October 12, 2012. Revisionist History? Films reviewed: Argo, Stories We Tell

Posted in 1980s, Canada, CIA, Clash of Cultures, Diplomacy, documentary, Drama, Espionage, Family, Iran, Thriller, TIFF, Toronto, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on October 13, 2012

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

History is always changing: it depends a lot on who the storyteller is. And, often, the most recent storyteller owns the story, for the moment at least, and controls that history. This week I’m looking at two movies that retell events in Canadian history. One’s a thriller that retools a famous story of Canadian heroism in Iran; the other is a personal story about a woman who wants to find out what happened when her mother went to Montreal… in order to be in Toronto.

Argo

Dir: Ben Affleck

It’s late 1979 – the Shah of Iran who fled the country, has been allowed into the US, and, because of this, back in Tehran, angry, anti-American demos are in full swing. Furious students storm the walls of the American Embassy even while the staff on the inside are busy shredding all the files. A few manage to escape through a side street and are secretly rescued by Ken Taylor, the Canadian Ambassador, but the rest are all held as hostages inside the occupied US Embassy. The escaped six are safe in the basement of the Canadian diplomat’s home, but for how long? Meanwhile, those darn hostage-takers are sorting through the shredded documents and will eventually discover that there are six missing diplos hiding somewhere, and what they look like.

Meanwhile, back in the States, a young CIA agent named Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan to get them out of Iran – he’ll pretend they are Canadian filmmakers! So he goes to Hollywood and arranges the whole thing with the help of funny and obnoxious industry-types (John Goodman and Alan Arkin), then flies off to Iran with Canadian passports to save his countrymen. Will they pass as Canadians? Will they be able to leave the country? And will the whole Hollywood back-story hold up before the Revolutionary Guards?

Argo is a fun, exciting movie with a cool, unbelievable plot, and lots of thrills and suspense to keep you captive. Audiences were cheering when I saw it at TIFF, and I left feeling good. The acting is fine, the early 80’s look of the film is cool (though I doubt conservative diplomats were dressed like San Franciscans) and the story is exciting.

(Personal connection: in an earlier TV version of the Canadian Caper starring Gordon Pinsent as Ken Taylor they used Toronto’s Polish Cultural Centre on Beverley Street — just down the street from where I lived at the time — as the stand-in for the Canadian Embassy in Tehran.)

It has a few problems though. It makes the CIA into the heroes! Remember, they’re the ones who overthrew the democratically-elected PM Mossadegh in the 50’s when he nationalized their oil industry. They also helped found the Shah’s dreaded SAVAK – whose torturous methods was one of the biggest reasons for the demonstrations and hostage-taking. The movie never makes clear the CIA the skullduggery that led to this crisis.

Second, it falsely makes Ken Taylor and Canada in general into a funny side-kick to the supposed heroism of a low ranked CIA agent (though I understand they’ve changed the very offensive final titles from the version I saw.) Anyway, I shrugged that off when I saw it – it’s just a movie.

But most of all I was disturbed by the way it made all Iranians in 1979 look like evil villains out to destroy a besieged America – a hell of an image to present in an election year when there’s a big political push to bomb that country.

But… whatever, it’s a good movie anyway, well worth seeing.

A very different kind of revisionist history is

Stories We Tell

Dir: Sarah Polley

Sarah Polley’s wild, blonde actress mother Diane died when she was a child, so she was raised by her kindly, stiff-upper-lip dad, Michael. So to find out more about her past and that of her mother, she enlists her brothers, sisters, family friends and relations to tell their versions of their past, and illustrates it all with found Super-8 footage from her dad’s collection. He narrates the story from a recording booth and Sarah documents her own search for history. But… during this search she discovers that, not long before she was conceived, her mother went away to Montreal to act in a play there called “Toronto” (by David Fennario). And while she was there, rumour has it, had an affair with someone from the cast – maybe Sarah’s father isn’t her biological parent!

I am not going to give away Sarah Polley’s family secrets – but, that’s just part of what makes the film so fascinating.

This is an amazing family story told by an unreliable narrator and with lots of misleading half-truths, myths, lies and legends. One of the characters produced the classic Canadian film “Lies My Father Told Me” which sort of sets the tone for this doc. What’s real? What’s a trick? You discover that the big happy family you assume you’re watching at first never really exists as a single unit. Off-the-cuff narration is gently exposed as scripted and directed. And even the found footage is revealed as part genuine, part manufactured.

This is a fantastic blend of truth and re-creation that Sarah Polley keeps small. She does everything right: stays largely off-camera and concentrates on the story. And she’s carefully to occasionally expose the artifice of filmmaking, including docs. This isn’t one of those awful celeb stories with teary revelations and maudlin music. It’s a clever and funny — but still very touching — meditation on Canada, Sarah’s history and the meaning of family.

Great doc!

Argo and Stories We Tell both played at TIFF and are opening tonight in Toronto. Also opening this week is Ira Sach’s Keep the Lights On, an epic drama of love, addiction and gay life in Manhattan.

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

August 10, 2012. Angsty White Men. Movies reviewed: Oslo, August 31st, Killer Joe, The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby

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.

Hey white guys out there — do you rule the world, cause all the trouble, and carry the guilt on your shoulders? (It seemed so on the news last night). Well, this week I’m looking at three movies about white guys, and the bitter angst of responsibility, fear of failure, and the terrible crimes we are responsible for.

One’s a Norwegian drama about a guy in his 30s, forced to confront the world outside his addiction centre; there’s a crime drama about a guy in his 20s who considers turning to murder to solve his own debts; and an American documentary about an ethical family man… who played a part in some of his country’s worst war crimes.

Oslo, August 31st

Dir: Joachim Trier

Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) is a wiry, intense intellectual in his mid-thirties. He is let out of a drug rehab centre for a day after a long stay. The movie follows his encounters with family, friends, party-goers, and strangers in homes, offices, parks and cafes.

Anders is not your “normal drug addict” (if there is such a thing); he’s successful at picking up women, has (or once had) a relaxed self-confidence at social gatherings, and is much more comfortable debating Proustian aesthetics than sitting at moderated addiction self-help groups. But his intelligence, razor wit, and nuanced reactions are not enough.

He just can’t face the outside world. He finds himself rejected or completely blanked by a lot of the people – his old friends and family — he tries to speak to. But he is so filled with despair and self-loathing that he seems to sabotage his future, even when things seem to be going right. Because he’s sure there is no future: he blew his chances of a promising career and family life and he can never get back to them.

I don’t do justice to this beautiful, desperate movie by concentrating on the plot – that’s just the framework. It’s more of a travelogue of a shut-in’s chance to experience a day out in his city. He’s never happier than when he absorbs and mentally files the random conversations around him, along with the voices of past conversations echoing in his brain – sonic flashbacks. You feel for Anders but you experience the rejection and anger by those around him who he may have wronged in the past.

This is a great, gently-paced internal drama: I recommend it.

Killer Joe

Dir: William Friedkin

Chris (Emile Hirsch) is a broke loser in debt to a local good-old-boy. But, with the help of his stupid father (Thomas Haden Church) and despite resistance from his sleazy, shifty step-mother (Gina Gershon) he comes up with a plan to get the 25 grand he needs: he’ll secretly murder his mom and split the insurance with his dad. They hire a corrupt and deadly local cop known as Killer Joe (Matt McConaughey) to do the deed. But when their plans don’t go as smoothly as they thought they would, Chris’ younger sister, the appropriately-named Dottie (Juno Temple), is dragged into the mess he made.

Dottie is tetched in the head. Although now sexually an adult she still thinks of herself as a 12 year old, and likes to practice kungfu kicks while watching Chinese movies on TV. She’s given to random non-sequitors, and taking off her clothes. And the predatory Killer Joe wants to take her as sexual collateral until he gets paid.

Will Chris and Dottie remain true to their vows of loyalty? Will he escape the venomous cop and the violent local mobster? And what about their Mom?

OK – this movie has a lot going for it. It’s based on a play with a gripping plot (which may or may not translate into a good movie), interesting characters, and an excellent cast, and it’s directed by William Friedkin who brought us The Exorcist, The French Connection and the Boys in the Band. But (perhaps because of its low-budget) it wavers between good and cool, and drop-dead awful. So we get to see the (generally credible) Emile Hirsch overacting wildly in a scene where he loses it before the camera; and even worse, Juno Temple reciting her non-sequitor lines deadpan. (Come on, Juno – if Dottie’s crazy or mentally handicapped it’s not enough just to read the lines and stand around naked. It may work for a few minutes but eventually you have to act.)

On top of this, you have to sit through a relentless and excruciatingly violent scene of a sexual assault using a Kentucky Fried Chicken drumstick. While there are some good parts, the unevenness of the acting and the overblown dialogue make it hit or miss.  And this hard-core crime-drama is definitely not for the squeamish.

The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby

Dir: Carl Colby

William Colby was a career spy who worked his way to the top of the CIA from its earliest stages immediately after WWII, to the awful fallout of The Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

Some background: The CIA was formed as the main international intelligence agency following WWII, and by the 1950s took on the Cold War as its main raison d’etre. So, in addition to collecting information, the CIA was also infiltrating civil rights groups, financing political parties of the right, and sabotage parties that were left of centre; and sponsoring coups to overthrow elected governments around the world (in Iran, Chile, and Vietnam, among others) in the name of democracy and the free world.

So into this world steps the educated and upper-class devout Catholic William Colby. This movie follows his career from WWII, to being an agent working out of the Embassy in Rome, funneling millions in cash to the conservative Christian Democrats to stop Italy from “falling to the Communists”.

From there he moves to Saigon, reluctantly playing a part in the coup that brought down South Vietnam’s (Catholic President Nho Dimh Dien) and the changes in policy from benevelant helper of the South Vietnamese to purveyor of napalm and agent orange (that leads to over a million deaths.) This culminates in a series of testimonies he gives before the US Senate investigating the CIAs wrong doings. (Ironically, his truthful testimony uncovers a huge load of dirty laundry the CIA had kept hidden until then.)

The film covers all angles, using period film clios and snap shots, but what’s really interesting is that the talking heads – notorious figures like Donald Rumsfeld and famed journalists like Seymour Hersh – all speak directly to the filmmaker. So their memories aren’t all about Bill Colby, they’re about “your father”. (Probably it was the director’s personal connections that allowed him access to some of these major figures.) His mother’s testimony is especially interesting. For example, she talks about going to a cocktail party and being held back from speaking with a couple they had had drinks with just the night before “ We don’t know them”. She had trouble keeping track of her husband’s web of covert deceptions.

The Man Nobody Knew is a good documentary both as an apolitical history of the CIA and as a personal bio.

The dramas Oslo, August 31st and Killer Joe open today in Toronto, and the documentary The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby, is now playing at the HotDocs Bloor St Cinema – check your local listings. Also, coming out this week on DVD and blueray is the wonderful Genie Award-winning Quebec drama, Monsieur Lazhar (Directed by Philippe Falardeau). This is a great movie – touching, tender, funny – about a French-speaking Algerian schoolteacher with a hidden, tragic past who tries to find peace teaching Montreal kids… who are recovering from their own loss.

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

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

History! Films Reviewed: Max Manus, Summer Camp, Crash and Burn Karaoke, Covered, I Went to the Zoo the Other Day, Women Without Men

There are a whole lot of history-related movies opening in Toronto this weekend, both mainstream releases and films at the Images Festival. First, a new Norwegian movie, an historical spy drama called “Max Manus”, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.

Max Manus and his buddies all live in Nazi occupied Norway after the country fell to a Blitzkrieg invasion. The Quisling puppet government is in power, but Max and his friends’ biggest worry seems to be that they’ll soon ban Django Reinhart’s European jazz as ideologically incorrect.

So they form an amateur resistance group, coming up with cool nicknames, distributing propaganda flyers, and having fun time of it… until Max gets caught by the Gestapo when they find some explosives hidden in his apartment. This is where his legendary reputation begins. He escapes (in a beautifully shot sequence) by diving out the second story window onto the street below. He soon becomes known as the “window jumper”. And this is also where the movie becomes more interesting, with Max and his friend Greygers eventually walking across the Swedish border and from there onward to Scotland, (where the King and army live in exile) to become… saboteurs!

Max Manus (the movie) is a real throw-back to old-school war resistance stories, the sort of things you used to find in old british boys’ comics. So you get lots of shootouts, Max hiding in doorways wearing a black toque, or paddling past giant war ships in a wooden rowboat to plant these little underwater magnetic explosives. Cool!

Max’s nemesis is the diabolical Siegfried, the young Nazi head guy who keeps capturing and torturing the resistance fighters, but whom Max has always managed to evade. The movie itself is a very earnest — not camp, not melodramatic — look at a national hero, who I have to admit, I’d never heard of before the movie. For a historical drama, it’s a bit to historical, with not quite enough drama. I think because he’s a national hero, it would have been almost sacrilege to have him hopping out of beds with femme fatales; but I would have liked it pouring on a little more

intrigue, double-crossing, and steamy romance, to fight off the occasional boring factor. Anyway, I had fun, so go see Max Manus — if you like earnest, wartime Norwegian espionage historical dramas.

Images is an annual film festival in Toronto that “showcases moving image culture”, or as I would say, shows art movies. Beware: these are not conventional narrative movies – they’re works of art shown on a screen. I have to keep reminding myself that they’re not movies, they’re art—but I still end up gravitating toward the stories. Also beware, that the pace is slower, I mean much, much slower than a commercial movie you might go to.

Toronto’s Ross McLaren’s works are featured this year. “Summer Camp” is a fun one – it’s a strange piece made up of found footage – black and white glowing rotoscopes of old CBC Toronto audition tapes from the late 60’s. This piece has teenage kids sitting on a stool reciting hokey monologue scripts about the fat cook at a mythical summer camp. Eventually you start anticipating each line you hear over and over: “She was so fat she could hardly get up the basement stairs.” “She’s always saying, Do this! Do that!” “She made me eat porridge!” Then there’s an improv part where they talk to their “brother” (a CBC actor) who says he’s dying of cancer and has three weeks left to live– they’re supposed to cheer him up. So you get to see the auditioning teenagers looking really uncomfortable to be talking about – or denying – death. Toward the end it starts to get really funny when one of the auditioners challenges the whole premise. I don’t know what it is about watching found footage for an hour, but I just ate it up.

Crash and Burn Karaoke, another movie by McLaren, is a real must-see. I’ve seen it lots of times but I love this one. It’s grainy black and white footage he took at a seminal punk concert in a Toronto club in 1977, by the Diodes, The Dead Boys, Boyfriends, and Teenage Head. The movie — with music not synched — has the guitarists (and audience) writhing on the stage, pogoing around, twisting their arms, snarling, drooling. There’s actually a very long shot of — I believe it’s Steven Leckie — with non-stop spittle and drool hanging out of his mouth. At Images, it will be presented in the form of Crash and Burn Karaoke, with lyrics appearing on the screen.

John Greyson has made a short film called Covered: It’s a report on a Gay/Lesbian film festival in Sarajevo that got closed down by right wing protestors. I wavered back and forth between loving and hating this movie. Loving the extremely wide bias and vivid images of stuffed birds, wooden birds, bird bones, alternating with pissed off filmmakers, and assorted musicians simultaneously playing off-key guitar on separate youtube clips… but not at all liking the long, written-out mock quotes by “Susan Sontag” that appear on the screen, or the voice of someone – is it Greyson himself — laboriously repeating the – is it Bosnian? — narration, on the soundtrack, in the manner of an elocution lesson. This is a movie, not a magazine article: I found the written and spoken words interrupted the flow, and distracted from the film’s visual beauty and its message of the danger and indifference of established politicians in the face of threats to marginalized groups. Too much of the film’s meaning relies on a steady stream of written narration in the form of subtitles and constant, superimposed texts.

Hamilton director Luo Li’s hour long film, called “I Went to the Zoo the Other Day”, is a beautifully-shot, black and white film filled with pictures of the Toronto Zoo. A couple are at the zoo. The camera follows them around the fish tanks, the elephants, tigers. We listen to their conversations – all in Serbian with subtitles!

They make comments and tell stories. Like a story of the guy who leaps in to save a drowning animal; or the middle-aged woman who considers some of the zoo animals as her own children, and carries their pictures in her purse. These stories are talked about, not shown. All the animals in this movie look really old – maybe Director Luo Li purposely found extra wrinkly elephants, middle-aged looking gorillas, lazy boa constrictors, surly-looking camels.

Half the time you’re watching the animals through bars or glass walls with the viewers reflected on them… then it’ll switch perspective, and you’re suddenly watching people from inside the glass — what the animals must see looking out. Who’s in the zoo, us or them?

Sometimes I wish the couple in the movie would speak English, so I could forget about reading the subtitles and concentrate on the amazing images – is Li deliberately using a language to increase dissociation or alienation between the viewers and the actors? It works, but why do it? I think the unnecessary putting up of walls between film and viewer is a mistake. Since neither the filmmaker, nor the intended audience, nor the topic, is related to Serbian, why use it? It seems gimmicky.

In any case, the acting is excellent, the stories are good, and the visual side of the movie is amazing – really nice images, from a mosaic of fish through an aquarium window, to the relaxing apes, the milling people. Every shot is perfectly composed and constructed, and pleasing to watch, edited together at the pace of a leisurely stroll through a park. It ends with scene filmed through the windshield as they drive down the highway, with just a recording of whale music providing the soundtrack.

Another event at the festival which I definitely want to go to is the One Take Super Eight, put together by Alex Rogalski of Regina, Saskatchewan, in its first Toronto version. It’s a grab bag of three minute, unedited, super eight movies shown one after another for the first time. From the camera, to the lab, directly to the screen – unseen by anyone. Could be good, could be awful, could be god-awful… might be awful good.

Women Without Men, is directed by video artist Shirin Neshat, based on the novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour. I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and it’s being featured at Images and being released commercially as well.

Women without Men is a Farsi-language film (shot in Morocco) adapted from the popular novel of the same name. It tells a story about a handful of women in Tehran who manage — during that brief period of nationalist Prime Minister Mossadegh’s government (in the fifties) — to escape a life dominated by men.

An upper-class woman, married to a general, leaves her husband to live in a house in a fruit orchard she has bought. A prostitute who is driven crazy by her work and a young woman who is supposed to become the second wife of a man she doesn’t want to marry, both find there way to her Eden-like orchard. Another woman leaves her home to join the street politics she hears outside, and eventually joins the Communist Party. Through a series of complex, circular scenes the epic gradually unrolls its magic-realism style plot. Certain scenes remain in your mind long after the movie ends, such as party-goers quoting Camus and reciting classical Persian poetry, and women exchanging remarks in a harrowing, foggy bathhouse.

I enjoyed this film but, never having read the novel, it was tough. I found it difficult to keep track of all the characters and plot turns. It also surprised me that the movie was not always successful visually (since the director is a photographer and video artist). I found the excessive use of CGI’s, faded tints and almost sepia tones throughout the movie distracts from, not adds to the drama. Still, the film provides a glimpse at Iranian women’s history and the richly cosmopolitan, intellectual culture seldom seen on a screen.

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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