Investigative Journalists. Movies reviewed: The Journalist, The Viewing Booth, The Best is Yet to Come

Posted in 2000s, China, Corruption, Crime, Israel, Japan, Meta, Movies, Palestine, Poverty, Realism, Suspense, Women, 日本映画, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on October 16, 2020

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

Is journalism still alive? We seem to have an endless supply of pundits with formulaic political viewpoints, but true investigative journalism is hard to find. But it’s still there – you just have to know where to look. So this week I’m talking about three new movies (two dramas and a doc) about journalists and the media. There’s a die-hard journalist in Tokyo looking for the truth; a cub reporter in Beijing looking for his first big story; and a documentary-maker in the US looking at how viewers interpret the news.

The Journalist (新聞記者)

Dir: Fujii Michihito (Based on the novel by Mochizuki Isoko)

Erika Yoshioka (Eun-kyung Shim) is a young reporter at Tôto, a medium-sized Tokyo newspaper. One day she receives an anonymous fax with a cartoon of a sheep drawn on the first page. Inside are government plans to open a medical researchlab in a backwater town. is it a prank? Evidence of a boondoggle? Or something more? She decides to investigate. But she has to be careful; her own father was a freelance journalist based in New York who ended up dead from suicide after revealing another storyl.

Meanwhile, in a different part of Tokyo, a young government bureaucrat named Takumi Sugihara (Tôri Matsuzaka) gets an unusual call from Kanzaki, his former boss from five years earlier. He wants to meet for a talk. Sugihara used to work for Gaimushô, Japan’s foreign service, but switched to his current job after Kanzaki took the fall for a scandal at the Beijing Embassy where they both worked. Sugihara now works for Naicho, the secretive intelligence unit that operates out of the PMO. Rumour has it Naicho is used to surveil and plot against opponents to the ruling political leaders. Kanzaki wants to tell him something, but they both end up getting drunk instead. And not long after, he jumps off a building. His death brings together the dogged journalist Erika and the loyal bureaucrat Sugihara both of whom want to find out exactly what happened. What was Kanzaki’s secret and why is it so dangerous? Is it related to the sheep cartoon Erika received? Who else knows? And what will happen to the two of them if the scandal reaches the papers?

The Journalist is a tense, captivating story of deep-state corruption and sinister plots. The action alternates between Erika’s bright and crowded newsroom and the cold empty halls of Naicho where Sugihara reports to an evil and powerful boss. Korean actress Shim Eun-kyung is perfect as Erika in her unwavering search for the truth – she totally deserves the Japanese Academy award she won for this performance. The Journalist is a terrific movie.

The Viewing Booth

Dir: Ra’anan Alexandrowicz

This documentary asks: can news viewers, like you and me, ever change our political views because of politically-charged videos we watch on sites like youtube?  It follows a subject named Maya at an American university by filming her face has she watches a selection of 40 short news videos. The camera captures her comments and facial expressions, moment by moment, as she wavers between acceptance and rejection of what she’s watching, sorting them mentally according to whether or not they fit her outlook. She asks aloud: Is this footage real? Is it convincing? Is it biased? Does she believe it? And what does it mean?

She’s brought back six months later, this time viewing the same videos, right beside footage of herself from the first session. She observes herself observing videos (it gets super-meta here.) The videos in the doc are all from the occupied Palestinian territories and they range from innocuous to disturbing, showing settlers, Israeli soldiers, and Palestinians. (She concentrates on one video where soldiers dressed in large military masks walk into a home in the middle of the night, wake up small children,  ask each child their name, photograph each child’s face, then leaving without explanation.) Half the clips are from B’Tselem, a human rights group opposed to the occupation, and the other half were posted by various right-wing groups. The documentary tries to see whether exposure to opposing viewpoints can change a viewer’s mind or if it merely enforces the beliefs she already holds. Here’s the thing: it’s not a scientific study despite its clinical trappings; rather, The Viewing Booth is more of a meditation, the filmmaker’s personal reflection on the biases news viewers hold. Is it universally applicable or just about that single subject? I don’t know, but it is interesting – and unsettling – to watch.

The Best is Yet to Come (不止不休)

Dir: Wang Jing

It’s 2003. Han Dong (Bai Ke) is a would-be journalist in Beijing. Originally from northeastern China, he’s a high school drop-out who quit his steady job back home at a chemical factory to go for broke in the big city. But so far no luck. His girlfriend Xiaozhu (Miao Miao: Youth) who also worked at the factory lives in even worse conditions. But he keeps going to job fairs to try to get hired by a newspaper. And they keep rejecting him as unqualified, until… opportunity knocks when he visits a newspaper to pick up a minuscule 100 yuan paycheque for a short piece they published. He catches the attention of a veteran journo there takes him on as an intern, right beside college grads brandishing journalism degrees from prestigious schools like Bei Da. And he passes his first test, getting a scoop at the site of a coal mine disaster. But his next story could be a whopper.

He goes undercover taking a job at a sketchy medical clinic that pays cash for blood. No they’re not vampires. Rather they provide forged blood samples for applicants to jobs. Why? Because anyone who tests positive for Hepatitis B is categorically rejected. This effects maybe 100 million people for a disease that is not even contagious. It’s a crooked company that breaks the law. But is the law fair? Should he cover the story… or cover it up?

The Best is Yet to Come (based on a true story) shows how a self-taught, print journalist breaks into the big leagues despite all the odds against him. Its exciting plot keeps you questioning all the way through. This is Wang Jing’s first feature – he was assistant director to the great Jia Zhang-ke (Ash is Purest White, Touch of Sin) but with a very different style. It’s told in a straightforward chronological manner, no tricks or fancy camerawork. Great acting and story, The Best is Yet to Come gives an unusual look at both investigative journalism and a glimpse into real-life China – the grime and grit, the dark alleys, crowded tenements and poverty. And it leaves on a hopeful note: if you try hard and don’t give up, you can change the world.

The Best is Yet to Come played at #TIFF20, The Viewing Booth is showing at Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival on now through the weekend, and The Journalist is available for streaming at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival through October 21st.

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 filmmaker Emma Seligman about Shiva Baby

Posted in comedy, Family, Feminism, Judaism, LGBT, New York City, Sex, Women by CulturalMining.com on October 9, 2020

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

Danielle is a woman living the high life in New York City. She’s young, pretty and smart, finishing her BA and looking for work. In the meantime she’s shacking up in a Soho flat with a very generous, older boyfriend named Max in a pecuniary relationship. He thinks he’s paying her way through law school. But her delicate web of lies and deceptions threatens to unravel when she finds herself at a party she doesn’t want to attend. Well, not exactly a party, it’s a shiva, a Jewish, post-funeral get-together with family and friends of the deceased. And who shows up? Maya, her former best friend from high school with whom she once had a relationship; and Max, the guy she’s sleeping with now. Add an intrusive mother, an oblivious father, some nosy relatives telling cringe-worthy stories, some awful coincidences, and a few key embarrassing accidents, and there you have it: Danielle’s shiva from hell.

Shiva Baby is a dark comedy that adds a new twist to the classic screwball genre. It deals with family, sex work, secrets and lies, romance, eating disorders, hidden pasts and uncomfortable presents, It’s written and directed by Toronto-born, NY-based filmmaker Emma Seligman. Shiva Baby is her first feature.

I spoke with Emma in Toronto from my home via ZOOM.

Shiva Baby screened at TIFF20, SXSW and is currently playing at Toronto’s LGBT Inside Out Film Festival.

 

In the Twilight Zone? Films reviewed: Shadow in the Cloud, The Antenna, Possessor Uncut

Posted in 1940s, Action, Crime, Horror, Mind Control, Supernatural, Suspense, Suspicion, Turkey, Uncategorized, Women, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 2, 2020

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

Fall festival season continues with Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT festival playing now both digitally and at drive-ins. The Toronto Japanese Film Festival is entirely digital and runs from Saturday, October 3 – Thursday October 22.

This week I’m looking at three new genre movies that exist in a universe known as the Twilight Zone. There’s a female pilot fighting for control of a plane; a Turkish superintendant fighting a satellite dish for control of an apartment; and a highly-paid assassin fighting for control of a brain.

Shadow in the Cloud

Co-Wri/Dir: Roseanne Liang

It’s WWII at an airforce base in New Zealand. Maud Garret (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a pilot on a secret mission: to deliver a package with unknown contents to an undisclosed destination. But when she tries to board the all-male plane, she’s bombarded by a barrage of insults and abuse, ranging from condescension, to wolf whistles to outright hatred. But she stands her ground and won’t budge. So they relegate her to the ball turret – the glass and steel bubble attached to the bottom of the plane. Before climbing down she hands her satchel to one of the men – “never let this out of your hands, no matter what.” Her job? To look for a shadow in the clouds, evidence of Zero fighters, the Japanese aircraft that could shoot them down.

Turns out she’s an expert gunner, saving them all from a certain crash. But she faces a much bigger challenge from an unexpected enemy… something she keeps spotting out of the corner of her eye. It seems to be a creature with claws that can rip through steel, sharp teeth and cruel eyes. Is it real or just her imagination? What is in Maud’s package? And will this plane ever see dry land again?

Shadow in the Cloud is a fantastic WWII airplane drama, an action/thriller/sci-fi/horror movie, expertly done. A large portion of the movie is just Chloe Grace Moretz in a bomber jacket, alone in her ball turret, the rest of them just disembodied voices she hears through her earphones – but she carries it through. The movie is exciting and gripping all the way through. This is a genre movie – don’t look too closely for social significance – but it’s very entertaining with a perfect bad-ass heroine.  I loved this one.

The Antenna

Wri/Dir: Orçun Behram

Mehmet (Ihsan Önal) is an ordinary guy who works at a dead-end job somewhere in Turkey. He’s the superintendant at a non-descript apartment building, and has to deal with demanding tenants and a bully of a boss. He works in a small booth at the apartment gate, looking out a wide glass window. But he has some friends there, too. Like Yasemin (Gül Arici) a pretty young woman with conservative parents who wants to get out of this place; and Yusuf, a little kid who is kept awake by nightmares. (Mehmet has insomnia, too).

His job is tedious but not hard to handle… until a government operative arrives to install a new antenna on the building’s roof. These satellite dishes are required on every home, by orders of their Orwellian president, so they can hear his midnight speeches. But things go badly once the satellite dish is installed. Mehmet hears strange whispers. Black gunk starts seeping through cracks in the walls. And anyone exposed to the goop starts to change… in a bad way. Can Mehmet keep the run-down apartment from collapsing? Can he fight a secretive government plot to censor and control all the people? Or will he succumb to the powers of the antenna?

The Antenna is a fantasy/horror movie about ordinary people trying to fight government propaganda and the toxic waste it generates. It’s shot in a stark, 1984-ish style, with deserted apartment blocks, drab clothes, bland faces and constant overcast skies. Radios broadcast iron curtain propaganda, full of static and noise. Don’t expect elaborate special effects or extreme violence – it’s a low-budget psychological drama, more weird and creepy than truly frightening. It’s a bit too slow, and a bit too long, but it does capture the current fears of oppression, surveillance and the total lack of privacy. It’s about the toxic dystopia we’re living in right now.

Possessor Uncut

Wri/Dir: Brandon Cronenberg

Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a highly-paid English assassin who never gets caught. She’s a skinny woman in her thirties, with pale skin, blue eyes and whispy blond hair – not your typical killer. So how does she do it? She works for a company that deals in biotechnology… and she never has to leaves the lab. Instead, the victims are killed by a bystander, someone with a reason to be near the target. A device is implanted into the hapless third party’s brain, and Vos possesses their body, becoming comfortable there. When they’re in the right place at the right time, she neutralizes the target and then shoots themselves in the head, thus destroying the implant and sending Vos back to her own body. Simple right? But the more she does it, the harder it is to retain her sense of self… memories of the other bodies she possessed keep popping into her brain. And her marriage is on the rocks; she’s separated from her husband and 5 year old son.

Now (with the help of her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh) she’s embarking on her biggest job yet: to kill the nasty CEO of a multinational high-tech corporation (Sean Bean) by inhabiting the body of his daughter’s boyfriend. Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott) is a swarthy, working class guy who happens to be living with Ava (Tuppence Middleton) the heiress to the company’s fortune. He’s living the life of Reilly, with a mistress on the side (Kaniehtiio Horn) his girlfriend’s best friend. But he has to swallow his pride and work at a menial job at Ava’s dad’s company. The thing is, Vos (the assassin) has underestimated the body she’s possessing. The sublimated personality is fighting for control. Will the assassination take place? And whose survival instinct is the strongest – Vos or Tate?

Possessor is a highly original psychological thriller/horror about mind control, possession and high-tech surveillance. Beautifully designed, it takes you from cold cityscapes, to bland labs and offices, and into the gaudy, golden mansions of the super-rich, filled with Trumpian rococo excess. The special effects are excellent and the acting all appropriately creepy. There’s also suspense, good fight scenes, psychedelic brain implosions, and extreme violence (Vos’s weapon of choice is a knife – so if you can’t watch lots of blood, stay away!). I wasn’t crazy about Brandon Cronenberg’s first biotech horror, Antiviral, but Possessor corrects all his errors while keeping it’s weird beauty.

This is a good one.

Shadow in the Cloud played at TIFF; Possessor Uncut opens today in Toronto; check your local listenings. The Antenna starts today in virtual cinemas in select North American cities, and digitally on Oct 20th;

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

Questioning Authority. Films reviewed: Beans, Quo Vadis Aïda?, Shorta, New Order, Night of the Kings at #TIFF20!

Posted in Africa, Bosnia, Canada, Denmark, Indigenous, Mexico, Police, Protest, Quebec, Uncategorized, War by CulturalMining.com on September 18, 2020

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

The Toronto International Film Festival has come to a close, and to tell you the truth – considering it was touch and go since the pandemic hit – I’m especiallly impressed by the 50 movies that made it into the festival. There’s a particular appropriateness to the movies they chose, films that capture the current feelings of uncertainty, impending doom, and a general mistrust of authority. So this week I’m, looking at five fantastic TIFF films about the current malaise. And so as not to end on too bleak a note, I’m throwing in a nicer story at the end.

There’s a blockade in Quebec genocide in Bosnia, police violence in Denmark, a class war in Mexico… and story-telling in a prison in Cote’d’Ivoire.

Beans

Dir: Tracey Deer

 

It’s 1995. Beans (Kiawentiio) is an innocent 12-year-old girl who lives in suburban Québec with her Dad, her ambitious mom, and her little sister. She’s into stuffed animals and hair ribbons – her biggest worry is getting into a posh private school. But when the town of Oka tries to grab Mohawk burial grounds to expand a golf course, protests erupt. Beans and her family leave their cushy life to join the Kanehsatà:ke and Kahnawá:ke community in the increasingly tense stand-off. They are blockaded and local stores refuse to sell them food, and police and military stand by when her family is attacked by racist locals throwing rocks and breaking windows. Beans, meanwhile feels rejected by the local kids as too soft, so she asks April (Paulina Alexis) an older girl to toughen her up. With the crisis raging all around her, Beans starts to change – but is it for the better?

Based on true events, Beans is a marvelous coming-of-age story of a girl learning about heritage, identity and sexuality, as she gradually gains self-confidence in a frightening time.

Quo Vadis, Aïda?

Wri/Dir: Jasmila Žbanic

It’s 1995 in Srebrenica, Bosnia.

The three-year Bosnian civil war is coming to an end, and Aida (Jasna Djuričić) a former high school teacher, is worried. Her former students are fighting on all sides. Ratko Mladić’s soldiers have surrounded the town and the locals have fled to a safety zone run by UN Peace Keepers. Aida is now the official translator, a conduit between the locals, the invaders and the ineffectual, Dutch Blue Helmets. Be calm, they promise, there’s nothing to worry about. But she knows they’re not safe at all. It falls on her shoulders to save them, or at least save her husband and two sons. But can Aida save anyone, even herself?

Quo Vadis, Aida? is a fast, tense and deeply moving depiction of the fear, confusion and helplessness of the days leading up to the genocidal Srebrenica Massacre where over eight thousand Bosnians were murdered in cold blood. Though it doesn’t explicitly show the violent acts themselves, it still leaves the viewer drained and shocked by its enormity.

Shorta

Wri/Dir: Frederik Louis Hviid, Anders Ølholm

Tension is mounting in Svalegården, a highrise housing project in Denmark, after police choke a teenager to death. Two cops are called in to keep the peace. Mike Andersen (Jacob Lohmann) is the bad cop – foul-mouthed, corrupt, out of shape and blatantly racist. Jens Høyer (Simon Sears) is the good cop, fit, clean-cut and by the book. They arrest a local teen, Amos (Tarek Zayat) for a minor infraction. Amos was a promising soccer star but has lost hope after being harassed too often by police. But the three of them are forced to work together – or choose sides – when violence erupts leaving them stranded in a dangerous zone, without a car, and no way out. Can Mike and Jens escape, and can Amos get safely home, before something really bad happens?

Shorta is an action/thriller set within a climate of police violence and corruption. Though at first it seems to be full of anti-immigrant stereotypes, it turns expectations on their head in a series of unexpected and shocking plot turns. An intense thriller.

New Order

Wri/Dir: Michel Franco

Marianne (Naian González Norvind) is a woman in a red dress at her own wedding party. They’re waiting for the judge to arrive to start the ceremony, but she’s tied up. Streets are blocked by demonstrators throwing bright green paint at rich people all across Mexico City, though this exclusive neighbourhood remains untouched. Their faithful servant Marta (Mónica Del Carmen) is working hard to make sure everything’s perfect for the wedding. But when Marianne’s family – who are spending lavishly on the wedding – refuse to help a longtime servant pay an emergency medical bill, Marianne is fed up. She says she’ll drive him to the hospital and pay for it herself. So she sets off in a car with Marta’s brother Cristian (Fernando Cuautle). But while she’s away, mayhem breaks loose. Thieves have infiltrated the wedding party and begin killing people. There’s a military coup and the city is under martial law, shooting civilians at random. And when Marianne is “rescued” by soldiers, she is shocked to discover she’s actually their vicim, a captive held for ransom. Can anyone be trusted?

New Order is an extremely violent, dystopian look at class inequality and the deep corruption permeating Mexican society and government. Be warned, this is not an easy movie to watch.

Night of the Kings

Wri/Dir: Philippe Lacôte

It’s a special day in the huge MACA prison in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire in west Africa. A red moon is expected to rise that night, and with it a change of prison government. Not the warden or guards but the real leadership within the prison walls. Barbe Noire/Black Beard (Steve Tientcheu) rules them all. But he’s dying and needs to appoint a successor. First a ritual storytelling must take place. He appoints a new arrival (Koné Bakary) a young newbie arrested that day to be Roman, the storyteller. Roman is baffled – why him? He’s dressed in a shining blue shirt, and given a special potion to drink and a wooden box to stand on. He must tell a constant story, one that never ends or he will be killed and the whole prison will collapse into mayhem. So the story begins.

Night of the Kings is a fantastical prison drama that portrays both the amazing people who live there, and the story he tells. People like a beautiful transwoman who’s also a secret assassin, and wise man with a chicken on his shoulder who poses as a half- wit. That’s within MACA.

Then there’s the story Roman tells. He serves as an impromptu griot, passing on an oral history of a slain local gang leader named Zama King and his ancestors stretching way back in time. There are elephants and armies, queens and magical powers, elaborate costumes and hair styles. And as he tells his story, he’s surrounded by a greek chorus who spontaneously sing, dance and pantomime all around him. Night of the Kings is a fantastic drama, and one of the best films at TIFF this year.

Watch out for it.

Night of the Kings, New Order, Shorta, Quo Vadis Aida?, and Beans all screened at TIFF. Go to tiff.net for more information.

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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