July 8, 2011. Films Without Superheroes. Movies Reviewed: The Tree of Life, Blank City PLUS Shinsedai, Toronto After Dark, HotDocs

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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

Some people wonder, aren’t there any movies that aren’t about cartoon characters, superheroes, guns or toys? What are adults supposed to watch in the summertime? Well, don’t worry, there are films out there for everyone’s taste. This week, I’m looking at two examples of films that exist outside, or alongside, the summer blockbusters. One is an unconventional movie that some people like and some people hate; and another is an up-coming documentary about the no-wave film movement in the post-punk era of downtown New York City  in the 80’s.

But first… some news about the movie scene in Toronto.

Art films are great, but genre films are fun too. And there’s a small but amazingly entertaining film festival in the fall that shows genre movies: Horror, Supernatural, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Animation, Crime, Action, Thriller, Suspense, Cult, and Bizarre. Well, if you are (or know of) a filmmaker who has made a genre film — the kinds of moviesI just mentioned – The Toronto After Dark film festival is open for submissions, worldwide. But better send it fast: the deadline is July 22. For more information go to torontoafterdark.com

Also, the venerable Bloor Cinema, that great reparatory cinema at Bathurst and Bloor st. is about to undergo a big change. You may have noticed that it’s not showing movies right now. They’re doing much-needed renovations, but that’s not all: when it re-opens in the fall, it looks like it’s going to be the headquarters of HotDocs – the documentary film festival. Does that means we’re going to have a nice, downtown movie theatre that only shows documentary movies, all year round? We shall see… but it does mean the Bloor Cinema isn’t disappearing – it’s just taking a short rest.

And coming up later this month is the Shinsedai Film Festival, a chance to see a wide range of contemporary movies coming out of Japan, and too meet some of the filmmakers who will be speaking at the screenings. It’s at the JCCC – the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, up near Don Mills and Eglinton from the 21st to the 24th. For more information go to jccc.on.ca .

Now some reviews.

First, the movie I said some people like and some people hate:

The Tree of Life

Dir: Terrance Mallick

(SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to talk about the entire movie. But I don’t think this is a movie that can be spoiled by understanding what it’s about.)

This is a movie about an American family – a mother, a father, and three sons – back in the late 1950’s. They live in a wooden house in Waco, Texas. The father (Brad Pitt), an inventor, is having trouble getting ahead. He sees the world as cruel, rough, and competitive, and wants to make his sons into tough fighters who survive against all odds. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is deeply religious, a spiritual, charitable and nurturing protector. And the eldest son, Jack, (Hunter McCracken) takes it all in, but since he’s a kid, it all gets messed up in his head. He decides his father hates him and wants him dead, while he’s sexually excited by his beautiful mother – with all the guilt and shame that entails. Oedipus, anyone?

At the very beginning of the movie, we discover that one of the three sons has died. So the rest of the film shows us the memories, whispered thoughts and fantasies of all the other characters thinking back from the present to earlier times.

The story seems mainly to be told through Jack’s eyes, but the voices and thoughts of other characters weave in and out, too. When he wants to remember his now dead brother — whose faintly glowing soul appears at the start of every section of the movie — he thinks back to the very beginning – I mean the very, very beginning. At this point, the movie goes off on an unusual, but pleasant detour, back to the creation of the earth, with volcanoes, lava, ice, and water everywhere. Spiro gyra swim in the primordial ooze, and gradually cells separate, merge and evolve. It looks like an old NFB or Birth-Of-An-Island clip, or a grade 8 film strip. Only so much better.

All to the sounds of Smetana and Mahler. Water crashes down over cliffs, and cute, fuzzy dinosaurs appear until they’re all wiped out by an asteroid. And then a baby – one of the brothers — is born.

Aside from that — and a mega-FAIL yucky beach montage toward the end — the movie is mainly about a few years in the young family’s life as the kids grow up alongside a sapling in their yard – the tree of life – that turns into a huge, twisted and towering tree by the end. The very long memory scenes are book-ended by the eldest son looking back from the present day.

Is it a good movie? I thought it was great! But it’s an art film drama – don’t go if you’re looking for a mainstream conventional Brad Pitt love story. There’s not much dialogue, and the storytelling is a bit more subtle than formulaic dramas. But it’s not a low-budget run-off either; it’s a sumptuous, beautiful, and moving story of the confused memories of one boy’s childhood in Texas.

A totally different type of movie, but also experimental is a documentary about the indie movie scene in NY City in the late seventies and early eighties.

Blank City

Dir: Celine Danhier

Before the real estate explosion, manhattan was a gritty, edgy place filled with crumbling tenements, lurking muggers, and random shootings.

Artists, writers and musicians fled from small towns and suburbs across the country to live in a more dangerous, more exciting world. They shared a feeling of nihilism, living as if the world was about to be obliterated by late-cold

-war atomic bombs blowing up across the planet. Large parts of the Lower East Side and Alphabet city were completely uninhabitable and bombed out, with broken windows, and missing doors. Nina, a Yugoslavian woman I used to know, lived on 3rd and B, and you had to walk over a giant piece of wood nailed halfway across the door of her closet-like apartment even to get inside. She was squatting there since no one anted to go near those buildings anyway.

Now, of course, Manhattan is a giant shopping mall, with Times Square – formerly the place for runaways, hustlers, porn, prostitutes, pot dealers, and petty crime – now features tourist traps like the Disney princess store, and the M&Ms gift shop.

Against the post-apocalyptic look of Dangerous Manhattan arose the No Wave movement, where filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Lizzie Borden, Susan Seidelman, and Richard Kern used their super-8 black and white cameras to create transgressive, sexually explicit, short films. Part of the coolness was to be poor, on the edge, anti-corporate, shocking, and completely divorced from conventional life. In order to appear as the absolute antithesis of slick and plastic hollywood movies, they went the opposite direction with unrehearsed, raw (if stilted) dialogue, rough editing, and scratchy sound. John Lurie says he had to hide his skill as a trained musician – you had to be unskilled and amateur to be accepted as “real”.

A doctrine, known as the Cinema of Transgression, served as their guide to subvert… well, everything. The movies themselves were just as likely end up being shown at a punk club as in a movie theatre.

This documentary, Blank City, is a visual explosion of countless short clips of those films, alternated with present day interviews with some of the actors, musicians, artists and filmmakers of the period.

So you see Debbie Harry popping up almost everywhere, people dressed like RAF terrorists blowing up buildings, and lots of weird, semi-out-of-focus sex and violence. All with punk, new wave, early hip-hop and experimental music. This is a great movie that captures that short, explosive period of wide-open but underground filmmaking in the 80’s.

Tree of Life is now playing, and Blank City starts next Friday, July 15 at the Royal: check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, CulturalMining.com.  

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