Daniel Garber talks about the Oscars with Toronto cinephiles Jeff Harris and Jamil Fiorino-Habib

Posted in Bad Movies, Cultural Mining, Hollywood, Movies by CulturalMining.com on February 8, 2019

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

Is Hollywood the epitome of the American dream, a place where a small town girl can be discovered at a soda fountain, or an auto mechanic can turn into a movie star overnight? Or is it where an obsolete medium recycles tired ideas, racist norms and sexual exploitation in exchange for the almighty dollar?

However you look at them, the Oscars – with their glamour, flash and controversy – are Hollywood’s sacred temple, where its gods show up annually to pay obeisance.

To help make sense of the Academy Awards I’ve invited two Toronto Cinephiles who really know their stuff to share their opinions on movies, Hollywood, and the Oscars.

Jamil Fiorino-Habib is a recent cinema studies and philosophy grad from UofT, hoping to pursue a Masters in Film Theory at the University of Amsterdam in the fall. He has a soft spot for international cinema, and loves to dive deep into film history and psychoanalysis.

Jeff Harris is a professional photographer with a photo arts degree from Ryerson. His photography has been featured in The Globe and Mail, Time Magazine, and culturalmining and has been nominated for many Webby Awards. He has worked as a photographer and photo editor at Maclean’s magazine and has been covering TIFF since 2002.

I spoke with Jamil and Jeff in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Academy Awards will be broadcast on February 24th, 2019.

Back to the Future? Films Reviewed: The Visitor, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Toronto Ice Storm 2013Hi, 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.

I’m taping this a week in advance, during the Toronto Ice Storm, when the power’s still off, the sidewalks still icy and Rob Ford is still mayor. But who knows what it will be like by the time you’re listening to this. Back to the future? Fittingly, I’m looking at a couple oddball fantasy movies — a remake and a rerelease — both pointless but watchable froth to bring in the new year. The remake is an American comedy about a day-dreaming adult, the rerelease an Italian horror movie (from the 1970’s) about a brat with secret powers.

The Visitor fangoria Films We LikeThe Visitor

Dir: Giulio Paradisi

Presented by Drafthouse Films and Fangoria

Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail) is a modern woman who values her freedom. She lives in a mansion in Atlanta with her sweet little daughter Katy (Paige Conner) and Katy’s pet bird. She’s being wooed by Raymond (Lance Henrickson) a slick-but-secretive basketball promoter. What she doesn’t realize is that Raymond reports to a cabal of identically dressed businessmen who are up to no good. They just want her offspring. You see, Barbara has special DNA and Katy has supernatural powers. If the cabal can pull off an alien abduction Barbara will reproduce with a special superbaby (as if her one kid isn’t trouble enough!)

Katy is actually a foul mouthed brat. She uses her powers for selfish reasons – Visitor2puting the kybosh on other kids she goes skating or does gymnastics with.  On her birthday, Katy’s gift turns into a handgun, which shoots Barbara, rendering her paraplegic.

Meanwhile, a wise old man with a white beard and a beige leisure suit (John Huston) is tracking Katy, too. He travels with a retinue of kids dressed in white. These silent, baldheaded teenagers are his disciples. You can tell he’s important because whenever he appears the theme music starts up again as he walks down a futuristic-looking escalator. And when a detective (investigates her birthday shooting she sends her pet bird to attack him.

Who will triumph? The satanic businessmen-aliens? Or the benevolent robe-wearing superman-like aliens? And will anyone stop spoiling that evil kid?

Visitor3This movie exists in its own bizarro-world, circa 1979. Shelley Winters plays Barabara’s intuitive housemaid singing Mama’s little baby loves shortening bread as she spies on Katy. Sam Peckinpah – the director of infamously violent movies (like Strawdogs and the Wild Bunch) — is her gynaecologist!

This is a very trippy, very strange movie. It has lots of horribly dated and vaguely racist shtick, and the story makes no sense whatsoever. But it still feels cool to watch: filled with fantastic dated special effects: a house of mirrors, a swarm of birds, Barbara insanely driving her electric wheelchair in endless circles. It climaxes with a bug-eyed John Huston having his Close Encounters moment with the shooting stars.

Total kitsch, but funny.

Mitty_PosterThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Dir: Ben Stiller

Walter (Ben Stiller) is a milquetoast mama’s boy and a longtime employee of Life Magazine. He lives vicariously through the exciting photos he processes in a windowless basement room (he’s in charge of “negative assets” — photo negatives, that is). Instead of a pocket-protector he wears a bad windbreaker. In his frequent daydreams and fantasies, he sees himself as an international adventurer, a “real man” who will stand up to any bully. But in reality he’s lonely, middle-aged and single. He longs for a relationship with a new employee, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but can’t seem to connect with her, even on an on-line dating site.

And now he faces a crisis. Life Magazine is folding, except on-line. A douche-y young executive (Adam Scott) is brought in to close it down, and makes Walter into the poster boy for unwanted employees. But when a negative — the cover photo of the final issue — goes missing, Walter takes it upon himself to track it down, wherever it may be. He embarks on a journey by plane, helicopter, boat, secret life of walter mittyskateboard, that takes him up mountains, across shark-filled seas, and past erupting volcanoes, all just to find the missing photo.

Will he find the picture? Will he find himself? And will his journey impress his crush Cheryl?

While the movie is filled with breathtaking scenery, it has little else to recommend it. It’s not that funny, interesting or original (the James Thurber novel is more whimsical and the Danny Kaye musical — 1947 — is more clever). Ben Stiller’s first attempt at Secret Life of Walter Mitty ben stillerdirecting fails to direct himself. He underplays it just when he should be hamming it up. His character comes across as flat, dull and pointless. Shirley MacClaine and Catherine Hahn are fun as his mother and sister but are rarely seen.

And the use of egregious product placement within the plot itself — a certain pizza chain, a cinnamon bun — is as embarrassing as it is flagrant. (Was he that desperate for funding?) It’s not that the Secret Life of Walter Mitty is terrible. It’s totally watchable, especially stunning footage of Icelandic moonscapes. It’s just… disappointing.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens on Christmas Day and The Visitor opens on Dec 30th for a three-day run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check your local listings.

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

August 12, 2011. Temperatures Rising. Movies reviewed: Devil’s Double, The Help, Rise of the Planet Of The Apes, Final Destination, Gun to the Head

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 getting into high August, and there are tons of movies playing now, so let me just dive right in and tell you about a few of them. I’m talking about two stories about servants who have good reason not to like their bosses, one where an employee is forced to challenge his boss or die, one where a whole class could challenge the people in power, and one where a group of people attempt to challenge… fate itself.

Devil’s Double

Dir: Lee Tamahori

It’s the 1980’s during the Iran-Iraq war, when Latif, a scruffy, young soldier from a good family in Bagdad, is brought into a palatial mansion. He’s asked whether he wants to work for Uday, Saddam Hussein’s son. Well, not exactly asked: He’s told. If he says no, he, his family and friends will all be tortured and killed. If he says yes, though, he will move into this luxurious palace, wear tailored suits and Rolex watches, drink champagne, drive sportscars, have his pick of the most beautiful women, and hang out at the most exclusive nightclubs in Iraq.

What’s the catch? He’s a near exact double of Uday in height, weight, body-type, and facial features. So he’ll be taking his place at public appearances with the constant risk of being shot at by assassins. So, the movie, (partially based on Latif’s memoir) shows his bizarre double life… as a professional double. This is a violent, scarface-y story with shootouts, coke sniffing, disco dancing, and backstage intrigue.

It’s also a chance for an actor to be or the screen about 140% of the time in the dual roles – when Dominic Cooper isn’t playing the humble, honest Yatif, he’s acting as the profligate, decadent and cruel Uday, and often both at the same time. He does it well enough that the audience immediately knows whether it’s the conceited, aggressive, strutting, whiny-voiced Uday, or Yatif imitating him. They walk differently, think differently and have a different look in their eyes.

Can Yatif find a way out of this crazy life? And can he and his secret love – one of Uday’s mistresses – escape the country?

This is quite a violent movie. And while it paints a generally negative view of a whole country, and gives an inaccurate view of women’s status in Baathist Iraq,  it can be enjoyed as an apolitical drama and as an actor’s tour de force.

Next, another movie about badly treated servants.

The Help

Dir: Tate Taylor

Smart but frowsy Skeeter (Emma Stone) comes home from University to the high-society of heavily segregated Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960’s. She wants to get herself a job as a writer, see her old debutante friends, and take care of her mother who’s dying of cancer. But she soon sees the world is changing, and is disgusted by how black servants are treated by their rich white employers: demeaned, disrespected, badly paid. They essentially raise the white kids from birth, but rarely get to spend time with their own children.

When Skeeter’s friend Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard), the reigning top woman in her set, attempts to pass a bylaw making it illegal for blacks even to use a bathroom inside the homes where they work all day, Skeeter decides something must be done.

She befriends Aibilene (Viola Davis) and asks her to tell her own inside story about life in the south. When another maid, Minnie (a comical Octavia Spencer) — known for her cooking skills — joins her project, it looks like their stories might be published as a book.

This is a richly plotted, multi-charactered, story about life in the deep south, and the subtle and overt racism in every aspect of the lives of the people who lived in this era. This isn’t a movie about KKK lynchings or good ol’ boys with rifles. It gives a calmer view of the segregated, Jim Crow days, right when the civil rights movement was taking off. It’s also a richly moving women’s story – not a chick flick — with terrific acting all around, especially Viola Davis, and Jessica Chastain as Celia, a suddenly rich blonde bombshell from dirt poor origins who seeks help from Minnie. It also has great actresses like Cicily Tyson, Cissie Spacek and Alison Janney in the side roles.

Only quibble? Though some of the black characters slip in and out of dialect, the younger white women’s accents don’t sound much like they would have in Mississippi in the 1960s. But The Help is definitely worth seeing if you like complicated dramas, family secrets, frequent plot turns and funny surprises.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dir: Rupert Wyatt

Will (James Franco) is a scientist who works for a multinational pharmaceutical corporation who is developing a new medicine that can repair brain functions. They test it on chimpanzees, and he takes home a newborn one when his mother dies in the lab. But he soon discover his ape, Caesar, is special: he’s somehow inherited the new brain skills his mother had gained from the drug testing, and he’s quickly getting better and better. He learns art, sign language, and better motor skills than any human. Will and Caroline (Frieda Pinto) treat him almost like a son… except for the collar and leash they force him to wear outside. But when Caesar tries to rescue Will’s senile father (John Lithgow) from a mean neighbour, he is taken away by the authorities and thrown into an animal shelter that looks more like a federal prison run by cruel guards.

There he interacts with his own kind and discovers he’s not a human but an ape. Caesar has to decide who he can trust and whether he should wait for his former human father to rescue him or strike out on his own.

This is a really enjoyable movie, with fantastic camera work, a great story, and — though largely animated – believable characters with sympathetic faces. (I’m talking the apes here.) Which is why I was surprised at how awful the CGI’s were in some scenes – jerky toy monkey’s bounding up trees like a bad outtake from a third-rate videogame intro – and how excellent in others. In any case, if you want a fun exciting story, this is the one to see. A thousand times better than the awful Planet of the Apes remake.

Final Destination 5

Dir: Steven Quale

A group of eight coworkers on their way to a retreat, manage to escape from an enormous collapsing bridge when one of them, Sam, has a premonition and gets them away in time. But they soon discover they were destined to perish, so are being killed off, one by one, in a series of gruesome Rube Goldberg-esque accidents. Who will live and who will die? And will they succeed in cheating death a second time?

What can I say – this is one of my favourite genres of horror movies: bloody gore but without an identifiable villain. Instead, the danger is everywhere — in a leaky pipe, a dropped match, a speck of dust or a misplaced screw. A restaurant kitchen is filled with potentially dangerous flames, knives, and shish kebab skewers. Ordinary life is fraught with danger!

The lines stink, the characters are predictable, the music is corny, and the acting ranges from humorous to forgettable, to excruciatingly awful. But the special effects are flawless, and the pace is just right. It pulls you forward with stress, fear and tension, then lets you back down again, never knowing for sure whether the next shot is a real danger or just a red herring. And the 3D, especially in the multi-leveled scenes on the bridge and on a factory floor, is amazing. This is a great, super-cheezy “B” or “C” summer movie.

It also has the best non-trailer trailer ever, that shows what Final Destination would look like if it were a pop music video recorded on the set of Saved by the Bell — complete with laugh track.

Gun to the Head

Dir: Blaine Thurier

Trevor (Tygh Runyan) gets away from his own dinner party (complete with creepy, Japanophile swinger guests wearing sleazy kimonos) to pick up a bottle of white wine and talk to his drug dealer cousin, Darren (Paul Anthony). He just wants to give him a bit of help, but he’s soon dragged into this underworld of strip bars, guns and lines of coke. He has to deal with a fickle small-town drug potentate, his deranged guard, and his sexually adventurous, skeezy girlfriend. Can Trevor outsmart the gangsters, rescue his sleazy cousin, and ever get back home to his wife? Or will everything fall apart?

This is a funny very low-budget Canadian thriller. Though not perfect, it has great characters, and some manic — but not hammy — performances, especially Paul Anthony channelling the spirit of Don Knotts, dressed as a Vancouver hood.

Devil’s Double and The Rise of the Planet of the Apes are now playing, check your local listings, The Help just opened in Toronto, and Final Destination and Gun to the Head open tonight in Toronto (Friday, Aug 12, 2011). Also look out for You Are Here, opening today at the TIFF Lightbox.

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

Valentines Day Date Movies. The Roommate, Gnomeo and Juliet, Modra

Do you long for the good old days of your youth, when people gave holiday gifts purely out of love, and commercialization had yet to permeate all our rituals and celebrations?

I want to say that I’m bothered by the ever increasing commercialization of holidays, but I’d be lying. I’ve been handing out store-bought candy and valentines since I was a little kid, so I have no memory of a non-commercial Valentine’s Day, if there ever was one. So, in keeping with spending money to say I love you (or I lust for you), here are some potential date movies for next week, that explore themes of romance, passion or love.

The Roommate

Dir: Christian E. Christiansen

… gives us a not-so-typical relationship of sorts, a story of a poor little rich girl who just want to be friends, but takes it to a new level.

Sarah (Minka Kelly) is from Des Moines, Iowa, but loves studying fashion in Southern California. She may not be rich, but she has a sense of style that can’t be taught. She has a tattoo of her dead sister’s name above her left breast. She has a funky Lesbian pal, and dorm mates who know how to drink and dance. At a frat house with her party-girl friend, Tracy, she meets a frat boy and they fall in like.

But when her new roommate, a rich and sophisticated, but somehow troubled, Rebecca (Leighton Meester), moves in, things begin to change. Rebecca has lots of expensive clothes, but Sarah dresses her up to be cool. “What are you a label whore?” Sarah asks. “I got this vintage jacket for 20 bucks at a garage sale!” Sarah also lends her a pair of earrings, not noticing that Rebecca doesn’t have pierced ears… Rebecca takes then anyway — cause Sarah’s her friend! — and pokes them through her earlobes drawing blood. And when she licks the blood from her fingers she gets a little evil smile on her face… Uh oh. (Don’t worry, this is a psychological thriller, not a vampire flick.) Things go downhill from there.

Rebecca likes drawing, but will not show Sarah what’s in her sketchbook. She becomes fixated on her roommate, and intensely jealous whenever Sarah’s friends seem to intrude on their lives. Party girl, ex-boy friend, frat boy, fluffy kitten… they are all potential targets of Rebecca’s increasingly warped mind. It’s not a romance; Rebecca just wants to be her (only) friend.

This is a weird movie, that varies from a few good spooky scenes, to lots of incredibly predictable TV style pap. Rebecca’s the stalker and Sarah the stalked, but the actress playing the victim character forgot to learn how to do scared. She’s better at “I like you!” “this is fun!” and “That’s OK!” (as she brushes back her hair from her pretty face) than at looking stressed or terrified. Leighton Meester is better, but she just looks deranged, and not nearly evil enough. And maybe its me but the whole movie seems too tame. If there’s a potentially crazed killer, you want to see at least some graphic splatter and gore, right? No…? This movie wasn’t scary.

This is a very forgettable (but fun enough), cable TV-grade, B-movie. I had a good time, the actresses are all attractive, and there were some neat aerial-view shots from the ceiling, like in a Hitchcock or De Palma horror movie. But the unintentionally funny scenes — like a montage of double-exposures of lips and eyes in a phone- sex scene; or Billy Zane as a supposed fashion expert, but wearing ridiculously clownish clothes as he teaches his university students about true fashion and style — were more interesting than the rest of the movie.

Leaving the theatre I overheard one girl repeating, “I’m never having a roommate… ever!” Which I guess sums up this not-very-thrilling, dumb thriller.

Gnomeo and Juliet (in 3D)

Dir: Kelly Asbury

This is a reworking of Shakespeare’s play about the star-crossed lovers of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, and their feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets. This version is unusual in that it’s told using plaster lawn ornaments in the main roles. Yes, you heard me: Plaster lawn ornaments.

Like garden gnomes — those little germanic-looking statues — cute lawn bunnies, plastic pink flamingoes, and ceramic frog. They live in a parallel universe, where, in the world of quaint suburban, English homes, they decorate the gardens, whenever the humans are around, but live their own lives when they are alone. Their one unbreakable rule is they have to switch back to immobile statues whenever a person comes near. And they all wear pointy hats.

This version is aimed at the pre-teen set, so, to make it easier to follow, they’ve turned Juliet’s Capulets into the red-hats, (who live in the garden ruled by Lord Redbrick) and Romeo’s Montagues into blue hats from the yard of Lady Bluebury next door. And instead of duels with sword fights, competitions take place in the back lanes involving drag races using old-school, chugging lawn mowers. The gnome statues are not allowed to go in each other’s yards, but when cute adventuress Juliet in disguise, meets equally rambunctious Romeo in a neutral area, they soon fall in love, without realizing they are from opposing clans. Juliet (with the voice of Emily Blunt) dresses in mittel-European clothes, while Gnomeo (James McAvoy), like all the male gnomes, has a graying neck beard, but otherwise acts like a teenager.

Meanwhile the feud between the two families, including the bullying Tybalt, escalates, even risking intruding on the human’s lives. Vicious gnomes attempt to symbolically castrate their rivals by smashing their point hats. Peacekeepers, like Featherstone, a flamboyant lawn flamingo looking for his long lost mate, and Juliet’s Nurse/Frog, proffer advice and warn against potential ruin, but death and destruction seem inevitable, as in the classic tragedy. Will this version end up with the death and suicide of the romantic lovers? While it’s true to Shakespeare’s original, keep in mind this is a Disney cartoon aimed at little kids.

It’s a cute, fun, cartoon romance, suitable for young kids, accompanied by a soundtrack (for some reason) of Elton John’s 70’s pop hits. While it does occasionally verge upon Disney’s old standby theme of the helpless girl needing to be rescued by the brave prince, they have mainly moved on, and give the modern Juliet her own strength and courage, so both boys and girls can have their requisite positive role models.

Good for an afterschool group date.

Modra

Dir: Ingrid Veninger

For a very beautiful, subtle, and gentle semi-romance of two teenagers from Toronto visiting Slovakia in the summer, you really should see Modra.

Modra is about a 17 year old girl named Lina (Hallie Switzer). She breaks up with her boyfriend just before they were supposed to fly to visit her relatives in Slovakia. On an impulse she invites a guy, Leco (Alexander Gammal) from her high school to go with her instead. So they land in this very small town, with orange rooftiles in a green valley. And Leco, who speaks no Slovakian, is introduced as her boyfriend – they’re given a room to share.

Lina and Leco’s – who make a very cute couple – relationship shifts gradually from non-existent to estranged, to warm, and back again over the course of their week long visit. This is not a conventional, mainstream boy-meets-girl drama, with revealed secrets, and big plot turns. And the European locations aren’t there to evoke glamour, The Slovakian town is isolated and rustic. The locals wear their traditional costumes for special occasions – embroidered dresses, men with black feather plumes on their hats as they sing or dance folk songs. There’s the town mute, the local ranch, the local hood who hits on Lina. Loudspeakers on poles make echoey announcements harkening back to its Stalinist precedents.

“Modra” is a very sweet, low-key, naturalistic film, with first-time actors – and non-actors – experiencing things on camera at the same time as the audience. It’s a gentle, verite travelogue of two kids on the cusp of adulthood. I like this kind of almost-documentary film when it works — and in Modra, it really works.

It was voted one of the Top Ten Canadian movies of the year, and I couldn’t agree more. It has that new Toronto feel to it, that I also saw in No Heart Feelings and This Movie is Broken. It would make a great Valentine’s Day date movie.

Rommates is now playing, Modra opens today in Toronto at the Royal Cinema, and Gnomeo and Juliet also starts today, across North America. Check your local listings.

Next: The Eagle,  Ong Bak 3

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 tracts, 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.

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Acting and Special Effects on Display. Movies reviewed: Tron: Legacy, The Fighter, Blue Valentine

At this time of year, a lot of the movies are trying for awards and audiences. The awards usually bring in bigger audiences and make it easier for the actors, directors, writers, et al to raise money for the next movie they want to make.

That’s one of the reasons they even bother to make some of these movies – so that actors or directors can show off their skills. Some work, some don’t.

Today I’m going to look at three movies that try something different or unusual, either through their appearance, story, or performances.

The Fighter
Dir: David O Russell

There are two brothers, Mickey and Dicky, and seven sisters who all live in working-class Lowell Massachusettes. Dicky Eklund — once known as the Pride of Lowell — was a former great boxer who once knocked down Sugar Ray, before retiring. Now he’s training his brother Mickey Ward to make it as a welter-weight. And his mother’s his manager. But Dicky has a tendency not to show up for practices. Why? Because he’s a crackhead with a tendency to jump out of windows so his mother won’t find out. He’s also a petty scammer and a thief.

Dicky (Christian Bale) ends up in prison, and Mickey (Mark Wahlberg) is working with a new manager and trainer, who are rivals to his mother and brother. Meanwhile, Mickey meets Charlene, (Amy Adams) a bartender. His family also doesn’t like her – they refer to her as an “MTV girlfriend”, meaning a snob, because she went to college – and the feelings are mutual.

Will Mickey make it to the top? Will he be a boxing champ? Will he reconcile with his brother and mother? Will he listen to his new trainer or his jailed brother on boxing strategy? Will he stay with Charlene? And will he be used as a stepping stone – a boxer only there to get KOed by other boxers on their trip up the ladder?

The Fighter is a boxing movie – with some long scenes in the ring – a true biopic about an Irish- Catholic New England working-class boxer’s life in the late 80‘s / early 90’s. It’s actually a very enjoyable movie.

Trained British actor Christian Bale plays this skinny, googley-eyed, fast-talking American drug addict, and you can totally believe it. He’s amazing. Amy Adams, made to look plain, is a little less so, but still good, and she gets lots of lines to play with like “Call me skank again and I’ll rip alla your hair out!” And Mark Wahlberg doesn’t really act, he just plays the same role he always does, but he’s a likeable movie star.

But it’s all the small parts, like the gaggle of sisters, and the Mother, and the various locals, which add the real colour to the film. It’s a good, old- fashioned boxing movie… and it works.

Tron Legacy
Dir: Joseph Kosinsky

Sam Flynn (Garret Helund) is a computer genius and adventurer who, when he plays an old, abandoned arcade game, finds himself inside another world – the world of the game itself. His father Kevin Flynn, who created that world, has been trapped inside there for decades. But a never-aging doppelganger, Clu – he looks like a simulacrum of Jeff Bridges preserved in a jar of botox –is trying to take over that world, and to turn it into a Roman Empire of gladiators and constant fights. Everyone wears donut Frisbees on their backs that double as computer discs with all their data. It’s also their weapon of choice in the games, because it can take down your opponent (like a boomerang) by tearing away at the digital grid. So Sam, with the help of Quorra (Olivia Wilde), has only 8 hours in which to go somewhere, and get something from someone (I think) and do something or other, before the portal closes again and he’s trapped inside.

OK. This is a great movie. Except for the characters, the story, and the dialogue, which are absolutely awful and make no sense whatsoever. Ideally this would be re-released as a silent movie with no lines, just all the cool, glowing neon images, of characters zipping through cyberspace, with people creating motorcycles or airplanes out of thin air and racing all around… all of this with the mainly great Daft Punk electronic music in the background.

Great images and special effects (except when the characters are wearing white space suits instead of black ones, and the material start bunching up – you know, you’d think when they spend tens of millions on SFX they’d catch stuff like that), and good music; everything else sucks.

Blue Valentine
Dir: Derek Cianfrance

Dean is a High School drop-out who plays the ukulele. He gets a job as a mover, and, on his first trip – moving a man’s possessions to an old age home in Scranton, Pennsylvania — he sees Cindy visiting her grandmother across the hall, and he’s smitten. It’s love at first sight — at least for Dean. He pursues her, and woos her, and they both love each other dearly, and the two of them raise their cute daughter together.

But, all is not well. The marriage seems to have gone sour, and they’re just not getting along the way they used to. Cindy has a good job as a nurse, while Dean hasn’t progressed much in his career – he’s more interested in being a househusband. Dean hopes to clear up their relationship by leaving their daughter Frankie with Cindy’s parents overnight, and holing up in a seedy motel with some alcohol, so they can get drunk, have sex, and hash out their differences.

The movie shifts back and forth between the early days of their relationship and how it developed, and the present day, where they seems to have reached an impasse.

Does this movie work? I’m of mixed feelings. It’s a very passionate and realistic look at a relationship. The acting is all great – basically a two-person show. Ryan Gosling (who looks somewhere between a scraggy redneck and a hipster) is the happy-go-lucky romantic, taking life as it comes; and the pretty but plain, voluptuous but understated, bleached blonde Michelle Williams as the more pragmatic and career-conscious but troubled one, who is plagued by indecision.

It’s a heavy-duty relationship movie, good times and bad. You ever been to a party and one couple starts arguing with each other? The rest of the people exchange glances and try to figure out how to sneak away, far away as soon as they can. (Excuse me, gotta go!)? Well this movie was a bit like that. Not that I wanted to walk out of the theatre – not at all – but a lot of the movie was about a couple’s troubled relationship, and some of it really dragged to the point you just want to say:

Shut up! Both of you…
Cindy – Dean still loves you. A lot.
Dean — Cindy can’t take it any more.
OK? That’s all. Move along.

But the story’s very realistic, the movie feels like an old Cassavetes pic, the design, the camera, the acting, all very good. It’s not a sweet tear-jerker of a Hollywood romance, it’s about real romance: love, loss, sadness. I think it’s worth seeing… but it’s a bit depressing.

Phantasmagorical! Movies Reviewed: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale; The Tourist; The Tempest; plus Movie phone-in Contest!

This time of year, when the nights grow longer and the days grow darker, when the icy winds whistle through bare branches of the trees, when Christmas is coming, and New Year’s not far behind, thoughts turn to things fantastical, impossible and even supernatural. So today I’m going to talk about three, very different movies, but all of them far outside of the grip of what people call realism. Also, keep listening, because I’m having a real ticket giveaway at the end of my reviews

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Dir: Jalmari Helander

In the extreme north of Finland, where the Sami people hunt reindeer, something’s wrong. A big multinational mining company has come in to the area, and they’re digging something up, under an ancient mountain – or is it a burial ground? But the reindeer are disappearing, and so is the main source of income. Children are also disappearing, with creepy, sewn cloth dolls left in their beds. And so are the burlap sacks in a potato warehouse. What’s going on?

Then they discover a mass slaughter. All the local reindeer herdsman, bearded and wearing toques, think it must be the Russians‘ fault, just over the fence, across the border. Or maybe it’s the wolves? Or that multi national headed by the weird Englishman who keeps warning them “Shhh.. don’t say bad words… don’t do anything naughty…!”

And a great horned beast has been dug up by the miners what is it? What does it all mean?

But little Pietari has done some reading. All those old fairytales? They’re true! It’s Coca-cola that played the con-job in the 19th century and painted a new picture. You know that jolly laughing bearded man in red? Ho, ho, ho… Pietari has discovered the truth about Santa:

He sees you when you’re sleeping,
he knows when you’re awake,
he knows if you’ve been bad or good,
so be good for goodness sake!

Santa’s actually… the boogie man! He grabs little kids and spanks them to death…

It’s up to little Pietari to save all the kids, get rid of the sinister creature, and restore the ruined local economy. Will he do it? Can he do it?

This fast-paced film from Finland is one of the strangest Christmas movies I’ve ever seen. It’s cute, and surreal, and spooky, all at once, like a lot of Finnish movies. Although there are some scary scenes and a little bit of gore, I think most kids (and adults) who are struggling with their own parents’ Santa myths might find this just the thing to clear away the saccharine, commercial images we get bombarded with every year, right about now…

The Tourist
Dir: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
(Starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp)

Elise is a mysterious glamorous woman, who sits in open-air cafes and reads cryptic notes delivered to her on the sly. She’s trying to find her boy-friend who robbed a gangster of billions of dollars and then disappeared. And she’s being tracked by countless European men from Italy, France, Germany, and the UK who whisper into hidden microphones and observe her every step. She’s told to meet someone and pretend he’s her boyfriend. She gets on a train, and chooses a man at random, a hapless math teacher from Wisconson – Frank (played by Johnny Depp). He is soon trapped in her machinations as she tries to escape all these men pursuing her as they chase her (and him!) through the canals of Venice. Can he help her escape? And will she ever find her real boyfriend? Will he show up at the ball? (Yes she goes to a ball). And what about all the money he stole?

This movie was a total disappointment. Athough it sounds like fun, it barely makes sense, and as the plot turns, it makes even less sense. And does Angelina Jolie hate other women? It’s like the thought of another woman competing with her for screen space is so anathema to her that she’s banned any and all potential rivals from her films. The cast of 40 has 39 men, including Johnny Depp, Paul Bettany, and Timothy Dalton, Steven Berkoff (as the villain) – along with a legion of Euro-spies and gangsters with carefully groomed, three-day cheek-stubble, designer suits, and Zoolander poses.

What’s with her? I liked Wanted, (even though it was dumb), thought Salt, last summer was even dumber, and now there’s this one. It’s starting to grate. Johnny Depp was totally wasted as a a puffy-faced, ineffectual milquetoast.

Angelina’s accent was atrocious, and the two of them looked ridiculous posturing in evening wear in the admittedly beautiful European scenery. It looked like a Hollywood movie from the early sixties, but without real glamour – it felt out of synch. The whole movie was embarrassing, and the story, though it started out good, had so many twists it no longer made any sense.

It’s especially disappointing because the director was the one who made that really great movie the Lives of Others, about the Stasi spy in East Germany. This spy fantasy is only his second film, and it’s a real clunker.

The Tempest
Dir: Julie Taymor

Many of you already know the story, it’s about Prospero, the Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda who are exiled to an island, inhabited only by the local creature Caliban, he uses his magic powers (and that of his spirit Ariel) to cause a shipwreck, wand strand his enemies and allies on the island, cast a spells to bring back justice and regain his power in Northern Italy. It’s also Miranda’s first time seeing other humans, so she falls in love with a handsome prince, the good King’s son. Meanwhile the bad guys try out their plots along with Caliban.

So this version, directed by the very talented and original stage director Julie Taymor, tries a few changes, but keeps largely to Shakespeare’s original story. She keeps it in the period – doesn’t modernize it, but she fools around a bit with sex and gender. She casts Helen Mirren as Prospero (Prospera), Miranda’s mother now, and a witch not a sorcerer. That works fine. And she has the sprite Ariel (expertly played by Ben Whishall) do some shape-shifting, turning from man to woman and back again.

The cast is quite amazing – with Alfred Molina, Tom Conti, Chris Cooper, Allan Cumming – and others, who can handle Shakespeare without trouble. It’s shot in Hawai’i so you get these fantastical moonscapes, and volcanic cliffs and weird jungles for characters to wander around in.

It just didn’t seem movie-like to me, there was a disconnect. It was more of a play captured on film, so it was harder to connect with the characters, to really feel their emotions. It felt like a virtual proscenium arch between you and the screen, so it was doubly removed (or distanced) from the viewer. So there were stage sets in the movie – that say: look at the beautiful sets! And stage costumes that shout out look at these fancy costumes. And some of the acting, like Russel Brand (as Trinculo) was saying, Looooook! I’m a comeeeeedian! (yeah, you’re really funny).

So it’s an interesting movie, with some neat effects. And things like Ariel doing butoh dance poses, chalked in white, were quite arresting (but why?). I found the background sound and music was terrible, and too overpowering at times, it smothered a lot of the lines, and dragged the pace. Made it lethargic. Shakespeare didn’t write throw-away dialogue – it’s kind of important to be able to hear exactly what they’re saying. So it didn’t all hold together for me, but hey, Shakespeare on the big screen? Another movie Tempest? I say, keep ‘em coming!

Finally, here’s a contest: I’m giving away length of run movie tickets to the first five correct who can answer this question:

Which one of these four Scandinavian directors is from Finland?:

Lars Von Trier
Aki Kaurismaki
Lasse Halstrom
Joachim Rønning

The first 5 correct emails will win a length of engagement ticket for two persons for:
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.

(CONTEST NOW CLOSED)

Many Main Characters. Movies Reviewed: Dish: Women, Waitressing & the Art of Service, Little White Lies, We Can Do That, Faster

Posted in Bad Movies, Canada, Class, comedy, documentary, Feminism, France, Italy, Japan, Mental Illness, Sex, Uncategorized, Unions, US, violence, Western by CulturalMining.com on November 25, 2010

A lot of traditional movies have one main character, a love interest, and possibly a rival. But there are other types of movies out there too. This week I’m going to look at some movies with many more main characters than you may be used to.

Dish: Women, Waitressing & the Art of Service

Dir: Maya Gallus

… is a documentary that takes a look at the food-service sector with all its contradictions and idiosyncrasies, and how this kind of work differs according to class, status, culture, and sex.

It addresses a lot of questions. Why is it that women working as waitresses might be thought of subservient? And why do they get paid less than their male counterparts? Why are the jobs for women mainly at low-end diners and restaurants, while male waiters dominate the very top tier of haute cuisine? And at which point and in what way does sexual perception enter these job?

This fast-moving documentary takes you on a journey from Ontario diners and truckstops, to “sexy” and topless restaurants in Quebec, and then to Parisian edifices of haute cuisine — an exclusive profession where women have barely made inroads — and to the very strange maid cafes of Tokyo’s Akihabara district, where service becomes a ritualized image formerly only seen in Japanese anime.

It has some good quotes; like a male waiter explaining that women are too emotional or too physically weak to be a waiter… immediately followed by images of a low-end Paris waitress carrying heavy boxes of alcohol up narrow, twisting staircases. Also the endless bowing scene at a maid café has got to be seen to be believed.

Dish is a documentary done the way I think documentaries should be made (but usually aren’t). It documents people and events showing you what’s going on, without an intrusive narrator or voiceover telling you what’s going on. The filmmaker stays out of the picture and lets the many people she interviews tell the stories instead. It’s quick, punchy, funny, and a bit shocking at times, exposing the hypocrisies that we all live with.

Little White Lies / Les Petits Mouchoirs

Dir: Guillaume Canet

…is another movie with a big ensemble of characters who are spending time together in a summer home by the ocean. (Sort of like a French version of The Big Chill). They go there every year, sponsored by one of the friends, Max, who’s a successful restauranteur. The people he surrounds himself with have jobs like opera singer, actor, masseur… Superficially, they’re all good-looking, fun people who know how to party. They talk about ecology, fitness, new-age, music,

But there’s a shadow hanging over this summer; Ludo, one of the friends, has a terrible motorcycle accident, and is put in intensive care at a Parisian hospital. But the group decides to go to the beach anyway. Though all the arguments, practical jokes, and gossip are comic at first, they gradually intensify, as the people slip into a kind of despair. Past and present love affairs among the various friends (some of them are married and have kids) rear their ugly heads, and the little white lies of the title gradually reveal themselves.

This was a good, ensemble movie, clever, subtle, well-made. Still if you see it, be prepared for a 2 ½ hour long movie with lots of witty dialogue… but not so much action. It played at TIFF this year and I saw it this week at the EU Film Festival.

We Can Do That

Dir: Giulio Manfredonia

…is another enjoyable movie at the EU Festival, this one from Italy. It’s also a movie with lots of main characters. Nello (Claudio Bisio) is a trade union organizer, but he’s too market oriented for his union buddies, but too anti-corporate for his girlfriend who works for a big Milan designer. So he gets sent down to a co-operative whose members are all people kicked out when they closed down the mental hospitals in Italy in the late seventies/ early eighties. Nello soon meets this big group who are all kept on very heavy medication under the dictatorial doctor Del Vecchio. Some are developmentally handicapped, some autistic, others with emotional problems, or mental health issues.

They sit around all day, catatonic, stuffing envelopes. Nello soon discovers they’re not as clueless as they initially appear to be. As one character tells him: “We’re crazy, not stupid”. So Nello decides to apply union principles to the people in the co-op. He gets them to cut down there medicines, starts treating them like adults, and works with them to found a profit making buisines that will employ all the members and make them feel good about their success.

I know it sounds like one of those group movies like The Commitments or The Full Monty — and actually it is — but it also has lots of quirky and interesting characters, good melodramatic plot turns, and lots of funny parts, too. This reviewer also liked seeing it because I’ve been told by three different strangers that I look like an Italian actor in this movie — Giovanni Calcagno. OK, he plays Luca, the violent, emotionally disturbed bricklayer who rarely speaks, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers, so I’ll take it as a compliment.

You should also check out the German movie, Storm, playing this Saturday afternoon, preceded by a panel discussion on Bosnian war crimes.

Faster

Dir: George Tillman, Jr.

…is a contemporary reboot of those old 1960’s spaghetti westerns with not one, but three very similar main characters. Driver (played by Dwayne Johnson – once known as “The Rock”) is the strong, silent type, a released prisoner who decides he has to kill all the people who shot his brother. Then there’s the detective (played by the worthless Billy Bob Thorton in a bad wig) who has to catch him. And then there’s a pretty-boy millionaire assassin who has to kill Dwayne Johnston. So they drive around in the desert shooting at each other. The end.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. You have to sit through the whole thing. The title, Faster, refers to who is the fastest draw. Who’s going to out shoot the other two? But it’s not a fast action movie. It’s a slo-mo action movie. With spent bullet cartridges sloooooowly falling falling to the ground (clink clink clink.) Every time Driver gets in his car, it revs and the tires screech. Every time. There’s a chase scene where one of the cars ride in reverse. Fun? Wow… This movie is just awful. Its supposed to be an action movie, but the only word that kept bouncing around my mind, was Faster, faster, please… make this movie go faster! It’s boring and blah.

Family Ties. Movies Reviewed: Boy, A Windigo Tale, Score: a Hockey Musical, Conviction plus ImagineNative festival

This week, I’m talking about four very different movies, two dramas, a comedy drama, and a comic musical, that all deal with family members and family ties: brother/sister; father/son; parents/son; mother/daughter; grandfather/grandson.

But first, let me tell you a bit about the 11th annual ImagineNative film and media arts festival that’s on right now in downtown Toronto. It’s a cultural celebration of First Nations, Inuit, and international aboriginal and indigenous artists and filmmakers, from Canada – urban, rural, and northern – Latin America, as well as Asia and the Pacific, and Europe. There are movies – short films and features, mainstream and experimental — lectures, workshops, art exhibits, installations, and multimedia events, including radio podcasts, and online new media sites. So tons of contemporary media and current issues and artforms. Lots of free exhibits going on, and films every night in the Spadina and Bloor area. You should definitely check this out – look online at http://www.ImagineNative.org

ImagineNative started with a screening of

Boy
Director/Writer: Taika Waititi
The Canadian premier of a popular, new New Zealand movie.

It’s the early 1980s, in a small town in New Zealand. Boy – that’s his name – lives there with his Nana, his little brother, Rocky, and a bunch of cousins. His mom died when he was young, and he can barely remember his dad who took off years ago with some petty hoods in a sort of a biker gang called the Crazy Horses. Boy’s waiting for his promised return to take him away from all this and to see a Michael Jackson concert in the big city. But when his grandmother leaves town for a few days to go to a funeral, who shows up but his dad – for real (played by the director, Waititi.)

He’s up to no good though, and Boy has to reconcile his hood-y pothead of a dad with the hero he had been expecting. Whenever reality gets too hard to handle, Boy retreats into his fantasies, and recasts things – in his mond – like visualizing a bar brawl as a Michael Jackson Beat It video. (His little brother Rocky, on the other hand, imagines he has super powers, and is laden with guilt thinking he’s the one who caused all the bad events in his life.)

This is sort of a sad story, but the tone is light enough, and there are enough very funny scenes that it’s not a downer of a movie at all. It reminded me a lot of a movie from a couple years ago called Son of Ranbow, but Boy’s a bit more serious, less comical. It also gives a realistic glimpse of Maori life in the 80‘s – something I’ve never seen before.

The actors, especially the two kids, (Te Aho Aho Eketone-Whitu, and James Rolleston), and their dad (Waititi) were great. And as a special bonus, there’s even a dance scene in the final credits that’s a mash-up of a Michael Jackson video mixed with a Maori Haka war dance (looked like the Kama Te haka usually performed by the All Blacks rugby team, but his one in full 80s video regalia!)

The closing night movie is a Toronto premier called:

A Windigo Tale
Dir: Armand Garnet Ruffo.

The Windigo is a legendary being – it’s a starving, cannibalistic creature that you can turn into either while you’re alive or else after you die; it comes to eat you up and carries the spirits of the people it eats in its belly. Taking off its clothes will take it out of the body, and burning the bones will get rid of it.

In this movie, Joey is a high school drop-out who wears his hiphop gang colours. He’s communing with his grandfather (Gary Farmer) who tells him their family history and secrets in the form of a folktale.

Lily, and her white boyfriend, David, have driven up so she can talk to her mom, Doris. Lily was sent away from there 15 years before, and blames her mother for abandoning her. And at the same time there’s a reunion – of sorts — of Six Nations people who had been sent to the residential schools – the notorious Canadian religious and educational system that isolated, abused, and even killed natives for generations.

All these story lines are going on at the same time. Doris is sure the Windigo is in the air. Strange things start to happen. Can she fight the Windigo and the demons of her history she carries with her? The story goes back and forth between the serious, realistic family drama and Doris and Lily’s violently spiritual encounter with a Windigo. Interesting movie. It packs in a lot of stories and plotlines for a 90-minute picture, so I found it a bit confusing over what was the story, what was a flashback, and what was the story-in-the-story. But it’s a totally watchable movie with interesting characters, good acting – especially Jani Lauzon as Doris – and deals with an important, dark part of Canadian and native history that’s only coming to light very recently.

Next, a much lighter Canadian story:

Score: a Hockey Musical
Director/Writer: Michael McGowan

A hockey musical? Yup, that’s what is, no more, no less.

Farley (Noah Reid) and Eve are next door neighbours in Toronto who communicate late at night using a clothesline running between their two houses. She has a crush in him, but he’s more interested in playing a game of shinny with his hockey buds. He gets discovered by an agent who books him as the next hockey star. But, raised by hippy parents who frown upon competition and deplore hockey violence, he’s caught between two worlds. He’s a lover not a fighter. Will he be the next Sidney Crosbie? Will he learn to fight in the rink? Will he be accepted by the hard-ass team coach? And will he ever get together with his starry-eyed neighbour Eve?

It’s a cute movie, very Canadian both in the good sense and the bad, if you know what I mean. Good in that it shows real Canadian topics, national “in” jokes, tons of can-con straight out of an old “I am Canadian” beer ad, but bad in that it’s super corny and cheesy and baaaad in a lot of places, with some real groaner punchlines, and some truly lame lyrics. (Some great ones, too.) The singing’s uneven – ranging from the clear tones of Olivia Newton-John to the sort of voices that should never leave the shower. And one of the dance scenes looks artificially sped-up. But it doesn’t matter – I laughed out loud a lot, and I just took it for what it was – a 90-minute-long, all-Canadian piss in the snow. Score is not a hockey musical, it’s the hockey musical. (And one’s enough.)

And finally, another family drama,

Conviction
Dir: Tony Goldwyn

Betty Anne and Kevin are a brother and sister who grew up together in very hard circumstances with neglectful parents and a series of foster homes. But at least they had each other. Kevin (Sam Rockwell) is a high-spirited class-clown type guy, but he also is in and out of trouble with the cops, usually just for mischief. But he gets charged and later convicted of a heinous, vile rape and murder and is sent off to prison for life. His wife testifies against him, and she takes their little daughter away. Betty Anne (Hilary Swank) is sure he didn’t do it, so she makes it her life goal to set him free. She goes to law school and, twenty years later, with the help of a friend, Abra (Minnie Driver) she tries to bring his case back to court. Will she succeed and save her brother? And was he innocent or guilty?

Based on a true story, this has a movie-of-the-week feel to it. It is a tear jerker, got a couple of tears, and it’s an uplifting story, but it’s not the kinda movie I normally go to see. I should also say the acting is all great, including an almost unrecognizable Juliette Lewis as a shady trial witness – she’s fantastic.

Just to review, today I talked about Boy, and A Windigo Tale, two of the many cool movies playing at ImagineNative, which is happening now through Sunday: look online at http://www.imaginenative.org/ ; Conviction (now playing), and Score: the Hockey Musical – which opens tomorrow.

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.

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