Divided personalities. Movies reviewed: Al Purdy Was Here, Legend, I Smile Back

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, Biopic, Canadian Literature, Cultural Mining, drugs, Mental Illness, Movies, Organized Crime, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 4, 2015

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

People want their friends to be consistent, reliable, regular. But personalities don’t always work this way. This week I’m looking at three movies about people with shifting lives and divided personalities. There’s a US drama about a drug-addicted, bipolar stay-at-home mom; a British biopic about identical twin gangsters, and a Canadian documentary about a poet with a second life.

Purdy-at-typewriterAl Purdy Was Here
Dir: Brian Johnson

Literature once ruled Canadian culture, with poetry at the top of the CanLit heap. Dudek, Layton, Cohen, Atwood, Bowering, MacEwan, Borson… But things change, and names get lost. This documentary looks at one of those poets, a man named Al Purdy. Have you heard of him? There’s a statue of him in Queen’s Park, about 100 metres away from here.

Purdy is born in small-town Ontario and drops out of school. He joins the Air Force, works with dynamite, and rides the rails all the way to Vancouver. In the 1950s he survives on UI and roadkill. AL+&+friends+at+the+A-FramePicture a bigger-than-life man in loud plaid pants with a foghorn voice. He’s imposing, obnoxious, and happiest talking loudly with a beer stubby in his hand. He makes his mark in Montreal among the better-educated English poets, depending on his prose poetry and rough working-class persona to pull him through. But what became of him?

This movie fills in the blanks. It uses amazing old snapshots, recordings and CBC footage, chapbooks, memorial concerts and twitter feeds to memorialize Al Purdy. It concentrates on the A-frame he built by hand with poet Milton Acorn. The house falls into disrepair so a bunch of writers and musicians get together to physically fix it up. The movie also uncovers the fact it was his wife’s work and salary that let him live the life of a poet. And some skeletons in the closet of another forgotten life. For example it was his wife’s income that let him live as a poet. This movie brings musicians and poets together again, and brings Al Purdy’s poetry back to life.

LegendLegend
Wri/Dir: Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential)

Reggie and Ronnie Kray (both played by Tom Hardy) are gangsters in London’s Bethnal Green, in the 1960s. They make their money through extortion and gunrunning. They are well known to the police, but they still go on with their work with impunity. They’re also identical twins: they may look the same, but their personalities are night and day.

Reggie is popular with the ladies, a real charmer, while Ronnie prefers sex with guys. Reg is the shrewd businessman while Ronnie is more of the brawler. Reggie can hold his own in a fight, but Ronnie’s the really scary one, the loose cannon, ready to explode at any moment, guns ablazing.

Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, the movie begins with him locked away in a high-security Legendhospital for the criminally insane. Reggie strongarms a psychiatrist to declare his brother sane but the doctor puts it on Reggie to make sure Ronnie always takes his meds. (He doesn’t)

One day Reggie meets Frances (Emily Browning) the younger sister of one of his drivers. She’s 16, a petite, beautiful wide-eyed ingénue. They share a lemon sherbet candy, and bam! they fall in love. (She serves as the movie’s narrator). She likes everything about him… except the gangster stuff. And his brother. But Reg courts her relentlessly, even climbing up a drainpipe to her second story window to avoid her mum’s disapproving glances.

Ronnie, meanwhile, is pursuing his own interests: building a mythical utopian city in far-off Africa. And hanging out with his two boyfriends.

02They join forces with Payne (David Thewlis) a man with a middle class accent, an impressive office and a big moustache. He acts as the frontman, while the Krays lurk behind are the muscle. They sit in the background looking threatening, rarely having to raise a finger. Soon enough they’re taking over nightclubs, moving banknotes on the black market, and even doing jobs for Meyer Lansky the US mafia kingpin (who founded Murder Inc.) And the money is rolling in.

Things seem to be going great, until Reggie spends some time in jail and Ronnie takes charge. Uh oh. LegendTheir businesses start to unravel at a rapid pace. What will happen to them now? Can the Kray twins handle a rival gang, the police, the mafia, the House of Lords, their love interests… and their own sibling rivalry?

I like this movie – the music, the look, the acting are all great. I did have some trouble understanding Ronnies lines (is it his cockney accent or his mumbling voice?) And having Tom Hardy play both the twins is pretty impressive. It really feels like two separate people. They even get in fist fights and end up wrestling on the floor.

But the central love story — Frances and Reg — just didn’t grab me. It didn’t seem quite right, ‘t works well as an action-filled historical biopic, but fizzles as a romance.

oYXOpY_ismileback_03-HIGHRES_o3_8706150_1438094935I Smile Back
Dir: Adam Salky

Laney (Sarah Silverman) lives in a nice middle-class home with her husband Bruce (Josh Charles) and her two kids, Eli and Janey. Bruce is an insurance agent who loves playing basketball with their kids. Laney loves them too but finds even dropping them off at school an almost unbearable chore. So she fills her days popping pills, snorting coke, and getting drunk. Or sleeping with random guys she meets in dive bars. She even has an ongoing fling with her best friend’s husband (and her husband’s best friend), who keeps her supplied with meds. She takes lithium to handle her mood swings, leaving her like a depressed zombie when she takes it. But when she skips her meds she goes wild – irresponsible, extreme, always searching for new sexual adventures. She finds herself waking up in strange motel rooms hungover from extreme drunken excess.

That she can handle. It’s her role as the good stay-at-home mom – and the guilt that comes with it – is almost I Smile Backunbearable. She ends up telling off mothers teachers or anyone who rubs her the wrong way.

Bruce’s patience is almost limitless, but she repays this by getting even more difficult to handle. (Does he suspect she’s sleeping with strangers?) And then there are her kids – some of her worries rub off on Eli who has horrible dreams, turning to weird, nervous habits to keep calm. She realizes she’s hit rock bottom when she goes to check on her sleeping kids and ends up masturbating with his teddy bear. Oh Lanie — get a grip! She checks into rehab to try to get back to normal, But lurking in the background is something from her past involving her dad who she hasn’t spoken to in decades.

I Smile BackCan Lanie handle her spiraling decline? Will rehab save her? Can she learn to see her kids again and just smile back? Or will she end up homeless, drunk and beaten up in a dark alley?

I Smile Back is a hard movie to handle. It’s not fun – it’s disturbing, shocking and depressing. But Sarah Silverman pulls it off. We’re used to seeing her as a comic, pushing the limits with her shocking potty humour and dirty jokes. But what’s really chilling is seeing her doing the things she jokes about but for real, not for laughs. Worth seeing.

Legend, Al Purdy was Here, and I Smiled Back all open today in Toronto: 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.

 

 

 

Disses. Movies reviewed: (Dis)honesty: The Truth About Lies, Hungry Hearts, Love & Mercy

Posted in 1960s, 1980s, Biopic, Clash of Cultures, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, Italy, Music, US by CulturalMining.com on June 5, 2015

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

We’re all tired of being dissed, but there are a lot of disses that just can’t be avoided. This week I’m looking at three “dis” movies. A biopic about a renowned musician diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, an Italian drama about a dysfunctional couple, and a documentary about dishonesty. dishonesty_the_truth_about_lies_3

(Dis)honesty: The Truth About Lies

Dir: Yael Melamede

We are all liars. And we all lie about the same things in the same way. Or so says a new documentary about lying. It focuses on the work of Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioural economics and psychology at Duke University and MIT. In an experiment repeated thousands of times all around the world, Ariely tested students in groups asked to self-mark their tests, drop them into a shredder and report todishonesty_the_truth_about_lies_1 an official. And they were paid $1 for each correct answer. What they didn’t know was that the tests weren’t actually shredded.

Afterwards, Ariely compared the actual answers on the pages with the fake scores the people had told them. And he found that most people do lie, to the same extent, about the same things all around the world. The movie says a lot more, and also interviews real people, like politicians who cheat on their wives or insider traders on Wall Street, to look at their rationales for dishonesty. This is a very slick, fascinating and easy-to-understand documentary. Excellent film! 2a1cc45e-d506-4916-b019-fe5c6fb5442f

Hungry Hearts

Dir: Saverio Costanzo

Jude (Adam Driver) is an engineer, a tall, well-dressed young man in New York City. Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) is a beautiful, petite Italian woman with pale skin and fiery red hair who works at the Embassy. Somehow the two strangers find themselves locked inside a tiny, grungy basement toilet in Chinatown. Jude is to blame for the horrible stench, and Mina for the constant complaining. The two of them are trapped in a claustrophobic and unhealthy situation.

So what do they do next? They have sex, fall in love, get married and have a baby. If 27ffe0a5-affc-4432-a421-b62d9947e9c9only they had followed their first impressions and never met. They soon discovered they are different in every way. Jude likes science, doctors and hospitals. Mina is into fortune tellers, vegetarianism, naturopathy, and instincts. Not a big problem until the baby (known only as “Baby”) comes into the picture. Jude, (the big American) prone to anger and violence, thinks the kid is sick and starving and is not growing big enough or fast enough. Frequently depressed Mina (the cultivated European) thinks the problems are all on Jude’s side. Add Jude’s mother Anne, a real buttinsky, to the picture (played by the venerable Roberta Maxwell) and things quickly escalate. Will they survive the stink, decay and claustrophobia of their dysfunctional life?

While Hungry Hearts has its good points, this is a real drudge of a movie filled with endless bickering, crying, hitting and altogether awfulness. The honeymoon lasts about 90 seconds and the rest of the movie is less torrid sex, more horrid fights. 71520-LM_04144_CROP

Love & Mercy

Dir: Bill Pohlad

It’s the mid 1960s. The Beach Boys is a cheesy pop band known for its catchy tunes, tight harmonies, and its formulaic California sound: all about LM_00531FD.psdgirls, surfing, and roadsters. Most of the members are brothers or cousins, and they’re getting ready for their triumphal tour of Japan, when something happens. Brian Wilson (Paul Dano) has a panic attack on a plane and decides to stay home in L.A. LM_00610.CR2While they’re touring, he’s composing, arranging and producing an incredible album.

LA’s famous studio musicians known as the Wrecking Crew provide the music and Brian goes wild. He tosses paper clips onto piano strings to make a plinkier sound. He brings dogs into the studio to bark. He even has them play in two separate keys… at the same time. The result is Pet Sounds, one of the most highly-praised pop albums ever recorded – and rightly so. It even inspired the Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper” album.

This is Brian Wilson in the sixties. The movie’s also about 71214-2Brian Wilson in the 80s (John Cusack). We see him enter a Cadillac showroom where he meets the saleswoman Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), a blue-eyed blonde. It’s the 80s so she has big hair and enormous aquamarine shoulder pads. Brian talks to her slowly and hesitantly, as if he’s never seen a woman before and isn’t used to speaking out loud. They gradually become close, but face a formidable obstacle in the form a man.

Dr. Gene (Paul Giamatti) is a psychiatric Svengali who has taken complete control over LM_05276.CR2Brian’s life. What he eats, where he goes, even whom he’s allowed to talk to. He diagnosed Brian as paranoid schizophrenic and has him pumped full of toxic amounts of meds. (That’s why he walks around with his mouth half-open staring off into space.) Can the 1960s Brian bring all his musical dreams to fruition? And can the 1980s Brian ever re-emerge from his medically induced haze?

Love & Mercy is long, detailed and sometimes slow. Its two parts are told chronologically, but the story jumps back and forth between the 60s and the 80s, so you follow both the of them throughout the film. I was left only half-satisfied by the story, but the music…! The music seduced me into listening to Beach Boys music – which I had never taken seriously before — obsessively for about a week afterwards. See it for the music.

Hungry Hearts and Love & Mercy, and (Dis)honesty (at the Bloor Cinema) all open today in Toronto, 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.

Christmas biopics. Movies reviewed: Unbroken, Mr Turner

Posted in 1940s, Art, Biopic, Cultural Mining, Movies, UK, Uncategorized, US, WWII by CulturalMining.com on December 26, 2014

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 Boxing Day! This week, I’m talking about two biopics, both historical dramas, both starring great actors from the UK. But they are as different as two movies could possibly be. One’s a young soldier captured and kept in the dark; one’s a painter trying to capture the light.

10403575_781275515276942_5431011275441931839_nUnbroken (based on a true story)
Dir: Angelina Jolie

Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) is the child of Italian immigrants in small-town pre-WWII America. He lives on the wrong side of the tracks and is bullied by neighbouring kids. He’s often knocked down, but always gets up for another fight. Running away 10372750_782974231773737_321939819595855320_nfrom bullies also makes him a good runner. With his older brother’s help, he trains as a sprinter, competing at the Berlin Olympics. It’s his endurance and surprising reserves of adrenaline that set him apart. Later, he joins the Air Force in WWII and is stationed in the Pacific. His plane crashes into the ocean which he manages to survive… only to find himself captured by the Japanese, and thrown into a POW camp.

So basically The Unbroken is three movies. One is about Louis and two other men: the laid-back Phil (Domhnall Gleeson: Frank) and the nervous Mac (Finn Witrock). When their plane crashes, they have to survive in an 10409502_786380204766473_4227359387414983355_ninflatable life raft in the middle of the Pacific. Slowly starving to death, they fight off sharks, and inclement weather as they test their ability to endure… against all odds. They hang on by listening to Louis describe his mother’s gnocchi. But as days turn to weeks, can they survive on just hope and a tale? (If you’ve seen the Norwegian drama Kon Tiki, this might seem familiar to you.) I liked this part of the movie.

Then there’s Louis’ stay in a POW camp in Japan. It is run by Corporal Watanabe aka “The Bird”. (played by musician/actor Miyavi). Watanabe comes from a rich family, but never makes it as an officer. Now he’s a cruel but effeminate NCO who struts around in his khakis, carrying a bamboo stick. He takes out his frustrations on the prisoners, especially poor Louis. 1450190_785235881547572_7880022996659246521_nIs he jealous of his fame as an Olympic champion? Or is he secretly in love with him? If you’ve ever seen Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, then, again, this may all be familiar to you.

Finally there’s Louis’ boyhood as a competitive teenaged runner, which appears as a series of flashbacks. This is the weakest part of the film, one of thousands of heartwarming stories about plucky immigrant kids who make good.

This movie isn’t terrible. I like Jack O’Connell a lot and he’s plays the role well. And great supporting cast – Jai Courtney, Luke Treadaway, Domnhall Gleeson — are all really good.

1970439_620940031310492_633068160_nBut can you believe this was written by the Coen Brothers? But there’s no irony, no humour, just straightforward storytelling. And it’s filled with fake profundities, like If you can take it, you can make it. Sounds like a Tony Roberts motivational speech. I get it – Zamperini did great things but survived. But the pounds you over the head with it, with its unrelenting suffer, suffer, suffer theme. The rest of the prisoners look vaguely familiar after a while, but they’re basically just faces in the background. It’s all about Louis vs Watanabe. Not a terrible movie, but disappointing and unsatisfying with an abrupt ending.

7b7c3e5e-dbbb-4a5d-b69b-f8e6d4637e0eMr Turner
Dir: Mike Leigh

Mr Turner (Timothy Spall) is a successful businessman in Victorian London, who lives with his dad (Paul Jesson), a retired barber. He lives a good life, doesn’t worry about money. What does he do? He’s a painter. He visits the seashore to observe and take notes. He finds the right pigments in the market to match them. Later, he paints what he sees. On canvases, big ones, lots of them.

Breathtaking landscapes and seascapes, cloud and light, maybe a steamship, and here and there a ruined castle or a train. He daubs on oil paint, fa38e7e5-08c2-407b-86a0-49e8653ac8adsmooches it around, and spits on it, blows at it! The results are spectacular and impressionistic, like nothing anyone had ever seen. And ethereal watercolours. Turner becomes famous in his own time, and quite rich — aristocratic artists are forced to come by to ask him for money. But he’s not from titled gentry. He’s frequently snubbed by the snooty upper-class, and not allowed into the principal art salons, only the outside rooms. Queen Victoria is not amused by his paintings. And he had to suffer the comments of insufferable art critics like John Ruskin (wonderfully played by Joshua McGuire).

At the same time, he’s a selfish, loathesome boor, who chews on pigs’ heads and belches. He has abandoned his common-law wife and daughters. He has a shy maid, Mrs Danby (Dorothy Atkinson). When Mr Turner feels like it, fdff8789-10b2-466c-81ae-6ba2bcce7189he’ll sneak up behind her, raise her petticoats and grunt a few times. That’s “sex”. How, you wonder, can such a disgusting, depressed and ugly man create such beautiful art?

Whenever he has a chance, he revisits a seaside town from his youth. There he meets an older woman, a landlady, named Mrs Booth (Marion Bailey). Will she help him out of his perpetual blue funk?

Mr Turner is a very long, slow moving and subtle film, filled with skillfully-crafted characters. They’re not loveable people but not hateable ones either. They seem all completely real. The photography in this movie is just e671af49-baab-4efe-b119-952b2968e98famazing. If you’ve ever seen Turner’s paintings, now you get to see the skies, the clouds and the light that actually informed his art. Beautiful. Spall, Bailey and Atkinson play their parts with all their weird tics and eccentricities in place. It’s quite long, but I liked it a lot.

Mr Turner and Unbroken both open today in Toronto: check your local listings. Also opening today is Imitation Game, a fantastic biopic thriller about Alan Turing, the man who invented the computer an broke the German code known as Enigma. Definitely a must-see.

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

People’s Choice. Movies Reviewed: The Imitation Game, Honeymoon

Posted in 1940s, Academy Awards, Biopic, Computers, Cultural Mining, Horror, Movies, UK, WWII by CulturalMining.com on September 19, 2014

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.

_MG_1251TIFF – the Toronto Interntional Film Festival – is over for the year. The klieg lights are dimmed, the red carpets rolled up.  It’s like a carnival sideshow leaving town, with celebrities and their droves of fans replacing the bearded ladies and tattooed men of yore. And the hundreds of members of the media, myself included, are forced to look elsewhere for the Next Big Movie.

On the last day of the festival, this past Sunday, they announced the winning films in Cumberbatch signs autographs at TIFF Jeff Harriscompetition. Unlike most major film festivals which use panels of critics and filmmakers as judges, TIFF relies on moviegoers to vote for the most important prize, the People’s Choice award. They say Torontonians are a good barometer of what kind of movies appeal to the public these days. The proof is in the pudding; People’s Choice winners, more often than not, become next year’s Oscar winners: the wonderful Slumdog Millionaire, the moving Twelve Years a Slave, the pandering King’s Speech, and the so-so Silver Linings Playbook.

So this week, I’m going to tell you about the TIFF Grolsch People’s Choice award winner, and a low-budget horror movie opening in Toronto.

THE IMITATION GAMEThe Imitation Game
Dir: Morten Tyldum

It’s the dawn of WWII. The British have captured Enigma, one of Nazi Germany’s secret devices. All their military messages use that encryption machine. Cracking it could mean an early end to the war and countless millions saved. Alan Turing — a shy, super-intelligent mathematician and Cambridge – is asked to visit the Bletchley Radio works – actually a branch of MI6. They need him to join the team and solve the puzzle.

Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) probably got an “F” as a child  in the “plays well with others” category. Instead of working with the other recruits, notably his supervisor Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) he decides that cracking codes, one by one, is a waste of time. Instead he sets about creating one of the world’s first computers. He names the giant wall of wires and THE IMITATION GAMEspinning discs “Christopher”, after his first gay crush.

He quickly alienates Commander Denniston (Charles Dance), his boss, who decides to get rid of him. Will he succeed? In a compromise, Turing decides to recruit ordinary people with extraordinary minds to work on his project, using a hard-to-solve cryptic newspaper crossword puzzle to locate his geniuses. Smartest of all is a woman, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). Together they try to crack the code and win the war. But will they succeed? Will Joan and Alan fall in love? And what will happen after the war?

_MG_0467The story jumps back and forth from his time as a wistful schoolboy, to the thrill and excitement of wartime, to the dark period afterwards, where he is persecuted by the police as a gay man. The Imitation Game tells a fantastic, true story of unrequited love, action and adventure, and the dark politics of postwar Britain. While it’s skimpy on the sex – as in, none at all – it is still a wonderful story, miles above most biopics. Benedict Cumberbatch plays another irritating and emotionally-stunted Sherlock, but he does it so well, conveying his thoughts through a twitch of an eye. Many critics deride Keira Knightley as a one-dimensional movie star, but I found her great in this one. In fact all the cast, including supporting characters, are wonderful. Though patently Oscar-bait (wartime, British costume drama, no yuck factor) it’s wonderful Oscar-bait. I strongly recommend this movie.

Honeymoon
Dir: Leigh Janiak

Leslie Rose as Bea in the HoneymoonPaul and Bea are up in cottage country to celebrate their marriage. Bea (Rose Leslie: Game of Thones) is big-boned and robust with a winning smile. Paul (Harry Treadaway: Fishtank, Cockneys vs Zombies) is naïve, boyish and fragile. Rose’s childhood summer home is filled with wooden ducks and a giant bearskin covering one wall. They intend to skinny dip in the lake, make pancakes at noon, and spend the rest of the day in bed, screwing like rabbits.

All goes well, until they encounter Will – Bea’s  ex – and his disturbed wife Annie. Something is wrong with those two. And they seem to have affected Bea. Is she cheating on him? Paul finds her sleepwalking in the woods at night. Light beams shine through the window. Strange Harry Treadaway as Paul in Honeymoonmarks appear on her thighs – just mosquito bites, she tells him. And strangest of all, he catches her memorizing basic phrases like “My name is Bea… my husband is Paul… we’re married”. Is she really Bea? Or an eerie imposter? Or has she gone completely mad?

Honeymoon – a horror movie with a female director: quite rare! – has great acting and an interesting premise. It starts out like a dull love story, but starts to pick up after the first 20 minutes. It has me going for a while, but eventually falls prey to some awful, endlessly repeated lines that take the zing away. Honeymoon is a good try, but doesn’t quite do it for me.

The Imitation Game is coming this fall, and Honeymoon starts today in Toronto: 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

Movies within Movies. Films reviewed: The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, The Wagner Files, Saving Mr Banks

Posted in 1960s, Biopic, Cultural Mining, documentary, Germany, Hollywood, Movies, Music, Musical, Politics, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 13, 2013

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

There are movies… and then there are movies within movies. This week I’m looking at some juicy brain candy, films that cross or blur the barriers between movies and real life. There’s a documentary with a Marxist lecturer who steps into the movies he talks about; a dramatized documentary that answers Bugs Bunny’s question What’s Opera, Doc?, and a drama set in Disneyland… about trying to make a movie.

perverts_01The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

Dir: Sophie Fiennes

What does the shark in the movie Jaws have to do with totalitarianism*? Well, a lot, if you listen to Slavoj Zizek.

If you haven’t seen him before, Slavoj Zizek is a real hoot. He’s this huge bombastic, bearded Slovenian who likes to talk – a lot.

A Marxist, he approaches ideology in unusual ways: pop culture and totalitarianism; Lacanian philosophy and The Big Other; social class and sexuality. A typical topic: how come Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was a national anthem for everyone from the extreme right to the extreme left? From Nazis to Peruvian Maoists? He seems to make sense — even when it’s complete  nonsense.

You might think – how can I listen to this guy lecture for two hours straight? The way the movie works is he shows a clip from a film – say Reifenstahl’s Triumph of Will – and the next scene has him, in black and white, dressed in period uniform.  He talks about a movie, and then he’s in the movie he’s talking about.

If you have an itch for some complex political chatter about pop-culture, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is the perfect place to find it.

(*In case you’re wondering about the shark in Spielberg’s Jaws… Zizek says it’s the Big Other, a way of reducing all of society’s fears and anxiety into a single entity. Fascism uses it to galvanize the population against a single feared “enemy”.)

Moving from the broad to the specific, here’s a new, experimental documentary about Wagner, called:

Die Akte Wagner_2©FalcoSeligerThe Wagner Files

Dir: Ralf Pleger

Wagner! He’s the 19thcentury German composer best known for his symphonies and operas. You’ve heard the expression “It’s not over till the fat lady sings”? They’re talking about the valkyrie Brünnhilde from Wagner’s ring cycle.

But who was Wagner? Not what you might think. This doc digs up the skeletons in Wagner’s closet. He was born in Leipzig and became a composer famous across Europe. But it turns out his trips to Paris, Venice, Munich were partly so he could outrun his creditors! He was deeply in debt. Then there’s his friend Hans von Bulow, an aristocrat and musician. Wagner was sleeping with von Bulow’s wife, Cosima, a Die Akte Wagner_5©FalcoSeligerraven-haired beauty who was also Franz Liszt’s granddaughter. She gave birth to Wagner’s kids while still married to von Bulow. Scandal! Sounds almost like a soap opera.

Then Wagner befriended King Ludwig of Bavaria – a crazy gay king who built a castle inspired by a Wagner opera. They had a passionate – though non-sexual – affair, and he became Wagner and Cosima’s patron, showering them with money and paying for his four-part opera and the Bayreuth festival in Bavaria devoted to his work.

Die Akte Wagner_Simone Young©FalcoSeligerThen there’s his fetishes. Wagner covered himself with feminine things –rose-coloured silk and velvets. They found his dead body clothed in pink robes.

Wagner and Cosima also had a dark side. He wrote a virulent tract against Jewish musicians and composers, saying they were members of an “inferior race” ruining German culture. And later (after Wagner died) the widow Cosima became closely tied to Hitler and the Nazi party, a tarnish still associated with Wagner’s work.

The movie uses both experts — conductors, historians, writers – and actors who portray Cosima and Richard… but in 20thcentury settings: Cosima posing dramatically; Richard rolling around in his pink feather boas. Half drama, half doc, German dialogue, English narrator. This is a strange but endlessly fascinating movie.

999622_578413545546254_1393361059_nSaving Mr Banks

Dir: John Lee Hancock

Mrs Travers (Emma Thompson) is an uptight, posh writer in her 60’s living in London, sipping tea and reading Gurdjieff.

She wrote Mary Poppins and Disney has been trying to buy the rights to it for decades. Finally, in 1961, she agrees to fly to LA to meet Walt Disney himself (Tom Hanks).

She is not impressed by America. She says it smells like chlorine and sweat. And she’s creeped-out when she finds her hotel room filled with stuffed, giant Mickey Mice. At the studio she objects to 1392799_571559062898369_585661440_neverything the writer and songwriters (the Sherman brothers, played by Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak)  show her. Who are these penguins? She said no cartoons! Why is Mr Banks (the father) portrayed as mean? And the mother as uncaring? 

But then her childhood is gradually revealed in a series of flashbacks. She’s actually not English at all. She grew up in the Australian outback. Her mom was depressed. Her dad (Colin Farrell) was an alcoholic bank manager who hated his job. He told her life is just an illusion. And then there’s the inspiration for Mary Poppins.

1471835_584864851567790_1428997927_nCan Walt discover what’s holding her back from making a movie? This is a cute, heavily nostalgic and somewhat moving biopic, about turning a book into a movie script. The songs are great and lots of fun. Emma Thompson is terrific as the hard-to-like Mrs Travers who gradually opens up. Totally believable. Tom Hanks role is less rounded, more superficial. Why? Think about it: a Walt Disney movie about their founder shot on the Disney backlot? It’s like a Vatican-made drama about the Pope. So the Disney scenes are restricted, but the Travers scenes allowed to blossom.

The Wagner Files — at the Carlton — The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology — at TIFF — and Saving Mr Banks all open today in Toronto. 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

 

Survivors. Movies Reviewed: Ender’s Game, Dallas Buyers Club, The Disappeared PLUS Last Vegas

Posted in Biopic, Cultural Mining, Drama, Gay, H.I.V., Movies, Nova Scotia, Psychology, School, Science Fiction, Texas, violence, War by CulturalMining.com on November 1, 2013

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

It’s Movember… time to grow those mustaches, ladies! And keep your eyes open to all the film festivals opening in Toronto this month. Look for: Reel Asian, Rendezvous with Madness, Ekran, Planet in Focus, and the EU Film Festival and Regent Park Film Fest – the last two of which are completely free!

This week I’m looking at three movies about people facing impossible odds. There’s a space drama about small children trying to save the universe; a biopic about a Texan trying to survive the HIV virus; and a Canadian drama about a lifeboat full of fisherman trying to find their way back home.

Enders Game Ford ButterfieldEnder’s Game

Dir: Gavin Hood

It’s the future. Ant-like aliens have attacked the planet. Little Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) is a smart but bullied school kid. Like his classmates, he has a metal knob attached to his head so the military can read his mind. But when he fights back against a much bigger kid, he’s suddenly pulled from school. Is he in trouble? No, he’s been chosen to join an elite military academy in outer space.

Ender is a smart kid. They choose him both for his analytical thoughts and assertive nature, but also for his compassion. Two military brass (Harrison Ford as hawkish warmonger Colonel Graff and Viola Davis as a compassionate psychologist Major Anderson) are closely studying him. They use Ender as a test case for the perfect soldier, possibly the one who can beat the ant-people in their endless war. Only children, they believe, can absorb and apply complicated digital info fast enough to beat the bad guys. Ender is the perfect leader. He follows orders but also questions authority if things aren’t going right.

He makes friends – Bean, Alai and Petra () –  with his fellow child-soldiers at the academy as they train for various battle simulations. These games are like 3-D computer simulations, except they fight physically, in immense arenas without gravity. They learn new strategies, play new games, fight new battles and form enders game 3 eonenew teams. And Ender is always there, taking it all in and devising new battle plans.

But he also pines for his family back on earth: his genius parents, his sadistic older brother Peter, and his loving sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin). Just like the two military officers, the brother and sister are fighting to influence Ender toward cruelty or compassion. Which one influenced him the most?

Enders Game 2 eoneCan the earthlings ever defeat the ant people? Will ender provide the solution? And in the process, will he turn into a baby Hitler? Or a mini-Gandhi?

This movie is based on the popular cold-war science fiction novel. It’s pretty close to the original. I’ve read the book, so it was really fun to actually see it on the big screen. And it handles the good vs bad and all its permutations well – Peter vs Valentine, Col Graff vs Maj Anderson, Earthlings vs Formic beings. Asa Butterfield is good, though a bit wooden or robot like, but that suits the role. It’s a enjoyable sci-fi pic, with an unexpected ending. It’s not a perfect movie, but it’s still smarter than most. It’s also darker than a Star Wars or a Star Trek, and it’s not a straightforward, “feel-good” superhero movie.

dallasbuyersclub_01Dallas Buyers Club

Dir Jean-Marc Vallee

It’s 1985 in Dallas, Texas. Ron’s a rootin’-tootin’ redneck in a cowboy hat. He’s an electrician at the oil fields, and in his spare time he picks up girls, snorts coke, guzzles alcohol straight from the mickey, and goes to strip bars. His hobby? The rodeo: he likes to ride bulls (not bareback, I hope.)

Anyway, Ron (Matthew McConaughey) also prone to fainting and hallucinating, and he’s looking rather thin these days. He’s clearly illing. While dallasbuyersclub_02he’s in hospital, he meets Rayon (Jared Leto) a trans woman in the next bed. It’s hate at first sight. Homophobic Ron calls her pansy, buttercup, tinkerbell – and that’s when he’s being nice. And she wants nothing to do with him.

When they test Ron’s blood, turns out he’s HIV-positive, his T-cell count is down to eight, and he has 30 days left to live. The FDA refuses to release experimental drugs, even though AIDS patients are dropping like flies. They’re testing AZT at that very hospital, but only as double blind tests, with placebos for half the patients, and lethally high AZT doses for the rest.

Basically, Ron’s dead.

dallasbuyersclub_03Then an orderly tells him about a doc, down Mexico way, who can get him what he needs. Sure ‘nuff. He doesn’t die. So he starts smuggling the meds, the vitamins and dietary supplements across the border. And Rayon becomes his business partner. The two of them setting up a quasi-legal centre – that’s the Dallas Buyers Club of the title —  where members can get access to treatment the mainstream medical profession is denying them. With the help of a sympathetic doctor (Jennifer Garner channelling Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich) they just might beat the system ( the FDA, the hospitals, Big Pharma) that’s trying to shut them down. But can they fight their own illnesses, too?

This biopic works well as a drama. It’s moving, good story, good acting. This is Quebec director Jean Marc Vallee’s first English language film, and he totally pulls it off.  (C.R.A.Z.Y. was a huge hit in Canada a few years ago.) Matt McConaughey lost tons of weight for his role, and Jared Leto dressed as a woman (although it’s unclear whether he’s playing an extremely effeminate, cross-dressing gay man, or a transsexual)  Maybe I’m totally cynical, but I just get the nagging suspicion that they’re out there performing “big” mainly so they can win some Oscars. In any case, they are good and convincing in their roles, as is Steve Zahn as Ron’s buddy a local cop.  All in all, a moving and interesting biopic.

the disappeared stillThe Disappeared

Dir: Shandi Mitchell

Ever been to sea, Billy? 

No, Captain Highliner…

Well, these guys sure have. There are six of them drifting around in a lifeboat in the Atlantic, somewhere off Nova Scotia. There’s the Skipper (Brian Downie) a god-fearing type, and then there are the various sailors, played by Billy Campbell, Ryan Doucette, and others. The mean sailor, the young sailor, the experienced sailor, the bearded sailor,  the other bearded sailor… And you can tell their names because they do a role call every morning to see if they’re all still there. (Mannie here, Pete here, Merv here…)

When they’re not rowing the boats (Heave! Ho!) to somewhere, they’re singing 559878_589502101108342_1960101735_nribald sea shanties, eating their rations, whittling wood, drinking rum… you know, behaving like fishermen do. Will they spot land? Or will they get rescued? Or will they be like the Flying Dutchman, forever floating on the seven seas?

Have you noticed there are a lot of movies about Men in Boats recently? Book of Pi, Kon Tiki, All is Lost, Captain Phillips, La Pirogue… Well, this is another one. Some of these are great adventures; this one’s more of a character study. I get the impression that the sailors in The Disappeared are all waiting for some ship called the SS Godot to arrive, but in the meantime they’ll sing a few more sea shanties and call it a day.

Last Vegas Kline De Niro Douglas FreemanThe Disappeared, Ender’s Game and Dallas Buyers Club all open today in Toronto (check your local listings). Also opening is the so-called comedy Last Vegas, a real groaner about four retired guys (starring great actors like Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline) meeting up in Las Vegas for a final, wild bachelor party before Michael Douglas marries a beautiful young woman. She’s not that young… she’s 35! Douglas says. I have a hemorrhoid older than 35, says the Kevin Kline character. Ugh. Nuff said about this tired, unfunny geriatric version of The Hangover.

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

October Film Fests. Movies Reviewed: Fresh Meat, Los Wild Ones, The Fifth Estate

Posted in Biopic, Cannibalism, Cultural Mining, documentary, Horror by CulturalMining.com on October 18, 2013

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

Fall film festivals are as common as falling leaves, but there are some that shouldn’t be missed. Toronto After Dark is a neat place to catch up on all the latest horror, science fiction and some just plain strange movies. ImagineNative is a celebration of aboriginal art, music and film, both from first nations artist and filmmakers, as well as many more from abroad. And there’s a brand new festival, Reel Indie, showing new movies about indie music.

So today I’m looking at an unusual movie from New Zealand which says “you are what you eat”;  a music doc that says rock ‘n’ roll is a Mexican thang; and a biopic that opened TIFF this year that says leaks make the world go round.

Fresh Meat posterFresh Meat

Dir: Danny Mulheron

Rina (Hanna Tevita) is heading home from the Maori School for Girls. She likes it there, but misses her family and friends.

There’s Margaret, her mom (Nicola Kawana), who’s a chef on TV and author of a popular cooking guide for university students. Dad (Temuera Morrison) is a prof who likes instilling Maori pride in her ancestral language, religion and culture. (Rina thinks it’s all silly.) There’s her pesky little brother and even the neighbourhood paper boy who crushing heavily on her. And, as he says, her “newly grown bosoms”.

But it’s not just her figure that has changed since her last visit. It seems her parents have taken up a strange religious practice from the Solomon Islands. Hmmm…

Meanwhile, a ruthless gang is on the prowl. They are looking for a place to hide from the cops after their latest prison break. There’s Tan, a cokehead in a tracksuit who thinks he’s Bruce Lee, and Gigi (Kate Elliot), a cruel Bettie Page lookalike. So where do they seek asylum? Yup — in Rina’s suburban home.

They have guns and they know how to use them. What will happen to this poor, innocent family at the hands of FreshMeat1these sinister hoods? Well, not what you first think. Mom and dad are on their own mission: to Solomonize the world, reviving ancient practices that they believe can lead to immortality. And that involves eating the raw hearts and livers of their enemies. To them, everyone is either an ally that must be “solomonized” – convinced to become a cannibal —  or someone who can supply them with fresh meat.

Who will survive – the good guys, the bad guys, or the cannibals? Is there a spark of love between Gigi and Rina? And are they Maori cannibals… or cannibals who just happen to be Maori?

This is a horror/comedy, full of excessive killing, gore, brutality and loads of gratuitous sexual innuendo. It’s also got a lot of Maori lore, humour and language (real or fake, I have no idea, but it looks pretty authentic) and a largely indigenous cast. If you’re in the mood for some low-brow dark humour and lots of red blood and body parts, check this one out.

Marlene Perez Rhythm Shakers Los Wild Ones RIFFLos Wild Ones

Dir: Elise Salomon

Did you know there’s a burgeoning rockabilly scene in L.A.? Well there is. This documentary follows Reb, a Dublin-born rocker and his label Wild records, as they tap into the world of Mexican-American rockabilly. There’s sharp concert shots and lots of music. The guys all have bryll cream quiffs, bowling shirts and tattoos of the ace of spades. The girls use red lipstick and wear skirts. And they all look like they were drawn by  Jaime Hernandez in Love and Rockets.

Their lives are all filled with auditions, nightclub performances, rehearsals and radio shows, salted with swigs of raw gin and some first rate bass-slapping. This documentary is mainly just a slice of that music scene and an homage to the label – not too exciting or eventful, but pleasant to look at and a pleasure to listen to.

THE FIFTH ESTATEThe Fifth Estate

Dir: Richard Condon

I bet you’ve heard of Wikileaks. Wikileaks is a website that reveals documents and communications leaked by whistle blowers from the powerful halls of business, finance and government. It was founded by Julian Assange, an Australian currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. How did he get there and why are foreign governments out to get him? Well, it was wikileaks, along with three news outlets (the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Speigel) that revealed the quarter of a million cables and documents that fed the headlines for the past few years (pre-Snowden). They were leaked by US Pvt. Manning directly to Assange.

This movie, The Fifth Estate, tells one version of this story. Julian (Benedict Cumberbatch) is portrayed as an Australian guy trying to change the world but who carries with him the baggage of a troubled childhood. His membership, as a child, in a religious cult left him psychologically scarred and suspicious.  As an adult he is a deranged, possibly psychotic, egotist determined to open everything he receives on his website to all the world… whether or not blood is spilled on the way. He enlists the bland, but techno-savvy, computer geek Danile Berg (Daniel Bruhl) to join his legions of supporters and volunteers. But he eventually reveals that there is no one else – just the two of them. Together they reveal death squads in Kenya, scandal in a Swiss bank, and eventually warcrimes like the US massacre of civilians in Iraq using an Apache helicopter. There work is done with reporters from the Guardian and elsewhere scrambling to keep up with them. And Assange’s sinister and bombastic attitude sours their friendship, leading to a falling out of the two fast friends, and a collapse of the site itself.

Oh yeah — in the background, is a hands-off US government (personified by Laura Linney as a foreign affairs official) who just wants to rescue their agents in the middle east  put in danger by Wikileaks’ exposure.

I find the story fascinating, with the twisted Assange character fun to watch (less so the bland Daniel Berg character.) And there are loads of real-life reporter-characters portrayed with various degrees of accuracy. And there’s a slew of great European actors – people like Carice van Houten, Moritz Bleibtreu, and David Thewlis — who are a joy to watch. But politically, this movie seems out to lunch. Are we supposed to believe – especially since the NSA revelations — that the US government was just a side-player in this whole affair? (The movie glosses over Manning’s treatment in solitary confinement and his excessive sentence.) It’s also ambiguous on the steps Wikileaks took to protect the names of translators and agents at risk. It completely skips the fact that sites like Paypal and the major credit cards — under government pressure — blocked donations; as well as any mention of Anonymous and similar groups who came to Wikileaks’ aid. Finally, the movie seems to be a full-scale character-assassination of Julian Assange (as his character states in the movie), based mainly on Berg’s book; painting him as a self-centred lunatic, while minimizing the significance of the leaks he and the website have provided to the world. The multiple plots, countless characters and frequent shifts in international locations make the movie hard to follow.

Still, I think this movie is worth seeing, because it’s such an interesting topic. But take it with a grain of salt; think of it as “inspired by a true story”.

The Fifth Estate opens today, and Los Wild Ones and Fresh Meat are playing, respectively, as part of the Reel Indie Film Fest and ImagineNative which run through this weekend. And T.A.D. continues for a week.

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

August 24, 2012. Underground economics. Films Reviewed: Lawless, For a Good Time, Call… PLUS Route Irish, TIFF

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Biopic, Cultural Mining, Manhattan, Movies, Sex Trade, TIFF, Uncategorized, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on August 24, 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, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Feeling a bit… unemployed lately? Does it seem like there are just not enough jobs to go around? Well, fear not – there are lots of jobs out there, they’re just not all particularly respectable or legal. But they are out there. Just depends on how underground you’re willing to go.

So, this week I’m looking at two movies about people who stray from the straight and narrow in order to make a decent living. One is a comedy about two roommates who find that talking sexy can make them rich; the other is a depression era biopic about hillbilly moonshiners.

For a Good Time, Call…

Dir: (Torontonian) Jamie Travis

Lauren (Lauren Miller) is an uptight junior editor in Manhattan who is homeless after getting dumped by her dull, yuppie boyfriend, while Katie (Ari Graynor) is about to lose her late Grandma’s beautiful Gramercy Park apartment. But they are brought together by a mutual gay friend Jesse (Justin Long – from the “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials). But the two are an odd couple, like Oscar and Felix, who can’t possibly get along. Blond Katie is a gaudily- dressed, pushy, uncouth, heavy drinker, and forthright about her sexuality. Dark-haired careerist Lauren (a Jennifer Love Hewitt-type) is prim, proper, and comes from a rich Long Island family whose mother cuts her sandwiches into neat squares. But when a newly jobless Lauren puts her business acumen to work, the two of them start up a phone sex company out of their apartment, called 1-800-mmm-hmmm. It’s to tide them over until they can find better jobs. They practice kissing noises, play with giant dildos, and relax in the bubble bath with their retro pink, sex-line telephones. They gradually grow to understand each other better, make money, and turn into independent women ready to face the world.

This is a pretty funny, female buddy-pic comedy – not the rom-com it seems to be at first. Watching the movie, I felt like I was secretly intruding on some “girls’ night out”, hearing things no guy should be allowed to hear, but that just made it fun. The two main actresses are endearing and carry their parts well. And the supporting guys – especially Katie’s customer Sean (Mark Webber) are good, too. And while about a third of the jokes sink without a trace and the comedy relies more on character than on sight gags, it manages to be low budget without looking cheap or clumsy, and a humorous movie about sex without resorting to toilet humour, gratuitous nudity, or extreme disgustingness for its laughs.

Lawless

Dir: John Hillcoat

It’s 90 years ago, between the World Wars, in Franklin County, Virginia – the “wettest” county in dry America. (Prohibition, that is.) And the Bondurant brothers – Forrest, Howard and Jack – are the most successful bootleggers around. They make a good living delivering crates of moonshine to speakeasies all around the county, including a payoff to the local police to look the other way. The oldest brother, Forrest (Tom Hardy), is a monosyllabic monolith, given to grunts and mmmggghhs. It’s said he’s indestructible – can’t be killed. He has his eye on the beautiful and sophisticated Maggie (Jessica Chastain), a Chicagoan who recently fled the big city. The youngest one, Jack (Shia Laboeuf) is the runt of the litter, physically smaller and bullied by his brothers, and forced to rely on his wits rather than his strength. He wants to impress shy Bertha, the farmer’s daughter.

But into this happy, bucolic world comes the conceited, corrupt and sadistic villain, Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pierce), to take over their operation. He wears his hair perfectly parted in the middle and despises the local hillbillies. His gang of thugs are armed with Thompson machine guns and looking to mow down anyone who stops them from getting their cut. The Sherrif switches sides and is now in Charlie Rakes’ pocket. Throw in a gang of city gangsters, headed by a rough, tough Gary Oldman as their kingpin, and you’ve got a big battle waiting to happen.

Will the Bondurant brothers be successful in their underground business and happy in love, or will the corrupt city slickers kill them all and ruin everything?

Lawless is beautiful to look at and listen to. The green hills are covered with irish moss, and the virginal Bertha appears holding a real live bambi in her hands. And in the background there’s classical country, folk and rockabilly. But the beautiful scenery is alternated with extreme violence, rape, and slit throats. This is mentally jarring, and gives the whole movie an unusual dynamic – violent gangsterism set within an authentic historical setting. It’s similar to director Hillcoat’s and writer Nick Cave’s earlier try, The Proposition, also a violent historical movie about three brothers – but Lawless works where The Proposition failed.

Lawless and For a Good Time, Call… are both opening in Toronto next week. Also, coming out soon on DVD (it never made it to the big screen here) is one of the best movies about the Iraq war, Ken Loach’s brilliant dramatic thriller Route Irish, about a British mercenary trying to find out what really happened to his best friend. And TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival is gearing up with some amazing movies to see. I’ll be talking about some of those starting next week.

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

January 19, 2012. Unromantic Romances. Movies Reviewed: The Iron Lady, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Not Since You. PLUS Sing-a-long Grease

Posted in Biopic, Cultural Mining, Drama, Movies, Nazi, Punk, Queer, Romance, Scandinavia, Sweden, Thriller, TIFF, UK, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on January 21, 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.

Winter is here now — that probably explains the bitter cold and the snow blowing into our faces. So to warm the cockles of your hearts, how about a bit of romance? For a double-dose of romantic pop and cinematic nostalgia, put on your bobby socks or grease back your hair and come sing at a special Sing-Along version of the movie musical Grease (playing Monday night at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto).

Yes, this week, a whole month before Valentine’s Day, I’m talking about three romances – all of a distinctly unromantic sort – and a documentary. One’s about an elderly woman (who was once a Prime Minister) remembering her husband ; another about a hard-boiled computer hacker and her friend, an investigative journalist; and one about a reunion of a group of college friends at a wedding.

The Iron Lady

Dir: Phyllida Lloyd

Margaret (Meryl Streep) a doddering old lady with Alzheimer’s is haunted by memories of her late husband Denis (Jim Broadbent). She hopes that by clearing away his personal items from her home she can clear away her confusing memories and halucinations. But as she tidies up, the past comes back to her in a powerful way: life as a grocer’s daughter in the Blitz, as a rising star in the Conservative Party, and later as the radically right-wing British Prime Minister in the 1980’s. Margaret, of course, is Margaret Thatcher, the only Prime Minister with an “-ism” all her own.

Thatcherism led to riots; a sell-off of the nation’s utilities to shady investors; huge cuts in public services; privatization of public housing; violent strike-breaking and anti-union legislation; a decimation of the British welfare state; and an entire country’s economic future left to the self-correcting winds of a free market. Her legacy continues to plague the UK today.

But this movie is more about her home life: The big events all happens somewhere outside her hermetically-sealed plastic bubble. The people you catch occasional glimpses of are all angry shouters and screamers, rioters and Irish terrorists who are just messing everything up.

Incredibly, Thatcher herself is portrayed as an honest, honourable woman who stays true to her ideals without even the slightest self-interest or cynicism. While she is shown as petty, vindictive, and self-centred, her speeches in Parliament differ not at all from her conversations at home.

Maybe that’s how she saw herself, but the movie could have taken a tiny step back and shown something outside her own narrow view of the world. Instead, this movie was trapped in a claustrophobic space where only Thatcher’s inner thoughts and memories of her relationship with her husband come through clearly.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Dir: David Fincher

.. is a catastrophic remake of last year’s Swedish film. Here’s part of what I wrote last year about the original version:

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a mystery thriller about Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, a young, mysterious hacker, and their interactions with the Vanger group, a very shady family of billionaires.

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

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

So what has changed? Well, the left-wing magazine collective is changed to an ordinary newsmagazine just trying to survive media downturns. The Vangers’ Nazi and Christian fundamentalist twists are swept under an invisible rug. One crucial, horrendous scene, is changed from a chilling, plain documentation to a grotesquely exploitative and titillating version. But worst of all, the rough-and-tough invincible, impermeable Lisbeth Salander is turned into a blubbering, vulnerable little girl who is infatuated with her “Daddy” (Blomkvist)!

It’s such a terrible misfire of the essential dynamics of their relationship. Daniel Craig is OK as Blomkvist, but Rooney Mara is awful as the Girl with Dragon Tattoo, and the excitement and suspense of the original is turned into a boring, detective procedural.

Not Since You

Dir: Jeff Stephenson

A group of college friends (most of whom haven’t seen each other for a decade) are all together again for a wedding in Georgia. Now there are four guys and three women with unfinished business – lots of past relationships and friendships left hanging. (The fourth woman is the unseen bride) Sam (Desmond Harrington), the tall, handsome loner still holds a torch for pretty, blonde Amy (Kathleen Robertson). He traveled in Europe and recorded his feelings in a leather notebook. But Amy’s married now, to some frat-boy (Christian Kane). Meanwhile, former best friends and drinking buddies business student Howard and his side-kick Billie are at odds because Billie is dating Howard’s old girlfriend, pretty blonde Victoria. Pushy Howard (Jon Abrahams) wants to get the Kentucky Colonel moonshine gazillionaire (who’s paying for the wedding) to invest in his biofuel venture. He also feels like he was screwed by his best friend who stole his ex-girlfriend. And Fudge feels alone and insecure without his buddies, while still-a-virgin Doogie feels like a third wheel around her prettier friends.

So there they all are in Athens Georgia, dressed to the T’s in their wedding gear, trying to settle their differences. Will Doogie and Fudge overcome their sexual inhibitions? Does Amy still have feelings for brooding Sam? (Sam sure still likes Amy!) And will Billie and Howard ever get back their old friendship or will their rivalry lead to no good?

This movie is all about old relationships – where they stand, what happened, and where will they go from here. The cast is uniformly very good looking – in a daytime soap-opera kind of way – but we learn little about them other than who they once slept with (all off-screen) and who they love. For the women, love means choosing between two men wooing them. For the men it’s pining or brooding or fighting to get their girls back. They’re exactly like real people; they’re just not very interesting people. Not Since You isn’t a rom-com… it’ a rom-dram.

The Iron Lady and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are now playing, Not Since You opens today, and and an excellent documentary, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, Directed by Joseph Doron, opens in Toronto next week – check your local listings.

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

Movies that make you go Hmmm… Fair Game, Client 9: the Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer, Inside Job, My Suicide, Golden Slumber, 127 Hours PLUS Film Festivals: Rendezvous with Madness, ReelAsian, Waterloo Animation

Movies that make you go hmmm…

If you look back at the past decade and wonder what the hell was that all about? there are three good movies that provide some explanations.

Fair Game
Dir: Doug Liman

Valerie Plame is a tough cookie. She works under deep cover for the CIA, recruiting local snitches around the world to gather intelligence on those inscrutable terrorists. She’s part of the group looking into the threat of a nuclear weapons in Iraq. She’s known as the agent who can’t be broken, even by torture. She’s married to a hothead, former diplomat, Wilson, a West Africa expert, who the CIA enlists to investigate rumours about yellowcake uranium coming out of Niger.

But their conclusions (they all hate Saddam Hussein too, but there are no weapons of mass destruction) do not sit well with the conspirers Cheney, Karl Rove, and their attack dog Scooter Libby. The movie traces what happens to Valerie and her family (and the drama sticks pretty close to the true story) when they expose her cover, and start to assassinate her husband’s character.

This movie’s a good historical take on the US government’s WMD scam (which led to the invasion of Iraq, more than a hundred thousand civilians dead and 4 million refugees). It tells a story where even the CIA comes across as one of the good guys. And Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are fun to watch, and the thriller aspect – of a spy escaping her foes – is not bad either.

So… a couple years after all this happened, things were brewing in New York City, on Wall Street, to be exact. The next movie, a documentary:

Client 9: the Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer
Dir: Alex Gibney

… looks at the case of the former Attorney General, and later Governor of New York, who was brought down in an embarrassing scandal involving a prostitute he slept with.

So what actually happened there?
Spitzer was, with great media and popular success – attacking the crooked dealers in the financial industry. He started low, but gradually worked his way into the belly of the beast. But, of course, he was getting on the nerves of some of the bigshots of Wall Street:
Crooked stock analysts at Merril Lynch; insider traders; NY Stock Exchange director Kenneth Langone; and the head of AIG, Hank Greenberg. (This documentary gets to interview everyone!)

As state governor, he added to his list of enemies – he sought out the fights and confrontations. But, of course, the bad guys fought back and cooked up an elaborate scheme using the sleazy, but fascinating, dirty trickster Roger Stone, to bring him down. Compiling published newspaper and magazine articles, interviews with the players, including the prostitutes and politicians involved, this compelling example of real investigative journalism traces the elaborate set-up to bring down the enemy of Wall Street, Albany, and Washington.

Next…

Inside Job
Dir: Charles Ferguson
Narrator: Matt Damon

…takes up the story right where Client 9 ends. It traces the bigger picture of how the real estate and financial bubble led to the collapse of the world’s, and the later bailout and payoffs to the very men whose out-and-out conniving and fraud led to these problems. Politicos, Investment banks, and, interestingly, university professors are taken to task for their involvement. This is also a great documentary, but not as good as Client 9 in getting interviews with the players from both sides of the story.

Does all this stuff make you mad? Well, check out Rendezvous with Madness – a film festival that deals with addiction and mental health by showing some interesting movies, documentaries, and experimental films, combined with discussions right after the screenings.

One movie that caught my eye is called:

My Suicide
Dir: David Lee Miller

This is a fictional blog in movie form. A blog-movie. I’d call it a Bloovie.

Archie is pretty pissed off. He goes to high school, but doesn’t much like it. He has a crush on a beautiful girl named Sierra, and feels alienated from his parents. It’s a 90210-type high school, but he’s not one of the popular kids. So when his classmates are all told to make a movie (everyone in this film seems to have a video camera), he tells the class: He’s going to film his own suicide. He immediately gets driven away by a cop, and passed on to a parade of counselors, social workers and shrinks. But he also unwittingly becomes an underground antihero in the school, with lots of kids vowing to follow his example; and he finally meets up with seemingly perfect Sierra, the girl of his dreams.

This is a frenetic movie: It feels like an earnest episode of Degrassi, cranked up on a six pack of red bull. It’s also much dirtier, with sex, drugs, and some sad stuff too. It quotes TV news, commercials, educational films, and some excellent animated sequences – basically anything you can fit on a green screen behind the main character. A sad and shocking topic, but with an interesting and comic way of telling the story of teenage angst. It’s on tonight at 9; check out the details on http://www.rendezvouswithmadness.com

The Toronto ReelAsian International Film Festival  shows great films from east and southeast Asia, including Japan, China, Korea, HK, and Vietnam, as well as movies from around the world.

The festival opened with the enjoyable retro kung fu flic “Gallants”. One interesting movie (that screens tonight) is:

Golden Slumber
Dir: Yoshihiro Nakamura

Aoyagi (Masato Sakai) is a friendly, ordinary, mild-mannered deliveryman. He was in the Food Culture Research Youth Group (dedicated to “friendship through fast food”) at university, lives in Sendai, and once was famous for 15 minutes when he rescued a pop star by tripping her attacker. He is bamboozled into going on a fishing trip with an old classmate which soon turns into a massive JFK/ Lee Harvey Oswald assassination plot to kill the Japanese PM. And he discovers that he’s the Oswald, and a whole lot of shady characters driving black cars are after him, as well as the even more bloodthirsty and venal press corps.

A pint-sized, teenaged serial killer becomes one of Aoyagi’s many de facto rescuers as he tries to clear his name. “Trust”, Aoyagi believes, “is mankind’s greatest strength.’

This is a neat movie: 50% paranoid conspiracy drama, 50% quirky black comedy, that follows Aoyagi and his various former college friends as the story unfolds in an unusual way. I love this kind of movie.

Another story of a man stuck in a hard place is the very enjoyable

127 Hours
Dir: Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle, of course, is the guy who brought us Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting; all his movies are fun to watch, but totally different from the last one he directed.

This one is an hour and a half of an adventurous, solo mountain climber (James Franco) who’s arm is pinned in a fissure by a big hunk o’ rock… in the middle of nowhere.

And the only way out might be by cutting off his own arm. This is a true story, so if you’ve seen pictures of the guy (Aron Ralston) you’ll know what he did in the end. So how does he keep your attention? A guy stuck in a rock for an hour and a half? Well this is a great movie, that isn’t trapped in the tiny space. I don’t like overly claustrophobic, squashed-in movies. This one reaches out, it goes wherever Aron’s mind, dreams, fantasies, hallucinations, and memories take him. There is an extended episode of extreme grotesquerie, but other than that, it’s a greatly enjoyable movie about a man attempting to overcome nature using his will and logic, without resorting to prayer and salvation.

And if you’re in the Kitchener/Waterloo area, be sure to check out the 10th annual Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema – it’s filled with animated features from places like Eastern Europe and Japan, ranging from anime, to fairy tales to psychedelia – sounds pretty cool. Look for the details on wfac.ca

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