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

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

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

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

Three Thousand Years of Longing

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

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

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

Alienoid

Wri/Dir: Choi Dong-hoon

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

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

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

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

The Good Boss

Dir: Fernando León de Aranoa 

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

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

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

I enjoyed this one, too.

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

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Jake Wachtel about Karmalink

Posted in Adventure, Buddhism, Cambodia, Drama, Dreams, Housing, Kids, Neuroscience, Poverty, Science Fiction, VR by CulturalMining.com on July 16, 2022

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

It’s the future in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Leng Heng is a teenaged boy who lives with his family in a poor section of town. He has strange dreams, centred on a small, seated buddha made of gold. He believes his dreams are evidence of his past lives. 

Meanwhile, unscrupulous developers are trying to kick his family — and all his friends and neighbours — out of their homes and relocated far from the city. And his Grandma, who suffers from dementia and memory loss,  is visited by a prestigious doctor testing a new sort of therapy. So he asks some of his friends — and a girl named Srey Leak — to help him find the golden Buddha. It’s a fun adventure, and they could all use the money. More than that it would prove his vivid dreams are real, and represent a link to the karma of his past incarnations. But he soon suspects there’s more powers at work here than just his dreams.

Karmalink is a new film out of Cambodia that looks at poverty, history, reincarnation and Buddhism, as well as neuroscience, memory, computer algorithms and virtual reality set against a futuristic Phnom Penh. It’s in Khmer, and stars first- time actors in realistic settings. Unusual, intriguing and a pleasure to watch — you’ve probably never seen any movie quite like it —  Karmalink is Cambodia’s first science fiction film. It’s also the first feature by American filmmaker Jake Wachtel. Originally from the Silicon Valley, he is known for his short documentaries set in the Global South, and his work has been featured in the NY Times, NPR and Wired.

I spoke with Jake Wachtel in Los Angeles via ZOOM.

Karmalink opens in select theatres and on VOD on July 15th.

Daniel Garber talks with Nyla Innuksuk about Slash/Back

Posted in Aliens, Canada, Horror, Indigenous, Inuit, Nunavut, Science Fiction, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 18, 2022

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

It’s summer solstice in Pangnirtung, on Baffin Island Nunavut where the sun is up all night. But a group of teenaged girls — Maika, Jesse, Leena,  Uki and Maika’s little sister Aju — notice something weird is going on. They see a polar bear acting very un-bearlike; and a fisherman who seems less than human. Their blood is black, their skin seems detached from their bodies, they walk in jerky steps, with creepy tentacles that squirm out to suck your blood. Are they monsters? Aliens? Zombies? Whatever they are they’re killing people, and the grown-ups aren’t around to help — they’re all at an annual dance. But nobody messes with the girls of Pang. So it’s up to them to fight back.

Slash/Back is the name of a new alien horror movie set in the arctic. It interweaves traditional Inuit culture with contemporary genre filmmaking. It features a cast of first-time Inuit actors, set against the stunning ice, sky and ocean landscape of Nunavut. Slash/Back is the work of acclaimed producer, writer and director Nyla Innuksuk, who is well-versed in both the technical and creative sides of film-making. And she’s the only film maker I’ve ever heard of who has also co-created a superhero for Marvel Comics!

I spoke with Nyla in Toronto via Zoom.

Slash/Back opens across Canada on Friday, June 26th.

Science or fiction? Films reviewed: Jurassic World Dominion, Brian and Charles

Posted in Action, Adventure, comedy, Dinosaurs, Disaster, Inventions, Science Fiction, Thriller, Wales by CulturalMining.com on June 11, 2022

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

Spring film festival season continues with many more movies coming your way. The Toronto Jewish Film Festival is on now, with a wide range of movies and docs. Coming soon are Focus on Film, specializing in short subjects; The Toronto Japanese Film Festival with brand new movies from Japan; and the Italian Contemporary Film Fest and the Lavazza Inclucity festival set in the distillery district, both indoors and out, featuring Italian and international movies. 

But this week, I’m looking at two new movies — one big budget, the other a shoestring indie — about the intersection of science and fiction.  There’s an action thriller about a Big Agro conspiracy set among giant dinosaurs; and a quaint comedy about an inventor set among the rolling hills of Wales. 

Jurassic World Dominion 

Co-Wri/Dir: Colin Trevorrow

It’s present day on a rapidly-changing earth, earth. Ever since a dinosaur-based theme park was destroyed by a volcano, dinosaurs have been showing up everywhere scaring or even killing people. But governments are keeping them in check. And a multinational big agro corporation called Syntech, has donated an isolated nature reserve in an Italian  mountain range surrounding their headquarters, where the big dinosaurs can live in peace, with no risk to the outside world. Meanwhile, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) an animal rights activists is freeing small dinosaurs enslaved by cruel owners. She lives in the rockies with Owen (Chris Pratt) a man who can train and domesticate Raptors, and 14 year old Maisie (Isabella Sermon) an Australian whom they protcect from the outside world. Maisie has no friend for schoolmates so she, cautiously plays with a young raptor named Beta. She’s kept isolated because they’re afraid certain criminals want to kidnap Maisie and Beta for unknown purposes. Their fears prove correct.

But that’s not all. A plague of locusts are wreaking havoc across American wheat fields plunging the world into a food crisis. And these are no ordinary locusts; they are the size of small dogs. Strangely, the only things they don’t eat are genetically modified grains. Ellie, a scientist (Laura Dern) suspects Big Agro, specifically SynTech. Are they trying to wipe out all competing grains so they can control the world? Ellie aims to find out, so she sets off with archaeologist Alan (Sam Neill) to visit the company’s HQ to collect a sample that will prove they’re behind the plague. They’re invited by Ian (Jeff Goldblum) who works there now and suspects Ellie is right. Turns out, the corporation may also be involved in Maisie’s kidnapping… but why? It’s up to the three scientists plus Claire and Owen to get what they need from the lab without getting eaten by the giant dinosaurs that surround them.

Jurassic World Dominion is a rollickingly good, non-stop action/adventure/thriller that keeps you interested the whole time. It borrows liberally from past Jurassic movies — Ellie, Alan and Ian were in the Jurassic Park, while Claire and Owen were in Jurassic World — as well as Star Wars and Indiana Jones flicks. There are great chase scenes set in Malta — an entrepôt for trade in exotic dinosaurs — where stars like Omar Sy and Dewanda Wise (as a kick-ass pilot), join the gang. It also has a good dose of humour, with funny “news” clips, and constant gags from Jeff Goldblum. There are some questionable storylines: Is the CIA really a kindly agency dedicated to helping animal rights activists? And why is there so much glorification of American assault weapons, fighter jets, and bazookas? But that aside, I really enjoyed this entertaining, big-budget movie. 

Brian and Charles 

Dir: Jim Archer

Wri: David Earl, Chris Hayward

Brian (David Earl) lives in a remote, ramshackle cottage in Wales. He subsists solely on a diet of cabbages and butter. He’s also a jack-of-all-trades, called into the village to unclog a pipe are fix a wire. But his real profession is inventor — he constantly invents new things that never quite work. Like an egg-belt (to carry raw eggs in your belt,  of course) or a combination water bottle and toilet plunger so you can take a sip while you do your plumbing. But one day, he has a revelation. It starts with finding a mannequin head at the village dump. He combines it with a washing machine, some crossed wires and a glowing electrical ball. He’s created a robot to help him do his chores! Of course it doesn’t work, until… a severe thunderstorm strikes the house, and th enext morning, the robot is walking around, tearing things apart, and most surprising of all, it can talk!Like another eccentric British inventor, Caractacus Potts, Brian has created his own Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He names him Charles. 

Charles is seven feet tall  with a glowing blue eye who wears a bowtie and a deerstalker hat. He has AI — artificial intelligence — and is soon smarter than Brian, but with the temper of a five-year-old.  He wants to go to the village — are we there yet? — he wants to eat more cabbages, and he loves to dance. Brian likes going into town to visit Hazel (Louise Brealey) a shy woman he likes. But he insists Charles stay hidden, or something bad might happen. The bad thing is Eddie (Jamie Michie) (pronounced Mickey) the town bully, who with his suspicious wife and his spoiled twin daughters, shoves around everyone he doesn’t like. Can Brian stand up to the bully? Can he save Charles from destruction? And what about Hazel?

Brian and Charles is an adorably charming comedy about friendship, set among the sheep fields of Wales. Charles talks like a robot — Danger! Danger! — while the rest of the cast members (almost everyone is middle aged or elderly)  behave like kids on a school playground. It’s done documentary style, with the camera as the fourth wall, following Brian around wherever he goes. Brian and Charles are not set in any particular period, but neither is it contemporary — no cel phones, computers or flashy cars. This low-budget, indie movie is simplistic, even child-like at times, but all-around delightful. 

Jurassic World Dominion just opened in Toronto; check your local listings; and look out for Brian and Charles next Friday.

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

Advances in Technology. Films reviewed: The Automat, Dope is Death, After Yang

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, Addiction, Adoption, Androids, Canada, documentary, drugs, Eating, Family, New York City, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on March 12, 2022

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

Technology, whether we find it good or bad, always affects our lives. This week, I’m looking at three movies — two documentaries and a science fiction drama — that look at advances in technology. There’s a new type of restaurant a hundred years ago that sells hot food out of metal and glass dispensers; a clinic 50 years ago that uses acupuncture to detox heroin addicts; and a future world where androids serve as siblings.

The Automat

Dir: Lisa Hurwitz

It’s the 1920s in New York and the city is booming. 300,000 women work as stenographers and they — along with everyone else — all need to eat lunch. And one modern restaurant chain, Horn & Hardart’s Automat, is serving them all. Art Deco palaces welcome anyone with a nickel to buy a slice of pie or a cup of steaming French-press coffee expelled through shiny brass dolphin heads. Customers share marble topped tables with whoever sits down beside them.  And behind stacks and rows of pristine glass and metal drawers, a nickel or two dropped in a slot opens the door to a single servings of macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, baked beans, or Salisbury steak all made at a central commissary and shipped out that very same day. At its peak they served 800,000 diners each day in NY and Philadelphia (where the chain was founded). But what goes up must come down. I wandered into an automat just once as a teenager and never went back. It was disgusting, the food looked unpalatable and aside from the novelty of buying a stale, egg salad sandwiches behind a little glass door, I couldn’t see why anyone would go there. But its fans from earlier generations remember it well, swearing by their specialties like strawberry rhubarb pies. 

The Automat is a fun and breezy look at this fabled restaurant chain, and its rise and fall. It interviews former owners, staff and customers, including celebrities like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. And although the doc was shot pretty recently, many of the featured interviewees — like Ruth Bader Ginzburg and Colin Powell — have sadly passed away. This is an interesting doc about an almost forgotten phenomenon.

Dope is Death

Wri/Dir: Mia Donovan (Inside Lara Roxx)

It’s the early 1970s in the South Bronx, NY and heroin use is rampant. Nixon has declared a war on drugs, devoting money to incarceration and maintenance programs (like methadone), but nothing for detoxification and ending addiction. So black, brown and white activists in groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords decided to take action. They occupied Lincoln Hospital and managed to open a detox clinic there. The program was led by Dr Mutulu Shakur, (that’s Tupac Shakur’s step-father, and a separatist activist in the Republic of New Afrika movement.) who tried something new — acupuncture! A half dozen medics went up to Montreal and returned a couple years later as medically-trained acupuncturists, staffing the new clinic, specifically to relieve drug addicts from their need for heroin.

Dope is Death is a brilliant, politically-informed historical documentary that looks at all the people involved in this movement— interviewing former addicts, acupuncturists and political activists. Sadly many were jailed or went underground following a brutal FBI crackdown. This film includes pristine colour footage from the era, along with period posters, photos, and audio  and video interviews. Although most of the film is set in NY city, the story takes us exotic locales from Montreal to Beijing. Sadly this fascinating doc was released during covid, but it’s finally showing on the big screen one day next week in Toronto.

After Yang

Dir: Kogonada

It’s the near future somewhere in the world. Kyra and Jake (Jodie Turner-Smith, Colin Farrell) are a happily married couple with a daughter named Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). To help Mika cope with differences (Mika is Black and English, Jake white and Irish, and she was adopted as an infant from mainland China)  they purchase an android named Yang. He is programmed to help Mika discover fun facts about her heritage and learn to speak Chinese. Yang  (Justin H Min) is like a gentle adult brother, there to explain and comfort her while her parents are away (mom works in an office, while dad sells tea leaves   — his obsession — out of a small shop). But when Yang malfunctions and stops working altogether,  that is, he dies, little Kyra is devastated, sending the family on a downward spiral. It’s up to Jake to try to bring them back together by preserving Yang’s thoughts and memories. But in trying to save him, Jake discovers new things about their lives, and Yang’s, things he knew nothing about.

After Yang is an unusual science fiction movie, without space ships, laser beams, or violence of any kind. In this future world people (or at least this family) live in stunning glass and wooden houses and dress in colourful hand-sewn clothing. They hilariously compete as a family in online dancing competitions (this has to be seen to be believed). Jake’s investigations uncover Yang’s hidden past lives, before he lived with them, including a woman he was in love with. This is a very low-key and visually-pleasing look at a future just like our present but prettier… and where artificial intelligence plays a crucial  part in our lives. It also deals with privacy, death, technology and everyday middle class problems. The director incorporates experimental film techniques in the movie, things like multiple repetitions of some of the lines to convey the way we — or an android — might remember things. Characters rarely show strong emotions; everything is repressed.  And to tell you the truth, not much happens. So while not completely satisfying, After Yang is still a pleasure to watch.

After Yang opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Hot Docs Cinema is featuring special screenings of The Automat and Dope is Death next week, with the directors present for Q&As; go to hotdocs.ca for details.

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

Hope? Films reviewed: The Matrix Resurrections, Try Harder, American Underdog

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

New Year’s Day is a good time to look toward the future and make plans. So this week I’m looking at three new movies, a drama, a documentary, and a science fiction action /thriller, about looking forward. There’s a football player who dreams of playing for the NFL, a group of high school students who dream of going to Stanford, and a video game creator who dreams of a world completely different from our  own. 

The Matrix Resurrections

Co-Wri/Dir: Lana Wachowski 

Tom Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is a video game maker and programmer in Chicago. His baby is a series called The Matrix —0 there have been three versions so far and the company is thinking of creating a fourth. The game — created and programmed by Tom and financed by his business partner (Jonathan Groff) — is about two fighters named Neo and Trinity who fight in a parallel world against a villain named Smith. At a cafe Tom frequents, he notices a woman named Tiffany (Carrie-Anne Moss), and she notices him, too. Have they met? No, but Trinity and Neo, the characters in the game, look very similar to Tiffany and Tom. And Tom has been having weird dreams and deja vu, so his analyst (Neil Patrick Harris) gives him meds  — blue pills — to keep his mind from wandering. That is, until one day glitches start to appear on his computer matrix, unexplained activity within his own designs. These soon morph into changes in real life: people, (actually characters he created) are appearing in the office! And they know who he is… Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a fighter, and Morpheus (Yahya Abdul Mateen II) are their to explain it all. 

You’re not Tom, they say, you’re Neo. And it isn’t your dreams that are false, it’s your daily life that’s made up. You can pass through mirrors, climb walls, jump off roofs and fly! And if he just stops swallowing those blue pills he’ll see what the world is really like — a futuristic dystopia of people kept alive in rusty pods guarded by scary bots. Will he stay in his current world or break free? What awaits him in the other world? And will Tiffany/Trinity come with him if he goes?

The Matrix Resurrections is the long awaited sequel to the famous Matrix trilogy that has permeated our popular culture. People still use the terms “swallowing the blue pill” to refer to those who go about their daily lives ignoring a darker reality. It incorporates older footage in the forms of dreams and flashbacks, while introducing new characters as well as new actors playing older roles. It’s two and half hours long, much of which is gun fights, chase scenes, and endless SGI images.

Does it work? I’m not a Matrix fanboy, so I have no deep, vested interest in finding out what happens to these characters. I like the new plot twists, and the whole meta-aspect of it (it initially presents the previous episodes as existing in this universe but only as video games). And it’s fun just to watch (though a bit too long). I enjoyed this final version of the Matrix, but it didn’t change my life.

Try Harder

Dir: Debbie Lum

San Francisco’s Lowell School, known for its exceptional test scores and a graduation rate of nearly 100%, is one of the most famous public schools in California. Students there are under pressure — from their parents, other students, and themselves, to achieve high marks, SAT scores and ultimately to get into a prestigious university. This documentary looks at five students as they try to navigate the stress of senior year. 

The film follows the students at school, in their classes, at teams and clubs, and at home. The school — like the city — has a large Asian-American population, mainly of Chinese origin, but explores the stark differences as well, of class race and culture. Some are the kids of recent immigrants, while others are a part of the city’s long history. It also looks at differences in attitudes and stereotypes. This film doesn’t try to dig too deeply or uncover surprising turns; rather it observes and talks to the subjects and lets nature take its course — as they apply to universities and change their expectations over the course of the year. Try Harder is an intimate look at how teenagers handle what many consider the most important year of their lives. 

American Underdog

Dir: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin

Kurt Warner (Zachary Levi) is born in small-town Iowa and raised by his divorced mom. Ever since he was a kid he has always wanted to be a pro football player. He practices religiously, till his arm can throw balls like a howitzer. After  high school he makes the team  at Northern Iowa University, but spends most of his time on the bench. One night, at a roadhouse bar, a certain woman catches his eye. Brenda (Anna Paquin) is a no-nonsense former marine who likes line dancing and Country & Western music. But she won’t give Kurt her number. How come? She has two small kids, including one with disabilities, and she doesn’t have the time to waste on guys like him. But Kurt is persistent. He brings her flowers, and more important, just it off with Zach (Hayden Zaller) her legally blind and disabled son. So they start dating. Meanwhile his career is advancing nicely, until he is asked to try out for the Green Bay Packers. Is this his big chance? Nope, he only lasts one day. 

Now he has to work as a stock boy at the local grocery store. Eventually he is recruited to play pro football… well, kinda. It’s a new sport called Arena Football: played indoors on smaller fields, with fewer players and is much faster than the usual game. The years pass, and he’s spotted by someone who wants him to play on for the St Louis Rams — that’s NFL. But can someone who is way too old to be a rookie, and too green to be a pro  ever make it in the NFL? And can he win and keep Brenda’s heart?

American Underdog is a moving family drama and sports biopic based on a true story.  It’s no spoiler to say that Warner ended up taking his team to the Super Bowl and was awarded Most Valuable Player and is now in the NFL Hall of Fame. But this film tells us what led up to it and how he got there.

This is what’s known as a “Christian” or “faith-based”  movie,  a particular American genre, with no nudity, sex, drugs or even cussing. It’s all about cornfields and country music… not my usual cup of tea. Nor am I football fanatic. But you know what? It’s a compelling story, with real situations and interesting characters. It’s not sappy or corny or cheesy, nor is it cringe-worthy (unlike your average Hallmark movie). No. This is an honestly good, nice film. OK, there’s no way — even in a dark room — that you would ever mistake a 40-year-old Zachary Levi for a college student. No way. But that’s beside the point. He’s good, and so is Paquin, and Hayden Zaller as the kid Zach is adorable without ever being cutesy. I saw the Erwin brothers previous Christian film, “I Still Believe” and there’s no comparison — this one is a cut above. 

American Underdog, is now playing theatrically, check your local listings. You can find the Matrix Resurrections in theatres and certain streaming services, while Try Harder is playing at Hot Docs cinema and on VOD.

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

Two Thimothées. Films reviewed: Dune, The French Dispatch

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, Art, Canada, Food, France, Journalism, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Writers by CulturalMining.com on October 23, 2021

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

Nostalgia is an interesting phenomenon that changes with the times, where past events are coloured by present-day attitudes. This week, I’m looking at two new movies: one set in the future but based on a novel from the 1960s; and the other set in the past but based on American perceptions of a Europe that never was.

Dune

Dir: Denis Villeneuve (Based on the book by Frank Herbert)

It’s the future. The universe is divided up by ruthless feudal planets looking to increase their wealth and power through extraction of precious minerals. One prize planet is Arrakis, seemingly inhospitable and covered in sand dunes, with gigantic killer worms living just beneath the surface. However the sand yields “spice” a highly coveted group of elements that make intergalactic travel possible. But the planet is populated by the fiercely independent Fremen. Paul (Thimothée Chalamet) the son of a Duke, is sent there after a cruel leader is forced to leave. Paul’s dad is a decorated military hero  (Oscar Isaac) and his mom is a sorceress (Rebecca Ferguson). So the multilingual young man has been trained from an early age both in martial arts and complex mental powers. He can predict the future through his dreams. He hopes to secure the planet while leaving the Fremen unharmed. But various international forces are working against him and his family— was he sent to the planet merely to be eliminated? 

Dune is a science fiction, space movie with a complex novelistic plot and many characters. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, done in the style of the cover art of 1970s paperbacks. I’m talking gorgeous costumes with the Fremen dressed like multi-ethnic saharan Tuareg, and concrete beige spaceships rendered in a brutalist style. And it’s shot in IMAX, meaning it’s a tall movie not a wide movie. I saw it at TIFF at the Cinesphere, where 50-foot sandworms lunge at you from the screen, like they’re about to swallow you up. That said, while I loved the movie aesthetically, it didn’t move me emotionally at all. Maybe because I read the book in junior high so I knew what was going to happen, or maybe because it’s the first of a three part series and doesn’t really end, or maybe because science fiction isn’t supposed to make you cry. Whatever the reason, I think Dune is a fantastic, though unfulfilling, movie to see.

The French Dispatch 

Dir: Wes Anderson

It’s the Twentieth Century, Newspapers are revered, and even smaller cities have foreign correspondents. One such paper, based in Liberty Kansas, opens a bureau in France, known as the French Dispatch, to replace their usual colour Sunday supplement. They spare no expense, hiring the finest writers to ruminate on topics of their choice, including Berensen (Tilda Swinton) on art, Krementz (Frances McDormand) on politics, and Wright (Jeffrey Wright) on food. At its peak it has more than half a million subscribers, but when the editor (Bill Murray) dies, it publishes its final issue. This film dramatizes three of its best stories. In the first chapter, Berensen looks at Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro) a killer locked away fin a prison for the criminally insane. He paints abstract canvases of his prison guard Simone (Lea Seydoux) who poses nude for him. But can a shady art dealer (Adrian Brody) save him from obscurity? In the second story, seasoned journalist Krementz covers the student uprisings of the 1960s, where she befriends young Zefirelli (Timothée Chalamet) who calls for revolution. But will her carnal attraction to the much younger student compromise her neutrality as a journalist? In the third story, ostensibly a look at a chef who works at the police station, turns into an action thriller, as a detective’s young son is kidnapped by a hardened criminal. Can a food critic write a credible eye-witness report on organized crime?

The French Dispatch is, of course, total fiction. These exciting stories are set not in Paris, but in a tiny town called Ennui-sur-Blasé. And the magazine is not the New Yorker — its from Liberty, Kansas, pop: 123. What it is is a highly-stylized, funny and quirky look at old school journalists and the stories they told. It’s loaded with in-jokes and thousands of obscure cultural references. Camera work is as precise as a graphic novel moving from panel to panel. Scenes vary between sharp black and white, faded colour or the garish tones of the 70s. Styles cover everything from animated comics, to stage plays, to old tabloid flash-photos. It’s almost overwhelming in its visual impact. French Dispatch is a brilliant illustration of mid-century, middle-class culture… and wonderful to watch.

Dune and The French Dispatch both open 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

Disturbed or unusual boys and men. Films reviewed: Halloween Kills, Mass, I’m Your Man

Posted in 1970s, Christianity, Death, Family, Germany, Horror, Religion, Romance, Satire, Science Fiction, Sex, Terrorism, Vengeance, violence by CulturalMining.com on October 16, 2021

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

Spring Film Festival season continues in October, with ImagineNATIVE showing wonderful indigenous films and art from here and around the world beginning next week; and Toronto After Dark, bringing us the best new horror, sci-fi and action movies, now through Sunday.

This week I’m looking at three new movies — a slasher horror, a serious drama, and a romantic comedy — about disturbed or unusual boys and men.

There’s a dangerous man with a knife and a mask; two sets of parents mourning the death of their boys; and a woman whose perfect date isn’t exactly human.

Halloween Kills

Dir: David Gordon Green

It’s 2018 in Haddonfield, Illinois. This town is notorious for a series of murders beginning in the late 1970s, by Michael Myers, a mysterious man in a white mask. Michael has brutally killed countless people using a sharp knife on Halloween. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) was a babysitter who survived this attack and the many others that followed. When he reappeared at this year’s Halloween, 40 years later, Laurie was not that surprised. Together with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and grand-daughter Allyson (Andi Matichek) they managed to finally defeated this monster by leaving him trapped in a burning house. Or have they? You see, Michael is virtually indestructible, with the mind of a disturbed six-year-old boy combined with the strength of a supernaturally strong man.  Turns out — surprise, surprise, surprise, — Michael is not dead. He’s back and ready to kill more people. So three groups set out to stop him: a posse of costumed competitors at a talent show at a local dive bar; a frenzied mob of vigilantes shouting Trump-like slogans; and Laurie Strode’s own crew. But can anyone defeat Michael Myers?

Halloween Kills is a classic, almost nostalgic, reboot of the 1970s slasher. This one takes up immediately after the 2018 version ends. But unlike that darkly humorous take, this one is more of a campy bloodbath filled with non-stop gruesome violence. It also includes flashbacks to the 70s, introducing a group of characters from that night and where they are now, 40 years later. There’s not much of a plot, per se, more just scene after scene of people being murdered by Michael. Which is not to say I didn’t like it. The music (by John Carpenter) the camerawork, the design and art direction, the whole feel of it provides a wonderful counterpoint to the disgusting blood and guts.  Halloween Kills is a delightfully pointless salute to the original 70s slasher. 

Mass

Wri/Dir: Fran Kranz

An Episcopal church in a small town is preparing for a meeting. It’s not the usual choir practice or AA meetings. This one is different. Four people — two middle-aged married couples — have never met face to face but know a great deal about each other. Their sons went to school together. Gail and Jay (Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs) are filled with dread, and seething with anger. They almost can’t bear to enter the building. Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney) are desperately trying to make a connection and to mend  — not burn — the bridges that bind these two couples. What is it that ties them together? Linda and Richard’s son gunned down a dozen people in his school, including Gail and Jay’s boy, before turning the gun on himself.

Gail and Jay’s lives are ruined and they are still trying to recover from the massacre. But Linda and Richard’s lives are even worse. They can’t publicly mourn the loss of their only child, and are bombarded by hate mail. They are filled with guilt and remorse — is what their son did their fault? Were they bad parents? Did they pay too much attention, or not enough? Through an open and unmoderated discussion, including the showing of photos and telling of stories, the two couples are there to better understand the feelings of the others, and ultimately, to look for forgiveness.   But will they find it at a small table in a spartan church room?

Mass is a highly emotional look at four fragile adults. It’s basically a long, slow-paced conversation, especially between the two mothers. The acting is great, and the topic is supercharged. You have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate Mass. I found it a bit hard to watch, with zero eye candy or external flashbacks, basically nothing to look at other than their faces. it’s visually dead, except for the raw emotions expressed by the four characters… but if you stick with it, you’ll find the most emotional moments are cleverly inserted, almost incidentally, near the end.

I’m Your Man

Co-Wri/Dir: Maria Schrader

Alma (Maren Eggert) is a single woman, a noted academic at a famous Berlin museum. She specializes in Sumerian cuneiform tablets. She also spends one day a week with her angry father who is suffering from dementia. Her life, and career, are satisfying but uneventful. Until she becomes a reluctant participant in an unusual experiment: to spend three weeks living with and observing, a perfect lover. This man, they say, is handsome, smart and courteous, there to address and satisfy all her wants and needs. But who is this mysterious date? It’s Tom (Dan Stevens). Tom’s hair teeth and body, are always perfect. He never gets angry, and speaks with an oddly alluring foreign accent. And he goes out of his way to make her life more romantic, dropping rose petals in her bubble bath by the light of flickering candles. He likes to dance the Rumba, And he is highly skilled in bed, precisely trained on how to give a woman the ultimate orgasm. But Alma recoils from him, refuses to sleep with him, and treats him like dirt. She gives him a small cot to sleep on in a windowless storage room.

What’s Alma’s problem?

Tom is a robot. And one designed especially for her. But while 82% of German women in her age bracket say they desire candles and rose petals, Alma is not one of them. She hates that stuff. And she feels put upon by this machine. Where is his sense of humour? Where is his spontaneity? Where is his humanity? But the thing is, Tom is not just a machine, he has artificial intelligence. He can learn, adapt and change… as long as she lets him into her life. Can the two of them ever understand each other? Will their relationship become sexual? And is love possible between humans and machines? 

I’m Your Man is a surprisingly romantic story, wonderfully told. It explores concepts of love, reality and what people really look for in a relationship. It’s funny, quirky, tender and surprisingly easy to believe, despite the science-fiction premise. While there are some special effects, most of the stranger stuff is handled by the actors themselves.  I’m Your Man uses a simple idea to explore unexpected places.

This movie really grabbed me — I liked it a lot.

Halloween Kills, Mass, and I’m Your Man all open this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Tricks, Tracks, Traps. Films reviewed: The Killing of Two Lovers, Deliver Us From Evil, In the Earth

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

Spring Film Festival Season is on in Toronto, digitally speaking. Coming in the next few weeks are the Toronto Japanese Film festival, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, Inside Out, Toronto’s LGBT film festival, and events organized by the Toronto Palestine Film Festival.

Starting in two weeks is the ReelAbilities film festival with shorts, features and docs about deaf and disability cultures, including a comedy night. All screenings are pay-what-you-can. Go to reelabilities.org/toronto for more info. 

This week I’m looking at three new movies, from the US, the UK and Korea. There’s  a husband who feels tricked by his wife, a hitman tracked by a killer; and an earth scientist trapped in a psychedelic forest.

The Killing of Two Lovers

Wri/Dir: Robert Machoian

David (Clayne Crawford) lives in a small-town in the southern US. He used to have ambitions to be a singer-songwriter, but now he works as a handyman doing odd jobs to keep his family afloat. He married Nikki (Sepideh Moafi) straight out of high school, and they now have four kids. But the spark is gone. David is living with his Dad now — he and Nikki are on a trial separation. It’s meant to help fix their broken relationship. But when he finds her in bed sleeping with another man, he feels lost and angry, and starts to carry a gun. 

Meanwhile he wants to bond with his kids and keep the family together. His oldest daughter is furious with them both. And the younger ones (played by real-life siblings) are just getting by. Can Nikki and David ever get back together? Or will David’s brooding anger finally explode into violence?

The Death of Two Lovers is a relationship movie done in the style of a high-tension crime pic. It’s told through David’s eyes, so we feel his boiling rage and inner turmoil. He takes out his anger on a boxing dummy, and practices shooting with an old pistol. The soundtrack is full of repeating sounds — slamming car doors, creaking noises — unrelated to the actual images you see. And his encounters with Derek (Chris Coy) his moustached rival looks like it’s headed for disaster. No spoilers, but this is not a crime drama; it’s a movie about the (potential) collapse of a family. The acting is great and bit of a it’s tear-jerker, but it seems trapped within an unclassifiable and misleading genre. 

Deliver Us From Evil

Wri/Dir: Hong Wan-Chan

In-Nam (Hwang Jung-min) is a Korean hitman who kills for money, but only targets organized criminals. His assignment: a ruthless yakuza boss in Tokyo who exploits sex workers. It’s his final assignment; once complete, he plans to retire somewhere with warm beaches and lax banking laws where he can enjoy his blood money in peace…somewhere like Panama? But his dreams are shattered with a blast from the past. His ex-girlfriend he hasn’t seen in 9 years is trying to reach him. Her nine-year-old daughter Yoo-min has been kidnapped. He drops everything and flies to Bangkok to investigate. He’s too late to save her but maybe little Yoo-min is still alive. He hires a local Korean woman named Yoo-Yi (Park Jeong-Min) to translate for him and serve as his guide. She works at a Patpong bar, and needs the extra cash to pay for sex-reassignment surgery. Together they uncover a terrible truth: a ruthless Thai operation that kidnaps small kids, especially Japanese and Koreans in Thailand, to sell their organs to rich people back home! 

What In-Nam doesn’t realize is that he’s a marked man… the hitman is on a hit-list. The Yakuza boss he assassinated had a brother named Ray aka The Butcher (Lee Jung-jae). This guy is ruthless and deranged, and can do terrible things with his very sharp knives. Can In-min rescue Yoomin (and the other kidnapped kids) before their organs are yanked from their innocent bodies? Is little Yoomin — who he’s never met — his own daughter? And who will survive the fight to the death: Ray who is out for vengeance; or In-Min?

Deliver us from Evil is an intense crime action/thriller set in in the underworlds of Korea, Japan and Thailand. The first half hour is a bit dull: too much talk, talk, talk, and not enough action. It’s a complicated plot that needs a lot of explaining. But once it starts going it never let’s you down, with lots of fistfights, marital arts, knives, guns and cars. It’s a world where everyone’s corrupt: competing criminal gangs, local con artists, international syndicates and cops on the take. If you’re disturbed by violence, blood and awful situations— stay away. But if you like action, suspense, intense fighting, and some interesting characters, Deliver Us From Evil is a good watch.

In the Earth

Wri/Dir: Ben Wheatley

It’s England in the near future, where an unknown  virus pandemic is wiping out the population. The country is a mess with food shortages and strange new laws. Martin (Joel Fry), is a mousy scientist who arrives at a nature preserve to study the soil there. (He also has a hidden agenda, to contact Alma another scientist who disappeared, leaving a puzzling diary.) After passing the medical tests,  he sets out into the woods  accompanied by a guide. Olivia (Hayley Squires) is a no-nonsense forest ranger with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She can assemble a pop tent in a couple minutes and knows every inch of the woods.  But while they slept a stranger  attacked them, stealing their shoes, clothes and Martin’s crucial radio equipment. Luckily they encounter Zach (Reece Shearsmith), an eccentric, bearded, back-to-the-land type who is shacked up nearby. He tends to their wounds, makes them some food and gives them comforting elderflower tea. Unluckily Zach is a lunatic who drugged their tea and tied them up. He says all nature is connected, and we must listen to a common brain to find out her wishes. And this includes using Martin and Olivia in bizarre rituals and possible sacrifices. They must escape!  But a natural mist has settled all around them generating  microscopic mushroom spores and unbearable sounds. What is the truth in these woods? And can Olivia and Martin overcome its allure?

In the Earth is a weird, science-fiction/horror/ fantasy about humans fighting nature — and the earth fighting back. It was filmed just a few months ago during the height of the pandemic in the UK. And it’s full of psychedelic visions and creepy sounds. Ben Wheatley’s movies are unique and either you like them or you don’t. But I thought it was fantastic. There’s a fair amount of violence and gross-outs, but it’s all done in an art-house style, not your typical Hollywood horror. If you’re in the mood for a freaky, indie movie, this one’s for you.

The Killing of Two Lovers Starts today on all major platforms, In the Earth also opens today at the Virtual TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Deliver us From Evil will be available on VOD, digital and on disc on May 25th.

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

Delivering the Message. Films reviewed: Songbird, Modern Persuasion, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue

Posted in Advertising, Brooklyn, China, Covid-19, Disease, documentary, L.A., Romance, Romantic Comedy, Science Fiction, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on December 11, 2020

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

This week I’m looking at three new movies – a rom-com, a thriller, and a documentary – about people delivering messages. We’ve got a romantic ad executive in Brooklyn, a courier in pandemic LA, and peasant-writers in northern China.

Songbird

Dir: Adam Mason

It’s 2022, a year in the future, and Nico (K.J. Apa) is the happiest guy in LA. He’s a courier who spends his days zooming around the city’s almost-deserted streets on his motorbike delivering packages. You see, COVID-19 has wiped out almost everyone, and those still left alive are under permanent lockdown. Rich people cower behind high-security walls while in the poor parts of town, conditions are barbaric. Everyone is under constant surveillance, forced to submit daily digital “temp tests” to prove they’re not infected. Helicopters hover overhead looking for anyone disobeying the lockdown, enforced by “Sanitation Officers”, paramilitary thugs dressed in bright-yellow Hazmat suits.

So how come Nico gets to ride around unhindered? He wears a precious plastic bracelet proving he’s immune to the virus. The one sad note is he can’t get together with his girlfriend Sara (Sofia Carson). They’re forced to press hands on either side of closed doors and communicate only by texts. And he’s always on the look out for the evil head of the Sanitation Bureau (Peter Stormare) an immune serial killer who murders with impunity. Will the virus ever end? And will Nico and Sara ever get to kiss?

Songbird is a science-fiction romantic thriller about life under COVID.  Apparently it is the first such movie conceived, shot and released during the pandemic. Aside from Sara and Nico (KJ Apa is the kiwi heart-throb from Riverdale, who regularly takes off his shirt to reveal his abs) the story also follows  William and Piper Griffin (Bradley Whitford, Demi Moore) a crafty rich family who secretely keep their infected daughter Emma alive; a young woman who works as a youtube singer and part-time sex-worker; and some lonely and depressed war vets abandoned by their government but still ready to save the day. Songbird does an OK job at capturing the pandemic in cinematic form (up to now we’ve had to rely on old movies like Contagion, Outbreak, 28 Days) but it’s not great. And with our constantly-changing news cycle, how can any movie like this keep up with Covid-19?

Modern Persuasion

Dir: Alex Appel, Jonathan Lisecki

Wren (Alicia Witt) is an advertising executive who lives in Brooklyn with her cat. She’s pretty and smart, but in her thirties and still single (gasp!). She broke up with her college sweetheart Owen when he moved to the Bay Area and made a fortune in tech. The agency – owned by brother-and-sister rich diletantes – is not doing well, so she has to land a new account soon. Luckilly, a social networking giant is interested in hiring them. It’s called “Blipper” (as in twitter… get it?) Luckilly she has two millennial assistants to help her navigate these strange waters. But when the potential client shows up, she’s shocked to see it’s Owen (Shane McRae), her lost love. And he treats her like she’s not even there, flirting with her younger assistants instead of her. It’s not like she doesn’t have suitors of her own. There’s Sam, Owen’s best friend, a middle-aged emo who listens to sad music from the 80s; and Tyler, a London hotshot who owns a rival ad agency. Her impromptu dates with Tyler are set up by her scheming aunt Vanessa (played by the great Bebe Neuwirth). But secretly, in her heart, she still pines for Owen. Does he still love her? Does she still love him? And which is more important – her career or her love life?

Modern Persuasion – as the title suggests – is a contemporary take on the Jane Austen novel. Parties in the Hamptons replace balls in stately mansions, but the story seems essentially the same (I say “seems” because I haven’t read Persuasion, but I have seen a lot of Jane Austen movie knock-offs.) Beautiful women, especially Wren, dress in modern versions of romantic gowns, while the brooding / aloof / duplicitous men are all handsome, too. Appearance – clothes, hair, shoes, bags, looks – seems to be the great determiner in this movie. It’s cute and occasionally funny, but the plot is totally predictable, and some of the lines, especially the fake millennial-talk, are excruciating: Hashtag: Justshootme.  That said, if you’re looking for some light, shallow and inconsequential entertainment, you could do worse than Modern Persuasion.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue 

Dir: Jia Zhangke (past interviews here and here)

In 1942 under Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party held talks in Yan’an on the role of writers and artists in a future Peoples’ Republic. They declared that literature should be written by educated peasants about their lives for other peasants to read. Fiction should serve the people and the Party, and foreign influences avoided. In Jia Zhangke’s new documentary, he looks at the effect this had on Chinese writers, by looking at four authors in chronological order: Ma Feng, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and Liang Hong. The documentary interviews the writers themselves but also has random villagers reciting lines from the works directly toward the camera, in the style of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

Ma Feng was a writer in early Communist China. Born a peasant, he later became a writer lauded by the party. Locals in the model community Jia Family Village still talk about his innovations, like freedom to marry for love (rather than arranged marriages) and communal work teams that tackled major problems like making salty soil fit to grow crops. He was a fruit of the Yan’an Talks and studied at the Lu Xun Academy, where Western styles were frowned upon and a number of writers were purged. Ma Feng brought his learnings back to his village.

 Jia Zhangke next looks at Jia Pingwa (no relation). His ambitions were thwarted in the 1960s because his dad once attended an opera in Xi’an registered through a local warlord (before liberation). Because of this record, he was declared a spy for the KMT, and his children were also labeled counter-revolutionaries. Jia Pingwa finally broke from his tainted background by painting 8-character slogans on a stone cliff beside a reservoir (he had good handwriting.)  He’s now a noted writer.

Yu Hua is a popular novelist who used to be a dentist, a profession he hated. Although born in the beautiful city of Hangzhou, his family moved to a backwater, and lived near a morgue (an early influence). He talks about his first published stories (in the 1980s) in the prestigious magazine Harvest, and how the caring editor explained that while his writing was good, one story was too gloomy, and required a happy ending. He quickly obliged.

And Liang Hong, who was a PhD student in the 2000s tells harrowing memories of her childhood

on a farm, including spouse abuse, hunger and suicide.

Altogether, Jia Zhangke subtly reveals modern Chinese writers and how they weathered the Cultural Revolution, censorship, anti-foreign sentiments, and conformity of thought while still producing great works of literature. (I have’t read any of these authors.)

Like all of Jia Zhangke’s documentaries, Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue is slow-paced and subtle, but profound. I found it quite moving, especially the authors’ own recollections. Beautifully shot, it’s divided into 18 short chapters, each one beginning with a written text. While academic in tone, and aimed more at those interested in Chinese art, politics and history than regular fans of Jia Zhangke’s movies, I quite enjoyed it.

Swimming Out Till the Sea Turns Blue opens today exclusively at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox; and Songbird and Modern Persuasion both open digitally and theatrically across North America; 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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