The Twentieth Century. Films reviewed: Escape from Mogadishu, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, 12 Mighty Orphans

Posted in 1930s, 1990s, Action, Coming of Age, Germany, High School, Korea, Orphans, Poverty, Refugees, Sports, Switzerland, Texas by CulturalMining.com on August 7, 2021

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

Some movies have titles that tell you a lot about what you’re going to see. This week I’m looking at three such movies, all set during the 20th century. We’ve got Koreans in Mogadishu in the 1990s; child refugees from Nazi Germany in the early 30s; and Texan orphans playing football in the Great Depression.

Escape from Mogadishu

Dir: Seung-wan Ryoo

It’s 1990 in Mogadishu Somalia, and the country is on the verge of collapse. Its authoritarian President Barre is still in power but rebel forces are gaining strength. It’s also the year when both North and South Korea are joining the United Nations, and are in heavy cold-war competition to build up more allies than their rival in vote-rich Africa. And the two ambassadors, Ambassador Han from the south (Kim Yoon-seok) and Ambassador Rim (Heo Joon-ho) from the north are in constant competition to curry favour with Barre’s government. And they each have heavy-hitters to help them. Kang (In-Sung Jo) is a recent arrival from the notorious Korean CIA. He’s arrogant and rude, but effective. Likewise, his counterpart from the north. They each run underhanded schemes against the other side, from planting fake news reports, to hiring thugs to steal embassy materials. But the Somali government is losing its grip, and there’s mayhem on the streets. And when all communications cease, both sides realize they have to get the hell out of Mogadishu. And due to strange circumstances, the North and the South are forced to cooperate, and try to escape together.

But will it work?

Escape from Mogadishu is a Korean action/thriller set in a Somalia teetering on the brink of civil war. There are child soldiers shooting rifles at random, corrupt police, and mobs of looters running rampant. Both North and South Koreans loathe their rivals — the countries are technically still at war, with a 40-year-old ceasefire at their shared border. When they encounter each other face-to-face, the ROKs thinks the DPRKs are trained as killers since they were kids; while they’re sure the South Koreans are either trying to poison them or force them to defect. And neither country can let it be known they’re doing anything that might help the other side. 

This is a fun movie about rivals caught in an apocalypse. It includes an amazing, 30-minute chase scene as they try to escape. It’s set in Somalia (and shot in Morocco) but it’s really about Koreans — rivalry, suspicion, with the underlying hope of brotherhood and peace. The Somalis are there as decoration, mainly portrayed as corrupt, violent, crazy, untrustworthy, or else  as silent, nameless victims — typical of most war movies. The Korean characters are more rounded but not always favourable either. Escape from Mogadishu has a hardboiled, cynical tone, but with a great streak of ironic humour and an underlying message of good will. This movie was just released in South Korea and it’s the years first blockbuster. So if you like action thrillers, you should check this one out.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit

Co-WriDir: Caroline Link

It’s 1933 in Berlin. The Kempers are an upper middle class family living in a nice neighbourhood. Dad (Oliver Masucci) is a leading theatre critic, also known for his radio broadcasts. Mom (Carla Juri) is a pianist. Their son, Max (Marinus Hohmann) is into Zorro, while little Anna (Riva Krymalowski) likes drawing pictures of animals at the zoo. And they all adore their housekeeper Heimpi. But with elections a week away, and Hitler’s Nazis likely to prevail, Dad is worried. As a committed socialist and an unsparing critic, he’s prominent on Hitler’s enemy list. If the Nazis win he will likely be jailed or killed. So the family packs up a few suitcases for a quick trip to Switzerland. They plan to come back after the election. No such luck. Hitler triumphs, and they’re stranded in Zurich. The government seizes all his possessions and furniture, brown shirts burn his books, and newspapers stop publishing his work. Suddenly they are refugees, and Jewish intellectuals, no less, an exceedingly unpopular category.

So they settle into country life in a tiny alpen village near lake Zurich. Anna is baffled by the strange accent, their melted cheese and odd customs. Girls are separated from boys and kept at the back of the classroom, and boys throw rocks at girls they like.  She soon adjusts and makes local friends. But their  parents must keep a low profile. Dad is a wanted man, with a price on his head, and Nazi sympathizers are everywhere. Eventually they movie to Paris, where antisemitism is rife. As they sink deeper into poverty, they are forced to choose between necessities (like food, pencils and lightbulbs) and luxuries (like books and meat). Will the tide ever turn in their favour?

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a realistic and poignant story about a young girl’s life as a refugee in the 1930s. It’s about the whole family but seen through Anna’s eyes. It’s also about her internal trauma — her drawings turn from cute animals to people drowning in the ocean or crushed in an avalanche. It’s based on the semi-autobiographical novel by the late British author and illustrator Judith Kerr. So, as a film, it’s not the kind that builds to big climax and denouement; rather it’s episodic storytelling, a collection of vivid memories taken from the author’s childhood. The movie is filled with the wonder and disillusionment of a girl growing up in an unkind world, but it never loses its optimism. 

This is a very nice and engrossing film.

12 Mighty Orphans

Dir: Ty Roberts

It’s the 1938 in the Texas panhandle dustbowl, where starving farmers are abandoning their land and their children. Rusty Russel (Luke Wilson) is a renowned high school football coach starting a new job. He has taken many teams statewide championships. But his newest school is an exception. The kids here are barefoot, undernourished and illiterate. And they’re all orphans. But the coach is determined to change all that. So he tries to put together a football team, the school’s first, from among the orphans. They’re regularly flogged by Frank Wynne (Wayne Knight) who runs a for-profit printing press on school grounds and who treats the kids as virtual slaves. Rusty offers an enticement — when you’re training on the football field, you won’t be working on the fields.

Rusty pulls together a ramshackle bunch of scrawny, gap-toothed kids with low-esteem. And a newcomer, Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker) a 17-year-old seething with anger. With the help of the school’s medic, the kindly alcoholic Doc Hall (Martin Sheen), they manage to get the boys to resemble something like a team. Through pep-talks, motivation and intensive training, they’re ready to play ball — but against whom? The other schools want nothing to do with them. And they’re so much smaller than the average football player they don’t stand a chance even if they do play. But the Mighty Mites persevere, and make it into the league. But can they ever win? And will they learn to call themselves orphans with pride not shame?

12 Mighty Orphans is a wonderful, heartwarming sports movie about a team of underdogs trying to make it. I have no interest whatsoever in high school football, and yet I found this movie captivating. It’s a traditional-style movie — it could have been made in the 1940s — but still feels fresh. Each kid has his own personality, with names like Snoggs (Jacob Lofland), Fairbanks, Wheatie, and Pickett — all based on actual players. With clear-cut villains, and bittersweet heroes, it’s simple and easy to follow but moving, nonetheless. 

This is a good one.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is now available on VOD and other digital formats.  12 Mighty Orphans and Escape from Mogadishu both open theatrically in Toronto this weekend — check your local listings.

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

The Aussie connection. Reviewed: Stateless, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Posted in Australia, Berlin, documentary, Drama, Fashion, photography, Prison, Refugees, TV by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2020

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

Toronto used to be movie city, a place with countless films in production at any one time, competing for access to location shots and studio space. Dozens of screens showing the latest releases and over a hundred film festivals showcasing upcoming hits… but that was pre-Pandemic. Now the city is so dead you can almost hear a pin drop.

But don’t panic, movies are still being shown. The Lavazza Drive-in Film Fest continues at Ontario Place, showing everything from Bollywood comedies to Italian dramas to crowd pleasers from Brazil, the US and China. Go to ICFF.ca for tickets. And if you want to stay home this weekend, don’t miss the Toronto Arab Film Festival, premiering features and short films online from Canada and around the world, today through Sunday. Films are all free or PWYC. For more information, go to arabfilm.ca.

This week I’m looking at two new productions, a glamorous documentary and a human TV drama, both with an Australian connection. There’s an Australian who wants to be deported to Germany, and a German fashion photographer who finds refuge in Australia.

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Dir: Gero von Boehm

Are the high-fashion photographs you see in Vogue magazine revolutionary and sexually subversive looks at our culture? Or are they violent, misogynistic views of women? A new documentary asks these questions about the pictures of renowned photographer Helmut Newton and the story of his life. He isborn in 1920 in Weimar Berlin. His father owns a factory that makes buttons and buckles. By the time he’s a teenager the Nazis are in power. He’s both repelled by and attracted to the fascist imagery of photographers like Leni Riefenstahl – he’s German-Jewish, immersed in the culture all around him but also highly restricted and persecuted by government laws.

He works as an apprentice for a woman named Yva, one of the first to use photographs within the fashion industry. In 1938 he boards a ship with a ticket to Shanghai, but disembarks in Singapore, and from there to Australia, where he spends two years in an internment camp, joins the army, and eventually becomes a fashion photographer. And he marries his life and work partner, June, AKA Alice Springs.

His photos become a smash hit in Europe, where they change the whole look of fashion photgraphy. By the 1960s he’s the first to use nude models in fashion spreads. His images are filled with fear, embarssment and the threat of violence. They often include statuesque women with domineering expressions, chiseled features, athletic bodies and large breasts. Many verge on soft core porn, with images of women dominating men. There are also photos of women as victims of violence, swallowed whole by aligators, missing limbs or brandishing knives.

And, surprisingly, a series of photos showing the erotic violence of roast chickens.

Newton settled into the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood where he died in a car accident, aged 83.

This film takes an unusual tactic. Rather than the narrator intruding into the film, we hear instead from all the women, the actors and models, he worked with: Grace Jones, Isabella Rosselini, Catherine Deneuve, Hannah Schygulla, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithfull, Anna Wintour and many more. They talk about whether they felt liberated or exploited by posing in the nude; what it was like to work with him, and how the final images are often very different from the shooting itself. Many mention how he treated models like puppets, dolls or manequins that convey Newton’s ideas not the models – that’s undeniable. But most say they loved working with him and also liked the shocking and subversive images they played a part in. This film mirrors Newton’s gaze of women and turns it around by reversing the POV to that of those women examining Newton and his work. Very clever.

If you like the aesthetic of glamorous images, high fashion, and stark, nude women’s bodies — that also gives a subjective voice to the women Newton used as objects — you will love this doc.

Stateless

Created by Tony Ayres, Cate Blanchett, Elise McCredie

It’s the 2000s in a remote detention centre somewhere in Australia. High fences stop inmates from escaping, while visitors must line up to pass through security inspections. It’s just another day in the life prisoners in the carceral system. The problem is this isn’t a prison at all and the inmates have committed no crimes. They’re actually asylum seekers, refugees from around the world, who arrive there by boat.

One such inmate is Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi) who is separated from his wife and kids. The family fled the Taiban in Afghanistan only to find themselves at the mercy of unscrupulous refugee brokers who steal their savings and set them adrift in leaky boats. Ameer manages to reach Australia on his own, but now he’s locked up in the detention centre and can’t find his beloved family.

Another inmate is Eva (Yvonne Strahovski). Unlike most of the detainees, she’s not a refugee from the developing world; she’s European and just wants to leave Australia for Germany. But she has no papers to prove who she is. That’s because she’s actually an Australian flight attendant on the run from a creepy personality cult.

The inmates are guarded by people like Cam (Jai Courtney) a likeable newlywed from a nearby town. With the decent salary he can afford a new house with a swimming pool. But after a few months of working in the toxic prison-like atmosphere he finds himself morphing from ordinary guy to sadistic torturer.

Then there’s Claire (Asher Keddie) an ambitious federal civil servant. She’s sent there to clean the place up, keep journalists at bay and restore the centre’s reputation. But she arrives to find news helicopters filming despondent Sri Lankan Tamil refugees camped out on rooftop, with others driven to suicide by the horrible and hopeless conditions there. What will happen to the refugees? Will Ameer ever find his family? Why is a mentally ill Australian woman locked up in a concentration camp? And for that matter why are asylum seekers there at all?

Stateless is a six-part drama, based on a true story about actually refugees imprisoned in Australian detention camps, as well as the case of an Australian woman who ended up in one of the camps. It’s a heart-wrenching TV series with powerful acting and compelling characters played out against an extremely bleak setting. I found it really interesting – I wanted to find it what happens and binged-watched it in two sittings. It’s a bit strange though that – except for Ameer – the asylum seekers are all peripheral characters while the three Australian characters all have backstories, histories, neuroses and sex lives. I guess that’s the point – it’s not about asylum seekers, per se, it’s about how poorly the Australian government treats them, and how passionately other Australians fight for their rights.

Stateless is streaming on Netflix, Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful is playing now on VOD.

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 immigration attorney Judy Wood about the new biopic Saint Judy

Posted in 2000s, Biopic, Drama, L.A., Migrants, Movies, Refugees, Resistance, Trial, US, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 14, 2019

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

It’s the early 2000s in L.A. Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan), an immigration lawyer and single mom, discovers a shocking case. A young woman – a school teacher who defied Taliban oppression in Afghanistan – is incarcerated in California awaiting deportation. But sending her back to her home village would be like a death sentence. Why isn’t she considered a refugee? Trouble is women are not a minority group, and her religion, language and nationality – Muslim and Pashtun – are the same as her oppressors. Which means she’s not a “persecuted minority” and doesn’t qualify for asylum. What can she do?

Saint Judy is a new biopic based on real events that tells the story of this important trial. It centres on Judy Wood, an immigration lawyer – still practising in LA – who changed the Law of Asylum.

I spoke to Judy in Los Angeles via telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM in Toronto.

Saint Judy has its Canadian Premier on Thursday, June 20 in Oakville, and its Toronto VOD launch on Friday, June 21 at the Revue Cinema in a benefit for Sistering.  Judy Wood will appear in panel discussionsat both screenings.

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Light on their feet. Dykes in the Street, We are the Radical Monarchs, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, Diamantino

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, documentary, Fantasy, Feminism, Folk, LGBT, Movies, Music, Portugal, Protest, Refugees, Sports, Toronto, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 24, 2019

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

Spring festival season continues in Toronto with Inside Out LGBT Film Festival. It premiers queer movies and docs from around the world. This week I’m talking about films at InsideOut and some general releases.There’s a musician who’s a light foot, a soccer player who is light on his feet, and some women marching in solidarity, boots on the ground.

Inside Out LGBT Film Festival

Inside Out opened last night and runs for the next 10 days. It features some major releases, like the Elton John Biopic Rocketman, Mindy Kaling’s Late Night, and the latest chapters in Armistead Maupin’s amazing serial Tales of the City.

I’m not allowed to talk about any of those films yet, but let me tell you about a couple of great new docs on radical lesbians.

Dykes in the Street

Dir: Almerinda Travassos

…looks at the evolution of the dyke march in Toronto over the past 35 years. It started in 1981 with 300 women matching down Yonge and Bay streets organized by Lesbians Aganst the Right. This informative documentary combines talking heads with historical footage from the period. It talks to women who were there then and at subsequent marches ten, fifteen and thirty-five years later, as it becomes more inclusive and diverse.

Another radical lesbian documentary is shot in Oakland California:

We Are the Radical Monarchs

Dir: Linda Goldstein Knowlton

…tells about a new alternative to scouts and girl guides. Founded by Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest the Radical Monarchs go camping, learn fun songs and chants and earn badges. But they also wear berets reminiscent of the Black Panther Party, and learn about social justice activism and black and brown history in Oakland.  There’s even a Black Lives Matter badge! Adorable kids working for a good cause.

These are just a few of the dozens of great movies playing at InsideOut.

Diamantino

Wri/Dir: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt

Diamantino (Carloto Cotta) is a Portuguese soccer player at the top of his game. Like no other player, he can weave his way through a crowded field as if he’s all alone. His secret power? he sees other players as enormous fluffy pink dogs frolicking in the grass. That’s the source of his success. Diamantino is fit, popular and incredibly rich. He owns a mansion and a yacht. He’s also naïve, gullible and very stupid. Which makes him vulnerable to adversaries and villains alike.

When he first encouters refugees he is so upset he decides to adopt a teenaged boy from Africa who loves soccer. What he doesn’t realize is the “teenaged refugee” is actually the much older Aisha (Cleo Tavares) a gorgeous, lesbian secret agent. She is working undercover to find evidence of fraud and corruption in Diamantino’s many businesses.

Diamantino also has twin sisters, Sonia and Natasha (Anabela and Margarida Moreira), the real villains. They depend on their brother to finance their lavish lifestyle and don’t want to lose it… so they start spying on the spy. Something seems suspicious about that boy. Throw in some right-wing nationalists who want Diamantino to endorse their cause, and an evil scientist named Dr Lamborghini (Carla Maciel) – who drives a Lamborghini! –  and you can see all the obstacles our hero has to face. Can Diamantino survive a cruel world and remain a soccer great?

Diamantino is a bizarre and fantastical comedy, an explosion of pastel eye-candy across the screen. It’s told in an exaggerated storybook style, but deals with important issues. I can’t keep calling every movie “like nothing you’ve ever seen” but it’s safe to say this one really is.

I liked this one a lot.

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind

Wri/Dir: Martha Kehoe, Joan Tosoni

Like many Canadians I’ve heard of Gordon Lightfoot and vaguely familiar with some of his songs. But before watching this documentary I knew little about his life. Originally from Orillia Ontario, he worked his way through the folk scene in Toronto’s Yorkville and NY City’s Greenwich Village. He studied music in LA and learned to compose and arrange at an early stage, and began writing his poetic lyrics even earlier. His widely covered songs range from traditional folk melodies, to country and western, pop, rock and even the long neglected ballad genre. (The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – a six-and-a-half minute retelling of a shipwreck the year before, became an unexpected smash hit in the 1970s.)

This movie fills in a lot of gaps about his music, his career, personal problems (like alcoholism) and the meaning behind many of his lyrics. It shows him composing, recording and performing his hits, giving an inside perspective rarely seen. My only criticism is it didn’t need the overwrought ass-kissery, celebrity musicians gushing about how great Lightfoot is. (He knows it, and we know it – it feels like a eulogy, and he’s very much alive.) Luckily, that only takes up about 10-15 minutes. The rest of the documentary is outstanding, with unequalled visual and sound research. They found a recording of him singing in the church choir as a teenager, and footage of him chatting with Alex Trebec in the 1960s. There are countless family photos and films and period shots of Toronto streets meticulously covering sixty years. Just amazing. And all his best songs and performances spread out from beginning to end, getting better and better as it goes.

I went in expecting nothing, and was blown away by this great music doc.

Gordon Lightfoot and Diamantino both open today in Toronto at Hot Docs cinema and theTiff Bell Lightbox, respectively. Check your local listings. Dykes in the Street and We are the Radical Monarchs are two of many fine movies at Inside Out over the next 10 days.

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

In Transit. Films reviewed: Mirai, A Private War, Transit

Posted in 1940s, Animation, France, Germany, Japan, Journalism, Refugees, Time Travel, War, WWII by CulturalMining.com on November 9, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

Toronto Fall festival season continues with EU festival on now – free movies at the Royal every night! Ekran Polish film festival, and ReelAsian paving new ground, with everything from a doc on gourmet Filipino cuisine, to an intriguing and moving Virtual Reality narrative by Paisley Smith called Homestay.

This week, I’m looking at three movies about people in transit. There’s a WWII refugee running away from the Nazis; a female war journalist rushing toward the battlefront; and a little boy in Japan jumping back and forth between the past and the future.

Mirai

Wri/Dir: Hosoda Mamoru

Kun-chan is a little kid in Japan who lives with his parents and his dog Yukko. He likes drawing and playing with trains. His mom and dad dote on him, until they have a new baby, a girl named Mirai (which means the future). Suddenly, the baby is the centre of attention. His dad works freelance at home now, while mom goes to work. When they’re not working, they’re taking care of Mirai. But who’s paying attention to Kun-chan? Nobody! He seeks refuge in their yard, an enclosed courtyard around an old oak tree. And that’s where strange things start to happen whenever he’s alone. His dog turns into a prince. And then Mirai appears as a teenaged version of herself – it’s future Mirai, there to advise Kunchan on how to treat his little sister. This opens the door to other figures from his family’s past and future to help him handle his problems.

Mirai is a good example of watchable Japanese anime. Lots of flying, some scary parts, and time travel. It’s clearly aimed at kids — with tame content and characters – but it does handle issues like gender roles and family matters. I like Hosoda’s films because they navigate where the supernatural interacts with the ordinary – like Wolf Children from 2012. But in Mirai you can never be sure if the supernatural scenes are real or just in the little boy’s head.

A Private War

Dir: Matthew Heineman

It’s 21st century London. Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), originally from Oyster Bay Long Island is now a star reporter for the Sunday Times. She smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish and curses like a sailor. And for good reason: she’s at the front lines of the bloodiest wars of the century. She lost her left eye in a gun battle in Sri Lanka, and now wears a black patch, pirate-style. Why does she do it? So she can tell the world what’s really going on the death, starvation and horribleness of war. A mass grave in Faluja, starvation in Homs, Syria. She travels with Paul (Jamie Dornan) a young freelance photographer in awe at Marie’s bravery, always the first one when the bombs are falling. She’s been in more battles than the average soldier. And She keeps sexually satisfied with an array of lovers in every port, including her ex-husband and a London financier named Tony (Stanley Tucci). But you can’t live on th edge without suffering blowback, including PTSD and deppression. Is Marie a hero or an alcoholic with a death wish?

A Private War is a gripping and thrilling drama. The director, Heineman, is known for documentaries, not movies, which gives this film a “you are there” immediacy rarely scene in war movies. Very realistic. The movie doesn’t delve very deeply into the politics of war – it never asks why Bush and Blair were in Iraq or NATO in Libya; instead it concentrates on how war really affects ordinary people. Rosamund Pike is amazing as Marie Colvin and opened my eyes about war journalism.

I liked this movie.

Transit

Dir: Christian Petzold

It’s WWII. Georg (Franz Rogowski) is a German refugee living in Paris when the Nazi’s are about to march in. And the French police are doing their work, rounding up immigrants and sending them to a transit camp inside the Velodrome. Georg knows he has to get out of their, fast. And he needs money. So he accepts a paid job: bring a sealed letter to a stranger – a writer – holed up in a paris hotel room. But he gets there too late, the man has killed himself in desperation. If only he had waited one more day – the letter promised money, visas, and tickets on a ship to Mexico. Thinking quickly, Georg pockets the letter, grabs the man’s manuscript and heads south with his friend as stowaways on a freight train. Once in Marseilles, he establishes himself as a person in transit – just stopping over – to avoid arrest, andtakes on the identity of the dead man. And he keeps encountering a beautiful woman, Marie (Paula Beer), who is searching for her husband. She knows he’s in Marseilles, but she can’t find him. But what neither of them realize is the phantom husband she keeps missing is Georg himself, in his new identity.

Transit is a great new movie about the precarious lives of refugees and undocumented migrants running for their lives. The movieis based on a novel written during the WWII, but Christian Petzold tries something I’ve never seen before. It’s the 1940s but it’s also right now. It’s shot in present-day France, with modern cars and clothing, an ethnically diverse population, and police dressed in current riot gear. Paula Beer (amazing in Frantz) and the distinctive-looking Rogowski (terrific in Happy End and Victoria) perfectly capture the alienation and uncertainty of present-day Europe. And – no spoilers – but, as usual, Petzold saves some of the biggest and best surprises for the end… with a one-two punch to the gut.

Great movie.

Mirai is playing tomorrow at the ReelAsian film festival. Look for A Private War opening next Friday and Transit starting 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.

Middle Class, Middle East. Films reviewed: Ava, The Insult

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, High School, Iran, Lebanon, Movies, Palestine, Refugees, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 2, 2018

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

Looking for new things to watch other than big studio crap? Here’s what to look out for in February. It’s Black History Month, and Toronto’s Black Film Festival is coming up this month. The Goethe Foundation is showing movies set in Asia by Ulrike Ottinger. At TIFF Cinematheque they’ve got a retrospective of French New Wave director Philippe Garrel. To name just a few…

This week, though, I’m looking at two dramas about the Middle Class in the Middle East. There’s a teen drama set in Iran about a dare, and a courtroom drama in Lebanon about an insult.

Ava

Wri/Dir: Sadaf Foroughi

Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is a high school girl in Iran. An only child, she’s pretty but determined and self-confident. She lives with her mom, a psychiatrist, and her dad when he’s not out of town. She brightens up her obligatory, all-back uniform with some red Converse running shoes and a backpack. Her prized possession is her metronome. Her life consists of violin lessons, studying for exams, and hanging with her best friend Melody. Another friend Shirin, is a know-it-all always putting her down so she bets she can get a guy, Nima, to go out with her. She knows him from music lessons where he accompanies her on the piano… and she thinks he’s cute.

So she arranges an elaborate plot where she says she’s going to study with Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi), but actually plans to meet up with Nima, and drop by Shirin’s place to show him off so she can win the bet. Easy as pie. Except Shirin isn’t home – so no bet – and worse, when she sneaks back to Melody’s place her suspicious mom is there going ballistic and taking it out on Melody and her mom. And when Ava arrives her mom’s all Where were you? what did you do? Why did you lie? Then she drags Ava to a doctor to check that her virginity is intact!

In school the next day it gets even worse, with teachers searching through her backpack for forbidden things (whatever that may be). Even the school principal lectures all the girls about the dangers of doing the unspeakable with their unmentionables! She lost the bet, is humiliated in front of everyone, forbidden to see her best friend, and forced to quit her music lessons. All this, even though she didn’t do anything. Her stress and frustration rises to a boiling point and she has a meltdown in class.

Why is her mom so worried about her daughter having premarital sex? Can Ava pull her life back together, pass her exams, play violin at the recital, make up with her friends and family and maybe get back together with her non-boyfriend Nima? Or is her life ruined?

Ava might sound like a YA soap opera, but it’s actually a realistic coming-of-age drama about life in contemporary Iran. This is a good movie, surprisingly mature for a first feature. It has the look of an arthouse flick, with experimental camera work — like characters shot from behind, from above, from far away, with parts of them obscured, or even out of the frame entirely. And Jabari is excellent as Ava.

The Insult

Dir: Ziad Doueiri

Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is an engineer working on contract for the city. He supervises dozens of workers who repair potholes, drainage and infrastructure. He’s at the height of his career, known for his skill, diligence and bringing projects in under budget, while still looking out for the little guy.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) runs his own business, an auto repair shop, fixing BMWs. He lives in a second floor apartment with his pregnant wife. The young couple are saving up to buy their first home. Everything’s peachy until one day Tony spills dirty water through a faulty drainage pipe all over Yasser on the street below. Yasser calls Tony a rude name, but later fixes the pipe at the city’s expense. Tony smashes it to pieces. Words escalate with neither side apologizing for their insults. Until Tony voices the ultimate insult, and Yasser responds by beating him up.

Seems like a small problem, easily solved, right? Wrong. It turns into a lawsuit and the ensuing trial captures the attention of the whole country, leading to riots, molotov cocktails, even a meeting with the President of Lebanon. What is so important about this dispute? Yasser is Palestinian and Tony is Maronite Christian, and their disputes go back for generations, including the bloody, 15-year-long Lebanese civil war.

Their two lawyers, both working pro bono, are the famous Wajda Webb on Tony’s side and rising legal eagle Nadine working for Yasser. Both sides discover hidden histories from their two clients’ pasts, as victims and perpetrators of some of the massacres that tore the region apart: Black September in Jordan, Damour, Sabra and Shatilla.

The Insult has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and I understand why. It manages to handle controversial topics in a sometimes humorous, sometimes serious manner. The movie is told from Tony’s point of view, and therefore that of Maronite Christians as a group – including his political influences, their role in the civil war and Tony’s personal memories. That said, it is respectful and sympathetic to Yasser’s side and takes pains to portray him in a positive way. And Kamal El Basha gives a great performance as Yasser, both subtle and explosive at appropriate places.

The Insult is a good crash course in Lebanese modern history.

Ava and The Insult are both playing now 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 Sherwan Haji about The Other Side of Hope

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Drama, Finland, Kurds, Refugees, Syria by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

Photos 1,3 by Jeff Harris

Khaled is a mechanic in Aleppo when the bombs start to fall, killing most of his family. He flees Syria and makes his way through Europe until he finds sanctuary in Helsinki, Finland. But when he applies for refugee status he is turned down, and threatened with deportation. He ends up living on the streets… until he is given a job in an unusual restaurant, recently bought by an eccentric, older man looking for a career change. Khaled is searching for his lost sister even as he runs from police, government agents and neo-Nazis. Can his new job show him the Other Side of Hope?

The Other Side of Hope is filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film. It shows the plight of refugees in Finland as well as the endearing — if oddball — characters, live musicians and an ineffable aesthetic unique to Kaurismäki’s films. It stars Sherwan Haji as Khaled. Sherwan himself is originally from Syria, where he acted on TV. He now continues his accomplished career of acting and filmmaking in Europe.

I spoke to Sherwan on site at Films We Like in Toronto in September 2017, during TIFF.

The Other Side of Hope opens today in Toronto.

Looking for trouble. Films reviewed: Thelma, Amerika Square, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Posted in Coming of Age, Greece, Norway, Racism, Refugees, Supernatural, Vengeance, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 17, 2017

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

More fall film festivals: The EU Film Fest brings free movies from across Europe to Toronto; and look out for the all-Canadian horror festival called Blood in the Snow – BITS for short – coming next weekend.

We all face trouble at times, but some people seem to invite it. This week I’m looking at movies about people getting into trouble. There’s a bigot in Athens trying to make trouble, a young woman in Oslo trying to avoid trouble, and a middle-aged woman in Missouri who acts like trouble is her middle name.

Thelma

Dir: Joachim Trier

It’s present day Norway. Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a teenaged girl at university in Oslo who is living on her own for the very first time. She was homeschooled by devout Christian parents including a very strict father. Aside from frequent calls from her parents checking up on her, Thelma is suddenly free to discover life on her own. She gets invited to parties, drinks beer, has arguments about politics, and flirts with an obnoxious boy who pursues her relentlessly. It’s thrilling, but also scary. Strange things seem to happen around her when she’s nervous. When she really starts to panic she shakes, shivers, and collapses into what look like epileptic seizures. But are they? And all around her nature seems to react: birds crash into windows, leaves rustle, then things start to shake, break and shatter.

Anja (Kaja Wilkins) is one of her classmates who looks out for her. They seem to have a psychic bond, meeting almost at random – when athelma wants to see her, she seems to just appear. More than that, there’s a strong sexual attraction between the two of them. But Thelma is afraid to tell her the truth: when she thinks hard enough she unleashes forces that can make people… disappear!

Thelma is a terrific coming of age drama full of suspense, mystery and the supernatural. It’s been called the Norwegian Carrey – fundamentalist christian girl with telekinetic powers – but it’s also totally different. She’s not bullied, she’s not weak, and there’s a fascinating love story in the mix.

Harboe and Wilkins — great as Thelma and Anja — are both new faces I want to see more of.

Amerika Square

Dir: Yannis Sakandis

Present-day Athens. Billy (Yannis Stankoglou) is a chill tattoo artist who runs his own shop. He looks like a young Bruce Springsteen in a diverse, workingclass neighbourhood. He lives in an apartment block near Amerika Square, a rundown local park. He just wants to live his life. Tarek (Vassilis Koukalani) is a Syrian refugee with a small daughter. He wants to make his way to safety in Germany, but keeps failing. And when he gets separated from his daughter he breaks into panic mode. Tereza (Ksenia Dania) is a beautiful, biracial nightclub singer (who speaks Greek). She wants to escape local hoodlums who control her. She meets Billy when she asks him to rewrite her tattoo and free her from virtual slavery. Is there something more between Billy and Tereza? Nakos (Makis Papadimitriou) is overweight and underemployed. He’s in his late thirties but still lives with his parents. He is obsessed with foreigners – he methodically counts how many live in the apartment and worries there will be more immigrants than Greeks. They’re changing everything and taking over! he says. His own parents migrated to Athens from a small village, but he considers the square his own. And he’s willing to do almost anything to drive the immigrants out. Will this include murder?

Amerika Square is a good drama about the current conflicts in Athens and across Europe. It looks at the plight of refugees and migrants, locals who welcome them, and the rise of rightwing groups who violently oppose immigration. It follows an ensemble cast in a complex storylines that all comes together in the end, along with a few ironic plot twists.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Wri/Dir: Martin McDonagh

Mildred (Frances McDormand) is a divorced woman who runs a gift shop in tiny Ebbing Missouri. She’s been on edge since her teenaged daughter was brutally raped and murdered. The police have yet to charge anyone with the crime. So she rents three derelict billboards on a road near her home. The billboards, like giant Burma Shave signs, ask in garish letters, why Police Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) hasn’t caught the killer. But when the story is picked up by local media, the powers that be fight back: highschool bullies, her dentist, even a priest. They strongly pressure her to take down the signs, and attack her friends, employees and even her son (Lucas Hedges). But she refuses. This ignites a feud between Mildred and one cop in particular, the corrupt and bigoted Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon lives with his gravelly voiced mother who goads him on to greater and greater acts of violence. But Mildred fights back, upping the ante from words to fistfights, to shooting to firebombing.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri is a satisfying, exciting, but extremely violent movie about irascible characters facing big issues in a small town. I call it cutely violent – which fits with the director’s other movies: In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. The violence is extreme and graphic, but it always retains a touch of humour. Peter Dinklage and Sam Rockwell are back again, but this time a woman is allowed to shine in the lead role, with great results. Frances McDormand is perfect as this hateable/loveable character. Mildred might curse a blue streak but you can still see the heart in this irascible, hard-ass woman.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF17.

Thelma and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri both open today in Toronto; check our local listings.  Amerika Square is playing at Toronto’s European Union Film Festival. Go to euffto.com for details.

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

Daniel Garber talks with director Michèle Hozer and Ramez about Sponsorland

Posted in Canada, documentary, Refugees, Syria, War by CulturalMining.com on November 3, 2017

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

The Syrian civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people, with millions fleeing their homes. Their plight was brought home when the tragic photo of 3-year-old asylum seeker Alan Kurdi hit the news. In Canada, thousands of private sponsors raised money to bring Syrians to safety. But what happened to them when they reached these shores and met their sponsors?

Sponsorland is a new documentary that follows a year in the life of a family of asylum seekers who end up in scenic – but very white — Prince Edward County, Ontario, far from the big city they expected. It also looks at their sponsors and the role they play in welcoming and supporting refugees.

Sponsorland is the work of award-winning filmmaker Michèle Hozer, whose documentaries tell a distinctly Canadian story, celebrating names like Romeo Dallaire, Glenn Gould and Tom Thomson.

This documentary features a family of Syrian refugees with 11 children. Ramez, the second oldest son, is currently a high school student in Picton, Prince Edward County.

I spoke to Michèle in studio at CIUT and to Ramez by telephone.

Sponsorland has its world premier on Wednesday, September 8th at the Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto and on Friday at the Regent Theatre in Picton. It will be broadcast on TVO on November 15th, 18th and 19th.

Made for the Big Screen. Films reviewed: Suburbicon, Human Flow, Faces Places

Posted in 1950s, Anthropology, Art, Clash of Cultures, Crime, documentary, France, Migrants, Refugees, Rural, Suburbs, War by CulturalMining.com on October 27, 2017

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

Do you find it hard to keep up with all these Fall Film Festivals? Here’s some coming in November whose names are nearly self-explanatory: EstDocs shows documentaries from Estonia – This year is Estonia’s 100th anniversary since it first declared itself a republic. ReelAsian is one of Toronto’s biggest festivals, showing features from East and South Asia and their diasporas. And guess what Black Star shows? It’s a curated series of classics at TIFF featuring black movie stars: Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, Sidney Poitier in In The Heat of the Night, and Denzel Washington in Malcolm X.

This week I’m looking at some movies — a thriller and two art documentaries – with strong visual elements that deserve to be seen on the big screen. These films are about migrating across continents, driving across France… or just staying put in the suburbs,

Suburbicon

Dir: George Clooney

It’s the late 50s in a cookie-cutter suburb. Nicky (Noah Jupe) is a twelve year old boy who lives with his mom and dad in a middleclass, white, Episcopalian home. His father, Mr Gardner (Matt Damon) works at a middle management office job, while his mom (Julianne Moore) stays at home. She uses a wheelchair to get around since she was almost killed in a car accident a year earlier. Her sister (also played by Juliane Moore) helps out around the house. Life is bland, suburban and normal.

Then two big things happen.

First, a middle class black family moves into the house behind theirs. This makes Nicky happy because they have a son his age– someone he can play baseball with. His all-white neighbours, though, didn’t like it one bit, and try to intimidate them into moving away. The second thing is a home invasion by a pair of lowlife criminals. They tie up the family to chairs at the dinner table and knock them out with ether. And when Nicky wakes up, his mom is dead and the killers are gone. Stranger still, his aunt quickly moves in to take her place and dyes her hair to look exactly like his real mom. What’s going on?

Then things get worse. White violence scalates against their new black neighbours escalates. A detective visits Gardner at his office investigating his wife’s murder. He’s suspicious. So is an insurance investigator. Then the killers themselves show up again making new demands. What do they want from him? When Nicky catches his Dad and his fake-mom in a compromising position on the pingpong table he realizes something is very wrong.

Suburbicon is a zany — but violent – mystery/thriller that looks at the dark side of a 1950s suburb, as seen through the eyes of a little boy. It also deals with segregation, but that’s really just a subplot — an attempt to give it relevance. It’s written by Joel and Ethan Coen, with the usual over-the-top violence and absurdist comedy, but it doesn’t feel like a Coen Brothers movie. This is George Clooney’s work. Aesthetically, it’s amazing, with incredible art direction that brings to life a stylized version of suburban America.

It’s a fun story, but that’s all it is — entertaining fluff.

Human Flow

Dir: Ai Weiwei

Millions of people around the world are housed temporarily in makeshift shelters. These refugees flee their homes or villages in fear for their lives. Many more are migrating across borders looking for a place to call home, now that war or famine or poverty has made their previous homes uninhabitable. This human flow, these crowds of people risk their lives qs they walk through deserts, through fields and cities, crossing oceans in leaky boats, as they search for sanctuary.

This movie follows refugees and migrants around the world: Rohingya in Bangladesh, Syrians walking through Europe, central Americans climbing those walls at the US/Mexican border. It takes us to Gaza, Kenya, Afghanistan, Turkey and Hungary, looking at how these people fare in unwelcoming environs.

Human Flow is huge, epic in scope and very long for a documentary – almost 2 ½ hours. It takes you to different locations without any narrative or order, punctuated with poetic quotes and info scrolling across the screen. There are some exciting parts — like the rescue of migrants in boats on the Mediterranean – but much of the film has a constant “flow”, just drifting to scene after scene. Ai Weiwei is primarily an artist so the filming is gorgeous and grandiose. It uses drone shots looking down from way, way up in the air where refugee camps look like tiny white pills arranged in neat rows. Then it zooms down, until you gradually see what looks like ants and then finally, real people with faces. Human Flow is visually stunning and informative.

I just wish it were an hour shorter.

Faces Places (Visages Villages)

Wri/Dir: Agnes Varda and JR

Agnes Varda is the Belgian-born artist and filmmaker who rose to fame in the French New Wave. JR is a contemporary artist known for his postering. He plasters his work — giant-sized, black and white paper photos – onto outdoor walls. Together they travel across France taking pictures of ordinary people they meet on their way: a coal miners daughter, a waitress, a farmer, and a woman who raises goats. They also pay homage to important figures from Agnes’s past: a man who modeled for her on the beach, the grave of photographer Cartier-Bressson, and Jean-Luc Godard’s home.

They make strange pair. Agnes is short, with a pageboy haircut, her white hair partly dyed with a red halo around the fringe. She’s 88. JR is tall and lanky. He won’t reveal his real name and keeps his face disguised with a fedora and dark glasses. He’s 33. They travel in JR’s little truck that has the image of a camera lens on the side. It functions as a photobooth that prints out the huge paper photos he take. And Agnes films it all, recording the process and people’s honest reactions to JRs art. The posters might wash off of walls by the next high tide , but they will remain longer on film.

Faces Places is a delightful personal documentary about art and photography, both still and in motion.  It shows us the transience of people and images.

Human Flow is now playing, and Suburbicon and Faces, Places 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.

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