Shells. Films reviewed: Journey’s End, Ready Player One, The China Hustle

Posted in 1910s, China, Class, Corruption, Darkness, documentary, Drama, Games, Movies, Poverty, Science Fiction, Wall Street, War, WWI by CulturalMining.com on March 30, 2018

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

It’s a holiday weekend filled with eggs, whether hard boiled or made of chocolate with a prize inside. So this week I’m looking at three new movies about… shells. There are VR gamers looking for a hidden easter egg, Wall Streeters investing in shell corporations, and WWI soldiers dodging mortar shells.

Journey’s End

Dir: Saul Dibb

It’s March, 1918, in the WWI trenches of northern France. Underground, where the officers stay, it’s dark, dank and smelly. Up on the surface its deadly dangerous, with snipers aiming at your head. Four British divisions rotate their stays at the front at one week per month. It’s like a lottery – with a one in four chance of dying. And the soldiers in Company C are just trying to stay sane and alive. There’s the fatherly Osborne (Paul Bettany) who everyone calls “Uncle”, the indefatigable cook Mason (Toby Jones), and the shell-shocked Hibbert.

So no one can understand why the green, idealistic Lt Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) pulls strings to join this benighted group. Why? His upper classman Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is stationed there and he wants to see him again. But he doesn’t realize the level of death and despair that has taken hold there. And that his hero, Stanhope,

is now a mean and bitter alcoholic. The soldiers there are forced to make pointless raids in daylight so as not to interrupt the dinner schedule of far-off Generals. And things reach a boiling point when word gets out the Germans are about to attack on Thursday, right there. They’re essentially sentenced to die at the front. How do they all handle this?

Journey’s End – based on the classic play – is a tense retelling of an old war story, exactly 100 years later. It deals with the futility of war, the rigid British class system, and the male comeradery of life in the trenches. The acting is very good, and the camera wonderfully captures a world lit only by flickering lanterns. Even so, it was hard to sympathize with the stuff-upper-lip, tally-ho language of the script. The long theatrical conversations might might work on stage but not on the screen. The main emotions I got from this movie were depression, disgust claustrophobia and fatalism. It all felt too long, too slow, and too distant, especially once you know their fate… Just die already!

Ready Player One

Dir: Steven Spielberg

It’s 2045 in Columbus, Ohio and the world is a mess. People live marginal existences in ramshackle towers beside huge corporations. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is an 18-year-old orphan who spends most of his time online in a wildly- popular VR fantasy world called Oasis. Its creator left a trillion-dollar prize to whoever can solve the puzzles hidden within this digital world. First they must complete three levels of games and collect three keys  and claim the hidden easter egg. Wade he surprises the world by appearing on the boards as Player One, the top ranked player in the world. But he’s not the only gunter (egg hunter) trying to win. His closest virtual rivals are Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) a fiery red-head, Aech, a muscular giant and genius mechanic; plus Daito and Sho whose avatars look like a samurai and a ninja, respectively. Wade calls himself Parzival. Like the Wagner opera character, he’s searching for a holy grail. And he’s in love with the lovely Artemis. But as best-bud Aech keeps telling him: you only know her avatar – that’s not what she’s like in real life. And lurking in the shadows is the rich and evil Sorrento, (Ben Mendelssohn) the head of IOI, the corporate rival to Oasis’s company. He pretends to be a champion gamer, but he’s actually a fake who hires employees to play for him. But he’s out to win — and take over the world — at any cost. Which of the hunters will figure out the puzzle and find the easter egg? And can they defeat the villainous Sorrento?

Ready Player One is an incredibly fast-moving sci-if action movie. Oasis’s inventor, whose puzzles they’re all trying to solve, was obsessed with the 80s, so the movie feeds you a random hodgepodge of Back to the Future and Iron Giant, Gandam and Street Fighter, New Order and Van Halen, a non-stop shower of pop culture, to the point where you can’t tell self-referential jokes from cheap product placement. (Maybe they’re both?) But why would kids in the 2040s care about the 1980s? I can’t call this a good movie; it’s incredibly commercial, felt more like a theme park ride than a film, and parts were like watching a video game with someone else holding the controls. But you know what? I still enjoyed it. And it does have that classic Spielbergian look and sound.

China Hustle

Wri/Dir: Jed Rothstein

After the Subprime Mortgage crisis, American investors, pension funds, and ordinary moms and pops were looking to make some money. But where? Chinese people were making millions investing in their red-hot companies, but those stocks weren’t traded on Wall Street. Until, suddenly, they were. Hundreds of Chinese startups were being bought and sold and making big bucks. And companies like Roth Capital were holding lavish parties known as “investment conferences” to reel in buyers. They were backed by reputable auditors like Deloitte. It’s a win-win proposition – everyone makes money. Until, that is, some suspicious investors fly to Shanghai and looked around.

Turns out, many of these companies operate as “Reverse Mergers”. Existing Chinese corporations buy shell companies already registered in the US, take them over, change their name, and they’re open to make money.

But their books here don’t look like their books there. Idle factories in China are said to be making ten times what they’re actually earning. And no one’s checking up on them.

So a few maverick investors decide to short sell their stock (like in that movie The Big Short) counting on its value crashing soon. And they speed this along by publicising the corruption and questionable accounting of the parent companies back in China. The result, riches for a few, terrible losses for many.

The China Hustle is a fascinating documentary looking at the shady practices behind deregulation, auditing and investments, as told by three American short-sellers. I thought its view of China as a monolithic villain was superficial and rather one-sided; for example, it shows how these fraudulent investments affect ordinary Americans’ lives, but not how they affect ordinary Chinese.

But it does expose in detail a huge scandal I knew nothing about.

Ready Player One opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Journey’s End and The China Hustle are in theatres and Video On Demand. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Big Changes, Big Trouble. Films reviewed: Every Day, The Party, Annihilation

Posted in Army, comedy, Fantasy, High School, Horror, Movies, Politics, Romance, Science Fiction, UK, Y.A. by CulturalMining.com on February 23, 2018

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

Everybody knows change is good, but big changes can lead to big trouble. This week I’m looking at three good movies about women facing big changes. There’s a British politician with a once-in-a-lifetime career change; a biologist investigating changes that are scientifically impossible; and a high school student whose boyfriend changes bodies once a day.

Every Day

Dir: Michael Sucsy

Rhiannon (Angourie Rice) is a highschool student in Maryland. Her mom’s a careerist, while her dad, since his breakdown, stays at home painting pictures. Her boyfriend Justin (Justice Smith) is a popular athlete… and a bit of a jerk. So she is surprised when he agrees to play hooky and spend the day just with her. It’s the perfect date: They explore downtown Baltimore, he pays attention to her, stops smoking, they share intimate personal stories, find their special song, and for the first time, they actually have fun together. Is this true love? But the next day he’s acting like a douche again, with only vague memories of the day before. It’s like he’s a different person. What’s going on?

What’s going on is he was a different person that day, someone named “A”. “A” is a bodyless being who inhabits a different person each day and — like Cinderella — departs that body at exactly midnight. “A” has no choice of who they’ll wake up as, except that it will be someone their age who lives nearby. “A” could be a boy that day, or a girl, could be black, white or asian, could be straight, gay or trans. Could be ugly or attractive. Rhiannon and “A” have to find each other each day to carry on their relationship. Hint: “A” knowing Rhiannon’s phone number helps a lot. Can their love overcome “A”’s ever-shifting identity?

Every Day is a cool, young adult fantasy/romance that works. It’s set in Maryland, but was shot in Toronto, and it has a Degrassi feel to it, where the multiracial, multigender nature of the cast is omnipresent but not central to the plot. Instead it deals with questions of identity, look-ism, and mental illness.

I liked this movie.

The Party

Wri/Dir: Sally Potter

Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a politician in the UK celebrating her promotion, the pinnacle of her career. Starting tomorrow, she’ll be the Shadow Minister of Health for the opposition Labour Party. So she’s throwing a party for her nearest and dearest. They arrive two- by two . There’s Martha (Cherry Jones) – a lesbian feminist university prof with her earnest partner Jinny.   Cynical April comes with her flaky boyfriend Gottfried (Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganz), a self-professed healer. And Tom — a nervous and brittle financier (Cillian Murphy) — comes without his wife Marianne, Janet’s closest friend and workmate. Janet’s husband the grey-bearded Bill (Timothy Spall) sits alone in the parlour spinning vinyl as she bakes her vol-au-vents, to show that a woman can feel at home both in Westminster and in her kitchen. Problem is, her hors d’oeuvres are burning even as her party is collapsing like a house of cards, as each guest reveals a big secret. There’s cocaine, champagne, a fire, broken glass, face slaps… even a handgun.

The Party is a drawing room comedy that pokes fun at the social conceits of a generation of middle-class, leftist baby boomers. It’s the work of Sally Potter, director of Orlando and Ginger and Rosa. Shot in black and white with a wicked musical soundtrack that shifts the mood from scene to scene, it clocks in at just over 70 minutes, as a short-but-sweet English comedy.

Annihilation

Dir: Alex Garland

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology prof at Johns Hopkins who specializes in mutating cancer cells. Her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) – a soldier she met when she was in the army – is missing and presumed dead. But when he shows up at her bedroom door, seemingly with no memory of what happened and how he got there, she decides to investigate. She’s valuable to the military, a woman as comfortable with a petri dish as she is with a submachine gun. She joins a crack team of scientists, all women, headed by the laconic psychologist Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Their goal is to explore unknown territory within a swampy National Park.

It’s encased in something called “the Shimmer”, a phenomenon eminating from a lighthouse on the coastline.  No one who goes into the Shimmer comes out alive (except for her husband Kane) and it’s getting bigger and bigger each day. From the outside it looks like a giant rainbow-coloured, plastic shower curtain that’s melting upwards. On the inside it’s even stranger, a world where distinctions like “animal/vegetable/mineral” cease to exist. It’s both beautiful and grotesque, filled with Chihuly crystals, human topiary and brightly-coloured tree fungi. Unrelated species are combining and mutating at a rapid rate, into a cancerous growth — just like the cells Lena studies, only prettier. And they’re affecting the five women too, both their minds and their bodies. Video messages they find (left by previous soldiers) only make things worse. Can Lena survive the hideous creatures and her deranged and suspicious teammates before she faces the scariest entity of all?

Annihilation is a terrifying exercise in horror sci-fi psychedelia. It references everything from Arrival, to The Wizard of Oz to Apocalypse Now, as the team paddles their way though a Heart of Darkness in their search for emerald city. Natalie Portman is great as the elegant soldier-scientist, and director Alex Garland brings us a different take on post-apocalyptic images. Annihilation is the kind of psychedelic fantasy that keeps you guessing.

This movie is scary-pretty… and pretty scary.

The Party comes to Toronto next week (check your local listings);  Every Day and Annihilation open today. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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

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

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

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

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

The Breadwinner

Dir: Nora Twomey

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

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

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

Great movie.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

Dir: Bharat Nalluri

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

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

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

The Man Who Invented Christmas is fun holiday fare.

Solaris

Dir: Andrey Tarkovsky

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

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

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

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

It’s perfect the way it is.

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

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

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

 

Lions and Lambs. Films reviewed: Handsome Devil, Before I Fall, Bitter Harvest, Table 19

Posted in 1930s, Bullying, comedy, Coming of Age, Death, Drama, Gay, Ireland, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Ukraine by CulturalMining.com on March 3, 2017

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

March came in like a lamb, followed by a pride of lions, roaring at the gate. I’m talking about the spring film festival season, which is on now with films from Ireland and more.

This week I’m looking at movies with lions and lambs: a few comedies plus one tragedy. There’s friendship in Ireland, tragedy in Ukraine, fantasy in the northwest and a wedding in the midwest.

handsome devilHandsome Devil

Wri/Dir: John Butler

Ned (Fionn O’Shea) is a skinny redhead at a boy’s boarding school in Ireland. He likes reading and indie music, and dresses in hip rocker gear. Popular kid, right? Wrong. He’s bullied, reviled and labeled as gay just because he’s not into rugby. and rugby is the school handsomedevil_04sport.

Enter Conor (Nicholas Galitzine) his new roommate. Conor was kicked out of his last school for fighting. Is he an outcast? Just the opposite. He’s handsome, athletic and on the pitch he’s both nimble and brutal. He quickly becomes the king of rugby, a handsomedevil_05veritable idol at his new school. He’s even nice to Ned, and stops the bullies — especially one called Weasel — from beating him up. Has Ned found a friend?

Things get even better when a new English teacher, Mr Sherry (Andrew Scott) encourages the kids to broaden their interests beyond just rugger, to include music and literature. But that’s sacrilege, and the coach won’t have it. He decides to break up Ned and Conor’s friendship whatever it takes.

Handsome devil is a funny and moving coming-of-age story about an unexpected friendship. I like this one.

before-i-fallBefore I Fall

Dir: Ry Russo-Young

It’s a big day for Sam (Zoey Deutch), a teenaged girl in the Pacific northwest. It’s Valentine’s day and she’s going to have sex with her boyfriend for the first time. Her dad and mom (Jennifer Beals), and her cute little sister who likes origami, are all nice but they just don’t get it. It’s her posse, her three best friends, that she shares everything with: Ally – rich but insecure; Elody – sexually halston-sage-medalion-rahimi-cynthy-wu-zoey-deutch-in-before-i-fallaudacious; and Lindsay (Halston Sage). She’s the alpha dog, the honey badger: she always keeps her cool; just don’t get on her bad side.

Her school has special traditions for Cupid Day. All the girls (except the class lesbian) receive messages from their admirers. While the teacher drones on about the myth of Sisyphus, Sam gets baskets of roses delivered to her desk… including one _X6A7999.JPGfrom Kent (Logan Miller), a geeky poet in her class that she ignores. In the café, the four friends relentlessly mock Juliet Sykes (Elena Kampouris) a blonde woman with frizzy hair. She’s the school pariah… are Sam and her friends bullies? That night at the party, things spiral out if control, with a breakup, a drunken fight and a terrible car crash.

But the next morning it’s a new day and everything’s back to normal. Until Sam realizes… it’s the same day as yesterday! Her little sister’s origami, the rose from Kent, Juliet in the cafeteria, and the fight at the party. Like Sysiphus, she’s caught in a cosmic, karmic loop, and she can’t escape. No zoey-deutch-in-before-i-fallmatter what she tries to change, she still wakes up each morning on Valentine’s Day. Can Sam right all her wrongs in a single day, or will she be stuck to repeat them forever?

Before I Fall, is a fantasy set in the present day. There have been others about people caught in a repeating loop – Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow, Source Code – but this is the first I’ve seen from a female point of view. Like the Twilight series, it’s set in the Pacific North West but without its unbearable soppiness. This is a good YA movie.

15194340_949283011838918_4071947400932947185_oBitter Harvest

Dir: George Mendeluk

It’s the 1930s in a small village in Ukraine. Yuri (Max Irons) is a young farmer who is also a skilled artist. He’s the grandson of a great swordsman named Ivan (Terrence Stamp), and is in love with his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Samantha Barks). They paint, frolic in the woods and attend church regularly. All is going well until the Russian Bolsheviks come to town, led by a man with a scar across his cheek. Sinister 15895153_988096897957529_6383476820894374352_nSergei (Tamer Hassan) is dressed in black leather from head to toe and carries a whip. Sign this paper, he orders, and collectivize those farms! Your farm, your wheat, even you belong to the state now! The people refuse and chase Sergei out of the village. But he will return.

After hiding the treasured town icon of St Yuri, his namesake sets off to Kiev carrying his grandfathers prized knife. In the city, he studies art and spends time with his best friend, Mykola. Mykola also happens to be the head of the Ukrainian Communist 15319318_967538840013335_3644678351628886805_nParty, uniting Ukrainian nationalism with socialism. But he doesn’t realize that in Moscow, Stalin has other plans at work. Stalin despises Ukrainians and vows to kill them all. Party members are purged, Yuri is sent to prison, and Stalin, with evil subordinates like Sergei, send all the wheat to Mother Russia, leaving Ukraine with a terrible 15941277_990987597668459_5998812033080133428_nfamine killing millions. A Bitter Harvest indeed.

Bitter Harvest is the story of a Ukraine village during the Holodomor, the horrible famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s. It’s an important part of history, rarely portrayed, that deserves to be shown on the big screen. This movie, unfortunately, doesn’t quite cut it. While it includes authentic-looking Ukrainian costumes, locations and folklore, the rollicking story is just not told very well. The movie is clunky and Kludgy, unintentionally campy and melodramatic, and full of comic-book villains. It lacks the gravity it deserves. Bitter Harvest isn’t bitter enough.

table-19-posterTable 19

Dir: Jeffrey Blitz

Eloise (Anna Kendrick) is a grudging guest at her best friend’s wedding party at a lakeside hotel in Michigan. Grudging because her boyfriend Teddy – the bride’s brother – dumped her. Blonde, bearded Teddy (played by Wyatt Russell, looking like a younger and dumber Owen Wilson), is best man but Eloise has been demoted from maid of honour at the centre table to the dreaded table 19.

Table 19 is a veritable land of Lost Toys, the cast offs of the wedding party. Bina and Jerry (Lisa Kudrow, Craig Robinson) a bickering middle aged couple; Rezno (Tony Revolori) a socially-awkward adolescent; elderly Jo (June Squibb), the bride’s childhood nanny; and gangly ex-con 13123270_780360932099535_7819038637567418602_oWalter (Stephen Merchant). Eloise is mortified by her table mates and just plain depressed. But things start to look up when a suave and handsome stranger, named Huck, arrives. They dance and kiss before disappearing into the mist like a male Cinderella. But when jealous Teddy confronts her, mayhem ensues, resulting in a ruined wedding cake. The Table 19ers, retreat to their hotel rooms to clean up, and their they learn that they’re a lot more fun than they expected. Together they vow to find love for Eloise, a first date for Rezno, a reunion between Jo the Nanny and the bride, and more.

Table 19 is a gentle social comedy that shows that, once you get to know them, even outcasts are real human beings with foibles of their own. The script is co-written by the Duplass brothers, known for their indie movies about quirky oddballs. It’s tame for a comedy, with a few too many pratfalls, but it’s also touching, with a cute, romantic ending. Hendricks is terrific as Eloise, and the rest of Table 19 all keep their characters from falling into dumb stereotypes.

Table 19, Before I Fall, and Bitter Harvest all start today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Handsome Devil is playing this weekend at Toronto Irish film fest. Go to toirishfilmfest.com for info.

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

End times? Films reviewed: Arrival, The First, the Last

Posted in Aliens, Crime, Cultural Mining, Disabilities, Drama, Movies, Science, Science Fiction, US, War, Western by CulturalMining.com on November 11, 2016

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

With the reality of the recent US election sinking in, people are using words like Brexit 2, Armageddon, Apocalypse and even Thermonuclear War. So this week I have a couple end-of-days movies to capture the prevailing mood. There’s a Belgian western about lost souls who think the world is about to end, and a US science fiction drama about scientists trying to stop the world from ending.

Arrival

14707836_664581693705770_5049392264758941723_oDir: Denis Villeneuve

Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor who speaks Chinese, Portuguese and Sanskrit. She occasionally translates top-secret documents for the US government. She has red hair, blue eyes and porcelain-like skin. She once had a daughter she adored but Hannah died of an incurable disease. Now Louse lives alone in a brick and glass lakeside home comforted only by her memories. Then something cataclysmic happens.

Twelve enormous, lozenge-shaped spaceships arrive on earth. They hover, silently and menacingly, over twelve random places, including Montana in the North America. there’s rioting in the streets, mayhem, mayhem, mayhem. Right away, she gets a knock on the door; it’s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) a high-ranked officer. He needs her help translating strange clicking sounds into English. Translate? says Louise. I can’t translate a language I don’t understand.I need to speak directly to the aliens. So they whisk her off to an army base in rural Montana along with an arrogant physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner). Together they’re expected to figure out why the aliens are there and whether the army should 13996056_631361680361105_8857193805571371798_oattack them. Easier said than done.

The aliens let them board the spaceship, kept separate by a glass wall. Louise is shocked by what appears in the mist. No little green men here;  these aliens are septipods – hideous sea creatures with seven legs — and hands that look like starfish. These mollusks have pulpy-grey bodies and can shoot out ink, like octopuses. Louise also discovers they are highly intelligent, with a sophisticated written language with multi-dimensional ring-shaped characters that look like Japanese brush painting. They float, suspended, underwater.

And their cryptic message? Something involving weapons! This pricks up the ears of a sinister CIA agent, her nemesis. With the world on the brink of thermonuclear war, it’s up to Louise to communicate with the aliens and decipher their message before armageddon.

ARRIVALArrival is a fascinating and thoughtful science fiction drama, told through the eyes of an academic. It’s part of the new trend of science-y fantasies that favour intellect over explosions. It’s similar to films like The Martian and Gravity, but I like this one the best. While Jeremy Renner is dull and Forest Whitaker unremarkable, Amy Adams is great as the pensive Louise. Arrival takes place in a barren military camp and it’s overloaded with khaki, camo and annoying Cold War jargon like domino effects and zero-sum games. But it’s also a feel-good movie with a truly surprising twist. It can satisfy your craving for excitement without resorting to superheroes.

12698182_1695852464032129_1864656549375743261_oThe First, the Last (Les Premiers, les Derniers)

Wri/Dir: Bouli Lanners

It’s present-day Wallonia, a place of barren fields, billiard halls and abandoned warehouses. Cochise and Gilou, two rough-and- tough middle aged guys, are hired by an anonymous client to retrieve a valuable lost telephone in exchange for lots of cash. Gilou (played by the director) is a white-bearded man in a midlife crisis, who thinks he’s dying, while Cochise (Albert Dupontel) is a moustached heavy in a leather jacket, always ready to fight but looking 13411815_1749664588650916_4661391988069200063_ofor love. Gilou sets up camp in a lonely motel run by an ancient innkeeper, who looks like an old-age version of himself. Cochise moves in with a woman he meets on the road.

The phone they seek is in the hands of a mysterious young couple named Esther and Willy (Aurore Broutin, David Murgia) who are making their way down a highway, dressed in high-viz orange 12418937_1698598447090864_4975528855641345564_ojumpsuits they found on their journey. They are society’s outcasts, mentally disabled and homeless, but at least they have each other. They need that comfort now, especially since Willy learned that the world is about to end (he saw it on TV). Esther declares they must find a proper gift for a final visit she has to make before it’s all over. And they meet a Jesus-like figure on the way, who tries to take them under his wing.

But neither pair realizes they have wandered into the badlands, an area filled with crooked sheriffs, black marketeers, and all- around villains who don’t take kindly to strangers. So while the phone hunters are tracking down the outcasts, they’re all being sought — violently so — by the bad guys. There is also a mysterious 12291825_1669565919994117_8655432979938888484_ogangster, an antlered stag, a mummy and a lost child to make things interesting. Can any of them find what they’re looking for?

The First, the Last is a satisfying — if baffling — western, set among the highways and desolate fields of French-speaking Belgium. It has the “European” feel of a movie like the Lobster, only not so straightforward. There’s also twangy music, nice cinematography, and all-around good acting, including a cameo by Max von Sydow as an undertaker.

Arrival arrives today in Toronto, check your local listings; is playing at the EU festival, now until the 24th. Tickets are free, but be sure to line up early to get a seat. Go to eutorontofilmfest.ca for showtimes. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Back to School. The Girl with all the Gifts, Queen of Katwe, My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea #TIFF16

Posted in Animation, Coming of Age, Games, High School, Horror, School, Science Fiction, Uganda, UK, US, Women, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on September 16, 2016

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

It’s mid-September as TIFF enters its final weekend with lots left to see. It’s also the start of an academic year. So this week I’m looking TIFF movies about going back to school. We’ve got an American school sinking into the sea, smart African kids who can’t afford the school fee, and British kids kept under lock and key.

thegirlwithallthegifts_02The Girl with all the Gifts

Dir: Colm McCarthy

It’s a military camp in a dystopian, future UK. Melanie (Sennia Nanua) is a bright and friendly girl who gets along well with others. She goes to school each morning and is the best kid in the class. But she – like the rest of the kids – is kept locked up in a dingy prison cell, fed raw worms, and derided thegirlwithallthegifts_04by heavily armed soldiers as a monster abortion. Only her teacher Miss Justineau (Gemma Atherton), sticks up for Melanie. But Dr Caldwell (Glenn Close) a sinister scientist, also has her eye on Melanie.

You see, all of England has been infected by a fungal virus that turns you into a flesh-eating zombie who never dies. But these kids are second generation — infected in utero — who think and act like humans but carry a craving for raw flesh. thegirlwithallthegifts_01Caldwell wants to carve up Melanie’s brain to find a cure. But when the camp is overrun by zombies, the three of them (along with a troupe of soldiers) are forced to escape in a military vehicle to find another base. Can Melanie – the girl with all the gifts – be trusted to stay moral and not eat the humans? Can trigger-happy soldiers and heartless scientists be trusted not to kill her? This is a great science fiction drama in the form of a zombie flic. Glenn Close goes a bit overboard in her evil rants, but Atherton and Manua are amazing as the good guys.

queen-of-katweQueen of Katwe

Dir: Mira Nair

Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl who lives in Katwe, a desperately poor slum in Uganda. By day she sells corn to passing motorists. By night she sleeps in an unlit shack with her brother, her sister and her stern mother (Lupita Nyong’o) who always sticks up for her kids. Is there no way out of this desperate life.

Enter Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). He has an engineering degree but works at a community centre for underprivileged kids, teaching them chess. Phiona and her brother take to the game almost immediately, despite kids deriding their unwashed clothes. She’s illiterate but learns to play strategically, plotting out future moves in her head. Robert sees a chess prodigy and his wife helps her learn to read. But Phiona is still penniless, playing chess with bottle caps on a piece of cardboard. Her mother tries to Queen of Katwepull her away from that gambling den. But Coach Robert convinces her that only by becoming a chess master can Phiona make it out of Katwe. Mom finally understands, selling her only possessions to pay for paraffin candles so Phiona can study at night. But can a girl from the ghetto become a Chess Master?

Queen of Katwe is a wonderful traditional family story, about hard work and tenacity. It says never give up, believe in yourself. At the same it shows a realistic portrait of desperate lives, their constant search for money, and the terrible prejudice they face. The story is told in a simple way but it’s very moving. It’s shot in Africa by the great Indian director Mira Nair, an expert at showing class differences. The actors portray their roles well, from grumpy Nyong’o, to optimistic Oyelowo and especially the wonderful Nalwanga as Phiona.

myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_02My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea

Wri/Dir Dash Shaw

Dash is starting a new year with high hopes. A junior at Tides High, he’s a cynical news geek who writes for the school paper, the Tides Gazette, with best friend Assaf and Verti the editor. He wants to find the big story. He’s sure his school is about to collapse due to bad maintenance. But no one reads the paper’s turgid prose and his warnings are ignored. Assaf and Verti are dating now so he’s left all alone. When he is caught looking through school files for hard evidence, he ends up in detention. But that’s when disaster strikes — an earthquake starts fires and sends the shoddily built school sinking into the sea. It’s also on fire, with sharks in the water and rats on land. It’s up to Dash and his friends — along with a courageous lunch lady — to lead his schoolmates to safety. But they must face the school myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_01snitch, drug dealers, the devious principal, popular kids and the school quarterback who reigns from a golden throne in only his jockstrap. But who will survive and who will be torn to bloody pieces before their very eyes?

This is a fantastic animated feature, one of the best movies at TIFF. It’s the Poseidon Adventure set in a high school. The art and animation takes unexpected forms. No pixar 3-D or complex cell animation here. Instead it’s broad splashes of tempera paint behind the thick black lines that make up character faces. There are cutouts and fingerpaint, boy scout illustrations, pop art and trippy half-tone dots from newspaper sunday comics.

Great voices are provided by Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Maya Rudolph and Susan Sarandon as Lunch Lady Lorraine. But the art of Dash Shaw — and his fellow cartoonists and artists — is what makes this so great.

The Girl with all the Gifts, Queen of Katwe, and My Entire Highschool Sinking into the Sea, are all playing now at TIFF. And you can line up at Roy Thompson Hall around 4 pm on Sunday to get a free ticket to the people’s choice award movie. Always worth watching, always free. Details are posted at tiff.net.

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

Action, Anarchy and Audacity. Films reviewed: Kanto Wanderer, Tokyo Drifter, 10 Cloverfield Lane

Posted in 1960s, Crime, Cultural Mining, Japan, Kidnapping, Psychological Thriller, Science Fiction, Yakuza by CulturalMining.com on March 11, 2016

RgKr3w_Kanto_Wanderer_2_o3_8897472_1450193360Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Suzuki Seijun is a great Japanese director who made his mark in the 1960s as a b-movie director at Nikkatsu, specializing in low-budget yakuza “B” movies. Still directing movies, he’s known for his stylized images and experimental takes on traditional themes. A retrospective of his work — Action, Anarchy and Audacity — is now playing at TIFF. This week I’m going to talk about two of Suzuki’s early Yakuza films, as well as a psychological thriller from the US.

644613_1140220552677881_5773406903098755507_n10 Cloverfield Lane
Dir: Dan Trachtenberg

It’s a present-day city in the Gulf Coast. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an aspiring young fashion designer with dark hair and a determined look. She’s leaving her husband and driving she knows not where. But out on the highway there’s a sudden boom! and her car rolls over into a field. She wakes up in a cell, cuffed to a metal bed in a cell. What happened? What was she doing there?

And there’s a young guy in the next room. Is this some sort of prison? She stages an 12804810_1136381339728469_8736079247145773773_nelaborate escape only to discover she’s deep underground, in a hermetically-sealed bunker. It’s the home of Howard (John Goodman) a huge man with a child-like demeanour. He’s no kidnapper, he says; he’s a DIY survivalist. Apparently one with a “black belt in conspiracy theories”. He found her on the road and saved her life. There’s no reason to go back outside since everyone’s dead and the air is filled with poison gas. Emmet (the guy in the next room) says he helped build the place and he isn’t a prisoner — he fought his way *into* the cell when the invasion started.

They form an odd trio. Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr) who regrets not tattooing YOLO on his forehead; Howard, a budding dictator who loves being isolated with a young woman; and our resourceful heroin, Michelle. Is it safer inside or out? Can Howard be trusted? And are they really under attack, or is this just one of Howard’s fantasies?

10 Cloverfield Lane is a follow-up to Cloverfield but completely different. I’m not sure if it’s a sequel, a prequel, or an e-quel (a word I just made up meaning it takes place at the same time as the original). Cloverfield was a found-footage Sci-Fi thriller shot on a hand-held video camera. This one feels more like a stage play on a small set: part horror, part psychological thriller. Excellent acting with an interesting story but one that sometimes meanders. Not perfect but totally watchable.

oYn9wY_Kanto_Wanderer_4_o3_8897506_1450193380Kanto Wanderer (1963)

Dir: Suzuki Seijun

It’s the 1960s in Tokyo. Three high school girls – one the daughter of a Yakuza godfather — are thrilled and fascinated when handsome Katsuta (Akira Kobayashi) a young bodyguard notices them. The three sneak into a shop to ogle another Yakuza j2gVp4_Kanto_Wanderer_3_o3_8897489_1450193370enduring the painful, but exotic practice of tattooing. It’s Diamond Fuyu, (Hirata Daizaburo) from a rival gang. These short encounters help trigger a series of events of rivalry and revenge within the two groups. One of the young women – the one Fuyu likes —  is determined to see the world, falls for a hood from Katsuta’s gang, who secretly sells her to a pimp.

Katsuta, meanwhile, still crushes on Fuyu’s sister, who’s a con artist married to a much older cheater at cards. In this world, Yakuza members are told they should “only wear red or white”: Red means a prison uniforms, white means a corpse. What will Katsuta end up wearing?

JZK2n2_tokyodrifter3_o3_8899020_1450193455Tokyo Drifter (1966)

Dir: Suzuki Seijun

Tetsuya (Watari Tetsuya) is a yakuza hood who protects and reveres the gang’s leader who owns a Tokyo nightclub. His gang is falling on hard times. He’s in love with Chiharu (Chieko Matsubara) a high-class singer. But when a rival gang try to takeover the club ownership, it leads to a gun battle. Someone dies. Tetsuya takes the fall for his boss. He and decides to “drift”, a modern-day ronin without ties to his gang. HE’s forced to flee to the southern city of Sasebo (a zm4Egm_tokyodrifter2_o3_8898958_1450193442major US navy base). But chased by the cops and rival gangs, he’s a marked man: he’s going to die. Will he fight to the end or die quietly? And who sold him out?

There’s also a “meta” dimension to this movie. The title of the film is also the title of a song sung by the Chiharu the nightclub singer. The song is about a Tokyo drifter, just like Tetsuya.  And in a crucial scene, he whistles that song about himself and about the movie he doesn’t know he’s in!

MjKmym_Kanto_Wanderer_5_o3_8897523_1450193349Kanto Wanderer and Tokyo Drifter are similar movies, both about yakuza members who are criminals, but also good, true and above all loyal to their boss. And they both have bosses who are corrupt, selfish and venal. Are they spending their lives defending men who don’t deserve to be defended?

The two films were made 3 years apart but what an incredible difference. Many people say the Tokyo Olympics (1964) was a turning point in modernizing Japan. Kanto Wanderer could be a traditional Samurai period piece with Katsuta  wearing kimono and carrying a sword. His gamblers play traditional card games, with nothing modern about it.
Tetsuya, in contrast, is totally modern, western, dressed in a pale blue suit, and lives in aqjprn0_tokyodrifter1_o3_8898896_1450193481 world of pop art nightclubs with glass walls and yellow halls.

Following Suzuki’s films is like watching the stages of Picasso, developing from realistic to interpretive to almost cubistic.  He hints at his future style in Kanto Wanderer in a scene where the backdrop turns instantly to an intense red the moment Katsuta commits a bloody crime. But by the time we reach Tokyo Drifter, the characters dress in pale blue or bright red, and most scenes are shot on enormous soundtages with vibrant yellow or snowy white backdrops and stairways going nowhere. Suzuki’s movies are a pleasure to watch and you should see them on the big screen while you have a chance.

10 Cloverdale Lane opens today in Toronto: check your local listings. And Action, Anarchy and Audacity: A Seijun Suzuki Retrospective is now playing; go to tiff.net for times.

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

Eurasia. Movies reviewed: Mountains May Depart, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Sing Street

Posted in 1980s, Afghanistan, China, Ireland, Journalism, Musical, Romance, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on March 11, 2016

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

Europe and Asia, despite what some people think, are part of the same continent: Eurasia. This week I’m looking at movies set on the Eurasian landmass, from the far east to the extreme west. There’s a love triangle set in a rapidly westernizing China, a true story about expat journalists in Afghanistan, and a coming-of-age musical set in Ireland.

48V7xJ_MOUNTAINSMAYDEPART_03_o3_8667537_1438094807Mountains May Depart

Wri/Dir: Jia Zhangke

It’s 1999 and a mining town China prepares for the new millennium. Especially Tao (Zhao Tao) who is a pretty, young performer. She’s being courted by two men. Liangzi (Liang Jingdong) is a brash but nice guy, brimming with confidence. He works in the mine store. Equally confident, but self-centred and vengeful, is Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi). He’s rich and Liangzi isn’t. She wants to be friends with both of them. But she has to choose, and she chooses the one with money over vgRA2n_MOUNTAINSMAYDEPART_04_o3_8667554_1438094737the one she loves.

They have one son they name Daole or “Dollar”, named after the US dollar, what Zhang desires most. Tao stays in the mining town, while her husband moves to the city to rule his burgeoning financial empire and satisfy his perverse obsession with guns. And their son, Dollar, is sent off to a private English-language boarding school in far-off Shanghai.

GZzj65_MOUNTAINSMAYDEPART_01_o3_8667519_1438094794The second part of the movie jumps to the near future. Dollar lives in Australia now and only speaks English. He has distant memories of his country and his mother and transfers his feelings onto a rootless, Chinese-Canadian teacher named Mia (Sylvia Chang).

The movie then reveals what has become of Liangzi, Jinsheng and Tao – the original three characters.

Jia Zhangke is one of the best filmmakers in China, and a personal favourite. He has a unique style and feel that exposes the flaws and idiosycracies of modern China. But always in a funny satirical or shocking way. What other Chinese director would start his movie with people dancing on a stage to the Village People? It looks like one of his first movies Platform (2000). That said, this isn’t his best work. The first half is a good classic Chinese melodrama, but the second half, with its prediction of China’s future, feels empty in comparison.

12803308_192044051164344_2982674369886159417_nWhiskey, Tango, Foxtrot

Dir: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa (based on Kim Barker’s memoirs)

It’s the early 2000s. Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is a network TV newswriter whose career is going nowhere fast. So she jumps at the chance to relocate to a place grabbing all the headlines: Kabul, Afghanistan. She says goodbye to her boyfriend and takes off. But as soon as she arrives she sees it’s not what she expected. She’s shocked by the unvarnished crudity of the other expats. But she also exalts in her new status. She has, at her disposal, a buff kiwi bodyguard, a smart Afghan translator, and a local fixer, to name just a few. A blonde Aussie reporter named Tanya (Margot Robbie) takes her under her wing.  She says, “In New York City you’re a 6 or a 7, but here you’re a borderline ten.” Tanya also tells her who to get to know, and who to avoid. And above all, to watch out for12362989_139342373101179_5125622253715911362_o the womanizing lush Iain (Martin Freeman: The Hobbit) a Scottish journalist.

Aside from drinkin’, dancin’, cussin’, and screwing around, she also has to file stories. She’s embedded with a Marine battalion, under the misogynistic General Hollanek (Billy-Bob Thornton.) But she manages to find some real news, even venturing out of the insular, foreign enclave in Kabul (or “Ka-bubble” as Tanya calls it). Will her new digs bring her fame and fortune? Or is it a bottomless pit that swallows journalists whole?

This movie is a fictionalized account of print journalist Kim Barker’s stint as an expat in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s an enjoyable movie and Tina Fey and company give a good sense of what it’s like to live there as a foreigner. What it doesn’t give is what it’s like to be an Afghan. There are some good scenes of an Afghan wedding, and she has a bit of professional contact with locals like Sadiq (Alfred Molina) a sleazy government minister, but nothing that challenges existing stereotypes.

And the Afghan women in burqas? Completely silent.

12771938_228217334192440_5486446044202041047_oSing Street

Wri/Dir: John Carney

Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a middle-class kid at a private Jesuit school in Dublin in the 1980s. He lives at home with his parents, his little sister and older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) a pothead who dropped out of college. But when his family falls on hard times he is sent to a rougher school run by the Christian Brothers. (Canadians know the name from the Mt Cashel orphanage in St John’s, Newfoundland, notorious for its horrific abuses.) The school is run by men in black priestly gowns from neck to feet, pgo441_singstreet_02_o3_8934407_1453302712and who are not adverse to corporal punishment. They make it their goal to crush every hint of non-conformity. Cosmo gets bullied from day one, especially by a skinhead. But all is not lost. Because across the street he sees a beautiful girl who looks like a model who just stepped out of a Duran Duran video. She even has a proper model’s name: Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Thinking quickly, he invites her to star in his band’s video for their next song – and she agrees. Only problem is, there’s no video, no song, and no band. Somehow Cosmo has to make it all happen. He meets Eamon (Mark McKenna) and together they start writing songs. Soon, they turn into new wave rock stars complete with appropriate make-up and frosted hair. But will they have it all ready in time for the school prom and before Raphena leaves for London?

Something about this movie grabs me – I really like it. It’s your basic boy-meets-girl/ coming-of-age story, and it’s set in the 80s, but there’s nothing old or tired about it. Sing Street feels fresh and new featuring young actors and musicians who are all amazing.

Sing Street, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and Mountains May Depart all 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

Big Ticket TIFF. Movies reviewed: Sicario, The Martian

Posted in Cultural Mining, Drama, drugs, FBI, Mars, Movies, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2015

6002bf07-aaaf-4f30-8420-9d038fba9d3fHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Fall festival season is gearing up right now. Toronto’s Russian Film Festival is featuring actor Alexey Serebryakov, who starred in last year’s stunning Leviathan. Now’s your chance to see him on the big screen and in person. ImagineNATIVE, the international The_Last_Saint1indigenous film and media arts festival is showing award-winning, Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk’s newest movie Angirattut (Coming Home). estdocs_logoEstDocs – the Estonian film festival — has amazing animation, documentaries and short films from that tiny Baltic nation. Next comes Planet in Focus looking at environmental films. And pif31Toronto After Dark brings horror, action and science fiction logomovies to get you ready for Halloween. This week I’m looking at films that played at TIFF that are opening today across the country. Ones about a female cop pushed into the war in drugs; the other’s about a male astronaut who wants to be pulled out of his life on Mars.

SICARIO Day 16Sicario
Dir: Denis Villeneuve

Kate (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent investigating a kidnapping near the Mexican border. She shoots the bad guys, but uncovers a grisly scene: countless murder- victims’ bodies packed into the walls of a drug-smuggler’s house in the desert. Shocking and revolting. So she agrees to join Matt (Josh Brolin) and his special team of agents (not part of the FBI) in order to bring down the Mexican kingpin responsible for all these deaths.

They fly her out to El Paso Texas where she meets the rest of the team, including a mysterious man named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Soon she’s being ferried across the border into Juarez, playing a small part in a big confusing raid. She used to save kidnap victims, now she’s helping kidnap people (albeit accusedS_D037_09788.NEF criminals)? What’s going on?

She tries to piece it all together. What’s her role in this exactly? Is this above board or is she being pulled into a nasty scheme run by crooked cops? Why are they doing this and who’s really in charge. She stays with the group, but finds herself involved in or witnessing a world of robbery, murder, drug smuggling, and undocumented migrants. Is she stopping it or part of it?

S_D045_11529.NEFWhat’s going on is a total shift in the movie’s point of view. It’s not about Kate at all, it’s actually about Alejandro, his role and his goals. Huh? What? Wait a minute…

Sicario is a beautifully shot, suspense drama set in the world of organized crime around Juarez. It’s also a total mess. It starts like a horror/ police investigation, but turns into something completely different. It’s hard to follow, hard to understand, and really boring in parts. There are exciting chase scenes, but there are also driving scenes: long sequences just about people driving along highways. (Zzzzz….). Characters are introduced with long build-ups… and then prove to be unimportant. Even Kate, the ostensible star of the movie, seems peripheral to most of the plot. And Mexicans seem to be there just to die. Denis Villeneuve is usually an excellent director (Incendie, Polytechnique) and the movie does make sense in the end (no spoilers), but even so, at two hours, Sicario is just not very interesting.

THE MARTIANThe Martian
Dir: Ridley Scott

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is an astronaut collecting soil samples on Mars, the windy and dusty red planet. He’s a botanist, part of a NASA team. When a storm hits the planet, the crew all rush for shelter in the space ship. But Mark gets struck down by a satellite dish and presumed dead. The rest of the team, headed by Mellissa (Jessica Chastain), fly off on their long trip back to earth. But wait… he’s not dead, just hurt. He patches himself up and takes stock of his situation, recording it all on a video log. Limited oxygen, water, and food, and no way to communicate with earth, and no way to get off the planet, with the next space ship coming four years down the road. And only 70s disco music to keep him company. So he makes do with what he has: rusty soil, a shovel, some potatoes and his own excrement. Can he grow enough to feed himself?

12010715_902892753131439_6023652552739710341_oMeanwhile back on earth, a woman at NASA spots movement on Mars. How can that be? It’s him – he’s alive! The various players spring into action. Teddy (Jeff Daniels) the stuffed-shirt head of NASA, is more concerned about budgets and public image than saving Mark’s life. Vince (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants things to work, Mitch (Sean Bean) wants to save him, and Annie (Kristen Wiig)12079790_905407586213289_8367337197547907182_o wants the news to be released in the best possible way. And a whole bunch of others trying to build things, and calculate the math. Now Mark can communicate with earth… but how will he ever make it back?

I liked the Martian. It’s about pluck, ingenuity, improvisation and perseverance, with lots of science, math and IT geekiness thrown in along the way. One goofy guy (Matt Damon is totally likeable in this role) with thousands of people rooting for him. It’s not 11807373_879652648788783_3514176622830470311_oreally a science fiction movie, though. No space battles, no aliens, no Klingons. It’s also far from the pristine, antiseptic world of space travel – instead Mars is plastic tarps, dirt, duct tape and shovels. This is a movie for guys who like tinkering in their toolsheds. Making do with what you’ve got. Remember, this is a Ridley Scott movie – the guy who made Blade Runner and Alien.The Martian And while this one is much more mainstream, with absolutely no sex – the only kiss is through a glass space helmet — it’s still got dirt, blood, 4-letter words.

The Martian and Sicario both open today in Toronto. Also opening is Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home; and a weird and wonderful documentary about mould – yes, mould, slime mould to be exact – called the Creeping Garden.

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

Unexpected Gifts. Movies Reviewed – The Gift, Fantastic 4 PLUS Canadian Films coming to TIFF

Posted in Canada, Comics, Cultural Mining, Movies, Science Fiction, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on August 8, 2015

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

August is vacation time, and everyone likes bringing back something to remind them of their trip. Then there are the souvenirs – tape worm, STDs – that are best avoided. This week I’m looking at two movies about unwanted souvenirs. One’s a psychological thriller about a couple who return to his home town to find it loaded with baggage and unwanted gifts; the other is a superhero flic about young scientists who visit a foreign dimension and return home with unexpected gifts.

8qWV3l_1507-TIFF40-8484_o3_8663841_1436473920But first a look at Canadian Movies premiering at TIFF.

Canadian movies get short shriff at movie theatres, so TIFF is the place to see them. Here are some of the ones that look really good. I haven’t seen any of them yet – these are just my first impressions. Did you know there were riots in Montreal in the 1960s when student activists took over? Mina Shum (who directed Double Happiness), has made a documentary called 9th Floor about an uprising at Concordia University by students from Trinidad over incidents of racism at the school. Another documentary looks at a very explosive contemporary issue: it’s called Guantanamo’s Child, and it’s about Canadian Omar Khadr and what happened him there. He was accused of war aaa_maddin_4__photo_by_dualityphoto-comcrimes at age 15, and has spent most of his life at the notorious prison. The movie has Omar Khadr tell his own story, so this could be really interesting.

One of Canada’s best and totally uncategorizable director Guy Maddin is bringing The Forbidden director_igor_drljacaRoom, co-directed by Evan Johnson. Apparently, it’s something about cavedwellers, sailors and submarines, but whatever it is I know it’ll be dreamlike and mind-blowingly strange.

There are also films by Quebec’s Philippe Felardeau and Toronto’s own Bruce McDonald, as well as two great directors I interviewed in the past: the offbeat, hip Kazik Radwansky offers an awkward social drama called How Heavy this Hammer; and avante-garde and pensive Igor Drljaca gives us the Waiting Room about an actor with memories of the Yugoslav civil war.

314434K1k_TheGift_Josh_NoText_1d47ba47-d825-e511-a2f6-d4ae527c3b65_lgThe Gift
Dir: Joel Edgerton

Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) are a young married couple with no kids who just moved to California. He’s in security software sales, she does interior design. . He got transferred to his company’s HQ, that happens to be in his home town. They move into a glass-encased home, visible from four sides. It’s a fresh start — especially for Robyn, who is getting over a miscarriage. Simon is a sympathetic husband but more than a bit condescending.

They run into a guy named Gordo (director Joel Edgerton) who GIFT_SG_045_f65a4b15-f4ed-e411-8342-d4ae527c3b65_lgremembers Simon from his High School days. Back then, Simon was in the In Crowd — quarterback, cheerleaders. Like the Simon Says game — everything Simon wanted Simon got. But the socially awkward Gordo was a bit of an outcast. And something happened, way back, that greatly affected Gordo’s life. But he’s willing to let bygones be bygones — let’s be friends.

GIFT_SG_040_f55a4b15-f4ed-e411-8342-d4ae527c3b65_lgRobyn feels lonely and isolated in her new home — no friends, family or work: nothing to do. So she’s cheered up when Gordo starts stopping by their house — always during the day — to drop off elaborately wrapped gifts. How wonderful — you must come from dinner! But Simon is disturbed by the whole thing and tries to nip it in the bud. What does Gordo the Weirdo want with his wife?

The tension begins to escalate with strange, almost bizarre incidents happening almost daily. IsDF-06121RC_e6f5ca37-b508-e511-a207-d4ae527c3b65_lg there a stalker at large? Robyn feels vulnerable, under attack… But who is really to blame? She decides to investigate on her own, and uncovers some unexpected things. Who should she side with – Gordo or Simon?

The gift is an excellent psychological thriller. Its point of view shifts among the three characters. The acting is great. Bateman is a self-centred alpha dog with a smarmy undertone, Hall as the vulnerable but not helpless woman, with Edgerton as the wildcard — persecuted victim or scheming psychopath? This is a good, taut thriller.

11058662_884247218299276_93324967550151567_oFantastic Four
Dir: Josh Trank

Reed is a chubby kid with coke bottle glasses from small town NY. He’s a science nerd known for his late night garage explosions. He’s working on a machine — a teleporter that can move things between places, times and dimensions. Kids laugh and teachers scoff at his ballpoint pen scribbles. Only Ben, a poor kid who lives in a junkyard, believes in him. He lends him a hand finding the needed missing metal parts. A few 10841960_875785619145436_888880065447110432_oyears later, they build a prototype but are kicked out of a science fair for breaking glass. They are discovered by a scientist, and his daughter Sue Storm. They recognize his genius and whisk him off to a top secret lab in Manhattan run by the secretive Baxter Foundation. Ben says goodbye and goes back to his junkyard.

Now it’s Reed’s chance to build it on a grand scale. Together with pretty egghead sue. They are joined by her brother Johnny, a hot-tempered street racer, and Victor Von Doom, a cynical and pessimistic genius whose attempts at his own teleporter were unsuccessful. And behind the scenes, watching very closely, are arms dealers, the military, the government and oil companies all of whom see teleportation as the potential solution to all their problems. Before they can get their paws on 11175034_892562207467777_4643096208375631222_nthe invention, they decide to try it themselves. Reed invites Junkyard Ben, one of the original inventors, to join in their maiden voyage. But something goes wrong on the spiky, barren planet they visit. Victor is held back by a greenish energy, and the other three — plus Sue in the home base– are all weirdly affected by this strange energy source. Reed becomes stretchy guy, Ben a gigantic rock covered Thing, Johnnie a flamer, and Sue can disappear in an invisible bubble. Then they all wake up in a military prison What will happen to this strange11188216_892562220801109_6393569219790851588_n group? Can they handle their new powers And what about Victor?

I have mixed feelings about this movie. I love the smalltown, working class feel to it. It’s like Spielberg’s E.T or J.J. Abrams’ Super 8. The young cast — Reed (Miles Teller) Sue Storm (Kate Mara) Johnnie Storm (Michael B Jordan) Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) Victor (Toby Kebell) – are all great. It makes sense to eliminate Reed’s greying temples and youth-ify all the characters. And if you view it as a story of their origins –a comic book standard – it makes sense. But the problem is it leaves out the most interesting part; the period where they adjust to the changes and figure out how to use and what to do with their new superpowers. They literally spend two seconds on that and then it’s”one year later…”! What a waste.

Still, it’s a virtual masterpiece… when compared with past attempts at movie versions of the Fantastic Four.

The Gift and Fantastic Four both open today in Toronto, check your local listings; and for more information about Canadian movies coming to TIFF go to tiff.net. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

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