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.

January 6, 2012. Guys Who Won’t Grow Up. Movies Reviewed: Jeff Who Lives At Home, Dark Horse, Starbuck

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.

It’s a New Year now, and everyone’s scrambling to make vows, resolutions and oaths to change their lives. And there’s one group that’s often makes the most earnest promises of all — I’m talking about that popular caricature, Guys Who Won’t Grow Up. In the movies, they tend to have dead-end jobs, play with toys, smoke pot, live in their parents’ basements and generally strike out with women, despite all their good intentions. So this week I’m looking at three movie, all of which played at TIFF last year, about grown-up boys who decide to change their lives. So all you couch potatoes, it’s time to get up, go out, and see some movies!

Jeff Who Lives at Home

Wri/Dir: Jay and Mark Duplass

Jeff (Jason Segel) lives at home – sits around his mother’s basement in his underwear, to be exact. He smokes pot, eats chips, watches TV, and waxes philosophical about the cosmos… while sitting on the toilet. He doesn’t get along with his older brother Pat anymore (Ed Helms), a self-centred square who neglects his wife. Pat’s a guy who’s supposed to look at a new home, but instead spends all their money on a Porsche on impulse. And now his wife doesn’t feel so great about their marriage. And Mom also notices a change in her cubicle job when her best friend tells her she has a secret admirer. So what’s going to happen?

Jeff, is a proto- string theorist (like the characters in the movie I Heart Huckabees) He’s always waiting for “signs” to tell him what to do.

Well, one day he’s forced to leave home for downtown Baton Rouge to pick up a bottle of glue for his mother (Susan Sarandon). But, when something catches his eye on an infomercial, followed by the words “CALL NOW!” at the same time as a strange, threatening wrong number calling for someone named “Kevin”, he gets sent off on a (seemingly) wild goose chase all around the city.

So Jeff embarks on this grand mission – one that eventually ties in with his brother’s failing marriage and his mother’s love life — because he knows, he just knows, that his actions will change the world.

This is a good, enjoyable comedy. I like the Duplass brothers, who usually make low-budget, ‘mumblecore”, semi-improvisational, super-realistic movies. They do tend to use annoying, jiggly hand-held cameras, but the movies are interesting enough that it doesn’t bother you after awhile. This one, Jeff who Lives at Home, is their biggest budget and most mainstream so far, with stuntmen, and chase scenes, and big name cast. But I like this direction they’re taking – it’s not a sell-out, it’s a fun, light comedy.

You could say Jeff is a “lite” version of the next character. Now think of the same guy, but 10-15 years later…

Dark Horse

Dir: Todd Solandz

Abe (Jordan Gelber) also lives with his parents, but he’s older, less attractive, fatter, and without any of the cute, endearing qualities that Jeff (who also lives at home) had. He works in his dad’s company, sitting in his glassed-in office, dressing like a white gangsta rapper, in track pants and T-shirts, with a gold name plate around his neck. He drives a bright yellow SUV, listens to hiphop, collects Tron Legacy memorabilia. And he despises his older brother who’s a doctor, and whom his parents idolize. He’s simultaneously arrogant, talentless and uninteresting. He’s the kind of guy who throws something toward a garbage can, says “two points!”… and then misses.

But at a Jewish wedding in suburban New Jersey (a hilarious scene where adults in wedding suits are all doing head spins and break-dancing) he meets Miranda (Selma Blair), a depressed but pretty, dark-haired woman who lives with her parents, after breaking up with her boyfriend Mahmoud. Abe is the worst person at picking up girls, possibly in the entire world. When he hits on a woman he says things like “Do you like jazz? NFL?” without bothering to listen to her answer before moving on to the next failed pick-up line. But somehow — for whatever reason — they end up dating.

Here’s where the movie gets really interesting (and a bit confusing). Abe decides to take the bull by the horns and change his life. The story goes off on these bizarre tangents. Things get bad with his lethargic parents (Mia Farrow and Christopher Walken) who finally put their collective foot down; the older secretary, Marie, at the office pursues her sexual crush on Abe; and he has other troubles with his plastic model collection. Abe can’t take it anymore.

I don’t want to give it away, but once again, Todd Solandz, who is such a good director, (with his painfully dark stories and funny-depressing characters) experiments once again with new narrative techniques, like unreliable narrators; total, sudden shifts in point of view – but without informing the viewers; and fantasy, delusions and dreams almost undistinguishable from reality. Wow. It’s a great movie that I hope will get released soon.

Starbuck

Dir: Ken Scott

David (Patrick Houad) is just not doing that well with his life. Everything just seems to be going wrong. He’s separated from his girlfriend, he’s bad at his job (delivering meat for his family business), and his money-making scheme, a grow-up, must be the only one in the world actually losing money: he owes 80 thousand to a bunch of violent thugs who want it back. His girlfriend – who’s pregnant with his kid – tells him he’d better change things if he wants to be that kid’s father. But these all seem like small potatoes when he’s hit by the biggest news of all – the sperm he anonymously donated at a fertility clinic 20 years go, was fertile. Very. He has 500 adult kids now, and 140 or so are planning a class-action suit to make him reveal his identity (he donated using only the nickname “Starbuck”.)

So he decides to secretly track down as many of his kids he can find, to help them out but without revealing his identity to them. There’s a lifeguard, a drug addict, a street musician, an effeminate goth, an aspiring actor… even if David’s own life is a total loss, maybe he can at least make his mark on the world by helping his many, many kids succeed. But the media pick up his story, making it harder and harder to remain hidden. Will he make it out of his various personal crises? Will he be forced to expose his identity to the world? Will his immigrant family ever feel proud of him? And will his pregnant girlfriend let him back into her life?

Starbuck is a really enjoyable, solid, feel-good commercial Quebec comedy, (from the people who brought us Good Cop, Bon Cop0. It’s playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of the best 10 Canadian films series starting now, along with the new Cronenberg movie and Monsieur Lazhar.

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

Sept 9, 2011. TIFF it! I Am a Good Person, I Am a Bad Person, Melancholia PLUS TIFF

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.

If this is your first listen to my show from U of T, or maybe you just arrived in Toronto for the first time, or if you’re an alien that just landed from another planet, and if you saw me a couple days ago standing on a streetcar with my back stiff, one hand posed dramatically in the air, the other supporting the back of a nineteen year old women, you might wonder… what’s going on and what’s he doing on a streetcar. And that’s a good question, and one that could only be asked in a place like Toronto.

You see, each year, right about now, a strange confluence of people meet and interact in the city’s downtown for about a week, making for some very strange and wonderful combinations. Because, right now, TIFF, the Toronto International Film Festival, is opening its curtains and lighting up its screens and walls right across the city. So what that means is some three hundred movies from around the world – including countries like France, Japan, China, India, Russia, South Africa, Germany, Scandinavia, Italy, Latin America, and The US, Australia, Canada and The UK – in a dozen different genres are being shown, both to people working in the film industry, who want to buy sell or publicize their pictures, and the general public, who want to see the films and take in some of the glamour and excitement of seeing World and North American premiers of this and next year’s best movies.

There are red carpet entrances to many of the screenings, and usually a director — and often actors, writers and production staff – stay after the fill to answer questions from the audience. What started as a place where Torontonians could watch films that had already played in Berlin, Cannes, Venice, gradually turned into a festival that eclipses most of the others as the most important one in North America, and vying for the title internationally. It also has a spanking new building where many of the films are being shown called the Tiff Bell Lightbox, (on King St between Peter and John) which is really an exciting place to be. Strangers talk to each other – something that’s not usually done in straightlaced Toronto – about movies, about what they’re seeing, about what’s good and what sucks. A couple years ago I was chatting candidly with the woman beside me, and then she got up and sat on the stage to interview filmmaker of the movie we had just seen. I won’t reveal any names, but lets just say she’s had a bit of trouble with a Broadway musical involving a superhero. Yeah, her.

Anyway, while all the people converging on the downtown around the Lightbox and the Hyatt on King St West, I was on my way there, when I saw the other group involving huge numbers arriving from around the globe – the “freshers”. First year Unoversity students at one of the city’s many universities and colleges. They’ve taken to wearing ugly coloured T-shirts with strange electro-designs and unreadable slogans (I guess they’re all in-jokes) as they shout unrecognizable chants as the rush around in huge groups following the orders of some tuff girl with a megaphone.

Then they offer to sine your shoes, or play the tuba, or just stand, dazedly staring off into space as they are surrounded by others in the Wrong Coloured T-shirt! So, there I was making my way to the TIFF press office when I was swarmed by a bunch of freshers who implored I pose pretending to be a ballet teacher (Me? Not bloody likely!) giving a lesson on a streetcar, pose for a snap, and then all of them rushing away for the next task on their scavenger hunt.

So, freshers, I implore you all – task number 379 is to stand in a rush line at one of the TIFF screenings and then tell your friends about the movie you saw. And TIFF goers? Skip one reception and attend a beer pong party instead, just for one night. See what happens…

OK, here are some of the movies I’ve seen so far, and what better way to begin TIFF than with a meta-movie about an avant-garde filmmaker taking her film on the film festival circuit.

I Am a Good Person, I Am a Bad Person

Dir: Ingrid Veninger

Ruby (Ingrid Veninger) is a Yoko Ono-style experimental artist who has made a movie called Headshots, which is basically a series of close-ups of men’s penises. She’s about to leave Toronto with her disaffected daughter Sara (played by her real daughter Hallie Switzer) to show the film at a series of European film festivals. But before she leaves, she gives her husband what is probably the most un-erotic depiction of a blowjob ever on film. Headshots indeed.

Sara ends up acting like the disapproving mother while Ruby, (with her cinched-back hair and fake glasses) is desperately trying to get laid, be cool, and find satisfaction amongst the cold, bored audiences at the festivals. Finally, it’s too much. Sara heads off to Paris to stay with her aunt, leaving her nervous mom to face Berlin alone. Both of them carry secrets burning inside, and they have to work up the courage to face them before they meet up again.

While lacking the sweetness of young love present in her last  film, Modra, I Am a Good Person… makes up for it in this meta-film satire that skewers both art films and film festivals without straying too far from Veninger’s great, hyper-realistic style. This movie’s a fine way to start up that festival feeling.

Melancholia

Dir: Lars Von Trier

Justine and Claire are Yin&Yang sisters. Blonde, beautiful and talented Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is an advertising copywriter who just got married, but managed to show up late for her own wedding party. The dark, shy, anglo-french-sounding Claire (Charloote Gainsbourg) sometimes really hates her sister, but feels a need to nurture her, heal her, to bring her back to life.

Because Justine is depressed, and feels her life Is a sham. Despite the grand wedding banquet — beside an 18 hole golf course, complete with sandtraps and, strangely, a telescope — her divorced parents are embarrassing, her boss is relentlessly bugging her for a tag line, even at the wedding, and her husband’s a naïve hick who thinks he can cure her by showing pictures of apple trees. But Justine’s life is much grander than all of this.

You see, she can feel that the errant planet Melancholia is heading for earth and may destroy everything in just a few days. Even riding horses won’t cure her. Claire’s optimism is also slipping away as the planet moves closer and closer. Will the world end? Or will Melancholia swerve away?

I dunno. After last years shocking movie Antichrist, Von Trier’s depiction of the meaningless of modern lives feels funny, but that isn’t enough. What should have been a pre-apocalyptic psycho-drama felt slow, repetative and drawn out. It’s hard to carry a 2 hour movie using a one-trick-pony.

TIFF runs for the next ten days: Tickets are still available — for more information, go to tiff.net .

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

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

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

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

The Adjustment Bureau

Dir: George Nolfi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Red Riding Hood

Dir: Catherine Hardwicke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movies that make you go Hmmm… Fair Game, Client 9: the Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer, Inside Job, My Suicide, Golden Slumber, 127 Hours PLUS Film Festivals: Rendezvous with Madness, ReelAsian, Waterloo Animation

Movies that make you go hmmm…

If you look back at the past decade and wonder what the hell was that all about? there are three good movies that provide some explanations.

Fair Game
Dir: Doug Liman

Valerie Plame is a tough cookie. She works under deep cover for the CIA, recruiting local snitches around the world to gather intelligence on those inscrutable terrorists. She’s part of the group looking into the threat of a nuclear weapons in Iraq. She’s known as the agent who can’t be broken, even by torture. She’s married to a hothead, former diplomat, Wilson, a West Africa expert, who the CIA enlists to investigate rumours about yellowcake uranium coming out of Niger.

But their conclusions (they all hate Saddam Hussein too, but there are no weapons of mass destruction) do not sit well with the conspirers Cheney, Karl Rove, and their attack dog Scooter Libby. The movie traces what happens to Valerie and her family (and the drama sticks pretty close to the true story) when they expose her cover, and start to assassinate her husband’s character.

This movie’s a good historical take on the US government’s WMD scam (which led to the invasion of Iraq, more than a hundred thousand civilians dead and 4 million refugees). It tells a story where even the CIA comes across as one of the good guys. And Naomi Watts and Sean Penn are fun to watch, and the thriller aspect – of a spy escaping her foes – is not bad either.

So… a couple years after all this happened, things were brewing in New York City, on Wall Street, to be exact. The next movie, a documentary:

Client 9: the Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer
Dir: Alex Gibney

… looks at the case of the former Attorney General, and later Governor of New York, who was brought down in an embarrassing scandal involving a prostitute he slept with.

So what actually happened there?
Spitzer was, with great media and popular success – attacking the crooked dealers in the financial industry. He started low, but gradually worked his way into the belly of the beast. But, of course, he was getting on the nerves of some of the bigshots of Wall Street:
Crooked stock analysts at Merril Lynch; insider traders; NY Stock Exchange director Kenneth Langone; and the head of AIG, Hank Greenberg. (This documentary gets to interview everyone!)

As state governor, he added to his list of enemies – he sought out the fights and confrontations. But, of course, the bad guys fought back and cooked up an elaborate scheme using the sleazy, but fascinating, dirty trickster Roger Stone, to bring him down. Compiling published newspaper and magazine articles, interviews with the players, including the prostitutes and politicians involved, this compelling example of real investigative journalism traces the elaborate set-up to bring down the enemy of Wall Street, Albany, and Washington.

Next…

Inside Job
Dir: Charles Ferguson
Narrator: Matt Damon

…takes up the story right where Client 9 ends. It traces the bigger picture of how the real estate and financial bubble led to the collapse of the world’s, and the later bailout and payoffs to the very men whose out-and-out conniving and fraud led to these problems. Politicos, Investment banks, and, interestingly, university professors are taken to task for their involvement. This is also a great documentary, but not as good as Client 9 in getting interviews with the players from both sides of the story.

Does all this stuff make you mad? Well, check out Rendezvous with Madness – a film festival that deals with addiction and mental health by showing some interesting movies, documentaries, and experimental films, combined with discussions right after the screenings.

One movie that caught my eye is called:

My Suicide
Dir: David Lee Miller

This is a fictional blog in movie form. A blog-movie. I’d call it a Bloovie.

Archie is pretty pissed off. He goes to high school, but doesn’t much like it. He has a crush on a beautiful girl named Sierra, and feels alienated from his parents. It’s a 90210-type high school, but he’s not one of the popular kids. So when his classmates are all told to make a movie (everyone in this film seems to have a video camera), he tells the class: He’s going to film his own suicide. He immediately gets driven away by a cop, and passed on to a parade of counselors, social workers and shrinks. But he also unwittingly becomes an underground antihero in the school, with lots of kids vowing to follow his example; and he finally meets up with seemingly perfect Sierra, the girl of his dreams.

This is a frenetic movie: It feels like an earnest episode of Degrassi, cranked up on a six pack of red bull. It’s also much dirtier, with sex, drugs, and some sad stuff too. It quotes TV news, commercials, educational films, and some excellent animated sequences – basically anything you can fit on a green screen behind the main character. A sad and shocking topic, but with an interesting and comic way of telling the story of teenage angst. It’s on tonight at 9; check out the details on http://www.rendezvouswithmadness.com

The Toronto ReelAsian International Film Festival  shows great films from east and southeast Asia, including Japan, China, Korea, HK, and Vietnam, as well as movies from around the world.

The festival opened with the enjoyable retro kung fu flic “Gallants”. One interesting movie (that screens tonight) is:

Golden Slumber
Dir: Yoshihiro Nakamura

Aoyagi (Masato Sakai) is a friendly, ordinary, mild-mannered deliveryman. He was in the Food Culture Research Youth Group (dedicated to “friendship through fast food”) at university, lives in Sendai, and once was famous for 15 minutes when he rescued a pop star by tripping her attacker. He is bamboozled into going on a fishing trip with an old classmate which soon turns into a massive JFK/ Lee Harvey Oswald assassination plot to kill the Japanese PM. And he discovers that he’s the Oswald, and a whole lot of shady characters driving black cars are after him, as well as the even more bloodthirsty and venal press corps.

A pint-sized, teenaged serial killer becomes one of Aoyagi’s many de facto rescuers as he tries to clear his name. “Trust”, Aoyagi believes, “is mankind’s greatest strength.’

This is a neat movie: 50% paranoid conspiracy drama, 50% quirky black comedy, that follows Aoyagi and his various former college friends as the story unfolds in an unusual way. I love this kind of movie.

Another story of a man stuck in a hard place is the very enjoyable

127 Hours
Dir: Danny Boyle

Danny Boyle, of course, is the guy who brought us Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting; all his movies are fun to watch, but totally different from the last one he directed.

This one is an hour and a half of an adventurous, solo mountain climber (James Franco) who’s arm is pinned in a fissure by a big hunk o’ rock… in the middle of nowhere.

And the only way out might be by cutting off his own arm. This is a true story, so if you’ve seen pictures of the guy (Aron Ralston) you’ll know what he did in the end. So how does he keep your attention? A guy stuck in a rock for an hour and a half? Well this is a great movie, that isn’t trapped in the tiny space. I don’t like overly claustrophobic, squashed-in movies. This one reaches out, it goes wherever Aron’s mind, dreams, fantasies, hallucinations, and memories take him. There is an extended episode of extreme grotesquerie, but other than that, it’s a greatly enjoyable movie about a man attempting to overcome nature using his will and logic, without resorting to prayer and salvation.

And if you’re in the Kitchener/Waterloo area, be sure to check out the 10th annual Waterloo Festival for Animated Cinema – it’s filled with animated features from places like Eastern Europe and Japan, ranging from anime, to fairy tales to psychedelia – sounds pretty cool. Look for the details on wfac.ca

Hallowe’en Special! Movies reviewed: My Soul to Take, Hereafter, The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest, LA Zombie, Cold Fish

Toronto is a scary place – and I don’t just mean the city elections this week. Our new mayor is… Biff Tannen! And I saw a couple hundred zombies marching through Kensington market last Saturday. But it’s about to get even scarier — this is Hallowe’en weekend, when everyone wants to see a scary, gory, spooky, otherwordly, gripping, chilling, or thrilling movie. So today I’m going to look at five Hallowe’eny movies: a slasher-horror pic, a spooky drama, a gripping thriller, and two more that played at TIFF this year.

My Soul to Take
Dir: Wes Craven

Like the Agatha Christie classic Ten Little Indians, this slasher pic has seven seventeen-year-olds each wondering who’s going to get killed next. You see, 17 years ago a crazed, serial killer kicked the bucket just as his widow was giving birth prematurely. And at the same hospital, six others were born the same day… they became a nerd, a jock, a Jane Austen Christian, a blind guy, a snobby girl, a family kid, and one more, Bug, who is slightly whack: he periodically slips into a Tourettes-like state where he imitates the voices of the other six preemies. So which one’s the slasher? Or is he possessing someone? Or maybe the original killer’s still alive and hiding in the woods?

And you know what? It doesn’t really matter in the end; getting there is most of the fun. It’s a Wes Craven movie – (the guy who directed the Scream series and wrote A Nightmare on Elm St) so you can be there’ll be lots of bathroom mirror scenes, shadowy killers in costume, and an equal number of red herrings. It’s interesting to watch, the characters are funny, and even though it’s mainly formulaic, it’s enjoyable. It’s also bloody and violent. What it wasn’t, though, it wasn’t especially scary.

My Soul to Take is a fun one to watch with a group of friends on All Hallow’s Eve.

Hereafter
Dir: Clint Eastwood

What happens after you die? And if life goes on, is there any contact between life and the afterlife? This movie (very, very slowly) follows three separate story lines trying to answer this question. Matt Damon plays a San Francisco psychic who thinks his gift is a curse: every time George touches someone else skin, he is hit by a vision of the dead who want to talk to her. So he decides to work instead in a sugar warehouse. Meanwhile, Marie (C»cile De France), an intelligent Parisian tele-journalist and her producer/lover encounter disaster in the tropics, and her near-death experience leads her to explore the boundary between life and death. Finally, a pair of somber, identical twin brothers, being raised by a junky mother in London, encounter death as well. Will they ever be able to communicate again?

OK, Herafter is not a bad drama, and I’ll watch practically anything with a hint of magic or the supernatural, but its glacial pace, and lugubrious tone combined with a non-religious angel motif, make it feel mostly like a big-budget episode of Ghost Whisperer (“He says he forgives you… now, walk into the light”). The three storylines eventually come together, but at least for the first half hour, I wondered is it going to go on like this for whole movie – unfinished story after unfinished story? It’s not really scary at all, it’s Clint Eastwood, at the age of 80, telling a relaxing tale of people pondering life and death. See it if you like sipping warm cocoa on Halowe’en.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
Dir: Daniel Alfredson

Lisbeth Salander and journalist Blomkvist are back again for part three of their story. Lisbeth, is a fantastic character, a cross between Steve McQueen and Tank Girl. She’s tuff, she’s rough, she’s stone cold. She’s a punk, she’s a loner, she’s an ex-con, she’s a computer genius. And Blomkvist, the committed leftist investigative journalist at the Swedish magazine Millenium, will do anything he can to help her. The last movie ended with a bloody shoot out, and this one starts up immediately afterwards, with Lisbeth, near death in a hospital, charged with attempted murder, and Blomkvist on the verge of uncovering a cold-war era conspiracy involving government, police, and psychiatry.

So the two sides gear up for the long fight, culminating in a bug trial. On one side they’re all trying to uncover the truth about the conspiracy and get it to print before the trial. But the bad guys – mainly a bunch of old Swedish guys in suits – will stop at nothing – including murder, intimidation, and character assassination – to keep the secrets secret. The pale blue-eyed and goateed psychiatrist, Dr Teleborian, is especially sinister, with his plans to use the veneer of psychiatry to hide his true motives.

And then there’s the wildcards on both sides, including Niedermeier, the giant blond thug who can feel no pain, and Plague, the shy, secretive computer geek extraordinaire.

So, I liked it a lot, as a conclusion to the three-part movie series. I think it’s much better to see the first two before you watch this one. I also missed the beautiful cinematic camerawork of Dragon Tattoo – this one was much more indoors, with pedestrian TV-like scenes, and without all of the unexpected plot revelations of the first two.

But it’s still worth seeing. I love rooting for the heroes when they barely escape a killer, and mentally cheering when the villains mess up. (The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest feels more like a BBC detective miniseries — not a bad thing to be) This movie is two and a half hours long, so be prepared for a slow start with a good payoff. You’ll need lots of Hallowe’en popcorn for this one.

LA Zombie
Dir: Bruce LaBruce

A muscle bound monster emerges out of a Pacific beach like a creature from the black lagoon. All around him is violence – shootouts in the ravines, murder in drug deals gone wrong, cars spilling off the highways, and the slow violence graduaully crushing the homeless and undocumented of downtown Los Angeles. The zombie monster (porn actor Francois Sagat) is observing all and is saddened by it.

But unlike the voraciously eating- zombies we usually see, who inflict their condition on the living, this one is a sort of a messiah. Through the disgusting – but gentle – sex he has with all the newly dead corpses he encounters – and it’s always gay sex with male corpses, by the way – he brings the bodies back to life. The strangely-coloured semen that comes out of his grotesquely-shaped penis is a panacea: ejaculation equals rejuvenation.

L.A. Zombie is a violent and gory zombie movie, with very few lines, but with lots of colourful, pornographic gay sex between a gentle zombie and the spilt organs of fresh corpses. More than anything else, it’s also an experimental art film, at times quite beautiful, with extended tableaux, urban landscapes and sunsets, and some documentary-looking footage of the marginal and lost beings of Los Angeles. By the end you get the impression that the zombie scenes are just the imaginary fantasies of a destitute, muscle-bound, mentally-ill homeless guy.

L.A. Zombie turns the Hallowe’en monster-as-villain paradigm upside down, and shows that the real monster… is us.

Finally,

Cold Fish
Dir: Sono Shion

This movie also played at the Toronto Film Festival. I see a couple hundred movies every year, and I don’t normally leave a movie shaking, googly-eyed, saying “what the fuck was that?!” to total strangers. But I did after this ultimate, extreme Japanese exploitation film about a mild-mannered Shizuoka tropical fish dealer who is pulled into the sway of an aggressive entrepreneur and serial killer.

Based on a true story, Shamato is a wimpy widower who owns a tropical fish store. His young, second wife shops with her eyes closed and cooks rice in a microwave. His teenaged daughter Mitsuko is dating a hood and shoplifts for fun. He seeks solace in the peace of the local planetarium. But soon his miserable existance is altered by a hyper-enthusiastic entrepreneur, Murata, who tells him “Business is entertainment!” Soon, Mitsuko is living in his big box store dorm working as a glamour fish salesgirl wearing hotpants and a tanktop, and his wife is also on Murata’s side (after an attack/rape scene that “pulls her out of her wretched life…”) All is not well.

Shamato is soon made an unwitting accomplice in a crooked fish scam, bilking investors in a “rare”, ugly amazon fish venture. Soon he discovers Murata and his wife don’t just defraud investors, they also kill them in a most awful way, inside a tiny church. They glory in the blood and guts, sexually playing with their organs and body parts, and joyfully disposing of the remaining flesh and bones, drenching them with soy sauce and roasting them in an outdoor barbecue!

It’s up to milquetoast Shamato either to become a willing part of their awful lives or to fight back and stop it forever.

What can I say? This has got to be the most depraved exploitation film I’ve ever seen. It’s joining of sex and death makes even Miike seem tame, and LA Zombie is like a gentle glimpse of flowers and rainbows in comparison. Definitely one of the most horrific movies ever, Cold Fish retains its credibility (without sinking to the “Saw” level of pornographic torture.) The most shocking and disturbing movie of the year.

The two types of British films at TIFF 2010. The King’s Speech, Route Irish, Neds.

There were a surprising number of good British films that played at TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival) this year, but they tended to fall on two sides of a great divide. On one side is the palatable, Masterpiece Theatre-type England, nicely doled up for North American sensibilities, with its crowned heads, palatial estates, tally-ho, ta-ta, Shakespeare, umbrellas, Churchill, and crisp enunciation fit for television. You’re likely to see Hugh Grant or Colin Firth or Ralph Feinnes. It’s like the future described in Julian Barnes’ satirical novel England, England, where the whole country, including members of the royal family, are replicated on a small island and reduced to a mini-theme park built for foreign visitors.

On the other side is a grimier, grittier UK, where people speak in gruff regional accents and dialects, get in fights, do unfortunate things, try to get rich, and get caught up in problems they don’t know how to solve. I tend to like this version better than the pasteurized one.

The winner of this year’s People’s Choice award at TIFF is

“The King’s Speech”

Dir: Tom Hooper

This movie falls neatly into the first category.

Lionel (Geoffrey Rush) is an Australian speech therapist who invented techniques for returned soldiers from WWI. He’s hired, in great secrecy, to help a man (Colin Firth) — known to his friends as Bertie, and who later becomes King George VI — because he has a terrible stutter. With the advent of radio, he needs to fix his speech to stop freezing up whenever he’s asked to make an announcement. The meeting is arranged by his wife. Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother).

But Lionel is a commoner, the first Bertie has ever met, and he is used to being addressed as his “Royal Highness”, or just “Sir”. Lionel works in a dirty, broken-down basement while Bertie lives in a palace. But Lionel insists they talk to each other as regular people do. He decides Berties problems are psychological – he’s intimidated by his father the King, and his brother, the Prince of Wales. So through the use of his experimental and amusing methods, he tries to get him comfortable pronouncing words without a stammer.

Now this is based on a true story, and Canadians I’ve talked to who lived through that era all remember that the King did indeed have a stutter. So it’s interesting to watch his speech improve. And the acting was all credible, with Derek Jacobi (I Claudius) as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the frowzy, redoubtable actress with the double-barrelled name, Helena Bonham Carter, as the future Queen Elizabeth, mother of the current Queen.

But… this movie rubbed me the wrong way. Everything is so homogenized that the accents of the working-class Aussie therapist and the King aren’t really that different. And the history had such a story-book feel to it: Here’s Winston Churchill harrumphing about this, and there’s Wallis Simpson, whingeing about that…

The whole movie felt like an American TV view of what England was like, made only to attract more Oscar votes. It was even visually tiresome, with its constant, awful use of a wide-angle lens (where characters lean forward into the camera at a distorted angle, like in a bad 80’s TV commercial) giving the whole movie a sort of a geddit? geddit? tone…

I can tell this movie’s going to be popular, but it didn’t do much for me.

More to my taste was the excellent

“Route Irish”

Dir: Ken Loach

Wri: Paul Laverty

Fergus and Frankie are lifelong best buddies from northern England — almost like brothers. They’ve even shared girlfriends. So when he’s told Frankie was ambushed by unnamed terrorists in Iraq, on that dangerous stretch of road to the Green Zone known as Route Irish, Fergus is crushed. He is sure that something bad happened to him, that it was someone’s fault. Frankie was born lucky, he says; he can’t have died just by chance. So Fergus decides to investigate. They were both working as well-paid mercenaries for a shady security firm, and it was Fergus who got him the job. So he feels guilty and responsible for his death. He also receives the celphone Frankie had sent him before he dies, complete with photos and video footage. For his sake, (and that of his widow) Fergus decides to investigate the case to uncover the truth and bring whoever was responsible to justice.

This is an amazing war movie, the best so far about the Iraq war, even though it mainly takes place back in England. It brings up the issues of torture, terrorism, interrogation, and cover-ups – not as something to be feared of an unknown, al-Qaeda middle-eastern enemy, but more by how all this has changed the attitudes and practices of “Us”, of the west. It also works as a very engrossing drama, with great characters you care about. Most surprisingly, Ken Loach has directed a genuine thriller, as the exciting secret events are gradually revealed.

Ken Loach is the director of great movies like “It’s a Free World…”; “Bread and Roses;” “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” (about the Irish revolution); and “Land and Freedom” (about the Spanish Civil War). I remember his movies as politically progressive, but sometimes bogged down when long discussions would trump the plot. But he’s just gotten better and better. This one is the best he’s ever done, that functions both as a politically astute view of the war in Iraq, and as just a really good movie. There is some rough violence, but it’s not gratuitous. I really recommend this one and hope it’ll be widely released.

Finally, a surprise movie at TIFF was

Neds

Dir: Peter Mullan

John McGill is a good boy in 70’s Glasgow, Scotland. His aunt says he can do anything he wants: He reads so much… he should be a journalist! But from day one at school, he’s streamed into the “Neds” category — that’s Non-Educated Delinquent – because his big brother Bennie is in a local gang. So on his first day of class he’s told he’s a loser and is put on the lowest rung. And it’s horribly competitive: Every semester the top two in each form move up to a better class, and the bottom two move down. And if any kid is late or talks out of line, he has to hold his hands, palms up, in front of him, to be flogged! These are little kids.

The story progresses as he grows older, and despite his efforts he gradually, fatalistically, falls in with the bad crowd and becomes a juvenile delinquent. As his anger builds, and his behaviour worsens, he turns into a bit of a street-savvy monster. But guilt also steps in, when he has to face what he’s done.

Anyway, I don’t want to give it away, but it’s quite a cathartic movie, and though long, it gets more extreme but also more interesting, until there’s a completely unexpected, shocking, and then oddly touching, ending. It was a great movie.

I should also mention, unlike “The King’s Speech”, both “Route Irish” and “Neds” were subtitled, since the accents of Glasgow and Liverpool are not as plummy and smooth as the palatable, made-for-TV-style accents usually shown on this side of the Atlantic.

Canada at TIFF. Movies Reviewed: Modra, Daydream Nation, You Are Here

Posted in Acting, Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Communism, Conspiracy Theory, Cultural Mining, Drama, High School, Movies, Sex, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 10, 2010

What’s going on around here? Toronto looks different. The atmosphere has changed. Something feels… cooler, buzzier.

Why are all these people marching down Yonge street in matching baggy, coloured T-shirts, shouting some unintelligible slogan? Are they religious cults or political parties? I’m not really sure… Do the ugly yellow-shirt marchers belong to the same political party as the silly purple jumpsuit marchers? Or are they enemies? And are they all going to pull out there weapons soon?

Oh, wait… never mind. They’re not political at all. They’re freshers, newly-arrived students at the downtown universities, getting used to the big city, and bonding with their dorm-mates so they can feel patriotic toward one building over another.

But that’s not all. There are guys in po-boy caps with bad complexions and three cameras around their necks, lurking in hotel doorways. Wait – are there paparazzi In Toronto? That only happens once a year, when the Toronto Film Festival, (now known affectionately as TIFF) blows into town. Noooww I get it.

What is TIFF?

TIFF is one of the top-ranked festivals in the world now, up there with Cannes, Sundance, and Venice, and usually considered the most accessible of any of those, with numerous public screenings for every film. There are mainstream movies, soon to be released, that have big galas with the stars. There are drive-in or genre movies, filled with gore, zombies, or explicit sex. There are unusual movies chosen by festival programmers in various categories, there to get some buzz, and, ideally, to get sold to distributors. And then there are a whole lot of others, which, even though they may be amazing, or warm or original, are not considered commercial enough to release.

So every which way you look you’re bound to see some deal being made, and idea being pitched or a nascent story gelling inside a writer’s mind.

Where is it playing? It’s at all the downtown theatres, especially AMC Dundas, The Scotiabank Theatre aka the Paramount, at John and Richmond st., the Varsity at Bay and Bloor, and the brand-spanking new theatre complex called the The Light Box which was built especially for this film festival.

How do you get tickets? There are tickets still available at lots of movies – there are over 300 movies and they run through the next week. It’s easier to get a seat if you try for a daytime screening, rather than a nighttime one, and weekdays are better than weekends.

Do you have to stand in line for hours? Not really. Once you have a ticket to a movie, you’re guaranteed a seat as long as you show up on time – 15 minutes before the movie starts. They release new tickets at the box office each morning at 7 am. Or you can take your chances with a rush ticket – so even if a show is sold out, there may be some empty seats left, but they only determine that right before the movie starts – and rush seats are first come first served.

So check it out on-line at tiff.net for the right info.

What about Canadian movies? Well, this year there’re a lot to choose from, in both French and English. Bruce McDonald, who’s been making movies that premier at TIFF since it was still called the Festival of Festivals, has directed Trigger, about two female rockers who reunite ten years after their band called it a day. It’s starring the amazing Tracy Wright in one of her last roles. Incidentally, there’s a free public screening of one of his first film, Roadkill, at TIFF. If you’ve never seen it you should definitely catch that one.

Score (the Hockey Musical) – yeah you heard me right, it’s a musical about hockey – opened the festival last night.

Bruce LaBruce, the always controversial, always surprising, and always interesting, gay/punk/independent director, is showing his movie L.A, Zombie, about a dead homeless man, played, of course,by an actual porno star. There are no lines in the movie, but lots of sex and lots of blood and gore.

Other Canadian movies with big expectations include Barney’s Version, from Mordechai Richler’s last novel; 20-year old Montreal director Xavier Donat’s Heartbeats;

Repeaters, dir by Carl Bessai, about 3 young guys in a drug rehab centre; A follow-up to the amazing mockumentary FUBAR, called FUBAR II, about the two longhaired rockers in their lumberjack jackets; Patrick Demers’ Jaloux – an improvised thriller; and Jacob Tierney’s Good Neighbours – about the odd people living in a montreal apartment building – (Tierney’s the guy who directed the Trotsky last year).

Here are some short reviews of three more Canadian movies playing at TIFF:

“Modra”

Dir Ingrid Veninger

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 Slovakia is not thought of as a cool or trendy place, just the opposite. It’s 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 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 had the same great feel as those other Toronto summer movies, like “No Heart Feelings”, and “This Movie is Broken”.

“Daydream Nation”

Dir: Mike Goldbach

In this movie, another 17 year-old girl, Caroline (played by the appealing Kat Dennings) moves to a small town. She finds it boring and stupid so she seduces her young teacher (Josh Lucas). Uh, oh. And there’s a also a kid in her class who likes her. And maybe his mother will like her father? Meanwhile, there’s a serial killer going around the town leaving bodies. And a little girl who loves to scream when she finds them. Seems like you can’t do anything in this burg before someone finds out…

Who’s the killer? Will her secret relationship be exposed? Who does Kat like more, her sleazy teacher or the brooding adolescent in her class? And what about the smokestack in the town?

Who cares? Caroline is alienated, I get that. But the story keeps wavering between serious, and flippant, from edgy, experimental ideas, to conventional TV sitcom-style plot-turns… This movie just doesn’t do it for me. Too muddled. (The title BTW, comes from the Sonic Youth album from the 80’s.)

“You Are Here”

Daniel Cockburn

This ones a real gem. Confusing as all get out, but a great movie. I reviewed this about 5 months ago, and finally it’s at this year’s TIFF. The movie is like a series of matrushka dolls dancing on a moebius strip, being fed through a reel to reel tape recorder. Each plot turns is revealed to be connected to an earlier scene, but if you look to closely you miss the connection with the other story-streams. OK here goes:

On a You are Here sign on a map, wherever you are should appear as a red dot. But how does anyone know where they really are? What if there were people who made it their job to keep track of your red dot?

And then there’s the question of how do you know who you are? When you’re working at a desk job with no real point, how do you know what you’re saying makes any sense at all? How do you know you’re not a cog in a vast machine that takes in and spews out information, like an old mega computer.

Anyway, you really should check out this abstract, and at the same time totally watchable, narrative of linked plot threads, interwoven into a seamless bolt of shimmering whole cloth. (Read the full review here.)

I’ll be posting frequently during TIFF.

Post-Cold War. Movies reviewed: Salt, I Am Love, Countdown to Zero

About 20 years ago, something impossible happened. The Berlin Wall came down, the Eastern Bloc crumbled, the iron curtain was lifted, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Almost half a century of mutually assured destruction, of the never-ending threat of nuclear war, was somehow… finished, and the world let out a collective sigh so enormous, satellite photos show it moved a sand dune in the gobi desert.

The lingering anxiety at the back of everyone’s mind — that some nut in the White House or the Kremlin, in a fit of pique or a moment of panic would press a red button and turn the world to dust, and repeat the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a global scale – that anxiety seemed to disappear. The world was safe again!

So for almost everybody, things seemed to be looking up. Except…except for the movies! How can you make spy movies without the ready-made “us and them” of the cold war, the constant thrust and parry of the two sides in the never ending intrigue of their battle for ideological dominance? Subterfuge, espionage, the arms race, and always, always the threat of nuclear destruction gave cold war movies this background that made them serious and real and scary. Now everyone’s spy movies were for nought. What to do?

This week I’m looking at three movies, each with a very different take on Russia and the post cold war period.

Salt

Dir: Phillip Noyce

“alt is an action/thriller about a CIA agent, Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), who is accused of being a double agent. A Russian spy walks into the CIA and, just like in the cold war days, says he wants to defect. He claims there was a secret school in the Soviet era, that kidnapped and trained from birth, special sleeper agents who would blend in with the Americans until the moment they are activated. And Salt was one of these agents, old-guard cold-war communist out to assassinate leaders foment nuclear warfare again, to bring things back to the bad old days. The Soviet Union will rise again!

Evelyn denies it, but she knows she has to take the law into her own hands and escape. She says three things to set up the plot:

I didn’t do it! (or did she?)

I’ve been set up! (or was she?)

I have to find my husband.

Her husband is a milquetoast German arachnologist (spider collector), and that part the plot is for sure — she has to find him. Why? I don’t really know, and I just saw the movie. I guess because she loves him.

Meanwhile she’s being pursued by two CIA agents, one, Peabody (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – the great black British actor from”Kinky Boots” and “Inside Man“) who doesn’t trust her; the other, Ted (played by Liev Schreiber) who does, but still has to bring her in. Toss in a bunch of unsavoury Russians hanging out on the waterfront, a great cathedral scene, some impossible car chases, rooftop jumps and lots of bloody machine-gun shoot outs, and there you have it.

Is she or isn’t she? Not gonna give it away, but suffice it to say, LOTS of holes in the ridiculous plot which doesn’t really hold together. Like her English starts drifting into a Russian accent somewhere in the middle of the movie for no known reason. But never mind. It’s a cold-war redux action movie, lots of fun, but stupid.

(BTW, this movie couldn’t have picked a better time to be released, just a few weeks after that group of undercover Russian spies were discovered to be living and raising families in the States.)

“I am Love”

Dir: Luca Guadagnino

The movie starts with a banquet to honour Edoardo, the patriarch of the immensely wealthy Recchi family, a Milan industrialist who founded his fortune on wartime profits for his textile mills. He’s passing on the business to his heirs. The Trecchi women, all from outside the clan, are also prominent figures, but feel their existence is slightly more precarious. Emma, (wonderfully played Tilda Swinton) the wife of the second generation, flutters around nervously – she’s with the family, but not of the family. She’s actually from the former Soviet Union. Her handsome son, Edoardo, wants to carry on the family’s tradition, while her husband, Tancredo, would rather move it into a post-industrial Italy. And Emma herself feels adrift, with a new name, language, heritage, culture, family. One day, her life changes when, on a trip to San Remo, her eyes catch some Onion domes at a Kremlin-like Russian Orthodox church – and who does she see but her son’s friend, the chef Antonio. Her heart flutters as she takes a step to reclaim her real self, and her real desires.

This is terrific movie to watch. It shows the cold, sterile, but magnificent industrial Milan, the wonderful, fecund countryside nearby. The clothes, the food, the family members and the servants and the shifting relationships, power and identity of all of them. Emma and her sublimated Russian past, the rivalry between father and son for her affections, her daughter cutting herself loose, the longtime friendships with the maid, the Recchi women of three geerations… Wow! So much to take in.

And it’s so amazing looking, with lots of fooling around with camera, recreating the look of early 1970’s Italian movies, with their lush sumptuousness, the slightly smudgy camera-lens, the soft glow of light… along with tons of visual refernces to Japanese films – rain dropping on a pond, insects on a twig… And lots of nice shifts to Emma’s subconscious memories, thoughts and fantasies, but always done visually, not with echo-y voiceovers. Lots of what’s said is off camera, over heard, in the background, or never mentioned – you have to put it together.

“I Am Love” is a simple story, but told so well with great emotional heft. This is a really good movie.

“Countdown to Zero”

Dir: Lucy Walker

is a new documentary on a topic – nuclear warfare — that used to be at the front of everyone’s mnd, but is now nearly forgotten. This movie says: “uh, uh, it’s still very much there, and if you don’t do something about it, we’re all going to die!” And it does its best to scare the bejeezus out of you showing how.

The movie shows some startling old footage of atomic testing, and traces the history of nuclear proliferation. With the Cold War, mutually assured destruction meant that neither side could go ahead with it – any bomb flies, the other side sends there’s off too. But now, the movie says, things are even more precarious. More countries have the bomb, more want it, and with the former Soviet Union in disarray, there all those rich yellowcake ready to be nabbed. There’s a great prison interview with a Russian dude who wanted a Lamboghini or a DeLuxe Buick, and that’s why he was selling uranium to a potential baddy. Luclily he was caught, but all the ones who were caught were caught by chance.

Countdown to zero shows how a bomb is made, who’s after it, how it could be launched – due to stupidity, miscaculation, or madness — and what would happen if it were.

This is a very informative and interesting to watch, especially if you don’t know much about this – lot’s of surprising near misses and near disasters most people ever hear about. But the film is extremely manipulative using repeated images of terrorist attacks followed by similar shots of everyday life in a city – will the terrorists get YOU?? Basically, this is a sheep in wolf’s clothing: a sombre, PBS-style documentary dressed in a Fox News fright wig: Iran! Al Qaeda! P-P-P-Pakistan!!!. The title, Countdown to Zero, sounds like an episode of 24, but what they’re really saying is let’s countdown the number of nuclear warheads to zero instead.

This well made and well-researched documentary is made mainly of archival footage, and the biggest political talking heads there are – Gorbachev, Valery Plame, Oppenheimer, MacNamara, Tony Blair – along with some good animated scenes and a couple amazing new interviews. The thing is – I didn’t walk out of the movie scared of a nuclear holocaust. Disarmament is still a very important issue, I just wished they hadn’t used American fear and paranoia of terrorism as the main reason to support an important cause.

Is Toronto Broken? Movies Reviewed: This Movie is Broken, Thomas Pynchon: a Journey into the Mind of P

Do you ever get the feeling the city is broken? That everything is splitting apart at the seams? A honking parade of cars promoting exuberant football nationalism every time a ball enters a net half a world away, bringing traffic to a halt for a half a day with whistles, buzzing vuvuzelas and rhythmic car horns. And south of there, something more sinister: rows of riot police securitizing the crowned heads from potential cherry bombs, demanding photo ID’s from subway riders and arresting people as they come out for resembling someone “described in an anonymous phone call, ma’am”.

And making sure nobody gets too close to the downtown Freedom Fence. Yup, the G-20 is in town. Aah… I love the smell of teargas in the morning.

What to do? Well, you can always rub that magic lantern and end up at a movie. And if you’re feeling really rebellious, go to an indie movie in an underground movie theatre. Escapism does have a purpose after all.

One movie that seems especially appropriate is called “This Movie is Broken: a Rock Show Romance”, directed by Bruce McDonald (who did Road Kill, Hard Core Logo, and Pontypool), and written by Don McKellar. I caught it at last week’s NXNE music festival.

This is a totally Toronto movie, a concert film shot last summer, featuring Broken Social Scene, with a bunch of guest musicians all up on a stage at Harbourfront. But it’s also a very low key “boy meets girl” story.

The guy (Greg Calderone) tells his best buddy that he just woke up in bed, not with just anyone, but with the woman he had a crush on as a nine year old. His ultimate crush. Pretty, sophisticated Caroline (Georgina Reilly) is studying anthropology in Paris. Can you believe it? His blonde bearded buddy (played by Kerr Hewitt, wearing what a friend of mine refers to as an ironic hat) gets him to play up his status. When Caroline says she’s too busy to hang out that night, he casually says that’s too bad, cause I coulda got us a back stage pass at the Broken Social Scene concert. Oh yeah? says Caroline. That’s what I’m busy doing tonight. Oops. So he has to somehow get her into the concert by hook or by crook. Like I said, it’s a concert movie and a lightweight romance.

But I thought it went together perfectly. I’m not a follower of the band, so as an outsider – not a music critic or a fan of the group – I really enjoyed, and was totally entranced by the performances. This is one of those cases where just the story would have been too silly, and just the concert would have been too concert-y for me, but the sum total was just right.

Interestingly, the movie was shot last summer during the contract dispute (between the city government and the public workers, when no garbage was collected and it was deposited instead in city parks and baseball diamonds, with the garbage mountains reaching epic proportions). So it’s good, gritty, scenic Toronto. Since we survived that we can survive this, too.

Another movie I stumbled upon at NXNE, that should be easy to find online — it was made nine years ago. It’s a German/Swiss documentary: “Thomas Pynchon: a Journey into the Mind of P.”, directed by Donatello and Fosco Dubini.

This is a weird one! Pynchon is the guy who wrote the momentous tome Gravity’s Rainbow, and the more compact novel with the shorter name V. His books, and the movie itself, covers the huge, disturbing themes and incidents that obsessed people in the 69’s and 70’s: The Cuban Missile Crisis, the cold war, The assassination of JFK, the Vietnam war, LSD, the CIA, rockets to the moon… stuff like that. So, naturally, an obsessive cult has sprung up around this writer. What does he look like? Where does he live? Pynchon is known as a recluse who has never had his picture taken and whose personal information is kept, well, private.

So, apparently, urban legends about the guy abound. Did he use to dress up as a woman to go to bookstores unrecognized? Did he meet Lee Harvey Oswald on a crucial airplane trip? What’s his real connection to Timothy Leary? And the CIA? And who really showed up to accept the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow?

And in the background to all these strange unexplained mysteries is footage of subway rides sped up, and music slowed down featuring The Replacements. Warped 60’s pop hits slowed down and distorted till they sounds like this: Yummy Yummy yummy I’ve got love in my tummy… and C’mon baby light my fire… but stuck in tar. And then a train goes into a tunnel… I wonder that means? It’s a strange, low-budget, pop culture documentary about the followers of the Pynchon cult, and worth seeing.

But if you want some real escapism, to get away from it all, there are two new places in Toronto to do that. First, there will be two days of free movies at Carlton and Yonge street in the theatre there. It used to be the Cineplex Carlton, but closed a while back, and is now being re-opened as the Magic Lantern Carlton Theatre. It’s part of the same chain that operates the Rainbow Theatres, which are a little cheesy but a lot of fun, and always packed with students on a budget – they charge lower prices than the big chains, but show first-run movies on the old Cineplex-style small screens.

So now’s your chance to see all the ones you wanted to catch – academy award nominees, good kids movies, foreign films – all at one place. You can see Sarah Polley’s movie Away from Her, based on an Alice Munroe story about Alzheimers, the really great animated Fantastic Mr Fox, The Japanese movie Departures, about funerals, Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, and even How to Train your Dragon – an animated kids movie about a Viking kid who meets a dragon, but a really good one that all ages can enjoy.

I liked it.

Another movie theatre that recently opened downtown is the aptly named Toronto Underground Cinema. I last went to that theatre when it was the Golden Harvest, one of the last Chinese language movie houses – it’s at 186 Spadina, north of Queen. I still remember watching a Hong Kong zombie comedy (zom-com) where they put on the third reel of the film right after the first reel – and no one noticed for a while, everyone just thought the plot was a bit jumpy.

The theatre still has that slightly off-beat, don’t-know-what-to-expect feel about it. The Toronto Underground is deep underground, literally. It’s a nice big place, good stage and screen, popcorn, and cool old plumbing fixtures. The three guys who run this theatre program everything from amazing documentaries like “Gasland”, to cult classics like “Lady Terminator”, to present-day schlock like “MacGruber”.

They seem to be reviving the double feature – putting together two good movies that go together. If you’re in the mood this weekend, and really want to escape, what could be better than “Hot Tub Time Machine” matched with “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”. Toronto Underground is another theatre that attracts noisy and fun audiences ready to hoot and holler at the good parts.

This city is not broken at all  —  you just have to know where to go.

%d bloggers like this: