Movie Movies. Films Reviewed: Pompeii, 3 Days to Kill PLUS AKP Job 27

Posted in 3-D, CGI, CIA, Clash of Cultures, comedy, Cultural Mining, Drama, Espionage, Gladiator, Rome, Serbian, Silent Movie, Toronto, Uncategorized, Yakuza by CulturalMining.com on February 23, 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.

Do you ever get tired of movies with deep meanings and avant-garde styles? Do you ever just want to see a “movie” movie? Well this week I’m looking at some movie movies, each with a bit of a twist. There’s a sword- and-sandal romance that’s also a disaster movie, an action-thriller that’s a family comedy, and a Yakuza movie… that has no lines!

Pompeii HarringtonPompeii (in 3D)

Dir: Paul W.S. Anderson

The Roman empire is reaching its apex, planting the golden eagle on Brittainia.  A particularly cruel general named Corvus battles the Celts. When it’s over he says to his henchman: Kill them all! But one little boy survives.

Milo (Kit Harrington, Game of Thrones) grows up to be a champion fighter, with stringy hair, a wispy beard and killer abs. He’s sent to Rome to compete as a fighter-slave. But on the way he comes to the aid of a beautiful, upper-class woman with porcelain features named Cassia (Emily Browning) Her horse has an accident, and Milo has a way with horses. He was “born on horseback”, he says. But will they ever meet again? You can count on it.

Pompeii Kit Harrington, Emily Browning

Now, Milo is sent to Pompeii (a holiday spot outside of Rome) to fight to the death in the arena there (Cassia’s dad controls Pompeii’s stadium). The ultimate fight will be between Milo and his rival Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Pompeii, Kit Harrington, Atticus Adewale Akinnuoye-AgbajeAgbaje) an African gladiator about to win his freedom.

Who comes to town, but a suitor, a senator from Rome. He says he’ll approve the new stadium, if — and only if — Cassia marries him. But she hates him (they had an earlier run-in in Rome) and she has a thing for Milo. And who is this Pompeii Sutherlandsenator? Why it’s Corvus (Keiffer Sutherland) who, along with his henchman Proculus (Sasha Roiz) massacred Milo’s family as a child!

So all of these plots are going on right at the base of Mt Vesuvius. And as we all know now, the volcano is about to blow, pouring lava and volcanic ash over Pompeii, Sasha Roizeveryone, rich and poor, who doesn’t get out of there soon.

This movie has three things going on. There’s the frequent action scenes – lots of fights, great gladiator matches, chase scenes; then there are the romantic parts: Cassia and Milo are constantly risking their own lives to rescue each other from death and danger; and there’s the inevitable disaster part: ground rumbling, buildings crumbling, spectacular collapses… The movie uses way, way, way too many CGIs. It makes everything look dark. You long for some blue skies. Nevertheless, I totally enjoyed this movie. Excitement, interesting plot, fights, romance, tears… it’s got everything.

And believe it or not, this movie about ancient Rome was shot in Toronto’s west end, all in enormous  soundstages and backlots.

Costner, 3 Days to KillThree Days to Kill

Dir: McG (The O.C.)

Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner) is just a regular guy who wears Dockers and roots for the Pittsburg steelers. He’s been away from his wife and daughter for five years. Why? Because he’s also a CIA assassin. He is in Belgrade to kill a sadistic criminal named the Albino (played by Icelandic actor Tómas Lemarquis as a James Bond-type super-villain). He’s known for chopping off the heads of his enemies. A young CIA agent named Vivi (Amber Heard) is there at the same time to kill another criminal known only as the Wolf. But something goes wrong.

Ethan collapses to the ground just when he should have shot the Albino.

Turns out he has inoperable brain cancer. He decides to spend his last days with his estranged wife and resentful teenaged daughter Zooey (Haillee Steinfeld, True Grit) in Paris.  This is where the action is supposed to turn to laughs.

Back in Paris, his apartment has squatters: an extended family from Mali. (He’s white, they’re black… Get it?) And his teenaged daughter Zooey is angry because he neglected her. (She’s young, he’s old… Get it?) Well, somehow, he convinces his wife he can be trusted to take care of their daughter for three days while she’s away on a business trip. But then Vivi reappears to say: I’ll cure your cancer with some secret drugs if you murder the Wolf (Ethan’s the only one who saw his face in Belgrade.) So now he has to juggle bonding with Zooey, with dying of cancer, and torturing suspects and killing alleged criminals.3 Days to Kill Amber Heard

This is such a craptastically messed-up movie. Believe it or not, the script was originally co-written by Luc Besson, the notorious French action movie director. So it does have some good chase scenes and shootouts.

But the humour? So lame, it’s absolutely devoid of laughs. Costner is a terrible comic actor, and Amber Heard is embarrassingly bad as the multi-wigged Vivi. The script feels like it was written in French, rewritten in Serbo-Croation with the English version courtesy of Google Translate, alpha edition. Just dreadful.

A016_C094_11139EAKP Job 27

Dir: Michael Suan

And in a tribute to the old Luc Besson comes a silent gangster pic from Toronto. A Yakuza hit man travels to on assignment in Canada and falls for a beautiful woman in the sex trade… who reminds him of a long lost love. This is a purely visual movie with a smorgasbord of images: gunshots in a field of air A007_C076_1102PN3turbines, sex scenes in red and blue. There is too much slo-mo and choppy jump cuts for my taste —  at times it feels like an extended 1980s music video. But it’s commendable as a first film, with Suan re-imagining a noir-ish Toronto as a city full of dark allies, rainy streets, neon lights, and strip bars.

Pompeii, Three Days to Kill and AKP Job 27 all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. The glorious Chilean film Gloria continues, and also opening this week is Tim’s Vermeer.

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

 

Mid-July Popcorn Movies. Films Reviewed: Pacific Rim, Red 2, The Conjuring

Posted in 1970s, CGI, Cold War, Cultural Mining, Espionage, Horror, Science Fiction, Supernatural, Uncategorized, violence by CulturalMining.com on July 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.

It’s hot. It’s so hot the city sucked up the most energy ever recorded recorded in one day. There are rolling blackout across the town. How to beat the heat? You guessed it. Movies. I was in an IMAX theatre on Monday in flip-flops and shorts and I had to keep moving my fingers and toes to avoid freezer burn. So this week I’m talking about popcorn movies, the kind that keep you interested as you decompress in your seat. One’s a violent action/comedy that’s spy vs spy; one’s an action/fantasy of robots vs sea monsters; and there’s a chiller/horror that’s ghost busters vs evil spirits.

RED 2Red 2

Dir: Dean Parisot

Frank and Sarah (Bruce Willis and Mary-Louise Parker) live a quiet suburban life. He’s retired from his days as a CIA killer. But he finds himself pulled back into it – and Sarah, a civilian, insists on coming too. Soon enough, they’re flying off to Paris, London and Moscow in a private jet, searching for a forgotten relic of the cold war. It’s unclear if it’s a person, an item or a sleeper cell. Whatever it is, there could be a major world disaster if it’s not neutralized. But even while he’s searching, he’s also being sought by two assassins who are hired to kill him. Han (Lee Byung-hun) a Korean killer, and Victoria (Helen Mirren) an MI6 assassin, are both his former friends and colleagues.

Frank puts together a team. He joins forces with various cold war colleagues and former Red 2 Zeta-Jones Parker Willisenemies. Sarah is just along for the ride… but she soon becomes an amateur spy, herself. The group must avoid a ruthless American operative (who is trying to cover-up the whole operation), locate a missing British scientist, and save the world… without being killed themselves.

This movie’s not bad – it’s actually quite entertaining. Cute, even. There’s a huge cast of very skilled actors playing simple, cookie-cutter roles, but they do it well, and seem to be having fun. There’s Anthony Red 2 MirrenHopkins, John Malkovich, David Thewlis and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Lots of really good chase scenes, shoot outs, loads of gratuitous death and violence, and cool, improvised hand-to-hand combat – like in Die Hard. There are also lots of split-second visual gags, (like an elderly woman playing a double bass.)

On the other hand, there’s nothing particularly original or surprising about the story – the plot’s completely predictable. One of the catch phrases the characters keep repeating is “I didn’t see that one coming”.

Really? ‘Cause I sure did.

Charlie Hunnam Pacific RimPacific Rim

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s the near future, and giant sea monsters from outer space are terrorizing port cities all around the Pacific Ocean. So the various governments build giant robots (known as Jaegers) to go up against the Godzilla-like creatures. But since they’re so big, they need two people to control one robot. They merge their minds and memories in a “neural handshake” and together battle the bad guys. Teams usually consist of siblings, lovers or best friends. But when the robot teams fail to stop the monsters (known as Kaiju) from attacking, the governments decide to scrap the robot plan and build giant walls instead. Big mistake!Pacific Rim Kikuchi

Only a few of the Jaegers are still around. It’s up to their trained drivers – the Jaegermeisters, if you will — and their commander, to try to defeat the monsters, once and for all.

This was another entertaining movie. Excellent special-effect CGIs – better than Transformers 3 Pacific Rim Jaeger(and that says a lot) — and a fun story. It has a very complicated plot, with a huge cast. Mako and Raleigh (Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Hunnam) are good as the dedicated robot riders, as is Idris Elba as their commander Pentecost. And a comic sub-plot (involving the non-combatant scientists who are trying to defeat the sea monsters through research, not war) helps to counter the relentless fighting. To tell the truth, I was a little bit disappointed in the script, since I like the director, del Toro, a lot, and was hoping for something more like Pan’s Labyrinth than Hellboy. But it was still a hell a lot of fun for an action movie.

The Conjuring Lili TaylorThe Conjuring (based on a true story)

Dir: James Wan

It’s 1971. Demon hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) give lectures on how to detect or debunk reports of haunted houses and possessed dolls. Lorraine is particularly sensitive to otherworldly beings. Most of their investigations turn out to be just scaredpeople hearing the wind. But when they are contacted by a family from Rhode Island, they sense this is the real deal.

Carolyn (Lili Taylor), her trucker-husband Roger, and their five daughters, have recently moved PATRICK WILSON, VERA FARMIGA, LILI TAYLOR, RON LIVINGSTON, photo Michael Tackett THE CONJURING Warner Brosinto a beautiful old house set in a bucolic garden with a big tree and a still pond. But the family soon begins to notice strange things, every night at 3:07 AM. One daughter feels a hand pulling her leg when she’s fast asleep. The youngest has an imaginary friend, Rory, who appears whenever she plays a music box with a spinning spiral on a round mirror. A sleep-walker is drawn to an old wardrobe that came with the house. And mom wakes up each morning with strange bruises on her body.

So the Warrens set up shop inside the house, with cameras and microphones, to record paranormal activity. And, soon enough, real, scary things start to happen, culminating in a battle to exorcise evil from their immortal souls.

The Conjuring Vera FarmigaThis is a very scary ghost movie. I’ve gotten used to cheap, found-footage movies, like the Paranormal Activity series (which I liked), so it was nice to see a classic-style, well-made-movie movie that scares your socks off. Sure, a lot of the scenes were snatched from films like Poltergeist and The Exorcist. You also have to wonder: who buys their kids hideously ugly dolls, or music boxes with hypnotic powers? Come on.

But it also had some totally new kinds of scary scenes involving cubby-holes, dusty basements, tunnels and crawl spaces. They provided some new claustrophobic images to be terrified by late at night. The hide and clap game, the dusty basement, the scene in the wardrobe: these are all super chilling scenes. And while the male actors were both milquetoasts, it’s the women — stoic Vera Farmiga and especially Lili Taylor as the mom in a cosmic meltdown mode — who steal the show.

Pacific Rim is playing now, and Red 2 and The Conjuring both open today (check your local listings.)

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

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

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

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

Devil’s Double

Dir: Lee Tamahori

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

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

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

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

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

Next, another movie about badly treated servants.

The Help

Dir: Tate Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dir: Rupert Wyatt

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

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

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

Final Destination 5

Dir: Steven Quale

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

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

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

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

Gun to the Head

Dir: Blaine Thurier

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

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

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

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

The Space-Time Continuum. Movies Reviewed: Source Code, Repeaters, American: The Bill Hicks Story, The Tiny Ventriloquist

Everyone loves some good time travel right? Sure you do. You want to go back in time and fix something up, right a wrong, to do something you wished you had done before it was too late. So, this week, I’m looking at four movies — an action thriller, and a psycho-science fiction movie that deal directly with glitches in the time- space continuum, as well as a historical documentary/ biography about a stand up comic who was inspired by his psychedelic trips, and an art film that manipulates old images and sound, using newly created and found footage and graphic art.

Time travel movies used to be simple, you’d climb into your time machine, travel back or forward in time, until you fix whatever the problem was and come back home.

But now (possibly influenced by start-again video games and rebooted computer programs where you always have the chance to erase your mistakes and go back to point zero) we have this sub genre where scenes are repeated over and over and over again.

You are the one variable that can make a difference, but if you mess up, someone is pressing Play Again until you get it right (like in the classic Groundhog Day)

In one new movie,

Source Code

Dir: Duncan Jones

you get to see the same 8 minute episode, throughout the film, until the hero, a US military helicopter pilot In Afghanistan, tries to win his game.

So, the soldier (Jake Gyllenhaal) suddenly awakens on a Chicago commuter train, in the middle of a chat with Christina (Michelle Monaghan), a pretty woman across from him. The problem is, he doesn’t know where he is, what he’s doing, and who are all the strangers seated with him who seem to know him. And when he looks in a bathroom mirror he discovers he’s not there — he’s somehow inside another person! But even as he tries to make sense of it all, he is the victim of a huge explosion on the train whichh catapults him back to his military job.

It turns out he’s part of an experiment called source code, based on the principal that the brain can hold on to 8 minutes of short-term memory, and that after someone dies (like the man on the train) his neuro synapses remain open and retrievable if caught immediately after the heart stops.

So it’s up to him to figure out who the terrorist is, where the bomb was hidden, and then to trackdown the killer and stop a massive nuclear bomb set to go off later in downtown Chicago. he can’t change the past, but he can relive it until he finds out the truth.

Will he solve the crime, catch the bad guy, get to know Christina, and save the world? And will he ever be told why he’s In this program, and allowed out of this hellish space-time loop?

Source Code essentially has the same format as the directors other film Moon (about a man who lives alone on a base on the moon, with only a computer voice to keep him company) — a dialogue between two detached people caught in sort of a loop created by people beyond their understanding. In this one, the ongoing conversation — on the two sides of a video screen — is between the soldier and a female officer (Vera Farmiga) who sends him his assignments.

It’s a neatly imagined science fiction action thriller, even though Gylenhaal doesn’t seem quite up to the part, he’s too opaque, and the story doesn’t exactly make sense, even according to its own plot.

A Canadian film that opens next Friday,

Repeaters

Dir: Carl Bessai

follows a similar pattern.

Three young ne’er-do-well drug addicts — Kyle, Sonia and Weeks –at an isolated rehab center, live through a god-awful day iof depression, bullying, idiocy, neglect, and frustration. The three only have each other to depend on. Pick-up truck Kyle (Dustin Milligan) is rejected by his little sister for something he did; Sonia (Amanda Crew) is unable to talk about an issue with her father who is dying in a hospital; and Weeks (Richard de Klerk) is emotionally crushed by the hate-on his furious father carries for him when he tries to visit him in a prison.

But when they wake up the next morning after a thunderstorm, it’s soon clear the world is reliving the previous day exactly as before, and only those three are aware of it. This totally messes up their sense of destiny and morality. Is there any meaning to life at all? Even if they save a person’s life — or kill him — it all goes back to the same point of restart. (It’s one day, not 8 minutes, in this movie, so it’s not as action- packed as source code.) will they ever confront their own moral dillemmas and right the wrongs they know about?

This is a neat movie about things like where morality fits into one’s own self image, what are the psychological consequences of good and evil that has no effect, and what would you do if you could do anything? It’s also a romance, a bit science fiction, with a lot of psycho-thriller, as the three reveal their own minds to each other as the loops continue.

The next movie is only related to time travel in that the main character was known to mentally float around in a drug induced state.

American: The Bill Hicks Story

Dir: Matt Harlock and Pauk Thomas

Bill Hicks was a counter-culture standup comic in the Seventies and Eighties, known for tackling the topics that are taboo for comedians: not dick jokes, but politics, philosophy, intellectual issues, psychedelia. His jokes combined a Texas drawl, the lilt of a preacher’s revival meeting, and out-of-control, drunken and drug-filled vivid improvisational fantasies, rages and rants.

This moving documentary traces his life from his geeky teen years until his untimely death in his early thirties. Interesting technique for a documentary; there are almost no talking heads – instead the heads, people like his parents, his best friend, other comedians — turn into the movies narrators, like an oral history, with most of the movie comsisting of animated old photos, along with old concert footage.

He started as a thirteen yr old in suburban Houston, Texas. On his first try at drinking alcohol at a night club, he asks his fellow comedians – what’s a good drink (because he’s never had a mixed drink before)? They tell him Margaritas. So he downs seven margaritas at once and then goes on stage and lets loose. He considers alcohol as a disinhibitor, to let his true emotions loose on stage, and psilocybin mushrooms the source of his psychedelic insights. He would go up to a ranch every so often with a bunch of friends to down the mushrooms and see what images they bring.

Hicks was a heavy drinker and a creative psychedelic druggie, and the movie shows some unflattering footage of low period where audience members would buy him drinks during his standup act and he would drink, snort or inhale anything that got sent up the stage. A bt disturbing — like most of his act, where unsobreity was part of his defiance.

American, the Bill Hicks Story, is a very good and interesting movie, of a largely unsung folk-hero, done in the style of a rock-star documentary. My only criticism is that it concentrates too much on the serious biography parts and not enough on his art.

The Tiny Ventriloquist

Dir: Steve Reinke

Here’s another film that played last week’s Images Festival, where experimental art meets the big screen. This movie takes a disjointed look at the director’s own self-reflections towards his art; using his own great narrated shots and photos, along with found footage – of the most surprising kind – cut up and manipulated in an unexpected way.

I’ve always liked Steve Reinke’s work because it’s art, but it’s also always interesting and funny to watch, without the overly tedious or pensive feel, that a lot of video art has. You’re allowed to enjoy it, you’re allowed to laugh or squirm.

So in the same way Steve Hicks would drag political outrage into the usually pablum, fake-shock world of stand-up comedy, Steve Reinke, in the same way, violates the usually dry inner sanctum of art using found porn and other taboo sources (in an artistically valid way, naturally.)

So in this movie you het a combination of uneasy travel footage, spooky monochrome, costumed, home movie dancing, and old crackly recordings. Scenes of flood, water, and old rural western USA. Drunken Dutch soccer hooligans, hunters, real or imagined vaguely threatening child memories, manipulated Peanut’s cartoons, scary medical and industrial footage, and post-apocalyptic fantasies filled with dread.

The most bizarre footage is of a woman shown bear hunting in the woods, followed by a protracted explicit sex, in the form of very low-grade amateur porn, on top of the dead body of the bear. It’s funny: the dry didactic narration, while describing each scene in detail, in order to not offend the viewers it censors parts of the images by covering it with amorphous green-screen colour. Here’s the surprise: he keeps all the hard core porn images, but scribbles out the body of the poor dead bear!

Throughout the piece, vivid footage is alternated with animated simple line drawings. I liked this film, The Tiny Ventriloquist, a lot.

Source Code is now playing, American, the Bill Hicks Story starts today at the Royal Cinema in Toronto (check our local listings), Repeaters opens next Friday and The Tiny Ventriloquist was shown at the Images Festival.

Is It All In The Story? Movies Reviewed: Red Riding Hood, The Adjustment Bureau

I don’t about you, but one of the main reasons I go to the movies is to see a good story. I want to feel like I’m being taken into the plot and meeting the characters – I want to care if they live or die, and I want to find out what’s going to happen to them.

So people making movies look around for stories to use, if they can’t come up with their own. Awful source of plots are things like video games, 1970’s TV comedies, long forgotten Saturday morning cartoons, TV commercials, or ideas churned out by executives trying to duplicate the success of previous blockbusters. Good sources are things like novels or short stories, plays, along with myths, legends, and, believe it or not, fairytales and folktales. So today I’m going to look at two movies with stories that come from possibly good sources, but may or may not translate well into movies.

The Adjustment Bureau

Dir: George Nolfi

(based partly on a short story by Philip K Dick.)

David (Matt Damon) whose parents died when he was young, is a young and ambitious Kennedy-like congressman from New York, trying to make it to the Senate. But he blows the election when an old video surfaces of him mooning the camera in his days as a fratboy. But as he practices his concession speech in the men’s room, he has a fleeting encounter with a strange woman, Elise (Emily Blunt), he meets there. Love at first sight?

But their meeting confuses some cosmic order of destiny. When he goes into work, everyone has been frozen, except him, and the men in hats, and their faceless enforcers, are wiping clear everyone’s memory.

Who are these men in hats? Are they angels? Conspirators? Aliens? Or just accountants? Doesn’t matter. They tell him he has to follow what’s written in a book, that tells him what to do. And he’s not supposed to be with her.

Wait? Everyone’s lives are predetermined and there is no free will? No, no, no, they tell him. Just the superior – you know the politicians. The muggles all just live their lives, but the golden boys like David, are important people so the accountants take special care of them. The men with hats can pass through doors at will, and keep track of what the uber-menschen are up to all day, or so a sympathetic hat-man, Henry, tells him.

So will Dave be able to resist getting together with his lifemate? Or will he choose a life of politics? Blah blah blah…

Philip K Dick wrote the books that were turned into movies like Blade Runner, and Total Recall. So does this one work? No! it feels like a high-concept movie based on some producers scribbling down ideas on a cocktail napkin.

While it starts out good and interesting, this movie left me angry with its fake thriller trailers (it’s actually a romance, not a thriller) it’s badly thought-out characters, and its almost random plot-turns. People can only hide from the hat men near water – why? Are they fish people? Ado they swim? Are they allergic? Naaah, no reason. To pass through magic doors they have to wear their hats. And turn doonobs to the left! Why? umm… no reason. They all talk about a book – who wrote it? but when you see the books, they’re just roadmaps – no writing that I could see. And do they freeze the whole world anytime anything goes awry? Who cares…

It’s also a movie with 20 main characters, but except for Emily Blunt’s ballerina, they’re all men. The men in hats? The politicians? The people he knows? The people he talk to? All men. Even the other dancers were mainly male. What’s that all about…?

The whole movie seems like an ersatz excuse to show off more special effects. I thought the Adjustment Bureau was a waste of time.

Red Riding Hood

Dir: Catherine Hardwicke

…is very loosely based on the children’s fairytale Little Red Ridinghood, so its story is best described in the form of storytelling.

Once upon a time, in a valley by the mountains and beside a dark forest, there lived a drunk woodcutter and his wife and their two daughters. Now, everyone in the village knew there was a big bad wolf that lived in the woods, so, each month, on the full moon, they locked all the doors, and put out a pig for the wolf to eat, so he wouldn’t attack the villagers.

Valerie, the older daughter was pretty and strong, and good at hunting, and she promised to marry her best friend, a poor woodcutter like her father. But her mother said she had to marry the rich blacksmith instead. Her friend said, “Come away with me. Let’s leave this village.” But Valerie didn’t know what to do. Should she go with the woodcutter she loved, or stay with the blacksmith who her mother wanted her to marry?

Well, one day, the big bad wolf came back to the village and killed Valerie’s younger sister, despite the animal sacifice. So the village decided to call in a famous priest to catch it. Father Solomon was a cruel man: he murdered his own wife and locked up his two daughters, and traveled with a private army and an elephantine torture chamber. But he was also good at hunting wolves, and (or so he said), it wasn’t a regular wolf attacking them, but a werewolf. And this werewolf was someone from the village, but no one knew who that was. When it was a wolf, only its eyes remained human, so it looked like a giant animal.

Did she live happily ever after? And which husband did she choose? And did she stay or did she go? And who was it who turned into the werewolf? And what about the scary priest – will he kill the villagers in his crusade? And will she ever put on her red ridinghood, go through the forest with a basket of goodies, and visit her grandmother?

Red Riding Hood is a partially successful kids movie retelling a well known children’s story. You get the feeling there’s a tug-of-war going on. Hardwicke directed the blockbuster Eclipse before this one. Red Riding Hood seems to waver between the director’s artistic vision of a feminist, sexualized look at three generations of empowered women fighting a medieval culture war against religious excess and patriarchal violence and repression; and the producers’ mercenary attempt to recreate the success of Eclipse, that smarmy, anti-sex vampire/werewolf franchise of a weak and powerless highschool girl whose only thing of value is her virginity, and whose only choice is which superhero boy she’ll choose to rescue her helplessness from the baddies.

Julie Christie, Virginia Madsen, and Amanda Seyfried are all good as a three generation triumverate and the center of the movie, while the boyfriends are really just Valerie’s arm-candy. Gary Oldman as Father Solomon is a great villain, almost as frightening as the childcatcher in Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. In this strange medieval universe, the men look like prancing Peter Pans lost somewhere in Sherwood Forest… while the woman all just stepped out of a commune near Vancouver. There’s a nicely multi-racial cast, and some cool scenes that like bacchanalias from a Hieronymus Bosch painting, but the sets all look artsy-craftsy, like they were constructed indoors for a stageplay or pantomime.

Problems? There are long gaps between lines, especially in the beginning, that are painful to watch – it really drags the movie down. And the whodunit/who’s the wolf plotline took away from the much more interesting rivalry between the women and the evil priest. And it’s not a grown-up movie — clearly aimed at pre-teen romantics, but still includes some horrific violence and scariness. It’s a so-so movie but one with some great ideas and images.

Red Riding Hood opens today in Toronto; The Adjustment Bureau is now playing: check your local listings.

Summer Popcorn Thrillers! Films reviewed: The Girl Who Played with Fire, Predators, Inception

Summer’s here, and sometimes a movie’s good enough to watch if it lets you sit in a comfortable seat, in a dark, air-conditioned room, while pretty pictures dance on the screen in front of you. If there’s a bit of a plot, credible acting, or a thrilling story – all the better. Escapism is simply getting away from the heat.

This week I’m looking at three very different summer thrillers about groups of people chasing — or being chased by — their opponents.

The Girl who Played with Fire

Dir: Daniel Alfredson

This is number two in the series adapted from Stieg Larsen’s mysteries, that started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Lisbeth Salander, the super computer hacker, stone cold, secretive, punk-goth detective , and sexually liberated woman-about-town is back in Sweden after a sojourn in warmer climes. Her erstwhile partner, the left-wing journalist Blomkvist, wants to talk to her.

But there’s also a mysterious cabal of baddies that are out to get her, so she has to be extra careful. So she gets Miriam Wu, her ex-lover, to move into her apartment as she reconnoiters the Swedish scene to find out what’s shaking. Who’s doing this? Is it the police? The Russian Mafia? Is it her noxious parole officer from the first movie? Or maybe it’s something from her own past –- the reason she had been jailed as a juvenile. And who’s this blond giant, an almost zombie-like killer, that even a professional boxer can’t hurt? He’s definitely a bad guy, but what’s his role? And is he the mysterious “Zala”?

Throw in some bad-ass bikers (Swedish Hell’s Angels? Who’da thunk it?) a meddlesome poplice detective, and Blomqvist’s journalistic ventures… and you have a lot of plotlines on the same plate, calling out for closure. This movie keeps you interested, it was not bad, there are a few stunning revelations, but it doesn’t have the oomph and the feeling of catharsis of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Too much this, that, and the other – not enough driving plot or satisfying finish. I don’t think we’ll get that until number three in the series.

“Predators”

Dir: Nimrod Antal

…is a new version of the 80’s action movie, Predator. It’s the kind of BOOM BOOM BOOM movie that pulls you in from the first moment, and drags along with them till the last battle. This action/ thriller/ horror pic starts with an unnamed soldier (played by a wiry tougher-looking Adrian Brody) falling through the air, and crash landing in tropical jungle. Where the hell is he? Other, similar alpha dogs, predators all, are plopping down all around him. But are they hunters? Or are they the prey in this most Dangerous Game?

Wherever they are, and whatever they’re all there for, much like the characters in the TV series “Lost”, they soon realize they’re going to have to live together… or die separately, one by one. Brody, Alice Braga (as a hard-ass soldier with a soul), and Lawrence Fishburne (as an whack jungle survivalist) head up an international cast of predators, fighting to stay alive in this treacherous jungle, and trying to see who exactly their enemy or enemies are.

It’s a good, gross and gory, summer B-movie with the feel of Alien, Lost, and Rambo (shorn of all the nasty, 1980s CIA central American guerrilla stuff in the original Predator). Some of the special effects don’t do it — the CGIs and background mattes are often kindergarten-ish — and some of the fight scenes – especially a Samurai style showdown – seem way stupid and out of place, but the movie’s still worth seeing on the big screen for a good crappy action getaway.

Finally, there’s the popular, and bafflingly – to me – critically acclaimed big-budget movie

“Inception”

Dir: Christopher Nolan (and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe).

Cobb, an international corporate spy, is hired by a Japanese executive to infiltrate — with his mission impossible team — the dreams of a man, in order to change his mind. Why? Cause this man has inherited the monopoly on big oil – and it should be broken up among competing oil interests. Wow – there’s a motive. Also, if they do this, Cobb’s unnamed criminal charges will be dropped, and Cobb will go back to see his kids in America.

So they build a sequence of dreams, not one, but a whole bunch, each one a dream within a dream. So we get to follow them around, ski-shooting, driving a van in a city, or… going to a mock crime scene. Each dream is precisely calibrated with the others and they’re all going on simultaneously, sort of like in a video game. But, there’s also Cobb’s sub-conscious occasionally intruding into the story line, via a woman from his past – so a bit of intrigue, bit of romance.

I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, but it didn’t do it for me. It’s a movie about dreams, but with the most un-dreamlike storylines imaginable, and with all these co-conspirators participating in real-time, inside someone else’s head.

To illustrate this, (and I’m not saying “my dreams are interesting, Nolan’s are boring”) let me tell you my own dream the night I saw this movie, last week.

I’m looking down a desolate stretch of urban highway with telephone lines beside very wide street. It’s all in black and white.

In the distance dark clouds – and what look like three tornadoes — start spinning toward me. I run and hide, inside somewhere… I know I have to stop them somehow, so I make little bombs out of household cleansers and powders in plastic baggies.

The tornadoes have stopped spinning around and are “standing” there in a grassy clearing near a stand of trees. (It’s in colour now.)

In fact they’ve changed form, into three pinkish giant plucked chickens (like the yellow rubber chickens bad comedians used to pull out in lieu of a punch line —— only these guys are three stories tall.) But I know they’re still tornadoes who just happen to look like rubber chickens.

I have to hit one with a bomb-baggie to blast the tornadoes away — but they’re so far away… Will I hit one?

I toss a baggie bomb, but it just bounces off a rubber chicken’s forehead, instead of exploding. I guess it was a dud. But a few seconds later, the giant rubber chicken tornado stiffens and TIMBERRR…! it falls straight to the ground like a tree.

We’re safe again.

Ok – now if someone were to tell me that seeing the tornadoes or rubber chickens would convince me to break apart my monopoly on world oil – I’d say: what are you talking about? Are you crazy? It’s just a dream.

Dreams are weird, not ordinary, not just literal recreations of everyday life, not neatly functioning things. And whatever they are like, they are generated by your brain, from your memories and according to your internal method of seeing and understanding the world. They may be strange, but they’re understood and accepted as your own internal reality.

So if someone were to rewrite your dreams so they were turned into a three hour action-adventure movie – wouldn’t you notice something a little … odd about them? Like the fact that they have absolutely nothing to do with the normal functioning of your brain?

Anyway, “Inception” was not awful. The movie had some neat themes — like a subtle reference to Matteo Ricci’s Memory Palace, where Cobb is able to store his own memories in mental compartment in a self-created city inside his mind. I also liked the some of the spectacular background special effects, like the images of crumbling buildings (that you can catch in the trailers and TV commercials). But on the whole, it was just another much too long, convoluted action movie, with a science fiction twist and ridiculous plot. It’s a B-movie disguised as a deep drama, another vapid Ocean’s 11-style caper flick pretending to be something deep.

Kids Movies! Movies Reviewed: Toy Story 3, The Last Airbender, Despicable Me, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

This week I’m going to take a look at some of the kids’ movies and animation playing right now. So if you’re a kid, or have kids, or just like that kind of movie… stay tuned.

Kids movies, much more than a lot of crappy adult genre movies, take their stories very seriously, and I respect them for that, well, I respect the ones that have good stories. I love a good story, especially one with a bit of magic, or supernatural, or super heroes, or mythological heroic back stories. Because it doesn’t matter if they re-tell a well-known story, as long as they do it well. So let me tell you a bit about each movie’s story (I won’t give away the endings, don’t worry) and whether I think it’s worth watching.

“Toy Story 3”

Dir: Lee Unkrich

“Toy Story 3” in 3-D is a continuation of the earlier computer animated Pixar and Disney “Toy Story” movies, about a kid’s toys who, when their owner isn’t around, reveal themselves to be living beings with real emotional lives and personalities. In this version, Andy has grown up and is heading off to college, and the toys find themselves abandoned and donated to a daycare center. So they have to escape from this virtual prison run by a gang of mean toys, like Lotso, a deeply cynical “Burl Ives”-type scary, strawberry-scented care-bear, a baby doll zombie, and Ken, Barbie’s groovily-dressed, clothes-horsey kinda gay boyfriend.

It’s up to Woody, the 60’s cowboy doll, to rescue spaceman Buzz Lightyear and the rest of the gang, in a sort of a Dante-esque journey. Woody descends into this inferno to free Beatrice – or more accurately a whole bunch of Beatrices – (Beatrici?) from a virtual hell. This time the bad stuff seems a lot worse than it had in the earlier ‘Toy Story”. It’s not just a childhood fear of abandonment at work here, it’s actual, palpable danger. Sort of scary, to tell the truth.

I remember disliking the first Toy Story – it felt like a well-plotted infomercial there to sell toys, and had a distasteful whiff of nostalgia for the white suburban 1950’s where women all stayed at home and boys and girls knew their roles.

It’s kept a lot of that, but somehow seems a bit more subversive than it’s predecessors. And while keeping its nostalgic sentimentality, it is actually an emotionally wrenching movie — I laughed, I cried (OK I didn’t actually stand on my seat and cheer) and I thought it was a good movie – despite the toy-selling factor.

“The Last Airbender”

Dir: M. Night Shyamalan

“The Last Airbender” is a live action, 3-D version of the TV cartoon called Avatar – not that Avatar, another one.

In ancient times, in a sort of a made-up Sino-Tibetan-Japanese-Sumatran pan-Asian world, there were people in four kingdoms each based on one of the 4 elements – air, water, fire, and earth. There were certain people in each kingdom who could bend an element – bending means you can toss that fire or water around, and make it go “Pshew! Pshew! Pshew!

just by gesturing with your magic fingers.

And then, there is one guy who can bend all four elements – he’s known as The Avatar. But the Fire people have taken over and are oppressing the rest of them. So they want to catch the last airbender – a little bald kid with strange facial tattoos and an arrow on his forehead pointing down, named Aung – who might be the Avatar. He was asleep in an ice bubble for a century, but now he’s back.

Most of the movie is just the royal family of fire guys chasing Aung, and the rest of the elementals trying to get Aung fit enough to fight them.

This movie got trashed by critics, more so than it deserved – it wasn’t all that bad. M Night Shyamalan is not my favourite director (he’s been coasting on his 6th Sense “I see dead people!” success for quite a while now, with a whole bunch of duds), but it’s not bad, with some cool special effects, and visually captivating with ancient ruins, and mountain-top Buddhist monasteries—great to look at, with the feel of the TV cartoon.

But the characters never really develop, you never feel for them except for the conflicted, exiled prince of fire Zuko (Dev Patel, “Slumdog Millionaire”) and maybe pudgy, pre-pubescent Aung (Noah Ringer). Too many lines like: “Faster Aung, they‘re right behind us!”, too much fighting and chasing, not enough actual story. And the 3-D effects in this movie are a waste of time.

Despicable Me

Dir: Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud

Gru, is a flat headed, low browed bad guy villain with a nose like Mr Burns. He’s a truly evil, grinch-like villain. He lives in an old house where he secretly makes nefarious weapons with the help of tiny yellow capsule-shaped minions and a diabolical scientist — like James Bond’s “Q”, except hard of hearing.

But Gru is thrown when he’s told he’s over the hill in super-villaindom. The insecurities of his childhood – his mother never supported him – hence the name “despicable me” – come back to haunt him. A new villain, Vector, has stolen the Great Pyramid. What can be bigger than that for a villain to steal? Gru Decides to steal the moon, once he gets a hold of a gun that can shrink things. But the only way to get it is by using three cute orphan girls – Margo, Edith and Agnes – who sell cookies door to door, as bait. So he pretends to adopt them.

The movie follows his relationship with the spunky orphan girls as a ne’er-do-well Dad, as well as his quest to capture the moon. This is a really good movie, capable computer animation, cool-looking characters, minimal product placement, and with stories not out of place with Edward Gorey, Roald Dahl or Charles Addams – but not too scary either. (Suitable for kids).

The one thing I thought was remarkable is that three of the main characters, the orphan girls, were completely absent from all the trailers, posters, and pictures before the movie came out – I guess they think boys won’t go to see movies with girls in them. Anyway, I liked this movie a lot.

Finally,

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Dir: Jon Turtletaub

Finally,

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

(starring Nicolas Cage as the wizard Balthazar and Jay Baruchel as his apprentice, Dave.) While ostensibly based on the Mickey Mouse cartoon in Fantasia, this sorcerer’s apprentice is much more compicated. Merlin, in King Arthur’s day, was the greatest sorcerer in the world. But his three protégés — Veronica, Balthazar and Horvath – fail to kill the evil Morgana. Instead, a bunch of them are turned into “grimholts” – statues that look like Russian Matryoshka dolls — that hold them captive. It’s up to Balthazar, still alive centuries later, to find a new apprentice to be the Prime Merlinian. He locates the self-conscious NYU science nerd, Dave, in New York City. Dave must help him stop the villain Morgana, and her accomplice the traitor Horvath –played by Alfred Molina — while he learns wizardry in a modern-day one-man Hogwarts, even while he pursues his childhood crush, Becky.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is a fun, pseudo- Harry Potter movie. The acting’s good: Nicolas Cage shows amazing restraint (unlike most of the terrible movies he’s in); Molina is great as the villain, Horvath, and Jay Baruchel — while almost exactly like in most of his other roles — carries the part well. (He’s always great.) Still, his voice changed 15 years ago – the guy’s 28! — so he should stop playing mock-twelve year olds. I also liked the way they combined physics with magic. And I thought new-comer Teresa Palmer — as Dave’s crush, Becky — was also great. (And her character works for a community radio station… excellent!) The New York City scenes – Empire State and Chrysler building, always seen from high up among the gargoyles — is attractive too. And there are lots of fun references to older movies, including Ghost Busters, King Kong, and Toy Story. “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”  is a good – not great, but not bad – movie for people who like magic adventures, Walt Disney movies, or Jay Baruchel.

Geek Appeal! Movies reviewed: It Came from Kuchar; Splice; Micmacs.

It Came from Kuchar

Dir: Jennifer Kroot

George and Mike Kuchar are a pair of twins from New York City, who have been making strange, low-budget kitsch-y exploitation movies since they were 12 years old. Together — and separately — they have directed hundreds and hundreds of these things. They’re interviewed in this documentary, along with some of their actors, and many of their famous admirers.

The Kuchar brothers started making 8 mm shorts as kids in their parents’ basement in the Bronx. They got their neighbours and family members to play the parts. They combined melodramatic, campy stories and extremely broad amateur acting, within the world of B movies: the land of serious exploitation genre movies – horror, monster, thriller, murder, sex… and all the rest. Their filmography reads like a haiku written in Mad Magazine:

Hold me when I’m naked
Color me shameless, Thundercrack
Boulevard kishka

The Kuchars make-up and costume their actors in unusual ways — painting enormous, dramatic black eyebrows on all their female characters. (Maybe they were influenced by the old silent movies – Valentino, Theda Bara with their heavy make up and melodrama – keep in mind, in the early 1960’s those old silent movies were not ancient and forgotten at all – they were as omnipresent and as recent as 80’s movies are to filmmakers today.)

The Kuchar brothers were also known for integrating all the “organic” aspects of life that were not previously shown in movies – such as toilet functions, throwing up, blood and guts — that were intentionally left out of mainstream films… because they’re gross, and also because they were banned by the Hays Code – you couldn’t show it. “Low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil” topics were “subject to the dictates of good taste”. But the Kuchars made underground movies. They existed outside the Code (though still subject to the law) as a crucial part of the underground film movement that really took off in the sixties. Later the Kuchars moved to San Francisco where they also participated in the 1970’s underground comics movement based there.

In this fun documentary (which was screened at the Inside-Out festival in Toronto), you see the big names of today – John Waters, Guy Madden, Atom Egoyan – talking about how the Kuchar films influenced them. It shows some of their signature techniques, and captures them shooting their latest production, It’s a hilarious documentary, because you get to see little clips of some of their films – things like cheesy UFO’s, a guy with three foot dangling testicles, a haunting, melodramatic scene of a woman taking out the trash, lots of god-awful rubber puppet monsters – without needing to sit through a whole Kuchar movie.

Splice
Dir: Vincenzo Natali

Vincenzo Natali, is not all that famous, but I think he’s one of the most successful Canadian directors there is. He directed the science fiction movie Cube – about a bunch of people stuck inside an elevator-like cube who want to get out – which was extremely popular in many countries, while largely overlooked in Canada. (Cool story, so-so acting.) His latest movie, “Splice” – starring Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody – is his first big name, bigger budget movie.

Elsa and Clive are scientists who work in a research lab for the N.E.R.D. (as in nerd) corporation. They’re trying novel ways to combine the DNA — the genetic information — of various animals. But their big breakthrough – a new life form, a sort of walking lump of flesh, that can mate and reproduce – has a rather dramatic failure. So it’s back to the old drawing board.

But Elsa wants to take it even further.

Their next project has human DNA spliced, on the sly, into the mix to create a new sort of animal. Sort of like the Island of Dr Moreau.

It’s totally illegal, but Elsa wants to hang on to her new, rapidly growing flesh lump. She becomes its protector. She even names her: “Dren” — that’s nerd spelled backwards. But as she grows up, Dren’s human and animal parts begin to appear. First scary, then cute (with a rabbit-y cleft pallet), and later, as something else again.

Elsa and Clive are forced to smuggle her out of the lab and up to their cottage – for some home schooling. And there, out in the woods, the rapidly growing and maturing Dren, adds a third wheel to the young scientific couple’s relationship.

Splice is a good (if sometimes unintentionally funny) horror movie. There are some groaners, but the story itself is interesting and creepy and scary enough (with good special effects) to keep you watching. It’s an unapologetically B movie with the feel of early Cronenberg — like Scanners and the Brood – and with Guillermo del Toro adding his blessing as an executive producer. What more could you ask for?

Micmacs

Dir: Jean-Pierre Jeunet

Starring Dany Boon (who made the phenomenally successful “Welcome to the Sticks” / “Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis”) “Micmacs” is the most captivating movie by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet in a long time. He’s best known for Amelie, but I liked Delicatessen, and City of the Lost Children better.

In Micmacs, Bazil, (Dany Boon) is a video store clerk who wants nothing more than to lipsynch all the lines from “Casablanca” while squeezing the goop out of La Vache Qui Rit foil triangles. But when he’s hit in the head with a stray bullet, his life collapses. He becomes a homeless busker on the streets of Paris. He’s rescued and adopted by a family of circus-like oddballs who live in a hidden lair inside an old junkyard. Each of them has a special ability – an inventor, a contortionist, someone who can calculate and estimate – who, cobbled together, form a sort of a salvaged material X-men team.

One day Bazil discovers that the headquarters of the company that made the bullet lodged in his brain is across the street from the company that made the land mine that blew up his father when he was a boy. So he vows revenge on both their houses, and his new family agrees to help him out. Rejecting high-tech surveillance, to find out their secrets, he bugs the offices of the two industrialists by dangling telephone receivers down their chimneys. With the new info, his plan goes into high gear.

This beautiful, retro-looking movie is made up of lots and lots of short funny vignettes strung together. Puns, pantomime, gags, gibberish talking, contraptions, fake sign language, fake accents and dialects, combined with multi-part stings, rube-goldberg-style contraptions and steampunk machinery pulled together from savaged materials. It’s like old Jaqques Tati movies, but rebooted to run at the speed of a TV cartoon. I definitely missed some of the jokes, and didn’t get all the French political references to Sarkozy and company. But that didn’t matter. You can appreciate this movie without a word of French, without even reading the subtitles.

It’s a very funny, cute, enjoyable, fast moving slapstick comedy, intricately made, starring lots of the same faces from previous Jeunet movies, along with some new ones. It’s a great geek flic with something for everyone: good romantic comedy, with chase scenes and explosions, too.

History! Films Reviewed: Max Manus, Summer Camp, Crash and Burn Karaoke, Covered, I Went to the Zoo the Other Day, Women Without Men

There are a whole lot of history-related movies opening in Toronto this weekend, both mainstream releases and films at the Images Festival. First, a new Norwegian movie, an historical spy drama called “Max Manus”, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.

Max Manus and his buddies all live in Nazi occupied Norway after the country fell to a Blitzkrieg invasion. The Quisling puppet government is in power, but Max and his friends’ biggest worry seems to be that they’ll soon ban Django Reinhart’s European jazz as ideologically incorrect.

So they form an amateur resistance group, coming up with cool nicknames, distributing propaganda flyers, and having fun time of it… until Max gets caught by the Gestapo when they find some explosives hidden in his apartment. This is where his legendary reputation begins. He escapes (in a beautifully shot sequence) by diving out the second story window onto the street below. He soon becomes known as the “window jumper”. And this is also where the movie becomes more interesting, with Max and his friend Greygers eventually walking across the Swedish border and from there onward to Scotland, (where the King and army live in exile) to become… saboteurs!

Max Manus (the movie) is a real throw-back to old-school war resistance stories, the sort of things you used to find in old british boys’ comics. So you get lots of shootouts, Max hiding in doorways wearing a black toque, or paddling past giant war ships in a wooden rowboat to plant these little underwater magnetic explosives. Cool!

Max’s nemesis is the diabolical Siegfried, the young Nazi head guy who keeps capturing and torturing the resistance fighters, but whom Max has always managed to evade. The movie itself is a very earnest — not camp, not melodramatic — look at a national hero, who I have to admit, I’d never heard of before the movie. For a historical drama, it’s a bit to historical, with not quite enough drama. I think because he’s a national hero, it would have been almost sacrilege to have him hopping out of beds with femme fatales; but I would have liked it pouring on a little more

intrigue, double-crossing, and steamy romance, to fight off the occasional boring factor. Anyway, I had fun, so go see Max Manus — if you like earnest, wartime Norwegian espionage historical dramas.

Images is an annual film festival in Toronto that “showcases moving image culture”, or as I would say, shows art movies. Beware: these are not conventional narrative movies – they’re works of art shown on a screen. I have to keep reminding myself that they’re not movies, they’re art—but I still end up gravitating toward the stories. Also beware, that the pace is slower, I mean much, much slower than a commercial movie you might go to.

Toronto’s Ross McLaren’s works are featured this year. “Summer Camp” is a fun one – it’s a strange piece made up of found footage – black and white glowing rotoscopes of old CBC Toronto audition tapes from the late 60’s. This piece has teenage kids sitting on a stool reciting hokey monologue scripts about the fat cook at a mythical summer camp. Eventually you start anticipating each line you hear over and over: “She was so fat she could hardly get up the basement stairs.” “She’s always saying, Do this! Do that!” “She made me eat porridge!” Then there’s an improv part where they talk to their “brother” (a CBC actor) who says he’s dying of cancer and has three weeks left to live– they’re supposed to cheer him up. So you get to see the auditioning teenagers looking really uncomfortable to be talking about – or denying – death. Toward the end it starts to get really funny when one of the auditioners challenges the whole premise. I don’t know what it is about watching found footage for an hour, but I just ate it up.

Crash and Burn Karaoke, another movie by McLaren, is a real must-see. I’ve seen it lots of times but I love this one. It’s grainy black and white footage he took at a seminal punk concert in a Toronto club in 1977, by the Diodes, The Dead Boys, Boyfriends, and Teenage Head. The movie — with music not synched — has the guitarists (and audience) writhing on the stage, pogoing around, twisting their arms, snarling, drooling. There’s actually a very long shot of — I believe it’s Steven Leckie — with non-stop spittle and drool hanging out of his mouth. At Images, it will be presented in the form of Crash and Burn Karaoke, with lyrics appearing on the screen.

John Greyson has made a short film called Covered: It’s a report on a Gay/Lesbian film festival in Sarajevo that got closed down by right wing protestors. I wavered back and forth between loving and hating this movie. Loving the extremely wide bias and vivid images of stuffed birds, wooden birds, bird bones, alternating with pissed off filmmakers, and assorted musicians simultaneously playing off-key guitar on separate youtube clips… but not at all liking the long, written-out mock quotes by “Susan Sontag” that appear on the screen, or the voice of someone – is it Greyson himself — laboriously repeating the – is it Bosnian? — narration, on the soundtrack, in the manner of an elocution lesson. This is a movie, not a magazine article: I found the written and spoken words interrupted the flow, and distracted from the film’s visual beauty and its message of the danger and indifference of established politicians in the face of threats to marginalized groups. Too much of the film’s meaning relies on a steady stream of written narration in the form of subtitles and constant, superimposed texts.

Hamilton director Luo Li’s hour long film, called “I Went to the Zoo the Other Day”, is a beautifully-shot, black and white film filled with pictures of the Toronto Zoo. A couple are at the zoo. The camera follows them around the fish tanks, the elephants, tigers. We listen to their conversations – all in Serbian with subtitles!

They make comments and tell stories. Like a story of the guy who leaps in to save a drowning animal; or the middle-aged woman who considers some of the zoo animals as her own children, and carries their pictures in her purse. These stories are talked about, not shown. All the animals in this movie look really old – maybe Director Luo Li purposely found extra wrinkly elephants, middle-aged looking gorillas, lazy boa constrictors, surly-looking camels.

Half the time you’re watching the animals through bars or glass walls with the viewers reflected on them… then it’ll switch perspective, and you’re suddenly watching people from inside the glass — what the animals must see looking out. Who’s in the zoo, us or them?

Sometimes I wish the couple in the movie would speak English, so I could forget about reading the subtitles and concentrate on the amazing images – is Li deliberately using a language to increase dissociation or alienation between the viewers and the actors? It works, but why do it? I think the unnecessary putting up of walls between film and viewer is a mistake. Since neither the filmmaker, nor the intended audience, nor the topic, is related to Serbian, why use it? It seems gimmicky.

In any case, the acting is excellent, the stories are good, and the visual side of the movie is amazing – really nice images, from a mosaic of fish through an aquarium window, to the relaxing apes, the milling people. Every shot is perfectly composed and constructed, and pleasing to watch, edited together at the pace of a leisurely stroll through a park. It ends with scene filmed through the windshield as they drive down the highway, with just a recording of whale music providing the soundtrack.

Another event at the festival which I definitely want to go to is the One Take Super Eight, put together by Alex Rogalski of Regina, Saskatchewan, in its first Toronto version. It’s a grab bag of three minute, unedited, super eight movies shown one after another for the first time. From the camera, to the lab, directly to the screen – unseen by anyone. Could be good, could be awful, could be god-awful… might be awful good.

Women Without Men, is directed by video artist Shirin Neshat, based on the novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour. I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and it’s being featured at Images and being released commercially as well.

Women without Men is a Farsi-language film (shot in Morocco) adapted from the popular novel of the same name. It tells a story about a handful of women in Tehran who manage — during that brief period of nationalist Prime Minister Mossadegh’s government (in the fifties) — to escape a life dominated by men.

An upper-class woman, married to a general, leaves her husband to live in a house in a fruit orchard she has bought. A prostitute who is driven crazy by her work and a young woman who is supposed to become the second wife of a man she doesn’t want to marry, both find there way to her Eden-like orchard. Another woman leaves her home to join the street politics she hears outside, and eventually joins the Communist Party. Through a series of complex, circular scenes the epic gradually unrolls its magic-realism style plot. Certain scenes remain in your mind long after the movie ends, such as party-goers quoting Camus and reciting classical Persian poetry, and women exchanging remarks in a harrowing, foggy bathhouse.

I enjoyed this film but, never having read the novel, it was tough. I found it difficult to keep track of all the characters and plot turns. It also surprised me that the movie was not always successful visually (since the director is a photographer and video artist). I found the excessive use of CGI’s, faded tints and almost sepia tones throughout the movie distracts from, not adds to the drama. Still, the film provides a glimpse at Iranian women’s history and the richly cosmopolitan, intellectual culture seldom seen on a screen.

%d bloggers like this: