Media. Films reviewed: Late Night, Fly Me to the Saitama

Posted in comedy, Japan, LGBT, Manga, TV, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 14, 2019

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

Spring film festival season continues in Toronto. The Japanese film fest is showing great movies at the JCCC (Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre), and the ICFF (Italian Contemporary Film Fest) which started just last night is showing films in Toronto and across Canada.

This week I’m talking about two new comedies, one that closed Inside Out, and another that’s opening at Toronto Japanese Film Fest. There’s a talk show host in New York who might lose her job, and a suburban freedom fighter in Tokyo who might lose his life.

Late Night

Dir: NIsha Ganatra

Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is a late night talk show host on Network TV. She’s known for her erudite interviews, highbrow topics and funny monologues. She sticks to the tried and true, steering clear of gossip, pop culture and social networks. She’s a highly respected host and the only woman on late night TV.

She’s also tired, boring and tanking in the ratings. So much so, the network chief gives her an ultimatum: get with times or we’ll replace you. An offensive fratboy standup is already being groomed to take her place. What can she do?

In walks Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), fresh from a chemical plant in Pennsylvania. She has no experience as a writer, but happens to be in the right place at the right time, and is hired to add some spark to a moribund, all-male writers’ room. But she faces a wall of sexist, priveleged white guys, who resent her intrusion. This has been a bastion of male writers for so long they have even co-opted women’s washroom!

And their boss, Katherine – the show’s host – is a petty dictator, who never talks to her writers but demands long hours and absolute obedience. Only the newly-hired Molly is naïve enough to flout the rules. Can Molly fit into an all-male workplace? And can she change Katherine’s mindset enough to set theshow on a new course… before she gets gets fired or the show gets canned?

Late Night is a clever look at late-night TV. While not a slapstick comedy, it does have a enough character jokes, awkward situations and one-liners (some work, some don’t) which keep you smiling if not always rolling on the floor. It follows the dynamics of a cruel but insecure boss trying to change, and the newby who keeps getting herself in trouble.

It also follows the two main characters’ lovelifes. Katherine has a faithful but reclusive husband (John Lithgow). Molly is initially hit on by writers from the show: the womanizer Charlie (Hugh Dancy) and the snobbish Tom (Reid Scott) who both think a woman writer is there to date, but not to take seriously.

Emma Thompson is believable as the talk show host and Mindy Kaling (she’s also the movie’s writer) is fun as the small-town, fish out of water.

I liked this movie.

Fly me to the Saitama (翔んで埼玉)

Dir: Hideki Takeuchi

It’s present-day Tokyo (sort of). It’s actually a feudal version dressed in modern garb, patrolled by violent Robocop storm troopers dressed in clingy, white bodysuits who capture and expell any “outsiders” from beyond the city’s borders. The most reviled place of all is Saitama, a suburban prefecture just to the city’s north. It’s known as Dasai-tama, Urusai-tama, Mendokusai-tama, Ahokusai-tama (meaning out of fashion, inconvenient, noisy… and worse.) Your status is determined by your Urban Index Rating.

Momomi (Nikaido Fumi) is the Student Council President at the prestigious Hakuhodo Academy. He’s an arrogant snob who dresses like Little Lord Fauntleroy with a blonde pageboy haircut. He is the son of the deeply corrupt, hereditary governor of Metropolitan Tokyo and next in line to take the throne. And he is served by his mysterious butler Akutsu (Iseya Yusuke) who anticipates his every move.

But order is threatened by the arrival of an unknown wealthy aristocrat named Rei (Gackt). Rei spent many years in America and can distinguish the various neighbourhoods of Tokyo merely by sense of smell. And his urban rating is higher even than Momomi’s. Momomi is furious and wants to have him killed… until their first kiss. Momomi is swept away in his arms. But Rei has a secret…

He’s actually from Saitama! If the secret is revealed he will be humiliated, expelled from Tokyo, or maybe even killed. Can Momomi accept Rei’s true identity? And can Rei overthrow the powers that be and free the people of Saitama forever?

That’s a very quick and simple sketch of this movie, but it’s actually about so much more. Fly Me to the Saitama is an absolutely bizarre, over-the-top satire of urban culture, based on a gag-style manga from the 1980s. The characters all wear elaborate rococo costumes and multi-coloured, enormous hairstyles. Like in many girls comics (aka shojo manga) both of the main romantic characters are boys, in this one Momomi is played by a woman. And the whole movie is loaded with plays on words, and references to old Japan. Still, with a bit of suspension of disbelief, I think it’s totally understandable.

It’s directed by Takeuchi Hideki, who brought us Thermae Romae, about a Roman centurian who is magically transported through time from a Roman bath to a Japanese sento. This movie is also fantastical and bizarre, and will keep you shaking your head in bewildered wonder. Fly Me to the Saitama is already smash hit in Japan, one of the few local film successes so far this year, grossing over a billion yen. If you’re into Japanese pop culture, this movie is a must-see.

Late Night opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Fly me to the Saitama is playing at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival.

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

Kinship. Films reviewed: Vox Lux, Shoplifters

Posted in Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Japan, Movies, Music, Terrorism, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 21, 2018

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

The holiday season is a time when families get back together, for good or for ill. So this week I’m looking at two movies about family and kinship. There’s a pair of sisters turned pop musicians, where one holds the scars of a terrible incident; and a makeshift family that rescues a small girl with scars.

Vox Lux

Wri/Dir: Brady Corbet

Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a god-fearing high school student in Staten Island, New York. She likes music, church and her big sister Eleanor (Stacey Martin) who always looks out for her. But her world turns upside down when a non-conformist kid pulls out a gun in music class, and starts shooting people down. Celeste tries to reason with him; she ends up wounded but not dead. She recovers with a scar on her neck. At the memorial for the mass shooting she performs a song which soon goes viral.

She and her sister are quickly signed to a major label by their manager (Jude Law) and whisked off to Sweden. There they experience the heady brew of extreme wealth, celebrity and number-one hits. But it also exposes them to the cruel scrutiny of tabloids and paparazzi that accompany celebrity.

Still a teenager, she loses her virginity to another musician, tries drugs and alcohol for the first time, and begins a gradual downward spiral toward addiction and paranoia. But she also establishes herself as an international icon, with her sparkling makeup, severe haircuts, and sequined outfits mimicked by devoted fans. She always wears a band around her neck both to hide and commemorate the scars of the shooting.

Years later Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) plans for a comeback, culminating in a stadium concert back in the hometown she left after the shooting. Now she’s brittle and bitter, addicted to drugs, and full of anger and pain. And she has a daughter (played by Cassidy, the young Celeste) brought up by the more responsible sister Eleanor. As she works toward the ultimate concert, a disturbing incident hits the headlines. Halfway around the world, fans wearing her distinctive makeup and clothing commit a random act of terrorism. Is she to blame? Will her career crash and burn? And if she performs her stadium show in her home town, will this lead to yet another massacre?

My brief description of the film suggests a music biopic crossed with an action movie. It’s neither. It’s actually a visual and audio collage of the impressions of a teenaged girl in the high pressure world of pop music, and the adult who emerges from it. Vox Lux is a short film, and at least a third of it is taken up by music performed on a stage before an actual audience. The music is by SIA and actually sung by Natalie Portman. The plot is mainly a background for the director’s experiments with sound and image filtered through the cruel world of social networks. Recurring shots of endless tunnels and aerial views of cities give it a hypnotic effect, and the music gives it a haunting feel. Though the movie feels incomplete, I liked the look and sound of it.

Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)

Wri/Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu

It’s present day Tokyo. Shota (Jyo Kairi) is a young boy living in an urban paradise. He’s smart, resourceful and brave. He studies at home – where he learns not just reading and writing, but also essential survival skills and the ways of the world. He lives with his grandma, his mom and dad and his big sister Aki, a family brimming with love. They are always there to rescue him from trouble and help him through bad times. They share responsibilities and eat dinner together. No one tells Shota to clean his room or wash the dishes. This is a life rich in traditions, superstitions, and family lore. And there’s lots of time to tell stories, go to the beach, or go fishing.

Or

Shota lives in a filthy, ramshackle house, a Dickensian den of petty criminals, thieves and con artists. This so-called family of vaguely-related misfits shoplifts their dinners and daily needs to stay alive. Dad (Lily Franky) works as a casual labourer, Grandma (Kiki Kirin) receives payments from an unknown source, teenaged Aki (Matsuoka Mayu) performs behind glass at a peepshow arcade, and mom, sometimes called auntie or Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) makes do with a parttime job pressing garments in a small factory. Even young Shota helps them all by pocketing food and shampoo while dad distracts the clerks.

But homelife takes a subtle shift with the newest family member.

Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is a little waif, horribly abused and neglected by her young parents… they always see her staring whistfully through her balcony bars, like a prisoner hoping to be rescued. They adopt her into their family, after discovering scars and burn marks all over her arms.

She immediately adapts to her new life, especially the love, attention and lack of fear she never experiences at home. They ask her if she wants to go home, but she adamently refuses… she likes it better here. But when her case becomes known as a kidnapping, it spells trouble. Can the family survive this a brush with authority? Or will it all come tumbling down? And would government intervention make their lives better or worse?

Perhaps I’m biased: I’ve interviewed Kore-eda four times, more than any other director, because I love all his films. But in my opinion Shoplifters is a fantastic movie, definitely one of the year’s best. It deals with poverty, nonconformity and precarious lives coexisting within one of the richest cities in the world. It explores what a family really is: is it something designated by law, or could it be a family by choice, where the members designate their own names and roles.

Hirokazu Kore-eda, TIFF17, photo by Jeff Harris

It stars many of his past actors – Lili Franky, and the late Kiki Kirin – and replays some themes from his early films. Our Little Sister was about whether a half-sister can be accepted into a complete family. Like Father, Like Son, where a family discovers their son was switched at birth, explores whether it’s nature or nurture that makes kinship real (Lili Franky plays the “bad dad” in that film.) After the Storm is about a delinquent dad trying to rebuild his family (also co-starring Lili Franky and Kiki Kirin). The Third Murder, a courtroom drama, deals with an accused murderer and his role as a surrogate parent to a high school girl. And in Nobody Knows, there’s a family made up of abandoned kids living in a highrise in central Tokyo.

Shoplifters (or Shoplifter Family, the more accurate Japanese title) is a culmination of all these films, a distillation of all their best elements.

It’s also exquisitely laden with relics of an older Japan – filled with glass bottles, printed cotton, paper calenders, snow men and fishing trips – that impart a soft, glowing light to all the scenes.

Detailed and nuanced, I strongly recommend Shoplifters to all.

Vox Lux and Shoplifters 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.

In Transit. Films reviewed: Mirai, A Private War, Transit

Posted in 1940s, Animation, France, Germany, Japan, Journalism, Refugees, Time Travel, War, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 9, 2018

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

Toronto Fall festival season continues with EU festival on now – free movies at the Royal every night! Ekran Polish film festival, and ReelAsian paving new ground, with everything from a doc on gourmet Filipino cuisine, to an intriguing and moving Virtual Reality narrative by Paisley Smith called Homestay.

This week, I’m looking at three movies about people in transit. There’s a WWII refugee running away from the Nazis; a female war journalist rushing toward the battlefront; and a little boy in Japan jumping back and forth between the past and the future.

Mirai

Wri/Dir: Hosoda Mamoru

Kun-chan is a little kid in Japan who lives with his parents and his dog Yukko. He likes drawing and playing with trains. His mom and dad dote on him, until they have a new baby, a girl named Mirai (which means the future). Suddenly, the baby is the centre of attention. His dad works freelance at home now, while mom goes to work. When they’re not working, they’re taking care of Mirai. But who’s paying attention to Kun-chan? Nobody! He seeks refuge in their yard, an enclosed courtyard around an old oak tree. And that’s where strange things start to happen whenever he’s alone. His dog turns into a prince. And then Mirai appears as a teenaged version of herself – it’s future Mirai, there to advise Kunchan on how to treat his little sister. This opens the door to other figures from his family’s past and future to help him handle his problems.

Mirai is a good example of watchable Japanese anime. Lots of flying, some scary parts, and time travel. It’s clearly aimed at kids — with tame content and characters – but it does handle issues like gender roles and family matters. I like Hosoda’s films because they navigate where the supernatural interacts with the ordinary – like Wolf Children from 2012. But in Mirai you can never be sure if the supernatural scenes are real or just in the little boy’s head.

A Private War

Dir: Matthew Heineman

It’s 21st century London. Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), originally from Oyster Bay Long Island is now a star reporter for the Sunday Times. She smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish and curses like a sailor. And for good reason: she’s at the front lines of the bloodiest wars of the century. She lost her left eye in a gun battle in Sri Lanka, and now wears a black patch, pirate-style. Why does she do it? So she can tell the world what’s really going on the death, starvation and horribleness of war. A mass grave in Faluja, starvation in Homs, Syria. She travels with Paul (Jamie Dornan) a young freelance photographer in awe at Marie’s bravery, always the first one when the bombs are falling. She’s been in more battles than the average soldier. And She keeps sexually satisfied with an array of lovers in every port, including her ex-husband and a London financier named Tony (Stanley Tucci). But you can’t live on th edge without suffering blowback, including PTSD and deppression. Is Marie a hero or an alcoholic with a death wish?

A Private War is a gripping and thrilling drama. The director, Heineman, is known for documentaries, not movies, which gives this film a “you are there” immediacy rarely scene in war movies. Very realistic. The movie doesn’t delve very deeply into the politics of war – it never asks why Bush and Blair were in Iraq or NATO in Libya; instead it concentrates on how war really affects ordinary people. Rosamund Pike is amazing as Marie Colvin and opened my eyes about war journalism.

I liked this movie.

Transit

Dir: Christian Petzold

It’s WWII. Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee living in Paris when the Nazi’s are about to march in. And the French police are doing their work, rounding up immigrants and sending them to a transit camp inside the Velodrome. Georg knows he has to get out of their, fast. And he needs money. So he accepts a paid job: bring a sealed letter to a stranger – a writer – holed up in a paris hotel room. But he gets there too late, the man has killed himself in desperation. If only he had waited one more day – the letter promised money, visas, and tickets on a ship to Mexico. Thinking quickly, Georg pockets the letter, grabs the man’s manuscript and heads south with his friend as stowaways on a freight train. Once in Marseilles, he establishes himself as a person in transit – just stopping over – to avoid arrest, andtakes on the identity of the dead man. And he keeps encountering a beautiful woman, Marie (Paula Beer), who is searching for her husband. She knows he’s in Marseilles, but she can’t find him. But what neither of them realize is the phantom husband she keeps missing is Georg himself, in his new identity.

Transit is a great new movie about the precarious lives of refugees and undocumented migrants running for their lives. The movieis based on a novel written during the WWII, but Christian Petzold tries something I’ve never seen before. It’s the 1940s but it’s also right now. It’s shot in present-day France, with modern cars and clothing, an ethnically diverse population, and police dressed in current riot gear. Paula Beer (amazing in Frantz) and the distinctive-looking Rogowski (terrific in Happy End and Victoria) perfectly capture the alienation and uncertainty of present-day Europe. And – no spoilers – but, as usual, Petzold saves some of the biggest and best surprises for the end… with a one-two punch to the gut.

Great movie.

Mirai is playing tomorrow at the ReelAsian film festival. Look for A Private War opening next Friday and Transit starting 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.

Dancing. Films reviewed: Nang by Nang, Dancehall’s Asian Ambassadors, Saturday Church at #CaribbeanTales

Posted in African-Americans, Dance, documentary, Drama, Jamaica, Japan, LGBT, Music by CulturalMining.com on August 31, 2018

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

Toronto’s Fall Film Festival Season has begun, people, bringing you a first look at the best movies you’ll be watching over the next year. TIFF is the grandmother of all Toronto festivals – and you’ll be hearing a lot more about that one in weeks to come – but you shouldn’t miss the smaller festivals that come right before and after TIFF. September 20-23 is TPFF, Toronto Palestine Film Festival celebrates Arab cinema at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. And before TIFF is Caribbean Tales, showing films and docs from Trinidad to Jamaica to Barbados and Haiti, as well as the US, Canada and South Africa. Caribbean Tales starts Wednesday (running Sept 5 – 20) with a sneak preview of HERO, about the legendary Ulric Cross.

This week I’m talking about three movies at Caribbean Tales. There’s a one-time dancer in Trinidad, Japanese dancehall DJs in Jamaica, and a boy in New York who is yearning to dance.

Nang by Nang

Dir: Richard Fung

Nang is a 90 year old woman in Trinidad with a remarkable history. She was illegitmate – didn’t meet her father, a playboy, until she was in her 20s, but she knows her background well. Her ancestry reads like a Caribbean history lesson: she’s part Chinese, part Black, but also descended from Indian indentured servants and indigenous peoples as well. Her names range from Dorothy to Mavis to Russel to Anang, constantly changing and morphing throughout her life. . As a young woman she joined a dance troup headed by brothers Geoffrey and Bosco Holder. (Choreographer Geoffrey Holder is most famous in North America for The Wiz and his role in James Bond movies.) Though not a trained dancer they loved her beautiful face and natural skills and she embraced the behemian lifestyle.

In this documentary filmmaker Richard Fung meets his aunt for the first time and uncovers her story. They journey back to her former houses spread across the islands and all the way to New Mexico. She has married many times, and she shares stories and photos of men long dead. She has outlived everyone, from a loving husband, to a professional, to a playboy and to a scoundrel. Nang by Nang is a personal history that serves as a fascinating look at a women with in a multifaceted and polyglot culture.

Dancehall’s Asian Ambassadors

Dir: Kaneal Gayle

For such a small island, Jamaica has a huge influence on music around the world. Ska, rocksteady, reggae and dancehall are adored by listeners who have never been to the caribbean. But there’s one place you might not immediately associate with Jamaican music… and that’s Japan! But did you know they’ve had a huge underground reggae scene there since the 1970s? And now Dancehall has landed in Japan and is growing in popularity.

Dancehall’s Asian Ambasaadors follows four Japanese women who fell in love with genre and moved to Jamaica to be nearer to its pulse. With names like Rankin Pumpkin, and Kiss Kiss, they they are music organizers, DJs, dancers and singers, competing on TV and attracting international audiences on youtube. The English they speak is Jamaican, and they earn a living by driving cabs, exporting local music and parephernalia, and importing fans from back home who want to explore the scene.

As one woman says: life in Japan is easier, and more comfortable than Jamaica, but no vibes.

Saturday Church

Wri/Dir: Damon Cardasis

Ulysses (Luka Cain) is a high school kid in New York. He lives with his mom and little brother Abe. His soldier-dad recently died in action, so his mother has invited stern Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) to help take care of the kids. Ulysses is an altar boy, a good kid with a face as angelic as the saints on the stained glass windows. But he has a forbidden secret: He likes his to try on his mom’s shoes and clothes.

No one at school has seen this, but the locker room jocks can sense something anyway, and constantly bully him. Homelife is equally perilous, with Abe threatening to tell mean Aunt Rose. Is there no escape? One weekend, he hops on the subway to Greenwich village to explore, and ends up on the Christopher Street Pier. There he meets some women like he’s never seen before. With exotic names like Dijon, Ebony and Heaven (Indya Moore, Mj Rodriguez, Alexia Garcia), they exude confidence and attitude. One of them, Amara (Margot Bingham) takes him under her wing and leads him to a sanctuary. Saturday Church offers him food shelter and a space to feel free.

It’s also where he is first exposed to vogueing, the life blood of the women he met. And a boy named Raymond (Marquis Rodriguez) – his first boyfriend? But when things explode at home between him and aunt Rose, he runs away. And he discovers his church sanctuary is only open on Saturdays. He’s left homeless, lost and vulnerable. Can he survive life on the streets?

Saturday Church sounds like another sensitive coming-out story about a black teen in New York. What’s remarkable, though, is that throughout the movie, the characters burst into intricately-choreographed dances and songs. From locker rooms to homeless shelters to locker rooms, characters suddenly switch to impromptu, modern-dance-inspired musical numbers and torch songs. Luka Cain is great as Ulysses, and Saturday Church is an inspiring and unusual musical.

Saturday Church, Nang by Nang and Dancehall’s Asian Ambassadors and many others are all playing at CaribbeanTales film festival, which opens next Wednesday with Hero.

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

 

 

 

Good genres. Films reviewed: Ishtar, Tokyo Vampire Hotel, Hereditary

Posted in 1980s, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Family, Horror, Japan, Movies, Supernatural, Vampires by CulturalMining.com on June 9, 2018

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

As I frequently say, don’t confuse highbrow cinema with good movies, and genre films with bad movies. Good and bad exist in both worlds. This week I’m looking at three entertaining, genre movies: a comedy thriller, a horror movie and a horror/comedy. We’ve got lounge singers in a hotel in war-torn North Africa, a singles retreat in a hotel run by vampires, and a family living in a dollhouse-like home… that might be haunted.

Ishtar (1987)

Wri/Dir: Elaine May

Lyle Rogers (Warren Beatty) is a gullible rube from the sticks; while Chuck Clarke (Dustin Hoffman) is a fast-talking pickup artist from Queens. Together they’re Rogers and Clarke a musical duo of singer-songwriters in New York. They think they’re going to be the next Lennon and McCartney or Simon and Garfunkel, but they are missing one key element: talent! Needless to say, they’re going nowhere fast. Their savings are gone, and their girlfriends have left them, and their agent is far from helpful. But he does have a gig for them at a hotel in Morocco. Sounds good! So they fly, off via the remote (fictional) kingdom of Ishtar.

But Ishtar is on the brink of revolution. And an ancient map that a local archaeologists has just found is the only spark needed to light that fire. Lyle and Chuck are clueless, of course, and just want to perform their act. But the hapless Americans are quickly drawn into this intrigue.

There’s a shifty American CIA agent (Charles Grodin) who convinces Chuck he can help their career; and a fiery revolutionary named Shirra (Isabelle Adjani) disguised as a young man who seduces Lyle to get him to help her cause. Will Rogers and Clarke split up? As fate would have it they end up in a camel caravan in the Sahara desert, pursued by militants, mercenaries, gun runners, nomads and US bombers, all convinced they have that crucial map.

When Ishtar came out in 1987 it was a collasal flop with many critics calling it the worst movie ever made. I disagree. I finally watched it and I think it’s a hoot. It’s funny and politically astute; when was the last mainstream comedy you saw with the CIA and US military as the bad guys? OK, its cultural impressions are rather obtuse, but it’s making fun of the American characters’ disguises not the locals. And it takes place before the “regime change” wars yet to come.

More than that, here are Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman — former icons — making fun of the whole generation of baby boomers, saying how did they all end up so uncool? Even their improvisational songs are bad-funny. If you’re yearning to see a forgotten piece of 80s culture, check out Ishtar.

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

Wri/Dir: Sion Sono

It’s 2022 in Tokyo, Japan, and something big is about to happen. Manami (Tomite Ami) can feel it. She’s about to turn 22 and is having strange thoughts. Like buzzing away at her hair until she looks like Eleven on Stranger Things. But when she witnesses a mass shooting inside a restaurant that kills everyone but her she really freaks. She barely escapes and owes her life to a mysterious woman named K (Kaho). That’s when Manami discovers the killings were committed by rival gangs searching for her. She is crucial to their plans, but she doesn’t know why.

Meanwhile, a major Tokyo hotel has invited singles to a special event – a dating weekend for coupling up. What the guests don’t know is the hotel is run by vampires. And they’re the main course. Add a rivalry between two vampire lineages, the Draculs and the Corvins, fighting for power; a Transylvania/Japan connection, and a Prime Minister who might destroy the world, and there you have it: a bloody, non-stop battle royale fought by rival vampires and hotel guests in a Tokyo hotel.

If you think that’s a lot of plot for one movie, you’re right. It’s actually a condensed version of a TV series, edited to fit into a single film. There are love affairs, Romanian castles, hidden rivers, a female killer dressed in pink, and sinister royal matriarchs, one of whom runs a secret world of blood orgies involving thousands of slaves… hidden inside her vagina! Tokyo Vampire Hotel isn’t for everyone, but I found it shocking, disgusting, sexy and hilarious.

Director Sion Sono is one of my favourite Japanese directors, a master schlockmeister unmatched when it comes to rivers of blood. Every frame uses saturated colours, and lightning-fast editing.

He treats blood as an art form, spilling it everywhere in a grotesquely beautiful way.

Heriditary

Wri/Dir: Ari Aster

Annie and Steve (Toni Collette and Gabriel Byrne) are a happy middle aged couple with two kids. Peter (Alex Wolff) is a pothead in high school crushing on a girl from class. Charlie (MIllly Shapiro) is younger and a bit tetched in the head. She draws strange pictures and puts scraps of wood and metal together to make little dolls. She must have got that from her mom, an artist, who builds intricate doll houses that recreate important aspects of her own family’s lives. They live in a beautiful if isolated wooden home filled with her doll houses.

But ever since Annie’s own mother died, strange things keep happening in her house. Things like doors opening by themselves, and nonsense words found scrawled on walls. Charlie wanders off when she should be at home, Peter awakens from hideous nightmares, and mom finds herself sleepwalking holding a knife in a fugue state. What can it all mean? But when decapitated birds lead to human deaths, Annie feels she has to stop this. But what is she fighting aganst? And is she too late?

Hereditary is a chilling thriller/horror, beautifully made. You’re never quite sure if your watching Peter’s pot-fueled nightmares, Annie’s sleepwalking visions, life inside her intricate dollhouse dioramas, or real life. And by “real life” I mean supernatural goings on.

Scene changes are so skillfully done, it shifts seamlessly through these conflicting realities. This is director Ari Aster’s first feature but the acting, art direction and camera work turns a conventional story into a remarkable film.

Great movie.

Hereditary opens today in Toronto; Ishtar is at TIFF Cinematheque as part of Funny Girl: The Films of Elaine May; and Tokyo Vampire Club is playing at Toronto’s Japanese Film Festival.

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

In the Trash. Movies Reviewed: A Swingers Weekend, The Go-Getters, Isle of Dogs

Posted in Addiction, Animals, Animation, Canada, Japan, Poverty, Sex, Sex Trade, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on March 23, 2018

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

The Canadian Film Fest is on now, bringing lots of new movies to the big screen, movies made right here in Toronto and across the country. Comedies, dramas and real life stories.

Hollywood movies often glamourize everyday life with an idealized view of the world the average person can never attain. But sometimes movies look in the opposite direction… downward, toward the gutter.  This week I’m looking at movies set among the trash. There’s an island of garbage filled with abandoned dogs, a couple of ne’er-do-wells who live in  rubbish, and a married couple who risk trashing their marriage for a weekend getaway.

A Swingers Weekend

Wri/Dir: Jon E. Cohen

Lisa and Dan (Erin Karpluk – Being Erica, Randal Edwards) are a power couple. She’s in real estate and he’s CEO at an energy drink corporation, and they’re  taking a break from their Toronto jobs for a weekend retreat in a lakeside villa up in cottage country. They’ve invited the attractive TJ and Skai (Michael Xavier, Erin Agostino) — he’s an artist, she’s into yoga – for a gourmet dinner and a weekend of kinky sex. But their planned foursome gains a fifth and sixth wheel when unexpected guests show up at the door. Geoffrey and Fiona (Jonas Chernik, Mia Kirchner) are Dan’s old friends whose marriage is falling apart. Can a weekend of bed-swapping inject new life into the respective couples’ relationships? And what are their real motives behind this swingers’ retreat?

A Swingers Weekend is a cute comedy that’s surprisingly tame. No nudity, it’s more of a social satire than a bedroom farce.

The Go-Getters

Dir: Jeremy LaLonde

Owen and Lacie (Aaron Abrams, Tomie Amber Pirie) are an odd couple. She’s a streetwalker who works for a disabled pimp called Cerebral Paulie, who keeps her addicted to oxycodone. He’s a nearly homeless alcoholic who mooches drinks from his brother’s skid row bar. He robbed her of her last fiver when she was ODing in a puddle of vomit on the bathrooom floor. It was hate at first site. But circumstances conspire to make them work together so they can buy bus tickets to Brockville to renovate an abandoned home.

They try robbing panhandlers, selling sex to teens, and fleecing buskers, but nothing seems to work. Will they ever escape from hideous Toronto? The Go-Getters is an unusual look at the lowest of the low in downtown Toronto. But guess what – this is a comedy! Yup, I’m not joking. Abrams as Owen looks like a younger and dumber Dr House (Hugh Laurie), and Pirie is truly unique as a loud-mouthed hooker with a heart of lead.

Isle of Dogs

Dir: Wes Anderson

It’s Japan sometime in the future. Megasaki in Uni prefecture is a big city controlled by the evil and corrupt Kobayashi dynasty. The Kobayashi clan own everything from the golf courses to the amusement parks and pharmaceutical labs. And they are all cat lovers who despise dogs. The dogs all come down with an odd disease called snout flu. Mayor Kobayashi – under the thumb of the corpse-like Major Domo – declares all dogs persona non grata. To save the city from infection, he says, he is banishing all the city’s dogs to Trash Island off the coast. This even includes his nephew Atari’s dog Spots. (Atari was adopted by his distant uncle when his parents died in a train crash.)

But when Atari flies to Trash Island in a toy airplane to rescue his pooch, he discovers a strange world rarely seen by humans. It’s ruled by gangs of alpha dogs, headed by a team of five: former pets Duke, Rex, King and Boss, as well as the mysterious Chief, a stray who likes to fight. (He bites.) They vow to help Atari find his dog Spots… or die trying.

Meanwhile, back in Megasaki, student journalists — led by exchange student Tracy — smell a skunk among the cats. They sense there’s a conspiracy targeting dogs and – with the help of a hacker — they vow to save the dogs and the missing boy Atari, and to make City Hall pay for their crimes. But will they make it in time?

Isle of Dogs is an epic fantasy made with stop-motion animation. The humans speak Japanese (with voiceover translation) and the dogs speak a stilted Japanese English. The story sounds simple and a bit goofy, but it’s not. It’s pure, non-stop eye candy, with art and illustration flooding your brain at the pace of a Simpsons episode.

It feels like Wes Anderson made a list of all English words derived from the Japanese — yakuza, sumo, sushi, geisha, samurai, bonsai, kabuki, haiku, anime, manga, otaku, cos-ple, taiko — and worked them all into the film. The thing is, it’s not cheap laughs and cultural plundering, it’s lovingly, respectfully, and exquisitely reproduced.

The constant barrage of images includes Japanese pop art, manga, ukiyo-e, silhouettes, and 2-D animation, all portrayed with a futuristic/retro/ steampunk feel (if such a thing is possible). Wes Anderson has done stop- motion animation before — The Fantastic Mister Fox — but this one is a quantum leap beyond that. None of Mister Fox‘s nudge-nudge, wink-wink snark in this movie; just affectionately rendered geek culture.

Isle of Dogs is stunning to watch. I’ve seen it twice now, and want to see it again, as soon as possible. It’s exquisite, beautiful, awe-inducing… I’m running out of adjectives. I love this movie, and if you revel in the visual and all things Japanese, you must see this animated film.

Isle of Dogs opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Go Getters and other films are playing this weekend at the Canadian Film Fest. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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

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

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

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

But first…

Oscar Predictions, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapted screenplay

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

Original screenplay

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

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

Best foreign film:

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

Best Actor

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

Will win: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Best Actress

Should win and will win

Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Supporting Actor

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

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

Best Supporting Actress

Should win: Laura Metcalfe (Ladybird)

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

Best Director

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

Best Film

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

 

A Date for Mad Mary

Dir: Darren Thornton

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

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

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

Nostalgia

Wri/Dir: Mark Pellington

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

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

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

Ugh. Avoid this movie at all costs.

Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daniel Garber talks with David Bull and Toru Tokikawa about Ukiyo-e Heroes at Hot Docs

Posted in Art, Canada, Clash of Cultures, Cultural Mining, documentary, Japan, Movies by CulturalMining.com on May 12, 2017

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

Hokusai, Hiroshige, Utamaro – these are the masters of Ukiyo-e or  Japanese block printing.

Their images of great waves, courtesans and journeys along the Tokaido highway are recognized around the world. Ukiyo-e flourished in Edo Japan, with the masters treated like superstars. But when the country modernized and westernized, the craft of woodblock printing began to fade. It lay moribund, until an unusual influence, a Canadian craftsman, is helping to reawaken interest. Who is this Ukiyo-e Hero?

Ukiyo-e Heroes is the name of a new feature which premiered at HotDocs, Toronto’s International Documentary Festival. It tells the story of two people helping to revive interest in ukiyo-e in Japan: Canadian David Bull who learned the traditional craft despite all the obstacles imposed on him. And Jed Henry, an American artist obsessed with Japanese pop culture. The film is directed by LA-based Toru Tokikawa, known for his award-winning music videos.

I spoke with Toru and David in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Unusual relationships. Movies reviewed: Room 213, Your Name, Maudie

Posted in Animation, Art, Canada, Denmark, Drama, Japan, Nova Scotia, Romance, Supernatural by CulturalMining.com on April 14, 2017

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

April 19th is National Canadian Film Day, which bills itself as the world’s largest film festival. On that day — at theatres around Toronto, and across the country – you can see free screenings of Canadian movies, often with actors or directors in attendance. Comedies, kids’ movies, French, indigenous… and they’re all free.  Check it out.

This week I’m looking at movies about unusual relationships. There’s a disabled woman who moves in with a recluse, a ghost who inhabits a young girl, and a teenage boy and girl who inhabit each other’s bodies.

Room 213

Dir: Emilie Lindblom

Elvira (Wilma Lundgrun) is a 12-year-old Danish girl heading to camp for the first time. Camp Bjorkuddens is a lot like a Canadian summer camp: it’s on a lake, they play games, roast weenies on sticks and tell scary stories by the campfire. The big difference is instead of tents or small, bare cabins they stay in a huge, elaborate building filled with dusty antiques. Elvira has two roommates, the blond and snobbish Meja (Ella Fogelström) and the darker, shy Bea (Elena Hovsepyan). And due to a plumbing problem they move to room 213, empty for many years.

That’s when weird things start to happen. The door creaks open in the middle of the night, and treasured items disappear (and the three girls suspect one another). A girl with red hair and bright green eyes named Mebel appears — is she a ghost? And when Elvira’s brown eyes start turning green, is it Mebel taking over?

Room 213 is a scary movie aimed at small children. It’s tame even by YTV standards — no violence at all, no slashers in hockey masks, just general spookiness. And it deals with problems like exclusion, bullying and young love in a multi-ethnic Denmark. But this is definitely a movie for little kids only.

Your Name (君の名は)

Dir: Makoto Shinkai

Taki is a high schooler in central Tokyo. He’s scrawny but quick to fight. He hangs out with his two best friends and has a crush on his sophisticated, female boss at his part-time restaurant job. Mitsuha is a teenaged girl in a remote Japanese village, known for its obscure shinto shrine and little else. She lives with her little sister Yotsuha and her traditional grandmother who knows about the old ways. Things like weaving colourful lanyards, and chewing up glutinous rice, spitting it back into a wooden box so it ferments into sake. Yum! And there’s a celestial comet that passes close to the town every 200 years (that day is approaching soon.)

Taki and Mitsuha are total strangers who live far away from each other. So what’s their connection? Some mornings, Taki is waking up with breasts, and Mitsuha with a penis. Well not exactly; they’re actually waking up inside each other’s bodies. They have to live those days at school, at work and with friends they’ve never met before. It’s not all bad. Mitsuha lands Taki a date with his boss, and Taki gains some insight into shinto rituals. He becomes more mature and she is more assertive. The two manage to communicate with each other using cryptic scrawls they leave in notebooks and diaries recorded on cel phones so they can know what happened during their switch-body days. Until something changes. The body switches suddeny stop and all the notes they left each other fade away. For Taki it’s as if Mitsuha never existed and it was all a dream. But it was real. He can’t remember her name, but he knows it all happened. Using a sketch of her town he drew from memory, he sets out to find her.

Your Name is deeply-moving romantic drama with a touch of the supernatural. It’s a beautifully- drawn, animated film from Japan with neat camera angles and lovely art. It’s also a record-breaking smash hit across East Asia that has finally reached these shores. It’s the only movie playing now to sell-out crowds, with huge lineups inside the theatre before each screening. And I understand why. No spoilers, but there’s a wrenching revelation in the middle that sent shivers down my spine, the sign of a really good story. Anime is a particular genre, and if you’re not familiar with it it might be hard to understand, but if you like anime, this one is a must-see.

Maudie

Dir: Aisling Walsh

Maud (Sally Hawkins) is a disabled woman who lives in post-war Digby, Nova Scotia with her controlling aunt. Every moment of her life is supervised and she’s treated like a simple-minded child. But on a visit to a local shop she finds a way to escape: a hand-written ad for a live in housekeeper. Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) wrote the note, though his house is barely a home. He lives in a rundown shack on a small plot of land, earning a meagre living as a fish monger. He’s unmarried, mainly because no woman can put up with his rudeness.

But Maudie can. After dogged persistence, she moves in with him and immediately starts to work. He is peculiar and abusive, but she sticks with it. In her free time she begins to decorate the walls with small paintings of flowers and animals. When her hand-painted postcards sell out at the local general store, she moves on to bigger paintings, selling them for $5 apiece. These catch the eye of a rich woman from N.Y. City who spreads the primitivist paintings among her friends back home. Meanwhile, Maud’s relationship with Everett gradually shifts from boss/servant to bedmate to wife. But can a reclusive misanthrope handle living with a recognized artist and local celebrity?

Maudie is the true story of a self-taught painter whose works now hang in famous galleries and in the homes of collectors. It’s also an unusual romance about a pair of social outcasts hammering out an unusual relationship on their own. Sally Hawkins is outstanding as Maudie – you really believe she is who she is playing. Hawke, though capable in his portrayal of such an unsympathetic character, pales in comparison to his co-star. This is a good — though very dark — movie.

Your Name is now playing and Maudie opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Room 213 is one of many films showing at the TIFF Kids Festival – go to tiff.net for details. And canadianfilmday.ca will tell you where to see free films on April 19th.

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 Hirokazu Kore-eda about After the Storm at #TIFF16

Posted in Cultural Mining, Drama, Family, Interview, Japan, Movies by CulturalMining.com on March 16, 2017

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

Ryota is a middle-aged man, separated from his wife and son, and estranged from his mother. Once a rising star in Japan’s literary world, his one novel gathers dust in second-hand bookstores. He hasn’t published anything for 15 years. Instead he earns his living at a skeezy detective agency, taking incriminating photos and selling them back to the victims caught on film. What money he does earn goes not for rent or child support but directly to the racetracks. A death in the family brings all the players in his life — his mother, his ex-wife Kyoko and Shingo his son – together again, in his childhood home. But clouds are gathering as a typhoon approaches. Will they still be talking… after the storm?

After the Storm is the name of the newest film by festival favourite and award-winning filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu. He wrote, directed and edited this film, a bittersweet, yet tender look at families, disappointment and loss. This film had its Canadian premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. I spoke to him on location at TIFF16.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s feature After the Storm is now playing in Toronto.

Photos by Jeff Harris.

 

 

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