Daniel Garber talks with Nadine Labaki and Oualid Mouaness about “1982” premiering at #TIFF19

Posted in 1980s, Coming of Age, Drama, First Love, Kids, Lebanon, Movies, School, War by CulturalMining.com on September 6, 2019

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

It’s June, 1982 at a private school in the hills overlooking Beirut, Lebanon. Wissam is at a major turning point in his life. He’s graduating from elementary school and writing his final exams. And he plans to reveal his love for a girl named Joanna. But an unexpected change, bigger than all of these, is about to make itself known.

What happened in 1982?

1982 is a new film from Lebanon, a poignant coming-of-age story about a group of young students – and their teachers – set against an imminent, catastrophic war. It’s written and directed by Oualid Mouaness known for his music videos and documentaries on David Bowie, Rihana, Justin Timberlake, and Toronto’s own Drake. This is his first feature-length film. The ensemble cast features Lebanese actress, writer and director Nadine Labaki (Where Do Go Now, Capernaum) in the role of Yasmine, a schoolteacher.

I spoke to Nadine Labaki in Beirut and Oualid Mouaness in L.A. by telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM.

1982 is having its world premier at TIFF.

Revision. Films reviewed: The Stone Speakers, Free Trip to Egypt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Posted in 1960s, Bosnia, Communism, documentary, Egypt, Hippies, Hollywood, Islam, L.A., Movies, War by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2019

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

They say he who pays the piper calls the tune. This week I’m looking at two documentaries and a drama that retell history. There’s a doc about changing American minds in Egypt, another one about rewriting history in Bosnia, and a drama that rewrites the history of Hollywood.

The Stone Speakers

Wri/Dir: Igor Drljaca

It’s present-day Bosnia-Herzogovina. Since the end of the Bosnian war, the formerly multicultural country has been divided ethnically and religiously among Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. As its factories close down and young people move away cities have turned to tourism for income… in some unusual ways, fiddling with history on the way. The film looks at four Bosnian cities.

In Medjugorje, millions of pilgrims visit a site where six children are said to have seen the Virgin Mary. Tuzla, once known for its ancient salt mines, has opened man-made salt springs lakes where the city had gradually been sinking. Visoko is dominated by a strange hill, once an Ottoman fortress, built over an unknown ancient pyramid. Tourists cluster in its tunnels to absorb its energy, even as Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim leaders all condemn it as heretical. And Višegrad, a crossroads city, once known for its Ottoman stone bridge, is now the site of a cultural centre built by Bosnian Serb director Emir Kusturica in honour of Nobel laureate Ivo Andric’s novel. (A museum about a movie about a book about a bridge…!)

The movie presents these oddball Bosnian towns at face value in a series of carefully composed shots, both portraits and landscapes, as panoramic long takes… almost like still photographs but ones that move. Voiceovers, by discontented residents of the cities, provide arms-length analysis, uncovering the absurdity and revisionist history of these places.

The Stone Speakers is a humorous and hauntingly beautiful look at what has become of the Toronto director’s homeland.

Much simpler is…

Free Trip to Egypt

Dir: Ingrid Serban

Tarek Mounib is a Halifax-born Canadian of Egyptian ancestry, who looks a bit like Jon Stewart. As a university student he was an activist but has mellowed in middle age. But he is dismayed at the explosion of Islamophobia and anti-Arab sentiment in the US today, especially since Trump’s election. So he sets out to remedy this by offering strangers an unusual proposition: free guided trips to Egypt! He recruits these adventurers in unusual places, both online and at Trump’s MAGA rallies.

There’s a policeman, two young evengelicals, a single woman, a war vet and an older couple, each with their own prejudices and expectations. In Egypt they are paired with local singles and families to show them how real Egyptians live, along with their religions, food, music, and culture as well as visiting the more famous tourist sites like the pyramids of Giza.

But can a group of Americans change their dead-set views about Arabs and Muslims?

Free Trip to Egypt is exactly what the title promises. Nothing surprising or unexpected in this film. It actually feels closer to reality TV than to a documentary – but it has a good heart.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Wri/Dir: Quentin Tarantino

It’s the late 1960s in LA.

Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are good friends, both on and off screen, but they are not equals. Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a movie star, best known for his TV series Bounty Law. He lives in a beautiful home in the Hollywood Hills, next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski. Cliff (Brad Pitt) is a stuntman, and Rick’s double. He lives in the valley with his dog in a rundown trailer behind a drive-in movie park in Van Nuys.

They’re both pushing forty and things aren’t looking good. Rick has shifted from white hat to black hat, playing the heavy on TV cop shows. A mover and shaker (played by Al Pacino) wants to restart his career, but Rick isn’t sure he can shift from star to actor. Cliff is still limber and seemingly indestructible, but hasn’t worked as a stuntman since he accidentally killed his wife. He has a bad rep, picking fights on set with a young Bruce Lee. Now he’s mainly just Rick’s driver and personal assistant, with too much free time on his hands.

Rick struggles through his latest role – as the villain in a True Grit-type western – and wonders if he has lost his mojo… while Cliff cruises around LA in his sports car, listening to AM radio and flirting with a nubile, hippy hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). What he doesn’t realize is Pussycat – and her sketchy friends Squeaky (Dakota Fanning) and Tex (Austin Butler) – are members of the not-yet- notorious Charles Manson’s “Family”. And that they’re living on the Spahn ranch, a movie location where Rick and Cliff’s TV show was shot in the 1950s. Meanwhile, with Polanski out of the country, Sharon Tate is enjoying her newfound stardom. But what will happen when the players all meet?

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Tarantino’s latest movie and one of his tamest. It’s an affectionate tribute to the movies of the 60s: its look, it’s stars, it’s pop music. Everything – from car models to movie trailers to neon lights and billboards – is painstakingly recreated, to give you the feel of the era. There are dozens of cameos played by long-forgotten hollywood favourites and former child stars. The story itself – that takes a leisurely two hours and forty minutes to tell – seems less important than the mood.

Tarantino is known for endless scenes that don’t seem to quit… even when they’re supposed to. In past films, it meant extended scenes of torture and endless violence. In this movie it’s more likely a very long, behind-the-scenes reenactment of shooting a movie. He’s one of few directors I can say I saw every one of his movies in theatres when they first came out. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood while shallow, was very enjoyable: constant eye candy, a terrific soundtrack, and Pitt and DiCaprio are a lot of fun as buddies. And despite the Manson subplot, there is much less gratuitous violence than in most of his movies.

If you like movies about movies, this is the one to see.

The Stone Speakers opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood starts across North America today; and A Free Trip to Egypt starts next Friday (August 2) 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 Sameh Zoabi about Tel Aviv on Fire

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Israel, Movies, Mystery, Palestine, Satire, Secrets, TV, War by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2019

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

Salem is an ordinary Palestinian from Jerusalem who is down on his luck. No job, no money, no girlfriend. So he jumps at the chance to work on a popular TV soap shooting in Ramallah. It’s about a beautiful Palestinian spy seducing an Israeli officer in the days leading up to the 1967 war.

The problem is Salem has to pass through Israeli checkpoints between Jerusalem and Ramallah each day to get to work and back. And after a mixup with an Israeli guard at the checkpoint, the officer starts using his position to pressure Salem to change the soap opera’s plot. Will the TV series end with a happy wedding… or with Tel Aviv on fire?

Tel Aviv on Fire is a new comedy about relations between Israelis and Palestinians under occupation. It’s directed and co-written by Sameh Zoabi, the award-winning Palestinian filmmaker. Tel Aviv on Fire played at Venice and TIFF and many other festivals.

I spoke with Sameh in May, 2019 in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Tel Aviv on Fire opens today in Toronto.

Highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow. Films reviewed: The Hustle, Tolkien, Be My Star

Posted in 1910s, 2000s, Berlin, Biopic, comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Germany, Orphans, UK, War, Women, WWI by CulturalMining.com on May 10, 2019

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

Some people mistake upper-class and working-class characters with highbrow and lowbrow films. This week I’m looking at three movies with upper-class and working class-characters. There’s a middlebrow biopic about an orphan at a private school, an arthouse drama about working-class kids in Berlin, and a lowbrow comedy about a boorish con artist at an elite resort.

The Hustle

Dir: Chris Addison

Josephine (Anne Hathaway) is a British aristocrat who lives in a cliffside mansion in Beaumont-sur-mer, a casino resort on the French riviera. Fluent in many languages, the high-stakes gambler and seductress knows all the shakers and movers on the Côte d’Azur. But her life of luxury is disrupted by a hefty and boorish Aussie named Penny Rust (Rebel Wilson) who is passing through town. Penny is a small-time con artist whose M.O. involves catfishing men online using stock photos, then tricking them out of more money when they meet face to face. Penny is arrested mid-scam, tossed into prison and kicked out of town. What she doesn’t know is she’s been played– the policewoman who arrested her worked actually for another con artist, none other than Josephine! When she discovers the truth, Penny and Josephine agree on a competition: whoever succeeds in scamming a random man out of half a million dollars can stay in the resort, and the other one must leave. Their victim is an innocent, Mark Zuckerberg look-alike (Alex Sharp). Which of them will win over the tech millionaire?

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because The Hustle is a remake of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels but with Anne Hathaway in Michael Caine’s role and Rebel Wilson replacing Steve Martin. Recasting successful comedies with women in formerly male roles is popular these days, but doesn’t always work. But in this case it sure does. The Hustle is better, funnier and more subversive than Scoundrels. Hathaway is clever as the multilingual aristocrat, but it’s Rebel Wilson who steals every scene with her physical humour, facial contortions and bawdy language. She is brilliant. Maybe the concept of con artists on the Riviera is a bit dated, but it still had me laughing loudly during most of the movie.

I rarely endorse comedies, but I found this one hilarious.

Tolkien

Dir: Dome Karukoski

It’s the early 20th century in Birmingham, England. Young J.R.R. Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult: The Favourite, Warm Bodies) is an orphan who finds himself in impecunious circumstances. Luckily, a wealthy Catholic priest, Father Francis (Colm Meaney) takes him under his wing and sponsors him to study at a prestigious school called King Edward’s. He was home schooled by his mother before she died, leaving his head filled with stories of mythical dragons and elves. He may be the poor kid, but he immediately impresses everybody with his knowledge of Latin, Old English and mythical languages he creates just for himself.

After initial misgivings, he falls in with three other boys: Christopher, Geoffrey and Robert. Together they form the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, a four-man group that hangs out in tea shops discussing art, music and poetry as well as concepts of bravery, fellowship and loyalty. He meets a beautiful young woman named Edith Bratt (Lily Collins), also an orphan, who lives in his boarding house. His friendship with the boys grows, even as his love for the piano-playing Edith deepens.

He is eventually accepted to Oxford on a scholarship, but is separated from Edith and some of his friends. And his world is torn apart by WWI, when they are all sent off to the trenches, where he witnesses carnage and total destruction. Who will live and who will die? And will he ever see Edith again?

Tolkien is about the boyhood and youth of JRR Tolkien, long before he wrote the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. The movie flashes back and forth between memories of his growing up, and the film’s “present day” when he is stuck in the trenches of The Battle of the Somme in WWI. And it gives a a few hints at his future as a writer of the famous fantasy books. He imagines fire breathing dragons on the battle front, with the scenery like Mordor. The four friends are like Frodo, Sam and the gang in The Fellowship of the Ring. It also touches on Wagner’s Ring Cycle’s influence on Tolkien’s Ring trilogy. So it’s kind of interesting to watch if you’re into his books. And I liked the period costumes, scenery and good acting.

But the movie never seems to go anywhere. It falls into the category of biopics about revered subjects where you can’t show passion, adventure or sex, at the risk of tarnishing his pristine image. (Ironically, Tolkien’s heirs still refused to endorse the film.) No sparks in this hagiography, just a few kisses and some unrequited, longing glances.

Be My Star (Mein Stern) 2001

Wri/Dir: Valeska Grisebach

Nicole (Nicole Gläser) is 14-year-old girl who lives in Berlin with her two sisters, Monique and Janine. She’s at a turning point in her life. It’s the age when you try out a job (she chooses to intern at a bakery because she likes the way it smells). She’s also becoming sexually aware. First she dates any guy who asks her, but later becomes more discerning. She approaches Schöps (Christopher Schöps) a soccer-playing teen to give it a go. He’s interning as a plumber and gets his own apartment. They have cigarettes, alcohol and privacy to share, but they don’t quite know what to do. Is this love, and are they a real couple? Or just a couple of kids?

Be My Star is a very sweet and beautiful coming-of-age story made 20 years ago. It’s acted by kids using their real names, in a verité style and setting, but it’s clearly a drama not a documentary. It’s also an excellent example of the Berlin School of filmmaking. This tender and intimate examination of first love (and first break up) is realistic and moving. Its showing as part of Past Forward: German Directors Before Cannes, a series of seminal works by German directors who later became famous.

I really liked this one.

Tolkien and The Hustle both open today in Toronto. Check your local listings. And Goethe Films is showing Be My Star one time only at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on May 14th at 6:30.

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 Cristina Gallega about Birds of Passage

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Clash of Cultures, Colombia, Crime, Indigenous, Movies, War by CulturalMining.com on March 1, 2019

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

Photos of Cristina Gallega by Jeff Harris

It’s the 1960s in the deserts of La Guajira in northern Colombia, where the Waayuu, a fiercely independent  indigenous nation, make their home. A young man, Rapayet who wants to marry Zaida must bring a large dowry of cattle, goats and precious beads. He sets out on a journey with his best friend, to earn the money he needs to pay for it. He finds his answer in the marijuana trade.  Americans are willing to pay good money for sacks of it grown in the hills. But with the cannibis trade comes complications to the clan in the form of riches… but also of violence, rivalries and possible destruction. Will this new wealth destroy the Waayuu people? Or can the old ways coexist with the newfound money?

A dramatic new movie called Birds of Passage follows the characters over two decades as their lives change. It’s a chronical of life over two decades, in the 1960s and 70s, a crime story, and a study of indigenous ways. Its detailed, passionate, and epic units scope.  The film was made by the creators of Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpant, and is co-directed by noted filmmaker Cristina Gallegos.

I spoke with Cristina Gallego on location in September at TIFF 18.

Birds of Passage opens today in Toronto.

In Transit. Films reviewed: Mirai, A Private War, Transit

Posted in 1940s, Animation, France, Germany, Japan, Journalism, Refugees, Time Travel, War, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 9, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

Toronto Fall festival season continues with EU festival on now – free movies at the Royal every night! Ekran Polish film festival, and ReelAsian paving new ground, with everything from a doc on gourmet Filipino cuisine, to an intriguing and moving Virtual Reality narrative by Paisley Smith called Homestay.

This week, I’m looking at three movies about people in transit. There’s a WWII refugee running away from the Nazis; a female war journalist rushing toward the battlefront; and a little boy in Japan jumping back and forth between the past and the future.

Mirai

Wri/Dir: Hosoda Mamoru

Kun-chan is a little kid in Japan who lives with his parents and his dog Yukko. He likes drawing and playing with trains. His mom and dad dote on him, until they have a new baby, a girl named Mirai (which means the future). Suddenly, the baby is the centre of attention. His dad works freelance at home now, while mom goes to work. When they’re not working, they’re taking care of Mirai. But who’s paying attention to Kun-chan? Nobody! He seeks refuge in their yard, an enclosed courtyard around an old oak tree. And that’s where strange things start to happen whenever he’s alone. His dog turns into a prince. And then Mirai appears as a teenaged version of herself – it’s future Mirai, there to advise Kunchan on how to treat his little sister. This opens the door to other figures from his family’s past and future to help him handle his problems.

Mirai is a good example of watchable Japanese anime. Lots of flying, some scary parts, and time travel. It’s clearly aimed at kids — with tame content and characters – but it does handle issues like gender roles and family matters. I like Hosoda’s films because they navigate where the supernatural interacts with the ordinary – like Wolf Children from 2012. But in Mirai you can never be sure if the supernatural scenes are real or just in the little boy’s head.

A Private War

Dir: Matthew Heineman

It’s 21st century London. Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), originally from Oyster Bay Long Island is now a star reporter for the Sunday Times. She smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish and curses like a sailor. And for good reason: she’s at the front lines of the bloodiest wars of the century. She lost her left eye in a gun battle in Sri Lanka, and now wears a black patch, pirate-style. Why does she do it? So she can tell the world what’s really going on the death, starvation and horribleness of war. A mass grave in Faluja, starvation in Homs, Syria. She travels with Paul (Jamie Dornan) a young freelance photographer in awe at Marie’s bravery, always the first one when the bombs are falling. She’s been in more battles than the average soldier. And She keeps sexually satisfied with an array of lovers in every port, including her ex-husband and a London financier named Tony (Stanley Tucci). But you can’t live on th edge without suffering blowback, including PTSD and deppression. Is Marie a hero or an alcoholic with a death wish?

A Private War is a gripping and thrilling drama. The director, Heineman, is known for documentaries, not movies, which gives this film a “you are there” immediacy rarely scene in war movies. Very realistic. The movie doesn’t delve very deeply into the politics of war – it never asks why Bush and Blair were in Iraq or NATO in Libya; instead it concentrates on how war really affects ordinary people. Rosamund Pike is amazing as Marie Colvin and opened my eyes about war journalism.

I liked this movie.

Transit

Dir: Christian Petzold

It’s WWII. Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee living in Paris when the Nazi’s are about to march in. And the French police are doing their work, rounding up immigrants and sending them to a transit camp inside the Velodrome. Georg knows he has to get out of their, fast. And he needs money. So he accepts a paid job: bring a sealed letter to a stranger – a writer – holed up in a paris hotel room. But he gets there too late, the man has killed himself in desperation. If only he had waited one more day – the letter promised money, visas, and tickets on a ship to Mexico. Thinking quickly, Georg pockets the letter, grabs the man’s manuscript and heads south with his friend as stowaways on a freight train. Once in Marseilles, he establishes himself as a person in transit – just stopping over – to avoid arrest, andtakes on the identity of the dead man. And he keeps encountering a beautiful woman, Marie (Paula Beer), who is searching for her husband. She knows he’s in Marseilles, but she can’t find him. But what neither of them realize is the phantom husband she keeps missing is Georg himself, in his new identity.

Transit is a great new movie about the precarious lives of refugees and undocumented migrants running for their lives. The movieis based on a novel written during the WWII, but Christian Petzold tries something I’ve never seen before. It’s the 1940s but it’s also right now. It’s shot in present-day France, with modern cars and clothing, an ethnically diverse population, and police dressed in current riot gear. Paula Beer (amazing in Frantz) and the distinctive-looking Rogowski (terrific in Happy End and Victoria) perfectly capture the alienation and uncertainty of present-day Europe. And – no spoilers – but, as usual, Petzold saves some of the biggest and best surprises for the end… with a one-two punch to the gut.

Great movie.

Mirai is playing tomorrow at the ReelAsian film festival. Look for A Private War opening next Friday and Transit starting 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.

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

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

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

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

Journey’s End

Dir: Saul Dibb

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

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

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

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

Ready Player One

Dir: Steven Spielberg

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

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

China Hustle

Wri/Dir: Jed Rothstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Middle Class, Middle East. Films reviewed: Ava, The Insult

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, High School, Iran, Lebanon, Movies, Palestine, Refugees, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 2, 2018

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

Looking for new things to watch other than big studio crap? Here’s what to look out for in February. It’s Black History Month, and Toronto’s Black Film Festival is coming up this month. The Goethe Foundation is showing movies set in Asia by Ulrike Ottinger. At TIFF Cinematheque they’ve got a retrospective of French New Wave director Philippe Garrel. To name just a few…

This week, though, I’m looking at two dramas about the Middle Class in the Middle East. There’s a teen drama set in Iran about a dare, and a courtroom drama in Lebanon about an insult.

Ava

Wri/Dir: Sadaf Foroughi

Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is a high school girl in Iran. An only child, she’s pretty but determined and self-confident. She lives with her mom, a psychiatrist, and her dad when he’s not out of town. She brightens up her obligatory, all-back uniform with some red Converse running shoes and a backpack. Her prized possession is her metronome. Her life consists of violin lessons, studying for exams, and hanging with her best friend Melody. Another friend Shirin, is a know-it-all always putting her down so she bets she can get a guy, Nima, to go out with her. She knows him from music lessons where he accompanies her on the piano… and she thinks he’s cute.

So she arranges an elaborate plot where she says she’s going to study with Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi), but actually plans to meet up with Nima, and drop by Shirin’s place to show him off so she can win the bet. Easy as pie. Except Shirin isn’t home – so no bet – and worse, when she sneaks back to Melody’s place her suspicious mom is there going ballistic and taking it out on Melody and her mom. And when Ava arrives her mom’s all Where were you? what did you do? Why did you lie? Then she drags Ava to a doctor to check that her virginity is intact!

In school the next day it gets even worse, with teachers searching through her backpack for forbidden things (whatever that may be). Even the school principal lectures all the girls about the dangers of doing the unspeakable with their unmentionables! She lost the bet, is humiliated in front of everyone, forbidden to see her best friend, and forced to quit her music lessons. All this, even though she didn’t do anything. Her stress and frustration rises to a boiling point and she has a meltdown in class.

Why is her mom so worried about her daughter having premarital sex? Can Ava pull her life back together, pass her exams, play violin at the recital, make up with her friends and family and maybe get back together with her non-boyfriend Nima? Or is her life ruined?

Ava might sound like a YA soap opera, but it’s actually a realistic coming-of-age drama about life in contemporary Iran. This is a good movie, surprisingly mature for a first feature. It has the look of an arthouse flick, with experimental camera work — like characters shot from behind, from above, from far away, with parts of them obscured, or even out of the frame entirely. And Jabari is excellent as Ava.

The Insult

Dir: Ziad Doueiri

Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is an engineer working on contract for the city. He supervises dozens of workers who repair potholes, drainage and infrastructure. He’s at the height of his career, known for his skill, diligence and bringing projects in under budget, while still looking out for the little guy.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) runs his own business, an auto repair shop, fixing BMWs. He lives in a second floor apartment with his pregnant wife. The young couple are saving up to buy their first home. Everything’s peachy until one day Tony spills dirty water through a faulty drainage pipe all over Yasser on the street below. Yasser calls Tony a rude name, but later fixes the pipe at the city’s expense. Tony smashes it to pieces. Words escalate with neither side apologizing for their insults. Until Tony voices the ultimate insult, and Yasser responds by beating him up.

Seems like a small problem, easily solved, right? Wrong. It turns into a lawsuit and the ensuing trial captures the attention of the whole country, leading to riots, molotov cocktails, even a meeting with the President of Lebanon. What is so important about this dispute? Yasser is Palestinian and Tony is Maronite Christian, and their disputes go back for generations, including the bloody, 15-year-long Lebanese civil war.

Their two lawyers, both working pro bono, are the famous Wajda Webb on Tony’s side and rising legal eagle Nadine working for Yasser. Both sides discover hidden histories from their two clients’ pasts, as victims and perpetrators of some of the massacres that tore the region apart: Black September in Jordan, Damour, Sabra and Shatilla.

The Insult has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and I understand why. It manages to handle controversial topics in a sometimes humorous, sometimes serious manner. The movie is told from Tony’s point of view, and therefore that of Maronite Christians as a group – including his political influences, their role in the civil war and Tony’s personal memories. That said, it is respectful and sympathetic to Yasser’s side and takes pains to portray him in a positive way. And Kamal El Basha gives a great performance as Yasser, both subtle and explosive at appropriate places.

The Insult is a good crash course in Lebanese modern history.

Ava and The Insult are both playing now 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.

Cultural Revolution Nostalgia? Film reviewed: Youth

Posted in 1970s, Bullying, China, Movies, Music, Vietnam, War by CulturalMining.com on January 5, 2018

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

We’re in the midst of a cold wave, and it’s so cold, I feel like extending my New Year’s holiday by a few more days. So I’m keeping my review very short. This week, I’m looking at an historical drama from the Peoples Republic of China.

Youth

Dir: Feng Xiaogang

It’s the early 1970s in China, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. In the 1960s, fanatical members of the Red Guard tried to purge the entire country of “bourgeois elements”. There’s widespread upheaval. Millions of educated youth, the zhishi qingnian, have been sent down to the countryside to work on farms. And because it’s a Cultural Revolution, only a handful of operas and ballets are allowed to be performed anywhere in China.

Enter He Xiaoping (Miao Miao) a young woman with pigtails from a poor family. She has been chosen to join an illustrious art troupe that performs these productions as part of the PLA, the Chinese Army. She is escorted from the train station by the always helpful Liu Feng, right into the middle of a rehearsal, with rows of leggy women in extra-short gym shorts and clingy tops are running about the hall in perfect formation. He Xiaoping is in awe, but also self-conscious and intimidated. She’s naïve, unsophisticated, and unskilled… the exact opposite of two beautiful young women who are leading the group: Dingding (Yang Caiyu) and Suizi (Elaine Zhong). They are both relatively rich, come from big cities and look down on her simple ways. They say she sweats like a farm girl. But the director thinks He Xiaoping has natural talent. She tries to fit in but is constantly mocked and bullied. Will she ever succeed as a performer?

Liu Feng (Huang Xuan) is a kind and generous young man, modest, hardworking and always ready to help other people. So much so that they start to call him Lei Feng, not Liu Feng. Lei Feng was an ordinary soldier who died in the early 60s, but whose name and face is known to almost everyone in China. He’s on posters everywhere, and he’s a role model for everyone to follow. Liu Feng is seen as the living version of Lei Feng… but will his wholesome image stop him from showing his attraction to one of the women? At the end of the cultural revolution the group disbands and the members go their separate ways, becoming soldiers, journalists, and medics.

The story picks up later, during the time of the Sino-Vietnamese war, where some of them meet again, and again much later in a more modern China. Who ends up doing well, and who is left behind? And has anyone changed their ways?

Youth is an unusual look back at the Cultural Revolution. It works as a broad, epic romantic drama. The director Feng Xiaogang does Big Hollywood-style movies really well, with action, love, and as much gratuitous near nudity – steamy shower scenes, etc – as the censors will allow. I just had problems with the history. He sees it as a happy, nostalgic time of simple thoughts and good people. Sort of a Cultural Revolution-Lite. There have been many other movies about Chinese performers in the Cultural Revolution (Jia Zhangke’s Platform, Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home) but this is the first one I’ve seen that paints it as a happier time. Then there’s the war – like any good war movie with lots of explosions, valour and “war is hell” feeling. But this is Vietnam, which China attacked to “punish” them. Why? Because they drove the genocidal Khmer Rouge out of power in Cambodia!

Even so, the director tempers the movie with a bitter-sweet ending that makes you think about present-day China in a new light.

Youth – in Chinese with English subtitles – is playing now 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

 

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Daniel Garber talks with director Michèle Hozer and Ramez about Sponsorland

Posted in Canada, documentary, Refugees, Syria, War by CulturalMining.com on November 3, 2017

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

The Syrian civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people, with millions fleeing their homes. Their plight was brought home when the tragic photo of 3-year-old asylum seeker Alan Kurdi hit the news. In Canada, thousands of private sponsors raised money to bring Syrians to safety. But what happened to them when they reached these shores and met their sponsors?

Sponsorland is a new documentary that follows a year in the life of a family of asylum seekers who end up in scenic – but very white — Prince Edward County, Ontario, far from the big city they expected. It also looks at their sponsors and the role they play in welcoming and supporting refugees.

Sponsorland is the work of award-winning filmmaker Michèle Hozer, whose documentaries tell a distinctly Canadian story, celebrating names like Romeo Dallaire, Glenn Gould and Tom Thomson.

This documentary features a family of Syrian refugees with 11 children. Ramez, the second oldest son, is currently a high school student in Picton, Prince Edward County.

I spoke to Michèle in studio at CIUT and to Ramez by telephone.

Sponsorland has its world premier on Wednesday, September 8th at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto and on Friday at the Regent Theatre in Picton. It will be broadcast on TVO on November 15th, 18th and 19th.

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