Building walls. Films reviewed: The Rest of Us, The Divided Brain, Mr Jones

Posted in 1930s, Brain, Canada, Communism, documentary, Drama, Family, Feminism, Journalism, Movies, Neuroscience, Norway, Thriller, USSR, Wales, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 19, 2020

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

I’m recording this in my home to tell you about some movies you can watch in your home. This week I have two dramas directed by women and a documentary. There’s a psychiatrist looking at the divided brain, two families trying to bridge a gap; and a UK journalist who wants to penetrate the iron curtain.

The Rest of Us

Dir: Aisling Chin-Yee

Cami (Heather Graham) is a divorced mom who writes and illustrates children’s books. She lives in an elegant house with a swimming pool. Her daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) is home from university and hanging with a guy she met. She’s mad at her mother so she lives in an Airstream trailer parked out front. Meanwhile, another mother/daughter family live in another nice house. Rachel (Jodi Balfour) lives with her husband and young daughter Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky). What do they have in common? Rachel had an affair with Cami’s husband 10 years back, and now she’s married to him. But when he suddenly dies, the two moms – and their daughters – are brought together, against their will. Turns out the late husband hadn’t kept up with insurance and mortgage payments, leaving Rachel and Talulah homeless. So they end up moving, temporarily, into Cami and Aster’s home. An odd couple indeed. Can four women with very little in common bond together? Or will they stew in their respective juices making for an intractable situation?

The Rest of Us is a light drama about relationships and make-shift families. It’s short – less than 90 minutes – but the characters are really well done, complete with secrets, back stories and quirks. It didn’t exactly blow me away, but it I liked watching it develop — you do care about what happens to them. A nice, light family drama.

The Divided Brain

Dir: Manfred Becker

The human brain is divided in half. The left brain controls the right side of your body, and the right brain handles the left side. So if you’re right-handed that usually means the left side of your brain is dominant. Beyond that, the two sides are said to process information in different ways: The left brain, or so the theory goes, is more analytical, concerned wth facts and minutiae; while the right brain is more creative; it lets you look at the big picture. This documentary is about the theories of Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and neuroimaging researcher who also studied literature. He lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. He’s the author of The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). Basically, he says we – meaning our history, civilization, educational system, society, not to mention our individual personalities – can be explained by our emphasis on the left side of the brain at the expense of the right side. And it goes on to show research and experiments on the topic as explained by various talking heads. But is it true, and has McGilchrist proven it?

Personally, I don’t buy it. I don’t even believe the basic left side/right side premise. We all use both sides of our brains, so to make it a simple A vs B, is reductionist. And then to extrapolate this theory to cover all of society, communication, and our educational system, while fascinating just isn’t believable. (I have seen the documentary but not read his book, which could explain his work in greater detail.) While the documentary mainly focuses on McGilchrist’s theories, it does include opposing views. McGilchrist is a heterodox scholar, not part of the mainstream. It also includes magnificent drone shots of cityscapes and farms to illustrate the increasing “left brain”-look of ever more geometrically divided landscapes.

Whether or not you agree with these theories, The Divided Brain does leave you with lots of food for thought.

Mr Jones

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

It’s the early 1930s in London. Gareth Jones (James Norton) is a Cambridge-educated young man from Wales. He’s multilingual and works as a foreign policy advisor to the former PM David Lloyd George. But what he really wants is to be an investigative journalist. He’s already had one big scoop: he was on the plane carrying carrying Hitler, Goebels and other top Nazis right after they came to power. Now he wants to go to Moscow to follow a source about a big story there… and maybe interview Stalin!

Easier said than done. But he does manage to get a visa and a few nights at the posh Hotel Metropol. When he gets there, he discovers his source – another journalist – has been murdered. Luckily, he is taken under the wing of a famous foreign correspondent, Walter Duranty (Peter Saarsgard). He heads the NY Times bureau – known as “our man in Moscow” – and he’s won the Pulitzer. He’s also a total sleazebucket. He takes Jones to a party, right in the middle of Moscow, complete with jazz musicians, sex workers, and party favours… like hypodermic needles, loaded with heroin, ready to shoot.

He also meets a Berlin-based journalist named Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby). She trusts Jones and tells him what he needs to know. So he gets on a train with a high-ranked party member who says he’ll show him beautiful Ukraine… but Jones manages to sneak away in the city of Stalino (now Donetsk). And what he sees is shocking. There’s a major famine going on, right in the middle of Europe’s breadbasket. All the wheat is being shipped east, leaving almost nothing for them to eat. He witnesses unspeakable horrors in what is now known as The Holodomor. But he’s arrested before he can file his story. Will Jones make it back home? Can he publish this story? And if he does, will anyone believe him?

Based on a true story, Mr Jones is a combination biopic, thriller and historical drama. It’s a bit too long, and there are a few things I don’t get: for example, the movie is framed by scenes of George Orwell typing Animal Farm, but the story’s about Gareth Jones, not George Orwell. Other than that, the acting’s good (especially James Norton), the story is compelling, and it’s beautifully shot, from the modernistic Moscow hotel to the staid, stone buildings in London. Most of all are the scenes in Ukraine where colour is dimmed to almost black and white with stark snowy landscapes.

A good but harrowing movie.

The Rest of Us is now playing on VOD; Mr Jones opens today online at Apple and Cineplex; check your local listings; and The Brain Divided is available to rent online on Vimeo.com here

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

Good not good. Films reviewed: Bombshell, A Hidden Life, Cats

Posted in 2000s, Acting, Animals, Austria, Dance, Farming, Journalism, Movies, Musical, Nazi, Religion, Sexual Harassment, Theatre, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 20, 2019

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

Ever watch something that’s bad, but still has good parts? Or a beautifully rendered piece of art that doesn’t live up to its potential? This week, I’m looking at three new films, that I liked but didn’t like, or hated but still enjoyed. There’s one farmer in wartime Austria, three women at Fox News, and a hundred cats in London.

Bombshell

Dir: Jay Roach

It’s Fox News studios in New York City. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is a top TV journalist and news anchor, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is co-host of Fox & Friends, Donald Trump’s favourite show, and newcomer Kayla Pospisal (Margot Robbie) is a committed conservative evangelical, trying to advance her career. What do these three women have in common? Theyre all smart, conservative and attractive (Carlson is a former Miss Minnesota.) And they were all hired by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Ailes is the highly profitable Fox News CEO, the man who singlehandedly shifted cable journalism from neutral news-source to a font of blatantly partisan right-wing talking points, leaving CNN in its dust. He’s also paranoid and hideously ugly, called Jabba the Hut behind his back.

The Fox News he runs is a place where cameras are positioned to show off female newscasters’ legs. Male employees advance because of their work. Female employees are also judged on looks, and work in a blatantly sexist office culture. And Ailes is the centre of it all, using his position power to exploit, harass and sexually assault young women. Kelly shares her concerns with her husband and Pospisal with her lesbian lover and Fox News staffer (Kate McKinnon) who says she doesn’t want to hear about it. But Carlson refuses to take this lying down. She launches a lawsuit against Ailes and Fox News. But will other journalists, like Kelly and Pospisal (a composite character based on real people) join her struggle, or stay loyal to Ailes?

Bombshell is a fast-paced news drama based on recent real-life events. It’s told in a light, punchy and easy-to-digest format, which makes the few dramatic scenes showing sexual harassment all the more powerful. Theron, Kidman and Robbie are all terrific and believable in their roles. On the ther hand, the movie barely touches on the awfulness and deceit of Fox News itself. And while it skewers Ailes it leaves the notorious Rupert Murdoch strangely untouched. Bombshell tells a great story, as seen by three strong women, around sexual harassment, but doesn’t concern itself with other political matters.

A Hidden Life

Wri/Dir: Terrence Malick

It’s WWII in Austria. Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is a simple farmer deeply in love with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). They live with his mother, her sister and their three little girls inthefoothills of a dramatic mountain range. Together with their neighbours they till the fields, harvest the grain and carry it, on the back of a donkey, to the miller. They go to church on Sunday and dress up in masks and costumes to honour the harvest. Their life is idyllic until… Franz gets drafted for army duty a second time. Enough, he says. I’m not going. No more Heil Hitler’s, no more military uniforms, no more separation from my wife and kids. Enough! Neighbours and government officials try to convince him to sign a loyalty oath, but he refuses. He is sent to prison, leaving his wife and sister-in-law to plow the fields among neighbours who aren’t friendly anymore. Only their constant letters keep them sane and I love. Will Franz sign the oath, or will he stay steadfast to his beliefs, even at risk of death?

A Hidden Life is a lush and beautiful rendering of a simple act of resistance in wartime anschluss Austria. It’s directed by Terrance Mallick, and is instantly recognizable by its swirling images, breathy voiceovers, lush music and stunning camerawork. People clutch earth in their fingers, and reap fields with scythes. Good passionate acting, featuring cameo performances by Matthias Schoenaerts, Franz Rogowski, and the late, great Bruno Ganz.

On the other hand… it’s three hours long. Three hours!  Why does it take so long to tell such a simple story? Why? It’s not exactly boring or tedious since it’s done so beautifully, but similar stories have already been told (and in a more dramatic fashion, like Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes/Elser – Er hätte die Welt verändert). As a movie critic, I try to avoid terms like “self-indulgent”, but this movie is strictly for fans of Terrence Mallick.

Cats

Dir: Tom Hooper

It’s nighttime in a fantastical, pre-gentrified London, where abandoned alley cats rule the streets. The Jellicle Cats are gathered for their annual meeting, presided over by Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench), who will choose one cat to be reborn. Each contestant performs before the queen: There are dancers (Francesca Hayward, Steven McRae) singers (Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson), comics (Rebel Wilson, James Corden), a magician dressed in black and white (Laurie Davidson) and even an old theatre cat (Ian McKellen). But the age-old ceremony is challenged by the evil Macavity (Idris Elba) who is kidnapping each cat after their performance. Who will be chosen to ascend to the skies? Will peace and order return to the Jellicle cats? And can newbie Victoria join the gang?

Cats is a strange hybrid of theatre, and movie special effects. Each act is performed on a vast soundstage, keeping close to how it would look before a live audience. The cat people’s faces and bodies are human, but augmented, using CGI, with cat ears, moving tails and furry bodies. Some of them wear elaborate costumes, while others run around “naked”, covered in sleek fur. But they’ve all been digitally neutered, with no sign of breasts or genitals anywhere. The script is abysmally bad, almost babyish, with “jokes” like cat got your tongue? and relentless fat jokes. Fat jokes? Really?

Music ranges from torch songs to chorus lines. There are a few great scenes, like cockroaches doing elaborate Busby Berkeley formations as Rebel Wilson eats them, one by one; and impressive dance routines, along with some good songs… but I can’t figure out who the movie is trying to appeal to? Small children? Theatre buffs? Taylor Swift fans? I don’t think it knows, either.

Still… I kinda liked it, if just for the spectacle of it all. It’s bad, but it’s watchable and loaded with great singers dancers and prize-winning actors all of whom are far, far more talented than the material they’ve been given.

And I think these weird cat people will haunt my sexual nightmares for years to come.

Bombshell, A Hidden Life and Cats 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.

Art and deception. Films reviewed: Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, The Art of Self Defense, Push

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

The things you see online – or on TV for that matter – aren’t always true (suprised?). This week I’m looking at three movies, two docs and one dark comedy, about lies and deceptions. There’s a man who trains in the art of karate, a look at the art of selling lies, and a look at the lies of selling real estate.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies

Dir: Larry Weinstein

What is Propaganda? Is it art and literature? Or brainwashing and fake news? The word comes from a benign Catholic term meaning the propagation of faith, the planting the seeds. The Vatican opened a department of propaganda to counter Martin Luther’s austere reforms. It combined the opulance of baroque cathedrals, the lure of incense and all the lush frescos, paintings and marble statues you’ve seen. But art and magic and religion were around long before that, and so, says this documentary, was propaganda. Some historians trace it as far back as Neandrathal cave paintings.

Propaganda is easy to spot in other cultures but very hard to see in your own.  Many people were entanced by dictators like Hitler and Stalin thanks to their skillful use of films (like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will) radio broadcasts and posters. But with the shift to digital culture, it has taken on new forms; like patently false news stories online, repeated ad infinitum, until people start to believe it.

Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies is a fun, light documentary that talks to a lot of artists and writers – Astra Taylor, Ai Weiwei and Kent Monkman – but also musicians, analysts and others. It shoots a constant barrage of propaganda at you, images from the past 100 years, shown in harsh black and white periodically blanketed in fields of red. A lot of it is familiar but there are also some bizarre juxtapositions you’ve never heard of: like the racing cars that now drive around the former Nazi Nuremberg Stadium. Or Laibach, a Slovenian band known for its fascistic costumes and images, who performed in North Korea before a concert hall of nonplussed party apparatchiks and university students. Very funny.

The Art of Self Defense

Wri/Dir: Riley Stearns

It’s the 1990s in small-town America. Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a shy accountant who lives with his dachshund. He’s a 98-pound weakling who works in an office full of alpha males. But when he’s violently attacked by strangers on motorbikes he decides something has got to change. No more sand will be kicked in his face! He joins a local karate dojo with its own set of hierarchical rules. Everyone is ranked by their belt colour. There’s Anna (Imogen Poots) who teaches the kids class; get on her wrong side and she’ll beat you to a pulp. And at the top of the heap is Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).

He says karate is not just a martial art, it’s a way of life. You must punch with your feet and kick with your hands. Casey is starry-eyed, and ready to do whatever Sensei tells him. You must become more masculine, he says.  Stop learning French, start learning German. And throw out those adult contemporary CDs; only listen to metal! Casey takes the blue pill. He leaves his job and devotes his life to karate. He worships Sensei, has a secret crush on Anna, and proudly displays his low-ranked yellow belt for all to see.

But something is not right. When he joins the mysterious night classes he is exposed to a violent world of hyper-masculinity he doesn’t subscribe to. He is asked to perform dubious tasks outside of the dojo. Is this place only about karate? Or is it a cult? And what is hidden behind Sensei’s secret door?

The Art of Self Defense is a low-budget, uncategorizable, odd sort of a movie, part dark comedy, part mystery, with a bit of violence and horror mixed in. It’s slow to develop, but picks up nicely about halfway through. It’s filled with wood paneling, old computers and ugly clothes from the 90s, which adds a humorous tinge. But It’s hard to tell whether it’s being satirical or straightforward, comic or scary. Jesse Eisenberg is totally believable as the wimpy accountant trying to become more manly, and Allessandro Nivola is good as the mysterious sensei.

Take it as a cautionary tale about the search for masculinity, self-confidence and the cult of martial arts and you’ll enjoy this dark comedy.

Push

Dir: Fredrik Gertten

There’s a housing crisis in the world’s cities and no one knows seems to know what’s going on. In Toronto there’s a shortage of affordable apartments, with stagnant wages, soaring rents and home prices quadrupling. Speculators are buying up land as a bankable commodity, something bought and sold, with little thought given to the people who live there. And in many cities entire blocks of housing sit empty, because rent income is dwarfed by what they can earn from the constant increase in value of the buildings themselves. What’s going on?

Enter Leilani Farha, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing. She’s a mom from Ottawa who travels around the world collecting data and advocating on behalf of tenants everywhere. She views housing not as an investment but as a right.

This documentary looks at the dire situation in the world’s cities – from Milan to Berlin, Seoul to Valpariaso – where people are facing the same situations: gentrification, renoviction, and the displacing of average- and low-income earners from the world’s cities.

It explores the role of organized crime in the housing crisis. They use property investment as a way of laundering money by over investing in legit properties, driving up demand and prices and hiding their illicit profits.

It looks at how the financial sector is turning housing into an investment commodity, with the people who live in them entirely erased from the equation. One particularly notorious player is Blackstone – founded by former Lehman Brothers execs – a voracious American property investment company that swooped into the real estate market after the stockmarket crash of 2008. Now they’re making money by buying up public housing for profit, while neglecting the people they were actually built for.

And it looks at the role of pensions, both government and private, which invest in housing to grow their capital, but, unintentionally, lead to skyrocketing prices and increasing homelessness.

Push is an incredibly important and informative documentary that explains in simple terms the economics, politics and effects of this crisis. It uses experts – like Joseph Stiglitz, Saskia Sassen and Roberto Saviano – to explain the reasons behind the crisis. But it also talks with ordinary people around the world. It shows the multiple, small-scale problems people face as well as the large-scale disasters, like the Grenfell Tower Fire in London. They are all related. And it’s the great Leilani Farha who is trying to confront these problems in a new way.

I recommend this doc.

Propaganda: The Art of Lies, Push, and The Art of Self Defense 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.

Daniel Garber talks with Leslie Ann Coles and Barrie Wentzell about Melody Makers: Should’ve Been There

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, documentary, Journalism, Music, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 12, 2019

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

Melody Maker was a UK weekly tabloid established in 1926 as a jazz paper for professional musicians. But by the 1960s it shifted its focus, eventually becoming known as “the Bible of rock’n’roll”. Bands were formed in the classified ads at the back, and, in the front, a cover photo could launch a music career. But who were the melody makers who made it all happen?

Melody Makers: Should’ve Been There is a new documentary about the legendary paper — it’s wrters, photographers and editors – and the musicians they wrote about. Using new interview and period footage it traces its rise and fall in an oral history of the age. And the film is illustrated by the black and white pics of Barrie Wentzell, their chief photographer from 1965-1975 chronicling the the gods of rock and roll. The film was directed and produced by award-winning Leslie Ann Coles, who is the founder of Toronto’s Female Eye Film Festival.

I spoke to Barrie Wentzell and Leslie Ann Coles at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Melody Makers opens Friday, July 12th, at the Royal Cinema.

Hot Docs 2019! Films reviewed: Bellingcat, The Corporate Coup D’Etat, American Factory, One Child Family

Posted in 1980s, China, Clash of Cultures, Corruption, documentary, Economics, Journalism, Ohio, Politics, Unions by CulturalMining.com on April 26, 2019

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

Toronto’s Hot Docs International Documentary Festival is on now. These films tell us what will be news in a year or two, and goes behind the scenes of stories we only think we know about. Hot Docs is showing hundreds of documentaries from around the world, way more than I could ever talk about, but let me briefly tell you about a few I’ve seen that might interest you.

These capsule reviews are shorter than usual, but hopefully long enough for some of it to sink in. This week I’m exposing you to amateur journalists influencing world politics, multinational corporations taking over governments, foreign-owned factories replacing local ones, and government control reaching into women’s bodies.

Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World

Dir: Hans Pool

With the explosion of Photoshop, propaganda and fake news, how can we find the real truth? A new news source called Bellingcat offers an alternative. It is similar to Wikileaks but functions as an original news source, rather than a publisher of leaked documents. Founded by Eliot Higgins, a UK “vigilante journalist”, Bellingcat uses Open Source investigations to determine whether what we see on the news and online is what is really happening.

Composed of a network of digital news geeks spread across Europe (all men), Bellingcat’s investigations range from responsibility for the Malaysia Airline plane shot down over the Russia/Ukraine border, to a look into bombings in Syria, and identifying neo-nazi faces at the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville. Using an ingenious combination of satellite footage, snapchat images, and uncensored, online discussion groups of soldiers wives, they find convincing evidence that conventional journalists – and government propaganda – ignore. I would have loved to have seen more about Bellingcat’s investgations into malfeasance within its own country – not just about Russians – but their work is fascinating, valuable and so clever.

You can find Bellingcat’s most recent investigations here)

Moving on now from journalism to governments themselves…

The Corporate Coup D’Etat

Dir: Fred Peabody

Do we still live in democracies, imperfect though they may be? Or has there been a corporate coup d’etat, a virtual takeover of our government? Well this filmmaker says, at least in the United States, the answer is a resounding yes. Widespread incarceration, congressmen and senators with corporate ties, and the phenomenal number of paid lobbyists working in Washington. New laws with extreme libertarian views are often written in total not by politicians but by ALEC a private body associated with the Koch Brothers.

Talking heads include Chris Hedges, Cornel West, Maude Barlow, and John Ralston Saul — who coined the term corporate coup d’etat.

But it also takes us into the heart of the problems by talking with the people of Camden, NJ., a city allowed to decay, and Youngstown Ohio, a former engine of the steel industry, where some people switched their votes from Obama to Trump… not because they love him, but because everyone else had failed to rescue the steel industry, so why not try someone from “outside” the system? This is a great doc, filled both with smart pundits and unknown but unforgettable ordinary people who tell it like it is. Corporate Coup d’état is another politically astute doc from Fred Peabody (whom I interviewed about All Governments Lie in 2016).

Youngstown Ohio may look bleak but how are things in Dayton? The next doc looks at both sides of an…

American Factory

Dir: Steven Bognar, Julia Reichert

Dayton Ohio is the longtime home of Moraine, a major General Motors plant. But when it moved south, the burgeoning middle class started to collapse.

Enter Fuyao Auto Glass, a China-based multinational that manufactures windshields for a large percentage of the world’s cars. Formerly struggling workers with decades of factory experience are offered a new chance. The only problem is GM payed $29 an hour, Fuyao pays $12. Workers are flown in from China to “train” already skilled labourers in the company’s philosophy. Can formerly unionized factory workers adjust to an autocratic, and some say unsafe, shop? Or will they succeed in unionizing the plant? American Factory is great look at changes in a Midwest factory town. It talks to the people on the shop floor and in their homes. It also follows some American managers visiting the mother plant in China. And it speaks directly both to the American and Chinese workers and management (including the odd, billionaire owner) and the cultural roadblocks they meet on the way. Another great doc from Bognar and Reichert!

And finally, a highly personal doc set in China that exposes some dark secrets…

One Child Nation

Dir: Nanfu Wang, Jialing Zhang

Nanfu Wang is a young American filmmaker, originally from Jiangxi, a desperately poor, landlocked province in southeast China. She was born in the 1980s right when the One Child Family policy comes into force. (It lasts officially until 2013.) It says city people can only have one child, but peasants can have a second child if their first one is a girl. Why? It’s simple economics: peasant families depend on their son to stay in the family home and provide for the parents in their old age. Girls move away once they marry.

But the film shows a dark side of this policy. Wang returns to her home village and finds evidence of parents abandoning baby girls to die, foetuses scattered in garbage dumps, and a trafficking ring that sold babies to orphanages to be adopted abroad. There are even cases where village chiefs dictated whether pregnant women must abort their foetuses. I don’t know how much of the film applies to a huge country with 1.4 billion people, but what the filmmaker uncovers in her own area really makes one wonder. One Child Nation is a heartfelt but disturbing documentary.

You can catch all of these films — One Child NationAmerican Factory, The Corporate Coup D’Etat, Bellingcat: Truth in a Post-Truth World — at Hotdocs over the next ten days. And remember, students and seniors can get in free to daytime screenings!

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.

Daniel Garber talks with director Håvard Bustnes about his new doc Golden Dawn Girls

Posted in documentary, Greece, Journalism, Nazi, Politics, Racism, violence by CulturalMining.com on April 13, 2018

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

It’s the 2010s in Greece. The EU and northern European banks are foreclosing on Greek debt, demanding the country adopt austerity measures. There is talk of Grexit — Greece pulling out of the European Union altogether. Newcomers, fleeing war in the Middle East and Africa, are seeking refuge on their shores. And new political parties are springing up amidst the turmoil, with one, the leftist Syriza, eventually rising to prominence. But on the extreme right, another party arises. Golden Dawn combines Nazi regalia, fascist ideology, and anti-immigrant violence in its attempt to seize power. What is Golden Dawn, what does it stand for, and who are the people in its inner circle?

A bold new documentary looks at the party from an insiders’ point of view. The filmmaker gained access by appealing to the women closest to the party leaders – a mother, a wife and a daughter – who offer their candid insights while the men are in jail. The documentary is Golden Dawn Girls, by the noted Norwegian filmmaker Håvard Bustnes.

I spoke to Håvard in Norway via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Golden Dawn Girls will have its North American premier at Toronto’s Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival on May 1st, 2018.

Fighting Monsters. Films Reviewed: Tickling Giants, The Void, The Zookeeper’s Wife

Posted in 1940s, Animals, Arab Spring, Cultural Mining, Horror, Human Rights, Journalism, Poland, Psychological Thriller, WWII by CulturalMining.com on March 31, 2017

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

If relationship, family, work or school problems are too hard to handle, a movie is a good place to escape it. Especially if the people on the screen are fighting real monsters. This week I’m looking at movies bout people facing monsters. There’s a Polish zookeeper facing the Nazis, a political comic facing a military government, and a smalltown sheriff facing something scary… he’s just not sure what.

Tickling Giants

Dir: Sara Taksler

Bassem Youssef is a heart surgeon in Cairo. In the heady days of the Arab Spring, he heads to Tahrir Square to help support protesters as best he can. Many of them are beaten and need medical attention. But what he really wants to be is a comedian – specifically a political comic like Jon Stewart of the Daily Show. Under Mubarek, outright criticism of the government was not permitted. But with the newfound freedom that came with the popular uprising, he is able to launch a TV show, known simply as the show. With a team of writers and producers it brings political satire to the masses. The show is wildly popular, but the newly elected president Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t like him one bit. So he takes him to court and loses! Baassem Youssef is a free man. Until… Morsi is overthrown in a military coup, putting General Sisi in charge of Egypt. Sisi is popular and dictators don’t like criticism. SomeoPro-Sisi protesters declare Youssef a traitor for criticizing the army, while others fear he will disrupt the relative calm the military coup brought. Is Bassem Youssef just what Egyptians need? Or is he too much, too soon?

Tickling Giants is a funny and informative documentary about how US style political humour fares in Egypt’s. Illustrated with political cartoons by a young man Andeel, it offers behind the scene look at TV production and how it influences and is affected by politicians. One criticism: it could have been a bit shorter; it doesn’t take almost two hours to tell this simple story.

The Void

Wri/Dir: Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski

Daniel (Aaron Poole) is a police sheriff in a small town – a place with very little crime. So he’s startled to see a bloodied young man, under the influence, come stumbling out of the woods. But when he takes him to the nearby hospital where his wife Alison (Kathleen Munroe) is a doctor in the ER, things get strange. Patients behave erratically, and two heavily armed men show up at the gate threatening to kill the kid. Stranger still, a group of identically-dressed men appear outside the hospital brandishing large knives. They are wearing white sheets and hoods, sort of like flat-topped Klansmen, but with a mysterious triangle painted on the front their faces.

And otherworldly visions appear in Daniel’s mind, full of dark clouds roiling over a lunar landscape. Has the town been invaded by satanic worshippers, drug fiends or sex-crazed maniacs? Nobody knows for sure. It’s up to the people trapped in the hospital — including a pregnant woman, a kindly doctor (Kenneth Welsh) a young intern, and a state trooper (Art Hindle) – have to settle their differences and fight the mysterious powers before they tear each other apart.

The Zone is a horror and psychological thriller about ordinary people driven to extremes in there resistance to unknown killers. There are some fun scenes and a few shocking parts — and I loved the weird images that appear in Daniel’s head — but on the whole, it’s more unintentionally funny that genuinely scary. Some of they dialogue is atrocious, and much of the movie left me scratching my heads as to what exactly is going on. (For example, when two characters are fighting in an imaginary landscape, you don’t know which of them is hallucinating.) I kept waiting for the robot commentators from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to appear on the screen to explain it all to me.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Dir: Niki Caro

It’s 1939 in Warsaw. Husband and wife Antonina and Jan Zabinsky (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh) run the zoo as if the amimals are family members. Especially Antonina. She’s a female Doctor Doolittle, who really does talk to the animals. She goes for daily runs around the park with a dromedary and sleeps with a white lion cub. And at a party, everyone sees her save an elephant calf from choking. Especially impressed is Lutz Heck, a leading German zoologist (Daniel Brühl). But when the Germans invade, their world is turned upside down. The zoo is bombed and wild animals run rampant across the city. Afterwards Lutz offers to help save the zoo animals by sending the best ones – the purest breeds – to Berlin. (Purest breeds? Sounds a bit Nazi…)  Sure enough, the next time she sees him, he’s dressed in full Nazi  regalia. He’s a high-ranked officer. And he has his eye on the beautiful Antonina. But she and Jan have a plan of their own: to help save their Jewish friends and colleagues from certain death in the Warsaw Ghetto, and help move guns to the resistance. The concoct a complex plan to smuggle people out of the ghetto inside a garbage truck holding slop to feed their pigs. (They’ve turned their beloved zoo into a pig farm.) They are hidden in plain sight, inside the Zabinsky villa even while Lutz is operating an army base on the same premises. Will there plan succeed? Or will they and their rescued friends be sent to their deaths?

Based on a true story, the Zookeeper’s Wife is a romantic drama set in war-torn Warsaw, where a zoo serves as a secret sanctuary for Jews escaping the Nazi death machine. It’s also a Holocaust rescue story… with furry animals. As such, it abbreviates familiar images that have been shown in movies so often: broken windows, Nazi banners covering public buildings, ashes falling like snowflakes, children loaded onto cattle cars… At the same time, it avoids most of the blood, death and gore — the camera always turns away. There are some devestatingly sad parts, like a young girl, Urszula (Shira Haas) who is raped by two German soldiers before she is rescued.  Still the movie didn’t show me much I haven’t already seen, aside from the zoo  — which had new, haunting images.

Good as a tearjerker.

The Zookeeper’s Wife and The Void both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Tickling Giants is playing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this weekend. Go to tiff.net/human-rights-watch/.

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 Shoot the Messenger’s creator Jennifer Holness, and star Lyriq Bent

Posted in Action, Canada, Clash of Cultures, Corruption, Crime, Journalism, Politics, Romance, Somali, Thriller, Toronto, TV by CulturalMining.com on October 7, 2016

Jennifer Holness, Lyriq BentHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Daisy is a cub reporter at the Toronto Gazette. She’s interrupted from a roll in the hay with her lover by a mysterious phone call – a source! She rushes to meet him only to see a young Somali man gunned down in cold blood. And which police detective Jennifer Holness, Lyriq Bent, Shoot the Messengeris investigating the case? It’s her lover, Kevin. Now the police, the news media, and the government are all trying to find out who shot the messenger?

Shoot the Messenger is also the name of a dramatic new series premiering on CBC TV next week (Oct. 10). Jennifer Holness, Lyriq Bent, Shoot the MessengerIt looks at how a city copes with street-level crime… and high-level corruption. Created by husband-and-wife team Jennifer Holness and Sudz Sutherland, it stars Lyriq Bent and Elise Levesque as Kevin and Daisy.

I spoke to Jennifer Holness and Lyriq Bent in studio at CIUT.

Dark TIFF. Films reviewed: We Are Never Alone, Manchester by the Sea, The Fixer PLUS Pop VR at #TIFF16 and FIVARS

Posted in Czech Republic, Drama, Family, Journalism, Movies, Romania, Sex Trade, US by CulturalMining.com on September 9, 2016

kathebattle_still_02Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Take a trip down to King street between Spadina and University and you’ll see TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, in full swing, with celebrities everywhere and free concerts and events. Featured this year for the first time are movies not invasion_03-1from Hollywood, nor India’s Bollywood, but from Nollywood, Nigeria’s thriving movie industry. Another new attraction at TIFF is POP VR, short films and documentaries shot in 3-d, and 360: movies you watch all around you. Using special headgear, kathebattle_still_05earphones and a smartphone attached to the front, you can see things like a cartoon about aliens, a doc about a feminist movement in India to enter sacred temples, and a Cirque de Soleil performance that puts you right in the middle of a Chinese sword fight! VR is still developing, but it’s a force to be reckoned with. This week I’m talking about three great dark movies playing now at TIFF. There’s a Czech village purple with paranoia, a man in New England with a dark history, and some yellow journalism in Romania.

miroslav-hanus-left-and-daniel-doubrava-right-in-we-are-never-alone-courtesy-of-wideWe Are Never Alone
Dir: Petr Vacla

Two families live in a remote small town in the Czech Republic built around a fortress-like prison. One is headed by a burly single dad (Miroslav Hanus), a prison guard, with a small son. He believes minorities and ex-cons are out to get him, and is writing a rightwing nationalist manifesto to rid the country of subversives and Roma. He longs to see those strong Czech bridges and dams being built again and the factories producing more widgets. In another family, a hypochondriac dad (Karl Roden) spends his time trying to photograph his back with a cellphone. He desperately seeks evidence of cancer. His wife (Lenka Vlasakova) stares lenka-vlasakova-left-and-zdenek-godla-right-in-we-are-never-alone-courtesy-of-widelongingly out the window all day of a roadside convenience store where she works.

Meanwhile a swarthy part-time pimp and his stand-offish junkie girlfriend drive around in a broken down red cart purchasing garish gifts. But things go really wrong when the two paranoid men meet, and begin to blend their strange theories and conspiracies. And daniel-doubrava-in-we-are-never-alone-courtesy-of-wideunbeknownst to them both, their young sons are gaslighting their dads, trying to drive them crazy, by secretly leaving increasingly large dead animals on their own doorsteps. Things start to spiral into increasingly awfulness as the three groups interact.

We are Never Alone is a dark story of nationalism, paranoia and apathy win modern-day Czech Republic. It has great acting, an unpredictable plot, and, thankfully, an underlying streak of absurdist comedy that lets usavoid the dread of the characters’ lives.

76e05278-81a6-4fc7-97b4-861c73eee46eManchester by the Sea
Dir: Kenneth Lonergan

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a handyman who lives alone in Quincy, just outside Boston. But he’s called back to his hometown in Manchester, when his divorced brother John dies. It’s up to him to inform his nephew Patrick that his dad is dead. Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is 16 years old, on the school hockey team and in a band. Lee and Casey were always been close, until something terrible happened, and Lee left town. Now, suddenly and against his wishes, he finds himself Patrick’s de facto dad. It’s written in his brother’s will. He doesn’t know how to

MBTS_3869.CR2raise a teen. He did have kids once, but that was a long time ago.

At first he acts like Chris’s buddy – lets him drink, take girls home, say or do whatever he likes. But gradually reality sets in and Lee realizes he has to do the right thing: either raise him properly or find someone else who can. Trouble is Lee’s reputation is dirt in this town, and no one will hire him. Ghosts of his past keep popping up, like Randi, his ex-alcoholic, ex-wife (Michelle Williams).

Although this may sounds like a typical movie, it’s not. The form, emotions and acting set it apart. It’s edited in a chop-up style, with flashbacks coming unannounced right after a scene set in the present. So you have to pay attention. Emotionally, it’s a devastating tearjerker, as the hidden past is gradually revealed. The whole film is exquisitely structured, with certain scenes repeated but with new, subtle variations and revelations. And the acting – especially Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges – is just so good. Oscar good. Great movie.

fixer_01The Fixer (Fixeur)
Dir: Adrian Sitaru

Radu (Tudor Istodar) is a journalist living in Bucharest with his wife and small son, He comes across an exclusive news story – a real scoop. A young woman named Anca (Diana Spatarescu)
has escaped from her Parisian pimp and made her way back to a small town in northern Romania. If they can track her down, a first hand interview could expose the huge network of underage 14138013_1063443357080084_3733967339935546785_otrafficking across Europe. Agence France Press sends their trip TV reporters to capture her on film, telling her story. But that’s easier said than done. Radu has to call in favours, smoothe out troubles, and serve as 10256865_778397828917973_7636613034058641716_otranslator, guide and journalist for Axel (Mehdi Nebbou) the French reporter. He is stymied by local thugs, a recalcitrant mother superior sheltering the girl in a nunnery, and even Anca herself, who doesn’t trust the French reporters. And as the story develops he starts to wonder: do journalists want to expose stories for the public good… or merely to boost their ratings?

The Fixer is another shocking movie. Like many Romanian movies it is hyper-realistic and slow to develop, but when it does — wow! It slams you and makes you question what you thought was happening. Distinctive cinematography, and again, great acting, The Fixer is a potent indictment of com-samsung-vrvideo-20160726-232455-1024x920investigative journalism.

We are Never Alone, The Fixer, and Manchester by the Sea are all playing at TIFF. Go to tiff.net for more information. And for another view of augmented and virtual reality, check out fivars, another Toronto VR festival that takes beyond where Pokemon-go can go. Go to fivars.net for details.

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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