Decline and Fall. Films reviewed: Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles, The Strain, The Humorist

Posted in Action, Communism, Cooking, Disaster, Disease, documentary, Food, France, Horror, New York City, Russia, TV, USSR, Vampires by CulturalMining.com on May 29, 2020

Unedited, no music

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com.

It’s Spring Film Festival Season in Toronto, without cinemas but with exciting new movies still being shown online. I’m recording at home via CIUT, from my house to yours, so I apologize for the sound quality. This week I’m looking at three films, one each from TJFF and Hot Docs, as well as a TV series. There’s decadence in Versailles, pandemic and mayhem in New York, and decline in 80s Moscow.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles

Dir: Laura Gabbert

Yotam Ottolenghi is a London-based chef, restauranteur and cookbook author. A few years ago he receives an unusual offer from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (“The Met”): to pull together an event recreating the desserts of the Palace of Versailles, from Louis XIV till Louis XVI. He contacts five chefs from around the world to fly in and show their stuff. But these are no ordinary chefs; they each have an unusual style all their own. Dinara Kasko, a young woman from Ukraine, assembles architecturally-inspired cakes with gravity-defying minimalist structures on the outside, and fantastic layers on the inside. Dominique Ansel – inventor of the Cronut – features new takes on classic French patisseries at his Manhattan restaurant. Sam Bompas of London’s Bompas and Parr, injects life into that much-neglected cooking form: jellies and moulds. Ghaya Oliveira is a multi-talented Tunisian chef who evokes her grandmother’s ideas while creating French pastries; and Janice Wong, a Cordon Bleu-trained Singaporean culinary artist who paints and sculpts using chocolates.

This wonderful documentary shows the chefs at work behind the scenes at The Met, recreating the splendour, decadence and opulence of Louis XIV’s Versailles. The unique works they create especially for the show are really amazing, suggesting the architecture, the formal gardens, and the open-court style of that palace, where ordinary people, if elegantly dressed, were allowed to enter the palace grounds, a space traditionally fenced off from the public. The film also provides much needed historical context: Starving Parisians stormed the palace in 1789, while the documentary is set in an ostentatious Manhattan not too long before the pandemic lockdown. Parallels anyone?

The Strain (Season 1)

Created by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Dr Goodweather (Corey Stoll) is a NY epidemiologist who works for the CDC. He’s separated from his wife and son because he’s always on call for emergencies. He works alongside Nora (Mia Maestro) an Argentinian-born doctor. They are called into action when a 747 lands at JFK. Everyone on board – including the pilots – are dead. Is it a terrorist hijacking? No, it’s a highly contagious virus. Called to action, the doctors attempt to stop its spread before it infects everyone in the city. But they are thwarted by corrupt officials who allow an intricately-carved wooden box (a coffin?) out of the protected area. And it turns out that the infected passengers are really dead, just temporarily comatose. They’re actually still alive, or perhaps undead. Once infected, people change into zombie-like vampires under the thrall of an unseen master.

What’s unusual about this virus is how it spreads. A red, phallic piece of flesh, like a blind moray eel, shoots out from the infected person’s neck and sucks their victim’s blood. The disease carriers cluster in colonies underground and only come out at night. Manhattan quickly collapses into chaos with widespread crime, looting and mayhem due to the pandemic. But still no quarantine to stop its spread. Luckily, a Scooby Gang of mismatched players form a team. There’s Mr Setrakian (David Bradley) an old man with secrets fro the past who carries a silver sword; Vassily (Kevin Durand) is a public rat catcher who knows his way through all of Manhattan’s dark tunnels; Dutch Velders (Ruta Gedmintas) a champion hacker who disables the internet. They face a cabal of powerful men who want the infection to continue for their own nefarious purposes. But can the doctors and their allies stop the infection? Or is it too late?

The Strain is a great action/horror/thriller TV series about an uncontrolled pandemic, corrupt billionaires amd politicians, and the frontline medical workers trying to stop them. It has mystery, romance, sex, and violence with a good story arc, gradually revealed. It’s uncannily appropriate now, and for Toronto residents it’s fun to spot the localations – it was shot here. So if you’re looking for a good pandemic drama, and don’t know where to find it, look for The Strain.

The Humorist

Wri/Dir: Mikhail Idov

It’s 1984 in the Soviet Union. The Soyuz T-12 is in the sky, Chernenko heads a geriatric government, and Ronald Reagan casually talks about dropping atomic bombs on Russia. Boris Arkadiev (Aleksey Agranovich) is a successful comedian who has it all, adored by fans and government officials alike. He travels across the nation with a stand-up monologue called The Mellow Season, a tame routine about a trained monkey. Born in Byelorussia, he now lives in a nice Moscow apartment with his lawyer wife Elvira, and his two kids, his adoring six-year-old Polina and his rebellious teenage son Ilya. In public, he’s a national icon. But behind the scenes he’s an arrogant alcoholic, a prolific womanizer, and an all-around prick. Aside from himself, he worships the two Russian idols: vodka and the space program. He left religion behind but is conscious of anti-Jewish murmurs wherever he goes. And he’s a total sell-out. Once a serious but unsuccessful novelist, he went on to be a TV writer with his friend and rival Simon. Boris gave in to the official censors, while the less-successful Simon resisted. Now Boris is like the trained monkey in his monologue, performing on cue whenever ordered to do so.

But a series of events change his outlook. An unexpected encounter with a cosmonaut makes him rethink destiny, God and existence. And when he learns about the audacious black comics working in LA from his actor pal Maxim (Yuri Kolokolnikov) he realizes how dull and tired his own comedy has become. Will he stay a depressed, trained monkey for his corrupt masters in the army and KGB? Or will he risk his job, family and reputation by speaking from the heart?

The Humorist is an excellent dark comedy, set in the last days of the Soviet Union. Agranovich is great as a troubled, over-the-hill comic, like a Soviet Phillip Roth anti-hero. It’s brilliantly constructed starting with a garden party in Latvia, but degenerating into a soiree at a high-ranked party-member’s villa. It’s peak-decadence, where sagging old generals in formal wear dine with American porn playing elegantly on a TV in the background (they think it’s high society). The men later retreat to a banya wearing Roman togas, in a scene straight out of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The Humourist has an absurdist, almost surreal tone, where a midnight knock on the door could mean interrogation or the exact opposite. It’s filled with disturbing scenes of long underground corridors and empty Aeroflot planes. It kept me gripped — and squirming — until the end.

Great movie.

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles is now streaming at Hotdocs; The Humourist is playing online at TJFF, and you can find The Strain streaming, VOD, or on DVD.

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

Fall of the Patriarchs. Films reviewed: Downhill, Sonic the Hedgehog, Nose to Tail

Posted in Austria, Canada, comedy, Cooking, Family, Fantasy, Ski, Snow, Super Villains, Toronto, video games by CulturalMining.com on February 14, 2020

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

It’s Valentine’s Day today, as good a time as any to catch a new movie. So this week I’m looking at films about unusual relationships. There’s a husband and wife rejuvenating their marriage at an Alpen ski resort; a divorced, master chef dating the restaurant’s maitre d’;  and a super-sonic, electric-blue hedgehog in a bromance with a traffic cop.

Downhill

Dir: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Pete and Billie (Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are a happily-married couple. He’s a workaholic and a bit of chowderhead, while she’s an successful, if opinionated, lawyer. Billie is worried about her husband. He spends more time texting than playing with their two sons.  And he hasn’t been the sane since his own father died last summer. So when Pete books a family vacation at a ski chalet in the Austrian Alps — and handles all the arrangements — they are all looking forward to a fun, quiet time to heal their inner wounds. When they arrive, they are greeted by an Alpen sexpot named Charlotte (hilariously played by Miranda Otto: Aunt Zelda on  CHilling Adventures of Sabrina) who assures them nudity is encouraged and enforced. (Turns out the family lodge is nearby… they’re at the swingers chalet.)

Then Pete secretly invites his younger workmate Zach (Zach Woods) and Zach’s girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Zhao) to join them. But things really get bad when a planned avalanche crashes near the chalet, sending patrons on an outdoor patio running for cover in the sudden whiteout. Turns out, Billie stayed behind to protect the kids from what they thought was their final moment. And Pete the family patriarch? He grabbed his smart phone and ran, leaving his family to die. No one did die, of course, but now Billie and the kids feel abandoned by Pete in a dangerous crisis.

Will Pete ever regain Billie’s trust or his his kids’ respect? Or are his marriage, his family and his self confidence damaged beyond repair?

Downhill is a mildly funny dramatic comedy about the fall from power of the proverbial middle class white American male. It’s also an American remake of the brilliant Swedish film Force Majeure. But it’s less visually attractive, less biting and bitter than the original, trading subtlety for the broad strokes of tired Euro stereotypes.  Odd sex has been replaced by straightforward moral lessons. Louis-Dreyfus is great as Billie, conveying her hurt and suspicion through a single squint or pursed lip. Ferrell is less successful as a clueless Joe Biden-type, seemingly unaware of his imminent downfall.

Downhill is OK, but not great.

Sonic the Hedgehog

Dir: Jeff Fowler

Sonic is an electric-blue hedgehog who lives in a cave  furnished with a beanbag chair and a ping pong table, near Green Hills, Montana. He looks like a plush toy with spaghetti legs, a button nose and bright red sneakers.  And he can run faster than anything else on earth. He’s so fast he can play ping pong with himself. He’s so fast he can play all the bases on a baseball game at once, pitching a fastball from the pitcher’s mound and then hitting it from home plate. When he’s truly in danger he rolls up into a small blue ball and can generate mammoth amounts of electricity. He carries a bag of golden rings, magic portals that can instantly take hint to any place in the universe.

Sonic is a social animal who speaks perfect English (voiced by Ben Schwartz) and would love to meet friends, but is forced to remain hidden. If anyone found him – or discovered his secret powers – he would be in great danger.

But when he accidentally triggers an interstate blackout, the DC generals fear an enemy attack. They send out an expert to solve the problem and capture the so-called terrorist. This expert is the infamous Dr Robotnik (Jim Carrey) a brash and arrogant genius with multiple PhDs and a curly moustache. He plans to find the elusive source of the blackout… and dissect him. Luckily, Sonic is taken under the wing of the local speed-trap cop named Tom (James Marsden). Although dubious at first, eventually Tom takes to the hedgehog and the two become fast friends They set off on a roadtrip to San Francisco to evade Robotnik, recover the lost gold rings and save the world. But who will triumph? The evil Dr Robotnik? Or the fast little hedgehog and his buddies?

Sonic the Hedgehog is a kids movie based on the famous Sega video game. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, movies based on video games is the worst new genre out there. But you know what? I actually enjoyed this one. It’s silly of course, but the special effects are terrific. And the scenes shot from Sonic’s point of view, where everyone else seems frozen in time – like a barfight in a roadhouse where the spiny mammal runs rampant around redneck bikers – are totally fun to watch. OK, there’s relentless product placement (the whole movie is basically an ad) but still… it is fun. And Jim Carrey is a perfect as the villain and very funny.

If you see it, remember to watch it until the credits roll.

Nose to Tail

Wri/Dir: Jesse Zigelstein

Dan (Aaron Abrams) is an arrogant, self-centred master chef at a restaurant in downtown Toronto. He oversees every dish and inspects each outsourced vegetable that arrives in the morning. If anyone in the kitchen steps out of line, he lashes out like a boot camp sergeant. Dan starts his day with a makeshift breakfast of single malt whiskey and prescription drugs. The restaurant is everything to him. He depends on Chloe (Lara Jean Chorostecki) at the front of house, Keith, his Chef de Cuisine ( Brandon McKnight) in the kitchen, and Steven his sommelier (Salvatore Antonio) to keep the wine cellar well stocked. Problem is his world is collapsing all around him.

He’s four months overdue on the rent. Online bloggers are dissing his abrasive manners (fuckin’ millennials!). Keith is heading for greener pastures and his bills are piling up. He stood up Chloe (his on-again, off-again girlfriend) and has berated and verbally abused his entire staff, burning bridges all around him. Then his ex-wife drops by with unexpected news, and a popular new food truck parks right across the street. Everything depends on a high school friend and millionaire (Ennis Esmer) who is coming for dinner that night. Will he invest in the business? Or will the restaurant – just like the heritage pig he cuts up on camera, from nose to tail – go belly up?

This isn’t the first drama about a high-strung egotistical chef –  think Bradley Cooper in Burnt and Jon Favreau in Chef, to name just two – but Nose to Tail has a level of intensity and density – the whole movie lasts just one day – that beats those other two hands down. And Aaron Abrams (The Go-Getters) gives a tour de force performance, keeping close to the boiling point till the bitter end.

Downhill, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Nose to Tail all open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Daniel Garber talks with Sofia Bohdanowicz about Maison du Bonheur

Posted in Canada, Cooking, documentary, Fashion, France, Movies by CulturalMining.com on August 17, 2018

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

Juliane is a retired astrologer in her 70s who lives in a Paris apartment in the 18th arrondissement, in Montmartre. She believes her personal presentation – hair, makeup, clothes, and shoes – must always be impeccable. Her life should be full of delicious food, lovely colours and fast friends. And her apartment, part of Haussmanns original design, should be a veritable “house of happiness”.

Maison du Bonheur is a wonderful new documentary that follows Juliane over the course of a month by a Canadian filmmaker who comes to stay with her. It records the mundane, yet fascinating, details of the everyday life of a classic parisienne, even as it subtly reveals her — and the filmmaker’s — unspoken secret histories. The film was directed, shot and edited on a microbudget by Toronto-based Sofia Bohdanowicz. Winner of the Jay Scott Prize, the Emerging Canadian Directors award (at VIFF) and many more, this is Sofia’s second film.

Maison du Bonheur opens tonight at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.

I spoke with Sofia at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Work. Movies reviewed: Burnt, Truth, Victoria PLUS Sherlock Holmes

Posted in 2000s, Berlin, Conspiracy Theory, Cooking, Crime, Cultural Mining, Drama, Journalism, Movies, UK by CulturalMining.com on October 30, 2015

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

f_560x272Do you live to work or work to live?

Take the world’s most famous detective Sherlock Holmes, for example. He saw his whole life as his work. But a theatrical reboot of Sherlock’s story that just opened in Toronto (starring David Arquette as the detective with Toronto’s Kyle Gatehouse as his flamboyant rival Moriarty) sees it differently. In this version, Holmes is not the expected obsessive-compulsive driven genius; rather he’s a drug addict whose giddy laughter sets the stage. This Holmes is a self-absorbed ninny and not very bright. It’s Watson’s skillful storytelling that turns him into a legend.

But getting back to work. This week I’m looking at three movies about people at work. There’s an American chef in London, an investigative journalist in New York, and a Spanish barista in Berlin. I liked all three of these movies, but each for a different reason.

UNTITLED JOHN WELLS PROJECTBurnt
Dir: John Wells

Adam (Bradley Cooper) was once a top chef in Paris with two Michelin stars. But he squandered it all in a crash-and-burn blowout, leaving fellow chefs in a lurch: fired, bankrupt, or even in prison. He hides himself away for five years, but reappears, this time in London, trying for his third star. He’s homeless, friendless and penniless.BURNT

But somehow, he manages to convince the chefs whose lives he ruined and the manager Tony (Daniel Bruhl) who bankrolled him to give him one last chance. He injects some new blood: a stubborn single mom Helene (Sienna Miller) who’s a master saucier, and says Adam is five years behind, and a young but ambitious cook he discovers in a local sandwich shop. But can Adam (L-R) SIENNA MILLER and BRADLEY COOPER star in BURNT.run a flawless restaurant that’s creative enough to win three stars? Or will his fiery temper and his drug history destroy him?

Burnt is just the sort of movie I thought I’d hate: a big star playing a self-centred prima donna in a superficial story. But I ended up really liking it. Bradley Cooper is entertaining and believable as Adam, and the rest of the cast — al the people in the kitchen — is like a whole bunch of Bradley Coopers from all across Europe. Germany’s Daniel Bruhl as the manager is huge right now, Riccardo Scamarcio, who plays a jailbird chef, starred in some of Italy’s best movies, France’s Omar Sy was in Intouchables,  and UK’s Sienna Miller, the female lead is also sympathetic. So if you’re in the mood for a light foodie-movie, Burnt is it.

73686-TRUTH_4Truth
Dir: James Vanderbilt

It’s post-9/11, at CBS News in New York City. George W Bush is in the White House and the US has invaded Iraq in a fruitless search for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) is a prize-winning journalist. She broke the infamous Abu Ghraib story about the torture of prisoners by US soldiers in Iraq. Now she produces stories for reporter and anchorman Dan Rather (Robert Redford) at 60 Minutes Wednesday, the second edition of the popular news show.

Around this time, there are numerous headlines about George Bush’s military record during the Vietnam War. He never saw combat, instead serving safely in Texas with the National 73684-TRUTH_2Guard. This is well-kown. Then a reporter named Mike (Topher Grace) discovers some new evidence and a credible witness to add a new twist. He says that Bush never served in the National Guard at all, only on paper. And the anonymous witness gives him copies of letters and documents that prove the theory. And Mapes brings in numerous experts to attest to the authenticity of the handwriting of the documents. But soon after the story plays out, online pundits begin 72876-2S4A6171to question its authenticity. And some of the witnesses and experts start to retract their statements. The story morphs from the expose itself into a so-called scandal about the reporters and the documents. Will CBS news bow to conservative pressure and leave Mapes – and possibly Dan Rather — to take the blame? Or will it back its journalists?

Truth is not a fast-moving political thriller like All the Presidents Men; rather, it’s a slower drama about the demise of investigative journalism. Although a bit preachy, I liked this film a lot for its ideas and its precise telling of a little known piece of history. It records the backstage drama at CBS’s once-respected news show. And Cate Blanchett is fantastic as Mary Mapes.

547eb2e7-c857-4c91-ab66-682354ef66c8Victoria
Dir: Sebastien Schipper

Victoria (Laia Costa) is a Spanish woman who works in a Berlin café on the early morning shift. One night (as she leaves a nightclub to get some sleep before work) she meets four guys who had just been denied entrance into the same club. They are “real Berliners” they tell her, not like those poseurs. They’re scruffy, working-class guys with not enough money and too much time on their hands. Their nicknames are Sonne, Boxer, Blinker and Fuß (Frederick Lau, Franzea9cfda8-d5da-41b9-ab4a-3240e95ef512 Rogowski, Burak Yigit and Max Mauff). For whatever reason, Victoria finds them charming, especially Sonne, and spontaneously agrees to hang out with them as they wander the deserted streets of Berlin in an impromptu birthday party.

But the tone changes when Sonne asks Victoria for a favour. Namely, they need a replacement for Fuß for a quick job, right now, that Boxer (an ex-con) has agreed to do. Fuß is too drunk to go, so they need a fourth person. Turns out, the job is an early morning bank heist, involving money, guns and a lot of danger. Will it all work out? 391118fe-b938-46e4-a787-dfc5dfa0449eAre Victoria and Sonne falling for each other? And can a few short hours before dawn completely change a person’s life?

Victoria is a remarkable movie that unfolds on location in early morning Berlin. What’s amazing is that it’s 2½ hours long, shot in real time by a single, handheld camera. No cuts, no breaks, no editing… it’s one constant shot. This includes violence, action, love scenes, chase scenes, everything! is shot as it happens. Never seen anything like it. And it’s a good story, too. But it’s the technique – that single, unbroken shot – that sets this movie apart.

Burnt, Victoria and Truth all open today in Toronto. Check your local listings. And Sherlock Holmes is now playing at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto.

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

Likes. Movies reviewed: Chef, Being Ginger PLUS Luminato

Posted in Cooking, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, Scotland, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on June 6, 2014

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

Do you like to “like” things? Then you might like Toronto’s Luminato festival of music, dance, theatre and film starts this weekend. There’s a free event on Sunday at the Air Canada Centre where you can join a music mob. You bring whatever musical instrument  you like to play and join in with what might be the biggest performance of Ravel’s Bolero ever.

But what if you like something smaller, more personal? This week I’m looking at two low-key American movies about ordinary, single guys. One’s a divorced dad who just wants to cook what he likes; the other’s a university student who wants to meet a girl who likes guys like him.

CHef 1Chef
Wri/Dir: Jon Favreau

Chris Casper (Jon Favreau) is a famous chef who lives in LA. He’s not one of those namby-pamby chefs – no way! His umami bites back, his artisanal gochujang packs a wallop. You can tell Carl’s a tough guy from the knuckle tattoos that say el jefe. He must have spent time in foodie prison. So don’t mess with this guy — he’s got a temper.

But one day, a local critic (Oliver Platt) – and his former booster — revisits the restaurant. He says the food there is tired, unadventurous and mediocre. What?! Unadventurous? I’ll show you adventure! Carl is furious. He learns about a newfangled social network known as “twitter”, and shoots him a nasty reply. But favreau chef the film 4he doesn’t realize that everybody can read his tweets. It goes viral and events spiral. He challenges the critic to come back and try his new menu. But the conservative restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) insists he stick to the traditional dishes. Carl says no, so it’s goodbye Carl.

Meanwhile, on the home front, his kid feels neglected by his divorced father. The weekly visits to theme parks don’t amount to quality time. There’s no communication, no heart-to-hearts. Carl puts all his effort into cooking, but nothing chef the film 3into just hanging with his boy (Emjay Anthony). His beautiful, nice, smart, and rich ex-wife (why, exactly, did they get divorced?) has a plan. Inez (Sofia Vergara) invites Carl to come down to Miami with them. Once there, he gets an old food truck and fixes it up. Now he can devote himself to cooking while spending lost time with his son. So, with the help of his sidekick sous-chef Martin (John Leguizamo), the three of them embark on a cross-country tour, learning local recipes and making friends as they drive. But what will happen when they’re back in LA?chef the film 2

This is not a bad movie, especially if you like beautiful scenery and lots of scenes of people cooking and eating delicious recipes. Still, the social networking subplot (what is this strange new thing called the “internet” and how does it work?) feels embarrassingly old and dated. Chef is not a comedy either, since it’s basically lacking in laughs. And it’s not a love story – no romance or sex in this movie. What it is is a very light family drama about a middle-aged foodie getting to know his son. And you know what? I think that’s good enough.

BeingGinger 6Being Ginger
Dir: Scott P. Harris

Are redheads discriminated against? Are they the object of derision because of the colour of their hair? So asks a new documentary. Scott is an American college student in Edinburgh. And he wants to meet a pretty girl. The problem is, he can’t seem to find a girl to date. Why? He thinks it’s because he’s a ginger, a guy with red hair. And women, especially in the Being Ginger illustrationUK, he says, don’t like gingers. (Scott was bullied as a kid, and it left him feeling insecure.)

So he thinks by interviewing women with a camera, maybe he’ll find one who likes redheads. (Incidentally, he doesn’t want a redhead either: “Gingers don’t date gingers”: it feels creepy and incestuous to him – too close to home.)

BeingGinger+still+3a-1But the people he meets aren’t very sympathetic: (Audio clip) Whoa! That’s harsh.

Finally he hears about a huge ginger convention – a veritable redhead festival in the Netherlands. It’s an eye-opener for Scott. In a sea of orange, he finally finds a place where he belongs. Is this like the black power movement? Scott wonders. Uh… no. But the festival might help him overcome his doubts and maybe meet a ginger-lovin’ woman.

Being Ginger is a cute, small, and very personal documentary (with beautiful animated sequences) about one guy’s struggle to accept his redness.

Chef and Being Ginger both open today in Toronto – check your local listings. And there’s a ginger appreciation screening with a Q&A at the Bloor Cinema on June 10th, free for all you redheads.

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

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

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

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

Devil’s Double

Dir: Lee Tamahori

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

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

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

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

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

Next, another movie about badly treated servants.

The Help

Dir: Tate Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dir: Rupert Wyatt

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

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

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

Final Destination 5

Dir: Steven Quale

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

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

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

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

Gun to the Head

Dir: Blaine Thurier

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

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

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

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

Super Macho Friday! Films reviewed: Love and Other Drugs; Black Swan; Kings of Pastry

I was recently in The States for American Thanksgiving, and at an American chain bookstore, I noticed a whole section – not just a table, not just a shelf, but a whole section — devoted to “paranormal teenage romances”! I’ve seen that ultimate teenaged paranormal romantic vampire trilogy (the eclipse trilogy) – and I have to say, they were awful, I couldn’t find the appeal in any of them. But different people like different things…I guess it’s a matter of taste.

You might think you like things that blow up, crashing cars, scary monsters, blood and guts, and fistfights. Yeah, me too. That’s why I’m calling this week’s reviews Super Macho Friday, so I can talk about some uber-alpha-testosterone-laden action-packed movies. Yes!!! We’re going to see three rough and tough movies about cut-throat competition, nerves of steel, ironman endurance…! One’s a romantic comedy, one’s a film about ballet dancing, and one’s a documentary on… exquisite French sweeties?

OK I lied, they’re not stereotypically masculine as movies go, but, keep listening: some of them are well worth watching.

Love and Other Drugs
Dir: Edward Zwick

Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a retail salesman in the mid-1990s whose aim is to get laid – on the job – as often as possible. But he gets fired for hitting on his boss’s girlfriend. He’s young, handsome, ambitious, and out of work. Meanwhile, his slovenly, obnoxious, unattractive little brother Josh, who has made a fortune in the dot-com bubble, offers to set him up with a sales job at a global pharmaceutical giant. If his sales reach a certain target, he’ll get to move away from the backwater he’s placed in to the big-time: Chicago.

So he trains hard, works hard, and learns the trade, while also sticking to his hobby. Is he trying to pick up women in order to up his sales? Or is he working as a traveling salesman to sleep with the metaphorical farmer’s daughters? Who knows? Either way, he’s being trounced by a more successful, rival salesman: an ex-marine peddling prozac. But, after bribing a doctor to let him dress as an intern, he encounters a beautiful woman, Maggie (Anne Hathaway) a barrista and artist with early onset Parkinson’s. Sounds interesting so far? It is, sort of.

After that, unfortunately, the rest of the movie is just about them jumping in and out of bed, and whether their casual sex will develop into a loving relationship. Granted, there’s lots of gratuitous shots of the two movie stars running around scantily dressed… but the movie itself was pointless and boring. Will Maggie and Jake stay together? Will he get his transferred to Chicago? Will she continue to make coffee and snap photos and buy medications? Who cares? You get the impression even they don’t really care. And when the movie tries to be funny, it usually fails miserably, like the lame scene about Viagra-induced priapism and a three way with a model-like saleswoman in a hot tub (“She’s Thai, and I’m Thai-curious”).

It doesn’t even really deal with the real problems of big pharmaceuticals, aside from the industry’s high prices and competitiveness. Instead, it was more of a non-stop product placement for the drugs themselves. They even have a depressed homeless guy whose life is turned around after garbage-picking Prozac samples. Oliver Platt as his trainer and Hank Azaria as a GP are bth great, but other than that, unless you really love Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, (or have a thing for awful 90’s music, like The Macarena) this is a stupid, pointless romantic movie that goes nowhere.

Black Swan
Dir: Darren Aronofsky

I reviewed this during the Toronto Film festival, and it stayed with me – it’s a haunting, moving film.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina, pure of heart, who wants the lead role in Swan Lake. She’s been raised to reach perfection, en pointe, by her relentless stage mother who was also in the ballet, but never made it big. Nina doesn’t drink or smoke or have sex – she still lives at home, she’s bullemic, plays with stuffed animals, wears a fuzzy pink coat, and listens to her little music box with a dancing ballerina by her bed.

But the ballet director, played Vincent Cassel, wants to put new life into the that cliched old ballet. He pushes her to also play the role of the Black Swan, the sinister evil twin of the Swan Queen. For this, he wants her to abandon her remaining childhood and purity and to become angry, passionate and sexual. He’s exploitative and cruel. Meanwhile, Beth the former diva at this ballet, (Winona Ryder) is forced to retire, and a new competitor, Lily (Mila Kunis) is also trying for the role, and trying everything she can to take it from Nina. Sophisticated Lily is Nina’s opposite – sex, drugs, smoking, and backstabbing all come as second nature to her. Nina has to hold on, both to her role in the ballet, and to her tenuous grip on reality.

The big question is: does Aronofsky’s latest venture work or not. I have to admit, at times, this movie drifted into high camp, and felt like nothing more than a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”, another movie about backstabbing dancers.

That said, I think it’s a totally watchable classic melodrama and psychological thriller, with great acting by the two main women, plus very enjoyable overacting by Winona Ryder as the former prima donna and Barbara Hershey as the over-the-top stage mom. This movie’s also stunning on the eyes and ears, with amazing production values.

I think Aronofsky knows exactly what he’s doing, neatly alternating three styles: The super-real, documentary-like footage just like in The Wrestler – behind the scenes bone-cracking, massages, rehearsals, warm-ups and make-ups; the scenery-chewing catfights of melodramatic soap opera; and surreal, drug-induced psychological fantasies (like in his great “Requiem for a Dream”). For me, this balance worked.

Kings of Pastry
Dir: Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker

The title says it all: this is about the cut-throat competition to be accepted as a Meilleur Ouvrier de France and allowed to wear the coveted collar. The movie follows the competitors from Europe and North America, as they go from stage to stage, constructing elaborate spun sugar sculptures, designing multi-layered chocolate truffles, obscure pastries, and impossibly complex cakes. It’s like a reality show or Iron Chef – except it’s not a TV show competition. It’s the real thing. They all compete, with an olympic-like ethos, to create these monuments of grotesquerie.

Part of the competition is to take these huge, delicate and breakable constructions, lift them up, using their own hands, and carry them all the way to the table where the judges do their judging. And even though this is an unscripted documentary, you just know it, one of the chefs is going to stumble…

When I was a kid, they did the learning numbers sequence on Sesame Street – some of you might remember this – and one film clip that still sticks in my mind is, in each sequence, there would be this guy at the top of a staircase in a white chef’s toque announcing something like “Seven Pumpkin Pies!” And then dropping them all.

Anyway, I don’t get it. I’m not a sweet tooth so I don’t see why you’d breaking your back creating hideous spun-sugar displays and petit fours arangements, but clearly some people live for this stuff. And the chefs, obviously, still value these old-school distinctions. I guess you could say they want to be archaic, and eat it, too. The film starts slowly, with the chefs in their home territories, practicing spinning flawless sugar ribbons; but once they’re at the big competition, it really heats up. Tthis is an excellent documentary, and the ultimate dessert film.

Just to review, today I talked about Love and Other Drugs, now playing, Black Swan opening today, check your local listings, and Kings of Pastry which is playing at The TIFF Lightbox – go to tiff.net for details. Also starting today is Sell Out!, a funny and unusual satirical musical-comedy about Rafflesia, a reality show host whose ambition comes to the rescue when she finds a new way to attract Malaysian audiences – using death as the ultimate draw.

August Grab Bag. Movies Reviewed: Eat, Pray, Love; Centurion; Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Eat Pray Love

Dir: Ryan Murphy

Liz (Julia Roberts), a successful writer, gets her fortune told in Bali, telling her her destiny. Soon after, her marriage collapses and she feels empty and forlorn, so she sets off on a round-the-world tour of popular vacation spots to spend some of her dough. In Rome she learns about Dolce Far Niente – which she interprets as knowing how to order food in a restaurant. In India at an Ashram, she learns to find her inner balance by being smug, condescending and vaguely pissed off as she scrubs the stone floors. Then in Bali, settling in to the island’s most expensive hotel, she meditates and rides her bike. She meets a woman who has to live in a rented place, not a house of her own – can you imagine? She feels so sympathetic she decides to raise money on Facebook. What a philanthropist!

I wanted to like it – it had beautiful scenery – Bali, Rome, New York, India – and great actors (Billy Crudup, James Franco, Javier Bardem) and I’m not a Julia Roberts hater – I like her. I’ve even heard the writer Elizabeth Gilbert (whom the main character is based on) talk on the radio, and she seems really smart and interesting. But this movie is just horrible. Some people seemed to walk out happy, but I can’t figure out why. It’s one of the worst, stupidest and most annoyingly clichéd and obnoxious movies I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s a typical line, an example of the degree of profundity she encounters on her quest for wholeness and self-actualization: “If you want to get to the castle, Groceries, you’ve got to swim the moat!” Bleaaaggghh! Maybe if this movie had been called the Ugly American, I would have understood it better.

In the beginning I was hoping that all the cute supporting roles would make up for Julia Roberts’ insufferable character. But that didn’t pan out. Instead we get to see anorexic Julia saying “I’m fat – look at my muffin top”. And the next scene is her squeezing into a pair of designer jeans, over her model-bodied flat belly.

You get to see her in Italy learning how to talk with her hands. “Like-a this-a?” says Julia Roberts. (Did she actually say like-a this-a?)

Eat Pray Love:

I ate my popcorn, I prayed the movie would get just a little bit better, and I loved finally getting out of that god-awful place.

“Centurion”

Dir: Neil Marshall

I went to this movie, at Toronto After Dark Festival, partly because Michael Fassbender was in the main role.  He was amazing in two British movies over the last couple years: “Hunger”, about IRA Bobby Sands’s prison hunger strike and a coming of age drama, “Fish Tank”. This movie, while set in the British Isles, is…a little bit different. To say the least.

This is a sword and sandals epic, about the period when the Roman soldiers fought against the Picts. This was way before all those nouveau immigrants, those Angles, Jutes and Saxons moved in and spoiled the neighbourhood. This was way back when. So in a big battle, the Roman legions were there fighting those Picts up in the north.

They’re tough mofos, those Picts are, with all their pictish ways, and blue face paint. Don’t mess with them. But the Romans are tough too. Anyway, there’s battle after battle and skirmish after skirmish before the actually story takes off. Lots of splatt, and uggh, and aaah, as another head gets chopped off and plopped into a water barrel. Anyway… so Quintas Dias (“I am a soldier of Rome, I will not yield!”) a centurian, and a Pict by birth, has been training for fighting since his childhood. He speaks the local language, and knows the way around. After the failed attempt to beat the locals, he just wants to rescue a Roman general and call it a day. But in their botched attempt, someone in his multi-cultural platoon does something that sets the whole tribe against them — till the death. They have to escape and make it back to the main Roman legion. So there are lots of scenic mountains and rivers and waterfalls as they try to outwit the dangerous Picts and an expert tracker who always seems to find them: a fur-clad and mute Lisbeth Salander-type rival, played by the striking Olga Kurylenko. I started to get dizzy when I thought of all the swooping airplanes they had to rent to shoot this movie – it felt like every second scene had to start with a swooshing aerial view of where they were fighting next.

And on the way, they encounter a pictish witch to add a further dimension to the story. I liked it, just for it’s bigness. I got bored of all the killing and stabbing and stuff, but it brightened a bit in the second half. If you like very bloody, Roman big-screen war movies, then this is the movie for you. (I liked it better than “Gladiator” and the very plastic-looking “Troy”, but that’s not saying much.)

Scott Pilgrim vs the World

Dir: Edgar Wright

Based on the graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, and starring Michael Cera in the title role.

Scott Pilgrim is a nerdy guy in a band. He shares a bachelor apartment with a gay dude who gets laid way more than he does. Scott’s still pining for a girlfriend who dumped him a year ago. And he’s dating a highschool girl (“we hold hands”) named Knives Chau, who’s gradually becoming more of a fan of the band than a GF. But she’s crushing heavily on Scott Pilgrim. They play Dance Dance Revolution together in perfect Harmony. Then he meets the girl of his dreams – literally of his dreams! – at a party, and they sort of hit it off, even though he’s a wimpy Toronto guy, and she’s a beautiful and glamorous American, from New York, who changes her hair style each week.

The thing is, she has lots of baggage from her various exes, all evil, all more successful, and all out to ambush Scott when he’s least expecting it. So he has to fight them if he wants to stay with Ramona Flowers, that’s the name of his new beautiful and glamorous girlfriend.

So he goes through a series of 8-byte video battles – battles of the bands, Street Fighter skirmishes, skateboard derbies on the hills around Casa Loma… covering the whole indie, comics, video games, manga, electronica, clubs and party scene of downtown Toronto of the 90’s and 2000’s. It’s retro without being specifically any retro period. And the whole movie is told as if the area of Toronto, within, say, thirty blocks of the comic store The Beguiling were trapped inside an old Nintendo set – and the only way to get out is to beat all these villains.

This is a great movie and the most Toronto movie I’ve seen in a long time. References to Honest Ed’s, Pizza Pizza, the Second Cup, even SARS are everywhere. I’m not even going into all the other characters – too many, too funny – but I liked this movie. It’s just so Toronto, with all the cool people drinking beer at the parties… y’know? I think I was at that party in the movie. OK, maybe I wasn’t there, but I was invited, and I didn’t go, cause it would have sucked anyway.

Anyway, you have to watch it to see whether Scott Pilgrim wins his awesome battles or whether the world beats him and just leaves his burnt husk there in an Annex alley off Bloor Street: Game Over!

Finally, the 11th annual ImagineNATIVE Festival of great new movies by indigenous peoples here and around the world, is starting tonight in Toronto, and continuing for the next five days. You should check this out — It’s opening tonight with Boy, a Maori coming-of-age story, that was a huge hit in New Zealand. Look online at ImagineNative.org .

Folk Heroes. Movies reviewed: Soul Kitchen, Mesrine: Killer Instinct, The Disappearance of Alice Creed, plus Joan Rivers A Piece of Work, and Toronto After Dark Festival

We’re at the hottest time of the year, the dog days of summer, and, with all the sticky, sultry weather, some people get boiled into limp submission… and others just boil over. This week, there was a Johnny Paycheck at Jet Blue Airlines, who’d had it. After being bonked on the head by a falling piece of luggage, he took to the airplane mike, and mouthed the equivalent of the old ’70’s country song “Take this job and shove it, I ain’t workin’ any more”. The flight attendant, Steven Slater, activated the airplane emergency slide, grabbed a couple cans of beer, and slid away. They’re already calling him a folk hero – someone who went with his feelings.

Well, there are some movies opening this weekend, with some very different takes on what to do with your life, including its anger and frustration. And one of them is about an actual folk hero.

Soul Kitchen

Dir: Fatih Akin

This movie is about Zinos (Adam Bousdoukos), a German-Greek guy from Hamburg who owns a rundown diner in an old warehouse. One day, he’s with his rich girlfriend at a big family dinner, when something happens. A customer has complained that his soup is cold. No big deal. Except… the soup is cold gazpacho. So when the customer demands he heat it up in the microwave, the chef goes ballistic and comes out of te kitchen brandishing a cleaver.

Zinos witnesses all this and hires him on as a diner chef. The movie –aside from all the great food shots of chopping and stirring, is really about poor Zinos’s misadventures as he tries to get his restaurant and his life back in order. He has to deal with his icy girlfriend who has relocated to Shanghai; his brother, a thief and gambler on day parole who wants a job but doesn’t want to work; Socrates, an old bearded guy in a Greek fisherman’s cap who’s building a wooden boat behind the restaurant; and the various city zoning officials and real-estate speculators who seem to be teaming up to make his life miserable. And then there’s his bad back…

It’s unusual to see German movies with multi-ethnic casts and storylines – that’s an interesting change. And this cute, light German comedy has lots of scenes of diverse characters rolling with the punches, and eventually exploding. It’s an OK movie, (not a great one) with lots of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Actually, “Soul Kitchen” feels most like a TV sitcom pilot: Introducing all the madcap friends of the beleaguered main character who you can enjoy watching in his crazy musical restaurant, week after week…

The next movie, a biopic, is a lot more powerful.

“Mesrine: Killer Instinct”

Dir: Jean-Francois Richet

Screenplay: Abdel Raouf Dafri (who wrote last year’s amazing prison gangster flick Un Prophete / A Prophet).

Jacques Mesrine, not so well known here, is a full-fledged folk hero in France, and maybe in Quebec. After serving his term with the French army in Algeria (France’s “Vietnam”) he has to move back in with his parents. His mother is demanding, his father is conciliatory and he hates them both. Jacques (or Jacky) wants pride, he wants glory.

He becomes a burglar and a thief of some renown. He can talk himself out of trouble, no prison can hold him. He’s quick with a gun, and a even quicker when there’s a chance of meeting a pretty girl. He rides sports cars, dresses in suits, and keeps a narrow military moustache. When his beautiful and fiery-tempered Spanish wife Sofia leaves him after a violent incident, he takes off for greener pastures. Soon, he’s in Montreal in the late 60’s, with a new Bonnie to his Clyde: Jeanne Schneider. And he shares Molson Ex stubbies and bottles of Canadian Club with his new best buddy, Jean-Paul Mercier from the FLQ. And when they end up in a horrific Quebec penitentiary, they vow: dehors ou mort — to get out or die trying.

“Mesrine: Killer Instinct” is extremely rich, and epic in its scope. From the slick, period scenes of the Parisian demimonde of the 60’s, to the vast hyper-realism of Montreal – forests, bridges, ship yards, and apartment complexes — it all rings true.

The acting – especially the wiry, charismatic star Vincent Cassel, who’s made a career playing fighters and anti-heroes – is absolutely amazing. Gerard Depardieu as his gangster boss, Roy Dupuis as his Quebec friend; and the two female leads, Cecile de France, and Elena Anaya as two of his lovers — they’re all just perfect.

This is a great look at an extremely violent gangster who captured the imaginations of a generation. The movie also gives, for the first time, a stark look at the Canadian prison system in the 1970’s. Really shocking. I do recommend this movie, just be aware it’s quite violent, and it only covers the first part of Mesrine’s life. (“Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1” is coming soon.)

“The Disappearance of Alice Creed”

Dir: J Blakeson

Also opening this weekend, is a thriller I saw last year at the Toronto Film Festival.

Alice Creed is a young woman woman who is kidnapped, bound, gagged and tied to a bed by two masked men. They have a foolproof plan — to hide her in a high rise apartment, without her ever knowing who they are. Their plan is flawless… until it begins to fall apart.

Is she really a total stranger? How

can these two men trust each other? And how innocent a victim is the young woman?

As the three players in this intrigue shift alliance, blame, and loyalty, the power equation constantly changes.

Eventually it all breaks down to who gets the satchel of cash. But isn’t there some sort of unwritten rule for movies — that there can only be so many plot twists before it completely loses its point?

Spindly plot legs can’t support a story with too many heavy plot reversals, and this one has more than you can count. I liked the fact that it has a tiny cast — just the three of them — and I liked seeing Eddie Marsan (the loopy driving teacher from “Happy-Go-Lucky”: En! Ra! Ha!) in another unusual role. But the acting is better than the story. This is not terrible, but not a great one either.

And if these three movies aren’t enough, there’s a fourth one opening this weekend: “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” (directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg) a tell-all documentary about the famous stand-up comic and talk-show host.

This is a really funny movie, with lots of the comedian’s offensive one-liners. You also get to see her behind the scenes reconstructing her face and body for the audiences; and her personal struggles with her husband, daughter, agent and career. As someone who is not a fan of Joan Rivers, and had never actually seen her perform before, even on a talk show, the movie was surprisingly entertaining. I don’t like celebrity culture at all, but this is one good, funny documentary. I don’t know if Joan Rivers can ever be called a folk hero, but she’s a real piece of work.

Finally, for people who love horror, cult, action and science fiction movies, you’re in for a treat. It’s time again for the Toronto After Dark festival.

One full week of al the ninjas, zombies, aliens, robots and monsters you can stand. I haven’t seen any of the movies playing, but the titles say it all: “RoboGeisha”; “Alien vs Ninja”; “The Human Centipede”; and a new remake of the revenge classic “I Spit on your Grave”. Whoa! More scary B-movies than you can shake a stick at. And there’s a special appearance by none other than Eli Roth (who directed “Hostel” and acted in “Inglourious Basterds”) along with the cast of his latest production, “The Last Exorcism”. After Dark is also the kind of festival that attaches short films before the main feature, something that should be done more often.

Strangers in a Strange Land: Alice in Wonderland, The Green Zone, Cooking with Stella

To provide adventure, mystery or comedy, directors often turn to far-away locations to add a bit of novelty to their films. The hero often starts out as a stranger in a weird place, a fish out of water, but over the course of the movie, she learns to adapt, fit in, fall in love, become friends… or else escapes out of that strange hell-hole she found herself in. In a good movie set abroad, you get to see some things you never would otherwise, maybe get to know some local characters — not just the hero from back home — and, ideally, hear them speak in a language the viewer can understand, or at least one with subtitles.

A bad movie of this type (like the popular and critically acclaimed “Lost in Translation”) just uses the locals as scenery, their lines untranslated, leaving the viewer in the dark as to their real characters. It’s ideal for conveying fear or alienation, but good for little else.

Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” tells a new version of the well-known story, the ultimate stranger in a strange land. His version is a different take on Lewis Carroll’s book, or, you could say, a remake of the original Disney cartoon.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now an extremely rich, young woman in Victorian England, not a little girl, who is at a garden party at her palatial estate. When she has to make a big decision, with hundreds of people watching, she decides instead to chase a white rabbit down his hole. There she finds herself in Wonderland, or “Underland”, where she discovers friends and enemies all of whom seem to know her, but aren’t sure she’s the real Alice (I’m not sure either).

Her friends — the Dormouse, the March Hare, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat — tell her she must find the vorpal sword and slay the Jabberwocky, snicker-snack, on a specific day. Her enemies, the fractious, dictatorial Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter) who likes to yell “Off with their heads!” and her suitor, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) are busy looking for Alice, not knowing it even when they see her. Alice herself gradually shifts from being a naïve passive character, to a Joan of Arc-style heroine.

Some parts of this movie were a lot of fun, and there were some neat images added to it – the deck of cards that made up the Queen of Hearts’ army were much stronger and scarier — more metallic, less paper-y — than the original drawings by John Tenniel.

But so much of the original Alice depended on its caricatures, fun plays on words, puzzles, symbols, and poem and song parodies, which were largely dumped in this version. The one poem used, The Jabberwocky, was given too much prominence, with its unusual nonsense vocabulary (like “frabjous day”) repeated way too often in the story line. I suppose they wanted it to make sense – to small children, I guess.

I wasn’t that taken by this movie. The costumes and the design were impressive, and it had a great cast, but that’s not enough to keep me rapt. I think this version was made for small children, and has minimal appeal to adults.

Its biggest problem is that a lot of the absurdity and irony of the original is gone. Caricatures might work as political cartoons on paper, but not on the much more real move screen. When I was a kid, I liked the poems like “You are old Father William”, and “The Walrus and the Carpenter” because they were cruelly funny. That’s all been neatly scrubbed away and Disneyfied, replaced with a hard-line literalness, no irony, few twists, and fewer hints of psychedelia than even the old Disney cartoon. If the book was The Simpsons, this movie is The Flintstones.

“Green Zone”, directed by Paul Greengrass, is a movie about the reasons given by the US to justify the war in Iraq, and how one American soldier tries to uncover the truth.

Roy Miller (Matt Damon), a soldier in Iraq in 2004, is in charge of a team in Baghdad looking for weapons of mass destruction – the “WMDs” that were the reason US and Britain gave for invading that country. But his searches are turning up nothing. He thinks the intelligence they’re using is faulty. But whenever he questions it within the military he’s told there is no problem with the information, and to follow his orders and shut up. Then a local man (Khalid Abdalla) gives Miller some potentially significant news about former Iraqi government officials.

With the help of his new-found friend (“Call me Freddy”), Miller breaks up a meeting in progress, and briefly glimpses one of the men, Al Rawi, whose picture was on the “most wanted“ deck of cards that were actually issued by the US government during this war.

Miller, frustrated, turns to the CIA, as represented by a tubby, middle-aged agent named Brown. Brown casually tosses him a million dollars in cash in a knapsack to pass on to persons of interest. Meanwhile, other American officials are doing what they can to stymie his plans. Who will come out on top? What’s the secret? Is the embedded journalist, a Judith Miller-type character, reliable? Are there any WMDs at all? And what is Al Rawi’s secret information?

Green Zone is a fast-moving war flick about the big issue of US culpability for invading Iraq, as investigated by Matt Damon’s everyman soldier, and the Iraqi contact he works with. While not an anti-war movie – it depends on guns, explosions, helicopters, chases and shootouts for its eye-candy – it is clearly against the US excuses for invading Iraq. US culpability is rarely seen in mainstream movies.

The Director, Paul Greengrass, likes jiggly hand-held camera shots, and a documentary-style. To lend authenticity, he liberally borrows scenes from movies like the fantastic 2004 documentary “Gunner Palace”, which had GI’s sunbathing by swimming pools in half-destroyed Baghdad mansions. So a lot of the movie is interesting to watch. And as a shootout-mystery-thriller, Green Zone’s not bad either.

Cooking with Stella”, Canadian Director Dilap Mehta’s first film, is about another set of people in a distant place. Maya and Michael, a Canadian diplomatic couple placed in New Delhi (played by Donald McKellar and Lisa Ray) are settling in at the High Commission.

Michael (who’s character was based on the real-life chef at Rideau Hall in Ottawa), finds himself with not much to do in New Delhi. So he tries to get their servant and cook, Stella, a Christian Indian woman known for her skill in the kitchen, to become his guru, and introduce him to Indian cooking. Luckily, the movie is more than a cooking show. It’s actually a sort of an upstairs-downstairs look at clueless expat Canadians and their wily, crooked servants who take advantage of them at the drop of a hat.

The Canadians are really side characters – Don McKellar is there more as the straight man than the comic. The main plot involves Stella (played by the very funny Seema Biswas) and the gambling, drinking, black marketeering, and paybacks that are her daily bread and butter in her little subcultural fiefdom within the embassy. When an innocent new nanny, Tannu, threatens to upset Stella’s world with her honesty, she realizes she needs a new plan. Her goals become larger and even more nefarious, but end up with Stella being kidnapped. What will become of her?

The movie is a cute, small film, with a fairly low budget, and a first-time director, so — judging by those criteria — it’s enjoyable and not bad. There’s a bit of Bollywood parody scenes, some colourful views of an outdoor food market, some funny dialogue. (It also has some painfully lame gags involving driving on the wrong side of the road, and some obvious joke set-ups) It’s loaded with lots of Canadian references — Group of Seven and Norval Morisseau pictures on the walls; a Welcome / Bienvenue sign on a foreboding embassy fence – but it concentrates less on the strangers in the strange land, more on the interesting local characters.

Actually, I liked the scenes that reminded me of Mira Nair’s movie “Monsoon Wedding”, also a comedy about the inter-linked worlds of families and their servants in India. The blah, Canadian-focused scenes were what dragged this movie down a bit and made it palatable but bland. But see it for great, funny Indian characters in a Canadian movie.

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