Aug 19, 2011. History Rewrites Itself. Movies Reviewed: Sarah’s Key, United Red Army, Caterpillar, The Whistleblower

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.

Lot’s of people say: if you don’t watch out, history will repeat itself. Maybe so. But I’m more interested in the way history rewrites itself.

What once was glorious is later seen as shameful. What once was righteous is later cruel and unfair. What once was dubbed a “Mission Accomplished” is now seen as the start of an illegal war. And then there are all the people and events that seem to disappear entirely only to be brought back decades later. Faces of purged politicians used to appear or disappear in official photos in the days long before photoshop.

So today I’m looking at four movies set in the past where the filmmakers or characters present history in a new way.

Sarah’s Key

Dir: Gilles Paquet-Brenner

Julia (Kirsten Scott-Thomas) is a magazine journalist in Paris who is moving into her husband’s apartment in Le Marais, even while she’s researching the notorious Vel d’Hiv incident. This was when the French police rounded up most of the Jewish immigrants in Paris and locked them into a bicycle racing stadium for a few days before shipping them off to their death in German concentration camps.

So, after a bit of research, Julia is disturbed to discover that her husband’s family had first moved into the apartment she’s about to live in on that very day in the 1940’s. And then she finds out that two kids, a little girl Sarah and her brother, who used to live in that house are nowhere in any historical records. What happened to them? The movie jumps back and forth between Julia’s quest, nowadays, to discover the truth; and little blonde Sarah (Mélusine Mayance)’s attempt to escape back home to rescue her little brother whom she had locked in a hidden closet during the roundup.

The kids’ story — and what became of them — provides the suspense in this movie, as Julia gradually pieces the puzzle back together and reveals the hidden truth of Sarah’s extraordinary wartime adventure.

Are Sarah and her brother still alive? If they are, where are they now? And what was Julia’s in-laws’ actual role in all this?

This is a French movie, so the English dialogue sounds a bit stilted. The dramatic, historical flashbacks are more interesting than the present-day parts, but the sum-total still leaves you with a generally good, exciting drama.

Caterpillar

Dir: Kôji Wakamatsu

Lieutenant Kurokawa (Keigo Kasuya), a brutal husband and a vicious soldier in the Japanese Imperial Army in WWII, is badly burned while sexually assaulting a woman in her home on the Chinese battlefront. He barely survives the fire, and his armless, legless torso with just a badly burned head is sent home to his village. He’s declared a hero and a War God, and sits silently in his military uniform like like an evil anti-Buddha. He can barely speak, and his wife Shigeko (Shinobu Terajima) is horrified. She almost tries to murder him, but stops when he begins to speak.

At first Shigeko stays subservient and dutiful toward her cruel husband. She is shamed by her neighbours into keeping up appearances.

He sleeps, he eats, he sleeps, he eats, and glories in the medals he won, and the framed newspaper clipping extolling his exploits for the sake of the Japanese Empire. And by grunting, and pulling at her skirt with his teeth he tells her whenever he wants sex. She grudgingly, patriotically goes along with him.

But gradually power shifts: without hands he can no longer beat her to keep her compliant. without a voice, he can’t shut out her opinions. And given his newly submissive position in sex he begins to identify with the women he had raped in China.

This is a brilliantly acted, absurdist black comedy about the collapse of Imperial Japan. It contrasts the tragedy and cruelty of war with the inane barrage of recorded martial marches, brass bands and morality lessons, and slogans repeated by everyone on the homefront. Radio propaganda broadcasts predict imminent victory even as the Americans are firebombing Tokyo. An extremely strange but fascinating movie, Caterpillar shows the disconnect between the official history of the period and the lives of ordinary Japanese people.

In another movie…

United Red Army

Dir: Kôji Wakamatsu

Iooks at an almost forgotten period of radical upheaval from the far left in a more recent period of Japanese history – the 60’s and 70’s. Supposedly peaceful Japan was turned on its head with authority challenged by protests, sit-ins and violent occupations at hundreds of universities.

This long and devastating docudrama, looks at two breakaway radical revolutionary groups in Eastern and Western Japan that temporary joined together into the United Red Army under its two charismatic leaders, a man and a woman. In an isolated cabin in the Japan alps they rethink their policies and insist that all members take part in self-criticism.

(These are the same groups that, along with the German Red Army Faction, were hijacking planes around the world in the 1970’s.)

This movie is divided into three sections. Part one is a cold, documentary-style look at the upheavals at that time. Part two, is an epic, human drama of what becomes of the idealistic revolutionaries when they are hidden in their mountain cabin, and how their grandiose ideas of Cultural Revolution gradually degenerate into an agonizing, Lord of the Flies-style struggle, leading to violence, bullying, torture and death. The third part follows some of these members who later take over a country inn in an extended showdown with the Japanese police.

United Red Army is a devastating, relentless look at the members of the radical Japan Red Army and their ideological implosion behind the scenes.

In another rewriting of history,

The Whistleblower

Dir: Larysa Kondracki

…is a dramatic thriller set during the UN peacekeeping period following the Yugoslavian civil war in the 90’s. Kathryn (Rachel Weiss) a divorced, small-town American cop, takes a position in Sarajevo so she can earn some money and pay for shared custody of her daughter. She is quickly promoted (by a kindly Vanessa Redgrave) to a special unit that advocates and investigates crimes against women.

Meanwhile, Raya (Roxanne Condurache) is a young Ukrainian from Kiev who also takes on a foreign job in Bulgaria for a few months. She ends up in Sarajevo as well. But Kathryn is shocked to learn that Raya (and many women like her) are trafficked across borders, and are living in horrific conditions in a brothel, as virtual sex slaves. And the plot thickens when she discovers that some of the peace-keeping soldiers, corrupt local police, “Fancy diplomats” and UN bureaucrats are also involved, not only as johns, but possibly as pimps and organized criminals. So it’s up to Kathryn and her few allies to try to blow the whistle on this scandal. But who can she trust?

I wanted to like this movie – which seemed like an extended version of Law and Order SVU – but it was a pretty bad, no, an awful movie. I am not giving away any spoilers here – the whole movie basically tells you what’s going to happen in the first couple minutes. It’s called The Whistleblower, so no surprises here. It’s mainly about helpless weeping women saying “save us”, evil Bosnian Serbs saying “No!”, and smarmy UN personel who just don’t care. Kathryn has to do it all herself. It’s much too simple and predictable a plot:

United Nations = Bad

Yugoslavians = Bad

Peacekeepers = Bad

Women = Victims

US small-town cop = Good

The Whistleblower is now playing, check your local listings, Sarah’s Key opens today in Toronto; and United Red Army and Caterpillar also open today, exclusively at the Projection Booth, a new theatre in Eastern Toronto. Also opening is Spy Kids in 4-D with smell-o-vision: warning: most of the spots on the card smell like SweetTarts, just don’t sniff odour number 6!

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

August 12, 2011. Temperatures Rising. Movies reviewed: Devil’s Double, The Help, Rise of the Planet Of The Apes, Final Destination, Gun to the Head

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.

It’s getting into high August, and there are tons of movies playing now, so let me just dive right in and tell you about a few of them. I’m talking about two stories about servants who have good reason not to like their bosses, one where an employee is forced to challenge his boss or die, one where a whole class could challenge the people in power, and one where a group of people attempt to challenge… fate itself.

Devil’s Double

Dir: Lee Tamahori

It’s the 1980’s during the Iran-Iraq war, when Latif, a scruffy, young soldier from a good family in Bagdad, is brought into a palatial mansion. He’s asked whether he wants to work for Uday, Saddam Hussein’s son. Well, not exactly asked: He’s told. If he says no, he, his family and friends will all be tortured and killed. If he says yes, though, he will move into this luxurious palace, wear tailored suits and Rolex watches, drink champagne, drive sportscars, have his pick of the most beautiful women, and hang out at the most exclusive nightclubs in Iraq.

What’s the catch? He’s a near exact double of Uday in height, weight, body-type, and facial features. So he’ll be taking his place at public appearances with the constant risk of being shot at by assassins. So, the movie, (partially based on Latif’s memoir) shows his bizarre double life… as a professional double. This is a violent, scarface-y story with shootouts, coke sniffing, disco dancing, and backstage intrigue.

It’s also a chance for an actor to be or the screen about 140% of the time in the dual roles – when Dominic Cooper isn’t playing the humble, honest Yatif, he’s acting as the profligate, decadent and cruel Uday, and often both at the same time. He does it well enough that the audience immediately knows whether it’s the conceited, aggressive, strutting, whiny-voiced Uday, or Yatif imitating him. They walk differently, think differently and have a different look in their eyes.

Can Yatif find a way out of this crazy life? And can he and his secret love – one of Uday’s mistresses – escape the country?

This is quite a violent movie. And while it paints a generally negative view of a whole country, and gives an inaccurate view of women’s status in Baathist Iraq,  it can be enjoyed as an apolitical drama and as an actor’s tour de force.

Next, another movie about badly treated servants.

The Help

Dir: Tate Taylor

Smart but frowsy Skeeter (Emma Stone) comes home from University to the high-society of heavily segregated Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s. She wants to get herself a job as a writer, see her old debutante friends, and take care of her mother who’s dying of cancer. But she soon sees the world is changing, and is disgusted by how black servants are treated by their rich white employers: demeaned, disrespected, badly paid. They essentially raise the white kids from birth, but rarely get to spend time with their own children.

When Skeeter’s friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the reigning top woman in her set, attempts to pass a bylaw making it illegal for blacks even to use a bathroom inside the homes where they work all day, Skeeter decides something must be done.

She befriends Aibilene (Viola Davis) and asks her to tell her own inside story about life in the south. When another maid, Minnie (a comical Octavia Spencer) — known for her cooking skills — joins her project, it looks like their stories might be published as a book.

This is a richly plotted, multi-charactered, story about life in the deep south, and the subtle and overt racism in every aspect of the lives of the people who lived in this era. This isn’t a movie about KKK lynchings or good ol’ boys with rifles. It gives a calmer view of the segregated, Jim Crow days, right when the civil rights movement was taking off. It’s also a richly moving women’s story – not a chick flick — with terrific acting all around, especially Viola Davis, and Jessica Chastain as Celia, a suddenly rich blonde bombshell from dirt poor origins who seeks help from Minnie. It also has great actresses like Cicily Tyson, Cissie Spacek and Alison Janney in the side roles.

Only quibble? Though some of the black characters slip in and out of dialect, the younger white women’s accents don’t sound much like they would have in Mississippi in the 1960s. But The Help is definitely worth seeing if you like complicated dramas, family secrets, frequent plot turns and funny surprises.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dir: Rupert Wyatt

Will (James Franco) is a scientist who works for a multinational pharmaceutical corporation who is developing a new medicine that can repair brain functions. They test it on chimpanzees, and he takes home a newborn one when his mother dies in the lab. But he soon discover his ape, Caesar, is special: he’s somehow inherited the new brain skills his mother had gained from the drug testing, and he’s quickly getting better and better. He learns art, sign language, and better motor skills than any human. Will and Caroline (Frieda Pinto) treat him almost like a son… except for the collar and leash they force him to wear outside. But when Caesar tries to rescue Will’s senile father (John Lithgow) from a mean neighbour, he is taken away by the authorities and thrown into an animal shelter that looks more like a federal prison run by cruel guards.

There he interacts with his own kind and discovers he’s not a human but an ape. Caesar has to decide who he can trust and whether he should wait for his former human father to rescue him or strike out on his own.

This is a really enjoyable movie, with fantastic camera work, a great story, and — though largely animated – believable characters with sympathetic faces. (I’m talking the apes here.) Which is why I was surprised at how awful the CGI’s were in some scenes – jerky toy monkey’s bounding up trees like a bad outtake from a third-rate videogame intro – and how excellent in others. In any case, if you want a fun exciting story, this is the one to see. A thousand times better than the awful Planet of the Apes remake.

Final Destination 5

Dir: Steven Quale

A group of eight coworkers on their way to a retreat, manage to escape from an enormous collapsing bridge when one of them, Sam, has a premonition and gets them away in time. But they soon discover they were destined to perish, so are being killed off, one by one, in a series of gruesome Rube Goldberg-esque accidents. Who will live and who will die? And will they succeed in cheating death a second time?

What can I say – this is one of my favourite genres of horror movies: bloody gore but without an identifiable villain. Instead, the danger is everywhere — in a leaky pipe, a dropped match, a speck of dust or a misplaced screw. A restaurant kitchen is filled with potentially dangerous flames, knives, and shish kebab skewers. Ordinary life is fraught with danger!

The lines stink, the characters are predictable, the music is corny, and the acting ranges from humorous to forgettable, to excruciatingly awful. But the special effects are flawless, and the pace is just right. It pulls you forward with stress, fear and tension, then lets you back down again, never knowing for sure whether the next shot is a real danger or just a red herring. And the 3D, especially in the multi-leveled scenes on the bridge and on a factory floor, is amazing. This is a great, super-cheezy “B” or “C” summer movie.

It also has the best non-trailer trailer ever, that shows what Final Destination would look like if it were a pop music video recorded on the set of Saved by the Bell — complete with laugh track.

Gun to the Head

Dir: Blaine Thurier

Trevor (Tygh Runyan) gets away from his own dinner party (complete with creepy, Japanophile swinger guests wearing sleazy kimonos) to pick up a bottle of white wine and talk to his drug dealer cousin, Darren (Paul Anthony). He just wants to give him a bit of help, but he’s soon dragged into this underworld of strip bars, guns and lines of coke. He has to deal with a fickle small-town drug potentate, his deranged guard, and his sexually adventurous, skeezy girlfriend. Can Trevor outsmart the gangsters, rescue his sleazy cousin, and ever get back home to his wife? Or will everything fall apart?

This is a funny very low-budget Canadian thriller. Though not perfect, it has great characters, and some manic — but not hammy — performances, especially Paul Anthony channelling the spirit of Don Knotts, dressed as a Vancouver hood.

Devil’s Double and The Rise of the Planet of the Apes are now playing, check your local listings, The Help just opened in Toronto, and Final Destination and Gun to the Head open tonight in Toronto (Friday, Aug 12, 2011). Also look out for You Are Here, opening today at the TIFF Lightbox.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, Cultural Mining

August 4, 2011. Things Inside Other Things. Movies Reviewed: Cave of Forgotten Dreams, The Change-Up, Cowboys and Aliens

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.

Have you ever wondered whether what you’re looking at is something with something inside of it? Or if it’s something that’s inside something (or someone) else? Let me give you an example.

I went to Toronto’s annual Night Market – a huge outdoor street fair full of Asian food stalls, held on Cherry Street near the lakefront – and amidst all the deep-friend stinky tofu, the Xinjiang lamb kebobs, and the bacon ice cream – something caught my eye.

What was it? Was it garlicky Korean bulgogi served on a crusty baguette? Or was it a Vietnamese Banh Mi sandwich with grilled beef filling? Was its essence the container or the content? Well, in any case, it tasted great, and the makers described it as a Vietnamese sandwich (with something in it.)

A big part of reviewing movies is determining the categories — the taxonomy — of a given film and its characters, trying to find an easy-to-understand label that encapsulates its true essence.  So, to make a long story short, this week I’m talking about three movies, all about things with other things inside them: a documentary about a cave with paintings in it, a traditional western with some space ships in it, and two men who end up trapped inside one another’s bodies.

Cowboys and Aliens

Dir: Jon Favreau

A stranger (Daniel Craig) rides into an old, run-down mining town wearing a strange metallic bracelet. He doesn’t know who he is, what he’s doing there, where he came from, or even his own name. he may have lost his memory, but he’s still a crackshot straight shooter with his six gun, and a good puncher in a dust-up. He knows right from wrong and good from bad, and is liked by dogs and small children. He just wants to remember what happened to his wife. But when the spoiled son of the town boss — an ornery cattle baron (Harrison Ford) — starts shaking down the locals for cash, the stranger steps in on behalf of the town folk.

All just an ordinary western, until, out of left field, comes a bunch of flashing alien spacecraft, plucking up all the people in some alien abductions, and taking them off somewhere (probably for some microchip implants, anal probes or brainwashing!)

So now it’s not the white hats vs the black hats, the people vs the bosses, or the cowboys vs the indians. Now it’s the humans vs the aliens, scary identical-looking monsters who are up to no good and probably want to take over the world. So they all band together, along with a beautiful woman (Olivia Wilde) who wears a flowered dress and knows something she’s not telling us.

It’s good there’s some native actors (Adam Beach and Raoul Trujillo) and fun to see a twist on old themes, but the movie, even with some scary 3-D effects, is fun enough to watch, but pretty hollow and predictable in its plot.

Much nicer is another summer 3-D pic:

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Dir: Werner Herzog

Some tens of thousands of years ago a cliff collapsed in a French river valley, hiding the entrance to a series of caverns. The great German director and documentary maker Herzog is allowed into the restricted areas and shows us the amazing animal paintings on the walls: lions, rhinos, horses, and bulls; leopards, cave bears, and strange fertility totems. He leads us in three-d through the stalactites and stalgmites, and the glossy, drippy calcium deposits covering everything, from jawbones, to the charcoal they may have used to paint on their walls.

It shows shadows and firelight and the echoey music they might have played on tiny bone flutes.

And, because it’s a Herzog movie, he populates the documentary with all the eccentric types who end up showing their quirks before the camera. An archaeologist admits he used to be a unicycle-riding juggler in the circus. A master French perfumer sniffs his way around the caves to try to find any primeval odours that might still be there. And an eccentric scientist demonstrates spear-hurling techniques in a vineyard.

Though I thought the movie drags a bit in the long lingering shots of the wall paintings, it does give you both the forgotten dreams inside the narrow caves, and the people and world all around, emanating down rivers and through valleys across Europe, ending with some fantastic albino crocodiles.

The Change-up

Dir: David Dobkin

Dave and Mitch (Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds) have been best buddies since grade six. Dave’s married with three kids, a diligent, conservative careerist on the verge of a promotion if he can pull off a big corporate merger with a Japanese conglomerate. Mitch is a handsome hedonist, a foul-mouthed, struggling actor who lives the Life of Reilly: sleeping-in, smoking pot, hanging out, and having more casual sex than you can shake a stick at. Mitch envies the stability and symbols of success that Dave has, while Dave wishes he could go back to the freedom and fun of his college years.

Through some magical wishing they accidentally end up in each other’s bodies, having to live their buddies’ lives.

The rest of the movie is funny scenes of them trying to cope with the nightmarish situations they find themselves in, wearing the wrong clothes, saying the wrong things, and wracked by guilt once they see how others view them. Dave in Mitch’s body goes to shoot a movie without realizing he’ll be asked to perform sexually in a soft-core porn movie with a 70-year old women made entirely of botox, collagen, and silicon. Mitch has to take up all the responsibilities of an intense, stressful workplace, and an equally hard home life, with a neglected wife, and twin ADHD toddlers from hell. Will they get their old lives back? And do they really want to go back?

The movie’s funniness ranges from extremely funny (especially with the babies and kids, and the misbegotten sex scenes) to gross funny (with the explicit potty jokes and dick jokes) to cute funny, to… barely funny at all. Reynolds and Bateman get to play out of character which is fun. I think it all balances out with enough shocking and hilarious scenes to make it a worthwhile, if generally predictable, “guy” comedy.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is playing at the TIFF Bell Light Box, Cowboys and Aliens is also now playing, and the Change-up opens today: check your local listings.

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

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