Need help. Films reviewed: Capernaum, The Upside

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Coming of Age, Disabilities, Drama, Kids, Lebanon, Migrants, Movies, Poverty by CulturalMining.com on January 11, 2019

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

If January has left you broke or in debt, but you still want to see some movies, there are free alternatives out there. Kanopy – free for anyone with a Toronto library card, is an online streaming service with a huge selection of incredible movies and documentaries you can sign out digitally for free. Workman Arts and Rendezvous with Madness is showing a selection of cool movies about mental illness, for free later this month — reserve tickets online. And the Japanese Consulate in Toronto and the Japan Foundation are sponsoring three Japanese movies, first come, first serve. Both of these series are playing at the Hot Docs cinema in January.

This week I’m looking at two movies about people who need help. There’s a homeless kid in Beirut trying to help a motherless toddler, and a homeless ex-con in New York trying to help an extremely rich man who is paraplegic.

Capernaum

Wri/Dir: Nadine Labaki

Beirut, right now.

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) is a foul-mouthed, poor kid who doesn’t go to school – his parents never registered him when he was born. He shares a bed with his three sisters, including Sahar (Haita ‘Cedra’ Izzam) the oldest. When she has her first period, Zain senses danger. He’s afraid their parents will marry very young Sahar to their predatory middle aged landlord Assaad. His fears turn out to be true, and she’s carried out of their home kicking and screaming. Zain has had enough… so he runs away. On a bus he meets an elderly man in a knockoff superhero costume – I’m cockroach man – and follows him to a rundown carnival. There he meets Tigest (Yordanos Shiferaw), an Ethiopian woman fluent in Arabic with a baby named Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). She uses a fake ID – she draws a beauty spot on her face each morning, but without she could be deported. She’s poor too, but takes Zain under her wing; he takes care of the baby while she’s at work. Everything’s going fine until… She doesn’t come home one day. What happened to her? Now 12 year old Zain has to serve as 1-year-old Yonas’s dad, searching the streets for milk and diapers for the baby, food and water. Zain is forced to pose as a Syrian refugee to get any help. But how long can a homeless child – taking care of a baby – last in a big cruel city?

Capernaum (the Lebanese word for chaos) is a funny, delightful and fascinating drama that’s also brimming with pathos. It’s a genuine tearjerker, I cried at least three times – couldn’t help it – but despite the tears, surprisingly this is not a depressng movie. It’s told in a series of flashbacks based on testimony in a courtroom. Zain is there suing his own parents for giving birth to him. The trial serves as the backdrop, but it’s mainly about Zain’s journey as an undocumented kid. Most of the characters are played by non-actors, but all of them, especially Zain al Rafeea are superb and real-seeming. It deals with very heavy topics – including human trafficking, refugees, poverty, child neglect and abuse – but this film manages to handle it with just the right degree of sadness, punctuated with enough humour to stop it from sliding into misery

This is only the second film I”ve seen by Nadine Labaki. I still remember Where do We Go Now (2011) a simple story about the women in a village trying to stop the conflict between Christians and Muslims. That was a cute movie, but this one is 100 times more clever, sophisticated, and skillfull.

I liked this film a lot.

The Upside

Dir: Neil Burger

Phillip (Bryan Cranston) is a billionaire widower who lives in a penthouse suite in New York City, He hasn’t large live in staff, including Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), his kind but prudish financial manager. He loves opera, poetry, fine art…, and paragliding. Or at least he did until a terrible accident left him paralyzed except for his neck and head. Now he’s despondent and ready to die. But Yvonne insists on hiring a new caregiver.

Dell (Kevin Hart) is a deadbeat dad with a teenaged son and an ex wife he can’t support. He’s a ne’erdowell on parole with a long prison record, and if he can’t prove he’s looking for work he’ll be back behind bars. Somehow he ends up in Phillip’s penthouse just when they’re hiring. To everyone’s surprise Phillip hires the extremely rude and unqualified Dell, mainly because he wants to die, the sooner the better. Dell is just as shocked to get the job, especially when he sees the first paycheque. But somehow the two hit it off, and little by little, Phillip crawls out of his shell and learns to live again. But how long can it last? Will Dell’s prison record come back to haunt him? And can Phillip ever recover from the loss of his one true love?

The Upside is a Hollywood remake of Intouchables, the French comedy that was a box office smash. I’ve never seen the original – apparently based on a true story – but I doubt this one will be a big hit. It’s very predictable, with some godawful jokes. Faking a tonic-clonic seizure to avoid a speeding ticket? (Please don’t.) Uneducated Dell mispronouncing famous names and three sylable words? Of course he panics at the idea of touching another man’s penis, even inserting a catheter. (Really?) Dell’s black, you see, but don’t worry white people, he likes Aretha Franklin not that newfangled hip hop stuff. (Sigh).

That said, there are some funny scenes; Hart and Cranston are likeable in their roles and together make a good buddy movie, and Nicole Kidman is unusually understated.

Is The Upside a great movie? No, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Capernaum and The Upside both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Mind Twisters. Movies reviewed: A Field in England, Divergent, Nymph()maniac (Parts 1 and 2)

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.

Brain teasers, mind-bogglers. This week I’m bringing you some real brain-twisting films. There’s a sci-fi-action-romance about a young woman caught in a futuristic caste-system determined by personality; a Euro comedy/drama about sex; And an absurdist British period piece about … I’m not quite sure what.

A Field in England Poster stacks_image_236A Field in England

Ben Wheatley

It’s 17th Century England in a field near Norwich. The civil war is raging. Three scruffy wanderers end up travelling together. They are heading toward a legendary alehouse where all their problems will be solved, all their differences will disappear. But things get complicated when O’Neal, a tall, sinister man, appears — seemingly out of nowhere — with a nasty henchman. The necromancer’s servant (one of the three travellers), tries to arrest O’Neal. But a warrant without a musket to back it up isn’t worth much in an English field. Instead, O’Neal press gangs the three men to dig for treasure. At least I think that’s the plot, but I’m not exactly sure.

People in this movie appear, disappear, die, un-die, turn into wooden posts, and drop magic mushrooms into unwatched soup pots.

Shot in beautiful black and white, with excellent contemporary experimental music, it leaves me scratching my head. Is it all just an acid trip by men wearing three-cornered hats in an historic battle reenactment? I cannot say. But it definitely belongs in the movie file labeled “WTF”.

DIVERGENTDivergent

Dir: Neil Burger

It’s Chicago a hundred years in the future. Society is divided into five castes, each with its own rules. Erudite is for the intelligent professionals who wear Wall Street suits. Abnegation is where the sympathetic and selfless helpers go — they control the government. And Dauntless is for the paramilitary – brave and aggressive.

Young Tris’s family (Shailene Woodley) is Abnegation. They wear beige, meditate, and eat whole grains. Tris only looks in the mirror for a few seconds each day. But when she attains age of majority and takes the annual test — to determine personality and faction – something strange happens. The test doesn’t work on her – it can’t assign her to a particular faction. This could mean she’s “Divergent” — someone who displays a personality that transcend a single type. And if the authorities find out, they’ll kill her.

To everyone’s surprise, she ends up joining Dauntless, trading beige burlap Divergent Theo Jamesfor black leather. She eats her first hamburger. She and the other Dauntless newbies are thrust into a world of violent, brutal competition, runaway L-trains and parkour jumping. She answers to a sadistic trainer Eric (Jai Courtney). Only her new best friends like Chris (Zoe Kravitz) help her hang on. But when she meets a Dauntless named Four (Theo James) is it love at first sight?

Divergent Kate WinsletIn order to stay in the faction she has to pass a series of tests that subject her to her worst phobias — her mind is read and recorded by a computer. Tris has to keep reminding herself: it’s not real.Will her secret be revealed?  Is Erudite, headed by Jeanine (Kate Winslet) plotting against the Abnegation faction? Is Four on her side? And will he ever understand how much Tris loves him?

Although Divergent occasionally veers into Twilight territory, with a few too many dewy-eyed moments, it mainly sticks to plot, action and great special effects. I liked it: a simple but neat concept, great special effects, and Shailene Woodley and Theo James are good as a team of romantic fighters.

nymphomaniac_mongrel_03_medium

Nymphomaniac

Dir: Lars von Trier

Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is lying half dead in a dark alley, when an elderly intellectual (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her. He takes her into his home and nurses her back to health. She says she’s a nymphomaniac. And she proceeds to tell him the story of her life;  specifically, the sexual parts.

The stories she tells are based on the pictures she sees on the wall of his room. Is Nymphomaniac 13 photo by Christian Geisnaesshe an unreliable narrator? Maybe, but her stories are fun to watch.

Her first orgasm makes her levitate and leads to a visit by the Virgin Mary. (The Whore of Babylon, says Seligman.)

Later, she intentionally loses her virginity to a man named Jerome (Shia LeBoeuf). She describes it like this:  first I lay on my back and he thrust three times. Then he turned me over and thrust five times. And here’s how Seligman responds: Three, then Five? Why that’s part of the Fibonacci number sequence!

Joe is unadulterated sex. Seligman (an asexual virgin) represents pure reason.

chapter1As a young woman, she and a friend compete to see who can pick up – and have sex with — the most men, sequentially, on a train. The winner gets a bag of candy. Seligman: Why that’s like fly fishing – you send out the lure and try to reel it in at just the right moment!

Joe describes how she dates many nameless men simultaneously, avoiding all emotional entanglement. She actually rolls dice before calling a boyfriend to decide whether to be nice, pouty, or to drop him altogether. But she discovers her game affects many people besides just the men she has sex with.

Love rears its ugly head. Jerome is back, and she falls for him hook, line and Nymphomaniac Uma Thurman & Stacy Martin photo by Christian Geisnaessinker. But are they sexually compatible?

She describes encounters with anonymous men,  a long relationship with a BDSM master (Jamie Bell),  her try at a 12-step program, and finding a protege (Mia Goth) to take her place.

This movie is much too long to describe in a short review. It’s full of cinematic quotes from Von Triers’ earlier films – his own movie scenes reenacted. He Nymphomania chapter_2_photo_by_Christian_Geisnaes_2insults critics, pundits, himself… and occasionally the audience. For example, a  scene about Joe and two (supposedly) African men dredges up hoary racial stereotypes — it’s intentionally offensive. But it’s followed by an equally long scene with Joe and Seligman debating “political correctness”. The ridiculous sex scene is Jamie_Bell_LOWreally just a straw man to make way for a long discussion.

It’s also a movie full of explicit sex and nudity: at one point there are a hundred consecutive penis pics, but mostly it’s vagina, vagina, vagina. This movie could be subtitled The Vagina Mia_Goth_LOWDialogues. The symbols are everywhere: tunnels, alleys, window curtains, sliding doors, and holes in walls. It’s a woman’s sexuality filtered through the eyes of a male director.

There is also some repulsive, graphic violence, especially in Part 2. But above all, the movie’s a comedy. And I liked it – all four and a half hours.

A Field in England is now playing, and Nymphomaniac (Parts 1 and 2 — separate tickets), and Divergent both open today in Toronto – check your local listings. The Pasolini retrospective continues at TIFF (tiff.net) and Cinefranco, Toronto’s francophone film festival, starts next week: details at cinefranco.com.

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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