Lost Souls. Films reviewed: Apples, Moloch, Passengers of the Night

Posted in 1980s, Archaeology, comedy, Covid-19, Depression, Disease, Drama, Family, Feminism, France, Ghosts, Greece, Homelessness, Horror, Netherlands, Radio by CulturalMining.com on July 10, 2022

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

It’s Nunavut day, so what better time is there to catch up on Inuit movies. Slash/Back, a brand-new movie about aliens in a small arctic town, is playing right now. The Grizzlies is a feel-good film about a high school lacrosse team. And if you’ve never seen Zacharias Kunuk’s movies — including The Journals of Knud Rasmussen and Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner — well… you’d better.

But this week I’m looking at three new European movies — from Greece, the Netherlands and France — about lost souls. There’s a lonely guy in Athens who loses his memory in a pandemic; a divorced mom in Paris who seeks solace in late night talk radio; and a widowed mom in the Netherlands who is haunted by the lost souls… in a peat-moss bog. 

Apples

Wri/Dir: Christos Nikou

Aris (Aris Servetalis) lives by himself in Athens, Greece. One day while going for a walk he forgets where he lives. Also his family, his identity, even his first name. He has acute amnesia, the symptom of a strange pandemic, sweeping across the planet. He’s taken to hospital, with the hope a family member will arrive to identify him. But no one comes. About the only thing he knows is he likes apples. The hospital arranges for him to move into an apartment, where they hope he can regain his memory, or at least achieve some level of self worth and identity.  To achieve this they put him into an experimental program. He’s given a series of mundane tasks, all of which he is expected to record, using a polaroid camera. Ride a bike, go to a movie, attend a party, drink alcohol, meet a new friend. It also includes things like picking up a woman in a bar (he accidentally goes to a strip bar with embarrassing consequences) But during his recovery, while viewing the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, he encounters another alienated, memory-deficient person.   

Anna (Sofia Georgovasili) is clearly on the same program. Two is better than one, so they begin to see one another, if in a detached, alienated way. But as time progresses, Aris begins to remember things, including sad memories he wants to suppress. Will Anna be his soul mate? Will he ever find his original home? And is there any meaning to his life?

Apples is a satirical look at modern urban alienation in a time of pandemic. Interestingly, this film was completed in 2019 BC, (before Covid). But somehow it captures the mundane, seemingly meaningless medical obsessions, the injections, the tests,  the isolation, loneliness and self-doubt that we all experienced over the past two years.

Writer-director Christos Nikou worked with the now famous Yorgos Lanthimos, on his earliest film, Dogtooth, and like that movie, it’s funny, weird and extremely awkward, with adults behaving like children, and people blindly obeying seemingly nonsensical rules. It takes place in the present day but it’s filled with obsolete gadgets like polaroid cameras, and cassette tape players not a cel phone or a laptop in sight. Aris Servetalis is excellent as the main character, who fits perfectly within the film’s minimalist feel.

I like this one.

Moloch

Co-Wri/Dir: Nico van den Brink

Betriek (Sallie Harmsen) is a woman in her thirties who lives in an isolated home with her parents and her young daughter, in northern Netherlands. Her home is in a forest, surrounded by peat moss bogs. Her daughter goes to public school but Betriek likes the isolation — she thinks her family is cursed so it’s best to keep to herself. Easier said than done. Especially when a strange man appears in her living room! He can’t stop it, he says, they won’t let him! And his voice seems to be an unworldly chorus of a thousand souls. And then he tries to kill them all. Turns out he worked at a nearby archaeological dig, headed by Jonas (Alexandre Willaume) a Danish man.

Peat moss is a natural preservative and they’re digging up mummified bodies from ancient times. And when they examine them, they discover they are all victims of the same sort of ancient ritual sacrifice to some primeval god. By disturbing the graves they may have let loose ancient demons, possessing her friends and family. Meanwhile, her mother is going through another difficult period with her brain — is it related? Her father says they’d better leave the place and never come back. And when Betriek encounters strange visions of a little girl sending her a message, she realizes things are very wrong. Will Jonas ever believe there’s something evil going on? Can Betriek break her family’s curse? Will they fall in love? And together can they fight off an ancient evil god?

Moloch is an excellent Dutch horror movie about life in a remote village built over secrets that never should have been disturbed. It sounds like a simple story, but actually it’s a multi-layered drama. The film even incorporates a school Christmas pageant where small children innocently reenact an ancient pagan tribute even while mayhem is happening outside. The movie’s in Dutch, but because of the multiplicity of languages, much of the dialogue is in English. And remarkable for a horror movie, the cinematography is gorgeous, as warm and grainy as any 70s Hollywood movie. I liked this one, too.

Passengers of the Night

Dir: Mikhaël Hers

It’s the mid-1980s in Paris. Elisabeth (Charlotte Gainsbourg) lives with her two teenaged kids high up in an apartment tower. Her daughter Judith, is outspoken and into politics, while her son Matthias (Quito Rayon- Richter) is more introspective — he gets in trouble for writing poems in history class. The dad, though, is nowhere to be seen. He moved in with his girlfriend and pays no child support. So Elisabeth is forced to search for a job to keep her family afloat.  She finds solace listening to a late-night radio talk show, and applies to work there. She lands a job at the switchboard vetting callers and guests for the host, Vanda (Emmanuelle Béart). She invites a young woman to the show based on a touching letter she wrote. Tallulah (Noée Abita) is 18 but has lived on the streets of Paris for years, sleeping under bridges and in squats. She has raven hair, pale skin and doe eyes. 

Elisabeth can’t stand the thought of her sleeping in the rough, so she invites Tallulah to stay, temporarily, in a spare room tucked away far above their apartment. She wants to keep her separate from her kids, but they soon meet up. She’s street smart, and teaches them how to live on nothing and tricks like how to get into a movie theatre without a ticket. Matthias is smitten by her and longs to take it further. But after a late night tryst, she flees the apartment and disappears, leaving the family shocked and saddened. Four years later, things have changed. The kids are growing up, Elisabeth has gained self-confidence and she has a day job and a much younger boyfriend named Hugo.  But when her ex says he’s selling the home, it’s time for major changes. That’s when Tallulah reappears again at their door in a bad state. Can Elisabeth save Tallulah from her spiral into darkness? And what will the future bring?

Passengers of the Night is a beautiful and heartfelt look at a Parisian family navigating its way through unexpected shifts in their lives, and how a visitor can change everything. The film is set in the 80s (from 1981 through 1988), not just the costumes, music, and Talulah’s big hair but also the tumultuous political and social changes from that era. And it’s punctuated by views of Paris from that era — high-rises, sunsets and views through commuter train windows — shot on a narrower bias, to give it a realistic feel. While more gentle than a sob story, it still brings tears to your eyes.

Passengers of the Night and Apples are both playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. And Moloch is now streaming on Shudder.

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

Hot Docs 22! Films reviewed: Hunting in Packs, Midwives PLUS other docs to look out for

Posted in Canada, documentary, Movies, Myanmar, Politics, UK, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on April 30, 2022

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

Hotdocs, Canada’s International Documentary Festival is on now, showing more than 200 selected movies, many having their world premier. Filmmakers are now in Toronto from all around the world, and so are many of the films subjects. And as always daytime screenings are free for students and seniors: go to hotdocs.ca for details and restrictions. 

And — unlike with mainstream motion pictures — a large number of the directors are women. This year they’re featuring films by the legendary documentarians Janis Cole and Holly Dale, whose films P4W: Prison for Women and Hookers on Davie (about sex workers in Vancouver) are not to be missed. I saw both of these many years ago, and they’re unforgettable.

This week I’m looking at two more movies — both directed by and about women — playing at hotdocs. There are midwives in Myanmar and politicos in Parliaments and Congress.

But before that I’m talking about some of the movies playing at Hotdocs that I haven’t seen yet but look like they’re worth checking out 

Movies at Hotdocs.

One is Jennifer Baichwal’s newest doc Into the Weeds. It’s about a groundskeeper who stood up to the agro-chemical giant Monsanto when he (and tens of thousands of others) got sick after using the herbicide Roundup. Baichwal has won numerous awards for her breathtakingly beautiful documentaries like Manufactured Landscapes and Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, so I’m sure this one is worth seeing too.

Reg Harkema has a new documentary all about the Kids in the Hall, the great Toronto comedy group. They’re getting back together, and three of them — Scott Thompson, Bruce McCulloch, and Mark McKinney — will be at Hotdocs premier in person. Can’t wait to see that.

Another celeb in town is Abigail Disney (of the Disney family) who is now a social activist and filmmaker, She co-directed The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, which talks about the great class divide and economic inequality in the US, using her own family as the starting point. 

Atomic Hope: Inside the Pro-Nuclear Movement talks with scientists campaigning for nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels in slowing climate change. This sounds very interesting. 

In the Eye of the Storm: The Political Odyssey of Yanis Varoufakis is about the former Finance Minister of Greece who fought against the brutal austerity measures imposed by European banks.

Riotsville, USA tells the true story of two fake towns built in the 1960s to train military troops to crack down on demonstrations and civil disobedience.

On a lighter note, Her Scents of Pu Er looks at the first female tea master in China’s history, who shares the secrets of that fragrant and much sought after tea.  And Patty vs Patty tells the bizarre true story of Toronto city hall trying to force sellers of Jamaican beef patties to call them something else, because they’re not hamburger patties. This actually happened.

All of these movies are playing at Hotdocs, right now.

Hunting in Packs

Dir: Chloe Sosa-Sims

Michelle Rempel is a conservative MP from Calgary, who is an ardent supporter of building more pipelines and encouraging the fossil fuel industry.  Jess Philips is an MP from Birmingham from the Labour Party. An ardent feminist, she opposes the leftist Jeremy Corbyn, veering toward Keir Starmer on the party’s centre-right. And Pramila Jayapal is a congresswoman from Seattle. Born in Chennai, India, she is a longtime advocate for immigrant rights and represents the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. So what do these three very different people have in common? They’re all outspoken politicians with firm beliefs… who are also women.

Hunting in Packs is a great, behind-the-scenes look at women in politics over the course of a few years, and the particular abuse they face, up to and including recent elections. It takes you to political “war rooms”, TV appearance, door-to-door canvassing, and the daily drudgery of a politician’s life. It shows them dealing with hecklers and potentially violent protesters (Jess Philips brings up the terrible murder of another Labour MP, Jo Cox, by a politically motivated killer, just a few years ago.) It also reveals some hidden aspects of these women’s personalities. Rempel can curse a blue streak that would make a sailor blush. Philips keeps her cool passing in-your-face protesters. And Jayapal, while the most polished of the three, sticks to her guns and faces down abusive comments on the floor of the House. And regardless of your politics, the three women are each likeable in her own way. This is an entertaining look at the game of politics in the US, UK and Canada.

Midwives

Dir: Hnin Ei Hlaing (Snow)

Hla is an established midwife in Rakhine state in western Myanmar, where she functions as the local doctor, caring for women, not just when they’re giving birth. She notices that a lot of women in her village receive no medical care at all, with some forced to give birth, alone, in the middle of their fields. This is unheard of. So Hla decides to hire a young woman named Nyo Nyo as her apprentice so she can care for this underserved population.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

No!

Rakhine is a deeply troubled area with rebels fighting the central government, as well as ethnic strife within. This is where a million Rohingya were forced to flee to squalid refugee camps across the border in Bangladesh following brutal violence, rape and arson directed against  them. And what do we have here? Hla (Rakhine and Buddhist) hiring Nyo Nyo  (Rohingya and Muslim) as her apprentice. And nationalists, soldiers, and rebels are not happy about this. Can two very different women work together as midwives? Or will ethnic strife tear their arrangement apart?

Midwives is a fascinating, observational-style documentary that gives us a glimpse of two women as out follows them over several years. It shows the raw and rough aspects of their lives — including an actual childbirth on camera — as Nyo Nyo gradually learns her profession. It also exposes the casual racism — from rude, everyday comments about Nyo Nyo’s darker skin, to pop songs on the radio inciting violence against the Rohingya, that shapes the attitudes in that region. All this set against a tumultuous political climate, with a violent military that eventually overthrows the democratically elected government. It’s not unusual to hear missiles and bombs exploding outside the village. But it also gives us an intimate view of the two women and their families as they navigate their uncertain futures, through assimilation, learning languages, and opening a new business. You learn to love and laugh with these two unusual women. It gives an honest and realistic look at this troubled area, as rarely seen on film. 

Midwives and Hunting in Packs are both premiering at hotdocs. Go to hotdocs.ca for tickets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Won’t Be Alone

Wri/Dir: Goran Stolevski

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

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

Întregalde

Co-Wri/Dir: Radu Muntean

(I previously interviewed Radu about One Floor Below).

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

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

The White Fortress 

Wri/Dir: Igor Drljaca

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Get away. Films reviewed: The Jump, See For Me

Posted in Blindness, Canada, Cold War, Crime, documentary, Lithuania, Politics, Thriller, USSR by CulturalMining.com on January 15, 2022

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

Today is CIUT’s 35th anniversary and we plan to  be around for at least 35 years more.  

This week I’m looking at two movies — one from Lithuania and one from Canada, now playing in virtual cinemas or Video on Demand. There’s a sailor who jumps off a ship to escape Soviet domination, and a blind cat-sitter who uses a phone app to escape from a gang of thieves.

But first, to celebrate CIUT’s 35th anniversary, here’s a clip of two of my earliest reviews, originally broadcast in January, 2010, where I talk about two films by Québec directors Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve, early in their careers.  

(listen)

And now back to the future in 2022!

The Jump

Dir: Giedre Zickyte

It’s November, 1970.  Simas Kudirka is a Lithunian sailor who is married with children. He works aboard a huge ship, the Sovetskaya Litva. Simas has been enchanted by the idea of going to sea since he was young man, picturing swaying palms and exotic tropical climes. Instead he ends up in the drab grey, north Atlantic.  But his life turns upside down when the ship, seeking shelter from bad weather, anchors near Martha’s Vineyard, in Massachusetts. They are approached by the Vigilant, a US Coast Guard boat, and in a sudden, spontaneous decision, Simas jumps from the deck of his ship onto the Coast Guard boat. He says he’s defecting from the Soviet Union and seeking asylum in the US. But in a surprising decision, when KGB officers board the Vigilant, the Americans turn down his plea and hand him back. Remember this is during the cold war, when relations between the US and the USSR are tenuous at best, with both countries fighting proxy wars in countries around the world. And both have enough ready-to-launch nuclear weapons to destroy the world many times over. 

Simas is sentenced to prison for treason. But that’s not the end of the story. He becomes a political hot potato in the US, where widespread protests by Lithuanian Americans turn him into a cause celebre about the Baltic states. Will he be released from prison? And will he ever reach the United States?

The Jump is a Lithuanian documentary that revisits the case 50 years later. It incorporates contemporary news stories, footage from a TV movie made about him (played by Alan Arkin) and new interviews with all the main people involved; from former KGB agents to Henry Kissinger, retired coast guard sailors, politicians and the American women who tirelessly worked toward his release. And of course, Simas Kudirka himself. The Jump is a fascinating story about how one man can lead to monumental changes. It doesn’t go deeply into political critiques; this is more of a personal story coloured with a nationalist point of view. But it’s a good story.

See For Me

Dir: Randall Okita

Sophie (Skyler Davenport) was once a young, competitive alpine skier with Olympic ambitions. But her athletic career was cut short when she lost her vision. Now she now lives with her mother and earns a meagre living as a cat-sitter. She’s angry and frustrated. But she takes a job in a remote glass and wooden house deep in a forest. It’s luxurious and well paying, because the recently-divorced owner is heading abroad on vacation. It’s also her first time using a new app on her phone her overprotective mom gave her. It’s called  See for Me, and it hooks up visually-impaired people with random helpers around the world. The user holds up the phone and the helper tells her which way to turn, where to pickup a lost item, or read directions on a table. And when Sophie finds herself locked out and alone on a cold winter’s day, it proves invaluable.

The helper, Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy) is a former marine and video game enthusiast. She teaches Sophie how to break in through a sliding door. But that’s small potatoes compared with what happens that evening. She awakens to strange voices in the house. They’re professional thieves trying to break into a safe, in a building they assumed would be empty. And it turns out they’re armed and dangerous. And escape is impossible — there’s nowhere to go in the middle of a snowy forest. It’s up to Kelly to to help Sophie navigate her way around the house away from danger. But can a far-off ex-marine help a blind woman shoot to kill?

See for Me is a good Canadian thriller about a seemingly helpless woman in a battle with nefarious criminals. It has a fair level of tension with a few unexpected twists. And the two main characters — Sophie and Kelly, played by Davenport and Kenedy — are great. My biggest problem with it is, it reduces much of the conflict down to a series of shootouts like in an old western. Guns to the rescue! Even a blind woman (gasp!) can kill mean men as long as she has a handgun. Kelly seems really eager to kill people, even by proxy, and Sophie is less than blameless herself (no spoilers). Still, if you’re itching to see a wintertime, cabin-in-the-woods thriller, this one’s not bad. 

See For Me is now available on VOD, and The Jump opens this weekend in virtual cinemas in cities like Sudbury, Montreal, and London — 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

Potential explosions. Films reviewed: House of Gucci, Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, Drive My Car

Posted in 1970s, 1980s, Acting, Action, Crime, Family, Fashion, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Theatre, video games, Zombie by CulturalMining.com on November 27, 2021

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

With all the stress in people’s lives these days, movies are a good place to purge personal tensions by watching other people’s explosive disasters. This week I’m looking at three new movies about potential explosions.

There’s a zombie-infested city about to be bombed to oblivion, a Hiroshima theatre festival facing an explosive personal conflict; and a bombshell in Italy who threatens a powerful family.

House of Gucci

Wri/Dir: Ridley Scott

It’s the 1970s in northern Italy. Gucci is a major luxury brand specializing in leather goods. Founded 50 years earlier, it is now in the hands of the second generation. Rodolfo Gucci (Jeremy Irons), an ailing but piss-elegant man who surrounds himself with priceless art, works behind the scenes, He is grooming his smart but nerdish son Maurizio (Adam Driver) to take over. But the law school student shows little interest in the company or the family. The other half is headed by Aldo (Al Pacino) a hands-on guy who heads the company’s American branch, and wants to expand into the Asian market. But he considers his hapless son Paolo (Jared Leto) an idiot. Enter Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). She’s an accountant at her dad’s trucking business, but has greater ambitions. She meets Maurizio at a party, when she mistakes him for the bartender, but when she hears the name Gucci, her ears perk up. She wants in. After a few dates it’s true love, but Rodolfo doesn’t want his family name besmirched by a trucker’s daughter (forgetting that his own father who founded the company was not a rich man.) So Maurizzio marries into her family gives up his inheritance, and starts hosing down trucks — the best job he’s ever had, he says. But not for long. Following her TV psychic’s instructions Patricia manipulates and manoeuvres Maurizzio’s family to bring him back into the fold (with her at his side) to claw his way back to the top. And she’ll stop at nothing to get what she wants. But can they survive the troubles yet to come?

House of Gucci is a true crime/corporate family drama about the rise and fall of a rich family… which isn’t that interesting on its own. And I can’t stand an entire movie of American actors putting on vaguely foreign euro accents — we’re supposed to imagine them speaking their native Italian — why the awful accents? But that’s not why the movie is so much fun. What makes this movie work are two things. One is the amazing fashion and design of the whole movie. Everyone is constantly dressing up— more dresses and purses and tuxes and jewelry than you can shake a stick at.. Even more than this are all the campy, over-the-top characters, chewing the scenery as each one tries to out-do the others. Effete Jeremy Irons, a dazed Salma Hayek, a wonderful Al Pacino, and best of all, Jared Leto, as the hilarious Paolo. Lady Gaga is OK, but can’t compare to the masterful performers all around her. And Adam Driver is the dull straight man who steps back and lets the others shine. House of Gucci is a very enjoyable feast of high-fashion schlock.

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City

Wri/Dir: Johannes Roberts

It’s the 1990s, somewhere in the US. Chris and Claire Redfield are an estranged brother and sister.  They grew up in the Racoon City Orphanage, a creepy place filled with weird dolls and strange creatures that appear late at night. It is run by the Umbrella corporation the worlds largest pharmaceutical company. But Claire (Kaya Scodelario) runs away when she sees something terrible, while Chris (Robbie Amell) joins the local police force. But now she’s back… to warn Chris that something terrible is about to happen. A leak at the lab has let loose a horrible epidemic infecting nearly everyone in the town. But rather than getting sick, this virus makes your eyes bleed, your hair fall out and you turn into a flesh eating zombie. Or worse (no spoilers). They have until 6 am to fight off these monsters and escape from this hell-hole, or else they, and the rest of the town will be wiped off the face of the earth. They split up; Chris, and fellow cops Wesker and Valentine (Tom Hopper, Hannah John-Kamen) investigate the Spencer mansion, while Claire, the Police Chief, and Leon, a newby on his first day of work (Avan Jogia) set out from the police station. Will they ever get together? Who will live and who will die? And what secrets do these labs hold?

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City is a movie based on a video game, plain and simple. There are some good laughs, and a threadbare plot line, but it’s mainly reenacting the game, from the long dark hallways where zombies run towards you, to the dark and scary Spencer mansion. Even some of the camera angles and pans duplicate the game itself.  But it’s very cool to see on the big screen scary pitch-black scenes lit only by a lighter and the flash of gunfire revealing zombie faces. That said, it’s more eerie than scary, more action than horror. Not bad, but not much to it.

Drive My Car

Dir: Hamaguchi Ryusuke

Kafuku and Oto are a happily married couple in Tokyo. Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is an actor and director in theatres, while Oto (Reika Kirishima) is a famous scriptwriter for TV and film. Oto’s ideas come to her at an unexpected time — while they’re having sex. Her bizarre stories are generated in the throws of orgasmic bliss, recited aloud to her husband, so it’s up to him to listen and remind her the next morning of what she said. But everything changes one day when he comes back early from a cancelled flight to Vladivostok. He catches sight of her making love to another, much younger, man in their bedroom. He sneaks away instead of barging in, but before they have a chance to talk about it, she dies of an unexpected cerebral hemorrhage.  

Years later he’s invited to direct a play — Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya — for a festival in Hiroshima. Kafuku’s trademark method is to cast his plays with actors who speak other languages and can’t understand each other. In this one the actors speak Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and even signs language. So they practice under his exacting direction, forced to keep each line perfectly timed. But there’s a twist: the most famous actor in the play is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) a handsome and arrogant star who says he idolizes Kafuku and his late wife Oto. And he’s the one Kafuku thinks he saw having sex with his wife before she died. Meanwhile, in line with the theatre company’s rules, all directors must be driven to and from the theatre each day. So Kafuku gets to know the introverted Misaki (Tôko Miura), a young female driver from Hokkaido with a strange story. But as the production nears its premier date something terrible happens, forcing all the main players to reevaluate their priorities. 

Drive My Car is a beautiful drama about love, loss, jealousy, and guilt. The movie builds slowly in an exacting manner, as the director and the various actors get to know one another. And the excerpts from Uncle Vanya we see as they rehearse exactly mirror the feelings and thoughts of the characters in the movie. That’s not the only story. There’s also Oto’s own stories she told her husband, and the personal confessions from the driver herself about her dark past. The acting is superb, and the panoramic views, ranging from drives on causeways and through tunnels to footage of a vast municipal incinerator, are breathtaking. The film is based on a Murakami story, with all the weird quirky fantasy combined with mundane realism you’d expect from him. Drive My Car is a long movie but one that is deeply, emotionally satisfying.

House of Gucci and Resident Evil: Welcome to Racoon City are now playing theatrically in Toronto; check your local listings; and Drive My Car has just opened at the Tiff Bell Lightbox.

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

End of summer movies. Films reviewed: Flag Day, 499, Candyman

Posted in 1500s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Art, Chicago, Crime, documentary, Family, History, Mexico by CulturalMining.com on August 28, 2021

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

I know, everyone’s still thinking about Covid-19, vaccinations and Delta, Delta, Delta… but it’s also beastly hot and horribly humid. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit in an air-conditioned movie theatre, (safely spaced away from the other moviegoers?) This week I’m talking about three new films that open this weekend — a documentary, a family drama and a horror movie. There’s a Spanish conquistador recording notes in a book; a ghostly killer whose hand is a hook; and a grifter who vows to help out his daughter… by hook or by crook. 

Flag Day

Dir: Sean Penn

It’s the 1970s in the US  midwest. Jennifer and her little brother Nick lived with both their parents, until mom (Katheryn Winnick) kicked dad (Sean Penn) out of the house. He’s a liar and I won’t put up with him anymore! But after watching their mom spiral into alcoholism, the kids only have fond memories of their dad. So they ask to spend time with him. They move into his ramshackle hut by a lake, alongside his new, young girlfriend. He teaches 11-year-old Jennifer to drive, and they spend crazy times by the lake and on the highway. It’s all like an exciting adventure… until the motorcycle gang he works for — and owes money to — start visiting the home. Dad gets beaten up and the kids move back in with mom.

Later, in the 80s they’re back in school. Jennifer (Dylan Penn) is a goth rebel and Nick (Hopper Penn) is a withdrawn teen. Mom has remarried to a creepy guy, and the kids suffer for it. But when the stepdad starts crawling into bed with Jen, that’s the last straw — she has to get out of there. She travels across the country until she finds her father. He is not in great shape — neither mentally nor financially. And his criminal tendencies start to re-emerge. Can Jennifer reconcile with her dad and mom and pursue her goal to become a journalist? Or is she doomed to follow in their footsteps?

Flag Day is a family drama (based in a true story) about the ups and downs of a father-daughter friendship. It stars a real father and daughter, Sean and Dylan Penn. The movie starts on Flag Day (an unofficial,  patriotic US holiday), with the father — an accused counterfeiter — is being pursued down a highway by a line of police cars with a helicopter overhead. The rest of the movie is about what led to this point: mainly Dad trying to get away with his crimes to help his beloved daughter.

I have mixed feelings about this film. I’ve seen enough to know that if it’s bad in the first 10 minutes, it will probably only get worse. (Flag Day feels wooden and slow.) But I decided to give this one a chance… and you know what? It gets much better. There’s way too much crying — every scene of the movie involving Jennifer or one of her parents leaving or coning back is punctuated by more tears. And voice-over narration  can ruin any connection you might feel to the characters on the screen. On the other hand, the whole movie is nicely shot on grainy video filled with beautiful fireworks, bonfires, flaming BBQs — (lots of fire and water!); the characters develop and get more and more interesting as you get to know them; and the whole thing (nearly) pulls together by the end. It’s set mainly in Minnesota but was shot in Manitoba, giving it an “authentic” feeling of working-class, white America. Flag Day isn’t perfect but it’s not bad either, once you give it a chance.

499

Co-Wri/Dir: Rodrigo Reyes

In 1521, Cortez and a few hundred conquistadors  invade the Aztec kingdom. They overthrow Montezuma and slaughter countless people, laying waste to the beautiful capital of Tenochtitlán in their insatiable search for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. Later, one of the conquistadors (Eduardo San Juan) survives a shipwreck and washes to shore, complete with armour, helmet, pantaloons and sword. He walks from the beach to Tenochtitlan, but it’s not how he remembers it. Somehow he has skipped the past 499 years and is now near Mexico City, circa 2020.

499 is a documentary with a twist. It’s a travelogue through modern day Mexico as seen through the eyes of a relic from the past, a man mired in 16th century Christian morality and Spanish Imperialism. He feels he can slaughter local “Indios” with impunity. But, gradually,  as he sees what’s become of Mexico today — the drug cartels and corrupt police forces, along with the relentless crime, torture and death they bring — he is forced to rethink his beliefs. He becomes less of a soldier, and more of a passive observer, speaking with Mexicans and writing down what they say as they tell him their harrowing stories.

But it’s not all sad stuff. We also see the beauty, the splendour, the weirdness and the wonder all around him. Dance, music, acrobatics, art, culture and history are all shown in glorious panoramic cinematography.  There are bullfights and strip bars, and interviews with actual masked gangsters… as well as their victims.

499 is an eye-opening doc about contemporary Mexico disguised as a time-travel movie. 

Candyman

Dir:  Nia DaCosta

It’s present-day Chicago. 

Brianna and Anthony (Teyonah Parris, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) are a rising young power couple in Chicago. They live in a luxury high-rise. She’s a curator at a local art gallery, and he’s an artist. But when he wants his paintings included in a group show, his gallerist says his work is getting stale. Find something new. So he sets out to explore a local urban legend to incorporate it in his work. It’s the story of Candyman, a ghostly serial killer who operated out of a public housing project called Cabrini–Green. It was a sorely neglected area, populated mainly by poor blacks, located just across a street from one of Chicago’s richest and mainly white neighbourhoods, the Gold Coast. (Looks like Bree’s apartment was built over the remains of the project.) 

Candyman tempts victims by offering  them candy, and kills them surrounded by a swarm of honeybees, using a sharp hook he has for a hand. And he can be summoned by saying his name 5 times while looking into a mirror. Anthony’s latest work is called Call My Name, a mirror that dares its viewers to summon Candyman. It gets little notice until people associated with his art start turning up dead. Suddenly, he’s a hot property and art critics say he’s important. But Anthony knows the truth. Candyman is real, he’s dangerous, and he’s Anthony’s to blame for letting him loose on the world. Can he and Bree stop the Candyman before he kills more people? Or is it too late?

Candyman is a sequel to the Wes Craven’s horror movie from the 90s, and it turns conventional slasher-horror movies on their head.  Bree’s brother Troy (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett)  is flamboyantly gay but also a credible character with a life all his own, not just a victim to be laughed out. Black characters don’t exist merely in reaction to whites — they’re the focus of the movie. Killings are usually shown from a distance or off-camera — while there’s blood, it’s not excessively gory (compared to most slasher movies). Scary but not terrifying. 

Aesthetically, Candyman is deeply satisfying with art direction way above what you normally see: minimalist composed sets, breathtaking cityscape views of Chicago filmed upside-down in black and white, and shadow puppets used to illustrate the story within the story… so cool. The filmmakers — producer Jordan Peele and co-writer/directer Nia DaCosta  — are black, as are the main characters… but not most of the victims. DaCosta skewers the cut-throat world of fine art, using razor-sharp political satire. Candyman is not a conventional slasher/horror movie, and probably won’t scare your pants off, but it offers lots of eye candy to look at and even more to think about. 

I liked this one a lot.

Candyman and Flag Day just opened this weekend in Toronto — check your local listings. And you can catch 499 at the Paradise Theatre for two days only: Aug 28-9th. 

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

 

Love and Death. Films reviewed: Riders of Justice, Trigger Point, Undine

Posted in Action, Berlin, Canada, CIA, Denmark, Espionage, Germany, Horror, Mermaids, Romance by CulturalMining.com on May 21, 2021

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 — two action/thrillers, one from Canada and another from Denmark; and a love story from Germany. There’s death on a commuter train, shoot-outs in a small town, and eternal love… deep underwater.

Riders of Justice

Wri/Dir: Anders Thomas Jensen

Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) is a hard-ass officer in the Danish army, happily married with a teenaged daughter named Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg). But his job keeps him apart from his family for months at a time. So when he hears his wife has been killed in a rare commuter train accident, he rushes home. He has to take care of Mathilde now, but summarily refuses all offers of counsellors or psychologists — he doesn’t believe in that mumbo-jumbo. But he clearly has a lot of anger inside — he punches Mathilde’s blue-haired boyfriend, Sirius, in the face the first time he meets him. (He’s been away so long he doesn’t even know she has a boyfriend.)

But their lives are further disrupted by an unexpected knock on the door. Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is a number-crunching computer nerd. He was on the same train, and says it can’t be a coincidence that a key witness in an upcoming trial of a criminal biker gang — called Riders of Justice — was also killed in that explosion. And the police clearly don’t care. Can we punish them ourselves? Otto enlists his two frenemies: Emmenthaler, an enormous man with a man bun who is also a facial-recognition expert (he has a  terrible temper from a lifetime of being bullied); and Lennaert, a hacker without any social skills whatsoever (he’s been in therapy for 25 years.) This motley crew sets up camp inside Markus’s barn to prove the biker gang is to to blame. And Markus, after a lifetime of military training, knows how to fight back. But is their conspiracy theory correct? Can they catch the villains and avenge the deaths? Can one soldier and three untrained, anti-social intellectuals beat a heavily-armed criminal gang? And can Markus ever learn to communicate with his only daughter?

Riders of Justice is a brilliantly funny, satirical look at self-proclaimed vigilantes. It deals with probability, death, and retribution all wrapped up in the language of psychology, technology, sexuality and social networks. It does have a Christmas theme — which is odd to watch in a late-spring movie –  but that hardly detracts from the main story. It’s also quite violent, with a lot of blood, pain and death. What’s great about it is all the well-rounded portrayals of disparate, odd-ball characters who learn to live together in a make-shift, highly  dysfunctional family. 

This is a fantastic movie.

Trigger Point

Dir: Brad Turner

Lewis (Barry Pepper) is a nice guy. Ask everyone in the small town where he lives. He found a kitten for Janice (Nazneen Contractor) a waitress at the local diner, and he fixed the electric tea kettle — no charge! — at Irene (Jayne Eastwood) ’s bookstore using just a paper clip. That guy can fix anything, he’s a regular MacGyver! He lives alone on the outskirts of town in a huge wooden farmhouse. But when outsiders with big city ways come to town snooping around, things start to change.

Dwight (Carlo Rota) says he wants to talk with him. Elias (Colm Feore), his former boss, has a job for him to do: track down and free Elias’ kidnapped daughter Monica (Eve Harlow). You see, Lewis used to be a top agent at The Corporation (aka the CIA), but went underground when a mysterious assassin  — known only as “Quentin” — started knocking off everyone else on his team. And lots of people think Lewis is the actual killer. Now he has to follow the trail, question the suspects, and uncover the evidence before he becomes Quentin’s next  target. But who can be trusted and who’s a turncoat?

Trigger Point is a good, traditional shoot-em-up action movie. It’s an apolitical look at the spy trade, concentrating instead on corruption and greed. Shot in small-town Ontario, it’s full of open fields, greenhouses and some stunning lakeshore landscapes, with lots of famous Canadian faces popping up. And it keeps up the pace. Sadly, it has a weird, unfinished quality to it, as if the final 30 pages of the script blew away, so they decided to end it early. What’s going on? Why did they introduce new characters in the last few minutes? Why don’t they bother capturing the villain? Is this actually just a pilot for an unproduced TV series?

Whatever. If you don’t mind turning off your brain, you’ll enjoy this fast-moving action/thriller.

Undine

Wri/Dir: Christian Petzold

Undine (Paula Beer) is a young woman in a Berlin cafe.  She’s crushed because her true love Johannes has just revealed he’s married to another woman. She says, if you leave me, I will have to kill you! But their conversation is cut short because her unusual job at the museum across the street starts in five minutes. She works as a guide to an enormous 3-D physical model of the city’s map. When she returns to the cafe after her shift, Johannes is gone. But a strange voice calls to her, from behind a decorative fish tank. It’s Christoph (Franz Rogowski) a boyish and clumsy man. The two collide, breaking the tank, and sending shards of glass and a flood of water on top of the two of them. And as Christoph pulls broken glass from Undine’s body, it’s love at first accident. He works out of town in a scenic lake as an engineer, repairing broken machinery and welding it back together… underwater! Undine follows him to the lake and joins him in scuba gear. They spend all their time together, making love on land and in the water. But, although they share a psychic bond, the elements seem to pull them apart.  And when Johannes reappears, Undine’s relationship with Christoph seems to be at risk.

Undine is an incredibly beautiful romance, wonderfully acted and elegantly shot. Like in all of Petzold’s films, while the story seems simple, its characters and ideas are intense. His style is spare. Every scene in the movie — a spilled glass of wine, a glance at a passerby — is there for a reason, essential to the story. Nothing wasted. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but Undine shares her name with a classical figure — a water nymph, from the Greek Myths — and leaves open the suggestion that this Undine is also supernatural. The film plays with the themes of eternal love, destiny, tragedy and life both underwater and on land, sort of an adult mermaid story. Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski also played star-crossed lovers  in Petzold’s last movie, Transit, and they ‘re back again sharing the same tension and electricity. 

I strongly recommend this amazing love story. 

Trigger Point is now playing, Riders of Justice starts today, and don’t miss Undine opening in two weeks.

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

Northern Europe. Films reviewed: The Good Traitor, Boys from County Hell, About Endlessness

Posted in comedy, Denmark, Diplomacy, Experimental Film, Family, Horror, Ireland, Religion, Sweden, Vampires, WWII by CulturalMining.com on April 23, 2021

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

I don’t care what they tell you, movies are not the same without the whole movie experience — going out, choosing a movie, standing in line, eating popcorn… and sitting in a large space beside a crowd of strangers laughing, booing or screaming to the same things you are. You can’t get that watching a laptop or a flat screen TV.

Remember TimePlay? That movie trivia game you used to play before the film starts? Well, they’re about to launch a TimePlay app, replicating the movie experience, where you get to compete against other movie buffs in real time (The winner gets Cineplex Scene card points). I tried it out this week in a trial run for media, and it’s goofy but a lot of fun.

This week I’m looking at three very different movies, all from northern Europe; an existential arthouse film, a comedy/ horror, and an existential arthouse film, and an historical drama. There’s a Swedish storyteller, a Celtic vampire, and a Danish diplomat.

The Good Traitor

Dir: Christina Rosendahl

It’s 1939 in Washington DC, on the brink of WWII. Henrik Kauffmann (Ulrich Thomsen) is the Danish Ambassador, who lives with his brilliant wife Charlotte (Denise Gough) and their two young daughters. It’s a pleasant life, drinking champagne by the swimming pool or mingling at a cocktail party… but beneath the surface, everyone knows Hitler is going to invade Denmark. Should they just let it happen? Or should they do what they can to stop it? The Nazis march in and the Danish government declares  nothing bad is happening here. But Henrik and an earnest young Danish lawyer (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard) decide to do something drastic. They declare themselves representatives of the Free Danish Government in exile. And they’re joined by a dozen other Danish Embassies around the world. But can they do for money? And will they get US government support them. (The US stayed out of the war until Pearl Harbour in late 1941).

This is where the real power comes to play. It’s Charlotte, his brilliant wife. Her family has been friends with the Roosevelts since long before she met Henrik. But can she convince FDR to side with her husband? But there’s a twist;  Henrik had a fling with Zilla, Charlotte’s vivacious younger sister (Zoë Tapper) a decade earlier in Beijing. And now she’s sure they’re sleeping together again in Washington. Will Charlotte and Henrik’s troubled relationship influence the geopolitical fate of the world?

The Good Traitor is a fascinating WWII drama viewed from afar, within the safe confines of Washington’s diplomatic corps. It gives hints at the importance of diplomacy and politics in world events, and how much of it takes place behind closed doors. And so do their personal relationships. This is a very tame retelling of true events, with no battles, no death, no violence, except for a shocking twist (no spoilers). But I liked it.

Boys from County Hell

Dir: Chris Baugh

Eugene (Jack Rowan) is a youngish guy who lives in a small Irish town called Six Mile Hill. Its main claim to fame is its association with Dracula author Bram Stoker, and an ancient cairn (that’s a pile of stones) on a field. It’s said to be the burial place of a legendary vampire known as the Abhartach. When he’s not cleaning up an old house his mother left him,  Eugene is probably hanging at the local pub with his best mates William (Fra Fee) his girl friend Claire (Louisa Harland) and SP (Michael Hough) the bearded maniac. They earn extra bucks as tour guides for gullible tourists. But one night, in the dark, William is brutally slaughtered near the cairn. Is there something to this vampire myth? Things are brought to a head when Eugene’s dad Francie, a hard-ass contractor, hires him to tear down the cairn, to make way for a development plan, damn the possible  consequences. But someone, or something, doesn’t like that. Have they gone to far? And is the entire village in danger if the Abhartach returns?

Boys from County Hell is a horror comedy, with an emphasis on the horror, but told in a lighter style. That means lots of blood, in the most disgusting way  possible (when a vampire gets close, blood starts to flow spontaneously from the eyes and noses of anyone nearby.) But there are also a lot of over-the-top violence of the dark humour type, and quite a few surprises — there’s a mystery element. This is a very Irish movie, meaning you may have to turn on the subtitles to understand what some of them are saying. I haven’t seen a good vampire movie in quite a while, and this one varies from a lot of the cliches. The cast is appealing and the pace never drags. I quite liked this one, too.

About Endlessness

Wri/Dir: Roy Andersson

A middle-aged man and woman are sitting on a park bench on a hillside overlooking a vast grey city. They tell each other interlocking stories, about men or women they saw — either in a dream, in a fantasy or in reality (it’s never made clear) People like an awkward virginal young man staring longingly at a busty hairdresser watering a dying potted palm. Or a  man who gets increasingly frustrated by a stranger who ignores him passing by on an outdoor staircase, who he recognizes as someone he had bullied years ago in public school. And a catholic priest having a nervous breakdown because he lost his faith while preparing the communion — with a psychiatrist who refuses to see him because he doesn’t want to miss the bus home. Add to this Hitler in his bunker, a father killing his daughter in an honour killing, prisoners in a Siberia trudging toward a gulag, and an ethereal couple in their nightgowns floating far above a city.

If you’ve ever seen a Roy Andersson movie, you’ll understand that there’s no linear narrative, no main characters, or plot, per se. Rather it’s a series of vignettes that together share a theme.  In this one this Ione the theme seems to be about the unrelenting melancholy, frustration and futility, passing from generation to generation. Everything is ordinary, sepia toned and middling in its regularity. People wear plain, dumpy clothes, with average bodies and faces, People rarely speak and the camera hardly moves.

It sounds like I hated this movie, but I actually loved it.  About Endlessness avoids prettiness like the plague, and is never twee. And it somehow manages to imbue common, depressing thoughts with an ethereal majesty. 

The Good Traitor is now playing in VOD, Boys from County Hell starts streaming today on Shudder, and Beyond Endlessness opens next Friday at the Digital TIFF Bell Lightbox. And Timeplay is now running online every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday at 8:30 pm ET.

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

Separated. Films reviewed: Dear Comrades!, A Glitch in the Matrix, Two of Us

Posted in 1960s, documentary, Family, France, Lesbian, LGBT, Protest, Psychology, Romance, Russia, TIFF, USSR, video games, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 5, 2021

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

Festival and award season has begun, so this week I’m looking at three new movies – from the US, Russia and France – now playing at Sundance or already nominated for upcoming awards. There are people who believe perception is separate from reality; a Communist official separated from her daughter; and an elderly woman separated from the love of her life.

Dear Comrades!

Co-Wri/Dir: Andrey Konchalovskiy 

It’s summer in a small Russian city on the Don River, and the people are angry. Food prices are soaring while wages are going down. Thousands of factory workers take to the streets carrying red flags and pictures of Lenin. Is this the Russian revolution of 1905? Or is it 1917?

Neither… it’s the Soviet Union in 1962!

Lyuda (Yuliya Vysotskaya) is a single mom who lives with her and her daughter Svetka (Yuliya Burova) who works in a train factory, She’s an ardent Stalinist. And because she’s an apparatchik — a high-placed local official and member of the Communist Party — she lives a good life. This means access to hair salons, nylon stockings, negligees, and Hungarian salami. She’s having an affair with a married official. 

The food shortages and wage cuts don’t really affect her.

But her life is shaken up by the  walkout at a locomotive factory (where Svetka works) and spreading across the city of Novocherkassk. And their meetings — they’re trying to figure out how to handle this — end up with bricks through the window and Lyuda and the rest forced to sneak out through a sewer tunnel. In comes the KGB who want to bring guns ammunition into the equation: the instigators must be stopped. Mayhem and killings ensue. Lyuda is a hardliner, but when her daughter disappears she has to decide whether her loyalty is to the state or to her kin.

Dear Comrades is a moving drama about a real event and the massive cover-up that followed it. It’s shot in glorious, high-contrast black and white, similar to Polish director Pawilowski’s Ida and Cold War, but with magnificent, classic cinematic scenes involving hundreds of rioters and soldiers in the public square. Yuliya Vysotskaya’s  performance as Lyuda runs the gamut from cold official to angry mother to disillusioned and drunken party member as her entire existence and beliefs are called into question.

This is Russia’s nominee for best foreign film Oscar and definitely deserves to be seen.

A Glitch in the Matrix

Dir: Rodney Ascher 

Have you ever had the sensation that everything around you — other people, your job, what you see and hear — is an illusion, that you’re living in a programmed reality? If so, you’re not alone. A new documentary talks to people who are convinced they are trapped in a world like the Wachowskis’ 1999 movie The Matrix, where everything they perceive is just a computer simulation. And anyone else — other than one’s self — is either a part of this conspiracy, or a victim of it, or they don’t even exist outside of your head. And it is only detectable by paying attention to weird glitches in the system, like odd examples of deja vu, or coincidences that are too absurd or fantastical to be merely random events. 

The doc interviews people rendered into 3-D animated avatars who tell about their own experiences. It also gives a full history of these beliefs, dating back to Plato’s concept of shadows on the wall of a cave, through Descarte’s  epistemological example of an “Evil Demon” deceiving us, all the way to the present. This includes a rare recording of a speech given by author Phillip K Dick in the 1970s, who says the ideas in his books are not science fiction but science fact. His stories inspired movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall.

A Glitch in the Matrix is a fascinating, informative and bizarre documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival a couple days ago. Aside from the animated interviews and narration, it presents a veritable tsunami of visual references to movies and TV shows video games that deal with these topics. I’m talking hundreds of clips, from the game Minecraft, to The Truman Show, to the kids’ book Horton Hears a Who, all of which propose that there are worlds or universes who don’t know they are just tiny self-contained units within much larger realities.

Do I believe I’m living in a glass dome or floating in a sensory deprivation tank? No. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying this mind-warp of a documentary.

Two of Us

Co-Wri/Dir: Filippo Meneghetti

Nina and Madeleine (Barbara Sukowa, Martine Chevallier) are two elderly women who live in Paris (Nina’s originally from Berlin). They first met as children in a public park in Rome, and kept in touch ever since. And for the past 20 years they’ve been passionate lovers who share one floor of an apartment building, floating back and forth between the two homes separated by a hallway. And they’re planning on selling them leaving Paris and retiring somewhere in Rome. The only thing holding them back are Madeleine (or Made as Nina calls her)’s two adult children and her Anne and Frédéric and her grandson Théo.

She was married to an abusive husband for Amy years until he died, though her actual relationship was with her lover Nina. But she’s never told her family the truth — she’s too worried about what they’ll think. But when Mado has a sudden stroke rendering her speechless, Nina is suddenly separated from her de facto wife. Mado’s family just think of her as the kindly neighbour Mme Dorn who lives down the hall. They bring in a paid caregiver who blocks her entry into the other apartment. When Nina demands to spend time with her lover, Anne and Frederic begin to regard Nina as a crazy woman who won’t leave their mother alone and cut off all contact. Will Nina and Mado ever see each other again?  And can their relationship be saved?

Two of Us is a wonderful and passionate drama about two elderly lovers. It’s the young, Paris-based Italian director’s first feature, but it feels mature and masterfully done. And it co-stars the great Barbara Sukowa (If you’re into German cinema, you may remember her from movies in the 70s and 80s by Fassbinder and more recently by von Trotta), Sukowa is just as good now as she’s ever been.  And Chevalier conveys volumes even when she can’t speak. The movie is full of pathos and tears and frustration and joy, you feel so much for both of them.

Two of Us is France’s nominee for best Foreign Oscar, and it’s definitely worth seeing.

A Glitch in the Matrix starts today, and Dear Comrade and Two of Us are both opening at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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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