January 10th, 2013. Political Context in Action Thrillers. Movies reviewed: Zero Dark Thirty, A Darker Truth

Posted in Army, CIA, Cultural Mining, Death, Environmentalism, Protest, Thriller, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on January 26, 2013

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

Many people complain that action movies are vapid, pointless pablum, just meaningless flashes and a driving score to keep people distracted. Maybe so. But does adding a political context make an action movie better? This week I’m looking at two movies – both basically action thrillers – that are told within a political context. One’s a celebration of a CIA agent’s role in the assassination Osama Bin Laden, the other’s about a Canadian multinational messing things up in South America.

zero-dark-thirtyZero Dark Thirty

Dir: Catherine Bigelow

Maya (Jessica Chastain) is an up-and-coming CIA agent, with a delicate personality and whispey red hair blowing in the wind. She finds herself in a secret dark site. It’s post- 9/11 and the CIA is trying to find out where the next terrorist attack is going to be, and how they can stop it. She turns to the ruthless Dan (Jason Clarke) as her mentor. He’s a laid-back kinda guy with a scruffy beard who likes to say things like “It’s cool bro… everyone breaks eventually” to the people he’s torturing. He raises cute little monkeys in a cage, right beside the suspects, also kept in zoo-like cages. So she’s soon happily stringing up people, stripping them naked, putting black hoods on them and waterboarding the prisoners, just like the rest of the agents. Pretty grim stuff.

But she’s doing it to save America. As one character says in a dramatic speech: Al Qaeda attacked us from the air, from the land and by sea. We must stop them! And when she personally witnesses a bombing that kills her colleague she makes it her lifelong goal to kill that terrorist mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. (And it’s not a spoiler to say that he’s killed in a Navy SEAL raid on Pakistan in May, 2011.)

Zero Dark Thirty is a very long movie that traces the CIA’s violent, twisted and bumpy path toward getting Bin Laden. Gradually the public and the government seem to lose their original goal of catching the culprit of 9/11, but it’s Maya’s dogged pursuit that gets him in the end.

I thought it was a too-long, and not all that interesting, action movie telling a story we already know, completely from the Jessica Chastain zero dark thirtypoint of view of a CIA agent. It’s not one-sided – it is unsparing in its portrayal of torture – but it seems to make it all just seem like an episode of the TV show “24”, where there’s always a ticking time bomb or a planned terrorist attack ready to happen. If they can get the bad guys to talk – however they do it – any method is OK. The thing is, in real life torture is not OK, and it doesn’t work. Among other things, it talks about the 3000 innocent people killed on 9/11 – a terrible tragedy — but doesn’t seem to mention any of the 100,000s of innocent people, completely unrelated to that event, who were killed by the US and its allies in retaliation. (It does casually mention drones in Afghanistan, but just in passing.) It also portrays terrorism as a constant, never-ending threat, killing people all over the world. And its portrayal of Muslims and especially Arabs was especially simplistic.

(One of the most annoying scenes in the movie looks like it was written by someone who had never met a Muslim. It involves a group of women in black robes and hijab, their faces veiled with niqab. And what happens? Well, in this movie, any woman who covers her face must be up to something devious or sneaky; naturally, they end up being male assassins disguised as women who pull out weapons and mow someone down… Really?)

As a movie, the acting (especially Chastain, Clarke and Jennifer Ehle as another CIA agent) is very good, and the storyline is initially compelling, though its subject matter is extremely disturbing.

But it gets boring in the second half — just people walking through the steps taken to “get” bin Laden. Fun if you’re into Navy Seal recruitment videos, but boring to everyone else. I also thought its portrayal of good guys and bad guys – Us vs Them – overly selective. Every suspect turns out to be a terrorist, who can’t be trusted and is there just to kill us. Not just that, but we should make them hurt bad, not just because it’ll save lives, but because they did bad things to us and our friends and should pay for it. And that torture works.

Zero Dark Thirty is not a good movie.

Another action thriller is

Dark-truth-poster-1A Darker Truth

Dir: Damian Lee

Morgan (Deborah Kara Unger) is a ribbon-cutter, a Toronto heiress at a multinational resource corporation, who cuts ribbons and launches benevolent charities in the company’s name. But when she has an alarming run-in with an Equadorian on the lam her eyes are opened. She decides to investigate her company’s actions in South America where they may be responsible for poisoning water and killing locals, all for the sake of the bottom line. So she hires local talk show host Jack Begosian who has long rallied against what he calls the Great Transformation: corporate commoditization of necessities like water, land and air. Jack’s radio call-in show is called The Truth, but he’s pretty secretive about his own truth – he may have been a CIA agent in his past.

So Jack has to go to Equador, uncover the truth, and bring the Campesino revolutionary Francisco Francis (Forest Whitaker) to safety in Toronto. Francisco and his wife Mia (Eva Longoria) are the only ones speaking up for the endangered locals. But it’s not so easy.

A sniper-assassin named Tor (Kevin Durand) has been hired by the Canadian company to kill Jack and everyone else involved in order to protect their profits and image. Who will live and who will die? Who can be trusted? And will the truth ever be released?

A Dark Truth is another interesting-sounding action thriller that loses some of its steam due to an overly complicated plot. Parts are exciting and dramatic, with a good shoot-out and some interesting plot turns. But some parts are glacial in their painful slowness, like Jack’s scenes with his family wife and son. There are also far too many subplots to care about. The story keeps jumping back and forth across continents, with way too many flashbacks and tons of confusing images (like the heiress lying in a bathtub fully dressed – what does this mean and why do they keep showing it?) The acting is mixed. Durand, Garcia, Unger and Devon Bostick as the young Equadorian are all good, while the usually great Forest Whitaker seems bafflingly flat and uninteresting.

It’s nice to have Toronto playing itself for once, and important topics — like eco-revolutionaries and international intrigue – are rare to see on the big screen, but A Dark Truth is just so-so as an action thriller.

Zero Dark Thirty and A Dark Truth, both open today. Check your local listings. Also opening is Michael Haneke’s fantastic Amour, one of my top ten movies of the year.

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

March 9, 2012. If You Love This Planet. Movies reviewed: The Lorax, John Carter

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

With globalization, things affect the whole planet all at once even if they only happen in one place. The Earth is all shook up! Like last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan – I remember seeing those horrific scenes of towns being swept away, and the ongoing tension about the nuclear leak at Fukushima.

In gratitude for the support of the international community, the Japan Foundation in Toronto is offering a series of free films next week at Innis College called Light Up Japan. The documentaries are all about what has happened since the disaster in that area and how the people are coping with it. Check out the Japan Foundation ( jftor.org ) for more information.

So in keeping with the theme of global events, this week I’m looking at two movies with whole-planet-sized topics. One is about a kid trying to save the earth from total destruction; the other is a man who finds himself a part of the potential ruin of Mars.

The Lorax

Dir: Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda

Ted lives in Thneedville, a plastic suburban shopping mall town where life controlled by a Mr O’Hare, a nasty rich guy who made his fortune bottling air, and who spies on everyone in town. Ted has a crush on his neighbour Audrey who is into trees – which don’t exist anymore (people use plastic trees instead). Audrey says she wishes she could see one.

So taking his grandmother’s advice, Ted climbs into his vehicle – a sort of a unicycle/ segway/ scooter – and sneaks out of the city to find the Once-lear – the only person who still knows the truth. He discovers that the vast wasteland outside of Thneedville once was a land of rainbows, happy fish, droopy birds, and teddy bears who ate the berries from the puffball trees, and lived happily and peacefully. An industrialist uses the puffballs to make a knitted stringy thing, the thneed, that consumers buy by the millions. He decides it’s cheaper and easer to cut them all down rather than using their puffballs as a renewable resource. Only the Lorax, (a tiny mustachioed environmentalist who descends from the heavens in a thunderstorm) can save the day, if only people will listen. He speaks for the trees…

I thought this movie was OK, but it really seemed to stretch the short Dr Seuss book into a 90 minute song-and-dance musical. It soft-pedals the problems of industrial pollution and consumerism, and reduces the motivation from ardent environmentalism to a boy wanting to kiss a girl. It relegates the Lorax story to flashback status, and kept the wonderful Seuss-like scenes of the valley to a minimum, while over-emphasizing the non-Seuss humdrum suburban scenes, filled with your usual 3-d sitcom characters.

It’s not a bad movie, and of course it’s great to tell kids about environmentalism and privacy, but the songs were dull, the characters not-so-interesting, the story not very original, and the animation and character style not up to what I expect from a Dr Seuss story.

Interesting fact — The Lorax earned more money in its opening weekend than Hugo did in its entire run.

John Carter

Dir: Andrew Stanton

John Carter is a mean and strong fighter, a cavalry man from the civil war. He can escape from jails, scrapple with anyone – weapon or not – is good on horseback and keen with a sword and a rifle. And he doesn’t take sides – Apache or US Army – they’re all the same. He doesn’t want any part of it. He just wants to find his cave of gold in the Arizona desert. But when he encounters a stranger in the cave, and repeats the word Barsoom while touching a glowing amulet, he is magically transported to Mars a land of great civilizations, far beyond earth’s imagination.

Strong John Carter, though smaller than the four-armed tusked Tarks – some of the creatures who live there – soon discovers he can leap high in the air and jump long distances, because of the different gravity there. He soon finds himself in the middle of a huge war between the city of Helium and the bad Zodanga. And he meets Dejah, (a beautiful princess-warrior, as well as a physicist, inventor and a great swordswoman) who is being forceed into marrying a bad guy from the other kingdom. Meanwhile, the shape-shifting super-gods who are manipulating everyone on that planet, are messing things up. It’s up to John Carter to save civilization – but he’s not sure he wants to – he just wants to find the amulet and go back to earth. But with the help of his speedy and faithful dog-monster Woolla, and the noble and honest Thark-guide Sola, he and Dejah must find mutual trust, truth and possibly true love in their search for the secrets of this planet.

As you can tell, this is a very long, plot-heavy story about an adventure on Mars. Like comics, manga and pulp fiction, the story takes precedent over feelings, emotions or characters – it’s more the action, the twists, the background, the secrets, the fights, the betrayals and the fantastical, sex-tinged images. But it carries it through amazingly well in this 2½ hour epic. (People call everything epics now, but this is an actual epic). I thought it was amazing.

It’s done in the style of Frank Frazetta’s illustrations: fiery-eyed women in exotic garb with pendulous breasts and black tresses; snarling men with steely gaze and bared chests, brandishing their swords toward the red skies…..  but through a Disney filter, making it sexy, but not sexual.

It feels more like Roman sword-and-sandal story than science fiction. (It’s based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels.) It has a mainly British cast, plus Canadian Taylor Kitsch — just great in the title role. I liked Lynn Collins (never heard of her) as Dejah, and Dominic West (The Wire) as one of many assorted bad guys in this cast-of-thousands picture. Want to be overwhelmed by an elaborate, exciting movie getaway, with a complicated fantasy plot that never lets up, even for a second? Then this is the one to see.

The Lorax is playing now, and John Carter opens today in Toronto, and the Japanese documentaries are playing all week at Innis College.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

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September 30, 2011. Palestine. Films Reviewed: (No) Laughing Matter, Children of the Revolution, Pomegranates and Myrrh PLUS TPFF, We Were Here, Resurrect Dead

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.

It’s fall now — the days are getting shorter and nights are getting colder, and the leaves are starting to turn yellow and red. And the governments might be changing soon, too. There are provincial elections happening across the country, with the Ontario elections happening on October 6th – that’s next Thursday. On a larger scale, there’s another vote coming up in the United Nations’ General Assembly – whether to admit Palestine as a full member state. Well, if you’re curious about the issue and want to know what is being discussed, there’s a film festival on, starting tonight, called the Toronto Palestine Film Festival. The TPFF presents a largely secular, political look at the Israel/Palestine conflict from the Palestinian point of view in a series of movies.

So this week I’m going to look at three movies from that festival – two documentaries and one drama – about terrorism, humour and love; and also talk briefly about two more docs opening in Toronto.

(No) Laughing Matter

Dir: Vanessa Rousselot

Rousselot, a French-Palestinian filmmaker, wants to know if the people in Palestine ever smile, laugh or tell jokes. So she sets out in a car with a camera to try to capture some of the humour — mainly dark humour — that Palestinians (in the West Bank in Jenin, Hebron, Bethlehem, and in Israel In Haifa) use. Is there a particularly style of joke that could be called distinctly Palestinian?

She discovers a few interesting things. First, that the people of Hebron seems to serve as their Newfies or Belgians — the naïve, butt-ends of local jokes. Second, she discovers an elderly man who, at the time of the First Intifada, set about recording and categorizing thousands of local jokes on index cards, which he produces and reads for the camera. The hour-long TV documentary gives a glimpse of everyday people — laughing school girls, a stand-up comic, a shop keeper, a Catholic priest, some angry young men in a coffee house — and how they express themselves, and sometimes use humour as a survival tactic.

Here’s a typical joke from the movie:

A world leader dies and goes to heaven. He is matched up with an old and plain woman. Then he sees Yassir Arafat cuddling a beautiful Marilyn Monroe. He tells God, “Hey that’s not fair! How come you rewarded Arafat over me?” God says, “I’m not rewarding Arafat… I’m punishing Marilyn Monroe.”

Children of the Revolution

Dir: Shane O’Sullivan

This documentary traces the lives of two hugely important radical terrorists/ activists/ revolutionaries – whichever way you choose to label them – who grew up in the two defeated nations from WWII: Japan and Germany. These two notorious figures – Ulrike Meinhof, of the German “Red Army Faction”, and Shigenobu Fusako of the “Japan Red Army” – were even more remarkable in that they were both women. This movie tells their history, as seen through the eyes of their young daughters. The kids were pulled into this turbulent world by their mothers, giving an immediacy rarely seen in movies about such highly-charged controversial figures.

In the late 60’s, their conservative, middle-class societies were suddenly turned upside down. With the convergence of the US Vietnam war and the anti-war movement, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and unrest in Latin American countries, the new heroes became Mao, Marx and Che. Meinhof worked for a communist-funded tabloid called Konkret and became a part of the radical society that was shaking up Europe. Shigenobu, the granddaughter of a radical right-wing activist, joined the leftist student uprisings that totally changed the power-dynamic in Japanese society (at least temporarily).

Both of these figures fled to Beirut and from there to Syria after meeting with a Palestinian revolutionary. From there, these two women and their contemporaries, on behalf of the Peoples’ Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), committed a series of hijackings, kidnappings, shootings, bank robberies and bombings, that held the world rapt in the late sixties and seventies. They hijacked planes to North Korea, bombed a jet in Cairo, and led a horrific attack shooting dozens of civilians at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv. It also brought the causes they were advocating to the front page. Markedly different from today’s terrorists, they said they committed their acts for a worldwide revolution, not for their own nation’s or group’s interests.

Through a kid’s eyes their situation was both fascinating and scary. Meinhof’s daughter talks of seeing kids playing on the street when she was little — their game wasn’t Cops and Robbers, but Bader and Meinhof.

Shigenobu’s daughter remembers that kids she knew in the Palestinian refugee camps all wanted to grow up as either doctors, nurses, or fedayeen (guerrillas).

This is a fascinating story, illustrated with countless, vivid B&W snapshots, TV and news clips. Although portrayed in dramatic form in two recent movies (The Bader-Meinhof Complex — about the RAF and United Japan Army about the JRA), this is the first documentary I’ve seen that combines the two. Equally surprising is that it takes a largely sympathetic stance toward the hijackers.

And opening the festival with a screening tonight is:

Pomegranates and Myrrh

Dir: Najwar Najjar

A good-looking, young Christian couple, Kamar and Zaid (Yasmine Elmasri and Ashraf Farah), travel from the West Bank to Jerusalem for a happy wedding party. Zaid’s family are farmers who have an olive grove, and it’s time for the harvest and olive oil press. Meanwhile, Kamar is a modern dancer, whose group is preparing to meet a Palestinian choreographer, Kais (Ali Suliman), who is visiting from Lebanon. They’re preparing a performance of traditional (stomp, stomp, clap, clap) folk dances called Pomegranates and Myrrh.

But things start to go wrong when a happy nighttime picnic in the olive grove is interrupted by Israeli helicopters carrying young soldiers. Zaid is put into a detention center, ostensibly for hitting a soldier, and his family’s olive farm is in danger of being confiscated for “security reasons”.

Now it’s up to the new bride to try to free her husband and at the same time, to stand up to the authorities and hold onto the family land. They hire a sympathetic Israeli lawyer to help them keep the army and encroaching settlers away. But for how long? Will Zaid admit to a lesser charge so he can save his land? Will they manage to get the olive harvest in and pressed on time? And what is Kamar up to with that scarf-wearing choreographer and his trust exercises – does he have designs on her while her husband is in jail?

Pommegranites and Myrrh is a bittersweet drama about love in a time of conflict, beautifully shot, with (sometimes) poetic dialogue. With warm and loving families resisting shadowy settler-terrorists, and faceless, shouting Israeli soldiers chasing after playful children, I thought the movie comes across as somewhat heavy-handed, but it does give a largely unseen look at life — with its very real crises and dangers — through Palestinian eyes.

Also playing this weekend are the great documentaries We Were Here, and Resurrect Dead. We Were Here is a very moving oral history of the AIDS outbreak in the 80’s remembered by some of the people in San Francisco who lived through it. That opens today.

Ressurect Dead is a really unusual documentary about the strange unidentified man who has been leaving tiled messages in the tarmac of city streets across the continent, with a crypto-religious message about the planet Jupiter, historian Toynbee, and Stanley Kubrick. What makes the movie so unique, is that it was made on zero budget by a group of marginal detectives and conspiracy theorists who use things like ham radio to try to find out the messages’ origins, but who are as fascinating as the man they’re trying to find. That’s called Resurrect Dead.

Check local listings for We Were Here and Resurrect Dead, and for more information about the Toronto Palestine Film Festival go to tpff.ca.

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

More Underdogs at Hotdocs! Weibo’s War, Guantanamo Trap, Draquila: Italy Trembles, Hot Coffee, Bury the Hatchet, Melissa-Mom and Me

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

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Toronto’s Hotdocs, which continues through the weekend, is one of the best documentary festivals in the world. Today I’m going to talk about some more movies about the largely unknown underdogs, in their struggles with huge governments, big business, or with themselves.

Weibo’s War

Dir: David York

Weibo Ludwig is a devout Christian who lives in a remote, isolated colony with his fellow religious settlers in BC, near Alberta. Their lives are food and energy self-sufficient, but, in the 90’s, things began to go wrong. Goats started having frequent stillbirths, and, when a woman also miscarried, they realized their watershed had been contaminated by natural gas wells built right at the edge of their property.

He was later arrested, tried, and jailed for bombs he had set off at wells and pipelines in that energy-rich Alberta area. This movie follows filmmaker David York who was allowed to film inside their compound.

Is Weibo a religious nut or a devoted social activist? Well, he’s certainly religious, but he’s crazy like a fox. The movie shows some of Weibo’s (and those of his fellow settlers’) frequent brushes with the law and the big energy companies

including run-ins with outwardly conciliatory execs from Encana; the seemingly pointless, intimidating, and relentless police raids of their homes to test things like how many ball point there are on one floor, and how many cassette tapes are on another; and their increasingly fractious relationship with the nearby town, where they have found themselves local pariahs following the unexplained shooting death of young woman on their property.

Folk hero, or deranged terrorist?

Maybe both. I left the movie even less certain than before as to who’s to blame and what actually happened. While a bit slow-moving, Weibo’s war did give a first hand look at a legendary Canadian figure, his family and co-religionists, and the unusual junction between Christian fundamentalism and environmental extremism.

Guantanamo Trap

Dir: Thomas Selim Wallner

With the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden, some people are saying that the awful decade between 9/11 until now is finally over. The “War on Terror” has been “won” by the west, and we can turn the page on the whole tragedy and its devastating effect on the American public, and the subsequent hundreds of thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis killed by the US and their allies.

But, inspite of bin Laden’s death, in spite of Obama’s election promises, the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is still open, with many untried captives still inside. What really happened at Guantanamo, who’s to blame and who got punished?

This film traces four people involved in this awful period: a military lawyer, Diane Beaver, who helped write the notorious memo that declared waterboarding was not torture; Muniz, a religious Turkish-German Muslim man, who was whisked away from Pakistan due to some miscommunication and tortured in Guantanamo; Matthew, a military judge-advocate, also working at Guantanamo (alongside Diane), who leaked a memo with a list of prisoners’ names and countries; and Gonzalo, an activist- lawyer in Spain who wants to prosecute the people really responsible for miscarriages of justice.

This is a very moving and shocking film with previously unseen footage — not just still photos — and first- hand testimony of what went on in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In an awful Catch 22, it seems the people at the top got away scott-free, the whistleblowers were jailed, the low-level torture advocates were scapegoated but allowed to retire to happy, new careers, and the unwitting victims left without apology or explanation. This Canadian film is an excellent, human look at a difficult and controversial topic.

Draquila – Italy Trembles

Dir: Sabina Guzzanti

In 2009, the small Italian city of Aquilla was struck by a dangerous earthquake which damaged the rennaisance buildings in the town centre, killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless. The diorector, a comedian and filmmaker uses this disaster to expose the tangled web of corruption, oppression, and scandal at the root of Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi’s empire and its ties to big business, the construction industry Milan, his media empire, the military, police and government, and the Mafia.

Something familiar only to Italians known as “Civil Protection” — a recent government law that allows forcible confinement, exclusive contracts, and strange pay-offs in the name of protection in the case of disasters or threats — has ballooned into a strange and twisted entity that releases unfettered access to government funds, while it gags local government, blocks media coverage, and puts the police in charge. Far from being a temporary measure, it’s occuring daily across Italy, for anything considered to be a “big event” including church parades, housing relocation, and swimming contests.

Comic and political filmmaker Sabina Guzzanti spends most of the movie trying to get into the relocation camps of the earthquake victims, but getting stymied at almost every stop by police and contractors who are loathe to allow public access to anything that might expose corruption or wrongdoing.

And through it all the stoic victims are pushed around like pawns in some international PR game.

Draquila (a reference to all the blood suckers who, laughing immediately after the disaster, gleefully pounced on the disaster as a chance to earn big government contracts) is an enlightening, entertaining and humorous look at the uniquely shady world of Italian politics under Berlusconi.

Hot Coffee

Dir: Susan Saladoff

When a woman who was awarded millions in a lawsuit after she was burnt by hot coffee at a McDonald’s drive through, her story hit the headlines. It became a staple joke for comedians and talk shows, an episode of Seinfeld, and the focus of citizens’ groups objecting to “Frivolous Lawsuits”. But this movie takes a closer look at these seemingly ridiculous awards.

It turns out — and she shows unbelievably brutal photos to prove it — that the elderly woman was horribly injured by the coffee spill; that she initially asked only asked McDonald’s for reimbursement for her medical expenses (McDonald’s offered only a token $800); and that far from being frivolous, it was an incident that followed repeated corporate indifference to similar incidents that had occurred hundreds of times before and kept secret by the companies.

This movie poses that the whole concept of of the term frivolous lawsuits was coined by PR firms working for huge corporations like McDonald’s in order to cut their own losses and limit future pay-offs. She shows similar cases in the US — including malpractice suits, “forced mediation” and the fact no criminal charges were laid after an employee of a US security firm in Iraq was gang raped; and the case of a judge who was in favour of punitive awards in lawsuits, but was forced to fend off accusations and trials brought down on him by right-wing groups, when he should have been on the bench.

The way this movie handles concepts such as “tort reform” (i.e. opposition to lawsuits), and the parties actually pushing for it, reveals the necessity in the US for lawsuits. The filmmaker says corporate donations target liberal judges, lawsuits are being quashed by large corporations, that lawsuits are the only way for individuals to pay for medical damages, and that forced mediation always takes the side of the big companies not individuals.

But for Canadians and others outside of the US, Hot Coffee is as baffling and arcane as the Italian politics in Draquilla. We don’t have elections for judges, no corporate donations to political campaigns, no US-style extended elections beyond a few weeks, no TV ads for local politicians. In Canada trials are generally by judges not by juries; mediation usually refers to their successfully use in union/ management disputes, in lieu of strikes; and our largely public, one-payer health system, that provides lifetime medical care, cuts out many malpractice lawsuits.

Most of all, there are just far fewer lawyers, per capita, in Canada, and Canadians just aren’t as litigious as Americans. I can see the value now of lawsuits, but I’d be bothered if Canadians ever reached the level of US litigation and courtroom interference in the average person’s lives. And it might have been more believable if it hadn’t been so one sided in its relentlessly positive view lawsuits as a purely progressive force, without any look at the abuse that lawyers themselves may play in this phenomenon.

Finally, two more Hotdocs films that deal with issues on a smaller, individual level.

Bury the Hatchet

Dir: Aaron Walker

The annual Mardi Gras in New Orleans has a public, tourist side to it, but also has a deeply ingrained local side full of traditions and customs. This movie takes a look at the “tribes” — competitive teams of Black New Orleans residents — who, with beads and feathers, music and dance, dress in native costumes they design and wear in the parade.

The custom, said to have started with the shelter natives gave escaped slaves, is performed in their honour, with colourful homages to the Indians using mock chants, names and headdresses.

This intensely beautiful, brightly coloured film interviews the elderly men in their various competing clubs, as they recount, using period foootage and pictures, the sometimes violent history of this largely unknown practice. The soundtrack, composed of jazz, blues, R&B and reggae, are as entrancing as the images, in this slow moving, but very visual and aural slice of New Orleans cultural life from the 60’s, through Katrina, until the present.

Melissa-Mom and Me

Dir: Limor Pinhasov

Yael — then known as Jenny — and Melissa, lead a drug-filled, light hearted life as two friends who worked as strippers in a Tokyo nightclub. Yael became a professional photographer in Tel Aviv, while Melissa eventually made her was back to Carolina, to start a very different life. Yael decides to join her here to rekindle their friendship (she still has many videos and photos she had taken of them in Tokyo) and to get her advice on having kids.

This is quite a moving story.

Melissa-mom of the title is indeed a mother — she had left her kids when she went to work as a stripper in Tokyo — and they are now much older and grown up without their own mother. In a dramatically filmed series of revelations, meetings, confrontations, and reconciliations, Melissa’s hidden family secrets are gradually revealed both to her friend Yael, and to the audience. It deals with sin, reponsibility, duty, guilt, friendship, love and family, in an entirely understandable way.

All of these movies are worth watching (depending on your interests). Most of the movies get replayed this weekend, so be sure to come out to see some more great documentaries.

The Hotdocs festival runs from Thursday April 28th to May 8th, and is free – no charge! – for rush seats during the day for anyone with a Student or Senior ID. Check online at hotdocs.ca

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

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

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

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

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

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

In one new movie,

Source Code

Dir: Duncan Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Canadian film that opens next Friday,

Repeaters

Dir: Carl Bessai

follows a similar pattern.

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

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

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

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

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Dir: Matt Harlock and Pauk Thomas

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

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

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

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

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

The Tiny Ventriloquist

Dir: Steve Reinke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Christening
Dir: Marcin Wrona

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

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

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

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

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

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

Essential Killing
Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 25, 2011 Morality in Movies. Films Reviewed: Limitless, Outside the Law, West is West

When people are looking for discussions on morality, the last place they’ll look for answers is at the movies — they’re just entertainment, right? Well… not exactly. Actually, traditional Hollywood movies — be they dramas, comedies, westerns, romances, adventures, or even horror movies – always follow a strict moral code: The bad guys are punished or killed, the good guys rewarded in the end. It’s almost puritanical: in a slasher movie, the ones who smoke pot or get drunk or make out are always the first ones killed by the serial killer. In the recent comedy, Hall Pass, the characters who have extramarital sex get physically hurt, while the ones who stay pure are spared.

But occasionally you get movies where the characters themselves face a moral dilemma, and have to decide for themselves whether or not they are doing the right thing, when both options seem terrible. So today I’m going to talk about three movies – one takes place in Pakistan and England, one in Algeria and France, and one in the US – with potential moral dilemmas at their core.

Limitless

Dir: Neil Burger

Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is a novelist with writer’s block. He hasn’t written a word of his first book yet, but he’s already spent his cash advance (I’d love to meet his agent!); he can’t pay his rent, and his girlfriend Lindy has dumped him.

But then he meets a low-life drug dealer from his past who offers him a new type of little, clear pill, an unnamed pharmaceutical, a sort of a super-Ritalin — that will solve all his problems, and he’ll be the only one on these drugs. Suddenly, everything’s as clear as the pill. He knows the answers to all his problems. He can seduce any woman, instantly learn any language, stop any punch before it hits him. He immediately writes his novel, but now he’s forced to consider what to do with his new powers. (Sort of a moral dillema). Will he find the cure for cancer or an HIV vaccine? Will he bring about world peace? Will he be able to save the world from Earthquakes and tsunamis?

Naaah. He goes for money fame and power instead. He borrows cash from a Russian gangster to invest on wall street and meets up with the great financier Van Loon. (The trillionaire is played by Robert de Niro, who is also just in it for the money.) And then there’s a mysterious old guy in a cheap suit who pops up all over the place and who is obviously up to no good.

What’s going to happen to Eddie? Will he make tons of money? Will he get back his girlfriend? And what about the drugs – what happens if they run out? And what about the gangster? And what about Van Loon – will he beat him at his own game? And who’s that creepy guy who’s spying on him?

Limitless is the kind of so-so popcorn movie that’s fun to watch, but crumbles apart immediately afterwards when you try to make sense of it. (Maybe it’s because I’m not on the little clear pill, but I doubt it.) I liked the semi-psychedelic scenes in this movie where he has strange out-of-body experiences in a constant forward movement, speeding through time and space. Cool special effects. And there are some good dramatic moments, but the rest of is pretty stupid. Bradley Cooper plays the same douche-y prick he did in The Hangover, Abbie Cornish is forgettable as his girlfriend, and De Niro is just killing time – he doesn’t even try.

Outside the Law (Hors-la-Loi)

Written and Directed by

Rachid Bouchareb

In 1925, a family gets kicked off its farm in Algeria because he has no written deed, and some French colonist wants the land. The defiant mother and her three young sons are each affected by this, in their own way, but all of them just want back what’s rightfully theirs. Soon the three brothers are all grown up – it’s the 50s and a demonstration is building in the city streets. Abdelkader is an activist marching in the demo, Said is an entrepreneur trying to make money through boxing; and Messaoud is the tough boxer he’s promoting. But once again the French military and police are messing things up, massacring both the political activists and the people just living their lives.

So the movie follows the three sons and the paths they take – after being jailed for demonstrating, Abdelkhader becomes a real revolutionary, Said turns to organized crime, prostitution, gambling and nightclubs, and Messaoud who joins the French army becomes a POW in Hanoi.

Algeria is now a part of France – it’s been completely annexed. So they all eventually end up living as second-class citizens in the slums and shantytowns of Paris, and become involved in the increasing tension and growing political storm In Algeria, and the rise of the FLN, (the Algerian Liberation Front) in which they all end up playing a crucial role.

Abdelkader has to decide his priorities as he’s faced with difficult moral dilemmas. Is it the revolution above all? Or family ties? And does the end justify the means? And what does it mean if he’s behaving as violently as the French he’s revolting against, or resorting to terrorist actions? While politics always makes for strange bedfellows, Abdelkader’s strict puritanism is contrasted with Said the gangster’s devil-may-care attitude. But he also forces his Messaoud to be his muscle and do the dirty deeds that he decides on.

This is a neat movie that combines, using the three brothers, different movie types – it’s a combination historical, political drama, a police thriller (they’re being chased by a cop who was in the left-wing resistance during WWII), a boxing movie, and a Godfather-type family saga. Great acting by the three brothers – Jamal Debbouze as the funny, street hood, Roschdy Zem as the strong and silent bruiser, and Sami Boujila as the troubled, heroic revolutionary – who switch from Arabic to French and back again – in this really well-made movie. I think anyone who saw Gods and Men (the gentle movie about the French monks massacred in Algeria) should also see this one if they want to really understand the politics and history of the two nations.

West is West

Dir: Andy DeEmmony

Sajid is a British schoolkid in Manchester in the 1970’s, whose parents have a chip shop. His father George is Pakistani, his mother’s English, and he’s an irascible foulmouthed brat who is picked on by racist bullies at his school. The headmaster, having spent time in Punjab when it was part of the British Empire, shows his sympathy to Sajid by telling him about Kipling. “Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, hold the Punjab” he says, but Sajid wants nothing to do with that. And when, in a fight with his father, he uses the P-word, things really look bad. So the next thing you know, he’s being shipped off with his dad to the family homestead in Punjabi Pakistan.

And there’s a whole family there – George hasn’t seen his first wife and daughters since he emigrated thirty years before – he just periodically sent them money to support them. Sajid, who only knows “Salaam aleikum” and a few dirty words in Urdu, begins to study not in a classroom but by following a staff-carrying wise man who claims to be a fool and a local kid he dismissively calls Mowgli.

But he makes a friend, learns about life, and gradually loses his English uniform and ways. West is West wonders if ever the twain shall meet. Will his older brother, who is obsessed with Nana Mouskouri, ever find a bride that lives up to his image? Will Sajid find a culture to call his own? And what will George do to solve his impossible moral dilemma? The movie has more stories than you can shake a stick at, but it carefully and thoughtfully deals with each one inside the bigger East vs West story. It’s especially touching in the way it deals with the two wives, neither of whom planned their strange predicament.

Superficially, you can compare this to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but it’s everything that movie is not.

It’s hilarious, but without reverting to camp or slapstick; it deals with cultural differences but not with cheap ethnic stereotypes; it’s adorable, but foul-mouthed enough to never seem cutesie; and above all, it was just a really good movie. It’s not a movie only for South Asians, it’s a lovely and delightful movie for everyone.

Limitless is now playing, and opening today, March 25, in Toronto are Outside the Law, West is West, and A Matter of Size (a movie about people embracing their body-size by becoming sumo wrestlers, which I reviewed last week). Check your local listings.

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

Movies for Grown-ups. Films reviewed: Of Gods and Men, Nora’s Will, Unknown. Plus upcoming film festivals

Well, if you ever need a break from standard Hollywood fare, I’ve got a few movies that are watchable but slightly outside expected norms.

This week I’m going to talk about three movies notable for having mature characters (meaning they’re over 14); movies that deal with questions of identity, religion, and the concepts of alienation and acceptance; and movies that take place in small communities within larger ones. They also take place outside the United States: one in Berlin, one in Mexico City, and one in a small village in Algeria. And these movies all feature great actors, even in the smaller roles.

Nora’s Will

Dir: Mariana Chenillo

Jose shows up at his ex-wife Nora’s apartment one morning to find the coffee being made, fresh food in the fridge, everything arranged for the day, but with Nora in her bedroom, dead. They’ve been divorced for 20 years, but he still lives right across the street.

Jose (Fernando Luján) is shocked by her death, but even more surprised when he discovers her plans are still unfolding. Nora is a Jewish, Mexican woman, and it appears she arranged for her funeral to coincide with a final Passover dinner. She has left little post it notes all around her apartment, and the calls start coming in as planned – her eccentric cousin from Guadalajara is on her way, their children are returning from their vacations, and her doctor is also showing up, and so is her Rabbi.

Jose bristles at both his ex-wife’s religious beliefs and her arrangements, so he makes it his unspoken goal to mess up all her plans. He suspects she had a lover, and wants to find evidence of that in her apartment. Even after her death he is still obsessed with his ex-wife. And in order to do what he can to disrupt the funeral he offers pepperoni pizza to the kosher rabbi, festoons the apartment with giant floral crosses, and tries to hide all the post-it notes about her planned last supper. And once the rumour escapes that Nora may have committed suicide, Jose’s disruptive plans spin out of control, with a possibility that there will be no where at all to bury her. His daughter in law is pissed-off, her housekeeper is suspicious, and the various other characters all seem ready to explode. Can JOse pull everything back together again? And does he want to?

This is a pretty funny movie, sort of a gentle, drawing-room comedy about middle-class, urban life in Mexico – something I’ve rarely seen in a movie before. And it reveals (in flashbacks) some unexpected secrets of the family – or at least secret to the movie viewer – so it keeps your interest as the stories unfold, and the plot gains more depth. Nora’s Will is a good, funny and, in the end, poignant portrayal of a damaged relationship, and their need for closure. And it won eight awards from the Mexican Academy of Film, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

Of Gods and Men

Dir: Xavier Beauvois

This is a movie about a peaceful monastery of Trappist monks in Algeria in the 1990s. They don’t proselytize or evangelize; instead they just make honey, tend to the sick and the poor, and spend the rest of their time in prayer and meditation. But civil war tensions enter into their lives, when Islamist extremists are getting closer, and start attacking nearby villages, and the equally violent — though ardently secular — military wants to place armed gunmen inside the monastery.

This is based on the true story, (made clear even in the ads) of their tragic massacre, so their fates are not a surprise, but the movie is about the period before then when they debate whether to stay in Algeria or go back to France.

The movie itself is constructed in a very formalistic way – scenes of their uneventful daily routines are contrasted with the increasingly violent events encroaching on their lives. Each short section is concluded with a silent tableau of the white-robed monks praying. Their feelings are subtly reflected by their postures at prayer: standing tall, or hunched in a circle, or reclining at rest, or collapsing in despair… a silent visual commentary on the events in their lives.

They start out as an undifferentiated mass, unidentifiable one from the next, but gradually their identities, names and personalities are made clear. Well, sort of… I thought the director made them more into a real-life version of the seven dwarves: Doc, Sleepy, Grumpy, Happy… They seemed more like allegorical figures than real people, with only Christian, the Abbot (Lambert Wilson), the leader among the brothers, and Luc (Michael Lonsdale), a doctor who spends much of his time in native dress, as fully-formed characters.

Of Gods and Men is a slow-moving, but not boring, beautifully constructed look at monks’ lives as religious martyrs, proto-saints, and nearly-flawless examples. Is there anyone who doesn’t like monks?

But it left me feeling slightly duped by the religiosity of it all, with its story and characters made less real, and more like a sunday school lesson, by their hagiographic portrayals. The whole movie felt like a parent or a priest wagging his finger at the collective movie goers, as a lesson in religious purity and peity.

And you had to wonder about the film’s point of view.

Remember, Algeria was a colony, annexed and ruled as an integral part of France up until the end of their bloody war of independence in 1962. So you have to wonder about a French movie portraying the Algerian soldiers as the bad guys, and the Islamist extremist as the other bad guys, with the only good guys being the French monks (and the local villagers) still in Algeria. Sketchy, n’est-ce pas? While I feel nothing but sympathy for the massacred trappist monks, this movie really seems to be shedding a tear for France’s whole lost empire.

Unknown

Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra

Dr Martin Harris, a scientist, arrives in Berlin with his wife Elizabeth to give a presentation on agricultural biology. But at the doors of their luxury hotel he realizes he left his briefcase at the airport. So he hails a cab and rushes back. But there’s an accident on the way that plunges the car into a river, with the pretty cabby risking her life to save his. Four days later, he comes to in a hospital bed with a brain injury, his mind confused. He rushes back to the hotel to find his wife, but when he gets there, she denies knowing him, and, stranger still, she has checked in with another man, also claiming to be Dr Martin Harris! Whoa…!

So here he is, with a bandaged head, no ID, no money, in a strange city he’s never been to, and he knows nobody there. His identity has even been wiped clean on the Internet – he doesn’t exist. And he starts to have paranoid thoughts – is that guy in a parked car waiting for him. Is that other guy with round glasses following him? And how about the man on the subway? Is he losing his mind? But, as they say, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

So Martin teams up with some locals to try to solve the mystery – the nice illegal immigrant cabby, and a blandly sinister detective who used to be in the Stasi, the East German secret service. What’s going on? What happened to his wife? And is he in danger? Unknown is a not-bad mystery/thriller with a Catalan Director, and a really good , largely European cast – Liam Neeson as the confused yet violent Martin, the great Bruno Ganz as the Stasi agent, Sebastian Koch as the German scientist, and Diane Kruger as the cabby; as well as Americans like January Jones as his wife, Aiden Quinn as the man pretending to be him.

I thought the mysterious set-up of the first half was more satisfying than the car chases, shoot-outs and fights of the second half (when the secrets are revealed and the plot chugs along its way) but it’s not a bad, mystery/thriller.

In Toronto, festival season is starting up soon. Here are some of the lesser known festivals.

Look out for the Toronto Silent Film Festival starting on March 30th, with bog stars of the silent era like Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and Harold Lloyd, and great directors like FW Murnau, Hal Roach and King Vidor. Look online at http://www.ebk-ink.com/tsff/home.html

The Female Eye Film Festival features movies directed by women, including a Canadian psychological drama, The High Cost of Living directed by Deborah Chow. Check out listings at http://www.femaleeyefilmfestival.com/

And the Images Festival, North America’s largest collection of art and culture in the form of moving images on videos and in film, starts on March 31. Go to imagesfestival.com.

Nora’s Will opens today in Toronto, and Unknown and Of Gods and Men are now playing. Check your local listings.

Men, Honour, Trust and Responsibility. Films Reviewed: The Eagle, Biutiful

Men are in a mess – or so say contemporary movies. Dragged down by family disgrace and personal difficulties, or unable to hold onto the responsibilities of wage-earner and father. Can they stand up to villains? Can they take responsibility for disaster? Can they confront their enemies? Can they judge who is to be trusted and who is to be opposed? How can they know?

This week I’m looking at two very different movies, both with strong, male lead characters — one by a British director, another by a Mexican filmmaker.

Biutiful

Dir: Alejandro González Iñárritu

Uxbal (Javier Bardem) is a nice guy. He helps recent migrants from West Africa and China get along in Barcelona., He helps them find jobs, and protects them from the police and immigration agents, brings them gifts, ad warns them about upcoming trouble. He feels a personal attachment. He also raises his two kids, and is considering getting back together with his estranged wife Marambra (Maricel Alvarez). And occasionally, he uses his psychic abilities to help send messages from the recently dead to their living relatives left behind. He’s a regular Mother Theresa. But, things aren’t actually all that good.

Looked at another way, he’s exploiting dirt poor, desperate migrants by acting as the middle man for virtual slave-drivers; he’s the equivalent of a bag boy for unsavoury gangsters and corrupt cops; and his kindness can back-fire leading to potential disaster to the people he’s trying to help.

Then there’s his family. He lives a slovenly existence with his meager wages, and he has to deal with his immoral brother who gets “massages” from Uxbal’s unhinged, estranged wife (she says she needs the money). The wife, Marambra, is a hilarious character with a funny nose who talks a mile a minute, but can she be trusted to take care of their kids?

He’s also facing physical difficulties – his urine is turning dark, and despite the fact he wants nothing to do with blood tests (the hypodermic needles bother him for some reason) the results are clear: his body is being rotted away from the inside. His friend and advisor, a psychic like he is, urges him to settle his financial and moral debts before he dies. Will he be able to provide guidance and support for his children, comfort for a Chinese mother and child, help for his friend a West African migrant and his wife?

Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Biutiful is a complicated, and at times moving drama, with great acting, and a beautiful, very distinctive look to it all.  Fish and flowing water — on the wallpaper, on a bathroom tile — appear in almost every scene. And like his own movie, Babel, a few years ago, the story jumps from language to language and culture to culture (with appropriately colour-coded subtitles: white for Spanish, blue for Chinese, another colour for a west African language.)

It’s also almost more than one movie can hold. With so many complicated stories, and engrossing events, there’s a denseness, all centred around Bardem’s character, Uxbal. But he holds it together. My one criticism – and this is not exactly a spoiler, but skip ahead if you don’t want to hear — is in a dream or memory Uxbal has that’s repeated, verbatim, in two parts of the movie; it gives it a glibness or corniness that didn’t seem to fit. Still, Biutiful is, as its title suggests, a broken but beautiful film.

Next, a much easier film to follow, with a more linear, straightforward stpry, but one that also deals with trust, honour, responsibility, and interestingly, questions of loyalty toward the people from your country vs foregners, and the ones in your family.

The Eagle

Dir: Kevin Macdonald

Marcus Aquila (Channing Tatum) is a Roman who decides to go to occupied Britain, to find out what happened in a battle that was lost by his father a generation earlier. The Ninth Legion completely disappeared, possibly massacred, in a battle in the hills of Scotland, losing all their members, and the symbol of that division, a golden Eagle that was carried on a pole. He’s scoffed at by the Roman officers stationed there, but he soon proves his mettle by saving their fort from the wild British savages. And they are really savage – they attack the troops like hi-speed zombies, clamouring all over the romans, and looking like they’re about to tear them apart with their spears teeth and bear hands. They shriek out words of attack, and their wild-haired, long-bearded leader looks like he’s falling into a bloodthirsty trance before charging.

Marcus fights until he collapses and doesn’t awaken till he’s being tended by his uncle (Donald Sutherland), and discovers he’s been released from the military due to injuries. Well, one day he attends a gladiator  match, where a huge masked and armed roman, looking like a pro-wrestler, is pitted against a scrawny local, surely to be killed in seconds. But he local fighter… refuses to fight in the unfair match. Marcus, to the surprise of the crowd, gives him a thumbs-up, and the local is now his slave. Esca (Jamie Bell , the child lead in the gotta-dance movie, Billy Elliot, from 2000), the son of a local warrior himself, hates the Romans but must pay his debt to the man who saved his life. No Romans will venture past Hadrian’s wall, but, despite objections from the Romans, Marcus decides to search for and recapture the Eagle, with Esca as his guide, and to find out what really happened to his father and the 9th Legion.

The movie follows the long adventurous journey to the land of the Seal people with their painted faces, where evidence still survived of the lost legion. When they are captured by that fierce nation, the power dynamc shifts. What is a Roman worth without Rome to back him up? Will Marcus find out what happened to the 9th?? Will he capture the Eagle? Can Esca be trusted? Can they exist as master and slave? Or are they friends, brothers, or something more? Or enemies to the death?

This is a good action/adventure/ fighting epic, with very fantastic outdoor scenes, from locations in Scotland and Hungary. So superficially, it’s a Disney “boy’s own adventure”-type film, with an old, conventional, somewhat predictable plot, that devolves at times into a simple buddy picture. But there are some really different aspects of this movie: I think the director is making some subtle comments on the past decade, and the US as a classical imperial power.

Unlike most “Sword and Sandal” movies, the Romans all have American accents, while the slaves have British accents! He’s even managed to find “upper class” American accents to represent the Roman gentry and Senators, modeling them on Washington DC-style politicians, and their prep-school kids.  Says Marcus: “A silk-assed politician’s son is pissing on my family name!” And the Roman legion is decididly made to look like the US Marine Corps, complete with their running style, lines, and presentation. Even the terminology they use is straight out of American military lingo – with Marcus recieving an “honourable discharge”.

Is The Eagle a critique of American wars abroad? Or a militaristic, ode to tea-bagger-land? Not sure, but it is a good, though quite violent, movie. No female characters though – this is yet another all-male fantasy – with no room for love, except between friends.

The Eagle and Biutiful are both playing now. Check your local listings.

Lebanon and Egypt. Movies Reviewed: Incendies, These Girls, Scheherezade: Tell Me a Story. Plus Cairo: A Graphic Novel

It’s on TV and in the newspapers – in targeted protests across North Africa and the Middle East the people are putting dictators on the defensive and turfing them out of office. A man in Tunisia set himself on fire – sort of like what the Buddhist monks in Saigon did during the Vietnam war – to protest the corrupt government’s interference with his vegetable stand. It spread from there, with president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and his family quickly fleeing the country.

There have been similar protests and demonstrations in Yemen, Jordan, and now Egypt, potentially with more to follow in Syria, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, or Saudi Arabia. (Last year’s protests in Iran were brutally crushed, so it could go both ways…)

I don’t know about you, but when something this big, this important, this exciting, and this world-changing is going on, even if it’s somewhere else far away, I get the urge to find out more about that area, experience more of its culture, understand more about its history, hear more of its language. TV, newspapers, or online news are great for up-to-the minute coverage, but it’s all surface, no depth. That’s why, this week, I’m talking about movies set in the Middle East, that give a glimpse into different people’s everyday lives, their problems, their loves. (I’m forced to dig through my past notes since there are very few movies shown in North America from Egypt.)

First, a Canadian movie, in French and Arabic, that mainly takes place in Lebanon.

Incendies

Dir: Denis Villeneuve

Based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad

A Montreal twin sister and brother, Jeanne and Simon, are called in to a Notary’s office to hear their mother’s will. She wrote: she doesn’t want a coffin or funeral, and no tombstone until her son and daughter deliver two sealed letters, one to a father they’ve never met and know nothing about, and one to a brother they never even knew existed. Simon (Maxim Gaudet) dismisses the whole thing, and walks away, but Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), a mathematics grad student, decides to search for her lost relatives. This takes her on a trip to Lebanon.

Meanwhile, decades earlier, during their Civil War, the mother (Lubna Azabal), a Lebanese Christian, has fallen for a Muslim Palestinian, who is murdered by the men in her village. And her baby is given up for adoption.

At this point the movie splits up into two storylines: The mother traveling through southern Lebanon searching for her lost child in the midst of a violent war of sectarian reprisals; and the daughter, decades later trying to find the same boy – who would now be an adult if he is still alive – and her own father, about which she knows nothing. As the mother’s history gets more and more violent and shocking, the daughter (later joined by her twin brother) gradually uncovers her own hidden history and a whole lot of skeletons from her family closet.

This is a good, interesting and gripping story – though quite grim for large parts of it – with lots of surprises and twists. The characters of the twins is mainly as passive observers – we don’t get to know much about them. The main story is about the dead mother, as she lives through the horrors of sectarian, civil war.

There were parts of the movie that were false-seeming or forced or slow, especially near the beginning, but once the story starts going, it had me hooked, all the way. The acting, especially Lubna Azabal as the mother, was excellent. I had mixed feelings about Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, but I think with Incendies, he shows himself as a very good director, improving exponentially with each film.

Incendies is nominated for ten 2011 Genie awards, including Best Motion Picture, Best Achievement in Direction, plus editing, adapted screenplay, art direction, cinematography, sound, sound editing, make-up, and Best Actress (Lubna Azabal).  It is also in the running for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

We’re seeing a lot on TV about the street protesters with lots of massive shots of huge crowds, but not much about unusual, intimate lives in Cairo. For that, you should look to film.

These Girls (2006)

Dir: Tahani Rached

The director, Tahani Rached, did a number of NFB documentaries set in Egypt, but this one is my favourite.

These Girls is a rare look at the teenaged street girls living in downtown Cairo, runaways who cut their hair short, and form a sort of a gang to protect one another from marauding predatory men, kidnappers, rapists and cops – all equally dangerous. They’re armed with knives so they can handle one or two attackers at a time, but if they’re outnumbered, they just give in. Their ultimate fear of harm and injury goes even beyond attacks, it’s the possibility of facial scarring, that would make them pariahs, forever, long after the attack.

But, surprisingly, this is not a depressing or a downer of a movie; these girls are brash, open, funny, inspiring and full of life. Riding a white horse through the streets, singing, telling stories, dancing on car roofs, and loudly talking back to the middle-aged taxi drivers who condemn their wild ways. Of course It’s not about typical lives in Cairo, but it’s so life-affirming and revealing that it feels like I know Cairo after seeing it.

I saw this documentary at Hot Docs last year, but it’s a bit hard to see. If you can find a copy of it, or hear about a screening, it’s well worth watching. These Girls is a fantastic record of unvarnished Cairo streetlife.

For a more balanced, cross-section of Cairo life you should check out

Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story

Dir: Yousry Nasrallah

This is a wonderful melodrama about women’s lives in urban Cairo. Hebba (Mona Zaki) is a TV talk show host who is married to Karim, an ambitious journalist. They live a western-style life in a luxury condo replete with expensive gadgets, and dine in exclusive restaurants. But one day Hebba’s eyes are opened by a viewer she meets outside of work who questions her superficial interviews. She decides to change her outlook by addressing politically controversial women’s issues, problems never mentioned on TV before. Like Scheherazade, the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights, Hebba brings new tales to her show each day, with stories of lust, greed, love and betrayal.

Hebba invites a series of ordinary women, both rich and poor, with unusual lives to tell about their strange situations: an ex-con taking care of her former jailer, a beautiful woman living in an asylum, and an educated professional launching a one-woman protest. Each guest tells an even deeper and more fascinating tale about how she ended up where she is now. The audience follows each story as it shifts from the bland TV stage to the rich dramas of the guest’s recollections. And in between her interviews, Hebba’s home life is gradually revealed.

The movie deals with issues like poverty, religious differences, social classes, government corruption, favouritism, and, most of all, censorship. Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story is a great movie with an excellent script (by Wahid Hamid), good acting and fascinating characters, showing women’s lives in today’s Egypt.

Finally there’s a graphic novel:

Cairo (2007)

Writer: G. Willow Wilson

Art: M.K. Perker

A group of people (a would-be suicide bomber, a Cairo columnist for an opposition newspaper, a feminist American grad student, a female Israeli soldier, and a drug smuggler) find their lives intertwined when a gangster pursues them all in order to get back his hookah. Why? Because it’s a hookah… that holds a djinn.

Written by an American journalist who converted to Islam, Cairo shows a different side of Egypt than you’d find in most American comics.

Incendies is now playing (check your listings), These Girls,  played at last year’s Hot Docs, and Scheherezade: Tell Me a Story  played at TIFF in 2009.

Also opening this weekend is a new film that was featured at the recent Toronto Palestinian Film Festival. Elia Seleiman’s, The Time that Remains, is described as a Jacques Tati-like pseudo-autobiographical story that traces the lives of a Palestinian family, from 1948 to the present, who stayed on after the formation of the new state, Israel. It opens today at the Light Box in Toronto.

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