Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Matthew Rankin about The Twentieth Century

Posted in 1800s, Art, Canada, Fetish, Movies, Politics, Sex by CulturalMining.com on December 27, 2019

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

It’s the end of the 19th Century, and Canada is still an Imperial backwater. Sir Wilfrid Laurier says “The 20th Century shall be the century of Canada.”

Dan Beirne, The Twentieth Century, Photo by Jeff Harris

And a young William Lyon Mackenzie King thinks he should be the one to lead it. He visits girls dying of consumption, tends to his blonde-tressed mother, and pines for a heroic, harp-playing Valkyrie. A pity though, he’s quite nuts.

The Twentieth Century is a new, partially animated and highly stylized film about the history of Canada as seen through the deranged eyes of a young Mackenzie King. Powered with the glow of fluorescent light, modernist architecture with actors gliding past on roller skates, it reimagines the country as a den of corruption controlled by evil royalists and their puppets.

The feature is written and directed by Winnipeg-born, avant-garde filmmaker Matthew Rankin.

I spoke with Matthew on location at TIFF19.

The Twentieth Century won the Best Canadian First Feature at TIFF and has been selected for Canada’s Top Tem Films of 2019.  It is now playing in Toronto.

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.

Good not good. Films reviewed: Bombshell, A Hidden Life, Cats

Posted in 2000s, Acting, Animals, Austria, Dance, Farming, Journalism, Movies, Musical, Nazi, Religion, Sexual Harassment, Theatre, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 20, 2019

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

Ever watch something that’s bad, but still has good parts? Or a beautifully rendered piece of art that doesn’t live up to its potential? This week, I’m looking at three new films, that I liked but didn’t like, or hated but still enjoyed. There’s one farmer in wartime Austria, three women at Fox News, and a hundred cats in London.

Bombshell

Dir: Jay Roach

It’s Fox News studios in New York City. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is a top TV journalist and news anchor, Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is co-host of Fox & Friends, Donald Trump’s favourite show, and newcomer Kayla Pospisal (Margot Robbie) is a committed conservative evangelical, trying to advance her career. What do these three women have in common? Theyre all smart, conservative and attractive (Carlson is a former Miss Minnesota.) And they were all hired by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). Ailes is the highly profitable Fox News CEO, the man who singlehandedly shifted cable journalism from neutral news-source to a font of blatantly partisan right-wing talking points, leaving CNN in its dust. He’s also paranoid and hideously ugly, called Jabba the Hut behind his back.

The Fox News he runs is a place where cameras are positioned to show off female newscasters’ legs. Male employees advance because of their work. Female employees are also judged on looks, and work in a blatantly sexist office culture. And Ailes is the centre of it all, using his position power to exploit, harass and sexually assault young women. Kelly shares her concerns with her husband and Pospisal with her lesbian lover and Fox News staffer (Kate McKinnon) who says she doesn’t want to hear about it. But Carlson refuses to take this lying down. She launches a lawsuit against Ailes and Fox News. But will other journalists, like Kelly and Pospisal (a composite character based on real people) join her struggle, or stay loyal to Ailes?

Bombshell is a fast-paced news drama based on recent real-life events. It’s told in a light, punchy and easy-to-digest format, which makes the few dramatic scenes showing sexual harassment all the more powerful. Theron, Kidman and Robbie are all terrific and believable in their roles. On the ther hand, the movie barely touches on the awfulness and deceit of Fox News itself. And while it skewers Ailes it leaves the notorious Rupert Murdoch strangely untouched. Bombshell tells a great story, as seen by three strong women, around sexual harassment, but doesn’t concern itself with other political matters.

A Hidden Life

Wri/Dir: Terrence Malick

It’s WWII in Austria. Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is a simple farmer deeply in love with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner). They live with his mother, her sister and their three little girls inthefoothills of a dramatic mountain range. Together with their neighbours they till the fields, harvest the grain and carry it, on the back of a donkey, to the miller. They go to church on Sunday and dress up in masks and costumes to honour the harvest. Their life is idyllic until… Franz gets drafted for army duty a second time. Enough, he says. I’m not going. No more Heil Hitler’s, no more military uniforms, no more separation from my wife and kids. Enough! Neighbours and government officials try to convince him to sign a loyalty oath, but he refuses. He is sent to prison, leaving his wife and sister-in-law to plow the fields among neighbours who aren’t friendly anymore. Only their constant letters keep them sane and I love. Will Franz sign the oath, or will he stay steadfast to his beliefs, even at risk of death?

A Hidden Life is a lush and beautiful rendering of a simple act of resistance in wartime anschluss Austria. It’s directed by Terrance Mallick, and is instantly recognizable by its swirling images, breathy voiceovers, lush music and stunning camerawork. People clutch earth in their fingers, and reap fields with scythes. Good passionate acting, featuring cameo performances by Matthias Schoenaerts, Franz Rogowski, and the late, great Bruno Ganz.

On the other hand… it’s three hours long. Three hours!  Why does it take so long to tell such a simple story? Why? It’s not exactly boring or tedious since it’s done so beautifully, but similar stories have already been told (and in a more dramatic fashion, like Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 13 Minutes/Elser – Er hätte die Welt verändert). As a movie critic, I try to avoid terms like “self-indulgent”, but this movie is strictly for fans of Terrence Mallick.

Cats

Dir: Tom Hooper

It’s nighttime in a fantastical, pre-gentrified London, where abandoned alley cats rule the streets. The Jellicle Cats are gathered for their annual meeting, presided over by Old Deuteronomy (Judy Dench), who will choose one cat to be reborn. Each contestant performs before the queen: There are dancers (Francesca Hayward, Steven McRae) singers (Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson), comics (Rebel Wilson, James Corden), a magician dressed in black and white (Laurie Davidson) and even an old theatre cat (Ian McKellen). But the age-old ceremony is challenged by the evil Macavity (Idris Elba) who is kidnapping each cat after their performance. Who will be chosen to ascend to the skies? Will peace and order return to the Jellicle cats? And can newbie Victoria join the gang?

Cats is a strange hybrid of theatre, and movie special effects. Each act is performed on a vast soundstage, keeping close to how it would look before a live audience. The cat people’s faces and bodies are human, but augmented, using CGI, with cat ears, moving tails and furry bodies. Some of them wear elaborate costumes, while others run around “naked”, covered in sleek fur. But they’ve all been digitally neutered, with no sign of breasts or genitals anywhere. The script is abysmally bad, almost babyish, with “jokes” like cat got your tongue? and relentless fat jokes. Fat jokes? Really?

Music ranges from torch songs to chorus lines. There are a few great scenes, like cockroaches doing elaborate Busby Berkeley formations as Rebel Wilson eats them, one by one; and impressive dance routines, along with some good songs… but I can’t figure out who the movie is trying to appeal to? Small children? Theatre buffs? Taylor Swift fans? I don’t think it knows, either.

Still… I kinda liked it, if just for the spectacle of it all. It’s bad, but it’s watchable and loaded with great singers dancers and prize-winning actors all of whom are far, far more talented than the material they’ve been given.

And I think these weird cat people will haunt my sexual nightmares for years to come.

Bombshell, A Hidden Life and Cats all 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.

Films Reviewed: The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, Marriage Story, 63 Up

Posted in Canada, Depression, documentary, Drama, Family, Indigenous, Poverty, TV, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 13, 2019

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

How much of our lives are changed by free will, and how much is predetermined by fate, class or outside circumstances? This week I’m looking at three films about people affected by changes they didn’t plan on. There’s two indigenous women thrown together, a married couple torn apart, and fourteen people following divergent pathways in their lives.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

Wri/Dir: Kathleen Hepburn, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

Rosie (Violet Nelson) is a pregnant young woman who lives with her boyfriend and his mom in Vancouver’s East End. She likes tie dye hoodies and watching TV. Alia (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) is a middle class woman debating whether she’s ready for a child with her partner. The two meet at random on a sidewalk, Alia emerging from an alienating medical procedure, Rosie from a violent incident at home. Her boyfriend attacked her, leaving on a daze, with a bruised face, barefoot and pregnant, standing in the rain. Alia dismisses her own problems and concentrates on getting a safe sheltered space for the woman she has just met. They are both indigenous women, but do they have anything else in common? Or are they just ships passing in the dark?

The Body Remembers as the World Broke Open is a very moving, personal drama about two women, and how their lives briefly intersect. They are followed with a handheld camera, and the movie takes place in real time, without breaks, as if you are there with them. It explores differences of class and appearance – Alia can pass for white – and all that carries: violence and abuse, and how police behaviour depends on the appearance of a victim. This is an amazing depiction of a multifaceted urban indigenous story told from the characters ownpoints of view. It takes you on a heartfelt journey even as it destroys common stereotypes. Great acting, a realistic script and an urgent, constantly-moving style keeps you on edge the entire time.

I like this movie.

Marriage Story

Wri/Dir: Noah Baumbach

Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) are a happily married couple in Brooklyn. He’s originally from the midwest and she’s from LA, but they both think of New York as their home. He’s a theatre director with a show headed for Broadway, and she’s an actress featured in the plays he directs. But when she heads to California to shoot a TV show, their perfect marriage turns out to be not so perfect. Turns out they haven’t slept together in a year, and Charlie is having an affair with another actress from within their own theatre. And now their living on opposite coasts of the country. Still, Charlie is shocked and devastated when Nicole tells him she’s staying in LA, with their son, and filing for divorce. Can their marriage be saved? Should it be? What will happen to their careers? The broadway show? And who will stay with their son.

Marriage Story is a compact film about a relationship falling apart. It follows the characters – along with her family and their son – as it turns from a disagreement to a fight to a legal battle. I watched this movie not in a theatre but at home on Netflix. The problem with home viewing is that you can turn it off halfway through and come back later, something you can’t do in a movie theatre. That’s what happened to me. I was bored and distracted for the first half-hour, and didn’t want to sit through a happy and successful family’s divorce. It was irritating, annoying. Charlie is an entitled, selfish doofus, while Nicole can’t take responsibility for her own actions, pinning it all on him.

But I later returned to watch the rest… and I am so glad I did. It turns into a fantastic, subtle portrayal of a loving couple torn apart by their own actions and a legal system that leaves them scrambling. It also becomes almost a brilliant musical, in which both characters (in separate, plausible settings), break into Sondheim songs to explain their situations to their friends and families. Driver and Johannsson are both excellent and believable in their roles and their lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda) provide a sharp and cynical counterpoint the couple’s real emotions.

63 Up

Dir: Michael Apted

“Give me the child at age seven and I’ll show you the man.” That’s how a segment called Seven Up began on a UK current affairs show in the early 60s. 14 children were brought together on a playground and interviewed on camera. Upper class boys in line for elite public schools and then on to Oxford or Cambridge and the seats of power. Working class kids from London’s east end; a couple from the North, one from a farm, and two taken from a “Home for Boys”, an orphanage-like institution. The short piece wondered what will become of these post-war baby-boomers as the world

changes? Seven years later a young Michael Apted took on the responsibility and followed them every seven years with a new film looking at what has become of them. Each successive version surprises and delights audiences who wonder what has happened to these kids – now adults – as they gradually age: their opinions on relationships and politics, whether they have transcended their class or background, what are their hopes, and later, what are their regrets.

63 Up is a fascinating study, almost the only one of its kind, that traces a generation throughout their lives. It began in a very different era, when class is all-important, while gender or ethnicity are afterthoughts and sexuality never mentioned. Since there were only three girls in the initial show, three women it remains, and in the early years they are asked domestic questions, nothing about politics, or professional goals. But the subjects end up having fascinating lives. One emigrates to Australia, another follows an academic path to an American professorship. Others stay close to home. And two subjects face death. One of the most endearing stories follows a man troubled by depression whose life takes a surprising turn. And for all of them, the series both keeps track of their lives and affects them as they become public figures, almost celebrities, in a largely private world… before social networking made everyone’s lives common currency.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open starts today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Marriage Story continues there and on Netflix; and 63 Up starts next Friday at the Hot Docs Cinema.

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

Mums and their sons. Films reviewed: Code 8, Brotherhood, In Fabric

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, Action, Canada, Death, Drama, Fashion, Horror, Science Fiction, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 6, 2019

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

This week I’m looking at three movies about mums and their sons. There’s a historical drama about fatherless boys facing disaster at summer camp; a sci-fi action/thriller about a guy with secret powers and a dying mom; and a retro horror movie about a divorced mom and her sinister red dress.

Code 8

Dir: Jeff Chan

It’s the future, a dystopian America patrolled by drones that terrorize ordinary people in the war on drugs. Conner (Robbie Amell) is a young guy livng with his mom in a big city. He’s a day labourer who does pickup construction work for cash, while she stocks shelves at a corner grocery store. They’re in debt and can’t pay their bills. Worse than that, his mom (Kari Matchett) needs medical care… badly. She has a science-fictiony disease that has you bleed fluorescent blue gunk, but they can’t afford the treatment. What can they do?

Opportunity knocks when a criminal named Garrett (Stephen Amell) hires him to help with a job. He needs someone with high level electrical skills… and he doesn’t mean wiring. Conner is a guy with special powers – he can shortcircuit a generator with his bare hands. But in this world, mutants are kept down by the cops and forced to take menial jobs. So it’s poverty or a life of crime. His mother raised him to be honest and hide his powers, but he needs to cure her illness. If he can help the criminals secure the scarce narcotic Psyke – made from human spinal fluid – maybe they’ll give him the cure his mom so desperately needs.

Code 8 is a fast-moving action-thriller about a future world where power is shared by corrupt cops and organized criminals. It was shot in Toronto, with recognizable locations – Regent Park! – in many scenes. Good special effects and music, and recognizable actors – Stephen Amell is TVs The Arrow, and Robbie Amell his real-life cousin. (Sung Kang co-stars as a good cop). I enjoyed this movie, but I gotta say: Code 8 feels more like the pilot for an upcoming TV series than a one-off movie.

Brotherhood

Wri/Dir: Richard Bell

It’s the summer of ’26 in Ontario’s cottage country. Arthur Lambdon (Brendan Fletcher) is a WWI vet who lost his wife and kid to the Spanish Flu. He’s a counsellor alongside Mr Butcher (Brendan Fehr) who walks with a cane. He busted up his leg in the war. They’re at a summer camp for fatherless teens on placid Lake Balsam in the Kawarthas to provide leadership role models. And the kids there are really into it. There’s a whole crew of eager kids: Waller (Jack Manley) the quick-to-anger alpha dog; brothers Jack and Will who are always fighting, one kid with a runny nose – I’m allergic to trees! – , and another who likes to sing dirty camp songs. They are all very excited by an upcoming trip across the lake in a long, war canoe that can fit them all.

But once they reach the middle of the lake disaster strikes in the form of a freak summer storm. Heavy winds roil the waters and capsize the boat. Someare lost and the rest forced to spend the night, in the dark, in the cold water, taking turns hanging onto the upsidedown canoe. Who will survive the night? And who will make it back to shore?

Brotherhood is a well-made look at a real-life tragedy from the distant past. It has all the right period costumes, authentic language and historical details, beautifully photographed panoramas of scenic lakes… The problem is I just couldn’t connect with any of the characters. There was nothing surprising or intriguing about the story – you know from the start that they will drown. In fact, most of the movie is a self-imposed spoiler, a series of flashbacks leading up to the inevitable accident, as seen through the opaque eyes of uninteresting Arthur. It’s based on a true story (in real life the victims were as young as 6, not all teenagers like they are in the movie), but, perhaps because of its suspense-free method of storytelling, this tragic movie didn’t pluck a single heart string.

In Fabric

Wri/Dir: Peter Strickland

It’s London, in the 1970s. Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste: Secrets & Lies) is a middle-aged divorced woman, who lives with her adult son, a student. She works full time but wants more out of life. So she’s preparing for a blind date with a gentleman she met through the Lonelyhearts column in the newspaper classifieds. She wants it to be a night to remember so she stops by an exclusive women’s store to buy a dress. There she’s greeted by Miss Luckmoore (Fatma Mohamed) an enigmatic saleswoman with pointy red nails, dramatic black hair and an uncanny way if speaking. She insists Sheila buy only the best, a blood-red satin dress with a plunging neckline. It’s a one of a kind, Miss Luckmoore says, and despite being the wrong size (“size 36”), it fits Sheila like a glove. Her date is less than elegant – a chips-and-kebab house – but the dress takes on an increasing importance. It leaves strange marks on her body, inspires horrible nightmares, and leads to increasingly awful incidents – like the dress had a mind if it’s own. Is it just her imagination or is it trying to kill her?

In Fabric is a bizarre, haunting horror film, with loads of dark comedy, stylized violence and perverse sex. Sheila’s story intertwines with that of Reg Speaks (Leo Bill) a newly-married washing machine repairman (and other side plots) all centred on that insidious, satanic red dress and the witch-like saleswoman who controls it. With its intentionally stilted dialogue, amazing production design, jarring editing, brilliantly spooky music, and perfect deadpan acting, In Fabric is like nothing you’ve ever seen before (unless you’ve seen Peter Strictland’s other movies.) It’s disturbing, and you may wonder what the hell is going on, but if you like art, sound, design and fashion; if you like horror/comedy without too much gore, this avant garde film is a must-see.

In Fabric (at the TIFF Bell Lightbox), Code 8, and Brotherhood all 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.

Top to Bottom. Films reviewed: The Kindness of Strangers, The Two Popes, Knives Out

Posted in Argentina, Catholicism, comedy, Crime, Family, Homelessness, Movies, Mystery, New York City, Poverty by CulturalMining.com on November 29, 2019

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

With the awards season coming up, Hollywood is starting to release the big ones with famous stars and directors. This week I’m looking at three such movies. There’s a drama about the downtrodden, a biopic about religious leaders at the top, and a comedy mystery about a large group of suspects caught in the middle… of a possible murdet.

The Kindness of Strangers

Wri/Dir: Lone Scherfig (An Education, The Riot Club, One Day)

Manhattan is a lonely place, especially for people down on their luck. Alice (Andrea Riseborough) is an empathetic ER nurse who volunteers at a soup kitchen and moderates a forgiveness group. But her long hours are taking a toll on her psyche. Clara (Zoe Kazan: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Big Sick) is a wide-eyed young mom from Buffalo on vacation with her two boys _ well thats what she tells them. In fact she’s penniless, fleeing her husband, a cop Richard (Esben Smed: Lykke Per) who beats up their kids. She keeps them fed by shoplifting, dumpster diving and stealing hors d’oeuvres from parties. Marc (Tahar Rahim: A Prophet, The Past) is an ex-con, recently freed from prison by a lawyer, who lands a job managing a Russian restaurant. And Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones: ByzantiumContraband, The Last Exorcism) is an earnest simpleton who can’t hold onto a job. If he doesn’t pay his rent soon, he’ll be out on the street.

Luckily, some strangers are kind. But will Alice find happiness, Clara find refuge, Marc find friends, and Jeff find a job? Or are they just more victims in the Naked City?

The Kindness of Strangers follows seemingly unrelated stories as they gradually come together in unexpected ways. Danish director Lone Scherfig’s movies are always good, even the bad ones. And this is a good one. It’s basically a Christmas movie but without any santas or angels. Lots of snow, but no presents. Church basements but no preaching. Some criticism: Only 7% of homeless in NY City are white, but in this movie it’s 100%. Although it veers into corn territory once or twice, this tear jerker is miles beyond any Hallmark movie, and seems genuinely sympathetic to the downtrodden. It deals with real problems, and leaves you feeling warm inside.

The Two Popes

Dir: Fernando Meirelles

Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathon Pryce) is a popular priest in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He loves soccer, pizza and dancing the tango. He preaches humility and compassion to the poor, and though he’s a Cardinal, dresses in plain clothes. He is flying to the Vatican to request early retirement. Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) is a conservative German, whothis the Vatican was moving in the wrong direction and has to be fixed. He loves the pageantry and finery of the Vatican, from the fancy clothes to the elegant trappings. He likes eating alone, a bowl of plain broth with Knödel. And he invites Bergoglio to join him at his country retreat. There conversation goes nowhere, with one asking to retire, and the other refusing. They disagree on practically everything. Why are they meeting and will they ever find common ground?

The Two Popes is a dramatization of a meeting between – not a spoiler! –  two Popes: Benedict who stepped down amid scandal, and Francis, the first pope from the Americas, who took his place. It’s a highly visual film, shot in a semi-documentary style. It gives us a “Pope’s-eye view” of the inside of the Vatican, with all its sumptuous finery and grandeur. I once saw Pope John Paul II appear at the window; in this movie you’re inside the window looking down at the crowd, which is very cool. And the larger-than-life characters – as imagined by Welsh actors Hopkins and Pryce in effective performances – are humanized and normalized. They’re just like you and me.

But I think you have to deeply care about the doctrine, policies, politics and rituals of the Catholic Church to truly appreciate this movie.

Count me out.

Knives Out

Wri/Dir: Rian Johnson

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a hugely successful mystery novelist. He lives in a gothic mansion with his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). All of his descendents are in town to celebrate his landmark birthday. There’s hard-boiled Linda, a real-estate agent with her hanger-on hubby and playboy son (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans). Flaky, new-age entrepreneur Joni (Toni Collette) with her college-age daughter (Katherine Langford) and alt-right son (Jaeden Martell). Goateed Walt’s family (Michael Shannon) handles the publishing side of his dad’s burgeoning book empire. And Greatnana (K Callan) who observes all but says nothing. There are the usual family squabbles, But by morning, everything has changed. Thrombey is found dead in his bedroom in a pool of blood, an apparent suicide… but is it? And if it’s murder, whodunnit?

Investing the crime are two hapless cops (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and a private detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Blanc has an eagle eye and a deep southern drawl. Everyone is a suspect and has something to hide. Everyone but Marta, who is allergic to lying. She actually throws up if she says anything untrue.

Knives Out is an extremely entertaining mystery comedy, in the style of Agatha Christie and Murder She Wrote. Almost every line is clever, overflowing with biting cultural references: Benoit Blanc is referred to as CSI from KFC, and there are pastiches of everyone from Gwynneth Paltrow to Ben Shapiro. I’ve seen this one twice already and I could easily watch it again next year.

Knives Out is now playing in Toronto, and The Two Popes opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The Kindness of Strangers opens next Friday; 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.

Exploding. Films reviewed: Atlantics, The Mystery of Henri Pick, Waves

Posted in Africa, African-Americans, Books, Death, Drama, France, High School, Movies, Mystery, Poverty, Romance by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 2019

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

Toronto Fall film festivals this weekend include Blood in the Snow, featuring Canadian horror and genre films, with the festival’s first short film from Newfoundland called New Woman. And CineFranco features French-language films from Ontario and around the world.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about metaphoric explosions. There’s a literary explosion in France, spontaneous combustion of a marital bed in Senegal, and a highschool wr3stle4 in Florida who feels ready to explode.

Atlantics

Wri/Dir Mati Diop

It’s Dakar, Senegal.

Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is a pretty young woman set to marry a guy named Omar. He drives a swank car, lives in an expensive apartment and comes from a rich family. So why isn’t she happy? Because she’s in love with Suleiman (Traore) a handsome construction worker, building a monstrous tower in the city. She made out with him in the sand just yesterday – they’re a committed couple. Ada wants to hang with her friends Fanta and Dior at a beachside bar, not cooped up in a kitchen as a good pious wife.

But what she doesn’t realize is Suleiman has disappeared. None of the construction workers ever got paid, so they all hopped aboard a sailboat for a chance at better work in Europe. This means the kiss on the beach may have been their last one. So she goes ahead with the wedding, until… weird things start to happen. Their marital bed burst into flames. Strange-looking people appear inside high-security condos demanding retribution. And a diligent police inspector thinks Ada and Suleiman are behind it all. Will Ada marry her true love or the arranged marriage? And what is the cause of these supernatural events in downtown Dakar?

Atlantics is a fascinating study of life in urban west Africa seen through the eyes of a young woman. It combines contemporary problems – wealth distribution, the spread of viruses, and migrant workers – with a dose of magic realism. It’s shot around the Atlantic beaches of Dakar giving it all a glowing and haunting feel, an entirely new image unseen in west African films.

Atlantics is Senegal’s choice for best foreign film Oscar.

The Mystery of Henri Pick

Wri/Dir: Rémi Bezançon

Daphné and Fred are a young couple in Brittany with a literary bent. Daphné works for a major publisher and Fred is promoting his first novel. They have high hopes. So when Jean Michel Rouche (Fabrice Luchini) – the hugely popular TV literary critic – skips the promised review of his book (sorry, we’re out of time) they are both deeply disappointed. To pull herself out of the dumps, she visits a unique bookstore only for the “refusée”. That is, manuscripts that have been rejected by publishers.

And after looking at shelf after shelf of terrible writing she finds a masterpiece, a passionate love story about the dying days of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin! It’s erotic and sublime, a literary gem. She rushes it to her publisher, an instant bestseller. What’s especially intriguing is it was written by a certain Henri Pick, a pizza maker who died two years earlier. To promote the book, Daphné brings Henri’s widow and his adult daughter Joséphine (Camille Cottin) to Paris for an interview with the book critic, live on TV.

But things go awry when Rouche says he doesn’t believe a pizza maker – who owns no books and has never written a word in his life – could have penned such a masterpiece. In the mayhem that ensues he’s fired from the TV show and his wife leaves him. But he won’t let it drop. Soon he’s travelling across the country to find out who really wrote the novel. Was it Henri Pick? And will Jean Michel’s obsession lead to his ruin?

They Mystery of Henri Pick is a light comedy with a literary twist. It’s cute, somewhat funny, and well acted, with lots of cameos by greats like Hanna Schygulla. And it gives you a peek into the complex and arcane world of the French literary obsession.

Entertaining movie.

Waves

Wri/Dir: Trey Edward Shults

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is a Florida high school senior headed for glory. He’s a champion wrestler, a top student and in love with his girlfriend Alexis. He lives in a beautiful upper middle class home with his father (Sterling K Brown) his mom (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and his sister Emily (Taylor Russell). Hhis doctor tells him to take it easy – he’s straining his body to the point of permanent injury, and the pain is getting worse. But his dad is pressuring him to win! win! win! for ultimate success. And the opiates he’s popping to stop the pain are messing up his mind. Until…he can’t take it anymore and it all explodes in a terrible event.

But wait… the movie is only half over!

Waves is basically two short films played back to back. The second film takes place later on, this one focussing on Tyler’s sister Emily. Emily is still at a school where her brother’s name is a pariah. She’s pursued by the sympathetic Luke (Lucas Hedges), one of Tyler’s wrestling teammates. What does he want from her?

Meanwhile her father finally opens up to his neglected daughter: was everything his fault for pushing his son too hard?

Waves is an unusual family drama, told in two related stories. Does its two-part structure work? Ultimately yes, though at first it left me feeling confused and puzzled. Beautifully shot with nice music, Waves also has a uniformly good cast, but Kelvin Harrison Jr in particular is terrific. Following his great performances in It Comes at Night and Luce, Harrison is once again playing a teenaged boy with a dark side, each time creating an entirely different (and almost unrecognizable) new character.

Shults with Harrison is a force to be reckoned with.

Waves opens today in Toronto; check your local lostings; Atlantics starts at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and The Mystery of Henri Pick is playing at the Hotdocs Cinema as part of Cinefranco.

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

Birth, Death, Birth. Films reviewed: Dead Dicks, In Safe Hands, The Report

Posted in Adoption, Bipolar, Canada, Family, France, Horror, Politics, Suspense, Suspicion, Terrorism, Torture, US by CulturalMining.com on November 15, 2019

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

Fall festival season continues in Toronto, with ReelAsian ending tonight and the EU Film Fest still going strong. Coming soon are Blood in the Snow (aka BITS), featuring Canadian Horror and Genre movies, and CineFranco with French language movies, from Canada and around the world.

This week I’m looking at three movies, two about births and two about deaths. We’ve got mysterious rebirths wanted by no one, a newborn infant wanted by everyone, and a horrifying CIA program they want no one to know anything about.

Dead Dicks

Wri/Dir: Chris Bavota, Lee Paula Springer

Becca (Jillian Harris) is a young bartender who works downtown. But much of her time is filled with taking care of her big brother Richie (Heston Horwin). Richie is a depressed artist with anger issues given to playing music full blast while scribbling in his sketchbook. When there parents died he served as the adult in the family, but now the roles are reversed. She’s forced to deal with his angry neighbours and make sure he takes his meds. So when she she is called away from her job by frantic texts, she thinks this is just another one of Richie’s episodes. But it’s not.

She arrives to see an apartment in disarray, with a huge mouldy patch formed above his bed, and Richie wandering around naked, in a daze. His brain feels fuzzy he says. Turns out he killed himself just a few minutes before. And almost immediately expelled, fully grown, through a hole in the wall. But the dead body he left behind is still there, hanging in the closet. And another one in the bathtub, and another one in the kitchen. Living Richie is surrounded by all the dead Dicks from his repeated suicide attempts. He’s experimenting, he says.

But that leaves Richie and Becka with a pile of dead Dicks to get rid of, a mysterious birth canal on his wall and an angry neighbour (Matt Keyes) who could get them arrested by threatening to call the cops. What is causing all these rebirths? What does it mean? And what are the unanticipated consequences?

Dead Dicks is a bizarre, low budget film, part horror, part mystery, part comedy. The film does not encourage death by suicide. Rather, It deals with issues of family and mental illness, within a weird fantasy setting. It manages to be grotesque and gruesome, with very few special effects, and an absurd humorous streak running through it.

In Safe Hands (Pupille)

Dir: Jeanne Herry

It’s present-day Brest, in French Brittany.

A young woman arrives at a hospital in labour. She’s a college student and says the pregnancy is the result of a one-night stand, and says she doesn’t want the baby. This starts a dozen gears spinning into action, notifying dozens of doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, midwives, social workers, foster parents, and adoption agencies. And little Theo, the baby, is the centre of attention. He is transferred to an incubator, with lots of faces peering down at him. But can his lack of contact with his birth mother damage him for life? Or will a concerted effort place this baby into safe loving hands?

In Safe Hands is mainly a dramatization of the process of birth and adoption, but there are a few interestingside plots along the way. Jean (Gilles Lellouche) is a married dad who takes care ofhis own daughter and two troubled foster boys who takes care of Theo as he awaits adoption. Karine (Sandine Kiberlain) works for the adoption and fostering program and has a thing for Jean… but will an affair upset the adoption process? Alice Langlois (Élodie Bouchez) is single and works describing action at live plays for the visually impaired. She applied for adoption when she was attached. A social worker is concerned both for the privacy of the birth mother and of the baby who might one day wish to get in contact with her. And many, many others, all centred around a wordless, Yodalike baby who seems to take everything in. It was interesting from a parenting and adoption point of view, exposing all the hidden parts of the mechanism of adoption, but isn’t very satisfying as a dramatic or romantic movie, more just as an educational docudrama, as acted by famous French movie stars.

The Report

Wri/Dir: Scott Z. Burns

It’s post 9-11 Washington, DC.

Dan Jones (Adam Driver) is a young college grad appointed to a group to write a bipartisan internal report on the CIA for the Senate Intelligence Committee. The committee is headed b Sen. Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening). Dan is locked up in a dark basement in a nameless bureaucratic and told to find out what the CIA has done since 9/11. It turns out their practices, supposedly enacted to stop terrorism, were immoral, illegal and of no value whatsoever for intelligence. Specifically, he uncovers the practice of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a policy previously known as torture and banned by the Geneva Convention.

They were under the direction of two psychologists, James Mitchell and John Bruce Jessen (Douglas Hodge and T Ryder Smith) working on contract with no experience in interrogation. They stripped prisoners naked, chained them to walls, waterboarded them and nailed them – live – into wooden coffins, covering their skin with crawling insects. The torture yielded no intel, yet was repeated for many years in blacksites around the world.

Dan outlines these heinous war crimes in a long report to the committee, shocking senators by its findings. But instead of offering support and investgating their own lawbreakers, the CIA initiates a coverup, threatening Dan himself with jail time if he releases his findings. And the CIA sends operatives to spy on the Senate itself in order to coverup the findings. Will Dan Jones’s report ever see the light of day? And will the war criminals be punished?

The Report is a good political drama about the illegal use of torture by the CIA, but a thriller it’s not. It incorporates elements of All the President’s Men, and is nicely shot with lots of fluorescent lights and stark, brutalist architecture. Driver is great as the persistent policy geek, with an understated Bening as a veteran Senator. Warning: there are a few highly disturbing reenactments of the torture itself, which are extremely hard to watch. Much more common are the reenactments of the culprits – John Yoo, Jose Rodrigues, John Brennan (Ted Levine), Cheney, and the psychologists – war criminals who leave a very bad taste in one’s mouth.

I liked this one.

Dead Dicks will be playing at Blood in the Snow, In Safe Hands at Cinefranco, and The Report at the Tiff Bell Lightbox all starting one week from today.

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.

Record/Erase. Films reviewed: Synonyms, News from Home

Posted in Belgium, Clash of Cultures, comedy, documentary, France, Israel, New York City, soldier by CulturalMining.com on November 1, 2019

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

It’s November now and Toronto’s fall film festival season is in full swing. ReelAsian is showing films from Asia – including Japan, Korea, China, Philippines in the Pacific, South Asian, and from the Asian diaspora from around the world, including Canada and the US. Films include dramas, comedies, anime, documentaries, art and again this year virtual reality, with a piece based on the work of Joy Kogawa. Cinefranco shows French language films, this year featuring movies by Franco-Ontarian directors. The EU Film Fest, which started last night, shows one film from each country in the European Union. This still includes the U.K., in case you’re wondering, despite all the Brexit craziness. And more to the point, all films are showing for free at the Royal Cinema!

This week, I’m looking at two movies, one from the 1970s and one from right now. There’s a filmmaker from Bruxelles who moves to New York to record what she sees; and a man from Israel who moves to Paris to erase who he is.

Synonyms

Dir: Nadav Lapid

Yoav (Tom Mercier) is a traveller who arrives in Paris with a plan: learn French, blend in with the culture, recreate himself. life. He’s originally from Israel, a sniper in the army, and wants to get rid of his past. And he’s helped toward his goal by a series of unexpected events, both good and bad. Good news: He arrives at a B’n’B with a key to an empty apartment. Bad news: When he takes a shower the next morning, everything he owns – all his clothes, his money, his passport – is gone stolen by a stranger. He ends up running naked through the apartment trying to catch the thief, ending up curled in a foetal position, almost frozen. Good news: an attractive young couple, Emile and Caroline (Quentin Dolmaire and Louise Chevillotte), find him and nurse him back to health. And better news, they give him some beautiful clothes to wear, help him find a place to live, andmore. Bad news: despite trying to erase his Israeli past, all his jobs seem to be with forner soldier buddies or at the embassy itself, with unexpected consequences.

What begins as simple flirtation turns into a potential love affair… but with whom: Emile or Caroline?

Synonyms is a dark comedy about conflicting identity, immigration, and clashing cultures. It’s partly a tender ménage a trois about a stranger introduced into the lives of a young couple. It’s also an absurdist comedy, satirizing Israeli military culture, its overt masculinity (verging on the homoerotic in a number of scenes), as well as a paranoid fixation on persecution, with themselves as victims. And it equally satirizes the immigration process in France, in which newcomers are instructed to assimilate, to hide their religion and ethnicity beneath a veil of loyalty to secularism, and the French way of life. The director previously brought us the equally strange and brilliant film The Kindergarten Teacher (I reviewed here) a few years back. This film, Synonyms is completely different, and much lighter in tone, but equally perplexing. And Tom Mercier, in the main role, is someone you should look out for.

News from Home

Dir: Chantal Akerman

It’s 1976 in lower Manhattan. Huge cadillacs cruise through empty alleys in the meatpacking district, leaving loose newspapers fluttering in their wake. On the subway, riders glare at the camera, or stare wide-eyed in curiosity. In the tunnels beneath Times Square, mom’s with toddlers, people commuting to work, and businessmen with their buddies walk past a stationary 16 mm camera. Through a moving car window, storefronts and gas stations and taxis and pedestrians walk up and down a West side avenue. This is a moment in time captured in architectural grandeur by avant garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman.

And over the top you can hear her voice reading the letters, largely unanswered, her mother Nelly sends her from Belgium. Her mother is worried their separation could be permanent, or worse dangerous, and sneaks twenty dollar bills into the enevelopes in case her daughter is in trouble. (Nelly’s own parents were killed in Nazi death camps.) The film itself is both drab and hypnotic, a series of ordinary, detached images of people and places that act like a time capsule; combined with deeply intimate glances into her relationship with her mom.

You may have heard Chantal Akerman’s name before but probably haven’t seen her work.

But her influence is everywhere. I was just describing one of her earliest films, News From Home. She went onto make many films, both mainstream and avant-garde. She was a pioneer in Feminist cinema, queer cinema, and experimental film.

She was also a tempestuous perfectionist and hard to work with, falling into depressed funks or driven by manic episodes. At the same time, she is hugely influential. Todd Haynes studied her work, Gus van Sant used it as a source for Last Days, his film about Kurt Cobain, and people as different as Sofia Coppola and Weerasathakul Apichatpong were shaped by Akerman’s work. You may not know this, but even films like Joker used News From Home as a model for its images of NY City in the 70s.

I am far from an expert on Chantal Akerman – I’m a movie critic not a filmmaker – but if you’re a director, a cinema studies majors, or a film festival enthusiast, the current retrospective is a rare opportunity to see her work in its entirety. And thanks to Andrea Picard, co-curator of the program: most of what I’m saying is based on cribbed notes from a talk she gave on Akerman.

Synonyms starts today in Toronto; check your local listings. The retrospective News From Home: the films of Chantal Akerman begins today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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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