Hidden Histories. Films reviewed: The Gay the Negro and the Holy Mountain, The Journey, 13 Minutes

Posted in documentary, Drama, Germany, Nazi, Northern Ireland, Politics, UK by CulturalMining.com on July 7, 2017

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

Not all history is neatly recorded on paper; some of it lies hidden, far from public view. This week I’m looking at three films — two historical dramas and a personal-history documentary — that uncover hidden histories. There are two leaders in Northern Ireland who can’t come to terms; a young worker in 1930s Germany who can’t stand Hitler, and a plumber in a European village who can’t come out.

The Gay, the Negro and the Holy Mountain (Der Schwule, der Neger und der heilige Berg)

Dir: Dave D. Leins

Dave is a young man in Holy Mountain (Heilingenberg), a tiny village, who wants to make a documentary. His father, who is black, is a sailor but Dave grew up with his white mother. He faced bullying and racism growing up because of his skin colour. Dave wonders, is there anyone else in this town who feels “different”?

Markus is a town leader who runs a successful business that’s been in his family for generations. He’s divorced with two adult daughters. He’s a plumber, a fitter of gas pipes and is head of the annual town carnival. Like the rest of the villagers, he dresses up in funny costumes and performs in pantomimes on the town stage. But what some people in the town don’t know he’s also gay, and can only feel truly comfortable when he’s far from home.

This beautifully photographed documentary is a first-time filmmaker’s look at his own heimat. It is a neatly constructed film that uses visual images to frame the story (for example, curtains on a carnival stage open the film, a scene replayed in a resort hotel room).

Leins documents Markus’ daily life as he works, plays and interacts with friends, family and the filmmaker himself. And it exposes some of the stranger things that happen even in small towns. But despite the provocative title (der shwule and der neger are both pejorative terms in German) this is actually a low-key, quiet and personal film.

The Journey

Dir: Nick Hamm

The Troubles was the conflict in Norhern Ireland that began in the 1960s between the Catholic Republicans who wanted to join Ireland and the Protestant Unionists who wanted to stay in the UK. It was fueled by shootings, massacres and bombings by paramilitary groups on both sides. Thousands of people, mainly civilians, were killed in the violent years that followed in this simmering civil war. But now it’s a new millennium, and both sides agree it’s time to make peace.

The two political leaders, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness (Timothy Spall and Com Meaney) agree to meet for talks in neutral territory: Glasgow, Scotland. The problem is they refuse to talk and walk away. Protocol says the two must travel in the same plane to prevent any assassination attempt. So in a last-ditched effort, Tony Blair puts them together, with just the young driver for the long journey to the Edinborough airport.

Paisley is the fire-and-brimstone Calvinist preacher, a christian fundamentalist, given to Papist conspiracy theories. He is also the inspiration for rightwing vigilantes. McGuinness is the head of Sinn Féin, the public face of the provisional IRA, known for its bombs and guns. Can such sworn enemies every talk like human beings?

This is a fascinating movie based on a meeting that actually took place. The script, though, is an invention asto what might have happened. Parts of it are hard to swallow, like Paisley saying he was a supporter of Martin Luther King, when in fact he was an ally of white segregationists in the 1960s. And the scenes with Tony Blair, the head of MI5, Gerry Adams, and Paisley’s son all watching the talks through hidden cameras and secretly cheering them on are just ludicrous. Come on. But that’s secondary to the great acting. I think of Timothy Spall as a short roly-poly, but he completely transforms his body, face and voice into the tall, angry Paisley.

The Journey is a tense and exciting chronical of an imagined historical event.

13 Minutes

Dir: Oliver Hirschbiegel

It’s the late 1930s in Nazi Germany. A time bomb explodes in Munich Bierkeller where Hitler and other top Nazis had just given a speech but escaped unharmed. They leave unharmed, 13 minutes ahead of schedule.

Georg Elser (Christian Friedel) is arrested for the bombing and immediately given to the Gestapo and Kripo for interrogation. Who do you work for? Who built that bomb? Who gave you the orders? They tie him to a metal cot and inflict gruesome tortures on him, refusing to believe that a simple worker could have done all this on his own.

But as he lies there, passed out, his memories flood back. Elser is a craftsman from Königsbron, a small town in Swabia, who is good with his hands. He fixes clock works, builds furniture and plays the zither. Locally he’s known just as a loud mouthed musician. He’s also in love with Elsa (Katharina Schüttler) a woman married to an abusive husband. He rents a room in her basement.

But times are hard, even in a small town, especially if you refuse to join the party. As the year’s pass, things get worse, but no one will do anything. His best friend, a communist, is arrested, a local woman is pilloried for dating a jew, and all the town customs have been co-opted by the government and turned into Nazi propaganda. He also does nothing… until he realizes he must build a bomb.

The Gestapo refuse to believe him. But Elser is the one man who dares to say “Hitler ist schlecht für Deutschland” – Hitler is bad – not just for the rest of Europe – but even for Germany. There will be war, people will die, the bombs are going to fall, the country will be destroyed! he predicted.

13 minutes is a great historical drama about one ordinary man who attempts an extraordinary feat – he decides to fight back. Half of the film is the violent and brutal torture and interrogations, the other half is flashbacks to his personal life. I liked this movie a lot.

The Gay, the Negro and the Holy Mountain is playing at ReelHeART International Film Fest. Go to reelheart.com for info. The Journey and 13 Minutes both open today in Toronto: check your local listings.

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

 

 

 

Nazi trials. Films reviewed: Denial, The People vs Fritz Bauer

Posted in 1950s, Cultural Mining, Drama, Germany, Movies, Nazi, Trial, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 7, 2016

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

The Nuremberg trials were held by the Allies immediately after WWII. They publically exposed, tried, and punished the leaders of Nazi Germany for their war crimes and crimes against humanity. But relatively few were actually put on trial. And old ideologies live on. This week I’m looking at two historical dramas about lesser-known cases. There’s a German attorney in the 1950s stymied in his attempt to prosecute war criminals; and an American holocaust historian, sued for libel by a man who denies it ever took place.

DENIALDenial

Dir: Mick Jackson

Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) is a university professor at a Georgia university. She specializes in Holocaust studies, the history of genocide under Nazi Germany. She has a special interest in holocaust deniers, writers from the extreme right who claim the holocaust never happened, any deaths were incidental, and there were no gas chambers. She says she won’t debate ahistorical demagogues but she does provide ample academic data verifying her work. So she is surprised one day when a strange man appears, uninvited, in her classroom, shouting accusations at her, all recorded with a video camera. It’s David Irving (Timothy Spall), a DENIALUK author and a great fan of Hitler and Naziism. She has mentioned him in one of her books on Holocaust deniers.

Not long after, she receives a legal notice: David Irving is suing her for libel. Her book, he says, has damaged his credibility as a historian. If she settles out of court he will appear to be justified. But if she loses the case it could serve as a triumph for neo-nazis and white supremacists across Europe. So, in an odd judicial quirk,  it’s up to her to prove (before a disinterested judge) that the holocaust took place.

With the help of well-known barristers and solicitors (played, respectively, by a cold Tom Wilkinson and a sly Andrew Scott) she pleads her case in court. DENIALWho will win the case?

Denial is principally a courtroom drama. Rachel Weiss is believable, with an excellent New York accent (she is British), but she is stifled by the role. Because her lawyers tell her not to testify, so she can’t speak in court. Instead, she spends much of the movie making gestures and sighs of anger, shock or frustration. Timothy Spall has more latitude. He plays a lawyer defending himself. Irving comes across as a self-important but wormy man who, deep down, just wants respect and love. He gets neither. So, while this is an exciting topic,  the movie itself comes across as plodding and a bit dull.

fritz_webthumb2_f7b15d1f-9b46-4fcc-a888-c18f2d668345_smThe People vs Fritz Bauer (Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer)

Wri/Dir: Lars Kraume

It’s the late 1950s in cold war West Germany. Fritz Bauer (Burghart Klaußner: Goodbye Lenin, The White Ribbon) is a State Attorney General in Frankfurt. The country is economically booming but politically moribund. It still holds many laws enacted under Nazi rule, and the civil service is riddled with former party members. Bauer takes it upon himself to expose war criminals and bring them to trial. But he is stymied at every turn.

Before WWII, at age 30, he had been the youngest judge ever, but was jailed by the Nazis when they took power. He tpvfb_still1_lgsurvived the war in Denmark and Sweden, and later came back to Germany to continue his work. But he has few allies there. He has three strikes against him: Jewish ancestry, Socialist politics, and he is secretly gay, still illegal in Germany at the time.

Karl Angermann (Ronald Zehrfeld: Phoenix, Barbara) is a young prosecutor fresh out of law school with a young wife and a conservative family. He’s handsome, idealistic and devoted to the cause, with secrets of his own. And like many younger Germans, he feels alienated from his own country. He finds harsh laws punishing consensual sex to be cruel and outdated. Unlike most of his office, he finds Bauer an inspiration, a reason to strive for a tpvfb_still2_lgnew, progressive and democratic Germany.

Bauer receives a letter from a German in Argentina who says Adolph Eichmann is still alive, living nearby in plain sight. Eichmann is the notorious Nazi leader responsible for transporting millions to death camps. Bauer contacts Interpol and the German government, but they brush him off: We don’t pursue political crimes. Bauer’s one wish is to try war criminals like Eichmann under German Law, and within German courtrooms.

Can Bauer and Angermann shake up the establishment, reform its laws, and bring war criminals to justice? Or will tpvfb_still3_lgthe network of Nazis still in power stop them from their goals?

The People vs Fritz Bauer is a really interesting biopic and drama about a fascinating character. It has intrigue, suspense, and a few surprise twists. Klaußner plays Bauer as a hotheaded idealistic loner fighting the establishment, like Bill Murray playing Barney Frank. And Angermann is great as his conflicted devotee (with a secret lover). The movie is based on records released many years after these events. And it’s a great follow-up to 2014’s Labyrinth of Lies, another German movie that picks up where this one ends.

Denial opens today; check you local listings. The People vs Fritz Bauer starts in Toronto on Oct 21. Also opening today is The Stairs, a great documentary about Toronto’s Regent Park.

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

Schocken and Scribner’s. Films reviewed: Vita Activa — The Spirit of Hannah Arendt, Genius

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, Biopic, Books, Cultural Mining, Germany, Manhattan, Nazi, US, WWII by CulturalMining.com on June 10, 2016

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

Movies based on books are a dime a dozen: there’s a movie option for every bestseller. But what about movies about the books and writers themselves? This week I’m looking at movies set in the mid-20th century when books really were important. There’s a documentary about a philosopher who pulls her observations together; and a biopic about an editor who cuts lengthy manuscripts apart.

Vita Activa PosterVita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt

Dir: Ada Ushpiz

It’s 1963 in Jerusalem. Adolph Eichmann is on trial there as the primary architect of the mass murder perpetrated by Nazi Germany. Covering the trial for the New Yorker  is Hanna Arendt noted German-Jewish philosopher. She observes the ultimate bland bureaucrat in a glass box who claims he has no hatred of the Jews he slaughtered and says he is not an ideologue. Arendt observes it all, and coins the term the Banality of Evil to describe it. This sets off a huge controversy. Critics accuse her of minimizing the enormity of Nazi crimes, humanizing the criminal and even partially blaming the victims.

How did she go from a girl from Hanover to a philosopher/journalist inHannah Arendt 1 Jerusalem? The path was not direct. This documentary covers the history of her life, both academic and personal, and her philosophy and writings.

Arendt lived through what she wrote about. Born in Hanover, Arendt was raised by her mother. She studied at the University of Marburg under philospher Martin Heidegger (her sometime lover) just before the Nazis came to power in 1933. She was kicked out of  school and suddenly found herself — an ordinary German — as part of a group denounced and dehumanized by government propaganda: the refugees who had fled war and revolution across Europe.  What disheartened her Hannah Arendt 2most was to see German intellectuals (including Heidegger), the very people she revered and was devoting her life to study,  incorporating Nazi rhetoric into their own writing and speeches.

She fled to Paris and continued her work. There she witnessed the rise of extremism and totalitarianism across Europe. Imprisoned in a concentration camp by the French, she escaped and made it to New York, where she wrote about totalitarianism, guilt and responsibility.

This film is a historical document that uses recorded interviews – in English, French and German — to explain her ideas and the events in her Hannah Arendt, Vita Activa, Zeitgeist Filmslife. It’s illustrated by newsreel footage, government propaganda as well as film from the Eichmann trial. Her writing and letters are read by off-screen actors. And both her critics and supporters — including Karl Jaspers and Judith Butler — are given airtime.

This is a rich and beautiful look at the work and life of Hannah Arendt.  It also deals with the debate on her philosophy and the controversies around her coverage of the Eichmann trial. I think this films does a better job than the dramas made about her life.

Genius PosterGenius

Dir: Michael Grandage

Max Perkins (Colin Firth) is a top editor at Scribners and sons, a major New York publisher of fiction. He’s known for championing an unknown writer. He picks up a messy pile of paper, cuts out the unnecessary parts and rewrites it Boom – instant bestseller. Max – known for the fedora he never takes off his head — is the invisible force behind F Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. He’s the one who edited The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises.

When he’s not at work he’s commuting to the outer suburbs, a bastion of Anglo privilege and conservatism with his wife Louise (Laura Linney) and their five daughters.

But suddenly something upsets the apple cart. A manuscript 7X2A4831.cr2arrives, courtesy of Broadway costume designer Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman). She’s married with children but champion an unknown writer whose work has been rejected across the industry. He reads it it and is blown away. And who appears his door but Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), a youngish man with messy hair and a brown suit with a heavy southern drawl. He shouts and performs rather than converses. As soon as they meet, the older, bookish Max and the young undisciplined Tom become fast friends and devote all their time trying to convert 1000s of messy pages a pile into a coherent readable novel. Cut, cut, cut says Max. But this is my life! 7X2A3167.cr2protests Tom. The book is published to phenomenal success. And then on to the next manuscript to the chagrine of their famileis and livers But will their bromance outlast Tom’s brush with fame?

13416962_1731661510436823_7285708826814410368_oGenius is an interesting film about writing and editing. That’s what I liked about it.

(Full disclosure: when I’m not reviewing movies I’m editing books – that’s my other job.) I love editing… but is it ever exciting? The movie is filled with writers typing and scribbling, and scribbling away passages with a red pencil. But what the movie really needs is a good edit! It’s filled with tons of speechifying and grandstanding (and dare I say overacting?) Do real writers, even famous ones, talk like they write? Of course not. But in this movie they do.

It’s done as a period piece, complete with beautiful interwar cityscapes, 13418669_1732542140348760_2521662994238663257_operiod costumes and cars, and a great cast. But somehow this movie manages to be both bookish and overwrought.

Spring festival season continues with ICFF, the Italian Contemporary Film Festival and the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, and NIFF, the Niagara Integrated Film Festival. Vita Activa: The Spirit of Hannah Arendt opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; Genius starts next week in Toronto and Vancouver.

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

Women in Movies for Mothers’ Day. Films Reviewed: Under the Skin, Ida, The German Doctor

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.

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers of the past present and future. While all women aren’t mothers, all mothers are women. So, this week, I’m looking at three fascinating movies with girls or women as the main characters.

Two of the movies are historical dramas set in the early sixties, under the shadow of WWII. From Poland comes a drama about a young woman in a convent who discovers her past; from Argentina, a dramatic thriller about a 12-year-old girl who discovers secrets in an unusual village; and from the UK comes a science fiction / art film about a woman with a strange way of meeting men.

Scarlett Johansson 3 in Under the Skin Courtesy of Mongrel MediaUnder the Skin
Dir: Jonathan Glazer

Laura (Scarlett Johannson) is a beautiful woman with black hair who lives in a rundown farmhouse. But she’s not from there. She likes going for drives in her white van, in the rolling hills and rocky roads of rural Scotland. She’s on the lookout for fit young men who are single and live alone. It doesn’t matter that she can’t understand a word they say. She asks for directions and then offers them a lift to some unspecified place down the road. And to no one’s surprise, they end up at her place for some impromptu casual sex.

Simple, right? No. This is where it gets weird, otherworldly, surreal. Basically, after they undress, she lures them across a Under the Skin  Courtesy of Mongrel Media 7shiny, black floor. She walks on the surface, but the men gradually sink down into a black pool, their bodies and minds suspended in a silent limbo. Not dead, but trapped somewhere.

Who is she? What is she? Laura speaks like an alien or a robot or a psychopath. It’s like she was handed an instruction booklet on how to Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin Courtesy of Mongrel Mediatalk like a human being. Her face and body were borrowed from someone else – she’s just a visitor. She doesn’t seem motivated by evil, and she’s not a cannibal or anything. She doesn’t even eat.

But her routine gradually goes astray. She gets corralled into a nightclub. She picks up an incredibly ugly man on the road. She loses her vehicle and is forced to take a bus. She meets another man who seems kind and cares for her, not just out for a quick roll in the hay. And she senses danger from a suspicious man wearing a jumpsuit. And then there’s the man on a motorcycle who follows her around: is he cleaning up after her mistakes? Or is he trying to stop her? It’s all very confusing.

Under the Skin is one weird movie. I liked it a lot, but beware: this is an experimental “art film” not a mainstream sci-fi pic. Modern, disturbing music, wonderful cinematography… and a baffling story.

Ida - 3Ida
Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is a WWII orphan raised in a nunnery near Lodz. She wears a plain grey dress and covers her hair. She’s quiet and obedient. Now 16, she’s ready to take her vows as a nun, but the mother superior insists she first meet her only known relative, her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). But why?

Wanda is a woman of the world. She wears lipstick, smokes cigarettes and listens to jazz. And she sleeps with younger men she picks up in bars. She’s cold, cynical and bitter. She used to be a high-ranked communist party prosecutor, but has lost her status. And she’s Jewish. And that means Anna is, too. And, Wanda tells her, her real name is Ida.

Ida wants to see her parents’ grave. Wanda laughs: what grave? But they head out to the small town. The family living in Ida - 5her home denies Jews ever lived there and has never heard of her parents.

Wanda delves deeper as Ida discovers her own hidden history. Wanda warms toward her – she’s like her dead sister, with her red hair, and three dimples when she smiles. Ida dips her toe into the real world (jazz, alcohol, cigarettes, men). Will she live in cosmopolitan urban Poland or in a cloistered life behind the convent walls?

Ida is black & white, and only 80 minutes long. It’s subtle, compact, minimalist and exquisite. The two Polish actresses are both fantastic, with their subtle, contrasting personalities gradually melding. This is a perfect movie.

The German Doctor 4 courtesy az filmsThe German Doctor
Dir: Lucia Puenzo (Based on her novel)

12-year-old Lilith (Florencia Bado) lives in a barren and dusty part of Argentine Patagonia with her two brothers. Tiny Lilith is 12 but looks younger, and still plays with a doll given to her by her dad (Diego Peretti) — a professional doll maker. He makes handcrafted figures, each one unique. They’re moving to Ushuaia, an area with a large German population, to run a family hotel owned by her pregnant mom (Natalia Oreiro). Though Argentinian, her mom went to a German school. She shows Lilith old school photos filled with swastika flags.

The hotel is a beautiful chateau in the woods, overlooking a clear, blue lake against stark snow-covered mountains. The German Doctor 7 courtesy az filmsPositively Alpine. And their first guest is a kindly, German man with a mustache (Alex Brendemuhl). He’s a doctor, but works injecting cattle with growth hormones. Heredity is everything he says, and he wants to create a perfect breed.

So when Lilith is teased and bullied at school he offers experimental hormone injections to help her grow. Lilith loves whatever is forbidden. She is entranced by the doctor, even though there’s something wrong, something sinister about him. And he offers Enzo, her dad – who objects to his experiments with Lilith – the chance to produce identical The German Doctor 20 courtesy az filmsblond, blue-eyed dolls on a massive scale. Only Nora (Elena Roger), the mysterious school archivist, suspects he’s the notorious Dr. Mengele, known for his cruel experiments in Auschwitz. Based on real-life characters, the German Doctor is a tender, but haunting, coming-of age story played out against an Argentina filled with clandestine war criminals.

Under the Skin and Ida both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The German Doctor also opens and is playing at Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival this weekend, along with many other great movies. Go to TJFF.com for more info.

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

Eastern Europe at TIFF13. Films reviewed: The Burning Bush, Ida, Le Grand Cahier

Posted in Communism, Cultural Mining, Czech Republic, Drama, Hungary, Movies, Nazi, Nun, Poland, Prague Spring, TIFF, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 20, 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.

Eastern Europe used to have a specific meaning — not so much geographical as political. It meant the countries cossacksbehind the iron curtain. Western Europe was allied with the US, Eastern Europe with the Soviet Union. And it meant the barrier to those scary “Asiatic” hordes waiting to swarm, en masse, across Western Europe to enslave us all.

Now, though, there is no eastern Europe anymore. Just Europe. Maybe mittel-Europe if you want to be fancy about it. But the old Eastern Europe lives on in the minds and films of the countries that suffered the brunt of two World Wars, and both Nazi and Stalinist occupations.

So, this week I’m looking at some really good movies, all from Eastern Europe, all from TIFF. They come from the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary: all historical dramas, two set in the 1960s and one in 1944.

TIFF Burning Bush1The Burning Bush

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

In January, 1969, Jan Palach – a history student at Prague’s Charles University – walks into Wenceslaus square with a bucket. He pours the liquid all over himself then sets himself on fire. He’s rushed to a hospital to treat his burns, but is barely alive. He immediately becomes a symbol of Czech opposition to the invasion of the country by Russian tanks to crush the short-lived Prague Spring.

The Party overlords want his story silenced, or the narrative stripped of any political significance. The Czech investigator looking into the case doesn’t want the Russians to impose martial law. His political allies at the university – students and some professors – want his story told. And his family – his older brother and his mother, the ticket seller at a remote train station – are devastated when they discover what happens.

burningbush_04

But when a privileged party hack makes the papers when he states Jan Palach not only was working for the west, but never intended to burn himself alive. Jan’s steadfast mother decides to sue the man who made the speech, with the help of a sympathetic lawyer, a woman, and a young idealistic university student. But the wrath of the party is let loose all around the main characters, with midnight phone calls, men in black cars parked outside their homes, and mysterious disappearances.

The Burning Bush is an epic, four-hour-long story, (originally made as a Czech mini-series, in four, one-hour parts.) It has many diverse plot lines and dozens of characters. It alternates between the hope Jan Palach’s action inspired, and the dread of authoritarian rule that fought against him and his allies.

But it stands up beautifully all-together. The director, the renowned Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, Olivier Olivier, In Darkness) follows this gripping story all the way through. It had me glued to the screen.

Ida_01_mediumIda

Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) was an orphaned baby in WWII Poland, left at a nunnery near Lodz. She wears a plain grey dress and covers her hair. She’s quiet and obedient. Now 16, she’s ready to take her vows, become a nun, but Mother Superior insists first she speak to her only known relative, her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). But why?

Wanda is a woman of the world. She wears lipstick, smokes cigarettes and listens to jazz.

And she sleeps with younger men she picks up in bars. She’s cold, cynical and bitter. She used to be a high-ranked communist party prosecutor, though she seems to have lost her status. And she’s Jewish.

Anna discovers she is too, and her real name is Ida. Wanda advises herida_04

Ida wants to see her parents’ grave. Wanda laughs: Jews who died in the war have no graves! But the two of them head out to the small town. The family that took over their home stonewalls them and says Jews never lived there. But does he know what happened to her parents? Never heard of them.

Wanda delves deeper. Ida starts to discover her own hidden history. Wanda warms toward her – Ida is just like her sister, with her red hair, and three dimples when she smiles. Ida dips her toe into the real world (jazz, alcohol, cigarettes, men). She has to decide between cosmopolitan urban Poland and a cloistered life behind the walls.

Ida is beautifully shot in black and white on a 4×3 frame (not widescreen) like old TV shows.  Each scene stylized. It’s only 80 minutes long, but has everything it needs. It’s subtle, compact, minimalist. The two actresses – the two Agatas – as the naïve teen and her world-weary aunt are both fantastic, with fine rapport as their relationship gradually changes. This is a great movie – beautiful to look at, moving to watch.

Le Grand Cahier PosterLe Grand Cahier (A Nagy Füzet)

Dir: János Szász (based on the novel by Agota Kristov)

A soldier and his wife live in a big city (Budapest?) with their twin boys (András and László Gyémánt). Life is beautiful. Then suddenly, boom! it’s 1944, and the Germans are moving in, taking over Hungary. So they send the twins off to stay with the wife’s estranged mother in a remote farm, to keep them safe. It’s wartime, their dad says, everything’s different. He gives the a big black ledger – the Grand Cahier of the title – and they promise to record everything that happens.

Grandmother – fat, gruff, unmannered – is known as the witch by the locals. She has no friends, and takes care of the farm all by herself. “I’ll put them to work – they don’t eat for free.” The twins – dressed in navy peacoats and clean white shirts — are terrified by the evil witch. They have one book to read – the bible – but they use it for memorization and grammar skills not for prayers.

The boys decide in order to survive the war they have to be impervious to pain, hunger, and remorse. They refuse food from Grandmother, and take turns punching and hitting each other to see who can endure the most.

They start to meet people. There’s a girl they call harelip (Orsolya Tóth) — who teaches them how to steal. A kindly Jewish shoemaker gives them boots. Then there’s the corrupt deacon at the church and his lascivious secretary – she introduces them to the adult world but they recoil from her black heart. And a gay Nazi officer, fascinated when he sees the twins punching each other. The twins record it all, good and bad.

They witness the wartime atrocities and start to kill: first insects, le grand cahier_01_mediumworking their way up the food chain. Will they become killers themselves, just like the people around them? Or will they retain a sense of morality?

Le Grand Cahier is an amazing, rich, and disturbing coming-of-age story, told through the twins’ eyes.  The two boys — undifferentiated, nameless —  give a mythical, novelistic view of wartime life under the Nazi occupation. The movie follows them until the end of the war, in a gripping unexpected adventure. You should see this one when it comes out.

The Burning Bush, Ida, and Le Grand Cahier, all played at TIFF13 – keep an eye open for these three films. Also worth mentioning are two movies whose titles are self-explanatory. A documentary about a dissident theatrical troop that uses its performances to challenge the authoritarian Belarus government: Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (Madeleine Sackler); and a drama about an Australian woman who discovers the hotel in Serbian Bosnia she slept in was the site of unspeakable war crimes: For Those Who Can Tell no Tales,  (Jasmila Zbanic, who previously directed the excellent Grbavica (2006).)

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

February 25, 2012. Hidden in Plain Sight. Movies Reviewed: In Darkness, The Secret World of Arrietty, The Prodigies

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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

What does it mean to be hidden in plain sight? Is it right below our feet — families living their lives just beneath a manhole? or maybe a judiciously placed leaf to disguise someone hiding in a garden. Or maybe people with special powers living among us, that no one recognizes.

This week I’m looking at three very different foreign movies, from France, Poland and Japan, about people hidden in plain sight as they face an earth-shattering crisis that threatens their homes, lives, friends or families.

The Secret World of Arrietty

Dir: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Arrietty is a teeny tiny teenaged girl, a “borrower” who lives with her parents hidden inside a normal home. One day, she is allowed to go out with her father to secretly borrow things that the “human beans” would never miss: a stamp, a pin, a sugar cube, a fish hook, maybe a piece of thread. But she has to obey the rules: never let the human beans see them or notice them – for that always seemed to end up in death. If they’re noticed, it’s time to leave.

But Arriety is fourteen and has never met anyone aside from her parents. Are there other borrowers? And could the big people really be that bad?

Soon she encounters Shawn, a sickly boy sent by his mother to his grandmother’s country house to rest before an operation. He’s very ill, and maybe that’s why he can see Arrietty. But they both have to watch out for Haru, the old housekeeper who believes in the little people — and wants to catch them, and maybe even call an exterminator to wipe them out!

Shawn thinks he can help make Arrietty’s life better. But when he lifts up a floorboard and tears open Arrietty’s home to replace it with part of an old dollhouse, chaos ensues. Haru thinks this proves the borrowers are back, Arrietty’s mum panics when she is placed in a precarious position, and her dad decides it’s time to pack up and move on.

This is a delightful kids’ movie from Japan, based on the English children’s book. It’s made in old-style animation, with painted backgrounds, and hand-drawn cels for each frame. It’s from the Ghibli studios, known for Miyazaki Hayao’s work, but lacks some of Miyazaki’s extreme fantasy and bizarre imagery. Still, it’s a very sweet movie with a great story, a good lesson for kids, and smooth, exciting and dynamic animation.

It shares a theme, strangely enough, with a Polish Holocaust drama that also has people hidden just below ground.

In Darkness

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

It’s the 1940s, WWII, under the German occupation in the Polish city of Lvov (now in Ukraine and called Lviv). It was a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious city, with Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, protestants and Jews, speaking Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and German.

The Jews are locked in a ghetto that’s about to be liquidated and sent to the Jadowska labour camp. So a few families, led by a man Mundek (Benno Fürmann) come up with a plan to hide in the sewers through a hole they cut in their floor. But they quickly encounter Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz in a great performance), the sewer inspector and a petty thief who knows his way through every inch of the dark, rat-infested tunnels.

They reach an agreement to live underground and pay him money each week. they don’t trust one another  but they soon fall into an uneasy coexistence right beneath the Nazi’s soldiers’ feet. Mundek and Socha even manages to escape to the surface to try to find out if a woman is still alive.

The movie follows the two groups – Socha’s family above ground, and Mundek’s extended family and friends below — both of which face the constant risk of exposure. 

This is a different type of holocaust movie: it’s chaotic, passionate and bloody, filled with normal everyday life in an exceptional situation: with people eating, having sex, loving, hating, giving birth and dying, all hidden in near darkness in underground tunnels filled with human waste.

A lot of the movie is an almost black screen, with people running towards the camera down a sludge filled passageway lit only by a candle or a flashlight. In Darkness is a long movie, with a gradual, slow build, but it’s well worth watching. Terrific acting, directing and production values. This Polish / German / Canadian co-production is nominated for an Oscar, best film in a foreign language, and many Genies as well.

The Prodigies

Dir: Antoine Charreyron

Jim is a boy genius who is brought up by the millionaire Killian when his parents die in a violent episode. He knows he has special kinetic powers, can utilize all parts of his brain simultaneously, and can force people to do things against their will. As a grown-up he knows how to keep things in control at the Killian Institute, and use his skills for good, not evil.

But when his benefactor dies, the selfish heiress Melanie threatens to close down the institute since it doesn’t make money. But Jimbo has been using his research and gaming design to find others like him – who share his powers. They are bullied in school by cruel people who don’t know — or care — about their special powers. He wants to give to them what Killian gave him – a chance to meet their own in a safe educated environment.

Thinking quickly, Jimbo proposes a reality game show called American Genius, whose five winners (the five prodigies he has already located) will get to meet with the President in the White House.

But tragedy strikes: instead of going to meet the five teenagers – who he’s sworn to protect — in a park, he lingers with his newly pregnant wife. And before he gets there they are attacked by violent thugs who beat them up and brutally attack Lisa putting her into a coma. The tone darkens as the remaining four – led by the angry Gil – decide to seize power and seek revenge.

Now it’s up to Jimbo to regain the trust of the five prodigies, before they execute their cruel, apocalyptic plan.

The Prodigies is a motion-capture style animated movie – scenes are acted out live, then changed to animated form. Parts are beautifully done, with sleek stylized images – I like the look — but there are also long, irritating sections made in crappy, low-contrast tones which just don’t look good on a screen. (Why do they do that…?) I enjoyed this French/Belgian movie (I saw the American dubbed version) – its fun to watch, exciting (if predictable), though extremely violent. It’s not suitable for children.

Arrietty and In Darkness are now playing, and The Prodigies opens today in Toronto.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

January 19, 2012. Unromantic Romances. Movies Reviewed: The Iron Lady, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Not Since You. PLUS Sing-a-long Grease

Posted in Biopic, Cultural Mining, Drama, Movies, Nazi, Punk, Queer, Romance, Scandinavia, Sweden, Thriller, TIFF, UK, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on January 21, 2012

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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Winter is here now — that probably explains the bitter cold and the snow blowing into our faces. So to warm the cockles of your hearts, how about a bit of romance? For a double-dose of romantic pop and cinematic nostalgia, put on your bobby socks or grease back your hair and come sing at a special Sing-Along version of the movie musical Grease (playing Monday night at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto).

Yes, this week, a whole month before Valentine’s Day, I’m talking about three romances – all of a distinctly unromantic sort – and a documentary. One’s about an elderly woman (who was once a Prime Minister) remembering her husband ; another about a hard-boiled computer hacker and her friend, an investigative journalist; and one about a reunion of a group of college friends at a wedding.

The Iron Lady

Dir: Phyllida Lloyd

Margaret (Meryl Streep) a doddering old lady with Alzheimer’s is haunted by memories of her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). She hopes that by clearing away his personal items from her home she can clear away her confusing memories and halucinations. But as she tidies up, the past comes back to her in a powerful way: life as a grocer’s daughter in the Blitz, as a rising star in the Conservative Party, and later as the radically right-wing British Prime Minister in the 1980’s. Margaret, of course, is Margaret Thatcher, the only Prime Minister with an “-ism” all her own.

Thatcherism led to riots; a sell-off of the nation’s utilities to shady investors; huge cuts in public services; privatization of public housing; violent strike-breaking and anti-union legislation; a decimation of the British welfare state; and an entire country’s economic future left to the self-correcting winds of a free market. Her legacy continues to plague the UK today.

But this movie is more about her home life: The big events all happens somewhere outside her hermetically-sealed plastic bubble. The people you catch occasional glimpses of are all angry shouters and screamers, rioters and Irish terrorists who are just messing everything up.

Incredibly, Thatcher herself is portrayed as an honest, honourable woman who stays true to her ideals without even the slightest self-interest or cynicism. While she is shown as petty, vindictive, and self-centred, her speeches in Parliament differ not at all from her conversations at home.

Maybe that’s how she saw herself, but the movie could have taken a tiny step back and shown something outside her own narrow view of the world. Instead, this movie was trapped in a claustrophobic space where only Thatcher’s inner thoughts and memories of her relationship with her husband come through clearly.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Dir: David Fincher

.. is a catastrophic remake of last year’s Swedish film. Here’s part of what I wrote last year about the original version:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a mystery thriller about Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, a young, mysterious hacker, and their interactions with the Vanger group, a very shady family of billionaires.

Blomkvist loses his job at a leftist magazine and faces a prison term after writing an expose on a corrupt billionaire. His source proved to have been a set-up. So he is forced to take a well-paying job as a sort of a researcher / detective for a different, billionaire, who’s trying to find out what happened to his niece Harriet, who was kidnapped or killed – the body was never found – decades before. The Vanger family is sleazy to the Nth degree. They live out in the woods in sinister, Nordic hunting lodges, equipped with a skeleton in every closet.

But Blomkvist is gradually reveals the hidden past, with the help of an anonymous hacker. This helper, Lisbeth Salander, is a fantastic cross between Steve McQueen and Tank Girl. She’s tuff, she’s rough, she’s stone cold. She’s a punk, she’s a loner, she’s an ex-con, she’s a computer genius. She’s also the girl of the title, with the dragon tattoo. She’s initially hired by the Vangers to spy on and write a report on Blomkvist, to make sure he can be trusted. They eventually meet up and form a sort of alliance, to try to find out what happened to the missing girl, and solve the ever-thickening mystery.

So what has changed? Well, the left-wing magazine collective is changed to an ordinary newsmagazine just trying to survive media downturns. The Vangers’ Nazi and Christian fundamentalist twists are swept under an invisible rug. One crucial, horrendous scene, is changed from a chilling, plain documentation to a grotesquely exploitative and titillating version. But worst of all, the rough-and-tough invincible, impermeable Lisbeth Salander is turned into a blubbering, vulnerable little girl who is infatuated with her “Daddy” (Blomkvist)!

It’s such a terrible misfire of the essential dynamics of their relationship. Daniel Craig is OK as Blomkvist, but Rooney Mara is awful as the Girl with Dragon Tattoo, and the excitement and suspense of the original is turned into a boring, detective procedural.

Not Since You

Dir: Jeff Stephenson

A group of college friends (most of whom haven’t seen each other for a decade) are all together again for a wedding in Georgia. Now there are four guys and three women with unfinished business – lots of past relationships and friendships left hanging. (The fourth woman is the unseen bride) Sam (Desmond Harrington), the tall, handsome loner still holds a torch for pretty, blonde Amy (Kathleen Robertson). He traveled in Europe and recorded his feelings in a leather notebook. But Amy’s married now, to some frat-boy (Christian Kane). Meanwhile, former best friends and drinking buddies business student Howard and his side-kick Billie are at odds because Billie is dating Howard’s old girlfriend, pretty blonde Victoria. Pushy Howard (Jon Abrahams) wants to get the Kentucky Colonel moonshine gazillionaire (who’s paying for the wedding) to invest in his biofuel venture. He also feels like he was screwed by his best friend who stole his ex-girlfriend. And Fudge feels alone and insecure without his buddies, while still-a-virgin Doogie feels like a third wheel around her prettier friends.

So there they all are in Athens Georgia, dressed to the T’s in their wedding gear, trying to settle their differences. Will Doogie and Fudge overcome their sexual inhibitions? Does Amy still have feelings for brooding Sam? (Sam sure still likes Amy!) And will Billie and Howard ever get back their old friendship or will their rivalry lead to no good?

This movie is all about old relationships – where they stand, what happened, and where will they go from here. The cast is uniformly very good looking – in a daytime soap-opera kind of way – but we learn little about them other than who they once slept with (all off-screen) and who they love. For the women, love means choosing between two men wooing them. For the men it’s pining or brooding or fighting to get their girls back. They’re exactly like real people; they’re just not very interesting people. Not Since You isn’t a rom-com… it’ a rom-dram.

The Iron Lady and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are now playing, Not Since You opens today, and and an excellent documentary, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, Directed by Joseph Doron, opens in Toronto next week – check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

Aug 19, 2011. History Rewrites Itself. Movies Reviewed: Sarah’s Key, United Red Army, Caterpillar, The Whistleblower

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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

Lot’s of people say: if you don’t watch out, history will repeat itself. Maybe so. But I’m more interested in the way history rewrites itself.

What once was glorious is later seen as shameful. What once was righteous is later cruel and unfair. What once was dubbed a “Mission Accomplished” is now seen as the start of an illegal war. And then there are all the people and events that seem to disappear entirely only to be brought back decades later. Faces of purged politicians used to appear or disappear in official photos in the days long before photoshop.

So today I’m looking at four movies set in the past where the filmmakers or characters present history in a new way.

Sarah’s Key

Dir: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Julia (Kirsten Scott-Thomas) is a magazine journalist in Paris who is moving into her husband’s apartment in Le Marais, even while she’s researching the notorious Vel d’Hiv incident. This was when the French police rounded up most of the Jewish immigrants in Paris and locked them into a bicycle racing stadium for afew days before shipping them off to their death in German concentration camps.

So, after a bit of research, Julia’s disturbed to discover that her husband’s family had first moved into the apartment she’s about to live in on that very day in the 1940’s. And then she finds out that two kids, a little girl Sarah and her brother, who used to live in that house are nowhere in any historical records. What happened to them? The movie jumps back and forth between Julia’s quest, nowadays, to discover the truth; and little blonde Sarah (Mélusine Mayance)’s attempt to escape back home to rescue her little brother whom she had locked in a hidden closet during the roundup.

The kids’ story — and what became of them — provides the suspense in this movie, as Julia gradually pieces the puzzle back together and reveals the hidden truth of Sarah’s extraordinary wartime adventure.

Are Sarah and her brother still alive? If they are, where are they now? And what was Julia’s in-laws’ actual role in all this?

This is a French movie, so the English dialogue sounds a bit stilted. The dramatic, historical flashbacks are more interesting than the present-day parts, but the sum-total still leaves you with a generally good, exciting drama.

Caterpillar

Dir: Kôji Wakamatsu

Lieutenant Kurokawa (Keigo Kasuya), a brutal husband and a vicious soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army in WWII, is badly burned while sexually assaulting a woman in her home on the Chinese battlefront. He barely survives the fire, and his armless, legless torso with just a badly burned head is sent home to his village. He’s declared a hero and a War God, and sits silently in his military uniform like like an evil anti-Buddha. He can barely speak, and his wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima) is horrified. She almost tries to murder him, but stops when he begins to speak.

At first Shigeko stays subservient and dutiful toward her cruel husband. She is shamed by her neighbours into keeping up appearances.

He sleeps, he eats, he sleeps, he eats, and glories in the medals he won, and the framed newspaper clipping extolling his exploits for the sake of the Japanese Empire. And by grunting, and pulling at her skirt with his teeth he tells her whenever he wants sex. She grudgingly, patriotically goes along with him.

But gradually power shifts: without hands he can no longer beat her to keep her compliant. without a voice, he can’t shut out her opinions. And given his newly submissive position in sex he begins to identify with the women he had raped in China.

This is a brilliantly acted, absurdist black comedy about the collapse of Imperial Japan. It contrasts the tragedy and cruelty of war with the inane barrage of recorded martial marches, brass bands and morality lessons, and slogans repeated by everyone on the homefront. Radio propaganda broadcasts predict imminent victory even as the Americans are firebombing Tokyo. An extremely strange but fascinating movie, Caterpillar shows the disconnect between the official history of the period and the lives of ordinary Japanese people.

In another movie…

United Red Army

Dir: Kôji Wakamatsu

Iooks at an almost forgotten period of radical upheaval from the far left in a more recent period of Japanese history – the 60’s and 70’s. Supposedly peaceful Japan was turned on its head with authority challenged by protests, sit-ins and violent occupations at hundreds of universities.

This long and devastating docudrama, looks at two breakaway radical revolutionary groups in Eastern and Western Japan that temporary joined together into the United Red Army under its two charismatic leaders, a man and a woman. In an isolated cabin in the Japan alps they rethink their policies and insist that all members take part in self-criticism.

(These are the same groups that, along with the German Red Army Faction, were hijacking planes around the world in the 1970’s.)

This movie is divided into three sections. Part one is a cold, documentary-style look at the upheavals at that time. Part two, is an epic, human drama of what becomes of the idealistic revolutionaries when they are hidden in their mountain cabin, and how their grandiose ideas of Cultural Revolution gradually degenerate into an agonizing, Lord-Of-the-Flies-style struggle, leading to violence, bullying, torture and death. The third part follows some of these members who later take over a country inn in an extended showdown with the Japanese police.

United Red Army is a devastating, relentless look at the members of the radical Japan Red Army and their ideological implosion behind the scenes.

In another rewriting of history,

The Whistleblower

Dir: Larysa Kondracki

…is a dramatic thriller set during the UN peacekeeping period following the Yugoslavian civil war in the 90’s. Kathryn (Rachel Weiss) a divorced, small-town American cop, takes a position in Sarajevo so she can earn some money and pay for shared custody of her daughter. She is quickly promoted (by a kindly Vanessa Redgrave) to a special unit that advocates and investigates crimes against women.

Meanwhile, Raya (Roxanne Condurache) is a young Ukrainian from Kiev who also takes on a foreign job in Bulgaria for a few months. She ends up in Sarajevo as well. But Kathryn is shocked to learn that Raya (and many women like her) are trafficked across borders, and are living in horrific conditions in a brothel, as virtual sex slaves. And the plot thickens when she discovers that some of the peace-keeping soldiers, corrupt local police, “Fancy diplomats” and UN bureaucrats are also involved, not only as johns, but possibly as pimps and organized criminals. So it’s up to Kathryn and her few allies to try to blow the whistle on this scandal. But who can she trust?

I wanted to like this movie – which seemed like an extended version of Law and Order SVU – but it was a pretty bad, no, an awful movie. I am not giving away any spoilers here – the whole movie basically tells you what’s going to happen in the first couple minutes. It’s called the Whistleblower, so no surprises here. It’s mainly just helpless weeping women saying “save us”, evil Bosnian Serbs saying “NO!”, and smarmy UN personal who just don’t care. Kathryn has to do it all herself. It’s much too simple and predictable a plot:

United Nations = Bad

Yugoslavians = Bad

Peacekeepers = Bad

Women = Victims

US small-town cop = Good

The Whistleblower is now playing, check your local listings, Sarah’s Key opens today in Toronto; and United Red Army and Caterpillar also open today, exclusively at the Projection Booth, a new theatre in Eastern Toronto. Also opening is Spy Kids in 4-D with smell-o-vision: warning: most of the spots on the card smell like SweetTarts, just don’t sniff odour number 6!

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining . com.

July 22, 2011. Final Fantasy. Movies reviewed: Captain America, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Shirome

Posted in Action, Bullying, Comics, Crime, High School, Horror, Magic, Monsters, Mystery, Nazi, Sex, Uncategorized, violence, War, Women, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2011

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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

It’s hottest summertime when a young person’s fancy turns to … fantasy (to mangle a quote.) School’s out, offices are closed, cottages are open, job vacations are on, and blockbusters, filled with the fantastical, pack the theatres. This week I’m looking at three movies about the supernatural with their origins tied to traditional youth culture: One’s adapted from a kid’s book, one from a comic book, and one starring a group of teen idols In an unusual situation.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

Dir: David Yates

Everyone knows who Harry Potter is – the English orphan boy who discovers he’s a wizard, studies magic at the Hogwarts academy, and – with his friends Ron and Hermione — is in an ongoing fight with his evil nemesis, the snakelike Voldemort. Well this movie, the second half of the last book of the series, picks up exactly where the last one left off. Harry and his friends must find and destroy the rest of the horcruxes (little objects that hold part of Voledmort’s power) or else everything they live for will be lost, the school will be ruined, and all the people enslaved.

This final movie was filled with long serious scenes of gravitas, Harry grimacing at the camera, the good guys giving their all for the final battle, the confrontation between good and evil. The usual villains are there – Snape, Draco Malfoy, Bellatrix Lastrange and the Death Eaters – but some startling twists and discoveries show that things aren’t always what they first appear to be. A lot of the humour, the traditional school scenes, and the fun sense of adventure are missing here, but audiences seem to lap it up anyway – who wants it to be just another episode when it’s the final one? There was a long ovation after the last scene in the theatre, with scores of costumed viewers — more adults than kids — applauding a blank screen as the credits rolled.

I enjoyed it (although most of the 3D effects were pretty lame – you may as well see it in 2D and save a few bucks) but, like the last book in the series, it left me with the hollow, sad feeling that an era was over.

The next movie

Captain America

Dir: Joe Johnston

…had – for me — a lot of points in its favour before I even saw it. It’s a WWII European action drama of the allies versus the Nazis, it’s adapted from a comic book, and it uses a fun sub-genre called body transformation or body growth. This usually involves a 98-pound weakling who gets sand kicked in his face who (through some natural or supernatural phenomenon) turns instantly into an invincible super hero. On the negative side, Captain America looks militaristic, it’s overly nationalistic, and more than a bit corny. In the 50’s Captain America was trotted out as a symbol of American conservativism, Cold War anti-communism and McCarthyism, and by the 60’s and 70’s was thought of as a hopelessly dated, and almost fascistic caricature, a symbol of the country’s misadventures in Vietnam.

So… what about the movie? Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who wants to join the army. He never runs away from a fight, despite his skinny body, asthma, and flat feet. He hates bullies, and stands up to them, but it’s left to his best buddy, Bucky, to rescue him from the dust-ups. But he’s rejected from joining the army until a German scientist who had fled the Nazis brings him into an elite squad of potential superfighters. He trains alongside much bigger guys, but catches the attention of the beautiful and sultry, but tough, British Spy Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell).  The scientist chooses him for his experiments because of his true heart, and because he has compassion and no killer instinct. So after an injection he’s transformed into an almost indestructible hero – strong, fast, muscular and agile. And he carries a round metal shield. But instead of being a fighter, he’s made the centrepiece of a kitschy Victory Bonds team who tour America to raise money, performing on stage in elaborate musical numbers with red, white, and blue, high- kicking dancing girls.

Meanwhile, his nemesis, Dr Shmidt (Hugo Weaving), — an evil man who is out-nazi-ing even the Nazis in his Nordic mysticism and a master race – is preparing ultimate victory. He’s also super-powerful but he is cruel and selfish where Captain America is kind and just. Schmidt and his lackeys say “Hail Hydra” (instead of Heil Hitler) in deference to his plans. And where Cap is handsome, Schmidt is hideously ugly once he removes his face mask, revealing a red skull underneath.

Will Captain America prove himself as a real hero not an imitation one? Will he be able to give back what he owes his buddy Buck for past rescues? Will he consummate his love for Agent Carter? And will he be able to beat the indestructible villain?

Although mainly just a war and battle movie, Captain America was very enjoyable to watch. The art direction – yes, that’s what I mean, the whole look of the movie – was amazing, and its corniness was presented with enough tongue in cheek to balance the kitsch. And the 3D effects were fantastic, with some especially pleasing shots of 3D faces against flat, green-screen projections, like in Lars Van Trier’s Europa. So if you like comic-book war scenes, with lots of explosions, and simple two dimensional characters, this is a good movie for that.

Shirome

Dir: Shiraishi Koji

It’s typical for Japanese idols, talents, or stars to be followed around by cameras all day long. So it sort of makes sense that their a strange video about a pop group. In this tape, an under-aged Japanese girl group called Momoiro Clover is shooting a promo when they are asked to make an appearance, on camera, at an old, abandoned school. Apparently, legend has it, a spirit known as Shirome – “White Eyes” – will grant them any sincere and heart-filled wish, as long as its repeated three times in front of its marker – a butterfly on an old wall. But if they disobey the rules they may be found dead, just like other people who had tried this.

Their manager convinces them to wish for a chance to appear on the annual Red and White New Years Day Show, where celebrities, singers and idols perform for all of Japan. But a teller of ghost stories spooks them and they don’t know what to do. Should they accompany the exorcists and psychics into Shirome’s den in the old abandoned schoolhouse? Or should they run away as fast as they can?

This movie is a strange one.  It’s 50% treakly, cutesy over-performing teen idols talking to an ever-present video camera, pursing their lips, posing, and repeating their routines, or bursting into catchy music-video numbers. And 50% Japanese-style horror, with a strange, little white butterfly appearing on grainy footage enchanting and choking various characters as it flutters past. And the usual crackling video, starting and stopping, and almost unnoticeable evil seeping in and out of recovered footage. Picture Paranornal Activity, but instead of actors, starring a Japanese girl group. Death by kawaii-sa?

A strange movie indeed.

Harry Potter and Captain America are playing now, and Shirome and other new Japanese films are playing this weekend only at the Shinsedai Film Festival – go to shinsedai-toronto.com .

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining . com.

WWII Communists as Rebels and Prison Guards. Movies Reviewed: The Army of Crime, The Way Back, The Edge

This week I’m talking about three European movies that look at the people out of power during and right after WWII.

Some of the best historical movies are about WWII. There’s something more monumental and profound about this huge, all- encompassing war that can’t be matched in movies about, say, the Americans’ war in Vietnam, or France’s in Algeria. And a lot of the fighting boils down to the two prevalent ideologies of the time: right-wing Fascism, and left wing Communism. So this week I’m going to talk about three movies that take very different perspectives on the role of the Communists in eastern and western Europe in WWII.

A few years ago, Western Europe started to examine its own role under the Nazi occupation, both as collaborators and as victims. The resistance – those who fought against the occupiers, often through violent actions – was facing not just the enemy but their own countrymen who sided with the occupiers.

Released in 2006, the Dutch movie, The Black Book, (directed by the fantastic Paul Verhoeven) is a great fictional story of a beautiful Jewish Dutch woman, Rachel (Carice Van Houten) a cabaret singer, who joins the resistance by infiltrating the Nazi’s as a spy—but she ends up being the mistress of a high-ranked, but kind-hearted and handsome Nazi officer (Sebastian Koch). Although fictional, this is a major rethinking of Dutch attitudes toward their German occupiers.

After this, other Western Europeans countries, one by one, made their own dramas about the occupation. The Danes made Flame and Citron, a retelling of two young heroes of the Danish resistance, one a redhead, one blonde, who blew up bridges and carried out espionage. It’s a good, tense drama.

Max Manus (2008), the Norwegian story, is an old-school adventure movie about a brave young man (Aksel Hennie) and his confreres who, on behalf of the Norwegian government in exile, fought against the Nazi’s and their own Quisling government by jumping out of windows and engaging in acts of sabotage against the enemy’s military ships around the Oslo harbour.

Germany had it’s own resistance, as portrayed in the movie Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) , a true historical drama about an upper-class Munich university student, and her friends, who plotted against the Nazis by distributing anonymous leaflets in a movement known as the White Rose.

There were others as well, including the awful American drama Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise as one of the aristocratic military officers who plotted to assassinate Hitler. Quentin Tarantino made a much better American movie. An exaggerated but enjoyable spectacle, Inglorious Basterds, was simultaneously a melodramatic love story, a war-time comic-but-violent action flic, and a tense, espionage thriller.

Well, just when I thought this sub-genre was all played out, comes another very watchable and moving drama called…

The Army of Crime (2009)
Dir: Robert Guédiguian

This is a true story. It’s 1941 in Paris, and the Germans have moved in, the government has fallen, but day-to-day life hasn’t been affected much yet. The policemen are still French, and the shops, schools and institutions still operate the way they always have. But, for immigrants and minorities, things are getting worse. The police are cracking-down, searching homes, and the axe feels like it’s about to drop.

A group of young people who are already doing clandestine protests, independently of one another – communist grafitti, paper flyers dropped from buildings, street scuffles – are brought together under the French poet, Missak Abkarian (Simon Abkarian), who had survived the Armenian Holocaust as a child.

It’s interesting: in the past, the French resistance was shown on TV and in movies as the brave and noble Frenchmen who fought off their Nazi occupiers. In this movie, it’s mainly the French themselves who are collaborating with the Germans, ratting on their neighbours, and zealously joining the police force to catch all the vandals and resistance members that are upsetting their peaceful, occupied lives. And the ones fighting hard against the occupation are immigrants or their children – Armenians, Communists, Jews from Poland, Hungary and Romania; Italian radicals, and Spanish Republicans.

Some are using hidden printers in backrooms, and practice the piano in the front to cover the noise. One teenaged boy continues to compete in swim meets (under a false French name) while he secretly shoots German officers. A shadowy hierarchy — unidentified, but looking like eastern European Communists — impose order and planning on the individual firebrands. The story follows four or five plotlines as the diverse resistance members gradually converge into one unit with the plan to do a dramatic action… or die trying.

This is a good, gripping WWII dramatic thriller of the French resistance as de facto terrorists battling the complacent, majority collaborators who were aiding the occupiers in their nefarious schemes of deportation and death. Their various love stories, families, and historical events are all woven together in this dense, fascinating movie.

But what about the opposite side of the coin? What happened to the Eastern Europeans who opposed the Soviet Union’s occupation, or fell out of favour with the communist party? A new movie, by a very well-known Australian director, looks a group in some ways diametrically opposed to the ones in The Army of Crime.

The Way Back
Dir: Peter Weir

… depicts life in a Siberian gulag, a great escape, and an epic journey (by a few of the survivors) all the way south to India.

Januzs, a Polish man, is sent to Siberia for being “anti-Stalin” when his wife “confesses” his crimes after being interrogated and tortured. He finds himself in an isolated prison camp where the harsh snow and winter itself is the toughest guard. The other prisoners are petty criminals, purged party members, actors, intellectuals, bureaucrats, and anti-communists. The criminals are the highest-ranked ones, and therest cower from them. They move logs and some are sent to work in the mines.

But a group manages to escape, including Januzs, a shady American known only as Mr Smith (Ed Harris) and a rough criminal, Valka (Colin Farrell). An innocent young girl (Saoirse Ronan) they meet outside the prison helps the suspicious and cautious men to get to know one another. They set off on great walk, and here the movie makes a strange shift — from a prison movie to a human travelogue, pitting man against the great outdoors. The scenery is really beautiful, as they travel from the Siberians steppes, the plains of Mongolia, the Gobi desert, Tibet, and the Himalayas.

Cliffs, dunes, lakes, plains, forests, temples – all truly breathtaking and spectacular. I found the story itself, though, less interesting. Their main drives — to go on, to survive, to reach India — seemed incidental to the trip. What was their motivation? And it had a bit – just a bit — of the feel of a cold war-era propaganda flic: We must escape iron curtain and reach free world!

I don’t want to downplay those sentiments, and Stalin’s very real war crimes, but the movie seemed oddly out of date in its fuzzy-religious, anti-communist tone.

I think it’s almost worth seeing it just for the outstanding scenery – almost, but not quite.

Finally, a very different view of Siberian prison camps.

The Edge
Dir: Aleksei Uchitel

…which played at this year’s TIFF, and is the Russian entry for the Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Ignat (Vladimir Mashkov) is a decorated war vet who is sent, in uniform, to Siberia just after WWII. There he hooks up with Sofia (Yulia Peresild) to become a sort of a husband/sex partner and a father to her baby. Sofia is surviving, by hook or by crook, having been a servant in Nazi Germany during the war, and then punished by the Soviets. Ignat is obsessed by trains, and wants to get them up and running again. He hears there’s an engine still out there in the forest somewhere, so he decides to bring it back. This is where the story gets really interesting. He finds it, but it’s being guarded by a mysterious, violent creature, whom he has to vanquish in order to get to the steam engine. (I don’t want to give this away, since that character becomes important to the plot).

Ignat becomes obsessed with getting the train across a fallen bridge and over a river so they can all get away. His rival – the mysterious Fishman – represents the authorities he wants to overthrow. Will his train ever work? Will he get away? Will he win over the hearts of the locals?

The Edge is a good, old-school Hollywood-type drama/adventure, laced with the  Russian irony and absurdity that was largely missing from Peter Weir’s movie.

It’s also strangely nostalgic, for the “good old days” just after WWII, despite the bitter losses (war, poverty, death) that went with it. Believe it or not, The Edge is a sort of a feel-good movie about Siberian gulags, told Russian-style.

The Way Back opens in Toronto on January 21st, (check your listings), The Army of Crime is showing in Thornhill, one screening only on Sunday, January 23rd , as part of the Chai, Tea and a Movie series, (go to www.tjff.com for details), and The Edge played at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Also check out a rare chance to see Spike Lee in Toronto, in conversation with Toronto filmmaker Clement Virgo in celebration of Black History Month. They’re appearing at the Varsity Cinema, Tuesday, January 25, 2011, at 7pm.

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