Goethe Films: Margarethe & Barbara. Films reviewed: Hannah Arendt, Rosa Luxemburg, Marianne & Juliane

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, 1970s, Germany, melodrama, Movies, Nazi, Terrorism, WWI, WWII by CulturalMining.com on September 29, 2017

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

Margarethe von Trotta is a leading German director and one of the only women in the New German Cinema (Neuer Deutscher Film) of the 60s, 70s and 80s. She co-wrote and co-directed (with Volker Schlöndorff) the first commercially successful film of that movement – The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Though her films are about dynamic women and told from a female point of view, von Trotta has distanced herself from some schools of feminist cinema. She creates movies about women, but not “Frauenfilm” (women’s movies).

She started her career as an actress, so she knows how to draw amazing performance from her actors. And she has a decades-long working relationship with one actor in particular: Barbara Sukowa.

Barbara Sukowa is a reknowned actor with a beautiful, square face that she completely transforms to match each character she portrays. She can play a role as both passionate and restrained, her emotions churning just beneath the surface.

This week I’m looking at three great films (based on historical figures) directed by Von Trotta and starring Sukowa. They’re part of a special series called Goethe Films: Margarethe and Barbara playing on the 3rd, 5th and 12th of October at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. There’s a melodrama about a revolutionary, a family drama about a terrorist and her sister, and an intellectual drama about a journalist-philosopher.

Hannah Arendt (2012)

It’s the 1960s in New York city. Hannah Arendt (Sukowa) is German-born writer and philosopher who is part of the intellectual scene in that city. She studied philosophy under Heidegger – and was his lover — but when the Nazis came to power she was stripped of her credentials as a Jew, while he embraced Nazism. She fled to France and later the US. Now she is offered a strange assignment by The New Yorker magazine – to cover the upcoming trial in Jerusalem of the notorious Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was one of the main architects of the Holocaust and the murderer of millions. He testifies in a glass booth. Eichmann denies everything and paints himself as a gentle bureaucrat.

But Arendt’s description of Eichmann’s behaviour as the Banality of Evil — that of an ordinary-looking man who killed so many – meets with widespread shock and criticism, even among her friends and colleagues. Her writings on totalitarianism, guilt and responsibility reverberate around the world.

Hannah Arendt is a beautiful and magisterial depiction of a major intellectual figure as iconoclast, a hero fighting the tides. It’s also a biopic, given to long pauses of contemplation. And one that somehow seems kinder to Heidegger than to Arendt’s critics in academia.

Rosa Luxemburg (1986)

It’s 1900, the start of a century of change. Revolution is brewing in Russia and Germany is close behind. Rosa Luxemburg (Sukowa) is an educated, Polish-Jewish woman who walks with a limp. She is also a social democratic revolutionary, a firebrand who writes articles and gives passionate speeches. Now she lives in Berlin after being jailed and nearly executed in Warsaw.

She’s in a tempestuous relationshio with her sometime lover and fellow revolutionary Leo Jogisches (Daniel Olbrychski). But when she discovers he is having an affair, she begins a relationship with a friend’s adult son. And, with Karl Liebknecht, she founds the Red Flag newspaper and the Spartacus party, a Marxist (but not Leninist) Socialist party.

She calls for a massive strike to resist the war but nationalism is on the rise. Bloody Rosa is arrested and jailed during WWI as a political prisoner. Will her political dreams ever be realized, or will nationalism prevail?

Rosa Luxemburg is a fascinating historical biopic, told in a melodramatic style. There are as many scenes of her shouting to cheering crowds as there are of her gardening in prison or writing letters. A costume drama, this captures nineteenth-century romanticism in its music, poetry and idealism.

Marianne & Juliane (1981) Die bleierne Zeit

It’s the 1970s. Juliane (Jutta Lampe) is a journalist who writes for a feminist magazine. She grew up in a large family with a bible-thumping father, a conservative minister. Her sister Marianne (Sukowa) looked up to her as a teenager. Julianne was the rebel. She smoked, talked back to her teacher, wore pants – not a skirt! – and caused a furor when she danced alone to a Vienna waltz ata high school dance. The two are shattered by the documentaries they see in school on Nazi mass murder, and vow they will never let it happen again. But the two have taken different paths and their roles have changed.

Marianne is now a brash, self-centred woman who rejects concepts like marriage, family and money. She doesn’t ask for things; she demands them. She’s a member of the dreaded Red Army Faction — a terrorist group that sets off bombs and hijacks planes — and is on the run from police. She also has a young son, Jan, but can’t take care of him. When she is caught by the police, it’s up to Juliane to visit her in prison to keep her sane and alive. She smuggles in notes hidden in tissues, and passes on her messages. Can Juliane’s marriage and job — and Marrianne’s son — survive the prison sentence and the widespread public hatred of the crimes she committed?

Although this is a fictional drama, it’s based on RAF member Gudrun Ensslin and her journalist sister. This powerful drama is not a historical biopic; it was made just a few years after the events it portrays.

All three films encorporate historical black-and-white film footage and prison scenes, about heroes (and villains like Eichman)  encaged and restrained. Together, these three films provide a century-long view of modern Germany through the eyes of three women.

Marianne and Juliane, Hannah Arendt, and Rosa Luxemburg are all playing next week on the big screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto — $10 per ticket — with Barbara Sukowa introducing Marianne and Juliane. Go to Goethe Toronto for details.

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

Exceptional people with hidden histories. Movies reviewed: Gifted, I Called Him Morgan, Frantz

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, Clash of Cultures, documentary, Drama, drugs, Family, France, Germany, Jazz, melodrama, Music, Mystery, WWI by CulturalMining.com on April 10, 2017

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

Spring Film Festival season continues with the upcoming Images and TIFF Kids film festivals, celebrating their 30th and 20th anniversaries (respectively).

This week, I’m looking at movies about exceptional people with hidden histories. There’s a musical genius in Manhattan, a mathematical prodigy on the Florida coast, and a man of mystery at the border of France and Germany.

Gifted

Dir: Mark Webb

Frank (Chris Evans) is a youngish guy living in a shack in Florida. He lives a quiet life, fixing boats and hooking up with women at laguna bars. The rest of his time is spent home-schooling his niece Mary (McKenna Grace), a foul-mouthed seven-year-old with blonde pigtails. Mary likes math, dancing to pop songs and playing with Fred, their one-eyed stray cat, a castoff like the two of them. How did they end up in Florida? Frank’s sister, a math genius, left Mary with him as a baby… just before killing herself. She made him promise to let Mary have a normal life, in case it turns out she’s a genius too. Normal means keeping the child free from math profs and universities, and most of all away from their obsessive mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). She’s the one who pushed Frank’s sister over the edge with her relentless ambition: solving one of the Millennium Prize Problems.

Frank is protecting Mary from all that. But how can she live a normal life hidden away in their clapboard shack? It’s time to send her to public school — despite his savvy neighbour Roberta’s warnings not to (Octavia Spence). Right away the dominos start to fall: teacher tells principal Mary is gifted, Principal goes online and soon Evelyn is in Florida demanding a proper Harvard education for her gifted grandchild.  Who has Mary’s best interests at heart – her wealthy patrician grandmother or her salt-of-the-earth uncle Frank?

I like the idea behind Gifted, and was looking forward to a story about a genius kid trying to live a normal life – but aside from a few scenes the movie isn’t about that. It’s actually a child custody drama, which is never much fun. Throw in foster parents, courtrooms and lawyers and the movie becomes a trial to watch. While the acting is not bad – Captain America as a single dad – and there are a few big secrets revealed along the way, I found Gifted disappointing.

I Called Him Morgan

Dir: Kasper Collin

Lee Morgan was a young jazz trumpet player from Philly, featured in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band as an 18 year old. 15 years later he was shot dead outside a Manhattan jazz club in a snow storm by a much older woman named Helen. How did he get there, who was this woman, and how did it happen? A new documentary looks closely at both their lives.

Morgan was a hard-bop trumpeter who dressed in Ivy League suits and drove his Triumph through Central Park. He played with Art Blakey and John Coltrane, later breaking away with his own band. Helen was born in a small town near Wilmington, North Carolina, with two kids by age 14, and widowed by 18 after a short marriage to a bootlegger. She left her kids with grandma, moved to New York City and never looked back. She cut an impressive figure on the streets, hanging with Manhattan’s demimonde, sexual outlaws and drug dealers. That’s how she entered the jazz scene. By the time she met Lee Morgan, he was a junkie who had pawned his trumpet for some heroin and was virtually homeless. She washed him, got him into a Bronx clinic and set him back up in the jazz scene. She served as his mother, lover, manager and protector. But when he began to fool around with a young woman from New Jersey, things started to go wrong…

I Called Him Morgan is an amazing movie about the two lovers’ lives. Helen gave only one interview in a bar on a cassette tape a month before she died, but in it she tells what really happened. Interviews with the friends and musicians he played with fill in the blanks, and it is illustrated with B&W photos from Blue Note (the club and record label where Morgan played and recorded), all set alight by Morgan’s cool trumpet sounds. Fascinating musical documentary.

Frantz

Dir: Francois Ozon

A small town in Germany, right after WWI. Anna (Paula Beer) is a strong and pretty young woman all dressed in black. She is in mourning for her fiance Frantz Hoffmeister, who died in the trenches. She still lives with Frantz’s father, the good Doktor Hoffmeister, and Magda his mother. They treat her like one of the family. One day, Anna spies a young man with a pencil thin moustache laying white roses by Frantz’s grave. Who is this man and what does he want? His name is Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) and he is a musician. It seems he knew Frantz before the war, in Paris, and he carries a letter he wrote. He is visiting the town to pay his respects and to say something to Frantz’s father. But the war wounds are still raw, and townsfolk can’t believe a frenchman would dare set foot there. Eventually, nervous Adrien spends time with Anna and her family forging a deep emotional friendship, but one based partly on lies. What isn’t he telling them?

After Adrien returns to France, Anna decides to track him down in Paris, and retrace the museums and music halls Frantz had loved. But Adrien is nowhere to be found. Like a detective, she tries to locate him far outside Paris, which leads her to a sumptuous villa in the country. And now Anna must reveal secrets of her own.

Frantz is a fantastic, novelistic melodrama spanning Germany and France, about secrets, lies, guilt and class. It’s a romance full of unrequited love, fuelled by letters and whispered confessions. I told very little of the story, to avoid spoilers, but believe me this is one great movie. It’s shot in stunning black and white with a hitchcockian musical score, beautiful costumes and great acting. Francois Ozon’s movies are often light family dramas or superficial sexual comedies, but this one is a sumptuous, epic story, perfectly made. I recommend this one.

Gifted, I Called him Morgan and Frantz all start 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.

Is VR the New 3D? Movies reviewed: Ben Hur, Truman PLUS POP 03

Posted in Argentina, Barcelona, Bible, Cultural Mining, Family, melodrama, Movies by CulturalMining.com on August 19, 2016

Pop 03Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Does the future of cinema lie in virtual reality? Not yet, but it’s starting to make inroads in all movie forms. VR gives you a more experiential viewing experience than anything we’ve seen so far, expanding the margins to 360 degrees. A pop-up exhibition at TIFF (called POP 03) explores VR in the context of experimental and avant POP 03garde short films and experiential games.

Inverse Dollhouse puts you inside a virtual dollhouse. Floating hands move giant tables and enormous couches all around you. It’s terrifying!  A Viceland documentary takes you on a ride-along in a pickup truck with Justin Trudeau. He’s visiting Shoal Lake, a First Nation reserve entirely lacking in drinkable water. There’s Food Fight, trippy Exploding Fractals morphing all around you, Guy Maddin’s psychedelic Seances, and lots more. It’s put on by the National Film Board and TIFF, and you can see it through Sunday. I saw it just an hour ago and still digesting it. Amazing stuff.

This week, I’m looking at a 3-D reboot of a sword-and-sandal classic about brotherhood and faith; and a European drama about friendship and loss.

13641025_314903598841395_8827590151682346834_oBen Hur

Dir: Timur Bekmambetov

It’s around 30 AD in Jerusalem. They’re under Roman rule, but bands of zealots are trying to drive them out. But oblivious to all these troubles are brothers Judah and Messala. Judah Ben Hur (Jack Huston) is Jewish royalty and lives a life of luxury. His brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebell) was a Roman orphan adopted by Judah’s family as a child, but keeps Ben Hurhis Roman name religion and identity. The two of them love escaping to the desert to race on horseback. Messala, who is not of royal blood, feels the need to justify his existence. So he leaves his family to prove his strength on the battlefield, and returns home to Jerusalem triumphant.

He is asked by his commander to ensure safe passage through the city for Ben Hur paramount pictures 3Pontius Pilate. Pontius Pilate is the prefect of Judea for Rome, who struts around in foppish fur coats. The Zealots despise him. So when the procession passes the Ben Hur home, a zealot hiding there, shoots an arrow and misses. Ben Hur is blamed for this by his own brother, his family is crucified, and he is turned into a galley slave, rowing Roman warships 24/7. Years later, the ship is sunk and he washes up on shore. He is taken in by a chariot race entrepreneur (Morgan Freeman, in grey dreads!) and made into a charioteer. But so has his brother, Messala Severus, who is the Ben Hur Paramount Pictureschampion Roman chariot driver. A big race is coming soon, and Ben Hur wants revenge. Which of the brothers will triumph and which one will die?

This is a remake (in 3-D) of the 1959 movie, starring Charlton Heston, made during the heyday of sword-and-sandal Roman movies. It’s two hours long, but keep in mind the original was 3½ hours long! This is like the condensed version. Lots of royal Ben Hur Paramount Pictiures2politics, family rivalries and revenge. The whole movie is overlaid with a religious story. Jesus of Nazareth regularly appears on the streets of Jerusalem, preaching to the people to love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek… sort of a gospel greatest hits. The third part is the chariot race itself: exciting and gripping – very well done. Ben Hur may feel old fashioned, too long, too religious, and holding few surprises (if you’ve seen the original) but I still liked it.

13062552_1086121168113471_3948824687084435207_nTruman

Dir: Cesc Gay

Julian and Tomas have been best friends since their schooldays in Argentina. Nut now they live continents apart. Julian (Ricardo Darin) is an actor who lives in Madrid now, performing on stage, in wigs and costumes, in plays by Moilere. He’s divorced, with a grown son, with just his enormous dog Truman to keep him company. Tomas (Javier Cámara) is married to a Canadian woman with two small children and lives in Montreal. He works as an engineer f533ed07c49781675cdeab50a5b2e9bcspecializing in robotics. The two friends have an impromptu reunion — after many years apart – when he shows up, without notice, at Julian’s door, in Spain.

Why did he come from such a distance. Well, he’s heard the news.

12764515_1047339855324936_818289815822313283_oThe news is Julian is dying of cancer. Julian’s cousin Paula (Dolores Fonzi), another Argentinian living in Spain, told him all about it. So Tomas is there to spend a few days with him and help him out – as a friend should do.

Even though they’ve been apart for many years, they’re able to jump right back into their friendship, including the running jokes, wordplay and petty grudges. In the presence of a third person they can pick up on subtle clues and cover for each other. Doesn’t matter that Julian is a habitual liar who finds it hard to 13147317_1096737100385211_3584199723351401637_oface the truth. He wants to tie up loose ends, say goodbye to his family and friends, and find a new home for his dog Truman. And to face his own mortality.

This is a great movie. The story is as simple and straightforward as the performances are nuanced and complex. It’s sad and funny and quite touching. I haven’t seen many movies from Argentina, but it’s funny that I remember all of these actors from previous roles. Great actors leave a lasting 12314287_998340066891582_7019787486162808839_oimpression. Ricardo Darin is one of the best Argentine actors around. From Oscar winning films like The Secret in their Eyes, and Wild Tales. Meanwhile you may have seen Javier Cámara in lots of number of Almadovar movies – a good comic actor. I even remember the beautiful Dolores Fonzi from EL Critico a few years back. Great acting in the main and all the side roles. Even the dog is well-cast. Truman is definitely worth seeing.

Ben Hur and Truman both open today in Toronto: check your local listings. The POP 03 is on this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

Not-So-Mellow Melodramas. Films Reviewed: Une Chambre en Ville, Byzantium

Posted in Cultural Mining, Goth, Horror, melodrama, Movies, Protest, Secrets, UK, Uncategorized, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 12, 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.

Melodrama has a bad rep: corny, overacted, fake-y, too emotional… People think of swooning and fainting women batting their eyelashes. These stories are not hip enough, and cynical viewers feel obliged to roll their eyes in disgust. But they’re wrong. A good melodrama, done right, can be moving, exciting and memorable. So this week I’m looking at two women-centred melodramatic movies. One’s a classic look back to love and loss in postwar France in the 1950’s; the other’s a contemporary look at some women holed up in a ramshackle hotel who may have been alive in the 18th century.

Chambreenville_frl_01_mediumUne Chambre en Ville

Dir: Jacques Demy

It’s 1955, in the French industrial city of Nantes. Francois (Richard Berry) is a tool-and-die maker who rents a room – the chamber en ville mentioned in the title. It’s in the home of a stuck-up, but faded, bourgeois widow (Danielle Darieux). Francois calls her the Baroness. Her husband, a Colonel, died in Indochina – France’s Vietnam war — so she needs a tenant to help pay her bills.

Francois has a beautiful, working-class girlfriend. The fresh-faced Violette adores him, but une-chambre-en-ville-poster2.jpdark-and-brooding Francois finds her too ordinary.

Meanwhile, the Baroness’s daughter Edith (Dominique Sanda) is married to a much older man Edmond (Michel Picolli). He’s pulling in the francs, hand over fist, selling these new things called TV sets to eager buyers. She likes the mink coats he buys her but he’s a dud in bed. Edith’s a sexual animal who turns for sex outside their marriage. Edmond is intensely jealous and prone to threatening her with a straight razor.

Well, somehow, Edith and Francois meet and sparks fly. They end up sleeping together, une chambre en villeanonymously, with neither knowing their connection: that he actually lives with her mother in Edith’s old room! But what are the consequences of their newfiound connection?

But wait — there’s more! I should mention that, while it’s not exactly a musical, the entire movie is sung… sort of like the libretto in an opera. Listen. (on MP3: Francois and Violette having an argument)

This is all set against a background of a city strike, with the strikers and protesters standing on one side of the main street, and the riot police facing them, shouting orders just outside Eugene DelacroixFrancois’s window. In scenes that look uncannily like a Delacroix painting  (or anything from Les Miserables) you have strikers waving red flags as they march by the barricades for the ultimate confrontation.

This is a really good movie, with shocking plot turns, secrets and retribution. It’s seldom seen – it’s been a few decades since last shown in Toronto – and this is a new colour print. Jacques Demy (he was married to director Agnes Varda, and died in 1990) is a director who deserves to be seen by more people. Although he’s better known for his song-and-dance musicals in the 60s, in films like Les demoiselles de Rochefort, Une Chambre en Ville shows a lesser-known side of his work.

Gemma Arterton, Sam Riley, Uri Gavriel, Thure Lindhardt Photo Patrick RedmondByzantium

Dir: Neil Jordan

Eleanor and Clara (Saorise Ronan and Gemma Arterton) are two young women who share a council flat. Porcelain-featured Eleanor is an innocent-seeming teenaged schoolgirl. She likes sitting in a garret dropping her scribbled writing out the window. Clara wears scarlet lipstick and is tough as nails, and works as a prostitute to support them. It’s the classic dual stereotypes of women: the virgin and the whore. They’re forced to flee the city, leaving dead bodies in their wake, when they’re discovered by some mysterious detectives. They end up in a remote coastal town, bunking down in a seedy, rundown hotel called the Byzantium. (MoreByzantium Saoirse Ronan Photo Christopher Raphael flocked wallpaper and fringed lampshades than you can shake a stick at.) Clara smells cash to be made and immediately sets up a brothel while Eleanor wistfully plays the piano. But all is not what it appears to be.

Eleanor is convinced she’s immortal, over 200 years old. She’ll tell you her story if you want to listen. And she’ll suck your blood afterwards — consensually, of course, and only if you’re ready to die. She has no fangs, just a sharp fingernail, but she’s still pretty vampiric.

Then Eleanor meets an anaemic, ginger-haired boy named Frank (played by the leonine Caleb Landry Jones). He loves her music and wants to hear her life story. Through a series of flashbacks she tells her story: her time in an orphanage, her rescue, a horrific incident that changed her life… and the part Clara played in all of this. Will Frank believe her stories? Will the Byzantium_ Caleb Landry Jones Photo Patrick Redmondtwo women outrun their dark stalkers? And what is the real story of Clara and Eleanor’s relationship?

Byzantium is a beautifully-shot, dark gothic drama. It alternates between historical drama, roiling romance, and contemporary sexual noir. It looks like that, too, with scenes of Spartan orphanages and horses on the beach sharing screentime with heavy industrial hallways and endless tunnels to nowhere. I was expecting a sequel to Neil Jordan’s painfully awful Interview with a Vampire (starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise) from a few years ago, but this one is much, much better.

Byzantium opens today, and Une Chambre en Ville is playing on July 15th at 6:30 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, as part of Bitter/Sweet, the amazing Jacques Demy retrospective. Also opening today is the absolutely fantastic Danish drama The Hunt, directed by Thomas Vinterberg. It’s about a divorced small town teacher (Mads Mikkelson) who wants to take his son for his ritual coming-of-age hunting trip, but finds himself the object of a different kind of hunt when he is accused of an unspeakable crime.  I reviewed this during TIFF last fall, and it’s finally being released – fantastic movie!

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

Behind the Curtain. Movies reviewed: Dragon Girls, We Always Lie to Strangers, The Grub-Stake: Revisited PLUS Hot Docs!

Posted in 1920s, Canada, China, Conservativism, documentary, melodrama, Movies, Music, Musical, Republican Party, Uncategorized, Yukon by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2013

Jeff Harris: Lining up for Hot DocsHi, 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.

Hot Docs, Toronto’s documentary film festival, continues through the weekend – and daytime tickets are free for all students and seniors. This is a once-a-year opportunity to really absorb all sorts of politics, people, music and ideas.

This week I’m going to look at three movies that – in very different ways — pull back the curtain to show what’s going on backstage. One doc is about a Kung Fu Academy in China, another about hillbilly entertainment in southern Missouri, and there’s a new look at a silent film shot in Yukon Territory in the 1920s.

Dragon_Girls_4Dragon Girls

Dir: Inigo Westmeier

This is a movie about China’s biggest kung fu centre, the Ta Gou Shao Lin martial arts academy. It’s in Henan province, north of Beijing. It has a huge number of students, both boys and girls, and they are all strictly trained in what feels like a military school (like Karate Kid times 1,000). And this school has a public square, a vast stone plaza that looks to be about the size of Tian’anmen Square in Beijing.

This documentary uses two ways to portray the school. One is aerial views of the entire academy – that’s hundreds of people – performing flawless, intricate fighting formations, all at once, on the square. And they’re all dressed in identical red jumpsuits, running around in perfect harmony.

But then they switch to close-ups of girls at the academy telling their stories. The place is unheated in the winter and Spartan looking. It’s Dragon_Girls_5almost like a prison, says one. Another runs away, all the way home to Shanghai – she can’t stand the life there: it’s cruel and bitter. Their trainers aren’t very sympathetic toward them – they went through the same training so they expect the new girls to do suffer like they did. They train them ruthlessly, even the little girls, to learn the kicks, the sword moves, the jumps, the punches…  And there are constant competitions, with winners and losers and rankings. Some of the girls’ parents are dragons themselves – if the kids don’t come in first place they get no praise.

The movie continues like that: in and out, tight then wide. There are the close-up, touching stories about individual girls’ plights; alternating with fantastical movie-style performances in the square, involving hundreds or thousands of shaolin kids.

From far away everything looks perfect. But, up close, the flaws begin to appear.

We_Always_Lie_To_Strangers_1We Always Lie to Strangers

Dir: AJ Schnack, David Boone Wilson

Somewhere, halfway between Hollywood and Broadway stands a small town in the Ozarks that offers its own, unique variety of entertainment. It’s Branson Mo., and it’s one of the best-known, unknown tourist attractions in the US.

What is this place? It’s a strange small town filled with giant music halls started a few decades ago by people like the Osmonds, the Presley Family, and Lawrence Welk. They put on old-school musicals and variety shows that are mainstream, conservative, and very, very white. It’s a world of elaborate kitschy musicals and hillbilly, Hee-Haw comedy.

But this movie goes behind the scenes, showing that it’s not quite what it appears to be. It follows some of the theatrical families who make Branson their home base. There’s a foul-mouthed single mother, who cusses a blue streak and then says – for Jesus. There’s the town mayor, a woman and member of the Presley clan, who points out that women are the ones who really run things there. There’s the Lennon family, transplanted from Venice, California, who have kept their liberal convictions even deep in Tea Party territory. And there’s a gay couple, a divorced We_Always_Lie_To_Strangers_2man with two sons and his boyfriend, both of whom sing and dance in some of the kitschy, dog-and-pony shows, even while promoting Branson “family values”.

I liked this doc because, even though it starts as a conventional, reality-TV-style show, following some of the characters around, it ends up giving much more. There’s lots of music, some of which is actually really good.

There’s a lots to like: things like a brilliant analysis of the differences between borscht-belt and bible-belt humour. And some scenes are visually fantastic: like when everyone’s at this combination flea market and air show, and, all of the sudden, the planes are dropping fire bombs just behind them, and there are huge plumes of black smoke shooting up, just past the funnel cakes! (That scene made it for me…) Very interesting movie.

GrubStake_mediumThe Grub-Stake: Revisited

Dir: Bert Van Tuyl and Nell Shipman

A silver-haired prospector arrives down south with a fistful of gold nuggets. He tempts the wide-eyed young Faith (Nell Shipman) to leave her laundry shop and come north with him to the Yukon to find love and get rich. After some resistance she agrees, and they head north by steamship.

But he soon turns out to be a monstrous letch and Nell has to fight him off. She’s forced to flee by dog sled with her disabled father. She has to cope with blizzards, bears, outlaws with guns, and dangerous cliff-side chases. Luckily, Nell meets a handsome man in the woods and together they try to triumph over the bad guys.

That’s what The Grub Stake – a Canadian silent movie from 1923 – looks like. But in the new, Revisited version (that’s showing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox next week) the archival print will be shown alongside an original, live performance, that comes to us from the Yukon. A group of actors supply new voices to the silent images, with live musicians creating a haunted, ambient soundtrack.

Here’s the twist: the new script is positively Shakesperean, with all the lines pulled from plays like Hamlet, Richard III and Twelfth Night. Does it work? It’s funny! It doesn’t quite make sense, though: sometimes the dialogue is in perfect synch with the images on the screen, but at other times it seems to be at war with what you’re watching. But I guess that’s what makes it… art.

The Grub Stake is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, only on May 6th. For more information, go to tiff.net.

You can see Dragon Girls, We Always Lie to Strangers, and many other great documentaries at Hot Docs this weekend. Go to hotdocs.ca for details.

Also opening today is Still Mine, based on a true story about an elderly farmer in New Brunswick who vows to defy the law for the sake of his ailing wife; Kon Tiki, the fantastic Norwegian epic about a journey across the pacific on a raft (I loved the Norwegian version, but haven’t seen the English-language one (check your local listings); and various short films at TIFF that support Mental Health Week (May 5-11) sponsored by Toronto’s Workman Arts: go to tiff.net for details.

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

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