Shrink Away or Fight Back? Dogtooth, The Mechanic

What do middle-aged white guys do when the world seems to be falling apart around them? Do they withdraw or do they fight back? This week I’m talking about two very different movies that deal with reactions to the collapse of everyday life, including isolationism, xenophobia, fear, and violence.

Dogtooth

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

Dogtooth is an unusual film from Greece, a fantasy about a control freak of a father who regards his three children as tabula rasa, blank slates to be filled with his ideas and no one else’s. No one ever contradicts him since he keeps them isolated in a fenced-in compound with no outside contact of any kind. The twist is that the “kids” are adults now, but still live as children, not realizing there is any other life with them talking on normal, adult roles.

The three adult children live a completely controlled life in which their experience never extends beyond a fence around their estate. They are raised like trained dogs, in accordance with their father’s strange psychological theories.

They’ve been told if they step outside they will die. So, like creative small kids, they build on what they’ve learned by inventing variations and playing games, but can only riff on what they’ve seen. Their games evolve on their own tracts, far away from what even the father envisions. They’ve grown up with a bizarre twisted morality and view of the world, and become experts at mimicking his duplicity.

Only Father ever leaves the house and no one new ever comes in. Then one day he does something new, different: He brings home a visitor, Christine. She’s a security guard at his company, and he lets her have mechanical sex with the Son. But once he introduces a new variable, the father’s careful familial equilibrium begins to fray in unexpected ways.

This is a really weird, neat, movie. Great, stylized acting! The actors use stiff-sounding, controlled lines, even as they do outlandish and disgusting things. There’s a sterile, artless, faded 1970’s retro look to everything in their world, like they were frozen in some kind of time machine. Forget about computers and the internet – this place has no newspapers, no TV, no telephones.

The plastic bubble the family lives in is especially poignant when you think of the strikes, riots, demonstrations, and all-around social unrest and economic upheaval actually going on in Greece right now. The film shifts back and forth from the black humour of social satire, to strange sexual experimentation, to the pathos of a disturbing family drama. Dogtooth is a black comedy that leaves you with a strange, uneasy feeling. It’s a fascinating art film, and has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The Mechanic

Dir: Simon West

This movie also sounded good.

Bishop (Jason Statham) a man known as “the Mechanic”, is a hitman who knocks off hard-to-kill people. He finds out what his assignments are by looking at certain want-ads looking for mechanics. He studies a man, kills him, makes it look like an accident, and collects an overstuffed envelope of cash as his reward.

There also seems to be some unspoken rule that all his victims somehow “deserve” to be killed. So, (like TV’s Dexter, the serial killer who only kills other serial killers) he’s not a bad man, just efficient… and deadly.

So he’s surprised one day, when he’s told to kill his boss, Harry (Donald Sutherland, who apparently will do any role if the price is right), an affable fellow in a wheelchair, who pays him to murder other men on behalf of the shady corporation he works for. Harry has a son, Steve (Ben Foster), who’s a ne’er-do-well. With Harry out of the way, Bishop feels he owes something to his old boss, so he decides to mentor Steve in the only profession he knows – as a killer.

Sounds intriguing, no?

Unfortunately this is a dreadful movie that seems more like a wet dream for NRA tea-baggers than a normal action thriller. Its message is clear – everyone is a murderer, so you’d better arm yourself to the teeth and kill them first, or else they’ll kill you.

Can a movie (not just its characters) actually be bigoted? This one is. It takes place in New Orleans, but naturally it’s a place were everyone’s white – except for the two blacks: a carjacker, and a lazy-ass shrimper. The Latino? He’s a drug dealer. Women have no names or personalities. They are all either victims — terrified, screaming wives and daughters — or paid, nameless prostitutes. Then there’s the one gay man in this movie — a predatory, pedophile murderer…. naturally!

I love a good action movie but this one doesn’t even make sense. It’s full of things like: the Mechanic lives in an isolated compound, seemingly reachable only by motorboat… but then in other scenes you see him driving off in his sportscar from the same house.

My mistake was I thought it would be a Jason Statham movie like the terrific, 8-bit-style, high-speed action comedy Crank, or its even better and faster sequel Crank: High Voltage. (Movies that are equally full of offensive racist caricatures, but funny ones.) Or maybe a Ben Foster movie like last year’s sad, moving film “The Messenger”. But it isn’t. It’s a Simon West movie, directed by the same talentless schmoo who brought us such cinematic gems as the wretched Con Air (about an airplane full of violent prisoners), or the even worse Lara Croft Tomb Raider, an unwatchable action-adventure based on a British computer game.

If George Clooney’s “The American” was a glamorous, shallow look at a heartless paid assassin and his troubles with his employers, at least it was visually appealing in the foggy Italian hills. It was aimed at middle-class Americans longing for the beauty of Europe. This movie is ugly to the core, (it looks like an out-take from CSI Miami) and seems to appeal only to angry, xenophobic knuckle-draggers, angry but afraid of everything, who want to see as many people dead, as soon as possible.

OK, so what? It’s just an action movie…

Admittedly, there are a couple great shoot-out and fight scenes – I liked them — involving mirrors, buildings roofs, and improvised weapons — but they are few and far between. Most of the film just dragged on and on. A few good fights and thrills can’t redeem this stupid, pointless, boring, and morally corrupt movie where cold-blooded gun-toting killers are painted as the good guys.

The Mechanic, opens in Toronto on January 28th, and Dogtooth also opens tonight at the Royal, in a double bill with another Greek film, Attenberg.

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WWII Communists as Rebels and Prison Guards. Movies Reviewed: The Army of Crime, The Way Back, The Edge

This week I’m talking about three European movies that look at the people out of power during and right after WWII.

Some of the best historical movies are about WWII. There’s something more monumental and profound about this huge, all- encompassing war that can’t be matched in movies about, say, the Americans’ war in Vietnam, or France’s in Algeria. And a lot of the fighting boils down to the two prevalent ideologies of the time: right-wing Fascism, and left wing Communism. So this week I’m going to talk about three movies that take very different perspectives on the role of the Communists in eastern and western Europe in WWII.

A few years ago, Western Europe started to examine its own role under the Nazi occupation, both as collaborators and as victims. The resistance – those who fought against the occupiers, often through violent actions – was facing not just the enemy but their own countrymen who sided with the occupiers.

Released in 2006, the Dutch movie, The Black Book, (directed by the fantastic Paul Verhoeven) is a great fictional story of a beautiful Jewish Dutch woman, Rachel (Carice Van Houten) a cabaret singer, who joins the resistance by infiltrating the Nazi’s as a spy—but she ends up being the mistress of a high-ranked, but kind-hearted and handsome Nazi officer (Sebastian Koch). Although fictional, this is a major rethinking of Dutch attitudes toward their German occupiers.

After this, other Western Europeans countries, one by one, made their own dramas about the occupation. The Danes made Flame and Citron, a retelling of two young heroes of the Danish resistance, one a redhead, one blonde, who blew up bridges and carried out espionage. It’s a good, tense drama.

Max Manus (2008), the Norwegian story, is an old-school adventure movie about a brave young man (Aksel Hennie) and his confreres who, on behalf of the Norwegian government in exile, fought against the Nazi’s and their own Quisling government by jumping out of windows and engaging in acts of sabotage against the enemy’s military ships around the Oslo harbour.

Germany had it’s own resistance, as portrayed in the movie Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) , a true historical drama about an upper-class Munich university student, and her friends, who plotted against the Nazis by distributing anonymous leaflets in a movement known as the White Rose.

There were others as well, including the awful American drama Valkyrie, with Tom Cruise as one of the aristocratic military officers who plotted to assassinate Hitler. Quentin Tarantino made a much better American movie. An exaggerated but enjoyable spectacle, Inglorious Basterds, was simultaneously a melodramatic love story, a war-time comic-but-violent action flic, and a tense, espionage thriller.

Well, just when I thought this sub-genre was all played out, comes another very watchable and moving drama called…

The Army of Crime (2009)
Dir: Robert Guédiguian

This is a true story. It’s 1941 in Paris, and the Germans have moved in, the government has fallen, but day-to-day life hasn’t been affected much yet. The policemen are still French, and the shops, schools and institutions still operate the way they always have. But, for immigrants and minorities, things are getting worse. The police are cracking-down, searching homes, and the axe feels like it’s about to drop.

A group of young people who are already doing clandestine protests, independently of one another – communist grafitti, paper flyers dropped from buildings, street scuffles – are brought together under the French poet, Missak Abkarian (Simon Abkarian), who had survived the Armenian Holocaust as a child.

It’s interesting: in the past, the French resistance was shown on TV and in movies as the brave and noble Frenchmen who fought off their Nazi occupiers. In this movie, it’s mainly the French themselves who are collaborating with the Germans, ratting on their neighbours, and zealously joining the police force to catch all the vandals and resistance members that are upsetting their peaceful, occupied lives. And the ones fighting hard against the occupation are immigrants or their children – Armenians, Communists, Jews from Poland, Hungary and Romania; Italian radicals, and Spanish Republicans.

Some are using hidden printers in backrooms, and practice the piano in the front to cover the noise. One teenaged boy continues to compete in swim meets (under a false French name) while he secretly shoots German officers. A shadowy hierarchy — unidentified, but looking like eastern European Communists — impose order and planning on the individual firebrands. The story follows four or five plotlines as the diverse resistance members gradually converge into one unit with the plan to do a dramatic action… or die trying.

This is a good, gripping WWII dramatic thriller of the French resistance as de facto terrorists battling the complacent, majority collaborators who were aiding the occupiers in their nefarious schemes of deportation and death. Their various love stories, families, and historical events are all woven together in this dense, fascinating movie.

But what about the opposite side of the coin? What happened to the Eastern Europeans who opposed the Soviet Union’s occupation, or fell out of favour with the communist party? A new movie, by a very well-known Australian director, looks a group in some ways diametrically opposed to the ones in The Army of Crime.

The Way Back
Dir: Peter Weir

… depicts life in a Siberian gulag, a great escape, and an epic journey (by a few of the survivors) all the way south to India.

Januzs, a Polish man, is sent to Siberia for being “anti-Stalin” when his wife “confesses” his crimes after being interrogated and tortured. He finds himself in an isolated prison camp where the harsh snow and winter itself is the toughest guard. The other prisoners are petty criminals, purged party members, actors, intellectuals, bureaucrats, and anti-communists. The criminals are the highest-ranked ones, and therest cower from them. They move logs and some are sent to work in the mines.

But a group manages to escape, including Januzs, a shady American known only as Mr Smith (Ed Harris) and a rough criminal, Valka (Colin Farrell). An innocent young girl (Saoirse Ronan) they meet outside the prison helps the suspicious and cautious men to get to know one another. They set off on great walk, and here the movie makes a strange shift — from a prison movie to a human travelogue, pitting man against the great outdoors. The scenery is really beautiful, as they travel from the Siberians steppes, the plains of Mongolia, the Gobi desert, Tibet, and the Himalayas.

Cliffs, dunes, lakes, plains, forests, temples – all truly breathtaking and spectacular. I found the story itself, though, less interesting. Their main drives — to go on, to survive, to reach India — seemed incidental to the trip. What was their motivation? And it had a bit – just a bit — of the feel of a cold war-era propaganda flic: We must escape iron curtain and reach free world!

I don’t want to downplay those sentiments, and Stalin’s very real war crimes, but the movie seemed oddly out of date in its fuzzy-religious, anti-communist tone.

I think it’s almost worth seeing it just for the outstanding scenery – almost, but not quite.

Finally, a very different view of Siberian prison camps.

The Edge
Dir: Aleksei Uchitel

…which played at this year’s TIFF, and is the Russian entry for the Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Ignat (Vladimir Mashkov) is a decorated war vet who is sent, in uniform, to Siberia just after WWII. There he hooks up with Sofia (Yulia Peresild) to become a sort of a husband/sex partner and a father to her baby. Sofia is surviving, by hook or by crook, having been a servant in Nazi Germany during the war, and then punished by the Soviets. Ignat is obsessed by trains, and wants to get them up and running again. He hears there’s an engine still out there in the forest somewhere, so he decides to bring it back. This is where the story gets really interesting. He finds it, but it’s being guarded by a mysterious, violent creature, whom he has to vanquish in order to get to the steam engine. (I don’t want to give this away, since that character becomes important to the plot).

Ignat becomes obsessed with getting the train across a fallen bridge and over a river so they can all get away. His rival – the mysterious Fishman – represents the authorities he wants to overthrow. Will his train ever work? Will he get away? Will he win over the hearts of the locals?

The Edge is a good, old-school Hollywood-type drama/adventure, laced with the  Russian irony and absurdity that was largely missing from Peter Weir’s movie.

It’s also strangely nostalgic, for the “good old days” just after WWII, despite the bitter losses (war, poverty, death) that went with it. Believe it or not, The Edge is a sort of a feel-good movie about Siberian gulags, told Russian-style.

The Way Back opens in Toronto on January 21st, (check your listings), The Army of Crime is showing in Thornhill, one screening only on Sunday, January 23rd , as part of the Chai, Tea and a Movie series, (go to www.tjff.com for details), and The Edge played at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

Also check out a rare chance to see Spike Lee in Toronto, in conversation with Toronto filmmaker Clement Virgo in celebration of Black History Month. They’re appearing at the Varsity Cinema, Tuesday, January 25, 2011, at 7pm.

Acting and Special Effects on Display. Movies reviewed: Tron: Legacy, The Fighter, Blue Valentine

At this time of year, a lot of the movies are trying for awards and audiences. The awards usually bring in bigger audiences and make it easier for the actors, directors, writers, et al to raise money for the next movie they want to make.

That’s one of the reasons they even bother to make some of these movies – so that actors or directors can show off their skills. Some work, some don’t.

Today I’m going to look at three movies that try something different or unusual, either through their appearance, story, or performances.

The Fighter
Dir: David O Russell

There are two brothers, Mickey and Dicky, and seven sisters who all live in working-class Lowell Massachusettes. Dicky Eklund — once known as the Pride of Lowell — was a former great boxer who once knocked down Sugar Ray, before retiring. Now he’s training his brother Mickey Ward to make it as a welter-weight. And his mother’s his manager. But Dicky has a tendency not to show up for practices. Why? Because he’s a crackhead with a tendency to jump out of windows so his mother won’t find out. He’s also a petty scammer and a thief.

Dicky (Christian Bale) ends up in prison, and Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) is working with a new manager and trainer, who are rivals to his mother and brother. Meanwhile, Mickey meets Charlene, (Amy Adams) a bartender. His family also doesn’t like her – they refer to her as an “MTV girlfriend”, meaning a snob, because she went to college – and the feelings are mutual.

Will Mickey make it to the top? Will he be a boxing champ? Will he reconcile with his brother and mother? Will he listen to his new trainer or his jailed brother on boxing strategy? Will he stay with Charlene? And will he be used as a stepping stone – a boxer only there to get KOed by other boxers on their trip up the ladder?

The Fighter is a boxing movie – with some long scenes in the ring – a true biopic about an Irish- Catholic New England working-class boxer’s life in the late 80‘s / early 90’s. It’s actually a very enjoyable movie.

Trained British actor Christian Bale plays this skinny, googley-eyed, fast-talking American drug addict, and you can totally believe it. He’s amazing. Amy Adams, made to look plain, is a little less so, but still good, and she gets lots of lines to play with like “Call me skank again and I’ll rip alla your hair out!” And Mark Wahlberg doesn’t really act, he just plays the same role he always does, but he’s a likeable movie star.

But it’s all the small parts, like the gaggle of sisters, and the Mother, and the various locals, which add the real colour to the film. It’s a good, old- fashioned boxing movie… and it works.

Tron Legacy
Dir: Joseph Kosinsky

Sam Flynn (Garret Helund) is a computer genius and adventurer who, when he plays an old, abandoned arcade game, finds himself inside another world – the world of the game itself. His father Kevin Flynn, who created that world, has been trapped inside there for decades. But a never-aging doppelganger, Clu – he looks like a simulacrum of Jeff Bridges preserved in a jar of botox –is trying to take over that world, and to turn it into a Roman Empire of gladiators and constant fights. Everyone wears donut Frisbees on their backs that double as computer discs with all their data. It’s also their weapon of choice in the games, because it can take down your opponent (like a boomerang) by tearing away at the digital grid. So Sam, with the help of Quorra (Olivia Wilde), has only 8 hours in which to go somewhere, and get something from someone (I think) and do something or other, before the portal closes again and he’s trapped inside.

OK. This is a great movie. Except for the characters, the story, and the dialogue, which are absolutely awful and make no sense whatsoever. Ideally this would be re-released as a silent movie with no lines, just all the cool, glowing neon images, of characters zipping through cyberspace, with people creating motorcycles or airplanes out of thin air and racing all around… all of this with the mainly great Daft Punk electronic music in the background.

Great images and special effects (except when the characters are wearing white space suits instead of black ones, and the material start bunching up – you know, you’d think when they spend tens of millions on SFX they’d catch stuff like that), and good music; everything else sucks.

Blue Valentine
Dir: Derek Cianfrance

Dean is a High School drop-out who plays the ukulele. He gets a job as a mover, and, on his first trip – moving a man’s possessions to an old age home in Scranton, Pennsylvania — he sees Cindy visiting her grandmother across the hall, and he’s smitten. It’s love at first sight — at least for Dean. He pursues her, and woos her, and they both love each other dearly, and the two of them raise their cute daughter together.

But, all is not well. The marriage seems to have gone sour, and they’re just not getting along the way they used to. Cindy has a good job as a nurse, while Dean hasn’t progressed much in his career – he’s more interested in being a househusband. Dean hopes to clear up their relationship by leaving their daughter Frankie with Cindy’s parents overnight, and holing up in a seedy motel with some alcohol, so they can get drunk, have sex, and hash out their differences.

The movie shifts back and forth between the early days of their relationship and how it developed, and the present day, where they seems to have reached an impasse.

Does this movie work? I’m of mixed feelings. It’s a very passionate and realistic look at a relationship. The acting is all great – basically a two-person show. Ryan Gosling (who looks somewhere between a scraggy redneck and a hipster) is the happy-go-lucky romantic, taking life as it comes; and the pretty but plain, voluptuous but understated, bleached blonde Michelle Williams as the more pragmatic and career-conscious but troubled one, who is plagued by indecision.

It’s a heavy-duty relationship movie, good times and bad. You ever been to a party and one couple starts arguing with each other? The rest of the people exchange glances and try to figure out how to sneak away, far away as soon as they can. (Excuse me, gotta go!)? Well this movie was a bit like that. Not that I wanted to walk out of the theatre – not at all – but a lot of the movie was about a couple’s troubled relationship, and some of it really dragged to the point you just want to say:

Shut up! Both of you…
Cindy – Dean still loves you. A lot.
Dean — Cindy can’t take it any more.
OK? That’s all. Move along.

But the story’s very realistic, the movie feels like an old Cassavetes pic, the design, the camera, the acting, all very good. It’s not a sweet tear-jerker of a Hollywood romance, it’s about real romance: love, loss, sadness. I think it’s worth seeing… but it’s a bit depressing.

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