Heavy Hitters. Films Reviewed: Wonder Wheel, Roman J Israel, Esq, The Shape of Water

Posted in African-Americans, Baltimore, Cold War, Drama, Fantasy, L.A., Movies, Women by CulturalMining.com on December 8, 2017

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

It’s December now, and that’s when the movie awards start to pile up. This week I’m looking at some of the hard-hitters — movies with famous directors or stars — that might be up for a prize. There’s a kitchen sink drama in Coney Island, a legal drama in LA, and a romantic drama in a secret Baltimore laboratory.

Wonder Wheel

Wri/Dir: Woody Allen

It’s the 1950s in Coney Island. Humpty and Ginny are a middle aged couple living in a rundown apartment overlooking the ferris wheel. Humpty (Jim Belushi) is an angry drunk, currently on the wagon, who manages the carousel. Ginny (Kate Winslet) is a former actress who is a waitress at the clam shack… or as she puts it, she’s playing the part of “Waitress” in an on-going drama. She has a little kid from her first marriage, Richie, who is a petty thief and an aspiring arsonist, lighting fires wherever he can. Life in this dysfunctional family is far from perfect but at least it’s stable. That is until two things turn their lives upside down.

First Humpty’s estranged daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) shows up out of nowhere. They haven’t spoken for five years, not since she married a racketeer. Now she’s on the lam, a marked woman since she turned canary and sang about the mob to the cops. She moves into their crowded home, working with Ginny at the Clam House. The second thing that happens is Ginny meets Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a lifeguard on the beach. He’s a grad student at NYU and loves the idea of dating a dramatic older woman. Soon they are secretly meeting under the boardwalk for afternoon delights. But then Mickey meets Carolina and everything starts to unravel.

After watching Wonder Wheel, I kept wondering: did I just see a great movie or a terrible one? It’s certainly very different from Woody Allen’s European comedies. It feels more like a stage play, with characters reciting the lines of a script, from Mickey the lifeguard who narrates by speaking directly to the camera, to Ginny who says things like: “I’m consumed with jealousy!” I think that’s intentional.  But I’m not so sure most of the characters wanted to speak exactly like Woody, down to his stammer and pauses. Still, the look of the movie – from the period costumes to the lurid colours of neon lights, and the unexpectedly jarring camerawork – is stunning and surprising. Does this mean Woody Allen is still experimenting?

So is Wonder Wheel a good movie or not? Hmmm… I guess so.

Roman J Israel, Esq.

Wri/Dir: Dan Gilroy

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a defense lawyer in present day LA. He’s a partner in a small law firm – he minds the office while his partner goes to court. He’s an old-fashioned guy. He wears big round glasses and ill-fitting clothes. He rides the bus to an office full of foolscap and post-it notes. He works under the watchful gaze of pictures of Angela Davis and Bayard Rustin. He sacrificed marriage, a social life and material possessions, in exchange for devoting his life to civil rights and equality under the law. That is until his law partner of 30 years has a heart attack. Suddenly Roman finds himself jobless, friendless and nearly homeless.

A slick corporate colleague of his boss named George (Colin Farrell) offers him a low-level job at his firm. He refuses. But when he can’t find paying work, is mocked at a meeting of young activists, and is attacked by a mugger on the way home, he is faced with a tough decision: stay true to his ideals or sell out and enjoy the profits? Only Maya (Carmen Ejogo) – a woman he meets at an NGO – still believes in him. He ends up making an ethically dubious decision, and has to deal with the consequences.

Roman J Israel, Esq. is billed as a thriller – and there are a few tense moments – but it’s basically a character study of a man forced to re-examine his values in a changing world. Denzel Washington is great as Roman – he really gets into the part, portraying him as an oddball but a sympathetic and believable one. The story is very simple, but it’s the details surrounding this fascinating character that keeps you interested.

The Shape of Water

Dir: Guillermo del Toro

It’s Baltimore in 1962. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is an elegant cleaning woman at a top secret government lab. She loves hard boiled eggs and bathtubs and lives above a movie theatre. She is mute, but communicates with her two friends using sign language. There’s Zelda (Octavia Spence) a talkative woman who translates and covers for her at work; and Giles (Richard Jenkins) a lonely illustrator in his 60s who lives with his cats in the apartment next door.

Elisa lives a routine life, until something strange shows up in a glass tank! Like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, he’s part human, part fish. Elisa is scared but intrigued. She offers him hard boiled eggs which he scarfs down. Gradually she teaches him to communicate through sign language, and exposes him to music, art and human emotions. Could this be love? If only life were so simple. The creature arrived with Strickland (Michael Shannon) the agent in charge of the project. He’s a racist misogynist who takes sadistic pleasure in torturing the creature with a cattle prod. He plans to kill him and take him apart to study. And lurking in the shadows at the lab is a soviet spy who observes everything – including Elisa communicating with the creature. Can their love survive?

The Shape of Water is an amazing movie, modelled on classic Hollywood films. I’ve seen it twice now, and it didn’t drag for a moment. It’s funny, romantic, surprising, violent, and exciting. The music, the art direction, the singing and dancing, the dream sequences, the surreal sex scenes, the Cold War/cloak-and-dagger feel…. this movie has just about everything. Sally Hawkins is an unusual romantic lead, but she’s perfect as Elisa. Shannon is a hateable — but understandable — villain. Spence and Jenkins as, respectively, her comic and melancholy sidekick, are both spot on.

This is a wonderful movie: I recommend it.

Roman J. Israel, Esquire is now playing. Wonder Wheel and The Shape of Water open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

Runaways. Films reviewed: Across the Waters, Wonderstruck

Posted in 1920s, 1940s, 1970s, Denmark, Fantasy, Jazz, Kids, Manhattan, Movies, Nazi, WWII by CulturalMining.com on October 20, 2017

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

Film Festival season continues in Toronto. Planet in Focus is an environmental film festival that bring eco heroes – like astronaut Roberta Bondar – to Toronto along with amazing documentaries from around the world. Everything from a grocery co-op in Brooklyn to a plastic recycling plant in Shandong, China to Genetically Modified Organisms, which are, well, everywhere. Go to Planetinfocus.org for more information.

ImagineNative is indigenous films and media arts, including an art crawl around the city, a wall is a screen, and many workshops, breakfasts and events. It has scary movies, westerns, docs, dramas, animation and so much more. Go to imaginenative.org for details.

This week I’m looking at two movies about people running away. One has a boy and a girl running away to New York City to find family. And the other has a father fleeing Copenhagen to save his family.

Across the Waters

Dir: Nicolo Donato (Brotherhood)

It’s 1943, in German-occupied Copenhagen. It’s an uneasy peace, but because of an agreement the Germans leave the Danes alone. Arne (David Dencik) is a guitarist in a jazz band. He is passionately in love with his wife Miriam (Danica Curcic) and they spend all their free time having sex. But only after they put their 6 year old son to bed. Jacob (Anton Dalgård Guleryüz) likes listening to Danish poems and playing with his teddy bear. Everything is going fine – no need to worry about the Nazis; this is Denmark, not Poland. Until that knock on the door comes one night – the Germans are coming! Run! Now!

The family is Jewish and the Nazis are there to take them away.

There’s only one way to escape; and that’s by boat to neutral Sweden. But how? They make their way north to a small port called Gilleleje, where they hear the fisherman are helping people across the sea. But when they get there things aren’t as good as they hoped.

One fisherman named Kaj is demanding high fares. But Arne and Miriam are nearly broke. There are way too many refugees in the town to keep them a secret from the Nazis. While some of the locals – the police chief, the pastor – are risking their lives to save fellow Danes, others have questionable motives. Who can be trusted, and who is collaborating? And will the family escape to Sweden?

Across the Waters is a fictional retelling of a true story. The movie is Danish but it was shot in Ireland to give it that period, seaside look. I always like a good WWII drama, and there have been some great Danish films, like Flame and Citron and Land of Mine, that deal with the topic. This one is smaller and more of a family drama than an action thriller, but it does keep the tension and suspense at a high level. (Including a scene reminiscent of Melville’s Army of Shadows.)

Worth seeing.

WonderStruck

Wonderstruck

Dir: Todd Haynes

It’s the late 1970s in Gunflint Lake, Minnesota. Ben (Oakes Fegley) is a 12 year old boy who lives with his aunt’s family. He suffers from strange dreams since his mom, a librarian, was killed in a car accident. Some nightmares involve being chased by wolves, but others are stranger still. They tell a continuous story, night after night, and they’re silent, and in black and white — just like an old movie.

These dreams tell a parallel story about Rose (Millicent Simmonds) a 12-year-old girl who lives in her father’s mansion in 1927 like a bird in a gilded cage. He’s a rich, divorced man in Hoboken, New Jersey. Rose’s head is in the stars – she spends most of her days reading title cards at silent movies or collecting photos she cuts from magazines. She’s obsessed with a certain pale-skinned movie actress named Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).

Rose doesn’t go to school. But when she discovers her local theatre is switching to talkies she she knows it’s time for a change. She’s deaf and can only communicate by writing things down or reading words on a screen. So she bobs her hair and takes the ferry into Manhattan where she hopes to find the legendary actress.

Ben, meanwhile, is an orphan. His mom never told him who his birth father was. But looking through her things he finds an old bookmark with a message. It was tucked into a book about a museum collection, and the message was written by someone named Danny who visited their town before he was born. Could this be his dad?

But when he tries to call him up long distance, lightening strikes — literally. The electric shock travels through the phone line, leaving Ben deaf (just like Rose). But he catches a bus to New York City anyway, arriving at the Port Authority carrying just the name of a bookstore and a handful of cash. There he meets another 12-year-old named Jamie (Jaden Michael) who befriends him and says he’ll help him find his (possible) dad.

Jamie gives Ben a place to stay… a storage rooms at the Museum of Natural History (where Jamie’s father works). Will Ben find his dad? And will Rose find the movie star? Can two deaf 12-year-olds survive in a huge city? And what connects the two runaways?

Wonderstruck is a wonderful kids movie about seeking the unknown. It’s full of dreams, coincidences, and flashbacks, too many for it to be a real story. But it works great as a kids’ fantasy. It’s also beautifully made, using amazing animated paper models to tell part of the story. And through ingenious special effects, it incorporates the two main characters into what looks like period footage — of streetlife in New York in the gritty but colourful 70s,  and the fuzzy black-and-white 20s.

Just wonderful.

Wonderstruck opens today in Toronto; check your local listings. Across the Waters is playing Sunday afternoon as part of the Chai Tea and Movies programme. Go to tjff.com for details.

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

Indie movies. Films reviewed: Sundowners, The Only Living Boy in New York, Patti Cake$

Posted in Books, Canada, comedy, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Hiphop, Mexico, Movies, Music by CulturalMining.com on August 25, 2017

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

A soundtrack can make or break an indie movie. This week I’m looking at three independent movies about people in their twenties where music sets the tone. There are two guys from Toronto heading to Mexico fuelled by contemporary Canadian music; a lovestruck guy in Manhattan described in a Simon and Garfunkle song; and a white woman in New Jersey with hip hop in her soul.

Sundowners

Wri/Dir: Pavan Moondi

Alex and Justin are good friends with dead-end jobs. Alex (Phil Hanley) is skinny and tall with a perpetual five o’clock shadow. He’s single, shy and frustrated. He earns a meagre living videotaping weddings, and lets his douche-y boss walk all over him. Justin (Luke Lalonde: Born Ruffians) is smiley and gregarious but, with him, girlfriends rarely stick around. He lives with his demented grandmother, and works long hours on a telemarketing complaint line. They are both a hair’s breadth away from quitting their jobs.

So when Alex’s boss offers to fly him on an all-expense-paid trip to a Mexican resort to film a wedding, he takes it. And he gets free tickets for Justin, too – he just has to pretend he’s a cameraman, even though he’s never lifted a camera in his life. Will the trip prove to be their downfall? Will it change their lives? And will Alex finally meet a woman he’s compatible with, even if it’s just for the weekend?

Sundowners is another feature by Pavan Moondi, and like Diamond Tongues it features Canadian musicians both in the cast and on the soundtrack. It’s a comedy, but isn’t full of one- liners. It’s more about the characters and the odd and awkward social situations they find themselves in. The plot is very basic, and some of the jokes are hit and miss, but the movie itself is still a pleasure to watch.

The Only Living Boy in New York

Dir: Marc Webb

Thomas (Callum Turner) is a college drop out living in the lower east side. He’s tall, thin and pale and wears harry potter glasses. He’s originally from the upper west side where his parents still live. His mom (Cynthia Nixon) is artsie but bipolar and fragile. His Dad (Pierce Brosnan) is a failed novelist but a very successful book publisher. Thomas has literary ambitions, too, but they were quashed when his dad dismissed his writing as just adequate.

Thomas is madly in love with the pretty and smart Mimi (Kiersey Clemons) ever since she told him she loves Nabokov. But Mimi just wants to be friends. What to do?

Then one night, Thomas and Mimi spot his dad at a nightclub kissing a beautiful woman. Who is she and what does this mean? Are they having an affair? Her name is Johanna (Kate Beckinsale) and she’s a freelance editor. Thomas confronts her – why are you ruining my parents’ marriage? She replies: You want to make love to me, Thomas, you just don’t realize it. What?  Thomas is shocked… but intrigued.

Will these flirtations lead to an affair? What would Mimi think? And what secrets are his parents hiding?

The Only Living Boy in New York is an enjoyable romance set against a glamorous, literary Manhattan. The movie is narrated by a gruff old man (Jeff Bridges) who mysteriously appears in Thomas’s apartment building to offer sage advice. The problem is almost everybody talks like they’re narrating their own books all the time. People don’t talk like that — not even writers. But I liked the movie anyway, with all it’s romantic surprises. And Callum Turner – actor/model – does Thomas very well. In fact the whole cast is great. Another enjoyable film.

 

Patti Cake$

Dir: Geremie Jasper

Patti (Danielle Macdonald) is a working-class Jersey Girl who lives with her Mom and Grandma (Cathy Moriarty) somewhere off the Turnpike. She’s heavy-set with long curly blonde hair, who dresses in 90s hiphop gear and hoop earings. Bullies call her Dumbo. Her best friend is Jhery (Siddharth Dhananjay) a pharmacist who takes of his white coat at night and dons a do-rag. He and Patti long to leave New Jersey with their hip hop duo and relocate in the Emerald city (New York) but so far, no go. Barb (Bridget Everett) her mom, also almost made it big singing in a rock band, but not big enough. Now she just drinks away her sorrows. Patti works in a low grade Karaoke bar just to pay off her mom’s tab.

Enter Bastard, aka Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie), a mysterious african-american man she meets at an open mic night. He’s tall and skinny dressed in black with short fdreads and multiple piercings. His music is some weird combination of death metal, goth, punk and hiphop. When he says anything it’s with a vaguely English accent. He claims to be a hobo, riding the rails across America. He lives in a shack in the woods, just beyond the gates of hell, filled with sound equipment and satanic ritual objects. Patti longs to get to know him better. But can these three urban misfits together record a track good enough to bring them the recognition they crave? And can Patti, Mom and Nana find common ground?

Patti Cakes is like a hilarious, non-stop music video. It’s also a heartwarming look at a mythical, mystical  New Jersey town and its inhabitants. The director, Geremie Jasper, also wrote the script and the lyrics to most of the songs and they’re all brilliant. As are all the cast. And guess what? The actress playing Patti isn’t from Jersey… she’s Australian!

Brilliant.

 

Sundowners, Patti Cake$ and The Only Living Boy in New York all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Are the 90s back? Films reviewed: Brigsby Bear, Landline

Posted in comedy, Coming of Age, Drama, Family, Fantasy, Manhattan, Movies, Sex by CulturalMining.com on August 4, 2017

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

What’s with the nineties? Is it a thing now? Are the nineties back? It’s recent enough that we don’t yet know how to abbreviate it. Is it what was there? Grunge, flannel, ecstasy, glow sticks, drum and bass, Roxette, gangsta rap. Or is it what wasn’t there any more (the Berlin Wall, the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact). Or is it what hasn’t happened yet: 9/11, cell phones, texting, facebook, google.

I guess it is possible to be nostalgic for the 90s. This week I’m looking at two indie movies, dramatic comedies that played at Sundance this year. There’s a Manhattan family living in the 90s and a 25-year-old guy who is stuck in the 90s.

Brigsby Bear

Dir: Dave McCary

It’s present-day America. James (Kyle Mooney) is 25 but still lives with his dad (Mark Hamill) and mom. He was homeschooled and has never left his house – an underground bunker – because poison gas has flooded the planet. At least that’s his parents tell him. His only contact with the outside world is a TV show called Brigsby Bear, a low-budgets kids’ show. The highlight of his week is when his dad, wearing a gas mask, comes home with the latest episode recorded on VHS. Life never changes, until…

Until the day when there’s a police raid on their home. They arrest his parents and interrogate him. Turns out, everything James thought he knew was wrong. His parents? Actually kidnappers who snatched him from his real family as an infant and raised him as their own. Poison gas? Another lie to keep him from leaving. But the biggest shock of all was his hero and best friend Brigsby Bear, the foundation of his entire universe. No one else has heard of him.

James is reunited with his birth parents and a 16 year old sister sister named Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins.) But he sticks out like a sore thumb. His clothes and bad haircut are stuck in the 90s and the only thing he talks about is Brigsby Bear. He knows nothing about sex drugs and rock and roll. The ultimate fish out of water. He learns about a few things at his first party, from his new best friend — a teenager named Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) — and his first potential girlfriend. He’s a bit of a celebrity, the kidnapped guy, so people like to gawk at him.

James’ therapist (Claire Danes) wants him to forget about Brigsby Bear and enter the real world. But that would leave him rudderless with nothing familiar to him. Until Detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear) tells him a secret. He knows where Brigsby Bear is – the costumes the props, the whole thing. Will James – and his friends – recreate the TV show so he can achieve closure? Or will his parents and his therapist gang up to destroy his Brigsby universe… for his own good?

Brigsby Bear is a cute, gentle comedy drama. There’s no real villain, just James trying to adjust. Unfortunately, it relies a lot on Saturday Night Live-style humour: grown ups who act like children, are socially inept, or out of fashion; people who look like us but talk strange. The problem is, James is both the sympathetic main character and also the butt of most of the jokes. The movie just isn’t that funny, but it is entertaining and watchable.

Landline

Dir: Gillian Robespierre

It’s summertime in the 1990s and the Jacobs family is returning from their cottage to Manhattan. Ali (Abby Quinn) is the foul-mouthed teenaged sister. She’s a rebel, into raves, recreational drugs and, she hopes, sex at some point with her current non-boyfriend Jed. Dana (Jenny Slate) works at Paper magazine and is engaged to her affable fiance Ben (Jay Duplass). Then there’s Dad and Mom (John Turturro and Edie Falco). Dad’s an advertising copywriter – but wants to be a playright — and Mom’s involved in municipal politics. Her inspirations are Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits and Jennifer Aniston hairstyles. (It’s the 90s). They’re a happy family, though they never stop fighting.

But everything changes when Ali picks up a random floppy disc and puts it into her dad’s grey computer. She discovers a file, filled with erotic poetry he wrote, not for her mom but for someone named “C”. Is her father having an affair?

Dana, meanwhile, is in a comfortable relationship with her fiance, one that involves kinky sex in the shower and watching movies on TV. But at a party she runs into Nate, an old flame from college (Finn Wittrock). He’s clearly interested in her, despite the engagement ring. Which way will Dana go?

When Dana runs into Ali in an unexpected encounter the two sisters are forced to come clean, talk to each other and work out their family’s growing problems.

Landline is a good, funny and sometimes moving look back at family life in NY city in the 1990s. Characters are not caricatures, they’re quirky and realistic, and the acting is uniformly spot on. The 90s aspect is there as a gimmick, not central to the plot. The soundtrack is mainly from the songs from the 70s and 80s. What’s with the trench coats? And correct me if I’m wrong, but the NY City skyline seems already missing the Twin Towers. But other details — things like using a pay phone to check voice messages — are very realistic. Who knows …Maybe the 90s were kinda cool.

Brigsby Bear and Landline both open today in Toronto; check your local listings.

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

 

Daniel Garber talks with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson about their new film The Forbidden Room at #TIFF15

Posted in Art, Canada, comedy, Drama, Dreams, Experimental Film, Fantasy, Horror by CulturalMining.com on October 9, 2015

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

A man in a smoking jacket extolls the joys of a good bath. Three sailors trapped in a submarine look for help, even as an angelic lumberjack finds his way on board in search of the orgies of the clan of the cave bear. Outside, somewhere a volcano is erupting, a butler is murdering and a Evan Johnson, Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room, Interview TIFF15 Daniel Garberghost is returning in a never ending confusion of interlinked stories as complex of chinese boxes. But will our heroes ever reach the mystery of the Forbidden Room?

The Forbidden Room is also the name of a new film the showed at the Toronto International Film Festival. Winnipeg filmmaker Guy Maddin is known for his tales of twisted nostalgia, his eerie retakes of Canadian history, and comical melodramas done in new interpretations of bf10c259-a01f-44d1-b52c-56d713151297archaic styles. He’s one of the few directors that can make an art film that is totally enjoyable and funny. His amazing movies include Tales from the Gimli Hospital, and My Winnipeg. Co-db8a15f3-aa94-4806-ae38-6a8900fca871directed by Evan Johnson this film adds new artistic and editing techniques to bring it to mind-blowing levels of beauteous artistic mayhem, unfathomability and WTF-ness.6bb76640-d39f-4167-9e01-22bef691e86a

I spoke to director Guy Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson at #TIFF15. We talked about: seances to lost cinema, Paris, the Centre Pompidou, the Phi Centre, Quebec, NFB, Louis Negin’s scrotum, Pierre & Gilles, Carl Dreyer, Roy Dupuis, instructional films, John Ashbury’s writing, exploitation movies, editing techniques, Guy Maddin’s mojo, analog vs digital film, Havana, women in skeleton unitards …and more!

The Forbidden Room opens today in Toronto.

Photos of Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson by Jeff Harris. 

Sons of Women. Films reviewed: Good Men, Good Women: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien, The Boys from Fengkuei, Flowers of Shanghai, PLUS Seventh Son

Posted in Cultural Mining, Fantasy, Movies, Realism, Taiwan, Uncategorized, Witches, 中国电影 by CulturalMining.com on February 6, 2015

JZlDk2_cafe_lumiere_dir_CJ_29_cmyk_o3_8519520_1421267395Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Hou Hsiao-Hsien was born in Canton, China in 1947. His family fled to Taiwan with the Nationalists when he was just an infant. Since then he has emerged as one of postwar Taiwan’s most famous directors (along with Ang Lee and Tsai Mingliang).

His movies tell a fragmented history of his country, one story at a time. He deals with ordinary, working-class people, often dislocated and trying to make their way. His characters struggle with differences of 0gOqw3_City_of_sadness-1_o3_8520087_1421267398language, status, age, class and money. But his films also includes love, sex, jealousy, conformity and insecurity.

Most of his films take place in Taiwan, though there are some exceptions, such as Flight of the Red Balloon (France) or Café Lumière (Japan). The times range from the 19th Century (Flowers of Shanghai), to the 1940s (City of Sadness), to the present day, or even in three eras simultaneously (Three Times).

Some critics call him one of the most important and influential wjZpZJ_GoodMenGoodWomen_(CMIA)_o3_8520899_1421267449directors, anywhere, comparing the style he helped pioneer – the Taiwanese New Wave — to movements like the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism. He’s known for his minimalism, slow pace, long takes and an avoidance of quick editing and obvious special effects.

More often than not, he sets up a nicely-arranged tableau and lets the action take place within that frame. Sort of like a stage play but within a shifting proscenium arch.

Well, there’s a retrospective playing this month in Toronto called Good Men, Good Women: The Films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. It was put together by Richard I. Suchenski, Amber Wu and Teresa Huang and is on a world tour. The series projects pristine prints, rarely seen.

This week I’m looking at two of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s movies. One’s an early film about good men, the other a later film about good women. And, in keeping with my commitment to highbrow/ lowbrow films, I’m also reviewing a fantasy-drama about a medieval guy who hunts for witches… but ends up falling in love with one.

k5DQ0E_BoysfromFengkuei_o3_8519490_1421267388The Boys from Fengkuei (1983)

Three small-town boys — Ah Ching and his two friends — live in a tiny windswept island off the coast of Taiwan. They should be doing their homework but they’d rather be outside gambling and carousing. But after a big fight goes wrong they flee to an abandoned seaside shack. They make their way to Kaohsiung, a big city on the main island. But they soon find life in the big city is not what they expected. They get poorly paid jobs, and their money making ventures – like selling tapes on the street – don’t earn them much money. Their parents expect them to return home to work at an easy factory job. And they soon find themselves victims of conmen, gangsters and sophisticated city folk. But can they find true love in the big city?

I found this movie fascinating, not just because of its realistic coming-of-age portrait of life in Taiwan. It also goes against what I thought was Hou Hsiao-hsien’s directing style: slow, stationary, and dominated by long takes of seated conversations. This movie has fights and chase scenes, crowds and a lot of movement. As programmer Richard I. Suchenski pointed out in his introductory lecture on Hou (Jan 29, 2015), The Boys of Fengkuei fits closely within his oeuvre. It shares the long takes, carefully composed scenes and the stationary, framed shots of his later films.

1jQw4R_FlowersofShanghai_(CMIA)_o3_8520678_1421267414Flowers of Shanghai (1998)

It’s late 19th century Shanghai. Rich men hang out in the entertainment parlours, gambling, drinking, smoking opium and courting the courtesans there. These entertainers the so-called flowers of Shanghai. are known for their beauty and poise. They are carefully trained from an early age, brought up inside the houses. They have their own servants, and answer to the middle aged “auntie” the Madams who rule the business. They cultivate relationships with the rich men who visit them gradually saving up the money they earn. Eventually, they either marry their favourite boyfriend or purchase their independence outright and set up their own businesses. This line of work was one of the few allowing girls to advance from penniless orphan to rich, powerful and socially advanced woman.

The scenes alternate from the men all drinking and dining at a common table to the interiors of the individual houses and the women behind closed doors. The stories are simple: women in rival houses competing for the lovesick but fickle male patrons; discussions of their worth and wealth — both the businessmen and the women; and anger over arranged marriages and love.

In this movie the camera slowly pans back and forth but almost never cuts away from the scene in each brothel. The lighting has a golden glow, generated from the oil lamps on set (portraying scenes without electric lighting). What I found most fascinating was the language – you rarely get to hear dialogue spoken in Shanghainese – another example of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s commitment to realism. This is a beautiful film but like many if his movies, one that requires concentration and commitment to appreciate.

And on a entirely different note…

Seventh Son Ben BarnesThe Seventh Son
Dir: Sergei Bodrov

It’s the dark ages in Europe, a time of dragons, knights and witches. Tom (Ben Barnes) is a young man who slops the pigs at his remote family farm. There’s gotta be something better than this, he thinks. So when Gregory – an odd man with a pointy yellow beard – comes by seeking an apprentice, Tom jumps at the chance. Gregory (Jeff Bridges) is a knight and (like Tom) is the seventh son of a seventh son which gives him special powers and a sense of commitment. He’s an arrogant, foul-mouthed alcoholic. He’s also a Spook, a man who fights the creatures of darkness. He promises to teach Tom how to fight these demons and witches. Tom can’t wait. But before he leaves, his mother places a special charm around his neckIMG_0924.dng that she says will protect him from evil.

The first witch he encounters is Alice (Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) – a beautiful young woman. And when they first hold hands sparks fly… literally! A blue flame shoots out from their hands. Hmmm… But what he doesn’t know is she works as a spy for Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore). Mother Malkin is the evil queen a witch who can turn herself into a dragon. And when the red moon rises, something that happens only once a century, she and her evil cronies plan to take over the world. Will the knights beat the witches and slay the dragons? Or will Tom be slain like all the other apprentices that proceeded him? And what about Alice… is she a good witch or a bad witch?

Julianne Moore Seventh SonThe Seventh Son is an OK fantasy with a very predictable plot too much CGIs, very long battle scenes, and bad Twilight-style romantic element. There are at least four cliffhangers in this movie – and I mean people literally hanging onto or falling off of cliffs. I guess that’s what you get with 3D and IMAX as the main attractions. Jeff Bridges emotes wildly,  Julianne Moore is wonderful as the evil queen, while Ben Barnes is a dull leading man. Most interesting thing is the sets. The women (a.k.a. the evil Seventh Son Jeff Bridgeswitches) live in a celebration of Orientalism, replete with Persian rugs, lapis lazuli tiling, and geometric screens. They recline on pillows beside incense burners. The men all dress in rough-hewn burlap and carry rusty swords. The battle of the sexes told in 100 minutes in 3-D.

Seventh Son opens today in Toronto—check your local listings; and the films of Hou Hsiao-hsien: Good Men, Good Women continue all this month at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Go to tiff.net for times.

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

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination. Movies Reviewed: The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, The Arabian Nights

Posted in 1960s, 1970s, Adventure, Catholicism, Communism, Cultural Mining, Disease, Dreams, Fantasy, Italy, Joy, Magic, Movies, Rome, Sex, Short Stories, Slavery, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 15, 2014

The Decameron Pier Paolo PasoliniHi, 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.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: You may have heard his name, but not know why. He was an Italian novelist, poet, artist and director, born in Bologna. He got his start in movies writing screenplays (including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) before directing his own films. His films – he directed movies from the 1960s until the mid 70s, when he was murdered – celebrate the poor, The Decameron Pasolini 2 TIFFthe outcasts, the people in the margins. They dig at the complacent middle-class, and the oppressive and corrupt church and nobilitiy. He cast non-professionals in his films for their looks and attitude – he wanted his actors natural not contrived. Naturalism was all-important.

Pasolini was in the Italian Communist Party but was kicked out for his criminal activity. His crime? Being gay. So Pasolini embraced his status as sexual outlaw.

All of these elements – politics and sexuality shown in literature and art – come together in his movies: beautiful to watch, full of laughter, but with a rough and tragic streak running through them.

Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination is a retrospective of his films now playing at TIFF. This week, I’m going to tell you about three of his movies, often called a trilogy, all based on Medieval stories. They are extraordinarily beautiful films and you should see them on the big screen while you can. There’s an English romp, an Italian comedy, and tales of middle-eastern magic.

Pasolini Canterbury Tales 2 TIFFCanterbury Tales (1972)

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the classic collection of stories told by religious pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. Set in 14thcentury England, it’s filled with monastic robes, pious nuns, Oxford students, religious pilgrims. But it’s also a world full of shouting and drunkenness, farts and belches. The old are missing teeth, fat and ugly, and prone to violence. The young, though still beautiful, are selfish and arrogant. And everyone’s apt to break into raucous, unscripted laughter as they do medieval things like milling corn or polishing eggs.

But what do they all desire? Sex (and money). They come up with complex schemes to cheat on their husbands and wives. This movie is very bawdy.

But it has a dark side too. One of the earliest scenes shows a man being burned to death in the market Pasolini Canterbury tales 1 TIFFsquare: he was caught having sex with another man, but was too poor to bribe the police.

Religion and the supernatural are omnipresent. Angels, devils and wood spirits are as likely as a passing neighbour to appear outside a window. A widow wears out a succession of husbands by being too good in bed. An arrogant student fools his mentor into thinking a great flood is coming. Three brothers go from cavorting in a brothel to plotting dangerous and murderous schemes. And a bright red devil shoots the black-clothed sinners of hell out of his ass!

Most of all, it’s a place where large-breasted women and plain-faced men stand around staring… naturally, naked.

Decameron, Il (1971) aka The Decameron Directed by Pier Paolo PasoliniThe Decameron (1971)

Based on 14th century writer Boccacio’s sexual comedy, these piqaresque stories centre on Naples and other medieval Italian cities. Women are tricksters who fool hapless travelers, while sinners look for sex. It’s a comedy about sex, thumbing its nose at church-mandated restrictions.

Here’s a typical story. A nunnery is off limits to all men but the elderly. A young guy, sensing opportunity, pulls his hat down low – like Bob and Doug McKenzie — and pretends to be a deaf-mute simpleton. He gets hired as a gardner. Soon enough, all the nuns are sneaking out to the shed for their daily roll in the hay. But what happens when the mother superior gets her turn? He tells her he’s had enough. He can Pasolini's The Decameron 3 TIFFspeak! It’s a miracle!

This is an amazing movie (I liked it even better than Canterbury Tales) shot around ancient castles and down narrow allies.

Arabian Nights (1974)

The 1001 Nights is the famous collection of intertwined stories-within-stories across the Arab world. Pasolini skips the tale of the Persian Scheherazade as the storyteller, and instead uses a loving Ines Pellegrini in Pasolini's Arabian Nightsrelationship between a wise and beautiful slave-girl named Zummarud, and her young master. She’s smarter than all the men she encounters, and somehow manages to snub potential buyers at her own auction — rich old men who won’t satisfy her sexually – in favour of love at first site. But she is kidnapped by a spurned buyer. This launches a series of journeys as she outsmarts the men she meets and eventually – disguised as a man – rises to the level of king. And all the way her lover, Nur ed-Din tries to find her.

She’s played by Ines Pellegrini, an Italian woman of Eritrean background, and he’s Franco Merli, a Pasolini's The Arabian Nightsteenaged boy Pasolini apparently spotted pumping gas.

Pasolini skips the most famous stories – the Ali Babas, Alladins, and Sinbads – and instead adapts less-well-known ones. Especially the sexy parts.

Like Canterbury Tales and the Decameron, The Arabian Nights was rated “X” when it first came out. Though it includes a lot of nudity, it’s very tame, sweet and almost naïve, by present-day standards. Some of the same actors show up in all of these films. Franco Citti (usually with bright red hair) plays the devil in Canterbury, an unrepentant sinner and homosexual in Decameron and a magical demon in Arabian Nights. Ninneto Davoli (Pasolini’s former lover), is the toothy, curly-haired clown who bursts into tears or laughter, or else stares, dumbfounded, at new things he encounters. Pasolini himself also appears in small — but central — roles arabian-nightsin his own movies — as Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, or as a master painter in The Decameron, who says his art is never as good as what appears in his dreams.

Arabian Nights was shot in Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran and Nepal, and to say the locations are breathtakingly beautiful doesn’t do them justice. It’s mind-boggling, ranging from lunar landscapes and strange curved mud homes, to cavernous, white-and-blue tiled cathedrals, and ancient wooden Nepali shrines. And the faces of the local actors and extras add still more beauty and authenticity to the locations. (A collection of still photos from this film by Roberto Villa is on display now at the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto.)

Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination is playing now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; details on tiff.net. Beginning next Thursday is the CFF a festival of low-budget and independent Canadian films at the Royal:  go to canfilmfest.ca for more information. And cult favourite The Room is playing at the Carlton starting tonight.

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

Back to the Future? Films Reviewed: The Visitor, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Toronto Ice Storm 2013Hi, 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.

I’m taping this a week in advance, during the Toronto Ice Storm, when the power’s still off, the sidewalks still icy and Rob Ford is still mayor. But who knows what it will be like by the time you’re listening to this. Back to the future? Fittingly, I’m looking at a couple oddball fantasy movies — a remake and a rerelease — both pointless but watchable froth to bring in the new year. The remake is an American comedy about a day-dreaming adult, the rerelease an Italian horror movie (from the 1970’s) about a brat with secret powers.

The Visitor fangoria Films We LikeThe Visitor

Dir: Giulio Paradisi

Presented by Drafthouse Films and Fangoria

Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail) is a modern woman who values her freedom. She lives in a mansion in Atlanta with her sweet little daughter Katy (Paige Conner) and Katy’s pet bird. She’s being wooed by Raymond (Lance Henrickson) a slick-but-secretive basketball promoter. What she doesn’t realize is that Raymond reports to a cabal of identically dressed businessmen who are up to no good. They just want her offspring. You see, Barbara has special DNA and Katy has supernatural powers. If the cabal can pull off an alien abduction Barbara will reproduce with a special superbaby (as if her one kid isn’t trouble enough!)

Katy is actually a foul mouthed brat. She uses her powers for selfish reasons – Visitor2puting the kybosh on other kids she goes skating or does gymnastics with.  On her birthday, Katy’s gift turns into a handgun, which shoots Barbara, rendering her paraplegic.

Meanwhile, a wise old man with a white beard and a beige leisure suit (John Huston) is tracking Katy, too. He travels with a retinue of kids dressed in white. These silent, baldheaded teenagers are his disciples. You can tell he’s important because whenever he appears the theme music starts up again as he walks down a futuristic-looking escalator. And when a detective (investigates her birthday shooting she sends her pet bird to attack him.

Who will triumph? The satanic businessmen-aliens? Or the benevolent robe-wearing superman-like aliens? And will anyone stop spoiling that evil kid?

Visitor3This movie exists in its own bizarro-world, circa 1979. Shelley Winters plays Barabara’s intuitive housemaid singing Mama’s little baby loves shortening bread as she spies on Katy. Sam Peckinpah – the director of infamously violent movies (like Strawdogs and the Wild Bunch) — is her gynaecologist!

This is a very trippy, very strange movie. It has lots of horribly dated and vaguely racist shtick, and the story makes no sense whatsoever. But it still feels cool to watch: filled with fantastic dated special effects: a house of mirrors, a swarm of birds, Barbara insanely driving her electric wheelchair in endless circles. It climaxes with a bug-eyed John Huston having his Close Encounters moment with the shooting stars.

Total kitsch, but funny.

Mitty_PosterThe Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Dir: Ben Stiller

Walter (Ben Stiller) is a milquetoast mama’s boy and a longtime employee of Life Magazine. He lives vicariously through the exciting photos he processes in a windowless basement room (he’s in charge of “negative assets” — photo negatives, that is). Instead of a pocket-protector he wears a bad windbreaker. In his frequent daydreams and fantasies, he sees himself as an international adventurer, a “real man” who will stand up to any bully. But in reality he’s lonely, middle-aged and single. He longs for a relationship with a new employee, Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), but can’t seem to connect with her, even on an on-line dating site.

And now he faces a crisis. Life Magazine is folding, except on-line. A douche-y young executive (Adam Scott) is brought in to close it down, and makes Walter into the poster boy for unwanted employees. But when a negative — the cover photo of the final issue — goes missing, Walter takes it upon himself to track it down, wherever it may be. He embarks on a journey by plane, helicopter, boat, secret life of walter mittyskateboard, that takes him up mountains, across shark-filled seas, and past erupting volcanoes, all just to find the missing photo.

Will he find the picture? Will he find himself? And will his journey impress his crush Cheryl?

While the movie is filled with breathtaking scenery, it has little else to recommend it. It’s not that funny, interesting or original (the James Thurber novel is more whimsical and the Danny Kaye musical — 1947 — is more clever). Ben Stiller’s first attempt at Secret Life of Walter Mitty ben stillerdirecting fails to direct himself. He underplays it just when he should be hamming it up. His character comes across as flat, dull and pointless. Shirley MacClaine and Catherine Hahn are fun as his mother and sister but are rarely seen.

And the use of egregious product placement within the plot itself — a certain pizza chain, a cinnamon bun — is as embarrassing as it is flagrant. (Was he that desperate for funding?) It’s not that the Secret Life of Walter Mitty is terrible. It’s totally watchable, especially stunning footage of Icelandic moonscapes. It’s just… disappointing.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty opens on Christmas Day and The Visitor opens on Dec 30th for a three-day run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check your local listings.

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

The Life and Times of Leos Carax: Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, Mauvais Sang, Pola X, Holy Motors

Posted in Art, Cultural Mining, Dance, Fantasy, France by CulturalMining.com on August 22, 2013

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking Boymeetsgirl_photofest_01_mediumat 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.

Leos Carax is a French Director. He’s one of those filmmakers that you may not have heard of, but who, once you see his movies, you’ll be hooked. He’s impossible to categorize, partly because he’s not like any other director, and partly because he’s not even like himself – he’s constantly changing his style and techniques. They shift from absurdist, comic-book-like films, to classic film noir gangster movies, to hyper-realistic semi-documentaries, and then back again. The one constant, in almost all his films, is the actor Denis Lavant.

Loversonthebridge_frl_03_mediumLes Amants du Pont-Neuf

Dir: Leos Carax

The first Leos Carax film I saw was Les Amant du Pont Neuf – Lovers on the Bridge. It’s a simple, — but not simplistic – story of an artist who is going blind (Juliette Binoche) who meets Alex, a street busker (Denis Lavant). They fall in love, sort of, and meet on an ancient Paris bridge that’s under repairs.  With the help of an eccentric, white-bearded hobo named Hans, the two of them try to stay together… but can they?

When I first saw this movie I thought – who the hell is playing this guy, alex? Denis Lavant is an intense performer who uses fire, acrobatics and bodily contortions and fighting as part of his acting. The movie feels like Carax just run into this busker on the street at random, and decided to film him. (That’s not the case, obviously). Oh yeah, and in this movie he doesn’t really speak. He’s an unbreakable but cartoonish figure, while Binoche is a tragic and passionate heroine.

Critics tend to exaggerate the importance of movies, every poster has some critic saying a movie is the best thing ever. Personally, I think hyperbole is the most overated technique in the world – no the universe… But honestly, if you’re a cinephile, if you love movies, you should be required to see Les Amants du Pont-Neuf. It’s that different, that important.

Mauvaissang_photofest_01_mediumMauvais Sang

… was one of Carax’s earliest films, the second one he made. It’s as complex as Pont Neuf is simple. This is about two young lovers, Lise and Alex (played by a teenaged Julie Delpy and Denis Lavant), happy and carefree in the fields of Paris. He is known as a trickster – he picks up extra income doing street scams like three card monte in dark allies. But Alex is pulled away from this life by a pair of aging gangsters.

They know him from working with his late father, and they need Alex – known for his nimble fingers – to help pull off a complicated theft. You see, they owe money to an older American woman, also a gangster; if they pull off the heist, she’ll will cancel their debt. If not… they’re dead meat.

What’s the heist? They have to break into a lab and steal a deadly sexually transmitted virus called STBO, that could kill millions, and whose vaccine would be worth a fortune. (This movie was made in 1986, during the height of the HIV plague).

Alex agrees. He leaves his motorcycle with Lise and flees the city – only to be smitten by the gorgeous Anna (Juliette Binoche) , the mistress of one of the white-haired gangsters. But she rejects him, saying she’s attracted to much older men, bigger men, not to him.

And Lise, meanwhile, won’t let Alex leave her.

Mauvais Sang is a highly-stylized film, filled with peeping toms, bizarre scenes of jumping out of airplanes, staring up at windows, and chase scenes down those long French roads lined with plane trees.

Sometimes it feels like he’s mocking the audience, that it’s all just a big parody; and then it’ll shift into an amazingly passionate and playful scene between Binoche and Lavant and you’re totally caught up in it.

The women in this movie are always smartly dressed and coiffed, while the men, even the older gangsters, seem to walk around semi-clothed, with shirtless chase scenes and shootouts.

In this film, Lavant is still a boy, given to extended shots of him racing down a street, shifting from modern dance to shadow boxing to spontaneous handsprings. Binoche is a pixie with a black, page-boy haircut with flawless, porcelain skin and red lips. The two of them setting up scenes of unrequited love you can follow in Les Amant du Pont- Neuf. Wow – what a movie.

Pola X

…was made in 1999, and it feels different from his other movies. It’s about Pierre (Guillaume Pola X (1999 France)  Directed by Leos Carax Shown: Guillaume DepardieuDepardieu), a young novelist from a very rich family. He wears only white linen and hops in and out of bed with his equally blonde fiancée. His publisher loves his innocence and immaturity. But Pierre  wants to experience reallife. Then his controlling mother (Catherine Deneuve) discovers a secret – some old papers that his late father (a French diplomat who served in Eastern Europe) left behind.

Meanwhile, Pierre discovers that a scruffy, dark-haired street woman is following him – who is she? Listen to her story: (clip)

When he discovers that she may be his blood sister, he throws away his best friend, his fiancé, his family and wealth and plunges into her life of danger and poverty… and possibly, love.

Were this by any other director, I’d say, wow, cool, passionate drama – but it feels like something’s missing. While it has a lot of Carax’s touches – it feels like his most main-stream or conventional film. What’s missing is Denis Lavant. Lavant is a very unusual-looking movie star – he has a compact muscular body, a flattened nose, gap-teeth, scarred skin. He can also do just about anything – magic, acrobatics, dance… anything. In comparison, the late Depardieu (he tragically died from an infection) while compelling, just doesn’t seem to match the greatness and strangeness of someone like Lavant.

Finally,

holymotors_wildbunch_02_mediumHoly Motors

…which just came out last year.

Oscar (Denis Lavant) gets picked up in the morning by a white stretch limo, driven by a handsome, older chauffeur named Cecile.

Maybe it’s just a day like any other for a rich businessman… or is it? You soon discover that inside the limo he has costumes, makeup, spirit gum, wigs and beards. He turns into the man or woman he plays in each act. So, over the course of a day, he becomes a middle-aged, ruthless businessman, a homeless Eastern-European woman, an assassin, a doting dad, a dying man, and Kylie Minogue’s lover. Occasionally, between acts, he’s just Oscar: the man in the car.

In one especially marvellous and shocking sequence he becomes an eccentric street maniac (“M. Merde”) who crawls out of a manhole, pushes his way through a crowd, and stumbles into a fashion shoot in a Parisian cemetery. He violently attacks the photographer’s assistant, biting off her fingers, and smearing the blood all over an unflappably blasé supermodel… before carrying her off to an underground hideaway for a bizarre sexual encounter and another shocking transformation. (No spoilers here — watch the movie to find out the rest of it.)

So what’s going on? Is Oscar (which is also the director’s middle name) like the guy in the Truman Show, unknowingly living an artificial life for the delight of viewers? Or is Oscar doing this for you and me (the moviegoers) playing his role in the cosmic scheme of things — the entire movie is his act. Life’s an illusion, but an enjoyable one, and Denis (with Edith Skob as the driver) have never been better.

Modern Love – The Films of Leos Carax, curated by James Quandt,  is being screened in Toronto beginning this weekend, with the director speaking at some of the shows. Go to tiff.net for details. And the funny road comedy I reviewed last week, We’re The Millers, opens today – check your local listings.

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

It’s a Monster Mash (-up)! Movies Reviewed: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Cockneys vs Zombies, Warm Bodies

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.

philebrityMonster movies used to have one monster, like the mummy, the vampire (Dracula), Frankenstein’s monster, the wolfman, the wicked witch. Always just one. The, the, the. But somewhere along the way monsters have become a quantity, a generic substance, a tradable commodity, like pork-belly futures. There’s never just one, there are always lots and lots of them. And because it’s a commodity, they can be traded and mashed together with other genres in an endless search for that one hit movie. As big a hit as that vampire teen romance, which shall remain nameless.

So this week I’m looking at three such attempts: a fairytale revenge action thriller, a zom-com, and a zom-rom-com-dram.

560.6hans.gret.ls.1413Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

Dir: (Tommy Wirkola)

The name says it all. Hansel and Gretel are the kids in that fairytale who are lured through a rainbow-coloured, anus-shaped doorway and into a gingerbread house by a wicked witch who wants to eat them… but they escape. They’re grown up now, and live somewhere in medieval Germany. People have dirty faces, live in wooden huts and ride horses and accuse pretty girls of witchcraft. But it’s Fairytale-land, so hansel-and-gretel-witch-hunters-jeremy-renner-gemma-arterton-600x399they also have things like record-players, double-barreled shotguns, and tasers.

So now the brother and sister team (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Atherton) want revenge on all witches, because one killed their mother. So they brutally shoot, maim and bludgeon these old ladies with sticks as they hang upside-down from trees. They may be old women, but they have scaly skin and they’re wicked and canniballistic and talk like monsters and deserve to die, you see… So, with the help of some good allies (including Thomas Mann as Ben, a hansel-and-gretel-witch-hunters-jeremy-renner-600x398teenaged fan of the Witch Hunters’ exploits, and a sympathetic troll) they all set out to stop a witches’ Cabal. If they don’t stop them before the next full moon, witches will become indestructible and take over the world. But will Hansel and Gretel also uncover some hidden secrets from their own past?

Hansel and Gretel is a gun-toting, shoot-em-up action-thriller with a fairytale theme and a mittel-europa feel. I think it’s too “gunny” for kids – there’s even a scene where they bless their bullets, bringing God and guns together again. And it’s a bit too retro in its outlook, with women as victims who ultimately need to be rescued by men. But, most of all, it’s really just a fast-moving, violent revenge pic.

Cockneys-vs-ZombiesCockneys vs Zombies

Dir: Matthias Hoene

A big developer wants to put up a huge complex in the East End of London, right on top of an old-age home. So dodgy brothers Andy and Terry (Harry Treadaway and Tasmus Hardiker) along with their eastender cuz Katy (Michelle Ryan) decide to derail the project by stealing the builder’s cash in a bank hold up. You see, their irascible Cockney Wanker granddad (Alan Ford) raised the two boys, and he lives in that very cockney-wankersame soon-to-be-demolished seniors home. He’s a genuine Cockney, this one is – you can tell because he likes nothing better than gathering around a piano with his mates in pearly vests to sing a lusty round of Knees Up Mother Brown. But little do any of them know that the builders have accidentally opened a vault, letting loose an epidemic of slow-moving zombies, groaning and dragging all over the east end. Will the two groups ever meet up again? Will their working class moxie outwit the undead?

cockneys vs zombiesOK, this Zom Com is pure cheese. Dying scenes are dragged out to include every last mugging for the camera, the dialogue sucks, and the special effects consist of red rubber drippy thingies stuck to people’s arms to represent the blood and gore. And then there’s the bargain-basement zombies in every scene… and they all made the credits at the end. I think they corralled a few Zombie Walks and put them to work one afternoon for free. The pace was pretty slow, including the world’s slowest chase scene with old Hamish (the late Richard Briers, in one of his last roles) in a walker sloooowly keeping ahead of all the lethargic zombos.

Nice try, but this ain’t no Attack The Block. Still, I liked it for what it was, a cheap, campy zombie comedy. It’s stupid-funny. And as a bonus, you get Honor Blackman (the original James Bond Pussy Galore as well as an Avenger) as a gun-toting oldster, fighting zombies beside foul mouthed Granddad. All the acting was quite good, especially a whack psycho with a metal plate in his head from the Iraq War. So if you like cockneys and you like zombies well, there you go. Cockneys. Zombies. Together in one movie.

Warm BodiesWARM BODIES

Dir: Jonathan Levine

It’s a post-apocalyptic world in an uneasy truce between two sides divided by a wall. The zombies (called corpses) are on the outside, the living beings on the inside. But when some humans venture out to fight the zombies, a young woman, Julie (Teresa Palmer) is rescued and taken home by one of the zombies, “R” (UK actor Nicholas Hoult, Tony on Skins).

The story is told from the point of view of a young guy, R. He collects music, lives in an abandoned airplane, and likes hanging with his pal M (Rob Corddry) He just happens to eat brains. So inside his head it’s all, does she like me? Oh awkward moment… Jesus these clothes make me look awful. But on the outside, he’s just Rrrrrr…

But when he eats Julie’s boyfriend’s brains he takes over his memories of Julie – he becomes almost human.WARM BODIES Gradually, the crush he has on Julie begins to warm the cockles of his heart, and, on her part, she realizes that zombies are just like you and me, only dead. And that the real enemies are not the corpses, but the boneys, the ones who have turned into walking skeletons. But will her militaristic Dad (John Malkovich) ever accept a corpse within his family home? He only wants Capulets, not Corpsulets. (I apologize to Wm Shakespeare.) Can their love overcome the cultural divide? Or will it end in tragedy?

I liked this movie. Fun story, good script, lots of new stuff to keep you interested. Hoult  — and Analeigh Tipton as Julie’s friend — are both great; Teresa Palmer less so.

Warm Bodies is a very cute, Shakespearean Zom-rom-com-dram with lots of visual references thrown in – otto or up with dead peopleeverything from Bruce LaBruce’s Otto, to Edward Scissorshands. This would make a good pre-Valentine’s-Day horror date movie.

Hansel and Gretel is now playing, Warm Bodies opens today in Toronto, and Cockney’s vs Zombies is showing as part of the Cineplex Great Digital Film Festival, big screen classics — including the usual films by Kubrick and Spielberg, plus the seldom seen An American Werewolf in London — for six bucks!. Check your local listings for details.

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

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