Experiences. Films reviewed: The Painted Bird, Avengers: S.T.A.T.I.O.N., Martin Eden

Posted in 1900s, 1940s, Class, Comics, Coming of Age, Czech Republic, Games, Holocaust, Italy, Poland, Super-heroes, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 20, 2020

https://danielgarber.files.wordpress.com/2020/11/garber-november-20-20-review.mp3Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Fall film festival season continues in Toronto with the EU Film Festival. This week I’m looking at two European historical dramas vs one Hollywood “experience”. There’s a working-class writer in pre-WWI Italy, a wandering kid in WWII Europe, and superheroes in a 2020 suburban shopping mall.

The Painted Bird

Wri/Dir: Václav Marhoul  (Based on the novel by Jerzy Kosinski

It’s WWII in Eastern Europe. Joska (Petr Kotlár) is a quiet, little boy living in a wooden house in the woods with his grandmother. He was sent there by his parents to escape the Nazis. His dark features suggest he may be Jewish or Roma. But when she dies and her house burns down he’s left all alone. So he sets out on his own. His 4-year trek takes him across fields, over frozen rivers, into tiny villages and small cities. He meets a cruel witch, a lusty bird catcher,  a violent miller, a lascivious farmer’s daughter, vengeful soldiers, and a hideous churchgoer. He’s a witness – and often the victim — of gut-wrenching horror, animal killing, bestiality, pedophilia, torture, flogging, indescribable cruelty and mass murder. As he approaches maturity, can Joska survive this time of death and destruction?

The Painted Bird, based on Polish writer Jerzy Kosinski’s novel, is a stunning work of art shot in black and white. It’s like the scariest fairytale ever because it’s based on actual recollections of the war. The characters all speak a “pan-Slavic” language, not native to anyone but understandable to the Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, and Czechs in the movie, without placing blame on any one group. The film was shot in sequence over a few years, adding a sense of reality as Petr Kotlár matures. There are actors like Harvey Keitel, Julian Sands, Barry Pepper, Stellan Skarsgard, and Udo Kier in what may be his best performance ever as the cruel miller. Like I said, it’s a great movie but so shocking and disturbing it’s difficult to watch. To give you an idea, it starts with local bullies beating up Joska and setting his little white puppy on fire. That’s just the first scene of a three-hour movie. I saw it at TIFF at a private screening last year and by the time it was over, only 5 or 6 people were still watching. The Painted Bird is an engrossing, stunning film, with explicit sex and violence that is also a hard film to watch.

Avengers: S.T.A.T.I.O.N.

What would you do if you were invited to join Ironman, Captain America, Black Panther and Hulk to join in their fight against the bad guys? Would you scream and run away? say Yessir! Sign me up! or maybe just yawn in boredom? Well if you’re in group number two, you’ll probably like the Avengers: S.T.A.T.I.O.N. It’s definitely not a movie, its not an exhibition, it’s not a theme park, it’s not a video game, it’s what’s known as an experience. You enter the site, you’re inducted into this army, and you can view the costumes, props weapons, and gadgets – either replicas or the ones actually used in their movies, all beautifully lit up. You can also play games. In one you stand in front of a giant video screen and watch yourself become Ironman. Then you move your hands and arms around to kill all the silvery people running or flying in your direction. In another game you’re asked to choose a little device with your favourite hero’s logo – I grabbed one at random and unwittingly turned into Scarlett Johansen!

Toronto’s Avengers S.T.A.T.I.O.N. is one of four versions touring the world. This one came direct from Bangalore. It’s Covid-resistant, equipped with mandatory masks, hand sanitizers, online booking, physical spacing, high power ventilation and two story ceilings. They’re operating at 1/10th capacity so no crowds. You’re handed a stylus to access what used to be touch screens. I felt safe there. Is it any good? I’m not a Marvel fanatic so seeing a genuine Captain America shield from a movie doesn’t do it for me. And I was turned off by the blatant militaristic tone of the whole thing. Should 5-year-olds be called “recruits” and encouraged to kill people on orders from attendants dressed in uniforms? Some of the games are about matching weapons with the fighters that use them. It’s all kill, kill, kill. But…

At the same time, what can I say? I love blowing things up and shooting fire from my bare hands! It really is fun. That’s what gaming is. So if you’re a Marvel fan, and you don’t mind forking out 30 bucks, I think you might like this. 

Martin Eden

Dir: Pietro Marcello (Based on the novel by Jack London)

It’s the turn of the previous century. Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) is a sailor and self-taught poet from Naples. He’s been travelling at sea since he was eleven, and is now a confident yound man. So he’s quick to rescue a lad being attacked by a tough longshoreman at the docks. In gratitude the teen takes him home to meet his family. Martin is hesitant to set foot inside the Orsini’s fancy home. But when he sees his sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy), a beautiful, young woman with blonde hair and an elegant manner, it’s love at first sight. She is educated and an accomplished piano player. She is impressed by Martin’s bravery and good looks. Problem is, she’s from a bourgeois family while he is working class. But he’s willing to learn. He spends all his money on books in a quest to become a professional writer. Luckily, when his brother-in-law kicks him out – get a job! – he is taken in by a single mom in the outskirts of town. You can pay me rent once you’re a successful writer, she tells him. Problem is, his work is constantly rejected by publishers. He needs a mentor. He is taken under the wing of an accomplished but depressed writer named Russ Brisenden (Carlo Cecchi). Will he ever be published and can he and Elena ever be together?  

Martin Eden is a fantastic novelistic movie about a young man trying to make it as a writer. Based on the Jack London novel, it’s transplanted from America to Italy, and although it takes place before WWI, interestingly, the look of the movie —  clothes and cars – is post-WWII. Sounds strange, but it works really well.

Eden is part hero, part anti-hero, an idealist who is led astray by Social Darwinist ideologies – the individual above all – that were popular at the time. Marinelli’s portrayal of Martin Eden is perfect, and the whole movie has a classic feel to it while also relevant to the here and now.

I really liked this historical drama.

Avengers: S.T.A.T.I.O.N. opens today at Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall and runs through Jan 31; The Painted Bird is screening on Monday, November 23 at Toronto’s EU film festival; and Martin Eden is now playing at the virtual TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Young Lovers. Films reviewed: Angelfish, Man Proposes, God Disposes, And Then We Danced

Posted in 1990s, Brazil, Clash of Cultures, Dance, Georgia, LGBT, New York City, Poland, Romance by CulturalMining.com on January 24, 2020

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

How is cinema faring at the start of this new decade? In Toronto, at least, it looks a bit grim. Our biggest film festival has laid off much of their staff, our largest theatre chain is about to be devoured by a British conglomerate, and one of the biggest downtown movie theatre is slated for demolition. But have no fear, the movies are still here. You can see super-8 movies over the weekend at the Polish Combatants’ Hall (SPK) on Beverley St; The magnificently refurbished Paradise Theatre is showing first-run art house films in a splendid setting. And TIFF’s Next Wave festival is offering free screenings of young directors for free if your under 25.

So this week I’m looking at three new movies about young love. There’s a Polish criminal pursuing a woman he doesn’t love, a Georgian dancer dealing with forbidden love, and a young couple in the Bronx trying to see if love can work.

Angelfish

Dir: Peter Lee

It’s the early 1990s in the Bronx. Brandon (Jimi Stanton) lives with his little brother Conner and alcoholic mom (Erin Davie) in Kingsbridge, a working-class white neighbourhood. He works behind the deli counter at the local grocery store to help pay rent. Eva (Princess Nokia) lives in nearby Marble Hill a Puerto Rican enclave in the north tip of Harlem. Her mother moved there to make a better life for Eva and her severely handicapped brother Julio. She’s planning on studying accounting at College to please her mom, but yearns to be an actress. The two meet by chance in the grocery store when Brandon stops a guy aggressively hitting on her.

They meet again at the local movie theatre, and when they spend a day together by the waterfront sparks fly. Is it love? But family duties intrude on their budding relationship: Julio needs constant care from Eva.  And Brandon should be paying more attention to the sketchy guys Conner is hanging with. Is their love destined to fail? Or can they overcome all the roadblocks between them?

Angelfish is a touching, low-budget and low-key look at ordinary people balancing love with responsibilities. Despite the Tony-and-Maria dynamics and the dark-alley locations, this is no West Side Story redux. The two are less of a Romeo and Juliet separated by race, than a young couple living up to expectations and dealing with grinding poverty.

Man Proposes, God Disposes

Dir: Daniel Leo

It’s a few years back in Gdansk, Poland. Karol (Mateusz Nedza) is a wiry guy in his twenties who lives with his mom and little sister. He sports a shaved head, a pencil moustache and a black watch cap. He makes his living through burglary and petty crime and spends his illicit earnings at nightclubs, picking up women. Bruna (Bruna Massarelli) is a middle-class university student in São Paolo with burgundy hair,  freckled cheeks and sensual lips. Their paths crossed in Europe in a soon forgotten one-night stand. But an unexpected phone call brings them together again. She’s pregnant with his child. Karol makes his way to Brazil and shows up – unannounced and uninvited- at her apartment door. Things are prickly between them, and he acts arrogant.

His only friend is Cici (Erick Mozer) a water deliverer boy he meets on the street. He takes over his job, unheard of for a European in São Paolo. Mateusz is uneducated and penniless, looked down on by Bruna’s university friends. Still, they gradually get to know each other  better and start to get along… Can an unborn foetus hold a couple together? And can such an unlikely pair find happiness and love together?

Man Proposes, God Disposes is a lovely, stylized look at an odd relationship plagued by a clash of cultures. They are forced to communicate in English as neither speaks the others language. First-time director Leo is a skilled cinematographer, and he pays as much attention to the look and sound as he does to acting. Each scene is arranged in vibrant primaty colours, with white walls and sharp contrasts, almost like a graphic novel.

Massarelli and Nedza make for a charming pair, and while the story is simplistic, it’s a pleasure to watch.

And Then We Danced

Wri/Dir: Levan Akin

It’s present day Tbilisi Georgia. Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is a ginger haired young man who lives in a cramped apartment with his brother David, his mom and his grandmother. Their family have been dancers for generations, and Since age 10, he’s been partnered with Mary (Ana Javakishvili), a middle-class girl with black hair and striking features. Together they train at the academy, with the goal of eventually joining the prestigious professional troop. He’s a great dancer but  Aleko, the director, criticizes him for being too expressive, not stiff or rigid enough to capture the heart of Georgian dancing.

Enter Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) newly arrived from Batumi. He’s a natural, and Merab sees him as a rival for the upcoming audition. And he’s friendly with Merab’s loutish brother David (a dancer as well) the two of the often arriving in their shared bedroom late at night, drunk and wasted.

But when a bit of rough and tumble behind a boulder in the woods turns into something more sexual, things become more complicated between Merab and Irakli. Forthe first time in his life, Merab is lovestruck, emanating good feelings. But they have to be cautious. One dancer in their troop was nearly beaten to death when he was found sleeping with an Armenian. But when Irakli disappears, Merab is at wits end. Are they lovers? Or just friends?  Who will win the audition? And with his new-found sexuality, can he find happiness – and safety – in still-conservative Georgia?

And Then We Danced is a beautiful romance set against the world of traditional Georgian dance. Levan Gelbakhiani looks like a young Baryshnikov, but his dance techniques combine traditional steps with hints of contemporary dance.

Great movie.

Man Supposes, God Disposes opens Wednesday at the Paradise cinema. Angelfish and And Then We Danced are two of many films playing at the NEXT WAVE film festival at TIFF in February.

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 producer Robert Lantos about The Song of Names

Posted in 1940s, 1970s, Holocaust, Hungary, Judaism, Mental Illness, Morality, Movies, Music, Mystery, Poland, Religion, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on December 13, 2019

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

Photo of Robert Lantos by Jeff Harris.

Martin is an aspiring youg musician, the only son of a concert impresario in prewar London. Then Dovidl, a Jewish-Polish boy his age – who is also a violin prodigy – is left in the care of his family. As war rages across Europe, the two boys grow up together, first as rivals, best friends and almost like brothers. Then, on the evening of his solo debut in a sold out concert, Dovidl just disappears. Where has he gone, Is he living or dead, will Martin ever see him again, and what is this “Song of Names” that may be the reason behind his disappearance?

The Song of Names is the title of a new film that looks at identity, family, friendship, memory, and mourning. It’s directed by Francois Girard, stars Tim Roth and Clive Owen, and its producer is Robert Lantos.

Robert Lantos is one of Canada’s most famous producers – he founded and ran Alliance Communications and later Serendipity Point Films. His production credits are a veritable history of Canadian cinema: Atom Egoyan’s Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter; David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises; Jeremy Podeswa’s Fugitive Pieces, Istvan Szabo’s Sunshine; an adaptation of Mordechai Richler’s Barney’s Version, among many many others.

I spoke with Robert Lantos in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Song of Names opens in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver on Christmas Day.

Flashbacks, Comebacks and Backlash. Films reviewed: Dolce Fine Giornata, Gemini Man, Dolemite is My Name

Posted in Action, African-Americans, comedy, Drama, Italy, Movies, Poland, Science Fiction, Suspicion by CulturalMining.com on October 11, 2019

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

This week I’m looking at three movies: a period comedy, a Euro dramedy and a sci-fi action movie. There’s a hitman facing a real-life flashback, a poet facing a public backlash, and a comedian looking for a comeback.

Dolce Fine Giornata

Dir: Jacek Borcuch

It’s the near future in Volterra, a picturesque town in Tuscany.

Maria Linde (Krystyna Janda), a Polish poet, is celebrating her 65th birthday after recently winning the Nobel Prize. All her loves and accomplishments are gathered around the town’s most illustrious member. Her docile husband, her beautiful daughter Anna (Kasia Smutniak), and her playful grandchildren are all there, along with a conceptual artist who installed a replica of poet Ezra Pound’s cage in the town square; a French journalist, and various other dignitaries. She’s especially enamoured of Nazeer (Lorenzo de Moor) a handsome young Egyptian Copt who runs a nearby taverna. And Chief of Police Lodovici (Vincent Riotta) drops by with a warning: refugees have escaped from a detention camp, so be on the lookout. Maria is on top of the world, and feels free to mention anything that crosses her mind no matter how controversial.

But xenophobia is increasing as locals blame migrants and refugees for their problems. And when fear and loathing reach a fever pitch following a bombing in Rome, Maria feels it’s time to speak up. As a child of Holocaust survivors, Maria understands the plight of refugees, so she gives an impassioned speech in the Town Hall. The speech goes viral. But poetic language reduced to sound bites means big trouble – for her family, her friends and the whole town. Can she stop the angry digital mobs before they reach her doorstep? Or has she crossed the line?

Dolce Fine Giornata is a sardonic look at contemporary Europe, both the good and the bad, as seen through the eyes of an older woman, and how dark prejudices fester even in gorgeous locations. The dialogue is in equal parts Polish and Italian, with polyglot family members switching back and forth. It looks at older people dealing with social networks and the pile-on criticism it brings. This is a lower-budget, character- and dialogue-centric story, so don’t expect thousands of angry villagers weilding pitchforks. Most of the action – arson, explosions, bullying – happens off camera. Although the film’s political standpoint left me scratching my head, the interplay between characters was subtle and pleasing.

Gemini Man

Dir: Ang Lee

Henry Brogan is a 50 year-old Georgian fond of fishing, scotch and puzzles. He’s also a legendary hitman, with over 72 kills under his belt. He works for the Defence Intelligence Agency, or DIA, killing terrorists the world over. But when he almost kills a little girl he decides it’s time to retire. Easier said than done. Almost immediately, a kill squad is sent to take Henry out.

Who is trying to kill him, andwhy? Certain corrupt members of the DIA, and the head of Gemini, a private military contractor similar to Blackwater. Clay Verris (Clive Owen) has been working for years on Gemini’s new weapon and thinks it’s ready to try out. That weapon is the Gemini Man, a killer who anticipates every move Henry makes.

His life in imminent danger, Henry enters fight-or-flight mode. He contacts his oldest friend Baron (Benedict Wong) an aviation specialist, and a newfriend Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). She was sent by the DIA to spy on Henry, but is now a trusted ally. But the Gemini Man, who goes by the name Junior, is identical to Henry, only younger, faster and stronger. Who is he, and how does he work. The answer is simple – and this is not a spoiler. Junior is Henry’s clone, trained from birth by Clay himself. Can Henry outwit himself without killing him? Or is this the end?

Gemini Man is an action movie directed by the legenday Ang Lee. It’s got amazing locations, from a scenic Belgian train station, to sun-drenched Caragena, to the catacombs of Budapest, which make it gorgeous to watch. And there are some good motorcycle chases and unusual fight scenes. But it doesn’t save the movie from a fatal flaw. Junior, Henry’s clone, is not played by a younger Will Smith; he’s a CGI. And it just looks fake. There’s no soul, no brain, no emotions here… just some pixels. Our brains are still sophisticated enough to tell humans from algorthyms. Action movies can succeed without stellar actors or blockbuster scripts, but if the central special effect doesn’t work, then neither does the film.

Dolemite is my Name

Dir: Craig Brewer

It’s the 1970s in LA. Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) is a former pop musician whose career has fizzled. He used to have hit singles on the radio, but now he loads singles onto record store shelves. And his night job is as emcee telling tired jokes at a rundown nightclub. Until he comes up with an idea. In prisons and on street corners, hoboes, panhandlers and ex-cons have for years shared stories about a mythical figure called Dolemite. He’s a man with legendary wit, guile and powers of seduction.

With a tape recorder in hand, Rudy Ray collects the jokes from local homeless men and puts together a new routine. The difference is, instead of telling Dolemite jokes, he becomes Dolemite. He’s an instant hit. With a flashy suit, pimp hat and a wooden staff, Dolemite dominates the stage with his rhythmic rap. He cuts a record but the language is too filthy for any of the big labels to handle. So he sells them wrapped in brown paper out of his trunk as he tours black nightclubs on the chitlin circuit. There he meets the voluminous Lady Reed (Da’vine Joy Randolph). He sees her deck a man who hits her, and says this is the second act I’ve been looking for. He signs her on the spot.

Dolemite is a hit, but it’s still small time. He wants something bigger. So he manages to convince a noted playwright Jerry Jones (Keegan Michael Key) and a director D’urville Martin (a googly-eyed Wesley Snipes) to come on board. Together they plan to make a blaxploitation movie. They turn a boarded up flophouse into their studio and get film students to handle the lights and cameras. But can this crew make an actual movie? And would anyone watch it?

Dolemite is a hilariously clever and brilliant look at 1970s Blaxploitation. I am not a fan of Eddie Murphy, especially after decades of abysmal comedies. He was permanently crossed off my list. But he is so good in this movie I have to rethink my preconceptions and leave them at the door. Based on a true story, Dolemite is a perfect blend of 70s music, dialogue and situations. It’s a lot like The Disaster Artist only much, much funnier.

If you like the 70s, you’ve gotta see Dolemite.

Dolemite is my Name, Dolce Fine Giornata, both open today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. And Gemini Man also 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

 

Gone fishing. Films reviewed: Serenity, Wonders of the Sea PLUS Cold War

Posted in 1950s, Animals, Cold War, Communism, Conservation, Crime, documentary, Drama, Film Noir, France, Music, Mystery, Poland, Romance, Suspense by CulturalMining.com on January 25, 2019

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

Fishing for something different to watch? This week I’m looking at two movies about fish and one about love. There’s a doc beneath the waves, a suspense drama aboard a fishing boat, and a bittersweet romance behind the Iron Curtain.

Serenity

Wri/Dir: Steve Knight

Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman off Plymouth Island, a tropical vacation spot in the middle of nowhere. Along with his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) he takes rich tourists out on his boat to catch some sharks. But Dill’s real love, his passion, is for tuna. One particular bluefin he calls Justice, that always gets away. It’s his great white whale, his Moby Dick . He spends his free time drinking dark rum at the local bar or sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane) an attractive older woman with a black cat, who helps him out financially after a night of passion.

Life never changes… until one day a mysterious femme fatale, named Karen (Anne Hathaway) appears on his boat. If you drown my rich abusive husband, she says, I’ll give you 10 million bucks. Cash. Will Dill stick with his tuna obsession or will he kill a stranger?

But wait, that’s not all. Turns out he had a thing with Karen before serving in Iraq… she dumped him to marry the rich guy. And her teenaged boy Patrick, a computer geek, could be his biological son. (Though they’ve never met Dill feels he has a psychic bond with the boy). And a strange man with a briefcase following Dill has some crucial information.

If my description sounds like a clichéed film noir knock-off, that’s because that’s what it is. The actors play their characters – an obsessed fisherman, a villainous drunk, an abused but devious woman – in over-the-top performances, vamping for the camera. Why the boilerplate plots? Why the tired dialogue? Apparently, it’s all intentional, but to tell you why would ruin the WTF plot twist. I started to figure it out about two-thirds-of-the-way through, and it kept me interested (though not really satisfied). If you like watching famous actors acting in an imperfect script, this is for you.

Wonders of the Sea

Dir: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jean-Jacques Montello

Jacques Cousteau was the French deep-sea diver, conservationist and underwater filmmaker whose TV shows fascinated me as a child. He sailed away on a ship called Calypso with flippers on his feet and aqualungs on his back. He died in 1997 but his son Jean-Michel and grandkids Fabien and Celine are still diving. This latest documentary in 3D looks at undiscovered parts of the ocean floor and the tiny creatures that live there. They lead us through a massive squid orgy: a mating ritual near California where they all have sex with each other. They also visit a hammerhead shark migration near the Bahamas, and the wondrous coral reefs off Fiji, which form a crucial part of the world’s oceans’ ecosystem. The doc focusses on the tiny, the cute, the weird and the grotesque. And they throw in informative facts and stats about pollution and overfishing.

My biggest problem with this movie is the insufferably corny and dated voiceovers by Arnold Schwartzeneggar and the Cousteaus. It seems aimed at three-year-olds. Who knows, maybe the narration was this bad when I was three but I just didn’t notice. Whatever. If you can somehow switch off the dialogue and just take in the intense, weird-and-wonderful, 3-D coloured images you’ll enjoy this movie.

Cold War

Wri/ Dir Pawel Pawlikowski

It’s post-WWII Poland, and a team of musicologists is heading to the mountains with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Irena (Agata Kulesza) is a serious academic looking to preserve authentic folk culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) a handsome conductor, wants to put together a musical group. Their boss is Kazsmarek (Borys Szyc), an apparatchik – he wants a show big enough to impress his party bosses. The auditions begin, with milk maids and farm hands singing the innocently salacious songs of their childhood. Authenticity rules. Still, one pretty young woman, with blonde braids and a strong voice manages to slip through the cracks. Zula (Joanna Kulig) isn’t really a local peasant, but after living through WWII, taking on new identities is a piece of cake. And Wiktor is attracted to her. The Mazurek Choir is born, and it’s a big hit. And Wiktor and Zula start a secret relationship.

The Party weeds out anyone not “Polish-looking” enough: hair too dark, nose too big? Back to the farm. When they are forced to include Stalinist paeans to collective farming, Wiktor shrugs his shoulders but Irena quits in disgust. But their new status pushes the choir to star status in the Eastern Bloc. Wiktor and Zula fall in love and hatch a plan to defect to the west. Wiktor makes it across the border, but Zula stays behind. Now thelovers are separated by the impenetrable Iron Curtain. Will they ever see each other again? If so, on which side? And can their love –  and their music – survive a long separation?

Cold War is a wonderful, bittersweet romantic drama, set in 1950s Europe. It paints the Cold War era with all its faults and how it affects the people caught in it. Like Pawlikowski’s Ida, it’s just 90 minutes long and shot in glorious black and white on a square screen. Filled with haunting music and images, the film showcases the amazing Kulig and Kot in their flawless performances as separated lovers. (Kulig sings, too!) It’s nominated for a Foreign Language Feature Oscar and is also on my list of best movies of the year.

This is a great movie, don’t miss it.

Wonders of the Sea in 3D starts next week, Serenity and Cold War both 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.

Fighting Monsters. Films Reviewed: Tickling Giants, The Void, The Zookeeper’s Wife

Posted in 1940s, Animals, Arab Spring, Cultural Mining, Horror, Human Rights, Journalism, Poland, Psychological Thriller, WWII by CulturalMining.com on March 31, 2017

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

If relationship, family, work or school problems are too hard to handle, a movie is a good place to escape it. Especially if the people on the screen are fighting real monsters. This week I’m looking at movies bout people facing monsters. There’s a Polish zookeeper facing the Nazis, a political comic facing a military government, and a smalltown sheriff facing something scary… he’s just not sure what.

Tickling Giants

Dir: Sara Taksler

Bassem Youssef is a heart surgeon in Cairo. In the heady days of the Arab Spring, he heads to Tahrir Square to help support protesters as best he can. Many of them are beaten and need medical attention. But what he really wants to be is a comedian – specifically a political comic like Jon Stewart of the Daily Show. Under Mubarek, outright criticism of the government was not permitted. But with the newfound freedom that came with the popular uprising, he is able to launch a TV show, known simply as the show. With a team of writers and producers it brings political satire to the masses. The show is wildly popular, but the newly elected president Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t like him one bit. So he takes him to court and loses! Baassem Youssef is a free man. Until… Morsi is overthrown in a military coup, putting General Sisi in charge of Egypt. Sisi is popular and dictators don’t like criticism. SomeoPro-Sisi protesters declare Youssef a traitor for criticizing the army, while others fear he will disrupt the relative calm the military coup brought. Is Bassem Youssef just what Egyptians need? Or is he too much, too soon?

Tickling Giants is a funny and informative documentary about how US style political humour fares in Egypt’s. Illustrated with political cartoons by a young man Andeel, it offers behind the scene look at TV production and how it influences and is affected by politicians. One criticism: it could have been a bit shorter; it doesn’t take almost two hours to tell this simple story.

The Void

Wri/Dir: Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski

Daniel (Aaron Poole) is a police sheriff in a small town – a place with very little crime. So he’s startled to see a bloodied young man, under the influence, come stumbling out of the woods. But when he takes him to the nearby hospital where his wife Alison (Kathleen Munroe) is a doctor in the ER, things get strange. Patients behave erratically, and two heavily armed men show up at the gate threatening to kill the kid. Stranger still, a group of identically-dressed men appear outside the hospital brandishing large knives. They are wearing white sheets and hoods, sort of like flat-topped Klansmen, but with a mysterious triangle painted on the front their faces.

And otherworldly visions appear in Daniel’s mind, full of dark clouds roiling over a lunar landscape. Has the town been invaded by satanic worshippers, drug fiends or sex-crazed maniacs? Nobody knows for sure. It’s up to the people trapped in the hospital — including a pregnant woman, a kindly doctor (Kenneth Welsh) a young intern, and a state trooper (Art Hindle) – have to settle their differences and fight the mysterious powers before they tear each other apart.

The Zone is a horror and psychological thriller about ordinary people driven to extremes in there resistance to unknown killers. There are some fun scenes and a few shocking parts — and I loved the weird images that appear in Daniel’s head — but on the whole, it’s more unintentionally funny that genuinely scary. Some of they dialogue is atrocious, and much of the movie left me scratching my heads as to what exactly is going on. (For example, when two characters are fighting in an imaginary landscape, you don’t know which of them is hallucinating.) I kept waiting for the robot commentators from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to appear on the screen to explain it all to me.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Dir: Niki Caro

It’s 1939 in Warsaw. Husband and wife Antonina and Jan Zabinsky (Jessica Chastain and Johan Heldenbergh) run the zoo as if the amimals are family members. Especially Antonina. She’s a female Doctor Doolittle, who really does talk to the animals. She goes for daily runs around the park with a dromedary and sleeps with a white lion cub. And at a party, everyone sees her save an elephant calf from choking. Especially impressed is Lutz Heck, a leading German zoologist (Daniel Brühl). But when the Germans invade, their world is turned upside down. The zoo is bombed and wild animals run rampant across the city. Afterwards Lutz offers to help save the zoo animals by sending the best ones – the purest breeds – to Berlin. (Purest breeds? Sounds a bit Nazi…)  Sure enough, the next time she sees him, he’s dressed in full Nazi  regalia. He’s a high-ranked officer. And he has his eye on the beautiful Antonina. But she and Jan have a plan of their own: to help save their Jewish friends and colleagues from certain death in the Warsaw Ghetto, and help move guns to the resistance. The concoct a complex plan to smuggle people out of the ghetto inside a garbage truck holding slop to feed their pigs. (They’ve turned their beloved zoo into a pig farm.) They are hidden in plain sight, inside the Zabinsky villa even while Lutz is operating an army base on the same premises. Will there plan succeed? Or will they and their rescued friends be sent to their deaths?

Based on a true story, the Zookeeper’s Wife is a romantic drama set in war-torn Warsaw, where a zoo serves as a secret sanctuary for Jews escaping the Nazi death machine. It’s also a Holocaust rescue story… with furry animals. As such, it abbreviates familiar images that have been shown in movies so often: broken windows, Nazi banners covering public buildings, ashes falling like snowflakes, children loaded onto cattle cars… At the same time, it avoids most of the blood, death and gore — the camera always turns away. There are some devestatingly sad parts, like a young girl, Urszula (Shira Haas) who is raped by two German soldiers before she is rescued.  Still the movie didn’t show me much I haven’t already seen, aside from the zoo  — which had new, haunting images.

Good as a tearjerker.

The Zookeeper’s Wife and The Void both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Tickling Giants is playing at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this weekend. Go to tiff.net/human-rights-watch/.

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

Body Consciousness. Movies reviewed: Body, My Skinny Sister, Kilo Two Bravo

Posted in Drama, Mental Illness, Poland, Sweden, UK, Uncategorized, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 14, 2015

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

North Americans spend over $60 billion a year on gym memberships and diets, obsessing over their weight and fitness. Body image is omnipresent. This week I’m looking at three movies about bodies. There’s a Swedish drama about a girl who envies her sister’s body; a Polish drama about a man who finds bodies, a woman who talks to dead bodies and a young woman who wishes her own body would just go away; and a UK war movie about a squadron of soldiers in Afghanistan just trying to keep their bodies alive.

1j3WjR_BODY_03_o3_8696634_1439859982Body
Dir: Malgorzata Szumowska

Anna (Maja Ostaszewska) is a psychotherapist who treats teenaged girls with eating disorders. She works at a prestigious medical centre in Warsaw where she uses the latest techniques to make them comfortable with their bodies. She lives alone, and shares her bed with a Great Dane. Janusz (Janusz Gajos) is a lawyer who deals with death on a daily basis. Y6qWpn_BODY_01_o3_8696532_1439859952He prosecutes rapists and murderers, and treats his job as part CSI, part detective sleuth. We always see him at the crime scene, never in court. He lives with his bleached-blonde daughter Olga (Justyna Suwala). Olga has had an eating disorder since her mom died, which she blames on her dad. This dysfunctional family lives a passive 66KX8l_BODY_02_o3_8696583_1439859967aggressive life, with Olga never eating and Januzs always drinking. They coexist uneasily, leaving notes to each other taped around the house, with the spirit of the dead woman hanging over everything. That is until Olga attempts to kill herself. Januzs has her committed to a mental hospital under Anna’s care.

But they don’t know that Anna is not just a therapist, but also a spiritualist who believes she can talk to the dead. It’s up to her to convince Olga and Januzs to accept each other and to reach out to the dead woman’s ghost.8qK16m_BODY_04_o3_8696685_1439859202

Death, murder, suicide, mental illness… this sounds like a depressingly heavy movie, right? Wrong! It’s a delightfully absurdist look at how dysfunctional families cope with death and mourning. The movie consists of dozens of short scenes, many of which have hilarious or shocking details. (For example, the body of a suicide victim who turns out not to be dead.) And it’s peppered with subtle, political digs at contemporary polish society — issues like abortion, anti-semitism, sexism, and alcoholism. Szumowska is a director to look out for. I liked two of her earlier movies from Poland and France (In the Name of, Elles) and this one is even better.

my-skinny-sisterMy Skinny Sister
Wri/Dir: Sanna Lenken

Stella (Rebecka Josephson) is a pudgy, red-haired ten-year-old. She is smart but extremely self-conscious. Her older sister Katja (Amy Diamond) is a prize-winning figure skater. She practices daily with her German athletioc coach Jacob (Maxim Mehmet) and is highly competitive. Stella idolizes her but is also jealous of her. How come Katja gets all her parents’ attention? Why is she so thin and athletic, when Stella is just ordinary? And how come she gets to spend so much time with KO9Ryx_myskinnysister_01_o3_8730465_1440464810Jacob? Stella has a crush on him and is sure he’d feel the same way if he just got to know her.

But then she learns something else about her sister: Katja is eating funny. She won’t eat junk food – athletes in training can’t eat things like that! – but Stella catches her gorging out of a trash can and throwing it all up later. But when Stella confronts her she makes her promise not to tell anyone – especially Jacob or their parents. Stella is torn: anorexia could be killing her sister, so telling their parents might save her life. But deep down she wants to see Katja fail. Maybe that will get Stella the attention she deserves.

My Skinny Sister is a realistic coming-of-age drama about eating disorders, told from Stella’s point of view. It shows how even parents who love their kids — and do everything with their kids in mind — can still do everything exactly wrong.

GZWWMJ_KILOTWOBRAVO_05_o3_8716163_1439859473Kilo Two Bravo
Dir: Paul Katis

Tug (Mark Stanley) is a medic in the British Army, based in Helmand, Afghanistan. He works at an encampment on a hilltop in Kajiki, near a major dam and a big reservoir. Most of his work consists of providing band aids and inspecting grunts’ penises for sexually transmitted diseases. That is until pgLL8Q_KILOTWOBRAVO_02_o3_8716051_1439859431someone spots suspicious activity happening down in the wadi. The Taliban is active in the area and might threaten the dam.

So a few soldiers venture down the rocks to reconoiter. That’s when it happens: one of them steps on a mine blowing of a mine and some fingers. It’s up to Tug to stop the bleeding and get him to a hospital in Kabul. The problem is, where there’s one landmine, there are always more. And as the soldiers climb down they find 1j33rZ_KILOTWOBRAVO_01_o3_8716034_1439859417themselves walking on eggshells in a minefield. Each soldier they try to rescue could lead to more casualties. A false step, a kicked rock, a dropped water bottle… boom! Another deadly explosion. And adding to the danger is an incoming helicopter that could ignite even more mines, imperiling them all.

Kilo Two Bravo is a suspense-filled drama that keeps you tense for most of the film.NxWWL2_KILOTWOBRAVO_03_o3_8716068_1439859445 And it doesn’t skimp on gore: there are long medical sequences – gaping wounds, flying limbs — not for the squeamish. It’s a War is Hell-type story, where there’s no easy enemy, no Taliban soldiers to fight. Just the invisible foe hidden all around you in the minefield. If you’ve heard the term PTSD, and wondered where it comes from, this movie will show you. Kilo is neither a pro-war nor an anti-war film;  rather, it’s a sympathetic look at the soldiers themselves.

Kilo Two Bravo opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; My Skinny Sister is part of Rendezvous With Madness Film Festival featuring movies about addiction and mental health. And Body opened the Ekran Toronto Polish Film Festival and is playing at the EU film festival which starts today. Also opening today is Gaspar Noe’s Love.

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

Eastern Europe at TIFF13. Films reviewed: The Burning Bush, Ida, Le Grand Cahier

Posted in Communism, Cultural Mining, Czech Republic, Drama, Hungary, Movies, Nazi, Nun, Poland, Prague Spring, TIFF, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 20, 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.

Eastern Europe used to have a specific meaning — not so much geographical as political. It meant the countries cossacksbehind the iron curtain. Western Europe was allied with the US, Eastern Europe with the Soviet Union. And it meant the barrier to those scary “Asiatic” hordes waiting to swarm, en masse, across Western Europe to enslave us all.

Now, though, there is no eastern Europe anymore. Just Europe. Maybe mittel-Europe if you want to be fancy about it. But the old Eastern Europe lives on in the minds and films of the countries that suffered the brunt of two World Wars, and both Nazi and Stalinist occupations.

So, this week I’m looking at some really good movies, all from Eastern Europe, all from TIFF. They come from the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary: all historical dramas, two set in the 1960s and one in 1944.

TIFF Burning Bush1The Burning Bush

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

In January, 1969, Jan Palach – a history student at Prague’s Charles University – walks into Wenceslaus square with a bucket. He pours the liquid all over himself then sets himself on fire. He’s rushed to a hospital to treat his burns, but is barely alive. He immediately becomes a symbol of Czech opposition to the invasion of the country by Russian tanks to crush the short-lived Prague Spring.

The Party overlords want his story silenced, or the narrative stripped of any political significance. The Czech investigator looking into the case doesn’t want the Russians to impose martial law. His political allies at the university – students and some professors – want his story told. And his family – his older brother and his mother, the ticket seller at a remote train station – are devastated when they discover what happens.

burningbush_04

But when a privileged party hack makes the papers when he states Jan Palach not only was working for the west, but never intended to burn himself alive. Jan’s steadfast mother decides to sue the man who made the speech, with the help of a sympathetic lawyer, a woman, and a young idealistic university student. But the wrath of the party is let loose all around the main characters, with midnight phone calls, men in black cars parked outside their homes, and mysterious disappearances.

The Burning Bush is an epic, four-hour-long story, (originally made as a Czech mini-series, in four, one-hour parts.) It has many diverse plot lines and dozens of characters. It alternates between the hope Jan Palach’s action inspired, and the dread of authoritarian rule that fought against him and his allies.

But it stands up beautifully all-together. The director, the renowned Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, Olivier Olivier, In Darkness) follows this gripping story all the way through. It had me glued to the screen.

Ida_01_mediumIda

Dir: Pawel Pawlikowski

Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) was an orphaned baby in WWII Poland, left at a nunnery near Lodz. She wears a plain grey dress and covers her hair. She’s quiet and obedient. Now 16, she’s ready to take her vows, become a nun, but Mother Superior insists first she speak to her only known relative, her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza). But why?

Wanda is a woman of the world. She wears lipstick, smokes cigarettes and listens to jazz.

And she sleeps with younger men she picks up in bars. She’s cold, cynical and bitter. She used to be a high-ranked communist party prosecutor, though she seems to have lost her status. And she’s Jewish.

Anna discovers she is too, and her real name is Ida. Wanda advises herida_04

Ida wants to see her parents’ grave. Wanda laughs: Jews who died in the war have no graves! But the two of them head out to the small town. The family that took over their home stonewalls them and says Jews never lived there. But does he know what happened to her parents? Never heard of them.

Wanda delves deeper. Ida starts to discover her own hidden history. Wanda warms toward her – Ida is just like her sister, with her red hair, and three dimples when she smiles. Ida dips her toe into the real world (jazz, alcohol, cigarettes, men). She has to decide between cosmopolitan urban Poland and a cloistered life behind the walls.

Ida is beautifully shot in black and white on a 4×3 frame (not widescreen) like old TV shows.  Each scene stylized. It’s only 80 minutes long, but has everything it needs. It’s subtle, compact, minimalist. The two actresses – the two Agatas – as the naïve teen and her world-weary aunt are both fantastic, with fine rapport as their relationship gradually changes. This is a great movie – beautiful to look at, moving to watch.

Le Grand Cahier PosterLe Grand Cahier (A Nagy Füzet)

Dir: János Szász (based on the novel by Agota Kristov)

A soldier and his wife live in a big city (Budapest?) with their twin boys (András and László Gyémánt). Life is beautiful. Then suddenly, boom! it’s 1944, and the Germans are moving in, taking over Hungary. So they send the twins off to stay with the wife’s estranged mother in a remote farm, to keep them safe. It’s wartime, their dad says, everything’s different. He gives the a big black ledger – the Grand Cahier of the title – and they promise to record everything that happens.

Grandmother – fat, gruff, unmannered – is known as the witch by the locals. She has no friends, and takes care of the farm all by herself. “I’ll put them to work – they don’t eat for free.” The twins – dressed in navy peacoats and clean white shirts — are terrified by the evil witch. They have one book to read – the bible – but they use it for memorization and grammar skills not for prayers.

The boys decide in order to survive the war they have to be impervious to pain, hunger, and remorse. They refuse food from Grandmother, and take turns punching and hitting each other to see who can endure the most.

They start to meet people. There’s a girl they call harelip (Orsolya Tóth) — who teaches them how to steal. A kindly Jewish shoemaker gives them boots. Then there’s the corrupt deacon at the church and his lascivious secretary – she introduces them to the adult world but they recoil from her black heart. And a gay Nazi officer, fascinated when he sees the twins punching each other. The twins record it all, good and bad.

They witness the wartime atrocities and start to kill: first insects, le grand cahier_01_mediumworking their way up the food chain. Will they become killers themselves, just like the people around them? Or will they retain a sense of morality?

Le Grand Cahier is an amazing, rich, and disturbing coming-of-age story, told through the twins’ eyes.  The two boys — undifferentiated, nameless —  give a mythical, novelistic view of wartime life under the Nazi occupation. The movie follows them until the end of the war, in a gripping unexpected adventure. You should see this one when it comes out.

The Burning Bush, Ida, and Le Grand Cahier, all played at TIFF13 – keep an eye open for these three films. Also worth mentioning are two movies whose titles are self-explanatory. A documentary about a dissident theatrical troop that uses its performances to challenge the authoritarian Belarus government: Dangerous Acts Starring the Unstable Elements of Belarus (Madeleine Sackler); and a drama about an Australian woman who discovers the hotel in Serbian Bosnia she slept in was the site of unspeakable war crimes: For Those Who Can Tell no Tales,  (Jasmila Zbanic, who previously directed the excellent Grbavica (2006).)

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

November 23, 2012. The Joys and the Dangers of Fantasy. Movies Reviewed: Rise of the Guardians, The Suicide Room

Posted in Animation, Bullying, Christianity, Cultural Mining, Dragons, Drama, Dreams, drugs, Emo, Fantasy, Magic, Movies, Poland, Russia, US by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 2012

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.

A new American import known as “Black Fridays” is spilling over into Canada as a big shopping day. The name supposedly comes from the day in which the average US retailer reaches a positive balance on sales for the year which is usually the Friday after American Thanksgiving. But in a weird case of a snake swallowing its own tail they have turned it into a massive frenzy of shopping from consumers searching for bargains put on by retailers wanting to capitalize on a chance to pump up sales.

It also means it’s the start of Christmas shopping in earnest. So, just in time for new childhood memories to form, this week I’m talking about two movies that show the good side and the bad side of believing in fantasy.

Rise of the Guardians

Dir: Peter Ramsey

Jack Frost (Chris Pine)  is a mischievous teenager in a hoodie and skinny jeans who likes snowball fights, getting kids’ tongues stuck to metal poles, and skatebording on hazardous, icy roads. When his snow lands on humans they have fun.He’s also invisible. He loves play but wishes he knew where he came from, and that other kids could see him.

Meanwhile there’s trouble up at the north pole: the bogeyman, aka Pitch, a fey, vain and evil man with an English accent (of course) is injecting nightmares into kids’ minds, and interfering with their sleep. So the Guardians who live there – Santa, the Easter Bunny, Mr Sandman, the Tooth Fairy — summon Jack to join them in their fight against scariness.

Santa (Alec Baldwin) is a Finnish-type Father Christmas known as “North” – muscular, tough and tattooed — but with an unplaceable Eastern European accent. He carries matruschka dolls, and curses using the names of Russian composers: Rimsky Korsakov! Shostakovitch! He’s guarded by a gang of rough looking Yetis and serviced by short-bus elves. The Easter Bunny is a foul-tempered Aussie (Hugh Jackman), and the Tooth Fairy collects teeth to store the memories of children.

In their war room stands a giant globe of flickering lights – each one representing a kid who still believes in them. But with Pitch on the upswing, the lights are gradually dimming, and, like in the Peter Pan cartoon, if no one believes in fairies then tinkerbell will die! In this case they won’t die, they’ll just become invisible to the non-believers, like Jack is.

So… will Jack join up with the good guys and try to get the human kids to believe in them again? Or will he let the world fall into the clutches of the evil and scary Pitch?

Rise of the Guardians is a resolutely non-religious Christmas movie, without a cross, a church or even a glowing star to be seen. God takes the form of an all-knowing and all seeing Man in the Moon, the easter bunny is all about eggs, and they’re all on equal footing of secular figures like Sandy the Sandman. It’s a beautiful crafted movie – really nice art direction, with an interesting plot. It’s clearly aimed at the pre-teen set, but was aesthetically pleasing enough to hold my attention.(like an incredibly beautiful scenes where they all meet in a sort of a floating, rust-tiled Samarkand in their encounter with Pitch.) And it has Guillermo Del Toro’s name on it – as an executive producer, which lets you know it’s not degenerating into a comedy dissing childhood beliefs.

And it’s in 3-D.

Much grimmer, but also a partly- animated drama is

The Suicide Room

Dir: Jan Komasa

Dominik (Jakub Gierszal) is a happy, popular private school kid, a bit emo-looking but in tight with the in crowd. But there’s a guy he likes at school who may or may not be leading him on. And when he has an embarrassing frottage incident at a judo practice when he gets a bit too frisky with the guy he’s crushing on, he is mortified. All his friends seem to have turned on him and to make matters worse, they other guy put up a video of the incident on Facebook where everyone could see it. He’s cyber-bullied into hiding up in his bedroom.

His one solace is an animated world on line, a sort of Second Life ruled by a queen, Sylwia (Roma Gasiorowska), who lives in a castle. He becomes obsessed by her and seems to exist only in the form of his avatar, while his real self lives in the dark, barely eating and never going outside. From most popular kid to reclusive otaku in a matter of weeks. Sylwia strongly pressures Dom to join their suicide club and kill himself.

His parents, both rich and successful, have no idea what’s going on. Dominik may be on the verge of killing himself while the parents are more worried about how their son’s aborted sexual life might embarrass them and damage their career ambitions. They just want him on meds so he stops bothering them.

Will Dominik choose to live or to die? Will he reconnect with the outside world? Will he get to meet his cyber-love Sylwia face to face? And will his parents ever show compassion for their son?

This Polish film (which played at this year’s Ekran Polish Film Festival in Toronto) is a look at adolescent depression, cyber-bullying and Second Life, all aspects of contemporary Polish life largely unknown in North America.

Rise of the Guardians is playing now, while Suicide Club played at the EKRAN Polish Film Festival. Also look out for free Japan Foundation screenings coming up in December at the Bloor cinema featuring dramatizations of Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai’s stories; The Toronto Film Noir Syndicate showing the Coen brothers’ classic Blood Simple this weekend, and the first annual Blood in the Snow Canadian film festival showing new and classic Canadian horror movies next week at the Projection Booth on Gerrard St E. It features cool pics like Bruce MacDonald’s Pontypool and the world premier of new movies like SICK and psychological thriller the House of Flies.

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

February 25, 2012. Hidden in Plain Sight. Movies Reviewed: In Darkness, The Secret World of Arrietty, The Prodigies

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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

What does it mean to be hidden in plain sight? Is it right below our feet — families living their lives just beneath a manhole? or maybe a judiciously placed leaf to disguise someone hiding in a garden. Or maybe people with special powers living among us, that no one recognizes.

This week I’m looking at three very different foreign movies, from France, Poland and Japan, about people hidden in plain sight as they face an earth-shattering crisis that threatens their homes, lives, friends or families.

The Secret World of Arrietty

Dir: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Arrietty is a teeny tiny teenaged girl, a “borrower” who lives with her parents hidden inside a normal home. One day, she is allowed to go out with her father to secretly borrow things that the “human beans” would never miss: a stamp, a pin, a sugar cube, a fish hook, maybe a piece of thread. But she has to obey the rules: never let the human beans see them or notice them – for that always seemed to end up in death. If they’re noticed, it’s time to leave.

But Arriety is fourteen and has never met anyone aside from her parents. Are there other borrowers? And could the big people really be that bad?

Soon she encounters Shawn, a sickly boy sent by his mother to his grandmother’s country house to rest before an operation. He’s very ill, and maybe that’s why he can see Arrietty. But they both have to watch out for Haru, the old housekeeper who believes in the little people — and wants to catch them, and maybe even call an exterminator to wipe them out!

Shawn thinks he can help make Arrietty’s life better. But when he lifts up a floorboard and tears open Arrietty’s home to replace it with part of an old dollhouse, chaos ensues. Haru thinks this proves the borrowers are back, Arrietty’s mum panics when she is placed in a precarious position, and her dad decides it’s time to pack up and move on.

This is a delightful kids’ movie from Japan, based on the English children’s book. It’s made in old-style animation, with painted backgrounds, and hand-drawn cels for each frame. It’s from the Ghibli studios, known for Miyazaki Hayao’s work, but lacks some of Miyazaki’s extreme fantasy and bizarre imagery. Still, it’s a very sweet movie with a great story, a good lesson for kids, and smooth, exciting and dynamic animation.

It shares a theme, strangely enough, with a Polish Holocaust drama that also has people hidden just below ground.

In Darkness

Dir: Agnieszka Holland

It’s the 1940s, WWII, under the German occupation in the Polish city of Lvov (now in Ukraine and called Lviv). It was a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious city, with Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, protestants and Jews, speaking Polish, Ukrainian, Yiddish and German.

The Jews are locked in a ghetto that’s about to be liquidated and sent to the Jadowska labour camp. So a few families, led by a man Mundek (Benno Fürmann) come up with a plan to hide in the sewers through a hole they cut in their floor. But they quickly encounter Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz in a great performance), the sewer inspector and a petty thief who knows his way through every inch of the dark, rat-infested tunnels.

They reach an agreement to live underground and pay him money each week. they don’t trust one another  but they soon fall into an uneasy coexistence right beneath the Nazi’s soldiers’ feet. Mundek and Socha even manages to escape to the surface to try to find out if a woman is still alive.

The movie follows the two groups – Socha’s family above ground, and Mundek’s extended family and friends below — both of which face the constant risk of exposure. 

This is a different type of holocaust movie: it’s chaotic, passionate and bloody, filled with normal everyday life in an exceptional situation: with people eating, having sex, loving, hating, giving birth and dying, all hidden in near darkness in underground tunnels filled with human waste.

A lot of the movie is an almost black screen, with people running towards the camera down a sludge filled passageway lit only by a candle or a flashlight. In Darkness is a long movie, with a gradual, slow build, but it’s well worth watching. Terrific acting, directing and production values. This Polish / German / Canadian co-production is nominated for an Oscar, best film in a foreign language, and many Genies as well.

The Prodigies

Dir: Antoine Charreyron

Jim is a boy genius who is brought up by the millionaire Killian when his parents die in a violent episode. He knows he has special kinetic powers, can utilize all parts of his brain simultaneously, and can force people to do things against their will. As a grown-up he knows how to keep things in control at the Killian Institute, and use his skills for good, not evil.

But when his benefactor dies, the selfish heiress Melanie threatens to close down the institute since it doesn’t make money. But Jimbo has been using his research and gaming design to find others like him – who share his powers. They are bullied in school by cruel people who don’t know — or care — about their special powers. He wants to give to them what Killian gave him – a chance to meet their own in a safe educated environment.

Thinking quickly, Jimbo proposes a reality game show called American Genius, whose five winners (the five prodigies he has already located) will get to meet with the President in the White House.

But tragedy strikes: instead of going to meet the five teenagers – who he’s sworn to protect — in a park, he lingers with his newly pregnant wife. And before he gets there they are attacked by violent thugs who beat them up and brutally attack Lisa putting her into a coma. The tone darkens as the remaining four – led by the angry Gil – decide to seize power and seek revenge.

Now it’s up to Jimbo to regain the trust of the five prodigies, before they execute their cruel, apocalyptic plan.

The Prodigies is a motion-capture style animated movie – scenes are acted out live, then changed to animated form. Parts are beautifully done, with sleek stylized images – I like the look — but there are also long, irritating sections made in crappy, low-contrast tones which just don’t look good on a screen. (Why do they do that…?) I enjoyed this French/Belgian movie (I saw the American dubbed version) – its fun to watch, exciting (if predictable), though extremely violent. It’s not suitable for children.

Arrietty and In Darkness are now playing, and The Prodigies opens today in Toronto.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

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