Tough Times. Films reviewed: Alien Boy, The Book Thief, When Jews Were Funny

Posted in 1940s, Canada, comedy, Cultural Mining, Death, Depression, documentary, Drama, Movies, Uncategorized, WWII by on November 15, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Life isn’t always rainbows and lollipops. There are tough times out there: violence, war, death. But tough times can make for good movies, better drama and funnier jokes… if done right. This week I’m looking at a documentary about a police assault on a man with schizophrenia; a literary, historical drama about a little girl living in Nazi Germany, and — to end on a lighter note — a documentary about Jewish comedians.

Alien Boy James Chasse Oregon_OrganizmAlien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse

Dir: Brian Lindstrom

James Chasse grew up in Portland Oregon along with the early punk scene. Jim-Jim was into groups like the Wipers and in his own band. He loved comics, drew one-copy zines, believed in ghosts and werewolves. He even had a song recorded about him.

Flash forward: he’s an adult living with schizophrenia and he isn’t doing that well. He becomes increasingly isolated, grows a scraggly beard and wears ragged clothes. He’s also had a bad run-in with the police, making him wary of future encounters. And he finds being physically touched abhorrent. So, one day, when a policeman calls him over, he runs away instead. What happens next is just horrifying.Alien Boy James Chasse Group_home

He is chased, and brutally thrown to the sidewalk under the full weight of police twice his size. They tell passersby — concerned at James’s calls for help — that he is carrying a bag of drugs (which is actually bread crumbs). And that he is a transient – though his home is only a few blocks away – and that he has a long arrest record: also not true. They tase him. Repeatedly. And while he’s lying there, unconscious on the sidewalk, they stand beside him, unconcerned, sipping Starbucks. Despite his calls for help, they take him not to the hospital but to the police station.

They put this horrible clear plastic thing called a spit mask (I’ve never seen anything like it before this film) over his head. He’s treated like a dog… or worse. And then he’s dead at the hands of the police.

Alien Boy Marquez_PhotoIt makes my blood boil.

Alien Boy is a collective, oral history of James Chasse. His mother, friends, lovers, acquaintances and strangers all tell about his life and what happened. The second half follows the court case in Portland, about whether or not the police who killed him will be held responsible.

Very sad, very moving story about an interesting man, his tragic fate, and what happens afterwards.

This is an important topic, that deserves to be seen, especially now, especially in Toronto. In fact, an inquest started just this week into the deaths of Michael Eligon, Sylvia Klibingaitis and Reyal Jardine-Douglas. All three killed by police, all three mentally ill.

the-book-thief-poster1-401x600The Book Thief

Dir: Brian Percival

From the novel by Markus Zusak

Liesel (Sophie Nelisse) is a young girl in Nazi Germany, before WWII. When things are getting treacherous, she’s sent to live with a foster Mother and Father. Loving Papa and mean Mama (Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson) are her new parents. He calls her “Your Highness” because of her regal bearing. Liesel is illiterate, but her toughness and independent spirit stops any bullying in its tracks. She quickly learns to read, and makes friends with Rudy, the boy next door.

But her life changes when a young man, Max, who is Jewish, moves into the house with Book Thief1 gofobothem. They hide him in the basement to keep him out of sight. Liesel and Max become very close. Meanwhile, newly literate, Liesel is shocked when she sees her beloved books being burned in a public square. She makes friends with the Burgermeister’s wife who invites her to read in her library. But when she is discovered and barred from the house, she becomes the “book thief” of the title, borrowing other people’s books to keep Max’s spirit up.

They all face not just the cruelty of the Nazi war machine, but also the Allies, who are frequently bombing their homes.

Book Thief 2 gofoboWho will live through the war? And who will die? The movie is narrated by a passionless angel of death, who takes away both the good and the bad.

I like the story, its tender drama and fairytale-like tone. Quebecoise Sophie Nelisse is terrific as Leisel, as are many of the supporting cast. But it didn’t quite work for me. Certain things are really annoying. Why does everyone speak English with a fake German accent? It’s an American movie about Germans in Germany speaking German. We just “hear” them in English. They should sound like native speakers.

And the omniscient, impassive narrator keeps pulling you back from the characters. It makes it harder to care about them if it’s just a fable.

When Jews Were Funny

Dir: Allan Zweig

*Winner TIFF13 Best Canadian Feature prize


Is there a specific type of humour, that can be called Jewish humour? And if so, is it – or was it – a central part of stand-up comedy? And are the new comics as funny as ones from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s? In this great and funny documentary, Director Allan Zweig asks Jewish stand-up comics these questions. Zweig thinks the dry wit of the old guys eating soup in the delis of his childhood were much funnier than today’s stand-up comics. Is he right?

Listen to this very old joke about a man asking a grocer if he has any salt: (audio clip from film: Shelley Berman)

When Jews Were Funny and The Book Thief both open today (check your local listings), and Alien Boy plays at Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival tonight. Also on right now is Toronto’s Polish Film Festival: go to for more info.

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

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