival season continues with the upcoming Images and TIFF Kids film festivals, celebrating their 30th and 20th anniversaries (respectively).

This week, I’m looking at movies about exceptional people with hidden histories. There’s a musical genius in Manhattan, a mathematical prodigy on the Florida coast, and a man of mystery at the border of France and Germany.

Gifted

Dir: Mark Webb

Frank (Chris Evans) is a youngish guy living in a shack in Florida. He lives a quiet life, fixing boats and hooking up with women at laguna bars. The rest of his time is spent home-schooling his niece Mary (McKenna Grace), a foul-mouthed seven-year-old with blonde pigtails. Mary likes math, dancing to pop songs and playing with Fred, their one-eyed stray cat, a castoff like the two of them. How did they end up in Florida? Frank’s sister, a math genius, left Mary with him as a baby… just before killing herself. She made him promise to let Mary have a normal life, in case it turns out she’s a genius too. Normal means keeping the child free from math profs and universities, and most of all away from their obsessive mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). She’s the one who pushed Frank’s sister over the edge with her relentless ambition: solving one of the Millennium Prize Problems.

Frank is protecting Mary from all that. But how can she live a normal life hidden away in their clapboard shack? It’s time to send her to public school — despite his savvy neighbour Roberta’s warnings not to (Octavia Spence). Right away the dominos start to fall: teacher tells principal Mary is gifted, Principal goes online and soon Evelyn is in Florida demanding a proper Harvard education for her gifted grandchild.  Who has Mary’s best interests at heart – her wealthy patrician grandmother or her salt-of-the-earth uncle Frank?

I like the idea behind Gifted, and was looking forward to a story about a genius kid trying to live a normal life – but aside from a few scenes the movie isn’t about that. It’s actually a child custody drama, which is never much fun. Throw in foster parents, courtrooms and lawyers and the movie becomes a trial to watch. While the acting is not bad – Captain America as a single dad – and there are a few big secrets revealed along the way, I found Gifted disappointing.

I Called Him Morgan

Dir: Kasper Collin

Lee Morgan was a young jazz trumpet player from Philly, featured in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band as an 18 year old. 15 years later he was shot dead outside a Manhattan jazz club in a snow storm by a much older woman named Helen. How did he get there, who was this woman, and how did it happen? A new documentary looks closely at both their lives.

Morgan was a hard-bop trumpeter who dressed in Ivy League suits and drove his Triumph through Central Park. He played with Art Blakey and John Coltrane, later breaking away with his own band. Helen was born in a small town near Wilmington, North Carolina, with two kids by age 14, and widowed by 18 after a short marriage to a bootlegger. She left her kids with grandma, moved to New York City and never looked back. She cut an impressive figure on the streets, hanging with Manhattan’s demimonde, sexual outlaws and drug dealers. That’s how she entered the jazz scene. By the time she met Lee Morgan, he was a junkie who had pawned his trumpet for some heroin and was virtually homeless. She washed him, got him into a Bronx clinic and set him back up in the jazz scene. She served as his mother, lover, manager and protector. But when he began to fool around with a young woman from New Jersey, things started to go wrong…

I Called Him Morgan is an amazing movie about the two lovers’ lives. Helen gave only one interview in a bar on a cassette tape a month before she died, but in it she tells what really happened. Interviews with the friends and musicians he played with fill in the blanks, and it is illustrated with B&W photos from Blue Note (the club and record label where Morgan played and recorded), all set alight by Morgan’s cool trumpet sounds. Fascinating musical documentary.

Frantz

Dir: Francois Ozon

A small town in Germany, right after WWI. Anna (Paula Beer) is a strong and pretty young woman all dressed in black. She is in mourning for her fiance Frantz Hoffmeister, who died in the trenches. She still lives with Frantz’s father, the good Doktor Hoffmeister, and Magda his mother. They treat her like one of the family. One day, Anna spies a young man with a pencil thin moustache laying white roses by Frantz’s grave. Who is this man and what does he want? His name is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) and he is a musician. It seems he knew Frantz before the war, in Paris, and he carries a letter he wrote. He is visiting the town to pay his respects and to say something to Frantz’s father. But the war wounds are still raw, and townsfolk can’t believe a frenchman would dare set foot there. Eventually, nervous Adrien spends time with Anna and her family forging a deep emotional friendship, but one based partly on lies. What isn’t he telling them?

After Adrien returns to France, Anna decides to track him down in Paris, and retrace the museums and music halls Frantz had loved. But Adrien is nowhere to be found. Like a detective, she tries to locate him far outside Paris, which leads her to a sumptuous villa in the country. And now Anna must reveal secrets of her own.

Frantz is a fantastic, novelistic melodrama spanning Germany and France, about secrets, lies, guilt and class. It’s a romance full of unrequited love, fuelled by letters and whispered confessions. I told very little of the story, to avoid spoilers, but believe me this is one great movie. It’s shot in stunning black and white with a hitchcockian musical score, beautiful costumes and great acting. Francois Ozon’s movies are often light family dramas or superficial sexual comedies, but this one is a sumptuous, epic story, perfectly made. I recommend this one.

Gifted, I Called him Morgan and Frantz all start 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.

Heimat Films. Movies reviewed: Schultze Gets the Blues, Window Horses

Posted in Animation, Canada, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Germany, Iran, Movies, Music, Poetry by CulturalMining.com on March 10, 2017

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

Heimat is the German word for home, homeland and fatherland… with hints of blood and soil. It’s also the name of a particular postwar film genre. Backed with strong American encouragement it helped Germans forget their economic problems and troublesome past, and look blithely forward toward a better tomorrow. Heimat films were made in southern Germany and popular in Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland, depicting traditional small towns filled with girls in blonde pigtails. Heimat films are having a comeback in contemporary Germany, perhaps in response to Conservative governments and feelings of turmoil and insecurity. They concentrate on a mixture of traditional, homogeneous, smalltown Germany, so-called authentic culture, and a longing for a simpler past. Toronto’s Goethe Films: Heimat Now series is running until March 14th.

This week I’m looking at movies about home. There’s a comedy about German man whose accordion leads him to zydeco; and an animated feature about a Canadian woman whose poems lead her to Shiraz.

Schultze Gets the Blues

Wri/Dir: Michael Schorr

Schultze (Horst Krause) is a miner in a small town Germany. This town is so small that the radio traffic report is just a long pause. The village is dominated by a railroad crossing, a motorcross track and an enormous slag pile, expelled from the mine where Schultze works with his two friends Jurgen (Harald Warmbrunn) and Manfred (Karl Fred Muller). But when the three men retire they find they have nothing to do. Chess games end in fights, and trips to the local pub means just the same old faces, over and over.

At least Schultze has his garden gnomes and his trusty accordion. Like his father before him, he’s been entertaining townsfolk with his polkas for two generations. They’re even planning on sending a cultural emissary to its twin city in Texas. Nothing ever changes, until one day, out of nowhere, he hears accordion music on his radio that isn’t quite right. It disturbs him. It’s not a polka, it’s faster, jumpier, and catchier. What is this Amerikanische music? It has entered Schultze’s brain and will not go away. Locals listen in horror and shout the N-word at him. So Schultze sets off for the swamps and bayous of America in search of Zydeco. And he finds the people in small town Texas a whole lot like the ones he left back home.

Schultze Gets the Blues is a simple, endearing comedy about a big-bellied man looking for meaning in music. I have to admit watching this movie felt, at first, like watching paint dry. I guess I’m a city boy used to a faster pace. But once I adjusted to the slower small-town rhythms, it was funnier, fascinating, almost profound. I ended up liking it.

Window Horses

Wri/Dir: Ann Marie Fleming

Rosie Ming (Sandra Oh) is a young woman with pigtails who lives in Vancouver but dreams of Paris. Her mom died, and her dad abandoned her when she was just a little girl so now she lives with her kind but overprotective grandparents.

She works in a fast food joint, and loves poetry, berets and the romance of far-off France. She writes down the words that come to her as she strums at her guitar, and publishes a collection of these poems at a vanity press. Imagine her surprise when she’s invited to a poetry festival far away. Not in Paris, France, but in Shiraz, Iran. With her grandparents consent she arrives there, a Chinese-looking Canadian dressed in a black chador, the most conservative type of Iranian dress, a combination black hijab and full-length gown.

At the poetry festival, she seems out of place. Iran is a land of poetry and Shiraz its poetic capital. At poetry slams she tries to understand what she hears, but the poems in Farsi, German and Chinese evade her. Gradually she meets people who had heard of her… through her father. Far from abandoning her, she discovers her dad was forced to leave her and kept away from her by outside forces. Not only that, but he was Iranian, loved poetry and once lived in Shiraz. His story, and its connection to Rosie May is gradually revealed through the music, the poetry and the people who seek her out. But will she ever discover the truth about her Iranian father?

Window Horses is a visually and musically beautiful movie, portraying a naïve Canadian woman exposed to a colourful and culturally rich country. This is an animated film with simple drawings. Rosie is a stick figure with two lines for eyes, who almost disappears in her Chador. Others have faces decorated with oblong jowls and curlicue eyes. Animation shifts from traditional two dimensional figures to sepia -coloured 3-D frescoes. Voices are provided by Sandra Oh as Rosie, with Don McKellar, Ellen Page and Shohreh Aghdashloo in other roles.

I like this movie.

Window Horses starts today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Schultze Gets the Blues is playing at the Heimat Now series at the Goethe Institute in Toronto.

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

Youth. Films reviewed: Land of Mine, The Young Offenders, Before the Streets

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, Denmark, Depression, Drama, drugs, First Nations, Germany, Indigenous, Ireland, Movies, WWII by CulturalMining.com on February 17, 2017

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

Twelve to twenty-four-year-olds make up the biggest chunk of frequent moviegoers in North America, but what are they given to watch? Superheroes, spaceships, slashers and rom-coms. Rare is the serious movie about people their age, people they can identify with. So this week, I’m looking at movies about youth. There are two guys in Ireland searching for cocaine, Germans in Denmark digging up landmines, and an aboriginal man in Quebec facing up to his past.

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Land of Mine (Academy Award nominee: Best Foreign Language Picture)

Wri/Dir: Martin Zandvliet

It’s Denmark, May, 1945, Victory in Europe and the hated German soldiers are force- marched back across the border. But they left a gift: thousands of landmines planted across pristine Denmark’s beaches. (They thought the allies would invade there, not in Normandy) Hard-ass Sgt Rasmussen (Roland Møller) is called in to supervise a cleanup of the beaches using German POWs. They put them there — they should be the ones to get rid of 8e2649d8-61de-447e-894b-6dbd2abd2cd4them. It’s a simple process: sweep off the sand, unscrew a bolt, defuse the mine, then move on to the next one. Do it wrong you get blown up. Do it right you get sent back home… once the entire beach is clear. And that’s when you’ll get to eat again – no point wasting food on Nazi POWs.

97abadb7-b7bc-47f5-839f-d1216540b6d0What Rasmussen doesn’t expect is that these so-called soldiers are just boys, pulled off farms and remote villages at the end of the war. Kids like innocent identical twins Ernst and Werner (Emil and Oscar Belton) who still hold hands to feel safe; the earnest Sebastien who always wears a paisley scarf (Louis Hofmann); and even the bitter Helmut (Joel Basman) who considers himself in charge of this ragtag unit. Can these teenagers keep up their morale even as they see 25579aa2-36b8-4321-9219-c9e677cfa6bctheir friends exploding all around them? And can hard-hearted Sgt Rasmussen ever feel for these boys that are his prisoners?

Land of Mine is a touching, high-tension war drama based on true events. And you can’t help but feel for these poor kids forced into a horrible situation. I cried. It’s a real tear-jerker, and it addresses long-hidden war guilt on the part of the allies — stories that must be told. But it’s also very manipulative, painting Germans as the innocent victims and Danes as their cruel oppressors… just days after the end of WWII!

youngoffenders_06The Young Offenders

Wri/Dir: Peter Foott

It’s 2007 in Cork, Ireland. Two 15 year olds, Conor and Jock (Alex Murphy, Chris Walley) are schoolmates. They’re inseparable, with the same tracksuits, the same haircuts, the same zits. They even share the same underwear.

The shorter one, Conor, works in a fish shop with his single mum. Jock’s lives with his dad an abusive drunk. The taller Jock earns money as a bike thief known as Fake Billy: he commits his crimes wearing a realistic rubber mask that looks just like the real Billy, a dangerous local hood. Jock and Conor aren’t particular smart or youngoffenders_02good looking or rich, but at least they have each other. Then fortune smiles on them – they hear about a shipwreck of 61 bales of contraband cocaine, worth 7 million Euros each, off the coast of Ireland. This is their chance. Even if they get caught, as 15-year-olds they’d avoid doing hard time.

So they set off across the country on two stolen bikes to find their one bale of coke. But they don’t realize they’re being chased by a vengeful cop, a deranged drug dealer, and a vicious hood. Will their friendship – and their lives – survive this great road trip?

This is a fun, laddish road movie about life as working-class teens in Ireland. Cute.

beforethestreets_03Before the Streets

Wri/Dir: Chloé Leriche

Shawnouk (Rykko Bellemare) lives a nice life in his Atikamekw community, with his little sister and her baby, their mom and stepdad. He hangs with his best friend, and his on-again, off-again girlfriend. He playing a drums, singing,, smokes grass and exploring the land. But things started to go bad when his stepdad, a cop on the reserve, takes away his bingo winnings. Now he’s broke so he agrees to act as a guide for Thomas (Martin Dubreuil), a Québécois he meets at the liquor dealer’s house. Thomas says he’ll just take the stuff rich city folk leave behind in their summer cottages. But the very first burglary ends in disaster, and Shawnouk flees into the woods in horror. He is beforethestreets_04taken in by strangers, an elder and her granddaughter who nurse him back to health. Reading his face she tells him he must talk with someone about what happened. She wraps tobacco in a piece of red cloth and tells him to go to a sweatlodge on a nearby island.

He takes her offering but stows it always and returns home as if nothing happened. But his cop stepdad is investigating Shawnouk’s crime and is covering it up.

beforethestreets_02But far from relieved he is wracked with guilt and self loathing for what he did, and his bad feelings spread to the rest of his family. His stepdad takes it out on him, forcing him into a horrible job killing stray dogs. He can’t take it anymore. He heads off to his last hope, the sweatlodge, though he knows it won’t help.

Before the Streets is a first film, different from anything I’ve seen. The roles are played by non-actors from the director’s community and all dialogue is in their own language. It’s shot entirely from an aboriginal point of view, incorporating the director’s culture, language, customs and music. It covers sweat lodges, smudging, gift giving and healing, as well as negative issues like suicide, depression, and domestic violence. A touching and informative first feature.

Land of Mine opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Young Offenders and Before the Streets are both playing at the Next Wave Film Festival right now showing movies and events for free if you’re 25 or younger. 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

Destinies and Destinations. Films Reviewed: Toni Erdmann, Gold, The Red Turtle PLUS Isaac Julien

Posted in Animation, Belgium, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Drama, Family, Finance, Germany, Movies by CulturalMining.com on January 27, 2017

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

British filmmaker and artist Isaac Julien has two film installations on three screens each at the ROM, that follow parallel impressionistic journeys. One with migrants ijs105_western-union-series-no5_ghosts_they-build-their-lives_2007travelling from North Africa to southern Europe, the other following Matthew A Henson the African American explorer heading to the North Pole with Robert Peary.

So this week I’m looking at movies about destinies and destinations. There’s a prospector looking for Gold in Indonesia, a man stranded on a deserted island, and a German trickster in Romania.

c6006c5e-b388-4432-a637-9499a701e432Toni Erdmann

Dir: Maren Ade

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is an elderly man who lives in Germany with his little dog. He still teaches but his main hobby is practical jokes, especially elaborate routines with him at the centre. He always carries a set of crooked teeth to slip over his own for the shocking effect.

Winfried has an adult daughter named Ines (Sandra Hüller). She’s in her thirties who dresses conservatively, with plain blonde hair. She works for a dda3ca6c-37d5-4322-8070-aeb2af566f08multinational corporation in Bucharest Romania. Ines is an uptight, by-the-book careerist, rising quickly to the top levels of her company. She’s also brimming with angst, loneliness and depression.

Who shows up at her corporate 01533d11-1237-4a24-9475-0bdfe53eed02office? It’s Winfried her dad, on a surprise visit. She loves him, but finds him awkward and uncomfortable to deal with, so she’s relieved when he leaves. Only he doesn’t. He’s still in Bucharest, but in character, complete with fake teeth, Richard Branson wig and dark suit. He says his name is Toni Erdmann, and, he shows up at every party, meeting and get together. And to Ines’s dismay, he’s very popular at her workplace. She has to play along with his joke or risk her job and career.646540f8-a2a1-47f6-a981-99169e9c5cfa

But the story gets really interesting when Ines starts to pick up on her dad’s playful nature and learns to relax, laugh and let herself go.

This is a long movie – almost three hours – and it’s a comedy but it’s never boring. It reveals the story at its own pace, and — no spoilers! — but it does include a nudist party, impromptu karaoke, and an enormous mythical yeti. Great movie!

bryce-dallas-howard-and-matthew-mcconaughey-in-goldGold

Dir: Stephen Gaghan

It’s the 1980s. Kenny Wells (Matt McConaughey) is a fourth generation prospector who lives in Reno, Nevada. His grandpa headed west to get rich on silver and gold. Prospectors say they can smell gold a mile away. But Wells seems to have lost that magic touch. Now he works in a cramped office, and he takes meetings at a rundown bar. Each of his investment schemes promise riches but GOLDend up in ruin. And his charm is in the eyes of the beholder. He’s balding with a pot belly, greasy hair and a snuggle tooth. His girlfriend Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) still believes in him, but investors don’t.

Until he hears about a man from South America with a new theory. GOLDMichael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) is a dashing prospector with an air of mystery about him. He says there’s a ring of fire in Southeast Asia loaded with precious metals from ancient meteors. Wells and Acosta venture into the jungles of Indonesia looking for treasure. And just when Wells is about to give up, just when he is on deaths door with malaria… Acosta strikes gold. It’s GOLDthe motherload! Core samples say it’s the richest gold mine on the face of the earth. Now they need to face investors, Wall Street brokers, mining moguls and tinpot dictators to hold onto their claims and to make billions. Can Wells keep his indignation and ego under control? Will his relationship with Kay – and his bromance with Acosta — endure under pressure? And can they survive the dog eat dog world of high finance?

Though loosely based on a real story, Gold is strictly fiction. The movie doesn’t deal with things like environmental degradation or horrible work conditions that can accompany mining. And it’s a bit long. But it’s also a fun and fascinating story of the ups and downs of prospecting.

13340241_233264913726993_7447487803385711803_oThe Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)

Dir: Michael Dudok de Wit

A man is awakened on a beach by a crab skittering past. What happened? Where is he? He’s stranded on an island somewhere, a rock with sparkling white sand and pristine blue water. Exploring the island, he finds a lush bamboo forest on one side, a clear freshwater pond in the middle, and at the far end a high rocky precipice. Huge fruits hang from trees, 13415485_234005173652967_7596049063021961426_oready to pick and the beaches teem with fish, and clams. No one around to keep him company, just a wailing seal, fluttering birds and those annoying little crabs that follow him everywhere. Clearly he must escape.

14362673_288284511558366_2379912415219863982_oHe fashions a raft out of bamboo poles tied together with vines and sets off into the waves. Before long something enormous smashes raft to pieces from below. A shark? A whale? He can’t tell, but each attempt to escape the island ends in the same way… disaster. He unnamedfinally discovers the source: a huge red turtle. Eventually the turtle goes aground and walks on the beach, and in a fit of anger, the man flips it on its back and beats it with a stick. Feeling guilty, he tries, without success, to nurse it back to health. But the shell cracks open revealing a beautiful woman inside with long, red hair.

13316884_231361350584016_4940529898495944572_oThe red turtle is a beautiful animated film about a man and his family who form a symbiotic relationship with the sea. it’s produced by Japan’s famous Ghibli Studios – which may explain the Urashima Taro references, a classic story about a man and a turtle. But the look of the movie is purely northern European – the characters have dots for eyes, just like Tintin. This is a beautiful and poignant animated movie. I really liked this one.

Toni Erdmann has been nominated for best foreign film, and The Red Turtle for best animated film Oscar. Along with Gold, they all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Isaac Julien’s Other Destinies is now screening at the Royal Ontario Museum. Go to rom.on.ca for details.

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

Daniel Garber talks with director Simon Stadler about Ghostland: The View of the Ju/’Hoansi

Posted in Africa, Anthropology, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Germany, Travel by CulturalMining.com on December 25, 2016

14124088_1073052289410123_769607674_oHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM

The Ju/’Hoansi are a people living in the Kalahari desert for millennia. They feed themselves as hunters and gatherers with minimal contact with outside groups. But not so long ago, hunting wild animals in the bush was banned in Namibia (in Southwest Africa.) Deprived of their livelihood, they were forced to turn to tourism to earn money selling handicrafts and posing for pictures. And the white tourists – known as ghostpeople – flocked in from all over. Later, some members of the village were shown other parts of Namibia, and four of them taken to Europe, a land filled with ghosts.

Ghostland: The View of the Ju/’Hoansi is a new feature documentary that ghostland5follows the four as they discover Europe, teach people there how to live as they do, and carry some of the wealth and technology they encounter back home to their families in the Kalahari. It is directed by Simon Stadler, a prizewinning filmmaker and known for his background in anthropology. I spoke with Simon in Germany by telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM studio.

The film opens on Christmas Day at Toronto’s Hot Docs cinema.

 

 

Fassbinder’s Women. Films reviewed: The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, Veronika Voss

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1970s, 1980s, Drama, Germany, Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 18, 2016

explore_152id_002_originalHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

The postwar renaissance of Germany’s once great cinema almost didn’t happen. It wasn’t until the 1970s that German movies came into their own. And Rainer Werner Fassbinder — along with Herzog, Wenders, Schlöndorf and von Trotta — was key to this Neue Kino. Born near Munich at the end of WWII, Fassbinder lived his entire life in Bavaria. Between 1966 and 1982, he created a phenomenal 42 feature films, along with countless stage plays and the epic TV miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz. Between these projects he led a wild personal life filled with sex, drugs and political controversy. Married twice, he also had at least two long-term male lovers, while consuming huge quantities of cocaine.

Throughout, he attempted to document Germany’s fass_24colcultural history, as the country arose from devastating defeat to become the economic juggernaut it is today. And in many of these films Germany is a woman. His female character try to survive economically, even though outsiders — men – control all the power and money. These women must weave their way through the psychologically damaging malaise underlying Germany’s economic boom. Fassbinder filters these portrayals through his view of Hollywood, especially the so-called women’s pictures of the 1940s and 50s. He idolizes directors like Douglas Sirk and Joseph L Mankiewicz and wants to be their modern, German equivalent, giving his films melodramatic titles like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and [The Longing of] Veronika Voss.

A retrospective of his work, Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, presented by the Goethe Institute and TIFF Cinematheque, is on now through the end of the year. I’m looking at three of his “women’s pictures”, great movies from the end of his career, known as his BRD (Bundesrepublik) Trilogy. Though made in the late 1970s – early 80s, they all take place in the 1940s-50s.

There’s a woman married to money, another to the silver screen, and a third to a man she never sees.

204_image-1The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978) (Die Ehe der Maria Braun)

It’s Germany just after WWII. Maria Braun (Hanna Schygulla) is in a fix. She was married beneath a portrait of Adolph Hitler, as American bombs fell all around her. Three weeks of love, and one night of marital bliss… then husband Hermann was sent back to the Russian front. Now with her husband presumed dead she has to feed herself. But she refuses to call herself a widow. She parades the streets each day with a cardboard sign asking “Where is my husband Hermann Braun?”

Her city is a mess of rubble, rubbish and holes in walls. Well-fed GIs are the only ones with money, while locals subsist on turnips and porridge. Maria is forced to take a job at the Moonlight Bar, a beer hall for US soldiers.

There she meets an African-American GI and falls in love. Their relationship progresses from dancing, to picnics, to English lessons, to sex. But they are interrupted in flagrante delecto by Hermann, back from the war. He beats her up and she, in turn, slams a glass bottle… not at her husband’s head, but at her lover’s, killing him instantly. Hermann takes the fall and goes to jail, while Maria vows to achieve financial success for both of them. The film chronicles her quick rise to power at a French nylon stocking conglomerate. She sleeps with the CEO — just like with the GI — but her heart remains true to her husband. But can he be trusted?

This is a great, though cynical, look at postwar Germany, as seen by the ambitious, but manipulated, Maria Braun. (Not a spoiler, but it does have an explosive ending!) This fantastic and surprising film was Fassbinders first international hit — it played in NY City for over a year.

206_image-1Lola (1981) 

It’s 1957. The leading citizens of small-town Bavaria are planning a new development: Lindenhof. It will make them all filthy rich. Protesters picket daily on the street and their plans are clearly fraudulent, but, with the government, business and police all on the take, nothing can go wrong.

In walks the new building inspector, Mr von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl). He says he wants to usher in a new city in tune with the German Economic Miracle. He’s both modern and old-fashioned – modern at work, old fashioned at home. He owns a Ming vase and loves children, East Prussians and Frisian tea. And he is a stickler who carefully reads every blueprint, invoice and form. He is “incorruptible”.

When he falls under the influence of a leftist poseur, he vows to confront the “birds of prey” behind this venture. Head vulture? The nouveau riche developer Schukert (Mario Adorf). He’s the local Donald Trump. He’s married to an older woman, but spends most of his time with his mistress Lola (Barbara Sukowa). Lola is a fiery film_203w_brd_originalcabaret performer and sex worker at the town brothel. She decides to seduce von Bohm in order to guarantee economic success for herself and her daughter. But who will triumph – the hero von Bohm, or all of the corrupt conspirators?

Lola is a deeply cynical film… but with an oddly happy ending. It decries the corruption, on both the left and the right, and the ordinary people crushed by the wheels of progress. But then the film shrugs its shoulders at the unavoidable results of modernity.

Lola is another great film, a dark satire, lit with phenomenally intense day-glo colours whose pink, aqua and acid green will sear your eyeballs.

veronikavossVeronica Voss (1981) (Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss)

It’s the 1950s in Munich. Veronika Voss (Rosel Zech) is a faded movie actress who once starred in films at UFA, the mammoth German movie studio. She still sits in theatres, staring at herself on the screen. One rainy evening, she runs into a man named Robert Krohl (Hilmar Thate). He gallantly offers her his umbrella, and walks her to the streetcar. Robert is a sports writer, gruff and burly, who knows nothing about movie stars. He happily lives with his lover, Henriette, and secretly writes poetry in his spare time.

But when she asks him for a drink, he is captivated by her larger-than-life personality. She poses and preens, acts impulsively, switching in seconds from elation, depression to agony. Movies, she says, are all about shadow and light, and she demands the waiter adjust the light to make her look better. Robert is smitten. He traces her steps to a neurological clinic, a spotless white office run by a Frau Doktor Katz (Annemarie Düringer). She’s a pretty but severe doctor who offers Veronika friendship (and morphine!) in exchange for complete domination of her life. Can Robert rescue Veronika from the lesbian doctor’s clutches before she is forever lost? Or is she already lost to drugs, and just a flickering image of the star she once was?

Veronika Voss is fantastic melodrama in the style of 30s films and 40s noir with an incredibly shiny, shadowy, black-and-white look.

Fassbinder died of a drug overdose at age 36, not long after this film’s release.

Imitations of Life: The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder is playing at TIFF until late December. 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.

Nazi trials. Films reviewed: Denial, The People vs Fritz Bauer

Posted in 1950s, Cultural Mining, Drama, Germany, Movies, Nazi, Trial, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 7, 2016

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

The Nuremberg trials were held by the Allies immediately after WWII. They publically exposed, tried, and punished the leaders of Nazi Germany for their war crimes and crimes against humanity. But relatively few were actually put on trial. And old ideologies live on. This week I’m looking at two historical dramas about lesser-known cases. There’s a German attorney in the 1950s stymied in his attempt to prosecute war criminals; and an American holocaust historian, sued for libel by a man who denies it ever took place.

DENIALDenial

Dir: Mick Jackson

Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) is a university professor at a Georgia university. She specializes in Holocaust studies, the history of genocide under Nazi Germany. She has a special interest in holocaust deniers, writers from the extreme right who claim the holocaust never happened, any deaths were incidental, and there were no gas chambers. She says she won’t debate ahistorical demagogues but she does provide ample academic data verifying her work. So she is surprised one day when a strange man appears, uninvited, in her classroom, shouting accusations at her, all recorded with a video camera. It’s David Irving (Timothy Spall), a DENIALUK author and a great fan of Hitler and Naziism. She has mentioned him in one of her books on Holocaust deniers.

Not long after, she receives a legal notice: David Irving is suing her for libel. Her book, he says, has damaged his credibility as a historian. If she settles out of court he will appear to be justified. But if she loses the case it could serve as a triumph for neo-nazis and white supremacists across Europe. So, in an odd judicial quirk,  it’s up to her to prove (before a disinterested judge) that the holocaust took place.

With the help of well-known barristers and solicitors (played, respectively, by a cold Tom Wilkinson and a sly Andrew Scott) she pleads her case in court. DENIALWho will win the case?

Denial is principally a courtroom drama. Rachel Weiss is believable, with an excellent New York accent (she is British), but she is stifled by the role. Because her lawyers tell her not to testify, so she can’t speak in court. Instead, she spends much of the movie making gestures and sighs of anger, shock or frustration. Timothy Spall has more latitude. He plays a lawyer defending himself. Irving comes across as a self-important but wormy man who, deep down, just wants respect and love. He gets neither. So, while this is an exciting topic,  the movie itself comes across as plodding and a bit dull.

fritz_webthumb2_f7b15d1f-9b46-4fcc-a888-c18f2d668345_smThe People vs Fritz Bauer (Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer)

Wri/Dir: Lars Kraume

It’s the late 1950s in cold war West Germany. Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klaußner: Goodbye Lenin, The White Ribbon) is a State Attorney General in Frankfurt. The country is economically booming but politically moribund. It still holds many laws enacted under Nazi rule, and the civil service is riddled with former party members. Bauer takes it upon himself to expose war criminals and bring them to trial. But he is stymied at every turn.

Before WWII, at age 30, he had been the youngest judge ever, but was jailed by the Nazis when they took power. He tpvfb_still1_lgsurvived the war in Denmark and Sweden, and later came back to Germany to continue his work. But he has few allies there. He has three strikes against him: Jewish ancestry, Socialist politics, and he is secretly gay, still illegal in Germany at the time.

Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld: Phoenix, Barbara) is a young prosecutor fresh out of law school with a young wife and a conservative family. He’s handsome, idealistic and devoted to the cause, with secrets of his own. And like many younger Germans, he feels alienated from his own country. He finds harsh laws punishing consensual sex to be cruel and outdated. Unlike most of his office, he finds Bauer an inspiration, a reason to strive for a tpvfb_still2_lgnew, progressive and democratic Germany.

Bauer receives a letter from a German in Argentina who says Adolph Eichmann is still alive, living nearby in plain sight. Eichmann is the notorious Nazi leader responsible for transporting millions to death camps. Bauer contacts Interpol and the German government, but they brush him off: We don’t pursue political crimes. Bauer’s one wish is to try war criminals like Eichmann under German Law, and within German courtrooms.

Can Bauer and Angermann shake up the establishment, reform its laws, and bring war criminals to justice? Or will tpvfb_still3_lgthe network of Nazis still in power stop them from their goals?

The People vs Fritz Bauer is a really interesting biopic and drama about a fascinating character. It has intrigue, suspense, and a few surprise twists. Klaußner plays Bauer as a hotheaded idealistic loner fighting the establishment, like Bill Murray playing Barney Frank. And Angermann is great as his conflicted devotee (with a secret lover). The movie is based on records released many years after these events. And it’s a great follow-up to 2014’s Labyrinth of Lies, another German movie that picks up where this one ends.

Denial opens today; check you local listings. The People vs Fritz Bauer starts in Toronto on Oct 21. Also opening today is The Stairs, a great documentary about Toronto’s Regent Park.

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

Schocken and Scribner’s. Films reviewed: Vita Activa — The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, Genius

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, Biopic, Books, Cultural Mining, Germany, Manhattan, Nazi, US, WWII by CulturalMining.com on June 10, 2016

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

Movies based on books are a dime a dozen: there’s a movie option for every bestseller. But what about movies about the books and writers themselves? This week I’m looking at movies set in the mid-20th century when books really were important. There’s a documentary about a philosopher who pulls her observations together; and a biopic about an editor who cuts lengthy manuscripts apart.

Vita Activa PosterVita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Dir: Ada Ushpiz

It’s 1963 in Jerusalem. Adolph Eichmann is on trial there as the primary architect of the mass murder perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Covering the trial for the New Yorker  is Hanna Arendt noted German-Jewish philosopher. She observes the ultimate bland bureaucrat in a glass box who claims he has no hatred of the Jews he slaughtered and says he is not an ideologue. Arendt observes it all, and coins the term the Banality of Evil to describe it. This sets off a huge controversy. Critics accuse her of minimizing the enormity of Nazi crimes, humanizing the criminal and even partially blaming the victims.

How did she go from a girl from Hanover to a philosopher/journalist inHannah Arendt 1 Jerusalem? The path was not direct. This documentary covers the history of her life, both academic and personal, and her philosophy and writings.

Arendt lived through what she wrote about. Born in Hanover, Arendt was raised by her mother. She studied at the University of Marburg under philospher Martin Heidegger (her sometime lover) just before the Nazis came to power in 1933. She was kicked out of  school and suddenly found herself — an ordinary German — as part of a group denounced and dehumanized by government propaganda: the refugees who had fled war and revolution across Europe.  What disheartened her Hannah Arendt 2most was to see German intellectuals (including Heidegger), the very people she revered and was devoting her life to study,  incorporating Nazi rhetoric into their own writing and speeches.

She fled to Paris and continued her work. There she witnessed the rise of extremism and totalitarianism across Europe. Imprisoned in a concentration camp by the French, she escaped and made it to New York, where she wrote about totalitarianism, guilt and responsibility.

This film is a historical document that uses recorded interviews – in English, French and German — to explain her ideas and the events in her Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa, Zeitgeist Filmslife. It’s illustrated by newsreel footage, government propaganda as well as film from the Eichmann trial. Her writing and letters are read by off-screen actors. And both her critics and supporters — including Karl Jaspers and Judith Butler — are given airtime.

This is a rich and beautiful look at the work and life of Hannah Arendt.  It also deals with the debate on her philosophy and the controversies around her coverage of the Eichmann trial. I think this films does a better job than the dramas made about her life.

Genius PosterGenius

Dir: Michael Grandage

Max Perkins (Colin Firth) is a top editor at Scribners and sons, a major New York publisher of fiction. He’s known for championing an unknown writer. He picks up a messy pile of paper, cuts out the unnecessary parts and rewrites it Boom – instant bestseller. Max – known for the fedora he never takes off his head — is the invisible force behind F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He’s the one who edited The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises.

When he’s not at work he’s commuting to the outer suburbs, a bastion of Anglo privilege and conservatism with his wife Louise (Laura Linney) and their five daughters.

But suddenly something upsets the apple cart. A manuscript 7X2A4831.cr2arrives, courtesy of Broadway costume designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman). She’s married with children but champion an unknown writer whose work has been rejected across the industry. He reads it it and is blown away. And who appears his door but Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), a youngish man with messy hair and a brown suit with a heavy southern drawl. He shouts and performs rather than converses. As soon as they meet, the older, bookish Max and the young undisciplined Tom become fast friends and devote all their time trying to convert 1000s of messy pages a pile into a coherent readable novel. Cut, cut, cut says Max. But this is my life! 7X2A3167.cr2protests Tom. The book is published to phenomenal success. And then on to the next manuscript to the chagrine of their famileis and livers But will their bromance outlast Tom’s brush with fame?

13416962_1731661510436823_7285708826814410368_oGenius is an interesting film about writing and editing. That’s what I liked about it.

(Full disclosure: when I’m not reviewing movies I’m editing books – that’s my other job.) I love editing… but is it ever exciting? The movie is filled with writers typing and scribbling, and scribbling away passages with a red pencil. But what the movie really needs is a good edit! It’s filled with tons of speechifying and grandstanding (and dare I say overacting?) Do real writers, even famous ones, talk like they write? Of course not. But in this movie they do.

It’s done as a period piece, complete with beautiful interwar cityscapes, 13418669_1732542140348760_2521662994238663257_operiod costumes and cars, and a great cast. But somehow this movie manages to be both bookish and overwrought.

Spring festival season continues with ICFF, the Italian Contemporary Film Festival and the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, and NIFF, the Niagara Integrated Film Festival. Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; Genius starts next week in Toronto and Vancouver.

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

Latin America at #TIFF15. Movies reviewed: Colonia, Desde Allá, The Clan

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, Argentina, Chile, Cultural Mining, Drama, Germany, Thriller, Venezuela by CulturalMining.com on September 26, 2015

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

TIFF featured a number of notable South American films this year, so this week, I’m going to look at three of them. Two – an escape drama and a true crime drama — are set in the south, Argentina and Chile, under their rightwing, military dictators in the 70s. And one in the north, a drama set in modern-day Venezuela.

58KWyB_colonia_02_o3_8704338_1441928352Colonia

Dir: Florian Gallenberger

It’s 1973 in Santiago Chile. Daniel (Daniel Brühl) is a German photographer who was drawn there by the excitement around the newly-elected socialist premier Salvador Allende. He is deeply in love with his girlfriend Lena (Emma Watson: Hermione in the Harry Potter series), a flight attendant for Lufthansa, who touches down regularly in Santiago. But when the government collapses with a CIA-backed military coup, the streets become dangerous.  Thousands of people – including Daniel and Lena — are herded into the Santiago Football Stadium. Some are shot on the spot, others taken away in vans.

Lena is safe, but Daniel is horribly tortured, nearly to death, by Pinochet’s forces. Afterwards, he is comforted by a strange man with long gray hair who says Daniel will be safe under his protection.

Lena takes a week off work and tracks him down to an isolated farm in central Chile known as colonia-1-first-look-will-emma-watson-be-able-to-escape-colonia-dignidadColonia Dignidad, run by a German, fundamentalist Christian cult. Her plan? To pretend to join the sect, unite with Daniel, and quickly escape Chile forever.

But she soon finds herself trapped there. It’s a strange farm surrounded by electrified barbed wire filled with people who have never seen the world outside. Men, women and children are all kept completely separated. Little boys with Hitler-youth haircuts are forced to sing angelic choir songs before the nefarious Paul Schäfer (Michael Nyqvist) – known as “Pius” —  who controls everything. The women are supervised by a stern female commandant named Gisele. By day, they pick potatoes like slaves; by night they are locked into their communal barracks. Any woman caught speaking of or even thinking about love or sex is punished at a “men’s council”, a ceremony where men are free to kick and punch accused girls or women. Lena searches for Daniel but he is nowhere to be seen. When she finally spots him, he appears to be feeble-minded from all the torture he endured. Can Lena ever contact him? Will he even recognize her? And can the two of them escape from the hell-hole known as Colonia?

Colonia Dignidad and Paul Schäfer were real. This film is actually a German movie, in English, not a South American one. If you’re looking for a political drama about Chile under Pinochet, you won’t find it here. This is more of an exciting escape drama, a prison break movie, with the politics kept low-key. Chile is the setting, with Pinochet a super villain, but it’s mainly about the notorious German settlement there. Bruhl and Watson are good as the heroes, but best of all is the realistic, slimy cult leader. I watched the whole movie without realizing he was played by Nykvist, the same actor who was the hero of the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series!

JZWRXv_Desde_Alla_03_o3_8730120_1440509884Desde allá (From Afar)

Dir: Lorenzo Vigas

Armando (Alfredo Castro) is an odd, middle-aged man with a good income who lives alone in downtown Caracas. He has an creepy-looking job: his business is constructing and repairing dentures, inserting false teeth into intricate moulds. Occasionally, he visits his sister to talk about the horrible things their father did to them when they were growing up. What exactly happened is never said.

In his free time Armando has an unusual hobby. He approaches young, working class men on r0V6pW_Desde_Alla_04_o3_8730197_1440464747the street and offers them money in exchange for sexual favours. But the favours consist merely of Armando asking the guy to face away from him while partially undressed. That’s it.

But things start to change when he picks up an angry young man named Elder (Luis Silva). Elder is a violent, selfish thug whose father is in prison for murder. He’s the kind of guy who would lead his gang to attack his own girlfriend’s brother LgWRlv_Desde_Alla_05_o3_8730266_1440509909with steel pipes in a pool hall for no apparent reason. Despite this – and the vicious sneer permanently etched on Elder’s face – Armando approaches him on the street and hires him. But in his apartment Elder turns on him, beats him up and steals his wallet and some of his things.

Despite this (or perhaps because of this?) Armando approaches him again, not asking for his things back, but instead offering him even more money. And later — when a rival gang fights back and Elder needs a safe haven – Armando welcomes him back into his apartment. Far from being a sexual predator, Armando shies away from anynZ6P6Y_Desde_Alla_01_o3_8730049_1440509869 and all physical contact with Elder. Instead he behaves like a father-figure, teaching him moral lessons, feeding and clothing him. And the situation changes: now Elder starts feeling attached – perhaps even sexually – to Armando, who coldly turns him away. What is going on? And where will it lead?

Desde Allá is a strange and disturbing film, even more so at the end. Its shocking conclusion will make you rethink the entire movie. The acting of both the main characters is fantastic – and the film won the Golden Lion, the top prize at the Venice Film Festival.

pgLNE6_clan_05_o3_8766051_1439583560The Clan

Dir: Pablo Trapero

It’s Buenos Aeries in the late 1970s. Alejandro Pucci (Peter Lanzani) is a handsome young rugby player on the Argentinian Pumas. His father (Guillermo Francella) is a successful businessman with ties to the military regime .Alex has it all. He’s a popular student, a national sports hero and owns a surfing store in downtown Buenos Aries. And he is in love with his girlfriend. But when the military government falls they are forced to lie low. His dad is a member of the Argentinian CIA, and partly responsible for the notorious Disappeared, the countless people missing or murdered by the military junta.8qKpGm_clan_04_o3_8765985_1439583555

But the Puccis depend on these kidnappings to keep up their lifestyle and have turned it into a very profitable business. Most of the family is either involved in or aware of the kidnappings, since the victims are kept inside their home. But can any of them resist their dad’s orders?

This Argentinian drama is based on a true crime story out of Argentina that shocked the nation when it was uncovered. It’s also the most popular Argentinian movie ever.  It’s a scary, dark and gruesome story. The movie reveals the downfall of the family in the very first scenes, but for me – never having heard of this case before – I would have preferred if those scenes were left till later. Still, there is such a dramatic scene at the end of the movie that it retains its ability to shock.

Colonia, Desde allá and The Clan all played at TIFF15; keep your eye out for these films. Opening today is Toronto’s Palestine Film Festival — go to tpff.ca for details; also opening is the delightful Grandma, a comedy-drama starring Lily Tomlin as a feminist grandmother on a quest.

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

Daniel Garber talks to artist Daniel Young about Young & Giroux’s new installation Berlin 2012/1983 opening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox

Posted in Art, Berlin, Canada, Cultural Mining, Germany, Movies, photography by CulturalMining.com on June 12, 2015

Dan Young 1 Berlin 2012 1983 photo © Daniel Garber Cultural MiningHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

At any given moment, we’re surrounded by evidence of past eras along with present.  Architectural design and urban planning change slowly despite tumultuous changes in history, politics and government. But over the course of Dan Young 2 Berlin 2012 1983 photo © Daniel Garber Cultural Mininga generation change is evident.

How to document and convey this change? Well, a new art installation combining 35 mm film and architectural Dan Young 4 Berlin 2012 1983 photo © Daniel Garber Cultural Miningphotography does just that. Filmed footage of structures built in 1983 are projected alongside images of buildings from 2012. The film snakes it’s way through the former East and West Berlin, through strip malls, warehouses, Stalinist blocs and private homes. This is a movie but it’s Young and Giroux at TIFF  Berlin 2012 1983 photo © Daniel Garber Cultural Miningnot like any film you’ve seen before. It’s a spectacle of the ordinary.

It’s called Berlin 2012/1983, and is opening today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
Created by celebrated Sobey award-winning artists Daniel Young and Christian Giroux, the “film” is two hours long. It slowly projects 9 frames per image, one second each, with each discrete image separated by the flickering of a shutter, and the two projectors synchronized to show each pair of images simultaneously.

I spoke with Daniel Young in Toronto to find out more about Berlin 2012/1983.

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