New Year Movies. Films reviewed: Babylon, Broker

Posted in 1920s, Corruption, Crime, Drama, drugs, Family, Hollywood, Korea, Sex by CulturalMining.com on December 31, 2022

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

This week I’m looking at two new movies to bring in the new year. There’s an abandoned baby in Busan, and excessive abandon of 1920s Hollywood.

Babylon

Wri/Dir: Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash)

It’s a hot day in Santa Ana, near LA, in the 1920s. Manny (Diego Calva) has a strange job. He has to get an elephant through the desert to a mansion in time for a huge Hollywood party that night. There he meets Nellie LeRoy (Margot Robbie) an aspiring young actress who claims to be a movie star. She’s never actually been in anything yet but she says in Hollywood if you say you’re a star you are a star. The doorman is unimpressed but Manny, now in a sweaty tux, gets her through the door. Inside it’s a jazz-filled mayhem of half-naked dancers snorting cocaine as they prepare for their next writhing orgy. The guest of honour is Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), Hollywood’s top moustachioed movie star.

Manny stays relatively sober but Nellie goes whole hog, successfully transforming herself into a wild-child party animal. Manny saves the day when he manages to sneak a dead body out of the party on behalf of the studio, without the gossip rags — including Photoplay’s notorious columnist (Jean Smart) —  noticing. A woman died in a back room with a Fatty Arbuckle lookalike. By morning, both Manny and Nellie are invited to work on location on some movies being shot there; she as a starlet and he as a fixer, helping out in emergencies. 

The movie follows the three of them — Manny, Nellie and Jack — as they make their way up and down Hollywood’s precarious ladder. Nellie is a smash hit — she can cry on cue in a tragedy, and minutes later turn herself into a laughing floozie in a western bar. Manny works behind the scenes, doing the dirty things the top producers shy away from. Jack is still the top star, but is gradually slipping at the box office, acting in one flop after another. has a meteoric rise but faces trouble when the talkies arrive. Manny makes his way to executive level, but likes himself less and less. Will Jack find a wife who loves him? Can Nellie lose her Jersey accent in time for the talkies? Which one of them will survive the dog-eat-dog world of the movie industry?

Babylon is a very long but frenetically-paced movie about the early days of the motion picture industry. It recreates a version of that world with exquisite attention to detail — the music, the costumes, and incredible reenactments of the filming of war scenes and dance numbers using hundreds of extras. It gives you an uncommon, behind-the-scenes look at the silent movie era. Scenes in Babylon melt one into the next with cameras that lead you through tunnels, up staircases, from room to room in seemingly endless long shots. The story is part myth, part history. I’m guessing Chazelle found his inspiration in books like Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, about the excessive and scandalous depravity that rocked the industry before the restrictive Hays code came into effect in the mid 1930s. He frequently quotes other famous movies set in LA about the movies themselves, everything from Sunset Boulevard to A Star is Born, to Singin’ in the Rain. (See how many you can spot.) And the over-the-top acting, especially Margot Robbie, is a lot of fun.

Is Babylon a good film? I had trouble identifying with the main characters — they all seem like pawns in the director’s hands as he tells his epic story. It features some non-white, non-conventional characters, from a female movie director, to a lesbian singer from Shanghai, and a black Jazz musician showing off his trumpet skills. Ironically they all seem to be inserted more to demonstrate the director’s commitment to historical diversity rather than as central characters. But it’s not really about the characters, it’s about the city of Los Angeles. Chazelle puts in lots of things meant to shock — nudity, defecation, urination, projectile vomiting, even characters who die as punchlines to jokes — that don’t quite fit.  But all that didn’t stop me from loving the movie-making on display.

If you’re a movie-lover, this epic deserves to be seen.

Broker

Wri/Dir:  Kore-eda Hirokazu (Shoplidters, After the Storm, Our Little Sister, Like Father Like Son)

It’s nighttime at a church in present-day Busan, South Korea. A young woman, a sex worker named So-young (Lee Ji-eun) is carrying her newborn infant which she leaves in a “baby box”, a small door where unwed mothers can leave their unwanted infants, knowing that they’ll be taken care of. What she doesn’t realize is there are two men on the other side of the door: Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a younger guy who works at the church; and Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) a middle aged man who owns a tiny hand laundry shop. Right after So-young leaves, they erase the surveillance video and make off with the infant. Their plan? To sell it to a young married couple with fertility problems and keep the profit. But these two men don’t realize that Detective Ji-Sun (Bae Doona) and her subordinate (Lee Joo-young) are watching the whole thing from their police car parked just down the hill. They’re excited that what they see tonight might solve the baby trafficking case they’ve been working on for a long time. But they can’t prove anything until a transaction takes place.

But nothing is as simple as it seems. After a few days, So-young wants her baby back. She left a note saying the arrangement was only temporary. But she can’t involve the police. So she tracks down the two brokers. Turns out Sang-hyun grew up in an orphanage, so finding loving parents will spare the baby from growing up within the bleak institution he lived through. And Dong-soo has both monetary reasons — he’s deeply in debt — and personal reasons why this has to go through. So the three of them form an easy alliance of brokers looking for a permanent home for the infant. And when they discover Hae-jin (Lim Seung-Soo) a feisty kid from an orphanage they’re dealing with stowed away in their car, they suddenly become a makeshift family. But how long will it last? 

Broker is a wonderful, multifaceted movie about love, kinship and makeshift families. It’s also a murder mystery, a romance, a police procedural, and a road movie. Each of the characters has a rich background full of secrets and motives all of which a are gradually revealed. It’s directed by Kore-eda Hirokazu, one of favourite directors who always finds a way to make dramas with unforgettable characters who are deeply flawed but still sympathetic. He made Shoplifters a few years ago, and this one picks up on some of his themes. Kore-eda is Japanese, but everything else in this film is Korean — from the language to the locations and the fantastic cast. You’ll recognize some of them: Song Kang-ho starred in Parasite, Bae Doona has been in everything from The Host to Cloud Atlas. So Broker is both a Korean movie, and unmistakably Kore-eda. I saw it four months ago at TIFF, but it really is stuck in my head.

I strongly recommend this movie.

Babylon is now playing; check your local listings. Broker opens this weekend in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lighbox.

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

Friends divorce, killer nurse, even worse. Films reviewed: Decision to Leave, The Good Nurse, The Banshees of Inisherin

Posted in 1920s, comedy, Crime, Ireland, Korea, Mystery, Thriller, violence by CulturalMining.com on October 29, 2022

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

It’s Halloween weekend, with lots of good scary movies playing now, but if you’re staying home, you check out the streamer Shudder, with some of the coolest indie horror and fantasy movies out there. Or if you’re on Netflix, check out Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities, his new anthology series of well-made, one-hour dramas.

But this week I’m looking at three new movies, all of which I saw this year at TIFF. There’s an Irish friendship threatened with divorce, a killer who may be a nurse, and a detective obsessed with a suspect who may be a killer… or worse.

Decision to Leave

Co-Wri/Dir: Park Chan-wook

Hae jun (Park Hae-il) is a homicide detective in Busan, Korea. He is devoted to his job, but less so to his wife, whom he only sees on weekends. She lives in Ipo, a small town with very few murders. In comparison, Busan is a veritable hotbed of organized crime, drugs and violence. But one unusual case catches his attention: a middle aged mountain-climbing enthusiast who fell to his death from an especially steep cliff. it seems to be a cut and dry accident, except for his widow’s reaction, she barely had one.  He decides to follow her, stake her out and surveil and record her every movement. The widow Seo-rae (Tang Wei) is a femme fatale, young, beautiful, and exotic in his eyes (she’s originally from China.) And unknown to him, she gets off on being followed and watched. His obsession shifts from interrogation to first-hand contact and eventually to a passionate, clandestine affair. He later moves to the quiet town of Ipo to be with his wife. But when he discovers Seo-rae lives there too, and is remarried to very rich man, his suspicions are raised. Is she a killer or just an innocent woman? And will seeing her again lead to trouble?

Decision to Leave is a fast-moving and stylish police thriller, told with an absurdist touch.  It never takes itself too seriously, but it’s a lot of fun to watch. Tang Wei (who was great in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution) has a classic noir feel to her. And Park Hae-il plays the beguiled but committed police detective very well. The movie is beautifully crafted but constantly plays tricks on the viewers. It has some of the strangest shifts in point of view I’ve ever seen, including even one shot seen through the cloudy eyes of a dead fish. Which makes the movie a bit challenging to follow, but worth it.

The Good Nurse

Dir: Tobias Lindholm

Amy (Jessica Chastain) is a single mom with two cute but rambunctious young girls. She has a woman who takes care of the kids when she works late, but her patience is running out. Amy works full time as a registered nurse at a corporate hospital in New Jersey. She also has a heart condition, which requires major surgery. But if the hospital finds out about her pre-existing condition before she finishes her probationary period, she’ll be let go. enter Charlie (Eddie Redmayne) a kindly inoffensive nurse who just transferred from another hospital. He helps her out, covering for her when she faints at work, and volunteering to help with her kids. He’s divorced with kids himself so he’s good with children.

But things start to go wrong at the hospital. Patients are dying for no good reason. And when the police come to investigate, they are stonewalled by the hospital management, who refuse to cooperate. But two of the patients died on Amy’s shift, so she needs to find out what happened. Like why did an otherwise healthy senior die of a suddenly skyrocketing insulin level? And what about a little kid? All of the patients are in hospital for a reason, but that’s not how they died. The more she investigates, the more it looks like good ol’ Charlie is somehow connected. Can she figure out why the patients are dying and who is responsible? Or will this put her and her family in danger?

The Good Nurse is a mystery thriller, based on a true story. It’s two hours long, and it doesn’t get good till near the end of the first hour. I saw this movie at TIFF on a huge screen at Roy Thompson Hall, and I found it visually oppressive. Everything is drab and dull, grey and light blue, dim and soft focussed, with an intensely boring colour palate. All you see are institutions — hospitals and police— at their most plain and mundane. Movies are meant to be a pleasure watch, why make it so a chore to look at. (Admittedly, I saw it again on Netflix on a small screen, and it didn’t bother me visually nearly as much.) In any case, the story is good, thrilling and tense, once it picks up. Jessica Chastain is sympathetic as Amy, and Eddie Redmayne is excellent as a milquetoast guy with a dark side. If you just want to spend two hours on a true crime hospital mystery with no expectations, The Good Nurse will probably satisfy you.

The Banshees of Inisherin

Dir: Martin McDonagh

It’s 1923, on a tiny, fictional island, separated by water from the Irish civil war raging in the distance. Pádraic (Collin Farrell) is a simple man living a simple life. He plays with his miniature donkey, sells his cows’ milk to the local shop, and sleeps soundly in his cottage close to his sister Siobhan’s bed (Kerry Condon). But most important of all, is his best friend Colm (Brendan Gleeson). They meet each afternoon to walk to the pub and chat over beer. Which is why he is shocked and confused when Colm decides one day, not to go drinking with Pádraic. Just today? No, now and forever. Colm doesn’t want to drink with him, Colm talk with him, He doesn’t even look at him. He has wasted enough time on pointless chatter, and now wants to his life worthwhile, to do something noteworthy. Colm plays the fiddle, perhaps he can compose a great work. But Pádraic refuses to allow his best friend to just walk away. He won’t leave him.  Until Colm makes a vow: If you ever speak with me again, I will cut off one of my own fingers. And if you persist, I will cut off another and another until you leave me alone.  What’s wrong with Colm? Should Pádraic take him seriously? Is this all his own fault?

The Banshees of Inisherin is a really good dark comedy, that builds from a simple disagreement to one of increasingly dramatic reactions on each side. I’m only touching on one plot — there are also subplots involving Dom (Barry Keoghan) a simpleton who has a crush on Padraic’s sister; Mrs McCormick (Shiela Flitton) a creepy, banshee-like neighbour, as well as an abusive policeman who is also Dominic’s dad.

I’m guessing here, but maybe — even though it’s never explicitly mentioned in the movie — the story is a metaphor for the Irish Civil War, with Pádraic as the pro-treaty side who wants things to stay the same, and Colm as the IRA who wants a dramatic change even if it involves violence and loss. Or maybe it’s just director Martin McDonagh having his usual brilliant, chaotic fun with great characters, some violence and a cool political subtext. He’s known for movies like Seven Psychopaths and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri… maybe this one should be called The Five Fingers of Inisherin? 

Decision to Leave is starting at the Tiff Bell Lightbox; The Banshees of Inisherin opens this weekend, check your local listings; and The Good Nurse is now screening on Netflix. 

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

Witches and Poets. Films reviewed: Benediction, Lux Æterna

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Drama, Feminism, France, LGBT, Movies, Poetry, UK, WWI by CulturalMining.com on May 28, 2022

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

Spring film festival season is in full swing this week in Toronto, with ReelAbilities, Inside-out and the Toronto Arab Film festival all on right now. TAF is a pan-Arab film festival; featuring movies from 19 countries, including dramas, docs, animation and experimental, and it’s on through Sunday. ReelAbilities has films by for and about people from disabled and deaf communities and it’s running through June 10th in a hybrid format. And Inside out, Toronto’s LGBT festival is on now through Sunday June 5th, featuring many world premieres, and presenting at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

Some of the movies at Inside-out I’m looking forward to seeing include a stunning-looking musical from Rwanda called Neptune Frost, Camilla Comes Out Tonight, an Argentinian coming-of-age drama,  So Damn Easy Going a Scandinavian story of the messy relationships of a young woman with ADHD, and The Divide, about the breakup of a couple in France during the “yellow vest” protests

But this week, I’m looking at two new movies both opening this weekend in Toronto that handle narratives in an experimental way. There’s a film from France about a burning witch, and a biopic from the UK about a war poet. 

Benediction

Wri/Dir: Terrence Davies

Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) is a Lieutenant in the British Army at the western front in WWI, known for his bravery and valour. He’s also famous as a war poet. An aristocrat, he’s a descendent of the Sassoon clan, late of Baghdad, Bombay and Shanghai. But by 1917, he is sickened by the war and the death of his men, so he writes and publishes a formal letter protesting it. Instead of being courtmartialed, he is diagnosed as shell-shocked and sent to a psych ward near Edinborough. There he befriends a young soldier named Wilfred afflicted with night terrors, and together they write poetry for the hospital’s literary magazine, the Hydra.

After the war he joins other writers, musicians and artists around London. One evening, while reciting his dark poetry at a soiree, he meets Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), a hugely famous celebrity whose sentimental songs — like Keep the Homefires Burning  kept up morale during the war. By that evening they are sleeping together with Ivor unceremoniously dumping his previous boyfriend Glen. But while Siegfried is a passionate romantic, Ivor is cold and cruel; he cares more about his looks and career than love or commitment. So after a messy break up, Siegfried has a series of relationships with various bright young aristocrats like Stephen Tennant in the 1920s-30s. But will he ever find true love?

Benediction is an impressionistic biopic about the life of Siegfried Sassoon and his friends and lovers between the two wars. This means he’s as likely to see Edith Sitwell reciting her doggerel as running into Lawrence of Arabia at a wedding rehearsal. But you never forget that this is a Terrence Davies movie, his unique style always apparent. Like singing — whether it’s soldiers breaking into song, actors on a west-end stage or just sitting by a piano at a party. And Sassoon’s own voice recites his poetry over photos of war dead. Flashbacks might fade from one to the next then back again reflecting the thoughts of a character, often with black and white newsreels projected in the background. There’s a lush, dark look to the whole film, in its music, images and sets. The acting — especially Lowden and Irvine but also Calam Lynch as Stephen Tennant and Gemma Jones as his ultimate wife Hester — is terrific all around. (The movie flashes forward to a reclusive and bitter Sassoon (Peter Capaldi) with a wife and adult son in post WWII England.) Benediction is romantic in the classical sense, more like a Wagnerian opera than a rom-com. The script is exquisitely written, with almost every line a bon mot, a witty observation or a cutting insult. Benediction is experimental and idiosyncratic in style but with a deeply moving story.

I really like this film.

Lux Æterna

Wri/Dir: Gaspar Noé 

Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg (played by themselves)  are two French famous actresses making a film together. Beatrice is trying her hand as director and Charlotte is the star. The film they’re shooting, on set, is a feminist reboot of accused witches being burned at the stake by religious zealots in the manner of the Inquisition. They chat about the meaning of burning witches as a misogynistic crime.  But all is not well. 

The producers of the film, are plotting to get Beatrice fired, so a young man named Tom is ordered to follow her everywhere and record it on film, with the hope of catching an error. Meanwhile, an American actor, Karl (Karl Glusmann) is trying to have a meeting with Charlotte, various models are desperately looking for the proper costumes and hair, and all of the personal assistants are incompetent. Worst of all, though, something is wrong with the lighting system, which begins generating as series of multi-coloured strobe lights, the kind that can induce a tonic-clonic seizure. Can the scene be shot? Or will panic destroy everything before it’s caught on film?

Lux Æterna is simultaneously an experimental piece of art, and a satirical look at the film industry, the Me Too Movement and the backlash that followed it. Gaspar Noe is the enfant terrible of French filmmakers, all of whose films somehow provoke and torture its viewers. In the past it was through extreme violence, horror, drugs or explicit sex. This time, it’s (theoretically) supposed to induce tonic-clonic seizures among epileptic viewers of the film. Why? Because the aura leading up to as seizure is said to be the ultimate psychedelic experience. (Not sure who said it because I can assure you there’s nothing pleasant about having a seizure!) Anyway, about a quarter of the film consists of the gorgeous multicoloured strobe effect projected over the crucified bodies of the witches. Another portion is in the titles themselves (Gaspar Noe is the master of creative titling — no font is accidental in any of his films) with old Roman capitals used to advance the plot. All the characters use their real names, and the shooting takes place on a movie set, just in case you need more meta. 

If you like Gaspar Noe — I love his stuff but it’s certainly not for everybody —  well, Lux Aeterna is his latest artistic experiment. A large part of it resembles Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, beautifully done, as if photographed on Calvary. And the strobe light effect is hypnotic though irritating. There’s very little plot or acting involved, with lots of gratuitous nudity, but, hey, it’s only about an hour long. I like everything he does, but this is not a major work, more like him fooling around. If you like art, you might enjoy this experiment, just don’t expect a normal movie. 

Benedction is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and you can see Luxe Aeterna at the Revue Cinema in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Advances in Technology. Films reviewed: The Automat, Dope is Death, After Yang

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, Addiction, Adoption, Androids, Canada, documentary, drugs, Eating, Family, New York City, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on March 12, 2022

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

Technology, whether we find it good or bad, always affects our lives. This week, I’m looking at three movies — two documentaries and a science fiction drama — that look at advances in technology. There’s a new type of restaurant a hundred years ago that sells hot food out of metal and glass dispensers; a clinic 50 years ago that uses acupuncture to detox heroin addicts; and a future world where androids serve as siblings.

The Automat

Dir: Lisa Hurwitz

It’s the 1920s in New York and the city is booming. 300,000 women work as stenographers and they — along with everyone else — all need to eat lunch. And one modern restaurant chain, Horn & Hardart’s Automat, is serving them all. Art Deco palaces welcome anyone with a nickel to buy a slice of pie or a cup of steaming French-press coffee expelled through shiny brass dolphin heads. Customers share marble topped tables with whoever sits down beside them.  And behind stacks and rows of pristine glass and metal drawers, a nickel or two dropped in a slot opens the door to a single servings of macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, baked beans, or Salisbury steak all made at a central commissary and shipped out that very same day. At its peak they served 800,000 diners each day in NY and Philadelphia (where the chain was founded). But what goes up must come down. I wandered into an automat just once as a teenager and never went back. It was disgusting, the food looked unpalatable and aside from the novelty of buying a stale, egg salad sandwiches behind a little glass door, I couldn’t see why anyone would go there. But its fans from earlier generations remember it well, swearing by their specialties like strawberry rhubarb pies. 

The Automat is a fun and breezy look at this fabled restaurant chain, and its rise and fall. It interviews former owners, staff and customers, including celebrities like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. And although the doc was shot pretty recently, many of the featured interviewees — like Ruth Bader Ginzburg and Colin Powell — have sadly passed away. This is an interesting doc about an almost forgotten phenomenon.

Dope is Death

Wri/Dir: Mia Donovan (Inside Lara Roxx)

It’s the early 1970s in the South Bronx, NY and heroin use is rampant. Nixon has declared a war on drugs, devoting money to incarceration and maintenance programs (like methadone), but nothing for detoxification and ending addiction. So black, brown and white activists in groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords decided to take action. They occupied Lincoln Hospital and managed to open a detox clinic there. The program was led by Dr Mutulu Shakur, (that’s Tupac Shakur’s step-father, and a separatist activist in the Republic of New Afrika movement.) who tried something new — acupuncture! A half dozen medics went up to Montreal and returned a couple years later as medically-trained acupuncturists, staffing the new clinic, specifically to relieve drug addicts from their need for heroin.

Dope is Death is a brilliant, politically-informed historical documentary that looks at all the people involved in this movement— interviewing former addicts, acupuncturists and political activists. Sadly many were jailed or went underground following a brutal FBI crackdown. This film includes pristine colour footage from the era, along with period posters, photos, and audio  and video interviews. Although most of the film is set in NY city, the story takes us exotic locales from Montreal to Beijing. Sadly this fascinating doc was released during covid, but it’s finally showing on the big screen one day next week in Toronto.

After Yang

Dir: Kogonada

It’s the near future somewhere in the world. Kyra and Jake (Jodie Turner-Smith, Colin Farrell) are a happily married couple with a daughter named Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). To help Mika cope with differences (Mika is Black and English, Jake white and Irish, and she was adopted as an infant from mainland China)  they purchase an android named Yang. He is programmed to help Mika discover fun facts about her heritage and learn to speak Chinese. Yang  (Justin H Min) is like a gentle adult brother, there to explain and comfort her while her parents are away (mom works in an office, while dad sells tea leaves   — his obsession — out of a small shop). But when Yang malfunctions and stops working altogether,  that is, he dies, little Kyra is devastated, sending the family on a downward spiral. It’s up to Jake to try to bring them back together by preserving Yang’s thoughts and memories. But in trying to save him, Jake discovers new things about their lives, and Yang’s, things he knew nothing about.

After Yang is an unusual science fiction movie, without space ships, laser beams, or violence of any kind. In this future world people (or at least this family) live in stunning glass and wooden houses and dress in colourful hand-sewn clothing. They hilariously compete as a family in online dancing competitions (this has to be seen to be believed). Jake’s investigations uncover Yang’s hidden past lives, before he lived with them, including a woman he was in love with. This is a very low-key and visually-pleasing look at a future just like our present but prettier… and where artificial intelligence plays a crucial  part in our lives. It also deals with privacy, death, technology and everyday middle class problems. The director incorporates experimental film techniques in the movie, things like multiple repetitions of some of the lines to convey the way we — or an android — might remember things. Characters rarely show strong emotions; everything is repressed.  And to tell you the truth, not much happens. So while not completely satisfying, After Yang is still a pleasure to watch.

After Yang opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Hot Docs Cinema is featuring special screenings of The Automat and Dope is Death next week, with the directors present for Q&As; go to hotdocs.ca for details.

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

In depth. Films reviewed: The Velvet Underground, Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy, The Power of the Dog

Posted in 1920s, 1960s, Addiction, Canada, drugs, Indigenous, LGBT, New Zealand, Uncategorized, Western by CulturalMining.com on November 20, 2021

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

We are all flooded each day with new images and stories, both broadcast and online, but don’t they all seem to be fleeting and ethereal, lasting no longer than the average news cycle or two. Rarely do we get in-depth examinations of anything. But movies can do that, opening your eyes to deeper thoughts. So this week I’m looking at three new movies — a western and two feature-length docs —that look at things up close. There’s cowboys in Montana, First Nations in Alberta, and avant-garde rockers in Greenwich Village.

The Velvet Underground 

Wri/Dir: Todd Haynes

It’s the early 1960s. Lou Reed is a Brooklyn-born teenager who lives in suburban Long Island.  He’s depressed and his parents send him for electroshock therapy. He teaches himself guitar listening to doo-wop and rockabilly on the radio. Later at university in Syracuse, he studies under Delmore Schwartz. He goes to Harlem with his girlfriend to buy hard drugs and writes poems about furtive sex with men he meets in dark alleys. John Cale is the son of a coal miner in Wales who studies classical music in London. They meet in the Village and start a band within the  exploding world of avant-garde film, music, art and poetry. Velvet Underground plays long, drawn-out tones with a dark drone grinding in the background, combining Reed’s dark lyrics and Cale’s musicality (he plays viola in a rock band!) They perform at Andy Warhol’s Factory and Nico, the enigmatic European actress, completes their sound. Though never a huge success and breaking up after a few years, the Velvets influenced generations of musicians.

This two-hour doc looks at the band itself (Reed and Cale, along with Moe Tucker and Sterling Morrison) and where it fit within New York’s burgeoning underground scene. Aside from the usual suspects, it talks about or interviews unexpected faces, musicians Jonathan Richman and Jackson Browne, and experimental  filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Jack Smith. Aside from its meticulous retelling of group’s history, it’s the look of this doc that really blew me away.  Todd Haynes exploits that era’s avant-garde film techniques, from split screens to three-quarter projections, along with a good dose of 60s pop culture. And there’s a constant stream of music from start to finish, including rare tracks of early songs before they found their groove. I had to watch The Velvet Underground on my laptop but this beautiful documentary deserves to be appreciated on a movie screen.

Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy

Dir: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

It’s the mid-2010s and opioids are ravaging the Kainai Blackfoot First Nation in Alberta (that’s the largest reserve in Canada). Families are torn apart, and hundreds of lives are lost. The abstinence and cold-turkey programs just aren’t working, especially for the most marginalized, who end up homeless in cities.  So instead they start up harm reduction centres like those pioneered on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. This highly-personal documentary follows a number of addicts — of both opioids and alcohol — as they enter harm-reduction treatments and through its various stages. It’s spearheaded by the filmmaker’s own mother, Dr Esther Tailfeathers, a physician, but also includes Social workers, EMS, nurses and councellors, in drop ins, detox centres, hospitals and clinics, both on the reserve and in nearby cities like Lethbridge.

As the title suggests, caring and empathy saves more lives than punishment, threats or abstinence. Rather than kicking people out, it embraces them while standing by to treat overdoses, and on a bigger scale helping them find purpose and meaning, along with food, shelter and medical care. The doc also looks at the intergenerational causes that led to these addictions, from broken treaties to residential schools. Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy is gruelling in parts — and not an easy film to watch — but it is one that turns despair into hope.

The Power of the Dog

Wri/Dir: Jane Campion

It’s the 1920s. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is durned mean cuss. He owns a ranch in Montana with his brother George (Jesse Plemons), and regularly drives cattle with his posse of young cowboys. They always stop by a roadhouse run by the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her skinny sensitive son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil went to one of them Ivy League schools in the east, but they don’t know nuthin about the life of a cowboy. He learned everything from an older buckaroo when he was just a lad, and now keeps a shrine to him in his stables. But like I said, Phil is a mean bastard who directs his venom all around him. He calls his brother fatso, and when George marries Rose, Phil torments her and drives her to drink. And he calls her son Pete a pansy. Until… Pete discovers Phil’s secret. He finds his illicit porn stash and catches him in a hidden grove luxuriating in mud-covered self-love. That’s when Phil changes his mind and decides to mentor Pete in the old cowboy ways. But is that what Pete is really after?

I walked into The Way of the Dog at TIFF expecting a conventional Western, but I saw something much bigger than that. It’s a subversive twist on a classic genre. It’s set in the 1920s, avoiding the blatantly racist portrayals of indigenous people in most Westerns (the “Indians” in “Cowboys and Indians”) which take place in the 19th century when settlers were slaughtering them with impunity in their western migration. This one is set 50 years later.  There are also no hold-ups or show-downs; guns don’t play a major war in this Western. It’s directed by Jane Campion who won big time awards for The Piano thirty years ago, but I hadn’t heard much about her for a long time. So I wasn’t expecting much. But this film really shocked me with its gothic tone, complex characters and twisted plot. The interplay between Cumberbatch and Cody-Smit is fascinating. All of this played out against the wide, western skies (it was actually filmed in New Zealand) makes The Power of The Dog a really great movie.

The Velvet Underground  is playing theatrically in Canada for one night only, Sunday, Nov 28th at 8 pm, at the Rogers Hot Docs cinema in Toronto; and Kímmapiiyipitssini: The Meaning of Empathy opens today, also at Hot  Docs; and The Power of the Dog just opened at the Tiff Bell Lightbox.

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

Berlin, Los Alamos, London. Films reviewed: Berlin Alexanderplatz, Adventures of a Mathematician, No Time to Die

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, Action, Espionage, Germany, Organized Crime, Poland, Refugees, Romance, Science, Sex Trade, Thriller, Uncategorized, US, War, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2021

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

This week, I’m looking at three new movies, all from Europe. There’s a Polish mathematician in WWII New Mexico, a refugee turned gangster in present-day Berlin, and a retired secret agent returning to his office in London.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Co-Wri/ Dir: Burhan Qurbani

Francis (Welket Bungué) is a young refugee from Guinea-Bissau who washes ashore on a beach near Berlin (leaving his lover drowned at the bottom of the sea). He’s young, intelligent, strong and ambitious, a handsome man with striking features. He wants to get ahead and live a good life as a good man. Easier said than done. He lives in a temporary housing bloc for refugees and carries no papers. He doesn’t exist in Germany., and is horribly exploited and demeaned at his job. So he leaves honest Labour and is seduced into a life of crime through a twisted friendship with Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch) a psychotic gangster who traffics in women and drugs. Francis — renamed Franz by Reinhold —  learns German, and works his way up the ladder under  kingpin gangster Pums. But he is betrayed by his so-called friend Reinhold who attempts to kill him. He is nursed back to help by Mieze (Jella Haase) a beautiful, no-nonsense sex worker, leaving his life of organized crime behind. Eventually they fall in love, and plan to have a family… but can they stay together? Can he resist the allure of treacherous Renihold’s world? And torn apart in two directions — between love and morality on one side and success, wealth and power on the other — which path will he choose?

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a fantastic contemporary reboot of the classic 1929 German book by Alfred Döblin, sometimes described as one of the first modernist novels. And like any great novel it has a huge cast with tons of side characters and a nicely twisting plot. But also loads of ambiguity — Francis who is persecuted and abused always rises again from the ashes, declaring himself Deutschland – he is  Germany.   The story is told in five chapters, a cautionary tale narrated by Mieze, even though she doesn’t appear until halfway through. It’s a long movie — almost three hours — but it holds you captive till the end. It’s amazingly photographed by Yoshi Heimrath with images that will remain long after seeing them.

If you want a taste of contemporary German cinema, you should not miss this one.

Adventures of a Mathematician

Wri/Dir: Thor Klein

It’s the late 1930s in America. Stan Ulam (Philippe Tlokinski) is a mathematician who lives with his younger brother Adam at an ivy league university. Their family is well off, and still living in Lvov Poland, despite the troubling rise of totalitarian regimes all around them.  He likes gambling, debating and telling jokes with his best friend, the physicist  Johnnie Von Neumann (Fabien Kociecku). It’s all about the odds, Stan says, and house always wins. His life is comfortable but precarious. Then he meets an outspoken young writer named  Francoise (Esther Garrel), another refugee from Europe, and sparks fly. But before he has taken  their relationship any further, Johnnie invites him to join a highly secretive government enterprise in the rocky plateaus of Los Alamos New Mexico. Siblings are not allowed, just spouses and kids. Giving a tearful goodby to his needy brother, proposed marriage to Francoise, so they could stay together. It’s the Manhattan Project, and he’s there to on a team including Edward Teller (Joel Basman) to build the hydrogen bomb. But shocking news leads to a cerebral swelling treated with a drill into his skull. Will he ever recover?

Adventures of a Mathematician, based on  Ulam’s biography of the same name, is not an action thriller or a passionate romance. It’s a straightforward telling of  the highs and lows of a lesser-known genius’s life. He was instrumental in the creation of the hydrogen bomb, something he did not want to make.  But he was also responsible for crucial mathematic advances,  including his “Monte Carlo Method” (named after the famed casino) still essential in computer and statistical projects.  He also came up with amazing theories of space exploration not yet tested. Though mainly in English, this is a Polish movie, which perhaps explains the odd accents of some of the characters (For example Edward Teller, the Hungarian physicist speaks with a heavy French accent). And story is told at a very slow pace. Still, I found Ulam’s story (someone I’d never heard of before) and the ideas behind his tale, intriguing. 

No Time to Die

Co-Wri/Dir:Cary Joji Fukunaga

His name is Bond…James Bond (Daniel Craig) and he’s retired as a British spy. Now he enjoys sitting around fishing in a lakeside cabin. Five years earlier he said farewell to his one true love, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), after — he believes — she betrayed him. What he doesn’t know is she’s the daughter of an infamous hitman who once killed a supervillain’s family. But his peace and quiet is interrupted by an urgent call from the CIA. Sceptre, the evil international criminal organization is having a meeting, and if he’s not there, maybe the world will end. Something known as The Heracles Project — the creation of a DNA-linked poison — is in danger of being released. But it’s not as simple as that.  It seems both the CIA and MI6 including M (Ralph Fiennes) himself, might be involved in a conspiracy. Should he return to his old job? Who can he trust? And will he ever see Madeleine again?

I’ve been watching James Bond movies since I was a kid, and to tell the truth, they bore me silly with their formulaic storylines, tedious characters and repetitious conventions. So I was very surprised to find how good No Time to Die really is. This is the best 007 I’ve seen in decades. It feels like a real movie, not just a franchise. No spoilers but I can say this one has a black, female 007 (Lashana Lynch) a Q (Ben Whishaw) coming out as gay (more or less) and a marvelous trio of supervillains, played by Rami Malek, Christoph Waltz, and Dali Benssalah. Also great are the hero (Daniel Craig), and his erstwhile lover, the mysterious Madeleine (Léa Seydoux). It has the usual cars, gadgets, fights, beautiful women and exotic scenery, but it also has characters you actually care about. If you’re willing to go back to a movie theatre, and you want something fun, I think you should see No Time to Die.

Adventures of a Mathematician is available on VOD and digital platforms this weekend, No Time to Die opens in theatres next week — check your local listings. And Berlin Alexanderplatz is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for the Canadian Premier, one screening only, on October 7th, 6.30PM as part of the Goethe Films series History Now: Past as Prologue.

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

 

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

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

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

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

Code 8

Dir: Jeff Chan

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

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

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

Brotherhood

Wri/Dir: Richard Bell

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

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

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

In Fabric

Wri/Dir: Peter Strickland

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

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

In Fabric (at the TIFF Bell Lightbox), Code 8, and Brotherhood all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Families. Films reviewed: Before You Know It, Downton Abbey, Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Posted in 1920s, 1960s, 1970s, Canada, Class, documentary, Drama, Family, Music, Screwball Comedy, Theatre, TV, UK by CulturalMining.com on September 20, 2019

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

This week I’m looking at three movies exploring different families. There’s a band of brothers who form a band inside a big pink house; a pair of sisters who live inside a Greenwich Village theatre; and an extended family of aristocrats – and their servants – who live inside a stately mansion.

Before You Know It

Dir: Hannah Pearl Utt

Rachel and Jackie (Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock) are adult sisters who live inside a Greenwich Village playhouse. Homeschooled by their playwright Dad (Mandy Patinkin) since their mom died, their world is centred on their family theatre. Rachel, dressed in plain clothes and sensible shoes, is their always-reliable stage manager. Jackie – flamboyant, and self-obsessed – is an actress. Her impulsive behaviour gave her with an alcohol problem and a 13-year-old daughter named Dodge (Oona Yaffe). Rachel wishes she could date more, but she has too many responsibilities.

Life continues, until a major revelation shakes up their lives. Turns out their mom (Judith Light) is still alive, and has been living nearby under a stage name since they were kids! What’s more, she owns their theatre, and they might lose their careers, their home, their entire lives. Can Jackie and Rachel infiltrate a TV studio, meet their soap opera actress mom, and convince her to let them stay on at their theatre they call home? Or is this their final act?

Before You Know It is a delightful story of three generations of women in a theatrical setting. Written by Jen Tullock and Hannah Pearl Utt it veers between a gently screwball plot and a somewhat more serious coming-of-age story about growing up, both for Dodge and the two adult sisters. Nothing spectacular, just a pleasant and fun indie movie.

Downton Abbey: The Movie

Dir: Michael Engler

The Crawley’s are an aristocratic family living in a stately mansion on a vast manor estate in post- Edwardian England. It takes a village to keep things going smoothly, and it’s almost as self-sufficient community living inside the walls. This includes the extended family and their in-laws but also the multitude of servants, footmen, groomsmen, maids, kitchen help, grounds keepers, valets, a butler and more. But the normal social order is threatened by some unexpected guests. The King is coming! The King is coming!

Amd this brings all sorts of problems. Violet, the dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) has a longstanding inheritance feud with Maud Bagshaw, a lady in waiting (Imelda Staunton) for theQueen. Tom Branson (Allen Leech), an Irish socialist and widower who started as a chauffeur but later married into the family, is suspected by a mysterious government agent as being disloyal to the King. Meanwhile, amongst the other half of the house, other troubles are revealed. Kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McSheera) wonders whether longtime boyfriend William is right for her, especially since a handsome young plumber arrives on the scene. And when the Kings servants barge in and take over everything, they must concoct a plot to get back their rightful place within their own house. Meanwle Thomas Barrow (Robert James Collier) the usually secretive and conniving butler seizes the chance to explore his sexuality in a nearby town.

Downton Abbey,the movie is a continuation of the popular British nighttime soap that ran for many years. I remember watching the first two seasons of it before giving up.It concentrated on a dull patriarch andhis faithful butler, his bickering daughters and various servants seen skitting around behind the scenes. It felt like a Leaveit to Beaver sitcom superimposed ona feudal estate. Deadly dull, politically loathesome – I hated it. But I found the movie much more interesting. It concentrates as much on the “Downstairs” as on the “Upstairs”, there are real surprises, and the characters are allowed to grow and progress.

I’m as surprised as you that I actually enjoyed this movie.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Dir: Daniel Roher

It’s the late 1950s in Toronto. Robbie Robertson is a teenaged boy and aspiring musician who learns to play chords on visits to his mom’s family at Mohawk Six Nations. When Southern rocker Ronnie Hawkins brings his band to town, Robbie is mesmerized by their energy, showmanship and confidence, especially their stick-twirling drummer Levon Helm. He writes some tunes and joins the Hawks at age 16, alongside other multitalented Canadian musicians: Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, and Richard Manuel. They travel down south to perfect their style, playing alongside blues artist and country musicians. The Hawks outgrow their front man and set out on their own,

They tour Europe as Bob Dylan,s band rght when he goes electric.They are booed on every stage, but realize they have something special. They move into a big pink house in woodstock NY where they prefect their unique boendof folk,country, rock,blues and R&B. Robbie writes most of the songs while the entire band, one with the three vocalists, crafts each song. They start releasing their own songs under the name The Band and become one of the most influential North American groups of the ’60s and ’70s.

Once Were Brothers is a great music doc about the Band, as told through Robbie Robertson’s eyes. Through old photos, magazine clippings, period footage, and new interviews, it explores their brother-like friendship through its ups and downs, including jeolousy, addiction and car crashes. And looks at the rivalry between him and Levon Helm which eventually tore the band apart. It looks at their music, the pele they knew even their look — long hair and bearded, country gentlemen farmers, dressed like in 19th Century photos. It follows them from the early 60s through their Last Waltz, a giant concert filmed by Martin Scorsese. This is a beautiful, compelling story of the – can I say it? – legendary band.

Before You Know It (at the Tiff Bell Lightbox) Once Were Brothers and Downton Abbey all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Toronto’s fall festival season continues through the weekend with the Toronto Palestine Film Fest.

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

Runaways. Films reviewed: Across the Waters, Wonderstruck

Posted in 1920s, 1940s, 1970s, Denmark, Fantasy, Jazz, Kids, Manhattan, Movies, Nazi, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 20, 2017

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

Film Festival season continues in Toronto. Planet in Focus is an environmental film festival that bring eco heroes – like astronaut Roberta Bondar – to Toronto along with amazing documentaries from around the world. Everything from a grocery co-op in Brooklyn to a plastic recycling plant in Shandong, China to Genetically Modified Organisms, which are, well, everywhere. Go to Planetinfocus.org for more information.

ImagineNative is indigenous films and media arts, including an art crawl around the city, a wall is a screen, and many workshops, breakfasts and events. It has scary movies, westerns, docs, dramas, animation and so much more. Go to imaginenative.org for details.

This week I’m looking at two movies about people running away. One has a boy and a girl running away to New York City to find family. And the other has a father fleeing Copenhagen to save his family.

Across the Waters

Dir: Nicolo Donato (Brotherhood)

It’s 1943, in German-occupied Copenhagen. It’s an uneasy peace, but because of an agreement the Germans leave the Danes alone. Arne (David Dencik) is a guitarist in a jazz band. He is passionately in love with his wife Miriam (Danica Curcic) and they spend all their free time having sex. But only after they put their 6 year old son to bed. Jacob (Anton Dalgård Guleryüz) likes listening to Danish poems and playing with his teddy bear. Everything is going fine – no need to worry about the Nazis; this is Denmark, not Poland. Until that knock on the door comes one night – the Germans are coming! Run! Now!

The family is Jewish and the Nazis are there to take them away.

There’s only one way to escape; and that’s by boat to neutral Sweden. But how? They make their way north to a small port called Gilleleje, where they hear the fisherman are helping people across the sea. But when they get there things aren’t as good as they hoped.

One fisherman named Kaj is demanding high fares. But Arne and Miriam are nearly broke. There are way too many refugees in the town to keep them a secret from the Nazis. While some of the locals – the police chief, the pastor – are risking their lives to save fellow Danes, others have questionable motives. Who can be trusted, and who is collaborating? And will the family escape to Sweden?

Across the Waters is a fictional retelling of a true story. The movie is Danish but it was shot in Ireland to give it that period, seaside look. I always like a good WWII drama, and there have been some great Danish films, like Flame and Citron and Land of Mine, that deal with the topic. This one is smaller and more of a family drama than an action thriller, but it does keep the tension and suspense at a high level. (Including a scene reminiscent of Melville’s Army of Shadows.)

Worth seeing.

WonderStruck

Wonderstruck

Dir: Todd Haynes

It’s the late 1970s in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a 12 year old boy who lives with his aunt’s family. He suffers from strange dreams since his mom, a librarian, was killed in a car accident. Some nightmares involve being chased by wolves, but others are stranger still. They tell a continuous story, night after night, and they’re silent, and in black and white — just like an old movie.

These dreams tell a parallel story about Rose (Millicent Simmonds) a 12-year-old girl who lives in her father’s mansion in 1927 like a bird in a gilded cage. He’s a rich, divorced man in Hoboken, New Jersey. Rose’s head is in the stars – she spends most of her days reading title cards at silent movies or collecting photos she cuts from magazines. She’s obsessed with a certain pale-skinned movie actress named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).

Rose doesn’t go to school. But when she discovers her local theatre is switching to talkies she she knows it’s time for a change. She’s deaf and can only communicate by writing things down or reading words on a screen. So she bobs her hair and takes the ferry into Manhattan where she hopes to find the legendary actress.

Ben, meanwhile, is an orphan. His mom never told him who his birth father was. But looking through her things he finds an old bookmark with a message. It was tucked into a book about a museum collection, and the message was written by someone named Danny who visited their town before he was born. Could this be his dad?

But when he tries to call him up long distance, lightening strikes — literally. The electric shock travels through the phone line, leaving Ben deaf (just like Rose). But he catches a bus to New York City anyway, arriving at the Port Authority carrying just the name of a bookstore and a handful of cash. There he meets another 12-year-old named Jamie (Jaden Michael) who befriends him and says he’ll help him find his (possible) dad.

Jamie gives Ben a place to stay… a storage rooms at the Museum of Natural History (where Jamie’s father works). Will Ben find his dad? And will Rose find the movie star? Can two deaf 12-year-olds survive in a huge city? And what connects the two runaways?

Wonderstruck is a wonderful kids movie about seeking the unknown. It’s full of dreams, coincidences, and flashbacks, too many for it to be a real story. But it works great as a kids’ fantasy. It’s also beautifully made, using amazing animated paper models to tell part of the story. And through ingenious special effects, it incorporates the two main characters into what looks like period footage — of streetlife in New York in the gritty but colourful 70s,  and the fuzzy black-and-white 20s.

Just wonderful.

Wonderstruck opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Across the Waters is playing Sunday afternoon as part of the Chai Tea and Movies programme. 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. 

Making history. Films reviewed: Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, Goodbye Christopher Robin, BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, 1990s, France, H.I.V., Kids, LGBT, Poetry, Politics, Pop Culture, Protest, Watergate, WWI by CulturalMining.com on October 13, 2017

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

It’s festival season in Toronto: Reel World film festival brings the world’s untold stories to the big screen; and Toronto After Dark has horror, sci-fi and fantasy pics that make you laugh your ass off or will scare your pants off. Toronto after Dark and Reel World are both on right now.

But this week I’m looking at historical dramas based on real events. We’ve got protests in Paris, politics in Washington, and Pooh in East Sussex.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Dir: Peter Landesman

It’s June, 1972 in Washington DC. Mark Felt (Liam Neeson) a top-ranked FBI agent, notices something strange: burglars were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate Hotel. And they weren’t stealing money, they were looking for files. And the burglars are former Federal agents. Who is behind it all? Felt investigates. The trail leads to the White House where Richard Nixon is running for reelection. But his investigation is stifled by a suspicious political appointee named Gray. He’s the provisional head of the FBI – J. Edgar Hoover just died — and seems to be taking orders from the White House. This is a no-no. And the White House seem to know everything the FBI is doing – is there a leak in the Bureau? So Felt decides to do some leaking himself. He secretly meets with reporters from Time Magazine and the Washington Post to pass on crucial information. Will the truth about Nixon and Watergate come out and can Felt keep his identity a secret?

No spoilers here: you’ve probably heard of the Watergate scandal that brought down Nixon. And about Deep Throat – the mysterious source journalists Woodward and Bernstein used to break their stories. And the Senate Watergate Hearings which investigated it all. This movie, though, looks at it from an entirely new perspective: as a power struggle between the White House and the FBI, personified by Felt a career federal agent.

It’s also about Felt’s private life, with his depressed, alcoholic wife Audrey (Diane Lane), and his hippy daughter who disappears and who Felt thinks is a member of the Weathermen Underground. At its worst, this film seems to paint the FBI – which has plenty of its own skeletons in its closet — as the saviour of a nation. But at its best it captures the mood of a superb thriller, based on a huge, real-life conspiracy.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Dir: Simon Curtis

A.A. Milne (Domhnal Gleeson) is a popular playwright in London’s west end just back from WWI. On the surface he’s full of witty patter, all whizbang and tiddley poo. But he’s actually he’s shell-shocked: Champagne corks or popping balloons send him diving for cover. He’s so shaken up he moves out to the country where he hopes to write an anti-war book in peace. His flapper wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) makes it clear she would much rather be partying in London. Milne has writer’s block. And the crying baby makes the situation even worse. They hire a nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to help raise their son Christopher Robin whom they call Billy Moon. But when Daphne moves back to London, and Olive to her dying mother’s bedside, Milne is suddenly left alone with a son he barely knows (Will Tilston). He has to talk to him, cook for him and entertain him.

And that’s when some serious father-son bonding kicks in. They go on adventures in the Hundred Acre Wood, climb trees, make up stories and play with Billy Moon’s stuffed animals – a teddy bear, a piglet, and a donkey. He invites his friend — an illustrator — to draw pictures of it all. And Milne begins to write poems. He sends one, Vespers, about their son praying before bed, to Daphne in London to show her he’s writing again. She submits it to Vanity Fair and soon it’s a huge hit. Milne publishes his poems and stories and, suddenly, his son and the toys he plays with – Winnie the Pooh, and Kanga and Roo – become celebrities, famous around the world. The boy is dressed up and trotted out for book tours and toy stores and radio interviews. And this upsets him. Strangers know everything about his private life and his imaginary inventions. They think he’s a fictional character come to life, but he’s not Christopher Robin. He’s Billy Moon. Can the family stop this tide of fame before their lives are ruined?

Goodbye Christopher Robin is a touching story about the reality behind the beloved childrens’ books. It’s also the contrast between the British stiff upper lip – no touching or showing emotion – and all the humour and imagination yearning to escape. The movie is a bit slow in parts, and sometimes succombs to nostalgia and sentimentality, but I liked it anyway. And it also has beautiful locations and great costumes.

BPM (Beats Per Minute)

Dir: Robin Campillo

It’s the early 1990s in Paris, AIDS is at its peak and people are in a panic. The government makes speeches but does nothing and big pharma is sitting on crucial medication. Meanwhile, people are dying every day. So a group of activists launch a protest group called Act Up Paris (after its US counterpart) and spring into action.

They storm into government meetings and pharmaceutical offices, throwing plastic sacs of fake blood at the walls. Then they stage mass die-ins, falling to the floor until they’re dragged away by police. They meet in university lecture halls to hash out their disagreements: men and women of all ages and sexualities. But will their actions fall on deaf ears?

BPM is a story about the group, but especially two of its members, Sean –a scrawny, cynical latino (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart ) and Nathan, a student from a small town (Arnaud Valois). After a spontaneous first kiss – when they take over a high school to teach safe sex – they move in together: Sean is HIV positive, Nathan negative. Their relationship is intense and passionate, partly because Sean might die at any moment. BPM is a long and detailed – but very moving – look at a civil disobedience movement. It captures the fluidity and uncertainty of life and love in the midst of a crisis.

BPM, Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House and Goodbye Christopher Robin 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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