Balkan stories. Films reviewed: You Won’t Be Alone, Întregalde, The White Fortress

Posted in Bosnia, Class, Fairytales, Folktale, Roma, Romance, Romania, Witches by CulturalMining.com on March 26, 2022

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

Movie theatres are finally open again, for real. I mean munching-popcorn-and-seeing-silly-movies-on -the-big-screen real. I went to a preview of The Lost City, sort of a remake of the 80s hit Romancing the Stone, starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum. It’s totally goofy, but I really liked seeing a movie I could watch  and enjoy without my critical eye. It’s what I call a popcorn movie.

This week we’re escaping to the Balkans, for three stories set in Romania, Macedonia and Bosnia–Herzegovina. There are three do-gooders stuck in the mud, two teenagers falling in love, and one girl promised to an evil witch on her 16th birthday.

You Won’t Be Alone

Wri/Dir: Goran Stolevski

It’s 19th century Macedonia, a time when people still believed in witches and  folklore. In particular there’s a wolf-like witch who terrorizes a village by devouring their babies. One woman dares to talk back. She appeals to Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca) a hideously ugly woman covered in scars, not to killer her infant. In exchange she can have her when she’s a young woman, someone to take care of her in her old age. The witch agrees, but first marks her and takes away her tongue. But the next 16 years are neither  childhood nor girlhood. Mother keeps her isolated in a deep dark cave, hoping the witch will never find her. But of course she does and takes her away. Says the witch — this world is a terrible place, peopled by liars and killers. So you must learn to kill. But the girl is overwhelmed by the beauty of blue skies and green fields. She loves living, from rabbits to fish, and cherishes them all. IN frustration the witch sets her free, vowing she will soon learn how awful people are. Turns out the watch is partly right — people can be cruel. And learn she does. Her long claws frighten them until she realizes she can change her appearance… but first she must find someone who just died, be they male or female, young or old, and put their beating heart into her chest. Thus begins her search for love in this hideous and wondrous world. 

You Won’t Be Alone is a highly impressionistic retelling of a classic folktale, filled with sex, nudity, violence. The characters rarely speak, rather a constant voiceover tells the girl’s thoughts using childlike stilted words. The camera drifts in and out, changing point of view from  human to witch to wolf. The film was shot in Serbia with an international cast, including the Swedish Noomi Rapace  (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, and Lamb), The French Carloto Cotta (Diamantino)  and many others. But don’t expect a traditional supernatural fairytale, cause it’s not. It’s more of a poetic, feminist art-piece about witchery, ignorance and nature. If you look at it that way, you’ll probably love it.

Întregalde

Co-Wri/Dir: Radu Muntean

(I previously interviewed Radu about One Floor Below).

It’s a food bank in big-city Romania where volunteers are happily putting together care packages for the needy. Three of them — Maria, Dan and Iliac (Maria Popistasu, Alex Bogdan, Ilona Brezoianu) are ready for an adventurous and rewarding day. But they’re not visiting poor families in the city; rather, they’re heading for a remote town deep in the woods, where relief is needed most. But where the paved roads end, trouble begins. They meet an old man named Kente (Luca Sabin) on the road and offer him a ride. He tells strange and disgusting stories about the local area (is he a visionary or merely demented?) But when their car gets stuck in the mud, frustration turns to anger and none of them car get the car back to the main road. When they get hungry they are forced to dig into the supplies meant for the poor. They finally decide to split up and look for help at a local wood mill. But it’s getting darker and colder as night-time approaches. Will they ever find their way out of this strange forest?

Întregalde — I’m guessing the title is a pun on Transylvania — is a social satire about how good intentions don’t always lead to good results. It’s told like a fairytale, set in a complex, polyglot world, but there are no vampires here. The only monsters are issues like elder abuse, homophobia, marital problems and anti-Roma prejudice. But don’t worry, it’s not a heavy-issues movie — although there are some shockingly realistic scenes — rather it’s a humorous look at our own preconceptions. 

The White Fortress 

Wri/Dir: Igor Drljaca

(I previously interviewed Igor about KrivinaIn Her Place,  and reviewed his film The Stone Speakers.)

Faruk (Pavle Cemerikic) is a teenaged boy with pale blue eyes in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzogovina. He has no memory of his dad, and his mom — a concert pianist — died when he was young. He lives with his grandmother in a housing block. He earns pocket money working with his uncle selling scrap metal for a few bucks. But he wants more. So he takes on small jobs for a local crime boss. He wants Faruk to find a girl and trick her into working as a prostitute. He builds up his courage and approaches a stranger in shopping mall and gives her his telephone number. And to both their surprise, she actually calls him back.

Mona (Sumeja Dardagan) is a young woman from a privileged family, the only daughter of a corrupt politician. She studies English but can’t stand what her parents represent. They are still strangers, but they soon fall in love, together exploring the hidden spaces of Sarajevo. But how long can it last? Mona’s parents plan to send her off to Toronto. The crime boss has cruel intentions, while her family is even more dangerous. Is their love destined for failure? Or like a fairytale will they both live happily ever after?

The White Fortress is a coming of age drama about young lovers from different planets and the obstacles they face. Its beautiful cinematography caresses Sarajevo’s cityscapes and lingers on Faruk and Mona’s eyes, faces and bodies. Pavle Cemerikic is outstanding as Faruk; we really see inside his soul. The White Fortress is a lovely but melancholy romance.

The White Fortress is now available at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox; Întregalde opens in Toronto at the beautiful Paradise Cinema on March 29th; and You Won’t Be Alone starts theatrically on April 1st; 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

Female saviours. Films reviewed: The 355, The King’s Daughter, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Posted in 1600s, Action, Espionage, Fairytales, France, High School, Mermaids, Porn, Roma, Romania, violence, Women by CulturalMining.com on January 29, 2022

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

Movie theatres are re-opening on Monday, at 50% capacity. That means the movies they’ve been banking are all coming out in the next little while — brace yourselves. So this week, I’m looking at three new movies about women: an action-thriller, a historical romance, and a social satire. There’s a teacher who wants to save her job, a princess who wants to save a mermaid, and a group of spies who want to save the planet.

The 355

Co-Wri/Dir: Simon Kinberg

In a Colombian jungle a drug lord is handing off a major sale to an international criminals, when something goes wrong. In the scuffle a computer drive disappears. It’s the hard drive, not the drugs that’s so valuable. It holds the ultimate hack: a device that can penetrate and control any computer or system in the world. So Mace (Jessica Chastain) a CIA agent flies to Paris with. Her partner, in and out of bed, to purchase the program. She enlists a former colleague named Khadija (Lupita Nyong’o), a British Mi6 agent to help her out.  Khadija doesn’t want to spy anymore. She’s an academic now, with a lover. But she grudgingly agrees. Meanwhile a Colombian desk agent named Graciela (Penelope Cruz) with no fieldwork experience, is flown in to make sure the hand-off goes as planned. But it doesn’t, partly because of a clash with an unknown  woman, named Marie (Diane Kruger). Turns out she’s not a criminal, she an allied spy who works for the German government. And Mace’s erstwhile lover – and partner – is killed.

So now we have four agents, none of whom trust one another, but are forced to work together when they are all declared rogue by their respective agencies. Meanwhile, jet planes are crashing, systems are imploding — just a taste of what the master criminals can do with this hard drive. It’s cyber warfare and the bad guys hold all the cards. So it’s up to them to find the device, save the world, restore their tarnished reputations and be taken off the most wanted list. 

The 355 is a typical, run-of-the-mill action movie. Lots of fights, chases, narrow escapes and shootouts, against exotic locations in Europe, Morocco and Shanghai. I was worried at first that Jessica Chastain would pull another disgusting Zero Dark Thirty glorifying CIA torture in the so-called War on Terror.  But that’s not what this movie is about at all.  It’s a classic James Bond-style movie, but with four agents not one. What’s good about it is the incredible cast — these aren’t female Sylvester Stallone or Vin Diesels. They’re top tier actors — Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Us, and Queen of Katwe; Diane Kruger is a major European actor (In the Fade, The Host, Unknown) best known in North America for Inglourious Basterds, Oscar-winner Penelope Cruz (Pain and Glory, Zoolander 2, To Rome with Love) and everyone knows Jessica Chastain (The Eyes of Tammy Fae,  The Zookeeper’s Wife, Crimson Peak, The Martian,  Mama, Lawless, Take Shelter,, etc). Plus top Chinese star Fan Bingbing (Buddha Mountain, Wheat,) appears in the movie, too (no spoilers). Take it for what it is, great female actors playing kick-ass roles in an enjoyable (through totally forgettable) action flick.

The King’s Daughter

Dir: Sean McNamara

It’s the 17th century in Versailles. Louis XIV, the Sun King (Pierce Brosnan) lives a life of luxury confessing his excesses to priest and confident Père Lachaise (William Hurt). But he realizes his mortality when he is wounded by a bullet.  And France itself is deeply in debt following a long expensive war. So on the advice of an evil doctor (Pablo Schreiber), he orders the dashing Captain Yves (Benjamin Walker) to search for the lost continent of Atlantis and to capture a mermaid there. If he kills the mermaid during a total eclipse he will become the king of France forever — immortal. Meanwhile, Marie Josephe (Kaya Scodelario) has lived since birth in a remote convent, cloistered by nuns. She still manages to learn music, sneaking outside to hone her horseriding and ocean swimming skills. She is suddenly called back to Versailles. Why? Of course, she is the King’s daughter, but only the king knows this. She soon makes friends with the mermaid (Fan Bingbing), communicating telepathically and using music to bring them together. She also falls for to the handsome sailor Yves. But the king has other ideas — to marry her off to a rich duke. Can Marie Josephe marry the man she loves? Will the King ever listen to his daughter? And will he kill the innocent mermaid for his own glory?

The King’s Daughter is a second-rate Disney- princess-type movie, set in a gilded royal palace. It borrows liberally from Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and virtually any of princess-centric fairytales (its narrated by Julie Andrews.) Lots of CGI — generally mediocre, though I like the underwater scenes —  and way too much gilded ornate settings. This is Louis Quatorze, but you wouldn’t know it from the sets. The makeup and costumes don’t even attempt to look like Versailles. We’re talking the era of the Three Musketeers but you wouldn’t know it; it’s so sterilized and dumbed down that it ends up as a  gold-leaf bowl of pablum. Which isn’t surprising from a director of such masterpieces as 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain and Cats & Dogs 3: Paws Unite. I liked Kaya Scodelario she’s very good, but the script and direction are uninspired. If you are a little girl or boy into supernatural princess romances, you just might love this movie, otherwise, for the rest of you, the movie’s not terrible, it’s bearable, it’s just not very good.

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Dir: Radu Jude

Emi (Katia Pascariu) is a teacher  at a prestigious school in Bucharest, Romania. She’s well respected in her profession, and dresses in a conservative grey skirt and jacket. But when her husband takes their laptop into the shop for repairs, some of their private footage is leaked online. And that’s when everything falls apart. They made a sex video for private viewing only, but now it’s everywhere, on tabloid news sites, Facebook and her students’ smartphones. Even after it’s been taken down by Pornhub, copies still circulate. And the parents are angry. She asks the schoolmistress (Claudia Ieremia) to take her side but to no avail. She’s forced to attend a humiliating parent/teacher meeting, held out of doors, to defend her reputation, and explain that a sex tape made by consenting adults in the privacy of their own home is not a crime. But the mob at the meeting disagrees. They insist on showing the tape again right in front of her at the meeting, complete with lewd commentary from some,  and pillorying by the rest. Will she lose her job, or can she emerge from this ordeal unscathed?

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is a scathing indictment of contemporary Romania, in the form of an absurdist comical farce. The movie is divided into three sections. The first part follows Emi on a walk around Bucharest , as she tries to fathom what happened. On the sway she observes random street conversations ranging from obscene to mundane. The camera lingers on signs, billboards and shopwindow, emphasizing the omnipresence of sex there. The second part is a long montage of a series of images — ranging from century old porn, to wartime photos, fascist memorabilia, Patriotic songs, kitschy poetry, nationalistic quotes, Holocaust denial, the persecution of the Roma, and much more. Each image is accompanied by unspoken comments in the form of subtitles. The third part is the outdoor tribunal as Emi is put on the stand before angry parents who want her fired.

The whole film is set within the current pandemic, with everyone in masks for the entire film, whether indoors or out. (This includes the absolutely explicit sex tape, where Emi’s face is sometimes covered but never her or her husband’s rampant genitalia. If you are bothered by explicit sex, do not watch this movie.) That said, it’s hard to watch a movie where people’s faces are covered. That’s a drawback, no matter how you look at it. On the other hand its funny, shocking and eye-opening. And it’s presented as a darkly satirical comedy. I would have liked to have seen more faces; I expect to see lips move when I watch a movie. But at least the middle montage section helps break up the Covid protocols into more digestible parts.

The 355 and the King’s Daughter open in theatres in Toronto on Monday; check your local listings. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is now playing at the Digital Bell Lightbox.

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

Teens. Films reviewed: Bernadette, Minding the Gap, Carmen & Lola

Posted in 1990s, Coming of Age, documentary, Drama, LGBT, Roma, Romantic Comedy, Skateboards, Slackers, Spain, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 15, 2019

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

In your teenaged years, as you span the time between child and adulthood, it’s hard to separate true love from first crush. This week I’m looking at three such comic of age stories. There’s a 15 year old boy with a crush on a French woman; three skateboarders trapped in a rust belt town, and two young women in Spain touched by chance.

Bernadette

Wri/Dir: John Psathis

It’s the summer of 1994 in Forest Lake, a suburb near Chicago. Archie (Sam Straley) is a 15 year old freshman who lives with his single mom (Sarah Shirkey). He plays in a garage band with two other nerds, his best friends Ken and Martin (Johnnie Lim, James Guytin) .  Archie has just one goal: to meet a beautiful, but unapproachable exchange student named Bernadette before she moves back to France in the Fall. Problem is she’s a senior, a lifeguard at the local pool, and is beautiful beyond belief. She also has an older boyfriend, a French prof at the local community college. And she’s surrounded by a gang of bullies, led by by the cruel and vindictive Richtor (Tommy Philbin).

Luckily he gets a job at the park where Bernadette (Marilyn Bass) works. And his boss, Dixon (James Psathis) shows him the ropes. Dixon is a legend at his school — tall, charismatic and known for his sexual prowess. He keeps polaroids of all the women he’s slept with on the wall of the tool shed he’s living in. Anyone else would kill for such a mentor. But not Archie. He can’t stand Dixon, because of his latest conquest. No, it’s not Bernadette he’s sleeping with, it’s Archie’s 33-year-old mom! Will Archie come to terms with Dixon, overcome the bully Richtor, and convince Bernadette that he’s her one true love?

Bernadette is a typical boy-meets-girl coming of age story, but, despite the title is barely about Bernadette at all. It’s about a fatal summer in the life of the hero. This is a cute, indie movie, with a fun cast and an enjoyable story. The plot is not especially original – you can predict most of the plot turns a mile away – but it is nicely done and neatly constructed. And does every new film need to be super-special?

An enjoyable teenage romcom is good enough for me.

Minding the Gap

Dir: Bing Liu

Rockford is a small city in Northern Illinois. It’s filled with vacant warehouses and empty factories, cracking sidewalks and vacant lots. All the empty space makes it a paradise for skateboards and the guys who skate them. This documentary follows the lives of three of them, Kiere, Zack and Bing. Aside from their love of skating, they also share dark pasts. All three of them endured violence and abuse at the hands of their parents. Kiere’s dad beat him as corproaral punishment to discipline him when he did something wrong. He resented it at the time, but now desperately misses his father who died when he was teen. Zack also comes from a family with a history of violence and alcoholism… which he seems to be carrying forward in his own relationship with his girlfriend. A relationship mainly based on their baby boy, not any love they once had for each other. Bing’s story is the most hidden of the three. He coaxes it out of his mother who admits her second husband, Bing’s stepdad, abused both of them…though the nature of his abuse remains unclear.

Minding the Gap follows the three boys as they grow into men in their 20s, all captured by Bing’s video camera. It starts as just shots of the three of them gliding down the streets, but gradually reveals, in a series of interviews, traumatic moments in their lives. And life in a rust belt town, gradually being emptied of its people. I liked this doc, though confessional, reality-show-type docs aren’t my favourite format. It’s a first film, but surprisingly has already been nominated as Best Feature Documentary in this year’s Oscars.

Check it out.

Carmen & Lola

Wri/Dir: Arantxa Echevarría

It’s a housing project outside present day Madrid. Lola (Zaira Romero) is a prickly 16 year old graffiti artist who wants to get out of this place. Her illiterate parents, Paco and Flor, and her little brother Miguel are happy with their life here. They run a stall at an outdoor market, attend an evangelical church and celebrate birthdays and weddings in the traditional Roma style. Lots of singing and dancing with their friends relatives. But Lola wants more. With the help of Paqui (Carolina Yuste) who works at the local community centre she’s trying to pull herself out of traditional roles. At the market she meets the beautiful and glamorous Carmen (Rosy Rodríguez) who also works there. She’s engaged to Lola’s first cousin, and dreams of becoming a hairdresser, one of the few professions open to Roma women.

For Lola, it’s love at first site. She’s enchanted by everything about Carmen, from her little bird-shaped earings to her lithe body and beautiful face. Carmen is everything she desires and she paints grafitti art tributes her on local walls. She teaches her how to swim, so someday they might go to the beach in Malaga together. But Carmen is shocked when Lola expresses her love to her. I’m normal, Lola, not disgusting like you, she says. Kiss a boy, and you’ll see what you’re missing. Lola counters, kiss me, or you’ll never know for sure. Will Carmen and Lola become lovers? Or will her strong community ties make that impossible?

Carmen & Lola is a wonderful romantic drama about an unlikely couple. It’s shot in a realistic style, celebrating Roma culture in Spain, the church services, the music and traditional costumes. She uses non-actors for many of the roles, and never shies away from the racism and poverty they face on a daily basis.

This is a very good love story.

Carmen & Lola and Minding the Gap are both playing at the TIFF Next Wave festival. All tickets are free if you’re 25 or under. Go to tiff.net for details. And Bernadette is premiering at Vancouver’s Just for Laughs and will open later this year.

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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