Working class heroes. Films reviewed: 22 Chaser, Boundaries, Leave No Trace

Posted in Canada, Cars, Coming of Age, Family, Feminism, Road Movie, Toronto, Women by CulturalMining.com on July 6, 2018

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

Movies aren’t only about escapism, superheroes and spaceships. Some equally entertaining movies shed light on real people and their concerns – like escaping poverty, finding a home, or keeping their kids in school.

This week I’m looking at three new movies about working-class families. There’s a father and daughter in Portland who live in the wild, a west coast mom and her son forced to deal with a wiley grandpa, and a tow truck driver negotiating the wilds of downtown Toronto.

22 Chaser

Dir: Rafal Sokolowski

Ben and Avery (Brian J Smith: Sense8; and Tiio Horn: Ghost BFF) are an ambitious young couple from a small town with a scrappy son named Zach. Ben drives a truck for Jackrabbit Towing but hopes to open his own garage some day; while Avery plans to parlay her skills as diner waitress into restaurant owner. But despite their big ideas they’re barely surviving, with Avery forced to visit the local foodbank.

Ben is an ethical guy who helps the victims he sees at accidents; he’s no ambulance chaser like his rival towtruck drivers Elvis (Shaun Benson) and Wayne (Raoul Trujillo). One day at work he gets some good news and bad news. The good news is his company is about to land a big police contract – this guarantees lots of future income. The bad news is the drivers have to pay a big deposit to keep their tow trucks – money he just doesn’t have.

So he enters a deal with a crooked cop named Ray (Aiden Devine) who doubles as a predatory loan shark. The meeting is arranged by his best friend Sean (Aaron Ashmore), another chaser. But the income he expects doesn’t come in. The loanshark demands a payment in 24 hours — or else — but he doesn’t even have enough to buy his kid a birthday present. Jackrabbit Ben is forced to turn chaser, at least for one night. Can he survive the bloodthirsty world of competitive tow truck driving?

22 Chaser is equal parts family drama and action movie with enough violence and street racing to keep it moving. The story’s a bit old fashioned… or classic, depending on how you view it. (It feels like the movie Nightcrawler, but with a tow-truck driver instead of a news photgrapher.) Smith and Horn are appealing as the troubled married couple, and the night time street views of downtown Toronto are a pleasure to watch.

Boundaries

Wri/Dir: Shana Feste

Laura (Vera Farmiga) is an eccentric single mom who lives with her son and a whole lot of dogs – she adopts any abandoned dog she sees on the street. She’s the pied piper of mange. She works for her rich best friend as a party planner, but she’s struggling to get by. Her son Henry (Lewis MacDougall) is an artist and a bit of an oddball too. He draws what he feels. His latest hobby is to draw naked pictures of adults he knows – including his mom’s boyfriends. But when he draws his school principal naked, he gets expelled. This means mom has to find a private school that takes non-conformist kids. And she has to pay for it. Which forces her to contact her estranged father Jack (Christopher

Plummer) who was just kicked out of a seniors home.

Laura blames him for her troubled childhood – he was never around when she was growing up. And though he’s in his eighties she still doesn’t trust him. But she really needs the money. So she agrees to go on a roadtrip down the west coast, from Seattle to LA, with her son and her dad in exchange for the money to pay for Henry’s school. And maybe Henry can finally bond with his grandpa. But what she doesn’t know is Jack is using the trip for nefarious reasons. Can the the three learn to get along? And will the trip solve their problems? Or lead to a terrible end?

Boundaries is a very cute move about family ties. It pulls a lot of the old hollywood road movie tricks – I mean who doesn’t like beautiful scenery, an oddball kid, wacky grandpa, neurotic mom, and lots and lots of adorable dogs? – but I enjoyed it.

Leave No Trace

Wri/Dir: Debra Granik

Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) is a teenaged girl who lives with her dad Will (Ben Foster) in a forest near Portland, Oregon. He’s a war vet and she’s his only child. They live a sustainable, natural life, moving every few days, being sure to leave no trace – for both ecological and security reasons. Will suffers from severe PTSD – he’s kept awake by the sound of helicopters in his head – and is extremely antisocial. He doesn’t like being around other people, except Tom of course.

They start campfires with flint and steel, pick wild mushrooms, and drink rainwater captured in plastic tarps. He teaches her survival tactics and how to hide from the enemy, but also book learning. Thom likes her life — it’s the only life she’s ever known. But when their lives are disrupted – they’re arrested by the police and Tom is handed over to social services – they’re forced to rethink their entire way of life. Tom discovers she likes being around other people, while will can’t stand it. What will happen to their father daughter relationship?

Leave No Trace sounds like a simple family movie, but it’s so much more. It follows a script with actors but feels almost like a documentary at times. It follows Will and Tom on a picaresque journey through the Pacific north west, through forests, along highways, and with the people they meet on the way. Gorgeous scenery, fantastic acting, and a beautiful subtle story. It’s directed by Debra Granik who did the fantastic Winter’s Bone – (another great movie, and was Jennifer Lawrence’s first important film, and look at her now!) That’s why I made sure to catch this one. And though it’s not a thriller like Winter’s Bone, it’s just as good.

I recommend this movie.

22 Chaser, Boundaries and Leave No Trace 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.

Unrequited Lust. Films reviewed: On Chesil Beach, Hurley, M/M

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Berlin, Cars, documentary, Drama, Dreams, LGBT, melodrama, Sex, UK by CulturalMining.com on May 25, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

Inside out, Toronto’s LGBT film fest is on now, premiering movies from around the world, from Thailand to South Africa and showcasing innovative short films by new directors.

Unrequited love is a common theme, but what about unrequited lust? This week I’m looking at three movies — two dramas and a doc. There’s a honeymoon couple whose marital bliss isn’t; a racing car driver with a need for speed, and a guy in Berlin who lusts after a lookalike… in a coma.

On Chesil Beach

Dir: Dominic Cooke, based on Ian McEwan’s novel

It’s England in 1962. Florence (Saorise Ronan) is a confident musician who leads a string quintet in Oxford. She comes from an uptight, stuck up, and upper class Tory family. Edward (Billie Howle) is a country bumpkin from a rural home a bus ride away. He’s emotionally raw and quick to anger. He can’t tell a baguette from a croissant but can identify a bird just from its call.

He comes from an eccentric family, with pre-raphaelite twin sisters, a kindly father, and an artist mother suffering from a brain injury. She can’t remember new names and takes off her clothes in public. Florence and Edward meet at random at a nuclear disarmament meeting (CND) and it’s love at first sight. She loves his realness and disdain for money and social conventions. And he is stricken by her beauty, her musical skills, and most of all her kindness – she can even pull his mother out of her shell. They marry.

But the honeymoon at a second rate hotel on a pebble-strewn beach starts bad and gets worse. The closer they get to the marital bed, the farther they get from sex. And after a disastrous attempt, they flee the bedroom for the rocky beach. Can true love rescue an awful honeymoon? Or will this be the end?

On Chesil Beach is a moving look at relationships, and a bit of a tear jerker, too. Though the beach scenes are at its centre, the film flashes back in time to reveal crucial secrets — and into a possible future — as the two lovers have it out. While not a perfect movie, I’ve seen it twice now and I liked it better the second time… which is a good sign.

Hurley

Wri/Dir Derek Dodge

Daytona, Florida is the site of a renowned race car competition, where teams speed along a circuit keeping their cars running for 24 hours without stopping. The drivers too have to continue functioning at high speeds negotiating perilous turns while fighting exhaustion. Even a momentary break in concentration could lead to a crash.

Machismo rules, and winners flaunt their masculinity and sense of cool. It’s a world filled with photo-ops beside bikini-clad penthouse models, aboard expansive yachts. It’s also a big-money professional sport, whose champions land lucrative endorsements, prize money, sponsorships and cushy positions at car dealerships. Image is everything.

The kings of Daytona have long been the Brumos Porsche team, who drove to victory in the 1970s under Peter Gregg. He was arrogant and successful. He was later joined by Hurley Haywood, a shy but highly skilled racer. Together they were known as Batman and Robin. Eventually Haywood headed the team himself in Daytona and La Mans, chalking up countless wins. This new documentary chronicals Haywood’s career and his personal life.

So why is a movie about race cars playing at Inside Out?

SPOILER ALERT!

Because Hurley Haywood is the first race car champ to publicly come out as gay… which makes this film a historic record.

Hurley is a squeaky-clean documentary about the famous race car driver, and is mainly of interest to fans of that sport, whom, I am told, are legion. I’m not one of them, but could still appreciate the cool cars and vintage pics. I felt like I was playing with hot wheels again.

M/M

Wri/Dir: Drew Lint

Matthieu (Antoine Lahaie) is a Montrealer living in a small apartment in Berlin. During the day he works as a lifeguard at a local swimming pool (or does he?). At night he’s clubbing to flashing lights and dark shadows. And then there are his dreams – realistic visions of interactions with stone statues and human flesh. (He rarely meets living people.)

One day he encounter Matthias (Nicolas Maxim Endlicher) online and follows him into the swimming pool showers. Matthias has a thin moustache, a buzz cut and a perfectly symmetrical body and face. The words Sodom and Gomorrah are tattooed on his torso. He works as a fashion model and poses for a digital sculpture created using a 3-D printer. Matthieu is infatuated with Matthias, mimics his style, and stalks him to his apartment window. It’s a minimalist palace of white walls, blown-up black and white photos and a chin-up bar. Matthieu longs to meet him, but there’s no real connection. But when Matthias falls into a coma after a crash, Matthieu — like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley — moves into his home and takes over his life. Soon he has a parade of sex partners visiting him who thinks he’s the other guy. But what will happen to Matthew when Matthias comes home? And how far will one M go to duplicate, or replace, the other M?

M/M is a highly stylized, dreamlike and surreal look at superficial relationships and the dangers they pose. This Berlin is inhabited only by gay fashion plates in their twenties, posing against shiny white surfaces or pausing for sexual release in washrooms or saunas. Most dialogue is disjointed telephone conversations or short texts sent on gay dating sites; and the sex scenes fall somewhere between MMA and interpretive dance.

The story is intentionally ambiguous, so you never know if you’re seeing dreams, fantasies or actual events, nor even which M is dreaming what. Still, this dazzling art-house fest of image and music manages to hold together.

This is the best movie I’ve seen at Inside Out, but if you miss it there, it opens commercially on June 1.

On Chesil Beach opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Hurley and M/M are both playing at the Inside Out Film Fest.

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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Amber Fares about Speed Sisters

Posted in Cars, Cultural Mining, documentary, Palestine, Sports, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 3, 2016

8e91efce474853815c9f65e90dbd08f9_400x400Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Try googling the term Palestine or Palestinian — you’ll find lots of history, geography, and politics.

But what about race car drivers? Or female, Palestinian race car drivers?
Pretty sure it will not show up. But it is the subject of a new documentary,1532078_10153145050924610_5465236953600719301_n
called Speed Sisters.

Speed Sisters is a personal, in-depth look at five Palestinian women and their newfound fame as competitive car racers. It follows them toward their goal of competing in the championships in Jordan… and beyond. It’s directed by the award-winning Canadian filmmaker Amber Fares and it opens in Toronto next Friday.

I spoke with Amber by telephone.

Intensity. Films reviewed: River of Fundament, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, All Cheerleaders Die

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.

What makes a movie “intense”? Do you squirm in your seat, look away from the screen, maybe shout cries of indignation. Or is it the depth and breadth, the intensity of the images, sounds and story? This week I’m looking at intense movies. There’s an epic art film about rival Egyptian gods in modern day America; a crime action/ comedy/musical about rival Yakuza gangs; and a comedy/horror about football players vs bloodsucking cheerleaders.

Luminato2014_River of Fundament_Photo by Hugo Glendinning_001River of Fundament
Dir: Matthew Barney; Music: Jonathan Bepler

In a house, floating down the Hudson river near Manhattan is a wake for the late author Norman Mailer, attended by various literati. Also attending are a series of people – seemingly invisible to the crowd – dripping with human feces. They are the reincarnation of various ancient Egyptian gods, like Osiris, Hathferiti, Horus, and Set – who come back to life after swimming across the river of excrement. Mailer, who wrote the potboiler set in Ancient Egypt the movie is based on, also shows up as a ghost (played by his son, John Buffalo Mailer). Simultaneously, a marching band in LA is sanctifying a holy Chrysler car dealership. And in Detroit, a golden Trans-Am (with a phoenix tattooed across its hood) is being destroyed with a man in a golden straitjacket inside. And a CSI-team riding motorboats examines the wreckage. And an army of spectators descends into an empty reservoir for the showdown between two Egyptian deities as two women caress their pregnant bellies. Death, destruction, reincarnation and rebirth; gold leaf and brown feces; opulent banquets crawling with worms and maggots, all existing together as the rivers flow slowly downstream.

OK, that’s the condensed version. The actual movie is six bloody hours long (including two River of Fundament Photo Chris Wingetintermissions.) Six hours! And a lot of it seems to involve vomit, feces, urine, diarrhea, and bodily organs being pulled out of animal carcasses. Perhaps I exaggerate – maybe only, say, two of the six hours was disgusting, and four hours were astonishingly beautiful. It is an overwhelming experience, a movie done in English in the style of a classic opera, including libretto. And it’s filmed in enormous and spectacular locations, with aerial views of flames shooting from industrial towers; musicians playing and choirs singing simultaneously on motorboats speeding down rivers. Or shirtless trumpet players marching among parked cars; or a nude, Amazonian pornstar, her arms stretched over head, holding her sex partner (a tiny bearded man) lying horizontally above her.

I hated and loved this movie swearing I’d walk out a dozen times, but always drawn back to see what happens next. Unbelievable.

地獄でなぜ悪い2Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
Dir: Shion Sono

A team of aspiring college film geeks form a club inside a decaying old movie theatre. They call themselves the “F*ck Bombers”. And when they find a potential star – a brawling Bruce Lee lookalike high school student – they are consumed by a desire to make a real movie. But 10 years pass and still no luck. Meanwhile, two rival yakuza gangs are in a permanent state of war. The Muto gang dress in Godfather suits and carry guns, while the Ikegami gang wear classic kimono, armed with Samurai swords. Teenaged Mitsuko – the daughter of the Muto gang boss — is still famous for the jingle she sang as a child on a toothpaste TV ad. And the Ikegami boss still has a deeply-buried crush on the girl whom he met a decade earlier in a brief, blood-drenched encounter. Now, her gangster dad is turning to the movie business and bankrolls a film, that, he says, must star his reluctant daughter. But when a famous director quits, he pulls a random guy off the street to direct it instead. This while a gang war is about to erupt with many innocents caught in the 地獄でなぜ悪い 1middle.

Confusion, violence mayhem… But what about that amateur movie club – could they somehow take over the movie? To do so they’d have to convince the rival gangs to let them record – on 35 mm film – a bloody and violent showdown involving the two sides.

My bare-bones description does not do justice to this fantastic musical comedy – including an unbelievably bloody, 30-minute-long climactic battle scene. It has to be seen to be believed. Shion Sono is one of my favourite Japanese directors. His movies are outrageous and shockingly violent but also amazingly sentimental, earnest and goofy at the same time: an odd, but oddly pleasing combination.

Reanin Johannink in All Cheerleaders DieAll Cheerleaders Die
Wri/Dir: Lucky McKee, Chris Sivertson

Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) is suspicious of the cock-of-the-walk football captain at Blackfoot High. For Terry (Tom Williamson) his boys are dogs and the cheerleaders are bitches who he uses and abuses. So to get back at him – for what he’s done – she joins the cheerleaders squad. But she leaves her shy and goth-y BFF Leena behind. Leena (Aussie actress Sianoa Smit-McPhee) is an active wiccan, who practices necromancy using glowing crystals she Brooke Butler in All Cheerleaders Diecarries in a leather pouch. Well, at a beach party things go wrong. A mighty rift develops between the football players and the cheerleaders, which ends up with the girls’ car spinning off the highway into a ravine, killing all on board. Luckily, it’s Leena to the rescue. She mixes their blood with the crystals, and they all come back to life. They’re just like they used to be – Caitlin Stasey in All Cheerleaders Diewell sort of. Now they’re the living dead, functioning like an interconnected hive of bees. And, periodically, they have to suck blood to survive. When they’re not cutting class, making out in the handicapped washroom, or smoking up in the pot van.

Who will survive the longest? The vampiric cheerleaders or the abusive football jocks? This movie is not so intense, though quite bloody and violent. It’s your typical comedy horror with a good dose of Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style supernatural fun thrown in. I thought it was lots of fun – and a good date movie.

All Cheerleaders Die opens in Toronto today, check your local listings, The River Fundament played at Toronto’s Luminato – go to Luminato.com for more of Matthew Barney’s films; and Why Don’t You Play in Hell is showing next week at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival: go to jccc.on.ca for tickets. And look out for the Niagara Integrated & Italian Contemporary Film Festivals: coming soon!

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

Pop Culture Icons. Movies reviewed: Need For Speed, Bettie Page Reveals All, Alan Partridge

Posted in Action, Breasts, Cars, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Pop Culture, Road Movie, Sex, Sex Trade, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on March 6, 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.

They say as long as there’s a familiar name in a movie title people will go. Is that true? This week I’m looking at three diverse movies all based on pop-culture references. There’s an action movie based on a videogame about car racing, a documentary about a 50s pinup model, and a comedy about a (fictional) TV and radio talk show host.

NeedForSpeed_Downloads_Poster_SmallNeed for Speed

Dir: Scott Waugh

Tobey (Aaron Paul: Breaking Bad) is a car lover in tiny Mt Kisco. He runs a repair garage with his mechanic buds and races his beauties on the street. He rebuilds cars for rich collectors. But then his nemesis Dino (Dominic Cooper) who stole his high school sweetheart, comes to town with a proposition: big bucks if he can beat him in a secret, three-car race. Someone ends up dying, and Tobey takes the fall and goes to jail.

Two years later, he’s free again, with the chance to enter a cross country race to Aaron Paul NeedForSpeed_1024x517_Images_13_LandscapeCalifornia sponsored by an elusive dot-com mogul (Michael Keaton). But he needs help. His old enemy Dino sics the police on him, so he’s racing and being chased. His pals from the garage agree to help him out; they use helicopters, race cars for back-up support, and attempt on-highway tune-ups and gas tank refills. Tobey can’t stop driving, no matter what.

Imogen Poots NeedForSpeed_682x517_CastCrew_ImogenPootsJulia (Imogen Poots), a mythical dream date for race-car-bros,  volunteers to help him win. She’s a blonde and beautiful millionairess , who’s also fast-witted and an expert driver who’s not interested in commitment.

Will Tobey’s honest small town ingenuity beat that bag-of-dicks Dino and his dirty tricks? Can he get vengeance for past crimes? And can he Dominic Cooper NeedForSpeed_1024x517_Images_17_Landscapeavoid all the feds on his tail?

This movie is based on a video game, and it’s filled with overt product placement. There’s a baffling five minute ad in the middle of the movie for Ford Mustangs! And it’s loaded with car porn, the camera caressing glowing fuselages and NeedForSpeed_1024x517_Images_01_Landscapesparkling pistons. The characters toss out lines like “Bro – whoa, look at that red Lambo!” Personally, car brands, street racing, or the video game it was based on, do nothing for me. But I enjoyed it anyway. It’s dumb with a senseless, simplistic plot, but I could still appreciate the excellent race scenes, special effects, blow ups, air-shots and wipeouts, leading to an ultimate finish line.

Bettie_Page_Reveals_All 3 Mark Mori Music Box FilmsBettie Page Reveals All

Dir: Mark Mori

Bettie Page was a 1950s pinup model from Tennessee. An underground star, she was known for her hairstyle — black with bangs — her body, her smiling good looks. Her images shout sex is nothing to be afraid of. She appears in bikinis on Florida beaches, topless in studio, dancing on a stage, holding a whip, in full bondage, and occasionally alongside wild animals. She made 16 mm films with suggestive titles like Teaserama, directed by someone actually named Bettie_Page_Reveals All Mark Mori Music Box Films6.9Irving Klaw! And she always appeared to be having a good time.

Then, suddenly, she quits, never to pose again and completely disappears from the public eye.

Flash forward to the 90s – and she shifts from subculture star to pop culture icon. People begin to dress like her, imitate her, or use her image in comic books, T-shirts and tattoos. She’s virtually ubiquitous, and everyone knows who she is. Porn stars, Roller Derby players, even pop stars — like Katie Perry — dress like her, imitate her, and on Halloween, many women (and some men) attempt to become her.

Bettie_Page_Reveals All 5This documentary reveals all. The filmmakers manage to track down Bettie Page (that’s her real name, by the way). She never appears on the screen but her voice tells about what really happened during and after her brush with fame. She’s born again, loses her marbles, gets married three times. And for much of this period she had no idea she was idolized by millions. Through it all she remains open, unapologetic and fascinated by sex. This is an amazing story of the rise, fall and rise again of a pop icon.

alan-partridge-posterAlan Partridge

Dir: Declan Lowney

Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) is an obnoxious, small-town radio personality in Norwich, UK. He’s self-centred and aggressive, but also insecure, obtuse and vengeful. He has an unmistakable fake smile that’s as irritating as it is hilarious.

This character has been on British TV and radio for decades now, as a mock sportscaster, DJ and talk show host. And like any celebrity worth his salt he can talk endlessly about nothing in particular, in a way sure to make a guest squirm.

In this, his first movie, he’s back as an awful radio show host. His station gets taken over by corporate raiders who decide they need a “younger” image. He manages to hold onto his show, but his co-host Pat (Colm Steve Coogan and Colm Meaney in ALAN PARTRIDGEMeaney) gets the boot (which is partly Alan Partridge’s fault.) So what happens? Suddenly, the whole station is in lockdown and they’re all Pat’s hostages – except Alan Partridge. The police and special-ops swarm in and they decide, for some reason, that only Alan can negotiate Pat’s surrender. Hilarity ensues.

The plot isn’t really that important – just a format to let Alan Partridge be himself. And that’s all it needs. He is so, so funny. Self-unaware, attention-Steve Coogan in ALAN PARTRIDGEstarved, socially inept and excruciatingly unhip, he has just enough of that radio voice and vapid attitude to make it all seem plausible. You can see his old stuff on youtube, but it’s great to see him featured in a feature length feature. This is a silly, goofy, and really funny movie… especially if you like British TV comedy. Steve Coogan at his best, showing Alan Partridge at his worst.

Betty Page Reveals All and Alan Partridge both open today in Toronto, and Need for Speed opens next Friday; check your local listings. Also on is the great Japanese drama Like Father, Like Son. And the Pier Paolo Pasolini retrospective: The Poet of Contamination plays through March. Go to tiff.net for more info.

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

Off-Beat Comedies. Movies Reviewed: A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III, Identity Thief

Posted in 1970s, Cars, Class, Crime, Cultural Mining, L.A., Meltdown, Movies, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on February 17, 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 February and it’s winter and I hate it. With snow comes slush, and with slush comes sludgy puddles. I got sprayed with brown muck from my shoes to my face by an SUV driver a couple days ago. Not fun.

So what better time for a laugh or two.

This week I’m looking at a couple of off-beat comedies about men trying to get their lives back together. Ones a retro look at a man’s midlife crisis; the other is a buddy/road movie about a robber and a rob-ee forced to travel together.

Party_CS_BM_1A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III

Wri/Dir: Roman Coppola

Charles Swan III (Charlie Sheen) is a drunk, a womanizer, a stoner, and a self-centred, Hollywood semi-demi-hemi celebrity. He has his own successful design studio where he makes pop-art posters and record album covers for megastars, like his best buddy Kirby Star (the director’s cousin Jason Schwartzman). He is known for his airbrushed images of camp, huge-breasted woman in fringed vests and cowboy hats. He drives around in his vintage car (known for the giant fried eggs painted on the side) to make out with his current girlfriend Ivana (Katheryn Winnick). But, when she digs up a crusty diaphragm a past date left from under a seat, she loses it. She dumps him. She’s gone, his career collapses, his life is over, and he spirals into a dramatic, Hollywood-style meltdown.

An LA meltdown starring Charlie Sheen? Who woulda thunk it? We follow his encounters with his doctor, his psychiatrists, his agent, his lawyer, his friends and his family, all of whom have lots of their own problems and neuroses to complain about. You get to see all this through the filter – and I use the term lightly, since the one thing this movie could use is a filter! — of Charles’s brain, filled with fantasies within stories within meta-memories, until your brain wants to explode, too.

Does this sound messy? It is. It’s a slapdash, hodgepodge mess of a movie, less compelling than confusing, less funny than eye-rolling. It’s just hard to sympathize with a rich successful conceited Charlie_Sheen_and_Jason_Schwartzmanguy having a midlife crisis.

At the same time, it’s a visual smorgasbord. It takes during the 1970s, the “Me decade”, and is filled with all the kitsch icons — the cowboys and Indians, fast-food, sports cars, the bikinis, the faux country/western ranches, the psychedelia, the sideburns, the seventies’ nostalgia for the twenties, forties and fifties. What at the time was thought of as incredible excess, is now almost admirable for its care and craftsmanship. Peter Max, Tom Robbins, Linda Ronstadt…

It shows us an era where you really could get rich designing the cardboard cover of a hit record album, and you were allowed to rent elephants or camels and extras and costumes for that one perfect shot. While I love the music, the images, and even the amazing fonts used for the titles, I find the story a godawful mess.

identity thief 2Identity Thief

Dir: Seth Gordon

Diana (Melissa McCarthy) favours heavy make up, a fright wig and loud, flowered shirts. She doesn’t have any friends. So she replaces them with hairdressers, shop clerks, bartenders. What she does have is a nearly bottomless money pit, a goose that keeps laying golden eggs. She has multiple toasters, fiberglass boats, a new car. But money doesn’t grow on trees – she gets it from other people’s credit cards, using Identity theft.

Meanwhile, in Denver, Sandy (Jason Bateman) a mild-mannered, middle-aged middle-manager, has a beautiful wife, two cute daughetrs, and another one on the way. But suddenly his job disappears, his bank account is drained, and he’s suddenly a wanted criminal – for something Diana did in Florida. He’s the victim, she’s the culprit.

So, after discovering who’s to blame — and without any help from the police — he decides to drive identity thiefacross the country to bring her to justice in Colorado. Although a pathological liar, she agrees to come with him, as the lesser evil. You see, she’s being stalked by a pair of slick gangster hitmen and a ruthless bounty hunter, both out to catch and kill her. So Sandy soon finds himself surrounded by her world of con-jobs, frauds, deception and crime. Will he descend to her level, or will she rise to his?

This is actually a funny trip comedy. It’s made by the guy who did Horrible Bosses, and has a similar feel, lots of slapstick comedy with Diana getting Identity_Thief_4hit by trucks, Sandy getting punched in the throat, people having embarrassing, kinky sex with Texans in roadhouses… things like that. Lots of sight gags and shtick thrown in just for the laughs, but the movie doesn’t suffer, and the story pulls it along. And Bateman and McCarthy are an excellent team, with her as the funnyman, him as the straightman. Good comedy that’s actually funny, worth seeing for the laughs.

Identity Theft is now playing and Charles Swan III opens today in Toronto. Also playing and worth checking out are some great documentaries. Shadows of Liberty, by Canadian Jean-Philippe Tremblay, exposes the excesses and biases of mainstream media. And 5 Broken Cameras, (directed by Guy Davidi and Emad Burnat) is a devastating, first-hand record of the lives of the people in Bi’lin, a Palestinian village after settler encroachment. Check your local listings for times and screens.

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

October 7, 2011. Changes? Solar Taxi, Waking the Green Tiger, Restless, PLUS Planet in Focus.

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 what the difference is.

You’re listening to this on Friday morning but I recorded this on Wednesday, so I’m taking an intentionally neutral tone – I don’t know yet what changes the election has brought. Are people saying: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose? Or: hooray! Change at last! Right to strike and no more diesel fumes! Or maybe: Hallellujah! Our prayers have brought the Tea Party to Canada with no more of them-there sexiness kidnapping our babies away and stealing our tax breaks! Or even, OMG – Look! There’s a triple rainbow, halley’s comet, a total eclipse… and hell just froze over! …if you’re a faithful Green Party supporter.

Like I said, I don’t know… But I do know that change is happening on a global scale and we ignore these changes at our own risk. So this week, I’m going to look at two informative documentaries playing at the Planet in Focus festival, and also review a new, offbeat romance film that played at TIFF.

So, what is Planet in Focus? Well, it’s an annual Toronto event that brings together video and filmmakers, environmental experts, and activists from around the world for a week-long look at what’s happening to our planet. It’s a good place for youth and adults to learn more about the environment and what to do about it.

There are some big documentaries opening and closing the festival – one, called Revenge of the Electric Car (Narrated by Tim Robbins), and another called The Whale, narrated by Ryan Reynolds about an Orca named Luna separated from his family off the coast of Vancouver.

First let’s look at the movie

Solartaxi: Around the World with the Sun.

Dir: Erik Schmitt

Louis us a Swiss-German school teacher who loves cars but doesn’t like what they’re doing to the planet, with all their inefficient carbon-burning engines, and the disgusting and dangerous emissions that come out the back end. And ever since he was a kid, he dreamed of going around the world by a sort of a race-car. So how does he reconcile his diametrically opposed goals? Well, he manages to find sponsors, battery manufacturers, a mechanic, and a builder to make him the car of his dreams. It’s a cute, low-rolling, blue-and-white three-wheeler that he hopes will carry him out of the Swiss Alps and across many continents.

And behind it is a flatbed covered in solar panels. He dubs the whole thing his “Solar Taxi” and wants to bring it to the world’s attention, that not just hybrids, but purely electric cars really do work. Here’s the thing – the solar panels being made today, aren’t strong enough to power a two-person car. But his home back in Switzerland has a lot more solar panels that feed into the power grid, so he juices up with more power on the way, but never more than he’s actually producing.

Louis has a weedy moustache and rectangular wire-rimmed glasses and a bit politically naïve; but he does manage to take it across Europe, Asia, Australia and North America, giving rides to local politicians, celebrities and movie stars along the way as he spreads the news about his car. The movie shows mainly touristy sights – like snake charmers in India, kangaroos in Australia, and TV celebs in America – but it’s a fun trip. And in China, he sees countless electric mopeds, solar panels on every roof, and even gets a red carpet laid down for his car to drive on!

Which brings us to the next movie:

Waking the Green Tiger

Dir: Gary Marcuse

Is China a green paradise? Or an environmental nightmare? I think the answer’s somewhere in between. This movie gives the issue a balanced look.

In the early days of the People’s Republic, environmentalism didn’t exist. Any potential problem could be solved by the peasants and the workers putting their efforts together and working with all their might. Except… it didn’t always work. In the early 60’s Mao declared there was a shortage of steel, and no factory’s big enough to smelt all the iron the country needed. So they said if collective farm made their own little factory they could all work together and make it happen. Unfortunately, most of the stuff it produced was unusable. And when they decided that the sparrows were eating too much grain they told all the farmers to clap their hands and shake their trees until all the sparrows fell to the ground. Well, they did manage to tire out and kill all the sparrows, but without birds eating the insects there was a horrible plague of locusts that destroyed that year’s crop. So perhaps good intentions, but horribly environmentally unsound practices.

So this movie traces that period to the present, and how the growing awareness of environmental and cultural destruction taking place is awakening a huge number of people as to what’s going on and what they can do to change it. There are thousands of environmental NGO’s in China, some maverick journalists and filmmakers showing the country what’s behind the curtain, and local activists who are fighting the huge corporations and government entities there building dams, mines and rerouting lakes and rivers.

It focuses on the Salween or Nu River and in particular the Tiger Leap gorge, a dramatically beautiful canyon where they might be building a series of dams, and moving out the people who live around there. The Salween river is one of the world’s biggest free-flowing rivers, surrounded by unusual monkeys, diverse wildlife and ecosystems, and unique languages and cultures that exist only there. So, a filmmaker, Shi Lihong, took some of the Salween villagers in a bus across the country to talk to a similar place on the Mekong river. When they saw and spoke to the people there, how they were living now, (compared to what their lives were like before they were evicted) they were horrified and galvanized to take action back home. And the documentary itself, along with a series of newspaper articles, captured the interest of many people across China who also felt it would be an environmental disaster.

This is a great documentary showing the grass-roots environmental campaigns and public reactions in a vast country we know very little about. Using archival footage, great Mao-era propaganda posters and photos, and interviews with contemporary journalists and government officials, it goves a good overview of what’s happening right now in China, and what people are doing about it.

Next, here’s another movie about people who are restless… but in a different way.

Restless

Dir: Gus van Sant

Enoch (Henry Hopper) is a teenaged boy who only wears black and white, and hides his emotions. He talks, plays battleship, and seeks advice from Hiroshi, the ghost of a WWII kamikaze pilot (Ryo Kase). He lives with an aunt since his parents died, never going to school, and trying never to show emotions. For some reason, he enjoys going to funerals and memorial services. Well at one of these funerals he’s caught by pretty Annabelle, (Mia Wasikowska). Although an odd match, they eventually hit it off. But here’s the catch – and maybe there’s another funeral to crash on the horizon. You see, Annabelle has cancer and her future does not look great.

Can the two cute blond High Schoolers make a morbid but happy life together – dressing in funny 1920’s era costumes, walking around cemeteries, and acting out potentially romantic death scenes? Or will sad, real life disturb their fantasies?

This is a nice little romantic drama, and a bit of a tear-jerker. I thought she was much more convincing than he was – she’s a much better actor – she lights up the screen, while he seems to drag it down a little. The whole movie feels like any Japanese girl’s manga: a good place to moon over sad, sad love with some witty humour, a lot of posturing and pretty costumes thrown in. I admit it did make me cry — it was touching — but it didn’t seem up to the level of most Gus Van Sant movies.

Restless is now playing, and Planet in Focus starts next Wednesday – check planetinfocus.org for listings and times. And look out for the ImagineNative festival, coming soon!

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

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