Potatoes, Radios and Poppies. Films reviewed: Potato Dreams of America, How to Fix Radios, Poppy Field #InsideOut!

Posted in Bullying, Canada, Christianity, Coming of Age, Conservatism, Corruption, LGBT, Police, Queer, Romania, Slackers, USSR, Vladivostok by CulturalMining.com on May 28, 2021

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

Inside Out, Toronto’s LGBT film festival, kicked off last night, and is open for digital viewing across Ontario. It has movies, docs and shorts from around the world, many showing here for the first time.

This week I’m looking at three of these new movies two of which are directors’ first features. There’s a “little potato” in Russia, a broken radio in Canada, and a field of poppies in Romania.

Potato Dreams of America

Wri/Dir: Wes Hurley

Little Potato (Hersh Powers) is a school kid in 1980s Vladivostok, in the USSR a land of Perestroila and Glasnost. But he can’t stand communism, he puts all his faith in Jesus and wants to go to America, where it’s just like the movies and everyone has coloured TV. So he is overjoyed when his devoted and progressive mom, a prison doctor becomes a mail-order bride and takes him with her to Seattle. He likes his new school and stepdad, and is thrilled to see the relative openness toward gay people. But the teenaged potato (Tyler Bocock) wants to assimilate and doesn’t American attitudes. And when his step father’s Christianity turns out to be  steeped in homophobia he’s afraid they’ll both be on the next plane back to Russia. Will Potato’s dreams be ruined?

Potato Dreams of America is a highly stylized, theatrical and campy version of the real  memoirs of Russian American director Wes Hurley. And it’s full of surprises. I’m only allowed a capsule review here, but let me just say, if you like to watch a view of gay life in Russia and America, with lots of homoerotic details, occasional two-dimensional sets, and characters who burst into song, you’ll love this one.

How to Fix Radios

Dir: Casper Leonard, Emily Russell

It’s summer in a rural town town in Ontario. Evan (James Rudden) has found a summer job — cleaning up the land around a ramshackle hut before acomes in and clears it all away. He’s a quiet loner, a high school student who lives with his dad in an isolated home ad dresses in basic clothes: Shorts, T-shirt and ball cap. So he’s taken aback when he meets his supervisor. Ross (Dimitri Watson) is his opposite: a combative angry attitude, dressed in overalls, with bright pink hair, black fingernail polish and a pierced septum. He’s here, he’s queer and he doesn’t care who knows it. Evan has never seen anyone like him, but they gradually become friends. They meet up with Ross’s sister to go on picnics, and retreats to an abandoned house by a lake that everyone uses. And there they share intimate secrets by the campfire. 

But things are complicated. 

Small towns have gay people but they also have bullies. Ross is constantly tormented by a thug named Jake who rides around on his three wheeled RV, smoking pot and drinking beer with his chowderhead friends.  Problem is, he’s also the son of their employer who owns the land they’re cleaning up and pays their salaries. Why don’t you move to the city, Evan wonders. Because, Ross says, he likes the quiet and trees there, and the nature all around him. And he doesn’t want a moron like Jake determining what he does with his life. But how much longer can Ross endure the punches and taunts from Jake?

How to Fix Radios (the title refers to one of Evan’s skills) is a warm look at friendship and the life of a queer kid in small-town Ontario. It’s an ultra-low-budget, indie film shot last summer during COVID, with all the spacing and location rules that entailed, which may explain why the sound quality is dodgy (some lines are lost or else overpowered by background noise.)  But  the great music, beautiful images and engaging characters make it a treat to watch. 

Poppy Field

Dir: Eugen Jebeleanu

It’s present-day Romania. Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer) is a member of the Gendarmerie, an elite  national police force run military style, using tightly-knit squads. They’re called in to handle dangerous riots and criminal acts. But tonight they’re at a movie theatre. How come? A lesbian drama, sponsored by an LGBT group, is scheduled to play that night. But the theatre has been occupied by a group of right-wing Christian activists. Draped in Romanian flags and carrying icons of the Virgin Mary, they say they’re trying to stop the pornographic “Homosexual Mafia”. The people in the audience say they just want to watch a movie. The tension is rising, but for some reason, Christi, unlike the other gendarmes, is standing far back, doing nothing. What is bothering him? But when he is confronted by a gay man, he loses it and beats the man up. This outs his whole squad in potential trouble. Why did he do it? Christi is gay too, but doesn’t want the other cops to know. He even has a Parisian lover waiting to meet him tonight in his apartment. Has Christi’s secret been revealed? Will he lose his job? And can he face his inner demons?

Poppy Field (and I have to admit, I have no idea what the title means) is a realistic and tense drama about a gay Romanian cop being pushed to the brink by his two separate lives: a passionate personal life and a rigid and violent workplace.  The film is divided in the same way: part one is a night with him and his lover Hadi, and part two is a day at work. This is an excellent movie — a first feature but done in the style of current Romanian cinema: hyper realistic, done in real time, dealing with social issues. If you’ve ever seen contemporary Romanian movies like Police: Adjective, you’ll immediately recognize the style. Director Jebeleanu uses the fantastic veteran cinematographer Marius Panduru gives it his distinctive, minimalist look. Mericoffer, as Christi, rarely speaks, but you can see the angst brewing beneath his stone-cold features.

Short, sharp and fast-moving, Poppy Field is a great art house pic.

Potato Dreams of America, How to Fix Radios, and Poppy Field are all playing  now at Inside Out, Toronto’s LGBT Film Festival.

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 writer and lawyer Jay Paul Deratany about Foster Boy at the Toronto Black Film Festival

Posted in African-Americans, Chicago, Corruption, Courtroom Drama, Family, Movies, Orphans, Resistance, Secrets, Thriller, violence by CulturalMining.com on February 19, 2021

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

Jamal is an angry 19-year-old who finds himself back in a Chicago courtroom once again. He’s a product of the deeply- flawed foster care industry, a privatized system which left him physically and mentally scarred, and in and out of prison. But this time he’s before a judge voluntarily; he’s suing the corporation that put him through hell. His lawyer? An unsympathetic corporate shill assigned to his case, pro bono, by a sympathetic judge. Jamal sees a “three-piece” supporter of the system he’s fighting, and the lawyer sees Jamal as a “thug” he’s ordered to represent. Can the two of them fight the power of an abusive system that made him a foster boy?

Foster Boy is the name a new courtroom drama and legal thriller inspired by true events, that was the opening night feature at the Toronto Black Film Festival. It’s produced by Shaquille O’Neal directed by Youssef Delara and stars Shane Paul McGhie, Matthew Modine, and Louis Gosset, Jr.

The script is by Jay Paul Deratany, a screenwriter who is also an accomplished Chicago lawyer and a foster youth advocate.

I spoke with Jay Paul Deratany in Chicago, via ZOOM, on February 17, 2021.

Foster Boy is available across North America at the Toronto Black Film Festival through Sunday, and online VOD.

Travelling for love. Films reviewed: Make Up, Identifying Features, Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Posted in Coming of Age, Corruption, Crime, Family, Hungary, LGBT, Mexico, Obsession, Psychology, Romance, Rural, UK, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 22, 2021

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

They say love is true, and some people travel far and wide to keep that love alive. This week I’m looking at three new movies, directed by women in Hungary, England, and Mexico, that explore this theme. There’s a teenaged girl who moves to Cornwall to spend time with her boyfriend; an American surgeon who moves to Budapest to be reunited with her lover, and a Mexican farmer who crosses the country in search of her missing son.

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

Dir: Lili Horvát

Marta (Natasa Stork) is a 39-year-old, successful surgeon from New Jersey.  So what is she doing at a run-down hospital in Budapest? She moved there, spontaneously to join up with a man she met a conference. They shared a night of passion and swore to meet up again  on a bridge in Budapest at a specific time and date. (Marta is originally from Hungary but immigrated to the U.S.) But when she sees her bearded lover Janos (Viktor Bodó) he says he has ever seen her before in his life. She faints on a downtown street, where a young man named Alex (Benett Vilmányi) comes to her rescue. Marta is overcome with emotions. Is she going crazy? Was it all a dream? Or is Janos gaslighting her for some unknown reason? 

She gets a job at the hospital where Janos works to be close to him. Meanwhile Alex turns out to be a young medical student who develops an infatuation with Marta. So this turns into a three way stalk fest with Marta spying on Janos and Alex following her. Where is love? IS it real or imaginary? And can Marta come to terms with her new strange life?

Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time is an intriguing mystery-romance-psychological drama about passion and illusion, alienation and obsession. Marta deals with sexist colleagues and petty bureaucrats, as she  tries to navigate a culture she’s not quite familiar with. It’s filmed on the lovely streets of Budapest with a fair amount of unexpectedly strange sex (no spoilers). The movie is a bit confusing in its tone, with, rather than a huge dramatic turning point, it culminates in an oddly absurdist, anticlimactic finish. Preparations is a good movie, but probably not what you expect. 

This is Hungary’s nominee for best Foreign Language  Film Oscar.

Make Up

Dir: Claire Oakley

It’s winter in Cornwall, England. Ruth (Molly Windsor) is an 18 year old woman, staying at a deserted summer holiday park so she can spend time with her boyfriend. She’s been dating Tom (Joseph Quinn) for 3 years. But rather than a romantic getaway, she’s staying in a grey, gloomy collection of jerry-built cottages near the sea. Everything is covered in plastic sheeting. And her relation with Tom is fraught with tension and jealousy. When she finds a hair in her sheets, that clearly isn’t hers, she takes the bedding to the laundry to wash it clean. There she meets an older taller woman named Jade (Stephanie Martini). Jane makes hair pieces for a local hospital — it takes 30,000 knots to make a single wig, she says. 

Now Ruth has someone she can hang around with, talk to, and tell her secrets, none of which she’s getting from Tom. But her obsession with her boyfriend’s possible mistress drives Ruth into an unexpected situation. Can her relationship last? Or will she find a new path among the windswept sand dunes?

Make Up is an impressionistic coming-of-age story about a young woman looking for love while trapped in an almost surreal setting. It’s full of the screeching foxes, detached sexual sounds and  blurry vistas set against the banality of service jobs. Molly Windsor is really good as the bewildered Ruth. The movie itself is a straightforward drama but shot almost like an eerie ghost story. This is an excellent first feature from a young filmmaker.

Identifying Features

Dir: Fernanda Valadez

Chuya (Laura Elena Ibarra) is a farmer in Guanajuato, Mexico. She’s a single mom who’s raising her teenaged son Jesus in a small farmhouse. But when he suddenly tells her he’s heading north with his best friend to take a job in Arizona, she packs his bag and says goodbye. And that’s the last she hears from him and his friend. Are they kidnapped? Lost? Or dead? She reports it to the police to no avail. His best friend is found but nothing is found of Jesus except the bag Chuya had packed.  And when a woman she meets tells her not to give up, she sets out on a journey to try to find her son, or else confirmation that he’s dead.

On the way she falls in with a young man named Miguel (David Illescas)  who was recently deported from the US. He is looking for his mom who lives in Ocampo a region plagued with crime. It’s also where Chuya thinks she can find the answers to her son’s disappearance. Will she ever find out what happened to him? And can an ordinary, kind woman survive in a society filled with greed, suspicion, and murder? 

Identifying Features is a deeply moving and gripping mystery/drama that looks at the lives of Mexicans, trapped within larger forces — el migra, organized crime, and a corrupt police force — over which they have no control. It takes you into fascinating places, rarely portrayed — like indigenous villages, hostels for migrants — that tell an unforgettable story with a shocking ending.  Stunning cinematography, and natural acting combined with compelling drama, makes for a terrific film.

Make Up just opened on VOD across North America.  Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time, and Identifying Features both open today at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Investigative Journalists. Movies reviewed: The Journalist, The Viewing Booth, The Best is Yet to Come

Posted in 2000s, China, Corruption, Crime, Israel, Japan, Meta, Movies, Palestine, Poverty, Realism, Suspense, Women, 日本映画, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on October 16, 2020

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

Is journalism still alive? We seem to have an endless supply of pundits with formulaic political viewpoints, but true investigative journalism is hard to find. But it’s still there – you just have to know where to look. So this week I’m talking about three new movies (two dramas and a doc) about journalists and the media. There’s a die-hard journalist in Tokyo looking for the truth; a cub reporter in Beijing looking for his first big story; and a documentary-maker in the US looking at how viewers interpret the news.

The Journalist (新聞記者)

Dir: Fujii Michihito (Based on the novel by Mochizuki Isoko)

Erika Yoshioka (Eun-kyung Shim) is a young reporter at Tôto, a medium-sized Tokyo newspaper. One day she receives an anonymous fax with a cartoon of a sheep drawn on the first page. Inside are government plans to open a medical researchlab in a backwater town. is it a prank? Evidence of a boondoggle? Or something more? She decides to investigate. But she has to be careful; her own father was a freelance journalist based in New York who ended up dead from suicide after revealing another storyl.

Meanwhile, in a different part of Tokyo, a young government bureaucrat named Takumi Sugihara (Tôri Matsuzaka) gets an unusual call from Kanzaki, his former boss from five years earlier. He wants to meet for a talk. Sugihara used to work for Gaimushô, Japan’s foreign service, but switched to his current job after Kanzaki took the fall for a scandal at the Beijing Embassy where they both worked. Sugihara now works for Naicho, the secretive intelligence unit that operates out of the PMO. Rumour has it Naicho is used to surveil and plot against opponents to the ruling political leaders. Kanzaki wants to tell him something, but they both end up getting drunk instead. And not long after, he jumps off a building. His death brings together the dogged journalist Erika and the loyal bureaucrat Sugihara both of whom want to find out exactly what happened. What was Kanzaki’s secret and why is it so dangerous? Is it related to the sheep cartoon Erika received? Who else knows? And what will happen to the two of them if the scandal reaches the papers?

The Journalist is a tense, captivating story of deep-state corruption and sinister plots. The action alternates between Erika’s bright and crowded newsroom and the cold empty halls of Naicho where Sugihara reports to an evil and powerful boss. Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung is perfect as Erika in her unwavering search for the truth – she totally deserves the Japanese Academy award she won for this performance. The Journalist is a terrific movie.

The Viewing Booth

Dir: Ra’anan Alexandrowicz

This documentary asks: can news viewers, like you and me, ever change our political views because of politically-charged videos we watch on sites like youtube?  It follows a subject named Maya at an American university by filming her face has she watches a selection of 40 short news videos. The camera captures her comments and facial expressions, moment by moment, as she wavers between acceptance and rejection of what she’s watching, sorting them mentally according to whether or not they fit her outlook. She asks aloud: Is this footage real? Is it convincing? Is it biased? Does she believe it? And what does it mean?

She’s brought back six months later, this time viewing the same videos, right beside footage of herself from the first session. She observes herself observing videos (it gets super-meta here.) The videos in the doc are all from the occupied Palestinian territories and they range from innocuous to disturbing, showing settlers, Israeli soldiers, and Palestinians. (She concentrates on one video where soldiers dressed in large military masks walk into a home in the middle of the night, wake up small children,  ask each child their name, photograph each child’s face, then leaving without explanation.) Half the clips are from B’Tselem, a human rights group opposed to the occupation, and the other half were posted by various right-wing groups. The documentary tries to see whether exposure to opposing viewpoints can change a viewer’s mind or if it merely enforces the beliefs she already holds. Here’s the thing: it’s not a scientific study despite its clinical trappings; rather, The Viewing Booth is more of a meditation, the filmmaker’s personal reflection on the biases news viewers hold. Is it universally applicable or just about that single subject? I don’t know, but it is interesting – and unsettling – to watch.

The Best is Yet to Come (不止不休)

Dir: Wang Jing

It’s 2003. Han Dong (Bai Ke) is a would-be journalist in Beijing. Originally from northeastern China, he’s a high school drop-out who quit his steady job back home at a chemical factory to go for broke in the big city. But so far no luck. His girlfriend Xiaozhu (Miao Miao: Youth) who also worked at the factory lives in even worse conditions. But he keeps going to job fairs to try to get hired by a newspaper. And they keep rejecting him as unqualified, until… opportunity knocks when he visits a newspaper to pick up a minuscule 100 yuan paycheque for a short piece they published. He catches the attention of a veteran journo there takes him on as an intern, right beside college grads brandishing journalism degrees from prestigious schools like Bei Da. And he passes his first test, getting a scoop at the site of a coal mine disaster. But his next story could be a whopper.

He goes undercover taking a job at a sketchy medical clinic that pays cash for blood. No they’re not vampires. Rather they provide forged blood samples for applicants to jobs. Why? Because anyone who tests positive for Hepatitis B is categorically rejected. This effects maybe 100 million people for a disease that is not even contagious. It’s a crooked company that breaks the law. But is the law fair? Should he cover the story… or cover it up?

The Best is Yet to Come (based on a true story) shows how a self-taught, print journalist breaks into the big leagues despite all the odds against him. Its exciting plot keeps you questioning all the way through. This is Wang Jing’s first feature – he was assistant director to the great Jia Zhang-ke (Ash is Purest White, Touch of Sin) but with a very different style. It’s told in a straightforward chronological manner, no tricks or fancy camerawork. Great acting and story, The Best is Yet to Come gives an unusual look at both investigative journalism and a glimpse into real-life China – the grime and grit, the dark alleys, crowded tenements and poverty. And it leaves on a hopeful note: if you try hard and don’t give up, you can change the world.

The Best is Yet to Come played at #TIFF20, The Viewing Booth is showing at Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival on now through the weekend, and The Journalist is available for streaming at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival through October 21st.

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 Barry Stevens about his new documentary The World’s Biggest Family on CBC Docs POV

Posted in Canada, Corruption, documentary, Family, Secrets, UK by CulturalMining.com on September 25, 2020

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

Did you ever consider you might share ancestry with someone you’ve never met? Now, what if that person that shares your ancestry turns out to be more than just one? Imagine doing a DNA test and finding out you have over 600 half-siblings spread across the Atlantic, and you’re a part of the biggest family in the world?

The World’s Biggest Family is the name of a new documentary. It tells the story of the offspring of an anonymous and unusually prolific sperm donor, and the secrets and lies that surround artificial insemination. The movie’s subject and its director is multiple-award-winning filmmaker Barry Stevens who has worked on films like The Diary of Evelyn Lau, Offspring, Souvenir of Canada and History TV’s War Story.

The World’s Biggest Family premiers on Oct 1 on CBC Docs POV and CBC Gem.

I spoke with Barry Stevens in Toronto via ZOOM.

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu about The Whistlers

Posted in Corruption, Crime, Romania, Thriller by CulturalMining.com on March 13, 2020

Photos by Jeff Harris

Cristo is a corrupt police detective who lives with his mother in Bucharest. But everything starts to change when a beautiful woman asks for his help freeing her friend from jail. At stake? 30 million euros in cash…  hidden in a mattress. At risk? Arrest, torture or gruesome, painful death. And in order to succeed, first he must learn a secret whistling language used only in the Canary Islands. But which of the whistlers will come out alive?

The Whistlers is a new dark and twisted crime thriller that uncovers multiple layers of crime and corruption in Romania and across Europe. It’s directed by Romanian New Wave filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu, known for award-winning films like Police: Adjective.

I spoke with Corneliu at TIFF19.

The film had its debut at TIFF, opened theatrically in March, and will be available VOD or for purchase in June.

Far from home. Movies reviewed: Greed, Wendy, Blame Game

Posted in comedy, Corruption, Espionage, Germany, Greece, Kids, Satire, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on March 6, 2020

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

It’s International Women’s Day, and you can see films directed by Women all weekend long at FEFF, the Female Eye Film Festival at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

This week I’m looking at three new movies – one from England, one from Germany, one from the United States — about people who willingly travel far from home. There’s a German agent meddling in Central Asia, little kids running rampant on a volcanic paradise, and a filthy-rich tycoon planning a birthday party in a coliseum he’s building on a Greek island.

Greed

Dir: Michael Winterbottom

Sir Richard McCreadie (Steve Coogan) is a vulture capitalist and a tycoon in the rag trade. His M.O. is to take over successful clothing stores, selling all its real estate, moving factories to Sri Lanka and hiding all the profits in a European tax haven. McCready is filthy rich — Fleet Street calls him McGreedy – catering to the endless demand for ready-made, disposable fashion. He’s also insufferable. His pearly whites look factory- made and his tan is as fake as Donald Trump’s.

For his 60th birthday he plans a mammoth celebration on a Greek island, complete with a newly-built colliseum, gladiators, and a lion. He also wants to rescue his reputation and his brand from scandal. But things aren’t going the way they’re supposed to. Members of his family and his ex-wife keep getting into trouble. There’s a reality show being shot there, Syrian refugees living on the public beach “spoil his view”, and his various servants and employees find him impossible to work with. But when he foces his employees to dress as Roman slaves, the tide turns.

Can money buy happiness? Or are the peasants revolting?

Greed is a political satire about the immense wealth and greed of the richest few, and the suffering of everyone else. It’s a complex story chronicled by his  official biographer’s eyes (David Mitchell). It jumps back and forth from his days at an elite boarding school, his rise to fame, and the people he trampled on on the way to the top. It also includes scenes in his Sri Lankan factory, with allusions to the the horrors of similar places in Bangladesh. I will see anything directed by Winterbottam and anything starring Steve Coogan, so I had great expectations. Which also meant  I automatically enjoyed this movie. But I was mildly disappointed that it wasn’t as funny nor as outrageous as I’d hoped. They could have done so much more — it felt almost like Coogan and Winterbottom were holding back.

Greed is a fun movie but not a great one.

Wendy

Dir: Benh Zeitlin

Wendy (Devin France) lives above a whistle-stop diner in Louisiana, with her mom and her twin brothers . It’s always Egg O’Clock at the Darling’s restaurant. Wendy draws pictures while Dougo and James (Gage and Gavin Naquin) do elaborate dances and poses by the jukebox. Kids have hope while the Olds are all miserable. Who would want to grow up? So the three of them jump aboard a freight train for a chugga-chugga, choo-choo, down by the bayous.

Their tour guide is a mischevious boy named Peter Pan (Yeshua Mack), who takes them to a secret island inhabited only by kids known as the Lost Boys. There’s a volcano, steep cliffs, spouting geysers, and hidden caves — a great place for exploring, playing, and having a kickass good time. It’s a place where you never have to grow up. They are ruled by an ancient deity, deep in the ocean, called Mother. As long as they believe in her nothing bad can happen. But when Doug disappears his twin loses faith… and as soon as you lose faith, you start to age, and are forced join the old codgers on the other side of the island. Things in Never Neverland might not be the paradise she expected. Does Wendy have faith in the ocean mother?  Can she find her twin brothers and take them home? Or is she stranded forever on this island?

Wendy is a new spin on the classic Peter Pan story told through Wendy’s eyes, and transferred from Victorian London to the Gulf Coast with a multiracial cast. It uses experimental, handheld camera work and first-time actors to give the film spontaneity and authenticity. Problem is the movie isn’t fun. The characters don’t seem that interested in where they are, and the storytelling is too slow. But the biggest problem is the musical score: it’s orchestral and lush and traditional but totally at odds with the film’s experimental look.

It just doesn’t work.

Blame Game (Das Ende der Wahrheit)

Wri/Dir: Philipp Leinemann

Martin Behrins (Ronald Zehrfeld) is a spy. He poses as a translator for the German refugee board, and uses his position to recruit assets from the middle east and central asia by blackmailing them into compliance. In the fight against terrorism’ he arranges for the assassination of an anti-western figure. Martin is divorced — his ex wife and son couldn’t handle the constant  threat of death and danger.  So he spends his off hours at a beautiful lakeside cottage with his girlfriend Aurice (Antje Traue). She’s an investigative journalist focussing on government corruption. They’re at odds but agree to keep their work separate from their home lives. But when she uncovers a story about the assassination that Martin planned, things go south. The “simple” drone killing turns out be not simple at all. And then a terror attack kills someone Martin knows very well.

A new bureaucrat named Lemke (Alexander Fehling) – a pencil pusher from another department – is brought in to take over. He knows nothing about the world of espionage, but he lords his authority over Martin. Martin, meanwhile is trying to figure out what’s really going on. Is there a private corporation involved? Was this all a set up with him as the patsy? Who is corrupt and who can be trusted?

Blame Game is a fascinating look at international espionage, the “war on Terror”, the international politics, shady arms deals and the CIA. It has a juicy conspiracy at its core, and enough twists and turns to the plot to keep you guessing. While I found the camerawork and editing pedestrian, the acting and the gripping suspenseful story more than made up for it. If you’re into German film you’ll recognize Zehrfeld from Phoenix and Babylon Berlin, with Traue and Fehling also everywhere. Blame Game is a great political thriller reminiscent of Three Days of the Condor, Homeland, or 24. And the upcoming screening will be its North American debut. I liked this spy thriller a lot.

Wendy and Greed both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Blame Game is playing on March 17 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of a Goethe Film series called The End of Truth.

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 filmmaker Jamhil X.T. Qubeka about Knuckle City

Posted in Academy Awards, Africa, Boxing, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Family, South Africa, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 10, 2020

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

Photos by Jeff Harris.

It’s Mdantsane, Cape Province, in Apartheid South Africa. A boxing champ tells his young sons Duke and Dudu that there are three ways out of their township: as a boxer, as a mobster, or as a dead man. Flash forward to the present day; their father is dead, and the boys have taken divergent paths. Duke is a flamboyant career criminal just out of prison and Dudu – AKA the Night Rider – is a professional boxer in the twilight of his career. But there’s still a chance at becoming a champion. Can they turn things around? Or will they just be the latest casualties at Knuckle City?

Knuckle City is the name of an exciting new boxing / crime drama out of South Africa. This fast-moving, visceral movie dives deep into the nexus between those two worlds as personified by the brothers, their families and friends. Knuckle City is directed by Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, who has won countless awards across Africa, Europe, and North America. The film had its international premier at TIFF and was South Africa’s nominee for Best International Feature Film Oscar.

I spoke to Jahmil in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM during #TIFF19.

Knuckle City is opening soon.

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

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

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

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

The Irishman

Dir: Martin Scorsese

It’s the 1950s.

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

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

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

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

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

Last Christmas

Dir: Paul Feig

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

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

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

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

Midway

Dir: Roland Emmerich

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

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

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

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

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

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

Solving problems. Films reviewed: Sometimes Always Never, The Laundromat, Chiko

Posted in Berlin, comedy, Corruption, Crime, Drama, Family, Games, Scandal, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 8, 2019

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

Toronto’s Fall Festival Season is in full swing this October. Look out for Toronto After Dark – scary and fantastic films; Rendezvous with Madness – films on addiction and mental health; Planet in Focus focussing on environmental films for its 20th anniversary; ImagineNative with movies by and about indigenous peoples around the world… and many more.

But this week I’m looking at three movies, from Germany, the U.K. and the US. There’s a gangster who turns to drugs to find success, a grandpa who turns to word games to find his missing son, and an older woman who turns to amateur sluething to find the bad guys.

Sometimes Always Never

Dir: Carl Hunter

Alan (Bill Nighy) is a dapper businessman in small town England. He likes Marmite, tea and scrabble. He’s meeting his estranged, adult son Peter (Sam Riley) to view a body at a remote village morgue. Alan’s other son ran away decades ago, disappearing without a trace. Could this be him? When the body turns out be the son of another couple, Margaret and Arthur (Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerney), Alan follows Peter home. It’s an excuse to finally meet his daughter-in-law Sue (Alice Lowe) and grandson Jack (Louis Healy). Won’t you stay for dinner? The evening turns into an extended visit as Alan insinuates himself into their homelife, sharing a bunk bed in Jack’s room. The teenager is a shy introvert who spends all his time gaming online. To change his life, his grandfather gets him a haircut and a custom-made suit. He’s a tailor, you see. The movie’s title refers to which buttons to button on a three-button suit. Top to bottom: sometimes, always, never.

Alan’s obsession with Scrabble has a lot to do with his missing son, who ran away in the middle of a game. It’s what separates him from his son – but will it bring them back together? – and influences his relations with Margaret and Arthur, the couple he met at the bed & breakfast. But can a board game bring his missing son home again?

Sometimes Always Never is a clever, funny and touching look at family life in small-town, northern England. Lots of twists in the plot, and enough wordplay to make the whole script feel like an ongoing Scrabble game. It does walk the fine line between charming and twee. The movie, though set in the present day, is drenched in sets, props, costumes, and style from an earlier era. But Bill Nighy, Alice Lowe and the rest are so good you can excuse a bit of excess quirky cuteness.

I like this movie.

The Laundromat

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Mossack and Fonseca (Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas) are a pair of rich lawyers who operate out of Panama. They like flashy tuxedos, palm trees and vodka martinis. Why are they so rich? Their firm holds the secrets of dictators, billionaires, drug dealers, corporations, celebrities and politicians the world over. Through the use of off-shore banking, shell corporations and absolute secrecy, they launder untold billions.

Enter Ellen (Meryl Streep), an everywoman who loses her husband in a freak accident on their wedding anniversary. Turns out the accident insurance on the boat tour they took (it sank) was bogus. Later the condo she buys in Las Vegas with her husband’s life insurance is snatched away by some Russian oligarchs. So she begins to investigate. All these companies – real estate, insurance, banking – seem to operate out of offices in the Caribbean. But when she goes to confront the CEO of the company giving her the runaround, she discovers it’s just a series of post office boxes. Can she follow their trail to Panama? And will the villains ever pay?

The Laundromat is a series of fables to explain the money laundering and tax evasion brought to light by the Panama Papers, a mammoth data haul leaked to the press by an anonymous whistleblower. Mossack and Fonseca themselves tell the story in episodic form, regularly turning toward the camera to look right at you. At the beginning of the movie I was giggling at its audacity and unexpected form – I couldn’t wait to see Soderbergh’s next trick. The trouble is, that were no other gimmicks. He flogs the same dead horse – this is just a movie, they’re all actors, that’s a green screen behind them – for the whole 90 minutes! Just when you start caring a bit, Soderbergh makes sure to remind you it’s not real, it’s just a game. I admit there’s one surprising twist near the end.… but it’s immediately followed by a slice of earnest Americana so cringe-worthy it would make a nine-year-old squirm in embarrassment.

The Laudromat just doesn’t work.

Chiko

Wri/Dir: Özgür Yildirim

Chiko (Denis Moschitto) is a young Berliner trying to get ahead. His parents came to Germany from Turkey as Gastarbeiters in the 60s, and he still hangs with other Turkish Germans. Especially his two best friend, Tibet (Volkan Özcan) and Curly. Together they beat up and rob a local cannabis dealer. But instead of running away, Chiko asks to meet his boss.

Brownie (Moritz Bleibtreu — he’s in Bye Bye Germany, The Fifth Estate, My Best Enemy) is a crime boss living a comfortable middle-class life. He ends up hiring the scrappy Chiko on a trial run, moving ten keys of cannabis. Chiko exalts in his new wealth and woos the Turkish-German prostitite Meryam (Reyhan Sahin) in the apartment next door. Is it true love or just a financial transaction?

Meanwhile, Tibet, trying to save money for his mom’s kidney operation, short-changes customers. Brownie’s thugs arrive to punish him… by hammering a nail through his foot!  This leads to a series of escalating events. Chiko graduates to coke dealing, and buys a white Mercedes with gold hubcaps to match his new image. As Chiko rises to the top like Scarface, Tibet’s falls into a downward spiral, his seething anger getting worse and worse. Finally Chiko has to choose: kingpin Brownie or his former best friend Tibet? Which commands his loyalty – friendship or business?

Chiko is a cool and violent crime drama set in urban Germany. It’s a melodrama in the best sense. Moschitto is terrific as Chiko: the criminal, the lover, the anti-hero. I liked this film and found it very moving, both the acting and the realistic, almost documentary-like peek inside the mosques, corner-stores and restaurants of Berlin. Of course it also has what you expect from a good crime drama: chase scenes, shootouts, and fights. And it’s playing as part of the Goethe Film’s Stronger than Blood, a series of crime dramas.

Sometimes Always Never opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. The Laundromat starts today, with Chiko playing one night only, October 8th, also at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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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