Classics, old and new. Films reviewed: The Breadwinner, The Man who Invented Christmas, Solaris

Posted in Afghanistan, Animation, Christmas, Cross-dressing, Disguise, Movies, Religion, Science Fiction, USSR, Victorian England, Women by CulturalMining.com on November 24, 2017

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

Fall film festival season grinds to a finish with Blood in the Snow – or BITS – showing distinctly Canadian horror movies. Movies filled with ghosts, creatures and cruel killers who aren’t always what they appear to be. It’s on now through Sunday.

This week I’m looking at three movies about things that aren’t what they seem to be. There’s a girl in Afghanistan who appears to be a boy, a writer in London whose characters appear as if they are alive, and an astronaut in outerspace where people appear who shouldn’t be there.

The Breadwinner

Dir: Nora Twomey

It’s 2001 in Afghanistan. Parvana is an 11 year old girl who goes to the market each day with her dad to earn a meagre living. Times are tough, and her dad is missing a leg. But she loves spending time with him and listening to the stories he tells. But when a young member of the Taliban arrests her father and hauls him off to a faraway prison, Parvana and her whole family are left in a crisis. The Taliban strictly forbids women from leaving home unaccompanied by a man, but then how can they earn a living, contact her dad or even buy food to eat? Will they starve? When Parvana tries sneaking out unaccompanied she is chased and almost killed, saved only by a neighbourhood boy. What can she do? Is her only chance of survival an arranged marriage with a much older man?

Then she has an idea. She cuts her hair short, dresses in a boys’ clothes and chooses a new name. Suddenly she’s free again and a whole new world is open to her. She gets a job in the market and brings home food. She’s the breadwinner now. And she soon discovers she’s not the only one – a boy she makes friends with is actually a girl, just like her. Can she rescue her father from prison? Or will Idris, the young Taliban who arrested her father, see through her disguise?

I thought the Breadwinner was going to be another earnest, educational kids’ cartoon, but it’s not that at all. It’s an exciting and wonderful animated feature that captivated me from start to finish. The main story – a girl trying to rescue her father – is told alongside an Afghan fairytale about scary monsters in the mountains. It’s a Canadian-Irish co-production with amazing art full of swirling colours and patterns, drawn in a distinctive, flat, cut-out style.

Great movie.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

Dir: Bharat Nalluri

It’s 1843. Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is a wildly popular novelist who lives in an ornate London mansion with his wife and kids. His Don Quixote-like father (Jonathan Pryce) has taken up residence in his home, running through cash like a sand in a sieve. There’s a young nanny and a portly housekeeper, Mrs Fisk (Miriam Margolyse) to keep things running properly. He lives high on the hog – his wife just ordered a crystal chandelier. Only problem is he’s bankrupt, his latest novels bombed (ever hear of Barnaby Rudge? Me neither) and, worst of all, he has writer’s block. He can’t come up with a story. If he doesn’t publish something soon, he’ll be in big trouble come January. So he decides to write a Christmas story and publish it himself. But about what?

He takes careful notes — a quote here, a name or a face there – and new characters begin to take shape in his head. He asks an elderly waiter at his gentlemen’s club his name. “It’s Marley”. A crooked lawyer has heavy chains all over an iron safe. A rich man he encounters asks “Are there no prisons for the poor? No workhouses?” And at a funeral with only one stingy mourner, an old man dressed in black (Christopher Plummer) mutters Humbug when he passes Dickens. It’s Scrooge in the flesh! Now all he has to do is write the damned thing. But can he finish A Christmas Carol in time?

I think everyone knows the story about Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the Ghost of Christmas Past. What’s interesting here is to see the real-life inspirations that led to the book. It also reveals some real surprises about Dickens’s own ghosts from his childhood, a frightening litany of debtors prisons and child labour that haunted his adult life. Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) offers a clean-shaven Dickens, and Plummer is perfect as his foil, a funny Scrooge who lives in Dickens’s head along with the rest of his characters.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is fun holiday fare.

Solaris

Dir: Andrey Tarkovsky

It’s the Soviet Union, some time in the distant future. Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is visiting his fathers country home to meet an importany guest, a former cosmonaut named Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky). Berton had been living – along wth other scientists – on a space station parked above a distant planet named Solaris. This planet is covered with water that moves and communicates using waves (as in waves in the ocean). These waves, and this planet seems to have extraordinary power: it can evolve and change from exposure to earthlings like Berton. But his evidence, the film brought back, was useless. So Kelvin goes to the station to investigate and decide whether the three scientists – doctors Sartorius, Girbarian and Snaut – are still productive or if it’s time to close it all down.

When he gets there it’s worse than he feared. One is dead, one looks like something the cat dragged in, and the third has locked himself into his room and won’t come out. Is everyone on Solaris nuts? Then he begins to feel it too. The beautiful Kari (Natalya Bondarchuk), his former lover from years ago, appears in his bedroom, exactly as he remembers her, complete with brown suede dress. Far from an illusion they make in his quarters. And she seems to be immortal. Trauma, injury, death or banishment won’t take her away from him, she reappears anew no matter what happens. And the space ship itself gradually morphs from sterile minimalist metal and, glass into a warm and inviting replica of the home he left. But is it all just an illusion?

Everyone has told me for years how great a director Tarkovsky is. But I had only seen one movie by him – Nostalghia – when I was a student and hated it so much I swore I would never watch his films again. What a waste, and what a mistake.

Tarkovsky is a genius, and Solaris is as brilliant and shocking as everyone says. It’s a must-see for all science fiction fans. It doesn’t have the lasers and space battles, the quick editing and CGIs expected in contemporary space movies, but it doesn’t need it.

It’s perfect the way it is.

And no spoilers here, but the ending is a total shock.

The Breadwinner and The Man Who Invented Christmas open today in Toronto; check your local listings. And a new print of Solaris is playing at the Tiff Bell Lightbox as part of a Tarkovsky retrospective. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

 

Daniel Garber talks with Tarique Qayumi about Black Kite at #TIFF17

Posted in Afghanistan, Canada, Cultural Mining, Drama, Prison, violence, War by CulturalMining.com on August 25, 2017

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

Photos by Jeff Harris

Arian is an Afghan man thrown into a dark prison cell with a murderer. His crime? Flying a kite, forbidden by religious fundamentalist in charge. It seems an easy enough thing to give up… but not for Arian. He was brought up with them, earned a living from them, met his love from them, raised a daughter through them… maybe even lost a war because of them. Kites mean freedom, beauty, fantasy, and escape. Kites are his everything.

Black Kite is a new film having its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s written and directed by Afghan-born Canadian filmmaker Tarique Qayumi. Tarique went back to war-torn Kabul to shoot this moving, fairytale drama even while suicide bombings exploded all around. The film features popular Afghan stars and incorporates lovely animated sequences and period footage woven throughout the film.

I reached Tarique in Vancouver by telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM.

Eurasia. Movies reviewed: Mountains May Depart, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Sing Street

Posted in 1980s, Afghanistan, China, Ireland, Journalism, Musical, Romance, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on March 11, 2016

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

Europe and Asia, despite what some people think, are part of the same continent: Eurasia. This week I’m looking at movies set on the Eurasian landmass, from the far east to the extreme west. There’s a love triangle set in a rapidly westernizing China, a true story about expat journalists in Afghanistan, and a coming-of-age musical set in Ireland.

48V7xJ_MOUNTAINSMAYDEPART_03_o3_8667537_1438094807Mountains May Depart

Wri/Dir: Jia Zhangke

It’s 1999 and a mining town China prepares for the new millennium. Especially Tao (Zhao Tao) who is a pretty, young performer. She’s being courted by two men. Liangzi (Liang Jingdong) is a brash but nice guy, brimming with confidence. He works in the mine store. Equally confident, but self-centred and vengeful, is Zhang Jinsheng (Zhang Yi). He’s rich and Liangzi isn’t. She wants to be friends with both of them. But she has to choose, and she chooses the one with money over vgRA2n_MOUNTAINSMAYDEPART_04_o3_8667554_1438094737the one she loves.

They have one son they name Daole or “Dollar”, named after the US dollar, what Zhang desires most. Tao stays in the mining town, while her husband moves to the city to rule his burgeoning financial empire and satisfy his perverse obsession with guns. And their son, Dollar, is sent off to a private English-language boarding school in far-off Shanghai.

GZzj65_MOUNTAINSMAYDEPART_01_o3_8667519_1438094794The second part of the movie jumps to the near future. Dollar lives in Australia now and only speaks English. He has distant memories of his country and his mother and transfers his feelings onto a rootless, Chinese-Canadian teacher named Mia (Sylvia Chang).

The movie then reveals what has become of Liangzi, Jinsheng and Tao – the original three characters.

Jia Zhangke is one of the best filmmakers in China, and a personal favourite. He has a unique style and feel that exposes the flaws and idiosycracies of modern China. But always in a funny satirical or shocking way. What other Chinese director would start his movie with people dancing on a stage to the Village People? It looks like one of his first movies Platform (2000). That said, this isn’t his best work. The first half is a good classic Chinese melodrama, but the second half, with its prediction of China’s future, feels empty in comparison.

12803308_192044051164344_2982674369886159417_nWhiskey, Tango, Foxtrot

Dir: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa (based on Kim Barker’s memoirs)

It’s the early 2000s. Kim Baker (Tina Fey) is a network TV newswriter whose career is going nowhere fast. So she jumps at the chance to relocate to a place grabbing all the headlines: Kabul, Afghanistan. She says goodbye to her boyfriend and takes off. But as soon as she arrives she sees it’s not what she expected. She’s shocked by the unvarnished crudity of the other expats. But she also exalts in her new status. She has, at her disposal, a buff kiwi bodyguard, a smart Afghan translator, and a local fixer, to name just a few. A blonde Aussie reporter named Tanya (Margot Robbie) takes her under her wing.  She says, “In New York City you’re a 6 or a 7, but here you’re a borderline ten.” Tanya also tells her who to get to know, and who to avoid. And above all, to watch out for12362989_139342373101179_5125622253715911362_o the womanizing lush Iain (Martin Freeman: The Hobbit) a Scottish journalist.

Aside from drinkin’, dancin’, cussin’, and screwing around, she also has to file stories. She’s embedded with a Marine battalion, under the misogynistic General Hollanek (Billy-Bob Thornton.) But she manages to find some real news, even venturing out of the insular, foreign enclave in Kabul (or “Ka-bubble” as Tanya calls it). Will her new digs bring her fame and fortune? Or is it a bottomless pit that swallows journalists whole?

This movie is a fictionalized account of print journalist Kim Barker’s stint as an expat in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It’s an enjoyable movie and Tina Fey and company give a good sense of what it’s like to live there as a foreigner. What it doesn’t give is what it’s like to be an Afghan. There are some good scenes of an Afghan wedding, and she has a bit of professional contact with locals like Sadiq (Alfred Molina) a sleazy government minister, but nothing that challenges existing stereotypes.

And the Afghan women in burqas? Completely silent.

12771938_228217334192440_5486446044202041047_oSing Street

Wri/Dir: John Carney

Cosmo (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is a middle-class kid at a private Jesuit school in Dublin in the 1980s. He lives at home with his parents, his little sister and older brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) a pothead who dropped out of college. But when his family falls on hard times he is sent to a rougher school run by the Christian Brothers. (Canadians know the name from the Mt Cashel orphanage in St John’s, Newfoundland, notorious for its horrific abuses.) The school is run by men in black priestly gowns from neck to feet, pgo441_singstreet_02_o3_8934407_1453302712and who are not adverse to corporal punishment. They make it their goal to crush every hint of non-conformity. Cosmo gets bullied from day one, especially by a skinhead. But all is not lost. Because across the street he sees a beautiful girl who looks like a model who just stepped out of a Duran Duran video. She even has a proper model’s name: Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Thinking quickly, he invites her to star in his band’s video for their next song – and she agrees. Only problem is, there’s no video, no song, and no band. Somehow Cosmo has to make it all happen. He meets Eamon (Mark McKenna) and together they start writing songs. Soon, they turn into new wave rock stars complete with appropriate make-up and frosted hair. But will they have it all ready in time for the school prom and before Raphena leaves for London?

Something about this movie grabs me – I really like it. It’s your basic boy-meets-girl/ coming-of-age story, and it’s set in the 80s, but there’s nothing old or tired about it. Sing Street feels fresh and new featuring young actors and musicians who are all amazing.

Sing Street, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and Mountains May Depart 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 talks with director Patrick Reed about his new documentary Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr

Posted in Afghanistan, Canada, Cultural Mining, documentary, Movies, Prison, Suspicion, Taliban, Terrorism, Torture, US, War by CulturalMining.com on January 9, 2016

 

Patrick Reed, Guantanamo's Child: Omar KhadrHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Omar Khadr was a Canadian kid born in Toronto into a controversial family. He was captured in a firefight in Afghanistan at a militant camp. A US soldier was killed and Omar, as the sole survivor, was blamed for his Patrick Reed, Guantanamo's Child: Omar Khadrdeath. Labelled a terrorist, he was sent to a prison in Cuba at the American military base known as Guantanamo. He was the youngest inmate there and reached maturity as Guantanamo’s Child.

Guantanamo’s Child is also the name of a new KO79nx_GUANTANAMOSCHILD_01_o3_8887721_1449615152documentary about Omar Khadr’s stay in that notorious prison. Partly based on Michelle Shephard’s book, the film chronicles his and his family’s lives from his early years in Toronto, his stay in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the decade spent in Guantanamo, and his status today back in Canada. The film premiered at TIFF15 and is now playing in Toronto as part of the Canada Top Ten Film Festival.

I spoke with the film’s award-winning co-director, Patrick Reed, in studio.

Politics. Movies reviewed: He Named Me Malala, This Changes Everything, 99 Homes

Posted in Afghanistan, Canada, Cultural Mining, documentary, Homelessness, Movies, Protest, Women by CulturalMining.com on October 15, 2015

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

A movie can be political as much for what it includes as for what it leaves out. Take Zero Dark Thirty, which said that torture is what helped catch Osama bin Laden. What it left out (according to Vice media) was that their source of these “facts” was the CIA. This week I’m looking at three movies with overt political themes. Two are documentaries: one about how a girl’s education affected her life; another about how climate change affects economics and politics; and a drama about how real estate speculation affects the “99 percent”.

banner-he-named-me-malala-malala_844x476_static-EVERYWHEREHe Named Me Malala
Dir: Davis Guggenheim

Malala Yousefzai grew up in the Swat valley of Pakistan, in an idyllic but isolated village near the Afghan border. This is also when a local Taliban begins preaching on the radio. At first they are welcomed — Mullah Fazlullah speaks their language. But the Taliban begins to restrict, and eventually to ban all girls from schools. Malala is a devout Muslim but opposes anything that might hold back women’s rights. She is unequivocal on this: men and women must have equal rights and opportunities.

A precocious student and the daughter of a teacher, she decides to do someone thing about it. 40eb99a45e7e0a29026d97dfcd6eaf1eFirst, at age 11, she shares her experiences with the world anonymously via a BBC blog. Then she comes out publicly as the face of all the girls their being denied an education. But the Taliban is not just a radio show. Their rhetoric escalates to bombing schools and physical attacking girls who disobey. And one night Malala and two friends are shot by a would-be assassin.

She falls into a coma, her family flees to England and the Taliban says if she ever comes back 10868271_710017355766115_8968207615678621192_nthey’ll kill her. But she survives and becomes an international activist.

This movie shows three things. It illustrates her history in a series of lovely animated sequences using colourful paintings. It follows her travels as an activist in Kenya and among Syrian refugees. In Nigeria she appeals to Boko Haram to release the 100 schoolgirls they kidnapped. And in the US she explains to Obama that drones attacks are inspiring, not stopping, would-be terrorists. Finally, the movie shows the life of an ordinary girl who does her homework, fights with her brothers and ogles pics of star cricketeers online. It lets us know that she’s not a victim, nor a saint, but a committed activist who deserves to be listened to.

Protesters against gold mine in Halkidiki, Greece. Still from THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING, a Video Services Corp. releaseThis Changes Everything
Dir: Avi Lewis
Wri: Naomi Klein, based on her book

Climate change is a huge problem, maybe our biggest. But Naomi Klein says polar bears just don’t do it for her. And turning off light bulbs is not the answer. So what can we do? To address this, the film takes it to the people, the ones immediately affected by environmental disasters. It follows their plight and how they fight back. A first nationsMarch against coal-fired power plant in Sompeta, India. Still from THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING, a Video Services Corp. release activist living right beside the oil patch in Northern Alberta, protests the effects of tailings on their water supply. Farmers in Montana suffer from an oil leak. Then there’s the mining industry moving into northern Greece… right at the moment the country faces economic austerity. The economy desperately Naomi Klein at Chicheley Hall in the United Kingdom. Still from THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING, a Video Services Corp. releaseneeds investment, they’re told, stop worrying about little things like the environment! It’s the “shock doctrine” at work, using a crisis as an excuse for economic exploitation. And in India where tens of thousands could lose their livelihood if they build a coal plant.

The movie is beautiful shot, with vast Burtynsky-like vistas of massive oil fields. It’s not just about people you already agree with – it includes many of the fiercest opponents to environmentalism. And it’s narrated by Naomi Klein herself, who pulls it all together. This highly watchable film is a good guide on how to think globally while acting locally.

Still_02 99 homes 99 Homes
Dir: Ramin Bahrani

Dennis (Andrew Garfield) is a single dad who lives with his Mom Lynn (Laura Dern) and his son Conner (Noah Lomax). Times are tough, but Dennis works, Conner goes to school, and they live in Lynn’s house where two generations were born and brought up. They miss some mortgage payments, but it doesn’t seem that important. Then comes the big shock. Seemingly out of nowhere there’s a knock on the door – a real estate broker flanked by police. His homes is being repossessed, and Still_01he and his family are given a couple of minutes to grab their valuables and vacate the premises. They kick him out and padlock the front door shut.

Dennis is desperate, so he takes on odd jobs. He needs to earn enough money to get his family home back. His new boss Rick (Michael Shannon) flips homes for a living and offers him a cash income doing minor repairs. The catch? This is the guy who stole his house! But if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Rick is an odd character, a mini Donald Trump. He doesn’t have time for losers – he’s a winner, Still_08and he got there by stomping on the little people the way. You can’t be sentimental or nostalgic if you want to succeed. And he’s determined to make it to the top of the heap.

Rick lives in a spacious (repossessed) mansion complete with swimming pool, swank car and beautiful girlfriend. But he has high hopes for Dennis, and soon enough Dennis is kicking families out of their homes. He wants to get hold of a big block of land – the 99 homes of the title – so he can become a big player in the game. Dennis finds himself turning into his own enemy… even while his family is still camping out in a cheap motel room. Which direction will he choose: wealth or happiness?

This is a movie about a very real problem: homelessness and the US housing bubble, which turned family homes into a negotiable commodity. The title – 99 Homes – is meant to evoke how regular people, the 99%, fare under the rule of the super-rich. I like one of Bahrani’s earlier movies (Chop Shop) for its improvisational, documentary feel but another one (At Any Price) didn’t work. 99 Homes has its realistic elements, but it also has big name stars (all excellent) and a strict plot and script. It may harken back to the age of silent movies with its old-fashioned heroes and villains twisting their mustaches, (you must pay the rent – but I can’t pay the rent!) but it’s still worth watching.

This Changes Everything, He Named Me Malala, and 99 Homes all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening is Labyrinth of Lies, a German historical drama set in the 1960s about a courageous lawyer who dares to prosecute Nazi war criminals; and Guy Maddin’s wonderful The Forbidden Room.

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

The Space-Time Continuum. Movies Reviewed: Source Code, Repeaters, American: The Bill Hicks Story, The Tiny Ventriloquist

Everyone loves some good time travel right? Sure you do. You want to go back in time and fix something up, right a wrong, to do something you wished you had done before it was too late. So, this week, I’m looking at four movies — an action thriller, and a psycho-science fiction movie that deal directly with glitches in the time- space continuum, as well as a historical documentary/ biography about a stand up comic who was inspired by his psychedelic trips, and an art film that manipulates old images and sound, using newly created and found footage and graphic art.

Time travel movies used to be simple, you’d climb into your time machine, travel back or forward in time, until you fix whatever the problem was and come back home.

But now (possibly influenced by start-again video games and rebooted computer programs where you always have the chance to erase your mistakes and go back to point zero) we have this sub genre where scenes are repeated over and over and over again.

You are the one variable that can make a difference, but if you mess up, someone is pressing Play Again until you get it right (like in the classic Groundhog Day)

In one new movie,

Source Code

Dir: Duncan Jones

you get to see the same 8 minute episode, throughout the film, until the hero, a US military helicopter pilot In Afghanistan, tries to win his game.

So, the soldier (Jake Gyllenhaal) suddenly awakens on a Chicago commuter train, in the middle of a chat with Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a pretty woman across from him. The problem is, he doesn’t know where he is, what he’s doing, and who are all the strangers seated with him who seem to know him. And when he looks in a bathroom mirror he discovers he’s not there — he’s somehow inside another person! But even as he tries to make sense of it all, he is the victim of a huge explosion on the train whichh catapults him back to his military job.

It turns out he’s part of an experiment called source code, based on the principal that the brain can hold on to 8 minutes of short-term memory, and that after someone dies (like the man on the train) his neuro synapses remain open and retrievable if caught immediately after the heart stops.

So it’s up to him to figure out who the terrorist is, where the bomb was hidden, and then to trackdown the killer and stop a massive nuclear bomb set to go off later in downtown Chicago. he can’t change the past, but he can relive it until he finds out the truth.

Will he solve the crime, catch the bad guy, get to know Christina, and save the world? And will he ever be told why he’s In this program, and allowed out of this hellish space-time loop?

Source Code essentially has the same format as the directors other film Moon (about a man who lives alone on a base on the moon, with only a computer voice to keep him company) — a dialogue between two detached people caught in sort of a loop created by people beyond their understanding. In this one, the ongoing conversation — on the two sides of a video screen — is between the soldier and a female officer (Vera Farmiga) who sends him his assignments.

It’s a neatly imagined science fiction action thriller, even though Gylenhaal doesn’t seem quite up to the part, he’s too opaque, and the story doesn’t exactly make sense, even according to its own plot.

A Canadian film that opens next Friday,

Repeaters

Dir: Carl Bessai

follows a similar pattern.

Three young ne’er-do-well drug addicts — Kyle, Sonia and Weeks –at an isolated rehab center, live through a god-awful day iof depression, bullying, idiocy, neglect, and frustration. The three only have each other to depend on. Pick-up truck Kyle (Dustin Milligan) is rejected by his little sister for something he did; Sonia (Amanda Crew) is unable to talk about an issue with her father who is dying in a hospital; and Weeks (Richard de Klerk) is emotionally crushed by the hate-on his furious father carries for him when he tries to visit him in a prison.

But when they wake up the next morning after a thunderstorm, it’s soon clear the world is reliving the previous day exactly as before, and only those three are aware of it. This totally messes up their sense of destiny and morality. Is there any meaning to life at all? Even if they save a person’s life — or kill him — it all goes back to the same point of restart. (It’s one day, not 8 minutes, in this movie, so it’s not as action- packed as source code.) will they ever confront their own moral dillemmas and right the wrongs they know about?

This is a neat movie about things like where morality fits into one’s own self image, what are the psychological consequences of good and evil that has no effect, and what would you do if you could do anything? It’s also a romance, a bit science fiction, with a lot of psycho-thriller, as the three reveal their own minds to each other as the loops continue.

The next movie is only related to time travel in that the main character was known to mentally float around in a drug induced state.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Dir: Matt Harlock and Pauk Thomas

Bill Hicks was a counter-culture standup comic in the Seventies and Eighties, known for tackling the topics that are taboo for comedians: not dick jokes, but politics, philosophy, intellectual issues, psychedelia. His jokes combined a Texas drawl, the lilt of a preacher’s revival meeting, and out-of-control, drunken and drug-filled vivid improvisational fantasies, rages and rants.

This moving documentary traces his life from his geeky teen years until his untimely death in his early thirties. Interesting technique for a documentary; there are almost no talking heads – instead the heads, people like his parents, his best friend, other comedians — turn into the movies narrators, like an oral history, with most of the movie comsisting of animated old photos, along with old concert footage.

He started as a thirteen yr old in suburban Houston, Texas. On his first try at drinking alcohol at a night club, he asks his fellow comedians – what’s a good drink (because he’s never had a mixed drink before)? They tell him Margaritas. So he downs seven margaritas at once and then goes on stage and lets loose. He considers alcohol as a disinhibitor, to let his true emotions loose on stage, and psilocybin mushrooms the source of his psychedelic insights. He would go up to a ranch every so often with a bunch of friends to down the mushrooms and see what images they bring.

Hicks was a heavy drinker and a creative psychedelic druggie, and the movie shows some unflattering footage of low period where audience members would buy him drinks during his standup act and he would drink, snort or inhale anything that got sent up the stage. A bt disturbing — like most of his act, where unsobreity was part of his defiance.

American, the Bill Hicks Story, is a very good and interesting movie, of a largely unsung folk-hero, done in the style of a rock-star documentary. My only criticism is that it concentrates too much on the serious biography parts and not enough on his art.

The Tiny Ventriloquist

Dir: Steve Reinke

Here’s another film that played last week’s Images Festival, where experimental art meets the big screen. This movie takes a disjointed look at the director’s own self-reflections towards his art; using his own great narrated shots and photos, along with found footage – of the most surprising kind – cut up and manipulated in an unexpected way.

I’ve always liked Steve Reinke’s work because it’s art, but it’s also always interesting and funny to watch, without the overly tedious or pensive feel, that a lot of video art has. You’re allowed to enjoy it, you’re allowed to laugh or squirm.

So in the same way Steve Hicks would drag political outrage into the usually pablum, fake-shock world of stand-up comedy, Steve Reinke, in the same way, violates the usually dry inner sanctum of art using found porn and other taboo sources (in an artistically valid way, naturally.)

So in this movie you het a combination of uneasy travel footage, spooky monochrome, costumed, home movie dancing, and old crackly recordings. Scenes of flood, water, and old rural western USA. Drunken Dutch soccer hooligans, hunters, real or imagined vaguely threatening child memories, manipulated Peanut’s cartoons, scary medical and industrial footage, and post-apocalyptic fantasies filled with dread.

The most bizarre footage is of a woman shown bear hunting in the woods, followed by a protracted explicit sex, in the form of very low-grade amateur porn, on top of the dead body of the bear. It’s funny: the dry didactic narration, while describing each scene in detail, in order to not offend the viewers it censors parts of the images by covering it with amorphous green-screen colour. Here’s the surprise: he keeps all the hard core porn images, but scribbles out the body of the poor dead bear!

Throughout the piece, vivid footage is alternated with animated simple line drawings. I liked this film, The Tiny Ventriloquist, a lot.

Source Code is now playing, American, the Bill Hicks Story starts today at the Royal Cinema in Toronto (check our local listings), Repeaters opens next Friday and The Tiny Ventriloquist was shown at the Images Festival.

War and Filmic Vocabulary. Movies Reviewed: The Christening, Essential Killing. PLUS Cold Fish, Images Festival

It’s funny how current events can change our whole filmic vocabulary, adding new concepts and words to make images that would have made no sense a decade ago instantly recognizable on today’s movie screens.

Most people immediately think of technology — ipods, digital pics, texting, on-line dates — as the biggest recognizable changes. But,  unfortunately, some of the biggest stretches of our visual vocabulary is in images of war, violence and death.

During one of the darkest periods in American history, that started less than a decade ago following 9/11 (and doesn’t seem to have finished), the Bush/Cheney administration started a “war on terror”. Countries were invaded, bombs dropped, and a huge number of suspects were arrested, jailed, tortured or killed. In general, these horrific events were kept away from American soil, but done by Americans under direct orders from the government. They also introduced new words and concepts into our vocabulary, that previously might only have been used in horror novels.

Clandestine prison camps, known as “Black Sites”, were set up across Europe and the Middle East. Undocumented suspects, who were sent there to be tortured or interrogated, were called “Ghost Detainees”. One of the torture techniques, in which detainees were made to repeatedly suffer the sensation of death by drowning, is now widely known as “Water Boarding”. And the black hoods put over prisoners (used in Abu Ghraib) are also instantly recognizable.

Canada has also morphed into a nation at war, without consciously deciding to make the change from peacekeeper to bomber. We’re fighting on two fronts now. So today I’m looking at some new movies from Poland (a country that has certainly seen more than its fair share of wars) that examine how war and violence has infiltrated daily lives.

The Christening
Dir: Marcin Wrona

The movie opens with a soldier, face covered, being chased down by cops who beat him up, and arrest him for unknown reasons. Then flash forward – Janek (Tomasz Schuchardt) is visiting his army buddy and best fishing friend, Michal (Wojciech Zielinski). They’re together again to guzzle vodka and do Maori war chants. When they go fishing, they use their old military experience – throwing grenades into a lake — to blow up as many fish as they can. Nice guys!

Everything seems great for Michal: he has a good job, a beautiful wife, Magda (Natalia Rybicka) – he says they met in a hospital when she stitched up a cut on his brow — and a little baby. He’s gone straight: he even offers to help his friend out. But Janek, he’s happy just getting drunk, carousing with his buddies. He doesn’t want an office job – he makes good cash stealing cars and stripping them down for parts.

But there’s a problem — Michal seems to be hiding something. Someone’s putting pressure on him, and he’s showing up with a black eye, or beaten-up body. Janek doesn’t understand what’s happening — if there’s a problem he should tell him – he’ll just beat the guy up. Janek still likes a good brawl. Meanwhile, Magda is sure everything is Janek’s fault. He’s dragging her husband into the gutter. Maybe Michal owed something to his army buddies, but she doesn’t owe Janek anything. But her husband’s dark secret – one of betrayal and duplicity – makes Michal feel both guilty and trapped.

So he sets up a scheme to exit from his problems after the baby’s christening. He thinks he’s doomed there, but maybe his best friend can replace him in his home.

Will Janek stick by him? Who’s the criminal here? The cops or the thugs? Where does a person’s loyalty really lie? And how far will you let it go?

The Christening is an extremely – I’d say excessively — violent movie. I get the feeling the director was influenced by directors like Quentin Tarantino, but in all the wrong ways. Characters, like the gangsters’ boss, Fatman, who behaves like a sadistic killer, seem to be there just for titillation. So lots of horrible, gory, senseless, over-the-top fighting, but almost no humour (only melodrama) to lighten the mood.

Essential Killing
Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski

Mohamed (Vincent Gallo), a militant hiding out in the smooth caves of a lunar landscape (Afghanistan?), is startled to hear two American marines approaching in desert storm camouflage and beige burnooses. He pulls out his weapon and Boom! Ratatatatat! He ambushes the soldiers. Mohamed runs out into the sun to escape, but is taken down by helicopters and more special ops soldiers.

So now he’s taken away to some unidentified place (a black site) where he’s placed on his back, screamed at in English (he can’t hear after the explosions) and then waterboarded. Next, he’s off with other prisoners on some snowy forest road – looks like Canada – and there’s an accident. He gets out of the truck, grabs a gun and starts a long, painful, and violent trek trough the woods of rural Poland, pursued by US Special Ops and helicopters.

It becomes almost like a fairy tale or a picaresque novel, but with a violent streak running through it. He encounters a stream of characters — like a huge-breasted woman on a bike with a baby, a friendly black and white dog, some drunken wood cutters,  a deaf-mute woman who lives in a cottage in the forest who tends to his wounds, and a pale white, broken horse — as he tries to escape, survive, and get away. He climbs snow covered banks, slides off cliffs into rivers, hallucinates after eating poison berries, and conceals himself using the changing costumes he finds or steals on his journey.

Essential Killing was directed by Skolimowski, who was one of the dialogue writers on Polanski’s Knife in the Water, but this movie has almost lines at all. It’s not silent, but with both Mohammed and the US soldiers far from their own homes, they can’t understand each other. The locals around the Dark Site talk a bit but about nothing in particular. This is an aesthetically beautiful, though bloody, art movie – one of very few “action/art” films. I’m not a big fan of Vincent Gallo, but he is fantastic in this as a silent pilgrim, alternately Christ-like and psychotic.

This is an unexpectedly amazing movie — just be aware it’s not a conventional, Hollywood-style film.

And, just in case this isn’t enough violence for one weekend, the Japanese horror film Cold Fish also opens today. You can read my whole review but just let me say, it is the most hellaciously bloody, gory, horrifyingly abusrdist exploitation movie I’ve ever seen. And it left me physically shaking by the time I walked out of the theatre, after its orgyistic tsunami of sex, blood, serial killing and cannibalistic outrages that In a few days transform the life of a mild-mannered tropical fish salesman, to a victim and potential participant in this ultimate sex blood flic.

The Christening played last year’s TIFF, Essential Killing and Cold Fish are opening today, April 1, 2011 in Toronto. Check your local listings. And keep your eyes open for Toronto’s Images Festival, which is on right now. Toronto’s Images Festival — an exhibition of film and art, experimental and independent — is the largest one in North America to feature moving images and media art both on the big screen and in gallery installations.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM and CulturalMining.com.

Lives of Girls and Women. Movies reviewed: Acts of Dishonour, The Kids are Alright, Hey Hey it’s Esther Blueburger

This week I’m talking about the lives of girls and women.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – there are way too many movies that use female characters only as walk-ons, tokens, eye candy, the straight man for joke scenes. This isn’t an isolated phenomenon, there really has been a slide from when movies had male and female characters, to now, where there are male characters and their female appendages.

There’s a fun technique some people use now, to decide whether or not a movie can be said to be a movie with women in it. It’s called the Bechdel Rule, named after the cartoonist and graphic novelist Allison Bechdel. And the rule is: does the movie have two female characters? Do they ever talk to each other? And when they talk, is it about something besides a man? It’s surprising how uncommon movies passing these three rules are. So let’s look at some that definitely pass this test.

“Hey Hey it’s Esther Blueburger”

Dir / Wri: Cathy Randall.

12 year old Esther (Danielle Catanzariti) lives in Adelaide, Australia, with her eccentric, computer geek twin brother and her nice, middle-class, but detached, parents. She goes to a private girls school in pigtails, a plaid skirt, shirt and tie, and an old fashioned straw hat. She looks like a Jewish Anne of Green Gables, but with black hair, not red. She’s a bit of an outcast in this hierarchical, conformist, school of rules, bullies and guards, and she has no friends, except her brother and a little duck she adopts.

She sits in a toilet stall and asks, Are you there God? It’s Me Margaret… I mean Esther. So she hangs out near a public high school built on the grounds of an old zoo, looking in at the kids who get to do dancing and karate and drumming instead of singing in a choir.

When something terrible happens at her school, Esther rebels. She’s befriended by Sunni (Keisha Castle-Hughes), an older tough girl from the public school who lends her a spare uniform. Esther becomes a stealth student at another school. She tries new things, pierces an ear, starts to wear makeup, express herself, creates a brand new personality. But at the expense of her truer, better self?

“Hey, Hey It’s Esther Blueburger”, is a nice, cute, coming of age story, a sort of an Aussie Holden Caulfield about a young girl finding herself, and learning about the world. The movie doesn’t always work – it’s formulaic, and wavers from after school special, to light comedy, to fantasy, to more serious drama – but I enjoyed it. It’s also really well made – what’s with these Australian movies? One made in North America would just churn out something like this as a cheap knock-off; but the Australians put so much work into the look of this movie, with stylized, almost choreographed scenes, repeating colour images, running visual themes… the art direction is noticeably superior, and the editing, direction, everything, are all really good. And Catanzaritti is terrific (if sometimes too terrific) as a young girl growing up.

“The Kids are All Right”

Dir: Lisa Cholodenko

…is a real honey of a movie. It’s about a nice Southern California family, with two kids, Joni and Laser, and two mommies, Nic a doctor, and Jules, a housewife. Both kids have the same anonymous donor as their biological father, with each mother giving birth. So… as part of their agreement, the sperm bank keeps a record of the donor, and when Joni turns 18, she decides to initiate contact, mainly because 15-year-old Laser wants a chance to meet his dad. That’s where the plot thickens. All of their lives are suddenly disrupted with the introduction of Paul. Let me say who’s playing whom, so you can get an idea of this movie: Nic and Jules is Annette Bening as the uptight doctor, in maybe her best role ever; Julianne Moore, going against type, as an insecure, bumbling, apologetic mum; and Mia Wasikowska (who was Alice in Wonderland) as the gentle Joni. The third wheel dad/sperm donor is Mark Ruffallo, a motorcycle riding, college drop out, organic farmer restauranteur, who hits on every pretty woman he sees – quite successfully, it seems. He’s a do-er. He’s still the 19 year old sperm donor, but in his 40’s now, and suddenly wants to settle down and fly right… sort of.

Normally I’m not a big fan of light family dramas, but this movie has such good acting, is so funny, is such a good story – I really liked it. And it wasn’t actors playing roles, Nic and Jules really are this middle class married lesbian couple, with all their quirks and foibles and embarrassing squirmy personality traits — like they get off watching gay male porn! — that transcend the usual stereotypes, but let a few choice ones in, too. Great movie!

Act of Dishonour

Dir: Nelofer Pazira

A much graver story, Act of Dishonour is a Canadian movie that takes place in a polyglot and diverse Afghan village, a village at peace. Mejgan, played by Nelofer Pazira who also wrote and directed, is a woman returning to Afghanistan to find out about her past, and also to work on a Canadian movie being shot there. The Hazera are returning to the village as well, as are people who had fled to the west, to Kabul or to Iran, or are returning from a Taliban prison. And members of the Taliban still live there too. Kids are being educated again, allowed to watch animated movies at school, buut women are still kept sequestered away.

Meanwhile, a pretty, 15 year old girl who dresses in red and weaves and dyes cloth behind the clay walls of her home, is hoping to get married soon, and she sometimes sees a boy her age who she would like to marry, but needs a burqa to wear to her wedding. So Mejgan makes a deal – she’ll give her a bright purple burqa if the girl agrees to appear in a movie scene.

Here’s where the subtle irony comes in: A decade ago, Pazira starred in a great movie about the oppression of women in Afghanistan, called “Kandahar”. In that movie the burqa was a symbol of oppressed women and their lack of freedom. But in this village it’s a symbol of honour, tradition and beauty.

The smug director, though, is set in his ways – there’s no way he’s going to play a part in this subjugation of woman – he will not give a woman a burqa! A day or two later the Canadians will be moving on to Kabul, but what are the consequences of what they’ve done?

Acts of Dishonour deals with the stubbornness of earnest Canadian visitors, the violence of the fundamentalists, the ethnic unrest, and the concept of foreigners versus locals, (which doesn’t necessarily mean westerners) and how even the appearance of sin or dishonour to a family’s name can lead to revenge, death, or even the threat of honour killing.

I’ve only seen two movies about contemporary Afghanistan – both involving Pazira – and together they give a good before and after view of the Afghan war, (not to say that it’s over now) bookends of a decade of conflict. It’s not a gripping thriller, or a melodrama; it’s a subtle film, nicely shot — stark cold, plain, realistic — that gives a glimpse into the lives of the people there and some of the intractable conflicts and violence they face. It makes a nice metaphor about Canadians’ generous, earnest intentions for Afghanistan… and how divorced from reality they sometimes end up being.

So there you are, three interesting movies — Canadian, Australian, and American — all with at least two female characters, who talk to each other, and not just about a man. That’s a solid “three” on the Bechdel scale.

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