I talk with Morgan White about his new documentary THE REP

Posted in Batman, Cultural Mining, Movie Theatre Trends, Movies, Toronto, Uncategorized, Underground by CulturalMining.com on May 25, 2013

Morgan_0695(1)Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

There used to be a repertory cinema in every town, in every neighbourhood, and near every university. Reps are the kind of theatres that play a mix of second-run, classic, cult movies, art flics, and perennial favourites… for a few bucks. They’re usually one-screen theatres, but with a constantly changing program — often two new movies each night.

But something is happening — repertory cinemas are disappearing across North America. Why? What’s going on? Well a new movie, called The Rep, which opens The Rep Crowd Watching A Movietoday in Toronto, takes a look at these theatres, focussing on one of them: Toronto’s Underground Cinema on Spadina. It’s a beautiful homage to a disappearing phenomenon. I speak with the film’s director Morgan White to find out more about it.

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July 26, 2012 Heroes vs Superheroes. Movies Reviewed: The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Posted in Art, Batman, China, Comics, Cultural Mining, 艾未未, Hotdocs, Movies, Super-heroes, Uncategorized, US, 中国艺术 by CulturalMining.com on July 27, 2012

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..

People like to watch superheroes and supervillains, whether its on the big screen or on the news screen – media gobble up anything in the news that seems horrific, and when it can be tied to movies or TV – like the recent shooting disaster in Colorado, it’s media gold. But what about a real hero? Those are harder to find. Do we give as much attention to heroes as villains, and what about real heroes vs comic book superheroes?

This week I’m talking about two action movies about superheroes trying to save Manhattan from being blown up, and a documentary about a real guy, an artist, who’s trying to stop China from imploding.

The Avengers

Dir: Joss Whedon

OK, NASA is building a machine called the tesseract that is powered by this bluish glowing cube about yea big. But a skinny goth with a glowing, golden sceptre — the Norse god Loki — puts the scientists under mind-control and zooms off somewhere to open a hole in the universe that would let an army of slimy metallic evil creatures from outer space take over the world.

So a group of people with special powers are brought together by a secret US government agency — SHIELD — to fight supervillain Loki. There’s Thor, the God of Thunder with a heavy hammer, Bruce Banner, the scientist who might turn into the Hulk at any moment, Ironman, a rich dude who’s also an inventor; Captain America, an earnest military guy from the 1940s who wears an ice-ballet stars and stripes leotard and carries a super-strong shield; and the black widow Natasha, a former Soviet spy who now fights bad guys everywhere. They all get loaded onto this mammoth airborne battleship the size of a small city. And, for some reason, Loki’s locked up into a glass cage on board.

Since they’re superheroes, they get into a bunch of fights: Thor vs Ironman, Hulk vs Thor, etc etc… until they finally get it together to fight the real baddies. But of course Loki and his hypnotized minions are going to stop them. Will the good guys beat the bad guys? Or will the earth crumble, taken over by Loki’s alien allies? Uh… guess.

This is a pretty goofy movie but it’s directed by Joss Whedon so you know it’s going to be watchable with lots of collapsing buildings falling apart just behind someone running full speed toward the camera. Cool. And the space aliens — who look like massive flying trilobite armadillos with sharp teeth – get in some amazing urban disaster scenes, smashing through glass office towers. The big stars – Robert Downey Jr, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlet Johansen, Samuel Jackson, and Tom Hiddleston as Loki — all seem to be having a good time.

And the bits of sardonic humour thrown in here and there, helps it a lot. Not great fun, but at least good fun once all the fighting starts.

The Dark Knight Rises

Dir: Christopher Nolan

As in The Avengers, a super-villain, this one called Bain, — a big guy with a mask over his mouth — descends on Manhattan, aka Gotham City, because he wants to take over, seize Wayne Enterprises’ secret energy-generating device (with WMD potential), and then kill everybody. Why? Doesn’t really matter. Because he’s a bad guy, I guess.

But billionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is in retirement, his company running dry, and the forlorn orphans he used to help are left abandoned. Meanwhile, in a French Revolution-style takeover, they storm the Bastille letting the world’s worst criminals out of jail, a Robespierre-type judge sentences everyone to death or exile, and the NYPD are all locked up in a collapsed underground tunnel. Who will save everyone? It takes the combined efforts of a tough, young cop (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a slinky cat burglar (Anne Hathaway) to finally get Batman out of his funk to fight the bad guy. But Bain locks him up in a pit in central Asia with no way out. Oh no!

I dunno about this one. Two hours and forty minutes later we get to see the ending, find out who will triumph and what is the villain’s secret. To be honest, this is a pretty stupid movie. The effects are good enough, but never seem to be justified – they’re evoked seemingly at random. Great actors — like Tom Hardy as Bain and Christian Bale as Batman – spend the movie masked, with distorted voices. Why bother? They could have meat puppets doing the same thing. What a waste. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Anne Hathaway are a bit better, as their characters actually get to develop, but in general, this movie was a humourless drudge. Good enough to watch, but not worth dying for (this is not meant to downplay the terrible shooting at the premier in Colorado).

Incidentally, the scariest part for me was when someone walked past my aisle seat, with a loud, sudden pattapattapatta clacking sound. Everyone jumped and stared and a security guard came running into the theatre to investigate, but it turned out to be just some guy spilling reese’s pieces all over the steps.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Dir: Alison Klayman

But what about a real hero?

Ai Weiwei (艾未未) is a Chinese artist and photographer who studied in NY in the 80s and 90s and is now an international art celeb. He helped design the Beijing Olympic stadium and his photography – he’s famous for giving the finger to all the world’s great buildings — and installations are widely known. And he has impeccable credentials: his dad was Ai Qing (艾青), the poet who was jailed by the Nationalists, and who joined the Communist Party and participated in Mao Zedong’s famous Talks on Art and Culture at Yen’an. That’s major historical creds in postwar China.

But Ai Weiwei doesn’t like everything going on in China these days. So when a poorly designed school building collapses in Sichuan, killing hundreds of kids, his art turns political – after painstaking research he creates a memorial listing all the names of the dead. But this is taken as a possible insult to the the authorities. He is arrested and beaten up by a violent cop known only by his badge number. So begins his odyssey, fighting the powers that be, and trying to get justice using his art, his writing, the media, lawsuits, fighting in court, and filming everything, everywhere he goes.

He is one of the signers of Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08, and generally makes a name for himself, not just as an installation and photographic artist, but as a leading dissident — a sort of a Chinese Michael Moore, but one with deep artistic and cultural capabilities.

This documentary (that opened this year’s Hotdocs) is very important as an historical record. While it may be a case of the filmmaker being in the right place at the right time – It’s mainly shot with a handheld camera allowed to trace and document his life: in the galleries, his encounters with the police, his family life, including time with his son (from an unseen mother, not his wife).

He comes across as a bit unlikeable – not a smiling panda, but an irascible, sometimes obnoxious stubborn man. But one who sticks to his principles (freedom of speech, freedom of expression, an independent judiciary, etc). AI Weiwei has had his studio destroyed by the government, he’s been thrown in a secret prison — allegedly for tax reasons – and fined millions of dollars, but he hasn’t stopped fighting. Really interesting and worth seeing if you’re interested in China, politics, or art.

The Avengers and Dark Knight Rises are playing now, check your local listings; and Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry opens today in Toronto.

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

Over the Top. Movies reviewed: The Square, Kick-Ass, Fritz the Cat

Why do directors try to go over the top?

I get the impression that movies that want to get noticed try to up the quotient a bit, by including more violence, especially more unexpected violence, or more sex, especially outside the mainstream, or more explicit than what you see in most mainstream movies. So people will be a bit shocked, a bit dismayed, a bit distressed. That’s nothing new. What is new is that the boundaries of what used to be shocking is so far beyond what it was a decade or even five years ago.

So the sex or violence alone isn’t enough. To really shock they want to have kids or old people, or women, or pets, either committing the violence or having it done to them; and what used to be the push for celebrities and famous actors to show more flesh on film, has now shifted to a push for actors to show explicit sex on films. What used to be a bit of blood, now is a flood.

At the same time, the openness to a broad range of opinions and language that really expanded into the mainstream in the sixties and seventies seems to have been scaled back, especially over the past decade. Dirty words are OK now; troubling ideas less so. I’m going to review three comic-book-like movies that are in some way edgy in the over-the-topness in their stories, ideas, explicitness, or language.

“The Square”, an Australian movie directed by Nash Edgerton, has more mullets than you can shake a stick at. A contractor, Raymond (David Roberts), agrees to install a large concrete square in a building development, and arranges to get a kickback from a supplier. He has a good job, success, money, marriage, big house… and even a much younger mistress, Carla (Claire van der Boom). And they all live in the same area — some in mansions, some in shacks — on the banks of a wide, bucolic river. Life’s beautiful.

But one day, Carla discovers her bearded, abusive husband has a hidden bag of slightly stained cash. Lots of it. So she manages to convince Ray to come on board her scheme of somehow stealing it – in a way that can’t be traced back to her. They secretly hire a shady guy – well actually everyone in this movie is a bit shady – to burn down the house. Of course something goes wrong. So now happy Ray has everything and everyone lined up against him.

The square he’s building is sinking; and he has to fend off his contractor, his employees, his boss, the shady arsonist, the womanizing kick-back guy, the conniving mistress, the low-life, mullet brigade colleagues of her bearded hubby, and a mystery person, sending him creepy Christmas cards telling him – “I know what you did”.

So he starts to unravel, suspecting everyone, which devolves into a series of linked, unplanned deaths. It gets stranger and stranger as the movie goes on, till the point where the audience starts cracking up at all the misguided violence. I think the director wanted to go too far… and he did. And I think the movie pulled it off.

It’s definitely a B movie (maybe a C), but it kept my attention and interest. The acting was fun, across the board, though it was hard to deeply sympathize with anyone. (I thought some of the dodgier elements looked more like espresso bar faux-hemian actors than ruthless killers.)

Finally, there are a few great, unforgettable scenes in “The Square” that make it worthwhile. A Christmas picnic in the park, with its miscommunication leading to a panicky Santa is unforgettable. For a Canadian, just seeing a Christmas party in the middle of an Aussie summer is whack.

“Kick-Ass”, which you may have heard of, (directed by Matthew Vaughan, and based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita Jr) is a great retake of the super-hero origins-style comic book (as in Spiderman, Superman, Batman). It’s about Dave (Aaron Johnson), a High School boy who’s tired of his undesirable combination: invisible to girls, but a magnet to bullies and muggers. So after a typical round of complaining to his pals, Dave decides to do something about it.

He fashions himself a super-hero outfit from stuff he buys on-line, and practices poses and punches in front of his bedroom mirror. And he lucks out: his rescue of a man in a street fight with some hoods is captured on a cel phone and instantly goes viral – Kick-Ass is born. He gets lots of hits on his Kick-Ass Facebook, but his own life is unchanged, just full of difficult secrets. Gangsters believe he’s moving in on their territory and want to snuff him, the girl he has a crush on thinks he’s gay, and other kids everywhere are copycatting his costume.

So when he encounters some real superheroes, Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage), he is shocked back into reality. These real “heroes” are also amassing huge amounts of weapons and money they steal from drug dealers. And Kick-Ass is getting blamed for it.

Tiny, 12-year-old Hit Girl is like a ninja in her speed, skill and ruthlessness, with a shocking moral code different from conventional superhero comic books. She’s part of Big Daddy’s mission of vengeance. These real life super-heroes (similar to the ones in Watchmen, but done much better here) are not the good role models they used to be.

At first glance, Kick-Ass” seems like a typical teen comedy with a twist. But it’s actually a superhero action movie with great comic elements. It is morally ambiguous, extremely bloody and violent, but it does manage to avoid one annoying and pervasive element of action movies: There are no girls calling out to their boyfriends to save them. The girls in this movie follow the Buffy the Vampire Slayer model; either they’re superheroes themselves or they’re self assured regular people, who, when push comes to shove, are ready and able to fight back, to kick ass themselves. That alone makes this an above-par movie. And a reason for there to be more female scriptwriters (like Jane Goldman).

We’re in the midst of film festival season in Toronto. Coming in May, is HotDocs, follwed closely by NXNE. Right now, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival is just finishing up. One of the most interesting topics they’re covering is comics. And of those films, nothing can compare to the well-known but seldom seen on the big screen Fritz the Cat, directed by the legendary Ralph Bakshi).

Fritz the Cat was the first animated film to receive an “X” rating in the US – this was back in the early 70’s. And to understand it, you have to consider it in context, the period in which it was made. (FTC would never be made this way today.)

The story is about a hep-cat, Fritz, who’s a hip cat. (He’s a cat.) Fritz is a university student at the peak of the baby-boomers’ take on the ‘sixties, in downtown New York City. He’s sick of studying and going to classes so he embarks on a journey, to experience life. So we follow him from Washington Square Park, where he tries to pick up girls by impressing them with his lame guitar-playing.

He ends up at a pot party, which soon devolves into romping group sex in a bathtub. He later falls in with a crow, steals a car, has sex, takes drugs, and falls in with some bikers and revolutionary terrorists who want him to blow things up.

Fritz is a sort of a Cheshire cat, but dressed like a college student trying to be cool. The crows look suspiciously like the magpies Heckle and Jeckle. (This was a TV cartoon series made by Terrytoons, where Bakshi worked in the 50’s at the start of his career. I wonder if that was his inspiration.) In this movie the cats and rabbits live downtown, while the crows, well, they live in Harlem. The pigs, of course, are a bumbling team of cops — an old-timer, Ralph, and his new partner. And there are lizards, a cow who’s a biker chick, and other cats and dogs. (Black pimps? Cops as pigs? Old jews praying and complaining? Maybe in 1972 these tired stereotypes were more audacious end edgy, less cliched than now.)

Most of the characters — especially the scrunched faced men, and the big bottomed women in overalls — are icons of the great cartoonist Robert Crumb, who was also a sort of an underground comic superstar at the time. This movie captures a lot of Crumb’s relaxed hippy sexuality, but also Bakshi’s sorta terrifyingly nihilistic, and misogynistic view of a violent world. So there’s lots of tame sex, lots of music, drugs, four letter words, and very bloody, senseless death, none of which was ever seen at the time in animated American movies (but are now on the level of what you find in a few minutes of The Simpsons). Fritz the Cat is a step back into the defunct microcosm of rioting, extreme change, and anything-goes experimentation of the late 60’s and early seventies.

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