Canadian Film Day! The Courier, Bloodthirsty, The Marijuana Conspiracy

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Cold War, drugs, Espionage, Lesbian, Mental Illness, Music, Toronto, UK, USSR, Werewolves by CulturalMining.com on April 16, 2021

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

Hey, did you know next Wednesday is Canadian Film Day? Yeah, I know all the theatres will be closed but you can still attend Canadian movies all across the country. Things like 11 new short films from emerging filmmakers, called Light(s) at the End of the Tunnel; online discussions, and lots of films you can watch on TV or streaming online. Go to canadianfilmday.ca for details.

This week I’m looking at three new movies, two of which are Canadian. There’s tokes in Toronto, Spooks in the Soviet Union, and lycanthropes in Alberta.

The Courier

Dir: Dominic Cooke

It’s 1960 in Moscow and the space race, the arms race and the cold war are in full swing. Oleg Pankovsky (Merab Ninidze) is a high-ranked officer in Soviet military intelligence. He has access to secret documents,  and knows something big and potentially dangerous is coming. And he doesn’t like Kruschev’s inflammatory speeches. It feels like the USSR and the USA are heading toward all out nuclear war. So he decides to do something. He leaks a bundle of documents to the American embassy with a promise of more to come. But Oleg is too important for the  CIA and the MI5 to risk exposing him by using one of their own agents.

So, instead, a CIA agent named Emily (Rachel Brosnahan) and her MI5 counterpart approach a mild-mannered British businessman who already conducts trade behind the Iron Curtain. Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is just an ordinary fellow, who lives in a modest London home with his wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and their young son. And he wants nothing to do with it. He’s untrained and uninterested. But when he learns that the fate of the world may be at stake, he agrees. All he has to do is continue what he was always doing — making deals and signing import and export contracts. And regular meeting with Oleg to carry secret documents back to London. Heh’s a courier. But as tensions rise moles on both sides are revealing secrets. Wynne and Oleg both face growing suspicion, and their home lives suffer (Wynne’s wife thinks he’s having an affair). And when something goes wrong both Oleg and Wynne are in grave danger. Will they be discovered? Can they safely make it to the west? Or is their fate already sealed?

The Courier is a gripping historical spy thriller set at the height of the Cold War, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s exciting and mysterious, filled with quirky realistic characters. It’s also based on an actual case. On the other hand, it regurgitates Cold War politics as if it’s still 1960.  The KGB was surely a nasty agency, but so were the CIA and the MI5. They were all busy assassinating leaders, supporting coups, installing dictators and thwarting democratic elections worldwide. But in this movie it’s “Russians bad, Anglo-Americans good”.

Keep that in mind, but it doesn’t detract from the gripping story, and excellent acting. I liked this one.

Bloodthirsty

Dir: Amelia Moses

Grey (Lauren Beatty) is a singer-songwriter in Edmonton, Alberta. She’s a vegan and an animal lover who treats everyone, even the four-legged, with love and respect. She lives with her long-time girlfriend  Charlie, an artist (Katharine King So).  Her first album was a smash hit, but now she’s facing two problems: First she has writer’s block and sophomore blues — she’s afraid her second album will suck. She’s also  on prescription meds to battle a strange phenomenon: frequent, realistic nightmares about gorging on raw flesh, dripping with blood, and similar hallucinations when she’s awake.

So, when a famous but reclusive record producer named Vaughn Daniels (Greg Bryk) invites her to his home to record her next album, she jumps at the chance. Charlie is less enthusiastic. Why does he live in a house in the woods. And isn’t he a convicted murderer? (Actually he was charged but never convicted.) So they drive up north. He takes Grey under his wing, so she can let her mind free. It’s not writer’s block it’s your inhibitions that are holding you back, he tells her. He takes off her meds, plies her with hard liquor and tries to get her to eat raw meat.  And Grey notices she’s changing — she’s creating good, dark music,  but her head is filled with violent ideas. Why did Vaughn choose her? What is he after? And why do dead animals and humans — ostensibly killed by wolves — keep turning up near his home?

Bloodthirsty, as the title suggests, is a dark and brooding, horror movie about werewolves and music.  It’s spooky but not all that scary. It’s a low-budget movie with a very small cast and low-rent special effects. And it could have used a bit more humour… and a scarier-looking house. (Vaughn’s lair just looks strange.)

What’s great about this movie is the way it combines the creative process of composing and writing lyrics with supernatural bloodlust! That is totally original, and and Lauren Beatty as Grey does it really well (with a beautiful voice, too). 

The Marijuana Conspiracy 

Wri/Dir: Craig Pryce

It’s 1972 in downtown Toronto. Trudeaumania has swept across Canada but here in True Blue Ontario, the Tories are worried. Rumour has it that Trudeau — Pierre, not Justin — might legalize marijuana. So they commission a study of the dangers of the demon weed. 20 young women, age 18-25 are paid subjects at the Addiction Research Foundation, (later merged with CAMH). They’re given rooms to live in, food and recreation for three months. What’s the catch? They’re not allowed to leave the premises and  have to smoke cannabis every day. The doctors observe the results but don’t interfere. And to measure the long term effects the patients weave macrame wall hangings out of hemp and beads, and they’ll be paid upon completion of the study for each one they successfully finish (that measures motivation.)  What they’re measuring is whether smoking grass impedes work production. (There’s also a control group in the study identical in every way except they don’t smoke.)

The movie focuses on a few of the subjects. One is homeless, another is upper middle class, a third is hippy who wants to move to a commune in Vancouver, and one whose father is serving time for drug possession. There’s also intrigue, sex, humour music, and friendship. And it touches on sexuality, race, psychiatry, politics and many other issues. Here’s the biggest twist: This is not a documentary! It’s base on the actual study but this is character-driven drama about the the young volunteers, and the doctors, nurses, and grad students they interact with.

This is such an unusual movie, it really grabbed me, both for the characters and drama and surprises, but also the weirdness of it all — and because it actually happened right here in Toronto.

The Courier is released today on PVOD; The Marijuana Conspiracy opens across North America on Tuesday, April 20th, and you can pre-order Bloodthirsty beginning next Friday.

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

Implanted ideas. Films reviewed: Held, Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide, Moffie

Posted in 1980s, Art, Cold War, Coming of Age, Drama, Gay, H.I.V., Horror, New York City, Psychological Thriller, South Africa, Suspicion, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 9, 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 — a doc, a war drama and a thriller horror — about ideas implanted into our minds. There’s an eighties artist digging up TV images from the sixties; a soldier in eighties South Africa with Cold War racism and homophobia drilled into his head; and a married couple forced to re-enact outdated sexual roles by the orders of a device… drilled into their skulls.

Held
Dir: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofing

Emma and Henry (Jill Awbrey and Bart Johnson) are a married couple, both professionals. They plan to meet at a remote luxury resort in order to bring the spark back into their relationship. Eight years ago they had an amazing vacation in Monterey, just the two of them; but lately, they’ve been drifting apart. Emma arrives first, driven by a vaguely suspicious-looking guy named Joe (Rez Kempton). Why does he ask so many personal questions? She’s relieved to see the house is protected by a large wall. She checks out the digs — it’s a minimalist wonder, all glass and white walls, and incredibly safe from intruders. There are alarms and code systems everywhere, a modern kitchen, and a lovely orchard just outside. And Henry left her some flowers on the doorstep — red roses… how romantic!

When Henry arrives, they share a toast over glasses of whiskey. But then things get weird. They both start to feel dizzy — are there roofies in their drinks? They wake up the next morning in a daze. Their cel phones are gone. Emma is dressed in an old-school negligee. Did someone do this to her in her sleep? And the roses? Henry says they weren’t from him. Their clothes have all disappeared, replaced by 6os-style dresses for her and suits for him, and large TV screens that play old-school songs urging them to dance a foxtrot. Dance?

The doors are all locked, and a strange detached voice starts giving them orders. Obey us! If you follow our directions you will not be harmed! Mr Creepy Voice wants them to stick to traditional sexual roles — men open doors for women, who respond by thanking them. If they disobey, they get zapped by a high-power, hugely painful device that’s been implanted into their heads the night before. And now they’re expected to make love under a watchful eye. Who is this maniac and what’s his agenda? Is it Jordan Peterson? Or an incel? Why does he cling to outdated sexual norms? And will they ever escape from this bizarre house of horrors?

Held is a heart pounding , psychological thriller about a couple held hostage for no known reason. There’s a big revelation about two-thirds of the way through (no spoilers) which I predicted… but even so, it gripped me till the very end. It is quite violent and disturbing, so not for the faint of heart, but I found Held a super-twisted and scary movie, just the thing for late-night viewing.

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide
Wri/Dir:Max Basch, Malia Scharf

Kenny Scharf is born into post-war LA, the land of artificial smiles, perma-tans, non-stop TV and brightly coloured plastic. He grows up in a nuclear family amidst the prefab suburbs of the San Fernando valley. He likes art and design and has a steady hand that can draw a perfect line without a ruler. But Andy Warhol and New York City beckons and he ends up a student at SVA (the School of Visual Arts) beside Keith Haring with whom he eventually shares an apartment in Times Square. It’s the early 1980s, and together with the younger Jean-Michel Basquiat, the three start spreading their art all over the city: on subways, toasters, TV sets, and crumbing tenement walls. Kenny can’t stop putting painting on everything he sees.

Eventually people with money start to notice, and the East Village art scene explodes. Kenny Scharf’s work incorporates found art, day-glo colours, and cartoonish TV images of George Jetson, Barney Rubble and 1950s suburban housewives. These figures are vomited across canvas in a cosmic orgy of detailed mayhem, the work of spray paint and fine brush strokes. Grotesque smiles and googly-eyed faces adorn his prolific paintings and sculptures, like a Peewee’s Playhouse of fine art. The East Village art scene spills over into the world of performance, music, fashion and nightclubs, blurring the lines. Kenny is doing it all. Next comes money and fame, one-man shows and installations,…until it finally crashes and burns. Many of the artists die in the AIDS epidemic, but Kenny survives, moving back to LA with his Brazilian wife and kids and continuing his work.

Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide (the title is from one of his massive paintings) is a documentary look at his life and art, from childhood to the present, presented using never-seen period footage, video, recordings and art. It’s an amazing story brought to life. To be honest, I’m always suspicious of docs on living artists — did they make this film just to raise his recognition and pump up the value of his work? Who knows?  But life as an artist is never easy. This film is co-directed by another artist, Kenny’s own daughter Malia, which lets us look into his private life and thoughts, and his never-ending outflow of colour and plastic… while steering clear of any stories of sex, drugs and debauchery. It’s her dad… what do you want?

I liked this movie.

Moffie
Wri/Dir: Oliver Hermanus

It’s 1982 in Apartheid South Africa. All white boys and men are required to serve in the army for two years starting at age 16. Nick (Kai Luke Brümmer) is still wet behind the ears and doesn’t want to go. But his mother and boorish step-father send him off with a big celebration. His father slips him a porn mag to keep him company. But Playboy centrefolds are not his thing. The train to the camp is loud and rough, filled with oafs drinking till they puke, picking fights and shouting racist abuse at any African they pass. Nick makes one friend on the way, Michael (Matthew Vey), an anglo and a nice guy to boot. At the base, they are spat on, kicked, punched and made to repeat inane slogans by an especially sadistic sergeant. All hatred is aimed toward the three enemies of the state — Africans, communists, and homosexuals. And heaven help anyone caught supporting any of them, or worse being one of them. The sleeping quarters are filled with testosterone-fuelled idiots, spouting racist nonsense but exuding a constant masculine sexuality that clouds Nick’s thoughts.

But war is war (there’s a longstanding border conflict with neighbouring Angola) and they’re expected to fight. When Nick finds himself sharing a sleeping bag in a foxhole with a friendly soldier named Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) he’s forced to reassess his sense of desire and sexuality. But will he survive this two year ordeal?

Moffie (the title is an Afrikaans anti-gay slur), is a realistic internal look at the unrelenting racism and paranoia drilled into the psyche of white South Africans’ during Apartheid. (Unspoken, but implied, is the the violence that this visited upon the non-white South African majority on a daily basis) It’s also an intensely moving story, full of lust and longing, regret and horror. Dialogue alternates between Afrikaans and English. It has stunning cinematograpy, and a great soundtrack. The acting is fantastic, with a largely unknown cast, many on screen for the first time. Moffie is a powerful war film.

I recommend this movie.

Moffie opens today on VOD on Apple TV and in the summer on IFC Films Unlimited; Held also starts today on VOD on AppleTV, iTunes and other platforms; and Kenny Scharf: When Worlds Collide will open next Thursday.

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

The Fathers and the Mothers. Films reviewed: The Goddess of Fortune, Zappa

Posted in 1960s, Cold War, documentary, Family, Gay, Italy, L.A., LGBT, Music, Romance by CulturalMining.com on November 26, 2020

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

In Toronto, we’re locked up at home, while in the States they’re huddled around Covid-lit fires eating turkey as Rome burns. This week I’m looking at an two new movies, an Italian drama and an American documentary. We’ve got impromptu fathers in Rome, and the mothers of invention in LA.

The Goddess of Fortune

Wri/Dir: Ferzan Ozpetek

Arturo and Allesandro (Stefano Accorsi, Edoardo Leo) are a happy Italian couple in a long-term relationship. Arturo is an academic translator who works at home, while Allesandro is a plumber. There relationship is strong but missing some of it’s original pizzazz. They still sleep together in the same bed, but the don’t “sleep together”. Allesandro settles for quickies on the sly, while Arturo is celibate. But they still have their friends and neighbours, a close-knit family that spans the straight and LGBT world in all its aspects, ethnicities and languages.

But their lives are disrupted by an unexpected arrival. Annamaria (Jasmine Trinca: The Son’s Room, The Best of Youth) is a single mom with two kids, the stern Martina and the innocent Sandro. She was dating Allesandro when he met Arturo, but remains close after they broke up. Now she’s visiting Rome for medical tests – she suffers from extreme migraines – and is leaving the kids with them for a few days. Allesandro takes Sandro on his plumbing trips, teaching him how to fix pipes, while Arturo serves as a temporary teacher for Martina. But the idyllic relationship begins to fade as jealousies and suspicions rise to the surface. Is Arturo having a secret affair? Is Sandro Allesandro’s biological son? Is Annamaria’s ailment more dangerous than they thought? And if things get worse, who will take care of the kids?

The Goddess of Fortune is a warm-and-fuzzy gay family drama with great characters and some surprising plot turns. With an attractive cast, it’s beautifully shot amidst the decaying palaces and frescos of Palermo, Sicily, which gives parts of the film a spooky feel. The director, Ferzan Ozpetek, is well known to Toronto audiences – originally from Istanbul, he’s been making romantic dramas in Italy, usually with a gay theme, for 20 years now. If you like his films, or just feel-good dramas in general, let The Goddess of Fortune shine bright on you.

Zappa

Dir: Alex Winter

Frank Zappa was an American composer, musician and prominent counter-culture figure. He is known for his driven personality, his prolific output, and his innovations in the field of experimental music, as well as for his hit singles and albums. His music is uncategorizeable, but is simultaneously both frenetic and precise, with a subversive feel, far outside the mainstream. This new documentary looks at his entire life and career, using largely unseen super-8, video, TV and film from Zappa’s vast collection.

Frank Zappa was born into an Italian-American family in Baltimore during WWII. His dad worked in an arms factory making nerve gas and chemical weapons. The beakers and gas masks his dad brought home for the kids to play with instilled in young Frank a love of explosives and both a fascination with and repulsion toward the macabre US arms industry, a view that stayed with him for most of his life. (He was also a fan of Spike Jones and Ernie Kovacs.) The family moved to small-town California in his teens where he started composing and performing music. His entry into the avant-garde was spurred by a Look magazine article mentioning Edgard Varese, described as an unlistenable composer (reason enough for him to want to hear more). He later worked as a greeting card artist, and wrote the scores for low-budget films. He was driven out of Cucamonga in a vice-squad sting that accused him of making porn movies.

But when he arrived in LA in the 60s, he found his stride. He began performing at the Whiskey a Go Go, where he met his wife Gail. And with his band, The Mothers of Invention, began recording and touring his music. Classic songs like Dynamo Hum, placed him within the “sexual revolution”. He was also a hero within the psychedelic drug movement, though he said he didn’t touch the stuff. While never a huge hit, his albums sold well, he had a devoted fan base, and was respected by other musicians. To give you an idea of his eclectic nature, Zappa performed with or alongside people like Lenny Bruce, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Flo and Eddie of The Turtles, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and conductor Zubin Mehta. The members of The Mothers changed over the years, but all were accomplished musicians whom Zappa directed with an iron grip. He was not known for showing emotions and had no tolerance of imprecise performances. (He was a mean mofo.)

In the 1980s he left the establishment and formed his own independent record company. Ironically, he hit his first commercial success and had his only top 10 hit with a novelty song, Valley Girl, where his daughter, Moon Unit Zappa, provided a perfect imitation of the San Fernando dialect.  Later he became an outspoken critic of government censorship, including the classifying of popular music using warning labels. He was also invited to perform in Prague just as Czechoslovakia (where he was considered a national hero) threw off Soviet control. He died of cancer in the early 1990s.

This documentary film by Alex Winter is an overwhelming panoply, a barrage of audio and visual images, both public and private, as well as new interviews with musicians he worked with. It’s less concerned with Zappa’s private life than his astoundingly prolific career and his innovations in experimental music. It’s produced by his son Ahmet and features a lengthy interview with his late wife Gail, so, while not a white-washed hagiography, it’s not a scandal-doc, either.

Whether or not you’re a fan of his music, Zappa is a must-see documentary, an unforgettable look at the man, the era he lived in, and the influence he had.

Zappa is available on VOD and in selected theatres starting today; and The Goddess of Fortune is on VOD beginning next week. 

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

Rescue. Films reviewed: The Walrus and the Whistleblower, The Forbidden Reel, It Must Be Heaven

Posted in Afghanistan, Animals, Canada, Cold War, documentary, Movies, Niagara Falls, Palestine, War by CulturalMining.com on June 12, 2020

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

I’m recording this in my home to tell you about new movies you can watch in your home. This week I have two docs and a comedy. There’s a Palestinian director trying to make a film; Afghani directors trying to save their films, and a man in Canada trying to rescue a walrus from a swimming pool.

The Walrus and the Whistleblower

Dir: Nathalie Bibeau

Marineland is a huge amusement park in Niagara Falls, centred on its performing animals. Built in the 1960s it attracts huge crowds. Visitors love watching trainers diving off the noses of orcas, and dolphins jumping in rhythm like synchronized swimmers. There are porpoises, belugas and walruses happily doing tricks for the fish rewards they’re handed. But the world is shocked in 2012 when the Toronto Star prints a front-page expose about the maltreatment of its animals. When not performing for audiences they are kept in filthy cramped cells, much like prisons. They are force-fed drugs and made to perform in over-chlorinated pools. They are caught at sea as infants and separated from their mothers who are often killed in the process. And when they die they are dumped into mass graves on the amusement park’s own property.

Who spilled the tea on this explosive issue? Phil Demers, a trainer who had worked there since his early twenties. He learned the trade as he went along, and became an integral part of the show. He was most attached to a walrus he calls Smooshi. He milk-fed the baby walrus when it was brought there, and became its surrogate mother. They bonded like a true family. So he is disturbed by how badly Smooshi and the other animals are being treated there – an open secret shared by all its employees. When Marineland doesn’t change, he goes to the press. His whistleblowing leads to a bill in Parliament and he becomes a spokesperson for animal rights. But he is also vilified by the park’s owner,  John Holer, who launches a series of SLAPP lawsuits to stifle him. Who will win in the end – Demers or Marineland? And can he save Smooshi?

This documentary is a first-hand look at the plight of marine mammals as told by Phil Demers (Marineland doesn’t cooperate with the filmmaker). Demers is an unusual character, in turn passionate, angry, and even rude. But his love for the animals – especially Smooshi – is undeniable. And the hidden camera footage taken inside the park is very disturbing; you can see why he’s fighting so hard, and why this documentary is so popular (it won the Top Audience Award at Hot Docs this year). If you haven’t made up your mind yet, The Walrus and the Whisteblower will totally change your opinion on keeping whales in captivity.

The Forbidden Reel

Dir: Ariel Nasr

In Kabul, there’s a building that stands behind filigreed metal gates. It holds a treasure trove of Afghan culture and history wound around movie reels in metal cases. What are they, where did they come from, and how did they survive? The building is called called Afghan Films, and its archive contains a crucial record of the country’s past. Through war and peace, modernism, communism and civil war. Afghan Films was founded by film directors who wanted to create a national cinema. Influenced by Iranian, European, Hollywood and Bollywood, they created works interesting and accessible to Afghanis. They continued producing and showing their films through the civil war, indeed until the Taliban was at its gate. That’s when the archive was safely hidden and preserved in a room behind a plaster wall.

This amazing documentary tells the history of modern Afghanistan through these films. I’m talking romances, war stories, battles, dramas and newsreels. The cameramen were recoding missiles landing in Kabul. Films made under Soviet rule still depicted stories of Mujahadeen fighters. There are massice crowds in city squares, girls in poppy fields lacing flowers through their hair, travelers leading camels along mountain passes, and sombre footage of past President hanging from poles. The documentary talks to people like Yasamin Yarmal a genuine Afghani movie star, and directors Engineer Latif and Siddiq Barmak who give first-hand accounts. And it’s even a bit of a thriller – how they managed to save these Forbidden Reels (it’s not what you think!) This doc gives a view of Afghan culture like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Great documentary.

It Must Be Heaven

Wri/Dir: Elia Suleiman

Elia Suleiman is a Palestinian film director who lives in Nazareth. He lives a simple, quiet life, observing his lemon tree, listening to neighbours and drinking coffee or wine at nearby cafes, always in his panama hat and dark rimmed glasses. But his life changes when he travels abroad for a series of meetings. He flies first to Paris and then to Manhattan, but maintains his lifestyle as a quiet observer… until he goes back home again. But this simple outline doesn’t really capture the feelings behind this comic film.

It’s actualy a series of brief, whimsical tableaux, some one-offs, some repeated, in the style of Jaques Tati. This is basically a silent film with only occasional lines spoken by the people he meets. Some scenes are cute; like a little bird that keeps landing on his laptop as he tries to write. Others are more political, dealing with the pervasive presence of surveillance, military and police forces in all three countries. Israeli soldiers happily exchanging sunglasses in a car driving past… and then you see a young woman, blindfolded, in the back seat. There’s a scene on the Paris metro where he is frightened by an angry man who somehow drinks his beer in a threatening way.

Some scenes are spiritual: there’s an angel pursued by Keystone Cops in Central Park. Others are mundane – a drunken doorkeeper refusing to unlock the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Although the film represents nationalities in stereotypical ways – he dreams, What if New Yorkers carried assault weapons casually slung over their shoulders?; and do Parisian ambulances really offer 3-course meals to homeless people? – but it laughs equally at all nationalities. Some of the most interesting scenes are in his own home where neighbours tell fantastical fables as if real life… part of the magic-realism feel of the whole movie. It Must Be Heaven is a lovely, funny and thought-provoking look at the strangeness of everyday life.

The Forboidden Reel and The Walrus and the Whistleblower are both streaming at Hotdocs; and It Must Be Heaven is opening across Canada at select virtual theatres; 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.

Gone fishing. Films reviewed: Serenity, Wonders of the Sea PLUS Cold War

Posted in 1950s, Animals, Cold War, Communism, Conservation, Crime, documentary, Drama, Film Noir, France, Music, Mystery, Poland, Romance, Suspense by CulturalMining.com on January 25, 2019

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

Fishing for something different to watch? This week I’m looking at two movies about fish and one about love. There’s a doc beneath the waves, a suspense drama aboard a fishing boat, and a bittersweet romance behind the Iron Curtain.

Serenity

Wri/Dir: Steve Knight

Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman off Plymouth Island, a tropical vacation spot in the middle of nowhere. Along with his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) he takes rich tourists out on his boat to catch some sharks. But Dill’s real love, his passion, is for tuna. One particular bluefin he calls Justice, that always gets away. It’s his great white whale, his Moby Dick . He spends his free time drinking dark rum at the local bar or sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane) an attractive older woman with a black cat, who helps him out financially after a night of passion.

Life never changes… until one day a mysterious femme fatale, named Karen (Anne Hathaway) appears on his boat. If you drown my rich abusive husband, she says, I’ll give you 10 million bucks. Cash. Will Dill stick with his tuna obsession or will he kill a stranger?

But wait, that’s not all. Turns out he had a thing with Karen before serving in Iraq… she dumped him to marry the rich guy. And her teenaged boy Patrick, a computer geek, could be his biological son. (Though they’ve never met Dill feels he has a psychic bond with the boy). And a strange man with a briefcase following Dill has some crucial information.

If my description sounds like a clichéed film noir knock-off, that’s because that’s what it is. The actors play their characters – an obsessed fisherman, a villainous drunk, an abused but devious woman – in over-the-top performances, vamping for the camera. Why the boilerplate plots? Why the tired dialogue? Apparently, it’s all intentional, but to tell you why would ruin the WTF plot twist. I started to figure it out about two-thirds-of-the-way through, and it kept me interested (though not really satisfied). If you like watching famous actors acting in an imperfect script, this is for you.

Wonders of the Sea

Dir: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jean-Jacques Montello

Jacques Cousteau was the French deep-sea diver, conservationist and underwater filmmaker whose TV shows fascinated me as a child. He sailed away on a ship called Calypso with flippers on his feet and aqualungs on his back. He died in 1997 but his son Jean-Michel and grandkids Fabien and Celine are still diving. This latest documentary in 3D looks at undiscovered parts of the ocean floor and the tiny creatures that live there. They lead us through a massive squid orgy: a mating ritual near California where they all have sex with each other. They also visit a hammerhead shark migration near the Bahamas, and the wondrous coral reefs off Fiji, which form a crucial part of the world’s oceans’ ecosystem. The doc focusses on the tiny, the cute, the weird and the grotesque. And they throw in informative facts and stats about pollution and overfishing.

My biggest problem with this movie is the insufferably corny and dated voiceovers by Arnold Schwartzeneggar and the Cousteaus. It seems aimed at three-year-olds. Who knows, maybe the narration was this bad when I was three but I just didn’t notice. Whatever. If you can somehow switch off the dialogue and just take in the intense, weird-and-wonderful, 3-D coloured images you’ll enjoy this movie.

Cold War

Wri/ Dir Pawel Pawlikowski

It’s post-WWII Poland, and a team of musicologists is heading to the mountains with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Irena (Agata Kulesza) is a serious academic looking to preserve authentic folk culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) a handsome conductor, wants to put together a musical group. Their boss is Kazsmarek (Borys Szyc), an apparatchik – he wants a show big enough to impress his party bosses. The auditions begin, with milk maids and farm hands singing the innocently salacious songs of their childhood. Authenticity rules. Still, one pretty young woman, with blonde braids and a strong voice manages to slip through the cracks. Zula (Joanna Kulig) isn’t really a local peasant, but after living through WWII, taking on new identities is a piece of cake. And Wiktor is attracted to her. The Mazurek Choir is born, and it’s a big hit. And Wiktor and Zula start a secret relationship.

The Party weeds out anyone not “Polish-looking” enough: hair too dark, nose too big? Back to the farm. When they are forced to include Stalinist paeans to collective farming, Wiktor shrugs his shoulders but Irena quits in disgust. But their new status pushes the choir to star status in the Eastern Bloc. Wiktor and Zula fall in love and hatch a plan to defect to the west. Wiktor makes it across the border, but Zula stays behind. Now thelovers are separated by the impenetrable Iron Curtain. Will they ever see each other again? If so, on which side? And can their love –  and their music – survive a long separation?

Cold War is a wonderful, bittersweet romantic drama, set in 1950s Europe. It paints the Cold War era with all its faults and how it affects the people caught in it. Like Pawlikowski’s Ida, it’s just 90 minutes long and shot in glorious black and white on a square screen. Filled with haunting music and images, the film showcases the amazing Kulig and Kot in their flawless performances as separated lovers. (Kulig sings, too!) It’s nominated for a Foreign Language Feature Oscar and is also on my list of best movies of the year.

This is a great movie, don’t miss it.

Wonders of the Sea in 3D starts next week, Serenity and Cold War 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.

Heavy Hitters. Films Reviewed: Wonder Wheel, Roman J Israel, Esq, The Shape of Water

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Cold War, Drama, Fantasy, L.A., Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

It’s December now, and that’s when the movie awards start to pile up. This week I’m looking at some of the hard-hitters — movies with famous directors or stars — that might be up for a prize. There’s a kitchen sink drama in Coney Island, a legal drama in LA, and a romantic drama in a secret Baltimore laboratory.

Wonder Wheel

Wri/Dir: Woody Allen

It’s the 1950s in Coney Island. Humpty and Ginny are a middle aged couple living in a rundown apartment overlooking the ferris wheel. Humpty (Jim Belushi) is an angry drunk, currently on the wagon, who manages the carousel. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a former actress who is a waitress at the clam shack… or as she puts it, she’s playing the part of “Waitress” in an on-going drama. She has a little kid from her first marriage, Richie, who is a petty thief and an aspiring arsonist, lighting fires wherever he can. Life in this dysfunctional family is far from perfect but at least it’s stable. That is until two things turn their lives upside down.

First Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up out of nowhere. They haven’t spoken for five years, not since she married a racketeer. Now she’s on the lam, a marked woman since she turned canary and sang about the mob to the cops. She moves into their crowded home, working with Ginny at the Clam House. The second thing that happens is Ginny meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard on the beach. He’s a grad student at NYU and loves the idea of dating a dramatic older woman. Soon they are secretly meeting under the boardwalk for afternoon delights. But then Mickey meets Carolina and everything starts to unravel.

After watching Wonder Wheel, I kept wondering: did I just see a great movie or a terrible one? It’s certainly very different from Woody Allen’s European comedies. It feels more like a stage play, with characters reciting the lines of a script, from Mickey the lifeguard who narrates by speaking directly to the camera, to Ginny who says things like: “I’m consumed with jealousy!” I think that’s intentional.  But I’m not so sure most of the characters wanted to speak exactly like Woody, down to his stammer and pauses. Still, the look of the movie – from the period costumes to the lurid colours of neon lights, and the unexpectedly jarring camerawork – is stunning and surprising. Does this mean Woody Allen is still experimenting?

So is Wonder Wheel a good movie or not? Hmmm… I guess so.

Roman J Israel, Esq.

Wri/Dir: Dan Gilroy

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a defense lawyer in present day LA. He’s a partner in a small law firm – he minds the office while his partner goes to court. He’s an old-fashioned guy. He wears big round glasses and ill-fitting clothes. He rides the bus to an office full of foolscap and post-it notes. He works under the watchful gaze of pictures of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin. He sacrificed marriage, a social life and material possessions, in exchange for devoting his life to civil rights and equality under the law. That is until his law partner of 30 years has a heart attack. Suddenly Roman finds himself jobless, friendless and nearly homeless.

A slick corporate colleague of his boss named George (Colin Farrell) offers him a low-level job at his firm. He refuses. But when he can’t find paying work, is mocked at a meeting of young activists, and is attacked by a mugger on the way home, he is faced with a tough decision: stay true to his ideals or sell out and enjoy the profits? Only Maya (Carmen Ejogo) – a woman he meets at an NGO – still believes in him. He ends up making an ethically dubious decision, and has to deal with the consequences.

Roman J Israel, Esq. is billed as a thriller – and there are a few tense moments – but it’s basically a character study of a man forced to re-examine his values in a changing world. Denzel Washington is great as Roman – he really gets into the part, portraying him as an oddball but a sympathetic and believable one. The story is very simple, but it’s the details surrounding this fascinating character that keeps you interested.

The Shape of Water

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s Baltimore in 1962. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is an elegant cleaning woman at a top secret government lab. She loves hard boiled eggs and bathtubs and lives above a movie theatre. She is mute, but communicates with her two friends using sign language. There’s Zelda (Octavia Spence) a talkative woman who translates and covers for her at work; and Giles (Richard Jenkins) a lonely illustrator in his 60s who lives with his cats in the apartment next door.

Elisa lives a routine life, until something strange shows up in a glass tank! Like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he’s part human, part fish. Elisa is scared but intrigued. She offers him hard boiled eggs which he scarfs down. Gradually she teaches him to communicate through sign language, and exposes him to music, art and human emotions. Could this be love? If only life were so simple. The creature arrived with Strickland (Michael Shannon) the agent in charge of the project. He’s a racist misogynist who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing the creature with a cattle prod. He plans to kill him and take him apart to study. And lurking in the shadows at the lab is a soviet spy who observes everything – including Elisa communicating with the creature. Can their love survive?

The Shape of Water is an amazing movie, modelled on classic Hollywood films. I’ve seen it twice now, and it didn’t drag for a moment. It’s funny, romantic, surprising, violent, and exciting. The music, the art direction, the singing and dancing, the dream sequences, the surreal sex scenes, the Cold War/cloak-and-dagger feel…. this movie has just about everything. Sally Hawkins is an unusual romantic lead, but she’s perfect as Elisa. Shannon is a hateable — but understandable — villain. Spence and Jenkins as, respectively, her comic and melancholy sidekick, are both spot on.

This is a wonderful movie: I recommend it.

Roman J. Israel, Esquire is now playing. Wonder Wheel and The Shape of Water 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 James Carman about his documentary The Hidden Hand: Alien Contact and the Government Cover-Up

Posted in Aliens, Cold War, Conspiracy Theory, Cultural Mining, documentary, Kidnapping, Mystery, Secrets, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 15, 2014

James CarmanUFOs and ETs: unidentified flying objects and extra-terrestrials. What are they? Are they real? Or is this all just crazy talk?

What happened at area 51? Is it all just a relic of cosmonaut  2the Cold War? A depository of secret weapons? Or have people really made contact with aliens from outer (or inner-) space?

A new documentary, The Hidden Hand: Alien Contact and the Government Cover-Up, looks at all of these cosmonaut 3controversial issues in depth. It won the Best Documentary Film at the Philip K. Dick Film Festival and is now on iTunes and Vimeo. I spoke to filmmaker James Carman by telephone at the United Nations building in New York to find out more…

Mid-July Popcorn Movies. Films Reviewed: Pacific Rim, Red 2, The Conjuring

Posted in 1970s, CGI, Cold War, Cultural Mining, Espionage, Horror, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Uncategorized, violence by CulturalMining.com on July 18, 2013

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

It’s hot. It’s so hot the city sucked up the most energy ever recorded recorded in one day. There are rolling blackout across the town. How to beat the heat? You guessed it. Movies. I was in an IMAX theatre on Monday in flip-flops and shorts and I had to keep moving my fingers and toes to avoid freezer burn. So this week I’m talking about popcorn movies, the kind that keep you interested as you decompress in your seat. One’s a violent action/comedy that’s spy vs spy; one’s an action/fantasy of robots vs sea monsters; and there’s a chiller/horror that’s ghost busters vs evil spirits.

RED 2Red 2

Dir: Dean Parisot

Frank and Sarah (Bruce Willis and Mary-Louise Parker) live a quiet suburban life. He’s retired from his days as a CIA killer. But he finds himself pulled back into it – and Sarah, a civilian, insists on coming too. Soon enough, they’re flying off to Paris, London and Moscow in a private jet, searching for a forgotten relic of the cold war. It’s unclear if it’s a person, an item or a sleeper cell. Whatever it is, there could be a major world disaster if it’s not neutralized. But even while he’s searching, he’s also being sought by two assassins who are hired to kill him. Han (Lee Byung-hun) a Korean killer, and Victoria (Helen Mirren) an MI6 assassin, are both his former friends and colleagues.

Frank puts together a team. He joins forces with various cold war colleagues and former Red 2 Zeta-Jones Parker Willisenemies. Sarah is just along for the ride… but she soon becomes an amateur spy, herself. The group must avoid a ruthless American operative (who is trying to cover-up the whole operation), locate a missing British scientist, and save the world… without being killed themselves.

This movie’s not bad – it’s actually quite entertaining. Cute, even. There’s a huge cast of very skilled actors playing simple, cookie-cutter roles, but they do it well, and seem to be having fun. There’s Anthony Red 2 MirrenHopkins, John Malkovich, David Thewlis and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Lots of really good chase scenes, shoot outs, loads of gratuitous death and violence, and cool, improvised hand-to-hand combat – like in Die Hard. There are also lots of split-second visual gags, (like an elderly woman playing a double bass.)

On the other hand, there’s nothing particularly original or surprising about the story – the plot’s completely predictable. One of the catch phrases the characters keep repeating is “I didn’t see that one coming”.

Really? ‘Cause I sure did.

Charlie Hunnam Pacific RimPacific Rim

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s the near future, and giant sea monsters from outer space are terrorizing port cities all around the Pacific Ocean. So the various governments build giant robots (known as Jaegers) to go up against the Godzilla-like creatures. But since they’re so big, they need two people to control one robot. They merge their minds and memories in a “neural handshake” and together battle the bad guys. Teams usually consist of siblings, lovers or best friends. But when the robot teams fail to stop the monsters (known as Kaiju) from attacking, the governments decide to scrap the robot plan and build giant walls instead. Big mistake!Pacific Rim Kikuchi

Only a few of the Jaegers are still around. It’s up to their trained drivers – the Jaegermeisters, if you will — and their commander, to try to defeat the monsters, once and for all.

This was another entertaining movie. Excellent special-effect CGIs – better than Transformers 3 Pacific Rim Jaeger(and that says a lot) — and a fun story. It has a very complicated plot, with a huge cast. Mako and Raleigh (Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Hunnam) are good as the dedicated robot riders, as is Idris Elba as their commander Pentecost. And a comic sub-plot (involving the non-combatant scientists who are trying to defeat the sea monsters through research, not war) helps to counter the relentless fighting. To tell the truth, I was a little bit disappointed in the script, since I like the director, del Toro, a lot, and was hoping for something more like Pan’s Labyrinth than Hellboy. But it was still a hell a lot of fun for an action movie.

The Conjuring Lili TaylorThe Conjuring (based on a true story)

Dir: James Wan

It’s 1971. Demon hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) give lectures on how to detect or debunk reports of haunted houses and possessed dolls. Lorraine is particularly sensitive to otherworldly beings. Most of their investigations turn out to be just scaredpeople hearing the wind. But when they are contacted by a family from Rhode Island, they sense this is the real deal.

Carolyn (Lili Taylor), her trucker-husband Roger, and their five daughters, have recently moved PATRICK WILSON, VERA FARMIGA, LILI TAYLOR, RON LIVINGSTON, photo Michael Tackett THE CONJURING Warner Brosinto a beautiful old house set in a bucolic garden with a big tree and a still pond. But the family soon begins to notice strange things, every night at 3:07 AM. One daughter feels a hand pulling her leg when she’s fast asleep. The youngest has an imaginary friend, Rory, who appears whenever she plays a music box with a spinning spiral on a round mirror. A sleep-walker is drawn to an old wardrobe that came with the house. And mom wakes up each morning with strange bruises on her body.

So the Warrens set up shop inside the house, with cameras and microphones, to record paranormal activity. And, soon enough, real, scary things start to happen, culminating in a battle to exorcise evil from their immortal souls.

The Conjuring Vera FarmigaThis is a very scary ghost movie. I’ve gotten used to cheap, found-footage movies, like the Paranormal Activity series (which I liked), so it was nice to see a classic-style, well-made-movie movie that scares your socks off. Sure, a lot of the scenes were snatched from films like Poltergeist and The Exorcist. You also have to wonder: who buys their kids hideously ugly dolls, or music boxes with hypnotic powers? Come on.

But it also had some totally new kinds of scary scenes involving cubby-holes, dusty basements, tunnels and crawl spaces. They provided some new claustrophobic images to be terrified by late at night. The hide and clap game, the dusty basement, the scene in the wardrobe: these are all super chilling scenes. And while the male actors were both milquetoasts, it’s the women — stoic Vera Farmiga and especially Lili Taylor as the mom in a cosmic meltdown mode — who steal the show.

Pacific Rim is playing now, and Red 2 and The Conjuring both open today (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

Frenemies? Movies reviewed: The Host, Ginger and Rosa

Posted in 1960s, CND, Cold War, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Movies, Politics, Protest, Romance, Science Fiction, UK, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on March 29, 2013

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

Do you have a “frenemy”? Maybe someone who is part of your circle but secretly hates you. Or a best friend who becomes a rival, or, maybe, a bitter enemy who turns out to be someone you can depend on. Well, this week I’m looking at two very different movies about young women and their frenemies. One is set in the future where two women’s souls share the same body; the other is set in the past, in the 1960’s, where two best friends become rivals when a certain man comes between them.

AV9D9769.CR2The Host

Dir: Andrew Niccol

It’s the future. Aliens have beamed down to the earth from outer space, in the form of glowing, sperm-like liquid crystals. They travel in little silver clam shells and burrow into the brains of their hosts – that’s us — and instantly take over. Pretty soon we’ve all turned into those emotionless aliens. They look just like you and me, except for their eyes: they have glowing rings embedded in their irises.

But one young woman, Melanie, (Saorise Ronan) is a fighter. When her mind gets taken over by an alien called the Wanderer, the internal Melanie refuses to give up. Her boyfriend, Jared, and her little brother are still out there somewhere and she has to save them… So now there are two rivals living in one body – but only one of them can speak to the outside world.

In a crucial mental battle, Melanie wins out over the Wanderer, and they manage to locate the rebels’ AV9D9558.CR2hideaway – a redneck, survivalist utopia, full of guns and wheat fields and special mirrors as an energy source —  that’s hidden between two mountains in the desert. But Melanie is shocked to be attacked by her loved ones. The rebels only see that alien ring in her eyes, but not Melanie’s soul buried somewhere deep inside. So they lock her up in a cave and treat her worse than an animal.

Gradually, the Wanderer (aka Wanda), becomes more like humans with actual emotions. Wanda has eyes for a guy in the desert hideaway, Kyle, but the internal Melanie still loves Jared (Max Irons). Melanie wonders: if Jared kisses her, would he be cheating? Since, even though she looks just like Melanie, he knows her body is occupied by Wanda’s soul. Melanie forces Wanda’s hand to slap Jared’s face when he seems to be enjoying the kiss too much.

THE HOSTMeanwhile, The Seeker (Diane Kruger) an ice blonde she-wolf of the SS, is in charge of finding the rebels and blasting them into submission or even wiping them out. Will the rebels win or the evil aliens? Will they realize Melanie is still alive? And who will win this split personality’s love – Ryan or Jarrod?

The Host, is a romance set within in a science-fiction/action movie.

It’s written by Stephanie Meyers, who brought us the insipid Twilight series (teen romances disguised as vampire movies). I like the main story, but whenever tension starts to build, it turns back into a sexless romance, where the main topic is Will he kiss me, and Does he really, really love me? and Why is he looking at me that way?

It wavers between a not-bad action drama and a romance suitable for a pre-teen bible camp. Saorise Ronan is quite good as the dual-personality alien, as is Diane Kruger as the Seeker, but the male romantic leads are boring and bland.

See The Host if you loved Twilight and want the same thing but with a bit more action, and a science fiction twist. Otherwise, give it a miss.

GINGER AND ROSA by Sally PotterGinger and Rosa

Dir: Sally Potter

Ginger and Rosa are best friends. They share everything with each other. They were born in a London hospital in 1945, with their mothers giving birth, side by side, just as the atom bombs were falling on Hiroshima. Fast forward to 1962: it’s the Cuban Missile Crisis, they’re both 17 now, and everyone thinks the atomic bombs are about to wipe everyone out.

Red-haired Ginger (Elle Fanning) is a political activist who writes poetry and goes to protest marches. She sleeps with a peace sign over her bed. She lives with her depressed but beautiful mum (Charlotte Hendricks) but thinks she’s boring and bourgeois. She idolizes her handsome and free-spirited dad (Allesando Nivola), who is an intellectual, a pacifist, and an activist. She also has an extended family, with two gay godparents, Mark and Mark 2, and various protesters, radicals, political organizers, artists and thinkers who hover around her home.

Dark-haired Rosa (Alice Englert) lives with her single mother. She’s Catholic and sexualized. She GINGER AND ROSA by Sally Potterteaches Ginger about sex, boys, making out, and the church. Ginger, in turn, takes Rosa to demos and CND ban the Bomb youth meetings.

But something is amiss in their friendship. Someone they both know well is attracted to Rosa (the feelings are mutual), and that secret relationship threatens to mess up both their lives and turn them from best friends to rivals.

This is a fantastic movie for so many reasons. Sally Potters film captures the mood of a newly radicalized London youth movement, and the very real fear of nuclear apocalypse. But it’s also a very moving story, a coming-of-age in an era fraught with changes. The acting, the moving story, the historical accuracy, even the period jazz music – just amazing. It’s Sally Potter at the top of her game.

I strongly recommend this movie.

The Host and Ginger and Rosa both  open today – check your local listings. Also opening is Spring Breakers, a unique and highly entertaining in a style that only Harmony Korine (Trash Humpers, Gummo) could pull off. And coming soon are Images, Cinefranco, Real World, TJFF, and Hot Docs.

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

European Directors and their Stars. Movies reviewed: Holy Motors, Barbara.

Posted in 1980s, Class, Cold War, Cultural Mining, Disguise, documentary, Drama, France, Germany, Movies, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 29, 2012

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

Ugh…winter. Bah, humbug. It’s at times like this, when your wastebasket is overflowing with cold-generated used Kleenex, and the streets with knee-deep snowdrifts, it’s at miserable wintery seasons like this that you have to remind yourself about the good parts of city life. And in Toronto, that’s movies.

There’s always something good ouit there, mainstream or obscure, spurred on by local moviegoers and the 70-odd film festivals, from TIFF on down.

So this week I’m looking at two really interesting European movies by great — but not very well-known — directors. These films are also notable in that both directors use actors that were central to earlier films.

Holy Motors, Denis Lavant, Kylie MinogueHoly Motors

Dir: Leos Carax

Oscar (Denis Lavant) gets picked up in the morning by a white stretch limo, driven by a handsome, older woman, Cecile, his chauffeur (chauffeuse?)

He looks at his papers, enjoys the rides, talks on a cel phone. Maybe it’s just a day like any other for a rich businessman… or is it? You soon discover that he’s more than just an average exec. Inside the limo, he has costumes, makeup, spirit gum, wigs and beards, which he dons to become the man he’s supposed to play in each act. So, over the course of a day, he becomes a middle-aged, ruthless businessman, a homeless Eastern-European woman, an assassin, a doting dad, a dying man, Kylie Minogue’sHoly Motors Denis Lavant Monsieur Merde erstwhile lover, and many others. Occasionally, between acts, he’s just Oscar: the man who plays the roles and communicates with Cecile.

In one especially marvelous and shocking sequence he becomes an eccentric street maniac (“M. Merde”) who crawls out of a manhole, pushes his way through a crowd, and stumbles into a fashion shoot in a Parisian cemetery. He violently attacks the photographer’s assistant, biting off her fingers, and smearing the blood over a unflappably blasé supermodel before carrying her off to an underground hideaway to complete an even more shocking and grotesque transformation. (No spoiler here — watch the movie to find out the rest of it.)

Holy Motors monsieur merde denis lavant 3So what’s going on? Is Oscar (which is also the director’s middle name) like the guy in the Truman Show, unknowingly living an artificial life for the delight of viewers? I don’t think so.

Oscar’s doing this for you and me (the moviegoers, as a performer in this movie. The entire movie is his act. It’s all an illusion, but an enjoyable one.

Denis Lavant (who played the male lead, a busker, in his Carax’s amazing love story Les Amant du Pont Neuf) is back in full form – just incredible. His foil, Cecile (played by veteran actress Edith Scob) is also great. This is a truly weird and incredible movie that has to be seen to be believed. While there are a few site gags that don’t seem to match the humour of the rest of the rest of the movie, it doesn’t detract from the film. It’s a great movie, like no movie you’ve ever seen before.

Nina Hoss Barbara_02_HFBarbara

Dir: Christian Petzold

It’s the 1980s in East Germany, and Barbara, a doctor, gets sent down to the countryside for requesting an exit permit.

(A bit of an explanation: after WWII, Germany was divided, with half of it becoming part of the democratic and capitalist West and half a socialist republic siding with the Soviet Bloc. Berlin – once the capital – was also divided into sectors occupied by the military of the allies — the UK, the US, France and the Soviet Union.

In the early 60s they put up a wall to prevent the East Berliners from entering West Berlin. Berlin became a city divided, like the two Germanys.)

Getting back to the movie… Dr Barbara Woolf (Nina Hoss) is a doctor from East Berlin. She’sJasna Fritzi Bauer Barbara_11_HF a stern, punctual no-nonsense professional who can’t stand her new, second-rate provincial hospital. She is also extremely beautiful, given to black eyeliner, her blond hair tightly pulled back. She is stuck in the countryside because she filed a request to move to the West.

East Germany is riddled with all-powerful intelligence agents constantly spying on everyone. Life is awful, and everyone wants to get out, to flee to the west for freedom. She thinks Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) the friendly doctor she works with is spying on her, and she is frequently visited in her crummy apartment by sinister communist intelligence agents looking for clues in her bodily orifices.

Nina Hoss BARBARA  Regie Christian PetzoldAt the hospital, there are constantly patients being dropped into the hospital after being beaten up by police for trying to escape. It’s a building filled with strange creaks, bangs and thuds, and desperate teenaged runaways looking for help She feels for them, especially young Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) a juvie who is abused at her work detail. Meanwhile, with the help of a gallant, handsome lover from the west, she is planning her getaway to freedom. They also meet for secret trysts in the woods and to pass on information.

Everything’s quite cut and dry, right? East is evil, the west is good.

The thing is, it’s not quite so simple. The spies aren’t big time villains, just low-key locals with their own problems. And she’s beginning to like her co-doctor Andre. The western heroes may just be self-centred douches, not lovers of freedom. And Barbara herself, begins to question her own motives. Is her plot to escape just self serving? And who is more important: herself or her patients?

All of the actors, especially Hoss, are great, and fascinating to watch.

This is another great movie by Petzold, a minimalist, formalistic director from the so-called Berlin school. I’ve seen three of his movies now, including Jerichow (also starring Nina Hoss) a sort-of a remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. All of his movies are terrific, and I believe they are all filmed in the former East Germany, along the distinctive windy, northern coastline.

Holy Motors is playing now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and Barbara opens there today. Check your local listings. If you haven’t seen the beautiful TIFF Bell Lightbox yet – it’s a movie theatre a museum and a restaurant – now’s a good time to drop by and take a look. Also playing this week at HotDocs are two great documentaries about urban America: the Central Park Five and Detropia.

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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