Old and New. Movie reviewed: The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death, PLUS Best movies of 2014

Posted in Best Picture, Cultural Mining, Horror, Movies, UK, WWII by CulturalMining.com on January 2, 2015

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.

Happy New Year! It’s a time to look ahead at what’s coming and back at what we did. So this week I’m talking about something new a scary movie from the UK, and something old, my choices for best of 2014

WOMAN IN BLACK 2The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death

Dir: Tom Harper

It’s London, during the Blitz. German bombs keep falling, reducing streets to rubble, but Miss Parkins, the indefatigable school teacher, (Phoebe Fox) vows to carry on, and keep the aspidistra flying. The strict headmistress (Helen McRory: Harry Potter) keeps things orderly and on time. The dozen or so boys and girls face new losses each day. Especially little Edward (Oaklee Pendergast) who stops speaking at all when both his parents are killed in an air raid. So they all breathe a sigh of

WOMAN IN BLACK 2relief when the school is relocated to the countryside out of harms way. (Or so they think…) And on the train ride out, pretty Miss Parkins meets handsome RAF pilot Harry Burnstow (Jeremy Irvine: War Horse) who is from the very town they’re heading.

Everything seems fine until they arrive at their new home, a crumbling, decrepit mansion. The headmistress is aghast when she sees the peeling WOMAN IN BLACK 2paint, dusty floors, and broken furniture. This is unacceptable! she says, but there’s nowhere else to go. So they’re all stuck on the seacoast, on a spooky island. It’s separated from the nearby town (home to various creepy locals) by a causeway that is flooded each day during high tide. So Miss Parkins decides to make the best of it. It’s just an old house.

But things seem different at night. Strange shadows appear, creaky noises, and fleeting images of a woman dressed in a black veil. The children – especially little Edward — are terrified because their bedroom is located directly below a dusty old nursery. And at night, when they look up they can see straight up into it a hole in the ceiling. It seems to be where all the bad karma is concentrated. And when people start to die, WOMAN IN BLACK 2one by one, surely something evil this way comes. The headmistress says its just rubbish – there’s no such thing as ghosts. But Miss Parkins, with the pilot’s help, wants to save them all from the diabolical forces. What happened in this house? Is it haunted? Will they ever find out the truth? And will little Edward ever speak again?

The Woman in Black 2 is of course the sequel to another movie with the WOMAN IN BLACK 2same title a couple years back that starred Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe. Same location, same spooky mansion, same mysterious woman in black who’s always searching for her missing child. Other than that it’s a totally different movie. It has some spooky parts but a lot of cheese, too. And in case ghosts and horror aren’t enough, they throw in psychological dimensions – all the main characters have hidden secrets from their pasts. As for the Angel of Death, if you’re looking for a storyline involving angels, or the Grim Reaper holding a scythe you’ll be sorely disappointed. There isn’t any. It’s really just a haunted house / horror movie set during WWII. The historical aspects are done very well, and the cast is uniformly excellent, including all the kids, but the movie itself wavers between scariness and goofy, clichéd silliness. Not bad, but clearly a “B” movie.

Now for some really great movies.

Over the past year, I saw and reviewed some really amazing films. The list only includes movies I’ve seen, reviewed and loved. There are other ones with great reputations that I haven’t had a chance to see yet (Lego Movie, Guardians of the Galaxy), others that I saw and loved but haven’t been released yet (The Tribe, Phoenix), and others that I thought were great but just couldn’t fit in the list (Corbo, Heartbeat, among many others). And I angelique-horizontaldon’t include documentaries or made-for-TV movies.

Here are my picks for the Best movies of 2014 (in alphabetical order).

Angelique is bodice-ripping potboiler from France set in the time of the Three Musketeers. A lot of fun, and the sort of movie rarely seen anymore.

522e0321-d51a-46bd-a141-3a695a35b29aBoyhood, directed by Richard Linklater, is a remarkable movie that follows a boy from age five to adulthood, played by the same non-actor over a 12-year period.

Force Majeure is a quirky but hilarious Swedish comedy about a married forcemajeure_03couple and their kids on a ski trip to the Alps whose relationship starts to fray when the father, facing a disaster, does something terribly wrong that calls his Michael Fassbender in FRANK, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.masculinity into question.

Frank is a comedy about a man in a band whose charismatic lead singer never takes off his giant, bulbous papier-mache head.

Ida is a small but perfect film from Poland about an orphan girl raised in a ida-3convent who ventures outside for the first time to discover her real name, her real history and how she ended up there.

THE IMITATION GAMEThe Imitation Game is an amazing WWII thriller starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, who broke German codes and invented the computer only to face persecution in England for his sexuality.

The Lunchbox is a movie from India about a long-distance relationship between two strangers who communicate via notes left in Bombay tiffin lunchbox_02boxes.

Mommy is Quebec’s Xavier Dolan’s look at the dysfunctional 62558-000060890018-mommy_aopilon1-creditphoto_shayne-laverdic3a8rerelationship between a highly sexualized mother and son, and the depressed teacher who lives next door. Shocking, funny and over-the-top.

The Notebook (Le Grande Cahier) is a stunning Hungarian film about identical-twin boys forced the-notebook-courtesy-sony-pictures-classics-a9b0f912-da11-4387-ac89-ef8ea0fde720to take care of themselves during WWII.

nymphomania-chapter_2_photo_by_christian_geisnaes_2Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac is a an extremely long, satirical sex-comedy about a young woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and the people she has sex with.

Under the Skin stars Scarlet Johansen as an enigmatic, not-quite-human scarlett-johansson-in-under-the-skin-courtesy-of-mongrel-mediabeing who pics up men in the Scottish highlands, has sex with them and then does something very strange to them.

Whiplash-5547.cr2Whiplash is an intense drama about a young drummer at a music academy who is asked to join their award winning jazz band. But doesn’t realize the band’s director is cruel and sadistic. A wonderful level of tension between the two characters played by JK Simmons and Miles Teller.bgndyy__wildtales_01_o3__8254116__1406599920

Wild Tales is a hilarious dark comedy from Argentina. It’s a series of short revenge stories about ordinary people who take it too far.

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death opens today. And these movies are now playing: Force Majeure, Whiplash, The Imitation Game. And starting today, be sure to check out the Canada’s Top Ten series now playing at the TIFF Bell Light Box. 10 movies for 10 bucks each, including Mommy, Corbo, Felix and Meira, In her Place, and Harold Crooks’ The Price We Pay. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

September 23, 2011. TIFF aftermath. Films reviewed: Where Do We Go Now?, Drive, Limelight

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.

With the closing of this year’s TIFF — with all of its orgiastic
excess of filmic stimulation, eye candy, and brain prods — you may be
suffering from withdrawal. But have no fear — there’s no need to go
cold turkey, because Toronto’s Fall festival season is positively
brimming with good smaller film festival to keep your addiction alive.

Coming soon are: Toronto After Dark, the Toronto Palestinian Film
Festival, Planet in Focus, the Real Asian Film Festival, and the
European Union Film Festival, among others. And TIFF itself continues
on all year, showing their programmed films at the Lightbox. So if you
missed a good movie at TIFF, even if it doesn’t get a wide release,
you may be able to catch it later on in the year.

But first, the awards. Phillipe Felardeau won the Toronto Best
Canadian feature prize for Monsieur Falardeau — and it’s already gone
on to become Canada’s entry for a Best Foreign language Film Oscar.

The People’s Choice Award at TIFF is often used as an indicator of
who’s going to win a Golden Globe and later get nominated for an
Oscar. Past years’ winners include Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s
Speech, and Precious. It’s voted on not by a panel of judges, but by
the moviegoers at the festival themselves. What this also means is
that sometimes a completely unknown movie — one with no “buzz” at all– can come out of left field, and take this award.

This year’s surprise is a film out of Lebanon, called:

Where Do Go Now? (Et maintenant, on va où?)
Dir: Nadine Labaki

The movie takes place in a small village, a town divided equally
between Muslims and Catholics. It’s surrounded by landmines, and all
too often, people get shot or blown up. Up at the top of a hill is the
graveyard where women dressed in black from both sides meet to bury
the dead. The town itself is peaceful, and after some brave kids
weather the landmines to set up an antenna, the mayor declares it’s TV
night in the town square, and everyone gathers to watch the blurry
movie.

The danger, though, is that the fragile peace will break, and the men
will start killing each other again in reprisals. So the women of the
village formulate a plan: anytime news about violence reaches the
village, they will hide it or distract the men. Gradually — with the
cooperation of the Priest and the Imam — their plans escalate and
their schemes get more and more elaborate. They stage religious
miracles, and even secretly bring in Eastern European strippers –
anything to hide the fact that someone in the village was killed in an
incident.

Will it work? Can they create an island of piece in turbulent Lebanon?
And will their final, shocking surprise serve to jolt the men away
from their never-ending violence?

I thought the movie had an extremely slow beginning, with a handmade
feel to it – sort of like an even-lower-budget Big Fat Greek Wedding
meets Little Mosque on the Prairie. It’s a comedy, but a lot of the
jokes fell flat. And it’s a musical, but some of the songs just don’t
translate well. The ensemble plot, with dozens of characters, leaves
you confused until you can figure out who everyone is.

That said, in the second half, when the pace picks up and the story
gets interesting, it becomes good. And the ending is just great –
clever and imaginative, and leaves you with a much better feeling
than you came with. Nadine Labaki – who is also a member of the cast – is
the first female director to win the TIFF People’s Choice award, and
it’s nice to see her touching story about an important topic given a
boost. I’m curious as to where the movie will go now.

Another movie that opened at the festival is

Drive
Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn

Ryan Gosling plays this guy in a satin jacket who drives cars around,
plain-looking cars but with souped-up engines that can outgun any
police car. He can tumble a car, flip it over on a highway, and
still remain absolutely calm, a Japanese toothpick still in his mouth. He’s the
strong silent type, good at heart. By day, he works in a garage, and
is sent out by his shady boss Shannon (Brian Cranston) to do movie
stunts. (This is LA, so, of course,  it’s always about the movies.) And by night, he
serves as the driver for bank heists and robberies.

He falls into almost a family relationship with pretty waitress Irene
(Carey Mulligan), and her son, little Benicio, and takes them for
drives around the city. But when her husband, Standard, is released
from prison, his good life starts to fall apart and the violence
builds. He becomes embroiled in a scheme involving sinister gangsters
Rose and Nino (Albert Brooks and the great, neanderthalic Ron
Perlman). He ends up holding a dufflebag with a million dollars in
stolen money. What should he do with it? Will he settle down as a
champion stock car racer? Or will violence rule the day?

This is a fantastic — though sometimes horrifically violent, and
weird – movie. (Every once in a while you think – what is this? Is
this for real? Who are they trying to kid? You lose the connection for a moment, but then you slip right back into it.) It looks like a rejig of an 80’s movie like Thief,
with the driving bass (bubbadubba dubbadubba bubbadubba…) background music, and the
night scenes with glowing lights all around. The movie titles are
scribbled, Andy Warhol-style, in hot pink, and strange Eurodisco
dominates the soundtrack. The violence is almost comical, though
bloody. This is NOT your usual action thriller, but a clever, Danish
take on LA film noir. Great movie.

Next, another look at the louche underculture, this time in Manhattan
in the 90’s. A documentary

Limelight
Dir: Billy Corben

Peter Gatien, a Canadian nightclub promoter who lost an eye in a
hockey game as a kid, was known for his black eye patch, his canny
business practices, and how he had his hand on the pulse of all of New
York clublife in the 80’s and 90’s. He was a behind-the-scenes guy,
but he brought in demimonde celebs – the club kids – to bring in the
cool crowd. He opened famous places like Tunnel, the Palladium and
Limelight (not so affectionately known as slimelight by clubgoers) a
club opened inside of a church.

So everything’s going good, until Giuliani, the law and order supreme,
was elected mayor of New York. But when the drug of choice changed

from coke to MDMA to crack cocaine, so did the mood in the clubs, from

selfish and driven, to touchy-feelie, to insane. Giuliani vowed to
“clean up” the city. And he despised nightclubs, sex and dancing as
musch as drugs. Used to be the people in the burrows and New Jersey
would travel into the city on weekends for fun. By the end of his
reign, the term bridge and tunnel crowd seemed to be a better
description of the people in Manhattan who were so desperate they’d
migrate out of the city just to dance all night.

Well, Giuliani chose Peter Gatien, as his nemesis, and launched a
full-scale attack, an elaborate scheme to paint him as a drug dealer
and criminal. This movie traces, in minute detail, all the players
involved in his trial – the rats, the dealers, the feds, the femme
fatale, and the legendary club kids like murderer Michael Alig.

It’s an interesting movie, about a fascinating topic, with a great
segment giving a history of the evolution of music, nightclubs, and
drugs, worth seeing, but it’s just too long. It gets bogged down with way too many
talking heads against acid-green lighting.

Drive is playing now, Limelife opens today, and  Where Do We Go Now?
won the 2011 People’s Choice Award at TIFF.

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


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.

Oscar Predictions

Last week, instead of my usual reviews, I posted about the Academy Awards, that land of mediocre excess, and squirmily embarrassing endless thank you speeches, of kowtowing, false modesty, and some genuine tears of joy. I did very short explanations and reviews of almost all the movies nominated for best picture, and made a few predictions about who I think would win. And now I’ve added a comment on my (generally wrong) predictions.

In alphabetical order:

“Avatar” as everyone and his sister already knows is a partially animated 3-D movie about Jake, a disabled soldier who is sent to another planet to secure its resources for a big multinational, and to pacify the angry giant blue, cat-like locals called the Na’vi who stand in their way. Though normally in a wheel chair, whenever he gets locked into a coffin-like machine, he can inhabit a giant blue body, an avatar, that can live in that planet’s ecosystem. Jake becomes accepted by the Na’vi, especially a woman who he grows to love, but has to decide whether to stand by his new family who’s way of life is threatened, or the military-industrial consortium who brought him there, and also allowed him to walk again.

Avatar is a fun, science fiction adventure epic cartoon that cost half a billion to make, but made back two.

“District 9” is a South African, ET-like drama, about ugly-cute Aliens from another planet who look like the undersea extras from Pirates of the Caribbean, and live in a decrepit refugee camp near Johannesburg.

Wikus, a wimpy, sweater vest-wearing guy working for a multinational corporation, is asked to go with the paramilitary soldiers to evict the “Prawns” — their derogatory term for the kind aliens, who speak an unintelligible language. But when he gets accidentally sprayed with a black substance that starts to turn him into one of them, he has to decide whether to continue to help the military-industrial consortium, or to aid his new friends to accomplish their goals.

"District 9" is an OK action/drama that addresses the problems of refugees in South Africa and elsewhere. The aliens, unfortunately, look so similar you can only tell them apart by their clothing, and the masks they wear are so stiff they make the ones in the original Planet of the Apes look natural and expressive, by comparison.

“An Education” is a drama adapted from a memoir about a smart and pretty16-year-old English girl in the early 1960’s who is trying to get into Oxford, but whose plans are upset by a sophisticated but sleazy man in his 30’s whom she falls for.

It’s an enjoyable and very well-acted, but soft, tame and nostalgic look back at a teenage girl’s coming of age.

“The Hurt Locker” is a drama about Sgt James, an American soldier in Iraq who adopts a devil-may-care attitude toward defusing insurgents’ roadside bombs. But it’s his life back home with his family that’s harder to handle. How will he resolve his military heroics with his own life?

“The Hurt Locker” is a simplistic, but sharp and tightly-done picture about an alienated American soldier inured to the death and destruction; but it’s also a movie which tiptoes around assigning blame for the war itself.

“Inglourious Basterds” is a multi-plotted, revisionist war movie about occupied France during WWII, where an evil genius Nazi Colonel is pitted against a blood-thirsty team of British, Jewish-American, and sympathetic German soldiers and spies who are out to turn the tide in the war. It’s also about a romantic woman with a hidden past and a vendetta who now runs a cinema in Paris, who tries to keep her romantic life while playing her role with all the opposing forces in France, as they head toward a Battle Royal climax. Who will prevail? Hint: I don’t want to give it away, but for those who don’t know… the Nazis lost the war.

While "Inglourious Basterds" is as excessive and bombastic as any of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, it was almost restrained in its level of gratuitous blood and gore. In other words, excessive, but not excessively excessive, if that makes sense. And he even included some good slapstick comedy and sweet, melodramatic romance in this long movie.

“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” is a great weeper about a fat, illiterate, and pregnant but kind-hearted high-school drop-out who uses her imagination to escape to a better world. She tries to turn her life around when placed in an alternate school writing class, but must deal with her monster of a mother and her miserable home life.

Precious is a good movie with two surprisingly good actresses I had never seen before, that dealt with difficult topics without succumbing to mawkishness.

“A Serious Man” is a comic drama about a middle class, middle aged, University prof in the midwest 40 years ago who faces a moral dilemma at work, and instability in all directions. He turns to a series of rabbis for help with his marriage, his brother, his neighbours, his children, and the meaning of life.

"A Serious Man" is a funny and uncomfortable movie by the Coen Brothers, but seems unsure whether it wants to be a stupid shaggy dog tale or a vortex of existential angst. It ends up being both.

“Up” is a cartoon about a grumpy old man who makes a rash decision to fulfill his and his late wife’s dream of visiting a remote mountaintop, but, who accidentally floats off in his balloon-powered house, with a boy scout on board. Later the two of them encounter the old man’s hero – a Charles Lindberg-type with his own private domain filled with trained, talking dogs – but soon discover their hero is not what they expected. Now it’s up to the old man and the little boy to make things right.

"Up" is an OK animated movie with some funny lines and hilarious talking dogs.

“Up in the Air” is a so-so comedy about a man (who strangely looks and sounds exactly like George Clooney) who travels corporate America firing strangers from their jobs. But is his world of airports, convention centres, offices, and furtive relationships in hotel rooms worthwhile? Or is the unfashionable, slow and homey life of his estranged relatives more “real”?

(The Blind Side was also nominated but I can’t review it, because I haven’t seen it.)

Predictions:

Best Actor: definitely Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker”. WRONG: Jeff Bridges

Best Supporting Actor: (strangely enough, they were all great) it’s a real toss up, I think Stanley Tucci as the creepy neighbour in The Lovely Bones did the best job, but I have a feeling Cristoph Waltz will win. RIGHT

Best Actress: The two young Actresses Gabby Sidibe in Precious and Carey Mulligan in An Eduucation were both outstanding but I think Precious was more dramatic so it’ll probably go to her. WRONG Sandra Bullock (I haven’t seen The Blind Side)

Supporting Actress – I’m pretty sure it’ll go to Mo’nique in Precious. RIGHT

Bets animated feature: I haven’t seen Book of Kells, but of those I saw I thought "The Fantastic Mr Fox" was the best. "Coraline" had a great story. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure "Up" will win. RIGHT

(I’m also surprised that the excellent Japanese movie "Ponyo", about a fish that turns human, wasn’t even in the running.)

Best Original Script: I hope it’s "The Messenger", a heart-wrenching new drama about war vets who’s job is to tell families that a soldier is dead. NO PREDICTION ("Hurt Locker")

Best adapted script: I hope it’ll be In the Loop, a brilliant British political comic satire about how misinformation and disinformation can lead to war. NO PREDICTION ( "Precious")

Best director will probably go to Catherine Bigelow. RIGHT

Best Picture: Avatar WRONG! (Hurt Locker).

Final score: 4 out of 7 — slightly better than flipping coins.

On Coming of Age Movies. Films Reviewed: An Education, Fish Tank

Coming of age themes have been around for a long time, but they’re still popular. You probably already know all about this, but it’s the old story of a young man faced with a dilemma or an unrequited love, or an opponent or a hard to reach goal… that he eventually overcomes – or not – but ends up somehow learning from it, and growing up a bit. Think of movies ranging from Breaking Away and Old Yeller, to The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and Lean on Me, and The Outsiders, to more recent ones like L.I.E. and Igby Goes Down, or even Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which just opened.

These kind of movies are fun to watch because you get to experience the new discoveries, fresh views, amd the adventures that the hero is going through for the first time; as opposed to a "slice of life" movie where everything is the same, not new.

Well, coming of age stories have been talked about a lot over the past year, mainly because of the death of two of the most famous proponents of that theme – I mean, of course, the late JD Salinger who wrote Catcher in the Rye, and the director and writer John Hughes, known for his teen comedies in the 1980’s.

Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield is a rebellious, troubled teenager who runs away from a boarding school, to get away from all the phoniness, cliquishness, and superficiality he saw there. Some people were so moved by this novel that they said it changed their life. (I’m not one of those people, but I did like the novel when I first read it.) There’s even a rumour of a movie version, now that the reclusive writer — who always resisted that — is dead.

Another kind of coming-of-age story was the hallmark of the much-loved "icon of the ’80’s" John Hughes. There’s been a great outpouring of grief over the end of his innocent, young rebels in movies like 16 Candles, Pretty in Pink, and The Breakfast Club.

Well, It’s always sad when people die young, but John Hughes was an awful director with a non-stop stream of terrible, conservative, faux-rebel dreck, who co-opted fake punk/ new wave fashions to make his nasty, small-town characters seem more hip.

He was unsympathetic to the nerdy characters and the outcasts, and instead seemed to glorify bullying, and promote conformity. "Losers" were not doing well, but it was their own
fault. Ferris Bueller, the rich, successful and popular teenager (from Hughes’s best movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) decides one day — brimming with smirking entitlement — to do whatever he wants… because he can. Ferris Bueller was a Reagan-ish personification of US exceptionalism.

Expensive cars were what was really important. Women were treated to a backslide to the 1950’s, Happy Days-style, as if the feminist movement had never happened.

His movies later devolved even more with the Home Alone series, where a brat gets to run rampant out of greed and self-centredness, as long as he is juxtaposed against even more "evil" villains — meaning losers who "deserve" to lose.

In the world of coming of age movies, I think it’s fair to call John Hughes the Anti-Salinger.

But opposite though those archetypes may be, Holden Caulfield and Ferris Bueller do share one trait – they’re both teenaged boys, not girls. You see, coming of age stories about young women are a much rarer breed.

Let’s look at two current, female, coming-of-age movies.

An Education, by Danish Director Lone Scherfig, tells the story of Jenny, an English school girl in the early sixties whose father wants her to get into Oxford. That’s her only goal. She’s 16, smart, pretty, and middle class, but longs for the great things in life. She meets a much older man, David. He’s a bit sleazy, a bit louche, but to Jenny he’s glamorous and important with jaded friends who take her on cultural adventures away from her suburban town. He’s going to take her away, to take her to Paris. Eventually reality sets in and she’s forced to deal with unanticipated problems and twists.

This is an enjoyable movie, with a good story, and great acting, especially Carey Mulligan as Jenny, and it’s been nominated for an Academy award for best picture.

The only problem is that it’s a little too soft and fluffy and nice, and even its touches of bitter reality seem tinged with more nostalgia than grit. I kept expecting Hugh Grant to pop his head into a scene and say “Ooh sorry, I must be in the wrong picture…” It just has that feel to it. But it’s a good movie anyway.

Another British coming of age picture is Fish Tank, Directed by Andrea Arnold, which opens today.

Mia is a 15 year old street-smart and tough-as-nails high school drop-out who lives with her mother and little sister in a high rise council flat. She has an unspoken sense of justice: punish the bad, help the needy, free the enslaved. Her hobbies seem to be drinking, smoking, shouting, fighting, stealing little things, pilfering through wallets, and practicing her hiphop dancing. (She wants to become a dancer) She can find her way, unseen, through vacant lots and empty apartments, but she’s still strangely naïve about how people get along in the real world.

Her mother’s handsome Irish boyfriend Connor acts like a young father to her and her little sister – but then she sees him half dressed one day. The familial structure begins to crumble when all of their roles silently adjust themselves.

Early in the movie Fish Tank, Connor drives his new family out to a hidden piece of land. Mia follows him into the water while her mother stands disapprovingly on the shore. He reaches into the pond and pulls out a trusting fish with his bare hands, just like that. Then he pierces it with a skewer. The movie’s full of unforgettable scenes that carry the story along. (In fact all the scenes are unforgettable)

This is a great movie, with a terrific cast, especially the staggeringly good Katie Jarvis, as Mia, in her first acting role, and Michael Fassbender, (who played IRA prisoner Bobby Sands in the movie Hunger) as Connor. The movie itself looks almost improvised though it clearly follows a story – and a heart pounding, tense, and engrossing story it is. Beautifully shot, this movie just blew me away.

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Another Movie About the Iraq War That’s Not About Iraq: The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker, a US wartime drama directed by Catherine Bigelow has garnered an impressive number of Oscar nominations. I saw it last summer and thought it was a good drama, and then thought nothing more about it. So it’s a bit of a shock that it’s suddenly back in the public eye. Let me give you a bit of background. The Director has a mixed record. She was riding high for a while with her tense psychological thriller Blue Steel (1989), about a rookie cop (Jamie Lee Curtis) who freezes up at an armed robbery, and enters into a sort of a sexual battle with the killer. But Bigelow’s career crashed to a halt with the meandering and pointlessly long science fiction drama Strange Days. Not coincidentally, it was written by her then husband, James Cameron. Yeah, him.

So here she is, back again, directing a tense drama.

The Hurt Locker is about Sergeant James, a new replacement in a US squadron that meticulously defuses bombs set by insurgents in Iraq. To the horror and dismay of his fellow soldiers, James behaves like a sort of a superhero, shrugging off the padded suits and headgear, brazenly walking right into the middle of things, picking up bombs and pulling them apart – seemingly unaware, or unwilling to admit that he could get his head blown off in a second. When you gotta go, you gotta go, is his attitude.

He gets along better with an Iraqi kid who plays with a soccer ball near the bass camp – he calls him Beckham – than with his teammates. The danger and violence wear him down, but his true fear comes when he sheds his uniform and is forced to deal with the mundane reality of his life at home, back in America.

The Hurt Locker is one of a long stream of American movies about the war in Iraq – Jarhead (2005), Redacted (2007), Stop-Loss (2008), and the very good documentary Gunner Palace (2004)– but they all have the same problem: they all take the point of view of US soldiers who, seemingly through no fault of their own, find themselves in a strange country engaged in a senseless war filled with violence, death, and murder. Very much like US movies about the war in Vietnam. But you almost never see a scene in any of these movies, including The Hurt Locker, that is told through the eyes of the Iraqis.

Now American movies, or movies from any country for that matter, are going to take the viewpoint of people the viewer can identify with, and it’s always easier to identify with the people who look or sound like you.

But it’s almost disingenuous to portray the US military in general as finding itself there in Iraq — just coincidentally —  as opposed to being part of the same army that invaded it on false pretenses.

The one exception to this is documentary maker Nick Broomfield’s great, unreleased feature drama Battle for Haditha, made in 2008, in which he shifts back and forth between Iraqi civilians, insurgents, US soldiers on the ground, and officers far away at computer consoles pressing buttons and giving orders. It’s one of the few Iraq war movies that lets the audience see the war the way some Iraqi civilians see it, from inside their own homes.

The Hurt Locker is a good, tense, drama, with great acting – especially unknown Jeremy Renner in the main role. It has some interesting details – the soldiers spend their off hours playing the video game Call of Duty, shooting up the enemy for fun. But it also reduces an actual shootout – like one stalemate in the desert where they shoot at snipers poking up their heads in different windows of an abandoned house on a hill – to what seems like nothing more than a game of whak-a-mole.

– Daniel Garber, February 5, 2010

Three Cities: reviews of My Winnipeg, When in Rome, A Prophet

Posted in Academy Awards, Best Picture, Canada, documentary, France, Guggenheim, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on February 13, 2010

My Winnipeg, directed by the great Guy Maddin, playing this weekend at Cinematheque Ontario (check local listings), is a fantastical B&W pseudo-documentary about that city, told in a mixture of forms, ranging from low-budget NFB short to government mind control messages, to classic melodrama. The movie, narrated by the filmmaker, turns the grey, windswept city, with its empty hockey rink and suburban tracts, into eerie, psychologically-perverse memories of Maddin’s childhood, and the collective unconscious memory of the city itself. Images drift from scenes on a train, to frozen horses, suburban rec-rooms and long gone Eaton’s department stores, to an iced river, with a junction of streams morphing into a woman’s pubic hair. This is one of his best movies, as good as Tales from the Gimli Hospital.

A completely different ode to a city is When in Rome, a romantic comedy, directed by Mark Steven Johnson. It’s a simple movie about Beth, played by Kristen Bell, a woman who is pursued by a series of love-sick men under a spell. On a visit to her sister’s wedding in Rome, Beth ran out of a church just as Italian Morris Dancers were taking over the dance floor, and stole some coins out of the Trevi fountain – hence the love spell. No it doesn’t actually make sense.

Kristen Bell – whom you may remember from the TV series Veronica Mars and Heroes has a good sense of comic timing. And guest cameos from comic actors like Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) and Will Arnett (Arrested Development), are sorta funny for a few seconds. But this can’t rescue a really bad movie. While there are a few good gags, where Kristen Bell is trapped in embarrassing situations, most of the forced laughs come from cheap pratfalls and slapstick headbumps.

The funniest part of the movie is that Bell’s character is supposed to be an art curator at the Guggenheim, but for some reason her job is portayed like a combination wedding planner and security guard.

Look for something better than that for Valentines Day.

A Prophet, directed by Jacques Audiard, is one of the nominees for best foreign language film. I saw this movie last fall at the Toronto European Film Festival. If you’ve never been there, that’s a great annual festival, sponsored by European embassies and consuls to show Torontonians, without charge, great movies from across the European Union.

Actually — and this is a true story – I showed up early for a screening and wanted to makes sure I was in the right line. So I asked the volunteer handing out tickets, “Is this for a Prophet?”

“Mais Non, Monsieur, there is no charge for tickets.”

“No, I mean is this movie “a Prophet”

“No! No profit! If you wish to make a donation, please do so, but the festival
is sponsored by the Ambassadeur.”

“Is the name of the movie that I am going to see “Un Prophete”! (etc.)

Who’s on first…

The movie itself is great. It’s a prison movie, a gangster movie, and a coming of age movie, and just a terrific movie in general.

It starts when Malik, a young street punk, is thrown into prison, and is asked, first thing, if he needs any special diet or religious accommodations. (Malik is French, but is of North African origin.) He brushes it off and asks to be put in with the general prison population. So he finds himself, in that rigidly segregated and hierarchical society, one of the few muslims in the middle of a section controlled by the Corsican Mafia. He gradually adjusts to his new life under Cesar, the top Corsican gangster, amidst harrowing violence and a callous disregard for human life, in which he is forced to be an active participant. As he learns the ins and outs, you see Malik gradually transformed from a scruffy frightened kid to a Scarface- type with a new wardrobe, mustache and hairstyle to match his rising status.

The title of the movie comes from his unusual nature – Malik talks to the dead in his dreams, and carries on conversations with prison ghosts. Despite some shockingly violent scenes this harrowingly realistic look at the French prison system is a great, moving, and haunting film.

– Daniel Garber, February 9, 2010

The ten Best Picture nominations might finally do away with Oscar-type movies

Posted in Academy Awards, Bad Movies, Best Picture, Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on February 4, 2010

The most interesting and unusual change in the Academy Awards this year is the seemingly off-the-wall shift from the usual five nominees for best picture to a colossal ten. At first glance, it feels like a kids’ intramural track meet where everyone is given a coloured ribbon so they won’t feel discouraged or left out. The ten nominations are a whole handful of ribbons. But why stop at ten? Why not twenty… or fifty?

But if you think about it, there is some sense to this decision. I think the Oscars were caught in a rut, and they knew it. There used to be unwritten rules to qualify for an Academy Award. No sequels, no franchises, no genre movies. Nothing funny, and no cartoons. The nominees have to appeal to people who watch PBS. They need actors wearing giant powdered wigs. Characters that overcome cancer, or a dying baby, or the holocaust, or a traumatic historical event. It has to make baby boomers remember how much better life used to be, how much more “real”, or better yet — and this is crucial one — the movie’s a biopic or biopic-looking film where an alcoholic rock star overcomes his addiction before one last concert. And then he dies. Dying is especially good because then there’s no chance of a sequel.

If all else fails at least use a good-looking movie star with a fake nose or funny teeth so they can live like the ugly people and stare pensively to the right of the camera… That’s what gets you a Best Picture award.

Anyway, too many of the Academy Award winning movies and nominees over the past few decades were so dusty and mouldy and awful that they had formed their own de facto genre, and it seemed almost like producers were making movies for no other purpose than to win an Oscar. Weird.

So, possibly to get rid of this embarrassment of bad winning movies, the Oscars decided to expand it, first to low budget indies, and — now that all the independent production companies have gone tits- up – they’ve decided to be all-inclusive in their nominations. And I think it’s a good thing.

So maybe the 10 nominees are a sign that Hollywood will eventually start to make good movies again.

Daniel Garber, February 3, 2010

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