Record/Erase. Films reviewed: Synonyms, News from Home

Posted in Belgium, Clash of Cultures, comedy, documentary, France, Israel, New York City, soldier by CulturalMining.com on November 1, 2019

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

It’s November now and Toronto’s fall film festival season is in full swing. ReelAsian is showing films from Asia – including Japan, Korea, China, Philippines in the Pacific, South Asian, and from the Asian diaspora from around the world, including Canada and the US. Films include dramas, comedies, anime, documentaries, art and again this year virtual reality, with a piece based on the work of Joy Kogawa. Cinefranco shows French language films, this year featuring movies by Franco-Ontarian directors. The EU Film Fest, which started last night, shows one film from each country in the European Union. This still includes the U.K., in case you’re wondering, despite all the Brexit craziness. And more to the point, all films are showing for free at the Royal Cinema!

This week, I’m looking at two movies, one from the 1970s and one from right now. There’s a filmmaker from Bruxelles who moves to New York to record what she sees; and a man from Israel who moves to Paris to erase who he is.

Synonyms

Dir: Nadav Lapid

Yoav (Tom Mercier) is a traveller who arrives in Paris with a plan: learn French, blend in with the culture, recreate himself. life. He’s originally from Israel, a sniper in the army, and wants to get rid of his past. And he’s helped toward his goal by a series of unexpected events, both good and bad. Good news: He arrives at a B’n’B with a key to an empty apartment. Bad news: When he takes a shower the next morning, everything he owns – all his clothes, his money, his passport – is gone stolen by a stranger. He ends up running naked through the apartment trying to catch the thief, ending up curled in a foetal position, almost frozen. Good news: an attractive young couple, Emile and Caroline (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte), find him and nurse him back to health. And better news, they give him some beautiful clothes to wear, help him find a place to live, andmore. Bad news: despite trying to erase his Israeli past, all his jobs seem to be with forner soldier buddies or at the embassy itself, with unexpected consequences.

What begins as simple flirtation turns into a potential love affair… but with whom: Emile or Caroline?

Synonyms is a dark comedy about conflicting identity, immigration, and clashing cultures. It’s partly a tender ménage a trois about a stranger introduced into the lives of a young couple. It’s also an absurdist comedy, satirizing Israeli military culture, its overt masculinity (verging on the homoerotic in a number of scenes), as well as a paranoid fixation on persecution, with themselves as victims. And it equally satirizes the immigration process in France, in which newcomers are instructed to assimilate, to hide their religion and ethnicity beneath a veil of loyalty to secularism, and the French way of life. The director previously brought us the equally strange and brilliant film The Kindergarten Teacher (I reviewed here) a few years back. This film, Synonyms is completely different, and much lighter in tone, but equally perplexing. And Tom Mercier, in the main role, is someone you should look out for.

News from Home

Dir: Chantal Akerman

It’s 1976 in lower Manhattan. Huge cadillacs cruise through empty alleys in the meatpacking district, leaving loose newspapers fluttering in their wake. On the subway, riders glare at the camera, or stare wide-eyed in curiosity. In the tunnels beneath Times Square, mom’s with toddlers, people commuting to work, and businessmen with their buddies walk past a stationary 16 mm camera. Through a moving car window, storefronts and gas stations and taxis and pedestrians walk up and down a West side avenue. This is a moment in time captured in architectural grandeur by avant garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman.

And over the top you can hear her voice reading the letters, largely unanswered, her mother Nelly sends her from Belgium. Her mother is worried their separation could be permanent, or worse dangerous, and sneaks twenty dollar bills into the enevelopes in case her daughter is in trouble. (Nelly’s own parents were killed in Nazi death camps.) The film itself is both drab and hypnotic, a series of ordinary, detached images of people and places that act like a time capsule; combined with deeply intimate glances into her relationship with her mom.

You may have heard Chantal Akerman’s name before but probably haven’t seen her work.

But her influence is everywhere. I was just describing one of her earliest films, News From Home. She went onto make many films, both mainstream and avant-garde. She was a pioneer in Feminist cinema, queer cinema, and experimental film.

She was also a tempestuous perfectionist and hard to work with, falling into depressed funks or driven by manic episodes. At the same time, she is hugely influential. Todd Haynes studied her work, Gus van Sant used it as a source for Last Days, his film about Kurt Cobain, and people as different as Sofia Coppola and Weerasathakul Apichatpong were shaped by Akerman’s work. You may not know this, but even films like Joker used News From Home as a model for its images of NY City in the 70s.

I am far from an expert on Chantal Akerman – I’m a movie critic not a filmmaker – but if you’re a director, a cinema studies majors, or a film festival enthusiast, the current retrospective is a rare opportunity to see her work in its entirety. And thanks to Andrea Picard, co-curator of the program: most of what I’m saying is based on cribbed notes from a talk she gave on Akerman.

Synonyms starts today in Toronto; check your local listings. The retrospective News From Home: the films of Chantal Akerman begins 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.

Daniel Garber talks with Yaron Zilberman and Yehuda Nahari Levi about Incitement at #TIFF19

Posted in 1990s, Docudrama, Israel, Palestine, Politics, Psychological Thriller, Religion by CulturalMining.com on September 20, 2019

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

In September, 1994, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat sign an historic peace treaty between Israel and Palestine. On November 4, 1995 he is assassinated by an Israeli at a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Was it a lone wolf terrorist? A deranged fanatic? Or a young man given widespread support at the highest levels, urging him – and those like him – to commit murder?

Incitement is an enthralling, bold and deeply disturbing new docudrama that traces the steps of a law student leading to his shocking crime. It’s directed and co-written by Yaron Zilberman previously known for his gentle drama A Late Quartet; and stars Yehuda Nahari Halevi in a crucial performance as the assassin Yigal Amir.

Incitement had its world premier at TIFF19 and is opening soon in Toronto.

I spoke with Yaron and Yehuda on location at TIFF.

Daniel Garber talks with director Sameh Zoabi about Tel Aviv on Fire

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Israel, Movies, Mystery, Palestine, Satire, Secrets, TV, War by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2019

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

Salem is an ordinary Palestinian from Jerusalem who is down on his luck. No job, no money, no girlfriend. So he jumps at the chance to work on a popular TV soap shooting in Ramallah. It’s about a beautiful Palestinian spy seducing an Israeli officer in the days leading up to the 1967 war.

The problem is Salem has to pass through Israeli checkpoints between Jerusalem and Ramallah each day to get to work and back. And after a mixup with an Israeli guard at the checkpoint, the officer starts using his position to pressure Salem to change the soap opera’s plot. Will the TV series end with a happy wedding… or with Tel Aviv on fire?

Tel Aviv on Fire is a new comedy about relations between Israelis and Palestinians under occupation. It’s directed and co-written by Sameh Zoabi, the award-winning Palestinian filmmaker. Tel Aviv on Fire played at Venice and TIFF and many other festivals.

I spoke with Sameh in May, 2019 in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Tel Aviv on Fire opens today in Toronto.

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

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

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

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

The Death of Stalin

Dir: Armando Iannucci

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

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

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

The Death of Stalin is a great political comedy.

Foxtrot

Dir: Samuel Maoz

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

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

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

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

I recommend it.

Death of Stalin and Foxtrot both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

 

 

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Avi Nesher about Past Life at #TIFF16

Posted in 1970s, Berlin, Biopic, Drama, Feminism, Israel, Music, Mystery, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on January 6, 2017

avi-nesher-tiff16-past-life-1-jeff-harrisHi, this is Daniel Garber at the movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Sephi and Nana Milch are Israeli sisters in the late 1970s. Sephi is the beautiful one – she’s a student of music and wants to become a composer. Nana is the smart one, an intellectual who writes for a pastlife_06radical leftist newspaper. They were both raised by strict parents who survived the Holocaust by hiding in a Polish farmer’s house. But on a musical visit to Berlin, Sephi has a strange encounter: a woman shouting that her father is a murderer. A murderer? Her own father? This sends both sisters on a search across two continents to find out what really happened and to confront their avi-nesher-tiff16-past-life-2-jeff-harrisown hidden past. But can they handle the truth of their parents’ past life?

Past Life is the name of a new movie, based on a bestselling memoir. It was written and directed by Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher. Nesher is a longtime favourite at TIFF, bringing us heady romances like The pastlife_04Secrets and brilliant period dramas like The Matchmaker (a personal favourite). Nesher is a consumate storyteller. His absorbing films combine intellectual rigour with vivid characters, all placed within stories reminiscent of classic Hollywood movies. This film premiered at the Toronto international film festival. I spoke with Avi Nesher on location at the TIFF Bell Lightbox during TIFF16.

Past Life screens in Toronto at 1:00pm and 4:00pm on Sunday, January 15, 2017. Go to TJFF for details.

Photos of Avi Nesher by Jeff Harris.

 

More movies by women. Films reviewed: Moments of Clarity, A Magical Substance Flows Into Me

Posted in Canada, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Israel, Music, Palestine, Religion, Road Movie, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 23, 2016

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

TIFF is over but fall film festival season is just starting. Over the next year you’ll hear many of the interviews I recorded at TIFF, from Paul Verhoeven to Kore-eda Hirokazu and Alanis Obomsawin. There’s a multionational and multilingual selection of films. Still, by the end I realized that only one of the directors I interviewed was a woman. So to start to balance that out, this week I’m only looking at movies directed by women. There’s a home-schooled Christian in search of people to meet; and a Palestinian filmmaker in search of music to listen to.

mocstill6Moments of Clarity

Wri/Dir: Kristin Wallace

Claire (Kristin Wallace) is an eccentric woman in her twenties who lives with her obsessive-compulsive mom (Saxon Trainor). She has no fashion sense or social skills to speak of, but is always good natured and optimistic. She acts like a 12 year old girl. She was home-schooled by her mom and kept sheltered from the rest of the world. She only ventures out to distribute to her neighbours the muffins she bakes, and gets nervous when she enters unknown territory. On the mocstill5-2outside she’s a good Christian girl, but inside she’s a seething cauldron of unrealized sexual fantasies.

Danielle (Lyndsy Fonseca) is the local pastor’s daughter with just the opposite personality. She’s pretty and “normal”, cynical and jaded, but finds joy behind an old camera. Claire wants to be friends wth her. But when her camera is ruined she blames it on Claire. So Claire borrows her mothers wood-panelled station wagon and mocstill4they set out for a used camera store the next town over. But who will they meet on the way? On the run from their respective parents and the police, Claire is exposed to sex, drugs, and the outside world for the first time, and discovers a secret about her past. Can she and Danielle stay friends? And can they both reconcile with their out-of-touch parents?

This is low-budget, buddy/road movie. It’s also a coming of age drama but with a twist… The budding adolescent is actually a fully grown adult, whose life has been stunted by an over protective mother. It’s a fun and simple comedy. I found it hard to believe that a woman in her twenties living in a town surrounded by other people could be that naïve and isolated… but once you accept the premise, the rest falls into place. And Moments of Clarity is written, directed by and starring a Toronto filmmaker.

13923874_1050454381656875_4136600126401296685_oA Magical Substance Flows Into Me

Wri/Dir: Jumana Manna

Robert Lachmann was a German orientalist and ethnomusicologist who fled Nazi persecution to British Mandate Palestine in the 1930s. Once there, he set about collecting the so-called “Oriental” music of that area, while spurning any music with European or North American influences. He recorded traditional and liturgical music on metal disks, as performed by musicians from indigenous and migrant cultures, all carefully documented and recorded. And he broadcasted them on the Palestine Radio Service. This included Bedouins, Palestinian Arabs in the Galilee, Coptic Christians, 13975251_1050454704990176_2875683675079136567_oKurds, Jewish Yemenites, and others.

Eighty years later, using Lachmann’s original notes and recordings, Palestinian filmmaker Jumana Manna sets out to find modern performers of the same songs. She play the original recordings, talks with members of those communities, and invites them to replay the same songs today.

The film is shot in carefully composed tableaux, with an unmoving camera, often in the musician’s kitchen or garden. She talks about their life and background, and then records an actual performance. This is punctuated with the director reading aloud Lachmann’s handwritten notes.

13914070_1050455511656762_431118580071783850_oThis is a fascinating movie. There’s an elderly member of the Samaratins — an ancient religion with fewer than a thousand followers split between Israel and Palestine — today shows off his 600 year old prayer scrolls. Then he listens to his father-in-law’s recording and sings along. You can’t find a voice like that anymore, he laments. A Kurdish man discusses pickles and olives. A Coptic Christian who leads tourists around holy sites says business is bad. People are afraid to come out here anymore. They hear about Isis beheadings in Iraq and think it’s all the same. And a Moroccan-Israeli woman celebrates her grandmother’s Arab roots.

This is a quiet film but subtly political. Musical performances are juxtaposed with silent shots of 1470789934802Israeli government maps of the occupied territories; shots of graffiti on both sides of the wall separating Israel from Palestine; and the director’s own father, a scholar of Palestinian history. Lachmann’s notes range from priceless records to weirdly dated, orientalist views of “primitive cultures.” Fascinating documentary.

Moments of Clarity opens today at the Carlton in Toronto. A Magical Substance Flows Into Me is queen-of-katweplaying as part of the Toronto Palestine Film Festival this weekend. Go to tpff.ca for details. And there’s Queen of Katwe, (which I talked about last week) the heart-warming story of an impoverished and illiterate teenaged girl in Uganda who wants to become a chess champion. It’s directed by the great Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, and starts 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

Sand and snow. Films reviewed: A Tale of Love and Darkness, In Order of Disappearance

Posted in 1940s, Crime, Depression, Drama, drugs, Israel, Norway, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on August 26, 2016

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

ctff-logo-2016-500TIFF is just around the corner with big stars, public events and even some free screenings. And there are tickets still available, especially daytime screenings. But I’d hate to see other film festivals lost around its hugeness. Look out for Caribbean Tales for world premiers from Canada and the Caribean beginning before TIFF, and immediately after1461388895689 TIFF is the Toronto Palestine Film Festival (TPFF) showing features and docs by and about Palestinians.

This week, I’m looking at two watchable foreign films. There’s a literary drama shrowded in darkness and shadow, and an action/thriller covered in bright, white snow.

1451880012615A Tale of Love and Darkness

Dir: Natalie Portman (based on the autobiographical novel by Amos Oz)

It’s 1945 in British Mandate Palestine. Noah is a little boy living in Jerusalem with his mother Fania and his father Arieh. Amos (Amir Tessler) likes books about Tarzan and cowboys and “Indians”. But the stories he likes the best are the ones his mother (Natalie Portman) tells him. Fania is a born storyteller but the tales she tells are fantastically 1468977255_ataleofloveanddarkness_natalieportman_ohadknoller_1-1194x797ghoulish and obsessed with death. She was born in Poland, and tells him about escaping into the woods, which probably saved her life. She talks about a self-immolating woman, a handsome polish soldier, and a pair of monks on a long journey. When Amos hears her stories he pictures himself and his mother as the main characters.

1468972783_ataleofloveanddarkness_natalieportman_ohadknoller_g3-1194x797Arieh (Gilad Kahana), Amos’ dad, is a published author himself. But his books are academic, not popular bestsellers. He was beat up as a kid in Lithuania and tells Amos he immigrated to Palestine so his son would never have to face bullying because of his background. (Amos ends up bullied anyway.) Fania had great expectations and still fantasizes about muscular, intellectual farmers replacing her scrawny but loving husband.1469144206_ataleofloveanddarkness_natalieportman_giladkahana_bio-398x266 But as her dreams and fantasies fade away, she slips into a deep depression.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is a fictional memoir by Israeli novelist Amos Oz, set in the post-Holocaust, pre-independence years of his childhood. The movie consists of a series of linked short stories, each ending with a silent dark screen. The film doesn’t bonk you on the head about the big issues; rather it subtly shows short scenes hinting at the bigger picture.

1469144113_ataleofloveanddarkness_natalieportman_bio-796x1149One crucial scene has Amos visiting an Arab family, where he meets a girl his age, a budding poet, like him. He shows off his Tarzan skills by climbing a tree and shaking the chains of a swing set. He pictures himself as Samson, escaping the chains that bind him. But with his thoughtless bravado he breaks the swing, sending the girl’s little brother to hospital. (Metaphor anyone?)

I was impressed that this is actress Natalie Portman’s first feature as a director. (She also wrote the screenplay and plays a central character.) A Tale of Love and Darkness is a beautifully-shot period piece, with wonderful music, camerawork and costumes. This is definitely worth seeing.

theatrical-one-sheet-for-in-order-of-disappearance-a-magnet-release-photo-courtesy-of-magnet-releasing-6In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten)

Dir: Hans Petter Moland 

It’s a snowy winter night in Tyos, Norway. And heavy snow means good business for Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård). He’s a professional snowplow driver who all the nearby country roads with his enormous metal machines. And he’s excellent at it. So good, he’s getting the award for good Citizenship. Pretty stellan-skarsgard-in-in-order-of-disappearance-a-magnet-release-photo-courtesy-of-magnet-releasing4impressive for an “immigrant”. (He was born in Sweden.) But on the same night something terrible happens: his only son, who works at a nearby airport, is found dead. Police say he’s a drug addict who OD’ed, but Nils insists his son never does drugs. Nils is devastated, suicidal until he discovers the boy was murdered.

stellan-skarsgard-in-in-order-of-disappearance-a-magnet-release-photo-courtesy-of-magnet-releasingTurns out he was mistakenly held responsible for disrupting the local drug lord’s cocaine shipment, and killed in retribution. They faked an OD to stop the police from investigating. Now it’s up to Nils to find the killers and avenge his son’s death. He embarks on a series of attacks on the local cocaine dealers, gradually working his way up the chain. He wants to find the kingpin, a man from a very rich Norwegian family. Known as The Count (Pål Sverre Hagen) he is a second-generation, right wing racist. He lives in a beautiful home and he and his lackeys dress in expensive suits with perfect hairstyles. He has the coke market tied up between his gang and a Serbian gangster known as Papa (Bruno Ganz).kristofer-hivju-and-stellan-skarsgard-in-in-order-of-disappearance-a-magnet-release-photo-courtesy-of-magnet-releasing2-1

And when his dealers start disappearing, he assumes it’s other gangsters – he kills a rival in retaliation. This is Papa’s son, who aims to retaliate by kidnapping the Count’s little boy. This sparks a gang war, with Nils’s home ending up as the target for both gangs. Can Nils defeat two teams of professional killers using only his wits and his huge snow-blowing machines?

This is an extremely bloody, and sometimes funny, gangster thriller. It’s all shot against pristine snowdrifts, bespoiled only by blood. It’s called In Order of Disappearance as it briefly memorializes each character when he dies. It’s enjoyable, with lots of interesting side characters, though it’s hard to feel great sympathy for a serial killer, whatever his reasons. Warning: you have to have a high tolerance for violence to watch this movie.

In Order of Disappearance and Tales of Love and Darkness 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

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

Sudden changes. Films reviewed: Mountain, Girls Lost, Demolition, My Big Night. #TIFF15

Posted in Canada, Cultural Mining, Israel, Mental Illness, Movies, Spain, Sweden, TV by CulturalMining.com on September 18, 2015

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

TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival is winding to a close but there are still many movies left to see this weekend. With the change of times, I’m going to talk about movies sudden changes. Four very good movies. A woman who lives in an Israeli cemetery discovers a change in her surroundings; three teenage Swedish girls who discover they can temporarily change their sex; a Wall Street investment banker who is left dumfounded by a sudden change in his life; and a group of people locked into a TV studio where nothing ever seems to change.

Nx1RGp_MOUNTAIN_04_o3_8815368_1441410067Mountain

Dir: Yaelle Kayam

Zvia (Shani Klein) is an orthodox Jewish woman who lives with her husband and children in a stone house on a hillside. But not just any hillside, it’s the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the hill that divides east and west. It overlooks the Dome of the Rock, but it’s also a graveyard filled with stone markers. Zvia, who wraps her head in a white- cloth turban, is alone all day when her husband is praying and kids in school. And alone again at night when everyone sleeps. She occasionally talks with the Palestinian grounds keeper, or k5MPK5_MOUNTAIN_05_o3_8815402_1441410070mourners looking for a grave, but otherwise she is all alone, So she ventures out onto the side of the mountain, only to find a different nighttime population. In the bible, the Mount of Olives is where the idolators worshipped the gods Chemosh and Molek. And she looks with wonder and awe at the prostitutes having sex on the gravestones, the drug dealers and homeless lying desolate on tombs. Where she once came to visit a poet’s gravesite, now everything somehow seems defiled. But is she more at home here on the hill or back with her dysfunctional family?

Shani Klein is amazing as Zvia in this dark and troubling first feature. It leaves the viewer with many questions, but little sense of hope.

k5XQkE_GIRLSLOST_01_o3_8689990_1439859122Girls Lost

Dir: Alexandra-Therese Keening

Sweden, present day. 14-year-old girls Momo, Bella and Kim (Louise Nyvall, Vilgot Ostwald Vesterlund, Tuva Jagell) are best friends, like the three musketeers. Momo has long brown hair, Bella is a redhead with glasses, and Kim has a dark, boyish haircut. They are bullied relentlessly for being non-conformists. Almost everyday they are attacked in the hallways, the playground and in gym class. Big crowds of people shout nasty j26QrR_GIRLSLOST_05_o3_8690089_1439859164names at them. But they, and their teachers, do little to fight back. Then a odd-looking seed arrives by mail. And when it grows, overnight, into a sticky, black orchid, the girls are intrigued. They decide, as a group, to taste the sap to see what happens. What happens is something big. The three girls, by the light of the moon, become three boys. Though they still have the same coloured hair and eyes, their faces, bodies and voices morph. And the same kids who rejected them as girls welcome them as RgjYGq_GIRLSLOST_04_o3_8690072_1439859150boys.

They turn back into girls in the morning, but with a difference: now they have the confidence to fight back. But for Kim, the change was even more important. As girl-Kim she always feels awkward, but as boy-Kim everything suddenly works. If only he can stay like that forever. But as he asserts his male identity he falls into a troubled relationship with a rebel named Tony, confusing his gender and sexuality even more. Can the three musketeers stay true to one another? Or will the plant and its effects destroy the friendship they once had?

Girls Lost is a very cool look at gender and identity combined with a fantastical body-shift plot.

DEM_9502.psdDemolition

Dir: Jean Marc Vallee

Davis (Jake Gyllenhall) is a rich investment banker who works at his father-in-law’s office (Chris Cooper). But after his wife dies in a car accident (he escapes with barely a scratch) things get strange. He starts compulsively taking things apart — his fridge, bathroom doors at his office — but lacking the compulsion to put things back together. At the same time, little things start to bug him, specifically the fact that the vending machine at the hospital where his wife died, took his money but didn’t drop the candy. So he begins to send 12 page handwritten letters to customer service, pouring out all his troubles and worries. TO his surprise, he gets a response from a real, living person, Karen (Naomi Watts) a single mom with a troubled teenage son (Judah Lewis). They eventually meet, even as his compulsions escalate. Get ready for lots of long scenes of him smashing and demolishing things on an ever bigger scale. Will he ever work through his loss before he destroys everything in his path?

This movie is pretty good, with a few surprises and unusual characters. And lots of breaking glass. The adventures of a rich middle-aged white guy getting to act like a self destructive adolescent with impunity was less palatable. While occasionally irritating, this movie is definitely worth seeing.

KO9Wzz_mybignight_01_o3_8770665_1439314785My Big Night (Mi Gran Noche)

Dir: Alex de la Iglesia

It’s New Year’s Eve in Madrid and there’s excitement in the air. On stage a chorus line whirls in unison, while the audience, in evening gowns and tuxes, sip champaign with uproarious laughter. Heading soon toward the stage are Spain’s biggest stars: Adanne (Mario Casas) a teen idol dressed like a fireman, and superstar singer Alphonse, (played by superstar singer Raphael). Unfortunately, the champagne is plastic, the Bg9KvW_mybignight_05_o3_8770860_1439314797viewers are all paid extras, and it’s not even New Years, it’s mid October! They’re shooting a glitzy, kitschy TV show. Meanwhile, they’re rioting on the streets outside, the set is collapsing inside, with one audience extra already dead; there are two groupies attempting to steal the idol’s sperm… and a psychotic with a gun NxWZn8_mybignight_06_o3_8770924_1439314803— and the lover of Yuri (Carlos Areces) the son of the sadistic superstar — is preparing to assassinate the singer. And yet, the new years fun goes on, with love, sex, injury and death happening all around.

This movie is hilarious, with a high level of excitement. If I were Spanish, the pop songs would mean more to me, but… I get it. And director de la Iglesias doesn’t disappoint — there are enough shocks, gross-outs and over-the-top gags to keep you laughing. I loved this goofy, kitschy, slapstick comedy.

Mountain, Girls Lost, Demolition and My Big Night are all playing at TIFF. 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.

 

Women and their Discoveries. Movies reviewed: The Kindergarten Teacher, Diary of a Teenage Girl, She’s Funny That Way

Posted in Acting, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Drama, Israel, Movies, Screwball Comedy, Sex Trade, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2015

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

This week I’m looking at three movies about women and their discoveries. There’s a drama about an Israeli kindergarten teacher who discovers her 5-year-old student is a poetic genius; a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl in San Francisco who discovers what sex is all about; and a screwball comedy about an escort who longs to be discovered as a Hollywood star.

Kindergarden_Teacher_TheThe Kindergarten Teacher

Wri/Dir: Nadav Lapid

Nira (Sarit Larry) is a kindergarten teacher in Israel who attends a poetry group. She leads a lackluster life: her kids have moved out and her husband is dull. But then she notices a kid in her class named Yoav (Avi Shnaidman). She sees him pace back and forth, almost in a trance, and recite an amazing poem he had composed in his head. Not a kid’s nonsense rhyme – a dramatic, spare masterpiece with biblical allusions, and profound observations.

His nanny Miri (Ester Rada) says it’s just something the kid does. His father – a rich, divorced restaurateur — is unimpressed. To him, poetry is a952 waste of time.

But Nira is blown away by his poems and feels she has to do something more. Mozart was composing symphonies in his head at the age of four. If no one records Yoav’s masterworks and shares them with the world, a poet of a generation could be lost. Yoav becomes the centre of all her attention, in and out of class. He gives her a new sense of purpose. She realizes her reaction doesn’t quite make sense – especially in an era where poetry has lost its importance — but she vows to “save” Yoav and his poems, whatever the consequences.

The Kindergarten Teacher is an excellent drama with an unexpected twist. It may have a simple premise, but it’s a subtle, disturbing and complex film. Nira’s character in particular touches on a wide range of troubling issues: racial discrimination, morality, sexuality, misrepresentation, and art.  The Kindergarten Teacher is a very good movie.

e8acff96-2532-4295-a01b-6f7b36599697Diary of a Teenage Girl
Wri/Dir: Marielle Heller

It’s the mid-1970s in San Francisco, and the city is rife with hippies, underground comix and free sex. And right in the middle of all this is Minnie (Bel Powley), the 15-year-old girl of the title. She lives with her mom (Kristen Wiig) and her little sister. Mom dresses to kill and thinks of Patty Hearst as her model. She drinks and parties till she passes out. Mom’s current boyfriend is Morgan (Alexander Skarsgård), a tall guy with a goofy blonde moustache. Mom likes to think of Minnie as her friend and confessor – no secrets between them.

But there is a secret: Minnie’s first sexual experience – and her 19976004-14bc-45a8-aefe-cca85b70056aongoing relationship – is with Morgan. She chronicles her story (and all her other newly-awakened sexual adventures) using a tape-recorder she keeps hidden in her closet. She also hones her comic book skills with explicit, black and white drawings, modeled on the work of underground comic artist Aline 7327ebd5-d2fa-4664-8c9e-ffc254758144Kominsky. Together with her best friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters) she explores the sex, drugs and counterculture of San Francisco. She’s quick to undress and loves teaching the guys she meets new tricks. But can her secrets stay secret?

Bel Powley is excellent as Minnie, a quirky, adventurous girl testing the waters between childhood and adulthood as she comes to terms with her family. Diary of a Teenage Girl is a nice, light story with an adult theme, made beautiful with animated sequences of her drawings.

SN_D1_075She’s Funny that Way
Dir: Peter Bogdanovich

Izzy (Imogen Potts) is a young sex worker and aspiring actor from Brooklyn. She has a devoted following as an escort, (including a judge who stalks her) but less so as an actress.  When she spends the night with Arnold (Owen Wilson) a successful director in town from L.A., her life changes. He says I’ll never see you again but here’s $30,000 (he hands her a suitcase of money) to pursue your goal as an artist and leave prostitution behind. She agrees. The next day her agent gets her an audition for a Broadway play – in the role of a prostitute. She’s a natural! Everyone loves her audition except the play’s director – it’s SN_D24_011_11Arnold from the night before!  The other lead actors in the play are Arnold’s wife (Kathryn Hahn) and her possible ex-lover (Rhys Ifans) – both of whom are staying in the same hotel. Add an angry psychiatrist (Jennifer Anniston) a stalker and a private detective to the mix, and you get lots of confusion, fake names and lovers hiding in bathrooms.

SN_D4_166She’s Funny that Way is funny that way, in the manner of an old-skool screwball comedy. Imogen Potts’s (with a hit-and-miss Brooklyn accent) is wonderful as Izzy, and the rest of the cast is loaded with dozens of stars in cameo roles.

Now screwball comedies are a neglected genre, and one I really like. But even more interesting is the backstory for this film. Peter Bogdanovich was a huge director in the 70s, with What’s up Doc, Paper Moon, and The Last Picture Show, all either set during the depression, or else – like this one — done in the style of old Hollywood movies.

Maybe you remember the name Dorothy Stratten. (Her story has been toldDorothy Stratten in films like Star 80.) She was a sex worker from Vancouver, a Playboy centrefold, very pretty, who wanted to become a Hollywood star. And Peter Bogdanovich gave her her big break, casting her in a movie called They All Laughed. But her ex-husband was still obsessed with her and stalked her… and murdered her before the movie was released. A tragic story. But there’s more:  Bogdanovich paid for the schooling of Dorothy’s younger sister, Louise, and after she graduated, he married her. She went on to write the script for this movie. This movie is a tribute to Dorothy Stratten told not as a tragedy but as a classical Hollywood comedy with a happy ending.

She’s Funny that Way, Diary of a Teenage Girl and The Kindergarten Teacher all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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