Top Ten Movies of 2010! Black Swan, Winter’s Bone, Fish Tank, You Are Here, True Grit, Enter the Void, The Kids Are All Right, Kick Ass, Mother, Nowhere Boy.

Posted in Cultural Mining, Movies, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 30, 2010

Well, we’re on the verge of a new year, and movie reviewers seem obligated to say which movies were the best in the past year. But I’m what you’d call a promiscuous moviegoer (I see about 250 movies a year), so it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few. But I’ll try. (I’m not including documentaries or animated movies, just because I’m trying to narrow it down. And I’m also not counting any movies I saw at film festivals that haven’t played publicly yet in Toronto.

The best movies all have a great story, script, direction, and acting, and are in some way new and novel. They also go beyond what’s normally expected from a movie, and transcend genres. Here, in no particular order, are my 10 favourite movies of 2010.

Black Swan

Dir: Darren Aronfsky

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a sheltered, young ballerina who wants to play the lead part in Swan Lake, but the ballet director wants her to explore her dark side, and try to play the Black Swan. She has to overcome her inhibitions, her rivals, her doubts, and her increasingly psycho-sexual delusions if she is to make it in her part.

Despite my ignorance and lack of interest in Ballet dancing, this movie had me transfixed. Aranofsky successfully navigates between the documentary-style hyper-realism of backstage massages, taping and bone-cracking, the high camp of melodramatic scenery-chewing and cat-fighting, and the surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies. All of this plus stunning visuals and sound.

Winter’s Bone

Dir: Debra Granik

Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) is a 17 year old girl who lives in dirt poor rural Missouri in the Ozarks with her silent mother and two little kids. She has to find her missing father, who’s out on bail before a trial, or else lose the family homestead. She’s a Dolly – “bread and buttered”, she says. The Dollys aren’t the nicest family in those parts, but they’re her kin and she has no one else to turn to so she starts on a mysterious journey into the dangerous swamp of her creepy family’s secrets.

Winter’s Bone is an excellent, compelling mystery-drama, made on location in the Ozarks, with great acting, a compelling story, and an unknown cast. With the fiddle, banjo and the guitar and mountain folksongs in the soundtrack you really feel like your there with her.

Fish Tank

Dir: Andrea Arnold

Mia is a 15 year old street-smart and tough-as-nails high school drop-out who lives with her mother and little sister in a high-rise council flat in England. Her hobbies are drinking, smoking, shouting, fighting, stealing, pilfering through wallets, and practicing her hiphop dancing. (She wants to be a dancer.) Her mother’s handsome Irish boyfriend Connor acts like a young father to her and her little sister – but then she sees him half dressed one day. The familial structure begins to crumble when all of their roles silently adjust themselves.

This is a great movie, with a terrific cast, especially the staggeringly good Katie Jarvis, as Mia, in her first acting role, and Michael Fassbender, as Connor. The movie itself looks almost improvised, though it clearly follows a story – and a heart pounding, tense, and engrossing story it is

You Are Here

Dir: Daniel Cockburn

This first feature is an experimental film that’s hard to categorize: it’s like a series of matrushka dolls dancing on a moebius strip, being fed through a reel to reel tape recorder. I don’t have enough time to even attempt to say anything about the story or characters, except that its sort of like an abstract physics string theory plot… if that makes sense. You are Here is a great, unique, Toronto movie.

True Grit

Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen

In this remake of a 1960’s John Wayne western, 14 year old Hattie hires a drunk Marshal Rooster Cogburn to hunt down her father’s killer. Can she depend on the True Grit sincerity and perseverance of either Cogburn or the Texas Marshall LeBoeuf? It’s a great, classic western, complete with Spielberg-style cliffhangers and tear-jerking scenes, along with the Coen brothers absurd comedy and violence.

Enter the Void

Dir: Gaspar Noe

A Canadian brother and sister living in Tokyo are tied together by a childhood bonding. But when the brother dies, he’s torn from his body and his spirit drifts around the city’s underworld, back and forward in time, through walls and over rooftops. This spectacularly, overwhelmingly trippy is a 2 1/2 hour hallucinogenic experience, seen directly through his eyes. Enter the Void is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It is an extremely absorbing and mind-blowing — but looooong — work of art. Even the opening credits are more fantastic than most movies.

The Kids Are All Right

Dir: Lisa Cholodenko

Nik and Jules (are a southern California middle-class, lesbian couple living happily with their two teenaged kids. But things change when their daughter hunts down the sperm donor (Mark Ruffallo) – a happy-go-lucky, organic motorcycle rider and college drop out who hits on every pretty woman he sees. He’s the third wheel that intrudes in the peaceful family.

Normally I’m not a big fan of light family dramas, but this movie has such good acting, (Juliane Moore playing against type, and Annette Bening in what I think is her best role ever) and is so funny, is such a good story – I really liked it. It’s a honey of a movie.

Kick Ass

Dir: Matthew Vaughan

Dave (Aaron Johnson) is a High School boy who’s tired of the undesirable combination: invisible to girls, but a magnet to bullies and muggers. So he makes himself a superhero costume, and when he’s caught on film fighting some street thugs, it goes viral on youtube and he becomes a superhero for real. But when he encounters some real superheroes, Hit Girl and Big Daddy (played by Chloe Moretz and Nicholas Cage), he is shocked back into reality. These real “heroes” were also amassing huge amounts of weapons and money they steal. The even more horrific villains he encounters, forces him to make a decision.

Kick Ass is not just a typical teen action comedy. It’s a fascinating, shocking, extremely violent, morally ambiguous drama, adapted from a graphic novel.

Mother

Dir: Bong Joon-ho

A desperately poor Korean mother (Hye-ja Kim), is shocked when her ne-er-do-well, not very bright son is accused of a murder. When the police don’t help her , she sets off to find the real killer. The great acting, uncomfortable characters and gripping mystery/detective plot make this a cinematic treat.

Nowhere Boy

Dir: Sam Taylor-Woods

John Lennon (Aaron Johnson), is a high school student in the late 50’s, growing up with his cold aunt Mimi in a middle class home in Liverpool. But when he discovers his long-lost mother is still alive, and lives a couple blocks away, his life turns upside down. His mother introduces him to banjo music. He combs his hair like a rock n roller, and becomes rebellious, cocky, almost a local tough, joy-riding around town on the roof of a double decker bus, smoking, drinking, and kissing strange girls. I was expecting another tired Beatles biopic, but this actually a great movie.

Have a Happy New Year, control yourselves, go crazy but not too crazy, and I’ll be back next year (and next week) with more movies.

Christmas and New Year’s Movies. Films Reviewed: Enter the Void, True Grit, Somewhere

Just because it’s the holiday season and there are tons of supremely awful movies being inflicted on the lowest common denominator – and their parents – (And what’s this stupid movie, Boo-boo? I don’t know Yogi…looks really bad! Then why do we have to watch it? It’s lamer than the av-er-age cartoon) it doesn’t mean there aren’t some fine things out there. So this week I’ll tell you about some of the good, end-of-the-year pictures you might want to see.

First, the new Coen Brothers’ movie, a laconic remake of the old John Wayne western True Grit.

True Grit
Dir: Ethan and Joel Coen

Mattie Ross (Haillie Steinfeld) is a14- year-old girl with black pigtails. She’s in the frontier town because her dad was robbed and shot dead by an outlaw named – get this – Chaney! (Nope, not that Cheney. This one has better aim.) She may be young, but she’s a tough cookie. She’s there to hire a Marshall, the meanest one she can find, to catch up to Chaney and the Pepper gang, and hang him. She also wants to get back the gold coins and the horses he stole. So she finds the one-eyed straight-shooter, the grizzled alcoholic Rooster Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges.) But he’s also being sought by a Dudley Do-right style Texas Ranger, (Matt Damon) who wants to take him back to Texas so he can get the reward and the glory. And neither of them want a girl riding her pony, Little Blackie, with them in Indian Country.

But, like I said, she’s tough, and no one can intimidate her when shes on a mission. Will they catch him? Or will they catch her? And will the drunken Rooster Cogburn or LaBoeuf with all his alterior motives prove trustworthy, full of determination, responsibility and “true grit”?

This is a great picture to watch and enjoy. I’ve been telling friends to go to this one, and a lot of them are saying, naaah, I don’t like westerns. But forget about genre labels – go see it – it’s good! I should say, it’s violent, like most Coen brothers movies, and it seems to me to be a lot like the old True Grit, in tone and story – but I saw that one ages ago. It does have the tongue in cheek absurdity and humour of a Coen bros movie too, and this tine, as Steven Spielberg was one of the producers, there are all these Indiana ones-type situations, with people hanging on ropes, chased by snakes, old-school stuff like that. I gotta say, I lapped it up, even the corny parts, and wanted more. It’s not cutesy, it’s not dull, it’s a great brand-new classic movie.

Enter the Void
Dir: Gaspar No»

Psychonauts — DMT aficionados — say that one puff of that extreme, psychedelic drug is so powerful it can make you collapse before putting down the pipe. The reaction lasts just a few minutes but might seem like hours, or even days. They say the brain’s pineal gland excretes a large dose of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) right before you die. It makes your whole life pass before your eyes, just before you expire. That’s what they say.

Gaspar Noe’s new, spectacularly, overwhelmingly trippy movie Enter the Void, is a 2 1/2 hour hallucinogenic experience, seen directly through the eyes of a Canadian druggie living in Tokyo. He rarely appears (except when looking in a mirror) but you see everything he thinks, remembers, sees, or imagines, as repeated loops of his life and death are projected on the screen.

So two Canadians are living in Tokyo: Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), is a low-level drug dealer, and his sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), is a stripper, and they are in a Tokyo entertainment district that looks like Dogenzaka. They have been close since a childhood blood-oath, but are separated when a failed drug deal at a bar, called The Void, tears Oscar free from his body. He’s dead, or almost dead.

Like in the book The Tibetan Book of the Dead that he was reading just before he leaves his apartment, Oscar is in limbo. His soul or his essence is now forced to perpetually view strobing neon, sordid sex, drugs and violence as he floats through solid walls and bends time and space. Everythings spinning around and around: gas stove burners morph into drains and psychedelic star bursts; aerial cityscapes turn seamlessly into handmade, day-glo models of Tokyo buildings and back again.

Enter the Void is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It is an extremely absorbing and mind-blowing — but looooong — work of art. Even the opening credits are more fantastic than most movies. Each time you prepare for the dream’s inevitable ending, it introduces a new tableau. French enfant terrible Gaspar Noe has surpassed his earlier, drastic films by moving beyond the simple, horrific violence and shocking scenes and flashbacks that fueled Seul contre tous (1998) and Irreversible (2002). Enter the Void is his best and most ambitious film to date.

I saw this in 2009 at the Toronto Film festival but it’s still very strong in my brain – I think it cost me a few thousand frazzled synapses, but the memory’s still there. A lot of people walked out when I saw it, so its definitely not for everyone, but I thought it was a movie like no other.

Finally, there’s a new movie by Sofia Coppola coming out soon called Somewhere.

Johnny Marco is a successful Hollywood actor living in an LA hotel. He’s basically a meat puppet who gets wheeled out and told what to do, then driven back home again for his next appearance. He just nods, does his poses, smiles for the camera, and does whatever he’s told to do: his personal assistant, his agent, his publicist, his ex-wife, whoever, traveling from metaphoric fishbowl to metaphoric fishbowl.

His free time is his own which he spends meeting the various huge-breasted starlets who seem to lurk behind every doorway, ready to through their nude bodies at this celebrity. And he’s not complaining. Or else he lays down, catatonic, fully dressed, watching his leggy blonde identical-twin personal strippers in miniskirts who spin, around and around and around, in endless synchronized rotations on their portable stripper poles. Does he like his life? Not really. He tends to just fall asleep.

Then one day his ex-wife says he has to take care of their 14-tear-old daughter Cleo in the weeks before her summer camp. And when he goes to see her figure skating, he suddeny realizes eeeuw, she’s dressed just like the synchronized personal strippers, as he watches her skate around, and around around the ice rink. He takes her on a work trip to Italy where she watches him on an inane TV award show host and the breasty starlets dance around and around and around a tiny gaudy stage, with him in the middle.

Everything in this movie is about small, repetitive spaces (roads, swimming pools, parties) where poor Johnny Marco is trapped in his ethereal, superficial existence, with only his daughter — whom he barely knows – there to pull him back to reality.

This movie is essentially a reworking of Lost in Translation, with untranslated scenes in “crazy Italy” replacing the ones in “whacky Japan”, and the older man / younger girl theme with an actual father daughter rather than the surrogate daddy/girl in her earlier movie. (Sofia Copolla is the daughter of Frances Ford Copolla. so this is her telling her life story again.) I hated Lost in Translation, but I kinda like this one. Steven Dorff is more sympathetic, and so is Elle Fanning as the daughter. The whole movie is more subtle, less crass.

It’s hard to feel sorry for rich, famous and privileged Johnny Marco, but you can at least identify with his troubled and shallow, ethereal existence.

“Somewhere” is not bad at all.

Phantasmagorical! Movies Reviewed: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale; The Tourist; The Tempest; plus Movie phone-in Contest!

This time of year, when the nights grow longer and the days grow darker, when the icy winds whistle through bare branches of the trees, when Christmas is coming, and New Year’s not far behind, thoughts turn to things fantastical, impossible and even supernatural. So today I’m going to talk about three, very different movies, but all of them far outside of the grip of what people call realism. Also, keep listening, because I’m having a real ticket giveaway at the end of my reviews

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Dir: Jalmari Helander

In the extreme north of Finland, where the Sami people hunt reindeer, something’s wrong. A big multinational mining company has come in to the area, and they’re digging something up, under an ancient mountain – or is it a burial ground? But the reindeer are disappearing, and so is the main source of income. Children are also disappearing, with creepy, sewn cloth dolls left in their beds. And so are the burlap sacks in a potato warehouse. What’s going on?

Then they discover a mass slaughter. All the local reindeer herdsman, bearded and wearing toques, think it must be the Russians‘ fault, just over the fence, across the border. Or maybe it’s the wolves? Or that multi national headed by the weird Englishman who keeps warning them “Shhh.. don’t say bad words… don’t do anything naughty…!”

And a great horned beast has been dug up by the miners what is it? What does it all mean?

But little Pietari has done some reading. All those old fairytales? They’re true! It’s Coca-cola that played the con-job in the 19th century and painted a new picture. You know that jolly laughing bearded man in red? Ho, ho, ho… Pietari has discovered the truth about Santa:

He sees you when you’re sleeping,
he knows when you’re awake,
he knows if you’ve been bad or good,
so be good for goodness sake!

Santa’s actually… the boogie man! He grabs little kids and spanks them to death…

It’s up to little Pietari to save all the kids, get rid of the sinister creature, and restore the ruined local economy. Will he do it? Can he do it?

This fast-paced film from Finland is one of the strangest Christmas movies I’ve ever seen. It’s cute, and surreal, and spooky, all at once, like a lot of Finnish movies. Although there are some scary scenes and a little bit of gore, I think most kids (and adults) who are struggling with their own parents’ Santa myths might find this just the thing to clear away the saccharine, commercial images we get bombarded with every year, right about now…

The Tourist
Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
(Starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp)

Elise is a mysterious glamorous woman, who sits in open-air cafes and reads cryptic notes delivered to her on the sly. She’s trying to find her boy-friend who robbed a gangster of billions of dollars and then disappeared. And she’s being tracked by countless European men from Italy, France, Germany, and the UK who whisper into hidden microphones and observe her every step. She’s told to meet someone and pretend he’s her boyfriend. She gets on a train, and chooses a man at random, a hapless math teacher from Wisconson – Frank (played by Johnny Depp). He is soon trapped in her machinations as she tries to escape all these men pursuing her as they chase her (and him!) through the canals of Venice. Can he help her escape? And will she ever find her real boyfriend? Will he show up at the ball? (Yes she goes to a ball). And what about all the money he stole?

This movie was a total disappointment. Athough it sounds like fun, it barely makes sense, and as the plot turns, it makes even less sense. And does Angelina Jolie hate other women? It’s like the thought of another woman competing with her for screen space is so anathema to her that she’s banned any and all potential rivals from her films. The cast of 40 has 39 men, including Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, and Timothy Dalton, Steven Berkoff (as the villain) – along with a legion of Euro-spies and gangsters with carefully groomed, three-day cheek-stubble, designer suits, and Zoolander poses.

What’s with her? I liked Wanted, (even though it was dumb), thought Salt, last summer was even dumber, and now there’s this one. It’s starting to grate. Johnny Depp was totally wasted as a a puffy-faced, ineffectual milquetoast.

Angelina’s accent was atrocious, and the two of them looked ridiculous posturing in evening wear in the admittedly beautiful European scenery. It looked like a Hollywood movie from the early sixties, but without real glamour – it felt out of synch. The whole movie was embarrassing, and the story, though it started out good, had so many twists it no longer made any sense.

It’s especially disappointing because the director was the one who made that really great movie the Lives of Others, about the Stasi spy in East Germany. This spy fantasy is only his second film, and it’s a real clunker.

The Tempest
Dir: Julie Taymor

Many of you already know the story, it’s about Prospero, the Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda who are exiled to an island, inhabited only by the local creature Caliban, he uses his magic powers (and that of his spirit Ariel) to cause a shipwreck, wand strand his enemies and allies on the island, cast a spells to bring back justice and regain his power in Northern Italy. It’s also Miranda’s first time seeing other humans, so she falls in love with a handsome prince, the good King’s son. Meanwhile the bad guys try out their plots along with Caliban.

So this version, directed by the very talented and original stage director Julie Taymor, tries a few changes, but keeps largely to Shakespeare’s original story. She keeps it in the period – doesn’t modernize it, but she fools around a bit with sex and gender. She casts Helen Mirren as Prospero (Prospera), Miranda’s mother now, and a witch not a sorcerer. That works fine. And she has the sprite Ariel (expertly played by Ben Whishall) do some shape-shifting, turning from man to woman and back again.

The cast is quite amazing – with Alfred Molina, Tom Conti, Chris Cooper, Allan Cumming – and others, who can handle Shakespeare without trouble. It’s shot in Hawai’i so you get these fantastical moonscapes, and volcanic cliffs and weird jungles for characters to wander around in.

It just didn’t seem movie-like to me, there was a disconnect. It was more of a play captured on film, so it was harder to connect with the characters, to really feel their emotions. It felt like a virtual proscenium arch between you and the screen, so it was doubly removed (or distanced) from the viewer. So there were stage sets in the movie – that say: look at the beautiful sets! And stage costumes that shout out look at these fancy costumes. And some of the acting, like Russel Brand (as Trinculo) was saying, Looooook! I’m a comeeeeedian! (yeah, you’re really funny).

So it’s an interesting movie, with some neat effects. And things like Ariel doing butoh dance poses, chalked in white, were quite arresting (but why?). I found the background sound and music was terrible, and too overpowering at times, it smothered a lot of the lines, and dragged the pace. Made it lethargic. Shakespeare didn’t write throw-away dialogue – it’s kind of important to be able to hear exactly what they’re saying. So it didn’t all hold together for me, but hey, Shakespeare on the big screen? Another movie Tempest? I say, keep ‘em coming!

Finally, here’s a contest: I’m giving away length of run movie tickets to the first five correct who can answer this question:

Which one of these four Scandinavian directors is from Finland?:

Lars Von Trier
Aki Kaurismaki
Lasse Halstrom
Joachim Rønning

The first 5 correct emails will win a length of engagement ticket for two persons for:
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.

(CONTEST NOW CLOSED)

Do period dramas have to be nostalgic? Movies Reviewed: Always: Sunset on Third Street; Memories of Matsuko; The King’s Speech

Posted in Academy Awards, Acting, Japan, Royalty, UK, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 10, 2010

This time of year lends itself to nostalgic family dramas, and this year is no exception. So if you feel like a blast from someone else’s past, there are three period and historical dramas running this weekend. But are movies set in the past necessarily nostalgic?

People tend to remember the families they grew up with, and thoughts of holidays past, especially when they only saw them once a year, so even if their memories are realistic, they are often coloured by a holiday perspective.

Always: Sunset on Third Street (2005)
Dir: Yamazaki Takashi (Based on the comic Always: San-chome no Yuuhi by Saigan Ryohei)

… is a pleasant neighbourhood drama set in a 50’s Tokyo neighbourhood.

It’s 1958. Mutsuko is a teenaged girl from Aomori going to her first job. She‘s the #6 kid in her very poor family. She arrives in Tokyo by train from up north just as the Tokyo Tower is being built. She thinks she’s going to be a secretary for the president of Suzuki Auto – a big car conglomerates, but soon discovers she’s going to be working as a repair mechanic for a tiny car repair shop owned by a Mr Suzuki. The boss is a short tempered lout given to dramatic bursts of anger. But she vows to work hard and learn the trade, and moves in with the small, nuclear family (there are no extended families in this movie; just friends and neighbours).

Meanwhile, across the street, an aspiring novelist, who was disowned by his upper class family and who runs a little candy stand, makes his living as a writer. He wants to be the next Akutagawa but in the meantime he writes boys adventure stories for pulp magazines. He agrees to take care of a kid, a stranger, Junnosuke, who’s an orphanned, depressed kid. He does it partly to impress a local bar girl. But soon these three lonely disparate people begin to form a sort of a family.

This movie is a good view of urban Tokyo in the 50’s, when the occupation and post-war period was over, but the booming economy of the 60’s had yet to take place. The scene rarely leaves that street where people rejoice in the first TV, or the first electric fridge…

Based on a comic book, the story is a little bit predictable, and the characters typical, but it’s a cute, nicely sentimental and not unrealistic story.The Characters are sometimes comic-like (the repair-shop owner, Suzuki, literally shakes with anger and destroys doors when he’s furious.)

And though definitely nostalgic in it’s view of the good old days where neighbours all knew and cared for one another, I wouldn’t exactly call it sugar-coated; it does show poverty and struggle, war deaths, geishas, alcoholism and snobbery. And this movie has a very distinctive look to it; shot with a strange retro feel, in colour, but with the appearance of a tinted black and white movie that has faded over the past half century. They appear to have used old B&W footage for some city backdrops giving it a neat feel.

(check listings: www.bloorcinema.com )

Another Japanese movie has a very different take on the past.

Memories of Matsuko (2006)
Dir: Nakashima Testsuya

Sho is a young, failed musician who goes to his aunt Matsuko’s home to pack stuff up after she dies. He had never met her, but by going through the piles of trash she left in her apartment he gradually pieces together her life.

Matsuko is shown as a tragic herione, with all her sadness, beauty and drama.

As her past is gradually revealed—the earnest schoolteacher, the bedazzled mistress, the sex trade worker, the accused murderess, the lover, the prisoner – she becomes not a miserable loner but a really interesting person. Most of the movie is narrated by her in a sort of a memoir she left behind.

At the start she’s an idealistic teacher who defends Ryu, one of her students, when he’s accused of stealing money on a school trip. When it’s blamed on her she loses her job and her father says she’s dead to him, and her life begins a slow downward spiral into hellish degradation. She’s saved at one point only by the image of Kohji Uchiumi of the 80’s teen pop group Hikaru Genji, known mainly for its roller skating teenager singers.

The movie resembles the movies of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (who directed MicMacs, and Amelie) but with a much brighter, day-glo, candy-coloured style to it, with a didtinctly Japanese not French style to it. It jumps from TV commercials, music videos, fantasies, and comic book tableaux, to intense and violebnt drama.

I was a bit disturbed by how much violence there was, almost always by the various men in Matsuko’s life — a philanderer, a pimp, a yakuza hood — who repeatedly slap her, punch her, and throw her to the ground, like in an old-scholl exploitation flick. But I think the movie does this to make Matsuko a sympathetic, (and at times vengeful) heroine. The more she suffers, the more she purseveres. Memories of Matsuko is classic female tragedy with a rich story, and a decidedly un-nostalgic tone.

These two movies are playing for free this weekend at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto, sponsored by the Japan Foundation.

Also opening this weekend is the winner of this year’s People’s Choice award at TIFF10 and a likely nominee for various Academy Awards:

“The King’s Speech”
Dir: Tom Hooper

Lionel (Geoffrey Rush) is an Australian speech therapist who invented techniques for returned soldiers from WWII. He’s hired, in great secrecy, to help a man (Colin Firth) – known to his friends as Bertie, and who later becomes King George VI — because he has a terrible stutter. With the advent of radio, he needs to fix his speech to stop freezing up whenever he’s asked to make an announcement. The meeting is arranged by his wife. Elizabeth.

But Lionel is a commoner, the first Bertie has ever met, and he is used to being addressed as his “Royal Highness”, or just “Sir”. Lionel works in a dirty, broken-down basement while Bertie lives in a palace. But Lionel insists they talk to each other as regular people do. He decides Berties problems are psychological – he’s intimidated by his father the King, and his brother, the Prince of Wales. So through the use of his experimental and amusing methods, he tries to get him comfortable pronouncing words without a stammer.

Now this is based on a true story, and Canadians I’ve talked to who lived through that era all remember that the King did indeed have a stutter. So it’s interesting to watch his speech improve. And the acting was all credible, with Derek Jacobi (I Claudius) as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the frowzy, redoubtable actress with the double-barrelled name, Helena Bonham Carter, as the future Queen Elizabeth, mother of the current Queen.

But… this movie rubbed me the wrong way. Everything is so homogenized that the accents of the working-class Aussie therapist and the King aren’t really that different. And the history had such a story-book feel to it: Here’s Winston Churchill harrumphing about this, and there’s Wallis Simpson, whingeing about tha

The whole movie felt like an American TV-view of what England should be like. It was even visibly tiresome, with its constant, awful use of a wide-angle lens (where characters lean forward into the camera at a distorted angle, like in a bad 80’s TV commercial) giving the whole movie a geddit? geddit? tone.

I can tell this movie’s going to be popular, but it didn’t do much for me. It’s enjoyable, but it had such a sucky feeling — like the whole movie was there only to pander to nostalgic, royal-obsessed, faux-anglophilic Americans in order to secure some Oscars — that it just left me feeling vaguely annoyed.

Super Macho Friday! Films reviewed: Love and Other Drugs; Black Swan; Kings of Pastry

I was recently in The States for American Thanksgiving, and at an American chain bookstore, I noticed a whole section – not just a table, not just a shelf, but a whole section — devoted to “paranormal teenage romances”! I’ve seen that ultimate teenaged paranormal romantic vampire trilogy (the eclipse trilogy) – and I have to say, they were awful, I couldn’t find the appeal in any of them. But different people like different things…I guess it’s a matter of taste.

You might think you like things that blow up, crashing cars, scary monsters, blood and guts, and fistfights. Yeah, me too. That’s why I’m calling this week’s reviews Super Macho Friday, so I can talk about some uber-alpha-testosterone-laden action-packed movies. Yes!!! We’re going to see three rough and tough movies about cut-throat competition, nerves of steel, ironman endurance…! One’s a romantic comedy, one’s a film about ballet dancing, and one’s a documentary on… exquisite French sweeties?

OK I lied, they’re not stereotypically masculine as movies go, but, keep listening: some of them are well worth watching.

Love and Other Drugs
Dir: Edward Zwick

Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a retail salesman in the mid-1990s whose aim is to get laid – on the job – as often as possible. But he gets fired for hitting on his boss’s girlfriend. He’s young, handsome, ambitious, and out of work. Meanwhile, his slovenly, obnoxious, unattractive little brother Josh, who has made a fortune in the dot-com bubble, offers to set him up with a sales job at a global pharmaceutical giant. If his sales reach a certain target, he’ll get to move away from the backwater he’s placed in to the big-time: Chicago.

So he trains hard, works hard, and learns the trade, while also sticking to his hobby. Is he trying to pick up women in order to up his sales? Or is he working as a traveling salesman to sleep with the metaphorical farmer’s daughters? Who knows? Either way, he’s being trounced by a more successful, rival salesman: an ex-marine peddling prozac. But, after bribing a doctor to let him dress as an intern, he encounters a beautiful woman, Maggie (Anne Hathaway) a barrista and artist with early onset Parkinson’s. Sounds interesting so far? It is, sort of.

After that, unfortunately, the rest of the movie is just about them jumping in and out of bed, and whether their casual sex will develop into a loving relationship. Granted, there’s lots of gratuitous shots of the two movie stars running around scantily dressed… but the movie itself was pointless and boring. Will Maggie and Jake stay together? Will he get his transferred to Chicago? Will she continue to make coffee and snap photos and buy medications? Who cares? You get the impression even they don’t really care. And when the movie tries to be funny, it usually fails miserably, like the lame scene about Viagra-induced priapism and a three way with a model-like saleswoman in a hot tub (“She’s Thai, and I’m Thai-curious”).

It doesn’t even really deal with the real problems of big pharmaceuticals, aside from the industry’s high prices and competitiveness. Instead, it was more of a non-stop product placement for the drugs themselves. They even have a depressed homeless guy whose life is turned around after garbage-picking Prozac samples. Oliver Platt as his trainer and Hank Azaria as a GP are bth great, but other than that, unless you really love Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, (or have a thing for awful 90’s music, like The Macarena) this is a stupid, pointless romantic movie that goes nowhere.

Black Swan
Dir: Darren Aronofsky

I reviewed this during the Toronto Film festival, and it stayed with me – it’s a haunting, moving film.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina, pure of heart, who wants the lead role in Swan Lake. She’s been raised to reach perfection, en pointe, by her relentless stage mother who was also in the ballet, but never made it big. Nina doesn’t drink or smoke or have sex – she still lives at home, she’s bullemic, plays with stuffed animals, wears a fuzzy pink coat, and listens to her little music box with a dancing ballerina by her bed.

But the ballet director, played Vincent Cassel, wants to put new life into the that cliched old ballet. He pushes her to also play the role of the Black Swan, the sinister evil twin of the Swan Queen. For this, he wants her to abandon her remaining childhood and purity and to become angry, passionate and sexual. He’s exploitative and cruel. Meanwhile, Beth the former diva at this ballet, (Winona Ryder) is forced to retire, and a new competitor, Lily (Mila Kunis) is also trying for the role, and trying everything she can to take it from Nina. Sophisticated Lily is Nina’s opposite – sex, drugs, smoking, and backstabbing all come as second nature to her. Nina has to hold on, both to her role in the ballet, and to her tenuous grip on reality.

The big question is: does Aronofsky’s latest venture work or not. I have to admit, at times, this movie drifted into high camp, and felt like nothing more than a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”, another movie about backstabbing dancers.

That said, I think it’s a totally watchable classic melodrama and psychological thriller, with great acting by the two main women, plus very enjoyable overacting by Winona Ryder as the former prima donna and Barbara Hershey as the over-the-top stage mom. This movie’s also stunning on the eyes and ears, with amazing production values.

I think Aronofsky knows exactly what he’s doing, neatly alternating three styles: The super-real, documentary-like footage just like in The Wrestler – behind the scenes bone-cracking, massages, rehearsals, warm-ups and make-ups; the scenery-chewing catfights of melodramatic soap opera; and surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies (like in his great “Requiem for a Dream”). For me, this balance worked.

Kings of Pastry
Dir: Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker

The title says it all: this is about the cut-throat competition to be accepted as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France and allowed to wear the coveted collar. The movie follows the competitors from Europe and North America, as they go from stage to stage, constructing elaborate spun sugar sculptures, designing multi-layered chocolate truffles, obscure pastries, and impossibly complex cakes. It’s like a reality show or Iron Chef – except it’s not a TV show competition. It’s the real thing. They all compete, with an olympic-like ethos, to create these monuments of grotesquerie.

Part of the competition is to take these huge, delicate and breakable constructions, lift them up, using their own hands, and carry them all the way to the table where the judges do their judging. And even though this is an unscripted documentary, you just know it, one of the chefs is going to stumble…

When I was a kid, they did the learning numbers sequence on Sesame Street – some of you might remember this – and one film clip that still sticks in my mind is, in each sequence, there would be this guy at the top of a staircase in a white chef’s toque announcing something like “Seven Pumpkin Pies!” And then dropping them all.

Anyway, I don’t get it. I’m not a sweet tooth so I don’t see why you’d breaking your back creating hideous spun-sugar displays and petit fours arangements, but clearly some people live for this stuff. And the chefs, obviously, still value these old-school distinctions. I guess you could say they want to be archaic, and eat it, too. The film starts slowly, with the chefs in their home territories, practicing spinning flawless sugar ribbons; but once they’re at the big competition, it really heats up. Tthis is an excellent documentary, and the ultimate dessert film.

Just to review, today I talked about Love and Other Drugs, now playing, Black Swan opening today, check your local listings, and Kings of Pastry which is playing at The TIFF Lightbox – go to tiff.net for details. Also starting today is Sell Out!, a funny and unusual satirical musical-comedy about Rafflesia, a reality show host whose ambition comes to the rescue when she finds a new way to attract Malaysian audiences – using death as the ultimate draw.

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