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

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

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

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

Tickling Giants

Dir: Sara Taksler

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

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

The Void

Wri/Dir: Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski

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

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

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

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Dir: Niki Caro

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

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

Good as a tearjerker.

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

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

Body Consciousness. Movies reviewed: Body, My Skinny Sister, Kilo Two Bravo

Posted in Drama, Mental Illness, Poland, Sweden, UK, Uncategorized, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 14, 2015

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

North Americans spend over $60 billion a year on gym memberships and diets, obsessing over their weight and fitness. Body image is omnipresent. This week I’m looking at three movies about bodies. There’s a Swedish drama about a girl who envies her sister’s body; a Polish drama about a man who finds bodies, a woman who talks to dead bodies and a young woman who wishes her own body would just go away; and a UK war movie about a squadron of soldiers in Afghanistan just trying to keep their bodies alive.

1j3WjR_BODY_03_o3_8696634_1439859982Body
Dir: Malgorzata Szumowska

Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) is a psychotherapist who treats teenaged girls with eating disorders. She works at a prestigious medical centre in Warsaw where she uses the latest techniques to make them comfortable with their bodies. She lives alone, and shares her bed with a Great Dane. Janusz (Janusz Gajos) is a lawyer who deals with death on a daily basis. Y6qWpn_BODY_01_o3_8696532_1439859952He prosecutes rapists and murderers, and treats his job as part CSI, part detective sleuth. We always see him at the crime scene, never in court. He lives with his bleach-blonde daughter Olga (Justyna Suwala). Olga has had an eating disorder since her mom died, which she blames on her dad. This dysfunctional family lives a passive 66KX8l_BODY_02_o3_8696583_1439859967aggressive life, with Olga never eating and Januzs always drinking. They coexist uneasily, leaving notes to each other taped around the house, with the spirit of the dead woman hanging over everything. That is until Olga attempts to kill herself. Januzs has her committed to a mental hospital under Anna’s care.

But they don’t know that Anna is not just a therapist, but also a spiritualist who believes she can talk to the dead. It’s up to her to convince Olga and Januzs to accept each other and to reach out to the dead woman’s ghost.8qK16m_BODY_04_o3_8696685_1439859202

Death, murder, suicide, mental illness… this sounds like a depressingly heavy movie, right? Wrong! It’s a delightfully absurdist look at how dysfunctional families cope with death and mourning. The movie consists of dozens of short scenes, many of which have hilarious or shocking details. (For example, the body of a suicide victim who turns out not to be dead.) And it’s peppered with subtle, political digs at contemporary polish society — issues like abortion, anti-semitism, sexism, and alcoholism. Szumowska is a director to look out for. I liked two of her earlier movies from Poland and France (In the Name of, Elles) and this one is even better.

my-skinny-sisterMy Skinny Sister
Wri/Dir: Sanna Lenken

Stella (Rebecka Josephson) is a pudgy, red-haired ten-year-old. She is smart but extremely self-conscious. Her older sister Katja (Amy Diamond) is a prize-winning figure skater. She practices daily with her German athletioc coach Jacob (Maxim Mehmet) and is highly competitive. Stella idolizes her but is also jealous of her. How come Katja gets all her parents attention? Why is she so thin and athletic, when Stella is just ordinary? And how come she gets to spend so much time with KO9Ryx_myskinnysister_01_o3_8730465_1440464810Jacob? Stella has a crush on him and is sure he’d feel the same way if he just got to know her.

But then she learns something else about her sister: Katja is eating funny. She won’t eat junk food – athletes in training can’t eat things like that! – but Stella catches her gorging out of a trash can and throwing it all up later. But when Stella confronts her she makes her promise not to tell anyone – especially Jacob or their parents. Stella is torn: anorexia could be killing her sister, so telling their parents might save her life. But deep down she wants to see Katja fail. Maybe that will get Stella the attention she deserves.

My Skinny Sister is a realistic coming-of-age drama about eating disorders, told from Stella’s point of view. It shows how parents who love their kids and do everything with their own kids in mind, can still do everything exactly wrong.

GZWWMJ_KILOTWOBRAVO_05_o3_8716163_1439859473Kilo Two Bravo
Dir: Paul Katis

Tug (Mark Stanley) is a medic in the British Army, based in Helmand, Afghanistan. He works at an encampment on a hilltop in Kajiki, near a major dam and a big reservoir. Most of his work consists of providing band aids and inspecting grunts’ penises for sexually transmitted diseases. That is until pgLL8Q_KILOTWOBRAVO_02_o3_8716051_1439859431someone spots suspicious activity happening down in the wadi. The Taliban is active in the area and might threaten the dam.

So a few soldiers venture down the rocks to reconoiter. That’s when it happens: one of them steps on a mine blowing of a mine and some fingers. It’s up to Tug to stop the bleeding and get him to a hospital in Kabul. The problem is, where there’s one landmine, there are always more. And as the soldiers climb down they find 1j33rZ_KILOTWOBRAVO_01_o3_8716034_1439859417themselves walking on eggshells in a minefield. Each soldier they try to rescue could lead to more casualties. A false step, a kicked rock, a dropped water bottle… boom. Another deadly explosion. And adding to the danger is an incoming helicopter could ignite even more mines, imperiling them all.

Kilo Two Bravo is a suspense-filled drama that keeps you tense for most of the film.NxWWL2_KILOTWOBRAVO_03_o3_8716068_1439859445 And it doesn’t skimp on gore: there are long medical sequences – gaping wounds, flying limbs — not for the squeamish. It’s a War is Hell-type story, where there’s no easy enemy, no Taliban Soldiers to fight. Just the invisible foe hidden all around you in the minefield. If you’ve heard the term PTSD, and wondered where it comes from, this movie will show you. Kilo is neither pro-war nor an anti-war; more of a sympathetic look at the soldiers themselves.

Kilo Two Bravo opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; My Skinny Sister is part of Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival featuring movies about addiction and mental health. And Body opened the Ekran Toronto Polish Film Festival and is playing at the EU film festival which starts today. Also opening today is Gaspar Noe’s Love.

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

November 23, 2012. The Joys and the Dangers of Fantasy. Movies Reviewed: Rise of the Guardians, The Suicide Room

Posted in Animation, Bullying, Christianity, Cultural Mining, Dragons, Drama, Dreams, drugs, Emo, Fantasy, Magic, Movies, Poland, Russia, US by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 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, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

A new American import known as “Black Fridays” is spilling over into Canada as a big shopping day. The name supposedly comes from the day in which the average US retailer reaches a positive balance on sales for the year which is usually the Friday after American Thanksgiving. But in a weird case of a snake swallowing its own tail they have turned it into a massive frenzy of shopping from consumers searching for bargains put on by retailers wanting to capitalize on a chance to pump up sales.

It also means it’s the start of Christmas shopping in earnest. So, just in time for new childhood memories to form, this week I’m talking about two movies that show the good side and the bad side of believing in fantasy.

Rise of the Guardians

Dir: Peter Ramsey

Jack Frost (Chris Pine)  is a mischievous teenager in a hoodie and skinny jeans who likes snowball fights, getting kids’ tongues stuck to metal poles, and skatebording on hazardous, icy roads. When his snow lands on humans they have fun.He’s also invisible. He loves play but wishes he knew where he came from, and that other kids could see him.

Meanwhile there’s trouble up at the north pole: the bogeyman, aka Pitch, a fey, vain and evil man with an English accent (of course) is injecting nightmares into kids’ minds, and interfering with their sleep. So the Guardians who live there – Santa, the Easter Bunny, Mr Sandman, the Tooth Fairy — summon Jack to join them in their fight against scariness.

Santa (Alec Baldwin) is a Finnish-type Father Christmas known as “North” – muscular, tough and tattooed — but with an unplaceable Eastern European accent. He carries matruschka dolls, and curses using the names of Russian composers: Rimsky Korsakov! Shostakovitch! He’s guarded by a gang of rough looking Yetis and serviced by short-bus elves. The Easter Bunny is a foul-tempered Aussie (Hugh Jackman), and the Tooth Fairy collects teeth to store the memories of children.

In their war room stands a giant globe of flickering lights – each one representing a kid who still believes in them. But with Pitch on the upswing, the lights are gradually dimming, and, like in the Peter Pan cartoon, if no one believes in fairies then tinkerbell will die! In this case they won’t die, they’ll just become invisible to the non-believers, like Jack is.

So… will Jack join up with the good guys and try to get the human kids to believe in them again? Or will he let the world fall into the clutches of the evil and scary Pitch?

Rise of the Guardians is a resolutely non-religious Christmas movie, without a cross, a church or even a glowing star to be seen. God takes the form of an all-knowing and all seeing Man in the Moon, the easter bunny is all about eggs, and they’re all on equal footing of secular figures like Sandy the Sandman. It’s a beautiful crafted movie – really nice art direction, with an interesting plot. It’s clearly aimed at the pre-teen set, but was aesthetically pleasing enough to hold my attention.(like an incredibly beautiful scenes where they all meet in a sort of a floating, rust-tiled Samarkand in their encounter with Pitch.) And it has Guillermo Del Toro’s name on it – as an executive producer, which lets you know it’s not degenerating into a comedy dissing childhood beliefs.

And it’s in 3-D.

Much grimmer, but also a partly- animated drama is

The Suicide Room

Dir: Jan Komasa

Dominik (Jakub Gierszal) is a happy, popular private school kid, a bit emo-looking but in tight with the in crowd. But there’s a guy he likes at school who may or may not be leading him on. And when he has an embarrassing frottage incident at a judo practice when he gets a bit too frisky with the guy he’s crushing on, he is mortified. All his friends seem to have turned on him and to make matters worse, they other guy put up a video of the incident on Facebook where everyone could see it. He’s cyber-bullied into hiding up in his bedroom.

His one solace is an animated world on line, a sort of Second Life ruled by a queen, Sylwia (Roma Gasiorowska), who lives in a castle. He becomes obsessed by her and seems to exist only in the form of his avatar, while his real self lives in the dark, barely eating and never going outside. From most popular kid to reclusive otaku in a matter of weeks. Sylwia strongly pressures Dom to join their suicide club and kill himself.

His parents, both rich and successful, have no idea what’s going on. Dominik may be on the verge of killing himself while the parents are more worried about how their son’s aborted sexual life might embarrass them and damage their career ambitions. They just want him on meds so he stops bothering them.

Will Dominik choose to live or to die? Will he reconnect with the outside world? Will he get to meet his cyber-love Sylwia face to face? And will his parents ever show compassion for their son?

This Polish film (which played at this year’s Ekran Polish Film Festival in Toronto) is a look at adolescent depression, cyber-bullying and Second Life, all aspects of contemporary Polish life largely unknown in North America.

Rise of the Guardians is playing now, while Suicide Club played at the EKRAN Polish Film Festival. Also look out for free Japan Foundation screenings coming up in December at the Bloor cinema featuring dramatizations of Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai’s stories; The Toronto Film Noir Syndicate showing the Coen brothers’ classic Blood Simple this weekend, and the first annual Blood in the Snow Canadian film festival showing new and classic Canadian horror movies next week at the Projection Booth on Gerrard St E. It features cool pics like Bruce MacDonald’s Pontypool and the world premier of new movies like SICK and psychological thriller the House of Flies.

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.

History, Geography, Language TJFF 2011 Films Reviewed Acne, Jewish Girl in Shanghai, Names of Love, Between Two Worlds,Little Rose PLUS Meek’s Cutoff, Modra

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

Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival, is on now and continues through the weekend. This is the first year I’ve attended their movies, my curiosity sparked by the fact they programmed Fritz the Cat last year.

This year, the festival is featuring an extensive series of films and documentaries about the three Lennies: composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, Montreal musician and writer Leonard Cohen, and comedian Lenny Bruce. But what I find really interesting were the rest of the movies programmed. There is a diversity to them – in geography, history, language and politics – that’s refreshing.

So today I’m going to talk about a few of the fascinating and very good films at this year’s festival. Plus I’ll review a western like no other.

Little Rosa (Rózyczka)
Dir: Jan Kidawa-Blonski

Rozek (Robert Wieckiewicz) is a hardboiled intelligence agent working for the Polish government in 1967. He’s always up for a hard drink or a fistfight. But he’s spotted having a passionate sexual liaison with a beautiful young woman. Word is sent to his department that there is to be a purge of crackdown on Jews or suspected Jews throughout Poland, following Israel’s victory in the 1967 war. He’s assigned to bring down a mark, Adam, a prominent writer and intellectual in his 60’s. Although his name is Polish sounding, they suspect his father had a Jewish-sounding name.

Rozek assigns his naïve lover, Kamila (Magdalena Boczarska), now with the code name “Rozsczka” (Little Rose), to get close to Adam and report back anything that could be taken as Jewish, anti-governmental, conspiratorial, or Zionist. But even as she writes the reports, her feelings for Adam grow, as does her anger at Rozek for pimping her out.

As she grows even closer to Adam (Andrzej Seweryn), the three sides of the unwitting love triangle in this historical dramatic thriller come to an inevitable explosion during a time of European unrest, youth demonstrations, nationalist sentiment, and a government crackdown. This is an intriguing, visually sophisticated, story full of surprising secrets, chronicaling unexpected changes in Poland in the sixties.

Acné
Dir: Federico Veiroj

In this cute, low budget film from Montevideo, Rafael (Alejandro Tocar), a 13 year old, pimple-faced boy has a crush on a girl. But he has yet to approach her, tell her what he feels, never mind kiss her. And he’s totally at a loss of what to do, sexually with a girl – he’s 13, remember. This is where it gets… interesting. Apparently, in this insular Uruguayan -Jewish community, it is customary to introduce boys to manhood by hiring a tutor – a prostitute – to initiate him into the adult world. Will he ever talk to the girl of his dreams? And where will he go now? Acne gives a fascinating glimpse of everyday urban life in a world I’d never even heard of before this movie.

Next, an animated film – from another distinctly different area; this time — China!

A Jewish Girl in Shanghai
Dir: Wang Genfa

Ah Gen, a boy who works for a street vendor who fries big pancakes meets a starving and pennyless, red-haired girl with almond-shaped eyes, Rina, on the streets of Shanghai. Rina’s a refugee from Nazi Germany, but is living in Shanghai with just her little brother. She doesn’t know what happened to her parents, but remembers them by playing a song her violinist mother wrote.

The movie shows the two friends’ adventures set in wartime Shanghai, when Europeans – including a sizeable Jewish community – a very large Japanese population, and local Chinese people all lived together in that cosmopolitan city. Tough Ah Gen has to deal with Japanese street thugs and soldiers, and corrupt Chinese collaborators and his own family difficulties; while pretty Rina must survive, play her violin, reunite her family and find out what became of her parents.

This is a fully animated film, similar to Japanese anime, aimed mainly at kids and teenagers and lovers of anime. It’s very interesting to see a Chinese view of the Jews of Shanghai and references to the holocaust. So Rina’s European memories resemble Heidi in the alps, Japanese bullies wear kimono and speak broken Chinese, and an erhu player finds common ground with a violinist. Violence is portrayed very differently than in western animated cartoons, sometimes as broad slapstick.

This movie is the first Chinese depiction I’ve ever seen of European kids interacting with Chinese kids in pre-1949 Shanghai. It gives a whole new perspective to Tintin’s The Blue Lotus, and JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun.

This movie is in Chinese with subtitles, and is suitable for children.

Names of Love (Le Nom des Gens)
Dir: Michel Leclerc

Bahia (Sara Forestier) is a beautiful young, brash and lively, left-wing feminist, who enjoys using her sexuality to bring right-wingers to her side of the fence. She says she always goes to bed on the first date. But she meets her opposite in the dry-as-toast Arthur Martin (who shares his name with a ubiquitous, mundane line of cookware), a vet who only deals with dead birds. He is as bland and reserved as she is open, but, somehow, they end up together.

They are both assimilated French people of mixed background – she has a Muslim Algerian father, and a radical leftist, while his mother, who never talks about her past — was a Jewish girl hidden in a convent during the war, and with an extremely uptight father. My description of the characters in this romantic comedy don’t do justice to the humour and subtlety of this very charming movie. It’s clever use of memory has Arthur’s teenage self, as well as his imagined grandparents whom he’d never met appearing on the screen beside him to offer coments on what he’s doing wrong. While Bahia’s overt sexuality and indifference to her own nudity (with breasts casually falling out, here or there) is sometimes taken to an extreme degree – this is a French comedy after all – the home of gratuitous nudity only for it’s female roles — her character is very sweet and interesting and transcends the usual gags and situations.

Will the two of them ever find common ground? Are their politics really opposed? And can their families approve?

This is a great movie –the  Canadian premier – and you should try to see it.

Between Two Worlds
Dir: Debora Kaufman and Alan Snitow
(World Premier)

The founders of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival are pleased that they have inspired similar festivals across the continent, and says Kaufman, many people consider ot “one of their favourite Jewish holidays”. But in recent years, due to some controversial programming, the festival itself was embroiled in extremely divisive and politically mired fights, between left and right-wing Jewish groups and individuals.

To address this, they have made a personal documentary, about these issues and  the seemingly intractable divisions within their own families. The issues discussed in the film — including the positioning of the Holocaust in present-day issues; religious identity, right and left wing viewpoints, censorship, lobbying, and boycotts from both sides; and the Israel/Palestine issue – give air time to advocates and activists from the various viewpoints, even when the differences seem unbridgeable.

They also bring in some fascinating personal details from the filmmakers’ own lives, including a religious divide within a family where somehow a secular, rightwing Jewish patriarch ended up with religious, Muslim grandchildren.

This is being shown on Sunday followed by a panel discussion moderated by the CBC’s Michael Enright. It should be very interesting.

Meek’s Cutoff
Dir: Kelly Reichardt

This is a western set in 1845, when a group of families head west in a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. But when they reach an anknown area, they hire a grizzled guide named Meek (Bruce Greenwood), to take them through a shortcut in Indian territory. With nothing to read but a bible, or listen to Meek’s stories, this diverse eastern group moving west falls into disarray as things start to go wrong. On the way, they capture a native man who speaks no English, whom they tie up and take with them. They eventually reach an agreement – without water they’ll die of thirst, and Meek doesn’t seem to be any help. The men are old, sick, or unstable, so it’s up to the women – especially Emily (excellently played by Michelle Williams) to do all the work and make all the crucial decisions.

Like the movie Days of Heaven, it’s a beautiful spare movie showing realistic daily life, rather than the dramatic hollywood-style glamorous
depiction of life in the old west. Nothing glamorous here. But it’s a very good western-slash-art film with a new perspective on the west. Great movie.

Also playing this weekend for one show only at the Royal is

Modra
Dir: Ingrid Veninger

a touching, light, hyper-realist drama, starring non-actors, about a girl who travels from Toronto to Slovakia to visit her relatives there, with a classmate pretending to her boyfriend. I enjoyed this Canadian movie at last year’s TIFF.

Most of the movies I reviewed will be playing this weekend, so be sure to come see some unusually good movies. The Toronto Jewish Flm Festival runs until May 15th, downtown, and up north in North York, and in Richmond Hill. Check on line at tjff.ca . And Meek’s Cutoff is showing once only this weekend at the Light Box – you should try to see them on the big screen while you can.

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

War and Filmic Vocabulary. Movies Reviewed: The Christening, Essential Killing. PLUS Cold Fish, Images Festival

It’s funny how current events can change our whole filmic vocabulary, adding new concepts and words to make images that would have made no sense a decade ago instantly recognizable on today’s movie screens.

Most people immediately think of technology — ipods, digital pics, texting, on-line dates — as the biggest recognizable changes. But,  unfortunately, some of the biggest stretches of our visual vocabulary is in images of war, violence and death.

During one of the darkest periods in American history, that started less than a decade ago following 9/11 (and doesn’t seem to have finished), the Bush/Cheney administration started a “war on terror”. Countries were invaded, bombs dropped, and a huge number of suspects were arrested, jailed, tortured or killed. In general, these horrific events were kept away from American soil, but done by Americans under direct orders from the government. They also introduced new words and concepts into our vocabulary, that previously might only have been used in horror novels.

Clandestine prison camps, known as “Black Sites”, were set up across Europe and the Middle East. Undocumented suspects, who were sent there to be tortured or interrogated, were called “Ghost Detainees”. One of the torture techniques, in which detainees were made to repeatedly suffer the sensation of death by drowning, is now widely known as “Water Boarding”. And the black hoods put over prisoners (used in Abu Ghraib) are also instantly recognizable.

Canada has also morphed into a nation at war, without consciously deciding to make the change from peacekeeper to bomber. We’re fighting on two fronts now. So today I’m looking at some new movies from Poland (a country that has certainly seen more than its fair share of wars) that examine how war and violence has infiltrated daily lives.

The Christening
Dir: Marcin Wrona

The movie opens with a soldier, face covered, being chased down by cops who beat him up, and arrest him for unknown reasons. Then flash forward – Janek (Tomasz Schuchardt) is visiting his army buddy and best fishing friend, Michal (Wojciech Zielinski). They’re together again to guzzle vodka and do Maori war chants. When they go fishing, they use their old military experience – throwing grenades into a lake — to blow up as many fish as they can. Nice guys!

Everything seems great for Michal: he has a good job, a beautiful wife, Magda (Natalia Rybicka) – he says they met in a hospital when she stitched up a cut on his brow — and a little baby. He’s gone straight: he even offers to help his friend out. But Janek, he’s happy just getting drunk, carousing with his buddies. He doesn’t want an office job – he makes good cash stealing cars and stripping them down for parts.

But there’s a problem — Michal seems to be hiding something. Someone’s putting pressure on him, and he’s showing up with a black eye, or beaten-up body. Janek doesn’t understand what’s happening — if there’s a problem he should tell him – he’ll just beat the guy up. Janek still likes a good brawl. Meanwhile, Magda is sure everything is Janek’s fault. He’s dragging her husband into the gutter. Maybe Michal owed something to his army buddies, but she doesn’t owe Janek anything. But her husband’s dark secret – one of betrayal and duplicity – makes Michal feel both guilty and trapped.

So he sets up a scheme to exit from his problems after the baby’s christening. He thinks he’s doomed there, but maybe his best friend can replace him in his home.

Will Janek stick by him? Who’s the criminal here? The cops or the thugs? Where does a person’s loyalty really lie? And how far will you let it go?

The Christening is an extremely – I’d say excessively — violent movie. I get the feeling the director was influenced by directors like Quentin Tarantino, but in all the wrong ways. Characters, like the gangsters’ boss, Fatman, who behaves like a sadistic killer, seem to be there just for titillation. So lots of horrible, gory, senseless, over-the-top fighting, but almost no humour (only melodrama) to lighten the mood.

Essential Killing
Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski

Mohamed (Vincent Gallo), a militant hiding out in the smooth caves of a lunar landscape (Afghanistan?), is startled to hear two American marines approaching in desert storm camouflage and beige burnooses. He pulls out his weapon and Boom! Ratatatatat! He ambushes the soldiers. Mohamed runs out into the sun to escape, but is taken down by helicopters and more special ops soldiers.

So now he’s taken away to some unidentified place (a black site) where he’s placed on his back, screamed at in English (he can’t hear after the explosions) and then waterboarded. Next, he’s off with other prisoners on some snowy forest road – looks like Canada – and there’s an accident. He gets out of the truck, grabs a gun and starts a long, painful, and violent trek trough the woods of rural Poland, pursued by US Special Ops and helicopters.

It becomes almost like a fairy tale or a picaresque novel, but with a violent streak running through it. He encounters a stream of characters — like a huge-breasted woman on a bike with a baby, a friendly black and white dog, some drunken wood cutters,  a deaf-mute woman who lives in a cottage in the forest who tends to his wounds, and a pale white, broken horse — as he tries to escape, survive, and get away. He climbs snow covered banks, slides off cliffs into rivers, hallucinates after eating poison berries, and conceals himself using the changing costumes he finds or steals on his journey.

Essential Killing was directed by Skolimowski, who was one of the dialogue writers on Polanski’s Knife in the Water, but this movie has almost lines at all. It’s not silent, but with both Mohammed and the US soldiers far from their own homes, they can’t understand each other. The locals around the Dark Site talk a bit but about nothing in particular. This is an aesthetically beautiful, though bloody, art movie – one of very few “action/art” films. I’m not a big fan of Vincent Gallo, but he is fantastic in this as a silent pilgrim, alternately Christ-like and psychotic.

This is an unexpectedly amazing movie — just be aware it’s not a conventional, Hollywood-style film.

And, just in case this isn’t enough violence for one weekend, the Japanese horror film Cold Fish also opens today. You can read my whole review but just let me say, it is the most hellaciously bloody, gory, horrifyingly abusrdist exploitation movie I’ve ever seen. And it left me physically shaking by the time I walked out of the theatre, after its orgyistic tsunami of sex, blood, serial killing and cannibalistic outrages that In a few days transform the life of a mild-mannered tropical fish salesman, to a victim and potential participant in this ultimate sex blood flic.

The Christening played last year’s TIFF, Essential Killing and Cold Fish are opening today, April 1, 2011 in Toronto. Check your local listings. And keep your eyes open for Toronto’s Images Festival, which is on right now. Toronto’s Images Festival — an exhibition of film and art, experimental and independent — is the largest one in North America to feature moving images and media art both on the big screen and in gallery installations.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM and CulturalMining.com.

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