Summer entertainment. Films reviewed: Three Thousand Years of Longing, Alienoid, The Good Boss

Posted in Australia, comedy, Fairytales, Fantasy, Korea, Magic, Science Fiction, Spain, Thriller, Time Travel, Turkey by CulturalMining.com on August 27, 2022

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

This week I’m talking about three entertaining summer movies from around the world. There’s a British academic who meets a djinn in Istanbul; an ambitious businessman forced to “weigh his options” in Spain; and some alien, time-travelling prison guards trying to catch mutant convicts in medieval Korea.

Three Thousand Years of Longing

Co-Wri/ Dir: George Miller (Based on the short story by A.S. Byatt)

Dr Alithia Binney (Tilda Swinton) is a British academic in Istanbul for a conference. She’s a narratologist, someone who studies the structure of stories and how they’re told. She’s been obsessed by stories since she was a kid, when she even had an imaginary friend. She’s still more comfortable reading than talking to other people. But these imaginary friends seem to be reappearing more often lately. A small man in a lambskin coat talks to her in the airport — but no one else sees him. And when giving a lecture a strange man in Mesopotamian garb appears in the audience. But she really starts to worry when one of them doesn’t go away. This all started when a glass bottle she found in an Istanbul antique store let loose a gigantic genie (Idris Elba)  — or Djinn as he calls himself. To no one’s — surprise since we all know this narrative structure — he grants her three wishes. But to the Djinn’s shock she says she doesn’t want anything. She’s content with what she has, and besides, these sort of stories always go wrong in the end. So the Djinn tells her his 3000-year-long story instead, and what will happen if she doesn’t use those wishes. And an amazing tale it is, with characters like Solomon and Sheba, and the sultans of Ottoman Arabia. There’s a sluggish prince locked in a fur-lined chamber with a dozen huge-breasted Rubenesque consorts. And a woman genius in the Renaissance who just wants to study. Like a story within a story, these talks are told by the djinn as they both sit in her hotel room, dressed in white terrycloth robes and towel turbans. Is this all in her mind, or is it real? And if so, what will her wishes be?

Three Thousand Years of Longing is the retelling of stories within stories, in the style of The Thousand and One Nights, but told from a contemporary perspective. These are framed by Alithia’s own stories, and contemporary events. George Miller, of Mad Max fame, directed this, and spares no special effects — there is a mind-boggling plethora of CGIs in every scene: with non-stop, lush magical images. Idris Elba is fun as the Djinn with his pointy ears and the blue-green scales on his legs; and Tilda Swinton is great as always, this time bedecked in rose-coloured skirts, with a red pageboy haircut and academic glasses. Nothing deep here and it’s not terribly moving, but I always love a good story, well-told. 

Alienoid

Wri/Dir: Choi Dong-hoon

It’s Korea six centuries ago, when a metal object tears through the sky, killing a woman with its tentacles. But, believe it or not, the tentacles are from the good guys, and the medieval Korean woman is actually an escaped mutant killer from another planet. You see, Guard (KIM Woo-bin) and Thunder are alien prison guards who lock the mutant prisoners inside human brains… and if they try to escape, earth’s atmosphere will kill them in a few minutes. But the humans with the alien prisoners locked inside them have no idea.

The woman they killed has a newborn baby girl, so they take her with them back to 2022 and raise her like she’s their own child (yes, little Ean has two daddies!) But they’re neither human nor mutants — Guard is a sophisticated robot and Thunder is a computer program, but they both can take on human form. Now in 2022 things are going bad. Alien mutants have arrived on earth to free the prisoners and turn the earth’s air toxic for humans but breathable by them. And they’re winning the battle.

But back to 600 years ago, things aren’t as bad. Muruk (RYU Jun-yeol) is a young Dosa, or spell caster, who earns his living as a bounty hunter. Now he’s after something more valuable — a legendary crystal knife called the divine blade for its strange powers. He tracks it down to a wedding and impersonates the groom to steal it. What he doesn’t know is his “bride” is also an imposter seeking the same prize. So are Madame Blue and Mr Black, veteran sorcerers who make their living selling magic trinkets, as well as some evil killers, one of which dresses like a man from 2022. Who are all these people? What’s going on here? Will the world be destroyed? And what’s the connection between then and now?

Alienoid is a Korean movie about science fiction time travel that spans all genres. It’s part action, superhero, fantasy, romance, drama, and comedy. It deftly incorporates the time-travelling robots from Terminator; HK style airborne fighting, and the funny, soapy characters of Korean historical TV dramas all pulled together in a way I’ve never quite seen before. It has a huge budget — 33 billion won — but it’s not a superhero movie. That’s another great thing about Alienoid: unlike superheroes, all the main characters may have some special powers but they also have major flaws: they mess up a lot, lie, cheat, steal, and behave like grifters. One warning (not a spoiler) the movie finishes, but it doesn’t end, with the next sequel coming out next year. So if you’re looking for a highly entertaining two hours, you can’t go wrong with Alienoid.

The Good Boss

Dir: Fernando León de Aranoa 

Julio Blanco (Javier Bardem) is the owner of Blanco Scales, a factory in a small Spanish town — he inherited the company from his Dad. They make everything from bathroom scales to enormous steel balances that can weigh a whole cow. He knows he’s a successful businessman and a good boss by the way his smiling employees applaud him whenever he makes a speech. They’re like his children, he says beneficently, and when they have a problem, he has a problem — his door is always open to help them out. Then there’s his industry trophy wall, directly across from his marital bed, that recognizes him for his business accomplishments. There’s just one prize he hasn’t won yet, the official regional award, which could open huge doors in government contracts. He’s one of three nominees and he really wants to win it.. All he has to do is make everything run perfectly and all his employees content  within one week — that’s when the inspectors are coming. 

The problem is, not everything is as perfect as he imagines. Production is weeks behind schedule, because Miralles — whom he’s known since childhood — is not paying attention. He’s too busy stalking his wife who he thinks is cheating on him. Won’t Blanco help him catch her in flagrante delecto? Jose, a laid-off employee, doesn’t want to leave; he’s camped out in front of the factory demanding to be rehired. And long-time mechanic Fortuna’s son has been arrested for assaulting strangers in the park — won’t Blanco behave like a role model and get the kid a job somewhere? And then there’s problems of his own creation: he’s flirting with a beautiful new intern, Liliana (Almudena Amor) who seems equally attracted to him. She even has the scales of Libra tattooed on her neck. Little does Blanco know, she’s the daughter of his wife’s best friend, the same one he coddled as an infant. Can he solve all his company’s problems in just one week? Or is he just digging deeper into a hole?

The Good Boss is a biting social satire dealing with class, race, and gender in contemporary Spain. Javier Bardem is terrific as the smarmy Blanco, a big fish in a small pond who loves his glassed-in office where he can lord over all the little people beneath him. A comedy, it’s full of every possible pun about scales — the blind justice statue, the Libra sign, tipping the scales… to name just a few. And though a light comedy, it looks at very dark issues with a jaundiced eye.

I enjoyed this one, too.

Three Thousand Years of Longing and Alienoid both open this weekend across North America; check your local listings; and you can catch The Good Boss now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. 

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.

Leaving a mark. Films reviewed: Charlotte, Marvellous and the Black Hole, The Bad Guys

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, Action, Animals, Animation, Art, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Crime, France, Heist, Magic, WWII by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2022

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

Spring festival season is on now, with Hot Docs, Toronto’s international documentary film festival, right around the corner. 

But this week, I’m looking at three new movies, one live and two animated, about people trying to leave a mark on society. There’s a gang of criminal animals offered a chance to go straight; an angry 13-year-old girl who looks for solace in magic tricks; and a young artist who decides to chronicle her life in Nazi Germany in the form of hundreds of paintings. 

Charlotte 

Dir: Tahir Rana, Éric Warin

It’s the 1930s in Nazi Berlin. Charlotte Salomon , known as Lotte, is a young woman living with her father and stepmother. On a trip to Rome with her grandparents she meets a a kindly American heiress named Ottlie. She liked Lotte’s drawings and invites her to stay in her expansive villa in Cote D’zur in southern France. But Lotte is accepted at the prestigious art academy, despite the fact she is Jewish, so doesn’t want to leave Berlin. But under the harsh rules,  only symmetry and precision are acceptable in art, while “deviant artistic expression”, like Charlotte’s, was considered degenerate. She is eventually expelled, and when her father is arrested and tortured by the Gestapo she decides it’s time to leave her home. She joins her grandparents at Ottlie’s mansion. And she’s delighted to learn there is a studio set up for her so she can create her paintings.  She also finds love, in the form of Alexander, a refugee from Austria who works as a groundskeeper on the estate. But she has to put up with her deeply disapproving and domineering grandfather, who has become bitter in his old age. But as the Nazi’s encircle southern France, she knows her time is limited. So she starts to document her life in a series of hundreds of gouache paintings on paper. Will Lotte and her lover survive the war? And what about her art?

Charlotte is an exquisitely made animated historical drama, based primarily on the stories told in the actual paintings of Charlotte Salomon, titled Life or Theatre, that included both memories she witnessed and things she thought about. Some describe her art as the first graphic novel, since her paintings (there were over a thousand) often include words and ideas. The movie is quite troubling in parts, as people are forced to do terrible things under the stress of war. But it’s set in such beautiful locations — the Vatican in Rome, her home in Berlin, swimming in lakes, or nestled among the rolling hills of southern France — that its beauty mitigates its tension.  And the paintings themselves appear on the screen in blobs of coloured paint that gradually transform into her own art. Keira Knightly provides Charlotte’s voice, with Brenda Blethyn, Jim Broadbent as her grandparents. I’ve seen it twice now, and still find it moving, tragic, and inspiring, and visually very pleasing. 

Marvellous and the Black Hole

Wri/Dir: Kate Tsang

Sammy (Miya Cech) is a moody and truculent 13 year old girl who lives with her domineering father and computer geek sister. Ever since her mother died she lashes out at anyone who comes near her. She smokes cigarettes, talks back, and uses a needle to secretly tattoo herself. But her busy father gets tired of her anger and attitude, and tells her if she doesn’t pass a class in entrepreneurship at the local community college he’ll send her off to summer camp (which Sammy considers a fate worse than death.) So she takes the course which she hates. One day, while sneaking a smoke in the college washroom, she meets Margot the Marvellous (Rhea Perlman), a professional magician with a hidden past. She press-gangs Sammy into serving as her assistant at a kids’ birthday party. She is secretly impressed by Margot’s ability to make flowers bloom on her sleeves, and somehow can grab a real, live white rabbit out of thin air. So they make a pact: Sammy will help Margot with her show in exchange for teaching her magic tricks and helping her pass the course. But will Sammy ever learn to control her anger and escape from the black hole she’s been stuck in since the death of her mother?

Marvellous and the Black Hole is an excellent coming-of-age story about a troubled girl taken under the wing of a sympathetic magician. Miya Cech is terrific as tough-girl Sammy, and Rhea Perlman (best known for playing Carla, the surly barmaid on Cheers) shows a softer side here. There’s a real beauty to this film — from the integration of classic silent film, to the jerky stop-motion animation used for special effects, to the nicely compact sets used in class, at home, and on a stage — that gives it an extra oomph you don’t find in your usual teen drama.  This is a good, indie YA movie.

The Bad Guys

Dir: Pierre Perifel

It’s a time like the present in a city like Los Angeles where a criminal gang (known as the “Bad Guys”) runs rampant, robbing banks, wreaking havoc and scaring the hell out of locals. The group consists of five members: Wolf, their charismatic leader; Snake, his second in command; Shark, a master of disguises; Piranha, a crazed tough guy; and Tarantula, a computer geek who can break into anything. Together they’re unbeatable. But they’re finally caught when a difficult heist at a gala event goes wrong. The police want to send them to prison, but a local pundit and inventor — a guinea pig named Prof Marmalade — says he can turn them from bad guys into good guys using his powers of persuasion. But can a leopard change its spots?

The Bad Guys is a very cute and enjoyable animated crowd-pleaser, aimed primarily at kids, but interesting enough that grown-ups can enjoy it, too. It’s also a feel-good movie about the value of friendship and the pleasure we can get from doing good things for others. And there are cool subplots involving a meteorite, lab tests, computer-operated zombies, and much more. But mainly, it’s an action-packed comedy thriller, with lots of chase scenes, twists and turns, and a fair amount of suspense. 

One quibble: all the main characters (except the chief of police) are animals — including fish and insects — and have all the best lines. Most of the humans rarely speak. But there are also pets — like cats and guinea pigs — that don’t talk either. Which makes the logic a bit confusing, but enjoyable nonetheless. It stars the voices of Sam Rockwell, Awkwafina, Anthony Ramos, Zazie Beetz, Alex Borstein,  and the inimitable Richard Ayoade as Prof Marmalade.

The Bad Guys is a very cute, fun movie that’ll leave you smiling.

The Bad Guys and Charlotte both open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Marvellous and the Black Hole is opening in select cities; look out for it. 

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

Against the Grain. Films reviewed: Judy vs Capitalism, Monkey Beach, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Posted in 1960s, Canada, Depression, documentary, drugs, Ghosts, Indigenous, Magic, Police, Politics, Poverty, Protest, Resistance, Trial, War by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2020

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

Toronto’s Fall Film Festival Season continues with ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival, the world’s largets indigenous film festival, and Rendezvous with Madness, the first and largest arts and mental health festival in the world, both running through Sunday, the 25th.

This week I’m talking about three new movies – a doc, a drama and a courtroom pic – about people who go against the grain. There’s a young woman resisting ghosts, another woman fighting anti-abortion activists; and boomers protesting the war in Vietnam.

Judy vs Capitalism

Dir: Mike Holboom

Judy Rebick is a well-known activist and writer in Toronto. As a former Trotskyite revolutionary turned writer and TV commentator, she’s a pro-choice feminist and socialist known for slogans like “Radical is Practical”. She can be seen everywhere, from CBC panels to tent-city protests. A new documentary looking at her life divides it into six stages: Family – her dad was a baseball player quick to pick fights; Weight – she says she has a pair of hips “like two battleships”; Feminism – women’s bodies and the violence they face; Abortion – her hands-on role in legalizing reproductive rights in Canada; Others – her struggles with depression and mental health; and End Notes – her views on various political topics, like the rise of neo-liberalism, the war in Gaza, and as head of NAC, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.

Did you know she single-handedly fought off a man trying to stab Dr Henry Morgantaler with a pair of garden shears? This film includes footage of that in slow motion. Each section begins with a speech – some mundane talks in lecture halls, others shouted through a bullhorn at a rally. Judy vs Capitalism is directed by artist/filmmaker Mike Holboom in his patented style: clear sound and straightforward narration, combined with avant-garde images: slow motion, high speed, underwater photography, blurred and melting visuals, random faces… basically Holboom’s interpretations of Rebick’s moods, memories, thoughts and ideas rather than the typical clips you might expect in a conventional biography.  Judy vs Capitalism is an experimental look at a Canadian icon.

Monkey Beach

Dir: Loretta Todd (Based on the novel by Eden Robinson)

Lisa (Grace Dove) is a young woman who lives in East Vancouver. She’s been there for the past two years with nothing to show for it but a bad hangover. Till her friend Tab tells her it’s time to go home, back to her family in the Haisla community in Kitimat. So she does. Her family is shocked but delighted to to see her – they weren’t even sure she was still alive. There’s her mom and dad, her little brother Jimmy (Joel Oulette) a swimming champ, and her Uncle Mick (Adam Beach) who told her at an early age to say “f*ck the oppressors!” Then there’s her grandma Ma-Ma-Oo (Tina Lameman) who taught Lisa everything she knows… including things she doesn’t want to know. Like why a little man with red hair keeps appearing. A crow talks to her, and ghosts (people who should be dead) appear to her in real, human form. (Tab, for example, was murdered but she’s still around.) Worst of all are the dreams and premonitions she keeps having – that her brother Jimmy, the swimmer – is going to drown. Are her powers a gift or a curse? Can she ever live normally? And can she keep Jimmy out of the water?

Monkey Beach is a good YA drama filmed in the gorgeous forests and waters of Kitimat in the pacific northwest, with a uniformly good indigenous cast. It incorporates traditional Haisla culture and practices with contemporary, realistic social problems, sprinkled with the supernatural. And it flashes back and forth between the present day and Lisa’s childhood. I like this movie but I can’t help but compare it to the CBC TV series Trickster, which is edgier, faster-moving and more complex. They’re both based on Eden Robinson’s novels – Monkey Beach was her first, showing many of the themes later explored in Son of a Trickster. That said, if you’re a fan of Trickster, you’ll want to see Monkey Beach, too.

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Wri/Dir: Aaron Sorkin

It’s the summer of ‘68 in the USA, and the youth are restless. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King had just been killed, with demonstrations springing up across the country. The US is embroiled in an increasingly senseless war in Vietnam and it’s an election year. So droves of young people converge on the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, to have their voices heard. The protests are brutally crushed by police and state troopers. Nixon is elected in November, and the protest leaders, known as the Chicago 7, are arrested and put on trial. The defendants are from the SDS – Students for a Democratic Society, a radical group that sprung out of the labour movement – led by Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp); the Yippies, founded by Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin who use performance and pranks to forward their agenda; anti-war activist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch);  and Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) co-founder of the Black Panther Party, known both for its militant image and progressive social programs. The charge? Conspiracy, even though these group leaders had never met one other.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 is two-hour film that manages to condense hundreds of days of testimony into a few key scenes. This includes a shocking re-enactment of the binding and gagging of Bobby Seale in the courtroom. The script’s pace is fast, the production values excellent, and the acting is superb, especially Baron-Cohen in an unusual funny-serious role, Mark Rylance as their lawyer, William Kunstler, Frank Langella as the unjust judge Julius Hoffman, and Lynch as the veteran pacifist. Women are invisible in this film, except as receptionists, wives-of and one undercover FBI agent. I was glued to the screen the entire time. Still, it leaves me with an uneasy feeling Aaron Sorkin has done some subtle, historic slight of hand. He portrays the anti-war movement as mainly about honouring and saving the lives of American soldiers, not Vietnamese civilians. It buries the aims of the defendants beneath petty squabbles. And somehow he takes a protest aimed squarely at Democratic politicians — the hawks and conservative Democrats in a city and state run by that party — into a Democrats vs Republican division…!

Hmm…

Judy vs Capitalism is at Rendezvous with Madness; Monkey Beach is at ImagineNative, both through Sunday; and The Trial of the Chicago 7 is now streaming on Netflix.

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

Shrink Brink Link? Films reviewed: Little, The Brink, Missing Link

Posted in 1800s, African-Americans, Animation, comedy, documentary, Evolution, Kids, Magic, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 12, 2019

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

Toronto’s Spring Film Festival Season is in full swing right now. Images – which features art movies, videos and gallery installations — is on this weekend. And Cinefranco brings new French-language movies – this year from La Belle Province – starting next week.

But this week I’m going to spill some ink on three new popular movies that just might make you think. There’s an animated movie about a British explorer searching for the missing link; a political documentary about democracy teetering on the brink; and a comedy about a magical spell that makes a hard ass businesswoman shrink!

Little

Dir: Tina Gordon

It’s present day Atlanta. Jordan (Regina Hall) is a successful, self-made businesswoman whose company creates games and apps. Violently bullied as a badly-dressed teenaged nerd she vows never to put up with it again as a grown up. Instead, she becomes a bully herself, taking it out on her employees, her lover, and even random strangers and kids. She even attacks a little girl with a magic wand whose father runs a food truck. But her biggest target is April (Issa Rae), her faithful personal assistant who is always there to help her. But Jordan’s status is thrown into question by two events.

First her biggest client threatens to pull his account if she doesn’t come up with a new, youthful pitch in 48 hours. And when she wakes up the next morning she’s reliving her worst nightmare: she’s been magically transferred into her teenage face and body! Her adult privileges suddenly disappear and young Jordan (Marsai Martin) is forced to enroll at the same Windsor Jr High suffered through in her youth. She is a nerd again before, long she straightened her hair and wore makeup, badly bullied and forced to sit with the rejected kids. April has to cover for her at work, and becomes her public face. Can she survive as a bullied teenager, can her company be saved, will she ever turn back again, and can she get in touch with her inner child?

Little is a very funny, body-transformation comedy, like Freaky Friday or Big. The plot is fairly tame and predictable, and seems to suggest kids can be rescued from bullying with a few instagram photos! But Issa Rae is good as April, and Marsai Martin brilliant as the “little” Jordan, perfectly channelling an adult’s gestures and expressions into her performance. And finally, finally Hollywood seems to have figured out that movies from a black and female point of view can be enjoyed and appreciated by a general audience.

Little is an easy-to-like comedy that provides almost constant laughs.

The Brink

Dir: Alison Klayman

Steve Bannon is an extreme right-wing nationalist ideologue. He allies online fake-news site Breitbart with the so-called Alt Right. He goes on to lead Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign. But Bannon is fired soon after the Unite the Right riots in Charlotteville North Carolina which resulted in violence and death. This documentary follows Bannon’s daily life from that time until last fall’s US election. In between, Bannon tours Europe with Belgian Mischäel Modrikamed in an attempt to unite the extreme right within the EU. He thinks he can pull together disparate nationalists, islamophobes, populists, neo-fascists, and Euroskeptics into a unified bloc. This includes questionable figures like ultra-nationalis Viktor Orban, Nigel Farage, French Front National, the nazi-affiliated Swedish Democrats, an Italian party with fascist roots, and Belgium’s extremist Parti Populaire.

Can an American extremist successfully steer the rise in populism into a unified Europes Front? Or are is the American right – and the much reviled Trump – too different from their euro counterparts?

The Brink is a capable documentary about a player in the extreme right. It reveals the source of his funds – a Chinese billionaire – and his political ties. It even includes footage of his visit to Toronto for a debate between the right and the extreme right where he is dismayed by the widespread protests and his lack of support.  The Brink clearly exposes how his racist, antisemitic, anti-immigration and islamophpbic ideology has led directly to right-wing terrorism.

But it also humanizes and normalizes him as just a guy who wears two shirts and wonders whether he looked OK or said the right thing in his last interview. As Bannon says, any publicity is good publicity.

Missing Link

Dir: Chris Butler

It’s Victorian England. Sir Lionel Frost is an international explorer looking for fame and adventure. He survives an encounter with the Loch Ness Monster but fails to reach his real goal – membership in a prestigious gentleman’s club. But his luck changes with a letter from America, telling him where to find Sasquatch, a mythical, missing link between man and ape. He makes a wager with the club’s leader, Lord Piggit: if he brings back a live sasquatch, they will let him join the club.

But when he encounters Big Foot he is shocked to discover he’s just like you and me. He speaks english, reads and writes, and is an all around nice guy, just much bigger and hairier. He’s the last of his species and longs for a friend like himself. He agrees to travel with Lionel to England, as long as he first visits his people – the Yetis – who are said to live in Tibet. With the help of Adelina, a willful widow (and former lover of Lionel) the three set out on an adventure around the world. Will they find the Yeti, complete their missions, and avoid a murderous hitman sent to stifle thir voyage at all costs? And will Mr Link – or “Susan” as he prefers to be called – ever find a true friend?

Missing Link is a wonderfully made animated film using stylized puppets for its characters. It’s from Laika studio that also brought us Boxtrolls, Caroline and Paranorman, also by director Chris Butler. Much of the humour comes from the naïve but nice Susan as a fish out of water experiencing the outside world for the first time. It features the voices of Zach Galafianakis, Zoe Saldana, and Hugh Jackman.

Missing Link is funny, surprising, beautiful, quirky and heartwarming. If you like animation (but without any treackly Disney princesses) this is the one to see.

The Brink, Missing Link and Little all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Daniel Zuckerbrot about The Science of Magic

Posted in Canada, CBC, documentary, Magic, Psychology, Science, TV by CulturalMining.com on March 16, 2018

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

Magic.

The word conjures up visions of magic wands and abracadabra, Harry Houdini and Harry Potter, legerdemain and prestidigitation. It’s mysterious, it’s uncanny, it’s… supernatural. But what if I told you there is a scientific basis to magic?

The Science of Magic is a new documentary that looks at just that — the psychology and neuroscience that lurks behind even the simplest card trick. This fascinating documentary goes right to the source: the magicians (and magicienne) doing their tricks, with white-coated scientists watching them intently.

It’s written and directed by documentary filmmakers Donna Zuckerbrot and Daniel Zuckerbrot, known for their deft handling of magical themes.

I spoke with Daniel Zuckerbrot in studio at CIUT. He talked about magic, magicians, Julie Eng, change blindness, Deception, filmmaking, eye movement… and more!

The Science of Magic premiers on Sunday, March 18th on CBC’s The Nature of Things.

Sticking Your Neck Out. Hot Docs Movies Reviewed: An Honest Liar, Point and Shoot, Demonstration

Posted in Barcelona, Cultural Mining, Dance, documentary, Hotdocs, L.A., Libya, Magic, Prison, Protest, Resistance, Road Movie, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 3, 2014

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Cel-phone cameras are ubiquitous now. So it’s getting harder to separate the relentless recording of everyday life from a real documentary. Filmmakers really have to stick their necks out to find something amazing and surprising and beautiful. But some do just that. This week, I’m looking at three films playing at Hot Docs. There’s a magician who exposes tricksters; an adventurer who joins a (non-religious) jihad; and political demonstrators… who dance?

An_Honest_Liar_1An Honest Liar

Dir: Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom

The Magnificent Randi was a Toronto-born magician and escape artist who modeled himself after the Great Houdini. Like Houdini, he is famous for his deception and dramatic escapes.  And like Houdini, he devoted his second career to exposing the fake fakers: the ones who bamboozle audiences into thinking their tricks are for real. I’m talking faith healing televangelists like Peter “out poison!” Popov, the fake TV psychics, and the pseudo-scientific prestidigitators. He has a long-held rivalry with Uri Geller, the spoon bender from the 60s and 70s who claims he has telekinetic powers.

Randi also showed how easily scientists can be fooled as they tried to probe alien An_Honest_Liar_3abductions and ESP. Using young collaborators and his own deceptions, Randi manages to fool even a dedicated scientist if he tried. He secretly places students (who claim they have special abilities) into the experimental pool, and later reveals his tricks – much to the dismay of the scientists. He provides the scientists with a list of what to look out for, but still manages to slip through the cracks. Today he lives in California with a dramatic white beard and walks with gold-topped cane.

This is a fascinating and very well-crafted story, with a twist all its own. Turns out his longtime partner and collaborator, Puerto Rican artist Jose Alvarez, has a lie he keeps under wraps for three decades. Ironically, the two met on the old TV quiz show To Tell The Truth. These honest liars make for a very interesting movie.

Point_And_Shoot_3Point and Shoot

Dir: Marshall Curry

Matthew Van Dyke was a coddled kid from Baltimore, “the only child of an only child of an only child”. Fascinated by movies like Lawrence of Arabia, the blue-eyed boy dreams of exotic and dangerous adventures.  At the same time, he’s also a cube of quivering jello with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and a remarkable sugar phobia. So, after university (Middle Eastern Studies), Matt decides to take a crash course in Manhood. He sets off on a motorcycle trip from Gibraltar to Afghanistan, across North Africa and the Middle East. He documents all his travels with a video camera and a helmet attachment. In Iraq and Afganistan, as a freelance war reporter, he falls in with US soldiers. They teach him the basics of rifle shooting, machine gunning and missile launching. OK… fun and exciting, I’m sure, but mere backpacking adventures do not a Hot Docs movie make.

But here’s what happened next. When he reconnects with a Libyan hippie friend he’d Point_And_Shoot_1met in his travels, he ends up sneaking into Libya during its civil war. He joins the Benghazi rebels, fighting Gaddafi’s soldiers, and standing beside men shouting Allahu Akbar as they fire missiles at far off targets! Things take a turn for the worse and Matt ends up in solitary confinement in a government prison. His mother and girlfriend are terrified. Will he get out? And if he does, where will he go next?

Point and Shoot is a great adventure story about a man who carries a Leica camera in one hand and an AK 47 in the other. It is politically naïve — the movie doesn’t talk much about geo-political issues, ideologies, or the long-term ramifications of that war. Its real strength is as a first-hand look at a fascinating and exciting personal adventure.

Demonstration_1Demonstration

Dir: Viktor Kossokovsky (and 32 others)

A year ago, Spain was in economic turmoil when it’s right-wing government imposed crushing austerity measures. This led to huge demonstrations. In 2013, 32 students in Barcelona, each armed with a video camera, record it all, right in the middle. The general strike, the crowds, and the peaceful marches… and the less than peaceful responses from the riot police. The demonstrators seem split between those who wear Gandhi masks – peaceful disobedience – and the hacktivists in their Guy Fawkes masks.

This movie, though, is about the beauty of crowds, and movement. The running back and forth, the burning dumpsters, and the attacks from helmetted police.  It’s set to Minkus’s Don Quixote, and its beautiful and revealing. Against a backdrop of Gaudi’s Demonstration_4curvy, drippy architecture you see an old-timer who has been demonstrating most of his life, and young students out for their first demo. And some secrets revealed: dozens of “Black Bloc” activists are seen climbing happily into police vans (not arrested); they’re all agents provocateurs, planted in the crowd to ignite violence and justify police attacks.

Demonstration is an artistic look at a public protest.

All of these movies and more are playing through Sunday at Hotdocs. All students and seniors can go to daytime screenings for free! Go to hotdocs.ca for details. And Toronto’s Jewish Film Festival also opens today and continues all next week, including a brand new Canadian movie called the Pin – about young lovers hiding in Lithuania during WWII – and it’s in Yiddish. Looks interesting… Go to tjff.com for more info.

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

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination. Movies Reviewed: The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, The Arabian Nights

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Adventure, Catholicism, Communism, Cultural Mining, Disease, Dreams, Fantasy, Italy, Joy, Magic, Movies, Rome, Sex, Short Stories, Slavery, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 15, 2014

The Decameron Pier Paolo PasoliniHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: You may have heard his name, but not know why. He was an Italian novelist, poet, artist and director, born in Bologna. He got his start in movies writing screenplays (including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) before directing his own films. His films – he directed movies from the 1960s until the mid 70s, when he was murdered – celebrate the poor, The Decameron Pasolini 2 TIFFthe outcasts, the people in the margins. They dig at the complacent middle-class, and the oppressive and corrupt church and nobilitiy. He cast non-professionals in his films for their looks and attitude – he wanted his actors natural not contrived. Naturalism was all-important.

Pasolini was in the Italian Communist Party but was kicked out for his criminal activity. His crime? Being gay. So Pasolini embraced his status as sexual outlaw.

All of these elements – politics and sexuality shown in literature and art – come together in his movies: beautiful to watch, full of laughter, but with a rough and tragic streak running through them.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination is a retrospective of his films now playing at TIFF. This week, I’m going to tell you about three of his movies, often called a trilogy, all based on Medieval stories. They are extraordinarily beautiful films and you should see them on the big screen while you can. There’s an English romp, an Italian comedy, and tales of middle-eastern magic.

Pasolini Canterbury Tales 2 TIFFCanterbury Tales (1972)

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the classic collection of stories told by religious pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. Set in 14thcentury England, it’s filled with monastic robes, pious nuns, Oxford students, religious pilgrims. But it’s also a world full of shouting and drunkenness, farts and belches. The old are missing teeth, fat and ugly, and prone to violence. The young, though still beautiful, are selfish and arrogant. And everyone’s apt to break into raucous, unscripted laughter as they do medieval things like milling corn or polishing eggs.

But what do they all desire? Sex (and money). They come up with complex schemes to cheat on their husbands and wives. This movie is very bawdy.

But it has a dark side too. One of the earliest scenes shows a man being burned to death in the market Pasolini Canterbury tales 1 TIFFsquare: he was caught having sex with another man, but was too poor to bribe the police.

Religion and the supernatural are omnipresent. Angels, devils and wood spirits are as likely as a passing neighbour to appear outside a window. A widow wears out a succession of husbands by being too good in bed. An arrogant student fools his mentor into thinking a great flood is coming. Three brothers go from cavorting in a brothel to plotting dangerous and murderous schemes. And a bright red devil shoots the black-clothed sinners of hell out of his ass!

Most of all, it’s a place where large-breasted women and plain-faced men stand around staring… naturally, naked.

Decameron, Il (1971) aka The Decameron Directed by Pier Paolo PasoliniThe Decameron (1971)

Based on 14th century writer Boccacio’s sexual comedy, these piqaresque stories centre on Naples and other medieval Italian cities. Women are tricksters who fool hapless travelers, while sinners look for sex. It’s a comedy about sex, thumbing its nose at church-mandated restrictions.

Here’s a typical story. A nunnery is off limits to all men but the elderly. A young guy, sensing opportunity, pulls his hat down low – like Bob and Doug McKenzie — and pretends to be a deaf-mute simpleton. He gets hired as a gardner. Soon enough, all the nuns are sneaking out to the shed for their daily roll in the hay. But what happens when the mother superior gets her turn? He tells her he’s had enough. He can Pasolini's The Decameron 3 TIFFspeak! It’s a miracle!

This is an amazing movie (I liked it even better than Canterbury Tales) shot around ancient castles and down narrow alleys.

Arabian Nights (1974)

The 1001 Nights is the famous collection of intertwined stories-within-stories across the Arab world. Pasolini skips the tale of the Persian Scheherazade as the storyteller, and instead uses a loving Ines Pellegrini in Pasolini's Arabian Nightsrelationship between a wise and beautiful slave-girl named Zummarud, and her young master. She’s smarter than all the men she encounters, and somehow manages to snub potential buyers at her own auction — rich old men who won’t satisfy her sexually – in favour of love at first site. But she is kidnapped by a spurned buyer. This launches a series of journeys as she outsmarts the men she meets and eventually – disguised as a man – rises to the level of king. And all the way her lover, Nur ed-Din tries to find her.

She’s played by Ines Pellegrini, an Italian woman of Eritrean background, and he’s Franco Merli, a Pasolini's The Arabian Nightsteenaged boy Pasolini apparently spotted pumping gas.

Pasolini skips the most famous stories – the Ali Babas, Alladins, and Sinbads – and instead adapts less-well-known ones. Especially the sexy parts.

Like Canterbury Tales and the Decameron, The Arabian Nights was rated “X” when it first came out. Though it includes a lot of nudity, it’s very tame, sweet and almost naïve, by present-day standards. Some of the same actors show up in all of these films. Franco Citti (usually with bright red hair) plays the devil in Canterbury, an unrepentant sinner and homosexual in Decameron and a magical demon in Arabian Nights. Ninneto Davoli (Pasolini’s former lover), is the toothy, curly-haired clown who bursts into tears or laughter, or else stares, dumbfounded, at new things he encounters. Pasolini himself also appears in small — but central — roles arabian-nightsin his own movies — as Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, or as a master painter in The Decameron, who says his art is never as good as what appears in his dreams.

Arabian Nights was shot in Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran and Nepal, and to say the locations are breathtakingly beautiful doesn’t do them justice. It’s mind-boggling, ranging from lunar landscapes and strange curved mud homes, to cavernous, white-and-blue tiled cathedrals, and ancient wooden Nepali shrines. And the faces of the local actors and extras add still more beauty and authenticity to the locations. (A collection of still photos from this film by Roberto Villa is on display now at the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto.)

Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination is playing now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; details on tiff.net. Beginning next Thursday is the CFF a festival of low-budget and independent Canadian films at the Royal:  go to canfilmfest.ca for more information. And cult favourite The Room is playing at the Carlton starting tonight.

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

Back to the Future? Films Reviewed: The Visitor, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Toronto Ice Storm 2013Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I’m taping this a week in advance, during the Toronto Ice Storm, when the power’s still off, the sidewalks still icy and Rob Ford is still mayor. But who knows what it will be like by the time you’re listening to this. Back to the future? Fittingly, I’m looking at a couple oddball fantasy movies — a remake and a rerelease — both pointless but watchable froth to bring in the new year. The remake is an American comedy about a day-dreaming adult, the rerelease an Italian horror movie (from the 1970’s) about a brat with secret powers.

The Visitor fangoria Films We LikeThe Visitor

Dir: Giulio Paradisi

Presented by Drafthouse Films and Fangoria

Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail) is a modern woman who values her freedom. She lives in a mansion in Atlanta with her sweet little daughter Katy (Paige Conner) and Katy’s pet bird. She’s being wooed by Raymond (Lance Henrickson) a slick-but-secretive basketball promoter. What she doesn’t realize is that Raymond reports to a cabal of identically dressed businessmen who are up to no good. They just want her offspring. You see, Barbara has special DNA and Katy has supernatural powers. If the cabal can pull off an alien abduction Barbara will reproduce with a special superbaby (as if her one kid isn’t trouble enough!)

Katy is actually a foul mouthed brat. She uses her powers for selfish reasons – Visitor2puting the kybosh on other kids she goes skating or does gymnastics with.  On her birthday, Katy’s gift turns into a handgun, which shoots Barbara, rendering her paraplegic.

Meanwhile, a wise old man with a white beard and a beige leisure suit (John Huston) is tracking Katy, too. He travels with a retinue of kids dressed in white. These silent, baldheaded teenagers are his disciples. You can tell he’s important because whenever he appears the theme music starts up again as he walks down a futuristic-looking escalator. And when a detective (investigates her birthday shooting she sends her pet bird to attack him.

Who will triumph? The satanic businessmen-aliens? Or the benevolent robe-wearing superman-like aliens? And will anyone stop spoiling that evil kid?

Visitor3This movie exists in its own bizarro-world, circa 1979. Shelley Winters plays Barabara’s intuitive housemaid singing Mama’s little baby loves shortening bread as she spies on Katy. Sam Peckinpah – the director of infamously violent movies (like Strawdogs and the Wild Bunch) — is her gynaecologist!

This is a very trippy, very strange movie. It has lots of horribly dated and vaguely racist shtick, and the story makes no sense whatsoever. But it still feels cool to watch: filled with fantastic dated special effects: a house of mirrors, a swarm of birds, Barbara insanely driving her electric wheelchair in endless circles. It climaxes with a bug-eyed John Huston having his Close Encounters moment with the shooting stars.

Total kitsch, but funny.

Mitty_PosterThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Dir: Ben Stiller

Walter (Ben Stiller) is a milquetoast mama’s boy and a longtime employee of Life Magazine. He lives vicariously through the exciting photos he processes in a windowless basement room (he’s in charge of “negative assets” — photo negatives, that is). Instead of a pocket-protector he wears a bad windbreaker. In his frequent daydreams and fantasies, he sees himself as an international adventurer, a “real man” who will stand up to any bully. But in reality he’s lonely, middle-aged and single. He longs for a relationship with a new employee, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but can’t seem to connect with her, even on an on-line dating site.

And now he faces a crisis. Life Magazine is folding, except on-line. A douche-y young executive (Adam Scott) is brought in to close it down, and makes Walter into the poster boy for unwanted employees. But when a negative — the cover photo of the final issue — goes missing, Walter takes it upon himself to track it down, wherever it may be. He embarks on a journey by plane, helicopter, boat, secret life of walter mittyskateboard, that takes him up mountains, across shark-filled seas, and past erupting volcanoes, all just to find the missing photo.

Will he find the picture? Will he find himself? And will his journey impress his crush Cheryl?

While the movie is filled with breathtaking scenery, it has little else to recommend it. It’s not that funny, interesting or original (the James Thurber novel is more whimsical and the Danny Kaye musical — 1947 — is more clever). Ben Stiller’s first attempt at Secret Life of Walter Mitty ben stillerdirecting fails to direct himself. He underplays it just when he should be hamming it up. His character comes across as flat, dull and pointless. Shirley MacClaine and Catherine Hahn are fun as his mother and sister but are rarely seen.

And the use of egregious product placement within the plot itself — a certain pizza chain, a cinnamon bun — is as embarrassing as it is flagrant. (Was he that desperate for funding?) It’s not that the Secret Life of Walter Mitty is terrible. It’s totally watchable, especially stunning footage of Icelandic moonscapes. It’s just… disappointing.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens on Christmas Day and The Visitor opens on Dec 30th for a three-day run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check your local listings.

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

Odd Jobs. Movies reviewed: Pieta, C.O.G., Now You See Me PLUS Inside-Out

Posted in Cultural Mining, Family, Gay, Korea, Magic, Movies, Poverty, Psychology, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on June 1, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

We’ve all had some pretty strange if short-lived jobs. I’ve worked as a newly-hatched chick crate stacker (horrifying… they kept on dying) and handing out government information pamphlets dressed as the letter “i”, with an enormous round, foam ball over my head (as the dot).

Well today I’m talking about three movies where the main characters have very unusual jobs. There’s a violent sort of insurance adjuster in Korea; a stuck-up Ivy League grad student who decides to be a migrant fruit-picker; and a group of magicians who try to rob banks.

PIETA_key still (2)Pieta

Dir: Kim Kiduk

Kang-do is a tall, baby-faced man in his thirties who lives in a rusty, dusty industrial district of Seoul. Most of the factories there are tiny shops with zero employees outside the owners. Maybe there’s one machine punching out metal parts. So it’s a constant scramble for cash. It’s a poor area, and only Kang-do (Lee Jeong-jin) seems to be doing well. He sells the one thing everyone needs: money.

He’s just an ordinary a loan shark. But he collects his payments in an extraordinary way. He makes them sign up for insurance, and then pay back their debt according to what the insurance form pays: a broken leg, an injured hand, the loss of a finger. He casually pushes people off abandoned buildings, but only from the second floor. He’s selfish, cruel and emotionless, without even a shred of conscience – the devil incarnate. He has no one to answer to except his boss – no pesky extended family to hold him back: his mother abandoned him when he was a child.

But who shows up at his door one day, offering to cook and clean, but a stranger (Jo Min-soo) — PIETA_key still (4)an older woman – who says she’s his mother! She sings him his childhood lullaby. She wants to make up for abandoning him. He is still bitter and untrusting but she won’t give up. She even helps him in his cruel debt collection – since it’s all her fault for not teaching him right from wrong. It’s up to Kang-do to learn to trust, change his ways and open his heart to the only one who cares for him. Is the strange woman really his mother? Why did she choose to come back after all these years? And will the introduction of love – and a conscience? — upset his equilibrium and his job?

Pieta, like most of Kim Kiduk’s movies, has a neatly symmetrical storyline with a twist, coupled with extreme violence, and largely unsympathetic, over-the-top people. The ending is very good, the quirky, extreme characters are played well, and I love the gorgeous industrial look of the film, but it’s so grim, so relentless, so nnngggrrhhh that it’s just not a lot of fun to watch, except perhaps for its schadenfreude. It’s disturbing. I appreciate the way the story plays out, but I can’t say I loved this movie.

Groff COGC.O.G

Dir: Kyle Patrick Alvarez

Sam (Jonathon Groff) has just finished his MA at Yale but doesn’t want to live with his estranged mother. So he decides to earn some money communing with The People – apple pickers on a farm out west. Unfortunately, he studied Japanese in University, not Spanish. He expects to meet up with a classmate but he soon finds himself abandoned without friends. He’s soon brought down to size. The entitled, intelligent and successful rich kid soon learns the reality of real work, alienation, low wages, and unfair bosses. Next he’s working in the factory sorting fancy apples. A sympathetic employee, Curly (Corey Stall) offers him a promotion, but the benefits come with unstated duties, chez Curly. Finally he is driven to stay with an evangelical jade carver Jon (Dennis O’Hare) who is preparing for the county fair. Can a gay, cynical intellectual accept Jesus into his heart?

Groff Stoll COGThis is a really funny – not laugh out loud, but a grim humour – movie about the calamities hapless Samuel lands in, and the hard-to-take people he encounters. He’s made fun of as much as the people he meets. It’s based on a story by David Sedaris, and is just as funny but the movie exists, perfectly, outside of his book, as its own entity. Groff is great as an understated Sam, and Corey Stall (as Curly) has perfected the affable but skeezy guy – similar to his role as Russo on the TV show House of Cards. This is a very good movie.

NOW YOU SEE MENow You See Me

Dir: Louis Leterrier

Four people, entertainers all, receive tarot-card invitations from a mysterious source. There’s a conjurer (Jesse Eisenberg), a hypnotist / conman (Woody Harrelson) an escape artist (Isla Fisher) and a spoon-bender and pickpocket (Dave Franco). They meet up in New York City where they are dubbed the Four Horseman (not “of the apocalypse” – it’s just a name) and trained as a new act. Their gimmick? They can rob banks halfway around the world and give the loot to a screaming audience.

Their act is a huge media success.

As good magicians, they understand the point of a long-range trick, or a years-long setup, so NOW YOU SEE MEthey follow their directions perfectly. Soon they are being financed by a millionaire (Michael Caine), chased by an FBI detective who swears he’ll catch them (Mark Ruffalo), and also pursued by a man who earns his living debunking magicians as frauds (Morgan Freeman). And everyone wants to find out who is the fifth horseman? Is he one of the magicicians themselves? An unknown rival? A member of an illuminati-style cult? And what will the magicians’ final revelation bring?

OK. Some of the lines in this movie are pure cornball, the CGIs are often distracting, the actors are much better than the roles they’re playing, and there are a few too many twists to the plot. But never mind all that… I thought Now You See Me was a completely enjoyable, big-budget popcorn movie. A lot of fun.

Now You See Me opens today, and Pieta will be at the TIFF Bell Lightbox starting today. C.O.G played at Inside-Out Film Fest which continues through Sunday. Ghost in the Machine – a documentary about another strange job also opens today. Directed by Liz Marshall and beautifully shot, it follows an animal rights activist who, instead of freeing caged animals, takes their photos and shows their suffering to the world. And Lore, the amazing Australian movie about young German woman, a displaced person trying to find her way home right after WWII, also opens today, at the TIFF Bell Light Box.

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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