What does it mean to get away for a while? You’re probably thinking, beach, a drive, a cottage, camping trip, maybe a weekend in another city across the border… But what about a real getaway, one where you might have no plan to go back home?
This week I’m going to look at three dramas opening this weekend, all by very good directors, about people trying to get away. There’s a man on the lam hiding out on an island in the Mississippi; a Wall Street financier who flees to Lahore, Pakistan; and some explorers who embark on a long trip to boldly gone where no one has gone before.
Dir: Jeff Nichols
Two boys, Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland), live right on the Mississippi river in Arkansas. They’re not townies – they live off the water where their families catch fish for a living. So one day they head off to an island down the river where Ellis says he saw a boat… up in a tree! But they soon discover it’s occupied by a man nicknamed Mud. Mud (Matt McConaughey) was a homeless orphan when he grew up in the area, and now he’s come back home. He’s on the lam after committing a crime in Texas. But he wants to send a message to the love of his life, a woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). He’s been in love with her since they were teenagers. But a whole posse has come up from Texas to hunt him down – and they might even kill him.
He tells the boys if they help him skip town with Juniper he’ll let them keep the boat. Neckbone is suspicious, but Ellis agrees to be his inbetweener and contact Juniper. He’s doing it in the name of true love.
Ellis, meanwhile, is also trying to find to find his own true love. He’s only 14 but punches out a much older and bigger and meaner boy for the way he’s treating a young woman. Will she be his girlfriend? Or does she still think of him as just a kid? Maybe a girlfriend will bring some stability to Ellis’s life — his parents fight every day. If they split up that would mean the end of the family home, the end of their boat, and the end of their life on the river.
Mud is a really great movie, a drama about crime and how it affects the lives of poor, white rural families. It’s in the vein of Winter’s Bone and Frozen River. It’s also a tender coming-of-age story, and a family drama with action, mystery, guns and chases. It’s also an examination of true love and disappointment. It’s directed by Jeff Nichol who did the fantastic movie Take Shelter a couple years ago. Mud is really good – I recommend it.
Dir: Mira Nair
Changez (Riz Ahmed) is a Princeton grad who left Wall Street at the height of his career, trading riches for a quieter professorship in his hometown of Lahore, Pakistan. Why did he do it? asks an American journalist (Liev Schreiber) interviewing Changez at a tea house in Pakistan. Why did he give it all up? That is a long story. And that’s the story the movie tells.
The son of a respected but not rich Pakistani poet, Changez wants to live the American dream. Just out of Princeton, he is hired as an analyst by a financial firm. They grab existing companies and determines their “value” (Changez’s specialty) before chopping them up, firing the workers and closing the less profitable factories. He moves in with a beautiful and privileged girlfriend, an artist (Kate Hudson), and things are looking up. But then comes 9-11. Suddenly he’s being strip-searched at borders, locked up and questioned. His veneer of privilege is stripped away, and his house of cards collapses. He begins to wonder about the real value of things in his life. The path he takes and the decisions he makes are gradually revealed… but where does that leave him? Has he become a radical “Islamist” terrorist? And is he behind a kidnapping at the university? Or is he just a well-meaning teacher?
The backstory to this whole movie is 9-11. Mira Nair knows it well. I was at a screening at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept 12th (or 13th?) in 2001, just after the incident. She had brought the entire cast of her delightful comedy Monsoon Wedding to its premier at TIFF, and was mortified that her show was being unfairly eclipsed by that nasty business in Manhattan. No one yet knew what was going to happen after that day, or how big a change it would bring to the US and the world. I think that day is omnipresent in Mira Nair’s mind while directing this film.
The story is interesting and relevant. The problem with the Reluctant Fundamentalist is that neither Changez, nor his girlfriend nor his boss (Keiffer Sutherland), are particularly sympathetic or likeable characters. They’re all equally greedy or self-absorbed. It’s hard to feel for people when you don’t really care what happens to them.
Dir: J.J. Abrams
It’s Earth a few hundred years in the future. Brash Captain Kirk and logical Mr Spock (engagingly played by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto) are at it again in this Star Trek prequel. The big cities (San Francisco, London) are still there, just with more, fancier buildings. So all the world is shocked when an insider from The Federation (that’s the worldwide and interplanetary government) turns out to be a terrorist, killing countless people — including someone important to Kirk. He flies off in a rage aboard the Starship Enterprise, after some goading from Marcus (Peter Weller) a high placed military hawk. Armed with a new type of missiles, they head toward the dark and mysterious Klingon territory to hunt down the terrorist. But they discover things aren’t what they seem. The man accused of terrorism turns out to be sort of an uber-human, almost unkillable, genetically stronger and smarter than any normal human. But he saves the lives of Kirk and his crew: whose side is he really on?
I had a great time with this movie, chock-full of insider jokes about the original Star Trek (things like tribbles, red shirts, the Wrath of Khan). There are wicked scenes of people in rocket suits zooming through outer space. Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Sherlock Holmes in the BBC TV series) is especially good as this scary superman. Yes, all the actors are just imitating the looks and voices from the original series, but so what? It works. Zoe Soldana, as a newly sexualized Uhura, and Simon Pegg as a funnier Scotty stand out. The 3-D effects are impressive for the first 15 minutes then you forget about them, but the action, laughs and, yes, excitement, keep you glued to the screen the whole time.
Mud, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Star Trek Into Darkness all open today: check your local listings. And keep your eyes open for Toronto’s Inside-Out LGBT Film Festival (insideout.ca); and the Monsters and Martians science fiction film festival is screening the original Manchurian Candidate next week at the Big Pictures Cinema, which is always worth seeing.
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 director JUSTIN McCONNELL and the Skullman GREG SOMMERS about the new film Skullworld
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Have you ever turned down a dark alley only to run into a strange man with a skull for a head, a booming voice, decked out in elaborate body armour, and maybe holding a chain or an axe? Did you scream and run away? Or did you just say “how’s it goin bro” and buy him a beer?
To explain all this, I speak with the Skullman himself, aka Greg Sommers, and the film’s director Justin McConnell.
What makes you get out of bed in the morning? What little things get you through the day? What makes you commit? What do you do when you suffer an enormous loss?
A new documentary follows 15 diverse people who tell their brief, honest stories to the filmmaker, in sequence — some life-affirming, some inconsequential. Whale watchers, a man who walks around the world, a massage artist, a lighthouse keeper. This is an intensely personal movie, though not necessarily intimate. It’s called Fifteen Reasons to Live, it’s directed by Alan Zweig and it’s having its world premier at Toronto’s Hotdocs documentary festival. Alan talks about why he made the film, how he chose the subjects, whether this represents a shift in his filmmaking style… and more.
Behind the Curtain. Movies reviewed: Dragon Girls, We Always Lie to Strangers, The Grub-Stake: Revisited PLUS Hot Docs!
Hot Docs, Toronto’s documentary film festival, continues through the weekend – and daytime tickets are free for all students and seniors. This is a once-a-year opportunity to really absorb all sorts of politics, people, music and ideas.
This week I’m going to look at three movies that – in very different ways — pull back the curtain to show what’s going on backstage. One doc is about a Kung Fu Academy in China, another about hillbilly entertainment in southern Missouri, and there’s a new look at a silent film shot in Yukon Territory in the 1920s.
Dir: Inigo Westmeier
This is a movie about China’s biggest kung fu centre, the Ta Gou Shao Lin martial arts academy. It’s in Henan province, north of Beijing. It has a huge number of students, both boys and girls, and they are all strictly trained in what feels like a military school (like Karate Kid times 1,000). And this school has a public square, a vast stone plaza that looks to be about the size of Tian’anmen Square in Beijing.
This documentary uses two ways to portray the school. One is aerial views of the entire academy – that’s hundreds of people – performing flawless, intricate fighting formations, all at once, on the square. And they’re all dressed in identical red jumpsuits, running around in perfect harmony.
But then they switch to close-ups of girls at the academy telling their stories. The place is unheated in the winter and Spartan looking. It’s almost like a prison, says one. Another runs away, all the way home to Shanghai – she can’t stand the life there: it’s cruel and bitter. Their trainers aren’t very sympathetic toward them – they went through the same training so they expect the new girls to do suffer like they did. They train them ruthlessly, even the little girls, to learn the kicks, the sword moves, the jumps, the punches… And there are constant competitions, with winners and losers and rankings. Some of the girls’ parents are dragons themselves – if the kids don’t come in first place they get no praise.
The movie continues like that: in and out, tight then wide. There are the close-up, touching stories about individual girls’ plights; alternating with fantastical movie-style performances in the square, involving hundreds or thousands of shaolin kids.
From far away everything looks perfect. But, up close, the flaws begin to appear.
Dir: AJ Schnack, David Boone Wilson
Somewhere, halfway between Hollywood and Broadway stands a small town in the Ozarks that offers its own, unique variety of entertainment. It’s Branson Mo., and it’s one of the best-known, unknown tourist attractions in the US.
What is this place? It’s a strange small town filled with giant music halls started a few decades ago by people like the Osmonds, the Presley Family, and Lawrence Welk. They put on old-school musicals and variety shows that are mainstream, conservative, and very, very white. It’s a world of elaborate kitschy musicals and hillbilly, Hee-Haw comedy.
But this movie goes behind the scenes, showing that it’s not quite what it appears to be. It follows some of the theatrical families who make Branson their home base. There’s a foul-mouthed single mother, who cusses a blue streak and then says – for Jesus. There’s the town mayor, a woman and member of the Presley clan, who points out that women are the ones who really run things there. There’s the Lennon family, transplanted from Venice, California, who have kept their liberal convictions even deep in Tea Party territory. And there’s a gay couple, a divorced man with two sons and his boyfriend, both of whom sing and dance in some of the kitschy, dog-and-pony shows, even while promoting Branson “family values”.
I liked this doc because, even though it starts as a conventional, reality-TV-style show, following some of the characters around, it ends up giving much more. There’s lots of music, some of which is actually really good.
There’s a lots to like: things like a brilliant analysis of the differences between borscht-belt and bible-belt humour. And some scenes are visually fantastic: like when everyone’s at this combination flea market and air show, and, all of the sudden, the planes are dropping fire bombs just behind them, and there are huge plumes of black smoke shooting up, just past the funnel cakes! (That scene made it for me…) Very interesting movie.
Dir: Bert Van Tuyl and Nell Shipman
A silver-haired prospector arrives down south with a fistful of gold nuggets. He tempts the wide-eyed young Faith (Nell Shipman) to leave her laundry shop and come north with him to the Yukon to find love and get rich. After some resistance she agrees, and they head north by steamship.
But he soon turns out to be a monstrous letch and Nell has to fight him off. She’s forced to flee by dog sled with her disabled father. She has to cope with blizzards, bears, outlaws with guns, and dangerous cliff-side chases. Luckily, Nell meets a handsome man in the woods and together they try to triumph over the bad guys.
That’s what The Grub Stake – a Canadian silent movie from 1923 – looks like. But in the new, Revisited version (that’s showing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox next week) the archival print will be shown alongside an original, live performance, that comes to us from the Yukon. A group of actors supply new voices to the silent images, with live musicians creating a haunted, ambient soundtrack.
Here’s the twist: the new script is positively Shakesperean, with all the lines pulled from plays like Hamlet, Richard III and Twelfth Night. Does it work? It’s funny! It doesn’t quite make sense, though: sometimes the dialogue is in perfect synch with the images on the screen, but at other times it seems to be at war with what you’re watching. But I guess that’s what makes it… art.
The Grub Stake is playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, only on May 6th. For more information, go to tiff.net.
You can see Dragon Girls, We Always Lie to Strangers, and many other great documentaries at Hot Docs this weekend. Go to hotdocs.ca for details.
Also opening today is Still Mine, based on a true story about an elderly farmer in New Brunswick who vows to defy the law for the sake of his ailing wife; Kon Tiki, the fantastic Norwegian epic about a journey across the pacific on a raft (I loved the Norwegian version, but haven’t seen the English-language one (check your local listings); and various short films at TIFF that support Mental Health Week (May 5-11) sponsored by Toronto’s Workman Arts: go to tiff.net for details.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .
Hot Docs – Toronto’s legendary Film Festival that shows over 200 documentaries in one week – is on now. It brings cutting edge documentaries from around the world, the filmmakers, and subjects, It’s centered on the Hot Docs cinema on Bloor St, but runs movies and events all around the downtown. And if you’re a student or a senior, you can get free rush tickets for any daytime screening.
What do conspiracies look like? They can be a group of well-meaning protesters, a gang of thieves, or a secret cabal of soldier killers. This week I’m looking at three films about secretive groups whose actions run up against the law and morality. One’s about Russian feminist punks who run into trouble with Putin and the Russian Orthodox church; another’s about a whistleblower in the US military who gets charged with murder; and a third is about some ambitious bodybuilders who want their slice of the pie – and will do whatever is necessary to get it.
Dir: Dan Krauss
When the photos of Abu Ghraib hit the papers, people were shocked at the torture and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers. But a series of incidents in Afghanistan , even more shocking than Abu Ghraib are the subject of a new expose. Here’s what happened.
Winfield, a young skinny marine, the smallest in his unit, notices a strange shift in his unit when a new commanding officer, Gibbs, arrives. Gibbs has a reputation for violence during his term in Iraq. And now he was demanding his soldiers take down Afghan civilians – boys and yound men — in their area. Gibbs forms an elite squad, a “Kill Team”, who are sent out on “drop weapon” missions. This means they would surprise someone, kill him, and then drop a weapon they had brought for that purpose beside the dead body to justify the killing. And then pose for smiling souvenir photos.
So Winfield becomes a whistleblower, sending out word of these heinous murders to his family, asking them to report it. But, through a series of events that the film reveals, the whistleblower ends up being arrested and charged with murder for the very events he was trying to prevent. The movie tells the story of the various marines involved in this particular unit, as the trials and court-martials are prepared. This disturbing documentary also suggests that these practices were not restricted to that one unit but are common practice among soldiers in Afghanistan. They were just the only ones caught. While mainly talking heads – the various soldiers telling their stories – and with a few too many scenes involving negotiatins with lawyers – it is a serious, important film. The Kill Team puts the integrity of the entire Afghan mission into question.
Dir: Maxim Pozdorovkin, Mike Lerner
Pussy Riot is a Russian feminist punk band. They perform their protest pieces wearing neon-coloured balaclavas to cover their faces, playing guitar and singing about government corruption, human rights and freedom of expression. But something happened when they choose to sing about Putin’s ties to the Russian Orthodox church’s patriarchy on the actual altar of a famous cathedral. Within seconds police swarm the stage and arrest three of them for trespassing and defaming religion.
And so begins a lengthy trial followed around the world. The movie interviews the three prisoners – Nadia, Maria and Ekatarina – their families, co-performers and friends. Performance art, public satire and the avant garde, while familiar in the west (where it’s met with yawns or raised eyebrows) are new and genuinely revolutionary in Russia. Somehow, the filmmakers got their cameras and microphones into the trial itself, with perfect views of the three women boxed into a glass cage, as if they were Hannibal Lecters on trial for mass murder. It’s a rare glimpse into the Russian justice system, where playing a simple protest tune still holds the threat of a term in a Siberian prison camp.
Pussy Riot is a must-see at Hotdocs.
Dir: Michael Bay
Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a musclehead personal trainer. He’s given to mindless slogans to inspire him. He’s all about the American dream, being a doer not a don’t-er, and yo, bitches, his body is his temple, his muscles a shrine to physical power (“no homo!”). It’s Miami in the 90’s. This is America — a buff, pimpin’ nation! Or so say the men with fake orange tans at Sun Gym.
But Danny just isn’t making enough money – and he wants to have it all. So he gathers a team of ex-cons to kidnap his client Pepe, an obnoxious, middle-aged Jewish guy from Colombia. After some trouble and some violent episodes, their scheme pays off – they’re rich! They have everything now: a mansion, a sportscar, a yacht, cocaine, a Romanian girlfriend, penile implants… But a persistent P.I. (Peter Weller) is on their trail. Will he catch them in the act?
Pain & Gain is a mildly interesting comedy /action movie. It’s just not that funny, or that interesting, and without much action. The main characters are all caricatures – Dwayne Johnson (“the Rock”) is OK as a sub-normal, born-again body-builder; Tony Shalhoub is great as the world’s most annoying kidnappee; and Mark Wahlberg does his wannabe criminal mastermind very well. But the characters seem to be there just so the audience can laugh at how stupid they all are. (It’s also a weirdly structured movie. The plot repeatedly screeches to a halt to give each character a freeze-frame and an extended voiceover explaining their backstory, out loud. Why?) Pain & Gain is intentionally kitschy, mildly offensive and aims for the lowest common denominator… but it still entertains.
Pain and Gain opens today, check your listings; and Hot Docs is on now: for showtimes of movies like Pussy Riot (screening today) and Kill Team, go to hotdocs.ca.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .
Our justice system says if someone commits a crime they should be arrested, tried and — if guilty — sentenced. We need that both for the victims of crime and also because it’s just the right thing to do. Everyone agrees.
But what happens if the person who committed the crime is not responsible for it, because he was mentally ill or deficient when the crime took place? Surely it’s not fair to jail people who didn’t intentionally commit a crime. But nor can they simply be labeled innocent.
Somewhere between guilt and innocence is a legal territory known as NCR — not criminally responsible. Well there’s a new documentary that’s premiering at Hot Docs in Toronto, called NCR. It follows the victim — a young woman named Julie — and the perpetrator of the crime, Sean, a mentally ill young man who attacked her, seemingly at random, as the court is determining whether or not he is criminally responsible. I spoke by telephone with the venerable Toronto documentary-maker JOHN KASTNER about his new film NCR, premiering at Hot Docs.
Images and Toronto Jewish Film Festival continue on through this weekend, with Hot Docs just around the corner. This week I’m looking at movies about people travelling to exotic lands. There’s a German screwball comedy about an actor who escapes the Nazis only to find himself in the heart of Stalin’s Moscow; a French animated film about a group of travellers from Algiers looking for a lost city; and an American romance about a woman from Paris looking for love in America.
Dir: Leander Haussmann
It’s Berlin in the 1930s. The comedy team Zeisig and Meyer (Michael Herbig and Jurgen Vogel) work at a successful cabaret, playing Stalin and Hitler. But their livelihood is threatened when the Nazi’s come to power, and political satire is no longer tolerated. An undercover Dutch communist, Frida, suddenly appears, and Zeisig, a notorious lothario, is smitten. Meyer goes into hiding, but Zeisig sees no reason to run. But eventually he must. He flees Berlin with fake papers and the name of a Moscow landmark: the Hotel Lux. Outside, it’s a stately building with a spinning red star on the roof. Inside it’s a rat-infested heap. And what he doesn’t realize is it’s also the epicenter of Stalinism, a hotel filled with the hardcore German communists in exile.
Every conversation is bugged. People are constantly dragged out of their rooms by a diminutive NKVD agent and accused of the worst possible crime: Trotskyism! And, due to a series of strange coincidences and mistaken identities, Zeisig, the Stalin impersonator, finds himself in meetings with Stalin himself. And his old friends, Meyer and Frida, both end up in Hotel Lux, too.
How will Zeisig get out if this mess? Will he have an influence on Stalin’s decisions? Will his true identity be discovered? And will Frida ever like him?
Like an Austrian comedy set in the same era, My Best Enemy, this movie doesn’t have any grave meanings or deep philisophyt to impart. Rather, it’s a fantasy set against a backdrop of the troubled thirties. Hotel Lux is just a cute, old-fashioned screwball comedy, with its history and politics filtered through the eyes of post-reunification Germany.
Dir: Antoine Delesvaux and Joann Sfar (based on his graphic novels)
It’s 1920s in Algiers, part of the North African colony annexed by France. (It’s inhabited by Arabic-speaking Muslims and Jews, and their French speaking rulers.) Rabbi Safr lives with his beautiful but fiery daughter Zlabiya. But there normal life is interrupted by some strange things. His cat suddenly begins to speak, and wants to have religious debates. The dead body of a blond Russian man appears in a wooden crate of prayer books sent from Europe. And a cousin, who travels with a huge lion comes for a visit. The Rabbi Safr, accompanied by a Muslim sheikh, also named Safr, a Chagal-like artist, and an aristocratic white Russian, set off on a road journey in a Citroen. They are on a quest through northeast Africa to find an ancient hidden city, an African Jerusalem, the legendary land of giant Black- African Jews.
On their journey, they encounter nomads, Belgian colonists (in the form of a pink-skinned Tintin in a pith helmet), and pick up new members to join their group.
Joann Safr is a great, contemporary French cartoonist who creates fantastical imaginary worlds. This is the first animated version of his work I’ve seen, and it stays true to his comics. This is a great movie: funny, fantastical, and colourful, and featuring French-Algerian actors like Mohamed Fellag.
Dir: Terrence Malick
Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a single mother, meets Neil (Ben Affleck), an American tourist who is visiting France. They fall in love in scenic spots. Their love affair is extended when he invites her (and her daughter) to follow him back to America. Ah, America. Calm, rich, honest, she thinks as she pirouettes around her new Oklahoma backyard. Her whispered thoughts are an ongoing narration to her new life there. Ah… l’amour, l’amour, she whispers, turning another pirouette. Je t’aime. Her life is an avalanche of tenderness. Neil doesn’t speak, he just nods or grunts and goes out to check an oil pump.
OK, just so you know, I was describing a typical scene. But the whole movie is like that. It’s like a two-hour-long movie trailer, an endless montage of a bumpy, depressing relationship in an Oklahoma suburb. With a non-stop voiceover of the most painful poetry, the most awful French doggerel ever inflicted on my ears in one dose. I kind of liked Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life from two years ago (he supposedly spent a decade making it) but this one is worthless. I’m not even mentioning the various sub plots — Marina’s depression, a priest who talks to poor people, marital infidelity — because they barely add anything to this meandering, dull story. Avoid this movie at all costs, unless you are looking for two hours of pointless, superficial Hallmark images and loads of false solemnity.
To the Wonder opens today, check your local listings; and The Rabbi’s Cat and Hotel Lux are both playing this weekend: go to TJFF.ca for details.