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

 

The Twentieth Century. Films reviewed: Escape from Mogadishu, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, 12 Mighty Orphans

Posted in 1930s, 1990s, Action, Coming of Age, Germany, High School, Korea, Orphans, Poverty, Refugees, Sports, Switzerland, Texas by CulturalMining.com on August 7, 2021

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

Some movies have titles that tell you a lot about what you’re going to see. This week I’m looking at three such movies, all set during the 20th century. We’ve got Koreans in Mogadishu in the 1990s; child refugees from Nazi Germany in the early 30s; and Texan orphans playing football in the Great Depression.

Escape from Mogadishu

Dir: Seung-wan Ryoo

It’s 1990 in Mogadishu Somalia, and the country is on the verge of collapse. Its authoritarian President Barre is still in power but rebel forces are gaining strength. It’s also the year when both North and South Korea are joining the United Nations, and are in heavy cold-war competition to build up more allies than their rival in vote-rich Africa. And the two ambassadors, Ambassador Han from the south (Kim Yoon-seok) and Ambassador Rim (Heo Joon-ho) from the north are in constant competition to curry favour with Barre’s government. And they each have heavy-hitters to help them. Kang (In-Sung Jo) is a recent arrival from the notorious Korean CIA. He’s arrogant and rude, but effective. Likewise, his counterpart from the north. They each run underhanded schemes against the other side, from planting fake news reports, to hiring thugs to steal embassy materials. But the Somali government is losing its grip, and there’s mayhem on the streets. And when all communications cease, both sides realize they have to get the hell out of Mogadishu. And due to strange circumstances, the North and the South are forced to cooperate, and try to escape together.

But will it work?

Escape from Mogadishu is a Korean action/thriller set in a Somalia teetering on the brink of civil war. There are child soldiers shooting rifles at random, corrupt police, and mobs of looters running rampant. Both North and South Koreans loathe their rivals — the countries are technically still at war, with a 40-year-old ceasefire at their shared border. When they encounter each other face-to-face, the ROKs thinks the DPRKs are trained as killers since they were kids; while they’re sure the South Koreans are either trying to poison them or force them to defect. And neither country can let it be known they’re doing anything that might help the other side. 

This is a fun movie about rivals caught in an apocalypse. It includes an amazing, 30-minute chase scene as they try to escape. It’s set in Somalia (and shot in Morocco) but it’s really about Koreans — rivalry, suspicion, with the underlying hope of brotherhood and peace. The Somalis are there as decoration, mainly portrayed as corrupt, violent, crazy, untrustworthy, or else  as silent, nameless victims — typical of most war movies. The Korean characters are more rounded but not always favourable either. Escape from Mogadishu has a hardboiled, cynical tone, but with a great streak of ironic humour and an underlying message of good will. This movie was just released in South Korea and it’s the years first blockbuster. So if you like action thrillers, you should check this one out.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

Co-WriDir: Caroline Link

It’s 1933 in Berlin. The Kempers are an upper middle class family living in a nice neighbourhood. Dad (Oliver Masucci) is a leading theatre critic, also known for his radio broadcasts. Mom (Carla Juri) is a pianist. Their son, Max (Marinus Hohmann) is into Zorro, while little Anna (Riva Krymalowski) likes drawing pictures of animals at the zoo. And they all adore their housekeeper Heimpi. But with elections a week away, and Hitler’s Nazis likely to prevail, Dad is worried. As a committed socialist and an unsparing critic, he’s prominent on Hitler’s enemy list. If the Nazis win he will likely be jailed or killed. So the family packs up a few suitcases for a quick trip to Switzerland. They plan to come back after the election. No such luck. Hitler triumphs, and they’re stranded in Zurich. The government seizes all his possessions and furniture, brown shirts burn his books, and newspapers stop publishing his work. Suddenly they are refugees, and Jewish intellectuals, no less, an exceedingly unpopular category.

So they settle into country life in a tiny alpen village near lake Zurich. Anna is baffled by the strange accent, their melted cheese and odd customs. Girls are separated from boys and kept at the back of the classroom, and boys throw rocks at girls they like.  She soon adjusts and makes local friends. But their  parents must keep a low profile. Dad is a wanted man, with a price on his head, and Nazi sympathizers are everywhere. Eventually they movie to Paris, where antisemitism is rife. As they sink deeper into poverty, they are forced to choose between necessities (like food, pencils and lightbulbs) and luxuries (like books and meat). Will the tide ever turn in their favour?

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a realistic and poignant story about a young girl’s life as a refugee in the 1930s. It’s about the whole family but seen through Anna’s eyes. It’s also about her internal trauma — her drawings turn from cute animals to people drowning in the ocean or crushed in an avalanche. It’s based on the semi-autobiographical novel by the late British author and illustrator Judith Kerr. So, as a film, it’s not the kind that builds to big climax and denouement; rather it’s episodic storytelling, a collection of vivid memories taken from the author’s childhood. The movie is filled with the wonder and disillusionment of a girl growing up in an unkind world, but it never loses its optimism. 

This is a very nice and engrossing film.

12 Mighty Orphans

Dir: Ty Roberts

It’s the 1938 in the Texas panhandle dustbowl, where starving farmers are abandoning their land and their children. Rusty Russel (Luke Wilson) is a renowned high school football coach starting a new job. He has taken many teams statewide championships. But his newest school is an exception. The kids here are barefoot, undernourished and illiterate. And they’re all orphans. But the coach is determined to change all that. So he tries to put together a football team, the school’s first, from among the orphans. They’re regularly flogged by Frank Wynne (Wayne Knight) who runs a for-profit printing press on school grounds and who treats the kids as virtual slaves. Rusty offers an enticement — when you’re training on the football field, you won’t be working on the fields.

Rusty pulls together a ramshackle bunch of scrawny, gap-toothed kids with low-esteem. And a newcomer, Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker) a 17-year-old seething with anger. With the help of the school’s medic, the kindly alcoholic Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), they manage to get the boys to resemble something like a team. Through pep-talks, motivation and intensive training, they’re ready to play ball — but against whom? The other schools want nothing to do with them. And they’re so much smaller than the average football player they don’t stand a chance even if they do play. But the Mighty Mites persevere, and make it into the league. But can they ever win? And will they learn to call themselves orphans with pride not shame?

12 Mighty Orphans is a wonderful, heartwarming sports movie about a team of underdogs trying to make it. I have no interest whatsoever in high school football, and yet I found this movie captivating. It’s a traditional-style movie — it could have been made in the 1940s — but still feels fresh. Each kid has his own personality, with names like Snoggs (Jacob Lofland), Fairbanks, Wheatie, and Pickett — all based on actual players. With clear-cut villains, and bittersweet heroes, it’s simple and easy to follow but moving, nonetheless. 

This is a good one.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is now available on VOD and other digital formats.  12 Mighty Orphans and Escape from Mogadishu both open theatrically in Toronto this weekend — 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

Grand Ambitions. Films reviewed: Edge of the World, The Sign Painter, Lune

Posted in 1800s, 1930s, 1940s, 1990s, Apartheid, Bipolar, Canada, Feminism, Latvia, Malaysia, Nazi, Toronto, WWII by CulturalMining.com on June 4, 2021

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

It’s spring Film festival season in Toronto. Inside Out continues through the weekend featuring some more pics, like Knocked a Swedish psychological thriller about a lesbian widow who hears knocks in her apartment at night; and Being Thunder, a doc about a two-spirited, genderqueer teen’s experiences at a pow wow. The Toronto Japanese Film fest starts today and runs through the month — more on this one next week — and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, featuring films from around the world, has just begun.

This week I’m looking at three new features (two from the TJFF), from Malaysia, Latvia, and Canada, about people with grand ambitions. There’s a a sign painter in Latvia who wants to be an artist, a Victorian explorer making friends with head-hunters in Borneo; and a radical anti-apartheid feminist who wants to vote for Nelson Mandela.

Edge of the World

Dir: Michael Haussman

It’s the 1840s in Sarawak, Borneo. James Brooke (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is an India-born British explorer, collecting butterflies and plants to send back to the academy. He arrives by ship on the shores of this island beside his cousin Crookshank (Dominic Monaghan) and his nephew young Charley (Otto Farrant). But once he enters the jungle they’re captured by warriors who celebrate victory by chopping off heads. Luckily they are brought before two Malay princes to rule on their fate. Prince Makota (Bront Palkarae) is aggressive and devious — he sees a chance to gain British guns and cannons. The younger Prince Bedruddin (Samo Rafael) on the other hand, likes James, as in lust — a future ally and bed-partner?

He says James has semangat — a certain virility and vitality fit for a ruler. James, on the other hand, only has eyes for the beautiful Fatima (Atiqa Hasholan). But after a battle, the Sultan of Brunei makes him king, the Rajah of Sarawak. But danger awaits at every turn of the river, with the snake people, and double-crossing royals, out to get him. And the British Empire would love to get their hands on the gold, coal and spices.  Can he hold onto his kingdom, and fight off enemies abroad and at home? Or will his head land up as just another trophy on somebody’s mantlepiece?

Edge of the World is an exciting adventure in Southeast Asia when most of the world was still coloured pink (the British Empire). This is based on a true story, celebrated at the time, and told by Malaysians themselves. It includes Dayak music and dance,  and a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic cast (Malay, Chinese, Indigenous, Indian, and European). Far from a tribute to colonialism and imperialism, most of the British (save for Sir James) come across as cruel, greedy and racist murderers.

If you like historical dramas — this is a good one.

The Sign Painter

Dir: Viesturs Kairišs

It’s the 1930s in a remote, small town beside a river in Latvia. Ansis (Davis Suharevskis) is a gawky, gangly young man who works with his father as a sign painter, but secretly wants to be an artist, painting on canvas, not words on doors and walls. His other secret is his love for a beautiful young woman. He visits Zisele (Brigita Cmuntová) Romeo and Juliet style, climbing ladders to knock on her window. She’s a modernist, often reading books on free love. But like Romeo and Juliet, they are separated two forces: her father, Bernstein — a local Jewish shopkeeper (Gundars Abolins) — and Ansis’s Catholic priest.  Neither want them to marry, and it doesn’t help that he’s poor. There are also others in the mix. The self-centred Naiga (Agnese Cirule) — the literal girl next door, her father owns the pharmacy next to Bernstein’s shop — has a crush on him. And then there’s Andreas, a bombastic Baltic German, who has the hots for Zisele. Who will end up with whom? But all of their young plans are up in the air when war comes, and the country already under a fascist dictator, is invaded first by the Soviets, and later by the Nazis. What are their fates?

The Sign Painter is a tragi-comedy about life in Latvia during the 30s and 40s as seen through the eyes of one young man. It starts out with a light humorous tone — a sign painter gets lots of work changing the name of main street, with different colours — from Green to Red to Black — and fonts from roman to cyrillic to gothic, depending on who’s in charge.  But about half way through, it takes on a much darker tone, as changing political whirlwinds bring arrests, deportations and massacres. Based on a novel, it’s laden with characters and unexpected plot turns.

I like this movie.

Lune

Dir: Arturo Perez Torres,

Aviva Armour-Ostroff

It’s 1994 in Toronto. Miriam (Aviva Armour-Ostroff) is a single mom who is excited. She’s a radical feminist an artist and a long-time anti-apartheid activist. She’s generous and helpful, giving food and comfort to random homeless people and political dissidents. Why is she so excited? Her birthplace, South Africa, is about to have their first free election — and she wants to go back and vote for Nelson Mandela. Problem is she is penniless (she lives in an apartment above a pawn shop) jobless, and nearly friendless — though she’s has many, many sexual partners.  And then there’s her daughter Eliza (Chloe Van Landschoot). Eliza is finishing high school and trying to get a scholarship to a Montreal Dance Academy. She’s dating  Mike (Vlad Alexis) a naive, young DJ with very well-established parents. Miriam says she wants to take Eliza and Mike to South Africa with her to witness democracy at work. Did I mention? Miriam and Eliza are white, and Mike is black. 

Mike is enchanted by Miriam’s antics and thrilled by the idea of rediscovering his poetry, music, creativity and inner blackness. Eliza, though is pissed. What about her dancing? What about her boyfriend? She’s seen episodes like this throughout her life. Miriam is off her meds and in an increasingly manic state.  So even as her creativity and enthusiasm grows, so does her recklessness. Can they make it to South Africa and back in one piece? Or is this all just a pipe dream?

Lune is a drama about an unusual family in Toronto in the 90s. It’s an amazingly moving piece, a biting satire and an explosion of creativity from spoken word to art to modern dance (Eliza retells her own story in the form of a dance, done by Chloe Van Landschoot.) Vlad Alexis is perfect as the bourgeois black guy trying to get woke. But the centre of it all is co-writer, co-diirector and star Aviva Armour-Ostroff, who as Miriam pushes all her boundaries in a shocking performance, grounded in politics you rarely see. Miriam talks like a combination of Edina Monsoon and Cornell West… with a good dose of cannabis-induced lunacy. (The title, Lune, divides the film into chapters marked by the stages of the moon). 

Lune is a fantastic movie, and has already won the 2021 Micki Moore Award. Don’t miss this one!

Lune has it’s Canadian premier at TJFF today and is playing through Saturday; The Sign Painter has its Ontario premier at TJFF on June 8th and 9th; and Edge of the World opens today on VOD and all major platforms.

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

Guys doing stuff. Films reviewed: Nobody, Six Minutes to Midnight, Judas and the Black Messiah

Posted in 1930s, 1960s, Espionage, FBI, Nazi, Resistance, Suburbs, Thriller, UK, Uncategorized, WWII by CulturalMining.com on March 26, 2021

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

A few weeks ago. I did International Women’s Day, so this week I’m looking at three new movies about guys doing stuff. There’s a WWII drama about a spy in a school for Nazi girls, a ‘60s drama about an FBI rat in the Black Panther Party, and an action-thriller about an ordinary, middle-aged man who decides to fight against the Mafia.

Nobody

Dir: Ilya Naishuller

Hutch (Bob Odenkirk) is a ordinary guy who lives in the suburbs with his wife and two kids. He works at a dull desk job in a nondescript factory, a life that, while not perfect, is what he wants. But when his house in broken into by a pair of amateur burglars., everything falls apart. His his son no longer respects him and his wife seems bored by his very existence.  She married a wimp. Something has got to change. So Hutch sets out to channel his anger and aggression. 

He gets his chance when a pack of hoods boards a city bus and begin harassing and threatening a teenaged girl. So he decides to pick a fight. They’re younger, stronger and meaner than he is, and there’s six of them. Is there something about Hutch we don’t know? The good news is he beats all six to a pulp, sending them to hospital. The bad news is one of them dies. Worse news is he’s the younger brothers of a notoriously powerful Russian mob boss named Yulian (Aleksey Serebryakov). Yulian is cruel, sadistic and vengeful, with a veritable army of supporters. Can Hutch face down an entire Russian mob? Or is he, and his family, doomed to die?

Nobody is a great action thriller, extremely violent but quite entertaining. There are car chases and excellent fight scenes — many without guns — and a pace that is constantly moving.  You might know Odinkirk from the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul, not your average action hero, but he pulls it off perfectly. And Serebryakov as the villain is also fascinating — he’s actually a famous Russian actor, in movies like Leviathan.  Also Christopher Lloyd as an elderly action hero, and RZA, of Wu Tang fame, rounding out the slate. This is actually a Russian movie (though it’s mainly in English and shot in Winnipeg) and the director, Ilya Naishuller, does really cool stuff with his camera, eliding entire days into just a few seconds on the screen. I like the look and feel and mood and music he uses. There’s nothing deep or socially relevant or meaningful about this film, it’s just a fun and exciting action movie about fights, explosions, guns and cars, skillfully done.

Six Minutes to Midnight

Dir: Andy Goddard

It’s the summer of 1939 in Bexhill-on-Sea, a small coastal town in southeastern England. The girls at Augusta-Victoria College, a prestigious boarding school, are out for their morning swim. They’re excited because a new English teacher is coming that day. The school is run by a stern headmistress (Judi Dench) who is adamant about teaching girls poise, grace and maybe a bit of knowledge. And while she’s suspicious of the new “gentleman teacher” Thomas Miller (Eddie Izzard), she likes the fact he plays the piano. And the girls — including Ilsa (Carla Juri), their leader, Astrid the rebel, and Gretel the bullied girl with glasses — all enjoy singing in class. But what’s so special about this school?  All the young women there are Germans. And not just ordinary Germans, but the daughters and granddaughters of the Nazi elite.

Mr Miller knows all about this before he arrives. He’s a British spy on a secret mission: to find out what’s going on behind closed doors. But when his handler, a Colonel, is assassinated before his very eyes, things get dangerous. He’s blamed for the killing, labeled a German spy, and has no way to contact headquarters to clear his name. Meanwhile,  German sympathizers are everywhere — who can he trust? Europe is on the brink of war, and something major is about to happen to the girls in the academy. Can Miller free himself, save the girls, and stop the German war effort? Or is he doomed to failure?

Six Minutes to Midnight is an enjoyable WWII thriller. It’s filled with classic skullduggery, like hidden cameras, double crossers and political intrigue. Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench are good, along with James D’Arcy as a police captain, Jim Broadbent as a bus driver, plus a bevy of talented German and Swiss actresses.

I guess I’m a sucker for British historical dramas, but… they do them so well!

Judas and the Black Messiah

Dir: Shaka King

It’s the summer of ’68 in Chicago. Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is the young local head of the Black Panther Party. They supply meals for poor kids and plan to open a medical centre. He takes up with Deborah (Dominique Fishback) a young idealistic poet. Fred is also known for his rabble-rousing speeches, done without a mic, calling for revolution, instead of just posturing: Political power doesn’t flow from the sleeve of a dashiki, he says. You have to do something, don’t just talk about it. Because 1968 is a time of change, with  the war in Vietnam, the Democratic convention, and massive marches and demos going on in downtown Chicago. 

Naturally, J Edgar Hoover and the FBI don’t like it at all. They label the Panthers “dangerous extremists” and decide to go all out to stop them, with their notorious and illegal operation known as COINTELPRO. They plan to infiltrate, jail or kill the Panthers, whom they call a subversive criminal group. 

Meanwhile, there’s Wild Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) a petty grifter  and car thief who poses as an FBI agent to rob other blacks. He’s caught, threatened with prison or worse, and forced to work as a rat for the FBI. It’s a carrot and stick operation. His handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons), possibly the whitest guy in the world, shares the wealth — cigars, expensive alcohol, and envelopes of cash. He just has to betray the panthers, incite violence, and draw maps of their headquarters for illegal break-ins and assassinations. 

Judas and the Black Messiah is a fantastic historical dramatic thriller about major social movements and the the US government’s attempt to stop it. The title suggests it’s about two clashing forces, Hampton and O’Neal, the revolutionary and the traitor, facing off. But actually they seldom interact. It’s actually a story divided into two points of view, the FBI, and the Black Panther Party. It’s full of stuff I hadn’t heard about — things like Hampton organizing working-class whites, Puerto Ricans and Blacks in order to form a united front based on class, not race. Kaluuya and Stanfield were in the movie Get Out together and they’re both unrecognizable; they totally get into their roles here. It’s an important issue told in a cinematic way… and it’s nominated for for academy awards this year.

Great movie.

Nobody and Six  Minutes to Midnight are available starting today, and Judas and the Black Messiah is coming soon.  

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

 

Building walls. Films reviewed: The Rest of Us, The Divided Brain, Mr Jones

Posted in 1930s, Brain, Canada, Communism, documentary, Drama, Family, Feminism, Journalism, Movies, Neuroscience, Norway, Thriller, USSR, Wales, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 19, 2020

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

I’m recording this in my home to tell you about some movies you can watch in your home. This week I have two dramas directed by women and a documentary. There’s a psychiatrist looking at the divided brain, two families trying to bridge a gap; and a UK journalist who wants to penetrate the iron curtain.

The Rest of Us

Dir: Aisling Chin-Yee

Cami (Heather Graham) is a divorced mom who writes and illustrates children’s books. She lives in an elegant house with a swimming pool. Her daughter Aster (Sophie Nélisse) is home from university and hanging with a guy she met. She’s mad at her mother so she lives in an Airstream trailer parked out front. Meanwhile, another mother/daughter family live in another nice house. Rachel (Jodi Balfour) lives with her husband and young daughter Talulah (Abigail Pniowsky). What do they have in common? Rachel had an affair with Cami’s husband 10 years back, and now she’s married to him. But when he suddenly dies, the two moms – and their daughters – are brought together, against their will. Turns out the late husband hadn’t kept up with insurance and mortgage payments, leaving Rachel and Talulah homeless. So they end up moving, temporarily, into Cami and Aster’s home. An odd couple indeed. Can four women with very little in common bond together? Or will they stew in their respective juices making for an intractable situation?

The Rest of Us is a light drama about relationships and make-shift families. It’s short – less than 90 minutes – but the characters are really well done, complete with secrets, back stories and quirks. It didn’t exactly blow me away, but it I liked watching it develop — you do care about what happens to them. A nice, light family drama.

The Divided Brain

Dir: Manfred Becker

The human brain is divided in half. The left brain controls the right side of your body, and the right brain handles the left side. So if you’re right-handed that usually means the left side of your brain is dominant. Beyond that, the two sides are said to process information in different ways: The left brain, or so the theory goes, is more analytical, concerned wth facts and minutiae; while the right brain is more creative; it lets you look at the big picture. This documentary is about the theories of Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and neuroimaging researcher who also studied literature. He lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. He’s the author of The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009). Basically, he says we – meaning our history, civilization, educational system, society, not to mention our individual personalities – can be explained by our emphasis on the left side of the brain at the expense of the right side. And it goes on to show research and experiments on the topic as explained by various talking heads. But is it true, and has McGilchrist proven it?

Personally, I don’t buy it. I don’t even believe the basic left side/right side premise. We all use both sides of our brains, so to make it a simple A vs B, is reductionist. And then to extrapolate this theory to cover all of society, communication, and our educational system, while fascinating just isn’t believable. (I have seen the documentary but not read his book, which could explain his work in greater detail.) While the documentary mainly focuses on McGilchrist’s theories, it does include opposing views. McGilchrist is a heterodox scholar, not part of the mainstream. It also includes magnificent drone shots of cityscapes and farms to illustrate the increasing “left brain”-look of ever more geometrically divided landscapes.

Whether or not you agree with these theories, The Divided Brain does leave you with lots of food for thought.

Mr Jones

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

It’s the early 1930s in London. Gareth Jones (James Norton) is a Cambridge-educated young man from Wales. He’s multilingual and works as a foreign policy advisor to the former PM David Lloyd George. But what he really wants is to be an investigative journalist. He’s already had one big scoop: he was on the plane carrying carrying Hitler, Goebels and other top Nazis right after they came to power. Now he wants to go to Moscow to follow a source about a big story there… and maybe interview Stalin!

Easier said than done. But he does manage to get a visa and a few nights at the posh Hotel Metropol. When he gets there, he discovers his source – another journalist – has been murdered. Luckily, he is taken under the wing of a famous foreign correspondent, Walter Duranty (Peter Saarsgard). He heads the NY Times bureau – known as “our man in Moscow” – and he’s won the Pulitzer. He’s also a total sleazebucket. He takes Jones to a party, right in the middle of Moscow, complete with jazz musicians, sex workers, and party favours… like hypodermic needles, loaded with heroin, ready to shoot.

He also meets a Berlin-based journalist named Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby). She trusts Jones and tells him what he needs to know. So he gets on a train with a high-ranked party member who says he’ll show him beautiful Ukraine… but Jones manages to sneak away in the city of Stalino (now Donetsk). And what he sees is shocking. There’s a major famine going on, right in the middle of Europe’s breadbasket. All the wheat is being shipped east, leaving almost nothing for them to eat. He witnesses unspeakable horrors in what is now known as The Holodomor. But he’s arrested before he can file his story. Will Jones make it back home? Can he publish this story? And if he does, will anyone believe him?

Based on a true story, Mr Jones is a combination biopic, thriller and historical drama. It’s a bit too long, and there are a few things I don’t get: for example, the movie is framed by scenes of George Orwell typing Animal Farm, but the story’s about Gareth Jones, not George Orwell. Other than that, the acting’s good (especially James Norton), the story is compelling, and it’s beautifully shot, from the modernistic Moscow hotel to the staid, stone buildings in London. Most of all are the scenes in Ukraine where colour is dimmed to almost black and white with stark snowy landscapes.

A good but harrowing movie.

The Rest of Us is now playing on VOD; Mr Jones opens today online at Apple and Cineplex; check your local listings; and The Brain Divided is available to rent online on Vimeo.com here

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

When I grow up… Films reviewed: Fighting With My Family, Never Look Away

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, Art, Biopic, comedy, Communism, Disabilities, Germany, Nazi, Sports, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 22, 2019

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

One question every kid hears is What do you want to be when you grow up? When I was three I wanted to be a fire truck. But how many stay true to their earliest ambitions? This week I’m looking at two movies about people who stick to their childhood passions. There’s an historical drama from Germany about an aspiring artist and a biopic from the UK about a perspiring wrestler

Fighting with My Family

Wri/Dir: Stephen Merchant

Saraya Knight (Francis Pugh) is a thirteen-year-old girl in a working-class neighbourhood in Norwich. Her mom and dad (Lena Headey, Nick Frost) run a business: the WAW, or World Association of Wrestlers. But like everything else in that world, it’s a bit of an exaggeration. They have one gym where they train local kids to wrestle, and take their family’s matches on the road in their shiny white van. Her life is fully immersed in the sport. Black haired and petite, Saraya uses black eyeliner and dresses in heavy metal gear. She has posters of her wrestling heroes on her wall and even made her own championship belt out of cardboard. But she has one problem: she chokes under stress.

So her big brother Zack (Jack Lowden) takes her into the ring and teaches her how to wrestle. He is her sparring partner, and they soon become an accomplished tag team. She’s a natural. But they have bigger ambitions: to be make it to the top. So when the WWE is coming to the UK they sign up for the tryouts. This is Zack and Saraya’s one chance to make it big. The auditions are led by Coach (Vince Vaughan) a hard-boiled veteran who takes no prisoners. Will Zack get in? And will he take Saraya with him? Turns out, Coach chooses her, not him!

Suddenly she finds herself in Florida surrounded by palm trees, suntans and bikinis while Zack is left in Norwich taking care of his new baby. Saraya — now called Paige — is overwhelmed by the gruelling, boot-camp workouts and the loneliness she faces. Zack feels abandoned so he cuts her off. And the fledgling wrestlers she’s paired with are all former models, dancers and cheerleaders… who don’t know how to wrestle. Professionals finesse their jabs, throws and punches so they don’t hurt so much.

Her parents and all the kids at the gym back home are rooting for her, but Paige is filled with doubt. Can the little “freak from Norwich” ever make it in pro-wrestling?

Fighting With My Family is a very cute, palatable and easy-to-watch comedy biopic, about the real female pro wrestler known as Paige. I have to admit I knew next to nothing about pro wrestling before I watched it.

What did I learn? That this sport is “fixed”, but it’s not “fake”… the wrestling part is real, and it can really hurt. That it’s a theatrical performance, much like a circus. That you have to win over an audience if you want to make it. And that your persona, while a big exaggeration, has to have some truth in it or no one will believe it. The movie is filled with salty language but no sex or violence (except in the ring). Pugh and Lowden are great as the brother and sister. Yes, it’s predictable and sentimental and I’m not going to call it a “great movie”, but I had a good time watching it.

Never Look Away (Werk Ohne Autor)

Wri/Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

1937, Germany.

Little Kurt, with his aunt Elisabeth (Saskia Rosendahl), visits an exhibition in Dresden filled with avant-garde art. He loves the beautiful colours of fauvism, the strange distortions of cubism, and challenging images by Grozs, Kandinsky, Mondrian. But is he too young to understand the art show was put on by the Nazi government to condemn this art as bad and “degenerate”? No, he understands perfectly what they’re saying, and rejects it all.

But he listens to his aunt when she warns him to keep his drawings secret. Later, when the lovely but eccentric aunt has a strange episode they lock her up in a mental hospital. While she is there, top-ranked Nazi doctors decide to throw away not just “degenerate” art but imperfect people. Anyone with a mental illness, physical disability or a developmental handicap is sent to the gas chambers. Doctors write either a blue “minus” (keep) or a red “plus” (kill) on their files. This includes Elisabeth, condemned to death by a top Nazi gynecologist (Sebastian Koch).

Later, after the war, Kurt (Tom Schilling) is accepted into the Dresden Art Academy. But now his talent is stifled by the communist government who only want him to paint socialist realism: stern men and rosy-cheeked women harvesting wheat as they stare toward a brighter future. At the academy he meets the kind and beautiful Ellie Seeband (Paula Beer), and wins her heart. Even under communism, Ellie is a “golden pheasant” from a rich, high-ranked family. They fall in love and meet for secret trysts. But when her parents come home they have to be extra cautious. While her mother is sympathetic, her father, Professor Karl Seeband, tries his best to break them up. But what no one realizes, this professor is the same doctor who sent Kurt’s aunt Elizabeth to her death!

Kurt and Ellie eventually make it to West Germany, where he joins the prestigious art academy in Düsseldorf, and lands a private studio to create the art he really wants to make. The art professor tells him his work is good but not yet special, but he still detects the talent hidden there. Will Kurt ever find his true calling? Will Seebald’s hidden war crimes be exposed? Can Ellie emerge from beneath her oppressive father’s shadow?

Never Look Away is an epic, fictionalized drama about the life of a well- known artist, spanning German history from the Nazi era, to the communist east, and to the changes in the west in the 50s and 60s. It stars some of Germany’s biggest names: tiny Tom Schilling with his high-pitched voice is still playing young men in his late thirties (and he’s great as Kurt). Paula Beer (Transit) is sweet as Ellie, Sebastian Koch is suitably sinister as the hidden Nazi Zeebald, and Saskia Rosendahl (who was amazing in Lore) once again wins as Elisabeth. The cinematography and music are all wonderful. But something seems missing from this huge drama.

At one point Kurt makes an interesting point: Take six random numbers. On their own they have no meaning. But if they are the winning numbers on a lottery ticket suddenly they become important and beautiful. I went into this movie blind, knowing nothing about it. While watching it, I kept thinking what’s the big deal about Kurt? But when he starts experimenting with smeared, black-and-white, photorealist paintings, I thought, wait a minute, those look like Gerhard Richter’s paintings! And suddenly the movie makes sense. It becomes a winning lottery ticket. Not a perfect movie – not as good as this director’s Lives of Others – but definitely worth watching.

Oscar nominee Never Look Away and Fighting With My Family 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.

Nannies. Films reviewed: Mary Poppins Returns, Roma

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

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

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

Mary Poppins Returns

Dir: Rob Marshall

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

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

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

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

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

Roma

Wri/Dir: Alfonso Cuaron

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

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

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

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

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

See it in a movie theatre while you still can.

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

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

Bro Movies. Films reviewed: Bigger, First Man, Free Solo

Posted in 1930s, 1960s, Biopic, Bodybuilders, documentary, Montreal, Movies, Space, Sports by CulturalMining.com on October 12, 2018

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

It’s Fall Film Festival season in Toronto now, meaning more movies than you can shake a stick at. Toronto After Dark will thrill and chill you with horror, cult and fantasy pics. Cinefranco brings brand new French language comedies, dramas and policiers from Quebec and Europe. And Rendezvous with Madness plays fascinating films accompanied by panel discussions on addiction and mental health.

But this week I’m talking about bro films, two biopics and a doc about men with lofty goals. One wants to climb a sheer cliff, another wants to build the perfect body, and a third one who just wants to fly to the moon.

Bigger

Dir: George Gallo

Joe Weider (Tyler Hoechlin) is a poor jewish kid in depression-era Montreal. On the streets tough kids beat him up and steal his paper route money, and at home his cruel mom beats him for not keeping clean. At least his little brother Ben (Aneurin Barnard) looks up to him. Joe finds inspiration in unusual places: a strongman at the circus and photos of weight lifters he see at newsstands. He begins to obsessively draw pictures of perfect male bodies, copying from textbooks at the McGill library. He wants to promote beautiful physiques, bodies that are muscular, symmetrical and healthy. But fitness for health and looks is still a new concept. In those days people guzzled booze, smoked like chimneys, and thought exercise was a dangerous thing best left to olympic athletes.

Weider challenges all that with self-published magazines, promoting new exercises, diets and weight training, illustrated with glamour shots of barely-dressed muscle men. It’s a smash hit, he gets a US contract and Joe and Ben’s empire expands to bodybuilder contests, weights, and a wide range of magazines. And when business takes him to Hollywood, he spots a bleached blonde pin up model working out at Jack LaLanne’s gym.  Betty (Julianne Hough) is everything he desires: beautiful, fit and smart (he is separated from his first wife). Is this true love? Later he discovers Austrian bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger – the personification of his childhood drawings – and brings him to America.

Bigger is a fun, if idealized, look at the life and career of Canadian fitness mogul Joe Weider. It’s a bit corny, with Montreal-born Joe talking in an unplaceable, choppy accent. And it steers clear of his lawsuits and scandals. But Hoechlin and Hough are enjoyable as Joe and Betty, and there’s even a super villain, a racist, anti-semitic homophobe named Hauk (wonderfully played by Kevin Durand) who is his business rival and real-life enemy. Not a great movie, but an enjoyable one.

First Man

Dir: Damien Chazelle

It’s the 1960s in America, the space race is on, and the Soviets are winning. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is a test pilot exploring the skies. He can land any plane, even one about to explode. He’s married to Janet (Claire Foy), a pixie-ish woman with a fierce temper. They have a young daughter they both love. But when the girl dies of an incurable illness, and Neil loses his job despite his skills they know things have to change. So Neil makes a big decision: NASA needs astronauts, and he’s going to be one. They move down to Houston and settle in to suburban life.

First Man follows the career and home life of the renowned astronaut, from Gemini missions, to Apollo’s first landing. Armstrong is portrayed as a strong silent type, a no-nonsense guy who drives off alone to handle anger and depression. It also deals with astronauts and their uncertain lives (lots of them died). And director Chazelle makes you feel like you’re there with them in the planes and rockets. He even inserts showtunes into his astronaut movie. (Wait — showtunes?)  So why didn’t I Iike it? First Man is too heavy, too long, too ponderous. It’s one of those overly stern and patriotic American movies about national heroes. And where’s the suspense? We already know he was the first man on the moon. What’s the point? Ok, there are a few powerful scenes, but First Man consists mainly of rattling cockpits, brooding astronauts and suburban housewives yelling about their husbands.

Ryan Gosling is wasted in this boring example of Oscar Bait.

Free Solo

Dir: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin

It’s 2016 and Alex Honnold has one obsession: to scale a sheer cliff in Yosemite. Mountain climbers have done it before in teams rapelling with ropes, pitons and caribiners. But Alex wants to do it “free solo”, that is, by himself and without safety ropes. One slip, one miscalculated reach, will send him plunging to his death. But he really wants to climb El Cap, and if it’s not free solo, what’s the point?

Alex is a boyish, wiry vegetarian who cares little for material things. He’s a loner who lives out of a trailer. He’s also in perfect shape, lithe, bendy and incredibly strong. He has to be to hold onto a crack in a rock with just a few fingers while stretching his body sideways to the next outcropping. He intensely studies the cliff, practicing each stage in separate small climbs using ropes. And he is accompanied by the filmmakers, who are accomplished climbers themselves. Alex proves to be a bit camera shy, hesitant to “let go” before the cameras. Is it performance anxiety? And will Alex make it to the top of El Capitan… or plunge to his death?

Free Solo is an amazing and spectacular look at one climber attempting the nearly impossible. I have no deep-seated passion for rock climbing – I even have a fear of falling – but this movie kept me riveted the whole time. Scenes that show Alex’s quirky nature and the people around him —  including other climbers, his family and his girlfriend – help give him a more rounded portrayal. But it’s the climb itself, and the truly amazing photography, that really keeps your attention.

Bigger, First Man, and Free Solo and 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.

Visuals. Films reviewed: Papillon, We the Animals, Madeline’s Madeline

Posted in 1930s, Coming of Age, Dance, Drama, Family, France, LGBT, Prison, violence by CulturalMining.com on August 24, 2018

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

All movies need good sound and pictures, but in some films the visual aspects are especially notable. This week, I’m looking at three, new, visually-oriented movies, with two approaching the avant-garde.

We’ve got three brothers exploring their home, two men escaping from a desert island, and one young actress channelling her inner self.

Papillon

Dir: Michael Noer

It’s 1930s Paris and Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Charley Hunnam) is living the life of Riley. He’s fit, smart and well-to-do, and is passionately in love with his beautiful wife. He figures at this current income he could retire in six more months. His job? An expert safe-cracker, working freelance for the mob. But his luck runs out when he is sent down for a murder he didn’t commit. Papillon is a good fighter but not a killer. They send him off to an inescable prison in French Guyana but he is already planning on how to get out. On board the ship he meets Louis Dega (Rami Malek) a small but snobbish counterfeiter with glasses. Dega is rich – he keeps a roll of bills hidden up his rectum – but can’t defend himself, and Papillon needs money to get away. Together they form a grudging alliance that deepens as their friendship grows.

Prison life – including hard labour – is brutal, with violence coming both from other inmates and from the guards. Any escape attempt means two years in solitary, with absolute silence required Repeated attempts mean permanent exile to Devils island a cliff covered desert. Papillon – his nickname comes from a butterfly tat on his chest – takes the fall for dega when he blows an escape attempt. He keeps from going insane in solitary by keeping his inner mind awake. The warden wants to break him, but Papillon never gives up.

Can he ever escape this hell-hole? And can Dega make it out too?

Perhaps because I’ve read Papillon’s true prison memoirs, and seen the 1970s film (starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman) this version seems too long and two slow… almost like a prison sentence. Still, it is visually gorgeous with period costumes, exotic settings, and epic scenery. Hunnam and Malek – two actors I really like — carry their roles well. So I ended up liking it, mainly as an adventure/action movie.

We the Animals

Dir: Jeremiah Zagar

It’s the 1980s. Manny, Joel and Jonah (Isaiah Kristian, Josiah Gabriel, Evan Rosado) are three biracial brothers in their tweens who live in a country home in upstate New York. Their Ma (Sheila Vand) has pale skin and long black hair – she works in a bottling plant. Pops (Raul Castillo) is Puerto Rican and looks like Freddie Mercury with his buzzed hair and black moustache. He keeps the boys’ hair buzzed short just like his, but Jonah, the youngest, has his mother’s blue eyes. Mom wants him to stay with her and never grow up and turn bad. Always stay nine years old, she says. Together the three boys run rampant around the house in the woods, though Jonah is shyer than his brothers, and afraid to go swimming.

Their playful and fun lives are interrupted by reality when Paps beats up mom, and drives away. She locks herself in her bedroom, so there’s no one to feed them. They become like wild animals exploring local stores and farms for food they can steal. On their travels they meet another kid. Dustin, who shows them their first porn videos and shares their first smokes. He’s from Phillie, and Jonah adores him. Will he and Dustin run away to somewhere they can be together?

We the Animals is an amazingly beautiful movie about growing up, as seen through a young boy’s eyes. He narrates the story, and keeps a record of everything in his secret journal along with bold crayon drawings. These drawings are animated in the film, and together with handlheld camera shots and aerial optics, we feel like we’re part of Jonah’s thoughts and dreams. The three, first-time actors are fantastic as the brothers, as are the parents.

We the Animals is a gorgeous, surreal film.

Madeline’s Madeline

Dir: Josephine Decker

Madeline (Helena Howard) is a young, biracial stage actress in NY City. She lives with her mom (Miranda July) and little brother She has her own bedroom decorated with fashion photos of models with their faces cut out and replaced by skies, clouds and sunsets. She sometimes sneaks in friends and prospective boyfriends to chat and maybe maybe more, but she’s always on the lookout for her overprotective mother… ready to intrude into her private life. But there’s a reason her mom is so intrusive. Madeline is prone to undiagnosed “episodes”, brought on by God knows what. She behaves erratically, inappropriately possibly even violent, so her mom tries not to upset her.

Currently Madeline is cast in an avant-garde stage project directed by Evangeline (Molly Parker). The actors – think yoga outfits and man buns – enter the minds of animals they imagine. It’s part acting, part movement, part dance, performed wearing masks. Evangeline is a Jungian, and longs to share in her actors’ thoughts and dreams, especially Madeline’s. She is obsessed by her, perhaps because Evangeline is pregnant and she sees Madeline as her baby (Evangeline’s unborn baby is also biracial).

So now it’s up to Madeline to negotiate her fraught relationship wihth her mother, a new one with her surrogate mom, and her inner turmoil that torments her dreams. All this while playing a version of herself in the project. Can Madeline, and the inner-Madeline she’s channelling – survive the daily stress of a scriptless production? Or is it too much for a 17 year old to handle?

Madeline’s Madeline is a semi-mystical look at the process of putting on an avant garde play. You have to accept the premise of experimental theatre to get the movie, but once you do, it works. The three main actors – supported by a group of almost mute performers – makes a great mom-daughter-mom rivalry, but Helena Howard especially stands out with her great and unpredictable acting.

Papillon, We the Animals and Madeline’s Madeline 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.

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.

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