Around the World. Films reviewed: Memoria, Downton Abbey: A New Era, Confessions of Felix Krull

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

Toronto’s spring film festival season is on its way, with ReelAbilities Film Fest starting on Monday through June 10, bringing films by and about people with disabilities and deaf people. There’s a comedy night, workshops, panels and lots of films. This is a hybrid festival, with both digital and in-person events. And Inside-Out is just around the corner , starting on May 26th, featuring world premiers of films with 2SLGBTQ+ themes, actors and filmmakers. And tickets are going fast.

But this week I’m taking you around the world with new movies from the UK, Germany and Thailand There’s an aristocratic family on the Riviera looking at a villa, an ambitious young man in Paris seeking his fortune, and a woman in Colombia looking for an explanation to a strange noise she thinks she heard.

Memoria

Wri/Dir: Apichatpong Weerasathakul 

Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton) is a middle-aged Scottish professional living in Bogota, Colombia. She’s helping out her married sister, Karen, who is in hospital after being struck by a mysterious ailment. But one night, she is awakened by a loud BOOM!, a noise that no one notices except her. So she decides to investigate. She is referred to a young man named Hernán Bedoya (Juan Pablo Urrego) who is a sound engineer in a recording studio. Hernan says he can locate and synthesize the exact sound she remembers based on her description alone. Sparks fly, and it seems like their professional relationship may turn personal. Jessica knows what the sound she heard was but not what it means, and she needs to learn more. So she leaves Hernan and travels inland toward Medellin. On the way she meets an older man (Elkin Díaz) who lives in an isolated cabin and does nothing all day except scaling fish. He’s not just off the grid, he avoids it like the plague, won’t go near a radio, TV or cellphone — the noise is too much for him. You see, he’s blessed or cursed with a unique ability: he hears every story from the beginning of time just by touching a stone where it took place. And what’s his name? Hernán Bedoya!

Memoria is a hauntingly beautiful art-house film about storytelling,  mysticism and perception. Like all of Apichatpong’s movies (I interviewed him here in 2015) it’s not mainstream, so don’t go expecting a Hollywood fantasy. Scenes are long and pensive, often with no dialogue or camera movement for long stretches, and it’s full of mundane hospital rooms, and institutional hallways. But despite the mundane images and slow pace, it is still fascinating, with exquisite cinematography, amazing soundscapes, and terrific acting — Tilda Swinton, of course but many others you’ve never seen before. With lots of strange unexplained scenes you can just enjoy, even if you don’t understand them all. Apichatpong is a Thai master-director, and this is his first film outside his country with much of the dialogue in Spanish, but it doesn’t matter, it fits so clearly within his work.

What a lovely film Memoria is.

Downton Abbey: A New Era

Dir:  Simon Curtis

It’s 1930 in Yorkshire England, and the aristocratic Crawley family, along with their many relatives, inlays and servants, are celebrating the marriage of a daughter to their former chauffeur., bridging the gap between upstairs and downstairs for the first time. Aside from the wedding, two other big changes occur at Downton Abbey, their manor: the family matriarch Violet (Maggie Smith) discovers she has inherited a villa in the south of France, possibly from the estate of a long-lost lover; and a producer wants to use their home as a location for a film he’s shooting — and even really rich people need money to keep the house in a good state. So half the family travels to the French Riviera to investigate their possible new property, while the other half stays home while a movie is being shot in their hallowed hallways. 

But there are complications. It’s revealed that Violet may have had an affair there and her son, now the patriarch of Downton Abbey, may have been illegitimate! Meanwhile, the film they’re shooting has to turn into a talkie, halfway through. This is fine for the dashing male lead who speaks “Received Pronunciation”, but not for the beautiful female star with her shrill, working class accent. (Exactly like in Singin’ in the Rain). And many of the family and the staff are involved in clandestine love affairs on their own. What new changes are afoot at Downton Abbey?

Downton Abbey: A New Era is an anodyne soap opera that feels like two TV episodes linked loosely together and projected onto the silver screen. While the previous movie version of Downton Abbey (which I liked) was cinematic — with a royal visit, assassins, intrigue and and a passionate love affair — this one seems to exist only for  diehard fans can catch up on all their favourite characters. It’s very predictable with few surprises. At the same time, the acting is great (including Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Tuppence Middleton, and too  many others to mention) the dialogue is smooth, the stately home setting is fun, and the characters enjoyable. If you’re a fan of the TV series (personally,  I hated it) I’m sure you’ll find lots to enjoy in this latest instalment. Otherwise, it’s just a comfortable, if uneventful, 90 minutes.

Confessions of Felix Krull

Co-Wri/Dir: Detlev Buck

Based on the novel by Thomas Mann 

It’s 1900 at a grande hotel in Paris. Felix Krull (Jannis Niewöhner) is a handsome, charming, and eloquent young man with great ambitions. But he is not a guest in the hotel, he’s the elevator Boy. Though raised in a middle class family in Rhineland, he was left penniless and fatherless when the family wine business went bankrupt. So — after avoiding the draft, with the help of a beautiful woman named Zaza (Liv Lisa Fries), his only true love — he makes his way to Paris to seek his fortune. But though beautiful on the outside, the hotel is a den of corruption and inequity, though and through. Worst of all is Stanko, the Maitre d’with his hand in everyone’s pocket. He’s a combination pimp, extortionist, blackmailer and thug, who arranges trysts for all the young employees, male and female, to meet the rich and powerful guests carnally, keeping a large percentage for himself. And though Felix (now known as Armand the elevator boy) resists at first, he soon recognizes this side work as the only way to rise up in status.

He has secret affairs with a number of people simultaniously, including Madame Houpflé, a lonely woman married to an Alsatian toilet mogul, who pays him with her seemingly endless supply of pearl necklaces. He also meets a French Marquis, a Scottish Lord, an eccentric professor, and various other members of the upper crust.  But though he becomes increasingly rich and well-dressed, can material wealth ever help him rise within the rigid class system? Or is he trapped in his class? Can he hold into his morals? And when Zaza reappears in Paris beside the same Marquis… things get complicated.

Confessions of Felix Krull is a wonderful adaptation of Thomas Mann’s unfinished coming-of-age-novel. When I was a teenager, I carried a hardcover copy of that book as I travelled across Europe, so I’m thrilled to see it on the big screen as a big budget movie. Most of the story is told by Felix to the Marquis, as part confession, and part con job — or so it seems. But Felix is not an immoral criminal;  he is the most just and upright character in the story. All the actors, but especially, David Kross (Krabat, The Reader) as the Marquis, Liv Lisa Fries (Babylon Berlin) as Zaza, and newcomer Jannis Niewöhner, are just so much fun to watch. It’s an historical period piece about a long-gone world, but still feels so fresh, never turgid. I recommend this one.

And it’s playing as part of the Goethe Films series called The Art of the Con.

Memento just opened in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; Confessions of Felix Krull is playing one night only, on May 19th, also at TIFF; and Downton Abbey a New Era, opens next week in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Jim Shedden about Moments of Perception: Experimental Film in Canada

Posted in Animation, Art, Books, Canada, Experimental Film, History, Toronto by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2022

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

Photo of Jim Shedden by Brody White.

Since motion pictures took the world by storm, Canadian mainstream movies have been dominated by Hollywood. But avant-garde, independent and experimental films have a very different history. Pioneers like Norman MacLaren and Arthur Lipsett at the NFB, and artists like Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland established Canadian films on the world’s stage. And creativity exploded after 1967 in a surge of national expression. But what makes a film experimental, what makes it Canadian, and how have these criteria changed over the past century? 

Moments of Perception: Experimental Film in Canada is a monumental, landmark book released this week, accompanied by a series of screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. The screenings are curated by — and the book edited by — Barbara Sternberg and Jim Shedden. It includes a meticulous history of experimental film by Mike Zryd, a series of filmographies and profiles of the major players by Stephen Broomer, shorter bios compiled by Jim and Barbara who also wrote the preface, and it’s beautifully illustrated with contemporary photos of the filmmakers and stills from the films themselves. 

Jim Shedden is a curator of inter-disciplinary exhibitions and head of the publishing program at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I spoke with Jim via Zoom in Toronto.

Moments of Perception: Experimental Film in Canada is now available from Goose Lane Editions.

Northern Europe. Films reviewed: The Good Traitor, Boys from County Hell, About Endlessness

Posted in comedy, Denmark, Diplomacy, Experimental Film, Family, Horror, Ireland, Religion, Sweden, Vampires, WWII by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2021

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

I don’t care what they tell you, movies are not the same without the whole movie experience — going out, choosing a movie, standing in line, eating popcorn… and sitting in a large space beside a crowd of strangers laughing, booing or screaming to the same things you are. You can’t get that watching a laptop or a flat screen TV.

Remember TimePlay? That movie trivia game you used to play before the film starts? Well, they’re about to launch a TimePlay app, replicating the movie experience, where you get to compete against other movie buffs in real time (The winner gets Cineplex Scene card points). I tried it out this week in a trial run for media, and it’s goofy but a lot of fun.

This week I’m looking at three very different movies, all from northern Europe; an existential arthouse film, a comedy/ horror, and an existential arthouse film, and an historical drama. There’s a Swedish storyteller, a Celtic vampire, and a Danish diplomat.

The Good Traitor

Dir: Christina Rosendahl

It’s 1939 in Washington DC, on the brink of WWII. Henrik Kauffmann (Ulrich Thomsen) is the Danish Ambassador, who lives with his brilliant wife Charlotte (Denise Gough) and their two young daughters. It’s a pleasant life, drinking champagne by the swimming pool or mingling at a cocktail party… but beneath the surface, everyone knows Hitler is going to invade Denmark. Should they just let it happen? Or should they do what they can to stop it? The Nazis march in and the Danish government declares  nothing bad is happening here. But Henrik and an earnest young Danish lawyer (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) decide to do something drastic. They declare themselves representatives of the Free Danish Government in exile. And they’re joined by a dozen other Danish Embassies around the world. But can they do for money? And will they get US government support them. (The US stayed out of the war until Pearl Harbour in late 1941).

This is where the real power comes to play. It’s Charlotte, his brilliant wife. Her family has been friends with the Roosevelts since long before she met Henrik. But can she convince FDR to side with her husband? But there’s a twist;  Henrik had a fling with Zilla, Charlotte’s vivacious younger sister (Zoë Tapper) a decade earlier in Beijing. And now she’s sure they’re sleeping together again in Washington. Will Charlotte and Henrik’s troubled relationship influence the geopolitical fate of the world?

The Good Traitor is a fascinating WWII drama viewed from afar, within the safe confines of Washington’s diplomatic corps. It gives hints at the importance of diplomacy and politics in world events, and how much of it takes place behind closed doors. And so do their personal relationships. This is a very tame retelling of true events, with no battles, no death, no violence, except for a shocking twist (no spoilers). But I liked it.

Boys from County Hell

Dir: Chris Baugh

Eugene (Jack Rowan) is a youngish guy who lives in a small Irish town called Six Mile Hill. Its main claim to fame is its association with Dracula author Bram Stoker, and an ancient cairn (that’s a pile of stones) on a field. It’s said to be the burial place of a legendary vampire known as the Abhartach. When he’s not cleaning up an old house his mother left him,  Eugene is probably hanging at the local pub with his best mates William (Fra Fee) his girl friend Claire (Louisa Harland) and SP (Michael Hough) the bearded maniac. They earn extra bucks as tour guides for gullible tourists. But one night, in the dark, William is brutally slaughtered near the cairn. Is there something to this vampire myth? Things are brought to a head when Eugene’s dad Francie, a hard-ass contractor, hires him to tear down the cairn, to make way for a development plan, damn the possible  consequences. But someone, or something, doesn’t like that. Have they gone to far? And is the entire village in danger if the Abhartach returns?

Boys from County Hell is a horror comedy, with an emphasis on the horror, but told in a lighter style. That means lots of blood, in the most disgusting way  possible (when a vampire gets close, blood starts to flow spontaneously from the eyes and noses of anyone nearby.) But there are also a lot of over-the-top violence of the dark humour type, and quite a few surprises — there’s a mystery element. This is a very Irish movie, meaning you may have to turn on the subtitles to understand what some of them are saying. I haven’t seen a good vampire movie in quite a while, and this one varies from a lot of the cliches. The cast is appealing and the pace never drags. I quite liked this one, too.

About Endlessness

Wri/Dir: Roy Andersson

A middle-aged man and woman are sitting on a park bench on a hillside overlooking a vast grey city. They tell each other interlocking stories, about men or women they saw — either in a dream, in a fantasy or in reality (it’s never made clear) People like an awkward virginal young man staring longingly at a busty hairdresser watering a dying potted palm. Or a  man who gets increasingly frustrated by a stranger who ignores him passing by on an outdoor staircase, who he recognizes as someone he had bullied years ago in public school. And a catholic priest having a nervous breakdown because he lost his faith while preparing the communion — with a psychiatrist who refuses to see him because he doesn’t want to miss the bus home. Add to this Hitler in his bunker, a father killing his daughter in an honour killing, prisoners in a Siberia trudging toward a gulag, and an ethereal couple in their nightgowns floating far above a city.

If you’ve ever seen a Roy Andersson movie, you’ll understand that there’s no linear narrative, no main characters, or plot, per se. Rather it’s a series of vignettes that together share a theme.  In this one this Ione the theme seems to be about the unrelenting melancholy, frustration and futility, passing from generation to generation. Everything is ordinary, sepia toned and middling in its regularity. People wear plain, dumpy clothes, with average bodies and faces, People rarely speak and the camera hardly moves.

It sounds like I hated this movie, but I actually loved it.  About Endlessness avoids prettiness like the plague, and is never twee. And it somehow manages to imbue common, depressing thoughts with an ethereal majesty. 

The Good Traitor is now playing in VOD, Boys from County Hell starts streaming today on Shudder, and Beyond Endlessness opens next Friday at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox. And Timeplay is now running online every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday at 8:30 pm ET.

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

Lost causes. Films reviewed: Tammy’s Always Dying, Planet of the Humans, She’s Allergic to Cats


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

I had a strange dream last night. I was in an old-school movie palace (in real life, all movie theatres are still closed) fumbling around in the dark, trying to find a seat while maintaining social distance. I finally found an empty seat way up in the second or third balcony but there was a huge pillar blocking the screen. So I had to twist around until I was almost lying prone until could catch a glimpse of the movie, far below…

But you don’t have to go such lengths to see unusual films – they’re on your device or TV at home. So this week I’m looking at three new indie movies, now playing. There’s an ex-environmentalist tilting at windmills; a depressed mom in Hamilton jumping off bridges; and a neurotic filmmaker in Hollywood obsessed with bananas.

Tammy’s Always Dying

Dir: Amy Jo Johnson

Kathy (Anastasia Phillips) is a working-class woman in Hamilton, Ontario. She has a steady boyfriend, a career, a nice car and a mother who loves her. OK, that’s an exaggeration. She actually has a ramshackle existence teetering on the brink. She drives a wreck, works in a

dive bar for Doug (Clark Johnson) an older gay black guy who’s her only friend. Her so-called boyfriend Sean (Aaron Ashmore: 22 Chaser) is married with two young kids who meets her periodically for quickies in his tool shed.

And then there’s her mom. Tammy (Felicity Huffman) is a total mess: a penniless alcoholic, she’s depressed and suicidal. Her only pleasure is watching confessional talk shows on daytime TV. Each month she can be found, like clockwork, on a pedestrian bridge, ready to throw herself onto the railway tracks far below. But Katherine always arrives just in time to save her mom’s life.

Until… Tammy finds herself facing a physical problem that almost trumps her financial and mental difficulties. Turns out she’s dying of cancer, stage 4 cancer, with less than a year to live. Can Katherine convince her to take chemo to extend her life? Or will she abandon her mom, buy a Toyota and move to Toronto?

Tammy’s Always Dying is a bittersweet drama about mental illness, poverty and fanmily relations. Its shot against the bleak industrial steel mills of Hamilton. It has some humour and light parts, as it satirizes daytime TV. The acting is good all-around (though Felicity Huffman’s excruciating attempt at a Canadian accent sounds more like a Wisconsin dairy farmer). While it didn’t blow me away, it does have some very touching scenes. If you’re looking for a good, realistic tear-jerker, this is one to see.

Planet of the Humans

Wri/Dir: Jeff Gibbs

Our planet is heading toward environmental destruction. Can we stop climate change by switching to greener renewable energy? So asks a new controversial documentary. The filmmaker follows eco-skeptic Ozzie Zehner around the US, and what they find is not good. Rather than replacing carbon fuels, these new energy sources just switch one carbon-based energy for another. Environmental movements, they say, are just ways for major corporations to greenwash their image… and make big bucks from government subsidies. And green energy is not so green after all. All of which are very real concerns.

The problem with this movie is it is full of silly comparisons, half-truths and a near total lack of credible statistics. Instead, it discredits genuine improvements without offering any alternatives. For example, they show up with a camera at a protest against fracking and ask random people not about the troubles with fracking but rather – what are your feelings about biomass? Huh? And when the people they talk to don’t give them the answer they’re looking for, they suggest maybe environmentalists are hiding something.

Their argument against solar energy and wind turbines? The panels are manufactured, solar energy doesn’t work in the dark, and their equipment eventually wears out. But instead of supporting their arguments with stats – such as does a given energy source uses more energy than it produces? – they go for cheap gotcha scenes, where a rock concert that claims to be powered by solar energy is caught using a generator when it starts to rain. It’s like a child’s version of a documentary… and one that offers no alternatives except despair.

Yes, we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels. Yes, corporations are co-opting some environmental movements to profit off government subsidies. And yes, green energy equipment has to be manufactured. But burining coal is not the same as hydropower or windmills. Broken solar panels littering a desert is not the same environmentally as mining oil sands. To write off an entire movement as fraudulent based on factoids and interviews with random strangers – and without any research to back it up – is not the way to expose malfeasance. And spreading misinformation doesn’t help much either.

I’d give this one a miss.

She’s Allergic to Cats

Wri/Dir: Michael Reich

Dorky Mike Pinkney (Mike Pinkney) is a single guy who lives in a small house in Hollywood. He came there with big plans: to shoot a remake of Carrie with cats playing all the roles. He shares his idea with his best friend Sebastien (Flula Borg) who isn’t impressed. He says Michael is a giant, sad dirty man-baby. In the meantime he works at a day job, grooming dogs (badly). There he meets the beautiful and glamorous Cora (Sonja Kinski). She’s Mickey Rourke’s daughter’s personal assistant, and she brings in the star’s dogs to be groomed. Is this love at first sight? Not exactly, but at least they might go on a date some evening.

But Mike doesn’t tell her about his real problems. His home is filthy and infested by rats, which his landlord – a musician named Honey (Honey Davis) – won’t do anything about. And he ocassionally slips into psychedelic fantasies, full of sinister cats, buckets of blood, and a wooden bowl of rotten bananas, spinning, spinning, spinning around in his brain. Sometimes people he’s talking to seem to be possessed by Satan.

Will Mike make his video art? Will he and Cora fall in love? Will he win his battle with the rats? And what about the missing pug?

Needless to say, this is not an ordinary movie, more of an impressionistic, experimental indie collage of images, characters and music. It’s a comedy, a mystery, and a fantasy. It’s shot on grainy video, with frequent cuts to fuzzy, 80s-style video art. And full of odd references to movies, from The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to Congo. It’s pretty funny and pretty strange without being over the top. If you like unusual movies – She’s Allergic to Cats feels like a cross between Peter Strickland and John Waters – you might enjoy this one.

I did.

Tammy’s Always Dying opens today across Canada on all VOD platforms; Planet of the Humans is streaming on Youtube; and She’s Allergic to Cats is available on demand from Giant Pictures.

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

Surprising twists at TJFF. Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground, A Fortunate Man, The Golem

Posted in 1600s, 1800s, 1910s, Art, Denmark, documentary, Experimental Film, Horror, Judaism, Supernatural by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2019

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

Spring Film Festival Season continues in Toronto. Hot Docs comtinues on through the weekend and TJFF — the Toronto Jewish Film fest — opened last night. This week I’m looking at three new movies with surprising twists, all playing at the TJFF. There’s a Golem (who’s not from the Hobbit), a historical romantic drama (that’s not based on an English novel), and a doc on an experimental filmmaker (that’s not about a man).

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground

Dir: Chuck Smith

It’s the 1960s. Barbara Rubin is an outspoken teenager in Queens, NY. So outspoken, her parents lock her up in a mental hospital… which serves as her crash course in how to use drugs. She emerges as a savvy artist and drug expert and dives straight into the world of underground cinema, just heating up in New York. She studies under the wing of Lithuanian-American filmmaker Jonas Mekas. One of her first films creates a sensation. Shot against her own apartment’s white walls and floor, “Christmas on Earth” features naked men and women whose entire bodies are covered in either black or white paint, with their breasts and genitals painted the opposite colour. (Basically they writhe on the floor in a continual orgy.) But the two reels of film are projected simultaneously on the same screen – something never done before. She releases this film when she is still 18 years old.

Barbara and Jonas fly to Belgium for an experimental film competition, and cause an international scandal when she occupies the projection booth to show a banned movie — Flaming Creatures by Jack Smith. Later she falls in with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky, pop artist and experimental fimmaker Andy Warhol, the already legendary Bob Dylan, and the seminal band the Velvet Underground. She’s the one at the centre of these disparate figures who introduces them to one another, leading to some major artistic projects, collaborations  and record albums that never would have been made if it weren’t for her.

Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground is a fascinating documentary about an important figure who you’ve probably never heard of. Tragically, she died in her thirties, after adventures that bounced across the Atlantic and back again, spanning England, France and rural New Jersey, delving into sexual experiments, psychedelic expression, lost loves, and Jewish mysticism.

A really good movie.

A Fortunate Man

Dir: Billie August

(Based on the novel Lykke-Per by Henrik Pontoppidan)

It’s the late 1800s in Jutland, Denmark. Per Sidenius (Esben Smed) is a bright young man off to Copenhagen to study engineering. But his strict father, a fundamentalist preacher, withholds his money, to teach his headstrong son a lesson in humility. Broke and hungry, he struggles to survive in a slum, while attending university classes. He already knows what he wants to do: create a complex system of canals in Jutland to bring Denmark into the modern era. But is he too big for his britches?

Luckily he spies a member of the illustrious Salomon family in a café, and pitches his idea to Ivan (Benjamin Kitter). Ivan is intrigued and introduces him to his family, including the erudite and elegant Jakobe (Katrine Greis-Rosenthal), heiress to the family fortune. Educated in Switzerland, Jakobe speaks many languages and looks down on the ambitious but clumsy Per. She is standoffish and rebuffs his attempts at wooing her – she’s engaged to a widower with two daughters. But he wins her over when he runs like a deer hunter beside her horse and carriage. They are engaged to be married.

Meanwhile, the Salomons and their friends express interest in investing in Per’s grand scheme. But first, Per – a young man who never apologizes – must humble himself before an important government figure. And the Salamons are a Jewish family, while Per comes from a long line of fundamentalist Protestant ministers. Are their backgrounds, classes, religions and philosophies too different? Will Per reconcile with his family? Will he learn to be humble? Or is he too brash and immature ever to fit into Copenhagen’s mannered society?

A Fortunate Man is a 2¾ hours long saga of the lives of Per Lykke – Lucky Per – and Jakobe Salomons, but I was never bored. If you devour these long historical dramas, but are getting tired of the same old, same-old british Victorians, this one introduces totally new worlds and characters. It feels like a Thomas Mann saga. I’ve seen the movie, now I think want to watch the whole miniseries. Great acting, beautiful period costumes and sets, and a compelling unpredictable drama

The Golem

Dir: The Paz Brothers

It’s 1673 in an impoverished, isolated Jewish shtetl village in eastern europe. Hanna (Hani Furstenberg) is a young woman with pale skin, green eyes and bright red hair. She and her husband Benjamin lost a son, but are still in love. He studies religion all day — which is only open to men — while Hanna eavesdrops on lessons through cracks in the floorboards. She studies the Kaballah, a mystical text on numerology, in secret, on her own. But all is not well. One day she spies outsiders in the woods burning corpses. They are dressed in bizarre, birdlike masks and leather capes  It’s the plague! It hasn’t reached their village yet, but these outsiders are blaming them for its spread. The outsiders are led by Vladimir (Aleksey Tritenko) whose daughter is dying. He rides into town on horseback with a threat: Unless their village healer can save his daughter, he’ll burn down the village and kill them all.

Hanna decides it’s time to act. Using her knowledge of Kaballah, the 72 sacred names, some red string and a mound of fresh dirt, she creates a golem, the mythical Prague monster. The golem comes to life, but with a difference. Not a huge beast, this golem is just a little boy. But one that is fast, strong, and vengeful. He feels whatever Hanna feels, and kills whoever he thinks she doesn’t like. And when the golem is hurt she feels his pain. Can the golem save the village from destruction and death? Or will he end up killing them all?

The Golem is a new twist on the classic horror movie: It’s Fiddler on the Roof  but with a Stephen King killer-kid with special powers, An interesting combination I’ve never seen before. Is it scary? A little. There’s lots of blood, without too much gore. Hanni Furstenberg is great as Hanna, as is Konstantin Anikienk as the boy golem.

For a new take on horror, you should check out The Golem.

The Golem, Barbara Rubin and the Exploding NY Underground, and A Fortunate Man are all playing now at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

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

Christoph Schlingensief: Approach those you fear. Films discussed: The German Chainsaw Massacre, The 120 Days of Bottrop, Foreigners Out! Schliegensief’s Container

Posted in Art, Austria, Berlin, Experimental Film, Germany, Horror, Nazi, Theatre by CulturalMining.com on May 11, 2018

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

Christoph Schlingensief was a performance artist, TV producer and filmmaker known for his pranks. A Till Eulenspiegel for the new millenium. He was born in 1960 in Oberhausen, Germany and made his first film while still a kid. He became a devotee of avant garde film, music videos, mainstream Hollywood, and the New German Cinema.

His work incorporates Brechtian theatre techniques and its exaggerated, in-your-face style. In any given film you can find contemporary art, TV clips, historical footage, and even samples of his own past work, edited into the project. He became widely known in German-speaking Europe — though not outside it — for his TV shows, especially an impromptu talk show shot on Berlin’s U-Bahn. Sadly, he died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 49.

You’ve probably never seen his work, so this week, I’m going to talk about a special series of three movies now playing in Toronto, sponsored by the Goethe Institut (and co-presented by the Laser Blast Film Society and KinoVortex). There’s a look at German unification using cannibal serial killers, an epitaph to New German Cinema in the form of naked people running rampant, and a take on right-wing politcs and xenophobia using a mock reality show… that “deports” undocumented immigrants! 

The German Chainsaw Massacre (1990) (Das deutsche Kettensägen Massaker a.k.a. Blackest Heart)

It’s Germany just after the reunification of East and West. Almost everyone has moved westward, but a tiny few remain in the East. This includes the beautiful but downtrodden Clara (Karina Fallenstein) who is repeatedly abused by her drunk husband. She fights him off with a kitchen knife, jumps into her Trabant and heads for greener pastures. But little does she know, she’s going from bad… to wurst.

She meets up with her boyfriend Artur only to see a stranger slash up poor Artur’s body. And when she seeks help at roadside inn, she’s accosted by a sex-craazed lesbian dressed in black (Sussanne Bredehöft, who also plays Clara’s husband), and her equally weird colleagues. Behind closed doors they put rubber masks on anyone who stays there and brutally chops them up before grinding them into sausage. Can Clara defeat these evil cannibals? Or will she end up on someone’s BBQ?

The German Chainsaw Massacre is the second chapter of Schlingensief’s German Trilogy. It’s a genuine horror movie, but so over-the-top that you can’t take it seriously. Its actually very funny, in a disgusting sort of way, mimicking American slasher movies while also satirizing German fears of reunification. (I think it’s also a comment on how ordinary people in the East were treated like pack animals — or sausages! — to feed the hungry West German labour market.)

The 120 Days of Bottrop (1997)

Whatever happened to German Cinema? Schlingensief wants to know. Where are the great directors like Fassbinder, the stars like the beautiful Romy Schneider and 70s heartthrob Helmut Berger? So he decides to get Fassbinder’s stars back together again to film a remake of Pasolini’s most controversial movie: Salo or 120 days of Sodom.

The original film was about Nazi occupied northern Italy, where they conducted horrific S&M orgies using people as sex slaves for their entertainment. This new version, though, is a low budget German art film, and the actors only agree to come out of retirement for the chance of working with Helmut Berger (or maybe sex with the nude models.)

But professional jealousy and rivalry soon takes over, and everything falls apart. The “director” is a mock-Fassbinder complete with fake moustache, while the cast is composed of leches and divas who are going crazy, entering dementia or attempting suicide.

Can this film ever be made? And will Helmut ever show up?

This film is a panoply of meta-references to other movies. Schlingensief is there as Jesus on the cross (who a Klansman tries to set on fire) alongside medieval nuns (Pasolini-style), New York pop-art fashion (Warhol-style), with cameo performances ranging from the omnipresent Udo Kier, to Roland Emerich, Germany’s big-budget schlockmeister. Bottrop is a funny (if ridiculous) satirical look at the last gasp of New German Cinema.

Foreigners Out! Schliegensief’s Container (2002)

Dir: Paul Poet

It’s June 2000 in peaceful, culture-loving Vienna, when something unheard of happens. The conservative party forms a coalition with the ÖVP, Austria’s extreme rightwing Freedom party, headed by Nazi apologist Jörg Haider. The ÖVP is populist and xenophobic, portraying asylum seekers as drug dealers and killers (sound familiar?). That’s when Christoph Schlingensief set up a display – inside a shipping container – right beside Vienna’s Opera house, called Please Love Austria, to commemorate this coalition.

He brought in a dozen people of varied ethnicities, dressed them in fright wigs and let them live there for a week on display, in person and online, 24/7. And like the reality show Big Brother, viewers are asked to vote to evict two contestants each day. The catch is, these evicted contestants, whom he says are illegal immigrants, are led off by security guards and (supposedly) deported! And just in case you didn’t get the message, a huge white banner on the container’s roof says: Ausländer Raus! (Foreigners Out!) And Schlingensief gleefully announces the colour of the people Austrians vote to deport – dark skin first, light skin later.

Naturally, this art installation triggers extreme reactions. On the far right, people began to shout and demonstrate to deport all foreigners. Some leftists take it at face value, and attempt to storm the container to “rescue” the so-called foreigners and tear down the sign. And many in the middle hate the negative attention it brought to Austria… though it’s Austria that voted Haider in.

This documentary covers the art installation and the public reaction to it over its week-long run. And punctuated it with the media coverage it received, notably from the Krone group of wildly popular tabloids, who many blame for Haider’s election.

The show never overtly takes the standpoint of the immigrants. They’re just props in his sideshow. Rather it exposes society’s creepiest undercurrents that are usually kept hidden. And it illustrates Schlingensief’s theory that the best way to expose the worst beliefs is to repeat them out loud where everyone can hear them. The louder the better.

It’s only through exaggeration that we can show reality. This exhibit ran almost twenty years ago, but I think anyone can see that it’s more relevant now than ever.

The German Chainsaw Massacre, 120 Days of Bottrop, and Foreigners Out! Schliegensief’s Container are playing on May 10th, 15th and 17th at the Tiff Bell Lightbox as part of Goethe Institiute’s three-part tribute to avant garde filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief.

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

Source: Christof Schlingensief: art without borders, (c) 2010, Tara Forrest and Anna Teresa Scheer, editors, with a foreward by Alexander Kluge.

Meandering Movies. Films reviewed: A Date for Mad Mary, Nostalgia, Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia, PLUS Oscar Predictions!

Posted in Coming of Age, Death, Drama, Experimental Film, Feminism, Germany, Ireland, Japan, Lesbian, LGBT by CulturalMining.com on March 2, 2018

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

Some movies have linear narratives – stories that move in a straight line from start to finish — but occasionally you can find movies that take a more circuitous route. This week I’m looking at some meandering movies. There’s a path to a wedding in Ireland, a journey to Asia from Germany, and a search for keepsakes in America.

But first…

Oscar Predictions, 2018

Here’s a list of who I think should win, and who I think will win.

A few caveats: I’m usually wrong, though this year my choices of the best movies of 2017 (published in December) is very close to the Oscar nominations (including Get Out, Call Me By Your Name, Three Billiards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and The Shape of Water — all nominated for Best Picture; plus Loveless and A Fantastic Woman, both nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.) Does this mean I’ve been a movie critic for too long and my taste is getting worse? Or that the Academy’s choices are getting better?

I haven’t seen three of the nominated movies, so for these I can only go by what I’ve been told:

Darkest Hour – I couldn’t bring myself to watch this; I’m all Churchilled out. No more Churchill, please.

Phantom Thread is probably great but you have to be in the mood to watch a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. And I haven’t been in that mood yet.

And I Tonya – I just haven’t seen it yet, but plan to soon.

Adapted screenplay

James Ivory (Call Me By Your Name). Should win and will win.

Original screenplay

Should win: That’s a real toughie, I have no idea which should win; there are too many good ones to choose just one.

Will win: I’m guessing Greta Gerwig (Ladybird). ✘ (Jordan Peele won for Get Out)

Best foreign film:

I loved Loveless, but I think A Fantastic Woman should win and will win.

Best Actor

Should win: Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name)

Will win: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Best Actress

Should win and will win

Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Supporting Actor

Should win: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Will win: Willem Dafoe (Florida Project) ✘ (Sam Rockwell won.)

Best Supporting Actress

Should win: Laura Metcalfe (Ladybird)

…but everyone tells me Allison Janney will win for I, Tonya

Best Director

I think Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) should win and will win.

Best Film

Again, I think The Shape of Water should win and will win.

 

A Date for Mad Mary

Dir: Darren Thornton

Mary (Seána Kerslake) is a pretty young woman who lives at home with her mom and grandmother. She likes Tank Girl, Hello Kitty and her best mate Charlene (Charleigh Bailey) They used to be inseparable but things have changed. Charlene’s getting married, and Mary is the maid of honour but she can’t find anyone to be her date to the wedding. She enlists a Polish matchmaker to set her up with a series of men. Problem is she’s a foul-mouthed heavy drinker who is quick to anger. Her last brawl led to six months in the clink. And now she’s finding it hard to find a guy she likes who also likes her. As her grandma said, even a sniper wouldn’t take her out.

But things get better when she meets Jess (Tara Lee), the videographer for Charlene’s wedding. Jess is a singer in a band and Mary likes her style. And she’s a good influence too: Mary feels comfortable around Jess and maybe… there’s something deeper.

I really enjoyed A Date for Mad Mary, a coming-of-age drama about a misfit who is trying to fit in. Very well-acted, especially Seána Kerslake as Mary. It’s a touching drama loaded with salty oneliners.

Nostalgia

Wri/Dir: Mark Pellington

Daniel (John Ortiz) is a reserved, middle aged man who works for an insurance firm. He helps asses the monetary value of possessions, so clients can decide what’s valuable to them. This can range from a lifetime of accumulated detritus, to a single possession. Helen (Ellen Burstyn) for example only has a few pieces of jewelry and an autographed baseball she grabbed as her entire house burnt to the ground. Brother-and-sister Donna and Will (Catherine Keener and Jon Hamm) are forced to look through endless boxes in their late parents’ attic to decide what to keep and what to give away. These are just a few of the stories in a loosely-linked chain of vignettes about possessions and keepsakes.

Nostalgia is a nicely-photographed film with a stellar cast whose characters segue from scene to unrelated scene. The problem is the movie has no plot, the stories don’t follow any particular order, and the only thing that connects them all is the theme. Worse than that, a third of the movie is taken up by characters weeping, a third with them bitterly sniping at one other, and a third pondering the meaning of life in painfully drawn-out voiceovers.

This is like a Hallmark movie if they only printed the kind of cards you give to people at funerals.

Ugh. Avoid this movie at all costs.

Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia

Ulrike Ottinger is a lesser-known German filmmaker who emerged in the 1970s alongside Von Trotta, Herzog and Fassbinder. Born by the Alpen city of Lake Constance, she studied art in Paris around the time of the riots of 1968. She ran a bar in her home town, a welcome place for men with long hair and women who smoke cigars. She started as a visual artist before deciding on film as her ideal medium.

By the early 1970s she moved to Berlin, establishing herself as a lesbian feminist director, pioneering avante-garde film. Her work was highly stylized, combining over-the-top expressionistic acting with a pop-art aesthetic. Full of bright blues and reds, Ottinger incorporated medieval motifs, bare-breasted Wagnerian women, leaping pigs and crashing waves. Her interests range from food preparation to textiles, her characters from luxurious femininity to militant and radical feminists. And keeping true to her avant garde roots, she eschews strictly linear narratives, choosing instead the more realistic “meandering” style.

One running theme is her reverent and deferential view of the foreign, especially of East Asia. These films in particular — plus a biographical documentary about her life’s work, called Nomad from the Lake (directed by Brigitte Kramer) — are being shown as a mini-retrospective by Toronto Goethe Institute. This includes Under Snow, a combination kabuki-style drama and documentary. It shows life in Japan’s snow country around New Year’s day at a hot spring onsen. From there it takes viewers to Sado island, a land of exile, seemingly populated by clockwork automatons working in the gold mines. In Exile Shanghai she looks at Jewish refugees who fled Nazi Germany to that Chinese city in the 1930s and 40s. And Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia about European women encountering that country.

Ottinger’s unique and often-imitated style of filmmaking gives viewers an aesthetically pleasing look at the odd, freakish and mysterious.

Nostalgia opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. A Date for Mad Mary is tonight’s opening film at TIRFF, the Toronto Irish Film Festival; and the mini-retrospective Goethe Films: Ulrike Ottinger in Asia is also playing now. Both festivals are screening 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.

Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas. Films reviewed: Something in the Air, Cold Water, Late August, Early September

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, Drama, Experimental Film, France, Politics, Protest, Romance by CulturalMining.com on June 23, 2017

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

Olivier Assayas is a leading French filmmaker in mid-career whose current work is some of his best. He was born in 1955 and came of age amidst the violent uprisings of 1968.  Assayas is a devotee of Guy Debord,  whose Situationist International, which combined avant-garde art and architecture with revolution is said to have been instrumental in 1968.

He was born in the business of movie making. His father, Jacques Remy, was a famous screenwriter. I first heard of Assayas in the 1990s, but somehow never saw his movies until recently with Clouds of Sils Maria (review here) and Personal Shopper (review here). Both star Kristen Stewart as a young woman working among ultra-rich celebrities. In these films the characters are introspective and detached, more apt to observe events than participate in them.

Now there’s a comprehensive retrospective playing through August that lets you see his lesser-known works. They totally change how I thought of him. This week, I’m looking at three of his movies showing at Something in the Air: The Cinema of Olivier Assayas. Two of them are based on memories of his adolescence and one about family and friends in their forties.

Something in the Air (2012)

It’s the late 1960s/early 70s in France. Gilles (Clément Métayer) is an upper middle class high school student in a town where chickens still peck on the street. His father adapts scripts for Inspector Maigret movies. But Gilles feels more at home on the streets of a Paris, where student protesters are violently clashing with police. Gilles has two passions: Art – he wants to be a painter – and politics — he’s a non-communist leftist, inclined toward anarchism. His third passion used to be a beautiful woman named Laure, also an artist. They would meet in the woods off country roads to smooch and read beat poetry. Until she dumped him.

His teachers want him to read French classics, but Gilles craves direct action. So he and some friends crank out sexy posters on a gestetner, grab some spray paint and set out on a graffiti trip in the middle of the night. But something goes wrong. As they run away they injure a security guard who falls into a coma. Does he know who threw the rock?

Gilles and his friends decide to get the hell out of there, and drive off to Italy in a VW van with a film collective. On the way, he debates China’s Cultural Revolution, and whether films should shock the masses with experimental, new techniques or educate them with “things they’ll understand”.

Meanwhile he smokes hash, and falls for a young woman named Christine but refuses to commit to everlasting love. Will he remain true to his artistic and political ideals? Or follow his father’s profession?

Cold Water (1994)

It’s the late 60s/early 70s in France in a small town outside Paris. Christine and Gilles (Virginie Ledoyen, Cyprien Fouquet) are young lovers both from divorced parents. He comes from an upper-class family with a Hungarian housekeeper and a frustrated dad. Christine lives with her Scientologist mom, her Egyptian soccer playing stepdad. Her birth father owns a corner store. Gilles and Christine hang out and do daring and impulsive things together, like shoplifting from a record store. She makes a commotion and is tackled by security guards while he runs away with the loot. But the scheme falls though. The police get involved and hand Christine to her despised father who immediately commits her to a mental hospital called Beausoleil. Gilles meanwhile is physically thrown out of class by an angry prof. And for some reason Gilles secretely buys ten sticks of dynamite. What is he planning?

Gilles and Christine manage to meet again with friends at an outdoor party by an abandoned house, listening to loud radio music, smoking hash and dancing like Wickerman devotees around a huge bonfire. But can they stay together despite all the forces set against them?

Cold Water and Something in the Air are both semi-autobiographical works about Assayas’s adolescence, but made 20 years apart. I watched them in quick succession which is a mind-blowing experience. The two films have a lot in common. They both feature Gilles and Christine as young runaways but with very different results. In both films Gilles deals with a disapproving school teacher and a disappointed father, which suggests they are based on important events in his life. Bonfires, beat poetry, and period American music also play crucial roles in both films.

Maybe because Assayas is so much older now, Something in the Air can look back at the politics and visual details of the era with a cynical eye. Of the two films, I found Cold Water much more passionate, more gutsy. It’s imbued with a nihilistic punk streak, missing from the later film.

Although called semi-autobiographical, Something in the Air places Gilles and Christine in the student uprisings in Paris in 1968, while in Cold Water they dance to music from 1972. (Born in 1955, Assayas would have been 13 in 1968, 17 in ’72.) I guess that’s where the “semi-” comes from.

Late August, Early September (1998)

Gabriel and Adrien (Mathieu Amalric, François Cluzet) are close friends in their forties in an unequal relationship. Adrien is a famous writer committed to his craft. He once spent his last centime on a small work by Joseph Beuys. But how he’s broke and his star has dimmed. Gabriel works as a literary editor. He idolizes Adrien and everything about him even while he has a clandestine affair with a beautiful but impulsive young woman named Anne (Virginie Ledoyen). He recently broke up with long-time partner Jenny (Jeanne Balibar) who is also close to Adrien. But things take a turn for the worse.

Adrien has cancer and publishers have rejected his latest book. Gabriel, meanwhile, has risen to a high-ranked position at a magazine, high enough that he can hire Adrien to do paid gruntwork. And unknown to most of them, Adrien is having a clandestine, though non-sexual, relationship with a teenaged girl named Vera.

The film follows all of them, as well as a much wider circle of family, friends and ex-partners, each with past loves and unsettled grudges.

Like Assayas’ other movies, this is not a plot-heavy film, it’s a realistic slice of life of Parisian intellectuals. I didn’t immediately love this movie, but it’s the kind of film that gradually grows on you, leaving a lot to think about afterwards.

One remarkable thing: this might be the first movie I’ve ever seen where the biggest shock comes in the closing credits. Vera (Adrien’s much younger girlfriend) is a minor character, but crucial to the plot. The last line in the film, “On verra” (“we’ll see”, a pun on her name), is spoken by Gabriel who interrupts a conversation when he glimpses Vera through a window. Vera is played by none other than Mia Hansen-Løve, who eventually became Assayas’s own much-younger wife. This film was her first appearance on the screen; she is now a well-regarded Danish director.

Late August, Early September, Something in the Air and Cold Water are all playing through August at the Tiff Bell Lightbox in Toronto as part of the Olivier Assayas retrospective. The director appears in person at some screenings; go to tiff.net for details.

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 Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson about their new film The Forbidden Room at #TIFF15

Posted in Art, Canada, comedy, Drama, Dreams, Experimental Film, Fantasy, Horror by CulturalMining.com on October 9, 2015

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

A man in a smoking jacket extolls the joys of a good bath. Three sailors trapped in a submarine look for help, even as an angelic lumberjack finds his way on board in search of the orgies of the clan of the cave bear. Outside, somewhere a volcano is erupting, a butler is murdering and a Evan Johnson, Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room, Interview TIFF15 Daniel Garberghost is returning in a never ending confusion of interlinked stories as complex of chinese boxes. But will our heroes ever reach the mystery of the Forbidden Room?

The Forbidden Room is also the name of a new film the showed at the Toronto International Film Festival. Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin is known for his tales of twisted nostalgia, his eerie retakes of Canadian history, and comical melodramas done in new interpretations of bf10c259-a01f-44d1-b52c-56d713151297archaic styles. He’s one of the few directors that can make an art film that is totally enjoyable and funny. His amazing movies include Tales from the Gimli Hospital, and My Winnipeg. Co-db8a15f3-aa94-4806-ae38-6a8900fca871directed by Evan Johnson this film adds new artistic and editing techniques to bring it to mind-blowing levels of beauteous artistic mayhem, unfathomability and WTF-ness.6bb76640-d39f-4167-9e01-22bef691e86a

I spoke to director Guy Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson at #TIFF15. We talked about: seances to lost cinema, Paris, the Centre Pompidou, the Phi Centre, Quebec, NFB, Louis Negin’s scrotum, Pierre & Gilles, Carl Dreyer, Roy Dupuis, instructional films, John Ashbury’s writing, exploitation movies, editing techniques, Guy Maddin’s mojo, analog vs digital film, Havana, women in skeleton unitards …and more!

The Forbidden Room opens today in Toronto.

Photos of Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson by Jeff Harris. 

Oscar Redux. Movies reviewed: Girlhood, Duke of Burgundy, Elephant Song

Posted in Cultural Mining, Drama, Elephants, Experimental Film, France, Gangs, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on February 27, 2015

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

Do you have the post-Oscar blues? Tired of the same-old, same-old? We’ve got Boyhood, but what about Girlhood? There’s Birdman, but how about an Elephant Song? And how about 50 Shades of Gray… with an all-female cast? This week I’m looking at three new movies, that provide a twist to some you’re more familiar with. I have a coming of age movie from France, an erotic art-house flick from the UK and a psychological drama from Canada.

a8b59ceb4619ab826971f3dcde96647bElephant Song
Dir: Charles Binamé

It’s a Canadian mental hospital in the 1960s. Michael (Xavier Dolan) a patient there is summoned to a therapy session. but his regular doctor isn’t there — he’s missing. In his place is a new face, a certain Dr Green (Bruce Greenwood). He’s read the files and listened to the reel to reel tapes. Now he’s there to set things straight, and has no time for Elephant Song/Melennypsychological games. But games are exactly what Michael loves.

Dr Green is a greenhorn in that office, but Michael knows every nook and cranny. He decides to take the doctor (and the movie’s audience) on a grand tour of his own life, but on his own Elephant Song/Melennyterms. And just outside the office door, always listening, is Miss Peterson, a nurse (Catherine Keener). He reveals his hidden past – he says he’s the son of a famous opera singer who toured the world as a child. Even as he uncovers hidden treasures around the office, which fit together like the missing pieces from a jigsaw puzzle. These include a stuffed animal, a box of treats, and some hidden photographs – that may be related to the doctor’s disappearance.Elephant Song/Melenny

Dr Green is convinced everything Michael says is a lie. He thinks Michael has alterior motives — possibly an escape plan to escape the high security facility. But what about the doctor’s real reason for this question/answer session? And how does Nurse Peterson fit into this puzzle?

Elephant Song is not bad at all. It’s a genuine psychological drama, a chess game between two equal players — sort of like the movie Sleuth, but shot with a soft focus lens. The acting is credible. But the whole film has a slightly clunky, wooden feel to it. It’s like a stage play still in previews that hasn’t yet found its rhythm.

WnmKlv_girlhood_03_o3_8550274_1424455177Girlhood (Bande de Filles)
Wri/Dir: Céline Sciamma

Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a 15-year-old Parisian schoolgirl. She’s shy, neat and conscientious, making sure her younger sisters are fed and put to bed… and careful not to antagonize her abusive older brother. She likes school, and is on the girls’ tackle football team. She keeps her long braids tied back and wears American Apparel jeans and hoodies. She just wants to live a normal life. But everything changes when her guidance counsellor says she’s being channeled to the vocational stream. But why? She wants her bac, she wants a chance at a better life, not cleaning RgwKrK_girlhood_02_MAIN_o3_8550228_1424455174offices like her mom.

It’s like her life is over. Mortified, she runs out of the building, but is called over by some tough girls cutting class outside the school. Lady, Adiatou and Fily (Assa Sylla, Lindsey Karamoh, Marietou Touré) are not like her. They use lots of makeup, have their hair ironed straight, dress in leather jackets, and carry switch blades. They’re a gang of three and want a fourth member to complete their crew. But she’s not like them… is she?

662xyV_girlhood_01_o3_8550183_1424455173Soon enough she’s shaking down girls for cash, going on trips into the city, away from the desolate banlieus. She goes by the name Vic now, short for Victoire. And they get into fist fights with rival girl gangs. The losers are publicly shamed by getting their clothes pulled off in from of a crowd holding up their cameras. The four friends’ rules? Stand up for yourself, don’t let boys push you around, and only do what you want to do, not what others expect of you. But how much of a future does this gang have? Will she fall into organized crime? Drugs or the sex trade?

This is a great coming-of-age story, told from the viewpoint of a young black Parisian woman living in the suburban public highrises. It’s a slice of life drama, not one with easily solved problems. But the cast – all first time actors — is incredible, and the story touching and realistic.

5309faf2-5d03-4414-981b-7e53495d63acThe Duke of Burgundy
Wri/Dir: Peter Strickland

Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is a single woman who lives on an estate somewhere in Europe, surrounded by fields and trees. She has auburn hair, long eyelashes and a severe demeanor. She’s a lepidopterist, and her mansion is filled with items from her collection: thousands of butterflies and moths – including the Duke of Burgundy – all carefully pinned and mounted 81446793-1628-423e-b85d-9d11a95dfbacin glass-covered wooden cases. She’s a perfectionist. Each day she spends her time drawing precise diagrams on white charts and typing her observations using a manual Underwood typewriter. And every so often she ventures outside on her bicycle to give lectures to row after row of smart looking women in smart dresses.

f05dea49-f6b6-4dab-b557-6ff715419284Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) works for her as a maid. She’s late for work and a bit confused about her duties, but Cynthia doesn’t cut her any slack. She scolds her, and warns her to do what she’s told… or suffer the consequences!

But she’s given strange tasks for a cleaning woman, made to crawl around on her hands and knees, while scrubbing the floor. When she asks for a toilet break, Cynthia cruely says no, not until I say you can. Meanwhile she’s polishing Cynthia’s knee-high black leather boots, kneeling on the floor massaging her feet or washing her 5c01d1ab-d84c-4354-ab08-77064e39e976boss’s undergarments… by hand. Though Evelyn always wears a meek and baffled look on her face, she doesn’t seem bothered by her boss’s eccentricities. She almost seems to want to be punished.

What’s going on? And why is Cynthia guzzling glass after glass of water for some unkown future punishment? Soon we discover its all a fantasy — complete with wigs and costumes — a role-playing exercise between two lovers: dominant Cynthia and submissive Evelyn.

And these scenes, down to the tiniest detail are repeated day after day, as almost an exercise in absurdity. These episodes are alternated with love-making in the bedroom at night, discretely shot reflected in convex mirrors, faded triple exposures or shot through tiny peepholes in closed doors.

Is this a parody of 70s soft core porn? Or an homage to it? I’m not sure which, but a director like Peter Strickland would never include footage just for titillation. He’s somewhere between Quentin Tarantino and Peter Greenaway, with a distinctive 70s style. Duke of Burgundy is beautiful to watch and listen to… but it’s clearly not for everyone.

Elephant Song, the Duke of Burgandy, and Girlhood all open today in Toronto – check your local listings. And this weekend lookout for  the Canadian Screen Awards, our own Oscars.

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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