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.

Shrink Away or Fight Back? Dogtooth, The Mechanic

What do middle-aged white guys do when the world seems to be falling apart around them? Do they withdraw or do they fight back? This week I’m talking about two very different movies that deal with reactions to the collapse of everyday life, including isolationism, xenophobia, fear, and violence.

Dogtooth

Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos

Dogtooth is an unusual film from Greece, a fantasy about a control freak of a father who regards his three children as tabula rasa, blank slates to be filled with his ideas and no one else’s. No one ever contradicts him since he keeps them isolated in a fenced-in compound with no outside contact of any kind. The twist is that the “kids” are adults now, but still live as children, not realizing there is any other life with them talking on normal, adult roles.

The three adult children live a completely controlled life in which their experience never extends beyond a fence around their estate. They are raised like trained dogs, in accordance with their father’s strange psychological theories.

They’ve been told if they step outside they will die. So, like creative small kids, they build on what they’ve learned by inventing variations and playing games, but can only riff on what they’ve seen. Their games evolve on their own tracks, far away from what even the father envisions. They’ve grown up with a bizarre twisted morality and view of the world, and become experts at mimicking his duplicity.

Only Father ever leaves the house and no one new ever comes in. Then one day he does something new, different: He brings home a visitor, Christine. She’s a security guard at his company, and he lets her have mechanical sex with the Son. But once he introduces a new variable, the father’s careful familial equilibrium begins to fray in unexpected ways.

This is a really weird, neat, movie. Great, stylized acting! The actors use stiff-sounding, controlled lines, even as they do outlandish and disgusting things. There’s a sterile, artless, faded 1970’s retro look to everything in their world, like they were frozen in some kind of time machine. Forget about computers and the internet – this place has no newspapers, no TV, no telephones.

The plastic bubble the family lives in is especially poignant when you think of the strikes, riots, demonstrations, and all-around social unrest and economic upheaval actually going on in Greece right now. The film shifts back and forth from the black humour of social satire, to strange sexual experimentation, to the pathos of a disturbing family drama. Dogtooth is a black comedy that leaves you with a strange, uneasy feeling. It’s a fascinating art film, and has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

The Mechanic

Dir: Simon West

This movie also sounded good.

Bishop (Jason Statham) a man known as “the Mechanic”, is a hitman who knocks off hard-to-kill people. He finds out what his assignments are by looking at certain want-ads looking for mechanics. He studies a man, kills him, makes it look like an accident, and collects an overstuffed envelope of cash as his reward.

There also seems to be some unspoken rule that all his victims somehow “deserve” to be killed. So, (like TV’s Dexter, the serial killer who only kills other serial killers) he’s not a bad man, just efficient… and deadly.

So he’s surprised one day, when he’s told to kill his boss, Harry (Donald Sutherland, who apparently will do any role if the price is right), an affable fellow in a wheelchair, who pays him to murder other men on behalf of the shady corporation he works for. Harry has a son, Steve (Ben Foster), who’s a ne’er-do-well. With Harry out of the way, Bishop feels he owes something to his old boss, so he decides to mentor Steve in the only profession he knows – as a killer.

Sounds intriguing, no?

Unfortunately this is a dreadful movie that seems more like a wet dream for NRA tea-baggers than a normal action thriller. Its message is clear – everyone is a murderer, so you’d better arm yourself to the teeth and kill them first, or else they’ll kill you.

Can a movie (not just its characters) actually be bigoted? This one is. It takes place in New Orleans, but naturally it’s a place were everyone’s white – except for the two blacks: a carjacker, and a lazy-ass shrimper. The Latino? He’s a drug dealer. Women have no names or personalities. They are all either victims — terrified, screaming wives and daughters — or paid, nameless prostitutes. Then there’s the one gay man in this movie — a predatory, pedophile murderer…. naturally!

I love a good action movie but this one doesn’t even make sense. It’s full of things like: the Mechanic lives in an isolated compound, seemingly reachable only by motorboat… but then in other scenes you see him driving off in his sportscar from the same house.

My mistake was I thought it would be a Jason Statham movie like the terrific, 8-bit-style, high-speed action comedy Crank, or its even better and faster sequel Crank: High Voltage. (Movies that are equally full of offensive racist caricatures, but funny ones.) Or maybe a Ben Foster movie like last year’s sad, moving film “The Messenger”. But it isn’t. It’s a Simon West movie, directed by the same talentless schmoo who brought us such cinematic gems as the wretched Con Air (about an airplane full of violent prisoners), or the even worse Lara Croft Tomb Raider, an unwatchable action-adventure based on a British computer game.

If George Clooney’s “The American” was a glamorous, shallow look at a heartless paid assassin and his troubles with his employers, at least it was visually appealing in the foggy Italian hills. It was aimed at middle-class Americans longing for the beauty of Europe. This movie is ugly to the core, (it looks like an out-take from CSI Miami) and seems to appeal only to angry, xenophobic knuckle-draggers, angry but afraid of everything, who want to see as many people dead, as soon as possible.

OK, so what? It’s just an action movie…

Admittedly, there are a couple great shoot-out and fight scenes – I liked them — involving mirrors, buildings roofs, and improvised weapons — but they are few and far between. Most of the film just dragged on and on. A few good fights and thrills can’t redeem this stupid, pointless, boring, and morally corrupt movie where cold-blooded gun-toting killers are painted as the good guys.

The Mechanic, opens in Toronto on January 28th, and Dogtooth also opens tonight at the Royal, in a double bill with another Greek film, Attenberg.

Tagged with: ,

The two types of British films at TIFF 2010. The King’s Speech, Route Irish, Neds.

There were a surprising number of good British films that played at TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival) this year, but they tended to fall on two sides of a great divide. On one side is the palatable, Masterpiece Theatre-type England, nicely doled up for North American sensibilities, with its crowned heads, palatial estates, tally-ho, ta-ta, Shakespeare, umbrellas, Churchill, and crisp enunciation fit for television. You’re likely to see Hugh Grant or Colin Firth or Ralph Feinnes. It’s like the future described in Julian Barnes’ satirical novel England, England, where the whole country, including members of the royal family, are replicated on a small island and reduced to a mini-theme park built for foreign visitors.

On the other side is a grimier, grittier UK, where people speak in gruff regional accents and dialects, get in fights, do unfortunate things, try to get rich, and get caught up in problems they don’t know how to solve. I tend to like this version better than the pasteurized one.

The winner of this year’s People’s Choice award at TIFF is

“The King’s Speech”

Dir: Tom Hooper

This movie falls neatly into the first category.

Lionel (Geoffrey Rush) is an Australian speech therapist who invented techniques for returned soldiers from WWI. He’s hired, in great secrecy, to help a man (Colin Firth) — known to his friends as Bertie, and who later becomes King George VI — because he has a terrible stutter. With the advent of radio, he needs to fix his speech to stop freezing up whenever he’s asked to make an announcement. The meeting is arranged by his wife. Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother).

But Lionel is a commoner, the first Bertie has ever met, and he is used to being addressed as his “Royal Highness”, or just “Sir”. Lionel works in a dirty, broken-down basement while Bertie lives in a palace. But Lionel insists they talk to each other as regular people do. He decides Berties problems are psychological – he’s intimidated by his father the King, and his brother, the Prince of Wales. So through the use of his experimental and amusing methods, he tries to get him comfortable pronouncing words without a stammer.

Now this is based on a true story, and Canadians I’ve talked to who lived through that era all remember that the King did indeed have a stutter. So it’s interesting to watch his speech improve. And the acting was all credible, with Derek Jacobi (I Claudius) as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the frowzy, redoubtable actress with the double-barrelled name, Helena Bonham Carter, as the future Queen Elizabeth, mother of the current Queen.

But… this movie rubbed me the wrong way. Everything is so homogenized that the accents of the working-class Aussie therapist and the King aren’t really that different. And the history had such a story-book feel to it: Here’s Winston Churchill harrumphing about this, and there’s Wallis Simpson, whingeing about that…

The whole movie felt like an American TV view of what England was like, made only to attract more Oscar votes. It was even visually tiresome, with its constant, awful use of a wide-angle lens (where characters lean forward into the camera at a distorted angle, like in a bad 80’s TV commercial) giving the whole movie a sort of a geddit? geddit? tone…

I can tell this movie’s going to be popular, but it didn’t do much for me.

More to my taste was the excellent

“Route Irish”

Dir: Ken Loach

Wri: Paul Laverty

Fergus and Frankie are lifelong best buddies from northern England — almost like brothers. They’ve even shared girlfriends. So when he’s told Frankie was ambushed by unnamed terrorists in Iraq, on that dangerous stretch of road to the Green Zone known as Route Irish, Fergus is crushed. He is sure that something bad happened to him, that it was someone’s fault. Frankie was born lucky, he says; he can’t have died just by chance. So Fergus decides to investigate. They were both working as well-paid mercenaries for a shady security firm, and it was Fergus who got him the job. So he feels guilty and responsible for his death. He also receives the celphone Frankie had sent him before he dies, complete with photos and video footage. For his sake, (and that of his widow) Fergus decides to investigate the case to uncover the truth and bring whoever was responsible to justice.

This is an amazing war movie, the best so far about the Iraq war, even though it mainly takes place back in England. It brings up the issues of torture, terrorism, interrogation, and cover-ups – not as something to be feared of an unknown, al-Qaeda middle-eastern enemy, but more by how all this has changed the attitudes and practices of “Us”, of the west. It also works as a very engrossing drama, with great characters you care about. Most surprisingly, Ken Loach has directed a genuine thriller, as the exciting secret events are gradually revealed.

Ken Loach is the director of great movies like “It’s a Free World…”; “Bread and Roses;” “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” (about the Irish revolution); and “Land and Freedom” (about the Spanish Civil War). I remember his movies as politically progressive, but sometimes bogged down when long discussions would trump the plot. But he’s just gotten better and better. This one is the best he’s ever done, that functions both as a politically astute view of the war in Iraq, and as just a really good movie. There is some rough violence, but it’s not gratuitous. I really recommend this one and hope it’ll be widely released.

Finally, a surprise movie at TIFF was

Neds

Dir: Peter Mullan

John McGill is a good boy in 70’s Glasgow, Scotland. His aunt says he can do anything he wants: He reads so much… he should be a journalist! But from day one at school, he’s streamed into the “Neds” category — that’s Non-Educated Delinquent – because his big brother Bennie is in a local gang. So on his first day of class he’s told he’s a loser and is put on the lowest rung. And it’s horribly competitive: Every semester the top two in each form move up to a better class, and the bottom two move down. And if any kid is late or talks out of line, he has to hold his hands, palms up, in front of him, to be flogged! These are little kids.

The story progresses as he grows older, and despite his efforts he gradually, fatalistically, falls in with the bad crowd and becomes a juvenile delinquent. As his anger builds, and his behaviour worsens, he turns into a bit of a street-savvy monster. But guilt also steps in, when he has to face what he’s done.

Anyway, I don’t want to give it away, but it’s quite a cathartic movie, and though long, it gets more extreme but also more interesting, until there’s a completely unexpected, shocking, and then oddly touching, ending. It was a great movie.

I should also mention, unlike “The King’s Speech”, both “Route Irish” and “Neds” were subtitled, since the accents of Glasgow and Liverpool are not as plummy and smooth as the palatable, made-for-TV-style accents usually shown on this side of the Atlantic.

Great Dramas at TIFF 2010: Deep in the Woods, The Matchmaker, Black Swan, plus The Light Box

Well, the Toronto Film Festival is in full swing, and there’s still time – this Friday, Saturday and Sunday — to catch some really great movies, surrounded by other people who also love movies. It’s not everyday you get to ask a director questions about a movie right after you see it, or know that the person sitting beside you definitely has an opinion too, and is willing to share it with you – whether you like it or not. In fact, it’s one of the few times when semi-straight-laced Toronto sheds its inhibitions and throws aside the childhood warning: Don’t talk to strangers.

Now is also the time to check out the Tiff Light Box at the corner of John and King in downtown Toronto. Just this past weekend they’ve opened up a brand-spanking new headquarters for the film festival to function as a full-year event. There’s a restaurant and café with huge glass walls downstairs, and upstairs are some really nice looking movie theatres, that seat up to 500 people. It feels like you’re entering a museum or an international exhibition. Very impressive, very exciting experience.

If you listen to my reviews regularly you might remember my lament over the death of the velvet curtain, the dramatic opening and closing that used to mark every movie. To paraphrase Mark Twain, news of its death has been greatly exaggerated. And evidence of this is right there at the Light Box. Huge red curtains part to start each show, and rows of neat red seats arc out in the theatre. My only complaint is they sacrificed looks for comfort. There are impressive, minimalist, row after row of little square fold-down seats… but no arm rests. What are they thinking? I guess they figure people who like movies all wear black turtlenecks and have tiny bums and straight backs and will sit for hours with their hands neatly folded in their laps, calmly contemplating Fassbinder and their next fix of heroin.

We’ll see how that pans out…

CORRECTION: I have since discovered that, while the seats in my row at the Light Box had flip-up seats with no arm rests, most of the other rows had regular, comfortable seats. So I just lucked into that one special row for the Fassbinder fans in black turtlenecks… or maybe people who use wheelchairs.

The Light Box also has a series of galleries-cum-movie theatres that straddle the space in between art and cinema – movies projected as art; video art using cinematic narratives. There are shows and installations on right now by Canadian directors Atom Egoyan and the amazing Guy Maddin, as well as Singapore-born artist Ming Wong’s show in which he plays all the characters, male and female, in a Berlin soap opera.

Now let me talk about a few of the films I found interesting at this year’s festival.

Deep in the Woods

Dir: Benoit Jacquot

Timothee, a kid, a ruffian, really, in torn clothes with matted hair appears in a small town in France in the 1850’s – he can barely speak, and has filthy teeth and black hands. But he makes eye contact with Josephine (Isild Le Besco), the well-educated daughter of the town doctor, and proceeds to study her, climbing trees, peering through her windows, and hiding in the bushes as she fends off a boring suitor trying to impress her with his poetry.

She is straight laced and wears a bodice, but Timothee (Argentine actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) sees her true self yearning to be free, standing at the edge of steep cliffs daring herself to fly away.

So he insinuates himself into her life, and soon impresses the family with his seemingly magical skills in magnetism, prestidigitation, fortune telling, and hypnotism. When they are alone together, Josephine is quick to strip off her clothes and have sex with Timothee. Has he forced her using hypnotism?

Soon she follows him deep into the woods where they live a random, itinerant life, encountering people and events as they travel down a road. Their relationship – a sort of a marriage is constantly evolving; and the power dynamics – a rich educated woman living with a destitute man with survival skills and perhaps magical powers – gradually shifting from him to her.

This is a powerful and strange movie, unlike any I’ve even seen. Maybe it’s closest to the great movie “The Lovers on the Bridge” / “Les Amants du Pont Neuf”, (dir: Leos Carax) but different. It’s not for everyone, but I really liked it, especially the two main actors who are captivating in their roles.

Another movie that I really liked is

The Matchmaker

Dir: Avi Nesher

Arik, a kid in Haifa, Israel in the late 1960’s, is hanging out with his friends playing soccer when a man with a cane and huge scar across his face, and a mysterious past, arrives on their block. He’s Yankele Bride (Adir Miller), and he’s a matchmaker from Romania who’s there to find husbands and wives for unusual people with peculiarities who haven’t had any luck on their own. He says, he’ll find them the match they need, but not necessarily the one they want.

So after Arik’s prank misfires, he hires him to come work for him in the wrong side of town where he lives. His office is right beside a movie theatre that only plays movies with happy endings, run by a family of little people, dwarves who had survived concentration camp experiments by the notorious Dr Mengele, and near to an elegant woman Clara, who runs a late night speak-easy. The Matchmaker also earns his money in a shady occupation, but his vocation – matching up people who truly love each other – is his mission. None of the characters dare to bring up the concentration camps; in the 1960’s it was still considered taboo to talk about. They refer to it only as “there”.

Meanwhile, young Arik is falling for his neighbour, a tempestuous Iraqi girl, Tamara (Neta Porat), who has rejected her family’s conservatism and embraced the American youth culture of psychedelic music and the sexual revolution.

If this sounds like a complicated plot… it is, but it’s a fantastic story with compelling, captivating, and unusual characters – not all loveable, but you really want to find out what happens to them. Nesher is a not just a great director, but also an amazing storyteller. This is the kind of movie, one with a great story – with comedy, passion, romance, intrigue, betrayal, and truly memorable characters — that you rarely encounter anymore. Look out for this movie – the Matchmaker — hopefully it will be released after the festival.

Another movie, and one that definitely will be released, is

“Black Swan”

dir: Daren Aronofsky.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina, pure of heart, who wants the lead role in Swan Lake. She’s been raised to reach perfection, en pointe, by her relentless stage mother who was also in the ballet, but never made it big. Nina doesn’t drink or smoke or have sex – she still lives at home, she’s bullemic, plays with stuffed animals, wears a fuzzy pink coat, and listens to her little music box with a dancing ballerina by her bed.

But the ballet director, played Vincent Cassel, wants to put new life into the that cliched old ballet. He pushes her to also play the role of the Black Swan, the sinister evil twin of the Swan Queen. For this, he wants her to abandon her remaining childhood and purity and to become angry, passionate and sexual. He’s exploitative and cruel. Meanwhile, Beth the former diva at this ballet, (Winona Ryder) is forced to retire, and a new competitor, Lily (Mila Kunis) is also trying for the role, and trying everything she can to take it from Nina. Sophisticated Lily is Nina’s opposite – sex, drugs, smoking, and backstabbing all come as second nature to her. Nina has to hold on to her role in the ballet, as well as her tenuous grip on reality.

OK: does Aronofsky’s latest venture work or not. I have to admit, at times, this movie drifted into high camp, was unintentionally hilarious, and felt like nothing more than a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”, another movie about backstabbing dancers. Who knows, maybe “Black Swan” and “Showgirls” will still be double-billing it at rep cinemas 50 years from now.

That said, I think it’s a totally watchable classic melodrama and psychological thriller, with great acting by the two main women, plus very enjoyable overacting by Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey (as the over-the-top stage mom). The movie’s also stunning on the eyes and ears, with great production values.

I think Aronofsky knows exactly what he’s doing, neatly alternating super-real, documentary-like footage just like in The Wrestler – behind the scenes bone-cracking, massages, rehearsals, warm-ups and make-ups – with equal parts scenery-chewing soap and surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies (like in his great “Requiem for a Dream”). For me, this balanced worked.

Genre mash-ups: The Last Exorcism, The American, Life in Wartime

Most genre movies follow very fixed patterns, sometimes even down to the order of scenes, the introduction of characters, the sort of lines they say… But sometimes you run across mainstream movies that are a little bit off beat, a little bit mashed-up. Here are three somewhat strange movie mash-ups.

The Last Exorcism

Dir: Daniel Stamm

As the name suggests, this is a horror movie, but it’s style is that of a TV documentary, or even a reality show.

Cotton is a great evangelical preacher, he’s been up on the pulpit since he was a child and has been doing exorcisms — sometimes though as simple as Out Posion!– for many years. It’s how he earns a living. He’s so good he can preach his mother’s recipe and have the flock shouting Amen! and Hallelujah! His father is a Jimmy Carter doppelganger.

But somewhere along the way he lost his faith. He still goes through the motions, but he doesn’t believe a word of it any more. In fact, he thinks the whole exorcism thing is nothing ore than a Dr Phil psychological ttool that he can use to get the mental spooks out of the patients’ heads.

So he goes out to a country home in the deep south to do his final exorcism before a  camera crew. They’re making a doc about Cotton — and the whole exorcism scam. With his full cooperation, he reveals for the camera all his secrets – the sound effects and smoke and mirrors he uses to scare the god-fearing parishioners.

But this rural outpost – complete with all the Deliverance-style references to home-schooling, incest, superstition, violence and deeply hidden family secrets – what city dwellers picture when they hear Sarah Palin talking about Real Americans – this rural outpost may be Cotton’s last exorcism.

The daughter, Nell, is possessed. The family thinks she’s getting up in the middle of the night and slaughtering animals in the barn – but she has of memory of doing it. IS she nuts from being locked up in her home away from the rest of the world? Or is the devil inside of her?

This is a good, scary movie, that also avoided what I was least interested in seeing – the extreme pornographic slashing and blood that producer Eli Roth throws at you in his Hostel movies. There’s a bit of nasty blood, but much more scariness.

It also keeps you guessing till the end whether the girl’s possession is better explained rationally by psychiatric jargon, or by mysticism, religion and the supernatural. And all the acting, (especially Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell as the exorcist and the possessed girl, and Caleb Landry Jones as her creepy brother), is much better than you’d expect in a cheese-ball horror flick. Throw in some Blair Witchery and you’ve got a much-better-than-usual scary horror movie.

The American

Dir: Anton Corbijn

This one’s an interesting concept: a drama in the guise of a mystery thriller.

Jack, aka Edward, is an American tucked into an apartment in the picturesque, hilly Abruzzo region in Italy. He’s there on business, to provide his boss’s client with a weapon, a gun you can shoot from far away, with a high grade of accuracy, and no noise that would give away where the shooter is hiding.

Is he a CIA agent? A terrorist? A spy? An assassin-for-hire? A special ops military guy on assignment? A political activist? A mafia hire? A cop under deep cover? Who knows. He ain’t talking, and the audience isn‘t finding out anytime soon. And, actually, this is all just background fluff from the story of an alienated American who enjoys the machine-tinkering aspect of his job, but is less fond of one if its fringe benefits: guilt.

So if it’s not actually a mystery thriller waiting to be solved what is this movie? Well, it’s actually about the relationships he has with the various women he in his life – an assassin, a prostitute, a Swedish women, each more beautiful than the one before – and how he can’t fully trust them – they’re all suspect. They all might be out to get him. They all might have ratted him out, other might be killers sent to throw him off his track.

His boss tells him: “Don’t make any  friends – you used to know that Jack”. But what else is there? Lying in bed fully dressed waiting for an unknown killer? Drinking americanos in a greasy café? George Clooney showing off his skill at chin-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups?

And then there’s the blond, bearded man – his cover is made the first time Jack sees him, but he doesn’t disappear – and he seems to be out to get him. But who doesn’ he work for? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Who cares?

The other plot is about guilt and forgiveness. He meets an older priest (with a small secret) who wants Jack to confess his sins. Jack would rather not tell him anything.

So, while there are a few chase scenes, a few tense shooting scenes, it’s mainly a barren, hardscrabble life in rocky Abbruzzo, Jack’s alienated and empty life broken up only with periodic passionate soft-core sex with Clara (played by the beautiful Violante Placido, what a wonderful name!).

This is one strange movie – it’s one of very few so-called thrillers that aren’t mystery thrillers. There’s no actual mystery that the movie explains or reveals. This is really a drama of a middle-aged, single guy (Divorced? Widowed? Bachelor?) taking stock of his life, his business, his relationships, and finding them lacking. It’s a male chick flick.

(And do you ever get the feeling that George Clooney doesn’t want to be in a movie with a competitor? So there’s only one leading man, but three beautiful women for him to spend time with.)

Anyway, The American is an airplane movie, maybe a late-night video store movie, but definitely not the popcorn thriller it pretends to be.

Life During Wartime

Dir: Todd Solondz

(I saw this movie a year ago at last year’s TIFF, but it stayed with me. It’s a good, dark comedy, but with absurdly sad scenes more moving than the average drama.)

Todd Solondz’s dark comedies alternate between two New Jersey families, the Weiners (Welcome to the Dollhouse, 1995; Palindromes, 2004) and the Jordans (Happiness, 1998, Life During Wartime, 2009). The characters continue their depressing lives, while the actors who play them come and go. In this movie we join the three new Jordan sisters, ten years later.

Weepy, hippy Joy (Shirley Henderson) loves helping the most needy, but this has landed her an unbearable fiance. He asks for her forgiveness for his latest transgression, so Joy seeks out her family for advice. Her mother Mona in Miami is no help, so she moves on to suburban Trish (Allison Janney) who is dating again. But Trish discovers her pedophile husband has been released from prison and is also seeking forgiveness from their kids. Sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), a Hollywood star, is bossy and self absorbed and not much help either. Poor Joy resorts to asking advice from ex-boyfriends from her past, like Andy (Paul Reubens).

The cast is as uniformly excellent as the story is relentlessly, painfully sad. Solondz is an expert at inflicting the unvarnished cruelty of family dynamics on his moviegoers. While there is nothing earth-shattering or different in this movie, it still holds its own as a funnily sympathetic (and pathetic) black comedy in his distinctive, ongoing saga.

Rom Com Glom. Films Reviewed: The Switch, Going the Distance, No Heart Feelings plus: Types of movies to avoid; and A New Toronto Movement?

Posted in Acting, Animals, Anthropology, Bad Movies, Canada, comedy, Cultural Mining, drugs, Movies, Romantic Comedy, Sex, Uncategorized, video games by CulturalMining.com on September 2, 2010

Have you ever walked into a multiplex and discovered you’re too late for the movie you planned to see? But since you’re already there…How do you know what to go to, and what to avoid at all costs? Are there any clues?

Well, no rule is steadfast, but here are a few types of movies that you should not go to:

Don’t go to movies with a number in its title or where a number is the title

Don’t go to movies based on video games,

Disneyland rides,

or 60’s TV sitcoms

Don’t go to movies directed by bad actors

Don’t go to live-action movies where the main character is a talking animal

Don’t go to movies without a single positive review quoted in the ad

And never, ever go to movies with two directors!

And then there’s types of movie.

Why is it, that so many comedies, especially romantic comedies, suck? I’m going to look at three of them now, some of which worked better than others… I’ll do them in ascending order, by number of directors.

“Going the Distance”

Dir: Nanette Burstein

Garret (Justin Long) goes off to a bar to get sheet-faced drunk after his girlfriend dumps him for ordering take out and not giving her a present. “But you said no presents”. “Because you’re supposed to want to give me one…” At the bar he meets Erin (Drew Barrymore), a vintage arcade game champ. She’s in New York in an internship at a newspaper – she’s 31. Times are tough. So they end up in bed together, even after seeing his Top Gun movie poster-themed apartment. In fact his eccentric roommate plays background music through the thin walls whenever their whispered pillow talk inspires him.

But at the end of the summer, she’s back in San Francisco, and he’s in Manhattan. Life is tough. Should they stay together? Will their relationship endure in two coastal cities? Or will one of them take the plunge and move..?

The boyfriend has two goofy hipster sidekick friends, one of whom has the world’s worst douche-stache on his upper lip. The girlfriend lives with her sister and brother-in-law, who make weird sexual references, and give her humorously uptight advice.

This is an ok comedy. They’re a nice couple, who obviously are in love. In fact Drew Barrymore and Justin Long are a couple in real life as well as in the movie. She’s always a great actress. He’s just OK. He’s mainly known as the I’m Mac, I’m PC guy from the commercials, and you may have seen him this year as the boyfriend in Sam Raimi’s funny horror movie Drag me to Hell. The sister character played by Christina Applegate is very funny. Not too bad a movie, but not very good.

“The Switch”

Dir: Josh Gordon and Will Speck

In this movie, Kassie (Jennifer Anniston) decides it’s time to have a kid. She goes the self-insemination route, and holds a big sperm party for her friends. But her neurotic friend Wally (Jason Bateman) has a crush on her and feels rejected. He gets drunk and finds, in the bathroom, a little jar lying around. What’s that? It’s the sperm. Why’s it just lying there? Who knows? Oops! He spills it. Better replace it…

Naturally, that one switch, means she gets inseminated not by the blond mountain-climbing Columbia prof of feminist theory, but rather old pal neurotic Wally. And she moves to Minnesota, where, apparently,  they live in cabins without phones. So when she decides to move back to NY, 7 years later, she lets Wally know she has a 7 year-old son! And she’s letting the kid meet his biological father, the now divorced prof. Will Wally tell her he’s the baby’s father? And will he tell her he still has a crush on her? And will he get along with the genetically neurotic son?

So this is still the beginning of the movie. Basically there’s nothing left to happen in terms of the plot. They hang out, they get to know each other, he competes with the supposed donor, he helps the kid with his headlice, blah blah blah.

The thing is – it’s not funny. It has a unbelievably weak plot. It’s not consistent, the actors  — and they’re all good, Anniston, Bateman, jeff Goldblum, and long-time-no-see Juliette Lewis – look like they’re reading lines that were written on a napkin. And the characters don’t make sense. The mother has no real backstory — you don’t know who she is or what she does, or even what interests her – she’s a baby vessel. Jason Bateman’s character is supposed to be neurotic… except he’s not. He’s just a mildly depressed guy. Everythng about this movie is stupid. The feminist theory professor is a dumb jock, while the wall street trader is deeply intellectual. You even get a bruise on the kid’s face migrating around his cheek from scene to scene.

So if you’re on an airplane or an all-night bus ride, sure, watch it. Otherwise… why not go to the Kids are All Right instead, to see a much better insemination comedy. Or just check out the next movie I’m reviewing…

“No Heart Feelings”

Dir: Sarah Lazarovic, Geoff Morrison, Ryan J. Noth

Here’s a movie with not two, but three director/writers! Uh-oh… does that mean it’s even worse than “The Switch”? No! Just the opposite.

Mel (Rebecca Kohler) dumps her long-distance boyfriend by telephone. (At least she didn’t do it by texting.) Even though she did the dumping, she feels like crap so her friend gets her drunk so she can vent and recover. And in her bounce-back semi-inebriated state, she meets Lewis, (Dustin Parkes)

a nice guy, who’s just returned to Toronto after a while away. They have sex, and sorta hit it off… kinda. Mel’s a bit awkward about the whole thing. And Lewis isn’t sure. They both, separately, decide to keep it “super caj” – no commitments or anything. But there’s definitely a spark.

The movie’s super casual too – it’s the exact opposite of a high concept movie. It reminds me of Bruce McDonald’s movie, a few months back, This Movie is Broken. People in their 20’s or 30’s, hanging out in downtown Toronto and just living the life… in the nice, green summertime.

Some people are losing their jobs or working at ridiculous ones that have no meaning beyond forwarding PDFs or watching lolcats all day. It can be frustrating. One character says “I have five bosses — altogether they have one sense of humour.

But they all have people around them in widening ripples: best friends, groups of buddies, party acquaintances, the people they say hi to on the street.

Mel and Lewis run into friends on Spadina, and talk about work, condos, food…they wander around dollar stores in Chinatown, the wading pool in Kensington Market,  401 Richmond building, hotdog stand at Queen and Spadina, College Street, breakfast at Aunties and Uncles, badminton in what looks like Trinity Bellwoods Park, a garage sale, a gallery opening, and biking everywhere in the streets alleys and the bike paths in the ravines.

They finally all end up at one of the friends’ cottage for an awkward reunion. Will they end up together?

Well, it’s not that kind of a romantic comedy. The comedy is mainly in the comments of all the wise-cracking group of friend, not the “awkward situations” you usually get stuck with. This one is just a very low-key, nice slice of downtown Toronto life. It’s what a reality show should look like, but never does. And it proves that three directors can put together a sweet and coherent story, about people you wouldn’t mind hanging out with.

I get the impression that there’s a new Toronto film movement forming right around now. Movies where the city plays itself instead of other places; where there’s a laid back vibe, and where there’s a lot of recognizable landmarks — movies like Scott Pilgrim, This Movie is Broken, and now No Heart Feelings.

I hope it continues to flourish.

(More on the Toronto Movement to come….)

Who Will Root for the Underdog? Movies Reviewed: The Parking Lot Movie, Dinner for Schmucks

Posted in Anthropology, College, comedy, Comics, Cultural Mining, documentary, Hotdocs, Movies, Music, Uncategorized, Underground, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 7, 2010

A few weeks ago, I somehow found myself with a pair of tickets to Just for Laughs at Massey Hall – that’s the Montreal stand up comedy festival which now has a Toronto version as well. And I hadn’t been to a stand-up comedy stage show in a building like Massey Hall since… well never. Anyway, I guess stand-up comedy appeals to a particular sense of humour; (at least in the show I went to) it’s guys on a stage — the featured act was Brad Garret from Everybody Loves Raymond– making fun of the people in the audience. Racial and ethnic stereotypes, fat jokes, and jokes about any and all women. You know, the things obnoxious acquaintances or distant relatives of yours start saying around the time the first 2-4 has disappeared. I guess part of the appeal is the audience squirming in discomfort and shock at the rudeness and meanness of the people on stage.

And what does this have to movies?

Well, movies, specifically comedies, have a whole subgenre built around picking on the little guy, the “loser”. In general, Hollywood has always been on the side of the person who’s made fun of, picked on, or oppressed – even if the audience gets to vicariously watch the poor guy being teased or mocked. There’s still always the same ending: the bullies get punished and the underdogs, the people at the bottom, get their long due just desserts.

But there is some nipping at the edges of this conventional theme. The various TV idol contests have parts where they show how bad a singer is or how terribly they’re dressed, and the judges enjoy laughing at them and insulting them. And some college movies, like “Tucker Max: I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell” take the side of the privileged ones, making fun of the women they try to have sex with (or actually purchase, in the case of strippers or prostitutes.)

This week I’m looking at two movies that follow the classic Hollywood model, both funny movies about sort of sad and lonely people. Are they really funny? Should these movies be making fun of these people? (And why are they always guys?)

The Parking Lot Movie

Dir: Meghan Eckman

My first thoughts, before I saw this movie, were: Oh my God – a movie about a parking lot? Is there no line documentary makers won’t cross? No topic too mundane?

This documentary’s about a bunch of hipsters / college students / slackers / extremely over-educated bunch of guys in their twenties who hang out in this legendary parking lot – the Corner Parking Lot. It’s their job. The guys (and they’re all guys) sit in a little wooden booth, like an oversized dog house, and raise and lower the wooden turnstyle barrier (they call it the gate) and collect the money. Half of them look like Zach Galifianakis, the rest look like either tattooed guys in an indie band, or else perpetual grad students.

First of all, it’s an indie parking lot, not one of those big-label corporate ones. They’re so fake. This parking lot’s the real thing, dude.

It’s in the middle of what looks like a bar district in a college town (Charlottesville, Virginia), so you get all these sorority girls and Tucker Max wannabes in their hummers stumbling back to their cars after last call.

They guys who work there all really HATE their customers. It’s the parkers vs the park-ees.

The director has a really good eye. There are some images that are just so funny – I don’t know why — they just grab you.  Like a shot of one of the guys guy listening to music on his headphones, bobbing his head as he counts a big wad of parking lot cash… brilliant.

You have to wonder – are these guys actually all serial killers or something? Naaah, just graduate students in philosophy and anthropology. They’ve broken down all the variables in a parking lot and taking them as far as they can possibly go. Like the wooden turn-style gate —they spray paint stenciled messages on them – a different one each day. Or they play an inane catch-toss game with the orange rubber pylons.

And then there are the faceless parkers. GRRrrrrrrrr… anyone ever worked in the service industry? You can see how even just one obnoxious, lazy, overfed, douchey-frat boy, a single nasty parking lot customer, these paragons of entitlement driving 100K Hummers who argue over a 50 cent charge… I feel deep sympathy for the parking lot guys.

This movie is way better than Kevin Smith’s legendary Clerks. Looks better too – it’s actually nicely coloured, with outdoor oversaturated night scenes, stop-motion clouds, everything looking like an MTV indie music doc, except they’re not celebs. It’s got that slick, handmade look, complete with a white hiphop video toward the end about the parking lot, complete with hand gestures. (CPL! CPL!)

I don’t know what it is, but this movie really cracked me up, despite it’s random acts of senseless, vindictive anger and complaining. And even though it enjoys making fun of the slackers, the movie is decidedly from their point of view. It keeps to the Hollywood rule of rooting for the underdogs.

“Dinner for Schmucks”

Dir: Jay Roach

(based on the French film “The Dinner Game”)

This movie is a bit different; it shows the oddballs of the world (and the troubles they seem to bring) but through the eyes of a “normal” guy.

In this movie, a guy named Tim (Paul Rudd) works for some financial company in a highrise somewhere. He’s not a parking lot attendant but, in his mind, he may as well be. He’s a middle-level executive, stuck in a rut. But then he has an idea – he speaks up at a meeting. Tim had an idea! He says he can get this eccentric swiss millionaire to invest in their company. Great! He’ll finally move upstairs. But, (says his boss surrounded by his yes-men) first you have to prove yourself by showing up at a dinner, and bringing an idiot, pretending to be his friend – so we can laugh at him.

That’s terrible! But when he accidentally meets Barry (Steve Carell)  — a guy who works for the IRS tax office, a hobbyist who stuffs dead mice and dresses them up, and uses them in elaborate dioramas – when he meets Barry, Tim feels like a gift just landed in his lap.

Anyway, the plot creaks on. it’s a so-so story bandied together with cheap rubber bands. Tim’s fiancé is a curator, and he’s worried she’ll run off with a New Zealand artist (Jemaine Clement, Flight of the Conchords) who wears fake goat horns to compliment his “animal magnetism”. Meanwhile, Tim has a bad back. And he’s also being stalked by an ex-girlfriend, a crazed dominatrix. And then there’s bearded Zach Galifianakis playing a co-worker of Barry’s at the IRS who is studying hypnotic mind control.

The story all works its way toward the party – what will happen there? Like the movie itself, it’s a venue for lots of TV comedians to do their schtick. Lots of people you see on the Daily Show or other TV shows, and a lot of people who look vaguely familiar but you’re not sure from where. They each have their moment in the sun to act funny-stupid. Never from their clever repartee, always from the uncomfortableness or strangeness of their personalities.  It’s up to Steve Carell’s super weird but cuddly and lovable Barry to carry the movie. The plot won’t do it. The problem is he’s sometimes funny, sometimes just stupid. His character isn’t really that great, despite the fake funny teeth, and the bad windbreaker he wears… he’s just not that consistent, and seems willing to do things just for a laugh, even when it’s totally out of character.

Is the movie there to make fun of people? Yeah, but that’s what comedians want: For people to laugh the loudest when they’re on the screen. Dinner for Schmucks is a funny — but not that funny — summer comedy. But I do give it two points for managing to avoid toilet humour, all too common in most comedies.

Jaw Droppers. Documentaries: Secrets of the Tribe, Gasland, 12th and Delaware

There’s a particular type of documentary I saw at this year’s Hotdocs (The Canadian International Documentary Festival), that I call a jaw-dropper.

Some movies, well most movies, including most documentaries, are entertaining but forgettable. But a few are really good — informative, telling about a new phenomenon or hot topic. Something you may have heard about, it’s knocking around somewhere in a corner of your brain, but you’ve actually never seen it on TV or in a movie – not with that degree of closeness. The kind of movie that takes a bite out of you, chews you up, and then spits you out again at the end. They leave you with your head shaking or your stomach churning or your brain exploding.

One really shocking movie — “Secrets of the Tribe” (directed by Jose Padilha) left a bitter taste in my mouth about an entire field: anthropology.

The Yanomami are a large group of indigenous people in the Amazon in the area between Brazil and Venezuela. Because they had been virtually without any contact with the outside world (ie European culture) until fairly recently, the anthropologists considered it an ideal case where they could study traditional practices, beliefs, sexuality, war, violence, language… the whole thing. And by getting there before they’ve been changed by so-called civilization, they can record and preserve a culture that might soon disappear. One of the leading anthropologists there, and one who made his reputation on it, is the controversial Napoleon Chagnon, the US-based French academic. Many other anthropologists in the 60’s and 70’s flooded into the region, to see this virgin, untouched civilization. The thing is, anthropologists are people too. And they touched the Yanomami.

This case, and all its ramifications, led to a real split within the anthropological establishment (which was exposed a while back, in an expose by Patrick Tierney). The movie brings the academic warfare to the screen, in all its disgustingness.

The accusations range from ideology, to crimes, to awful unethical practices, to eeeeeeeeeuuuggghh noooo!

Chagnon introduces weapons and technology that villages can use against each other, and gleefully records the casualties of this “warlike” people. It’s all about who kills the most, who gets the most wives, who has the most babies. He advances his theory that biology is what determines culture, a sort of a neo-darwinist take on civilization.

As if controversial theories weren’t enough, the movie turns into a combination documentary and late night episode of TMZ, with sordid talk of one anthropologists taking a teenaged Yanomami girl as a bride and another who slept with teenaged boys. Then it gets even more mind blowing.

It turns out Chagnon was paid by the US government Atomic Energy Commission to collect data on the Yanomami to be used as a control population. Through this data, the US government could compare mutation levels with the people affected by American bomb tests in the Marshall islands (in the South Pacific), or the population that survived the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And then… there were the measles epidemics spreading through the amazon killing people. In this case, they decide to do something that could save the Yanomami if they get them the vaccine before the infection reached there. But the guides they take with them may be from infected villages. In addition, they were taking secret blood samples from the Yanomami – for research purposes — that had nothing to do with the vaccinations.

Anyway, each scene is more horrific and sick-making than the one before, including the vicious academic infighting and backstabbing going on… yikes!

Secrets of the Tribe is a devastating expose of the entire profession.

Another revealing movie is “Gasland” (directed by Josh Fox). It’s a gut puncher. The idea that all of this environmental destruction is going on all around us… is unbelievable.

I always thought natural gas was the clean one, the good energy. the one that won’t leave huge pits of tar sludge behind it, won’t lead to oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico creeping slowly toward the Louisiana coastline wiping out all those birds, all those shrimp. It won’t lead to collapses in the coal mines, it won’t kill everything in site, it’s clean, pure, ozone-friendly. C’mon its “natural gas”, it’s natural gas. It’s like… organic!

Um… it’s not.

Josh Fox lives in a beautiful home in rural Pennsylvania, the home he grew up in, with bubbling brooks and twirting birds, and lush green trees all around. Like most of his neighbours, he gets a letter from energy giant asking him to allow them to poke around for some natural gas below the surface of his land. And for that he’d get a nice juicy cheque! Sounds pretty sweet. But he notices something… unusual going all around his county.

The gas company is using a technique called hydraulic fracturing – also known as “fracking”. (What the frack is that?) It means they’re drilling down into the ground, then far below, they’re sending horizontal pipes to set off explosions using unknown chemicals, underground, to free the pools of gas.

This is going on all over the place, in maybe 31 states. The problem is that if you set off explosions all over the place, underground, it does release the gas, and that gas interferes with the water supply.

What does that mean in real terms? Josh gets in his car with a handheld camera and starts driving around the country talking to people with those cute little gas pods on their land or nearby. And he keeps finding noxious fumes, disgusting sewage, and a horrible mixing of the gas – and the chemicals used in the fracking — with their water supply. The gas companies say, no! no!, it’s fine, don’t worry, be happy, but the people all show Josh Fox what this means: they turn on their sink, and hold up a lighter to the water – their tap water… is on fire!

Turns out this is all Dick Cheney’s fault. No, seriously.

Anyway, this is a fun, well made, Michael Moore-style documentary about how the big energy companies are screwing the little guy, and how deregulation has eliminated the safeguards that ensure clean air and clean water.

I would have preferred they weren’t jiggling the camera quite so much – I got a bit carsick watching this movie – but, aside from that, this is a great documentary.

“12th and Delaware” is a unique movie about a topic that’s been talked to death. Abortion. The filmmakers, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, (who directed the movie “Jesus Camp”), found an abortion clinic in Florida, that’s at one corner of a street, with an anti-abortion center, a Crisis Pregancy Clinic parked right across the street. The two sides are not friends, to say the least. You get your old ladies screaming at anyone going into the abortion clinic and waving little plastic babies at them. (They have pink ones and brown ones, depending on whom they’re showing them to). They go right up to the closed blind windows and taunt them through glass. The anti-abortion side leaves photos and signs on the grass in front of the abortion clinic to scare people away.

So… big deal, right? I’ve seen all this before. And, actually I didn’t want to see any more about it. But…

These filmmakers take it inside the clinics, both of them, at the same time. So the camera teams have been allowed free access to talk with the people inside the centres on both sides of the street, show them talking to the women, and talk frankly to the camera about what’s going on.

Basically, a lot of the people going into the right-to-life place called a pregnancy crisis clinic think they’re going into an abortion clinic. They’re both at the corner of 12th and Delaware. These pregnancy crisis centres are positioned all across the US, many of them placed in exactly the same way – right across the street from the abortion clinics. The woman in the white coat is not an abortion doctor, she’s an anti-abortion counselor. But she doesn’t tell them that. (A lot of them figure it out eventually.)

It’s almost like a race. There’s a priest – a Stephen Colbert doppelganger – who explains it’s a battle, a battle between darkness and light. Then there are the doctors on the other side of the street who are mainly just pissed off at the crazies: “Why don’t they just leave us alone – we don’t bother them…” They peek through their venetian blinds and look at the security cameras to see if the protesters are getting close enough to the clinic that they can call the cops on them. The doctors literally have to disguise themselves as they drive into the clinic. There’s even a really scary stalker dude following the doctors on the street to track down where they pick up patients.

Amazingly, they get all of this on camera, sharply shot. It’s a real eye-opener. And shot with both sides of the chasm allowed to openly express their views to the camera. Not a topic I’m fond of hearing about, but “12th and Delaware” shows it all in an entirel new way.

Shame and Guilt. Movies reviewed: Hot Tub Time Machine, Greenberg, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Last week I was talking about that cheesie sword-and-sandals movie Clash of the Titans as a “guilty pleasure”, meaning something I enjoyed, even though I realized it was a bad movie. And a woman I know told me she has a weakness for what she calls “chick-lit”, and the equivalent type of movies, chick flicks and "rom coms" (romantic comedies) – they were her guilty pleasures. She devours those books by the dozen and automatically goes to any movie with even a hint of the old TV show Sex in the City. A guilty pleasure.

But then I thought about it. Where’s the guilt? Where’s the sin? What’s morally wrong with going to a bad movie and enjoying it anyway? Nothing. And I was at an after-party with a filmmaker a couple weeks ago, and made a comment about the crowds at the movie Hot Tub Time Machine. His response: “You saw Hot Tub Time Machine? For shame!”

Is it shameful to go to bad movies? I’d say no to that, too.

Once they dim the lights in a theatre, you’re a passive viewer, no shame there. You didn’t make the movie. But this sort of crystallizes for me the subtle difference between guilt and shame. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict declared after World War II, that the US was a guilt culture, whereas Japan, (which was under US military occupation at the time) was a shame culture. In other words, she said, in a guilt culture, like the US, you feel terrible deep down inside when you do something wrong, but in a shame culture, like Japan, you feel your reputation among others is what is damaged when you do something wrong or unacceptable. (I don’t buy the US / Japan distinction, but shame culture / guilt culture is an interesting concept.)

Anyway, to get back to movies, maybe we all set the bar fairly low in terms of what we can derive enjoyment from, but as long as you can both tell the difference between a good movie and a bad one, and then accept your own taste in movies, whether they’re good or bad, you’re fine. No shame, and no guilt, just pleasure. Not guilty pleasure.

Hot Tub Time Machine

"Hot Tub Time Machine" is what it says it is – a comedy with a paper-thin plot. A bunch of middle-aged losers pining for their glory days — days of getting drunk, getting stoned, and trying to get laid at a ski lodge — decide to revisit it. But once they get there they see the place has gone to seed, just like their lives. But somehow a hot tub sends them back – back to the future – to relive the worst of the eighties. Then they do jokey comedy things as they try to get back. That’s the movie. The visual punchlines were mainly based on the various liquids that are expelled from men’s bodies. (You get the picture.) I think they were all covered. Except maybe… pus. Was there a pus joke? I think they’re saving that for the sequel.

The thing is, it was sort of funny, in an intentionally campy way. I saw it with zero expectations, so I ended up laughing — or groaning — a lot. The comedians / actors – especially Rob Corddry, in all his horribleness — were good at what they were doing, and there were a few good cameos, notably Crispin Glover as the one-armed bellboy.

Don’t feel ashamed for seeing this movie, but don’t feel guilty if you miss it.

Greenberg

"Greenberg", a new movie by Noah Baumbach, who directed the really great "The Squid and the Whale" a few years ago, is a human drama about a guy going through an internal crisis, and the aimless woman he gets involved with. Boy meets girl.

This is a romantic comedy – sort of — that’s made the way romantic comedies should be made, if I had my druthers.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) crashes like a green iceberg onto his brother’s house in L.A. He’s a feckless, benighted, compulsive, neurotic carpenter who’s there to do nothing in particular, and doesn’t mind saying so. He wants to be alone and resents the world for invading his house-sitting solitude. He’s totally shameless — saying whatever pops into his mind – but also wracked with guilt for his past misdeeds. He has no possessions — no house, no car – to worry about, just his toolbelt. He is building a wooden doghouse for Mahler, his brother’s dog, as he learns to cope outside a mental institution.

Greenberg got along OK in Manhattan, hopping cabs or taking the subway, but he suddenly finds himself back in LA, dependent on his former best friend (Rhys Ifans) whose rock career he’d sabotaged, and his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), to ferry him around. He’s horrified and baffled by the whole city.

Then he begins to have a sort of a relationship with younger Florence, who is driven and hardworking, but adrift, and coming to terms with the physical consequences of a previous relationship. Can they love each other? Can they even stand each other?

They’re both “hurt people” who are afraid they’ll hurt other people. All of the characters in Greenberg, even the bit parts, are interesting, and three-dimensional (as opposed to 3-D), though not necessarily likeable.

The whole movie looks like the late 70’s or early 80’s – the colours, the design, the costumes, the font of the titles, the way the camera moves or zooms in, most of the music on the soundtrack… everything. It’s stunning to watch. Don’t go to this expecting a whacky, overacted Ben Stiller comedy. Go for a moving, gentle – though mildly disturbing – comic drama. This is a really good movie.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Another good movie, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, is opening today. This is a great Swedish mystery thriller about Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, a young, mysterious hacker, and their interactions with the Vanger group, a very shady family of billionaires.

Blomkvist loses his job at a leftist magazine and faces a prison term after writing an expose on a corrupt billionaire. His source proved to have been a set-up. So he is forced to take a well-paying job as a sort of a researcher / detective for a different, billionaire, who’s trying to find out what happened to his niece Harriet, who was kidnapped or killed – the body was never found – decades before. The Vanger family is sleazy to the Nth degree. They live out in the woods in sinister, Nordic hunting lodges, equipped with a skeleton in every closet. Tons of shame and guilt here.

But Blomkvist is gradually unveiling the hidden past, with the help of an anonymous helper on the internet.
This helper, Lisbeth, is a fantastic character, a cross between Steve McQueen and Tank Girl. She’s tuff, she’s rough, she’s stone cold. She’s a punk, she’s a loner, she’s an ex-con, she’s a computer genius. She’s also the girl of the title, with the dragon tattoo. She’s initially hired by the Vangers to spy on and write a report on Blomkvist, to make sure he can be trusted. They eventually meet up and form a sort of alliance, to try to find out what happened to the missing girl, and solve the ever-thickening mystery.

This is just the kind of mystery-thriller I like, where you’re solving it alongside the characters, but with enough hidden that you can’t really predict what’s going to happen next. It’s visually fantastic, with clues and images like old photos and newspaper clippings driving the story – so much so, you wonder how it worked on paper. It also has lots of amazing Swedish scenery and landscapes, makes you want to jump on a plane to Stockholm – if it weren’t for all the thugs, murderers, rapists, stalkers and Nazi’s hiding in the pine trees.

A few potential drawbacks: this movie has a few extremely violent, extended scenes. They’re not exploitative scenes – the movie doesn’t glorify the violence or make it titillating; you feel for the victims not the violence – but it’s still a bit hard to watch. It’s also tied to the famous mystery novels by Stieg Larsson, so it spends a long time tying up all the loose ends in the story. But I think it’s a great movie, and I can’t wait for the next one. I think I’m going to read book two in the meantime… but I won’t call it a guilty pleasure.

%d bloggers like this: