Lost Souls. Films reviewed: Apples, Moloch, Passengers of the Night

Posted in 1980s, Archaeology, comedy, Covid-19, Depression, Disease, Drama, Family, Feminism, France, Ghosts, Greece, Homelessness, Horror, Netherlands, Radio by CulturalMining.com on July 10, 2022

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

It’s Nunavut day, so what better time is there to catch up on Inuit movies. Slash/Back, a brand-new movie about aliens in a small arctic town, is playing right now. The Grizzlies is a feel-good film about a high school lacrosse team. And if you’ve never seen Zacharias Kunuk’s movies — including The Journals of Knud Rasmussen and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner — well… you’d better.

But this week I’m looking at three new European movies — from Greece, the Netherlands and France — about lost souls. There’s a lonely guy in Athens who loses his memory in a pandemic; a divorced mom in Paris who seeks solace in late night talk radio; and a widowed mom in the Netherlands who is haunted by the lost souls… in a peat-moss bog. 

Apples

Wri/Dir: Christos Nikou

Aris (Aris Servetalis) lives by himself in Athens, Greece. One day while going for a walk he forgets where he lives. Also his family, his identity, even his first name. He has acute amnesia, the symptom of a strange pandemic, sweeping across the planet. He’s taken to hospital, with the hope a family member will arrive to identify him. But no one comes. About the only thing he knows is he likes apples. The hospital arranges for him to move into an apartment, where they hope he can regain his memory, or at least achieve some level of self worth and identity.  To achieve this they put him into an experimental program. He’s given a series of mundane tasks, all of which he is expected to record, using a polaroid camera. Ride a bike, go to a movie, attend a party, drink alcohol, meet a new friend. It also includes things like picking up a woman in a bar (he accidentally goes to a strip bar with embarrassing consequences) But during his recovery, while viewing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he encounters another alienated, memory-deficient person.   

Anna (Sofia Georgovasili) is clearly on the same program. Two is better than one, so they begin to see one another, if in a detached, alienated way. But as time progresses, Aris begins to remember things, including sad memories he wants to suppress. Will Anna be his soul mate? Will he ever find his original home? And is there any meaning to his life?

Apples is a satirical look at modern urban alienation in a time of pandemic. Interestingly, this film was completed in 2019 BC, (before Covid). But somehow it captures the mundane, seemingly meaningless medical obsessions, the injections, the tests,  the isolation, loneliness and self-doubt that we all experienced over the past two years.

Writer-director Christos Nikou worked with the now famous Yorgos Lanthimos, on his earliest film, Dogtooth, and like that movie, it’s funny, weird and extremely awkward, with adults behaving like children, and people blindly obeying seemingly nonsensical rules. It takes place in the present day but it’s filled with obsolete gadgets like polaroid cameras, and cassette tape players not a cel phone or a laptop in sight. Aris Servetalis is excellent as the main character, who fits perfectly within the film’s minimalist feel.

I like this one.

Moloch

Co-Wri/Dir: Nico van den Brink

Betriek (Sallie Harmsen) is a woman in her thirties who lives in an isolated home with her parents and her young daughter, in northern Netherlands. Her home is in a forest, surrounded by peat moss bogs. Her daughter goes to public school but Betriek likes the isolation — she thinks her family is cursed so it’s best to keep to herself. Easier said than done. Especially when a strange man appears in her living room! He can’t stop it, he says, they won’t let him! And his voice seems to be an unworldly chorus of a thousand souls. And then he tries to kill them all. Turns out he worked at a nearby archaeological dig, headed by Jonas (Alexandre Willaume) a Danish man.

Peat moss is a natural preservative and they’re digging up mummified bodies from ancient times. And when they examine them, they discover they are all victims of the same sort of ancient ritual sacrifice to some primeval god. By disturbing the graves they may have let loose ancient demons, possessing her friends and family. Meanwhile, her mother is going through another difficult period with her brain — is it related? Her father says they’d better leave the place and never come back. And when Betriek encounters strange visions of a little girl sending her a message, she realizes things are very wrong. Will Jonas ever believe there’s something evil going on? Can Betriek break her family’s curse? Will they fall in love? And together can they fight off an ancient evil god?

Moloch is an excellent Dutch horror movie about life in a remote village built over secrets that never should have been disturbed. It sounds like a simple story, but actually it’s a multi-layered drama. The film even incorporates a school Christmas pageant where small children innocently reenact an ancient pagan tribute even while mayhem is happening outside. The movie’s in Dutch, but because of the multiplicity of languages, much of the dialogue is in English. And remarkable for a horror movie, the cinematography is gorgeous, as warm and grainy as any 70s Hollywood movie. I liked this one, too.

Passengers of the Night

Dir: Mikhaël Hers

It’s the mid-1980s in Paris. Elisabeth (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lives with her two teenaged kids high up in an apartment tower. Her daughter Judith, is outspoken and into politics, while her son Matthias (Quito Rayon- Richter) is more introspective — he gets in trouble for writing poems in history class. The dad, though, is nowhere to be seen. He moved in with his girlfriend and pays no child support. So Elisabeth is forced to search for a job to keep her family afloat.  She finds solace listening to a late-night radio talk show, and applies to work there. She lands a job at the switchboard vetting callers and guests for the host, Vanda (Emmanuelle Béart). She invites a young woman to the show based on a touching letter she wrote. Tallulah (Noée Abita) is 18 but has lived on the streets of Paris for years, sleeping under bridges and in squats. She has raven hair, pale skin and doe eyes. 

Elisabeth can’t stand the thought of her sleeping in the rough, so she invites Tallulah to stay, temporarily, in a spare room tucked away far above their apartment. She wants to keep her separate from her kids, but they soon meet up. She’s street smart, and teaches them how to live on nothing and tricks like how to get into a movie theatre without a ticket. Matthias is smitten by her and longs to take it further. But after a late night tryst, she flees the apartment and disappears, leaving the family shocked and saddened. Four years later, things have changed. The kids are growing up, Elisabeth has gained self-confidence and she has a day job and a much younger boyfriend named Hugo.  But when her ex says he’s selling the home, it’s time for major changes. That’s when Tallulah reappears again at their door in a bad state. Can Elisabeth save Tallulah from her spiral into darkness? And what will the future bring?

Passengers of the Night is a beautiful and heartfelt look at a Parisian family navigating its way through unexpected shifts in their lives, and how a visitor can change everything. The film is set in the 80s (from 1981 through 1988), not just the costumes, music, and Talulah’s big hair but also the tumultuous political and social changes from that era. And it’s punctuated by views of Paris from that era — high-rises, sunsets and views through commuter train windows — shot on a narrower bias, to give it a realistic feel. While more gentle than a sob story, it still brings tears to your eyes.

Passengers of the Night and Apples are both playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. And Moloch is now streaming on Shudder.

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

Witches and Poets. Films reviewed: Benediction, Lux Æterna

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Drama, Feminism, France, LGBT, Movies, Poetry, UK, WWI by CulturalMining.com on May 28, 2022

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

Spring film festival season is in full swing this week in Toronto, with ReelAbilities, Inside-out and the Toronto Arab Film festival all on right now. TAF is a pan-Arab film festival; featuring movies from 19 countries, including dramas, docs, animation and experimental, and it’s on through Sunday. ReelAbilities has films by for and about people from disabled and deaf communities and it’s running through June 10th in a hybrid format. And Inside out, Toronto’s LGBT festival is on now through Sunday June 5th, featuring many world premieres, and presenting at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 

Some of the movies at Inside-out I’m looking forward to seeing include a stunning-looking musical from Rwanda called Neptune Frost, Camilla Comes Out Tonight, an Argentinian coming-of-age drama,  So Damn Easy Going a Scandinavian story of the messy relationships of a young woman with ADHD, and The Divide, about the breakup of a couple in France during the “yellow vest” protests

But this week, I’m looking at two new movies both opening this weekend in Toronto that handle narratives in an experimental way. There’s a film from France about a burning witch, and a biopic from the UK about a war poet. 

Benediction

Wri/Dir: Terrence Davies

Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) is a Lieutenant in the British Army at the western front in WWI, known for his bravery and valour. He’s also famous as a war poet. An aristocrat, he’s a descendent of the Sassoon clan, late of Baghdad, Bombay and Shanghai. But by 1917, he is sickened by the war and the death of his men, so he writes and publishes a formal letter protesting it. Instead of being courtmartialed, he is diagnosed as shell-shocked and sent to a psych ward near Edinborough. There he befriends a young soldier named Wilfred afflicted with night terrors, and together they write poetry for the hospital’s literary magazine, the Hydra.

After the war he joins other writers, musicians and artists around London. One evening, while reciting his dark poetry at a soiree, he meets Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), a hugely famous celebrity whose sentimental songs — like Keep the Homefires Burning  kept up morale during the war. By that evening they are sleeping together with Ivor unceremoniously dumping his previous boyfriend Glen. But while Siegfried is a passionate romantic, Ivor is cold and cruel; he cares more about his looks and career than love or commitment. So after a messy break up, Siegfried has a series of relationships with various bright young aristocrats like Stephen Tennant in the 1920s-30s. But will he ever find true love?

Benediction is an impressionistic biopic about the life of Siegfried Sassoon and his friends and lovers between the two wars. This means he’s as likely to see Edith Sitwell reciting her doggerel as running into Lawrence of Arabia at a wedding rehearsal. But you never forget that this is a Terrence Davies movie, his unique style always apparent. Like singing — whether it’s soldiers breaking into song, actors on a west-end stage or just sitting by a piano at a party. And Sassoon’s own voice recites his poetry over photos of war dead. Flashbacks might fade from one to the next then back again reflecting the thoughts of a character, often with black and white newsreels projected in the background. There’s a lush, dark look to the whole film, in its music, images and sets. The acting — especially Lowden and Irvine but also Calam Lynch as Stephen Tennant and Gemma Jones as his ultimate wife Hester — is terrific all around. (The movie flashes forward to a reclusive and bitter Sassoon (Peter Capaldi) with a wife and adult son in post WWII England.) Benediction is romantic in the classical sense, more like a Wagnerian opera than a rom-com. The script is exquisitely written, with almost every line a bon mot, a witty observation or a cutting insult. Benediction is experimental and idiosyncratic in style but with a deeply moving story.

I really like this film.

Lux Æterna

Wri/Dir: Gaspar Noé 

Béatrice Dalle and Charlotte Gainsbourg (played by themselves)  are two French famous actresses making a film together. Beatrice is trying her hand as director and Charlotte is the star. The film they’re shooting, on set, is a feminist reboot of accused witches being burned at the stake by religious zealots in the manner of the Inquisition. They chat about the meaning of burning witches as a misogynistic crime.  But all is not well. 

The producers of the film, are plotting to get Beatrice fired, so a young man named Tom is ordered to follow her everywhere and record it on film, with the hope of catching an error. Meanwhile, an American actor, Karl (Karl Glusmann) is trying to have a meeting with Charlotte, various models are desperately looking for the proper costumes and hair, and all of the personal assistants are incompetent. Worst of all, though, something is wrong with the lighting system, which begins generating as series of multi-coloured strobe lights, the kind that can induce a tonic-clonic seizure. Can the scene be shot? Or will panic destroy everything before it’s caught on film?

Lux Æterna is simultaneously an experimental piece of art, and a satirical look at the film industry, the Me Too Movement and the backlash that followed it. Gaspar Noe is the enfant terrible of French filmmakers, all of whose films somehow provoke and torture its viewers. In the past it was through extreme violence, horror, drugs or explicit sex. This time, it’s (theoretically) supposed to induce tonic-clonic seizures among epileptic viewers of the film. Why? Because the aura leading up to as seizure is said to be the ultimate psychedelic experience. (Not sure who said it because I can assure you there’s nothing pleasant about having a seizure!) Anyway, about a quarter of the film consists of the gorgeous multicoloured strobe effect projected over the crucified bodies of the witches. Another portion is in the titles themselves (Gaspar Noe is the master of creative titling — no font is accidental in any of his films) with old Roman capitals used to advance the plot. All the characters use their real names, and the shooting takes place on a movie set, just in case you need more meta. 

If you like Gaspar Noe — I love his stuff but it’s certainly not for everybody —  well, Lux Aeterna is his latest artistic experiment. A large part of it resembles Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, beautifully done, as if photographed on Calvary. And the strobe light effect is hypnotic though irritating. There’s very little plot or acting involved, with lots of gratuitous nudity, but, hey, it’s only about an hour long. I like everything he does, but this is not a major work, more like him fooling around. If you like art, you might enjoy this experiment, just don’t expect a normal movie. 

Benedction is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and you can see Luxe Aeterna at the Revue Cinema 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

In the shadows. Films reviewed: Hellbender, Cyrano

Posted in 1600s, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, France, Horror, Musical, Supernatural, Swashbuckler by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2022

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

February, always the worst moth of the year, is finally coming to an end, and the theatres are all opening up again. This week, I’m looking at two new movies, a musical and a horror story. There’s a French wordsmith who hides in the shadows, and an American hellbender who never leaves her home.

Hellbender

Wri/Dir:John Adams, Zelda Adams and Toby Poser

Izzy (Zelda Adams) is a typical teenaged girl. She’s 

a vegetarian, wears  hoodies and converse sneakers, and is in a goth rock band called Hellbender (she plays the drums). She lives with her mom  (Toby Poser) in a big wooden house on top of a small mountain surrounded by lush forests and a bubbling brook. So what’s so special about Izzy? She’s never seen or spoken to anyone except her mom since she was five years old. She suffers from a rare disease and outside contact could kill her. 

But one day she wanders to the edge of their property and sees another young woman in a backyard swimming pool.

Amber (Lulu Adams)  who is brash and outspoken, invites Izzy to join her.  Why, Amber wants to know, have they never met before (Izzy says it’s because she’s home schooled.) She returns the next week for a swimming party, where she meets a guy who says her disease doesn’t match her symptoms (he’s a pre-med student). So she won’t die from getting to close. Then he dares her to drink a shot of tequila and swallow the worm — but he puts a live worm into her glass. The results are surprising. Everything starts to blur, voices whisper in her ear, and she’s filled with lust, anger and a strange new power. She wakes up at home, and has lots of questions. 

Her mom apologizes. There is no illness, she says. You’re not in danger, other people are. We are Hellbenders, people with great power. When you ate that worm, you gained power from its fear of death. And the bigger the animal you consume, the more power you have, and the more dangerous you become. That’s why I’ve been keeping you isolated she says. So you can live like a human. But now that she knows who she is, what will become of Izzy?

Hellbender is a cool low-budget supernatural horror movie. It has a very small cast and I think (just going by names) they’re all related and maybe all in the band Hellbender. It has a good “look” to it, too: there are jagged black rocks on the mountainside, and nice leafy woods. The trippy, psychedelic dream sequences are short but very well done. One part I didn’t like was the opening sequence — a Salem village-type hanging of a witch — it felt unnecessary, but, other than that, this is a tight mother-daughter, drama that combines horror with a coming-of-age of a young woman discovering her power.

Cyrano

Dir: Joe Wright

It’s 17th century France. Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage) is a decorated soldier, a champion fencer in the King’s guard, as well as an exceptionally eloquent poet. He wows the crowds at a theatrical performance where he takes down the awful lead actor through the use of verbal barbs and comical swordsmanship. There he catches the eye of a woman named Roxanne (Haley Bennet). She’s a beautiful aristocrat but also a penniless orphan, destined to marry an aristocrat. They get to know each other and she comes to adore and admires him. Likewise, Cyrano swears he’ll be her lifelong protector. He’s actually in love with her…but never expresses that love because of his appearance. You see, he is a little person. And he is resigned to failure when she tells him she’s in love, but not with him, with a handsome, but inarticulate musketeer named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr). Cyrano is forced to support Roxanne by helping his rival, to the extent where he expresses his love for her in letters that are sent by Christian.  Later he even hides in the shadows feeding lines to Christian wooing Roxanne on her balcony. Will she ever discover his true love for her? And that the love letters are from Cyrano, not Christian? Can she escape the wicked aristocrat she is meant to marry? And who will survive the coming wars?

Cyrano is a new musical version of the classic French play. In the original, Cyrano has such a big nose that he thinks his true love will never desire him. This time it’s that he’s too short. Does this new version work? Sadly no. Dinklage was fantastic in Game of Thrones and various movies; and Kelvin Harrison Jr is one of the best young actors around (in movies like Waves, Luce, and It Comes at Night). But this is a musical, and there’s an old theatrical term called a “triple threat” — an actor who can also sing and dance. Dinklage and Harrison are single threats. Great actors but not so great as singers and dancers. (Haley Bennet as Roxanne does have a good voice) And the music is terrible. Fans of the band The National might like these songs but I found them tedious, repetitive, and totally uninspiring. Not a catchy tune anywhere. The dance scenes have the lead characters standing still surrounded by weirdly dressed dancers who twist all around them, so you don’t notice. The sad parts aren’t really sad, the funny parts aren’t  that funny, and the story is so famous that there are no surprises anywhere. It’s based on an earlier stage version but they didn’t do much to make it cinematic — it was almost like watching a filmed play. I wanted it to be good, but sad to say, this Cyrano sucked.

Cyrano opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend; check your local listings. Hellbender is currently streaming on Shudder.

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

Troubles. Films reviewed: Vicious Fun, Inbetween Girl, Belfast

Posted in 1960s, 1980s, Canada, Comics, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Feminism, High School, Horror, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Secrets, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 13, 2021

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

Fall Film Festival Season continues in November. ReelAsian is on now, and Blood in the Snow (aka “BITS”) with new made-in-Canada horror movies — both features and shorts —  showing on the big screen at Toronto’s beautiful Royal Cinema starting next week.

So this week I’m looking at three movies showing at Toronto film festivals. There’s an 8-year-old boy in Belfast at the start of the Troubles, a high school girl in Texas who learns having secret boyfriend can lead to trouble, and a film critic in Minnesota whose 12-step self-help group turns out to be nothing but very big trouble.

Vicious Fun

Wri/Dir: Cody Calahan

It’s the 1980s in Minnesota.

Joel (Evan Marsh) is a film critic who writes reviews for a horror movie fanzine. He’s a real devotee of slasher pics and is well versed on all the details. He lives with his apartment-mate Sarah, who he has a huge crush on. So he doesn’t like her new douchey boyfriend, Bob, at all. So he follows him to an isolated Chinese restaurant and bar where he tries to entrap him using hidden mic as the unfaithful boyfriend he thinks Bob is. But he ends  drunk as a skunk and passed out in the restaurant bathroom. He wakes up a few hours later to the voice if a motivational speaker coming from the next room. He wanders into a sort of a self-help group, a twelve step… but for whom? He takes his place in the circle and the confessions begin. Turns out they’re not alcoholics, they’re all serial killers! The worst in the world! Carrie (Amber Goldfarb) slices and dices men. Fritz (Julian Richings) enjoys paralysing victims with a hypodermic then torments them dressed as a clown. Mike, a bearded giant in a iron mask (former pro wrestler Robert Maillet) chops up coeds while having sex with them. Hideo (Sean Baek) is sushi chef-slash-cannibal who uses Ninja like skills to trap his prey. Zachary is the group leader (David Koechner) who looks like a used car salesman but had killed more than any of the others — there’s a sort of a competition going on. So Poor Joel — who they think is new serial killer who didn’t show up to this first meeting — has to squirm his way out of it. But his cover is blown when guess who arrives late? It’s Bob (Ari Millen) the douchey sociopath he met earlier! 

The group turns into a mad orgy of killing and violence once they discover his deception. But luckily, Carrie, for reasons all her own, decides to protect him from the other serial killers. What’s her secret? Can they escape these ruthless deranged serial killers? And can Joel warn Sarah in time to protect her from the evil Bob? 

Vicious Fun is a comedy  horror movie about a horror movie enthusiast who discovers it’s not as much fun in real life. It’s full of lots of blood and gore, as expected, but also a heavy dose of retro-80s camp, from moustachioed cops, to vintage drive in, pay phones and a seedy bar. The characters are all played to the max with the appropriate excess a group of weird serial killers demands, with Marsh as the fish-out-of-water film critic and Goldfarb as the killer with a heart off gold — as well as Millen as arrogant evil incarnate, are especially good. 

Vicious Fun (just like the title says) is a very entertaining, low-budget, over-the-top movie with a clever premise that carries it through to the very end. It’s funny, bloody, and bloody funny.

I like this one a lot.

(I interviewed Cody in 2013.)

Inbetween Girl

Wri/Dir: Mei Makino

Angie Chen (Emma Galbraith) is a high school girl at St Michael’s a posh private school in Texas.  It’s also very white. But as a mixed race kid (white Mom, Chinese dad) she feels both self-conscious and ignored. So she’s surprised that Liam (William Magnuson) the most popular guy in the school says he likes her. He drives her home everyday, and later climbs through her window to spend time with her. They hang out, make out, have sex, and share their thoughts in addition to an occasional joint. So what’s the problem? He’s dating Sheryl (Emily Garrett), an equally popular girl, who has millions of followers on Instagram. She’s an influencer. So Liam keeps their relationship a secret. Sheryl’s too fragile, he says, not a battleship like you. if she finds it out it could kill her. (I’m a Battleship? Angie wonders.) She goes along with Liam’s game but doesn’t quite get it. 

Meanwhile, there’s trouble at home. She’s disconnected from her recently divorced parents.  Mom’s always busy with work and dad has a new family, including a daughter who speaks Chinese. What’s the point of it all? But when she is assigned a school project with Sheryl, Liam’s girlfriend, Angie realizes it can’t go on like this. They’re in love… how can they keep it a secret? Will Liam choose her over Cheryl? Does Angie even want him anymore? And what will Sheryl do if she finds out the truth?

Inbetween Girl is a delightful and quirky coming-of-age story. Though the plot seems run-of-the-mill, it’s told through Angie’s art (she loves drawing comics and taking analog photos) her video monologues along with the normal story. It covers family relationships, first love and deceit, along with questions of cultural identity she has no control over. It has lots of picturesque settings in and around Galveston, giving it a view of modern cosmopolitan Texas you don’t always see. 

I like this movie.

Belfast 

Wri/Dir: Kenneth Branagh

It’s Belfast in the last 1960s. Buddy (Jude Hill) is a little boy who lives with his brother Will, his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and his grandparents, Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). His Pa (Jamie Dornan) is off in England somewhere earning a living as a joiner. He can only come home every couple weeks. Buddy misses him but spends his time studying at the Grove Park elementary school. While the classrooms never change, the seating arrangements do, where kids with the top marks move to the front each week. That’s his main motivation to study — so he can be bumped up beside the girl he wants to meet.

But things take a turn for the worse. Barricades appear on street corners patrolled by the military, while paramilitary thugs throw rocks through windows to get the Catholics to move out of their street. Buddy’s family is Protestant but he can’t tell the difference among his friends and neighbours. And as violence and intimidation increases, so does the push to join Pa in England till the Troubles are over. 

Money troubles, taxes, Pop’s illness and the friction between Ma and Pa all threaten the family. Will they stick by their beloved Belfast and the little street they’ve lived on for so long? Or will they be forced to move to England till the Troubles blow away?

Belfast is a touching look at life in Belfast during the Troubles as seen through the eyes of a small boy. Well-known actor/director Kenneth Branagh grew up there, and presumably it’s based on his memories. As such, there’s a misty-eyed sentimentality to much of the film, as would any adult thinking back to his childhood. It’s nicely shot in black and white, and the acting is generally good, though the characters seem straight out of central casting — no big creative leaps here. The best parts are the unusual and realistic childhood memories that are totally separate from the Troubles. Things like kid gangs and shoplifting happening simultaneously with the looting, intimidation and riots. But there’s also a disjointed feel to the film itself. Van Morisson’s music is great but it doesn’t fit the mood. And there’s a strange music video inserted into the movie, for no apparent reason other than providing footage for a trailer. Gimmicks — like having people filmed in black and white watching a movie in colour — are just embarrassing.  Even so, there are enough surprising plot turns and beautiful images that linger after the movie. While flawed, Belfast is still a touching, bittersweet look at one boy’s childhood in an historical moment.

Vicious Fun is the opening film at B.I.T.S., the Blood in the Snow Film Festival; In-between Girl is now screening at ReelAsianfilm Festival, and Belfast — which won the people’s choice award at TIFF this year, opens this weekend in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Films to look out for at #TIFF21 + Titane!

Posted in Disabilities, Disguise, Feminism, Fetish, Horror, Thriller, Torture, Trans by CulturalMining.com on September 11, 2021

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

TIFF has just started, in a half digital, half in-person sort of way, and it looks like it’ll be fun… kinda. There are screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Roy Thomson Hall, Scotibank Theatre, the Princess of Wales and at Cinesphere at Ontario Place, along with various drive-ins. And for those who fear the virus, you can watch it at home… but the selection is not identical. Some filmmakers don’t want their films premiering on your TV or phone.

Seats are all reserved, so no need to line up. And thinking of munching popcorn? Think again. Nothing will come between you and your mask, even during the movies. Scotiabank Theatre has even issued a diktat that they may be searching your bags — not for firearms, but for cameras and potential munchies. They even issued restrictions on the size of shoulder bags, purses or knapsacks!

This is serious stuff, people.

Because of press embargoes at the time I’m recording it, I can only review one non-embargoed film — a story of a woman who is really into cars. But I can also tell you, for your edification — not reviewing, just telling — about some of the movies coming to the festival that I think look good or interesting.

Here are some of the movies I’m looking forward to seeing at TIFF this year:

Saloum

Saloum is a supernatural action thriller set in West Africa. It’s about about a small team of mercenaries known as the hyenas who escape from a coup d’etat in Guinea Bissau only to land their prop plane in a remote part of Senegal only to encounter supernatural dangers. It’s written and directed by Jean Luc Herbulot and comes out of Lacme studios in an innovative outfit based in Dakar. and it’s having its premiere next week as part of Midnight Madness.

Benediction

Benediction is biopic about Siegfried Sassoon, an aristocrat celebrated for his poems about WWII. I think the movie delves into his personal life, including his lovers. And it’s written and directed by the great Terence Davies — that’s the main reason I want to see it. He has an amazing style of filmmaking like no one else.

Attica

Attica is a documentary feature about the notorious prison in New York State, and the uprising there 50 years ago, where dozens of inmates and guards are killed. I want to see this both for the topic, also for the director. It’s made by Stanley Nelson, who has documented crucial parts of American history, including the civil rights movement, the black panthers, and many others His docs are always great.

Alanis Obomsawin

And speaking of great documentary filmmakers, they’re celebrating Alanis Obomsawin this year and playing many of her films at the festival. If you’re a regular listener of this show, you’ve probably heard some of my many interviews with her over the years — but even if you haven’t, you really should catch some of her films playing at TIFF. Working at the National Film Board she’s the one who’s been documenting indigenous history from the inside, since the 1960s.

Dune

I don’t believe I can call any movie a guilty pleasure, but I am actually mildly excited by Dune. It could be dreadful or it could actually be good. I’m sure you’ve heard of it —it’s based on Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel about a royal family on a sand-covered planet. It’s directed by Denis Villeneuve and it stars Timothee Chalamet… I dunno, could be good, could be terrible.

There are so many other movies I’m l’m hoping to see.
There are adaptations of Canadian novels like Maria Chapdelaine and All My Puny Sorrows based on Miriam Toews’ book. And international directors like Norway’s Joachim Trier called The Worst Person in The World; and Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s film set during the Cultural Revolution, called One Second.

Anyway, despite what some people are saying, there are a lot of great — or potentially great — movies out there, and many have tickets still on sale.

Titane
Wri/Dir: Julia Ducournau

The south of France 20 years ago. Alexia, a bratty little girl who doesn’t wear her seatbelt, is in a terrible car accident. She recovers from brain surgery but is left with a prominent scar on one side of her head covered with a titanium plate. Many years later (Agathe Rousselle) she’s as foul tempered as ever, but now is tall, lean and long limbed with blonde hair. She’s a successful model who specializes in car and boat shows — the type of model who wears skimpy revealing clothing as they pose beside and caress in a the vehicles on display. She has many devoted fans but refuses to sign autographs. And she has a sharp metal knitting needle always tucked in her hair.

For unexplained reasons, but maybe because of the childhood car wreck, she is infatuated by cars. I mean really infatuated, She finally fulfills her fantasies by literally having sex with a Cadillac. They don’t show it, but it’s clear from the bouncing fender and flashing headlights that the caddy is as much into her as as she is into it. But something changes after that, and she starts killing people with her knitting needle. First a rabid fam, and later every other human at a beachside sex orgy. Soon the police are tracking her and she has to get away. At a train station she spots a poster for a little boy named Adrien who disappeared more than a decade earlier and presumed dead. Thinking fast, she hides in a \washroom, smashes her nose flat, dyes her hair brown and cuts it short, and uses cloth tape to flatten her breasts. Now she resemble what the poster boy Adrien might look like today. Sure enough, the dead boy’s dad Vincent (Vincent Lindon) says he’d recognize his son anywhere. He drives her home and puts her to bed in the boys room kept intact since he disappeared. But that’s not all.

Vincent, her new dad, is a super macho guy who lifts weights and injects steroids into his bum. He’s the dictatorial head of an all-male fire station. And Adrien/alexia’s room is inside the firestation. So suddenly she’s trapped in the form of a man in an intensely homoerotic workplace where the men all drink beer and rub against each other to disco music. And… she’s pregnant, and the most likely father is the cadillac. Will Vincent discover she’s not his kidnapped son? Will she ever get out of there alive? Or has she finally found her home?

Titane is a stylized, and surreal, totally off-the-wall fantasy, seen through the eyes of an involuntary transgendered anti-hero who has sex with machines. It’s also about the deluded Vincent who will do practically anything to protect his only family member. It plays with concepts of gender, sexuality, self-identity and family. Lots of gratuitous extreme violence, nudity, and weird, weird sex — this movie is not for the squeamish or the sensitive. Agathe Rouselle and Vincent Lindon are both amazing in their roles. I think this movie is strange but brilliant. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, only the second film directed by a woman to win that. Great movie.

Titane and the other movies I mentioned are all playing at TIFF. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

Weird. Films reviewed: Rare Beasts, The Night House, Cryptozoo

Posted in 1960s, Animals, Animation, comedy, Feminism, Ghosts, Horror, Mysticism, Pop Art, UK by CulturalMining.com on August 21, 2021

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

Are you getting tired of the same old thing? Have you watched all the conventional stuff you can handle for one summer? Well, fear not, faithful listeners, there are really unconventional and unexpected movies out there, you just have to know where to look. This week I’m talking about three weird films, a ghost story, a love story and an uncategorizable animated picture. There’s a schoolteacher who thinks her house is haunted, a single mom in London dating a rare beast, and a zoo filled with mythical creatures.

Rare Beasts

Wri/Dir: Billie Piper

Mandy (Billie Piper) is a millennial writer who works at a TV production company in London. She’s clever and pretty with ginger hair and a toothy grin. Mandy is partial to bright colours and leopard-skin patterns. She still lives with her Mom and Dad (Kerry Fox, David Thewlis) and her 7-year old-son, Larch (Toby Woolf).  Larch is a lovable handful — he suffers from tics and is prone to screaming at the top of his lungs and rolling around on the floor when he doesn’t get his way. And despite her beauty and sharp, sarcastic wit, Mandy has yet to find a suitable mate. She’s currently dating a workmate named Pete. He’s a conservative dresser with wispy blond hair and a caterpillar moustache. He says he hates kids. Mandy’s own parents are a piece of work, with Dad constantly dashing off to Thailand for a bit of fun, while Mom is dying of cancer. But Pete’s family is even stranger — deeply religious, frequently praying, and getting into shouting matches over nothing. Then there’s work. Her douchey boss is lecherous, sexist and not so bright. Despite all this, Mandy and Pete are giving it a go. He hits it off with Larch, and Mandy makes friends with some of his family members. Do opposites attract? Or is she better off single?

Rare Beasts is a clever comedy about life as a single woman in the big city. It stars Billie Piper who is also the writer-director. She’s great. It’s a well-written script — almost too well-written. Every character is quirky, every line is witty, but for a comedy it isn’t all that funny. It inspires nodding chuckles but few genuine laughs. The movie is highly stylized, where a serious scene can shift into a fantastical, dance-like performances for no apparent reason. That said, the central characters are appealing and it’s an amusing story.

So if you want to see an unromantic Rom-Com that is never dumbed down, and told from a woman’s perspective, you’ll probably like Rare Beasts.

The Night House

Dir: David Bruckner

Beth (Rebecca Hall) is a high school English teacher in upstate New York. She has lived with her loving husband Owen, an architect, in a beautiful lakeside house he designed. It’s full of grass and wood, with built-in bookshelves and workshops, and splendid views of the water. Then tragedy strikes. Seemingly for no reason, Owen commits suicide one night aboard a row boat on the lake.  Beth is devastated. Her best friend and fellow-teacher Claire (Sarah Goldberg) offers a shoulder to cry on and her elderly neighbour Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) gives some much-needed advice. All alone in her house, she starts having terrifying nightmares, combines with sleepwalking, waking up in strange places each morning. The dreams seem to be completely real. And she feels there is someone watching her… has own come back?

And as she sorts through his possessions, she comes across some things that just don’t make sense. On his computer and phone she finds photos of women who look almost exactly like her… but aren’t her. And in his architectural drawings, there are plans to build a house on the other side of the pond, that is a mirror image of the one they live in. Was Owen insane… or did he know something? Will he come back to help her? Or is something sinister coming by each night?

The Night House is a very scary ghost story about a haunted house. It takes an entirely new approach to the idea of ghosts possession and parallel universes, and is full of strange Celtic images and paranormal dreams. The special effects are amazingly rendered. British actress Rebecca Hall is superb as Beth, which is crucial because the entire movie is seen from her point of view. You should watch this film in a theatre beside someone you know, but never all alone, at home, late at night!

Cryptozoo

Wri/Dir:  Dash Shaw

It’s the late 1960s. Crystal and Matt are a pair of flower children wandering through the woods. After making love beneath the stars, they climb a fence to see what’s on the other side. And what they find is unbelievable… a unicorn! Sadly it gores Matt to death with its single horn. Crystal has wandered into a crypto zoo, still under construction, a place where mythical creatures (known as “cryptids”) can gather in peace. There are ancient Greek animals like the Minotaur,  magical humanoids, and terrifying monsters like the Kraken. The park was started by Joan, a grey haired woman who has a carnal lust for cryptids. Her lover is a semi-human. Her first commander is Lauren, an army brat who grew up in Okinawa. She’s an expert at capturing cryptids and transporting them to safety. She’s assisted by Phoebe, a gorgon with snakes for hair and eyes that can turn anyone to stone. But Phoebe wants to pass as human and have a normal life, so she keeps her powers under wraps using contact lenses and a wig.  Joan is building a theme park to normalize Cryptids among the public, and also to generate income to keep the place running. But they face terrible opponents — private bounty-hunters like the demi-god Gustav, a pervy player of pan pipes; and the US military who want to disect these creatures to make powerful weapons. Can these three brave women keep the cryptids safe? Or is it doomed from the start, a Jurassic Park for fictional beasts?

Cryptozoo is a brilliant animated arthouse feature brimming with gratuitous sex and violence. I loved Dash Shaw’s first movie, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, and this one goes even further.

It has tarot card mysticism and Japanese mythology alternating with cheap-ass amusement parks and secretive orgies.  Images are hand-drawn or painted in a variety of genres, and animated in an endearing, old-school jerky style. It’s a perfect blend of ancient fantasy and adolescent humour.  There’s a wonderful soundtrack by John Caroll Kirby, and the voices feature actors like Lake Bell and Michael Cera.

If you like base humour mixed with exquisite home-made art and indie music, don’t miss Cryptozoo!

Look for Cryptozoo on VOD and digital formats., including the digital TIFF bell Lightbox;  Rare Beasts and The Night House open theatrically in Toronto this weekend — check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Tracey Deer about Beans

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

It’s the summer of 1990.

Tekehentahkhwa or “Beans” for short (Kiawentiio) is a typical, innocent 12-year-old girl who lives near Montréal with her Dad, her ambitious mom, and her little sister. Her biggest worry is getting into a posh private school to guarantee a successful future. But her life is totally changed when the town of Oka tries to grab Mohawk burial grounds to expand a golf course. Protests erupt and her family, being Mohawk, joins in. But when it turns into a blockade and a stand off involving police and the military, it reveals acts of violence and virulent racism she has never witnessed before. Now she has to make a decision: should she toughen up like her dad? Or keep to the straight and narrow like her mom? And how will she emerge from these life-shattering events?

Beans is a fantastic new drama – told from an indigenous point of view – that combines the historical record with a highly personal and intimate coming-of-age story. Since it premiered at TIFF last fall, it has garnered dozens of awards for filmmaker, Tracey Deer who has created a work of personal and national importance.

I spoke with Tracey Deer via Zoom.

Beans is now playing in Toronto and all across Canada, from Victoria to Halifax.  

Pigs. Films reviewed: Alice, Gunda, Pig

Posted in Animals, documentary, Drama, Feminism, Food, France, Russia, Sex Trade, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 17, 2021

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

Pigs.

In ancient Greece they were considered monsters — Theseus defeats a sow that terrorizes a village. They’re banned by various religions, and considered unclean and selfish. But did you know people keep pigs as pets, and some say they’re more intelligent than dogs?They’re more than just bacon for your eggs, they’re an important part of our culture — think Animal Farm, Miss Piggy, Spirited Away, Charlotte’s Web, and Babe, to name just a few.

So this week, I’m looking at three new movies about pigs, from Russia, the US and France. There’s life as  a pig on a bucolic farm in Europe; a truffle pig  kidnapped in Oregon; and a happily married woman in Paris… who discovers her husband is a pig. 

Alice

Wri/Dir: Josephine Mackerras

Alice Ferrand (Emilie Piponnier) lives the prefect life in Paris. She has a good job, a loving husband François, a writer, (Martin Swabey) and together they own a very nice apartment — she put all her money into the mortgage. Together they are raising their three-year old son Jules. Until one day, out  of the blue, all her credit cards are rejected her bank account is empty, her insurance is cancelled, her husband is nowhere to be seen. What’s going on? Turns out François has been withdrawing money from their join account for more than a year and stopped paying bills. The bank manager says he’s been warning them for six months to make payments or lose their home. But what about me, asks Alice That’s my money in the flat — why didn’t you contact me?

After a bit of sleuthing Alice discovers François spent it all at a high-priced escort service. And when she visits the place undercover, to find out more… she’s offered a job there. And it may be the only way she can come up with the 7,000 euros needed to save her home.  

Alice is a great, unexpected drama about a young woman entering the sex trade, how she takes care of her young son, and the friendship she develops with another escort from New Zealand named Lisa (Chloe Boreham).  It’s funny, quirky and quite moving, including some hilariously awkward encounters with clients. Unusual for movies about sex workers and “fallen woman” this one is about the sense of empowerment Alice gains from her new line of work. The dangers she faces are not from the job itself but from a disapproving, moralistic public and possibly François, who reappears, tail between his legs asking for forgiveness. 

Piponnier is excellent as Alice as she changes from a naive and nervous mom to a woman who sticks up for herself. And Swabey is also great as the self-centred, needy François. 

I like this movie a lot.

Gunda

Co-WriDir: Viktor Kosakovskiy

What’s it like to live as a pig? This black and white documentary follows seven piglets and their mom over the course of their lives, from birth until the end. Squirming in the hay, fighting for their turn at the sow’s nipples, or playing in the fields. The enormous mom takes care of all of them, herding them from place to place with nudges from her snout. We also encounter cows, lying down for a rest, or standing side by side, in sort of a 69, using their tails to whisk flies of each other’s faces. And some majestic chickens jauntily walking around outside of their coop.

This is not an exposé of factory farming; instead it shows the contrast of life in traditional farms and animal sanctuaries. Humans don’t appear on camera, but they react to the camera’s presence staring right at you the viewer. Gunda is 90 minutes long, and not much happens. But it’s not boring… more relaxing than anything else. It’s shot in gorgeous black and white and you can really feel the animals’ emotions. I’m not a vegan or vegetarian, but it did make me think about where my food really comes from. So if you want to lean back and watch life on a farm, Gunda is for you. 

Pig

Co-Wri/Dir:Michael Sarnoski

Rob (Nicholas Cage) is a hermit who lives in a cabin deep in the Oregon woods along with a furry pig. He’s  totally off the grid: no phone, electricity, or running water. He washes and drinks fro a nearby stream, and cooks with a wood-burning stove. And he listens to old cassette tapes on his battery operated boom box. The truffles the pig digs up  provides him enough money to survive. He sells them to Amir (Alex Wolff), a young hot shot who pays cash. Amir is a truffle broker from Portland with an un-ironic moustache who drives to the cabin in a yellow sports car. But Rob’s world is turned upside down when someone knocks him out in the middle of the night, and steals his pig. He orders Amir to drive him into Portland too find the pig-napper. No pig = no truffles, and the end of Amir’s only source. But he has a reputation to uphold. How can he drive to  Portland’s most exclusive restaurants with this filthy, monosyllabic hobo in rags, his face half covered with dried blood, a man who can barely take care of himself?

But it soon becomes clear that this hermit was once well known in the Portland restaurant scene. So famous that the mere mention of his name will open all doors. Who is this mysterious man? Why did he disappear? Who stole his pig?  And how can he get her back again?

Pig is a wonderfully dark, picaresque journey through hidden Portland. It takes you from a secret fight club to wine cellar hidden in a cemetery, to a power-broker’s mansion. It’s told in three chapters, each with a cryptic title referring to a particular dish. Pig is a film about foodies, but it’s not food porn — it rarely dwells on cooking and eating. Nicholas Cage is terrific as this brooding man with deep thoughts who takes every punch but always gets up again, hiding a deeper pain somewhere inside. He always looks like about to explode in violence. And I’ll watch Alex Wolff in anything he does, I’ve never seen a bad performance from him. Pig is intense, surprising and all-around great. 

I recommend this movie.

Alice will be available VOD on Tuesday; Gunda is now playing digitally and on VOD;  and you can see Pig in theatres nationwide (though not yet 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

Movies from Africa! Films reviewed: Dachra, Lift Like a Girl, Running Against the Wind

Posted in Coming of Age, documentary, Drama, Egypt, Ethiopia, Feminism, Horror, photography, Sports, Supernatural, Tunisia, Witches by CulturalMining.com on July 9, 2021

This week, I’m looking at three movies from north and northeast Africa: a horror movie from Tunisia, a documentary from Egypt, and a drama from Ethiopia. We’ve got inner-city weightlifters, a forest full of witches, and two childhood friends… who can’t wait, but don’t know which way to go.

Dachra

Dir: Abdelhamid Bouchnak

Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi) is a journalism student at a university in Tunis. She was raised by her kindly grandfather; ever since her mother left her in his care when she was still a child. At school she hangs out with two friends: the very serious Bilel (Bilel Slatnia) and the  rude, crude and funny Walid (Aziz Jebali), who is always on the lookout for a sexual innuendo. The three team up to complete an assignment due soon: to report on a unique story, one that’s never been covered in the mainstream media before. Bilel is the cameraman, Walid the sound guy, and Yassmine — who is beautiful and likes to take charge — is the reporter. The story they’re chasing? A woman in a mental hospital named Mongia who is rumoured to be a witch. She has attacked medics in the past, and is said to perform supernatural acts. She’s been there ever since she was discovered at a village in the woods with her throat cut but still alive. 

After some bribes and subterfuge, they manage to arrange an interview with her, so they can track down the mysterious village where all the events were said to have taken place. But are these cub reporters biting off more than they can chew?

Dachra is a scary, gory and sometimes disgusting horror movie from Tunisia.  It’s beautifully shot in colour, but so spare it almost seems like black and white at times. It uses little or no CGI special effects — the horror is in the creepy characters and situations. These include an always-laughing little girl, an overly solicitous middle-aged man, and a village populated only by women who don’t seem to speak Arabic or French, and who only eat “meat”. Certain parts are predictable — it’s a variation on the classic Cabin in the Woods-type movie — but it also has enough twists and surprises, both supernatural and earthly, to keep you staring at  (or cringing away from)  the screen. 

Dachra is great classic horror in a brand new setting.

Lift Like a Girl

Zebiba seems like an average 14-year-old girl with glasses and ponytail in Alexandria, Egypt. So what’s so special about her? She’s a competitive weightlifter, training for international competitions. And her coach is the famous Captain Ramadan who brought his own daughter international glory a generation earlier. He’s an exuberant man, exuding enthusiasm with every breath. He’s also a one-man cheerleader, ready to break out in chants, songs and dances for his best lifters. And right now, Zebiba is his prize. She specializes in a three part lift. First bringing up the barbell from a squat, then raising it to her upper chest, then turning her hands around to lift it above her head. Her daily practice takes place in a dusty field surrounded by a fence on a street corner in an industrial section of the city. As a competitor she’s equally concerned about how many kilos she lifts as she is about how many she weighs (which determines whom you’re competing against) so she has to follow a strict diet, complete with fasting. to win. But as she grows older, and her medals add up, something unexpected happens, totally changing the dynamics of her life. Can Zebiba continue as a champion weightlifter… or is the magic gone?

Lift Like a Girl is a verité-style documentary about a young girl training in a traditionally masculine sport. It follows Zebiba over four years as she matures. Coach Ramadan is an unforgettable character, a man who rejects religious piety, external pressure, and traditional gender stereotypes (“if a man can belly dance, why can’t a woman lift weights?” he asks.) Zebiba, on the other hand, rarely speaks. She’s followed as an athlete but we rarely see her home life or innermost thoughts, only what the camera catches in her face. Lift Like a Girl is an informative and occasionally interesting examination of a previously unexplored sport. While it definitely has its moving moments, this doc is best suited for those who find competitive weightlifting a fascinating spectator sport.

Running Against the Wind

Co-Wri/Dir: Jan Philipp Weyl

Abdi and Solomon are two young boys who live in the desert like Gand Abdi area of Ethiopia. They don’t go to school, instead spending their time playing or herding goats. But one day a surprise visitor send both their lives on a new course. Abdi discovers he loves running… and can do it faster than anyone he knows. Solomon discovers what a camera is, and decides to devote his life to taking photos. Within a few tears, Abdi is in training with a coach in Addis Ababa, while Solomon has completely disappeared. In fact he isn’t dead, he has taken up a new life in the capital. His photo dreams quickly fade as he falls in with a crowd of homeless kids who make their living begging, stealing and doing hard labour. 

Years pass and Abdi (Ashenafi Nigusu) is now a celebrity runner appearing on billboards, with more prize money than he can spend. Solomon nicknamed photo (Mikias Wolde) is now living with a girl he met as a child in the gang, and they have a two year old daughter. But they still live hand to mouth in a shanty-town shack. Worse, his friends get him involved in organized crime, leaving him under the sway of a genuine villain. Is Solomon permanently stuck in a life of poverty or can he fulfill his dream? Will Abdi adjust to big city life, forgetting his roots in the countryside? And will the two best friends ever be reunited in Addis Ababa?

Running Against the Wind is an engaging, Dickensian story about friendship and brotherhood. While it has a somewhat boilerplate storyline, there is so much stuff happening it can’t can’t help but be interesting. There are dozens of memorable characters, from Solomon’s ne’er-do-well friend Kiflom who keeps getting him into trouble, to Solomon’s loving partner Genet, Abdi’s hard-ass coach with a heart of gold;  Paul, an Amharic-speaking European-Ethiopian photographer; and an evil, bulging-eyed gangster kingpin who oozes cruelty from every pore. Running Against the Wind is the first Ethiopian movie I’ve ever seen, and I can’t wait to watch more.

Lift Like a Girl and Running Against the Wind may be playing in cinemas in your area — check your local listings — or you can find them on VOD;  Dachra  is opening theatrically in the US, and later on VOD. 

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

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