Golden. Films reviewed: The Old Man & the Gun, Let the Corpses Tan, The Sisters Brothers

Posted in 1800s, 1980s, Belgium, Canada, Crime, Cultural Mining, France, Horror, San Francisco, Sex, Texas, Western by CulturalMining.com on October 5, 2018

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

This week I’m looking at three genre movies -– a heist, a western and a retro horror/thriller — about the search for gold. There’s an old bank robber lookin’ for love while stealing krugerrands, two brothers in the old west working as hitmen while searching for gold nuggets, and criminals in Corsica killing for gold bars.

The Old Man & the Gun

Dir: David Lowery

It’s the 1980s in Texas. Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) is the consummate gentleman, always kind and charming, especially with the ladies. He meets one such woman named Jewel (Cissie Spacek) by the side of the road where her car overheated. She’s a widow with a ranch but no family or friends nearby. He gives her a ride and they share lunch at a roadside diner. But when he jokingly tells her what he does for a living she doesn’t believe him. Who would think such a kindly old man is a bank robber?

But a bank robber he is, and a damned good one. Working with his partners Teddy and Waller (Danny Glover, Tom Waits) they pull off a stream of successful bank heists from Dallas to St Louis, without ever firing a shot or leaving a single fingerprint behind. That is until detective Hunt (a moustachioed Casey Affleck) connects the dots between these seemingly unrelated crimes. (This is long before google.) Can Tucker quit bankrobbing and settle down with Jewel before Hunt tracks him down?

The movie is based on a true story about a career criminal and escape artist but it’s so much more than that. It’s a tender love story (between Tucker and Jewel), and a buddy drama (between him and his respectful rival, the cop). It’s well-acted, wonderfully directed and with a classic script of the kind I thought Hollywood had forgotten how to write. It even has some filmmaking tricks – like a clever history of his escape attempts – inserted in an unexpected place.

What a feel-good movie this one is.

Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres)

Dir: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani

It’s a sundrenched day at a cliffside bed and breakfast in Corsica. Madame Luce (Elina Löwensohn) – a sultry, middle aged woman with a pageboy haircut – is your hostess, but don’t expect a five star rating. It’s a BnB… from hell. The rooms are made of crumbling rock shelters and breakfast means fried eggs served with live ammo. The guests include a scheming criminal, a crooked lawyer, a young tough, and a smash-faced thug. The only paying guest, Max Bernier, is an over-the-hill novelist from Paris in a perpetual drunken stupor. What are they all there for?

A heist, of course, in the form of a Brinks truck carrying a case of solid gold bars. They carry it off — killing two cops and the driver in the process — but then things start to go wrong. Bernier’s beautiful young wife and kid show up unexpectedly, and a pair of motorcycle cops, dressed in black leather, stop by to take a look around. At this point, gunshots start and rarely stop till the end of the movie. Some of the bad guys realize they’ve been stabbed in the back. Soon everyone on the mountainside is either a hostage or hostage taker, a shooter or a victim (or a potential sex partner) in a final shootout for the gold.

But this plot description doesn’t do justice to what this film really is. It’s an over-the-top horror/thriller/heist movie, flawlessly done in the style of 1960s spaghetti westerns. It’s intense, from the saturated colour to the Morricone score.  Every gun shot — and there are thousands – is followed by a mammoth splash of blood; every cigarette is lit with a whoosh of flame that fills the screen; every stabbing has a disgustingly loud squishing sound. There are extreme close ups, with a single eye or curled lip filling the entire screen. And lots of gratuitous nudity and violence, especially when the drunken novelist imagines stylized sex scenes from his own books.

See this one on a big screen.

The Sisters Brothers

Dir: Jacques Audiard

It’s the 1850s in the Oregon territory, and the country has gone gold crazy. Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix) are brothers who earn their living shooting to kill. Eli is smart and kind at heart, while Charlie takes after their dad, a drunk, mean bastard. They work for a shady robber baron known as the Commodore. Their latest job? Meet up with another man

who will provide them with their victim.

Meanwhile, in a town nearby, is the idealistic Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) a brilliant scientist who is flat broke. He has an invention that could make him a millionaire. It’s a chemical he claims will make panning for gold easy as pie. On his travels he meets an upper-class adventurer named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhall). Warm likes Morris’s polite relaxed manner and sees him as a genuinely nice guy. As they travel he share his secret, though not the details, with him. What he doesn’t know is Morris – like the Sisters Brothers – works for the evil Commodore, and that he plans to hand over his erstwhile friend to those killers. But things aren’t necessarily what they seem. The hunters become the hunted with posses tracking the Sisters brothers for their past crimes. The four find themselves on the same side, at least temporarily, but who can be trusted?

The Sisters Brothers is French director Audiard’s first English language film, and he totally pulls it off. This is an excellent western that captures the frantic expansion of the gold rush towns in the old west with entire settler towns appearing, on-screen. We watch characters discover new technology like toothbrushes and hot-water plumbing. It captures the utopian politics of the time (though completely ignoring the plight of indigenous people). Reilly and Phoenix make great shootists, but it’s Riz Ahmed who really steals the show. The Sisters Brothers (based on Canadian writer Patrick deWitt’s novel), is a wonderful, new take on the classic western.

The Old Man & the Gun, Let the Corpses Tan and The Sisters Brothers — all great movies, though for different reasons — 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.

Quests. Films reviewed: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami, Let the Sunshine In, First Reform

Posted in Christianity, Death, Drama, France, Jamaica, Movies, Music, Reggae, Religion, Sex by CulturalMining.com on June 1, 2018

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

Toronto’s spring festival season continues. Inside Out finishes this weekend, and look out for the Japanese Film Fest and True Crime Film Festival both opening next weekend.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies by three great directors about people on quests. There’s a musician driven by fame, a woman searching for love, and a clergyman holding on to his immortal soul.

Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami

Dir: Sophie Fiennes

Grace Jones is a multi-talented artist and performer. Known for her distinctive voice, looks and style, she has left a mark on everything from fashion to pop music. Originally from Spanish Town in Jamaica, she made it big as a model in France, capturing the fashion world with her androgynous body and striking features. Later she shifted to music, recording first dance hits like La Vie en Rose, followed by the punk sounds of Warm Leatherette, and pop songs with a drum-and-bass reggae theme provided by Sly and Robbie. And as an actress she perfected the look of a crazed, cold villain in movies like James Bond’s View to a Kill.

This movie strips her bare physically and emotionally as she returns to Jamaica to visit her family and record a new album. The camera follows her as she digs up her family’s past, tries to record songs, and goes on a concert tour. It also includes a stopover in Paris to record a TV music video; and her performances on stage. This is an intimate portrayal of the underground superstar – who turned 70 this year, still dancing, changing clothes, arguing on the phone, and putting on the elaborate headddresses and costumes she’s known for. It also makes her seem a bit crazy – her accent shifts from Jamaican to American to british depending on whom she’s talking to, even shifting to a sort of french when she’s in Paris.

This no-holds-barred portrait is not always pretty but always fascinating.

First Reformed

Wri/Dir: Paul Schrader

Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a lonely reverend at an old church with a long history. He carries heavy baggage of his own: a dead son and memories of war. The church itself – First Reformed – has been there for centuries and is approaching its historical anniversary. For the Church administrators this is a PR goldmine and chance for big corporate donations. But Toller is an old-school preacher with traditional ideas. He feels like he’s losing his calling, and isn’t comfortable playing a pretend minister for tourists at a historical site. Luckily, there is a parishioner with real problems who needs his help.

Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is going through a crisis with her husband Michael, an environmental activist. She’s worried about him losing it. And the environmentalists are diametrically opposed to the very corporate donors that are keeping the church on its feet. As Toller gets involved in their lives, he re finds his calling. But things take a shocking turn with one unexpected death and the possibility of more. What path will Toller take, what is the church’s future, and what will become of Mary?

I’m not saying anything more about the plot, but let me just say that what starts as a simple and almost boring story slowly builds to an intense and shocking finish. Paul Schrader is a great director — he did Cat People, American Gigolo and Mishima — and an even better scriptwriter: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

I don’t always like Ethan Hawke’s acting, but I do here – this might be his best performance ever.

Let The Sunshine In (Un beau soleil intérieur)

Dir: Claire Denis

Isabelle (Juliette Binoche) is a middle aged artist at the peak of her career. She expresses her art using big brushes on huge canvases nailed to her studio floor. She’s signing with a new art dealer, and is financially secure, a great house, and her ex husband is taking care of their daughter. She is beautiful with a sparkling personality. The world is her oyster… so why is she having so much trouble finding a pearl? The problem is it takes two to tango and the men she meets aren’t playing their parts correctly.

She has carried on multiple relationships since her divorce. There’s a married banker who thinks she’s loves him, when it’s actually her repulsion toward him that turns her on. A handsome and famous but vapid actor thinks he’s great with the women, but despite the great sex, he does courtship all wrong. She wants the seduction, the passion and the ongoing interplay a relationship needs. He just wants a director to give him his lines.

Then there’s a mysterious and passionate man she meets while dancing, but who doesn’t fit in with her friends. Even her ex-husband sometimes spends the night when he’s in Paris.

Can she find her life partner, the best man out there? Or will she settle?

Ignore the pedestrian title, Let the Sunshine In is sophisticated and subtle movie. Juliette Binoche shines in every scene, she funny, clever and quirky. Claire Denis is one of best directors in France who is vastly underrated. This story is told purely from the female gaze – that of Isabelle.

It pokes fun at men – and at the women who fall for their tricks.

Grace Jones, Let the Sunshine In and First Reformed 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.

Movies Made by Women. Films reviewed: What Will People Say?, Zama

Posted in 1500s, Argentina, Clash of Cultures, Drama, Family, Indigenous, Kidnapping, Norway, Slavery, Spain, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 20, 2018

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

Spring festival season is on right now, with two or three new ones popping up each week. There are established festivals like Hot Docs, celebrating its 25th anniversary, as well as some new ones. Reelabilities is only in its third year, but already programs a full international slate of dramas and docs – and even a comedy night — for and about people with deafness, mental illness, autism, down’s syndrome, and many others. And they’re dealing with important topics like sexuality and disabilities and disability rights. This week I’m looking at two movies directed by women and that played film festivals in Toronto (TIFF, Human Rights Watch Film Fest). There’s a coming-of-age drama about a Norwegian schoolgirl whose parents come from Pakistan, and an historical drama about a colonial Argentine whose ancestors came from Spain.

What Will People Say?

Dir: Iram Haq

Nisha (Maria Mozdah)is a high school student living in a snow-swept Oslo housing project. She has beautiful long hair, dark eyes and a shy but winning smile. Nisha is a typical Norwegian girl. She hangs with a tight-knit group of friends for partying, listening to music, texting. At night, though, she’s the grudgingly loyal daughter to her traditional Pakistani parents. She is the apple of her fathers eye. Mirza (Adil Hussein) piles money and gifts on his smart and beautiful daughter whom he dreams of becoming a doctor or an engineer. But Her mother is more strict, always wondering what other people – meaning people from Pakistan – will say, if they see Nisha doing outrageous things like… dancing? Little does she know. she’s dating a guy named Daniel who looks like Archie Andrews. But when her dad catches them in her bedroom, flirting, all hell breaks loose.

Before she knows what’s happening she’s on a plane to Pakistan on her way to a relative’s home in a remote town. They take away her phone, burn her passport, and forbid her from using the internet. Mirza says he’s doing it for her own good, but Nisha feels betrayed, lost and abandoned. And then there’s the physical dangers. She can’t just put on a hoodie and explore the streets alone like she did in Norway. Only a young cousin who idolizes her, and Amir, a boy she likes, make her life worth living. But her eyes and tastebuds are awakening to new sights and flavours she never encountered in cold, grey Norway.  She gradually adapts to her new home…. until a big change threatens her life and her future. Will she ever regain her old life and friends? Can she achieve success as a woman? And will she and her family learn to accept each other?

What Will People Say is a great coming-of-age drama that’s a bit of a thriller, too. It gives a multi-faceted look at a teenaged girl, partly self-centred and spoiled, partly facing a miserable life not of her own making. Pakistan is portrayed as a scary and violent place but also a vibrant and beautiful one, filled with both kindness and terror. The director (herself of Pakistani/ Norwegian background) eschews what could have been a one-sided kidnapping thriller in favour of a realistic and touching drama. She avoids easy stereotypes opting instead for a nuanced and loving look.

Zama

Wri/Dir: Lucrecia Martel

It’s 300 years ago in imperial Spain in South America.

Don Diego Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a low- level magistrate decked out in a white wig and three cornered hat, with a bright reddish jacket and a shiny sword. He’s there to provide justice and compassion in disputes among the colonists, their slaves and the indigenous peoples in the remote colony of Asunción. But he soon discovers his rulings are ignored, his requests disregarded, and his status questioned. He’s far from his wife in Buenos Aires, and his native mistress in Asunción doesn’t like him much, even after she gives birth to his son.

His life depends on the indulgences of a king in far off Spain, and a corrupt and decadent local Governor who spends most of his time gambling to win obscene tokens of power. He covets worthless geodes and decrepit ears sliced off a dead convict’s head. Colonial landholders slaughter Indios with impunity. As his life gets worse and worse, Zama feels trapped in a cesspit he can’t climb out of.

He finally gets his chance by joining a posse searching for Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele) a villainous criminal terrorizing the locals. But his search seems equally pointless and circuitous, achieving nothing, waiting for a Godot who may never arrive.

On his journey he faces dangers and fascinations both real and imagineary: small boys with psychic abilities, hidden ghosts and potergeists infecting his lodges. People appear and disappear, seamingly at random, dying and coming back to life, in a colourful whirlwind of unexplained phenomena.

Zama is a fantastic, non-linear adventure based on an Argentinian novel. It explores name and identity, position and class, and race and ethnicity in Colonial Spain. Indigenous languages are spoken without subtitles – we hear it all through Zama’s ears.

I’m not going to pretend I completely understood this movie, but like Embrace of the Serpent (which I reviewed here), the images and exotic scenes in Zama are so engrossing I didn’t worry too much about the plot. Picture a group of women on a riverbank covering their naked bodies with thick brown mud. And the scenery in Argentina’s northeast Formosa province — green moss, sweeping hills, twisting rivers and impossibly tall bare tree trunks — is like seeing those Dr Seuss books I read as a kid again but in real life.

What a great movie.

Zama opens today in Toronto. check your local listings.What will people say is playing at Human Rights Watch film fest.  This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Serious. Films reviewed: Beirut, Abu, Indian Horse

Posted in Canada, Canadian Literature, documentary, Dreams, Espionage, Indigenous, Islam, Lebanon, LGBT, Ojibway, Racism, Residential Schools by CulturalMining.com on April 13, 2018

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

Spring film festival season is on now. Look out for Cinefranco featuring films from Québec; Human Rights Watch Film Fest with films from around the world, and here’s a new one: The Toronto International Porn Film Festival! This week, though, I’m looking at some serious movies. There’s a spy thriller set in Lebanon, a family memoir in Pakistan and Canada, and a drama about Canada’s residential schools.

Beirut

Dir: Brad Anderson

It’s 1972 at the US Embassy in Beirut. Mason (Jon Hamm) and his wife are hosting a party for bigwigs from Washington. Helping out is Karim, an earnest 12-year-old Palestinian kid who they treat like a son. But all is not well. His best friend, Cal, a CIA agent tells him something’s up with that cute little boy so they’re just going to take him away to a dark cell somewhere for awhile.

What–? Mason objects, but just then, gunmen enter the embassy, kill his wife, and drive off with the boy. Mason’s life is ruined. Ten years later he’s back in the States, staying just sober enough to keep his job as a labour negotiator… when out of the blue comes an urgent call: top government officials wants him back in Beirut, but they won’t say why.

He is met by Sandy (Rosamund Pike) in the now wartorn city, who fills him in. Militants have kidnapped an American and have asked Mason to negotiate. Turns out the kidnappee is his old friend Cal, and the kidnapper? Little Karim, now all grown up. Can Mason defuse the tensions, negotatiate a trade between the CIA, the Mossad, the PLO, the Lebanese government, splinter groups and corrupt officials? Or will the intrigue and subterfuge prove too much for him to handle?

Beirut is a neat and taut action thriller with lots of suspense amidst the twists and turns. (The script is by Tony Gilroy who did the Bourne trilogy.) Poltically, though, it’s a total mess. The film is loaded with visual “shorthand”, so 1982 Lebanon is represented by a woman in a niqab beside a camel on the beach! Really??  This isn’t Saudi Arabia in 2018, it’s Lebanon in 1982.  The movie also implies that every Arab child is a potential terrorist in the making.

Still the acting is good, the pace brisk and the game-theory-fuelled plot is fascinating to watch.

Abu

Wri/Dir: Arshad Khan

Arshad is a little kid growing up in Pakistan to an Army engineer dad and an upper-class mom. He likes dancing to disco music and being flamboyant. And by his teenaged years he’s secretly dating another boy. The parents find out and he is deeply humiliated.

Later, the family moves to Canada, where he stands out for a different reason. Suddenly, he’s Pakistani, he’s an immigrant, he’s a person of colour – with all the racism that comes with his new identity. Arshad gradually feels his way through an unfamiliar, racialized setting, as a South Asian, as a Canadian, as a gay man, and as a political activist. His parents veer in the opposite direction. They gradually turn to fundamentalist Islam, which they learn about in their new home. Can this family stay together?

Abu is deeply personal film, that serves as both a tribute to Arshad’s parents (Abu means father) and a look at his own life. It’s filled with family photos, videos, and interviews – his parents were movie enthusiasts who recorded everything. These random vignettes are strung together with an unusual plot device – an animated version of a dream he has that proves prophetic. Though the story is routine, much like what countless other new immigrants to Canada experience,  I love the way the film puts everything – history, pop culture, music – into a larger context.

Indian Horse

Dir: Stephen S. Campanelli

Based on the novel by Richard Wagamese

It’s the 1950s in Northern Ontario. Saul Indian Horse (Sladen Peltier as young Saul; Forrest Goodluck as teen Saul; Ajuawak Kapashesit as adult Saul) is a young boy  raised by his grandmother (Edna Manitowabi) who teaches him the Ojibway ways. Until the day government officials arrive in a fancy car who literally pull him out of his grandmother’s arms. They leave him at St Jerome’s a Catholic residential school where they can “kill the Indian in him”. Right away they cut off his hair, forbid him from speaking his language. The school is run by cruel priests and nuns, who abuse the kids physically and psychologically. Some are tortured, even locked up in a cage in the basement. Saul is a survivor and stays out of trouble, unlike his best friend who can’t hack it… and suffers terribly.

Saul comes up with a way to get out of the place: hockey. He’s seen it on B&W TV at school and it speaks to him. He’s sure if he learns to skate and practices on his own every morning, hockey will save him. He’s helped by way of a deal he makes with Father Gaston (Michiel Huisman), a friendly priest who takes a liking to him. It turns out Saul’s right – he is a fantastic player. He joins a native hockey team up north and slowly climbs his way up the ladder. He faces racism and discrimination at every step but he keeps his identity and sense of self. Eventually he gets drafted to the NHL and sent to Toronto – their first indigenous player. But deep inside, something from his past is eating away at him. What will become of Saul? Will he succeed in his dreams? Or will his experiences at the residential school drag him down?

Indian Horse is a deeply moving story, starring indigenous actors playing Saul at each stage of his life. It exposes a recent, shameful part of Canadian history, and one that’s still being felt today. The movie is not perfect or without flaws — it was made with a limited budget, and isn’t a Hollywood-style pic with a feel-good ending. But I think it’s a really good drama about an important topic, and one that should be required viewing across this country.

Beirut, Abu and Indian Horse all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening is the fantastic, realistic drama Lean on Pete which I reviewed here last September and is also on my New Year’s list of best movies of the year.

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

Shells. Films reviewed: Journey’s End, Ready Player One, The China Hustle

Posted in 1910s, China, Class, Corruption, Darkness, documentary, Drama, Games, Movies, Poverty, Science Fiction, Wall Street, War, WWI by CulturalMining.com on March 30, 2018

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

It’s a holiday weekend filled with eggs, whether hard boiled or made of chocolate with a prize inside. So this week I’m looking at three new movies about… shells. There are VR gamers looking for a hidden easter egg, Wall Streeters investing in shell corporations, and WWI soldiers dodging mortar shells.

Journey’s End

Dir: Saul Dibb

It’s March, 1918, in the WWI trenches of northern France. Underground, where the officers stay, it’s dark, dank and smelly. Up on the surface its deadly dangerous, with snipers aiming at your head. Four British divisions rotate their stays at the front at one week per month. It’s like a lottery – with a one in four chance of dying. And the soldiers in Company C are just trying to stay sane and alive. There’s the fatherly Osborne (Paul Bettany) who everyone calls “Uncle”, the indefatigable cook Mason (Toby Jones), and the shell-shocked Hibbert.

So no one can understand why the green, idealistic Lt Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) pulls strings to join this benighted group. Why? His upper classman Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is stationed there and he wants to see him again. But he doesn’t realize the level of death and despair that has taken hold there. And that his hero, Stanhope,

is now a mean and bitter alcoholic. The soldiers there are forced to make pointless raids in daylight so as not to interrupt the dinner schedule of far-off Generals. And things reach a boiling point when word gets out the Germans are about to attack on Thursday, right there. They’re essentially sentenced to die at the front. How do they all handle this?

Journey’s End – based on the classic play – is a tense retelling of an old war story, exactly 100 years later. It deals with the futility of war, the rigid British class system, and the male comeradery of life in the trenches. The acting is very good, and the camera wonderfully captures a world lit only by flickering lanterns. Even so, it was hard to sympathize with the stuff-upper-lip, tally-ho language of the script. The long theatrical conversations might might work on stage but not on the screen. The main emotions I got from this movie were depression, disgust claustrophobia and fatalism. It all felt too long, too slow, and too distant, especially once you know their fate… Just die already!

Ready Player One

Dir: Steven Spielberg

It’s 2045 in Columbus, Ohio and the world is a mess. People live marginal existences in ramshackle towers beside huge corporations. Wade (Tye Sheridan) is an 18-year-old orphan who spends most of his time online in a wildly- popular VR fantasy world called Oasis. Its creator left a trillion-dollar prize to whoever can solve the puzzles hidden within this digital world. First they must complete three levels of games and collect three keys  and claim the hidden easter egg. Wade he surprises the world by appearing on the boards as Player One, the top ranked player in the world. But he’s not the only gunter (egg hunter) trying to win. His closest virtual rivals are Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) a fiery red-head, Aech, a muscular giant and genius mechanic; plus Daito and Sho whose avatars look like a samurai and a ninja, respectively. Wade calls himself Parzival. Like the Wagner opera character, he’s searching for a holy grail. And he’s in love with the lovely Artemis. But as best-bud Aech keeps telling him: you only know her avatar – that’s not what she’s like in real life. And lurking in the shadows is the rich and evil Sorrento, (Ben Mendelssohn) the head of IOI, the corporate rival to Oasis’s company. He pretends to be a champion gamer, but he’s actually a fake who hires employees to play for him. But he’s out to win — and take over the world — at any cost. Which of the hunters will figure out the puzzle and find the easter egg? And can they defeat the villainous Sorrento?

Ready Player One is an incredibly fast-moving sci-if action movie. Oasis’s inventor, whose puzzles they’re all trying to solve, was obsessed with the 80s, so the movie feeds you a random hodgepodge of Back to the Future and Iron Giant, Gandam and Street Fighter, New Order and Van Halen, a non-stop shower of pop culture, to the point where you can’t tell self-referential jokes from cheap product placement. (Maybe they’re both?) But why would kids in the 2040s care about the 1980s? I can’t call this a good movie; it’s incredibly commercial, felt more like a theme park ride than a film, and parts were like watching a video game with someone else holding the controls. But you know what? I still enjoyed it. And it does have that classic Spielbergian look and sound.

China Hustle

Wri/Dir: Jed Rothstein

After the Subprime Mortgage crisis, American investors, pension funds, and ordinary moms and pops were looking to make some money. But where? Chinese people were making millions investing in their red-hot companies, but those stocks weren’t traded on Wall Street. Until, suddenly, they were. Hundreds of Chinese startups were being bought and sold and making big bucks. And companies like Roth Capital were holding lavish parties known as “investment conferences” to reel in buyers. They were backed by reputable auditors like Deloitte. It’s a win-win proposition – everyone makes money. Until, that is, some suspicious investors fly to Shanghai and looked around.

Turns out, many of these companies operate as “Reverse Mergers”. Existing Chinese corporations buy shell companies already registered in the US, take them over, change their name, and they’re open to make money.

But their books here don’t look like their books there. Idle factories in China are said to be making ten times what they’re actually earning. And no one’s checking up on them.

So a few maverick investors decide to short sell their stock (like in that movie The Big Short) counting on its value crashing soon. And they speed this along by publicising the corruption and questionable accounting of the parent companies back in China. The result, riches for a few, terrible losses for many.

The China Hustle is a fascinating documentary looking at the shady practices behind deregulation, auditing and investments, as told by three American short-sellers. I thought its view of China as a monolithic villain was superficial and rather one-sided; for example, it shows how these fraudulent investments affect ordinary Americans’ lives, but not how they affect ordinary Chinese.

But it does expose in detail a huge scandal I knew nothing about.

Ready Player One opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Journey’s End and The China Hustle are in theatres and Video On Demand. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Death Be Not Proud. Films reviewed: The Death of Stalin, Foxtrot

Posted in Army, comedy, Corruption, Death, Drama, Israel, Movies, UK, USSR by CulturalMining.com on March 16, 2018

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 differenc

Which is worse — dying? Or knowing someone’s dying but not knowing when?  This week I’m looking at two great dark comedies that find humour in terrible situations about death. There’s the imminent death of eminent dictator, and the questionable death of an questioning soldier.

The Death of Stalin

Dir: Armando Iannucci

It’s 1953 in the Soviet Union. Joseph Stalin rules the country with an iron fist, and everyone trembles in his presence. So when he orders a recorded copy of a just-completed live musical performance – that wasn’t actually recorded – of course everyone starts to panic. Everyone, it seems, except the musician who played it. She dares to drop a note for him into the re-recorded record envelope. If he reads it, surely her death will follow – and everyone around her. But as fate wll have it, when Stalin reads the message, he falls to the floor with a heart attack.

And with Stalin on his deathbed all his closest political allies come running to see what will happen next, and what their own status will be after he’s gone. There’s Malenkov ((Jeffrey Tambor) Stalin’s right-hand man for 30 years – a bit of a chowderhead but he’s also the one who purges anyone who challenges him. His rival Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) is the proud military leader who beat Hitler in WWII. Molotov (Michael Palin) is the foreign minister (don’t share a cocktail with this guy!) There’s the wily Nikita Krushchev (Steve Buscemi) and the dreaded Beria (Simon Russell Beale), head of the Secret Police (NKVD). And Stalin’s two adult children, his clever daughter Svetlana and his idiot son Vasily, who acts like he’s an aristocrat in a Chekov play. Picture all these historical figures running around all at once, panicking, conspiring, and thinking up ways to best their rivals.

While The Death of Stalin may sound like a dry historical drama, it is anything but. It’s fast-moving, shocking, and hilarious. The director — Armando Iannucci — has made another one of his twisted, foul-mouthed political comedies. This one isn’t in Westminster or The White House, it’s set in the Kremlin instead. The actors are either British – like Michael Palin — or American – like Steve Buscemi – but he lets them keep their real voices, no fake heavy Russian accents here (except from the Russian actors).

The Death of Stalin is a great political comedy.

Foxtrot

Dir: Samuel Maoz

Michael and Daphna (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) are a successful Israeli couple Progressive, atheist and sexually open. He’s an architect so their Tel Aviv flat is beautifully designed and tastefully appointed. There lives are nearly perfect… until the day a knock on their door reveals two army officers in uniform. Their son Jonathan, a corporal at a remote posting, has died in the line of duty. Michael is stunned and Daphna collapses to the floor. She is put on meds while Michael stumbles in a daze to talk with his mom in a nursing home.

The army steps in to arrange the funeral, provide the coffin, direct the speech, call their relatives. Don’t worry, they say, we’ll take care of everything. But something is wrong… they can’t provide answers to the most basic questions. Where was he posted? How did he die? And where’s the body? Six hours later they return to say there’s been a terrible mistake. You’re son is still alive.

The story shifts to a remote checkpoint on a purgatorial desert road somewhere near Gehenna. Jonathan (Yonatan Shiray) is posted there with three other young guys. They live in a rusty, ramshackle shipping container made of corrugated steel. It’s slowly disappearing into a muck-filled sinkhole, a couple inches a day. Dinner consists of canned mystery meat cooked on a space heater. They while away their time fiddling with ancient radio receivers, drawing cartoons, telling stories or dancing with a rifle. It’s endless and pointless. Their sole capacity seems to be checking the IDs of passing Palestinians on their way to weddings, funerals or nightclub. The boys approach this job – and their only source of power — with a keen intensity, They shine floodlights at bewildered passersby, force middle aged women to stand in the pouring rain, pointing lethal weapons at their faces, … and worse. That worse incident , and its aermath, brings a new calamity to Jonathan’s family back home, bringing grief, decay and self-harm. Will the family ever recover?

Foxtrot – named after both the dance and the military code – is a dark, ironic and satiric look at the creeping militarization of people’s lives and it’s horrific results. This army is a portrayed as a new Catch-22, one filled with ridiculous errors, secrecy and coverups. The film itself adopts that unexplained mysterious tone – places are left unidentified, some characters not given names. Visions of censorship – symbolized by the black tape covering images of vintage softcore porn – carries over into everyday life and family folklore. The dystopia of the dirty and rusty army post is run by sympathetic characters but is rotten to the core. I called this a dark comedy, but it’s also a very moving drama, cushioned by the absurdist and surreal tone that overlays everything. This is a visually splendid film that relies more on images than dialogue. Foxtrot is a great, but scathingly critical, movie.

I recommend it.

Death of Stalin and Foxtrot 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.

 

 

Daniel Garber talks with Andrey Zvyagintsev about Loveless

Posted in Cultural Mining, Drama, Family, Movies, Realism, Russia by CulturalMining.com on February 23, 2018

(Second track is an unedited version for Russian speakers)

(второй трек – неотредактированная версия для русскоговорящих)

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Boris and Zhenya — an attractive young couple in Moscow obsessed by sex, money and status — are getting a divorce. Zhenya wants to move in with her rich and powerful boyfriend. Boris’s girlfriend is pregnant with his child. That leaves only their loving son, Alyosha. But the boy reacts in horror when he overhears his parents saying neither of them want him.

And then he disappears. What more can you ask of a boy from a home that is loveless?

Loveless (Нелюбовь) is the name of a new film that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev – who was nominated for an Oscar for the great Leviathian — has made another powerful movie. This is no ordinary family drama; this is the kind of movie that reaches into your guts, pulls them out and spreads them on the table in front of you. It’s stunning and devestating, without resorting to explicit violence.

Loveless won the Jury Prize at the Cannes festival. I spoke with Andrey Zvyagintsev on location at TIFF17.

Loveless has been nominated for an Academy Award, Best Foreign Language Film.  It opens in theatres today.

Daniel Garber talks with Daniela Vega about A Fantastic Woman

Posted in Bullying, Chile, Drama, Family, Movies, Music, Secrets, Trans, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 9, 2018

(The second track is unedited, for Spanish speakers)

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Marina Vidal is a happy woman. Her career as a singer is taking off, and her relationship with her lover, Orlando, is at a new stage. They are living together. He gives her a perfect birthday: dinner, dancing, and a trip to a resort. But her luck takes a turn for the worse when he wakes up feeling strange. She rushes him to hospital but it’s too late. He’s dead. And suddenly everything changes.

The authorities, police, doctor, and Orlandos family swoop down upon her. She is called a thief, a prostitute, a murderer. She is attacked emotionally and physically and told to stay away. All of this because she’s a trans woman. They say her relationship with Orlando was not “normal”.

But why should a woman settle for normal when she can be fantastic?

A Fantastic Woman is the name of a new film directed by Sebastián Lelio and starring Daniela Vega. Vega is a popular Chilean singer and actor who plays Marina in a remarkably powerful performance.

I spoke with Daniela on location at TIFF17 in September.

A Fantastic Woman has been nominated for an Academy Award: Best Foreign Language Film.  It opens today in Toronto.

Middle Class, Middle East. Films reviewed: Ava, The Insult

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, High School, Iran, Lebanon, Movies, Palestine, Refugees, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 2, 2018

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

Looking for new things to watch other than big studio crap? Here’s what to look out for in February. It’s Black History Month, and Toronto’s Black Film Festival is coming up this month. The Goethe Foundation is showing movies set in Asia by Ulrike Ottinger. At TIFF Cinematheque they’ve got a retrospective of French New Wave director Philippe Garrel. To name just a few…

This week, though, I’m looking at two dramas about the Middle Class in the Middle East. There’s a teen drama set in Iran about a dare, and a courtroom drama in Lebanon about an insult.

Ava

Wri/Dir: Sadaf Foroughi

Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is a high school girl in Iran. An only child, she’s pretty but determined and self-confident. She lives with her mom, a psychiatrist, and her dad when he’s not out of town. She brightens up her obligatory, all-back uniform with some red Converse running shoes and a backpack. Her prized possession is her metronome. Her life consists of violin lessons, studying for exams, and hanging with her best friend Melody. Another friend Shirin, is a know-it-all always putting her down so she bets she can get a guy, Nima, to go out with her. She knows him from music lessons where he accompanies her on the piano… and she thinks he’s cute.

So she arranges an elaborate plot where she says she’s going to study with Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi), but actually plans to meet up with Nima, and drop by Shirin’s place to show him off so she can win the bet. Easy as pie. Except Shirin isn’t home – so no bet – and worse, when she sneaks back to Melody’s place her suspicious mom is there going ballistic and taking it out on Melody and her mom. And when Ava arrives her mom’s all Where were you? what did you do? Why did you lie? Then she drags Ava to a doctor to check that her virginity is intact!

In school the next day it gets even worse, with teachers searching through her backpack for forbidden things (whatever that may be). Even the school principal lectures all the girls about the dangers of doing the unspeakable with their unmentionables! She lost the bet, is humiliated in front of everyone, forbidden to see her best friend, and forced to quit her music lessons. All this, even though she didn’t do anything. Her stress and frustration rises to a boiling point and she has a meltdown in class.

Why is her mom so worried about her daughter having premarital sex? Can Ava pull her life back together, pass her exams, play violin at the recital, make up with her friends and family and maybe get back together with her non-boyfriend Nima? Or is her life ruined?

Ava might sound like a YA soap opera, but it’s actually a realistic coming-of-age drama about life in contemporary Iran. This is a good movie, surprisingly mature for a first feature. It has the look of an arthouse flick, with experimental camera work — like characters shot from behind, from above, from far away, with parts of them obscured, or even out of the frame entirely. And Jabari is excellent as Ava.

The Insult

Dir: Ziad Doueiri

Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is an engineer working on contract for the city. He supervises dozens of workers who repair potholes, drainage and infrastructure. He’s at the height of his career, known for his skill, diligence and bringing projects in under budget, while still looking out for the little guy.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) runs his own business, an auto repair shop, fixing BMWs. He lives in a second floor apartment with his pregnant wife. The young couple are saving up to buy their first home. Everything’s peachy until one day Tony spills dirty water through a faulty drainage pipe all over Yasser on the street below. Yasser calls Tony a rude name, but later fixes the pipe at the city’s expense. Tony smashes it to pieces. Words escalate with neither side apologizing for their insults. Until Tony voices the ultimate insult, and Yasser responds by beating him up.

Seems like a small problem, easily solved, right? Wrong. It turns into a lawsuit and the ensuing trial captures the attention of the whole country, leading to riots, molotov cocktails, even a meeting with the President of Lebanon. What is so important about this dispute? Yasser is Palestinian and Tony is Maronite Christian, and their disputes go back for generations, including the bloody, 15-year-long Lebanese civil war.

Their two lawyers, both working pro bono, are the famous Wajda Webb on Tony’s side and rising legal eagle Nadine working for Yasser. Both sides discover hidden histories from their two clients’ pasts, as victims and perpetrators of some of the massacres that tore the region apart: Black September in Jordan, Damour, Sabra and Shatilla.

The Insult has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and I understand why. It manages to handle controversial topics in a sometimes humorous, sometimes serious manner. The movie is told from Tony’s point of view, and therefore that of Maronite Christians as a group – including his political influences, their role in the civil war and Tony’s personal memories. That said, it is respectful and sympathetic to Yasser’s side and takes pains to portray him in a positive way. And Kamal El Basha gives a great performance as Yasser, both subtle and explosive at appropriate places.

The Insult is a good crash course in Lebanese modern history.

Ava and The Insult are both playing now 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.

Strong female roles. Films reviewed: In the Fade, The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches PLUS Forever My Girl

Posted in C&W, Depression, Drama, drugs, Family, Germany, Nazi, New Orleans, Quebec, Terrorism by CulturalMining.com on January 19, 2018

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

It’s funny. A few years ago I was wondering what happened to all the female movie stars? They had been pushed into the margins, with hardly any good female roles. This year, though, there are more great female performances than you shake a stick at. Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird, Francis McDormand in Three Billboards, Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, Daniela Vega in A Fantastic Woman, Claire Armstrong in Dim the Fluorescents, Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, and so on.

So this week I’m looking at some more powerful performances by women in very intense movies. There’s a woman in Hamburg confronting Nazi terrorists, and an isolated teenager in rural Quebec reacting to the outside world.

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (La petite fille qui aimait trop les allumettes)

Wri/Dir: Simon Lavoie

It’s some point in the distant past in rural Quebec. Two brothers with dirty faces and scruffy hair (Marine Johnson and Antoine L’Écuyer) live with their father on an isolated farm in the woods. They’re close enough to the next village to hear churchbells in the distance, but they never go there. It’s a grand old stone manor filled with empty rooms and whole sections blocked off. The teenaged boys are forbidden from seeing them. If you go there, says their father (Jean-François Casabonne) you will die.

The house is lit by church candelabra arranged on altars with lanterns carried through the dark halls. The boys can read but most books are forbidden. They listen to liturgical records on their wind-up gramophone. And the younger brother sometimes visits a terrible monster, locked up in a dark shed. He feeds it apples and pieces of bread through gaps in a wooden cage.

The boys dress in frontier clothes and priest’s hassocks. Younger brother has to keep watch – his bullying older brother often jumps him in the woods and does something to him he doesn’t understand. He keeps his chest tightly wrapped in cloth – his father insists. But he still has questions. He has seen pigs mating in the sty. Why don’t I have a penis? His father says, I told you, it fell off when you were younger. He also believes babies are made out of clay.

It’s a rough life, but it’s all they know, save for faint memories of a beautiful woman in a white dress, and two little girls in pinafores. In fact they can’t remember ever seeing someone from the outside. Until one day when a young man (Alex Godbout) drives to the house on a motorcycle. The town needs to survey the property, he says, but Père and Frère chase him away with their rifles. Is he a knight in shining armour? Or does he signal an invasion by the churchgoing villagers? And when something happens to Père, the two boys discover the house’s secrets, and some of their own. Like the fact that the younger brother… is pregnant!

The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches is a powerful, surreal drama with an almost fairytale feel. It tells the story of naïve teenagers whose father (who went mad) is their only source of information. It’s shot in stunning black and white, and is filled with sinister images of the all-pervasive Québec church. It’s creepily fascinating with fantastic acting by L’Écuyer and Johnson. This is a great — but highly disturbing — movie.

In The Fade (Aus dem Nichts)

Wri/Dir: Fatih Akin

It’s present-day Hamburg. Katja Sekerci (Diane Kruger) is a happily married woman with a young son named Rocco. She likes artistic tattoos, going to saunas with her best friend Brigitte and making love to her husband. Nuri is of Kurdish ancestry, but wears his hair like a samurai. They were married when he was still in prison. Now he runs a translation office in a Turkish section of town.

Katja’s life is nearly perfect until something devestating happens. An explosioin levels her husband’s office killing him and their son. It turns out it was a bomb, possibly the work of terrorists. And Katja thinks she knows who did it. She saw a blonde woman park her bike right in front of the office on the day of the explosion. In fact she even spoke to her so she knows she’s German. But the police, the press, even her own mother, keep looking at the victim as the cause of the killing. Is it the Turkish Mafia. Islamic terrorists? Drugs?

Katie talks with Danilo her lawyer and good friend (Denis Moschitto) to make sense of it all. They realize it must be be a right wing terrorist — a nazi — who did this. Eventually the police make an arrest based on her description, and two Nazis, a young couple named Edda and Andre Möller (Hanna Hilsdorf, Ulrich Brandhoff) are put on trial for the killings. But will they be convicted?

In the Fade is a great dramatic thriller that combines Katja’s grief and sorrow with her need for vengeance. It’s told in three chapters: her interactions with her family, in-laws and the police; the trial itself; and the heart-pumping aftermath, when she decides to track down and punish the killers. Diane Kruger is just fantastic as Katje, the best I’ve ever seen her, and she puts her whole body and soul into the part. You can really feel her anger, grief and frustration, but she never overacts.

I liked this movie a lot.

Also opening today is this romantic drama:

Forever My Girl

Wri/Dir: Bethany Ashton Wolf (based on the novel by Heidi McLaughlin)

Liam Page (Alex Roe) is a Country & Western superstar. He writes and performs his own songs with a back-up band. He can fill a New Orleans stadium with adoring fans.  Teenaged girls will chase him, screaming, down a city street when he appears in public. They love his smooth voice, handsome face and his sentimental songs. But offstage Liam is a real prick. He’s emotionally vapid, sleeping with different groupies each night. He’s rude and abusive toward his affable, bearded manager Sam (Peter Cambor) and his LA publicist Doris. And he’s addicted to alcohol and drugs.

He carries only one thing to remind him of his life as a smalltown boy: an old flip phone with a recorded message. But after a tragic turn of events, he finds himself back in his hometown, St Augustine, LA, for a funeral. He may be famous, but in “the Saint” his name is mud. You see, he was engaged to marry his highschool sweetheart Josie (Jessica Rothe) eight years earlier, but left her standing at the altar, without an explanation or apology.  When she sees him now, Josie greets him with a sucker punch. And he discovers he has a 7-year-old daughter named Charly (Abby Ryder Forston) that Josie has been raising on her own.

Can Liam change his ways and conquer his demons? Will Josie ever talk to him again? Can he spend time with his precocious daughter? And can his father, the town preacher, forgive his selfish son?

I’m not a big fan of country music or conventional romances involving small-town churchgoers — this is not the kind of movie I rush to see.  It takes few risks and most of the characters walked straight out of Central Casting. But I found it entertaining anyway. I assumed the aw-shucks, southern boy Liam was played by a non-actor, a country singer who basically played himself — woodenly, at that — and performed his own tunes. Turns out I was way off the mark. This UK actor had me convinced he was a real country singer from the Deep South!

In the Fade and Forever My Girl open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches is playing at Canada’s Top Ten festival; go to TIFF.net for details. Also opening today is Hostiles (read my review here) and My Piece of the City  (listen to my interview with director Moze Mossanen here). 

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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