Whence America? Films reviewed: Paterson, Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities
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.
Tell 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 Douglas. 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.
Fisk 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 actions — 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.
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 for 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 taking 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
Hi, 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.
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 a 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) under 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.
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 exempt. 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 Newark, 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 conservative, 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 blow 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
Hi, 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 politics 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!
Hi, 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.
The 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 meanwhile, 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.
Seduced 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 sneaks 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.
Mafioso (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.
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.
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 pondering 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 a 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 better 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!
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Fall 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 Madness – movies 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.
Dear 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 radio. 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 the 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 might 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.
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 helps 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 hurting 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.
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, marketing 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 whales 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.
Hi, 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
Darcy Michael tells me
about this film, the life of a stand-up comic, and his own personal ups and downs.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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