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

Stars as Commodities. Film Reviewed: The Congress PLUS TIFF14 Whiplash, Mommy, Heartbeat

Posted in Animation, Canada, Cultural Mining, LGBT, Mental Illness, Movies, Pop Art, Quebec, Queer, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on August 28, 2014

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.

Are movies and movie stars and their images commodities? Things that can be bought sold and traded, just like stocks and bond, like bitcoins and pork belly futures? In some ways, they are. International film festivals — like TIFF, which opens in Toronto in less than a week — are partly there to put films on the market. This week I’m going to talk about an unusual new film about movie stars as commodities, and, first, three must-see films coming to TIFF.

One movie that jumped out at me and slapped me in the face is

282f0eaa028d2851cd1689724e8a76deWhiplash
Dir: Damien Chazelle

Andrew (Miles Teller) is a 19-year-old drummer just starting at a prestigious music conservatory who is spotted by Fletcher a music teacher (JK Simmonds). He’s allowed to audition for their award- winning jazz band, and feels everything is turning out great. But he soon discovers that Fletcher is a cruel and twisted perfectionist, who brings his players up to the top, and then has them crash down into the dirt again. He treats them worse than the toughest marine sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. The acting, the passion and the relentless tension in this movie is just incredible… you gotta see it. Don’t want to say Oscar bells are already ringing, but… Whiplash definitely deserves one.

434c654375241fb0e9419d0e7af58f03Mommy

(Dir) Xavier Dolan

Another great movie is Quebecois director Xavier Dolan’s latest, Mommy. It’s a reworking of his first film J’ai Tue Ma Mere, but takes it to a new level. Steve-o (Antoine Olivier-Pilon) is a working-class, foul-mouthed teenager with ADHD. He’s kicked out of boarding school and sent home to his single mom Diane (Anne Dorval) who is as gutter-friendly, violent and sexually charged as her boy. It’s up to Kyla, the psychologically-damaged ex-school teacher next door, to try to fix things and keep Steve from being locked up. Dynamic, shocking and hilarious performances from all three actors, Mommy is not to be missed.

Also catch a gentle, quirky, musical story called

ad8a5b8174106f7e916e8a3c98a356afHeartbeat
Dir: Andrea Dorfman

Justine (Tanya Davis) is a creative soul trapped in a boring cubicle job in Halifax. Her best friend is in babyland, her artist-boyfriend-with-benefits Ben has dumped her, and she dresses in her late grandma’s wardrobe. But when she starts jamming with Ruby (Stephanie Clattenburg) she met in a music store window, things begin tot look up. Justine starts to Esty-fy her wardrobe and arts-and-crafts her love life. Heartbeat starts slowly but toasts like a marshmallow on a stick, ending strangely shaped, but crispy, gooey, warm and delicious.

Look out for Heartbeat, Whiplash and Mommy at TIFF.
Robin Wright Congress Affiche
The Congress
Dir: Ari Forman

Robin Wright (Robin Wright) is an over-the-hill movie star who just ekes out a living. She lives beside desert airport with her jaded hollywood daughter Sarah and her innocent but ill son Aaron (Kodi Smit-McFee). She needs money to keep him safe. One day her agent (Harveyt Keitel) makes her an offer she can’t refuse.

A studio wants to buy her name, face, image, voice… basically everything, to turn her back  into a superstar. And theyre giving her a huge contract and a starring role in countless big budget action movies. The catch? She’s not allowed to act or appear in public ever again. Huh?

You see, they want to scan her to make a CGI image that will take her place in all 1233023_407824875984836_624904373_ofuture roles. A star who never ages, never gets into scandals, and never has tantrums on-set. It’s all digital.

Will she do it? 20 years in the future, they up the ante.

They invite her to give a speech at a mysterious Congress, where she — like everyone else — exists only as an animated image of herself. Sort of a Second Life only more so. With the help of Dylan (Jon Hamm), a handsome cartoon character 1048616_380428355391155_743806434_owho created her image himself, she tries to escape from this strange psychedelic cartoon version of her world, and maybe save her now-adult son.

This is a super-bizarre movie, filled with glorious animation modeled on Max Fleischer-type characters from the 1920s and 30s mixed with 1960s psychedelia. At parts I’m totally into it, but other parts have dismally awful lines. Its flawed, not perfect, but worth seeing if your into mind-stretching and super-weird fantasy epics.

The Congress opens today, check your local listings, and Heartbeat, Mommy, and Whiplash are all playing at TIFF which starts up next Thursday. Details at tiff.net.

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

Putting Together, Tearing Apart. Movies Reviewed: Earth to Echo, It’s only Make Believe, Borgman

Posted in Belgium, Coming of Age, Crime, Cultural Mining, Disguise, Fairytales, Horror, Movies, Norway, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on July 5, 2014

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.

Does your life ever feel like a never ending battle between order and chaos? This week I’m looking at three movies that explore this theme. There’s an American sci-fi adventure about kids trying to put the metal pieces of an extraterrestrial back together; a Norwegian drama about an ex-con trying to put her family life back together; and a Flemish movie about a mysterious visitor trying to tear a family apart.

Earth To EchoEarth to Echo
Dir: Dave Green

Three best friends — Munch, Tuck and Alex — go to Junior High together in Nevada. Munch (Reese Hartwig) is a chubby blond kid with with glasses. He’s the kind of boy who has to line up his ketchup packets, just so. He’s OCD. He’s also an electronics whiz. Alex (Teo Halm) is a tough talking foster child whose worst nightmare is being abandoned by his family. And Tuck (TV rapper Astro) is the leader of the group – he’s smart, but ignored by his parents and cooler, Earth To Echoolder brother.

They’re about to tear down their neighbourhood to build a freeway, so it’s the three boys’ last day together.. That’s when they discover something strange – cryptic messages coming through their cellphones that point to a place in the desert. They hop on their bikes and head out on an adventure.

Earth To EchoThis leads them to find a rusty hunk of junk… which turns out to be a living, sentient being of some kind. It’s a palm-sized metallic ET: an owl with awesome magnetic powers. Joined by a smart girl, they name the metal thing Echo and decide to help him find his spaceship to take him back to… well, wherever he came from. But can they EARTH TO ECHOoutsmart all the meddling grown-ups, and scary government agents, who might mess it all up?

Earth to Echo is a fun, kids’ movie, totally enjoyable by adults. It’s all about found footage and jiggly, handheld cellphone cameras. Obviously it harkens back to ET, with its Spielbergian feel, but it’s very much a contemporary story. More Super 8 than ET. No stars, simple dialogue, but very engaging characters, and awesome special effects involving pieces of metal coming together in midair. I liked this one.

1897928_707411882624939_320300712_nIt’s Only Make Believe
Dir: Arild Østin Ommundsen

Frank and Jenny are young lovers who do casual work together in small town Norway. That work involves petty crime, and they dress the part, with matching leather jackets and blonde hair. On their way to a small job, Jenny (Silje Solomonsen) tells him she’s pregnant. He’s elated, gives her a stolen engagement ring, and vows to stay together forever. But the simple job goes wrong and someone is killed. Ten years later, Jenny is out of prison, ready to start a new life. A childhood schoolmate, Gary, who works at a bank, wants to date her. But she has no money, just an old, broken down 14703_504149072951222_172066000_nhome. Fiance Frank is quadriplegic and comatose. Their daughter, Marete, born after Jenny was in prison, has a stepmother of her own. She’s into crazy dancing and horse riding. And, to 1239409_625710790795049_1287033371_nJenny’s dismay, the dark figures from her past – drug dealers and thugs — start to pop up again, trying to drag her back to a life of crime. Can she shrug off the old and start anew?

This movie is hard to categorize. One scene is a happy montage of playing with her 10-year-old daughter, and renovating her house. The next will be sinister encounters with violent criminals. Then more happy montage with pop/folk music… then more violence. Is it a family drama or a crime thriller? I have no idea. But the acting is good, the main star, Solomonsen, is easy to watch, and the story keeps you interested.

Borgman Poster236Borgman
Dir: Alex Van Warmerdam

Richard and Marina (Jeroen Perceval and Hadewych Minis) are a successful couple who live in a mansion surrounded by woods. He’s an arrogant but successful executive,
while Marina is a compassionate but bored and naïve housewife. A Danish nanny named Stine cares for their three perfect children.

But into this world comes Camiel Borgman (Jan Bijvoet) a borgman_20000188_st_4_s-highcombination magician, tramp, fantabulist, storyteller and demon. . He has long hair, a beard, and looks like he just stepped out of a Rembrandt painting. He, and his confreres Ludwig and Pascal, live like hobbits in borgman_20000188_st_1_s-highunderground houses connected by twisted tunnels. Rounding out their team are two deadly, female hitmen, and a pair of elegant race dogs.

They gradually work their way into the family and strange things begin to happen. Camiel tells strange old fairytales to the kids, indicting them into his view of the world. People start dying and disappearing. Richard notices an X mark tattooed onto his shoulder. And at night Camiel climbs onto Marina’s sleeping body like a succubus, implanting scary dreams into her thoughts.
Borgman_still_01-1
Borgman is a very strange, dark comedy, a combination fairytale, fantasy, horror movie and family drama. It remind me of French director Leos Carax, but with that distinctively cold northern European deadpan feel. Really weird, cool movie.

Earth to Echo is now playing and Borgman, and It’s Only Make Believe open today in Toronto. Check your local listings. Also opening today is Gerontophilia, from director Bruce La Bruce.

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

Mind Twisters. Movies reviewed: A Field in England, Divergent, Nymph()maniac (Parts 1 and 2)

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.

Brain teasers, mind-bogglers. This week I’m bringing you some real brain-twisting films. There’s a sci-fi-action-romance about a young woman caught in a futuristic caste-system determined by personality; a Euro comedy/drama about sex; And an absurdist British period piece about … I’m not quite sure what.

A Field in England Poster stacks_image_236A Field in England

Ben Wheatley

It’s 17th Century England in a field near Norwich. The civil war is raging. Three scruffy wanderers end up travelling together. They are heading toward a legendary alehouse where all their problems will be solved, all their differences will disappear. But things get complicated when O’Neal, a tall, sinister man, appears — seemingly out of nowhere — with a nasty henchman. The necromancer’s servant (one of the three travellers), tries to arrest O’Neal. But a warrant without a musket to back it up isn’t worth much in an English field. Instead, O’Neal press gangs the three men to dig for treasure. At least I think that’s the plot, but I’m not exactly sure.

People in this movie appear, disappear, die, un-die, turn into wooden posts, and drop magic mushrooms into unwatched soup pots.

Shot in beautiful black and white, with excellent contemporary experimental music, it leaves me scratching my head. Is it all just an acid trip by men wearing three-cornered hats in an historic battle reenactment? I cannot say. But it definitely belongs in the movie file labeled “WTF”.

DIVERGENTDivergent

Dir: Neil Burger

It’s Chicago a hundred years in the future. Society is divided into five castes, each with its own rules. Erudite is for the intelligent professionals who wear Wall Street suits. Abnegation is where the sympathetic and selfless helpers go — they control the government. And Dauntless is for the paramilitary – brave and aggressive.

Young Tris’s family (Shailene Woodley) is Abnegation. They wear beige, meditate, and eat whole grains. Tris only looks in the mirror for a few seconds each day. But when she attains age of majority and takes the annual test — to determine personality and faction – something strange happens. The test doesn’t work on her – it can’t assign her to a particular faction. This could mean she’s “Divergent” — someone who displays a personality that transcend a single type. And if the authorities find out, they’ll kill her.

To everyone’s surprise, she ends up joining Dauntless, trading beige burlap Divergent Theo Jamesfor black leather. She eats her first hamburger. She and the other Dauntless newbies are thrust into a world of violent, brutal competition, runaway L-trains and parkour jumping. She answers to a sadistic trainer Eric (Jai Courtney). Only her new best friends like Chris (Zoe Kravitz) help her hang on. But when she meets a Dauntless named Four (Theo James) is it love at first sight?

Divergent Kate WinsletIn order to stay in the faction she has to pass a series of tests that subject her to her worst phobias — her mind is read and recorded by a computer. Tris has to keep reminding herself: it’s not real.Will her secret be revealed?  Is Erudite, headed by Jeanine (Kate Winslet) plotting against the Abnegation faction? Is Four on her side? And will he ever understand how much Tris loves him?

Although Divergent occasionally veers into Twilight territory, with a few too many dewy-eyed moments, it mainly sticks to plot, action and great special effects. I liked it: a simple but neat concept, great special effects, and Shailene Woodley and Theo James are good as a team of romantic fighters.

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Nymphomaniac

Dir: Lars von Trier

Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is lying half dead in a dark alley, when an elderly intellectual (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her. He takes her into his home and nurses her back to health. She says she’s a nymphomaniac. And she proceeds to tell him the story of her life;  specifically, the sexual parts.

The stories she tells are based on the pictures she sees on the wall of his room. Is Nymphomaniac 13 photo by Christian Geisnaesshe an unreliable narrator? Maybe, but her stories are fun to watch.

Her first orgasm makes her levitate and leads to a visit by the Virgin Mary. (The Whore of Babylon, says Seligman.)

Later, she intentionally loses her virginity to a man named Jerome (Shia LeBoeuf). She describes it like this:  first I lay on my back and he thrust three times. Then he turned me over and thrust five times. And here’s how Seligman responds: Three, then Five? Why that’s part of the Fibonacci number sequence!

Joe is unadulterated sex. Seligman (an asexual virgin) represents pure reason.

chapter1As a young woman, she and a friend compete to see who can pick up – and have sex with — the most men, sequentially, on a train. The winner gets a bag of candy. Seligman: Why that’s like fly fishing – you send out the lure and try to reel it in at just the right moment!

Joe describes how she dates many nameless men simultaneously, avoiding all emotional entanglement. She actually rolls dice before calling a boyfriend to decide whether to be nice, pouty, or to drop him altogether. But she discovers her game affects many people besides just the men she has sex with.

Love rears its ugly head. Jerome is back, and she falls for him hook, line and Nymphomaniac Uma Thurman & Stacy Martin photo by Christian Geisnaessinker. But are they sexually compatible?

She describes encounters with anonymous men,  a long relationship with a BDSM master (Jamie Bell),  her try at a 12-step program, and finding a protege (Mia Goth) to take her place.

This movie is much too long to describe in a short review. It’s full of cinematic quotes from Von Triers’ earlier films – his own movie scenes reenacted. He Nymphomania chapter_2_photo_by_Christian_Geisnaes_2insults critics, pundits, himself… and occasionally the audience. For example, a  scene about Joe and two (supposedly) African men dredges up hoary racial stereotypes — it’s intentionally offensive. But it’s followed by an equally long scene with Joe and Seligman debating “political correctness”. The ridiculous sex scene is Jamie_Bell_LOWreally just a straw man to make way for a long discussion.

It’s also a movie full of explicit sex and nudity: at one point there are a hundred consecutive penis pics, but mostly it’s vagina, vagina, vagina. This movie could be subtitled The Vagina Mia_Goth_LOWDialogues. The symbols are everywhere: tunnels, alleys, window curtains, sliding doors, and holes in walls. It’s a woman’s sexuality filtered through the eyes of a male director.

There is also some repulsive, graphic violence, especially in Part 2. But above all, the movie’s a comedy. And I liked it – all four and a half hours.

A Field in England is now playing, and Nymphomaniac (Parts 1 and 2 — separate tickets), and Divergent both open today in Toronto – check your local listings. The Pasolini retrospective continues at TIFF (tiff.net) and Cinefranco, Toronto’s francophone film festival, starts next week: details at cinefranco.com.

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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