Summer Popcorn Thrillers! Films reviewed: The Girl Who Played with Fire, Predators, Inception

Summer’s here, and sometimes a movie’s good enough to watch if it lets you sit in a comfortable seat, in a dark, air-conditioned room, while pretty pictures dance on the screen in front of you. If there’s a bit of a plot, credible acting, or a thrilling story – all the better. Escapism is simply getting away from the heat.

This week I’m looking at three very different summer thrillers about groups of people chasing — or being chased by — their opponents.

The Girl who Played with Fire

Dir: Daniel Alfredson

This is number two in the series adapted from Stieg Larsen’s mysteries, that started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth Salander, the super computer hacker, stone cold, secretive, punk-goth detective , and sexually liberated woman-about-town is back in Sweden after a sojourn in warmer climes. Her erstwhile partner, the left-wing journalist Blomkvist, wants to talk to her.

But there’s also a mysterious cabal of baddies that are out to get her, so she has to be extra careful. So she gets Miriam Wu, her ex-lover, to move into her apartment as she reconnoiters the Swedish scene to find out what’s shaking. Who’s doing this? Is it the police? The Russian Mafia? Is it her noxious parole officer from the first movie? Or maybe it’s something from her own past –- the reason she had been jailed as a juvenile. And who’s this blond giant, an almost zombie-like killer, that even a professional boxer can’t hurt? He’s definitely a bad guy, but what’s his role? And is he the mysterious “Zala”?

Throw in some bad-ass bikers (Swedish Hell’s Angels? Who’da thunk it?) a meddlesome poplice detective, and Blomqvist’s journalistic ventures… and you have a lot of plotlines on the same plate, calling out for closure. This movie keeps you interested, it was not bad, there are a few stunning revelations, but it doesn’t have the oomph and the feeling of catharsis of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Too much this, that, and the other – not enough driving plot or satisfying finish. I don’t think we’ll get that until number three in the series.

“Predators”

Dir: Nimrod Antal

…is a new version of the 80’s action movie, Predator. It’s the kind of BOOM BOOM BOOM movie that pulls you in from the first moment, and drags along with them till the last battle. This action/ thriller/ horror pic starts with an unnamed soldier (played by a wiry tougher-looking Adrian Brody) falling through the air, and crash landing in tropical jungle. Where the hell is he? Other, similar alpha dogs, predators all, are plopping down all around him. But are they hunters? Or are they the prey in this most Dangerous Game?

Wherever they are, and whatever they’re all there for, much like the characters in the TV series “Lost”, they soon realize they’re going to have to live together… or die separately, one by one. Brody, Alice Braga (as a hard-ass soldier with a soul), and Lawrence Fishburne (as an whack jungle survivalist) head up an international cast of predators, fighting to stay alive in this treacherous jungle, and trying to see who exactly their enemy or enemies are.

It’s a good, gross and gory, summer B-movie with the feel of Alien, Lost, and Rambo (shorn of all the nasty, 1980s CIA central American guerrilla stuff in the original Predator). Some of the special effects don’t do it — the CGIs and background mattes are often kindergarten-ish — and some of the fight scenes – especially a Samurai style showdown – seem way stupid and out of place, but the movie’s still worth seeing on the big screen for a good crappy action getaway.

Finally, there’s the popular, and bafflingly – to me – critically acclaimed big-budget movie

“Inception”

Dir: Christopher Nolan (and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe).

Cobb, an international corporate spy, is hired by a Japanese executive to infiltrate — with his mission impossible team — the dreams of a man, in order to change his mind. Why? Cause this man has inherited the monopoly on big oil – and it should be broken up among competing oil interests. Wow – there’s a motive. Also, if they do this, Cobb’s unnamed criminal charges will be dropped, and Cobb will go back to see his kids in America.

So they build a sequence of dreams, not one, but a whole bunch, each one a dream within a dream. So we get to follow them around, ski-shooting, driving a van in a city, or… going to a mock crime scene. Each dream is precisely calibrated with the others and they’re all going on simultaneously, sort of like in a video game. But, there’s also Cobb’s sub-conscious occasionally intruding into the story line, via a woman from his past – so a bit of intrigue, bit of romance.

I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but it didn’t do it for me. It’s a movie about dreams, but with the most un-dreamlike storylines imaginable, and with all these co-conspirators participating in real-time, inside someone else’s head.

To illustrate this, (and I’m not saying “my dreams are interesting, Nolan’s are boring”) let me tell you my own dream the night I saw this movie, last week.

I’m looking down a desolate stretch of urban highway with telephone lines beside very wide street. It’s all in black and white.

In the distance dark clouds – and what look like three tornadoes — start spinning toward me. I run and hide, inside somewhere… I know I have to stop them somehow, so I make little bombs out of household cleansers and powders in plastic baggies.

The tornadoes have stopped spinning around and are “standing” there in a grassy clearing near a stand of trees. (It’s in colour now.)

In fact they’ve changed form, into three pinkish giant plucked chickens (like the yellow rubber chickens bad comedians used to pull out in lieu of a punch line —— only these guys are three stories tall.) But I know they’re still tornadoes who just happen to look like rubber chickens.

I have to hit one with a bomb-baggie to blast the tornadoes away — but they’re so far away… Will I hit one?

I toss a baggie bomb, but it just bounces off a rubber chicken’s forehead, instead of exploding. I guess it was a dud. But a few seconds later, the giant rubber chicken tornado stiffens and TIMBERRR…! it falls straight to the ground like a tree.

We’re safe again.

Ok – now if someone were to tell me that seeing the tornadoes or rubber chickens would convince me to break apart my monopoly on world oil – I’d say: what are you talking about? Are you crazy? It’s just a dream.

Dreams are weird, not ordinary, not just literal recreations of everyday life, not neatly functioning things. And whatever they are like, they are generated by your brain, from your memories and according to your internal method of seeing and understanding the world. They may be strange, but they’re understood and accepted as your own internal reality.

So if someone were to rewrite your dreams so they were turned into a three hour action-adventure movie – wouldn’t you notice something a little … odd about them? Like the fact that they have absolutely nothing to do with the normal functioning of your brain?

Anyway, “Inception” was not awful. The movie had some neat themes — like a subtle reference to Matteo Ricci’s Memory Palace, where Cobb is able to store his own memories in mental compartment in a self-created city inside his mind. I also liked the some of the spectacular background special effects, like the images of crumbling buildings (that you can catch in the trailers and TV commercials). But on the whole, it was just another much too long, convoluted action movie, with a science fiction twist and ridiculous plot. It’s a B-movie disguised as a deep drama, another vapid Ocean’s 11-style caper flick pretending to be something deep.

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.

Strangers in a Strange Land: Alice in Wonderland, The Green Zone, Cooking with Stella

To provide adventure, mystery or comedy, directors often turn to far-away locations to add a bit of novelty to their films. The hero often starts out as a stranger in a weird place, a fish out of water, but over the course of the movie, she learns to adapt, fit in, fall in love, become friends… or else escapes out of that strange hell-hole she found herself in. In a good movie set abroad, you get to see some things you never would otherwise, maybe get to know some local characters — not just the hero from back home — and, ideally, hear them speak in a language the viewer can understand, or at least one with subtitles.

A bad movie of this type (like the popular and critically acclaimed “Lost in Translation”) just uses the locals as scenery, their lines untranslated, leaving the viewer in the dark as to their real characters. It’s ideal for conveying fear or alienation, but good for little else.

Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” tells a new version of the well-known story, the ultimate stranger in a strange land. His version is a different take on Lewis Carroll’s book, or, you could say, a remake of the original Disney cartoon.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now an extremely rich, young woman in Victorian England, not a little girl, who is at a garden party at her palatial estate. When she has to make a big decision, with hundreds of people watching, she decides instead to chase a white rabbit down his hole. There she finds herself in Wonderland, or “Underland”, where she discovers friends and enemies all of whom seem to know her, but aren’t sure she’s the real Alice (I’m not sure either).

Her friends — the Dormouse, the March Hare, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat — tell her she must find the vorpal sword and slay the Jabberwocky, snicker-snack, on a specific day. Her enemies, the fractious, dictatorial Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter) who likes to yell “Off with their heads!” and her suitor, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) are busy looking for Alice, not knowing it even when they see her. Alice herself gradually shifts from being a naïve passive character, to a Joan of Arc-style heroine.

Some parts of this movie were a lot of fun, and there were some neat images added to it – the deck of cards that made up the Queen of Hearts’ army were much stronger and scarier — more metallic, less paper-y — than the original drawings by John Tenniel.

But so much of the original Alice depended on its caricatures, fun plays on words, puzzles, symbols, and poem and song parodies, which were largely dumped in this version. The one poem used, The Jabberwocky, was given too much prominence, with its unusual nonsense vocabulary (like “frabjous day”) repeated way too often in the story line. I suppose they wanted it to make sense – to small children, I guess.

I wasn’t that taken by this movie. The costumes and the design were impressive, and it had a great cast, but that’s not enough to keep me rapt. I think this version was made for small children, and has minimal appeal to adults.

Its biggest problem is that a lot of the absurdity and irony of the original is gone. Caricatures might work as political cartoons on paper, but not on the much more real move screen. When I was a kid, I liked the poems like “You are old Father William”, and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” because they were cruelly funny. That’s all been neatly scrubbed away and Disneyfied, replaced with a hard-line literalness, no irony, few twists, and fewer hints of psychedelia than even the old Disney cartoon. If the book was The Simpsons, this movie is The Flintstones.

“Green Zone”, directed by Paul Greengrass, is a movie about the reasons given by the US to justify the war in Iraq, and how one American soldier tries to uncover the truth.

Roy Miller (Matt Damon), a soldier in Iraq in 2004, is in charge of a team in Baghdad looking for weapons of mass destruction – the “WMDs” that were the reason US and Britain gave for invading that country. But his searches are turning up nothing. He thinks the intelligence they’re using is faulty. But whenever he questions it within the military he’s told there is no problem with the information, and to follow his orders and shut up. Then a local man (Khalid Abdalla) gives Miller some potentially significant news about former Iraqi government officials.

With the help of his new-found friend (“Call me Freddy”), Miller breaks up a meeting in progress, and briefly glimpses one of the men, Al Rawi, whose picture was on the “most wanted“ deck of cards that were actually issued by the US government during this war.

Miller, frustrated, turns to the CIA, as represented by a tubby, middle-aged agent named Brown. Brown casually tosses him a million dollars in cash in a knapsack to pass on to persons of interest. Meanwhile, other American officials are doing what they can to stymie his plans. Who will come out on top? What’s the secret? Is the embedded journalist, a Judith Miller-type character, reliable? Are there any WMDs at all? And what is Al Rawi’s secret information?

Green Zone is a fast-moving war flick about the big issue of US culpability for invading Iraq, as investigated by Matt Damon’s everyman soldier, and the Iraqi contact he works with. While not an anti-war movie – it depends on guns, explosions, helicopters, chases and shootouts for its eye-candy – it is clearly against the US excuses for invading Iraq. US culpability is rarely seen in mainstream movies.

The Director, Paul Greengrass, likes jiggly hand-held camera shots, and a documentary-style. To lend authenticity, he liberally borrows scenes from movies like the fantastic 2004 documentary “Gunner Palace”, which had GI’s sunbathing by swimming pools in half-destroyed Baghdad mansions. So a lot of the movie is interesting to watch. And as a shootout-mystery-thriller, Green Zone’s not bad either.

Cooking with Stella”, Canadian Director Dilap Mehta’s first film, is about another set of people in a distant place. Maya and Michael, a Canadian diplomatic couple placed in New Delhi (played by Donald McKellar and Lisa Ray) are settling in at the High Commission.

Michael (who’s character was based on the real-life chef at Rideau Hall in Ottawa), finds himself with not much to do in New Delhi. So he tries to get their servant and cook, Stella, a Christian Indian woman known for her skill in the kitchen, to become his guru, and introduce him to Indian cooking. Luckily, the movie is more than a cooking show. It’s actually a sort of an upstairs-downstairs look at clueless expat Canadians and their wily, crooked servants who take advantage of them at the drop of a hat.

The Canadians are really side characters – Don McKellar is there more as the straight man than the comic. The main plot involves Stella (played by the very funny Seema Biswas) and the gambling, drinking, black marketeering, and paybacks that are her daily bread and butter in her little subcultural fiefdom within the embassy. When an innocent new nanny, Tannu, threatens to upset Stella’s world with her honesty, she realizes she needs a new plan. Her goals become larger and even more nefarious, but end up with Stella being kidnapped. What will become of her?

The movie is a cute, small film, with a fairly low budget, and a first-time director, so — judging by those criteria — it’s enjoyable and not bad. There’s a bit of Bollywood parody scenes, some colourful views of an outdoor food market, some funny dialogue. (It also has some painfully lame gags involving driving on the wrong side of the road, and some obvious joke set-ups) It’s loaded with lots of Canadian references — Group of Seven and Norval Morisseau pictures on the walls; a Welcome / Bienvenue sign on a foreboding embassy fence – but it concentrates less on the strangers in the strange land, more on the interesting local characters.

Actually, I liked the scenes that reminded me of Mira Nair’s movie “Monsoon Wedding”, also a comedy about the inter-linked worlds of families and their servants in India. The blah, Canadian-focused scenes were what dragged this movie down a bit and made it palatable but bland. But see it for great, funny Indian characters in a Canadian movie.

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