August Grab Bag. Movies Reviewed: Eat, Pray, Love; Centurion; Scott Pilgrim vs The World

“Eat Pray Love”

Dir: Ryan Murphy

Liz (Julia Roberts), a successful writer, gets her fortune told in Bali, telling her her destiny. Soon after her marriage collapses, and she feels empty and forlorn, so she sets off on a round the world tour of popular vacation spots to spend some of her dough. In Rome she learns about Dolce Far Niente – which she interprets as knowing how to order food in a restaurant. In India at a Ashram, she learns to find her inner balance by being smug, condescending and vaguely pissed off as she scrubs the stone floors. Then in Bali, settling in to the island’s most expensive hotel, she meditates and rides her bike. She meets a woman who has to live in a rented place, not a house of her own – can you imagine? She feels so sympathetic she decides to raise money on Facebook. What a philanthropist!

I wanted to like it – it had beautiful scenery – Bali, Rome, New York, India – and great actors (Billy Crudup, James Franco, Javier Bardem) and I’m not a Julia Roberts hater – I like her. I’ve even heard the writer Elizabeth Gilbert (who the main character is based on) talk on the radio, and she seems really smart and interesting. But this movie is just horrible. Some people seemed to walk out happy, but I can’t figure out why. It’s one of the worst, stupidest and most annoyingly clichéd and obnoxious movies I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s a typical line, and example of the degree of profundity she encounters on her quest for wholeness and self-actualization: “If you want to get to the castle, Groceries, you’ve got to swim the moat!” Bleaaaggghh! Maybe if this movie had been called the Ugly American, I would have understood it better.

In the beginning I was hoping that all the cute supporting roles would make up for Julia Roberts’ insufferable character. But that didn’t pan out. Instead we get to see anorexic Julia saying “I’m fat – look at my muffin top”. And the next scene is her squeezing into a pair of designer jeans, over her model-bodied flat belly.

You get to see her in Italy learning how to talk with her hands. “Like-a this-a?” says Julia Roberts. (Did she actually say like-a this-a?)

Eat Pray Love:

I ate my popcorn, I prayed the movie would get just a little bit better, and I loved finally getting out of that god-awful place.

“Centurion”

Dir: Neil Marshall

I went to this movie, at Toronto After Dark Festival, partly because Michael Fassbender was in the main role.  He was amazing in two British movies over the last couple years: “Hunger”, about IRA Bobby Sands’s prison hunger strike and a coming of age drama, “Fish Tank”. This movie, while set in the British Isles, is…a little bit different. To say the least.

This is a sword and sandals epic, about the period when the Roman soldiers fought against the picts. This was way before all those nouveau immigrants, those Angles, Jutes and Saxons moved in and spoiled the neighbourhood. This was way back when. So in a big battle, the Roman legions were there fighting those Picts up in the north.

They’re tough mofos, those picts are, with all their pictish ways, and blue face paint. Don’t mess with them. But the Romans are tough too. Anyway, there’s battle after battle and skirmish after skirmish before the actually story takes off. Lots of splatt, and uggh, and aaah, as another head gets chopped off and plopped into a water barrel. Anyway… so Quintas Dias (“I am a soldier of Rome, I will not yield!”) a centurian, and a pict by birth, has been training for fighting since his childhood. He speaks the local language, and knows the way around. After the failed attempt to beat the locals, he just wants to rescue a Roman general and call it a day. But in their botched attempt, someone in his multi-cultural platoon does something that sets the whole tribe against them — till the death. They have to escape and make it back to the main Roman legion. So there are lots of scenic mountains and rivers and waterfalls as they try to outwit the dangerous picts and an expert tracker who always seems to find them, a fur-clad and mute lisbeth salander-type rival, played by the striking Olga Kurylenko. I started to get dizzy when I thought of all the swooping airplanes they had to rent to shoot this movie – it felt like every second scene had to start with a swooshing aerial view of where they were fighting next.

And on the way, they encounter a pictish witch to add a further dimension to the story. I liked it, just for it’s bigness. I got bored of all the killing and stabbing and stuff, but it brightened a bit in the second half. If you like very bloody, Roman big-screen war movies, then this is the movie for you. (I liked it better than “Gladiator” and the very plastic-looking “Troy”, but that’s not saying much.)

“Scott Pilgrim vs the World”

Dir: Edgar Wright

Based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, and starring Michael Cera in the title role.

Scott Pilgrim is a nerdy guy in a band. He shares a bachelor apartment with a gay dude who gets laid way more than he does. Scott’s still pining for a girlfriend who dumped him a year ago. And he’s dating a highschool girl (“we hold hands”) named Knives Chau, who’s gradually becoming more of a fan of the band than a GF. But she’s crushing heavily on Scott Pilgrim. They play Dance Dance Revolution together in perfect Harmony. Then he meets the girl of his dreams – literally of his dreams! – at a party, and they sort of hit it off, even though he’s a wimpy Toronto guy, and she’s a beautiful and glamorous American, from New York, who changes her hair style each week.

The thing is, she has lots of baggage from her various exes, all evil, all more successful, and all out to ambush Scott when he’s least expecting it. So he has to fight them if he wants to stay with Ramona Flowers, that’s the name of his new beautiful and glamorous girlfriend.

So he goes through a series of 8-byte video battles – battles of the bands, Street Fighter skirmishes, skateboard derbies on the hills around Casa Loma… covering the whole indie, comics, video games, manga, electronica, clubs and party scene of downtown Toronto of the 90’s and 2000’s. It’s retro without being specifically any retro period. And the whole movie is told as if the area of Toronto, within, say, thirty blocks of the comic store The Beguiling were trapped inside an old Nintendo set – and the only way to get out is to beat all these villains.

This is a great movie and the most Toronto movie I’ve seen in a long time. References to Honest Ed’s, Pizza Pizza, the Second Cup, even SARS are everywhere. I’m not even going into all the other characters – too many, too funny – but I liked this movie. It’s just so Toronto, with all the cool people drinking beer at the parties… y’know? I think I was at that party in the movie. OK, maybe I wasn’t there, but I was invited, and I didn’t go, cause it would have sucked anyway.

Anyway, you have to watch it to see whether Scott Pilgrim wins his awesome battles or whether the world beats him and just leaves his burnt husk there in an Annex alley off Bloor Street: Game Over!

Finally, the 11th annual ImagineNATIVE Festival of great new movies by indigenous peoples here and around the world, is starting tonight in Toronto, and continuing for the next five days. You should check this out — It’s opening tonight with Boy, a Maori coming-of-age story, that was a huge hit in New Zealand. Look online at ImagineNative.org .

Folk Heroes. Movies reviewed: Soul Kitchen, Mesrine: Killer Instinct, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, plus Joan Rivers A Piece of Work, and Toronto After Dark Festival

We’re at the hottest time of the year, the dog days of summer, and, with all the sticky, sultry weather, some people get boiled into limp submission… and others just boil over. This week, there was a Johnny Paycheck at Jet Blue Airlines, who’d had it. After being bonked on the head by a falling piece of luggage, he took to the airplane mike, and mouthed the equivalent of the old ’70’s country song “Take this job and shove it, I ain’t workin’ any more”. The flight attendant, Steven Slater, activated the airplane emergency slide, grabbed a couple cans of beer, and slid away. They’re already calling him a folk hero – someone who went with his feelings.

Well, there are some movies opening this weekend, with some very different takes on what to do with your life, including its anger and frustration. And one of them is about an actual folk hero.

Soul Kitchen

Dir: Fatih Akin

This movie is about Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos), a German-Greek guy from Hamburg who owns a rundown diner in an old warehouse. One day, he’s with his rich girlfriend at a big family dinner, when something happens. A customer has complained that his soup is cold. No big deal. Except… the soup is cold gazpacho. So when the customer demands he heat it up in the microwave, the chef goes ballistic and comes out of te kitchen brandishing a cleaver.

Zinos witnesses all this and hires him on as a diner chef. The movie –aside from all the great food shots of chopping and stirring, is really about poor Zinos’s misadventures as he tries to get his restaurant and his life back in order. He has to deal with his icy girlfriend who has relocated to Shanghai; his brother, a thief and gambler on day parole who wants a job but doesn’t want to work; Socrates, an old bearded guy in a Greek fisherman’s cap who’s building a wooden boat behind the restaurant; and the various city zoning officials and real-estate speculators who seem to be teaming up to make his life miserable. And then there’s his bad back…

It’s unusual to see German movies with multi-ethnic casts and storylines – that’s an interesting change. And this cute, light German comedy has lots of scenes of diverse characters rolling with the punches, and eventually exploding. It’s an OK movie, (not a great one) with lots of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Actually, “Soul Kitchen” feels most like a TV sitcom pilot: Introducing all the madcap friends of the beleaguered main character who you can enjoy watching in his crazy musical restaurant, week after week…

The next movie, a biopic, is a lot more powerful.

“Mesrine: Killer Instinct”

Dir: Jean-Francois Richet

Screenplay: Abdel Raouf Dafri (who wrote last year’s amazing prison gangster flick Un Prophete / A Prophet).

Jacques Mesrine, not so well known here, is a full-fledged folk hero in France, and maybe in Quebec. After serving his term with the French army in Algeria (France’s “Vietnam”) he has to move back in with his parents. His mother is demanding, his father is conciliatory and he hates them both. Jacques (or Jacky) wants pride, he wants glory.

He becomes a burglar and a thief of some renown. He can talk himself out of trouble, no prison can hold him. He’s quick with a gun, and a even quicker when there’s a chance of meeting a pretty girl. He rides sports cars, dresses in suits, and keeps a narrow military moustache. When his beautiful and fiery-tempered Spanish wife Sofia leaves him after a violent incident, he takes off for greener pastures. Soon, he’s in Montreal in the late 60’s, with a new Bonnie to his Clyde: Jeanne Schneider. And he shares Molson Ex stubbies and bottles of Canadian Club with his new best buddy, Jean-Paul Mercier from the FLQ. And when they end up in a horrific Quebec penitentiary, they vow: dehors ou mort — to get out or die trying.

“Mesrine: Killer Instinct” is extremely rich, and epic in its scope. From the slick, period scenes of the Parisian demimonde of the 60’s, to the vast hyper-realism of Montreal – forests, bridges, ship yards, and apartment complexes — it all rings true.

The acting – especially the wiry, charismatic star Vincent Cassel, who’s made a career playing fighters and anti-heroes – is absolutely amazing. Gerard Depardieu as his gangster boss, Roy Dupuis as his Quebec friend; and the two female leads, Cecile de France, and Elena Anaya as two of his lovers — they’re all just perfect.

This is a great look at an extremely violent gangster who captured the imaginations of a generation. The movie also gives, for the first time, a stark look at the Canadian prison system in the 1970’s. Really shocking. I do recommend this movie, just be aware it’s quite violent, and it only covers the first part of Mesrine’s life. (“Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1” is coming soon.)

“The Disappearance of Alice Creed”

Dir: J Blakeson

Also opening this weekend, is a thriller I saw last year at the Toronto Film Festival.

Alice Creed is a young woman woman who is kidnapped, bound, gagged and tied to a bed by two masked men. They have a foolproof plan — to hide her in a high rise apartment, without her ever knowing who they are. Their plan is flawless… until it begins to fall apart.

Is she really a total stranger? How

can these two men trust each other? And how innocent a victim is the young woman?

As the three players in this intrigue shift alliance, blame, and loyalty, the power equation constantly changes.

Eventually it all breaks down to who gets the satchel of cash. But isn’t there some sort of unwritten rule for movies — that there can only be so many plot twists before it completely loses its point?

Spindly plot legs can’t support a story with too many heavy plot reversals, and this one has more than you can count. I liked the fact that it has a tiny cast — just the three of them — and I liked seeing Eddie Marsan (the loopy driving teacher from “Happy-Go-Lucky”: En! Ra! Ha!) in another unusual role. But the acting is better than the story. This is not terrible, but not a great one either.

And if these three movies aren’t enough, there’s a fourth one opening this weekend: “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” (directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg) a tell-all documentary about the famous stand-up comic and talk-show host.

This is a really funny movie, with lots of the comedian’s offensive one-liners. You also get to see her behind the scenes reconstructing her face and body for the audiences; and her personal struggles with her husband, daughter, agent and career. As someone who is not a fan of Joan Rivers, and had never actually seen her perform before, even on a talk show, the movie was surprisingly entertaining. I don’t like celebrity culture at all, but this is one good, funny documentary. I don’t know if Joan Rivers can ever be called a folk hero, but she’s a real piece of work.

Finally, for people who love horror, cult, action and science fiction movies, you’re in for a treat. It’s time again for the Toronto After Dark festival.

One full week of al the ninjas, zombies, aliens, robots and monsters you can stand. I haven’t seen any of the movies playing, but the titles say it all: “RoboGeisha”; “Alien vs Ninja”; “The Human Centipede”; and a new remake of the revenge classic “I Spit on your Grave”. Whoa! More scary B-movies than you can shake a stick at. And there’s a special appearance by none other than Eli Roth (who directed “Hostel” and acted in “Inglourious Basterds”) along with the cast of his latest production, “The Last Exorcism”. After Dark is also the kind of festival that attaches short films before the main feature, something that should be done more often.

Who Will Root for the Underdog? Movies Reviewed: The Parking Lot Movie, Dinner for Schmucks

Posted in Anthropology, College, comedy, Comics, Cultural Mining, documentary, Hotdocs, Movies, Music, Uncategorized, Underground, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 7, 2010

A few weeks ago, I somehow found myself with a pair of tickets to Just for Laughs at Massey Hall – that’s the Montreal stand up comedy festival which now has a Toronto version as well. And I hadn’t been to a stand-up comedy stage show in a building like Massey Hall since… well never. Anyway, I guess stand-up comedy appeals to a particular sense of humour; (at least in the show I went to) it’s guys on a stage — the featured act was Brad Garret from Everybody Loves Raymond– making fun of the people in the audience. Racial and ethnic stereotypes, fat jokes, and jokes about any and all women. You know, the things obnoxious acquaintances or distant relatives of yours start saying around the time the first 2-4 has disappeared. I guess part of the appeal is the audience squirming in discomfort and shock at the rudeness and meanness of the people on stage.

And what does this have to movies?

Well, movies, specifically comedies, have a whole subgenre built around picking on the little guy, the “loser”. In general, Hollywood has always been on the side of the person who’s made fun of, picked on, or oppressed – even if the audience gets to vicariously watch the poor guy being teased or mocked. There’s still always the same ending: the bullies get punished and the underdogs, the people at the bottom, get their long due just desserts.

But there is some nipping at the edges of this conventional theme. The various TV idol contests have parts where they show how bad a singer is or how terribly they’re dressed, and the judges enjoy laughing at them and insulting them. And some college movies, like “Tucker Max: I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell” take the side of the privileged ones, making fun of the women they try to have sex with (or actually purchase, in the case of strippers or prostitutes.)

This week I’m looking at two movies that follow the classic Hollywood model, both funny movies about sort of sad and lonely people. Are they really funny? Should these movies be making fun of these people? (And why are they always guys?)

The Parking Lot Movie

Dir: Meghan Eckman

My first thoughts, before I saw this movie, were: Oh my God – a movie about a parking lot? Is there no line documentary makers won’t cross? No topic too mundane?

This documentary’s about a bunch of hipsters / college students / slackers / extremely over-educated bunch of guys in their twenties who hang out in this legendary parking lot – the Corner Parking Lot. It’s their job. The guys (and they’re all guys) sit in a little wooden booth, like an oversized dog house, and raise and lower the wooden turnstyle barrier (they call it the gate) and collect the money. Half of them look like Zach Galifianakis, the rest look like either tattooed guys in an indie band, or else perpetual grad students.

First of all, it’s an indie parking lot, not one of those big-label corporate ones. They’re so fake. This parking lot’s the real thing, dude.

It’s in the middle of what looks like a bar district in a college town (Charlottesville, Virginia), so you get all these sorority girls and Tucker Max wannabes in their hummers stumbling back to their cars after last call.

They guys who work there all really HATE their customers. It’s the parkers vs the park-ees.

The director has a really good eye. There are some images that are just so funny – I don’t know why — they just grab you.  Like a shot of one of the guys guy listening to music on his headphones, bobbing his head as he counts a big wad of parking lot cash… brilliant.

You have to wonder – are these guys actually all serial killers or something? Naaah, just graduate students in philosophy and anthropology. They’ve broken down all the variables in a parking lot and taking them as far as they can possibly go. Like the wooden turn-style gate —they spray paint stenciled messages on them – a different one each day. Or they play an inane catch-toss game with the orange rubber pylons.

And then there are the faceless parkers. GRRrrrrrrrr… anyone ever worked in the service industry? You can see how even just one obnoxious, lazy, overfed, douchey-frat boy, a single nasty parking lot customer, these paragons of entitlement driving 100K Hummers who argue over a 50 cent charge… I feel deep sympathy for the parking lot guys.

This movie is way better than Kevin Smith’s legendary Clerks. Looks better too – it’s actually nicely coloured, with outdoor oversaturated night scenes, stop-motion clouds, everything looking like an MTV indie music doc, except they’re not celebs. It’s got that slick, handmade look, complete with a white hiphop video toward the end about the parking lot, complete with hand gestures. (CPL! CPL!)

I don’t know what it is, but this movie really cracked me up, despite it’s random acts of senseless, vindictive anger and complaining. And even though it enjoys making fun of the slackers, the movie is decidedly from their point of view. It keeps to the Hollywood rule of rooting for the underdogs.

“Dinner for Schmucks”

Dir: Jay Roach

(based on the French film “The Dinner Game”)

This movie is a bit different; it shows the oddballs of the world (and the troubles they seem to bring) but through the eyes of a “normal” guy.

In this movie, a guy named Tim (Paul Rudd) works for some financial company in a highrise somewhere. He’s not a parking lot attendant but, in his mind, he may as well be. He’s a middle-level executive, stuck in a rut. But then he has an idea – he speaks up at a meeting. Tim had an idea! He says he can get this eccentric swiss millionaire to invest in their company. Great! He’ll finally move upstairs. But, (says his boss surrounded by his yes-men) first you have to prove yourself by showing up at a dinner, and bringing an idiot, pretending to be his friend – so we can laugh at him.

That’s terrible! But when he accidentally meets Barry (Steve Carell)  — a guy who works for the IRS tax office, a hobbyist who stuffs dead mice and dresses them up, and uses them in elaborate dioramas – when he meets Barry, Tim feels like a gift just landed in his lap.

Anyway, the plot creaks on. it’s a so-so story bandied together with cheap rubber bands. Tim’s fiancé is a curator, and he’s worried she’ll run off with a New Zealand artist (Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords) who wears fake goat horns to compliment his “animal magnetism”. Meanwhile, Tim has a bad back. And he’s also being stalked by an ex-girlfriend, a crazed dominatrix. And then there’s bearded Zach Galifianakis playing a co-worker of Barry’s at the IRS who is studying hypnotic mind control.

The story all works its way toward the party – what will happen there? Like the movie itself, it’s a venue for lots of TV comedians to do their schtick. Lots of people you see on the Daily Show or other TV shows, and a lot of people who look vaguely familiar but you’re not sure from where. They each have their moment in the sun to act funny-stupid. Never from their clever repartee, always from the uncomfortableness or strangeness of their personalities.  It’s up to Steve Carell’s super weird but cuddly and lovable Barry to carry the movie. The plot won’t do it. The problem is he’s sometimes funny, sometimes just stupid. His character isn’t really that great, despite the fake funny teeth, and the bad windbreaker he wears… he’s just not that consistent, and seems willing to do things just for a laugh, even when it’s totally out of character.

Is the movie there to make fun of people? Yeah, but that’s what comedians want: For people to laugh the loudest when they’re on the screen. Dinner for Schmucks is a funny — but not that funny — summer comedy. But I do give it two points for managing to avoid toilet humour, all too common in most comedies.

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