Heavy Hitters. Films Reviewed: Wonder Wheel, Roman J Israel, Esq, The Shape of Water

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Cold War, Drama, Fantasy, L.A., Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

It’s December now, and that’s when the movie awards start to pile up. This week I’m looking at some of the hard-hitters — movies with famous directors or stars — that might be up for a prize. There’s a kitchen sink drama in Coney Island, a legal drama in LA, and a romantic drama in a secret Baltimore laboratory.

Wonder Wheel

Wri/Dir: Woody Allen

It’s the 1950s in Coney Island. Humpty and Ginny are a middle aged couple living in a rundown apartment overlooking the ferris wheel. Humpty (Jim Belushi) is an angry drunk, currently on the wagon, who manages the carousel. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a former actress who is a waitress at the clam shack… or as she puts it, she’s playing the part of “Waitress” in an on-going drama. She has a little kid from her first marriage, Richie, who is a petty thief and an aspiring arsonist, lighting fires wherever he can. Life in this dysfunctional family is far from perfect but at least it’s stable. That is until two things turn their lives upside down.

First Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up out of nowhere. They haven’t spoken for five years, not since she married a racketeer. Now she’s on the lam, a marked woman since she turned canary and sang about the mob to the cops. She moves into their crowded home, working with Ginny at the Clam House. The second thing that happens is Ginny meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard on the beach. He’s a grad student at NYU and loves the idea of dating a dramatic older woman. Soon they are secretly meeting under the boardwalk for afternoon delights. But then Mickey meets Carolina and everything starts to unravel.

After watching Wonder Wheel, I kept wondering: did I just see a great movie or a terrible one? It’s certainly very different from Woody Allen’s European comedies. It feels more like a stage play, with characters reciting the lines of a script, from Mickey the lifeguard who narrates by speaking directly to the camera, to Ginny who says things like: “I’m consumed with jealousy!” I think that’s intentional.  But I’m not so sure most of the characters wanted to speak exactly like Woody, down to his stammer and pauses. Still, the look of the movie – from the period costumes to the lurid colours of neon lights, and the unexpectedly jarring camerawork – is stunning and surprising. Does this mean Woody Allen is still experimenting?

So is Wonder Wheel a good movie or not? Hmmm… I guess so.

Roman J Israel, Esq.

Wri/Dir: Dan Gilroy

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a defense lawyer in present day LA. He’s a partner in a small law firm – he minds the office while his partner goes to court. He’s an old-fashioned guy. He wears big round glasses and ill-fitting clothes. He rides the bus to an office full of foolscap and post-it notes. He works under the watchful gaze of pictures of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin. He sacrificed marriage, a social life and material possessions, in exchange for devoting his life to civil rights and equality under the law. That is until his law partner of 30 years has a heart attack. Suddenly Roman finds himself jobless, friendless and nearly homeless.

A slick corporate colleague of his boss named George (Colin Farrell) offers him a low-level job at his firm. He refuses. But when he can’t find paying work, is mocked at a meeting of young activists, and is attacked by a mugger on the way home, he is faced with a tough decision: stay true to his ideals or sell out and enjoy the profits? Only Maya (Carmen Ejogo) – a woman he meets at an NGO – still believes in him. He ends up making an ethically dubious decision, and has to deal with the consequences.

Roman J Israel, Esq. is billed as a thriller – and there are a few tense moments – but it’s basically a character study of a man forced to re-examine his values in a changing world. Denzel Washington is great as Roman – he really gets into the part, portraying him as an oddball but a sympathetic and believable one. The story is very simple, but it’s the details surrounding this fascinating character that keeps you interested.

The Shape of Water

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s Baltimore in 1962. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is an elegant cleaning woman at a top secret government lab. She loves hard boiled eggs and bathtubs and lives above a movie theatre. She is mute, but communicates with her two friends using sign language. There’s Zelda (Octavia Spence) a talkative woman who translates and covers for her at work; and Giles (Richard Jenkins) a lonely illustrator in his 60s who lives with his cats in the apartment next door.

Elisa lives a routine life, until something strange shows up in a glass tank! Like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he’s part human, part fish. Elisa is scared but intrigued. She offers him hard boiled eggs which he scarfs down. Gradually she teaches him to communicate through sign language, and exposes him to music, art and human emotions. Could this be love? If only life were so simple. The creature arrived with Strickland (Michael Shannon) the agent in charge of the project. He’s a racist misogynist who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing the creature with a cattle prod. He plans to kill him and take him apart to study. And lurking in the shadows at the lab is a soviet spy who observes everything – including Elisa communicating with the creature. Can their love survive?

The Shape of Water is an amazing movie, modelled on classic Hollywood films. I’ve seen it twice now, and it didn’t drag for a moment. It’s funny, romantic, surprising, violent, and exciting. The music, the art direction, the singing and dancing, the dream sequences, the surreal sex scenes, the Cold War/cloak-and-dagger feel…. this movie has just about everything. Sally Hawkins is an unusual romantic lead, but she’s perfect as Elisa. Shannon is a hateable — but understandable — villain. Spence and Jenkins as, respectively, her comic and melancholy sidekick, are both spot on.

This is a wonderful movie: I recommend it.

Roman J. Israel, Esquire is now playing. Wonder Wheel and The Shape of Water 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 Andrew Gregg about Skinhead, his new documentary on CBC Docs POV

Posted in Canada, CBC, Conservativism, Cultural Mining, documentary, Movies, Nazi, Politics, Racism, Skinhead by CulturalMining.com on November 24, 2017

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

Neo-nazis, white supremacists and the alt right have captured headlines for more than a year now. Vandalism has escalated to demonstrations, shootings to terrorism. And some say the election of Donald Trump has given these groups new power in mainstream politics. But surely that’s an American phenomenon, with no traction in Canada….right?  A new documentary looks at the extreme right in Canada and pokes holes in the illusions of complacent Canadians.

The documentary is called Skinhead. It tell the story of a former skinhead and white supremacist named Brad, his beliefs, and what led him to abandon his ideology. Skinhead is written and directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Andrew Gregg. (I previously interviewed him here and here.)

I spoke with Andrew in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Skinhead will be broadcast on CBC TV on Sunday, November 26th at 9:00 pm.

Classics, old and new. Films reviewed: The Breadwinner, The Man who Invented Christmas, Solaris

Posted in Afghanistan, Animation, Christmas, Cross-dressing, Disguise, Movies, Religion, Science Fiction, USSR, Victorian England, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 24, 2017

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

Fall film festival season grinds to a finish with Blood in the Snow – or BITS – showing distinctly Canadian horror movies. Movies filled with ghosts, creatures and cruel killers who aren’t always what they appear to be. It’s on now through Sunday.

This week I’m looking at three movies about things that aren’t what they seem to be. There’s a girl in Afghanistan who appears to be a boy, a writer in London whose characters appear as if they are alive, and an astronaut in outerspace where people appear who shouldn’t be there.

The Breadwinner

Dir: Nora Twomey

It’s 2001 in Afghanistan. Parvana is an 11 year old girl who goes to the market each day with her dad to earn a meagre living. Times are tough, and her dad is missing a leg. But she loves spending time with him and listening to the stories he tells. But when a young member of the Taliban arrests her father and hauls him off to a faraway prison, Parvana and her whole family are left in a crisis. The Taliban strictly forbids women from leaving home unaccompanied by a man, but then how can they earn a living, contact her dad or even buy food to eat? Will they starve? When Parvana tries sneaking out unaccompanied she is chased and almost killed, saved only by a neighbourhood boy. What can she do? Is her only chance of survival an arranged marriage with a much older man?

Then she has an idea. She cuts her hair short, dresses in a boys’ clothes and chooses a new name. Suddenly she’s free again and a whole new world is open to her. She gets a job in the market and brings home food. She’s the breadwinner now. And she soon discovers she’s not the only one – a boy she makes friends with is actually a girl, just like her. Can she rescue her father from prison? Or will Idris, the young Taliban who arrested her father, see through her disguise?

I thought the Breadwinner was going to be another earnest, educational kids’ cartoon, but it’s not that at all. It’s an exciting and wonderful animated feature that captivated me from start to finish. The main story – a girl trying to rescue her father – is told alongside an Afghan fairytale about scary monsters in the mountains. It’s a Canadian-Irish co-production with amazing art full of swirling colours and patterns, drawn in a distinctive, flat, cut-out style.

Great movie.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

Dir: Bharat Nalluri

It’s 1843. Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is a wildly popular novelist who lives in an ornate London mansion with his wife and kids. His Don Quixote-like father (Jonathan Pryce) has taken up residence in his home, running through cash like a sand in a sieve. There’s a young nanny and a portly housekeeper, Mrs Fisk (Miriam Margolyse) to keep things running properly. He lives high on the hog – his wife just ordered a crystal chandelier. Only problem is he’s bankrupt, his latest novels bombed (ever hear of Barnaby Rudge? Me neither) and, worst of all, he has writer’s block. He can’t come up with a story. If he doesn’t publish something soon, he’ll be in big trouble come January. So he decides to write a Christmas story and publish it himself. But about what?

He takes careful notes — a quote here, a name or a face there – and new characters begin to take shape in his head. He asks an elderly waiter at his gentlemen’s club his name. “It’s Marley”. A crooked lawyer has heavy chains all over an iron safe. A rich man he encounters asks “Are there no prisons for the poor? No workhouses?” And at a funeral with only one stingy mourner, an old man dressed in black (Christopher Plummer) mutters Humbug when he passes Dickens. It’s Scrooge in the flesh! Now all he has to do is write the damned thing. But can he finish A Christmas Carol in time?

I think everyone knows the story about Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the Ghost of Christmas Past. What’s interesting here is to see the real-life inspirations that led to the book. It also reveals some real surprises about Dickens’s own ghosts from his childhood, a frightening litany of debtors prisons and child labour that haunted his adult life. Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) offers a clean-shaven Dickens, and Plummer is perfect as his foil, a funny Scrooge who lives in Dickens’s head along with the rest of his characters.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is fun holiday fare.

Solaris

Dir: Andrey Tarkovsky

It’s the Soviet Union, some time in the distant future. Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is visiting his fathers country home to meet an importany guest, a former cosmonaut named Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky). Berton had been living – along wth other scientists – on a space station parked above a distant planet named Solaris. This planet is covered with water that moves and communicates using waves (as in waves in the ocean). These waves, and this planet seems to have extraordinary power: it can evolve and change from exposure to earthlings like Berton. But his evidence, the film brought back, was useless. So Kelvin goes to the station to investigate and decide whether the three scientists – doctors Sartorius, Girbarian and Snaut – are still productive or if it’s time to close it all down.

When he gets there it’s worse than he feared. One is dead, one looks like something the cat dragged in, and the third has locked himself into his room and won’t come out. Is everyone on Solaris nuts? Then he begins to feel it too. The beautiful Kari (Natalya Bondarchuk), his former lover from years ago, appears in his bedroom, exactly as he remembers her, complete with brown suede dress. Far from an illusion they make in his quarters. And she seems to be immortal. Trauma, injury, death or banishment won’t take her away from him, she reappears anew no matter what happens. And the space ship itself gradually morphs from sterile minimalist metal and, glass into a warm and inviting replica of the home he left. But is it all just an illusion?

Everyone has told me for years how great a director Tarkovsky is. But I had only seen one movie by him – Nostalghia – when I was a student and hated it so much I swore I would never watch his films again. What a waste, and what a mistake.

Tarkovsky is a genius, and Solaris is as brilliant and shocking as everyone says. It’s a must-see for all science fiction fans. It doesn’t have the lasers and space battles, the quick editing and CGIs expected in contemporary space movies, but it doesn’t need it.

It’s perfect the way it is.

And no spoilers here, but the ending is a total shock.

The Breadwinner and The Man Who Invented Christmas open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And a new print of Solaris is playing at the Tiff Bell Lightbox as part of a Tarkovsky retrospective. 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

 

Daniel Garber talks with Moze Mossanen about My Piece of the City

Posted in Canada, documentary, Housing, Movies, Musical, Poverty, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on November 17, 2017

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

Regent Park is a section of Cabbagetown in Toronto’s east end. After WWII, tenements were razed to the ground replaced with lowrise housing surrounded by grass parks. It was meant to lessen poverty and crime, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Now they are replacing it all with clean, market rent condos integrated with public housing. But what will become of the longtime residents of this unique piece of the city?

My Piece of the City is a new documentary that looks at Regent Park, then and now, in the form of a theatrical production performed there each summer. The Journey combines song, dance, spoken poetry and drama in a celebration of the neighbourhood, its history and the people who live there.

It is written and directed by award-winning Canadian filmmaker Moze Mossanen, known for performance-based documentaries like Nureyev, Roxanna, and The Rings of Saturn. His works play in cinemas and are broadcast across Canada and around the world.

My Piece of the City will have its world premier on November 18th, 2017 at the Regent Park Film Festival.

I spoke with Moze Mossanen in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Daniel Garber talks with director Boris Ivanov and activist Justin Romanov about Putin’s Blacklist

Posted in Cultural Mining, documentary, LGBT, Movies, Politics, Protest, Russia by CulturalMining.com on October 27, 2017

Boris Ivanov (l), Justin Romanov (r)

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

Since Donald Trump was elected US President we hear new news stories each day about possible Russian involvement in that election. But rarely do we hear anything about Russian politics, it’s government and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Why is he so popular? What are his politics? Who opposes him? And what does it mean to be on Putin’s blacklist?

On Putin’s Blacklist is a new documentary that tries to make sense of it all. It looks at diverse topics like the politicization of the foreign adoption of Russian orphans; political dissidents, propaganda, nationalism and LGBT rights. Using extensive media clips, new political commentary and documentary footage, On Putin’s Blacklist provides an insider’s look at Russia today. The film is written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Boris Ivanov. It features Justin Romanov, the well-known Russian-Canadian LGBT activist.

I spoke with Boris and Justin in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

On Putin’s Blacklist is now playing in Toronto.

Runaways. Films reviewed: Across the Waters, Wonderstruck

Posted in 1920s, 1940s, 1970s, Denmark, Fantasy, Jazz, Kids, Manhattan, Movies, Nazi, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 20, 2017

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

Film Festival season continues in Toronto. Planet in Focus is an environmental film festival that bring eco heroes – like astronaut Roberta Bondar – to Toronto along with amazing documentaries from around the world. Everything from a grocery co-op in Brooklyn to a plastic recycling plant in Shandong, China to Genetically Modified Organisms, which are, well, everywhere. Go to Planetinfocus.org for more information.

ImagineNative is indigenous films and media arts, including an art crawl around the city, a wall is a screen, and many workshops, breakfasts and events. It has scary movies, westerns, docs, dramas, animation and so much more. Go to imaginenative.org for details.

This week I’m looking at two movies about people running away. One has a boy and a girl running away to New York City to find family. And the other has a father fleeing Copenhagen to save his family.

Across the Waters

Dir: Nicolo Donato (Brotherhood)

It’s 1943, in German-occupied Copenhagen. It’s an uneasy peace, but because of an agreement the Germans leave the Danes alone. Arne (David Dencik) is a guitarist in a jazz band. He is passionately in love with his wife Miriam (Danica Curcic) and they spend all their free time having sex. But only after they put their 6 year old son to bed. Jacob (Anton Dalgård Guleryüz) likes listening to Danish poems and playing with his teddy bear. Everything is going fine – no need to worry about the Nazis; this is Denmark, not Poland. Until that knock on the door comes one night – the Germans are coming! Run! Now!

The family is Jewish and the Nazis are there to take them away.

There’s only one way to escape; and that’s by boat to neutral Sweden. But how? They make their way north to a small port called Gilleleje, where they hear the fisherman are helping people across the sea. But when they get there things aren’t as good as they hoped.

One fisherman named Kaj is demanding high fares. But Arne and Miriam are nearly broke. There are way too many refugees in the town to keep them a secret from the Nazis. While some of the locals – the police chief, the pastor – are risking their lives to save fellow Danes, others have questionable motives. Who can be trusted, and who is collaborating? And will the family escape to Sweden?

Across the Waters is a fictional retelling of a true story. The movie is Danish but it was shot in Ireland to give it that period, seaside look. I always like a good WWII drama, and there have been some great Danish films, like Flame and Citron and Land of Mine, that deal with the topic. This one is smaller and more of a family drama than an action thriller, but it does keep the tension and suspense at a high level. (Including a scene reminiscent of Melville’s Army of Shadows.)

Worth seeing.

WonderStruck

Wonderstruck

Dir: Todd Haynes

It’s the late 1970s in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a 12 year old boy who lives with his aunt’s family. He suffers from strange dreams since his mom, a librarian, was killed in a car accident. Some nightmares involve being chased by wolves, but others are stranger still. They tell a continuous story, night after night, and they’re silent, and in black and white — just like an old movie.

These dreams tell a parallel story about Rose (Millicent Simmonds) a 12-year-old girl who lives in her father’s mansion in 1927 like a bird in a gilded cage. He’s a rich, divorced man in Hoboken, New Jersey. Rose’s head is in the stars – she spends most of her days reading title cards at silent movies or collecting photos she cuts from magazines. She’s obsessed with a certain pale-skinned movie actress named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).

Rose doesn’t go to school. But when she discovers her local theatre is switching to talkies she she knows it’s time for a change. She’s deaf and can only communicate by writing things down or reading words on a screen. So she bobs her hair and takes the ferry into Manhattan where she hopes to find the legendary actress.

Ben, meanwhile, is an orphan. His mom never told him who his birth father was. But looking through her things he finds an old bookmark with a message. It was tucked into a book about a museum collection, and the message was written by someone named Danny who visited their town before he was born. Could this be his dad?

But when he tries to call him up long distance, lightening strikes — literally. The electric shock travels through the phone line, leaving Ben deaf (just like Rose). But he catches a bus to New York City anyway, arriving at the Port Authority carrying just the name of a bookstore and a handful of cash. There he meets another 12-year-old named Jamie (Jaden Michael) who befriends him and says he’ll help him find his (possible) dad.

Jamie gives Ben a place to stay… a storage rooms at the Museum of Natural History (where Jamie’s father works). Will Ben find his dad? And will Rose find the movie star? Can two deaf 12-year-olds survive in a huge city? And what connects the two runaways?

Wonderstruck is a wonderful kids movie about seeking the unknown. It’s full of dreams, coincidences, and flashbacks, too many for it to be a real story. But it works great as a kids’ fantasy. It’s also beautifully made, using amazing animated paper models to tell part of the story. And through ingenious special effects, it incorporates the two main characters into what looks like period footage — of streetlife in New York in the gritty but colourful 70s,  and the fuzzy black-and-white 20s.

Just wonderful.

Wonderstruck opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Across the Waters is playing Sunday afternoon as part of the Chai Tea and Movies programme. Go to tjff.com for details.

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

And two more: Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, The Florida Project

Posted in 1930s, Cultural Mining, Feminism, LGBT, Movies, Polyamory, Poverty, Psychology, Romance, Sex, Sex Trade by CulturalMining.com on October 13, 2017

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

I’m back again because it’s a bumper crop this week, and there are two more great movies opening today that deserve to be seen. One takes place in the shadows of Disneyworld, the other reveals the origins of Wonder Woman.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Wri/Dir: Angela Robinson

It’s the 1920s at a prestigious University. William Marston (Luke Evans) is a Harvard-trained psychologist who lives and works alongside his brilliant wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall). They are both outspoken advocates for women’s rights and create the world’s first lie detector. But when William takes on a young research assistant named Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), Elizabeth suspects hanky-panky. So what a surprise when they all answer intimate questions about their truest feelings and desires using the lie detector: Olive desires both William and Elizabeth! And the feelings are mutual. They form a triad – a polyamorous relationship – among the three of them. To the outside world they are a married couple with their widowed relative, but behind closed doors anything goes. The three move into a large house and raise their children together, exploring new sexual avenues – including role play and BDSM — while the kids are away at school. But when their secret is revealed and he loses his job, Marston is forced to look for new ways to earn a living. So he creates the world’s first feminist superhero, Wonder Woman, based on the two women in his life. Her outfit is inspired by clothing they see at Greenwich Village fetish shop, and the Lasso of Truth is a combination of bondage and lie detectors.

Professor Marston and the Womder Women tells the delightful and always surprising love story about the origins of a superhero before she was whitewashed into blandness and conformity.

The Florida Project

Dir: Sean Baker

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) Jancey (Valeria Cotto) Scooty (Christopher Rivera) are three little kids who live in the giant pink motels that dot the highways around Disneyland in Orlando Florida. They spit off balconies, explore junk piles and panhandle tourists for ice cream. Though rundown, the motels serve as a community and home for the nearly homeless and marginal. They are forced to vacate their rooms weekly and relocate – they’re not allowed to call their homes home. They are all looked after by the stern but benevolent manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe)

Halley, Moony’s mom (Bria Vinaite) earns her living reselling wholesale perfume bottles or turning the occasional trick. Other moms work as waitresses or as de facto daycare, just trying to keep the kids fed and out of trouble. And boy do these kids get in trouble. Abut when something serious happens, the delicate balance between parents and kids quickly falls apart.

The Florida project is a fascinating look at the poor and marginal people around Orlando, in a private hotel that functions like a housing project, Florida-style The kids are great, although occasionally prone to cuting-it-up for the camera. And the raw, beautiful camerawork, crumbling houses against a tropical sunset, give it an immediate, authentic feel. Great movie.

The Florida Project and Professor Marston and the Wonder Women both open today in Toronto. This is Daniel Garber at the movies each Friday morning for CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Pat Mills about Don’t Talk to Irene

Posted in Bullying, Canada, comedy, Cultural Mining, High School, LGBT, Movies by CulturalMining.com on October 6, 2017

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

Irene is an unusual girl who lives in a small town an hour north of Toronto. It’s her first day of highschool and she can’t wait to join the cheerleading team. But her mother says she’s just not cheerleader material. She’s chubby, plain, and has no friends; garbage is her comfort zone. And when she is bullied by a mean girl and sent to an old age home for community service, she worries she’ll never fit in. Luckily, she meets a lot of potential mentors: an ex-boxer, two elderly women, a non-binary classmate, a mean-ass cook, and a poster of Geena Davis on her ceiling… that seems to communicate with her. But will any of them ever talk to Irene?

Don’t Talk to Irene is the name of a new movie, a coming-of-age comedy that premiered at TIFF17 and is now playing in Toronto. It’s written and directed by Toronto filmmaker Pat Mills known for his very dark — and very funny — looks at society’s outcasts.

I spoke with Pat Mills in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Western-ish. Films reviewed: Lucky, Hostiles, Sweet Country

Posted in 1800s, 1920s, Australia, Indigenous, Movies, Music, US, violence, Western, Wilderness by CulturalMining.com on October 6, 2017

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

If the western seems like an old, tired genre to you, there are some new movies you should take a look at. They reinvent the western by changing key elements and points of view.

This week I’m looking at three new movies that are westerns (or at least western-ish). There’s justice in the outback, a northbound trail, and a lonesome cowboy in the great southwest.

Lucky

Dir: John Carroll Lynch

Lucky (Harry Dean Stanton) is a very lucky man. He’s 89 years old, smokes a pack a day, lives on milk, coffee and bloody mary’s – and not much else – and is still in perfect health. He’s a crotchety old coot who wears cowboy boots and a straw hat. He lives alone in a small town in the great southwest, amidst giant Seguara cacti and hundred-year-old tortoises. He likes yoga calisthenics, mariachi and crossword puzzles. He hangs out at the local diner by day and at the corner bar at night. So why is Lucky so sad?

The other day he fell in his kitchen for no reason. His doctor says that’s just what happens when you’re old. This makes Lucky reexamine his long-held attitudes and his stubborn ways. But can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Lucky is a nice and gentle look at an old cowboy in a multi racial southwestern town. It’s an arthouse film, full of music, stories, and funny, quirky characters, (played by David Lynch, Tom Skerrit and others.) It also functions as a tribute to Harry Dean Stanton himself, who plays the music and provides the backstories for the anecdotes Lucky tells. Stanton died earlier this year, but the film is less of an epitaph than a wry celebration of his life.

I like this movie.

Hostiles

Wri/Dir: Scott Cooper

It’s the 1890s in New Mexico. The Indians have all been killed or jailed under an army led by Captain Blocker (Christian Bale). Blocker is widely known for his fighting prowess and his cruelty – they say he’s scalped more natives than anyone. So he’s surprised when the President himself orders him to protect and accompany his sworn enemy on a trip to Montana. Blocker fought and jailed Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) a decade earlier. But now the Chief is dying of cancer and wants to be buried in his ancestral lands. Blocker sets off with the Chief, his family and a squad of soldiers. On the way they meet Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) a dazed mother still holding a dead baby to her breast. Her entire family was wiped out in a Comanche raid a few days earlier. She joins the group. The Chief offers to help them fight the Comanche but Blocker doesn’t trust him – he keeps him shackled to his horse. Is the enemy of his enemy his friend? But as the soldiers travel ever northward they begin to understand their captives, and overcome the fear, bigotry and hatred that killed so many.

Hostiles is a good, traditional western, shot against breathtaking scenery. It’s a bit slow, and there are way too many long-winded apologies as each character asks for forgiveness when he confesses his crimes. (One dramatic mea culpa would have been enough.) Though told from the white point of view, it is sympathetic toward the plight of First Nations. It satisfies as a Western with the horseback riding, shoot-outs and lots of dramatic tension. And Christian Bale makes a great silent soldier who sees the light.

Sweet Country

Dir: Warwick Thonrton

It’s 1929 in Northern Territory, Australia with three homesteads not far from a small town. They’re owned by whites, but worked by aboriginal families. Sam (Hamilton Morris) works for a kindly preacher (Sam Neill); Cattleman Archie (Gibson John) is indigenous but comes from far away. And mixed-race kid Philomac (Tremayne Doolan) lives near — but not with — his white father.

In comes Harry March, a deranged WWI veteran demanding some “black stock” – how he describes aboriginal workers — to repair a fence. Sam and his family volunteer, but March gives them no food or money for their work, and then sexually assaults Sam’s wife.

They flee back to the preacher’s house, pursued by March, armed and dangerous. Sam defends himself but ends up killing March, a white man (as secretly witnessed by Philomac). So Sam and his wife flee into the bush pursued by a posse that includes Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) and Archie as their guide.  The sergeant is the de facto law in these parts and plans to lynch Sam whenever he finds him. But things changes when Sam ends up saving the Sergeant’s  life and turning himself in. Then an actual judge shows up to conduct the trial. But can an Aboriginal man receive justice in a white, frontier town?

Sweet Country is an excellent western set in 20th century Australia. It gives a raw and realistic look at brutal racism and frontier justice. It’s also a subtle examination of identity, and the uneasy give-and-take among the different aboriginal groups, the white settlers and their mixed race descendents.

I recommend this movie.

Sweet Country won the Platform Prize at TIFF and the Special Jury Prize at Venice.

Lucky starts today in Toronto, check your local listings, with Hostiles opening later on. You can catch Sweet Country on Thursday, Oct 19th at the Imaginenative film festival. Go to Imaginenative.org for show times and tickets.

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

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.

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