Female saviours. Films reviewed: The 355, The King’s Daughter, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Posted in 1600s, Action, Espionage, Fairytales, France, High School, Mermaids, Porn, Roma, Romania, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 29, 2022

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

Movie theatres are re-opening on Monday, at 50% capacity. That means the movies they’ve been banking are all coming out in the next little while — brace yourselves. So this week, I’m looking at three new movies about women: an action-thriller, a historical romance, and a social satire. There’s a teacher who wants to save her job, a princess who wants to save a mermaid, and a group of spies who want to save the planet.

The 355

Co-Wri/Dir: Simon Kinberg

In a Colombian jungle a drug lord is handing off a major sale to an international criminals, when something goes wrong. In the scuffle a computer drive disappears. It’s the hard drive, not the drugs that’s so valuable. It holds the ultimate hack: a device that can penetrate and control any computer or system in the world. So Mace (Jessica Chastain) a CIA agent flies to Paris with. Her partner, in and out of bed, to purchase the program. She enlists a former colleague named Khadija (Lupita Nyong’o), a British Mi6 agent to help her out.  Khadija doesn’t want to spy anymore. She’s an academic now, with a lover. But she grudgingly agrees. Meanwhile a Colombian desk agent named Graciela (Penelope Cruz) with no fieldwork experience, is flown in to make sure the hand-off goes as planned. But it doesn’t, partly because of a clash with an unknown  woman, named Marie (Diane Kruger). Turns out she’s not a criminal, she an allied spy who works for the German government. And Mace’s erstwhile lover – and partner – is killed.

So now we have four agents, none of whom trust one another, but are forced to work together when they are all declared rogue by their respective agencies. Meanwhile, jet planes are crashing, systems are imploding — just a taste of what the master criminals can do with this hard drive. It’s cyber warfare and the bad guys hold all the cards. So it’s up to them to find the device, save the world, restore their tarnished reputations and be taken off the most wanted list. 

The 355 is a typical, run-of-the-mill action movie. Lots of fights, chases, narrow escapes and shootouts, against exotic locations in Europe, Morocco and Shanghai. I was worried at first that Jessica Chastain would pull another disgusting Zero Dark Thirty glorifying CIA torture in the so-called War on Terror.  But that’s not what this movie is about at all.  It’s a classic James Bond-style movie, but with four agents not one. What’s good about it is the incredible cast — these aren’t female Sylvester Stallone or Vin Diesels. They’re top tier actors — Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Us, and Queen of Katwe; Diane Kruger is a major European actor (In the Fade, The Host, Unknown) best known in North America for Inglourious Basterds, Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz (Pain and Glory, Zoolander 2, To Rome with Love) and everyone knows Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Fae,  The Zookeeper’s Wife, Crimson Peak, The Martian,  Mama, Lawless, Take Shelter,, etc). Plus top Chinese star Fan Bingbing (Buddha Mountain, Wheat,) appears in the movie, too (no spoilers). Take it for what it is, great female actors playing kick-ass roles in an enjoyable (through totally forgettable) action flick.

The King’s Daughter

Dir: Sean McNamara

It’s the 17th century in Versailles. Louis XIV, the Sun King (Pierce Brosnan) lives a life of luxury confessing his excesses to priest and confident Père Lachaise (William Hurt). But he realizes his mortality when he is wounded by a bullet.  And France itself is deeply in debt following a long expensive war. So on the advice of an evil doctor (Pablo Schreiber), he orders the dashing Captain Yves (Benjamin Walker) to search for the lost continent of Atlantis and to capture a mermaid there. If he kills the mermaid during a total eclipse he will become the king of France forever — immortal. Meanwhile, Marie Josephe (Kaya Scodelario) has lived since birth in a remote convent, cloistered by nuns. She still manages to learn music, sneaking outside to hone her horseriding and ocean swimming skills. She is suddenly called back to Versailles. Why? Of course, she is the King’s daughter, but only the king knows this. She soon makes friends with the mermaid (Fan Bingbing), communicating telepathically and using music to bring them together. She also falls for to the handsome sailor Yves. But the king has other ideas — to marry her off to a rich duke. Can Marie Josephe marry the man she loves? Will the King ever listen to his daughter? And will he kill the innocent mermaid for his own glory?

The King’s Daughter is a second-rate Disney- princess-type movie, set in a gilded royal palace. It borrows liberally from Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and virtually any of princess-centric fairytales (its narrated by Julie Andrews.) Lots of CGI — generally mediocre, though I like the underwater scenes —  and way too much gilded ornate settings. This is Louis Quatorze, but you wouldn’t know it from the sets. The makeup and costumes don’t even attempt to look like Versailles. We’re talking the era of the Three Musketeers but you wouldn’t know it; it’s so sterilized and dumbed down that it ends up as a  gold-leaf bowl of pablum. Which isn’t surprising from a director of such masterpieces as 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain and Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite. I liked Kaya Scodelario she’s very good, but the script and direction are uninspired. If you are a little girl or boy into supernatural princess romances, you just might love this movie, otherwise, for the rest of you, the movie’s not terrible, it’s bearable, it’s just not very good.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Dir: Radu Jude

Emi (Katia Pascariu) is a teacher  at a prestigious school in Bucharest, Romania. She’s well respected in her profession, and dresses in a conservative grey skirt and jacket. But when her husband takes their laptop into the shop for repairs, some of their private footage is leaked online. And that’s when everything falls apart. They made a sex video for private viewing only, but now it’s everywhere, on tabloid news sites, Facebook and her students’ smartphones. Even after it’s been taken down by Pornhub, copies still circulate. And the parents are angry. She asks the schoolmistress (Claudia Ieremia) to take her side but to no avail. She’s forced to attend a humiliating parent/teacher meeting, held out of doors, to defend her reputation, and explain that a sex tape made by consenting adults in the privacy of their own home is not a crime. But the mob at the meeting disagrees. They insist on showing the tape again right in front of her at the meeting, complete with lewd commentary from some,  and pillorying by the rest. Will she lose her job, or can she emerge from this ordeal unscathed?

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is a scathing indictment of contemporary Romania, in the form of an absurdist comical farce. The movie is divided into three sections. The first part follows Emi on a walk around Bucharest , as she tries to fathom what happened. On the sway she observes random street conversations ranging from obscene to mundane. The camera lingers on signs, billboards and shopwindow, emphasizing the omnipresence of sex there. The second part is a long montage of a series of images — ranging from century old porn, to wartime photos, fascist memorabilia, Patriotic songs, kitschy poetry, nationalistic quotes, Holocaust denial, the persecution of the Roma, and much more. Each image is accompanied by unspoken comments in the form of subtitles. The third part is the outdoor tribunal as Emi is put on the stand before angry parents who want her fired.

The whole film is set within the current pandemic, with everyone in masks for the entire film, whether indoors or out. (This includes the absolutely explicit sex tape, where Emi’s face is sometimes covered but never her or her husband’s rampant genitalia. If you are bothered by explicit sex, do not watch this movie.) That said, it’s hard to watch a movie where people’s faces are covered. That’s a drawback, no matter how you look at it. On the other hand its funny, shocking and eye-opening. And it’s presented as a darkly satirical comedy. I would have liked to have seen more faces; I expect to see lips move when I watch a movie. But at least the middle montage section helps break up the Covid protocols into more digestible parts.

The 355 and the King’s Daughter open in theatres in Toronto on Monday; check your local listings. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is now playing at the Digital Bell Lightbox.

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

Berlin, Los Alamos, London. Films reviewed: Berlin Alexanderplatz, Adventures of a Mathematician, No Time to Die

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, Action, Espionage, Germany, Organized Crime, Poland, Refugees, Romance, Science, Sex Trade, Thriller, Uncategorized, US, War, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2021

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

This week, I’m looking at three new movies, all from Europe. There’s a Polish mathematician in WWII New Mexico, a refugee turned gangster in present-day Berlin, and a retired secret agent returning to his office in London.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Co-Wri/ Dir: Burhan Qurbani

Francis (Welket Bungué) is a young refugee from Guinea-Bissau who washes ashore on a beach near Berlin (leaving his lover drowned at the bottom of the sea). He’s young, intelligent, strong and ambitious, a handsome man with striking features. He wants to get ahead and live a good life as a good man. Easier said than done. He lives in a temporary housing bloc for refugees and carries no papers. He doesn’t exist in Germany., and is horribly exploited and demeaned at his job. So he leaves honest Labour and is seduced into a life of crime through a twisted friendship with Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch) a psychotic gangster who traffics in women and drugs. Francis — renamed Franz by Reinhold —  learns German, and works his way up the ladder under  kingpin gangster Pums. But he is betrayed by his so-called friend Reinhold who attempts to kill him. He is nursed back to help by Mieze (Jella Haase) a beautiful, no-nonsense sex worker, leaving his life of organized crime behind. Eventually they fall in love, and plan to have a family… but can they stay together? Can he resist the allure of treacherous Renihold’s world? And torn apart in two directions — between love and morality on one side and success, wealth and power on the other — which path will he choose?

Berlin Alexanderplatz is a fantastic contemporary reboot of the classic 1929 German book by Alfred Döblin, sometimes described as one of the first modernist novels. And like any great novel it has a huge cast with tons of side characters and a nicely twisting plot. But also loads of ambiguity — Francis who is persecuted and abused always rises again from the ashes, declaring himself Deutschland – he is  Germany.   The story is told in five chapters, a cautionary tale narrated by Mieze, even though she doesn’t appear until halfway through. It’s a long movie — almost three hours — but it holds you captive till the end. It’s amazingly photographed by Yoshi Heimrath with images that will remain long after seeing them.

If you want a taste of contemporary German cinema, you should not miss this one.

Adventures of a Mathematician

Wri/Dir: Thor Klein

It’s the late 1930s in America. Stan Ulam (Philippe Tlokinski) is a mathematician who lives with his younger brother Adam at an ivy league university. Their family is well off, and still living in Lvov Poland, despite the troubling rise of totalitarian regimes all around them.  He likes gambling, debating and telling jokes with his best friend, the physicist  Johnnie Von Neumann (Fabien Kociecku). It’s all about the odds, Stan says, and house always wins. His life is comfortable but precarious. Then he meets an outspoken young writer named  Francoise (Esther Garrel), another refugee from Europe, and sparks fly. But before he has taken  their relationship any further, Johnnie invites him to join a highly secretive government enterprise in the rocky plateaus of Los Alamos New Mexico. Siblings are not allowed, just spouses and kids. Giving a tearful goodby to his needy brother, proposed marriage to Francoise, so they could stay together. It’s the Manhattan Project, and he’s there to on a team including Edward Teller (Joel Basman) to build the hydrogen bomb. But shocking news leads to a cerebral swelling treated with a drill into his skull. Will he ever recover?

Adventures of a Mathematician, based on  Ulam’s biography of the same name, is not an action thriller or a passionate romance. It’s a straightforward telling of  the highs and lows of a lesser-known genius’s life. He was instrumental in the creation of the hydrogen bomb, something he did not want to make.  But he was also responsible for crucial mathematic advances,  including his “Monte Carlo Method” (named after the famed casino) still essential in computer and statistical projects.  He also came up with amazing theories of space exploration not yet tested. Though mainly in English, this is a Polish movie, which perhaps explains the odd accents of some of the characters (For example Edward Teller, the Hungarian physicist speaks with a heavy French accent). And story is told at a very slow pace. Still, I found Ulam’s story (someone I’d never heard of before) and the ideas behind his tale, intriguing. 

No Time to Die

Co-Wri/Dir:Cary Joji Fukunaga

His name is Bond…James Bond (Daniel Craig) and he’s retired as a British spy. Now he enjoys sitting around fishing in a lakeside cabin. Five years earlier he said farewell to his one true love, Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), after — he believes — she betrayed him. What he doesn’t know is she’s the daughter of an infamous hitman who once killed a supervillain’s family. But his peace and quiet is interrupted by an urgent call from the CIA. Sceptre, the evil international criminal organization is having a meeting, and if he’s not there, maybe the world will end. Something known as The Heracles Project — the creation of a DNA-linked poison — is in danger of being released. But it’s not as simple as that.  It seems both the CIA and MI6 including M (Ralph Fiennes) himself, might be involved in a conspiracy. Should he return to his old job? Who can he trust? And will he ever see Madeleine again?

I’ve been watching James Bond movies since I was a kid, and to tell the truth, they bore me silly with their formulaic storylines, tedious characters and repetitious conventions. So I was very surprised to find how good No Time to Die really is. This is the best 007 I’ve seen in decades. It feels like a real movie, not just a franchise. No spoilers but I can say this one has a black, female 007 (Lashana Lynch) a Q (Ben Whishaw) coming out as gay (more or less) and a marvelous trio of supervillains, played by Rami Malek, Christoph Waltz, and Dali Benssalah. Also great are the hero (Daniel Craig), and his erstwhile lover, the mysterious Madeleine (Léa Seydoux). It has the usual cars, gadgets, fights, beautiful women and exotic scenery, but it also has characters you actually care about. If you’re willing to go back to a movie theatre, and you want something fun, I think you should see No Time to Die.

Adventures of a Mathematician is available on VOD and digital platforms this weekend, No Time to Die opens in theatres next week — check your local listings. And Berlin Alexanderplatz is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for the Canadian Premier, one screening only, on October 7th, 6.30PM as part of the Goethe Films series History Now: Past as Prologue.

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

 

Japanese women. Films reviewed: Wife of a Spy, Mio’s Cookbook, The Brightest Roof in the Universe

Posted in 1800s, 1940s, Cooking, Drama, Espionage, Family, Fantasy, Feminism, Friendship, Japan, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on June 11, 2021

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

Toronto’s spring Film festival season continues. Toronto Jewish Film Festival finishes this weekend, with two great French films, Summer of 85 a gay mystery romance set in the 80s and directed by Francois Ozon; and The Specials, a crowd pleaser by Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano, best known for the hugely popular Intouchable. It’s about a makeshift social services centre in Paris for hard-to-handle kids with autism. 

But this week, I’m talking about another TJFF, the Toronto Japanese Film Festival. This one is also digital, but each film plays for the duration of the festival, until June 27th. And as always, it’s deftly programmed, with movies ranging from samurai to Yakuza to family dramas, romance, comedies, action, anime, and even some movies adapted from manga.

This week, I’m looking at three new Japanese features told from a female point of view. There’s a  cook trying to capture the flavours of her childhood,  a high school girl who seeks answers on top of a roof, and a wife who can’t decide whether her husband is an adulterer… or a spy.

Wife of a Spy

Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

It’s the 1940s in Kobe Japan where Satoku and and Yusaku are a happily married couple. Satoku (Aoi Yu) is a movie actress and Yusaku (Takahashi Issey) a rich businessman who owns an import-export corporation. Japan is at war, but they continue live a western-style life of peaceful luxury. But everything changes when Yusaku and their nephew Fumio return from a business trip in. Manchuria. a Japanese puppet state in Northeastern China. There they witnessed unspeakable atrocities and war crimes committed by the notorious Kwantung Army (aka Kantogun), an elite branch of the Japanese military. And they brought a young Japanese woman back with them.

Satoku sees only the young woman and knows nothing of the war crimes — is her husband cheating on her?. Meanwhile, a childhood friend named Taiji relocates to Kobe. She remembers him as a kind young man. But now he’s a member of the dreaded Kempeitai, the Japanese Gestapo. He criticizes her for wearing dresses instead of kimonos and for drinking foreign whiskey not Japanese. He’s also secretly in love with her. And he suspects Fumio and possibly even Yusaku, are traitors spreading Japanese war secrets to the enemy. Or is he just trying to break up their marriage?

But when she discovers the truth about the horrors of war, she confronts her husband — does he have proof? Eventually she has to decide whether to become a spy herself or turn in her husband to the police. 

Wife of a Spy is great WWII thriller, full of jealousy, intrigue and numerous unexpected plot twists. Japan is not like Germany where filmmakers have produced hundreds or thousands of movies about their dark past. Rarely do you see Japanese films like this one. This movie is made for TV so everything is on a smaller scale with a more compact feel than a theatrical film, but under the direction of Kurosawa Kiyoshi and with its really good acting and script, (along with costumes, sets and music), it keeps the suspense building till the very end. 

Great movie.

Mio’s Cookbook

Dir: Haruki Kadokawa

It’s 1801. Mio and Noe are two 12 year-old girls in Osaka. They vow to be best friends forever. One day they encounter a fortune teller who says Noe is destined for great success, while Mio will have to pass through dark clouds before she reaches blue skies. The same night a huge flood sweeps away both their houses. Mio is an orphan adopted by a woman, and Noe completely disappears. Fast forward ten years.

Now Mio (Matsumoto Honoka) lives in Edo (Tokyo) and works as a cook in a small restaurant. But her love of the sweeter, subtler flavours of Osaka that she’s used to are not popular in her customers in Edo who prefer stronger, saltier tastes. So after much experimentation and hard work she comes up with a perfect blending of the two cuisines. She creates the perfect chawan-mushi egg custard, and her fickle customers love it. Soon, there are lineups around the block. Word reaches Yoshiwara, the red light district, where a mysterious courtesan who never shows her face in public and is known only as Asahi (played by Nao), sends an emissary to bring one back for her to taste. Meanwhile two men are also interested in her cooking: an aristocrat (Kubozuka Yusuke) and a doctor who frequents both the restaurant and the Yoshiwara district. But evil forces — in the form of competing restaurant owners — are working against her. They steal her recipes, send bullies to scare away customers and even set fire to her workplace. Can a woman become a famous chef in Edo? Will Mio ever find her childhood friend? And will she find love in the confines of her restaurant?

Mio’s Cookbook is a lovely drama about friendship, cooking, class, religion, sex work, and the floating world of the pleasure district. It’s full of fascinating details about Japanese cuisine — each new dish she creates is displayed and labeled for you to see — and tons of period touches about life 200 years ago. It’s directed by Kadokawa Haruki, the notorious former movie producer, once heir to the Kadokawa publishing empire but who fell from grace in a cocaine scandal in the 1990s. A Japanese Spielberg, he knows how to craft a complex plot with many characters by pressing all the right buttons to keep the crowd wanting more. This is an enjoyable film that left me feeling… well, very hungry afterwards.

The Brightest Roof in the Universe

Dir: Fujii Michihito

Tsubame (Kiyohara Kaya) is a high school girl in a town somewhere in Japan. She has a crush on her next door neighbour Toru (Ito Kentaro) a banjo-playing dude who thinks of her more as a younger sister. She recently split up with her boyfriend after he posted cruel anonymous texts about her on everybody’s cel. And at home, her parents (her dad and step-mom) are preparing for a new baby. But will it take her place in the family? Tsubame has lots to worry about, which she does on the roof of a building where she takes Japanese calligraphy classes. Until one day she realizes she’s not alone up on that roof. There’s a tough-as-nails old lady up there, too, who rides around on a kids’ scooter.

This strange granny is outspoken and opinionated and makes Tsubame feel uncomfortable. There’s something about her she just doesn’t get. But eventually they become friend and confidants. Turns out Hoshi-ba (Momoi Kaori)  — meaning granny from the stars — has special powers. She says she can fly and can solve almost any problem.  In exchange for Hoshi-ba’s favours, Tsubame starts doing things for her — like finding her long-lost grandson who lives somewhere amidst all the rooftops in the town. Is Hoshi-ba real or imaginary? And can she fulfil Hoshi-ba’s wish?

The Brightest Roof in the Universe is a sweet and absorbing coming of age story that touches on family, friendship and love.  It also deals with more obscure topics like ink brush painting, jellyfish and astronomy It’s slow paced but not boring, and told in a series of revelatory chapters, some of which are total surprises.

It’s also a sentimental tear-jerker, but in a nice way. I like this movie, too.

Wife of a Spy, The Brightest Roof in the Universe, and Mio’s Cookbook are all playing, now through June 27th at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival.

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

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

Posted in Action, Berlin, Canada, CIA, Denmark, Espionage, Germany, Horror, Mermaids, Romance by CulturalMining.com on May 21, 2021

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies — two action/thrillers, one from Canada and another from Denmark; and a love story from Germany. There’s death on a commuter train, shoot-outs in a small town, and eternal love… deep underwater.

Riders of Justice

Wri/Dir: Anders Thomas Jensen

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

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

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

This is a fantastic movie.

Trigger Point

Dir: Brad Turner

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

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

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

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

Undine

Wri/Dir: Christian Petzold

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

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

I strongly recommend this amazing love story. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody

Dir: Ilya Naishuller

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

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

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

Six Minutes to Midnight

Dir: Andy Goddard

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

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

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

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

Judas and the Black Messiah

Dir: Shaka King

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

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

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

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

Great movie.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

James vs. His Future Self

Dir: Jeremy LaLonde

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

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

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

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

Resistance

Wri/Dir: Jonathan Jakubowicz

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

Seberg

Dir: Benedict Andrews

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

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

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

I liked this movie.

The Jesus Rolls

Wri/Dir: John Turturro

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

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

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

Beanpole (Dylda)

Co-Wri/Dir: Kantemir Balagov

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

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

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

Seberg, The Jesus Rolls and Beanpole all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

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

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

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

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

Gretel and Hansel

Dir: Oz Perkins

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

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

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

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

The Rhythm Section

Dir: Reed Morano

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

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

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

Rosie

Dir: Paddy Breathnach (Viva)

Wri: Roddy Doyle

It’s present-day Dublin.

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

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

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

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

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

%d bloggers like this: