Rescue. Films reviewed: The Walrus and the Whistleblower, The Forbidden Reel, It Must Be Heaven

Posted in Afghanistan, Animals, Canada, Cold War, documentary, Movies, Niagara Falls, Palestine, War by CulturalMining.com on June 12, 2020

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

I’m recording this in my home to tell you about new movies you can watch in your home. This week I have two docs and a comedy. There’s a Palestinian director trying to make a film; Afghani directors trying to save their films, and a man in Canada trying to rescue a walrus from a swimming pool.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower

Dir: Nathalie Bibeau

Marineland is a huge amusement park in Niagara Falls, centred on its performing animals. Built in the 1960s it attracts huge crowds. Visitors love watching trainers diving off the noses of orcas, and dolphins jumping in rhythm like synchronized swimmers. There are porpoises, belugas and walruses happily doing tricks for the fish rewards they’re handed. But the world is shocked in 2012 when the Toronto Star prints a front-page expose about the maltreatment of its animals. When not performing for audiences they are kept in filthy cramped cells, much like prisons. They are force-fed drugs and made to perform in over-chlorinated pools. They are caught at sea as infants and separated from their mothers who are often killed in the process. And when they die they are dumped into mass graves on the amusement park’s own property.

Who spilled the tea on this explosive issue? Phil Demers, a trainer who had worked there since his early twenties. He learned the trade as he went along, and became an integral part of the show. He was most attached to a walrus he calls Smooshi. He milk-fed the baby walrus when it was brought there, and became its surrogate mother. They bonded like a true family. So he is disturbed by how badly Smooshi and the other animals are being treated there – an open secret shared by all its employees. When Marineland doesn’t change, he goes to the press. His whistleblowing leads to a bill in Parliament and he becomes a spokesperson for animal rights. But he is also vilified by the park’s owner,  John Holer, who launches a series of SLAPP lawsuits to stifle him. Who will win in the end – Demers or Marineland? And can he save Smooshi?

This documentary is a first-hand look at the plight of marine mammals as told by Phil Demers (Marineland doesn’t cooperate with the filmmaker). Demers is an unusual character, in turn passionate, angry, and even rude. But his love for the animals – especially Smooshi – is undeniable. And the hidden camera footage taken inside the park is very disturbing; you can see why he’s fighting so hard, and why this documentary is so popular (it won the Top Audience Award at Hot Docs this year). If you haven’t made up your mind yet, The Walrus and the Whisteblower will totally change your opinion on keeping whales in captivity.

The Forbidden Reel

Dir: Ariel Nasr

In Kabul, there’s a building that stands behind filigreed metal gates. It holds a treasure trove of Afghan culture and history wound around movie reels in metal cases. What are they, where did they come from, and how did they survive? The building is called called Afghan Films, and its archive contains a crucial record of the country’s past. Through war and peace, modernism, communism and civil war. Afghan Films was founded by film directors who wanted to create a national cinema. Influenced by Iranian, European, Hollywood and Bollywood, they created works interesting and accessible to Afghanis. They continued producing and showing their films through the civil war, indeed until the Taliban was at its gate. That’s when the archive was safely hidden and preserved in a room behind a plaster wall.

This amazing documentary tells the history of modern Afghanistan through these films. I’m talking romances, war stories, battles, dramas and newsreels. The cameramen were recoding missiles landing in Kabul. Films made under Soviet rule still depicted stories of Mujahadeen fighters. There are massice crowds in city squares, girls in poppy fields lacing flowers through their hair, travelers leading camels along mountain passes, and sombre footage of past President hanging from poles. The documentary talks to people like Yasamin Yarmal a genuine Afghani movie star, and directors Engineer Latif and Siddiq Barmak who give first-hand accounts. And it’s even a bit of a thriller – how they managed to save these Forbidden Reels (it’s not what you think!) This doc gives a view of Afghan culture like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Great documentary.

It Must Be Heaven

Wri/Dir: Elia Suleiman

Elia Suleiman is a Palestinian film director who lives in Nazareth. He lives a simple, quiet life, observing his lemon tree, listening to neighbours and drinking coffee or wine at nearby cafes, always in his panama hat and dark rimmed glasses. But his life changes when he travels abroad for a series of meetings. He flies first to Paris and then to Manhattan, but maintains his lifestyle as a quiet observer… until he goes back home again. But this simple outline doesn’t really capture the feelings behind this comic film.

It’s actualy a series of brief, whimsical tableaux, some one-offs, some repeated, in the style of Jaques Tati. This is basically a silent film with only occasional lines spoken by the people he meets. Some scenes are cute; like a little bird that keeps landing on his laptop as he tries to write. Others are more political, dealing with the pervasive presence of surveillance, military and police forces in all three countries. Israeli soldiers happily exchanging sunglasses in a car driving past… and then you see a young woman, blindfolded, in the back seat. There’s a scene on the Paris metro where he is frightened by an angry man who somehow drinks his beer in a threatening way.

Some scenes are spiritual: there’s an angel pursued by Keystone Cops in Central Park. Others are mundane – a drunken doorkeeper refusing to unlock the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although the film represents nationalities in stereotypical ways – he dreams, What if New Yorkers carried assault weapons casually slung over their shoulders?; and do Parisian ambulances really offer 3-course meals to homeless people? – but it laughs equally at all nationalities. Some of the most interesting scenes are in his own home where neighbours tell fantastical fables as if real life… part of the magic-realism feel of the whole movie. It Must Be Heaven is a lovely, funny and thought-provoking look at the strangeness of everyday life.

The Forboidden Reel and The Walrus and the Whistleblower are both streaming at Hotdocs; and It Must Be Heaven is opening across Canada at select virtual theatres; 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.

Good dramas. 1917, Uncut Gems, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão

Posted in 1910s, 1950s, Brazil, comedy, Drama, Gambling, Judaism, melodrama, New York City, Sex, Sports, UK, War, Women, WWI by CulturalMining.com on December 25, 2019

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

A good drama is hard to find, and this week I’ve got three of them. There’s an action drama set in Europe in WWI, a melodrama set in Rio in the 1950s, and a dark comedy set in present-day Manhattan.

1917

Dir: Sam Mendes

It’s April, 1917 in the trenches. Two soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George Mackay) are summoned by an officer with an important mission. The Germans seem to be retreating and frontline soldiers are preparing to cross over no man’s land. But it’s a ruse. If the troops try to cross the fields they’ll be gunned down like lambs to the slaughter. And the telegraph lines are down. It’s up to Blake and Schofield to take a crucial letter to the isolated troops before they’re all wiped out. And to get there, they have to pass through enemy territory, inside German trenches, and across enemy lines. Why are two ordinary soldiers chosen for this impossible task? Blake has a brother in the squadron they’re warning. And Schofield? He happens to be nearby when Blake is summoned. Can the two men young men make it there in time? Or are they just another couple of casualties in this War to End All Wars?

1917 is a thrilling action movie set during WWI. It’s full of narrow escapes, shootouts, explosions and hand-to-hand combat, with our heroes riding, running, flying and swimming, all to get to their goal. It uses lots of tricks you’d expect to see in horror movies: from sudden encounters with piles of rotting corpses, to shocking encounters with rats. It’s also a “War is Hell” movie but it’s a bit foggy on the Us and Them narrative of a war from a hundred years ago. Should WWI German soldiers still be portrayed as evil, drunken cowards while British soldiers are brave, kindly, steadfast and resolute? Still, you do find yourself rooting for the heroes hoping beyond hope that they’ll survive.The acting, especially MacKay, is fantastic and it’s fun to spot all the famous actors with bit parts as military brass include Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong and Colin Firth. But the best part of this movie is in an unexpected area. Roger Deakins camerawork is incredible, with shadow and searchlight, glowing candles and burning flames throwing chiarascuro images across the screen. It’s stunning to watch.

Uncut Gems

Dir: Josh and Benny Safdie

It’s the diamond district in present-day Manhattan. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a successful Bling jeweller peddling pricy kitsch to therich and famous in a small boutique encased in bullet-proof glass. He supports an unhappy suburban Jewish family, also setting aside money for his own peccadilloes: a mistress in a midtown apartment and tickets to NBA games. But he’s also a compulsive gambler throwing money at bookies. He’s in debt up to his neck, and the gangsters are circling. Two thugs in particular. Loan sharks, pawn shops, bookies, and legit business associates are all asking for their cut. But when Howard lands a lump of Ethiopian opals – the “uncut gems” of the title – he thinks all his problems are solved. By gazing into the glowing, coloured rocks he loses himself in a fantastical universe. He embarks on a complex plan: sell the gem to a superstitious star basketball player, pawn the priceless gaudy ring the player leaves as a deposit, and bet it all on a mammoth Las Vegas sports gamble. Will his plan pan out? Or will it all come a-tumbling down?

Uncut Gems is the latest Safdie Brother’s look at sympathetic, small-time losers and petty criminals, and the destruction they leave in their path. There’s a bit of excitement, but it’s more like a dark, absurdist comedy than anything else. They say Adam Sandler makes one credible acting movie for every ten horrible comedies. He proves his bona fides in this one, hands down. He’s great as the irrepressible and irritating Howard Ratner, complete with fake crooked and gummy teeth. But he’s a hard character to like…his problems are all of his own making, and his adulation for celebrity, sportsteams, cars and The Big Win is unattractive. I kinda sympathize with Howard but not really; I saw this four months ago at TIFF and remember feeling bothered and a bit angry by the end. But the humour, great acting, music, images, and elegant plot – from start to finish – helps redeem the unfomfortable feeling it leaves you with.

The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão

Dir: Karim Aïnouz

It’s 1950 in a middle class family in Rio de Jeneiro. Guida and Euridice are inseparable sisters who do almost everything together. Guida (Julia Stockler) is 20 years old, small, buxom, adventurous and mature. She’s looking for love in all the wrong places, where she meets Iorgos, a handsome sailor from Greece. She leaves a note with her sister that she’s off on a ship to Europe to marry her love and will be back in Brazil soon. Euridice (Carol Duarte) is 18, the good daughter, tall with long, curly hair. She devotes all her energy to practicing the piano, with the hope that someday soon she’ll be accepted into the conservatory in Vienna.

But both of their plans are stymied by unwanted pregnancies. Guida comes home, pregnant and alone. Iorgos is a rat, with a wife and kids in Greece and a girl in every port. But when she walks through her door, her father throws her out, saying, “you’re dead to me, I never want to see you again”. She’s forced to move to a working class neighbourhood, get a job (she works as a welder at the docks) and raise her son.

Meanwhile, Euridice gets married to Antenor (Gregório Duvivier) the son of a business partner of her dad who owns a bakery. He’s a boor and an inconsiderate lover. She’s preparing for her Vienna audition in a few months but despite her church-sanctioned birth control methods, she ends up pregnant too, scotching any plans to study in Vienna. Guida assumes her sister is in Europe, and Euridice thinks Guida has disappeared without a trace (their parents block any communication with Guida, and both sisters have no idea the other is living in Rio.) Will the sisters ever see each other again? And will their ambitions be realized?

The Invisibie Life of Euridice Gusmao is subtitled, “a tropical melodrama” and that’s what it is: a passionate, lush story about the lives of two strong-willed women, torn apart against their will. Guida forging a new life as a single, working class mom, as Euridice navigates Brazil’s repressive middle class life in the ’50s. I loved this movie.

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao is now playing in Toronto, and Uncut Gems and 1917 both opened on Christmas Day; 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.

Not Marvel Movies. Films reviewed: The Irishman, Last Christmas, Midway

Posted in 1940s, 1960s, 1970s, Christmas, Corruption, Crime, Cuba, Hawaii, Romantic Comedy, UK, Unions, War, Woody Harrelson, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 8, 2019

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

Martin Scorsese recently wrote that tentpole movies, like ones that Marvel makes, are hogging a disproportionate share of Hollywood bucks. This squeezes traditional, medium-budget, one-off films out of the picture. Luckilly, they’re not all gone.  This week, I’m looking at three films – a crime drama, a war movie and a rom-com – without superheroes.

The Irishman

Dir: Martin Scorsese

It’s the 1950s.

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a truck driver who delivers beef hindquarters. When his truck breaks down on the highway, a strange man offers advice on how to fix it. He’s Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci) a mob boss in Pennsylvania. When Sheeran is caught stealing beef, Russell supplies a lawyer, thus starting a longtime relationship between the trucker and the Mafia. And Teamsters, the truckers union, stands with them all the way. Soon Frank is doing a different kind of work for Russell: he paints houses. Which really means he’s a hitman for the mob. Despite his Irish background, he speaks Italian: he served in the Army in Anzio in WWII. Soon they’re thick as thieves, and Frank enjoys the benefits, but Russell is always the boss.

Eventually he’s sent to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of Teamsters as a bodyguard, as well as the middleman between Hoffa and the mob. Hoffa is a brash firebrand, an old-school union organizer with legions of loyal members. He’s also an extremely powerful leader, and he controls the union’s pension. This means he can finance Las Vegas casinos with cash, something banks refuse to do. And he gives money to the Nixon campaign, a rare instance of a labour union officially supporting a Republican. But friction grows between Hoffa and the mafia until the day Hoffa mysteriously disappears without a trace, his body never found. What happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

The Irishman is narrated by Frank in an old age home, which gives it the feel of an old man’s movie. It’s a Forest Gump for gangsters, with Frank somehow tied to all the major events of the 60s and 70s: The Kennedies, Bay of Pigs, Jimmy Hoffa disappearance, to name just a few. This film has some problems: the CGI de-aged faces look wooden; female characters have virtually no lines – they just scowl and disapprove; and it’s missing the sharp edges and sexual zing of Scorsese’s early movies.

That said, I was never bored; I was glued to the screen the whole time. Pacino is fantastic as Jimmie Hoffa, and Scorsese’s movies are always superior.

The quality of filmmaking is superb and The Irishman tells a great story.

Last Christmas

Dir: Paul Feig

Kate (Emilia Clarke) is an quirky, aspiring young singer in London. By day she’s a cute little green elf, working in a kitschy, Christmas-themed gift shop run by a prickly boss named Santa (Michelle Yeoh). By night, she’s a barfly, sleeping with any guy she fancies, a different one each night. Ever since her operation, she’s been depressed. She’s embarrassed by her Yugoslavian family, and her singing career is going nowhere fast. She’s on a downward spiral of self-pity and self desctruction… until she meets Tom (Henry Golding).

Tom is everything Kate is not. He’s saintly, altruistic and generous. While Kate looks down and sees garbage tips, Tom looks up and sees tropical birds and quaint old signs. He takes her on a walk to show her the hidden side of London – a secret garden where people go to be alone; a soup kitchen for the homeless (he’s a volunteer), a deserted skating rink. Is it love? But he disappears for days at a time. What secret is he hiding? Is this true love? And can their relationship keep them together?

Last Christmas is a cute Romcom about a depressed woman coming out of her shell and her happy-go-lucky, would-be boyfriend. Emma Thompson plays Kate’s weepy Croatian mom and she also co-wrote the script. It’s cute and heartwarming… but not that funny.

Michelle Yeoh is terrific as a middle-aged woman still on the hunt, and Clarke and Golding make an appealing romantic couple. There is a totally surprising twist which brought tears to my eyes – No Spoiler – which left me with a bit more than I expected.

Midway

Dir: Roland Emmerich

It’s 1941, with war raging across Europe, China and the Pacific. But the US is cautiously viewing it from the sidelines. Dick Best (Ed Screin) is a gum chewing pilot based in Pearl Harbour. He’s a daredevil dive bomber, showing off his new techniques. Also on board the aircraft carrier is his rival, a by-the-books officer named McClusky (Luke Evans). He says Dick is a cowboy who should stop showing off. But while their aircraft carrier is out at sea, all the ships in Pearl Harbour are wiped out in a surprise attack by the Japanese, pulling the US into WWII.

Only Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) – the intel expert on Japan – predicted it. And he thinks a crucial battle up ahead: the Battle of Midway, an island in the South Pacific. Midway is a point crucial for control of the Pacific: if Layton is right, whoever wins the battle will win the war; it’s just a matter of time.

Midway is a dramatization of the years leading up to the naval battle of Midway, and the intense fight that follow: in submarines, on aircraft carriers and in planes overhead. It’s filtered through the eyes of lantern-jawed military figures like Jimmy Doolittle ( Aaron Eckhardt), Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) Vice Adm Bull Halsey (Dennis Quaid), and many semi-fictional sailors and pilots in various acts of bravery… like Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas, of the Jonas brothers!). The story also switches back and forth to the Japanese side, with Admirals Nagumo, Yamaguchi and Yamamoto plotting to defeat the Americans.

Midway is exactly the sort of movie I can’t stand – yet another tired war pic about a long-forgotten battle, filled with smarmy patriotism. But I went to the press screening, and guess what? I actually really liked Midway! Fantastic special effects, complex battles shown in an easy-to-follow way, good acting, and great characters. Japanese are portrayed respectfully, not as hokey villains, but without covering up their war crimes in Eastern China. Like The Irishman, women are there mainly to worry about their husbands. It’s two hours, twenty minutes long, but the thrills keep you staring, rapt, till it’s over. I’m sure a lot of critics are going to compare it (unfavourably) with Dunkirk, but to me Midway is more thrilling, less ponderous.

Midway and Last Christmas both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. And The Irishman is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, also beginning today.

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

Climb every mountain. Films reviewed: Abominable, Monos

Posted in Animation, Canada, China, Colombia, Kids, Tibet, Uncategorized, violence, War by CulturalMining.com on September 27, 2019

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

The majesty and beauty of mountains makes some people stare in awe, while others see it as a personal goal – something to climb, claim or conquer. This week I’m looking at two new movies about mountains. There’s a group of kids in China on their way to a mountain as they protect a mythical beast; and a group of kids in Colombia holding a hostage on top of a mountain as they fight an inner beast.

Abominable

Dir: Jill Culton, Todd Wilderman

Yi is a teen who lives with her mom and her grandmother Nai-Nai in a downtown Shanghai apartment. She’s saving the money from three parttime jobs to travel across China in the path of her late father, a musician. But her life is turned upside down when an enormous furry creature appeared on her roof. He has white hair, a huge mouth and pale blue eyes that stare longingly at a nearby billboard advertising Mount Everest. It’s his home, and he wants to go back.

Standing in his path are Mr Burnish a billionaire CEO, and a zoological scientist named Zara. Everest is a Yeti, the legendary Tibetan creature, never captured until Beamish enterprizes nabbed him. They want their specimen back, dead or alive. But Yi has other plans. Along with her two neighbours – the selfie-obsessed Jin and the basketball dribbler Peng – they set out on a journey across China. Can they save Everest and bring him back to his homeleand? Or will they all end up captives in a corporate lab in Shanghai?

Abominable is a fun and exciting animated movie for little kids. It’s full of cultural references, from the classic Ming Dynasty novel Journey to the West (西遊記), to the classic ’80s film ET: Yi lures the creature with a trail of steamed dumplings instead of Reece’s Pieces, and the alien creature is “Yeti” not “E.T.”. But it’s also fun and original in its own right, with exciting magic, humour, action and the sentimental bits you need to make it worthwhile. I saw it with an audience of small children and they loved most of it, but were frightened when it looked like the heroes were going to die (Spoiler Alert: they don’t die… ’cause it’s a kids movie!)

Voices include Chloe Bennet (Crazy Rich Asians) as Yi, and Tenzing Norgay Trainor as Jin. Fun fact: if the name sounds familiar it’s because he’s the grandson of Tenzing Norgay, the Nepali-Tibetan Sherpa who climbed Mt Everest with Edmond Hillary.

Abominable is fun movie for kids that grown ups can enjoy too.

Monos

Dir: Alejandro Landes

On a mountaintop somewhere in Colombia a multi-ethnic, multi-gendered group of “monos” – cool, cute teenagers – are fooling around. They’re stylin’ with hip hairstyles and military outfits. They play games like blindfolded soccer, where you kick a ball with bells attached, into a net that makes noise. Or one-on-one wrestling matches, combining martial arts, modern dance and Capoeira. Everyone has a nickname reflecting something about them: Smurf is young and cute, Lady is pretty, Rambo’s a fighter, Swede is light-skinned, Lobo is wolflike… plus Dog, Bigfoot, and Boom Boom. Some even pair off as couples.

Their only contact with the outside world is a staticky two-way radio and a diminutive, muscular man who visits them every so often. He’s from The Organization, a cryptic paramilitary group fighting the government. Their assignment is to guard an American woman they call Doctora. The girls braid her hair and the boys invite her to play in their games. The problem is she’s a hostage of The Organization, and a potential source of power and money. So when things go wrong, the monos take sides and start fighting each other. And when the enemy bombards them with missiles. things turn into a co-ed Lord Of The Flies. Can they stick together in peace and harmony? Or will outside pressure, internal divisions, and harsh military culture lead to harm and even death?

Monos is an aesthetically beautiful look at a period of violence and death in Colombia. The ensemble cast play it as part melodrama, part dance performance, plotted against breathtakingly lush scenery. From sexualized wrestling, to scenes of struggle filmed underwater, to an exquisite pantomime of soldiers walking in the jungle covered in different colours of mud, this highly-stylized movie is as pretty as a Vogue fashion spread, but just realistic enough that you care about the kids and their fate.

Good movie.

Monos starts today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and Abominable also opens 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 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.

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