Changing Minds. Films reviewed: iHuman, How Holocaust Came to TV, Made in Bangladesh

Posted in Bangladesh, Germany, Norway, Unions, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 5, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three films – from Norway, Germany and Bangladesh – all directed by women and currently playing at Toronto film festivals: Human Rights Watch, TJFF and Hot Docs. There’s a union organizer trying to change a Dhaka factory, a TV show that completely changed Germany, and how AI is changing the entire world.

iHuman

Dir: Tonje Hessen Schei 

You might not think about Artificial Intelligence much but it’s there in almost everything you do, from smart phones to social networking, to purchasing something online. We think of it as a passive device, something that makes things easier to use, a helpful program that nudges you in the right direction (You like this song? Listen to this one.) But we’re less aware of the massive amount of data AI collects about you and what they use it for. Search engines like google knows what you look at, buy, or ask about online. The location indicator in your cellphone uses GPS to know where you are at all times. Drone footage can see you, while facial and voice recognition figures who you are. Social networks like facebook can determine your politics, your sexual orientation, your income and your debt. But what algorythms do with this data is less obvious. They might bombard you with opinions they know will get you indignant, angry or agitated. Political parties can influence who you give money to and who you vote for, or to discouraging you from voting at all. The smarter AI gets, the more it can influence what you do.

This documentary, beautifully illustrated with panoramic overhead drone shots, looks at how governments, corporations and police use AI. Talking heads – investigative journalists and tech experts – explain how AI works and where it’s going. Like bizarre theories straight out of science fiction novels – can observing the facial expression of babies really determine which ones will commit crimes as adults? And should the police be allowed to spy on babies at all? Some people think so.

It also looks at politics – how companies like Cambridge Analytica already influence elections. For me, though, the most surprising scene is a clip of Barack Obama talking about the danger of deep fakes. Then the screen splits and pulls back and you see it’s not Obama at all, it’s someone else, whose voice and image exactly duplicates Obama’s. That’s what a deep fake actually is. iHuman is a disturbing but informative documentary about how AI is changing your life… and influencing your mind.

How Holocaust Came to TV (Wie Holocaust Ins Fernsehen kam)

Dir: Alice Agneskirchner

How can a four-episode TV mini-series transform the loutlook of an entire country and impact future generations? That’s what a new documentary is asking. In 1978 a TV series premiered on US TV called Holocaust. It was a drama about an assimilated, middle-class Jewish-German family during the Nazi era. Three generations of the Weiss family live in Berlin as they passively observe the shocking changes happening in their beloved land, the home of Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven. And over the course of four episodes the sympathetic main characters are systematically attacked, raped, and killed. Though popular among US viewers, many critics said it was too Hollywood, too much like a soap opera that trivializes such a grave and somber topic.

In any case, it did not change America. The country it did change was Germany. It was hugely controversial, generating massive amounts of mail even before it was aired. And when it was broadcast, in German, across the Bundesrepublic, it landed like a juggernaut in the heart of the entire nation. It wasn’t the first show about Germany’s dark past, but somehow it took an American drama to pull the wool from the eyes of a generation. Young people in the 1970s, born after the war, were stunned at what their own parents – their own country – had done. The whole country was glued to the TV each night, both for the show and the hours-long round table discussions that followed it. And the response it generated dominated magazines, newspapers, the movie industry, education and political life.

This was in the 70s, but its impact continued to this day, changing the national psyche. The documentary revisists the making of the show, talking to its producers, crew, and actors like Tovah Feldshuh, Michael Moriarty and Rosemary Harris. More than that, it talks with dozens of ordinary Germans whose lives were changed.

How Holocaust Came to TV while occasionally nostalgic, is always a deeply moving, incisive, and meticulously-made documentary.

Made in Bangladesh

Dir: Rubaiyat Hossain

Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu) is a 23-year-old woman in Dhaka. She’s hardworking but outspoken. She works in a clothing sweatshop alongside her best friends Daliya and Reshma (Novera Rahman and Deepanwita Martin), pushing the sewing machine pedals with their bare feet. The workers in the factory are all women, the managers all men. The T-shirts they make each day are sent abroad, bringing in huge profits to places like H&M, Walmart and Zara. But their own wages are so low, they can barely pay rent. Three T-shirts sell in Canada for what they get paid for an entire month in Bangladesh. And the company fires employees they don’t like, docks their wages, and makes them work long hours without paying overtime. But when a fire alarm goes off and the women flee for their lives they realize something’s gotta change. Shimu says it’s time to form a union. But can a poor woman convince skeptical workers, stand up to cruel bosses, and oppose corrupt officials? Or os it all in vain?

Made in Bangladesh is a fantastic drama about a young woman standing up for her rights as she tries to unionize. Shimu’s character is great – a smart, spunky self-taught woman – like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovitch – who learns her rights and won’t give up. The film is strikingly beautiful – a typical scene in the factory has everyone working on the same colour clothes at the same time, huge spools of bright green thread spinning as they sew piles of identical dresses. Shimu’s character might watch Bollywood, but this film is done in the European style, realistic but moving and inspirational. It’s about the perilous work of forming a union, but also about her home life – her husband, her friends, her neighbourhood.

I like this movie a lot.

iHuman is now streaming at Hotdocs; How “Holocaust” Came to TV is online now at TJFF, and Made in Bangladesh is opening across Canada including digitally at Human Rights Watch 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.

Decline and Fall. Films reviewed: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, The Strain, The Humorist

Posted in Action, Communism, Cooking, Disaster, Disease, documentary, Food, France, Horror, New York City, Russia, TV, USSR, Vampires by CulturalMining.com on May 29, 2020

Unedited, no music

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

It’s Spring Film Festival Season in Toronto, without cinemas but with exciting new movies still being shown online. I’m recording at home via CIUT, from my house to yours, so I apologize for the sound quality. This week I’m looking at three films, one each from TJFF and Hot Docs, as well as a TV series. There’s decadence in Versailles, pandemic and mayhem in New York, and decline in 80s Moscow.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

Dir: Laura Gabbert

Yotam Ottolenghi is a London-based chef, restauranteur and cookbook author. A few years ago he receives an unusual offer from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”): to pull together an event recreating the desserts of the Palace of Versailles, from Louis XIV till Louis XVI. He contacts five chefs from around the world to fly in and show their stuff. But these are no ordinary chefs; they each have an unusual style all their own. Dinara Kasko, a young woman from Ukraine, assembles architecturally-inspired cakes with gravity-defying minimalist structures on the outside, and fantastic layers on the inside. Dominique Ansel – inventor of the Cronut – features new takes on classic French patisseries at his Manhattan restaurant. Sam Bompas of London’s Bompas and Parr, injects life into that much-neglected cooking form: jellies and moulds. Ghaya Oliveira is a multi-talented Tunisian chef who evokes her grandmother’s ideas while creating French pastries; and Janice Wong, a Cordon Bleu-trained Singaporean culinary artist who paints and sculpts using chocolates.

This wonderful documentary shows the chefs at work behind the scenes at The Met, recreating the splendour, decadence and opulence of Louis XIV’s Versailles. The unique works they create especially for the show are really amazing, suggesting the architecture, the formal gardens, and the open-court style of that palace, where ordinary people, if elegantly dressed, were allowed to enter the palace grounds, a space traditionally fenced off from the public. The film also provides much needed historical context: Starving Parisians stormed the palace in 1789, while the documentary is set in an ostentatious Manhattan not too long before the pandemic lockdown. Parallels anyone?

The Strain (Season 1)

Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Dr Goodweather (Corey Stoll) is a NY epidemiologist who works for the CDC. He’s separated from his wife and son because he’s always on call for emergencies. He works alongside Nora (Mia Maestro) an Argentinian-born doctor. They are called into action when a 747 lands at JFK. Everyone on board – including the pilots – are dead. Is it a terrorist hijacking? No, it’s a highly contagious virus. Called to action, the doctors attempt to stop its spread before it infects everyone in the city. But they are thwarted by corrupt officials who allow an intricately-carved wooden box (a coffin?) out of the protected area. And it turns out that the infected passengers are really dead, just temporarily comatose. They’re actually still alive, or perhaps undead. Once infected, people change into zombie-like vampires under the thrall of an unseen master.

What’s unusual about this virus is how it spreads. A red, phallic piece of flesh, like a blind moray eel, shoots out from the infected person’s neck and sucks their victim’s blood. The disease carriers cluster in colonies underground and only come out at night. Manhattan quickly collapses into chaos with widespread crime, looting and mayhem due to the pandemic. But still no quarantine to stop its spread. Luckily, a Scooby Gang of mismatched players form a team. There’s Mr Setrakian (David Bradley) an old man with secrets fro the past who carries a silver sword; Vassily (Kevin Durand) is a public rat catcher who knows his way through all of Manhattan’s dark tunnels; Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas) a champion hacker who disables the internet. They face a cabal of powerful men who want the infection to continue for their own nefarious purposes. But can the doctors and their allies stop the infection? Or is it too late?

The Strain is a great action/horror/thriller TV series about an uncontrolled pandemic, corrupt billionaires amd politicians, and the frontline medical workers trying to stop them. It has mystery, romance, sex, and violence with a good story arc, gradually revealed. It’s uncannily appropriate now, and for Toronto residents it’s fun to spot the localations – it was shot here. So if you’re looking for a good pandemic drama, and don’t know where to find it, look for The Strain.

The Humorist

Wri/Dir: Mikhail Idov

It’s 1984 in the Soviet Union. The Soyuz T-12 is in the sky, Chernenko heads a geriatric government, and Ronald Reagan casually talks about dropping atomic bombs on Russia. Boris Arkadiev (Aleksey Agranovich) is a successful comedian who has it all, adored by fans and government officials alike. He travels across the nation with a stand-up monologue called The Mellow Season, a tame routine about a trained monkey. Born in Byelorussia, he now lives in a nice Moscow apartment with his lawyer wife Elvira, and his two kids, his adoring six-year-old Polina and his rebellious teenage son Ilya. In public, he’s a national icon. But behind the scenes he’s an arrogant alcoholic, a prolific womanizer, and an all-around prick. Aside from himself, he worships the two Russian idols: vodka and the space program. He left religion behind but is conscious of anti-Jewish murmurs wherever he goes. And he’s a total sell-out. Once a serious but unsuccessful novelist, he went on to be a TV writer with his friend and rival Simon. Boris gave in to the official censors, while the less-successful Simon resisted. Now Boris is like the trained monkey in his monologue, performing on cue whenever ordered to do so.

But a series of events change his outlook. An unexpected encounter with a cosmonaut makes him rethink destiny, God and existence. And when he learns about the audacious black comics working in LA from his actor pal Maxim (Yuri Kolokolnikov) he realizes how dull and tired his own comedy has become. Will he stay a depressed, trained monkey for his corrupt masters in the army and KGB? Or will he risk his job, family and reputation by speaking from the heart?

The Humorist is an excellent dark comedy, set in the last days of the Soviet Union. Agranovich is great as a troubled, over-the-hill comic, like a Soviet Phillip Roth anti-hero. It’s brilliantly constructed starting with a garden party in Latvia, but degenerating into a soiree at a high-ranked party-member’s villa. It’s peak-decadence, where sagging old generals in formal wear dine with American porn playing elegantly on a TV in the background (they think it’s high society). The men later retreat to a banya wearing Roman togas, in a scene straight out of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The Humourist has an absurdist, almost surreal tone, where a midnight knock on the door could mean interrogation or the exact opposite. It’s filled with disturbing scenes of long underground corridors and empty Aeroflot planes. It kept me gripped — and squirming — until the end.

Great movie.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is now streaming at Hotdocs; The Humourist is playing online at TJFF, and you can find The Strain streaming, VOD, or on DVD.

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 director Sameh Zoabi about Tel Aviv on Fire

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Israel, Movies, Mystery, Palestine, Satire, Secrets, TV, War by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2019

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

Salem is an ordinary Palestinian from Jerusalem who is down on his luck. No job, no money, no girlfriend. So he jumps at the chance to work on a popular TV soap shooting in Ramallah. It’s about a beautiful Palestinian spy seducing an Israeli officer in the days leading up to the 1967 war.

The problem is Salem has to pass through Israeli checkpoints between Jerusalem and Ramallah each day to get to work and back. And after a mixup with an Israeli guard at the checkpoint, the officer starts using his position to pressure Salem to change the soap opera’s plot. Will the TV series end with a happy wedding… or with Tel Aviv on fire?

Tel Aviv on Fire is a new comedy about relations between Israelis and Palestinians under occupation. It’s directed and co-written by Sameh Zoabi, the award-winning Palestinian filmmaker. Tel Aviv on Fire played at Venice and TIFF and many other festivals.

I spoke with Sameh in May, 2019 in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Tel Aviv on Fire opens today in Toronto.

Surprising twists at TJFF. Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground, A Fortunate Man, The Golem

Posted in 1600s, 1800s, 1910s, Art, Denmark, documentary, Experimental Film, Horror, Judaism, Supernatural by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2019

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

Spring Film Festival Season continues in Toronto. Hot Docs comtinues on through the weekend and TJFF — the Toronto Jewish Film fest — opened last night. This week I’m looking at three new movies with surprising twists, all playing at the TJFF. There’s a Golem (who’s not from the Hobbit), a historical romantic drama (that’s not based on an English novel), and a doc on an experimental filmmaker (that’s not about a man).

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground

Dir: Chuck Smith

It’s the 1960s. Barbara Rubin is an outspoken teenager in Queens, NY. So outspoken, her parents lock her up in a mental hospital… which serves as her crash course in how to use drugs. She emerges as a savvy artist and drug expert and dives straight into the world of underground cinema, just heating up in New York. She studies under the wing of Lithuanian-American filmmaker Jonas Mekas. One of her first films creates a sensation. Shot against her own apartment’s white walls and floor, “Christmas on Earth” features naked men and women whose entire bodies are covered in either black or white paint, with their breasts and genitals painted the opposite colour. (Basically they writhe on the floor in a continual orgy.) But the two reels of film are projected simultaneously on the same screen – something never done before. She releases this film when she is still 18 years old.

Barbara and Jonas fly to Belgium for an experimental film competition, and cause an international scandal when she occupies the projection booth to show a banned movie — Flaming Creatures by Jack Smith. Later she falls in with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky, pop artist and experimental fimmaker Andy Warhol, the already legendary Bob Dylan, and the seminal band the Velvet Underground. She’s the one at the centre of these disparate figures who introduces them to one another, leading to some major artistic projects, collaborations  and record albums that never would have been made if it weren’t for her.

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground is a fascinating documentary about an important figure who you’ve probably never heard of. Tragically, she died in her thirties, after adventures that bounced across the Atlantic and back again, spanning England, France and rural New Jersey, delving into sexual experiments, psychedelic expression, lost loves, and Jewish mysticism.

A really good movie.

A Fortunate Man

Dir: Billie August

(Based on the novel Lykke-Per by Henrik Pontoppidan)

It’s the late 1800s in Jutland, Denmark. Per Sidenius (Esben Smed) is a bright young man off to Copenhagen to study engineering. But his strict father, a fundamentalist preacher, withholds his money, to teach his headstrong son a lesson in humility. Broke and hungry, he struggles to survive in a slum, while attending university classes. He already knows what he wants to do: create a complex system of canals in Jutland to bring Denmark into the modern era. But is he too big for his britches?

Luckily he spies a member of the illustrious Salomon family in a café, and pitches his idea to Ivan (Benjamin Kitter). Ivan is intrigued and introduces him to his family, including the erudite and elegant Jakobe (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal), heiress to the family fortune. Educated in Switzerland, Jakobe speaks many languages and looks down on the ambitious but clumsy Per. She is standoffish and rebuffs his attempts at wooing her – she’s engaged to a widower with two daughters. But he wins her over when he runs like a deer hunter beside her horse and carriage. They are engaged to be married.

Meanwhile, the Salomons and their friends express interest in investing in Per’s grand scheme. But first, Per – a young man who never apologizes – must humble himself before an important government figure. And the Salamons are a Jewish family, while Per comes from a long line of fundamentalist Protestant ministers. Are their backgrounds, classes, religions and philosophies too different? Will Per reconcile with his family? Will he learn to be humble? Or is he too brash and immature ever to fit into Copenhagen’s mannered society?

A Fortunate Man is a 2¾ hours long saga of the lives of Per Lykke – Lucky Per – and Jakobe Salomons, but I was never bored. If you devour these long historical dramas, but are getting tired of the same old, same-old british Victorians, this one introduces totally new worlds and characters. It feels like a Thomas Mann saga. I’ve seen the movie, now I think want to watch the whole miniseries. Great acting, beautiful period costumes and sets, and a compelling unpredictable drama

The Golem

Dir: The Paz Brothers

It’s 1673 in an impoverished, isolated Jewish shtetl village in eastern europe. Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) is a young woman with pale skin, green eyes and bright red hair. She and her husband Benjamin lost a son, but are still in love. He studies religion all day — which is only open to men — while Hanna eavesdrops on lessons through cracks in the floorboards. She studies the Kaballah, a mystical text on numerology, in secret, on her own. But all is not well. One day she spies outsiders in the woods burning corpses. They are dressed in bizarre, birdlike masks and leather capes  It’s the plague! It hasn’t reached their village yet, but these outsiders are blaming them for its spread. The outsiders are led by Vladimir (Aleksey Tritenko) whose daughter is dying. He rides into town on horseback with a threat: Unless their village healer can save his daughter, he’ll burn down the village and kill them all.

Hanna decides it’s time to act. Using her knowledge of Kaballah, the 72 sacred names, some red string and a mound of fresh dirt, she creates a golem, the mythical Prague monster. The golem comes to life, but with a difference. Not a huge beast, this golem is just a little boy. But one that is fast, strong, and vengeful. He feels whatever Hanna feels, and kills whoever he thinks she doesn’t like. And when the golem is hurt she feels his pain. Can the golem save the village from destruction and death? Or will he end up killing them all?

The Golem is a new twist on the classic horror movie: It’s Fiddler on the Roof  but with a Stephen King killer-kid with special powers, An interesting combination I’ve never seen before. Is it scary? A little. There’s lots of blood, without too much gore. Hanni Furstenberg is great as Hanna, as is Konstantin Anikienk as the boy golem.

For a new take on horror, you should check out The Golem.

The Golem, Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground, and A Fortunate Man are all playing now at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

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

Three Historical Dramas. Films reviewed: Budapest Noir, An Act of Defiance, Bye Bye Germany

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1960s, Apartheid, Drama, Germany, Hungary, Movies, Nazi, South Africa by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2018

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

Spring Film Festival Season continues in Toronto, with Hotdocs rounding up its fnal weekend. Remember, daytime tickets to these amazing documentaries are free for all students and seniors.

And starting up now is Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival, featuring comedies, dramas, TV and documentaries from around the world. This week I’m looking at three historical dramas now playing at TJFF. There’s a mystery/thriller set in Budapest in the 30s, a comedy/drama in Frankfurt in the 40s, and a courtroom drama in Pretoria in the 60s.

Budapest Noir

Dir: Éva Gárdos

It’s 1936, and everyone in Budapest is preparing for the state funeral of Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös. Everyone but cynical reporter Szigmond Gordon (Krisztián Kolovratnik). Crime’s his beat, not politics and cigarettes and bourbon are his life’s blood. And his only distraction is a beautiful woman. So he’s pleasantly surprised when he meets a mysterious woman in a downtown cafe. But today’s potential love interest is tomorrow’s news story when he finds her body in a pool of blood.

He calls on his ex-girlfriend Kristina, a photographer (Réka Tenki) to take pics of the crimes scene. (She’s back in Budapest after smuggling shocking photos out of Germany.) But when he tries to investigate the murder, he faces roadblocks at every turn, with no one but Kristina to help him. The chief of police, the politicians, and even members of the underworld seem to be blocking him from finding the truth. And for some reason her body has disappeared from the morgue.

His search leads him to pornographers, fascist gangs, a coffee importer, a secret communist meeting, a madame at a brothel, and a punch-drunk boxer, all in an attempt to solve the mystery. Will he find what he seeks? Or is he digging too deep, uncovering things journalists aren’t supposed to see?

Budapest Noir is a look at the underbelly of a huge city in turmoil in turbulent times. It’s presented in a film noir style, narrated by a Bogart-type character complete with trenchcoat and hat, and borrows images from dozens of famous movies. Occasionally it veers from pastiche into parody with all its hollywood memes, but generally it’s a solid and well-acted homage, full of surprises.

An Act of Defiance

Dir: Jean Van De Velde

It’s 1963 in South Africa. The police raid a secret meeting in a farm house in Rivonia, arresting everyone there. The meeting was by the heads of umKhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the African National Congress. Charged with sabotage, the accused face death by hanging, and it looks like they’re heading that way. Until a respected white Afrikaner lawyer, Bram Fischer (Peter Paul Muller), agrees to head the defence team. The defendants include Walter Sisulu, Harold Wolpe and none other than Nelson Mandela himself.

But the prosecutors are working hand-in-hand with the police, the government and the secret service. They tap phones, record private lawyer-client conversations, and send spies out at night to take pictures through windows. Turns out Fischer is not just a random defence lawyer helping out; he has deep ties to the anti-apartheid movement. As the trial progresses, he and his family become the targets of underhanded campaigns. Can he convince a conservative judge to save the defendents’ lives? Or will they, and he, end up in the gallows?

This is a fascinating and intense courtroom drama, about a period of South African history largely unknown outside of that country. It includes Mandela’s famous “I’m prepared to die” speech given during the trial, but he and the other defendents are minor characters. It’s mainly about Fischer and his family, including his wife Mollie (beautifully played by Antoinette Louw) and the fight against apartheid. It also includes some thrilling moments about the family avoiding an evil police force.

This is another good film to catch.

Bye Bye Germany (Es war einmal in Deutschland)

Dir: Sam Garbarski (Based on the novels of Michel Bergmann)

It’s occupied Frankfurt just after WWII. A quarter of a million holocaust survivors are living in DP (displaced persons) camps in central Europe, run by allied forces. They’re waiting to emigrate to America or Palestine. But in the meantime they have to support themselves. Enter David Bermann (Moritz Bleibtreu) a sweet-talking teller of tales with a pencil thin mustache and a mysterious past. He says his family has been in dry goods for generations. So he recruits a ragtag bunch of salesmen to help peddle his linens. But they wonder why he keeps disappearing for hours at a time. Where does he go?

He’s being interrogated by the stern but beautiful Special Agent Sara Simon (Antje Traue) a German-speaking G.I. assigned to weed out war criminals and collaborators from among the refugees. Why was Bermann given special treatment by the SS? His answer? He told funny jokes. Will Sara believe his outlandish stories? Will his business venture pan out? And will he and his friends make enough money to say Auf Wiedersehen to Deutschland?

Bye Bye Germany is a very entertaining, but bittersweet, memoir of life as a jew in postwar Frankfurt. Antje Traue is the perfect foil for Bleibtreu’s charming but sketchy Bermann. I liked this movie.

You can catch Bye Bye Germany, An Act of Defiance and Budapest Noir at TJFF over the next two weeks. Go to TJFF.com for details.

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

Urban stories. Films reviewed: STEP, Menashe PLUS TIFF17 preview

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Brooklyn, Dance, documentary, Drama, Family, Judaism, Movies, Yiddish by CulturalMining.com on August 12, 2017

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

TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival is still a month away, but already some of the movies are generating buzz, even before anyone’s seen them. Here are some I want to see. Call Me by Your Name looks at a boy in northern Italy who has a crush on an older visiting student. It’s directed by Luca Guadagnino who brought us This is Love. Mary Shelly could be a conventional historical biopic about the author of Frankenstein, but what’s so interesting is this is the second film by Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who brought us the delightiful Wadjda five years ago. The Shape of Water features Sally Hawkins as a mute cleaning woman working in a secret weapons lab, who discovers she can communicate with a Creature from the Black Lagoon kept captive in a glass tank. It was made in Toronto by the great Guillermo del Toro. I’ll have some more buzz about Canadian movies next week.

But this week I’m talking about two American films centred on urban life: a documentary on school life in Baltimore, and a drama about home life in Brooklyn.

STEP

Dir: Amanda Lipitz

BLSYW (or “Bliss”), the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women is a public charter school with a clearly stated goal: that all of its students (mainly African-American girls and young women) will not just graduate each year but will continue on to college or university. And at the core of this school is their Step team. Step is a competitive sport that combines athletics, dance and theatrical performance, driven by music and rhythm. The intense practice and teamwork helps motivate the young women to succeed in their studies and fosters a sense of responsibility.

This documentary follows three of the students — Cori, Tayla and Blessin – as they attempt to achieve their goals. The three use their brains, skills and charisma to succeed. This also means getting their families to cooperate. The cameras follow them home so you meet their families, atoo. And at school it’s Coach G and their guidance counsellor who carry the story on. Together can they break away and rise up from the poverty and oppresssion faced by so many Baltimoreans for so many generations? Or will life, and the normal pressures they face, drag them down?

STEP follows their lives in the newly formed school against the background of the killing of Freddy Gray by local police. It shows how the Black Lives Matter movement — and the political awakening that accompanied it — enters the girls’ lives and even their Step performances.

This is a fascinating and inspiring look specifically at one charter school in Baltimore. It doesn’t deal with controversies over the charter system in general, or how charter schools might affect other schools in the public system. But it does provide a feel-good story that hopefully will motivate youth throughout that country to achieve their goals. Either way, it’s an enjoyable, funny and touching look at the lives of three girls.

Menashe

Dir: Joshua Z Weinstein

Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a single dad who lives in a self-contained Hasidic community in Brooklyn. He’s chubby with an unkempt red beard and rimless glasses. He has a low-paying job at a local grocery store unloading boxes, sweeping the floor and as a cashier. And for fun, he studies religious books, and sings songs with his friends over a cup of schnapps. He’s coping with his economic troubles, but faces an even bigger one: the community disapproves of single parent households. He has lived alone with his young son Rievele (Ruben Niborski) his only source of happiness since his wife died earlier that year. But they’re pressuring him to marry again, and arranging dates. He wants none of that — can’t they just leave him alone? Apparently not. And to force the issue, his brother in law Yitsig has forced his son to move in with his family until Menashe marries again. He did this with the approval of their rabbi, so Menashe is forced to go along with it or his son could be kicked out of school.

His brother in law is everything Menashe is not. He makes good income selling real estate, lives in an expensive brownstone. Itsig has a silken black beard almost two feet long and wears a black coat and fur hat when he goes outside. He treats Menashe disdainfully, calling him demeaning names to his face.

But Menashe is granted reprieve: his son can move back home until the one year anniversary of his wife’s death. Can he prove he’s a fit father by then? Or will his clumsy nature and bad luck alienate his father son relationship and what’s left of his status in the insular ultra-orthodox community?

Menashe is a touching and realistic drama based on actual events in the actor Menashe’s life. Most remarkable of all is the dialogue is entirely in Yiddish, peppered with a few English words, like “plastic bag” and she’s “not my type”. The cast is largely composed of non-actors. A gently-paced movie, it gives a look behind the scenes, from the plastic wash basin kept under his bed, to the large white cap Ruben wears to sleep each night. Menashe is a slice-of-life family drama rarely scene on film.

Step and Menashe 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 filmmaker Ferenc Török about 1945

Posted in 1940s, B&W, Crime, Holocaust, Hungary, Judaism, Secrets, Western, WWII by CulturalMining.com on May 5, 2017

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

It’s a beautiful summer day in a small town, with many exalting in their new prosperity. There’s a wedding planned for the town square, and the pretty young bride is looking forward to her new home. The town clerk is especially proud, since all his hard work is finally paying off. He’s the king of the castle… until everything starts to unravel when two strangers are spotted at the local train station. Two men with beards. The place is rural Hungary, and the year?

It’s 1945.

1945 is the name of a new drama set just after WWII. A short fable, shot in real time about greed, death, treachery, betrayal, and guilt. it played at the Berlin Festival and was the opening feature at Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival, 2017. It’s directed by Ferenc Török. Ferenc is a noted Hungarian writer and film director who is the winner of the Béla Balázs Award for outstanding achievement in filmmaking.

I spoke to Ferenc in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

He talks about WWII, Hungary, history, “Freedom Year”, fascism, communism, discrimination, Jews, Roma, High Noon, Béla Bartók, xenophpbia, Béla Tarr, De Sica, Rossellini, Viktor Orbán, and more…!

1945 opens in Toronto on Aug 24, 2018.

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Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Avi Nesher about Past Life at #TIFF16

Posted in 1970s, Berlin, Biopic, Drama, Feminism, Israel, Music, Mystery, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on January 6, 2017

avi-nesher-tiff16-past-life-1-jeff-harrisHi, this is Daniel Garber at the movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Sephi and Nana Milch are Israeli sisters in the late 1970s. Sephi is the beautiful one – she’s a student of music and wants to become a composer. Nana is the smart one, an intellectual who writes for a pastlife_06radical leftist newspaper. They were both raised by strict parents who survived the Holocaust by hiding in a Polish farmer’s house. But on a musical visit to Berlin, Sephi has a strange encounter: a woman shouting that her father is a murderer. A murderer? Her own father? This sends both sisters on a search across two continents to find out what really happened and to confront their avi-nesher-tiff16-past-life-2-jeff-harrisown hidden past. But can they handle the truth of their parents’ past life?

Past Life is the name of a new movie, based on a bestselling memoir. It was written and directed by Israeli filmmaker Avi Nesher. Nesher is a longtime favourite at TIFF, bringing us heady romances like The pastlife_04Secrets and brilliant period dramas like The Matchmaker (a personal favourite). Nesher is a consumate storyteller. His absorbing films combine intellectual rigour with vivid characters, all placed within stories reminiscent of classic Hollywood movies. This film premiered at the Toronto international film festival. I spoke with Avi Nesher on location at the TIFF Bell Lightbox during TIFF16.

Past Life screens in Toronto at 1:00pm and 4:00pm on Sunday, January 15, 2017. Go to TJFF for details.

Photos of Avi Nesher by Jeff Harris.

 

Sweet Love in Bitter Times. Films Reviewed: Princess, Fever at Dawn PLUS TJFF

Posted in 1940s, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Hungary, Israel, Movies, Romance, Sweden, WWII by CulturalMining.com on May 6, 2016

2016_Festival_bookHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

TJFF, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, is one of the biggest of its kind, with comedies, dramas and documentaries from Canada and around the world. This year they’re featuring works from the Golden Age of Canadian TV, from comics ptq1-utgkRCMkqxVWjuSSm0fGla_1yUdV37o6kV_UlcWayne and Shuster’s Shakespearean take on baseball, to an early TV drama with a young William Shatner. The festival is on now, including many free screenings. This week I’m looking at TJFF movies about the search for sweet love in bitter circumstances. There’s a dying man in Sweden looking for love in letters; and a young Israeli girl in a dysfunctional family who finds her match on the streets.

10390340_323724601085809_3429696569493410229_nPrincess

Dir: Tali Shalom-Ezer

Adar (Shira Haas) is an extremely intelligent 12 year old schoolgirl who is flunking out of school. She sleeps in every morning, and never shows up for class. She lives with her divorced mom Alma (Keren Mor) a beautiful doctor who is always at work, and Alma’s boyfriend Michael (Ori Pfeffer). Michael is a friendly, gregarious guy who also seems to lie about all day painting watercolours. He lost his job as a teacher.

Alma is worried about her daughter’s “illness” but not overly so. She’s more concerned that Michael isn’t paying enough attention to her: forget the kid, I’m the 10511189_342046895920246_5058560699891259446_nbeautiful one, aren’t I? she keeps asking. But Alma is a deep sleeper, and doesn’t notice Michael’s late night visits to Adar. Is he just comforting his “prince”, as he calls her, or is there something more sinister going on? Adar looks outside her home for answers. Wandering the city one day she sees a street kid play-boxing with a tall, skinny girl with long hair. She meets the girl and discovers… 10383857_324927560965513_4871300977690319209_ohe’s a boy! Alan (Adar Zohar Hanetz) is a lanky boy around her age, almost her doppelganger. They hit it off right away, sharing clothes and sexual secrets. He’s homeless, so he moves in with Adar’s family, just for a few days. But Michael starts paying too much attention to Alan now, and the 1979386_334504990007770_6056517843585025238_otension escalates.

Princess is a troubling and disturbing coming-of-age story told through the eyes of a young girl. The scary parts are horrific. It cuts away from night scenes to the point where you can’t be sure if she’s being abused or just imagining it – she blocks them from her mind, treating the “visits” as dreams. Not for the faint of heart. But this is not an exploitative movie — there are sweet scenes between Adar and Alan, the two kids just trying to figure things out. This is a difficult movie to watch, but one that treats the unspeakable with nuance and sensitivity. And all the acting, especially Haas and Hanetz, is fantastic.

10422291_391305784327869_4804890456130766117_nFever at Dawn (Hajnali láz)

Wri/Dir: Péter Gárdos

It’s 1945, just after the end of WWII. Miklos, 25, (Milan Schruff) is a former journalist from Hungary who finds himself in hospital in Sweden. He was a prisoner in a Nazi death camp and is in desperate need of medical attention. Along with many other Hungarian Displaced Persons, he is now in a refugee camp, not as a prisoners this time, but still kept locked up behind fences. That’s the good news.

The bad news comes from Doctor Lindholm (Gabor Mate). He says Miklos, you have 12360109_493388837452896_3257359522469345631_nspots on your lungs from Typhus and TB is gobbling up what’s left. You have six months to live. That’s why Miklos has a fever each morning and regularly coughs up blood.

But instead of giving up, he decides to write letters. 117 to be exact, all to Jewish Hungarian women in D.P. camps in Sweden. The letters are written in the particular style used only in Debrecen, a city in northeastern Hungary. He hears back from many of them, but with one, Lili (19) he feels something more. Lili (Emöke Piti) treats each letter as a treasure she hides 11046355_421465161311931_3345752524933432903_nunder her mattress, awaiting the day they can meet. Although they’ve never spoken to each other, or even seen each other’s faces, they both see it as true love.

But they face serious obstacles from well- meaning friends. Judith (Andrea Petrik) is a beautiful, raven-haired woman who survived the camps with Lili. Judith is devoted to her — she once hid potato peels in her mouth to save a starving Lili. When she hears of Miklos’ 117 letters she sees him as a womanizer 10257_491849797606800_4887635868100874382_nor a conman, and tries to sabotage their love. She wants to keep Lili all to herself. Meanwhile, Dr Lindholm wants Miklos to stay put, for the sake of his lungs — despite all his attempts to see her.

Can the two of them ever meet, even for a day? Will they love each other in the flesh as much as they do on paper? And do either of them have many days left to live?

Fever Dawn is shot in beautiful black and white, with dialogue in Swedish, Hungarian and German. Based on a true story, it’s a good old-fashioned romance of the purest kind. It hasn’t been Disney-fied — there is suicide, death, crime, racism and debauched sex going on all around them. But it’s up to true love and destiny to bring them together, even if it’s just for a moment.

Princess and Fever at Dawn are both playing at the Toronto Jewish film Festival. Go to tjff.com for details.

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

Bittersweet love. Films Reviewed: Spring, Wet Bum, Dancing Arabs

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Coming of Age, Horror, Israel, Italy, Palestine, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 15, 2015

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

Love brings happiness but also complications. This week I’m looking at three dramas with bittersweet love stories. There’s love and identity in Jerusalem, coming of age in small-town Ontario, and sex with a tinge of horror on the Italian coast.

Spring afficheSpring
Dir: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead

For Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) life’s a bitch. Right after his Dad and Mom die, a bag of dirt picks a fight with him at the dive bar where he works as a cook. He pummels the guy. Now he’s jobless, the guy he punched says he’s gonna kill him, and the cops are after him. So he stuffs some clothes in a knapsack, jumps on a plane and ends up in Italy, in an ancient, picturesque town. He gets a job taking care of an old man’s olive trees in exchange for a bed.

And then one day he meets a beautiful, aggressive and sexually charged woman named Louise (Nadia Hilker). She’s not like the women he knows back home. She’s brilliant, is fluent in half a dozen languages. She has eyes of two different colours and smouldering good looks — flowers seem to bloom all around her. More to the point, she seems to like Evan. In fact, she wants to sleep with him, ASAP. He 10848793_1016148661747544_5693812469889098714_oholds back; he’s not looking for a one-night stand. She might be his one true love. But he doesn’t realize she’s more than she pretends to be. As in someone or something who eats flesh, drinks blood, and grows sharp fangs as hideous appendages shoot out of her body. But that’s only once in a while, when he’s not looking. Will he discover her true nature. What is she anyway? A werewolf? A vampire? A demon? …or something entirely different?

Spring is a strange genre mashup. It’s a combination supernatural romantic drama, mixed with a good dose of mystery/horror. Lou Taylor Pucci is good as a tough but naïve guy in his twenties, and Nadia Hilker, with an unidentifiable European accent, is credible as a cosmopolitan world-weary woman… with something extra. I thought the movie should have stuck closer to horror than romance, but it‘s a fun romp, nevertheless.

Z4p3w5_wetbum_01_o3_8596277_1425487944Wet Bum
Dir: Lindsay Mackay

Sam (Julia Sarah Stone) is a shy and skinny 14-year-old girl living in small-town Ontario. It’s some point in the past, before people have cellphones and back when everyone is white. Her life is very fixed. Afterschool, she takes lifeguard classes at the indoor pool with her best friend Molly. She loves swimming underwater.

Afterwards she has a part-time job cleaning rooms at an old-age home where her mean Mom (Leah Pinsent) is the manager. She is mystifiedNxpNWp_wetbum_04_o3_8596468_1425487970 by the elderly residents, especially two of them. Ed (Kenneth Welsh) is an angry and bitter old man who misses his wife. He can be found wandering the highway late at night, trying to hitch a ride. Judith (Diana Leblanc) is quiet and never speaks, just stares out the window… but she seems to like Sam. NxpN16_wetbum_05_o3_8596524_1425487976But this world is all new to her.

She’s at that point in her life where everything is changing really fast, and it disturbs her. So she tries to keep things just as they are. She avoids the locker room altogether going to her job with her swimsuit still under her clothes (hence the name of the movie: Wet Bum). But she’s mercilessly bullied by the other girls at the pool, including Molly (who has her eyes on pg7E7N_wetbum_03_o3_8596407_1425487964Sam’s big brother). The lifeguard Luke (Craig Arnold) is a nice guy, a few years older and goes to her highschool. She has a crush on him, and fantasizes about kissing him. He starts to give her rides to work… but can he be trusted?

Wet Bum is a funny and gentle coming-of-age story about a girl encountering sex and death, as she learns to look out for herself in a cruel and confusing world.  Julia Sarah Stone is especially noteworthy for her realistic performance as the awkward adolescent girl trying to fit in.

526d4379-3e57-403b-bbab-134065ecd76bDancing Arabs
Dir: Eran Riklis,Wri: Sayed Kashua

It’s Israel in the 1980s. Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) is a child prodigy from a small village in the Galilee. He can calculate numbers in his head and answer impossible-to-solve riddles. His Dad was also a genius, but got kicked out of school in the 60s accused of being a terrorist because he was a communist and a member of the outlawed 74dba53b-c4fc-4a28-8d7c-1eacee5b8989PLO. Now he picks fruit. Eyad’s family wants a better world for him, so they do the unthinkable – he applies to an elite academic private school, the best in the country. And he gets in! But Eyad is a Palestinian Arab and the students there are all Jews. The only other Arab is the school janitor.

b8c16e54-db98-4d8b-a6ec-e247d3ee62c4At school, Eyad meets a nice girl named Naomi (Danielle Kitzis), and they hit it off immediately. She helps him navigate the baffling cultural differences. He loses his Arabic accent, the B’s and the P’s, and gradually blends in. The two of them fall in love. Eyad is also a volunteer tutor for a local highchool kid in a wheelchair named Yonathan (Michael Moshonov). He has an incurable, debilitating disease, which helps explain his ironic humour and musical tastes. At first Eyad is baffled and offended by his insults and jokes, but he gradually understands him and learns about Rock, punk and Joy Division. They form a close friendship as two outcastes, 5cf7281f-569d-4750-baee-4d4995c63736under the loving hand of Jonathan’s mom (Yael Abekassis).

Outside the school Eyad is constantly reminded he is the Other, bullied by rough teenagers, or asked for ID by border police if he is heard speaking Arabic. At the school he is accepted and lauded, but sometimes feels like a circus clown. He and Naomi are in love, but her mother forbids her crossing this cultural divide, so he begins to hide his identity to smooth things out. Eyad slowly assimilates, erasing his culture, religion, language and history, until he only has his name and his sense of self to keep him grounded. And even that may be at risk.

Dancing Arabs is a very good, funny and sad movie about love, friendship, identity and politics. It’s told from the point of view of a Palestinian-Israeli, a largely invisible group.

Spring, Wet Bum, and Dancing Arabs 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.

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