Heists and Outlaws. Films reviewed: Widows, The Whiskey Bandit, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs PLUS Instant Family

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, Crime, Family, Heist, Hungary, Movies, Western, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 15, 2018

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

Being robbed is everyone’s nightmare… so why do we love heist movies so much? Maybe it’s the excitement and audacity of their heroes and antiheroes. This week, I’m looking at three movies with sympathetic thieves. There’s a professional bank robber in Budapest, four female thieves in the Midwest, and outlaws and gunslingers in the old west.

Widows

Wri/Dir: Steve McQueen

Veronica (Viola Davis) lives in a Chicago penthouse with her loving husband Harry (Liam Neeson), a successful businessman. But when he is killed in a car crash, she discovers the source of his wealth: he’s a professional thief. He – and three other men – died on a job that ended with millions of dollars going up in flames when the getaway van exploded. And some not-so-nice people tell Veronica they want those millions back. What to do? She decides to learn from her husband and form her own gang of thieves for a single, grand heist of their own. But first she needs a team. So she turns to the widows of the men who worked with her husband – total strangers all. Veronica has to convince them all to join in with her plan.

There’s Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) a hardworking mom raising young kids while running her dress shop. With her husband gone she could lose everything. And tall, beautiful Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) has been working as a high-end escort since her abusive husband died. They agree to join Veronica. When the fourth widow pulls out of the scheme they recruit Linda’s babysitter Belle (Cynthia Erivo) a tough cookie from the projects who can run like lightning. But can four inexperienced women pull off a complex home robbery and outsmart organized criminals who hold all the cards?

Widows is a complex thriller, involving not just the four women but also corrupt Chicago politicians, gangsters, preachers, and power brokers. It portrays the city as rotten to the core. It co-stars Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall and Daniel Kaluuya, but the men in this movie are just distractions; women are the core, unusual for a crime thriller. This is artist-turned-director Steve McQueen‘s first mainstream genre movie. Widows is sophisticated, well-acted and skilfully made, but… it’s just a movie. It isn’t deep or emotionally jarring like his earlier movies Hunger, and Twelve Years a Slave.

It kept me interested but left me feeling hollow inside.

The Whiskey Bandit

Wri/Dir: Nimród Antal

It’s the 1980s in Transylvania, Romania. Atilla Ambruzs (Bence Szalay) is a poor young man, neglected and beaten by his father, sent to juvie for petty theft, and enlisted into the army, where he’s an excellent marksman. As an ethnic Hungarian in Ceaucescu’s Romania he has no future. So he escapes across the border by strapping his belt to the bottom of a train and holding on for dear life.

In Budapest, he’s welcomed with open arms and given a job, a home and status. No, just kidding. He’s penniless, homeless and without legal status. Worse, in Hungary he’s derided as Romanian! He finally finds work: as a combination goalie and janitor for a pro-hockey team. No pay, but at least he has a place to live.

One night, drinking beer with his buddies, he spots the woman of his dreams. He chases her to the subway, and offers her flowers. Is this love at first sight? But Kata (Piroska Móga) is educated from a rich family, while Atilla is a penniless alien. He needs the proper papers to get ahead, but they require a hefty bribe. So he turns to bank robbing… and he’s very good at it. He never fires a shot, never hurts anybody, just leapfrogs the tellers and grabs the cash from the banks safes. And he always avoids the cops– He climb walls, jump from buildings, even swim across the Danube to escape. He disguises his appearance with caps, aviator glasses and a fake moustache, leaving nothing behind but the smell of alcohol on his breath. As his exploits pile up, so does his infamy, dubbed the Whiskey Bandit in the news media and adored as a folk hero. And he lives lavishly – telling Kata and his teammates he made his fortune importing bear skins. But how long will his luck hold out?

The Whiskey Bandit is a great crime/action movie, from the director of the great sci-fi action movie “Predators”. Most of the film is narrated by the Bandit telling his story to a crooked detective (Zoltan Schneider). Szalay and Móga have great chemistry, and the story really grabs you. This is a great, rollicking action/adventure. And turns out, it’s based on a true story.

I really enjoyed this one.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Wri/Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen

It’s the mid 19th Century in the wild, wild west. Picture: wagon trains and prospectors, cowboys and bank robbers. Outlaws and bounty hunters. Their stories are told in a series of short episodes, each its own complete film. Genres change, film by film – musical, serious drama, near horror, or comedy, nicely balanced over a two hour show. They’re tied together by the turning pages of an old book of illustrated western tales, but they owe more to Hollywood westerns. The title story is about a singing cowboy all dressed in white… who turns out to be a serial killer. Like most Coen brothers movies this one doesn’t skimp on guns, violence and dark, dark humour.

I usually dislike anthology films, but in this film, it works. The dramas are tiny, perfect and very pessimistic. Standout performances include Zoe Kazan as an indecisive young woman on the Oregan trail (this is her second wagon train movie, after Kelly Reichardt’s great Meek’s Cutoff); Tom Waits as a prospector looking for Mister Pocket, his streak of gold; and Harry Melling (from the Harry Potter movies) as an armless, legless orator travelling from town to town. It’s very much a traditional Hollywood western with cowboys, stand-offs, and shootouts – and, regretably, indigenous characters still portrayed as “noble savages”, even in 2018. (But in fact all the other characters have stereotypical, largely negative personalities, too.)

Still, it feels like much more than the sum of its parts. superior acting, wonderful music and scenery… This is a great Coen brothers movie.

Also opening today is…

Instant Family

Dir: Sean Anders

Pete and Ellie (Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne) are a happily married, middle-aged couple. They design and renovate houses, and play golf in their spare time. But something is missing… kids! But if they start a family now, they’ll be old folks by the time the kid grows up. But what if they adopt? They join a foster care class run by two social workers (Tig Notaro and Octavio Spencer) who teach them the ins and outs. But when they decide to give it a go, they somehow end up with three foster kids, Lita, Juan and Lizzie. An instant family. Lita (Juliana Gamiz) is a wild child who only eats potato chips. Juan (Gustavo Quiroz) is a scared, accident-prone introvert. And Lizzie (Isabela Moner), age 15, is their surrogate mother, and won’t listen to anything her foster parents tell her. They were abandoned by their birth mother, an addict and petty criminal. Pete and Ellie decide they’ll be their new mom and dad. But will the kids accept them? And when their birth mother is released from prison will they lose these kids they’ve been trying so hard to raise?

Inspired by the director’s own story, Instant Family is equal parts comedy, tear jerker, and realistic look at adoption. It alternates between Ellie, Pete and the kids, the couple’s various relatives (the two grandmas are hilarious, the rest of the relatives just irritating); and the foster parent support group they attend regularly to compare notes. To be honest, this isn’t the sort of movie I would normally go to if I weren’t a film critic. but once there, I did laugh, tear up or cringed, depending on the scene. So if you like inspiring and occasionally funny movies about struggling through parenthood, this is a film for you.

Instant Family, and Widows open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and you can see The Whiskey Bandit tonight at 8:30 at the Royal Cinema as part of the EU Film Festival.

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

Looking for trouble. Films reviewed: Thelma, Amerika Square, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted in Coming of Age, Greece, Norway, Racism, Refugees, Supernatural, Vengeance, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 17, 2017

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

More fall film festivals: The EU Film Fest brings free movies from across Europe to Toronto; and look out for the all-Canadian horror festival called Blood in the Snow – BITS for short – coming next weekend.

We all face trouble at times, but some people seem to invite it. This week I’m looking at movies about people getting into trouble. There’s a bigot in Athens trying to make trouble, a young woman in Oslo trying to avoid trouble, and a middle-aged woman in Missouri who acts like trouble is her middle name.

Thelma

Dir: Joachim Trier

It’s present day Norway. Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a teenaged girl at university in Oslo who is living on her own for the very first time. She was homeschooled by devout Christian parents including a very strict father. Aside from frequent calls from her parents checking up on her, Thelma is suddenly free to discover life on her own. She gets invited to parties, drinks beer, has arguments about politics, and flirts with an obnoxious boy who pursues her relentlessly. It’s thrilling, but also scary. Strange things seem to happen around her when she’s nervous. When she really starts to panic she shakes, shivers, and collapses into what look like epileptic seizures. But are they? And all around her nature seems to react: birds crash into windows, leaves rustle, then things start to shake, break and shatter.

Anja (Kaja Wilkins) is one of her classmates who looks out for her. They seem to have a psychic bond, meeting almost at random – when athelma wants to see her, she seems to just appear. More than that, there’s a strong sexual attraction between the two of them. But Thelma is afraid to tell her the truth: when she thinks hard enough she unleashes forces that can make people… disappear!

Thelma is a terrific coming of age drama full of suspense, mystery and the supernatural. It’s been called the Norwegian Carrey – fundamentalist christian girl with telekinetic powers – but it’s also totally different. She’s not bullied, she’s not weak, and there’s a fascinating love story in the mix.

Harboe and Wilkins — great as Thelma and Anja — are both new faces I want to see more of.

Amerika Square

Dir: Yannis Sakandis

Present-day Athens. Billy (Yannis Stankoglou) is a chill tattoo artist who runs his own shop. He looks like a young Bruce Springsteen in a diverse, workingclass neighbourhood. He lives in an apartment block near Amerika Square, a rundown local park. He just wants to live his life. Tarek (Vassilis Koukalani) is a Syrian refugee with a small daughter. He wants to make his way to safety in Germany, but keeps failing. And when he gets separated from his daughter he breaks into panic mode. Tereza (Ksenia Dania) is a beautiful, biracial nightclub singer (who speaks Greek). She wants to escape local hoodlums who control her. She meets Billy when she asks him to rewrite her tattoo and free her from virtual slavery. Is there something more between Billy and Tereza? Nakos (Makis Papadimitriou) is overweight and underemployed. He’s in his late thirties but still lives with his parents. He is obsessed with foreigners – he methodically counts how many live in the apartment and worries there will be more immigrants than Greeks. They’re changing everything and taking over! he says. His own parents migrated to Athens from a small village, but he considers the square his own. And he’s willing to do almost anything to drive the immigrants out. Will this include murder?

Amerika Square is a good drama about the current conflicts in Athens and across Europe. It looks at the plight of refugees and migrants, locals who welcome them, and the rise of rightwing groups who violently oppose immigration. It follows an ensemble cast in a complex storylines that all comes together in the end, along with a few ironic plot twists.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Wri/Dir: Martin McDonagh

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a divorced woman who runs a gift shop in tiny Ebbing Missouri. She’s been on edge since her teenaged daughter was brutally raped and murdered. The police have yet to charge anyone with the crime. So she rents three derelict billboards on a road near her home. The billboards, like giant Burma Shave signs, ask in garish letters, why Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) hasn’t caught the killer. But when the story is picked up by local media, the powers that be fight back: highschool bullies, her dentist, even a priest. They strongly pressure her to take down the signs, and attack her friends, employees and even her son (Lucas Hedges). But she refuses. This ignites a feud between Mildred and one cop in particular, the corrupt and bigoted Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon lives with his gravelly voiced mother who goads him on to greater and greater acts of violence. But Mildred fights back, upping the ante from words to fistfights, to shooting to firebombing.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a satisfying, exciting, but extremely violent movie about irascible characters facing big issues in a small town. I call it cutely violent – which fits with the director’s other movies: In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. The violence is extreme and graphic, but it always retains a touch of humour. Peter Dinklage and Sam Rockwell are back again, but this time a woman is allowed to shine in the lead role, with great results. Frances McDormand is perfect as this hateable/loveable character. Mildred might curse a blue streak but you can still see the heart in this irascible, hard-ass woman.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF17.

Thelma and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri both open today in Toronto; check our local listings.  Amerika Square is playing at Toronto’s European Union Film Festival. Go to euffto.com for details.

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

Bad Students. Films Reviewed: Lady Bird, Bad Genius, My Friend Dahmer

Posted in 1970s, 2000s, Coming of Age, Crime, High School, Thailand by CulturalMining.com on November 10, 2017

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

Fall Film Festival season continues in Toronto. The EU Film Fest, which started last night, features movies from each of the EU countries, and all screenings are free. Reelasian also just started with films from South, East and Southeast Asia.

This week I’m looking at dramas about troublesome high school students. There’s a young woman in California who wants to head east (to university), another in Bangkok who wants to go south (to Singapore), and a guy in Akron who wants to look inside other people.

Lady Bird

Dir: Greta Gerwig

It’s central California in the early 2000s. Lady Bird (Saorise Ronan), is a bored kid with great ambitions – she wants to study at an eastcoast University. She’s in her last year at a private, Catholic school. Her mom (Laurie Metcalf) sent her there because she thinks public school is too dangerous. She lives in a small house in Sacramento with her brother Miguel, her dad, a computer programmer, and her mom who works in a psychiatric hospital.

Lady Bird wants to be cool and maybe meet a boyfriend. But Immaculate Heart – or Immaculate Fart, as she calls it– is an all-girls school run by nuns. Her only chance of meeting guys is in the theatre club run in conjunction with an all-boys Catholic school nearby. She immediately hits it off with Danny (Lucas Hedges) who likes show tunes and wearing puka shell chokers. She takes him home to meet the family. Later she wants to create a cooler self. (Earlier she renamed herself Lady Bird – she’s actually Christine.) Now she quits doing school plays, and starts playing pranks on nuns. She swaps boyfriend Danny for the chill Kyle (Timothee Chalumet) and trades best friend Julie for the prettier and richer Jenna. She tells her she lives in a mansion, not a bungalow on the wrong side of the tracks. And secretly, with the help of her recently unemployed dad, she applies to east coast schools. But can the tower of lies she creates stand up to closer scrutny? And are her new friends good people?

Lady Bird is Greta Gerwigs first solo film – she codirected Frances Ha with noah Baumbach — and it’s a funny and touching movie. Saorise Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe make a fantastic mother and daughter who can’t get along. And side roles — like Hedges as Danny – are amazing (I didn’t even recognize him as the kid in Manchester on the Sea). I admit I found the last three minutes of the movie a terrible — and unnecessary — mistake, but Lady Bird is still an almost flawless coming-of-age story.

Bad Genius

Dir: Nattawut Poonpiriya

Lynn (actor/model Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is a student at an elite Bangkok high school. It’s a school where many grads get accepted to US Ivy league schools. Most the kids there are filthy rich but not very bright . Lynn is just the opposite – the daughter of a divorced school teacher, she’s a scholarship student, a piano player, and a genius at math. She also understands the value of money — she has to be when theres’s not much around. She quickly establishes herself – along with Bank, another scholarship student – as the top two kids in the school, in competition for a place in a Singapore university. But everything changes when Lynn’s friend Grace – with her millionaire boyfriend Pat – come to her with a proposition. They’ll pay her big bucks to act as their tutor. But they don’t really want to study – they want to an easy way to pass the tests. Lynn comes up with a brilliant plan – she shows them the multiple choice answers by “playing the piano” in the test hall, moving her fingers in the order of four famous passages. The students all pass the exam. But Bank – the good genius — suspects something fishy.

Later they recruit him to join Lynn in a trip to Sydney, Australia to take the STIC exam – the international SAT test. They plan to write the exam and text the answers just in time for the Bangkok exams, four time zones over. Will the plan work? Will they get caught? And will sparks fly between the two geniuses, Lynn and Bank?

Bad Genius is based on an actual test scandal that shook Thailand. The movie works as both a teen drama and an action movie, with the main characters racing against time to rig the tests and avoid capture. It also shows the huge gap between Bangkok’s super rich, and the rest of the people who never seem to get ahead.

My Friend Dahmer

Dir: Marc Meyers

It’s the late 1970s in a small town near Akron Ohio. Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is a tall kid with big glasses and feathered blond hair. He lives with his little brother, his mom a pill-popper (Anne Heche) and his dad a chemist. Jeff collects animal bones from roadkill he finds on the highway. He is also obsessed with a local doctor he always sees jogging down the highway. He keeps to himself at a school ruled by football jocks and cheerleaders. He’s not bullied but not popular either till he finds his niche: a class clown who is both audacious and weird. He spontaneously breaks into his acts, talking like a handicapped kid, or falling to the floor in imitation tonic-clinic seizures.

This catches the attention of Derf (Alex Wolff) and his friends Neil and Mike. They are counterculture types into the Ramones and and comic books. And they see Jeff as epitomize get Punk, even if he doesn’t know it himself. They form the Dahmer fan club, planning events so Jeff can go wild in front of an audience. But are they helping him or using him? Jeff turns to alcohol to counter his constantly bickering parents. She wants to know what people are like on the inside – literally. He gets stranger and stranger, experimenting on live animals.  Are his new “friends” the ones pushing him over the edge?

My Friend Dahmer is a based on the true graphic novel written by Derf Backderf, his highchool (sort of) friend. Dahmer later became a notorious serial killer who picked up men in bars, had sex with their paralyzed bodies, and later dissolved their corpses in acid vats. But My Friend Dahmer takes place before all that. This is an extremely disturbing and creepy — but also weird and funny — look at teenagers in the 1970s. With a great soundtrack, it makes you wonder what – bullying, mental illness, encouragement — pushes people from normalcy to depravity.

Ladybird, and My Friend Dahmer open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Bad Genius is playing at the ReelAsian film festival. Go to reelasian.com for details.

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

End times? Films reviewed: Arrival, The First, the Last

Posted in Aliens, Crime, Cultural Mining, Disabilities, Drama, Movies, Science, Science Fiction, US, War, Western by CulturalMining.com on November 11, 2016

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

With the reality of the recent US election sinking in, people are using words like Brexit 2, Armageddon, Apocalypse and even Thermonuclear War. So this week I have a couple end-of-days movies to capture the prevailing mood. There’s a Belgian western about lost souls who think the world is about to end, and a US science fiction drama about scientists trying to stop the world from ending.

Arrival

14707836_664581693705770_5049392264758941723_oDir: Denis Villeneuve

Dr Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistics professor who speaks Chinese, Portuguese and Sanskrit. She occasionally translates top-secret documents for the US government. She has red hair, blue eyes and porcelain-like skin. She once had a daughter she adored but Hannah died of an incurable disease. Now Louse lives alone in a brick and glass lakeside home comforted only by her memories. Then something cataclysmic happens.

Twelve enormous, lozenge-shaped spaceships arrive on earth. They hover, silently and menacingly, over twelve random places, including Montana in the North America. there’s rioting in the streets, mayhem, mayhem, mayhem. Right away, she gets a knock on the door; it’s Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) a high-ranked officer. He needs her help translating strange clicking sounds into English. Translate? says Louise. I can’t translate a language I don’t understand.I need to speak directly to the aliens. So they whisk her off to an army base in rural Montana along with an arrogant physicist named Ian (Jeremy Renner). Together they’re expected to figure out why the aliens are there and whether the army should 13996056_631361680361105_8857193805571371798_oattack them. Easier said than done.

The aliens let them board the spaceship, kept separate by a glass wall. Louise is shocked by what appears in the mist. No little green men here;  these aliens are septipods – hideous sea creatures with seven legs — and hands that look like starfish. These mollusks have pulpy-grey bodies and can shoot out ink, like octopuses. Louise also discovers they are highly intelligent, with a sophisticated written language with multi-dimensional ring-shaped characters that look like Japanese brush painting. They float, suspended, underwater.

And their cryptic message? Something involving weapons! This pricks up the ears of a sinister CIA agent, her nemesis. With the world on the brink of thermonuclear war, it’s up to Louise to communicate with the aliens and decipher their message before armageddon.

ARRIVALArrival is a fascinating and thoughtful science fiction drama, told through the eyes of an academic. It’s part of the new trend of science-y fantasies that favour intellect over explosions. It’s similar to films like The Martian and Gravity, but I like this one the best. While Jeremy Renner is dull and Forest Whitaker unremarkable, Amy Adams is great as the pensive Louise. Arrival takes place in a barren military camp and it’s overloaded with khaki, camo and annoying Cold War jargon like domino effects and zero-sum games. But it’s also a feel-good movie with a truly surprising twist. It can satisfy your craving for excitement without resorting to superheroes.

12698182_1695852464032129_1864656549375743261_oThe First, the Last (Les Premiers, les Derniers)

Wri/Dir: Bouli Lanners

It’s present-day Wallonia, a place of barren fields, billiard halls and abandoned warehouses. Cochise and Gilou, two rough-and- tough middle aged guys, are hired by an anonymous client to retrieve a valuable lost telephone in exchange for lots of cash. Gilou (played by the director) is a white-bearded man in a midlife crisis, who thinks he’s dying, while Cochise (Albert Dupontel) is a moustached heavy in a leather jacket, always ready to fight but looking 13411815_1749664588650916_4661391988069200063_ofor love. Gilou sets up camp in a lonely motel run by an ancient innkeeper, who looks like an old-age version of himself. Cochise moves in with a woman he meets on the road.

The phone they seek is in the hands of a mysterious young couple named Esther and Willy (Aurore Broutin, David Murgia) who are making their way down a highway, dressed in high-viz orange 12418937_1698598447090864_4975528855641345564_ojumpsuits they found on their journey. They are society’s outcasts, mentally disabled and homeless, but at least they have each other. They need that comfort now, especially since Willy learned that the world is about to end (he saw it on TV). Esther declares they must find a proper gift for a final visit she has to make before it’s all over. And they meet a Jesus-like figure on the way, who tries to take them under his wing.

But neither pair realizes they have wandered into the badlands, an area filled with crooked sheriffs, black marketeers, and all- around villains who don’t take kindly to strangers. So while the phone hunters are tracking down the outcasts, they’re all being sought — violently so — by the bad guys. There is also a mysterious 12291825_1669565919994117_8655432979938888484_ogangster, an antlered stag, a mummy and a lost child to make things interesting. Can any of them find what they’re looking for?

The First, the Last is a satisfying — if baffling — western, set among the highways and desolate fields of French-speaking Belgium. It has the “European” feel of a movie like the Lobster, only not so straightforward. There’s also twangy music, nice cinematography, and all-around good acting, including a cameo by Max von Sydow as an undertaker.

Arrival arrives today in Toronto, check your local listings; is playing at the EU festival, now until the 24th. Tickets are free, but be sure to line up early to get a seat. Go to eutorontofilmfest.ca for showtimes. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Extreme non-conformists. Movies reviewed: Sworn Virgin, Wild Life PLUS Drone and EUFF

Posted in Albania, Clash of Cultures, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, France, Hippies, Italy, Movies, Trans by CulturalMining.com on November 19, 2015

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

drone posterThe horrible attacks in Beirut and Paris last week have shaken the world. But how to respond to these attacks? For many governments, the War on Terror is the answer. Others turn toward diplomacy. Some say drone attacks are what keep terrorism at bay. But other experts warn that US drone kills are the best recruitment ads groups like ISIS have. A new documentary that opens today across North Amerioca is called Drone (Dir: Tonje Hessen Schei). It features Brandon Bryant, a former drone pilot turned whistle-blower, as well as the people in the lands where the drone attacks happen — Afghanistan and the Middle East — who experienced drone attacks as “collateral damage”.

Some non-conformists choose to dissociate themselves from mainstream culture. They find non-conformity works better if you live far from other people, away from the mainstream. This week I’m looking at two European dramas about non-conformists who leave it all behind. People who flee the cities but at a price. There’s a French father and two sons who go back to the wild, and an Abanian who heads for the freedom of the mountains, before ending up in Italy.

11807365_970026939685133_7963239791947681248_oSworn Virgin
Dir: Laura Bispuri

Hana (Alba Rohrwacher) lives with her parents in an isolated part of the mountains of Albania. But when her parents die, she is found and adopted by a family in a village. But she runs into trouble almost immediately just for living her life the way she always has. Her new sister Lila (Flonja Kodheli) tells her what’s what.

It’s not good to drink before a man drinks, speak before a man speaks, smoke, touch a rifle, go into the woods, choose a husband, do a man’s work, even look at a man funny. Basically, she has no rights at all. Hana says that’s just not fair, how can she live this way, how can she stand it? Is there a way out? There is. A woman can live like a man does and get all his privileges. BUt there’s a catch. She has to cut her hair, bind her breasts, wear pants and carry a gun. But she has to take an oath and give up all sex and live her life as a so-called sworn virgin.

So the movie picks up many years later in a Tyrolian town in Italy. Mark shows up at Lila’s Italy_SWORNVIRGINdoor direct from the mountains of Albania. He’s still a sworn virgin but wants to give that life up. But Mark is the ultimate fish out of water. Exposed to weird things like women’s bras, nudity, supermarkets, money, and synchronized swimming, it’s almost too much to take in. Lila’s daughter Jonida (Emily Ferratello) finds Mark fascinating, but doesn’t understand him. And for Mark, making the shift back to life as a woman, is overwhelming. The women’s and men’s bodies he sees at the local swimming pool is all a fascinating mystery. Lila is the only person he’s shared a bed with. But Bernhard – the swimming cioach at the pool attracts her. Which way will Mark/Hana choose for their identity, gender and sexuality?

Sworn Virgin is an incredibly fascinating movie, based on a true practice. To this day there are people in Albania – largely unknown in the rest if the world — who choose to live as so-called “sworn virgins” for the advantages it gives them. The movie, especially the performance of Alba Rohwacher, looking like a young KD Lang, is really remarkable, like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Vie Sauvage afficheWild Life
Dir: Cedric Kahn

Paco and Nora (Mathieu Kassovitz and Celine Sallette) meet in a teepee circle in France, and fall in love. Along with Nora’s own son, Thomas, they have two sons together: Tsali and Okyesa (David Gastou, Sofiane Neveu). They live a nomadic farming life in rural France. A back-to-nature, hippie life. But after about a decade Nora calls it quits and takes the three boys – kicking and screaming – with her. Overnight, their lives change home-schooled hippy-farmers to conservative townies at Nora’s parent’s home. And Paco is forbidden all contact, except on national holidays, until the custody agreement is settled. Which takes many years.

But Paco — and the two youngest sons — decide to go back to living a wild life, back to the woods, with no possessions and only the clothes on their backs. They do the mandated education – French dictee, times tables – but they also learn to catch fish with their bare hands, to tame wild birds, and handle live scorpions and snakes without getting bit. They can catch and skin a rabbit, climb trees, and hide from any passing helicopters.

As they grow older, the boys have to use fake names, and avoid cities, trains, and police at all costs. PacoFrance_THEWILDLIFE is a fugitive. Paco tells them they are allowed to go back to their Mom at any time, as long as they ask. The boys say they choose to be with him… but can ten-year-old boys make such decisions? They eventually settle at a hippy commune and build stone houses from scratch, and live with no electricity.

But as teenagers, Paco is dismayed to see them reading comic books, dancing to rave music, spending cash and hanging out with friends they meet. They want to be accepted, see the world, see their mother again. And they want to meet girlfriends, have sex, move away… just like any other teenager. Can this fragile family stay together?

This is a great movie. It’s doubly interesting because it’s based on true story, a book written by the people who lived it — the Fortin Brothers and their father. The actors playing the briothers as kids, and later as teenagers (Romain Depret, Jules Ritmanic) are all new to the screen. But they seem to be the real thing. Only the troubled idealistic Paco (played by well-known director Matthieu Kassovitz) is familiar. Don’t miss this one.

Sworn Virgin, played last weekend, and Wild Life is opening tonight at the EU mw83vp_brooklyn_02_o3_8667104_1441138255Film Festival. This is a festival that shows movies from each country in the European Union for free at the Royal Cinema on College St. Go to europeanfilmfest.ca for details. Also opening today is the wonderful drama Brooklyn about a young migrant woman in the 1950s (Saorise Ronan) who travels between big city New York and small-town Ireland. Do not miss this movie.

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

 

Body Consciousness. Movies reviewed: Body, My Skinny Sister, Kilo Two Bravo

Posted in Drama, Mental Illness, Poland, Sweden, UK, Uncategorized, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 14, 2015

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

North Americans spend over $60 billion a year on gym memberships and diets, obsessing over their weight and fitness. Body image is omnipresent. This week I’m looking at three movies about bodies. There’s a Swedish drama about a girl who envies her sister’s body; a Polish drama about a man who finds bodies, a woman who talks to dead bodies and a young woman who wishes her own body would just go away; and a UK war movie about a squadron of soldiers in Afghanistan just trying to keep their bodies alive.

1j3WjR_BODY_03_o3_8696634_1439859982Body
Dir: Malgorzata Szumowska

Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) is a psychotherapist who treats teenaged girls with eating disorders. She works at a prestigious medical centre in Warsaw where she uses the latest techniques to make them comfortable with their bodies. She lives alone, and shares her bed with a Great Dane. Janusz (Janusz Gajos) is a lawyer who deals with death on a daily basis. Y6qWpn_BODY_01_o3_8696532_1439859952He prosecutes rapists and murderers, and treats his job as part CSI, part detective sleuth. We always see him at the crime scene, never in court. He lives with his bleached-blonde daughter Olga (Justyna Suwala). Olga has had an eating disorder since her mom died, which she blames on her dad. This dysfunctional family lives a passive 66KX8l_BODY_02_o3_8696583_1439859967aggressive life, with Olga never eating and Januzs always drinking. They coexist uneasily, leaving notes to each other taped around the house, with the spirit of the dead woman hanging over everything. That is until Olga attempts to kill herself. Januzs has her committed to a mental hospital under Anna’s care.

But they don’t know that Anna is not just a therapist, but also a spiritualist who believes she can talk to the dead. It’s up to her to convince Olga and Januzs to accept each other and to reach out to the dead woman’s ghost.8qK16m_BODY_04_o3_8696685_1439859202

Death, murder, suicide, mental illness… this sounds like a depressingly heavy movie, right? Wrong! It’s a delightfully absurdist look at how dysfunctional families cope with death and mourning. The movie consists of dozens of short scenes, many of which have hilarious or shocking details. (For example, the body of a suicide victim who turns out not to be dead.) And it’s peppered with subtle, political digs at contemporary polish society — issues like abortion, anti-semitism, sexism, and alcoholism. Szumowska is a director to look out for. I liked two of her earlier movies from Poland and France (In the Name of, Elles) and this one is even better.

my-skinny-sisterMy Skinny Sister
Wri/Dir: Sanna Lenken

Stella (Rebecka Josephson) is a pudgy, red-haired ten-year-old. She is smart but extremely self-conscious. Her older sister Katja (Amy Diamond) is a prize-winning figure skater. She practices daily with her German athletioc coach Jacob (Maxim Mehmet) and is highly competitive. Stella idolizes her but is also jealous of her. How come Katja gets all her parents’ attention? Why is she so thin and athletic, when Stella is just ordinary? And how come she gets to spend so much time with KO9Ryx_myskinnysister_01_o3_8730465_1440464810Jacob? Stella has a crush on him and is sure he’d feel the same way if he just got to know her.

But then she learns something else about her sister: Katja is eating funny. She won’t eat junk food – athletes in training can’t eat things like that! – but Stella catches her gorging out of a trash can and throwing it all up later. But when Stella confronts her she makes her promise not to tell anyone – especially Jacob or their parents. Stella is torn: anorexia could be killing her sister, so telling their parents might save her life. But deep down she wants to see Katja fail. Maybe that will get Stella the attention she deserves.

My Skinny Sister is a realistic coming-of-age drama about eating disorders, told from Stella’s point of view. It shows how even parents who love their kids — and do everything with their kids in mind — can still do everything exactly wrong.

GZWWMJ_KILOTWOBRAVO_05_o3_8716163_1439859473Kilo Two Bravo
Dir: Paul Katis

Tug (Mark Stanley) is a medic in the British Army, based in Helmand, Afghanistan. He works at an encampment on a hilltop in Kajiki, near a major dam and a big reservoir. Most of his work consists of providing band aids and inspecting grunts’ penises for sexually transmitted diseases. That is until pgLL8Q_KILOTWOBRAVO_02_o3_8716051_1439859431someone spots suspicious activity happening down in the wadi. The Taliban is active in the area and might threaten the dam.

So a few soldiers venture down the rocks to reconoiter. That’s when it happens: one of them steps on a mine blowing of a mine and some fingers. It’s up to Tug to stop the bleeding and get him to a hospital in Kabul. The problem is, where there’s one landmine, there are always more. And as the soldiers climb down they find 1j33rZ_KILOTWOBRAVO_01_o3_8716034_1439859417themselves walking on eggshells in a minefield. Each soldier they try to rescue could lead to more casualties. A false step, a kicked rock, a dropped water bottle… boom! Another deadly explosion. And adding to the danger is an incoming helicopter that could ignite even more mines, imperiling them all.

Kilo Two Bravo is a suspense-filled drama that keeps you tense for most of the film.NxWWL2_KILOTWOBRAVO_03_o3_8716068_1439859445 And it doesn’t skimp on gore: there are long medical sequences – gaping wounds, flying limbs — not for the squeamish. It’s a War is Hell-type story, where there’s no easy enemy, no Taliban soldiers to fight. Just the invisible foe hidden all around you in the minefield. If you’ve heard the term PTSD, and wondered where it comes from, this movie will show you. Kilo is neither a pro-war nor an anti-war film;  rather, it’s a sympathetic look at the soldiers themselves.

Kilo Two Bravo opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; My Skinny Sister is part of Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival featuring movies about addiction and mental health. And Body opened the Ekran Toronto Polish Film Festival and is playing at the EU film festival which starts today. Also opening today is Gaspar Noe’s Love.

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

Limbo. Movies Reviewed: The Homesman, West

Posted in 1970s, Communism, Germany, Mental Illness, Road Movie, Uncategorized, Western by CulturalMining.com on November 21, 2014

The Wonders of Modern Underwater SalvageHi, 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.

Ever been stuck in an elevator between two floors? Or stranded in an airport lounge in a far-off country as you wait to change planes? Well, between departure and arrival, there’s always that strange space, that state of limbo that you’re never quite sure you’ll get out of. This week I’m looking at two movies about that interim area. One’s an American western about a woman in Nebraska Territory trying to bring three women  from West to East. The other’s a German drama set in 1970s Berlin about a woman trying to bring her son from East to West.

H_20130429_0351.tifThe Homesman
Dir: Tommy Lee Jones

Mary Bee Cuddy (Hillary Swank) lives on a big farm in the old west. She spends her time ploughing the fields with her two faithful mules. She’s a hardworking, educated farmer. She’s got money in the bank, and if things work out, she might even start up a pumpkin patch next year. So what’s her problem? She’s a single woman, almost 30, unheard of in these parts. All the men have turned her down. She’s too plain and bossy, they all say.

But who do they turn to when things get rough? Mary Bee. Their young wives H_20130409_4096-2.dnghave all gone mad so they need a homesman to take three women them across the prairies to a big city – somewhere with an insane asylum. And they give her a horse-drawn paddy wagon with barred windows to carry them there. But before she leaves, she runs across an ornery old cuss with a rope around his neck. The posse had caught him squatting in an abandoned shack, and that was grounds for a hanging. His name is George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), and he’s a drunken scofflaw who thinks only of himself. She makes him a deal. If she cuts him loose, he has to navigate her – and the three women – across Indian territory in Nebraska. And she sweetens the pot with a jug of whiskey and the promise of 300 dollars if he guides them safely to the town.

So off they go on their journey, crossing rivers, camping on the plains, and avoiding the natives and various outlaws riding around. Will they make it alive? Can irresponsible Briggs and forthright Cuddy ever see eye to eye? Will opposites attract? And how 05f3b79a-bca6-4bf8-8aa1-0e06380cb996will they handle their unusual human cargo?

This is a beautifully shot, traditional Western, a genre thought dead and gone not too long ago. It’s full of visual quotes, not just from movies, but from old American paintings, like George Caleb Bingham’s Jolly Flatboatmen. And it delves into questions of class, race and gender.

I do have some qualms with this movie. Biggest of all is how it portrays mental illness. The three women are infantilized, The-Jolly-Flatboatmen George Caleb Bingham orgconveniently rendered mute by their illnesses. They never speak to one another and act like three-year-olds. They function more as background scenery or pets than as people. And I’m always suspicious when actors try their hands at writing or directing. They tend to let their own characters steal scenes and hog attention. But Tommy Lee Jones, while  occasionally mugging for the camera, he allowed Swank the screen time to let herself shine. All in all, I enjoyed The Homesman. Although slow paced, it kept me interested until the very end.

poster_imageWest (Westen)
Dir: Christian Schwochow

It’s the 1970s and Germany is divided. Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) is a beautiful and successful scientific researcher in East Berlin. She has a long-distance relationship with her Russian lover Vassily, who regularly visits her and their son Alexey (Tristan Göbel) in Berlin. But when he dies in a car crash, her life, and that of Alexey, is changed. She finds the endless interrogations and strip-searches in the DDR humiliating and unbearable. And when she applies for an exit visa, her good job disappears. So when they finally successfully cross over to the West, she expects to find, freedom, privacy and a well-paying job. Instead, they end up stuck in a strange, no-mans-land called the Emergency Refugee Centre.

East Berlin is still held by the Soviets, while West Berlin is occupied by the US, French and British military – a relic of WWII, kept alive by the cold war. She is strip-searched in the west side, too, given cards to punch, and turned down from working. And she is soon called into regular interrogations with John, a black American intelligence officer with a pencil thin moustache (Jacky Ido). She becomes paranoid after he hints that her Russian lover might still be alive, and that Stasi might be spying on her.

Meanwhile, back at the dormitory, her son attaches himself to a new father figure, Hans (Alexander Scheer). Hans was a former Germany West : Westen Toronto EU Film Festivaljailed dissident in the East, but, in spite of this, some people suspect him of being a Stasi informer. Nelly is suspicious too, but she fails to see he’s the only one helping poor Alexey handle the constant bullying. They don’t like the (Easterners) there. Her paranoia grows as her happiness seems unreachable. Nelly is left wondering is the West any different from the East?

This is a fascinating, semi-autobiographical movie that has an historical connection. It was written by a mother and directed by a son who had crossed over from the DDR themselves. I remember meeting refugees from the East living in West Berlin, but never knew what they had gone through. Very illuminating, realistic look at Berlin in the 1970s.

The Homesman opens today in Toronto, check your local listings, and West plays tonight at a free screening at the Royal. It’s part of the EU film festival which runs for another week. Go to eutorontofilmfest.ca for details.

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

Daniel Garber talks to director Mariano Barroso about his new film All The Women at Toronto’s EU Film Festival

Posted in Animals, comedy, Psychology, Road Movie, Romance, Sex, Spain by CulturalMining.com on November 21, 2014

unnamedNacho is a cattle vet in his 40s in present-day Spain. He inseminates the cows at his father-in-law’s  ranch. Life is dull. So when he hears of a plan involving rustling some cows and selling them across the border in Portugal, he jumps at the chance. He doesn’t like his wife’s father and could use the extra cash. But something goes wrong, that could wind up with him in jail. Nacho needs help and money. So he turns for advice to the women in his life — all the women.

All The Women, (Todas las Mujeres) is also the name of a new comedy/drama.  Adapted from a Spanish TV series, the movie  is a collection of short scenes of Nacho talking with the women in  his life: his wife, his mother, a lover, an ex-girlfriend,  his sister-in-law and a psychiatrist. This movie’s a big hit in Spain and won a Goya prize — the Spain’s Oscars.

I spoke with Spanish director Mariano Barroso in Madrid by telephone. He talks about Nacho’s character– both mean and loveable,  reactions to the movie by All The Women EU film fest Spainwomen and men at festivals around the world, what he changed from the TV,  why this movie is like an “internal” road movies, the nature of  the dialogue, the “cruelty” of the script, the most difficult female character to portray, the film’s rural setting, his cinematic influences (Coppola, Scorcese), theatrical influences (Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill) and the director’s visit to Toronto.

His film ALL THE WOMEN is having its Toronto debut this Saturday at 6 pm, at Toronto’s EU Film Festival.

 

 

 

 

Daniel Garber talks with Swedish director Gabriela Pichler about her new film EAT SLEEP DIE (Äta Sova Dö)

Posted in Cultural Mining, Migrants, Movies, Sweden, Uncategorized, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 23, 2013

Gabriela Pichler. Foto: Claudio Bresciani

Sverigesradio foto Gabriela PichlerHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Raša (Nermina Lukač) is a young Swedish woman, a Muslim born in Montenegro. She lives with her Dad in a small town near Gothenburg and works in a produce-packing factory. She’s a damned good employee — the type who can tell the exact weight of a handful of lettuce.

But when she and some others are laid off by the company, she finds herself suddenly rudderless, adrift. And, when her ailing father is forced to look for work in Norway, she has nothing to do and no one to do it with. All her friends were at the factory — her life was there, too. Is she “Swedish” enough to find a new job in her home town?
A new movie, a realistic drama, looks at small-town life in Sweden through the eyes of an assimilated, working class immigrant. It deals with questions of identity, community and exclusion.
This award-winning film is called EAT SLEEP DIE and played at the the Venice, Busan and Toronto film festivals. It is screening at the EU Film Festival in Toronto.Eat Sleep Die 06
I speak — by telephone from Gothenburg, Sweden — with the film’s writer/director, Gabriela Pichler. She talks about immigrants in Sweden, making her film and the personal connection she has with the story.

November 16th, 2012. Up and Down. Movies Reviewed: Floating City, Pusher

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Crime, Cultural Mining, Drama, drugs, Finance, Fishing, Hong Kong, Racism, UK, Uncategorized, violence, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on November 17, 2012

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

We’re nearing the end of the fall festival season here in Toronto. But there are still a few you can catch.

ReelAsian shows movies by and about people in or from East and Southeast Asia. The festival continues this weekend with movies shown north of Toronto in Thornhill. It’s a great place to see current films from Asia that don’t normally make it to Toronto theatres. Rendezvous with Madness, which shows movies aboiut addiction and mental health is notable for it’s offbeat, rare and creative works. They’re each followed by panel discussions by the filmmakers, experts, and, here’s what’s different… psychiatrists! And I’m going to be moderating a panel of some great Canadian local films (North of Normal: A Collection of Canadian Shorts) so be sure to check that out series out this Saturday at 4 pm! SAD NEWS: ALL SCREENINGS AT RENDEZVOUS WITH MADNESS THIS WEEKEND HAVE BEEN CANCELLED DUE TO ROOF COLLAPSE.

The EU festival shows one movie from each country in the European Union chosen by representatives from each country’s diplomatic corps. Aside from the great films… it’s also completely free! It’s at the Royal Cinema on College street all week. And finally don’t miss the best named festival in Toronto: that’s Darryl’s Hard Liquor And Porn Film Festival at the Projection Booth on Gerrard St East. It;’s actually funny short films made by indie movie makers — not so much porn, but lots of funny adult topics.

This week I’m looking at two dramas about the fortunes of two ambitious but rudderless men whose fortunes rise and fall within the tides of the former British Empire.

Floating City

Dir: Ho Yim

When a desperately poor woman loses her son in childbirth she buys a newborn to replace him – a Eurasian Chinese boy with bluish eyes. She raises him as her own and guards him with her life on a little fishing junk in the fragrant harbor of Hong Kong. He grows up literally barefoot, illiterate, beaten by his father, in debt, and bullied. His light-coloured hair marks him as an outsider. And the local corruption and bribery makes it very hard for a poor person to leave the underclass.

But one day he sees one of the legendary taipans – the ruling business oligarchs of Hong Kong – and vows to join their ranks. A missionary priest teaches him to read and write. And Bo is ambitious; rather than becoming a labourer or a fisherman, he manages to join the legendary East India Company. Despite the racist bully businessman Dick, his boss, he swallows his pride, even letting Dick call him “mixed” and “halfbreed”.

This movie – based on actual people – shows the rise of Bo (Aaron Kwok) against the history of post-war Hong Kong. It stretches from the social unrest uin the 60s through the panic in the 80’s and the ultimate signing of the British colony to the People’s Republic. It also shows his eternal question – who am I? – as he tries to find love, to fit into European society, always pondering is that all there is? And will any loss of pride to kowtowing pay-off in the end? Or will he always be considered “second class”.

I liked the story and the characters, but it seemed more plodding than moving or thrilling. And the film seems a bit dry for such a monumental topic. Still, Floating World gives a comprehensive view of Hong Kong’s history and its people and its bitter-sweet role as a loyal British colony that was never accepted by the mother country.

Pusher

Dir: Luis Prieto

Things are going well for Frank (Richard Coyle). He’s got a nice arrangement with a sleazy dry-cleaner (Danish actor Zlatko Buric) to supply him with drugs that he sells in dubstep nightclubs alongside his skinny, toothy side-kick Tony (Bronson Webb). And he is sleeping with a beautiful, ice-blond stripper (Agyness Deyn).

He decides to expand – he sends a woman to Amsterdam to pick up some coke, and — after a chance meeting with a casual acquaintance he met in the big house – he decides to go for an easy deal that will make him lots and lots of money.

But things are not what they seem. The Amsterdam deal isn’t working, his buddy seems to have turned on him, he suspects the set-up guy might be a narc, and all the money he borrowed from Milo The Dry Cleaner… has disappeared. He’s forced to accompany a violent enforcer to reclaim some of the money he is owed, knowing all the while that he might well be the next one crushed by the big time criminals.

Will he dig himself out if his hole, get back his money, avoid prison, escape the low life, and maybe find a quiet existence with his lover?

Pusher (a remake of Nicolas Refn Wilding’s film) is extremely violent, gritty, low-budget and depressing. It has some good intrigue and action, it’s fast moving and tense, but it’s not a fun movie. The acting is pretty good and you get to like the characters (even though they’re loathsome criminals)… but they’re all so beaten down by the even nastier bosses that you mentally want it all just to end already.

Pusher is playing now, Floating City is playing at reelasian.com this weekend in Thornhill; Rendezvous with Madness, Hard Liquor and Porn, and EUtorontofilmfest.ca all continue through the weekend.

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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