Daniel Garber talks with Oscar-winning filmmaker László Nemes about Sunset

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

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

Photos of László Nemes by Jeff Harris

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

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

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

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

Sunset opens today in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Heists and Outlaws. Films reviewed: Widows, The Whiskey Bandit, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs PLUS Instant Family

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, Crime, Family, Heist, Hungary, Movies, Western, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 15, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

Being robbed is everyone’s nightmare… so why do we love heist movies so much? Maybe it’s the excitement and audacity of their heroes and antiheroes. This week, I’m looking at three movies with sympathetic thieves. There’s a professional bank robber in Budapest, four female thieves in the Midwest, and outlaws and gunslingers in the old west.

Widows

Wri/Dir: Steve McQueen

Veronica (Viola Davis) lives in a Chicago penthouse with her loving husband Harry (Liam Neeson), a successful businessman. But when he is killed in a car crash, she discovers the source of his wealth: he’s a professional thief. He – and three other men – died on a job that ended with millions of dollars going up in flames when the getaway van exploded. And some not-so-nice people tell Veronica they want those millions back. What to do? She decides to learn from her husband and form her own gang of thieves for a single, grand heist of their own. But first she needs a team. So she turns to the widows of the men who worked with her husband – total strangers all. Veronica has to convince them all to join in with her plan.

There’s Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) a hardworking mom raising young kids while running her dress shop. With her husband gone she could lose everything. And tall, beautiful Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) has been working as a high-end escort since her abusive husband died. They agree to join Veronica. When the fourth widow pulls out of the scheme they recruit Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) a tough cookie from the projects who can run like lightning. But can four inexperienced women pull off a complex home robbery and outsmart organized criminals who hold all the cards?

Widows is a complex thriller, involving not just the four women but also corrupt Chicago politicians, gangsters, preachers, and power brokers. It portrays the city as rotten to the core. It co-stars Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall and Daniel Kaluuya, but the men in this movie are just distractions; women are the core, unusual for a crime thriller. This is artist-turned-director Steve McQueen‘s first mainstream genre movie. Widows is sophisticated, well-acted and skilfully made, but… it’s just a movie. It isn’t deep or emotionally jarring like his earlier movies Hunger, and Twelve Years a Slave.

It kept me interested but left me feeling hollow inside.

The Whiskey Bandit

Wri/Dir: Nimród Antal

It’s the 1980s in Transylvania, Romania. Atilla Ambruzs (Bence Szalay) is a poor young man, neglected and beaten by his father, sent to juvie for petty theft, and enlisted into the army, where he’s an excellent marksman. As an ethnic Hungarian in Ceaucescu’s Romania he has no future. So he escapes across the border by strapping his belt to the bottom of a train and holding on for dear life.

In Budapest, he’s welcomed with open arms and given a job, a home and status. No, just kidding. He’s penniless, homeless and without legal status. Worse, in Hungary he’s derided as Romanian! He finally finds work: as a combination goalie and janitor for a pro-hockey team. No pay, but at least he has a place to live.

One night, drinking beer with his buddies, he spots the woman of his dreams. He chases her to the subway, and offers her flowers. Is this love at first sight? But Kata (Piroska Móga) is educated from a rich family, while Atilla is a penniless alien. He needs the proper papers to get ahead, but they require a hefty bribe. So he turns to bank robbing… and he’s very good at it. He never fires a shot, never hurts anybody, just leapfrogs the tellers and grabs the cash from the banks safes. And he always avoids the cops– He climb walls, jump from buildings, even swim across the Danube to escape. He disguises his appearance with caps, aviator glasses and a fake moustache, leaving nothing behind but the smell of alcohol on his breath. As his exploits pile up, so does his infamy, dubbed the Whiskey Bandit in the news media and adored as a folk hero. And he lives lavishly – telling Kata and his teammates he made his fortune importing bear skins. But how long will his luck hold out?

The Whiskey Bandit is a great crime/action movie, from the director of the great sci-fi action movie “Predators”. Most of the film is narrated by the Bandit telling his story to a crooked detective (Zoltan Schneider). Szalay and Móga have great chemistry, and the story really grabs you. This is a great, rollicking action/adventure. And turns out, it’s based on a true story.

I really enjoyed this one.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Wri/Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen

It’s the mid 19th Century in the wild, wild west. Picture: wagon trains and prospectors, cowboys and bank robbers. Outlaws and bounty hunters. Their stories are told in a series of short episodes, each its own complete film. Genres change, film by film – musical, serious drama, near horror, or comedy, nicely balanced over a two hour show. They’re tied together by the turning pages of an old book of illustrated western tales, but they owe more to Hollywood westerns. The title story is about a singing cowboy all dressed in white… who turns out to be a serial killer. Like most Coen brothers movies this one doesn’t skimp on guns, violence and dark, dark humour.

I usually dislike anthology films, but in this film, it works. The dramas are tiny, perfect and very pessimistic. Standout performances include Zoe Kazan as an indecisive young woman on the Oregan trail (this is her second wagon train movie, after Kelly Reichardt’s great Meek’s Cutoff); Tom Waits as a prospector looking for Mister Pocket, his streak of gold; and Harry Melling (from the Harry Potter movies) as an armless, legless orator travelling from town to town. It’s very much a traditional Hollywood western with cowboys, stand-offs, and shootouts – and, regretably, indigenous characters still portrayed as “noble savages”, even in 2018. (But in fact all the other characters have stereotypical, largely negative personalities, too.)

Still, it feels like much more than the sum of its parts. superior acting, wonderful music and scenery… This is a great Coen brothers movie.

Also opening today is…

Instant Family

Dir: Sean Anders

Pete and Ellie (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) are a happily married, middle-aged couple. They design and renovate houses, and play golf in their spare time. But something is missing… kids! But if they start a family now, they’ll be old folks by the time the kid grows up. But what if they adopt? They join a foster care class run by two social workers (Tig Notaro and Octavio Spencer) who teach them the ins and outs. But when they decide to give it a go, they somehow end up with three foster kids, Lita, Juan and Lizzie. An instant family. Lita (Juliana Gamiz) is a wild child who only eats potato chips. Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) is a scared, accident-prone introvert. And Lizzie (Isabela Moner), age 15, is their surrogate mother, and won’t listen to anything her foster parents tell her. They were abandoned by their birth mother, an addict and petty criminal. Pete and Ellie decide they’ll be their new mom and dad. But will the kids accept them? And when their birth mother is released from prison will they lose these kids they’ve been trying so hard to raise?

Inspired by the director’s own story, Instant Family is equal parts comedy, tear jerker, and realistic look at adoption. It alternates between Ellie, Pete and the kids, the couple’s various relatives (the two grandmas are hilarious, the rest of the relatives just irritating); and the foster parent support group they attend regularly to compare notes. To be honest, this isn’t the sort of movie I would normally go to if I weren’t a film critic. but once there, I did laugh, tear up or cringed, depending on the scene. So if you like inspiring and occasionally funny movies about struggling through parenthood, this is a film for you.

Instant Family, and Widows open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and you can see The Whiskey Bandit tonight at 8:30 at the Royal Cinema as part of the EU Film Festival.

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

Three Historical Dramas. Films reviewed: Budapest Noir, An Act of Defiance, Bye Bye Germany

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, Apartheid, Drama, Germany, Hungary, Movies, Nazi, South Africa by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

Spring Film Festival Season continues in Toronto, with Hotdocs rounding up its fnal weekend. Remember, daytime tickets to these amazing documentaries are free for all students and seniors.

And starting up now is Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival, featuring comedies, dramas, TV and documentaries from around the world. This week I’m looking at three historical dramas now playing at TJFF. There’s a mystery/thriller set in Budapest in the 30s, a comedy/drama in Frankfurt in the 40s, and a courtroom drama in Pretoria in the 60s.

Budapest Noir

Dir: Éva Gárdos

It’s 1936, and everyone in Budapest is preparing for the state funeral of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös. Everyone but cynical reporter Szigmond Gordon (Krisztián Kolovratnik). Crime’s his beat, not politics and cigarettes and bourbon are his life’s blood. And his only distraction is a beautiful woman. So he’s pleasantly surprised when he meets a mysterious woman in a downtown cafe. But today’s potential love interest is tomorrow’s news story when he finds her body in a pool of blood.

He calls on his ex-girlfriend Kristina, a photographer (Réka Tenki) to take pics of the crimes scene. (She’s back in Budapest after smuggling shocking photos out of Germany.) But when he tries to investigate the murder, he faces roadblocks at every turn, with no one but Kristina to help him. The chief of police, the politicians, and even members of the underworld seem to be blocking him from finding the truth. And for some reason her body has disappeared from the morgue.

His search leads him to pornographers, fascist gangs, a coffee importer, a secret communist meeting, a madame at a brothel, and a punch-drunk boxer, all in an attempt to solve the mystery. Will he find what he seeks? Or is he digging too deep, uncovering things journalists aren’t supposed to see?

Budapest Noir is a look at the underbelly of a huge city in turmoil in turbulent times. It’s presented in a film noir style, narrated by a Bogart-type character complete with trenchcoat and hat, and borrows images from dozens of famous movies. Occasionally it veers from pastiche into parody with all its hollywood memes, but generally it’s a solid and well-acted homage, full of surprises.

An Act of Defiance

Dir: Jean Van De Velde

It’s 1963 in South Africa. The police raid a secret meeting in a farm house in Rivonia, arresting everyone there. The meeting was by the heads of umKhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress. Charged with sabotage, the accused face death by hanging, and it looks like they’re heading that way. Until a respected white Afrikaner lawyer, Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller), agrees to head the defence team. The defendants include Walter Sisulu, Harold Wolpe and none other than Nelson Mandela himself.

But the prosecutors are working hand-in-hand with the police, the government and the secret service. They tap phones, record private lawyer-client conversations, and send spies out at night to take pictures through windows. Turns out Fischer is not just a random defence lawyer helping out; he has deep ties to the anti-apartheid movement. As the trial progresses, he and his family become the targets of underhanded campaigns. Can he convince a conservative judge to save the defendents’ lives? Or will they, and he, end up in the gallows?

This is a fascinating and intense courtroom drama, about a period of South African history largely unknown outside of that country. It includes Mandela’s famous “I’m prepared to die” speech given during the trial, but he and the other defendents are minor characters. It’s mainly about Fischer and his family, including his wife Mollie (beautifully played by Antoinette Louw) and the fight against apartheid. It also includes some thrilling moments about the family avoiding an evil police force.

This is another good film to catch.

Bye Bye Germany (Es war einmal in Deutschland)

Dir: Sam Garbarski (Based on the novels of Michel Bergmann)

It’s occupied Frankfurt just after WWII. A quarter of a million holocaust survivors are living in DP (displaced persons) camps in central Europe, run by allied forces. They’re waiting to emigrate to America or Palestine. But in the meantime they have to support themselves. Enter David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) a sweet-talking teller of tales with a pencil thin mustache and a mysterious past. He says his family has been in dry goods for generations. So he recruits a ragtag bunch of salesmen to help peddle his linens. But they wonder why he keeps disappearing for hours at a time. Where does he go?

He’s being interrogated by the stern but beautiful Special Agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue) a German-speaking G.I. assigned to weed out war criminals and collaborators from among the refugees. Why was Bermann given special treatment by the SS? His answer? He told funny jokes. Will Sara believe his outlandish stories? Will his business venture pan out? And will he and his friends make enough money to say Auf Wiedersehen to Deutschland?

Bye Bye Germany is a very entertaining, but bittersweet, memoir of life as a jew in postwar Frankfurt. Antje Traue is the perfect foil for Bleibtreu’s charming but sketchy Bermann. I liked this movie.

You can catch Bye Bye Germany, An Act of Defiance and Budapest Noir at TJFF over the next two weeks. Go to TJFF.com 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 filmmaker Ferenc Török about 1945

Posted in 1940s, B&W, Crime, Holocaust, Hungary, Judaism, Secrets, Western, WWII by CulturalMining.com on May 5, 2017

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

It’s a beautiful summer day in a small town, with many exalting in their new prosperity. There’s a wedding planned for the town square, and the pretty young bride is looking forward to her new home. The town clerk is especially proud, since all his hard work is finally paying off. He’s the king of the castle… until everything starts to unravel when two strangers are spotted at the local train station. Two men with beards. The place is rural Hungary, and the year?

It’s 1945.

1945 is the name of a new drama set just after WWII. A short fable, shot in real time about greed, death, treachery, betrayal, and guilt. it played at the Berlin Festival and was the opening feature at Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival, 2017. It’s directed by Ferenc Török. Ferenc is a noted Hungarian writer and film director who is the winner of the Béla Balázs Award for outstanding achievement in filmmaking.

I spoke to Ferenc in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

He talks about WWII, Hungary, history, “Freedom Year”, fascism, communism, discrimination, Jews, Roma, High Noon, Béla Bartók, xenophpbia, Béla Tarr, De Sica, Rossellini, Viktor Orbán, and more…!

1945 opens in Toronto on Aug 24, 2018.

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Sweet Love in Bitter Times. Films Reviewed: Princess, Fever at Dawn PLUS TJFF

Posted in 1940s, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Hungary, Israel, Movies, Romance, Sweden, WWII by CulturalMining.com on May 6, 2016

2016_Festival_bookHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

TJFF, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, is one of the biggest of its kind, with comedies, dramas and documentaries from Canada and around the world. This year they’re featuring works from the Golden Age of Canadian TV, from comics ptq1-utgkRCMkqxVWjuSSm0fGla_1yUdV37o6kV_UlcWayne and Shuster’s Shakespearean take on baseball, to an early TV drama with a young William Shatner. The festival is on now, including many free screenings. This week I’m looking at TJFF movies about the search for sweet love in bitter circumstances. There’s a dying man in Sweden looking for love in letters; and a young Israeli girl in a dysfunctional family who finds her match on the streets.

10390340_323724601085809_3429696569493410229_nPrincess

Dir: Tali Shalom-Ezer

Adar (Shira Haas) is an extremely intelligent 12 year old schoolgirl who is flunking out of school. She sleeps in every morning, and never shows up for class. She lives with her divorced mom Alma (Keren Mor) a beautiful doctor who is always at work, and Alma’s boyfriend Michael (Ori Pfeffer). Michael is a friendly, gregarious guy who also seems to lie about all day painting watercolours. He lost his job as a teacher.

Alma is worried about her daughter’s “illness” but not overly so. She’s more concerned that Michael isn’t paying enough attention to her: forget the kid, I’m the 10511189_342046895920246_5058560699891259446_nbeautiful one, aren’t I? she keeps asking. But Alma is a deep sleeper, and doesn’t notice Michael’s late night visits to Adar. Is he just comforting his “prince”, as he calls her, or is there something more sinister going on? Adar looks outside her home for answers. Wandering the city one day she sees a street kid play-boxing with a tall, skinny girl with long hair. She meets the girl and discovers… 10383857_324927560965513_4871300977690319209_ohe’s a boy! Alan (Adar Zohar Hanetz) is a lanky boy around her age, almost her doppelganger. They hit it off right away, sharing clothes and sexual secrets. He’s homeless, so he moves in with Adar’s family, just for a few days. But Michael starts paying too much attention to Alan now, and the 1979386_334504990007770_6056517843585025238_otension escalates.

Princess is a troubling and disturbing coming-of-age story told through the eyes of a young girl. The scary parts are horrific. It cuts away from night scenes to the point where you can’t be sure if she’s being abused or just imagining it – she blocks them from her mind, treating the “visits” as dreams. Not for the faint of heart. But this is not an exploitative movie — there are sweet scenes between Adar and Alan, the two kids just trying to figure things out. This is a difficult movie to watch, but one that treats the unspeakable with nuance and sensitivity. And all the acting, especially Haas and Hanetz, is fantastic.

10422291_391305784327869_4804890456130766117_nFever at Dawn (Hajnali láz)

Wri/Dir: Péter Gárdos

It’s 1945, just after the end of WWII. Miklos, 25, (Milan Schruff) is a former journalist from Hungary who finds himself in hospital in Sweden. He was a prisoner in a Nazi death camp and is in desperate need of medical attention. Along with many other Hungarian Displaced Persons, he is now in a refugee camp, not as a prisoners this time, but still kept locked up behind fences. That’s the good news.

The bad news comes from Doctor Lindholm (Gabor Mate). He says Miklos, you have 12360109_493388837452896_3257359522469345631_nspots on your lungs from Typhus and TB is gobbling up what’s left. You have six months to live. That’s why Miklos has a fever each morning and regularly coughs up blood.

But instead of giving up, he decides to write letters. 117 to be exact, all to Jewish Hungarian women in D.P. camps in Sweden. The letters are written in the particular style used only in Debrecen, a city in northeastern Hungary. He hears back from many of them, but with one, Lili (19) he feels something more. Lili (Emöke Piti) treats each letter as a treasure she hides 11046355_421465161311931_3345752524933432903_nunder her mattress, awaiting the day they can meet. Although they’ve never spoken to each other, or even seen each other’s faces, they both see it as true love.

But they face serious obstacles from well- meaning friends. Judith (Andrea Petrik) is a beautiful, raven-haired woman who survived the camps with Lili. Judith is devoted to her — she once hid potato peels in her mouth to save a starving Lili. When she hears of Miklos’ 117 letters she sees him as a womanizer 10257_491849797606800_4887635868100874382_nor a conman, and tries to sabotage their love. She wants to keep Lili all to herself. Meanwhile, Dr Lindholm wants Miklos to stay put, for the sake of his lungs — despite all his attempts to see her.

Can the two of them ever meet, even for a day? Will they love each other in the flesh as much as they do on paper? And do either of them have many days left to live?

Fever Dawn is shot in beautiful black and white, with dialogue in Swedish, Hungarian and German. Based on a true story, it’s a good old-fashioned romance of the purest kind. It hasn’t been Disney-fied — there is suicide, death, crime, racism and debauched sex going on all around them. But it’s up to true love and destiny to bring them together, even if it’s just for a moment.

Princess and Fever at Dawn are both playing at the Toronto Jewish film Festival. Go to tjff.com for details.

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

Non-Christmassy Christmas movies. Films reviewed: Son of Saul, The Hateful Eight

Posted in Cultural Mining, Drama, Hungary, Movies, Uncategorized, US, violence, War, Western, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 25, 2015

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

Merry Christmas! You’re probably drinking a hot toddy or roasting chestnuts on an open fire somewhere. But this week I want to talk about movies opening today that don’t fit the usual Christmas mould. There’s an American western about eight people in a cabin in a blizzard who want to live to see the sun rise; and a Hungarian drama about a man in a Nazi concentration camp who wants to live to see his son buried.

fba93085-318f-4715-b9e3-f35eb9c9d13eSon of Saul
Dir: Laszlo Nemes

It’s 1944, WWII, inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner there. He is one of the SonderKommando, who are kept alive and given certain privileges because of their duties. The Sonderkommando handle the gristliest part of the death apparatus. They tell the newly-arrived prisoners to undress, ushers them into the tiled shower room and locks the doors. The showers are actually gas chambers — that’s where they kill them. Afterwards he unlocks the metal doors again and clears away the dead bodies to be burned. He does this over and over, never seeing the light of day. He is dead inside, just like the bodies he drags away.

At the same time, some of the prisoners are planning an elaborate scheme to photograph the mass murderddf7a613-739e-417a-aa8d-80351d30fc05. Others are planning to escape, to show the photos to the outside world. Then something unusual happens. Cleaning up the gas chamber, he notices a young man, gasping for breath, but somehow still alive amidst all the dead bodies. It’s like a miracle. Then Saul looks at him: that’s my son.

The Nazi’s quickly put a stop this. They strangle the boy and send him to the morgue for an autopsy to determine “what went wrong”. But for Saul, his life suddenly has a purpose. He, a man with no religious upbringing and no family, now is determined to give the boy a proper burial amidst all the mass killing. It’s an impossible mission. He somehow has to rescue the body, wrap it in a shroud, hide him from the Nazis, find a place to bury him and a e8861a76-4856-44b6-94b2-274a9f4c8105holy man, a rabbi, to say the proper prayers.

Son of Saul is an intensely moving, high- tension drama. It somehow captures – without comment — the chaos, mayhem and absurdity of a Nazi concentration camp, with its omnipresent death, pain and humiliation.

It’s shot with a handheld camera that follows him, non-stop as he walks around the camp. (Sonderkommandos wear a special uniform that lets them move around the camp.) The action never ceases, from start to finish, constantly on the move adding high stress to the unceasing horror of the film.

It also has an immediacy missing from most Holocaust movies (if there is such a genre). It feels like you are there, following his every step. Also unusual is powerful Christian images of the film, such as Saul holding his blameless son in his arms, like Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Son of Saul is an excellent, if harrowing, movie. And it has a good chance of winning the Oscar for best foreign language feature.

THE HATEFUL EIGHTThe Hateful Eight
Dir: Quentin Tarantino

Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is a uniformed military officer walking on the Overland Trail in Wyoming after the US Civil War. He flags down a stage coach and asks for a ride before a blizzard hits. The reluctant passenger, John “the hangman” Ruth (played by a hefty Kurt Russell), doesn’t want anyone on board. He’s taking a woman wantedTHE HATEFUL EIGHT for murder to be hanged in Red Rock, and collecting the 10,000 bucks. But he relents when he recognizes the Major – they met once before, and Ruth was impressed to see a black man carrying a handwritten letter from Abraham Lincoln himself. And, it turns out, there once was a very high bounty on the Major’s head. The prisoner is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a foul-mouthed murderess with a black eye. She is handcuffed to John Ruth who will only give her up to the to the Sheriff of Red Rock. Warren is also a bounty hunter and carries the bodies THE HATEFUL EIGHTof outlaws he wants to give to sherriff. And who do they meet next? Why Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) a notorious southern renegade from the war, who claims to be… the newly-appointed Sherriff of Red Rock! But can he – or any of them – be trusted? Or do they all just want to claim the reward or to free the prisoner.

The snow falls harder till they reach Minnie’s Haberdashery, an inn on the trail. Inside are four unfamiliar men: Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) a fancy-talking English hangman, General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Kentucky Fried confederate racist; Joe Gage, a cow-puncher wearing suspiciously clean duds (Michael Madsen) and Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir), an unknown THE HATEFUL EIGHTman who says he’s filling in for Minnie.

Each of the eight is filled with racist bile, hidden secrets, and countless skeletons in their respective closets. Which of them are the good guys and which are the bad guys. And will any of the hateful eight survive till morning?

I enjoyed this movie, though it’s not for everyone. It’s three hours long, and made in the old style, complete with an overture, an intermission, and a soundtrack by the king of spaghetti westerns, Ennio Moricone. And it’s THE HATEFUL EIGHTbeing shown on 70mm film in Panavision. Super wide screen. And while technically a Western, the story is more like an Agatha Christie locked-room mystery: who can be trusted and who is a secret killer? The film gives what we expect from Tarantino: flawless recreations of the look and feel of old movies, extreme violence, and stretching the boundaries of what people will allow on the screen. All of the characters are amazing, especially Goggins as the Sherriff and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the foul mouthed woman. I never felt bored.

But it does leave me uncomfortable for a couple of reasons. For one, the only THE HATEFUL EIGHTblack and female characters are constantly called the B word and the N word. Second, for a western there are virtually no fist fights – lots of shooting but not much punching. The exception is Daisy. She starts out with a black eye, and from there, she gets punch in the face many times by many characters. (I guess that’s supposed to be funny or shocking.) But it made me wonder: why all the men beating up the woman? Still, if Tarantino movies are your thing, The Hateful Eight won’t disappoint.

The Hateful Eight and Son Of Saul both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Eastern Europe at TIFF13. Films reviewed: The Burning Bush, Ida, Le Grand Cahier

Posted in Communism, Cultural Mining, Czech Republic, Drama, Hungary, Movies, Nazi, Nun, Poland, Prague Spring, TIFF, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 20, 2013

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

Eastern Europe used to have a specific meaning — not so much geographical as political. It meant the countries cossacksbehind the iron curtain. Western Europe was allied with the US, Eastern Europe with the Soviet Union. And it meant the barrier to those scary “Asiatic” hordes waiting to swarm, en masse, across Western Europe to enslave us all.

Now, though, there is no eastern Europe anymore. Just Europe. Maybe mittel-Europe if you want to be fancy about it. But the old Eastern Europe lives on in the minds and films of the countries that suffered the brunt of two World Wars, and both Nazi and Stalinist occupations.

So, this week I’m looking at some really good movies, all from Eastern Europe, all from TIFF. They come from the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary: all historical dramas, two set in the 1960s and one in 1944.

TIFF Burning Bush1The Burning Bush

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

In January, 1969, Jan Palach – a history student at Prague’s Charles University – walks into Wenceslaus square with a bucket. He pours the liquid all over himself then sets himself on fire. He’s rushed to a hospital to treat his burns, but is barely alive. He immediately becomes a symbol of Czech opposition to the invasion of the country by Russian tanks to crush the short-lived Prague Spring.

The Party overlords want his story silenced, or the narrative stripped of any political significance. The Czech investigator looking into the case doesn’t want the Russians to impose martial law. His political allies at the university – students and some professors – want his story told. And his family – his older brother and his mother, the ticket seller at a remote train station – are devastated when they discover what happens.

burningbush_04

But when a privileged party hack makes the papers when he states Jan Palach not only was working for the west, but never intended to burn himself alive. Jan’s steadfast mother decides to sue the man who made the speech, with the help of a sympathetic lawyer, a woman, and a young idealistic university student. But the wrath of the party is let loose all around the main characters, with midnight phone calls, men in black cars parked outside their homes, and mysterious disappearances.

The Burning Bush is an epic, four-hour-long story, (originally made as a Czech mini-series, in four, one-hour parts.) It has many diverse plot lines and dozens of characters. It alternates between the hope Jan Palach’s action inspired, and the dread of authoritarian rule that fought against him and his allies.

But it stands up beautifully all-together. The director, the renowned Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, Olivier Olivier, In Darkness) follows this gripping story all the way through. It had me glued to the screen.

Ida_01_mediumIda

Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) was an orphaned baby in WWII Poland, left at a nunnery near Lodz. She wears a plain grey dress and covers her hair. She’s quiet and obedient. Now 16, she’s ready to take her vows, become a nun, but Mother Superior insists first she speak to her only known relative, her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). But why?

Wanda is a woman of the world. She wears lipstick, smokes cigarettes and listens to jazz.

And she sleeps with younger men she picks up in bars. She’s cold, cynical and bitter. She used to be a high-ranked communist party prosecutor, though she seems to have lost her status. And she’s Jewish.

Anna discovers she is too, and her real name is Ida. Wanda advises herida_04

Ida wants to see her parents’ grave. Wanda laughs: Jews who died in the war have no graves! But the two of them head out to the small town. The family that took over their home stonewalls them and says Jews never lived there. But does he know what happened to her parents? Never heard of them.

Wanda delves deeper. Ida starts to discover her own hidden history. Wanda warms toward her – Ida is just like her sister, with her red hair, and three dimples when she smiles. Ida dips her toe into the real world (jazz, alcohol, cigarettes, men). She has to decide between cosmopolitan urban Poland and a cloistered life behind the walls.

Ida is beautifully shot in black and white on a 4×3 frame (not widescreen) like old TV shows.  Each scene stylized. It’s only 80 minutes long, but has everything it needs. It’s subtle, compact, minimalist. The two actresses – the two Agatas – as the naïve teen and her world-weary aunt are both fantastic, with fine rapport as their relationship gradually changes. This is a great movie – beautiful to look at, moving to watch.

Le Grand Cahier PosterLe Grand Cahier (A Nagy Füzet)

Dir: János Szász (based on the novel by Agota Kristov)

A soldier and his wife live in a big city (Budapest?) with their twin boys (András and László Gyémánt). Life is beautiful. Then suddenly, boom! it’s 1944, and the Germans are moving in, taking over Hungary. So they send the twins off to stay with the wife’s estranged mother in a remote farm, to keep them safe. It’s wartime, their dad says, everything’s different. He gives the a big black ledger – the Grand Cahier of the title – and they promise to record everything that happens.

Grandmother – fat, gruff, unmannered – is known as the witch by the locals. She has no friends, and takes care of the farm all by herself. “I’ll put them to work – they don’t eat for free.” The twins – dressed in navy peacoats and clean white shirts — are terrified by the evil witch. They have one book to read – the bible – but they use it for memorization and grammar skills not for prayers.

The boys decide in order to survive the war they have to be impervious to pain, hunger, and remorse. They refuse food from Grandmother, and take turns punching and hitting each other to see who can endure the most.

They start to meet people. There’s a girl they call harelip (Orsolya Tóth) — who teaches them how to steal. A kindly Jewish shoemaker gives them boots. Then there’s the corrupt deacon at the church and his lascivious secretary – she introduces them to the adult world but they recoil from her black heart. And a gay Nazi officer, fascinated when he sees the twins punching each other. The twins record it all, good and bad.

They witness the wartime atrocities and start to kill: first insects, le grand cahier_01_mediumworking their way up the food chain. Will they become killers themselves, just like the people around them? Or will they retain a sense of morality?

Le Grand Cahier is an amazing, rich, and disturbing coming-of-age story, told through the twins’ eyes.  The two boys — undifferentiated, nameless —  give a mythical, novelistic view of wartime life under the Nazi occupation. The movie follows them until the end of the war, in a gripping unexpected adventure. You should see this one when it comes out.

The Burning Bush, Ida, and Le Grand Cahier, all played at TIFF13 – keep an eye open for these three films. Also worth mentioning are two movies whose titles are self-explanatory. A documentary about a dissident theatrical troop that uses its performances to challenge the authoritarian Belarus government: Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (Madeleine Sackler); and a drama about an Australian woman who discovers the hotel in Serbian Bosnia she slept in was the site of unspeakable war crimes: For Those Who Can Tell no Tales,  (Jasmila Zbanic, who previously directed the excellent Grbavica (2006).)

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

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