Lower Budget. Films reviewed: Dead in a Week, Nothing Like a Dame, Clara

Posted in Acting, Canada, comedy, Death, documentary, Movies, Romance, Science Fiction, Space, Suicide, Thriller, Toronto, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 30, 2018

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

There are lots of big-budget blockbusters and Oscar bait cluttering the theatres these days, but I thought I’d give you a break from all that. So this week I’m looking at three lower- budget films that might otherwise fall through the cracks. There’s a documentary on the hidden side of acting; a dark comedy about the humorous side of suicide; and a scientific romance about the spiritual side of astronomy and quantam physics.

Dead in a Week (or your money back)

Wri/Dir: Tom Edmunds

William (Aneurin Barnard: Dunkirk, Bigger, Bitter Harvest ), a brooding young English writer, is a total mess. He’s lonely and depressed, with a dead-end job, and daily rejection letters for his unpublished book. Things are so bad he wants to off himself. But he has terrible luck with that too. Each time he tries to kill himself something goes wrong, saving his life. In desperation, he hires an assassin to kill him. “Dead in a week or your money back.” His assassin, Leslie O’Neil (Tom Wilkinson: Selma, Denial, The Happy Prince ) was the country’s top hitman in his heyday, but no more. His homey wife and the Assassins League president are both pushing for him retire. But this hit could change his luck, putting him over the required minimum murders so he’s stoked and ready to kill. Everybody’s happy, until…

William gets an unexpected call from a publisher who wants to meet him. Ellie (Freya Mavor: The Sense of an Ending, The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun), an editor, is intrigued by his book. She’s also bright, cynical and pretty. Suddenly William has a reason to live. Trouble is you can’t cancel a contract once it’s been signed. And through a series of mishaps, other assassins are also on their tail. Are they both doomed? Or will they find love beneath a dark cloud in the picturesque southern counties of England?

Dead in a Week is Tom Edmunds’s first film, and it’s a very enjoyable, twisted comedy. It starts with a ridiculously implausible premise, but manages to ride it to a fun and unexpected conclusion. It twins bland, small town life – budgies and needlepoint – with bloody violence and an almost supernatural “League of Assassins”. And the main actors stick to their oddball characters in absurd situations without resorting to mugging or hamming.

This would make a perfect date movie for an emo and a goth.

Nothing Like a Dame

Dir: Roger Michel

What do actors Judy Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins have in common? They are longtime actors of the London stage, and good friends since the 1950s. They are also all addressed as “Dame” a title awarded by the Queen, the equivalent of Sir for men. This documentary follows them at their retreat in the English countryside as they reminisce about life on the stage, and reveal untold stories about what really was going on; their homelives and marriages. They talk abut naturalism, stagefright, forgotten lines, and whether they read critics of their work. And what it’s like growing old before the cameras.

I’m not a big celebrity hound, so a lot of what they say that might be common knowledge to you was all new to me. I never realized Joan Plowright was married to Lawrence Olivier. (How could I have missed that?) I remember as a kid seeing Maggie Smith as Lady MacBeth at Stratford… but until now I never knew that the reason she was in Canada was she was scared to perform Shakespeare in England. And that all four of them protested the Vietnam War at demos in London.

Nothing like a Dame is an enjoyable look at famous actors chatting. There’s also amazing footage of stage, film and TV performances spanning their careers. But if you’re expecting salty stories about clandestine romances and shocking backstage sex scandals, you’re not going to find them here. Everything they say is guarded and carefully worded, suitable language for a Dame.

Clara

Wri/Dir: Akash Sherman

Dr Isaac Bruno (Pattrick J Adams) is a young astronomy prof at a Canadian University, who works in a lab beside his best friend Charlie (Ennis Esmer: Sex after Kids). Isaac is a sweater nerd with wire rimmed glasses and a neck beard. He hates teaching, preferring to study the stars using Extremely Large Telescopes, continents away. He feels angry and adrift since his marriage collapsed. His only obsession? His search for evidence of life on a distant planet. And he needs to find it soon, before the WEBB telescope is introduced, opening the universe to amateur star searchers.

But when he loses his research priveleges he hires an unpaid research assistant to help analyze data in his home. But she’s not like his normal students. Clara (Troian Bellisario) is a free spirit in a duffelcoat with long black hair. She travels the world, carrying a pouch of small stones, one from each continent, to plot out her next journey. She’s a study in contradictions, a highschool dropout who can speaks five languages. And whenever she closes her eyes, she’s overwhelmed with images of galaxies, stars and planets… Can Clara’s spiritual views coexist with Isaac’s die-hard science-based research? Do they share a cosmic entanglement? And could there be a populated planet like Earth somewhere far, far away?

Clara is a nicely-made first film set in Toronto. It’s filled with amazing telescopic footage of quasars, meteors, galaxies and stars rushing through space, as visualized in Clara’s brain, and as seen through super telescopes. And I’m no astronomer, but the film seems accurate in its reading of space data. This is not a perfect film — some of the characters’ motivations seem too simplistic – but I still liked it.

Clara, Nothing Like a Dame, and Dead in a Week 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.

 

 

Cracks in the Foundation. The Continent, Rocks in my Pockets, Rosewater

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

From far away, porcelain looks smooth, shiny and flawless, but look too close and fine cracks appear. This week, I‘m looking at movies that expose the cracks in faraway Latvia, China and Iran. There’s an Iranian man who wants to leave prison; three Chinese men who want to leave their island, and a Latvian woman who, at times, wants to leave life altogether.

TheContinentThe Continent
Dir: Han Han

Three young men have lived their lives on a tiny, windswept island off the east coast of China. But they decide it’s time to check out the continent. Like in the classic Chinese novel, they set out on a “Journey to the West. They each have a different reason. Jianghe (Chen Bolin  [陈柏霖], who also starred in Buddha Mountain [觀音山] — read my review here) a school teacher an”d eternal optimist, is transferred by the government to a remote location far, far away. Haohan (Feng Shaofeng [冯绍峰]) is a blustering young man dying to see the world. He longs to stand on a determined mountaintop and shout to the world about the size of his dick. And he has a childhood pen-pal Yingying TheContinent_still2(Yolanda Yuan [袁泉]), a pretty girl he’ll finally meet face to face. And true love will soon follow. Their third friend, Hu Sheng, is mentally challenged, and depends on the other two to tell him what to do.

But they soon discover life outside their tiny island is bewildering and confusing. They stumble onto a movie set in WWII. And at their first hotel Jianghe is approached by an escort named Sumi, immediately followed by knocks on the door from aggressive police. Bewildered, he plays the hero, HanHanbusting out through a barred window and “saving” Sumi from a fate worse than death. Or so he thinks. And a sketchy, Cantonese hitchhiker helps them with their navigating – but can he be trusted? Maybe not, in a place where anything that you don’t hold onto with both hands when you gp to sleep will likely be gone by morning. But it’s also a country with stunning and empty vast vistas, rockets flying to outer-space, and cool and savvy people at every turn.

The Continent is writer-director Han Han’s (韩寒) first film, but he’s far from unknown. His blog is the best-known one in China which automatically makes him one of the most famous people in the world. This is not just a simple, picaresque road movie. It’s also a slyly humorous — if bleak — cautionary tale about life in contemporary China.

RocksinMyPockets_Poster_MediumRocks in My Pockets
Wri/Dir Signe Baumane

Signe is a Brooklyn artist, originally from Latvia, with a hidden family past. She wants to find out the truth behind the family matriarch, her late grandmother. On the surface, she was a preternaturally hard-worker, known for her Sisyphean feat of carrying endless buckets of water up a steep mountain. She had retreated to a backwoods cabin with her husband, an eccentric entrepreneur, to escape the difficulties of life in the city. But, after a bit of digging, Signe discovers a streak of depression, suicide and mental illness in her family stretching back three generations. The title refers to her grandmother’s attempted suicide by drowning – she was unsuccessful because she forgot to fill her pocket with rocks. Even if the mind wants to end it all, the body – until the last breath — will fight against dying. At the same time, Signe realizes that the many children and grandchildren managed to survive and succeed despite harsh time. In this film, Riga is imagined as a rocksinmypockets-1024x576place with enormous human faces on their buildings, within a country filled with animistic creatures with long tails, dog ears and goggly eyes that lurk everywhere, just out of sight.

Her odd family history is portrayed in a series of short, animated episodes, using panels of sketched characters moving against brightly-tinted Linda_Sc_080_with_WS_Thumbnailbackgrounds. These are interspersed with super-imposed stop-motion images made of rope and papier-mache figurines. This giuves the whole movie an unusual three-dimensional feel, combining classic drawing with computer-manipulated mixes. And omnipresent is the wry and funny –though at times grating – voice of the narrator telling and commenting on her family history. The director shows the deleterious effects of Soviet era psychiatry – one where cures consist of medicinal corrections to chemical imbalances – and how it makes some people long to “erase themselves” and ceasing to exist. A poignant, fascinating and great animated feature.

RW_LM_20130810_0238.jpgRosewater
Dir: Jon Stewart

Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) is an Iranian-Canadian journalist based in London. He lives there with his beautiful (and pregnant) wife. He is assigned to cover the upcoming elections in Iran, but quickly runs unto trouble as soon as he arrives. He quickly makes friends with a politically active and sympathetic taxi driver who takes him to areas fertile with dissent. But after witnessing a potentially explosive event he is arrested. His charge? Spying.

Ironically, a comic TV interview he had given to an American comedian on the Daily Show is used as evidence of his wrong doing. He is quickly thrown into solitary confinement in a notorious prison. He is psychologically tortured until — says the warden — his will is broken and he will lose all hope.

His family, it turns out, is no stranger to death and imprisonment for RW_NK_20130729_0700.jpgpolitical views under earlier regimes. Both his father and his sister had gone through it, and appear, in his mind, to convince him to hold on. But will he make it?

Rosewater is Jon Stewart’s first film, and it shows it. Stewart is known for the brilliant and funny The Daily Show that skewers mass media from a left-ish perspective. But a feature film is not a three-minute sketch. The movie starts out great with exciting scenes of news-gatering, but it starts to drag, heavily, once it moves to the prison. While it conveys the loneliness and suffering,  solitary confinement does not make for good cinema. Bernal and the supporting actors are fine, but the buffoonish prison guard and the sinister administrator seem too much like the evil twins of  Schultz and Klink to take seriously.

The Continent played at the ReelAsian Film Festival which continues for another week (reelasian.com), Rosewood played at TIFF this year and opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; and Rocks in my Pockets opened the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival (which features films on addiction and mental health – with an additional screening tomorrow: go to rendezvouswithmadness.com for times. Also opening: next week at Hot Docs there’s the great documentary called Point and Shoot about a young American traveler/journalist who, despite being non-religious and non-radicalized, nevertheless joins the rebel armies fighting in Libya (listen to my review here). And a surprising story about the Life of Pigeons on CBC’s the Nature of Things.

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

Daniel Garber talks to Emmanuel Shirinian and Michael D. Cohen about their new film It Was You, Charlie

Posted in Canada, comedy, Depression, Drama, Interview, Movies, Psychology, Romance, Suicide, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on August 15, 2014

 

Emmanuel Sharinian, Michael D Cohen It Was You, Charlie photo © Daniel GarberHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Poor Abner.

He was once a successful sculptor and a popular art prof, in love with a beautiful girl, best friends with his brother. A bearded bohemian, high on life…

Now he’s a total wreck, lonely and depressed, working as a doorman in a monkey suit. How did he sink into this pit if despair and degradation and can he claw his way back out? Or will he just end it all…?

So asks a new, dark comedy called IT WAS YOU, CHARLIE. It’s a first feature by film A71E-IWYC-PressPhoto001-cohenfest favourite writer/ director Emmanuel Shirinian, and stars rising comic actor and ACTRA award nominee Michael D. Cohen as Abner. It opens today in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. I speak with Emmanuel and Michael about this film, its story, the character Abner, magic realism, Buster Keaton, and more…

Marital Difficulties. Movies Reviewed: Side Effects, All in Good Time.

Posted in Cultural Mining, Drama, drugs, Family, Movies, Psychology, Romance, Sex, Suicide, Suspician, UK, Uncategorized, US, Wall Street by CulturalMining.com on February 17, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

After last week’s dip into low-brow genre movies, I’m back with some higher-brow dramas, suitable for viewing by grown-ups. This week I’m looking two enjoyable movies about marital difficulties. One’s a light family drama from the UK about newlyweds, and an American suspense/drama about the effect of prescription drugs on a young couple.

_MG_6630.CR2Side Effects

Dir: Stephen Soderbergh

Emily (Rooney Mara) is young woman married to a Wall Street broker who’s in prison for insider trading. She’s nervous but excited – Martin (Channing Tatum) is getting out: they’ll be together again after four years. But she’s getting more and more nervous. They were barely newlyweds when he was locked up and she’s worried about their relationship. Can their marriage just pick up where they left off?

So when things don’t live up to their potential  (bad sex)  Emily spontaneously steps on the gas in a parking garage and drives her car, full speed, into a concrete wall. In the emergency room she’s treated by a psychiatrist, Dr Banks (Jude Law).

He’s kindly and honest, but also scruffy and middle aged. He’s married to a brittle, ambitious Wall Street trader. So he’s touched by Emily’s stunning beauty, youth and neediness, and really wants to help her out. (Perhaps he even has romantic thoughts?)

So, after checking with her previous psychiatrist, the sultry Dr Siebert, (Catherine Zeta-Jones) he takes on her case and side-effects-A032_C011_0101LT_rgb_fg2do3ztstarts prescribing various medications – Zoloft, Abrixa — to ease depression, others to modify the side effects of the antidepressants, mood stabilizers… But they seem to just make things worse. Then a pharmacy saleswoman gets him to sign on for a lucrative, new drug-testing program – he needs the money.

But what about the side effects of all these drugs? For Emily, they lead to sleep-walking, bizarre mood changes, strange sexual response, and, eventually, to a bizarre, shocking incident. The case explodes onto the front pages, and the hapless doctor is drawn into a complicated drama. Suddenly his marriage is at risk, his career is in jeopardy and his private life is interrupted by droves of reporters. Who’s to blame? The drug company? The psychiatrist? The patient?

side-effects-A086_C013_0101PV_rgb_88erboizFull disclosure: I can’t stand most of Stephen Soderbergh’s recent movies. They’re misanthropic, bleak, drab, depressing. The people in his movies all seem obsessed with the crass problems of everyday life: things like real estate, accounting, medical problems, career advancement… as opposed to love, passion, family, art, religion or morality. They are also often incredibly drab in style – just blah. Especially lately, with terrible movies like The Girlfriend Experiment, The Informant, and Magic Mike. Never mind his five-hour snoozefest about Che Guevara.

I’m not saying he doesn’t know what he’s doing; he does. He constructs formulaic dramas in a spare style. I just don’t like them: they’re disturbing or distressing, not fun at all (not like some of his old stuff, like the terrific Out of Sight.)

But…but…but… That said, I actually really liked this movie! It has enough twists and shocks and plot turns to keep me glued to the screen. It starts as a straightforward, slow-moving drama, but becomes suspenseful, psychological drama, where even the doctor forced to question his own sanity. He also plays around with conventions, turning some on their head. The film and the camera function as unreliable narrators: what you see is not necessarily what happened.

Rooney Mara and Jude Law are great in this movie, and Channing Tatum does his usual job. But Zeta-Jones, on the other hand, stands out like a sore thumb. She’s unbelievably awful. It’s a smaller role, but still, just putting on a pair of glasses and pulling back your hair doesn’t equal “psychiatrist”. She looks and acts like a breathy soap-opera character – nothing like a doctor in a realistic drama. Is it just this movie, or is she always this terrible? Anyway, she’s not enough to ruin the movie. I really liked Side Effects.

All in good time 1All in Good Time

Dir: Nigel Cole

Things are great at the wedding. amid the jumble and confusion of two extended families living near Manchester, in the UK. Working-class Atul (Reese Ritchie) hangs out in a movie theatre and still lives with his parents in a council flat, while the much richer Vina (Amara Karan) is accustomed to a posher lifestyle. The newlyweds are quite in love. But, since the wedding, as his mother says, there has “been no planting in the Shalimar Gardens.” With his dad snoring and farting through the thin walls, Atul can’t get it up. And when word leaks out — via a trio of gossipy popcorn ladies at the local Bollywood show-palace — the scandal grows. He hasn’t yet shown his manhood – was the wedding just a failure?

His father, Eeshwar (Harish Patel), is a self-centred, bombastic boor, given to arm-wrestling and bad jokes. He’s all in good time 4constantly at war with his son. Things aren’t helped by a generation gap and Eeshwar’s own obsession with one-upmanship. Atul’s mother is much more understanding and pragmatic and is trying to get things back to normal. She reminds Eeshwar that their marriage also had a rocky start.

Will father and son ever see eye-to-eye? Will love keep the newlyweds together, or will stress destroy their marriage before it even starts? All In Good Time is adapted from a play by by UK playright Ayub Khan-Din, who did the fantastic East is East and its sequel West is West. all in good time 3And his was adapted from the 1960’s play All in Good Time (by Bill Naughton, who brought us Alfie), but set within a UK South Asian community. The father and son, the main characters (Patel and Richie) are just great, as are all of the female actors.

This movie is confusing and messy in the beginning, and takes a while to get into its groove, but when it does, it’s just delightful. Director Nigel Cole (known for Made in Dagenham and other small English dramas) is in fine form. All in Good Time is a very enjoyable romantic family drama.

Side Effects and All in Good Time both open today in Toronto. Also playing and worth checking out are some great documentaries, including West of Memphis, a epic documentary that tells the decades long story of three teenagers in small-town Arkansas who were arrested and charged with the satanic murder of a teenager… This is a harrowing case where the DA’s evidence consisted mainly of the fact that they wore black and listened to heavy metal bands. Check your local listings for times and screens.

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

June 8, 2012. Bodies. Movies Reviewed: Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, Harakiri: Death of a Samurai, Guilty of Romance

Posted in Art, Cultural Mining, Japan, Movies, Mystery, Sex Trade, Suicide, Toronto, Uncategorized, US, violence, Zatoichi, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on June 8, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Does art bore you? Do foreign movies with subtitles seem dull? Well, you’re in for a shock. Three shocks actually, that should rid you of that notion. This week I’m looking at three movies about people who use and abuse their bodies. One’s a Japanese drama about men who stick sharp objects into their stomachs in the name of honour; another is a Japanese dramatic thriller about two women who sell their bodies, but only for the thrill of it; and one is an American documentary about a woman who throws her naked body, full-force, at immobile naked men – but purely for artistic reasons.

To start with, here’s an art movie — well, a movie about art — that definitely won’t put you to sleep.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
Dir: Matthew Akers

Marina Abramovic is a beautiful artist in her 60’s, born in Belgrade to parents who were hardcore Communists who fought in the resistance in WWII. They were cold, militaristic and authoritarian, so she chooses to go in the opposite direction with her art. She becomes a pioneer in radical performance art, beginning in the 1970’s. She’s famous for using her own body — usually naked — as the medium of her art.

She cuts herself, burns herself, starves herself, hurts herself, throws herself against immutable objects, and whips herself. But she brings the military discipline with which she was raised to sustain these extended and painful performances.

Then she meets another artist in the Netherlands who does similar things, and they fall madly in love. Now she has a performance partner — Ulay — and a life partner. They slap each others faces, over and over, throw themselves body first into one another… things like that. And always naked, of course.

But all things end, and when they break up, she is devastated, both emotionally and artistically. She had always handled the artistic side but not the “business” side of art…

Flash-forward to the present. She has transformed herself into a hugely successful art superstar – mow as much a theatrical performer as an ideological artist — and the Museum of Modern Art decides to do a retrospective. But she’s in her sixties, so she gathers a whole gang of young artists with nice bodies in a performance art bootcamp and meditation lodge! They’re going to re-perform her old pieces using their new bodies.

And Marina herself sets up a (now famous) performance at MoMA that consists of her sitting in a chair in a huge, empty white hall for long periods of time in a chair, facing another chair. The viewers sit across from her, one by one, and look deeply into her eyes — no speaking, no moving, no eating… just staring, completely still. It becomes more and more popular, until it reaches the point where people are camped out on the sidewalk overnight, coming into New York City from distant places. Marina as superstar.  The movie follows her past (using period footage and photos), her ascent to celebrity-hood, her amazing performance, and her behind-the- scenes look at constructing this work. It’s equal parts art, fame, emotion and philosophy… with just a bit of hucksterism.

If you’ve never seen a movie about art (or if fine art intimidates you), this is a good one to start with — it’s exciting, sexy, entertaining, funny, shocking and totally accessible. Great movie!

Harakiri: Death of a Samurai
Dir: Takashi Miike

Did you know that Samurai were basically bureaucrats and tax collectors not fighters? Around 1600 after the Battle of Sekigahara unified the country under the Tokugawa military government, the samurai who had fought on the losing sides often found themselves as Ronin – samurai without a master. That left them penniless, aimless, and with a great loss in status.

So this movie’s about a poor ronin named Hanshiro who shows up at the House of Yii saying he wants to commit harakiri (ritual suicide). That’s where a samurai takes his smaller sword and slices up his belly until he dies… at which point, another samurai chops off his head… nice.

But what does the Daimyo’s rep say? “Oh no, not again…!” You see, a younger ronin named Motome had tried the same thing not long before. He was a scammer who just wanted a few coins as a payoff for not bloodying up their nice courtyard. But they called his bluff – go ahead and kill yourself. But he didn’t have the short sword – he pawned it and replaced it with a bamboo replica. But the cruel samurai says, doesn’t matter – and there’s a long painful scene where they force this young ronin to go through with this, to pierce his belly with a piece of broken wood! …ouch!

Anyway, back to the present, they tell this story and tell the older ronin he can go home, no problem. But here the plot turns…. Turns out he’s that younger ronin’s father in law, and he came to prove a point: that the samurai code, the vaunted code of warriors, that bastion of dignity and honour, is just a load of crap.

The movie culminates in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a Zatoichi (the blind swordsman) pic!

My description can’t do justice to this movie (and I don’t want to give it all away), but it’s a dark, tense drama and a damning challenge to authority and corruption, showing how false and hollow the whole thing is. It’s directed by Takashi Miike, who is known for his violence and excess, but is amazingly restrained here, with an almost Shakespearean take on a 17th century Japanese samurai drama.

Guilty of Romance
Dir: Sion Sono
(Restricted to age 18+)

Tokyo police detectives find a bloody scene in a love hotel, and want to uncover this mystery. But what a mystery it is!

It starts with a new bride who has a dictatorial husband. She’s a sexually naïve, traditional Japanese housewife who wears a kimono, with her hair pulled back, bows to her lover, and when he leaves for work in the morning (he’s a novelist) she dutifully turns his slippers around so they’ll be ready for him when he comes home.

Then one day she decides to take a job in a grocery store dressed in a little hat and a uniform offering sausage samples on toothpicks to passing shoppers. Soon, a woman claiming to be a modelling agent convinces her to pose for photos. This soon turns to nude photos, then to hardcore porn on video.

She is shaken by the experience, but also sexually awakened. She starts picking up guys she meets in central Shibuya, and gradually drifts into the nearby love hotel district (Maruyama). There she meets a crazed streetwalker who takes her under her wing, and tells her about a mythical, Kafkaesque “castle” where all things will be made clear to her.

So she becomes almost a disciple to this mysterious fiery-eyed and raven haired woman who tells her never, ever to have sex for free… unless she is with the one who loves her. But she soon finds out, this scary streetwalker is, like her, living a double life! She’s actually a well-known university professor who lectures to packed halls by day, but trolls the alleys in disguise by night.

But there’s still further deceit in their secret lives. Guilty of Romance is a violent, sexually explicit exploitation drama, based on a true story.

The director, Sion Sono, is amazing in that he takes very recent pulp news stories, and turns them into way-over-the-top funny, gory, emotionally fraught, and semi-pornographic sexual movies. I’ve seen three of his recent movies, and they’re all amazing. Not for the faint of heart, but if you like female-centred shock movies, with terrific pot-boiler stories and super creepy characters (like the grandmother who speaks ultra politely but drips venom with every phrase), this is the movie for you.

Guilty of Romance plays tonight, and Harakiri on Sunday – with a live Taiko performance — both as part of the Toronto Japanese Film Festival (which runs until the 20th at the JCCC); and Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present opens next week – check your local listings. The CFC World Short Film Festival is on right now through Sunday, and NXNE, Toronto’s enormous music, film, and digital festival, begins on the 13th, next Thursday.

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

February 17, 2012. Movies Reviewed: Monsieur Lazhar, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

Posted in Academy Awards, Canada, Cultural Mining, Death, documentary, Drama, Movies, Musical, Quebec, Suicide, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on February 20, 2012

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I’m back again…

This week I’m looking at two movies about men trying to preserve a culture. One is a drama about an Algerian refugee working as a schoolteacher in Quebec who turns toward his French childhood education for solace; and the other is a documentary about a sophisticated Yiddish writer who turned toward memories of his childhood in a small village as the inspiration for many of his stories.

Monsieur Lazhar
Dir: Philippe Falardeau
Two public school kids, Simon and Alice (Sophie Nélisse and Émilien Néron) make a shocking discovery one morning. Their teacher hanged herself the night before in their classroom. So now there’s a class without a teacher, a whole bunch of kids recovering from the trauma, and no one willing to take her place. So in walks Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) to the principle’s office and offers his services. He says he taught for 19 years in Algeria and would be honoured to take over the class. And for lack of an alternative, he’s the new teacher.

But he’s a recent newcomer to Canada, trying to qualify for refugee status after a horrific event back in Algeria. He’s recovering from one trauma while the kids in the class are getting over another one. He was raised in an Algeria that had been annexed by France, so he’s steeped in a lost culture, in a country on the brink of violent collapse. The kids don’t get him.

He regiments the desks in neat rows – no circles for him; and he does old-school stuff — like reading Balzac for dictee – and making the kids memorize conjugations and recite them in class.

He doesn’t understand all the new rules. No hitting students – in fact no touching students at all, anywhere, ever. Never talk about the teacher’s death – leave that to the psychologist. But the kids are clearly ridden with guilt, and Bachir wants to get through to them. Maybe by letting them lose their baggage he can release some of his own.

But can he get through to them with his old-fashioned, rigid and formal ways? Will he purge his own loss and let them – especially Simon And Alice – recover from theirs?

Monsieur Lazhar is a really good, complex, and subtle movie (nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.) The French actor Fellag manages to convey Bachir’s grief and compassion while remaining reserved, formal and secretive. It’s also quite funny – its not a drag-you-down movie. It was directed by Philippe Falardeau, who also made another great movie just a few years ago, also about a troubled kid in Quebec: C’est pas moi, je te jure! You should try to catch that one, too. Falardeau is amazing at capturing kids on film, with complete characters. Monsieur Lazhar is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film in a Foreign Language, and for Genie Awards for Best Picture, Director (Falardeau) , Actor (Fellag), Supporting Actress (Sophie Nélisse), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Music,  and Sound.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness
Dir: Joseph Dorman

Sholem Aleichem was the penname of a Yiddish writer who lived in the Pale of Settlement in Tsarist Russia. This is the long but narrow area stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea where Jews were permitted to live. Sholem Aleichem – a pen name meaning Mr how-do-you-do — wrote the classic tales of Tevye the milkman and the others in the village of Kasrilevka. He’s best known today because his stories were adapted into the famous musical Fiddler on the Roof. But he was also one of the pioneers who attempted to turned a looked-down-upon vernacular language, Yiddish, into a font of literature and high culture.

What I had never heard before, and which the movie shows, is that he was a really interesting character, that goes against the homey, nostalgic stereotype of his writing. He was a dandy, a dilettante, and a stock market gambler in Kiev, discussing poetry in cafes and squandering a small fortune.

This excellent documentary tears away the mythos of the renowned writer and exposes both his dark and embarrassing moments as well as his unknown triumphs. It uses black and white photos, playbills, posters, and even an actual audio recording of the writer voice, along with found footage and snapshots from the era to set the mood. Most interesting to me is the way the documentary situates the author, not just as some independent hero, but as one character in a broader political, historical and sociological context.

Monsieur Lazhar is playing now, and Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Dark opens next week in Toronto. And of course the documentary, Puppet opens on the 17th. Also coming soon in Toronto and Vancouver is a series of Kabuki performances captured on film, featuring the legendary onnagata actor, Tamasaburo, who plays only female roles, in the Heron Maiden. Check out the Japan Foundation for more information.

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

16 September, 2011. Women Directors at TIFF. Films Reviewed: Union Square, Elles, UFO in Her Eyes, Hysteria, PLUS Road Movie

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

TIFF is a strange and wonderful place. Where else can you go from watching a Russian movie (where all the characters speak German, but most of the actors just move their lips, open and closed, since they don’t speak either language)… to a quintessentially Winnipeg party celebrating another movie, where I ended up sitting at a table between stars Udo Kier and Louis Negin, tearing soft-core pictures out of old National Geographic magazines and new Taschen art books to glue onto paper in a collage. (It was a collage party – why not?)

Well TIFF may be winding down, but there are at least three more days left to see a huge amount of movies, and there are still tickets or rush seats available for most of them. Go to tiff.net for more information. So with no further ado, lets get to the reviews. This week I’m talking about four movies directed by and starring women in lead roles.

Union Square
Dir: Nancy Savoca

Jen (Tammy Blanchard), is a neat, pretty, quiet, and tidy
professional, originally from Vermont, living with he boyfriend in downtown Manhattan. She doesn’t drink or smoke, is a vegetarian, a yoga enthusiast, and runs a health food company out of her apartment. Her boyfriend and fiancé, Bill (Mike Doyle), is a generic-looking handsome Stanford grad, who keeps meticulous notes on his marathon training stats, and calls Jen “twig”. They’re happy.

But into this rarefied existence drops Lucy (Mira Sorvino), a loud-mouthed, gaudily dressed women who seems to know Jen for some reason. It’s soon revealed that she’s her sister. She talks at twice Jen’s volume, interrupts her, laughs, shrieks, cries, and breaks hundred of house rules (no shoes, no pets, no cigarettes, no meat) even in her first few minutes in the apartment off Union Square. She’s a working-class, Italian-American from the Bronx! And Rob’s parents are coming the next day for Thanksgiving dinner, even as Lucy camps out on a pile of things on the couch.

Will Jen’s potential marriage crumble as Bill discovers her real origins? Can she still “pass” as a suburban educated WASP? And will Lucy get a chance to explain some important family issues to Jen?

Union Square works like a one-act-play, with revelations, gradual changes in character, and a final concluding scene to explain some of what’s behind the two sisters’ fighting. And it makes for an enjoyable picture.

Elles
Dir: Malgorzata Szumowska

Anne (Juliette Binoche), is a reporter for Elle magazine in Paris. She’s writing a story on two separate, pretty college students she found Charlotte and Alicja (Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) who secretly work as well-paid prostitutes. Charlotte still lived with her parents, and Alicja was from Poland, studying in Paris but without a place to stay. As they describe their sexual experiences to her, the movie drifts in and out of their sexual experiences with their clients, or at least how Anne imagines them.

Anne begins with questions about how they were forced into this life, what miserable experiences they have, and whether it make them hate sex. But their answers surprise her. Charlotte says there’s a horrible smell that’s really hard to get rid of. Anne nods supportively – all that sex with strangers… No, says Charlotte, its the smell of the housing projects she used to live in with her parents, where she worked as a fast food cashier. Now? Life was wonderful with her new comfortable lifestyle, shoes, clothes, and food. Now she has johns teach her to make Coq au vin with Reisling, and, after sex, sit on her bed playing the guitar.

Anne begins to have sexual fantasies about their lives, even as she questions her own privileged, but meaningless and alienating consumer lifestyle, and how her husband and two sons all ignore her. Elles is pleasant, pretty and sexually explicit — if lightweight — and one that offers a pro-sex, feminist view of the trade thats different from most movies.

UFO in her Eyes
Dir: Guo Xiaolu

Guan Yu (Ke Shi) is a peasant who lives in rural southern China amid the small tree-covered mountains.
She has a roll in the hay with the town schoolteacher. Afterwards, she picks up a piece of crystal and looks at the sky where she’s sure she sees some flying saucers coming to earth. Soon, word has spread, and the ambitious communist party chief for the village (Mandy Zhang) has decided to make the town rich by forcing it to be modern, complete with an ugly town sculpture, a UFO amusement park, a 5-star hotel, and a golf course. The schoolteacher begins to teach his 8-year-old students to read Henry Miller. The town Chief declares Guan Yu a model peasant, and the married school teacher a model intellectual. The schoolteacher should divorce his wife and marry Guanyu to make a perfect couple for the town, and embrace Americanism – whether they want it or not. But what about all the people in the town – the poor, the migrant bicycle repairman, the farmers whose land is requisitioned to build a golf course, and the local butcher whose pig sty is declared unsanitary? As the haves are marching toward modernity richness, the disenfranchised are banding together to protest it. Which side will triumph? Will Guan Yu go with change? Or will she find her true love, the quiet, migrant bicycle repairman? And what about the UFO – will she ever see them again?

UFO in her Eyes, based on the director’s bestselling novel, is a cute satire of the new capitalism in rural China.

Wuthering Heights
Dir: Andrea Arnold
You probably know the story: Heathcliff, an orphan brought home from a port to a rural village in 19th century England, is baptized, and raised sort of as a member of the god-fearing family. He and his adopted sister, Cate, become very close, rolling around in the heather and mud of the moors. But they’re threatened by Hindley who thinks his dad likes Heathcliff more. When Cate decides to marry a rich man, Heathcliff flees the farm, and doesn’t come back for many years. Will they get back together and embrace their love, or will it consume ad destroy them both?

OK. The thing is, this version is done by the great director Andrea Arnold, who made Fish Tank last year – that’s why I wanted to see this. She makes some changes. People speak naturally, the camera is handheld, and jiggles around, lighting seems natural – sunlight or candlelight or complete darkness – interspersed with beautiful contemporary-looking costumes, and tons of shots of birds animals and plants. Most of the actors are non-actors, Hindley’s a racist skinhead and Heathcliff is black!

It doesn’t always work, and gets a bit tedious in the second half, but has some very beautiful scenes, like Cate blowing a tiny feather or licking the wounds on Heathcliff’s back. It’s an interesting, naturalistic take on what’s usually just a costumed melodrama.

Hysteria
Dir: Tanya Wexler

It’s Victorian London, and earnest and handsome young Dr Granville (Hugh Dancy) is trying without luck to help people stay clean and healthy while remaining loyal to the ideals of Lister, and modern medicine. He is hired by a psychiatrist, Dr Dalyrimple, who gives special treatments to rich, society women suffering from the blanket ailment “hysteria”. Women who were designated frigid, or nymphomaniacal, or moody, or argumentative – well, they’re all “hysterical”, so the problem must be in their uterus (and hysterectomies were sometimes considered a “cure”). Treatment consists of manual genital massages behind discretely mounted miniature red velvet curtains.

He’s engages to marry the Dalyrimple’s conservative daughter Emily; she’s a pianist and an phrenologist: Oh, Dr Granville, your thrombus is rigid and jutting! she says after feeling the bumps on his head. But he always seems to be in arguments with the fiery Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhall) a suffragette and social worker who runs a settlement house in the impoverished East End. And poor Granville might lose his job because of the repetitive stress injury in his right hand. But, together with his gay best friend and steampunk inventor (Rupert Everett) he just might have the solution to eveyone’s problems– a new machine that may permanently cure hysteria.

I was expecting nothing from a movie about the invention of the vibrator, but it was a real treat – a romance, a comedy, an historical drama, an old-fashioned Hollywood-style movie, along with a taboo twist. Try to see it this weekend – it’s a great movie!

Union Square, UFO in her Eyes, Wuthering Heights and Hysteria are all playing now at TIFF – check listings at tiff.net . And also check out Road Movie, a two sided, three-screen video installation at the O’Borne Gallery by Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatki that shows pixilated footage tracing the roads in the occupied West Bank (from the view of the Israeli settlers on one side and Palestinians on the other) with their words superimposed in short phrases over the footage.

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

Movies for Grown-ups. Films reviewed: Of Gods and Men, Nora’s Will, Unknown. Plus upcoming film festivals

Well, if you ever need a break from standard Hollywood fare, I’ve got a few movies that are watchable but slightly outside expected norms.

This week I’m going to talk about three movies notable for having mature characters (meaning they’re over 14); movies that deal with questions of identity, religion, and the concepts of alienation and acceptance; and movies that take place in small communities within larger ones. They also take place outside the United States: one in Berlin, one in Mexico City, and one in a small village in Algeria. And these movies all feature great actors, even in the smaller roles.

Nora’s Will

Dir: Mariana Chenillo

Jose shows up at his ex-wife Nora’s apartment one morning to find the coffee being made, fresh food in the fridge, everything arranged for the day, but with Nora in her bedroom, dead. They’ve been divorced for 20 years, but he still lives right across the street.

Jose (Fernando Luján) is shocked by her death, but even more surprised when he discovers her plans are still unfolding. Nora is a Jewish, Mexican woman, and it appears she arranged for her funeral to coincide with a final Passover dinner. She has left little post it notes all around her apartment, and the calls start coming in as planned – her eccentric cousin from Guadalajara is on her way, their children are returning from their vacations, and her doctor is also showing up, and so is her Rabbi.

Jose bristles at both his ex-wife’s religious beliefs and her arrangements, so he makes it his unspoken goal to mess up all her plans. He suspects she had a lover, and wants to find evidence of that in her apartment. Even after her death he is still obsessed with his ex-wife. And in order to do what he can to disrupt the funeral he offers pepperoni pizza to the kosher rabbi, festoons the apartment with giant floral crosses, and tries to hide all the post-it notes about her planned last supper. And once the rumour escapes that Nora may have committed suicide, Jose’s disruptive plans spin out of control, with a possibility that there will be no where at all to bury her. His daughter in law is pissed-off, her housekeeper is suspicious, and the various other characters all seem ready to explode. Can JOse pull everything back together again? And does he want to?

This is a pretty funny movie, sort of a gentle, drawing-room comedy about middle-class, urban life in Mexico – something I’ve rarely seen in a movie before. And it reveals (in flashbacks) some unexpected secrets of the family – or at least secret to the movie viewer – so it keeps your interest as the stories unfold, and the plot gains more depth. Nora’s Will is a good, funny and, in the end, poignant portrayal of a damaged relationship, and their need for closure. And it won eight awards from the Mexican Academy of Film, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

Of Gods and Men

Dir: Xavier Beauvois

This is a movie about a peaceful monastery of Trappist monks in Algeria in the 1990s. They don’t proselytize or evangelize; instead they just make honey, tend to the sick and the poor, and spend the rest of their time in prayer and meditation. But civil war tensions enter into their lives, when Islamist extremists are getting closer, and start attacking nearby villages, and the equally violent — though ardently secular — military wants to place armed gunmen inside the monastery.

This is based on the true story, (made clear even in the ads) of their tragic massacre, so their fates are not a surprise, but the movie is about the period before then when they debate whether to stay in Algeria or go back to France.

The movie itself is constructed in a very formalistic way – scenes of their uneventful daily routines are contrasted with the increasingly violent events encroaching on their lives. Each short section is concluded with a silent tableau of the white-robed monks praying. Their feelings are subtly reflected by their postures at prayer: standing tall, or hunched in a circle, or reclining at rest, or collapsing in despair… a silent visual commentary on the events in their lives.

They start out as an undifferentiated mass, unidentifiable one from the next, but gradually their identities, names and personalities are made clear. Well, sort of… I thought the director made them more into a real-life version of the seven dwarves: Doc, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy… They seemed more like allegorical figures than real people, with only Christian, the Abbot (Lambert Wilson), the leader among the brothers, and Luc (Michael Lonsdale), a doctor who spends much of his time in native dress, as fully-formed characters.

Of Gods and Men is a slow-moving, but not boring, beautifully constructed look at monks’ lives as religious martyrs, proto-saints, and nearly-flawless examples. Is there anyone who doesn’t like monks?

But it left me feeling slightly duped by the religiosity of it all, with its story and characters made less real, and more like a sunday school lesson, by their hagiographic portrayals. The whole movie felt like a parent or a priest wagging his finger at the collective movie goers, as a lesson in religious purity and peity.

And you had to wonder about the film’s point of view.

Remember, Algeria was a colony, annexed and ruled as an integral part of France up until the end of their bloody war of independence in 1962. So you have to wonder about a French movie portraying the Algerian soldiers as the bad guys, and the Islamist extremist as the other bad guys, with the only good guys being the French monks (and the local villagers) still in Algeria. Sketchy, n’est-ce pas? While I feel nothing but sympathy for the massacred trappist monks, this movie really seems to be shedding a tear for France’s whole lost empire.

Unknown

Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra

Dr Martin Harris, a scientist, arrives in Berlin with his wife Elizabeth to give a presentation on agricultural biology. But at the doors of their luxury hotel he realizes he left his briefcase at the airport. So he hails a cab and rushes back. But there’s an accident on the way that plunges the car into a river, with the pretty cabby risking her life to save his. Four days later, he comes to in a hospital bed with a brain injury, his mind confused. He rushes back to the hotel to find his wife, but when he gets there, she denies knowing him, and, stranger still, she has checked in with another man, also claiming to be Dr Martin Harris! Whoa…!

So here he is, with a bandaged head, no ID, no money, in a strange city he’s never been to, and he knows nobody there. His identity has even been wiped clean on the Internet – he doesn’t exist. And he starts to have paranoid thoughts – is that guy in a parked car waiting for him. Is that other guy with round glasses following him? And how about the man on the subway? Is he losing his mind? But, as they say, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

So Martin teams up with some locals to try to solve the mystery – the nice illegal immigrant cabby, and a blandly sinister detective who used to be in the Stasi, the East German secret service. What’s going on? What happened to his wife? And is he in danger? Unknown is a not-bad mystery/thriller with a Catalan Director, and a really good , largely European cast – Liam Neeson as the confused yet violent Martin, the great Bruno Ganz as the Stasi agent, Sebastian Koch as the German scientist, and Diane Kruger as the cabby; as well as Americans like January Jones as his wife, and Aiden Quinn as the man pretending to be him.

I thought the mysterious set-up of the first half was more satisfying than the car chases, shoot-outs and fights of the second half (when the secrets are revealed and the plot chugs along its way) but it’s not a bad, mystery/thriller.

In Toronto, festival season is starting up soon. Here are some of the lesser known festivals.

Look out for the Toronto Silent Film Festival starting on March 30th, with bog stars of the silent era like Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and Harold Lloyd, and great directors like FW Murnau, Hal Roach and King Vidor. Look online at http://www.ebk-ink.com/tsff/home.html

The Female Eye Film Festival features movies directed by women, including a Canadian psychological drama, The High Cost of Living directed by Deborah Chow. Check out listings at http://www.femaleeyefilmfestival.com/

And the Images Festival, North America’s largest collection of art and culture in the form of moving images on videos and in film, starts on March 31. Go to imagesfestival.com.

Nora’s Will opens today in Toronto, and Unknown and Of Gods and Men are now playing. Check your local listings.

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