November 23, 2012. The Joys and the Dangers of Fantasy. Movies Reviewed: Rise of the Guardians, The Suicide Room

Posted in Animation, Bullying, Christianity, Cultural Mining, Dragons, Drama, Dreams, drugs, Emo, Fantasy, Magic, Movies, Poland, Russia, US by CulturalMining.com on November 22, 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.

A new American import known as “Black Fridays” is spilling over into Canada as a big shopping day. The name supposedly comes from the day in which the average US retailer reaches a positive balance on sales for the year which is usually the Friday after American Thanksgiving. But in a weird case of a snake swallowing its own tail they have turned it into a massive frenzy of shopping from consumers searching for bargains put on by retailers wanting to capitalize on a chance to pump up sales.

It also means it’s the start of Christmas shopping in earnest. So, just in time for new childhood memories to form, this week I’m talking about two movies that show the good side and the bad side of believing in fantasy.

Rise of the Guardians

Dir: Peter Ramsey

Jack Frost (Chris Pine)  is a mischievous teenager in a hoodie and skinny jeans who likes snowball fights, getting kids’ tongues stuck to metal poles, and skatebording on hazardous, icy roads. When his snow lands on humans they have fun.He’s also invisible. He loves play but wishes he knew where he came from, and that other kids could see him.

Meanwhile there’s trouble up at the north pole: the bogeyman, aka Pitch, a fey, vain and evil man with an English accent (of course) is injecting nightmares into kids’ minds, and interfering with their sleep. So the Guardians who live there – Santa, the Easter Bunny, Mr Sandman, the Tooth Fairy — summon Jack to join them in their fight against scariness.

Santa (Alec Baldwin) is a Finnish-type Father Christmas known as “North” – muscular, tough and tattooed — but with an unplaceable Eastern European accent. He carries matruschka dolls, and curses using the names of Russian composers: Rimsky Korsakov! Shostakovitch! He’s guarded by a gang of rough looking Yetis and serviced by short-bus elves. The Easter Bunny is a foul-tempered Aussie (Hugh Jackman), and the Tooth Fairy collects teeth to store the memories of children.

In their war room stands a giant globe of flickering lights – each one representing a kid who still believes in them. But with Pitch on the upswing, the lights are gradually dimming, and, like in the Peter Pan cartoon, if no one believes in fairies then tinkerbell will die! In this case they won’t die, they’ll just become invisible to the non-believers, like Jack is.

So… will Jack join up with the good guys and try to get the human kids to believe in them again? Or will he let the world fall into the clutches of the evil and scary Pitch?

Rise of the Guardians is a resolutely non-religious Christmas movie, without a cross, a church or even a glowing star to be seen. God takes the form of an all-knowing and all seeing Man in the Moon, the easter bunny is all about eggs, and they’re all on equal footing of secular figures like Sandy the Sandman. It’s a beautiful crafted movie – really nice art direction, with an interesting plot. It’s clearly aimed at the pre-teen set, but was aesthetically pleasing enough to hold my attention.(like an incredibly beautiful scenes where they all meet in a sort of a floating, rust-tiled Samarkand in their encounter with Pitch.) And it has Guillermo Del Toro’s name on it – as an executive producer, which lets you know it’s not degenerating into a comedy dissing childhood beliefs.

And it’s in 3-D.

Much grimmer, but also a partly- animated drama is

The Suicide Room

Dir: Jan Komasa

Dominik (Jakub Gierszal) is a happy, popular private school kid, a bit emo-looking but in tight with the in crowd. But there’s a guy he likes at school who may or may not be leading him on. And when he has an embarrassing frottage incident at a judo practice when he gets a bit too frisky with the guy he’s crushing on, he is mortified. All his friends seem to have turned on him and to make matters worse, they other guy put up a video of the incident on Facebook where everyone could see it. He’s cyber-bullied into hiding up in his bedroom.

His one solace is an animated world on line, a sort of Second Life ruled by a queen, Sylwia (Roma Gasiorowska), who lives in a castle. He becomes obsessed by her and seems to exist only in the form of his avatar, while his real self lives in the dark, barely eating and never going outside. From most popular kid to reclusive otaku in a matter of weeks. Sylwia strongly pressures Dom to join their suicide club and kill himself.

His parents, both rich and successful, have no idea what’s going on. Dominik may be on the verge of killing himself while the parents are more worried about how their son’s aborted sexual life might embarrass them and damage their career ambitions. They just want him on meds so he stops bothering them.

Will Dominik choose to live or to die? Will he reconnect with the outside world? Will he get to meet his cyber-love Sylwia face to face? And will his parents ever show compassion for their son?

This Polish film (which played at this year’s Ekran Polish Film Festival in Toronto) is a look at adolescent depression, cyber-bullying and Second Life, all aspects of contemporary Polish life largely unknown in North America.

Rise of the Guardians is playing now, while Suicide Club played at the EKRAN Polish Film Festival. Also look out for free Japan Foundation screenings coming up in December at the Bloor cinema featuring dramatizations of Japanese novelist Osamu Dazai’s stories; The Toronto Film Noir Syndicate showing the Coen brothers’ classic Blood Simple this weekend, and the first annual Blood in the Snow Canadian film festival showing new and classic Canadian horror movies next week at the Projection Booth on Gerrard St E. It features cool pics like Bruce MacDonald’s Pontypool and the world premier of new movies like SICK and psychological thriller the House of Flies.

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

Shame and Guilt. Movies reviewed: Hot Tub Time Machine, Greenberg, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Last week I was talking about that cheesie sword-and-sandals movie Clash of the Titans as a “guilty pleasure”, meaning something I enjoyed, even though I realized it was a bad movie. And a woman I know told me she has a weakness for what she calls “chick-lit”, and the equivalent type of movies, chick flicks and "rom coms" (romantic comedies) – they were her guilty pleasures. She devours those books by the dozen and automatically goes to any movie with even a hint of the old TV show Sex in the City. A guilty pleasure.

But then I thought about it. Where’s the guilt? Where’s the sin? What’s morally wrong with going to a bad movie and enjoying it anyway? Nothing. And I was at an after-party with a filmmaker a couple weeks ago, and made a comment about the crowds at the movie Hot Tub Time Machine. His response: “You saw Hot Tub Time Machine? For shame!”

Is it shameful to go to bad movies? I’d say no to that, too.

Once they dim the lights in a theatre, you’re a passive viewer, no shame there. You didn’t make the movie. But this sort of crystallizes for me the subtle difference between guilt and shame. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict declared after World War II, that the US was a guilt culture, whereas Japan, (which was under US military occupation at the time) was a shame culture. In other words, she said, in a guilt culture, like the US, you feel terrible deep down inside when you do something wrong, but in a shame culture, like Japan, you feel your reputation among others is what is damaged when you do something wrong or unacceptable. (I don’t buy the US / Japan distinction, but shame culture / guilt culture is an interesting concept.)

Anyway, to get back to movies, maybe we all set the bar fairly low in terms of what we can derive enjoyment from, but as long as you can both tell the difference between a good movie and a bad one, and then accept your own taste in movies, whether they’re good or bad, you’re fine. No shame, and no guilt, just pleasure. Not guilty pleasure.

Hot Tub Time Machine

"Hot Tub Time Machine" is what it says it is – a comedy with a paper-thin plot. A bunch of middle-aged losers pining for their glory days — days of getting drunk, getting stoned, and trying to get laid at a ski lodge — decide to revisit it. But once they get there they see the place has gone to seed, just like their lives. But somehow a hot tub sends them back – back to the future – to relive the worst of the eighties. Then they do jokey comedy things as they try to get back. That’s the movie. The visual punchlines were mainly based on the various liquids that are expelled from men’s bodies. (You get the picture.) I think they were all covered. Except maybe… pus. Was there a pus joke? I think they’re saving that for the sequel.

The thing is, it was sort of funny, in an intentionally campy way. I saw it with zero expectations, so I ended up laughing — or groaning — a lot. The comedians / actors – especially Rob Corddry, in all his horribleness — were good at what they were doing, and there were a few good cameos, notably Crispin Glover as the one-armed bellboy.

Don’t feel ashamed for seeing this movie, but don’t feel guilty if you miss it.

Greenberg

"Greenberg", a new movie by Noah Baumbach, who directed the really great "The Squid and the Whale" a few years ago, is a human drama about a guy going through an internal crisis, and the aimless woman he gets involved with. Boy meets girl.

This is a romantic comedy – sort of — that’s made the way romantic comedies should be made, if I had my druthers.

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) crashes like a green iceberg onto his brother’s house in L.A. He’s a feckless, benighted, compulsive, neurotic carpenter who’s there to do nothing in particular, and doesn’t mind saying so. He wants to be alone and resents the world for invading his house-sitting solitude. He’s totally shameless — saying whatever pops into his mind – but also wracked with guilt for his past misdeeds. He has no possessions — no house, no car – to worry about, just his toolbelt. He is building a wooden doghouse for Mahler, his brother’s dog, as he learns to cope outside a mental institution.

Greenberg got along OK in Manhattan, hopping cabs or taking the subway, but he suddenly finds himself back in LA, dependent on his former best friend (Rhys Ifans) whose rock career he’d sabotaged, and his brother’s personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), to ferry him around. He’s horrified and baffled by the whole city.

Then he begins to have a sort of a relationship with younger Florence, who is driven and hardworking, but adrift, and coming to terms with the physical consequences of a previous relationship. Can they love each other? Can they even stand each other?

They’re both “hurt people” who are afraid they’ll hurt other people. All of the characters in Greenberg, even the bit parts, are interesting, and three-dimensional (as opposed to 3-D), though not necessarily likeable.

The whole movie looks like the late 70’s or early 80’s – the colours, the design, the costumes, the font of the titles, the way the camera moves or zooms in, most of the music on the soundtrack… everything. It’s stunning to watch. Don’t go to this expecting a whacky, overacted Ben Stiller comedy. Go for a moving, gentle – though mildly disturbing – comic drama. This is a really good movie.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Another good movie, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”, is opening today. This is a great Swedish mystery thriller about Blomkvist, a disgraced journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, a young, mysterious hacker, and their interactions with the Vanger group, a very shady family of billionaires.

Blomkvist loses his job at a leftist magazine and faces a prison term after writing an expose on a corrupt billionaire. His source proved to have been a set-up. So he is forced to take a well-paying job as a sort of a researcher / detective for a different, billionaire, who’s trying to find out what happened to his niece Harriet, who was kidnapped or killed – the body was never found – decades before. The Vanger family is sleazy to the Nth degree. They live out in the woods in sinister, Nordic hunting lodges, equipped with a skeleton in every closet. Tons of shame and guilt here.

But Blomkvist is gradually unveiling the hidden past, with the help of an anonymous helper on the internet.
This helper, Lisbeth, is a fantastic character, a cross between Steve McQueen and Tank Girl. She’s tuff, she’s rough, she’s stone cold. She’s a punk, she’s a loner, she’s an ex-con, she’s a computer genius. She’s also the girl of the title, with the dragon tattoo. She’s initially hired by the Vangers to spy on and write a report on Blomkvist, to make sure he can be trusted. They eventually meet up and form a sort of alliance, to try to find out what happened to the missing girl, and solve the ever-thickening mystery.

This is just the kind of mystery-thriller I like, where you’re solving it alongside the characters, but with enough hidden that you can’t really predict what’s going to happen next. It’s visually fantastic, with clues and images like old photos and newspaper clippings driving the story – so much so, you wonder how it worked on paper. It also has lots of amazing Swedish scenery and landscapes, makes you want to jump on a plane to Stockholm – if it weren’t for all the thugs, murderers, rapists, stalkers and Nazi’s hiding in the pine trees.

A few potential drawbacks: this movie has a few extremely violent, extended scenes. They’re not exploitative scenes – the movie doesn’t glorify the violence or make it titillating; you feel for the victims not the violence – but it’s still a bit hard to watch. It’s also tied to the famous mystery novels by Stieg Larsson, so it spends a long time tying up all the loose ends in the story. But I think it’s a great movie, and I can’t wait for the next one. I think I’m going to read book two in the meantime… but I won’t call it a guilty pleasure.

High Concept movies v Conceptual Art. Movies Reviewed: No Images, How to Train Your Dragon, The Lightning Thief, Clash of Titans

It seems to me that commercial movies try to be as accessible as possible — often to the point of excess. Whereas art tries to be as inaccessible as it can, while still conveying its ideas, designs, or aesthetics.

The current 3D fad is sometimes described as making movies feel like “real thing”. Hollywood wants to artificially give the illusion of reality, to make you feel like you’re part of the movie experience, to make them easy to like. The movie itself, on the other hand, often slips into “high concept”: an extremely simple idea churned into a film the producers believe will make money.

The art side, though, seems to take the opposite approach, often equating complexity, difficulty, opaqueness, or inaccessibility, with artistic “success”. Anything considered overly simplistic, or too easy to “get”, is bad. Ambiguity, confusion, and occasionally randomness is good. Taken to itrs extreme we sometimes encounter conceptual art, where the idea, the concept, takes precedent over the art itself.

I used to picture a continuum, a line, or a piece of string, where easy to understand and simplistic, Hollywood, was on one end, harder to understand, and more complicated, (independent, artistic, foreign movies), were toward the other end, and way beyond that was actual “art” on film, at the extreme end. But somewhere on the way, someone picked up the extreme art end of the line, and pulled it all the way back around into a loop, where it met the simplistic easy-to-get Hollywood side again. Conceptual art meets high-concept movies. I think they both tend to suck, but conceptual art usually sucks more: it’s as bad as Hollywood but not as entertaining.

The Images festival had a lot of films where, while not conceptual, they did experiment with altering the usual expectations of a movie by eliminating one aspect. So Luo Li’s movie "I Went to the Zoo the Other Day", left out the expected language of a Canadian film, and instead had the script translated into Serbian, with English subtitles. A movie by Ross McLaren, "Summer Camp", eliminated actually making a film, instead putting together found TV audition footage. John Greyson’s short film "Covered", about the closing down of a Queer Film Festival in Sarajevo by right-wing protesters, replaced the usual narrative structure in favour of telling most of his story via non-stop subtitles and extensive text on the screen (super imposed upon beautiful images of dead birds, and found music from Youtube).

Finally, I saw one show, called “No Images” at the Images Festival, where they tried to experiment by eliminating the ultimate factor in art films – the visual part. Unfortunately, it was all sizzle, no steak.

They called it “No Images” – sort of like Naomi Klein’s No Logo, I guess. At “No Images”, there was an audience, there was a theatre, there was a screen, but there would be nothing visible at all – a movie experience without images. This sounded really interesting, so I made sure to go to this.

They put a lot of work into this, creating a mystique for the audience. We had to stand in a line, close together where we’d be led into the theatre in absolute pitch black. The person in front of you would be sitting right beside you. Be sure to use the toilet before – there would be no coming and going during the performance. And nothing glowing, no cel phones, not even anything shiny would be allowed into the theatre. It would be pitch darkness. If you succumbed to absolute terror, or claustrophobia, or fear of the dark, the safe word was “help”! just say it and an usher would guide you back to safety. Wow. Looking good…

I pictured exotic smells, rumbling seats, avante garde music, maybe itching powder on the seats – who knows what they would do? They had an hour and the world was their oyster.

But what did we get? First a woman talked about tapes she found that gave the recorded silence found in different spaces. Then there were 15 minutes of strange cello-like sounds playing just one creaky note in the aisles, like the sound effects of a Japanese horror movie. Then 15 recorded minutes of two women (Alexis O’Hara & Mary Margaret O’Hara) joking around, saying to the audience, “it’s pitch black in there — are you using the darkness to feel each others boobies?” And the fourth quarter hour: That’s where things got really scary. Here’s what the last 15 unbearably long minutes sounded like. And cover your ears. “THIS IS MY VOICE. I AM SPEAK-ING TO YOU. I AM A SPEAK-ER YOU ARE LIST-EN-ING TO MY VOICE THROUGH A SPEAK-ER. I AM IN A ROOM…”

While listening to this amplified drone, these thoughts started going through my head: "Noooooo… please make this guy stop. Shut up. Shut up! You’re an asshole. Please shut up. SHUT UP! I hate art. I HATE ART! shut the f*ck up…!" It was like being trapped at a wedding table by the worst drunken bore who somehow got hold of a microphone and really liked the sound of his own voice. It was an unintentionally kindergarten-ish, obnoxiously awful, no,excruciatingly awful recording that no one should have listened to. It didn’t stretch the margins of art and film, it abused it.

Sound images without pictures may be experimental for some people, but it’s not so new to me – it’s called radio.

At the other end of the spectrum, here are three current movies for general audiences, "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief"; "Clash of Titans" (in 3D); and “How to Train your Dragon” (in 3D).

"The Lightning Thief", based on the book by Rick Riordan, is a kids’ movie about a dyslexic high schooler, Percy, who lives with his mother and evil stepfather in a small town, and who discovers things are not what they seem. His best friend’s a satyr, his favourite teacher’s a centaur, he’s being chased by evil monsters, and he may even be a demi-god himself. So he goes to a secret training camp in the woods with other people who have mythical connections. But his mother is kidnapped and Percy has to find out who stole lightning… and rescue her from Hades.

In “Clash of the Titans”, the Greek gods think humans have forgotten them, so they agree to follow Hades’ advice to make the humans suffer so they’ll respect them again. Perseus (Sam Worthington), Zeus’s son, hear’s Hades’ ultimatum –sacrifice princess Andromeda or all hell will break loose. Perseus joins with his confreres, and his watcher Io, on a quest to consult the witches, fight the desert scorpions, find Medusa, save Andromeda, and defeat Hades in order to bring goodness and order back to the world.

Finally, in the kids animated movie, "How to Train Your Dragon", Vikings with Scottish brogues live on an island where they are tormented by dragons who steal their sheep and wreak havoc. The Vikings live mainly to capture and kill the various fire breathing creatures. But young Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), an inventive non-conformist, doesn’t want to kill dragons. When he discovers a disabled Night Fury dragon that he names Toothless, Hiccup fashions a prosthesis and learns the secrets of all the dragons as he trains him like a pet. But his dad enrolls him in a gladiator-like training camp to teach him to kill the dragons. Are dragons the dreaded enemies of the Vikings, or are they just like puppy dogs?

Of these three movies, I liked "How to Train your Dragon" the best. The 3-D effects were great, the characters likeable, and it was a funny, interesting story with a lot of breathtaking scenes and battles, and a good amount of suspense. At times it felt like being in a good video game – weaving between rock formations, through the clouds, under the northern lights – and I mean that as a compliment.

"The Lightning Thief" was fun, with some clever scenes (like the lotus eaters trapped in a Las Vegas casino), but also some glitches — like excessive product placement where Percy uses a shiny i-pod, not a shield, to stop himself from looking directly at the Gorgon.

"Clash of Titans" was bad, but was sort of a guilty pleasure – cheezy, with so-so 3-D effects, ridiculously stupid story, and an awful, dated aesthetic: the gods have a 70’s sort of glow to them, like they’re wearing disco-era sequins shot through a Vaseline-covered camera lens– the sort of scenes you can giggle at with friends late at night, as the actors chew up the scenery. Ironically, “Clash of the Titans” is meant for an older audience than the other two, but it was definitely the dumbest of the three. See the kids’ movie instead.

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