Exotica. Movies Reviewed: Hotel Lux, The Rabbi’s Cat, To the Wonder

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Africa, Algeria, Animation, Berlin, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Comics, Germany, Kremlin, Romance, Uncategorized, US, USSR by CulturalMining.com on April 19, 2013

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

Images and Toronto Jewish Film Festival continue on through this weekend, with Hot Docs just around the corner. This week I’m looking at movies about people travelling to exotic lands. There’s a German screwball comedy about an actor who escapes the Nazis only to find himself in the heart of Stalin’s Moscow; a French animated film about a group of travellers from Algiers looking for a lost city; and an American romance about a woman from Paris looking for love in America.

Hotel_LuxHotel Lux

Dir: Leander Haussmann

It’s Berlin in the 1930s. The comedy team Zeisig and Meyer (Michael Herbig and Jurgen Vogel) work at a successful cabaret, playing Stalin and Hitler. But their livelihood is threatened when the Nazi’s come to power, and political satire is no longer tolerated. An undercover Dutch communist, Frida, suddenly appears, and Zeisig, a notorious lothario, is smitten. Meyer goes into hiding, but Zeisig sees no reason to run. But eventually he must. He flees Berlin with fake papers and the name of a Moscow landmark: the Hotel Lux. Outside, it’s a stately building with a spinning red star on the roof. Inside it’s a rat-infested heap. And what he doesn’t realize is it’s also the epicenter of Stalinism, a hotel filled with the hardcore German communists in exile.

Every conversation is bugged. People are constantly dragged out of their rooms by a diminutive NKVD agent and accused of the worst possible crime: Trotskyism! And, due to a series of strange coincidences and mistaken identities, Zeisig, the Stalin impersonator, finds himself in meetings with Stalin himself. And his old friends, Meyer and Frida, both end up in Hotel Lux, too.

How will Zeisig get out if this mess? Will he have an influence on Stalin’s decisions? Will his true identity be discovered? And will Frida ever like him?

Like an Austrian comedy set in the same era, My Best Enemy, this movie doesn’t have any grave meanings or deep philisophyt to impart. Rather, it’s a fantasy set against a backdrop of the troubled thirties. Hotel Lux is just a cute, old-fashioned screwball comedy, with its history and politics filtered through the eyes of post-reunification Germany.

The_Rabbis_CatThe Rabbi’s Cat

Dir: Antoine Delesvaux and Joann Sfar (based on his graphic novels)

It’s 1920s in Algiers, part of the North African colony annexed by France. (It’s inhabited by Arabic-speaking Muslims and Jews, and their French speaking rulers.) Rabbi Safr lives with his beautiful but fiery daughter Zlabiya. But there normal life is interrupted by some strange things. His cat suddenly begins to speak, and wants to have religious debates. The dead body of a blond Russian man appears in a wooden crate of prayer books sent from Europe. And a cousin, who travels with a huge lion comes for a visit. The Rabbi Safr, accompanied by a Muslim sheikh, also named Safr, a Chagal-like artist, and an aristocratic white Russian, set off on a road journey in a Citroen. They are on a quest through northeast Africa to find an ancient hidden city, an African Jerusalem, the legendary land of giant Black- African Jews.

On their journey, they encounter nomads, Belgian colonists (in the form of a pink-skinned Tintin in a pith helmet), and pick up new members to join their group.

Joann Safr is a great, contemporary French cartoonist who creates fantastical imaginary worlds. This is the first animated version of his work I’ve seen, and it stays true to his comics. This is a great movie: funny, fantastical, and colourful, and featuring French-Algerian actors like Mohamed Fellag.

Redbud_Day28 (412 of 381).CR2To the Wonder

Dir: Terrence Malick

Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a single mother, meets Neil (Ben Affleck), an American tourist who is visiting France. They fall in love in scenic spots. Their love affair is extended when he invites her (and her daughter) to follow him back to America. Ah, America. Calm, rich, honest, she thinks as she pirouettes around her new Oklahoma backyard. Her whispered thoughts are an ongoing narration to her new life there. Ah… l’amour, l’amour, she whispers, turning another pirouette. Je t’aime. Her life is an avalanche of tenderness. Neil doesn’t speak, he just nods or grunts and goes out to check an oil pump.

OK, just so you know, I was describing a typical scene. But the whole movie is like that. It’s like a two-hour-long movie trailer, an endless montage of a bumpy, depressing relationship in an Oklahoma suburb. With a non-stop voiceover of the most painful poetry, the most awful French doggerel ever inflicted on my ears in one dose. I kind of liked Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life from two years ago (he supposedly spent a decade making it) but this one is worthless. I’m not even mentioning the various sub plots — Marina’s depression, a priest who talks to poor people, marital infidelity — because they barely add anything to this meandering, dull story. Avoid this movie at all costs, unless you are looking for two hours of pointless, superficial Hallmark images and loads of false solemnity.

To the Wonder opens today, check your local listings; and The Rabbi’s Cat and Hotel Lux are both playing this weekend: go to TJFF.ca for details.

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

Post-Cold War. Movies reviewed: Salt, I Am Love, Countdown to Zero

About 20 years ago, something impossible happened. The Berlin Wall came down, the Eastern Bloc crumbled, the iron curtain was lifted, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Almost half a century of mutually assured destruction, of the never-ending threat of nuclear war, was somehow… finished, and the world let out a collective sigh so enormous, satellite photos show it moved a sand dune in the gobi desert.

The lingering anxiety at the back of everyone’s mind — that some nut in the White House or the Kremlin, in a fit of pique or a moment of panic would press a red button and turn the world to dust, and repeat the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a global scale – that anxiety seemed to disappear. The world was safe again!

So for almost everybody, things seemed to be looking up. Except…except for the movies! How can you make spy movies without the ready-made “us and them” of the cold war, the constant thrust and parry of the two sides in the never ending intrigue of their battle for ideological dominance? Subterfuge, espionage, the arms race, and always, always the threat of nuclear destruction gave cold war movies this background that made them serious and real and scary. Now everyone’s spy movies were for nought. What to do?

This week I’m looking at three movies, each with a very different take on Russia and the post cold war period.

Salt

Dir: Phillip Noyce

“alt is an action/thriller about a CIA agent, Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), who is accused of being a double agent. A Russian spy walks into the CIA and, just like in the cold war days, says he wants to defect. He claims there was a secret school in the Soviet era, that kidnapped and trained from birth, special sleeper agents who would blend in with the Americans until the moment they are activated. And Salt was one of these agents, old-guard cold-war communist out to assassinate leaders foment nuclear warfare again, to bring things back to the bad old days. The Soviet Union will rise again!

Evelyn denies it, but she knows she has to take the law into her own hands and escape. She says three things to set up the plot:

I didn’t do it! (or did she?)

I’ve been set up! (or was she?)

I have to find my husband.

Her husband is a milquetoast German arachnologist (spider collector), and that part the plot is for sure — she has to find him. Why? I don’t really know, and I just saw the movie. I guess because she loves him.

Meanwhile she’s being pursued by two CIA agents, one, Peabody (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – the great black British actor from”Kinky Boots” and “Inside Man“) who doesn’t trust her; the other, Ted (played by Liev Schreiber) who does, but still has to bring her in. Toss in a bunch of unsavoury Russians hanging out on the waterfront, a great cathedral scene, some impossible car chases, rooftop jumps and lots of bloody machine-gun shoot outs, and there you have it.

Is she or isn’t she? Not gonna give it away, but suffice it to say, LOTS of holes in the ridiculous plot which doesn’t really hold together. Like her English starts drifting into a Russian accent somewhere in the middle of the movie for no known reason. But never mind. It’s a cold-war redux action movie, lots of fun, but stupid.

(BTW, this movie couldn’t have picked a better time to be released, just a few weeks after that group of undercover Russian spies were discovered to be living and raising families in the States.)

“I am Love”

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

The movie starts with a banquet to honour Edoardo, the patriarch of the immensely wealthy Recchi family, a Milan industrialist who founded his fortune on wartime profits for his textile mills. He’s passing on the business to his heirs. The Trecchi women, all from outside the clan, are also prominent figures, but feel their existence is slightly more precarious. Emma, (wonderfully played Tilda Swinton) the wife of the second generation, flutters around nervously – she’s with the family, but not of the family. She’s actually from the former Soviet Union. Her handsome son, Edoardo, wants to carry on the family’s tradition, while her husband, Tancredo, would rather move it into a post-industrial Italy. And Emma herself feels adrift, with a new name, language, heritage, culture, family. One day, her life changes when, on a trip to San Remo, her eyes catch some Onion domes at a Kremlin-like Russian Orthodox church – and who does she see but her son’s friend, the chef Antonio. Her heart flutters as she takes a step to reclaim her real self, and her real desires.

This is terrific movie to watch. It shows the cold, sterile, but magnificent industrial Milan, the wonderful, fecund countryside nearby. The clothes, the food, the family members and the servants and the shifting relationships, power and identity of all of them. Emma and her sublimated Russian past, the rivalry between father and son for her affections, her daughter cutting herself loose, the longtime friendships with the maid, the Recchi women of three geerations… Wow! So much to take in.

And it’s so amazing looking, with lots of fooling around with camera, recreating the look of early 1970’s Italian movies, with their lush sumptuousness, the slightly smudgy camera-lens, the soft glow of light… along with tons of visual refernces to Japanese films – rain dropping on a pond, insects on a twig… And lots of nice shifts to Emma’s subconscious memories, thoughts and fantasies, but always done visually, not with echo-y voiceovers. Lots of what’s said is off camera, over heard, in the background, or never mentioned – you have to put it together.

“I Am Love” is a simple story, but told so well with great emotional heft. This is a really good movie.

“Countdown to Zero”

Dir: Lucy Walker

is a new documentary on a topic – nuclear warfare — that used to be at the front of everyone’s mnd, but is now nearly forgotten. This movie says: “uh, uh, it’s still very much there, and if you don’t do something about it, we’re all going to die!” And it does its best to scare the bejeezus out of you showing how.

The movie shows some startling old footage of atomic testing, and traces the history of nuclear proliferation. With the Cold War, mutually assured destruction meant that neither side could go ahead with it – any bomb flies, the other side sends there’s off too. But now, the movie says, things are even more precarious. More countries have the bomb, more want it, and with the former Soviet Union in disarray, there all those rich yellowcake ready to be nabbed. There’s a great prison interview with a Russian dude who wanted a Lamboghini or a DeLuxe Buick, and that’s why he was selling uranium to a potential baddy. Luclily he was caught, but all the ones who were caught were caught by chance.

Countdown to zero shows how a bomb is made, who’s after it, how it could be launched – due to stupidity, miscaculation, or madness — and what would happen if it were.

This is a very informative and interesting to watch, especially if you don’t know much about this – lot’s of surprising near misses and near disasters most people ever hear about. But the film is extremely manipulative using repeated images of terrorist attacks followed by similar shots of everyday life in a city – will the terrorists get YOU?? Basically, this is a sheep in wolf’s clothing: a sombre, PBS-style documentary dressed in a Fox News fright wig: Iran! Al Qaeda! P-P-P-Pakistan!!!. The title, Countdown to Zero, sounds like an episode of 24, but what they’re really saying is let’s countdown the number of nuclear warheads to zero instead.

This well made and well-researched documentary is made mainly of archival footage, and the biggest political talking heads there are – Gorbachev, Valery Plame, Oppenheimer, MacNamara, Tony Blair – along with some good animated scenes and a couple amazing new interviews. The thing is – I didn’t walk out of the movie scared of a nuclear holocaust. Disarmament is still a very important issue, I just wished they hadn’t used American fear and paranoia of terrorism as the main reason to support an important cause.

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