Dark TIFF. Films reviewed: We Are Never Alone, Manchester by the Sea, The Fixer PLUS Pop VR at #TIFF16 and FIVARS

Posted in Czech Republic, Drama, Family, Journalism, Movies, Romania, Sex Trade, US by CulturalMining.com on September 9, 2016

kathebattle_still_02Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Take a trip down to King street between Spadina and University and you’ll see TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, in full swing, with celebrities everywhere and free concerts and events. Featured this year for the first time are movies not invasion_03-1from Hollywood, nor India’s Bollywood, but from Nollywood, Nigeria’s thriving movie industry. Another new attraction at TIFF is POP VR, short films and documentaries shot in 3-d, and 360: movies you watch all around you. Using special headgear, kathebattle_still_05earphones and a smartphone attached to the front, you can see things like a cartoon about aliens, a doc about a feminist movement in India to enter sacred temples, and a Cirque de Soleil performance that puts you right in the middle of a Chinese sword fight! VR is still developing, but it’s a force to be reckoned with. This week I’m talking about three great dark movies playing now at TIFF. There’s a Czech village purple with paranoia, a man in New England with a dark history, and some yellow journalism in Romania.

miroslav-hanus-left-and-daniel-doubrava-right-in-we-are-never-alone-courtesy-of-wideWe Are Never Alone
Dir: Petr Vacla

Two families live in a remote small town in the Czech Republic built around a fortress-like prison. One is headed by a burly single dad (Miroslav Hanus), a prison guard, with a small son. He believes minorities and ex-cons are out to get him, and is writing a rightwing nationalist manifesto to rid the country of subversives and Roma. He longs to see those strong Czech bridges and dams being built again and the factories producing more widgets. In another family, a hypochondriac dad (Karl Roden) spends his time trying to photograph his back with a cellphone. He desperately seeks evidence of cancer. His wife (Lenka Vlasakova) stares lenka-vlasakova-left-and-zdenek-godla-right-in-we-are-never-alone-courtesy-of-widelongingly out the window all day of a roadside convenience store where she works.

Meanwhile a swarthy part-time pimp and his stand-offish junkie girlfriend drive around in a broken down red cart purchasing garish gifts. But things go really wrong when the two paranoid men meet, and begin to blend their strange theories and conspiracies. And daniel-doubrava-in-we-are-never-alone-courtesy-of-wideunbeknownst to them both, their young sons are gaslighting their dads, trying to drive them crazy, by secretly leaving increasingly large dead animals on their own doorsteps. Things start to spiral into increasingly awfulness as the three groups interact.

We are Never Alone is a dark story of nationalism, paranoia and apathy win modern-day Czech Republic. It has great acting, an unpredictable plot, and, thankfully, an underlying streak of absurdist comedy that lets usavoid the dread of the characters’ lives.

76e05278-81a6-4fc7-97b4-861c73eee46eManchester by the Sea
Dir: Kenneth Lonergan

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a handyman who lives alone in Quincy, just outside Boston. But he’s called back to his hometown in Manchester, when his divorced brother John dies. It’s up to him to inform his nephew Patrick that his dad is dead. Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is 16 years old, on the school hockey team and in a band. Lee and Casey were always been close, until something terrible happened, and Lee left town. Now, suddenly and against his wishes, he finds himself Patrick’s de facto dad. It’s written in his brother’s will. He doesn’t know how to

MBTS_3869.CR2raise a teen. He did have kids once, but that was a long time ago.

At first he acts like Chris’s buddy – lets him drink, take girls home, say or do whatever he likes. But gradually reality sets in and Lee realizes he has to do the right thing: either raise him properly or find someone else who can. Trouble is Lee’s reputation is dirt in this town, and no one will hire him. Ghosts of his past keep popping up, like Randi, his ex-alcoholic, ex-wife (Michelle Williams).

Although this may sounds like a typical movie, it’s not. The form, emotions and acting set it apart. It’s edited in a chop-up style, with flashbacks coming unannounced right after a scene set in the present. So you have to pay attention. Emotionally, it’s a devastating tearjerker, as the hidden past is gradually revealed. The whole film is exquisitely structured, with certain scenes repeated but with new, subtle variations and revelations. And the acting – especially Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges – is just so good. Oscar good. Great movie.

fixer_01The Fixer (Fixeur)
Dir: Adrian Sitaru

Radu (Tudor Istodar) is a journalist living in Bucharest with his wife and small son, He comes across an exclusive news story – a real scoop. A young woman named Anca (Diana Spatarescu)
has escaped from her Parisian pimp and made her way back to a small town in northern Romania. If they can track her down, a first hand interview could expose the huge network of underage 14138013_1063443357080084_3733967339935546785_otrafficking across Europe. Agence France Press sends their trip TV reporters to capture her on film, telling her story. But that’s easier said than done. Radu has to call in favours, smoothe out troubles, and serve as 10256865_778397828917973_7636613034058641716_otranslator, guide and journalist for Axel (Mehdi Nebbou) the French reporter. He is stymied by local thugs, a recalcitrant mother superior sheltering the girl in a nunnery, and even Anca herself, who doesn’t trust the French reporters. And as the story develops he starts to wonder: do journalists want to expose stories for the public good… or merely to boost their ratings?

The Fixer is another shocking movie. Like many Romanian movies it is hyper-realistic and slow to develop, but when it does — wow! It slams you and makes you question what you thought was happening. Distinctive cinematography, and again, great acting, The Fixer is a potent indictment of com-samsung-vrvideo-20160726-232455-1024x920investigative journalism.

We are Never Alone, The Fixer, and Manchester by the Sea are all playing at TIFF. Go to tiff.net for more information. And for another view of augmented and virtual reality, check out fivars, another Toronto VR festival that takes beyond where Pokemon-go can go. Go to fivars.net for details.

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

Daniel Garber talks with director Radu Muntean about his new film One Floor Below at #TIFF15

Posted in Corruption, Cultural Mining, Death, Movies, Mystery, Romania by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2016

Radu Muntean-5- Jeff Harris culturalminingPatrascu is a middle-aged, middle-class man, working as a middleman in contemporary Romania. He lives in a nice apartment with his wife Olga, his teenaged son Matei, and his dog Jerry. But one day he hears screaming from a woman’s apartment, and out walks Vali, a married man from upstairs. The next day the woman is found dead with her skull smashed in. But when the police come by to investigate, Patrascu clams up.

Can he live with a suspected murderer One Floor Below?Radu Muntean-4- Jeff Harris culturalmining

One Floor Below (Un etaj mai jos) is also the name of a dark drama that premiered at TIFF. It blurs the lines among feelings of guilt, responsibility, mistrust and fear in a country still emerging from generations under an authoritarian government. The film is made by award-winning Romanian director Radu Muntean.

I spoke with Radu about his intriguing, fifth feature in September, 2015, at the Toronto International Film Festival. One Floor Below opens today.

Mothers and Daughters. Movies reviewed: Hello I Must Be Going, Mama.

Posted in Cultural Mining, Feminism, Ghost Busters, Horror, Movies, Romania, Romantic Comedy, Thriller, TJFF, Uncategorized, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 26, 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.

Hollywood has turned into a place where women are treated as an afterthought. It’s not unusual to see movies with 10 or 20 main characters with only one woman. So this week I’m looking at two genre movies that are usually male-oriented, but in this case are both told from a female point of view (though both have male directors). One’s an indie rom-com about hidden love under their parents’ gaze, the other is a chiller-thriller about surrogate moms.

hello i must be going poster Hello I Must be Going

Dir: Todd Louiso

Amy Minsky (Melanie Lynskey) hates her life. She hasn’t been outside her parents home or changed her ratty T-shirt for about three months. Why? Because her career-driven entertainment lawyer husband dumped her and she has nothing to show for all those years of marriage. She let her own interests slide (she used to be an MFA grad student, a photographer) to support him and now she has nothing. Nothing!

So she’s back with her parents just as her dad setting up a big contract that will let him retire and to travel with mom (Blythe Danner) around the world. So Amy has to dress up pretty for a dinner party so she won’t spoil the deal.

At the dinner party she meets the deal partners’ son Jeremy, an actor. He’s also moved the wigglesback to his therapist-mom’s house after years on a children’s TV show like The Wiggles. (He’s Mr Green)

Amy and Jeremy are both mortified by their parents’ conversations and find common ground.

Christopher_Abbott_and_Melanie_LynskeyShe’s awkward. He’s an actor. Sparks fly.

They bond, and later enjoy passionate sex. Amy’s life seems to be turning around. But the last thing Amy wants is to ruin he dad’s deal, so they have to keep it hush-hush. She visits him in the middle of the night to throw pebbles at his window. They go skinny dipping and make out in the backseats of cars. It’s like she’s living as a teenager again, complete with nosy parents and furtive dates.

Oh yeah – I forgot to mention. Jeremy, though an accomplished actor and an adult… is a teenager! (He’s 19.) Oh, also his accepting mom, a therapist (c’mere, give me a hug!), thinks he’s gay. Christopher_AbbottHe’s actually a closet heterosexual who doesn’t want to upset his mother’s plans.

Can Amy and Jeremy’s relationship last? Will her parents ever respect her and treat her as an adult? What will the future bring? I liked this movie — Hello I Must Be Going (the title is a reference to a song in a Marx Brothers movie) is a very sweet, realistic romantic comedy, with a nice, indie feel (It played at Sundance last year).

The acting is good all-around. Melanie Lynskey is a Kiwi, who started as a girl in the fantastic movie Heavenly Creatures. Blythe Danner plays Amy’s mom in a not-so-sympathetic but multifaceted way; and you probably recognize Christopher Abbot, who plays Charlie, one of the boyfriends from the TV comedy Girls (He’s the one who gets dumped on for being way too nice and accommodating but in a smarmy sort of way. He looks and acts totally different in this role.) This is a fun, different kind of indie movie to see.

mamaMama

Dir: Andres Muschietti

Two girls are found by their uncle Lucas in a cabin in the woods. They’ve been missing for five years after a violent incident involving their parents. Somehow, they managed to survive there on nothing but wild cherries. But they went feral, and now run around like foxes or chimps or Linda Blair in the Exorcist, except without the crabwalk. The two girls barely talk to outsiders and know no basic social rules. So they need surrogate parents to raise them and a psychologist to study them.

So Lucas (Danish actor Nicolaj Koster-Waldau) gets his wild-ass girlfriend Annabel to move in with him and help take care of the kids. Annabel (Jessica Chastaine) is a rocker with a full sleeve tat and a foul mouth. She’s in a band, and does all the irresponsible things rock musicians are supposed to do. But when something happens to Lucas, she’s suddenly the de facto mother of these two crazy girls – Victoria and Lily (Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse).

Victoria was older when she disappeared so she can communicate, but Lily is nearly a lost cause. They are used to a world of bugs and plants and dirt, of hollows they can hide in, not clean, lit rooms. But things are transforming around them. There are strange cracks that appear on walls, moths that fly out of holes, strange noises you hear through vents in the house.mama2 chastain

The shrink says there’s an imaginary mother – they call her Mama – who they turn to for help. But is she real, imaginary, or something else? It’s up to Annabel to find out who is helping them, and where this Mama came from, if she actually exists.

This is a very good, female-centred chiller-thriller, where the girls, their heroine, and her nemesis are all women. It’s a B-movie, a genre pic, but it’s a good one. Mexican Guillermo del Toro, one of my favourite directors, was a producer for this one and it carries a lot of his trademarks: sounds through vents, scary houses, the possibly imaginary, and other-wordly lives of small girls, nice creepy production values, and lots of good, scary scenes. This is director Muschietti’s first feature, and I’d go to more of his movies.

Mama opens today, and you can catch Hello I Must Be Going at a special screening on Sunday, January 27th, as part of the Chai, Tea and a Movie series, sponsored by the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Go to tjff.com for details.

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

Great Dramas at TIFF 2010: Deep in the Woods, The Matchmaker, Black Swan, plus The Light Box

Well, the Toronto Film Festival is in full swing, and there’s still time – this Friday, Saturday and Sunday — to catch some really great movies, surrounded by other people who also love movies. It’s not everyday you get to ask a director questions about a movie right after you see it, or know that the person sitting beside you definitely has an opinion too, and is willing to share it with you – whether you like it or not. In fact, it’s one of the few times when semi-straight-laced Toronto sheds its inhibitions and throws aside the childhood warning: Don’t talk to strangers.

Now is also the time to check out the Tiff Light Box at the corner of John and King in downtown Toronto. Just this past weekend they’ve opened up a brand-spanking new headquarters for the film festival to function as a full-year event. There’s a restaurant and café with huge glass walls downstairs, and upstairs are some really nice looking movie theatres, that seat up to 500 people. It feels like you’re entering a museum or an international exhibition. Very impressive, very exciting experience.

If you listen to my reviews regularly you might remember my lament over the death of the velvet curtain, the dramatic opening and closing that used to mark every movie. To paraphrase Mark Twain, news of its death has been greatly exaggerated. And evidence of this is right there at the Light Box. Huge red curtains part to start each show, and rows of neat red seats arc out in the theatre. My only complaint is they sacrificed looks for comfort. There are impressive, minimalist, row after row of little square fold-down seats… but no arm rests. What are they thinking? I guess they figure people who like movies all wear black turtlenecks and have tiny bums and straight backs and will sit for hours with their hands neatly folded in their laps, calmly contemplating Fassbinder and their next fix of heroin.

We’ll see how that pans out…

CORRECTION: I have since discovered that, while the seats in my row at the Light Box had flip-up seats with no arm rests, most of the other rows had regular, comfortable seats. So I just lucked into that one special row for the Fassbinder fans in black turtlenecks… or maybe people who use wheelchairs.

The Light Box also has a series of galleries-cum-movie theatres that straddle the space in between art and cinema – movies projected as art; video art using cinematic narratives. There are shows and installations on right now by Canadian directors Atom Egoyan and the amazing Guy Maddin, as well as Singapore-born artist Ming Wong’s show in which he plays all the characters, male and female, in a Berlin soap opera.

Now let me talk about a few of the films I found interesting at this year’s festival.

Deep in the Woods

Dir: Benoit Jacquot

Timothee, a kid, a ruffian, really, in torn clothes with matted hair appears in a small town in France in the 1850’s – he can barely speak, and has filthy teeth and black hands. But he makes eye contact with Josephine (Isild Le Besco), the well-educated daughter of the town doctor, and proceeds to study her, climbing trees, peering through her windows, and hiding in the bushes as she fends off a boring suitor trying to impress her with his poetry.

She is straight laced and wears a bodice, but Timothee (Argentine actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) sees her true self yearning to be free, standing at the edge of steep cliffs daring herself to fly away.

So he insinuates himself into her life, and soon impresses the family with his seemingly magical skills in magnetism, prestidigitation, fortune telling, and hypnotism. When they are alone together, Josephine is quick to strip off her clothes and have sex with Timothee. Has he forced her using hypnotism?

Soon she follows him deep into the woods where they live a random, itinerant life, encountering people and events as they travel down a road. Their relationship – a sort of a marriage is constantly evolving; and the power dynamics – a rich educated woman living with a destitute man with survival skills and perhaps magical powers – gradually shifting from him to her.

This is a powerful and strange movie, unlike any I’ve even seen. Maybe it’s closest to the great movie “The Lovers on the Bridge” / “Les Amants du Pont Neuf”, (dir: Leos Carax) but different. It’s not for everyone, but I really liked it, especially the two main actors who are captivating in their roles.

Another movie that I really liked is

The Matchmaker

Dir: Avi Nesher

Arik, a kid in Haifa, Israel in the late 1960’s, is hanging out with his friends playing soccer when a man with a cane and huge scar across his face, and a mysterious past, arrives on their block. He’s Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), and he’s a matchmaker from Romania who’s there to find husbands and wives for unusual people with peculiarities who haven’t had any luck on their own. He says, he’ll find them the match they need, but not necessarily the one they want.

So after Arik’s prank misfires, he hires him to come work for him in the wrong side of town where he lives. His office is right beside a movie theatre that only plays movies with happy endings, run by a family of little people, dwarves who had survived concentration camp experiments by the notorious Dr Mengele, and near to an elegant woman Clara, who runs a late night speak-easy. The Matchmaker also earns his money in a shady occupation, but his vocation – matching up people who truly love each other – is his mission. None of the characters dare to bring up the concentration camps; in the 1960’s it was still considered taboo to talk about. They refer to it only as “there”.

Meanwhile, young Arik is falling for his neighbour, a tempestuous Iraqi girl, Tamara (Neta Porat), who has rejected her family’s conservatism and embraced the American youth culture of psychedelic music and the sexual revolution.

If this sounds like a complicated plot… it is, but it’s a fantastic story with compelling, captivating, and unusual characters – not all loveable, but you really want to find out what happens to them. Nesher is a not just a great director, but also an amazing storyteller. This is the kind of movie, one with a great story – with comedy, passion, romance, intrigue, betrayal, and truly memorable characters — that you rarely encounter anymore. Look out for this movie – the Matchmaker — hopefully it will be released after the festival.

Another movie, and one that definitely will be released, is

“Black Swan”

dir: Daren Aronofsky.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina, pure of heart, who wants the lead role in Swan Lake. She’s been raised to reach perfection, en pointe, by her relentless stage mother who was also in the ballet, but never made it big. Nina doesn’t drink or smoke or have sex – she still lives at home, she’s bullemic, plays with stuffed animals, wears a fuzzy pink coat, and listens to her little music box with a dancing ballerina by her bed.

But the ballet director, played Vincent Cassel, wants to put new life into the that cliched old ballet. He pushes her to also play the role of the Black Swan, the sinister evil twin of the Swan Queen. For this, he wants her to abandon her remaining childhood and purity and to become angry, passionate and sexual. He’s exploitative and cruel. Meanwhile, Beth the former diva at this ballet, (Winona Ryder) is forced to retire, and a new competitor, Lily (Mila Kunis) is also trying for the role, and trying everything she can to take it from Nina. Sophisticated Lily is Nina’s opposite – sex, drugs, smoking, and backstabbing all come as second nature to her. Nina has to hold on to her role in the ballet, as well as her tenuous grip on reality.

OK: does Aronofsky’s latest venture work or not. I have to admit, at times, this movie drifted into high camp, was unintentionally hilarious, and felt like nothing more than a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”, another movie about backstabbing dancers. Who knows, maybe “Black Swan” and “Showgirls” will still be double-billing it at rep cinemas 50 years from now.

That said, I think it’s a totally watchable classic melodrama and psychological thriller, with great acting by the two main women, plus very enjoyable overacting by Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey (as the over-the-top stage mom). The movie’s also stunning on the eyes and ears, with great production values.

I think Aronofsky knows exactly what he’s doing, neatly alternating super-real, documentary-like footage just like in The Wrestler – behind the scenes bone-cracking, massages, rehearsals, warm-ups and make-ups – with equal parts scenery-chewing soap and surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies (like in his great “Requiem for a Dream”). For me, this balanced worked.

Short reviews of movies now playing: J’ai Tue Ma Mere, Polytechnique, Police: Adjective, Revanche

Posted in Austria, Canada, Communism, Crime, Drama, Feminism, Movies, Quebec, Romania, TIFF, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on January 25, 2010

There are some good movies now playing that you should try to catch. TIFF Cinematheque Ontario, in Toronto, is running a series of good movies this coming week, including the top 10 Canadian movies made last year. Not surprisingly some of the most interesting ones are from Quebec.


J’ai Tue Ma Mere (in French)
Dir Xavier Dolan

If you have the chance, try to catch J’ai Tue ma Mere, (I Killed My Mother) a coming of age comic-drama about a gay teenager and his troubles with his gauche and difficult, but loving mother. Hubert (Xavier Dolan) doesn’t get along with his mother. He’s smart and well-read, but he isn’t doing well in school. He’d rather spend time with his boyfriend Antonin than in his own home. Hubert and his mother, played, perfectly by Anne Dorval, each try to win one another’s affections but things always devolve into shouting fights between mother and son, until he is forced to move out.

It’s a low-budget movie, but really well done, with believable characters, funny lines, interesting story, good acting. And, amazingly, this semi-auto-biographical film was directed and written by the same 19-year-old (Xavier Dolan) who plays the main character. And it’s a good movie, not just because it was directed by a kid.

Polytechnique (In French)
Dir: Denis Villeneuve

Another Quebec film, beautifully done, but not as successful in my eyes, was Polytechnique, (directed by Denis Villeneuve) a fictionalized version of the 1989 massacre of 14 women at Ecole Polytechnique, the engineering school at the University of Montreal. It’s very similar to Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s great movie Elephant (from 2003), about the killings at Columbine, but Polytechnique was shot in black and white. It is an upsetting and moving period drama of that horrible massacre, in which a crazed gunman shot as many women as he could because they were “feminists”. Which brings me to my beef with this movie.

Like so many other movies, this one feels like it just can’t bare to tell a story through the point of view of a woman. The director gives us the killer’s private thoughts (Maxim Gaudette) as well as some of the victims (in other words, all of the women – but especially Valerie played by Karine Vannasse) but then feels obliged to create a heroic male counterpart to the villain (Sebastien Huberdeaux). So we get something that feels a bit like the old silent movies where a Dudley Do-right rides in to try to rescue the Damsel in Distress from the bad guy. Since it’s a made-up dramatization, would it have been so difficult to make the fictional, tragic hero a woman instead of a man? Especially in a movie about a massacre of women killed for daring to be the equals of men.

Anyway, as I said it’s beautifully shot movie, black and white, set in a wintery Montreal. It’s visually great, and (except for my problem with the film itself) is a good telling of this tragedy.

Also opening very soon are two European movies, one from Romania and one from Austria, both good.


Police: Adjective (in Romanian)
Dir: Corneliu Porumboiu

This movie is about a cop, Cristi, living in a modern, small city in present-day Romania, where people have the trappings of western Europe and modernity, but with the pedantic, rule obsessed absurdity of the communist Ceausescu still strong.

Cristi is asked to launch a sting operation on a high school kid who smokes pot with his friends. Cristi doesn’t think it’s fair so refuses to do so, but is pressured by his boss. His tension at the absurdity of the issue continues in his apartment as he tries to understand the reasoning behind it. His wife/girlfriend, a school teacher, doesn’t help with her own obsession with an awful Eurovision-type song that she tries to analyse (in one of the funniest scenes in the movie.)

This is a very slow-paced “art” film, but I enjoyed it’s off-beat sensibility in its realistic-seeming (at times, maybe, too realistic) depiction of daily life in Romania. Don’t see it expecting another 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (a drama about a Ceausescu-era woman trying to get an illegal abortion). It doesn’t have the narrative drive and tension of that great movie. But it is still very good.


Revanche (in German)
Dir: Gotz Spielmann

Alex a strong ex-con and his beautiful Ukrainian girlfriend Tamara both work at a brothel, Irina in a bedroom, Alex moving boxes in the basement. They sneak away for athletic love-making in his apartment as she tries to teach him Ukrainian. They want to escape the sleazy life of Vienna’s demi-monde and head somewhere warm away from her increasingly sketchy pimp. But they need money,

Alex comes up with a foolproof plan to hold up a bank not far from his estranged grandfather’s country homestead. But things don’t go as planned when a wimpy local cop happens upon the robbery. Alex is forced to hide out at his grandfather’s home. Tension grows as he contemplates revenge – hence the title – and chops away, violently, at a pile of firewood…

This is a great movie that I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival over two years ago but still remember very clearly. When a film resonates for so long it’s a good sign that it’s worth seeing. This is an excellent, moving film, beautifully shot. Alex (Johannes Krisch) and his grandfather (Johannes Thanheiser) are especially good.

– Daniel Garber, January 13, 2009

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