Back to the Future? Films Reviewed: The Visitor, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Toronto Ice Storm 2013Hi, 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 films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I’m taping this a week in advance, during the Toronto Ice Storm, when the power’s still off, the sidewalks still icy and Rob Ford is still mayor. But who knows what it will be like by the time you’re listening to this. Back to the future? Fittingly, I’m looking at a couple oddball fantasy movies — a remake and a rerelease — both pointless but watchable froth to bring in the new year. The remake is an American comedy about a day-dreaming adult, the rerelease an Italian horror movie (from the 1970’s) about a brat with secret powers.

The Visitor fangoria Films We LikeThe Visitor

Dir: Giulio Paradisi

Presented by Drafthouse Films and Fangoria

Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail) is a modern woman who values her freedom. She lives in a mansion in Atlanta with her sweet little daughter Katy (Paige Conner) and Katy’s pet bird. She’s being wooed by Raymond (Lance Henrickson) a slick-but-secretive basketball promoter. What she doesn’t realize is that Raymond reports to a cabal of identically dressed businessmen who are up to no good. They just want her offspring. You see, Barbara has special DNA and Katy has supernatural powers. If the cabal can pull off an alien abduction Barbara will reproduce with a special superbaby (as if her one kid isn’t trouble enough!)

Katy is actually a foul mouthed brat. She uses her powers for selfish reasons – Visitor2puting the kybosh on other kids she goes skating or does gymnastics with.  On her birthday, Katy’s gift turns into a handgun, which shoots Barbara, rendering her paraplegic.

Meanwhile, a wise old man with a white beard and a beige leisure suit (John Huston) is tracking Katy, too. He travels with a retinue of kids dressed in white. These silent, baldheaded teenagers are his disciples. You can tell he’s important because whenever he appears the theme music starts up again as he walks down a futuristic-looking escalator. And when a detective (investigates her birthday shooting she sends her pet bird to attack him.

Who will triumph? The satanic businessmen-aliens? Or the benevolent robe-wearing superman-like aliens? And will anyone stop spoiling that evil kid?

Visitor3This movie exists in its own bizarro-world, circa 1979. Shelley Winters plays Barabara’s intuitive housemaid singing Mama’s little baby loves shortening bread as she spies on Katy. Sam Peckinpah – the director of infamously violent movies (like Strawdogs and the Wild Bunch) — is her gynaecologist!

This is a very trippy, very strange movie. It has lots of horribly dated and vaguely racist shtick, and the story makes no sense whatsoever. But it still feels cool to watch: filled with fantastic dated special effects: a house of mirrors, a swarm of birds, Barbara insanely driving her electric wheelchair in endless circles. It climaxes with a bug-eyed John Huston having his Close Encounters moment with the shooting stars.

Total kitsch, but funny.

Mitty_PosterThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Dir: Ben Stiller

Walter (Ben Stiller) is a milquetoast mama’s boy and a longtime employee of Life Magazine. He lives vicariously through the exciting photos he processes in a windowless basement room (he’s in charge of “negative assets” — photo negatives, that is). Instead of a pocket-protector he wears a bad windbreaker. In his frequent daydreams and fantasies, he sees himself as an international adventurer, a “real man” who will stand up to any bully. But in reality he’s lonely, middle-aged and single. He longs for a relationship with a new employee, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but can’t seem to connect with her, even on an on-line dating site.

And now he faces a crisis. Life Magazine is folding, except on-line. A douche-y young executive (Adam Scott) is brought in to close it down, and makes Walter into the poster boy for unwanted employees. But when a negative — the cover photo of the final issue — goes missing, Walter takes it upon himself to track it down, wherever it may be. He embarks on a journey by plane, helicopter, boat, secret life of walter mittyskateboard, that takes him up mountains, across shark-filled seas, and past erupting volcanoes, all just to find the missing photo.

Will he find the picture? Will he find himself? And will his journey impress his crush Cheryl?

While the movie is filled with breathtaking scenery, it has little else to recommend it. It’s not that funny, interesting or original (the James Thurber novel is more whimsical and the Danny Kaye musical — 1947 — is more clever). Ben Stiller’s first attempt at Secret Life of Walter Mitty ben stillerdirecting fails to direct himself. He underplays it just when he should be hamming it up. His character comes across as flat, dull and pointless. Shirley MacClaine and Catherine Hahn are fun as his mother and sister but are rarely seen.

And the use of egregious product placement within the plot itself — a certain pizza chain, a cinnamon bun — is as embarrassing as it is flagrant. (Was he that desperate for funding?) It’s not that the Secret Life of Walter Mitty is terrible. It’s totally watchable, especially stunning footage of Icelandic moonscapes. It’s just… disappointing.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens on Christmas Day and The Visitor opens on Dec 30th for a three-day run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. 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

60s, 70s and 80s. Movies Reviewed: Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Good Vibrations

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Cultural Mining, FBI, Folk, Manhattan, Movies, Music, Northern Ireland, Punk, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 19, 2013

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

New Year’s Day (coming soon!) is when you declare your resolutions and your goals. And sometimes, you find you’re overly ambitious. I’m looking at three great movies this week, all about men with ambitions they can’t always meet. They’re all loosely based on true stories and take place in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I’m reviewing them chronologically. First a folk musician, then a con man, and then a promoter of punk.

Inside Llewyn Davis

ILD_00756_ctDir/Wri: Coen Brothers

It’s 1961. Llewyn’s a Welsh-Italian-American folk singer who performs at the Gaslight café in Greenwich Village (brilliantly played by actor and musician Oscar Isaac). He’s recorded his first solo album (his folk duo is no more) but it’s not doing well. He’s broke. He’s homeless. And it’s cold out — and he doesn’t even have a winter coat; just a corduroy jacket. With a guitar on his back and a runaway cat in his arms… he’s just blowin’ in the wind. He’s couch surfing between a Columbia prof’s apartment in the upper west side (that’s where the cat lives), and a married couple Jean and Jim’s place in the Village (that’s where his guitar lives). Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) are a happy young couple, who also sing in a folk duet. Also at the Gaslight.

All is not well for poor Llewyn. His agent is crooked, his not-girlfriend girlfriend is pregnant, his dad is ILD_01359_ctcomatose, and a stranger in a cowboy hat has a hate-on. Llewyn keeps making the wrong decisions. But he refuses to sell out. He doesn’t want to wear a white turtleneck. He doesn’t want to sing in a trio. He’s on the verge of making it big… or packing it all in and joining the Merchant Marines. So as a last ditched effort, he hitches a ride out to Chicago with a mean and nasty blues singer (marvelously played by John Goodman) to get a famous folk promoter to sign him.

ILD_05466_ctIt sounds like a so-so story… but it’s not. This is a fantastic drama tracing a couple days in the life of this urban troubador. It’s loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s story. (He was a pretty famous folksinger from New York that you may have heard of.) The movie’s ordinary, and yet extraordinary. It gradually reveals surprising secrets, even while it dangles red herrings. Watching the movie, you get tossed around, clueless, just like Llewyn Davis, until things gradually start to become clear. This movie captures the feeling of the era, before JFK’s assassination, between 50s conformity and 60s mass protest and counterculture. And about a third of the movie is wonderful music performed by the actors. I think it’s one of the the Coen Brothers’ best.

American Hustle Adams BaleAmerican Hustle

Dir: David O. Russell

Irv is a con man. He pulls off low-level jobs — art forgeries, bank fraud – in New York. Sydney is originally from Albuquerque, but she dresses like a Cosmo cover model. She creates a new self – an aristocratic Englishwoman. They meet at a party, fall in love, and become power-team of scammers. But when a con flops, Irv and Sydney (an uglified Christian Bale, lovely Amy Adams) find themselves working for the FBI. If they can bring the FBI four crooks, they get immunity. Richie (Bradley Cooper) the fed who catches them has big ambitions. He wants to run a con to catch crooked businessmen, politicians … the sky’s the limit! To pull it off, they need the bigwigs to accept a briefcase of cash from an agent dressed as a Sheikh from the Emirates.

Irv is cautious. He doesn’t want to take it that high: respect your limits. When Richie tries to rope in the American Hustle Adams Cooper Renner Bale Lawrencemob, Irv sees nothing but trouble. As Irv says, you can’t con a con. Well, Irv gets all palsy-walsy with a potential mark, a popular Jersey mayor named Carmine (Jeremy Renner). But to be friends with Carmine family he has to bring his real wife, Rosalyn, into the mix. Yes, Irv is married, and not to Sydney. And Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence, stealing every scene she’s in) is a bleach blonde homebody who talks like a gangster’s moll. She’s the fly in his ointment. Sydney, in retaliation, starts coming on to the vain (yet douche-y) FBI-man, Richie. Will they pull off the scams or go to jail? Will Irving choose Roz or Sydney? (And why are all the characters obsessed with their hair?)

This movie’s not deep, driven or meaningful – except, maybe, that we’re all vain and self-centred – but it does it so well. It’s funny, quirky and fast moving. I liked it a lot.

Good Vibrations 2  Richard DormerGood Vibrations

Dir: Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn

It’s Belfast, Northern Ireland. The Troubles. Bombs are exploding, people beaten or killed by paramilitary groups. In the middle of all this is Terri Hooley (played by the terrific Richard Dormer). His friends once were anarchists, pacifists, feminists. Now they’re just Catholics or Protestants. But Terri opts out of sectarian conflict and opens a record store, Good Vibrations, right in the thick of it. And, against all expectations, this bearded, smiley and spontaneous leftist is suddenly drawn into the local punk scene. New York has its haircuts, he Good Vibrations1  Richard Dormer centresays, and London its trousers, but Belfast is the only place with a real reason for punk. As thousands are killed, he sets up a punk club in a strip bar and starts up a record label. But will anyone outside of the city ever hear them?

Interspersed with period BBC news footage, Good Vibrations is a fun biopic about one man’s attempt to reclaim a no-man’s land using punk rock.

Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle and Good Vibrations 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

 

Daniel Garber interviews CODY CALLAHAN about his new film ANTISOCIAL

Posted in Cultural Mining, Horror, Mind Control, Monsters, Science Fiction, Social Networks, Thriller, Toronto, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 19, 2013

Cody Calahan Antisocial

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining,com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
It’s just a normal day for a student on a social network.  Selfies sent, friends poked, statuses changed.  But what if something else, something sinister is going on?  Well there’s a new horror movie — made in antisocial_xxlgToronto — called Antisocial, which says things online are not normal at all.

It envisions a world where a mysterious virus is spreading like wildfire across the planet, turning everyone into robo-zombies!

Antisocial follows a group of university students preparing for a New Year’s Eve bash right when the virus hits. Who will live and who will die? And can the virus be stopped?

Antisocial is now playing in Toronto and  the film’s director, Cody Callahan, tells us more…

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Movies within Movies. Films reviewed: The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, The Wagner Files, Saving Mr Banks

Posted in 1960s, Biopic, Cultural Mining, documentary, Germany, Hollywood, Movies, Music, Musical, Politics, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 13, 2013

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

There are movies… and then there are movies within movies. This week I’m looking at some juicy brain candy, films that cross or blur the barriers between movies and real life. There’s a documentary with a Marxist lecturer who steps into the movies he talks about; a dramatized documentary that answers Bugs Bunny’s question What’s Opera, Doc?, and a drama set in Disneyland… about trying to make a movie.

perverts_01The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

Dir: Sophie Fiennes

What does the shark in the movie Jaws have to do with totalitarianism*? Well, a lot, if you listen to Slavoj Zizek.

If you haven’t seen him before, Slavoj Zizek is a real hoot. He’s this huge bombastic, bearded Slovenian who likes to talk – a lot.

A Marxist, he approaches ideology in unusual ways: pop culture and totalitarianism; Lacanian philosophy and The Big Other; social class and sexuality. A typical topic: how come Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was a national anthem for everyone from the extreme right to the extreme left? From Nazis to Peruvian Maoists? He seems to make sense — even when it’s complete  nonsense.

You might think – how can I listen to this guy lecture for two hours straight? The way the movie works is he shows a clip from a film – say Reifenstahl’s Triumph of Will – and the next scene has him, in black and white, dressed in period uniform.  He talks about a movie, and then he’s in the movie he’s talking about.

If you have an itch for some complex political chatter about pop-culture, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is the perfect place to find it.

(*In case you’re wondering about the shark in Spielberg’s Jaws… Zizek says it’s the Big Other, a way of reducing all of society’s fears and anxiety into a single entity. Fascism uses it to galvanize the population against a single feared “enemy”.)

Moving from the broad to the specific, here’s a new, experimental documentary about Wagner, called:

Die Akte Wagner_2©FalcoSeligerThe Wagner Files

Dir: Ralf Pleger

Wagner! He’s the 19thcentury German composer best known for his symphonies and operas. You’ve heard the expression “It’s not over till the fat lady sings”? They’re talking about the valkyrie Brünnhilde from Wagner’s ring cycle.

But who was Wagner? Not what you might think. This doc digs up the skeletons in Wagner’s closet. He was born in Leipzig and became a composer famous across Europe. But it turns out his trips to Paris, Venice, Munich were partly so he could outrun his creditors! He was deeply in debt. Then there’s his friend Hans von Bulow, an aristocrat and musician. Wagner was sleeping with von Bulow’s wife, Cosima, a Die Akte Wagner_5©FalcoSeligerraven-haired beauty who was also Franz Liszt’s granddaughter. She gave birth to Wagner’s kids while still married to von Bulow. Scandal! Sounds almost like a soap opera.

Then Wagner befriended King Ludwig of Bavaria – a crazy gay king who built a castle inspired by a Wagner opera. They had a passionate – though non-sexual – affair, and he became Wagner and Cosima’s patron, showering them with money and paying for his four-part opera and the Bayreuth festival in Bavaria devoted to his work.

Die Akte Wagner_Simone Young©FalcoSeligerThen there’s his fetishes. Wagner covered himself with feminine things –rose-coloured silk and velvets. They found his dead body clothed in pink robes.

Wagner and Cosima also had a dark side. He wrote a virulent tract against Jewish musicians and composers, saying they were members of an “inferior race” ruining German culture. And later (after Wagner died) the widow Cosima became closely tied to Hitler and the Nazi party, a tarnish still associated with Wagner’s work.

The movie uses both experts — conductors, historians, writers – and actors who portray Cosima and Richard… but in 20thcentury settings: Cosima posing dramatically; Richard rolling around in his pink feather boas. Half drama, half doc, German dialogue, English narrator. This is a strange but endlessly fascinating movie.

999622_578413545546254_1393361059_nSaving Mr Banks

Dir: John Lee Hancock

Mrs Travers (Emma Thompson) is an uptight, posh writer in her 60’s living in London, sipping tea and reading Gurdjieff.

She wrote Mary Poppins and Disney has been trying to buy the rights to it for decades. Finally, in 1961, she agrees to fly to LA to meet Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks).

She is not impressed by America. She says it smells like chlorine and sweat. And she’s creeped-out when she finds her hotel room filled with stuffed, giant Mickey Mice. At the studio she objects to 1392799_571559062898369_585661440_neverything the writer and songwriters (the Sherman brothers, played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak)  show her. Who are these penguins? She said no cartoons! Why is Mr Banks (the father) portrayed as mean? And the mother as uncaring? 

But then her childhood is gradually revealed in a series of flashbacks. She’s actually not English at all. She grew up in the Australian outback. Her mom was depressed. Her dad (Colin Farrell) was an alcoholic bank manager who hated his job. He told her life is just an illusion. And then there’s the inspiration for Mary Poppins.

1471835_584864851567790_1428997927_nCan Walt discover what’s holding her back from making a movie? This is a cute, heavily nostalgic and somewhat moving biopic, about turning a book into a movie script. The songs are great and lots of fun. Emma Thompson is terrific as the hard-to-like Mrs Travers who gradually opens up. Totally believable. Tom Hanks role is less rounded, more superficial. Why? Think about it: a Walt Disney movie about their founder shot on the Disney backlot? It’s like a Vatican-made drama about the Pope. So the Disney scenes are restricted, but the Travers scenes allowed to blossom.

The Wagner Files — at the Carlton — The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology — at TIFF — and Saving Mr Banks 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

 

Philadelphia Freedom. Movies reviewed: Jingle Bell Rocks, Let the Fire Burn

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies forculturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

I was in the US for American Thanksgiving. Had a wonderful visit to family and friends, beautiful places, lots to see and do. But you wouldn’t know it if you watched TV news on Black Friday. It’s an orgiastic  frenzy of consumer excess slapped onto an otherwise sedate family weekend. All you could see on TV was the repeated image of two women at a Philadelphia Walmart tasing each other to get at a discount i-Pad. Just crazy.

But they segue nicely into my themes this week: Philadelphia and holiday excess. I’m looking at Canadian documentary about Christmas music. And an American doc about a firebomb dropped on a radical commune in Philadelphia.

mitch_hat_vigJingle Bell Rocks

Dir: Mitchel Kezin

Mitchel is obsessed with Christmas songs., Not the traditional carols or sing-alongs — Silent Night, Jingle Bells —  but the many, possibly countless, record albums released over the past 60-70 years. He believes that, among all the treacle and dross they play constantly for a month and a half every year, there are gems to be discovered. So he goes to every flea market, ducks into every used record store he sees, on the off chance there’s an indie treasure waiting to be rediscovered.

It all started with a Nat King Cole song about a little kid pining for his absentee dad, who won’t be home for Chistmas. His own dad was never there and eventually his parents were divorced. Now he feels driven to recreate the sad feelings john_waters_pic2he remembers from a melancholy tune.

And he’s not alone. There’s a hip-hop producer, a radio DJ, and a rock star, each with their obsessive horde of old Xmas vinyl.

The movie spans decades, including everything from be-bop jazz (that’s Bob Dorough singing with the Miles Davis Quintet in the background) to soul – there’s a risqué song about a Backdoor Santa – to Vietnam protest songs, ordinary pop, bill_adler&rev-run_prod2counter-culture kitsch and hip hop, all the way to the nineties and beyond.

Stars include Flaming Lips, Run DMC, and John Waters, with the movie culminating in an amazing recording session with calypso legend Mighty Sparrow.

Not bad for a documentary. Jingle Bell Rocks is 90-minute look at an ordinary – if oddball – guy with a hording obsession. I can sympathize with the narrator’s plight, but never feel his drive. Anyway, it’s a light subject, not intrinsically exciting. But it’s saved by the music: great tunes.

let the fire burn poster_largeLet the Fire Burn

Dir: Jason Osder

In the mid 1980s, Philadelphia — a city I love — experienced a terrifying event. A home was bombed, and many people were killed. You might think: terrorists? But the bomb was dropped on a row house from a helicopter… by the police! And as the fire grew, the fireman stood by to letthefireburn.photo03watch the flames engulf a city block.

How could this have happened? Some background.

Half a century after the civil rights movement, Philadelphia is still a de facto segregated city. It experienced decades of unrest and white flight to the exurbs. Much of this was related to the combative stance letthefireburn.photo05of the police force and City Hall, led, in the 1970s by Frank Rizzo.

A former police commissioner, Rizzo fought a personal battle against radical groups like the Black Panthers, displaying, at times, seemed more loyalty to his fellow police than toward the people of the city. He was known for his harsh treatment of black people, in general. Well, right in the middle of this was a small, black-to-nature group known as MOVE, headed by the self-named John Africa. They believed in such “radical” concepts as a vegan diet, the raw food movement, animal rights — a new religion that was anti-pesticide letthefireburn.photo02and anti-technology. The kids walked around naked and everyone shared the same last name. They also proselytized loudly in public, using a megaphone, not endearing themselves to their neighbours.

The police accused them of being an armed terrorist group and raided their home. In the melee a cop was killed, but it was never determined where the shot came from. (The police were caught on video brutally attacking an unarmed Delbert Africa.) Nine members of MOVE were convicted of third-degree murder and jailed.

Seven years later, in an apparent act of revenge for the  policeman’s death, they dropped two fire bombs – supplied by the FBI — on the urban commune and stood by, as 11 people, including five small children, letthefireburn.photo01died. Afterwards, the city’s Mayor, W. Wilson Goode, called for an investigation.

This excellent movie tells the story in an unusual way. The documentary is composed entirely of  period news footage, TV interviews, and, most of all, the recorded testimony of the inquiry. There’s no narrator, only voices from that time, preserved on tape. Police and survivors of the bombing all testify why they did what they did and bring light to what was happening that tragic day. (Some police were appalled by what happened and did what they could to rescue people, while others clearly supported it.) Especially poignant is the testimony of a little boy, Birdie Africa, who clears up many of the false claims and misconceptions about what went on. This is a stunning movie and an excellent oral history.

Jingle Bell Rocks (Hot Docs) and Let the Fire Burn (TIFF Bell Lightbox) both 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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