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.

Non-Christmassy Christmas movies. Films reviewed: Son of Saul, The Hateful Eight

Posted in Cultural Mining, Drama, Hungary, Movies, Uncategorized, US, violence, War, Western, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 25, 2015

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

Merry Christmas! You’re probably drinking a hot toddy or roasting chestnuts on an open fire somewhere. But this week I want to talk about movies opening today that don’t fit the usual Christmas mould. There’s an American western about eight people in a cabin in a blizzard who want to live to see the sun rise; and a Hungarian drama about a man in a Nazi concentration camp who wants to live to see his son buried.

fba93085-318f-4715-b9e3-f35eb9c9d13eSon of Saul
Dir: Laszlo Nemes

It’s 1944, WWII, inside the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian-Jewish prisoner there. He is one of the SonderKommando, who are kept alive and given certain privileges because of their duties. The Sonderkommando handle the gristliest part of the death apparatus. They tell the newly-arrived prisoners to undress, ushers them into the tiled shower room and locks the doors. The showers are actually gas chambers — that’s where they kill them. Afterwards he unlocks the metal doors again and clears away the dead bodies to be burned. He does this over and over, never seeing the light of day. He is dead inside, just like the bodies he drags away.

At the same time, some of the prisoners are planning an elaborate scheme to photograph the mass murderddf7a613-739e-417a-aa8d-80351d30fc05. Others are planning to escape, to show the photos to the outside world. Then something unusual happens. Cleaning up the gas chamber, he notices a young man, gasping for breath, but somehow still alive amidst all the dead bodies. It’s like a miracle. Then Saul looks at him: that’s my son.

The Nazi’s quickly put a stop this. They strangle the boy and send him to the morgue for an autopsy to determine “what went wrong”. But for Saul, his life suddenly has a purpose. He, a man with no religious upbringing and no family, now is determined to give the boy a proper burial amidst all the mass killing. It’s an impossible mission. He somehow has to rescue the body, wrap it in a shroud, hide him from the Nazis, find a place to bury him and a e8861a76-4856-44b6-94b2-274a9f4c8105holy man, a rabbi, to say the proper prayers.

Son of Saul is an intensely moving, high- tension drama. It somehow captures – without comment — the chaos, mayhem and absurdity of a Nazi concentration camp, with its omnipresent death, pain and humiliation.

It’s shot with a handheld camera that follows him, non-stop as he walks around the camp. (Sonderkommandos wear a special uniform that lets them move around the camp.) The action never ceases, from start to finish, constantly on the move adding high stress to the unceasing horror of the film.

It also has an immediacy missing from most Holocaust movies (if there is such a genre). It feels like you are there, following his every step. Also unusual is powerful Christian images of the film, such as Saul holding his blameless son in his arms, like Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Son of Saul is an excellent, if harrowing, movie. And it has a good chance of winning the Oscar for best foreign language feature.

THE HATEFUL EIGHTThe Hateful Eight
Dir: Quentin Tarantino

Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) is a uniformed military officer walking on the Overland Trail in Wyoming after the US Civil War. He flags down a stage coach and asks for a ride before a blizzard hits. The reluctant passenger, John “the hangman” Ruth (played by a hefty Kurt Russell), doesn’t want anyone on board. He’s taking a woman wantedTHE HATEFUL EIGHT for murder to be hanged in Red Rock, and collecting the 10,000 bucks. But he relents when he recognizes the Major – they met once before, and Ruth was impressed to see a black man carrying a handwritten letter from Abraham Lincoln himself. And, it turns out, there once was a very high bounty on the Major’s head. The prisoner is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a foul-mouthed murderess with a black eye. She is handcuffed to John Ruth who will only give her up to the to the Sheriff of Red Rock. Warren is also a bounty hunter and carries the bodies THE HATEFUL EIGHTof outlaws he wants to give to sherriff. And who do they meet next? Why Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) a notorious southern renegade from the war, who claims to be… the newly-appointed Sherriff of Red Rock! But can he – or any of them – be trusted? Or do they all just want to claim the reward or to free the prisoner.

The snow falls harder till they reach Minnie’s Haberdashery, an inn on the trail. Inside are four unfamiliar men: Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) a fancy-talking English hangman, General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a Kentucky Fried confederate racist; Joe Gage, a cow-puncher wearing suspiciously clean duds (Michael Madsen) and Mexican Bob (Demian Bichir), an unknown THE HATEFUL EIGHTman who says he’s filling in for Minnie.

Each of the eight is filled with racist bile, hidden secrets, and countless skeletons in their respective closets. Which of them are the good guys and which are the bad guys. And will any of the hateful eight survive till morning?

I enjoyed this movie, though it’s not for everyone. It’s three hours long, and made in the old style, complete with an overture, an intermission, and a soundtrack by the king of spaghetti westerns, Ennio Moricone. And it’s THE HATEFUL EIGHTbeing shown on 70mm film in Panavision. Super wide screen. And while technically a Western, the story is more like an Agatha Christie locked-room mystery: who can be trusted and who is a secret killer? The film gives what we expect from Tarantino: flawless recreations of the look and feel of old movies, extreme violence, and stretching the boundaries of what people will allow on the screen. All of the characters are amazing, especially Goggins as the Sherriff and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the foul mouthed woman. I never felt bored.

But it does leave me uncomfortable for a couple of reasons. For one, the only THE HATEFUL EIGHTblack and female characters are constantly called the B word and the N word. Second, for a western there are virtually no fist fights – lots of shooting but not much punching. The exception is Daisy. She starts out with a black eye, and from there, she gets punch in the face many times by many characters. (I guess that’s supposed to be funny or shocking.) But it made me wonder: why all the men beating up the woman? Still, if Tarantino movies are your thing, The Hateful Eight won’t disappoint.

The Hateful Eight and Son Of Saul 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

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