Intensity. Films reviewed: River of Fundament, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, All Cheerleaders Die

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.

What makes a movie “intense”? Do you squirm in your seat, look away from the screen, maybe shout cries of indignation. Or is it the depth and breadth, the intensity of the images, sounds and story? This week I’m looking at intense movies. There’s an epic art film about rival Egyptian gods in modern day America; a crime action/ comedy/musical about rival Yakuza gangs; and a comedy/horror about football players vs bloodsucking cheerleaders.

Luminato2014_River of Fundament_Photo by Hugo Glendinning_001River of Fundament
Dir: Matthew Barney; Music: Jonathan Bepler

In a house, floating down the Hudson river near Manhattan is a wake for the late author Norman Mailer, attended by various literati. Also attending are a series of people – seemingly invisible to the crowd – dripping with human feces. They are the reincarnation of various ancient Egyptian gods, like Osiris, Hathferiti, Horus, and Set – who come back to life after swimming across the river of excrement. Mailer, who wrote the potboiler set in Ancient Egypt the movie is based on, also shows up as a ghost (played by his son, John Buffalo Mailer). Simultaneously, a marching band in LA is sanctifying a holy Chrysler car dealership. And in Detroit, a golden Trans-Am (with a phoenix tattooed across its hood) is being destroyed with a man in a golden straitjacket inside. And a CSI-team riding motorboats examines the wreckage. And an army of spectators descends into an empty reservoir for the showdown between two Egyptian deities as two women caress their pregnant bellies. Death, destruction, reincarnation and rebirth; gold leaf and brown feces; opulent banquets crawling with worms and maggots, all existing together as the rivers flow slowly downstream.

OK, that’s the condensed version. The actual movie is six bloody hours long (including two River of Fundament Photo Chris Wingetintermissions.) Six hours! And a lot of it seems to involve vomit, feces, urine, diarrhea, and bodily organs being pulled out of animal carcasses. Perhaps I exaggerate – maybe only, say, two of the six hours was disgusting, and four hours were astonishingly beautiful. It is an overwhelming experience, a movie done in English in the style of a classic opera, including libretto. And it’s filmed in enormous and spectacular locations, with aerial views of flames shooting from industrial towers; musicians playing and choirs singing simultaneously on motorboats speeding down rivers. Or shirtless trumpet players marching among parked cars; or a nude, Amazonian pornstar, her arms stretched over head, holding her sex partner (a tiny bearded man) lying horizontally above her.

I hated and loved this movie swearing I’d walk out a dozen times, but always drawn back to see what happens next. Unbelievable.

地獄でなぜ悪い2Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
Dir: Shion Sono

A team of aspiring college film geeks form a club inside a decaying old movie theatre. They call themselves the “F*ck Bombers”. And when they find a potential star – a brawling Bruce Lee lookalike high school student – they are consumed by a desire to make a real movie. But 10 years pass and still no luck. Meanwhile, two rival yakuza gangs are in a permanent state of war. The Muto gang dress in Godfather suits and carry guns, while the Ikegami gang wear classic kimono, armed with Samurai swords. Teenaged Mitsuko – the daughter of the Muto gang boss — is still famous for the jingle she sang as a child on a toothpaste TV ad. And the Ikegami boss still has a deeply-buried crush on the girl whom he met a decade earlier in a brief, blood-drenched encounter. Now, her gangster dad is turning to the movie business and bankrolls a film, that, he says, must star his reluctant daughter. But when a famous director quits, he pulls a random guy off the street to direct it instead. This while a gang war is about to erupt with many innocents caught in the 地獄でなぜ悪い 1middle.

Confusion, violence mayhem… But what about that amateur movie club – could they somehow take over the movie? To do so they’d have to convince the rival gangs to let them record – on 35 mm film – a bloody and violent showdown involving the two sides.

My bare-bones description does not do justice to this fantastic musical comedy – including an unbelievably bloody, 30-minute-long climactic battle scene. It has to be seen to be believed. Shion Sono is one of my favourite Japanese directors. His movies are outrageous and shockingly violent but also amazingly sentimental, earnest and goofy at the same time: an odd, but oddly pleasing combination.

Reanin Johannink in All Cheerleaders DieAll Cheerleaders Die
Wri/Dir: Lucky McKee, Chris Sivertson

Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) is suspicious of the cock-of-the-walk football captain at Blackfoot High. For Terry (Tom Williamson) his boys are dogs and the cheerleaders are bitches who he uses and abuses. So to get back at him – for what he’s done – she joins the cheerleaders squad. But she leaves her shy and goth-y BFF Leena behind. Leena (Aussie actress Sianoa Smit-McPhee) is an active wiccan, who practices necromancy using glowing crystals she Brooke Butler in All Cheerleaders Diecarries in a leather pouch. Well, at a beach party things go wrong. A mighty rift develops between the football players and the cheerleaders, which ends up with the girls’ car spinning off the highway into a ravine, killing all on board. Luckily, it’s Leena to the rescue. She mixes their blood with the crystals, and they all come back to life. They’re just like they used to be – Caitlin Stasey in All Cheerleaders Diewell sort of. Now they’re the living dead, functioning like an interconnected hive of bees. And, periodically, they have to suck blood to survive. When they’re not cutting class, making out in the handicapped washroom, or smoking up in the pot van.

Who will survive the longest? The vampiric cheerleaders or the abusive football jocks? This movie is not so intense, though quite bloody and violent. It’s your typical comedy horror with a good dose of Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style supernatural fun thrown in. I thought it was lots of fun – and a good date movie.

All Cheerleaders Die opens in Toronto today, check your local listings, The River Fundament played at Toronto’s Luminato – go to Luminato.com for more of Matthew Barney’s films; and Why Don’t You Play in Hell is showing next week at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival: go to jccc.on.ca for tickets. And look out for the Niagara Integrated & Italian Contemporary Film Festivals: coming soon!

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

Movies about Sex and Disabilities. Films reviewed: Hyde Park on the Hudson, Rust and Bone PLUS Morgan, Beeswax.

Posted in 1930s, Action, Cultural Mining, Depression, Disabilities, Drama, Fighting, France, Inside Out, Marineland, Movies, Orca, Sex, TIFF, UFC, UK, US by CulturalMining.com on December 17, 2012

rust and bone audiard directs cotillardHi, 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.

In movies, disabilities were traditionally there to provide tragedy and pathos. People have an accident and end up in a wheelchair or a bed… my life is over, I will never work again, so sad. Or else they were a signal of great personal triumph. Look ma, I survived! Occasionally, you’d have the villain in horror movie, bitter, evil, deformed, taking out his pain on other people. Witches with canes, super-villains in wheelchairs…

Then came the movie-of-the-week disabled person as the frail victim, the pitied, while their counterpart character is the strong, powerful, and privileged one. They either die or “get better”.

We haven’t even reached the point where disabled people become the equivalent of the token black neighbour or gay best degrassifriend. (exceptions: Drake on Degrassi).

That’s why it’s neat to have two new movies with normal, fascinating, multidimensional, central characters who have, but aren’t defined by, their disability. The disability is part of the plot but not the central reason for the character. And, most important, people with disabilities are shown to be sexual.

This week I’m looking at two new movies, both romantic dramas, one light, one powerful — where one of the two main characters – the one with more education, wealth and power – has a disability.

Bill Murray as FDR in a wheelchair

Bill Murray as FDR in a wheelchair

Hyde Park on the Hudson

Dir: Andrew Michel

It’s the 1930s, the Great Depression, and Daisy (Laura Linney) has fallen into hard times. So she likes it when she gets summoned to visit a distant relative Franklin (Bill Murray) who is doing much better. He’s a stamp collector — he’s staying at his mother’s estate in the Hudson Valley in Western NY. Oh yeah… and he’s the President. FDR to be exact. Well they get along famously and one day he takes her for a drive into the hills, leaving his Secret Service agents behind. And what happens at the top of the hill? (Cover your ears, kiddies…) She gives him a handjob.

And so begins their long-term relationship. He builds a secret house for their trysts – he’s married to Eleanor Roosevelt – and they form a warm and loving special relationship. But the movie also focuses on another special relationship: One crucial weekend, when King George and Queen Elizabeth – in sort of a prequel to The King’s Speech – are visiting the states to get them to get on board in the soon-to-come war against Hitler.

The Queen (the current Queen’s mother) is portrayed as a shrewish manipulator with the young, stammering George as a weakling, prey to her machinations. What are hot dogs and why are they asking us to eat? Why did they put political cartoons of George III on the wall? They’re insulting us!

Then there’s Roosevelt — he had polio as a kid. At the time, in official photos, his disability was always hidden, never hyde park on the hudsonspoken of, never photographed. But as this a backstage view of his life, he’s constantly being lifted from room to room or moving about in a specially-designed wheelchair. The same is true of their relationship:

I liked it. It feels like a PBS Masterpiece Theatre episode, complete with stately homes and royalty, but with stupendous acting and subtle writing. This is actually a good, touching movie, an historical drama based on newly discovered material about a person – Daisy – who is largely unknown. Some historical details seem questionable – were his servants really white not black? – and some are surprising – The Canadian PM William Lyon Mackenzie King was the one who brought George and Elizabeth to meet FDR that weekend, yet he was nowhere to be seen. (As usual, Canada is erased from the picture.)

The acting is great, both Bill Murray and Laura Linney are fantastic. The casting didn’t worry too much about looking like the real thing – Eleanor Roosevelt as a very beautiful woman? She was known for her inner beauty more than her movie-star good looks – it was more about conveying their personalities. While the characters’ feelings are kept largely opaque, it still conveys the story.

rust and bone schoenaerts and cotillardRust and Bone

Dir: Jacques Audiard

Ali is a ne’er-do-well single dad and fighter from Belgium. He has to take his cute kid Sam to the south of France to stay with his sister when his wife, a junkie, ends up in jail. He’s a terrible father, self-centred and irresponsible, a negative role-model. His sister, and her husband, a trucker are responsible and take on the child-rearing responsibilities.

But Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) is Sam’s dad, so he takes care of him as much as he can, which isn‘t much.

He’s irresponsible but also totally spontaneous. He sees a woman he likes, sleeps with her, moves on, no strings. If they’re free – they text they’re “OP” (operational) and they meet.

He has no job experience but is good fighter, so he lands a job as a bouncer at a nightclub. There he meets Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) an older woman, very beautiful, who works as an orca trainer (!) at Marineland. She’s not there for a rust and bone cotillard schoenaertspick-up; she just wants to be the object of desire by others.

Ali helps her when a fight breaks out and treats her with respect… even though he always says the wrong thing (he’s a Flemish speaker.)

Then Stephanie has a serious accident at work with the orcas, and her life changes. She’s caught in a funk of self-pity and hatred. Ali, meanwhile is moving up to sketchy work as a security guard and open air Mixed martial arts fights where he gets a cut of the bets in the fight.

So depressed Steph calls him up – maybe this odd couple can get together and help each other survive? Will he bring her back to life? Will she teach him to behave in a civilized way? Will he take responsibility as a father? Will they ever have an actual relationship?

rust and bone schoenaertsI don’t want to give away any more of the story – and it’s a terrific story! – but suffice it to say, it’s a deeply moving romance, a drama, a family story, a boxing movie, and lots more. The director, Audiard – he made A Prophet, another great movie — is fantastic, all the supporting actors (especially Corrinne Maseiro as Ali’s sister and Armand Verdure as Sam, his son) are amazing. But the two main leads Schoenaerts and Cotillard – are powerfully perfect in their roles.

Morgan

Dir: Michael D. Akers

Also worth mentioning is the low-budget drama Morgan (Dir: Michael D. Akers) that was screened at this year’s Inside-Out LGBT Film Festival in Toronto. In this film, Morgan (Leo Minaya), a competitive bike racer is disabled in an accident on a steep hill in Central Park, which is on the very path of the tournament he wants to win. After a struggle, and with the help of a caring boyfriend Dean (Jack Kesy) who he first meets on a basketball court, he Morgandecides to tackle the race once again, this time using a bike adjusted to fit his disability. This movie sensitively shows how partners can learn to treat a disability as a normal, erotic part of their sex lives.

Beeswax

Dir: Andrew Bujalski

And the realistic film Beeswax, from two years ago, also doesn’t shy away from sex involving a person with a disability. A nice, comfortable film, Beeswax is about the secrets and tensions shared by two sisters (played by real-life twins Tilly Hatcher, Maggie Hatcher), one of whom uses a wheelchair.

beeswaxHyde Park on the Hudson opens today, and Rust and Bone opens next Friday, Dec 21st. I don’t reveal my top ten movies of the year until the end of the month, but I guarantee Rust and Bone will be in that list. Also now playing is the very cute Korean romance A Werewolf Boy, which played at TIFF this year, about a boy raised by wolves, the girl who dog-trained him to behave like a person, and the romance that grew between them.

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

June 1, 2012. Bad Dads. Movies Reviewed: A Beginner’s Guide to Endings, Lovely Molly PLUS In the Family

Posted in Canada, comedy, Crime, Cultural Mining, Family, Fighting, Horror, Horses, Movies, Supernatural, Uncategorized, US, violence by CulturalMining.com on June 1, 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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

Hundreds of thousands of students are on the streets of Montreal protesting the old-guard government’s plan to double university tuition and for enacting new laws that let the police arrest almost anyone they want. Does this mean we’re having another 1960’s style youth revolt against the patriarchy? Are Dads bad?

As always, life reflects art and art reflects life. Later on this morning I’m talking with director and star Patrick Wang and young actor Sebastian Blane about their moving new pro-dad film, In the Family, about a father’s fight to hold on to his son when the biological father (his same-sex spouse), dies. But, before that, I’m talking about some bad dads and what happens to their kids. One’s a Canadian comedy about three brothers who learn their late father was the cause of their own imminent deaths; and the other’s an American horror movie about a young woman who thinks her dead bad dad has come back to get her.

A Beginner’s Guide to Endings

Dir: Jonathon Sobel

Duke (Harvey Keitel) is an inveterate gambler in Niagara Falls Ontario, who throws himself into the Niagara River, leaving his three sons in a bit of a tangle. He’s the movie’s narrator and as he attempts to end it all he says only a Hail Mary pass or a genuine miracle could save his three oldest sons. It turns out, he had farmed them out to Big Pharma testing program when they were younger, but never told them about the side effects. This means they’re all as good as gone. So how do they handle their new mortality?

Nuts is the oldest (The Daily Show’s Jason Jones, wearing a Viva Zapata moustache). He has to fight an impossible heavyweight boxing match with an undefeated champ if he wants to save chowderhead bro number four from being punched to a pulp. Cal (Scott Caan), #2, the womanizer, decides to stop picking up girls and instead marry his highschool crush Miranda (the statuesque Tricia Helfer). Unfortunately all her three husbands had died unexplained violent deaths. Straight laced #3, Cob (Paulo Costanzo), vows to quit his job and do all the fun things on his bucket list, instead. But this lands him in a precarious position too.

Can they and will they ever get out of their messes?

A Beginner’s Guide to Endings is a cute, screwball-type idea, and not too bad a movie. It is writer-director Sobel’s first film,  and the jokes are hit or miss. He has a bad tendency of killing good lines: Whenever there’s a funny joke, he tells it, then explains it, then has the characters laugh at it, and then brings it up again later in the movie. Doesn’t work. But the comic actors are fun to watch, especially Jason Jones, Tricia Helfer and J.K. Simmons, and it’s good to see Niagara Falls on the big screen again. Not bad for a first try…

Lovely Molly

Dir: Eduardo Sánchez

When Molly (Gretchen Lodge) moves into her old family home with her new husband, Tim the trucker, everyone tells her it’s a bad idea. The karma’s not right, there. The Feng Shui is way off. Never mind that her father is dead. You see, Molly keeps hearing noises, beckoning her to come out and play. Scary voices. Haunting voices. Voices that might make er do bad things. Molly… lovely Molly… It’s all very strange for her. Tim goes away for a few days on some cross country trucking trip when he should have been at home helping her fight her demons. He keeps coming home to see her sitting naked staring at a closet door that reminds her of something bad from her childhood.

So Molly decide to investigate on her own. She finds old photo albums with pictures of her Charles Manson-like father. And then there are all these satanic-looking horse head designs in the garage. What’s up with that? And she keeps hearing knocks and bangs and footsteps – it must be her father coming to get her! But no one else sees him (although everyone notices the smell of noxious rotten flesh in the house). Creepy Pastor Bob’s no help, neither is big sister who looks like a crackhead, and Tim’s never around. And there seems to be a stalker with a video camera ,too.

So what’s the deal? Is Molly crazy? Is she on drugs? Or is she just reliving some psycho-sexual trauma from her childhood? On the other hand, maybe it is a ghost doing all this. Or a possession. Or maybe Satan the horse-demon himself?  Molly says “I saw something but it doesn’t make sense and no one believes me…!” I believe you Molly – I saw something too, and no, it doesn’t make sense.

Lovely Molly is trying, I guess, to reclaim some of the Blair Witch thunder that started the whole genre of found footage films. (Sanchez directed that movie). This one isn’t “found footage” but, like Chernobyl Diaries, includes some of its elements: Molly tries to document the bad guys with her handheld video camera so she can prove they’re really there.

The problem is, it’s a total failure of a horror movie. It tries to be everything and ends up just a confusing mess. It’s got good gore, thrills and chills and some shocking moments and a few unexpected plot twists, but these odds and ends don’t make for a coherent movie.

A Beginner’s Guide to Endings, Lovely Molly, and In the Family all open today in Toronto – check your local listings. The CFC Worldwide Short Film Festival opens on Tuesday, The Toronto Japanese Film Festival starts Thursday, NXNE begins on the 13th, and it was just announced today that Toronto’s first annual Italian Contemporary Film Festival, featuring films by Nanni Moretti, Ivan Cotroneo, and the Canadian Premier of Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, will be launched on June 26th. Check out icff.ca for more information.

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

May 11, 2012. European Jewish Cinema at the TJFF. Movies Reviewed: Simon and the Oaks, My Best Enemy, My Dad is Barishnikov, Let My People Go! PLUS Cabaret-Berlin

Posted in 1940s, 1980s, Austria, Berlin, comedy, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, Dance, Drama, Family, Fighting, Judaism, Sex, Sweden, TJFF, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 11, 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, 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 this week I’m gong to talk about some of the new European movies now playing at TJFF, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. There are two historical dramas about best friends, one from Sweden, and one from Austria; and two very different light comedies, one, in Russian, about the Soviet Union in the 80’s, and another set in present-day Finland and France.

Simon and the Oaks
Dir: Lisa Ohlin
Based on the novel by Marrianne Fredriksson

It’s WWII in neutral Sweden, in Gothenburg. Two boys, Simon Larsson and Isak Lentov, become close friends at a private school: Isak fled Berlin as an infant with his terrified mother and bookseller dad; Simon lives with his parents outside the city. But when Mrs Lentov has a nervous breakdown (after Germany invades the rest of Scandinavia), Isak moves in with the Larssons.

The Larsson and Lentov families grow very close, with Simon leaning toward the Lentov father Ruben’s intellectual world and its joy of music, while Isak heads back to the land, using his hands to make things, as taught by the Larsson father, Erik. For Simon, music affects him in an unusual way: it unlocks memories of his childhood involving an old oak tree in his garden, and leads him to a secret letter his parents have never told him about.

Simon and the Oaks is a beautiful, novelistic story that follows the families over two decades as the boys come of age, the country’s mood changes, and the multifaceted relationships that develop within the extended families. This is a fascinating, character and plot-driven film that manages to convey Simon’s inner feelings visually, without resorting to explicit narration or explanation. All of the acting, including the actors playing the young and adult Simons and Isaks, and the story is compelling. I liked this movie a lot.

My Best Enemy
Dir: Wolfgang Murnberger

It’s 1938 in post Anschluss Vienna. Victor (Moritz Bleibtreu) is the son of a prominent art gallery owner and his lifelong best friend is Rudi (Georg Friedrich). Rudi was born into the family structure – he’s the son of the housekeeper – but outside Victor’s privileged status. But the tables are turned when Rudi becomes a Nazi, while Victor’s Jewish family loses its art and its home and is sent to concentration camps. But still missing is a reputed drawing by Michaelangelo, that may be part of their family art collection. High-ranking Nazis need it to appease their fascist Italian allies.

So Victor is temporarily released from the camp, so that Rudi can discover the location of the hidden work of art. But in a strange reversal, they end up swapping identities! It remains to be seen whether Victor can escape to Switzerland, and if Rudi will get his just desserts… And will that Michelangelo drawing ever be found?

Despite its setting, My Best Enemy is not a Holocaust movie at all – it’s more of a caper-style movie, set during WWII, about two former best friends, now rivals, and their long-term competition over art, love, status and power. It has lots of unexpected twists, but, because of the camera work and style of music it seems less cinematic, and more like a BBC mystery movie. That’s not criticism, per se – I love TV mysteries – just don’t expect a Haneke film.

My Dad is Barishnikov
Dir: Dimitry Povolotsky

Boris Michaelovich Fishkin is a horny, nerdy Soviet adolescent studying at a famous ballet school in the 80’s. He wants to be a great dancer, but he’s no Billy Eliot. He’s awkward, small, and clumsy, and the bigger kids bully and tease him relentlessly. So when his bleached-blonde single mom gives him a tape of the great Barishnikov – the Russian dancer who defected to the west – and drops hints that he may have been his missing father, Boris finds new confidence and inspiration. Soon all the school is whispering about their own little Barishnikov. His trademark pirouettes improve and his Bolshoi bows amuse the ballet experts. But in order to keep his status, he resorts to trading on the black market for luxuries like Levis and bananas. Will he be the next ballet superstar? Will he ever meet his dad? And will his name ever appear on a banner at the Bolshoi?

My Dad is Barishnikov is a cute, light Russian comedy – a coming-of-age memoir, just as the country itself was growing up. It’s filled with references to the era’s line-ups for meat, the cramped apartments, the underground economy, and the subservience to party hierarchy, stuff you don’t see often in movies. It also has great lines, like when the school disciplinarian pulls Boris out of the cafeteria and then announces: “Continue food consumption!”

Let My People Go!
Dir: Mikael Buch

Ruben (Nicolas Maury) is a postman who lives in a log cabin in a Finnish village with his blond boyfriend Teemu. Squeaky-voiced Ruben looks like a gay, French, Peewee Herman riding around on his bike. But one day, when he delivers a package filled with cash to an old man, it’s shoved back at him: “You take it — I don’t want it” and in the struggle, the guy drops dead, and Ruben’s left holding the 200 thousand Euros. But when he tries to explain it all to Teemu, they have a fight,  and Ruben flees home to France. There he’s forced to re-enter his French family life – a passive-oppressive mother (Almodovar’s great Carmen Maura), a milquetoast dad with a secret, a macho brother, and a self-centred sister, – a life he thought he’d escaped forever in his Finnish cabin in the woods.

This is a very funny, cute comedy contrasting a kooky, storybook Finland with the tangled and messed-up world of a French-Jewish family at Passover. It’s full of all sorts of offensively funny ethnic stereotypes played out for full effect.

And well worth seeing this weekend is Cabaret-Berlin: The Wild Scene a marvelous and fast-moving cabaret documentary about Berlin in the 20’s, composed entirely of black and white movie clips, set to recorded German music from that era. You can catch all of these movies — including Simon and the Oaks, Let my People Go, My Best Enemy, and My Dad is Barishnikov — this weekend: go to www.tjff.com for details. Also playing is How To Re-establish A Vodka Empire (www.vodkaempire.ca) at the Bloor Cinema on Sunday at 4:30pm… complete with a vodka tasting! And starting next week is Inside-Out, Toronto’s LGBT Film Festival.

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

April 6, 2012. The Dispassionate Eye. Movies Reviewed: Images Festival, Strawberry Tree, The Pettifogger PLUS Bully v. Fightville

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 with some movie reviews. As I’ve said, springtime is film festival time. You can catch the Toronto Film Society’s “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” weekend at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto starting on May 11th, for a chance to see B&W film noir and other classics from the 1940’s, like Suspicion, The Big Sleep, The Glass Key and Double Indemnity.

And starting this Wednesday is the unique and amazing Images Media Arts Festival. Images is North America’s biggest festival of art-driven film and videos, including live performances, gallery installations, and, of course, movies. It’s their 25th anniversary, so you can see new and innovative work, as well as work shown their first year, way back in the 80’s. The Festival opens with John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, and closes with a live performance by Yo La Tenga.

The Strawberry Tree

Dir: Simone Rapisarda Casanova

This film is filled with mundane but lovely composed views of life in a small, Cuban fishing village. Scenes range from repairing fishing nets, and fish teeming underwater, and the slaughter of a goat in real time, to a woman peeling plantains, or  a man performing card tricks at a kids’ party.

The director’s camera is an unmoving, dispassionate observer set up on the floor, usually at a distance from the people he’s filming. But the posture of an artist’s indifference is challenged and exposed by the constant patter of the film’s subjects: sexual banter, casual insults, joking stories and comments often involving the artist by name. They talk about his jewelry, make fun of his accent, his attitude, his looks, his wealth, and the way they think his life must like in Canada. And they talk about the film itself and how it distorts – positively or negatively — the way it makes them look.

The calm beauty of the film is balanced with the knowledge (from the very first frame) that everything we see was later wiped away by a hurricane that flattened the village after the film was made.

This is a gorgeous and often funny impression of small town life in Cuba.

To get in the mood for the festival, on Wednesday, the day before Images begins, there’s an amazing free screening of:

The Pettifogger

Dir: Lewis Klahr

This is kind of an art-film, kind of a mood-narrative, about an early sixties gambler. It’s filled with noir-ish newspaper comics, film stills, and found objects like buttons, poker chips, and plastic sword-shaped toothpicks. Everything leads back to hardboiled tough guys — men who wear hats — and their femmes fatales. Using cut-out style animation, Klahr manipulates the collage images across the screen in jerky jumps.

So suspicious comic-strip detectives can be seen peeking through the glassine windows of manila envelopes. Two jacks from a  poker deck do an angry, sullen standoff before skulking off screen again. And everywhere are the bright, coloured icons of that Man’s World: cigarettes, mickeys of scotch, license plates, greenbacks, with hearts and spades, all floating around on the screen. The “bars” of the one armed bandits detach themselves and become coloured bars blocking or censoring the stories he tells… and in the background, sounds of traffic, thunderstorms and ever-suspicious dialogue from radio potboilers.

Check out The Strawberry Tree and Pettifogger at Images, all starting next week.

Last week, I left this studio and saw, a stone’s throw away at Queen’s Park, a protest against bullying. That’s nice, I thought, They’re against teenaged bullying. Until I got closer — it was a pro-bullying demonstration! A what? That’s like a protest against puppies! Apparently, fundamentalist, right wing religious groups object to the new anti-bullying law because it involves teaching about sexuality in public high schools, and calls for allowing “gay-straight alliance” support groups to be started in government-funded schools — in order to help many of the kids who are being driven to suicide by this very bullying. It seems there are people who want to keep bullying just as it is now…

Which brings me  two documentaries opening this weekend, Bully (dir: Lee Hirsch), which is getting a lot of attention, and Fightville (dir: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker), both of which I saw at last year’s HotDocs.

Bully is about bullying, Fightville is about Mixed Martial Arts.

So which is the better documentary?

It’s hard to admit, but Fightville is just a much better doc. Although it’s much more commercial in its style, its characters are more interesting, it’s camera work more pleasing, the storyline (two young fighters trying to become pros vs. five high school students who get bullied) more engaging and dynamic. The problem is Bully, which follows five bullied kids around for a year, has the feeling of a fundraiser, a charity infomercial  (the sort of thing you find yourself watching on cable TV at 5 am on a Sunday morning.) It’s bland and it’s slow and it’s a little bit boring. It doesn’t really offer many solutions. And I was left with the impression that the filmmaker intentionally tried to make one poor kid, Alex, (who has a slightly “unusual”-looking face from certain angles), look odder than he really was. Which in my mind is “movie bullying”.

Does this mean bullying (as an issue) is less important than a bloody, competitive sport? Of course not! It’s just that Fightville is a better film than Bully. I often talk about movies with “good taste” versus movies that “taste good”.  But it looks like I’ve been neglecting a third category. Bully is “good for you”. Like brussels sprouts.

Opening this weekend are Lovers in a Dangerous Time, a low budget, pretty, romantic Canadian drama; Pettifogger and the Strawberry Tree (go to Imagesfestival.com) and the docs Fightville and Bully.

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

March 30, 2012. Battles Royal. Movies Reviewed: The Hunger Games, The Raid: Redemption, Gerhard Richter — Painting

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, to review three movies. With the recent re-release of the Japanese horror/thriller Battle Royale (Dir: Fukasaku Kinji, 1990) I thought it was appropriate to look at great battles and fights to the death. One’s about a girl who must fight 23 other teenagers on national television; one’s about a cop who has to kill literally hundreds of bad guys in an apartment complex; and one’s about a master artist who has to fight a constant battle with his adversaries: the paintings he creates.

Hunger Games
Dir: Gary Ross

It’s sometime in the future in America, with the country split into 12 districts, divided by what they produce. They are all poor, while the people in the capital are rich, living their lives obsessed with grotesque, Louis XVI clothing and wigs. Catniss (Jenifer Lawrence) is extremely poor since her father died in a mining disaster, so she hunts for food (illegally) with her best friend Gale and a bow and arrow. Without the squirrels she catches she, her mother and her sister Prim would starve to death.

This country is called Panem and it operates on the bread and circuses principle (keep the people fed on bread — panem — and entertained). So while the people are just eking by, the President forces two “tributes” — a teenaged boy and girl from each district — to fight to the death each year in a televised reality show. Sort of like the Olympics, except no one wants to be chosen by the random “reaping”. They are dressed, trained, and sent away to a forest with cameras hidden in every knothole and behind each shrub.

Catniss and Peeta – the baker’s son — are the ones sent to the games. Which one of the twenty-four will survive?
I read all three of the books, and the movie’s is a fairly accurate dramatization of the original.
But… where’s the hunger? It’s the Hunger Games! They’re stuck in this manufactured, forest “arena” with nothing to eat or drink except what they can find (or that’s sent to them using tiny parachutes, paid for by donations from the fans.) But Jennifer Lawrence looks like a big, healthy milk-fed athlete, not the vulnerable wiry but headstrong little girl I was expecting. When she gets sent off to the capital she barely glances at the fancy array food. And she never really eats. Petta (Josh Hutcherson), on the other hand, is much more believable in his role.
The movie follows the action in the arena, but constantly cuts away to unnecessary behind-the –scenes action in a control room, where the scientists plan their next danger. This takes away a lot of the mystery and excitement: you know what’s going to happen before the characters do. Still, the suspense and action – save for the completely unwatchable shaky camera fights – is exciting, and the story is good. Who will survive? Can people behave morally in an immoral world? And can a boy and a girl find love in a battle to the death? My heart didn’t pound much, but it was still a fun movie to watch.
The Raid: Redemption
Dir: Gareth Evans
A young Jakarta policeman named Rama (Iko Uwais), is sent into an apartment building as part of a SWAT team, to arrest a gangster. But he soon discovers it’s a set-up! Almost every apartment in the high-rise is filled with the gangster’s minions who spring forward — armed with cleavers, knives, axes and swords – in a fight to the death against the cops.
Rama is an expert in the Indonesian martial art silat, which involves throwing, hitting, and cutting with various bladed weapons (kids… don’t try this at home!) So its up to him to fight them off, one by one, so he can reach the penthouse suite and arrest the chief bad guy. But he has to deal with corrupt cops in his own team, and a mysterious connection he has to a player on the other side.
This non-stop, extremely violent action assault movie is intense, to say the least, with incredible, choreographed fight scenes involving dozens of fighters at a time, all of them throwing themselves, like crazed, screeching zombies, at the one martial arts hero. It’s a great, gorey action movie, not like one I’ve ever scene before.
Gerhard Richter — Painting
Dir: Corrina Belz
Gerhard Richter was trained as an artist in socialist realism in East Germany but he crossed over to the west in the early sixties. Since then, his work — which spans everything from plain grey fields and coloured, geometric designs, to photorealism, and abstract expressionism – has grown in reputation to the point where, today, he’s generally considered one of the most important living painters.
But, he says, the process of painting is a private thing, not meant to be seen by the public. Painters are cowards, they do their art in private, then reveal it in public.
Paintings, he says (quoting Adorno), are mortal enemies: every work is the mortal enemy of the other.  Each painting is an assertion that tolerates no company.
So it’s a rare, rare thing for him to allow a camera to reveal him at work, almost as if we’re seeing the king without his clothes on.  But what a king!
It’s just amazing seeing him at work in a completely white – floors, walls, ceiling – studio, climbing up a ladder, and painting huge brushstrokes on these 10 foot wide canvases. Bright fields of yellow, a streak of red, a blue patch. And you think, yeah that’s not bad, nice balance… then he looks at it, and says it’s not good… ist schlecht!  Then a few days later he puts some paint on a piece of glass as tall as the painting, and then slowly, deliberately squeegees  a layer of paint slowly across the painting breaking up the colour into crackly, or smooth, or patchy areas. It’s a new painting, now, and stays like that one for another few days until he decides to change it, junk it, or keep it as is. It’s like the movie shows paintings that don’t exist anymore in galleries, they’re just the stages of the painting now on a wall somewhere.
And just in case someone wants to say “my 12 year old daughter could paint better than that!” the movie also shows a previous series of his paintings, these photorealism taken from old black and white snapshots.
This movie’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. It’s in German with subtitles, and is mainly footage of Richter painting and talking about it. It’s not an “art movie”, it’s a movie about the creation of art and art itself. It’s not an exciting film, but I liked it: it’s a terrific introduction to a great painter, and an intellectually fascinating and visually stunning representation of his art.
The Hunger Games and The Raid: Redemption are playing now, and Gerhard Richter – Painting opens today. Also on this weekend, you can catch the enjoyable Ma Part du Gateau (My Piece of the Pie) showing at the Cinefranco festival in Toronto.  And a very good documentary, The Guantanamo Trap, is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

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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November 11, 2011. The Real ReelAsian Film Festival. Movies Reviewed: Bleak Night, Full Metal Alchemist, Saigon Electric, Buddha Mountain, Amphetamine

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

As Rome burns and Europe crumbles, and Wall St is pre-Occupied, and the planet is teetering on the brink… all eyes are on Asia. So now’s your chance to get a feel of what’s going on across the Pacific. The Reelasian Film Festival (“reel” as in reel to reel, Asia as in East and SE Asia) is on now in Toronto, and it’s showing great, new, popular, festival and experimental movies from that region as well as some Canadian films. That means dramas, comedies, documentaries, anime, and shorts. There are also lectures, workshops and master classes for actors, scriptwriters, and producers — even events where you can pitch your own movie proposals. So this week I’m talking about films from China, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam.

Bleak Night

Dir: Yoon Sung-hyun

This is a movie about a group of three friends at a private boys’ high school in Korea. Only they’re not exactly all that friendly. One is the undisputed leader of the group, and lords it over the rest of them. He’s more of a bully than a friend, and pressures and intimidates the others, who go along with it. The encounters turn into physical abuse and name calling – “you’re my bitch” he says – but no one questions him.

It’s not until one boy stands up to him – and even tries to sever the friendship – that the power-dynamic changes and the pressure builds.

I like Bleak Night, but it gets bogged down with a slow-moving plot, and too many repetitive scenes with ten-minute-long two-man conversations about what happened off-screen and what they really mean to one another.

Full Metal Alchemist (鋼の錬金術師)

Dir: Murata Kazuya (based on the comics by Arakawa Hiromu)

If you’ve never seen Japanese anime before this is a good place to start. But keep in mind, anime are based on manga and so have very long and complex plots with tons of past references and ongoing twisted story lines.

This movie (one chapter of a long saga) takes place in a fantasy setting that looks like the American southwest in the 1930’s, except the country is under martial law. Ed Elric, the full metal alchemist, is a master scientist-cum-magician with bionic limbs of steel. He teams up with his rival Crichton, his sister Julia, and her robot and companion to try to discover the secrets of Milos, find the stars of fresh blood, and gather any clues that might bring them closer to the Philosopher’s Stone. Watch and learn, grasshopper.

Saigon Electric

Dir: Stephane Gauger

Mai, an innocent girl from the sticks, comes into Ho Chi Minh city to make it as a dancer. But she’s strictly old-school: she doesn’t wear make-up, and doesn’t have a fashionable haircut or city clothes. And her dancing style is traditional too – using a ribbon, no less. But then she falls in with tuff-girl Kim whom she meets working in a restaurant. She’s a break dancer who’s being wooed by a rich guy whose family owns an expensive French restaurant. Kim hangs with her crew – Saigon Fresh — painting graffiti art on city walls, bustin’ moves to American hip-hop, and challenging the Northern Killaz to win the city championship so they can compete in the International contest In Korea. They become close friends, and when Kim finds herself homeless she moves into the room Mai rents from the scarecrow, a grumpy old musician. Mai starts teaching ribbon dancing at the same community centre where Kim is break dancing with her crew – a place where orphans and homeless street kids find shelter.

But trouble awaits: Kim and her boyfriend go off to a seaside hotel, where he promises her the world. But back in the city, some rich developers are threatening to close down the community centre where they all hang out and turn it into a hotel. What’s going to happen? Will all the characters find true happiness or will all their dreams be lost? Will the club be closed down?

This Saigon really is electric, shot in supersaturated colours, of people zooming around the city on motorbikes and skateboards. Even though it’s a age-old story, I like this very modern but distinctly Vietnamese style combined with a good dramatic plot and lots of that excellent 80’s street dancing with head spinning, sometimes even combined with classic Vietnamese drumming. (in Vietnamese).

Buddha Mountain (觀音山)

Dir: Li Yu

Mrs Chang (Sylvia Chang) a former Peking Opera star living in the city of Chengdu, in Sichuan China, is angry, hostile, bitter and depressed, since a tragic death in her family around the time of the earthquake. But she rents out a room in her home to three street-smart kids. Nanfeng (Fan Bingbing) is a pretty girl from a small town who can smash a bottle of beer on her forehead or kiss another girl on the lips – just for the hell of it. She’s trying to earn a living as a bar singer; Fatso (Fei Long) is a chubby, round-cheeked guy who didn’t get into University, but likes practicing Michael Jackson’s moonwalk as he looks for love; and Ding Bo (Chen Po Lin) is a self-centred but free-spirited youth with family troubles and too much time on his hands. They are adventurers – riding the rails, driving around town, rescuing each other from local gangs. Madame Chang orders them around like they’re her servants, and they steal from her and feel no guilt. A real generational divide. She looks down on them for their lack of culture, but for the kids she’s just a screeching fossil from a lost era.

But when one of the characters almost dies the others all rally round to help. They travel up to a Buddhist shrine on a mountain to repair damages from the earthquake and perhaps to fix the damaged parts of their own lives.

Buddha Mountain is a beautiful, touching, interesting and mainly realistic film about rootless youth in urban China.

Amphetamine / 安非他命 (Hong Kong)

Dir: Scud

Kafka (Byron Pang) — named after the Murakami novel, not the Czech writer — is a swim coach, a nude model, and a dyed-blond kung fu expert. His parents are dead, his brother is disabled, and he’s nearly penniless, but he can still do a complete split and support himself with his feet on opposite walls. Then he meets Daniel (Thomas Price), a young and ambitious Cantonese-speaking financier working for an Australian multinational. It is love? Kafka dumps his girlfriend when they seem to be falling for each other, even though it’s a first gay romance for both of them, and Kafka isn’t sure he can handle it.

They go bungee jumping, travelling, living the high life. But things get bad for poor Kafka when he starts doing too much crystal meth, and he begins to lose his grip with reality, falling into strange dreams and scary flashbacks, and beginning to think the white feathered wings he sometimes wears on his back mean he can actually fly. Is their love true? Can a poor but tough man accept the loving gestures of a Chinese-Aussie millionaire?

Definitely don’t see this movie if you’re at all uncomfortable with male nudity, since in practically every scene – I don’t care if it’s a street brawl, a love scene, a hospital, a mental ward, a police interrogation  — they find some excuse to strip down. OK maybe not the bungee jumping scene, but other than that, it’s Naked! Naked! Naked!

Amphetamine is unusual for a Hong Kong movie: a stylized and partly dreamlike gay, erotic melodrama about drugs. In Cantonese and English.

Saigon Electric, Buddha Mountain, Bleak Night, and Full Metal Alchemist, are all playing tonight through Sunday at the Reelasian festival. Check the times at reelasian.com. Amphetamine is also playing this weekend at anotherr toronto festival dealing with mental health and addiction: check times at rendezvouswithmadness.com Also opening today is Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. This is a two part movie, about a wedding with the bride (Kirsten Dunst) heading toward disaster and a post wedding depression with whole planet possibly colliding with a planet called Melancholia. First opart good, second part just so-so. And Charlotte Gainsbourg as the bride’s uptight, beleaguered sister is such a let down after her tour de force in Lars von Trier’s last movie, Antichrist.

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

October 16, 2011. Toronto. An Interview With Derek Hayes, Author of the New Book “The Maladjusted”

Daniel Garber: I’ve read all of your stories many times, but now I’d like to hear you talk a bit about them. There’s a tone of black humour in this book, Derek, but would you say most of the short stories in your new collection, The Maladjusted (October, 2011, Thistledown Press) are comedies or tragedies… and why?

Derek Hayes: I think they are tragic for some of the characters, but not in any way that matters to anyone but themselves. And for this reason I hope readers will find the stories funny. I’m interested in characters that for their own personal, deeply-rooted reasons have bad habits about how they think about the environment they live in.

I know the title of the book comes from the name of one of the short stories, but is it safe to say that the protagonists in most of them are having trouble fitting in… in social situations, workplaces, or relationships?

Yes, each story has at least one character who has trouble fitting in. I’d also add that it’s not the social situations, workplace or relationship per se that is inherently troublesome, but the characters thinking that is distorted or “off” in some way.

Most of the stories are told through the point of view of the male characters; do you see a bit of yourself in those guys, or is it more often your impressions of people you observe?

I definitely see myself in some of the characters. And others. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise for people close to me to know that I suffer from anxiety sometimes. But the actual details of the stories are madeup. It’s easy to take material from my own life and adjust, exaggerate, fabricate in order to make a narrative that works on its own terms.

A lot of your stories take place overseas — why is that?

About twelve years ago I worked in Istanbul for a year and then Taipei, Taiwan for two years. Three of the most enjoyable years of my life. I met a lot of interesting people and for lack of a better way of saying it, felt “alive” for the first time in a few years.

What’s your favourite story from the collection?

I think most writers of short stories would be reluctant to pick one, or maybe some writers would. I can’t speak for others I guess. I tried to arrange the collection in a way to keep the reader engaged, interspersing the more neurotic of the stories throughout so as not to exhaust readers.

I think some of your characters are just a little bit odd or off, while others are way out there. Which type of personality is harder to capture in writing?

The ‘way out there’ characters are more difficult to capture. Perhaps like the author is trying too hard. For a story to work readers have to feel a connection to a character, and if a character is too strange, readers may feel manipulated or put off. But having said that I’m not so sure I’m thinking about any of this when I’m writing a story.

Congratulations on your first published book, Derek! I know you have some great novels to follow.

Yeah, I have three novels. Mentee is about a struggling teacher. Kadikoy is about expats in Istanbul, and The Streets is about a basketball coach. It’s also about a guy who is looking for his mentally ill brother. All of which, you, Daniel, edited by the way 🙂 And you edited The Maladjusted. I’ll take this opportunity to thank you for that as well.

Thanks Derek, and thanks for the interview.

Derek Hayes will be launching his book across Canada with a series of readings, beginning October 19th in Toronto.

  • October 16: Ottawa, Nicholas Hoare (downtown), 5-7p.m.
  • October 19: Toronto, Type Books on Queen West (near Trinity Bellwoods Park), 7-9p.m.
  • October 23: (with Sean Johnston) Vancouver, Cafe Montmartre (downtown), 7-8p.m.
  • October 29: London, Oxford Books  (Oxford and Richmond), 2:30-4:30p.m.
  • November 20: Edmonton, Thomson/ Wright House, 1-2 p.m.

Here’s an excerpt from Derek Hayes’s The Maladjusted:

I climb out of my fourth floor window and onto the fire escape landing, where I look down the alley for Ming. Spring has come and it’s starting to warm up a little. I’m wearing a white robe and flip-flops, and carrying a basket that is attached to a long rope. Inside the basket is the exact amount of money for a medium vegetarian pizza, a bottle of Pepsi and a side order of garlic bread. This is the special from Tony’s. Like an old house-ridden Middle Eastern woman, I lower down the basket of money to Ming, who is standing below the fire escape. Ming is non-judgmental, waiting patiently on the ground, as if all his customers order in this way. He takes the money and places the food into the basket. I carefully pull my dinner towards the fourth floor, stopping just before it reaches the metal landing. I remove the box of pizza and bottle of Pepsi and the garlic bread and yank the basket over the rail. I lie down on the cool surface of the fire escape landing and rest my arm on the warm pizza box.

For the first fifteen days of each month I order a pizza from Tony’s. Then I run out of money. Until the end of the month I live on crackers, canned tuna and tomatoes, which I buy in bulk. My belly fluctuates in size according to the time of month, just as a python’s shape changes depending on what it has eaten.

I’ve got to find somewhere else to buy my groceries. Three weeks ago, as I was leaving Value Mart, I said goodbye to two men, probably fathers, who were waiting for a taxi. They gave me a look, from which I inferred that they thought this was strange. So I told them that I have a mental illness. They said that they were sorry. I refuse to go back there.

I don’t watch TV. I have nothing in common with Chandler, Joey or Ross. My alley’s good for entertainment. My fire escape is on the fourth floor and, because of some creepers – really weeds that I’ve tended that have climbed up from some dirt in three mouldy flowerpots – I am afforded some camouflage, allowing me to watch while being unobserved. The alley teems with life, with meth-heads providing the main drama. Look at them now. The one with the stringy blonde hair, all ninety pounds of him, has picked up a dead mouse and is holding it by its tail. The other has a garbage can lid, thrust out as a shield. He’s trying to knock the rodent from the other kid’s hand, his head craned back in revulsion.

September 30, 2011. Palestine. Films Reviewed: (No) Laughing Matter, Children of the Revolution, Pomegranates and Myrrh PLUS TPFF, We Were Here, Resurrect Dead

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

It’s fall now — the days are getting shorter and nights are getting colder, and the leaves are starting to turn yellow and red. And the governments might be changing soon, too. There are provincial elections happening across the country, with the Ontario elections happening on October 6th – that’s next Thursday. On a larger scale, there’s another vote coming up in the United Nations’ General Assembly – whether to admit Palestine as a full member state. Well, if you’re curious about the issue and want to know what is being discussed, there’s a film festival on, starting tonight, called the Toronto Palestine Film Festival. The TPFF presents a largely secular, political look at the Israel/Palestine conflict from the Palestinian point of view in a series of movies.

So this week I’m going to look at three movies from that festival – two documentaries and one drama – about terrorism, humour and love; and also talk briefly about two more docs opening in Toronto.

(No) Laughing Matter

Dir: Vanessa Rousselot

Rousselot, a French-Palestinian filmmaker, wants to know if the people in Palestine ever smile, laugh or tell jokes. So she sets out in a car with a camera to try to capture some of the humour — mainly dark humour — that Palestinians (in the West Bank in Jenin, Hebron, Bethlehem, and in Israel In Haifa) use. Is there a particularly style of joke that could be called distinctly Palestinian?

She discovers a few interesting things. First, that the people of Hebron seems to serve as their Newfies or Belgians — the naïve, butt-ends of local jokes. Second, she discovers an elderly man who, at the time of the First Intifada, set about recording and categorizing thousands of local jokes on index cards, which he produces and reads for the camera. The hour-long TV documentary gives a glimpse of everyday people — laughing school girls, a stand-up comic, a shop keeper, a Catholic priest, some angry young men in a coffee house — and how they express themselves, and sometimes use humour as a survival tactic.

Here’s a typical joke from the movie:

A world leader dies and goes to heaven. He is matched up with an old and plain woman. Then he sees Yassir Arafat cuddling a beautiful Marilyn Monroe. He tells God, “Hey that’s not fair! How come you rewarded Arafat over me?” God says, “I’m not rewarding Arafat… I’m punishing Marilyn Monroe.”

Children of the Revolution

Dir: Shane O’Sullivan

This documentary traces the lives of two hugely important radical terrorists/ activists/ revolutionaries – whichever way you choose to label them – who grew up in the two defeated nations from WWII: Japan and Germany. These two notorious figures – Ulrike Meinhof, of the German “Red Army Faction”, and Shigenobu Fusako of the “Japan Red Army” – were even more remarkable in that they were both women. This movie tells their history, as seen through the eyes of their young daughters. The kids were pulled into this turbulent world by their mothers, giving an immediacy rarely seen in movies about such highly-charged controversial figures.

In the late 60’s, their conservative, middle-class societies were suddenly turned upside down. With the convergence of the US Vietnam war and the anti-war movement, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and unrest in Latin American countries, the new heroes became Mao, Marx and Che. Meinhof worked for a communist-funded tabloid called Konkret and became a part of the radical society that was shaking up Europe. Shigenobu, the granddaughter of a radical right-wing activist, joined the leftist student uprisings that totally changed the power-dynamic in Japanese society (at least temporarily).

Both of these figures fled to Beirut and from there to Syria after meeting with a Palestinian revolutionary. From there, these two women and their contemporaries, on behalf of the Peoples’ Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), committed a series of hijackings, kidnappings, shootings, bank robberies and bombings, that held the world rapt in the late sixties and seventies. They hijacked planes to North Korea, bombed a jet in Cairo, and led a horrific attack shooting dozens of civilians at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv. It also brought the causes they were advocating to the front page. Markedly different from today’s terrorists, they said they committed their acts for a worldwide revolution, not for their own nation’s or group’s interests.

Through a kid’s eyes their situation was both fascinating and scary. Meinhof’s daughter talks of seeing kids playing on the street when she was little — their game wasn’t Cops and Robbers, but Bader and Meinhof.

Shigenobu’s daughter remembers that kids she knew in the Palestinian refugee camps all wanted to grow up as either doctors, nurses, or fedayeen (guerrillas).

This is a fascinating story, illustrated with countless, vivid B&W snapshots, TV and news clips. Although portrayed in dramatic form in two recent movies (The Bader-Meinhof Complex — about the RAF and United Japan Army about the JRA), this is the first documentary I’ve seen that combines the two. Equally surprising is that it takes a largely sympathetic stance toward the hijackers.

And opening the festival with a screening tonight is:

Pomegranates and Myrrh

Dir: Najwar Najjar

A good-looking, young Christian couple, Kamar and Zaid (Yasmine Elmasri and Ashraf Farah), travel from the West Bank to Jerusalem for a happy wedding party. Zaid’s family are farmers who have an olive grove, and it’s time for the harvest and olive oil press. Meanwhile, Kamar is a modern dancer, whose group is preparing to meet a Palestinian choreographer, Kais (Ali Suliman), who is visiting from Lebanon. They’re preparing a performance of traditional (stomp, stomp, clap, clap) folk dances called Pomegranates and Myrrh.

But things start to go wrong when a happy nighttime picnic in the olive grove is interrupted by Israeli helicopters carrying young soldiers. Zaid is put into a detention center, ostensibly for hitting a soldier, and his family’s olive farm is in danger of being confiscated for “security reasons”.

Now it’s up to the new bride to try to free her husband and at the same time, to stand up to the authorities and hold onto the family land. They hire a sympathetic Israeli lawyer to help them keep the army and encroaching settlers away. But for how long? Will Zaid admit to a lesser charge so he can save his land? Will they manage to get the olive harvest in and pressed on time? And what is Kamar up to with that scarf-wearing choreographer and his trust exercises – does he have designs on her while her husband is in jail?

Pommegranites and Myrrh is a bittersweet drama about love in a time of conflict, beautifully shot, with (sometimes) poetic dialogue. With warm and loving families resisting shadowy settler-terrorists, and faceless, shouting Israeli soldiers chasing after playful children, I thought the movie comes across as somewhat heavy-handed, but it does give a largely unseen look at life — with its very real crises and dangers — through Palestinian eyes.

Also playing this weekend are the great documentaries We Were Here, and Resurrect Dead. We Were Here is a very moving oral history of the AIDS outbreak in the 80’s remembered by some of the people in San Francisco who lived through it. That opens today.

Ressurect Dead is a really unusual documentary about the strange unidentified man who has been leaving tiled messages in the tarmac of city streets across the continent, with a crypto-religious message about the planet Jupiter, historian Toynbee, and Stanley Kubrick. What makes the movie so unique, is that it was made on zero budget by a group of marginal detectives and conspiracy theorists who use things like ham radio to try to find out the messages’ origins, but who are as fascinating as the man they’re trying to find. That’s called Resurrect Dead.

Check local listings for We Were Here and Resurrect Dead, and for more information about the Toronto Palestine Film Festival go to tpff.ca.

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

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