Top to Bottom. Films reviewed: The Kindness of Strangers, The Two Popes, Knives Out

Posted in Argentina, Catholicism, comedy, Crime, Family, Homelessness, Movies, Mystery, New York City, Poverty by CulturalMining.com on November 29, 2019

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

With the awards season coming up, Hollywood is starting to release the big ones with famous stars and directors. This week I’m looking at three such movies. There’s a drama about the downtrodden, a biopic about religious leaders at the top, and a comedy mystery about a large group of suspects caught in the middle… of a possible murdet.

The Kindness of Strangers

Wri/Dir: Lone Scherfig (An Education, The Riot Club, One Day)

Manhattan is a lonely place, especially for people down on their luck. Alice (Andrea Riseborough) is an empathetic ER nurse who volunteers at a soup kitchen and moderates a forgiveness group. But her long hours are taking a toll on her psyche. Clara (Zoe Kazan: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Big Sick) is a wide-eyed young mom from Buffalo on vacation with her two boys _ well thats what she tells them. In fact she’s penniless, fleeing her husband, a cop Richard (Esben Smed: Lykke Per) who beats up their kids. She keeps them fed by shoplifting, dumpster diving and stealing hors d’oeuvres from parties. Marc (Tahar Rahim: A Prophet, The Past) is an ex-con, recently freed from prison by a lawyer, who lands a job managing a Russian restaurant. And Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones: ByzantiumContraband, The Last Exorcism) is an earnest simpleton who can’t hold onto a job. If he doesn’t pay his rent soon, he’ll be out on the street.

Luckily, some strangers are kind. But will Alice find happiness, Clara find refuge, Marc find friends, and Jeff find a job? Or are they just more victims in the Naked City?

The Kindness of Strangers follows seemingly unrelated stories as they gradually come together in unexpected ways. Danish director Lone Scherfig’s movies are always good, even the bad ones. And this is a good one. It’s basically a Christmas movie but without any santas or angels. Lots of snow, but no presents. Church basements but no preaching. Some criticism: Only 7% of homeless in NY City are white, but in this movie it’s 100%. Although it veers into corn territory once or twice, this tear jerker is miles beyond any Hallmark movie, and seems genuinely sympathetic to the downtrodden. It deals with real problems, and leaves you feeling warm inside.

The Two Popes

Dir: Fernando Meirelles

Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathon Pryce) is a popular priest in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He loves soccer, pizza and dancing the tango. He preaches humility and compassion to the poor, and though he’s a Cardinal, dresses in plain clothes. He is flying to the Vatican to request early retirement. Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) is a conservative German, whothis the Vatican was moving in the wrong direction and has to be fixed. He loves the pageantry and finery of the Vatican, from the fancy clothes to the elegant trappings. He likes eating alone, a bowl of plain broth with Knödel. And he invites Bergoglio to join him at his country retreat. There conversation goes nowhere, with one asking to retire, and the other refusing. They disagree on practically everything. Why are they meeting and will they ever find common ground?

The Two Popes is a dramatization of a meeting between – not a spoiler! –  two Popes: Benedict who stepped down amid scandal, and Francis, the first pope from the Americas, who took his place. It’s a highly visual film, shot in a semi-documentary style. It gives us a “Pope’s-eye view” of the inside of the Vatican, with all its sumptuous finery and grandeur. I once saw Pope John Paul II appear at the window; in this movie you’re inside the window looking down at the crowd, which is very cool. And the larger-than-life characters – as imagined by Welsh actors Hopkins and Pryce in effective performances – are humanized and normalized. They’re just like you and me.

But I think you have to deeply care about the doctrine, policies, politics and rituals of the Catholic Church to truly appreciate this movie.

Count me out.

Knives Out

Wri/Dir: Rian Johnson

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a hugely successful mystery novelist. He lives in a gothic mansion with his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). All of his descendents are in town to celebrate his landmark birthday. There’s hard-boiled Linda, a real-estate agent with her hanger-on hubby and playboy son (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans). Flaky, new-age entrepreneur Joni (Toni Collette) with her college-age daughter (Katherine Langford) and alt-right son (Jaeden Martell). Goateed Walt’s family (Michael Shannon) handles the publishing side of his dad’s burgeoning book empire. And Greatnana (K Callan) who observes all but says nothing. There are the usual family squabbles, But by morning, everything has changed. Thrombey is found dead in his bedroom in a pool of blood, an apparent suicide… but is it? And if it’s murder, whodunnit?

Investing the crime are two hapless cops (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and a private detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Blanc has an eagle eye and a deep southern drawl. Everyone is a suspect and has something to hide. Everyone but Marta, who is allergic to lying. She actually throws up if she says anything untrue.

Knives Out is an extremely entertaining mystery comedy, in the style of Agatha Christie and Murder She Wrote. Almost every line is clever, overflowing with biting cultural references: Benoit Blanc is referred to as CSI from KFC, and there are pastiches of everyone from Gwynneth Paltrow to Ben Shapiro. I’ve seen this one twice already and I could easily watch it again next year.

Knives Out is now playing in Toronto, and The Two Popes opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The Kindness of Strangers opens next Friday; 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.

Summer movies. Films reviewed: The Last Black Man in San Francisco, The Fireflies are Gone, Midsommar

Posted in African-Americans, Drama, Friendship, Homelessness, Horror, Housing, Music, Quebec, San Francisco, Suspicion, Sweden by CulturalMining.com on July 5, 2019

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

Summer’s here and it’s the right time to cool off by seeing movies outdoors. Open Roof Film Festival, which is on all summer on Sterling  in the Junction, pairs new Canadian and international films with live music by local bands.

Keeping with that theme, this week I’m talking about three great summer movies. There’s a misanthropic girl in Québec looking for a summer job; a man in San Francisco looking for a home; and some college students in Sweden looking for fun in the summer solstice.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Dir: Joe Talbot

Wri: Joe Talbot and Jimmy Fails

Jimmy Fails is a homeless skater from San Francisco, who travels by boardfrom placeto place. Brought up in a group home when his parents split up, he once lived in a car, and now crashes outside the city at his friend Montgomery’s place (Jonathan Majors). But he is constantly drawn back to the Fillmore district of San Francisco – once known as the Harlem of the West – and a particular house there. It’s a stunning piece of Victorian architecture complete with a witch’s hat tower. He’s helping preserve it in a gentrifying city. But he also has a hidden motive: His grandfather built that home by hand in the 1940s and Jimmy wants it back. So when the current owners move out in an inheritance dispute, Jimmy moves right in, bringing all the original furniture, carpets and photos with him. It’s an enchanted house, with intricate woodwork, hidden doors and a working pipe organ built right in. And Monty – who draws everything he sees in a sketchbook – writes a play to commemorate the house and its history. But how much is true and how much family legend? Can Jimmy actually live there permanently? Or has San Francisco become a city only for the rich?

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is an unusual, warm and wonderful story, part fact and part fiction. It’s based on Jimmy Fail’s own story – he plays himself. Another character, Kofi, jimmy’s frenemy from a group home, is played by the real Jamal Trulove, a San Francisco man falsely convicted of murder under Kamala Harris. It’s also an homage to an older San Francisco. It paints a disappearing city of soapbox preachers, panhandlers, buskers and organizers while subtly dealing with issues of poverty, housing, violence, renoviction, and environmental ruin. It’s narrated by a greek chorus of black commentators, Monty’s drawings, Jimmy’s family lore, and local legend.

This is a great movie, not to be missed.

The Fireflies are Gone (La disparition des lucioles)

Wri/Dir: Sébastien Pilote

Léonie (Karelle Tremblay) is a misanthropic teenager just finishing high school. She lives in a small city, a gorgeous inland port in northeast Quebec. near Sagueney. It’s a beautiful town but she hates it. She hates the smalltown attitude, she hates her hick friends and their pickup trucks and she despises her stepfather. She blames Paul (François Papineau) – a rightwing talk radio shock jock – for her parents divorce. Her Papa (Luc Picard) is a union organizer forced to leave town for work up north when the lumber mill closed, and now only visits every so often. Leo can’t wait to get out of this place, but in the meantime she gets a summer job tending to the local ballpark. It’s perfect – no human contact.

But when she meets a new face at the local diner she thinks things might be changing for the better. Steve (Pierre-Luc Brillant) is a loner like her, a middle-aged musician, formerly in a band, now supporting himself by giving guitar lessons in his mother’s basement. She signs up for lessons, they hit it off, and soon become friends. But can it last?

The Fireflies are Gone is a bittersweet coming of age drama about life in a picturesque but declining Quebec town. The title refers to the loss of innocence of an earlier era, but it’s also about Leo’s own ideals called into question when she discovers a hidden family secret. Tremblay is amazing as the angry young Leo and she holds this film together. And Brillant is brilliantly understated as Steve. While not perfect, Fireflies… is a good, realistic drama.

Midsommar

Wri/Dir: Ari Aster

Dani (Florence Pugh: Fighting with my Family) is a young woman in a long-term relationship with her non-commital boyfriend. Christian (Jack Reynor: Sing Street) likes Dani but doesn’t like all the responsibilities. He’d rather drink beer and smoke cannabis with his buds from college: Josh (William Jackson Harper: The Good Place) an anthropology keener; Mark (Will Poulter: The Revenant, We’re The MIllers) a self-centred twit, and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) who’s from Sweden. They’re planning a summer solstice bro trip to Pelle’s home village, where there’s lots of beautiful blond women, halucinagens and free sex. But when Dani suffers an unspeakably horrible loss, they let her come too.

At first glance the isolated village seems like a happy commune full of flower children, a holdover from the sixties. They sleep and eat communally, select their sex partners, and wear handwoven traditional outfits. They still sing their ancient songs, and write their scriptures (predicted by a handicapped oracle) using ancient runes. But in fact, their beliefs predate the hippies by centuries, dating back to pre-Christian days. The friends arrive to a warm welcome but soon reveal themselves as the prototypical “ugly Americans”, photographing sacred texts, urinating on an ancestral tree, and just generally behaving horribly. But the Swedes aren’t so nice either. And when people start disappearing, one by one, they suspect foul play. Will Dani and Christian’s struggling relationship survive? And can the Americans get out of this crazy place alive?

Midsommar is a fantastically strange horror/comedy/drama, Director Ari Aster second film after the great Hereditary, but is totally different from that one. In fact it defies all usual classifications. It’s a horror movie, but shot in bright sunlight, full of happy songs and dances. It also totally reverses the moralistic streak of most American horror movies. Victims aren’t “punished” for drug use or premarital sex; in fact that’s encouraged. Rather, it’s about naïve people facing a much older and darker world than they ever imagined. It’s scary, hilarious and grotesque, overflowing with intricate anthropological hints and winks. While definitely not for everyone, I love Midsommar.

It’s a weirdly perfect movie.

Midsommar is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings. The Fireflies are Gone and The Last Black Man in San Francisco both open today 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.

Politics. Movies reviewed: He Named Me Malala, This Changes Everything, 99 Homes

Posted in Afghanistan, Canada, Cultural Mining, documentary, Homelessness, Movies, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on October 15, 2015

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

A movie can be political as much for what it includes as for what it leaves out. Take Zero Dark Thirty, which said that torture is what helped catch Osama bin Laden. What it left out (according to Vice media) was that their source of these “facts” was the CIA. This week I’m looking at three movies with overt political themes. Two are documentaries: one about how a girl’s education affected her life; another about how climate change affects economics and politics; and a drama about how real estate speculation affects the “99 percent”.

banner-he-named-me-malala-malala_844x476_static-EVERYWHEREHe Named Me Malala
Dir: Davis Guggenheim

Malala Yousefzai grew up in the Swat valley of Pakistan, in an idyllic but isolated village near the Afghan border. This is also when a local Taliban begins preaching on the radio. At first they are welcomed — Mullah Fazlullah speaks their language. But the Taliban begins to restrict, and eventually to ban all girls from schools. Malala is a devout Muslim but opposes anything that might hold back women’s rights. She is unequivocal on this: men and women must have equal rights and opportunities.

A precocious student and the daughter of a teacher, she decides to do someone thing about it. 40eb99a45e7e0a29026d97dfcd6eaf1eFirst, at age 11, she shares her experiences with the world anonymously via a BBC blog. Then she comes out publicly as the face of all the girls their being denied an education. But the Taliban is not just a radio show. Their rhetoric escalates to bombing schools and physical attacking girls who disobey. And one night Malala and two friends are shot by a would-be assassin.

She falls into a coma, her family flees to England and the Taliban says if she ever comes back 10868271_710017355766115_8968207615678621192_nthey’ll kill her. But she survives and becomes an international activist.

This movie shows three things. It illustrates her history in a series of lovely animated sequences using colourful paintings. It follows her travels as an activist in Kenya and among Syrian refugees. In Nigeria she appeals to Boko Haram to release the 100 schoolgirls they kidnapped. And in the US she explains to Obama that drones attacks are inspiring, not stopping, would-be terrorists. Finally, the movie shows the life of an ordinary girl who does her homework, fights with her brothers and ogles pics of star cricketeers online. It lets us know that she’s not a victim, nor a saint, but a committed activist who deserves to be listened to.

Protesters against gold mine in Halkidiki, Greece. Still from THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING, a Video Services Corp. releaseThis Changes Everything
Dir: Avi Lewis
Wri: Naomi Klein, based on her book

Climate change is a huge problem, maybe our biggest. But Naomi Klein says polar bears just don’t do it for her. And turning off light bulbs is not the answer. So what can we do? To address this, the film takes it to the people, the ones immediately affected by environmental disasters. It follows their plight and how they fight back. A first nationsMarch against coal-fired power plant in Sompeta, India. Still from THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING, a Video Services Corp. release activist living right beside the oil patch in Northern Alberta, protests the effects of tailings on their water supply. Farmers in Montana suffer from an oil leak. Then there’s the mining industry moving into northern Greece… right at the moment the country faces economic austerity. The economy desperately Naomi Klein at Chicheley Hall in the United Kingdom. Still from THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING, a Video Services Corp. releaseneeds investment, they’re told, stop worrying about little things like the environment! It’s the “shock doctrine” at work, using a crisis as an excuse for economic exploitation. And in India where tens of thousands could lose their livelihood if they build a coal plant.

The movie is beautiful shot, with vast Burtynsky-like vistas of massive oil fields. It’s not just about people you already agree with – it includes many of the fiercest opponents to environmentalism. And it’s narrated by Naomi Klein herself, who pulls it all together. This highly watchable film is a good guide on how to think globally while acting locally.

Still_02 99 homes 99 Homes
Dir: Ramin Bahrani

Dennis (Andrew Garfield) is a single dad who lives with his Mom Lynn (Laura Dern) and his son Conner (Noah Lomax). Times are tough, but Dennis works, Conner goes to school, and they live in Lynn’s house where two generations were born and brought up. They miss some mortgage payments, but it doesn’t seem that important. Then comes the big shock. Seemingly out of nowhere there’s a knock on the door – a real estate broker flanked by police. His homes is being repossessed, and Still_01he and his family are given a couple of minutes to grab their valuables and vacate the premises. They kick him out and padlock the front door shut.

Dennis is desperate, so he takes on odd jobs. He needs to earn enough money to get his family home back. His new boss Rick (Michael Shannon) flips homes for a living and offers him a cash income doing minor repairs. The catch? This is the guy who stole his house! But if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Rick is an odd character, a mini Donald Trump. He doesn’t have time for losers – he’s a winner, Still_08and he got there by stomping on the little people the way. You can’t be sentimental or nostalgic if you want to succeed. And he’s determined to make it to the top of the heap.

Rick lives in a spacious (repossessed) mansion complete with swimming pool, swank car and beautiful girlfriend. But he has high hopes for Dennis, and soon enough Dennis is kicking families out of their homes. He wants to get hold of a big block of land – the 99 homes of the title – so he can become a big player in the game. Dennis finds himself turning into his own enemy… even while his family is still camping out in a cheap motel room. Which direction will he choose: wealth or happiness?

This is a movie about a very real problem: homelessness and the US housing bubble, which turned family homes into a negotiable commodity. The title – 99 Homes – is meant to evoke how regular people, the 99%, fare under the rule of the super-rich. I like one of Bahrani’s earlier movies (Chop Shop) for its improvisational, documentary feel but another one (At Any Price) didn’t work. 99 Homes has its realistic elements, but it also has big name stars (all excellent) and a strict plot and script. It may harken back to the age of silent movies with its old-fashioned heroes and villains twisting their mustaches, (you must pay the rent – but I can’t pay the rent!) but it’s still worth watching.

This Changes Everything, He Named Me Malala, and 99 Homes all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening is Labyrinth of Lies, a German historical drama set in the 1960s about a courageous lawyer who dares to prosecute Nazi war criminals; and Guy Maddin’s wonderful The Forbidden Room.

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

Mar 1, 2012. California Dreamin’. Movies Reviewed: Project X, Rampart

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

Southern California… It never rains there, they say. Surfers, bleached blondes, Beach Blanket Bingo, there’s something about LA and environs that seems so saccharine, so perfect and yet ersatz, so way out there. Back when they rarely wanted to go on location, the studio back lots doubled for the old west, middle America, suburban NY, or LA itself. Melrose Place, 90210, OC – movies or TV, it’s all so hyper-perfect.

But beneath that veneer there also lurks that festering pit of tar, that horribleness, that evil and corruption – The Manson Family, the casting couch, the satanic rituals, the real estate double dealing, the stuff you’d read about in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon…

So which is it? Well, in our present-day dystopia, southern California’s an about-to-collapse world, where the authorities are corrupt, but they’re the only things that are stopping total anarchy and destruction. …at least that’s how it’s portrayed in a lot of movies now.

So this week I’m talking about two new films about southern California… one’s about a party that explodes, the other’s about a cop that implodes.

Project X
Dir: Nima Nourizadeh (his first film)

It’s Thomas’s birthday, so his buddy Costa — a loudmouth in a sweater vest — says he’s going to throw him the best birthday party e-ver…! Both of Thomas’s parents are leaving Pasadena for the weekend, but they’re not worried – he’s just not a popular kid, his dad says – how many people does he know? Thomas thinks the party just might work, he might get away with it. But the two of them, along with their other best friend, JB, decide to go for it. And maybe Thomas will finally take his friendship with pretty Kirby to the BF/GF level?

They start out gathering the essentials – booze, drugs — (they steal a plaster gnome from their pot dealer, without realizing it held some things inside) and telling everyone at school, online, by email, texting, facebook – by any means necessary to bring in the crowds. They’re not really worried about people crashing the party – you can never have too many people… right? Besides they have their own security guards, little 10 year-olds ready to taze anyone making trouble. Everyone starts to trip on MDMA, and jump into the swimming pool – the boys fully dressed, the girls (as part of some adolescent boy fantasy) nude of course. More gratuitously naked breasts than you can shake a stick at.

Unfortunately, no one can anticipate the number of people eventually showing up, and the anarchic state that ensues.

I enjoyed Project X, as a party movie — more fun than funny, with a bit of a nasty streak running through it. But it also had a really “new” feeling to it, sort of like an extended youtube feature, but with a movie sized budget. The whole thing is purportedly taped by Dax, an unseen goth dude in a trench coat (straight out of Columbine) with a camera.

It seems like more and more movies feel that if you don’t include the camera as a character, it’s not “real”. (I disagree).

I liked the nihilism of it — though the “punish the good guys / reward the douches” theme was a bit disturbing…

The acting is great — the three mains, all unknown, mostly playing characters with their own names – Thomas Mann as Thomas, Jonathon Daniel Brown as JB, and Oliver Cooper as Costa – remind me of the three “geek” kids from Paul Feig’s “Freaks and Geeks” (Daley, Starr and Levine). Only these three are a bit older, and a bit meaner.

Project X is a “wow!” movie , as in I wanna go to that party, but also a “whoa…!” movie, especially towards the end. Not a terrific movie, but a fun and jarring experience.

Rampart
Dir: Oren Moverman

David “Date Rape” Brown is a mean egotistical street beat cop. He’s a cock-of-the-walk who drives around like he owns the Rampart precinct, an especially notorious part of Downtown LA. If he doesn’t get a confessioin he wants, he beats up the suspect until they break. He forces a rookie cop to eat her French Fries even though she doesn’t want them. He’s from a long line of cops. He lives with both his ex wives (they’re sisters!) and the one daughter he had with each of them. Dave is practically invincible. He takes the law into his own hands, and is admired by his fellow cops for his indefatigable character. And the brass tolerate him, since he brings in lots of convictions.

Dave loves his life – pretty (though troubled) daughters, two ex-wives, and he can pick up beautiful women in bars on the side. His LA is constantly moving: busy, dirty and corrupt. It’s filled with gangsters, drug dealers, drive-by-shootings, and snitches in wheelchairs. The cops are as much a part of the warp and weft as the criminals they chase. And lots of innocents die between them.

Then, one day, he gets caught on cell phone camera beating up a guy (a la Rodney King) whose car rammed him and then ran away. And things start to go wrong. The DA office starts following him around, the lawyers want him to resign, and there’s some strange unexplained conspiracy bubbling up beneath al of this. Things get worse and worse, as he gradually loses his home, his family, his friends, his money, and his status. He embarks on a self-destructive journey, though it’s never quite clear whether he means to ruin things or if they’re all just happening to him.

Woody Harrelson is amazing as Officer Brown, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, and Sigourney Weaver, among others, are fun as some of the many women picking on him. Each scene could end in a dramatic turn, but more often devolves into very long conversations about relationships and guilt. I was expecting Rampart to be an action and chase cop thriller – which it’s not. It’s a drama about what happens to a middle-aged cop when his power disappears.

Rampart is playing now, and Project X, and the new documentary Family Portrait in Black and White both open today in Toronto. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

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February 25, 2012. Hidden in Plain Sight. Movies Reviewed: In Darkness, The Secret World of Arrietty, The Prodigies

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

What does it mean to be hidden in plain sight? Is it right below our feet — families living their lives just beneath a manhole? or maybe a judiciously placed leaf to disguise someone hiding in a garden. Or maybe people with special powers living among us, that no one recognizes.

This week I’m looking at three very different foreign movies, from France, Poland and Japan, about people hidden in plain sight as they face an earth-shattering crisis that threatens their homes, lives, friends or families.

The Secret World of Arrietty

Dir: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Arrietty is a teeny tiny teenaged girl, a “borrower” who lives with her parents hidden inside a normal home. One day, she is allowed to go out with her father to secretly borrow things that the “human beans” would never miss: a stamp, a pin, a sugar cube, a fish hook, maybe a piece of thread. But she has to obey the rules: never let the human beans see them or notice them – for that always seemed to end up in death. If they’re noticed, it’s time to leave.

But Arriety is fourteen and has never met anyone aside from her parents. Are there other borrowers? And could the big people really be that bad?

Soon she encounters Shawn, a sickly boy sent by his mother to his grandmother’s country house to rest before an operation. He’s very ill, and maybe that’s why he can see Arrietty. But they both have to watch out for Haru, the old housekeeper who believes in the little people — and wants to catch them, and maybe even call an exterminator to wipe them out!

Shawn thinks he can help make Arrietty’s life better. But when he lifts up a floorboard and tears open Arrietty’s home to replace it with part of an old dollhouse, chaos ensues. Haru thinks this proves the borrowers are back, Arrietty’s mum panics when she is placed in a precarious position, and her dad decides it’s time to pack up and move on.

This is a delightful kids’ movie from Japan, based on the English children’s book. It’s made in old-style animation, with painted backgrounds, and hand-drawn cels for each frame. It’s from the Ghibli studios, known for Miyazaki Hayao’s work, but lacks some of Miyazaki’s extreme fantasy and bizarre imagery. Still, it’s a very sweet movie with a great story, a good lesson for kids, and smooth, exciting and dynamic animation.

It shares a theme, strangely enough, with a Polish Holocaust drama that also has people hidden just below ground.

In Darkness

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

It’s the 1940s, WWII, under the German occupation in the Polish city of Lvov (now in Ukraine and called Lviv). It was a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious city, with Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, protestants and Jews, speaking Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and German.

The Jews are locked in a ghetto that’s about to be liquidated and sent to the Jadowska labour camp. So a few families, led by a man Mundek (Benno Fürmann) come up with a plan to hide in the sewers through a hole they cut in their floor. But they quickly encounter Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz in a great performance), the sewer inspector and a petty thief who knows his way through every inch of the dark, rat-infested tunnels.

They reach an agreement to live underground and pay him money each week. they don’t trust one another  but they soon fall into an uneasy coexistence right beneath the Nazi’s soldiers’ feet. Mundek and Socha even manages to escape to the surface to try to find out if a woman is still alive.

The movie follows the two groups – Socha’s family above ground, and Mundek’s extended family and friends below — both of which face the constant risk of exposure. 

This is a different type of holocaust movie: it’s chaotic, passionate and bloody, filled with normal everyday life in an exceptional situation: with people eating, having sex, loving, hating, giving birth and dying, all hidden in near darkness in underground tunnels filled with human waste.

A lot of the movie is an almost black screen, with people running towards the camera down a sludge filled passageway lit only by a candle or a flashlight. In Darkness is a long movie, with a gradual, slow build, but it’s well worth watching. Terrific acting, directing and production values. This Polish / German / Canadian co-production is nominated for an Oscar, best film in a foreign language, and many Genies as well.

The Prodigies

Dir: Antoine Charreyron

Jim is a boy genius who is brought up by the millionaire Killian when his parents die in a violent episode. He knows he has special kinetic powers, can utilize all parts of his brain simultaneously, and can force people to do things against their will. As a grown-up he knows how to keep things in control at the Killian Institute, and use his skills for good, not evil.

But when his benefactor dies, the selfish heiress Melanie threatens to close down the institute since it doesn’t make money. But Jimbo has been using his research and gaming design to find others like him – who share his powers. They are bullied in school by cruel people who don’t know — or care — about their special powers. He wants to give to them what Killian gave him – a chance to meet their own in a safe educated environment.

Thinking quickly, Jimbo proposes a reality game show called American Genius, whose five winners (the five prodigies he has already located) will get to meet with the President in the White House.

But tragedy strikes: instead of going to meet the five teenagers – who he’s sworn to protect — in a park, he lingers with his newly pregnant wife. And before he gets there they are attacked by violent thugs who beat them up and brutally attack Lisa putting her into a coma. The tone darkens as the remaining four – led by the angry Gil – decide to seize power and seek revenge.

Now it’s up to Jimbo to regain the trust of the five prodigies, before they execute their cruel, apocalyptic plan.

The Prodigies is a motion-capture style animated movie – scenes are acted out live, then changed to animated form. Parts are beautifully done, with sleek stylized images – I like the look — but there are also long, irritating sections made in crappy, low-contrast tones which just don’t look good on a screen. (Why do they do that…?) I enjoyed this French/Belgian movie (I saw the American dubbed version) – its fun to watch, exciting (if predictable), though extremely violent. It’s not suitable for children.

Arrietty and In Darkness are now playing, and The Prodigies opens today in Toronto.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

November 11, 2011. The Real ReelAsian Film Festival. Movies Reviewed: Bleak Night, Full Metal Alchemist, Saigon Electric, Buddha Mountain, Amphetamine

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

As Rome burns and Europe crumbles, and Wall St is pre-Occupied, and the planet is teetering on the brink… all eyes are on Asia. So now’s your chance to get a feel of what’s going on across the Pacific. The Reelasian Film Festival (“reel” as in reel to reel, Asia as in East and SE Asia) is on now in Toronto, and it’s showing great, new, popular, festival and experimental movies from that region as well as some Canadian films. That means dramas, comedies, documentaries, anime, and shorts. There are also lectures, workshops and master classes for actors, scriptwriters, and producers — even events where you can pitch your own movie proposals. So this week I’m talking about films from China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam.

Bleak Night

Dir: Yoon Sung-hyun

This is a movie about a group of three friends at a private boys’ high school in Korea. Only they’re not exactly all that friendly. One is the undisputed leader of the group, and lords it over the rest of them. He’s more of a bully than a friend, and pressures and intimidates the others, who go along with it. The encounters turn into physical abuse and name calling – “you’re my bitch” he says – but no one questions him.

It’s not until one boy stands up to him – and even tries to sever the friendship – that the power-dynamic changes and the pressure builds.

I like Bleak Night, but it gets bogged down with a slow-moving plot, and too many repetitive scenes with ten-minute-long two-man conversations about what happened off-screen and what they really mean to one another.

Full Metal Alchemist (鋼の錬金術師)

Dir: Murata Kazuya (based on the comics by Arakawa Hiromu)

If you’ve never seen Japanese anime before this is a good place to start. But keep in mind, anime are based on manga and so have very long and complex plots with tons of past references and ongoing twisted story lines.

This movie (one chapter of a long saga) takes place in a fantasy setting that looks like the American southwest in the 1930’s, except the country is under martial law. Ed Elric, the full metal alchemist, is a master scientist-cum-magician with bionic limbs of steel. He teams up with his rival Crichton, his sister Julia, and her robot and companion to try to discover the secrets of Milos, find the stars of fresh blood, and gather any clues that might bring them closer to the Philosopher’s Stone. Watch and learn, grasshopper.

Saigon Electric

Dir: Stephane Gauger

Mai, an innocent girl from the sticks, comes into Ho Chi Minh city to make it as a dancer. But she’s strictly old-school: she doesn’t wear make-up, and doesn’t have a fashionable haircut or city clothes. And her dancing style is traditional too – using a ribbon, no less. But then she falls in with tuff-girl Kim whom she meets working in a restaurant. She’s a break dancer who’s being wooed by a rich guy whose family owns an expensive French restaurant. Kim hangs with her crew – Saigon Fresh — painting graffiti art on city walls, bustin’ moves to American hip-hop, and challenging the Northern Killaz to win the city championship so they can compete in the International contest In Korea. They become close friends, and when Kim finds herself homeless she moves into the room Mai rents from the scarecrow, a grumpy old musician. Mai starts teaching ribbon dancing at the same community centre where Kim is break dancing with her crew – a place where orphans and homeless street kids find shelter.

But trouble awaits: Kim and her boyfriend go off to a seaside hotel, where he promises her the world. But back in the city, some rich developers are threatening to close down the community centre where they all hang out and turn it into a hotel. What’s going to happen? Will all the characters find true happiness or will all their dreams be lost? Will the club be closed down?

This Saigon really is electric, shot in supersaturated colours, of people zooming around the city on motorbikes and skateboards. Even though it’s a age-old story, I like this very modern but distinctly Vietnamese style combined with a good dramatic plot and lots of that excellent 80’s street dancing with head spinning, sometimes even combined with classic Vietnamese drumming. (in Vietnamese).

Buddha Mountain (觀音山)

Dir: Li Yu

Mrs Chang (Sylvia Chang) a former Peking Opera star living in the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan China, is angry, hostile, bitter and depressed, since a tragic death in her family around the time of the earthquake. But she rents out a room in her home to three street-smart kids. Nanfeng (Fan Bingbing) is a pretty girl from a small town who can smash a bottle of beer on her forehead or kiss another girl on the lips – just for the hell of it. She’s trying to earn a living as a bar singer; Fatso (Fei Long) is a chubby, round-cheeked guy who didn’t get into University, but likes practicing Michael Jackson’s moonwalk as he looks for love; and Ding Bo (Chen Po Lin) is a self-centred but free-spirited youth with family troubles and too much time on his hands. They are adventurers – riding the rails, driving around town, rescuing each other from local gangs. Madame Chang orders them around like they’re her servants, and they steal from her and feel no guilt. A real generational divide. She looks down on them for their lack of culture, but for the kids she’s just a screeching fossil from a lost era.

But when one of the characters almost dies the others all rally round to help. They travel up to a Buddhist shrine on a mountain to repair damages from the earthquake and perhaps to fix the damaged parts of their own lives.

Buddha Mountain is a beautiful, touching, interesting and mainly realistic film about rootless youth in urban China.

Amphetamine / 安非他命 (Hong Kong)

Dir: Scud

Kafka (Byron Pang) — named after the Murakami novel, not the Czech writer — is a swim coach, a nude model, and a dyed-blond kung fu expert. His parents are dead, his brother is disabled, and he’s nearly penniless, but he can still do a complete split and support himself with his feet on opposite walls. Then he meets Daniel (Thomas Price), a young and ambitious Cantonese-speaking financier working for an Australian multinational. It is love? Kafka dumps his girlfriend when they seem to be falling for each other, even though it’s a first gay romance for both of them, and Kafka isn’t sure he can handle it.

They go bungee jumping, travelling, living the high life. But things get bad for poor Kafka when he starts doing too much crystal meth, and he begins to lose his grip with reality, falling into strange dreams and scary flashbacks, and beginning to think the white feathered wings he sometimes wears on his back mean he can actually fly. Is their love true? Can a poor but tough man accept the loving gestures of a Chinese-Aussie millionaire?

Definitely don’t see this movie if you’re at all uncomfortable with male nudity, since in practically every scene – I don’t care if it’s a street brawl, a love scene, a hospital, a mental ward, a police interrogation  — they find some excuse to strip down. OK maybe not the bungee jumping scene, but other than that, it’s Naked! Naked! Naked!

Amphetamine is unusual for a Hong Kong movie: a stylized and partly dreamlike gay, erotic melodrama about drugs. In Cantonese and English.

Saigon Electric, Buddha Mountain, Bleak Night, and Full Metal Alchemist, are all playing tonight through Sunday at the Reelasian festival. Check the times at reelasian.com. Amphetamine is also playing this weekend at anotherr toronto festival dealing with mental health and addiction: check times at rendezvouswithmadness.com Also opening today is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. This is a two part movie, about a wedding with the bride (Kirsten Dunst) heading toward disaster and a post wedding depression with whole planet possibly colliding with a planet called Melancholia. First opart good, second part just so-so. And Charlotte Gainsbourg as the bride’s uptight, beleaguered sister is such a let down after her tour de force in Lars von Trier’s last movie, Antichrist.

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

May 25, 2011. Inside Out Festival. Renee, Lost in the Crowd, Gun Hill Road, Black Field, Harvest, We Were Here

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

Toronto Inside-Out festival is one of the world’s biggest LGBT film festivals, that shows movies and documentaries from around the world by and about lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transsexuals. Or queers for short. The festival is continuing through this weekend, mainly at Toronto’s Light Box, and I hear there are still some tickets available, so now’s your chance to catch some of these very varied and interesting movies.

So this week I’m going to look at a cross-section of movies and docs at this festival with a special emphasis on some good movies about the too often neglected “T” in LGBT. Next week: more on the “L” word.

Renee

Dir: Eric Drath

“I’m getting the message across that you can be a transsexual… and yet be a nice, normal, socially acceptable and productive member of society.” – Renee Richards.

Renee Richards was born as Richard Raskin, who grew up as an aggressive alpha male, served in the navy, became a tennis champ, a young man with dating prowess, a surgeon, a husband and a father.

But in the early seventies, after years of agonizing, and (after first chickening out on her first attempt, when she went to Morocco for sex-reassignment surgery) she took the plunge and became a woman. She named herself Renee (French for reborn) and started a new life. She became a sensation on the women’s tennis circuit until the past came out. She was ostracized, alienated by many tennis players, and splashed across the mass media.

They attempted to force Renee Richards to take a DNA test to prove her sex – this despite surgery, hormones, her day-to-day identity, clothes, body, voice and name. So she took them to court.

This is a very good, sympathetic documentary, that uses TV sports footage, home movies, newspaper articles and present- day interviews with family members, and famous tennis players (like Billie Jean King and Martina Navritolova). The most emotionally trying part of the documentary is about her difficult relationship with her son Rick.

Lost in The Crowd

Dir: Susi Graf

…is another documentary, also touching on problems faced by transsexuals and others. But if Renee is about rich and famous celebrities, Lost in the Crowd is about the other side of things. It’s about Queer youth who migrate to new York City to escape homophobia and other dangers in their hometowns, only to find themselves penniless, homeless and alone on the streets of Manhattan. It shows a few of these kids and young adults, many latina, and gay or trans, who seek shelter but end up in prison, on the streets, or dead.

While a very important issue, I was a bit disappointed by the movie, since it mainly just showed the victimization of the runaways by drugs, prostitution, and crime. It didn’t really offer any new viewpoint on the standard risks that face all runaways. One exception were the scenes shot in a prison, where one person (who had been arrested for low-level drug dealing) said he felt more free in the jail than he had in his midwestern small town.

Much more moving was a fictionalized drama about many of the same issues, a movie called

Gun Hill Road

Dir: Rasheed Ernesto Green

This tells about Enrique, and ex-con out on parole going back home. He’s an ultra-macho Puerto Rican-American who was known for attacking any “maricon” in prison who might have looked at him the wrong way. What’s a few months of solitary if he’s defending his own masculinity? He arrives back with his street corner pals to see his much missed son Michael (Harmony Santana). But something about Michael has changed.

He’s living his life as a girl in school, but like a boy at home. He hangs out with his friends at school but faces widespread bullying in the hallways. As pretty and strong Vanessa, she meets a boyfriend at a poetry slam, but he’s less friendly once he discovers Vanessa is a pre-op transsexual. He doesn’t want to see her as a boy – she has to cover up anything that might turn him off. But Michaels’s father doesn’t want to see his son as in any way feminine. He attacks him with a scissors and hacks off his long hair.

Gun Hill Road is a good, moving drama of the trials and tribulations of being trans in a public school, and how both a father and a son have to learn how to understand each other. The actor playing Vanessa/Michael is excellent, and you feel for all the characters. And it has a great latino hiphop soundtrack.

Black Field

Dir: Vardis Marinakis

In the middle ages, at its height,  the Ottoman empire used a special unit in their military known as the Janissaries. This was a division consisting entirely of paid, trained soldiers who were also slaves. They had no outside friends or families because they were kidnapped as small boys from outlying villages in the Balkans. Eventually, they converted to Islam and enlisted in this all-male, elite part of the army — the Janissaries.  In this movie, a wounded janissary (Hristos Passalis) is found outside a Christian convent in a remote, mountainous region of Greece. The black-hooded nuns take him in, chain him up, while they tend to his wounds. A young nun, Anthi  is sent to heal him, but there she makes a surprising discovery  — his genitals are like hers. She is actually a boy, who had been taken in as an infant and raised there, so that the Mother Superior could save him from being kidnapped and made into… a janissary!

The movie follows – literally follows, the camera holds back behind the two as they walk through the lush forest, a green-covered swamp, and a dark rocky area –  the tough, mean, AWOL soldier and the timid, whispering nun, as he forces the newly discovered boy to reclaim his male identity, and eventually become his partner. To make matters even more ambiguous, the boy who was raised as a girl is played by a very good actress (Sofia Georgovassili). It’s a slow-paced, challenging, sometimes violent, and at other times sensuous and exquisitely beautiful,  first film. Very interesting to watch and should be seen on the big screen.

Harvest

Dir: Benjamin Cantu

Marco is a young man who lives and works at an internship program on what used to be an East German communal farm. He wears overalls and a T-Shirt as he sorts carrots, bales hay, and clips the ears off cattle, along with the other interns. But he’s resisting committing himself to a lifetime of farm work. He doesn’t want to write the exam he has to take, mainly because he can’t write well. And he’s a bit of a loner – he won’t go out drinking with the other trainees, and they tease him for it.

But he enters into a silent friendship with a newby, Jacob. Things start to heat up in an abandoned old car (a Trabant?) and they realize they have something in common when Jacob finds the keys and drives them both into Berlin for an evening.

Harvest is another one of these hyper-realistic films –  made on real locations, usually with non-actors, without a complicated plots, and often without a written script. There aren’t that many lines in this movie, and the budding relationship between Marco and Jacob is never really talked about – it just happens. But you totally understand and identify with all the characters, and the farm footage is fantastic – I’d never actually seen an enormous carrot-sorting mill. Harvetst is a very good, understated, realistic drama.

We Were Here

Dir: David Weissman

This is a documentary about San Francisco from the late 70’s until the early nineties. That was the period when the city was transformed from a gay mecca into the epicentre of a worldwide epidemic. I’m speaking about AIDS and HIV, then called the gay plague for the sudden, massive death toll of that community.

This movie is heart-wrenchingly moving because of the way it was made. They found a handful of people who lived there at that time and were somehow involved in that disaster, to tell the story of themselves and their friends directly to the camera.

The movie shows the face of one speaker’s friend and then close-ups, ten days later. So happily galavanting at a Castro street party one day, and then, suddenly, the same man infected with Karposi Sarcoma (cancerous, but painless black spots on the skin) and then, a few days after that, just dropping dead.

No one knew what was going on or what to do about it. Panic set in. The movie shows the quick progression of events — the protests, the medical advances, the set-backs — all told through the eyes of real, sympathetic men and women.

This is a very important, living oral history, illustrated by ample newspaper clips, snapshots and still photos.

These movies and more are part of Inside-Out, continuing on this weekend: you can check times atinsideout.ca . Also opening is the terrific documentary Bobby Fischer against the World, and the Canadian low-budget spooky, post-apocalyptic horror thriller The Collapsed, both of which I reviewed last week, and Little White Lies, a very funny, if long, French social comedy about the secrets and conflicts of a group of friends who vacation together; I reviewed that last year.

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

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