In the Twilight Zone? Films reviewed: Shadow in the Cloud, The Antenna, Possessor Uncut

Posted in 1940s, Action, Crime, Horror, Mind Control, Supernatural, Suspense, Suspicion, Turkey, Uncategorized, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2020

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

Fall festival season continues with Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT festival playing now both digitally and at drive-ins. The Toronto Japanese Film Festival is entirely digital and runs from Saturday, October 3 – Thursday October 22.

This week I’m looking at three new genre movies that exist in a universe known as the Twilight Zone. There’s a female pilot fighting for control of a plane; a Turkish superintendant fighting a satellite dish for control of an apartment; and a highly-paid assassin fighting for control of a brain.

Shadow in the Cloud

Co-Wri/Dir: Roseanne Liang

It’s WWII at an airforce base in New Zealand. Maud Garret (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a pilot on a secret mission: to deliver a package with unknown contents to an undisclosed destination. But when she tries to board the all-male plane, she’s bombarded by a barrage of insults and abuse, ranging from condescension, to wolf whistles to outright hatred. But she stands her ground and won’t budge. So they relegate her to the ball turret – the glass and steel bubble attached to the bottom of the plane. Before climbing down she hands her satchel to one of the men – “never let this out of your hands, no matter what.” Her job? To look for a shadow in the clouds, evidence of Zero fighters, the Japanese aircraft that could shoot them down.

Turns out she’s an expert gunner, saving them all from a certain crash. But she faces a much bigger challenge from an unexpected enemy… something she keeps spotting out of the corner of her eye. It seems to be a creature with claws that can rip through steel, sharp teeth and cruel eyes. Is it real or just her imagination? What is in Maud’s package? And will this plane ever see dry land again?

Shadow in the Cloud is a fantastic WWII airplane drama, an action/thriller/sci-fi/horror movie, expertly done. A large portion of the movie is just Chloe Grace Moretz in a bomber jacket, alone in her ball turret, the rest of them just disembodied voices she hears through her earphones – but she carries it through. The movie is exciting and gripping all the way through. This is a genre movie – don’t look too closely for social significance – but it’s very entertaining with a perfect bad-ass heroine.  I loved this one.

The Antenna

Wri/Dir: Orçun Behram

Mehmet (Ihsan Önal) is an ordinary guy who works at a dead-end job somewhere in Turkey. He’s the superintendant at a non-descript apartment building, and has to deal with demanding tenants and a bully of a boss. He works in a small booth at the apartment gate, looking out a wide glass window. But he has some friends there, too. Like Yasemin (Gül Arici) a pretty young woman with conservative parents who wants to get out of this place; and Yusuf, a little kid who is kept awake by nightmares. (Mehmet has insomnia, too).

His job is tedious but not hard to handle… until a government operative arrives to install a new antenna on the building’s roof. These satellite dishes are required on every home, by orders of their Orwellian president, so they can hear his midnight speeches. But things go badly once the satellite dish is installed. Mehmet hears strange whispers. Black gunk starts seeping through cracks in the walls. And anyone exposed to the goop starts to change… in a bad way. Can Mehmet keep the run-down apartment from collapsing? Can he fight a secretive government plot to censor and control all the people? Or will he succumb to the powers of the antenna?

The Antenna is a fantasy/horror movie about ordinary people trying to fight government propaganda and the toxic waste it generates. It’s shot in a stark, 1984-ish style, with deserted apartment blocks, drab clothes, bland faces and constant overcast skies. Radios broadcast iron curtain propaganda, full of static and noise. Don’t expect elaborate special effects or extreme violence – it’s a low-budget psychological drama, more weird and creepy than truly frightening. It’s a bit too slow, and a bit too long, but it does capture the current fears of oppression, surveillance and the total lack of privacy. It’s about the toxic dystopia we’re living in right now.

Possessor Uncut

Wri/Dir: Brandon Cronenberg

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a highly-paid English assassin who never gets caught. She’s a skinny woman in her thirties, with pale skin, blue eyes and whispy blond hair – not your typical killer. So how does she do it? She works for a company that deals in biotechnology… and she never has to leaves the lab. Instead, the victims are killed by a bystander, someone with a reason to be near the target. A device is implanted into the hapless third party’s brain, and Vos possesses their body, becoming comfortable there. When they’re in the right place at the right time, she neutralizes the target and then shoots themselves in the head, thus destroying the implant and sending Vos back to her own body. Simple right? But the more she does it, the harder it is to retain her sense of self… memories of the other bodies she possessed keep popping into her brain. And her marriage is on the rocks; she’s separated from her husband and 5 year old son.

Now (with the help of her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh) she’s embarking on her biggest job yet: to kill the nasty CEO of a multinational high-tech corporation (Sean Bean) by inhabiting the body of his daughter’s boyfriend. Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) is a swarthy, working class guy who happens to be living with Ava (Tuppence Middleton) the heiress to the company’s fortune. He’s living the life of Reilly, with a mistress on the side (Kaniehtiio Horn) his girlfriend’s best friend. But he has to swallow his pride and work at a menial job at Ava’s dad’s company. The thing is, Vos (the assassin) has underestimated the body she’s possessing. The sublimated personality is fighting for control. Will the assassination take place? And whose survival instinct is the strongest – Vos or Tate?

Possessor is a highly original psychological thriller/horror about mind control, possession and high-tech surveillance. Beautifully designed, it takes you from cold cityscapes, to bland labs and offices, and into the gaudy, golden mansions of the super-rich, filled with Trumpian rococo excess. The special effects are excellent and the acting all appropriately creepy. There’s also suspense, good fight scenes, psychedelic brain implosions, and extreme violence (Vos’s weapon of choice is a knife – so if you can’t watch lots of blood, stay away!). I wasn’t crazy about Brandon Cronenberg’s first biotech horror, Antiviral, but Possessor corrects all his errors while keeping it’s weird beauty.

This is a good one.

Shadow in the Cloud played at TIFF; Possessor Uncut opens today in Toronto; check your local listenings. The Antenna starts today in virtual cinemas in select North American cities, and digitally on Oct 20th;

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

Lost Boys. Films reviewed: Stage Mother, Summerland

Posted in 1940s, Adoption, Canada, comedy, Gay, Lesbian, LGBT, Music, Romance, UK, WWII by CulturalMining.com on August 21, 2020

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 – a comedy and an historical drama. There’s a Texas mom who inherits a San Francisco drag bar from her late son; and a reclusive Englishwoman during WWII dragged out of isolation to care for someone else’s son.

Stage Mother

Dir: Thom Fitzgerald (Cloudburst)

It’s a conservative small town in Texas. Maybelline (Jacki Weaver: Animal Kingdom) is a woman in her 70s who lives with her husband Jeb, a good ol’ boy. She spends most of her time as the choirmaster at a local Baptist church, or sharing gossip with her sister Babette. One day, her quiet life is disrupted by a phone call from San Francisco. Their adult son Ricky is dead. So she hops on a plane to attend the funeral and sort out his affairs. They’ve been estranged for many years but she’s still the next of kin. But when she visits his apartment an angry man named Nathan (Adrian Grenier: Entourage) slams the door in her face. And the funeral service itself is full of salacious double-entendres and drag queens vamping on the church stage. What’s going on?

Luckily, she meets Sienna (Lucy Liu: Kill Bill) a bleach-blonde single mom with a cute little baby who was Ricky’s friend (the baby was named after him) She explains it all to Maybelline: Ricky was not just gay, but also a drag performer who owned a bar in the Castro district called Pandora’s Box. Nathan was his lover, and the club’s manager, but since they weren’t married he’s left high and dry. Hence his anger and bitterness. So she visits the club to see what’s what. It’s a sad, depressing place with few patrons. And the lipsynch act is tired. She decides to turn the business around as a tribute to her late son.

She’s used to dealing with divas and wigs at her Baptist church choir; how different can this be? So she takes the three drag queens – Joan of Arkansas (Alister MacDonald), Cherry (Mya Taylor: she was amazing in Tangerine), and Tequila Mockingbird (Oscar Moreno) under her wing to teach them how to sing for real. Turns out they all have great voices. But each has baggage to sort out. Joan has a drug problem, Cherry is dealing with her transition, and Tequila has been rejected by his family. Meanwhile, Maybelline meets a man in a hotel who is everything her husband Jeb is not – kind, elegant and sophisticated. What should she do? Can she save the bar and turn her own life around? Or will she just give it all up and move back to Texas?

Stage Mother is a musical/comedy about an older woman who finds her new mission in a San Francisco drag bar. It’s a very camp romp, cute but not so funny, and extremely predictable. About a third of the film consists of the traditional drag performances themselves, with all the songs, dances, and lipsynching, as well as the elaborate costumes and makeup, the torch songs and jokes… everything you want if you’re into drag. Australian actress Jacki Weaver makes for a great Texas mom, Lucy Liu is almost unrecognizable as Sienna, and the drag trio – Cherry, Joan and Tequila – are totally believable as performers. Drag is very popular these days, with lots of TV shows devoted to it, so if that’s your thing and you can’t get enough of it, you’ll probably like Stage Mother.

But it didn’t do much for me.

Summerland

Wri/Dir: Jessica Swale

It’s WWII in Kent County, England. German bombs are falling on the big cities, but it’s peaceful in the countryside. Alice Lamb (Gemma Arterton: Byzantium; Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters) is a recluse who lives alone in a cliffside house. Locals call her a witch and schoolkids torment her with practical jokes. She’s a writer, not a witch, and earns her living researching folktales and magic from a scientific bias. She’s currently obsessed with Fata Morgana – mirages of ships or castles that sometimes appear over the ocean. She’s been living on her own since a painful breakup in university.

But her solitude is broken when a boy is left at her door. Frank (Lucas Bond) is an evacuee, the child of an unnamed airforce pilot and a government bureaucrat sent to the town to escape the Blitz. He’s a sociable boy who likes playing and asking questions. It’s hate at first sight. She rejects him categorically, but is forced to take care of him for a week, until they find somewhere else to place him. Can Alice and Frank somehow learn to get along?

Summerland is an elegantly constructed and touching film about people forced to live together in extreme times. The main storyline alternates with flashbacks to Alice’s passionate love affair with a woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Free State of Jones) that left her with a broken heart. It also looks at Frank’s growing friendship at school with a free-spirited girl (Dixie Egerickx: The Secret Garden) who lives with her grandmother in the town. The backstories of all these characters are gradually revealed, along with a few unexpected, exciting twists. There have been so many movies about life in WWII that references here can be reduced to quick tropes – a toy airplane, a burning building – without seeming clichéd. The acting is good, the characters endearing, and the beautiful scenery and wardrobe make it a pleasure to watch. I cried at least twice over the course of the movie.

So if you’re looking for a romantic historical drama, artfully told, this is one for you.

Summerland and Stage Mother both open today digitally and VOD.

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

Future/Past. Films reviewed: James vs His Future Self, Resistance

Posted in 1940s, Canada, comedy, Espionage, France, Mime, Romance, Science, Thriller, Time Travel, WWII by CulturalMining.com on April 10, 2020

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

I love watching movies in theatres, but under a lockdown that’s not an option. Here a few ways to watch films at home for free. Kanopy offers an excellent selection of films which you sign out using your library card – up to eight a month. New additions include bizarre films like Borgman (review ), comedies like Young Adult (review ), and classics like Warren Beatty’s Reds. Look for it on your public library website. The National Film Board of Canada has tons of movies, documentaries and animation online now for free. Go to nfb.ca/films. And if you’re francophone or want to practice your French, myfrenchfilmfestival.com offers free short films and animation for kids.

But new movies – movies you pay for – are still being released online. This week I’m looking at two new movies. There’s a WWII drama about a famous entertainer’s encounters with the enemy in occupied France; and a science fiction comedy about a man who encounters his future self in Canada.

James vs. His Future Self

Dir: Jeremy LaLonde

James (Jonas Chernick) is a particle physicist who works at a lab. His obsession? Time travel. He lives at home with his sister Meredith (Tommie-Amber Pirie). Their mom and dad were killed in a terrible accident 15 years earlier, so she functions as his de facto parents, tearing him away from his scientific calculations long enough to eat a meal or get some sleep. James works alongside the beautiful and brilliant Courtney (Cleopatra Coleman) a science geek like him. She’s up for a position at the CERN Accelerator in Geneva. James harbours a secret crush on her, but are the feelings mututal? They do get together regularly for video nights with Chinese take out – but that’s the entire extent of his social life. Until his world is turned upside down by a taxi driver named Jimmy (Daniel Stern).

Jimmy is a crusty old guy with a greying chin beard. He loves croissants, music, and waxing lyrical about living in the present. But he has a dark side as well. (He could be Ram Das’s evil twin). More important, he claims to be James’s future self. Jimmy says James will invent the time machine, with fame, fortune and a stellar career devoted to science. Hooray! Except Jimmy came back from the future to stop him: don’t do it or you’ll end up like me: tired, bitter and alone. Fall in love, have fun, enjoy your life. Can James reconcile his future incarnation with his current scientific obsession? Can he get along with Meredith? Or fall in love in with Courtney? Or is this all just a hoax?

James vs His Future Self is a surprisingly good time-travel comedy, that does it all with virtually no special effects. Daniel Stern (Breaking Away; Home Alone) as “future James” looks absolutely nothing like Jonas Chernick (Borealis interview, A Swingers Weekend review)… but it doesn’t matter. Why use expensive de-aging technology (like in the Irishman review) when you can just say “time travel messes you up.” Jeremy LaLonde (Sex after Kidsinterview; The Go-Getters- review) is always doing these weird and quirky comedies, and they just get better and better.

Stern and Chernick are great as the two James, and Coleman and Pirie also show their stuff. The movie was shot up north in beautiful Sudbury. My only question is: How come there are two Canadian movies that opened in 2020 with a female lead moving to Switzerland to work on the CERN Supercollider? Doesn’t matter. James vs His Future Self is a good film to enjoy at home.

Resistance

Wri/Dir: Jonathan Jakubowicz

It’s the late 1930s in Strasbourg, France. Marcel (Jesse Eisenberg) works at the family Kosher butcher shop run by his dad (Karl Markovics: The Counterfeiters). But he’d rather be at his night job: impersonating Charlie Chaplin onstage at a downtown brothel. But war is looming, so he starts work at an orphanage inside a huge castle for little kids fleeing Nazi Germany. Two sisters, Emma and Mila (Clémence Poésy, Vica Kerekes) also work there and Marcel really likes Emma. (Feelings are mutual.) The tiny refugees are frightened and speak no French, but Marcel discovers he can communicate without words. He starts performing silently as a mime, expanding the skills he learned at theatre school. He’s a natural — one performance and they forget all their troubles. He also teaches them how to be silent themselves, especially if they’re being chased by Nazi soldiers. Then comes the invasion, and they all flee south to Limoges. There he and his friends all join the resistance to fight the German occupation, led by the notorious Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer) known as the Butcher of Lyons. He learns to forge passports and perform acts of derring-do. But can he lead the orphans to safety in the Swiss Alps?

At the beginning of Resistance I was cringing and squirming in my seat. All the actors, including Jesse Eisenberg, speak in that annoying, generic, fake European accent. Worse than that, it looked like it was going to be about orphans, clowns and the holocaust, a potentially lethal combination. Something like Jerry Lewis’s legendary, infamous lost film The Day the Clown Cried. Luckilly, Resistance isn’t bad at all. It borrows from a lot of movies about the German occupation, especially Melville’s Army of Shadows, but it has many new scenes: hiding, escape, chase. It’s actually quite good, very classic in style, feeling like movies from 50-60 years ago. More interesting still, this is a biopic about Marcel Marceau, the most famous mime anywhere, ever. I never knew he was in the French resistance. This is a movie with an accomplished international cast (from across Europe, North and South America) many of whom appeared in other WWII dramas (Son of Saul, The Counterfeiters) and a Venezuelan director. So if you’re looking for an historical movie complete with thrills and tears, Resistance is one to watch.

James vs His Future Self and Resistance are both available now online.

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

Serious and sexual. Films reviewed: Seberg, The Jesus Rolls, Beanpole

Posted in 1940s, 1960s, comedy, Crime, Drama, Espionage, France, Friendship, Hollywood, Russia, Sex, USSR, WWII by CulturalMining.com on February 28, 2020

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

Want to watch some grown up movies? This week I’m looking at three unusual films dealing with serious topics — crime, war and surveilance — in a sexualized context. There are best friends in post-war Leningrad, movie stars and activists in 1960s Hollywood, and sex-starved ex-cons in present day New York.

Seberg

Dir: Benedict Andrews

It’s Paris the 1960s, a time of antiwar demonstrations and sexual revolution. Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart), is a movie star of the French New Wave. She is beautiful a striking face framed with short blonde hair. She lives in Paris with her husband, the writer Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) and their young son. And now she’s making her triumphant return to Hollywood. But in the first class airplane cabin, she noticed a kerfuffle . A young man named Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a member of the Black Panther Party, objects loudly to the fact that well-known civil rights activist Betty Shabbaz (Malcolm X’s widow) is sequestered in economy class.  Jean offers to exchange seats, calming the waters. They meet up again in LA and sparks fly, leading to a secret affair. But what neither of them realizes is the FBI is photographing and recording everything they do. J. Edgar Hoover’s Cointelpro program considers activists on the left – and particularly Black activists – as enemies of the state.

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed agent Jack (Jack O’Connell) and his conservative partner Carl (Vince Vaughan) follow the two from inside a painted van, listening in on their most intimate conversations. Soon the FBI’s focus shifts from Hakim to Jean, as the leak salacious details to Hakim’s wife and Hollywood gossip columnists, in an attempt to ruin his status and her career. As Jean becomes increasingly paranoid (and for good reason – she’s being gaslighted by the FBI!) she grows more and more frantic, all observed by agent Jack. His consience is pricked. But will he  do something to stop this persecution of Jean Seberg?

Seberg is a fascinating drama, based on a true story, about the FBI spying on its own citizens regardless of the consequences and moral cost suffered by their victims. It also gives a good look at Hollywood in the 1960s and the interplay among black activists and their white sympathizers. Seberg is part fashion and glamour, part intrigue and espionage.  It feels a bit like The Lives of Others (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), where you get to know both the spies and those spied on. While the dialogue and acting seems wooden and clugey at the beginning, it gets better as it moves along, as you get to know and feel for the characters.

I liked this movie.

The Jesus Rolls

Wri/Dir: John Turturro

Jesus Quintano (John Tuturro) is a Puerto Rican American known for his skill at bowling, his sexual prowess and his penchant for pointy purple shoes. He’s on his prison bowling team, and when the Jesus bowls, Jesus rolls. But his term has finished and he’s being released. His old pal Petey (Bobby Cannavale) is at the gate to help him adjust to life outside. But Jesus doesn’t want to adjust; he wants to live his life to the fullest. He immediately steals a vintage, orange muscle car and starts cruising the streets of his small town. He visits his mom, a sex worker, and then hooks up with his ex-girlfriend Marie, a French hairdresser (Audrey Tautou: Emélie). Petey is with him all the way. The three of them embark on a spree of petty crime across the state. They steal and ditch vintage cars, run away from diners without paying, and hold up doctor’s offices.  At night they experiment in bed… but there is one factor missing. Marie enjoys frequent sex but has never had an orgasm. Can Jesus and Petey bring Marie to satisfaction before they are all thrown in jail?

The Jesus Rolls is one unusual picture. It’s a sex comedy, a bittersweet crime drama, and a buddy movie/road movie. Judging by the fashions, hair styles and vintage cars, it seems to take place in the late ’80s, but suddenly an iPhone or smart car will appear dragging it back to the present. It takes a character from one film – Jesus in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski – and transplants him into the plot line of another one: Les Valseuse  (1974, Betrand Blier). Many of the characters are half-naked, half the time, the Jesus character is always over the top, while others are more subtle.

Does it work? Kinda. Depending on the scene and your mood, it’s moving, it’s over-acted, it’s strange, it’s awful, it’s bizarre, and it’s funny. And there are great cameos by the likes of Susan Sarandon, Pete Davidson, Jon Hamm, Christopher Walken, and Sônia Braga.

Beanpole (Dylda)

Co-Wri/Dir: Kantemir Balagov

It’s Leningrad in Autumn, 1945. The war is over, and soldiers are returning home from the front into a bombed out shell of a city. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed “Beanpole”, is a young woman discharged from the army after a head injury. She is extremely tall and gangly, with pale skin and white-blonde hair. And she is prone to absence seizures, frozen in place, incommunicado, until they pass. She lives in a crowded, decrepit apartment with a young boy named Pashka (Timofey Glazkov) whose she treats like her son. She sometimes brings him to her workplace, a hospital for injured soldiers. They play animal charades with the kid who has probably never seen a live animal (food is very scarce.) And everyone is on their best behaviour whenever a glamorous Communist party official named Lyubov (Kseniya Kutepova)  drops by the hospital to congratulate soldiers and offer gifts.

But things change for Iya when her best friend and fellow soldier comes back from the front. Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) is as outgoing as Iya is shy, sexually promiscuous (Iya shies away from contact with men), and short with auburn hair, not tall and blonde like Beanpole. And when Masha discovers Pashka is missing she gets an unshakeable need to to have a new baby, immediately if possible. They meet a couple of young men in a fancy car – the sons of Communist Party apparatchiks. Masha pair up with Sasha (Igor Shirokov) with hope of a future marriage and a normal family. But Iya feels left out. Will Masha and Sasha become a couple? Can Beanpole survive on her own? What is her real relationship with her best friend? And what really happened at the front?

Beanpole is a fantastic story of two young women getting by in Stalinist Leningrad just after WWII. Loaded with pathos but devoid of kitschy sentimentality it exposes the harsh realities people faced. It also shows the unsurmountable class divisions in the Soviet Union, extreme poverty, and the horrors of war. The acting is superb, and the candlelit warmth of the images helps to modify the movie’s dark tone. Beanpole is a wonderful movie you can’t forget. I recommend this one.

Seberg, The Jesus Rolls and Beanpole 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.

Daniel Garber talks with producer Robert Lantos about The Song of Names

Posted in 1940s, 1970s, Holocaust, Hungary, Judaism, Mental Illness, Morality, Movies, Music, Mystery, Poland, Religion, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on December 13, 2019

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

Photo of Robert Lantos by Jeff Harris.

Martin is an aspiring youg musician, the only son of a concert impresario in prewar London. Then Dovidl, a Jewish-Polish boy his age – who is also a violin prodigy – is left in the care of his family. As war rages across Europe, the two boys grow up together, first as rivals, best friends and almost like brothers. Then, on the evening of his solo debut in a sold out concert, Dovidl just disappears. Where has he gone, Is he living or dead, will Martin ever see him again, and what is this “Song of Names” that may be the reason behind his disappearance?

The Song of Names is the title of a new film that looks at identity, family, friendship, memory, and mourning. It’s directed by Francois Girard, stars Tim Roth and Clive Owen, and its producer is Robert Lantos.

Robert Lantos is one of Canada’s most famous producers – he founded and ran Alliance Communications and later Serendipity Point Films. His production credits are a veritable history of Canadian cinema: Atom Egoyan’s Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter; David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises; Jeremy Podeswa’s Fugitive Pieces, Istvan Szabo’s Sunshine; an adaptation of Mordechai Richler’s Barney’s Version, among many many others.

I spoke with Robert Lantos in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Song of Names opens in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver on Christmas Day.

Not Marvel Movies. Films reviewed: The Irishman, Last Christmas, Midway

Posted in 1940s, 1960s, 1970s, Christmas, Corruption, Crime, Cuba, Hawaii, Romantic Comedy, UK, Unions, War, Woody Harrelson, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 8, 2019

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

Martin Scorsese recently wrote that tentpole movies, like ones that Marvel makes, are hogging a disproportionate share of Hollywood bucks. This squeezes traditional, medium-budget, one-off films out of the picture. Luckilly, they’re not all gone.  This week, I’m looking at three films – a crime drama, a war movie and a rom-com – without superheroes.

The Irishman

Dir: Martin Scorsese

It’s the 1950s.

Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a truck driver who delivers beef hindquarters. When his truck breaks down on the highway, a strange man offers advice on how to fix it. He’s Russell Buffalino (Joe Pesci) a mob boss in Pennsylvania. When Sheeran is caught stealing beef, Russell supplies a lawyer, thus starting a longtime relationship between the trucker and the Mafia. And Teamsters, the truckers union, stands with them all the way. Soon Frank is doing a different kind of work for Russell: he paints houses. Which really means he’s a hitman for the mob. Despite his Irish background, he speaks Italian: he served in the Army in Anzio in WWII. Soon they’re thick as thieves, and Frank enjoys the benefits, but Russell is always the boss.

Eventually he’s sent to Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the head of Teamsters as a bodyguard, as well as the middleman between Hoffa and the mob. Hoffa is a brash firebrand, an old-school union organizer with legions of loyal members. He’s also an extremely powerful leader, and he controls the union’s pension. This means he can finance Las Vegas casinos with cash, something banks refuse to do. And he gives money to the Nixon campaign, a rare instance of a labour union officially supporting a Republican. But friction grows between Hoffa and the mafia until the day Hoffa mysteriously disappears without a trace, his body never found. What happened to Jimmy Hoffa?

The Irishman is narrated by Frank in an old age home, which gives it the feel of an old man’s movie. It’s a Forest Gump for gangsters, with Frank somehow tied to all the major events of the 60s and 70s: The Kennedies, Bay of Pigs, Jimmy Hoffa disappearance, to name just a few. This film has some problems: the CGI de-aged faces look wooden; female characters have virtually no lines – they just scowl and disapprove; and it’s missing the sharp edges and sexual zing of Scorsese’s early movies.

That said, I was never bored; I was glued to the screen the whole time. Pacino is fantastic as Jimmie Hoffa, and Scorsese’s movies are always superior.

The quality of filmmaking is superb and The Irishman tells a great story.

Last Christmas

Dir: Paul Feig

Kate (Emilia Clarke) is an quirky, aspiring young singer in London. By day she’s a cute little green elf, working in a kitschy, Christmas-themed gift shop run by a prickly boss named Santa (Michelle Yeoh). By night, she’s a barfly, sleeping with any guy she fancies, a different one each night. Ever since her operation, she’s been depressed. She’s embarrassed by her Yugoslavian family, and her singing career is going nowhere fast. She’s on a downward spiral of self-pity and self desctruction… until she meets Tom (Henry Golding).

Tom is everything Kate is not. He’s saintly, altruistic and generous. While Kate looks down and sees garbage tips, Tom looks up and sees tropical birds and quaint old signs. He takes her on a walk to show her the hidden side of London – a secret garden where people go to be alone; a soup kitchen for the homeless (he’s a volunteer), a deserted skating rink. Is it love? But he disappears for days at a time. What secret is he hiding? Is this true love? And can their relationship keep them together?

Last Christmas is a cute Romcom about a depressed woman coming out of her shell and her happy-go-lucky, would-be boyfriend. Emma Thompson plays Kate’s weepy Croatian mom and she also co-wrote the script. It’s cute and heartwarming… but not that funny.

Michelle Yeoh is terrific as a middle-aged woman still on the hunt, and Clarke and Golding make an appealing romantic couple. There is a totally surprising twist which brought tears to my eyes – No Spoiler – which left me with a bit more than I expected.

Midway

Dir: Roland Emmerich

It’s 1941, with war raging across Europe, China and the Pacific. But the US is cautiously viewing it from the sidelines. Dick Best (Ed Screin) is a gum chewing pilot based in Pearl Harbour. He’s a daredevil dive bomber, showing off his new techniques. Also on board the aircraft carrier is his rival, a by-the-books officer named McClusky (Luke Evans). He says Dick is a cowboy who should stop showing off. But while their aircraft carrier is out at sea, all the ships in Pearl Harbour are wiped out in a surprise attack by the Japanese, pulling the US into WWII.

Only Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) – the intel expert on Japan – predicted it. And he thinks a crucial battle up ahead: the Battle of Midway, an island in the South Pacific. Midway is a point crucial for control of the Pacific: if Layton is right, whoever wins the battle will win the war; it’s just a matter of time.

Midway is a dramatization of the years leading up to the naval battle of Midway, and the intense fight that follow: in submarines, on aircraft carriers and in planes overhead. It’s filtered through the eyes of lantern-jawed military figures like Jimmy Doolittle ( Aaron Eckhardt), Admiral Nimitz (Woody Harrelson) Vice Adm Bull Halsey (Dennis Quaid), and many semi-fictional sailors and pilots in various acts of bravery… like Bruno Gaido (Nick Jonas, of the Jonas brothers!). The story also switches back and forth to the Japanese side, with Admirals Nagumo, Yamaguchi and Yamamoto plotting to defeat the Americans.

Midway is exactly the sort of movie I can’t stand – yet another tired war pic about a long-forgotten battle, filled with smarmy patriotism. But I went to the press screening, and guess what? I actually really liked Midway! Fantastic special effects, complex battles shown in an easy-to-follow way, good acting, and great characters. Japanese are portrayed respectfully, not as hokey villains, but without covering up their war crimes in Eastern China. Like The Irishman, women are there mainly to worry about their husbands. It’s two hours, twenty minutes long, but the thrills keep you staring, rapt, till it’s over. I’m sure a lot of critics are going to compare it (unfavourably) with Dunkirk, but to me Midway is more thrilling, less ponderous.

Midway and Last Christmas both start today in Toronto; check your local listings. And The Irishman is screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, also beginning today.

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

Back from the Dead. Films reviewed: Pet Sematary, The Invisibles, Amazing Grace

Posted in 1940s, 1970s, Animals, Berlin, Christianity, documentary, Drama, Dreams, Germany, Holocaust, Horror, L.A., Music by CulturalMining.com on April 5, 2019

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

We all know people are born and they die, things come and go. But every once in a while things and people we believe are long gone seem to come back to life. This week I’m looking at three very different movies about coming back from the dead. There’s Aretha’s gospel concert buried since 1972; a documentary about young German Jews who hide in Nazi Berlin till 1945; and a horror movie about pets who come back from their graves in small town Maine.

Pet Sematary

Dir: Kevin Kölsch, Dennis Widmyer

(Based on the novel by Stephen King)

Louis (Jason Clarke) is a Boston doctor suffering from ER burnout. He’s overworked, overstressed, and overtired. So to relax and spend more time with his family he takes and easy job in the quaint small town of Ludlow, Maine. He’s there with his nervous, religious wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz), and their two kids, little Gage, and his pride and joy Ellie. Ellie (Jeté Laurence) is an eight year old who loves ballet dancing and her furry cat Church (short for Winston Churchill). Their old wooden house is on a sprawling estate in a small forest with a high speed highway running through it. But their quiet lives are disrupted by some strange events. First, when a young patient of Louis dies in his care after a car accident, the dead boy seems to return, over and over to talk to him in his dreams.

Then Ellie sees kids from town in spooky animal masks burying dead pets on their property. It’s an ancient custom, explains kindly old Jud (John Lithgow) their nearest neighbour. He’s lived there all his life and understands the local lore. So when Ellie is despondent when her beloved cat is run over Jud tells Louis a secret. There’s powerful magic up on the mountain beyond the pet cemetery. Bury the cat under a cairn and he will come back to you from the dead. Sure enough, Jud is right. But it isn’t cute and loveable anymore. When you play with the the forces of good and evil, of life and death, bad things will surely happen.

Pet Sematary – a remake of the movie based on the Stephen King novel – is suitably scary. The small, excellent cast nicely contained in a single location give it a good cabin-in-the-woods quality, but it’s scariness is less adventurous. It uses the age-old techniques – spooky dreams, little “boo!” moments, even twists on the overused images of the mirror in medicine cabinet, and the dark room in the basement. And then it degenerates from scariness into outright, Bride-of-Chucky kitsch. I enjoyed Pet Sematary as a good, old-skool horror movie, just don’t expect anything new.

The Invisibles

Dir: Claus Räfle

It’s 1943, in Nazi Berlin, and Joseph Goebels has officially declares his Germany’s capital judenfrei – free of Jews. But he doesn’t realize that 7,000 Jewish Germans still lived their hidden in plain view. This docudrama tells four true stories about young people who survived the Holocause while living in Berlin. They don’t hide in an attic like Anne Frank’s family; instead they continue their lives right in the middle of everything.  Cioma (Max Mauff) sells all his possessions and poses as someone whose house was bombed in Köln, moving to new vacant rooms each day. He finds work for a high placed civil servant forging ID papers. Hanni (Alice Dwyer) bleaches her hair, calls herself Hannelore and hangs out in dark movie theatres in the Kurfürstendamm. Ruth (Ruby O. Fee) and a friend find jobs as maid and nanny for the kids of Nazi officers. And Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is placed with former colleagues of his dad, a doctor, dressing in a Hitler Youth uniform. But there are informants and Gestapo agents everywhere, searching for people like them. Who will survive?

The Invisibles is a fascinating retelling of largely unknown stories. It’s part documentary – the film regularly cuts to interviews in German with the actual people it happened to – and part drama with the thrilling stories replayed by well-known young actors.

Fascinating and thrilling stories, well told.

Amazing Grace

Dir: Sydney Pollack, Alan Elliott

Its 1972 at the New Bethel Baptist Church in Watts, LA.

Reverend James Cleveland is leading a very special service for his devout parishioners. None other than the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin herself will be performing, alongside the Southern California Community Choir. The congregation is urged to feel the spirit, clap their hands, and get up from their seats and dance. But wait a minute — since when has pop sensation Aretha Franklin beena gospel singer? The answer is: all her life. Her father is the famous Detroit Baptist preacher C.L. Franklin, and she was touring churches with her amazing voice since the age of six.

This concert became a huge hit album – many people say it’s Aretha’s best recordings – and the movie includes her back-up musicians, the choir, and the audience, including some very famous people, like Mick Jagger, gospel singer Clara Ward and lots of others I couldn’t quite recognize. A beautiful, intensely moving concert and church service. Interestingly, it’s been sitting in film cans, unscreened until now. For some reason, Aretha blocked its release her whole life, perhaps because it is so personal to her, perhaps because the sound and images were never synchronized. That’s all fixed now.

It’s a grainy hyper-realistic verité-style film that shows everything: retakes, the cameramen, the soundboard, the director running around pointing, and Aretha in a sparkling white gown, sweating under the hot lights. If you’re a fan of Aretha Franklin, and want to experience those two days of 1972, you must see Amazing Grace.

Pet Sematary and The Invisibles both open today in Toronto; check your local listings, and you can see Amazing Grace beginning next Friday.

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

Apocalypse when? Films reviewed: The Aftermath, Us

Posted in 1940s, doppelgänger, Drama, Germany, Horror, Romance, Supernatural, Thriller, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on March 22, 2019

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

When civilization faces apocalypse, authority collapses and animal insticts take over. This week I’m looking at two movies set around apocalypses. There’s a post-apocalyptic romantic drama set in the rubble of postwar Hamburg; and a pre-apocalyptic horror set in the boardwalk of Santa Cruz, California.

The Aftermath

Dir: James Kent (Based on the novel by Rhidian Brook)

It’s 1945 in occupied Hamburg, just a few months after the end of WWII. Allied bombing has reduced the city to rubble with some of the remaining houses requisitioned by military officers. Rachael (Keira Knightly), a beautiful young Englishwoman arrives by train to be reunited with her husband, Colonel Lewis Morgan (Jason Clarke). They didn’t see each other much during the war, but now that it’s over maybe they can find some quiet time to talk things. No such luck.

The Colonel is busy hunting Nazi holdouts around the city – feral teenagers with the number 88 carved into their skin – for Heil Hitler – run rampant targeting occupying troups. And far from the furnished flat she expected, they are placed in an enormous mansion untouched by bombing and furnished Bauhaus style. Lewis, in an act of kindness, allows the homeowner – a handsome architect and his daughter – to stay. There’s lots of room for both families, he says. But little privacy.

The two broken families settle into an uneasy truce. Rachael hates Germans for killing their only son in the blitz, and directs her anger at Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård) who built the house. He lives in the attic now with his daughter. His wife was killed by allied bombing. And little Freda (Flora Thiemann) who blames Rachael for her mother’s death, spends her time with the trümmerkinder, the kids who hide in bombed out buildings in the city centre. When she runs into the Morgans in the hallways she just hisses at them like a cat.

Tension rises to a boiling point, until one day, when Lewis away a shouting match between Stefan and Rachael… turns ino a passionate kiss! Will this turn into something bigger? Can her marriage survive? Is Stefan a Nazi? Will Freda accept Rachael into her life? And what does Rachael really want?

The Aftermath is a romance that also deals with the mourning and loss that war brings. It’s beautifully done, with an attractive cast luxuriating in their magnificent clothing, hairstyles, jewelry and interior décor. The movie looks gorgeous but the story is less satisfying. There are some scenes set in the post war ruin – actually the parts with feral nazi children are the most interesting – but mostly it’s just about relationships. It reminds me a lot of Suite Francaise, also based on a novel, set a few years earlier, with a German officer occupying French home, and similar results. Did I like it? The Aftermath starts very slowly, as if it doesn’t know where it’s going. But it picks up about halfway through and comes to an unexpected finish. Not a perfect movie, but one with lots of eye candy.

Us

Wri/Dir: Jordan Peele

The Wilsons are a very ordinary California family heading off to their summer home in sunny Santa Cruz. Dad (Winston Duke) plans to tinker with his leaky motorboat. The kids are off in their own worlds. Little Jason (Evan Alex) is into magic tricks and a scary Halloween mask he wears all day. 12-year-old Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) prefers to tune out and spend time with earbuds and instagram. They plan to spend time on the beach with their old friends, the alcoholic Kitty and Josh (Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker) and their twin teenaged daughters.

Only Mom (Lupita Nyong’o) is preoccupied. She feels weird to be back in her childhood summer home, and is dead-set against spending any time on the beach or at the boardwalk. It just doesn’t feel right. She is still haunted by a strange experience she had as a child on her ninth birthday. She wandered into a hall of mirrors met a girl who looked exactly like her but who wasn’t her. She never saw her again, and no one believes her story, but she’s still afraid she’ll run into that mirror girl again. But she relents and spends an uneventful day at the beach.

But that night, things start to change. A family dressed in identical red jumpsuits appears in their driveway, each carrying a pair of sharp scissors. And when they enter their house, Jason notices “they’re us!” Who are these people? Criminals? Zombies? Ghosts? They look exactly like the Wilsons and have similar personalities, but in a creepy distorted way. They don’t speak, they just make animal noises… except for Mom’s doppelganger, who explains it all. We are your shadows, she says, tethered to your lives, but we live underground. We are like marionettes, moving against our will, we live identical lives but with none of the pleasure. So we’re here to reclaim it.

But not if they can help it! It’s up to the family to fight back against these strange people who want to replace them. But can they beat creatures who seem to know what they’re thinking and are faster, stronger and meaner than they are?

Us is a scary and very strange horror movie. Like his previous movie Get Out, this one has mind-bending twists, secret conspiracies laced with lots of humour. It’s almost more strange and funny than it is scary. And unlike Get Out, it has no overarching political theme – no racial dimensions, no class conflicts, no left/right divide. It even avoids gun-control issues, with every killing in the movie using household weapons – scissors, golf clubs, fire irons – rather than semi-automatic firearms. No politics at all.

The one surprising theme is religion: the music is full of scary liturgical chants, the doppelgänger people live in a hellish underground, they dress in red robes, they are surrounded by flames and are possibly part of a nationwide apocalypse ordained by God to punish Americans for worshipping false idols.

Is this a good movie? Oh yes it is! Is it a horror movie? Sort of, but more creepy than terrifying. And it leaves you thinking about it long after it’s over. Lupita Nyong’o and the two kids are especially good, as their selves but especially as their shadows. If you like horror, dark humour and the occult, this is the movie to see. It’s great.

Us and The Aftermath 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

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.

In Transit. Films reviewed: Mirai, A Private War, Transit

Posted in 1940s, Animation, France, Germany, Japan, Journalism, Refugees, Time Travel, War, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 9, 2018

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

Toronto Fall festival season continues with EU festival on now – free movies at the Royal every night! Ekran Polish film festival, and ReelAsian paving new ground, with everything from a doc on gourmet Filipino cuisine, to an intriguing and moving Virtual Reality narrative by Paisley Smith called Homestay.

This week, I’m looking at three movies about people in transit. There’s a WWII refugee running away from the Nazis; a female war journalist rushing toward the battlefront; and a little boy in Japan jumping back and forth between the past and the future.

Mirai

Wri/Dir: Hosoda Mamoru

Kun-chan is a little kid in Japan who lives with his parents and his dog Yukko. He likes drawing and playing with trains. His mom and dad dote on him, until they have a new baby, a girl named Mirai (which means the future). Suddenly, the baby is the centre of attention. His dad works freelance at home now, while mom goes to work. When they’re not working, they’re taking care of Mirai. But who’s paying attention to Kun-chan? Nobody! He seeks refuge in their yard, an enclosed courtyard around an old oak tree. And that’s where strange things start to happen whenever he’s alone. His dog turns into a prince. And then Mirai appears as a teenaged version of herself – it’s future Mirai, there to advise Kunchan on how to treat his little sister. This opens the door to other figures from his family’s past and future to help him handle his problems.

Mirai is a good example of watchable Japanese anime. Lots of flying, some scary parts, and time travel. It’s clearly aimed at kids — with tame content and characters – but it does handle issues like gender roles and family matters. I like Hosoda’s films because they navigate where the supernatural interacts with the ordinary – like Wolf Children from 2012. But in Mirai you can never be sure if the supernatural scenes are real or just in the little boy’s head.

A Private War

Dir: Matthew Heineman

It’s 21st century London. Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), originally from Oyster Bay Long Island is now a star reporter for the Sunday Times. She smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish and curses like a sailor. And for good reason: she’s at the front lines of the bloodiest wars of the century. She lost her left eye in a gun battle in Sri Lanka, and now wears a black patch, pirate-style. Why does she do it? So she can tell the world what’s really going on the death, starvation and horribleness of war. A mass grave in Faluja, starvation in Homs, Syria. She travels with Paul (Jamie Dornan) a young freelance photographer in awe at Marie’s bravery, always the first one when the bombs are falling. She’s been in more battles than the average soldier. And She keeps sexually satisfied with an array of lovers in every port, including her ex-husband and a London financier named Tony (Stanley Tucci). But you can’t live on th edge without suffering blowback, including PTSD and deppression. Is Marie a hero or an alcoholic with a death wish?

A Private War is a gripping and thrilling drama. The director, Heineman, is known for documentaries, not movies, which gives this film a “you are there” immediacy rarely scene in war movies. Very realistic. The movie doesn’t delve very deeply into the politics of war – it never asks why Bush and Blair were in Iraq or NATO in Libya; instead it concentrates on how war really affects ordinary people. Rosamund Pike is amazing as Marie Colvin and opened my eyes about war journalism.

I liked this movie.

Transit

Dir: Christian Petzold

It’s WWII. Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee living in Paris when the Nazi’s are about to march in. And the French police are doing their work, rounding up immigrants and sending them to a transit camp inside the Velodrome. Georg knows he has to get out of their, fast. And he needs money. So he accepts a paid job: bring a sealed letter to a stranger – a writer – holed up in a paris hotel room. But he gets there too late, the man has killed himself in desperation. If only he had waited one more day – the letter promised money, visas, and tickets on a ship to Mexico. Thinking quickly, Georg pockets the letter, grabs the man’s manuscript and heads south with his friend as stowaways on a freight train. Once in Marseilles, he establishes himself as a person in transit – just stopping over – to avoid arrest, andtakes on the identity of the dead man. And he keeps encountering a beautiful woman, Marie (Paula Beer), who is searching for her husband. She knows he’s in Marseilles, but she can’t find him. But what neither of them realize is the phantom husband she keeps missing is Georg himself, in his new identity.

Transit is a great new movie about the precarious lives of refugees and undocumented migrants running for their lives. The movieis based on a novel written during the WWII, but Christian Petzold tries something I’ve never seen before. It’s the 1940s but it’s also right now. It’s shot in present-day France, with modern cars and clothing, an ethnically diverse population, and police dressed in current riot gear. Paula Beer (amazing in Frantz) and the distinctive-looking Rogowski (terrific in Happy End and Victoria) perfectly capture the alienation and uncertainty of present-day Europe. And – no spoilers – but, as usual, Petzold saves some of the biggest and best surprises for the end… with a one-two punch to the gut.

Great movie.

Mirai is playing tomorrow at the ReelAsian film festival. Look for A Private War opening next Friday and Transit starting 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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