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

Issues. Films reviewed: Minari, Test Pattern, The Mauritanian

Posted in 1980s, 2000s, Africa, Courtroom Drama, Family, Kids, Korea, Prison, Romance, Sexual Assault, Terrorism, Texas, Thriller, Torture, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 26, 2021

Movies are entertainment, but they can also inform. This week I’m looking at three new American movies that look at important issues. There’s a Korean-American family living the immigrant experience in Arkansas, a black woman dealing with sexual assault in Texas, and a young man enduring prison life in Guantanamo Bay.

Minari

Wri/Dir: Lee Isaac Chung

It’s rural Arkansas in the 1980s. Young David (Alan Kim) just moved there from California with his small family, just his sister Anne and his parents. He’s not allowed to run and play because of his heart murmur. His Dad  (Steven Yuen) spent their life savings on a plot of land and an old mobile home. He wants to start a new life there, growing vegetables for the burgeoning Korean-American market, immigrants like themselves. He’s sure they’ll make a fortune. In the mean time, Mom and Dad (Yeri Han) have to continue working at a poultry factory where they sort newly-hatched chicks. The girl chicks go to poultry farmers, while the boy chicks are incinerated and belched out of a sinister-looking chimney behind the plant. The problem is, despite Dad’s relentless enthusiasm, Mom hates it there and wants to move back to California. She’s a city girl. So they’re fighting all the time adding to their kids’ anxiety. To calm the waters they get Grandma, Mom’s mother (Yuh-jung Youn), to come live with them. 

She shares a room with David who doesn’t know what to make of her. She cracks foul-mouthed jokes and ogles pro-wrestlers on TV. When he wets his bed, she tells him his ding-dong is broken. You’re not a real grandmother, he says.  Mom is unhappy, and Dad is increasingly on edge — farming isn’t as easy as it looks. Will the family business go bust? Can David and Grandma learn to get along? What about his heart murmur? And can a dysfunctional family learn to like one another?

Minari (the title refers to a leafy vegetable grandma plants by a stream in the woods) is a warm, tender and funny look at the lives of an immigrant family trying to make it. It’s told through the point of view of an anxious little kid observing the strangeness of rural Arkansas. Things like diviners renting themselves out to find wells, and their grizzly old farm hand (Will Patton),  prone to bursting into prayers and exorcisms at a moment’s notice. The storytelling is rich and colourful, the locations are warm and rustic, the acting is terrific, and while the plot is bittersweet, it leaves you with a good feeling.

Test Pattern

Wri/Dir: Shatara Michelle Ford

It’s Austin Texas. 

Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) is a beautiful young black executive originally from Dallas. She’s starting her new job as a manager at a pet-rescue charity. She lives with Evan (Will Brill) a scruffy, white tattoo artist. They met at a nightclub and are deeply in love.   And to celebrate her new position, Amber (Gail Bean) takes her on a “girl’s’ night out” at a local bar. She promises Evan she’ll be home early to get a good night’s sleep. But she wakes up, hungover, dizzy, disoriented and in pain, in the bed of a strange man. What happened?

Evan can tell, it was something bad. She was sexually assaulted by a stranger, a rich, e-commerce guy they met at the bar who plied her with drinks and strong drugs. Momentary flashbacks start appearing in her head, adding to her unease. Renesha just wants to shower and sleep, but Evan insists they go to a hospital to pick up a rape kit. What follows is a gruelling exercise in medical incompetence, legal boundaries, and an unsympathetic system, as the two of them travel from hospital to hospital trying to get the tests done. What effect will that night have on Renesha? Can she go back to work? Can their relationship survive? And will justice be served?

Test Pattern is a dark look at the results of a sexual assault on one woman and the ripple effects on her boyfriend. The story alternates between a study of that one awful day after, and of the much nicer times in their relationship leading up to it. It also chronicles the indignities a woman has to endure — things like not being allowed to urinate before she takes the tests — at the worst possible time, as they try to preserve evidence of the assault.  Test Pattern is not a happy movie, but rather a sympathetic and realistic view of trauma.

The Mauritanian

Dir: Kevin MacDonald

It’s November, 2001, on the western edge of the Sahara Desert. Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim) is a young man, from engineering student in Mauritania.  He’s celebrating with family and friends in a huge tent, when black limos pull up. It’s the corrupt local police force.  The US authorities, they say, are going crazy since 9/11. They just want to talk to you about something. That’s the last his family saw him. Five years later, Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster) a successful partner at an Albuquerque, law firm, decides to investigate his case. With the help of a young associate named Teri (Shailene Woodley) she discovers Mohamadou is being held without charge, in Guantanamo. The government is going to try him in court, under the prosecution of a military lawyer named Crouch (Benedict Cumberbatch). They agree to be his pro bono defence attorneys because that’s how trials work. But the cards are stacked against them. He is one of Al Qaeda’s main recruiters, a close friend of Osama Bin Laden, personally connected to one of the hijackers on 9/11, and responsible; for the deaths of more than 3000 Americans. (Or so they say.) 

But when they fly out to Gitmo to meet the defendant, his story seems quite different. In a series of redacted letters, he records his experiences over the past 5 years, at the hands of CIA and military interrogators. Is Mohamadou a terrorist, or just a random guy they arrested? Is the evidence against him real? What did they do to him at Guantanamo? And will he ever be released from that hell hole?

The Mauritanian is a harrowing legal drama based on the true case of Mohamadou Slahi. The film deals with torture, corruption, secrecy and a flawed legal system. French actor Tahar Rahim is terrific as Mohamadou, the main character of the movie, as he records what life is really like in that notorious complex. Foster, Woodley and Cumberbatch (with a very believable southern accent) support him well, though in less exciting roles.

Test Pattern is now playing digitally at the Revue Cinema; Minari starts today; and the Mauritanian opens on Tuesday.

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

Other people’s danger. Films reviewed: Blaze, Ben is Back, The Quake

Posted in Addiction, Biopic, C&W, Christmas, Disaster, Family, Morality, Music, Norway, Romance, Texas by CulturalMining.com on December 14, 2018

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

 

With all the trouble in the world, some people like to safely observe other people’s problems, as a kind of catharsis. This week I’m looking at three new movies about people putting themselves in danger. There’s an opiate addict at Christmas, a quake spotter in Oslo, and an alcoholic musician in a bar.

Blaze

Dir: Ethan Hawke

It’s the 70s in the deep south. Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey) is a hefty, bearded Texan from San Antone, living in an artsy, hippy commune. That’s where he meets a beautiful woman with kinky hair named Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). He’s a musician and a raconteur, she’s a writer and aspiring actress. The two decide to shack up together in a treehouse for some sweet, summer lovin. When they’re not in bed they’re singing songs to each other. But Sybil – or Tsibele, as her parents call her – sees something more. Blaze, she says, you gotta go to Austin to make it big. And Blaze says I don’t wanna be a star, I want to be a legend.

But he agrees to tour blues bars while she works as a waitress. Problem is, when he’s lonely he drinks – he’s a boozehound – and when he drinks he gets angry, and when he gets angry he gets into fights – not a good career move for a budding musician.

Can their relationship survive? And will people ever get to hear his music?

Blaze is a meandering biopic about a musician you’ve probably never heard of. It jumps back and forth over a twenty year period tracing his highs and lows… mainly the lows. (Like the time when a trio of Texas Oilmen — played by Steve Zahn, Richard Linklater and Sam Rockwell — who think they’ve discovered the next big thing and put up the money to record an album.)  And there are lots of concerts in small bars. Blaze’s story is narrated by Towne Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) recalling his life and his music. Blaze was dead by age 40, but now, 30 years later, he’s finally getting listened to.

It sounds super depressing… but it’s not. It’s actually a very gentle, pleasant movie, mainly because the music – folk, blues, country – never stops for the whole two hours. Lots of plucking of guitars and Ben Dickey’s sweet voice. And Alia’s, too.

OK, it is a bit too long and the plot isn’t that interesting (though the stories Blaze tells are), but if you go to this movie to feel it, not to think about it… well, you just might like it.

Ben is Back

Wri/Dir: Peter Hedges

Holly (Julia Roberts) is happily married to her second husband (Courtney B Vance) and fond of her three kids who live at home. She’s preparing for Christmas: trimming the tree and wrapping the presents. But then a surprise visitor shows up. It’s Ben (Lucas Hedges), the eldest from her first marriage, the return of the Prodigal Son. She over him dearly, but he also makes her nervous. He’s an addict,

and he’s supposed to be at rehab. But she welcomes him for dinner, after carefully hiding all the prescription drugs, money and valuable jewelry. She loves him, but everyone knows addicts lie, cheat and steal… the boy can’t help it.

But maybe this time is different. He’s been clean for 80 days now, and he promises he won’t do anything to hurt his family. He seems back to normal. But when Ben is back, all his history, his baggage, all his friends and enemies are there with him, metaphorically. And some literally: when they go to sister Ivy’s Christmas pageant, they come back to a burglarized home… and Ben’s pet has been dog-napped.

Who dunnit? It’s up to him to visit all the ghosts of his past – people he stole from, families of overdose victims, druggies, dealers and gangsters – until he finds the one with his dog. But Holly won’t let him do it alone. She’ll stick by his side until he’s safe again. Will they find the dog? Or die in trying?

Ben is Back is one of a creepily popular genre: addiction movies. And like many of them it’s not about the addicts, it’s about the harm they bring to their parents or lovers. (The recent Beautiful Boy is a good example – it should have been called Dithering Dad.) While Ben is Back’s story kept me interested, the movie as a whole was both moralistic and grueling to watch… why are moviegoers forced to sit through yet another reenactment of a 12-step meeting? Ugh. That’s not entertaininment. And as if that’s not enough, you also have to sit through an interminable Christmas show.

Equal doses of saccharine and grime… No thanks.

The Quake

Dir: John Andreas Andersen

It’s present-day Norway. Gaunt, bearded Kristian (Krisoffer Joner) lives in the picturesque, fjord-filled town of Geiranger. Three years ago a deadly tsunami swept through there but Kristian saved many people including his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) his son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and his darling daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande). He’s a national hero… and a broken man, far away from his family who moved to Oslo. Why? Because Kristian hears tremors everywhere – he’s in a constant state of panic, just waiting for the next earthquake. Perfect for an emergency but unfit to be a normal husband and father.

But his panic starts to escalate when a series of clues – unexplained seismic data, a collapsing tunnel, rats running away – tell him the next earthquake is coming to Oslo. He has to get there fast and warn his family.. and everyone else. Has Kristian gone bananas? Or is he right? The Quake is a disaster movie so of course he’s right. Once the tremors start the real action begins, mainly in a glass and steel highrise in downtown Oslo. Somehow Dad, Mom, Little Julia and Marit (Kathrine T Johansen) a woman helping Kristian find the truth, all end up there, at the very top of a skyscraper, when the earthquake hits. Who will survive?

The Quake is a terrific disaster flic, mainly because the characters are interesting enough to care about. And the special effects are amazing. You believe they’re hanging onto wires in elevator shafts or sliding toward the edge as the skyscraper starts lean. The director of this movie is actually a cinematographer so its very visual: aerial views, long tunnels, fjords, and collapsing new buildings. I had to watch it on a computer screen, but you should try to see it in a theatre with a big screen, and loud rumbles.

Blaze, Ben is Back, and the Quake all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Golden. Films reviewed: The Old Man & the Gun, Let the Corpses Tan, The Sisters Brothers

Posted in 1800s, 1980s, Belgium, Canada, Crime, Cultural Mining, France, Horror, San Francisco, Sex, Texas, Western by CulturalMining.com on October 5, 2018

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

This week I’m looking at three genre movies -– a heist, a western and a retro horror/thriller — about the search for gold. There’s an old bank robber lookin’ for love while stealing krugerrands, two brothers in the old west working as hitmen while searching for gold nuggets, and criminals in Corsica killing for gold bars.

The Old Man & the Gun

Dir: David Lowery

It’s the 1980s in Texas. Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) is the consummate gentleman, always kind and charming, especially with the ladies. He meets one such woman named Jewel (Cissie Spacek) by the side of the road where her car overheated. She’s a widow with a ranch but no family or friends nearby. He gives her a ride and they share lunch at a roadside diner. But when he jokingly tells her what he does for a living she doesn’t believe him. Who would think such a kindly old man is a bank robber?

But a bank robber he is, and a damned good one. Working with his partners Teddy and Waller (Danny Glover, Tom Waits) they pull off a stream of successful bank heists from Dallas to St Louis, without ever firing a shot or leaving a single fingerprint behind. That is until detective Hunt (a moustachioed Casey Affleck) connects the dots between these seemingly unrelated crimes. (This is long before google.) Can Tucker quit bankrobbing and settle down with Jewel before Hunt tracks him down?

The movie is based on a true story about a career criminal and escape artist but it’s so much more than that. It’s a tender love story (between Tucker and Jewel), and a buddy drama (between him and his respectful rival, the cop). It’s well-acted, wonderfully directed and with a classic script of the kind I thought Hollywood had forgotten how to write. It even has some filmmaking tricks – like a clever history of his escape attempts – inserted in an unexpected place.

What a feel-good movie this one is.

Let the Corpses Tan (Laissez bronzer les cadavres)

Dir: Hélène Cattet, Bruno Forzani

It’s a sundrenched day at a cliffside bed and breakfast in Corsica. Madame Luce (Elina Löwensohn) – a sultry, middle aged woman with a pageboy haircut – is your hostess, but don’t expect a five star rating. It’s a BnB… from hell. The rooms are made of crumbling rock shelters and breakfast means fried eggs served with live ammo. The guests include a scheming criminal, a crooked lawyer, a young tough, and a smash-faced thug. The only paying guest, Max Bernier, is an over-the-hill novelist from Paris in a perpetual drunken stupor. What are they all there for?

A heist, of course, in the form of a Brinks truck carrying a case of solid gold bars. They carry it off — killing two cops and the driver in the process — but then things start to go wrong. Bernier’s beautiful young wife and kid show up unexpectedly, and a pair of motorcycle cops, dressed in black leather, stop by to take a look around. At this point, gunshots start and rarely stop till the end of the movie. Some of the bad guys realize they’ve been stabbed in the back. Soon everyone on the mountainside is either a hostage or hostage taker, a shooter or a victim (or a potential sex partner) in a final shootout for the gold.

But this plot description doesn’t do justice to what this film really is. It’s an over-the-top horror/thriller/heist movie, flawlessly done in the style of 1960s spaghetti westerns. It’s intense, from the saturated colour to the Morricone score.  Every gun shot — and there are thousands – is followed by a mammoth splash of blood; every cigarette is lit with a whoosh of flame that fills the screen; every stabbing has a disgustingly loud squishing sound. There are extreme close ups, with a single eye or curled lip filling the entire screen. And lots of gratuitous nudity and violence, especially when the drunken novelist imagines stylized sex scenes from his own books.

See this one on a big screen.

The Sisters Brothers

Dir: Jacques Audiard

It’s the 1850s in the Oregon territory, and the country has gone gold crazy. Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix) are brothers who earn their living shooting to kill. Eli is smart and kind at heart, while Charlie takes after their dad, a drunk, mean bastard. They work for a shady robber baron known as the Commodore. Their latest job? Meet up with another man

who will provide them with their victim.

Meanwhile, in a town nearby, is the idealistic Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed) a brilliant scientist who is flat broke. He has an invention that could make him a millionaire. It’s a chemical he claims will make panning for gold easy as pie. On his travels he meets an upper-class adventurer named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhall). Warm likes Morris’s polite relaxed manner and sees him as a genuinely nice guy. As they travel he share his secret, though not the details, with him. What he doesn’t know is Morris – like the Sisters Brothers – works for the evil Commodore, and that he plans to hand over his erstwhile friend to those killers. But things aren’t necessarily what they seem. The hunters become the hunted with posses tracking the Sisters brothers for their past crimes. The four find themselves on the same side, at least temporarily, but who can be trusted?

The Sisters Brothers is French director Audiard’s first English language film, and he totally pulls it off. This is an excellent western that captures the frantic expansion of the gold rush towns in the old west with entire settler towns appearing, on-screen. We watch characters discover new technology like toothbrushes and hot-water plumbing. It captures the utopian politics of the time (though completely ignoring the plight of indigenous people). Reilly and Phoenix make great shootists, but it’s Riz Ahmed who really steals the show. The Sisters Brothers (based on Canadian writer Patrick deWitt’s novel), is a wonderful, new take on the classic western.

The Old Man & the Gun, Let the Corpses Tan and The Sisters Brothers — all great movies, though for different reasons — all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with documentary filmmaker Ilan Ziv about An Eye for an Eye

Posted in 2000s, documentary, Prison, Racism, Texas, US, violence by CulturalMining.com on November 11, 2016

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

Mark Stroman was a regular guy: Texas loud and Texas proud. He hated big government, taxes, foreigners, and political correctness. He liked love, liberty, security, family and patriotism. He was also a white supremacist, an admirer of Aryan nations and a proud flyer of the Confederate Battle Flag. Then 9-11 happened and something snapped.

Stroman went out in his car to systematically murder people he called “A-rabs” — mainly the mark stroman, an eye for an eyeSouth Asians he encountered at convenience stores and gas stations. He was later arrested, tried and sentenced to death, in exchange for the lives he took. But is justice as simple as an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?

An Eye for an Eye is a new documentary that looks at Stroman’s transformation in prison, and the unexpected support he received from his enemies, his victims and their families. It’s about vengeance and racism but also compassion and forgiveness. The doc is directed by award-winning filmmaker Ilan Ziv and it opens today in Toronto.

I spoke with Ilan in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Survivors. Movies Reviewed: Ender’s Game, Dallas Buyers Club, The Disappeared PLUS Last Vegas

Posted in Biopic, Cultural Mining, Drama, Gay, H.I.V., Movies, Nova Scotia, Psychology, School, Science Fiction, Texas, violence, War by CulturalMining.com on November 1, 2013

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

It’s Movember… time to grow those mustaches, ladies! And keep your eyes open to all the film festivals opening in Toronto this month. Look for: Reel Asian, Rendezvous with Madness, Ekran, Planet in Focus, and the EU Film Festival and Regent Park Film Fest – the last two of which are completely free!

This week I’m looking at three movies about people facing impossible odds. There’s a space drama about small children trying to save the universe; a biopic about a Texan trying to survive the HIV virus; and a Canadian drama about a lifeboat full of fisherman trying to find their way back home.

Enders Game Ford ButterfieldEnder’s Game

Dir: Gavin Hood

It’s the future. Ant-like aliens have attacked the planet. Little Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a smart but bullied school kid. Like his classmates, he has a metal knob attached to his head so the military can read his mind. But when he fights back against a much bigger kid, he’s suddenly pulled from school. Is he in trouble? No, he’s been chosen to join an elite military academy in outer space.

Ender is a smart kid. They choose him both for his analytical thoughts and assertive nature, but also for his compassion. Two military brass (Harrison Ford as hawkish warmonger Colonel Graff and Viola Davis as a compassionate psychologist Major Anderson) are closely studying him. They use Ender as a test case for the perfect soldier, possibly the one who can beat the ant-people in their endless war. Only children, they believe, can absorb and apply complicated digital info fast enough to beat the bad guys. Ender is the perfect leader. He follows orders but also questions authority if things aren’t going right.

He makes friends – Bean, Alai and Petra () –  with his fellow child-soldiers at the academy as they train for various battle simulations. These games are like 3-D computer simulations, except they fight physically, in immense arenas without gravity. They learn new strategies, play new games, fight new battles and form enders game 3 eonenew teams. And Ender is always there, taking it all in and devising new battle plans.

But he also pines for his family back on earth: his genius parents, his sadistic older brother Peter, and his loving sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin). Just like the two military officers, the brother and sister are fighting to influence Ender toward cruelty or compassion. Which one influenced him the most?

Enders Game 2 eoneCan the earthlings ever defeat the ant people? Will ender provide the solution? And in the process, will he turn into a baby Hitler? Or a mini-Gandhi?

This movie is based on the popular cold-war science fiction novel. It’s pretty close to the original. I’ve read the book, so it was really fun to actually see it on the big screen. And it handles the good vs bad and all its permutations well – Peter vs Valentine, Col Graff vs Maj Anderson, Earthlings vs Formic beings. Asa Butterfield is good, though a bit wooden or robot like, but that suits the role. It’s a enjoyable sci-fi pic, with an unexpected ending. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s still smarter than most. It’s also darker than a Star Wars or a Star Trek, and it’s not a straightforward, “feel-good” superhero movie.

dallasbuyersclub_01Dallas Buyers Club

Dir Jean-Marc Vallee

It’s 1985 in Dallas, Texas. Ron’s a rootin’-tootin’ redneck in a cowboy hat. He’s an electrician at the oil fields, and in his spare time he picks up girls, snorts coke, guzzles alcohol straight from the mickey, and goes to strip bars. His hobby? The rodeo: he likes to ride bulls (not bareback, I hope.)

Anyway, Ron (Matthew McConaughey) also prone to fainting and hallucinating, and he’s looking rather thin these days. He’s clearly illing. While dallasbuyersclub_02he’s in hospital, he meets Rayon (Jared Leto) a trans woman in the next bed. It’s hate at first sight. Homophobic Ron calls her pansy, buttercup, tinkerbell – and that’s when he’s being nice. And she wants nothing to do with him.

When they test Ron’s blood, turns out he’s HIV-positive, his T-cell count is down to eight, and he has 30 days left to live. The FDA refuses to release experimental drugs, even though AIDS patients are dropping like flies. They’re testing AZT at that very hospital, but only as double blind tests, with placebos for half the patients, and lethally high AZT doses for the rest.

Basically, Ron’s dead.

dallasbuyersclub_03Then an orderly tells him about a doc, down Mexico way, who can get him what he needs. Sure ‘nuff. He doesn’t die. So he starts smuggling the meds, the vitamins and dietary supplements across the border. And Rayon becomes his business partner. The two of them setting up a quasi-legal centre – that’s the Dallas Buyers Club of the title —  where members can get access to treatment the mainstream medical profession is denying them. With the help of a sympathetic doctor (Jennifer Garner channelling Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich) they just might beat the system ( the FDA, the hospitals, Big Pharma) that’s trying to shut them down. But can they fight their own illnesses, too?

This biopic works well as a drama. It’s moving, good story, good acting. This is Quebec director Jean Marc Vallee’s first English language film, and he totally pulls it off.  (C.R.A.Z.Y. was a huge hit in Canada a few years ago.) Matt McConaughey lost tons of weight for his role, and Jared Leto dressed as a woman (although it’s unclear whether he’s playing an extremely effeminate, cross-dressing gay man, or a transsexual)  Maybe I’m totally cynical, but I just get the nagging suspicion that they’re out there performing “big” mainly so they can win some Oscars. In any case, they are good and convincing in their roles, as is Steve Zahn as Ron’s buddy a local cop.  All in all, a moving and interesting biopic.

the disappeared stillThe Disappeared

Dir: Shandi Mitchell

Ever been to sea, Billy? 

No, Captain Highliner…

Well, these guys sure have. There are six of them drifting around in a lifeboat in the Atlantic, somewhere off Nova Scotia. There’s the Skipper (Brian Downie) a god-fearing type, and then there are the various sailors, played by Billy Campbell, Ryan Doucette, and others. The mean sailor, the young sailor, the experienced sailor, the bearded sailor,  the other bearded sailor… And you can tell their names because they do a role call every morning to see if they’re all still there. (Mannie here, Pete here, Merv here…)

When they’re not rowing the boats (Heave! Ho!) to somewhere, they’re singing 559878_589502101108342_1960101735_nribald sea shanties, eating their rations, whittling wood, drinking rum… you know, behaving like fishermen do. Will they spot land? Or will they get rescued? Or will they be like the Flying Dutchman, forever floating on the seven seas?

Have you noticed there are a lot of movies about Men in Boats recently? Book of Pi, Kon Tiki, All is Lost, Captain Phillips, La Pirogue… Well, this is another one. Some of these are great adventures; this one’s more of a character study. I get the impression that the sailors in The Disappeared are all waiting for some ship called the SS Godot to arrive, but in the meantime they’ll sing a few more sea shanties and call it a day.

Last Vegas Kline De Niro Douglas FreemanThe Disappeared, Ender’s Game and Dallas Buyers Club all open today in Toronto (check your local listings). Also opening is the so-called comedy Last Vegas, a real groaner about four retired guys (starring great actors like Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline) meeting up in Las Vegas for a final, wild bachelor party before Michael Douglas marries a beautiful young woman. She’s not that young… she’s 35! Douglas says. I have a hemorrhoid older than 35, says the Kevin Kline character. Ugh. Nuff said about this tired, unfunny geriatric version of The Hangover.

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

August 10, 2012. Angsty White Men. Movies reviewed: Oslo, August 31st, Killer Joe, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby

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

Hey white guys out there — do you rule the world, cause all the trouble, and carry the guilt on your shoulders? (It seemed so on the news last night). Well, this week I’m looking at three movies about white guys, and the bitter angst of responsibility, fear of failure, and the terrible crimes we are responsible for.

One’s a Norwegian drama about a guy in his 30s, forced to confront the world outside his addiction centre; there’s a crime drama about a guy in his 20s who considers turning to murder to solve his own debts; and an American documentary about an ethical family man… who played a part in some of his country’s worst war crimes.

Oslo, August 31st

Dir: Joachim Trier

Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a wiry, intense intellectual in his mid-thirties. He is let out of a drug rehab centre for a day after a long stay. The movie follows his encounters with family, friends, party-goers, and strangers in homes, offices, parks and cafes.

Anders is not your “normal drug addict” (if there is such a thing); he’s successful at picking up women, has (or once had) a relaxed self-confidence at social gatherings, and is much more comfortable debating Proustian aesthetics than sitting at moderated addiction self-help groups. But his intelligence, razor wit, and nuanced reactions are not enough.

He just can’t face the outside world. He finds himself rejected or completely blanked by a lot of the people – his old friends and family — he tries to speak to. But he is so filled with despair and self-loathing that he seems to sabotage his future, even when things seem to be going right. Because he’s sure there is no future: he blew his chances of a promising career and family life and he can never get back to them.

I don’t do justice to this beautiful, desperate movie by concentrating on the plot – that’s just the framework. It’s more of a travelogue of a shut-in’s chance to experience a day out in his city. He’s never happier than when he absorbs and mentally files the random conversations around him, along with the voices of past conversations echoing in his brain – sonic flashbacks. You feel for Anders but you experience the rejection and anger by those around him who he may have wronged in the past.

This is a great, gently-paced internal drama: I recommend it.

Killer Joe

Dir: William Friedkin

Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a broke loser in debt to a local good-old-boy. But, with the help of his stupid father (Thomas Haden Church) and despite resistance from his sleazy, shifty step-mother (Gina Gershon) he comes up with a plan to get the 25 grand he needs: he’ll secretly murder his mom and split the insurance with his dad. They hire a corrupt and deadly local cop known as Killer Joe (Matt McConaughey) to do the deed. But when their plans don’t go as smoothly as they thought they would, Chris’ younger sister, the appropriately-named Dottie (Juno Temple), is dragged into the mess he made.

Dottie is tetched in the head. Although now sexually an adult she still thinks of herself as a 12 year old, and likes to practice kungfu kicks while watching Chinese movies on TV. She’s given to random non-sequitors, and taking off her clothes. And the predatory Killer Joe wants to take her as sexual collateral until he gets paid.

Will Chris and Dottie remain true to their vows of loyalty? Will he escape the venomous cop and the violent local mobster? And what about their Mom?

OK – this movie has a lot going for it. It’s based on a play with a gripping plot (which may or may not translate into a good movie), interesting characters, and an excellent cast, and it’s directed by William Friedkin who brought us The Exorcist, The French Connection and the Boys in the Band. But (perhaps because of its low-budget) it wavers between good and cool, and drop-dead awful. So we get to see the (generally credible) Emile Hirsch overacting wildly in a scene where he loses it before the camera; and even worse, Juno Temple reciting her non-sequitor lines deadpan. (Come on, Juno – if Dottie’s crazy or mentally handicapped it’s not enough just to read the lines and stand around naked. It may work for a few minutes but eventually you have to act.)

On top of this, you have to sit through a relentless and excruciatingly violent scene of a sexual assault using a Kentucky Fried Chicken drumstick. While there are some good parts, the unevenness of the acting and the overblown dialogue make it hit or miss.  And this hard-core crime-drama is definitely not for the squeamish.

The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby

Dir: Carl Colby

William Colby was a career spy who worked his way to the top of the CIA from its earliest stages immediately after WWII, to the awful fallout of The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

Some background: The CIA was formed as the main international intelligence agency following WWII, and by the 1950s took on the Cold War as its main raison d’etre. So, in addition to collecting information, the CIA was also infiltrating civil rights groups, financing political parties of the right, and sabotage parties that were left of centre; and sponsoring coups to overthrow elected governments around the world (in Iran, Chile, and Vietnam, among others) in the name of democracy and the free world.

So into this world steps the educated and upper-class devout Catholic William Colby. This movie follows his career from WWII, to being an agent working out of the Embassy in Rome, funneling millions in cash to the conservative Christian Democrats to stop Italy from “falling to the Communists”.

From there he moves to Saigon, reluctantly playing a part in the coup that brought down South Vietnam’s (Catholic President Nho Dimh Dien) and the changes in policy from benevelant helper of the South Vietnamese to purveyor of napalm and agent orange (that leads to over a million deaths.) This culminates in a series of testimonies he gives before the US Senate investigating the CIAs wrong doings. (Ironically, his truthful testimony uncovers a huge load of dirty laundry the CIA had kept hidden until then.)

The film covers all angles, using period film clios and snap shots, but what’s really interesting is that the talking heads – notorious figures like Donald Rumsfeld and famed journalists like Seymour Hersh – all speak directly to the filmmaker. So their memories aren’t all about Bill Colby, they’re about “your father”. (Probably it was the director’s personal connections that allowed him access to some of these major figures.) His mother’s testimony is especially interesting. For example, she talks about going to a cocktail party and being held back from speaking with a couple they had had drinks with just the night before “ We don’t know them”. She had trouble keeping track of her husband’s web of covert deceptions.

The Man Nobody Knew is a good documentary both as an apolitical history of the CIA and as a personal bio.

The dramas Oslo, August 31st and Killer Joe open today in Toronto, and the documentary The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby, is now playing at the HotDocs Bloor St Cinema – check your local listings. Also, coming out this week on DVD and blueray is the wonderful Genie Award-winning Quebec drama, Monsieur Lazhar (Directed by Philippe Falardeau). This is a great movie – touching, tender, funny – about a French-speaking Algerian schoolteacher with a hidden, tragic past who tries to find peace teaching Montreal kids… who are recovering from their own loss.

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

Fighters! Hotdocs Documentaries Reviewed, 2011. Better This World, Fightville, Open Secret, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Recessionize! For Fun and Profit! PLUS Alan Zweig

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

Toronto’s Hotdocs, which starts today, is one of the best documentary festivals in the world.

It features recent docs, including Canadian and world premiers, as well as exceptional films from the past. This year the festival is running a retrospective of Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig’s work, including favourites like I, Curmudgeon and Vinyl, as well as the excellent and moving A Hard Name which follows the difficult lives of seven ex-cons released back into the city.

Many documentaries are about people facing a conflict; they choose either to fight it or to learn to accept it. Today I’m going to talk about movies playing at Hotdocs — films about fighters, people who like to fight, and people who are fighting the Powers That Be; and others who take the opposite route, the path of least resistance.

Better this World

Dir: Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega

When I read about stories like the seven guys in Miami who were arrested for conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago for Osama bin Laden – even though they’ve never even been to Chicago and have no connection with Al Qaeda; or the Somali-American  kid in Portland Oregon labeled as a Christmas Tree Bomber; or the Toronto 18 who were accused of plotting to blow up the Parliament building, I start to wonder how big a role did the government informants play in these stories, and whether anything at all would have happened had it not been for the government instigator.

Two young, idealistic best friends David McKay and Brad Crowder, who grew up in Midland, Texas, went to Minneapolis to protest the Republican Convention two years ago. You might have seen the footage of the police there clubbing, tear gassing and arresting hundreds of protestors, students and even journalists, while, inside the buildings, people like Sarah Palin were talking to sea of middle-aged, white, soon-to-be tea-partiers. Well, within the crowd outside were three guys – the two young best friends, and a supposed radical, Brandon Darby. The two friends were arrested by the FBI and called criminals and anarchist-terrorists, mainly by the much older FBI informant, Darby, who claimed they were there to blow up people – including sleeping policemen – using Molotov cocktails as part of their anti-war demonstrations.

This movie explores the events leading up to Brad and David’s arrests and the subsequent trials, including the use of government informants to create the supposed conspiracy, push it toward some yet-to-happen act of violence, and to entrap them into saying aloud some hypothetical phrase of intention.

This is an excellent — though at times extremely disheartening – documentary about how governments manufacture to order “criminals” where none previously existed, merely to fit into their quota of “War on Terror” political prisoners. Makes you want to cry…

Another type of fighter are the ones featured in the movie

Fightville

Dir: Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

Directors of the fantastic Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace and its good sequel How to Fold a Flag are again dealing with young, poor American men; in this case, aspiring Mixed Martial Arts fighters from Lousiana.

Also called cage fighting or Ultimate Fighting, MMA has a reputation as an extremely violent sport akin to pro wrestling, without any referees, where the two fighters kick, punch, and beat each other up until one is nearly dead. This is its mythology, but none of it’s true. It’s actually safer than heavyweight boxing – the fighters wear smaller, lighter gloves, though because of the nature of the sport, does lead to small cuts and bruises, but not to the head injuries you get in boxing. It’s played in closely refereed rounds, with a match ending with a knockout, one player’s submission, or by a judgement. It looks like a combination of boxing, grappling, Brazilian jujitsu, muai thai kick boxing, and traditional wrestling down on the mat. In my opinion it’s the most interesting kind of fighting to watch, since it involves so many skills and so much training and strategy on the parts of the fighters.

This beautifully shot movie dispels the myths about Mixed martial arts, as it follows two amateur fighters, Dustin and Albert, as they try to make it from an amateur farm team to professional status. Will either of them make it to the pros? While not that dramatic a sports story, Fightville takes you behind the scenes, through all the stages of training and preparation for a fight, and shows Dustin and Albert both in their ordinary lives, and within the ring, with all the glamour and excitement that comes from an actual match.

Open Secret

Dir: Steve Lickteig

Steve Lickteig, an NPR brodcaster, grew up on a Kansas farm and lived his whole life knowing that he was adopted… but not knowing the open secret about his birth parents. The movie investigates his search for the truth that he was never told about as a child.

His oldest brothers and sisters were sworn to secrecy, and the younger ones were kept in the dark. The movie reveals part of the open secret in the first few minutes of the movie, so it’s no spoiler to say that he was actually an older sister’s child, and his parents were really his grandparents.

The movie follows him returning to his family – his sister/mother, and his parents aka grandparents. He also wants to know the truth about who his father was, what the reasons were for the strange arrangement, and more about his actual birth parents, his background, and whether he has other relatives.

Open Secret is above all a family memoir with the various members fighting and arguing, holding grudges, or reconciling, meeting or refusing to meet. If you’re into these types of daytime TV family stories, or if you’re familiar with the NPR personality who made it, then this is a good movie for you, but I have to say it didn’t do much for me.

Let’s move away now from fighting, resisting, and quarrelling and toward the opposite spectrum, to movies about buying into the system and going with the flow.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Dir: Morgan Spurlock

I can’t stand product placement on TV or in movies – it’s a pet peeve. Whether it’s as banal as working a brand name into an answer on Jeopardy!, or the ubiquitous Mac laptop magically appearing in most movies, it’s annoying, obnoxious, and intrusive. So Morgan “Super Size Me” Spurlock decided to make a movie in which every scene, every shot, and even the movie’s title itself, would have at least one product placement in it – and he would use product placement both to pay for the movie, and to provide its plot. It’s a very amusing, fast paced, and light comic take on advertising. Some of its cleverest moments is where he interviews people like Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader about product placement, without them realizing there’s a brand name – a shoe, an underarm deodorant, a soft drink – appearing right beside them. And just because you know it’s there, it doesn’t mean it’s not working. Honest to God, I walked out of this movie with a strange desire to buy a bottle of pomegranate juice!

In a similar vein, and just as entertaining, is the Canadian documentary

Recessionize! For Fun and Profit!

Dir: Jaime Kastner

In a tongue-in-cheek look at the present-day grim effects of the economic meltdown and the recession that followed it, Kastner decides to look at the bright side instead. There’s money to be made out there, even in bad times, so he tracks down some unusual people adapting to the new economic realities. One of the more clever ones include a smartly dressed and perfectly coiffed woman who lives in a deluxe mansion with her family. The catch? She’s only there to make it look lived-in for potential real-estate buyers, and will have t move out the moment it’s sold. What does her teenaged son think about living in a place that has to be kept spotless? He says it’s major OCD territory!

And there’s also a great French guest house where people who feel their career is a rat-race can live for a weekend like a hamster, running in a giant wheel! Recessionize! is a lot of fun – an amusing, up-beat and fast-paced, TV style variety documentary.

The Hotdocs festival runs from Thursday April 28th to May 8th, and is free – no charge! – for rush seats during the day for anyone with a Student or Senior ID. Check this out online hotdocs.ca I think everyone should try to see at least one documentary, and Hotdocs is the best place to see them.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining dot com.

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