Daniel Garber talks to Julian Pinder about his documentary TROUBLE IN THE PEACE; and Rob Shirkey’s Climate Change NGO Our Horizon

Posted in Art, Canada, Conservation, Cultural Mining, documentary, Environmentalism, Gas, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on March 9, 2013

Julian_hanging_camera_high_resolution Hi This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Climate change, rampant pollution, and excessive carbon use are issues at the front of many people’s minds, but, they wonder, what can we do about it?

Is the problem at the source of energy extraction? Is it the transportation of it, a_TITP_poster_low_solution(tankers or pipelines)? Or is it at the consumer side that we should worry about conservation and reduced waste?

To address these issues, I speak to two guests.

Julian Pinder, a filmmaker, talks about his new documentary, Trouble in the Peace, that offers an artistic depiction of friction among the farmers living in the landscape of the Peace River Valley (Northern BC and Alberta), and the effect of natural gas — fracking and pipelines — on the lives of people in that area.

[An accompanying video game, Pipe Trouble (a lot of fun — and it played at Cannes!) is now available for $0.99 for iPhone, iPad and select Android tablets, with a free trial at www.pipetrouble.com.]

rob shirkey our horizonRob Shirkey is from a Toronto-based national Climate Change NGO called Our Horizons. He offers a new way of looking at the use of fossil fuels… as something potentially as dangerous to our health as our horizon labelsmoking!

January 10th, 2013. Political Context in Action Thrillers. Movies reviewed: Zero Dark Thirty, A Darker Truth

Posted in Army, CIA, Cultural Mining, Death, Environmentalism, Protest, Thriller, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on January 26, 2013

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.

Many people complain that action movies are vapid, pointless pablum, just meaningless flashes and a driving score to keep people distracted. Maybe so. But does adding a political context make an action movie better? This week I’m looking at two movies – both basically action thrillers – that are told within a political context. One’s a celebration of a CIA agent’s role in the assassination Osama Bin Laden, the other’s about a Canadian multinational messing things up in South America.

zero-dark-thirtyZero Dark Thirty

Dir: Catherine Bigelow

Maya (Jessica Chastain) is an up-and-coming CIA agent, with a delicate personality and whispey red hair blowing in the wind. She finds herself in a secret dark site. It’s post- 9/11 and the CIA is trying to find out where the next terrorist attack is going to be, and how they can stop it. She turns to the ruthless Dan (Jason Clarke) as her mentor. He’s a laid-back kinda guy with a scruffy beard who likes to say things like “It’s cool bro… everyone breaks eventually” to the people he’s torturing. He raises cute little monkeys in a cage, right beside the suspects, also kept in zoo-like cages. So she’s soon happily stringing up people, stripping them naked, putting black hoods on them and waterboarding the prisoners, just like the rest of the agents. Pretty grim stuff.

But she’s doing it to save America. As one character says in a dramatic speech: Al Qaeda attacked us from the air, from the land and by sea. We must stop them! And when she personally witnesses a bombing that kills her colleague she makes it her lifelong goal to kill that terrorist mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. (And it’s not a spoiler to say that he’s killed in a Navy SEAL raid on Pakistan in May, 2011.)

Zero Dark Thirty is a very long movie that traces the CIA’s violent, twisted and bumpy path toward getting Bin Laden. Gradually the public and the government seem to lose their original goal of catching the culprit of 9/11, but it’s Maya’s dogged pursuit that gets him in the end.

I thought it was a too-long, and not all that interesting, action movie telling a story we already know, completely from the Jessica Chastain zero dark thirtypoint of view of a CIA agent. It’s not one-sided – it is unsparing in its portrayal of torture – but it seems to make it all just seem like an episode of the TV show “24”, where there’s always a ticking time bomb or a planned terrorist attack ready to happen. If they can get the bad guys to talk – however they do it – any method is OK. The thing is, in real life torture is not OK, and it doesn’t work. Among other things, it talks about the 3000 innocent people killed on 9/11 – a terrible tragedy — but doesn’t seem to mention any of the 100,000s of innocent people, completely unrelated to that event, who were killed by the US and its allies in retaliation. (It does casually mention drones in Afghanistan, but just in passing.) It also portrays terrorism as a constant, never-ending threat, killing people all over the world. And its portrayal of Muslims and especially Arabs was especially simplistic.

(One of the most annoying scenes in the movie looks like it was written by someone who had never met a Muslim. It involves a group of women in black robes and hijab, their faces veiled with niqab. And what happens? Well, in this movie, any woman who covers her face must be up to something devious or sneaky; naturally, they end up being male assassins disguised as women who pull out weapons and mow someone down… Really?)

As a movie, the acting (especially Chastain, Clarke and Jennifer Ehle as another CIA agent) is very good, and the storyline is initially compelling, though its subject matter is extremely disturbing.

But it gets boring in the second half — just people walking through the steps taken to “get” bin Laden. Fun if you’re into Navy Seal recruitment videos, but boring to everyone else. I also thought its portrayal of good guys and bad guys – Us vs Them – overly selective. Every suspect turns out to be a terrorist, who can’t be trusted and is there just to kill us. Not just that, but we should make them hurt bad, not just because it’ll save lives, but because they did bad things to us and our friends and should pay for it. And that torture works.

Zero Dark Thirty is not a good movie.

Another action thriller is

Dark-truth-poster-1A Darker Truth

Dir: Damian Lee

Morgan (Deborah Kara Unger) is a ribbon-cutter, a Toronto heiress at a multinational resource corporation, who cuts ribbons and launches benevolent charities in the company’s name. But when she has an alarming run-in with an Equadorian on the lam her eyes are opened. She decides to investigate her company’s actions in South America where they may be responsible for poisoning water and killing locals, all for the sake of the bottom line. So she hires local talk show host Jack Begosian who has long rallied against what he calls the Great Transformation: corporate commoditization of necessities like water, land and air. Jack’s radio call-in show is called The Truth, but he’s pretty secretive about his own truth – he may have been a CIA agent in his past.

So Jack has to go to Equador, uncover the truth, and bring the Campesino revolutionary Francisco Francis (Forest Whitaker) to safety in Toronto. Francisco and his wife Mia (Eva Longoria) are the only ones speaking up for the endangered locals. But it’s not so easy.

A sniper-assassin named Tor (Kevin Durand) has been hired by the Canadian company to kill Jack and everyone else involved in order to protect their profits and image. Who will live and who will die? Who can be trusted? And will the truth ever be released?

A Dark Truth is another interesting-sounding action thriller that loses some of its steam due to an overly complicated plot. Parts are exciting and dramatic, with a good shoot-out and some interesting plot turns. But some parts are glacial in their painful slowness, like Jack’s scenes with his family wife and son. There are also far too many subplots to care about. The story keeps jumping back and forth across continents, with way too many flashbacks and tons of confusing images (like the heiress lying in a bathtub fully dressed – what does this mean and why do they keep showing it?) The acting is mixed. Durand, Garcia, Unger and Devon Bostick as the young Equadorian are all good, while the usually great Forest Whitaker seems bafflingly flat and uninteresting.

It’s nice to have Toronto playing itself for once, and important topics — like eco-revolutionaries and international intrigue – are rare to see on the big screen, but A Dark Truth is just so-so as an action thriller.

Zero Dark Thirty and A Dark Truth, both open today. Check your local listings. Also opening is Michael Haneke’s fantastic Amour, one of my top ten movies of the year.

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

Daniel Garber talks to Yung Chang about his new documentary FRUIT HUNTERS.

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

When you think of middle-aged explorers and hunters in khaki and pith helmets you probably picture Kipling shooting elephants and tigers. But there’s a new type of hunter on the scene. They’re ecologically minded, not destructive. They’re the fruit hunters who travel the globe searching for undiscovered varieties of cultivated or wild fruits to bring back to their sanctuaries.
Their stories are explored in a fascinating, new documentary called FRUIT HUNTERS, directed by noted Canadian filmmaker YUNG CHANG (Up the Yangtse, China Heavyweight), that premiered at Toronto’s ReelAsian festival.

In this telephone interview Yung Chang talks about fruit and sex, the Hollywood connection, how mediaeval paintings can help identify modern fruits, why mangos are the perfect food, and more…!

Fruit Hunters will be released in theatres on Nov 23rd.

October 5, 2012. Daniel Garber Interviews Amy Miller by telephone about her new documentary Carbon Rush playing at Planet in Focus

Posted in Cultural Mining, documentary, Environmentalism, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on October 13, 2012

Hi, This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for Cultural Mining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

The Kyoto Accord was the good one, right?

The one that was going to help slow down climate change by stopping the huge increase in carbon emissions… Through a system of cap and trade, carbon would remain steady around the world by carbon consumers offsetting their excess through the purchase of carbon credits elsewhere.

So what’s wrong with cap and trade?
Everything.

Amy Miller, whose new documentary called THE CARBON RUSH is having its Toronto premier at the PLANET IN FOCUS film festival, explains why.

October 5, 2012. Just Beneath the Ground. Movies Reviewed: Semper Fi: Always Faithful, As Above, So Below PLUS Planet in Focus

Posted in Conspiracy Theory, Cultural Mining, Docudrama, Environmentalism, Garbage, Movies, 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.

Like you, I know my way around the basic environmental issues…

Climate change: stop it

Veg: good

Organic: better

Local: best

Genetically modified food: potentially scary

Baby Seals: club them

Endangered species: save them

Bitumen pipeline: gonna spill

Water: most important

Toxins: avoid them

(Just kidding about the seals)

But when I go beyond the basics, that’s where I run into trouble. So that’s why the Planet in Focus environmental film festival (Oct 10-14) is so useful. It lets you see the various environmental issues laid out by experts with Q&As, world premiers, and some really great examples of filmmaking.

So this week I’m looking at two environmental documentaries that differ greatly in look, tone, aim and content. One’s a heartfelt look at US Marines looking for justice after a long-hidden crisis; the other’s a meditation on how we view the garbage and waste hidden beneath the ground.

Semper Fi: Always Faithful

Dir: Rachel Libert, Tony Hardman

Jerry Ensminger, a long-time Master Sgt at the Marine Corps Base Camp LeJeune in North Carolina, is hit by devastating news: his young daughter Janey has cancer. But when he digs around to find out why, he discovers some shocking facts.

The drinking water at the camp is horribly contaminated with chemical toxins, like TCEs and PCBs. And he finds out he isn’t the only one affected by these poisons. Young male marines who passed through the camp are getting breast cancer – yes, male breast cancer – and others are getting hepatic cancer and other rare diseases at alarmingly high rates.

Because military bases and bootcamps are known for their constant turnover, it was difficult to keep track of who had been there. And cancers are slow to develop, usually long after they move away from the source of contamination. This made it especially difficult to prove.

The Camp LeJeune toxin crisis is as big as the Love Canal contamination in Niagara Falls NY, or the Minimata mercury poisoning in Japan.

But the problem are threefold. The chemical companies are lobbying to keep the toxins off the list of dangerous chemicals; the military is denying and burying info at every level; and the vets keep developing cancer but their insurers refuse to pay for expensive medical treatment or to grant them disability payments for injuries contracted on duty.

It’s up to the victims and their families to dig up the truth, appear before the Senate, and to do all they can to bring to light this monumental environmental disaster. The movie traces the story and the struggle. Semper Fi is a moving documentary, straightforward and traditional in its presentation of the facts. It’s less of an exciting or cinematic movie, more of a sentimental but informative TV-style doc.

Different in every way is:

As Above, So Below

Dir: Sarah J. Christman

This documentary follows a series of peripherally-related stories of people talking about garbage and waste from the past. One is a woman (the filmmaker, with her mother) who describes dealing with the death if her father and her family going through the things he left behind. She decides to turn his ashes into an artificial diamond, as a way of remembering him.

Another is an anthropologist working for the sanitation department who talks about the history of a landfill near NYC. The ominously-named Fresh Kills area has been a landfill for decades and holds completely intact records of the wastes of everyone who ever lived in that area. Robert Moses dug up some dirt in Staten Island to use in a parkway. It left behind a temporary hole to be filled with the city’s garbage, but it ended up being dumped in for decades. It’s now been covered and turned into a park, but one with all its intact history settling and burbling just below surface.

This movie is not a conventional collection of talking heads telling of random reminiscences and historical facts. Your ears hear speakers describe a moving personal remembrance or a shocking historical record; but your eyes see unsynchronized images of nature, like the long lost flotsam and jetsam on a beach called Dead Horse Bay (where the bodies of workhorses used to be rendered), or white plastic garbage bags and ice snow, or quivering winter twigs against an overcast sky.

As Above, So Below is an absolutely stunning and subtle artistic meditation on waste, consumption, death, loss and memory. It’s also the most gorgeous depiction of garbage you’ll ever see. Somehow, the editing, the photography and the whole movie’s context packs a personal wallop with an aesthetic sensibility that you rarely see in one movie.

As Above, So Below, and Semper Fi are both playing at Toronto’s Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival running from Oct 10-14. both open today – go to planetinfocus.org for more information. Coming soon, the ImagineNative indigenous peoples’ film and media arts festival, and the Ekran film festival (Ekran is the Polish word for screen). And don’t miss the amazing documentary Detropia, opening tonight at the Bloor.

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

Cabins in the Woods. Movies Reviewed: Happy People: A Year in the Taiga, The Hunter, The Cabin in the Woods

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

I’m back again, and I’m reviewing three good movies opening this weekend, that are all about the hunters and the hunted in their cabins in the woods. There’s a documentary about a Siberian trapper in the Taiga; a drama about a hunter looking for a tiger; and a horror/ comedy about five college students trapped in a cabin by a hunter zombie.

Happy People. A Year in the Taiga

Dir: Werner Herzog, Dimitry Vasyukov

Genady is an enigmatic, bearded trapper and hunter who lives in Bakhtia, Siberia, in a town reachable only by boat (or helicopter). He sets handmade wooden sable traps over an area so enormous it would take a day and a half to cross by skidoo. He builds a series of little wooden huts across his trapping territory and the camera is there to show it. This is the Taiga, the boreal forest south of the Tundra that looks a lot like most of northern Canada. (Actually, Siberia is bigger than all of Canada.)

The directors follow Genady and other fur trappers for a year, showing the cycle of the seasons, the holidays, the intimate relationship between a hunter and his dogs, and the happy time when they’re welcomed back home for the new year.

You watch him carve skis from a living tree, using just a hatchet and wooden wedges, and some moose fur. He does the same thing people there have been doing there for centuries.

Everything is just how it always was… except maybe an occasional chainsaw, and a few skidoos whizzing across the crusty snow, past some wolves or a stumbling moose.

This is a low-key, educational documentary that gives a realistic and fascinating look at trappers in Siberia, filled with rot-gut vodka, fluffy white animals, frozen fish, and grizzled neighbours wearing black toques or flowery headscarves. Some of the scenes of river vistas, huge clouds and vast frozen tracts are truly beautiful. It’s not quite as funny or shocking as some of Herzog’s other documentaries, but it’s still good, and his deadpan narration is delightful, as always. My one complaint is, whenever anyone starts speaking Russian, instead of subtitles we get English voiceovers. (This is the theatrical version of a four hour German TV series.)

The Hunter

Dir: Daniel Nettheim

Willem Dafoe plays Martin, a cold, mercenary shootist, hired by a military bio- medical conglomerate to track down and kill the Tasmanian tiger, a rare animal in a remote island state in Australia. He is an anal, precision-obsessed anti-social pro, who is friendless — and likes it that way. He’s a loner. But when he arrives, he finds the rustic, wooden house he’s supposed to stay at is filthy, dysfunctional, and falling apart… and occupied by a family.

The father is missing, the mother (Frances O’Connor) is in a perpetual prescription-drug-induced stupor, and the kids run wild, climbing naked into the bathtub with him as he tries to get clean. He brushes them all off, as well as his local guide, Jack (Sam Neill) – he just wants to catch the Tazzie tiger.

But, gradually he adjusts to family life. He helps the mom detox, and starts to spend time with the kids. And, it turns out that the son, a tiny tyke, had accompanied his missing father on a similar tiger hunt. So he has first-hand experience and his drawings could help Martin in his search. But, as his heart warms up, his conscience begins to bother him: should he be killing the last member of a species? And can he survive the barren life in the bush, the xenophobic, redneck townies, the crusading “greenies” (enviro-activists), and the sinister corporation itself?

This is a good, tense drama – not an action movie, despite the way it’s being advertised – that shows Martin stalking the Tiger and resisting the deadly attacks from his rivals. This has good acting, spectacular and unusual scenery, a moving story, and an interesting plot.

Cabin in the Woods

Dir: Drew Goddard

Five college students head off for a fun weekend at a cottage in the woods, where they plan to hang out, maybe have sex, get drunk, and take drugs. It looks like it’ll be fun, despite the warnings of a crusty, tobacco-chewing local who predicts their demise. The five of them — Jules (Anna Hutchison), the newly-blonde party girl, Curt (Chris “Thor” Hemsworth) the “dumb” jock, Dana (Kristen Connolly) the shy, good girl, and Holden (Jesse Williams) the nice-guy nerd — just want to have a good time, and enjoy a game of truth or dare.

Only Marty (Fran “Dollhouse” Kranz) the stoner, suspects something is up:  why are the very smart students behaving like celebutantes and french-kissing wolf heads? It doesn’t make sense. And when the game leads them down to the basement, why do they accidentally summon redneck killer zombies from the grave by reading a spell they find in an old diary? Whatever the reason is, they find themselves fighting for their lives against an endless series of scary, trap-and-chain wielding hunter zombis. Just what you’d expect from a horror movie.

Except… this isn’t a conventional slasher story. It’s a meta-meta-meta movie, more layers than you can shake a stick at. You see, they don’t realize it, but it’s all been a set-up by technicians in a laboratory somewhere who have made their own hunger games inside and around the cottage, complete with little cameras hidden everywhere. It’s total manipulation and mind control! To get them to act sexier, they spray pheremones into the building. And when they try to escape, they discover they’re trapped in what may be something like a movie set (which eventually morphs into an extended version of Vincenzo Natali’s “Cube”…) Is there any way to escape?

The movie switches back and forth between the boring, white-jacketed, middle-aged pocket-protector guys in the lab causing all the trouble (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, and the perennial lab-geek Amy Acker, from Whedon’s Angel and Dollhouse), and the teens in the cabin running for their lives.

It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I just loved this comedy-horror movie by first-time director Goddard who previously wrote Cloverfield; and written by Joss Whedon, the man whose series Buffy the Vampire Slayer inspired more PhD theses than Jane Austin. The best way to understand it is to compare it to a one season (BTVS) story arc, building from an innocuous start, through a twisted plot, and with a grand finale where everyone runs amok. Of course, the lines are hilarious, and the violence is scary, extreme and bloody.

Cabin in the Woods, and The Hunter open today in Toronto, Check your local listings; Happy People: a Year in the Taiga, opens at the TIFF Bell Light Box. The Images festival is on now. Also opening is Gus Madden’s long-awaited Keyhole; the wonderful, heart-wrenching drama, The Deep Blue Sea, (which I’ll talk about next week); and the slapstick meat puppets of The Three Stooges. And tickets for HotDocs, Toronto’s documentary festival, are now on sale.

And if you like what you hear, be sure to support CIUT in its membership drive, on now!

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

What is a piece of popcorn worth? Movies reviewed: Payback, Jeff, Who Lives at Home

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

So did you hear about that poor guy in Michigan? Apparently he just wanted to go to a movie, but when he got into the theatre they literally held a gun to his head and forced him to buy a very expensive bag of popcorn! Literally! Can you believe it? …Oh — wait a sec. I’m wrong. Turns out he just didn’t think the price they were charging for popcorn and candy was fair. So he’s launching a class action suit.

Question: is it fair for movie theatres to charge 6 bucks for a bag of popcorn? Are moviegoers exploited and ripped off? Of course we are – everyone knows that, but we’re OK with it. Right? I mean you’re in that theatre paying to see Images projected on a screen — the ultimate deception.

If the candy’s too much then don’t buy it — they’ll get your money one way or another. I think popcorn is up there with the huge screens, surround-sound, velvet curtains, plush seats, grand lobbies and skeezy washrooms. It’s the movie experience. These seemingly random parts are all part of a larger coherent whole.

This week I’m reviewing two movies that look at fate, morality, destiny, and retribution. One is a documentary about things you must pay back, the other a comedy about paths you must follow.

Payback

Dir: Jennifer Baichwal

Two farmers, Llesh and Ilir live in northern Albania in a lush valley surrounded by grassy hills and snow topped mountains. A few years ago, when Ilir went to complain that Llesh was farming his land, there was a fight, and it may have involved Llesh’s wife… in any case Llesh pulled out a machine gun and shot Ilir in the gut a few times. He survived, but according to the 16th cenutry Albanian ethics code the Kanun, Llesh owes Ilir a debt. So Llesh and his family are poor now, trapped inside a shack and not able to farm.

This is just one of the many tangents this movie takes you on a look at debt – moral, ecological, monetary, and legal debt, — along with penitence, guilt, and retribution. They’re all very interesting stories – Latino tomato farmers in Florida fighting for fair treatment; a fisherman in the gulf enduring ruin after BP’s mishandled oil disaster; and a look at various Canadian prisoners – a petty burglar in Ontario, and Conrad Black (!) in Florida, both serving their time, repaying their debt to society. The documentary parts are alternated with talking heads — like Louise Barbour, Karen Armstrong, and Raj Patel — commenting on law, economics and religion.

This movie is sort of based on the Massey lectures Margaret Atwood gave a few years ago – a brilliant look at the words around lending, borrowing, owing and being owed. I say “sort of”, since it almost seems like one of those romantic thriller movies that say they were inspired by a true story. Jennifer Baichwal’s documentaries usually find a starting point and then, like a Stephen Leacock character, they fling themselves onto a horse and ride madly off in all directions.

Is this a problem? Not really, because even if they’re all over the place, the subjects she chooses are all interesting. And the movie is so visually rich (cinematography by Nicholas de Pencier) with images — from ceramic figures through a pawn shop window, to staggering, long aerial shots of the BP oil slick creeping across the Gulf of Mexico – that are as fascinating as any of the things people are saying.

I do get the feeling that Baichwal realizes it’s all over the place, so, to tie it all to Margaret Atwood’s book she adds long, literal scenes of Atwood hunt-and-pecking on her laptop, or Atwood reading from her manuscript. The talking head expertss are on screen too briefly to stick in the mind, except Conrad Black – who seems to have changed his mind about debt, retribution, and prisons.

In any case, Payback is a great visual riff.

Another movie that seems, superficially, to be about random drifting is

Jeff, Who lives at Home

Dir: the Duplass Brothers

(I reviewed this after seeing it at TIFF, but it held up very well this second viewing — I actually liked it better this time.)

Jeff (Jason Segel) is part of a dysfunctional family that fell apart when the father husband died years ago. Mom works in a lonely office cubicle, douchey Brother Pat (Ed Helms) sells paint and is destroying his marriage, and Jeff, who’s 30, still lives at home – sits around his mother’s basement in his underwear, to be exact. He smokes pot, eats chips, watches TV, and waxes philosophical about the cosmos… while sitting on a toilet. He’s always waiting for “signs” to tell him what to do., like in the Mel Gibson movie.

Well, one day he’s forced to leave home for downtown Baton Rouge to get something for his mother (Susan Sarandon)’s birthday. But, when someone on an infomercial says his life will change by the words “CALL NOW!”; and at the same time a strange, threatening wrong number wanted to talk to “Kevin”, he starts off on a (seemingly) wild goose chase all around the city.

So Jeff embarks on this grand mission – one that eventually ties in with his brother’s failing marriage and his mother’s love life — because he knows, he just knows, that his actions will change the world. Will Jeff find Kevin? Will Pat forget about Hooters and Porsche’s and think about his wife for once? And will Mom ever get to kiss under a waterfall?

This is a good, enjoyable comedy. I like the Duplass brothers, who used to make low-budget, ‘mumblecore”, semi-improvisational super-realistic movies. They have a few quirks – little camera emoticons – I don’t know how else to describe it – where the camera zooms in to nudge-nudge, wink-wink to the viewer that something funny is happening like a visual laughtrack– but the movie’s good enough that it doesn’t bother me after awhile. This one, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, is their biggest budget and most mainstream one so far, with stuntmen, and chase scenes, and big name cast. But I like this direction they’re taking – it’s not a sell-out, just a very funny, light comedy.

Payback and Jeff, Who Lives at Home both open today. And Margaret Atwood and Jennifer Baichwal will be there for a Q&A at the screenings on Friday and Saturday. Worth a trip just for that — Margaret Atwood is very entertaining. Also playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox are the fantastic Japanese animated films Spirited away and Princess Mononoke. And at the newly re-opened Bloor Cinema, look out for the daily HotDocs documentaries playing now. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

 

March 9, 2012. If You Love This Planet. Movies reviewed: The Lorax, John Carter

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

With globalization, things affect the whole planet all at once even if they only happen in one place. The Earth is all shook up! Like last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan – I remember seeing those horrific scenes of towns being swept away, and the ongoing tension about the nuclear leak at Fukushima.

In gratitude for the support of the international community, the Japan Foundation in Toronto is offering a series of free films next week at Innis College called Light Up Japan. The documentaries are all about what has happened since the disaster in that area and how the people are coping with it. Check out the Japan Foundation ( jftor.org ) for more information.

So in keeping with the theme of global events, this week I’m looking at two movies with whole-planet-sized topics. One is about a kid trying to save the earth from total destruction; the other is a man who finds himself a part of the potential ruin of Mars.

The Lorax

Dir: Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda

Ted lives in Thneedville, a plastic suburban shopping mall town where life controlled by a Mr O’Hare, a nasty rich guy who made his fortune bottling air, and who spies on everyone in town. Ted has a crush on his neighbour Audrey who is into trees – which don’t exist anymore (people use plastic trees instead). Audrey says she wishes she could see one.

So taking his grandmother’s advice, Ted climbs into his vehicle – a sort of a unicycle/ segway/ scooter – and sneaks out of the city to find the Once-lear – the only person who still knows the truth. He discovers that the vast wasteland outside of Thneedville once was a land of rainbows, happy fish, droopy birds, and teddy bears who ate the berries from the puffball trees, and lived happily and peacefully. An industrialist uses the puffballs to make a knitted stringy thing, the thneed, that consumers buy by the millions. He decides it’s cheaper and easer to cut them all down rather than using their puffballs as a renewable resource. Only the Lorax, (a tiny mustachioed environmentalist who descends from the heavens in a thunderstorm) can save the day, if only people will listen. He speaks for the trees…

I thought this movie was OK, but it really seemed to stretch the short Dr Seuss book into a 90 minute song-and-dance musical. It soft-pedals the problems of industrial pollution and consumerism, and reduces the motivation from ardent environmentalism to a boy wanting to kiss a girl. It relegates the Lorax story to flashback status, and kept the wonderful Seuss-like scenes of the valley to a minimum, while over-emphasizing the non-Seuss humdrum suburban scenes, filled with your usual 3-d sitcom characters.

It’s not a bad movie, and of course it’s great to tell kids about environmentalism and privacy, but the songs were dull, the characters not-so-interesting, the story not very original, and the animation and character style not up to what I expect from a Dr Seuss story.

Interesting fact — The Lorax earned more money in its opening weekend than Hugo did in its entire run.

John Carter

Dir: Andrew Stanton

John Carter is a mean and strong fighter, a cavalry man from the civil war. He can escape from jails, scrapple with anyone – weapon or not – is good on horseback and keen with a sword and a rifle. And he doesn’t take sides – Apache or US Army – they’re all the same. He doesn’t want any part of it. He just wants to find his cave of gold in the Arizona desert. But when he encounters a stranger in the cave, and repeats the word Barsoom while touching a glowing amulet, he is magically transported to Mars a land of great civilizations, far beyond earth’s imagination.

Strong John Carter, though smaller than the four-armed tusked Tarks – some of the creatures who live there – soon discovers he can leap high in the air and jump long distances, because of the different gravity there. He soon finds himself in the middle of a huge war between the city of Helium and the bad Zodanga. And he meets Dejah, (a beautiful princess-warrior, as well as a physicist, inventor and a great swordswoman) who is being forceed into marrying a bad guy from the other kingdom. Meanwhile, the shape-shifting super-gods who are manipulating everyone on that planet, are messing things up. It’s up to John Carter to save civilization – but he’s not sure he wants to – he just wants to find the amulet and go back to earth. But with the help of his speedy and faithful dog-monster Woolla, and the noble and honest Thark-guide Sola, he and Dejah must find mutual trust, truth and possibly true love in their search for the secrets of this planet.

As you can tell, this is a very long, plot-heavy story about an adventure on Mars. Like comics, manga and pulp fiction, the story takes precedent over feelings, emotions or characters – it’s more the action, the twists, the background, the secrets, the fights, the betrayals and the fantastical, sex-tinged images. But it carries it through amazingly well in this 2½ hour epic. (People call everything epics now, but this is an actual epic). I thought it was amazing.

It’s done in the style of Frank Frazetta’s illustrations: fiery-eyed women in exotic garb with pendulous breasts and black tresses; snarling men with steely gaze and bared chests, brandishing their swords toward the red skies…..  but through a Disney filter, making it sexy, but not sexual.

It feels more like Roman sword-and-sandal story than science fiction. (It’s based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels.) It has a mainly British cast, plus Canadian Taylor Kitsch — just great in the title role. I liked Lynn Collins (never heard of her) as Dejah, and Dominic West (The Wire) as one of many assorted bad guys in this cast-of-thousands picture. Want to be overwhelmed by an elaborate, exciting movie getaway, with a complicated fantasy plot that never lets up, even for a second? Then this is the one to see.

The Lorax is playing now, and John Carter opens today in Toronto, and the Japanese documentaries are playing all week at Innis College.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

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Dec 2, 2011 Fox Movies vs Hedgehog Movies. Films Reviewed: Surviving Progress, The Descendants PLUS VTape

Posted in Canada, Cultural Mining, Death, Denial, Drama, Environmentalism, Gas, Hawaii, Uncategorized, US by CulturalMining.com on December 3, 2011

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

Have you ever heard of “Foxes vs Hedgehogs”? Isaiah Berlin (in a famous essay about Tolstoy) wrote that writers and intellectuals were all either foxes or hedgehogs. Hedgehogs know one big thing, while foxes know many things. (He’s talking about expertise in a field versus generalists.) But I wonder if this can be applied to movies? Are their fox movies and hedgehog movies? I don’t know — all movies are collaborations of dozens or even hundreds of people… but they usual seem to be about one big thing. Fox movies (I don’t mean 20th Century Fox) might be ones like Enter the Void, or You are Here, or Magnolia; while hedgehogs are Remains of the Day or Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Then there are most movies which have a concept but where there’s no idea at all. I guess they’re neither foxes nor hedgehogs.

So this week I’m talking about two movies, a documentary about everything, and a humorous drama about a family facing a whole lot of problems all at once.

Surviving Progress

Dir: Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks

You’ve probably heard of “peak oil”: that’s the point where the oil yet to come out of the ground is less than what we’ve already extracted, so we’ve already used most of it up. People say we reached peak oil about 8 years ago, most of the found reserves are drying out, and that’s why they’re trying to get oil out of the tar sands and digging in remote areas to find whatever’s left.

But what if it’s not just peak oil? What if it’s peak everything? What if we’re using up all the credit we possibly could in the drive toward over- consumption; all the forests, the water, arable land is approaching point zero; what if the financial sector, with its rapacious, slash-and-burn attitude toward company takeovers in search of the next 10% profit rate…

This new documentary (based on Ronald Wright’s book “A short history of progress) poses a really interesting situation. Progress is defined as a technological advance that takes us out of each successive crisis and saves us. But what if these advances in technology or progress are the cause of these crises?

It uses the example of the mammoth. When the cavemen – who are basically us, genetically – used to go out and chase after woolly elephants, they’d kill one ot two every so often and eat them. But when someone came up with the new idea, the technology, that let them round up a whole herd and chase them off a cliff… well that was that. Peak Mammoth.

So the current financial crisis, the environmental crisis, the water, oil, shortages… maybe all our new ideas aren’t progress at all, but the start of disaster?

This is a really interesting idea, and a fascinating documentary. The movie consists mainly of talking head interviews by lots of famous experts like Vaclav Smil, Jane Goodall and Steven Hawking taking all sides of the argument. Personally, I would have liked more shots of apes playing with blocks or wooly mammoths falling off cliffs, and less long, talking-head interviews… but it’s still a really interesting topic.

(Definitely a fox movie, not a hedgehog, though, talking about everything and its opposite, to cover all points of view – it left me a bit overwhelmed by all it covered, and at a loss as to what the movie says we should do to solve the problem.)

The Descendants

Dir: Alexander Payne

Matt King (George Clooney) is a middle aged corporate lawyer in Hawai’i, who, along with all his cousins, is apparently descended way back from a Hawaiian princess, but looks, sounds and acts like a rich white guy, a haoli. He’s in charge of the family trust for a land grant of untouched beaches and forests left by that Hawaiian royal family a century ago, and suddenly they have to sell it off to developers to make condos and golf courses before they lose it. Then, all of the sudden, everything hits him all at once. His wife is in hospital in a coma, so, for the first time he has to take care of his two daughters, Scottie and Alex (Amara Miller and Shailene Woodley), who are a handful. And if that’s not enough, the doctors say his wife may not survive – her friends, his in-laws, and everyone close need to be told. And his daughter Alex chooses this point to tell him some shocking news about his wife – something he never knew. So now it’s up to the three of them, plus Alex’s boyfriend Sid the pool boy, to journey around the islands to try to tie up the loose ends, and face their upcoming losses.

So it deals with a load of plot lines that are all over the place, like the scattered Hawaiian islands, but it’s held together with traditional Hawaiian music, scenery and style. This is a very sweet and interesting movie about a father and his family facing up to a whole bunch of problems all at once. The cast is great, the acting, the look and feel, the story too. I didn’t leave the theatre thinking “this is a deep movie” – it’s not – but it’s a good movie. It felt like the pilot for a really good HBO TV series. What’s this family’s next adventure? I want to find out!

Surviving Progress opens today in Toronto, and The Descendants is playing now, check your local listings.

Also check out VTape’s program this Saturday, a very foxy movie program, where the staff at this experimental art-video space has selected a special, eclectic program, CARRIED AWAY, which they describe as “a sampler box of chocolates” including “mash-ups, tender meditations, and animations, both precise and apocalyptic”. That’s on this Saturday, Dec 9. Go to www.vtape.org for more information

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

October 20, 2011. The Calm Before the Storm. Movies Reviewed: Restoration, Wiebo’s War, 50/50 PLUS ImagineNATIVE

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

There’s a term “The Calm Before the Storm”, and I’m getting the sensation that we’re there right now. Have you ever felt what it’s like before a tornado hits? It’s uncomfortably still, with a heavy weight in the pit of your stomach, and a strange feeling in the air. No wind. Weird feeling. Last weekend I stopped by the Occupy Toronto protest, where people are talking about how the middle class and poor — in countries like Canada, the US, Germany — have had their incomes go down or stay stangant over the past two decades, while a tiny percentage, that “1%”,  have had the biggest increase in their wealth in a century. Our national wellbeing is not keeping up to the constant rise in GDP.

Before the march, they pointed out the medics, in case people got clubbed or shot, and asked everyone to write down a number to call in case you’re thrown into prison. So there was that nervous sensation, not knowing how the police would react, would they be violent?, and what the potential risks were for marching, even in a democratic country. It turned out to be totally peaceful with a friendly police escort and no bad incidents whatsoever… but you never know.

So, knowing that some countries are on the brink of self-destruction, and (not that the two are comparable) knowing that next week – Hallowe’en – will be marked with deliberate mayhem and confusion, I’ve decided to talk about three movies where people face potential chaos, calamity, and collapse, and the different ways they choose to confront the coming storm.

First is a movie, which played at TIFF, about people confronting personal change and relationships, and trying to avoid a collapse.

Restoration
Dir: Joseph Madmony

Anton (Henry David), a young man and almost a drifter is looking for work in a run-down section of Tel Aviv. He stumbles into an old-school furniture-restoring shop and gets hired immediately by the grizzled and grumpy old carpenter Fidelman (Sasson Gabai). But the childless co-owner of the place dies the next day, and leaves his half not to the carpenter, but to his son.

Fidelman’s broke. And his son, a lawyer, is a bit of a douche, who is glad to be removed from his father’s life as a tradesman. He calls the place a junkyard, and wants to sell the property to build a condo, destroying his own father’s livelihood and forcing him into retirement. But musical Anton, (who has family troubles of his own) vows to learn the trade and tries to find the golden egg that will save the store. If he can only locate the missing piece of a rare antique piano, it will change from a piece of junk to a treasure worth enough money to keep the place open, and evade the impending doom. Anton becomes almost a surrogate son to the carpenter… almost. But it’s complicated when he realizes he may be falling in love with the real son’s pregnant wife.

This movie had great acting from the two main characters. On the surface, it’s a “let’s work hard to fix the piano and save the shop!”-type story, but that’s just its superficial structure. It’s actually much more sophisticated. Though drab-looking, Restoration is a bitter-sweet examination of love, duty, families, allegiances, death and inheritance.

Next, a movie, which played at Hotdocs, about a man, his family, and his supporters who take drastic moves to confront what he thinks is a coming disaster.

Wiebo’s War
Dir: David York

Wiebo Ludwig is a devout Christian who lives in a remote, isolated colony with his fellow religious settlers in BC, near Alberta. Their lives are food and energy self-sufficient, but, in the 90’s, things began to go wrong. Goats started having frequent stillbirths, and, when a woman also miscarried, they realized their watershed had been contaminated by natural gas wells built right at the edge of their property.

He was later arrested, tried, and jailed for bombs he had set off at wells and pipelines in that energy-rich Alberta area. This movie follows filmmaker David York who was allowed to film inside their compound.

Is Wiebo a religious nut or a devoted social activist? Well, he’s certainly religious, but he’s crazy like a fox. The movie documents some of Wiebo’s (and those of his fellow settlers’) frequent brushes with the law and the big energy companies. There are run-ins with outwardly conciliatory execs from Encana; pointless, intimidating, and relentless police raids of their homes to test things like how many ball point there are on one floor, and how many cassette tapes are on another; and their increasingly fractious relationship with the nearby town, where they have found themselves local pariahs following the unexplained shooting death of young woman on their property.

Folk hero, or deranged terrorist?

Maybe both. I left the movie even less certain than before as to who’s to blame and what actually happened. While a bit slow-moving, Wiebo’s War gives a first hand look at a legendary Canadian figure (who was sadly diagnosed with cancer just a few days ago), his family and co-religionists, and the unusual junction between Christian fundamentalism and environmental extremism. …an inside look at the calm before the storm.

50/50
Dir: Jonathan Levine

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a shy, quiet, polite and passive guy, with a boorish and boisterous friend named Kyle, a smothering, worrying mom, and a beautiful but shallow girlfriend named Rachael. He’s in his twenties, no car, lives in a tiny red house far from the city of Seattle, and cubicle job at a beautiful public radio station (Support CIUT!) where he’s working on a story about a soon-to-erupt volcano.

But when Adam gets a pain in his belly, his doctor (a man with possibly the worst bedside manner ever) does some tests and tells him he has a rare form of cancer, and a 50% chance of living. He’s sent to a therapist (Anne Hendrick) who’s younger than he is, and is still at the student-teacher stage.

So, how is Adam going to face his situation? How will he deal with his casual girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is suddenly his caregiver? His best friend (Seth Rogen) who just wants to use his cancer buddy as a wing-man chick magnet? And his intrusive worry-wort mother, who is already taking care of his Alzheimer stricken dad? Or even his bumbling but sincere therapist, Katie? What will he do? Can he accept the possibility of death? Who is really important to him?

50/50, based on a true story, is not a bad movie – it’s sweet — but, beware, it’s not the comedy it’s billed as. It’s a drama — even a bit of a weeper — with some needed comic relief. Gordon-Levitt is perfect as Adam, as is Hendrick as Katie, while Seth Rogen – not so funny, a bit too much. But Angelica Huston as the Mother was shockingly good. I mean, she plays to stereotypes, but does it so well, I didn’t figure out it was her playing the part until the final credits!

50/50 is now playing, Wiebo’s War opens in Toronto today, check your local listings, and Restoration is playing one show only next week, on Sunday afternoon, October 30th, as part of the Chai, Tea and a Movie series. Go to tjff.com for details.

Also on right now in Toronto is the wonderful ImagineNATIVE, the world’s largest aboriginal film festival, that explores native film, art and music from Canada and abroad. Great stuff! Many events are free and they’re all open to everyone — go to ImagineNATIVE.org for details.

Next week: Hallowe’en!

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

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