March 30, 2012. Lovers in a Dangerous Time. Daniel Garber interviews May Charters about her new film

Posted in Art, Canada, Cultural Mining, Hockey, Movie Theatre Trends, Movies, Music, Romance, Rural, Toronto, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on March 31, 2012

May Charters and Mark Hug co-wrote, co-directed, and co-star in a new movie, Lovers in a Dangerous Time, opening next week (April 6th, 2012).

It’s a romantic drama about a Toronto woman, Allison (May Charters) a book illustrator returning to her home town in rural Creston, BC for a high school reunion.

There she meets up with her childhood friend Todd (Mark Hug). Todd’s little brother / rival is now a rising young hockey star, but Todd has failed to live up to his potential.

It’s a visually and musically really pretty, (and seldom-seen) realistic look at life in small-town, rural Canada.

I speak to May in Los Angeles by phone about how they made the film, life in a small town, bush parties, Canadian-ness, her co-star, her art, how to shoot a feature with almost no crew, and the future of independent movies.

(Opening music: Lovers in a Dangerous Time, a new version of Bruce Cockburn’s song, performed by Montreal’s JBM)

March 30, 2012. Battles Royal. Movies Reviewed: The Hunger Games, The Raid: Redemption, Gerhard Richter — Painting

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, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I’m back again, to review three movies. With the recent re-release of the Japanese horror/thriller Battle Royale (Dir: Fukasaku Kinji, 1990) I thought it was appropriate to look at great battles and fights to the death. One’s about a girl who must fight 23 other teenagers on national television; one’s about a cop who has to kill literally hundreds of bad guys in an apartment complex; and one’s about a master artist who has to fight a constant battle with his adversaries: the paintings he creates.

Hunger Games
Dir: Gary Ross

It’s sometime in the future in America, with the country split into 12 districts, divided by what they produce. They are all poor, while the people in the capital are rich, living their lives obsessed with grotesque, Louis XVI clothing and wigs. Catniss (Jenifer Lawrence) is extremely poor since her father died in a mining disaster, so she hunts for food (illegally) with her best friend Gale and a bow and arrow. Without the squirrels she catches she, her mother and her sister Prim would starve to death.

This country is called Panem and it operates on the bread and circuses principle (keep the people fed on bread — panem — and entertained). So while the people are just eking by, the President forces two “tributes” — a teenaged boy and girl from each district — to fight to the death each year in a televised reality show. Sort of like the Olympics, except no one wants to be chosen by the random “reaping”. They are dressed, trained, and sent away to a forest with cameras hidden in every knothole and behind each shrub.

Catniss and Peeta – the baker’s son — are the ones sent to the games. Which one of the twenty-four will survive?
I read all three of the books, and the movie’s is a fairly accurate dramatization of the original.
But… where’s the hunger? It’s the Hunger Games! They’re stuck in this manufactured, forest “arena” with nothing to eat or drink except what they can find (or that’s sent to them using tiny parachutes, paid for by donations from the fans.) But Jennifer Lawrence looks like a big, healthy milk-fed athlete, not the vulnerable wiry but headstrong little girl I was expecting. When she gets sent off to the capital she barely glances at the fancy array food. And she never really eats. Petta (Josh Hutcherson), on the other hand, is much more believable in his role.
The movie follows the action in the arena, but constantly cuts away to unnecessary behind-the –scenes action in a control room, where the scientists plan their next danger. This takes away a lot of the mystery and excitement: you know what’s going to happen before the characters do. Still, the suspense and action – save for the completely unwatchable shaky camera fights – is exciting, and the story is good. Who will survive? Can people behave morally in an immoral world? And can a boy and a girl find love in a battle to the death? My heart didn’t pound much, but it was still a fun movie to watch.
The Raid: Redemption
Dir: Gareth Evans
A young Jakarta policeman named Rama (Iko Uwais), is sent into an apartment building as part of a SWAT team, to arrest a gangster. But he soon discovers it’s a set-up! Almost every apartment in the high-rise is filled with the gangster’s minions who spring forward — armed with cleavers, knives, axes and swords – in a fight to the death against the cops.
Rama is an expert in the Indonesian martial art silat, which involves throwing, hitting, and cutting with various bladed weapons (kids… don’t try this at home!) So its up to him to fight them off, one by one, so he can reach the penthouse suite and arrest the chief bad guy. But he has to deal with corrupt cops in his own team, and a mysterious connection he has to a player on the other side.
This non-stop, extremely violent action assault movie is intense, to say the least, with incredible, choreographed fight scenes involving dozens of fighters at a time, all of them throwing themselves, like crazed, screeching zombies, at the one martial arts hero. It’s a great, gorey action movie, not like one I’ve ever scene before.
Gerhard Richter — Painting
Dir: Corrina Belz
Gerhard Richter was trained as an artist in socialist realism in East Germany but he crossed over to the west in the early sixties. Since then, his work — which spans everything from plain grey fields and coloured, geometric designs, to photorealism, and abstract expressionism – has grown in reputation to the point where, today, he’s generally considered one of the most important living painters.
But, he says, the process of painting is a private thing, not meant to be seen by the public. Painters are cowards, they do their art in private, then reveal it in public.
Paintings, he says (quoting Adorno), are mortal enemies: every work is the mortal enemy of the other.  Each painting is an assertion that tolerates no company.
So it’s a rare, rare thing for him to allow a camera to reveal him at work, almost as if we’re seeing the king without his clothes on.  But what a king!
It’s just amazing seeing him at work in a completely white – floors, walls, ceiling – studio, climbing up a ladder, and painting huge brushstrokes on these 10 foot wide canvases. Bright fields of yellow, a streak of red, a blue patch. And you think, yeah that’s not bad, nice balance… then he looks at it, and says it’s not good… ist schlecht!  Then a few days later he puts some paint on a piece of glass as tall as the painting, and then slowly, deliberately squeegees  a layer of paint slowly across the painting breaking up the colour into crackly, or smooth, or patchy areas. It’s a new painting, now, and stays like that one for another few days until he decides to change it, junk it, or keep it as is. It’s like the movie shows paintings that don’t exist anymore in galleries, they’re just the stages of the painting now on a wall somewhere.
And just in case someone wants to say “my 12 year old daughter could paint better than that!” the movie also shows a previous series of his paintings, these photorealism taken from old black and white snapshots.
This movie’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. It’s in German with subtitles, and is mainly footage of Richter painting and talking about it. It’s not an “art movie”, it’s a movie about the creation of art and art itself. It’s not an exciting film, but I liked it: it’s a terrific introduction to a great painter, and an intellectually fascinating and visually stunning representation of his art.
The Hunger Games and The Raid: Redemption are playing now, and Gerhard Richter – Painting opens today. Also on this weekend, you can catch the enjoyable Ma Part du Gateau (My Piece of the Pie) showing at the Cinefranco festival in Toronto.  And a very good documentary, The Guantanamo Trap, is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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

Interview: Louis Negin on his role in Guy Maddin’s upcoming film Keyhole.

Posted in Cultural Mining, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on March 24, 2012

Daniel Garber interviews actor Louis Negin on Guy Maddin’s new film Keyhole, his role in the film, and his impressions of nudity, Winnipeg, and being Maddin’s muse.

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March 23, 2012. Revisiting the Past. Movies Reviewed: Under African Skies, 21 Jump Street

Posted in 1980s, Action, Africa, Apartheid, Crime, Cultural Mining, documentary, High School, Music, Protest, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on March 24, 2012

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, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Spring is here, and, in Toronto that means it’s time to go back inside and sit in the dark. Wait — Huh…?

It’s festival season, starting right now! In quick succession, look out for Canadian Music Week Film Fest, CineFranco, the Images festival (of alternative, artist-driven media art), Hotdocs (the documentary festival), the Jewish Film Festival, Inside-out (the LGBT film festival), NXNE, and many, many more. It’s Images’ 25th anniversary and HotDoc’s 30th.

And speaking of looking back, this week I’m reviewing two movies: a documentary where musicians look back a quarter century to their past fumbles and triumphs; and an action/ comedy where two policemen are forced to revisit their own mistakes and triumphs of their high school days.

Under African Skies

Dir: Joe Berlinger

It’s 1985, and the famous American pop musician Paul Simon, who is intrigued by a song by the band the Boyoyo Boys, goes to Johannesburg to record an album alongside South African musicians. His record, Graceland, turns into a huge hit. 25 years later, and looking a bit hobbit-like but still a great musician, Paul Simon returns there to play a concert with the people he worked and toured with back then. Seems like a simple concert doc, right? No…

You see, in 1985, the Republic of South Africa is ruled under an ideology they called Apartheid. This meant 80% of the country – that is, anyone not classified as white – could not vote, were not citizens, could not intermarry or have sex with people from another group, and were kept physically separated from, and impoverished by, the ruling white minority. And the government responded to uprisings with increasingly violent attacks and persecution of non-white South Africans, driving the leaders into exile, like Oliver Tambo or imprisonment, like Nelson Mandela. In response to this, the banned African National Congress called for a massive international boycott of everything South African, including sports and entertainment.

This documentary takes place then and now, 25 years later. And it raises some very delicate questions. Should groups like Ladysmith Black Mombaza, Mistela, and others, some of whom were arrested or harassed by a racist government, also be boycotted by international audiences? Is it OK to use music not of your own making in the music you record, even if they receive credit? Or to record new lyrics over someone else’s music? Of course a lot of these points seem moot now — when everything is mixed with everything else, and sampled, overdubbed, or mashed up – but at the time, it was quite controversial.

Even more controversial was breaking the artists’ boycott. Ultimately, did Paul Simon’s music help or hinder the boycott’s intent?

The movie covers all sides, from the American and South African musicians involved, to members of the ANC, to exiled musicians, to anti-apartheid activists in Britain, the US and elsewhere – people like Harry Belafonte, Oliver Tambo’s son Dali Tambo, and And musicians like David Byrne, Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones.

Most interesting is the incredibly dynamic music and movement in the new and old concert footage of the many South African musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the late Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela. Or as Harry Belafonte puts it in the movie: “the whole mishpokhe.”

Joe Berlinger (a great documentary maker who co-directed the Paradise Lost series, about a small town murder blamed on non-conforming teens) combines vintage footage, music videos, concert and studio clips, along with interviews with people not afraid to disagree.

Under African Skies looks at old wounds In a new way: placing the new South Africa’s emphasis of Truth and Reconciliation above all.

21 Jump Street

Dir: Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Schmidt and Jenko (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum) went to high school together. Schmidt was the brainy-but-bullied unattractive nerd who never had a girlfriend, while Jenko was the popular, dumb but handsome jock who found it hard to get passing grades. Later, they both end up as cops. They weren’t friends in high school – they traveled in different circles – but become partners, and friends, as police.

But after failing to read a biker gang their Miranda rights, they get assigned to a deep cover squad known as 21 Jump St. It’s their job to return to high school pretending to be students and brothers, bust a synthetic drug ring, and find the supplier. But so much has changed since they were students that they can no longer read the social codes. And after a name mix-up, the two find their roles reversed: Jenko hangs out with the science geeks, while Schmidt becomes the popular guy. Will they catch the bad guys without getting kicked out of school (and the police force)? And will they get to attend the high school prom?

OK, this movie has a whole lot of the red flags that tell me it’ll be a bad movie: it has two directors, it’s based on an old TV show, it has a number in its title, and it’s a buddy action/ comedy about cops.

That said, it actually wasn’t that bad – actually funny at times, and with like-able players. Ice Cube is a bad/funny police boss like out of a bad 80s TV show; and Dax Flame (the cameraman in Project X) is a chemistry geek; and others, like Brie Larson and Dave Franco. Some of the jokes are funny and the story is watchable, but the chase scenes are awful.

21 Jump Street is playing now, check your local listings, Under African Skies premiered at the Canadian Music Week Film Fest, which continues through this weekend, and includes interesting documentaries like “Kevin” the first doc by the Duplass brothers (Jeff Who Lives at Home)

And be sure to check out the amazingly renovated new Bloor Cinema showing documentaries every day. It’s just beautiful, with new seats, great sound, newly-papered walls, and something I’ve never seen before: a glass window in the lobby with a view of the entire theatre.

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

What is a piece of popcorn worth? Movies reviewed: Payback, Jeff, Who Lives at Home

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, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

So did you hear about that poor guy in Michigan? Apparently he just wanted to go to a movie, but when he got into the theatre they literally held a gun to his head and forced him to buy a very expensive bag of popcorn! Literally! Can you believe it? …Oh — wait a sec. I’m wrong. Turns out he just didn’t think the price they were charging for popcorn and candy was fair. So he’s launching a class action suit.

Question: is it fair for movie theatres to charge 6 bucks for a bag of popcorn? Are moviegoers exploited and ripped off? Of course we are – everyone knows that, but we’re OK with it. Right? I mean you’re in that theatre paying to see Images projected on a screen — the ultimate deception.

If the candy’s too much then don’t buy it — they’ll get your money one way or another. I think popcorn is up there with the huge screens, surround-sound, velvet curtains, plush seats, grand lobbies and skeezy washrooms. It’s the movie experience. These seemingly random parts are all part of a larger coherent whole.

This week I’m reviewing two movies that look at fate, morality, destiny, and retribution. One is a documentary about things you must pay back, the other a comedy about paths you must follow.

Payback

Dir: Jennifer Baichwal

Two farmers, Llesh and Ilir live in northern Albania in a lush valley surrounded by grassy hills and snow topped mountains. A few years ago, when Ilir went to complain that Llesh was farming his land, there was a fight, and it may have involved Llesh’s wife… in any case Llesh pulled out a machine gun and shot Ilir in the gut a few times. He survived, but according to the 16th cenutry Albanian ethics code the Kanun, Llesh owes Ilir a debt. So Llesh and his family are poor now, trapped inside a shack and not able to farm.

This is just one of the many tangents this movie takes you on a look at debt – moral, ecological, monetary, and legal debt, — along with penitence, guilt, and retribution. They’re all very interesting stories – Latino tomato farmers in Florida fighting for fair treatment; a fisherman in the gulf enduring ruin after BP’s mishandled oil disaster; and a look at various Canadian prisoners – a petty burglar in Ontario, and Conrad Black (!) in Florida, both serving their time, repaying their debt to society. The documentary parts are alternated with talking heads — like Louise Barbour, Karen Armstrong, and Raj Patel — commenting on law, economics and religion.

This movie is sort of based on the Massey lectures Margaret Atwood gave a few years ago – a brilliant look at the words around lending, borrowing, owing and being owed. I say “sort of”, since it almost seems like one of those romantic thriller movies that say they were inspired by a true story. Jennifer Baichwal’s documentaries usually find a starting point and then, like a Stephen Leacock character, they fling themselves onto a horse and ride madly off in all directions.

Is this a problem? Not really, because even if they’re all over the place, the subjects she chooses are all interesting. And the movie is so visually rich (cinematography by Nicholas de Pencier) with images — from ceramic figures through a pawn shop window, to staggering, long aerial shots of the BP oil slick creeping across the Gulf of Mexico – that are as fascinating as any of the things people are saying.

I do get the feeling that Baichwal realizes it’s all over the place, so, to tie it all to Margaret Atwood’s book she adds long, literal scenes of Atwood hunt-and-pecking on her laptop, or Atwood reading from her manuscript. The talking head expertss are on screen too briefly to stick in the mind, except Conrad Black – who seems to have changed his mind about debt, retribution, and prisons.

In any case, Payback is a great visual riff.

Another movie that seems, superficially, to be about random drifting is

Jeff, Who lives at Home

Dir: the Duplass Brothers

(I reviewed this after seeing it at TIFF, but it held up very well this second viewing — I actually liked it better this time.)

Jeff (Jason Segel) is part of a dysfunctional family that fell apart when the father husband died years ago. Mom works in a lonely office cubicle, douchey Brother Pat (Ed Helms) sells paint and is destroying his marriage, and Jeff, who’s 30, still lives at home – sits around his mother’s basement in his underwear, to be exact. He smokes pot, eats chips, watches TV, and waxes philosophical about the cosmos… while sitting on a toilet. He’s always waiting for “signs” to tell him what to do., like in the Mel Gibson movie.

Well, one day he’s forced to leave home for downtown Baton Rouge to get something for his mother (Susan Sarandon)’s birthday. But, when someone on an infomercial says his life will change by the words “CALL NOW!”; and at the same time a strange, threatening wrong number wanted to talk to “Kevin”, he starts off on a (seemingly) wild goose chase all around the city.

So Jeff embarks on this grand mission – one that eventually ties in with his brother’s failing marriage and his mother’s love life — because he knows, he just knows, that his actions will change the world. Will Jeff find Kevin? Will Pat forget about Hooters and Porsche’s and think about his wife for once? And will Mom ever get to kiss under a waterfall?

This is a good, enjoyable comedy. I like the Duplass brothers, who used to make low-budget, ‘mumblecore”, semi-improvisational super-realistic movies. They have a few quirks – little camera emoticons – I don’t know how else to describe it – where the camera zooms in to nudge-nudge, wink-wink to the viewer that something funny is happening like a visual laughtrack– but the movie’s good enough that it doesn’t bother me after awhile. This one, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is their biggest budget and most mainstream one so far, with stuntmen, and chase scenes, and big name cast. But I like this direction they’re taking – it’s not a sell-out, just a very funny, light comedy.

Payback and Jeff, Who Lives at Home both open today. And Margaret Atwood and Jennifer Baichwal will be there for a Q&A at the screenings on Friday and Saturday. Worth a trip just for that — Margaret Atwood is very entertaining. Also playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox are the fantastic Japanese animated films Spirited away and Princess Mononoke. And at the newly re-opened Bloor Cinema, look out for the daily HotDocs documentaries playing now. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

 

March 2, 2012. Daniel Garber interviews Julia Ivanova about her documentary Family Portrait in Black and White

Posted in Adoption, Canada, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, documentary, Family, Movies, TIFF, Ukraine, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on March 10, 2012

Julia Ivanova’s moving documentary, Family Portrait in Black and White (now playing) deals with a foster mom in a tiny Ukraine village who takes care of dozens of mixed-race children who were abandoned by their parents. The kids face ostracism by some racists, but stick together, forming a tight family with the woman they call Mom. But some of the children bristle at her strict, Stalinist ways, and her refusal to give up the kids to wealthy western Europeans looking for children to adopt. Will the generation gap pull this family apart?

March 9, 2012. If You Love This Planet. Movies reviewed: The Lorax, John Carter

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, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

With globalization, things affect the whole planet all at once even if they only happen in one place. The Earth is all shook up! Like last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan – I remember seeing those horrific scenes of towns being swept away, and the ongoing tension about the nuclear leak at Fukushima.

In gratitude for the support of the international community, the Japan Foundation in Toronto is offering a series of free films next week at Innis College called Light Up Japan. The documentaries are all about what has happened since the disaster in that area and how the people are coping with it. Check out the Japan Foundation ( jftor.org ) for more information.

So in keeping with the theme of global events, this week I’m looking at two movies with whole-planet-sized topics. One is about a kid trying to save the earth from total destruction; the other is a man who finds himself a part of the potential ruin of Mars.

The Lorax

Dir: Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda

Ted lives in Thneedville, a plastic suburban shopping mall town where life controlled by a Mr O’Hare, a nasty rich guy who made his fortune bottling air, and who spies on everyone in town. Ted has a crush on his neighbour Audrey who is into trees – which don’t exist anymore (people use plastic trees instead). Audrey says she wishes she could see one.

So taking his grandmother’s advice, Ted climbs into his vehicle – a sort of a unicycle/ segway/ scooter – and sneaks out of the city to find the Once-lear – the only person who still knows the truth. He discovers that the vast wasteland outside of Thneedville once was a land of rainbows, happy fish, droopy birds, and teddy bears who ate the berries from the puffball trees, and lived happily and peacefully. An industrialist uses the puffballs to make a knitted stringy thing, the thneed, that consumers buy by the millions. He decides it’s cheaper and easer to cut them all down rather than using their puffballs as a renewable resource. Only the Lorax, (a tiny mustachioed environmentalist who descends from the heavens in a thunderstorm) can save the day, if only people will listen. He speaks for the trees…

I thought this movie was OK, but it really seemed to stretch the short Dr Seuss book into a 90 minute song-and-dance musical. It soft-pedals the problems of industrial pollution and consumerism, and reduces the motivation from ardent environmentalism to a boy wanting to kiss a girl. It relegates the Lorax story to flashback status, and kept the wonderful Seuss-like scenes of the valley to a minimum, while over-emphasizing the non-Seuss humdrum suburban scenes, filled with your usual 3-d sitcom characters.

It’s not a bad movie, and of course it’s great to tell kids about environmentalism and privacy, but the songs were dull, the characters not-so-interesting, the story not very original, and the animation and character style not up to what I expect from a Dr Seuss story.

Interesting fact — The Lorax earned more money in its opening weekend than Hugo did in its entire run.

John Carter

Dir: Andrew Stanton

John Carter is a mean and strong fighter, a cavalry man from the civil war. He can escape from jails, scrapple with anyone – weapon or not – is good on horseback and keen with a sword and a rifle. And he doesn’t take sides – Apache or US Army – they’re all the same. He doesn’t want any part of it. He just wants to find his cave of gold in the Arizona desert. But when he encounters a stranger in the cave, and repeats the word Barsoom while touching a glowing amulet, he is magically transported to Mars a land of great civilizations, far beyond earth’s imagination.

Strong John Carter, though smaller than the four-armed tusked Tarks – some of the creatures who live there – soon discovers he can leap high in the air and jump long distances, because of the different gravity there. He soon finds himself in the middle of a huge war between the city of Helium and the bad Zodanga. And he meets Dejah, (a beautiful princess-warrior, as well as a physicist, inventor and a great swordswoman) who is being forceed into marrying a bad guy from the other kingdom. Meanwhile, the shape-shifting super-gods who are manipulating everyone on that planet, are messing things up. It’s up to John Carter to save civilization – but he’s not sure he wants to – he just wants to find the amulet and go back to earth. But with the help of his speedy and faithful dog-monster Woolla, and the noble and honest Thark-guide Sola, he and Dejah must find mutual trust, truth and possibly true love in their search for the secrets of this planet.

As you can tell, this is a very long, plot-heavy story about an adventure on Mars. Like comics, manga and pulp fiction, the story takes precedent over feelings, emotions or characters – it’s more the action, the twists, the background, the secrets, the fights, the betrayals and the fantastical, sex-tinged images. But it carries it through amazingly well in this 2½ hour epic. (People call everything epics now, but this is an actual epic). I thought it was amazing.

It’s done in the style of Frank Frazetta’s illustrations: fiery-eyed women in exotic garb with pendulous breasts and black tresses; snarling men with steely gaze and bared chests, brandishing their swords toward the red skies…..  but through a Disney filter, making it sexy, but not sexual.

It feels more like Roman sword-and-sandal story than science fiction. (It’s based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels.) It has a mainly British cast, plus Canadian Taylor Kitsch — just great in the title role. I liked Lynn Collins (never heard of her) as Dejah, and Dominic West (The Wire) as one of many assorted bad guys in this cast-of-thousands picture. Want to be overwhelmed by an elaborate, exciting movie getaway, with a complicated fantasy plot that never lets up, even for a second? Then this is the one to see.

The Lorax is playing now, and John Carter opens today in Toronto, and the Japanese documentaries are playing all week at Innis College.

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

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Mar 1, 2012. California Dreamin’. Movies Reviewed: Project X, Rampart

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, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Southern California… It never rains there, they say. Surfers, bleached blondes, Beach Blanket Bingo, there’s something about LA and environs that seems so saccharine, so perfect and yet ersatz, so way out there. Back when they rarely wanted to go on location, the studio back lots doubled for the old west, middle America, suburban NY, or LA itself. Melrose Place, 90210, OC – movies or TV, it’s all so hyper-perfect.

But beneath that veneer there also lurks that festering pit of tar, that horribleness, that evil and corruption – The Manson Family, the casting couch, the satanic rituals, the real estate double dealing, the stuff you’d read about in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon…

So which is it? Well, in our present-day dystopia, southern California’s an about-to-collapse world, where the authorities are corrupt, but they’re the only things that are stopping total anarchy and destruction. …at least that’s how it’s portrayed in a lot of movies now.

So this week I’m talking about two new films about southern California… one’s about a party that explodes, the other’s about a cop that implodes.

Project X
Dir: Nima Nourizadeh (his first film)

It’s Thomas’s birthday, so his buddy Costa — a loudmouth in a sweater vest — says he’s going to throw him the best birthday party e-ver…! Both of Thomas’s parents are leaving Pasadena for the weekend, but they’re not worried – he’s just not a popular kid, his dad says – how many people does he know? Thomas thinks the party just might work, he might get away with it. But the two of them, along with their other best friend, JB, decide to go for it. And maybe Thomas will finally take his friendship with pretty Kirby to the BF/GF level?

They start out gathering the essentials – booze, drugs — (they steal a plaster gnome from their pot dealer, without realizing it held some things inside) and telling everyone at school, online, by email, texting, facebook – by any means necessary to bring in the crowds. They’re not really worried about people crashing the party – you can never have too many people… right? Besides they have their own security guards, little 10 year-olds ready to taze anyone making trouble. Everyone starts to trip on MDMA, and jump into the swimming pool – the boys fully dressed, the girls (as part of some adolescent boy fantasy) nude of course. More gratuitously naked breasts than you can shake a stick at.

Unfortunately, no one can anticipate the number of people eventually showing up, and the anarchic state that ensues.

I enjoyed Project X, as a party movie — more fun than funny, with a bit of a nasty streak running through it. But it also had a really “new” feeling to it, sort of like an extended youtube feature, but with a movie sized budget. The whole thing is purportedly taped by Dax, an unseen goth dude in a trench coat (straight out of Columbine) with a camera.

It seems like more and more movies feel that if you don’t include the camera as a character, it’s not “real”. (I disagree).

I liked the nihilism of it — though the “punish the good guys / reward the douches” theme was a bit disturbing…

The acting is great — the three mains, all unknown, mostly playing characters with their own names – Thomas Mann as Thomas, Jonathon Daniel Brown as JB, and Oliver Cooper as Costa – remind me of the three “geek” kids from Paul Feig’s “Freaks and Geeks” (Daley, Starr and Levine). Only these three are a bit older, and a bit meaner.

Project X is a “wow!” movie , as in I wanna go to that party, but also a “whoa…!” movie, especially towards the end. Not a terrific movie, but a fun and jarring experience.

Rampart
Dir: Oren Moverman

David “Date Rape” Brown is a mean egotistical street beat cop. He’s a cock-of-the-walk who drives around like he owns the Rampart precinct, an especially notorious part of Downtown LA. If he doesn’t get a confessioin he wants, he beats up the suspect until they break. He forces a rookie cop to eat her French Fries even though she doesn’t want them. He’s from a long line of cops. He lives with both his ex wives (they’re sisters!) and the one daughter he had with each of them. Dave is practically invincible. He takes the law into his own hands, and is admired by his fellow cops for his indefatigable character. And the brass tolerate him, since he brings in lots of convictions.

Dave loves his life – pretty (though troubled) daughters, two ex-wives, and he can pick up beautiful women in bars on the side. His LA is constantly moving: busy, dirty and corrupt. It’s filled with gangsters, drug dealers, drive-by-shootings, and snitches in wheelchairs. The cops are as much a part of the warp and weft as the criminals they chase. And lots of innocents die between them.

Then, one day, he gets caught on cell phone camera beating up a guy (a la Rodney King) whose car rammed him and then ran away. And things start to go wrong. The DA office starts following him around, the lawyers want him to resign, and there’s some strange unexplained conspiracy bubbling up beneath al of this. Things get worse and worse, as he gradually loses his home, his family, his friends, his money, and his status. He embarks on a self-destructive journey, though it’s never quite clear whether he means to ruin things or if they’re all just happening to him.

Woody Harrelson is amazing as Officer Brown, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, and Sigourney Weaver, among others, are fun as some of the many women picking on him. Each scene could end in a dramatic turn, but more often devolves into very long conversations about relationships and guilt. I was expecting Rampart to be an action and chase cop thriller – which it’s not. It’s a drama about what happens to a middle-aged cop when his power disappears.

Rampart is playing now, and Project X, and the new documentary Family Portrait in Black and White both open today in Toronto. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

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