Getting away. Level 16, Triple Frontier, The Panama Papers

Posted in Action, Adoption, documentary, drugs, Heist, Morality, post-apocalypse, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 8, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

It’s international Women’s Day, a great time to check out some movies directed by women. If you haven’t seen the great Colombian film Birds of Passage, see it now. And Objects of Desire, a retrospective of French master Claire Denis’s films is also playing now at TIFF. She’s one of my favourites.

This week I’m looking at people trying to get away with something. We’ve got orphan girls running for their lives, war vets running off with sacks of loot, and journalists rushing to publish the biggest data dump in history

Level 16

Wri/Dir: Danishka Esterhazy

Vivien and Sophia are two teenagers at an all-girls boarding school for orphans. They wear identical uniforms: skirts, shirts and ties during the day, and floor-length cotton gowns at night. Classes consist of B&W educational films from the 1950s shown on flatscreen TVs. Their teacher, the strict but beautiful Miss Brixil (Sara Canning), visits each unit to teach them feminine virtues like cleanliness, subservience, obedience and silence. And their most important exams are not about reading or math but applying cold cream to their cheeks and taking their vitamins.

They live under a panopticon with surveillance cameras recording every move and thedisembodied voice of a Doctor (Peter Outerbridge) who tells them what to do. They’ve never been outside this drab institution, since the air and sunlight out there are “hazardous”. Besides, it’s important to stay pretty and clean so a nice family will adopt them some day. And now that they’re at Level 16, that someday is coming soon.

Headstrong Vivien (Katie Douglas) is excited to hear she might be leaving this place; she’s been counting the days. But all her hopes and dreams are shattered when the nearsighted Sophia (Celina Martin) tells her a secret: don’t swallow the vitamins! When Vivien takes her advice she is shocked by what she finds out. The “vitamins” are actually sedatives and what happens to their limp bodies at night is not nice at all. What is this place? Why are they there? What is it like outside its walls? And can they ever escape?

Level 16 is a scary and weird speculative fiction look at a distopian future as seen through the eyes of teenaged girls. It’s full of strange anomalies: why do the guards speak Russian? Where did all these fake-happy educational film clips come from?  Does this movie take place in the past… or in the future? It feels like a cross between Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid’s Tale.  It’s a low budget film shot on a single location (and one that is bland, industrial and and claustrophobic to look at), but it had enough shocking twists to keep me fascinated until the end.

Triple Frontier

Dir: JC Chandor

Santiago (Oscar Isaac) is a paramilitary cop working in an unnamed Latin American country. His police team raids low level drug traffickers… but they are also on the take. Any witness who tries squeal on Lorea’s — the fugitive drug kingpin — whereabouts is immediately executed to keep him quiet. But Santiago (an American) has his own informant in Lorea’s HQ. He discovers for himself where the big man is hiding. Rumour has it there are millions in cash just sitting in the jungle, waiting to be taken. So he flies back to the States to meet with his former special-ops army buddies. They loved their time in the military, but it hasn’t treated them well as veterans.

Miller (Charlie Hunnam) is a low-level army recruiter with a bad goatee who delivers the same speech over and over. Davis (Ben Affleck) tries to support a teenaged daughter from a failed marriage with the pittance he earns flogging condos. Morales (Pedro Pascal) is a helicopter pilot whose license was taken away for drug offenses. And Ben (Garrett Hedlund), Miller’s brother, is an MMA cage fighter — not a great long-term career plan.

Santiago says, let’s get what the government never gave us but that we deserve: millions in cold hard cash. And don’t worry, it’s a flawless plan. Sure enough, the heist works great. In fact, it works too well. They are faced not with millions of dollars but hundreds of millions, far too heavy for them to carry. Their momentary greed makes their exit plan impossible. Can they lug their bags of loot through the jungle, over a mountain pass and down to a the ocean (through the multinational “triple frontier” of the title)? Or will mother nature – and the vengeful locals who inhabit it – kill them first?

Triple Frontier has strikingly beautiful scenery, famous-name actors and a well known director and scriptwriter. So how come it sucks?

Well, it’s a boring and sexless buddy action flick with inane, bro dialogue: I got your back… I love you man… we deserve this. Do you really care if they get away with the money they stole? More than that, it reeks of exceptionalism. It’s co-written by Mark Boal, who brought us the vile Zero Dark Thirty, a movie which said we Americans are always the good guys, torture is useful and all Muslims are potential terrorists. For this movie just substitute drug traffickers for terrorists, and South Americans for Muslims. Almost every person they encounter is corrupt, dangerous, and out to kill us. It’s up to our heroic soldiers to stop these caravans of latino drug traffickers from invading our border.

OK, I admit there is a good chase scene near the beginning, but the rest of it is a total waste of two hours and five minutes.

Ugh.

The Panama Papers

Wri/Dir: Alex Winter

It’s 2016 in Munich, Germany. Bastian Obermayer, an investigative journalist at the Süddeutcher Zeitung receives a mysterious message. A whistleblower calling himself John Doe says he has some information to send him. But because of its importance and sheer volume he has to be sure his identity is kept secret and the information gets released, What is this information, where did it come from, and why is it so important? The data leak is from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama law firm known for its secrecy. Their clients include both organized crime and upstanding world leaders all hiding their money so they don’t pay taxes. The amount of money lost in taxes worldwide is stupendous: it’s the reason social services have been cut and why the wealth distribution gap between the ultra rich and everybody else is the highest it’s been in a century.

The Panama Papers tells this story through the eyes of the journalists involved in its release. It feels like a chapter of All the Presidents Men, but on a much bigger scale. The papers were shared – in secret! – with over 300 investigative journalists worldwide. And the outcome and blowback that followed changed the world. The Prime Minister of Iceland, top figures in FIFA, Argentina, Pakistan and Spain were forced to resign. Others in Russia, the US and Syria were also implicated in the multinational scandal. And top journalists like Malta’s Daphne Gaizia, were murdered because of their role in exposing these crimes.

The Panama Papers is a great documentary that churns politics, investigative journalism and conspiracies into a potent brew.

The Panama Papers is now playing at Hotdocs Cinema, you can catch Triple Frontier’s stunning cinematography on the big screen before it moves to Netflix, and Level 16 opens next Friday; 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.

Older Women. Movies Reviewed: Philomena and If I Were You

Posted in Academy Awards, Acting, Adoption, Catholicism, comedy, Cultural Mining, Feminism, Toronto, UK, Uncategorized, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 27, 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.

412715_402768383177285_547971069_oThis week the Toronto Film Critics Association awarded the 2013 Scotiabank Jay Scott Prize for an emerging artist to Matt Johnson, who made the fantastic movie The Dirties. Congratulations – great choice, great new filmmaker. Matt Johnson directed, produced and starred in that comedy/horror meta-movie I reviewed earlier this fall. This is could be the beginning of something big.

They say male movie stars can keep working until they die, but women stop being stars at age 35. It’s hard for older women to find lead roles in movies. Even Oscar winners. But they do exist. This week I’m looking at two movies starring award-winning, older actresses. There’s a British drama about a woman who wants to fill in a gap from her past; and an American comedy/drama about a woman who wants to undo a romantic triangle.

1384175_582752558454827_6105907_nPhilomena

Dir: Stephen Frears

Martin (Steve Coogan) is a former high-power party politico who suffers a fall from grace. He finds himself back in his previous profession: journalism. Reluctantly at first, he ends up pursuing a story about a retired, working-class woman named Philomena. Philomena (Judy Dench) was young, unmarried and pregnant when she was sent to live in a nunnery. She loved her infant son. So, one day, she was shocked and horrified to see her little boy driven away, before her very eyes, by a rich couple! She wanted to keep him, but she never saw him again. He was gone, adopted.

Now, many years later, Philomena wants a chance to see him before she dies. The nuns claim to have lost all her records in a fire. So Martin decides to write about Philomena’s story and to help 1379271_586138671449549_348510874_nher find her long lost son. So off they fly to America. Philomena is suspicious. Maybe he’s just using her to sell his story. Martin, on the other hand, is maddened by her quirky opinions and constantly-changing decisions: I want to go home… Let’s stay for another week… Gradually, Martin’s heart softens as he and Philomena get to know and trust each other better.

Will they locate the adult son? And if they do, will he want to meet his biological mother? Will he even remember her? And, finally, will the convent ever explain why they did what they did?

1376398_598313250232091_1715824787_nThis movie is a real tear-jerker. Based on a true story, it’s a very touching mother and son drama, with a few unexpected shocks and surprises. And there are at least two scenes that make the audience bawl. On the other hand, it’s quite sexless and sterile – not just the nuns. There’s no romance and no passion. Just anger at injustice, a sad longing for the past, righting wrongs, and a mother’s love for her child. Even though I could feel the movie deliberately tugging at my heart strings, it didn’t matter, since they did it so well.

Judy Dench’s character is rich and expertly played, while the always- funny Steve Coogan is a perfect foil. Well-directed by Steven Frears (My Beautiful Launderette, The Queen) with an excellent script, co-written by Coogan.

If I Were YouIf I Were You

Wri/Dir: Joan Carr-Wiggin

Madelyn (Marcia Gay-Harden) is happily married and a successful professional. But when she accidentally spies her husband, Paul, eating a romantic dinner with a beautiful young woman — when he said he was working late — everything falls apart. Is he cheating on her? Is their whole relationship based on a lie?

Flustered and confused, she finds herself following the young woman home. But rather than confronting her, she ends up saving her life. And so they meet. The Spanish beauty Lucy (Leonor Watling) admits that her lover Paul is still married and 411587_301446369896869_1132661752_ohasn’t left his boring old wife, and Madelyn, in turn, confesses that she caught her husband – she calls him “Fred” – cheating on her with some “bimbo”. They decide to follow each other’s advice on how to rescue their respective relationships. But only Madelyn knows that Fred and Paul are the same man. Can she fool Lucy into leaving her husband?

To distract her, Madelyn encourages the aspiring actress to pursue other goals. She takes Lucy to an audition for a play, King Lear, but somehow ends up cast alongside her. Will Madelyn succeed in her scheme? Or will her web of secrecy come unraveled? And are and her husband still in love?

413963_301441686564004_281730971_oIf I Were You is a cute comedy/ drama. It has some very funny sequences full of unexpected twists — it’s sort of a screwball comedy, with the main character juggling  hidden identities and secrets. And the opening scenes – from one to the next to the next — are brilliant. But later on, the movie seems loaded down with clichés and groaners. You have to wonder why so much screentime is devoted to the theatrical sub-plot. That’s not what the movie’s about. Most of all, this movie is a vehicle for the lead actress, Marcia Gay Harden. She’s at the centre of every single scene, and all other characters exist only to react to her (they love, hate, fear or admire her). To like the movie, you have to like Marcia Gay Harden. I do like her, so I enjoyed this film. It’s clever, cute and worth seeing.

Philomena and If I Were You 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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Oct 19, 2012. Imaginative ImagineNATIVE. Movies Reviewed: Charlie Zone, We Were Children

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.

Earlier this week, I found myself munching some bannock and wild rice in a packed hall on Spadina to witness the opening ceremony of one of the warmest and friendliest film festivals I’ve seen in Toronto. ImagineNATIVE is a celebration of indigenous film, video and art in Canada and around the world and it’s on right now, and open to everyone.

There are free short film screenings tonight at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, art installations around the downtown, and films, parties, concerts and lots of great movies to see. So check it out. This week I’m reviewing two Canadian movies playing at ImagineNATIVE, both with aboriginal topics and actors, and both about people trapped far away from their homes.

Charlie Zone

Dir: Michael Melski

Avery (Glen Gould) is the strong silent-type, a tough Native guy who did time and never shies from a fistfight. Now he just wants to earn some good money so he takes on a sketchy job. He has to find a young woman in Montreal, abduct her, and drive her back to her parents. Easy, no?

No.

She’s an angry junkie who doesn’t trust anyone, and will do anything not to go home again – ever. Turns out, Jan (Amanda Crew) was adopted and now feels adrift – she doesn’t even know who she really is. It’s up to Avery to get her there safely. But things start to change.

There’s an extremely violent Quebec biker gang chasing the two of them, two young gangsters who think of Jan as their property, and a shady, secretive businesswoman orchestrating the whole deal by telephone for unstated reasons. And Avery is stuck in the middle of it — a thug magnet – but won’t give up on her. Are Jan and Avery enemies or allies? And will either of them ever connect with the people they really want to find?

Charlie Zone is partly an action-packed violent crime movie about the seedier side, partly a heartfelt drama about rural life, loves lost and families torn apart. Glen Gould and Amanda Crew make a good pair, (though without any sexual spark between them) and the plot-driven story keeps you guessing till the end.

UPDATE: This year’s ImagineNative Best Dramatic Feature award went to Charlie Zone: Producer, Hank White.

We Were Children

Dir: Tim Wolochatiuk

For over a hundred years, but especially from the 1930s to the 80s, 150,000 native children were taken from their families and sent to residential schools to learn English and French and trade skills, and to be assimilated into the dominant Canadian culture. Most of them were run by churches, and the children often treated as inmates not students. Harsh corporal punishments were common, as was malnutrition, and, shockingly, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of the boys and girls sent there.

We Were Children is a powerful film that combines a documentary history of two kids Lyna and Glen (now adults) who lived through this in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and a shocking dramatization of what it was like. Glen is locked in a dungeon room by an abusive priest and Lyna, who initially spoke no English was physically punished just for speaking her native tongue. Although they want to go home, they are prevented from leaving and treated like escaped prisoners if they run away. Not a one-sided film at all, it takes pains to show some positive characters at the schools, like a nun who helps the girls when they are hungry. This film is an eye-opening look at a shameful chapter of Canadian history and the attempts at cultural genocide forced upon First Nations children, scarring families for generations.

For show times of Charlie Zone, We Were Children and more, go to ImagineNATIVE.org . Other festivals in the city this weekend include the very scary Toronto After Dark, Ekran.ca the new Polish film festival (starting next week), and Brazilfilmfest.net for movies and music from Brazil.

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

January 6, 2012. Guys Who Won’t Grow Up. Movies Reviewed: Jeff Who Lives At Home, Dark Horse, Starbuck

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.

It’s a New Year now, and everyone’s scrambling to make vows, resolutions and oaths to change their lives. And there’s one group that’s often makes the most earnest promises of all — I’m talking about that popular caricature, Guys Who Won’t Grow Up. In the movies, they tend to have dead-end jobs, play with toys, smoke pot, live in their parents’ basements and generally strike out with women, despite all their good intentions. So this week I’m looking at three movie, all of which played at TIFF last year, about grown-up boys who decide to change their lives. So all you couch potatoes, it’s time to get up, go out, and see some movies!

Jeff Who Lives at Home

Wri/Dir: Jay and Mark Duplass

Jeff (Jason Segel) 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 the toilet. He doesn’t get along with his older brother Pat anymore (Ed Helms), a self-centred square who neglects his wife. Pat’s a guy who’s supposed to look at a new home, but instead spends all their money on a Porsche on impulse. And now his wife doesn’t feel so great about their marriage. And Mom also notices a change in her cubicle job when her best friend tells her she has a secret admirer. So what’s going to happen?

Jeff, is a proto- string theorist (like the characters in the movie I Heart Huckabees) He’s always waiting for “signs” to tell him what to do.

Well, one day he’s forced to leave home for downtown Baton Rouge to pick up a bottle of glue for his mother (Susan Sarandon). But, when something catches his eye on an infomercial, followed by the words “CALL NOW!” at the same time as a strange, threatening wrong number calling for someone named “Kevin”, he gets sent 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.

This is a good, enjoyable comedy. I like the Duplass brothers, who usually make low-budget, ‘mumblecore”, semi-improvisational, super-realistic movies. They do tend to use annoying, jiggly hand-held cameras, but the movies are interesting enough that it doesn’t bother you after awhile. This one, Jeff who Lives at Home, is their biggest budget and most mainstream 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, it’s a fun, light comedy.

You could say Jeff is a “lite” version of the next character. Now think of the same guy, but 10-15 years later…

Dark Horse

Dir: Todd Solandz

Abe (Jordan Gelber) also lives with his parents, but he’s older, less attractive, fatter, and without any of the cute, endearing qualities that Jeff (who also lives at home) had. He works in his dad’s company, sitting in his glassed-in office, dressing like a white gangsta rapper, in track pants and T-shirts, with a gold name plate around his neck. He drives a bright yellow SUV, listens to hiphop, collects Tron Legacy memorabilia. And he despises his older brother who’s a doctor, and whom his parents idolize. He’s simultaneously arrogant, talentless and uninteresting. He’s the kind of guy who throws something toward a garbage can, says “two points!”… and then misses.

But at a Jewish wedding in suburban New Jersey (a hilarious scene where adults in wedding suits are all doing head spins and break-dancing) he meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a depressed but pretty, dark-haired woman who lives with her parents, after breaking up with her boyfriend Mahmoud. Abe is the worst person at picking up girls, possibly in the entire world. When he hits on a woman he says things like “Do you like jazz? NFL?” without bothering to listen to her answer before moving on to the next failed pick-up line. But somehow — for whatever reason — they end up dating.

Here’s where the movie gets really interesting (and a bit confusing). Abe decides to take the bull by the horns and change his life. The story goes off on these bizarre tangents. Things get bad with his lethargic parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) who finally put their collective foot down; the older secretary, Marie, at the office pursues her sexual crush on Abe; and he has other troubles with his plastic model collection. Abe can’t take it anymore.

I don’t want to give it away, but once again, Todd Solandz, who is such a good director, (with his painfully dark stories and funny-depressing characters) experiments once again with new narrative techniques, like unreliable narrators; total, sudden shifts in point of view – but without informing the viewers; and fantasy, delusions and dreams almost undistinguishable from reality. Wow. It’s a great movie that I hope will get released soon.

Starbuck

Dir: Ken Scott

David (Patrick Houad) is just not doing that well with his life. Everything just seems to be going wrong. He’s separated from his girlfriend, he’s bad at his job (delivering meat for his family business), and his money-making scheme, a grow-up, must be the only one in the world actually losing money: he owes 80 thousand to a bunch of violent thugs who want it back. His girlfriend – who’s pregnant with his kid – tells him he’d better change things if he wants to be that kid’s father. But these all seem like small potatoes when he’s hit by the biggest news of all – the sperm he anonymously donated at a fertility clinic 20 years go, was fertile. Very. He has 500 adult kids now, and 140 or so are planning a class-action suit to make him reveal his identity (he donated using only the nickname “Starbuck”.)

So he decides to secretly track down as many of his kids he can find, to help them out but without revealing his identity to them. There’s a lifeguard, a drug addict, a street musician, an effeminate goth, an aspiring actor… even if David’s own life is a total loss, maybe he can at least make his mark on the world by helping his many, many kids succeed. But the media pick up his story, making it harder and harder to remain hidden. Will he make it out of his various personal crises? Will he be forced to expose his identity to the world? Will his immigrant family ever feel proud of him? And will his pregnant girlfriend let him back into her life?

Starbuck is a really enjoyable, solid, feel-good commercial Quebec comedy, (from the people who brought us Good Cop, Bon Cop0. It’s playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the best 10 Canadian films series starting now, along with the new Cronenberg movie and Monsieur Lazhar.

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

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.

Fighters! Hotdocs Documentaries Reviewed, 2011. Better This World, Fightville, Open Secret, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Recessionize! For Fun and Profit! PLUS Alan Zweig

Hey,  this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Toronto’s Hotdocs, which starts today, is one of the best documentary festivals in the world.

It features recent docs, including Canadian and world premiers, as well as exceptional films from the past. This year the festival is running a retrospective of Toronto filmmaker Alan Zweig’s work, including favourites like I, Curmudgeon and Vinyl, as well as the excellent and moving A Hard Name which follows the difficult lives of seven ex-cons released back into the city.

Many documentaries are about people facing a conflict; they choose either to fight it or to learn to accept it. Today I’m going to talk about movies playing at Hotdocs — films about fighters, people who like to fight, and people who are fighting the Powers That Be; and others who take the opposite route, the path of least resistance.

Better this World

Dir: Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega

When I read about stories like the seven guys in Miami who were arrested for conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago for Osama bin Laden – even though they’ve never even been to Chicago and have no connection with Al Qaeda; or the Somali-American  kid in Portland Oregon labeled as a Christmas Tree Bomber; or the Toronto 18 who were accused of plotting to blow up the Parliament building, I start to wonder how big a role did the government informants play in these stories, and whether anything at all would have happened had it not been for the government instigator.

Two young, idealistic best friends David McKay and Brad Crowder, who grew up in Midland, Texas, went to Minneapolis to protest the Republican Convention two years ago. You might have seen the footage of the police there clubbing, tear gassing and arresting hundreds of protestors, students and even journalists, while, inside the buildings, people like Sarah Palin were talking to sea of middle-aged, white, soon-to-be tea-partiers. Well, within the crowd outside were three guys – the two young best friends, and a supposed radical, Brandon Darby. The two friends were arrested by the FBI and called criminals and anarchist-terrorists, mainly by the much older FBI informant, Darby, who claimed they were there to blow up people – including sleeping policemen – using Molotov cocktails as part of their anti-war demonstrations.

This movie explores the events leading up to Brad and David’s arrests and the subsequent trials, including the use of government informants to create the supposed conspiracy, push it toward some yet-to-happen act of violence, and to entrap them into saying aloud some hypothetical phrase of intention.

This is an excellent — though at times extremely disheartening – documentary about how governments manufacture to order “criminals” where none previously existed, merely to fit into their quota of “War on Terror” political prisoners. Makes you want to cry…

Another type of fighter are the ones featured in the movie

Fightville

Dir: Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker

Directors of the fantastic Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace and its good sequel How to Fold a Flag are again dealing with young, poor American men; in this case, aspiring Mixed Martial Arts fighters from Lousiana.

Also called cage fighting or Ultimate Fighting, MMA has a reputation as an extremely violent sport akin to pro wrestling, without any referees, where the two fighters kick, punch, and beat each other up until one is nearly dead. This is its mythology, but none of it’s true. It’s actually safer than heavyweight boxing – the fighters wear smaller, lighter gloves, though because of the nature of the sport, does lead to small cuts and bruises, but not to the head injuries you get in boxing. It’s played in closely refereed rounds, with a match ending with a knockout, one player’s submission, or by a judgement. It looks like a combination of boxing, grappling, Brazilian jujitsu, muai thai kick boxing, and traditional wrestling down on the mat. In my opinion it’s the most interesting kind of fighting to watch, since it involves so many skills and so much training and strategy on the parts of the fighters.

This beautifully shot movie dispels the myths about Mixed martial arts, as it follows two amateur fighters, Dustin and Albert, as they try to make it from an amateur farm team to professional status. Will either of them make it to the pros? While not that dramatic a sports story, Fightville takes you behind the scenes, through all the stages of training and preparation for a fight, and shows Dustin and Albert both in their ordinary lives, and within the ring, with all the glamour and excitement that comes from an actual match.

Open Secret

Dir: Steve Lickteig

Steve Lickteig, an NPR brodcaster, grew up on a Kansas farm and lived his whole life knowing that he was adopted… but not knowing the open secret about his birth parents. The movie investigates his search for the truth that he was never told about as a child.

His oldest brothers and sisters were sworn to secrecy, and the younger ones were kept in the dark. The movie reveals part of the open secret in the first few minutes of the movie, so it’s no spoiler to say that he was actually an older sister’s child, and his parents were really his grandparents.

The movie follows him returning to his family – his sister/mother, and his parents aka grandparents. He also wants to know the truth about who his father was, what the reasons were for the strange arrangement, and more about his actual birth parents, his background, and whether he has other relatives.

Open Secret is above all a family memoir with the various members fighting and arguing, holding grudges, or reconciling, meeting or refusing to meet. If you’re into these types of daytime TV family stories, or if you’re familiar with the NPR personality who made it, then this is a good movie for you, but I have to say it didn’t do much for me.

Let’s move away now from fighting, resisting, and quarrelling and toward the opposite spectrum, to movies about buying into the system and going with the flow.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Dir: Morgan Spurlock

I can’t stand product placement on TV or in movies – it’s a pet peeve. Whether it’s as banal as working a brand name into an answer on Jeopardy!, or the ubiquitous Mac laptop magically appearing in most movies, it’s annoying, obnoxious, and intrusive. So Morgan “Super Size Me” Spurlock decided to make a movie in which every scene, every shot, and even the movie’s title itself, would have at least one product placement in it – and he would use product placement both to pay for the movie, and to provide its plot. It’s a very amusing, fast paced, and light comic take on advertising. Some of its cleverest moments is where he interviews people like Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader about product placement, without them realizing there’s a brand name – a shoe, an underarm deodorant, a soft drink – appearing right beside them. And just because you know it’s there, it doesn’t mean it’s not working. Honest to God, I walked out of this movie with a strange desire to buy a bottle of pomegranate juice!

In a similar vein, and just as entertaining, is the Canadian documentary

Recessionize! For Fun and Profit!

Dir: Jaime Kastner

In a tongue-in-cheek look at the present-day grim effects of the economic meltdown and the recession that followed it, Kastner decides to look at the bright side instead. There’s money to be made out there, even in bad times, so he tracks down some unusual people adapting to the new economic realities. One of the more clever ones include a smartly dressed and perfectly coiffed woman who lives in a deluxe mansion with her family. The catch? She’s only there to make it look lived-in for potential real-estate buyers, and will have t move out the moment it’s sold. What does her teenaged son think about living in a place that has to be kept spotless? He says it’s major OCD territory!

And there’s also a great French guest house where people who feel their career is a rat-race can live for a weekend like a hamster, running in a giant wheel! Recessionize! is a lot of fun – an amusing, up-beat and fast-paced, TV style variety documentary.

The Hotdocs festival runs from Thursday April 28th to May 8th, and is free – no charge! – for rush seats during the day for anyone with a Student or Senior ID. Check this out online hotdocs.ca I think everyone should try to see at least one documentary, and Hotdocs is the best place to see them.

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

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