Gangsters and gangstas. Films reviewed: Yakuza Princess, Mogul Mowgli

Posted in Action, Brazil, Crime, Family, Fighting, Islam, Japan, Music, Yakuza by CulturalMining.com on September 4, 2021

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

TIFF starts in less than a week, but it’s a bit different this year. The press is under a total embargo, even for capsule reviews. But I can tell you about some of the changes. Unlike last year which was totally digital, this year they’re showing movies both on the big screen and digitally (at home). They also claim there will be no tickets, no badges, and no line-ups. No line ups? Unless they’ve mastered the art of teleportation, I’m not sure how they’ll get people into theatres without queues… but we shall see.       

This week I’m looking at two new movies — an action thriller and a musical drama. There’s a young woman in Brazil pursued by Japanese gangsters; and a Pakistani-British rapper in London chased by visions in his head.

Yakuza Princess

Co-Wri/Dir:Vicente Amorim

(based on the graphic novel by Danilo Beyruth)

Liberdade is the Japanese-Brazilian section of Sao Paolo, one of the largest communities of ethnic Japanese in the world, outside of Japan.  Akemi (Masumi) is there to improve her Portuguese. She has a part-time job selling LED lighting at a booth in the market working for a strict boss. In her free time, she practices Kendo, a martial art using bamboo swords. She’s devoted to her sensei, who stresses the importance of these lessons. And she loves singing at the local karaoke bar. 

But due to an unexpected turn of events, she meets a strange man with no name (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). He has total amnesia — he doesn’t know who he is ,where he’s from and why he’s there. His face is covered with scars; he recently evaded a police-watch at his hospital bed where the cops wanted to question him about a certain sword, found beside his nearly-lifeless body. He also wants to know about the sword — he recognizes its importance — the only thing he can remember. Akemi has to fight off three aggressive young punks who cat-call her as she performs her song. They stalk her home and threaten and break into her apartment. She fights them off using her latent skills in self-defence, but it’s three-to-one, until the sword-wielding scarface steps in to help. Then a third player enters the picture and joins in the fight. Takeshi (Ihara Tsuyoshi) is a highly ranked member of a powerful Yakuza clan. (The Yakuza refers to organized crime groups and their devoted members who are both powerful but also outcasts  within Japanese society.) He’s in Brazil on a mission: to track down Akemi, the only surviving member of a faction wiped out in a power struggle 20 years earlier when she was just a little girl. She knows nothing about any of this. Which of these two men is her ally… and which one is her killer? Takeshi, the ruthless Yakuza or the scar-faced swordsman with amnesia? And where did his strangely alluring Katana sword come from?

Yakuza Princess, as the title suggests, is an action/thriller about an ordinary young woman who discovers she’s the heiress to a faction of gangsters whose rivals are trying to kill. This is a Brazilian movie, and the script is in three languages English Japanese and Portuguese. It’s also pretty kitschy in its fetishistic version of Japanese culture, filled silent ritual bows and singing swords. But movies like this are allowed to be kitschy — they’re all about the fights: sword fights, fist-fights, jiu jitsu matches, gun battles and chase scenes. All of which are nicely choreographed. Ihara Tsuyoshi is a former stuntman, Masumi is a singer-actress, and Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers has been playing dangerous pretty-boys in TV series and movies for many years. In this one though, his face is so covered in scars and blood he’s barely recognizable (probably so stuntmen can play him in the fight scenes.) Yakuza Princess may be super-cheesy and bloody with a convoluted plot,  but it’s a fun action thriller. With an ending that suggests many more sequels yet to come.

Mogul Mowgli

Dir: Bassam Tariq

Z (Riz Ahmed) is a rising South-Asian English rapper. He just finished a sold-out American tour and he’s flying high, hanging with his American girlfriend Bina and his British manager. And now he’s slated to go on a world tour, as the opening act for a superstar. This is the big break he’s been waiting for. So he decides to spend a week in London’s East End with his family who he hasn’t seen for two years. But nothing has changed.  The new dishwasher is still sitting there in a box. His bedroom is full of the  cassette tapes he rapped to as a teenager. His dad (Alyy Khan) is a failed entrepreneur full of get-rich -quick schemes that never get off the ground. And his mom (Sudha Bhuchar) has her own quirks. When the chilli peppers she chars over a burner gives off no aroma — she says it’s a bad sign. Turns out she’s right. Z is suddenly afflicted by an unidentified ailment. 

Within a day or two his muscles cease to function. He can’t walk, can barely  even stand up. But his world tour is leaving in a couple days! IN the hospital a doctor had worse news. It’s an autoimmune disorder of unknown origin. Luckly there’s a new tincture they can try on him — it just might work. But among many possible side effect is the loss of fertility.  And even worse, his manager wants to replace him own the world tour with an awful rapper wannabe. Suddenly the famous performer is emasculated and immobile, deserted by his friends and depending on his eccentric parents’ superstitions to get through the day. Under the influence of the experimental meds he slips into a twilight zone of dreams, visions and hallucinations. Will he live or will he die? Will his former powers be restored? Can his career and reputation be rescued? And will his self-confidence ever return?

Mogul Mowgli is a brilliant showcase for the great young British actor Riz Ahmed. It’s hilarious surprising, and filled with sharp self-criticism. It chronicles the fall of a famous rapper — Riz Ahmed wrote his own versus — and the loss of face that entails. It also reveals the inner-workings of the London Pakistani  community — at home, in the mosque and in the wider world. And how the children of immigrants navigate their split identities. Everything Z sees and hears makes its way into the versus he’s constantly composing in his head. It’s told in an almost surreal manner, through the inner workings of a possibly dying man’s mind. Z is haunted by a groom whose face is covered with garlands of flowers, while his hospital gown morphs into a sequinned suit.

I really liked this movie. 

Mogul Mowgli and Yakuza Princess are both opening theatrically and/or digitally across Canada 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

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

Love and Death. Films reviewed: Riders of Justice, Trigger Point, Undine

Posted in Action, Berlin, Canada, CIA, Denmark, Espionage, Germany, Horror, Mermaids, Romance by CulturalMining.com on May 21, 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 — two action/thrillers, one from Canada and another from Denmark; and a love story from Germany. There’s death on a commuter train, shoot-outs in a small town, and eternal love… deep underwater.

Riders of Justice

Wri/Dir: Anders Thomas Jensen

Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) is a hard-ass officer in the Danish army, happily married with a teenaged daughter named Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). But his job keeps him apart from his family for months at a time. So when he hears his wife has been killed in a rare commuter train accident, he rushes home. He has to take care of Mathilde now, but summarily refuses all offers of counsellors or psychologists — he doesn’t believe in that mumbo-jumbo. But he clearly has a lot of anger inside — he punches Mathilde’s blue-haired boyfriend, Sirius, in the face the first time he meets him. (He’s been away so long he doesn’t even know she has a boyfriend.)

But their lives are further disrupted by an unexpected knock on the door. Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is a number-crunching computer nerd. He was on the same train, and says it can’t be a coincidence that a key witness in an upcoming trial of a criminal biker gang — called Riders of Justice — was also killed in that explosion. And the police clearly don’t care. Can we punish them ourselves? Otto enlists his two frenemies: Emmenthaler, an enormous man with a man bun who is also a facial-recognition expert (he has a  terrible temper from a lifetime of being bullied); and Lennaert, a hacker without any social skills whatsoever (he’s been in therapy for 25 years.) This motley crew sets up camp inside Markus’s barn to prove the biker gang is to to blame. And Markus, after a lifetime of military training, knows how to fight back. But is their conspiracy theory correct? Can they catch the villains and avenge the deaths? Can one soldier and three untrained, anti-social intellectuals beat a heavily-armed criminal gang? And can Markus ever learn to communicate with his only daughter?

Riders of Justice is a brilliantly funny, satirical look at self-proclaimed vigilantes. It deals with probability, death, and retribution all wrapped up in the language of psychology, technology, sexuality and social networks. It does have a Christmas theme — which is odd to watch in a late-spring movie –  but that hardly detracts from the main story. It’s also quite violent, with a lot of blood, pain and death. What’s great about it is all the well-rounded portrayals of disparate, odd-ball characters who learn to live together in a make-shift, highly  dysfunctional family. 

This is a fantastic movie.

Trigger Point

Dir: Brad Turner

Lewis (Barry Pepper) is a nice guy. Ask everyone in the small town where he lives. He found a kitten for Janice (Nazneen Contractor) a waitress at the local diner, and he fixed the electric tea kettle — no charge! — at Irene (Jayne Eastwood) ’s bookstore using just a paper clip. That guy can fix anything, he’s a regular MacGyver! He lives alone on the outskirts of town in a huge wooden farmhouse. But when outsiders with big city ways come to town snooping around, things start to change.

Dwight (Carlo Rota) says he wants to talk with him. Elias (Colm Feore), his former boss, has a job for him to do: track down and free Elias’ kidnapped daughter Monica (Eve Harlow). You see, Lewis used to be a top agent at The Corporation (aka the CIA), but went underground when a mysterious assassin  — known only as “Quentin” — started knocking off everyone else on his team. And lots of people think Lewis is the actual killer. Now he has to follow the trail, question the suspects, and uncover the evidence before he becomes Quentin’s next  target. But who can be trusted and who’s a turncoat?

Trigger Point is a good, traditional shoot-em-up action movie. It’s an apolitical look at the spy trade, concentrating instead on corruption and greed. Shot in small-town Ontario, it’s full of open fields, greenhouses and some stunning lakeshore landscapes, with lots of famous Canadian faces popping up. And it keeps up the pace. Sadly, it has a weird, unfinished quality to it, as if the final 30 pages of the script blew away, so they decided to end it early. What’s going on? Why did they introduce new characters in the last few minutes? Why don’t they bother capturing the villain? Is this actually just a pilot for an unproduced TV series?

Whatever. If you don’t mind turning off your brain, you’ll enjoy this fast-moving action/thriller.

Undine

Wri/Dir: Christian Petzold

Undine (Paula Beer) is a young woman in a Berlin cafe.  She’s crushed because her true love Johannes has just revealed he’s married to another woman. She says, if you leave me, I will have to kill you! But their conversation is cut short because her unusual job at the museum across the street starts in five minutes. She works as a guide to an enormous 3-D physical model of the city’s map. When she returns to the cafe after her shift, Johannes is gone. But a strange voice calls to her, from behind a decorative fish tank. It’s Christoph (Franz Rogowski) a boyish and clumsy man. The two collide, breaking the tank, and sending shards of glass and a flood of water on top of the two of them. And as Christoph pulls broken glass from Undine’s body, it’s love at first accident. He works out of town in a scenic lake as an engineer, repairing broken machinery and welding it back together… underwater! Undine follows him to the lake and joins him in scuba gear. They spend all their time together, making love on land and in the water. But, although they share a psychic bond, the elements seem to pull them apart.  And when Johannes reappears, Undine’s relationship with Christoph seems to be at risk.

Undine is an incredibly beautiful romance, wonderfully acted and elegantly shot. Like in all of Petzold’s films, while the story seems simple, its characters and ideas are intense. His style is spare. Every scene in the movie — a spilled glass of wine, a glance at a passerby — is there for a reason, essential to the story. Nothing wasted. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but Undine shares her name with a classical figure — a water nymph, from the Greek Myths — and leaves open the suggestion that this Undine is also supernatural. The film plays with the themes of eternal love, destiny, tragedy and life both underwater and on land, sort of an adult mermaid story. Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski also played star-crossed lovers  in Petzold’s last movie, Transit, and they ‘re back again sharing the same tension and electricity. 

I strongly recommend this amazing love story. 

Trigger Point is now playing, Riders of Justice starts today, and don’t miss Undine opening in two weeks.

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

Off. Films reviewed: Save Yourselves!, Max Cloud, Another Round

Posted in 1990s, Action, Brooklyn, comedy, Denmark, Games, High School, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 18, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three indie comedies about characters who find themselves in odd situations. There’s middle aged school teachers going off the wagon, a Brooklyn couple going off-grid, and a teenage girl going off this planet.

Save Yourselves!

Wri/Dir: Alex Huston Fischer, Eleanor Wilson

Su and Jack (Sunita Mani, John Reynolds) are a Brooklyn couple in their early 30s. They love each other but something seems to be missing. It could be because they spend their lives glued to smart phones for texting, social networks and search engines. They can’t answer a simple question without googling it first. So when a friend at a wedding party offers them the use of his grandparents’ cottage in the woods, they decide it’s now or never. They cut the cords and take a week off-grid. That means no schedule, no email, no listicles, and no phone. Their lives will be authentic and spontaneous. So they pack their bags – along with ample arugula and kale – and drive up north, At the cottage they notice new things. Meteors falling from the sky. And have frank conversations. Jack tries to become more manly by chopping wood while Su resists pulling out her phone. It’s difficult but they can manage. Until things start to get strange. Loud bangs n the background. And an auburn pouffe —  sort of a fluffy Ottoman –  they find in the cottage. Why does it keep moving… by itself. Are they crazy? Or is something going on.

Turns out these adorable tribbles are actually dangerous aliens taking over the world. They devour all ethanol, and send out smelly waves disabling their enemies. Su and Jack don’t know any of this because they’re offline. But they also unknowingly fled chaos in the cities just in time. Can they survive this alien invasion? Or will they just be its latest casualty?

Save Yourselves is a cute, satirical comedy about ineffectual millennials trying to make it in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s funny, goofy and silly. Reynolds does Jack as an insecure dude in a moustache while Mani is an alienated Su who misses her mom. They’re a good comedy duo who play off each other well.

I like this low-budget comedy.

Max Cloud

Dir: Martin Owen

It’s Brooklyn in 1990.

Sara is a teenaged girl who loves video games – she’s glued to her TV set 24/7. And it looks like she’s about to reach the top level of her space exploring game where Max Cloud and his sidekicks fight off the bad guys invading his spaceship. But her dad Tony is worried about her — she’s not doing her homework. So he grounds her and takes away the joy stick. But that’s not fair! Sara wishes she could play this game all the time… Little does she know, her wish is someone else’s command, and she is magically transferred into the game itself. Only they’re real people now, not 16-bit game avatars.

There’s the hero, the devilishly-handsome chowderhead Max Cloud (Scott Adkins), the cynical Rexy (Sally Colett) and Jake, the wise-cracking young cook (Elliot James Langridge). And wouldn’t you know it, Sara takes the form of Jake not Max. They’ve crash-landed on the prison planet Heinous, and have to escape before the evil  villains, Shee and Revengor, take over. Now it’s real life, not a game. How can Sara escape? Luckily her best friend, Cowboy (Franz Drameh) is in her bedroom holding the controls. If he can win the game, she can get back to the real world. But if not she’s trapped theer forever.

Ok, when I started watching Max Cloud, it felt weird. The game characters spoke larger than life, the sets looked tacky and cheap, and the whole concept felt too over-the-top to be taken seriously. Why are they talking so strangely? Then it hit me.

They’re all British actors, playing cartoonish Americans, using a high camp sensibility. Like a low-budget episode of Peewee’s Playhouse invaded by characters from Mystery Science Theatre 3000. When looked at that way, it’s actually quite cute and funny. The plot is basically non-existant, but the characters are enjoyable, and I really loved the 16-bit style computer animation, especially when used on live human actors in a jerky, 90’s-style Street-fighter battle scene. Very cool.

If you’re into mullets and vintage games you’ll love Max Cloud.

Another Round

Dir: Thomas Vinterberg

Martin (Mads Miklelsen) is a history teacher at a Copenhagen highschool who feels like something is missing from his life. He used to be funny, handsome and vibrant – he was a ballet dancer doing a PhD for God’s sake! But now, his home life is dull, his job even worse. His wife works nights – he rarely sees her. Somewhere along the way, his get up and go got up and went. Even his students are revolting over his  unimpressive classes.  What can he do?

One night at a birthday dinner with his three best friends –  Tommy the gym coach (Thomas Bo Larsen), Nikolaj the psychology teacher (Magnus Millang) and

Peter who heads the school choir (Lars Ranthe) – propose a scientific experiment to change their lives. Based on the writings of Norwegian psycholgist Finn Skårderud who says humans work best at an alcohol level of 0.05, they decide to maintain that level of drunkenness every day, except for nights and weekends. They carry personal breathalyzers to reach the exact level, and take careful notes of its effect. The initial results? Life is more fun, people laugh more, work seems easier, and their self-confidence is growing. It’s like wearing beer-goggles all the time. On the negative side there’s slurred speech, clumsiness and bad judgement. And when they raise the level to 0.1 things get really interesting. But other people are starting to notice  with potentially terrible consequences. Have they taken their experiment too far?

DRUK

Another Round is a very clever comedy about the good and bad points of alcohol. It’s all done tongue-in-cheek of course – Danish director Thomas Vinterberg loves poking at the bourgeoisie. Obviously, I’m not shouting three cheers for alcoholism, but after decades of Calvinistic Hollywood movies about the evils of hooch, reefer madness, and various other addictions, it’s refreshing to see something from the other side, taking the point of view of the guy with the lampshade on his head, rather than the finger-waving Mrs Grundys. Mads Mikkelsen is superb as a man whose life is reawakened by drinking, including an amazing dance sequence toward the end. This isn’t a light, easy movie – parts will definitely make you squirm – but  Another Round is definitely something different, and something that you should see.

You can watch Save Yourselves beginning on Tuesday, while Another Round, and Max Cloud both open today digitally and VOD; 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.

Is Halloween Cancelled? Films reviewed: Peninsula, Antebellum, Anything for Jackson

Posted in Action, Canada, Ghosts, Halloween, Horror, Korea, post-apocalypse, Racism, Slavery, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on October 30, 2020

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

Is nothing sacred? They’re cancelling Hallowe’en! No trick-or-treating, no candy, and no parties. I get it, it’s a pandemic. But it’s still Hallowe’en. So, to fight the COVID blues you might try watching scary movies at home.

This week I’m looking at three new horror movies, all violent, gory and sure to keep you up at night. There’s zombies in South Korea, a time warp in the Confederate deep south; and Satanic retirees in Southern Ontario.

Peninsula

Dir: Sang-ho Yeon

Jung Seok (Gang Dong-Won) is a former soldier living in Hong Kong. He’s a refugee, one of the last to escape the Korean peninsula before all other countries closed their gates to them. A pandemic, caused by a lethal virus created in a biotech laboratory, infected the entire population, turning them all into jerky, writhing zombies that feast on human flesh. The few, uninfected survivors – like Jung Seok and his brother in law Chul-min (Kim Do-Yoon) – are despised and feared. So when shady Hongkong gangsters offer them a deal, they take it. The job? Return to the zombie-infested peninsula to recover an armoured car full of US dollars, and drive it to the Port of Incheon to board a waiting tanker. If they survive, they keep a share of the spoils and can restart their ruined lives. Easier said than done.

Turns out, there’s not just zombies there. Chul-min is captured inside the money truck by crazed former soldiers from a rogue army base. Chul-min is forced to fight against zombies in a make-shift stadium for the soldiers’ entertainment. Jung Seok, on the ther hand, is rescued by two baby drivers, little kids who mow down zombies on the street for fun. They take him back to their family – their mom Min Jung (Jung-hyun Lee) and a deranged grandpa who thinks he’s communicating by radio with a “GI Jane” who will come to rescue them. Can Jung Seok and his newfound family rescue Chul-min, find the cash and drive it to Incheon in time?

Peninsula is a gripping, action thriller set in a dystopian futuristic Korea. It’s a sequel to Train to Busan, the hit zombie movie from a few years back.  It  incorporates themes from movies like Mad Max, Hunger Games and The Walking Dead – good people forced to live in distorted versions of their world in order to stay alive. It follows the rules of the zombie genre – Zombies are blind at night, attracted to light and loud noises, travel in packs – but there are enough new situations and human characters to keep it interesting. Peninsula is pretty good.

Antebellum

Wri/Dir: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz

Dr Veronica Henley (Janelle Monáe) is a writer, academic and activist who is famous for her appearances on cable news panels. She specializes in the intersectionality of race, class and gender as a roadmap for revolution. She’s off to a prestigious conference where she’s giving a speech. But she is troubled by horrible recurring nightmares where she’s trapped as a slave in pre-civil war America. One day, she receives a puzzling call from an unidentified southern white woman (Jena Malone) whose voice is laden with sinister white-supremacist undertones. Veronica dismisses her as another crank.  But after a girl’s night out with her best friends (including Gabourey Sidibe), she is kidnapped and knocked out. When she awakens, she’s caught in her own terrifying dream: trapped in a southern plantation run by Confederate soldiers. She’s forced by overseers on horseback to pick cotton by day, and is sexually assaulted at night. She and the others are robbed of their freedom, identity, their bodies and even their names, and are forbidden from talking to one another on pain of death. What hell is this? Is it time travel, or just another dream? And can she ever escape? 

Antebellum is a very scary movie where the horrific world of American slavery serves as the ultimate horror setting for contemporary Black characters. It also adds subtle references to the rise of modern-day white supremacists  — Confederate soldiers march with torches just like the alt-right in Charlottesville. Janelle Monáe is great as the modern-day heroine trapped in a disgusting simulacrum of plantation slavery. But the movie suffers from editing problems – it depends on a twist ending (no spoilers) that doesn’t fit right with the supposed “magic” and time travel elements. But maybe I’m analyzing it too much. If you’re in the mood for extreme horror, violence (and some satisfying revenge  sequences) you’ll like Antebellum.

Anything for Jackson

Dir: Justin G Dyck

Wri: Keith Cooper

Audrey and Henry (Sheila McCarthy, Julian Richings) are an older, married couple in a small Canadian city. He’s a family doctor and she takes care of their home. Once a week they meet a group of unusual hobbyists at their local library. What’s unusual about their group? They are a Satanic coven. And what do they want from Satan? They want their little grandson Jackson back (he died in a car crash) and they’ll do anything to make it happen. So they kidnap a pregnant woman Shannon (Konstantina Mantelos) and lock her in a soundproof basement room. They don’t want to hurt her – Audrey keeps saying “Sorry!” and crochets little handcuff cozies so Shannon’s wrists don’t chafe – they just want Jackson’s soul to possess her foetus. Let’s not make this unpleasant, Audrey says.

And they have a thousand-year-old guidebook to tell them what to do. But their fool-proof plan starts to unravel. Rory, who shovels their snow, keeps turning up at the wrong time. A police woman drops by to investigate a missing person. And Ian (Josh Cruddas), a super-creepy ginger-bearded devil-worshipper from their coven, discovers their secret and tries to take over. Worse than all of them, supernatural demons begin to haunt their home. Will they ever see their grandson again? Or have they let loose horrible creatures from hell?

Anything for Jackson is a great horror movie about ordinary, kindly Canadians doing awful things. While it starts as a dark comedy, it soon becomes a scary horror movie powered by monsters, ghosts and demons. Sort of a supernatural Fargo, or Rosemary’s Baby but from the point of view of the Satanists. The special effects are on the cheap side, but the acting and story are quite good.

I like this movie.

Anything for Jackson is premiering at Blood in the Snow, Canada’s horror, genre and underground film festival on right now; you can watch Antebellum on disc and VOD; and Peninsula is also available to rent or to own.

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

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.

Kick-Ass Women! Movies reviewed: Ravage, Lucky Grandma, Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Posted in Action, comedy, Crime, documentary, Drama, Gambling, Jazz, Music, New York City, Thriller, Torture, violence by CulturalMining.com on August 14, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three movies – an action/thriller, a musical documentary, and a dark comedy – all featuring kick-ass women. There’s a photographer in the Appalachians pursued by killer rednecks, a grandma in Chinatown pursued by Red Dragon gangsters; and a parade of jazz singers in Rhode Island pursuing musical bliss.

Ravage

Wri/Dir: Teddy Grennan

Harper Sykes (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) is a professioinal photographer who travels the world looking for rare wildlife. She’s in the Watchatoomy valley in Virginia searching for an endangered species when she stumbles on something she isn’t supposed to see: a group of men brutally torturing a stranger in the woods. She is shocked and sickened but pauses long enough to record the awful event from behind a tree. Then jumps in her pickup and rushes to the nearest police station. But things don’t go as planned. She’s kidnapped and dragged by tow truck to a barn, and awakens to find herself barefoot, tied up and suspended from the rafters. Ravener (Robert Longstreet) is a nasty evil redneck with a gang of meth-head henchmen. (He’s a lot like the character Negan in Walking Dead, only not as menacing.) In this valley, they don’t trust outsiders. So anyone who ventures in gets tortured and fed to the hogs. And there’s no way out.

The thing is, they don’t know Harper. She’s a regular G.I. Jane, a female McGuyver who can get out of any tight situation, using whatever’s close at hand. She gradually turns herself from victim to killer, taking down her opponents one by one. She thinks she’s safe when she takes refuge in an isolated home, where a kindly old man lives (Bruce Dern). But he turns out to be as obsessed with evil torture as the rest of them. Can she ever escape from this hell-hole?

Ravage, as the title suggests is an action/vengeance/horror flick, and it’s a B-movie at best. There are plot holes, weird editing, and a silly ending. But it doesn’t matter. Dexter-Jones is great as the kick-ass Harper, who escapes from tight spaces, makes rafts out of empty barrels, drops bullets into campfires and sabotages her pursuers in ingenious ways. Really cool. The gross-outs and shock scenes are silly, but – if you don’t mind extreme violence – this is a fun flick, perfectly suitable for drive-ins.

Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Dir: Bert Stern

It’s 1958 in Newport Rhode Island. There’s a jazz festival set up in a vast field with an outdoor stage and wooden folding chairs in neat rows. On stage are some newcomers plus big names like Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, and Chuck Berry, playing jazz, blues and R&B. But it’s the women who really stand out. Anita O’day sings scat in Tea for Two, Big Maybelle rumbles her voice, Dinah Washington soars and Mahalia Jackson hushes the crowd whith her heartfelt gospel. This is all taking place at the Newport Jazz Festival in a posh summer resort with the Americas Cup – sailboats and yachts – floating past in the water.

The concert is captured on film without commentary, playing songs we’ve all heard before, but the camera doesn’t stick to the stage. Equal time is given to the audience: girls in pearls, boys in nautical ware, middle aged men in black knee socks, women in straw hats and cardigans, all unconsciously cool. College kids drinking Rheingold beer and making out in the shadows, couples dancing in the grass and hipsters nodding their heads on the off-beat. Model T Fords carrying a Dixieland jazz band sputters past, with experimental musicians jamming in the attic of an old wooden house. Everything’s captures on film, now completely restored with glowing orange klieg lights, bright red lipstick, rippling blue waves. It’s a concert and also a documentary that perfectly captures this slice of time. Something to watch and relax to on a hot summer’s day…

Lucky Grandma

Co-Wri/Dir: Sasie Sealy

Grandma (Tsai Chin) is a retired and elderly widow who lives alone in a cramped apartment in New York’s Chinatown. She likes aqua fitness, smoking cigarettes, and sipping congee. Her son wants her to move to their house in the suburbs and spend time with her noisy grandkids. It’s not safe living alone in the city, he says. But she’s stubborn, and wants to stay on familiar ground. Life’s tough but at least it’s hers. And things change when her fortune teller insists there’s a huge streak of good luck coming her way on the 28th. And when she wins an unexpected sweepstakes, she knows the odds really are on her side.

So she withdraws all her cash and goes to a casino to wager everything on number 8. She wins and wins and wins again. Until, at a game of blackjack she loses it all – tens of thousands – to old Mr Lin. It doesn’t make sense. But when Lin drops dead in her lap on the bus back home, luck is on her side again. She takes back the duffel bag of cash and sneaks home. Looks like she can finally retire in luxury.

But word gets out and Red Dragon gangsters start dropping by uninvited in her apartment to intimidate her. But she won’t give in their tactics. Instead she hires Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha) a huge but simple-minded bodyguard from a rival gang. But things start to heat up, bullets fly and now everyone seems to be after Grandma’s cash (which she insists she doesn’t have). IS this old lady stubborn enough and tough enough to fend off deadly killers? Or has she bit off more than she can chew?

Before I saw Lucky Grandma, judging by the poster I was expecting a cute, slapstick, throwaway comedy. So I was pleasantly surprised by how good a movie this actually is. It’s a low-key, but funny, realistic and poignant picture of life in Chinatown. And this is because of the star Tsai Chin, who gives a nuanced, perfect performance. Every line is just right. Who is Tsai Chin? She’s been a star since the late 50s with a hit single in HK in 1961, was a Bond Girl in You Only Live Twice, appeared in Antonioni’s Blow Up, starred in countless plays in London’s west end, and was Auntie Lindo in the Joy Luck Club. Now, in her late eighties, she’s as good as ever. Don’t miss Tsai Chin in this really good, Chinese-language American movie.

You can watch Jazz on a Summer’s Day on virtual cinema at Hot Docs, Lucky Grandma is now on digital and VOD, and you can see Ravage at drive-ins across Ontario; check your local listings.

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

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

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

Unedited, no music

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

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

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

Dir: Laura Gabbert

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

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

The Strain (Season 1)

Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

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

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

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

The Humorist

Wri/Dir: Mikhail Idov

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

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

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

Great movie.

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

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

Friday the 13th movies. Films reviewed: Extra Ordinary, I Still Believe, The Hunt

Posted in Action, Christianity, College, comedy, Ghosts, Horror, Ireland, Music, Romance, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on March 13, 2020

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

If it feels like the world is going crazy, well it is. And it’s Friday the 13th, too. This week I’m looking at two movies with a sinister theme, and one more for believers. There’s a car rental clerk fighting the “liberal elites”, a  driving instructor fighting Satan, and a Christian rock devotee using prayer to cure cancer.

Extra Ordinary

Dir: Mike Ahern, Enda Loughman

Rose (Maeve Higgins) is a middle-aged psychic driving instructor in Eastern Ireland. She believes ghosts are everywhere. When she was still a little girl, she used her paranormal abilities on her Dad’s TV show. But when he died she blamed herself and stopped listening to ghosts. Nearby lives Martin (Barry Ward) a highschool shop teacher whose house is haunted by a poltergeist. He’s used to it burning his toast or throwing away unhealthy food like donuts. But when he finds his daughter Sarah in a trance and floating above her bed, he senses something has changed. So he goes to Rose for help. She thinks he’s cute – but does he like her that way?

What neither of them realize is Sarah’s possession is the work of Christian Winter (Will Forte) a sinister pop star who lives in a nearby castle. Winter is a one-hit wonder trying to regain his fame with a little help from Satan. But to do so he needs to sacrifice a virgin – that’s Sarah, Martin’s daughter. Can two psychic talents overcome powerful forces? And are Rose and Martin just friends? Or is there something more?

Extra Ordinary is a very cute paranormal comedy. Much of its humour comes from the “ordinary” — average, middle-aged people with normal lives – set against a bizarre world of magic and ghosts. And it’s presented within a retro world full of Swiss Balls and VHS videos.  Higgins is hilariously deadpan as Rose, while Ward shows his stuff when his body is occupied by a series of spirits. If you’re looking for a nice light break from the ordinary, this is a fun one to watch.

I Still Believe

Dir: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin

It’s 1999 in Indiana. Jeremy Camp (KJ Apa: Riverdale) says good bye to his parents (Gary Sinise, Shania Twain) and his two little brothers and heads off to college in California. He carries his prize possession: an acoustic guitar. At college he meets Jean-Luc (Nathan Parsons) a popular musician who lets him work as a roadie at a show. And almost immediately he falls in love with a young woman he sees in the audience. Melissa (Britt Robertson) is smart, pretty, and is into astronomy.. Jeremy’s career takes off with help from Jean Luc, even as his love — or infatuation – with Melissa grows. Problem is she’s dating Jean Luc… or is she? Later she comes down with a terrible illness. Can Jeremy cure her using prayer?

If you haven’t noticed yet, I Still Believe is a music biopic (apparently Jeremy Camp is a wildly popular musician, though I’ve never heard of him) and a faith-based movie. Faith-based means capital “C” Christian. It means no nudity – even male characters can’t take their T- shirts off – no violence, no alcohol, no cussing, no cigarettes, no gambling. It’s like Sunday School.

But there’s also no conflict, no tension, no suspense, no villain.

When characters talk to each other, they’re also talking to Jesus. And when Melissa looks up at the stars, she says “They’re God’s paintbrush!” Now don’t get me wrong; the acting was actually good, and the script wasn’t corny or cringeworthy, but the movie itself was just really boring. And for a faith-based movie you’d think it would make you cry a bit. But this movie is so whitewashed, so denuded, that it has no soul. Unless you’re a true believer, stay away from I Still Believe.

The Hunt

Dir: Craig Zobel

What if the culture wars were actual wars, not just twitter spats? This might be what’s going through the minds of 12 random people who wake up in a field somewhere in Vermont (or so they think). They are being attacked by unknown others with crossbows, hand grenades, and assault weapons. And all around them are trip wires and booby traps set to kill. But who is doing this to whom, and why? Turns out the hunted are all Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”: conspiracy theorists, MAGA loyalists and xenophobes. Their hunters? Politically-correct liberals who use gender-appropriate pronouns and keep farm animals as pets. Who will win this culture war?

The Hunt is the latest version of the classic The Most Dangerous Game done as a very dark comedy. It’s an extremely violent thriller, with occasional bouts of gruesome gore. Some characters are introduced and then immediately killed off. The story focuses on Crystal (Betty Gilpin) an Afghan war vet who works at a car rental service. She is neither a deplorable nor a liberal, just a tough woman with a survival instinct, a suspicious mind, and special-op training. She questions everything she sees, even after she escapes from the so-called hunting ground. Are the people she meets friends, foes or actors playing roles? And can anyone be trusted?

The Hunt deals with obvious stereotypes and cliches but in very funny ways. It’s violent, scary and more than a bit gory. And it’s not for everyone… but I enjoyed this flick.  And it’s the perfect movie to watch during a pandemic.

Extra Ordinary, I Still Believe, and The Hunt 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.

Away from home. Films reviewed: Gretel and Hansel, The Rhythm Section, Rosie

Posted in Action, Drama, Dreams, Espionage, Fairytales, Family, Homelessness, Ireland, Realism, Thriller, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 31, 2020

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

If you live in Toronto, you have probably noticed that unscrupulous landlords, soaring rents and loopholes like “renoviction” and “demoviction” are driving tenants out of the city. Isn’t housing a human right? So this week I’m looking at three new movies about young women looking for a home. There’s a mother of four who lost possession of her house, a sister and brother lost in the woods; and a university student who lost her entire family in suspicious circumstances.

Gretel and Hansel

Dir: Oz Perkins

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far away, there was a famine in the land and people were starving. Little Hansel and Gretel live with their mother in a small house. Gretel, aged 16 (Sophia Lillis) keeps her brother happy by telling him fairytales before he goes to sleep. But when their mother, crazed with hunger, attacks them with an axe, Gretel knows it’s time to go. She grabs eight-year-old Hansel (Samuel Leakey) and flees into the woods. Perhaps they can find work at a lumber camp (their late father was a woodcutter.) No such luck. But they do find a strange pointy house painted black, with  the aromas of delicious food wafting out. Hansel sneaks in through a window and starts gorging on all the cakes and tarts, the roasts and stews he finds there. Gretel is more cautious — there’s no such thing a free lunch.

Turns out it’s the home of an old crone with wrinkled skin, and fingers dyed black (Alice Krige). She invites the kids to stay with her in their own room. And she teaches Gretel how to mix potions using her book of spells; She has magic powers — that’s why she lives in the woods. Men don’t like women who know too much. And says Gretel is just like her, she has to harness her magic abilities. But Gretel knows something is wrong. Where does all this food come from? Why is she having dreams about crying children? What’s happening to Hansel? And what’s behind that hidden door in the pantry?

Gretel and Hansel is a reboot of the famous Brothers Grimm fairy tale and it’s no spoiler to say it sticks to the basic story. Differences include their parents don’t abandon them in the woods, there don’t leave a trail  to find their way home, and the witch’s house isnt made of gingerbread. On the plus side there’s a feminist coming of age theme and Alice Krige is terrific as the Witch. Minuses include gratuitous references to The Wizard of Oz, accents that keep changing… and what’s with the pig snort sounds all the characters keep making? I don’t get it.  I love the look of this low budget film — from triangular spyholes to the witch’s forked staff like a divining rod — and the neat symmetry of the plot.

If you love fairytales, you might want to check this one out.

The Rhythm Section

Dir: Reed Morano

Stephanie (Blake Lively) used to be a star student at Oxford. But when he entire family died in a plane crash, her life fell apart. Now she’s a junkie, turning tricks at a low-rent brothel in London, earning just enough to pay for her next fix. Until… she meets a freelance journalist (Raza Jaffrey) who tells her the plane crash wasn’t an accident. It was deliberate, th killer is still out there, and a vast conspiracy is covering it all up. So she makes her way to northern scotland to track down the source.  There she is attacked from behind by a  mysterious bearded man.

He’s a rogue MI6 agent (Jude Law) who knows exactly what happened. She wants revenge on whoever killed her family. He agrees to train her in a violent one-on-one boot camp as long as she does what he says.  Soon she’s working as a hitman flying from Tangier to Berlin, New York to Marseilles to knock off various criminals and spies. And a former CIA agent Mark Serra (Sterling K Brown) sends her from place to place. Who is she really working for? Will she find the killer she’s looking for? And are the men she meets on the way potential lovers, damgerous killers… or both?

The Rhythm Section is a so-so action thriller in the manner of the Bourne series. It has some tense moments a few life-and-death fights, and lots of great chase scenes. Andthe weird, twisting camera work pulls you into Stephanie’s panicked and confused mood (though i was getting carsick after a while). Blake LIvely and Jude Law both play against type as violent, stone-cold killers, and are believable. My biggest problems? It was impossible to tell the good guys from the bad guys, the politics are confused, there’s no originality, and the story is extremely muddy. I don’t expect much from an action/thriller, but they really should clean up the plot and make the characters less robotic if they want to turn it into a series.

Rosie

Dir: Paddy Breathnach (Viva)

Wri: Roddy Doyle

It’s present-day Dublin.

Rosie Davis (Sarah Greene) is a devoted young mother with four adorable kids (first time actors Ellie O’Halloran, Ruby Dunne, Darragh McKenzie and Molly McCann) ranging from toddler to tween. Kayleigh concentrates on her homework, Millie is the shy one, Alfie loves bouncing around, and Madison is fine as long as she has her stuffed bunny. Since her husband John Paul (Moe Dunford) works late at a restaurant kitchen, it’s up to Rosie to get the kids fed, cleaned, bathed, brought to school and back, comforted and tucked into bed at night… an almost impossible task.

So imagine what happens when their landlord suddenly evicts them from their own rented home — what can they do? Now her number-one task is finding a place to stay. But with a concert in town, and all the hotels booked solid where can they find a room? Can she keep their kids’ lives normal without anyone noticing they’re suddenly homeless?

Rosie is an intensely personal, hyperrealistic  look at a day and half in the lives of a family in crisis. Viewers are dropped right into the middle of their lives, a short peek at an ongoing crisis. It’s about love, pride, poverty, family, bullying and homelessness, and the fraying social welfare state. It’s filmed with a closeup, handheld camera capturing the cramped claustrophobic setting and the degree of tension they face. It’s sentimental but not cloying, and Sarah Greene is fantastic in the main role. Rosie is intense and will probably make you cry, but if you’re in the mood for some kitchen-sink realism, this is the one to see.

Gretel and Hansel, The Rhythm Section and Rosie all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

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