Daniel Garber talks with Oscar-winning filmmaker László Nemes about Sunset

Posted in 1910s, Drama, Dreams, Hungary, Mysticism, Secrets, Women, WWI by CulturalMining.com on April 5, 2019

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

Photos of László Nemes by Jeff Harris

Irisz is a pretty, young milliner from Trieste who is visiting a grand hat shop in Budapest celebrating its 30th Jubilee. She is there to apply for a job, but the owner hands her a first class ticket home the moment he hears her name.

It’s Leiter, a name both famous and infamous. It’s the  name of the hat store, suppliers to the royal family, and founded by her own parents who died in a fire. But it’s also the name of a man who started the fire and murdered a count. Is he a madman… or a revolutionary? Irisz vows to find out who he is. But will the visit lead to a happy anniversary? Or is it the final sunset for the famous millinery house?

Sunset is also the name of a new film from Hungarian director Lázsló Nemes, who created the Oscar-winning Son of Saul. Sunset gives a multifaceted impression of pre-WWI Budapest, using sound, light, motion, colour and voices as experienced by Irisz. It shows the decadent Austro-Hungarian empire teetering on the brink, even as the new shining city arises. Sunset is a film filled with chaos, confusion and conflagration.

I spoke to Lázsló Nemes on location at TIFF in September, 2018. 

Sunset opens today in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Daniel Garber talks with Jia Zhang-ke about his new film Ash is Purest White

Posted in 1990s, 2000s, China, Crime, Migrants, Movies, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 22, 2019

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

Photo of Jia Zhang-ke (left) by Jeff Harris.

Qiao is the girlfriend of a smalltime hood in a dingy mining city in northern China. She is confident, pretty and fiercely loyal. But after a violent showdown on a downtown street, she ends up taking the fall for him. She serves five years in prison. When she is released she discovers her one-time lover has abandoned her.

Will her journey across China — to find her ex-lover and reestablish her reputation — bring her what she wants?

Ash is Purest White is a new Chinese feature that played at Cannes and TIFF. It’s a passionate melodrama that chronicles China’s changes as it modernizes, as seen by a gangster and his moll. It is written and directed by one of China’s best and most famous filmmakers, Jia Zhang-ke.

I spoke to Jia Zhang-ke in New York City via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Ash is Purest White opens today in Toronto.

Daniel Garber talks with director Cristina Gallega about Birds of Passage

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Clash of Cultures, Colombia, Crime, Indigenous, Movies, War by CulturalMining.com on March 1, 2019

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

Photos of Cristina Gallega by Jeff Harris

It’s the 1960s in the deserts of La Guajira in northern Colombia, where the Waayuu, a fiercely independent  indigenous nation, make their home. A young man, Rapayet who wants to marry Zaida must bring a large dowry of cattle, goats and precious beads. He sets out on a journey with his best friend, to earn the money he needs to pay for it. He finds his answer in the marijuana trade.  Americans are willing to pay good money for sacks of it grown in the hills. But with the cannibis trade comes complications to the clan in the form of riches… but also of violence, rivalries and possible destruction. Will this new wealth destroy the Waayuu people? Or can the old ways coexist with the newfound money?

A dramatic new movie called Birds of Passage follows the characters over two decades as their lives change. It’s a chronical of life over two decades, in the 1960s and 70s, a crime story, and a study of indigenous ways. Its detailed, passionate, and epic units scope.  The film was made by the creators of Oscar-nominated Embrace of the Serpant, and is co-directed by noted filmmaker Cristina Gallegos.

I spoke with Cristina Gallego on location in September at TIFF 18.

Birds of Passage opens today in Toronto.

Daniel Garber talks about the Oscars with Toronto cinephiles Jeff Harris and Jamil Fiorino-Habib

Posted in Bad Movies, Cultural Mining, Hollywood, Movies by CulturalMining.com on February 8, 2019

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

Is Hollywood the epitome of the American dream, a place where a small town girl can be discovered at a soda fountain, or an auto mechanic can turn into a movie star overnight? Or is it where an obsolete medium recycles tired ideas, racist norms and sexual exploitation in exchange for the almighty dollar?

However you look at them, the Oscars – with their glamour, flash and controversy – are Hollywood’s sacred temple, where its gods show up annually to pay obeisance.

To help make sense of the Academy Awards I’ve invited two Toronto Cinephiles who really know their stuff to share their opinions on movies, Hollywood, and the Oscars.

Jamil Fiorino-Habib is a recent cinema studies and philosophy grad from UofT, hoping to pursue a Masters in Film Theory at the University of Amsterdam in the fall. He has a soft spot for international cinema, and loves to dive deep into film history and psychoanalysis.

Jeff Harris is a professional photographer with a photo arts degree from Ryerson. His photography has been featured in The Globe and Mail, Time Magazine, and culturalmining and has been nominated for many Webby Awards. He has worked as a photographer and photo editor at Maclean’s magazine and has been covering TIFF since 2002.

I spoke with Jamil and Jeff in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Academy Awards will be broadcast on February 24th, 2019.

Gone fishing. Films reviewed: Serenity, Wonders of the Sea PLUS Cold War

Posted in 1950s, Animals, Cold War, Communism, Conservation, Crime, documentary, Drama, Film Noir, France, Music, Mystery, Poland, Romance, Suspense by CulturalMining.com on January 25, 2019

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

Fishing for something different to watch? This week I’m looking at two movies about fish and one about love. There’s a doc beneath the waves, a suspense drama aboard a fishing boat, and a bittersweet romance behind the Iron Curtain.

Serenity

Wri/Dir: Steve Knight

Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman off Plymouth Island, a tropical vacation spot in the middle of nowhere. Along with his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) he takes rich tourists out on his boat to catch some sharks. But Dill’s real love, his passion, is for tuna. One particular bluefin he calls Justice, that always gets away. It’s his great white whale, his Moby Dick . He spends his free time drinking dark rum at the local bar or sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane) an attractive older woman with a black cat, who helps him out financially after a night of passion.

Life never changes… until one day a mysterious femme fatale, named Karen (Anne Hathaway) appears on his boat. If you drown my rich abusive husband, she says, I’ll give you 10 million bucks. Cash. Will Dill stick with his tuna obsession or will he kill a stranger?

But wait, that’s not all. Turns out he had a thing with Karen before serving in Iraq… she dumped him to marry the rich guy. And her teenaged boy Patrick, a computer geek, could be his biological son. (Though they’ve never met Dill feels he has a psychic bond with the boy). And a strange man with a briefcase following Dill has some crucial information.

If my description sounds like a clichéed film noir knock-off, that’s because that’s what it is. The actors play their characters – an obsessed fisherman, a villainous drunk, an abused but devious woman – in over-the-top performances, vamping for the camera. Why the boilerplate plots? Why the tired dialogue? Apparently, it’s all intentional, but to tell you why would ruin the WTF plot twist. I started to figure it out about two-thirds-of-the-way through, and it kept me interested (though not really satisfied). If you like watching famous actors acting in an imperfect script, this is for you.

Wonders of the Sea

Dir: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jean-Jacques Montello

Jacques Cousteau was the French deep-sea diver, conservationist and underwater filmmaker whose TV shows fascinated me as a child. He sailed away on a ship called Calypso with flippers on his feet and aqualungs on his back. He died in 1997 but his son Jean-Michel and grandkids Fabien and Celine are still diving. This latest documentary in 3D looks at undiscovered parts of the ocean floor and the tiny creatures that live there. They lead us through a massive squid orgy: a mating ritual near California where they all have sex with each other. They also visit a hammerhead shark migration near the Bahamas, and the wondrous coral reefs off Fiji, which form a crucial part of the world’s oceans’ ecosystem. The doc focusses on the tiny, the cute, the weird and the grotesque. And they throw in informative facts and stats about pollution and overfishing.

My biggest problem with this movie is the insufferably corny and dated voiceovers by Arnold Schwartzeneggar and the Cousteaus. It seems aimed at three-year-olds. Who knows, maybe the narration was this bad when I was three but I just didn’t notice. Whatever. If you can somehow switch off the dialogue and just take in the intense, weird-and-wonderful, 3-D coloured images you’ll enjoy this movie.

Cold War

Wri/ Dir Pawel Pawlikowski

It’s post-WWII Poland, and a team of musicologists is heading to the mountains with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Irena (Agata Kulesza) is a serious academic looking to preserve authentic folk culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) a handsome conductor, wants to put together a musical group. Their boss is Kazsmarek (Borys Szyc), an apparatchik – he wants a show big enough to impress his party bosses. The auditions begin, with milk maids and farm hands singing the innocently salacious songs of their childhood. Authenticity rules. Still, one pretty young woman, with blonde braids and a strong voice manages to slip through the cracks. Zula (Joanna Kulig) isn’t really a local peasant, but after living through WWII, taking on new identities is a piece of cake. And Wiktor is attracted to her. The Mazurek Choir is born, and it’s a big hit. And Wiktor and Zula start a secret relationship.

The Party weeds out anyone not “Polish-looking” enough: hair too dark, nose too big? Back to the farm. When they are forced to include Stalinist paeans to collective farming, Wiktor shrugs his shoulders but Irena quits in disgust. But their new status pushes the choir to star status in the Eastern Bloc. Wiktor and Zula fall in love and hatch a plan to defect to the west. Wiktor makes it across the border, but Zula stays behind. Now thelovers are separated by the impenetrable Iron Curtain. Will they ever see each other again? If so, on which side? And can their love –  and their music – survive a long separation?

Cold War is a wonderful, bittersweet romantic drama, set in 1950s Europe. It paints the Cold War era with all its faults and how it affects the people caught in it. Like Pawlikowski’s Ida, it’s just 90 minutes long and shot in glorious black and white on a square screen. Filled with haunting music and images, the film showcases the amazing Kulig and Kot in their flawless performances as separated lovers. (Kulig sings, too!) It’s nominated for a Foreign Language Feature Oscar and is also on my list of best movies of the year.

This is a great movie, don’t miss it.

Wonders of the Sea in 3D starts next week, Serenity and Cold War 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.

Deep. Films reviewed: Destroyer, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening, Ratcatcher

Posted in 1970s, 1990s, African-Americans, Coming of Age, Crime, documentary, Kids, L.A., Scotland, Thriller, Uncategorized, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 18, 2019

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

Tired of fantasy? How about some gritty realism? This week I’m looking at three deep, realistic movies — a documentary, a drama and a thriller — about working class characters living their lives. There are African Americans in the deep south, an LA detective in deep cover, and a young man in Glasgow knee-deep in trash.

Destroyer

Dir: Karyn Kusama

Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) used to be a young, pretty and ambitious uniformed cop in LA. Pulled from her division for an undercover operation, she was meant to infiltrate a notorious and deadly ring of bank robbers. She posed as a couple with Chris (Sebastian Stan) another cop which led to a relationship. And she made friends with the robbery team, including the sinister Silas (Toby Kebell) a long-haired man with a cruel streak a mile wide; and the friendly Petra (Tatiana Maslany).

But things didn’t go as planned. People died, and the thieves got away with bags of loot. Look at her now. She’s a burnt-out husk of her former self. Bell doesn’t walk, she staggers. Her lips are wrinkled, her hair looks like it was cut with garden shears and she talks like Jeff Bridges on a bad day. But when she finds evidence the robbers are at it again, she takes the law into her own hands. Will she stop the killers? Or will they destroy her first?

Destroyer is a fantastic crime thriller about an angry worn out cop on her quest for retribution. It keeps you glued to the screen, heart racing, as you try to figure out what’s going on. It’s told during three time periods, jumping back and forth between them, and as you watch it you constantly have to change your assumptions. No spoilers but there are some big shocks along the way. It’s very violent, though from a female point of view: men punching women, women strangling women, women attacking men. Not for the faint of heart. Nicole Kidman totally transforms herself – physically and emotionally – from the naive young woman into the hardboiled cop she ends up as.

Destroyer is a great LA crime thriller.

Hale County, This Morning, This Evening

Dir: RaMell Ross

Hale County, Alabama is in the deep, deep south. You can still find white-pillared mansions built on the backs of slave labour on cotton plantations. It’s named after a Confederate officer whose statue still stands. It’s also where the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr once sought refuge from the KKK. It’s a rural, mainly black area where people stay on with their daily lives: sports tournaments, childbirth, funerals. There’s a catfish factory, a school, a hospital and churches.

This fascinating documentary is a series of beautifully composed, very short – from five seconds to three minutes – and highly personal scenes. A woman tapping her thigh with a flyswatter, a man playing blues on an electric guitar. A baby learning to walk, fritters frying in a pan, kids drinking coca cola. We see teenaged boys talking in the basketball locker room, families baptized at a church, people hanging at a beauty salon or a bowling alley. Rolling clouds with electrical storms, the first drops of rain on the pavement, a deer caught in the headlights, and a solar eclipse. The filmmaker RaMell Ross who started photographing there when he moved to the town, records what’s going on all around him in an impressionistic collage of portraits, time lapse, and tableaux: a joyous celebration of African American life in rural Alabama.

This beautiful film is on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature.

Ratcatcher (1999)

Wri/Dir Lynne Ramsay

It’s 1973 in Glasgow, Scotland. James (William Eadie) is a gawky lad with ears that stick out who lives with his working- class family in a crumbling flat.   His father (Tommy Flanagan) has a scar on his cheek from a fight, his mother (Mandy Matthews) has holes in her nylons. The yard outside is piled high with trash – the garbagemen are on strike – so the mice and rats are having a ball. James lives his life carefully, avoiding dangerous gangs of teenaged bullies who dominate the streets.

He sometimes visits a stagnant canal nearby, badly in need of a dredging. There he meets a much older and sexually active teenaged girl. The bullies have thrown her glasses in the water, but James doesn’t fish them out – perhaps he thinks he has a better chance if she can’t see him clearly? She seduces him, inviting him to spend the night. But the canal also brings him horrible feelings of guilt: a friend of his drowned there when they were fighting in the water.

One day, James jumps onto a bus and takes it to the end of the line where a new housing development is being built. It’s on the edge of the city, right where oatfields meet the streets. He explores the empty construction site – will this be his new home?

Ratcatcher is a slice-of-life, coming-of-age drama about life in an urban slum as seen through the eyes of a young man. The characters are mainly played by local residents, non-professional actors who bring a gritty realism to their roles. This is Lynne Ramsay’s first film (from 1999) and one I’ve always wanted to see, but never had a chance until now. You should, too. It’s a realistic and touching movie about hard times… but with an uplifting finish.

Destroyer is now playing in Toronto, Hale County, This Morning, This Evening opens tomorrow, and Rat Catcher plays next Thursday as part of the 1999 Millenial Movies program playing this month (until Feb 12) 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.

Need help. Films reviewed: Capernaum, The Upside

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

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

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

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

Capernaum

Wri/Dir: Nadine Labaki

Beirut, right now.

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

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

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

I liked this film a lot.

The Upside

Dir: Neil Burger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Movies of 2018!

Posted in Cultural Mining, Movies by CulturalMining.com on January 4, 2019

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

2018: It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

I take it back – it was just the worst of times.

War, famine, with no action on Climate Change. volcanoes erupting, tsunamis, mass killings, ethnic cleansing, child refugees thrown into prisons, and incompetent but vengeful buffoons ruling more than one country. Good, safe Toronto (like many cites) suffered two mass killings by deranged nutbars, and somehow Ontario elected the brother of a man who made this city the laughing stock of the world. Yeah, it was the worst of times.

But at least a lot of people are still making great, original movies. (I’m a movie critic, not a newscaster.) This week I’m talking about the best movies of 2018. Some were made earlier but played this year, some screened at festivals and are opening in 2019, but all of them were open to the public at a movie theatre in this city at some point in 2018. There were way, way too many excellent movies to fit on any short list, so I’ve tried to find not just ones I liked, but also movies that somehow, shocked, surprised or delighted me in unexpected ways. Films that tickled the eye, pleased the ear, warmed the soul… or chilled the heart.

I’m intentionally shying away from Oscar Bait, superhero movies and sequels. And just to keep it within limits, I’m not including animated films or documentaries… but not because I don’t love them. (I do.)

There are also a bunch of movies I just haven’t seen yet, so of course I can’t include them.

So here, in no particular order, are my choices for best movies of 2018.

Let me start with some first movies or first in a long time movies, all from the US.

Hereditary is Ari Aster’s first film, and it goes so far beyond the usual cheap scare scenes I hesitate to call it a horror movie, but it is. It’s about a family – Mom’s an artist who builds doll houses exactly the one they live in; son’s a pothead, and daughter is a bit tetched in the head – who somehow conjure up an evil entity. I wish all horror movies were this well-made.

Leave No Trace is Debra Granik’s latest since the Winters Bone ten years ago. This is a subtlety moving film about a man raising his daughter in a nomadic life in the woods with minimal human contact… until they’re discovered by the authorities and forced to join civilization.

Sorry to Bother You is Boots Riley’s first film. It’s about an everyman in Oakland working as a telemarketer who discovers a secret about the company. It’s a combination political satire, science fiction, comedy drama. Not flawless, but brimming with brilliant new ideas and adventures in an old genre.

With honourable mentions to:

Jeremiah Zagar’s We The Animals

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs (a cartoon, so doesn’t qualify on my main list)

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman

Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Robert Redford’s The Old Man and the Gun

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed

Here are four fantastic movies playing right now.

Border directed by Iranian filmmaker Ali Abbasi is a Swedish movie about an unusual looking border guard who discovers she may not be completely human.

The Favourite is Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s latest and most accessible movie, a historical dark comedy about two female rivals fighting for Queen Anne’s attention.

Burning is Korean director Lee Chang-Dong’s mystery drama based on Haruki Murakami’s story about an intense young writer, the holly golightly woman he is obsessed with, and a slick rich guy who may have sinister motives.

Shoplifters is Japanese director Kore-eda Hirokazu’s family drama about a makeshift but loving family of petty criminals disrupted by government intervention.

And here are three more films coming in the first few months of 2019.

Cold War is Pawel Pawlikowski’s flawless romance about two musicians in postwar Poland, separated by the Iron Curtain.

Birds of Passage is an epic saga about how an indigenous family in Colombia is affected by the marijuana trade in the 60s and 70s.

The Good Girls is Alejandra Marquez Abella’s scathing look at the uppper class in Mexico City in the 1980s. Of course I loved Cuaron’s Roma, a visually beautiful film, but in my mind The Good Girls gets deeper and closer to the characters.

There are many more I really wanted to include, including Roma:

Lázsló Nemes’s Sunset (Napszállta)

Lucretia Martel’s Zama

Mouly Surya’s Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts

Gaspar Noe Climax

Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers

Luis Ortega’s El Angel

Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built

…but I decided to stop at 10 this year.

Once again, my favourite films of 2018:

The Good Girls

Birds of Passage

Cold War

Sorry to Bother You

Leave No Trace

Hereditary

Border

The Favourite

Burning

Shoplifters

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

Nannies. Films reviewed: Mary Poppins Returns, Roma

Posted in 1930s, 1970s, Family, Kids, Mexico, Musical, Protest, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 28, 2018

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

It’s holiday season, between Christmas and New Year, a good time to catch up on all those movies you’ve been meaning to see. This week I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a period drama, about nannies. There’s an ageless nanny in London with a magical touch, and a young nanny in Mexico City with a touch of sadness.

Mary Poppins Returns

Dir: Rob Marshall

It’s the 1930s in London, the time of The Great Slump. Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a recently widowed father of three adorable kids – Anabel, John, and Georgie. They’ve lived in the house for generations, right beside an eccentric Admiral who fires cannons off his roof. Michael wants to be an artist, but works as a bank clerk to make ends meet. The kids struggle to act like grown-ups now that their mother is gone. And his sister Jane is doing her part as a social activist and union organizer. But an unexpected visit by two lawyers from the bank he works for throws the family into disarray. Turns out Michael defaulted on a loan and has until midnight Friday to pay it back or the entire family will be evicted from their own home.

What to do? Who can they turn to for help? Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), of course!

Michael and Jane have almost forgotten that she saved the two of them when they were kids, and here she is back again, aged not a day. There is something magical about her, but only if you allow the impossible to happen.  The kids are much too mature to fall for her tricks… or are they? Soon they’re swimming in the ocean via their bathtub, and travelling to a music hall in an animated world inside a chipped bowl. They visit Topsy (Meryl Streep) a flibbertigibbetty repair woman who lives upside down, to fix the bowl.  They race through London piled up on a bicycle driven by Jack (Lin Manuel Miranda) who lights the city’s gas lamps. And they buy magic balloons from an old woman (Angela Landsbury) in the park. But can magic save their home before the bank’s evil Mr Wilkins (Colin Firth) takes it all away?

Mary Poppins Returns is exactly what the title promises: a continuation of the original story, one generation later. Jack was the chimney sweep’s son in the original, now he’s a lamplighter who narrates the story in song and dance. Michael and Jane are grownup versions of the original kids. The costumes – in bright yellows and fuscias with white boater hats – are pure Disney.The music, songs and dances, even the combination of flat cel animation with real people is just like it used to be. The score, the art direction, everything was a spot- on recreation of the original. The only differences are this Mary Poppins is decidedly sexier than the original, (Emily Blunt is amazing) and the cast isn’t lily white anymore. Lin Manuel Miranda is nicely endearing as Jack, though never having seen the hit broadway musical Hamilton I didn’t quite get the camera’s adulation of him.

I didn’t grow up with Mary Poppins, so I hold no deep sentimental attachment, but even so it scored high on my nostalgia meter, tugged at my heartstrings and made me feel warm inside. This is a wonderful G-rated musical and a genuine kids’ movie that also appeals to grown ups, a rarity these days.

Roma

Wri/Dir: Alfonso Cuaron

It’s 1970 in Mexico City. Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) lives in a beautiful house with a grand staircase, and walls lined with bookshelves. There’s a narrow tiled passageway that serves as a garage, where a big dog runs around. And four cute kids — Toño, Paco, Pepe and Sofi — who happily play spaceman games. Cleo lives there but it’s not her house. The kids pet their dog while Cleo shovels the poop. She’s the nanny and also the maid, the one who gets blamed when there’s trouble. And there’s lots of trouble these days, with Señora Sofía (Marina de Tavira) the mom, trying to run the house with Papa on a long business trip to Quebec. She has help from the grandmother, Señora Teresa, but it’s a world without men, at least until Papa comes back.

Cleo is from a village and not yet used to city life. She spends her free time with the cook and her boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero). Fermin is a Kendo fanatic – martial arts saved my life, he says – prone to bouts of kicking and punching the air in the nude following sex. But when Cleo tells him she’s pregnant with his child, he disappears without a trace. What will happen to her baby? Who will take care of the kids? And will the family’s father ever come home?

Roma is a slice-of-life look at Mexico City in the tumultuous early 70s. It follows Cleo, a poor indigenous girl who speaks Spanish as a second language, and Sofía’s upper middle class family, as they try to understand one another, even while they both face family crises. It’s a slow-moving drama with normal, mundane family problems alternating with episodes of violence, terror and natural disaster. Cleo is viewing gurgling babies in the maternity ward just as an earthquake hits. She travels with the family to a hacienda where family dog heads are mounted on a wall like hunting trophies and forest fires break out. A simple trip to a downtown furniture store coincides with a government attack on student protesters.

Watching Roma is an immersive experience, filled with sound and unexplained images appearing on the screen. It’s shot in exquisite black and white – Cuaron is the cinematographer, as well as writer and director. Long, low shots almost always from far away: looking longingly down long corridors, at figures in a field before a spacious mountain range, or watching Cleo and Fermin from behind as they watch a movie on a screen even further away.

This is a lovely rich movie but one that intentionally keeps the audience from getting too close to any of the characters. We’re observers, but the action is far away, through a window or behind a closed door. No close ups, reaction shots, or gushing movie score, even with Cleo. But the cumulative effect – the sounds, music, images characters and historical events based on Cuaron’s own childhood – gives it a powerful impact.

See it in a movie theatre while you still can.

Mary Poppins Returns is now playing in Toronto; check your local listings. And you can see Roma on Netflix or at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

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

Kinship. Films reviewed: Vox Lux, Shoplifters

Posted in Coming of Age, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Japan, Movies, Music, Terrorism, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 21, 2018

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

The holiday season is a time when families get back together, for good or for ill. So this week I’m looking at two movies about family and kinship. There’s a pair of sisters turned pop musicians, where one holds the scars of a terrible incident; and a makeshift family that rescues a small girl with scars.

Vox Lux

Wri/Dir: Brady Corbet

Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) is a god-fearing high school student in Staten Island, New York. She likes music, church and her big sister Eleanor (Stacey Martin) who always looks out for her. But her world turns upside down when a non-conformist kid pulls out a gun in music class, and starts shooting people down. Celeste tries to reason with him; she ends up wounded but not dead. She recovers with a scar on her neck. At the memorial for the mass shooting she performs a song which soon goes viral.

She and her sister are quickly signed to a major label by their manager (Jude Law) and whisked off to Sweden. There they experience the heady brew of extreme wealth, celebrity and number-one hits. But it also exposes them to the cruel scrutiny of tabloids and paparazzi that accompany celebrity.

Still a teenager, she loses her virginity to another musician, tries drugs and alcohol for the first time, and begins a gradual downward spiral toward addiction and paranoia. But she also establishes herself as an international icon, with her sparkling makeup, severe haircuts, and sequined outfits mimicked by devoted fans. She always wears a band around her neck both to hide and commemorate the scars of the shooting.

Years later Celeste (now played by Natalie Portman) plans for a comeback, culminating in a stadium concert back in the hometown she left after the shooting. Now she’s brittle and bitter, addicted to drugs, and full of anger and pain. And she has a daughter (played by Cassidy, the young Celeste) brought up by the more responsible sister Eleanor. As she works toward the ultimate concert, a disturbing incident hits the headlines. Halfway around the world, fans wearing her distinctive makeup and clothing commit a random act of terrorism. Is she to blame? Will her career crash and burn? And if she performs her stadium show in her home town, will this lead to yet another massacre?

My brief description of the film suggests a music biopic crossed with an action movie. It’s neither. It’s actually a visual and audio collage of the impressions of a teenaged girl in the high pressure world of pop music, and the adult who emerges from it. Vox Lux is a short film, and at least a third of it is taken up by music performed on a stage before an actual audience. The music is by SIA and actually sung by Natalie Portman. The plot is mainly a background for the director’s experiments with sound and image filtered through the cruel world of social networks. Recurring shots of endless tunnels and aerial views of cities give it a hypnotic effect, and the music gives it a haunting feel. Though the movie feels incomplete, I liked the look and sound of it.

Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku)

Wri/Dir: Kore-eda Hirokazu

It’s present day Tokyo. Shota (Jyo Kairi) is a young boy living in an urban paradise. He’s smart, resourceful and brave. He studies at home – where he learns not just reading and writing, but also essential survival skills and the ways of the world. He lives with his grandma, his mom and dad and his big sister Aki, a family brimming with love. They are always there to rescue him from trouble and help him through bad times. They share responsibilities and eat dinner together. No one tells Shota to clean his room or wash the dishes. This is a life rich in traditions, superstitions, and family lore. And there’s lots of time to tell stories, go to the beach, or go fishing.

Or

Shota lives in a filthy, ramshackle house, a Dickensian den of petty criminals, thieves and con artists. This so-called family of vaguely-related misfits shoplifts their dinners and daily needs to stay alive. Dad (Lily Franky) works as a casual labourer, Grandma (Kiki Kirin) receives payments from an unknown source, teenaged Aki (Matsuoka Mayu) performs behind glass at a peepshow arcade, and mom, sometimes called auntie or Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) makes do with a parttime job pressing garments in a small factory. Even young Shota helps them all by pocketing food and shampoo while dad distracts the clerks.

But homelife takes a subtle shift with the newest family member.

Yuri (Miyu Sasaki) is a little waif, horribly abused and neglected by her young parents… they always see her staring whistfully through her balcony bars, like a prisoner hoping to be rescued. They adopt her into their family, after discovering scars and burn marks all over her arms.

She immediately adapts to her new life, especially the love, attention and lack of fear she never experiences at home. They ask her if she wants to go home, but she adamently refuses… she likes it better here. But when her case becomes known as a kidnapping, it spells trouble. Can the family survive this a brush with authority? Or will it all come tumbling down? And would government intervention make their lives better or worse?

Perhaps I’m biased: I’ve interviewed Kore-eda four times, more than any other director, because I love all his films. But in my opinion Shoplifters is a fantastic movie, definitely one of the year’s best. It deals with poverty, nonconformity and precarious lives coexisting within one of the richest cities in the world. It explores what a family really is: is it something designated by law, or could it be a family by choice, where the members designate their own names and roles.

Hirokazu Kore-eda, TIFF17, photo by Jeff Harris

It stars many of his past actors – Lili Franky, and the late Kiki Kirin – and replays some themes from his early films. Our Little Sister was about whether a half-sister can be accepted into a complete family. Like Father, Like Son, where a family discovers their son was switched at birth, explores whether it’s nature or nurture that makes kinship real (Lili Franky plays the “bad dad” in that film.) After the Storm is about a delinquent dad trying to rebuild his family (also co-starring Lili Franky and Kiki Kirin). The Third Murder, a courtroom drama, deals with an accused murderer and his role as a surrogate parent to a high school girl. And in Nobody Knows, there’s a family made up of abandoned kids living in a highrise in central Tokyo.

Shoplifters (or Shoplifter Family, the more accurate Japanese title) is a culmination of all these films, a distillation of all their best elements.

It’s also exquisitely laden with relics of an older Japan – filled with glass bottles, printed cotton, paper calenders, snow men and fishing trips – that impart a soft, glowing light to all the scenes.

Detailed and nuanced, I strongly recommend Shoplifters to all.

Vox Lux and Shoplifters both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

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