Women, Desire. Films Reviewed: The Misandrists, The Feelings are Facts: the Films of Nazlı Dinçel

Posted in 1990s, Berlin, Feminism, Germany, Lesbian, LGBT, Satire, Sex, Sex Trade, Terrorism, Turkey, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 1, 2019

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

This week I’m looking at avant-garde, sexual films. There are lesbian terrorists in Germany disrupting the patriarchy, and a filmmaker in Wisconsin disrupting the traditional documentary.

The Misandrists

Wri/Dir: Bruce LaBruce

It’s 1999 in a forest near Berlin.

In a stately manor, uniformed schoolgirls study biology, philosophy, and politics, taught by stern nuns with severe habits. The school’s symbol? A cross on an orb. The girls share their meals with the nuns at a candle-lit table. But this is no ordinary girls’ school. The students are all adults, former petty thieves, runaways and sex workers. Their teachers are radical feminist separatists. The habits they wear are just costumes they put on to fool outsiders. Their prayers celebrate the fact they were born as women not men, and they worship the vagina, ova, reproduction, and lesbian sex. (And the cross and the orb is actually an inverted women’s symbol!)

Big Mother (Susanne Sachsse) sleeps beneath giant mugshots of Emma Goldman. She tells the students to practice sex with each other – but avoid monogamy. Some of them watch explicit gay porn for helpful tips. Their ultimate goal is to destroy the patriarchy and create a world without men… by any means necessary. Their first terrorist action as the FLA (The Female Liberation Army) will be to force Berliners to watch the all-women porn film they plan to create. All the students are happily engaged in sex, except one: Isolde (Kita Updike). For some reason she feels excluded. But this isolated world is disrupted by an unexpected arrival: a wounded revolutionary named Volker (Til Schindler) fleeing the police. Isolde hides him in the basement. What will happen if the man is discovered? Will the FLA’s action be a success? And is there a traitor in their midsts?

The Misandrists is Toronto’s homocore punk pioneer Bruce LaBruce’s latest film And his first with a nearly all-female cast. (It’s a follow up to The Raspberry Reich, also about German radical activists, and is strongly influenced by The Beguiling.) It stays true to Blab’s earliest super8 films, combining satire, humour, queer topics with explicit sex, radical politics, and a distinctly non-Hollywood feel. The cinematography (James Carman), costumes and makeup go way beyond his early films, but the intentionally shocking and disruptive style is true to form.

Does it all make sense? Kind of. Does a slow-motion pillow fight with scantily-clad young women make fun of 1970s softcore porn… or is it just gratuitous titillation? I’m not sure why there are extended scenes of women necking with a hard boiled egg, and some of the extended political screeds recited in flat monotones test any viewer’s patience… but again deliberately, revisiting German expressionism.

Agitprop as lesbian porn.

But it really hits home with its sex-positive attitude combined with clever challenges to preconceptions about gender, sex and genitalia (ie “what makes a woman a woman?”).

It’s funny, surprising and ultimately satisfying. Just don’t expect a traditional, mainstream movie.

The Feelings are Facts: the Films of Nazlı Dinçel

Nazlı Dinçel is an American filmmaker in Wisconsin, who immigrated from Ankara, Turkey as a teenager. Her work documents her sex life on 16 mm film, in an often abstract and disjointed manner. Her embrace of the tactile nature of her topics translates into a handmade, hands-on style of filmmaking. A typical short film will alternate between over-exposed film stock or a black screen and explicit footage. A large part of her films is the text, recited dispasionately by the narrator and accompanied by the same words scratched or burned into the film stock itself… often one word (or part of a word) at a time.

Her images vary from disjointed body parts – vaginas, penises, buttocks, mouths – and the omnipresent hands and feet, painted with glittery nailpolish. Her forms include shots of nature and ancient ruins, as well as more intimate bedroom shots. Images are framed by lens irises, reflected in mirrors, bookended between black, silent screens. Sound consists of voices, pop music, and a constant ticking and scratching sound (is that the sound of the 16mm camera itself?)

Her stories come from her own sexual experiences, retold. Her early days of solitary experimentation as a teenager hidden in a washroom where she lost her virginity, she tells us, to a carrot. And her later relationships and sexual encounters. It also deals with her own cross-cultural alienation, with Turkish folklore and Islamic prayer clashing and combining with her changes in adolescence and as a woman.

In Her Silent Seaming (2014), she shares the bedside murmurs of some of the men she has slept with. As the narration progresses it gets more and more repetitious with the words scratched into film eventually reaching a disturbingly frantic peak. Images vary from blurred footage of sex organs to the artist herself in a Marilyn Monroe wig kissing a mirror with her lipsticked mouth.

Solitary Acts (4,5,6) (2015) consists of three films of thoughts and memories of sexual experimentation, culminiatng in explicit, extreme close up footage of a woman, presumably the filmmaker, pleasuring herself, andlater doing the same to an unidentified man.

Shape of a Surface (2017)

…takes us to ancient Roman ruins in Turkey, with a call to prayer in the background as she observes headless Roman statues, and later orally worships a living man.

Between Relating and Use (2018)

…is the most cerebral of all the films, a semiotic examination of fetishes, in both the anthropolical and sexual sense of the word. But of course it also includes her trademark sparkle-nailed foot paired with a man’s genitals.

Instructions on How to Make a Film (2018) introduces beginner filmmakers to the joys of film, a medium she admits is nearly obsolete.

These are beautiful, thoughtful, deliberately disjointed, and highly personal films. As they progress so do the images, with written words becoming less and less reliable, until in some of her later films they cease to match their meaning.

I have only seen a digital version of these films on my computer, but you can see the original short films in all their 16mm glory at the AGO Jackman Hall on February 12 as part of the monthly Vertical Documentary series.

Nazlı Dinçel will be present at the screening. And you can see The Misandrists at the TIFF Bell Lightbox tonight with Bruce LaBruce in person for the Q&A.

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

Kinship. Films reviewed: Vox Lux, Shoplifters

Posted in Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Japan, Movies, Music, Terrorism, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 21, 2018

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

The holiday season is a time when families get back together, for good or for ill. So this week I’m looking at two movies about family and kinship. There’s a pair of sisters turned pop musicians, where one holds the scars of a terrible incident; and a makeshift family that rescues a small girl with scars.

Vox Lux

Wri/Dir: Brady Corbet

Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a god-fearing high school student in Staten Island, New York. She likes music, church and her big sister Eleanor (Stacey Martin) who always looks out for her. But her world turns upside down when a non-conformist kid pulls out a gun in music class, and starts shooting people down. Celeste tries to reason with him; she ends up wounded but not dead. She recovers with a scar on her neck. At the memorial for the mass shooting she performs a song which soon goes viral.

She and her sister are quickly signed to a major label by their manager (Jude Law) and whisked off to Sweden. There they experience the heady brew of extreme wealth, celebrity and number-one hits. But it also exposes them to the cruel scrutiny of tabloids and paparazzi that accompany celebrity.

Still a teenager, she loses her virginity to another musician, tries drugs and alcohol for the first time, and begins a gradual downward spiral toward addiction and paranoia. But she also establishes herself as an international icon, with her sparkling makeup, severe haircuts, and sequined outfits mimicked by devoted fans. She always wears a band around her neck both to hide and commemorate the scars of the shooting.

Years later Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) plans for a comeback, culminating in a stadium concert back in the hometown she left after the shooting. Now she’s brittle and bitter, addicted to drugs, and full of anger and pain. And she has a daughter (played by Cassidy, the young Celeste) brought up by the more responsible sister Eleanor. As she works toward the ultimate concert, a disturbing incident hits the headlines. Halfway around the world, fans wearing her distinctive makeup and clothing commit a random act of terrorism. Is she to blame? Will her career crash and burn? And if she performs her stadium show in her home town, will this lead to yet another massacre?

My brief description of the film suggests a music biopic crossed with an action movie. It’s neither. It’s actually a visual and audio collage of the impressions of a teenaged girl in the high pressure world of pop music, and the adult who emerges from it. Vox Lux is a short film, and at least a third of it is taken up by music performed on a stage before an actual audience. The music is by SIA and actually sung by Natalie Portman. The plot is mainly a background for the director’s experiments with sound and image filtered through the cruel world of social networks. Recurring shots of endless tunnels and aerial views of cities give it a hypnotic effect, and the music gives it a haunting feel. Though the movie feels incomplete, I liked the look and sound of it.

Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)

Wri/Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu

It’s present day Tokyo. Shota (Jyo Kairi) is a young boy living in an urban paradise. He’s smart, resourceful and brave. He studies at home – where he learns not just reading and writing, but also essential survival skills and the ways of the world. He lives with his grandma, his mom and dad and his big sister Aki, a family brimming with love. They are always there to rescue him from trouble and help him through bad times. They share responsibilities and eat dinner together. No one tells Shota to clean his room or wash the dishes. This is a life rich in traditions, superstitions, and family lore. And there’s lots of time to tell stories, go to the beach, or go fishing.

Or

Shota lives in a filthy, ramshackle house, a Dickensian den of petty criminals, thieves and con artists. This so-called family of vaguely-related misfits shoplifts their dinners and daily needs to stay alive. Dad (Lily Franky) works as a casual labourer, Grandma (Kiki Kirin) receives payments from an unknown source, teenaged Aki (Matsuoka Mayu) performs behind glass at a peepshow arcade, and mom, sometimes called auntie or Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) makes do with a parttime job pressing garments in a small factory. Even young Shota helps them all by pocketing food and shampoo while dad distracts the clerks.

But homelife takes a subtle shift with the newest family member.

Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is a little waif, horribly abused and neglected by her young parents… they always see her staring whistfully through her balcony bars, like a prisoner hoping to be rescued. They adopt her into their family, after discovering scars and burn marks all over her arms.

She immediately adapts to her new life, especially the love, attention and lack of fear she never experiences at home. They ask her if she wants to go home, but she adamently refuses… she likes it better here. But when her case becomes known as a kidnapping, it spells trouble. Can the family survive this a brush with authority? Or will it all come tumbling down? And would government intervention make their lives better or worse?

Perhaps I’m biased: I’ve interviewed Kore-eda four times, more than any other director, because I love all his films. But in my opinion Shoplifters is a fantastic movie, definitely one of the year’s best. It deals with poverty, nonconformity and precarious lives coexisting within one of the richest cities in the world. It explores what a family really is: is it something designated by law, or could it be a family by choice, where the members designate their own names and roles.

Hirokazu Kore-eda, TIFF17, photo by Jeff Harris

It stars many of his past actors – Lili Franky, and the late Kiki Kirin – and replays some themes from his early films. Our Little Sister was about whether a half-sister can be accepted into a complete family. Like Father, Like Son, where a family discovers their son was switched at birth, explores whether it’s nature or nurture that makes kinship real (Lili Franky plays the “bad dad” in that film.) After the Storm is about a delinquent dad trying to rebuild his family (also co-starring Lili Franky and Kiki Kirin). The Third Murder, a courtroom drama, deals with an accused murderer and his role as a surrogate parent to a high school girl. And in Nobody Knows, there’s a family made up of abandoned kids living in a highrise in central Tokyo.

Shoplifters (or Shoplifter Family, the more accurate Japanese title) is a culmination of all these films, a distillation of all their best elements.

It’s also exquisitely laden with relics of an older Japan – filled with glass bottles, printed cotton, paper calenders, snow men and fishing trips – that impart a soft, glowing light to all the scenes.

Detailed and nuanced, I strongly recommend Shoplifters to all.

Vox Lux and Shoplifters both 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.

Strong female roles. Films reviewed: In the Fade, The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches PLUS Forever My Girl

Posted in C&W, Depression, Drama, drugs, Family, Germany, Nazi, New Orleans, Quebec, Terrorism by CulturalMining.com on January 19, 2018

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

It’s funny. A few years ago I was wondering what happened to all the female movie stars? They had been pushed into the margins, with hardly any good female roles. This year, though, there are more great female performances than you shake a stick at. Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, Francis McDormand in Three Billboards, Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman, Claire Armstrong in Dim the Fluorescents, Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, and so on.

So this week I’m looking at some more powerful performances by women in very intense movies. There’s a woman in Hamburg confronting Nazi terrorists, and an isolated teenager in rural Quebec reacting to the outside world.

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes)

Wri/Dir: Simon Lavoie

It’s some point in the distant past in rural Quebec. Two brothers with dirty faces and scruffy hair (Marine Johnson and Antoine L’Écuyer) live with their father on an isolated farm in the woods. They’re close enough to the next village to hear churchbells in the distance, but they never go there. It’s a grand old stone manor filled with empty rooms and whole sections blocked off. The teenaged boys are forbidden from seeing them. If you go there, says their father (Jean-François Casabonne) you will die.

The house is lit by church candelabra arranged on altars with lanterns carried through the dark halls. The boys can read but most books are forbidden. They listen to liturgical records on their wind-up gramophone. And the younger brother sometimes visits a terrible monster, locked up in a dark shed. He feeds it apples and pieces of bread through gaps in a wooden cage.

The boys dress in frontier clothes and priest’s hassocks. Younger brother has to keep watch – his bullying older brother often jumps him in the woods and does something to him he doesn’t understand. He keeps his chest tightly wrapped in cloth – his father insists. But he still has questions. He has seen pigs mating in the sty. Why don’t I have a penis? His father says, I told you, it fell off when you were younger. He also believes babies are made out of clay.

It’s a rough life, but it’s all they know, save for faint memories of a beautiful woman in a white dress, and two little girls in pinafores. In fact they can’t remember ever seeing someone from the outside. Until one day when a young man (Alex Godbout) drives to the house on a motorcycle. The town needs to survey the property, he says, but Père and Frère chase him away with their rifles. Is he a knight in shining armour? Or does he signal an invasion by the churchgoing villagers? And when something happens to Père, the two boys discover the house’s secrets, and some of their own. Like the fact that the younger brother… is pregnant!

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches is a powerful, surreal drama with an almost fairytale feel. It tells the story of naïve teenagers whose father (who went mad) is their only source of information. It’s shot in stunning black and white, and is filled with sinister images of the all-pervasive Québec church. It’s creepily fascinating with fantastic acting by L’Écuyer and Johnson. This is a great — but highly disturbing — movie.

In The Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

Wri/Dir: Fatih Akin

It’s present-day Hamburg. Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger) is a happily married woman with a young son named Rocco. She likes artistic tattoos, going to saunas with her best friend Brigitte and making love to her husband. Nuri is of Kurdish ancestry, but wears his hair like a samurai. They were married when he was still in prison. Now he runs a translation office in a Turkish section of town.

Katja’s life is nearly perfect until something devestating happens. An explosioin levels her husband’s office killing him and their son. It turns out it was a bomb, possibly the work of terrorists. And Katja thinks she knows who did it. She saw a blonde woman park her bike right in front of the office on the day of the explosion. In fact she even spoke to her so she knows she’s German. But the police, the press, even her own mother, keep looking at the victim as the cause of the killing. Is it the Turkish Mafia. Islamic terrorists? Drugs?

Katie talks with Danilo her lawyer and good friend (Denis Moschitto) to make sense of it all. They realize it must be be a right wing terrorist — a nazi — who did this. Eventually the police make an arrest based on her description, and two Nazis, a young couple named Edda and Andre Möller (Hanna Hilsdorf, Ulrich Brandhoff) are put on trial for the killings. But will they be convicted?

In the Fade is a great dramatic thriller that combines Katja’s grief and sorrow with her need for vengeance. It’s told in three chapters: her interactions with her family, in-laws and the police; the trial itself; and the heart-pumping aftermath, when she decides to track down and punish the killers. Diane Kruger is just fantastic as Katje, the best I’ve ever seen her, and she puts her whole body and soul into the part. You can really feel her anger, grief and frustration, but she never overacts.

I liked this movie a lot.

Also opening today is this romantic drama:

Forever My Girl

Wri/Dir: Bethany Ashton Wolf (based on the novel by Heidi McLaughlin)

Liam Page (Alex Roe) is a Country & Western superstar. He writes and performs his own songs with a back-up band. He can fill a New Orleans stadium with adoring fans.  Teenaged girls will chase him, screaming, down a city street when he appears in public. They love his smooth voice, handsome face and his sentimental songs. But offstage Liam is a real prick. He’s emotionally vapid, sleeping with different groupies each night. He’s rude and abusive toward his affable, bearded manager Sam (Peter Cambor) and his LA publicist Doris. And he’s addicted to alcohol and drugs.

He carries only one thing to remind him of his life as a smalltown boy: an old flip phone with a recorded message. But after a tragic turn of events, he finds himself back in his hometown, St Augustine, LA, for a funeral. He may be famous, but in “the Saint” his name is mud. You see, he was engaged to marry his highschool sweetheart Josie (Jessica Rothe) eight years earlier, but left her standing at the altar, without an explanation or apology.  When she sees him now, Josie greets him with a sucker punch. And he discovers he has a 7-year-old daughter named Charly (Abby Ryder Forston) that Josie has been raising on her own.

Can Liam change his ways and conquer his demons? Will Josie ever talk to him again? Can he spend time with his precocious daughter? And can his father, the town preacher, forgive his selfish son?

I’m not a big fan of country music or conventional romances involving small-town churchgoers — this is not the kind of movie I rush to see.  It takes few risks and most of the characters walked straight out of Central Casting. But I found it entertaining anyway. I assumed the aw-shucks, southern boy Liam was played by a non-actor, a country singer who basically played himself — woodenly, at that — and performed his own tunes. Turns out I was way off the mark. This UK actor had me convinced he was a real country singer from the Deep South!

In the Fade and Forever My Girl open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches is playing at Canada’s Top Ten festival; go to TIFF.net for details. Also opening today is Hostiles (read my review here) and My Piece of the City  (listen to my interview with director Moze Mossanen here). 

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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Goethe Films: Margarethe & Barbara. Films reviewed: Hannah Arendt, Rosa Luxemburg, Marianne & Juliane

Posted in 1910s, 1960s, 1970s, Germany, melodrama, Movies, Nazi, Terrorism, WWI, WWII by CulturalMining.com on September 29, 2017

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

Margarethe von Trotta is a leading German director and one of the only women in the New German Cinema (Neuer Deutscher Film) of the 60s, 70s and 80s. She co-wrote and co-directed (with Volker Schlöndorff) the first commercially successful film of that movement – The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Though her films are about dynamic women and told from a female point of view, von Trotta has distanced herself from some schools of feminist cinema. She creates movies about women, but not “Frauenfilm” (women’s movies).

She started her career as an actress, so she knows how to draw amazing performance from her actors. And she has a decades-long working relationship with one actor in particular: Barbara Sukowa.

Barbara Sukowa is a reknowned actor with a beautiful, square face that she completely transforms to match each character she portrays. She can play a role as both passionate and restrained, her emotions churning just beneath the surface.

This week I’m looking at three great films (based on historical figures) directed by Von Trotta and starring Sukowa. They’re part of a special series called Goethe Films: Margarethe and Barbara playing on the 3rd, 5th and 12th of October at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. There’s a melodrama about a revolutionary, a family drama about a terrorist and her sister, and an intellectual drama about a journalist-philosopher.

Hannah Arendt (2012)

It’s the 1960s in New York city. Hannah Arendt (Sukowa) is German-born writer and philosopher who is part of the intellectual scene in that city. She studied philosophy under Heidegger – and was his lover — but when the Nazis came to power she was stripped of her credentials as a Jew, while he embraced Nazism. She fled to France and later the US. Now she is offered a strange assignment by The New Yorker magazine – to cover the upcoming trial in Jerusalem of the notorious Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was one of the main architects of the Holocaust and the murderer of millions. He testifies in a glass booth. Eichmann denies everything and paints himself as a gentle bureaucrat.

But Arendt’s description of Eichmann’s behaviour as the Banality of Evil — that of an ordinary-looking man who killed so many – meets with widespread shock and criticism, even among her friends and colleagues. Her writings on totalitarianism, guilt and responsibility reverberate around the world.

Hannah Arendt is a beautiful and magisterial depiction of a major intellectual figure as iconoclast, a hero fighting the tides. It’s also a biopic, given to long pauses of contemplation. And one that somehow seems kinder to Heidegger than to Arendt’s critics in academia.

Rosa Luxemburg (1986)

It’s 1900, the start of a century of change. Revolution is brewing in Russia and Germany is close behind. Rosa Luxemburg (Sukowa) is an educated, Polish-Jewish woman who walks with a limp. She is also a social democratic revolutionary, a firebrand who writes articles and gives passionate speeches. Now she lives in Berlin after being jailed and nearly executed in Warsaw.

She’s in a tempestuous relationshio with her sometime lover and fellow revolutionary Leo Jogisches (Daniel Olbrychski). But when she discovers he is having an affair, she begins a relationship with a friend’s adult son. And, with Karl Liebknecht, she founds the Red Flag newspaper and the Spartacus party, a Marxist (but not Leninist) Socialist party.

She calls for a massive strike to resist the war but nationalism is on the rise. Bloody Rosa is arrested and jailed during WWI as a political prisoner. Will her political dreams ever be realized, or will nationalism prevail?

Rosa Luxemburg is a fascinating historical biopic, told in a melodramatic style. There are as many scenes of her shouting to cheering crowds as there are of her gardening in prison or writing letters. A costume drama, this captures nineteenth-century romanticism in its music, poetry and idealism.

Marianne & Juliane (1981) Die bleierne Zeit

It’s the 1970s. Juliane (Jutta Lampe) is a journalist who writes for a feminist magazine. She grew up in a large family with a bible-thumping father, a conservative minister. Her sister Marianne (Sukowa) looked up to her as a teenager. Julianne was the rebel. She smoked, talked back to her teacher, wore pants – not a skirt! – and caused a furor when she danced alone to a Vienna waltz ata high school dance. The two are shattered by the documentaries they see in school on Nazi mass murder, and vow they will never let it happen again. But the two have taken different paths and their roles have changed.

Marianne is now a brash, self-centred woman who rejects concepts like marriage, family and money. She doesn’t ask for things; she demands them. She’s a member of the dreaded Red Army Faction — a terrorist group that sets off bombs and hijacks planes — and is on the run from police. She also has a young son, Jan, but can’t take care of him. When she is caught by the police, it’s up to Juliane to visit her in prison to keep her sane and alive. She smuggles in notes hidden in tissues, and passes on her messages. Can Juliane’s marriage and job — and Marrianne’s son — survive the prison sentence and the widespread public hatred of the crimes she committed?

Although this is a fictional drama, it’s based on RAF member Gudrun Ensslin and her journalist sister. This powerful drama is not a historical biopic; it was made just a few years after the events it portrays.

All three films encorporate historical black-and-white film footage and prison scenes, about heroes (and villains like Eichman)  encaged and restrained. Together, these three films provide a century-long view of modern Germany through the eyes of three women.

Marianne and Juliane, Hannah Arendt, and Rosa Luxemburg are all playing next week on the big screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto — $10 per ticket — with Barbara Sukowa introducing Marianne and Juliane. Go to Goethe Toronto for details.

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

Hidden identities. Films reviewed: Made in France, Moonlight, The Handmaiden

Posted in 1930s, 1990s, African-Americans, Crime, Cultural Mining, Drama, France, Korea, LGBT, Sex, Terrorism, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on October 28, 2016

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

Hallowe’en weekend is a time of mysteries and hidden identities. If you want to stay home and shiver, there’s a new movie streaming channel called shudder.com that only does the scary. Everything from Japanese horror, to low budget slashers, to classics like Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. (And don’t miss The Editor, the hilarious spoof of 1970s Italian giallo horror.) But if you want to head out, there are some great movies opening in Toronto. This Hallowe’en, no monsters; instead I am looking at hidden identities. There’s a shy Korean maid who’s actually a con artist, a French terrorist who’s actually an undercover journalist, and a black kid in 90s Miami, whose sexual identity is a secret… even to himself.

img_3644-640x426Made in France

Dir: Nicolas Boukhrief

Sam (Malik Zidi) is a red-bearded, freelance journalist, the son of an Algerian dad and a French Marxist mom. To research a story, he attends a radical mosque that holds meetings in a metal-gated storage locker. There he meets three other French men. Christophe (Francois Civil) is a rich Catholic guy who sees himself as img_3865-640x426a gangsta, like Tony Montano in Scarface. Driss (Nassim Si Ahmed) is a tough boxer, radicalized while in prison for drug offences. Sidi (Ahmed Drame) is a good son, whose African cousin was killed by French soldiers in Mali. Ironically, only Sam, the undercover journalist, has any religious training or can speak Arabic.

img_8249-640x426They fall under the command of a mysterious man named Hassan (Dimitri Storoge). His motives are a secret. He says he trained at a bootcamp in Pakistan and is in contact with a terrorist group. Sam is married with a kid, and is staying in a flop house to keep them safe. But when he reports his story to the police, they threaten him with prison unless he stays with the cel and finds img_9133-640x426out who their “big boss” is. Can he survive life with this ragtag gang and the sinister Hassan? And will innocent people die in the process?

Made in France is a tight thriller told from the point of view of would-be homegrown terrorists. It has never been screened there, for obvious reasons – it was made just before the terrible Charlie Hebdo shootings and postponed again following the Bataclan massacre. But it still stands up as a good crime thriller.

MoonlightMoonlight

Wri/Dir: Barry Jenkins

Chiron is a small, shy kid who lives in a mainly black neighbourhood in 1990s Miami. He is relentlessly bullied after school, with his crack-head mom never there to defend him. Juan (Mahershala Ali, Luke Cage) comes to his rescue when he sees the kid chased into an abandoned building. He takes him home where his wife feeds and comforts him. But Chiron remains completely silent, not trusting himself to speak. Juan vows to be his protector and Moonlightserves as his mentor, teaching him to swim at the local beach. The boy views him in awe and adulation. Ironically, Juan is the neighbourhood drug kingpin, the one supplying the crack that’s destroying his mother.

Chiron is relentlessly bullied and beaten up. Only one friend, Kevin, shows any affection. He can’t understand why he lets other kids beat him up, and call him the “F” word. He gradually matures, but is always drawn back to that stretch of moonlit beach where he formed and later expressed his sexual identity.

MoonlightMoonlight is a superb coming-of-age drama, portrayed by mainly unknown black actors. It’s moving and surprising. The gradually-paced, subtle story is told in three chapters: as kid, adolescent and adult (wonderfully played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes)

Chiron goes through a troubled childhood, an explosion in high school, adopting an unexpected persona as a grown-up. But in each section he revisits his declining mother, his unreliable best friend Kevin,  and that stretch of moonlit beach. Fantastic film, brilliantly told.

97b32291-67f9-48f7-a0c7-bcf7a46c6544The Handmaiden

Dir: Chan-Wook Park

It’s 1930s Korea. Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri) is a shy handmaiden who lives in a grotesque mansion run by a fabulously rich Japanese baron. Hired for her Japanese ability, she works for an uptight heiress named Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee). Imperial Japan annexed Korea in 1910, and is now trying to Japanize the entire country.  When a suitor arrives seeking the Lady’s hand in marriage, Sook-hee serves as her confidant. The 383a2f0a-21c2-41ac-bb80-cc81816180dedashing Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo) has swept her off her feet and promises a wonderful life in Japan. But Sook-Hee seems to have fallen hopelessly in love with her naïve mistress, and wants to school her in the Sapphic arts. This love triangle spells trouble.

But wait! Nothing is quite what it seems. All the players in this drama are actually Korean speakers. Uncle Kouzuki is a nouveau riche 30465dc1-7ad7-4f9f-96c0-809875d0d181Korean robber baron who invested his money in Japanese erotic books. His proper niece reads them aloud to a select crowd of well-paying gentlemen. Meanwhile, both Sook-Hee and the Count belong to a Korean street gang of pickpockets and con artists, who, in a complex scheme,  have infiltrated the mansion to defraud them of their millions. Jealousy, lust romance and deceit swirl around 0981b274-14bd-480d-9e06-5bc5179f5ed7this strange foursome. But who’s fooling whom?

Based on Sarah Waters’ Dickinsian novel, The Handmaiden is a fun, sexual romp relocated from Victorian England to prewar Korea. With trapezes, bondage, marionettes, even tentacles, this movie is a total perv-fest. The story is told and retold from the point of view of the three characters. But far from a lesson in lesbian politics, the movie seems told from a male perspective, its twisted plot serving mainly as a vehicle for the audience’s sexual titillation.

Made in France is playing tonight as part of the Cinefranco International Film Festival. Go to cinefranco.com for details. Moonlight and The Handmaiden both 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.

Daniel Garber talks with director Patrick Reed about his new documentary Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr

Posted in Afghanistan, Canada, Cultural Mining, documentary, Movies, Prison, Suspicion, Taliban, Terrorism, Torture, US, War by CulturalMining.com on January 9, 2016

 

Patrick Reed, Guantanamo's Child: Omar KhadrHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Omar Khadr was a Canadian kid born in Toronto into a controversial family. He was captured in a firefight in Afghanistan at a militant camp. A US soldier was killed and Omar, as the sole survivor, was blamed for his Patrick Reed, Guantanamo's Child: Omar Khadrdeath. Labelled a terrorist, he was sent to a prison in Cuba at the American military base known as Guantanamo. He was the youngest inmate there and reached maturity as Guantanamo’s Child.

Guantanamo’s Child is also the name of a new KO79nx_GUANTANAMOSCHILD_01_o3_8887721_1449615152documentary about Omar Khadr’s stay in that notorious prison. Partly based on Michelle Shephard’s book, the film chronicles his and his family’s lives from his early years in Toronto, his stay in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the decade spent in Guantanamo, and his status today back in Canada. The film premiered at TIFF15 and is now playing in Toronto as part of the Canada Top Ten Film Festival.

I spoke with the film’s award-winning co-director, Patrick Reed, in studio.

Finished. Movies Reviewed: Amy, Self/Less, Big Game

dd21159d-2ec4-4d3b-9897-8ee5302d052bHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

People talk about closure as if finishing is always a good thing. But is it? This week I’m looking three movies. There’s a documentary about a young singer whose life came to an untimely finish; an action/thriller about a rich man who wants to delay his ultimate finish; and an action/adventure about a President in trouble who seeks help from a boy… who is Finnish.

Amy

Dir: Asif Kapadia

Amy Winehouse was a soulful jazz singer with an incredible voice. She was4318843f-61a8-446d-921a-ccc683cf9ac1 born in North London and dead by the age of 27. This was just four years ago. A new documentary fills in the missing years of her heartbreaking story. It concentrates on her music, her family, her friends and her lovers.

Amy was the daughter of a cabby and a pharmacist who divorced when she was still young. Extremely talented, she was sent to a prestigious music academy but was kicked out by age 16. She recorded her first album by age 20. Her voice was a throwback to some of the great American Jazz singers. Her look was also retro – dramatic and sensuous, with big hair, heavy black eyeliner. And she had an outspoken manner and working class accent, which set her apart from the carefully groomed and managed commercial bands.

33063f6d-9987-4fc2-806b-518679da09cbAccording to the film, she behaved sexually “like a man” – had lots of lovers and did it for the pleasure of it. She experimented with drugs while hanging in Camden nightclubs. At one of these clubs – prophetically called “Trash” — she first met Blake. He became her on-again, off-again lover and future husband, and many blame him for her growing dependence on drugs. . And while all this was going on her career was taking off. Her albums went multi-platinum in the UK and around the world.

Her instant stardom brought the bad side, too. The London press is notorious for its voracious appetite; it chews up the newly famous, and spits out their husks. The paparazzi follow their every move pasting lurid and intensely personal pics on the front pages of tabloids. She was in and out of ef490e32-30fb-44cc-b875-0b93ceca52d6rehab clinics, after collapsing onstage. And eventually it all proved too much and her body just gave out. (Doctors blame bulimia with excessive alcohol.)

This is a great, heartbreaking and extremely intimate documentary, shot with cel phones, voice mail recordings and tons of archival grainy photos and footage. And it features her music, along with the lyrics projected on the screen. It’s accessible both to die-hard fans and the merely curious. But is this film as exploitative as the tabloids it documents? No. Even though it shows Amy’s good and bad sides, it is sympathetic not accusatory..

Still10Self/Less

Dir: Tarsem Singh

Damian (Ben Kingsley) is a self-made real estate kingpin in New York City. He thinks money can buy anything, and he lives a life of luxury: a penthouse suite with elaborate, gold-inlaid doors and massive wooden furniture. When there’s a difficult situation, he just pulls out a wad of cash. But he has a problem that money can’t solve: he’s dying. And then he discovers a secret corporation where a Still7scientist, Dr Albright (Matthew Goode: “Finn” from The Good Wife) promises him immortality, in exchange for Big Bucks. The only catch? He has to pretend to die, leaving his old life behind. In exchange, they’ll give him a brand new – and much younger – body, freshly-made in a laboratory tank.

He agrees, and before you know it, Ben Kingskey’s soul passes into Ryan Reynolds’ body. And his past self — his heavy New York accent, his mannerisms, his personality — all disappear. Now he has a new home in

S_05989-2.cr2New Orleans, flashy clothes, a new best friend, and more beautiful women than he can shake a stick at. But there’s a problem.  Turns out, his body wasn’t made in a laboratory at all, it’s a real person! And the body’s memories keep coming back to life. So Damian investigates, and meets up with his body’s wife Marguerite  (Natalie Martinez) and a daughter.

But as soon as the lab folks find out he knows their secret — despite the millions Damian paid them — they all have to die. Luckily his body still remembers its special ops fight skills — it’s up to him to fight for strangers Still9who knew the body he’s living in. Who will win the ultimate  showdown – Damian? Or the laboratory?

This movie makes no sense at all. It starts out good, but soon loses its point, and reports to shootouts and showdowns to keep you interested.

I love the “body swap” genre – films like Freaky Friday, All of Me and  Face/Off. Even The Change Up, (Reynolds’ comedy from last year) wasn’t bad. Alas, in this one, Reynolds is bland, generic and unadventurous. He doesn’t even pretend to show the enormous gaps between Ben Kingsley’s Damian and himself.

He may be nice-looking and likeable, but he’s just a meat puppet.

Big Game_00200.NEFBig Game

Dir: Jalmari Helander

Oskari (Onni Tommila) is a 13-year-old in Northern Finland. As part of the Sami coming-of-age ritual (the Sami are an indigenous people living in Europe’s Far North) he has 24 hours to prove his manhood as a hunter and bring back a reindeer. He’s a brave kid but he’s unskilled with his bow and arrow and doubts his own self-worth.

But in the woods after an explosion he comes across a metal space pod. And inside is the US president (Samuel L Jackson)! An evil billionaire terrorist, with the help of some White House insiders, has shot down Air Force 1. He did it as a lark, not for any ideological reason. And now he’s Big Game_00181.NEFout hunting “big game” — the President himself. So young Oskari has to prove his mettle by guiding him to safety and fending off all the bad guys in the process.

Believe it or not, this kids’ movie is really good. It’s quirky, surprising and funny. I had zero expectations coming in, but something clicked when I realized this is another film by Finnish Director Helander (Rare Exports about Santa Big Game - Onni Tommila (Oskari) and Samuel L. Jackson (the President) in Big GameClause as a primeval demon), which also starred Tommila). It’s not disneyish at all. Big Game has blood and guts, a gritty feel and a twisted sensibility, all of which make it delightful.

Self/Less, Big Game and Amy all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening tonight is Tangerine with a special screening with Trans Pride activist Christin Milloy and sex work activist Catherine Brockhurst to lead a discussion. Also  on now is the Buster Keaton festival, with a live piano player. Go to robertbrucemusic.com for more information.

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

Ordinary People. Movies Reviewed: Survivor, Big Muddy, Fourth Man Out

Posted in Action, Canada, comedy, Cultural Mining, Gay, Saskatchewan, Terrorism, UK, US, Western by CulturalMining.com on May 29, 2015

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.CGBlzj6WoAAwm_l-1

Where is cinema going? I went to the Parkdale Film Festival — it features short documentaries, dramas and animation. So what’s special about it? The films were all made by high school students. This means independent, ordinary people — with access to the technology — can make real movies.

This week, I’m looking at ordinary people and where they’re going. There’s a small town mechanic coming out, a single mom in Saskatchewan hiding out, and a passport clerk in London heading out… to catch the bad guys.

10509527_841186499227517_3517642369132729401_nSurvivor

Dir: James McTeigue

The smart and beautiful Kate Abbot (Milla Jovovich) likes her job at the US embassy in London where she handles passport and visas. She a rising star who speaks a half dozen languages and has extensive training in intelligence. So when her boss Sam (Dylan McDermott) says they should be on the lookout for potential terrorists, she takes it very seriously. She and her coworkers start scrutinizing passports, and she flags a suspicious-looking Romanian scientist. Maybe he has access to Weapons of Mass Destruction! Good work says the Ambassador (Angela Bassett). But Kate is dressed down by a high-ranked UK agent Paul (James D’Arcy). He tells her to stop all her meddling – the man she flagged is associated with higher-ups. Those snooty Englishmen – why are they always stopping freedom-loving Americans from doing what they have to do?

Kate is sure there’s a secret cabal of terrorists dying to set foot in America so they can kill everybody. Only she – and her coworkers — can stop them from getting those coveted visas.

But when disaster strikes London, she’s left alone. Worse than that, she’s caught holding a smoking gun beside a dying man! Now everyone thinks she’s the terrorist not the hero. Says the ambassador, shoot her now before more people die. Only a few people still believe in her. And when she sees an expert hitman known only as The Watchmaker (Pierce Brosnan) setting off a bomb, he makes it his personal goal to see her dead, since she’s the only one who knows what he looks like. But can she stop the terrorists before they blow up America?

Survivor is a fun, fast-moving action/thriller with a great star. It’s also ridiculous, ludicrous, unbelievable and politically out to lunch view of terrorism. It’s full of plot holes: when she’s caught on celphones at the scene of a crime by a dozen onlookers, her image goes viral. But when the real killer shows up mere seconds later and steals an ID from the victim – the cameras have all been turned off, and his identity is kept secret. And when Kate is on the run, she doesn’t even bother wearing dark glasses or a baseball cap, she just forges on ahead, . One part of my brain says Nooo… I can’t take any more of this deeply stupid movie! But the other part says duh… I like stupid movies.

y87o1V_bigmuddy_01_LEAD_o3_8613213_1431025964-1Big Muddy

Wri/Dir: Jefferson Moneo

Martha (Nadia Litz) is a single mother in modern-day, rural Saskatchewan. She’s had a few men in her past and, boy, she sure knows how to pick ’em. One’s a very sketchy horse trader Buford (James Le

Gros) who’s made it big, the other a sweetheart (David La Haye) who ran afoul with the law. Now she’s going three for the win, a real lowlife named Tommy (Rossif Sutherland). The two of them make a living as a hold-up team. Her innocent teenaged son Andy (Justin Kelly) VmovO9_bigmuddy_04_o3_8613329_1431025972is the only good things she’s managed to hold on to.

Then some things happen. A man escapes from a Qu’Appelle Valley prison, and shoots a cop. Then Buford shows up at the racetrack, Andy gets hold of a gun, and Boom! everything falls apart. Mom and boy hightail it out to Big Muddy in the 8qW3q5_bigmuddy_05_o3_8613385_1431025973-1badlands, the desolate home she thought she was finally through with. But outsiders and former locals are all converging on the same spot. Can Martha survive this mess and will Andy discover his unknown past and who is his real father?

This movie has a good cast and an interesting plot. My only problem is with the pacing. Is it a crime drama or a family story? Whenever the tension is building, the danger spiraling, the movie is heading for a big showdown… it weirdly segues back into a slow-moving family drama, destroying the excitement. Even so, Big Muddy is a rare thing: a genuine Canadian western, complete with outlaws, horses, sheriffs, blackhats, shootouts and hideaways.

FourthManOutFourth Man Out

Dir: Andrew Nackman

Adam (Evan Todd) is a small-town auto mechanic in his twenties. He likes beer, steak and sports, and can take an engine apart (and put it back together again) with his own two hands. He’s a man’s man. After work he spends time with his three best buds, handsome Chris, goofy Ortu and hipster-ish Nick (Parker Young, Jon Gabrus, Chord Overstreet). They usually sit in a basement watching TV, smoking pot or going out for a drink. But when they go to pick-up bars, why is it that Adam always ends up the wingman for Chris’s attempts to meet women? The answer is simple but unexpected. He’s gay and his life-long best friends don’t know it.

So he decides enough is enough, it’s time to spill the beans. They can’t believe him at first (…but he 1140_fourthmaneats steak!), but then a strange tone creeps into their friendship. It’s up to the four of them to smooth out the tension and restore the feeling they used to have. Can the four friends find a suitable boyfriend for the inexperienced Adam? Easier said than done. And can they help Chris get together with Tracy (Jennifer Damiano) a real girlfriend, instead of the casual pickups he usually ends with? And will they get it all done in time for the annual 4th of July barbecue?

Fourth Man Out is a cute, gentle buddy-comedy / male rom-com. Nothing too challenging or shocking in this mainstream movie, no gross-outs, no “weird” stuff, just likeable, white, working class guys adjusting to one of them coming out.

Survivor and Muddy Bottom open today, check your local listings; Fourth Man Out premiered at Inside-Out LGBT film fest. The festival continues through Sunday. Go to insideout.ca for times.

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

Terror! Films reviewed: Warriors from the North, Help us Find Sunil Tripathi, (T)error, A War of Lies, PLUS Ex Machina

Posted in Cultural Mining, documentary, Terrorism by CulturalMining.com on April 24, 2015

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.

Some people are terrified of terrorists — and for good reason. In Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan or Iraq, lots of people are dying. Other people are terrified of being mistaken for a terrorist by the very people – police or intelligence officers – that should be protecting them.  So this week I’m looking at documentaries about the War on Terror and how it affects us. These films are all playing at Hot Docs – Toronto’s international documentary film festival – starting today. And on a lighter note, I’m reviewing a science fiction movie… about sexy robots.

Warriors_From_the_North_2Warriors from the North
Dir: Søren Steen Jespersen, Nasib Farah

Al-Shabab is a Somalia-based fundamentalist militant group, that sprung up in reaction to Ethiopia’s invasion of that country. Now its members claim responsibility for notorious events like the 148 people gunned down at Garissa University College a few weeks ago, and the massacre at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall, both in Kenya. This movie is about the young ethnic Somalis from Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Norway – who join the group to act as suicide bombers. Why do they do it? In a series of interviews, a youngWarriors_From_the_North_5-1 Somali-Danish man explains. He says members come to recruit despondent young men who feel they have no future and don’t fit in. The local mosques are strongly opposed to Al-Shabab — killing is condemned, but the recruiters deride them as weak. The movie opens with a shocking scene: Somalis at their graduation in Djibouti – young doctors all – blown up by a Danish suicide bomber. The movie follows an older man, who works at the Tivoli in Copenhagen, whose son has disappeared with Al-Shabab and gone to Somalia. The father is desperate to find his son, talk to him by phone, and convince him to give it all and just come home again. But as becomes clear in recordings of Al-Shabab members, you couldn’t leave even if you want to. Very touching story.

Help_Us_Find_Sunil_Tripathi_1Help us Find Sunil Tripathi
Dir: Neal Broffman

Sunil is a straight A student, a saxophone player and an all around nice guy. But after a few years at Brown University, things start going bad. He’s depressed. And one day, he just walks away from it all and disappears. His family is devastated, so, along with sympathetic volunteers, they start a huge search for him on foot in Providence Rhode Island, and online using facebook. They post his face, and a plea to him – come home, Sunil, we love you. Soon after, a horrific attack stuns the world – the bombing of the Boston Marathon. The city is locked down for a massive manhunt. And somehow, on Reddit and Twitter, someone mistakenly decides that the blurry images of a man in a white hat… is Sunil. Sunil is a terrorist! It goes viral, and the family and friends searching for their wonderful lost brother are subject to what can only be described as an on-line lynching of the missing boy. The film chronicles this harrowing period when they’re flooded by venomous online attacks and, as always, a voracious mass news media desperately trying to catch up with social networks.

Cabral_Lyric(T)error
Dir: David Felix Sutcliffe

About 50% of the arrests the FBI makes in its War on Terror are actually targeted sting operations using paid informants. And some are more dubious than others. This doc looks at both sides of such an operation, the asset and the target.
Saeed, aka Shariff, is a bit of a character. He’s an older African American Muslim man, a former black panther, who is an informant for the FBI. And – without telling the Feds – he allows a filmmaker, Cabral Lyric, to follow him around. His job? To attract and entrap terror_3.135x135potential POIs – persons of interest – within urban, Muslim communities who might be ripe for terrorism in the eyes of the FBI. The target? Khalifa, a white convert to Islam in Pittsburgh terror_1who sports a long beard and a turban. The FBI says Khalifa sympathizes with Al-Shabab. How do they know? He writes his outspoken views publicly, on facebook. Cameras follow both Shariff and Khalifa, who tells the filmmakers he suspects an FBI informant is trying to entrap him! He doxes the informants and plans a press conference. This real-life dramatic thriller is part absurd comedy, part tragedy, as it goes behind the scenes to show the FBI excesses in their War on Terror.

The previous cases are all small scale stories. The next one is as big as they come.

War_of_Lies_2A War of Lies
Dir: Matthias Bittner

Rafid al-Janabi was a prospective refugee in the late 1990s. He fled Iraq to escape Saddam Hussein’s ruthless government, but in Germany he was singled out as a Person Of Interest by their secret service. Despite the fact he had nothing much to tell them, he decided to play along – maybe it would speed up his refugee status. He told them he’s a chemical engineer who worked War_of_Lies_1at the MIC – the military industrial complex. And that he had access to a secret unit in the desert at Al Hakam that makes biological weapons. The problem is the UN had already closed that unit down. But Rafid concocted an explanation that couldn’t be disproven.  Saddam, he said, War_of_Lies_3drove his weapons around in three trucks.  (He remembered there was a truck depot not too far from Al Hakam, so satellites would see trucks driving around the area.) And, after brushing up on chemical engineering, he drew pictures to support his story. Who can it hurt? And if it overthrows a dictator like Saddam, all the better.

Known by the codename Curveball, Rafid didn’t realize that his little WMD story would reach Washington and — after 9/11 — would be used to justify the entire US invasion of Iraq, and the war, death, destruction and terror that followed. The film shows Farid himself, the trickster and storyteller, in a dark, echoey room recounting/confessing his side of the story, illustrated by spooky reenactments and period footage. This is a great, chilling doc.

19f5ba0b-e4a6-4594-a987-d6b34fe19f90Ex Machina
Dir: Alex Garland

Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson) is a skinny, wimpish blond guy who works as a programmer. He wins a lottery to spend a week with Nathan, the secretive CEO of his company, a google-like search engine. Nathan (Aaron Isaac) is a burly guy with a buzzed scalp and a bushy black beard. He’s obnoxious, aggressive and lives in an isolated villa somewhere in a lush rainforest valley. He’s also a genius. He brought Caleb there to conduct a Turing Test. A Turing Test determines whether an Artificial Intelligence program – AI – can pass as a human.

Here’s the twist. This AI is Ava a beautiful, female robot (Alicia Vikander) who Calebf8a502ec-ad59-4c67-a035-43f8df86e390 speaks to through a glass wall. They form a sort of relationship – is it love? –  as she begins to feel more and more real to him. Aaron tells Caleb she’s anatomically correct. Each day, the electric generator in the place shuts down and the cameras turn off. And that’s when she confides in him – Aaron is evil and not to be trusted. Who b8c380eb-808a-4eac-840b-f93ac5d6ba3cwill Caleb side with: Aaron or Ava? Is she really alive… or just a robot? And what about Aaron? And Caleb…? Is anything real?

This is a cool, interesting science fiction movie. You have to admit though, it’s a total guy fantasy, where the woman are all machines created by men for their pleasure. And that’s basically what the movie is… but the acting is great, and there are enough twists, turns and tension to keep it very interesting. I like this movie a lot.

Ex Machina opens today in Toronto, and this week you can find (T)error, Warriors from the North, a War of Lies, and Help us find Sunil Tripathi all playing, starting right now, at hot docs. Go to hotdocs.ca for showtimes.

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

Getaways! Movies Reviewed: Mud, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Star Trek Into Darkness

JH Wingfield_1966_DetailHi, 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.

What does it mean to get away for a while? You’re probably thinking, beach, a drive, a cottage, camping trip, maybe a weekend in another city across the border… But what about a real getaway, one where you might have no plan to go back home?

This week I’m going to look at three dramas opening this weekend, all by very good directors, about people trying to get away. There’s a man on the lam hiding out on an island in the Mississippi; a Wall Street financier who flees to Lahore, Pakistan; and some explorers who embark on a long trip to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Mud 2Mud

Dir: Jeff Nichols

Two boys, Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland), live right on the Mississippi river in Arkansas. They’re not townies – they live off the water where their families catch fish for a living. So one day they head off to an island down the river where Ellis says he saw a boat… up in a tree! But they soon discover it’s occupied by a man nicknamed MudMud 3. Mud (Matt McConaughey) was a homeless orphan when he grew up in the area, and now he’s come back home. He’s on the lam after committing a crime in Texas. But he wants to send a message to the love of his life, a woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). He’s been in love with her since they were teenagers. But a whole posse has come up from Texas to hunt him down – and they might even kill him.

He tells the boys if they help him skip town with Juniper he’ll let them keep the boat. Neckbone is suspicious, but Ellis agrees to be his Mud 1inbetweener and contact Juniper. He’s doing it in the name of true love.

Ellis, meanwhile, is also trying to find to find his own true love. He’s only 14 but punches out a much older and bigger and meaner boy for the way he’s treating a young woman. Will she be his girlfriend? Or does she still think of him as just a kid? Maybe a girlfriend will bring some stability to Ellis’s life — his parents fight every day. If they split up that would mean the end of the family home, the end of their boat, and the end of their life on the river.

Mud is a really great movie, a drama about crime and how it affects the lives of poor, white rural families. It’s in the vein of Winter’s Bone and Frozen River. It’s also a tender coming-of-age story, and a family drama with action, mystery, guns and chases. It’s also an examination of true love and disappointment. It’s directed by Jeff Nichol who did the fantastic movie Take Shelter a couple years ago. Mud is really good – I recommend it.

IMG_7661.CR2The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Dir: Mira Nair

Changez (Riz Ahmed) is a Princeton grad who left Wall Street at the height of his career, trading riches for a quieter professorship in his hometown of Lahore, Pakistan. Why did he do it? asks an American journalist (Liev Schreiber) interviewing Changez at a tea house in Pakistan. Why did he give it all up? That is a long story. And that’s the story the movie tells.

The son of a respected but not rich Pakistani poet, Changez wants to live the American dream. Just out of Princeton, he is hired as an analyst by a financial firm. They grab existing companies and determines their “value” (Changez’s specialty) before chopping them up, firing the workers and closing the less profitable factories. He moves in with a beautiful and privileged girlfriend, an artist (Kate Hudson), and things are looking up. But then comes 9-11. Suddenly he’s being strip-searched at borders, locked up and questioned. His veneer of privilege is stripped away, and his house of cards collapses. He begins to wonder about the real value of things in his life. The path he takes and the decisions he makes are gradually revealed… but where does that leave him? Has he become a radical “Islamist” terrorist? And is he behind a kidnapping at the IMG_1048.JPGuniversity? Or is he just a well-meaning teacher?

The backstory to this whole movie is 9-11. Mira Nair knows it well. I was at a screening at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept 12th (or 13th?) in 2001, just after the incident. She had brought the entire cast of her delightful comedy Monsoon Wedding to its premier at TIFF, and was mortified that her show was being unfairly eclipsed by that nasty business in Manhattan. No one yet knew what was going to happen after that day, or how big a change it would bring to the US and the world. I think that day is omnipresent in Mira Nair’s mind while directing this film.

The story is interesting and relevant. The problem with the Reluctant Fundamentalist is that neither Changez, nor his girlfriend nor his boss (Keiffer Sutherland), are particularly sympathetic or likeable characters. They’re all equally greedy or self-absorbed. It’s hard to feel for people when you don’t really care what happens to them.

HH-00789CStar Trek: Into Darkness

Dir: J.J. Abrams

It’s Earth a few hundred years in the future. Brash Captain Kirk and logical Mr Spock (engagingly played by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto) are at it again in this Star Trek prequel. The big cities (San Francisco, London) are still there, just with more, fancier buildings. So all the world is shocked when an insider from The Federation (that’s the worldwide and interplanetary government) turns out to be a terrorist, killing countless people — including someone important to Kirk. He flies off in a rage aboard the Starship Enterprise, after some goading from Marcus (Peter Weller) a high placed military hawk. Armed with a new type of missiles, they head toward the dark and mysterious Klingon territory to hunt down the terrorist. But they discover things aren’t what they seem. The man accused of terrorism turns out to be sort of an uber-human, almost unkillable, genetically stronger and smarter than any normal human. But he saves the lives of Kirk and his crew: whose side is he really on?star-trek-into-darkness-benedict-cumberbatch3-600x427

I had a great time with this movie, chock-full of insider jokes about the original Star Trek (things like tribbles, red shirts, the Wrath of Khan). There are wicked scenes of people in rocket suits zooming through outer space. Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV series) is especially good as this scary superman. Yes, all the actors are just imitating the looks and voices from the original series, but so what? It works. Zoe Soldana, as a newly sexualized Uhura, and Simon Pegg as a funnier Scotty stand out. The 3-D effects are impressive for the first 15 minutes then you forget about them, but the action, laughs and, yes, excitement, keep you glued to the screen the whole time.

Mud, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Star Trek Into Darkness all open today: check your local listings. And keep your eyes open for Toronto’s Inside-Out LGBT Film Festival (insideout.ca); and the Monsters and Martians science fiction film festival is screening the original Manchurian Candidate next week at the Big Pictures Cinema, which is always worth seeing.

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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