August 3, 2012. Movies Reviewed: 360, Blue Like Jazz. PLUS Queen of Versailles, The Invisible War

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, documentary, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Countless fairytales about travellers include a scene where a character comes to a fork in the road, and has to decide which way to go. One direction could bring happiness and good fortune; the other way – danger. This week I’m looking at two movies about people making life decisions and where that path takes them. One’s a low-budget American movie about a young, conservative Texan who ends up in liberal Portand, Oregan; the other’s a multi-lingual drama with an international cast about people facing life-changing decisions that end up affecting dozens of strangers they’ll never meet.

360
Dir: Fernando Meirelles

In a series of apparently unrelated stories in Vienna, Paris and London, we see men and women falling in love, and falling out of it, having illicit affairs, purchasing sexual acts, stalking strange women, resisting temptation, breaking up and starting all over again.

(This is a difficult movie to describe without giving away the stories and relationships which provide the main reason for watching this movie… but I’ll try) In just one of the linked stories, a
middle-class, somewhat selfish London couple, (Jude Law and Rachel Weisz) have a fragile relationship but, depending on which direction they each decide to take it, they will affect lots of people – a sex trade worker in Eastern Europe, a Brazilian woman stranded in a US airport (alongside an old man seeking his daughter’s dead body, and a sex offender recently released from prison) as she heads home to Rio.

These and many other stories come looping back in a 360 degree turn, just like the ring roads in the grand European capitals – Vienna, London and Paris. Since these are all strangers who meet at random, we see the characters in hotel bars, airport lobbies, cafes, internet sites, and AA meetings, the sorts of places strangers meet. We get a glimpse of their problems and decisions, then — zoom! — it’s on to the next city.

All the individual stories are loosely woven together, but not in the neat circle the title suggests. It’s not even like the hub in a wheel with lots of spokes heading out. It’s more like throwing a bunch of shoes into a bag, shaking them up, and then wondering how all the laces got so tangled and knotted. It’s definitely interesting, and neat, and the plot is never predictable (lots of the characters don’t take the paths you expect them to)… but I was left wondering if I was duped by complicated junk or had just witnessed a masterpiece. Or more simply: is it a good movie?

A movie doesn’t have to be great and perfect, but this one seems to be a smaller film than the grandiose themes it’s tackling. On the positive side, it’s not encumbered with a weepy, Hollywood violin soundtrack; instead it skips from city to city with old local pop songs. And it does have a great international cast (Jamel Debbouze, etc), a well-known Brazilian director who did City of God, and the UK writer Peter Morgan.

Hmm… is it just pandering, “Oscar Bait”? No, that’s not quite fair, although it does have that grave, sombre tone of too many film festival movies. But it’s also fascinating, a bit thrilling and tense, with a bit if ironic humour. Even if the movie as a whole left me feeling cold and devoid of satisfaction (that 1960’s, angsty European feel) it’s still a unique piece of work.

OK, I give in. I liked it. It wasn’t bad. Go see it.

Blue Like Jazz
Dir: Steve Taylor

Donny (Marshall Allman) is a good Texan. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t cuss. He tucks in his short-sleeved shirt, and goes to Baptist church every Sunday, and does whatever his divorced mother tells him to. But right when he’s about to go off to Baptist College he discovers two things: his layabout Dad who lives in a trailer park is ready to bankroll his tuition at a liberal arts school in Portland(ia); and his bible-ready Mom isn’t quite the goody-goody church lady he thought she was. He decides the church has betrayed him, so he heads off to open his mind to new ideas.

So the movie follows his experiences as a Fresher at college, as he gradually adjusts to student life. He falls in with Lauren (Tania Raymonde), a genuine lesbian who looks like Amy Winehouse; The Pope, an older college rabble-rouser given to dressing in a robe and mitre; and Penny, an earnest politically active blonde woman
who is fighting plastic water bottles. His shirts get untucked, then he switches to T-shirts, stops shaving and soon enough he’s throwing beer bottles out of windows and popping MDMA at outdoor raves. Portland is not without its rules. Umbrellas are considered “uncool” and Penny warns him that, in these parts, Christians are expected to stay in their religious closets – they don’t “come out” as born again.

It’s up to Donny to decide if he should permanently ditch the church in favour of new ideas, or to fall back on his childhood upbringing.

Blue like Jazz is an extremely low-budget drama, paid for through crowd-sourcing. It’s actually a fun, coming-of-age college movie, with interesting characters, a nice story and good acting. Worth watching.

Also opening this weekend are the two documentaries The Invisible War, and The Queen of Versailles.

The Invisible War (Dir: Kirby Dick) tells about the estimated one million rapes or sexual assaults that have happened within the US armed forces over the past half century, how the perpetrators are let off even as the victims face punishment. It’s an important look at a shocking subject. (Listen to my interview with director Kirby Dick)

And on a much lighter note, is the Queen of Versailles, a hilarious documentary by Lauren Greenfield about a pneumatically equipped compulsive shopper with many children and little yappy dogs; and her husband, an elderly time-share mogul, who, together, attempt to build themselves a replica of the Palace of Versailles in the Florida everglades — the biggest home in the world — but are caught in a lurch by the sudden bursting of the real estate bubble. (Read my Hotdocs review here.)

The dramas 360 and Blue Like Jazz, and the documentaries The Invisible War and the Queen of Versailles all open today in Toronto – check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .

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