Gone fishing. Films reviewed: Serenity, Wonders of the Sea PLUS Cold War

Posted in 1950s, Animals, Cold War, Communism, Conservation, Crime, documentary, Drama, Film Noir, France, Music, Mystery, Poland, Romance, Suspense by CulturalMining.com on January 25, 2019

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

Fishing for something different to watch? This week I’m looking at two movies about fish and one about love. There’s a doc beneath the waves, a suspense drama aboard a fishing boat, and a bittersweet romance behind the Iron Curtain.

Serenity

Wri/Dir: Steve Knight

Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) is a fisherman off Plymouth Island, a tropical vacation spot in the middle of nowhere. Along with his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) he takes rich tourists out on his boat to catch some sharks. But Dill’s real love, his passion, is for tuna. One particular bluefin he calls Justice, that always gets away. It’s his great white whale, his Moby Dick . He spends his free time drinking dark rum at the local bar or sleeping with Constance (Diane Lane) an attractive older woman with a black cat, who helps him out financially after a night of passion.

Life never changes… until one day a mysterious femme fatale, named Karen (Anne Hathaway) appears on his boat. If you drown my rich abusive husband, she says, I’ll give you 10 million bucks. Cash. Will Dill stick with his tuna obsession or will he kill a stranger?

But wait, that’s not all. Turns out he had a thing with Karen before serving in Iraq… she dumped him to marry the rich guy. And her teenaged boy Patrick, a computer geek, could be his biological son. (Though they’ve never met Dill feels he has a psychic bond with the boy). And a strange man with a briefcase following Dill has some crucial information.

If my description sounds like a clichéed film noir knock-off, that’s because that’s what it is. The actors play their characters – an obsessed fisherman, a villainous drunk, an abused but devious woman – in over-the-top performances, vamping for the camera. Why the boilerplate plots? Why the tired dialogue? Apparently, it’s all intentional, but to tell you why would ruin the WTF plot twist. I started to figure it out about two-thirds-of-the-way through, and it kept me interested (though not really satisfied). If you like watching famous actors acting in an imperfect script, this is for you.

Wonders of the Sea

Dir: Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jean-Jacques Montello

Jacques Cousteau was the French deep-sea diver, conservationist and underwater filmmaker whose TV shows fascinated me as a child. He sailed away on a ship called Calypso with flippers on his feet and aqualungs on his back. He died in 1997 but his son Jean-Michel and grandkids Fabien and Celine are still diving. This latest documentary in 3D looks at undiscovered parts of the ocean floor and the tiny creatures that live there. They lead us through a massive squid orgy: a mating ritual near California where they all have sex with each other. They also visit a hammerhead shark migration near the Bahamas, and the wondrous coral reefs off Fiji, which form a crucial part of the world’s oceans’ ecosystem. The doc focusses on the tiny, the cute, the weird and the grotesque. And they throw in informative facts and stats about pollution and overfishing.

My biggest problem with this movie is the insufferably corny and dated voiceovers by Arnold Schwartzeneggar and the Cousteaus. It seems aimed at three-year-olds. Who knows, maybe the narration was this bad when I was three but I just didn’t notice. Whatever. If you can somehow switch off the dialogue and just take in the intense, weird-and-wonderful, 3-D coloured images you’ll enjoy this movie.

Cold War

Wri/ Dir Pawel Pawlikowski

It’s post-WWII Poland, and a team of musicologists is heading to the mountains with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Irena (Agata Kulesza) is a serious academic looking to preserve authentic folk culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) a handsome conductor, wants to put together a musical group. Their boss is Kazsmarek (Borys Szyc), an apparatchik – he wants a show big enough to impress his party bosses. The auditions begin, with milk maids and farm hands singing the innocently salacious songs of their childhood. Authenticity rules. Still, one pretty young woman, with blonde braids and a strong voice manages to slip through the cracks. Zula (Joanna Kulig) isn’t really a local peasant, but after living through WWII, taking on new identities is a piece of cake. And Wiktor is attracted to her. The Mazurek Choir is born, and it’s a big hit. And Wiktor and Zula start a secret relationship.

The Party weeds out anyone not “Polish-looking” enough: hair too dark, nose too big? Back to the farm. When they are forced to include Stalinist paeans to collective farming, Wiktor shrugs his shoulders but Irena quits in disgust. But their new status pushes the choir to star status in the Eastern Bloc. Wiktor and Zula fall in love and hatch a plan to defect to the west. Wiktor makes it across the border, but Zula stays behind. Now thelovers are separated by the impenetrable Iron Curtain. Will they ever see each other again? If so, on which side? And can their love –  and their music – survive a long separation?

Cold War is a wonderful, bittersweet romantic drama, set in 1950s Europe. It paints the Cold War era with all its faults and how it affects the people caught in it. Like Pawlikowski’s Ida, it’s just 90 minutes long and shot in glorious black and white on a square screen. Filled with haunting music and images, the film showcases the amazing Kulig and Kot in their flawless performances as separated lovers. (Kulig sings, too!) It’s nominated for a Foreign Language Feature Oscar and is also on my list of best movies of the year.

This is a great movie, don’t miss it.

Wonders of the Sea in 3D starts next week, Serenity and Cold War both 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.

Heavy Hitters. Films Reviewed: Wonder Wheel, Roman J Israel, Esq, The Shape of Water

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Cold War, Drama, Fantasy, L.A., Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

It’s December now, and that’s when the movie awards start to pile up. This week I’m looking at some of the hard-hitters — movies with famous directors or stars — that might be up for a prize. There’s a kitchen sink drama in Coney Island, a legal drama in LA, and a romantic drama in a secret Baltimore laboratory.

Wonder Wheel

Wri/Dir: Woody Allen

It’s the 1950s in Coney Island. Humpty and Ginny are a middle aged couple living in a rundown apartment overlooking the ferris wheel. Humpty (Jim Belushi) is an angry drunk, currently on the wagon, who manages the carousel. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a former actress who is a waitress at the clam shack… or as she puts it, she’s playing the part of “Waitress” in an on-going drama. She has a little kid from her first marriage, Richie, who is a petty thief and an aspiring arsonist, lighting fires wherever he can. Life in this dysfunctional family is far from perfect but at least it’s stable. That is until two things turn their lives upside down.

First Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up out of nowhere. They haven’t spoken for five years, not since she married a racketeer. Now she’s on the lam, a marked woman since she turned canary and sang about the mob to the cops. She moves into their crowded home, working with Ginny at the Clam House. The second thing that happens is Ginny meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard on the beach. He’s a grad student at NYU and loves the idea of dating a dramatic older woman. Soon they are secretly meeting under the boardwalk for afternoon delights. But then Mickey meets Carolina and everything starts to unravel.

After watching Wonder Wheel, I kept wondering: did I just see a great movie or a terrible one? It’s certainly very different from Woody Allen’s European comedies. It feels more like a stage play, with characters reciting the lines of a script, from Mickey the lifeguard who narrates by speaking directly to the camera, to Ginny who says things like: “I’m consumed with jealousy!” I think that’s intentional.  But I’m not so sure most of the characters wanted to speak exactly like Woody, down to his stammer and pauses. Still, the look of the movie – from the period costumes to the lurid colours of neon lights, and the unexpectedly jarring camerawork – is stunning and surprising. Does this mean Woody Allen is still experimenting?

So is Wonder Wheel a good movie or not? Hmmm… I guess so.

Roman J Israel, Esq.

Wri/Dir: Dan Gilroy

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a defense lawyer in present day LA. He’s a partner in a small law firm – he minds the office while his partner goes to court. He’s an old-fashioned guy. He wears big round glasses and ill-fitting clothes. He rides the bus to an office full of foolscap and post-it notes. He works under the watchful gaze of pictures of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin. He sacrificed marriage, a social life and material possessions, in exchange for devoting his life to civil rights and equality under the law. That is until his law partner of 30 years has a heart attack. Suddenly Roman finds himself jobless, friendless and nearly homeless.

A slick corporate colleague of his boss named George (Colin Farrell) offers him a low-level job at his firm. He refuses. But when he can’t find paying work, is mocked at a meeting of young activists, and is attacked by a mugger on the way home, he is faced with a tough decision: stay true to his ideals or sell out and enjoy the profits? Only Maya (Carmen Ejogo) – a woman he meets at an NGO – still believes in him. He ends up making an ethically dubious decision, and has to deal with the consequences.

Roman J Israel, Esq. is billed as a thriller – and there are a few tense moments – but it’s basically a character study of a man forced to re-examine his values in a changing world. Denzel Washington is great as Roman – he really gets into the part, portraying him as an oddball but a sympathetic and believable one. The story is very simple, but it’s the details surrounding this fascinating character that keeps you interested.

The Shape of Water

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s Baltimore in 1962. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is an elegant cleaning woman at a top secret government lab. She loves hard boiled eggs and bathtubs and lives above a movie theatre. She is mute, but communicates with her two friends using sign language. There’s Zelda (Octavia Spence) a talkative woman who translates and covers for her at work; and Giles (Richard Jenkins) a lonely illustrator in his 60s who lives with his cats in the apartment next door.

Elisa lives a routine life, until something strange shows up in a glass tank! Like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he’s part human, part fish. Elisa is scared but intrigued. She offers him hard boiled eggs which he scarfs down. Gradually she teaches him to communicate through sign language, and exposes him to music, art and human emotions. Could this be love? If only life were so simple. The creature arrived with Strickland (Michael Shannon) the agent in charge of the project. He’s a racist misogynist who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing the creature with a cattle prod. He plans to kill him and take him apart to study. And lurking in the shadows at the lab is a soviet spy who observes everything – including Elisa communicating with the creature. Can their love survive?

The Shape of Water is an amazing movie, modelled on classic Hollywood films. I’ve seen it twice now, and it didn’t drag for a moment. It’s funny, romantic, surprising, violent, and exciting. The music, the art direction, the singing and dancing, the dream sequences, the surreal sex scenes, the Cold War/cloak-and-dagger feel…. this movie has just about everything. Sally Hawkins is an unusual romantic lead, but she’s perfect as Elisa. Shannon is a hateable — but understandable — villain. Spence and Jenkins as, respectively, her comic and melancholy sidekick, are both spot on.

This is a wonderful movie: I recommend it.

Roman J. Israel, Esquire is now playing. Wonder Wheel and The Shape of Water 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.

Daniel Garber talks with James Carman about his documentary The Hidden Hand: Alien Contact and the Government Cover-Up

Posted in Aliens, Cold War, Conspiracy Theory, Cultural Mining, documentary, Kidnapping, Mystery, Secrets, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 15, 2014

James CarmanUFOs and ETs: unidentified flying objects and extra-terrestrials. What are they? Are they real? Or is this all just crazy talk?

What happened at area 51? Is it all just a relic of cosmonaut  2the Cold War? A depository of secret weapons? Or have people really made contact with aliens from outer (or inner-) space?

A new documentary, The Hidden Hand: Alien Contact and the Government Cover-Up, looks at all of these cosmonaut 3controversial issues in depth. It won the Best Documentary Film at the Philip K. Dick Film Festival and is now on iTunes and Vimeo. I spoke to filmmaker James Carman by telephone at the United Nations building in New York to find out more…

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

Frenemies? Movies reviewed: The Host, Ginger and Rosa

Posted in 1960s, CND, Cold War, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Movies, Politics, Protest, Romance, Science Fiction, UK, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on March 29, 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.

Do you have a “frenemy”? Maybe someone who is part of your circle but secretly hates you. Or a best friend who becomes a rival, or, maybe, a bitter enemy who turns out to be someone you can depend on. Well, this week I’m looking at two very different movies about young women and their frenemies. One is set in the future where two women’s souls share the same body; the other is set in the past, in the 1960’s, where two best friends become rivals when a certain man comes between them.

AV9D9769.CR2The Host

Dir: Andrew Niccol

It’s the future. Aliens have beamed down to the earth from outer space, in the form of glowing, sperm-like liquid crystals. They travel in little silver clam shells and burrow into the brains of their hosts – that’s us — and instantly take over. Pretty soon we’ve all turned into those emotionless aliens. They look just like you and me, except for their eyes: they have glowing rings embedded in their irises.

But one young woman, Melanie, (Saorise Ronan) is a fighter. When her mind gets taken over by an alien called the Wanderer, the internal Melanie refuses to give up. Her boyfriend, Jared, and her little brother are still out there somewhere and she has to save them… So now there are two rivals living in one body – but only one of them can speak to the outside world.

In a crucial mental battle, Melanie wins out over the Wanderer, and they manage to locate the rebels’ AV9D9558.CR2hideaway – a redneck, survivalist utopia, full of guns and wheat fields and special mirrors as an energy source —  that’s hidden between two mountains in the desert. But Melanie is shocked to be attacked by her loved ones. The rebels only see that alien ring in her eyes, but not Melanie’s soul buried somewhere deep inside. So they lock her up in a cave and treat her worse than an animal.

Gradually, the Wanderer (aka Wanda), becomes more like humans with actual emotions. Wanda has eyes for a guy in the desert hideaway, Kyle, but the internal Melanie still loves Jared (Max Irons). Melanie wonders: if Jared kisses her, would he be cheating? Since, even though she looks just like Melanie, he knows her body is occupied by Wanda’s soul. Melanie forces Wanda’s hand to slap Jared’s face when he seems to be enjoying the kiss too much.

THE HOSTMeanwhile, The Seeker (Diane Kruger) an ice blonde she-wolf of the SS, is in charge of finding the rebels and blasting them into submission or even wiping them out. Will the rebels win or the evil aliens? Will they realize Melanie is still alive? And who will win this split personality’s love – Ryan or Jarrod?

The Host, is a romance set within in a science-fiction/action movie.

It’s written by Stephanie Meyers, who brought us the insipid Twilight series (teen romances disguised as vampire movies). I like the main story, but whenever tension starts to build, it turns back into a sexless romance, where the main topic is Will he kiss me, and Does he really, really love me? and Why is he looking at me that way?

It wavers between a not-bad action drama and a romance suitable for a pre-teen bible camp. Saorise Ronan is quite good as the dual-personality alien, as is Diane Kruger as the Seeker, but the male romantic leads are boring and bland.

See The Host if you loved Twilight and want the same thing but with a bit more action, and a science fiction twist. Otherwise, give it a miss.

GINGER AND ROSA by Sally PotterGinger and Rosa

Dir: Sally Potter

Ginger and Rosa are best friends. They share everything with each other. They were born in a London hospital in 1945, with their mothers giving birth, side by side, just as the atom bombs were falling on Hiroshima. Fast forward to 1962: it’s the Cuban Missile Crisis, they’re both 17 now, and everyone thinks the atomic bombs are about to wipe everyone out.

Red-haired Ginger (Elle Fanning) is a political activist who writes poetry and goes to protest marches. She sleeps with a peace sign over her bed. She lives with her depressed but beautiful mum (Charlotte Hendricks) but thinks she’s boring and bourgeois. She idolizes her handsome and free-spirited dad (Allesando Nivola), who is an intellectual, a pacifist, and an activist. She also has an extended family, with two gay godparents, Mark and Mark 2, and various protesters, radicals, political organizers, artists and thinkers who hover around her home.

Dark-haired Rosa (Alice Englert) lives with her single mother. She’s Catholic and sexualized. She GINGER AND ROSA by Sally Potterteaches Ginger about sex, boys, making out, and the church. Ginger, in turn, takes Rosa to demos and CND ban the Bomb youth meetings.

But something is amiss in their friendship. Someone they both know well is attracted to Rosa (the feelings are mutual), and that secret relationship threatens to mess up both their lives and turn them from best friends to rivals.

This is a fantastic movie for so many reasons. Sally Potters film captures the mood of a newly radicalized London youth movement, and the very real fear of nuclear apocalypse. But it’s also a very moving story, a coming-of-age in an era fraught with changes. The acting, the moving story, the historical accuracy, even the period jazz music – just amazing. It’s Sally Potter at the top of her game.

I strongly recommend this movie.

The Host and Ginger and Rosa both  open today – check your local listings. Also opening is Spring Breakers, a unique and highly entertaining in a style that only Harmony Korine (Trash Humpers, Gummo) could pull off. And coming soon are Images, Cinefranco, Real World, TJFF, and Hot Docs.

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

European Directors and their Stars. Movies reviewed: Holy Motors, Barbara.

Posted in 1980s, Class, Cold War, Cultural Mining, Disguise, documentary, Drama, France, Germany, Movies, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on December 29, 2012

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

Ugh…winter. Bah, humbug. It’s at times like this, when your wastebasket is overflowing with cold-generated used Kleenex, and the streets with knee-deep snowdrifts, it’s at miserable wintery seasons like this that you have to remind yourself about the good parts of city life. And in Toronto, that’s movies.

There’s always something good ouit there, mainstream or obscure, spurred on by local moviegoers and the 70-odd film festivals, from TIFF on down.

So this week I’m looking at two really interesting European movies by great — but not very well-known — directors. These films are also notable in that both directors use actors that were central to earlier films.

Holy Motors, Denis Lavant, Kylie MinogueHoly Motors

Dir: Leos Carax

Oscar (Denis Lavant) gets picked up in the morning by a white stretch limo, driven by a handsome, older woman, Cecile, his chauffeur (chauffeuse?)

He looks at his papers, enjoys the rides, talks on a cel phone. Maybe it’s just a day like any other for a rich businessman… or is it? You soon discover that he’s more than just an average exec. Inside the limo, he has costumes, makeup, spirit gum, wigs and beards, which he dons to become the man he’s supposed to play in each act. So, over the course of a day, he becomes a middle-aged, ruthless businessman, a homeless Eastern-European woman, an assassin, a doting dad, a dying man, Kylie Minogue’sHoly Motors Denis Lavant Monsieur Merde erstwhile lover, and many others. Occasionally, between acts, he’s just Oscar: the man who plays the roles and communicates with Cecile.

In one especially marvelous and shocking sequence he becomes an eccentric street maniac (“M. Merde”) who crawls out of a manhole, pushes his way through a crowd, and stumbles into a fashion shoot in a Parisian cemetery. He violently attacks the photographer’s assistant, biting off her fingers, and smearing the blood over a unflappably blasé supermodel before carrying her off to an underground hideaway to complete an even more shocking and grotesque transformation. (No spoiler here — watch the movie to find out the rest of it.)

Holy Motors monsieur merde denis lavant 3So what’s going on? Is Oscar (which is also the director’s middle name) like the guy in the Truman Show, unknowingly living an artificial life for the delight of viewers? I don’t think so.

Oscar’s doing this for you and me (the moviegoers, as a performer in this movie. The entire movie is his act. It’s all an illusion, but an enjoyable one.

Denis Lavant (who played the male lead, a busker, in his Carax’s amazing love story Les Amant du Pont Neuf) is back in full form – just incredible. His foil, Cecile (played by veteran actress Edith Scob) is also great. This is a truly weird and incredible movie that has to be seen to be believed. While there are a few site gags that don’t seem to match the humour of the rest of the rest of the movie, it doesn’t detract from the film. It’s a great movie, like no movie you’ve ever seen before.

Nina Hoss Barbara_02_HFBarbara

Dir: Christian Petzold

It’s the 1980s in East Germany, and Barbara, a doctor, gets sent down to the countryside for requesting an exit permit.

(A bit of an explanation: after WWII, Germany was divided, with half of it becoming part of the democratic and capitalist West and half a socialist republic siding with the Soviet Bloc. Berlin – once the capital – was also divided into sectors occupied by the military of the allies — the UK, the US, France and the Soviet Union.

In the early 60s they put up a wall to prevent the East Berliners from entering West Berlin. Berlin became a city divided, like the two Germanys.)

Getting back to the movie… Dr Barbara Woolf (Nina Hoss) is a doctor from East Berlin. She’sJasna Fritzi Bauer Barbara_11_HF a stern, punctual no-nonsense professional who can’t stand her new, second-rate provincial hospital. She is also extremely beautiful, given to black eyeliner, her blond hair tightly pulled back. She is stuck in the countryside because she filed a request to move to the West.

East Germany is riddled with all-powerful intelligence agents constantly spying on everyone. Life is awful, and everyone wants to get out, to flee to the west for freedom. She thinks Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld) the friendly doctor she works with is spying on her, and she is frequently visited in her crummy apartment by sinister communist intelligence agents looking for clues in her bodily orifices.

Nina Hoss BARBARA  Regie Christian PetzoldAt the hospital, there are constantly patients being dropped into the hospital after being beaten up by police for trying to escape. It’s a building filled with strange creaks, bangs and thuds, and desperate teenaged runaways looking for help She feels for them, especially young Stella (Jasna Fritzi Bauer) a juvie who is abused at her work detail. Meanwhile, with the help of a gallant, handsome lover from the west, she is planning her getaway to freedom. They also meet for secret trysts in the woods and to pass on information.

Everything’s quite cut and dry, right? East is evil, the west is good.

The thing is, it’s not quite so simple. The spies aren’t big time villains, just low-key locals with their own problems. And she’s beginning to like her co-doctor Andre. The western heroes may just be self-centred douches, not lovers of freedom. And Barbara herself, begins to question her own motives. Is her plot to escape just self serving? And who is more important: herself or her patients?

All of the actors, especially Hoss, are great, and fascinating to watch.

This is another great movie by Petzold, a minimalist, formalistic director from the so-called Berlin school. I’ve seen three of his movies now, including Jerichow (also starring Nina Hoss) a sort-of a remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. All of his movies are terrific, and I believe they are all filmed in the former East Germany, along the distinctive windy, northern coastline.

Holy Motors is playing now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and Barbara opens there today. Check your local listings. If you haven’t seen the beautiful TIFF Bell Lightbox yet – it’s a movie theatre a museum and a restaurant – now’s a good time to drop by and take a look. Also playing this week at HotDocs are two great documentaries about urban America: the Central Park Five and Detropia.

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

May 25, 2012. Rescue Me! Movies Reviewed: Chernobyl Diaries, Hysteria, Where Do We Go Now? PLUS Inside-Out

Posted in Cold War, comedy, Cultural Mining, Disaster, Drama, Feminism, Horror, Sex, Thriller, UK, Ukraine, Uncategorized, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on May 27, 2012

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

Toronto’s spring film festivals are full speed ahead now. Inside out, Toronto’s great LGBT film festival is on through Sunday, featuring a Women’s Spotlight evening tonight, including the Toronto premiere of Cloudburst, Thom Fitzgerald’s new movie starring Olympia Dukakis. And coming soon are the Toronto Japanese Film Festival, The CFC Short Film Festival, and NXNE.

Festivals are a chance to see on a big screen foreign, indie, niche, low-budget, or experimental movies, the kind that never make it to your movieplex. But at a recent screening at Inside Out, one of the directors said something that struck me. Ira Sachs, (director of Keep the Lights On) made the point that, were it not for the support they receive from these film festivals, many of these movies could never have been made in the first place. All the more reason to see movies at film festivals.

So this week I‘m looking at a horror movie about jaded tourists who want to ogle technological excess; an historical comic-drama about how technology can make women happy; and a drama about how how the women in a Lebanese village try to stop a war.

Chernobyl Diaries
Dir: Bradley Parker

A group of Americans backpackers are relaxing in Ukraine where one of them has an apartment, when one of them announces a change of plans: Instead of Moscow, let’s try extreme tourism – a daytrip in and out of Chernobyl! That’s the uninhabited site of the nuclear disaster back in the 1980’s. It’s a post-apocalyptic time capsule – all the workers at the plant only had minutes to flee the village, leaving half-eaten sandwiches and family photos behind. With its abandoned classrooms and peeling communist murals, it’s a modern-day Pompeii. And nature has reclaimed the town of Pripyat, with feral animals and plants running wild. So it’s a creepy thrill for the travellers to explore, and their guide Uri carries a Geiger counter to warn them if the radiation level gets too high.

But when Uri disappears, possibly attacked by wild dogs, and the van they came in stops working, they are forced to find their own way out. Can they survive the radiation, the wild animals, and… maybe, the people who never escaped the place? Sounds like something scary is about to happen…

I spoke with its writer and producer Oren Peli this week, the creator of the classic Paranormal Activity series. He said “there are moments where you don’t see anything but you hear a noise far away, you don’t know what the noise is, but just the fact that the noise exists that you are hearing something cluttering in an apartment nearby when there is not supposed to be anyone else there, that can be really scary.” And he’s right — the soundtrack really is scary and the images and the mood are perfect.

But what about the movie? The title is somewhat misleading. It’s not a found footage film like the Paranormal Activity series; it’s more of a conventional horror movie, (one without the camera as a character) with lots of constant suspense, shocks and boos. But the story itself lacked much humour, sympathy for the characters, or surprising plot turns… and it didn’t quite make sense to me. It was just a lot of panicky people screaming and shouting as they run around, randomly chased and knocked off (as tends to happen in horror movies) by mysterious, and possibly zombie-like bad guys. Yes, it’s scary, but it’s not as scary as Paranormal Activity.

Hysteria
Dir: Tanya Wexler

(I saw this one at last year’s TIFF, and it’s just delightful.)

It’s Victorian London, and earnest and handsome young Dr Granville (Hugh Dancy) is trying without luck to help people stay clean and healthy while remaining loyal to the ideals of Lister, and modern medicine. He is hired by a psychiatrist, Dr Dalyrimple, who gives special treatments to rich, society women suffering from the blanket ailment “hysteria”. Women who were designated frigid, or nymphomaniacal, or moody, or argumentative – well, they’re all “hysterical”, so the problem must be in their uterus (and hysterectomies were sometimes considered a “cure”). Treatment consists of manual genital massages behind discretely mounted miniature red velvet curtains.

He’s engages to marry the Dalyrimple’s porcelain-skinned but conservative daughter Emily (Felicity Jones); she’s a pianist and an phrenologist: Oh, Dr Granville, your thrombus is rigid and jutting! she says after feeling the bumps on his head. But he always seems to be in arguments with the fiery Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhall) a suffragette and social worker who runs a settlement house in the impoverished East End. And poor Granville might lose his job because of the repetitive stress injury in his right hand. But, together with his gay-ish best friend and steampunk inventor (Rupert Everett) he just might have the solution to eveyone’s problems– a new machine that may permanently cure hysteria.

I was expecting nothing from a movie about the invention of the vibrator, but it was a real treat – a romance, a comedy, an historical drama, an old-fashioned Hollywood-style movie, along with a taboo twist. I think this is a great movie!

Where Do We Go Now?
Dir: Nadine Labaki

This movie was the surprise winner of the people’s choice award at last years’ Toronto Film Festival, and Director and star Labaki was the first woman to win it.

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

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

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

I thought the movie has an extremely slow beginning, with a low-budget, handmade feel to it. Not promising at all. But the pace picks up and gets much better in the second half. And the ending is just great – clever and imaginative, leaving you with a much better feeling.

Chernobyl Diaries, Hysteria, and Where Do We Go Now open this weekend in Toronto, check your local listings, and Toronto’s Inside Out LGBT Festival continues through Sunday: go to insideout.ca for more info.

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

November 4, 2011. Another Rendezvous with Madness. Films Reviewed: UFO, Corridor, 22nd of May, Gods of Youth, Take Shelter, Like Crazy.

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

What does it mean when dreams, hallucinations and thoughts begin to blur? When fears overtake you or sadness engulfs you? And what can you do about it? This week I’m looking at films that deal with these issues, and with a film festival called Rendezvous with Madness, that touches on mental illness and substance addiction, as well as the wonderful visions, voices and opinions of people living with these conditions. Films shown – which range from documentaries to stand-up comics, dramas to reality shows to experimental short pieces by great video artists like Michael Stecky and Steve Reinke – are all followed by expert panels and the audiences discussing the issues in depth.

UFO

Dir: Burkhard Feige

It’s the 80’s in West Germany and young Bodo (Henry Stange) lives with his parents and brother near a nuclear power plant. He’s into space travel and aliens and walkie-talkies, but things aren’t going right. The cold war’s heating up again, and the USSR and the Americans are both in trouble. When he watches the news on TV with his mom (Julia Bendler), the space station Challenger blows up right in front of them. And not too far away, in Chernobyl, there’s a nuclear meltdown. Lots of material for angst.

His mother is sure everything they drink or touch might be infected by radiation (and she may be right), and they have to get out of there. She argues daily with his father. She tells Bodo they’re all out to get her, and, just because she’s going crazy doesn’t mean she’s wrong, because they’re coming to take her away ha ha they’re coming to take her away ho ho ha ha hee hee to the funny farm where life is beautiful all the time…etc.

Well, when Bodo goes to visit her in hospital after an accident, they won’t let her out. He wants to help her escape, but the guards block her from leaving. He’s horrified. And torn – should he be loyal to his mother or his father? Especially when his father is the one locking up his mother, She’s tied down, and drugged – it’s not right.

UFO is a touching, coming-of-age story about life in Germany in the turbulent 1980s, complete with a good/bad eighties pop-rock soundtrack with Neun und Neunzig Loftballons, Corey Hart in the dark, and Billy Idol dancing with himself.

Corridor

Dir: Johan Lundberg

Frank (Emil Johnson) is a skinny, shy and smart student, working hard to pass his Swedish Medical exams, just like his father had, and doesn’t want other people interfering. He’s not a very social guy. So he’s about as cold as you can get to the nice, young woman, Lotte, who lives in the apartment upstairs, directly above his. He doesn’t like the bedroom noises she makes with her boyfriend at night – it’s messing up his sleep. He starts drifting off in class and its affecting his grades. (He’s not too keen on cutting up dead bodies either, but that’s another problem.)

But things take a sinister turn, when Lotte’s boyfriend starts beating her up. He’s twice the size, twice as old, and twice as scary as anything Frank can muster up – and the guy thinks Lotte’s cheating on him… with Frank! He locks his door but can see the mean guy marauding the halls.

Frank becomes a shut-in, afraid to leave his apartment, repeatedly calling the police, but no one believes him. Finally, he decides to fight back, but with some unintended consequences. Is the boyfriend the one to be feared now, or is it the housebound Frank?

Corridor is a good, dark psychological thriller, with shades of Polanski’s “Repulsion”.

22nd of May

Dir: Koen Mortier

Sam (Sam Louwyck) is a non-descript, blandly-dressed, middle aged man who works as a security guard at a Belgian indoor shopping arcade. He goes to work each day, puts on his black, polyester tie and windbreaker, kicks out the homeless woman who sleeps in the halls, nods to the same faces, gives directions, keeps his eyes open for anything unusual. But nothing unusual ever happens.

Then – boom! – a horrible explosion sends him hurling through the air in an awful blast of fire. He pulls himself up and gets the hell out of there, like anyone would. But afterwards he’s torn apart by guilt: why didn’t he save that mother with her baby? Why didn’t he spot the suicide bomber coming in? He’s visited, one by one, by the dead: the angry guy, the man with a crush on a married woman, the sad mother.., each of the ghosts in his head want Sam to turn back the clock. Can he fix the past? Or should he accept the truth and mourn for the dead?

22nd of May combines dramatic special effects with mundane social problems.

Gods of Youth

Dir: Kate Twa

This movie’s about Jay, a teenaged meth dealer who makes friends with a guy named Paul, who wants to try something new. They share a bowl, and life is wonderful. Soon there are beautiful women in bikinis throwing themselves at them as they jiggle sensuously for the camera. Life is great! Paul’s instantly hooked. They do some more and now its like they’re transported to some battlefront with bombers and shooters all around them. They’re losing it. Things go from bad to worse to dreadful, and hours later they’re collapsing on the streets, breaking out in fits of nervous laughter and delusion. Jay is forced to do disgusting things just to get a bit of cash to pay for his next hit. Don’t they know? Drugs are bad for you…!

Gods of Youth has a great title and it works as a sort of a fun, over-the-top addiction drama, but it seems too much like the new Reefer Madness to take it seriously: Tweaker Madness. I’m not saying crystal meth isn’t bad for you, I’m just afraid that super-exaggerated versions like this aren’t going to convince many people not to use it.

Take Shelter

Dir: Jeff Nichols

Curtis and Samantha (Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain) and their young daughter live in a small town in the flat part of Ohio. He works in gravel quarry, and she does sewing jobs at home. His daughter, who is deaf, has a chance at getting a cochlear implant if he can get his insurance to cover it. And Sam is excited about their upcoming beach vacation. But all is not well. He begins to have extremely realistic nightmares – about a vicious dog, tornados, lightning, and other signs of an impending disaster. He’s sure there’s a storm coming, worse than any they’ve ever seen. His family must have a shelter to hide in, for when the worst of his suspicions come true. Curtis knows the difference between dreams and thoughts, but the boundaries are starting to blur.

Is he crazy? Or prophetic? His mother had similar episodes around the same age: 35. But he has vowed to protect his family, never to leave them, no mater what.

Take Shelter is a very moving and interesting drama about how an ordinary family deals with the possibility of mental illness. And I’d see it just for the incredible dream sequences (with thunder clouds, tornados, birds, and strangely coloured rain – I love this stuff!) which put the spectacular but meaningless special effects in movies like Inception to shame.

Like Crazy

Dir: Drake Doremus

(This movie doesn’t fit the theme — except for the title.)

Jacob is an American studying furniture design and Anna is an aspiring British writer who meet at a California university. She writes him a note (seen only by the two characters, not the audience) that inspires a meeting, which quickly leads to a passionate relationship. After a summer spent rolling around in their bed, she’s forced to go back to England but promises to see him soon. But she’s deported from the airport on her return because she overstayed her student visa. Their relationship continues via voice mail and text messages but they both want to be back together permanently. How will the long-distance relationship pan out?

Like Crazy is a bitter-sweet romance about distance and togetherness. They both hook up with other mates when it looks like they’ll be apart for a long time, she with a neighbour, he with someone at work. (If you’re not near the one you love, love the one you’re with.) Their new partners, though good-looking, seem saccharine and superficial compared with Jacob and Anna’s very real love. The movie manages to convey all this not with the lines, but with the looks in the eyes, and expressions on their faces. Will the two of them ever clear up the visa problems and the petty jealousies that have sprung up? And are their shared memories enough to sustain their love? Not a tear-jerker at all, but a realistic romance about the troubles a young couple might face when separated. But like the lovers themselves, you start losing interest in their affair.

UFO, 22nd of May, Corridor, Gods of Youth and many more films, documentaries and discussions are all playing at the Rendezvous with Madness film festival, which starts tonight and runs for a week, and opens tonight with Brothers and Sisters, by Carl Bessai. Go to www.rendezvouswithmadness.com for times and listings. Take Shelter is now playing, and Like Crazy opens tonight – check your local listings.

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

July 8, 2011. Films Without Superheroes. Movies Reviewed: The Tree of Life, Blank City PLUS Shinsedai, Toronto After Dark, HotDocs

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.

Some people wonder, aren’t there any movies that aren’t about cartoon characters, superheroes, guns or toys? What are adults supposed to watch in the summertime? Well, don’t worry, there are films out there for everyone’s taste. This week, I’m looking at two examples of films that exist outside, or alongside, the summer blockbusters. One is an unconventional movie that some people like and some people hate; and another is an up-coming documentary about the no-wave film movement in the post-punk era of downtown New York City  in the 80’s.

But first… some news about the movie scene in Toronto.

Art films are great, but genre films are fun too. And there’s a small but amazingly entertaining film festival in the fall that shows genre movies: Horror, Supernatural, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Animation, Crime, Action, Thriller, Suspense, Cult, and Bizarre. Well, if you are (or know of) a filmmaker who has made a genre film — the kinds of moviesI just mentioned – The Toronto After Dark film festival is open for submissions, worldwide. But better send it fast: the deadline is July 22. For more information go to torontoafterdark.com

Also, the venerable Bloor Cinema, that great reparatory cinema at Bathurst and Bloor st. is about to undergo a big change. You may have noticed that it’s not showing movies right now. They’re doing much-needed renovations, but that’s not all: when it re-opens in the fall, it looks like it’s going to be the headquarters of HotDocs – the documentary film festival. Does that means we’re going to have a nice, downtown movie theatre that only shows documentary movies, all year round? We shall see… but it does mean the Bloor Cinema isn’t disappearing – it’s just taking a short rest.

And coming up later this month is the Shinsedai Film Festival, a chance to see a wide range of contemporary movies coming out of Japan, and too meet some of the filmmakers who will be speaking at the screenings. It’s at the JCCC – the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre, up near Don Mills and Eglinton from the 21st to the 24th. For more information go to jccc.on.ca .

Now some reviews.

First, the movie I said some people like and some people hate:

The Tree of Life

Dir: Terrance Mallick

(SPOILER ALERT: I’m going to talk about the entire movie. But I don’t think this is a movie that can be spoiled by understanding what it’s about.)

This is a movie about an American family – a mother, a father, and three sons – back in the late 1950’s. They live in a wooden house in Waco, Texas. The father (Brad Pitt), an inventor, is having trouble getting ahead. He sees the world as cruel, rough, and competitive, and wants to make his sons into tough fighters who survive against all odds. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is deeply religious, a spiritual, charitable and nurturing protector. And the eldest son, Jack, (Hunter McCracken) takes it all in, but since he’s a kid, it all gets messed up in his head. He decides his father hates him and wants him dead, while he’s sexually excited by his beautiful mother – with all the guilt and shame that entails. Oedipus, anyone?

At the very beginning of the movie, we discover that one of the three sons has died. So the rest of the film shows us the memories, whispered thoughts and fantasies of all the other characters thinking back from the present to earlier times.

The story seems mainly to be told through Jack’s eyes, but the voices and thoughts of other characters weave in and out, too. When he wants to remember his now dead brother — whose faintly glowing soul appears at the start of every section of the movie — he thinks back to the very beginning – I mean the very, very beginning. At this point, the movie goes off on an unusual, but pleasant detour, back to the creation of the earth, with volcanoes, lava, ice, and water everywhere. Spiro gyra swim in the primordial ooze, and gradually cells separate, merge and evolve. It looks like an old NFB or Birth-Of-An-Island clip, or a grade 8 film strip. Only so much better.

All to the sounds of Smetana and Mahler. Water crashes down over cliffs, and cute, fuzzy dinosaurs appear until they’re all wiped out by an asteroid. And then a baby – one of the brothers — is born.

Aside from that — and a mega-FAIL yucky beach montage toward the end — the movie is mainly about a few years in the young family’s life as the kids grow up alongside a sapling in their yard – the tree of life – that turns into a huge, twisted and towering tree by the end. The very long memory scenes are book-ended by the eldest son looking back from the present day.

Is it a good movie? I thought it was great! But it’s an art film drama – don’t go if you’re looking for a mainstream conventional Brad Pitt love story. There’s not much dialogue, and the storytelling is a bit more subtle than formulaic dramas. But it’s not a low-budget run-off either; it’s a sumptuous, beautiful, and moving story of the confused memories of one boy’s childhood in Texas.

A totally different type of movie, but also experimental is a documentary about the indie movie scene in NY City in the late seventies and early eighties.

Blank City

Dir: Celine Danhier

Before the real estate explosion, manhattan was a gritty, edgy place filled with crumbling tenements, lurking muggers, and random shootings.

Artists, writers and musicians fled from small towns and suburbs across the country to live in a more dangerous, more exciting world. They shared a feeling of nihilism, living as if the world was about to be obliterated by late-cold

-war atomic bombs blowing up across the planet. Large parts of the Lower East Side and Alphabet city were completely uninhabitable and bombed out, with broken windows, and missing doors. Nina, a Yugoslavian woman I used to know, lived on 3rd and B, and you had to walk over a giant piece of wood nailed halfway across the door of her closet-like apartment even to get inside. She was squatting there since no one anted to go near those buildings anyway.

Now, of course, Manhattan is a giant shopping mall, with Times Square – formerly the place for runaways, hustlers, porn, prostitutes, pot dealers, and petty crime – now features tourist traps like the Disney princess store, and the M&Ms gift shop.

Against the post-apocalyptic look of Dangerous Manhattan arose the No Wave movement, where filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Lizzie Borden, Susan Seidelman, and Richard Kern used their super-8 black and white cameras to create transgressive, sexually explicit, short films. Part of the coolness was to be poor, on the edge, anti-corporate, shocking, and completely divorced from conventional life. In order to appear as the absolute antithesis of slick and plastic hollywood movies, they went the opposite direction with unrehearsed, raw (if stilted) dialogue, rough editing, and scratchy sound. John Lurie says he had to hide his skill as a trained musician – you had to be unskilled and amateur to be accepted as “real”.

A doctrine, known as the Cinema of Transgression, served as their guide to subvert… well, everything. The movies themselves were just as likely end up being shown at a punk club as in a movie theatre.

This documentary, Blank City, is a visual explosion of countless short clips of those films, alternated with present day interviews with some of the actors, musicians, artists and filmmakers of the period.

So you see Debbie Harry popping up almost everywhere, people dressed like RAF terrorists blowing up buildings, and lots of weird, semi-out-of-focus sex and violence. All with punk, new wave, early hip-hop and experimental music. This is a great movie that captures that short, explosive period of wide-open but underground filmmaking in the 80’s.

Tree of Life is now playing, and Blank City starts next Friday, July 15 at the Royal: check your local listings.

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

How Women see the World. Films reviewed: Beeswax, Littlerock, Hanna, Born to be Wild PLUS Rivers and my Father, Images Festival, Sprockets Festival

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s still true. The Hollywood star system has made a huge shift over the past few decades across the gender line. The biggest stars are now male, not female; most movies are about men, not women, and most stories are told from a man’s point of view. Even in movies with a female star, all the other main characters are often male. Most, but not all… there’s actually a bumper crop of movies opening today that buck this trend.

So, this week, I’m looking at four very different new movies, two realistic dramas, an action thriller, and a kids documentary, all told from the point of view of women, and, interestingly, all touching on family relationships. (All of these films were directed by men.)

Two of them, Beeswax and Littlerock, are part of a new trend in indie filmmaking (sometimes called New Realism or Mumblecore), using non-actors — often using their own names — ordinary situations, improvisational scenes, locations not studios, no special effects, and without the usual obvious plotlines and clichés. (Last year, I enjoyed Modra, and No Heart Feelings, two Toronto movies that fit into this category.) It’s always fun watching new types of movies, but some work better than others.

Beeswax

Dir: Andrew Bujalski

Jeannie and Lauren (Tillie and Maggie Hatcher) are adult twin sisters who live together. Jeannie owns a vintage store in an American college town. She gets around in a car or using her wheelchair. She’s having problems with her business partner who’s always flying off overseas, while Jeannie’s always working at the store. She’s faced with the question of what to do with her business and whether her partner is suing her. Meanwhile, her sister Lauren is also deciding whether or not to take a big step in her life. And Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), a law student writing his bar exams, is Jeannie’s on again off again bed-partner, and her potential lawyer, if he passes the bar.

The movie starts and ends very suddenly, as if we’re allowed to spend a few days with these characters — as if it were a documentary — and then they’re gone again. The story itself is about normal everyday events: people living their lives, having sex, going to work, talking with friends and family members. The parts are played by non-actors, who are appealing, and pretty funny, but still just regular people.

I like the fact that it has one main character with a physical disability, without making it the main story, and dealt with in a very matter-of-fact way — not ignoring the very real accommodations she has to be aware of to live her life, but without making it the central point, morphing into some weeper where she stands up out of her wheelchair in triumph saying “I can walk again!” It’s sort of like casting a black Hamlet or a male Ophelia. This movie also deals with same-sex-couples in the same unremarkable way.

It’s not a big and exciting movie, but has a comfortable, familial feel about it, along with the underlying competitiveness and rivalry among family members. Beeswax (as in mind your own?) is a realistic look at a few days of the secrets and tensions in two sisters’ lives.

Littlerock

Dir: Mike Ott

Atsuko (Atsuko Okatsuka), and her brother Rintaro (Rintaro Sawamoto) are visiting from Japan. They’re driving from Los Angeles to the San Francisco area (to visit a place related to their past) when their rented car breaks down in Littlerock, a small town in LA county. They’re forced to stay in a motel until they send them a new one. But when they go to the room next door, to complain about a loud drunken party, they end up meeting some locals and hanging out.

Atsuko likes Cory (Cory Zacharia) – who wants to be an actor/model, but owes too much money to his father and his drug dealer – but they don’t speak the same language. They pretend to understand what each other are saying, but once Rintaro takes off, they are left without a translator. Atsuko meets some other people, and jealousy and duplicity ensues.

The problem with the movie is that most of the characters seem bland or uninteresting. It’s realistic, but maybe too realistic. Atsuko and Cory never figure how to communicate – but most of the things they want the other to hear are just standard chatter anyway – aside from a very touching scene toward the end of the movie. It really needed more interesting dialogue to go with the nice scenes of a pensive young Japanese woman coming of age in smalltown USA.

Hanna

Dir: Joe Wright

Hanna (Saoirise Ronan) is brought up by her dad, Erik (Eric Bana) — a spy and assassin who’s gone rogue — in an all-natural setting somewhere in the far north. She learns everything from a stack of old encyclopedias, dictionaries, and grimm’s fairytales. He teaches her how to shoot a deer with a bow and arrow from far away, skin it and cook it. “Always be alert” he tells her. She has to be ready to fend off any attacker — even when she’s asleep. But when she can beat her father at a fight, she realizes it’s time to “come in from the cold” to use the old spy term. She’s ready to face her father’s old foe and handler: the icy, prada-clad CIA agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett).

From there, the movie races on, with the three competing killers – Erik, Hanna, and Marrissa — trying to out-do, capture or kill one another. It’s purposely kept unclear who is the hunter and who is the prey, who is running and who is chasing as power dynamics shift. Marissa and her henchmen – an effeminate German man in white tracksuit and his two skinhead fighters – pursue the 14 year old through various unexpected exotic settings. Hanna just wants to make a friend, find her father again, revisit the brothers Grimm, and listen to music for the very first time. She falls in with a family of British hippies who are driving their van around on a camping trip, and begins to understand the complex rules of social interaction.

The plot is extremely simple, a more-or-less non-stop series of chases and fights – but it’s visually sumptuous movie, with a terrific driving soundtrack, constantly surprising cultural references, stunning scenery, great comic relief, and amazing camera work. There are scenes where the camera spins around and around in a full 360, and others where it flips or rolls or turns upside down. Cate Blanchett is great as the super-villainess, Erik Bana good as a troubled spy, and Saoirise Ronan really great as Hanna, a new type of super hero.

Born to Be Wild

Dir: David Lickley

Wild animals? Aww… Cute, baby wild animals? Cute little baby wild animal… orphans? Awwwww….

How about cute little orphaned baby elephants in Kenya, and baby orangutans living in the rain forests of Borneo… in IMAX 3D???

Yeah, this is one really cute G-rated movie, the kind that makes you

say to hell with my carbon footprint — I wanna hop on a jet-fuel guzzling airplane and fly off to the jungles of Borneo to commune with the Orangutans who look a lot like Homer Simpson…

Actually, the movies about how the rainforests that make up the wild habitat of many the great apes are rapidly disappearing. And in Africa, there are still poachers killing elephants for their ivory tusks. And when the young are left without their mothers they have no one to feed them. These are the orphans – meaning motherless orangutans and elephants — that the movie is about. Narrator Morgan Freeman shows two women — Birute in Indonesia and Daphne in Kenya — who adopt and raise these animal orphans until they’re old enough to gradually be set free again. The extremely short movie (it’s 40 min long) also has some of the best live 3-D footage I’ve seen since Avatar. An enjoyable film (though maybe a bit cloying for adults) it’s perfect for kids who want to see wild animals up close.

Canadian director and artist Luo Li’s newest film premiered at the Images Festival, North America’s largest experimental art and moving images festival, that combines gallery exhibitions with screenings at movie theatres.

Rivers and My Father

Dir: Luo Li

In this movie, he takes his father’s collected memoirs of old China, and sews them together in a black and white patchwork quilt of repeated disjointed scenes, narrations, titles and subtitles, centering around people in and around water. His own relatives play some of the parts (but not all).

So you see a man in a bathing cap bobbing up and down in a river; kids playing in the woods; a formally dressed woman leading a child up an outdoor staircase; a boy on a boat; and some older people talking to each other about their childhood memories, and about shooting this movie.

I was a bit put off by his use of obvious anachronisms that don’t match the year given in a scene’s title; and the frequent repetition of certain odd scenes, but I love his images of a wet road scene looking down in a moving bicycle in the rain; of the slow, grey waters of the Yangtse river; of a distant shore across water.

It’s funny — I’m dismissing various “errors” in the movie as artistic license, but grumbling to myself just the same… when the last third of the movie begins: his own father’s critique (represented by moving, plain and bold chinese fonts on the screen, over english subtitles) of the film I’m watching, as I watch it, and the filmmaker’s response! That was the most surprising and interesting section of this movie.

Beeswax and Littlerock are at the Royal, Born to be Wild at AMC in IMAX 3-D, and Hanna in wide release, all opening today, April 8, 2011. Check your local listings. And keep your eyes open for Toronto’s Images Festival, which is playing right now, both on-screen in theatres and off-screen in art galleries. Look online at imagesfestival.com . And Sprockets, the festival of movies for kids and young adults opens this weekend: www.tiff.ca/sprockets

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

%d bloggers like this: