Journeys to redemption. Films reviewed: Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon, Bullet Train, We Are Living Things 

Posted in Action, Aliens, Amazon, Animation, comedy, Crime, Drama, Fairytales, Indigenous, Japan, Kids, Migrants, Trains by CulturalMining.com on August 13, 2022

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

TIFF is back on track again, after two makeshift years, bringing you the world’s best movies, showing only in theatres. King street will be open for celebrity spotting once again, along with free concerts and other spectacles. And the discount ticket packages are on sale only till Sunday, that’s tomorrow, with individual tickets starting as low as eleven dollars each if you’re 25 or younger.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about desperate journeys toward redemption. There’s one girl on a quest to save her Amazon village; two alienated migrants in America on a search for the truth behind alien abductions; and a half-dozen killers on a bullet train trying to kill all the other killers… before they get killed themselves.

Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon
Dir: Richard Claus, Jose Zelada

It’s present-day in the Kundamo nation of the Amazon. Ainbo is a 12 year old girl who calls herself a legendary hunter but hasn’t quite mastered the bow and arrow. She’s an orphan who lives with her best friend, Zumi, who is next in line for chief. But a dark shadow has fallen on her community, with fish dying and people turning ill. So she sets out on a quest: to talk to the giant mama turtle for direction, discover a powerful weapon, find the source of the poison, and defeat the evil demon Yakaruna.

Fortunately, two odd-looking animals appear beside her to help her on her way. Strangely enough, she can understand everything they say. Dillo and Vaca are her spirit guides but also tricksters, who can only be believed some of the time. Meanwhile, Attak, a mighty hunter, blames the disease on Ainbo, and chases her through the jungle to keep her away. Can Ainbo summon enough inner strength to realize her spiritual goals? Or will her people all die from this mysterious ailment?

Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon is a delightful, high-quality animated kids movie about a 12 year old girl’s attempt to save her people from destruction. Its told in the manner of a classic folktale, but with modern twists: perhaps their problems come from European developers trying to usurp their land. This is clearly aimed for little kids but I found it totally watchable, including a scene with day-glo psychedelia. I like this one.

Bullet Train
Dir: David Leitch

Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is a freelance criminal who carries out complex thefts around the world. But somehow bad things happen to people around him. Dying of poison, falling off rooves — there seems to be no end to the misery all around him. Luckily, his current job, is a piece of cake: board a bullet train in Tokyo, steal a briefcase full of cash, and get off at the next stop before anyone notices. Simple, right?  Not quite.

He doesn’t realize he’s not the only criminal on board. A well-dressed pair of twins, code-named Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry), are professional hitmen and the holders of said briefcase.  Prince (Joey King) is a ruthless and mysterious young woman dressed in a pink, snug-fitting school uniform, with her own agenda. Then there’s Kimura and his dad, both of a yakuza clan, a mysterious killer named The Hornet, and a man named Wolf (Bad Bunny) with vengeance on his mind. And of course the ruler of the underworld himself, White Death. Who will survive this fatal journey?

Bullet Train is a fast-paced, violent action comedy set aboard a Japanese high-speed train. It has a punchy soundtrack and an A-list cast, including Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, with cameos by Michael Shannon and Sandra Bullock. And it’s based on a book by critically-acclaimed Japanese novelist Kôtarô Isaka. Unfortunately, this big budget movie feels like a third-rate Tarantino knock-off. The screenplay is crap, filled with unfunny jokes and two-dimensional caricatures. It feels like the director has never been to Japan or set foot on a bullet train — he doesn’t even know they’re on raised platforms not normal tracks, or that Japanese vending machines never malfunction. Even the sound recording is poor — I couldn’t make out some of the dialogue in the first scene. While not bad enough to put you to sleep, Bullet Train never rises above the mediocre.

We Are Living Things 
Co-Wri/Dir: Antonio Tibaldi

It’s present-day New York, where two immigrants live very different lives. Solomon (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) lives completely off the grid. Born in Mexico, he crossed the Arizona border as a young man in search of his mother. She completely disappeared and Solomon believes she was abducted by aliens. Now he works as a jack-of-all- trades,  good at plumbing, wiring and carpentry. He likes non-digital devices, like metal detectors and industrial dryers and stays away from computers and cel phones.  He rents a hidden space inside a recycling plant, where no one can find him; he’s undocumented and knows how to make himself invisible. His main objective is to listen to aliens — the ones in outer space — through their radio waves, using a complex device made of a satellite dish and a piece of a magnetic meteorite.

Chuyao (Lü Xingchen) works in a mani-pedi salon. She holds a legal ID, its just not hers. She has cut her hair short and changed her name in an attempt to match the ID, but she looks nothing like the photo. It doesn’t matter, says Tiger (Wang Zao), the man who got it for her; white people think we all look the same. Tiger is a sleazy criminal and her de facto boyfriend, but behaves more like her pimp. He makes her attend private parties for rich clients, sometimes just singing karaoke, but often leading to sketchy or even dangerous after-hour meetings. Worse than that, Tiger has implanted a chip in her neck so he always knows exactly where she is. After a chance meeting, where Solomon discovers Chuyao shares his obsession (she was abducted by aliens back in China), he begins to follow her around, a guardian angel to protect her when she’s in trouble.  Eventually they end up fleeing the city together in an attempt to uncover aliens in Arizona… and perhaps discover each other.

We Are Living Things is a bitter-sweet, art-house drama about the lives of two alienated migrants in America, trying to regain their sense of self-worth. It’s filled with dreams and surveillance footage woven into the narrative. And while there is an undercurrent of sci-fi themes, the real dangers they face are the omnipresent police and ICE agents who permeate their lives. The cinematography is strikingly beautiful, capturing Chuyao’s louche glamour, Solomon’s low-tech machinery, and the glory of the American west. And Guerrero and Lü both have cinematic faces that look great on the screen. Strange and impressionistic, this film will stay in your mind long after it’s over.

You can catch We Are Living Things at the Carlton cinema in Toronto; check your local listings. Ainbo opens in theatres this weekend; and Bullet Train is now playing across North America.
 
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com. 

Filming the Impossible. Movies reviewed: Fire of Love, Come Back Anytime, Nope

Posted in 1970s, Cooking, documentary, Food, France, Horror, Japan, Romance, Science by CulturalMining.com on July 23, 2022

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

You know how I’m always talking about big-screen movies, how they show you things that you don’t get on a TV, device or phone? Well, movies don’t just walk to your cinemas, they take a hell of a lot of work to get there. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to get them on the screen. 

So this week I’m looking at three beautiful movies, two of which are about filming the impossible. There’s a ramen chef who reveals his secret recipes; brother-and-sister ranchers who try to take pictures of a UFO; and husband-and-wife scientists who try to film volcanos, up close, as they erupt.

Fire of Love

Dir: Sara Dosa

It’s the early 1960s in France. Katia and Maurice Krafft meet at a scientific conference, and never part. Katia is a petite geochemist with a pixie haircut, while Maurice is a geologist, twice her size, with a face like John C Reilly. The two are so fascinated by volcanoes. That they call themselves Volcanologists. They go to anti-war protests and eventually marry, honeymooning on Santorini island in Greece (an active volcano, naturally). They form a team of two, investigating and recording on film, volcanoes around the world. Dressed in metallic space suits, they measure everything from the arcs that volcanic bombs (large chunks of molten lava) take as they are expelled into the air, to the degree if acid in water pools nearby. And most of all, the volcanoes themselves. Each volcano has a unique personality and should be approached in a different way. But they make one distinction. Red volcanoes are safe if you take precautions. They’re caused by tectonic plates pulling apart, exposing the magma beneath. Molten lava spills out and flows in a clear path, and can be filmed from a relatively close distance. Grey volcanoes, though, are caused by tectonic plates crashing into each other, expel ash into the sky. When they explode, they can be more powerful than an atom bomb, leading to landslides and widespread death and destruction. The power of the earth, the Kraffts say, dwarfs anything mankind can attempt. But they photograph and film it all, providing much of the images of volcanoes the world sees. The Kraffts died in 1991 while following their passion at the eruption of Mt Unzen, a grey volcano in Japan. Their bodies were never found.

Fire of Love is a stunningly beautiful documentary about Katia and Maurice in their search for active volcanoes around the earth. It is illustrated by their own extensive footage, including surprising and breathtaking images from Iceland to Zaire to Krakatau, Indonesia. They went where no one else dared. Wistfully narrated by Miranda July, the film also looks at their long-lasting love affair, devoted to each other and volcanoes. Beautifully illustrated by animated drawings it delves into their private thoughts including Maurice’s fantasy of rowing a canoe down a river of molten lava as it spills into the open sea. You’re probably familiar with the volcanoes in movies and TV shows, but this doc takes you right into the middle of them, like nothing you’ve seen before. Spectacular. 

Come Back Anytime (また いらっしゃい)

Dir: John Daschbach

Over the past decade, ramen has become popular worldwide with dozens of restaurants opening everywhere. It’s considered a classic Japanese dish, but in Japan it’s thought of as Chinese food. Ramen first gained popularity in Yokohama’s Chinatown. It consists of noodles in a hearty broth made of pork or chicken bones — typically flavoured with salt, miso, or soy sauce — and topped with roast pork and vegetables. 

After WWII, it became wildly popular in Japan, with ramen stalls opening on every street corner. This documentary follows Ueda, the chef, along with his wife, of a particular ramen shop. It shows us, season by season, one year of its existence, including a behind the scenes look at what goes into that bowl of ramen you’re probably craving right now. (My mouth started watering about five minutes into the film.)

Come Back Anytime is a very low-key, realistic look at a ramen shop — not one that’s famous or prize-winning, not a chain or a corporation, not one that uses fancy or unique flavours like dried sardines — just an ordinary ramen place. But its devoted clientele — some of whom have been going there for 30 years — would argue that this place is something special. It consists of scenes in the restaurant, up at his farm where he grows vegetables, and interview with customers, family and friends. While nothing remarkable, this gentle, ordinary doc leaves you with a nice warm feeling inside, like after eating a hot bowl of ramen.

Nope

Wri/Dir: Jordan Peele

OJ Haywood and his sister Emerald (Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer) are unsuccessful horse wranglers who live in a huge wooden house on a dry-gulch ranch somewhere in southern California. Em is outgoing, selfish and spontaneous; she loves listening to LPs full blast. OJ is a monosyllabic cowboy, prone to pondering, and is more comfortable with horses than with people. While he’s on the farm taming mustangs, she’s out there trying to get rich and famous in LA.Their dad built up a big business in Hollywood, providing horses for westerns, but they’ve fallen on hard times, especially since Pops died in a freak accident. Now they’re forced to sell their horses, one by one, to Ricky (Steven Yuen) who runs a tacky cowboy theme-park nearby. Ricky is a former child-actor whose hit sitcom was cancelled, years earlier, when his co-star (a chimpanzee) ran amok on set. 

But something else is happening on the ranch. Power turns off spontaneously, metallic objects seem to fly around, and what might be a UFO keeps appearing in the distance. Em thinks they can get rich if they can just capture on film a clear, “Oprah-quality” shot of the UFO. Problem is their security cameras fizzle out whenever the flying saucer appears. So they make a trip to a big box store to buy some better quality equipment. And that’s when they meet Angel (Brandon Perea) a cashier there who is totally into both electronic surveillance and UFOs. He volunteers to help them . But have they bit off more than they can chew?

Nope is a weirdly excellent western / mystery / horror movie with a good amount of humour. It bombards you with shocking, seemingly unrelated events, but eventually they all make sense. While Peele’s previous movies, Get Out and Us, were small, drawing room horror, this one is grand and expansive, with sweeping skies and rolling hills, horseback chases and terrifying attacks from above. Daniel Kaluuya is great as the almost mute cowboy, Keke Palmer hilarious as Em, with Steven Yuen as a slimy actor-turned-entrepreneur and Brandon Perea as an enthusiastic third wheel rounding off a great cast. It has wonderful cinematography and art direction: your eyes are flooded with bright oranges, greens and reds. There’s a bit of social commentary — how blacks were erased from Hollywood westerns, as well as just the general ersatz creepiness of American pop culture;  and there are also the meta aspects — after all, this is a movie about making a movie — but Nope is mainly just entertainment. And that’s what it did. I saw it on an enormous IMAX screen and enjoyed every minute of it. 

Come Back Anytime is now playing at the Toronto Hot Docs cinema; you can see Fire of Love at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Nope opens on IMAX this weekend worldwide; 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

Cults and kidnappers. Films reviewed: The Black Phone, One Summer Story

Posted in Animation, Coming of Age, Death, Horror, Japan, Kidnapping, Magic, Manga, Religion, Suspense, Thriller, 日本电影, 日本映画 by CulturalMining.com on June 25, 2022

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

Spring film festival season continues in Toronto with the Japanese and Jewish film festivals coming to a close, while ICFF — the Italian contemporary film festival — and Lavazza IncluCity are just beginning. The festival features film composer Ennio Morricone, Giuseppe Tornatore (who won an Oscar for Cinema Paradiso), and Allesandro Gassmann, the son of star Vittorio Gassman, and an accomplished actor in his own right. Movies at this festival are being shown both in theatres and outdoors in open air screenings.

This week, I’m looking at two new movies. There’s a thriller-horror about a boy who is kidnapped in 1970s Colorado; and a girl who discovers her biological father was a member of a religious cult in Japan.

The Black Phone

Dir: Scott Derrickson

It’s the late 1970s in Denver, Colorado. Finney (Mason Thames) is a kid in junior high who lives with his sister Gwen (Madeleine McGraw), and their angry and depressed dad, a widower. Finney is into rocket ships and baseball — he’s the pitcher on his team. But he’s bullied at school. Luckily his best friend Robin is always looking out for him.

But all is not well in Denver. Teenagers are disappearing, one by one, with no bodies ever found. But when Robin disappears, he turns to Gwen for help — she has psychic dreams that might tell them where he is. But before they can do anything, Finney finds himself locked in a basement cell, somewhere in the city. theres just a toilet, a mattress, and a barred window way up near the ceiling. And an old black phone mounted on the wall, but with all the wires cut. The guy who kidnapped him — known as the Grabber (Ethan Hawke) — is a freelance magician who always covers his face with hideous masks reflecting changes in his warped psyche.  Before long, Finney is in despair and figures he’s going to be killed soon, just like the other boys before him. Until… the black phone starts to ring! And coming from somewhere is the voice of one of the previous victims, who says he can tell Finney how to escape.

Is this real or just his imagination?  Can the dead really speak? And will Finney ever get out of there?

The Black Phone is a fantastic thriller about a kid vs a deranged serial killer. Though billed as a horror movie,  and there are some very scary scenes here and there, it’s miles ahead above most of the gory schlock passing for horror movies these days.  This one is more about suspense, mystery and adventure than meaningless, gratuitous violence. There is violence, but it fits within the movie. The characters are all well-rounded with complex back stories. There are lots of red herrings to lead you astray, but the whole movie leaves you with a sense of satisfaction, not dread. And it avoids the cheap scares typical of many horror flicks. The film perfectly captures the feel of the 1970s, through the rock soundtrack, costumes and locations. The acting — especially heroes McGraw and Thames, as well as the villains including the creepy killer and the brooding father, and the many school bullies —  is really well done. The Black Phone  is based on a story by Joe Hill, who also wrote the graphic novel the great TV series Locke & Key was based on. He’s an amazing storyteller… who also happens to be Stephen King’s son.  (I mention that because he’s of the same calibre). And writer-director Scott Derickson has done some good stuff himself.

If you don’t want to be scared — stay far away. But if you’re looking for a good chiller-thriller, you’re really gonna like this one.

One Summer Story (Kodomo ha Wakatteagenai)

Dir: Okita Shûichi

It’s present-day Japan. Minami (Kamishiraishi Moka) is a teenaged girl who lives with her Mum, stepfather, and little brother. Backstroke is her thing — she’s on the school swim team. And she’s obsessed with a TV anime series called Koteko, about a Count who is literally a royal sack of cement and his two gloopy sons Concrete and Plaster. One day she’s at a swim practice when she sees something unbelievable on the roof of their school: a boy is painting something on a large easel. could it be true? she runs over to take a look.  A boy is painting a character from her favourite anime series. They hit it iff immediately.

Moji-kun (Chiba Yûdai) comes from a long line of Japanese calligraphers.  But when she visits his home, she sees a paper talisman with the exact writing as one she always carries with her. The words come from an obscure religious cult, a client of Moji’s father. After some investigation, they discover Minami’s birth father is somehow associated with the cult… and perhaps is why she never knew him. So she decides to secretly show up at his door to find out the truth. Will she find out about her missing history? Or is she just opening a can of worms?

One Summer Story is an extremely cute coming-of-age drama about a girl discovering her birth father with unexpected results. Its also about her new friend — and his unusual family — who helps her on her way.

Based on a manga, it also incorporates a non-existent, animated TV show within the story line. Lots of quirky but likeable characters and an unpredictable plot make it a pleasure to watch. And with much of it set at a beachside home or a swimming pool, it gives  off a nice cool energy on a hot summer’s day.

The Black Phone opens this weekend; check your local listings; One Summer Story’s is playing at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival for its Canadian premiere on Sunday, June 26th at 7:00pm, at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

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

Mind Games. Films reviewed: Spiderhead, Chess Story, In the Wake

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

Spring film festival continues through June with Toronto’s Japanese Film Festival and the Toronto Jewish Film Festival showing films for another week.  Also on now is the Future of Film Showcase, Canada’s premiere festival for short films. It also has panels, coffee sessions and workshops, covering everything from casting to funding, from locations to issues like equity.  

This week, I’m looking at three new movies about people forced to play games. There’s a prisoner playing chess in WWII Vienna, another prisoner forced to play mind games in a secretive American facility; and a detective playing cat-and-mouse with a murderer… ten years after an earthquake in Japan.

Spiderhead 

Dir: Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick) 

Jeff (Miles Teller) is an inmate in a remote, high-security prison. Located inside a brutalist cement building on a placid lake, it can only be reached by boat or pontoon prop plane. But inside it’s a virtual paradise. Doors are kept unlocked, prisoners chat on colourful sofas while eating canapés, and are free to pursue their favourite pastimes. They can even become friends  with other prisoners — like Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett). No violence or distrust here; the benevolent warden Steve (Chris Hemsworth) makes sure of that.

So what’s the catch? 

All prisoners are kept placid by a little gadget attached to their bodies, which — through remote control — releases chemical serums directly into their bloodstreams which controls their moods. They are also forced to attend sessions — controlled by Steve and his assistant behind a glass wall — where they test the potency of their pharmaceuticals. Sometimes it’s as simple as making them laugh at deliberately unfunny jokes. Other times they’re placed in the room with a stranger — a female prisoner in Jeff’s case — to see if drugs can make them so thirsty and the other seem so attractive  (like “beer goggles” times 1000) that they can’t help having sex on the spot. But things take a sinister turn when Jeff is taken behind the glass wall and ordered to remotely inject painful drugs into other prisoners’ bodies. Can Jeff resist the psychological and chemical pressures put on him? What is Chris’s motive behind these experiments? And is there anything Jeff can do to stop him?

Spiderhead — the title is the name of the prison — is a sci-fi psychological thriller,  about the dangers of pharmaceuticals and whether we can resist authority if it goes against our beliefs. The film is partly based on the Milgram experiment of the 1960s, where volunteers behind a glass wall were ordered to send increasingly painful electric shocks to actors pretending to be patients. In Spiderhead it’s taken to even greater extremes.

Is this movie good? It’s not too bad — I actually enjoyed it, loved the location and sets (it’s shot in Australia), the cheesy 1980s soundtrack, and the fun concepts, along with some huge movie stars… but the ending is as predictable as it is implausible. The concept is much better than the story. But if you just want be entertained for a couple hours, you could do worse.

Chess Story (Schachnovelle)

Dir: Philipp Stölzl

It’s 1939 in Vienna, and Josef Bartok (Oliver Masucci) is living the high life. He always dressed in formal black and white, and only the finest scotch and the best cigarettes ever pass through his lips. He loves telling jokes with his friends, and waltzing with his beloved wife Anna. As long as the Viennese keep dancing what could go wrong? But that night German soldiers march into Austria declaring Anschluss; it’s all one Reich now. Jacob springs into action, scanning through his ledgers and memorizing the codes before throwing them into a blazing fire. You see, his job is to keep the riches of the Austrian royalty safe from the Nazis in numbered Swiss bank accounts. Hours later he is arrested, but not killed, by the Gestapo and locked in a hotel room. If he tells them the numbers they say they’ll let him go — they just want the money. But solitary confinement can play tricks on your brain. He stays alive by studying a chess book he smuggled into the room.

Later, he is on a ship with Anna heading to America and freedom. But he can’t resist playing chess against Mirko, an unusual world chess champion, who is illiterate and can barely form a sentence. But as reality begins to warp, he can’t help wonder if he’s on a ship or still a captive of the nazis. And where is this chess game really taking place?

Chess Story is an historical drama based on a story by Stefan Zweig, the last thing he wrote. He died during the war, in Brazil not Austria, but clearly he was damaged before he left. Everything you see in this film is filtered through Josef’s mind, so you’re never quite sure what is real and what is imaginary. Oliver Masucci who plays him is excellent, portraying a man’s descent from carefree joker to broken soul. It feels almost like an episode of The Twilight Zone episode, but with the emphasis on the characters, not on the twist. 

In the Wake (Mamorarenakatta mono tachi e)

Dir: Zeze Takahisa

Det. Tomashino (Abe Hiroshi) is a policeman in northeastern Japan. He is investigating the mysterious death of two middle-aged men, both found starved death in different locations. Is there a serial killer out there, and if so, what are his motives? Turns out they both worked out of the local welfare office. He turns to a young welfare case worker Mikiko (Kiyohara Kaya) to help him put the pieces together. This is also the site of a mammoth earthquake and tsunami,  ten years earlier. The detective remember it well, as he lost both his wife and his young son. Now he’s a loner who has yet to deal with his losses. 

Meanwhile, Tone (Satoh Takeru) a troubled young man, just out of prison for arson, gets a job in a welding factory. And he wants to get in touch with his makeshift family former after the earthquake: a little kid, and an elderly woman  named Kei (Baishô Mitsuko) who cared for the two lost orphans. But things have clearly changed. Could they have driven him… to murder?

In The Wake is a Japanese drama set immediately after an earthquake and a decade later. While it’s ostensibly a police procedural, about a detective trying to catch a killer, it’s also a surprisingly powerful and moving drama, that takes it much deeper than your usual mystery. It shifts back and forth between the two periods, as all the major characters were also survivors of the quake. And it delves into the terrible inadequacies of Japan’s  austerity cutbacks to to their already inadequate welfare state. The movie features Abe Hiroshi, a huge star from Kore-eda’s films;  Baishô Mitsuko , who was in movies by  the most famous Japanese Kurosawa and Imamura; and Satoh Takeru best known for the Rurouni Kenshin series. I was expecting something simple, and lucked into a really good movie instead.

Spiderhead is now streaming on Netflix; Chess Story is now playing digitally at TJFF, The Toronto Jewish Film Festival; and In the Wake is playing at the other TJFF, the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, on one day only, June 25th, at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre.

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 Frankie Fenton and IIda Ruishalme about Atomic Hope at #Hotdocs22

Posted in Climate Change, documentary, Environmentalism, Hotdocs, Ireland, Japan, Protest, Science by CulturalMining.com on May 7, 2022

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

Photo by Jeff Harris.

Climate change is at a crisis point: enormous forest fires are breaking out around the world, catastrophic weather events are becoming the norm, polar ice caps are melting at an alarming rate, and sea levels are constantly rising. So any changes that slow down carbon emissions are welcomed by everyone, right? Not necessarily. Nuclear power plants are closing, and climate activists are cheering.

Is anyone supporting the “nuclear option” or is it considered too… radioactive?

A new documentary called Atomic Hope – Inside the Pro-Nuclear Movement just had its world premier at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival. It follows members of the widely unpopular pro-nuclear movement as they challenge current beliefs and promote nuclear energy as a viable option to fossil fuels. The film is made by award-winning Irish Director/producer  Frankie Fenton, and features nuclear advocates like Iida Ruishalme, a Zurich-based, Finnish biomedical researcher, science communicator, and fiction writer.

Atomic Hope had its world premiere at #Hotdocs22.

I spoke with Frankie and IIda on location at the Hotdocs Networking Lounge at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Potential explosions. Films reviewed: House of Gucci, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, Drive My Car

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, Acting, Action, Crime, Family, Fashion, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Theatre, video games, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on November 27, 2021

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

With all the stress in people’s lives these days, movies are a good place to purge personal tensions by watching other people’s explosive disasters. This week I’m looking at three new movies about potential explosions.

There’s a zombie-infested city about to be bombed to oblivion, a Hiroshima theatre festival facing an explosive personal conflict; and a bombshell in Italy who threatens a powerful family.

House of Gucci

Wri/Dir: Ridley Scott

It’s the 1970s in northern Italy. Gucci is a major luxury brand specializing in leather goods. Founded 50 years earlier, it is now in the hands of the second generation. Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons), an ailing but piss-elegant man who surrounds himself with priceless art, works behind the scenes, He is grooming his smart but nerdish son Maurizio (Adam Driver) to take over. But the law school student shows little interest in the company or the family. The other half is headed by Aldo (Al Pacino) a hands-on guy who heads the company’s American branch, and wants to expand into the Asian market. But he considers his hapless son Paolo (Jared Leto) an idiot. Enter Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). She’s an accountant at her dad’s trucking business, but has greater ambitions. She meets Maurizio at a party, when she mistakes him for the bartender, but when she hears the name Gucci, her ears perk up. She wants in. After a few dates it’s true love, but Rodolfo doesn’t want his family name besmirched by a trucker’s daughter (forgetting that his own father who founded the company was not a rich man.) So Maurizzio marries into her family gives up his inheritance, and starts hosing down trucks — the best job he’s ever had, he says. But not for long. Following her TV psychic’s instructions Patricia manipulates and manoeuvres Maurizzio’s family to bring him back into the fold (with her at his side) to claw his way back to the top. And she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants. But can they survive the troubles yet to come?

House of Gucci is a true crime/corporate family drama about the rise and fall of a rich family… which isn’t that interesting on its own. And I can’t stand an entire movie of American actors putting on vaguely foreign euro accents — we’re supposed to imagine them speaking their native Italian — why the awful accents? But that’s not why the movie is so much fun. What makes this movie work are two things. One is the amazing fashion and design of the whole movie. Everyone is constantly dressing up— more dresses and purses and tuxes and jewelry than you can shake a stick at.. Even more than this are all the campy, over-the-top characters, chewing the scenery as each one tries to out-do the others. Effete Jeremy Irons, a dazed Salma Hayek, a wonderful Al Pacino, and best of all, Jared Leto, as the hilarious Paolo. Lady Gaga is OK, but can’t compare to the masterful performers all around her. And Adam Driver is the dull straight man who steps back and lets the others shine. House of Gucci is a very enjoyable feast of high-fashion schlock.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

Wri/Dir: Johannes Roberts

It’s the 1990s, somewhere in the US. Chris and Claire Redfield are an estranged brother and sister.  They grew up in the Racoon City Orphanage, a creepy place filled with weird dolls and strange creatures that appear late at night. It is run by the Umbrella corporation the worlds largest pharmaceutical company. But Claire (Kaya Scodelario) runs away when she sees something terrible, while Chris (Robbie Amell) joins the local police force. But now she’s back… to warn Chris that something terrible is about to happen. A leak at the lab has let loose a horrible epidemic infecting nearly everyone in the town. But rather than getting sick, this virus makes your eyes bleed, your hair fall out and you turn into a flesh eating zombie. Or worse (no spoilers). They have until 6 am to fight off these monsters and escape from this hell-hole, or else they, and the rest of the town will be wiped off the face of the earth. They split up; Chris, and fellow cops Wesker and Valentine (Tom Hopper, Hannah John-Kamen) investigate the Spencer mansion, while Claire, the Police Chief, and Leon, a newby on his first day of work (Avan Jogia) set out from the police station. Will they ever get together? Who will live and who will die? And what secrets do these labs hold?

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is a movie based on a video game, plain and simple. There are some good laughs, and a threadbare plot line, but it’s mainly reenacting the game, from the long dark hallways where zombies run towards you, to the dark and scary Spencer mansion. Even some of the camera angles and pans duplicate the game itself.  But it’s very cool to see on the big screen scary pitch-black scenes lit only by a lighter and the flash of gunfire revealing zombie faces. That said, it’s more eerie than scary, more action than horror. Not bad, but not much to it.

Drive My Car

Dir: Hamaguchi Ryusuke

Kafuku and Oto are a happily married couple in Tokyo. Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an actor and director in theatres, while Oto (Reika Kirishima) is a famous scriptwriter for TV and film. Oto’s ideas come to her at an unexpected time — while they’re having sex. Her bizarre stories are generated in the throws of orgasmic bliss, recited aloud to her husband, so it’s up to him to listen and remind her the next morning of what she said. But everything changes one day when he comes back early from a cancelled flight to Vladivostok. He catches sight of her making love to another, much younger, man in their bedroom. He sneaks away instead of barging in, but before they have a chance to talk about it, she dies of an unexpected cerebral hemorrhage.  

Years later he’s invited to direct a play — Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya — for a festival in Hiroshima. Kafuku’s trademark method is to cast his plays with actors who speak other languages and can’t understand each other. In this one the actors speak Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and even signs language. So they practice under his exacting direction, forced to keep each line perfectly timed. But there’s a twist: the most famous actor in the play is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) a handsome and arrogant star who says he idolizes Kafuku and his late wife Oto. And he’s the one Kafuku thinks he saw having sex with his wife before she died. Meanwhile, in line with the theatre company’s rules, all directors must be driven to and from the theatre each day. So Kafuku gets to know the introverted Misaki (Tôko Miura), a young female driver from Hokkaido with a strange story. But as the production nears its premier date something terrible happens, forcing all the main players to reevaluate their priorities. 

Drive My Car is a beautiful drama about love, loss, jealousy, and guilt. The movie builds slowly in an exacting manner, as the director and the various actors get to know one another. And the excerpts from Uncle Vanya we see as they rehearse exactly mirror the feelings and thoughts of the characters in the movie. That’s not the only story. There’s also Oto’s own stories she told her husband, and the personal confessions from the driver herself about her dark past. The acting is superb, and the panoramic views, ranging from drives on causeways and through tunnels to footage of a vast municipal incinerator, are breathtaking. The film is based on a Murakami story, with all the weird quirky fantasy combined with mundane realism you’d expect from him. Drive My Car is a long movie but one that is deeply, emotionally satisfying.

House of Gucci and Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City are now playing theatrically in Toronto; check your local listings; and Drive My Car has just opened 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.

Point of View. Films reviewed: Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes, Only The Animals, My Missing Valentine 

Posted in France, Japan, Mystery, Romance, Taiwan, Thriller, Time Travel by CulturalMining.com on November 6, 2021

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

A story can change a lot depending on who tells it. This week I’m looking at three new movies — from Japan, Taiwan and France — that retell their stories from different points of view. 

There’s a woman in a French village who disappears in a blizzard; another woman, in Taipei,  who wakes up to find a whole day is missing;  and a guy in Tokyo who finds he can talk to himself on a video monitor… two minutes in the future.

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes (ドロステのはてで僕ら)

Dir: Yamaguchi Junta

It’s closing time in Tokyo. Kato (Tosa Kazunari) is an ordinary young man in his twenties who runs a small cafe and is in an amateur rock band with his friends. He also has a crush on Megumi (Asakura Aki), the woman next door, who he’s never had the nerve to approach. He rents a room upstairs in a 5-storey walk-up. But everything changes when he discovers he’s not alone in his room. Someone is talking to him through his computer screen from the monitor in the cafe downstairs. What’s really weird is he’s the one talking on the screen… but from two minutes in the future.

Huh…? 

He tests this by running back downstairs to the cafe and speaking into the monitor there. Sure enough, it’s him in his bedroom from two minutes in the past. A nifty trick perhaps, but what use is it? Well for one thing, maybe he can finally ask Megumi for a date? Soon his friends from the band drop by and are mesmerized by the phenomenon. They up the ante by bringing the upstairs screen down to the cafe, facing the other monitor. Now, the images are repeated endlessly on both screens; one into the past and the other into future, two minutes at a time, revealing secrets that no one should know.  Like an angry yakuza gangster who appears in the near future wielding a sharp knife. Can they right the wrongs and reset  time? Or have they permanently upset the cosmic space-time continuum?

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes is a brilliantly-made, low-budget sci-fi comedy. It’s almost like a stage play, as the action rarely strays from the apartment and the cafe. It also manages to convey — credibly — the concept of time travel with virtually no special effects.

This movie is a lot of fun.

Only The Animals (Seules les bêtes)

Co-WriDir: Dominik Moll

Alice (Laure Calamy) is a married woman who lives in a tiny mountainous  French hamlet. She makes her rounds along cliffside roads to handle insurance claims for farmers who live there. She lives with her grumpy husband Michel (Denis Menochet) but is having a torrid affair with another farmer, Joseph (Damien Bonnard), a young reclusive farmer on a downward spiral since his mother died. She sees him once a week on her rounds. But everything changes when a rich woman, who lives in a rented stone house with her husband, disappears in a blizzard.

Turns out Evelyne (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) was having a fling with a beautiful young waitress, half her age, she met at a seaside resort.  Marion (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) is in love and follows her to her country home. But now Evelyne is gone. Is she dead or merely missing? And who is responsible — Alice, Michel, Joseph, Marion, or Evelyne herself…? Or perhaps someone else? (There’s a subplot involving a young man (Guy Roger ‘Bibisse’ N’Drin) who runs a catfish scheme out of Côte D’Ivoire.)

Only The Animals is an intriguing and actually quite moving  mysterious drama about a possible murder in a picturesque mountainside village. It’s gripping and shocking, without losing sympathy for any of the characters, no matter how bizarre or tragic some of them are. The mystery is gradually revealed as each scene is retold in chapters, Rashomon-style, from the point of view of each of the main characters. And each retelling reveals more about what happened before and after the scene — even though you’ve watched it already — explaining some of the characters’ seemingly erratic behaviour. This is a very cool look at the dysfunctional lives of a group of French farmers. 

My Missing Valentine (消失的情人節)

Wri/Dir: Chen Yu-Hsun

Yang Hsiao-chi (Patty Lee) is a young woman in her late twenties who leads an uneventful life. Originally from a small town, she works at a boring job in a local post office in Taipei, Taiwan. She sees the same people everyday, like the weirdo who buys one stamp to mail a letter, and an irate middle aged man who complains about everything. Her only friend is a faceless late-night radio host she listens to in her tiny rented room. Until… she meets a handsome prince who promises her the world. Not a prince exactly;  Liu Wen-sen (former HK fashion model and windsurfer Duncan Chow) is a dance-aerobics instructor in a local park with a day job in the blockchain industry. He’s rich, kind, generous and modest — raised an orphan he devotes his life to helping needy kids. And he likes Yang Hsiao-chi, who has never had a boyfriend before. Their big date will be on Valenitine’s day, the next day. Is this all too good to be true? Alas, she awakens the next morning to discover her new boyfriend has disappeared, and so has Valentine’s day: it’s been completely erased. What is going on?

This is where the second point of view enters the picture. We discover there’s another man who likes Hsiao-chi. Wu Kui-Tai  (Liu Kuan-ting) is  a local bus driver who sees her everyday. And he’s also the guy who stands in her line to buy a single stamp at the post office. And he knows exactly what happened to her during that missing day.

My Missing Valentine is sort of a romantic comedy, a rom-com, but its plot is so off the wall that it actually qualifies as a romantic fantasy or science fiction pic. Throw in a human lizard who lives in Hsiao-chi’s closet and you’ve got one of the weirdest romances you’ve probably ever seen. It’s very cute without being gushy and very entertaining to watch. 

My Missing Valentine and Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes are both playing at the Reel Asain Film Festival, which runs from November 10th-19th; Only The Animals opens this weekend 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

Gangsters and gangstas. Films reviewed: Yakuza Princess, Mogul Mowgli

Posted in Action, Brazil, Crime, Family, Fighting, Islam, Japan, Music, Yakuza by CulturalMining.com on September 4, 2021

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

TIFF starts in less than a week, but it’s a bit different this year. The press is under a total embargo, even for capsule reviews. But I can tell you about some of the changes. Unlike last year which was totally digital, this year they’re showing movies both on the big screen and digitally (at home). They also claim there will be no tickets, no badges, and no line-ups. No line ups? Unless they’ve mastered the art of teleportation, I’m not sure how they’ll get people into theatres without queues… but we shall see.       

This week I’m looking at two new movies — an action thriller and a musical drama. There’s a young woman in Brazil pursued by Japanese gangsters; and a Pakistani-British rapper in London chased by visions in his head.

Yakuza Princess

Co-Wri/Dir:Vicente Amorim

(based on the graphic novel by Danilo Beyruth)

Liberdade is the Japanese-Brazilian section of Sao Paolo, one of the largest communities of ethnic Japanese in the world, outside of Japan.  Akemi (Masumi) is there to improve her Portuguese. She has a part-time job selling LED lighting at a booth in the market working for a strict boss. In her free time, she practices Kendo, a martial art using bamboo swords. She’s devoted to her sensei, who stresses the importance of these lessons. And she loves singing at the local karaoke bar. 

But due to an unexpected turn of events, she meets a strange man with no name (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). He has total amnesia — he doesn’t know who he is ,where he’s from and why he’s there. His face is covered with scars; he recently evaded a police-watch at his hospital bed where the cops wanted to question him about a certain sword, found beside his nearly-lifeless body. He also wants to know about the sword — he recognizes its importance — the only thing he can remember. Akemi has to fight off three aggressive young punks who cat-call her as she performs her song. They stalk her home and threaten and break into her apartment. She fights them off using her latent skills in self-defence, but it’s three-to-one, until the sword-wielding scarface steps in to help. Then a third player enters the picture and joins in the fight. Takeshi (Ihara Tsuyoshi) is a highly ranked member of a powerful Yakuza clan. (The Yakuza refers to organized crime groups and their devoted members who are both powerful but also outcasts  within Japanese society.) He’s in Brazil on a mission: to track down Akemi, the only surviving member of a faction wiped out in a power struggle 20 years earlier when she was just a little girl. She knows nothing about any of this. Which of these two men is her ally… and which one is her killer? Takeshi, the ruthless Yakuza or the scar-faced swordsman with amnesia? And where did his strangely alluring Katana sword come from?

Yakuza Princess, as the title suggests, is an action/thriller about an ordinary young woman who discovers she’s the heiress to a faction of gangsters whose rivals are trying to kill. This is a Brazilian movie, and the script is in three languages English Japanese and Portuguese. It’s also pretty kitschy in its fetishistic version of Japanese culture, filled silent ritual bows and singing swords. But movies like this are allowed to be kitschy — they’re all about the fights: sword fights, fist-fights, jiu jitsu matches, gun battles and chase scenes. All of which are nicely choreographed. Ihara Tsuyoshi is a former stuntman, Masumi is a singer-actress, and Irish actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers has been playing dangerous pretty-boys in TV series and movies for many years. In this one though, his face is so covered in scars and blood he’s barely recognizable (probably so stuntmen can play him in the fight scenes.) Yakuza Princess may be super-cheesy and bloody with a convoluted plot,  but it’s a fun action thriller. With an ending that suggests many more sequels yet to come.

Mogul Mowgli

Dir: Bassam Tariq

Z (Riz Ahmed) is a rising South-Asian English rapper. He just finished a sold-out American tour and he’s flying high, hanging with his American girlfriend Bina and his British manager. And now he’s slated to go on a world tour, as the opening act for a superstar. This is the big break he’s been waiting for. So he decides to spend a week in London’s East End with his family who he hasn’t seen for two years. But nothing has changed.  The new dishwasher is still sitting there in a box. His bedroom is full of the  cassette tapes he rapped to as a teenager. His dad (Alyy Khan) is a failed entrepreneur full of get-rich -quick schemes that never get off the ground. And his mom (Sudha Bhuchar) has her own quirks. When the chilli peppers she chars over a burner gives off no aroma — she says it’s a bad sign. Turns out she’s right. Z is suddenly afflicted by an unidentified ailment. 

Within a day or two his muscles cease to function. He can’t walk, can barely  even stand up. But his world tour is leaving in a couple days! IN the hospital a doctor had worse news. It’s an autoimmune disorder of unknown origin. Luckly there’s a new tincture they can try on him — it just might work. But among many possible side effect is the loss of fertility.  And even worse, his manager wants to replace him own the world tour with an awful rapper wannabe. Suddenly the famous performer is emasculated and immobile, deserted by his friends and depending on his eccentric parents’ superstitions to get through the day. Under the influence of the experimental meds he slips into a twilight zone of dreams, visions and hallucinations. Will he live or will he die? Will his former powers be restored? Can his career and reputation be rescued? And will his self-confidence ever return?

Mogul Mowgli is a brilliant showcase for the great young British actor Riz Ahmed. It’s hilarious surprising, and filled with sharp self-criticism. It chronicles the fall of a famous rapper — Riz Ahmed wrote his own versus — and the loss of face that entails. It also reveals the inner-workings of the London Pakistani  community — at home, in the mosque and in the wider world. And how the children of immigrants navigate their split identities. Everything Z sees and hears makes its way into the versus he’s constantly composing in his head. It’s told in an almost surreal manner, through the inner workings of a possibly dying man’s mind. Z is haunted by a groom whose face is covered with garlands of flowers, while his hospital gown morphs into a sequinned suit.

I really liked this movie. 

Mogul Mowgli and Yakuza Princess are both opening theatrically and/or digitally across Canada 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

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

International Women’s Day! Films reviewed: True Mothers, The World to Come, My Salinger Year

Posted in 1800s, 1990s, Adoption, Family, J.D. Salinger, Japan, LGBT, New York City, Romance, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 5, 2021

Monday is International Women’s Day, so this week I’m looking at three new movies that celebrate women. There’s a woman who encounters her adopted son’s birth mother; an aspiring writer in 1990s Manhattan; and two women in 19th century, upstate New York. 

True Mothers

Wri/Dir: Naomi Kawase

Satoko (Hiromi Nagasaku) is a married professional woman in Western Japan. She and her husband enjoy their kids-free lifestyle — fine dining, travel, and a high-rise luxury condo. But they long for a family of their own, and so far, it isn’t working., despite various medical interventions. Then one day on a talk show they see a woman telling about her organization. It’s called Baby Baton because the infant is passed on like a baton from the birth mother to its new parents. Adoptees have to pass rigorous requirements, including that one parent must quit their job and become a full-time house parent. Unsurprisingly, Satoko takes that role. And they bring home the newborn baby of a 14-year-old junior high girl named Hikari (Aju Makita). That was five years ago. Now they are devoted to their adorable adopted son, Asato. But their world is turned upside down by a knock on the door by a woman who claims to be the boy’s mother. And, she says, she wants him back.

True Mothers is a touching intimate story of two women’s lives. The movie is divided in half, The first part is all about Satoko and her husband and son, the trials and tribulations of raising a child. The second half is about Hikari the birth mother, and her life since giving up the baby. It explores her time on a misty remote island off Hiroshima (at the Baby Baton headquarters), where she spends the final months of her pregnancy, but also the dark turn her life takes afterwards. Naomi Kawase is one of very few female directors in Japan, and as in all her movies, the story is gently told but full of pathos. Well-acted and very moving with lovely cinematography, True Mothers pulls no punches when dealing with the reality of fertility, unplanned pregnancy, and the other side of adoption. 

Very nice movie.

The World to Come

Dir: Mona Fastvold

It’s the 1850s in rural upstate New York. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) is a morose young woman with a stern demeanour and long black hair. She lives in a farmhouse with her husband Dyer (Casey Affleck). They have a flock of sheep, chickens and milk cows. They used to have a little daughter, the light of their lives, but she died before she was five. Since then, it’s been a loveless marriage and the two barely speak to each other, just coasting through life without a purpose. Dyer records financial records in his ledger, while Abigail writes her thoughts and observations in a black-bound diary. But everything changes when they meet their new neighbours who rent a farm over the hill. Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) has ginger hair and fiery eyes, and she swooshes past in elegant gowns. Her husband Finney (Christopher Abbott) has a dark side carrying bitter grudged just waiting to explode. Abigail and Tallie become instant friends, sharing thoughts, sharp observations, secrets. Their husbands notice the change — why are they smiling? Why are they so happy? Could these two friends like each other more than their husbands? 

The World to Come is a passionate and poetic romance, about two women who find love along the harsh frontier. It’s narrated by Abigail’s diary entries and love letters from Jan to July of the same year, and the story is told in a literary style, like the turning pages of a book. But it’s not all talk, it’s a beautifully shot movie full of burnished wood, wrought iron, fireplaces, cotton dresses and candlelight. It’s filmed on location, with harsh winter blizzards and beautiful spring days. And while not explicit, there are sensuous scenes of Abigail and Tallie kissing furtively in dark doorways, or sneaking off into the woods. Very famous cast: Vanessa Kirby plays Princes Margaret in The Crown, and Katherine Waterston is in Fantastic Beasts and Inherent Vice. And the husbands, Christopher Abbot and Casey Affleck, are very well known, as well. While I wasn’t deeply moved by this movie, I did care about what happens to the characters, and the film itself is visually very nice to look at.

My Salinger Year

Wri/Dir: Phillippe Falardeau (Based on the Memoir by Joanna Rackoff) 

It’s the 1990s in Manhattan. Joanna (Margaret Qualley) is a young grad student and aspiring poet, who is visiting the city to experience literary New York. She has a boyfriend back in Berkeley, but in the meantime she’s camping out in her best friend Jenny’s cramped Village apartment. Her “room” is a tiny space in the corner separated by a folding paper screen. And she lands a plumb job; not as a a writer or working for a publisher, but in the office of a venerable agency. The company is headed by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) who looks like a stately Susan Sontag. Margaret’s biggest client is JD Salinger, author of Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey, whom she calls Jerry. He hasn’t published anything since the ’60s, but he’s still wildly popular. As Margaret’s assistant, Joanna’s main job is dealing with the bags of fan mail delivered each day. Salinger is a recluse, and never sees any mail — they shred each letter, but not before reading it, and sending out a hand-typed — we’re talking typewriters here, no computers allowed in the office — form letter, saying thank try for your kind letter, unfortunately JD Salinger won’t see it. 

Meanwhile Joanna is luxuriating in the literary life: having lunch at the Waldorf, rubbing shoulders with famous authors (though never Salinger). She goes to poetry readings at the right cafes and moves in with her handsome new boyfriend Don (Douglas Booth), a working-calls writer who’s also a bit of a dick. Will Joanna stay on in Manhattan or return to California? Can she forge a career as a literary agent? And will she ever meet Salinger?

My Salinger Year is a true memoir based on the writer’s own early career. It’s delightful to watch —who would have guessed we could feel nostalgic for the 90s? She experiences the city, wandering into places like the New Yorker magazine’s offices. And it’s full of wonderful vignettes about the quirky people she meets in her office (played by Colm Feore, and others.) It also shows us the writers of the fan mail, each of whom addresses the audience directly, reciting the texts of their letters. The film is made by Quebec director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) and is shot around Montreal. As always, his movies are full of warm, funny characters and lots of  detail; he doesn’t gloss over what’s going on. Falardeau also has some weird trademarks — characters break into music videos or start dancing — which I don’t quite get, but luckily it doesn’t detract from the story. You can tell Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley loved making this movie, and if you’re into writing or reading books, or the whole literary milieu, you’ll enjoy it, too. 

True Mothers, The World to Come, and My Salinger Year are all playing today on VOD or streaming sites.

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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