Whence America? Films reviewed: Paterson, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Posted in African-Americans, College, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, Racism, Slavery, US by CulturalMining.com on February 10, 2017

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

The recent executive order known as the Muslim Ban has made the lives of hundreds of thousands of American citizens and residents uncertain. So uncertain that some refugee claimants are fleeing the Land of the Free, seeking sanctuary across the frozen border in Canada.

Whence America? Where is that country heading?

This week, I’m looking at two movies that give a more optimistic look at life in the United States. There’s a new documentary about Historically Black Colleges, and a quirky drama about the state of life in a post-industrial town.

spelman-college-1964Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities

Dir: Stanley Nelson

Did you know that under slavery, it was actually illegal for African Americans to learn to read and write? And that even slave owners – who could beat, sexually assault or even murder their slaves with impunity — were legally forbidden from educating them? It was in the best interest of the Government and slave owner to keep black Americans ignorant, docile, and illiterate.

To counter this, after emancipation and the civil war, African Americans realized education was the most important way to rise up from slavery. The first colleges were opened based on the writings of scholars like Frederick hbcu-students-from-c-1900-graduates-of-atlanta-baptist-college-and-spelman-seminary-from-the-institutions-that-were-later-known-as-morehouse-college-and-spelman-collegeDouglas. And like Douglas, the first students were born into slavery. Early education efforts were aimed at skilled trades or religion, but as the movement grew it shifted to academic subjects.

Two schools of thought emerged. Southerner Booker T. Washington believed in a business-oriented outlook, centred on entrepreneurship but was opposed to any protests or political action confronting the status quo. W.E.B. Du Bois took the opposite stance, and led the movement toward equal rights.

Many of the early colleges were run by whites, who imposed harsher disciplinary policies on black students students.

bp_standingfedbldg_seattle-e1401981658505Fisk University harshly segregated the students by sex and forbade social interaction. This led to a protest and an organized walkout until the school President resigned.

By the 1930s and 40s, the teachers and administration positions were increasingly filled by blacks, many of whom had been educated at these same colleges and universities. The US was still strictly segregated under so-called separate but equal laws. So all the best and the brightest students flocked to these schools, becoming the new black middle class. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers and judges all passed through these schools, including renowned Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Howard University Law School).

By the the 1950s and ’60s these schools also became a hotbed of black-led political movements. Civil rights tell_them_we_are_rising_the_story_of_black_colleges_and_universities_xlgactions — like sit-ins at segregated lunch counters — were spearheaded by students at black universities..

100 years after it was a crime for blacks to read or write, the Brown v Board of Education decision promised to end segregation in schools. But this had an unexpected negative impact on black colleges. With white universities now open to black students, there was a brain drain of top applicants to ivy league schools.

Today there are still over 100 black colleges and universities, some thriving, but others crumbling for lack of funds.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is the first documentary to tell the full history of this important but not-widely-known institution. It’s narrated by voiceovers and talking heads: historians and former students and professors from these schools. It’s beautifully illustrated with period photos and film clips touching all aspects of black college life, including educational,  political movements and social: fraternities, and sororities, sports and music.

It’s by director Stanley Nelson who also made the excellent The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.

04e8c932-9d19-4a19-8e05-12ebd8db89f2Paterson

Dir: Jim Jarmusch

Paterson (Adam Driver) is a bus driver who lives with his girlfriend, Laura, in a small house in Paterson, NJ. He lives a routine life. He carries a lunchpail to work each morning, and a notebook to write down any poems that might occur to him. He eats lunch in a tiny national park. After work he talks with Laura over dinner. And each night he walks his dog to a neighbourhood bar and stays PATERSON_D25_0077.ARWfor a drink or two, chewing the fat.

Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) is an artist who remembers her dreams. She covers everything around her in rough swaths of black and white. Clothes, chairs, curtains, cupcakes… their home is her canvas. Except for his basement where he goes to tinker with things and think. The two of them have a symbiotic relationship. he is the observer, passively PATERSON_D19_0011.ARWtaking in what he sees and hears around him. She is the dynamic one, planning their future, and launching business projects that may or may not succeed.

The town of Paterson serves as the third character in the movie. It’s the first city in North America designed as an industrial centre powered by a series of 18th century canals and mills. It has become an artistic hub for New Yorkers who can’t afford the high rents of that city. Jarmusch includes these brick factories and waterfalls in all his outdoor shots. What he doesn’t show is the parts of town with a large and vibrant middle eastern community there. Instead they’re represented by Laura, played by a Persian American actor. (Paterson is also the place where Trump falsely claimed Muslims were dancing on their rooftops during 9-11.) Maybe it’s because I’ve visited Paterson the town, but I was really tickled by this movie.

Paterson is a richly minimalist film that leaves you feeling good about the state of the world.

Paterson opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. And Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities is playing on February 15th at the opening night of the Toronto Black Film Festival. Go to torontoblackfilm.com for more information.

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

Making sense of things. Films reviewed: Little Men, Indignation PLUS Lo and Behold

Posted in 1950s, Brooklyn, College, Coming of Age, documentary, Drama, Kids, Romance, War by CulturalMining.com on August 5, 2016

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

In Lo and Behold, Werner Herzog’s excellent new documentary about the internet, a scientist explains the first internet connection between two computers. The message was supposed to be “log on” to start the transmission, but it was cut off after the first two letters, LO. As in the biblical Lo and Behold. The mysteries of life.

This week I’m talking about two dramas, about young men trying to make sense of life’s mysteries. There’s two friends in Brooklyn trying to understand their parents; and a young man in Ohio trying to understand the meaning of life.

12513502_761314487302803_7976637993320204498_oLittle Men

Dir: Ira Sachs

Jake and Tony are best friends. They met on the day Jake moved with his parents from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and immediately hit it off. Jake (Theo Taplitz) is a sensitive quiet boy who is bullied at school. Jake expresses himself through the art and comics he draws. Tony (Michael Barbieri) is his exact opposite. Outspoken, Brooklyn born and bred. He’s good at sports and always loyal to his friends. Jake is a shy introvert, while Tony is bursting out all over.

They meet because Tony’s mother, (Paulina Garcia), is a dressmaker with 13331003_828730807227837_8992169820379428690_na small boutique. It’s on the ground floor of the apartment Jake’s family is moving into. They inherited it when Jake’s grandfather died, and Brian – Jake’s dad — (Greg Kinnear) inherited it.

Finally, Jake has a friend, someone to hang with. Tony shows him around the hood, lets him meet his buddies, they even take an acting class together. Tony excels there – he’s a natural. The two boys even have a plan: that they both get accepted to the NY High School of Performing Arts. Tony would pursue his acting, of course, and Jake could do his drawing.

So we’ve got two 12-year-old kids, best friends, everything’s going great, until… the grown- ups ruin everything. Jake’s grandpa was a kindly old man, who took a Chilean refuge (Tony’s mom) 12485861_761657650601820_3424484959118845572_ounder his wing and kept her rent low. But Brian, Jake’s dad, has no such attachment or obligations to their tenant. They just want to make money. So the disagreement becomes a spat, which becomes a feud, which becomes a lawsuit. It’s spiraling out of control, and the parents aren’t letting their sons – who have nothing to do with it — see each other anymore. Jake and Tonty decide to fight back. But can they change their parents’ minds?

Little Men is not a remake of the Parent Trap; it’s not a kids’ movie at all.  It feels more like an adult’s  bittersweet memories of childhood. That said, it’s a great coming of age drama about two best friends torn apart by a family disagreement. The parents are well played, but it’s the acting of the kids that really shines, especially newcomer Michael Barbieri as Tony.

150619_IND_College_Webhall_00360.CR2Indignation

Dir: James Schamus (Based on the novel by Phillip Roth)

It’s 1951, in Newark, N.J. Marcus (Logan Lerman) works in his father’s butcher shop plucking chickens. He’s in High School, captain of the baseball team, with straight A’s. Which is very important. Because America is at war in Korea, and all his friends are being drafted, sent to fight, and shipped back home in a coffin. Only Marcus might avoid the war if he gets into university — students are Sarah Gadon stars in INDIGNATIONexempt. Marcus isn’t concerned. But his Dad (Danny Burstein) is sick with worry that his only son will die. He develops a compulsion, and follows him around at night to make sure he’s safe. Marcus’s mom (Linda Emond) meanwhile is going bonkers over her husband’s obsessive behaviour. For Marcus, the only solution is to go somewhere far, far away.

He ends up a scholarship student at a college in small town Winesburg, Ohio. It’s a chance to shed his background, expectations, stereotypes – that of the insular Jewish community of 150625_Hospital_Escargot_00071.CR2Newark, New Jersey — by cultivating his intellect at a free and open mid-western campus. He can stay true to his ideals and beliefs: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, non-conformity, and freedom from religion – he’s an atheist. Unfortunately that’s easier said than done.

He arrives to find he’s placed in a dorm with the only other Jewish kids on campus not in a fraternity.

And the University head, Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) is a cold-war Sarah Gadon & Logan Lerman star in INDIGNATION - in theaters Augustconservative, a churchgoer and nosy as hell. And seems to take particular interest in Marcus, forcing him – to his great distress — to defend all his personal beliefs and philosphies.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The awesome Olivia Hutton (Toronto actress Sarah Gadon) seems to notice Marcus. Olivia is everything he dreams of – smart, beautiful, and independent with the manners of sophisticated society. Their first date is awkward but it’s what happens next when they park the car that’s important. She gives him a ind_0707_000471468363878blow job… and it blows his mind. This is 1951, and he can’t understand what happened. “Nice” girls aren’t supposed to be sexual. Why did she do what she did? And what does it mean?

Marcus is in love, but everyone else – his roommates, the Dean, his parents, and Olivia’s secret vullnerability – threaten to destroy their relationship. Can Marcus stay true to his beliefs in oppressive, 1950s America?

Indignation is another great drama. It’s moving and fascinating, with an unexpected twist at the end. It’s literary in form – full of long debates and discussions – alternating with intimate scenes of suppressed sexuality.

James Schamus is a first-time director but he’s no newbie. He’s an old hand at scriptwriting and producing movies. He was Taiwanese director Ang Lee’s writer and producer for many years, including movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain to name just a few. He’s treading new waters here, but he does it quite well.

Lo and Behold, Little Men and Indignation 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 filmmaker Mina Shum about her documentary Ninth Floor, world premiering at #TIFF15

Posted in 1960s, Canada, College, Cultural Mining, documentary, Montreal, Movies, Quebec, Racism, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 4, 2015

"THE NINTH FLOOR" - NFBHi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

In the 1960s, Canada opened its gates to new Canadians from the British Commonwealth and around the world. And in 1967, the 100th anniversary of Confederation, the world looked to Canada, especially Montreal, home of Expo 67, as the epitome of tolerance, progressiveness and multiculturalism. But just beneath surface trouble brewed. At Sir George Williams University, (now Concordia) a group of Caribbean students complained of racist treatment by a faculty member. Unrest gradually grew into the biggest student uprising in Canadian history. Crowds led to riots and a sit-in at the computer department became a conflagration on the ninth floor.

Ninth Floor is also the name of a new documentary that looks at the "THE NINTH FLOOR" - NFBpolitics and history of this period through the eyes of the participants. It is directed by Mina Shum, the renowned Vancouver-based filmmaker, famous for her family dramas like Double Happiness and Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity. Ninth Floor, her first documentary, revisits a partly forgotten but vital piece of Canadian history. It’s having its world premier at TIFF. I spoke to Mina Shum, by telephone from Vancouver. She told me about Sir George Williams College, the computer lab, the sit-in, the mob, agents provocateurs, polite racism, housing discrimination, immigration, Montreal in the 1960s, Caribbean students in Canada, the RCMP, how she made the documentary… and more!

Summer in Sicily. Films reviewed: The Fiances, Seduced and Abandoned, Mafioso, PLUS Irrational Man

Posted in 1960s, Clash of Cultures, College, comedy, Crime, Cultural Mining, Drama, Italy, Neorealism, Romance by CulturalMining.com on July 24, 2015

BgOEWJ_195_image_1_o3_8634060_1432140720Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Sicily is a part of Italy, but separate from it. It’s that huge island in the Mediterranean, influenced at times by Greece, Rome, Spain, or as an independent kingdom. This gives it a rich culture, dialect and customs that leaves most outsiders baffled. The island went through a slow economic downturn, but Italy’s postwar industrial boom eventually affected Sicily as well. Thousands of continentals were sent down to work there for the first time.

TIFF Cinematheque is running a series now called Summer in Italy, with many of the films set in Sicily. This week, I’m looking at three 1960s films about life on the island; and a contemporary American drama set on a campus in Rhode Island.

105d2bce69c2c4e128deaf78a84e82e5The Fiances (I Fidanzati, 1963)

Dir: Ermanno Olmi

A working class couple in northern Italy meet once a week at a formal dance hall. Giovanni and Liliana (Carlo Cabrini, Anna Canzi) are passionate lovers but their relationship is put on hold when he is sent by his factory to work in Sicily. Carlo feels lost and rootless in the very different world. But he’s also intrigued by their bizarre festivals, especially one where strangers can meet in the town square, their faces hidden by masks. Liliana El1Q5N_195_image_3_o3_8634118_1432140524meanwhile, feels abandoned and alone and wonders whether they are still together. Telephone calls are short and perfunctory, but can their love letters rekindle what they had?

The Fiances is a beautiful and deceptively simple black and white movie. It combines neorealism — documentary-style footage of Sicily with its beaches and dusty roads — with an experimental style. Past and present scenes are cut and pasted without explanation so it’s a bit hard at first to understand, but it looks amazingly contemporary in its form.

El1XNK_Seduced2_o3_8636418_1432140796Seduced and Abandoned (Sedotta e abbandonata, 1964)

Dir: Pietro Germi

Don Vincenzo (Saro Urzi) rules his family home with an iron fist. Honour is paramount, and a loss of face could ruin a family’s reputation. So he reads every letter sent to his many daughters, just in case there is something lusty in them. He even checks underneath the postage stamps! Life is communal: multiple-generations all live under the same roof, so there’s a total lack of privacy. But they all manage to communicate using hidden notes and listening to sounds through pipes and vents. Peppino, a student (Aldo Puglisi) is welcomed as almost a family member since he is engaged to the clueless Matilde. But one evening, everything changes when he RgkK20_Seduced3_LEAD_o3_8636472_1432140806sneaks a kiss behind a curtain with the younger and prettier Agnese (Stefania Sandrelli). Sex follows and Agnese is in love. But Peppino, realizing what he’s done, stops coming by – he says has to study for exams. Agnese is mortified. And Peppino hypocritically says he wants nothing to do with a “despoiled woman” – even though he’s the only one who’s slept with her!

Eventually Don Vincenzo puts two and two together. He banishes Agnese to her room and decides that Peppino must marry his daughter… or die! Soon enough the police, lawyers, judges, a toothless aristocrat, a priest and the unruly mob on the street are all a part of this dispute. Will Peppino marry Agnese? Will Agnese agree even to see him again? And can Don Vincenzo rescue his family’s reputation?

This is a very funny comedy looking at virginity, family, honour and hypocrisy played out in a traditional Sicilian style.

O7LX7R_hd_021bw_LEAD_o3_8634669_1432140667Mafioso (Mafiosi, 1962)

Dir: Alberto Lattuada

Nino (Alberto Sordi) is a manager at an ultra-modern car factory in Milan. He is known for his punctuality and exactness. With a nuclear family — his wife Marta (Norma Bengell) and their two little girls — he seems to be a true northerner. But he’s a Sicilian at heart. After decades of work he finally gets a chance to visit his hometown so his wife and kids can meet his parents.Alberto Sordi (R.) in Mafioso. Photo courtesy Rialto Pictures

And as a favour to his boss – an Italian- American from New Jersey — he agrees to carry an important package to Don Vincenzo (another Don Vincenzo!) in his hometown. Once there, the family shares meals, goes to the beach and meets old friends. And while the in-laws are busy adjusting to the clash of cultures, the naïve Nino doesn’t realize he’s about to face a different problem. As a teenager, before he moved north, he worked as an errand boy for Don Vincenzo (the “mafioso” of the title). And now he’s calling in a favour. How much can a man’s life change in a 12 day visit back home? This is an excellent dark comedy exposing the sinister presence of organized crime in Sicilian life.

f9529958-a5d1-4b6a-be73-9e0bc77dc846Irrational Man

Dir: Woody Allen

Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a new philosophy prof at a college in Rhode Island. He specializes in existentialism, frequently dropping quotes by Kierkegard, Nietsche and Heideggar. It’s his first term there, but his reputation precedes him. His tales of derring-do and personal loss – concerning his best friend who was killed by a land mine, and his wife – give him an almost mythical status. He’s an existential nihilist, always ready for an impromptu round of Russian roulette. He goes by what his guts tell him. And by “guts” he means his prominent potbelly that he frequently rubs when WASP_DAY_05-0137.CR2pondering questions of morality and ethics.

Women seem to find him romantic and attractive. Rita (Parker Posey) is a sexy and sultry chemistry prof. The fact that she’s married doesn’t even slow her down – she wants to bed him. Eventually she hopes to ditch her husband altogether and move somewhere romantic with Abe – like Spain. Then there’s Jill (Emma Stone). She’s an undergrad in a committed relationship. Her boyfriend is nice, but wasp_day_27-0147.CR2a bit dull. She wants to spend time with Abe, but she keeps their relationship platonic. They both know it’s against the rules for students and profs to sleep together.

Unfortunately, Abe is depressed and brooding, his life at a standstill. Despite his reputation as a ladies’ man, he’s useless in bed. This isn’t help by the fact he’s an alcoholic, constantly swigging bourbon from a pocket flask. But one day, at a local diner with Jill overhear a conversation. A divorced woman at the next booth is in tears because she is about to lose custody over her kid. Why? It’s all because of the machinations of a horrible judge.

Something clicks in Abe’s brain: he makes a decision. He will murder a stranger (the judge) for the sake of another stranger (the woman). This will lead to a betterWASP_DAY_13-176.CR2 world, he thinks. Now he has a reason for living, and his sexual drive and exuberance come back. But will he actually commit this “perfect crime”?

I have mixed feelings about this strange movie. On the one hand, its gripping story held my attention to the very (abrupt) end. But it also feels oddly hollow. It’s not a bad movie, just not as deep as it pretends to be.

Irrational Man opens today in Toronto, check your local listings; and The Summer in Italy series is on now at TIFF Cinematheque through September 5. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

Talking to People. Movies Reviewed: Dear White People, Mourning Grave, Propaganda, PLUS November Film Festivals!

Posted in African-Americans, College, comedy, Conspiracy Theory, Cultural Mining, Horror, Korea, Movies, Politics by CulturalMining.com on November 7, 2014

reelasian-header

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,PiF2014_LOGO-Orange- festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

rendezvousFall festival season continues in November! Ekran Polish festival is on right now, with wonderful films like Ida, on tonight; ReelAsian, which just started, Planet in Focus – environmental films, on now; Rendezvous with Madness96c1a290cd6169be3a2d8459f9d9e1fe_0_1150movies about addiction and mental health, starts Monday; and the EU film Festival with free films from across Europe, starting later this month. This week I’m looking at three movies about social issues. An American dramedy about a college student who talks to white people, a South Korean chiller-thriller about a high school student who talks to dead people, and a North Korean documentary about a man who talks to… well, to any people willing to listen.

68294-DWP-Sam GroupDear White People
Wri/Dir: Justin Simien

It’s a small town college where students live in “houses” — sort of like fraternities. Your house says everything about your status and something about your political beliefs as well. The school has a white president and a black dean. Sam (Tessa Thompson) is a progressive undergrad who stands up for her ideals. She broadcasts a somewhat controversial talk show on campus 68288-DWP-8E-1-Pub-Siteradio. She’s black, but calls her show Dear White People. Her house is headed by Big Man on Campus Troy (Brandon P Bell) a popular athlete, whose dad just happens to be the Dean. And who is dating the daughter of 68292-DWP-H46A5230the president. Another student, the pretty and vivacious Coco (Teyonah Parris) is more interested in getting famous, so she’ll do almost anything to convince a TV producer to make her the star of a reality show on campus. And observing all this is fuzzy-haired Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a budding journalist… who 68289-DWP-H46A4216might also be gay.

But when Sam wins the election as head of the house, toppling Troy from his lofty heights, things start to change. She puts in new rules and tries to change the political outlook… but then comes the blowback.

Another house plans a huge party, where people – as in white people — are encouraged to dress and act “black”. Minstrelsy rears its head, even in the 21st century.

How do Coco, Lionel, Troy and Sam choose to react? To lie down or walk away? Or stand up and fight back? This ensemble cast shows the lives of middle-class African Americans from a new angle. While the film covers a lot of ground, the ensemble cast is uniformly good, across the board. Dear White People is both an enjoyable comedy and a cogent political satire, exposing the errors and vulnerabilities of characters on both sides of the political spectrum. I like this movie.

MourningGrave_still3Mourning Grave

Dir: Oh In-chun

In-su (Kang Haneul) is a high school student from the big city. He recently moved back to his childhood home in a small town, to get away from his troubles. He likes to sit in the park, sketching pictures of pretty girls he sees. And what do they all have in have in common? They’re all ghosts – he sees dead people.

In fact, he can’t even tell if he’s seeing someone who’s living or dead, but he carries an inherited charm that spins if he’s near a ghost. They’re attracted to him mainly because he MourningGrave_stillhelps them redress the wrongs that led to their death. But his new high school isn’t the peaceful place he hoped it would be. Turns out, the school bully remembers him from his childhood, and knows that he’s that weird kid. And the bully’s pretty girlfriend is as cruel as he is. In-su is the only one to challenge them when they’re MourningGrave_still5hurting someone – the rest of the kids just turn away.

And haunting the school is a ghost of a dead student who is always seen wearing a cotton mask over her mouth. Who is she? At least there’s someone who likes him — a pretty girl with very pale skin, who shares his drawings. Will he stop the bullying? Will the ghosts ever find peace? And will his lazy uncle (another adept) help him exorcise the school of its ghosts? This is a cute Korean ghost story that wavers from rom-com, to high school drama to supernatural horror. With a cast of unknown actors, it’s packed with movie references – from the blood in Carrie to the ghost in Ju-on. Nothing too deep, but I liked it — it’s fun.

propaganda1Propaganda
Dir: Slavko Martinov

A propaganda film about the rest of the world smuggled out of North Korea? That’s what a new film claims to be. BUt don’t expect the usual rosy-cheeked, red army kitsch. This film is actually a sophisticated, British-style monologue narrated by a Korean man sitting in a chair facing the camera. He wears a corduroy blazer but his face is pixillated. And over his voice is a woman’s voice simultaneously narrating in English. And it’s illustrated by a non-stop barrage of short images, each lasting not more than a second or two. There’s historical footage, current advertising, TV clips, vintage photos. If you’ve ever seen a film by the great English documentarian Adam Curtis, you’ll immediately recognize the style. But the content? Not exactly.

It starts out as a funny and fascinating look at western capitalism (supposedly) seen through the eyes of a fish-out-of-water North Korean, trying to makes sense of the consumer economy. We’re treated to hilarious shots of Oprah giving out prizes, and talentless celebrities in skimpy clothing. Americans PR, it decides, is what rules the world. We think we’re free, but public relations, Propaganda still grabs 52marketing and advertising has turned us all into slaves and zombies. Next, the film harshly criticizes certain western nations:  Australia for what it did to its indigenous population,  Israel for the Palestinians, the US for what it did to everyone. (Canada is conspicuous by its absence.) Japan comes under special criticism for annexing Korea, drafting the population into forced labour, suppressing Korea’s language and culture, and kidnapping thousands of “Comfort Women” (sex slaves for the Imperial Army). Oops, sorry, I got that wrong. The main beef this North Korea has with Japan is that it kills Propaganda still grabs 112whales and dolphins.

Then it goes right off the cliff into Truther territory. We’re told political parties and voting means nothing, the jews caused WWI, the Bush family rules the world, 9-11 was a hoax, and the W.H.O. uses vaccinations to secretly poison babies in developing countries . Uh-oh…

In any case, if you want an unusual look at our culture of consumption (as well as the usual internet-style conspiracy theories), this film is totally watchable — if you can get past the dubbing of English over Korean.

Dear White People opens today, check your local listings; Propaganda starts next week at the Big Picture Cinema on Gerrard St E., and Mourning Grave plays this Saturday at ReelAsian, on for the next ten days. Go to Reelasian.com for details.

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 Darcy Michael about his new movie Lloyd the Conquerer

Posted in Acting, Adventure, Calgary, Canada, College, comedy, Comics, Cultural Mining, Uncategorized, Unicorns by CulturalMining.com on December 1, 2012

darcy-and-harland-williams-filming-l-nquerorHi, This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

There’s a malevolent presence in South Calgary that threatens the peace, order and good government
of the people playing there. No, I’m not talking about Harper, this is a new Canadian comedy movie about LARPers.

Comedian, actor and Vancouver-based all-around celeb

Lloyd The Conquerer illustrations by Evan Williams

Lloyd The Conquerer illustrations by Evan Williams

Darcy Michael tells me

about this film, the life of a stand-up comic, and his own personal ups and downs.

Poster: Lloyd the ConquererHe’s performing in Toronto at Yuk Yuk’s this weekend, at Massey Hall on New Year’s Eve; Lloyd the Conquerer opens today.

August 3, 2012. Movies Reviewed: 360, Blue Like Jazz. PLUS Queen of Versailles, The Invisible War

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 movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Countless fairytales about travellers include a scene where a character comes to a fork in the road, and has to decide which way to go. One direction could bring happiness and good fortune; the other way – danger. This week I’m looking at two movies about people making life decisions and where that path takes them. One’s a low-budget American movie about a young, conservative Texan who ends up in liberal Portand, Oregan; the other’s a multi-lingual drama with an international cast about people facing life-changing decisions that end up affecting dozens of strangers they’ll never meet.

360
Dir: Fernando Meirelles

In a series of apparently unrelated stories in Vienna, Paris and London, we see men and women falling in love, and falling out of it, having illicit affairs, purchasing sexual acts, stalking strange women, resisting temptation, breaking up and starting all over again.

(This is a difficult movie to describe without giving away the stories and relationships which provide the main reason for watching this movie… but I’ll try) In just one of the linked stories, a
middle-class, somewhat selfish London couple, (Jude Law and Rachel Weisz) have a fragile relationship but, depending on which direction they each decide to take it, they will affect lots of people – a sex trade worker in Eastern Europe, a Brazilian woman stranded in a US airport (alongside an old man seeking his daughter’s dead body, and a sex offender recently released from prison) as she heads home to Rio.

These and many other stories come looping back in a 360 degree turn, just like the ring roads in the grand European capitals – Vienna, London and Paris. Since these are all strangers who meet at random, we see the characters in hotel bars, airport lobbies, cafes, internet sites, and AA meetings, the sorts of places strangers meet. We get a glimpse of their problems and decisions, then — zoom! — it’s on to the next city.

All the individual stories are loosely woven together, but not in the neat circle the title suggests. It’s not even like the hub in a wheel with lots of spokes heading out. It’s more like throwing a bunch of shoes into a bag, shaking them up, and then wondering how all the laces got so tangled and knotted. It’s definitely interesting, and neat, and the plot is never predictable (lots of the characters don’t take the paths you expect them to)… but I was left wondering if I was duped by complicated junk or had just witnessed a masterpiece. Or more simply: is it a good movie?

A movie doesn’t have to be great and perfect, but this one seems to be a smaller film than the grandiose themes it’s tackling. On the positive side, it’s not encumbered with a weepy, Hollywood violin soundtrack; instead it skips from city to city with old local pop songs. And it does have a great international cast (Jamel Debbouze, etc), a well-known Brazilian director who did City of God, and the UK writer Peter Morgan.

Hmm… is it just pandering, “Oscar Bait”? No, that’s not quite fair, although it does have that grave, sombre tone of too many film festival movies. But it’s also fascinating, a bit thrilling and tense, with a bit if ironic humour. Even if the movie as a whole left me feeling cold and devoid of satisfaction (that 1960’s, angsty European feel) it’s still a unique piece of work.

OK, I give in. I liked it. It wasn’t bad. Go see it.

Blue Like Jazz
Dir: Steve Taylor

Donny (Marshall Allman) is a good Texan. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t cuss. He tucks in his short-sleeved shirt, and goes to Baptist church every Sunday, and does whatever his divorced mother tells him to. But right when he’s about to go off to Baptist College he discovers two things: his layabout Dad who lives in a trailer park is ready to bankroll his tuition at a liberal arts school in Portland(ia); and his bible-ready Mom isn’t quite the goody-goody church lady he thought she was. He decides the church has betrayed him, so he heads off to open his mind to new ideas.

So the movie follows his experiences as a Fresher at college, as he gradually adjusts to student life. He falls in with Lauren (Tania Raymonde), a genuine lesbian who looks like Amy Winehouse; The Pope, an older college rabble-rouser given to dressing in a robe and mitre; and Penny, an earnest politically active blonde woman
who is fighting plastic water bottles. His shirts get untucked, then he switches to T-shirts, stops shaving and soon enough he’s throwing beer bottles out of windows and popping MDMA at outdoor raves. Portland is not without its rules. Umbrellas are considered “uncool” and Penny warns him that, in these parts, Christians are expected to stay in their religious closets – they don’t “come out” as born again.

It’s up to Donny to decide if he should permanently ditch the church in favour of new ideas, or to fall back on his childhood upbringing.

Blue like Jazz is an extremely low-budget drama, paid for through crowd-sourcing. It’s actually a fun, coming-of-age college movie, with interesting characters, a nice story and good acting. Worth watching.

Also opening this weekend are the two documentaries The Invisible War, and The Queen of Versailles.

The Invisible War (Dir: Kirby Dick) tells about the estimated one million rapes or sexual assaults that have happened within the US armed forces over the past half century, how the perpetrators are let off even as the victims face punishment. It’s an important look at a shocking subject. (Listen to my interview with director Kirby Dick)

And on a much lighter note, is the Queen of Versailles, a hilarious documentary by Lauren Greenfield about a pneumatically equipped compulsive shopper with many children and little yappy dogs; and her husband, an elderly time-share mogul, who, together, attempt to build themselves a replica of the Palace of Versailles in the Florida everglades — the biggest home in the world — but are caught in a lurch by the sudden bursting of the real estate bubble. (Read my Hotdocs review here.)

The dramas 360 and Blue Like Jazz, and the documentaries The Invisible War and the Queen of Versailles all open today in Toronto – check your local listings.

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

Cabins in the Woods. Movies Reviewed: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, The Hunter, The Cabin in the Woods

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.

I’m back again, and I’m reviewing three good movies opening this weekend, that are all about the hunters and the hunted in their cabins in the woods. There’s a documentary about a Siberian trapper in the Taiga; a drama about a hunter looking for a tiger; and a horror/ comedy about five college students trapped in a cabin by a hunter zombie.

Happy People. A Year in the Taiga

Dir: Werner Herzog, Dimitry Vasyukov

Genady is an enigmatic, bearded trapper and hunter who lives in Bakhtia, Siberia, in a town reachable only by boat (or helicopter). He sets handmade wooden sable traps over an area so enormous it would take a day and a half to cross by skidoo. He builds a series of little wooden huts across his trapping territory and the camera is there to show it. This is the Taiga, the boreal forest south of the Tundra that looks a lot like most of northern Canada. (Actually, Siberia is bigger than all of Canada.)

The directors follow Genady and other fur trappers for a year, showing the cycle of the seasons, the holidays, the intimate relationship between a hunter and his dogs, and the happy time when they’re welcomed back home for the new year.

You watch him carve skis from a living tree, using just a hatchet and wooden wedges, and some moose fur. He does the same thing people there have been doing there for centuries.

Everything is just how it always was… except maybe an occasional chainsaw, and a few skidoos whizzing across the crusty snow, past some wolves or a stumbling moose.

This is a low-key, educational documentary that gives a realistic and fascinating look at trappers in Siberia, filled with rot-gut vodka, fluffy white animals, frozen fish, and grizzled neighbours wearing black toques or flowery headscarves. Some of the scenes of river vistas, huge clouds and vast frozen tracts are truly beautiful. It’s not quite as funny or shocking as some of Herzog’s other documentaries, but it’s still good, and his deadpan narration is delightful, as always. My one complaint is, whenever anyone starts speaking Russian, instead of subtitles we get English voiceovers. (This is the theatrical version of a four hour German TV series.)

The Hunter

Dir: Daniel Nettheim

Willem Dafoe plays Martin, a cold, mercenary shootist, hired by a military bio- medical conglomerate to track down and kill the Tasmanian tiger, a rare animal in a remote island state in Australia. He is an anal, precision-obsessed anti-social pro, who is friendless — and likes it that way. He’s a loner. But when he arrives, he finds the rustic, wooden house he’s supposed to stay at is filthy, dysfunctional, and falling apart… and occupied by a family.

The father is missing, the mother (Frances O’Connor) is in a perpetual prescription-drug-induced stupor, and the kids run wild, climbing naked into the bathtub with him as he tries to get clean. He brushes them all off, as well as his local guide, Jack (Sam Neill) – he just wants to catch the Tazzie tiger.

But, gradually he adjusts to family life. He helps the mom detox, and starts to spend time with the kids. And, it turns out that the son, a tiny tyke, had accompanied his missing father on a similar tiger hunt. So he has first-hand experience and his drawings could help Martin in his search. But, as his heart warms up, his conscience begins to bother him: should he be killing the last member of a species? And can he survive the barren life in the bush, the xenophobic, redneck townies, the crusading “greenies” (enviro-activists), and the sinister corporation itself?

This is a good, tense drama – not an action movie, despite the way it’s being advertised – that shows Martin stalking the Tiger and resisting the deadly attacks from his rivals. This has good acting, spectacular and unusual scenery, a moving story, and an interesting plot.

Cabin in the Woods

Dir: Drew Goddard

Five college students head off for a fun weekend at a cottage in the woods, where they plan to hang out, maybe have sex, get drunk, and take drugs. It looks like it’ll be fun, despite the warnings of a crusty, tobacco-chewing local who predicts their demise. The five of them — Jules (Anna Hutchison), the newly-blonde party girl, Curt (Chris “Thor” Hemsworth) the “dumb” jock, Dana (Kristen Connolly) the shy, good girl, and Holden (Jesse Williams) the nice-guy nerd — just want to have a good time, and enjoy a game of truth or dare.

Only Marty (Fran “Dollhouse” Kranz) the stoner, suspects something is up:  why are the very smart students behaving like celebutantes and french-kissing wolf heads? It doesn’t make sense. And when the game leads them down to the basement, why do they accidentally summon redneck killer zombies from the grave by reading a spell they find in an old diary? Whatever the reason is, they find themselves fighting for their lives against an endless series of scary, trap-and-chain wielding hunter zombis. Just what you’d expect from a horror movie.

Except… this isn’t a conventional slasher story. It’s a meta-meta-meta movie, more layers than you can shake a stick at. You see, they don’t realize it, but it’s all been a set-up by technicians in a laboratory somewhere who have made their own hunger games inside and around the cottage, complete with little cameras hidden everywhere. It’s total manipulation and mind control! To get them to act sexier, they spray pheremones into the building. And when they try to escape, they discover they’re trapped in what may be something like a movie set (which eventually morphs into an extended version of Vincenzo Natali’s “Cube”…) Is there any way to escape?

The movie switches back and forth between the boring, white-jacketed, middle-aged pocket-protector guys in the lab causing all the trouble (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, and the perennial lab-geek Amy Acker, from Whedon’s Angel and Dollhouse), and the teens in the cabin running for their lives.

It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I just loved this comedy-horror movie by first-time director Goddard who previously wrote Cloverfield; and written by Joss Whedon, the man whose series Buffy the Vampire Slayer inspired more PhD theses than Jane Austin. The best way to understand it is to compare it to a one season (BTVS) story arc, building from an innocuous start, through a twisted plot, and with a grand finale where everyone runs amok. Of course, the lines are hilarious, and the violence is scary, extreme and bloody.

Cabin in the Woods, and The Hunter open today in Toronto, Check your local listings; Happy People: a Year in the Taiga, opens at the TIFF Bell Light Box. The Images festival is on now. Also opening is Gus Madden’s long-awaited Keyhole; the wonderful, heart-wrenching drama, The Deep Blue Sea, (which I’ll talk about next week); and the slapstick meat puppets of The Three Stooges. And tickets for HotDocs, Toronto’s documentary festival, are now on sale.

And if you like what you hear, be sure to support CIUT in its membership drive, on now!

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

16 September, 2011. Women Directors at TIFF. Films Reviewed: Union Square, Elles, UFO in Her Eyes, Hysteria, PLUS Road Movie

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.

TIFF is a strange and wonderful place. Where else can you go from watching a Russian movie (where all the characters speak German, but most of the actors just move their lips, open and closed, since they don’t speak either language)… to a quintessentially Winnipeg party celebrating another movie, where I ended up sitting at a table between stars Udo Kier and Louis Negin, tearing soft-core pictures out of old National Geographic magazines and new Taschen art books to glue onto paper in a collage. (It was a collage party – why not?)

Well TIFF may be winding down, but there are at least three more days left to see a huge amount of movies, and there are still tickets or rush seats available for most of them. Go to tiff.net for more information. So with no further ado, lets get to the reviews. This week I’m talking about four movies directed by and starring women in lead roles.

Union Square
Dir: Nancy Savoca

Jen (Tammy Blanchard), is a neat, pretty, quiet, and tidy
professional, originally from Vermont, living with he boyfriend in downtown Manhattan. She doesn’t drink or smoke, is a vegetarian, a yoga enthusiast, and runs a health food company out of her apartment. Her boyfriend and fiancé, Bill (Mike Doyle), is a generic-looking handsome Stanford grad, who keeps meticulous notes on his marathon training stats, and calls Jen “twig”. They’re happy.

But into this rarefied existence drops Lucy (Mira Sorvino), a loud-mouthed, gaudily dressed women who seems to know Jen for some reason. It’s soon revealed that she’s her sister. She talks at twice Jen’s volume, interrupts her, laughs, shrieks, cries, and breaks hundred of house rules (no shoes, no pets, no cigarettes, no meat) even in her first few minutes in the apartment off Union Square. She’s a working-class, Italian-American from the Bronx! And Rob’s parents are coming the next day for Thanksgiving dinner, even as Lucy camps out on a pile of things on the couch.

Will Jen’s potential marriage crumble as Bill discovers her real origins? Can she still “pass” as a suburban educated WASP? And will Lucy get a chance to explain some important family issues to Jen?

Union Square works like a one-act-play, with revelations, gradual changes in character, and a final concluding scene to explain some of what’s behind the two sisters’ fighting. And it makes for an enjoyable picture.

Elles
Dir: Malgorzata Szumowska

Anne (Juliette Binoche), is a reporter for Elle magazine in Paris. She’s writing a story on two separate, pretty college students she found Charlotte and Alicja (Anaïs Demoustier and Joanna Kulig) who secretly work as well-paid prostitutes. Charlotte still lived with her parents, and Alicja was from Poland, studying in Paris but without a place to stay. As they describe their sexual experiences to her, the movie drifts in and out of their sexual experiences with their clients, or at least how Anne imagines them.

Anne begins with questions about how they were forced into this life, what miserable experiences they have, and whether it make them hate sex. But their answers surprise her. Charlotte says there’s a horrible smell that’s really hard to get rid of. Anne nods supportively – all that sex with strangers… No, says Charlotte, its the smell of the housing projects she used to live in with her parents, where she worked as a fast food cashier. Now? Life was wonderful with her new comfortable lifestyle, shoes, clothes, and food. Now she has johns teach her to make Coq au vin with Reisling, and, after sex, sit on her bed playing the guitar.

Anne begins to have sexual fantasies about their lives, even as she questions her own privileged, but meaningless and alienating consumer lifestyle, and how her husband and two sons all ignore her. Elles is pleasant, pretty and sexually explicit — if lightweight — and one that offers a pro-sex, feminist view of the trade thats different from most movies.

UFO in her Eyes
Dir: Guo Xiaolu

Guan Yu (Ke Shi) is a peasant who lives in rural southern China amid the small tree-covered mountains.
She has a roll in the hay with the town schoolteacher. Afterwards, she picks up a piece of crystal and looks at the sky where she’s sure she sees some flying saucers coming to earth. Soon, word has spread, and the ambitious communist party chief for the village (Mandy Zhang) has decided to make the town rich by forcing it to be modern, complete with an ugly town sculpture, a UFO amusement park, a 5-star hotel, and a golf course. The schoolteacher begins to teach his 8-year-old students to read Henry Miller. The town Chief declares Guan Yu a model peasant, and the married school teacher a model intellectual. The schoolteacher should divorce his wife and marry Guanyu to make a perfect couple for the town, and embrace Americanism – whether they want it or not. But what about all the people in the town – the poor, the migrant bicycle repairman, the farmers whose land is requisitioned to build a golf course, and the local butcher whose pig sty is declared unsanitary? As the haves are marching toward modernity richness, the disenfranchised are banding together to protest it. Which side will triumph? Will Guan Yu go with change? Or will she find her true love, the quiet, migrant bicycle repairman? And what about the UFO – will she ever see them again?

UFO in her Eyes, based on the director’s bestselling novel, is a cute satire of the new capitalism in rural China.

Wuthering Heights
Dir: Andrea Arnold
You probably know the story: Heathcliff, an orphan brought home from a port to a rural village in 19th century England, is baptized, and raised sort of as a member of the god-fearing family. He and his adopted sister, Cate, become very close, rolling around in the heather and mud of the moors. But they’re threatened by Hindley who thinks his dad likes Heathcliff more. When Cate decides to marry a rich man, Heathcliff flees the farm, and doesn’t come back for many years. Will they get back together and embrace their love, or will it consume ad destroy them both?

OK. The thing is, this version is done by the great director Andrea Arnold, who made Fish Tank last year – that’s why I wanted to see this. She makes some changes. People speak naturally, the camera is handheld, and jiggles around, lighting seems natural – sunlight or candlelight or complete darkness – interspersed with beautiful contemporary-looking costumes, and tons of shots of birds animals and plants. Most of the actors are non-actors, Hindley’s a racist skinhead and Heathcliff is black!

It doesn’t always work, and gets a bit tedious in the second half, but has some very beautiful scenes, like Cate blowing a tiny feather or licking the wounds on Heathcliff’s back. It’s an interesting, naturalistic take on what’s usually just a costumed melodrama.

Hysteria
Dir: Tanya Wexler

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 conservative daughter Emily; 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 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. Try to see it this weekend – it’s a great movie!

Union Square, UFO in her Eyes, Wuthering Heights and Hysteria are all playing now at TIFF – check listings at tiff.net . And also check out Road Movie, a two sided, three-screen video installation at the O’Borne Gallery by Elle Flanders and Tamira Sawatki that shows pixilated footage tracing the roads in the occupied West Bank (from the view of the Israeli settlers on one side and Palestinians on the other) with their words superimposed in short phrases over the footage.

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

Valentines Day Date Movies. The Roommate, Gnomeo and Juliet, Modra

Do you long for the good old days of your youth, when people gave holiday gifts purely out of love, and commercialization had yet to permeate all our rituals and celebrations?

I want to say that I’m bothered by the ever increasing commercialization of holidays, but I’d be lying. I’ve been handing out store-bought candy and valentines since I was a little kid, so I have no memory of a non-commercial Valentine’s Day, if there ever was one. So, in keeping with spending money to say I love you (or I lust for you), here are some potential date movies for next week, that explore themes of romance, passion or love.

The Roommate

Dir: Christian E. Christiansen

… gives us a not-so-typical relationship of sorts, a story of a poor little rich girl who just want to be friends, but takes it to a new level.

Sarah (Minka Kelly) is from Des Moines, Iowa, but loves studying fashion in Southern California. She may not be rich, but she has a sense of style that can’t be taught. She has a tattoo of her dead sister’s name above her left breast. She has a funky Lesbian pal, and dorm mates who know how to drink and dance. At a frat house with her party-girl friend, Tracy, she meets a frat boy and they fall in like.

But when her new roommate, a rich and sophisticated, but somehow troubled, Rebecca (Leighton Meester), moves in, things begin to change. Rebecca has lots of expensive clothes, but Sarah dresses her up to be cool. “What are you a label whore?” Sarah asks. “I got this vintage jacket for 20 bucks at a garage sale!” Sarah also lends her a pair of earrings, not noticing that Rebecca doesn’t have pierced ears… Rebecca takes then anyway — cause Sarah’s her friend! — and pokes them through her earlobes drawing blood. And when she licks the blood from her fingers she gets a little evil smile on her face… Uh oh. (Don’t worry, this is a psychological thriller, not a vampire flick.) Things go downhill from there.

Rebecca likes drawing, but will not show Sarah what’s in her sketchbook. She becomes fixated on her roommate, and intensely jealous whenever Sarah’s friends seem to intrude on their lives. Party girl, ex-boy friend, frat boy, fluffy kitten… they are all potential targets of Rebecca’s increasingly warped mind. It’s not a romance; Rebecca just wants to be her (only) friend.

This is a weird movie, that varies from a few good spooky scenes, to lots of incredibly predictable TV style pap. Rebecca’s the stalker and Sarah the stalked, but the actress playing the victim character forgot to learn how to do scared. She’s better at “I like you!” “this is fun!” and “That’s OK!” (as she brushes back her hair from her pretty face) than at looking stressed or terrified. Leighton Meester is better, but she just looks deranged, and not nearly evil enough. And maybe its me but the whole movie seems too tame. If there’s a potentially crazed killer, you want to see at least some graphic splatter and gore, right? No…? This movie wasn’t scary.

This is a very forgettable (but fun enough), cable TV-grade, B-movie. I had a good time, the actresses are all attractive, and there were some neat aerial-view shots from the ceiling, like in a Hitchcock or De Palma horror movie. But the unintentionally funny scenes — like a montage of double-exposures of lips and eyes in a phone- sex scene; or Billy Zane as a supposed fashion expert, but wearing ridiculously clownish clothes as he teaches his university students about true fashion and style — were more interesting than the rest of the movie.

Leaving the theatre I overheard one girl repeating, “I’m never having a roommate… ever!” Which I guess sums up this not-very-thrilling, dumb thriller.

Gnomeo and Juliet (in 3D)

Dir: Kelly Asbury

This is a reworking of Shakespeare’s play about the star-crossed lovers of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, and their feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets. This version is unusual in that it’s told using plaster lawn ornaments in the main roles. Yes, you heard me: Plaster lawn ornaments.

Like garden gnomes — those little germanic-looking statues — cute lawn bunnies, plastic pink flamingoes, and ceramic frog. They live in a parallel universe, where, in the world of quaint suburban, English homes, they decorate the gardens, whenever the humans are around, but live their own lives when they are alone. Their one unbreakable rule is they have to switch back to immobile statues whenever a person comes near. And they all wear pointy hats.

This version is aimed at the pre-teen set, so, to make it easier to follow, they’ve turned Juliet’s Capulets into the red-hats, (who live in the garden ruled by Lord Redbrick) and Romeo’s Montagues into blue hats from the yard of Lady Bluebury next door. And instead of duels with sword fights, competitions take place in the back lanes involving drag races using old-school, chugging lawn mowers. The gnome statues are not allowed to go in each other’s yards, but when cute adventuress Juliet in disguise, meets equally rambunctious Romeo in a neutral area, they soon fall in love, without realizing they are from opposing clans. Juliet (with the voice of Emily Blunt) dresses in mittel-European clothes, while Gnomeo (James McAvoy), like all the male gnomes, has a graying neck beard, but otherwise acts like a teenager.

Meanwhile the feud between the two families, including the bullying Tybalt, escalates, even risking intruding on the human’s lives. Vicious gnomes attempt to symbolically castrate their rivals by smashing their point hats. Peacekeepers, like Featherstone, a flamboyant lawn flamingo looking for his long lost mate, and Juliet’s Nurse/Frog, proffer advice and warn against potential ruin, but death and destruction seem inevitable, as in the classic tragedy. Will this version end up with the death and suicide of the romantic lovers? While it’s true to Shakespeare’s original, keep in mind this is a Disney cartoon aimed at little kids.

It’s a cute, fun, cartoon romance, suitable for young kids, accompanied by a soundtrack (for some reason) of Elton John’s 70’s pop hits. While it does occasionally verge upon Disney’s old standby theme of the helpless girl needing to be rescued by the brave prince, they have mainly moved on, and give the modern Juliet her own strength and courage, so both boys and girls can have their requisite positive role models.

Good for an afterschool group date.

Modra

Dir: Ingrid Veninger

For a very beautiful, subtle, and gentle semi-romance of two teenagers from Toronto visiting Slovakia in the summer, you really should see Modra.

Modra is about a 17 year old girl named Lina (Hallie Switzer). She breaks up with her boyfriend just before they were supposed to fly to visit her relatives in Slovakia. On an impulse she invites a guy, Leco (Alexander Gammal) from her high school to go with her instead. So they land in this very small town, with orange rooftiles in a green valley. And Leco, who speaks no Slovakian, is introduced as her boyfriend – they’re given a room to share.

Lina and Leco’s – who make a very cute couple – relationship shifts gradually from non-existent to estranged, to warm, and back again over the course of their week long visit. This is not a conventional, mainstream boy-meets-girl drama, with revealed secrets, and big plot turns. And the European locations aren’t there to evoke glamour, The Slovakian town is isolated and rustic. The locals wear their traditional costumes for special occasions – embroidered dresses, men with black feather plumes on their hats as they sing or dance folk songs. There’s the town mute, the local ranch, the local hood who hits on Lina. Loudspeakers on poles make echoey announcements harkening back to its Stalinist precedents.

“Modra” is a very sweet, low-key, naturalistic film, with first-time actors – and non-actors – experiencing things on camera at the same time as the audience. It’s a gentle, verite travelogue of two kids on the cusp of adulthood. I like this kind of almost-documentary film when it works — and in Modra, it really works.

It was voted one of the Top Ten Canadian movies of the year, and I couldn’t agree more. It has that new Toronto feel to it, that I also saw in No Heart Feelings and This Movie is Broken. It would make a great Valentine’s Day date movie.

Rommates is now playing, Modra opens today in Toronto at the Royal Cinema, and Gnomeo and Juliet also starts today, across North America. Check your local listings.

Next: The Eagle,  Ong Bak 3

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